Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Just Shoot Me

An advertisement for a nifty little handgun appeared with my morning newspaper today.

100th Anniversary Of The 1911 Pistol!
Life's Too Short to Shoot an Ugly Gun!

The ad, a glossy flier inserted into the paper, was paid for by the National Rifle Association. No surprise there. They're selling an "official NRA Licensed Product." Every sale "helps the NRA continue to defend our 2nd Amendment Rights."

Well, fuck the NRA.

Life's too short to shoot an ugly gun? Come on.

Life's too short when you get shot and killed by an ugly gun – or a nice-looking one, for that matter.

On average, guns kill or wound 100,000 people every year in the United States, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Over one million people have been killed by guns in the U.S. since 1968.

Lock and load that one.

Think John Lennon. Think Gabby Giffords, and the eight people who died senselessly in Arizona after being shot by an opponent of gun control.

The National Rifle Association has had our collective common sense in a hammerlock for too long now. Stop them before they kill again.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Play With Them

Note: This story first appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Elysian Fields Quarterly, a baseball magazine.

Summer has fallen, and with it the frequency of our games.

The game is wiffle ball and we play it in the street, the neighborhood kids and me. Usually we start after dinner and often go until it is past dark, so dark we cannot see the ball to hit or catch. Yet the games are seldom called on account of darkness. Rather some kid’s mom or dad calls him in. Sometimes my wife calls me in.

One of the kids is mine – sometimes two, if Marshall and the other boys allow Dana to play. Although I am a middle-aged man I think these kids, some of them, look at me almost as another neighborhood kid. An overgrown one, to be sure, but another neighborhood kid.

“Wiffle ball” should probably be written with a registered trademark symbol (®), because that’s what it is. Corporate headquarters are in Shelton, Connecticut. According to company lore, wiffle ball originated in the early 1950s when a couple of kids, short on players and space, developed a scaled-down version of baseball using a plastic golf ball. Holes in the ball made it easy to throw a curve and the curve was hard to hit, resulting in many strikeouts, or “wiffs” – hence, wiffle ball.

Judging by an official website, true wiffle ball is remarkably codified. Our neighborhood games are not. They are essentially sandlot baseball, though we play in the street – a cul-de-sac, actually, so there is no through-traffic to worry about. We have two outs per half-inning to keep the game moving. A fly ball hit beyond a brown patch of lawn in a distant yard is an automatic home run. First base is a manhole, second and third are rubber slabs, and home plate is a piece of corrugated cardboard.

Of course, the kids know perfectly well that I am not an overgrown neighborhood kid. In fact as an adult, with adult things to do, I sometimes wonder why I play with them so often. It is due largely to my wife. Play with them, she says. Play while you still can. Sometimes I don’t think I can – tendonitis in my right heel bothered me all summer, and some evenings my legs still ache from playing the night before. But, play with them, she says. It is hard to counter such a simple statement. And so I play.

We have played our evening games on and off for several summers. Sometimes we play kickball, but wiffle ball is the more popular choice. This year the games began in earnest in mid-July, the hottest part of the season. For weeks we played almost every night. The days being at their longest, we could play until nearly nine o’clock. But with the end of summer and the start of a new school year we must stop earlier; one by one the kids must go inside to finish homework or eat dinner or take a bath.

A few other parents joined in the games over the summer. But this only happened a few times; usually I am the sole adult present. As such I am accorded an awesome power. The kids trust me to be the umpire, to be impartial, to make the proper call on close plays. They never argue when I say safe or out, fair or foul, ball four or strike three.

These games transport me back in time – from overgrown kid to actual kid. From the ages of about ten to thirteen, baseball and its variants, like wiffle ball, absolutely consumed me. It was all I cared about. I would play anytime anyplace, hot weather or cold, day or night, sunshine or rain. If I couldn’t play, if I couldn’t find a game on TV, then I was content to read about it. Biographies of major leaguers, godlike figures from the game’s hallowed past, were my first choice. But baseball trivia, facts and figures, even rule books satisfied me. My head was crammed with baseball, and almost nothing but.

