Archive for the ‘Unsortable Prayers’ Category

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Lion

July 20, 2020

what's it good forWhat’s It Good For?

part three (of four)

One night a few weeks ago, after spending all day in this room, I went upstairs and put on my bandanna and baseball cap and took the dog outside.

I encountered a man. He was entering the alley from the street just as I was entering it from the small parking lot behind our building. He had been saying something but I didn’t catch it. He was carrying something on his shoulders. He spoke again.

“What is this?” he asked me.

“Looks like a lion,” I said. It was just the two of us out there, no one else around.

“But what’s it good for?” he asked.

Not counting the three people who live with me, this was already the longest in-person conversation I’d had in months, since this all began.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Fuck it,” he said and put it down. We went our separate ways.

(continued)

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Q&A with Eric Nusbaum, Author of Stealing Home

June 15, 2020

stealing home

I had the privilege of talking recently with Eric Nusbaum about his new book, Stealing Home, an essential read for fans of baseball history, American history, or just plain great literature. I loved its complex, effective structure; its many echoing, slant-rhyming storylines; its character development and empathy; its exploration of deep political, social, human themes; and its understated poetry on place and family and community.

Josh: Can we talk a bit about your development as a writer? When did you first start writing? 

Eric: I always loved reading, and in school, as writing became a thing to be practiced for more than just a rote purpose, I started to love writing too. This was early — elementary school even. I think I identified subconsciously as a writer before I really let myself believe that one day I would “be a writer” whatever that means. 

Josh: What kind of writer did you want to be?

Eric: I probably would have said I wanted to write novels. Maybe Sports writer, but that would have meant giving up on the possibility of becoming a pro athlete, which I was not yet ready to do. 

Josh: What were you reading early on that shaped your writing?

Eric: I read the sports page of the L.A. Times every morning, and at night all kinds of books. My parents are both big readers. Definitely history and baseball books, lots of fiction; everything from fantasy to historical fiction to more literary type books. I have a vivid memory of my dad handing me “Goodbye, Columbus.” I was probably around 14 or 15. My family was always sharing books with me.

Josh: Who were you learning from? What were you learning?

Eric: So as you know the book basically opens in a classroom. I had some incredible teachers, from the time I was in elementary school all the way through high school. I like to think I was learning from them. 

Josh: Did you study poetry? How has that study influenced your prose writing about sports?

Eric: By the time I got to college I wanted to be a fiction writer. But the thing was, I didn’t really like the fiction classes I was taking. Then I took a poetry class…and everything changed. The teacher was named Margaret Rabb. She was a wonderful poet and teacher who passed away not long after I graduated. She ushered me into this incredible world of poets and poetry. I think all the best lessons I learned about writing in college were from poets. One teacher, in particular, Richard Kenney, helped me see the world and the written word in a different way. Also in my experience the poets are bigger and more ridiculous sports fans than any other kind of writer. 

Josh: How has your study and practice of fiction writing influenced you as a writer?

Eric: Absolutely, so even though I hung around poets I didn’t write much poetry. Five or six years ago I signed up for a class at UCLA Extension — basically an adult education fiction class. The teacher was a writer named Lou Mathews. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Lou believed in me as a writer, and taught me a lot of lessons that should have been really obvious: mainly about how stories work. He’s become a mentor and friend. He’s done a lot to make me a better writer on the page, and also make me believe that I’m capable of doing more than I might think I am. Ultimately, for my kind of writing to work, there has to be a narrative element. There has to be suspense, there has to be action, there has to be characters you care about, and whose actions impact the way the story goes. Obviously “Stealing Home” is a book about real people. But I don’t think I would have been able to write it without first figuring out those elements of what makes fiction work. 

Josh: Did you ever consider or pursue the path of the relatively narrower approach of the traditional sportswriter (i.e., focusing just what happens “between the lines”)?

Eric: Sure, but I could never get one of those jobs! Ultimately though, I think I fit in better with the weirdo blogger types. 

Josh: What’s been the most challenging part of the writing path for you?

Eric: Staying on it. Somebody told me early on that the only thing separating them from the writers that didn’t make it was simply not quitting. I love writing, but it’s work. 

Josh: What advice would you give a young person with inclinations similar to the ones you had?

Eric: Read a lot. Make yourself write. Trust that if you do the work, you will continue to improve in ways that you might not even realize. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people whose work you admire. I’m pretty sure that’s how I got to know you. 

Josh: This book is about stolen ground, essentially, and so it’s the perfect book for a sports-obsessed nation situated entirely on stolen ground. I’d like to know how you found your footing as a politically conscious writer. What was the political consciousness in your family growing up? 

Eric: My parents were pretty mainstream Democrats, I think. I remember when I was a kid my mom pulled me out of school because Bill Clinton was speaking at the little park near our house, and she got us in to watch. My dad’s folks were Holocaust survivors, and that experience weighed heavily on our family’s politics growing up. My mom’s mom was from Cuba, and that’s where my mom and her family lived when she was younger. They left Havana after the revolution but it was messy and my Grandpa Murray carried around a lot of anger about Castro and Che and losing his little business and their apartment and the life he loved there. He was sort of the outsider in the family politically — he was big into Ross Perot, for example. But he was the most politically active member of our family by far. He taught me a lot about activism, and about taking a stand for what you believe in.

Josh: In what ways did you first get glimpses of the America beyond the “Dodger blue” simplicity of the American Dream narrative?

Eric: It’s a credit to my family that I don’t think I ever fully believed that the American Dream narrative was perfect. I was taught to understand that there were cracks in it, and that nothing is ever permanent or what it seems. My paternal grandparents were classic examples of the American Dream. They came with nothing after losing their entire immediate families and made a good life together here. The lesson was always that “yes, it’s possible, but that it could also be gone in a minute.” 

Josh: In the book, you describe powerfully the impact of Frank Wilkinson’s visit to your high school. Were there other people who influenced your desire to look deeper at sports and the world in general?

Eric: I already mentioned my Grandpa Murray. He was a huge influence on that. All four of my grandparents were, really. As were my parents. I think a lot of the best nonfiction writing comes from a place of curiosity. For me the thing I was curious about was sports. 

