Politics and Steroids

My dad sent along a link to an article on the letter that New England Patriot’s quarterback Jacoby Brissett sent to President Barack Obama. In the letter, Brissett writes, “Honestly, I don’t know enough about politics to judge what was good or bad…” Breaking my own rule, I skimmed the comments on the article, and one commenter quoted this line, and wrote something like, “That was all I had to read.” Another suggested Jacoby go back to school, the implication being he could learn more about politics there.

I have a degree in political science and I don’t understand politics, or perhaps more precisely, politicians. I know how a bill becomes a law, and I have the gist of a legal case like Terry v. Ohio, but when it comes to politicians, and whether or not what they do is good or bad, I’m in the same spot as Jacoby Brissett.

It is easy to be cynical and lump all politicians into the same box–a bunch of self-serving phonies garbed in public service clothing. But of course politicians run the spectrum. I have to remind myself about this every now and then. Not every politician is tainted. It just seems that way because they are surrounded by so many that are.

I was thinking about this and realized that it is a remarkably similar situation to baseball’s steroid problem. Players began juicing because they needed a competitive edge. A lot of money was at stake, competition is fierce, and any little edge is the difference between a career season and retirement. In some players, the change was obvious: dense muscle, and remarkable speed and power. In others, the changes were less obvious. As big names were associated with steroid use, fans became disheartened. If Mark McGuire could be involved, couldn’t anyway?

Many fans began looking at anyone who played well and wondered whether or not they were using some sort of performance-enhancing drug. How could you tell? The easy assumption was that if one of them was doing it, most of them were probably doing it, and the ones that weren’t were caught up in the mix, guilty by association.

Politics is no different. A lot of money is at stake. Competition is fierce. Any little edge is the difference between winning an election, and losing one. The drug in question is not steroids, but a lack of integrity, a win-at-all-costs mentality that undermines the values that people traditionally look for in a politician: honesty, trustworthiness, honor, sacrifice, hard work, respect. I become so frustrated with the politicians I see behaving this way, that it soon seems like they are all behaving this way, even though that might not be the case.

Ultimately, fans rejected performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. Major League Baseball began enforcing rules to prevent its use. Players generally got the message. It’s obvious in home run statistics alone. Home runs are fun to watch, but not when sacrificing the integrity of the game. That is the message that fans sent.

Jacoby Brissett is not alone in not knowing enough about politics to know what (or who) is good or bad. I don’t know either. In baseball, I knew that steroid were bad for the players and for the game, and I was glad to see MLB take steps to cut their use. In politics the solution isn’t so cut and dry. The MLB of politics is the voters. We draft the players and we make the lineups. We manage the team. But when I look at the roster, I can no longer tell the difference between the good players and the bad ones.

Baseball: A Story-Lover’s Sport

Recently, Kelly observed that come April, I burn hot for baseball. As the spring wanes and summer begins, I cool, and stay cool through the summer. Then, as fall begins, the fire returns and I burn hot again. I suspect she is onto something. I’ve written four or fives posts on baseball since the season began. I suspect, if I were to go back to previous years, I’d see much the same. What can I say, I love baseball.

“Baseball,” Babe Ruth said, “is the greatest game.” I agree with him. But I’ve often wondered why it is the greatest game. What is it about the game that has woven it into the fabric of American history for more than 150 years? I’ve been giving this question a lot of thought lately. I think it is because baseball is a story-lovers’ sport.

Stephen Jay Gould, in a piece in the New York Times in 1988, once mused,

Baseball has long enjoyed a distinguished literature, from Ring Lardner to the incomparable Roger Angell–and I have seen no satisfactory resolution for the old puzzle of why baseball, but no other sport, has attracted some of America’s finest writers.

I have an answer to his question that satisfies me, and relates directly to why I love baseball so much. Baseball is a situation-factory. And the germ of a good story, in my view, is a situation.

Stephen King has said that his stories often begin with a situation, a what-if scenario: what if a bullied high school girl had telekinetic powers? What if vampires came to a small New England town? What if a girl lost in the woods had Tom Gordon to help her find her way out? Situations are the heart of storytelling. Situations are also the heart of baseball: “Bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded, visiting team is down 4-1 with three balls and two strikes on the batter…” I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve imagined this situation as a kid. Baseball is built on situations.

This manifests itself in several ways across the game.

