“I ain’t sayin’ you ain’t pretty”

“I ain’t sayin’ you ain’t pretty”

Let’s pretend that someone is reading this post, in which case the question I pose is this:

Are you familiar with a peevish annoyance that operates only occasionally, or intermittently, out of mind for most of one’s lifetime, but when it hits, ay caramba, it supercharges the capacity for petulant obsession?

If no, read on to witness the perpetual folly of a man easily distracted. If yes, enjoy the momentary pang of displeasure that arrives with recognition of weakness of mind and character.

Chose your own adventure.

Here goes-

“… Yes, and I ain’t sayin you ain’t pretty

All I’m saying’s I’m not ready

For any person, place or thing

To try to pull the reins in on me.”

This deathless response to an uninvited suitor made popular by the group known as the “Stone Poneys”, lead vocal by a young Linda Ronstadt, just wronks the heck out of me, over and over again. The gripe is enhanced by my admiration for its author, Michael Nesmith. Yes, he was a Monkee, and that is a phrase I will likely not write again in this lifetime. I’ll get back to Nesmith, but even without knowing that the author of this drivel is an accomplished writer and producer, the lyrics themselves scream purposeful, deliberate illiteracy. The “any person place or thing” is an apallingly cute replacement for the word, “noun”. “Noun” is good, a good word, and not terribly tough to insert in that line. To beat this locution to death, Mike, you knew what a noun is; was your  intention to appeal to an unwashed mass of fiercely independent people who are grammar impaired, just schooled enough to know what you were talking about but unable to come up with the term? Were you sidling up to the unwashed tough guys smoking in the playground, pretending you finished sixth grade and then got distracted? 

And then … “I ain’t sayin”.

Well, once again, Mike, you stepped in a mess of your own making. “…I ain’t saying” followed by “All I’m saying’s” …”. Which is it? “Ain’t saying ” or “I’m saying”?  I ain’t or I am?

As you will recall, The Monkees were much too busy singing to put anybody down.

Me? Apparently not that busy.

Now, I ain’t sayin’ nobody should use the word “ain’t” when singing. I’ve heard professors of English recite You Aren’t Anything But A Hound Dog, and it is painful. Elvis Presley was raised in Tupelo, Mississippi; he can toss ain’ts around like confetti.

Nesmith’s mother was a typist who invented Liquid Paper, now known as White Out, originally as Mistake Out, which she sold to Gillette for 48 million dollars. A quick search reveals the enduring viability of the substance, once highly prized by teens keen on altering their diving licenses so as to purchase adult beverages. 48 MILLION dollars! That ain’t hay!

Nesmith died last year, leaving behind an impressive legacy in music, tv, and film. Michael Nesmith and The Second National Bank is considered a pioneer in country-rock music, his early experimental video work for Nickelodeon, Pop Clips, became the MTV network, and his production credits include Repo Man and Tapeheads, and what am gnawing on? 

You ain’t pretty.

Linda Ronstadt isn’t from Tupelo either. One of her grandfathers was an esteemed pioneer in Arizona, the other the inventor of the flexible rubber ice cube tray, another unexpectedly lucrative innovation, which brought him millions. Ronstadt’s career includes her popularity as the most successful concert rock chick, several highly regarded performances in Broadway musicals, the lead soprano role in The Pirates of Penzance, several critically acclaimed albums of jazz and standards produced with Nelson Riddle which reanimated the American Songbook, the “Trio” recordings with Dolly Paron and Emmy Lous Harris, and Cancions de mi Padre. Her voice was magical, and what do I hear over and over? 

“You ain’t pretty’”

The discerning reader will wonder what it is about these phrases that sets me off again and again other than the conscious dumbing down of lyrics. Surely there is trauma somewhere, they intuit, hidden in this mealy mouthed critique of popular culture. “Feh” I say, and “Rubbish”. I may have used “ain’t” freely at home in my first formative years in a country public school, but that had nothing to do with my being sent away to boarding school as I bid my ninth year a fond farewell. I had learned to spit too, through my teeth, with accuracy and distance, which I’m sure was a far more disturbing habit. In but a few years I had discarded my rustic skills and learned to move into polite society ain’t free and rarely spitting.

