Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ghost to the Post

It’s New Year’s Eve and there is only one event heralding the onset of the New Year about which I care.  New Year’s Eve itself is a very minor holiday in the Hartley Household.  We celebrate it by doing absolutely nothing.  New Year’s Day is a slightly less minor holiday.  But this year, New Year’s Day is on a Sunday, so that means NFL instead of College Bowl Games.  And this year, week 17 of the NFL season has the Raiders playing for a playoff spot.  That is the only thing happening in the next two days which interests me in the least.  And it interests me a great deal.

So, by tomorrow evening, I will either be elated or depressed.  (Don’t ask why the Raiders are the one thing in my life which generates immense emotional reaction—I have no idea.)  So, I figured I had better use today to review a book I recently read.  If things go horribly wrong tomorrow, it will be a long time before I will have the strength to write about the Raiders. 

And so, in the wake of the death of Al Davis and the periodic displays of talent the Raiders showed this year, I read Peter Richmond’s new book about the Raiders of the 1970s.  These were the Raiders I started watching when I was young.  These were the Raiders who won and won and won.  Faced with a game like tomorrow, these Raiders would win it.  No doubt about it.  The subtitle of Richmond’s book summarizes its contents nicely:  The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden’s Oakland Raiders.  In it, I could relive the Glory Days.

So how is the book?  Well, I mentioned it a month or so ago in passing.  The prose made my brain hurt.  Truly hurt.  It was sheer torture to read.  If it was about anything other than the Raiders, there is no way I would have made it through.  But, the Raiders are always worth my time.  I read endless newspaper articles about the Raiders written in similarly insipid prose.  But, reading horrid prose for page after page taxed me.  If you do not bleed Silver and Black, don’t even think about reading this book.

If you love all things Raiders (as you should), however, is the book worth it?  I don’t know.   There were some interesting tales here.  But, the gist of  most of this material is also in the autobiographies of Madden, Stabler and Tatum which I have read before.  (I’ve never read Tooz’s autobiography.  I am not sure why.) 

What this book did do is remind me of how much football has changed in the years I have been watching  it.  The game was much simpler back then.  (This is largely why Art Shell was such an underachiever as a coach—he never really figured out that the game had changed since he was a (truly great) player.  It was impossible to read this book and not have a sense of longing for the day when the Raiders were the biggest, baddest bullies on the block.  If they can recover even a bit of that swagger, they will be awesome to behold.  Awesome.

Here’s hoping the New Year brings the Playoffs!

Friday, December 30, 2011

What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been

The end of the year is a time traditionally associated with reflecting on the past 350+ days and making resolutions for the next 100 days.  (Yeah, I know everyone pretends they are making resolutions for the whole year, but when was the last time you heard someone in November saying, “I really have to do this in order to meet a promise I made to myself 11 months ago”?)

So, taking these matters in order:

1. Reflections

This last year was pretty much the same as the 18 years which preceded it.  Honestly, I suspect next year will be much the same.  I am fine with this.  While reading Mencken’s “On Being an American” last night, I realized how much my sense of well-being is akin to his.  (This shouldn’t really have surprised me—I have had his picture on my office wall since I started working at Mount Holyoke; it’s just been so long since I regularly read Mencken, that I seem to have forgotten how much I enjoy him.)  He writes:
To be happy (reducing the thing to its elements) I must be:
a.  Well fed, unhounded by sordid cares, at ease in Zion.
b.  Full of a comfortable feeling of superiority to the masses of my fellow-men.
c.  Delicately and unceasingly amused according to my taste.
It’s item c) on that list which made me chuckle at self-realization.  While the external circumstances of my life are remarkably unremarkable, I am unceasingly amused at the world around me.