  1. Baseball is an ideal sport for storytelling.

No other sport comes close to the quality of writing that captures baseball. Boxing writing is next up on the list, but it is a distant second to baseball writing. The situations in baseball are endless, and endlessly varied. Even when they are the same they are different. The “bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded” scenario tells one kind of story in April, and a very different story in October. It tells another story if you are the home team or the visiting team. Is the pitcher throwing the last pitch of his career? Is he throwing the first? That one situation leads to countless stories.

  1. Baseball is deeply embedded in American culture.

Not everyone likes baseball but most people are aware of it, and have some sense of the rules of the game. Phrases from the game pervade our lives. “Knock this presentation out of the park,” we say. “I’m batting a thousand,” we say when we continue to succeed; or, “I’m 0-for-4” when we continue to fail. “Three strikes and you’re out!” “I’m in the zone!” All of it comes from baseball. The intersection of storytelling and culture make baseball the perfect conduit for popular storytelling.

Countless stories involve baseball. Some, like W. P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, feature baseball at its heart. Others, like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea make references to baseball. Film has taken it a step further. Baseball is great for television and the big screen and that hasn’t been lost on Hollywood. Just in recent decades, we’ve seen films like Field of Dreams, The Natural, and Bill Durham. These are some of the classics. There are plenty of others from comedies like The Bad News Bears, Major League, and Fever Pitch, to more serious nods to baseball, like For Love of the Game and Trouble with the Curve.

In a recent discussion about the unwritten rules of baseball, a friend said that those unwritten rules were silly. Baseball is a business these days. There is no denying that baseball is a business. Sabermetrics has introduced mathematical models into just about every aspect of baseball. I’m a fan of the stats, but I also know that the game is more than just the stats alone. Indeed, the stats provide more situations for the story factory. Stephen Jay Gould has written eloquently about why he believes, for statistical reasons, that it is unlikely anyone will hit .400 again for a season. But what if they did? What a great story!

Statistics, virtually anywhere else, put people to sleep. The numbers in baseball do the opposite because of the unique situations they present, and the context they carry over the history of the sport. Anyone who has ever watched a no-hitter in action, and understands the magnitude of what is happening, cringes whenever the announcer reminds us of the situation. It’s a fragile thing–an utterly ridiculous, but incredibly fragile thing. The numbers make it incredibly unlikely; a perfect game even more unlikely. And yet, occasionally, the unlikely happens. We are both witnesses to the event, and participants in its unfolding. It is drama and we are part of it. It is the story of the thing that we love so much.

And it’s not just the fiction. Baseball is full stories because baseball is a progressing series of situations. There’s the story of the M&M boys in 1961 chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record. There’s the story of Derek Jeter hitting a home run in the 2001 World Series just after midnight on November 1, and therefore becoming “Mr. November,” a story that requires the understanding of another story, when a generation earlier on October 18, 1977, Reggie Jackson hit three home runs against the Dodgers in the World Series and earned the appellation “Mr. October.”

There are the well-known stories: Don Larsen’s perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. And there are the lesser-known, but equally compelling stories, stories like that of William Ellsworth Hoy, a deaf player who made his major league debut in 1888 with the Washington Nationals, and finished his career 14 years later in 1902 with the Cincinnati Reds. Hoy died in 1961 at the age of 99.

The stories in baseball spawned an entire field of writing. Baseball has had some of the finest writers in sports, and indeed, some of the finest writers, period. From Roger Angell and Red Smith to Roger Kahn and Bill James to outsiders like Stephen Jay Gould, baseball is rich in prospectors who dig up the stories and relay them to us like balls coming in from the outfield. The game is a factory for storytelling.

A good story is never entirely about the situation. The situation is the seed from which the story grows. A good story is about the people who populate it. Baseball is blessed to be rich in situations and people, the combination of which makes for an endless parade of fascinating stories, stories of heroics, stories of shame, funny stories, and sad ones. It is a cultural mirror, but it is also a cultural constant. Theodore Roosevelt would have no more trouble following a baseball game today than he would have had in 1908.

Coming back to my original of why I think baseball is the greatest game, and why I love it so much: it’s the situations and the stories that grow out of them. I love baseball because I love stories.

Four Fantastic Columnists

Long before there were bloggers, there were columnists and essayists. Four of these writers had a particular influence on me and my writing: Isaac Asimov, Al Martinez, Andy Rooney, and Stephen Jay Gould.

