Thursday, November 20, 2014

Social Criticism Masquerades as Poetic License, or Vice Versa

Poetic license is defined as any departure from convention or from factual accuracy taken by a writer to achieve a desired effect. It's a colloquial term, used to denote a distortion or alteration of the conventions of grammar or language.

In the sense I'm using it here, it's also the freedom to--deliberately, and perhaps obviously--say things which may be harsh, critical, or exaggerated about a subject--things which we might ordinarily refrain from saying out of courtesy, or things which are simply (though perhaps, again, obviously or expediently) untrue.

Social criticism in literature refers to an appraisal of society, for any perceived flaw or condition which results in hardship, implying an alternative mode of social construction.

Putting these two principles together makes social satire in literature. Satire may take many forms: In drama, the representation of objects or subjects of ridicule;  in poetry, a rhetoric of mockery or disdain or burlesque.  

The early Modernist poets were adept at impersonating the mannerisms and conceits of the classes they despised or were amused by. As the 20th Century looked disdainfully back at the Victorian Age, it aped the platitudes of, and aimed literary arrows at, the decaying archetypes of presumption or mediocrity.

Young Edward Estlin Cummings took aim at the world of his parents' Harvard society, skewering their pretensions and meddlesome gossip in this deliberately eccentric sonnet.

the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls     A
are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds             B
(also, with the church's protestant blessings              C 
daughters,unscented shapeless spirited)                     D
they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead,     D 
are invariably interested in so many things—             C
at the present writing one still finds                               B
delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?               A
perhaps. While permanent faces coyly bandy              E
scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D                                  F
.... the Cambridge ladies do not care, above                 G 
Cambridge if sometimes in its box of                              G
sky lavender and cornerless, the                                       F
moon rattles like a fragment of angry candy                E

The degree of sarcasm displayed here--as with so many of Cummings's poems--far exceeds the putative limits of sophisticated lampoonery, sounding clearly adolescent in spirit and intent. It's the kind of mockery that teen-agers delight in, but which a more mature mind sees as hyperbole; which explains why Cummings has always been, and will always be, popular with young readers, especially those with a rebellious streak. 

At about the same time, Thomas Stearns Eliot was composing archly poisonous darts of the same variety, albeit with more subtlety and style. An Englishman by adoption and manner, Eliot could look with chilling irony on the hypocrisies of respectability and social decay which characterized the devastation of Europe following the First World War. In this sense, his view of American prosperity, and its attendant nouveau sanctity, was filtered through his personal alienation, symbolized by his abandonment of his native homeland.  

Miss Helen Slingsby was my maiden aunt,                                     A
And lived in a small house near a fashionable square                  B
Cared for by servants to the number of four.                                  B
Now when she died there was silence in heaven                            C 
And silence at her end of the street.                                                    D
The shutters were drawn and the undertaker wiped his feet--   D
He was aware that this sort of thing had occurred before.           B
The dogs were handsomely provided for,                                          B
But shortly afterwards the parrot died too.                                       E
The Dresden clock continued ticking on the mantelpiece,           F
And the footman sat upon the dining-table                                      G
Holding the second housemaid on his knees--                               H
Who had always been so careful while her mistress lived.           I

The diction underscores the condescension I'm calling here poetic license: "servants to the number of four" and "aware that this sort of thing had occurred before" etc. The delightful turn from "his knees--Who had always been so careful while her mistress lived" in which the subject switches, underscoring the impropriety with a nice sarcastic twist.

Miss Nancy Ellicott Strode across the hills and broke them,
Rode across the hills and broke them--
The barren New England hills--
Riding to hounds
Over the cow-pasture.

Miss Nancy Ellicott smoked
And danced all the modern dances;
And her aunts were not quite sure how they felt about it,
But they knew that it was modern.

Upon the glazen shelves kept watch
Matthew and Waldo, guardians of the faith,
The army of unalterable law. 

Matthew and Waldo, of course, are Matthew Arnold and Ralph Waldo Emerson, standard-bearers in the "army of unalterable law." Here we stand apart from the social phenomena of the younger generation as it blunders and flaunts its way towards a familiar disgrace, pleased (along with Eliot) to imagine ourselves immune from (or cheered by) the diversions of youth. Eliot characteristically can celebrate this mischief while taking a not very convincing moral tone. We're never altogether sure whether Eliot actually invests emotionally in these personified ironies, or whether he just enjoys the unbalanced pretense. I suppose that, as an artist, he could have it both ways. 

