Coach Sic:Our Man in Newton

1 Sep

The role of a sports coach involves among other aspects, paternal surrogacy and the role of whipping boy. There are times when the pressure to win and so great are parental expectations and dissatisfaction that even greater burdens are added to an already challenging task. All of which is to say that the men and women who to take up this kind of life’s work are special.

Coach by Micheal Lewis

Coach by Micheal Lewis

Michael Lewis (Moneyball, The Blind Side, The Flash Boys)wrote an homage to his high school baseball coach in a small tome,entitled Coach.That man, Billy Fitzgerald, known universally as Coach Fitz, was a controversial figure and had aroused the ire of a number parents. One parent demurred:

A couple of those guys won’t talk to me,” he said, ”because I defended Fitz. But what can I do? My goal in life is not for my son to play college ball. Fitz has made my kid a better person, not just a better athlete. He’s taught him that if he works at it, anything he wants, it’s there for him.’

And Lewis concludes

We listened to the man because he had something to tell us, and us alone. Not how to play baseball, though he did that better than anyone. Not how to win, though winning was wonderful. Not even how to sacrifice. He was teaching us something far more important: how to cope with the two greatest enemies of a well-lived life, fear and failure. To make the lesson stick, he made sure we encountered enough of both. I never could have explained at the time what he had done for me, but I felt it in my bones all the same.

Coach Joseph Siciliano is one of the people that has dedicated a lifetime to his work.He has coached the Newton North Baseball team for thirty years and has been enshrined Massachusetts Baseball Coach’s Hall of Fame. Coach (at some point that rubric takes on he role of an honorific) has experienced a full range of coaching experiences including the rare accomplishment of leading the Newton North Tigers to a State Championship. A short while after that we sat down to chat at our local coffee shoppe, The Keltic Krust.

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siciliano(photo :Cheryl Clegg)

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Sicliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

RB: I know a few things about you— I know that you recently won your 300th career victory as a coach. And, you’re in the Massachusetts Baseball Coach’s Hall of Fame.

JS: Yes.

RB: And you were at Ted Williams’s last game at Fenway Park. A momentous event.

JS: I saw it. Yes, it was.

RB: So fill me in. You were born where?

JS: In Boston, in 1946. Grew up in the North End until the 4th grade. Then we moved out to Newton. I had four brothers and one sister and most of us went to Sacred Heart High. My father taught at BC, so 5 out of 6 of us went to Boston College.

RB: So, you are pretty much a homeboy.

JS: Absolutely, absolutely. I always kid around that when I go on vacation I go out west to Framingham.

RB: How much has baseball and kid sports changed since you began coaching?

JS: You know when I first started coaching, even when I played—kids would say, “Okay it’s baseball season” and they would pick up a baseball bat. [Okay]It’s basketball season, “Let’s shoot.” Now in order to prepare for a sport you really —its like the pros. They used to just show up[at spring training], they used to sell cars in the off season. Now they hire nutritionists and trainers. It’s not gotten that bad in terms of high school sports but you know [that's] what the kids are doing in the off season. And it almost prevents kids from being three sport athletes. It does. Two, the kids still can do it. Certain sports you can do it—football you just need the strength training. That’s good for everything. And then you can play another sport.

RB: And baseball, football and basketball seasons don’t overlap

JS: They don’t

RB: You could still do those three.

JS: Absolutely. But the skill in basketball and baseball —you very rarely see a kid who plays both. You see football and baseball , football and basketball—

RB: Why is that? Totally different physical attributes?

JS: Yea, in order to shine at baseball you have to be in the batting cage —it’s a skill. Basketball you have to be shooting all the time.

RB: I guess Michael Jordan [Jordan tried to play pro baseball] would be a prime example of what you are saying.

JS: Absolutely.

RB: Whatever happened to playground pick-up games? You can still find them in basketball—

JS: You know something, I worked for the Newton Recreation Department when I first got out of college— I taught and worked. And the parents would drop their kids off at the playground. We would have at Newton Center Playground two teams, an A and a B, under twelve year olds. And we would play other playgrounds. Now the Commissioner Russ Halloran said, we‘ll never see the end of this and he predicted there would be [baseball]camps and that’s what’s going on. At West Newton Common, right over there [Keltic Krust is a block away], from sunup until sundown, kids would be playing. Parents wouldn’t drop their kids off now. I can remember growing up in Newton Center— there were 6 kids in my family and we were the small [family]. There were the Eagans with 15 …and parents would drop their kids off. That’s how things have changed.

RB: I guess former pros started a shift with their camps,
cashing in on their names. But now everybody and their mother has an AAU program. It has become a big business.

JS: Absolutely, its big business. Okay, so you have your AAU programs right. There is an AAU guy who has just bought or developing a 20 million dollar complex in Northboro. It has four fields plus a medical office building where you get treated if you have a sore arm or something. Its incredible.

RB: If you spend 20 million, what does you revenue stream have to be? It’s a truism to say that money has corrupted pro sports. Money has corrupted college sports. Has it affected high school sports?

JS: It really hasn’t. Here’s the thing. An AAU program might cost 3000 to 4000 dollars. To me, it keeps the kids focused. It keeps them out of trouble. You don’t need a therapist. I mean really it is something —its not a bad way to go, if you have the money.

RB: When the parents are spending that kind of money the dynamic changes—their commitment to the sport changes.

JS: Yes.

RB: You pointed out to me that some of these programs perhaps are telling their players that they are better than they are.

JS: Whether you want it or not, there is always that thought that people running AAU are telling kids they are better than they are. Also, the kid listens to what he wants to hear and I think—I would hope for the most part at a certain point a youngster would say, “You know something, those kids are better. I am not going to get caught up. Let me look into something else.” I had a kid [on the high school team]who did AAU but he saw the writing on the wall. So what he did this year was, he was our manager. And he held a job. He’ll play summer ball. He had a real mature response to what was going on. You would hope that there’s adults in his life, who say, ”Here are your choices.” Which I think there were.

RB: In watching the Newton North baseball team I noticed you stress building a team—everyone has a job to do. Your vision is not to train future major leaguers.

JS: No. Some might end up there. But you know what is interesting—I’ll give you a great case in point. We always pride ourselves in saying we are going to work from 1 to 20 with your kid—we have 20 kids on the team. And there were times this year when we needed somebody. Because of injury or this or that and we coached that kid as though he was a starter. That’s one issue. The other thing is —I don’t know if you have seen the teams we played against but they have adult coaches on the sidelines. We have kids coaching and our 3rd base coach this year didn’t play very much but he was an integral part of the team. We picked off people at 3rd base. We never got picked off. We doubled people up. We didn’t get doubled up. Because of our kid coaches, who we value. And so we try, 1 through 20, to give them a job every game. Its something we have done all the time.

RB: I guess it should be obvious, but what is the feeling like after a championship season? How much different is this than your 29 other years of coaching?

JS: After this season, and I think there were even some kids that felt this—”we don’t get to practice tomorrow?” We just had a good time. And this isn’t true of every team —it makes it easy when you win. But the kids, I thought, worked hard at practice and had a good time. We use humor. At the end, personally I went, “No practice tomorrow, what are we going to do?” There was elation etc. etc. that we finally did it but there was, ”We love baseball what are we doing tomorrow?” Of course, half of them went on to the AAU season etc.

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siccliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siciliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

RB: What are you going to do?

JS: I have the greatest summers, I really do. I just go watch the kids play. Sometimes I sit with the parents and criticize the coach too. (both laugh) [No]I don’t do that —maybe I think it.

RB: What do the players take away from this kind of season?

JS: That’s a great question. You’d hope—whether they do or not that the big thing in life—what to do when things are not going your way. That’s the big thing— hopefully, you just keep plugging at it, look at the positive. See how you can improve and one of the other things is, don’t think so much of the future—the end result. Just go out there and do a good job. And hopefully, these lessons—it all came to fruition. But even if we didn’t win it. The kids were the same. There were many, many cases where things weren’t going our way but somebody picked us up. Through positive energy.

RB: Watching the NBA championship it was a thrill to see the truly good guys[not simply the best players]win. The Spurs seem to be the most obvious example of team building—everybody has a role. They don’t see themselves as stars…

JS: Absolutely. Because of our baseball I didn’t watch the finals until last night. It was amazing. Have you seen our basketball team? You have to go see them. They were—that’s what we do. We do have an outstanding scorer…but everybody has a part.That was amazing —just watching the difference it will be interesting, next year or the year after, are people going to pick up on what they [ the Spurs] are doing. And will we see better basketball?

RB: The Spurs having been doing what they do for a long time. Finally, there is the recognition.

JS: That’s true too.

RB: This is speculative but next spring you show up a the field the first day and you have bunch of kids— where do you start? Do you talk about the championship season?

JS: I don’t know. There were things—there were strengths of this team , okay. And you really can’t match the strengths that we had. But where we were weak maybe we can build that up. Maybe we won’t be as strong, for instance with pitching but if we can get to certain level and then pick up some other stuff. And again, our goal every season is to be competitive in every game. That’s all we want to do, you know?

RB: As champions other teams will no doubt play harder—

JS: Yeah, I know people say that now we have target on our back. But how does that motivate the kids? No, we have to play our way. I’ll give you a great case in point as the head coach. Ready? I have Tommy Donnellan, I have my JV and freshman coaches working. They give those kids discipline. They teach them fundamentals. What does a head coach do?— when they are playing a team that wasn’t that good you get the kids up. When you are playing a team that’s very good, calm them down. And you just go out and play fundamentals. What we teach them, that’s what we do. One of the big things is we do not emphasize the results. Our whole thing with at-bats—don’t worry about striking out. Your at bats are information gathering.

RB: How much has the sabermetric movement affected baseball at the high school level?

JS: You know something, they do that over many, many baseball games. So then they say this, they say, which I don’t agree with, at the major league level that you will score more from 1st with no outs, than 2nd with one. Therefore, don’t bunt. At the high school level, bunt. Because they are kids and they will throw it[the ball] away. But there certain other ideas like getting [deep]into a count. One of the things we look at is—we had a kid do stats, he wanted to major in statistics in college—one of the big ones [stats] we had him look at, when you have 2 strikes how many more pitches do you make the pitcher pitch? And its good because the kids know we value that.

RB: Today on base percentage means a lot— I don’t know if it is a more valuable metric than batting average. I am still amazed by Ted Williams’s life time on base percentage—.442. That seems more valuable than his other achievements.

JS: Absolutely.

RB: Did you aspire to anything else? A college coach?

