An Antidote to Baseball (Part 2)

Despite my devotion to Carlton Fisk and my horror at the graceless, scoundrelly way he’d been shipped out of town, I remained a Red Sox fan straight through to spring 1998—when I moved to New York and promptly demonstrated my lack of character by switching my allegiance to Boston’s arch-enemy. But there were the Yankees, on TV every night on their way to the World Series. And there playing shortstop was Derek Jeter—like the gilded athlete on top of a golden trophy, a golden player, then and still; nothing sweeter than Derek Jeter, this is what I always say.

After a year or two in Brooklyn, I switched again, slipping lower and further away from the Red Sox, beyond the enemy camp into the absolute evilest hell of The Worst Memory: because despite having lived through the 1986 World Series, I became a Mets fan. This was impossible, theoretically. But the Mets had signed Rickey Henderson to be their leadoff hitter that season and this made them more interesting than the Yankees—literally, when both teams were playing on two different channels, Rickey Henderson taking ownership of all basepaths  was more fun to watch than even the peerless Jeter outshining the bulk of Yankee man-flesh around him. National League baseball, I'd also discovered, is the better game.

So I betrayed the team of my youth, it’s been over ten years ago. Meanwhile the Boston Red Sox eventually won their first two World Series titles since the Bronze Age and the New York Mets don’t win one since 1986—they simply decline. Many afternoons and evenings I gave to the Mets and then consoled myself afterwards listening to Steve Somers dissect them on WFAN call-in radio. My love of baseball is sincere. At last, though, the Mets broke me. One night I stared and stared at an internet page that showed Carlos Beltran’s salary accruing dollar by dollar in real time; it was horrifying. By 2010 I couldn’t take the season past mid-summer. Last year, busy writing Famepunk, I didn’t watch at all. Also, I don’t approve of the taxpayer-funded “Citi Field” replacement stadium and haven’t attended a single game there in person even though it’s been possible to buy tickets for $3 apiece on-line.

People tell me, “You’re not a real Mets fan if you can’t take the misery” and maybe they’re right—I’m not. The sense of having allowed a poison to leave my system keeps me wary of watching or caring again—maybe I couldn’t. I’ve dared to watch the Mets several times this season, only to find that a win does little for me while a loss can leave me unaccountably depressed. The bad memories stir, the bad feelings come back. Last week I read the name “Aaron Heilman” in some article and a wave of sick, helpless rage almost swamped me—years he’s been gone, a huge bum but by no means the biggest they’ve paid. Yet his very mention made me want to throw furniture.

I mean, what is baseball anyway? A cure for loneliness? In part, it really is. I picture myself on a high school summer night, alone in my room, keeping box scores in bed beside my clock radio, busy with pen and paper and released from my solitude into the state of public grace that was nine innings of Red Sox baseball in the Zimmer era.

LINK: This guy.

I picture the protagonist of Famepunk, a teenaged Mets fan from Brooklyn in 1987, similarly beguiled into attachment by a display of male superiority whose return she awaits in all confidence—and in vain. In very, very vain. In fact it’s really very sad to be a Mets fan.

Up to a point.

At 51, every year I care less who wins anything, not just baseball games and tennis matches but all the other prizes too; I’ve even stopped watching the Oscars. I believe this is the growing maturity they were always making us read about in school—when? Never. I don’t recall a single reference to the concept until I started reading about Eastern philosophy in my 30s. “Older and wiser”: you hear this all the time but how often it's used for youth, even children, even babies who’ve just steadied themselves on a hot stove door, connoting a lesson learned at an impressionable stage of development. That age itself, growing older, living through a greater accumulation of experiences actually leads to or increases wisdom: this isn’t what “older and wiser” is intended to signify, not for the most part. Neither is “elder” when “elder care” implies decrepitude beyond renewal, loss of autonomy and influence, wisdom overtaken by weeds between thin white bed sheets. Although it grants certain rewards to persistence, I’m not sure “this society” really believes that wisdom comes with age. I seem to recall former Republican Presidential candidate Bob Dole complaining about this very phenomenon, and I'm sure I jeered at him. Now I can only say: Older and wiser is when your team with its nightmare bullpen takes an agonizing extra inning loss on the road and you smile for the home fans who stuck it out, the little kids. They're so happy.


