Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Game of War

Gentle visitors, from where your humble Contributor now sits, he can see, in the distance, the lapping waters of the Ebb and Flow Stream, less than a league from where she empties herself into the Great Shellfish Waters, herself being the drowned valley of the River of Long Reach, which, in turn, finds her source at the Glimmer Glass Lake (in the Land of the Last Mohican) -- where the Diamond Spirits gave the pale-face prophet Abner, the Man of Double Day, the gift of the bat, the base, and the ball -- and her deposit at the Harbor of Mercy.

In the foreground, he sees the battlefield marked with a fearsome perpendicularity and rectangularity -- at its heart, the awful stake. We speak not of the Little Brother of War -- that cross and combative match of the braves. No -- this is an engagement seemingly more gentile but, in truth, more noble and more savage. One finds himself, at once, marvelling at the elegant ettiquette and attire, and shuddering at the blows that would be struck there -- the soundless swing of the mallet before that sickening crack as it meets its mortal mark.

To be sure, it was long favored by the vicious Algonquins, but it quickly spread from the natives to the settlers -- especially upon their tiny, fescue fields beneath the cities -- though certain parsons of that time thought it "a pafftime moft wicket". Therefrom, it grew such that no great one among us has arrived unless he has endured the alternating states of deadness and aliveness and the cruel test of the lawn.

Indeed, to this fine day, were one to board the admirable bark anchored here at dock's end, and sail northward on the Great Shellfish Waters, beyond the Place Where Things Are Brought, all the way to the City of Ann, one might witness the Disciples of St. John and the Men of the Midship at this terrible sport.

We speak, of course, of croquet.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Miss Marcy Went To Say Something

Miss Marcy went to say something:
She opened her mouth...
But nothing came out.

Not nothing—something like
A gibber, a grunt—
But nothing she meant to say.

She could see the words all right,
The ones she meant to say:
The rises, the falls, the curlycues,
The stoutness of the vowels,
The steadiness at the bottom—
The way the words would sound
When spoken.
But, nothing came out.

Damn it all, she thought.
And, with her good hand,
She turned the wheel of her chair
So that she faced the window
At the far end of the corridor,
And watched the light spilling over the sill,
Rippling down the radiator,
And streaming across the tile.

How would it be, she thought,
If I were to get out of this chair,
And walk over toward you,
And take your hand,
And whisper something in your ear?
How would it be?

He liked that—she could tell—
But, why -- she could not say .

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Joe Manners - Proper Use of Napkins

Gentle visitors, no-one can claim that any of the regular of you lacks a keen sense of graciousness and decorum (lacks a basic common sense for returning to these pages? -- that's another matter entirely). Nonetheless, one of the alert poor relations from the sub-tundral regions has discovered a book entitled, "Etiquette for the Average Joe". Having not read this book, we can in no way endorse it; but, it does speak to our "inner Joe" -- the better part of all of us. And, there is that odd, uncouth visitor who would be well served with a few lessons in civility. Accordingly, here is the first lesson.

Awright. Listen up. What I am holdin' in my hand is what you call a "napkin". Youse didn't know this until just now. It's not your fault -- you're just stupid. Ok?

What you do with a napkin is you -- well, ok, like, you're gettin' fast food and there's this thing called a "dispenser" -- youse didn't know that. Then, you go to grab like a napkin and it rips. I can't stand that -- you go to grab just one napkin and it rips. Forget about that. Just pick up the dispenser and grab like 15 napkins. Throw 'em in the car. You never know -- you might spill somethin'. Whatever.

Or, like those paper towels in the can. I know-- youse don't wash your hands after you go. But, if you did, you wipe your hands on your pants, right? Not a problem. But, you go to grab like a paper towel and they're, like, hung up. Forget about that. Just grab 15. Throw 'em in the car. You never know.

Or, like the woman behind the counter, right? She don't speak English hardly -- she says, like, "may I take-a you orter". Whatever. Then, she gives you your MegaBurger and Super Fires and, like, 15 things of catch-up. 15! I don't know what's up with 15 -- what is it?-- it's like a magic number of somethin. I don' know. But, just take em', ok. Throw 'em in the car. You never know.