JS: No, you know what it is it—when I was in high school, I wanted to be a major leaguer. Once I was not going to be a major leaguer —well, I wanted to do something that deals with sports.” How ‘bout being a coach? Wait a minute if I am going to coach in high school I have to teach.” What were they looking for back then? Math teachers. And its interesting— I teach math but there is a correlation, I find in terms of the way you teach math and the way you teach sports. There is a system. What happens when there is a deviation ? How do you handle that?

RB: Sorry, you will never convince me that you need algebra.

JS: (laughs)

RB: I have gone my whole life without using Algebra. Now the emphasis on the Core claims you need Algebra to succeed in life. Really?

JS: All that is, is thinking logically. Solving problems, that’s the whole thing. And where in Algebra you have to memorize some stuff and use that stuff if you already knew that stuff —its logic that’s all it is.

RB: So you became a math teacher as pathway to coaching?

JS: Don’t tell anybody this? (laughs) I ‘m kidding but its true. Here’s a case—I would start a problem—I wasn’t that good in math but I’d start a problem and all of a sudden it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. I found it fascinating. So time flew when I was doing math. That’s why I kind of liked it.

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siccliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siciliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

RB: I imagine coaching sports is now valued as much as the teaching the curriculum. Maybe in some places, more.

JS: Yeah, as we say, coaching is an extension of the classroom If you look at [Newton]North—this is why we have ben so successful. A lot of the coaches are teaching in the school. Here’s some examples—in our math corridor, okay, Leigh Paris is the assistant coach of the state [championship title]winning soccer team. There is a male teacher who is the assistant coach of the state winning [championship title]boy’s track team. Another math teacher who is the assistant to the state winning[championship title] girl’s track team.Four math teachers who are also coaches

RB: What are your thoughts on the diminution of the popularity of baseball?

JS: I have been talking to the Little Leagues and they are losing a lot of kids. And the thing is I can live with that as long as the kids who are playing now are passionate about it. It is one tough sport. Plus, the way kids who are brought up now, they are easily frustrated. The failure rate in baseball is 70 %.

RB: I see it now as a Little League umpire. Most of the kids have to stand around waiting for something to happen. That’s why I pointed my own son in the direction of being a catcher.

JS: Yeah (laughs), Its interesting — a lot of these lacrosse players,if they ever were catchers they would still be playing baseball. But you put them in right field or center field—it takes an interesting individual. Some of the fathers, “my son is interested in baseball, you like those kids and if they can play that’s even better. You like kids who are watching the Red Sox or this and that.

RB: I have been very surprised at how few kids watch baseball games. So when they came to play, they have no idea what was going on, on field.

JS: When we were going up if we could watch a game on television it was so much fun. Now, you ask the whole team, 1 through 20, anybody watch the game last night? Well, they are doing homework but did anyone watch a couple of innings?

RB: Or even listen to it on the radio? Some announcers are better than TV.

JS: I watch MLB TV and there is a game every night. I’ll tell you, how can I get mad at my players when they are doing something stupid when I see the major leaguers—oh my goodness. You see some of that stuff—not knowing how many outs there were, things like that.

RB: I was watching the highlights of [Yoenis] Cespedes’s latest outfield assists. Gunning down runners at the plate with a 300 foot bullet from left field.

JS: Oh my goodness. Just unbelievable.

RB: It’s great to watch pros with a passion for the game.

JS: Yeah, we have Dustin (Pedroia). You read about him—he gets to the field early. And just loves to be around the game.

RB It’s a joy to see in Little League, although some of the parents need to tamp down their passion.

JS: I’ll tell you there is a community that we’d play against. I can remember when my kid was little, the coaches for this community, they were so intense and the kids were so tight. Meanwhile, they had an article a few years back about how Little League was going down, the kids don’t want to play because its no fun. You hear these stories about Little League parents are yelling at the kids and that’s a shame. The kids want to have fun.

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siccliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siciliano (photo :Cheryl Clegg)

RB: But now they have choices— lacrosse, soccer, hockey.

JS: Auburndale was hotbed of hockey and we were very, very good, way back when, in the 50’s. Legendary names but we don’t see that anymore.

RB: In Newton when you go to a football game its like Friday Night Lights. The town turns out. I don’t see that for baseball.

JS: You might have gone to the night game when everybody shows up. Maybe not so for afternoon games.

RB: Maybe not midweek but Saturday games same thing.

JS: Here’s the thing, in baseball think about the weather that we have to play in. So that’s number one. But number two, think of the time of day we play. 3:45.

RB: I get it.

JS: If your son or daughter is on the team, then you are going to make a commitment to try to get there. And now there are a lot of other choices and interests, I think, and this would never happen but if they ever put lights at the high school, you would have a great—

RB—By the way, what happened here? No lights for the football filed, no lights for the baseball diamond. Why?

JS: Ah, this is Newton. You’d have to have an act of God to get something through like that. I mean, really and truly. We play Norwood ,okay. On a Monday. 300 or 400 people show up at that game at night. If you have lights …on a Friday night we’d have 500 people watching our team.

RB: There was a rumor floating around that Pepsi had offered a deal to put an electric scoreboard at Albemarle in exchange for the usual considerations [logo placement].

JS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. We hear things like that.

RB: I thought that corporate branding was verboten on school property?

JS: Theoretically, but you can get a waiver —there is one at the [Newton] South field. So I am sure you can get a waiver. But historically Newton does not encourage that type of stuff.

RB: So you’ll watch baseball all summer .

JS: All summer.

RB: And in the fall?

JS: I go watch football. (both laugh) And I teach math. You know what’s funny, a lot of our kids play football. If they played soccer I’d go watch them play. Its good to see them play other sports, to see how they handle adversity and how they handle other coaches. And they are not using the same muscles—they are using different muscles and for baseball that’s a good thing.

RB: What sports do you like?

JS: I coach the JV basketball and we have a terrific head coach. You learn a lot about working with kids.

RB: I am told that because of Newton North’s special ed program lots of families try to move into the school district and 600 out of 1800 students are in special ed programs.

JS: When you say special ed, its different today. Say a kid has a tough time finishing tests. Because he processes a little more slowly. So they call [the programs dealing with ]that special ed. Ten years ago, fifteen years ago that would n’t be special ed. There are severe cases and the there’s stuff that you and I probably have. I found very bright kids, if you just say “slow down.”,they can do very,very well.

RB: It seems lots of things were not previously diagnosed. Anger management? Was there that when we were kids?

JS: (laughs) No.

RB: What is your sense of the spans of attention of today’s students?

JS: With television and other things its not that great. And you do have kids who are into academics but there are probably less of them than in years past. There are a lot of distractions You should see at the end of a game —not just our team—every body goes for their phone.

RB: Personally, I am working on trying to reduce the amount of times I check my e mail.

JS: Yeah and then you’d have 20 or 30 or so. I just talked to our athletic director—if he doesn’t pick it up on the weekend when he comes in a Monday he’s got over a 100. Ridiculous.

RB: Yea—You learn that you can e-mail any time and people will respond any time. There doesn’t seem to be business hours for email. So, do you think about retiring? Is there a required age?

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siccliano (photo Robert Birnbaum

Newton North HS Varsity Baseball coach Joe Siciliano (photo Robert Birnbaum

JS: Interestingly, my father taught at BC and they forced him to retire at 65. Now this is many years ago—there was a law. He said it was the biggest mistake that he made —was retiring. I can remember going to the state house doing something —that law was coming up. At this stage what is the new 50 is the old 40? It’ll hit me physically that I can’t do it. But at this point it really hasn’t occurred to me, other than when somebody brings it up—“when are you going to retire?”

RB: Whoops. Sorry

JS: My father is 98 year old and I keep telling him to do crossword puzzles especially when he starts forgetting stuff. But he’s still sharp. He still drives.

RB: How does he do?

JS: Great. His whole reason for being is to get a great deal on groceries. So there are three places he goes. He say’s ,”Joe , these grapes were $3 here and a buck ninety eight there.” That keeps him sharp.

RB: Do you still go to major league games?

JS: Once in while. I’m going to tell you something —if I could go to a [American] Legion game or the Red Sox, I would go to a Legion game. The kids, just watching those kids play how they handle stuff. I scouted a lot of games this year. What I saw, the biggest play—double plays —you have to get get one. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen a big inning because they rushed the double play.

RB: Thanks so much for your time and this conversation.

JS: Sure, my pleasure

RB: If I think of anything else, I know where to find you—

JS: Yeah, at some field.

Baseball signed by Coach Joe Siciliano [photo; Robert Birnbaum]

Baseball signed by Coach Joe Siciliano [photo:Robert Birnbaum]

Currently reading As They See Them by Bruce Weber (Scribner)

Where Ben Katchor Be At.

1 Sep
Ben Katchor: panel/detail

Ben Katchor: panel/detail

Ben Katchor events: fall 2014

Every Tuesday at 7pm, Ben hosts the New York Comics & Picture-story Symposium at Parsons The New School in New York City

September 13-14, 2014
Small Press Expo
Alt-Weekly Comics Roundtable
with Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Jules Feiffer, Tom Tomorrow and Ben Katchor
(Saturday at noon, White Oak Room)
Bethesda North Marriott Hotel
5701 Marinelli Road
Bethesda, MD
(across from White Flint Metro Station)

Ben Katchor [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Ben Katchor [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Sept. 22 – 29, 2014 
Boomfest – International Comics Festival
Saint Petersburg, Russia
Presentation and Exhibition of prints
The Nabokov Museum
ul. Bolshaya Morskaya, 47 (m. Admiralteyskaya)
+7 (812) 315-47-13,
Opening hours: tue-fri 11.00-18.00, sat-sun 12.00-17.00, mon closed

October 8,  2014 at 7:00pm
Museum of American Folk Art
Making the Invisible, Visible: Willem van Genk’s Mapping of Modern Life, panel discussion
2 Lincoln Square and 66th Street
New York, NY
$10/$12 tickets

The  Cardboard Valise by Ben Katchor

The Cardboard Valise by Ben Katchor

Currently reading Mothers and Lovers by Maria Flook (Roudabout Press)

So It Went: Now and Then

31 Aug


In watching an old video of Jon Stewart’s, dare I say, famous appearance on the now dumped-into-the-dustbin-of-history, CNN show,Crossfire, I was reminded of the vital strain of satire and good-natured social commentary that Kurt Vonnegut wielded— from the roiling drug and sex crazed period of the United States self inflicted ruination also known as the Viet Nam war, until his passing in 2007.