Josh: The book is elevated by an expert and lyrical command of the world of sports that resides at the center of this story about so much more. I can assure you (as the son of a politically radical sociologist who was flabbergasted by his sons’ interest in sports) that the call in the book to look deeper at everything we are cheering for would have rung emptily had not it been issued by someone who knows deeply why we cheer and what we’re cheering for.  So a few questions about your fandom. When did you start cheering?

Eric: Honestly I can’t remember not being a sports fan, and especially a baseball fan. 

Josh: Who were you cheering for (team, favorite player)?

Eric: Unsurprisingly it was the Dodgers. I loved the early to mid-90s Dodgers teams. The rookies of the year, all of it. Eric Karros had my name. Raul Mondesi was probably my favorite player in the world. Hideo Nomo. It was a great team to grow up with. 

Josh: Why were you cheering?

Eric: I felt like the Dodgers both belonged to me and were a reflection of who I was. I loved going to the stadium. I loved watching games on TV and listening to Vin Scully. I loved the magic of it, and I loved the actual on the field baseball. It used to be that at Dodger Stadium you couldn’t walk down to levels that were lower than the one on your ticket. But my friends and I learned how to sneak from the upper deck to the field level and right up to the first row or wherever, and the amount of work that took felt like some kind of investment, like because we were willing to do that, then obviously on some level the team *belonged* to us. 

Josh: What does your sports fandom look like now?

Eric: It’s so different. The fundamental things that made me a sports fan are still there, but if you spend ten years reflecting on sports fandom as part of your job, you are probably going to change the way you think about it. I’m a lot more turned off by negativity and booing than I ever guessed I would be. I’m a lot more cynical about the way that teams manipulate and exploit fans to make a buck. I’ve seen it from the inside, covered games and Spring Training and been in the clubhouse etc etc. But ultimately I’m still a really big sports fan. It’s still a way I bond with my friends and family and with my city. It’s still a big part of who I am.

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Theories of Child Development

January 31, 2019

unless

Kingdom Come

Three

My father was a reader. My father wanted the kingdom of heaven to come. He wanted it here on earth for everyone, and he believed in the possibility of it here on earth, and he wanted to understand how it could happen, and why it hadn’t happened, and why there was injustice and inequality and suffering, and what was to be done. And so he read.

He read big, bursting novels as a child, Dumas and Dickens and Balzac and Hugo, and then as a young man and for the rest of his life he read philosophers and poets and psychologists and economists and political scientists and environmentalists and anthropologists and, above all, sociologists. He read about suffering and happiness and sex and crime and education and music and war and the beginning of the world and the end of the world. He was in the middle of dozens of books when he died. Last week, on the day before we spread his ashes, I packed my father’s books into boxes, stripping out all his makeshift bookmarks, losing his place.

I found this marker within Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait. This relic from the long defunct Behavioral Science Book Club, is, as it happens, my cardboard twin, in that, judging from the date in the upper right corner, it probably came into my father’s possession within days of my birth, if not on the exact day.

We have some things in common, my cardboard twin and I, beyond both being a little over a half a century old. We both spent our life in the orbit of our father but obscured to him and him to us. With my cardboard twin and me there’s a persistent grasping, even as we begin to discolor with age, toward bringing the certainty of intellection to the unknowable mystery of the earliest years: my twin has the Theories of Childhood; I have all my cardboard markers, all these gods that came into my young hands in place of my father and long ago got stripped from whatever place they were holding. And with both of us there’s this sense of a debt, of a box forever unchecked, some part of life undone. Something is still to be delivered. Something is still to be received.

(continued)

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Untitled

December 18, 2018

brothers

Played

3.

Over Thanksgiving at my mom’s house I filled up a large cardboard box with some of my father’s books, most of them thicker and heavier than bricks. On the day we left, as I struggled with the box’s ungainly size and weight down the uneven stone path to the driveway, it occurred to me that I was carrying my father, that all the tomes I vowed to read to somehow keep him alive were probably in total about as heavy as his withered body as he lay in the ICU with his eyes closed and snorted in his last breath.

The photograph at the top of this page is from our Thanksgiving visit, the first one without him. He’s in this picture, in a framed photograph on the right side of the mantle. It’s from his 90th birthday party. All his siblings were gone by the time of that party, but Paulina, the wife of his closest brother, Dave, was there. She also came to his funeral and talked about her earliest memories of my father. She would come into Manhattan to visit Dave at the apartment where he was still living with my dad and their mom, my grandma, and Paulina would wait as the two of them glowered intensely into books for their college studies at a table in the kitchen, and then, for a break, the three of them would go out into the evening and roam all over the city, stopping at every bookstore they saw, walking and talking nonstop about ideas and history and politics and art and books, books, books.

That’s me in the painting above the mantle, in the red bathrobe, attached at the shoulder to my brother and by my gaze to cartoons. My mom painted it 45 years ago. More recently, to entertain the second pair of brothers in the photograph, she created the fire glowing at the center of the photograph. She’s staring into the fire, so you can’t see her face, but her face as it was when she was a teenager, before her life caught fire, is visible in the portrait to the right of the big painting above the mantle. It’s one of the few portraits by my grandmother, who preferred to paint seascapes with no one in them. She must have wanted to capture something with the portrait of my mom, just like my mom wanted to capture something in the painting of my brother and me staring into a television, just like my wife wanted to capture something with this photo of our two sons in front of the fire, just like I want to capture something with these words about the brief fire of a human life. It plays warmly on our faces for a few moments.

(to be continued)

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Jim Christensen

December 10, 2018

Jim_Christensen_in_color_3

Played

2.

I wake up every morning and against my will play.

“Let’s play, Daddy. Daddy, let’s play. Daddy, Daddy. Daddy, play!

I’d rather not play. But I play. Lately it is Disasters (where I throw pillows and blankets at them and shout “tsunami!” or shake the bed and shout “earthquake!”) or Crazy Bonkers Disasters (similar to above but now volcanoes erupt peanut butter or we’re besieged with fartnadoes). It’s exhausting thinking up scenarios. I’m usually the conduit through which any given chapter of play begins to feel burdened with the gravitational pull of boredom. The chapter starts fraying at its edges.

“What now, Daddy? What do you want to play now, Daddy?”

“How about catch?” I say.

Uuuggghh—no!”