As a youngster learning composition in school, the essay never much stirred me. It was taught rigidly, as if the rules of composing an essay were handed down along with the Commandment: five paragraphs, thesis statement, supporting paragraphs, and conclusion. It was less a way of writing and more a way of thinking. Outside of the classroom, I don’t think I’ve written a five paragraph essay in my life.

The first writer to teach me what an essay could be was Isaac Asimov. He wrote thousands of essays over the course of his life, but it was his science essays in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction that had the most influence upon me. Over portions of five decades, Asimov had a monthly science essay in every issue of F&SF from the late 1950s through his death in 1992. These essays taught me more about science than I ever learned in school. They also taught me the power of the essay.

Asimov’s writing was clear and unadorned. But his essays carried his personality. Rather than reading an essay about, say, transfinite numbers, I felt like I was sitting in a room with Asimov, listening to him tell stories about his life, while somehow weaving in interesting facts and history about transfinite numbers along the way. His colloquial style had a big influence on me.

In high school I discovered Al Martinez, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times whose writing I enjoyed. His columns covered all kinds of subjects, many serious, but leavened with humor. His style was very different than Asimov’s. His prose was more lyrical, but Martinez was also a reporter and the way he weaved his interviews with people into the essays always impressed me. It gave his subjects life beyond just the quotes that often appear in headline articles.

I can’t recall the first time I saw Andy Rooney on television, but I loved his TV spots. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered he wrote a syndicated column. His column read like his 60 Minutes spots, but was longer, and I enjoyed them more. Rooney’s style was much more like Asimov’s (the two were friends), with Rooney’s wit a little more biting and cynical. Andy Rooney taught me that it was possible to write about anything at all and make it interesting.

Most people know Stephen Jay Gould for his essays on paleontology and natural history. I came to Gould through a different path. Gould was an ardent baseball fan, and occasionally wrote articles, essays, and commentary on baseball for places like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. I adore baseball writing, and I’m particularly fond of writers like Tom Verducci, Roger Angell, Roger Kahn, and Red Smith. But it was through Gould that I learned that one could actually write about baseball. Gould was, like me, a lifelong Yankees fan, but you can tell in his writing that he was first and foremost, a baseball fan. What I loved most about Gould’s baseball writing was its complete lack of cynicism of the sport. When he wrote about baseball, he was an unabashed nine year old kid.

For me, Asimov and Martinez and Rooney and Gould are the all-stars of the essay form.

Social Media, Full Circle

I‘m tired of social media. Nine years of it have taken a toll. I joined Facebook and Twitter in 2008, and for a long time, social media was a big part of my day. It was new, I could stay connected with friends and family. That was great. Over the years, however, social media became a kind of localized reality show. If I went to a science fiction convention, I’d bring my audience along with me via Twitter. It didn’t matter that most of that audience was attending the same convention I was. If I went on vacation: come on along for the ride!

Popularity had an influence, too. During my social media peak– 2013-2014–my Going Paperless posts were popular. I was selling stories and articles at a pretty high (for me) rate. I had a big writing streak going that garnered attention, and I’d written some tools like the Google Docs Writing Tracker that proved popular. Being popular feels good, and that fueled some of the social media frenzy for me. I knew it couldn’t last, it was just a question of when.

I think I started tiring of social media long before I started backing away from it. It is hard to let go of popularity. But it wasn’t all that hard to break free of the grip that social media had on me. All I had to do was ask the question: What is the point?

Writers these days are often told that writing chops aren’t enough. You need a platform, a brand, and as part of that, a social media presence. I don’t buy it, but I somehow ended up with all three, at least if we define “platform” and “brand” loosely. It seems to me that a writer who has to develop a platform, a brand, and maintain a social media presence is one busy writer who never has time to write. Social media is the new writers block.

I spent far too much time on social media when I could have been writing. I would tell my audience how many words I’d written, where my latest story was appearing, how frustrated I was that I couldn’t get this scene right. At the time it felt like I was peeling back the curtain to give a peek behind the scenes. Now, looking back on it, I’m reminding of that embarrassing freshman year in college, when I spent long nights in deep philosophical conversations with friends, taking a hard position and giving no ground. I’m shuddering just thinking about it.

Who cares how many words I manage to write? So what if I am stuck on a scene? Why does the world need to know about it? I’d get virtual high-fives from friends and followers, but really, who cares?

