Friday, October 12, 2018

Reading Gravity's Rainbow

Proof of purchase.  I bought my present copy of Gravity's Rainbow back in 1997.  It still has the receipt in it. 
Over the course of this blog, I've been cycling through some works of literature I have in my library that I wanted to touch once again.   I've revisited Moby Dick, War and Peace, The Magus, Ulysses, and Dahlgren, among others.  The first mention of my intention to reread Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow was back in 2012. Recently, I got around to tackling that complex novel.  I read it, puzzlingly, a couple of times back in my 20's but it really was low on my to-do list since then, although I fully intended to pick it up again someday.

That day came in late-summer and, while reading other things as well, I finished the novel about two weeks ago.  Though I still own many paperbacks dating from my youth, my original copy of Gravity's Rainbow didn't survive for some reason.  I now own a classic Penguin edition of the novel, which has sat neglected on my bookshelf since 1997.  I know this because the receipt of my purchase from Books-a-Million in Dothan, Alabama sat inside the yellowing pages of the paperback.  Seems strange to finally read a book I purchased 21 years ago, but that's the deal.  I guess I always knew I'd get back to it eventually.

Being much older with this reading now, I had forgotten much of the book since the last time I read it in the 1980's.  General impressions are that the prose is dense and complex but also beautiful and poetic at times.  The book is funnier than I remembered.  The amount of sex in the book was more than I recalled.  The themes and the characters seemed more pronounced and understandable this time around.  Overall, I am glad I made this effort, though I probably won't be reading it again.

Gravity's Rainbow begins in Europe near the end of World War II and follows an odd assortment of characters through a meandering narrative arc well into the aftermath of the war.  What the book is "about" is difficult to nail down.  There is no solid story line, rather, the work weaves in and out of multiple characters, interactions, perspectives, ideas, themes, and events to create an overall effect on the reader, one that is filled with ambiguity and little resolution.  The story is best thought of as a kaleidoscope that just sort of morphs  into ever-new considerations, most of it ultimately dissolving into quirkiness and even neglect. 

That sounds less satisfying than Gravity's Rainbow actually is.  At times, Pynchon's writing is as good as anything I've come across in western literature.  He is obviously a master of prose.  Like Ulysses, it is best not to take the work too seriously, even though Pynchon is wrestling with a lot of serious ideas about our postmodern condition. Moments of humor (slapstick, one-liners, satire, absurdity) abound throughout the work.   Gravity's Rainbow deals with diverse subjects and uses multiple writing techniques to explore: the impact of international corporations on individual free will, the relationship between business and warfare, the paranoia induced by modern life, the intermingling of sophisticated and crude culture, and even the supposed relevance of the Tarot, seances and other occult schemes within techno-corporate reality.  

But this mix of ideas and influences has vast implications.  Again like Ulysses, it is possible to delve deeply into Pynchon's prose.  He works in hundreds, if not thousands, of references to all sorts of cultural phenomena and historical events.  I don't pretend to grasp the book in anything other than an amateurish fashion, just appreciating it on its surface.  I am unconcerned to how deep the rabbit hole of this narrative goes, other than to appreciate the fact that it is densely packed prose.  My reading this time around was a much more casual one.  The novel is fully entertaining without understanding Pynchon's seemingly endless capacity for minutia.

As such, I will only discuss the most rudimentary aspects of the work in this review.  There are several "major" narratives woven together in Gravity's Rainbow but I will limit myself to how I experienced the book and the aspects of it I focused on the most.  This is nothing more than a basic representation of what the book is like.  The narrative has dozens of major characters (and hundreds of minor ones) but the central character, for lack of a better term, is Tyrone Slothrope, a US Army lieutenant stationed initially in London.  Because Slothrope went through a form of behavior modification and psychological conditioning when he was younger (and even during the course of the novel, perhaps throughout his life) he has an uncanny ability to predict where V2 rockets will strike based upon erections he has achieved during his many sexual exploits around the city.  When Slothrope gets laid, a V2 rocket strikes that location within a few days.  Every.  Time.

Slothrope goes through several thinly disguised identities during the course of the novel as he continues his quest across late-war and post-war Europe to uncover the secrets of a classified German rocket design.  He experiences many sexual encounters and, like several other characters, gets high on various drugs (from pot to hash to heroin) whenever possible.  Pynchon plays with the tension within Slothrope as he searches for the secret rocket and for a true understanding of his hazy, conditioned past.  Simultaneously with this, he remains an unfixed character in that he keeps hiding under disguises.  The interplay between his past and his unsettled present makes his character rather nebulous and dynamic.  He doesn't evolve so much as he simply morphs due to the changing circumstances of the narrative.  It is an interesting examination of what it means to be a 'person' in modern society. 

Slothrope's quest serves as a loose thread stitching together a myriad of other narrative elements, some one-off episodes, others parallel subplots that gradually wax and wane in importance as the story unfolds.   The novel is told in four parts, each with many "episodes" (short chapters).  The first part, 'Beyond the Zero,' introduces most of the major characters and explores themes of free will, Pavlovian behavior modification, the possibility reverse time flow (given the accuracy of Slothrope's erections syncing with future rocket attack locations), and the sexuality of the rocket itself.