The readers of the Boston Evening Transcript
Sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn.
When evening quickens faintly in the street,
Wakening the appetites of life in some
And to others bringing the Boston Evening Transcript,
I mount the steps and ring the bell, turning
Wearily, as one would turn to nod good-bye to Rochefoucauld,
If the street were time and he at the end of the street,
And I say, "Cousin Harriet, here is the Boston Evening Transcript."

Francois de La Rochefoucault [1613-1680], it will be recalled, was the great French author of Maxims, witty one-liners which deconstruct human frailty and cupidity with panache. The fantasy image of seeing the French nobleman of three centuries earlier appearing as a figure in the little episode of Eliot's visit to his Cousin Harriet, sets up a tension between the sheepish complacency of the readers of the Boston Evening Transcript (a newspaper that went defunct in 1941), and the impish speaker of the poem. The whole tone of the lines is a kind of knowing weariness, supercilious, condescending, and sad.    

We might say that when poets wish to criticize society, they may do so with a permission that derives from the license granted any artist, but which carries certain risks. Art is not science; the social sciences are a relatively new invention, which have grown up out of the study of behavior, in the mass, as well as in the individual. 

Art (poetry) is first and foremost entertainment; any artistic criticism of society must be inspiring, or pleasing, or amusing, or it's nothing but hot air. Any writer who pretends not to be implicated in the problems he criticizes, risks being thought vain, or heartless, or both. As readers, we may join in on the fun, or feel offended by its daring ruthlessness. Art is a mirror we hold up to ourselves; or it is a window through which we view the world; or it is a wall on which are represented images of whatever design. Reflective, translucent, or illusionary--we inspect and judge each other according to our lights. Everyone does this, whether they admit it or not.  

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Joe Panik Birthday

Just in case you haven't heard, the San Francisco Giants won the World Series of Major League Baseball last night in Kansas City. It was their third title in five years, a feat accomplished very rarely in major league history, and precedent-setting as far as this franchise goes. 

Central to each of these titles has been the Giants farm system production, in each year, acquiring the services of a young player who would be crucial to their success. In 2010 it was Buster Posey, the catcher who was that season's Rookie of the Year. In 2012, it was Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt, both in their first full seasons, having been brought up in mid-year 2011. 

This year it was Joe Panik (pronounced panic), who, brought up in June, managed to hit .305 while playing brilliantly in the field. Giants fans will recall that the original plan had been to have veteran Marco Scutaro play 2nd this year. Following Scutaro's performance in the 2012 season and World Series, the team signed him to a three-year contract. But Scutaro's health got in the way of that (back problems), causing management to explore alternatives at that position. Brandon Hicks began the year there, but his hitting was so light (despite 8 home runs), that other options had to be tried. Ehire Adrianza was given a shot, even Dan Uggla, released by the Braves, got a look. Then Panik was called up, and suddenly we had a real 2nd baseman again.     


Watching Panik handle himself at bat, or in the field, you have the feeling you're watching a veteran. He's patient, deliberate and shows no sense of hesitation or distraction. Pressure seems to intensify his focus, rather than diverting it. Not a power hitter, he hits to all fields and makes good contact. He's difficult to strike out; when he gets two strikes, he gets very cagy and selective. Like Posey in 2010, he rises to the occasion, and seems made for the part. At 24, he's still a comparative youngster, though he's clearly ready for the big time. 

Today is Panik's birthday, October 30th, 1990. What must it feel like to wake up on your birthday, after having won the World Series the night before? I can't imagine. It's a helluva way to begin a pro career. Starting at the top. If his performance so far is any indication, the next few years should prove very exciting for Panik. He solidifies an infield already among the league's best, with Belt at 1st, Crawford at 2nd, Sandoval at 3rd, and Posey behind the plate. Lately there's been talk that Sandoval might be lured away in free agency for big money. If the Giants let that happen, shame on them. The team's only weakness presently appears to be in Left Field, and among the starting pitching ranks. Will Lincecum return to his Cy Young form? Will Cain come back from surgery?  Pitching has always been the strength of this team over the last six years. Some changes seem likely, but at least for the present, Second Base is no longer a concern. We have Joe Panik now. Happy Birthday, Joe!

