Sunday, October 28, 2012

Obama or Romney: No better than Hoover

For weeks I have been telling Jennifer, friends, family, work colleagues, whoever will listen that the winner of the 2012 Presidential Election will go down in history as the worst president since Herbert Hoover.

This has not overly troubled me. I will not vote for either Obama or Romney this time around. I am from a Red State. It will go for Romney in a big way so my little vote doesn't count in the grand scheme of a close election race.

In fact, the only way to make my vote truly count is to vote my conscience - which is more than a lot of people will do, voters trapped in the antiquated knee-jerk two-party system that has brought this country to the brink of economic ruin. My conscience tells me to vote libertarian. So, my vote will be for Gary Johnson. He at least understands that Romney is "without one molecule of brain." Kudos on that insight.

Don't blame me, etc. when it all turns to crap. Well, technically it is already crap so, don't blame me when it all turns crappier.

It does not make any significant difference whether dry, academic Barack Obama or plastic, disingenuous Mitt Romney wins the presidency for the next four years. They are both duds, as I have mentioned before.

We are reaching a point where the political habit of kicking the proverbial Can down the road to the next bunch of hapless two-party politicians is a less and less effective delaying action. The Can isn't moving very far when kicked anymore.

Let me run down a short list of forces beyond the federal government's power to control, regardless of who is in office.

There exists a 30-year decline in entrepreneurship. Obviously spanning the influence of both political parties. 
Median income in the US is the lowest it has been since 1995.   Median income for the average male worker has not risen since the 1970's.  Essentially, many of us are living off less than we were making almost 20 years ago.

Perhaps as an adaptation, the next generation of consumers is different from their parents and grandparents. They do not buy large ticket items. They rent and lease and outsource. This is not especially good news for the automotive, housing, or durable goods industries in the coming decades.

We are on the verge of a massive global food crisis in 2013. The cost of grain items is going to rise significantly due to the global drought. Last summer almost 80% of America's farmland was under severe drought conditions.

Are we prepared with strong institutions and great leaders of clear vision when all this shit starts to hit the fan? Uh, no. In fact, what we very clearly have is unprecedented gridlock and polarization in our politics. I do not see how this stiff, stale, and sloppy system can possibly adapt to the requirements of the world at large in crisis.

There's the fiscal cliff, which seems the easiest thing to solve at this point. 
Medicare and Social Security costs are the largest part of the spending. The aging voting population will not tolerate a reduction in their benefits. Yet, this is precisely what must be reduced in order to solve the debt crisis which, by itself, could alter western civilization in the next decade.

As if to underscore this historical perspective, CEOs of eighty major corporations have united their voices in a political message that says, tax us more in addition to cutting spending. This is, of course, the only possible way to solve this mess and it is precisely the only one our polarized two-party system cannot consider. Maybe now they have permission to thanks to these CEOs.

The economy is not going to grow fast. Traditional job creation forces are weak and there is nothing to replace them.12 million jobs promised by Romney are a pipe dream.The fundamental reason is crystal clear and remarkably simple.

All my life I have been trained and felt without hesitation that I should be as productive and as efficient at my job as possible. I manage my department that way because I manage myself that way. At any rate, this means that I can keep the total number of employees required to do the job assigned to me to a minimum.

Multiply this common sense efficiency thousands of times through an entire business culture of productivity and efficiency, in the language - place key performance indicators on a metric of relative value units versus revenue streams where diversity is maximized. In layman's terms, such conditions, over a period of many decades, eventually reduce all profit driven and bureaucratic need for human labor to a minimum.

Now this is no big deal when new markets requiring a surge of human labor are emerging. But when innovation itself becomes stagnant then fewer new markets emerge. Innovation can run scarce either through the weight of regulation, lack of profits, or there can simply be nothing innovative about the market forces in the Now.

At that point, productivity and efficiency outstrip the capacity for innovation. This is our current situation. Our "faltering innovation" is identified in an economic paper published in August by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Placed in large historical context, innovation may have never faced such a challenge in modern times.

The steam engine and the automobile and the telephone and the jet carrier and the building of a national suburbia and the personal computer and the portability of wireless communications leaves labor asking a singular question...

What comes next?

It is only a matter of time until the lack of need for human labor begins to strain the system supporting it. Nothing comes next without innovation.

Neither Obama nor Romney have anything to do with innovation. These are two of the most predictably formula-matic guys in the country, the heads of two vast opposing systems of unimaginative sameness. You can't legislate innovation. It does not fit the legislative agenda. You can perhaps give it thriving government conditions but that does not guarantee innovation will come. It cannot be manufactured it is spontaneous and free.

Innovation is a spirit of culture that transcends politics, yet it remains bound in its economic importance. The possibilities of 3D printing and human biotech are among a handful of forces that might become a thriving market and need more labor. The problem is we must transition from what are essentially construction and administrative labor skills to more sophisticated skills demanded by emerging markets. That seems to be what is happening with "millennials" now emerging as the strongest consumer spending market percentile.

So there's hope. Truly a faith that "progress" continues. The question is does labor itself continue or do more and more citizens fall behind the high-tech economy and whatever comes next?

Whatever the answer to that it is a far, far cry from the political discourse and rhetoric by democrats and republicans this presidential season. The fickleness of innovation, combined with all the other economic and environmental forces at work on the planet today dwarfs the entire presidential process.

In times of great crisis the person at hand meets the hour at hand and deals with it. But sometimes the hour meets us. It rises before us and it is not we who have met it. The hour clutches us and makes us dance to its tune. That is what is about to happen to such woeful duds as Romney and Obama.

It does not seem that QE3 in itself will save Obama. We have gotten two Dow Theory non-confirmations since my post regarding this
The non-confirmation of a Bull Signal is not a positive occurrence. As I mentioned before, we are currently in a Bearish Primary Trend in Dow Theory. The Bear favors Romney.

