Friday, January 28, 2011

Mark is Worse Than Your Bite

Well, my Puddlers, we made it through another week surviving, snow, hail, rain, mild air, thunder and lightning, which all occurred in one bizarre night.  We also fought off all those ghosts, thieves, poets, lawyers, teachers and gravediggers that we encounter in our daily travels.  If you don't get that, then you should read my list from yesterday and do some research on the "Scylla and Charybdis" episode of Joyce's Ulysses.

In New York, it looks like it is going to be warmer this weekend than it was than last weekend.  And because of that, Mark Jack is more worked up than he has been in weeks. So, without further ado, I leave you with Mr. Mark Jack. Enjoy the weekend.

Assertions: More Notes on American History

Mark Jack

A pink man, a soft-pink man sat near me today and stage-whispered to his companion some version of American History as only a gray headed, soft pink man can. An ideal, only vaguely concealed, ran skeletally through the narrative and was revealed toward the end of his little lesson. The thesis was unthinking and un-revelatory and its nature as conclusion/thesis was revealed as horrendously as the phalanges on some dog gnawed corpse. What point is there in never departing from one’s point, of using it as initiation, structure and conclusion? How must one approach such thought?

I’m thinking of a small, white dog, blinded by absurd stylization and breeding, with a high growl tugging furiously at the fingers of some never-really-alive soft pink man’s lecture with the intensity available to only such an absurd creature.

Our lust for historical causality in America is that of Europeans unmoored. We feel a deep history in this country as the amputee feels his missing limbs. What I cannot speak of is whether the phantom limb coincides with the prosthetic that was been subsequently inserted.

Americans tend to speak surely of the dates and geographies of historical play, but only assert the lessons, the wisdom of such obliquely. At the moment, America creates the space for concreteness as wisdom’s fount.  Once that space is created, the ideal is then inserted. Thus, we speak of intentions historically located and yet continuously present.  Thus, we place atop our heads the tri-corner hat and speak the slogans of change and stasis simultaneously. Where, though, is the crisis located? The tea party gave its own rebuttal to the President’s speech.

I mean…

We are vain and combative, and the President’s previous assertions of cooperation and global markets for product and compassion were, on Tuesday night, underscored by that great Americanism—competition.

Number One!

I watched the State of the Union via the live feed on I watched the enhanced version. This meant that beside the video of the President, a strange and halting PowerPoint presentation faded in and out, sometimes highlighting—by graph—a claim made by Obama. At other times, they just showed pictures of earlier speeches, as if to say,  “Look! Sometimes the president rolls his sleeves up and speaks to robust men in hardhats as well as speaking with a suit on to similarly suited men with hard hearts.” The graphs were my favorite feature as they operated through a certain wistfulness, showing what was and what should be in the USA Today language of diminutive conception. Here, the bar graph asserts, America’s gray bar is lower than China’s, and here, is where we should set our sites. The second graphic shows a gray bar higher than any other in the world. Is this perhaps, a performative utterance? Obama couches his speech in the grammar of future accomplishment, but the bar graph asserts differently. In positing our gray bar as higher than China’s, do we make it so?


Thursday, January 27, 2011

My Top 10 Influential Novels

These past few weeks, each time I post I feel like I am apologizing.  I made some big promises right before the new year about the changes that would be coming to Puddles and I haven’t exactly lived up to them as of yet.  These phases move slowly and recent developments at my day-job have kept me from moving them along at the desired pace.  However, here are a few updates:

1. Podcasts – We will resume doing podcasts as the weather starts to turn.  I need to brainstorm on some topics to discuss with old guests as well as compile and cajole new guests into doing the podcast.  I want to retool a little bit in order to get some humor and wider enjoyment out of each podcast. Look for new podcasts in March.

2. Free Forest City Redemption Project – This has been delayed, but I’ve taken a more hands-on approach to obtaining all the files and the first tracks should be posted in the second week of February.

3. Guest Writers – I am working on swindling and tricking guest writers into helping out with the content on the site. Mr. Mark Jack has been doing a fantastic job and Alex Ramsdell will occasionally drop his well-thought philosophical bombs on us from time to time.  However, we need more writers to create a greater variety of content and voices on Puddles. If you read this blog and are interested, you can also feel free to contact me and we can discuss an arrangement.

4. Fiction – This is the furthest off (as well as the Second Redesign), but the most important.  I fell in love with writing because of the art of fiction and my life is forever devoted to it.  I will be working on this vision non-stop.

With that update out of the way, let’s get to today’s post:

I’ve been looking at Puddles of Myself a lot lately. What I mean is that I have been regarding the site—the content, the organization, the visual appearance—and trying to figure out the impression that it leaves, the message that it sends to visitors.  I have been writing a lot about sports, music, TV and other random (sometimes funny) observations.  However, my identity as Matt Domino, as an emerging brand called Puddles of Myself, actually comes from my true passion, which is the art of writing and the art of completed fiction.  No matter what happens here, my only satisfaction will come from the legacy of my fiction.  That may sound like a daunting or perhaps depressing fact, but it is the only true thing that I can probably say to myself or to any person that I attempt to interact with.

What all this leads to is the fact that there are probably ten books that have directly influenced me as a lover of fiction and as an aspiring writer.  When you look at this list of ten books I know that there will immediately be some outrage.  You will claim that there is a lack of female writers; that most of the novels come from the Modernist period; that all of the books are from the western tradition.  And all of your observations will be true.  I came from a liberal arts education, so I have heard the full argument for reading fiction from all over the world, for not sticking with a set “canon”, for not even using the word “canon” to define literature.  However, I am who I am. I enjoy reading novels by white men from the western world because I am a white man from the western world and very often those white men put things into a perspective that can enlighten me.  I’ve read novels from Africa; I’ve read novels from India; I’ve read novels by women writers; I’ve read novels from the 17th century and I can assure you that they are pretty terrible.  I’ve read novels from the past ten to twenty years that focus on obscure countries and parts of the world, but leave you feeling sort of used and cheated, since they become platforms for enticing the reader using an exotic setting, for making the reader feel bad that he or she doesn’t know more about things that happen in the world and then leave the reader feeling self-satisfied, when he or she can turn to a friend or acquaintance and say that they know something.  I may be ignorant for saying so, but that is not the sort of fiction I enjoy reading.  That is not the fiction that made me fall in love.  If you read this blog, then you know that I feel passionately for and believe in only the things that move my soul and cause me to give word, to pass the story along about why this thing should be loved or known. I look for that quality in novels. I look for novels to move me to that frenzied pitch. I look for novels to teach me about the human soul and how we can move through the world and continue to be happy despite every sign and symbol that is there to confuse us.  These next ten novels have wholly influenced my viewpoint on life and on writing.

10. East of Eden - John Steinbeck

Why:  I first read this book in the tenth grade.  At that time it was probably the longest book I had ever read. There are a lot of people who think that John Steinbeck is overrated.  I don’t believe that.  He uses simple language that concretely draws you into the story and place.  His sentence structure isn’t as artful as Hemingway’s so he isn't as celebrated for his use of simple language and sentences.  East of  Eden is a chronicle of a family over time in America, specifically California but it is really a story about good and evil, which Steinbeck makes very obvious.  The fact that he makes it so obvious is what a lot of people criticized about the book. I just re-read this book last winter and, while the themes are up front, this book very much assimilates all of Steinbeck’s other works: kindness to strangers, the appreciation of hard work, the comic goodness of life, attention to family saga and sadness, biblical allusion.  It is very much a tale of America and I will always see it in my head that way.  In addition, the theme of the Hebrew word timshel, or “thou mayest,” perfectly sums up American history and perhaps History in general.  We all have the ability to change, no matter if we are marked with good or evil. We can make what we want of the world and the universe.  That is all very powerful and meaningful stuff.  When you add all of that soul-stirring material to the fact that I first read this novel after basketball practice, in the warmth and safety of my home, while listening to “Rain Song” by Led Zeppelin, you have to figure that its going to have an influence.

