Never A Cross Word …

Never A Cross Word …

I am a creature of habit. 

My morning ritual is not quite as intricately methodical as chado or sado, the Japanese tea ceremony, the “way of tea”. No tatami mats. No hanging scrolls. There are, however, certain items placed in certain order, necessary to the shaving ritual, a three part exercise involving a shaving cream bowl provided by Taylor of Old Bond Street, and two razors with double edged blades made with highest quality steel by Gilette in the Czech Republic. 

That portion of the ritualized greeting of the day accomplished, I set aside fifteen minutes of silent mental exercise, accomplished with the assistance of one of the New York Times collections of crossword puzzles. I can’t explain why other crossword compendia do not speak to me, but there it is. The Times or nothing.

There are limits, however, that cannot be breached. The time limit is flexible, and I have put down a cortex damaging puzzle to be completed on another try, but my sweet spot is the puzzles published on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I can work with the Friday and Saturday puzzles when I can spend more than fifteen minutes on the task, but the ritual demands orderly procession from one task to the next,and there are dogs to feed. 

Have I done a Sunday puzzle? I have; the cost was great and the hours lost will never be recaptured. 

I like words well enough and challenge, but the exercise comes in practicing a particular sort of discipline. Each of us has certain abilities; recognizing words by simply looking at empty boxes is not one of mine. My wife and daughter, for example, are whizzes at solving Wheel of Fortune missing word challenges; my daughter actually got a word before the first letter appeared. Lacking the spatial genius they possess, my method is more deliberate. 

I won’t say that everything I learned I learned from completing crossword puzzles, but the lessons I have learned in black and white are significant.

In the first place, I might not start at the first place. The temptation is to start with the clues running across the page from left to right, then turning to the clues running down the page, top to bottom. As is often true of life its own self, however, clues are likely to be obscure or ambiguous.  A first clue might be “Shaver’s purchase” in four letters. OK, I’ll take a leap and assume that we’re talking about the sort of shaving that is part of my ritual, but several words might fit the bill. I’m inclined to go with “soap” or “blade”, but in this case, the correct entry would have been “foam”.  Then, of course, the clue might have referred to those who shave wood, or points, or minutes off a commute.

The point is that without knowing that my entry is absolutely the only answer that could work in that space, I might happily pencil in “blade” and find myself hamstrung when answers to the first clues running down the page are at odds with the letters in place. In this case, for example, “blade” would have been useless in finding the answer to, “Big sugar exporter”, which turned out to be Fiji. Who knew?

The first lesson has been this: I’m best served by starting with what I know.  Had I been completely stuck in ambiguity, I could have turned to clues 50 and 51 across, way down at the bottom of the page – “Sitcom pioneer Desi” and “Nicolas of Con Air”.   No ambiguity there.  Desi Arnaz and Nicolas Cage.  I had to remember that Desi’s last name, pronounced ArNEZ, is spelled with an ‘a’, but other than that, slam dunk.  Having those two words in place, 50 down – “Elemental particle” in four letters – has to be “atom”, and having “atom”, 60 across – “Doomsayer’s sign” in four letters – is pretty likely ‘omen”.

The second lesson follows the first in recognizing that as one word clarifies the identity of another, the process works best by tugging at each available string until the entire puzzle is pulled apart, and that tugging is not necessarily done by serially attacking clues one through fifty in order.  In fact, the task is not only more difficult when order has to be maintained, it is changed.  By the time I have encountered eight clues running across the page, each of which is shrouded in deceptive ambiguity, I have nothing. Let’s say this is a Wednesday puzzle, considered to be far less challenging than those that follow it.  I’m looking at empty squares and quickly overwhelmed by my inadequacy on this, a medium level puzzle.  I take a breath and try the eight clues running in sequence down the page, only to find that once again, no rock-solid answers arrive.  I’ve now exhausted sixteen clues without putting pencil to paper.

What does this say about me? Maybe I need to scale down my ambition and do the Monday puzzle on The Atlantic’s website, twenty-four spaces in all, five across and nine down, with clues such as “Gargantuan aquatic mammal with a blowhole” in five letters.  Maybe I should admit defeat and watch youtube videos of animal best friends.  I should do that in any case, but in this moment the choice before me is to yield or push my brain a bit farther until I find a clue I can answer, then the next, and the next.

The lesson for me is that I can’t know what I know if I walk away.  I have to take it one word at a time.  As Anne Lamott’s father advised her brother, stuck and overwhelmed by a project on birds, “Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.”

We’re talking about fifteen minutes before I grab a cup of coffee and a yoghurt.  Fifteen minutes of brain tuning.  Some days are better than others.  I’ve raced through an entire puzzle in ten minutes and on others found myself stuck on “Gargantuan mammal with a blowhole”.  

The final lesson is that I’m content with finishing a puzzle even as I meet friends who polish off the Sunday crossword in ink.  This not “Zen and the Art of Crosswords”, but things do go better when I am amused by a crossword’s tricky word play and appreciative of the lengths to which someone has gone to provide me with fifteen minutes not engaged in culture wars, financial planning, or the to-do list languishing on the refrigerator door.

So, mammals with blowholes?  I began the quest, whale by whale until I hit the headline: “Scientists Discover A Mouth Breathing Dolphin”.  The world is unimaginably surprising.

Oh, You Meant Now!

Oh, You Meant Now!

My granddaughter has a new game.  She sets out her family of stuffed animals, arranges them in a row, and tells them to get ready to evacuate.  She warns them: “The sky is orange again!”.  The muppets then proceed in an orderly fashion, as orderly as muppets can be in crisis, escaping the conflagration for the moment.

Everyone we know has a “GO” bag packed and a box of important documents by the front door.  The folks who provide water for irrigation here have advised us that they won’t start making water available until June and that there won’t be much when it arrives.  Our pasture is already dusty and cracked in April.

I signed onto the Rogueweather site to make sure I hadn’t been sleeping during a rainfall.  Turns out, the site has had to develop new language to describe what’s happening this year.  Modifying their already grim report that there has been “no measurable amount” of rain this month, they now report “no trace”.  Since October of 2020, our part of the valley has had a total of eleven inches of rain, and no measurable amount of snow.

My son lives in Corvallis, Oregon, where he came to expect rain frequently during the winter.  He moved to Corvallis because likes a thick grey overcast day, and recent estimates indicated that Carvallis would get something like 51 inches of rain a year.  Last year the average was 36.34 inches, which by itself is troubling, but last week Corvallis was under a “Red Flag” warning, the warning of dangerously powerful and erratic winds which ordinarily might come in late July or August.

On September 8th, 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, my wife and I stood in the pasture watching the sky fill with plumes of thick smoke.  We knew there had been a “Red Flag Warning”, but the very heavy wind was oddly persistent.  By midnight on September 8th, 11,000 people in our town and the adjacent town had lost their homes. Almost two thousand homes and business had become nightmarish ruins of ash and melted metal.  The local bank burned to the ground; only its vault still stood in the middle of the devastation.  Those who lost homes found that the fire had burned with such intensity that there was literally, “nothing left to sift through”. 

