Friday, November 21, 2014

Blue binder

Well, lurking quietly in the corner, at the bottom of a pile, hoping to be ignored in the clean-out, here’s an ancient blue 3-ring binder holding a career’s worth of addresses and phone numbers. On the back of some of the pages, the occasional doodle, list, or bits of terrible protest doggerel, scribbled almost certainly during an excruciating phone call with a magazine editor. A representative example:

Cut, he cried,
It’s way too long.
Make it like a Beatles song—
Short and snappy hits the gong.
Incomplete? Who gives a bleat?
Our dopey readers think it’s meat.

Other than my perfectly-scanning Wordsworth imitations, it’s page after alphabetized page filled mostly with numbers attached to names I haven’t thought of for years or have utterly forgotten, cunning little codes that no longer snap my synapses, scribbled notes with additions or changes or bits of info about secretaries, spouses I must have met along the way, and children now long grown. Once in a while a face pops into my mind, triggering flashes of memory that make me smile, or grimace, or wince. Colleagues, people I used to do work for, people who used to do work for me. Writers, editors, publishers, graphic designers, artists, distributors, packagers, photographers, publicists. Politicians, mostly local or state. Baseball types. Old running partners, teammates, opposing coaches. Professors, teachers and school administrators, tradespeople, priests and ministers (we have five churches within half a mile). Stables, horsey types, equine supplies. Outdoor gear. Membership organizations. Once good friends lost in the mists of time (sad, sad). The payphone at the house I lived in during my last year of college (!!). The occasional famous or near-famous or once-famous name. (Sometime in the early ’90s, I picked up my phone to hear the then universally-known voice of the broadcaster Joe Garagiola shouting, “Mark, Mark, why am I calling you?”) Doctors, dentists, physical therapists, athletic trainers (some of whom I still see, some of whom I haven’t seen in 40 years). Relatives and pals now departed. So more doggerel:

Old notebook
Workhorse compendium
Reminder of annoyance
and affection
Ennui perfected
and late solitude
grinding out lines immediately forgotten
And that great party in Chicago
with the wrestler and the white limousine
at Harry Caray’s
And the broken tooth in Boulder
with the pretty assistant
and the fern-bar dentist
And Anchor Steam in Frisco
or maybe it was Berkeley
     or both
Too bad, old notebook, old memories
It’s still the bin for you

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A quandary

I’ve been working away at my disaster of an office in concentric circles, expanding outward. I’m being ruthless and brutal and am making surprisingly great progress (“Look, the floor!”), but now I’ve come to the logjam of a bookcase in the northeast corner. Maybe 200 books, collections, journals, guides, studies, and bound manuscripts, mostly about baseball, but with some unimportant stuff tucked in here and there, too.

The top shelf holds mostly things I wrote, edited, or contributed to, and I suppose I’ll keep most of that. But then I run into trouble. I feel disloyal tossing stuff by friends, and I know how agonizingly hard some of the writers I gave moral support to worked on their projects. There are also a few books signed by authors I admire. (One has a charming inscription to H—and it’s a terrific read, too.) Then there are things I’ve had since boyhood, and which I’m sentimentally attached to. But most of this stuff has really got to go. I have a horror of having to pack up a mass of personal debris in quick time if we move, and a much greater horror of leaving the horrible job to a loved one. And really, not many people would think this material is worth anything.

So I’m gradually working my way around to just getting rid of it all. Or maybe allowing myself half a shelf. Or maybe I’ll just weed the obvious outz now, go skiing, and come back to it next summer. Or maybe the book fairy….

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Now that’s the ticket!

I’ve been digging deep into the detritus of my life (you could say “the mess in my office” if you wanted to be mundane about it). 

Today I surfaced a collection of autographs: Ted Williams, Nellie Fox, Bob Feller, Jimmy Piersall, the golfer Doug Ford, and, best of all, a non-autograph: a ticket stub from the 1964 US Olympic pre-Trials at Randall’s Island. 

Tom O’Hara! (Scrawny as I was—“ah, your arms are just for balance.”)

Dyrol Burleson! (Whose first name I never knew how to pronounce.)

Jim Grelle! (Whose last name I never knew how to pronounce.) 

Cary Weisiger!  Archie San Romani Jr.! The idols of my youth. 

I remember going to a side field to watch these guys warm up for the 1,500. I was shocked that they looked remarkably human.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

How odd ... How lovely

I hopped in the shower this morning and began a weirdly excellent experience.