I do live my life vicariously in books, to be sure.  So, for an exciting tale about the last year, I would refer you to Hunter S. Thompson’s The Curse of Lono.  If you have never read Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, then don’t even think about reading this book.  Read the account of his trip to Las Vegas first.  It’s funny, irreverent and quite memorable.  Indeed, I found On the Road dull because I had read Thompson first, and Thompson does a much, much better Kerouac than Kerouac did.  But, if you have read the Las Vegas book, and you want more Thompson, then a) unfortunately I haven’t read anything of his that is nearly as good as that book, but b) there are three other books you might enjoy.
            1) Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail  This is an attempt to mix the drug-addled Las Vegas trip with coverage of a Presidential campaign.  It sort of works.
            2) Hell’s Angels  This is a surprisingly good book if you want to know about a motorcycle gang.
            3) The Curse for Lono.  I just read this a few weeks back.  Of these three books, it is far and away the closest thing to the Las Vegas book.  It’s actually pretty good, so I am surprised that I have never heard of it.  I found it at a library book sale.  No deep plot here, no shocking insight into human nature, but a very clever ending and a tale well-told.  Somewhere buried under all this story is presumably a true story about Thompson being sent to Hawaii to cover a marathon, but I suspect the true story is nothing like the story in the book.  (And if the true story is exactly like that in the book, then I think I’d rather not know.)  Thompson reminds me of Johnny Depp playing Captain Jack Sparrow—it’s all just so over the top, it’s amusing.  But, sometimes, both Depp and Thompson end up seeming more like impersonations of themselves playing the roles which made them famous than simply themselves playing the roles which made them famous.  When the illusion is lost, then the work seems a bit flat.  Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the original Pirates of the Caribbean are thus perfect.  In the sequels to both, the illusion gets punctured every now and then.

It just occurred to me that Depp played Thompson in the movie version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  I’ve never seen that movie—the book strikes me as one of those things that can only be desecrated in transferring it to film.  But, I am now wondering whether the connection made in the last paragraph is because I subconsciously had already connected Depp and Thompson because of the movie or whether it is just a sign that Depp was obviously the perfect person to play Thompson in a movie.

2. Resolutions

I hereby resolve to read a lot of books in 2012.

What’s on my reading list?  Too many things to count, I suppose.  But, I do have a new long-term goal.  Last week, Janet was talking with my mother and her husband (who were visiting for Christmas) about their bucket lists.  (That phrase strikes me as annoyingly idiotic, by the way, but alas, I can’t figure out a way to stop it from becoming a part of American English.)  I realized while they were talking (mostly about trips to far off lands) that one thing I would really regret not having done before I die is reading all of Plato.  So, I’ve just added the Collected Works of Plato to my reading list.  I didn’t tell the participants in the discussion this was my new goal—they all would have just stared at me in disbelief before Janet uttered some remark about the how absurd it is that this would be my goal.  Sadly, I have little doubt that just about everyone else would agree that when comparing “Take a trip to China" and “Read the collected works of Plato,” it is only the former which is a socially acceptable thing to which to aspire.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Annual Christmas Letter, 2011

            Your Humble Narrator is in a Quandary, which In and Of Itself would not be a particularly Novel (let alone Noteworthy) event were it not for the Remarkably Rare (if not Unique) fact that the Quandary aforementioned is not, as The Patient Reader Might Assume, the result of Your Humble Narrator’s Grammatical Style or any other Cause Originating in the Action of Your Humble Narrator, but rather the Quandary which is under discussion in this sentence (and yes, this is still the same sentence as the Patient, yet Diligent Reader (a small, yet not non-existent set of Temporal Beings)) is due to Causes Outside the Control of Your Humble Narrator, which (again) would be neither Noteworthy nor Novel were it not for the Further Quite Disturbing Fact that the Quandary originates in an Alteration in Cultural Norms of the Society Writ Large in which said Society has seemingly abandoned a Tradition Long-Standing, which has required Your Humble Narrator to simultaneously Bemoan the End of Tradition (that Noble and Praiseworthy cultural artifact) and to abandon the very long-standing Practice which gave Birth to Your Humble Narrator in the First Place.

            The Quandary in question (and, yes, the present sentence properly belongs in the last paragraph, but since many of the Patient Readers are not as patient as would be required by Your Humble Narrator’s sentence structure, the present sentence was moved to the following paragraph in order to give the appearance that this Epistle is something other than a single run-on sentence) results from an Event Apocalyptic.  The Christmas Card has Died.  Your Humble narrator has noticed the Death Throes of this Ancient Tradition for many years, but in this, the Year of Our Lord 2011, it is Official.  Christmas Card, RIP. 

