Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Finding my Voice in Beauty

Back in the 80’s, just after my return from India, I read a series on the history of western philosophy by the Jesuit priest Frederick Copleston. At the time, I didn’t care much for the Greek or medieval periods of philosophy. So, I began my reading with volume 4 and Rene Descartes, proceeding through Jean-Paul Sartre in volume 9. A volume 10 and 11 also exist. They, respectively, cover Russian philosophy and compare logical positivism with existentialism. I don’t own either of those.

Copleston’s reason for the study is stated in the Preface to volume 1. “My chief motive in writing this book…has been that of supply Catholic ecclesiastical seminars with a work that should be somewhat more detailed and wider of scope than the text-books commonly in use and which at the same time should endeavour to exhibit the logical development and inter-connection of philosophical systems.” (page v) So, there is clearly a Catholic bent throughout.

Nevertheless, Copleston’s grasp of western philosophy is massive. Although he certainly projected an occasional prejudice and marginalized "unorthodox" movements like Sophism, Gnosticism, and Skepticism, for the most part his sprawling overview of the development of our philosophic tradition is thorough and objective. I have referred back to his work many times in the course of the last 25 years or so. They are a mainstay reference for me.

Philosophy is an important aspect of my spirituality. I am not someone who chooses to elevate intimate, emotional, biological or non-rational paths over the achievements, however modest, of human reason. Sure, much of philosophy is the equivalent of mental masturbation but I nevertheless find it inspiring, insightful to the human condition, and it often provides the framework for which I can find my own voice in spiritual matters.

A couple of months ago I decided to add to my Copleston collection by purchasing the first three volumes in the series, which were begun back in 1946. My interest in Greek philosophy has grown in recent years as I continue my studies into the life and thought of Frederick Nietzsche, who grounded so much of his own academic life in the pre-Socratic Greeks. The remaining material, most of volumes 2 and 3, covers the philosophy of the middle ages which I have traditionally believed to be little philosophy at all, given the dominance of the Catholic Church on human thought in what is not too dishonorably labeled as “The Dark Ages.”

So, for the past several weeks, I have perused these volumes in my morning devotional times and in much of my other time for reading as well. I skipped around reading Plato and Aristotle, then to William Ockham and Francis Bacon, then to Saint Thomas Aquinas. All of these philosophers were brilliant thinkers of their day, reflecting the times in which they lived (which is one reason I find their insights so interesting), and offering interpretations upon human reality that at least warrant serious consideration.

But, what impressed me most about the three volumes I am currently skipping around in is the rather unintended but nevertheless fairly obvious examination of something that we today consider a part of “aesthetics.” Earlier in the development of western thought aesthetics was not as rationalized and fragmented as it is today. In those less sophisticated times aesthetic matters were almost always referred to in degrees of Beauty.

Of course, Copleston is not really interested in Beauty as such. Within his vast overview of western philosophy he is focused on a great many other elements, ideas, and influences. Certainly, Beauty is not his primary concern. It is just something I happened to notice over the span of repeatedly scanning this 1500 page book (my editions are out-of-print compilations of three or more volumes in one book) and Beauty, as such, is covered in roughly the first 500 pages up to the completion of Copleston’s analysis of Saint Augustine. So, my interest is not to claim any significance to what I observed and delighted me. It is merely to attempt to supply you with an overview of a small part of Copleston’s overview. This is a summary of a minor theme, as it were.

I will start with what Copleston has to say about, Anaxagoras, an obscure pre-Socratic philosopher. Anaxagoras wasn’t interested in Beauty specifically but he had a lot to say about something that later became connected with Beauty by someone else. “Nous,” says Anaxagoras “has power over all things.”

Copleston points out that the early philosophers of antiquity were primarily concerned with what is the essence of being. This led to a diversity of perceived essences - fire, air, water, earth, and others. Anaxagoras advanced rational thought with the concept that Nous is “the finest of all things and the purist, and it has all knowledge about everything and it has the greatest power….” For Anaxagoras, no matter what essence you want to speak about, you are speaking about Nous every time.

Following Anaxagoras, Plato espoused the first true Theory of Beauty around 370 B.C. (which is notated in the postmodern mind as BCE – Before the Common Era – so as not to refer the person of Jesus at all) Plato’s instructor, Socrates, professed a “standard of Beauty” that applied to every human mind but he never developed a specific thought experiment for this standard. Plato, however, attributed Beauty to part of his Theory of Forms and thought “Beauty is a transcendental Form.”

“Absolute Beauty, for instance, does not exist outside us in the sense in which a flower exists outside us – for it might just as well be said to exist inside us, inasmuch as spatial categories simply do not apply to it. On the other hand, it cannot be said to be inside us in the sense that it is purely subjective, is confined to us, comes into being with us, and perishes through our agency or with us. It is both transcendent and immanent, inaccessible to the sense, apprehensible by the intellect.” (I, page 175)

I confess I basically agree with this newfound (for me) philosophic statement. Of all the philosophers of antiquity, I knew a bit about Plato prior to reading Copleston. But, I knew him in only the most general terms. The first-time discovery of this quote made my heart glow as well as my head.

Plato never offered a specific definition for Beauty, rather he made a lot of statements about Beauty. “…if we take into account the remarks on beauty scattered about in the dialogues, it is probable that we must admit that Plato wanders ‘among so many conceptions, among which it is just possible to say that the identification of the Beautiful with the Good prevails…” (I, page 256) In spite of the diversity of what was called “beauty” even in those times, for Plato there was one archetypal Beauty connecting them all.

Aristotle follows Plato like Plato follows Socrates. The former was a pupil of the latter living on after the passing of the teacher. Aristotle taught little about Beauty other than to mention, rather in passing, “the beautiful is the object of contemplation not desire.” (I, page 360) I find this brief statement fascinating. Beauty can only be truly touched through a reflective or meditative intellect, not through the physical attraction (either erotic or sensible).