As I play now with a new generation of kids, I see clearly how little the game has changed. It is a cliché that baseball doesn’t change, that it is essentially the same game now as a century ago – strike three yer out, ball four take yer base. What takes me back, though, is not so much the game, but the way children play it. Some of these wiffle ball kids are interchangeable with the guys I played with long ago. Is this Evan, or my old pal Chuck? Adam, or Joe? It was Chuck who, at bat with no one playing catcher, would never toss the ball back to the pitcher. No, he would use the bat to golf it back. And of course the ball seldom went straight; usually it bounced ten feet wide of the pitcher and kept going. The whole game was delayed while someone retrieved it and another kid would say “goddammit Chuck” – we were all learning to swear, as is this new batch of kids – “will you please just throw it?” Next pitch too high – and Chuck would golf it again. Joe loved to pitch but usually threw as fast as he could. “Don’t throw so fast!” one of us would demand. “No one can hit it!” Joe would get a self-righteous look and hold out his arms: “That’s the whole point!” Now, decades later, these patterns repeat.

Sometimes these wiffle kids get into terrible arguments among themselves. Nothing new there, either. They have never come to blows, but one day they might. The arguments usually start over nothing, like after the night Sam found his swing. That first night, he connected for a long fly ball that sailed over the outfielder’s head, almost every time he came to the plate. But the next night his swing eluded him: he struck out, popped out, and bounced out, over and over. Such is the nature of baseball.

His brother Alex took perverse delight in Sam’s performance. They were on opposing teams this night, although no amount of mixing up these kids can pre-empt trouble. When an inning ended after Sam made yet another easy out, Alex teased, “Still no hits tonight, Sam.”

“Shut up, Alex.”

“Come on, guys,” I said. “Everyone’s doing their best.” The score was tied but it was getting dark. “Maybe we should call it a night.”

But they all wanted one last inning – they all wanted to win – so I agreed to stay out a little longer. By this time we could hardly see, so we invoked a special time saving rule: each side would get just one out.

We were up first in this extra inning. Luck was on our side: we got two runs in quick succession before making our one out. Sam and Adam were sniping at each other as they prepared to bat: both were sure they were about to lose.

Marshall batted before either of them, and he hit a fly ball that no one could see because it was so dark. The ball went bouncing down the street and he made it all the way around the bases for a home run. They began to get excited then: maybe they could pull this thing out. Sam was up next and got on the same way: no one could see the ball he hit.

Then Adam came to the plate. He slapped the ball sharply right at Alex, who tried to field it on one hop. But it was so dark out that he missed it; it caromed up and over his shoulder and went bouncing far behind him.

Sam represented the tying run. He went sprinting around the bases with Adam not far behind him. If they both scored the game would be over. Alex ran back for the ball but it was really too late: there was no way to stop either runner.

But Sam stopped himself. He looked back at his brother and sang out, “Al-ex...!” while lifting one foot high over the plate and holding it there.

And it was flashback time: Mike Saroyan pulled this same stunt in a Little League game when I was about twelve. Saroyan was the winning run, he was about to score, but just to torture the other team he deliberately stopped inches from home plate and watched with a devilish grin as a fielder ran toward him hoping to tag him out. Just before the fielder reached him, Saroyan delicately tapped his toe on home plate.

And now Sam was stopped just before the plate. But he had miscalculated. Adam was just behind him, but before Sam actually touched the plate, Adam whizzed past him to score, before leaping into the air. “We win!” he shouted.

But Alex came running toward home, holding the ball. “No! No! No!” he yelled. “You’re out, Adam! You ran past Sam!”

Sam’s jaw dropped. He still hadn’t touched the plate, so Alex tagged him. “You’re out too, Sam!” he cried triumphantly.

“No I’m not!” Sam shrieked.

“I’m not out!” Adam protested.

“You’re both out!” Alex yelled back.

They were all screaming then, before Alex finally, breathlessly, turned to me. “Adam’s out, right? Because he ran in front of Sam?”

“I’m sorry, guys,” I said to Sam and Adam, “but he’s right. You’re both out. You only had one out, anyway.”

Alex burst into laughter. “We win!”

“I’m not out!” Adam and Sam shouted, in unison.

“Sorry, guys,” I said. “Adam, you’re out for passing Sam. Sam, you never touched the plate.”

Yippee!” Alex cried out. “We win!”

“You’re an asshole!” Sam yelped. He dove toward Alex and brought him down with a flying tackle. They began rolling around on the lawn but I quickly pulled them apart. Sam was in tears – not from fighting but from losing the game. Alex was still triumphant. Suddenly Sam turned and ran into his house.

“Oh no,” Alex said. “He’s going to lock me out again.”


“That’s what he does when he’s mad.”

I told Marshall and Dana to pick up all the bats and balls and go into our house. “Game’s over, you guys! It’s almost bathtime!” Adam was furious; he said he was never playing with any of us again.

