Sunday, March 25, 2012


THE ART OF FIELDING had a remarkable history, told in an interesting article by the author's friend, Keith Gessen, in the October, 2011 issue of Vanity Fair.  The American rights to the novel were finally sold for an advance of $665,000.

They gave cover designer Keith Hayes an order to come up with something that expressed the warmth of the novel but did not directly involve baseball.  See what you think.
 Hayes brought in covers that were rejected again and again.  They finally accepted one that showed a man walking away through a golden field, but when they showed it to the author, he wanted it changed again.

Do you agree that the cover they finally settled on was the best one?  I'm not sure why I like it, but I do.  Perhaps red, white, and blue is suggestive of the American pastime.  Perhaps the great white script set jauntily in the deep navy blue field suggests something nautical, Moby Dick-like, slanted as if the title was riding a wave.

Of course, the novel has many references to Herman Melville and Moby Dick.  The name of the baseball team is the Harpooners, and their baseball uniforms have navy pinstripes.  One of the main players is named Starblind, a counterpoint to Starbuck in the classic novel.  There are lots of other literary allusions, some of them very subtle.

I much prefer my own design with the woman holding the book looking out across the baseball field, but probably showing anything zen on the cover was considered as taboo as a baseball glove by the marketing department.  They did permit a subliminal "zen" in the Jonathan Franzen name at the bottom, the blurb underscored by a red marlinspike for emphasis.

Whatever the reason, the dustjacket now fits the content of the book for this reader.  Like a glove.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

THE ART OF FIELDING: A ZEN ANALYSIS, and the Zen of Baseball

Awareness looking out at nothingness through a baseball diamond.

This last week I discussed George Sheehan's theory of defense and character in conjunction with The Odyssey, Homer's classic.  Today I'd like to extend that discussion with another book on defense, Chad Harbach's THE ART OF FIELDING.

Baseball has its human universals, and the best baseball novelists sometimes use classic novels as referents to anchor their works.  The prime example is David James Duncan who used Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov so well in The Brothers K.  Michael Bishop used Mary Shelly's Frankenstein in his rather brilliant baseball novel, Brittle Innings.

Harbach, too, has his classic allusions in here to Herman Melville's Moby Dick, and also to Eugen Herrigel's Zen In The Art of Archery, John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, D. T. Suzuki's Essays On Zen Buddhism, among several others.

THE ART OF FIELDING is a charming work, beautifully written.  It made my best-of books last year, as baseball novel of its year.  Among other things, it is a coming-of-age tale, a college novel, and a stylized Zen parable, the protagonist keeping a book within the book as a guide, Aparicio Rodriguiz's "The Art of Fielding," reciting its precepts as tale unwinds:

“The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond.”

“To field a ground ball must be considered a generous act and an act of comprehension.  One moves not against the ball but with it.  Bad fielders stab at the ball like an enemy.  This is antagonism.  The true fielder lets the path of the ball become his own path, thereby comprehending the ball and dissipating the self, which is the source of all suffering and poor defense.”

“There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being. . .Do not confuse the first and third stages.  Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.”

“Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does.”

All of which, well disguised, go into the book's design.  There are three stages of the book, roughly as in the zen-like adage above.  First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.  Or, there is the mindless grace of offense, then troubled defense, then the informed grace of offense again.

Henry's grace of play sends him into an ascending arc toward baseball stardom.  The trouble comes suddenly when he kills Owen, sometimes known as the Buddha, with an errant throw.  Owen only seems dead but he is still alive, of course, because you cannot kill the Buddha.

The karma resulting from this causes all of the main characters to back up and take stock.  You might say they go on defense, fielding what life has thrown at them in an effort to salvage relationships.  They come face-to-face with loss, with their temporal state, with ultimate nothingness.  In the end, they arrive at a more mindful level of grace.

You might read the entire book and see very little Zen in it, but it's there all right.  Pella says she wants the Chinese character for nothing tattooed on her ass.  Henry's name for his glove is Zero.  He finally reaches the brink of awareness on page 421:  "Every day was just that:  a day, a blank, a nothing, in which you had to invent yourself and your friendship from scratch.  The weight of everything you'd ever done was nothing.  It could all vanish.  Just like this."

Baseball, like reading about baseball, is a pastime, a subliminal denial of death.  The difference between the first and third stages is an awareness of the temporal nature of existence that cannot be learned from a book or taught in school.  It can only be gleaned from experience and an inexpressible individual epiphany, a personal glimpse of transcendence.  Which is why Henry goes on about the inadequacy of words.