An Antidote to Baseball (Part 1)

It’s the second half of baseball season and the New York Mets are stinking again. As it happens, the protagonist of Famepunk is a Mets fan. Throughout part 1 she favors a ratty old t-shirt with Lenny Dykstra’s number (4) and she has reposed her teenaged hopes in a long succession of World Series championships stretching from ’86 to ’87, ’88 and so onward. She loves the team that was once my mortal enemy. I was a Boston Red Sox fan.

Living in Massachusetts in 1975, when they reached but lost the Series to the Cincinnati Reds, the Red Sox were a natural fit. For me, the primary appeal was visual. I had a big crush on Carlton Fisk. He was the catcher so half the time you couldn’t even see his face—but this made his at-bats all the sweeter. Between pitches he’d keep one foot in the box and pivot left; one cheek swollen with chewing tobacco, his shapely lips set in a Lincolnesque line, he’d flex his back and appraise his long bat with the calmest of confident certainties that it needed to be whole, because it was about to make contact with alum-tanned cowhide in a manner productive of runs. His hits and homers were my nightly highlights. For a big man, he was a threat on the basepaths, as well. Behind the plate he was imposing but lithe in his padded armor: he’d spring to his feet and suddenly tower over the batter and umpire, his mask tipped up above his high forehead as he peered across the diamond at the play on second base. Carlton Fisk had a good arm and threw out a lot of runners. He looked like an Indian brave.

I was not his only fan of either sex. Carlton Fisk was an unusually popular player. Known as a woodsman, he put on a red flannel shirt and got paid to be in ads for chewing tobacco and trucks; he lived clean and seemed likely to go from success to success and achieve his admitted goal of the governorship in his home state, New Hampshire, not too long after retiring from the major leagues. From which post, almost without question (look how far those Sununus have gotten, and they’re ugly) he’d have attained national office, even the Presidency—Carlton Fisk, a natural, principled leader of unstained character and the strongest work ethic might have been President on 9/11, in place of what we had instead.

It doesn’t bear thinking about. It didn’t happen because the Boston Red Sox out of spite as well as greed sold Carlton Fisk for thirty pieces of silver, uprooting him from New England and his nascent constituency; he went to Chicago and spent the rest of his catching career on the White Sox. Along with my parents, I was at the induction ceremony in Cooperstown where he delivered a long, deep speech.

LINK: This speech.

As everyone knew, he’d played every day for years and years with both knees blown and hurting; he’d gone out and crouched there, balancing on his toes, flashing signs at brain-locked rookies, taking foul tips to the instep and groin. He was an honorable man and an honest worker whose face should have been on our money someday.


An Historical Novel

I don’t know whether to begin “Like it says in the title” or “As indicated by the title” but I’ll keep forging ahead here, to state that the first part of Famepunk is set at the 1987 US Open. The second part, "Middlemarch", is set in 1988: it's an historical novel—as was the original Middlemarch: George Eliot was writing it in 1870 but it’s set forty years earlier. As she’d done in her previous novels, she was looking back on lost times, lost manners, at the same time as she focused on the beginnings of new ways that her readers would have recognized as having grown ubiquitous, inescapable, drawing contrasts of presence and scale and style which she offered for the delectation of a contemporary audience which came to her books for this sort of thing, this subtle intellectual pleasure of partaking in collective memory as it's reminded of an absence. Being reminded of how living was but isn’t now—especially when you're able to remember—or almost remember—the specifics, really it’s the sense of having lived, delivered in a very pure, efficient form.

Naturally it’s a pleasure dissipated by time's passage. Built into the form is the fact that readers old enough to remember and recognize the historical elements become fewer and fewer until eventually for the general readership the book itself becomes historical and indistinguishably contemporaneous with its story in “the distant past.” So that writing in 1919 about George Eliot’s historical novels and her contemporary readers, Virginia Woolf could appreciate their experience of return to a lost but not-too-distant England, simpler, more bucolic—but not even Virginia Woolf who read everything written in the 19th century could have distinguished all the “period” stuff from what had survived into George Eliot’s day but not into her own, not beyond World War I, certainly. While to be able to grasp the original pleasure of reading the original Middlemarch as an historical novel today would require super-scholarly knowledge of Victorian and pre-Victorian rural English manners, law, diction, landscape, transport, finance, the works: you could cram for it specifically, but that might still take years to do. And in the end, it wouldn’t be the same because you wouldn’t get the same sense of having lived that George Eliot's Middlemarch gave its original readers—and surely not all, only some of them—when it was new, that strange, vivid awareness of personal lifespan. Instead at best you’d have the experience, not an unimportant one, of feeling closer to the past, closer to the people who lived before, close enough to read over their shoulders, observing their reactions like a ghost, hungry and sympathetic. But you wouldn’t have been there.

