The Virginian: How the West Was Written by Owen Wister

Just as Homer set the foundation of Western literature with The Iliad, so Owen Wister created the ur-narrative of another kind of “Western” literature in 1902 when he published The Virginian.

Wister is credited with writing the first novel of the American West, based on his own observations of visits to Wyoming, Montana and elsewhere. The book details the life and love of an unnamed character known as the Virginian. Wister touches on what became the classic Western themes: the guns, the cattle drives, rowdy card games, the loneliness of vast distances, the lovely and virginal school marm, religion and religious hucksters, the struggle to build a civil society, and even the gulf between the civilized “East” and the untamed “West.” The Virginian’s love interest, schoolteacher Molly Wood, hails from Bennington, Vermont, a locale that sets up humor and societal contrasts. A telling details is that Molly’s great-aunt had the honor of curtsying before the Marquis de Lafayette.

Taken together, these passages startle with the knowledge that they were new then. What we may consider cliches were once fresh and remarkable; I’m reminded of reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, published in 1897 with all the undead themes of the undead genre.

Who was Owen Wister? He started life as a Philadelphia blueblood, educated in Europe and later at Harvard College and Harvard Law. Tart references in The Virginian to Wall Street, Bryn Mawr, Newport and Tiffany’s no doubt stemmed from personal observations. At Harvard, he became a close friend of future president Theodore Roosevelt, another proponent of the vigorous outdoor life. Restless as a lawyer, Wister moved on to politics and writing. The Virginian builds on his experiences and stories he heard on 15 carefully documented trips to the West. His politics remained on the conservative side, as he lived long enough to oppose Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.

I knew nothing about Wister, his book or the 1960s TV series of the same name, so I didn’t know what to expect. Wister’s writing style ranged from straightforward to intricate Victorian-era ornate as he explored the “cow-boy” as a moral figure, chivalrous to women and animals, relentless foe of cattle thieves and other ne’er-do-wells. What struck me about the book was just not the themes, but their timeliness. The antique literature became a time machine giving a glimpse of behaviors and norms of a past era. And some of behaviors may not be so past.

For example, guns and rifles were common, but Wister depicted a country where gunfights were rare and were more the last resort of problem solving. While a man of action who never backed down from conflict, the Virginian spent more of his time as a ranch foreman dealing with human resources issues, as we would call them today, and logistics management—getting those dogies to market.

Kindness to those in need, implacable foe of oppressors

He’s also a friend of animals. Beneath his storytelling and aw-shucks conversational tone, the Virginian has no tolerance for the exploitation of the helpless. In this passage, he responds to a frustrated cowboy’s attack on a lovable horse named Pedro:

Pedro sank motionless, his head rolling flat on the earth. Balaam was jammed beneath him. The man had struggled to his feet before the Virginian reached the spot, and the horse then lifted his head and turned it piteously round.

Then vengeance like a blast struck Balaam. The Virginian hurled him to the ground, lifted and hurled him again, lifted him and beat his face and struck his jaw. The man’s strong ox-like fighting availed nothing. He fended his eyes as best he could against these sledge-hammer blows of justice. He felt blindly for his pistol. That arm was caught and wrenched backward, and crushed and doubled. He seemed to hear his own bones, and set up a hideous screaming of hate and pain. Then the pistol at last came out, and together with the hand that grasped it was instantly stamped into the dust. Once again the creature was lifted and slung so that he lay across Pedro’s saddle a blurred, dingy, wet pulp.

Vengeance had come and gone. The man and the horse were motionless. Around them, silence seemed to gather like a witness.

“If you are dead,” said the Virginian, “I am glad of it.” 

But the man of action is also a man of letters, even a letter writer. Thanks to his blooming relationship with Molly Wood, he finds a deep appreciation for Shakespeare, Dickens and Browning, identifying with Prince Hal and other characters. In some ways, the Virginian is more literate than many current English majors.

War and social division, quality and inequality

Reading the book through a 21st century lens, issues jumped out at me that may have been of passing interest in 1902. The Civil War hovers around the edges of the book, such as in a scene on a train:

So I was passing that way also, walking for the sake of ventilation from a sleeping-car toward a bath, when the language of Colonel Cyrus Jones came out to me. The actual colonel I had never seen before. He stood at the rear of his palace in gray flowery mustaches and a Confederate uniform, telling the wishes of his guests to the cook through a hole.

Wister treats social divisions, too, especially between the more settled parts of the United States and the wide-open canvas of the West, where unfamiliar groups and behaviors lurked. Discussing Molly’s marital prospects, her family worried about the disasters lurking:

Somebody said to Andrew Bell that they heard Miss Molly Wood was engaged to marry a RUSTLER.

“Heavens, Andrew!” said his wife; “what is a rustler?”

It was not in any dictionary, and current translations of it were inconsistent. A man at Hoosic Falls said that he had passed through Cheyenne, and heard the term applied in a complimentary way to people who were alive and pushing. Another man had always supposed it meant some kind of horse. But the most alarming version of all was that a rustler was a cattle thief.

Now the truth is that all these meanings were right. The word ran a sort of progress in the cattle country, gathering many meanings as it went. It gathered more, however, in Bennington. In a very few days, gossip had it that Molly was engaged to a gambler, a gold miner, an escaped stage robber, and a Mexican bandit; while Mrs. Flynt feared she had married a Mormon.

The Virginian also keenly observes issues of equality and inequality. In a discussion with Molly, he observes (“cyards” is his Virginia-accented pronunciation of “cards”):

“I’ll tell you what,” pursued the cow-puncher, with slow and growing intensity, “equality is a great big bluff. It’s easy called.”

“I didn’t mean—” began Molly.