Harbach is not the first to connect a stylized zen with baseball.  George Plimpton, with the help of Pulitzer Prize-winner and buddhist Peter Matthiessen, wrote a comic baseball novel with a buddhist protagonist (The Curious Case of Sidd Finch, 1987).  David James Duncan wrote "The Mickey Mantle Koan."

In Baseball and Philosophy: Thinking Ouside the Batter's Box (edited by Eric Bronson, 2004), there are several essays that touch on buddhist thought, including Gregory Bassham's "The Zen of Hitting."  And just last year, former slugger Shawn Green came out with The Way of Baseball:  Finding Stillness at 95 MPH.

Addendum:  A note about nothingness.

Nothingness is not as simple as some people seem to think it is.  In the abstract, there is a calculated nothing, then there is nothing beyond the laws of math, nothing with the zero removed.  Also, if a void contains a potential or an algorithm for something, it is not nothing.

I believe that the spiritual is something other than the material, that the spiritual is something else, bits of spirit having a physical material experience, alien here.  I might be wrong about this, but I don't believe that the evangelical atheists have it nailed down either.

While I'm always interested in reading anything new by such true believer atheists/materialists as Lawrence M. Krauss, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens, thus far I find all of their arguments either unconvincing or irrelevant, a preaching to the choir--unless you happen to be a fundamentalist.  And I don't think that fundamentalists bother to read them.

As I've said many times, I don't agree with the buddhists about suffering either.  As Marcus Aurelius pointed out, life is a gift and we should all live it as if it were a thing borrowed, and we ought to be willing at any time to give it back, saying--here, I thank you for this life which has been in my possession.

Love, empathy, kindness, and gratitude.  The way to live.

Monday, March 19, 2012

William Walsh's UNKNOWN ARTS, James Joyce, Post-St. Patrick's Day Leftovers

Link to the soundtrack of William Walsh's UNKNOWN ARTS.

Fictional works inspired by the works of James Joyce abound, but this may be one of the more interesting I've seen lately.

Link to Garrison's Keillor's comparison of St. Patrick's Day and St. Olaf's Day.

Use the other links to move around his site and find the music on the show.  Irish music, it is, and simply gorgeous.

This weekend on A Prairie Home Companion, an Irish Stew for all the fair haired Emerald Islanders in celebration of the feast of St. Patrick. The late Frank McCourt reads from "Angela's Ashes," Billy Collins reads "Afternoon with Irish Cows," and Karan Casey sings a song she learned from Frank Harte called "The Brown and Yellow Ale." Martin Sheen appears in The Lives of the Cowboys as James Joyce, Sean O'Driscoll sings "Farewell to Ballyshanny," and Altan performs "I Wish My Love Was a Red Red Rose." Plus, what "Irishness" means to Lake Wobegoners and grab the hankie for dear old "Danny Boy."

Listen to Pat Donohue's "Irish Blues" at this link.

Saturday, my wife made Irish stew and a low-fat Shamrock Creme Pie.  We're both part-Irish along several lines, but it goes back a long, long way.  Like most Americans whose descendants were here before the American Revolution, we descend from many different ethnic groups.

One of my ancestors was the Irish Indian trader, John Owens, who, according to Benjamin Franklin's Gazette, married a daughter of Tanacharisson, the Seneca Half-King--that is, the commercial diplomat for the western Iroquois in the 1750s.

Owens was a remarkable man and left a small journal with expanded accounts of the credit extended to the Native Americans he dealt with, first in western Pennsylvania and later at the lower Shawnee town.  His papers reveal an irreverent sense of humor too, to judge by the names he called his customers.  And in his journal he referred to his neighbors, the Eckerlin Brothers, the notorious frontier evangelists, as "the goddamned holy brothers."

I don't think I look particularly Irish myself, but my wife, whose picture adorns this blog profile, certainly does.  I look more like the horse she's talking to.  Anyway, we love Irish music and Irish literature, and thus we are grateful for the chance to celebrate this holiday.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

March Madness, The Odyssey, and St. Patrick's Day

Restless warm fronts have tangled with the cold fronts, producing storms that have swept through the Midwest.  March is madness, its ides a jostling parade honoring the Roman god of war, full of wind and sudden violence.

March is the month when people walk around bent over, as if in italics, holding on to their wraps and their wits, lest they be carried away.

St. Patrick's Day decorations, full of myth, reach out to shoppers all around, even at grocery stores, with tee shirts, cup cakes, and cookies frosted in emerald.  In Kentucky this month, our McDonalds offers a special shamrock mint shake that is green and tastes like peppermint ice cream.

