Archive for the ‘Unsortable Prayers’ Category

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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.