Fast-forward several centuries to the time after Jesus died. A relatively obscure philosopher, Plotinus was born in Egypt but later lived in Rome. For the purposes of this post, Plotinus taught “From Nous, which is Beauty, proceeds the Soul…” (I, page 468) Nous is equated with the human soul which is, in turn, equated with Platonic Beauty (think of the term as Platonic Love and you can begin to see the spherical reality of how Plato’s Forms may be said to exist).

We know that St. Augustine was influenced by Plato and post-Platonic writers including Plotinus, living about 150 years later than Plotinus, which places him circa 380 A.D. (so about equal distance from the death of Jesus but on opposite ends of the historic event from Plato). As with all early philosophers, St. Augustine provides us with a great opportunity to peer back into the pre-modern human mind. He understood the classic importance of Beauty in human life.

Copleston makes it plain that St. Augustine experienced Beauty as an Ideal Form of Plato. Moreover, “Beauty itself illuminates the mind’s activity….” For St. Augustine, Beauty is a fundamental manifestation of human reality. Beauty is not just a rational concept; it literally causes the mind to shine. This is an experience from which we are distanced today. Things are experienced as more complicated for us than they were for St. Augustine. He could enjoy the beautiful in the Form of nature, art, architecture, and in the human body as simple, pristine, and just as much absolute and universal as relative.

For we postmodern beings “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But, for St. Augustine no matter what beauty the eye beheld it was Beauty as the Ideal Form. Our natural emphasis on a variety of beauty is a paradigm shift not necessarily for the better. The philosophic emphasis back circa 390 A.D. was clearly on the Ideal. That a person could connect with that divine experience (Beauty, as with any St. Augustine Idea or Platonic Form, is partly and fundamentally sacred for St. Augustine and of the highest mind for Plato) was more important than the variety of beautiful things. St. Augustine considers the One to be more important than the Many from a metaphysical perspective.

Today, as Nietzsche predicted and attempted to resolve, nothing is sacred. Not marriage, not nature, not livelihood, nothing. Everything is utility toward consumer ends or times of leisure for travel or other pleasures. Function within accepted societal systems (cultures surrendered to systems) often overwhelms every human consideration. We find all things completely disposable. The fact is the convenience of throwing away large expanses of our previously expressed being just as if it never happened has become commonplace.

This is a far distance from St. Augustine’s experience and expression of Beauty. There was definitive splendor to connect with and the experience of splendor was greater than any one splendid thing. The experience of Beauty was Nous, spiritual, beyond reason, an intimate experience that connects all intimacies. That is the point. It connects us because, no matter what we see as beautiful, we see the same Idea. It connects human Being at a higher level.

“...the Saint depicts the human soul questioning the things of sense and hearing them confess that beauty of the visible world, of mutable things, is the creation and reflection of immutable Beauty, after which the soul proceeds inward, discovers itself and realizes the superiority of the soul to the body.” (II, page 71)

So, considering the way I want to live my life, I can appreciate the complete relativity of beauty in the postmodern sense. But, I freely choose to discount it and give preference to St. Augustine as I understand him. Though I don’t agree with his “soul over body” premise, that’s hardly the point.

For St. Augustine, Beauty is not only sacred but Beauty illuminates the mind in a special way. I find that this uniqueness is a happy thing and my recent discovery of St. Augustine is therefore a boost to my life these days. To hold philosophy in such esteem and to discover something so moving is obviously a great experience of Being anytime but particularly at age 51. This I take as an inspiration and I feel I can relate with intimately.

This is the importance of philosophy. All my life I have appreciated the beauty of nature and art and the human form. Various philosophers have given me frameworks to understand this. But, St. Augustine nailed it, for me, and I knew nothing of him until a couple of weeks ago beyond the vague fact he was a saint. Now, he gives me voice to express an experience I have always had but never been able to articulate. He articulates Beauty in a way that, while I would disagree with both him and Plato about the nature of the Ideal, I share the importance of the Ideal with them. They give me voice.

That’s beautiful on so many levels.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

First Bonfire

Ready to burn. Dead stuff from our woods provided some youthful entertainment last night.

My daughter wanted a bonfire. So, yesterday she, Jennifer, and I spent about 3 hours hauling cement blocks, kindling and fallen trees I cut up with my chainsaws. It was another beautiful autumn day, clear and sunny but with a gusty breeze that felt cool if not in the sun. Later it became party cloudy. Hopefully, we will get some rain tonight.

When we first bought this property in 1993 I spent virtually every winter trimming trees and cutting vast amounts of privet hedge. I burned many brush piles in those early years at Freebird, the adopted name of my modest 10-acre estate. I would burn them on Saturday afternoons or sometimes take a day of vacation to enjoy the country and burn brush.

My daughter carved this pumpkin and put a candle in it to help give the party a pre-Halloween theme. She and Jennifer decorated things.

But, until last night we have never had a “public” burning at our home. As I said, she wanted a bonfire, a party. 25 or 30 high schoolers came and for awhile were loud and laughing, with hip hop music blasting, in our back yard around the roaring fire pit we had just created and supplied with amble wood from our forest.

It was night, of course, and a full moon to boot. The sky was not as clear as it has been lately. Only the brightest stars were visible. There was thin cloud cover with occasional breaks. The moon arose bright though somewhat veiled. Perfectly round. There was just enough light to vaguely see without a flashlight.

I was grilling late evening burgers and hot dogs. I sat on the tabernacle bench and watched the moon rising above the numerous orange sparkles of the roaring fire (see right) as they faded into the sky, decorating the moon, as it were. There was so much youthful laughter. And in that moment I perceived how beautiful all this was. The youth, the moon, the fire, even the smell of the grill.

Later, after the party shut down a little after 11PM, Jennifer was out admiring a huge ring around the moon last night. I went out to observe it. I’ve seen many rings around moons at night. Jennifer says they are a sign of rain. We need the rain, if it comes.

Jennifer did not consider the party itself beautiful. Her experience of it was different from mine. She thought it was fun and many other things. Well, it was fun. For Jennifer, the beauty was in the ring around the moon later.