Can Obama's campaign get the urban vote out? Can Romney manage to counter with a strong showing throughout rural America? These questions will answer this close presidential race. In Ohio and Virginia, the whole course of the election is likely to be decided by whether turnout is better in the cities or in the country. Which party wins will eventually appear to be the loser and will carry the blame in 2013 and beyond when we know what comes next.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

McGovern's Prophetic High Tide

George McGovern died recently at the age of 90. He was a man admired for his gallant idealism. For his symbolism against war. As a vibrant candidate of liberal hope and change who enjoyed strong grass-roots support and perhaps deserved a better memory than his fate of being beaten soundly by Richard Nixon in 1972.

With Nixon's approval rating down to just 25% post-Watergate scandal, it was possible for a majority of Americans to say they would vote for McGovern over Nixon in 1974.  It was in that moment of Watergate and anti-war frustration that liberalism reached its full expression in America, just as it had in the 1930's with the New Deal. The last 50 years, many liberal ideas such as abortion rights, Medicare, feminism, peaceful foreign relations, civil rights, education, environmental protection, and disarmament of nuclear weapons have all become mainstream ideas, though no less controversial. There is a tenuous voting majority to sustain most of these liberal accomplishments even today.

George McGovern changed the Democratic Party by binding delegate apportionment to open primaries and caucuses, not to the workings of various state conventions to "select" (i.e. rig) the delegations. That is a model that is being used by both political parties today. As such, it was probably the most influential moment of McGovern's long political career.

There were other important issues of the day. End the war. Fight poverty. Protect minority rights. Save the planet. McGovern was once a fresh and vibrant part of the national debate. He was respected in the Senate. By both parties. He was a liberal who did not do drugs, nor drink excessively, was essentially upbeat and positive, not full of doom and gloom, not overly academic, plain-spoken, he had always been faithful to his wife, held basic Christian beliefs, was raised as the son of a Methodist minister, and he was a decorated war hero who survived a great amount of enemy fire.  Here was a decent, honest, brave man.

Yet, for all his personable attributes, George McGovern lost in 1972 by one of the widest margins in American history.  An truly ignominious defeat. Almost no one saw McGovern give his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention. Due to scheduling absurdities McGovern did not come on until the wee hours of the morning on the east coast. He lost what would have been a television audience of maybe 60 million Americans. Only about 4 million actually saw the speech at 3AM New York time.

With all the liberal eulogies in the various media (many embedded in the links above) over the past few days due to the death of George McGovern, I became tempted to go back and watch his acceptance speech, since I don't think I have ever seen it before in its entirety. It is a surprisingly good speech. It is interrupted several times by loud, continuous applause. McGovern is no slouch in delivering lines with conviction. Had all 60 million Americans seen that in prime time, well, that is one of the many what-ifs of liberalism.

As was his way, he opened with a bit of humor. I have heavily edited the 30-minute speech for the sake of this post.

"I'm happy to join you in this benediction of our Friday sunrise service."

McGovern then expressed thanks for winning the Democratic Party nomination.

"It is the gift of the most open political process in all of our political history. It is the sweet harvest of the work of tens of thousands of volunteers, young and old alike, literally funded by hundreds of thousands of small contributors in every part of this nation. Those who lingered on the brink of despair only a short time ago have been brought into this campaign heart, hand, head, and soul. And I have been the beneficiary of the most remarkable political organization in the history of this country. It is an organization that gives dramatic proof to the power of love and to a faith that can literally move mountains."

"I believe that American politics will never be quite the same again. We are entering into a period of important and hopeful change in America. A period comparable to those eras that unleashed such remarkable ferment in the period of Jefferson and Jackson and Roosevelt."

McGovern proceeds to recognize all of his challengers individually for the Democratic nomination and speak respectfully of each of them, including George Wallace, who had survived an assassination attempt a few months before.

"And I was as moved as were all of you at the appearance in this convention hall of the Governor of Alabama George Wallace. His votes in the primaries clearly show the depth of discontent in this country. And his courage in the face of pain and adversity is the mark of a man of boundless will."

"We are not conceding a single state to Richard Nixon. Never underestimate the power of Richard Nixon to bring harmony to Democratic ranks. (sustained 22 seconds of applause). He is the unwitting unifier and the fundamental issue of this national campaign. And all of us are going to help him redeem a pledge that he made ten years ago that next year 'you won't have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore.'" (thunderous applause for 20 seconds)

"In scripture and in music to our children we are told 'To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under Heaven.' And for America the time has come at last. I am here as your candidate tonight in large part because during four administrations of both parties a terrible war has been charted behind closed doors. I want those doors opened and I want that war closed." (enthusiastic applause for 20 seconds)

"I have no secret plan for peace. I have a public plan and as one whose heart ached for the past ten years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt the senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day (loud applause for 23 seconds). There will be no more Asian children running in a blaze from bombed out schools. Within 90 days of my inauguration every American soldier and every American prisoner will be out of the jungle and out of their cells and back home in America where they belong." (strong applause)

"We must now show that peace and prosperity can exist side-by-side. National security depends upon schools for our children as well as silos for our missiles. It includes the health of our families as much as the size of our bombs. It depends upon the safety of our streets and the conditions of our cities and not just the engines of war. And if we someday choke on the pollution of our own air there will be little consolation in leaving behind a dying continent ringed in steel. So while protecting ourselves abroad, let us form a more perfect union here at home. This is the time for that task."

"The highest single domestic priority of the next administration will be to assure that every American who is able to work has a job to do. (short applause). That job guarantee will and must depend upon a reinvigorated private economy freed at last from the uncertainties and burdens of war. But it is our firm commitment that whatever employment the private sector does not provide the federal government will either stimulate or provide itself. (short applause) Whatever it takes, this country is going back to work. America cannot exist with most of our people working and paying taxes to support too many others mired in a demeaning and hopeless welfare mess.

"Therefore, we intend to put millions back to work and after that is done we will assure to those unable to work an income fully adequate to a decent life. Now, beyond this, a program to put America back to work means that work must be properly rewarded.

"That means the end of a system of economic controls where labor is depressed but prices and corporate profits run sky-high.

"It means a system of national health insurance so that a worker can afford decent healthcare for himself and his family.

"It means real enforcement of the laws so that the drug racketeers are behind bars and our streets are once again safe for our families.