           The evidence of the Death is Overwhelming.  In addition to the fact that none of the Christmas Cards received in the Hartley Household this year actually had a pulse, the Hartley Household has received less than a mere half-dozen such cards.  Your Humble Narrator is not surprised by this dearth of Christmas Cards received:  no member of the Hartley Household seems particularly keen on sending Christmas Cards this year either.  And, lest the Patient Reader assume this is merely Proof by Anecdote, the Wall Street Journal, that arbiter of all News which is Newsworthy, contained a lengthy article on the demise of the Christmas Cards and the hardship this is causing companies which had heretofore relied on massive sales of such items.

            Now the Death of the Christmas Card is not normally the sort of thing one associates with the Form Letters traditionally inserted into Said Cards which give details about the lives of the Family Unit sending out Such Cards.  In Your Humble Narrator’s Case, however, the Death of the Christmas Card is an event most ominous because, as hinted at above, Your Humble Narrator exists only in the Christmas Card.  Thus arises the existential question:  if there are no Christmas Cards does Your Humble Narrator Cease to Exist?  Yet, Your Humble Narrator Thinks (evidence to the contrary notwithstanding) and thus Is.  So when Essence precedes Being can Being continue to exist when Essence is destroyed by the vagaries of culture?  On such matters Your Humble Narrator will ponder throughout the season,

            But, in the meantime, Your Humble Narrator has joined the 21st Century and is hereby converting the Hartley Household Christmas Epistle to an electronic format.  Said epistle is thus having its World Premiere on this blog.  Loud hosannas ring out through the land.  Patient readers everywhere will still be able to discover the Activities of the Hartley Household by reading the present letter.

            Alas, as long-time readers of this Hartley Household Christmas epistle undoubtedly suspect, the Hartley Household once again had absolutely no Activities Worthy Of Note (AWON).  The Long-Suffering Wife of Your Humble Narrator (LSWYHN) is shaking her head in disgust at this claim (or would be if she read it), but despite the LSWYHN’s insistence that there are AWON, specific examples are yet to be forthcoming.

            For the first time in many years, there are no new additions to the Hartley Household.   Your Humble Narrator has exercised that portion of mental activity not engaged in contemplating the aforementioned existential crisis and has not been able to imagine any inanimate object which Your Humble Narrator, using an excess of verbiage and a ready supply of commas, can turn into a worthy item of note to be added to this section.  Indeed, honesty compels Your Humble Narrator to note that due to Death and other Similar Events, the Livestock of the Hartley Household has declined this year by several chickens, one fish, and Emma.  (Unfortunately, Dante is still among the living.)

           Emma has departed the Fair Premises in which the Hartley Household resides, but has headed to a different location than the Chickens and Fish which met an untimely Demise.  She is currently residing at Mount Holyoke College, the fair Institution of Higher Learning which has long proved the means of subsistence for the Hartley Household.  At said Institution, Emma rides in Horse Beauty Contests (known as Dressage to Insiders (into which Company the patient reader can now assert membership)).  Your Humble Narrator is under the Belief (perhaps a Delusional belief) that Emma is also attending class and other such matters which traditionally accompany matriculation in institutions of Higher Learning, but information on that matter is difficult to acquire because Emma would prefer to discuss Four legged beasts.  (She will also be highly annoyed at the disparaging remark about Dante (the Dog) in the preceding paragraph were any of the Patient Readers to be So Unkind as to mention it to her.)

           Lily, to the surprise of nobody, still talks. And talks.  Now 16, she has decided to enroll in a course on legal studies in which her hyperdeveloped communication skills can be put to use for course credit.  Not surprisingly, she excels at talking.  She has had much practice.  Dressing in an unconventional, yet somehow pleasing to the eye, manner, and publically practicing the art of making long-winded arguments in a persuasive manner is a course of action most normal to the Ever Awesome Lily (she specifically told Your Humble Narrator to include the word Awesome in this letter as an adjective describing her).  (Lily is also very jealous that Your Humble Narrator has a Twitter account, by the way;  she specifically requested that this epistle (the Christmas Epistle no less!) tell one and all that she is most unhappy about said account, but Your Humble Narrator, along with the Perceptive Reader, thinks she Protests too much.)
          Clara, now 12, continues to age one year at a time.  She has long been the utterly adorable youngest member of the Hartley Household.  She still is.  She is also Brilliant Beyond Belief, Amusing Beyond all Measure, Polite and Kind and Generous to a fault.  If only she would clean her room on a regular basis, she would be the Perfect Child.  Clara, by the way (and, yes, surely the Patient Reader is shocked by the presence of an aside in this paragraph), seriously misses the presence of Emma in the Hartley Household.