In part two, 'Un Perm' au Casino Hermann Goering  (French for "A Furlough at the Hermann Göring Casino"),' Slothrope is 'assigned' to the French Rivera and learns of the secret German rocket produced, in part, by a couple of major international corporations.  Slothrope becomes increasingly paranoid that he is being monitored.  He escapes and, disguised, ventures across war-torn Europe.  In part three, 'In the Zone', Slothrope searches for more information regarding the secret rocket throughout the various military zones established by the allies in post-war Germany.  Slothrope adopts the disguise of 'Rocketman' and his life continues to be fueled by sex and drugs as it is gradually revealed he has been experimented upon since he was an infant. 

Finally, in part four, 'The Counterforce', the various narrative elements surrounding the principle characters are expressed in a variety of writing styles, certain characters are experienced and expressed as hallucinations and gradually Slothrope simply dissolves out of the narrative, fading, neither alive nor dead, he simply vanishes from the novel entirely. 

Gravity's Rainbow presents several challenges to the average reader.  Much like in Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, there are a large number of characters with varying emphasis being placed upon them.  Sometimes the "major" characters shift into the background in favor of "minor" ones and the narrative seems to meander through material non-essential to the primary story line.  Even the main story itself keeps disappearing and reappearing over the course of the novel, hiding behind the entertaining but seemingly unnecessary details of subplots that come and go.  At any moment, Pynchon will shift perspective within a episode and it is often unclear that we are now seeing things through the eyes of a completely different character from a few paragraphs previously.  For this reason the narrative is not linear or concrete, rather it is plastic and flexible.  A lot of what happens is simply in a character's mind and isn't "real" at all.  This results in some potentially confusing passages.  For example, at one point the story becomes invested in a light bulb as if it were an actual character and we read a long section from the light bulb's perspective.

Then there is the challenge of the often shocking nature of what happens in the work.  There are episodes of brutal violence, along with various forms of fetish sex, torture, and even some pedophilia.  Many readers will find some sections objectionable due to the graphic content, but none of it is gratuitous.  Each time Pynchon pushes the limits of what is decent and what is obscene, it is to further the story in a manner that would not be possible without the details and happenings of these events.   It is worth noting that the novel was selected for Pulitzer Prize consideration in 1974 but led to such divisive debate within the Pulitzer Advisory Board (some felt it was the most brilliant novel of the century, others found it completely unreadable and obscene) that no book received the prize of literature that year. 

Then there is the "Broadway musical" aspect to the novel.  There are many episodes scattered throughout the work where the characters suddenly break into song and dance.  These are miniature stage-like performances that, while revealing further aspects of the characters and the narrative, are also purely silly and indicate the light, humorous undertone of the novel's otherwise grim and critical nature.  It is best to take Gravity's Rainbow as a largely absurd, humorous and entertaining book that just happens to reflect upon aspects of our post-World War II condition.  

One primary theme of the novel is the impact of major corporations on the perpetuation and conduct of the war itself.  Pynchon seems to be saying that, rather than politics (which is rarely mentioned in the novel), war is capitalism by other means.  Several fictitious corporations are mentioned in connection with the German V2 rocket program.  Slothrope's quest for a specially designed rocket involves knowledge of materials and technologies developed by corporations which drive the military pursuits of the war as well as threaten the individuality of a few of the characters, turning them into mere pawns of larger systems - a common postmodern literary theme.

As I already mentioned, as weird as all this sounds, Pynchon's prose is often incredible.  He employs a variety of writing techniques to great effect.  He frequently incorporates the styles of other writers and even from films.  In my reading I was most impressed with some of his transitions between episodes.  He sometimes ends an episode mid-sentence from the perspective of one character or event only to complete the rest of the sentence in the next episode from the perspective of a completely different character or event.  In this manner, among other means, he keeps the narrative loose and dynamic and, perhaps, he is indicating the simultaneous and similar aspects of life itself among otherwise unconnected personas.   

I have already mentioned his exquisite prose style, poetic, humorous, shifting from third-person to various first-person perspectives without warning the reader.  A great example is when the character of Pirate Pentrice, an intelligence officer known for his banana breakfasts in the novel, has  a shared fantasy about being condemned to hell with Katje Borgesius, a sadomasochistic woman who has several lovers throughout the course of the narrative.  Pynchon offers this brilliant passage when Prentice first realizes where he is – this is a great example of the author’s mastery of prose.

“Without expecting to, it seems Pirate has begun to cry.  Odd.  He has never cried in public like this before.  But he understands where he is, now.  It will be possible, after all, to die in obscurity, without having helped a soul: without love, despised, never trusted, never vindicated – to stay down among the Preterite, his poor honor lost, impossible to locate or redeem.

“He is crying for persons, places, and things left behind: for Scorpia Mossmoon, living in St. John’s Wood among sheet-music, new recipes, a small kennel of Weimaraners whose racial purity she will go to extravagant lengths to preserve, and husband Clive, who shows up now and then, Scorpia living only a few minutes away by Underground but lost to Pirate now for good, no chance for either of them to turn again…for people he had betrayed in the course of business for the Firm, Englishmen and foreigners, for Ion so naïve, for Gongkylakis, for the Monkey Girl and the pimps of Rome, for Bruce who got burned…for nights up in partisan mountains when he was one with the smell of living trees, in full love with the at last undeniable beauty of the night…for a girl back in the Midlands named Virginia, and for their child who never came to pass…for his dead mother, and his dying father, for the innocent and the fools who are going to trust him, poor faces doomed as dogs who have watched us so amiably from behind the wire fence sat the city pounds…cried for the future he can see, because it makes him feel desperate and cold.  He is to be taken from high moment to high moment, standing by at meetings of the Elect, witnessing a test of the new Cosmic Bomb – ‘Well,’ a wise old face, handing him the black-lensed glasses, ‘there is your Bomb…’ turning then to see its thick yellow exploding down the beach, across leagues of Pacific waves…touching famous assassins, yes actually touching their human hands and faces…finding out one day how long ago, how early in the game the contract on his own life was let.  No one knows exactly when the hit will come – every morning, before the markets open, out before the milkmen.  They make Their new update, and decide on what’s going to be sufficient unto the day.  Every morning Pirate’s name will be on a list, though it fills him with a terror so pure, so cold, he thinks for a minute he will pass out.  Later, having drawn back a bit, gathering heart for the next sortie, it seems he’s done with their shame, just as Sir Stephen said, yes past the old shame and sacred now, full of worry for nothing but his own ass, his precious, condemned, personal ass…” (page 544)