Panik makes an astounding play last night at a crucial point in the game

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Coke is Life!

I've never been much of a fan of Coca-Cola. One year during high school, I drank it frequently with my lunch, and that semester I wound up with 7 cavities discovered at one appointment at the family dentist's office. I stopped drinking Coke immediately, and I haven't taken it up since. My wife, who grew up in Texas, was a Doctor Pepper drinker in her youth, but she doesn't like soft drinks any more. I drank soft drinks occasionally, until my late 50's, when I developed a small sugar problem, so I avoided them after that, along with hard candy. 

The history of Coca-Cola is one of the great American mass market product success stories. Beginning as "patent medicine" in the late 19th Century, it was taken up and turned into a popular branded soft drink early in the new century, and today it's the most recognizable consumer product (and logo) in the world. The original formula has always been kept secret by the company, though good imitations have been made. I don't know how or whether copyright protection is maintained by Coca-Cola, but I'd bet they test their competitors regularly to see if someone has mastered their secret combination of ingredients. Originally the formula included trace amounts of actual cocaine and caffeine, but they soon abandoned the cocaine, separating the drug from the other components of the coca plant they use (for flavor). There was an attempt by the Federal Government to force Coca-Cola to remove the caffeine element, but that was defeated.    

In the 1980's, the company changed the formula, and began to use corn fructose syrup in preference to cane sugar. I have no idea what the difference is between traditional "Classic Coke" and the new version, but I suppose it's a small matter of degree. In any event, I was surprised, when I mixed this new cocktail concoction, that it turned out to taste very much like the Coca-Cola taste I remember.   

2 parts sweet vermouth
2 parts dark rum
1 part triple sec
1 part Creme de Violette
1 part lemon
Shaken and served up

I always supposed that Coke had been built on a root beer (or sarsaparilla) base taste. Root beer was very popular when I was growing up, and there were A&W franchise outlets all over the place. Root beer floats (with vanilla ice cream scoops) were a real treat. The ice cream seemed to make the root beer foam and fizz, and the combination was terrific. Root beer, Coke, Pepsi, Doctor Pepper--they all seem to be chasing a similar taste formula, but Coke has always been king.   

Dark rum based drinks are inevitably associated with the South and with tropical settings. But you can get rum liquor anywhere in the world today. Even though I was never a big Coca-Cola fan, I like the flavor of this cocktail. Give it a try, and see whether you don't think it tastes almost like original Coca-Cola!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Reversal of Fortune - Bumgarner shuts down the Royals in Game One of the 2014 Series

Last evening, Madison Bumgarner won the first game of the 2014 World Series against the Kansas City Royals.

The media has been fawning over the Royals--who haven't appeared in a World Series since 1985, the year I spent in Northern Japan, listening to Curt Gowdy (piped in on American Service radio) crow over the exploits of George Brett (who would eventually end up in the Hall of Fame), and Bret Saberhagen (20 game winner (and Cy Young winner) that year at only age 21). 

After the Giants had silenced the true blue crowd at Kauffman Stadium in the first inning with three quick runs, Bumgarner went on to tame this obstreperous bunch of upstart rascals, holding them to four hits and one (home) run.  

Bumgarner's ascendancy to the pinnacle of major league pitching glory has not been unexpected. Raised in rural Hickory, North Carolina, sleeping in the loft of a log cabin his father built, he set the regional scholastic sports world afire, excelling at both pitching and hitting, establishing benchmark records wherever he went. Known early on as a "country hard ball" pitcher, he eventually developed other pitches to confuse and frustrate opposing batters. At 6'5" and 235lbs, and with an easy wide slinging three-quarter delivery, he is usually good for seven or eight innings with little apparent strain, and he brings a strong, centered concentration along with his impressive physical skills. He doesn't "over-think" or let things get him down. 

