Keeping It All In Perspective

Every once in a while, my love for baseball prompts me to post something baseball related.  I do so today because Joon Lee has just written an outstanding essay on Mark Appel, who was the Houston Astros’ number one pick–and the number one pick in all of baseball– in 2013, ahead of Kris Bryant, whose hitting helped propel the Chicago Cubs to the 2016 World Series title.

In the seasons since 2013, Appel struggled to find himself as a pitcher in the minor leagues, was traded by the Astros to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 2015 season, struggled again within the Phillies’ system, and watched last season as the Astros won a World Series title of their own, creating in the process the kind of team Appel had been expected to lead from the mound.

Now, Appel is stepping away from the game, and Lee’s interview with him is full of insights into the character of a still-young athlete who has a lot more on his mind than just baseball.

Part of me wishes to say that it is easy to be level-headed when one still has much of a $6.35 million signing bonus tucked away in savings somewhere, but such a remark, with its edge of cynicism, does not do Appel justice.  Nearly all of us, if we are working, have the opportunity to save a portion of our paychecks each pay period, and nearly all of us blow a portion of our yearly income on things that we could well do without.  Appel could have blown up his life over the last four years over his struggles and failures, but he has not.  He does not measure his life’s worth by the amount of money he has or his athletic ability.  The former is no guarantor of happiness or wisdom, and the latter is so fleeting as to be heartbreaking.

Read Lee’s essay.  It will restore your faith in humanity.


The Best Cure For Our Times

Books Here And There has addressed our division as a nation more than once:  in an occasional post about President Trump or international terrorism; in a review of Paulette Jiles’ novel, News of the World.  The point of these various posts, as they all relate to reading, is not truly to announce my personal politics (although I’ve never hidden my economic conservatism or my admiration for the efficacy of capitalism), but to confront the division and seek ways to deal with it.

Every once in a while, I want to fall back into the easy trap available to the middle-aged, and just throw up my hands and say to the world, “‘Twas ever thus,” because the world has been, truly, ever thus.  Donald Trump’s been President before:  he was going by the name of Warren G. Harding back then.  Harding, too, had perfect hair; he, too, had mistresses and affairs; he, also, was supremely ignorant of matters you’d think he’d be vitally interested in and uncaring about what the populace or the press thought.  We survived Harding and we’ll survive Trump (and his successor), too.  But claiming that the world has always been the way its been–even if that claim can be supported by some solid evidence–doesn’t satisfy a lot of people.  It does not even satisfy me.  I would rather seek better solutions to our problems.

I put out one solution in the summer of 2016 that doubtless made a few people laugh:  listen to more classical music.  Now, Ephrat Livni has a “laughable” suggestion, too:  think–and read–more slowly.  Yet, neither of these suggestions is actually laughable.  They are related to each other.  The slower tempos of classical music and the slower, more thoughtful pace of classical literature and philosophy can be antidotes to much of the illogical nonsense we see on Twitter or Facebook or in the daily press.

Although I am a fan of Adler and Hutchins’ Great Books of the Western World, I am not calling for a return to the classics.  I call rather for readers to seek out the best books they can find on a subject, whether those books be old or new.  Seek out those books that give response rather than provoke reaction.  If our own thinking becomes clearer, our voices may become calmer, and we may be able to begin talking to each other, rather than past each other.


Ursula K. LeGuin Dies

Ursula K. LeGuin, author of The Left Hand of Darkness and the Earthsea trilogy, died Tuesday at the age of 88.  One of the most honored names in the history of fantasy and science fiction, LeGuin will doubtless be remembered by many, many words in the coming days.

No other author did quite so much as she to remind us (or to teach us) that women have unique voices in writing and unique ways of looking at the world.  We ignore, at our peril and loss of profit, the pleasure that comes from acknowledging those different ways, whether we are contemplating matters of love, politics, sexuality, or the natural world.  Her death represents a loss for us, as all deaths do, but the legacy of her work will resonate for a very long time.


The Five Acts Of Writing

Here’s a fine article on five-act structure in writing, as applied to the TV series Breaking Bad.  You won’t need to have been a fan of the show to profit from Todd VanDerWerff’s explanation of that structure, and you may well be able to apply that structure, or its sister, the three-act structure, to whatever you’re working on.

