Saturday, March 31, 2012

When Steve Alford Was Cast Away By His Home State

Until I recently saw Winning Time, that 30 for 30 documentary ESPN did a few years back on Reggie Miller's rivalry with the New York Knicks, I hadn't even known the story of Miller's being drafted by the Indiana Pacers. Obsessed as I used to be--and, to an extent, still am--with basketball lore, I don't know how it eluded me all those years that in 1987 Steve Alford, a local-grown boy who had recently led Bobby Knight's Hoosiers to the NCAA title, had been passed up by the Pacers in favor of Miller. 

The Pacers picked eleventh that year. For a basketball team, that's some prime speculative real estate to be giving up for someone who'd spent his college years playing within a highly mechanized system, seldom responsible for creating his own shots off the dribble. Still, when you consider how highly esteemed Alford was, how highly localized his heroism, it's easy to understand why Pacers fans might have been outraged by their selection. Race, too, must have been a big source of the outrage, but this is about much more than race. 

So I went to Alford's memoir, Playing for Knight (1989), to see what Alford himself had to say about all this. To hear Alford tell it, he wasn't nearly as upset about being passed up by the Pacers as he was by the Pacers denigrating his worth in the press: everything from his smallness to his slowness to his defensive ineptitude, in addition to his limited offensive repertoire. But there's a reason the Pacers had motive for doing that, and it's a motive Alford understands, even if he doesn't at all endorse their succumbing to it:
The Pacers were on the spot. They had the eleventh pick in the first round, and there was pressure from Hoosier fans to pick me, the local hero. To justify skipping me, the Pacers apparently thought they had to downgrade me publicly. There are no hard feeling today, but I was very unhappy at the time and made some very un-Alford-like comments. (I said I had a Clint Eastwood "hit list" of people I would prove wrong!)
That list was safe in his back pocket. The only people Alford proved wrong, in his pro career, were those who had gone bloodthirsty when the Pacers didn't draft him.

Monday, March 26, 2012

On Alan Lomax

At first it was nothing more than a way to console his father following the passing of his own mother--going around the country together in search of songs that would otherwise be lost to history. This is how he found his life's meaning, and in order to do it he had to prematurely leave Harvard, where he'd been studying life's meaning. They call the one thing music and the other thing philosophy, but Alan Lomax made them merge, and this is what was left of his lifelong search: an entire archive filled with the world's folk music, rescued by technology from its indigenous cultures, and supplemented with oral interviews, photographs, and film. Lomax had started national, but after travelling as wide as he could that way, he went overseas, to Ireland and Italy, to Great Britain and the Carribean, to Spain. He called his archive the Global Jukebox. That's a wonderful notion to contemplate, but what it is really is so much more. To Lomax, at least, it was the meaning of life itself, and he'd been pursuing it ever since the day he stopped puzzling over life's meaning.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Blissful Impermanence

Look at it like it's diversifying your portfolio. Acknowledging the transitoriness of all things doesn't mean you believe in nothing; it means you believe in no one thing to the exclusion of all else--which frees you up to believe in everything, and to move from one thing to next when the one thing is all used up: by death, by boredom, by time (another thing that's been known to change). It's the great redeeming theme of that movie Adaptation (2002) that Charlie Kaufman wrote a while back. The title refers to three types of adaptation: the adaptation of prose to film; the adaptation of species in nature; and (the metaphor by which the others are organized) the psycho-emotional adaptation human beings demonstrate in dealing with life's loss. The movie's message of impermanence is highly optimistic in this sense, just as the Zen idea of impermanence is, and for precisely the same reasons. Alan Watts in The Way of Zen (1957) articulates beautifully the ways in which this "insistence on the impermanence of the world is not the pessimistic and nihilistic doctrine which Western critics normally suppose it to be. Transitoriness is depressing only to the mind which insists upon trying to grasp. But to the mind which lets go and moves with the flow of change, which becomes, in Zen Buddhist imagery, like a ball in a mountain stream, the sense of transience or emptiness becomes a kind of ecstasy."