Now, what I am holding in my hands is -- Listen up! Yeah, you! You with the stupid look! Somebody smack 'im for me..... Stu-pid.... Awright, this is a cloth napkin. Trust me -- youse probably never saw this before.

Ok, maybe like you're goin' to your cousin Carmella's wedding, right? An', you go to sit down and there's one of these napkins like all folded up on the plate like a... like a... I don' know what. Somethin' nice.

Under no circumstance, do not touch it! Go back to the bar for a while. Have a few drinks. Then, come back. If everybody and his brother is sitting down, take the napkin and move it to the side. Let it sit there. If it comes undone, you messed up. Ok? Don't knock over the foldin' chair when you sit down. Don't tell Carmella she looks fat.

Awright. Next, we talk about utensils. Trust me -- youse don't know what they are.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Traffic Report, Sunday, April 17, 2005

My, my, gentle visitors, it's been too busy for words. Your humble contributor called away, last week, to Rome -- The Eternal City, Where All Roads Lead, Where The Buffalo, etc.

Thankfully, the air fares and hotel rates had receded slightly; though, we found the maid still cleaning up the room overlooking the Piazza di Spagna. "Scusa, scusa, Signore," she said, making the bed. "No problem, hon, take your time -- I just need a bottle of grappa and a place to put up my feet -- it's been a long flight."

Your humble contributor had come to meet with the Camerlengo to go over the settlement terms on the trademark suit with the St. Louis group. Just when things were wrapping up, the cardinal grabbed your humble Contributor's arm: "Howa bouta di papa?"

Of course, we had feared this might come up. "Look, padre, I know I could be elected, but I'm just not up for it right now. Capiche?" The cardinal looked crestfallen. "Ok, ok -- I'll try and help you out -- let's take a look at your line-up." He brightened and handed me the enrollment of the College.

Looking over the list: "I'll tell you what, padre, you got some heavy hitters here; a few minor leaguers; some ready to retire; some young prospects; some hall-of-famers. It's a tough call." The Camerlengo handed me a quill and gestured for me to mark-up the list. Hours scratching my head and scratching out names. Finally pared it down to nine. "Here. Just enough to field a team." "I don't get it," he said, "you know, the baseball," . "C'mon padre, your own guy was probably the best ever." He look mystified for a moment, then it dawned on him: "Si, si -- Giuseppe!"

Then, your humble Contributor circled a name on the list. "Here's your top pick, padre." The Camerlengo looked: "But, he's a no papabile." Your humble Contributor put on his jacket and picked up his briefcase: "They said that same thing about Rizutto. Just give me time to get home before your blow the white smoke. I don't want anyone to make the connection. And, toss that list in the chimney while your at it. Ciao." "Ciao. Graci, graci," he said, grasping the sheet.

Now, we're back home, filling the sede vacante. Come to find that someone is praising Green Acres, in derogation of a prior post, and that we had missed the birthday of Little Don (one of the poor relations). Gentle commenters, birthday greetings for Little Don would be greatly appreciated.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Papal Sightings (con't)

So I caved in. Still skeptical as to the import of this "event," I nonetheless grabbed my instamatic camera to record history. I bounded down the steps with the brotherhood--Danny, David, and Ed--and we ran to join the crowds already lining up at, I guess 17th St., near the Old Executive Office.

Motorcades, even in a town famous for them, always are thrilling to watch even to the jaded. Everyone loves a parade, right! And there he was--the Pope! Standing in a black limousine, red cape rippling in the wind, hand waving. I snapped the button of my little plastic camera. Click! Got the Pope's back anyway.

"Let's follow him!" shouted Danny, who at well over six feet also had the longest legs. So we chased after the motorcade for some blocks, pushing through crowds and people--who had the good sense to station themselves at the Pan American Union (OAS) because they, of course, were prepared and knew the Pope would end up there.

Finally, squeezing through the many people there, we found a suitable space under the shade of a small tree and waited for the Pope to appear at a little second-story balcony. I don't remember, really, what he talked about. But we stayed there watching and listening to him for a while . . .