I’ve almost completely stopped posting on Twitter. About all that makes it to my Twitter feed is the automated notifications of new blog posts. On Facebook, I’ve cut way back, too. There, I’ve taken to mostly posting to a select group of people, friends and family. I post pictures of my kids. Even on Facebook, I’ve stopped talking about my writing. I no longer post how many words I’ve written, or if I’ve finished a story. Maybe all writers do a need a social media platform, but there’s better, older advice to writers that I’ve taken to heart: show, don’t tell.

I have a hard time looking at social media these days. My feeds become one big gripe session about one thing or another. There are always interesting things my friends and family are doing, but they are the rare flowers among weeds. It used to be fun to engage in the discussion threads in Facebook, but even there, I’m cautious. It seems like everyone is trying to out-clever everyone else with their comments and memes. I’m no longer clever enough to participate.

I haven’t quit social media. A knee-jerk reaction like that is something I might have done in my freshman year in college (had social media existed then), but I like to think I’m a little wiser. Quitting would mean giving up the friends that I enjoy keeping up with, and I’m not willing to do that. But I have cut way back, and my focus is far less topical and far more on what my friends and family are up to.

I removed the social media apps from my mobile phone. When we went to Florida for Spring Break, I put Facebook back on, and then forgot to take it off. I have just done that. That is my call-to-action (social media campaigns are supposed to have a call-to-action). I feel better already.

Growing Old, Sorely

Every now and then, when I feel particularly out-of-shape, I try to remind myself of all of the baseball players who played into their mid-40s. Nolan Ryan did it. Frank Thomas, Jamie Moyers. It’s still possible, I tell myself, to play in the majors, but the clock is definitely ticking.

I felt particularly out-of-shape when I got out of bed this morning. I noticed a soreness settle in over my entire body over the course of the night, and the soreness was acute when I pulled self out of bed and got dressed for work. Bleary-eyed, and foggy-headed, it took me a few moments to figure out why I should feel so sore. Then I remembered the batting cage.

On Sunday, I took the Little Man to a local batting cage to work on his hitting. It was his first time using a batting cage, and I wanted to make sure he got a good number of balls to swing at. Rather than buy some tokens, I rented the cage for 30 minutes. We had all the pitched balls we wanted. I worked with the Little Man on how to stand. We worked on timing, and swing. It’s not easy swinging a bat over and over again, especially when it is hot out, so we developed a rhythm where he’d take 14 pitches, and then we’d switch and I’d take 14 pitches.

It was a slow-pitch cage, the balls coming at 35-40 MPH, and I was taking some good cuts, sending the balls sailing. Hitting in a cage like that can make anyone think they can play in the big leagues. I found myself thinking that, why if I only did this every day, and steadily increased the speed of the pitches, I’d have my timing down for 90 MPH fastballs in no time.

This morning, there is not a muscle above my hips that isn’t sore. My forearms are sore. My fingers are stiff, making it difficult to type. My back is sore, my neck is sore. Whatever part of the body on the opposite side of the arm from the elbow is called–that’s sore too.

Soreness is part of the process of getting back into shape. I recall this from when I worked with a training ten years ago. Eventually, it fades. It also remember that, for me, it reached its peak not one day after the activity, but two days. That means I’m really in for it tomorrow. The more I think about it, the more I think that there’s a chance that my time to play in the majors is rapidly shrinking.

The batting cage wasn’t a complete loss. The Little Man worked on his swing and his timing. We got his feet positions in a way so that he’s not stepping back when he swings. Later in the afternoon, he had his second game of the season (they won their first game 8-0). In his second at bat, with a runner on 3rd, the Little Man took a ball, and then knocked a base hit, with an RBI, his first of the season for each.

I’m writing this on May 1, which, coincidentally, is the date in 1991 on which Nolan Ryan threw his 7th no-hitter. He was 44 years old. Any no-hitter is impressive, but after taking a turn in the batting cages at age 45, it makes a no-hitter at 44 seem that much more impressive.

Baseball Books I’ve Read

“God, I love baseball” –Roy Hobbs

It is spring, and spring means baseball! I watched the first Yankees/Red Sox matchup of the season, and it was wonderful to watch. It helped that the Yankees won the game. While in Florida a few weeks back, I read Tom Verducci’s new book, The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Baseball Team and Breaking the Curse and it has to rank among the best baseball books I’ve ever read. It got me started on a baseball reading frenzy. It also got me thinking about the baseball books I’ve already read.