Saturday, March 24, 2012

How Jim Bouton Found His Knuckleball

Ask most people about Ball Four (1970), and they'll tell you it's about the sex lives of baseball players, or Mickey Mantle's alcoholism. That's all correct, of course, but it's also about baseball--it's about Jim Bouton's life in baseball, and how Bouton acquired the knuckleball that took him to the Show and provided him the vantage from which to write such a book: 
I was about thirteen years old the first time I threw it.[...] [W]hen I saw saw a picture on the back of a cereal package explaining how to throw the knuckleball, I thought I'd try it.  
There was a picture of Dutch Leonard and a picture of how he held the ball, and about a paragraph explaining it. The knuckleball isn't thrown with the knuckles, of course. It's thrown with the fingertips, and the principle is to release the ball so that it leaves all the fingertips at the same time without any spin on the ball. The air currents and humidity take over and cause the ball to turn erratically and thus move erratically.  
[Hoyt] Wilhelm was doing pretty good with the Giants at the time, and that was another reason to try it--except that my hand was so small I couldn't hold the ball with three fingers like everybody else did. I had to hold it with all five. I still do. It's kind of freaky, I guess, but as a result I throw it harder than anybody else. Anyway, it took about a week before I could get it to knuckle at all. I remember once I threw one to my brother and hit him right in the knee. He was writhing on the ground moaning, "What a great pitch, what a great pitch." I spent the rest of the summer trying to maim my brother.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

On Hedy Lamarr

She was just like any other most-beautiful-woman-in-the-world who hobbyhorsed around as an inventor and saw some of her better inventions patented and employed in the service of national security--some nation's or another's security--which is to say she wasn't quite like anyone else who had ever lived, or who has lived since. 

What Hedy Lamarr had fled when she first came to Hollywood, by way of native Austria, was the kind of controlling marriage wherein she couldn't even appear full-frontal in a movie called Ekstase (1933), or display her own ekstase on screen (an innovation of its own kind), without eliciting her husband's apoplectic ire. No matter: there could be other marriages--there would in fact be five others--but there could never be another Hedy Lamarr. So Hedy Lamarr stayed in motion, bringing her talents to Hollywood. 

Hollywood readily welcomed Hedy, and meanwhile Hedy kept inventing, "as a hobby," according to her biographer Richard Rhodes
Since she made two or three movies a year, each one taking about a month to shoot, she had spare time to fill. She didn't drink and she didn't like to party, so she took up inventing. When she was a girl, her father, a Viennese banker, had encouraged her interest in how the world worked, taking walks with her and explaining the mechanics of the machinery they encountered.[...] In Hollywood she set up an inventor's corner in the drawing room of her house, complete with a drafting table and lamp and all the necessary drafting tools. 
She, along with partner George Anthiel, employed player-piano technology to devise a means by which frequencies could be hopped, and allied torpedoes could be free to torpedo unmolested by jamming or other interference. They say Hedy's basic concept for frequency-hopping is still at work today--just as surely as her patent for on-screen ekstase is, and with similarly negligent attribution--in some of our most cherished wireless technologies. It's frequency-hopping as metaphor, sure, but it's also frequency-hopping as pure enigma. Like a lot of enigmas, you're better off not even trying to figure it out. Just behold it instead. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Self-Discovery in the Wild: Cheryl Strayed

The whole thing would have never even happened, in quite this way, if it hadn’t been for that snowstorm. Visiting South Dakota while trying to make sense of life—in the midst of her mother’s premature passing, from cancer, and her own marriage’s premature passing, from causes more nebulous—Cheryl Strayed went to the store to buy herself a shovel. Standing in line to pay for the shovel is when she “spotted a guidebook about something called the Pacific Crest Trail.” A couple days later, back home in Minnesota and out of the storm, she “remembered the guidebook I’d plucked from a shelf” at the store, whereupon “[t]he thought of the photograph of a boulder-strewn lake surrounded by rocky crags and blue sky on its cover seemed to break me open, frank as a fist to the face. I believed I’d only been killing time when I’d picked up the book while standing in line, but now it seemed like something more—a sign. Not only of what I could do, but of what I had to do.”
The book she’d picked up was something called The Pacific Crest Trail, Volume 1: California, in which the authors ruefully wonder, “How can a book describe the psychological factors a person must prepare for…the despair, the alienation, the anxiety and especially the pain, both physical and mental, which slices to the very heart of the hiker’s volition, which are the real things that must be planned for?” If their question is asked in earnest, then the answer can be found in the form of the memoir Strayed has just published, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, about the hike she took soon after her epiphany. This was 1995; in the 17 years since, she’s published a novel,Torch (2006), as well as numerous stories and essays (two of which have been anthologized in the annual Best American Essays omnibus; the 2000 and 2003 editions), and for two years has been regularly penning The Rumpus’s popular advice column,“Dear Sugar.” She recently answered some questions by e-mail about Wild.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Cooking with Leather

