Monday, May 29, 2017

Baseball is Beautiful to Watch

America’s National Pastime
This is a continuation of a blog series on baseball, first starting with Ken Burns’ Baseball (1994), posted in April and then Baseball by the Numbers posted in early May. In this post , I discuss a few of the baseball films that have been produced, which tell the story of America, not only as it was but also as it ought to be.

“I love baseball. You know it doesn’t have to mean anything, 
it’s just beautiful to watch.”
Woody Allen in Zelig (1983)

Photo Credit: ©2017. Eli G. Greenbaum

There have been many films made in Hollywood that have baseball as its central theme. There are, of course, the best-known Hollywood films, including Bang the Drum Slowly (1973), The Natural (1984), Eight Men Out (1988), Bull Durham (1988) and Field of Dreams (1989). 

Then there is The Phenom (2016), which I recently viewed on Netflix, a little gem of a movie about the relationship between a father and a son and how this negatively affects the son’s mental abilities as a pitcher. It is filled with psychological insights. Such were generally absent from the older films that I have seen over the years like Pride of the Yankees (1942), The Babe Ruth Story (1948), The Stratton Story (1949) and The Jackie Robinson Story (1950). 

Psychology was present, however, in Fear Strikes Out (1957), based on the life story of Jimmy Piersall [born 1929], who when the movie was made was playing for the Boston Red Sox.  (The role of Jimmy Piersall was played by Anthony Perkins.) Piersall’s erratic behavior on the field during the 1952 season was later diagnosed as a mental illness, in this case bipolar disorder. He received treatment and returned to the game in time for the 1953 season. The relationship between father and son is an important part of the movie; Karl Malden plays John Piersall, Jimmy’s father.

You can view the various lists of all baseball films [here], [here] and [here], which number almost 300 films. The field is uneven, no doubt. If you are a die-hard baseball fan, however, you will enjoy them, just for the ballpark scenes, such as the one blow showing Roy Hobbs hitting ball after ball into the bleachers with his home-made bat. Hobbs calls the bat “Wonderboy,” which has a bolt of lightening carved into the barrel. 

Batting Practice: A scene from The Natural (1984) of Roy Hobbs (played by Robert Redford) showing his phenomenal hitting abilities. Every ball is hit out of the park, landing in the empty bleachers.  There is something beautiful in viewing an athlete swinging a bat just right, that in the best of them it is done so with grace. There is something beautiful in the sound of the crack of  the bat, which indicates that the hitter has hit the sweet spot. Ah, the sweet sound of baseball.
Via: Youtube.

It is true that one of the appeals of sports, which includes baseball, is that it doesn’t require meaning outside of its domain. It is what it is. Sports is entertainment, and as such its chief purpose is enjoyment, viewing the athletic abilities and exploits of professional athletes. Some people like baseball, some don’t. Some people like films about baseball; some don’t. This does not say anything about a person other than his personal preferences or tastes in entertainment. 

To a large degree, baseball films of a certain vintage told the story of America, as it ought to be, in an idealized form, by addressing issues of race, ethnicity, class and national identity, among others. This was thought necessary as a means to bind the nation together through measures that were overtly less political and less nationalistic. Watching a game or a film idealization of a team sport can provide the distraction necessary from what is viewed as bleak around us.  It has a good purpose, even if it seems corny or cheesy today.

Baseball has been a constant in America; and there have been hundreds of films about baseball since the first one, Mike Donlin’s Right Off The Bat, in 1915, one of the 25 silent films produced between 1915 and 1928. Sadly, there is no extant copy of this film, but 10 baseball films from this period have survived. For various reasons, including intentional destruction, many such films are considered lostThe oldest surviving film is Shut Out in the Ninth, which dates to 1917. 

This is extraordinary, considering that this is higher than the survival rate for all silent films (around 25 percent), which were all produced during what is called the nitrate era (approx 1890 to the early 1950s) for their use of nitrate film stock (i.e., nitrocellulose). Nitrate film, however, is prone to decomposition but also to catching on fire and causing explosions due to its chemical instability. As a result, there have been a number of fires, including the famous one, in 1927, at Montreal’s Laurier Palace Theatre. 

In the early 1950s, nitrate film was replaced by cellulose triacetate or “safety film.” Older films that were not destroyed, either for economic or safety reasons, were transferred to safety film. Such is the reason that we can watch old films today, including some of the baseball films made before 1950. Some conclude that nitrate films have aesthetic qualities lacking in modern 35mm films. Yet, its showing today requires taking exceptional safety precautions and only three venues in the U.S. are so equipped.