Though we connected with differing inspirations for experiencing “the beautiful” what we connected with was nevertheless a shared experience of what might be considered a higher ideal.

This experience of beauty has significance for me. It has to do with something I am currently reading. I’ll post about that soon.

We enjoyed making this bonfire space so much that we intend to leave it all winter long and have lesser fires, camp fires, on clear, still winter nights to come.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Our Tabernacle Bench

This bench served as a pew in an old, local tabernacle from the late 19th century.

In our carport there sits an old church bench which Jennifer and I moved from my grandparents’ porch several years ago. The bench is actually a pew from a Methodist tabernacle that existed before my grandparents’ church was built near the turn of the last century. Our best guess is that it was built and in use around the 1880’s.

The bench is simple, nothing special really except for its age and design. Its wooden slats are angled such that, when you sit in it, you are in a proper, upright posture that is surprisingly comfortable. We use it for outdoor parties and gatherings and many of our friends and visitors have commented on how pleasant it is to sit upon.

Of course, “comfort” is a relative term. The bench is in no way “cushy” or soft. It simply is easy to sit in, not tiresome, obviously constructed for long Sunday afternoons when the preacher would be getting his second-wind, as it were, in the extended sermons that were prevalent to this area in the late-19th century.

Back then, Sunday services began in late-morning to give church attendees time to arrive in their wagons and carriages from miles around. There were no "early" services so the family could spend the rest of the afternoon away from church. Oh no, back then when you arrived at church on Sundays you brought a picnic and stayed most of the day.

This was a country tabernacle which sat beside a wet-weather stream that was partially fed by a spring. As a child, I would go wading in that stream during Sunday afternoon lunches and singings. I sometimes played around the spring, though the adults didn’t really care for the kids playing so far away from their observation and near such a potentially dangerous water source.

Even though the water was just bubbling up out of the ground it was considered unsafe for the sometimes wild play we exhibited. Rumor had it someone had drowned in that spring once. But then, childhood is filled with such rumors designed to keep youthful exuberance in check.

My great-great-great-grandfather, Sampson, likely attended that tabernacle when our pew was in its original use. He is buried in the church cemetery today. He was a Confederate soldier and his headstone is marked with the appropriate veteran’s insignia though it is somewhat difficult to make out these days after such a passage of time.

Most likely when the tabernacle was replaced with the church building some time over 100 years ago, my great-great-grandfather, William Swift, was one of the members that took one of the old pews home when the new ones were installed. Those new pews were the ones I initially used in the 1960’s. They have since been replaced more modern, cushioned pews with fancier place holders for hymnals and little notches for pens that people can conveniently use to write out their checks for the offering plate.

There are no such luxuries on our tabernacle bench. It does have a crude wooden pocket on the back side for song books though. It sat on my grandparents’ porch probably for nine decades or more. During that time the porch bowed a bit and so the bench, supported by four legs, currently doesn’t sit flush against the ground on the ends. We compensate by placing some tiles under it for added support.

It was at least once painted by my grandfather. Jennifer painted it a blue-green color (I call it "turquoise" she says "Destin [as in Florida] blue", whatever) after we moved it to our place. It probably looks more cheerful now than was originally intended. But then in the 1880’s it wasn’t exactly the party bench that it has become today.

The wood is very old, of course, and not as strong as it once was. Over the years termites have gotten into parts of it. Some of it is partially rotted. There are holes in the sides. But, so far, we haven’t replaced anything but for the paint job and it can sturdily hold a full load of people.

These past few weeks we have experienced some wonderful fall weather. So, I have sat often on the bench for at least a brief spell. Each time I do so I can’t help but think back, as I settle in to its simple comfort, to what it must have been like almost 6,000 Sundays ago. There were no internal combustion engines to hear. There were no airplanes overhead. Instead you had babies crying and horses snorting and the sound of the breeze in the trees.

In that simple comfortable and comparative quiet voices were raised in praise to an ideal of goodness and eternity that seems naïve and sentimental today. And then the preacher would read from scripture and deliver his second or third sermon for the long day. People would listen. Some would be moved. They had nowhere to go and nothing really to do. In summer they would be fanning themselves with heavy paper hand fans. It was a day of rest. This was the country. There was no entertainment industry here. After some hours, they would rise from this bench and have fellowship together before mounting their wagons and carriages for the slow ride back home in the cool stillness of dusk.

The curve in the seat is really perfect for secure, comfortable sitting. The firm, straight back gives you good posture. Just the ticket for those extended hellfire and brimstone sermons of yesteryear.

Friday, October 15, 2010

There is no Scientific Proof of This But...

Woody Allen recently quipped that he is against old age. There’s no advantage to it. While I don’t feel “old” per se, I cannot deny the fact I am aging and most likely somewhere in the prime of my life. As regular readers know I am an avid jogger. I always have been, dating back to the time I used to run marathons in my late-teens and early twenties.

A few months ago, my right hip began to bother me. It wasn’t a persistent pain, but a sudden, sharp one that would come and go without apparent reason. I figured this had something to do with arthritis. On top of this, my knees are not what they used to be and I started getting this kind of bloated feeling in them often after I ran. While I’m listing complaints I should throw in that for the past 18 months the first knuckle on my right hand was also hurting in a dull, continual fashion, often making it difficult to open smaller twist-off containers like those on bottled water.

I don’t complain much (at least about what I consider to be minor aches and pains). I figure it comes with the terrain of aging. I keep running and try to remain as active as possible. But, my ears perked up about two months ago when Jennifer’s dad was telling me that he had a similar ailment in his hip and that it had vanished a few days after he started taking organic apple cider vinegar.

So, I thought I would give it a try. I did a bit of research online. Enough to know there is nothing out there that scientifically confirms this “remedy” does anything at all of benefit to the human body. The scientific community remains skeptical. I also discovered that people take their vinegar a multitude of ways, but mostly with a bit of honey and water.