Steffi Graf (left) and Martina Navratilova in 1988. 

Setting the first two parts of Famepunk 25 years in the past, I haven’t tried to fill each scene with period-specific details or year-defining props; there aren’t a lot of song titles, for instance. The Cold War is still going on, mainly. Bodyguards are few. No one has cell phones. A major character based on based on the great Martina Navratilova, has “often wished for a portable device linked to various databases which could be used to research” certain “questions, without delay.” She’s also an investor in the future of personal home computing, But so far, the book's only computer belongs to Prince Linsky, back in the heroine’s old neighborhood of Brighton Beach.
The call came in on another dead Friday morning at King David’s Hats for Men, All Finest Custom Fittings. The concern’s co-proprietor was down in the basement in the cubbyhole office he’d carved out of storage with shelving; he’d put in a separate phone line. Now he was hunched in front of his beloved Kaypro 16 while his SmartModem was singing. He prepared to project himself into another space, a world of keystroked active voices. Excitement was prickling his bare scalp.
Here was an instance where I went on an internet search for the kind of computer Prince Linsky would own. I knew it couldn’t be an Apple, he’d never have bought one of those because he’s a bitter paranoiac with tendencies toward failure, he’d be allergic to Apple. In keeping with a general theme of the novel, I focused my search on failed companies—but the machine would have to be attractive and highly advanced for 1985 when he’d have bought it. And it had to have a green monitor.

Prince Linsky’s Kaypro 16: The perfect match between character and machine.

LINK: The modem was $700 retail.


About Tennis: Wimbledon 2012

Back when I was younger and the wonders of cable television’s future were being extolled across the land by paid lobbyists—back before most people even realized that’s what was happening, instead we would have assumed it was just the way of the best futures to announce themselves above the rest, in the American way—way back then, I started looking forward to the day when for a small fee you’d be able to watch the major tennis tournaments over three or four channels, all the matches you wanted to see, live and uninterrupted, all the way through. It seemed possible. I can’t say I remember hearing anyone mention the idea on-air but it always seemed reasonable to me. It still does—now more than ever, in fact, when “we” have thousands of channels to fill. But did it ever happen?

No. Even close? Not at all. Up until last year when the Tennis Channel lost its last pissing contest with my cable provider, I’d been paying an extra $6.95 per month for a very poor approximation of what the future should have been by now. When it got dropped I downgraded my subscription entirely to rock bottom. I figured I’d still get to watch a good many major matches on network TV, certainly the Grand Slam finals. Which felt sufficient. I’d already watched a lot of tennis in my life, now I was writing Famepunk and watching so little TV that the biggest part of my cable bill was for nothing. And of course I—“we”—had the internet now, representing the rest of my cable bill. The internet, an endless space for the storage of infinite archives and live feeds of matches, should be a paradise for tennis fans, much better than any cable TV. We can live in hope: at any time, professional tennis might turn an ideological corner and start sharing itself more freely with a huge and grateful international audience watching on-line.

But not watching Wimbledon—not in my house, anyway, thanks to the 12-year contract Wimbledon signed with ESPN last July for exclusive U.S. rights. This year I listened over internet radio from the Wimbledon website. In truth, I’ve gotten to enjoy tennis on the radio, starting back in January with Craig Gabriel at the Australian Open. Tennis and radio are a surprisingly good fit. Even so, nothing beats watching a match on TV with the sound down but I don’t want ESPN in my house again, especially not since they fired Joe Morgan from Sunday night baseball. They’re venal, they’re idiots, they’re pimps for big management agencies, they’re the reason cable television costs so much: this is ESPN, owned by Disney.

