A Radiant, Incandescent Zero: Cuba in Splinters

4 Sep
At Pan Am Games, 1992, Havana-[photo Robert Birnbaum

At Pan Am Games, 1992, Havana-[photo Robert Birnbaum

Imagine a twelve year old displaced person from Europe living in Chicago and being fascinated with the triumphant Cuban overthrow of United Fruit supported dictator Fulgencia Batista in 1959. Revolution was not quite a dirty word yet and the Bearded Ones remained heroes until their ambitions for national sovereignty and independence from their Uncle were made clear.

Ceiling detail,Havana 1992-[photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Ceiling detail,Havana 1992-[photo: Robert Birnbaum]

And still from that time on the young man grew ever fascinated with all things Cuban— the music, the literature, the cigars, the rum,the compelling story of Cuban World Chess Champion José Raúl Capablanca (which the great Cuban writer Gulliermo Cabrera Infante wanted to make into a movie), the baseball players (from Orestes Minoso, Pedro Ramos, Diegio Segui and Octavio Rojas to Zoilo Versalles,Tony Oliva, Livan and Orlando Hernandez to Bert Campaneris, Yoenis Céspedes and Yasiel Puig —to name a few), the boxers (the tragic Benny Kid Paret, Kid Chocolate (Eligio Sardinias Montalvo), the amazing Kid Gavilan:”The Cuban Hawk”, heavyweight Teófilo Stevenson) and the nonpareil middle distance Olympic champion, Alberto Juantorena.And later, the spell binding resonant Havana sun illuminating the Malecon. By 1997, he had traveled to Cuba twice and when his son was born in 1998 he was named Cuba. That young man grew up to be me.

Cuba in Splinters: Eleven Stories from the New Cuba Selected and edited by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Cuba in Splinters: Eleven Stories from the New Cuba
Selected and edited by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Cuba continues to hold an unsettled niche in the north American imagination. Say the word in a room full of people and ears perk up and genuinely interested questions rise to the surface. To be sure, the long and gratuitous US embargo has contributed to the hazy sense of understanding Cuba—of the Caribbean’s largest island nation, which is mostly seen as a sanctuary/preserve for 50’s vintage American motor vehicles.Needless to say many things have changed in the last decade and in those changes echo through Cuba in Splinters: Eleven Stories*from the New Cuba selected and edited by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo,translated by Hillary Gulley(OR Books)

Pardo Lazo characterizes the sum total of the eleven stories:

It is possible that this anthology is the portrait of a family that never was. The communicating vessels between these eleven stories are not bridges but circuits: affinities, violence, tensions between text and anti-text which coinciding in the same book, produce a collision that consumes its own meaning, generating light. A radiant, incandescent zero of patria-plasma

He concludes

…no one knows what past awaits us. Antepenultimate visions of the holocastro.This anthology couldn’t be anything but the portrait of this family that would have been a would-have-been. The future is today. Let it read.

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo was born in Havana, Cuba. He graduated from the University of Havana with a degree in biochemistry.He produces the blog, Boring Home Utopics, which describes itself as “the Collective Memories from a Unique Man in the Brave New Zoociety” and the author of Boring Home, awarded the Czech literary award .the Franz Kafka prize)< Lazo also founded the literary e-zine Voces in 2010 and has been, along with well known dissident blogger, Yoani Sanchez harassed and arrested by Cuban state security officials.

Here talks about the new Cuba:

* included in this collection:Jorge Alberto Aguiar Díaz, Jorge Enrique Lage, Jhortensia Espineta, Ahmel Echevarría Peré, Lien Carrazana Lau, Polina Martínez Shviétsova, Michel Encinosa Fú, Lia Villares,Erick J. Mota, Raúl Flores, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Prado, Havana Cuba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Prado, Havana Cuba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Currently reading A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen by Liel Leibovitz

Self Vs. Self

3 Sep
Shark by Will Self

Shark by Will Self

In lieu of spending hours transcribing my most recent (2014) chat with the now maturated ,bad boy novelist and social commentator Will Self, I call your attention to his recent auto auditory opus. Along with Martin Amis, and despite the challenges of their fiction, they are two of the most engaging and stimulating conversationalists I have encountered. “The author of novels including the Booker-shortlisted Umbrella and the newly-published Shark asks himself whether he is willfully obscure, what role addictive illness plays in his work, what it’s like living with the same character for 25 years – and how come he’s only just noticed how tall he was.”