Basketball Equivalent: Tim Duncan.  There is nothing fancy about John Steinbeck’s writing, but book after book he gets it done just like Tim Duncan has in the NBA. Although,  I don’t see Steinbeck as a silver and black man (more of an orange or sepia and darker brown).  They both excel at the fundamentals and, no matter how much you want to write them off (as I have done with Duncan), you simply can't.  Each one can also flash surprise moments of brilliance, such as Steinbeck when Adam is dying in East of Eden and Tim Duncan when he nails a perfect 14 foot bank shot.

9. Desolation AngelsJack Kerouac

Why: Kerouac is criminally overlooked in the history of American literature and this is his best book by far.  While On the Road and Dharma Bums may be more polished, Desolation Angels is his most honest and visceral work (well, Big Sur may be more visceral but you can pick and choose).  The first part of the novel better exhibits Kerouac’s “first thought, best thought” philosophy more than any other part of his “Duluoz Legend.” The fragments of Kerouac’s happiness, isolation, paranoia, cosmic visions, and nostalgia for childhood, paint an accurate portrait of his (“the narrator’s”) psychology.  The middle section of the novel where Kerouac visits his various friends in the United States and abroad captures his “bop prosody” at its best as Kerouac drinks tokay in back alleys in San Fran, runs around jazz clubs in New York, takes an epic trip to Mexico and then a solemn car ride back, and drinks wine in a wealthy family’s home in Washington D.C. with Gregory Corso.  Kerouac’s love affairs in this novel are also his best written.  However, the real merit of the novel comes from the end where Kerouac starts seeing the sadness in the holy visions of his travels.  He even takes an ill-fated trip across country with his mother to show her what the joys of his life have been for the past decade.  He soon realizes the hollowness and the mortality of all he has loved.  There is a strange seriousness, an inevitability that pervades this novel – perhaps a Catholic guilt or weight – that makes it Kerouac’s best and most interesting work.  It had me endlessly contemplating becoming a wildfire watcher for most of my college summers, so that I could come back from isolation and spring upon the world.

Basketball Equivalent: Allen Iverson. Both Iverson and much of Kerouac’s work were misunderstood. Desolation Angels exhibits Kerouac’s firm belief and investment in a style that perhaps wasn’t going to pay off, the “instantaneous prose,” which is akin to Iverson’s belief in himself as the only way his team was going to win. Iverson’s plight was covered in Free Darko’s The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball and Kerouac’s has been discussed in about a dozen documentaries and among many college students and twenty-something hipsters.  They both could be explosive and retain a humble love of tradition.  Each one could bring you to enlightening moments of religious joy and pity in the strangest of times.

8. Look Homeward, Angel – Thomas Wolfe
Why: Thomas Wolfe’s sprawling account of his fictional alter-ego, Eugene Gant, is one of the best American novels that many colleges and universities seem to never want to teach.  Writers and artists are appreciated in cycles and Wolfe has been at the down point of the cycle for a long time, waiting to be rediscovered.  This was Wolfe’s debut novel and its story of a misunderstood, but passionate youth and his large, dysfunctional, but memorable family was something that I clung to in college.  This novel always reminds me of summer and it is the novel that I most closely associate with riding a train (although, Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again actually begins on a train).  Eugene is a sensitive youth that we watch grow from a young boy to an eccentric student and aspiring writer on his way to Harvard, leaving the South for the first time. There are terrific passages of small town life and family history and heritage that make you feel at times more a part of America than you have ever felt.  For me, though, it is the character of Ben, Eugene’s shadowy, stubborn older brother that sticks with me.  Ben chooses a solitary and hard life of work that Eugene admires and doesn’t quite comprehend.  Ben is the sibling that Eugene feels the closest to, yet Ben is so hard on Eugene because he wants to make sure he realizes his talent and doesn’t become trapped in the South, a slave to the whims and desires of his family.  It was Ben’s desire channeled through Eugene to be free of institutions such as family, a desire that spurned on Eugene’s own creative desire on, was something I related to in my brooding and drunk college years. I could go on and on about this book and it was just as good when I read it last spring.

Basketball Equivalent: Scottie Pippen. This comparison seems a little stretched as I am thinking about it now because I don't think that Wolfe could do everything in the way that Scottie Pippen could.  However, Look Homeward, Angel is often overlooked among the big boys of the era such as The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Winesburg, Ohio, and other books much as Scottie Pippen is overlooked among the other greats of his era just because Michael Jordan was his teammate.  Both Wolfe and Pippen had a Southern sensibility to them and came from humble beginnings to arrive at peak artistry. Scottie was a bit more economical in his game than Wolfe ever was in his epic tomes.

7. The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

Why: I still firmly believe that this book is Ernest Hemingway’s best novel. It is certainly, without a doubt, the quintessential expatriate novel.  I read this novel when I was studying in Ireland for the first time (a late bloomer, I know) and one night, while under the influence, flung it across the room and screamed, “This is not writing!” due to the simplicity of the sentences.  Yet, upon my next three subsequent readings, I have realized the true impact of it. It is in many ways a modernist novel with what must be inferred by the reader.  Its sentences, while seeming straightforward, actually contain strange structures and dictions that are certainly in line with something Joyce would have devised, though probably not as radical.  That the language is so simple is one of the things that brings you back to it.  Like many of the liquors the characters drink in the novel itself, it is a palette-cleanser.  While, and after, you are reading The Sun Also Rises the concept of writing becomes so much clearer.  You understand what can be done with language, with the economy of it, just as Joyce made you realize what could be done with the imagination of language. The novel is extraordinarily accessible and the characters are memorable.  Lady Brett Ashley is both the most annoying woman you’ve ever encountered and also a character who deserves some modicum of pity, someone you want to take care of, like so many women in the world.  Robert Cohn is like any third wheel friend you’ve ever had, yet you feel his plight as he is treated as an outsider.  Bill is one of the most underrated characters in fiction and he has a certain depth that develops over subsequent readings.  Mike and Pedro Romero are perhaps a little simpler and are drawn as somewhat on the opposite end of the spectrum for what can happen to a man.  And then there is Jake.  Jake who knows the world, who knows concierges, bartenders and waiters in France and Spain and New York who all remember him and treat him like a quiet friend.  There is something about Jake and the way he simply does work or reads or goes someplace to drink among the chaos that is so simple and seems to be something to strive for, even though his life is a mess.  The section where Jake travels alone after the fiesta and goes swimming and reads on the beach is some of the most poignant and surprising writing I have ever read.  Each time I read this book it surprises me even though it is so straightforward.

Basketball Equivalent: Bill Russell.  I have never watched footage of a Bill Russell game so I have always been averse to his status as perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time.  For a long time I never read a Hemingway novel so I was just as averse to the claim that he was the most influential writer in American literature.  Well, I have grown and I can admit that they are both extraordinarily influential in their respective fields – right down to their beards. If you ask smart basketball players who they would most like to emulate, they would say Bill Russell or Michael Jordan.  If you asked smart writers who they would most like to emulate, they would say Ernest Hemingway or James Joyce.  And Hemingway was never better than in The Sun Also Rises; it has everything that was Hemingway.