“Wait, and let me say what I mean.” He had made an imperious gesture with his hand. “I know a man that mostly wins at cyards. I know a man that mostly loses. He says it is his luck. All right. Call it his luck. I know a man that works hard and he’s gettin’ rich, and I know another that works hard and is gettin’ poor. He says it is his luck. All right. Call it his luck. I look around and I see folks movin’ up or movin’ down, winners or losers everywhere. All luck, of course. But since folks can be born that different in their luck, where’s your equality? No, seh! call your failure luck, or call it laziness, wander around the words, prospect all yu’ mind to, and yu’ll come out the same old trail of inequality.” He paused a moment and looked at her. “Some holds four aces,” he went on, “and some holds nothin’, and some poor fello’ gets the aces and no show to play ‘em; but a man has got to prove himself my equal before I’ll believe him.”

Justice and injustice in America

Wister’s characters address issues of lawlessness, with an unblinking frankness of the era’s realities that deliver shock value today. The key passage deserves quoting at length:

“Well,” he said, coming straight to the point, “some dark things have happened.” And when she made no answer to this, he continued: “But you must not misunderstand us. We’re too fond of you for that.” 

“Judge Henry,” said Molly Wood, also coming straight to the point, “have you come to tell me that you think well of lynching?”

He met her. “Of burning Southern negroes in public, no. Of hanging Wyoming cattle thieves in private, yes. You perceive there’s a difference, don’t you?”

“Not in principle,” said the girl, dry and short.

“Oh—dear—me!” slowly exclaimed the Judge. “I am sorry that you cannot see that, because I think that I can. And I think that you have just as much sense as I have.” The Judge made himself very grave and very good-humored at the same time. The poor girl was strung to a high pitch, and spoke harshly in spite of herself.

“What is the difference in principle?” she demanded.

“Well,” said the Judge, easy and thoughtful, “what do you mean by principle?”

“I didn’t think you’d quibble,” flashed Molly. “I’m not a lawyer myself.”

A man less wise than Judge Henry would have smiled at this, and then war would have exploded hopelessly between them, and harm been added to what was going wrong already. But the Judge knew that he must give to every word that the girl said now his perfect consideration.

“I don’t mean to quibble,” he assured her. “I know the trick of escaping from one question by asking another. But I don’t want to escape from anything you hold me to answer. If you can show me that I am wrong, I want you to do so. But,” and here the Judge smiled, “I want you to play fair, too.”

“And how am I not?”

“I want you to be just as willing to be put right by me as I am to be put right by you. And so when you use such a word as principle, you must help me to answer by saying what principle you mean. For in all sincerity I see no likeness in principle whatever between burning Southern negroes in public and hanging Wyoming horse-thieves in private. I consider the burning a proof that the South is semi-barbarous, and the hanging a proof that Wyoming is determined to become civilized. We do not torture our criminals when we lynch them. We do not invite spectators to enjoy their death agony. We put no such hideous disgrace upon the United States. We execute our criminals by the swiftest means, and in the quietest way. Do you think the principle is the same?”

Molly had listened to him with attention. “The way is different,” she admitted.

“Only the way?”

“So it seems to me. Both defy law and order.”

“Ah, but do they both? Now we’re getting near the principle.”

“Why, yes. Ordinary citizens take the law in their own hands.”

“The principle at last!” exclaimed the Judge.

As these passages show, The Virginian is intensely quotable, because of Wister’s style and his subject material. On every page I knew I was reading the birth of the Western, a genre that’s never truly vanished, and the raw material for reimaginings and reinterpretations, right down to the new Netflix series, Godless. The themes of that series include religion, the birth of civil institutions, a lovely (but not virginal) schoolmarm, women without men (a reversal of the usual western imbalance), breathtaking vistas, horses, oily Eastern business interests, black and Indian communities, and railroads opening the land.

Had Owen Wister seen Godless, he’d recognize a lot of it. He and the Virginian were there first.

Live From New York: It’s Little Home Companion on the Prairie!

By sheer dumb coincidence, I bought tickets to see A Prairie Home Companion at New York’s Town Hall on December 2. That turned out to be four days after Minnesota Public Radio fired retired PHC host and creator Garrison Keillor for allegations of improper behavior.

I’d been a fan of PHC over the Keillor years, not rabid, but enough to appreciate his humor and inventiveness. I’ve spent much less time listening to the retooled version hosted by mandolin player Chris Thile. Still, I was eager to see the show live.

The Godzilla in the room as the show started at 5:45 pm (great timing for us 60-somethings) was what, if anything, would Thile say about Keillor. Business as usual, which would be ridiculous, or a statement. If so, when?

Thile, to his credit, came right out and addressed what everybody knew.

“It’s been a rough week,” he said, with a chuckle, not directly mentioning Keillor but the line made total sense. He soon turned to Keillor and called the situation “heartbreaking.” He also referred to the national movement to address the “harmful power imbalance that women have had to endure for so long in our culture.” Heartfelt and straight ahead, Thile said what was needed and got on with the show. This could be a model for upcoming awards shows for movies, TV, theater, journalism . . .

The show itself impressed me with the range of performers moving in and out of a crowded stage, with both PHC musicians and a set-up for the Austin band Spoon. Chanteuse Cécile McLorin Savant, whom I had heard twice before, did some saucy jazz numbers that seemed right for the times. Skit veterans Tim Russell and Serena Brook and sound effects guy Fred Newman came out to give the audience some of that old-time PHC humor religion.

Still, this reboot of PHC differs wildly from the original. While I’d estimate the Keillor version ran 70 percent skits and stories and 30 percent music, the Thile version at Town Hall was maybe 90 percent music and talk about music, 10 percent comic material. I looked at summaries of recent shows that featured more story-telling, so that mix could vary. I doubt we’ll be hearing about Guy Noir, Private Eye; cowboys Lefty and Dusty; reports from Lake Wobegon. The handful of skits carried on some of the tone and vocal stylings, but I sensed they are now the side dish, not the main course.