So, no grist for the mill there.

Have you read …?

Have you read …?

I believe in love at first sight, sense of humor in dogs, and the rare experience of finding a true book friend. Maybe not so rare, as I have met three or four people whose reading world mapped roughly the same region as mine and whose impulse it was to bring an author or book into the conversation within the first five minutes of our acquaintance. Such folks do exist, often in the least likely setting. Consider my agitated fictional friend Holden Caulfield, self-proclaimed illiterate, who got a huge kick out of a novel such as Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and wished authors like Ring Lardner were close friends so that he could call them on the phone when he felt like it. I’m pretty certain that Holden’s creator, professionally reclusive J.D. Salinger, would not have answered a phone call from a wanna-be-book-friend, but it’s the impulse that counts.

An absolutist would argue that there are two kinds of people in the world – those for whom books must be gushed about and recommended and those for whom many other interests compete for brain space. Let’s leave that observation behind; we’ve got enough absolutism and division for one century. The point is, when you meet a book friend, you KNOW.

Of course, engaging with an ambitious reader can be exhausting. So many books, so little time. And, over the years, some peculiarities of preference become more clear, challenging the befriended to open a book they would not otherwise have chosen. Some books are opened and read to the end; others lie gathering dust on a bedside table. Still, no harm in gushing.

I have met only a few prominent authors along the way, and though I’m inclined to think that none would welcome a phone call, I am grateful to have heard their voices. I met Louise Erdrich once; I’ve never made a phone call although I admire her greatly and have been tempted to walk into her Minneapolis bookshop, Birchbark Books, on the off chance that she might drop in. Erdrich and Michael Dorris spoke at a workshop I attended in 1991, before I had read their work. I was thrown off a bit by the workshop leader, an Episcopal priest, who introduced them as American Indian parents of a troubled son. Dorris had just written The Broken Cord, a description of the challenges he and Erdrich faced in raising a son born with fetal alcohol syndrome. It would turn out that Dorris and Erdrich had a number of other significant challenges. Their storied marriage and literary collaboration ended in divorce; Dorris took his own life in 1997. Erdrich has become one of the authors whose books fill my shelves. In the years since Dorris’ death, she wrote Love Medicine, one of the novels I gush about, and another eighteen novels, short fiction, poetry, and children’s books – 29 books in all, including her most recent, The Sentence.

That’s where today’s musing really begins. I’ve read all but two of her novels, loved some entirely, loved some less. She captivates me in those moments when she, the author, the narrator, and the otherworldly mingle for a moment, when collective voices and soul flash brightly then retreat to ordinary time and space. Reviewers have described Erdrich as a writer who “flirts” with magical realism, an assessment I find inadequate. Her narrative style has also been called fragmented, unrealistic, and particular to her Ojibwe heritage. Again, inadequate. The legacy of colonialism and subversion of Native identity informs all of her work, of course, but it is Erdrich’s use of language that is of greatest interest this morning as I put down The Sentence every few pages to wonder at what I have read.

The novel’s narrator (for all but one instructive passage) is a woman sent to prison whose life and mind in confinement are saved by the gift of a dictionary, the best choice, the narrator reminds us, of an object to grab before stepping onto a desert island. She is transfixed by words, most notably the word “sentence”, a word that describes her term of incarceration and also the tightly defined and utterly pliable agency of language, usually containing subject and predicate (but not always) and which conveys a statement, question, exclamation, or command. The examples that intoxicate her in her confinement are, “Open the door.” and “Go”.

The novel is a ghost story of sorts in which both varieties of sentence have their place. Erdrich has happily welcomed the supernatural into her narrative, explaining that the tissue which separates us from the other is thin at times, permeable. The narrator herself in one moment of crisis is described as more porous than others. The novel operates within the decomposition of life during the Covid plague years and describes life in translation of Native people trying to claim their identity and the mess and muddle that is love, but it’s on my mind today because it is also fearlessly about words, the incantatory power of words, and, to return to the subject at hand, books.