I went back through my reading list. Here are all the baseball books I’ve read since January 1, 1996:

  • Triumph and Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball by Stephen Jay Gould
  • Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis
  • 3 Nights in August by Bud Bissnger
  • Baseball: A History of America’s Game by Benjamin G. Radar
  • Great Baseball Writing: Sports Illustrated 1954-2004 edited by Rob Felder
  • Ball Four by Jim Bouton
  • Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball by John Feinstein
  • The Joy of Keeping Score by Paul Dickson
  • A Nice Little Place on the North Side by George F. Will
  • The Cubs Way: The Zen of Building the Best Baseball Team and Breaking the Curse by Tom Verducci
  • Watching Baseball Smarter by Zack Hample
  • The Game: Inside the Secret World of Major League Baseball’s Power Brokers by Jon Pessah

Actually, those are all of the nonfiction baseball books I’ve read. If I include the works of fiction, then I have to add these:

  • Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella
  • The Iowa Baseball Confederacy by W.P. Kinsella
  • The Thrill of the Grass by W.P. Kinsella
  • Magic Time by W.P. Kinsella
  • The Natural Bernard Malamud
  • Blockade Billy by Stephen King
  • The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon by Stephen King

Most of the stories that I have written and sold make some mention of baseball. Two of them are all about baseball:

I’ve tried thinking back to where my love of baseball began, but there isn’t a time I can recall when I didn’t love it. I have vague memories of watching the 1977 World Series, and slightly less vague memories of watching the 1978 World Series. I’m sure it was my Dad who first got me interested in baseball, but I don’t know how he did it. All I know is that I will always be grateful for that.

My recent dive back into baseball book is by no means over. On the day I write this, I’ve started The Baseball Codes: Beanballs, Sign Stealing & Bench-Clearing Brawls: The Unwritten Rules of America’s Pastime by Jason Turbow. And following that up, I’ve got the following books that I am looking forward to reading:

  • Pinstripe Empire: The New York Yankees From Before the Babe to After the Boss by Marty Appel
  • So You Think You Know Baseball: A Fan’s Guide to the Official Rules by Peter E. Meltzer
  • Our Game: An American Baseball History by Charles C. Alexander
  • The Yankee Years by Joe Torre & Tom Verducci
  • Casey Stengel by Marty Appel

Practical State Models for a Tranquil Domestic Life

When I take a look around the house, I am amazed by all of the things we have designed to make our lives easier:

  • Remote controls to turn on the television.
  • Machines to wash and dry our clothes.
  • Voice-activated bots that will play music or adjust the room temperature.
  • Good plumbing.
  • Machines to wash the dishes.

The ambiguous state model of some of these devices, however, leave something to be desired, and introduce a ripple into the otherwise tranquil domestic life these wonders of technology have helped create. I’m thinking of dishwashers, of course.

It seems to me that I can never go to my parent’s house, or my in-law’s house, without hearing The Question asked almost daily:

“Is the dishwasher clean or dirty?”

We hear it at our house, too, when parents and in-laws visit. I don’t think this problem is unique to our family, either. I suspect it is a question that reverberates throughout many households ever single day.

The application developer in me sees this as a state model problem. A dishwasher can generally be in one of three states:

  1. Dirty: the dishes within have not yet been cleaned.
  2. Running: a kind of Schroedinger state that is both clean and dirty.
  3. Clean: the dishes within have been cleaned.

There are two problems we run into with this model.

First, there is no clear indication of the current state of the dishwasher. Ideally the entire front panel of the dishwasher would have a visual cue. I often image something like a big red “DIRTY” when the dishes within are dirty;an orange “RUNNING” when the dishwasher is scrubbing away at the dishes; and a green “CLEAN” when the dishes within are clean. It should be that simple.

It isn’t that simple because the state model depends entirely on the state of the machine and not the state of the dishes within. In reality, the state model for a dishwasher looks more like this:

  1. Not running: the dishwasher is not presently running.
  2. Running: the dishwasher is currently running.

Those two states tell you nothing about the state of the dishes within the dishwasher. So, for, instance, our dishwasher has a green light displayed when it has finished running. We take this to mean the dishes are clean. But what if I have not paid attention to it and accidentally loaded the dishwasher with dirty dishes. It now has a mixture of clean and dirty dishes, and is indicating that it has just run. That is not helpful.

