Tennis

There was a time in my life, not insignificant, when tennis occupied a place of prestige. During the summer, I would wake up, eat breakfast, and run to the tennis courts just a few blocks from my childhood home. Not much can compare with the sound of the opening of a new can of tennis balls on an early morning summer day. I would buy new balls every few weeks just to hear that sound, and to smell the scent of the three vacuum packed balls (green, never any other color). There was always something promising in the opening of a new can of balls, as if it afforded me a chance, finally, to be better at the game.

My first tennis partner was my brother, who, although a bit younger than me, was possibly a better tennis player. He had the strangest serve, one that was, at least for me, unreturnable. He was able to serve a curve ball, if such a thing is possible. His serve would send the ball spiraling slowly onto my side of the court, and I would almost always fail to return. Nothing angered me more at the time, and I remember the two of us having explosive arguments about the rules of the game. It was not uncommon for us to come to blows, leaving us both in the worst of moods for hours. Occasionally I would win a game, even a set, but I really had to work for the win. We would play for hours, take a break, then play again later that afternoon.

As I got older and my game evolved, my regular tennis partner became my oldest and best friend. He was also a good player for me, as we hovered around the same level. By this time, we were both over 21 years of age, so we would play a few sets then set out for Carnsie’s Irish Pub to split a pitcher or two of beer, maybe add some wings. As we got older the sets became fewer and the number of pitchers seemed to increase. One of the last times I remember playing him was the morning after a hellish rainstorm. We arrived at the court to find the fence locked. I climbed and jumped over. While waiting I went to my side of the court and started bouncing the balls. Dave quickly climbed the fence, jumped, and slipped on the wet grass, falling hard. I could tell immediately that he had hurt himself, but our relationship being what it was, laughed and pointed out his fall. He finally got up, hobbled over to his side of the court and beat me two sets to zero. Later that day he went to the doctor only to discover that he had broken his tailbone. I was beat by a tennis partner with a literal broken ass. It was not my best performance, but it was my most humiliating defeat.

It’s been about twenty years since I’ve picked up a tennis racket. I’ve always missed the game, but life seemed to get busier as I got older, so there was no time to play with regularity. Now I have a fifteen year old son and a ten year old daughter, and I am trying to get them interested in the sport. When my wife and I approached them about the possibility of taking tennis lessons they were not totally against the suggestion—a positive sign in our house. So, this summer, in part to celebrate my reaching 50 years of age, I’m going to once again pick up a tennis racket ad play with my family. Only this time I hope no one breaks his ass on the court.

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Liner Notes

It has been quite some time since I purchased a physical CD or vinyl album. It’s been over two decades since I purchased a cassette tape. We won’t even mention 8-track. Needless to say, the space in my home once occupied by CDs and albums has been almost entirely eliminated. During my last move I donated nearly all of my remaining CDs to Goodwill, keeping just my Miles Davis collection, some special edition live work, as well as some others that have a certain sentimental value. I used to keep my collection of Beatles CDs carefully stored, but with the amount of remastering taking place, and a new edition of a Beatles album every other year it seems (most recently the re-issue of the White Album), I no longer find the need to buy the physical CDs. The same can be said of Pink Floyd, who have put out nearly half a dozen versions of The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, an album I first had in 1979 when it was originally released. I can recall spending countless hours examining Gerald Scarfe’s artwork and reading the liner notes while listening to the album. These days, it’s much more convenient to download the album or track from various digital services. But this comes at a price. First and foremost, the sound quality is never good when one downloads an album or song. Second, the almost complete neglect of artwork and liner notes from a position of significance.

I don’t miss owning physical CDs, a sentiment that is completely alien to me when it comes to books. CDs populate one’s physical space in ways that books don’t. With the advent of digital music, I’ve been able to listen to much more music than I had when albums came in a physical format. I’ve stopped listening to radio entirely, so I am for the most part ignorant of who is or isn’t popular these days. I don’t collect vinyl, so there is no reason for me to free up space in a backroom or garage or basement for the hundreds of records, even though I do believe that nothing compares to the sound of a vinyl record. To date there are over 9,000 songs on my computer and my smart phone, or 61.72 GB. This is extraordinary to me. To think how much space this would take up in the more traditional sense is astounding.