Thile himself sets the pace with a physical energy that reminded me of comedian Conan O’Brien. I had never picked up on that by hearing him on the radio. His musicianship on the mandolin is dazzling, as is his love of music across genres. Saturday’s show slammed through and explained bits and pieces of Jimi Hendrix’s “Power of Soul” (recorded at New York’s Fillmore East on New Year’s Eve 1969), Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” (which Dylan performed at Town Hall in 1963), “I Won’t Grow Up” from Peter Pan (in honor of actress Mary Martin’s December 1 birthday) and “Teen Town” by bassist Jaco Pastorius and the group Weather Report. Along with Savant, Spoon and guitarist-singer Sarah Jarosz, Thile wove together a master class on American musical styles and history.

That’s fantastic if you’re seriously into music. If you want monologues and wacky skits, you’re mostly up the Wobegon Creek without a paddle, at least in this stage of PHC. Where Thile and Co. will take it is anybody’s guess; MPR says a new name is in the works. That’s both good and bad; good because it gets Thile out of the shadow of Keillor and gives the show its own brand identity with a built-in audience; bad because it severs more sharply the connection with a program that’s become an American institution since 1974. Seeing the show live, if nothing else, gives me more of a stake in whatever comes next.

With institutions crashing all around us, I’m curious about what emerges from this particular pile of theatrical disorder on the shores of Lake Wobegon.

How the West Was Watched

Almost by accident, I’ve become a fan of classic Western TV shows on METV. The titles alone take me back a half-century or more to a boyhood with a family that huddled around the RCA console to watch Gunsmoke, Bonanza and The Wild Wild West.

The more I have watched after finding the programming on Saturdays, the more I felt I had circled back to something vital in my life. Where do our values come from, our role models, our sense of how the world works? The interest took a darker turn after the latest gun-driven massacres in our country, in Las Vegas and a Baptist church in rural Texas, which led me to consider violence as a culturally learned form of expression and problem solving. How do westerns depict violence, who wields that tool, and why? Is the gunplay gratuitous or the last resort against an onrushing threat? How else are conflicts resolved? Before the genre shrank and became the subject of radical rethinking, the western was a big part of the cultural puzzle that shaped these perceptions. I belonged to the last generation that lined up outside places like the Border Theater in Mission, Texas, to see the latest John Wayne movies, like El Dorado, The War Wagon and True Grit. Through METV, I hoped to learn something about 2017 in the entertainment of the 1950s and 1960s.

METV gives a snapshot of each show and a short description of each episode. The programs deal with social and ethnic issues that could be the background for today’s more revisionist westerns. Two chosen at random from The Big Valley in October 1965:

  • Heath investigates violence during a strike at a Barkley mine. He finds that the miners hate the Barkleys for promises not kept. The family sets out to make things right before the Molly Maguires strike again.
  • A hispanic family is in a land dispute with the Barkleys. Maria, the young daughter of the family, falls in love with Heath. Her father disapproves of Heath’s illegitimate birth, and uses the land crisis as leverage to force Heath and Maria apart.

From Have Gun, Will Travel, 1957 and 1958:

  • At a stagecoach stop, Paladin sees a peaceful Cherokee rancher being beaten by white men who think his cattle are spreading a sickness. Paladin offers his help.
  • Paladin is hired to stop a vineyard from being ruined by seepage from an adjacent oil well.
  • Paladin defends a schoolmistress who’s being theatened for teaching about war crimes that took place during the Civil War

The influence on me includes literature. In my early teens I read several books in the Sackett series by Louis L’Amour. As an adult, I read the whole Lonesome Dove trilogy by Larry McMurtry (much of it set in the South Texas where I grew up), the blood-soaked novel The Son, also set in Texas and spanning the 1830s into the 1980s, and the outstanding non-fiction book Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches by S.C. Gwynne.

Next up on the Western reading list: The Virginian by Owen Wister, a 1902 novel I saw at a local library book sale and tossed into my $5/bag of books. I recall the series inspired by the book being on in the 1960s, until I was in my early teens, but it didn’t make nearly the impression on me of, say, The Wild, Wild West. I’ve heard the book was memorable, so I’ll dip into some 1902 entertainment.

Whatever the media, the possibilities to touch on hot-button issues are endless. I’ll find the episodes that jump out at me and take a look. My goal is to view them from two directions at once: as I saw them as a kid, and what messages I can tease out 50 years later as an adult.

Alt-History: All Singing, All Dancing, All Trotsky!

A friend on Facebook recently posed the question, “What if World War I never happened?” Many comments dealt with the geopolitical pressures, noting that some kind of war was inevitable given Germany’s militarization and the creakiness of the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Others were more optimistic, that with no World War I, there would have been no World War II.

I took a different approach.

Lacking any original insights into the dynamics of European history, I mused on the impact of peace on the United States. I speculated that Fidel Castro would have developed into an ace fastball pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, a crowd-dazzling righty, of course, rather than a communist dictator.

My main contribution combined numerous interests into one great big riff I might title “All Singing, All Dancing, All Trotsky!” That’s my kind of alt-social history. Here’s what I wrote:

Without WWI and communism, Lev Davidovich Bronshtein decides to stay in New York and chucks his revolutionary identity of Leon Trotsky. He forges a brilliant career as the leading Broadway theatrical impresario of the 20th century. That’s not surprising at all, since traits of cold-blooded ruthlessness, organizational aplomb and strategic vision are key to the success of both Soviet military commissars and Broadway producers.

He marries the adorable Fania Borach and fast-tracks her career as Fanny Brice. His impact is so great that the New York theatrical awards are named after him, the Bronys. He lives well into his 90s, retiring in style after producing his groundbreaking blockbuster, a musical about aspiring dancers in the Russian-Jewish shtetl of his childhood, “A Boris Line,” with showstopping hits like “T&A & Kreplach.”