That the times when I discovered and began to read Kurt Vonnegut were transformative seems to be the conventional wisdom. Unpopular wars, minority political action, generational searching for the zeitgeist, pharmaceutical experimentation, various liberations and radical critiques insured that it was noisy time. His non- doctrinaire critique of modern American life was what made him strong beacon of sanity in the dark night of modern times. At the center Vonnegut,’s well-honed and piquant humor was a fundamental decency that echoed the Dalai Lama:

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies-“God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”


“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”

Apparently not very one admired Kurt Vonnegut, though it is hard to take this the following piece of pretzel logic seriously (why do an obituary of a failure?):

The issue of whether Vonnegut was a literary master is already settled for me. If you like You can review his cultural valence,in two new Library of America compilations — Kurt Vonnegut, Novels & Stories 1950–1962 which includes Player Piano,The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night and selected stories. Volume Two, Kurt Vonnegut Novels & Stories 1963–1973 includes Cat’s Cradle,God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions and more Stories.

 Kurt Vonnegut, Novels  &  Stories 1950–1962

Kurt Vonnegut, Novels & Stories 1950–1962

If This Isn't Nice, What Is?  by Kurt Vonnegut and Dan Wakefield

If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?
by Kurt Vonnegut and Dan Wakefield

In addition to his fiction Kurt Vonnegut was a prolific and expansive orator, to which Isn’t This Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young edited and introduced by Dan Wakefield attests. Before the recent wave of memorable commencement orations (David Foster Wallace, George Saunders,David McCullough Jr), Vonnegut was charming graduating classes around the US This anthology includes nine speeches, seven commencement orations, one to the ICLU (Indiana Civil Liberties Union), one upon receiving the Carl Sandburg Award.

Kurt Vonnegut Drawings edited  by Nanette Vonnegut.

Kurt Vonnegut Drawings edited by Nanette Vonnegut.

Even casual readers of Vonnegut were aware of his penchant for doodling (many of his later novels were festooned with his drawings). A quick scan of his official website makes clear he went beyond doodling. When the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library opened in Indianapolis the inaugural exhibition included drawings and silkscreens etc. Now comes Kurt Vonnegut Drawings edited by his daughter Nanette Vonnegut. You can view them here

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life  by Charles J. Shields

And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields

Charles J. Shields’s authorized biography And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life paints “the portrait of a man who made friends easily but always felt lonely, sold millions of books but never felt appreciated, and described himself as a humanist but fought with humanity at large. As a former public relations man, Vonnegut crafted his image carefully—the avuncular, curly-haired humorist—though he admitted, “I myself am a work of fiction.”

Kurt Vonnegut: Letters edited by  Dan Wakefield

Kurt Vonnegut: Letters edited by Dan Wakefield

Fellow writer and friend Dan Wakefield edited Kurt Vonnegut: Letters collecting Vonnegut’s personal correspondence, written over a sixty-year period. Many of these epistles are as amusing and engaging as Vonnegut’s fiction. To whit,

On November 7th, 1973, the head of the local school board, Charles McCarthy in Drake, North Dakota —demanded that all 32 copies of Slaughterhouse-Five be burned in the school’s furnace as a result of its “obscene language.” Deliverance by James Dickey and a short story anthology with works by William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, among others were also incinerated. Vonnegut wrote to Mr, McCarthy (not to be confused with mid century TV entertainer Edgar Bergen’s puppet Charley McCarthy:

..If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us….

…If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the eduction of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books–books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.

Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.


A Man Without a Country: A Memoir Of Life In George W Bush’s America is a collection of short essays, Kurt Vonnegut published in 2005 maintaining (correctly) it would be his final work. As a number of commentators opined, it was as close as Vonnegut ever came to a memoir. Uhr Chicagoan Studs Terkel effused,

Thank God, Kurt Vonnegut has broken his promise that he will never write another book. In this wondrous assemblage of mini-memoirs, we discover his family’s legacy and his obstinate, unfashionable humanism.


Three interviews interviewer and Vonnegut devotee Walter James Miller conducted in 1971, 1983, and 2006 are preserved on this unabridged CD, Essential Vonnegut Interviews

Kurt Vonnegut The Last Interview edited by Tom McCartan

Kurt Vonnegut The Last Interview edited by Tom McCartan

Kurt Vonnegut The Last Interview is an anthology of conversations with Vonnegut spanning his long career is edited by Tom McCartan. Here’s a sampling:

Is there another book in you, by chance?

No. Look, I’m 84 years old. Writers of fiction have usually done their best work by the time they’re 45. Chess masters are through when they’re 35, and so are baseball players. There are plenty of other people writing. Let them do it.

So what’s the old man’s game, then?

My country is in ruins. So I’m a fish in a poisoned fishbowl. I’m mostly just heartsick about this. There should have been hope. This should have been a great country. But we are despised all over the world now. I was hoping to build a country and add to its literature. That’s why I served in World War II, and that’s why I wrote books.

When someone reads one of your books, what would you like them to take from the experience?

Well, I’d like the guy—or the girl, of course—to put the book down and think, “This is the greatest man who ever lived.”


Currently reading A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord by Leil Leibovitz (WW Norton)

Vernacular  Ideogram by Kurt  Vonnegut

Vernacular Ideogram by Kurt Vonnegut

Eyeless in Gaza

25 Aug

The pseudo excuse of “compassion” or “disaster” fatigue doesn’t explain the lack of sympathy and outpouring of outrage about the treatment of Palestinians, Central Americans, Amazonian Indians and other oppressed minorities.What then? Might it be ignorance. In the case of the plight of Palestine and currently Gaza, there are easily accessible sources of information:

Activist intellectual Noam Chomsky comments on Israel’s 29-day offensive in Gaza that has killed over 2,000 people (516 children)and left close to 10,000 wounded..

It’s a hideous atrocity, sadistic, vicious, murderous, totally without any credible pretext. It’s another one of the periodic Israeli exercises in what they delicately call “mowing the lawn.” That means shooting fish in the pond, to make sure that the animals stay quiet in the cage that you’ve constructed for them…

Gaza In Crisis by Noam Chomsky  & Illan Pape

Gaza In Crisis by Noam Chomsky & Illan Pape

Chomsky, no newcomer to the Palestinian conflict and American foreign policy, has weighed in with Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel’s War Against the Palestinians (Haymarket)with Israeli historian and socialist activist Ilan Pappé(The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine). The book recounts Israel’s 2008 Operation Cast Lead also known as The Gaza Massacre, against the context of overall hostilities. Is this a partisan take on the Israeli Palestine conflict or a clear eyed and accurate presentation of the facts? It strikes me that everyone’s view is partisan—most of the all the combatants. Which luckily leaves us with observers such as Chomsky and Pape.

And you can have a look at Saira Shah/James Miller’s(an effort which cost Miller his life) 2004 documentary Death in Gaza.

Gaza: A History  Jean Pierre Filiu

Gaza: A History Jean Pierre Filiu

Professor of Middle East Studies Jean-Pierre Filiu argues for a two state solution in his comprehensive Gaza: A History (Oxford University Press).Filiu traces the history of the 140 square miles situated between two deserts (Negev and Sinai) and the Mediterranean, from 18th century BC through 1948 when it was engulfed by 200,000 refugees, up to the current strife.

Genesis by John B Judis

Genesis by John B Judis

John B. Judis’s Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict (WW Norton)focuses on the origins of failed(U.S.) policies that have cont-ributed to the sixty year Middle East debacle. Judis argues that ill conceived decisions made during the Truman administration(1945-1949) led to the ongoing Israeli-Arab discord. With a historian’s faith that an understanding of the origins of this deadlock may lead to viable approaches to ending it,Judis reviews George W. Bush’s ill-conceived efforts and Barack Obama’s failed attempts at resolution.

Palestine   by Joe Sacco

Palestine by Joe Sacco

Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco

Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco

Comic book journalist Joe Sacco’s (The Great War has spent serious time researching and traveling to Palestine and Gaza, conducting hundreds of interviews to createPalestine (Fantagraphics) and Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel (Metropolitan Books). Palestine which won an American Book Award in 1996 includes an introduction by historian Edward Said. For Footnotes in Gaza published in 2010, Sacco spends time in Rafah, a town at the bottommost tip of the Gaza Strip,and uncovers the 1956 massacre of 111 Palestinians by Israeli soldiers. Sacco uses that discovery as a lens with which to view the subsequent half century of a desperate and intractable struggle. The black and white illustrations are indelible images of misery and violence and Joe Sacco, a master of visual narrative, tells a powerful story.

The Battle for Justice in Palestine  by Ali Abunimah

The Battle for Justice in Palestine by Ali Abunimah

Chicago based journalist Ali Abunimah(One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli Palestinian Impasse), recipient of the recipient of a 2013 Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship,co-founder and director of The Electronic Intifada articulates the case for the Palestine solidarity movement in The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Haymarket Books)

Much traveled journalist Nathan Deuel and his NPR correspondent spouse Kelly McEvers spent time reporting from and starting a family in Saudi Arabia and Beirut. In Friday Was the Bomb: Five Years in the Middle East (Dzanc) collects some essays on his experiences from 2013 until he and his family moved to Los Angeles last year.Poet Nick Flynn opines :

Nathan Deuel is alive to the myriad contradictions of being a sentient being at this moment in history—the painful, necessary awareness that ones presence carries an entire empire in its shadow. Friday was the Bomb is about the tension between how much we want and how small we are—some will make war, the world will makes storm, and the rest of us will try to hold onto some fragile connection with each other. This is a book for the rest of us.

Currently reading The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Random House)

Lucky Me—Talking with Amy Bloom

16 Aug

I may need two hands to count the conversations I have had with author Amy Bloom since the mid 90’s, the last one in 2008 on the occasion of her first novel Away. Now comes her second novel second novel, Lucky Us.I sat down with Amy at my neighborhood coffee emporium the Keltic Krust and chatted with Bloom about the whole megillah —the knowability of people, teaching, shopping for shoes, President Obama, Carol Shields, True Detective, immortality, her current reading and her plans. Needless to say, I expect to continue this conversation when her next novel surfaces in the fullness of time.

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

RB: I found your author’s note a bit curious. Something to the effect that, “I have also moved things and people, adjusted and reconfigured both when it suited the story.”

AB: Uh huh.

RB: So, if it’s a work of fiction, what are you reconfiguring?

AB: You would think that would be unnecessary since it’s a work of fiction. There is always going to be somebody who says, “Harpo Marx could not have sent her the green silk nightie because he was in England during that six month period to which you refer.”

RB: And you feel like you have to be true to that real history? Will people call you on it and say, “How could you?”