Keep in mind that the climax of the plot is not the end of the story.  Most of us get lost in the middle of whatever we are doing, and the article may give you a clue or two about how to stay on the straight path, but the five-act structure also allows a writer time and space enough to let her characters breathe and feel the consequences of their actions.  The key moment of your tale is vital, but so is what comes after, because that “after” involves the change that must take place in your characters if your story is to have any meaning.  In Breaking Bad, Walter doesn’t change from Mr. Chips to Scarface overnight, but his development over several seasons is controlled by five-act structure nonetheless.

If you need to, pin key words on your wall to keep them in mind as you write:  “motion,” “conflict,” “climax,” “vortex,” (for characters being drawn inevitably toward their end), and “denouement” (or “catastrophe”) are words that I have in my head and on the page as I go along.  Use ones that work for you, and write with them in mind.


Twenty-Five Books On Writing

Emily Temple has collected twenty-five books on the craft of writing, all written by women and men who actually know how to write.  Non-fiction is covered as well as fiction; poetry not quite as well addressed as prose.  Truly excellent books by King, Forster, Dillard, and Welty are included, and I’ll bet my next paycheck that Walter Mosley has some great advice in This Year You Write Your Novel.

There’s something satisfying about twenty-five to a list, but I’m going after a strange double on the “baker’s dozen” idea by reminding you of a twenty-sixth book that is worth your while:  Richard Rhodes’ How to Write, a brief manual in which he covers fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.  He’s been a practitioner of all three during his career, but he’s most noted for his lengthy, wonderful, non-fiction study, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, one of the greatest books of the twentieth century.


Settling In

I finished reading Nic Pizzolotto’s debut novel Galveston last night.  It’s a good read and I recommend it.  It’s a mystery more than a detective story, with a shady antihero at its core rather than a detective we can root for.  The narrative hops between Houston, New Orleans, and Galveston but is at its strongest and best in the latter place, just before Hurricane Ike hit in 2008.  (Those who lived through that storm as I did will recall it passed over downtown Houston, the first such storm to do so in many years.)  I will also say that, if you read it, you’re likely to be genuinely surprised by the climax of the story.  Vengeance, as our boy Roy discovers, is harder to get than anybody thinks.

The new place is startin’ to grow on me.  There are still lots of little things to do in the process of making it my home, but I and my friends are getting it done.  Save for getting up and going to work at the computer each day, I have yet to re-establish a routine that makes me feel comfortable, but that will come with time.  I especially need to get back to my own novel and press forward with it.


On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Dr. Martin Luther’s King’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” dated April 16, 1963, is one of the great documents of American history and literature.  Written under the pressure of the moment, it reveals for all time the essence of Dr. King’s thought as no other single document does.

The letter, written on legal-sized sheets and addressed to a group of local, mostly white clergymen who had advocated that King and his fellow marchers show patience and not go on the march for which they were arrested, is more than just a moving plea for peace and social justice.  It is an argument, showing why such marches for civil rights must be taking place.  The logic of that argument is unassailable, an extraordinary claim for me to make, and I do not make it lightly, but read the letter for yourself, and you will see that King strips away every single excuse the clergymen have for not joining King and the other protesters on the march.  The only opposition to the letter that might hold up would come from those opposed to the idea of altruism itself, as popularized in some circles of psychology and by the novelist Ayn Rand.  Yet, even that opposition would not be, and is not, opposed to the promulgation of peace and love.  To them, the spread of such a virtue is best left to the individual conscience, and  to the individual act, rather than being fostered by the broader and sometimes erring will of a collective effort.

I am moved by the whole letter, and have been for many years.  But there is one short passage early in the document that humbles me every time I read it.  It also happens to be a passage that speaks directly to our moment, fifty-four years later:

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.  I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.  Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

There are those who think Dr. King’s thoughts in this passage apply to African-Americans alone.  Not so. His words echo those of John Donne from three hundred years before in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII:  “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. . . . any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”  Dr. King was not advocating for or defending the actions of those who deliberately take the lives of others by crossing borders and shooting or bombing targets under the auspices of some nebulous God.  He defended, rather, the right of every American citizen–of any race–to engage in the lawful and sometimes necessary practice of civil disobedience to social and political injustice.  Those citizens who engage in it, lawfully, peaceably, with love as their motivation and their goal, are not “outsiders” anywhere within these states.  To me, King’s final words in this passage are as eloquent and piercing as any that Jefferson or Lincoln ever wrote, and just as much a part of the social contract that has sustained us since the writing of our Constitution.  They express both an imperative to change our thinking about each other immediately, and an ideal to work toward constantly.  They also make me, as I think about them, very, very proud to be a citizen of the United States.