We hear often of Old World explorers who subsisted by consuming the leather of their own ships' rigging, but we don't hear enough about how exactly that leather was prepared for consumption. I guess I'd always assumed it wasn't prepared at all. But then I read this passage in the Francisco de Orellana chapter of Off the Map, Fergus Fleming's terrific informal history of exploration. Apparently, a party from the de Orellana expedition that had been exploring independently found itself in the direst of nutritional circumstances, whereupon it confronted these circumstances by consuming "saddles and stirrup leather, sliced, boiled and toasted over embers, with palm shoots and fruit stems fallen from the trees, together with toads and snakes." So that's how it's done, in case you're planning an exploration-themed dinner party, or in case you were ever just damned curious about how the pros did it.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Zen in the Art of Bowling

You should practice enough to get to where you can bowl without thinking about your physical game. In most cases the accomplished player steps to the line with but one primary area of concentration: hitting his or her target.
When you are able to consistently perform a smooth and solid delivery the ball will do the rest. Power is a natural derivative of being fundamentally sound. By marrying proper timing with a strong release you will be well on your way toward becoming a vastly improved bowler.
 --Mike Aulby, Bowling 200+

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Stone Tool That Brought Us Out of the Stone Age

Neil MacGregor calls it "the Swiss Army knife of the Stone Age," and of course that's underselling the ancient handaxe considerably. I'm going by MacGregor's own testimony here. In his terrific new book, A History of the World in 100 Objects, culled from the collection he curates as director of the British Museum, he writes of how handaxes are not merely "things that you knock off: they are the result of experience, of careful planning and of skill, learnt and refined over a long period." What's more, "this chipped stone tool"--speaking, specifically, of the Olduvai Handaxe, from more than a million years ago--"may hold the secret of speech, and it may have been in making things like this that we learnt how to talk to one another." 

That's because the particular regions of the brain that get activated in making such tools also get activated in making language. But just as important--and more compelling from the perspective of pure survival--is all that the tools contributed in our ability to evolve outside of language, before bringing us inside of language for a life that was worth surviving. Tools like this handaxe are what "helped us control our environment and transform it--the handaxe gave us better food as well as the ability to skin animals for clothing and strip branches for fire or shelter." And only after this could we now "now talk to each other and [...] imagine something that wasn't physically in front of us."
What next? The handaxe was about to accompany us on a huge journey; because with all these skills, we were no longer tied to our immediate environment. If we needed to--even if we just wanted to--we could move. Travel became possible, and we could move beyond the warm savannahs of Africa and survive, perhaps even flourish, in a colder climate. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What to Say to the Next Person Who Tells You 'What the Founders Intended'

In dealing with the State, we ought to remember that its institutions are not aboriginal, though they existed before we were born: that they are not superior to the citizen: that every one of them was once the act of a single man: every law and usage was a man's expedient to meet a particular case: that they all are imitable, all alterable; we may make as good; we may make better. 
 Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Politics" (1844)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Jimmy Cannon and the Sportswriter's Superlative

Reducing life to a binary proposition of win-or-lose, sports often oversimplifies existence in a way that corrupts even the best writers, if they hang around long enough. Take Jimmy Cannon. As distinct and original a phrasemaker as this country's ever had, he was nevertheless reduced to the superlative of Bestest of All Time and/or In the Whole Wide World in some of his stronger pieces. And not only was he reduced to those superlatives, but, in several instances, he even felt compelled to end on them, as a going-away grace note. 

Cannon's eulogy for Babe Ruth was an opportunity to swing for the fences, and it's an opportunity that Cannon exploited, successfully. Which only makes it all the more baffling and frustrating that, after rounding all three bases, he decided to side-step home plate before skipping off to the showers. After 700 words of sharp insight and fresh language, this is the sentence Cannon walks away on: "And he is the greatest that ever lived." 