The central character works in a bookstore, Erdrich’s bookstore in Minneapolis. Louise Erdrich shows up from time to time in the novel, offering thoughtful counsel at a distance from the narrator’s story. I now know much more about the business of running a bookstore, if it can be called a business. Erdrich’s account of the marginal viability of her store convinces me that independent bookstores are spiritual soup kitchens, hanging on because readers need sustenance and unheralded books need to be read. Our narrator is a born-again reader whose dedication to the store and to books includes the curating of reading lists. At the end of the novel, we find a comprehensive list by category, but throughout the narrative, characters and authors bounce into each other on a daily basis. I kept a list of books as I read, checking frequently to see if my library had them on the shelves (rarely) or if the various E-libraries could beam me the book for a few weeks. The clients of this real/fictional bookstore are grateful for the recommendations the narrator passes along, but they and the other employees of the store binge so quickly that they seem needy rather than reflective. The massing of titles, however, allows the endorsement of underappreciated authors.

I appreciate the treasure hunt now begun, but I miss the insistent energy of conversation with my human book friends. If we’ve both read a book, there are juicy particulars to savor; if recommending a book, I have to find the middle ground between dissipating some of the book’s magic and simply tossing a title in the air. We each have particular shelves that stand outside shared interests. I read mysteries and slipstream fiction, for example, gushing about Amy Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, but have a pretty steadfast allergy to books about naval warfare with the exception of C.S. Forester’s Hornblower series. How did I happen to pick up Beat to Quarters? Ernest Hemingway (not a personal book friend) recommended Forester to every literate person he knew. That was a club I wanted  to join. So, thanks, Ernest.

Stephen Colbert used the term, “Quarantinewhile”, to introduce events taking place in the last two years. Quarantinewhile I have had to rely on the enthusiasms of authors I admire rather than the spontaneous conversation with book friends. Some authors are generous in expressing enthusiasm for other authors; some admit that they don’t read. Without particularly plumping for the slipstream genre, it has to be said that authors of that not-yet universally celebrated inclination celebrate each other at the drop of a hat. The greatest recent influence recently, however, has come in reading George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Masterclass on Writing, Reading, and Life.

Writing, reading, and life … yup …for me,  that’s what friends are for. In the hope of finding another book friend or two, I’ll end with a provocation: 

In addition to a dictionary, what five books would you grab before being shipwrecked on a desert island?

February is almost spring, right?

February is almost spring, right?

Groundhogs throughout the frozen north have done their duty. Some have promised an escape from winter in six weeks, others threaten ice and snow for another month and a half. You say potato, etc. Death, taxes, and unshakable prognostication by rodents remain inescapable. February slides resolutely by; the chocolate-fueled love-fest that is Valentine’s Day is only a few hours away. 

It’s almost baseball.

The Cactus League Spring Training Season opens on the 28th of February as the Angels face the Brewers on the American Family Fields of Phoenix. Once simply known as Maryvale, the Brewer’s park and the training facility are owned and operated by suburban Maryvale’s Park and Recreation Department. It’s easy to find; take a right off Indian School Road after passing Fry’s Food and Drug, just past the entrance to Maryvale High School on 51st Avenue. I’ve been told that the park can hold up to 7000 fans, and that may be true, although seats are rarely filled, perhaps because a third of the fans are lined up in front of the Klements Bratwurst stand.

Maryvale has long been my favorite park; there are no bad seats and the dimensions are pleasing. The left field fence is 350 feet from home plate, the right field fence 340 feet, and center 400 feet. I’ll get back to baseball in a moment, but I should add that Brewer fans are an uncommonly midwestern and outgoing tribe, relishing the sun, beer, brats, and their beloved Brewers. A few sport Seattle Pilots caps, honoring the club that became the Brewers in moving to Milwaukee, but Milwaukee Brewer fandom abounds although the Brewers record from 1969 to the present is under .500 (.483) and they remain one of the few teams without a World Series victory in their history.  Things have slightly picked up recently; the Brewers have won their divisional title twice in the last four years and edged a wild card berth twice,bowing out of the postseason  with losses to the Dodgers, Braves, and Nats.