"And above all, honest work must be rewarded by a fair and just tax system. The tax system today does not reward hard work, it penalizes it. Inherited or invested wealth frequently multiples itself while paying no taxes at all but wages on the assembly line or in farming the land, these hard earned dollars are taxed to the very last penny. There is a depletion allowance for oil wells but no depletion for the farmer who feeds us or the assembly worker who serves us all. But an election year is the people's year to speak and this year the people are going to ensure that the tax system is changed so that work is rewarded and so that those to derive the highest benefits will pay their fair share rather than slipping through the loopholes at the expense of the rest of us.

"So let us stand for justice and jobs and against special privilege and this is the time to stand for those things that are close to the American spirit. We are not content with things as they are. We reject the view of those who say America love it our leave it. We reply let us change it so we will love it the more. (sustained applause)

"It is time to live more with faith and less with fear with an abiding confidence that can sweep away the strongest barriers between us and teach us that we are truly brothers and sisters.

"So join with me in this campaign. From secrecy and deception in high places, come home America. From military spending so wasteful that it weakens our nation, come home America. From the entrenchment of special privilege and tax favoritism, from the waste of idle hands to the joy of useful labor, from the prejudice based upon race and sex, from the loneliness of the aging poor and the despair of the neglected sick, come home America. Come home to affirmation that we have a dream, come home to the conviction that we can move our country forward, come home to the belief that we can seek a newer world, and let us be joyful in the hoped homecoming for this land is your land, this land is my land (quotes Woody Guthrie in full)...this land is made for you and me. (long applause accented by group clapping in rhythm - 36 seconds).

As I mentioned, hardly anyone saw McGovern's "Come Home America" speech. Parts of it seem distant and dated today, all that talk about "love" and being "brothers and sisters". Paying the poor and destitute an allowance for a decent living is certainly far too liberal to be passed today and, indeed, was too liberal an idea even for 1972, contributing to McGovern's historic landslide defeat. But his mention of government "stimulus" is more relevant today than it was then.

Wait. When taken all together the expansion of existing programs and the inclusion of new welfare initiatives since 1972 approaches the ideal of "a decent living" if one factors the collective nature of welfare today, including George W. Bush's Medicare Part D provision. Amnesty was already accomplished in the Carter administration. National health insurance was addressed by Clinton, who faltered, and now is beginning to exist through Obamacare. We are ending all America's foreign wars. Right now, Obama and Romney are debating the very same aspects of taxes as McGovern points to in his speech. The present, separate American economies between working classes and business owners exists, at least, all the way back to Come Home America.

When taken as a whole, the Come Home America speech was a great speech poorly scheduled. But, beyond that, almost everything about the speech is applicable today. Watching this speech in its entirety for the first time I was struck by how prophetic it all is. The major points McGovern makes have either already come to pass since 1972 (becoming an accepted aspect of liberalism) or they have remained fresh and relevant issues, showing the tradition for Obama has clear roots in McGovern.

Last year, McGovern briefly noted his perspective on the Democratic Party and what kind of government the Party stood for. This is a summary of ideals that are rooted in his acceptance speech. George McGovern may be the biggest loser in the history of presidential politics but his vision for the nomination of presidential candidates remains the way both parties do it today and almost everything he advocated in his 1972 Come Home America speech has either come to pass or is being freshly debated. I'd say the jury is still out on what might become of McGovern's 1972 prophecies. It could be he simply saw mega political trends farther than most anyone of his political time. Now wouldn't that be unheard of?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Waging Heavy Peace

Proof of purchase.
Earlier this month Neil Young's autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, came out. It was a quick, easy read when I got around to it. 493 pages. I tore through it as I was finishing up Dhalgren, over the course of about a week and a half.

It is not a traditional autobiography. It is more like a rambling monologue of someone who refuses to logically follow any of the patterns they clearly see in themselves. It sort of starts out in roughly chronological order, but then it veers off in several directions at once, eventually circling back around to some of the many themes Neil shares with the reader. This is almost stream of consciousness writing where Neil mixes in what is happening right now as he writes about all these memories of various times of his past.   Linear time has no meaning in the book.

It is a book that will be most appreciated by Rusties, avid fans of Neil like Jennifer and myself. I'm not sure how much someone only casually interested in Neil will get out of it. He makes no effort to fully explain his life story. He sort of picks events, trends, opinions, interests like colors from an painter's pallet and mixes them on the canvas. You end up with an abstracted self-portrait rather than a photorealistic one.

With that in mind, Neil's conversational style is nevertheless an entertaining read. The autobiography is like an extended talking head video self-interview. He often writes about someone from his past and then shifts perspective to address them directly in his text; hoping life is good for them and that things are working out. These frequent shout-outs to whoever he happens to be writing about reveal the intimacy he has or used to have with dozens of people he mentions, both alive and dead.

The dead are numerous: Danny Whitten, Jack Nitzsche, Nicolette Larson, Bruce Barry, Carrie Snodgrass, long-friend Ben Keith, and Neil's best friend David Briggs, among others. There is a wide wake of death that follows Neil Young and he addresses it throughout his writing. Neil clearly feels the weight of the years and a sense of loss lingers for all his colleagues, employees, and friends that are no longer with us.

Neil doesn't run away from this, but neither does he allow it prevalence in his life. He accepts it as part of his "following the muse" and moves on. The book dwells far more on the creativity that pervades his life. His music. The multitude of his hobbies and interests. His commitment to family and friends.

Neil is not an overly extroverted, sociable guy. He has always associated himself with a huge number of people in his life. But he remains a person who prefers private walks on his Broken Arrow ranch estate, or paddling out in the ocean off his second home in Hawaii. He prefers to tinker with his enormous Lionel train collection, which fills one of the many barns on the ranch. Or toy with the continuation of his massive Archives project or sit in his editing room and continue to fine-tune obscure movies he has directed such as Human Highway. When it comes to writing and performing music, or living with his family, Neil reveals himself to be a much more private person.

Neil has an obsession for sound. All the sound contained in the music. Over the years, with iTunes and MP3s and other digital formats, he bemoans the fact that we are left with about 5% of the music that can actually be heard if it were delivered. CDs are inferior as well, while DVDs and Blu-rays approach the pristine nature of recorded sound that existed when great stereo systems played vinyl records. Still, there is no format available that can deliver the "purity" of musical sound. Neil makes a strong case throughout his autobiography that sound has deteriorated radically over the last 30 years or so. This disturbs him to his core.