But he was back the next night, and we all played. My legs were killing me and when the kids first asked me to play, I declined. Then they begged me. I said we had just finished dinner and had to clean up. But my wife intervened. Play with them, she said. I’ll do the dishes. Play while you still can. Another year, maybe two, and my presence will be an embarrassment, a liability, and none of these kids will want me around. So I limped out the door, an overgrown kid perhaps, hoping maybe a few of the years would melt away. And I played.

See this related post

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

JFK: Another Anniversary

Every year on November 22, people gather in Dallas, Texas to remember John F. Kennedy.

They've done so ever since 1964, and the first anniversary of his assassination. The remembrances are held in Dealey Plaza, the scene of the crime, and began spontaneously; there was no need to organize. For years they were attended by Penn Jones, Jr. (at right, in cap), who always led a moment of silence in JFK's memory.

I've been to a number of these ceremonies since 1996. In 2008 I even had the privilege of speaking at one. My remarks from that day are at the end of this post.

The assassination's 50th anniversary is still a few years away, but some are already looking ahead. The half-century mark may well be a turning point in this saga. Kennedy’s murder is not within the memory of most Americans. And most Americans no longer care.

That minority who do are broadly divided into two camps: those who recognize an obvious conspiracy, and those who, publicly at least, say they don't (though in their heart of hearts, I think even these deniers all know).

It is with great skepticism that many in the former camp are viewing certain preparations now underway for November 22, 2013. “We have reserved Dealey Plaza for that date,” Nicola Longford, Executive Director of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, told the Dallas Morning News in October.

The intrusion by any institution into these remembrances is not a good thing. With a single exception (1993, for an historic landmark dedication) they have always been unofficial: something of the people, by the people – and for JFK.

Longford added that the museum's 2013 ceremony “will be ... dignified and appropriate.” This implies that previous events have not been dignified.

Granted, there have been excesses in years past, though not necessarily by anyone within the research community. But most have been tasteful.

More to the point, they have been necessary.

With this in mind, I present, on this 48th anniversary, a sampling of comments made at Remembrance Ceremonies over the last fifteen years, as documented by Yours Truly.

“The research community that I’ve worked with since the 1960s has essentially solved this case,” said John Judge (left), of the Coalition on Political Assassinations, in 1996. “That solution certainly involves the highest levels of military and intelligence organizations in this country. It’s not a mystery.”

“The land you're standing on here today, no less than Gettysburg or the Little Bighorn, is a battlefield, in a war, truly, for the soul and the future of your country,” Charles Drago said that same year. “Form your own judgments – keep your own counsel – hear all sides – but understand one thing to the exclusion of all others – that conspiracy in the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy is historical fact.”

“We know the truth,” declared writer George Michael Evica (left), also in 1996. “And [we] will tell the story of that truth, here where he died, and in our councils and conferences, and in the years beyond, through the turn of the century. Because we remember JFK and his death, and his life, and of the meaning of that life and death, we now bear witness, in our voices, here in Dealey Plaza, where an unrested spirit is still with us.”

In 1997 Kerry McCarthy, JFK’s cousin, spoke in Dealey Plaza (below). “His loss is to be mourned, his life to be celebrated, his examples to be emulated, and his murder, someday, to be solved,” she said. “Today ... we can be assured that the hope that we felt in the early 1960s truly did exist ... the challenges that my cousin hoped to face still call out for leaders of integrity.”

John Judge echoed those remarks a year later. “What was assassinated here that day was not just a particular man, or a particular president, but a sense of hope by the American people.”

Also in 1998, author Philip Melanson observed: “If the vast majority of us in the public believe that this case is an unsolved conspiracy, who are the minority in officialdom to deny us the truth, and to cling to the lone assassin theory like it was a religion, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary?”

Which brings me to my own remarks, delivered in 2008. They are presented without the requisite quotation marks or further elaboration:

The writer Ambrose Bierce once defined truth as an ingenious compound of desirability and appearance.

I think that is also a fitting description of the government’s account, and most media accounts, of President Kennedy’s assassination.

This is the forty-fifth time that citizens from this city and state, and from around the country and around the world, have come to this plaza to remember John F. Kennedy, on the anniversary of his death.

About 200 people were here to remember President Kennedy in 1964, on the occasion of the first anniversary. Among them was an Oklahoma woman named Shirley Martin. Mrs. Martin was a great admirer of JFK. She said it was hard for her to be here, where the president had died, but she felt it was her obligation. She also felt an obligation to find out who really killed her president.