We and every family in the valley learned the difference between evacuation warnings: Level 1 (“Be Ready”), Level 2 (“Get Set”) and Level 3 (“GO!”).  We went back and forth as the sky grew darker, never received a warning, but heard explosions close to our home, packed the car, and drove to a friend’s home outside the fire ring.  We love our agricultural valley with its lovely winding roads, but those roads were clogged, and there was no control of traffic as we fled.

That day was a terrible announcement of a change in fires affecting the Northwest.  We had come to accept the fire season and the layers of thick smoke that fll the valley from July to September, but those earlier fires had been forest wildfires.  This time fire came to town, not only raging through our southern corner of the state, but reaching the outskirts of Portland.  Only a year earlier, businesses in our region lost much of their summer income as visitors chose not to drive into smoke, or, willing to brave the smoke, found that the passes into the valley and the highways to the south of us were closed as fires persisted.

Like the frog in slowly boiling water, we were not entirely aware that the summers when we first arrived had subsequently grown increasingly hot and dry.  We complained through the three or four weeks of very hot weather, but knew relief would soon arrive.  On the first week of summer in 2020, from June 22 – June 28, the highs ranged from 96 to 103.  To the south, Sacramento saw the needle reach 100 on May 25th, 2020.  100 degree days have become common and expected.

I’m sitting on our deck in April, 2021.  The grass is green, flowers are blooming, a mild breeze ruffles the leaves of the rose bushes just starting to bud.  The thought of our beautiful corner of the world in flames is devastating, but our bags are packed, just in case.

The Pirate Unbuttoned or Ravished At Sea

The Pirate Unbuttoned or Ravished At Sea

Draft # 5 –Why I can’t Write the Great American Romance Novel

Ramona rubbed her chafed wrists, gingerly stepping down from the mizzenmast where she had been displayed like a captive chained to the mizzenmast. “What do you intend to do with me?” Her cheeks burned red, salt air and salt spray having had their way with her for several hours. The swarthy pirate captain slowly licked his the blade of his cutlass

I can’t do this. I’ve tried, I really have, but I just don’t have the whatever it takes to churn out the sort of romance novel that clogs the shelves at airports and sit in stacks at vacation rentals. I’m terminally sentimental as any who have heard me gurgle through even the most ham-handed happy ending can attest. I’m a sucker for a good romantic comedy, and am generally able to buy some pretty threadbare plotting in order to see true love triumph. I’m not very keen on ravishings, however, and the notion of seduction at sword-point makes me very uneasy.

The most I can manage is to lump around a few self-consciously contrived descriptions:

“Klaus, a common gardner, bowed as the Countess stepped from the carriage. Maria Hassenpfeifel von Strep was in no mood to be trifled with. The journey from Salzburg had been uncomfortable, the company unbearable, and her unquenched appetites had reached terminal unquenchability. As Klaus lowered his head, Maria noted the span of his shoulders and the intriguing bulge of his calf as he stooped awkwardly before her.

“Have that man brought to my chamber,” she ordered, rapping Matilda her lady-in-waiting with the edge of her fan. “I have much to teach him in the finer points of submission to his betters.”

….. …………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

“I think I may have made a terrible mistake,” Harrison admitted. “This capsule is designed to accomodate but one astronaut, and I did not see you here until the portal had slammed shut.” Captain Temptation O’ Hara looked up at the intruder, noting the tautness with which his galactic track suit pulled across his chest and the intriguing bulge of his quadriceps fempris as he scrambled above her free of gravity.

O’Hara laughed softly. “Well, we’re only moments away from the cyrogenic long sleep, and we’ll be awfully busy on Proserpena, the newly discovered tenth planet, so why don’t we get to know each other before we’re iced down?”

Despite the freedom in floating free, it was obvious that Harrison’s galactic trousers had become painfully constraining. “I’ll be down in a minute. I have to change into something more comfortable.”

“Don’t bother,” O’Hara chuckled, tugging him to the ceiling, “I’m ready to fire my boosters right now

…………………………………………………………………………………………………..

Jodi had only been the firm’s art director for a week when she was summoned to the chairman’s office. He stood facing the floor to ceiling window overlooking Central Park, turning slowly as Jodi entered. His Italian loafers crafted from the hides of unborn impalas gleamed as he faced Jodi. His elegantly tailored suit coat was unbuttoned, allowing her to notice the crisp white linen shirt straining across his chest. She noted too the intriguing bulge in the pocket of the newly loosened jacket.

Her imagination racing, she approached the chairman’s desk with a mix of caution and excitement.

“You wanted to see me, Mr. Poundbetter? She was short of breath; her question seemed an invitation. Her face reddened as the chairman rose and crossed to her, extending his hand.

“I just wanted to welcome you to the firm…” he began, but Jodie squeaked, “So firm.”

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

A circus is no place to begin an affair, Melody thought as she approached the living area known as Clown Alley. The invitation had come in the second of half of yesterday’s show, when Ruffles, a robustly hulking actor sporting a bright red clown nose and a mop of straw hair came to her section of the bleachers. Other clowns lumbered gracelessly in floppy shoes and loose one piece garments; Ruffles enacted the role of comic weight lifter, tossing barbells like flavor straws. Shirtless, his lower torso bound only by a tightly cinched diaper, Ruffles posed for a moment before Melody, selecting her as the audience member treated in viewwing a cascade of abdominal muscles, a virtual 32 pack, nudged into an abdominal ballet. Melody assumed his torso had been greased as the circus lights played on his expanding chest; even more intriguing? The bulge slightly to the left of the cleft he displayed in turning away from Melody, his caboose writhing like a snake on a gridle.

………………………………………………………………………………………..

When I think of the really good novels that bring romance to life, anything by Jane Austen and a couple of Brontes, for example, I’m aware of the power of mind behind the narration. Yes, there are moments that cause reckless swooning, but it’s the indelibilityof the central character that really makes the novel substantial. That is not to say that the central character is not without flaws. Austen admitted that she began writing Emma as a complicated character, going so far as to say, “”I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”

She liked a challenge and so do I. I’m putting the ravishing pirate on the gangplank and dropping him to the depths of the ocean, to remain captive in Davey Jones’ Locker. Rather than maim a genre I don’t understand, I think an appropriate challenge might be in creating and supporting a character I don’t much like. Coming soon, to a Cogitator near you, the first installment of The Man Nobody Could Stand.

Where’s My Yearbook?

Where’s My Yearbook?

My son and daughter graduated from college approximately ten years ago, and in a burst of parental munificence, I offered to pay for their college yearbook, remembering how expensive those compendia had become and how little I wanted to spend of my own money as a recent graduate.  I also remembered my very mixed feelings about about my college career, more losses than wins from my perspective in the first years out, regrets that might have kept me from shelling out a bundle as I began to look for employment.  My parents paid for my yearbooks, I guess, as they probably did for every aspect of my existence. I began to reflect on how little thought I gave to what it must have cost to keep me blissfully unaware of life’s bumps and bruises, when the phrase, “I didn’t ask you to do that” arrived unbidden, reminding me that one of the parental units had prepared an invoice itemizing that cost to the dollar.