Neil wants to save sound itself. So he has invented something he calls PureTone when he starts the book. But it turns out PureTone is already copy-protected so by the end of the book he is advocating the repackaged project called Pono as the future of discerning listeners of recorded music. Almost equal to Neil's passion for quality sound is his love for old cars. The book is filled with cars and car stories, most particularly his work on Lincvolt. But, in order to attempt to impress Henry Ford's great-grandson, who Neil calls a "futurist" still with Ford Motors in some capacity, Neil installs a Pono system in a 1961 Lincoln convertible that he just bought online especially for this purpose.

He hopes having Mr. Ford in a classic Ford car will make a bigger impression when he cranks up the Pono system. Just to show how portable Pono is, Neil plans to take the system out and move over to a modern Ford Focus and repeat the music for Mr. Ford there as well in a matter of minutes. Neil is seeking venture capitalists to help get Pono off the ground. Did his ploy with Mr. Ford work? Well, the book ends before we can learn more. Perhaps Mr. Ford only recently met Neil and Pono, after the publication of the book. Perhaps it never happened at all. That's not the point, really, from the perspective of the autobiography. The chapter is important because of what it reveals about the intensity and commitment to the point of compulsion of Neil himself.

When asked by someone if Pono is meant to "wage war on Apple?" Neil shrugs and answers that he is, rather, "waging heavy peace." The book is enjoyable to a long-time Neil Young fan like myself in many respects. I learned that the original pick-up for Old Black was defective when Neil first got the guitar was so he took it in to a repair shop in Los Angeles. When he went back a few days later the entire store was boarded up and closed. Neil complained about someone stealing his classic guitar pick-up. I also learned that Daniel Lanois, Neil's highly collaborative producer and namesake for his excellent 2010 album, La Noise, almost died in a motorcycle accident in the middle of recording the album at Lanois's home. Recording was delayed for weeks while the producer recovered. Neil was freaking for a moment that yet another sudden death would haunt his recording career.

There are tons of interesting stories and facts like this laying within the winding prose of the book. Neil calls the first CSN album an amazing and "influential" record. He talks about how he feels when he plays with Crazy Horse versus CSNY. There is a chapter devoted to all the different drummers he has performed and recorded with through the years. Neil likes all of them in their own way and rarely is critical of any of them. Neil devotes a chapter to Crazy Horse guitarist Poncho Sampedro's mastery of organic Korean gardening techniques at his private garden in Hawaii. The chapter might seem out of place except it does a great job of revealing to the reader the intimate relationship between Neil and Poncho. Neil calls Stephen Stills a special friend as well and devotes a comparatively long passage of the book to how Stephen and Neil can talk about anything. Of course, his manager Elliot Roberts casts a heavy background presence. Neil discusses everything with Elliott. The two talk 4-5 times a day. His wife of over 30 years, Pegi, is a prevalent topic for special praise and random recollection.

Neil begins the book with an examination of his recent decision to stay sober. He is experiencing a bit of anxiety, however, because he hasn't written any new music since his decision. The reason he is giving up marijuana and alcohol after 40 years of imbibing is that a recent MRI of his brain showed something "fuzzy" in there. Neil's father was afflicted with dementia in his 70's before he died. Neil is afraid he might suffer the same fate. So he decided not to smoke dope or drink anymore.

He writes that his sobriety gives him a different perspective. He has rarely written or performed his music without being at least mildly buzzed. But by the end of the book he has written or composed three CD's worth of material with Crazy Horse. They have set up in one of Neil's barns for weeks on end and are recording what has been and is about to be released in 2012.

It is ironic that a sober Neil ended up writing a double CD entitled, Psychedelic Pill. The album comes out the end of this month and features one track lasting over 27 minutes and two others over 16 minutes each, along with several shorter songs. I look forward to hearing his extended jams with Old Black and the Horse. At 66, Neil Young shows no signs of slowing down with his vast creative energy. I am not sure any other rocker his age has produced so much quality music this late in their career. Neil Young is definitely on a trajectory to burn out rather than fade away. His autobiography brings you some intimate understanding of this man in all his passions and his demons and his ragged glory.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Richter Rising

Clapton's Richter being auctioned last Friday by Sotheby's.
Last Friday, an abstract painting by Gerhard Richter which was owned by Eric Clapton sold at auction for $34 million. This is a record amount for any painting by a living artist. Not even Andy Warhol saw any of his works reach such heights of monetary success.

I have mentioned that Richter is my favorite living painter. His abstracts get most of the publicity these days and not without merit. I was initially drawn to Richter because of the amazing imagery and raw emotion exhibited in his abstracts.

But, there is so much more to Richter. His photography and photorealistic painting is worthy of note. His installations are famous, though I admit most of them do very little for me. His recent stained glass work is pretty incredible, however. Richter is an artistic genius not only for his depth of creativity but for its extraordinary range as well.

The St.Louis Art Museum holds my three favorite Richter abstracts (entitled November, December, and January). Jennifer and I have discussed the possibility of visiting them one day. It would be worth the trip if we can find the time. In the meantime, we hope to return to the High Museum in the next few weeks and see the Richter's on display there again.

It is a sign of the economic times when artwork is seen by the elite as a great investment. Art in general has been fetching enormous sums of money since the Great Recession started. Clapton paid about $3 million for the work in 2001. Not a bad return for a brilliantly painted canvas he got to enjoy for ten years and then make about 1000% ROI on (before Sotheby's commission).

Late note:  It was reported that Clapton actually owns two more Richter's which are part of the same series as the one he sold.  A chance at $60 million more?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Free-Falling Into History

Felix Baumgartner about to jump from the stratosphere.
Felix Baumgartner made history yesterday by jumping (falling?) some 24 miles from the edge of Earth's atmosphere to the eastern desert in New Mexico.  The previous record had been set back in 1960.  The event was another step toward the commercialization of space, being sponsored by Red Bull.  The primary scientific purpose of the jump was to test a pressure suit for future space missions.