With all of the smart technology we’ve seen come along in the last decade, I’d love to see some technology built into dishwashers that can detect whether the dishes within are actually clean. That would allow for a more useful state model. If such a dishwasher were also a “smart” dishwasher, it might also allow me to query it through Alexa. Instead of turning to Kelly and saying, “Is the dishwasher clean?” I could simply say, “Alexa, is the dishwasher clean?” and get an accurate answer.

There is a fourth state that I have not yet mentioned. After dirty, running, and cleaned, there is, of course, “emptied.” After asking Alexa if the dishwasher is clean and hearing its response, “Yes, the dishes were cleaned at 9:42 am,” I could reply with, “Alexa, please empty the dishwasher.”

Will Amazon and G.E. please get on that?

If I Owned A Baseball Team

I read recently that Derek Jeter is part of a group that might purchase the Miami Marlins. It is hard to imagine Jeter involved with a team that is not the New York Yankees, but if the report is true, then I wish him the best. But when he goes to watch a Marlins game, I hope he doesn’t do it from within the comfortable confines of a luxury box.

It would be a mistake to assume that all baseball owners are baseball fans. The two don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. But for those owners who truly are baseball fans, there is one thing that has always bothered me: why do they watch the ball games from luxury boxes?

Baseball is America’s pastime. A ticket to a major league baseball game remains the lowest priced ticket in the four major sports. At $31 a ticket in 2015, it is nearly half the cost of the next closest major sport, basketball, which comes in at $55.88 per ticket, and a third the cost of an NFL ticket, which comes in at $92.92.

Like any business, baseball looks to make money, and one way of doing that is by selling luxury boxes, and other special, high-priced seating throughout their stadiums. I’ve been to three or four Washington Nationals games with seats in the Diamond Club, courtesy of a friend. And while it is nice and there are lots of perks, like the food and beer included in the price of the ticket, the best part about the seats were their close proximity to the field.

I had season tickets to the Orioles for several years. My seats were in the second section back from field level, looking approximately up the third base line from behind home plate. I liked those seats. They cost less than the major league average on a per-game basis, and they gave a good view of the baseball game. I’ve sat in the bleachers at Yankee stadium (the old Yankee stadium) and those were, perhaps, my favorite seats.

I like sitting at minor league games best of all. The stadiums are smaller, and there are no bad seats. You get a great view of the game unfolding before your eyes. And that is the most important thing. I don’t go to a baseball game for the beer or the food or the luxury boxes. I go to watch baseball. A hot dog and a soda are all I need, along with my score book and pencil.

Yankee Stadium, 2012
Me at Yankee Stadium in 2012

It seems to me that those owners who are true baseball fans would eschew their private luxury boxes in favor of a good seat among the crowd. That is where baseball happens. That is where the sounds and smells of the game wash over you. It is where anyone has a chance of catching a foul ball, or shouting to a player. It is where the concessions people yell, “Peanuts!” and hurl the bags across rows of other fans. It is where you can feel the tense moments of the game along with crowd, cringe at the defeats and celebrate the victories.

The glass that separates a luxury box from the game might as well be the space that separates the Earth from the moon. You see the same game as the fans, but you don’t experience the same game, not by a long shot.

If I owned a baseball team, I’d make sure I had a seat out in the crowd, a different seat for each game. Baseball looks different from different angles, and it would be wonderful to have a chance to experience the game from all of them. Derek Jeter has had many of the best views in baseball from right there on the diamond. As he becomes an owner, I hope he doesn’t lose sight of what it is like to be a player… and a fan.

Down Where the Trade Winds Play

Down where the trade winds play,
Down where you lose the day…

Sitting poolside one evening while in Florida last week, a breeze blew through the trees that reminded me of the trade winds. Never have I experienced a breeze as wonderful as the trade winds. My first encounter with these glorious winds came in the summer of 2001 when I visited Hawaii. But it was on my second visit, more than four years later, that those winds made a real impression upon me.

I had gone back to Hawaii with some good friends. We stayed in Princeville, on the north shore of Kauai. It love it there because it isn’t overly touristy. At least it wasn’t back in the fall of 2005. We spent a week on the island, where time plays tricks on you, going slow and fast simultaneously. On our last day on the island, my friend had an early flight and I had a late one. I dropped them off at Lihue airport, and then headed back to the resort for a few more hours. My flight wasn’t until 10 pm, but I had to have the rental car back by 6 pm, before they place closed, so I drove back to the airport, returned the car, and checked into my flight some four hours before it was scheduled to depart.