AB: Well, I know they will because they have done that in the past. It’s not so much that I feel that I have to—I don’t feel that I have to get every fact right. What I wanted to say preemptively is that the facts have been moved when it suits me.

RB:There you go.

AB: Hence, fiction.

RB: If someone is going to complain about that will they understand or accept your note?

AB: I’ll let you know.

RB: As a writer you invest yourself into the characters you create— when I came to Edgar’s fate, I wondered what you felt like when he dies?

Amy Bloom [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Amy Bloom [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

AB: Me the writer?

RB: Yeah.

AB: Well I guess for me there are always two feelings. One is the feeling of, “Yup, this is the chapter when you die Edgar. See ya.”

RB: (Laughs)

AB: So that’s the writer. I felt for him because it was a difficult death and among other things, certainly not what he would have wanted and difficult for every one around him. My own father’s death was very much the way he would have liked it. He died in his bed and not in a hospital. I think this other way [for Edgar] was just very hard. And so I felt for him. But as I say as the writer, ”Times up.”

RB: So you simply return to the other characters. In Lucky Us the characters are all decent people. Except for Heda Hopper. They are noble and amusing —

AB: I don’t know if they are noble. I liked them and you liked them. But you know they are a lot of liars and forgers and con men. There’s a certain amount of fast and loose

RB: Yeah.

AB: Which is okay with me.

RB: Which of the characters would actually say, “Lucky us?”

AB: (long pause) I don’t know. Somebody in the book does say, “Lucky us.” It’s probably Eva.

RB: And the book’s epigram, “It’s better to be lucky than to be smart”— somebody repeats that—

AB: Somebody does say that.

RB: That’s, of course, a commonly held notion.

AB: That is a direct quote from my dad.

RB: There is an old r ‘n b ballad that says, “Love is like a three ringed circus. First, the engagement ring. Then, the wedding ring and then, the suffering”.The Yiddish Franklin Roosevelt reference in the novel —three velten [worlds]: die velt [this world], yene velt [the world to come] and Roosevelt reminded me of it. I take that was current in the 30’s and 40’s?

AB: Oh yeah. I didn’t make up any 40’s sayings for people. It wasn’t really necessary. And “Lucky us” is, in fact, something we say in our family.

RB: (I had a quote* from Philip Roth which I showed to Amy Bloom) Ever see this? The last sentence brought me back to your story.

AB: (reads) Actually, I have read this.

RB: In this charming ensemble of characters, they do seem to know each other—there are moments that test that—

AB: And they know each other and they get it wrong. As we [all] do.

RB: When you started Lucky Us what did you start with?

AB: I started—actually the first character who came alive was Gus. So the first things I wrote were a series of letter from Gus to Eva while he was in Germany.

RB: What a survivor— he was a true example of surviving. There was this angry aside about the grandchildren and great grandchildren of survivors appropriating [cashing in on] the Holocaust. What are they called Generation 3? 4?

AB: I am sure there is a name for them. I don’t know why anyone would write abut them critically —that seems like a fairly hostile thing to do—so I’ll just confine myself to Gus’s thoughts about it.

RB: When did the ending come to you?

AB: Sorry [loud woman on mobile phone fills the room—pause while we wait out her inane chatter]

RB: When did the ending come to you?

AB: Endings are always tricky and so I think somewhere —once I knew that the sisters would be connected I could see the ending. And there were, again, some family photographs in which I didn’t always know whom everybody was, that I really liked.

RB: I was reminded of Maira Kalman’s recent book, Girls Standing on Lawns. Which draws from the Museum of Modern Art’s vernacular photography collection. There is something about such photos that is compelling.

AB: Those are always very persuasive and evocative whether it’s your family or somebody else’s.

RB: I hadn’t even thought about the category called vernacular art. It now shines more brightly—I thought, “hey, that’s really the way to do it.”

AB: Yeah, I like that.

RB: I glanced at some of the Lucky Us reviews, which were very positive. Do you look at them?

AB: I don’t.

RB: Are you told about them? Do you care?

AB: Um, I care so much about them I don’t read them. And I don’t let anybody tell me about them. My husband says things like, “That was a nice one.”

RB: Most of them are positive. A good book can stimulate engaging reviews—okay, let’s forget about this. What’s your life like now? You write and still teach—

AB: I do because I have to make a living. So I teach every spring at Wesleyan. I teach 2 courses. They are very good to me and I also have a non-paying gig at Wesleyan, which is as the director of the Shapiro Center for Creative Writing, which is funded by two terrific Wesleyan alums.

RB: If they are so terrific why aren’t they funding the directorship?

AB: Well—they’ve done what they can and I appreciate it. And its fun to help.

RB: I was looking at the list of recent P.E.N. awards and scholarships—there is actually an award for Paraguayan literature.

AB: Terrific. I am unfortunately not eligible.

RB: I may look into the Paraguayan branch of the Birnbaums. You taught at Yale. Brooklyn College?

AB: That was one semester. It was a really nice gig Michael Cunningham, got for me when he was at Brooklyn. And then I taught
at Yale for about the 10 years and then Wesleyan made me a great offer. So there I am.

RB: Is there a noticeable difference in the students?

AB: Not much difference between the Yale students and the Wesleyan students. The Yale students tend to be a little more organized.

RB: (laughs) Meaning goals oriented?

AB: More goals oriented. Often the goal of the kids that I work with at Wesleyan is to write. Which is great. That obviously doesn’t include making a living.

RB: Do you offer any guidance or advice in that area?

AB: Yeah. I say, “Get a job.” Develop a trade. Be irreplaceable.

RB: So you are not discouraging people from writing as a career.

AB: If they have rich parents who have given them money or they have invented a better paper clip, I don’t think there something morally wrong with writing and not having to worry about getting paid. I just think that is not the way most people get to live. To suggest that teaching is the answer is both demeaning to the students and to teaching. Teaching is a serious job.

RB: Yes, it is a whole different thing.

AB: Right, it’s a very different thing. And if you are not interested in teaching it would really be a lot better if you were a carpenter. Or a neurosurgeon.

RB: Did you intend to teach?

AB: No.

RB: Earlier in your life you were a therapist.

AB: It was work that I loved. I still think its great work. But it wasn’t compatible with writing, as the writing became a little more successful. And it turned out that people would pay me to teach. I had started out as a nursery school teacher and my general experience was that if you can teach, you can teach. So I took the teaching jobs.

RB: Does your whole or most of your world revolve around writing?

AB: No, I mean (sighs)—my world is composed of my family. My world spins around my family—pretty much. And then there’s that other world that spins around writing. It’s a slightly smaller planet and its one I spend a lot of time on. I don’t expect my family to spin around my writing.

RB: You’re having a bad writing day; do you expect them to tolerate your mood?

AB: I expect them to tolerate that—I expect my husband to tolerate it because we’re married. He has bad moods and so do I. But don’t find it to be of interest—I don’t know why anyone else should care. The fact that you are in a bad mood because a sentence went badly is really not that different than if you are in a bad mood because you dropped a vase on your foot or broke a nail.

RB: There may be an attitude that art’s travails are more deeply felt—

AB: Wha, wha, wha. Wha, wha wha—I don’t feel that way. I am always astonished by people who do. And good for them if they can persuade someone—

RB: (laughs)

AB: —to feel that way. I think we are all responsible for our behavior. Whether you are writing a symphony or driving a truck.

RB: I would deduce that you would not place greater value on writing a novel than on building a house. Or raising a family.

AB: Valuable to me, the writing.

RB: Is it important in the scheme of things?

AB: I have no idea. Happily, I am not responsible—

Amy Bloom circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Amy Bloom circa 2002 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: (both laugh) So you spend no time pissing and moaning that the book business publishing and literature itself are diminished and perhaps disappearing?

AB: Well (pauses) I guess I am not. I mean its true but if I am going to go down that road and talk about the fact that if Franzen was named Joanna, the reception to his work might have been different. If I wanted to go down that road than I am lucky to be white.

RB: (laughs) Have you read anything really good lately? Or is reading other writing distracting?

AB: I love reading other work but it is distracting. I am really enjoying The Bat by Jo Nesbo.

Amy Bloom [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Amy Bloom [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: I know his stuff—I’ve read 5 or 6 of his Harry Hole novels.

AB: I really like that. I love all of Val McDermid’s work. I just think she is so good but in terms of serious literature—

RB: —why is that not serious?

AB: Because is a mystery and therefore there’s certain shape that these things have. The shape is knowable in a way that a literary novel may not be. I don’t personally distinguish. I couldn’t write a good mystery if my life depended on it. So, it’s not that I denigrate them at all. I think it’s a great form and I think that people who do it really well are often exceptional writers. But I do think its true that there’s a particular form and that’s not really true of literary fiction.

RB: That’s certainly true of mystery series. Those who don’t write series have a better shot at being taken seriously. And should be.

AB: Yes. But as I say these are books that I love. The best book I have read that was literary fiction was Americanah.

RB: By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.I read Half of a Yellow Sun about the Biafran War. I came across an opinion that John LeCarre would be the writer of this era who would still be read 100 years hence.

A Blind Man Can See How Much I love You by Amy  Bloom

A Blind Man Can See How Much I love You by Amy Bloom

AB: (long pause) It’s a big world. People have a lot of opinions. Who am I say?

RB: You are someone to say.

AB: You know, we’ll find out. Actually, I won’t find out. (both laugh)

RB: I don’t agree with the thoughtless denigration and ghettoization of genre writers.

AB: Right.

RB: Having re-familiarized (sic) my self with LeCarre’s A Wanted Man and The Constant Gardener [motivated by the movie versions], I think they are in toto good as good as anything I have read.

AB: I think that’s true. And so for some people it would be John LeCarre. Other people Robertson Davies. For other people if they pay attention, it would be Carol Shields.

RB: The claim is not that he is the greatest writer.

AB: I understand. But you know, sure that could be.

RB: Do you think of yourself as writing for posterity?

AB: I try not to think about that. I think of writing the best story I know how. And serving the characters and serving the story. Its (pause), so far its gratifying for people to say, “I can’t tell you how much this first book of yours meant to me. And I still reread it” That’s great and I hope people go on rereading. But again, posterity is going to take place without me.

RB: (laugh) No afterlife for you?

AB: No.

RB: What is the most important ingredient for you in story telling?

AB: I can’t write it if I can’t hear it. So I have to be able to hear the characters speak. And then begin to get the narrative structure. Its clear to me as I am getting a little more familiar with novel writing I feel more mindful and interested in the narrative structure as well. That’s why there are letters in this novel. I really wanted to find other ways for some of the characters to communicate.