6. As I Lay Dying- William Faulkner

Why: Faulkner is one of my absolute favorite writers and this is my favorite book of his.  It contains everything that Faulkner aspired towards: family history, southern ignorance and pride, corruption, spiritual vision, varying perspectives, exploration of language, and exploration of consciousness.  Darl is one of Faulkner’s most interesting characters and, due to his level of intellectual and spiritual torture that he shares with Quentin Compson of The Sound and the Fury, was a huge influence on me as I was learning how to think and write and also how to create a “strange” character. The range of family perspectives is especially dazzling when Faulker switches from Vardaman’s simple, sometimes abstract voice, to Anse Bundren’s lazy, scheming mind and then to Cash’s honorable, straight-ahead, workman’s voice.  There is even a section devoted to Addie Bundren’s voice from the afterlife.  What makes a technique like that work is how much the rest of the novel is grounded in the hard world of the Bundren family and all of their beliefs and ignorances. When Addie’s voice is heard, you don't find it strange, you believe that a dead person would be able to think in the world that Faulkner creates, just as it might in our world.  There is a spirituality, a cosmic nature that inhabits these earthy characters and that was always something appealing to me.  That aspect as well as understanding why the technique itself worked helped me to learn more about being a writer. And beyond all of this, there is some truly beautiful and rhythmic writing throughout the book as well as some elemental statements about life.

Basketball Equivalent: Charles Barkley. The southern parallels are obvious, but its really the size I am referring to. Both Barkley and As I Lay Dying are compact but each are full of beauty and power.  Barkley was 6’4” but played like he was 6’8” or 6’9”.  He was a fierce rebounder, a prolific scorer and a fantastic passer—he just couldn’t play defense. Depending on edition, As I Lay Dying checks in at a shade under 200 pages, but the depth of the writing, the variety of the voices, the drama of the interactions between family members and their ill-fated journey makes it seem like so much more. Faulkner would make more complex works like Absalom, Absalom but he was never more concise, beautiful, difficult and powerful than he was here.  And like the novel, Barkley is also known to make elemental statements about life.

5. All The King’s MenRobert Penn Warren

Why: I’ve touched on the influence this novel has had on me on this blog before.  I first read the book in the first semester of my freshman year at Skidmore.  I read it in Professor Tom Lewis’ class, a professor who went on to be a big influence on my college career.  I had never heard of Penn Warren, but the novel immediately floored me. I still have visions of lying in my freshman room and turning page after page of the book.  I still remember how I was baffled, during my senior year, how sometimes I could feel so removed from things, like Jack Burden could.  How by just sticking my hands in my pockets, I could make myself clean of any external, dangling issues or consequences that I was somehow connected to.  The writing is poetic and dense, but is balanced by some of the most crackling dialogue in American literature.  Jack Burden’s narrative is endlessly entertaining and engaging.  You can’t help but be caught up in his history at Burden’s Landing and his oft-doomed love of Anne Stanton and his oft-doomed friendship with her brother Adam.  The character of Adam Stanton and his drive to work and do good has grown in stature each time I read the book.  Then, of course there is the looming figure of Willie Stark and his rise from a backcountry hillbilly to the governor of Louisiana.  Penn’s writing takes left turns and goes on tangents that end up becoming logically tied up and along the way he has shown you some truly mesmerizing images. There are endless quotes that I could list from the novel, ones that still baffle me, but there are some that will always ring true like this one:

"There is nothing more alone than being in a car at night in the rain. I was in the car. And I was glad of it. Between one point on the map and another point on the map, there was the being alone in the car in the rain. They say you are not you except in terms of relation to other people. If there weren't any other people there wouldn't be any you because what you do which is what you are, only has meaning in relation to other people. That is a very comforting thought when you are in the car in the rain at night alone, for then you aren't you, and not being you or anything, you can really lie back and get some rest. It is a vacation from being you. There is only the flow of the motor under you foot spinning that frail thread of sound out of its metal gut like a spider, that filament, that nexus, which isn't really there, between the you which you have just left in one place and the you which you will be when you get to the other place."

I just had to throw that one up there to exhibit the magic and the intoxication of a Penn Warren sentence.  All The King’s Men is a page-turner and it does have a dramatic ending.  However, the last pages stick in my memory all the time, as well as the description of the stormy nights at Burden’s Landing and of the vivid memories of Anne Stanton and Jack Burden’s love.

Basketball Equivalent: Grant Hill.  The glory of Grant Hill’s early career has long been forgotten, just as All The King’s Men is in many ways forgotten.  Hill had the skill and knowledge of the game of basketball that made him a poet, just as Robert Penn Warren was a poet.  However, Hill also had a muscularity to his game, an ability to take the team on his back much as Robert Penn Warren could undertake one of the best American novels of all time.  Each man was educated at a southern college that had a good basketball program (Hill at Duke and Penn Warren at Vanderbilt) and both were extremely well-educated and both well spoken.  I really like this one.

4. Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

Why: It may be a slight rip-off of Ulysses, but it is an extraordinarily beautiful book. The Waves may be more mesmerizing, ambitious and haunting, but Mrs. Dalloway reminds us about the joys of everyday life and how to appreciate all those people that pass through our lives.  In some ways, Woolf’s style in Mrs. Dalloway, though certainly reliant on Joyce’s breakthroughs, is more enjoyable than the shifting narratives of UlyssesMrs. Dalloway shifts between several perspectives, but does so in a more omniscient manner that is reminiscent of Tolstoy.  We seem to float from the mind of Clarissa, to Peter Walsh, to Septimus Warren Smith and then to his wife Lucrezia Smith.  The fact that Woolf completely commits to this approach and does it so fluidly is why the novel is such a success.  The party scene is especially a triumph as we get a brief glimpse into the mind of nearly every character that is mentioned in the novel.  The language, as it is in nearly all of Woolf, is poetic and lyrical—there is a reason she is known as perhaps the best lyrical writer in the English language.  There are terrific small moments like Peter Walsh sitting on the bench and falling asleep, Clarissa watching the woman in black go to sleep from her bedroom window and deciding that she must return to the party, Richard Dalloway’s quiet, but strong and honorable perspective and ultimately the struggles of Peter Walsh and Clarissa to think about their past love.  Woolf’s use of the stream of consciousness, especially in its Tolstoyan light, has been a huge influence on me as well as Woolf’s overall lyricism.

Basketball Equivalent: Bill Walton.  Walton, like Woolf was a lyrical writer, was a lyrical basketball player.  His ability to throw an outlet pass is the stuff of legend. He was graceful on the court and is looked at as the epitome of the passing big-man.  Like the stream of consciousness narrative in Mrs. Dalloway the game seemed to flow through Walton (again, see some great essay writing by Free Darko for more details) and then onto his teammates, making a fluid championship team such as the 1977 Portland Trailblazers were.  Walton and Dalloway both had their careers cut short.  Walton was oft-injured and only had about 4 “legendary” seasons.  Woolf, meanwhile was tortured by mental illness for most of her adult life and committed suicide.  The similarity there may be stretched, but you see where you could draw it nonetheless.