I have always been more of the straight-shooter type. So, I decided to give it a try with just two tablespoons (mixed with nothing) first thing in the morning. It is not the most pleasant way to start the day, but I wanted to see if the vinegar would work in a pristine application. So, I started my mornings with my double-shot of vinegar, made coffee, when upstairs to wash my hair, came back down after letting the vinegar sit, slightly burning, on my esophagus and stomach for 5-10 minutes and had my first cup of coffee.

I repeated this rather obsessively for several days. By day three the pain in my hip was reduced to a barely detectable sensation. Next, my knuckle on my hand became completely usable and pain-free again. After a couple of weeks, I no longer felt discomfort in my left knee (though my right knee is still not 100% it is much better) and my hip pain completely vanished.

Now, I consider myself a rational person. I am always interested in the latest scientific information on health, astronomy, archeology, cognitive science, and a wide-range of other topics. But, in recent years, I have come to discount the scientific method itself as just another form of human prejudice. Sure, the method accomplishes remarkable things like landing us on the moon and virtually wiping out a host of diseases that used to commonly plague humankind, but I also know that much of how the human body works, for example, remains unknown.

Human beings are healed without any apparent medical explanation. Human beings die without any specific medical explanation. My personal experience is that more times than not physicians are little more than glorified automobile mechanics. They make educated guesses based upon often flawed reasoning or scientific studies that are in need of revision. They probably help far more than they hurt. But theirs is not an exact science. As a rule, they certainly like to elevate their frequently inadequate knowledge to god-like status for themselves.

Occasionally, the good ones work miracles. But, almost all of them believe that if there’s not empirical evidence supporting a treatment then they remain skeptical, sometimes passionately so.

Well, I’m an empiricist too about a great many things. However, nothing trumps my direct personal experience. You might believe my hip and knees and knuckle no longer hurt due to the conveniently labeled “placebo effect” but I would disagree. There’s no evidence that by suddenly taking apple cider vinegar I got all this relief from some kind of “faith” I had "projected" about it beforehand. The truth is, I was experimenting, I had no expectations. The results, in fact, were so pronounced that they shocked me.

My results were so favorable, Jennifer gave it a try. She said she experienced no relief at all. So, just like any other prescription or drug, your results may vary.

Apple cider vinegar is not the only “home-remedy” I’ve tried that has achieved positive results for me in my lifetime. 6-7 years ago I started taking Serrapeptase on a daily basis. At the time I had a ganglion cyst on my right wrist. For many years the cyst came and went. Then it came and stayed...and grew...over a period of time. My chiropractor (oh! another voodoo profession according to most physicians who desire to monopolize health care) was touting the advantages of this digestive enzyme to me.

What made me want to give it a try was its supposed advantage for your cardiovascular system. The enzyme is the secretion that silk worms use to chew their way out of their cocoons. Supposedly, it has powerful qualities for clearing out the plaque build-up in your circulatory system.

I still don’t know if it really helps my heart with plaque. But, about three months after taking it routinely, my cyst vanished and has never returned. My chiropractor told me that there are studies in Europe (not scientifically accepted of course) that indicate Serrapeptase is good for benign masses in women’s breasts and all sorts of other lumps and bumps that occur in the body.

The trick to Serrapeptase is that you have to take it on an empty stomach. Otherwise, your body treats it like a digestive enzyme. It will certainly aid in digestion but very little of it is absorbed in the bloodstream that way. Whereas, on an empty stomach it is almost completely absorbed into your circulatory system where it is, in turn, transferred throughout the body attacking masses and plaque wherever it resides.

My cyst has not come back in 6 years after hanging around for more than a decade.

Again, I make no claims for anyone beside myself. These are my experiences with treatments frowned upon by the orthodox power monger medical tyranny…er…community. So, both apple cider vinegar and Serrapeptase are normal parts of my rather robust supplemental regimen which is designed to work with my focus on diet and exercise.

When it comes to my health I firmly believe no one knows better about me than myself. I remain open to input from a variety of sources including information gathered through my annual physical with my personal physician, who thinks a lot of what I do is a waste of money. But, I follow a great deal of his advice as well. Physicians might have overblown egos and a rather myopic view of the human body but that doesn't mean they have no insights to offer.

The truth is I have rarely suffered an illness of any kind over the past dozen years of following my supplements, my tendency toward the CRON approach to diet, and exercise. Jennifer and my daughter may get colds or viruses while I get a mild runny nose or something.

I have noticed a greater tendency toward seasonal allergies than I used to have, however.

At any rate, the laboratory of my body is a fairly stable balance of both accepted and non-traditional approaches to health. Other factors I try to remain cognizant of include stress (I practice yoga), overindulgence (particularly of alcohol, though this one is pretty much taking care of itself - I simply can’t party like I used to), and getting enough rest (which means more rather than less these days).

While physicians know a lot, they don’t know as much as they think they do. The scientific method is but another form of religion, albeit a rather spiritless one. It is a system of belief that needs constant reevaluation. I am certainly not going to remain passive where my health is concerned and let someone else figure it all out or dictate to me what I should be doing just because such-and-such sample of such-and-such study says so. The only validity in health is yourself. Believe otherwise at your own risk.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Going Out With His Cleats On

The Atlanta Braves and Bobby Cox celebrate winning the 2010 NL Wild Card spot on October 3, the last game of the season.

Well, Bobby Cox put himself in a league of his own when the Braves made it into the 2010 NLDS against the Giants. He became the first and only manager of the Top 100(!) winningest managers in baseball history to end his career with a postseason appearance. Talk about going out in style.

But it doesn't really help in the Now. The Now hurts. Four great games in the NLDS against the Giants. Four one-run ballgames. The Braves hurt themselves with shoddy fielding, poor hitting, and even injuries. That has been the story all year but, somehow, the 2010 Atlanta Braves always found a way to come back in the end. Until there was no end to come back from anymore.
Their resiliency was perhaps their most amazing fact. You certainly can't say they did not handle their share of adversity.