The point to all of this is that I made the offer in good faith, contacted the colleges, and found that they don’t do yearbooks anymore.  My own college, a fuzzily friendly intimate haven for good people of all sorts, stopped publishing yearbooks with the 2014 edition.  I had worked in boarding schools, occasionally acting as advisor to the yearbook, and understood the time, energy, and money it took to pull a year together with photos in focus and as few egregiously embarrassing portraits as possible.  There was, perhaps still is, a penchant for “photo bombing”, commonly crashing the portraits of the debate team without having been a debater; I won’t go into detail in describing the very unfortunate, occasionally graphic photographs which have slipped into perpetuity despite the assigning of faculty gatekeepers.  During my years, video yearbooks began to appear, offering a far more immediate and vibrant evocation of a senior’s journey.  Many were artful, some were inclusive, all are now sitting in the attic with the VHS tapes of family vacations and treasured mix tapes on cassette.

My kids seem to be lumping along yearbook-free with no notable scarring; they have friends and keep up with them, far more regularly than I did.  It occurs to me in this moment that I have passed the Biblically endorsed lifespan of threescore and ten (Wycliffe Bible, Leviticus 12, published in 1388) and may have more interest in things past than in things ahead.  In this seventh decade I do find myself searching my memory for any variety of insignificant facts.  When I manage to retrieve a particularly juicy one, I send it on to one of my pals only to find that they are puzzled with my gift rather than amused, gently advising me that once again I may not have been present in my own life.

All of that aside, my relationships with yearbooks goes well beyond the ordinary human’s experience of the genre.  For any number of reasons, most having to do with allergy to instruction, I was often (always) confined during study hours in the hope that I might, well, study.  All in vain, however, because trapped in the library, I had little choice but to seek amusement where I could find it, and find it I did … in yearbooks.  I would go on to write a guide to generally under esteemed colleges in part because I had come to know and love them as they were in the years before they found their way to the library’s shelves.  I don’t know why my boarding school had copies of forty or fifty colleges, but it was with thanks that I dove into them.  Some live more vividly in memory than others; I suppose they must have seemed more exotic.  In any case, I know quite a lot about Union College in Schenectady, New York (The 1958 Garnet), Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida (The 1956 Tomokan), and The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia (The 1957 Colonial Echo) and many, many more.

In my own college career, diversion still a priority, I raided that library’s collection of yearbooks, floating blissfully away to college lives I might have lived in parallel universes.  I suspect that I was doing sociological research without fully understanding all that I took in, but, there was also a lovely esthetic to be found in early yearbooks, flourishes and furbelows, particularly in the illustrations that then filled the introductory pages.  I stumbled upon a collection of college bookplates, for example, that I still consider among the artifacts I most admire.  It’s a wonder that I did not become a professional archivist; a quick glance at my bookshelves, however, reveals the depth of my amateur archiving.  I might have let the fascination with yearbooks drift into the same category as my fascination with professional wrestling (another story) had I not driven past The Book Barn somewhere south of Bangor, Maine and decided, what the heck, let’s take a look.  

I am not alone I know in enjoying the fantasy of finding an immaculate Mercedes 190 SL, silver grey with red interior, lying under stacks of newspapers in a long neglected garage.  Unlikely, you say.  The Book Barn was actually a barn, a large barn, stuffed with books of every variety.  I like old books and had picked up a few along the way, often selecting a purchase based on the appearance of the spine or cover alone.  Like a glutton in Wonkaland, I was overwhelmed by the options before me, blindly rushing from aisle to aisle.  I came upon a dull brownish green spine that seemed to call me, paused, flipped open the book, and found that I was holding the 1917 Princeton Bric -A- Brac, a yearbook celebrating the achievements of many Princeton Tigers but with particular fondness, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Princeton ‘17.  Fitzgerald wasn’t the only luminary in the class; literary critic Edmund “Bunny” Wilson was his junior and became what Fitzgerald called his “literary conscience”.  Wilson’s in the yearbook, of course, and Fitzgerald is all over it.  Active in the Triangle Club, Fitzgerald sang, acted, and wrote the text and lyrics for the year’s ambitious production of “Fi – Fi – Fi”. The book is filled with pictures of every activity, from the Banjo Club to the Cottage Club, one of the “Big Four” eating clubs (Cottage, Tiger Inn, Cap and Gown, and Ivy).

It’s an incredibly detailed recreation of the life of the university in the last years of WWI, presenting a portrait of the Ivied upper class in the second decade of the century.  My collection reflects my interest in boarding schools as well as colleges; I read those yearbooks on the sly during study hours as well.  Recently, I began assembling material for a book on boarding schools, a book that is slowly decomposing somewhere in digital neverland.  My ambition and pleasure combined as I scouted out histories of the schools and approximately thirty boarding school yearbooks.

There’s a lot to be learned in looking at these annuals, as there was for Ken Burns in reading letters written during The Civil War.  Tides turn, fads and fashions change, language particular to a generation gives way to the following decade’s locutions.  I remain fascinated as a quasi-historian but know that an element at play from the start has been “nose pressed to the window watching the swells at ease in their clubrooms”, an outsiders’ longing for a world I never knew.

There are more expensive and dangerous hobbies, to be sure.  I’m content to wait by the mailbox, hoping the next delivery will bring the 1949 Kiskimentian, the yearbook of The Kiskiminetas Springs School in Saltsburg, Pennsylvania, plenty interesting in its own right, but extraordinary in that it chronicles the senior year of Robert Bruce (Bob) Mathias.  He’d won the Gold Medal in the Decathlon at the London Olympic Games in 1948, returning to Kiski for his senior year in high school before entering Stanford.  He’d win again in Helsinki in 1952, after playing for Stanford in The Rose Bowl.  I’m looking at a picture of the Kiski School track team, Bob Mathias among the group at the starting line, and imagining what it must have been like for high school boys peeking sideways at an Olympian athlete casually taking his position at the start.  Mathias played football and basketball at Kiski as well and sang in the Glee Club.  He also won the citation for “Best Track Athlete”, a not entirely unexpected honor.

I’m currently not scooping up yearbooks, or Mercedes 190SLs, but I’m not likely to drive past a weathered book barn without circling back, just to see what might be at the bottom of a pile of dust covered large books. Oh, and by the way, that 1917 Princeton Bric A Brac? Now worth $1500.00. Fitzgerald in in the back row just left of center of the picture accompanying this article.

The Write Stuff

The Write Stuff

My career as a writer began with the irregular publication of Famous Monsters of Woodville, a “newspaper” reporting the activities of the characters belonging to the hyper select organization known as The Monster Club.  Published on a toy printing press, the paper was a labor of love, involving setting type by hand, an enterprise limiting the length of an article to about thirty words.  The meetings of the Monster Club took place in our garage and almost exclusively involved the devising of ordeals rigorous enough to jazz up the initiation of new members, should new members appear. The executive committee was made of the club’s entire membership, my brother, my best friend, and your author.  I was at the time steeped in the lore produced by Universal Studios in their golden age of monsters and celebrated in the magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland, hence the shameless appropriation in my paper’s name.  Mine was a true vanity press; I published short (30 words) accounts of myself as a vampire using the nomme de guerre “Drac”.  My recollection is that my brother was The Mummy, and Ken, the friend that put up with us, The Wolfman.  