3. The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Why: It’s no secret that I love this book.  Mr. Marshak, my 11th Grade English teacher, was the person who first gave it to me.  I fell in love immediately.  Fitzgerald is a supremely talented writer and there is perhaps no American writer who wrote more beautifully than he did.  The whole idea underneath and throughout the narrative of The Great Gatsby of the night and the images that you see there among crowds of people at parties and of a green light that eternally blinks in the darkness, was immediately enticing to a day-dreaming and disillusioned teenager like myself.  I have read the book almost every year since 2001 and it has become embedded in my mind.  The ideas of America, of what the East means as opposed to the West, the vision of Old Manhattan, the vision, feel and smell of Old Long Island, are so vividly drawn.  The Great Gatsby is a novel that emits a perfume and you are immediately wrapped in its allure.  Much of that perfume stems from Nick Carraway’s narrative, which is at turns nostalgic, pensive, angry, joyful, empathetic, reserved and aloof.  Take for instance my favorite passage:

I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the soft twilight, but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild, strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

What doesn’t that quote tell us about life? About the beauty of the sentence in general?  About what we want and then immediately do not want?  And there are plenty more like that and each person has their own favorite.  Besides, no book perhaps ends more famously or elegantly than The Great Gatsby.

Basketball Equivalent:  Magic Johnson.  The only player that could match the elegance and beauty that Fitzgerald put on the page was Magic Johnson.  Magic’s passes were fine threads of beauty that made their way through defenders, across the polished wooden boards of the court and found themselves into the waiting hands of a teammate who simply had to drop the ball through the net without a sound.  “Showtime” brought the grace to basketball that Fitzgerald brought to the page.  Magic knew his history as did Fitzgerald.  Fitzgerald was perhaps more overshadowed in his realm than Magic Johnson will ever be in basketball, but you can’t deny that each man’s ability to make intense beauty out of his craft was and will, arguably, never be matched.

2. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

Why: What can you say about this novel? Perhaps I can say that the current incarnation of myself literally owes everything to the character of Levin.  Or perhaps that the scene where Kitty and Levin profess their love for each other is literally the perfect romance scene in literature or in reality (Tolstoy actually professed his love to his wife in a code of the first letters of different phrases that his wife completed).  Maybe we could discuss the fact that Oblonsky is one of the best comic characters in all of literature (better than Falstaff? Possibly.) and yet is so empathetic and drawn with a certain drama to him that balances out his character.  We could also just marvel at the scene where Oblonsky orders oysters.  How about the prolonged exile that Levin takes to his family’s farm where he tries to study the peasants?  Maybe this novel is so great because it takes place over such a large span of years and we get full views into different families and we see nearly all of the characters in some kind of dramatic relationship to each other.  Then there is also the fact that Anna herself is such an exasperating and irrational woman and yet remains compassionate and is looked to as a figure of reason and logic up until her demise.  Further still, you will never look at a train station or a woman’s elbow the same way again. This novel has had a profound affect on me, not only as a writer, but as a human being.  When I want to put myself in the mindset to write the “correct” way, I open this book up anywhere and start reading. Tolstoy has such a mastery over the narrative and you are so completely engrossed in it at all times.  It is logical that modernism proceeded from him, because after this novel and its ability to switch perspectives so deftly, there was only room for stream-of-consciousness to be fully explored and then the very idea of narrative to be questioned.  There was nowhere to go after this.  Now, however, there is nowhere to go but back to it.  To full, character driven stories that follow families over a period of time, that don’t become too sensational, that make us fall into the fiction again as though it were real life. For all we want now, is what is “real.”  This book also contains the best and most moving ending in the history of literature. We pick up after Levin has made a huge realization in his constant struggle with faith and how that relates to the love of his wife and his new child.  A storm has just passed over his country home and his fears of his baby and wife being caught in it are over:

"Oh, you haven't gone in then?" he heard Kitty's voice all at once, as she came by the same way to the drawing-room.
"What is it? you're not worried about anything?" she said, looking intently at his face in the starlight.
But she could not have seen his face if a flash of lightning had not hidden the stars and revealed it. In that flash she saw his face distinctly, and seeing him calm and happy, she smiled at him.
"She understands," he thought; "she knows what I'm thinking about. Shall I tell her or not? Yes, I'll tell her." But at the moment he was about to speak, she began speaking.
"Kostya! do something for me," she said; "go into the corner room and see if they've made it all right for Sergey Ivanovitch. I can't very well. See if they've put the new wash stand in it."
"Very well, I'll go directly," said Levin, standing up and kissing her.
"No, I'd better not speak of it," he thought, when she had gone in before him. "It is a secret for me alone, of vital importance for me, and not to be put into words.
"This new feeling has not changed me, has not made me happy and enlightened all of a sudden, as I had dreamed, just like the feeling for my child. There was no surprise in this either. Faith—or not faith—I don't know what it is—but this feeling has come just as imperceptibly through suffering, and has taken firm root in my soul.
"I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly; there will be still the same wall between the holy of holies of my soul and other people, even my wife; I shall still go on scolding her for my own terror, and being remorseful for it; I shall still be as unable to understand with my reason why I pray, and I shall still go on praying; but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it."
That’s all I’ve got.  And if you know me, if you know who I am now, then that last paragraph basically says it all.
Basketball Equivalent: Larry Bird.  Basketball flowed through Larry Bird the way that fiction and life flowed through Tolstoy.  They called Larry Bird the “Basketball Jesus,” that’s how divine his powers were at the top of his game and Anna Karenina is the top of Tolstoy’s game.  Bird was so good at basketball that in 1986, during a road trip, he decided to shoot all of his shots left-handed.  He and Bill Walton would try to do the same give and go as many times as possible because teams couldn’t figure the simple play out because they were so good.  Bird was one of the best passers ever, one of the best shooters ever, one of the most clutch players ever and one of the best defenders.  He came in the most unlikely package but his soul was placed on earth to play basketball, just as Tolstoy’s soul was placed on earth to show us the way life is through literature.

1. Ulysses – James Joyce
Why: I know that you saw this one coming.  This is and will always be my favorite novel ever.  I am a sucker for the mundane and how we can make the mundane seem as spectacular, epic and profound as it truly is.  No one did that better than Joyce in Ulysses.  As a writer, you might say, well why not Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, it is perhaps more economical and more lyrical, more focused.  That may be true, but it doesn’t capture our beloved Stephen Dedalus at his most abstract, his most brooding and his most obnoxious.  Every student of English at college wants to be Stephen Dedalus. If they deny it, they are lying. He is an unlikable character in so many ways, but he is so intelligent that you are drawn to him.  In Ulysses he is Hamlet, struggling to make a decision with his life, living in a tower by the sea, making up theories for the true identity of the ghost in Hamlet and how that ghost might actually be the ghost of Shakespeare’s dead child Hamnet Shakespeare (you have to read the novel to understand how absurd this scene is).  Then you have Bloom and his love of the inner organs of animals, of his wife’s butt and all of his ideas for inventions, like a phone to put in a coffin in case you bury someone alive.  We follow this brooding artist and this ordinary ad man with “a touch of the artist” about him through a day in Dublin.  We meet their rivals, their family, their friends and learn about all of their insecurities and fears. And what we learn is that history is rich and enchanting and can teach us many things, but we can’t ever let it define us, because we are defining history in the present, “the point at which all future plunges into the past.”  The novel asks all the important questions such as “what is the age of the soul of man,” all of the cosmic and spiritual points that I want in my novels.  In the end, though, it really affirms the greatness of everyday life, of the significance even our smallest journeys take on because they are the same stuff as history—there is nothing static in this world, it is all fluid. At any instant, you can be the hero, you can be Hamlet or Jesus or Napoleon or Odysseus or Michael Jordan or your grandfather, you can even be the ghost of your previous self.  We are always encountering ourselves and history and we can move within it in order to create a history that is our own—we can own History.  When a book does all of that to you, moves your soul in that way, you have to be influenced by it.  Even if it does cast a shadow over you that you try to dig out from for the rest of your grown life as an artist.
Basketball Equivalent: Michael Jordan. Joyce is widely regarded as the best writer of all time just as Jordan is regarded as the best basketball player ever.  Jordan is seen as the prototypical image of a basketball player just as Joyce is seen as the prototypical image of the artist.  Joyce was described as “the meanest drunk” by Hemingway, while Jordan was known as the most competitive man in the history of humankind.  The image that Jordan left on the game is as wide reaching as the influence that Joyce left on the English language, which is so wide that you have to watch when you use the words “swoon,” “soul,” “snow,” and “epiphany” in your writing because Joyce made them so much his own.  Each man is seen as taking the entire history of his craft and wrapping it up into one neat package. For Joyce, that package was Ulysses (as much as he’d liked it to have been Finnegan’s Wake) for Jordan it was his entire career. Each phase of his game calling to mind some specter of the sport’s past like no other player before him.  These two men belong at the top together.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Going to Market

