Sunday, December 4, 2022

Cryptoconchoidsiphonostomata: Shell Poetics

Scaly-foot snail shell. (Stefan Bengston)

The Scaly-foot snail makes its habitat in the most treacherous region in the world---it lives along the hydrothermal vent fields deep down on the sea floor in the Indian Ocean. These subaquatic vents spew forth hydrogen sulfides, a highly-toxic poisonous gas which the Scaly-foot snail not only withstands but, using a self-produced bacteria, turns into sustenance. 

Withstanding the pressure of nearly 2 miles of ocean water weighing down, defending itself from predators, and thriving in a zone of boiling hot poison gas spewing everywhere, the Scaly-foot snail constructs a shell made out of iron. It is the only known organism to create iron sulfide biominerals for use in its exoskeleton and shell. The iron shell and scales protect a creature with the largest heart, relative to body volume, in the entire animal kingdom (4% of its body volume). Scaly-foot snails are simultaneous hermaphrodites possessing both sexual organs and, despite their high fecundity which creates many eggs, the species is now considered endangered thanks to deep-sea dredging in the Indian Ocean floor.

*   *   *

"the handwriting on his facewall, the cryptoconchoidsiphonostomata in his exprussians"
                 (Finnegans Wake 136.16)

[Cryptoconchoidsyphonostomata was the name of a stage play performed at Royal Theater in Dublin in James Joyce's day. The word literally means something like "hidden shell-like tube-mouths."]

"Putting Allspace in a Notshall." FW 455.29
"the quivers of scaly silver and their clutches of chromes"  FW 477.26


*    *   *

Faced with "the horrible dangers of war," Bernard Palissy contemplated a design for a "fortress city." He had lost all hope of finding an existing plan "in the cities built today." Vitruvius himself could be of no help in the century of the cannon. So he journeyed through "forests, mountains and valleys to see if he could find some industrious animal that had built some industrious houses." After inquiring everywhere, Palissy began to muse about "a young slug that was building its house and fortress with its own saliva." Indeed, he passed several months dreaming of a construction from within, and most of his leisure time was spent walking beside the sea, where he saw "such a variety of houses and fortresses which certain little fishes had made from their own liquor and saliva that, from now on, I began to think that he was something that might be applied to my own project." "The battles and acts of brigandry" that take place in the sea, being on a larger scale than those that take place on land, God "had conferred upon each one the diligence and skill needed to build a house that had been surveyed and constructed by means of such geometry and architecture, that Solomon, in all his wisdom could never have made anything like it."
    With regard to spiralled shells, he wrote that this shape was not at all "for mere beauty, there's much more to it than that. You must understand that there are several fish with such sharply pointed beaks that they would devour most of the above-mentioned fish if the latter's abodes were in a straight line: but when they are attacked by their enemies on the threshold, just as they are about to withdraw inside, they twist and turn in a spiral line and, in this way, the foe can do them no harm."
         - Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p. 146-147

*   *   *

There is a spell, for instance
in every sea-shell:

continuous, the sea thrust
is powerless against coral,

bone, stone, marble
hewn from within by that craftsman,

the shell-fish:
oyster, clam, mollusc

is master-mason planning
the stone marvel:

yet that flabby, amorphous hermit
within, like the planet

senses the finite,
it limits its orbit

of being, its house,
temple, fane, shrine:

it unlocks the portals
at stated intervals:

prompted by hunger,
it opens to the tide-flow:

but infinity? no,
of nothing-too-much:

I sense my own limit,
my shell-jaws snap shut

at invasion of the limitless,
ocean-weight; infinite water

can not crack me, egg in egg-shell;
closed in, complete, immortal

full-circle, I know the pull
of the tide, the lull

as well as the moon;
the octupus-darkness

is powerless against
her cold immortality;

so I in my own way know
that the whale

can not digest me:
be firm in your own small, static, limited

orbit and the shark-jaws
of outer circumstance

will spit you forth:
be indigestible, hard, ungiving,

so that, living within,
you beget, self-out-of-self,

that pearl-of-great-price.


    - H.D.
    p. 8-9, Trilogy (1944)

Saturday, October 29, 2022

A Post-Mortem for the 2022 New York Mets

Jacob deGrom looking off into an uncertain future.

With baseball engaged in its final series before the 2022 season ends, I feel compelled to collect my thoughts on the Mets season now with this being the third consecutive full MLB season in which the NL pennant went to a Mets rival from the NL East. In other words, since 2019 every NL East team has won the pennant except the Mets and the Marlins. 

Incredibly, by most measures the Mets in 2022 had their second-best season ever. Yet those results represented the lower end of this team's range of outcomes. These Mets won 101 games, eclipsed by only the legendary 1986 Mets (one of the best teams ever) who won 108 games. Buck Showalter's Mets squad finished 40 games over .500 in his first year as manager. Buck seemed to help shift the franchise toward a more respectable vibe than recent vintage. This was a polished all-around ballclub led by a deep lineup full of hitters with different styles from the power of Pete Alonso to patient bats like Brandon Nimmo and Mark Canha to the throwback contact skills of 2022 NL batting champion Jeff McNeil. Francisco Lindor had the best season of any Mets shortstop ever, Starling Marte added a jolt to the lineup with his power-speed combo. The starting rotation consistently shoved, the bullpen had fewer meltdowns than any Mets team I can remember thanks mostly to a Cy Young-level historically dominant year from Edwin Diaz closing games. 

The 2022 Mets held onto first place for the vast majority of the season, they always seemed to fight back after a loss, and they kept pace with the scorching hot Braves as summer turned to fall. Yet by the end the story of these Mets soured with the Braves barely edging them out in the final week much like they did in 2021 when the Mets led the division for almost five months until collapsing. This year the Mets' collapse was milder, more gradual, more complicated. Hardly a collapse, more of an increasingly uninspired, perhaps exhausted tread that tripped and tumbled til the Mets were fighting for their lives in a do-or-die game against the Padres and complaining about Joe Musgrove's shiny ears (reminiscent of the '86 Mets flipping out over Mike Scott scuffing the ball when he dominated in the 1986 NLCS). Thus an otherwise great Mets season ends up fitting into a narrative pattern alongside their last few years of agonizing almosts and embarrassing ineptitude.