Meanwhile, his grandson Baruch Shmoikel Bronshtein opts for a life in politics, changing his name to the less-ethnic Bernie Sanders Bronshtein and becoming a Republican senator from Alabama, where his heavy Brooklyn accent and Randian economic policies charm the locals. Lev and Fanny live long enough to see their great-granddaughter, Baby Snooks Maddow-Bronshtein, become the star commentator on the New York Times’s wildly successful cable project known as DNN–the Duranty News Network.

So begins my sideline writing alt-history. This could go places and, best of all, I can make it all up.

The Unspeakable Number Explained

During an August visit to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, I enjoyed the huge exhibit “Paint the Revolution: Mexican Modernism, 1910–1950.” It ranged over painting, prints, photography and murals, with plenty of explanation of the pieces’ context.

And then I came to one that stopped me cold and sent my memory back 50 years. The exhibit showed a poster with the title “Los 41 Maricones” and below that a poem “Aqui Están Los Maricones . . . Muy Chulos y Coquetones,” based on a 1901 scandal in Mexico City where 41 men were arrested at a social event where 19 dressed as women. The exhibit translated the title as “The 41 Faggots . . . Very Cute and Coquettish.” The history of the episode can be found here.

The notorious illustration.

The notorious illustration.

 

The poster and explanation stunned me because it explained a mystery that goes back almost 50 years. During my 1960s days at William Jennings Bryan Elementary School in Mission, Texas, boys regularly invoked the number “41” to signify something. What, nobody knew. But the meaning always spanned naughty to rude to vile and shameful. I never asked, and I wonder if anybody, kid or adult in my heavily Hispanic town, knew. If anybody knew, they weren’t talking.  Maybe this was common knowledge that the gringo population never picked up on, in our ignorance (emphasis on “ignore”) of Mexican culture and history.

Mystery surrounded the number 41. When smirked on the playground, it had vague but alarming vibrations, something best avoided. By the time my classmates and I reached Mission Junior High School, puberty ran wild and numerology mattered far less than the adolescent blossoming all around us.

The forbidden number sank like a stone to the bottom of my consciousness. But it’s there. To this day I can’t see the number on a sports uniform or license plate without a tiny shake of recognition. He said 41. Still, I never knew what it meant and never even looked it up.

Then, at the Museum of Fine Arts, I read all about it.

The explanation made perfect sense, a direct allusion to homosexuality that nobody, but nobody, back then would want to explain or acknowledge except as a sneering shorthand.The number and the episode behind it referred to matters far beyond social propriety. Hearing it in South Texas made sense, given that Mission was three miles from the Rio Grande. The permeable border allowed cultural influences to cross both ways. Over the decades the Mexican meaning of 41 seeped into the Rio Grande Valley and beyond. It became part of the myths and mysteries that kids passed along.

Does the meaning still resonate in the Valley? I don’t know. Maybe this essay will shake some memories out of the trees of 50-somethings. I did discover that the 1901 scandal continues to echo, with a group reversing the number’s shameful meaning into an affirmation. Honor41.org describes itself as

Honor 41 is a national Latina/o LGBTQ online, 501 c3 non-profit organization that promotes positive images of our community, creates awareness about our issues and builds an online family/community.

The word “Honor” means pride in English and Spanish.

The number 41 has a derogatory connotation in Mexican culture. For over 100 years calling someone “41” or associating anyone or anything with that number labeled them maricon/joto which in English translates to calling someone faggot/gay.

By adopting 41 in our name, we take away the negative, oppressive power associated to the number; we educate others about this important moment in LGBTQ history; we honor their legacy; and honor our own lives and contributions to society.

Honor41 envisions a world where Latina/o LGBTQ individuals can live their lives with honor, by being “out”, with acceptance from their families and community, and fully integrated in all aspects of society.

I like that approach. Take the term, turn it around, own it, use it for good. Take 41 out of the shadows and nullify its sting. Maybe the meaning will be different for the next generation.

Breaking and Mending, Forgetting and Finding

First Basil the rascally cat pushed my favorite coffee mug off a kitchen counter and it shattered. Then my six-month old Sony a5000 camera froze up while I was on a lunchtime photo prowl in midtown Manhattan. I lost my favorite kippah from the Jewish Hospital in Berlin. Finally, I accidently recycled my $369 commuter rail ticket; I’m sure I did.

This spring brought more its share of micro-exasperations as favorite possessions broke or vanished. Chalk the string up to forgetfulness or disorganization or the fragility of consumer electronics, but I kept stumbling over myself, only to take a deep breath, pick myself up and try again. The lesson: Things can work out if you give them time.

First, the coffee mug that Basil nudged over the edge was from the Red Bull gift shop in 20170507_105011-1Crawford, Texas. I bought it in October 2008 during a visit to Central Texas before starting a new job in the days before the fateful presidential election. Besides armadillo refrigerator magnets, I picked up a coffee cup that hit all the right notes, with an outline of Texas, and, best of all, signatures of George and Laura Bush. I used it for nine years, each sip a little political jab of decaffeinated pleasure. Then Basil combined with gravity to bust it up.

I have relatively few purchased possessions that mean something to me; my Crawford coffee cup is one of them, purchased at a time of enormous personal and national change. I whisked the pieces into a bag. Determined to replace the cup, I checked eBay and even emailed a gift shop/restaurant in Crawford. No suitable replacement could be found.

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After some brooding, I fetched the bag with the remnants out of the garbage. The cup had shattered into a half-dozen big pieces with a few shards. Armed with the strongest glue I could find, I reassembled Cup Crawford, except for the shards. I’m not drinking out of it but it’s holding together and I do have this memento of the turbulent fall of 2008. It sits on a shelf in my home office, well away from feline attention.