Well, my Puddlers, we've made it to the end of another long week.  The blog will be back in full (and hopefully better) swing next week with plenty of posts.  However, its cold out there tonight so I am going to skip all of my clever little preamble and leave you with the man who knows how to warm all those hard to reach places. No, I'm not talking about Larry Sanders. I am talking about the one, the only, Mr. Mark (Aurelius) Jack!

Take it away, Mark!

The Debt Collectors

Mark Jack


Lately I have been thinking mostly of isolation, but not solipsism. Well, maybe a weak solipsism, one that isn't terribly true but is, still, somewhat inevitable, or inevitably felt. Something that makes the you think, “What's the other thing?” or “How's the other thing felt?” or “How's the other felt thing felt?”

Whatever it is, I think it may remind me of my childhood and what a horrible thing that would be, but then we are all old and sentimental in our own ways no matter our age or health or education or country of origin or sexual orientation or sexual disorientation or gender or not or even memory.

Just the other day I was discussing tire swings with a friend and we both paused for a second to be sentimental—sans twinkle in the eye.  It seems childhood memories necessitate an eye twinkle, but one's eyes never twinkle. The problem with my memory is that the tire swing in question was known to me only when I was 'round two years old. My mother doubts the veracity of my memory in this regard. Most other people don't give a shit. Am I simply remembering a picture or perhaps I am merely doubting my mother's memory? Is it possible to say I remember an other's memory? Am I remembering the telling of it or the memory itself?

Well, I don't know, and maybe these considerations lead absolutely nowhere. In fact, I'm almost certain that the lattter is true—at least as long as I have been formulating the questions. The problem, you see, is I've been reading Samuel Beckett, again. Actually, it's not a problem. This time I’m reading Watt. Honestly, I can't get enough of this guy. Watt is perhaps the funniest book I've read by Beckett; some of his plays are humorous as well, for instance, Endgame. There's some good comedy there. The problem for most people reading Beckett, I think, and it was my problem as well, is that one is told about his absurdity maybe or his mastery/distrust of language, maybe, or all number of things that build Beckett up into some unapproachable and maybe unapproachably weird writer. Well, he is certainly strange. Just look at this photo.

Trust me. Watt is a strange book, but is also funny. The one thing Beckett does not fool around with is sentimentality. He is perhaps the least sentimental writer I know. Actually, that's wrong; let me rethink that. Beckett loves to play with sentimentality. What he is not is sentimental. Watt, rather, is a book featuring a man who is so confused by memory's functioning that there is absolutely no possibility of sentiment being arrived at let alone conveyed. Early in the book, Watt, who is a servant in Mr. Knott's house answers the door and finds the Galls, father and son, who are there to tune the piano. The problem with this scene is that it is as Watt tells it to the author, and Watt is not sure about the workings of memory, but only that this incident, with the Galls resembles all the other incidents of note "in the sense that it was not ended, when it was past, but continued to unfold, in Watt's head, beginning to end."

Watt is a strange character "who had not seen a symbol, nor executed an interpretation, since the age of fourteen, or fifteen, and who had lived, miserably it is true, among face values all his life." So Watt, like many of Beckett's characters find fault in their memories and, more so, find difficulty in considering any symbolic interpretation of the events considered. Often, in Beckett's oeuvre, memory is presented to a character through another medium, such as the tapes in Krapp's Last Tape, and in this respect they are somewhat foreign to the character to whom these memories, these recorded memories belong. They are un-changeable and outside, rather than elastic and internal and meaningful. Although for Watt, memory is elastic in that it is merely a collection of surfaces, and his memory of the Gall's "gradually lost, in the nice processes of its light, its sound, its impacts and its rhythm, all meaning, even the most literal." In this way, the memory is something unincorporated and yet transferable, and prone to editing.

What then, is this process of writing? Memoir and the like seem the most suspicious forms if we think in these Beckettian terms, but all writing is suspect in these terms. We rely so much on the meanings we give to our memories. We learn from them in this way, or we tell ourselves that, when we think back and re-imagine some event that we have progressed in someway beyond it—because of it. Why?

There is a strange and beautiful compulsion to understand our memories as metaphor, and in recording our thoughts and our imaginings we set up an economy of meaning, which pays, sometimes, suspiciously. We  are greedy sometimes, extracting whatever dubious self-knowledge we can from that which passes through our minds as the past. This is a curious communication.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Richard Linklater

Hello, my Puddlers. It’s been a crazy past week for me plus I was traveling over the long weekend, which explains the absence of posts.  However, I do promise that more content is coming. This year is off to a rocky start, but I’m going to right the ship for all of you.

While I was traveling (and thinking up ways to put up quick and easy posts onto the site), I realized that I hadn’t done any of my random thoughts/links posts in a long time.  So, what better moment than now —when I am crunched for time and can’t write a lengthy, thought out, conceptual column—than to bestow a classic links/thoughts post on you all?  You can make sure to thank me later:

- The main subject of sports talk over the weekend was the Jets/Patriots game in the AFC Divisional Playoffs (well, if you aren’t a basketball fan because the Clippers beating the Lakers followed by Blake Griffin dropping 47 points in a game was pretty big).  I’ll just make a few things clear: I hate the Patriots; Jets fans are even worse than Eagles fans.  I’ll explain to you why Jets fans are worse than Eagles fans—you can never ever please them.  You could talk as much as you want about the Jets having a good team (especially this team) and they would always find some way to think that you are disrespecting them.  I’ve always reserved that sort of quality for Eagles fans, but in the earlier part of the decade, when we were running the NFC, Eagles fans could take a compliment.  Maybe this was because we knew that a Sword of Damocles was always hanging above our heads with McNabb at the quarterback and Andy Reid strolling the sidelines, but there was a certain ability to take a compliment.  This Jets team and these Jets fans are nothing like that. Perhaps its Rex Ryan’s leadership; perhaps its that they are as pathetic if not more pathetic a franchise than the Philadelphia Eagles; but they cannot accept winning or losing.  The Jets fans celebrating a victory over the Patriots in the Divisional Round of the Playoffs, reminds me of the old mid-90’s era of Eagles football when we flipped out at beating the Cowboys in the regular season.  Let’s have a little control here.  All this being said, I love the Jets and their fans for beating the Patriots on Sunday.  There was something about this year’s Patriots team that was so much more smug than in years past.  They seemed to take a certain “told you we could do it” attitude to winning despite of Randy Moss when there was no true need for it.  The Patriots glided into Sunday’s game while the Jets were angry and ready to hit Brady, which they did.  They took a page out of the Giants’ playbook and focused on getting Brady down.  The way you do that is by making life hard for his receivers, by roughing them up so they can’t get open or get in rhythm. When that happens, Brady has to stand in the pocket longer, which allows you to collapse the pocket and then get him on the ground.  Now, perhaps only the Jets (or the Giants in 2007) have the kind of personnel to do this, or perhaps Belichik didn’t make the correct adjustments in this particular game, but the Jets had the Patriots’ number in every phase of the game. Just a fantastic win.  Now all they need to do is beat Roethlisberger because we can’t just have him win another Super Bowl and automatically forget about his sexual assault charges from the summer.