But, despite all this angst, Pirate and Katje become practitioners of Nietzsche (my interpretation) and decide to dance of the edge of the abyss.  “And they do dance though Pirate never could before, very well…they feel quite in touch with all the others as they move, and if they are never to be at full ease, still it’s not parade rest any longer…so they dissolve now, into the race and swarm of this dancing Preterition, and their faces, the dear, comical faces they have put on for this ball, fade, as innocence fades, grimly flirtatious, and striving to be kind.” (page 548)

Gravity’s Rainbow is a massive, complex, yet absurd and whimsical story mixing multiple serious themes, an enormous cast of quirky characters, expressed in language play and a loose narrative that shifts and frequently simply dissolves.  Thomas Pynchon crafted a novel that is clearly distinctive and representative of the late-hippy 1960's-1970’s, when it was written.  It captures the zeitgeist of the time in a way as crazy as the Vietnam-war era itself.  While a challenge to read and pushing the limits of public acceptance in terms of sexuality and drug use, Gravity’s Rainbow is nevertheless rewarding to those with patience and persistence.  The narrative is more of an experience than a concrete story, often disorienting, much like the world at the time it was written, and perhaps even more so like the world today.  In that sense it is a rather prophetic work – a prophecy about how identity and meaning, calamity and ambiguity work in our world today.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Out with a Whimper (Again): The 2018 Atlanta Braves

The big story for the 2018 Atlanta Braves was that they won the NL East and advanced to the postseason "ahead of schedule."  Loaded with young unproven players, no one seriously predicted the Braves would win the division, or even contend for that matter, until 2019 or 2020.  So this season has been more than satisfying from that perspective.

But it still sucks that we went out with a whimper in 2018, being eliminated by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, just as we were back in 2013.  It is an all too familiar refrain for lifelong Braves fans such as myself.

I have watched the Braves' elimination in the first-round many times in my life.  It happened in 1969, 1982, 1993 (all before the present two-round play-offs), 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2010, 2012 (wild-card), and 2013.  In fact, the last time the Braves won a postseason series was in 1999.  So, we have yet to advance in the play-offs in this century.  Frustrating.  

The beginning of the end in 2018 was the final road trip of this season.  Six games on the road against mediocre clubs yielded just two victories for a Braves team that played great on the road all season.  When the New York Mets behind sub-par pitcher (7-9, 5.77 ERA) Matt Vargas defeated us 4-1 it was obvious that our offense, the aspect of the team that took us so far in 2018, was running out of gas.  

Nick Markakis was at the beginning of a terrible end-of-season batting slump.  The whole team couldn't move runners over nor drive in those who were in scoring position.  Even though we had already won the division, it didn't look good and we had zero momentum going into LA for game one of the NLDS.  Johan Camargo, who was so important during the regular season, went hit-less against LA.

The whole team was in a batting slump.  Freddie Freeman hit just .250 for the NLDS and that was tops on the team.  Markakis hit .083.  All-Star Ozzie Albies batted a mere .200.  Charlie Culberson (playing for the injured Dansby Swanson) hit just .167.  And Ronald Acuna, Jr. only managed a .188 average.

But Acuna also was the single highlight for the Braves offensively in the series.  He became the youngest player in baseball history to hit a grand-slam in the postseason.  It was a critical blow in the Braves 6-5 win over LA in Game Three, otherwise the series would have been a sweep for the Dodgers.  In fact, before that game, the Braves had not scored a single run against LA.  There was talk of who was the last team to lose a postseason series without scoring a run.  We were on the path toward making the wrong kind of history, but Game Three saved us from that ignominious distinction.

On the pitching side of equation things were even worse.  Mike Foltynewicz was terrible in both his starts, finishing with a 7.50 ERA for the series.  The Braves bullpen, never our strong suit during the season, was not competitive.  Jonny Venters had an ERA of 9.00, Brad Brach was at 6.75 for the series, and Chad Sobotka ended up at 11.57.  Horrific.

So, just as in 2013, we were eliminated 3 games to 1 by LA.  The Dodgers will now advance against the Milwaukee Brewers, arguably the best team in the National League.  For the Braves, it was an unexpectedly good season but still it ended with on the sour note of missed opportunities.  

We can't blame manager Brian Snitker for any of this.  He managed the team brilliantly in 2018 and I recall questioning his moves only on rare occasions this season.  I think he should be Manager of the Year

While there is reason to be pleased with 2018 (the Braves are young and talented) it is frustrating whenever a contending team begins to play their worst right as the season ends.  That is the typical story of the Atlanta Braves in the 21st century.  We have most of the key position players in place.  Now, we just need to strengthen the depth of our bench and our bullpen in the off-season.  With some decent acquisitions, a strong farm system, and any luck at all to go with our skill, we should remain a contender for the next few seasons. 

