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Monday, January 31, 2011

The Columnist Manifesto

Every once in a while, it's good to remind yourself why you're doing what you're doing.

For example, what are the purposes of this blog?

A way to answer that might be to ask: what might be the purpose of any blog?

  1. Efficiency. If the geography your 'social network' extends beyond people you see everyday, it's simpler to let your friends, family, and colleagues know what's on your mind through a regular post than to write 100 emails or air mail letters. Who, other than the progeny-free, the unemployed, or the fully retired has that kind of time on their hands?
  2. Development of thought. As the 140-character tweet and/or the 160 character sms and/or the (?) character Facebook status update have conspired to lower the bar to new depths of shallow, blogging allows the longitude and latitude to opine, to ramble, to meander to the extent that allows the reader to (in the words of Kurt Vonnegut, literary icon and Unitarian) 'meditate with the mind of another'. The cryptic tweet or update is, by contrast, a come-one line in a noisy bar; it is a hook without a fish dinner in mind. The blog is dinner, dancing, love-making, and pillow talk in the wee hours. You  can get to know people better.
  3. I can think of, oh, a thousand reasons....
  4. Interactivity and community building/maintenance. Though most of my readers' comment on this blog's Facebook link, the blog provides the opportunity for further development through ready discussion--a kind of asynchronous conversation. Emails can do that too, but see #1 above. Plus, readers can talk to each other and develop their own conversation streams and interactions. Emails can't do that.
  5. Rough-drafting and peer review. If you write for a living, as I now do, you write and edit and re-write and maybe show things to your partner or a friend for feedback. But everyone knows that they're going to massage the truth a bit for the benefit of the relationship. This can take many forms--pretending to be interested, turning a blind eye to your hobby-horses or verbal quirks, etc. They're in the echo-chamber of your ego, more or less, and will probably not attempt to scupper the project. So, as with school essays, your mom is not your best critic. Admittedly, the blog is "narrow-cast" (vs. broadcast) to the limits of your social network, but there are varying levels of intimacy in that sphere. Hence, some might point out things that may seem permissible or 'hidden in plain sight' to those closer to you. Further, there's always the chance that those you've never even met may read and offer an even more remote perspective. So, a blog can be a way of airing and developing work you're writing for another forum--in my case, papers, addresses and print articles.
  6. Freeing speech. Because of the low entry requirements (a computer, a broad-band connection, and rudimentary computer literacy), anyone can say anything they like. There are no gate-keepers to bar access to an audience or edit what you say.  Because there is no hierarchical organisation validating and monetizing the blog, any audience you get is one you've built through social networks, through tag words that people randomly Google-search, or just through luck and word-of-mouth. Which is why you're reading this for free. And, while I'm not talking to very many people, no one can shut me up.

So, given those advantages, why would I want to keep THIS blog?

My friend Jane says blogging is verbal wankery, and I can see her point, though there's nothing particularly wrong with pleasing oneself. As Woody Allen said, it's sex with someone you love.

So is it just a self-absorbed exercise in a fruitless dissemination of words into the yawning world wide maelstrom of blather, a drip in the cyber ocean?

But if YOU've read this far, if ANYONE's read this far, what has happened is that you and I are just that tiny bit less alone. And I know from analysing my reader stats (the blogging equivalent of googling yourself) that I am being read in such unlikely places as Spain, India, Canada, The Netherlands, Nigeria, Russia and Germany. How else could THAT have happened?

Near the beautiful climax of the Frank Capra film "It's a Wonderful Life", the unlikely angel Clarence tells the mind-blown George Bailey, overlooking the desolation of his home-town as it might be had he not lived: "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives."

No man is alone, if he has readers...

We never know the good we may do. We never know what seeds we scatter may find the odd broken patch of vulnerable soil, take root, and transform to flourish in the sun, somewhere.

IF you've read this far, thank you.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Bowling for Arizona

Mark David Chapman couldn't punch his way out of a wet paper bag, but he could pull a trigger.

David "Son of Sam" Berkowitz would lose a kick-fight with my daughter, but he could pull a trigger.

Jared Loughner: tough-guy and patriot
Jared Lee Loughner would run home cryin' to his ma if you b*tch-slapped him in the face, but he could pull a trigger.

Any spaghetti-limbed, weak-kneed, addle-pated idiot can pull a trigger.