Was. Past tense. Because it is over now. A lot of things are over. Cox's last chance at a World Series, the surprising season, his career, the career of Billy Wagner, and possibly even the career of Chipper Jones.

To tell you the truth, at the beginning of the season I thought that if the Braves could somehow make it to the postseason one last time for Cox that would be sweet enough. In reality, though, by the time it actually happened we all hoped for more. I am greedy that way. Just like any other true baseball fan.

The postseason started out with a catchy slogan.
11 for 6. That's 11 wins to a World Championship for Bobby Cox who wears No. 6. It was reflective of a great attitude and a high tribute by the team to their manager.

Game One wasn't much to manage, however.
Tim Lincecum dominated the game. 14 strike outs. Come on. No line-up could have hit that guy that night. When a great pitcher has full command of his stuff (like Roy Halladay did with his incredible no-hitter in Philadelphia's NLDS Game One against Cincinnati) nothing else matters much. Pitching can dictate everything. Well, almost. Actually a botched call by an umpire contributed to the Giant's only run. But, that's the way baseball works.

Lincecum's performance overshadowed a very good one by the Braves' Derek Lowe, who
dominated the National League in September and is no small reason the Braves made to the play-offs to begin with. Lowe allowed just one run and struck out six over 5 and one-third innings.

Game Two was a more "manageable" situation. Manageable in the fact that there were a lot of decisions to be made in what turned out to be the last victory of Bobby Cox's career.

I have posted a lot about the Braves this season. I have posted all kinds of different ways of looking at and experiencing baseball. The game-by-game level, the live at the ballpark level, the in-game level, the statistics level, the simulation level, etc. Now, let’s zoom in to Game Two for the critical late-inning substitution level of the game. This is how baseball works at this level.

It is the bottom of the tenth inning. The Braves decided to bring in Troy Glaus after his pinch-hit appearance yielded nothing in the top of the inning. He entered playing third base. The Braves moved Omar Infante to second base. Little decisions can have major results. An extra-inning play-off game is always more tense.

Bobby Cox was already thrown out ages ago, back in the second inning. That was only the third time Cox had been ejected from a postseason game. To go with an all-time record 158 ejections in the regular season (161 total, one short of a complete season). He was screaming at the same stupid umpire that called Giants rookie Buster Posey safe in Game One. Bobby continued to manage the game remotely.

So, the Braves took out Brooks Conrad and placed Glaus at third. Glaus played two-thirds of the season as the Braves everyday first baseman.
He had a monster six weeks in May and June that helped Atlanta move into first place. But, then he went cold. Did nothing. Got bad knees.
Had to play third at AAA Gwinnett on a rehab assignment. So, here he comes into an extra-inning play-off game in a position he pretty much hasn't played regularly since 2008.

The Giants wisely decide to bunt with Edgar Renteria. Glaus falls down trying to make the play. Billy Wagner tried to field the bunt himself, unfortunately, and hurt himself, though he didn’t tell anyone. On the next pitch, the batter luckily bounces the ball directly back to Wagner. Wagner throws him out but then falls to his knees in pain. A torn left oblique. His career might be over. Baseball can be so tragic.

The Braves bring in Kyle Farnsworth who is the wildest pitcher in our bullpen. He is either unhittable or he walks everybody. Farnsworth proceeds to hit the first batter he faces then he walks the next, loading the bases with only one out, a lucky out recorded by the now departed Billy Wagner. Wagner couldn't move, if that ball is hit two feet either way he can't catch it. Who knows what happens then.

At the moment, however, Farnsworth has the Braves in a major jam. A fly ball scores the runner at third base and the game is over. The Giants win. They take a 2-0 game lead in the NLDS before the series heads back to Atlanta.

But, that’s not what happened. Because this is the way baseball works. Instead, Farnsworth gets his shit together and induces a ground ball to Troy Glaus. Glaus could go home with the throw to get the out at the plate but he instinctively decides to attempt to
turn a double-play and end the inning. He fires to Omar Infante. The throw is a little much toward center field and Infante has to reach way out to make the catch but manages to keep his foot on the bag. Infante then bounces way beyond the slide of the Giant runner and fires a strike to Derreck Lee at first base. Lee pumps his fist in the air. The double-play not only keeps the Giants from scoring, it ends the inning.

What gets overlooked here is the great play by Infante turning the double-play on a less than perfect throw by Glaus. Having Infante there (one of the best infielders in baseball) ended the tenth inning and set up
Rick Ankeil’s dramatic home run in the top of the eleventh. If Infante doesn't manage Glaus' throw then a run scores and the Giants win. Glaus went for it all and made it. In that moment Infante very much made Ankeil’s home run possible.

But, that moment could have played out a lot differently all the way around. This is how baseball works. Cox could have decided to leave Infante at third and Conrad at second. Troy Glaus sits on the bench after failing to do anything as a pinch hitter. Renteria probably never bunts at all now. Infante is at third. No reason to. So, he hits away. Wagner pitches to him without ever having to charge for a bunt. Wagner doesn’t tear his oblique. The Braves win the game anyway. There never was a double-play to turn because no batter reached base. Wagner slams the door as he had just done in my presence at Turner Field on October 3. With strikeouts.

But, that’s not what happened. The Braves won the game but they’ve lost Billy Wagner. They come back to Atlanta with the series tied but the turning of the double-play that actually saved them might be only the lucky result of an unlucky decision. If Infante stays at third Wagner probably doesn’t get hurt.

But, we live in the Now. The what-ifs are only an interesting side-effect of the game that plays out in space for real. The Braves won Game Two. They lost Billy Wagner. Cox is having to throw the entire bench into this postseason. So many key players are missing. Chipper Jones. Martin Prado. Jair Jurrjens. Now Wagner. Only two Braves players in the field were in the opening day lineup. Bobby has a different team in October than he had in April. He has to manage in the Now.