LINK: This Episode

Which also owns ABC so when the finals were finally broadcast on their respective afternoons, it was the ESPN feed from the morning that played. I don’t like getting trapped with ESPN’s garbage whether I buy it or not and I didn’t even watch the women’s match. I’d have watched on-line but Wimbledon posts no matches on its own tournament website because exclusive means exclusive: it sold all its rights, strapped for cash, Wimbledon, with its big new retractable roof on top of five long years paying equal prize money to women. How fortuitous was that roof installation, though, because now the start of the big-ticket Centre Court matches can be timed to the minute and ESPN can stick to the schedule, it works out so well—if not for bottom-tier customers like me, then presumably for large numbers of other people who matter more because they’re paying more and also getting more—more in this case being many hours and even multiple channels of actual live tennis, as Wimbledon says it wanted. Needless to say, desperately poor as it is Wimbledon couldn’t simply start broadcasting matches live to anyone with a web browser: even if it charged a fee, Wimbledon couldn’t afford to make that kind of choice. This isn’t some utopia where $480 million doesn’t rate picking up off the floor, not when you’re just an itty-bitty old lawn tennis club stuck in the super-expensive capital city of a dead empire. It’s a big change for me, not watching Wimbledon, but I’ve got twelve more years to get used to it.


Where it came from

Since childhood I’ve always been a great big televised tennis fan. To date myself, my first great loves were Bjorn Borg and Harold Solomon. Then, when I was in high school, I caught a glimpse of Hana Mandlikova winning the French Open title and my focus shifted towards the women’s game.

I was in my 30s before I attended my second professional match; instead, as much as I could I always followed from home, on television. The broadcast paradigm hasn’t changed. Every two games and at the close of each set there I’d be, sitting through thirty years of commercials for Jaguars I’d never drive and financial services I’d never earn enough to need, triumphal messages from big oil and IBM, athletes peddling swag or dripping Gatorade in slow motion—this hasn’t changed: the same commercial blocks remain fixed in frequent rotation over a whole match, a whole weekend, a whole tournament. In response, I tuned out. I developed or dug out a fantasy world into which I would slip during the pauses, a pleasant underworld where the women’s tennis action continued at a hectic, hugely entertaining pace. I made up fantasy matches. On the one side of the net would be a famous player, someone real. On the other side, a Jewish girl with dark hair and charisma, a balletic trickster, a showboating American troublemaker—a fictional self-projection although I’m not Jewish and I’ve played tennis very little, never well. I had other alter-egos. I’ve also produced ten million cubic tons of obsessive dead-end romantic daydreams—not to boast, but this on top of an active creative life coexisting with various day jobs. Still, over the course of the decades the scenes I pictured between this character and the “other” great players of “her” day (which stretched longer and longer) grew into a fairly detailed story cycle with which I entertained myself during commercials and other odd, idle hours off and on across the year, and always during Grand Slam tournaments.

On Labor Day weekend in 2010, I was casting about for my next big writing project. The previous year I’d published a book of short poems and a short, off-putting novel. Since then I’d been keeping a blog about reading Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables at work, but I’d almost reached the end. I was sitting at home on my sofa, drafting a blog entry, with the US Open going on television. I started to write about the gigantic quantity of hours I’d wasted—wasted—on daydreams about my made-up tennis player. But then I thought, Maybe not. After a little while, quite tentatively, I started making a list of characters: a sort of key, with the initials of the real-life player-models followed by their new fictional names. Then I started writing, basically transcribing a voice that had started near the end of the story before doubling back to the opening scene. I kept going. Writing at length has always been a struggle for me although I love to do it, I love the re-reading, so I was genuinely surprised at how quickly my notebook pages were filling with prose fiction—and not only in sequence, but in patches. Dialogues and scenes from what I recognized had to be later volumes were presenting themselves, pressing forward, mapping a long journey, it was obvious.

Strangest of all was how quickly the new fiction devoured and digested the original tennis daydream, which is gone, along with a few others. In the battle over my mental economy, this book won. As Famepunk (the title came to me later) it arrived with its own major plot points and story arc in which I recognize scattered old fantasy elements embedded in mostly and mysteriously new material: the combination crystallized at the moment of exposure. It’s very strange, but I’m left thankful to have discovered a life’s work ahead of me, I feel I really caught a wave. I give a lot of credit to Victor Hugo. Four months in, I was through with the first draft of US Open 1987, the not-short first volume, and was already writing the second, which I’ve called Middlemarch. Now it’s finished, too, and in keeping with the title, it’s long. It’s also filled with love and sex between talented teenaged girl athletes. I’ve got a few kind people reading this one in its final draft before I move ahead with wider publication next month; meanwhile I’m making final edits. But I like to keep busy—and there is a first volume out there for sale. So I’m opening this blog for curious readers who’d like to know more than a searchable product description can tell.