There are many reasons one might wish to be in Maryvale on February 28th aside from the brats, beer, and the famous racing sausages (Italian, Polish, Brat, Chorizo, and Hot Dog). The Brewers’ Willy Adams is one of the exquisitely talented generation of shortstops playing baseball this season, and Christian Yelich, the NL MVP in 2018, may be one of the best bets to win the Triple Crown. 

Turning to the Angels, however, HOLY GUACAMOLE!!!!

With apologies to William Wordsworth, “Bliss it is in that dawn to be alive” as Mike Trout and Shohei Otani appear on the same team, on the same field, at the same time. It’s not bad to be around as Mookie Betts comes into his own as well, but that’s another story.

Trout is Roy Hobbs, Ernie Banks, a sober Mickey Mantle, and Santa Claus. He literally showed up with presents for a family whose house had burned down. He returns every year to his high school in Millville, New Jersey to visit the baseball team and gives one player a jersey bearing the number he wore in high school. Oh, and he’s always a top contender for the MVP award, winning three times and barely missing with four second place tallies. Considered the best player in baseball since he entered the league in 2012, Trout suits up, shows up, and plays hard. He has been clocked at 6.5 seconds in the 60 yard dash, and he is fearless. To watch Mike Trout play baseball is to be reminded of what genius in cleats looks like.

Otani, on the other hand, a dominating pitcher and powerful hitter has been called a unicorn.


Otani is a manticore – a human with body of a lion, the wings of a dragon, and the tail of a scorpion, six foot four, 210 pounds, throws right, bats left, MLB ERA of 3.53 with a won-loss record of 13-5, 221 strikeouts, 93 home runs, and 247 runs batted in. In the “just-not-fair” category, he is also the fastest man in baseball in sprinting to first base.

Look, the Angels are probably not going to contend for a playoff spot this season; a good year would bring them above the .500 mark. But, as Zeno of Citium might have said, “I don’t care”. 

Watch Mike Trout while you can. Don’t miss an Otani start. Watch Connor McDavid even though the Oilers won’t win the Stanley Cup. Spend an hour with Bradley Beale even if the Wizards make a fan self-digest. Ditto Chris Paul. Imagine NOT seeing Ted Williams, Ernie Banks, Ken Griffey, Jr, Tony Gwynn. Imagine never seeing Barry Sanders’ 47 yard TD run aganst the Dallas Cowboys.

February 28th, the American Family Fields, Maryvale, just past the middle school playground, the smell of brats in the air, this season’s Angels taking infield practice, this season’s Brewers tossing long balls, the crack of batted balls, the slap of a sizzling rope from third to first hitting the mitt, a throw down to second base, the umpire brushing home plate.

It’s almost baseball.

30% Chance of light dusting by morning

30% Chance of light dusting by morning

I wake to an impressive, unexpected snowfall and my thoughts turn to the team of weatherfolk on our local television station, WFSB, serving Hartford and New Haven. Although our paths in the real world have not crossed, I can tell they truly are a team; their hail-fellow-well-met lively patter is clearly unrehearsed and sincere. They take their work seriously, though; they have maps.

We are newly arrived in Connecticut, and (how to put this gently?) don’t give a rip about the upcoming tilt between the Bacon Wildcats (Colchester) and the Woodstock Centaurs (Woodstock), except to wonder, of course, how the Centaurs came to be a school mascot. We DO care about the weather, and it is in the pursuit of timely information that we tune in each evening at six, suffering through taped debates of wastewater issues in Bristol in order to glean some slight sense of what is about to happen to our roof and yard.

It has been my contention for some time that we might as well buy a used Magic Eight Ball, slosh it around, and ask if rain or snow is likely. I’ve done my research; the clouded Eight Ball screen offers 20 possible responses, 10 of which are positive, five uncertain, and five negative. Not too shabby. To be fair, the predictive authority of weather teams everywhere is at least as helpful as that offered by economists and on-line dating sites.