All of the elements that would later characterize my career as a writer were present as those fast-breaking 30 word stories rolled off that toy press:  Even then I found my own work breathtakingly compelling, even then I was and would remain the sole reader, and from the start, there wasn’t much in the way of narrative development in the work. Most successful novelists have the ability to tell a story; I’m not among them. In search of narrative boosting, I threw myself into storytelling for about a decade, hoping that by telling stories I would become a more fluent writer, capable of inventing a start, middle, and conclusion with enough substance to make a story worth reading.  I got reasonably good at telling some sorts of stories, particularly chillingly atmospheric tales in which repeated phrases indicated the arrival of a yet another terrifying twist.  The key to my success was in settling into the detail of the world in which the story was set, taking the bare bones of the story and fleshing it out with evocative description.  

Oh, and they weren’t my stories.  

Now Herman Mankiewicz could tell a story, lots of them. This confessional follows a long piece in which I argued against the revisionist assessment of Herman Mankiewicz’ contribution to the making of Citizen Kane.  In arguing that the genius of the film is in the telling and not in the script, I failed to express the awe with which I consider Mankiewicz’ ability to turn out script after indelible script at a breathless pace.  He is credited with 95 filmed scripts, probaby wrote as many that never saw the screen, and jumped in as uncredited script doctor and emergency wordsmith on at least 20 more films.  The studios operated a virtual assembly line, churning out major films on a weekly basis, grabbing a writer from the bullpen and turning them loose for the six to ten days it took to produce a finished script.  Yes, some of the work was formulaic, and some of the scripts were essentially vehicles for established stars, but Mankiewicz and his Round Table cohort managed to create a peculiarly American genre, the screwball comedy, in which snappy repartee delivered with machine gun velocity animated a cynically lighthearted battle of the sexes.  Mankiewicz knocked them out with wry appreciation of the human condition, serving up a potpourri from Duck Soup for the Marx Brothers to Dinner at Eight for Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery.

My resume is notably thin.  I wrote two books simultaneously about ten years ago, a novel in which a woman of middle age discovers purpose and friendship in becoming a fabric artist and a college guide dedicated to the proposition that there are many overlooked colleges of quality.  I enjoyed writing both and had a head of steam from the start.  The college book, America’s Best Kept College Secrets, was conversational in tone, essentially an appreciation of the best qualities in more than a hundred colleges, appreciation easily summoned.  The Christmas Quilt teetered on the edge of sentimentality, but I found myself charmed to be in the company of the book’s central character. My experience in and fondness for the boarding school world allowed me to write two novels that moved with some deliberation from start to finish, but my digital dustbin is packed with scripts, plays, and novels that seemed entirely worthwhile when I began, lost traction somewhere around the midpoint and fizzled into wordy dreck. It wasn’t great to realize that I really didn’t have a story that needed telling. 

As the days dwindle down to a precious few, however, I find that articles such as this one allow me to wander from one subject to the next, essentially adding one reflection at a time to what I like to think of as the Chautauqua-lite of the mind. 

Mank tugged me in one direction and allowed me to think about Kane, a visual masterwork, and, as Kael noted, a “shallow masterpiece”.  I liked Pauline Kael very much; she was very kind to me as I first started to write about films.  In reading “Raising Kane” again, I remember the intensity with which she approached films, those she loved and those she despised.  Smart, smart, smart and fearless.  

I’ve just finished teaching a course on Slipstream Fiction, a genre that defies characterization, but which deserves critical attention, exactly the sort of subject I like batting around here at Chautauqua Northwest, and I’m prepping for a six week immersion in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

There might be a story somewhere in all of that.

Mank’s A Mess

Mank’s A Mess

Near the end of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, a weary Marlene Dietrich greets a bloated Welles: “You should lay off the candy bars … You’re a mess, Honey.”  He was, and the film itself was a marvelous and flamboyant noir mess and great fun, but David Fincher’s Mank is simply a melancholy and slightly grubby mess and no fun at all..  

Fincher mounts an obscured refutation of Welles’ singular role in the filming of Citizen Kane, shooting this film in rough, very rough, approximation of Kane’s distinctive vocabulary.  It’s not a shot-for-shot imitation, but similar enough in its many gestures to Kane and so disturbingly visually inferior to the original that ironically, Fincher’s film makes the case for Welles’ genius, illustrating the distance between the screenplay, however strong, and Welles’ film.  It is difficult to find a segment in Kane that does not contain at least one stunning image; virtually every scene can be brought to mind simply by referencing a particular shot, the more effective for having been shot in black and white.  None springs to mind from Mank, although cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt shot the film with an intended echo of Greg Toland’s work on Kane. 

Toland was an extraordinary cinematographer, but there are a number of masterworks filmed by others to great effect in black and white including Welles’ Magnificent Ambersons, The Lady from Shanghai, and Touch of Evil.  Stanley Cortez shot Ambersons, Russell Metty Touch of Evil, and three cinematographers shot The Lady From Shanghai.  The sensibility behind each of those films is Welles’.  It is the composition of the shot which evokes the script; even a casual admirer of Citizen Kane can reference a scene or sequence by summoning an image which returns unbidden with perfect clarity. 

Take for example the stentorian newsreel voiceover as the headline crawls across an electronic billboard – “Then, last week, as it must to all men, death came to Charles Foster Kane”.  Those are Mankiewicz’ words and they fit the cinematic moment perfectly as the words land following a montage of found footage, simultaneously evoking the passing of a great man and drawing attention to itself as a joke the audience might share with Welles. There is a great celebration of Mankiewicz’ words in Mank, many of them very clever, but they may not live in memory; no sequence is vivid enough to bring the words back to life.

Mank’s flatness comes in part from its expectation that gesture is enough.  In a long shot of a car leaving the ranch, we are meant, perhaps, to recognize the isolation Mankiewicz might feel trapped in the desert, but the car is small, the shot held too long, and the impression unremarkable; a comparison springs to mind of the shots of Kane’s incongruous procession of picnicking automobiles driving on the beach or in the same sequence, of Kane and Susan Alexander jammed into the rear seat of their limousine, Alexander wrapped in the pelt of a small animal, Kane decked out in a ridiculous striped blazer. 

A Hollywood biopic is an odd eruption of industry chutzpah, a period piece obliged to reflect the sensibilities of a by-gone era while inevitably bearing the weight of intervening years.  It frequently offers an actor a defining role.  At its best the performance is an artful, slightly terrifying occupation of a character’s persona, at its worst a painfully shallow and poorly conceived aping of the subject’s mannerisms.  Tour de force or tour de farce.  Oscar bait or career death knell.  

Mank occupies a slightly more complicated space, presenting Herman Mankiewicz as a lightly tortured genius, a rascal,  eminently decent despite his dependence on alcohol and, in a pinch, a flagon of Seconal, while simultaneously chipping away at the Welles’ reputation as auteur.  As played by Gary Oldman, Mankiewicz is a brilliant wisecracking screenwriter, a relentlessly self destructive lush, a world-weary cynic with a heart of gold, the victim of heartless studio hacks taken hostage by the soul crushing egoism of Orson Welles.  There is some pleasure in seeing Oldman, an actor capable of summoning dark menace, limp through the film with the self-effacing hubris of a an accomplished wordsmith committing suicide in slow motion. Oldman brings some bloat to the role, and sloppy elan, but in what must have been intended as his cinematic moment, Oldman is left to stumble through an incoherent diatribe against Hearst without much help from Fincher.  The takes are too long, the lighting too obscure, the reaction shots banal, and the pace painfully slow.  Mank is not a career role for Oldman, but Hollywood takes itself seriously, and as might have been expected, he’s a nominee for Best Actor in this season of pandemic productions.  