 

Next, I couldn’t find my favorite kippah, which I got at the historic Jewish Hospital in Berlin in 2014. The hospital, t20170507_104908he only Jewish institution in Germany to operate through World War II, was where an elderly friend of mine had studied nursing. Twenty years after her death, I finally paid my respects with a visit to the hospital. I use the kippah on special occasions. I wore it to an event at my synagogue, and the next time I wanted to use it I couldn’t find it. I flipped through other kippahs in my office—on the shelf under the glued-together Cup Crawford—but it wasn’t there. Checks of my coat pockets and the floor of my car turned up nothing. After a few days I worked through the other bar mitzvah and wedding kippahs, and, sure enough, there it nestled. I’m using it about as often as the broken coffee mug these days.

The real problem, with a price tag, emerged on March 31, when I opened my wallet and realized my April Metro-North commuter ticket was not parked directly behind my March ticket and my driver’s license. That’s where it always goes. Having once thrown away the new ticket rather the old one, I have a ritual to avoid such screw-ups: I remove the ticket and put it immediately in my wallet. Human hands do not touch it until the first day of the new month on the train, when I carefully remove the old ticket and rotate the new one to its rightful visible place in my wallet.

But the April ticket had vanished. I removed every scrap of paper from my wallet in case I misplaced it. Nothing. I distinctly remembered opening the envelope, since I noticed, grumpily, the increase in the fare to $369. And then . . . did I toss the ticket and the envelope and various inserts into the recycle bag? I methodically dug through the recycle bin outside, checking every piece of mail. Then I checked my pants and shirts from the laundry, in case I had carelessly tucked the ticket there. Zip.

This put me in a jam since the next day was April 1. I knew I could use my March ticket for the ride in, which I did, then I used an off-peak with a $6 extra charge for the ride home. Rather than spring for a new monthly or even weekly ticket, I decided to tough it out for the month by telecommuting, and buy single tickets for the times I had to go to the office. I talked to the customer service desk and couldn’t cancel or replace the lost ticket, which is just like cash, I was told.

“A lot of people are filing complaints that they didn’t get their April ticket,” she told me.

“But I remember getting mine,” I replied, morosely.

So, I was up the creek without at MTA paddle.

Working remotely is nothing uncommon for me, so I humped along all week. Then Saturday, I flipped through the mail and—there it was, the MTA envelope. Stunned, I opened it and found the April ticket that I had convinced myself I had received and opened. But I hadn’t. Instead, I had auto-inflicted some public-transit version of False Memory Syndrome. Going forward, I’ll treat the monthly ticket with even more TLC. I thought about getting an electronic version of the ticket for my cell phone, but then what if I lose my cell phone (something that’s never happened in the 16 years I’ve had one)?

Finally, the tale of the broken Sony a5000 camera deserves telling. The malfunction especially irked me because the Sony replaced an earlier camera, a Panasonic Lumix, after it malfunctioned. To provide the full context, the Lumix froze with its zoom lens extended after it fell out of my backpack the night before. Nobody could fix it, so before a vacation I got the Sony (side note: I eventually fixed the Lumix myself by giving the zoom lens a firm twist, like wring its neck, that kicked loose whatever glitch kept it extended). It worked fine during two weeks in Berlin in Amsterdam and I learned more about its operations.

Then from one minute to another it went on the blink. YouTube videos suggested the problem was a dirty connection between the removable lens and the camera’s body. That didn’t work, so I contacted Sony, which advised me to take the camera to Photo Tech, the authorized repair place in New York for warranty work. Yes, the camera was still covered by the one-year warranty.

On the day before Good Friday, I walked down to Photo Tech on West 36th Street. I didn’t know what to expect, given the problems I’ve had with dead laptops and printers before. From the moment I stepped up to the counter, Photo Tech impressed me (unsolicited rave to follow). The customer service rep noted the problem, removed the battery and memory card, gave me a receipt and a time to check on the repair status.

There’s no drama in the story. At the end of the next week I picked up the camera, fully fixed, something about a problem with rings in it. No charge, no nonsense, all professionalism. Thanks, Photo Tech. If a camera breaks again, I know where I’m going.

The camera repair closed out my month-long crazy cycle of losing and finding, breaking and repairing. Everything worked out, other than a cracked coffee cup from the Western White House. I’ve got plenty of other coffee cups, anyway.

Balm of Baseball Memory

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A portrait of the writer as a 13-year old Astros fan.

Now that Super Bowl LI has moved from conclusion to legend, let’s turn our attention to baseball. Our story begins after a recent lunchtime workout at the New York Sports Club in Rockefeller Center.

In the locker room, I walked by a guy who must have felt strained. He was rubbing himself down with balm. While I didn’t see him, I caught the aroma of the balm wafting around us. That scent, that instant, was all I needed to trigger a cascade of 45-year old memories.

The smell of balm carries me back to the athletics center of Mission High School in Mission, Texas, where I had been the baseball manager for my freshman and sophomore years in the early 1970s. I became manager by default; my delusions of actually playing for the Eagles baseball team ended quickly, given my inability to hit, field or throw. Still, coach Jake Longoria shrewdly pegged me as the perfect manager, one who combines the talents of a mule, farmhand and nurse to lug the equipment, rake and water the infield, store the players’ watches and wallets during the game and play faith healer to the pitchers’ achy-breaky arms.

So I became the manager and that’s where the balm comes in.

As baseball history shows, pitchers have a rough job, in the physical sense. They do a fast, repetitive motion that puts their young arms to enormous stress. Those arms get sore during a game and need TLC. At some point after a game I’d rub down pitchers’ arms with balm. I especially remember working on Rudy Gallegos, our pitcher with the overpowering fastball.