Shirley Martin was among a handful of Americans who read not just the Warren Report, but also the Warren Commission’s 26 volumes of supporting evidence – all in an effort to learn the truth. In that endeavor, Mrs. Martin was in a tiny minority. But like those of us gathered here today, she was in the majority of Americans who have never accepted that one lone nut shot and killed John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Government accounts of JFK’s assassination have all been ingenious compounds of desirability and appearance. But they have not been the truth.
The Moment of Silence, 1997 (Photograph by Mike Blackwell – RIP)

                                          The Moment of Silence, 1996

Thursday, November 17, 2011


In an era when the specialty coffee trade is dominated by mega-chains, I've found a place that stands out for its independence, and commitment to a first-rate product.

It's a humble concern, a one-man operation located in the ground floor of a redbrick building at a nondescript downtown corner. Walk in and you'll see a counter, behind which the proprietor is usually operating the roasting machine. Clear plastic bins are stacked on the counter, filled with coffee beans from around the world. Bean varieties and prices are listed on a board suspended from the ceiling behind the counter.

Over against one wall, huge burlap bags of unroasted coffee beans rest on overturned plastic milk crates. There are usually a dozen or more of these big bags. Fastened here and there to the wall are 19th century coffee advertisements, and other coffee culture flotsam.

That’s about it. There is no coffee brewed on the premises, except for what the roaster might make for himself. No espresso machine or Bunn-o-matic. No disaffected, goateed poets sipping cappuccino at sidewalk tables, struggling with their angry verse. Just coffee roasting. And as it happens, the beans I buy at this place (Sumatran dark) make perhaps the best coffee I’ve ever had—really an outstanding brew. Easily as good as anything we ever got in San Francisco, maybe better.

I find myself intrigued by the coffee roasting machine—a large, ancient-looking piece of equipment in operation virtually every time I go into the place. It sparked my fascination; soon I had a vague idea of writing something about this roaster, and what he does.

“Well, I can save you some time,” he said, when I told him what I had in mind. “There’s going to be an article about this place in the newspaper next week. In the food section. You should find out everything you want to know in there.”

“That will help, I replied, and I’ll be sure to check it out. But I’m interested in observing.”

The roaster looked at me for a moment before stepping back to his roasting machine, a large contraption with a big bowl on its front in which the beans are roasted. An arm turns within the bowl to stir the beans.

The machine seemed to belch as he turned its knobs and levers; steam or smoke wafted up to the ceiling. It was quite pungent, an aroma rather like burned rubber, not at all like the smell of perking coffee but not entirely unpleasant.

He turned back to me. “You mean, like, fiction?”

I didn’t know what I had in mind, but I replied, “Yeah.”

“I used to do some writing myself, and I understand you gotta do research. But I don’t think I’d want to be anyone’s subject matter...”

I pressed him a little but his answer did not change. He’d be willing to answer questions from time to time—“Like now, when it’s slow. I’m always willing to chat for a while.” But me sitting in for an afternoon was out of the question.

The roaster stepped back to the roasting machine and fiddled with it again; it emitted another puff of smoke or steam. He turned on a vent as the burnt-rubber smell filled the room, then moved to the front door and opened it to air the place out. He wasn’t holding it for me, but I took it as my cue to leave.

A week later the article about coffee appeared on schedule in the newspaper. The roaster came off as a bit of a flake, with this comment about roasting: “I listen to the beans and do what the beans want.” He was a self-taught roaster, having started in college out of curiosity. He would cook beans in a cast iron skillet and his skills developed from there. He acknowledged that coffee roasting is far from an exact science. “The real true, deep secrets in coffee come in blending. You’re never going to get any roaster to tell you what they do in blending.”

It struck me then: he had thought I was a roasting upstart trying to steal the secrets of his trade!


It didn’t really matter, although before long I wanted to get some raw coffee beans and try cooking them in a cast iron skillet.

See this related post

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Balloon Animals

Behold! An animal's likeness, created from an ordinary balloon!

It's a neat trick. Like a lot of people, I've watched, impressed, as skilled hands twist and shape a long balloon into such caricatures.

And I was even more impressed recently, when my daughter began making her own balloon animals.

I'm not sure exactly where she picked this up, but I think it was at school. There is no balloon animals class, naturally. But that's where this interest of hers seems to have begun.