On to Game Three. A horribly painful experience. The Braves once more cannot seem to hit the pitching of a Giants starter.
Jonathan Sanchez strikes out 11 batters. Jason Heyward still has no hits for the series. Come on guys. Hit the damn ball! We’re back to the same ol’ same ol’ combo of very little hitting (batting .165 as a team so far in the series) and making errors. Still, we manage to keep the game close. Hudson does a gutsy job of pitching but leaves the game trailing 1-0.

Eric Hinske's dramatic two-run homer seems to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. On comes our closer to future, rookie Craig Kimbrell, who suddenly (because of the loss of Billy Wagner) is the closer of the Now. He gets two outs while walking a batter. He has two-strikes on Freddy Sanchez. The Braves are one strike away from taking a 2-1 lead with a game at home tomorrow night to win the NLDS.

Only that didn't happen. This is the way baseball works. Sanchez connects for a two-out, two-strike bouncer up the middle for a hit. Then Cox calls for a leftie-leftie match-up, which Mike Dunn loses to the Giants’ main RBI guy Aubrey Huff and the game is tied. Then Peter Moylan comes in a gets a sharply hit ground ball to Brooks Conrad that
goes right between his legs. Giants win 3-2. I am in a stunned state of sad silence.

Conrad set a record for most errors in an LDS. The one between his legs should have ended the inning with a 2-2 tie. Everybody is talking about a Braves bullpen meltdown. That's not the case. The Giants did not rip the ball anywhere except for the one between Conrad’s legs. If Conrad cleanly plays the grounder the bleeding is stopped. Except for dominant strikeout pitchers (like Wagner) bullpens are only as good as their defense.

Bobby Cox summed it up very honestly and professionally in the postgame conference. "We're not the best team in baseball. But we can win games and we can compete against any (team) but, we can't afford to make mistakes."

Game Four. Cox has really no choice but to take Conrad out of the line-up. He’s become a head case defensively by now. Infante moves to second and Glaus, weak knees and all, will have to play third base. We just don’t have a lot of depth with Chipper and Prado both out. Cox shuffles his line-up around. Moves the hitless Jason Heyward down to batting sixth (he would have two hits this game) and inserts Matt Diaz batting second.

The game itself was another tug of war.
Lowe pitched even better than in Game One. The Braves had a couple of big hits including a solo home run by all-star Brian McCann to give the Braves a 2-1 lead.

Then came what was perhaps Cox's biggest management decision of the series. In the seventh inning the Giants had runners at first and second with one out. Bobby Cox came out of the dugout but
decided to leave Lowe in after talking to his pitcher. Lowe walked the next batter. Long-story short, the Giants went on to score two runs and take a 3-2 lead.

Cox managed to the bitter end. Every Braves position player made it into some part of some game in this series. He called on AAA call-up
Diory Hernandez to play third base as part of a double switch that brought relief pitcher Jonny Venters into the game while replacing Glaus. When Eric Hinske walked in the bottom of the ninth inning, Cox called upon pitcher Tim Hudson to pinch run in case the Braves could bat him around.

But that didn’t happen. Brain Wilson knuckled down and secured
a tight 3-2 win for the Giants. They advance. For Cox it’s all over.

Afterwards, Turner Field is chanting "Bob-bee! Bob-bee!" So, Cox returns after a moment to the field to tip his hat to the sell-out crowd. Then something rather remarkable happens. The Giants, who are rightfully celebrating on the field, stop and
start applauding Cox. I'm not sure anything like that has ever happened before.

Then came the matter of Cox's final, emotional press conference. I've never seen him get choked up like that before. I can't watch it without tearing up a bit.

Bobby Cox was, to my knowledge, the only manager in baseball that wore actual metal cleats in the dugout just like any player would. He said he just felt more comfortable wearing them with the uniform. He was always known as "a player's manager." Part of that was shown in the decision to talk to Lowe about whether or not to stay in the game instead of going to the bullpen. He was open to what his pitcher had to say. Should he have listened? Tactically, probably not.

But, it's not always about stats and pitch counts. Sometimes it is about how do you feel? What does your gut say? Bobby Cox managed with both his head and his heart. He was as knowledgeable and analytical as anyone. He was fiery and more passionate than most managers. So, in the end, he managed with his heart. He made mistakes. Yet, in doing so, he inspired a team that, by his own admission, "was not the best in baseball." And that team responded with scrappy play and last gasp wins all through the 2010 season.

In the last game of the last postseason of Bobby Cox he threw everything he had at the Giants. He used 19 of 25 players including every position player on the roster. Even Brooks Conrad. This was not an act of desperation. It was a tribute to how much he trusted each of his players for any given situation. It was the kind of attitude that allowed the 2010 spirit of resiliency to flourish in Atlanta.

So, while it is sad that this is the end I choose not to remember Bobby Cox tipping his cap for the final time in his last defeat, both to the Braves fans and the Giants team. I choose instead to remember the image of him in a difficult to find photo that captures his last great moment of triumph on October 3 after Jennifer and I had already made it back to our home from the game. That's the pic at the top of this post scanned from the sports page of a local paper.

Bobby is on the shoulders of his players. They are carrying him, elated, punching the air with "number one" signs. If they were catchers those would be calls for a fastball. Cox is posed like the Pope giving a blessing with his right hand. He his obviously happy. Champaign is spewing in an arch over his head. And he has cleats on.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Play (Fall) Ball!

Former Atlanta Braves pitching coach great "Rockin'" Leo Mazzone and me before the start of Bobby Cox's final regular season game today.

Well, it wasn't exactly the poetry I'd hoped for, but a win is a win. The Atlanta Braves faced a determined, red-hot Philadelphia Phillies team today and beat them 8-7. With some help from the San Francisco Giants, Bobby Cox now has one last go at the postseason to cap off his great managerial career.

Now we have to go thank the Giants by beating them in San Francisco
this coming Thursday.

A few games ago Cox got
his 2500th career win, a milestone only three other managers have ever reached in baseball history. But, while posterity might remember that stat more than our by-the-skin-of-our-teeth victory today, I'm sure right now making it to the postseason again means more to Bobby, the team, the Braves fans, and certainly to me.