- Here’s a good article about karma possibly undoing the Patriots in recent years.

- I didn’t see any of the NFC games this past weekend, but I did get to watch the Ravens/Steelers game on Saturday.  I was in Boston, was sitting at a sports bar by myself drinking cold Budweisers, and eating buffalo wings, surrounded by die-hard Steelers fans and Ravens fans in equal doses.  I have to admit that these may be two of the best fan bases in the NFL.  The Ravens always have a great defensive team and they lack a certain element of self-loathing that the Philadelphia Eagles fans have, which makes them somehow extraordinarily smart and also humble about the game (whereas the Eagles fans have a certain ne’er-do-well bravado and self-destruction). The Steelers franchise is of course a model of consistency in terms of style and also of success in the NFL.  It’s no surprise that this rivalry has actually become perhaps the best one in the NFL.  All of their games are decided by a touchdown or less and none of them lack drama or effort.  These are just two teams that want to hit each other.  I actually thought that the Ravens had demoralized the Steelers, but they gave the game right back to them and, for all his faults, you can’t let Roethlisberger see a glimmer of hope in a game because he will rally that team back—they are willing to be rallied at any time.  And of course it ended up being another classic, which felt right in the freezing six o’clock air of Boston in mid-January.

- In literature news, I have been reading Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.  I know that this was the book of the year in many people’s minds and in many different respects, but I’m still not completely sold on it or him as a writer. A character in this novel reads War and Peace and you can make of that what you will, but what Franzen does excel at is control of the narrative as well as scope just as Tolstoy did. Now, a great writer will certainly be able to do both of those things, but a writer that does both of those things isn’t necessarily great.  I am still trying to decide if Franzen is actually great.  He controls the action of the story and the narrative with the deftness that suggests a master, but there are points when he misses the mark, like the whole second section of the novel being framed by Patty Berglund’s autobiography that she is keeping for her therapist – this convention seems wholly unnecessary.  All of this being said, I have not finished the novel as of this post so I must reserve my total judgment until the end of the book.  I just wanted to give you some of my running thoughts.  Also, the pages do just turn in it and that is always something.

- Plus, if you read this, Franzen just might be an ass.

- Speaking of Tolstoy, I’ll be reading this book of his next. Why don’t you take a peek?

- I was visiting my friend Alex Ramsdell this weekend and he was on a kick of listening to Brian Eno and John Cale who quietly stole the show of influence and just fantastic recording in the 1970’s.  We were listening especially to Cale's Paris 1919 and Eno’s Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). As for tracks of the moment on each of those albums, I have to go with the title track on the Cale album (“Macbeth” in a close second) and “Mother Whale Eyeless” on the Eno album.  You should read up and listen to both of these men because they basically inform whatever it is you listen to and like (much like I do).

- What Alex saved me from was listening to the glory, overproduction, and elemental cheesiness of this Elton John deep cut. I’m a sucker for the dramatic.

- I haven’t given props to any new friends or artists in the past few months, which I was shocked by.  So, I’d like to give a shout out to Amy Simone Piller who has become a friend of mine in recent months.  You should check out Amy’s website to find more about the writing and other things she does.  A very great girl who enjoys basketball.

- In drinking news, I’ve been drinking mostly Manhattans.  A friend of mine asked me at a bar if it was a “girly drink.”  Well, just the opposite happens to be true.  I’d recommend drinking two or three of these the next time you are out at a bar, sitting down for a good dinner or looking across at a pretty girl.  It will do wonders for your overall manhood and well being as a human.  Basically, any drink with bitters (and maybe bourbon) will do that for you.

- We are edging closer and closer to All-Star Weekend in the NBA with the lineups for each conference being announced in the next week or so.  This year is honestly one of the craziest years for deciding who should be on the team or not.  The main debates come down to the guards in the East and the forwards in the West. Will Rondo be the starting point guard for the East or will it be his nemesis and possible league MVP Derrick Rose? Can Kevin Love and Blake Griffin both make the team in the West? Will Tim Duncan be left off the team this year as he probably should be? What about Steve Nash? Can he fit on a West team that possibly has Westbrook, Paul and Williams? Is it possible?  Can Garnett, Pierce and Allen all fit on the East team when they each deserve to in their own unique ways? Is my head going to explode at some point from how much I care about basketball?  I think the odds of everything happening are good. Wait, what?

- Speaking of basketball (aren’t I always), I’ve been reading the Free Darko Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball, which features some of the best writing on basketball that isn’t from Bill Simmons.  I recommend you check this book out even if you don’t really love basketball because the essays are just very thoughtfully written on a variety of levels.  You can also browse the Free Darko site, which has some fun writing too.

- And last but not least, I encourage you to follow me on Twitter for more up to the date information about my thoughts on any number of topics. I’d also like to start taking and answering reader questions, but I’d need a few more to consolidate into an actual presentable post.  They are leaking in, but we need more.  So, be involved with the blog and I will be even doubly involved with you, which I think means providing you with more entertaining and revealing writing.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

New Year's Day

Last December, after I had finished my draft of The Last Mound of Dirt, I began sketching out the plot of my third novel, which would be set mainly in Madrid because it was a city I had grown fond of, in part (but not in total) due to the fact that someone I loved very much lived there at one point.  I freewrote the course that I intially imagined the story would take and then suddenly found myself writing a scene that went like this:

The journalist finds out that the poet is having a reading.  He goes to the reading and approaches the poet.  They don’t speak about their fight; they just shake hands.  Then the journalist goes out with the poet and his new girlfriend.  The poet suggests that the journalist should bring his wife sometime and that all four of them should go out together. The journalist says:

“Yes, that would be nice.”

“I think so.”

They all get drunk and the journalist slow dances with the poet’s new girlfriend.  Their dancing is innocent.  The girl tells him a story about her childhood and then the journalist asks her if she loves the poet already.

“Do you love him?”

“I don’t think like that.”

“What do you mean?”

She stopped their swaying and put her chin on the journalist’s shoulder joint.  The press felt warm and, for a moment, he wished she were his—all brand new with the smell of enthusiasm, carbonated beer, fragrant shampoo and the moisture of a warm October night.

“Anything is possible (this written in Spanish).”


They continued to sway.  The poet walked over to them and put his hands on the girl’s shoulder.  He eased her slowly into his chest and wrapped his arms around her from behind.


The girl nodded.

“Vamos,” the poet said.

They exited the bar and went out into the street.  The wind had died down and it wasn’t cold at all.  It seemed like the morning would be unseasonably warm.  The poet took the journalist’s hand.

“Soon, right?”