In 2021 the Mets were in first place with six weeks left in the season and then imploded so badly they ended up in 3rd place, 11.5 games behind the division-winning Braves. Even in the 2020 Covid-shortened season the Mets just barely missed out on the postseason despite a larger than normal playoff pool. The 2019 Mets season was memorable for several superstars putting up big numbers and lots of dramatic wins only to fall just barely short of the playoffs due to several egregious meltdowns from the bullpen. 

The 2022 Mets were paradoxical in that they hardly suffered any meltdowns. They were a winning team every month, they played well both at home and on the road. Their "collapse" happened in September when they had a .577 winning percentage. Problem was they were being chased by a red-hot Atlanta team and needed to be perfect in the final weeks playing against the weakest schedule in baseball. They had so many opportunities to clinch a division title and first round bye in the postseason but couldn't seal the deal. Even after missing that chance, they still had repeated opportunities to end on a high note, instead they went 1-5 across six season-defining games to end their season (3 vs the Braves in Atlanta, 3 vs the Padres in NY) with all their top guys healthy. 

Now that the Phillies have snatched the 2022 NL pennant, what's weird in retrospect is that the Mets won 14 of 19 against the Phils this year. They no-hit the Phillies, dominated them, had an epic 7-run comeback in the 9th inning in a game in Philly. And that dominance of the NL pennant winner does not matter. Why? Because the Mets only won 9 of their 19 games against the Braves and that divisional matchup is essentially what determined the final outcome of their whole season. The Mets vs the Braves meant everything in 2022. This was because MLB for the first time in modern history did not have the game 163 tiebreaker to decide division winners, so the head-to-head results meant everything. To have the NL East come down to a tie atop the division in the first season with no game 163 was horrible optics for MLB. Fans were robbed of that opportunity. And yet the Braves' winning the NL east by the smallest of margins was a Pyrrhic victory anyway, since they immediately got knocked out in the first round by the Phillies. 

The postseason chaos on the NL side caused a lot of philosophical contemplation among baseball fans about what playoff baseball is supposed to be exactly. The system in the era of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred's unpopular rule changes seems to have rattled the coherence and meaning of baseball games and outcomes, impacting fans' ability to take the regular season results all that seriously despite baseball having the longest regular season in pro sports. So many teams engage in tanking and a handful of others so steadily stand among the elite that the playoff contenders are practically set in stone before the season begins. It's just a matter of whether they can keep their best players healthy over a six-month slog playing against many teams that have no playoff hopes. In the final weeks when the Mets had a playoff spot clinched but were playing against the Cubs, A's, Nationals, Pirates, I just kept hoping they'd make it thru those games without any major injuries. 

The Mets were fine. Besides the final two weeks, this was the least stressful season for Mets fans to follow that I can ever remember. The 2015 and 2016 Mets made the playoffs and were super exciting teams but both relied on late season surges to make up for a rough start, and both teams had weaknesses that often kept their games at nail-bitingly close margins. The 2006 Mets were a dominant team but they were mostly reliant on a powerful lineup and deep bullpen whereas the rotation was always a little bit shaky. The 2022 Mets hardly had any major weaknesses. 

They got to choose between Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom to start game 1 of the playoffs and chose Scherzer (probably should've kept with deGrom as their #1 but I won't go into that). Their world-class closer Diaz was healthy, the bullpen was actually pretty solid overall, it felt like there were far fewer late inning meltdowns than ever. The hitters were relatively healthy although all were probably dinged up like Starling Marte who played the final series with a broken finger. The Mets set the MLB record for being hit by pitches and had several close calls with guys getting hit in the face including their two biggest offensive stars Alonso and Lindor who both took heaters to the face during the season, yet both stayed in the lineup all year and into the playoffs. They didn't suffer any of their typical back-of-the-rotation erosions or Jerad Eickhoff-ian sinkholes, instead they regularly ran out a deep pitching staff. 

The one frustrating thing about the 2022 Mets is they stacked up the team in every area except the catching position which has been their biggest weakness and a source of frustration for years now. This weakness has been evident for a while, we all knew it was a problem going into the season, they failed to address it in the offseason or at the trade deadline and it arguably ended up costing them. The fate of the most recent Mets team could conceivably be rooted in their failures to sign an elite catcher back before the 2019 season. At that point, the Mets needed to sign free agent All Star catcher Yasmani Grandal but he signed with Milwaukee instead and had a huge year with them. The following winter the Mets were expected to make a big run at trying to sign All Star catcher J.T. Realmuto but they botched it and he signed with the rival Phillies instead. Losing out on Realmuto was devastating because there was a pretty steep dropoff after Grandal and Realmuto to the rest of the available catchers not only in 2019 but looking ahead. The Mets instead signed James McCann, typically a backup catcher, to a four-year deal worth $40 million.

Ironically, the 2022 Mets' best catcher Tomás Nido actually had one of the top defensive seasons of any catcher in MLB this year. He might win a Gold Glove. Only problem was his bat was so bad it hurt the team's chances---as a hitter Nido actually had the Mets' lowest Win Probability Added, a metric that reflects game situation, meaning he was at the plate in pivotal moments and failed to get the job done. And the less said about their other catcher James McCann, the better. Overall in 2022, encompassing offensive and defensive value (including pitch-framing stats), the Mets' performance from all of their catchers amounted to 1.2 wins above replacement according to Fangraphs. J.T. Realmuto playing for the Phillies had the best season of his career with 6.5 wins above replacement. The vast difference between Realmuto and the Mets' catching corps is evident in every season since the Mets lost out on signing him. Perhaps more painfully, the Mets did have a catcher of some promise named Travis d'Arnaud who helped lead them to the 2015 NL pennant, but the previous ownership regime rage cut d'Arnaud early in 2019 after he got off to a rough start returning from injury, and d'Arnaud regained his form, went on to win a World Series for the Braves and has regularly tormented his old team since. The Mets ranked 26th in MLB in OPS from the catching position in 2022, the Braves ranked 1st, the Phillies ranked 3rd.