The fall lasted about 8 minutes and Baumgartner broke the sound barrier by reaching a maximum descent speed of 834 miles per hour.  He was the first human being to ever break the barrier without the aid of vehicular power.  He also broke the record for flying higher in a balloon than any human in history.  I watched the entire thing live on my iPad.  I was plugged into one of 8 million livestreams watching the event, which was history in and of itself.  You can watch it here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Reading Dhalgren

Recent and current reading.  My original Dhalgren paperback on top of the usual stack of books that always awaits beside my reading chair.  I often read multiple things simultaneously.
I recently finished reading Samuel Delany’s long science-fiction novel Dhalgren for the second time. My first reading was in the early 1980’s, sometime around my college graduation, I think. Back then, it was a challenging read and did not meet my expectations since the narrative was very light on science-fiction, which is what I was predominantly reading at the time.

The novel surprised me on my second reading. I had forgotten almost all of the narrative and this time I read it more as a work of literature than as just a genre book. I found it just as challenging as ever to read but this time it was much more rewarding. The narrative churns in a soup of ambiguity, switching back and forth from third-person to first-person, and the last 100 pages or so contains a sort of novel within the novel where disassociated fragments from a notebook are printed on the same pages with the actual story, giving a cut-and-paste feel that can potentially add to the disorientating effect Delany apparently wants to achieve.

What exactly Dhalgren is “about” is anyone’s guess. What is clear is that this young drifter guy hitchhikes into
a post-apocalyptic city, Bellona. Only, as far as we know, there has not been any apocalypse. The outside world seems fine. It is only once you enter Bellona that time and space seem to change. Streets and buildings are rearranged in different parts of the novel. There are two moons in the sky at night (when you can see them through all the smoke from the various fires in the city) and the Sun is this gigantic swollen ball that takes up a huge part of the sky (burning through all the smoke). Time passes at differing speeds depending on which character’s perspective is being used by the narrative.

The main character suffers from amnesia and cannot remember his name. So, he is referred to throughout the novel as the Kid or Kid or Kidd. He is well-built, lean, wears a boot on one foot, nothing at all on the other, and he looks like he is in his mid-teens but he is actually in his late-twenties. He eventually joins a gang in the city and much of the story is told from the gang's perspective. Whenever Delany shifts into first-person mode, it is always from Kidd's perspective.

This can provide some especially interesting reading because Kidd seems to suffer from schizophrenia and some chapters are written in such a way as to reflect this. So narrative and perspective are radically shifted in parts, though Delany usually returns to a central story that stitches the novel together. It is predominantly about Kid and his notebook and his relationship with Lanya (alone at first) and then with Denny. I accepted the fractured nature of the story this time and I enjoyed the novel more than when I read it in my youth.

The novel is filled with richly poetic passages. Delany demonstrates his prose prowess time and again. Often, but not always, they are the private reflections of Kidd. Here are some examples:

"What is this part of me that lingers to overhear my own conversation? I lie rigid in the rigid circle. It regards me from diametric points, without sex, and wise. We lie in the rigid city, anticipating winds. It circles me, I intimating only by position that it knows more than I want to. There, it makes a gesture too masculine before ecstatic scenery. Here, it suggests femininity, pausing at gore and bone. It dithers and stammers, confronted by love. It bows a blunt, mumbling head before injustice, rage, or even it's like ignorance. Still, I am convinced that at the proper shock, it would turn and call me, using those hermetic syllables I have abandoned on the crags of broken conscience, on the planes of charred consciousness, at the entrance to the ganglia city. And I would raise my head." (page 244)

"Free of name and purpose, what do I gain? I have logic and laughter, but can trust neither my eyes nor my hands. The generous city, city without time, the generous, saprophytic city: it is morning and I miss the clear night. Reality? The only moment I ever close to it was when, on the moonless, New Mexican desert, I looked up at the prickling stars on that hallow, hollow dark. Day? It is beautiful, there, true, fixed in the layered landscape, red, brass, and blue, but it is distorted as distance itself, the real all masked by pale defraction.

"Buildings, bony and cluttered with ornament, hulled with stone at their different heights: window, lintel, cornice and sills patterned the dozen planes. Billows brushed down them, sweeping at dusts they were too insubstantial to move, settled to the pavement and erupted in slow explosions he could see two blocks ahead - but, when he reached, they had disappeared." (pp. 425-426)

"I am limited, finite, and fixed. I am in terror of the infinity before me, having come through the one behind bringing no knowledge I can take on. I commend myself up to what is greater than I, and try to be good. That is wrestling with what I have been given. Do I rage at what I have not? (Is infinity some illusion generated by the way in which time is perceived?). I try to end this pride and rage and commend myself to what is there, instead of illusion. But the veil is the juncture of the perceived and perception. And what in life can rip that? Is the only prayer, then, to live steadily and dully, doing and doubting what the mind demands? I am limited, finite, and fixed. I rage for reason, cry for pity. Do with me what you will." (page 647)

"Sometimes I cannot tell who wrote what. That is upsetting. With some sections, I can remember the place and the time I wrote them, but have no memory of the incidents described. Similarly, other sections refur to things I recall happening to me, but kne/o/w just as well I never wrote out. Then there are pages that, today, I interpret one way with the clear recollection of having interpreted them another at the last re-reading." (page 759)

This last paragraph shows how Delany gradually degrades the narrative late in the novel. The word "refurs" is intentionally spelled wrong. The "know" is fragmented with an "e" marked through on the printed page to signify that the author changed the word from "knew" to the present tense. The consideration of a shift in past and present tense is a common theme through the degradation of the narrative. The "o" is separated out by slashes to indicate the preferred change from the "e".

Delany reminds me of Proust at times not only for his descriptive brilliance but for committing vast stretches of prose to seemingly minor plot matters. For example, about 200 pages of the almost 900 page novel centers around Kidd helping what seems to be an ordinary business-class family (feeling more inconvenienced than trapped or filled with doom while living in this meltdown of a town) move their furniture up a few floors in an upscale (but dilapidated) building. The novel moves like Proust's 200-plus page party section in The Guermantes Way. Only in Dhalgren this doesn't really seem to amount to anything. Delany puts it in apparently for no other reason than to show the passage of time for Kidd inside Bellona. It allows the city to transform around him as the character meets others, has freak-out episodes, and the relationship between Kidd and the notebook, between his experiences and the written words, is solidified.