All in all 2018 was a fun season.  Go Braves!

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Listening to Eat A Peach

Proof of purchase.  I bought my Eat A Peach CD when it first became available in the 1980's.  It is an analog to digital recording, not a digital remaster.
Out of relative obscurity, The Allman Brothers Band got a taste of major rock success when their At Fillmore East album went gold (eventually platinum) in 1971.  After years struggling to find their voice and develop their following things seemed to be coming together at last.  At Fillmore East was their breakthrough album, possibly the greatest live album ever recorded, featuring a lengthy blistering version of "Whipping Post" and a superb performance of the jazzy "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed."  The band had truly arrived at a level of stardom.  As always with such unexpected success, they were wondering what to do next.

But things were not so good within the band itself.  Four of its members were addicted to heroin and entered rehabilitation.  Then on October 29, 1971, Duane Allman tragically died in a motorcycle accident.  He was a brilliant guitarist, well-known as a rising star within the industry.  Suddenly, the solid backbone of the band's epic live performances was gone.  

Well, he was almost gone.  The band had previously begun to roughly craft their next record, laying down a couple of tracks with Duane's guitar work was already recorded.  The question was how could the surviving members come up with enough material to fill out an album?  The answer, as it turned out, was they decided they just couldn't make a single album.  They created a double-album instead.

Eat A Peach was a staple of my youth, particularly my college days.  Most of my friends owned a copy of it.  I listened to it a lot at parties or just relaxing around my dorm room.  Its distinctive cover was oddly missing a title as it was developed before the band had settled on one.  Ultimately, and appropriately perhaps, that title was inspired by a reference to something Duane used to say: "Every time I'm in Georgia I eat a peach for peace" which was, interestingly enough, inspired by a T.S. Eliot poem

The album quickly went platinum and, although their next record, Brothers and Sisters, would surpass it in total sales, Eat A Peach remains a defining album for The Allman Brothers Band, the last glimpse of what they attained with Duane, even as they picked up the pieces and carried on to greater heights without him.  It is the thread stitching the original band with what it would evolve into post-Duane Allman.  Ultimate Classic Guitar ranks Eat A Peach a close second behind At Fillmore East among the band's discography.

For no conscious reason, I have listened to Eat A Peach a lot lately.  It has been awhile since I delved into the band.  It is a rewarding experience.  I had forgotten how great these guys were in general and on Eat A Peach in particular.  I sold almost all of my vinyl a couple of years ago.  So I don't have a copy of the double-album and its fine artwork.  But I still own the CD.  So this review will be based upon that and not the way the tracks were presented originally.  The only difference is that "Mountain Jam" is fused together and placed on track four.  The rest of the CD matches the album in terms of the order of the songs.

It should also be noted that Eat A Peach consists of nine songs, three each coming from three different sources arranged in specific groupings.  The album and the CD start off with three songs from a studio set put together after Duane's death.  Next come three tracks from the live 1971 Fillmore East recordings, carrying on with the fabulous performances featuring Duane and the first incarnation of the band at their finest.  Finally, there are three studio tracks that were recorded before Duane died which were to serve as the basis for the (at the time) undefined third studio album.  
The distinctive cover art for Eat A Peach is a classic.  The name of the album does not appear - the artwork was completed at a time when the record was as yet unnamed.
"Ain't Wasting Time No More" is a fine anthem written by Gregg Allman in memory of his brother.  Gregg started composing this before Duane's death.  But the song took on a new context with his brother's passing and, while acknowledging loss, it became a statement of re-commitment to living life as best we can despite whatever happens.

Dickey Betts, an excellent guitarist in his own right, helped fill the void created by the loss of Duane.  He wrote "Les Brers in A Minor" as a instrumental number.  I have always thought the first third of this 9-minute tune could have been edited out completely.  It is just a meandering warm-up to the actual song which finishes out the final two-thirds of the track.  But once it gets going it has tremendous drive and, at times, ecstatic energy; a close-knit, very tight performance by the group.  The band was (is) known for its dual lead guitar sound.  With one of the leads departed, Gregg stepped up with his organ playing to match Dickey on guitar. For me, this song proves the band would find its footing and continue on successfully despite their setback.

One of the most tragic aspects of Eat A Peach is that "Melissa" was Duane's favorite song that Gregg composed, but the older brother never got the chance to record it.  This tune takes the album up a notch.  Just a terrific, soulful number that fully captures the gentle side of the Allman Brothers distinctive sound.  One of the best tunes on the album.

"Mountain Jam" is just an absolute monster of a song, part of the Fillmore East threesome on the record.  At 33-minutes it is one of the longest rock songs ever recorded up to that time.  Limited by the availability of space on vinyl, it was split into two sections when the album was originally released.  On the CD we get to experience it in its uninterrupted glory.  There is so much to this jam session that it is difficult to articulate it all.  It features solid, unified playing by the entire band with magnificent solos by Duane and Dickey on guitar and by Gregg on organ.  But there is an extended bass solo too by Berry Oakley and, in perhaps a first in the great pantheon of rock music, a five-minute percussion duet by Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson.  This massive number requires attentive listening to fully appreciate and it totally validates the band's "chops" as one of the best live performing rock groups ever; a truly innovative recording that breaks out like this:

00:00 - 07:19  Intro, main theme – Duane Allman (left channel): first guitar solo (from 02:41) – Dickey Betts (right channel) – Gregg Allman: organ solo (from 04:40) 07:19 - 13:07  Dickey's main guitar solo (11:21 Duane joines in for a moment) 13:07 - 18:40  Butch Truck's & Jaimoe's drum solo's 18:40 - 22:06  Berry Oakley's bass solo 22:07 - 23:42  Duane & Dickey playing along 23:43 - 30:05  Duane's main guitar solos 25:40 - 25:55  Berry playing something nice notes 27:20 - 29:29  Duane's "Will the circle be unbroken" solo (28:51  Please rise!)   30:10 - 33:14  Outro, main theme (This synopsis was provided Gert Jan Kuiper on the youtube link.)
The credits on my CD.  Oddly, Dickey Betts' name is misspelled throughout.  It's not "Dicky."
"One Way Out" is also live from Fillmore East.  This is the classic Allman Brothers sound.  A very catchy tune, part rock, part blues, full of strength and expertise.  For years this became the finale of the band's concerts.  It is a strong contender for best track on the album.  This song totally rocks and features Gregg's haunting, soulful vocals, the essential part of the group's vibe.  Ultimately, the band survived the loss of Duane guitar.  I'm not sure it would have survived the loss of its primary vocalist.

"Trouble No More" and "Stand Back" might be considered filler material compared with everything else.  Nevertheless, they show the band grooving along smoothly with precision and tremendous energy.  Hard not to listen to these without tapping your foot or shaking your head.  These tunes grip you and immerse you just everything else on this album.  There's no filler here, many bands never record songs as good as either of these.

Dickey Betts, whose name is curiously misspelled as "Dicky" in the CD's liner notes, wrote "Blue Sky" and this is the classic rock song on the album.  It is a glorious piece of music.  I remember listening to this tune so many times during my life.  It is an especially nice tune to blast on the car stereo while driving some distance.  You might expect Eat A Peach to be somewhat somber given the circumstances surrounding the record.  But it's not.  Quite the contrary, it is an upbeat and optimistic album.  No tune is more that way than "Blue Sky", the song I consider the best on the album.  I'm so glad Duane was around to play dual lead and supporting acoustic guitar with Dickey on this one.

We end with "Little Martha", a simple, underdeveloped, acoustic song with Duane and Dickey together on acoustic guitar.  Under other circumstances this might be considered a demo track.  Duane and Dickey had toyed with the idea of introducing an acoustical set to the band's live performances but that never came to pass.  This song is the only one on the album written by Duane alone.   As such, it is a sweet glimpse into what an acoustical set might have sounded like and an honorable homage to close out the CD.
The inside album artwork is wonderful, especially if you have the large vinyl format.  It is much smaller on my CD, of course.  But you can still appreciate the magnificent detail of a time when album art was just part of what you got when you bought a record.
The full title of the record is Eat A Peach: Dedicated to a Brother, Duane Allman.  It is a great, fitting tribute to what the band was but also to what it would become.  Rolling Stone published a remarkable review of the album in April 1972.  It does a far better job of reviewing it than I have and I highly recommend you take a moment to read what rock journalism was like back in the early 70's.  I will close my review by quoting the end of that review:

"While Duane was with them, listening to the group was like getting laid by someone who loved you and knew how to love — not only getting you off, but getting you on as well. The new five-man group is like a new lover, with different passions, peaks and skills — and touches that may take a little getting used to at first, but satisfying just as surely.

"The Allman Brothers are still the best goddamned band in the land, and this record with three sides of “old” and one side of “new” is a simultaneous sorrowed ending and hopeful beginning. I hope the band keeps playing forever — how many groups can you think of who really make you believe they’re playing for the joy of it?"

There you have it.  Eat A Peach is not about the death at all.  (The old myth that the title came from a fruit produce truck that Duane Allman hit on his motorcycle is not factual.)  It is about living, joyfully even riskily, no matter the circumstances.  This album doesn't whine, nor does it stew in remorse, it gets out there and totally rocks.  What a inspiring message and a treat to have enjoyed it for so many years!

Sunday, September 23, 2018

2018 Braves are NL East Champs!

Well, with our home record being so mediocre (43-38), I certainly didn't expect the Atlanta Braves to eliminate the Philadelphia Phillies in the first three games of their four-game home series, but that's what happened.  I watched on FOX yesterday as the Braves won 5-3 behind a strong start by their All-Star ace Mike Foltynewicz and timely hitting by MVP candidate Freddie Freeman (who has the most hits in all of baseball with 186) and Johan Camargo, one of the most underrated players in the league.  Folty dominated the game for the first 7 1/3 innings.  As is often the case, the Braves bullpen proved shaky but we hung on for the win.

2013 was the last time we were here.  We played the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first-round and lost.  As of today we will play the Dodgers again in round one, but that is undecided as the Colorado Rockies are still in the mix for the NL West.  There's long-shot chance we could catch the Chicago Cubs for the best record in the National League, but that is unlikely with only six games remaining.  So, we'll see.  Either way, I'm hoping for a happier outcome than we had in 2013, though I am well aware of our limitations in almost every category except for hitting.

The Braves lost 90 games or more in each of the last three seasons.  So winning the NL East is quite a turnaround.  A year ahead of schedule by some estimates.  MLB.com mentions 10 moments that define the Braves improbable success this season.  These represent the 'highs' but, as always with baseball, there were also some lows.  Getting swept by the Rockies at home in August was definitely a low point.  One of those games was such a blow-out it necessitated the Braves using utility player and clutch hitter Charlie Culberson to pitch the final inning.  He didn't do that badly, got out of the inning on just 10 pitches though he gave up a run. 