Seven years now I’ve been waiting to play catch with my sons, to fall into that soothing heartbeat rhythm of my own childhood. I was one of two brothers, just like my sons, just like John Christensen and Jim Christensen, and playing catch with my brother was more than a favorite activity for me. It was certainty itself. I wonder if that’s why John Christensen looks uncertain in his 1988 Topps card. He’s playing catch, or something like catch, but it’s not like it used to be. His brother isn’t there.

***

As noted on the back of John Christensen’s 1988 Topps card, John Christensen’s brother, Jim, once played minor league ball. Two baseball cards confirm this, one showing Jim on the Toledo Mud Hens in 1982 and the other capturing him in 1983 as a member of the Tacoma Tigers. I’m especially drawn to the latter card. For one thing, it shows him in his last season of professional baseball. That year, at Triple A, surrounded by once and future major leaguers, he hit .286 with 16 home runs and 58 RBI while splitting time between second base, shortstop, and third base. He was just 25 years old and had been showing a similarly valuable combination of pop in his bat and infielder versatility throughout his professional career, his 1983 batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage split of .286/.361/.450 in line with his overall career mark of .298/.361/.471. Why wouldn’t a player who could hit and play all around the infield not have gotten a shot at the majors? And why did he stop trying to do so? In 1983, the Tacoma Tigers’ parent club, the Oakland A’s, went nowhere, and their second baseman was Davey Lopes, who was 38 years old. The following year, they also went nowhere, this time with 40-year-old Joe Morgan at second. Why wouldn’t Jim Christensen have been given a shot, if not to unseat the geriatric carousel of 1970s National League West All-Stars than at least to battle the likes of Donnie Hill, Bill Almon, or Steve Kiefer for a spot on the bench? I don’t know why, but after 1983 he disappeared from public record, save for that note on the back of his younger brother’s major league card. He made that journey from playing, present-tense, to played.

***

I’ve only gotten my two sons to try throwing some sort of ball back and forth with me a handful of times, and each time has quickly devolving into a giggling, anarchic attempt by my partner or partners to drill the orb into my testicles. The preference around here is instead improvised narratives, fluid and frantic, hinging on hurricanes, jaguars, Pikachu, superheroes, collisions, connections, death, instant resurrection. I can sometimes lock in for a little while but my mind and heart ossified long ago when it comes to this kind of play. It’s pretty much all an effort. Play is work.

When did this happen? When did I stop playing? When did “I play” turn to “I played”?

***

I can’t hold the 1983 Jim Christensen card in my hands. But these days anything is available at some kind of remove. It’s easy enough to view Jim Christensen’s 1983 card online. You can even buy it. I considered doing that. I like Jim Christensen’s stance on that card: the classic infielder crouch. I like that his left foot is cut off by the border on the poorly centered card. I like that his eyes are not looking straight toward the viewer but are instead veering off to the side, giving him a look of melancholy distraction. He’s already thinking about what’s off to the side, out of the frame. There are fairly dark shadows cast by his arms and legs. There are two players off in the outfield beyond his right shoulder. He looks wiry and solid and quick, like he knew what he was doing on a baseball field. He looks like he was probably a good brother to have.

But I didn’t buy the card. I don’t really collect cards that way. I play with them.

I wanted to find a way to play with the Jim Christensen card. I wanted Jim Christensen himself to keep playing.

(to be continued)

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Mondale-Ferraro ’84

October 18, 2018

mondale-ferraro

In the first inning of Game 4 of the 2018 American league Championship Series, Jose Altuve struck a long, hard drive toward the right field stands because doing everything well on a baseball field, including hitting baseballs long and hard, is what Jose Altuve has been put on this earth to do. Mookie Betts sprinted toward the ball and made a perfectly timed leap because doing everything well on a baseball field, including sprinting fast and leaping high, is what Mookie Betts has been put on this earth to do.

What are the rest of us on the earth to do? I don’t know, but I guess most of my limited time has been spent watching, cheering, booing, feeling powerless, feeling amazed. Also: remembering. All the things that go into being a fan.

Mookie Betts was unable to catch Jose Altuve’s drive, apparently because a fan reaching for the ball caused Betts’ glove to close up just before the ball arrived. The initial ruling on the field was that this was a case of fan interference, and this call was confirmed by the remote team in the employ of Major League Baseball that is charged with reviewing such matters. If I were an Astros fan, I’m sure I would have been incensed by the ruling. But of course I was elated by it, because rooting arbitrarily for outcomes beyond my control to go one way and not another way is apparently what I’ve been put on this earth to do.

And now, the day after, I find myself thinking about the fan who became part of the game and, by virtue of the already classic status of the game, baseball history. He’s stuck in my mind because of his cap. As has been noted (but—to my astonishment—not at all delved into, or even wondered about!) in some recaps of the incident, the fan was wearing a “Reagan-Bush ’84” campaign cap.

Had I seen this cap in my young adulthood in New York City in the 1990s on, say, a skinny fellow with bad posture at a Pavement show, I would have read the cap as irony, but my guess is that it wasn’t worn in 2018 by this Houston Astros fan in irony but rather with straightforward nostalgia or perhaps more likely (judging that he wasn’t really old enough to remember that era) as an identifier, as in, This is who I am and this is the world I want: White American men reigning without ambiguity, without challenge.

So I don’t know, fuck that guy, I guess.

In 1984, I was 16, still too young to vote, but I would have voted for Mondale and Ferraro, those hopeless losers. God, they didn’t have a chance. That’s how it goes sometimes. The pendulum swings. But I didn’t know that then. I just thought there were winners and losers, and I had a pretty good idea which side I was on. Back then the Red Sox, those seminal shapers of my identity, were in a long, long stretch of, at least as I saw it, getting hosed continuously by “the breaks,” and in fact in 1986, right smack in the middle of the presidency championed by last night’s fan—just weeks before I cast at age 18 what I assumed, growing up rooting for Carter and Mondale, was a useless first vote in a November election—the Red Sox suffered the most painful chain of breaks of all when a series of relievers allowed a lead to erode and, finally, disappear altogether on a ground ball struck by a player named Mookie.