RB: Francine Prose included letters, back and forth, in her latest novel, as did Anthony Doerr. These different modes of story telling seem to be more present.

AB: People have for a really long time. There are stories by Alice Adams written years ago that are composed largely of letters, phone message slips—people have ben doing them for quite a long time. Everything—you know things have a moment. Suddenly you go, ”Its yellow Volkswagens.” “Its epistolary” or whatever it is.

RB: That puts me in mind of an anthology called Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts (by David Shields, Matthew Vollmer)

AB: I like that. It puts me in mind of that famous Hemingway line, the world’s shortest story, “Baby shoes for sale, never worn.”
RB: There is that genre called sudden fiction—which I know nothing about.

AB: It’s short. Its really really short.
RB: Okay.

AB: It’s really, really really short.

RB: Shorter than a tweet?

AB: Not shorter than a tweet. Not significantly longer, necessarily. Not significantly deeper. I haven’t fond myself pining to read or write sudden fiction.

RB: Have you written any?

AB: Well I tweet
RB: Oh.

AB: There you go.

Away by Amy Bloom

Away by Amy Bloom

RB: Does this big turn to hyper-technology affect you? You live in rural Connecticut?

AB: (chortles) Yeah. I am grateful I have a phone. That’s terrific. I have a twitter account because Random House felt strongly that I should. And so I do. It’s not the worst thing in the world. I send email and receive emails— I don’t make a big deal about it—its fine. There were people when we invented the telephone that wrote long essays in major newspapers about the end of western civilization. It was like having “marauding strangers come through the wall.”

RB: I don’t have a theory about it. But I was getting my phone fixed at the Apple store and the woman next to me, with great emphasis exclaimed, “I love my phone.” And I‘m thinking, “I can’t imagine saying or conceiving that.”

AB: No. I find it sometimes annoying and usually handy. And that’s the end of it. Also, I don’t get that invested a when I can’t do something with a phone, I hand it to my nephew.

RB: (laughs)

AB: I go, “Honey, when you have a chance.

RB: Is he ten?

AB: He’s 22.

RB: It s a huge wave that we are susceptible to being engulfed by. Do you feel present enough to fight that?

AB: Well, living in the middle of nowhere helps
RB: No mall proximal to you?
AB: There is no mall and I don’t like malls. It doesn’t mean that I am not happy to look at a pair of shoes online.

RB: Sure.

AB: There’s free shipping. My goodness, which wouldn’t want a pair of free shipped shoes to try on.

RB: Free shipping, both ways.

AB: I can only be engaged with so many things. Honestly, what I can be engaged with to a large extent is my family, my work and a strong interest in politics. That’s pretty much the end of the story; I don’t give a shit about anything else.

RB: What’s your take on the state of the union?

AB: Um, I wish President Obama could have a third term… I wish the Republicans had not taken the turn they taken in the last 10 years. I wish there was more civility and that moderate Republicans still existed and were welcome in their own party. The absence of them has damaged our country.

RB: Why a third Obama term?

AB: He’s a good man. A smart man. He made some big mistakes and he is smart enough to learn from them.

RB: He still seems docile to me —maybe too genteel to engage contemporary political in fighting.

AB: That’s certainly possible. That’s how I feel a bout. I don’t see myself in any way as an expert in these matters.

Normal by Amy Bloom

Normal by Amy Bloom

RB: Is there an issue you feel strongly enough to march for, to demonstrate for?

AB: Yes, I very much feel that way about women’s health and women’s rights. I am not a big marcher but write a pamphlet, drive some one across state lines so they can get an abortion if they need one and can’t get one where they live? Absolutely. I hope I will be doing that till I die.

RB: Women’s rights seem to have taken a bad turn.

AB: Not good.

RB: May be we have to wait until women totally outnumber men before we can get it right.

AB: Well, that seems the most likely thing. And not to give up power voluntarily. Probably if you had 150 women in Congress, it would be different. If more than half of the Senate was women it probably would be different.

RB: Well, there is House minority leader Nancy Pelosi—

AB: Give me 200 Nancy Pelosis—

RB: Even 100—
AB: —and we’ll see what we can do. What I always say to my daughters about these things is, ”You need to be aware of how it is and you need not to dwell on it.”

RB: I wonder of things need to get exponentially worse to arouse the ‘oppressed masses’. Occupy was a moment…a high awareness of income inequality. Now that’s a tagline on Sunday talk shows.

AB: It one of the good and the bad things about human beings. What was strange and terrible becomes not so bad.

RB: There’s an exchange in a movie called Safe House where to veteran operatives meet after a long separation. One says, “People change.” The other replies, ”People don’t change, they adapt.”

AB: I think that’s mostly true.

RB: What are we adapting to?

AB: That will be easier to see a couple of years after.

RB: It took you how many years to complete this novel?

AB: Forever.

RB: Do you want it to go faster?

AB: (laughs) You know, tick tock. I write the way I write.

RB: I spoke to a writer who was in his 60’s and he said he was done writing novels because he was afraid he might die before he finished. Does that inhibit you at all?

AB: They’re not pleasant thoughts but its not the worst thing in the world to me —the time to write
RB: Actually, that’s not what I wanted to ask. I suddenly become aware, mostly because of medical insurance, not that I am old but what old age entails for many people. And that constant reminder is distracting.

AB: You know, for me, I started adult life really early.

RB: (chuckles) What is early?

AB: Well, I was raising a kid when I was 21. So I have been a grown up for a long time. And so —

RB: It’s obvious but it’s not necessarily a matter of chronology.

AB: I feel comfortable saying O have been a grown up for a long time and the other side of that is that I have less of life ahead of me than I have behind me. That’s how it is. So I say to myself,”Do it now, write now. You want to write a play. You should start writing a play. You don’t have time—better get to work on the next novel.

RB: Has any of your work been optioned for film?

AB: Once in a while.

RB: Is there something that you would be tempted to put your chips into? That you would produce yourself.

AB: Oh no. Make myself? My money? My dad was a freelance magazine writer and he put two girls through college as a magazine writer. He wrote 700 articles in his lifetime and he raised a very fiscally conservative writer, just like he was. He lived at a time when one could actually make a living as a magazine writer. My dad’s rate per word was the same as mine. His heyday was the 60’s and the 70’s.

Amy Bloom [photo by Robert Birnbaum]

Amy Bloom [photo by Robert Birnbaum]

RB: I am surprised that HBO or Showtime et al haven’t approached you—if not for your already published work then for original projects. They seem to be using for literary authors. Do you watch those programs?

AB: Sure I watch good television.

RB: Have you watched True Detective?

AB: I haven’t watched True Detective yet because the one thing we didn’t get around to was the Wire.So we are watching that. We haven’t missed that much—we watch a lot Norwegian stuff.

RB: True Detective is a marvel. Nic Pizzlato wrote great stuff and it incredibly performed. Is book touring the same as it was 5 years ago, 10 years ago?

AB: Pretty much. I tend to keep my head down. I don’t give a lot of attention to—

RB: Don’t go to festivals, conferences and such?

AB: I don’t.

RB: Book launch parties?

AB: Not so much.

RB: Movie screenings and openings?

AB: If somebody invites me to an opening I always like to go. I am not that social a person. And I find festivals a little overwhelming—sometimes I go. Not a lot. The point is the book. The point is the book and so it’s great to hear from my husband and my kids about the reviews. It’s great when they are overwhelmingly positive. Which they are in this case. And we’ll see —I hope. I sell some books. I hope I write a few more novels.

RB: What’s next?

AB: A novel—I’ve started it.

RB: Do you do more than one thing at a time?

AB: Not seriously. I can fool around and so more than one TV project but I can’t do more than a novel at a time. I have some short stories in the back of my mind. Basically, I am committed to a novel and then a collection of linked short stories, which is the story of a life from the courtship of the couple to the death of the couple. Different narrators.

RB: Is there a story or a large narrative project that you have been dying to do? A trilogy or a documentary about some obscure object of admiration?

AB: Well, I am not a documentary filmmaker so I always like to encourage my documentary filmmaker friends. There is a play I’d like to write but the next novel that I am writing really does actually make a trilogy with Away and Lucky Us. Away is set in the Twenties . This novel is set in the Forties and the one I am about to write is set in the Thirties.

RB: And they’ll be slip cased together at some point?

AB: It would be nice if they were slip cased —some of the characters show up repeatedly.

RB: Let me commend you for never using the word ‘schwartzer ’

AB: There were all sorts of errors in judgment that people could make.

RB: Which you try not to make. Always a pleasure. Thank you.

AB: Thank you.

Amy Bloom circa 2008 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Amy Bloom circa 2008 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

*You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to came at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick: you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them: you get them wrong while you’re with them and then you get home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of al l perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on a significance that is ludicrous, so ill equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we are alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you. (From American Pastoral)

Currently reading Grit Lit: A Rough South Reader edited by Brian Carpenter and Tom Franklin(University of South Carolina Press)

Notes on Henry Giroux: # 1

12 Aug
The Violence of Organized Forgetting by Henry Giroux

The Violence of Organized Forgetting by Henry Giroux

Radical critic Henry Giroux and scholar has been on my radar for a number of years. With Barbara Ehrenreich the late Joe Bageant, Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky he formed a part of a useful palliative for my fears that advocates for social justice were sinking into predictable and useless sloganeering.Giroux has a new book,The Violence of Organized Forgetting (City lights) which should with any winds blowing in the right direction garner him some new enthusiasts. Bill Moyers, no raving radical,opines, “Giroux refuses to give in or give up. The Violence of Organized Forgetting is a clarion call to imagine a different America–just, fair, and caring–and then to struggle for it.” Setting aside his quoting* James Baldwin in 2014 (James who?), here’s the opening to Chapter One

America—a country in which forms of historical, political, and moral forgetting are not only willfully practiced, but celebrated—has become amnesiac. The United States has degenerated into a social order that views critical thought
as both a liability and a threat. Not only is this obvious in
the proliferation of a vapid culture of celebrity, but it is
also present in the prevailing discourses and policies of a
range of politicians and anti-public intellectuals who believe
that the legacy of the Enlightenment needs to be reversed. Politicians such as Michelle Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich along with talking heads such as Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, and Anne Coulter are not the problem. They are merely symptomatic of a much more disturb-ing assault on critical thought, if not rational thinking itself. The notion that education is central to producing a critically literate citizenry, which is indispensable to a democracy, is viewed in some conservative quarters as dangerous, if not treasonous. Under a neoliberal regime, the language of authority, power, and command is divorced from ethics, social responsibility, critical analysis, and social costs.

My kind of talk. More to come.