Mank owes whatever punch it can summon to Pauline Kael’s 50,000 word essay, “Raising Kane”, published in two parts by the New Yorker in 1971 and taken as an incendiary reassessment of Orson Welles authorship of Citizen Kane, by 1971 at the top of the pantheon of great films.  The article begins with Kael’s recognition of the freshness of Citizen Kane’s appeal in the years following its disappointing release, agrees that the film is a masterpiece, but in recognizing the familiar elements of popular narrative at work in the film, respectfully refers to Kane as a “shallow masterpiece”, owing much of its peculiar impact to the work of Herman Mankiewicz.  

“It is difficult to explain what makes any great work great, and particularly difficult with movies, and maybe more so with “Citizen Kane” than with other great movies, because it isn’t a work of special depth or a work of subtle beauty.”

That assessment acknowledges the particular voice Mankiewicz and other talented writers brought to film in the 30’s and 40’s, sharp, clever, and breezy.  Kael presented a detailed account of the migration of brilliant, caustically cynical, and breathtakingly witty writers from New York to Hollywood, among them Herman Mankiewicz, hired after years in the studio writing assembly line by Welles and RKO to produce the screenplay which arrived on screen as Citizen Kane.  The identification of Mankiewicz as purported author and co-auteur sent Wellesians into a frenzied and often ugly counter-attack on Kael, taking her to task for inaccuracies in her account of the period and accusing her of having plagiarized much of the Kane material from the work done by Howard Suber with whom Kael had worked at UCLA.  Suber had done extensive research on Kane, interviewing many of the principals involved in its development; Kael had not.  Critics leapt on what they took to be fabrication and appropriation although Kael split her advance from Bantam Books and Suber abandoned his own book on the film, mailing his essay to Kael.

Today, at a distance from the fury the article provoked, even a casual reading of “Raising Kane” reinforces the dictum “no good deed goes unpunished”.   The article does document Mankiewicz’s dictation of the script and does compare Welles to Charles Foster Kane and Hearst, but is essentially a love letter to movies, as were many of Kael’s reviews.  She wrote in an era in which “serious” films were taken seriously by critics, most notably films made outside the United States: the Neo-Realist films made by Italian directors De Sica,Visconti, Rossellini, Fellini, and the French New Wave as cataloged in the Cahiers du Cinema, Goddard, Truffaut, Chabrol.  Movies were silly; cinema was important.  

Kael was a champion of American films recognizing the work of directors and actors, but also the collaborative contributions of writers, cameramen, production designers, costume designers, choreographers, and editors.  Much of the first half of “Raising Kane” is an unrestrained, almost giddy appreciation of the distinctly American style of popular American films in the transition from silent films to sound, as a desperate industry brought (bought) a cadre of writers with a background in theater and journalism, many of whom, like Mankiewicz, were jaded survivors of the “Vicious Circle”, the relentlessly caustic wits sitting, drinking, and jousting at the Algonquin Hotel’s round table.  Kael’s columns for the New Yorker were collected in I Lost It At The Movies, a title simultaneously suggesting her fall from innocence and her complete devotion to American film.  She wrote about “movies” as Sarris dissected “cinema”. 

Writing at the same time as Andrew Sarris, the principal defender of the “auteur theory”, Kael gave directors their share of the credit for the explosion of delightful screwball comedies, but understood that much of the energy in the films came from the exuberant talent of writers at play.  She describes their glee in turning out script after script with a “Look, no hands attitude”.  Mankiewicz was among the most prolific, credited and uncredited writer on seventy-five films between 1928 and 1939.  A studio system made use of an assembly line of writers, a “bullpen”, which allowed rapid production and which rewarded the writers handsomely. Kael reported that Mankiewicz’ base pay was $56,000 a year during the Great Depression, just over a million in today’s dollars. “Hollywood destroyed them” the round table wits Kael suggested, “but they did wonders for the movies.”  What they brought was what Kael called “the wisecracking, fast-talking, cynical-sentimental” voice from Broadway to the movies.  

Mank gives us Mankiewicz in decline, the script for Kane his last hurrah.  Fincher adds a manufactured crisis of conscience attached to the election of a Republican hack over political activist Upton Sinclair in the 1934 gubernatorial race in California.  Hearst and the studio bosses did oppose Sinclair and did bully their minions into supporting his opponent, but Mankiewicz played no real part in the seedy enterprise.  Fincher gives the campaign considerable screen time in order to suggest that it is in retribution for Hearst’s anti-democratic and heavy handed attack on Sinclair that Mankiewicz lampoons him in Citizen Kane, allowing a principled Mankiewicz to turn on Hearst, who had befriended him, and on Marion Davies, with whom he had a long-standing friendship. The film softens the cruelty with which Mankiewicz depicts Davies in the pathetic character of Susan Alexander, Kane’s mistress, his Marionette.  

Amanda Seyfried’s unexpectedly compelling performance as Davies almost redeems the Academy’s wholesale endorsement of Fincher’s misbegotten imitation of Welles’ craft.  

Almost.

Welle’s defenders in attacking Kael missed one of the most salient of Kael’s observations with regard to the studio system, studio moguls, and writers. The fear of Hearst’s reprisal was widespread in Hollywood.  The Hearst machine was ready to destroy RKO by any means, including devastating legal battles and rumors linking studios to communist sympathizers.  The Hearst papers suggested that RKO had hired immigrants, many of them politically suspect, to do work Americans might have done. The extent of Hearst’s threats are difficult to track down; one story indicates that a 14 year old girl had been hidden in a closet in Welles’ hotel room in an attempt to destroy his career. The film was released to modest success but without the impact it might have had on filmmakers of the era.  .Kael’s observation was that the storm surrounding the film undercut Welles’ stature as a director, preventing him from taking his place among the best directors in the last years of studio production.  Kael lamented the loss of Welles’ impact as a mainstream director.

So, Fincher?  He is among the most successful of directors working today with a string of films that have a devoted following.  His interest in slightly skewed psychological noir subjects has served him well, and he and Messerschmidt have developed a distinctive visual style, generally using diffused color, expressing Fincher’s contention that bright lighting makes human skin look unnatural.  Dim lighting and subtle palette work well in creating a noir film in color, but in Mank, in black and white, a film about words called for sharpness of image to sustain sharpness of wit.

I’m Dealing With It

I’m Dealing With It

It wasn’t the first time DC comics killed off Superman, but on May, 6, 1966, the League of Assassins, having practiced killing a Superman android, bumped off the real big guy with kryptonite radio waves.  I was a college student, already veering from the DC universe into Marvel’s story lines, but, hey, they knocked off Superman?  We all experience losses along the way, some truly grievous and some only slightly jarring. Yes, Batman dies eleven times in the multiverses of DC comicdom, but he’s just a guy, right?  Acrobatic, wealthy, tech savvy, increasingly dark as the years go by, but human.  DC has killed Superman several times since then, and a friend advised me that he had been slain by magic even before the assassins developed their devastating ray gun, and Batman just keeps getting darker.