Almost three years ago,  I noted the changing fortunes of the Giants' pitching staff. Then, Tim Lincecum was in the midst of an incredible run, having garnered consecutive Cy Youngs in 2008 and 2009. He seemed on queue to set career marks in strike-outs and winning percentage in the annals of Giants' club history. That same year, a young Madison Bumgarner was in his first full year in the majors, and he was already beginning to be noticed. That year he went 13-13, with a 3.21 ERA, and 191 strike-outs. The amazing part was that he was only 21 years old. 

Lincecum had broken in at age 23, and had his first full year in 2008.  This year, at age 24, Bumgarner has already won 67 regular season games, and is considered a "veteran" of the post-season, having participated in both the championship runs of 2010 and 2012. Saberhagen, whom I mentioned above, went on to have a wonderful--though not perhaps consistently great--career, eventually going 167-117 over sixteen seasons, winning a second Cy Young in 1989, but having a mostly so-so steady decline after that. 

Previously, I noted that a pitcher like Lincecum, somewhat slighter in build, and with a "haywire" motion that was prone to disequilibrium and fatigue, and who depended on velocity rather than variety and control, was unlikely to have a long career. Bumgarner, in contrast, was big, strong, with an easy delivery, and possessed stamina and an emotional level that boded well for the long haul. These are all clich├ęs, of course, in baseball parlance. The actual performance of a pitcher who possessed all these attributes might be mediocre, or even sub-par. Most professional athletes have very strong bodies, and determination to match. These qualities, by themselves, don't make great athletes. 

But it was apparent, to anyone who noticed, that Bumgarner was potentially a Hall of Famer, in the mold of Warren Spahn, Randy Johnson, and Steve Carlton. Fifteen years from today, I would expect Tim Lincecum to be but a fading memory of a young phenom ("The Freak") who had four years of flaming glory and then quickly petered out, while Bumgarner probably will go on to win over 300 games, and a couple of Cy Youngs into the bargain. Astonishingly, he's still only 25 years young. He's hardly begun. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ebola Choices - Stage II

The big news the last 48 hours has been the new American victim of Ebola, nurse Amber Vinson, the second such "domestic" infection case recorded, since the arrival (and demise on Oct 8) of patient Thomas Eric Duncan. Nurse Vinson flew to Cleveland that same day, then flew back to Dallas, already (at that point) showing signs of illness.

Now, the Centers for Disease Control are trying to control the outbreak by reaching all the passengers who were on both flights, and all those she may have come into contact with. The planes used in both flights continued in service after she rode on them, so there is even some concern for the passengers and crews who used those planes afterwards.

Ebola is clearly a persistent and highly contagious disease. Even for those who follow routine procedures, infection is a considerable risk. Handling anyone who has an active infection, or even anything they may have touched, is very risky business. Looking at the people who deal with the disease, wearing their white "spaceman" (or beekeeper) suits with air masks, is reminiscent of the nuclear clean-up crews in Japan.

Back when the outbreak in West Africa was first being reported, there were immediate calls for quarantine. The CDC, and our government, pooh-poohed the notion of travel restrictions, telling everyone that generic "symptomatic" screening would be effective, and that there was zero risk of infection to Americans, even with native Africans traveling freely between African nations and major American airport cities.

Diseases are opportunistic life forms. Given the right conditions, they can spread rapidly among species, and can become almost unstoppable if steps are not employed to cut the links to exposure. Ebola has a so-called 21 day "incubation" period, meaning that you may not even be aware that you've become infected for two weeks or more, days in which your movements and contacts, limited or extensive, may be impossible to accurately trace. In our highly mobile world, with people moving and interacting constantly with one another, using the same transit and appliance systems, infectious diseases have a distinct advantage, even if the method of transmission is limited to physical contact (not airborne).

I advocated strict quarantine procedures when I first heard about the crisis, suggesting that we should limit incoming traffic to Americans only, and placing them all on 21 day quarantine upon arrival. We heard the same circular arguments against this, that we'd become accustomed to with the immigration crisis. We were told that it was "impossible" and therefore could not be done, while being told (at the same time) that it was "unfair" and "a restriction upon freedom" and therefore "should not be done" on principle. Either we couldn't because we couldn't or we shouldn't because we shouldn't. Neither argument sounded intelligent to me.