The Mets developed the top catching prospect in MLB this year, the 20-year-old Francisco Álvarez, but kept holding back from calling him up to the big league team until a moment of desperation before their final series in Atlanta. Álvarez looked overmatched in that series. After that he only got a few at-bats playing in front of the home crowd, but he impressed in limited time, blasting a home run and a double. It shouldn't be overlooked that the Mets had such a potent bat sitting in the minors while the big league club had a gaping offensive hole at the catching and DH positions. Had the Mets given some of Nido, Darin Ruf, or James McCann's September at-bats to Francisco Álvarez instead, maybe this season would've had a different result. 

And so the Mets add another gut-wrenching disappointment to their deep history of such collapses, especially in the 21st century. Observe the results since then:

2000: won NL pennant, lost winnable WS game 1 and lost Subway Series 4-1
2001-2005: missed playoffs for five straight years
2006: won NL East title, season ends with gut-wrenching loss in NLCS game 7
2007-08: two historically bad end-of-season collapses to miss playoffs
2009-2014: missed playoffs for six straight years
2015: magical run to win NL pennant, lost winnable WS game 1 and lost Series 4-1
2016: won Wild Card spot, lost winnable wild card 1-game playoff at home
2017-2021: missed playoffs for five straight years
2022: won 101 games, made playoffs, Wild Card loss in first round at home

Although it did feel like the Mets could've done better in the first round against the Padres had they been more willing to take their starters out of the game at the first sign of trouble (a clearly gassed Scherzer was left in the game too long in game 1, same with Chris Bassitt in game 3), by then the offense had gone into a slump and their fate was sealed. They had succumbed to the usual Mets shit.

Now that fans have had time to process the disappointing end to an incredible season, I think what we are all hoping for now is that the Mets don't follow up their successes with another extended drought. They've had a pattern. After their 2000 NL pennant, they sucked for a good while. Their 2006 division title seemed the first of many, but was followed by eight seasons of ineptitude and embarrassment. The aftermath of the 2015-16 contending teams was similar. The core of the 2022 Mets has so much promise, but will inevitably look different next year.

Adding to the disappointment of their late season failure is that much of the team will now disperse because so many guys will become free agents this offseason. It's completely up in the air whether the Mets will re-sign franchise stalwarts like Jacob deGrom, Edwin Diaz, or Brandon Nimmo, let alone solid contributors like Taijuan Walker, Seth Lugo, Trevor May, Chris Bassitt, or Carlos Carrasco. The Mets might look very different next year. They'll have to completely rebuild their relief pitching since almost all of those guys will be on their way out, which will be tough to do after a season when, for once, they had a very good bullpen. It will be an interesting offseason to watch what mega-billionaire owner Steve Cohen decides to do. Not only are lots of key players becoming free agents, but crappy players like McCann and Ruf have guaranteed contracts next year that the Mets really need to figure out how to buy their way out of. Having watched an NL East rival go all the way to the World Series yet again, it's possible Steve Cohen gets mad and just dumps piles of money into the team for a turbo-boost. Regardless, the 2022 season has taught us that regular season success offers no guarantees for the short series playoffs. This was the best Mets team I've ever watched in my life and their season ended in a snap. 

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Several Short Videos of the Sea from my iPhone

Back in the landlocked capital of Texas in Austin at the height of summer, I'm missing the ocean. Scanning through several videos of the sea taken recently from my phone. 

New York Harbor from the Staten Island Ferry with accompanying coastguard gunboat.

A Staten Island Beach in the wintertime.

In Dublin, Ireland looking out at the Irish Sea from atop the Martello Tower Joyce museum in Sandycove.

The Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, western coast of Ireland.

The Burren in County Clare, western coast of Ireland.

View from Vico and Sorrento, Dalkey, county Dublin, Ireland.

The Giant's Causeway and the rough Atlantic Ocean in County Antrim, Northern Ireland.


The pristine sparkling blue Mediterranean outside of Marseille in Côte d'Azur, France. 

Me swimming in the Mediterranean at a beach in Cannes, Côte d'Azur, France. 

Off the coast of Massachusetts, Vineyard Ferry cruising along Atlantic Ocean.

The boat ride from Dalkey Island, Ireland.

"There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with nothing ruffled but the waves. The tranced ship indolently rolls; the drowsy trade winds blow; everything resolves you into languor" (Melville, Moby-Dick, p. 160)

"the blending cadence of waves with thoughts"  (Moby-Dick, p. 163)

"Melville thought the names of all fine authors were fictitious because they stood for the ubiquitous and magic spirit of all Beauty. Keats asked to have HERE LIES ONE WHOSE NAME WAS WRIT IN WATER carved on his gravestone." 
    (Susan Howe, The Quarry, p. 192)

"The beginning of man was salt sea, and the perpetual reverberation of that great ancient fact, constantly renewed in the unfolding of life in every human individual, is the important single fact about Melville. Pelagic." 

[Pelagic (adj.): relating to or living in open sea]
    (from Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael, quoted in Susan Howe, The Quarry, p. 192) 

"Looking at the waves scudding outwards and getting lost on the horizon, [Heisenberg] could not help but recall the words of his mentor, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who had once told him that a part of eternity lies in reach of those capable of staring, unblinking, at the sea's deranging expanses." 
(Benjamin Labatut, When We Cease to Understand the World, p. 96)


Saturday, July 2, 2022

ReBuilding and Re: Recent Roamings

"The Hut"
by Fanny Howe

Up the hill is a hut made of sound
where two windows rhyme
and the tiles stay on
because they are nailed to a dream.
The dreamer wonders: Can this be mine?

The floor is solid and straight
and is amber from sap.
The walls don't leak or let out heat
from gray embers in the grate.

This is the original home
at the heart of brutalist design.
No storm can slam its shape apart.
No thief can carry it off.
It dwells in ashen buildings where the present sleeps.