I have a very small Bluetooth speaker in there, and I thought my iPhone was set to continue an audio book I’d been listening to. But no. Some illicit digital shenanigans had been going on, and up came “Boplicity” from Birth of the Cool. Which naturally made me feel like one smooth operator. And when it was over I was set up for more ultra-sophisticated post-bopness from Miles and the guys.

But no again. Little Richard asking Lucille to satisfy his heart.

It’s hard to go so fast from supercool to down and dirty, and I didn’t quite make it before here was Fats Waller and his famous variations on Tea for Two, which made me remember for the first time in years asking my mother, who loved Waller (“great left hand”), if this was a joke that was played on him or a joke he was playing on us. She told me she thought he was just taking an insipid tune and demonstrating how it could be played in various jazz styles. I wasn’t convinced then and I’m not convinced today.

By this time, I was in the car headed north to a great farm market. We went classical for a stretch, and the sounds took me deeper and deeper into the memory tunnel.

A movement of a Vivaldi Cello Concerto made me remember that we used to listen to a lot of Baroque when H was a little girl. She always recognized this composer, and called him “Mr. Vivaldi.”

Next, a movement of the Mozart Bassoon Concerto (Michael Chapman!) reminded me that while I used to know most of the Köchel numbers, now I can barely tell Mozart from Cab Calloway.

Onward to Coleman Hawkins sedate but ground-breaking “Body and Soul”.  My dad, the first time I played it for him decades ago: “Where’s the melody? I can’t hear the tune! Why would anyone do that? You don’t like this stuff, do you?”

But dad loved the next one (which is why it’s on my iPhone): Bing Crosby crooning his massive early hit, “Please”. (“Your eyes reveal that you have the soul of / An angel white as snow / How long must I play the role of / A gloomy Romeo?”) My mother used to roll her eyes at stuff like this and make the “square” sign.

Back to a movement of one of Big Mo’s string quartets. Until I lost the hearing in one ear in the mid-’80s, chamber music was my thing, and the Mozart Quartets were pretty much my idea of perfection in music. But they became vastly less enjoyable to me in personal mono. Which is a shame. On the other hand: jazz. Louis and Wolfgang exist somewhere together. They both treat Billie Holiday with great respect.

By this time, I was cruising along back roads that were beautiful, green, and cool. It’s an awfully nice part of the country here. And up came Patti LuPone singing “Rabbit Tango” from a Sandra Boynton collection we bought for B. We love everything Boynton, but especially Moo, Baa, La La La, which in our family is always pronounced Moo, Baa, Ya Ya Ya, because that’s the way H said it when she was very small.

This was unfortunately followed by Simon & Garfunkel singing “Save the Life of My Child,” which I actually don’t remember ever hearing before, and which brought my spirits low even on this beautiful day in the beautiful place.

But then, just before I pulled into the farm, The Beatles offered “Let It Be”, which made me realize that the older I get, the more I love John Lennon.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

“...striding down Main Street with a determined look.”

It’s lovely to read or hear nice things about people you love. Not so great when they come as condolences, of course, but some of those notes and phone calls can be profoundly moving. And some really good ones, like the one I’ve excerpted as the title of this post, raise memories that can make you laugh and cry at the same time.

My dad passed away on Easter morning. I was in church, a relative rarity, when the phone in my breast pocket buzzed, and I got up to take the call outside, knowing what it was likely to be. I returned to pass the news to our pew, then H and I made the half-hour drive to Maplewood.

As spring came on this year, Dad’s body, so faithful for so long, began to give up the ghost. Visits became short wheelchair rides down the hall, where I’d find a seat and strike up one-sided conversations that involved the weather, H and B, and famous family stories that I got to tell him as if he hadn’t been there. His eyes still lit up when I arrived, and I could usually get a smile out of him, sometimes even a chuckle, but by mid-April, his systems were clearly shutting down, and it was time for me to speak to the medical staff about Hospice care. The two of us had one more moment of real connection, when I worked with him on one of the pathetic little exercises we’d been given: to see if he could touch his nose with his right hand. I think we both realized how ridiculous this was in so many ways, and when I cheered as his thumb, with  some gentle help, made contact, we both laughed. A few visits later, H and I planted what we understood were likely to be our last kisses on his shiny bald head. The next morning, he was gone.

One woman of my generation, daughter of great old friends of my parents, told me that Dad had been the most “sophisticated” man she ever knew. This made me laugh, because my father was none of the things you think of when you hear that word. He was not worldly, or urbane, or debonaire, or suave, or wealthy, or well-educated, or any of the other adjectives that usually factor into the description of a sophisticated man. Quite the opposite, in many cases. But I knew what she meant, and it was a set of attributes that many of the notes and conversations of condolence mentioned. One called him, “fun, funny, gracious, kind, and utterly charming....” Not a bad epitaph.