Over my two years as manager, the aroma of balm imprinted itself in my memory. Cozy, warm, immediate, relaxing, even a marker of male bonding—balm packed all those positive connotations. Over the last four-plus decades, that unmistakable scent takes me back to steamy Texas nights, road trips to McAllen, Harlingen and Brownsville, the crack of the bat, pranks on the bus, wins and losses, the swoosh of sprinklers watering the field after a game, the sharp knock of bats rattling around in a maroon canvas bat bag (which I used as a laundry bag in college).

The smell of balm is my gateway drug to other baseball memories. The Houston Astros moved into the Astrodome—accurately touted then as “the eighth wonder of the world”—when I was in elementary school. A family friend took my younger brother Cooper and me on a trip to Houston to see the Dome. Fifty years later, I can still remember the thrill of walking into that cavernous space age oddity. Round, cool and ringed with those candy-colored seats, the Dome could easily hold the entire population of Mission five times over. In those days, when the three- or four-story Hidalgo County Courthouse in Edinburg was the local skyscraper, the Astrodome simply had no rival for a “wow” factor. I became a staunch fan of the struggling Astros.

Summer nights passed with a transistor radio pressed to my ear, listening to the staticky radio signal from almost 400 miles away. On drives back from family vacation in San Antonio, my family would listen to AM broadcasts of games in our 1968 Chevy Impala with the white vinyl roof. While New York kids cheered on the Mets’ 1969 pennant drive, I was happy that the Astros finished the season at .500 (including a July 30 sweep of a doubleheader against the Mets at Shea Stadium). My mother thrilled me on my 12th birthday with the first edition of the Baseball Encyclopedia. I devoured its lists of players, teams and their records, and wondered how Connie Mack could spend 50 years managing just one team, the Philadelphia Athletics.

Since then I’ve seen major league games, with stops at Shea Stadium, Yankee Stadium, Wrigley Field (well, across the street in the rooftop viewing areas), and long-gone Cleveland Stadium, plus the Astros at Minute Maid Park. I can still read a box score. Despite the sleep demands of my post-middle age body, I prop myself up to watch every World Series game to the final out and beyond, no matter how late it goes. Of course that included the rain-delayed seventh game of the screaming, stomping, heart-stopping 2016 Series.

And if I run out of energy and doze off during the midnight commercials during the Series, I know I’ll eventually wake up and smell the balm.

I, Techie

Here I am on the 7:17 a.m. train to Grand Central, typing my first blog post on my brand new refurbished Dell Latitude E6430 laptop. After a three-year gap, I finally have a new used laptop so I can pound out my prose on the train.

The gap started when my Apple PowerBook G4 became too outdated and gave up its iGhost. I bought it off Craig’s List in 2006, having gone through two Dell laptops over the years. While I wrote much of a book on the PowerBook, I never warmed up to the Apple experience. After it became impossible to use, I pried the hard drive out, spiked it with a screwdriver and jumped on what remained a few times, then left it on the recycling table at the Westport, CT, town dump.

Since then I’ve done fun writing on my home desktop, with a Lenovo CPU and Acer monitor. Still, I missed my laptop. My hour-long train commute gives me a great window for writing, away from the phone and Internet. From past projects I know I can be highly productive (like I am now, stopped at the Chappaqua station). The time had come to take the tech plunge.

That plunge can be a chore since I work on an inverted scale of time involved in consumer purchases. The bigger the decision or purchase, the faster I make it. Buying a slightly used Hyundai Elantra in 2005 to replace an unreliable 1986 four-door Saab was a breeze, compared to a computer or camera. I still have the Elantra, so when I make a tech buy, I’m in it for the long haul.

The opportunities for months of dithering are enormous. The laptop process lasted about four months, as I endlessly compared best-of lists from PC Magazine, ZDNet, Consumer Reports, Laptop Reviews and Amazon. I slummed through Craig’s List once more. I solicited opinions on Facebook, where I was whipsawed among fans of Apple, Acer, HP, Asus, and Lenovo. The one piece of tech wisdom that broke through my befuddlement came from a college friend, who urged me to get a laptop with an SSD drive, said to be quieter and more reliable than a hard drive. That made sense and I used this insight to greatly narrow my search.

(Just left North White Plains, what productivity!)

Then I made the rounds of test drives, laying my hands on laptops at Best Buy, Staples, Target and Walmart. Quickly I realized that size really mattered. The 11-inch screens were too small, the 15.6 inch screens were too big. I couldn’t see myself stuff one in a backpack. My 14-inch Lenovo work laptop is fine, but 15.6 inches for a laptop meant for mobility—I just can’t handle that. Like Goldilocks testing the porridge, I decided 14 inches was just right. Along with the mysterious but now required SSD drive, the field narrowed more. I also talked to my tech-savvy son, who uses a Dell Alienware gaming laptop, which makes perfect sense given that he is a video-game designer.

“A lot of the reviews I read Amazon say negative stuff about the laptops,” I breathlessly related to him, in tones usually reserved for those who discover a new prime number.

“Dad, that’s because the people who have had bad experiences are the ones who tend to post comments,” he patiently explained (cue gentle exasperation since he’s heard this from me before). “Just make a choice and it’ll work out.”

Sam had great advice that I promptly ignored. I kept flipping through reviews, looking at holiday specials, maniacally typing on laptops at retail locations in search of a digital love match. When would my fingers gently caress the right keyboard and ignite a passionate flame of creativity that the machine made visible? The dithering, I knew, seriously hampered creativity. After all, I can’t write if I can’t find the right tool, right? I had a ready-made excuse for double-barreled procrastination. No laptop, no writing, what could be better?

Finally, the reading and store visits and consultations with friends reached the saturation point. Unless a fully configured laptop fell out of the sky and bonked me on the head, I would have to make a decision. Or not make a decision and live with the consequences and the vain hope of writing on my desktop before or after my long work day

I found myself cycling back to Staples, long my go-to source for office supplies. The website listed SSD laptops with 14-inch screens, with the added benefit of using Windows 7, rather than the hip and trendy Windows 10, which I’ve never used. The refurbished Lenovos started looking good. The price range was fine, and I knew Lenovos inside and out because that’s what I use at work

I was ready to make a decision.