She started making balloon animals just a few days ago, at this writing. Or at least, I just learned of it a few days ago. She brought home a few long balloons and, in effect, said, "Look what I can do!"

And look I did, like any proud papa would.

She's always been artistically inclined. That's how she expressed herself at a very young age. If she was happy about something, it came out in her drawings; likewise if she was sad.

There is no linkage, but when she and her brother were still very small, I went through a period of making balloon animals myself. Bought a book with some of the basic steps, and began twisting away.

Most of the balloon animals I made looked pretty much the same. There's a basic a balloon animal form, and the balloon animals I made were all variations on it.

I learned to make a dog. Want to see a balloon cat? Just like a dog, but with a longer tail. A balloon giraffe? Identical, nearly, but with a longer neck.

And so on.

In a very short time, though, my daughter has surpassed my puny balloon animal abilities. I've been considerably impressed.

She's made a balloon animal monkey, a balloon animal swan, and a balloon animal mouse (or rat, we're not sure which).

She's made a balloon animal elephant, and as you perhaps can tell by the progression of photographs accompanying this text, a balloon animal teddy bear.

She made a balloon animal for me. She made a balloon animal for her mother. And for her brother, she made a balloon animal sword.

Unfortunately, the teddy bear balloon in these photos popped before she finished it. This is a hazard of twisting balloon animals. They break oh so easily!

But my daughter is not easily deterred. Gamely, she started another balloon teddy bear after this first one popped.

She finished it in about five minutes. Then she made a reindeer. And after that, she twisted a cat. The cat is in the photo at left, chasing one of her balloon animal mice (or rats – as I said, we aren't sure which).

Not too far from where we live, there is a three or four block long pedestrian mall. It's just a shopping district, really, but buskers are permitted to ply their trades for the entertainment of shoppers. You'll find musicians and jugglers and magicians, even during the winter. There's one mainstay, a contortionist, who for years has entertained onlookers by squeezing himself into a plexiglass box. (I can't stand watching him.)

Anyway, there are also balloon animal artists. Some of these people are incredible; their work far exceeds mere balloon animals. One guy, for example, twists these spirals, and somehow gets a knotted up balloon bit inside the spiral, which then spins down the inside like a toy. Quite remarkable.

I only mention this because I need to fill in some space to accommodate more pictures. For the present, I don't think my daughter aspires to the high level of balloon artistry as on that pedestrian mall ... although you never know.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


“Start a tradition.”

This is a phrase I hear from time to time. It irritates the hell out of me.

Admittedly, I can be a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to careless use of language. I concede that.

But, not without reason. As Frederick Barthelme observed, words have meanings.

My dictionary defines "tradition" as 1) the transmission of beliefs from generation to generation, or 2) a long-established custom or belief.

So you can't really start a new tradition. You can start something and hope it turns into a tradition – Wednesday night is spaghetti night! – but you can't make it happen.

I see the careless use of language all the time, and it really rankles me.

I once started a list of particularly irritating examples of the careless use of language. I didn't get very far with it. About the only one I remember is using the word film (as a verb, to film) when you mean videotape.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Get Out of the Way

This past weekend, during a college football game I saw on the tube, a referee got knocked down by a player.

He might have been hit by a speeding locomotive. The player, a running back at full speed, got pushed out of bounds along the sidelines, directly into the hapless referee. The collision first knocked the ref backward, and then down on his caboose.

It surprised me, but shouldn't have, that the running back didn't bother to help the ref back to his feet. Let alone say anything to him. Let alone apologize for what was clearly an accident.

The ref probably didn't expect anything like that. These things happen. It's an occupational hazard. Comes with the territory. A trainer from one of the football teams ran over to check on the ref, a side judge. He was shaken up but able to continue his whistle blowing.

This incident reminded me of another televised sporting event I saw, from long ago, as a kid. It was a baseball game, live from Japan, two Japanese teams. Probably on the Wide World of Sports.

A batter was hit by pitch. Immediately, the pitcher ran to home plate and bowed apologetically. The batter accepted the apology before trotting down to first base.

This apology impressed the hell out of me. That's how they do it in Japan. At the risk of demonstrating my cultural ignorance, it seemed like hitting a batter brought great shame to the pitcher.

The contrast between these two incidents exemplifies something to me. I'm not sure what, but some sort of American macho bullshit. As if an apology by that football player would have shown weakness. The Japanese pitcher demonstrated you can respect your opponent (or ref), and acknowledge his humanity, even in the midst of competition.