Overall, however, the Braves limited their losing streaks to 3-4 games at most and had several winning streaks of 4 or more games (the current streak is at 5 games and we had a 6-game streak earlier in September, we are 14-8 for the month so far). This consistency is encouraging going into the postseason.

As long-time readers know, I am a life-long Braves fan.  So, yesterday was an exciting time for me.  I admire so much about this team.  Ronald Acune, Jr. should be Rookie-of-the-Year.  Freddie Freeman (or possibly Nick Markakis) should be the league's Most-Valuable-Player.  And Brian Snitker should be Manager-of-the-Year.

I really admire Snitker's stoic attitude as a manager and the decisions he makes in each individual game.  Smart guy.  But he has a lot of fire in his belly when necessary.  He has been ejected a few games this season, including when the red-hot Acune was hit by a pitch to open a game in August.  Snitker has proven himself to be highly capable in managing his players and his line-ups this season.  I didn't realize until yesterday that he has spent his entire 42-year career in the Atlanta Braves organization.  So, naturally he was emotional about the clinch of the division title yesterday.  "I am a Brave," the choked up manager said.

I can certainly relate.  It will be interesting to see how Snitker manages the team over the final few games of the season.  Will he give his starters plenty of rest?  Will he step on the gas and try to catch the Cubs for the best record in the NL?  Snitker seems to think he can do both.  Maybe he can.  We might not have the pitching to go deep into the postseason but what a season it has been so far!  I'm looking forward to October-ball for the first time in a long while.

The Braves completed a 4-game sweep of the Phillies today winning 2-1 with mostly substitute players out there. Anibal Sanchez got the win.  He ended the season 7-6 but with a fine 2.96 ERA.  He pitched pretty well in spot starts over the season and there was a stretch during the summer when he was the best starter we had.  In that sense Sanchez helped the Braves through a potentially tough time when Foltynewicz, Sean Newcomb, and Julio Teheran were all struggling. 

I wouldn't have bet on a sweep, but the Phillies looked bad compared to us.  They are fading at season's end.  That doesn't make us a kick-ass team...yet. We need to keep winning. Winning is important going into the postseason.  You want the team to have a certain momentum and expectation (rather than hope) of victory. 

In honor of their superb seasons, Snitker tipped his cap to Freeman and Markakis today by putting them as the only two regular position players in the starting line-up.  Both only stayed in the game until their first at-bat and were substituted for after that symbolic plate appearance.  Tyler Flowers caught but even he is second-string, despite a lot of valuable work this season.  He stayed in the line-up.  Everyone else was backup players with decent talent.

Six games remain.  With their win today the Braves are 88-68.  Two wins away from 90, which is usually a standard statistic of a great season.  The Cubs, also with a win today,  have 91 victories already.  So we are unlikely to catch them for the best record in the league with so few games left.  But we can still have better records than any of the other teams that make the play-offs.  A home-field advantage is possible.  

Which is a mild Catch-22.  As I mentioned before, we are really a better road team. If that's true, however, we should win most of the final games of the season, all on the road.  Ah well, let's just keep winning and don't worry about which stadium we are playing in. Ignore all that.  Snitker says this team has "the 'it' factor." and he lauds that as a "cool thing" that you cannot "create" it just is.  Let's simply focus on finding a way to win and see how far we go.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

10 Games Left: Time for the 'Baby Braves' to Grow Up

Going into today the 2018 Atlanta Braves are sitting atop the NL East Division with a record of 84-68 after defeating the St. Louis Cardinals 7-3.  They have a 5-game lead over the second-place Philadelphia Phillies with only 10 reguler season games to play.  That is ordinarily a commanding lead, especially since over the past 10 games the Phillies have been playing worse than the Braves.  

But, after rattling off a season-high 6-game winning streak, the Braves lost four in a row while the Phillies won a couple.  So the lead shrank from seven games to five in the blink of an eye. What's more, the Braves play the Phillies seven times in the last 10 games.  So anything is still possible.  If the Atlanta collapses against Philadelphia then they will not make the postseason.  If the Braves can just split the seven games, say, 4-3 then that will pretty much ensures our division title.  (There are also three games against the New York Mets that complicate things a bit.)  

We have sort of been here before, under slightly different circumstances, in 2010.  See posts here and here for all that.  We had a chance to win the division then but ended up as the wild-card team.  This year the wild-card is not really an option, at least as of this posting.  While we had the best record in the National League earlier, as of today we have only the fifth-best record.  Not good enough for serious wild-card consideration given the records of other wild-card contending teams.

So it is all or nothing.  We are in the driver's seat, controlling our own destiny.  But there is some reason for concern.

First of all, we have four game against the Phillies at home.  The Braves at 45-30 actually have the best road record in the National League.  But they are only 39-38 at home.  We haven't played well at SunTrust Park.  So it is possible for the Phillies to sweep us over the next four games.  That is definitely the worst-case scenario.  It would effectively erase our lead over them with only six games left to play.  On the other hand if we can split with the series 2-2 with them, then we are still 5 games up on them with only 6 games left.  All six of those games are on the road, fortunately, the last three in Philadelphia.  With our road prowess being what it is I feel pretty good about our chances.  But we have to win a few games at home first!

What do we have going for us?  We a lot in terms of batting, at least.  Ronald Acuna, Jr. has a hot bat and is a serious rookie-of-the-year candidateFreddie Freeman and Nick Markakis are both having great seasons at the plate.  Overall, the Braves are 3rd in team batting average at .259.  That is a far cry from the .268 they started the season with, but it's still in the elite category.