“I think so,” the journalist said and smiled.  He brought the poet toward him and gave him a hug.  The girl walked over and hugged him too.  She felt warm.  The poet and the girl stepped away from him, waving.

The journalist walked along the streets.  The street washers were hosing down the garbage on the sidewalks and in the road.  The morning would be warm, so he started for his wife’s apartment.  Maybe she would let him sleep there tonight and the next day they could have coffee and fruit and read the newspaper.  And maybe then things would be better.

I have been thinking about that little sketch of writing for much of the past two months.  There is nothing that has directly made me think of it.  What pulls my mind towards those words is the feeling that my body and soul have when the image of that scene forced itself into my mind. At those instances, my mind feels fresh, relaxed and attentive to the spaces of the world – that is, the moments before and after people leave me or I leave them.  The smell of the entryway to a bar; the warmth of the hallway in a sophisticated apartment building; the spacing of cars on the sidestreets in a neighborhood; the look of melting mounds of snow when the temperature hits fifty degrees and you tilt your skullcap to the side without a care.  Maybe it is also the fact that that scene gives me a sense of my own approaching manhood for some reason.  Makes me feel some guilt or pride in getting over my immaturity – the very idea of having a wife to reconcile with.  Or it could also be the fact that I like staying out late on New Year’s and I believe in the idea that perhaps in the morning things will be better, just as long as your teeth are rearing to go at the world with that first cup of coffee fit snugly in your hand.

On New Year’s Day, I thought about this scene again.  I walked two of my best friends to their car with a hangover buzzing around my head.  Then, I took someone I love very much to the train.  After I had said goodbye to her, I tilted my skullcap crookedly on my head and stamped my boots through disappearing tracks of snow and slush.  I watched streams of water trail into sewer grates and small, old, Italian men push heaping shovelfuls of ice into the street to be matted into nothing.  As I walked, I thought of the person I had just left at the train.  I thought of how well I knew her and how long I had known her.  There was a deep knowledge of her shape, her hair, her cheeks, the smell of her shampoo and understanding of the mind.  I counted the years off and even thought of the period when I felt that all the things I had known, I would never enjoy or remember again.  Only during that time, I hadn’t forgotten them; I just didn’t allow myself to feel them, which deprives the rest of the people and parts of your life from that part that can love.  I tilted my hat once more and felt human and strong in my new wool sweater in the warmth of the winter afternoon.

When I returned to my apartment, it was quiet and slightly dirty from the guests that had slept there.  I cleaned up the debris, set the pillows on the couch, opened windows at either end of the apartment to let in air and the sound of birds, and then lit a candle.  My head felt exhausted and my hangover continued its dull buzz, so I sat on the couch in the early afternoon light, which in winter is the same light of 6:00 PM in summer.  Out of restlessness and convenience I used my phone to look up Facebook.  I scrolled through status updates and pictures until I came to a picture of a guy I used to play basketball with and the girl he dated, who used to be a good friend of mine.  They were dressed nicely, smiling and leaning into each other on a very green golf course somewhere.  I remembered the guy I played basketball with because I used to look up to him so much and he used to drive me around in his green/teal 1992 Chevy Blazer (I later got the same car) and we’d smoke cigarettes and drink beer.  A maudlin thought came into my head, “I liked playing basketball against Garrett.”  The simple sentence repeated in my head and I looked at the picture and thought, in an instant, about all the people I loved and had loved in my life – as though I were floating high above an incessantly spooling narrative of life – any life – unfurling itself somewhere in the great space of America.

Two weeks later, that moment stills seems valid to me.  We get certain moments where our hearts open up to the memory and the images of all the people we love; how they are simply spinning out there somewhere in all of this eternity we live in each day.  For instance, around the same time I wrote that scene sketch, I had a similar moment of openness while I was riding the train home for Christmas:

The train picks up steam now and I can see the snow, flat and near ice, on the Belmont.  The snow is piling high and the village steeples are beginning to show.  There are immaculate snowy playing fields and empty pool clubs with deep ends full of snow.  The night is going to come tonight and smoke will unfurl from chimneys and around the corners of those corner bars I love so much.  The snow will be stacked along the sidewalk in front of wine shops and delicatessens.  A cat will clean itself among the bare brush branches near the marsh and the streets will be lit in a scale of orange as they always are.  My mind will open with memory and I’ll think of those people I love.  I’ll think of their gestures, their happinesses, their shapes and I will get thirsty for beer.  A night in Quebec City with four feet high mounds of snow will reveal itself.  A boy with a beer is using his feet to script his name in the snow.  But that memory won’t be mine anymore.  It will belong to someone else.  Maybe a friend, maybe the protagonist of my next novel.  Because I am only as good as the shine on the water of a half frozen pond next to a school yard.  I’m just riding on the flat, trying to find Isis so that I can tell her I love her on the fifth day of May, in the drizzling rain.

Perhaps these moments spring upon us around the holidays or as each year comes to an end and we take stock of how much we have achieved in a given year or given era of our lives. Because we live our lives from day to day trying to document our memories, our successes and even the low points we get to when we just want to watch DVDs of our favorite TV shows continuously for hours just to forget, for a simple few hours of respite, that things are not constantly moving forward.  However, things are always moving forward and we should never be anxious about that. We should embrace it, because it is only in moving forward that we can remember all the people in our lives that we love so much. The motion of life ahead makes the space for those people to rise up in illumination for a moment of glory, stupid laughs, or even just an image in repose that will stick with you long after they have moved away.

 On New Year’s Day, I had one of those moments, which was triggered by the picture of my old basketball teammate.  Perhaps it’s slightly self-serious of me to expand on all of these points about memory and the fact that time continues on no matter what.  However, there is nothing self-serious, to me, about how life can be so strange and how a certain mood or the unexpected warmth of a day can open your chest up in a way that feels both alarming and welcome at the same time. You can fully visualize each of your friends and loved ones and you know that they are moving somewhere and the images are dark, but they slowly come to light and you can see them: going to the store for the weekly groceries they have to buy; sitting at the edge of their bed with their boyfriend or girlfriend late at night, leaning into each other perhaps after a fight; laughing with co-workers; feeling invincible for a moment while listening to that song of the moment.  I get pissed at everything just like anybody else and I feel trapped and want to escape all of the things in my life that make me feel itchy.  But, the world is a large place and, as Miranda once said, “has such people in it.”  When you are younger and you think you have a handle on all of your friends or even the girls you love (like any guy ever really does) you never imagine how large the world is and how many opportunities your friends have to move about it in their different ways.  Yet, it sits out there each day and calls you on and out into it. You can deny it as much as you want to, but you will always be struck at a time by some object like a photograph that reminds you just how many small moments you have had with people and about how many other small moments they have had in their own lives —when your back was turned!  That is when the heart opens and you understand more than ever how much you love people and how much people have loved you; they are all just passing images in the middle of a warm and light afternoon.

And, like always, this could all just be elementary thought.  We all know that we make memories and love other people.  We are all hungover on New Year’s Day and sprawl out on the couch, there is nothing groundbreaking about all of this. Yet, we all get worked up about New Year’s and feel bad. When, really, New Year’s is all about those moments of space in our life and how we get to them so that we can see everything and remember everything better – those strange moments of repose. And maybe then there will be coffee and fruit. And maybe then things will be better too.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Wild Card

Each year, when football season comes to the playoffs, I find myself muttering the words of Michael Corleone in the Godfather, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”  I say this because nothing makes my blood boil more than watching the Philadelphia Eagles play.  I think I raise my cholesterol, blood pressure and chance of seizure and stroke each time I watch an Eagles game.  As the years have gone by, I’ve tried to calm myself, grow slightly more mature and refrain from throwing items around my apartments/rooms as well as cursing and screaming at the top of my lungs so that I don’t sound like a total psychopath/wifebeater/serial killer.  This year, I thought I did exceptionally well in moving towards being a healthy fan of the Philadelphia Eagles.