A few weeks later, we had a slightly eccentric gathering of friends and family, where I said a few words and we buried his remains in a quite lovely spot next to my mom’s, with everyone tossing in a bit of good Woodbury dirt, and a few of us hanging around to fill the little hole and tamp the turf back down. Then we adjourned to the house for catching up (much-loved but seldom-seen cousins and childhood friends) lots of stories and laughter, good food, and what I vaguely remember as reasonable amounts of drink. Dad loved a good party, and we did our best to see him off the right way.

Of course, he wasn’t perfect. He was mean to me about a baseball bat, had little respect for my intelligence, and sometimes failed to show up for important family events.

Boy, do I miss him.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The shah and the chimp

Alan Sloman recently put up a blog post that included this wonderful sentence, “... Mum made it quite clear to me, repeatedly, that the Shah of Persia would not be coming if I didn’t eat my greens.”

(And now, of course, you have to go read the post or live your life believing that Alan was indulging in the merely surreal.)

Alan’s mum’s brilliant strategy inevitably reminded me of something. When I was a little boy, I lobbied hard for a pet chimpanzee. They were all over TV in those days, and as an only child I thought one would make a terrific playmate. Not surprisingly, my parents were having none of it. But no was not an answer up with which I was willing to put. I persisted, I nagged, I pestered. I hounded and badgered even though I wanted neither hound nor badger.

Finally, my father had had it. “You can’t have a chimpanzee,” he told me, “because they grow up to be gorillas.”

Well, there was no answer to that, really. Even I realized we had no room for a gorilla. The matter was dropped.

But here’s the thing. I don't know what lessons I didn’t pay attention to, what nature programs I zoned out on, what books I didn’t read, what simple logic I didn’t apply, in what ways I simply ignored the obvious, but I didn’t know the truth of the matter until my wife-to-be and I had a short sharp argument on the topic in our early 20s. She won, unfairly deploying provable facts.

To be fair, Dad’s answer was probably more humor than deception (though under the circumstances I imagine he was perfectly OK with deception). We are a facetious family. We often say what we don’t mean, and mean what we don’t say. We expect others—certainly family and close friends—to recognize this and go along with the joke, the point of which isn’t always jokey. I was perhaps a little young, but I was supposed to reason like this: “That’s untrue but funny. That’s also Dad saying pleasantly what he does not want to say angrily, which is, ‘That’s it. I’m answering your nonsense with some of my own, and if I hear any more from you something unimaginably horrible will happen to your baseball glove.’”

On the other hand....the fib abides.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Joyous amalgamation

How many weddings has a guy my age attended? Lots and lots and lots. Family, friends, colleagues, and their children and other connections over three generations and more. I remember being forced into dressy clothes and trotted off to be bored at lots of formal, straight-laced affairs in the ’50s and early ’60s. I retain at least vague memories of somewhat more colorful gatherings of the late ’60s and early ’70s, including several where the bride and groom actually wore shoes. (One I livened up with a bloody nose at the reception that required me to be removed from the premises. Who knew a G&T or two would have that effect?) And over the last few decades there have been lots of overproduced extravaganzas I chalked up to the weirdly unmodern diktats of the wedding industrial complex. Lately, it’s been some relatively simple but elegant events involving remarkably self-possessed young couples settled and mature enough to know what they wanted and to do it in style.

We just got back from a weekend in St. Augustine, Florida, where R, our much-loved eldest niece, tied the knot with the excellent Other R. They knew what they wanted and they did it in style. First, they gave sweet B a featured role as a flower girl, thereby pretty well assuring perfection throughout.

Second, they arranged for perfect weather at a beautiful venue. Third, groom R’s mom makes easily the best key lime pies anywhere. Fourth, the families from both sides bonded, and really enjoyed each other.

Then the main event: excellent music, a cool minister, a few special words—brief special words—by said minster, members of the bridal party, and the nuptial pair themselves, that hit the nail on the head. On to good wine, carefully chosen food, jolly conversation around the tables, more good wine, and, along with further good wine, lots of enthusiastic dancing. (Why don’t people do the Jerk anymore? Why do they laugh at people who do? It’s a mystery.)

Great weekend. Great wedding. And it’ll be a great marriage, too.

When we got married, one of us was simultaneously in a frenzy trying to finish a thesis at the end of a distinguished college career. The bride’s mother couldn’t understand how her daughter could be so relatively uninterested in wedding details.

Mom, annoyed and frantic: “This is the most important day of your life.”

Daughter, frantic and incredulous: “I certainly hope not.”

I just went out for a run.