I quote here--as in all places throughout this essay--from Cannon's posthumous collection (and by far the more comprehensive of his two, in terms of time spanned, topics treated, and publications originally appeared in), Nobody Asked Me, But...: The World of Jimmy Cannon (1978). About 70 pages after Ruth, in a piece on Billy Conn, he's ending things on the Bestest of All Time and/or In the Whole Wide World note again. He can't very well declare Conn the greatest, he can't even find someone to quote who will, but at least he got someone to declare Conn's most legendary competitor, Joe Louis, "just the greatest"--again, in the piece's very last line. 

It's a good thing Cannon himself didn't call Louis the greatest, since six years earlier, in 1960, he had said the same of Sugar Ray Robinson, a fighter whom Louis preceded. After a few thousand words of longform tour de force on Robinson, Cannon--who typically, almost exclusively, found his speed within the column length--carelessly throws the final seconds again. This is his piece's last sentence: "And no matter what happens in Boston tomorrow night, Ray Robinson will still be the greatest fighter I've ever seen." 

Football, of course, was far from exempt from this binary thinking--and so, apparently, was singing. Cannon manages to end his piece on Jim Brown by not only extolling Brown's own Bestness of All Time and/ or In the Whole Wide World, but also Enrico fucking Caruso's, too. Here's the final paragraph of his panegyric to Brown, and Caruso, and "Greatness" (the title of the piece): 
It's been forty years since I heard Enrico Caruso sing in Joe the Barber's place. Since then I've seen many of the best in numerous fields. None in any line ever did what they were paid to do better than the singer and the football player. Each, in his own thrilling way, is the greatest of his kind. They never came two at a time. 
In the World of Jimmy Cannon, it seems, they came about three at a time. 

It so happens that, immediately after this banality, the very next sentence in the book--the opening line of the following piece, on Johnny Unitas--is a longtime personal favorite of mine. Leading off on Unitas by writing, "The football field becomes Johnny Unitas' quiet lawn when he walks on it," Cannon is able to beautifully capture the essence of Unitas's greatness while also demonstrating his own greatness, by not resorting to heavy-handed declarations about the Bestest. Cannon finishes out the paragraph (and indeed the piece, which I wish I could quote in its entirety) sustaining the supple power he's established: 
It is as though he moved across his own grass with that bowlegged saunter. The screams of the buffs don't seem to reach him. The excitement subsides around him as he strolls toward the center's rump. The great quarterback acts as if he is in some private place. 
And this is Cannon's subdued and soulful--his simple but effective--closing drive:
But this I know. Johnny Unitas will get up and do what he has to do on the next play, and no one does it better when it is breaking right for him. And when it's over he won't attempt to make it dramatic or funny. He'll put on his street clothes and pack his public character in the canvas bag with his football gear. There is no actor in him, or comedian or poet. He is all quarterback.  
Johnny Unitas seems to vanish when he goes through the players' gate. He is only conspicuous during a football game.  
Cannon was the only kind of writer worth regularly reading, which is to say he was a phrasemaker writing with polish and passion, in an idiosyncratic voice that was entirely his own. That he did so for newspapers, on a daily deadline, makes his achievement only more impressive. But is there any more sloppy and facile way to conclude a panegyric than by declaring one's subject the Bestest and then simply stepping aside? 

Cannon was a first-generation Hemingway disciple, and whenever I think of his admiration for Hemingway, I can't help but also think of Cannon's famous remark concerning those who tell him how fortunate he is to have met all those athletes: "I think the great athletes are fortunate that they met me."...Well, I think Hemingway was fortunate to have been compared to Cannon. In a way, he seems to have genuinely admired Cannon--he respected Cannon, they were good friends, and Hemingway was an avid reader of Cannon's. But Cannon--although he wasn't nearly the innovator Hemingway was, and although he relied on Hemingway's example to find his own voice--actually surpassed Hemingway in the sense that he probably wrote more  fine sentences, on tighter deadlines, and for a longer span of years. And that at the end of his career he was still very much at the height of his powers. Some of Cannon's richest, most finely felt writing comes from those final years of his, in the 1970s.