(Harlem-125th Street, I’m feeling productive this morning.)

Then I took a final (in)sanity check by reading the Lenovo reviews on the Staples website. They were mostly good, but a consistent concern was battery life. Given I would use the laptop on the train, I wanted a battery that could at least get me to Manhattan and back. This drove me to look at the Dell laptops. The Staples commentariat were uniformly positive.

Then I started wondering, maybe I should step up to new Dell, get the latest bells and whistles, whatever those are, rather than opting for a behind-the-curve refurbished model. I wrote down a model number and headed to a suburban Staples to look at the shiny laptop. But with the 15.6 inch screen, I knew it just wouldn’t be feasible. After all, I was looking for a machine upon which I could write and get web access, not watch TV or play games.

Basil delights in the seductions of the "new computer" aroma.

Basil enjoys that intoxicating “new computer” aroma.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By process of elimination, I finally opened my eyes, heart and wallet to the love match laptop, a Dell with enough heft and weight to feel like a little Sherman tank but still fit in my backpack. I ordered, it came quickly, I set it up and loaded my trusty Windows 2003 software disk. Everything worked perfectly. The web access clicked in, I imported bookmarks and set up anti-virus protection, and now I’m banging out this post in an hour of fevered inspiration, which amazes me in that I really could translate thought into action and even stay awake on the train.

(Pulling in to Grand Central Terminal, time to disengage for now.)

Beach Reading at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof

My September vacation in Berlin and Amsterdam with my son gave me a chance to do something I rarely enjoy: read novels, in big blocks of time. By leaving the laptop and iPad at home and limiting my smartphone use, I found sweeping vistas of unencumbered, undistracted time, the way other people chill out with their paperbacks on the beach. On planes, on trains, at hostels after a long day of pounding through the Old World’s streets and museums, I could turn to books.

Here are notes on what I call my “beach reading at the Hauptbahnhof,” named after the main train station in Berlin, located a five-minute walk from our hostel.dsc00481-edit

My  selection hewed to genres I like. At home, I sometimes dip into books with limited page-turning potential, like those of late English authors Anita Brookner and Virginia Woolf. This time, however, I skipped intricate, interior-focused, emotionally challenging reads in favor of, in this order:

  • World War Z by Max Robins (borrowed from a Little Free Library box near my home)
  • The Heist by Daniel Silva
  • The Drop by Michael Connelly
  • Lock In by John Scalzi (left at home at the last moment, as I figured three books would keep me entertained for 13 days)

I loaded the list with two-fisted authors and genres that are my equivalent of beloved childhood bedtime stories—dystopian visions, spies and big-city noir police procedurals. I’ve read other works by all the authors except Robins, so I had total confidence in my ability to engage.

World War Z. I’m a big fan of The Walking Dead (TWD) and Fear the Walking Dead, so I immediately grabbed this book when I saw it at the Little Free Library. I had already seen the movie and found the book had a real depth and haunting quality. Following the format of Studs Terkel interviews with participants in momentous events, the book looks at a zombie apocalypse from viewpoints worldwide. It held together well and presented a vision of a situation similar to TWD but with a epic scale—military, political and social, and how a conventional war against the undead doesn’t make any sense. As much as I like TWD, I came to see it as a subset of World War Z, one story arc on a global stage.

The Heist. This book couldn’t have been better timed since part of the plot involved the theft of a Van Gogh painting from Amsterdam. Our itinerary included a visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. I didn’t notice anything missing. I’ve read one other book in the multi-volume saga of art restorer-master spy Gabriel Allon, and friends are telling me to start at the beginning. All I have to do is figure out where the series begins and I have my beach reading lined up for years to come.

The Drop. I’ve read two of Connelly’s books about LA lawyer Mick Haller: The Lincoln Lawyer and The Reversal. Both took me deep into the criminal justice system and techniques of the cops, the lawyers, the weasels at City Hall, the prosecutors and the perps. Connelly is just so good at capturing the milieu and personalities, with a minimum of bloodshed and a maximum of surprises, locales and strategies. Detective Harry Bosch is Haller’s half-brother and a minor player in The Reversal. He has his own series and I decided to give one a read. This one is about the soon-to-retire Bosch juggling two challenging cases at the same time. One is the murder (or suicide?) of a politician’s son, the other a cold case involving a murder by a sexual predator. More Bosch is on tap.

I made great progress on The Drop on the flight back from Amsterdam to Boston’s Logan Airport. The westward trip, eight hours in the sunshine, gifted plenty of time to race ahead without any sleepiness. By the time I grabbed an Amtrak train at South Station bound for Stamford, Connecticut, I had wrapped up The Drop and was starting to drag. Fortunately, I had picked up a final bit of beach reading at Berlin’s Topographie des Terrors documentation center, with the bilingual title Deutschland 1945 Die Letzten Kriesmonate/Germany 1945 The Last Months of the War. However, my eyes refused to focus, so I simply tried to stay awake as the train flashed through the Connecticut topography-booknight.

The reading splurge was a treat for me. Pre-Internet, I regularly knocked off massive books, like The Gulag Archipelago and the Children of the Arbat trilogy, the thousand-page Russian novel Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, The Stand by Stephen King, Moby Dick, War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk (the sequel to The Winds of War, which I read in high school). The dizzying array of distractions now gnaws at my time and attention. The main respite comes on Shabbat, Saturday afternoon, when I shut down the desktop and can sit on the couch and read. Checking the Drudge Report can wait.