           Janet, the LSWYHN, is still not only the oldest member of the Hartley Household but also its most active member.  Indeed, Janet seriously threatens to undermine the unblemished record of the Hartley Household for inactivity during a year.  Fortunately, the other members of the Household have so little activity worthy of note, that the average activity of the members of the household is still artificially close to zero.  During the last year, Janet’s Greenhouse business (Terra Verde nursery) grew exponentially (which is easy to do in the second year of an enterprise as long as one is not specific about the exponent, so it should be added that the exponent in this case is greater than 1 (but (sadly) less than 2)).  She continues her advanced study in field of Landscape Design and is now a mere one course away from her graduate certificate in said field.  She also continues to hold the Hartley Household together; no mean feat.
         And with that, Your Humble Narrator wishes You, the Patient Reader of the first annual Blog Christmas Card Epistle, a Very Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Love of Scrooge

“There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say,” returned the nephew. “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as  a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

Obviously, I recently reread A Christmas Carol.  I’ve been reading this story every year for decades.  If the definition of a Great Book is one which you can reread many times and always discover something new, then A Christmas Carol is indisputably a Great Book.

This year’s reflections:

If T.S. Eliot were to write A Christmas Carol, it would begin with an old man, stiffening in a decaying house, unconsciously saying, “I have lost my sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch: How should I use it for your closer contact?”  In the face of a dying world, we are all Ebenezer Scrooge.  When I have noted in the past that we are living in the Waste Land, I am frequently met with an objection that the world isn’t all that bad.  Indeed, to compare us all to Scrooge will strike many (most? all?) as absurd.  So, consider anew Dickens’ tale.  And then ask yourself, Whom do you Love?

Love has been unbelievably corrupted in the modern world.  Consider this:  If I say I love my wife and my kids, everybody nods politely.  (Or, if they are Mount Holyoke students, they say “Ahh, that’s so sweet.”)  If I say I love mankind, well, it’s actually just boilerplate and nobody will bat an eye.  But if I say I love my students, then something sounds a bit off.  And if I were to look a student in the eye and say to her, “I love you,”…well, you can imagine the reaction.

But why?  The second greatest commandment is what?
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."  (Matthew 22: 34-40, NIV)

And, what does it mean to love your neighbor?

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” 
He answered, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind' and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"
“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.  A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
(Luke 10:25-37, NIV)

Now I can say I love Mankind and that’s OK.  But the Good Samaritan didn’t love Mankind; he loved the hurting man on the side of the road to Jericho.  He loved him enough to make sacrifices for that man; he cared enough for that man to take the time to treat the man as if he was important, because that man was important.  The Good Samaritan is a model of love.

And Scrooge is also a model of love.  Scrooge is what we can become.  Because of Christmas, because in the juvescence of the year /Came Christ the tiger, we have the possibility of loving our neighbors. 

Yet, we have no language with which we can express that love.  I do love my students.  It’s my Christian obligation to do so, but that doesn’t make the love somehow less genuine. 

Some of my students I love a lot.  I hope those students know that, but sometimes I am not sure they do.  It is surely a sign of the poverty not of our language but of our culture that I cannot simply tell those students, “You know, of course, that I love you.”  Most of the time, this probably doesn’t matter all that much.  But every now and then, I have been talking to a student, for whom the simple statement “I love you” would make a world of difference, and yet because of the degradation of our culture, there is no way to say those words without them being terribly and horribly misunderstood.  We all know that feeling loved is vital to the human soul; it is not some strange accident that the two greatest commandments are both about Love.  And yet, we have lost the ability to express the very idea of a love without an overtone of the romantic or the erotic or the merely abstract.

And so, this Christmastime, I want to say to those students, both current and past, with whom I have a deep bond of friendship, and I hope you know who you are:  I love you.  A lot.

If you haven’t read A Christmas Carol yet this year, I’d highly recommend it.  And, even better, read the text from which that book draws its moral lesson.  Then, emulate Scrooge at the end of the story, and take someone you know who is not a member of your family and for whom you feel no romantic or erotic attachment at all, and tell that person, “I love you.”