That said, snow is on the ground, and that’s that. Except that it isn’t. The next twenty hours of keenly observant reporting from the WFSB weather team will document the distribution of that snowfall, flake-by-flake. We’ll see snow plows, hats decorated with reindeer, and slick highways glistening with snow melt or gritty with freshly spread sand. Since the team didn’t see this one coming (or if they did,  chose not to share their vision with those of us tuned in at six), tonight’s broadcast will explain why the sky fell and how likely it is to fall again.

Lest you think my meteorological nattering is directed at the entire universe of weather reporters, I hasten to correct the record.

We lived in Alabama for five years (I know) where DOPPLER RADAR reports were constant and absolutely necessary. You want weather? Live anywhere south of Indiana. The day after we arrived in Connecticut a major snowfall covered the Farmington Valley; the week before we landed in Huntsville, a tornado tore the roof off the neighborhood school. Yes, there are tornadoes elsewhere, including Connecticut, where an earlier and misbegotten turn of events brought us to the Northwest Corner only days before a tornado took out an entire forest, but heightened awareness of the possibility of months of chaos in Tornado Alley is another thing altogether. Red sky in the morning may be a sailor’s warning in New England; green sky at noon was more than enough warning for us.

We did spend more time above ground than in our comfy sheltered basement, but all we needed was the slightest suggestion of a pending whirlwind to scurry down below. So, there we were, cookies and crayons at hand, prepared to wait out whatever tumult the gods had in mind, watching the local news team report from ground zero.

Hmmm. When I say local news team I mean the lowest ranking, newly hired, youngest “reporter” whose mission it was to stand in the face of gale force wind and driving rain in order to share their estimation of the pain brought by stinging pellets of hail, sleet, and pavement. Some voices were more authentic than others. An on-camera voice from the midst of a cloud of something white and green shouted obscenities obscured by flotsam but impressive nonetheless. 

A savvy tyro simply refused to get out of the news van. “Not going out. Not going out.” Sensible and really all I needed to know. 

Today, here in Connecticut, we’re just back from a pleasant walk inside our snow globe, hanging up our scarves and mittens and about ready to bust out the soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. I’ll give the Eyewitness News team a chance to explain how they meant to say several inches and plowed driveways rather than light dusting and open roads, but no hard feelings. 

Who doesn’t love surprises?

 Reply hazy. Try again. 

“A tentative fungo in a field of surmise …”

“A tentative fungo in a field of surmise …”

I’d like to report that meetings of the faculty in schools such as those in which I worked are universally compelling, but if they are, and they are only rarely, it arrives as a debate about dress code devolves into character assasination, accusations of perfidy, and the sudden extinction of life-long friendships. There have been, however, a few moments in which the level of discourse has risen to memorable heights. I was a young teacher, unaware that it would be decades before another inspired comment would rock me to the core, when a colleague, a somewhat crusty Ivy educated country gentleman, pitched (and I use the word with some satisfaction) the following preface to remarks on grading, or bus etiquette, or trays missing from the dining hall,or a topic of equally grave concern:

“This is just a tentative fungo into a field of surmise …” he began.

Let the word “surmise” linger in your imagination for a bit as I wander into reflection on the purpose of hitting fungos.

I sit on a crisp winter’s day, glistening mounds of snow heaped along the side of the driveway, trees standing naked before me, thinking about baseball, as one does in early February in the week before pitchers and catchers are expected to report to training camp. The configuration of the next season is in question, but spring training will begin, and a coach somewhere will lift a fungo bat and loft a high fly ball to an outfielder straining to follow the arc of the ball in the harsh Arizona (or Florida) sun. Designed solely for the purpose of lofting baseballs, the fungo bat is of little use in any other aspect of the game. It’s longer and lighter than other bats, often made of ash. Here’s where some muddle may intrude; as a verb, fungo is the act of hitting a ball high in the air. Then too, the balls in flight are themselves called fungoes. 

In the early years of our marriage, my wife was puzzled one mid-evening as we drove by illuminated baseball fields in the Illinois heartland watching men and boys practice and play baseball as the long day cooled.