The most enjoyable part of the novel for me was the depiction of the ménage à trois relationship between the Kid, Lanya, and Denny. I have never read a finer development, detailed interplay, and exploration of such a relationship in all of literature. It is erotic, human, soft, harsh, harmonious, conflicted, funny, mundane, and very tangible in often subtle ways. In fact, the relationship strikes me as being something close to a metaphor for the weird and fluctuating occurrences of Bellona itself. Kidd is bi-sexual and has sex with both Denny (and another male character on occasion) and Lanya.

He more often has sex with Lanya alone, however. The relationship is a complex, free-love, hippie thing, typical of the times Delany wrote the novel - 1969 to 1973. Nevertheless, it is a terrific piece of writing and unmatched in my experience in terms of defining what a relationship of that nature must be like. There are a lot characters having sex with each other and sex is big part of the novel. But, while certainly the hippie dream does not pervade young adults today, the open, wild sex remains highly prevalent. In this regard Dhalgren is perhaps more relevant today than it was in 1975. It is a future-proofed postmodern novel whose relevance only increases with the passage of time.

In addition to the changing nature of time and place inside the city, there are gangs. Some neighborhoods that are under siege with snipers killing people and buildings burning. These passages of Dhalgren read sometimes like a news reports from Syria today. Delaney was writing about another time in American politics when anti-war demonstrations turned violent. But his prose is very relevant today and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this long-forgotten part of the novel. Delany puts you in the streets of armed urban fighting just as vividly as if you were watching
a PBS documentary on the battle for Aleppo.

Equal in importance to the Kid in the story is this mysterious spiral-bound notebook that is given to Kidd shortly after he arrives. This notebook takes up a great deal of the narrative and, indeed, becomes the narrative itself at times toward the end of the novel. The notebook is a character in itself. It shows up in all sorts of conditions, gets passed around between characters, but mostly the Kid writes poems in it. About halfway through the novel a book of poetry by Kidd is published in Bellona and Kidd's creativity becomes a subject of critique in the novel, both among Kid's gang buddies and among a whole cast of characters at a high-brow society party held in honor of the Kid's new work.

The notebook is both a part of the story and the story itself. Passages of the novel turn up inside the notebook. These often represent revisions and corrections and, therefore, something Delany is saying about the writing process itself. It's creative fluctuations, rewritten concepts and dialog, embedded in the novel such that, just as Delany freely shifts from first to third-person, the notebook is an object in the narrative and the container of part of the narrative. I really think this aspect of the novel is fascinating.

Dahlgren is a product of the late-1960’s sexual revolution and drug counterculture movement. Though I believe the novel to be relevant in the Now, it is nevertheless filled with concepts and phrasing that has a nostalgic feel to it today. But, this is true of any other classic work of literature I have read. Moby Dick or War and Peace do not read as if they written today's more sophisticated world. So, this is not a shortcoming. Rather, it places the novel in its proper context, as literature not as just another science-fiction novel. Besides the weirdness of Bellona and a few little pieces of cool weaponry and technology there is nothing sci-fi about the novel.

Dhalgren infamously begins with last few words of the first sentence. The novel ends with the beginning and rest of the first sentence.
The novel ultimately loops around to itself. An important moment in the story comes when the characters read a portion of the notebook that reads like the last sentence in the novel. (page 292) So it is in the notebook that Delany first completes his clever sentence strategy. Only on the final page is it repeated. This is just one example of how the narrative spills over to the notebook and back into the story. For full effect, though, I am going to cut out the entire novel except for this one sentence but I am going to present it as Delany does to the reader.

"to wound the autumnal city. Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland and into the hills, I have come"

It strikes me as a work about the process of writing itself. About how objects and characters drift and change, are struck-out and re-written by every author. Although the author is not present in the story and the toying with the narrative is not overtly stated, the narrative does change frequently as if it were being rewritten even as you read the story. This invests the reader as something more than a witness to the narrative. The reader becomes intermingled with the narrative, which is what any great work should accomplish anyway. I did not appreciate this when I read the book in my twenties. Now, however, I would rank Delany’s effort up there with any other great piece of literature. Though not an easy read, it is a tour de force in its own distinctive right and solidly recommended.

Friday, October 5, 2012

"Thank you for teaching me the game."

My daughter gave me this gift on Senior Night 2012.
You can’t really measure something like exposing your child to competitive sports (as opposed to mere recreational sports) in dollars and cents. The value to their growing minds and bodies, to their physical development and to their ability to perform under the pressure or rebound from adversity goes far beyond the sport itself.

But you can try. In my case, about 8 years ago my daughter was into soccer, machine-pitch baseball, basketball, and tennis. Soon her focused narrowed. Soccer went by the way-side first. Then basketball. Then the baseball became fast-pitch softball. Then tennis switched from playing doubles to playing singles.

A lot of money could be spent on any of these sports, especially if you play – as my daughter did for several seasons – travel ball. There are professional lessons, learning mechanics that I cannot teach. The travel, occasional lodging, and food adds up quickly. You have to factor in the expense of some injuries. Going to and from the never-ending stream of practices. New cleats and “real” tennis shoes every year. New uniforms. New rackets. New bats and gloves. It easily adds up to thousands of dollars. And it adds up to a lot of time waiting around too. Waiting for the next game or match. Waiting for the practice to end. Time is money…and boredom.

This can pay-off, of course, if your daughter is immensely talented and can land a college scholarship somewhere. But, that doesn’t happen for most girls. And, except for perhaps a chance at tennis, it won’t happen for my daughter. So, the pay-off ends up being more about building character and preparing your child for the competitive world and the challenges of just making it through daily life when errors are made and things don’t always work out.

For my daughter, the pay-off will reside in the things she has learned without even realizing she has learned them; just because she was exposed to game situations when her specific actions mattered. She can carry those moments all her life. The pay-off is also the memories. State tournaments, region tournaments, specific big games or matches against rival opponents that are part of a school meta-narrative that transcends my daughter’s participation but in which she deeply immersed herself for a time.