As my birth nation digests yet another vile serving of violent hate crime, everyone's looking for a single cause, yet the silence about the relevance of the second amendment if deafening. Drafted when the US was an oppressed colony of a greedy, bullying empire, the second amendment to the constitution grew from this context of armed resistance to foreign occupation. That context has utterly changed, but hanging onto the guns acts as a kind of feedback loop, where the deadly implements re-instill the paranoia that caused their adoption 200+ years ago.

It's not the word of God, folks. It was written by guys who owned slaves and used buckets for toilets.

The on-going presence of these 'tools' shapes us. Discuss.

A gun is not just different IN DEGREE from knife or a club. It is different IN KIND. Someone with a knife or a club 5 feet away from you cannot seriously hurt you. You can run from them, but not from a bullet. A bullet changes the dynamics of violent interaction. With another implement, say a knife, your hand and arm have to register the crunch and squelch of flesh and sinew and bone. Ever tried to cut a whole, raw chicken into pieces? With, say, a club, your hand and arm have to register the thud and splintering sensation. There are strong evolutionary inhibitors to these sensations when another human is on the end of them, close enough to gasp their breath in your face, close enough for you to see their eyes roll back in their sockets. Killing with bare hands or held implements is hard work, too. It takes time and persistent effort. Guns are the A.D.D.'s best friend: quick, gestural, detached.

Careful: this thing's loaded

If the kids at Columbine had come to school armed with baseball bats, most, if not all, of the victims would be alive today, and having their own families. Discuss.

The solution posited by gun-totin' types goes like this (sung to the tune of "Dixie"): "Oh, I wish the kids in the school had guns, too, they coulda fired back and yell "yahoo", Fire away! Fire away! Fire away, NRA!"

I kid you not. The patriotic answer is to arm everyone, cause if guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns. (Which might make them easier to spot, but well...). Suppose congresswoman Gifford, and all the victims (including the 9-year old girl), and for that matter each and everyone at that rally had been packing heat when Loughner started shooting. Yes, Loughner would probably be dead, but in that miasma of panic and confusion, how do you tell which of all the armed people around you are not accomplices, and therefore require a round or two in the face? Result: bloody anarchy for a few minutes and many corpses.

A handgun is a tool with only one purpose, and if you say 'target-shooting' you are an idiot. What do you think the targets are proxies for? The concealability of the handgun is but further evidence of cowardice. Did Loughner--or anyone EVER--mosey down the street with a deer rifle in plain sight? No. Why? That would be advertising your intentions, which is to produce the weapon when no one expects it, hence the cowardice. Only a handgun will do the trick.

"Dr. Freud! Calling Dr. Freud!"

Have you ever held one? I have--Glocks, Colts, S&W's, and even a WW1 Webley--and each and every one of them felt--what is the word for it?--sexy in the hand. The tool is crafted to grip easily, is molded to the shape of a human hand, and feels like a powerful extension of yourself. That sensation embiggens the smallest man effortlessly. This is their principle attraction, and it's hard not to see psycho-sexual implications for men in holding an empowering tool in your hand. Which leads me to the entirely plausible conclusion that hand-gun-play is for the sexually frustrated or disempowered male. "What a stud I am! Blam! Blam! Ba-blam!"

My Dad was a relatively sweet and peaceful man who had succumbed to the cultural paranoia of gun ownership. He did not hunt. He did not sport shoot. Yet he owned three firearms, two of which were concealable:  a Mauser automatic, and a S&W 'Saturday Night Special' six-shooter. He also bought a pump action 30-0-6 shotgun from a fellow at the plant. These were to 'defend the house' in case would-be burglars came a-callin'. The fact that we, having nothing, would not have been high on anyone's burgling list did not come into the equation.

When he was showing his new bargain shotgun purchase off to my sister one day, he casually pointed it at the ceiling as though tracking a doomed duck through a marshland. And blew a hole in the ceiling you could fit a basketball through. Seems the safety was not on.

That'll buff out...

It was a testament to his DIY skills that he got up into the loft and patched and painted the hole before Mom got home, which would mean hell-to-pay. You'd never know it was there. It is also a testament to my sister's discretion that I only found out a few years ago. She had been sworn to secrecy. But had my sister's sweet, beloved face been in the way that day, well...that would be the sort of thing a family never gets over and poisons generations yet unborn with guilt, remorse, shame, and terror.

So--now the paranoid patriot's nightmare: mobilize the national guard and confiscate every last one of the wretched, seductive, lethal things, and melt them down, and turn them into a wind-farm. Just a thought.