Well, dear reader, maybe this isn't the most moving account of an encounter with Pope John Paul II, but really it was much more than I had bargained for at the time.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

A Word On "Space"

Gentle visitors, we have heard recent expressions of alarm about our apparent gaps in posting. You have asked (and, believe me, we have asked ourselves): are we slacking? are we uninspired? are we psuedonymously posing? These questions, we believe, fairly answer themselves.

Even so, we are grateful for your concern: it tells us that someone cares -- like the alert neighbor who notices that our grass is overgrown, our paint is pealing, our driveway is cracked, and our rusting, wheel-less 1981 Toyota pickup is resting on cinder blocks in the front yard, then promptly reports us to the community board and the county zoning office, leading to a citation and a chilly visit from the covenant enforcement gentleman from over on Broken Branch Court whose hair and lawn are clipped to within a micron tolerance. But, the truth is far from that.

As any (as if there were any) frequent visitor to these pages well knows, the editorial committee, hereunder, has long resisted the urge to fill these pages with bizarre or inconsequential pieces, just for the sake of posting something. More recently, we engaged a Feng Shui consultant who, having examined your humble Contributor's mind and thought processes, and the relative merit of the content of these pages, cried out, "Empty!", like some ancient, possessed oracle.

We took this to mean that we needed to create a space in our editorial floorplan: some room to breath, as it were, to stretch out, to ponder things, to consider objects and intervals, to put up our analytical feet, to doze, to snore, and to awaken with a start, confused and with a slight drool at the corners of our prosaic mouths. That is, to make these pages our own personal central Illinois. This "way of being", we believe -- filled as it is with space -- will permit us to reach greater levels of depth on subjects most relevant to our visitors, such as, say, the biomechanics of knuckles.

And, what a relief this new space has been from the 24/7, go-go-go, double-shot-expresso-in-hand milieu of these latter days. But, fear not, gentle visitors, this does not signal a substantial change to our editorial policy.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Baseball Explained

Gentle visitors, some foreigners who frequent these pages have implored us for a simple explanation of baseball. (These folks were raised on such sports as cricket, croquet, and curling. Nothing wrong with these athletical distractions -- not at all. We have treated curling in passing; croquet -- to be sure -- in some future meditation; and, cricket -- yes -- once we get the point of it.) At the same time, we have had a request for more baseball poetry: a redundance since the game itself is poetry -- a bit like a request to gild the lily.

But, nonetheless... nonetheless, we mean to serve (a tennis term, by the way) -- thus, the following, simple, poetical explanation of a "strike".

A strike is a pitch swung at and missed

(or, one not swung on at all but so called
by that certain masked, padded, dark-vested
gentleman styled "the umpire",
who crouches behind that other masked and padded
[though jerseyed] man catching said
missed or dismissed pitch,
to the extent that, in the unappealable judgment
of said umpire, the ball breaks an imaginary and approximate
box suspended over home plate
[a pentagonal affair -- hard rubber --
where the most important events transpire],
bounded by the plate itself
and the knees and "letters" of the batter,
as determined by his relative size and contraction,
the general reputation of the pitcher, and
the eyesight of the said umpish gent
[often a matter of concern and speculation
by those witnessing the sporting exhibition,
who are all, apparently, avocational optometrists ],

or, a pitch hit into a foul territory --
that is to say, an untoward place
demarcated by a straight, chalky line,
such that there is a great abyss fixed
between what is foul and what is fair --

unless such struck ball is caught,
in which case it is an out,

unless the foul is not caught
and would otherwise be the third strike,
in which case it is a nought,

unless the batter is trying a bunt,
[a cute maneuver -- if "cute" could ever be used
with the proper gravitas for the sport--
in which the batter does not swung,
but, rather, places the bat in front of the ball
in order that said ball be nudged
{again, an inadequate term}
a few feet forward, in the fervent hope
of advancing himself or other runners
along the base-paths]
and, contrary to the batters intent,
the ball goes foul (see above)
in which case it is a strike,

unless it would otherwise be a third strike
and the catcher does not catch the ball
[a paradox that -- otherwise, why the title?]
and the batter reaches the first base
before the catcher can throw the ball
to that person assigned to cover first base
or otherwise tag him out,
in which case it is technically a strike
and, per force, a strike out
but not scored as such).