Will Self circa 2003 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Will Self circa 2003 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

I talked to Will a few times last century and the first time in this one, in 2003 for his newest novel : d most recently Dorian: An Imitation. Here’s a tidbit from that:

Robert Birnbaum: Do people still attach the word ‘jolly’ to the phrase “old England”? Is there a jolly old England?

Will Self: No. Jolly has gone. I think where you can mark the real decline of jollity somewhat paradoxically, is to the Blair regime, the Blair government. When they came into office in ’97, on a tide of apparent jollity, a reassertion of social democratic virtues, a kicking out of the previous corrupt conservative regime that had been in place for seventeen years and was riddled with actual pecuniary corruption, that jollity was very quickly perceived publicly as an act of media manipulation. And the focus then turned to the idea that this was a new regime that was predicated in a way that no previous regime had been, not to quite the same extent, on appearance rather than reality. This was a government of spin-doctors. A government of public relations, a government that fixed its policies on the basis of focus groups, that went out and tried to get people’s assent to a policy and then moved that way around it rather than actually being a creative government. [A government] That introduced a great deal of cynicism into the British political sphere. At the same time you had a kind of schizophrenia entering public life over the issue of whether we were an economy and a society that was really taking our model from American neo-liberal economists or whether we still had a serious interest in a united Europe. That’s really been the sawhorse upon which economics and politics in Britain has very painfully fallen on its crotch for the past six years. That tends to undermine any conception of jollity. At the same time all kinds of—things have happened in Britain—like the crack cocaine epidemic has finally reached Britain.

Dorian: An Imitation by Will Self

Dorian: An Imitation by Will Self

And then there is:

RB: I recently read Colum McCann‘s Dancer, which touches upon this period of AIDS, Warholian fame clique in Manhattan and what was a matter of interest was that now looking back this need to excise all or any fun out of that era, a retrospective moralizing and denunciation…

WS: I would not quite take that view. No, I think you can say that everybody’s experience is going to be partial. Whether you are having fun is an existential proposition not a universal one, isn’t it? And fun, the very idea of fun, is curiously atemporal.

RB: (Laughs)

WS: You know you are having fun when you know what time it is. So almost by definition it’s not gonna be an observation about cultural history to say, “Didn’t we have fun?” It’s gonna be an observation about cultural amnesia.

RB: Didn’t we have fun?

WS: That’s of course a different inquiry. My take on all of this is—and it’s an era I lived through—people say “How do you have the right to write about this?” I was an IV drug user during this period. I had my first HIV test in 1985. I was aware of the spread of AIDS epidemic which was savage in the IV-drug-using community just as much as it was among gay people. Now, I’m not saying, “Now look at me, I’ve suffered too.” I kind of despise that attitude. The truth is I haven’t got the virus and I feel very fortunate about that. The fact of the matter is I was aware of it during this period and I did see what it was doing. My perception was that following the Halloween parade riots and the real outburst of gay liberation at the end of the ’60s and the beginning of the ’70s, one thing is true in life, in the realm of the emotions, events that are consecutive are interpreted causally. You have a row with your lover and they rush out into the street and ten hours later they are killed by a bus and you caused that. I think the perception both outside the gay community and within the gay community, was we gained some level of social acceptability or at any rate we were allowed to be out publicly. We then had a lot of fun and games. We then fell victim in large numbers to a sexually transmitted virus. Our behavior caused that. Now, people of the so-called Moral Majority and on the right were saying that. My perception is that lot of gay people internalized that as well. And felt that as well. I remember talking to people about this at the time. There was a sense no matter how unjustified, of guilt around this behavior because of that ‘law’ of the emotions, if you like. And some people have said this text has a kind of homophobic taint to it. It looks at those ideas. As far as I’m concerned, again, like that point about fun, there is a retrospective desire now because of highly active retroviral treatment—really the evil bloom has been taken or people perceive it as being taken off the AIDS epidemic. People want to deny it ever happened. They want to kind of forget about it, “Let’s just forget about that stuff.”