Last night, on the verge of going to the state tournament, my daughter’s team was eliminated 1-0 with the tying run on third base. It was a close-fought game and we certainly had our chances.  My daughter's last hit was a nice bunt single.  She made a couple of good running catches in right field.

Her softball career is now over. She still has tennis season to look forward to – another year of playing at the number one singles level, which she is really better at than she is at softball. It makes me nostalgic about all those hours she and I spent in the back yard throwing the ball around, working on over the shoulder catches and making accurate throws.

So, now is when you look back. Three seasons stand out in my mind. In sixth grade she made all-stars as an outfielder and scored the winning run in a tight 7-6 region championship decision against an arch rival from a near-by county. We got to go to the state tournament afterwards and finished in third place. Her first taste of “the big win” whetted her appetite for more ball.

In eighth grade she was the MVP of the team, playing left field. Girls develop at different rates of speed, of course, and she was really at the peak of her abilities compared with other girls. Not extraordinarily talented by any means. But solid. She could hit. She could catch. She rarely made an error. She batted clean-up and drove in a ton of runs.

Her sophomore year she was red-hot with the bat – at both ends of the season. The team finished second in a large pre-season region tournament due in no small part to her fielding and surprising power with the bat. She had several doubles and drove in a lot of runs. She threw a runner out a third and had two hits with a double and two RBIs against a cross-county rival that we had never beaten before in high school softball. It was a rival that was used to going to state regularly and they all had a bit too much attitude for our tastes, which made the extra-inning 8-7 victory all the sweeter. My daughter and her teammates were ecstatic and still talk about that win to this day.

Then the season started and she went totally mental. She couldn’t hit anything, struck out a lot, and came home crying, threatening to quit when her painfully whimpish bat went stone cold. It was the first true slump of her career. She kept at it though and by region tournament time she was red-hot again. Blasting the ball. The team went far but fell just short of going to state, similarly to this past season.

The next two seasons taught me something about the game. My daughter had lackluster years. Moments of greatness were fewer and farther between. It was not a source of friction between us. I knew she probably wasn’t going to play softball in college. This was the end of the road and her best seasons were behind her. So, what I learned was to treasure the moment as it happens. Treasure the greatness when it occurs – because no one knows about tomorrow.

A recent, final home game was “Senior Night” and my daughter was honored along with five of her fellow classmates. She got a hit. Made a great catch in right field. We won the game 7-1. Everybody contributed. But, this has just been a so-so season and even my daughter has said more than once at the dinner table “I suck at hitting.” Well, not in the grand scheme of things she doesn’t. But, this season hasn’t been her best.

I appreciate her staying with it though. She never complained this season, as she has in years past, about practice going on forever, or the long road trips to schools far away, or what so-and-so said, or about the coaches. This season, despite her comparative offensive whimpiness, she has been upbeat, showing a level of maturity I haven’t seen before.

It is easy to stay up when you’re hot. It takes character and perspective to stay positive when things are not going so great. That stuff is more important than winning, especially by the time you are my age. It is the root benefit of any competitive sport for a young person. The winning eventually stops. The character built by the sport (or not built depending on the parent/student relationship) is all that remains.

Anyway, all this was swimming around in my mind after the Senior Night ceremonies. Jennifer and I joined the other parents out on the field with our daughters. Jennifer got a bouquet of roses and I got something in a gift bag. I only took it out later, and reading it in a singular moment brought many feelings and memories and revisited emotions back to me through the vast span of faceless time. “You’re going to cry,” my daughter warned me before Senior Night. I doubted her.

But, I did tear up. And I wasn’t the only dad who did. She gave me a softball with her thoughts about her own softball journey that stretched back as far as anything I have mentioned in this post. This was her perspective. This was what she had to say:

Dear Daddy,

Thank you for all your love and support throughout the years. Thank you for teaching me how to catch and throw a softball. Thank you for pushing me to my limits even when I complained. Thank you for staying by me throughout all my strikeouts and my bad plays. Thank you for teaching me the game.

I would have never became the athlete that I am today without you. I'm so thankful to have you as my dad, my rock. I'm truly blessed with the BEST Dad! Even though I never could run right, I think you did a pretty good job teaching me everything. I'll always be your baby girl, I love you so much. Thank you for always being there for me.

Love always,

So, softball is over now. We fell one win short (again) of going to state. Of course, when you are winning you want it to go on forever and nothing seems as important as winning the next game. But, the time comes, as it does for every athlete sooner or later, when there is no next game, then the winning part pales in comparison to the stuff that stays with you – in this case the little, neatly handwritten words that grace a softball offered as a gift from her heart to mine.

Yes, you will always be my baby girl.

If I taught you the game, then you taught me how to be the fan, and the father.  I will treasure that forever.

My daughter's last base hit.  A bunt single.  She caught the third baseman napping.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Thank You Chipper Jones

Chipper Jones was on third base a few games ago, having doubled to lead-off the bottom of the ninth inning, when a walk-off home run by Freddie Freeman put him and the Braves into the playoffs.  It was only the seventh walk-off home run to put a team in the postseason in major league history.  The large Atlanta crowd was definitely into the moment as well.
On Saturday the baseball sub-cult of my 'Dillo friends went to see Chipper Jones play his next to last regular season home game. Jones went 0-4 but his glove is still quick at third base. He made two or three fine defensive plays.

My most distant memory of Chipper Jones is of the night the Braves won the 1995 World Championship. I have the moment on VHS in my library. Someday I must digitize all those Braves tapes. Abundant hours of them. Anyway, that night long ago Chipper was a kid and he looked like one. He was away from the celebration on the field and pointing into the crowd at someone, maybe his parents.

Chipper had a pretty decent year that first full season in his career. He appeared in 140 games and hit .265, certainly nothing noteworthy there, but for the fact that he was a switch-hitter - a potentially large advantage in baseball as he could always bat the same side of the plate as the pitcher's arm. Just like Mickey Mantle.