But that’s all in the past! Now even when a reliever looks for all the world to be on the Greyhound Bus to Schiraldiville, things somehow work out. Now the Mookies are on our side, hitting long hard drives and making impossibly difficult and beautiful plays in the field and even centering bizarre controversies that end up in our favor. So if that kind of thing can turn around, maybe other things can too.

What I’m saying is that a fan may or may not be something worthwhile to be, but all us fans, at least in the land of Mondale and Ferraro and Reagan and Bush and all manner of other absurdly divided polarities, still get a chance to be a part of the action, to determine the course of this game.

What I’m saying, among other things, I guess, since I’m feeling kind of hopeful today, is: vote.

rather

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Americans

June 26, 2018

Lazer_Moishe

Last Saturday night I dreamed about my father for the first time since he died. We were at a social gathering at someone’s house and it was time to go. He and I were going to walk together to the bus stop. Most of the dream slipped away from me upon waking, but I remember the feeling of assurance that he and I would be walking together. The bus stop was far way, but he would have the strength for the walk. We would walk. We would talk. But I got hung up in that house trying to find umbrellas for both of us. When I finally got outside with two umbrellas he had gone on ahead of me into the rain.

Later that day, Sunday, I told my older son what I could remember about the dream.

“But what happened next?” he said.

“Nothing. The dream ended. It changed to another dream.”

He looked at me with his blue eyes. Earlier in the night he’d been goofing around with crossing his eyes, and when he got tired of that he started messing with my watch, pulling the dial out to stop it. But he didn’t do any of that now. He just looked straight at me like the boys in the photograph at the top of this page are looking at you.

“Maybe you’ll dream the rest of it tonight,” he said.

***

My father is the younger boy, the one on the left. He’s about the age of my younger son, who just turned four, and the other boy, his brother Dave, my uncle, is two or three years older, about the age of my older son. The clothing they’re wearing seems like it’s from some far-off place. The photo was taken in 1928 or 1929, less than a decade after my grandmother and her two oldest surviving children, my Uncle Joe and Aunt Helen, fled the Galicia region in central Europe to reunite with my grandfather in New York City, who’d fled to America a few years before.

Fled.

As is common in the stories of how families come to live in America, fled is the correct word, illustrated most vividly by the family tale of the death of a third child born in Galicia to my grandfather and grandmother. In the story, which takes place during World War I, a soldier entered the inn run by my grandmother’s family and demanded food. My grandmother was holding the baby in her arms. She said that they have no food, that the last group of soldiers coming through took it all. The soldier pressed the blade of a bayonet to her neck. She had blue eyes, my grandmother. Maybe the soldier noticed this.

“We have nothing,” she said.

The baby fell sick and died soon after. The story goes that the sickness began with the terror flowing from my grandmother’s arms into the soft, warm flesh of the baby.

It was a time and place for such stories, according to “The Jews of Galicia under Austrian-Polish Rule, 1867–1918,” by historian Piotr Wrobel:

Jews who remained in Galicia under Russian occupation [during World War I] faced a worse fate [than those who had fled to Austria]. Their status was “equalized” with the legal position of Russian Jewry. Galician Jews were removed from self-government bodies and the civil service, they could not live in the countryside nor leave their districts. Their civil rights were withdrawn and their religious sensibilities insulted. Frequently, they were accused of spying or siding with the enemy. Almost every Russian unit upon entering a city, and later the last units to depart it harassed and robbed the local Jews. Some of these events turned into regular pogroms, which lasted several days and caused the death of many Jews. Collective responsibility was enforced; Russians took hostages and executed innocent people to terrorize the civilian population. The Jews were harassed also by bandits in “no man’s land” between the fighting armies.

***

Sunday, after I woke from my dream, the sun came out and stayed out. We went for ice cream. I got a chocolate cone and finished my younger son’s chocolate cone too. After that we went to a playground. My boys played together on a structure that they pretended was a spaceship and I sat on a bench with my wife. I looked at her and at my boys and could not understand what I’d done to deserve a day like this, a life like this. After a while she and I started looking at her phone for ideas for a sign to bring to a protest march next week. But I don’t know how to put what I’m feeling into words.

***

Neither boy in this torn photograph is smiling. Dave’s chin is tucked in, his head down just slightly, so he’s looking up at the camera a little, giving his expression a tone of intensity. He’s not without some apprehension, even fear, but he also seems determined. His hand is on the outside, covering the younger boy’s hand, protecting it. The younger boy, my father, seems more open, curious. The world for him would not be something to withstand, like a blow, and then overcome, but something forever baffling and amazing.

The two boys will discover the world together. They’ll discover art and books and Bach and Handel. They’ll discover beauty. They’ll survive their impoverished childhood, as will my Uncle Joe and Aunt Helen, but two of their siblings will not (in addition to the baby who died in Galicia, another baby will die in New York City). They’ll survive the Depression. They’ll survive the suicide of their father. They’ll serve their country during World War II. They’ll find work and work hard and find love and love deeply. They’ll have children of their own. They’ll have grandchildren. They’ll grow old.

At the end of Dave’s life, my mother drove my father to see him. Dave was just about gone, unable to talk, unable to open his eyes to see his brother one last time. My father reached out and held his brother’s hand. My father hummed Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” As he hummed he began to feel something in his own hand. His brother’s hand was moving to the rhythm of the song.

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Fred C. Harris and Brendan C. Boyd

April 13, 2018

harris and boyd

Here are several things wrong with The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book:

  1. The title. Good lord, what a long and difficult to remember title! I’ve been steering people toward it for many years, and for most of those years I had to look up the title every time. And that’s just when I was steering people toward it in writing. Whenever I had the ill-advised compulsion to recommend it verbally, I would get about halfway in and abandon ship. “The Great American Bubble . . . uh, the Baseball Card Trading . . . ah, fuck it, never mind.”
  2. The fact that two guys wrote it. Good literature can’t be co-authored; the medium depends too much on the singularity of voice. Somehow, however, Fred C. Harris and Brendan C. Boyd did it. The interplay of their voices seems exactly like what I imagine was the genesis of the book: two men in their late twenties cracking each other up late into the night over beers, reminding me of all the nights I got drunk and talked and laughed with my friends in the back of the International Bar near the pulsing jukebox and seemingly so far from the era of our childhood that we usually ended up talking about, just like Fred C. Harris and Brendan C. Boyd.
  3. Its lack of structure. Slapped between its covers are two longer essays in the front, one short essay in the back, and a bunch of scattered sketches in the middle. The essays are probably just fine—I don’t remember. I haven’t read them since I first read the book. On the other hand, the sketches, which take up under a hundred total pages—some pages jammed with text and the cards they’re describing, others with just a few words and asymmetrical chasms of white space, still others that are odd little thematic one-offs, such as a page with pictures of umpires backed by the word “Boo” repeated over and over, another populated by a long list of baseball nicknames—have brought me back countless times, never in any particular order. You can just open the book like the I-Ching and read any sketch and be lifted smiling out of the unstructured malaise of life. (It’s also arguably the world’s greatest book to read on the shitter.)
  4. The lack of an overarching narrative. All my favorite books—On the Road, The Catcher in the Rye, A Fan’s Notes, Jesus’ Son, The Basketball Diaries, A Mother’s Kisses—grab me and pull me through the story of a life. This book doesn’t bother with that. Why then do I love it so much?
  5. That it may have caused me to waste my life. I first read it in the late 1990s, on the recommendation of one of my International Bar cronies, Pete. I was about the same age as the authors, and their hilarious, skewering odes to the journeymen of their childhood surely had something to do with my decision, a couple years later, to stave off insanity while spending a winter in a cabin with no electricity or running water by writing about my own childhood journeymen in a notebook by the light of a kerosene lamp. It’s been nineteen years now, and I’m still writing about my journeymen. The longhairs who wrote this book did it once, got it right, and moved on with their lives. I keep trying to get it right, but the truth is no one will ever do it as good as these guys did.

* * *

In related news, I’ll be appearing alongside some great writers—Dan Epstein, Joe Bonomo, and Ricky Cobb—and will be reading from my own work and the miraculous output of Fred C. Harris and Brendan C. Boyd this coming Tuesday, April 17, at the American Writers Museum in Chicago. For more details please check out the link here.

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Louis Wilker

January 24, 2018

FOR YOU Louis ver 1[1].2

Louis Wilker, 92, of Asheville, NC, died on Sunday, January 21, 2018, at Mission St. Joseph Hospital in Asheville after a stroke.

Louis was born on the Lower East Side of New York City on February 23, 1925, the sixth and final child of Charles and Lillian Wilker, who had emigrated from Galicia, a region in the Austro-Hungarian Empire that is now a part of Poland. Three of his siblings were also born in Galicia. One sibling (name unknown) died in early childhood in Galicia, and another, Molka, died in infancy in New York City.  Louis was also preceded in death by his sister, Helen, and his brothers, Joseph and M. David.

Louis married Jenny Squires in Wilton, Connecticut, on July 4, 1964. He is survived by Jenny and by their two sons, Ian and Josh, and by their four grandchildren, Evan, Theo, Jack, and Exley.

In 1943, Louis graduated from Stuyvesant High School in New York City. The following year, he enlisted in the United States Navy, where he completed radioman school and served as a Seaman, First Class. He was awarded the American Theater Medal and the Victory Medal and received an Honorable Discharge in 1946. In 1949, he graduated cum laude with a bachelor of science in social sciences from the College of the City of New York (CCNY). Upon his graduation he was awarded membership in the Phi Beta Kappa society and won the Alvin Johnson Prize Scholarship for graduate study at the New School.

Instead of pursuing graduate studies at the New School, Louis entered the work force, working for five years as a project director in the consumer research department at Grey Advertising, where he headed up such projects as a 1955 interview-based study of the consumer brassiere market. In 1957, he began graduate studies at New York University. At NYU, he served for several years as an associate research scientist supervising a large-scale statistical-ecological study of juvenile delinquency in New York City. The project would have been the basis of his doctoral dissertation, but several years into the study, funding for the study was suspended. Louis completed all requirements for a PhD except for the dissertation.

Throughout his career as a sociologist, he used his deep understanding of sociology and his prodigious abilities as a researcher and team leader to help make society better and more just for everyone, focusing his efforts especially on helping those beset by the pronounced poverty he had experienced while growing up in the Depression on the Lower East Side. From 1970 through 1976 Louis worked as the Assistant Director of Research at the New York City Department for the Aging, where he supervised the implementation and analysis of a major social survey of the elderly living in poverty and developed techniques for assessing the needs of the elderly in these areas. From 1976 through 1980, while serving as the Director in the Performance Evaluation Program at the New York State Division of Criminal Justice, Louis supervised a research team providing recommendations in such areas as family court, juvenile corrections, and child abuse and neglect. From 1980 until his retirement in 1990, he was the Director of the Program Planning Unit for the New York City Agency for Child Development, where he led a team that researched, evaluated, analyzed, and developed agency response to state and national legislation impacting child care in New York City, most significantly providing scientific, data-driven advocacy for the Head Start program.

Louis was also a highly valued mentor to many fellow social scientists, scholars, and political activists. “He was my sociologist,” remarked Theodore D. Kemper, author of the groundbreaking sociology book A Social Interaction Theory of Emotions. As Kemper wrote in the preface to that book, which pioneered the field of the sociology of emotions, “The first definite formulation of the theory of social relationships of this book emerged for me in conversations with my friend and colleague Louis Wilker. Without the many occasions when he and I sought to obtain a clearer understanding of social psychology, this book could not have been written. I owe him a debt of deep gratitude.” A similar sentiment was expressed by his wife, Jenny, in the preface to her doctoral dissertation on the artist Honoré Daumier, Daumier’s “Histoire Ancienne”: “To Louis Wilker, for his knowledge of social theory, exceptional skills as patient and critical listener and reader, and stalwart encouragement, I dedicate this work.”

Louis played the recorder and loved to listen to classical music, most especially the music of Bach. He loved movies from the time, as an eight-year-old, he saw the original King Kong in the theater. He also enjoyed going on long walks ever since he was a child, his favorite walk from childhood onward being the one that took him from Lower Manhattan all the way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the Upper East Side. At the Met, throughout his life, he liked to silently and deeply “converse” with his favorite painting, the 1660 self-portrait by Rembrandt. He continued his love of art, music, movies, and even long walks all the way to the end of his life, when he made his way up and down the hills of Asheville to get from the home he shared with Jenny all the way to the Greenlife Grocery Store to have a coffee, perhaps read a little from a massive tome on Marxist sociology or World Systems Theory, or perhaps just reflect on the beauty and mystery of life.