 “I’d like to pull over and shag some fungoes,” I said with conviction.

“Huh,” she advised.

John Toffey, the English teacher whose phrase resounds through the years, found the perfect metaphor in identifying a lightly held opinion tossed into a speculative conversation – a tentative fungo in a field of surmise.

I share the phrase now, in my personal mid-evening as my days cool, in order to remind myself of the elegant language of baseball. It is in the heat of a match that tennis players may shout, Love All, a heartening sentiment but not in this context. Golf has given us, Play it as it lays, a useful shorthand for playing by the rules and a sporty riff on Lao Tsu’s observation “Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” Football’s gritty aphorism, Winning Isn’t everything; It’s the only thing, attributed to UCLA coach Henry Russell “Red” Sanders and occasionally to Packer’s legendary coach Vince Lombardi, is a puzzling construction in that “everything” and “only thing” are not separated by much in terms of intensity, and yet there is a clear escalation by the end of the phrase. Other configurations might raise similar questions, as in “Survival isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Well yes, in that as a state of being it is absolute, and no, because we might hope there is more to life than merely staying alive. 

I remember John Toffey’s locution with gratitude; it is one of the phrases I most enjoy trotting out on the rare occasions in which surmise is at hand. Today’s challenge is in coming up with other baseball related terminology that can be put to use in more general conversation. There are a plethora of genuinely startling terms in the lexicon of baseball, many more than are found in other enterprises. I can’t explain why invention is more pronounced in baseball, but I present but a few of the terms any fan would recognize from the crack of the bat:

Chin music – a pitch that is high and inside also known as High Cheese and High Cheddar

Can of Corn – an easy pop fly

Pop Fly – a high batted ball that does not leave the infield

Rhubarb – a scrap, quarrel, or fight between players teams, coaches and umpires

Texas Leaguer – a ball that drops between the infield and the outfield

Worm Burner – a sharply hit ground ball

The Hot Corner – third base

Pickle – a runner caught between two fielders in a rundown

Banjo Hitter – a hitter that put together a string of blooped hits 

In the Hole – the batter after the batter on deck

Eephus – a lobbed pitch that wobbles

Cricket, the sport that may have spawned baseball, has its arcane observations. Without any knowledge of the game, we’ve seen enough movies and read enough books to know that a bit of a sticky wicket is not a good thing. Don’t go looking for help with the phrase as the word “wicket” has several uses in the terminology of the sport. Let’s agree that in this instance, the wicket is an area of the field (pitch) that with overuse or heavy rain can get gummy just as situations in life can occasionally gum up.

All of that said, metaphors have to eclipse the particular in order to express the otherwise inexpressible, thus the tentative fungo. An obvious description already in use is fielder’s choice, in baseball pithy shorthand for a play in which a fielder makes a play to a base other than first, allowing the batter to arrive at first safely. For one locked in romance, however, such as Archie, the exuberant comic book lothario who plays the field, smitten by both Betty and Veronica, a fielder’s choice means being forced to pick one over the other with clear expectation of loss no matter which play is made.

Coming in with spikes high describes the aggressive and possibly injurious slide of a runner intent on stealing a base. Ty Cobb, perhaps the meanest son-of-a-gun (an oddity of biology?) to play the game, likely sharpened his spikes before each game, perhaps to improve traction, perhaps to intimidate the second baseman waiting to be speared, perhaps to spear a second baseman. Similarly, an aggressive and perhaps preemptive verbal start to a difference of opinion might intend traction, intimidation, or injury. “I may be coming in with my spikes too high,” might be a way to indicate an awareness of the distress a sharpened comment can cause. Suggesting that a solution is obvious, a can of corn, however, can be provocative as we are often in a pickle, caught in a rundown, caught off base, rather than seeing the inescapable solution to an issue.

I’m free of faculty meetings these days, so I won’t have a chance to accuse a colleague of throwing high cheddar, high cheese, playing chin music, no, I’m just offering a tentative fungo in a field of surmise.

Thanks, John.