*   *   *

This blog has been dormant for a while. I'm going to try to bring some life back to it. In my last post here, more than six months ago, I talked about having gone on a self-driven path of deconstructing my life and embarking out into the unknown for a while. For seven months I lived a nomadic existence, traveling around many countries and cities, staying as a guest in various friends' houses, hotels, Airbnbs, and an extended stay with family in Staten Island and Brooklyn. The trip sprung from, among other things, a yearning to plunge into the unfamiliar, test my luck, and experience the world after so many months in lockdown during the pandemic. In the aftermath of that extended nomadic period, I tallied up these numbers: in the lockdown year 2020 I slept in three different beds all year (the bed at my house and a couple places I stayed at during a roadtrip to Colorado) whereas in the last calendar year now I slept in more than 40 different beds in at least fifteen different cities in six countries.

While bouncing across so many places and living out of a suitcase for so long, I got into thinking about the feeling of and the meaning of home. Found myself thinking often about Gaston Bachelard's book, The Poetics of Space. Bachelard wrote, "A house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability." (p. 38) Some houses grant illusions or proofs of stability better than others. I stayed in a few dumps and at least one badly insulated space during a couple weeks of frigid temps. I stayed in a sprawling mansion in Ireland where I didn't feel comfortable because of an unwelcoming host, I also stayed in a repurposed 19th-century military barracks in Ireland, a Martello Tower made of stone that felt extremely comfortable because of the generosity of the hosts. I stayed in a garage attic apartment in Texas where time stood still and I stayed in a barn in Texas where the metal-roof resonated from a heavy hail storm. The constant moving from one place to the next felt like a recapitulation of earlier departures from shells in my life---leaving my parents' house at age 21 to move to the other side of the country, years later leaving southern California to come to Austin where I'd never been before but have now resided for 11 years. Each time felt like a crab leaving its shell to seek out a better one (my sun sign is Cancer the crab). 

"The atmosphere is nailed together.

Limb marking threshold.

Each element struggles to 
make threat subservient
to shelter."

- from "Doorway" by Elizabeth Robinson

"I dreamed of a nest in which the trees repulsed death" 
- from Bachelard, Poetics of Space (p. 123)

During the height of winter I was living back at my parents' house in Staten Island by myself (they'd gone to Florida to escape the cold). With the recent memories of so many different homes and rooms in various places, I was centered back there at the home where I grew up and had first conceived of the concept of home. Bachelard in The Poetics of Space says, "In short, the house we were born in has engraved within us the hierarchy of the various functions of inhabiting." (p. 36) As much as I despise being in Staten Island, my old house still feels like home. The city is so crowded, the people are so angry, it seemed every time I went out someplace I had a hostile altercation with somebody, but the old house still feels like home and it feeds some inner craving for peace of mind when I'm there. 

Here's Bachelard again:
"The house we were born in is more than an embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams. Each one of its nooks and corners was a resting-place for daydreaming. And often the resting-place particularized the daydream. Our habits of a particular daydream were acquired there." (p. 37)

I've always been a homebody and my personal growth has involved breaking out of those habits to go far out into the unknown and find my way, find how I can build a new center of peace in the unfamiliar. As a kid I must have spent lots of time in the nooks and corners of my house daydreaming, but I could never have imagined the adventures that would ensue. Roadtrips spanning the width of the North American continent, piloting boats along the waters of the Mediterranean in the South of France, expeditions along the rocky coastline of Ireland, bike rides speeding through the alleyways of Barcelona, panoramic views from the hills of Lisbon, late nights partying in the village squares of Antwerp, connecting with the sky gods while perched atop the Pyramid of the Sun looking down the Avenue of the Dead in Teotihuacán far out in the desert outside Mexico City. 

When I was a kid I loathed having to go on family trips out to New Jersey to visit my grandma because the open spaces and relatively rural vibes of Jersey made me uneasy. I needed NYC's clusterfuck of intersections and delis and pizzerias on every block. That's what made me comfortable. Now I once again live in the middle of Texas where the city center is equidistant to me as farmlands with cows, my neighbor's yard has a friendly goat, and too much time spent in the crowded and cranky NYC boroughs drives me nuts. 

Rebecca Solnit in her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost writes: "Some people inherit values and practices as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis." (p. 80) This was the process I went through as a young adult. And again years later, after I'd established a home over several years living in Austin which no longer felt satisfying, I underwent the same process again. Burned it all down to start over from scratch. Ashes make great fertilizer. The past year has been full of big changes and very little stability, it has not been easy but it has definitely been enriching. Again quoting Solnit, "he ceased to be lost not by returning but by turning into something else." (p. 71)

Spending such extended time staying within the hospitality industry (hotels and Airbnbs etc) you start to gain a deeper appreciation for little things that make a place feel like home and how a place becomes a home over time. Living transiently also affords one a chance to cut things down to basics, carrying around only what you need. Most of my belongings including my entire library, all my art, and most of my clothes were locked up in storage the whole time. I had a consolidated wardrobe, compact but versatile enough for different climates. I mainly carried around only the books with the highest ratio of insight and lexical originality-per-page, which I had decided are these two: Finnegans Wake by James Joyce and the epic poem ARK by Ronald Johnson. Those came with me everywhere. 

During my time in Europe I also read two nonfiction books by Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilization on the immediate developments that led to WW2 and also his most recent book Baseless: My Search for Secrets in the Ruins of the Freedom of Information Act, about the secret history of US military involvement with biological and chemical warfare. Both were timely and highly informative reads, and Baker's prose style is so easily digestible. The newer book Baseless felt like a sequel to Human Smoke, though at least with Baseless Baker regularly breaks up the revelations of dark and deeply upsetting information with simple and grounding stories about his dogs and domestic life. On the other hand, the cold facts and details of mass killings of Jews by the Nazis in Human Smoke seared my brain to a degree that I am forever horrified by it. I had to hide Human Smoke when I wasn't reading it because just looking at that book put a bad feeling in my gut.

This material was fresh in my mind as I rode around on trains and planes across Europe, looking at the scenery and thinking about the purpose of life, how flimsy and fragile it seems, how long the land outlasts us, how we should soak it all in and enjoy life while we can. Ultimately I thought of how sick and fucked up so much of mankind has always been with twisted ideology and racist hate. The same struggles for power, wars against tyrants, recur in cycles over centuries. How the endurance of hope persists despite it all. How we are all just looking for a place to call home, a shell within which we can grow and feel at peace. 

Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Sacrifice

"Had to sacrifice all to earn favor" 
            - Ka, "Eye of a Needle"

One night back in March of this year, I was struck by a vision about sacrifice. I was laying in a hammock in my backyard, looking up at the stars. Soaking in the pleasures and privileges of my existence, appreciating my comforts yet realizing that I was not at all satisfied with my life, I was aching for something new. 

At that point, I had accumulated everything I could have ever wanted in life---I owned a house on a nice big piece of property, with a canopy provided by a dozen oak trees, the property peppered with colorful flowers and paddle cactus plants, succulents, and a big vegetable garden. The backyard was renovated, spacious, peaceful, comfortable. Inside the house I had a library full of books, walls covered with art, comfy couches to sit and read on, a fireplace to sit next to with my dog, and a desk to do my writing. I had a big, playful puppy, a pittie-German shepherd mix who always kept me feeling safe, whose energy always brought me joy. And I had a woman who I'd been with for many years, been to hell and back with. I had all of that and yet I felt completely unsatisfied with this life, felt myself becoming obsessed with a new craving for adventure and exploring the unknown. I was feeling like the creative energies in my life had become dulled and dormant. Felt like my life and whatever youth I had left, was slipping away day by day. I'd been depressed for a while after three of my friends passed away unexpectedly during the pandemic lockdown. Then that night in March, I started thinking about Tarkovsky's 1986 movie The Sacrifice

I had seen The Sacrifice a couple years prior when a friend, who's a devoted scholar of Tarkovsky, brought me to a screening at the Austin Film Society. I remember being totally awed by the film's visionary qualities, impacted by the scenes of the house rattling from warplanes overhead, the scenes of stillness and nature and especially the famous scene of the burning house. But after seeing the film I didn't have much of any appreciation for what it meant, what it was conveying. That is, until that night back in March when I was overwhelmed with thoughts about the meaning and importance of sacrifice. I started replaying scenes from the film in my head and I read synopses online and I realized that the main character was stricken by a feeling that the world was out of joint, that he needed to sacrifice everything he loved in order to restore peace. I started dwelling on the meaning of sacrifice---as in, a sacrifice to God or to the gods or to the universe, in order to earn favor and fortune and restore creative energies. To bring balance to the universe. The more I dwelled on it, the more it made literal sense to me. The notion of sacrificing what you love, renouncing possessions, giving up what makes you feel secure and comfortable in order to, in some symbolic way, feed the creative fires of the universe---this mythical, primitive idea suddenly made sense to me on a deeply personal level. The meaning of sacrifice felt real. 

That night I realized the only way I could fix my aching depression and dissatisfaction with life was to dismantle and demolish the life I had built, to sacrifice it all and plunge into the unknown with the faith that things would all work out for the better, that the creative energies of my universe would be restored by my sacrifice and guide me to a new, more fulfilling life. This was a terrifying realization because it meant I would need to give up everything that made me feel secure and comfortable. I would have to endure the suffering of separation from what I had become attached to, which was a feeling of security. For ten years I'd been living in tiny apartments until finally I'd been able to buy a nice big house, then over several years we invested so much work and energy into the house to make it comfortable. Then we added the big puppy dog into the mix and the house became his home too. And now I had reached the realization with certainty that I needed to give all that up to go seek happiness in the unknown. I knew then that to restore balance in my life I needed to sacrifice everything that made me feel secure to instead go off alone, in Joyce's phrase "wandering among the snares of the world." I had to destroy the life I had built so I could eventually rebuild my life in a better way. 

*   *   *

"As soon as I emerged from a self-made prison
My own ambitions made way for the decision of a lifetime, of a lifetime
It ain't sit right with me that I might die
No, I can't go, I got work to do
The never-ending life cycle, how a circle do
This is personal
This is personal"
              - Navy Blue, "Light"

During the peak of the pandemic lockdown, some of my friends died unexpectedly. I wrote about this earlier this year. Adding to the pain of those sudden losses was being unable to process their deaths properly with any sort of wake or gathering to memorialize them. The shock of those deaths made an impact on me that eventually changed my life. I found it especially difficult to process the death of my old friend and coworker Scott who was the same age as me and had been in good health, only to be found dead in his apartment one night in late October 2020. After that I began to develop a craving to get out and see the world, to go try and fulfill my dreams and dream big, to no longer defer any of my ambitions into the future but to try and live life now since it had become abundantly clear to me that I could die at any moment. Scott was a deep philosophical thinker, a passionate mind with a love for literature. We often talked about life and death, he loved getting into heavy discussions. Feeling a bit of guilt over his sudden death, I also developed an ambition to live big and embark on exciting adventures in his honor. He (along with many other friends of mine) had insisted for years that I go visit Ireland because of my love of James Joyce's art and because Scott had been there once before and felt it was a special place. So, when I was at the beginning of my recent overseas adventure and found myself getting drunk on whiskey while hanging inside a stone tower built in 1804 on the coast of Dublin, I was toasting to Scott and communing with his spirit. 

A recent NYRB article about Dostoyevsky discusses how the Russian novelist was sentenced to a Siberian prison camp as a political prisoner and while he was there, was the victim of a "mock execution." He and the other prisoners were condemned to death, given their last rites, taken outside to face a firing squad, and at the very last possible moment the execution was called off. Some of his fellow prisoners went insane in reaction to this and never recovered while Dostoyevsky went on to compose some of the most profound novels ever written. One of his biographers posits that the experience of the mock execution left Dostoyevsky "with a completely different view of time and ethics, which Frank calls 'eschatological [apocalyptic] apprehension.' Dostoevsky concluded, he says, that 'every instant takes on a supreme value,' and 'each moment of the present is when a decisive choice has to be made.'" Although I did not experience anything nearly as harrowing as Dostoyevsky, the death of some people close to me left me with a similar feeling about the importance of each instant. I became increasingly uneasy about wasting time. I felt whatever youth I had left was being wasted in the exceedingly comfortable yet quiet existence I was living at my nice house with my ex-girlfriend and my dog. I was consumed by an urgent need to get out and experience the world. 