Baseball no longer has the same unifying appeal it once did, yet it has helped lead to social changes in America in a way that politics could not. Roger Kahn, who followed the Brooklyn Dodgers as a sports writer, in 1952 and 1953, after Jackie Robinson broke the “color barrier” in 1947, writes in The Boys of Summer (1972): “By applauding Robinson, a man did not feel that he was taking a stand on school integration, or on open housing. But for an instant he had accepted Robinson simply as a hometown ball player. To disregard color, even for an instant, is to step away from the old prejudices, the old hatred. That is not a path on which many double back.” 

True enough.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: The Individual

Personhood: 1:14
“Happy is the man…”

“The argument for collectivism is simple if false; it is an immediate emotional argument. The argument for individualism is subtle and sophisticated; it is an indirect rational argument. And the emotional faculties are more highly developed in most men than the rational, paradoxically or especially even in those who regard themselves as intellectuals.”

Milton Friedman [1912–2006] in the “Introduction”
to the 50th anniversary edition
of The Road to Serfdom (1944) by Friedrich von Hayek

“Thus very far from there being the antagonism between the individual and society which is often claimed, moral individualism, the cult of the individual, is in fact the product of society itself. It is society that instituted it and made of man the god whose servant it is.”

— Émile Durkheim [1858–1917], Sociologie et philosophie, 1924;
Trans. D. F. Pocock, Sociology and philosophy (1953)

The history of ideas shows that it is individuals working toward a worthy goal who have produced the greatest discoveries for humanity, and the nations that valued and rewarded individual achievement were the ones that achieved and benefited the most. The individual has an essential place in western civilization, in democracies and in societies that value human thought and human life.

I think that most people will generally agree with this last statement; the disagreement often lies with the particulars, the details. It’s always about the details, isn’t it? How one goes about making the rules of society, which basically revolves around how much freedom the individual ought to have; this aspect of human relations could be seen with children at play and with adults in boardrooms and backrooms.

In this sense, the individual also acts as a prophet who voices “the dangers of authoritarianism,” common when the powerful state denies all dissent, often (but not always) done in the name of consensus. It can also happen when resentment among minority groups (the powerless) seek violent solutions to social or economic differences, hence the revolutionary approach, unleashing the fury of the mob and, as a result, the installation of a dictator to restore law and order. Dictators rarely leave on their own volition.

This leads to order, but not to freedom and often to the suspension of human rights, and to greater unhappiness at the loss of such freedoms, now hard to regain. Few benefit under such a political system, despite the promises made. What is lost is never easy to regain. Despite its faults, democracy remains the best political system, requiring give and take, a tricky balance, but a necessary one. This is the only system where the individual is free to be an individual.

Collectivism has its appeal, a beguiling one, but not for the individual who is also the contrarian. He sees in collectivism a danger of “the mob” acting in intolerant if not tyrannical ways. You can see such things happen today, both in small form and in large form, notably at secular university campuses, but also at unexpected places, like Silicon Valley, which views itself as libertarian and yet has its particular in-group thinking.

It’s a brew available to everyone, and it often goes down easy. Do we really want a society where everyone thinks alike, at least publicly? What is the value of consensus if it is forced, not given or agreed to willingly and thoughtfully? Conformity and consensus comes at a price. Not found in such ideologies, including the current emphasis on “national identity” in some quarters and identity politics in others, is that disagreement and disparate points of views are safeguards against totalitarianism.

Worst-case scenario: North Korea; historical lesson: the former Soviet Union and Maoist China.

The call for the regulating or curtailing of speech is an early sign of repression, but this does not take place overnight and does not happen in a vacuum. Typically, this takes place as a countervailing force to a long period of “hate speech,” to what is often viewed as the normalizing of aggressive use of speech, often anonymously and shamelessly, to marginalize original ideas, common on the largest free-for-all known as the Internet. Yet, it is also true that the term “hate speech”is used too often for what is often offensive and unpleasant language, for speech of resentment. Or, lately, for ideas that a group does not agree with, as a means to shut down debate.

Personal attacks and troll tactics, although often effective in curtailing certain kinds of speech, are not without consequence over the long term. The public square becomes smaller and possibly less tolerant, often an unintended consequence of self-censorship, since only certain ideas deemed acceptable by the mob are allowed. What is acceptable today might not be acceptable tomorrow. Who decides? What are the criteria? Unpopular ideas (and unpleasant ones, too) need airing as well as popular ones, otherwise speech is no longer free for everyone. Speech and language reveal the health of a nation.

But then again, we are also here talking about how speech has become passionate and inflamed to the point that it has become unpleasant and ugly; we are here talking about things like manners and etiquette and the importance of these when delivering the message. As someone once said, you counter bad or hate speech with good speech. You attack not the person but his ideas, doing so by marshaling not opinions but facts; one is not the same as the other and the distinction is essential. Such is the hallmark of a literate society; such is the importance of language.

Here is a curmudgeonly reminder: As much as the individual is important, historically, he does not stand alone outside society (in contrast to the Cartesian model of the Self), but, instead, acts as a contributing member of it. In other words society comprises many individuals residing together, not necessarily agreeing on everything, but agreeing that at least disagreement has a purpose and a meaning, including arguing on the benefits of the “common good.” We have to remember what is the importance of good; it is not the opposite of bad, but a force of its own.