As a writer, I get better by writing and also by reading. I pick up ideas on styles, research, dialogue and how to craft a story. As much as I enjoy reading, say, instapundit.com, diving into fiction stretches out time and my mind. Books stay with me. Blog posts, however enjoyable, carry less nutrition, even if they do get my synapses firing in socio-political rage at times.

The reading marathon encouraged me to keep up the pace after I returned. I’ll step away from the desktop as much as possible. I’m well into Scalzi’s Lock In. On Saturday I picked up three books from the Katonah Public Library. Given that I spent a week in Germany, the choices show my historical bent:

  • Judestaat by Simone Zelitch, alt-history about the aftermath of the 1948 creation of the sovereign state of Judenstaat in the Saxony region bordering Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia.
  • A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar, Film noir meets the Holocaust in converging stories. I don’t even know how to describe it.
  • If the Dead Rise Not by Philip Kerr. A novel in a series featuring Bernie Gunther, the house detective at Berlin’s Adlon Hotel when the action starts in 1934. Things then jump 20 years to Havana in 1954, where Gunther lives after being booted out of Buenos Aires.

I might race through all of them, or find myself bogged down. None of the books are translations, which means I’m reading straight-up English prose; translations often fail to connect with me, which was the case with the epic Berlin Alexanderplatz. Given enough open vistas of time (time to close down Chrome!) and alertness on my daily train commute, I could get the Germany out of my system and move back to challenging fall reading.

Maybe even Anita Brookner.

1980 and 2016: A Tale of Two Graduates

I’ve never wanted to live vicariously through my son Sam. His mother and I imparted good values to him, and we let him blaze his own path. With a passion for all aspects of video games since he was a tyke in Batman pajamas, Sam did exactly that, majoring in the interactive media and game development (IMGD) program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. From the day we toured WPI and learned about the game program, he knew that was the right direction for him. He applied, he was accepted and now he’s a graduate.

I’m delighted with Sam because he made a huge academic leap from my undergrad years at Princeton University. Bowing to pressure my divorced parents to find a “practical” major that would give me something to write about as an aspiring journalist, I majored in economics rather than English, history or even classics or Slavic studies. Only one economics class grabbed my interest, “Analyses of Capitalism,” with its focus on philosophy rather than equations. My B- grades for my two junior papers and my senior thesis reflect my lack of passion. My enthusiasm for classes on 19th century English literature (Bleak House by Charles Dickens and The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence both electrified me and I still have my heavily annotated version of The Rainbow), the politics of civil liberties (Mapp v. Ohio sticks in my memory), European intellectual history with Carl Schorske and modern Jewish thought with Ellen Umansky all point to roads not traveled.

Indeed, I don’t even have a copy of my thesis, that intellectual capstone on the edifice of your Princeton studies. So deeply did I bury my thesis that I couldn’t even remember the title until I looked it up on the university’s thesis directory. And there it was, “An Analysis of Board-Level Union Representation.” It clocked in at 86 pages, pounded out on an gunmetal grey IBM electric typewriter. At least I turned it in on time, an improvement over my fall junior paper.

While I muffled my passions, Sam celebrated his. His mother and I supported him all the way as Sam turned a passion into informed, logical academic and career choices. Even better, he had a fantastic experience with his senior project, the group equivalent of Princeton’s thesis. He could have played it safe with a project in the U.S., but he rolled the dice on the most challenging, exciting project option. As a result, he joined of a four-person team that spent three months in Japan creating a video game, titled Chinmoku, for learning Japanese. Based at a college near Kyoto, the team pulled together the game and also saw some of the country, taking the bullet train to Tokyo for several days. The final report the team submitted to WPI runs 73 pages and features much cooler illustrations than any of the feeble mathematical equations I scattered around my thesis.

By contrast, my great immersive experience was a bleak bus trip in January 1980 to Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Studies to research the idea of workers’ input into company management.

The contrasts continue. My thesis had no afterlife after I submitted it. Sam’s team, however, kept polishing the Chinmoku game. Not only did the final report earn an B from the professor, it won honorable mention in awards for senior projects in his department. The game also won honors as the top game in the indie college/serious game category of the competition of the Massachusetts Digital Games Institute (MassDIGI).

I thought about ordering a copy of my thesis. The price is minimal, but I decided to avoid a wrenching trip down memory lane; I just don’t want to see a reminder of those days or hold that cracked capstone of my Princeton academic journey. I’d much rather follow and cheer on the saga of Chinmoku. It might come in handy for those already gearing up for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Sam and I went in directions in another big way post-graduation. I had visions of joining the Foreign Service or Princeton in Asia or just spending time on the road in Europe before I joined the workforce. In 1980, journalism jobs were plentiful and I figured I’d be a cub reporter in Wichita or Baton Rouge or Corpus Christi, putting my hometown and college experience to good use as a feature writer. Instead, to my shock, I talked my way into a reporter-researcher job at Forbes magazine. The magazine wanted me to start quickly, so instead of traveling—or even arguing for a week to go home to Mission, Texas to catch my breath—I scrambled to find a place to live in Brooklyn and began riding the sweltering subway to work less than two weeks after I graduated. To be fair, had I not moved to New York then, I might never have moved there, and my life would have been radically different, probably lived within a 100-mile radius of San Antonio.

Now, Sam, he’s taking the smart approach. He’s got his resume, a website and a Twitter account, all the tools of the aspiring game designer. He knows the market and where his skills fit, and he’s networking and going to events. The right job is out there for him

Better yet, he’s had time after graduation to enjoy life. I tell him he’ll be working for a long, long time, so don’t go crazy in the beginning. And Sam’s also hitting the road for European travel. With the Japan experience from last year, he’s a pro at border crossings. He studied German in high school, so he has tickets for almost two weeks in Germany and then Amsterdam.

Actually, this is a joint project for two graduates, one from 1980 and one from 2016. Sam and I are going together, the new graduate and the one who never took that post-graduation trip.

We leave for Berlin tonight.