Lihue airport, at the time, had an outdoor area. I found a bench to sit on, and it there, on that bench on my last evening in Hawaii, that the trade winds were blowing. I just started reading a new book, Alan Alda’s Never Have Your Dog Stuffed. I sat on that bench for hours with the trade winds blowing around me, reading Alda’s memoir. It stands out in my memory as one of the most relaxing times I’ve ever had on a vacation.

Twelve years later, I sat poolside on the Gulf Coast of Florida, watching the kids play in the water, and reveling in the breeze that blew from the southeast. These weren’t trade winds. The trade winds blow predominantly from the northeast in the Northern hemisphere, but they reminded me of the trade winds. I commented on this to Kelly several times while we sat there. She has never been to Hawaii, and I tried explaining how this wonderful breeze we were experiencing was what it felt like to be there.

As the wind blew, I could see it form ripples across the surface of the mostly empty (and, for me, too warm) swimming pool. In the water, the rippled surface was the only evidence of the wind. Out of the water, it fired all your senses. You could feel it blow past you. You could smell the scents it carried. You could hear the steady rustle it created among the palm fronds. You could see those tree bow in deference to the wind. I even imagined I could taste the wind.It was delicious!

I was reading Zack Hample’s Watching Baseball Smarter while the wind blew, but only half-heartedly. I watch the kids play in the pool, and tried to do nothing more than enjoy the moment. It was the kids’ spring break that we’d gone to Florida for in the first place. I was still working, remotely from Florida, and this was a nice break after a long workday. It was probably the most relaxing part of the trip for me.

Walks I Take

I like to walk. Some walks stand out more than others. I am writing this essay in Florida, where we took the kids for their spring break. We are staying at my in-laws. A bike path encircles the community they live in and I love walking on that bike path. A complete circuit is two miles. There are sunny spots and shady spots. There are quiet spots, and wooded spots. I walked the circuit a total of three times yesterday, and I am already looking forward to walking it later this morning when I take a break from my work.

I am working remotely this week. (It is a vacation for Kelly and the kids, but not for me, alas.) When I am in the office, however, I try to get out for a walk at least once a day, often twice. I walk around the block on which my office building resides. It is about a mile all the way around. I like that walk, too. It is comfortable, and familiar. I like it in the spring when the sunlight feels warm after a long winter. I like it in the fall when the brutal heat and humidity of summer has finally passed.

There have been other walks that stand out in my memory. One of my favorites was in L.A. I would walk around my neighborhood in Studio City. I lived just around the corner from the Brady Bunch house, and I’d pass it on my walk each evening. My walk would take me north on Tujunga Avenue up to Moorpark Street. There, I’d turn right and walk two blocks to Elmer Avenue, then right again, walking south past Woodbridge Park. I’d turn left down Valley Spring lane, walking past a small house that I loved, and imagining living in someday–if I stayed in L.A. I’d turn right down Fair Avenue, following it all the way down to where it curved into Dilling St. Just before Dilling there was a house on the right where the late actor Jon Polito lived. I’d see him in his yard from time to time, and he’s smile and wave as I passed. I’d turn right onto Dilling. Where Dilling and Klump Avenue met at a t-intersection was the house used in the exterior shots of The Brady Bunch. I’d continue down Dilling to Tujunga, and then head back home.

We walk around a local park in Arlington, Virgina. It’s a nice walk, but it isn’t among my favorites. One things that set one walk apart from others is the memories it creates. I tend to listen to audiobooks while I walk, and some of my walks remind me of the books I was listening to–and vice versa. Over the years on my walks here in Florida, for instance, I’m reminded of books I’ve really enjoyed: Dick Van Dyke’s My Lucky Life In and Out of Show Business and Carl Reiner’s I Remember Me. Back in December, I spent a few hours walking the bike path listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run. This time, I’m listening to Tom Verducci’s The Cubs Way. They all stand out fondly in my memory because of the walks I take.

Abridged Editions

Not long ago, while on a Simon Winchester marathon, I accidentally purchased the abridged audiobook edition of Outposts: Journeys to the Surviving Relics of the British Empire. I didn’t realize it was an abridged edition until I listened to Winchester’s introduction, in which he made it quite plain that this was an abridged edition. I was annoyed but I listened to the audiobook anyway, because I enjoy Winchester’s narration as much as his writing, and I will take what I can get.