Having said that, I do miss artwork and liner notes that accompanied albums. Much has been written concerning the fall of album artwork, so I won’t go into that here other than to say that an album’s cover is reproduced so insignificantly on a smartphone, or even a computer, that it’s easy to give the artwork just a passing glance. My experience with Pink Floyd’s The Wall would doubtless have been much different without the full-size LP art. Moreover, it’s hard for me to imagine the impact Bitches Brew by Miles Davis without the significant and iconic cover painted by Mati Klarwein. However, since I’ve started downloading music digitally, I have lost the sense of what goes into making an album. I believe that my first introduction to poetry came from reading song lyrics while listening along to whatever album I had at the time. Moreover, I was always interested in discovering who wrote what, as well as finding out the names of the musicians. I wonder if today’s youth even know what Lennon-McCartney means. I would spend a significant amount of time reading through the liner notes of each new album I bought. I was interested in knowing not only the names of the songwriters and the musicians, but I was interested in finding out where the music was recorded, who mixed the album, and who did the artwork. It seems to me that this aspect of music is missing from the musical experience today.

I am happy to free up the space in my home that was once occupied by CDs and vinyl, if not for anything else, it will provide me with more space for books. However, listening to music seems to have become much more disposable. Before streaming services, we had to purchase an entire album if we liked one song (45s disappeared long ago, but I remember them fondly from my youth), therefore limiting our exposure to music because of limited money in which to purchase albums. My most recent purchase was Mark Knopfler’s Down the Road Wherever. I love the album, but other than Knopfler, I have no idea who plays on it, where it was recorded, or by whom the album was mixed and produced.

Coffee and Cake

“The Past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
–L. P. Hartley

When I was a kid I can remember clearly that whenever we had someone stop by our house (we always called it “company” in those days) my mother would serve coffee and some kind of cake or sweet, but never candy, unless it was the holidays and we had an abundance of those long, striped ribbons of confectionery goodness. She learned this type of hospitality from my paternal grandmother who always had cake or cookies, always homemade and always fresh. Whenever we had company over, whether it was announced or not, coffee and cake became a ritual of hospitality that seems to have been forgotten today. There was something more formal about the coffee and cake service, a service that has been replaced now by a much less formal, and one could argue, less caloric intake.

The first thing I remember when we had company is that the coffee pot would come out. My family called it the percolator on account of its way of brewing coffee and never the coffee pot or coffee machine. It seemed to take a long time from start to finish to make a pot of coffee in those days. Our CorningWare percolator was of medium size and light green or pea green in color. I used to love to watch my mother make coffee (I do not recall ever seeing my father do this until much later when I was an adult and we switched to a more modern drip-coffee machine or the fast and efficient Keurig they have now). The best part was when she plugged the machine in and I would sit and watch the small clear plastic or glass capsule-like tube at the top begin to bubble with the hot water. The sound of percolating coffee is still one of those sounds that I associate most closely with my childhood. It’s strange, but I have no memory of the smell of coffee brewing from these machines; all of my memories of the coffee percolator are visual. The coffee was always served in china cups complete with a saucer to place one’s spoon on after sugar or milk (but more likely a cold bottle of Half and Half) after stirring those additives into the coffee. If I remember correctly, no one in my family drank their coffee black like I have always done. Moreover, in those days my mother always drank hot tea, never coffee. She became a coffee-addict much later in life.

When we had cake, it was always a sheet cake and more often than not a chocolate cake with Cool Whip for icing that we placed in the refrigerator before and after serving. This type of cake is ubiquitous in my childhood memories, and when I make it for my own family today it seems to stay in the refrigerator a little longer than it did when I was a kid. When I eat it now I do not experience a flood of memories rushing back to me. It’s not like Proust’s madeleine, but it’s more of a sad reminder that the person I used to be has passed on, or has vanished into the person I am now. The other type of dessert served was a particular favorite in my family: my grandmother’s custard pie. This was also in a “sheet” version, rather than a typical round pie. I, myself, never cared for this, but it was a hit with my parents, as well as my aunts and uncles.

Now that I am an adult and have my own family and home, whenever we have company I do not offer coffee and cake, but a beer, a glass of wine, or something stronger. My sense of hospitality revolves around alcohol, and has for some time. This does not mean that I do not offer my guests coffee, I always do, but as an afterthought, or if the visitor is a non-drinker, or after we have had dinner. I also own my own percolator now, but it’s different from the one we had in my childhood home. My percolator is the Italian-made mocha express by Bialetti. It works the same way as the percolators from my childhood, but this one is steel and serves espresso rather than Maxwell House or Folgers. The coffee I prefer now is also more sophisticated. No more Maxwell House for me. Instead, I drink LavAzza or pods from my Nespresso at home. When I’m out, I always try to stop by the independent coffee houses. In Salisbury, Maryland, where I currently live, that means Rise Up, an excellent café and coffee roaster.