The family will be planning a memorial gathering in Louis’s honor in the spring so that family and friends from far away might be able to come. In lieu of sending flowers, please consider donating in Louis’s honor to one of the organizations Louis supported:

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Tanner Boyle

July 8, 2017

1977toppsBoyle

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training hit theaters 40 years ago today. It was a haphazard sequel, a degradation, a mess. It was also, for me, pure joy. I wrote a whole book on it!

Because of Tanner Boyle, I’d argue that it might even have within it some lessons we could use today. For example, when everything is falling apart, what do you do?

Tanner Boyle knows. As I explain in my celebration of the film, he simply refuses to go along with the bullshit. Tanner Boyle resists.

In 1977, everything was unraveling. Families, hopes, econ­omies. What to do? Some drifted, others flailed. The over­whelmed president seemed to be aging at an alarming rate. Skylab, a dull echo of the space program’s earlier glory, circled the globe in a repetitive, empty progression toward the inevi­table disintegration of its orbit. Everyone stared at TV reruns.

Who wouldn’t capitulate if authorities in suits appeared and reported that time had run out? If they pointed to their watches and said, apologies, the game is over, please clear the field, who wouldn’t exhale and maybe grouse or grieve but then obey?

The climactic game in the exemplary film from an era of unraveling reaches this exact point. The Bad News Bears are waved off the plastic Astrodome turf by men in charge. Not all of the innings have been played, but the game was always really more of a product than a game, a Budweiser promotion jammed in the middle of a major league doubleheader, and the allotted time for this promotion has been exhausted. It is time, boys, to accept your inconsequentiality and give up and go home.

With varying intervals of hesitation, the Bears begin to comply. Toby, Jimmy, Jose, Miguel, Ahmad, Engelberg, Ronzonni. Even Kelly Leak, the previously untamable rebel, shuffles off the field to the dugout, passing the Bears’ new coach, his estranged father, Mike Leak, who argues with the umpires briefly, to no avail. Is this the beginning of the end for Kelly Leak? Will this capitulation in a time of unraveling be the first of many in a life that will in turn grow smaller and smaller as it goes on, the seeming infinity of roads once at Kelly Leak’s fingertips shrinking eventually to a repetitive strip of pavement from rental dwelling to wage-slavery and back, again and again until the final capitulation?

It might have been the end, for Kelly and for us all, if not for Tanner Boyle. The line score of the game on the giant scoreboard in centerfield has vanished. A message has ap­peared in its place thanking the Bears and their apparently victorious opponents, the Toros. The expanse of Astroturf is empty except for one small boy at shortstop.

“Hey, where’s everybody going?” Tanner Boyle yelps. Ev­eryone else has quit, but he’s holding his ground. I’ve watched The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training a lot, repeatedly, chronically. But I still get tears in my eyes when it comes to this. Is everything unraveling? Is it all over and done? Tan­ner’s piercing voice rings out in the vast sterile space of the Dome.

“We’re not finished!” he says.

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Larry

December 9, 2016

larry

Ngai and I were working the Saturday night shift. This was in the early 1990s, before you could read things like this on the internet. Before the internet. I sat on the stool behind the counter up at the front of the store, gazing warily out the store window at the river of shitheads streaming up and down Eighth Street.

Stay away, I prayed.

I leaned against a thin vertical slat of wood in the shelves between the half pints and pints. The tops of several tacks pushed into my back. They held up photos. I knew the photos by heart at that time, thanks to all the long blank spans of time during my shifts at that liquor store, but I can’t remember them anymore.

I have to imagine myself swiveling on the stool, away from the staggering, wanting pedestrians out on Eighth Street. I look once again at those curling photos. I see photos of clerks who’d worked there before me, young men dazed, young men smiling, young men waiting like I was, a year or two or ten, for something to pull us along to somewhere else.

***

The card fragment at the top of this page, the handiwork of my younger son, is of a player named Larry. I found it on the carpeted basement floor of our condo last Saturday night while I was playing with my older son. He has several construction vehicles that he refers to as the Bob the Builder team, after a show he watches, and he likes me to pretend I’m the one called Scoop and get into dangerous situations. We do virtually the same scenario again and again. When I found this scrap of card on the carpet, I seized on it like a starving man might seize a sandwich.

When people tell parents of young children that “it all goes by so fast,” they aren’t remembering the many eternities of exhaustion and anxiety and boredom, those stretches of time that seem to slow to something beyond time altogether. But of course I know someday this will all be gone, and it will seem to have passed like nothing. I know this time with my boys is the golden era of my life, what I was always waiting for when I was waiting for my life to begin.

***

I see among the photos on the slat of wood between the half-pints and pints one of the owner, Morty, with his friend Larry.

Morty is wearing a Silver Surfer T-shirt, a clerk’s ironic tribute to Morty’s Silver-Surfer-like bald dome and to Morty’s habit of wearing any T-shirt thrown his way.

“What do I give a shit what I wear?” he would crow.

In the photo he’s got his mouth open, words pouring out. This also matches the figure on his shirt, whose agonized metallic face is open in a howl.

“I will endure!” the Silver Surfer vows.

In the photo, Morty is flanked by his friend Larry. Larry’s full head of close-cropped hair is flecked with silver. His clothes are impeccable. His mouth is closed, his chin upraised.

Both men are solid as granite.

***

It took me a few minutes, but with the sparse hints—the mention of 1976, the ERA numbers, perhaps even the word Championships, more than anything the fact that his first name was Larry, narrowing the possibilities considerably—I guessed the full identity of this Larry. Can you? That’s about as far as most internet posts go, right? Trivia lobbed forth in hopes of what? Hits? But instead of piecing together a whole, I want to dwell in the fragmentation, in that brief moment when I didn’t know who this Larry was. When Larry could be Larry, just Larry. Any Larry.

***

That Saturday night as I sat on the stool up front, gazing at the photos between the half-pints and pints, Ngai was in the back of the store, leaning on the edge of Morty’s desk. He was flicking open a gravity knife and closing it and flicking it open again.