Despite the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks along the way, I was limping along with reasonable equanimity into my golden years when Archie Andrews was gunned down, shot in Pop Tate’s Chocklit Shop, the totemic gathering place where Jughead claimed his role as the hero’s insatiable and single-minded pal, fending off the amorous advanced of Ethel  Muggs, where Reggie Mantle hatched scheme after machiavellian scheme in an attempt to push Archie from his pedestal as Riverdale’s favored suitor, where Betty in her blonde sweetness and Veronica in her privileged self-satisfaction ducked Reggie and tossed themselves at Archie, where Moose Mason endlessly suspected Midge Klump of seducing the male population of Riverdale, where Moose’s unlikely best friend, the brainy Dilton Doily, showed off his newest invention, where Miss Grundy and Principal Weatherbee tracked down a truant Archie and Coach Kleats dragged a protesting Moose back to the gridiron.

Archie dead on the floor of Pop Tate’s Choklit Shop!  

A classic icebreaker asks a new acquaintance – “Marvel or DC”?  Even more than cat/dog, Pepsi/Coke, Matrix Keanu/Bill andTed Keanu, the question indicates a particular sensibility; affiliation to a particular brand of comic reveals voluntary immersion in worlds beyond worlds.

My answer?  Archie.

I suppose I spent as much, at ten cents a pop, on other comics, but I was much more comfortable in Archie’s company than in Bruce Wayne’s or Clark Kent’s.  Let’s see – intermittently clueless, academically disengaged, professional evader of household responsibilities, mediocre athlete, foolishly and immediately the willing pawn of any attractive female in town?  Did I dentify with the character?  Close enough for me.  I understood, no, felt, the antipathy to Archie as expressed by Hiram Lodge, multi-billionaire father of the almost inaccesible Veronica.  Of course he shuddered when Archie arrived at the mansion, perpetually capable of destroying Ming vases or an original Van Gogh with one fumbling, bumbling, slip on an equally priceless Persian carpet.  Would Bruce set fire to the drapes? I think not. Would Clark scheme to force Professor Flutesnoot to cancel a chemistry test?  Heaven forfend.

Had I embarrassed myself on a daily basis from the age of ten until … ?

To press the point, one could determine an aesthetic and moral compass by asking a reader to choose between Metropolis and Gotham, a joyless exercise from my point of view.  Riverdale?  Right up my alley.  The three locations offered little in the way of ethnic or cultural diversity, and I would have been a curiosity in any of the three, but until the very end, murder rarely came to Riverdale.  I am vaguely aware of unfortunate portrayals of Asians as the dining choices in Riverdale seem to come down to Pop Tate’s or the stereotypically garish Chinese Restaurant.  I recall lighthearted romping at pool parties with an “Oriental” theme, and “foreign” students on exchange were always good for a laugh.  I was culturally comatose, however, and found the entire population of Riverdale generous, warm hearted, and sincere.

Unfortunately, Archie’s drooling appreciation of the girls in his quasi-harem extended only to three primary attributes -they were  blondes,  brunettes, or redheads.  Again, limited range in circumstance as well in that Betty Cooper (blonde) was from a serenly middle class household, Veronica Lodge (brunette) was heiress to the Lodge fortune and fashionista extraordinaire, and Cheryl Blossom (redhead) was tucked in the exclusive Pembroke neighborhood looking down on the “townies” at Riverdale High.  Jughead’s first love was the hamburger/fries/milkshake special at the Choklit Shop, but he tolerated the slavish adoration of “Big” Ethel Muggs, bucktoothed, gawky, and drab. Not much room for ordinary girls.

I could buy three comic books and two candy bars on my allowance of forty cents, or, on rare occasions spring for Archie’s Double Digest or the Betty and Veronica Jumbo Digest, each of which cost a quarter.  Miserly caution usually won out, although during the holiday season, all bets were off.  Released well before Christmas, Archie’s Christmas Stocking, Betty and Veronica’s Christmas Spectacular, and Archie’s Christmas Spectacular were irresistible; I didn’t even blink when Archie’s Christmas Love In jumped to 35 cents.

And then, I went off to school, forgot about Riverdale, went to college and hung out (not literally) with Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, The Avengers, and Daredevil, settled down somewhat and turned to Esquire and Sports Illustrated.  The days passed and I soon found myself conferring with Santa, identifying the gifts I hoped my three kids would find in their stockings.  I had been surprised to find that Archie and the gang still trotted out fat compendia as Thanksgiving approached, now in more compact digests stacked at the check-out counter of the grocery store, just about the right size to be stuffed at the top of a well curated stocking.  To this day, I am not sure that the kids actually read any of the chunky magazines, but I found them a comforting reminder of simpler times.  I didn’t eat their Haloween candy without permission, but the digests were often just lying next to the couch on the floor, almost covered with wrapping paper.  How could I resist?

Until the world darkened, until Archie’s shuffling off the mortal coil, until Riverdale’s seamy underbelly was brought to television, until Sabrina made a pact with Satan, things in Riverdale hadn’t changed very much.  Was I living in a fool’s paradise, expecting a frazzled but loyal Fred Andrews father figure to step into my life?  Did I picture myself one of the carefree teens sipping sodas while Pops gamely tried to keep up with Jughead’s demand for more burgers?  Sure, and of the many misplaced and illogical loyalties I would hold, fondness for Archie and the gang was by far the least unfortunate.

Rest in peace, Archie Andrews; you have been spared the tumult of partisan politics and the privations of a pandemic.  Riverdale remembers you fondly.  The High School has been renamed in your honor. With your untimely death, however, the world will always wonder how you would have finally answered the question:  Betty or Veronica?

Yet Another Seemingly Good Idea

Yet Another Seemingly Good Idea

I sat down to write about the continuing challenges I face in moving, string by string, from fumbling low level almost intermediate guitar player to solidly middling level almost intermediate guitar player when I realize that I’ve used “middling” rather than mid-level, which is the more appropriate term, because I’m never sure if “mid dash level” is more correct than “midlevel”. 

I’ll get to the guitar thing at some point, but the more immediate issue has to do what I like to call the “Brain Inadequate to the Multiplying Jobs at Hand” conundrum, an ever-present (ever present?) logjam of lightly related thoughts that appear simultaneously, most of which arrive unbidden.  Let’s begin by admitting that we have no idea what thoughts actually are, how they form themselves, or why they not only appear at a particular moment but appear with a particular level of intensity.  The idea of writing about guitar impasse came to me after I had I fumbled through another set of exercises before taking the garbage bin to the end of the driveway, happening to remember both the day on which garbage is collected and the day in which I currently write.  I won’t go into the array of garbage related missed opportunities which assailed me as I tried to remember whether I ought to leave the gate open or closed so the dogs would not get loose, a difficult choice to sort out as I could not remember whether the dogs were inside or out, but did at the same time remember when an open gate had allowed our doddering old frequently hallucinating dog to wander down our driveway and out into the coldest December night on record. 