Will Self  circa 2014 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Will Self circa 2014 [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Currently reading The Constant Gardener by John LeCarre (Scribner)

The Big Picture x 4

3 Sep
On This Earth by Nick Brandt

On This Earth by Nick Brandt

Nick Brandt began a decade long photographic project in 2001, creating three magnificent books (On This Earth, A Shadow Falls and Across A Ravaged Land), memorializing an East Africa environment whose existence was rapidly receding to non-existence. These three tomes, collected with majestic and poignant images, some of the world’s last great populations of large mammals—elephants, giraffes, lions, and gorillas in large-format, well reproduced editions.

A Shadow Falls by Nick Brandt

A Shadow Falls by Nick Brandt

In A Shadow Falls, features fifty-eight images, in oversized tritone plates, capturing wide-screen panoramas of animals and landscapes of Africa previously rarely seen. As the book’s accompanying notes observe, “In years to come, we will look back at these powerful photographs and wonder why humanity did not do more to preserve this rare corner of earthly paradise.”

Brandt explains:

I’m not interested in creating work that is simply documentary or filled with action and drama, which has been the norm in the photography of animals in the wild. What I am interested in is showing the animals simply in the state of Being. In the state of Being before they are no longer are. Before, in the wild at least, they cease to exist. This world is under terrible threat, all of it caused by us. To me, every creature, human or nonhuman, has an equal right to live, and this feeling, this belief that every animal and I are equal, affects me every time I frame an animal in my camera. The photos are my elegy to these beautiful creatures, to this wrenchingly beautiful world that is steadily, tragically vanishing before our eyes.

Across the Ravaged Land by Nick Brandt

Across the Ravaged Land by Nick Brandt

Across the Ravaged Land is the third volume in Nick Brandt’s trilogy of books documenting the decline of eastern African fauna. Among new themes Brandt introduces in this profoundly dystopic landscape is the appearance of its greatest enemy, homo sapiens.

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On this Earth, A Shadow Falls by Nick Brandt

On this Earth, A Shadow Falls by Nick Brandt

Now comes On This Earth, A Shadow Falls which draws on the most memorable images from Brandt’s first two books, along with essays by philosopher and animal liberation activist Peter Singer and photohistorian Vickie Goldberg.The new volume as the publisher points out is the first of… “Brandt’s work to capture the superb quality of his remarkable, large-format prints, which are notable for their velvety blacks and tonal subtleties. At 15 x 13 inches it is substantially larger than his previous books…”

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GiraffesMigrationTrail-Nick-Brandt

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You may be interested in Big Life Big Life Foundation was founded by photographer Nick Brandt & conservationist Richard Bonham in September 2010. With Richard Bonham as Director of Operations for Big Life in Africa, and Project Manager Damian Bell in Tanzania, Big Life has now expanded to employ 315 rangers, with 31 outposts and 15 vehicles protecting 2 million acres of wilderness in the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem of E. Africa.Big Life was the first organization in East Africa with co-ordinated cross-border anti-poaching operations.

As of July 2013, Big Life’s rangers have made 1,030 arrests and confiscated 3,012 weapons/poaching tools since November 2010. Recognizing that sustainable conservation can only be achieved through a community-based collaborative approach, Big Life uses innovative conservation strategies to address the greatest threats, reduce the loss of wildlife to poaching, defeat the ivory trade, mitigate human-wildlife conflict, protect the great predators, and manage scarce and fragile natural resources.

Big Life’s vision is to take the successful holistic conservation model in the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem and replicate it across the African continent.

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Currently reading Cuba in Splinters: Eleven Stories From The New Cuba edited by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo (OR Books)

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, www.nabokovmuseum.org
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

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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 like Tinkerbell’s magic wand — 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.”

and

“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.

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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.

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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.”

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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)
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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)

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