So I made the decision to give up everything I had, to downsize my existence, donate or sell off most of my things and place all my books into storage, pack up a couple suitcases and go off into the world. Originally I planned to drive around the United States visiting everyone I know in different states, but once I was out of the house and away from my dog I found it too painful to be anywhere near my old place, so I decided to go faraway and flew overseas to Ireland. There I was blessed to meet a Brazilian girl, a lawyer and a deep, passionate thinker who I connected with on a level that made it seem like she'd known me for a long time. Eventually she brought me to meet some of her extended family in the South of France and it became one of the most incredible adventures of my life. When I was dismantling my previous existence, moving out of the house and putting all my stuff into storage, I felt a strong sense all of that, even though it was painful and difficult, was just a preparation for a future more exciting than anything I'd previously conceived of. Months later, when I was zooming around the Mediterranean Sea in a boat with Brazilians, diving off the boat into pristine waters off the coast of a small town near Marseilles, floating in the sea, drinking lots of champagne, staying in a penthouse in Cannes, visiting the Picasso Museum in a 14th century castle in Antibes, driving through the mountains of southern France, drinking the best wine in the world and eating like a king at a restaurant in a small French town on some Anthony Bourdain shit, I knew then that my earlier visions and realizations about sacrifice were meaningful and important. I knew that my premonitions about taking a daring leap into the unknown had manifested, my determination had paid off. My new future was being constructed and it was indeed more incredible than anything I'd ever imagined. 

While the process has already been rewarding, none of this has been easy. I'm having to figure things out week to week. As I write this, my latest European adventure has recently concluded, I went to six countries in a span of eight weeks and had enough amazing experiences to write about and talk about for the rest of my life. But now I'm back in Staten Island, NY, staying at the house I grew up in, sleeping in the same bedroom I was in since I was an infant. Maybe in some way I'm connecting with my inner child and healing some old wounds. Above all I'm trying to recompose myself and plot a new future while continuing to heal from past loss. I know the pandemic era has been difficult for many people and that my deconstructing of my life to build something new is part of a larger pattern in which many people are quitting their jobs or getting divorced and going off into something new. For anyone who's suffering, I hope you can feel inspired to hold on and to be brave and to grasp at your dreams. 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Baseball in the Works of the Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-2021)

The American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti passed away in March 2021 just a few weeks shy of reaching his 102nd birthday. Last year I wrote about Ferlinghetti in a few places: the James Joyce Quarterly published my review of Ferlinghetti's final book, I also wrote about Ferlinghetti and Joyce at my other blog, then I wrote more about Ferlinghetti and his incredible final book on this blog.

April is both National Poetry Month and the opening month of the baseball season, so as April comes to a close I'm going to pay tribute to the late poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti by looking at how he wrote about baseball in his works. Ferlinghetti grew up in Yonkers, New York (located right above Manhattan Island) and after spanning the globe on manifold adventures he settled in San Francisco right around the time the Giants baseball team moved their home base from the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan out to the Bay Area of San Francisco. Reading through Ferlinghetti's books, one gets the impression that baseball was a ubiquitous aspect of his life. His writings on baseball also tend to intersect with his political diatribes, proving once again that you cannot separate baseball from politics in America.

Ferlinghetti's "Baseball Canto" (1972) is the most well-known of his writings on baseball. You can listen to him reciting the poem in the video below. American history and its manifestations in present day contexts often figures into the works of Ferlinghetti. His perspective was that of a fiercely dissident poet yet he was also a WW2 vet who commanded a ship at D-Day in 1944 and later turned into a staunch pacifist following his visit to Nagasaki in late 1945. His "Baseball Canto" foregrounds what truly makes America great, its diversity and inclusiveness, but for Ferlinghetti the gameplay on the field finds metaphorical resonance with the struggles of marginalized people for empowerment and freedom within what he calls "the Anglo-Saxon tradition." Themes of racism, colonialism, and exploitative capitalism are observable in the poem. The umpires become Irish cops overseeing the action. He envisions Willie Mays as "a footrunner from Thebes." Tito Fuentes becomes a bullfighter being cheered by the Latinos in the stands. Sort of ironically, the poet is reading Ezra Pound's Cantos while sitting in the stands. Ferlinghetti's "Baseball Canto" opens this way:

Watching baseball, sitting in the sun, eating popcorn,
reading Ezra Pound,
and wishing that Juan Marichal would hit a hole right through the
Anglo-Saxon tradition in the first Canto
and demolish the barbarian invaders.

Ferlinghetti once published a bizarre little book called Tyrannus Nix? (New Directions, 1969) where the text is presented in the poet's own handwriting with minimal punctuation. A satirical work, Tyrannus Nix? deploys baseball metaphors to mock and satirize then-president Richard M. Nixon. "Nixon Nixon I'm singing you this baseball Diamond Sutra from way out here in New Left Field in the International League." Nixon was from Whittier, California and Ferlinghetti writes:

This is one national sport we hope is on the way out The Whittier White Sox we hope are all washed up It's time for a new umpire and a new Hall of Fame Throw out a new ball and a new uniform and a new flag too while you're at it and make the flag green this time instead of bloody red and black-and-blue (p. 7-8)

Later in Tyrannus Nix? Ferlinghetti observes, "things are really tightening up out here And there's no relief in sight for you or us although it occurs to me that we are your relief if you'd only admit it." (p. 12) He determines Nixon to be a pitcher wearing a mask and throwing with a deceptive delivery: "But I never saw a pitcher with a mask before What've you got under it That's what I've been trying to fathom ever since they brought you up from the minors Did you learn that windup with the Whittier Quakers It's the most deceptive ever seen in a World Series a windup that gives away nothing and telegraphs nothing so that nobody still knows what's coming We hope not a fast change-up One wild pitch and you've blown it Your windup is so weird." (p. 13-14)