In the best of circumstances, such an individual brings forward ideas to improve the lot of his fellow man; he brings forward ideas that lead to real benefits and opportunities for all individuals residing within its borders; he builds the nation with inclusive language. He uses encouraging language that welcomes outsiders, language that makes the invisible more visible. Such is an individual who is also a leader.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Favorite Books (5): Invisible Man

Reading for Enjoyment

Here I briefly discuss one of my favorite books; this is part of a continuing series.

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”

Ralph Ellison, “Opening lines to Prologue,”
Invisible Man (1952)

Invisible Man: This book, as first published by Random House of New York City, in 1952, was hardcover and 439 pages. Random House, since 2013, has been part of a conglomerate called Penguin Random House, which the photo of this particular book cover shows. This is a business partnership between the German company Bertelsmann and the British company Pearson, one in which the German company is the majority owner with 53 percent controlling interest. Random House was founded by Bennett Alfred Cerf [1898–1971] and Donald Simon Klopfer [1902–1986], when two young Jewish businessmen purchased the complete works (109 volumes) of Modern Library for $200,000 in 1925. Modern Library published inexpensive reprints of classic works of literature, chiefly European modernists but also a few contemporary Americans. Two years later, in 1927, the Modern Library site says, “finding that they had time to spare, they started Random House as a subsidiary of the Modern Library. Random House enabled them to publish, ‘at random,’ other books that interested them. It soon was a major publishing force in its own right, and the Modern Library would become an imprint of its own offspring.” Now, that’s quite a story of success.
Photo Credit & Source: Greg Tucker

Invisible Man (1952), by Ralph Ellison [1913–1994], is a novel that has many interwoven strands. It is at first about a young southern black man’s search for identity in New York City of the 1930s, finding out that truth is so malleable that it eventually turns into a falsehood, which is what keeps relations between people going. It is also about the desire to join a group, because when you are not part of a larger cause, you find yourself without any acceptable social identity, and thus you are effectively invisible. It is also about the larger issue regarding the place of the individual in greater society, and in this particular case American society.

The novel’s opening lines grab your attention and you are hooked. When I read this book for a university course on American literature a quarter of a century ago, I was immediately drawn into the world of its main character.  Like me, the unnamed narrator in the novel says a lot of things, because he has a lot of time to think. What he’s essentially revealing is that man’s capacity for cruelty is unlimited and it takes on many forms, including a denial of the human being. Indifference to others has always been an acceptable part of modern society.

Much like Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground (1864), the narrator uses irony to describe his situation, most notably his living situation, which is less than ideal, as seen by his need to jerry-rig a lighting system of 1,369 light bulbs powered by electricity stolen from Monopolated Light & Power Company. It is by all accounts horrible and bleak, but it is this way until the narrator decides that he’s had enough of being invisible, which he does decide in the end. We do not know what his decision leads to, but the reader is left with an undefined and unredeemed hope for the future.

This is an American book, no doubt, but its story can be understood outside this nation. It could be understood when it was written; it could be understood outside its time. The reasons for saying so are universal, as man is universal in his needs. One can easily mistake the particulars for the universals and arrive at the wrong answer, the wrong conclusion. One can make the practicalities of life and of living the whole story.

Accordingly, it is also about determining the cost of deciding to become an individual, which is a diminishing sight at a time when there is so much confusion on what is essential to the human being; people are splintering off into smaller and smaller groups, driven by despair to identity politics and the safety of the group. Nothing has changed in this regard. This is the hard truth, and it is hard to accept without becoming cynical or hiding in an underground hole of your own design. Or to begin to wonder about your sanity.

This story also makes me think of why and how. How does a person become invisible? Is it only a result of mental illness? Or of actions? We know that each person has a story; this is what the writers of long ago tell us. It is also about how such persons can make poor choices, both through a lack of knowledge and a willful stubborn stupidity—in their desire to become individuals, and how poor thinking can make these ones bereft of the rich social pleasures of friendship and community. One of the sad outcomes, an undesirable one, is that such ones become “invisible.”

There are those who will always fall through the cracks of normal society into the darkness below, where the light of day hardly finds its way in. They live but are not known; they fail to reach their human potential for reasons that are not always known to us. We mourn the loss of potential, a very modern idea, even as we move on, making our own preparations for another day. This is the crux of the matter, whether everyone and anyone can be saved from “himself” if this is not what he wants.

One can make the effort, but it will likely end in vain. Even so, the effort must be made, even if success is not apparent. It is in the making of the effort that the rules of society are changed.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: White Socks

Foot Comfort: 1:12
“Happy is the man…”

“When I was young I found out that the big toe
always ends up making a hole in a sock.
So I stopped wearing socks.” 