I wonder if society is somehow less sophisticated without a coffee and cake service. A few years ago, I was in Budapest, and while there I tried to visit as many coffee houses as I could. Each time I would also order a pastry to go with my coffee. It’s only now that I think this might have had something to do with my childhood, and being so far from home (although Budapest is in Europe, it has a very different feel for me from the other countries I’ve visited in the western part of that continent, especially its café society) I was attempting to reach for something familiar, something safe, despite its existence far down the corridors of my memory. Nevertheless, it’s always coffee that seems to bring me home.

Pavese at the Trident

I saw a man at the Trident Bookstore on Newbury Street yesterday who looked a lot like Cesare Pavese, but without the glasses. He was wearing a dark colored suit, open at the colIar with no tie. I attempted to get a closer look, but the bookstore was packed, and people kept bumping into me, knocking me about. I stopped and picked up a book at random to browse through, while trying not to look as if I were staring at what I thought was an hallucination. He was sitting at the counter, hunched over an open laptop computer. He was clearly intent on whatever it was he was reading. He looked serious and forlorn.

Those of us who read are often, I suspect, are haunted by those authors who have come to occupy a special place in our lives, like those lost loves of youth. In fact, this type of haunting happens to me quite often. I will be standing in a particular place at a particular time and will feel a pull from somewhere. My eyes will glance around and come to rest on the apparition. For me, those apparitions are almost always authors. Sometimes they linger, other times their presence is more ephemeral. What is certain to me is that the apparition always results in the fecundity that comes from reading, and reading fiction in particular.

So I stood there, gazing at who I thought was Pavese sitting at the lunch counter in the Trident Bookstore. After a few minutes I left, but the thought of Pavese, sitting there, looking so forlorn, has stayed with me. Perhaps this is also what it means to be haunted.

The Routine of Daily Life

I’ve spent the last few months reading Claudio Magris. Most recently, I’ve immersed myself in his latest collection of travel writing, Journeying, skillfully translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel. Magris is an author of some renown in Europe, but, like countless other authors who do not write in English, is still relatively unknown in the United States. He is a writer whose name always seems to come up when the betting on the next Nobel for Literature begins, even if the odds are largely against him. Still, he is a heavyweight in European letters who deserves a larger audience in the United States. I’ll come back to Magris.

Because of a change in employment, I am moving my family from New Hampshire to Maryland. In the space of a week we sold our townhouse and purchased a new house in Maryland. Needless to say, it was one hell of a week. We placed our New Hampshire house on the market late Friday evening, and by the end of the day on the following Monday we accepted an offer. Over the weekend we had to keep the house in pristine condition while strangers came in and out. It’s a strange thing to know that someone you do not know is moving through your home, looking in your closets and cabinets, inspecting all of the things that physically make up a home. It has been more than a little disconcerting for me in that I value my privacy to the extreme. Nevertheless, if one wants to sell one’s home, one must make certain sacrifices that are, at the very least, uncomfortable and intrusive.

We sold our home before we could get down to Maryland to look at new places. However, we all (my children were especially keen on searching for homes on the internet) spent much of our time looking at houses online. It’s both strange and wonderful to have so much information at our fingertips. I looked at dozens of houses and each one brought with it something special. With each house I viewed I tried to picture what it would look like with us in it. Would we be comfortable? Would we be able to transfer our lives as seamlessly as possible into a new dwelling? Of course, there would be a period of adjustment, but I wanted to make as smooth a transition as possible. But I also wanted something different. I had grown bored with my surroundings in New Hampshire, especially professionally, and needed a change.

I suspect that most people would not equate change with the concept of home. In fact, home would seem to connote the very opposite: a regulated, comfortable and secure (secure in the sense of unchanging) environment. But for me, home has always been a fluid concept.

All of which brings me back to Magris. Somewhere early in his book he mentions that our concepts of home are entangled in routine. It’s the practice of routine that defines and sets the parameters of what it means to be at home in the world. As I thought about this, combined with the experience of moving for the first time in over a decade, I found myself agreeing with him. We lose ourselves in the routines of daily life, and through those routines we begin to stake out a claim. Home and its connotations are different for most people, yet we continue to force our dominate conception (in the case of the United States its wrapped up in the idea of home ownership, of property, but this also goes back to the political ideology of John Locke) on others, just as we force our way of life on others. Home, in other words, is conformity. Well, I’ve never been a conformist, and I not only balk at, but am repelled by the dominant concepts of what it means to be at home in the world, and I’ve been exploring this topic for the last twenty years.