I would not consider Tyrannus Nix? among Ferlinghetti's best books, it feels dated and many of the jokes fall flat, but as a time capsule and example of the prominence of baseball in Ferlinghetti's work it's kinda cool. It's also an especially polemical display of Ferlinghetti's attitude about the poet's role in society, from the same guy who went on to publish the handbook Poetry as Insurgent Art (2007). Ferlinghetti also wrote a two-part epic poem on the history of America, the second part of which is surely one of his best books. In that book, called Time of Useful Consciousness (Americus, Book II) (New Directions, 2012), he quotes this line from the poet Philip Lamantia: "Baseballs lost among the Pleiades (quoth Lamantia)." (p. 7) Ferlinghetti made no bones about taking lines from other poets, many of his writings are loaded with literary allusions and borrowed phrases, he liked to celebrate that TS Eliot or Pound tradition of poetry, "summarizing the past by theft and allusion" he called it. Some of his books have helpful notes in the back with sources for these allusions. His last book, Little Boy: A Novel (2019), is filled with literary references but does not have any footnotes. I'm hoping there will eventually be an annotated edition of the book, but some lines are identifiable via Google, especially when he provided them in quotes. One that sticks out to me is this sequence from the poem "Truth" by John Masefield which he immediately follows with a baseball reference:

"Man with his burning soul has but an hour of breath to build a ship of Truth in which his soul may sail---sail on the sea of death for death takes toll of beauty, courage, youth, of all but Truth" and it's three strikes and you're out at the Old Ball Game 

(Little Boy, p. 122)

Little Boy: A Novel contains numerous baseball references, everything seems to return back to baseball. It was his final book and seemingly all the major themes of his previous works are gathered in Little Boy, a densely-packed word-hoard that goes into American history, his own life story, with lyrical escapes into mystical contemplation of the cosmos and the precariousness of life in our present existence on Earth. The latter half of the book often reads like Ferlinghetti's mind swings on a pendulum between despair over the dark state of affairs and ecstasies of blissful poetry about life. Somehow these oscillations often seem to involve baseball. For example, on p. 150 he wonders: 

And so why am I watching baseball to escape the pain or ecstasy of existence and the Reds are beating the Yankees and should I be happy It's all relative and life depends on the simplest things to yield a crop of happiness as if it were something you could harvest (p. 150)

Despair and happiness waver back and forth. One beautiful sequence on pgs 154-155 revels in "the jet streams of light in the upper air of the spirit of man in the outer space inside us Endless rubaiyats and endless beatitudes endless shangri-las endless nirvanas sutras and mantras satoris and sensaras Bodhiramas and Boddhisatvas karmas and karmapas! Endless singing Shivas dancing on the smoking wombs of ecstasy!" and so on and on until just a few lines later his perspective again shifts. It seems like he remembers who the president was at that moment (the same president who was booed at the World Series) and suddenly he's back to thinking about baseball:

and the Man without Shoulders who can't lift his weight in butterflies is now in charge of the world And is there any reason to watch the World Series on TV while this is going on as if the fate of the world were on the Men with Shoulders out there on the Field of Dreams as if a bases-loaded home run could change the fate of the spinning world spinning with a curveball or one-hundred-mile-an-hour fastball to wipe out our enemies and save the world from whatever Yeah play the 'Star-Spangled Banner" and sing about "bombs bursting in air" to show "our flag was still there" 
(p. 155-156)

Later towards the end of Little Boy, there's a dream sequence presented in italics where the poet drifts off into the depths of memory in search of his earliest moments of consciousness, seeking the roots of his existence, the exact place where he was born. The book is partly about Ferlinghetti's difficult childhood, he basically grew up as an orphan who bounced around different homes and never truly had a family. In this dream sequence he's simultaneously dreaming of going to and recalling when he physically went back to find the house where he was born, the address on his birth certificate, a house located just north of Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. The tiny details recalled of life in that house at that time then summon up more vivid memories:

All at once, an incredible overflowing feeling of happiness surges up from nowhere. Born here!. . . some three hundred yards north of the northwest corner of Van Cortlandt Park. It must have been all country back then. The kids must have played ball in this green park with its worn diamond and its ancient rusted screen behind the batter's box. I can hear the bat hit the ball (perhaps pitched by Pop). And my brother running for first base ended up in Baltimore forty years later . . . Shouts and laughter tears and whispers fill the air. (p. 174)

Little Boy: A Novel is so many things at once, a perfect culmination for Ferlinghetti's prolific career as a poet. It's really more of an epic poem in prose than a novel, plus it's sort of an autobiography. In a flourish of wordplay on page 119, Ferlinghetti describes his project this way: "I unlock my word-hoard of ruminations meditations exhortations celebrations condemnations excitations lamentations liberations and ecstasies plotless as a life." The one precursor to the style of Little Boy (2019) was the novel Ferlinghetti published almost sixty years prior called Her (1960), a plotless word-stream of prose wherein the reader swims from one dream vision to the next, following Ferlinghetti in search of his soul or his muse or his anima. Just as in Little Boy, the visions of the poet veer into baseball themes:

Perhaps I was merely a dumb member of the audience strayed onto the stage by mistake, looking for some printed program he had dropped under a seat. I had somewhere dropped the key that explained the action, and one could not tell the players without a program, for the faces interchanged, fused together. There they moved on their dark illuminated field, playing their curious night-game, bounding after stray balls, winding their pitches on grassless mounds, or squatting behind a batter in their tools of ignorance. I was a world's catcher, I crouched there, wearing my tools, a fat receiver. I received signals, sent out signals to others, squatting with a signal fingers hanging down between my legs, crooking a penis finger now and then, calling someone in. They all moved too far out, other figures ran, white celluloid shadows, as in a strip of film held up to a light, and the film running away with them. I could not catch them, and they ran off through the streets of the world, until only one figure was left, a white clay figure I had started with, who might have been myself. It was not. It was a her. (Her, p. 10-11)

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Hypnotic Mountainscapes of Nicholas Roerich

He Who Hastens (1924) Nicholas Roerich


Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947) was a Russian symbolist painter, and a writer, archeologist, philosopher, spiritualist who was born in Saint Petersburg. He developed a deep interest in hypnosis and other spiritual practices and his paintings are known to sometimes induce a hypnotic effect. This past year, when needing to center my focus and un-distract myself, I've spent a lot of time staring at some of Roerich's landscape paintings. He definitely had a knack for capturing the essence of being up in the ethereal realms of high altitude mountains. Last September, we took a road-trip from Austin, TX up to Breckenridge, Colorado and stayed in a cabin situated way high up in the peaks. I'd been to Colorado before but never spent so much time at such high altitude (nearly 10,000 ft). There's a distinct vibe up there and every moment of the daytime it seems there's a unique shade and texture of light reflecting off the mountains that surround you. Staring at Roerich's paintings takes me back there to that quiet sense of tranquility and the mindfulness summoned by staring at the light hitting the mountainside.