Albert Einstein in a remark to Philippe Halsman,
quoted in A.P. French, Einstein: A Centenary Volume (1979)

The warm weather is finally upon us; this means spending a good amount of time outdoors, which also means dressing for the season. That being said, I like to wear white socks for comfort when I go out walking with my running shoes to the park, which is often during the months that make up spring and summer. A package of six white crew socks used to last me a year, which is to say a couple of seasons. No longer. The quality has suffered, which is a disappointment; well, a small one.

You see, I have been purchasing these socks from the same manufacturer (i.e., Hanes, an American apparel company) faithfully and dutifully for decades—in many ways I am “a creature of habit.” Something has changed, and for the longest time I did not know what it was, until recently, when I decided to do a more thorough examination. The socks are much thinner, so they wear out quicker. It’s as simple as that. This solves the puzzle of what happened, but it does not yet solve the problem of what I should now do.

The rational part of me says I should change companies and buy a more expensive brand of white socks, which is a loss, especially for the manufacturer, which likely does not know that many men like me wish they could buy the same quality socks they always wore. Was it necessary for the company to change the way that they made socks? Many people were already happy with them? I doubt that this is now the case.

My White Socks: A pair of  newly washed white socks from my preferred manufacturer. They are comfortable, but are not as durable as they once were.
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

You can’t tell from looking at the package that the socks are no longer the same, since they are all enclosed in a plastic bag; you could tell only after wearing them and seeing how quickly they wear out. That being the case, I might have to buy more-expensive socks, which I trust will be of better quality—that is, be of greater durability, and last longer. Is it a matter of hoping for the best?

It is, but I can’t be sure that I can get the certainty that will satisfy me; I lack the certainty that this is indeed the case. They might look good, but as I have found out from past experiences, appearances can be and are often filled with deception, leading to disappointment. If I am forced to buy another more expensive brand, I still can’t be sure that they will be as comfortable as the ones I currently own. This being the case, I will likely keep on buying the same socks that I have enjoyed wearing for as long as I can remember.

Yes, the Hanes-made socks are comfortable, which is the chief reason I have been buying them for years. I only wish that the company would go back to the old production method, where the socks were thicker and lasted longer. You might find it surprising that men are so particular about their socks, but many men are about such things, including Albert Einstein. Even though I can agree with the great theoretical physicist on his analysis of socks, I can’t agree with his solution. I always wear socks, unless I am walking on the beach, in which case I don’t.

Moreover, I have another solid reason why I require a comfortable pair of socks, one that centers on my health. I suffer from a medical condition known as neuropathy (CIPN for those that like precision), a side effect of chemo treatments I had a few years ago. This makes finding the right footwear, including socks, essential for my comfort. And comfort is part of any person’s well-being.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Baseball by the Numbers

America’s National Pastime
This is a continuation of a blog post on baseball, first starting with Ken Burns’ Baseball (1994), posted last month. Here I discuss one of the main themes of baseball: the battle between pitcher and batter and how every pitch can change the final narrative.

Expos Past: Taking a trip down memory lane: The Montreal Expos played their final game against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium on October 3, 2004; the Mets won 8-1. Coincidentally, the Expos played their inaugural game against the Mets at Shea Stadium on October 8, 1969; the Expos won 11-10.  (This was the year of the Miracle Mets.) After 36 years (1969–2004) of  being part of Major League Baseball (MLB), the Expos no longer existed and Montreal no longer had a professional baseball team. The team moved to Washington, D.C., and were renamed the Washington Nationals for the 2005 season. As for why Montreal lost its team, one has to look no further than to the sad story of bad ownership the last few years, chiefly in the person of Jeffrey Loria, who continues his opportunistic ways of doing business.  For him, it's also about numbers, but not those that build dynasties. A winning team requires not only good players, good managers and coaches but also good ownership.
Photo Credit©2017. Eli G. Greenbaum

“Keep your eye clear and hit ’em where they ain’t.”
 as told to Brooklyn Eagle sports editor Abe Yager in 1903. 

It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
Yogi Berra
a Yogi-ism uttered during the 1973 National League pennant race 
between the New York Mets and the Cincinnati Reds, 
later codified in The Yogi Book: I Really Didn’t Say Everything I Said (1998).

As much as baseball is a team sport, it is an individual sport. This is epitomized in the physical battle, the cat-and-mouse game between pitcher and batter. The pitcher throws a ball as hard as he can, close to 100 mph, in a certain way, with certain spin; and the batter has less than a half a second (precisely four-tenths of a second) to see all this and respond to it by taking a swing where he thinks the ball will be. 

There is good reason why some physicists would like to investigate the game of baseball, since it lends itself to such an approach, one in which the science of physics uses numbers (i.e., ball rotation or spin, ball velocity, wind drag, relative humidity, baseball-bat collision, etc.) to explain the game quantitatively. It is after all a game of numbers, or as it has been said, “a game of inches.” This speaks of a numerical approach, where everything that can be is measured and quantified. 