The phone behind the cash register rang. I picked it up.

“Eighth Street,” I said.

“Josh, Lar.”

“Larry!”

“Listen. I want you to bring me up two rolls of quarters.”

“Quarters? Quarter-pints, you mean?”

In the back of the store, Ngai turned the blade of his knife back and forth, looking at it.

Or maybe this wasn’t the time when he was into gravity knives. Maybe this was when he got really into origami. Maybe he was holding a tiny paper flamingo in his hands, turning it back and forth. Who can remember?

***

Last week my wife and I decided to subscribe to the Sunday New York Times. I had been reading some stuff about how now more than ever there should be an effort to support journalism. I don’t hold to the illusion that we’ll be getting more than fragments of the world in the New York Times, but at least it’s a start, a way to expand my general habit of randomly absorbing fakery and mongering and trivia.

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom,” wrote Yale history professor Timothy Snyder last week. “If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”

So this past Sunday morning I got up with my youngest son at around six in the morning and for the next couple of hours kept looking out the window to try to see whether our newspaper had arrived. I didn’t want someone to swipe it. Nowadays who knows what people will do?

***

Eventually Ngai looked up at me, wondering what was being asked of me through the phone. The Saturday night shift at the liquor store was all about weathering volatile requests.

“Larry?” I said. “You still there?”

“This motherfucker,” Larry finally said.

“Let me talk to him,” Ngai said.

“I know he’s the one,” Larry said. “Quarters, Joshua, you hear me? Two rolls of quarters, one for each hand. I’m gonna cave this cocksucker’s head in.”

***

Maybe I’ll leave the story there, with Larry asking me to deliver him two rolls of quarters, with me years later holding my youngest son and peering out the window on the lookout for a newspaper thief and thinking of Larry. That’s what had happened so many years before to Larry. Someone had started stealing his New York Times. That Saturday night when he called the store he had decided who the perpetrator was and had decided what he was going to do to the perpetrator.

Why of all things does that story stick with me, the one when he called up and asked me to deliver him ballast for his fists?

The world is always falling apart, and we’re powerless to stop this, but it has always been pleasing to me in my powerlessness to imagine Larry, solid as granite, roaring out of his apartment in his bathrobe to catch a newspaper thief red-handed. It’s pleasing to me to imagine him with those rolls of quarters in his large hands.

You’re in for it now, motherfucker, I like to think.

***

The last time I saw Larry was at Morty’s memorial. That was a few years ago. He came to the memorial with Ngai. It was at the apartment of one of the former clerks. There were photos all over the walls, some of them the same as the photos that had been tacked up at the store. I’ve mentioned this before a while back, but Larry started crying as he looked at a photo of Morty.

“I miss you, you old fuck,” Larry said.

When the memorial was over Ngai and Larry left together. I can’t remember the details of that memorial that well, but I think Larry was having a little trouble walking, and Ngai was helping him. Years earlier, Ngai had been the one who’d been able to calm Larry down, to convince him that he shouldn’t use two rolls of quarters to cave in the newspaper thief’s face. So maybe that’s where I’ll leave this story, with Larry leaning on Ngai as both move slowly out of the memorial, out of sight.

Everything will be reduced to fragments, and then it will disappear. How are you holding it together?

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Failures Anonymous

June 17, 2016

Josh little leagueThanks to everyone who responded to my attempt to give away some copies of my latest book. Several people were kind enough to leave some good words about my previous book, Cardboard Gods, on Amazon. If you’re one of the heroic review-posters, please drop me a line if you haven’t done so already so that I can burden you with a copy of Benchwarmer.

A few brave fellows responded to my call for stories to failure. These pleased me to no end, and in hopes that you’ll be able to experience, as I did, the cumulative effect of having multiple stories of losing wash over you, I’m posting excerpts below in the manner of support group anonymity. I like to imagine that we’re all in this together, telling our tales of woe.

The first excerpt below is not a story but strikes me as a perfect opening note to our failures anonymous meeting. The other stories are all in the general vicinity, age-wise, of the picture shown here (me on deck, circa 1979 or thereabouts).

Ryan C.:
There’s failure, and then there’s failure. People tend to focus more on the latter, the spectacular demonstration that a person’s skills fled at the most inopportune moment, or maybe that the person never really had the required skills in the first place. But the former seems more like the kind you draw a narrative from and that you highlight from your own life. It’s that kind of failure that isn’t going to make any highlight reels, that doesn’t exactly surprise anyone, and that quietly reminds us that we’re all getting older, farther and farther from the days when would could have deluded ourselves into expectations of success, maybe even had the talent to achieve that success. Then there’s the one moment we have to realize it’s slipped away, and we’ve become Uncle Rico.
Robert B.:
It was probably my 5th game as a starter, and things went wrong big time. A few balls turned into several more. After walking a couple guys, true panic set in, and each pitch, though aimed with increasing tension and frustration, continued to miss the mark.  It slowly turned into the meltdown and end of a future major league strikeout king.  After walking something like 7 or 8 batters without a single strike, my father, our coach, mercifully pulled me.  The experience was so scarring and terrifying that I never asked to be on the mound again after that; my career as a pitcher was over. I also played catcher and outfield to some small degree of success that season, but mentally I had quit the game. I was just too young and immature to understand that those failures are what make one great and separate; had someone adequately explained that all the best players went through something similar, and with more maturity, I might have surmounted it.

 

Seth R.:
My final game was only a few weeks into the season. I had tripled and was waiting on 3rd with nobody out. The pitcher threw a wild pitch that went to the backstop, so I bolted down the line hoping to score. The catcher raced back to recover the ball, grabbed it, and came up ready to throw to the pitcher covering the plate. So in that instant I decided to drop down into a feet-first slide. However, as I was dropping, the catcher lowered his arm, having decided that there was no chance to throw me out. Therefore, I decided not to slide, and I tried to stop my slide by planting my right foot into the ground and stand back up. My foot got caught, because there was no stopping gravity, and was pulled underneath the full weight of my body, twisting backward and making a loud cracking sound as I “slid” across the plate. I rested there, on the plate, looking up into the eyes of the umpire, who slowly spread his arms wide, signaling that I was, indeed, safe. The look on his face was one of confusion, whereas the look on my face was one of desperation, as I tried to speak to him, to tell him what had just happened, but I was incapable of speech. I sat there for what seemed like a few minutes, until my coach jogged out onto the field and helped me limp into the dugout.