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Signs & Wonders

Gentle visitor, your humble Contributor rising voluntarily before 6 a.m. is a terrestrial event of such rarity that the annals of such things contains scant mention of it. He is of the most reasonable opinion that, having retired after the sun sets, one should not rise before the sun also rises -- or, at least, not before it suggests itself on the eastern horizon. To do otherwise would be an affront to the gods upon whom your humble Contributor relies for something resembling a lawn.

Nonetheless, yesterday morning, he made an exception -- stumbling from his repose in his ceremonial fuzzy slippers (upon reflection, each on the wrong foot), donning his characteristic death mask of morning, and sporting a Kafkaesque coiffure. Then, there came the tense moments of decision -- does the ground coffee go in the filter or the water container? -- what does the "on" button do? -- should one place the carafe below the basket or allow the brewed coffee to flow onto the counter and, thence, the floor? -- each question made virtually insoluble by an EEM (Extreme Early Morning) operating mental capacity slightly below a common marsh rice rat.

All this to witness an ancient ritual in Latin, Italian, and Greek, with some grace notes of Arabic, Tagalog, and Swahili. That it was ancient was apparent -- a solemn liturgy that has changed relatively little over the centuries; vestments that were more or less settled 1500 years ago; and, a setting that reaches back, well beyond the Renaissance, to the ragtag Semites dragged in chains to the ancient Imperial City. Yet, it was new in the many countries represented -- paying tribute not to the Emperor but to the "Papa" -- and the relative youth of those who attended. What old man who, finally, cannot walk or even speak can command such love of those who are bright-eyed, fresh-faced, and on the move.

Maybe the young have learned something from the ancients, who saw portents in signs and wonders: whether the terrestrial or the celestial -- such as the rare, hybrid eclipse of yesterday. One ancient saint is said to have referred to the late pope the "labor of the sun", who was born in the penumbra of a magnificant partial eclipse on May 18, 1920. Hard to tell, but it does point out the poetic and, even, romantic longing in many hearts -- especially as against skepticism, cynicism, and ennui.

Surely, the massive celebration of the life of a good and great man leads one to believe that it's all about something. Or, failing that, that ministers from Iran, Syria, and Israel wished each other peace. Or, failing that, that your humble Contributor voluntarily rose before the rose-fingered dawn.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Papal Sightings

In the days since the death of the late Pope John Paul II, I like many others have been reflecting of the impact of this man on the world, and for many of us, on our own lives. I can't resist telling my story of my own first "encounter" (non-encounter?) with the Pope.

I was coming home from a drudge weekend job at The Liberal-Rag-That-Must-Not-Be-Named. I worked part-time in the circulation complaints department--hey, the money was good; I was a desperate college student. As I ended my work day--sometime around noonish--and walked through Lafayette Park, I noticed a big crowd gathered on the White House front lawn. Everyone was milling around the north entrance, some picture taking, etc. Then all of sudden, the crowd parted--and there was the Pope.

Even for a lapsed Catholic who had no clue the Pope was in town I was caught off guard by the site of him. Oddly, I recall few people besides me in the park as I picked up my pace to see more of the goings on. I just stood there feeling like I had happened onto a private gathering, watching as the Pope as he turned his back and was ushered into the White House, by I suppose, Ronald Reagan.

I made my way back to my fraternity house, where the brothers were all aflutter because--the Pope was in town. (I had no idea until a few minutes earlier.) "Whaddya mean you're not going to see the Pope!" said Danny, who is Jewish, as were all my brothers except for an odd Muslim or two, and from Bayside, N.Y. "We're all going! This is a big deal. And you're Catholic!" (Little did he know.)

So Danny looked at me as if I was some kind of freak for being so detached.

(To be continued . . . )

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Lawn God

Pray to the god of verdure,
To the Ancient Greener of Seed;
Lay down your lime, spread your peat, and
Spray your weed and feed.

Sow in the arms of summer,
To the humunous womb of the Earth;
Grow your rye, your fescue, blue, and
Mow when the blades give birth.

Cry to the West for moisture,
To the East for heat and light;
Dry your eyes, bide your time, and
Ply 'til the foil is bright.

Say to the god of winter,
To the winds of the North unsound,
"May the soil stay rich, the roots stay firm," then
Lay down on the hoary ground.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Romish Remembrance

Gentle visitors, would that any of us would have a hundred thousand well-wishers standing vigil outside our window, as we lay dying.