While it has its appeal, especially for those who like numbers, not everything in the game can be quantified. Human characteristics like perseverance, drive and something as intangible as clutch hitting. There is some luck involved too.

If the batter does not guess correctly, he either misses or hits it ineffectively to a player of the opposing team. But if he does hit it sufficiently away from all members of the opposing team (a home run being the surest way to do so, since it is over the fence and out of reach), and does this three out of ten times (a .300 batting average) over the course of the 162-game season, he is considered an excellent hitter. Their numbers, however, are apparently declining.

This would explain why any baseball player who hits .400 is truly exceptional and is viewed as mythical. The last such case Ted Williams of the Boson Red Sox in 1941, finishing the season with a flourish, going 6 for 8 in a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics, and ending with a .406 batting average.

Only 20 players have achieved this feat in the history of Major League Baseball (MLB), which began in 1876. Of this esteemed group, only three players—Ed Delahanty (1894, 1895, 1899), Ty Cobb (1911, 1912, 1922) and Rogers Hornsby (1922, 1924, 1936)—have accomplished this more than once, in this case, they all did so three times.

Baseball Gear: The basic requirements for a game of baseball are a ball, a bat and a glove or a mitt; it is played on a field called a baseball diamond, which can be found almost anywhere there is a public park. There are a couple hundred in Toronto where I reside. I include this novel because it is a book about baseball, published at a time when the game was greatly appreciated and admired by the American public; this was naturally called Baseball’s Golden Era (roughly 1920 to 1960, the same as Hollywood’s Golden Era)
The Natural, by Bernard Malamud [1914–1986], was published by Harcourt Brace and Company in 1952, the author’s first book. This mass-market paperback was published by Pocket Books in 1974. The novel was made into a movie in 1984 starring Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs. 
It matters less on whom Hobbs is based (likely a composite of many sports heroes, including Babe Ruth, Bob Feller and Ted Williams) than on the reason for the book and its success: “[B]aseball players were the ‘heroes’ of my American childhood. I wrote The Natural as a tale of a mythological hero because, between childhood and the beginning of a writing career, I’d been to college. I became interested in myth and tried to use it, among other things, to symbolize and explicate an ethical dilemma of American life,” Malamud says in Conversations with Bernard Malamud (Ed. Lawrence M. Lasher, 1991).
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Greater Use of Stats

It seems unlikely that any player today can achieve what was achieved long ago; the game has changed since baseball’s golden era. Pitchers are better, which includes hard-throwing relief pitchers, called specialists, throwing at batters who are swinging for the fences. It is also evident that other stats matter in today’s game. Some would argue that the greater use of statistical analysis (i.e., sabermetricsin the game [see here and here] has made baseball not only better, but more competitive and more scientific. 

This is called “the Moneyball Effect,” after the Micheal Lewis book (Moneyball: The Art Of Winning An Unfair Game, 2003) and movie (Moneyball, 2011; starring Brad Pitt). This thinking has led to the idea that viewers  also like stats. When you watch a game on TV, the announcer will invariably give a bunch of stats, including how this batter has done against this pitcher. This is also shown on the screen. One of the most annoying pieces of technology, however, is something called PitchTrax (a ball-tracking technology), which is distracting; it also second-guesses the umpire. 

Some more anecdotes about the players would be far more interesting than a continuous discussion of stats. The game, chiefly because of its pace, lends itself to a narrative, to telling stories. This is the role of the color commentator, who is often a former player or coach. While the stats have long been a part of the game, they have typically acted as a supplement to the stories of colorful players (like Yogi Berra) who made the game entertaining, if not mythical. This is why a novel like The Natural (1952) was so successful during baseball’s heyday. 

Stats have their value, no doubt, but less so for viewers. They are used by managers to make decisions on whom to play, which pitchers to use against certain batters and where to position players on the field for particular hitters. Even so, there is only so much viewers and fans want to know (before tedium and boredom set in), and too much information takes away from enjoying the game, which is the main reason that people decide to tune in. 

So, yes, science (and its cousin, technology) has become more useful in baseball and in the decisions that pitching coaches and managers make. Still, baseball is very much a human game with human players acting in a human way, which defies predictability over the long 162-game season. In the duel between pitcher and batter, there is always the next time, and there are sufficiently many next times where the batter or the pitcher can redeem himself. 

This is the basis of baseball; every pitch can change the narrative of who wins and who loses. Each team throws an average of 146 pitches per game, and such being the case, the game is not over till the final battle between the pitcher and batter. Not to belabor the point, but it’s not over till the final out. 