 

David D.:
Just as people remember the questions they get wrong on a quiz, not those they answer correctly, I recall only one batter I faced that afternoon. (Should I ever forget, I have the home movie to jog my memory.) The hitter was large, one of those “he can’t possibly be 12 years old” boys who shows up in every kids’ league, though never on your team. Nearly as wide as he was tall, he didn’t have to move forward in the batter’s box to crowd the plate.

Being smarter than I was skilled, I kept my first few pitches outside, missing the plate with a couple, catching the corner with a couple more. Each time, the batter leaned a little further over the plate, until he resembled a pre-teen with lumbago. The thought entered my head that if I could put a fastball on the inside corner, he’d never get around on it.

It was a good idea, but my pitch was less a fastball than a get-there-eventually-ball. It took long enough to arrive that Paul Bunyan had time to size it up, step so far into the bucket that he was practically facing me, and crush the ball to dead center: over the fence, over the dirt road, over the embankment . . . and over all 10 lanes of the freeway. He circled the bases to the delighted shrieks of his teammates, while I stared north, trying to determine how long it would take me to walk as far as he’d just hit the ball, and resisting the temptation to abandon the pitcher’s mound and try it. And my father caught every ignominious moment on film.

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Calling All Benchwarmers

May 19, 2016

basketball card frontHere are some things I must tell you:

  1. I wrote an encyclopedia of sports failure.
  2. It’s also a memoir and enabled me to process becoming a father, which has been the best thing that has ever happened to me and also caused me to lose my marbles.
  3. It’s called Benchwarmer.
  4. It makes a great gift for fathers; sports fans; fans of anecdotes about fellows who warmed the bench for forlornly inept northern New England NAIA basketball squads; aficionados of tales involving the ghostly facsimile of Calvin Schiraldi as some sort of oblique harbinger of encroaching insanity; nickname buffs who might be pleased by an inordinate amount of text given over to early NFL nonentity Walter “Sneeze” Achiu; or people who like things organized alphabetically.
  5. It’s available at book stores, theoretically, and also via the magic of online shopping.
  6. I had night terrors as a child.
  7. Sometimes I would halfway wake up and feel myself on the border of these night terrors. Usually this would be followed by the night terrors. But occasionally I was able to ward them off by reading copies of Sports Illustrated.
  8. Years later, Sports Illustrated said that my encyclopedia of failure was “funny, enchanting and lyrical. Painfully familiar.”
  9. Between now and Father’s Day, I will be giving a limited amount of free copies away, which I will sign and personalize to whatever extent you would enjoy such a magnificently generous service.
  10. I will not give them away arbitrarily, which would only support the disquieting notion that ours is a wholly random universe, bereft of the comfort of order, upon which all religions of the world are built.
  11. Instead, I will require that you follow one of two paths, which will be active routes to a copy of my book as long as supplies last:
    1. If you are perhaps a fan of my earlier book Cardboard Gods, you could express your appreciation in the form of an online review at this obscure website. There is some urban lore that fifty reviews of a book will put in motion secret inexorable processes on the website in question that will lift the book far above the infinite sea of luckless books with fewer than fifty reviews and thus catapult the author of said book to certain riches and fame beyond his wildest dreams. As of this writing, the book is on the cusp of this transcendent plateau with 49 reviews, most of them favorable, although there are also a couple of one-star stinkers that really hurt my feelings.
    2. If you would rather not enable this ethically dubious groveling for online reviews, you may also enter the running for a free book by trading me a story for it, specifically a story about sports failure. Please make it the worst sports failure you ever participated in, either as an athlete yourself or as a fan. I will send you a book and, if you’re willing, post your story on this site. If you prefer this route, please see my contact info in the sidebar of this site, right near the threatening words flung at me by Don Stanhouse.
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Team Spaceman

April 21, 2016

team shaqbox

When I was a kid I used to put my cards into teams sometimes. I usually bought two packs from the store, so I’d pit one pack against the other. Or did I? Who even remembers. It sounds like something I might do. Anyway, I know I played with my cards. I still play with my cards. It always helps. When you’re feeling anxious, or depressed, or whatever—when you feel like you can’t fucking deal—stop and play with your cards a little.

I got ten cards in the mail recently, from Jesse Spector, who has a podcast built around talking to people about baseball cards. While I was waiting to talk to him I divvied up the cards we were going to talk about. Some guys were out of position—specifically in the outfield, though Yaz did log 165 games in center over his career; and Bill Lee, who loves to play—that word again, play—all phases of the game, surely has logged at least ten times that many games in the field in his post-major-league career as a world-traveling semi-pro ecstatic (and in this clip, at about the 20-second mark, he describes the way he wants to die, and it is as a right-fielder); and Mark Fidrych, who considered himself an outfielder as much as a pitcher when he first turned pro and had to be convinced otherwise.

I don’t know how this team would do. Better than some. Yaz, Grich, John Valentin: pretty strong up the middle. A team with the Bird and the Spaceman would be in good spirits, you’d think. The team could unravel of course, what with futility-magnet Eugenio Velez and the lifetime leader in bad luck, Anthony Young. The team would have a spastic, hesitating backbone in poor Mackey Sasser, owner of arguably the saddest of all baseball yips (in that it was the only one to rear its head outside of an action moment). But who know, maybe Balboni would go yard. With Balboni, there’s always hope.

To listen to my conversation with Jesse Spector about these cards, go here. You can follow along and look at the cards discussed here.

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White Shadow memories: #1

March 24, 2016

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In tribute to the late, great Ken Howard, and his fictional counterpart Ken Reeves, I’m spending the day counting down my ten favorite White Shadow memories (previous memories: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2).

1. The guys go golfing.
This one eventually got into a serious issue—racism, specifically the racism of a country club attempting to get the coach to join—but up to that point the show was pure pleasure, featuring the coach and my three most favorite players just goofing around. This is why I watched the show, to hang out with these characters. The scene I remember the most is in the clip below and contains Thorpe’s explanation of the difference between the course at hand and “the course I usually play”—my favorite line in the history of television.