There are difficulties involved in controlling a spreading disease. But with an incurable, deadly bug like Ebola, what other choices do we have? Whereas our initial choice included keeping infected individuals OUT of the country, now that we have the disease INSIDE our own borders, we've had to retreat from the airports to the cities and towns and travel corridors that the disease is now following.

I'd like someone to explain to me why this "unfortunate" but well-nigh inevitable progression would not better have been handled with greater emergency than it was. Had we taken steps to prevent the arrival of native Africans from the infected countries, and to see to it that whoever was let in was tracked strictly for three weeks, I doubt this new domestic health crisis would ever have happened.

It was another case of politically correct complacence in the face of a dire threat that we were simply too lazy and impractical to address. Yes it is true that we're only talking about three individuals here, but Bengazi was only a handful of people too. We're always ready to jump to conviction when the "enemy" is a man or a gang or an army. But when the enemy is a virus or a bacteria, the issue is the same. Before the disease arrived, we were comforted by the assumption that our hospitals could handle any unlikely case; but now we're hearing just how ill-prepared and vulnerable our health facilities are to deal with a disease like Ebola.

We deserve better from our government--and better from our health care system.

RESTRICT ALL TRAVEL BETWEEN THE INFECTED COUNTRIES AND THE U.S. IMMEDIATELY. Don't count on "screening" or "symptoms" identification. Limit the movement of humanity to the region where it's known to be active.

If we fail to control Ebola through movement, we'll end up having to fight it in our living rooms, school rooms, busses, trains, planes, restaurants, arenas, offices--in short, in every place where people congregate or live.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Giants - Post-Season Play-off Review

Back at the beginning of this season, I wrote a blog about the status of the Giants, one month in. At that point, the Giants were leading the division, with the Dodgers close on their heels. As the Spring wore on, the Giants built up an impressive, dominating lead of over 10 games over their hated rivals to the South. 

As we now know, this lead evaporated in mid-season. Marco Scutaro never recovered from his back condition (and his career now looks to be about over, given his age), and there were other problems. Angel Pagan's back also went bad (and by September, he had gone on the disabled list, opting for season-ending surgery to repair a bulging disc). Michael Morse, whose career has been marked by injury, went down in late season with a hip condition, and is apparently lost, even for the playoffs. Brandon Belt and Hector Sanchez both had serious concussions, and Sanchez is also out for the season, Belt only returning in the last week of the regular season.  

Buster Posey getting a hold of one

When the season began, the starting line-up looked like this:


Second base was a problem all year, with Hicks, Adrianza, and Arias sharing part-time duties, until Joe Panik emerged as the rookie sensation of the year. Morse and Posey split duties at first base when Belt went down, and then the team acquired utility specialist Travis Ishikawa (his second tour with the team). 

Meanwhile, Cain's season fell apart and he had arm surgery in a lost year. Lincecum, whose ups and downs are now becoming routine, suddenly, after throwing his second career no-hitter, couldn't get anyone out, and dropped out of the rotation in favor of Yusmeiro Petit, a journeyman middle reliever. Late in the season, they acquired Jake Peavey from Boston, who filled in for Cain, and he has been vitally important down the closing stretch. Vogelsang has been uneven too, but not unexpectedly, given his history. It's obvious that Bumgarner has become the ace of the staff, finishing the season at 18-10, which could easily have been 22-8 if the team had given him even ordinary support. In addition, he became a dangerous hitter in his own right, batting .258 with 4 homers and 15 RBI's, better than most part-time players on any team.    

It's no surprise that the Dodgers rose to late season dominance, given their pitching (Kershaw, 21-3, Greinke, 17-8, Ryu, 14-7, and Jansen, 44 saves). The surprise is that they didn't break away faster, since the Giants were so riddled with injuries and unexpected slumps (Romo, Lincecum, Sandoval, Morse). 

Last evening the Giants persevered in a record-setting 18 inning affair over the Washington Nationals, in which the Nats did not score for 15 innings, finally capitulating when Belt went yard in the top of the frame. Now up 2-0 in the best of 5 series, they look good to make it to the League playoffs, against either the Dodgers or the Cardinals (who are 1-1 in their series). 