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Knowing Goodness

Aesthetic Life: 1:12
“Happy is the man…”

“Every other knowledge is harmful to him who does not have knowledge of goodness.”
Michel de Montaigne [1533–1592], 
Essais (1595); Book I, Chapter 25

“I hated the brutality, the sadism, and the insanity of Nazism. I just couldn’t stand by and see people destroyed. I did what I could, what I had to do, what my conscience told me I must do. That’s all there is to it. Really, nothing more.”
Oskar Schindler [1908–1974], 
in “Schindler : Why did he do it?” (2010), by Louis Bülow

In an article (“Love in the Time of Numbness; or, Doctor Chekhov, Writer;” April 11, 2017) in The New YorkerSiddhartha Mukherjee, who is an oncologist and an author, writes: 
Chekhov used Sakhalin as an antidote. It may not have restored his health, but it restored his sensitivity. He moved beyond his own numbness and found a new means of engagement with his world—and, in doing so, invented a new kind of writing. Today, and especially today, as the threat of desensitization—and the accompanying seductions of detachment, outrage, revulsion, indignation, piety, and narcissism—looms over all our lives, we might need to ask ourselves the question that Chekhov asked himself in the spring of 1890: What will move me beyond this state of anesthesia? How will I counteract the lassitude that creeps over my soul?
This short paragraph describes precisely the times that we live in, and what I often feel and fight against, an everyday battle to resist the sameness of life that leads to indifference and boredom. At the root of it is a feeling that one’s desires to do good are generally futile, that the individual has morphed into an amorphous blob, and that the moral life—the one worth living—no longer exists since it is no longer relevant. 

One can feel this way even if one has a religious belief or follows a religious tradition. One requires a knowledge of goodness, which is not the same as the absence of evil. Goodness is a positive force, where the individual takes direct action with the idea of doing good; this is ever-present in mind of such a person. It is not, generally speaking, about some future reward but about the need for the present action.

This existential idea was nicely captured in a film that I recently viewed, Night Train to Lisbon (2013), a film which garnered generally bad reviews, but one which I deeply enjoyed, notably for its artistic presentation of beauty, truth, justice and love—the four universals of humanity. It is based on the 2004 same-titled novel by Pascal Mercier, the nom de plume of Peter Bieri [born in 1944], a Swiss philosopher. It is a novel of ideas; in the end it is about goodness.

The bad reviews of a philosophical work is no surprise. This says enough about what such critics and, by extension, millions of others who read their judgments fail (or fear) to value. The film is probably too slow moving, too thoughtful and too philosophical for most, requiring a certain cast of mind, and of heart to appreciate. Even so, I also suspect that in a few decades this film will be viewed and considered more favorably than it is today. 

One does not escape the numbness, the lassitude, “this state of anesthesia” by the watching of action films, by watching blood and gore and the gratuitous use of violence, so common today in films and TV. Why do such films and TV shows, so similar in theme, garner so much praise? I find the majority of them filled with bad writing and bad acting; in fact, it is all about “badness” in the giving of attention to the hero (or anti-hero), as if bad today needs greater understanding, greater empathy. It is a collection of negatives. 

There is no art, no depiction of goodness and no revelation of beauty and love. 

This leads to simple ideas, often erroneous, of the human condition, most notably that goodness is rare, that people are selfish, that people are opportunistic, and that beauty does not exist. It is a bleak view of humanity, offering little in the way of hope. This makes humanity appear smaller; its frequent viewing will encourage feelings of despair, that there is no possibility to make things better, no need to fight what oppresses the soul. Why bother? This, however, is always the wrong moral choice.

Goodness can come from the most unexpected sources (as can badness), from people whose lives would seem to defy the definition of goodness. Oskar Schindler is an exceptional case, no doubt, but there are others. Persons who have done good for no other reason than their conscience dictated they should; the world does not know of their deeds. We used to call such people decent men and women. 

Monday, May 8, 2017

Favorite Books (4): Of Mice and Men

Reading for Enjoyment

Here I briefly discuss one of my favorite books; this is part of a continuing series.

“I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick.”
— Crooks, Chapter 4, in John Steinbeck’s  
Of Mice and Men (1937)

First Edition (2nd printing copy; Covici Friede, New York) of John Steinbeck’s American classic, “Of Mice and Men,” a story of the bond of friendship between two migrant ranch workers (George Milton and Lennie Small) in California during the Great Depression. It was published on February 6, 1937. Steinbeck had a long association (beginning in 1934) with Pascal Avram “Pat” Covici [1885–1964], a Romanian-Jewish book publisher and editor who moved to Chicago when he was twelve. This is the same man to whom Saul Bellow dedicated “Herzog” (1964) with the following words: “To Pat Covici, a great editor and, better yet, a generous friend, this book is affectionately dedicated.”
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Of Mice and Men (1937), by John Steinbeck [1902–1968], a novella, is the California writer’s seventh book and the first that made me aware of this writer’s talents with language. I first read it in high school, in my Grade 9 English class, where I was fortunate to have an excellent teacher (Miss K.). I am not sure if it continues to be read today in high schools, but it carries a universal message that remains relevant today, particularly in the nation where the story takes places, the United States.  It is about camaraderie and friendship, and the need for both. 