Repeal or significantly change this vile, out-dated, contemptible statute, before any more 9-year-old kids get holes blown through their chests.

Present on the fateful day due to an interest in, of all things, politics.

Postscript: for visualized data on gun crime in the USA go to: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/jan/10/gun-crime-us-state

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Coming Home to 'The Bite'

Anyone who is unable to ackowledge the deep cultural mythology in sport simply isn't looking.

Baseball at Cooper's Oval
Friends of mine have a hard time understanding my love of baseball, the 'national pastime' of the land of my birth. It is played from the bright promise of spring through hazy humid golden summers through to the hard realities of autumn. At its core, is a powerful yankee myth--that one's team scores by coming 'home'. Home: after a statistically unlikely launch onto the base-paths, after navigating one's way from safe base to safe base. Home after going 'round the horn' of the field. It is the hero's journey in a peanut shell.
Quincey Lattimore, a young prospect from North Carolina, safe at home
This myth is framed in sepia-toned nostalgia for days when all one had to do was play ball, when the home our parents kept loomed large and beckoned with kitchen smells at the end of a day of play in the sun, and the drowsy rituals of bath and bed, sunburnt and exhausted and clean and fed. Safe at home!

"...until they think warm days shall never cease"
And never more happy to be safe at home am I this holiday season, during which, to my giddy delight, the fledgling Australian Baseball League is off the ground again November through February. These months bound the "off season" in the Northern Hemisphere, and to these sunny shores come hungry young players affiliated with pro teams, to work on their game, many on their way to a shot at "The Show" and big-money contracts.

Jamie McOwen from Miami Florida, his eyes on the prize
Some come from college baseball, some from the minor leagues (the A and AA mostly), and more than you'd think come from the Korean and Japanese leagues. Some even come from small but impassioned baseball sub-cultures as far afield as India and the Netherlands. These professional hopefuls are teamed with the best players from the Australian amateur leagues, and the result is a standard of play that, while not exactly at the elite level, certainly rewards  a leisurely walk to Cooper's Oval, a few blocks from my house.

There, for $12, you can sit behind homeplate and watch every pitch, something only the very rich get to do back in the US of A. With the backing of local sponsors, Major League Baseball, and the Australian Baseball Academy, money has been spent, and the popularity is growing--several thousand watched a recent game at the oval, to cheer our local team, the Adelaide "Bite" (geddit?).

Okay, maybe the worst team name ever
To say this does my old heart good, doesn't come close to how blissful it feels to watch the game's leisurely rhythm and occasional heart-stopping drama, as the sun sets behind the gum trees and the twin domes of a church, with its white stucco and its domed spires, looking for all the world like the Alamo. And to do so in the company of my wife and/or daughter and/or close friends who indulge what must seem to them an alien practice. But it's summer, and in a variety of ways, I'm 'at home'.

Field of Dreams
And at home, last night, watching players far from home on their journey as hopeful itinerant players, I saw an Indian pitcher zipping 80 mph fast balls to a young Korean batter, neither of whom are in any sense "of" the cities they represent for the enjoyment of fans. The whole league construct is made-up, a means of feeding Australian and international talent into the machine of a multi-billion-dollar industry. Although there are long-standing baseball subcultures in nearly every large Australian town or city, the roots do not go wide into the Australian soil. Nor do the roots of this made-up league go as deep as, say, Australian Rules Football, one of the world's most demanding and least-appreciated sports.

Once this game gets hold of you, it does not let go. It holds a special place in my memory, of course, and not because I ever any good as a player. It's been heartening, for example, to hear kids from the local little leagues at the oval, swapping a Manny Ramirez for a Greg Youkilis baseball card, or talking about how the Dodgers look good for next year. Obviously, it has colonised them good, and visions of a big-money contract in the "states" no doubt dance on the horizon of their dreams. A few Aussies have had good careers in "the bigs"--Gary Nilsson, Grahame Lloyd, to name a few, and hopefully this made-up league can make that happen for a few more.

But in the end, and not to invoke Field of Dreams too much, it is about a game that absorbs your total attention for three hours every day, is played by the young and free in what on these long evenings seems like an endless summer, full of warmth and promise. It's rhythm and routine turns the reality that even the best hitters don't make it 'home' seven out of ten times on average, into a daily lesson in stoicism and persistence--keeping at it, having another go, despite these odds.

At these games, in the company of loved ones, we are all of us--Yanks, Australians, Dutchmen, Koreans-- for a few hours of a summer evening, truly 'safe at home'.