Jennifer and I were there along with our 'Dillo friends Mark and Eileen, Brian and Diane. You might recall we had it all planned out back in the summer at Swan Cabin. Little did we know then how critical this game would be for the 2010 season.

It was a nail biter. A great game to see live. Turner Field was sold out. (The Braves set a three-game series attendance record for Atlanta this weekend.) The fans were on their feet much of time. The noise rivalled that of a college football game. It was a great deal of fun for the first game I've been to in Atlanta in several seasons.

In recent years, I have been content to check out the Rome Braves for my live baseball experience fix. But, since it was Cox's final season, I really wanted to pay him tribute.

Well, it turns out the the "official" ceremony was held Saturday. But that game really sucked. It was looking like we might be swept by the Phillies for the second consecutive series against them and possibly be eliminated from the play-offs entirely. It was much better to be there today for the win.

Fall is my favorite time of the year. I love the cool, crisp, clear sunny days. The past few days have been exactly that way. Just marvelous weather. And plenty of ball games to go with it.

I'm not talking football here. And not just the Braves either. My daughter's softball team had a great game last Thursday, beating a cross-town rival 4-2 in extra innings. She played a good right field and had two hits, driving in the game-winning run while later coming around to score the insurance run.

As you might know by now, I am a vociferous ball fan. What's the use of going to a game and not yell? Hell, I yell at the TV or radio or internet during a game. I don't throw things as much as I used to though. Growing up I guess.

So, Thursday's game made me a bit hoarse the next day. I had Friday to recover before the big Region softball tournament started on Saturday. Again, she played well, with three doubles and an RBI over two games. So, by the time we went to the Braves game today my voice was not 100%.

It didn't matter. I yelled anyway. The Braves scoring 8 runs was certainly something to holler about. The 53,000-plus other fans there seemed to think so as well. The noise level was, at times, deafening. But, then the Phillies came charging back. They are so hot right now, no lead is safe. Finally, Billy Wagner came in and struck out the last four Philly batters of the game to close the door. Hard. Each strike out was a frenzied affair of celebration.

I like to get to the ball park early. Usually there is plenty of time to walk around the stadium. Take it all in before the rush of the crowd. Not so today. The gates opened at 11 a.m. We were there shortly thereafter and the entrance to Turner Field was already packed with activity.

African percussion music greeted us. It was like a carnival. There was a long line waiting for autographs by noteworthy Braves from past seasons: Javy Lopez, Chris Chambliss, and Pete Smith. While walking around Jennifer and I stumbled upon Leo Mazzone, who was very friendly and chatty. To say the atmosphere was "electric" is not overstating things.

The most notable difference between a minor league game and a major league game is the sheer size and magnitude of things. I love minor league baseball for its purity. When you go to a major league game it is much more of an "event," especially when as much is on the line as it was today.

Turner Field is steeped in baseball history, almost like a museum as you walk to your seats. There are various plaques and displays everywhere, not to mention all the great stuff inside the Braves Museum and Hall of Fame located there. Jennifer insisted that I take her pic (see left) to give some scale to the display honoring Otis Nixon for what every true Braves fan knows as "The Catch."

We met up with our friends outside the isle to our seats which were excellent, located just to the left of the Phillies dugout, with a great view of the field and of the inside of the Braves dugout as well. Out in the grass of center field was a huge No. 6 in honor of Bobby. I was wearing my own Cox jersey in the spirit of the day.

It was still about an hour before the game started. Plenty of time for several beers, lots of conversation, jokes, trivia. Talking to the strangers around us as if we all knew each other. As long as the language is baseball you really don't need to know anything more about your neighbors in the stands. We are all best buddies for the next couple of hours, never to see each other again. It has been that way all my life.

Once the game starts, however, I'm not interested in all the bullshit. I focus. (See pic of me at left. Game face mode "on".) We are here for a reason. I grow quiet unless I need to rant at an umpire or scream in joy at some play. I hate having to explain or discuss anything unless it's between innings. I clap very loud. Jennifer decided to sit next to Brian, who snuck in some rum for her cokes. Diane sat next to me. She's a real trooper and knows how to enjoy a game. Jennifer got pretty wasted, but what's new? :)

I prefer to get a nice beer buzz before the first pitch and then sober up during the game. In today's case the game itself became quite sobering as the Phillies charged back late after being down 8-2. Our mood became dampened a bit when it got to 8-7. But, Wagner got us out of our funk by becoming unhittable, especially in the ninth inning.

When I go to a softball game, my daughter thinks I am obnoxious, although the coaches and players seem to like it. I deliberately try to get into the opposing pitcher's head. Sometimes I succeed. It's fun. I never call out any names or numbers though. I keep the comments to a "general" nature. (Unless the ump can't call strikes.)

When I go to a game in Rome, I'm never out-yelled. Everyone knows I'm there. But, today in Atlanta I yelled as loud as I could and I couldn't even hear myself. It was an ocean of noise and it felt great. Nothing surpasses a packed major league stadium romping and rocking with a bit of momentum behind it. This is, of course, another aspect of baseball. One I haven't really posted about before. The live-in-the-moment-with-the-wicked-crowd aspect.

Being with some of the 'Dillos (we are rarely all in one place) is always fun. But, throw in about 52,994 significant others, a bit of history, winning a game, and making the play-offs kind of takes what happened today way beyond fun. We were high-fiving and high-tening (which is kind of passe, I guess) each other and some of the lesser known fans around us. A memorable day to what I hope is the beginning of a drive to the World Series.

Although to tell you the truth I'm not sure anyone can beat the Phillies. But, who knows? Baseball is a streaky sport. Teams often get hot and cold in the blink of an eye.

My voice is shot. My daughter plays two more tournament games tomorrow night. I'm not sure what her schedule is if her team keeps winning after that. And this coming Thursday it will be time to roar against the Giants. Will my voice be ready? It's a nice problem to have.

It's all about the Fall Ball baby! Woooohooooo!!

Congratulations to Bobby Cox.