As my family continues to pack up our “stuff,” we feel more and more unhomed. I tell myself that this is one of the richest experiences I can give my children, and so far, they seem to be taking it all in stride. When we finally come to settle in our new home, it may take a few years before that familiar feeling of being at home sets in. But until then, I plan to revel in the fecundity of movement, of being anything but at rest.

I Will Write No More Forever: On Philip Roth

This is a post I first published a few years ago, but I’ve just added a postscript on Roth’s passing.

The big news on Twitter last Friday, at least on the Twitter feeds that I subscribe to, was the announcement that Philip Roth admitted to not having written anything in three years and announced that he was retiring from writing. This came as a shock, since Roth is a prolific writer with 37 books to his name, and a career that spans over 50 years. Roth, who is 78, could still have a great deal of material to mine as he ascends into old age. I can still see the picture of Samuel Beckett at 80 looking serious, if more than a bit worn out, with the fire still burning him. One does not think of old age as a barrier to the writer’s craft. I am troubled by Roth’s announcement of his retirement, at least in part because I never thought of writing as a “job” one retires from.

“To tell you the truth, I’m done,” Roth said in an interview with French magazine Les Inrocks (www.lesinrocks.com) last month. More shocking still is the fact that it has taken so long for the word of Roth’s retirement to leak. This is further proof that the United States does not view its writers with the same respect and honor that Europe does. Roth has won nearly every major literary prize imaginable, with the exception of the one that really matters: the Nobel Prize for Literature. Roth has long been considered the favorite to win that prize and return it to the American experience, but now this looks even more unlikely. He is the last among only a handful of mid to late twentieth century writers who emerged from the shadows of Hemingway’s lost generation. He is one of only a few of the American “giants” left on the literary scene.

Roth was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1933 and his work has primarily examined the Jewish-American experience. Much of his work describes and explores the sexual and sensual unrest of his characters as they navigate their way through the labyrinths of modern life in the United States. His first book, Goodbye, Columbus is a collection of short stories that won the National Book Award in 1960. However, his breakthrough book came in 1969 (the year I was born) with Portnoy’s Complaint, a novel I’ve never been able to get through.

This news begs the question: do we really need another Philip Roth novel? In the Les Inrocks piece Roth himself asks this questions and concludes that we do not. The last several novels Roth has published have been okay at best, often reading like they were written in haste. Yet, when Roth publishes a new novel it becomes an event and I run out to purchase it with the expectation that this one will be a return to form. Nevertheless, I am more than a little saddened by the fact that he may never again publish another novel. But it only occurs to me as I write this that I might not be as sorry to see Roth cease to publish as I am mourning an imminent end to a stage or movement in American literature. With Roth’s exit from the stage there are only a few giants left: Pynchon, McCarthy, Oates, Morrison, perhaps a few more.

Most of what I know of the Jewish-American experience comes from writers like Philip Roth. Even though I’m not Jewish, I did grow up in a Catholic Italian-American household, and there are a lot of similarities, staring with the crushing guilt placed upon us by our parents. In my limited experience I cannot help but think that a Catholic male’s relationship with is mother is a lot like that of a Jewish male’s. Roth opened a world for me that might have been otherwise closed, and for that I’m thankful.

I suspect that after this announcement Roth’s back catalogue will see a bump in sales, and that is a good thing, because when he’s good, he’s really good.

Postscript: May 22, 2018

The news came late last night that Philip Roth died in a Manhattan hospital of congestive heart failure at the age of 85. There are no words to describe the hole this puts in the world of letters, especially American literature. Roth is now ineligible to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, a prize he should have won, but then so should have a lot of writers. Without having won Roth joins a perhaps more prestigious company of writers that includes James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Italo Calvino, Elsa Morante, and Isak Dinesen, to name only a few. Roth won nearly every other literary prize, and his reputation as a giant of American letters is firmly established. Still, awarding the Nobel to someone like Bob Dylan over Roth is disappointing to say the least.

Roth’s writing was intense and sexually charged. He mapped out a twentieth century Jewishness that was a unique blend of old and new world, yet still regionally (New Jersey and New York) situated. Of all Roth’s books I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot of them, my favorite is The Ghost Writer, first published by FSG in 1979. It’s the first novel to feature Roth’s alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman. It’s a short novel and can be consumed in the course of an afternoon, but all of Roth’s themes are there.

The passing of Philip Roth should send us back to his oeuvre, in search of the meanings we found during our first readings, but also new meanings, new memories, especially in light of the #metoo movement. I suspect that many of Roth’s characters would come under fire for their bad behavior. Still, on the other side of life, which is where fiction resides, we can walk with these characters for a while, safe in knowing that they can only harm us in our waking dreams. I’m proud to have lived in the same period as Philip Roth, and although I never met him, I feel as if I’ve walked with him for miles.