Your humble Contributors expects something close to that number when his time comes -- only, said crowd would be peopled with angry creditors, disgruntled clients, former friends and neighbors seeking to reclaim books and various garden implements, and, of course, largely disappointed poor relations importuning for a last codicil that would render some pittance from himself's meager estate.

How well your humble Contributor remembers the time when Polish jokes suddenly became passe. Yes, we loved the Italians: but, four hundred years of them? Sure, scallopini, cacciatori, parmigiana, marinara, antipasti -- but, we were ready for some pierogi.

So, it was, that your humble Contributor -- still a mere scruff of a lad -- found himself sitting across a table from Lech in a dingy, Gdansk greasehouse, over a plate of kapusta and a glass of Zlota Woda, struggling to understand his Northern Polish accent. It was, "charlie-ski" this, and "charlie-ski" that.

Finally, one had to lean over to Lech's lieutenant, who'd spend a few terms at Lublin, and ask, "Who is he talking about?". "Why," he said, "the Holy Father." Then, after the glass was filled a few times, one had to lean over and ask, "Whatisthisschtuffit'sgood." The answer came, "Aqua vitae, my friend -- the "water of life" -- here... let me help you back into your seat."

Next day -- no hangover -- and off, via mule and a secret route to Vienna, thence on a train south across the Alps. One figures, "when in Rome....." So, a few contacts at the Curia, a few bottles of Zlota Wota and fresh links of kielbasa placed in the right hands. , and -- next thing you know -- a private audience with Papa.

To be sure, he was a poet and a philosopher --still hale, before the Turk's near miss (a pair of skiis propped in the corner) -- a sparkle in his eye - yes, he was known as a wag in school. "Well, you've heard my plan. I'll need a few more years yet," he said. "Come back, and we'll talk further. More wine?". One had to ask, "But, how can this possibly be done? You have no divisions or legions." He smiled. "Think Pole -- and, give my best to Dutch."

Now, he's gone; but, it's hard to feel very distraught. His suffering is over, and many come to celebrate a life well led, and a life -- by most accounts -- that continues. Viva il papa.

Friday, April 01, 2005

The Paradox of Loss

As a youngster, your humble Contributor was a huge fan of the Washington Senators. Students of baseball history would quickly note that the young Contributor had no reason for his devotion. Not since the days of Walter "Big Train" Johnson had the Senators been real contenders. In fact, the Senators your young Contributor worshipped were the second incarnation of the team -- the earlier having hit the road for Minneapolis in 1961.

But, still, there were always glimmers of hope: Frank Howard at the bat -- would he knock one out of the park? Or, far more likely, strikeout? Ted Williams -- Hall of Famer -- would he lead the Senators to the World Series? Or, not? Denny McLain -- the last 30-game winner in the majors -- would he be the ticket? Or, just an arm no better than my grandmother's? (No offense, Grannie.)

The ultimate answer was this: in 1971, the Senators hit the road for Texas. And, the poor, tender fan was left with the choice of rooting for the Orioles -- the arch-enemies who would occasionally roll down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and visit some cruel and unusual punishment upon the Senators, then pile back on the bus -- or nothing. It would have to be nothing.

The loss of a largely losing team -- hardly something to mourn, unless one understands the metaphysical import of baseball. Recall the spiritual struggle at the heart of Damn Yankees.

This will have been a week of loss -- a loss of a man remembered ritually on the liturgical calendar -- a loss of a lady coming at the end of perhaps an unsurpassed string of legal losses -- and, a loss of an ordinary man who lived an extraordinary life.

But, loss is the prerequisite for any real gain -- without loss, one cannot step into faith and trust in something unseen and unrealized. Winning does not force such a movement. Yet, loss is the thing -- paradoxically -- that drives ultimate victory, even if the relationship is mysterious. If the world is a stage, then loss, or apparent loss, in the engine of the drama. It is the sign of contradiction -- a stumbling block to some, a revelation to others -- the seed that falls to the ground and dies.

Next week, the Washington Nationals will open their season, and the spring begins, and the seed that has died bear fruit. Maybe there is a such thing as resurrection.