Our pitching is another story.  A recent game against the best team in baseball, the Boston Red Sox, exemplifies the issue.  With a commanding 7-1 lead going into the 8th inning, the Braves bullpen showed its ugly side and we ended up losing that game 9-8.  Just horrible, but that's baseball.  Currently, we are a very mediocre 12th in team ERA at 3.80.  If you compare team bullpens we are inadequate for a playoff contender.  Our starters, with a few noteworthy exceptions, have not performed well, especially in the past few games.  Pitching is the bane of the Braves in 2018.

Still, here we are, in first place with a meager 10 games remaining.  The first four are at home against the Phillies and that worries me.  But the rest are away against the Mets and the Phillies.  The odds are still in our favor to win our first division title since 2013.  That feels good even if we are not playing our best of late.  Beating the Phillies three out of the next four games will seal the deal for the Braves and allow us to rest some of our key players before the postseason begins.  But, playing at home, strangely makes that a problematic feat this year.  

Unless we catch fire, our number of wins will probably mean we will not have home-field advantage in the postseason.  But that is actually a plus.  As I mentioned, we play much better on the road.  We could make things interesting by winning a game or two away against whoever we end up playing (it would be the Los Angeles Dodgers as of right now).  But I am not expecting to survive the first round due to our often lackluster pitching.  Still, it's better than not going to the playoffs at all.  The 2018 season has been exciting overall for the 'baby Braves.'  I was just hoping the magic of earlier in the season would last into September.  So far, that's not consistently been the case.  

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

My AC Fiasco

Two small window units managed to sorta keep my house cool for 15 days in the late summer heat.
The Tuesday after Labor Day I woke up to find that my AC was out.  Actually, the compressor was still working but the blower fan that drives the cool air from the unit into the duct work stopped turning.  I cut everything off since there was no point in the compressor running and spent that Tuesday morning dealing with the issue.

I went to my AC provider and reported the situation in person.  I didn't want to fool with a simple phone call as I hoped to fix the issue as quickly as possible.  The office lady there was very helpful and sympathetic.  Unfortunately, all the repairmen were booked for the day but she would see what she could do.  One repairman standing around listening to my story simply said: "You need to get an alternate source of cooling."

Well, alternate heat is comparatively easy, but alternate cooling involved equipment I didn't have.  The AC lady mentioned that the company had some small window cooling units in the back.  After a bit of a search I managed to procure a couple of them.  I immediately drove back home.  The sun was still rising at this point and I wanted to get a jump on the hot part of the day.

I put the two units in my upstairs study windows.  Heat rises so I figured I could keep the house cooler overall by simply cooling the second floor area and use various fans around the house to circulate the air.  That worked pretty well actually.  I was able to keep the upstairs temperature at about 77 degrees and 79 downstairs during the hottest part of the day.  

Those small window units are basically designed to cool a 12 x 12 space.  So, two together would cool a slightly larger space.  But, my house is 10 times that size.  The units ran 17-18 hours a day.  I cut them off at night to give everything a rest.  Since I am an early riser, I could turn the units back on in time to make the house somewhat comfortable before the sun started heating things up.

On Thursday afternoon (September 6) the replacement motor for the blower unit came in.  It would be the next morning, however, before a repairman could be dispatched to my house.  He removed the blower assembly but could not get the old motor out.  It wouldn't budge.  "This is supposed to be a 30-minute fix.  I've never seen anything like this," was his comment as he took the whole assembly back to the shop where he had the tools to force the old motor out. 

He was back in about an hour and I had high hopes.  The new motor was placed into the assembly and everything hooked back up.  But when I turned the unit on from inside the house, the blower fan itself was now warped, apparently from the violence done to it when the old motor was extracted.

This necessitated an entirely new assembly being ordered.  Of course, the local distributor did not carry the whole assembly, that had to be ordered from St. Louis and would take 4 or 5 business days to arrive.  Crap.

So here I was trying to keep my entire house livable during these 90-degree dog days of summer with two window units meant to cool two small rooms.  I could only hope that the units could handle the way they were being pushed in order to keep things moderately cool to only slightly warm inside.

Repeated calls to my AC provider only frustrated me.  The assembly was (apparently) ordered on Friday, September 7.  By Thursday, September 13, no one could still tell me if the blower fan had even been shipped.  I was forced to get firm with the poor woman struggling to help me.  She was just doing the same thing over and over.  "No, I called but I haven't heard anything,"  she told me.  "I emailed but I never heard back."  Grrrrr.

I informed her in my most firm yet polite manner that no one seemed to be making this a priority, it didn't seem to be on anyone's radar.  All I wanted to know was when the part shipped and when I could expect delivery.  I told her that the situation was now "unprofessional" and I needed her "to go over someone's head and get some action."  I made it clear that I was not mad at her, that I understood she probably gets yelled at all the time, that I wasn't looking for special treatment, but after ten days I felt it was reasonable to expect at least some tracking information.  "As it stands now no one can even tell me if the part has been shipped," I stated emphatically. She agreed and said she would try her best and call me back.

I didn't hear from her again that day.

Last Friday afternoon, I called again.  The lady had no clue where the part was or even if it was en route.  She had gone to her supervisors and spoken to them about it but no one could tell me anything about the status of the alleged shipment.  But, surprise, surprise, about 30 minutes later she called me back to say the part was in Knoxville, Tennessee.  It was scheduled for a Monday delivery. Knowing that it probably wouldn't arrive first thing, I asked her to schedule having the blower unit installed and everything else in my system checked first thing Tuesday morning.  