 JAMES BALDWIN  circa 1958 (photo Mottke Weisman)

JAMES BALDWIN circa 1958 (photo Mottke Weisman)

*People who remember court madness through pain, the pain
of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people
who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of
the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence.

Currently reading The People in the Trees
by Hanya Yanagihara (Anchor)

Never Complain and Never Explain

12 Aug

Recently, the School Superintendent of Newton MA, where I reside and my son attends high school, was found to have plagiarized portions of his recent commencement speeches. For this, as you will; lapse in judgment or devious wrongdoing, he was fined $5000 and in short order issued a public apology. The jury is out about the appropriateness of his chastisement with a number of parties unsatisfied including the Newton Teacher’s Association who wrote:

In your statement, you characterize what happened as a “mistake, And even though you say what you “should” have done, you use indirect language . . . You never call what you did plagiarism, and you don’t apologize. The facts tell a different story,…You lifted not only words and phrases from Deval Patrick’s speech, but also its main idea, and you express both the words and the idea as if they were your own. There simply is no question about it: that is plagiarism

Sorry About That by Edward Battistella

Sorry About That by Edward Battistella

This little local tempest is probably played out manifold times with some episodes rising to the status of major news cycle scandal and all the tawdriness that accompanies such. In recent yearsMartha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, Bill Clinton, Mel Gibson, Sen. Bob Packwood, Mark Sandford, Joe Biden (Biden might require a pamphlet to document his various apologies) and numerous corporations have found it in their interests to make mia culpas. In my view it is possible to view the public apology as a new literary genre. Linguist Edwin L. Battistella’s Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology(Oxford University Press) is certainly an engaging survey of noteworthy recent expressions of guilty sorrow (justifications) mentioning fifty standouts . Additionally, Battistella attends to discerning the language of sincere apologies (need it be pointed out that not all apologies are heart felt?)

Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter

Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter

This exegesis of the notion of public apology puts me in mind of Charles Baxter‘s incisive essay Dysfunctional Narrative: or “Mistakes Were Made” from his non-pareil essay collection Burning Down the House (Graywolf). Baxter draws a straight line from Richard Nixon’s diction to what he characterizes as ‘dysfunctional narrative’ stemming from faux apologies taking the form of “Mistakes were made…”

Charles Baxter [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Charles Baxter [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Lately, I have been possessed of a singularly unhappy idea: The greatest influence on American fiction in the last twenty years may have been the author of RN (Richard Nixon), not in the writing but in the public character.He is the inventor, for our purposes and for our time,of the concept of deniability.Deniability is an almost complete disavowal of intention in relation to bad consequences. A made up word, it reeks of the land filled landscape of lawyers and litigation and high school [What an image! RB}.Following Richard Nixon in influence on recent fiction would be two runners up, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Their administrations managed to achieve considerable notoriety for self righteousness, public befuddlement about facts, forgetfulness under oath and constant disavowals of political error and criminality culminating in the quasiconfessional passive-voice-mode sentence, “Mistakes were made.”

Of course, there is a countervailing opinion to the old saw that confession is good for the soul. Researcher Tyler G. Okimoto claims,

When you refuse to apologize, it actually makes you feel more empowered,” he said. “That power and control seems to translate into greater feelings of self-worth. Ironically,people who refused to apologize ended up with boosted feelings of integrity.

Currently reading The Next Life Will be Kinder by Howard Norman(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Gabbing with Alex Beam (American Crucifixion)

6 Aug

Once and now, occasional Boston Globe columnist, Alex Beam’s third work of non-fiction, American Crucifixion The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church(Public Affairs)vividly takes the reader to the 1840’s American frontier (Illinois) for a birds eye view the persecution of the nascent Mormon religion and the violent death of its founder, Joseph Smith. And as in his earlier books, Gracefully Insane a history of Mclean Mental Hospital and A Great Idea at the Time about the Great Books, Beam is very respectful of some weird ideas and zany people.

This is the second conversation Alex Beam and I have had. Naturally, we chat about his book, the Mormons, whether Beam is happy, what’s up at the Boston Globe and goofy Jeff Bezos. And Alex’s next book.

American Crucifixion by Alex Beam

American Crucifixion by Alex Beam

RB: You are a practicing Christian, yes?

AB: I am, in fact, a church-attending Christian, mainly Episcopalian by temperament.

RB: The people who tell you, “Shush” in the movie theaters.

AB: (laughs) Are we those people, you mean?

RB: That’s what I have been told defines Episcopalians —

AB: We are a generally disapproving lot. That’s for sure.

RB: That makes for a good newspaper columnist. Here’s what I wonder after reading American Crucifixion, a book about the Mormons’s founder Joseph Smith, how do you define the difference between a religion or sect and a cult?

AB: Well, it’s certainly not a task I set for myself in this book. And it’s a task that interests other people deeply. I always refer to Joseph Smith’s religion as a branch of Christianity, which in itself, as you may know, even in dispute. A lot of people don’t recognize it as a branch of Christianity. I’m a not so naïve as to think many other people don’t view Mormonism as such an intense of form of Christianity that in fact is a cult. In conversation I don’t shy away from that discussion—making clear I am not the definer of the word ‘cult’. I am sure you know, because you know a bunch of languages, that that the French word for religion is in fact “cult”—

RB: — I am afraid to say I didn’t know that. You’re giving me too much credit.

AB: Well, when people start bandying about etymological, you know, “this Sunday I saw you at the altar rail, taking bread and wine as part of your cult ritual” I couldn’t care less. Nothing interests me less. I want to get to one small point, which is, I don’t think people who call Mormonism a cult are deranged or suffused by hatred. I have to say in all honesty when I read the first 120 pages of Lawrence Wright’s book on Scientology {Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief), which is essentially L Ron Hubbard’s biography; I just thought I was reading about Joseph Smith. There were so many similarities. Larry’s book is not fresh in my mind now but it was almost a one to one correspondence. I am dodging your question. I am aware it is valid but I don’t have an answer.

RB: As a godless Jew I think all Christians are off the page. But this particular brand seems to me deranged. At least until he died it was a religion of whatever he decided at the moment.

Alex Beam [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Alex Beam [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

AB: That’s an accurate reading. That’s a correct reading of what I tried to put on the page. I might have shied away from the phrase “Joseph Smith made it up as he went along” but that is certainly my sense. And I have used that phrase in discussions with Mormons. And the ones that really know his life well don’t disagree at all. I don’t think Fawn Brodie, his greatest biographer, disagrees. I encountered a quote of late that was unfamiliar to me and I am not going to reproduce it exactly. Its in Latin but the translation is “I believe in it because it is absurd” In other words, it’s the ultimate apologia. I acknowledge that what I believe is absurd yet I believe in it.

RB: That’s someone’s definition of faith.

AB: Yea. I guess I have a 360 view of Mormonism. Certainly I feel what they are putting across is no more boundary stretching than the parting of the Red Sea or the indeed the ritual that I took part in this previous Sunday. I take part in that ritual probably for very complicated reasons but i supposedly imbibing the metaphoricolized(sic)- blood of Jesus Christ —that has its absurd aspect.

RB: To flesh out the context in which Smith tried to raise up this religion in what was the wild west of the American heartland in the 1840’s is astoundingly ambitious. One small point, was it truly Illinois law that a defendant could not testify for himself?

AB: Yes. That is an accurate fact.

RB: That strikes me as unconstitutional.

AB: A defendant may not be forced —

RB: I don’t think that’s the way it was presented.

AB: It may not have said that but you are referring to the mass killing where the bad guys were killed. All I can say is I checked it. But again we still have that protection—OJ Simpson didn’t have to take the stand.

RB: The claim was they couldn’t take the stand.

AB: Yes, I did write that and I meant to write it that way.

RB: Another quibble— you used the word ‘lynching’ which I take to be specific to hanging.

AB: I did use the word and I did it deliberately. I am embarrassed that I haven’t checked it. In common usage we think it’s a hanging. We often think it’s the hanging of an African American male. I have come to being very comfortable using that term for the killing of Smith. I think it was a lynching.

RB: What is the distance that Mormonism has traveled from 1840 and the assumption of Brigham Young as the leader, up to now. Is it very much different? Did Young make it up as he went along?

AB: The short answer to that narrow question is no. Joseph had 130 direct revelations from God. Brigham had one. So they were radically different characters. In very general terms, Brigham is the builder, the country maker. He established a country in the West called Deseret. Obviously, it morphed into what we call the state of Utah. But to answer your first question, Mormonism is quite different. In one obvious way. Joseph and Brigham institutionalized polygamy. Which the religion had to back away from in 1890 and then again in 1910. There is an interesting term of art— Mormon Fundamentalist. Which again in reality means these kooky polygamists who hide out at the Colorado border who are occasionally prosecuted by the Feds. Now of course they are fundamentalist in the sense that they go back to the teachings of Joseph. The Old Testament teachings of Joseph. I was just in Utah—not for the first time. There is also a sense and its very muted——I am just going to put on the table —that I am generally empathetic to Mormons. But there is a sense I would argue among Mormon intellectuals —there is a mildly discernable sense, that we lost something of great value here in the past 180 years.

RB: Mormons or everyone lost something?

AB: We, Mormons. We lost the purity of a prophet in touch with God, creating a third testament. This is only hinted at in my book only because Mormonism had moved away from the strict communism of the 1830’s that came to be viewed as impracticable, impractical. But nonetheless in this—what really is a colony, a large colony of Nauvoo, Illinois— a lot of property is shared, a lot of property is held in common. Property is given to people, to the needy. A lot of that lives on the religion, I call it a metaphor but there is, in fact, a Bishop’s Storehouse. In Salt Lake City. Maybe this is like everybody but Mormons are somewhat nostalgic for the kind of, the tighter, original religion. One huge element that is missing is that is not really a persecuted religion anymore.

RB: Well, not exactly.

AB: It’s complicated but it’s harder to make the case when your guy is 6 million votes short of becoming President of the United States.

RB: And when an exceedingly eccentric billionaire [who himself is not a Mormon] has a praetorian guard of Mormons. Isn’t there a Mormon colony in Mexico that practices polygamy?

AB: CBS sent a camera crew down there in 2012.It certainly opened my eyes. What they did was they found large estancia, large Mormon ranches in Mexico that are controlled by Mormon fundamentalists.

RB: Do people convert to Mormonism?

AB: Yes, I was thinking of a writing an article about that. There is a documentary about a member of the New York Dolls who converted. And there a cool band called Four Trees where the lead guitarist is a Mormon. Ultraviolet [of Andy Warhol fame] who just died, she converted to Mormonism.