In recent seasons, I have also tried to watch less football because quite frankly, football annoys me for a variety of reasons.  Watching football on TV drives me crazy.  Most of the time the games are filled with penalties that cause the flow of the game to become clunky and sporadic.  In addition, football as perhaps the worst and longest TV timeouts out of any of the major sports, which also takes me out of the game.  This often leads to many of those forlorn, tedious and terrible 4:15 late games on Sunday afternoons where you just want to say, as distinctly as possible, “This game is AWFUL!”

That just pertains to the game play.  What is really terrible about football is the media coverage.  Since football is such a short season and the egos and hyper-masculinity of the players are so great, the media coverage must be commensurate.  Football media coverage beats the following dead horses: “the quarterback position,” “being a man,” “doing your job,” “the team,” “one game at a time,” “being a man,” “man-ing up,” and “football is the greatest of all sports.”  The act of watching football obviously differentiates itself from viewing all other sports in that there are fewer games.  All of the games are played on two days out of the week (3-4 as the season wears on, but it is only one game per day on those outlying Thursdays and Saturdays) and you know they are played at either 1:00, 4:15, or 8:30.  There is a ritual to football that basketball, baseball and hockey don’t share.  That is what makes the Buffalo wings, the sandwiches, the beer, and the fat bellies have that much more meaning – it is the repetition of the ritual of the football mass, week after week.  However, the fact that this “glory of the game” beats us over the head during the week via all the football pundits is something that annoys me to no end. All other sports fall by the wayside during football season.  Now, you may call me a disgruntled basketball fanatic, but I think there is validity to my gripes with football season.  I don’t have a solution to the problem; I think the answer is to just watch less football and football coverage as I have been doing.  The fact that the essence of a football season is that it is made up of only sixteen games perpetuates the overblown media coverage; the melodramatic reactions to every single play and player; the intense focus on the thrown away words of players in the locker room.  There is no chalkboard material and a helmet or a hit doesn’t define manhood.  A dunk or a beautiful outlet pass doesn’t define it either, but basketball players and basketball media never claim that those things make a man in the first place.

All of this being said, last night, I was among the Philadelphia faithful packed into Lincoln Financial Field to watch the Green Bay Packers play the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card Round of the 2011 NFL Playoffs.  My dad and I sat at field level as the game began and the temperature dropped to an even 30 degrees.  I watched the fireworks go off and listened the drunken Philly fans banter around us.  I saw Swoop, the Philadelphia Eagles mascot, shoot fireworks off the top of his head.  And as those damn, beautiful, dark green Eagles jerseys ran around the field right in front of me, I turned to my dad and said, “Just when I thought I was out, they sucked me back IN!”

A few notes from the game:

- I am not a big jersey person.  When I watch sports games I don’t wear the jersey of the team I am rooting for. It’s usually in my soul and that’s all that matters.  I’m not actually on the team and besides, I can curse like hell to show my support anyway. I thought about wearing my McNabb jersey to the game, but I had a strange feeling that a McNabb jersey was off limits with the Philly fans.  I was right.  While my dad and I walked around the parking lot amongst the tailgating Philadelphians, I saw only ONE Donovan McNabb jersey.  There were Randall Cunningham jerseys, Brian Westbrook jerseys, Ricky Waters jerseys – I even saw a Michael Zordich jersey. Yet, the winningest and most decorated quarterback in Philadelphia Eagles franchise history was not represented at all.  Even though I live in New York, I am still connected to the Eagles faithful, and that fan base was all thinking one thing: we do NOT want the specter of McNabb floating over this game.  That is to say, we do not want to blow this game and any McNabb jerseys that are present will lead to that.  How strange is it that one of the best (if not the best) players in franchise history is a complete persona non grata?  I am continually fascinated by the McNabb/Philadelphia relationship and I think as the years go on, it will only become more fascinating.  Someone has to write a book about this.

- The Linc is a fantastic stadium.  It is immaculately kept and really easy to get around in.  The concession stand food is great and, although my dad and I had great seats (we wandered around before the game), there is a terrific view throughout the stadium.  It is a vast improvement over the Vet. Also, for those of you that care, it is going to be the first self-sustaining sports stadium. Starting next season, they are using wind and solar power to run the entire facility.  Very progressive down in Philly.

- The Philadelphia fans are both fantastic and horrible.  Everyone was so riled up for the game that there was a pervading drunkenness in the first quarter.  A Philly fan in our section actually yelled at another Philly fan for holding up sign, threw peanuts at him, and then threatened to “throw his ass out of here.”  Everyone else in the section saw that the peanut thrower was an asshole and started teasing him to get him into a better mood and the whole incident actually became a bonding/rallying point for our section.  The other thing about Philadelphia (and especially Eagles) fans is that the sense of dread that overtakes the stadium when something goes bad is so immense and palpable that it is hard to overcome.  The crowd was so willing to go dead when the Eagles looked flat in the first half (and most of the game) that it was completely discouraging.  Eagles fans love the team so much and rely on it for so much happiness, that they want them to be perfect – to succeed in any way because that success will some how validate their own lives.  When something goes wrong for the Eagles, it is like a personal affront or attack on these people and they take it so personally that they clam up.  They are so used to having their hearts broken that they almost expect the worst to happen at all times and so the dread builds and builds and infiltrates all parts of the stadium. Being a Philadelphia fan, I have had my fair share of heartbreak.  However, I was not willing to let dread overtake me.  I think I had a large part in keeping the spirits of our area high (although, I could be full of shit), which in turn kept the other sections into the game as well.  It was a tough battle and I think overall I lost it, but at those times of euphoria last night the atmosphere was off the charts.  And that’s why Eagles fans are great.  They get into the game, they know about the game.  There is nothing like an Eagles fan who recognizes you are a smart fan.  They will chat you up and stand by your side like you were their oldest friend.  Although, now that I think about it, almost any Philly fan will chat you up at a game because they are usually pretty soused.  Ah, well they’re all loveable until they starting hating themselves and the team.

- The harassment of Green Bay fans was at about an orange level.  Nothing too, too serious, but definitely present. It wouldn’t have been an Eagles game without some fairly high level of harassment.

- You have to see Michael Vick play in person.  When you watch him on TV you get a sense of his speed and elusiveness, but its another thing to see him evade those tackles in person.  He twists his body and then accelerates in a split second.  It’s remarkable.

- The Philadelphia fans hate Andy Reid.  They constantly call him “Fat Andy.”  After last night, I don’t blame them.  I’ve stood behind Andy through thick and thin, but the 4th and 1 call last night and some of the other management issues were just to egregious to let go.

- You also have to see Desean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin in person.  They are both insanely fast, especially Jackson.  It is unreal.

- And of course, it wouldn’t have been an Eagles game without a potential comeback that was thwarted by a late interception in the endzone.  The fans can leave those McNabb jersey’s at home, but something has to change in order to rid that stadium and these fan’s of the McNabb specter, which is the reminder of always coming up short.

Just another heartbreaking visit to Philadelphia and the world of the Eagles.