The impressive stuff is when you see what he did with that .265 average. That was 185 hits that showed solid power and productivity. 30 home runs. 110 RBIs. Anytime any player has a season with numbers like that you take note of him. 32 doubles. 5 triples. Yes, Chipper had some speed about him too. He stole 14 bases that season. In 1999 Chipper stole his career high 25 bases. He blasted a career high 45 home runs that year as well.

The rare thing about Chipper Jones is that he got better. And then he stayed better.

In 2001 he batted a (then) career high .330. An outstanding average for any baseball season. That was his fourth season in a row to bat above .300, the traditional average accredited to exceptional play. .327 in 2002, .305 in 2004. But in 2005 he hit only .248, showing how difficult it can be for any great hitter to hit a baseball consistently.

Chipper adjusted. That's another thing that makes him great - longevity and adjustments. In this respect he reminds me of Henry Aaron, among other baseball stars. In 2006 he batted .324, in 2007 it was .337. Then in Chipper's 2008 season he flirted with the Shangri-la of baseball batting, a season hitting 400. He was over .400 for many weeks of that season but fell short, leading all of baseball in hitting that year at an exceptional .364.

I thought the Chipper Jones story might have ended a couple of years ago. But, once again, Chipper emerged with resilience. This season Chipper will fall a bit short of the .300 average. He is batting .286 going in to today's play. But looking at his entire, extensive career, he batted .303 with over 2700 hits, while walking exactly 100 times more than he struck out, 1509 times versus 1409. All of those stats (and more I don't mention) are Hall-of-Fame caliber.

I am a lucky man in many ways, a fortunate man. One small way I am lucky is to have witnessed the entire career of Chipper Jones.

Jennifer and I drove to the game early to take in a bit of batting practice. I like to get there before all the cars and walk around on the old grounds of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The section of the old stadium's wall where Aaron hit his famous 715th home run is preserved in its exact location. The part of the parking lot that used to be the infield is bricked-in rather than paved. Everything is in its exact position as it was April 8, 1974; even the pitching rubber and the location of home plate. Simple replica bronzes mark these spots. I noticed this year that Gene Garber has signed the rubber. I watched him save a lot of games for the Braves. Home plate is now signed by Dale Murphy himself. We all enjoyed our time in the parking lot before it filled up.

Me, Jennifer, Mark, and Eileen at the historic spot of number 715.  Clint took this photo.  Brian, Diane, and Ron joined us right at game time.
Gene Garber's autograph.  He saved many games from this exact location. 
Dale Murphy's autography where home plate is marked in the parking lot.
The view from home plat down the third base line.  In the distance you see the section of wall where Aaron hit the famous home run that surpassed the great Babe Ruth.
I bought these ear rings for Jennifer in 1991.  They are still chopping.
Murphy is a good comparison with Chipper Jones. Dale Murphy enjoyed a long, mostly successful career. He is the only player in baseball history to win back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards (1982-1983) and not be in the Hall-of-Fame. The Atlanta Braves retired his number, 3, in 1994. But Murphy probably won't ever make the Hall-of-Fame because, unlike Chipper Jones, Murphy did not stay better, he got worse in his last years. He batted .228 in 1989, his last season as a Brave. Murphy had 2111 hits in his career, certainly a respectable number. But his .265 lifetime batting average is rather bland. He was a great guy to watch though. I am lucky to have seen him play his entire career as well, though that was certainly in another era of baseball.

Anyway, our 'Dillo friends joined Jennifer and me for hot dogs and beer, exchanging baseball stories and discussing the full range of our usual eclectic conversation subjects from the latest iPhone to enjoyable books we'd just read. A few joined us right at game time so that eight of us got to watch the game together.  It was a lot of fun, being loud and outrageous.  Mark did a great job getting our seats.  We were on the third base line, up a level, able to see into the Braves dugout; a nice backdrop of the crowd makes the angle all the better I think.

We stood and cheered loudly each time Chipper Jones came to the plate. 48,000 fans gave a standing ovation with each appearance. In his last at bat of the game he tipped his batting helmet to us. It was grand. Then we watched him ground out to first.

They gave us all battery powered electric tomahawks when we arrived at the carnival atmosphere that immerses the gates of Turner Field. During the game whenever the Braves would get something going offensively, we'd all stand up and do the chop with the tomahawks, which were cool giveaways. They had a push-button on the bottom. There were three LED lights inside the styrofoam souvenir. Each push of the button made the three bulbs light up in different patterns - throb, pulsate, glow, or simply all lights stay on. Each fan had it set to their personal choosing and it was cool to look around and see all these flashing tomahawks chopping. It reminded me of the wristband I got at the Coldplay concert earlier this year.

The Braves beat the New York Mets 2-0 Saturday night. We all had a blast at the game. Manager Fredi Gonzalez sent in Craig Kimbrel to pitch in the ninth inning. Kimbrel is enjoying a future Hall-of-Fame type start to his young career. He struck out the last two batters he faced to the enormous roar of the near-capacity crowd. His 98 MPH fastball almost always means lights-out for the opposing team. It was his 41st save this season with four games left to play.

Next Friday the Braves will most likely host the St. Louis Cardinals in Atlanta for something new to major league baseball this year. The one-game play-off between two wild card teams. I don't really like the new system. I generally have great distaste for anything significantly changing the landscape of baseball. I am a baseball purist more so than in almost any other aspect of my life. Nevertheless, I don't control the path of the game. I'm glad Chipper Jones will end his career in the postseason. Just as I was two years ago when Bobby Cox ended his that way. Only I'd like to see Chipper get a little deeper into it than Bobby did. One last World Series appearance would be very sweet indeed.

Late Note: On Sunday the Braves and Kris Medlen made major league history.  In beating the New York Mets 6-2 the team won their 23rd consecutive game when Medlen was the starting pitcher.  This surpassed the New York Yankees and the great Whitey Ford who won 22 straight in the early 1950's.  Awesome stuff.

Very Late Note:  The Braves lost an ugly, controversial wild card game to the St. Louis Cardinals 6-3.  Three errors by Atlanta reflected a sloppy game.  Chipper got a broken bat single in the last at-bat of his career.  Kris Medlin took the loss, ending his history making streak at 23 games.  Blah.