RB: Jabbari Parker, #1 draft pick in the 2014 NBA draft is a Mormon. And there a controversy about whether he should play in the NBA or putt it off and do is obligatory mission work. Mormon athletes are interviewed who end up rationalizing his decision to play. (both laugh)

AB: Right. I didn’t see the recent news reports. I have heard second hand that a lot athletes did not go on missions.

RB: It makes sense to say that as a professional star athlete Parker will have wider influence. I’m struck by the impression that American Crucifixion is more minutely researched than your earlier work—±the Great Books book or the book on Macleans.

AB: Well, it’s a book of popular history. Its funny, not all Mormons would agree with you (laughs).

RB: Meaning they take exception to your presentation of facts?

AB: First of all I am going to take what you said as a compliment. This was a strange situation where I literally started from zero. I literally knew nothing about the subject. At some point somebody warned me— a very helpful lady Mormon historian said, “Be careful with your footnotes.” I didn’t know what she meant but, in fact, Mormons have called me out on my footnotes. They are very punctilious and for entirely the wrong reasons.

RB: Why not make them endnotes? What is the rationale for one over the other?

AB: I don’t know. I have trailing end notes—I find the whole thing (pauses} jejune, if you don’t mind [me using that word]. In fact, I have never has the opportunity to say this but indisputably, in my view, the best work of popular history ever written is a book called The Reasons Why [about the charge of the Light Brigade] by Cecil Woodham Smith, a British lady, that came out in the beginning of the 20th Century. You won’t find a footnote in her book. She also wrote a book called The Big Hunger, which is somewhat controversial about the Irish Famine. There is not a footnote in there. When people attack the Big Hunger—which they do—they don’t attack because of a lack of scholarly apparatus. I find the whole thing ultimately trivial. So, yeah, I had to do a lot of research because I didn’t know anything.

RB: What was the focus when you started? Was it the same as after you concluded your research?

AB: The idea, which came, did not come from me but came from a book editor. The idea was that Smith’s death —there hadn’t been a book written about it, which is true —it was extremely violent and involved one of America’s largest religions, it involved sex and it took place on the American frontier. And it took place in a very compact time frame. The whole mission was to write about the last 18 months of Smith’s life and then the mission becomes somewhat confused because the reader, I’m the reader, doesn’t know who he is, why he is in Illinois. So there are 80 pages of throat clearing —that’s selling it a little short but I had to get the reader to the banks of the Mississippi.

RB: You are satisfied to use the word ‘lynching’ in the narrative and the title of the book is American Crucifixion.

AB: (laughs)

RB: That’s a strong word, is it not?

AB: It is a strong word. I came up with the title a few months into it. People have had reactions to the title. I only noticed recently that one of the first pieces of front matter is a letter written by a Mormon lady where she compared Joseph Smith’s killing to Jesus’s crucifixion. And there are other examples in the book where people say; oh this is the saddest thing since Gethsemane or something like that. I wasn’t trying to make a point. In fact, it’s totally your call —there’s things about Joseph’s death that interested me that aren’t in the book. For instance, I was interested whether Joseph reappears to the Saints—darned interesting to me. The short answer is, yes. And indeed that’s answer you might expect. But in a way it didn’t make it in to the book because he appears in dreams and things. It’s not like the New Testament. I am happy to give myself a little credit for not pulling the taffy as far as it would stretch.

RB: Do I have this right—Smith, his brother and his wife are still buried in Illinois?

Joseph Smith's grave site , Nauvoo, Illinois

Joseph Smith’s grave site , Nauvoo, Illinois

AB: Brigham wanted to take the corpses to Utah, for sure.

RB: And the bodies were moved around.

AB: Yeah, they were hiding them from a lot of different people. They thought that they would be desecrated. By the gentiles and then they were hiding from Brigham. One of the interesting things about this religion is —there is a picture of their graves in my book— which shows how modest the graves are. They are incredibly modest. Joseph is not a deity or viewed as a divinity in any sense of the word. I was just in Salt Lake and some guy, at lunch, says, ”You know Brigham Young is buried over by that apartment building.” I just couldn’t believe it. He’s just in a little graveyard. You really wouldn’t know. I doubt it’s in a guidebook or anything.

RB: No big thing for the Mormons.

AB: No and again it speaks a little bit to the theology —these men now—these old white men, they view themselves also as prophets and revelators. Just as Joseph and Brigham were. They are not holy people. They are people who have been chosen for this job by God and they are occasionally gifted with revelations. As are many other Mormons which is part of the doctrine.

RB: Are you inclined to think all or many Mormons will read your book? Is it on any Mormon reading list?

AB: I went to the Mormon Historical Association annual meeting which, for me, was a huge treat. A really friendly Mormon guy— he was such a friend to me throughout the writing of this book, I sent him the book and he said come on down and give a presentation. I gave a presentation and it was very well received. Having said that, the church has an official history department where they create the official history. In my talk I likened their history library to the Lenin Library, which wasn’t all that well received. It was funny — I talked to these people—they knew who I was, let’s put it that way. And this one guy, he wrote the definitive apologist account of the Mount Meadows Massacre—he’s a guy I was trying desperately to reach for three years. He wouldn’t talk to me. And I met him in person. He said to me “I downloaded your book the first day it was available and read it on one sitting.”Now this is a real, genuine church authority in every sense of the word. And I said, “Well, what did you think?” (laughs) And he’s a diplomat—he said, “Well, it’s not the book I would have written.” (giggles)

RB: Hmmm.

AB: Others would say, “Its an interesting perspective.” And they are trying to be polite. The Deseret chain of bookstores is not carrying this book. It’s a chain owned by the church. Basically they have only faith affirming literature there. BYU bookstore sold out of this book. This is not going to be required reading for orthodox Mormons. Mormons as a category are highly literate and highly inquisitive. So the book has done very well in that community but it will not ever be in a case in the front of the Church library.

RB: And mainstream attention?

AB: It has been in the LA Times. It has been in the Chicago Tribune. It’ll be in the New York Times. It was in the Wall Street Journal. Boston Globe. With the sole exception of the Washington Post its been reviewed. The reviews were all favorable. I don’t know what that means.

RB: It means “attention is being paid.” Knowing you to be a fussy guy, are you happy with this book? Or would you like another year to fiddle around with it?

AB: Uh, uh (laughs). I am happy with the book. I was worried that you were going to ask me if I was happy generally.

RB: I have a story about that but go ahead.

AB: Let me think about that for a second. Now I have had really interesting feedback and serious feedback. I think I would cut a little more. The editor wanted to keep cutting and I think I would cut a little more. It was longer —we cut a lot. I don’t think that’s what you are asking. I think you are asking about tone and things like that.

RB: Will you change anything for the paperback? Revise it?

AB: No, is the short answer. What you don’t get to do in a second edition is reedit.

RB: Even with the benefit of feedback?

AB: I am a 100% behind the voice and the order — I like everything about the book.

RB: This project took you how long?

AB: Started in the summer of 2011 finished—2 years.

RB: Now you are done with it—though as a historical work I expect the conversation continues. So what do you do now?

AB: I am still writing for the Globe. I have a contract to write another book, actually. About Vladimir Nabokov (laughs) and Edmund Wilson. I have been so happy since April 22 (pub date of American Crucifixion) and I have just been happy living inside of this book. I have to get off my rear end.

RB: So you have things to do? You are not wondering, ‘What am I doing next?”

AB: Yes, I am not at sea. Quite the opposite.

RB: I am not going to ask you if you are happy.

AB: Thank you very much.

RB: I find it peculiar that this is a question people feel comfortable asking each other—what does that mean?

AB: Well, it is a massive externalization of something that—there is an industry that I and others have made fun of. A huge industry of how do you achieve this state that other people didn’t even bother to worry about.

RB: It looks like PBS has devoted itself to this kind of programming—snake oil shows.

AB: I simply don’t watch that kind of thing. Those things just shock me. It’s all about the solipsism of our generation.

RB: Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book about the industry after her bout with breast cancer.

AB: That’s passed over me—I have no comment (laughs)

RB: How are things at the Boston Globe?

AB: I took a buyout from the Globe 2 years ago so I am no longer a staff member. I am just contributing one column a week. I haven’t actually set foot in the building.

RB: How many of your peers are still there?

AB: A few, a precious few.

RB: Any talk about the new regime? I talked with Ben Bradlee JR and he was impressed with John Henry’s initial editorial laying out his intentions for the paper

AB: Right. My view—and this is a viewer as a consumer— I am actually a subscriber. I am interested in the Globe. It seems to me the coin is still in the air. Ben is correct that initially John Henry did a lot of right things. He got that editorial coverage. Everybody he has hired is about the newspaper, is about quality. There is some stuff going on —I wouldn’t say I am privy to it in any way. I am quite interested in Bezos at the Washington Post. And the Times is interesting in and of itself — there are things happening there. With the Globe, these are three papers that interest me. Bezos for whatever you think of him —you might see the more interesting stuff happening there first.

RB: Watching him on 60 Minutes announce his drone delivery plan — he went giddy. The Rickets still own the [Chicago] Tribune? And what about the LA Times?

AB: That’s completely at sea. It’s been for sale of a long time. It’s part of the Tribune Co and they are trying to get rid of it.

RB: I read that Time magazine has moved out of a corporate umbrella and they hired Norman Pearlstine who was there years ago. Time magazine has become irrelevant and to bring a person back from its history doesn’t seem a like move to change that.

AB: I couldn’t tell you. All the action is taking place at a chronological place where you, me and Norman Perlstine are not. He’s this talented New York guy. He is like the Flying Dutchman—he’s always looking for work. He’s been everywhere. He was at Bloomberg for a while. But he’s not the answer. The answer really ios with the younger generation.

RB: Sure, but what you still get is a homogenized POV. This American Life clearly has talented people but the palette is monochromatic or to use another metaphor, it’s a tune in the same key.

AB: I don’t have beef with you in any way on that one—that’s an NPR issue. They have a homogenous culture in my opinion. But I guess what I am talking about is technically skilled younger people. I meant presentation issues. People are cynical now about some of the innovations the Times came up with. They are going to be many, many small experiments that will add up to helping.

RB: Like introducing a Sin column

AB: (laughs) Where?

RB: In the Times. And one of the first pieces was about strip clubs with vague but appropriate images. I didn’t notice the column until I saw a letter to the editor. And the front page features something called “the Insider”. My reaction —who cares?