I don’t understand why books require abridged editions. I am particularly surprised that authors allow such abridgments in the first place. As a writer, I am careful about the words I use, but I am also careful about the manner in which I tell a story, be it fiction, or nonfiction. I try with mixed success to adhere to Strunk and White’s mantra, “Omit needless word.” Why, then, after carefully crafting a piece of writing, would anyone allow it to be abridged? What purpose does it serve?

With print books and e-books, it can be difficult to tell how much a particular book is abridged. It is a bit easier with an audiobook. I browsed some books on Audible to get a look at the differences between unabridged, and abridged editions.

  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven R. Covy clocks in at 13 hours. That’s about 1 hour and 51 minutes per habit. The abridged edition is just 2 hours and 26 minutes. Did they decide to eliminate six of the effective habits in the abridged version?
  • Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow is 36 hours long. The abridged edition is one-third the length at 12 hours. Maybe they left out all of the musical numbers.
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is a hefty 61 hours long. The abridged edition is a much less hefty 5 hours and 9 minutes.

As a writer, I cannot understand why another writer would allow an abridgement of their work. In essence, you are admitting that the same information can be conveyed much more tersely. As a reader, you have to recognize that you are not getting the full story. I suppose that money is one reason why a writer might allow an abridgement of their work. To me, it seems like the ultimate sell out: agreeing to butcher your work for cash.

Years ago, I was asked to cut my self-appraisal for my annual performance review from three pages to a single page. Three pages was the maximum length one could submit. My boss was challenging me to be more concise. The writer in me balked at this abridgement of my self-appraisal. I consolidated it down to a single page, but not without some Puckish humor. I wrote, for instance: “I played a significant role in managing a number of high priority technical projects, none of which I can list due to space constraints.” Sentences like this appeared throughout the abridged version of my self-appraisal. I turned it into my boss, along with the original unabridged version, and said, “Here you go, just as you asked. I’ll leave it to you to decide which one you want to submit.”

If this were the unabridged version of this blog post, I’d tell you which version my boss ended up submitting. Alas, that information had to be cut so that this post would fit within its tighter word constraints.

Five Journalists’ “Assignment In Hell”

Walter Cronkite, Andy Rooney, A.J. Liebling, Hal Boyle, Homer Bigart. I suspect that most readers would recognize the first two names on this list. Walter Cronkite was a renowned anchorman for CBS news. Trusted by the American people so much, that when he voiced his opposition to the war in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson is supposed to have said, “If we’ve lost Cronkite, we’ve lost the American people.” Andy Rooney was America’s curmudgeon from the moment he appeared on 60 Minutes in the summer of 1978 until his death in 2011. But how many readers honestly recognize the names A.J. Liebling, Hal Boyle, and Homer Bigart?

All five men served as war correspondents during the Second World War, and I just finished learning about them myself from Timothy M. Gay’s outstanding chronicle of their experiences, Assignment in Hell. My primary criteria for judging nonfiction is pretty simple: did it make me want to become whatever it was I was reading about? After reading Assignment in Hell I wanted to be a war correspondent following the Allies into Germany during WW-II.

I’m not sure where my fascination with the Second World War comes from. My grandfather and four of his brother served in the U.S. military during WW-II. For them, it was not something they tended to talk about. I think my interest was sparked from Stephen Ambrose’s book, Band of Brothers. As I have gotten older, and read more history, I also think that the Second World War was the last one in which there was a clear moral imperative. It was good versus evil. Andy Rooney, who had a professor in college who said that any peace was better than any war, changed his mind after covering World War II, and seeing the Nazi death camps. “Any peace is not better than any war,” he wrote after.

The story of these five journalists and their experiences covering the news in WW-II is riveting. Each writer was different, each had a different style. Some covered stories that were large in scope, others wrote about the everyday life of the soldiers. Journalism rose to heights that it had not seen in decades, and set the bar so high, that is has rarely been surpassed since. To that end, I came away from the book envious of Cronkite and Rooney and Liebling and Boyle and Bigart. Where are the journalists like these fellows today? For a brief period of time, journalism seemed to flourish, almost independent of the businesses that they inevitably were.

I already knew Andy Rooney from his spots on 60 Minutes and his newspaper column. I knew of Walter Cronkite. There have been journalists I’ve admired over the years. Peter Jennings on TV. Al Martinez in print. But I’m grateful I had the opportunity to get to know–even a little–Hal Boyle, Homer Bigart, and A.J. Liebling. They serve as role models for future generations of journalists to study and strive toward.