Sinner

“Bless me father, for I have sinned.”

This phrase is one that has haunted me most of my life. As a child, I went through a long phase where I thought that I had to constantly ask for God’s forgiveness and beg for his love. This is one of the tenets of the Catholic faith in which I was brought up: we are born in sin and must seek, for the rest of our lives, to free ourselves from its chains. Of course, failure to do so would result in an eternity of suffering in that most frightening of places known as Hell. What I realized from a very early age, and what was instilled in me by the Catholic faith, is that despite the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, we drag our sins around with us, like Marley’s ghost drags around his own might chain in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

But our own chain of sin does not carry with it the romantic notions that Marley’s does. Indeed, what is most frightening about sin as conceptualized by the Catholic faith is that we are all in free-fall toward Hell with only prayers to help stop that fall. The concept of Purgatory as a waiting station on the way to Heaven does little to add to comfort to the sinners seeking absolution. Yet, as Dante so persuasively conceptualized, the triad of Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell is a strong motivator for keeping people in line. Our conceptions of the triad come to us mostly, I suspect, through Dante, but even Dante seems to suggest that these conceptions are fictional instruments of coercion. For Dante, Hell might have been his exile from Florence, or perhaps more accurately, his “exile” from his beloved Beatrice. Nevertheless, our concepts of the triad have literary origins just as our concepts of Satan via Milton:

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With the loss of Eden
(Paradise Lost, Book I, lines 1-4)

The reader sympathizes with Milton’s Satan, and he is certainly more interesting that Milton’s egotistical God. Nevertheless, Milton and Dante have done a great deal to modernize our conceptions of good and evil, God and Satan, and sin.

I was proud to make my first communion, that rite of passage so essential to the psychology of a Catholic youth. It was one station on the way to adulthood. But let me pause over this for a moment: that rite of passage is bound to sin. Before we can take communion, we must enter the confessional, get on our knees, and ask for God’s forgiveness. If we are all sinners seeking forgiveness from a largely absent God, then what about those who commit real sins, like murder? Are all sins equal in the eyes of God? Does murder in war somehow excuse the murderer? And what about the murderee? Does he or she obtain absolution on account of the way mortal life ended? I recall vividly memories of stepping into the confessional booth and giving the priest the litany of my sins for that week. This caused a great deal of anxiety in me from an early age. For almost the entire week I would try to think up something worthy of sin. I thought that the greater the sin the greater the forgiveness, thus highlighting my plight in the eyes of God. I would make up sins that I claimed to have committed, mostly because I had nothing to say. I never believed I had sinned until I started to pay attention to what the priests and nuns would tell us. The basic message to my childhood mind was that I was a born sinner and in sin I existed. It is not hyperbolic to say that I was traumatized. I thought that I would never reach Heaven and see my relatives again. Most important, I believed that once I died I would be forever plunged into a terrible and frightening abyss.

When decades later I had my own children, my wife and I decided to opt out of having our children go through the trauma of first confession and first communion. I reject the concept that we are all born sinners and should seek the forgiveness of God. In fact, I now believe, as I stand on the precipice of fifty years of age, that if there is a God it is He that should be asking for our forgiveness. I think we’ve had it wrong for two thousand years: Jesus Christ was not the son of God, but some charismatic teacher who preached a lifestyle that today’s “Christians” largely ignore. Moreover, I find it reprehensible that a God would sacrifice His son for others. I would never sacrifice my children for anyone or anything. But as a myth? Well, it makes a pretty good story, but the New Testament (which to my mind is not as good as the Old Testament) is not nearly as good a story as the ones created by Dante and Milton.

If we are all sinners, and God has indeed made us in his own image, then the concept of sin must come from him. Perhaps the sin God has committed, and continues to commit, is one of ego: “Thou shall have no other gods before me.” Well, to declare that takes one hell of an ego.

Humans do not need God or gods, but God or the gods do indeed need us, as the ancient Greeks has clearly demonstrated. Without believers, a god ceases to exist. Perhaps this is exactly why we have the concept of sin: the priests and the priestesses who served as custodians to the gods needed something to keep their own positions relevant, and what better way to keep the masses in line than creating the concept of sin. I don’t believe in fate, but I do believe that we are all responsible for our actions, be it individually or collectively. Perhaps we should start to grow up by finally doing away with this archaic and misleading concept of sin.