The book is also about how understanding can lead to friendship and friendship to understanding. It also touches on the theme that loneliness is accentuated when one decides, however unwisely, to act in a cruel and an inhumane way to another, thus increasing the separateness between persons. It is not by chance that the story takes place near the town of Soledad, a Spanish word for solitude or loneliness. 

It is situated in the Salinas Valley, a rich and productive agricultural area, as is the city of Salinas (30 miles northwest), which is where Steinbeck was born and grew up. Many of his stories take place in this region, which is not surprising when you consider what Steinbeck writes about, what is dear to his heart. It is about telling a story, about offering something to the reader. I accepted what Steinbeck offered, his drink offering, even when it didn’t go down easy. Why? Steinbeck had a moral vision, one that was clarified in the heartbreak of the 1930s.

The novella’s title, no instrument of fate, is taken from two lines of a Robert Burns poem, “To a Mouse,” which he wrote in 1785. In modern English, the lines in reference are The best laid schemes of mice and men/Go often askew. In other words, not according to plans, even though these might be the best plans that one could make or imagine. Nothing more to add here other than one cannot always know the end from the beginning, despite one’s best efforts. Some things are not within our control; perhaps too many things lie seemingly within our grasp and yet are too distant to touch, let alone take in and hold. And there is a human need to have and to hold.

Friendship, which is often easy when young, proves quite difficult and elusive later on, particularly when middle-aged and older. There are some, no matter the age, who have never known the feelings of friendship. This is not always a choice; this could never be good for the soul of a human. Great tragedies have been written that speak of this absence. Modern technology, despite what it does well, can never be a replacement for another human. This is neither its intent nor its strength. 

For Steinbeck, his writing was about America and the changes he encountered, both good and bad. Decades later, loneliness and alienation continue to be a part of many people’s lives. But there is no living in such a life. I am not sure if it has become more acute or more chronic, in the age of social media, but it remains a common part of life in America. And, as Crooks notes, it can make people sick. 

While I can’t explain why some persons never make friends, it is true that when you view someone as strange, he remains a stranger and there is a distance between the two of you. When you make an effort to get to know someone, there is a good possibility that he becomes less strange. Not everyone can become a friend, it is true.  Often the possibility is lost for a lack of effort on the part of one or the other.  Yet, sometimes that person becomes a friend and in a few rare cases a good friend.

Along with Grapes of Wrath (1939) and East of Eden (1952) [see the beautiful and honest dedication of friendship to Pat Covici], this book is the most known of Steinbeck’s works, a likely result of these three books being read in schools across the American nation, and also in other countries like Canada. There is every good reason that these books need be read.

Like many fine writers, I have read all of his fiction and quite a bit of his non-fiction, including Travels with Charley (1962). This is an accounting, but much more, of his 1960 journey across America in his camper-truck aptly named Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s horse) with his faithful dog, a middle-aged French poodle. One of his stops was in Salinas, which Steinbeck hadn’t seen in 20 years. In his travels through thirty-eight states, driving 10,000 miles, Steinbeck was “not recognized even once.

Friday, May 5, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Ascending Higher

Life of the Individual1:11
“Happy is the man…”

“And yet if class has become visible again, it is only in its grossest outlines—mainly, that is, in terms of income levels—and to the degree that manners and style of life are perceived as relevant at all, it is generally in the crudest of terms. There is something in us, it would seem, which resists the idea of class. Even our novelists, working in a genre for which class has traditionally been a supreme reality, are largely indifferent to it—which is to say, blind to its importance as a factor in the life of the individual.”

Norman Podhoretz [born in 1930],
 Making It (1967)

In an essay (“The Intellectual Bargain;” April 15, 2017), by Terry Teachout, in The New York Review of Books on Making It, by Norman Podhoretz, first published in 1967 and re-issued 50 years later, the writer sets the scene of what the son of working-class (or is it lower-class?) Jewish immigrants from Poland pursued at a certain time of America’s history; Teachout writes that this is not a conventional autobiography: “It is, rather, a book about the pursuit of ambition, a study of how certain Americans transform themselves in order to get ahead in the world.”