All in all, the Giants have fared well, securing one of two wild card spots, polishing off the Pirates (in their park), and jumping on the Nats, who were favored by everyone over San Francisco. 

At this juncture, it appears the team may actually make it to the Series, and could even win it. A month ago, when the team was mired in a long slump, who would have predicted this? In a season of injuries and uneven performances, they appear to be peaking at just the right moment. With Belt back, and Peavey pitching his heart out, it just might come true. 

The Giants won it all in 2010 and 2012. It's 2014, and we're back in the chase. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Quid, Me Anxius Sum?

Ever since America started exporting jobs, we've been hearing how we're going to become a "service-oriented" economy, selling each other things instead of manufacturing things. The things we'll sell each other, and the services we'll be providing to each other will have to replace the prosperity we once enjoyed as the manufacturing engine of the world. 

In the spirit of service, here's a word of advice to all whose job it is to serve us something, or to service something we have that needs servicing. The transaction of providing, and receiving remuneration for, a service, is a capital exchange, subject to all the conditions of competition, reasonable expectation, and courtesy that govern all business activity in the world of commerce. 

When you sell something to someone, or provide them with a service, you are their servant. If you patronize a business, or a service, you are doing them a favor, something for which they should be grateful. This gratitude may be expressed in various ways. 

Traditionally, it's been considered proper, when providing something, or taking payment, or answering a question, to say thank-you, or to signify one's gratitude in some other way. My pleasure, or we appreciate your business or come back soon also seem appropriate.

Increasingly, these days, I'm hearing the phrase "Not a problem," or "No problem" when I'm paying for, or asking for something. 

There are theories going around about how this phrase went viral, but like a lot of such phrases or words, no one seems to know or care what it's really supposed to signify, or why it's preferable to the other more generic transactional replies. 

My theory is that it's a key to the mood of our culture, one in which guilt, and fear of confrontation, on the one hand, or selfishness and indignation, on the other hand, are indirectly being expressed.

In America today, we seem to feel a need to head off difficulty and confrontation. Saying "no problem" may be a way of telling the customer that what they are asking for does not create any such difficulty, or that providing a response, of whatever kind, to a request or a question, costs the server no effort or annoyance. 

There's also the implication that the person responding to a request for something should need to reassure the customer that he is not being indisposed or offended, as if the mere act of having to provide some service is really just a bit presumptuous or unfair. 

There's something condescending about it too. It's like saying "you can't ruffle our feathers that easily" or "you don't need to feel uncomfortable about asking for that."

The idea is that "everything is okay" and comfortable and politically correct.

But the unfortunate impression is that the speaker--the one providing the service--isn't really showing appreciation or gratitude, or being courteous. Because telling someone that their request is being fulfilled without effort or difficulty isn't being courteous. It's being weirdly inappropriate, and even rude.

Back in the day, Mad Magazine was a satiric, albeit sophomoric, humor magazine aimed at kids and teenagers. Its cartoons and gags and caricatures were the nutty, idiotic, sick side of American rebelliousness and free-wheeling nonsensical hijinks. Its mascot was a freckle-faced, big-eared little nerd named Alfred E. Neuman, whose portrait appeared on countless Mad covers, accompanied by the phrase, "What, Me Worry?" (The Latin for which is this blog's title.) 

Neuman's anxiety about the innocent pleasure of immature amusement seemed a badge of honor in the 1950's, when it was invented. Some of my best friends got a lot of ghoulish merriment out of it. Though we all quickly outgrew it, it was a necessary stage in the development of full-fledged American adult mediocrity. We probably should have recognized it for the stupid indulgence it was, and grown up quicker. But this was the complacent 50's and there were few alternatives to corny humor then. 


Somehow, in my mind, "No problem" equates with "What, me worry?" 

Most of the people who use the phrase probably don't know why they are saying it, but those who wonder may think it's a panacea or a shield against complication or crisis, the elixir against the infection of misunderstanding. 

Everything is alright, everything is under control, we're on top of it, we're ahead of the curve, we're handling it, we're dealing with it, we're not in denial, we understand, we get it, we care, we've thought about this, we have a plan, there's nothing to worry about, relax, chill out, wait patiently until you are called, it's NO PROBLEM!!!