We rightly call our national basketball tournaments March Madness.  The underdog Louisville Cardinals played the Irish of Notre Dame this last week, beating them with their dogged defense to get to the Big East championship game, which they also won.

I've read many books this month, reread and reconsidered others.  There's no better time to read the works of Irish crime novelists, such as Declan Burke, Adrian McKinty, and funnyman Colin Bates.  But basketball season always makes me think of Homer's Odyssey and George Sheehan's Running & Being.
"Against the wind, true grit and perseverance."

Offense is easy, you do it in animal man mode.  Defense is more difficult, it uses different parts of the brain, and it takes a higher level of character--which is to say, a higher level of consciousness.  You don't have to be interested in sports to identify with what George Sheehan says:

"There are days when nothing goes right.  There are days when you can't get the ball in the basket, no matter how hard you try. . .but there is no excuse for not playing good defense.'

"I've known those days.  Days when every shot is forced, every idea manufactured.  Days when invention and wit and originality disappear.  When nothing is new or bright or wonderful. . .And on those days I start to press and everything gets that much more difficult.  The feel is gone, and with it the touch, the ease, the brilliance that play brings.'

"The offense, you see, is play.  The defense is work.  When I am on offense, I create my own world.  I act out the drama I have written.  I dance the dance I have choreographed.  Offense is unrehearsed, exuberant, free-wheeling.  Offense is excitement which provides its own incitement, its own compulsion, its own driving force.  It generates its own energy.'

"Offense, then, is an art.  It cannot be forced.  It is spontaneous...and therefore there are days when it won't happen.  The brain's circuits will not open.  The playful right hemisphere remains inaccessible.'

"Defense needs none of this.  Defense is dull, boring, commonplace.  It is the unimaginative plodding attention to duty.  It is grit and determination and perseverance.  It requires--can I use that word?--an act of will.  There is never a day you can't play defense.  All you need is the decision to put out, to give it your all.'

"On defense I am another person, the real person.  Offense is a showplace for talent and even genius.  What defense discloses is character.  On defense, effort and energy are a matter of the will.'

"I try not to be proud of my offense.  My play, my creativity, is a gift freely given and perhaps just as readily taken away.  But I know that my talent is something I carry.  The real test comes when that is absent, when I am filled with fatigue and boredom, when I am off my game.'

"Defense then narrows down to character, the ability to persist in the direction of the greatest resistance.  There are teams, and successful ones, that no longer look solely to talent.  They recruit on character.  It is a long season.  There are days on end of giving of yourself, and talent is not enough. . .Only character can make me function when my existence seems to be, as Emerson said, a defensive war."

A defensive war may be tough, but an offensive war is easy.  It takes all the responsibility off of character.  The state absorbs and absolves all individual blame.  The Iliad was offense, but the Odyssey was defense.  The Iliad was the trip down the floor, full of energy and aggression.  The Odyssey was the trip back, reflective and defensive.

There have been several fine interpretations of the Odyssey, but my favorite during the last few years is Sailing Home by Zen poet Norman Fischer.  It is truly a remarkable work and it now resides on the shelf next to Finding Joy In Joyce: A Reader's Guide to Ulysses by John P. Anderson.

And if you haven't read David Eagleman's Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Self, do yourself a favor and get a copy.  Among many other valuable concepts he discusses is that of the "Ulysses contract," and the recognition that we consist of not one self but several selves, bargaining with a team of rivals about doing the right thing.

Also brilliantly touching on the Odyssey and human consciousness is Shimon Edelman's new volume, The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About The Good Life:

"The Odyssey, as one of its best translators, Robert Fitzgerald, noted in a postscript, is 'about a man who cared for his wife and wanted to rejoin her.'

"For three thousand years now, this story captivates listeners and readers not just because it brings the hero through spectacular hardships to a happy end, but also, perhaps, because it presents a puzzle."

The puzzle, Edelman says, is why Ulysses did not settle down with one of the many willing women he met, many of them daughters of kings and beautiful and probably good in bed.  "The goddess Kalypso on her island, though, demands an explanation" of the puzzle when it is her turn, for she has offered Ulysses not only a paradise but immortality as well.

Ulysses admits that his wife Penelope is but an old shadow compared to the eternally young goddess, yet he politely refuses all offers and makes his way home.  The answer to the puzzle is not given and the audience is left to decide for themselves.

Those of us who know unconditional love have no trouble with this puzzle, while the Ayn Rand psychopaths among us will never get it.  Edelman says:

"The mind of Ulysses cannot be understood solely in terms" of abstract or materialist principles, "no matter how large these loom in Kalypso's calculus of desire."

Highly recommended.