A part of the intellectual bargain to get ahead is the transformation of self, a willing partnership between student and teacher. This is done in accordance with the stated class requirements of your betters. Although Podhoretz says in this book that he had a desire to make it, he was unaware of class till much later on:
In my own case, the blindness to class always expressed itself in an outright and very often belligerent refusal to believe that it had anything to do with me at all. I no longer remember when or in what form I first discovered that there was such a thing as class, but whenever it was and whatever form the discovery took, it could only have coincided with the recognition that criteria existed by which I and everyone I knew were stamped as inferior: we were in the lower class. This was not a proposition I was willing to accept, and my way of not accepting it was to dismiss the whole idea of class as a prissy triviality.
Such was my view, marked by a quiet determination if not outright rejection of the established order of things, that is, until very recently. When I was growing up in the place that I was, there was the view that despite one’s origins, one by dint of effort and education, achieve great success. If there was a need to transform oneself to some of the ways of the majority culture, it was implicitly understood. But my father always reminded me and my brothers, Du bist a Yid, with all of its implications and meanings.

I knew this, but I also balanced this with the knowledge that I was also a Canadian, a Montrealer and a lover of all things American. I don’t remember thinking myself as inferior or unhappy due to where or how we lived; I do, however, remember wishing that our family had more money. If I had ambition, it was not discussed. It was silently understood that this was a requirement to fit in, to get ahead, to become a success.  

Interestingly, and although this is an aside, it is one worth mentioning. In Judaism, when one is called up to the Torah to recite a traditional blessing of thankfulness (“the Barechu”), this honor is called receiving an aliyah (Hebrew: עליה‎‎; ascent, going up). The person receiving the aliyah physically moves up to the bimah (Hebrew: בִּימָה; elevated place), a raised platform from where the Torah is read, and in doing so, it is said that he also receives a spiritual uplifting. In short, to move on up.

There is a good reason that the wealthiest area in Montreal is called Upper Westmount, with multi-million dollar mansions on top of the hill overlooking the city below. The view from Summit Circle is worthy of its name, worthy of the cost of ascension. The people residing inside can claim that they have “made it,” having the physical assets to show for it. But if they are happy, who knows? Do they ever go down the hill to rue Sherbrooke Ouest to Chalet Bar-B-Q or Villa du Souvlaki? They might, just to sample something different. Perhaps incognito.

For those who have a simple mind and poor abilities in accumulating wealth, which is most of us, one can always take comfort in knowing that this desire to “get ahead” has been held in check, that it has not overtaken one’s ethics and moral values and one’s sense of community. There has been no need to compromise; and there has been no need to make any of those grand bargains that always come at a high price. For this I am thankful.

This is not to say that I have escaped unease and burdens. Hardly so. There are many other kinds available to the rest of humanity. Comfort can easily be replaced by discomfort and anxiety. In my case, the lessons of the Holocaust have been ever-present. I thought this burden unfair, but I had no power to change it. I could not escape it, even as much as I tried in my desires and attempts, poor as they might be, in making my own way. This I learned much later in life.

While I still view class as a trivial accident of birth, it, however, resists being put down and put to rest. It springs up like a jack-in-the-box. It takes a less charming view of failure, viewing only success as important, now easily measured by such accounting standards as those that measure the wealth of corporations and of nations. It has a more practical side, if not a more ruthless one. We no longer reside, as in the 1970s, in a period of progression, but of regression. 

It is actually worse than it sounds, even as the burdens of the Holocaust are now one generation removed. Sure, life goes on, but it is repetitive and deterministic, as if one is locked in a bad dream, a nightmare with little chance of escape. The gods are either angry or bored, or both. Human relations are bereft of warmth and meaning, where opinion has replaced knowledge and understanding. Even beauty and goodness, what little there remains, although beguiling, offers only some comfort. So, what do we do?

We believe and act as if “life goes on,” which it invariably does, even as we keep our nervousness in check, since we have no choice. (“For help,” there are prescription drugs, so-called mood stabilizers, which have loads of side effects.) So, we anxiously tell our children how important it is to get a good education, so as to have a better chance of a good well-paying profession, so as to be in the best position possible to nurture a nice family—the perfect triad of a “good life.” 

Such is the desire for many, and as desires go, it’s a powerful enticing one, with all of the suggestions of meaning and happiness. Yet, can a good education and hard work alone prove enough to make it? I have my doubts, even as I write that this “good life” becomes even more desirable now than in my day, since everything else of meaning and importance has been taken away; yet, this becomes more difficult to achieve. 

What is left is the practical and the seizing of opportunity; and we are left to fight against entropy and the chaos it invites, whose purpose is to defeat us. Is it only the successful wealthy who can safely take a chance to pursue their dreams of becoming an intellectual, an artist, a writer? Yes, the comedy is evident for those who want to see it. Even these words look and sound strange today.

Even so, as much as there is evidence to support this assertion, there will always be a few individuals on the bottom rungs of society who will dare climb the ladder of success. There will always be an individual or two who will decide to live his life in accordance to his values. Such a person will not happily or willingly subsume his intellectual and moral ambitions into a meaningless void of acceptance, to a position where he comfortably resides in opposition to the “life of the individual.”

Or at least, I think and hope that this is the case, but who’s to really know the future? Certainly not this guy.