More than enough there, even without the arrival of the afternoon’s brain music, a lilting rendition of “That’s Amore” taking the place of the Princeton fight song:

“Rah, Tiger. Sis. Boom. Bah. 

And locomotives by the score.  

We will fight with a vim 

that is dead sure to win.

For Old Nassau.”

Did I go to Princeton?  I did not?  Did anyone in my family or emotional cohort go to Princeton?  Still no. Had I put head to pillow the preceding night after having thought about Princeton in the last seventy days?  I had not.  

Where these tunes come from I cannot say.  I am equally unable to explain why they leave me, or why the next unrequested toe-tapping tune settles in for the remainder of the day.  The original guitar related article began to nibble at the edge of conscious thought again even as I was forced to recall the weary resignation of my immediate family, doomed to hear whatever mumbled fragment of the brain music playlist is hummed throughout the day. All parties within earshot are injured by this obscure outer constellation of brain spasm, and the relentless propagation of unrelated thought continues.

About the guitar, or roundaboutly attached to the guitar issue, are the observable corporal and intellectual limitations at play in the performance of most tasks for me, including a syndrome probably attached to virtual blindness in my left eye, present since early childhood, which has made my ability to back a car into a tight parking space or to pack a suitcase a dicey proposition.  I’m never quickly sure of left/right, east/west, and have a terrifying inability to attach one sort of temporal identity with another, frequently being aware of an appointment on the 4th of the month, but not recognizing Tuesday as the same event.  The study of math and science has been tortuous because non verbal abstractions are bedeviling: scientific notation, the organization of subatomic particles, the relative size of fractions, geometric and trigonometric identities, proportion, the calculation of planetary orbits – all literally inconceivable for me. I’m also dyscalculic; numbers don’t stand still, making ordinary tasks, such as filling out forms of any complexity likely to need a third and fourth check to avoid disaster

Yes, yes.  Puzzling and annoying to be sure, but the guitar?

A guitar is a physical object, but, like a chessboard (all games requiring the ability to “see” the relationship between objects moving in space and time are not available to this brain), the guitar’s fretboard, although stationary, creates a universe of melodic possibilities based on pressure brought to strings of particular pitch placed in particular order.  That’s good news, of course; otherwise my guitar would essentially be a drum.  The problem comes in my ability to translate a simple observed configuration into the placement of my fingers.  I don’t dance for the same reason,  because I can’t translate an instructor’s movements into commands to my own feet.  Their left is irresistibly my left, if you see what I mean. They say “two steps to the right,” but I see two steps to the left.  I get it, but by the time I’ve figured that one out, they’re off to the next step, assuming that I can keep track of commands once again taking place somewhere between imagining and moving in physical space. 

In order to follow instruction in movement, I could stand behind the instructor who would have to perform with elaborate exaggeration and in slow motion, a posture which in mastering the guitar would demand an instructor capable of partial invisibility, eliminating their obstructive body so that I could see only the hands configured as my own should be.

All of this started out as a reflection on the opportunities a pandemic has provided an aspiring guitarist to improve, but that modest ambition was almost immediately hijacked by my conviction that anything we know about mentation we discover when thought doesn’t really work.  Scientists capable of abstract speculation can jump in here at any point.  I am spectacularly incapable of linking impaired vision with impaired conceptualization of nonverbal entities, but I’m pretty sure the old adage in computer science – “garbage in/ garbage out” – applies in this case.  

OK, I’m a little better as a guitarist after a year of isolated practice, pretty good at rhythm and occasionally able to reproduce something close to a melody I’ve had in mind.  The calendrical mix-ups haven’t mattered much as I have had very few appointments. Regrettable experience and some measure of maturity have convinced me not to attempt to file taxes on my own.  I still tend to think of uphill as north and downhill as south, so I’ve left map reading to others better equipped to handle the process.

I do think quite a bit about thinking, which in a season of isolation hasn’t done much harm.  Oh, and the tune bubbling up as I write?  

“I Love Bananas Because They Have No Bones.”

Apparently a broken brain still can’t fix a broken brain.

By Any Other Name …

By Any Other Name …

A friend recently spoke with some emotion about a gift she had received as a girl – The Fireside Book of Dog Stories.  It had been a Christmas gift and one that occupied her every thought for several months and intermittently for the next few years.  A bookseller on line had a copy, which I ordered and which I have enjoyed, particularly as it includes a touching story by James Thurber and several of his line drawings of dogs.  I had forgotten how much I admired both.

I’m burying the lead here, which is not about the dog book, magnificent as it is, but about my own Fireside Christmas gift, The Fireside Book of Baseball, which captured my imagination in 1956 and is still on my bedside table as I write.  I received Volume II of the Fireside Book several years later, an updated tribute to baseball as it entered the 1960’s, pretty rich stuff, but my soul had firmly attached to the earlier book.  Charles Einstein edited the book, inviting an astounding panoply of writers to rhapsodize about baseball.  Alphabetically, the list runs from Franklin P. Adams, Nelson Algren, and Roger Angell to P.G. Wodehouse, Thomas Wolfe, and Dick Young.  I met Ring Larder for the first time in these pages, and H.L. Mencken, Thurber, Mark Harris, Shirley Povich, Red Smith, and Damon Runyon. 

And, Lee Allen’s article,  “Red, Lefty, and a few animals – About baseball nicknames”.

We have not world enough and time to consider the breadth of nicknames in the game up to the 1960’s.  Some were obvious tributes to size and strength – Moose, Hack (after famous wrestler Hackenschmidt), Zeke (short for physique), and Ox; some for lack of size – Flea, Rabbit, Bunny, Skeeter, Peanuts, and Jigger (incorrect version of Chigger).   In this category, I was already familiar with Harry (The Cat) Breecheen, Hippo Jim Vaughn, Rabbit Maranville, Goose Goslin, and Ducky Medwick.  Cy was short for Cyclone, of course, a tribute to Cy Young’s delivery.  Mannerisms were also fair game as Hot Potato Luke Hamlin, Fidgety Phil Collins, and Herky Jerky Horton were not pleased to find.  

Virtually every player of note in baseball’s middle years (1920 – 1950) had a sobriquet, the most famous universally recognized.  George Herman (Babe) Ruth was The Sultan of Swat and The Bambino.  Ty Cobb was The Georgia Peach (a kinder name than that terror deserved).  Lou Gherig, The Iron Horse, Walter Johnson, Big Train, and Mordecai Brown, Three Finger (after a farm accident cost him two).  Yankee second baseman in one of their golden eras (late 1920’s), Tony Lazzeri, had the nickname “Poosh-Em-Up” after an Italian friend encouraged him to push baserunners in with a hit.  Paul and Lloyd Waner, stalwart stars on the Pirate teams of the 1920’s were Big Poison and Little Poison.  Charlie Keller was King Kong, George Henry Sternweiss Snuffy, apparently so dubbed as he played with a conspicuous case of hay fever. Elegant fielder Tris Speaker was “The Grey Eagle”, and Hughie Jennings may have had the most easily vocalized nickname, “Ee-Yah”

May it please Your Honor, I intend to bewail the relatively sudden decline in nicknaming as baseball moved into the last decades of the 20th Century.  Things continued to roll along through the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, although some “nicknames” were sports column affectations.  Nobody I knew called Ted Williams “The Splendid Splinter” or Willie Mays “The Say Hey Kid”, or Mickey Mantle “The Commerce (OK) Comet”.  Some did stick.  Sal Maglie was known as “The Barber” because he almost shaved batters’ heads, and yes,  Jim Grant was “Mudcat” (an apparent likeness).  DiMaggio was “Joltin’ Joe”, Stan was “The Man”, Berra was “Yogi”, Bill Skowron was “Moose”, and Snyder was “The Duke”, but Whitey Ford was “The Chairman of the Board” only in the papers.  Oddly, Ernie Banks was called “Mr. Cub”, or “Mr. Cubby”, a more delicate nickname than most.  