That's why I cringe a little at the end every time I re-read the eulogy he wrote for Hemingway (also collected in Nobody Asked), and come at last to that garish eyesore of a closing sentence: "He was, I believe, the greatest American writer." Cannon should have known better--he was himself a great enough writer to know there's no such thing as a Bestest, or a Greatest, or any such thing. That kind of simplicity belongs on the ballfields where boys play. It never breathes for very long out in the open air of total experience, where longevity and style comprise the only grace that survives. 

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Banana-Split Cheerios

You've probably never heard of the new Banana-Split Cheerios. That's because I just made them up. You can do that now--make up Cheerios flavors. You can do it because Cheerios have begun emerging in so many different flavors that they have, by extension, also emerged in so many different possibilities for those flavors' mixture. So what you do is you get the Banana Nut, the Chocolate, and the Fruity. You mix two parts Banana Nut with one part each of the Chocolate and the Fruity. You pour milk. You enjoy.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

'Lillyhammer' and the Matter of Plausiblity

Look at it as time-lapse photography, if that helps. It should. When the coincidences start rapidly locking into place, from the very first moments of Netflix’s first-ever original series Lilyhammer, you have precisely two options: go with it, or don’t go with it. I chose to go with it, and was able to do so by looking at those coincidences not as implausibilities, but as plausibilities that had simply been given a speeded-up clock.
There are fewer episodes, for one thing, with Lilyhammer. With an eight-episode season, you know before even going in that two to four hours have been shaved from a traditional season’s run, and that a lot of gristle will be left on the floor as a result. But there’s one other thing worth keeping in mind—for those hoping that because Lillyhammer stars Steven Van Zandt, it just might be a Sopranos reboot—and that’s the simple fact that Lilyhammer’s primary aspirations are comedic rather than dramatic, and, hence, can be counted on to sacrifice some plausibility just as surely as a shortened season can.
Read the rest at the Faster Times

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Jim Murray and the Checkers Scoop that Wasn't Quite a Scoop

It was a scoop, but it wasn't a scoop that Jim Murray was ever able to capitalize on, as a scoop. It still saved his job, though, at least if you believe Murray is not exaggerating when he tells of what was at stake that night. 

Before Jim Murray became a daily sports columnist for the L.A. Times--one of only a handful of truly great ones this country has ever had--he was working for Time as their man in Los Angeles. This was 1952; Nixon was a congressman on Ike's ticket as vice-presidential running mate, and news of Nixon's secret slush fund had just broken wide. Murray had to get the story of Nixon's impending televised response (what later became known as the Checkers speech) to his editors, but, because Murray was working for a weekly, with a weekly's stringent lead-time deadlines, he had to get the story of Nixon's response to his editors before Nixon was even scheduled to give that response.

Nixon with his dog Checkers, who became the unlikely star of the speech
This would seem to violate many of the fundamental laws of physics, but that doesn't mean it violated the laws of journalism. When Murray found Nixon on the campaign plane, he pleaded with him to let him know what he was going to announce on the air the following night. He promised that it was simply to satisfy Time's weekly deadline, so that the news could be in the next issue, and that whatever information Nixon could give him would be kept confidential until then. Nixon told Murray to check with Jim Bassett, a member of his campaign staff (who was also a journalist by trade, and could perhaps be counted on to empathize).

"What would you do," Bassett said to Murray about an hour later, kneeling beside him at his seat, "if your family had obligations, debts to pay, but you never took any bribes and struggled along, if your wife and your mother wore cloth coats and had a big mortgage."

"He went on like that," Murray would recall in his autobiography:
Suddenly, it dawned on me. "He's giving me the speech! [Nixon]'s going to give the speech he's been giving [lately] from the back of the train!" 
When I arrived in L.A., I flew to the phone. I laid out that whole speech. I assured the editors that Nixon was not going to take himself off the ticket.

The story doesn't quite end there. There was actually a scare a little later on, a false rumor from a somewhat reliable source that Nixon was actually going to announce his resignation. By this time it was too late to stop the presses, and Murray actually worried, in those moments, if his career would be ruined. He called Nixon operative Bill Rogers, who consulted with his man and came back saying, "The candidate says, quote, Murray's got the story, what's he worried about?"

Murray was elated, and he carried his gratitude with him for years. "I have a terrible confession to make," he writes in the autobiography. "In 1960, I flew all the way back from a Hawaiian vacation to vote for Dick Nixon for president. I loved John Kennedy. But I felt I owed the other man."