At one point in his life, Nicholas Roerich was convinced he was receiving psychic messages from beings living in the Himalayas. So he gathered a crew and set out on multiple harrowing excursions into the Himalayan mountains, where he presumably did a lot of painting while also seeking out the Tibetan Buddhist monks. Read more about Roerich at his Wikipedia page. He's got a really interesting backstory, but besides that I've been enjoying spending time staring at his incredible mountainscapes. There's definitely a meditative effect about them. See more of Roerich's paintings here.

Here are some of my favorites:

The Hunt (1937)

Way to Tibet (1925)

Sword of the Gesar (1932)

Rocks of Ladakh (1933)

Lake of the Nagas (1932)

Message from Shambhala (1931)

She Who Leads (1943)

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Baseball 2021 Predictions

The whole world changed in 2020, and baseball changed more than it has in more than a century. 2020 was the shortest MLB season ever, the shortest season of major league baseball in America since the 1800s. Watching the short 60-game season last year, I felt grateful just to have any baseball on TV and the playoff rounds were often thrilling to watch, but it's hard to take the results of the 60-game regular season all that seriously. Now as the schedule goes back to 162 games in 2021, the big question across baseball is how much the load of this innings increase will wear down pitchers. MLB has implemented some new rules, some of which are unfortunate like adding a runner on second base in extra innings and 7-inning double-headers but at least these changes might actually mitigate the innings load on pitchers and lead to fewer injuries. I'll be watching the games regardless, but baseball needs to figure out how to tweak some aspects of its gameplay to make the basic flow of things slightly less boring without further disturbing the sport's core equilibriums. Most agree the problems boil down to one thing: the ball needs to be put into play more, give fielders more chances. That's always the most potently contingent instant of a game when a ball is hit into play and there's a mad scramble around the bases while fielders rush to react. 

Going from a 60-game season to a 162-game season for the first time ever ensures 2021 baseball will be full of surprises. Then you factor in the expected changes made to the baseball in attempt to make it less bouncy and the league potentially cracking down on Trevor Bauer types who covertly use substances to increase spin rate on pitches, plus the impact that could come from the new rule changes. There's so much we don't know about what's gonna happen in major league baseball this year. On the other hand, there are some things we can be sure of---the Dodgers will be really good, the Yankees will be really good, the Pirates will suck, the Orioles will suck. The league has become noticeably stratified with very obvious bottom-feeders, an upperclass of likely power-houses and a group of higher variance teams in the middle. But injuries and your typical baseball weirdness can throw everything askew, this is why we watch. I'll be rooting for the weird and unexpected stuff to happen because that makes it watchable, but some results to consider for six months from now do seem predictable. 

In this post I will share the Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projection for each team and pick an over/under for each. (Note that the PECOTA projections include decimals in the win numbers, but I'm rounding those up.) More than ever I think nobody has any idea how this MLB season will turn out because of variance and all the new contributing factors but baseball fans always enjoy making their picks before the long season and the same goes for me, so here are my picks for how each division will stack up with my thoughts about the chances for each team in 2021. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Three Interviews with Master Craftsmen on the Art of Hip Hop

Producer Madlib recently appeared on BBC Radio 6 for a lengthy convo with Gilles Peterson, talking about his friendship with MF DOOM, his latest album Sound Ancestors, his crate-digging exploits, his love of Sun Ra and spiritual jazz music, and Madlib even played a bunch of records on the show. 

Producer/emcee Bronze Nazareth appeared on the podcast From the Desk of Lo for an in-depth interview detailing his whole background as a musician, how he linked up with the Wu-Tang Clan, stories of staying with RZA while working on Birth of a Prince, how he heard tons of unreleased Wu material from the early-2000s, growing up with his longtime friend Apollo Brown, and plenty of other interesting stuff here that I have never heard him discuss with this level of detail. They even get into the million-dollar Wu album which Bronze had some music on. Interviewer does a great job asking informed questions. (At the end of the interview Bronze mentions a book project I have been working on with him. It's progressing toward final stages now and I'm excited to get it out to the world soon.)

SkillastratorLO aka Sunez interviewed underground emcee Rome Streetz on the Power Write Show podcast. Sunez is perhaps the most in-depth, insightful, and knowledgeable journalist writing about hip hop these days and his interviews with artists are always intriguing. In this talk they get into a level of detail on the writing of rap lyrics that you rarely hear in artist interviews. I especially dug the discussion of writing in a "concentrated" style, embedding so much meaning and interconnectedness in rhymes that it takes the listener several listens to catch on. They talk about the new album Rome Streetz made with DJ Muggs, the intricacies of Rome's writing process, what it's like to work with a legend like DJ Muggs, how Rome's music fits into and outside of the underground rap genre, how his approach differs from other rap artists, etc. Real informative discussion here.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Album Reviews: Pandemic Era Rap Elixirs Curated

"Ghost Hammurabi" is a new track from Killah Priest, it also feels like the latest installment of the style heard throughout Priest's 2020 project Rocket to Nebula, with a drum-less beat and mesmerizing, evolving tempos overridden by rapid-fire lyricism evoking epic, cosmic scales. It's a track that might take some getting used to, or it might speak to you instantly. For me it was the latter. So it seems like a good way to start off this assemblage of reflections on my favorite rap albums from the past year. 

These are short reviews of some favorite albums from this pandemic era, last year and into 2021. Not exactly trying to provide objective criticism or a ranking of best albums, just giving my opinion on the albums that brought me excitement, enjoyment, or inspiration during the pandemic year. Not listed in any particular order, this is a curated list of rap elixirs I've been soaking in with thoughts on the merits of each. 

Friday, February 19, 2021