Some genuinely evocative names did emerge in this period, perhaps because ethnicity, physical oddity and mental disability were still available for ridicule.  Thus, Bill “Spaceman” Lee and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. Doug Gwosdz was “The Eyechart”, Orlando Cepeda “The Baby Bull”, and Al Hrabosky “The Mad Hungarian”.  Jimmy Piersall, whose behavior was often erratic and occasionally violent, made public his psychiatric hospitalization in Fear Strikes Out, but had only the quaint and rarely used nickname, “The Waterbury Wizard”.

It is of interest that most effective contemporary pitchers are rarely nicknamed.  Randy “The Big Unit” Johnson aside, powerhouse hurlers are respected enough, or feared enough, to be spared clever word play.  Try calling Bib Gibson a name, or Nolan Ryan, Ryne Duran, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn, Roger Clemens, Arnoldis Chapman. Ok, Tom Seaver was truly “Tom Terrific”.

What did the 20th Century’s last two decades have to offer?  Reggie Jackson’s “Mr. October” and Henry Aaron’s “Hammerin’ Hank” were hardly worth remembering.  Dennis Eckersley?  “The Eck”.  Carlton Fisk?  “Pudge”.  Carl Yaztrzemski?  “Yaz”.  Vladimir Guerrero was too obviously “Vlad The Impaler”, but, Geez, that’s a name!  I am fond of Brooks Robinson’s “The Vacuum” because his play at third base was flawless, and Ozzie Smith’s play at short was magical, so “The Wizard of Oz” is apt.  

Of the top five baseball position players heading to Spring Training this year, only one, Marcus Lynn “Mookie” Betts, has a nickname.  The rest?  Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Alex Bregman, and Clayton “Cody” Bellinger, “Cody” arriving with Bellinger from childhood.  Not promising.

Football had its nicknaming heyday in the 1920’s as Red Grange was celebrated as “The Galloping Ghost”.  On the contemporary gridiron, a fan can really only point to Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu and Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch.

Ice Hockey has a cultish following and its greats are pretty much called names that indicate superiority, with the exception of the Bruins’ star defenseman, “Number Four” Bobby Orr and Lorne “Gump” Worsley.  Wayne Gretsky is “The Great One”,  Bobby Hull was “The Golden Jet”, Mario Lemieux “Super Mario”, Gordy Howe, “Mr. Hockey”.  There is some onomatopoeia at work as slap shot pioneer Bernie Geoffrion was known as “Boom Boom”. Maurice and Henri Richard were “The Rocket” and (slightly smaller Henry) “Pocket Rocket”, but clever does not seem to apply to the ice warriors.

Ah, but all is not lost!  Basketball has not only picked up the slack but appropriately has taken nicknaming to new heights

Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Michael “Air” Jordan, Allen “The Answer” Iverson, Robert “Big Shot Bob” Horry, Gary “The Glove” Payton, Kobe “Black Mamba” Bryant, Karl “Mailman” Malone, LeBron “King James” James, David “The Admiral” Robinson, Dennis “The Worm” Rodman, Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain, “Sir Charles” Barkley, Ray “Jesus Shuttelsworth” Allen, Jason “White Chocolate” Williams, “Pistol Pete” Maravich, George “Iceman” Gervin, Gilbert “Agent Zero” Arenas, Bryant “Big Country” Reeves, Darryl “Chocolate Thunder” Dawkins, Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson, Vince “Vinsanity” Carter, and my favorite, Shaquille “The Big Aristotle” O’Neal.

There must be a cultural shift of note in all of this, but why basketball nicknames should flourish while football’s limp along, I cannot guess.  Baseball, once clearly America’s Game, has to be considered a weak also-ran if 2012 Rookie of the Year, AL MVP, All Star, and certain first round Hall of Famer, Mike Trout stumbles home with the lackluster non de guerre, “The Millville Meteor”.  

Perhaps “The Big Aristotle” can shed some light on contemporary nomenclature were he to take a break from his second career as all-purpose pitchman for products from Pepsi to Gold Bond Powder, from Taco Bell and Oreos to Vitaminwater.

Hope springs.

The Axolotl

The Axolotl

I’ve just read Julio Cortazar’s short story “The Axolotl” again after some five years of Axolotl-free reading and find myself audibly cheering as I follow Cortazar into a labyrinth.  The story is much too good to be hashed up in this setting; I hope a curious reader will search it out and share my appreciation.  The curious achievement of the story is in presenting a narrative voice that is simultaneously the narrator and not the narrator.  It’s one thing to go all Sybil as an author, pumping out personalities by the gross and laboriously coming up with accents or verbal ticks that set them all apart, a convention I find tiresome.  There are numbers of effectively unreliable narrations, some of which employ a divided mind, Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club for example, but Cortazar’s game is not in writing a hide-and-seek, gotcha, surprise ending, or in documenting a descent into madness.  He’s not even trotting out an elaborate tale of metamorphosis.

Cortazar has created a mobius strip in words, a closed loop in which what we might call opposites share an identity.  That’s not quite it, and in attempting to put the experience of reading these words into words, I am acknowledging that there’s no head or tail on which to fix a point of entry.  Cortazar’s literary cousin, Jose Luis Borges, approached the same territory in his story, “The Aleph”.  His protagonist/narrator finds that language is inadequate to his purpose. “What my eyes beheld was simultaneous, but what I shall now write is successive, because language is successive.”

I swim in language; it’s what I know, but to express what it is that Cortazar brings into being, I have to leave words and the universe as I understand it and stumble into a field of mathematics known as topology. I am somewhat familiar with topography, the description of surfaces, but to go beyond the surface, that discipline is as inadequate as language.  Topology, on other hand, is concerned with the study of objects under continuous deformation, objects simultaneously stretching, twisting, bending, crumpling … but not breaking.  Leave it to mathematics, the bane of my existence, to approach what words cannot.  

So, topologists are interested in objects that experience continuous deformation(de- forming) while remaining continuous; they can move between what math calls functions, which I’ll call identities, without losing any of their properties.  A mobius strip is described as non-orientable because it is continuous, no head/no tail and that’s why I can’t put the experience of reading the story into words, which creates a very interesting conundrum for a reader, as this business of reading, which is a more complicated and isolated form of mentation, is all about words. Successive. Words in the hands of a magician such as Cortazar, however, can deform and reform, as do the narrator and the axolotl. So, in the end, even though language is inadequate to the description of the simultaneous, the experience of reading “The Axelotl” is that against all odds, Cortzar pulls it off.

“The Axolotl” is found in several anthologies including the remarkable Blow Up and Other Stories.