The Bravo-Dillos. Jennifer and me in front. Brian, Diane, Eileen, and Mark in back. Across Turner Field is the Chop Shop and several thousand friends for the day.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Channeling Le Noise

Neil Young’s latest record, Le Noise, has been playing in my ears a lot over the past few days. It was released on September 28.

Neil, of course, is brilliant. I’m not sure this particular CD is going to impress the listening market any more than Fork in the Road did. You just don’t hear that many tunes on Pandora or whatever that consist of only unaccompanied amped-up electric guitar and solo vocals. This is Neil on his own terms, experimental, not giving a damn if anyone listens.

Which, of course, is exactly what rusties love and worship.

This album is a true collaboration. Neil ruled the roost, as usual, but his creativity was aggressively handled by renown producer Daniel Lanois. Though the sound and feel is definitely Neil, there is plenty of soundboard mixing and effects by Lanois. The CD is definitely a mutual effort.

Having seen Neil live in this format back in May (see May 30 post) I am familiar with the material he was considering for Le Noise. I also watched Lanois on youtube before the CD’s release. He mentions listening to Neil and suggesting that he stay away from the new material that didn’t seem to Lanois to be what was truly inside Neil at the time of the recording.

As a result, two new songs he performed live in May are not recorded on Le Noise. They are replaced by songs he apparently wrote between May and whenever he recorded (and videoed) Le Noise at Lanois’ Californian home during four nights around a full moon this past summer.

Neil prefers to record on full moons. It’s just a thing he has.

It is fitting that Neil is solo here. These are all intimate songs with a hard edge, a touch of anger, crowned with love, as strange as that probably sounds. The record is a listening sensation. Neil solo. Heavily electric and powerful.

Walk with Me was the encore of his live performance in May. It begins this CD and definitely sets the bar pretty high for whatever follows. It is one of the album’s more approachable songs, perhaps, for the non-rustie. Not that Neil plays it safe by any means. But, it is basic (as in fundamental, recognized) classic rock.

Hitchhiker, later on, at least reaches the same height in Neil’s musical exploration. After many years, this tune is finally recorded in an angry, desperate voice depicting the autobiographical, evolutionary drug habit that the song is about. This song’s title is the sub-theme of the still on-going Twisted Road Tour. The program book I bought has a “hitchhiker” rendering on the cover and there were hitchhiker t-shirts for sale. On the CD it is raw power.

The other electric songs on the album are new for me, perhaps written (or at least preferred) under Lanois’ guidance. It is rare for Neil to surrender so much control. Perhaps only with CSNY has he ever been this open to following the muse of another artist.

Sign of Love is a heavy, slow rocker. The sound on this one just builds upon itself, creating a wall of loudness that engulfs you. Someone’s Gonna Rescue You is one of those Neil tunes that I didn’t notice so much at first. But, having listened to the record now a dozen times or more (it is only 38 minutes in length), I now find it to be one of the album’s best tunes. It bounces along with a constant, strong rhythm. Neil’s voice makes me think of him back on is very first solo album in 1969. Angry World is, for me, the weak link on the album. Lanois improves it with his mix of it, which is not bad, just not particularly noteworthy compared with the other efforts presented here. Rumblin’ is an exact description of how Neil plays the White Falcon, the instrument of choice (Old Black makes onlt a limited appearance on this release) on this song and the album as a whole. A very nice grooving tune.

There are two acoustic songs on the CD. Both are sonic wonders. Both were performed at the Fox in May. Peaceful Valley Boulevard was my favorite of the new material presented live at the concert. It isn’t my favorite song on Le Noise, but it is nevertheless a powerful one, and by far the longest song on the record. The sound of Neil playing a Guild guitar introduced to him and specially modfied by Lanois is very sophisticated and satisfying. Almost a folksy jazz. Appropriately, Lanois says this record "takes the acoustic guitar to a new level." It was this guitar Neil played at the Fox in May and I recall at the time thinking I'd never seen it before. It is a Lanois influence and it gives a truly distinctive, marvelous sound.

Love and War is a remarkable song, almost a Spanish ballad. The lyrics are Neil’s best on the album. There is so much contrasting, conflicted imagery and poetry here. Neil opens up here showing us a profound depth to his intimate self. Lanois appropriately does almost nothing sonically to this song. He leaves this one alone, allowing the space of the house in which it was recorded to cradle it. (Lanois’ house features a huge, designed cavity up the middle of its three stories that was originally meant as a huge “pipe” for an organ that no longer functions. The amps and Neil are facing the cavity and the sound is recorded out of it.) This one needs nothing but its own longing and compassion.

I have to say some favorable things about Lanois. I usually don’t mention producers on albums I write about. Recently, Neil’s long-time producer died. It is interesting to me that Neil immediately turned to a famous, kind of maverick producer. It shows a lot of strength on Neil’s part, and some ability to accept qualified guidance.

Lanois permeates this album, track by track. He directed what material to include. He features a certain wizardry with many interesting and actually very entertaining additions and effects (multi-layered, surgically removed, modfied and replaced sound fragments played or sung by Neil) from the studio. Lanois makes his art well-known in a way probably no other producer ever has with Neil. I think his success in getting Neil to agree to change the title of the CD from “Twisted Road” (the name of his current tour) to Le Noise might be a bit of arrogance but it also merely matches Neil’s own infamous quest for artistic control. Lanois is a worthy collaborator and has caused this Neil record to be distinctively satisfying.

Although some have complained about Le Noise, most critics seem to appreciate it. Like I said, I’m not sure how popular the record will be in the long-run but, as of this post, it is #2 on amazon’s sales chart in the rock and pop categories. Strong initial sales. For me, Le Noise is surprisingly worthy. Not as good as Chrome Dreams II overall, but different, bolder, and rewards repeated enjoyment.

Neil, always dabbling in film, has release a "movie" of the new material. You can see it on youtube here.

Living beyond 50 with new Neil. Life is good. I am appreciative of what he has done for Jennifer and me. Another spot of mutual intensity.