Checking back with her late this past Monday (September 17), she told me the part still had not been delivered.  "Well, where is it?  You have the tracking number."  She couldn't find the freakin' tracking number, however.  Her sincere concern apparently was incapable to translating into any personal initiative whatsoever.  I was frustrated but pretty much helpless.  I half-seriously contemplated buying a whole new freakin' AC system.  It would already have been installed and working by now.

Meanwhile, the two window units continued to cool the whole house as best they could, with their small compressors running almost constantly.  By now I had figured out the optimum balance between nurturing the compressors and keeping my house livable in the late summer heat.

It was frustrating though; not just because of the primitive and inadequate nature of the cooling units.  The noise from the units running in my study all the time interfered with my ability to listen to classical music on my radio, to hear anything at all in the house except for the phone ringing.  Reading anything more than the news in my Flipboard app proved impossible.  I couldn't concentrate on any of the books I am currently reading. 

She called me back (!) later on Monday to say the part had been shipped to the Chattanooga distribution facility, not directly to the AC shop.  Why didn't she verify direct shipment?  I have no clue and she sure as hell didn't either since by now I was having to tell her what her next step should be.  

The part was due on Tuesday (yesterday) now, but she had no idea of when it might arrive (of course).  She apparently was struggling to get someone out late Tuesday afternoon but I told her there was no point in that since she didn't know when the part would come in.  I scheduled a service call for the first thing this morning.  She blocked out two hours for the maintenance guy to not only replace the blower fan but to service my entire system.

Somewhat surprisingly, given how all the rest of this went, the new blower fan was installed in no time and it worked perfectly.  The maintenance guy did a few other minor adjustments to the unit and pronounced it "good to go."  This whole BS episode is hopefully over.  Just in the nick of time, really.  It was sunny and 94 degrees here today.

I am sitting in my study as I post this blog entry.  It is quiet and cool and all seems right with the world AC-wise.  I'm looking forward to getting back to my reading and to doing yoga or just sitting in my recliner and staring without two small compressors unceasingly going hmmmmm in my head.

The whole ordeal only took 15 days (!) during some of the hottest temperatures of the year.  God only knows what my power bill will look like this month with those two small compressors and every fan in my house running almost continuously.  But it would have been so much worse without the window units.  So I should count my blessings, I suppose.


Monday, September 17, 2018

Year of the Deer Here

A grown fawn and a doe near the bird feeders in the back garden.

A frequent occurrence this summer, a doe crosses my front yard.  I took this photo with my old iPad camera, which isn't really that good, but it was all I had with me at the time.

Another doe along the back garden, again taken with my iPad.

The best photo I have of two of the fawns.  It isn't very good, I know.  I just happened to look out my bathroom window as they crossed out of my woods into the yard.  The iPad focused on my window screen so the image of the fawns is blurry.  But this still gives you a sense of how magical it was to just happen upon all this deer action on my property this year. 
This was a banner year for deer activity on my property.  Deer are no stranger to my woods and land.  I have seen them many times through the years since 1993.  But, this year was different.  I think due to nearby residential development more of them are being pushed into relatively safe, natural areas, especially when rearing their young is involved.

Back in the early spring when I would walk my dog, Charlie, through the property it was common for him to be restless, sniffing at something in the air.  I would often look out into my then leafless trees and see nothing.  Then, suddenly, Charlie would charge a bit and start barking, making a big fuss.  Suddenly, my woods came alive with 12-15 deer who had carefully hidden themselves from view.  They were all over my woods, the most I had ever seen at once.  This happened on several occasions.

Later in the spring, a few of them would come into my back yard to graze on various things, including Jennifer's prize tulips, much to her dismay.  Three or four doe were the most common encounter but I did see a small six-point buck now and then.  The deer became quite comfortable being around my house, with only Charlie to scare them away, especially at night when my dog was indoors.

In late-spring I was on my mower headed to the lower field to mow when I stopped.  Right in the middle of my gravel driveway stood a doe nursing two fawns.  I haven't seen many twin fawns in my lifetime.  I stopped the mower, wishing I had a camera, and just watched until the mother and her babies moved along.  She paused behind a small brush pile I have down there and continued to nurse the twins even as I was mowing near her.

A few weeks later I was driving up my driveway after work and saw yet another set of twin fawns with their mother.  These were even younger, just born, with spots all over them.  I couldn't believe my luck.  Two sets of twins more or less born on my property in the same season!  A rare event indeed!

Try as I might, I was unable to capture a decent photo of the fawns or of any other deer actually.  They frequently appeared near the bird feeders in my back yard along the edge of one of the gardens.  Charlie went crazy when, while resting on a couch that abuts the den window opening to the back yard and garden, deer would appear, grazing.  Charlie growled and sank his nails into the window sill (already bearing the marks of previous freak-outs about cats or deer or whatever).  The deer remain rather bold even as of this posting.

The photos presented in this post are the best I have unfortunately.  The deer still appear practically every day but the fawns are now grown, the younger twins have few spots left at this point.  They are all safe, if a bit aggravating, on my property.  I don't allow hunting.  But come later this fall, when deer season opens, many of them won't survive.  They roam too far to be protected by my small amount land.

But that's just the way things work.  I like venison as much as anybody.  Some of these deer will end up in someone's freezer for the winter; a great time for stews and cubed steaks.  Still, it has been fun watching them and allowing them to experience some small ease at being safe on my land.  Some of them no longer fear me at all, they just watch me from a safe distance, as curious about me, perhaps, as I am fascinated by them.