AB: They are hyping it, relentlessly. I do have a different view of this. I have not been inside the paper for a couple of year. The desperation for revenue streams is like craving heroin. I can’t tell you how many dozens of excellent people had to be let go because of shrinking revenues. Yeah, the Times sells golf balls with their logo on it. (laughs) Its tough out there.

RB; Are you aware of the Baffler? Or its resurrection?

AB: I know its been resurrected —some people in Cambridge did that. It’s not on my reading diet.

RB: It should be. It’s a contrarian’s delight. Have a look at a piece called The People’s Republic of Zuckerstan on the innovation economy in Cambridge and Boston. You are not interested in being part of pow wows about newspapers. I’m sure you must have some ideas.

AB: I‘m not sure I do. I’ll be straight with you. I‘m not sure I do.

RB: Ideas are generated by conversation. Someone says something dumb and then someone else says, “That’s dumb, here’s the way to do it.”

AB: I completely agree with you. But given that I am not on anybody’s staff.

RB: You have lived most of your life here in Newton Massachusetts.

AB: Now I have—since 1984

RB: Is there a place you would go to, not necessarily to retire but say, to write your memoir about your fabulous life.

AB: I don’t want to write a memoir about my fabulous life. I don’t know. I am in the position of so many people. I have children who are adults now. That’s something I think about constantly. Obsess about—what about you?

RB: I am thinking of the Gulf Coast—maybe Fairhaven, Alabama, across the bay from Mobile. But my current health insurance, only available in Massachusetts, may keep me here

AB: I looked at the panhandle of Florida, which has no culture what so ever, which I found kind of appealing.

RB: Well, thanks. We’ll meet again in the fall of 2016 for your Nabokov-Wilson tome.

AB: I’d be happy to.

Currently reading The Drop by Dennis Lehane (Wm Morrow)

How Blue Can You Get?

4 Aug
Robert Birnbaum's only 'selfie '[photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Robert Birnbaum’s only ‘selfie ‘[photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Last night, after umpiring a Little League game of the local 11 year old all stars, I had pause to reflect on my having reached the golden age of two-thirds of a century and discovering a new avocation: umpiring kid’s baseball. It seems that, gradually, over the past five or 6 years, I have morphed from being a standby,fill-in umpire, to this year, refereeing over 40 games.

Considering my anti-authoritarian pathology, the irony of my new role hums along as an air of bemusement through every game in which I am involved and even some that I just spectate. Which is not to say that I don’t take the task of running a game seriously— I do.

Now granted I am drawing from a very small sample size but I am of the belief that I may be the only anarchist baseball umpire on the East Coast(thankfully, no one is going to ask me to prove that assertion). I am also distinguishable from patched (certified )umpires who see what they do as income producing— and yet I haven’t met any who did not also love baseball. But after that, the commonality ends—which an indirect way of saying it takes all kinds.

For a life-long baseball fan (like me) viewing a baseball game as a judicial presence is a rarified and most revealing perspective from which to add the kind of minutiae to the never-ending body of knowledge that dedicated fans are constantly accumulating. And that accrual is one of the elements of the game that makes baseball fascinating.

The bibliography on the subject of umpiring (except for instruction manuals) is not extensive but then for the most part umpires are usually only noticed when one of the participants feels wronged and obliged to seek redress.Then fans are treated to uncommon behavior of adult temper tantrums (of which few artful practitioners remain—no dirt kicking Lou Pinellas, rabid gesticulators like Earl Weaver or tragically wronged victims like Jim Leyland). One rarely hears in the post game wrap up, “And tonight’s umpiring crew did a excellent job.”

Here are a handful of books that reveal the men behind the masks:

Remembrance of Swings Past by Ron Luciano

Remembrance of Swings Past by Ron Luciano

Looking back to the 80’s, it seems that Ron Luciano was the most (perhaps only) visible MLB umpire, publishing (purportedly)cleverly entitled books such asThe Umpire Strikes Back and The Fall of the Roman Umpire. and Remembrance of Swings Past. Luciano’s career-long arch rival,Baltimore Orioles’s manager, Earl Weaver opined of Luciano, he was “one of the few umpires people have paid their way into the park to see.” And Luciano pays back the compliment, observing of Weaver:

The problem with Earl [Weaver] is that he holds a grudge. Other managers, if they disagree with a call, may holler and shout, but you can still go out for a beer with them after the game. Not Earl. He never forgets. Heck, he even holds your minor league record against you. Once, a couple of years ago, I made a controversial call at the plate. Earl charged out of the dugout, screaming that that was the same call I’d blown at Elmira in ’66. That sort of thing can get to you.

Sadly, Luciano committed suicide in 1995 at age of 57.

Called Out But Safe by Al Clark

Called Out But Safe by Al Clark

Twenty five year veteran American League Umpire Al Clark who covered over 3000 games and a couple of World Series, accounts for his life in baseball. And his fall from grace when he was fired for travel expenses irregularities in 2001 and then in 2004 when he was convicted of mail fraud connected to the sale of baseball memorabilia in Called Out but Safe: A Baseball Umpire’s Journey (University of Nebraska Press) In addition to being one of a very small number of Jewish arbiters,Clark claims to have the distinction of suffering a hernia as he enthusiastically threw someone out of a game.

They Called Me God by Doug Harvey

They Called Me God by Doug Harvey

After 30 years, Hall of Fame Umpire, Doug Harvey retired in 1992 with 4673 games under his belt. His memoir (with the hyperbolic title) written with Peter Golenbock,They Called Me God: The Best Umpire Who Ever Lived (Gallery Books) is chocked full,as expected, of colorful anecdotes that include baseball legends such as Sandy Koufax, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Leo Durocher, Sparky Anderson, Tommy Lasorda, and Walter Alston. Harvey adds charmed bits of baseball lore to ever expanding history of our once and future national pastime

   Nobody’s Perfect by Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce

Nobody’s Perfect by Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce

The degree of difficulty in pitching a perfect game in baseball should be obvious when you consider the numbers— in almost 400,000 major league games there have only been twenty. The ostensible 21st is the subject of Nobody’s Perfect: Two Men, One Call,and a Game for Baseball History(Grove Atlantic) by Armando Galarraga, Jim Joyce.* On June 2, 2010, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga threw what appeared to be like baseball’s twenty-first perfect game. Unfortunately, veteran umpire Jim Joyce (who is in the Irish American Baseball Hall of Fame) missed the call on the final out at first base. After viewing the replay Joyce observed “No, I did not get the call correct,I kicked the shit out of it.” And Galarraga? He got the final out and when asked about the play offered,“Nobody’s perfect.” The pair were widely praised in the sports chattering classes for the grace with which this incident was handled—and thus the book accounts for this singular baseball moment.

AsThey See Em by Bruce Weber

AsThey See Em by Bruce Weber

Veteran New York Timesman Bruce Weber who actually went to umpire school interviewed over 200 men in blue to create this insightful peek into the otherwise mysterious world of baseball umpires in As They See ‘Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires (Scribner). Along the way we learn about QuesTec, the system of cameras and computers that measures umpires’ plate performances during regular season games. And most enlighteningly (sic), that although they are “held together by the powerful bond of their singular profession, umpires are a dysfunctional family, at odds with players, management and one another” Weber also points out that the pay is not lucrative and there’s no real job security and “that few fathers light up cigars, point to their babies and say, ‘That kid is going to be a major league umpire.'” Still, hundreds continue signing up for umpire school, as they say,”chasin’ the dream”.

You're The Umpire by  Wayne Stewart

You’re The Umpire by Wayne Stewart

When I reveal to people that I umpire little league— I eventually get around to asserting that every fan of the game should try their hand at it— insight into the game of baseball increases exponentially (well, it did for me). Wayne Stewart’s You’re the Umpire: 139 Scenarios to Test Your Baseball Knowledge (Skyhorse Publishing)doesn’t put you on the field but it does give you a sense of the density and sometimes obscurity of the code that governs baseball play.

It should not go unsaid that I have seen bad adult behavior at kid baseball games and have been subjected to all manner of passive aggressive acting out by parents and coaches. Thankfully none has risen to the level of violence that saw a soccer referee in Michigan die from parental assault. But it does give one pause to think when I see someone exhibiting poor impulse control and weak anger management

* , The old saw “Nobody’s perfect” is also the title of the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane’s anthology which we attributed to legendary director Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot):

Billy Wilder's Headstone

Billy Wilder’s Headstone

Currently reading Death of A River Guide by Richard Flanagan (Grove/Atlantic)

“We See Everything and Remember Nothing…”

28 Jul
The Baffler #25

The Baffler #25

The Baffler one of the few remaining gadfly publications ( also In These Times, Truth Dig) left in this sadly monotone, monochromatic media universe has announced the webification of its entire archives (Issues 1-25). From John Summers‘s announcement:

What’s here? The entire Baffler archive, digitized. 25 issues, 432 contributors, 277 salvos, 450 graphics, 172 poems, 73 stories, 3,396 pages made of 1,342,785 words. The magazine was always so hard to find in its zine-like days. Now you can read the whole thing for the first time since the founding in 1988, when [vernacular redacted] Ronald Reagan started this mess we’re in.

There is probably nothing to be limned from the concurrent publication of the New York Times articles by David Carr (Riding the Juggernaut That Left Print Behind ) on the demise of print journalism and magazines, Jennifer Schuessler’s The Baffler Puts Its Archive Online. Carr goes through the expected reiteration of causes and symptoms of the fading print world and fills in with reflections on the changes that have been wrought in our consumption of information

Nothing can compete with the shimmering immediacy of now, and not just when seismic events take place, but in our everyday lives. We are sponges and we live in a world where the fire hose is always on.

But once a sponge is at capacity, new information can only replace old information. Last month, researchers at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand published a study that found that comprehension, concentration and retention all went off a cliff when information was taken in online. (Then again, there are those who say that we see everything and remember nothing because we don’t have to, that the web now serves as our memory.)

John Summers [photo: Robert Birnbaum ]

John Summers [photo: Robert Birnbaum ]

Ms. Schuessler’s press release-like “Arts Beat” item quotes editor Summers and has some cutesy touches— “and 1,342,785 frequently snarling words.” She concludes

The Baffler, which used to regularly mock utopian claims for the “new economy” of the 1990s, may have hung on to its grumpy technoskepticism. But Mr. Summers promised that its site will play nice with all 21st-century mobile devices, thus “pointing the magazine’s bad attitude continually outward to readers wherever they read.”

If you have somehow managed to be unaware of the Baffler and you have not landed at this literary way station (Our Man in Boston)by accident, then this would be a grand opportunity to educate and amuse yourself. For sure.

Currently reading Lucky Us by Amy Bloom (Knopf)


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