The Buddhist Baseball Wisdom of Aparicio Rodriguez

March 17, 2012 § 6 Comments

Finished: The Art of Fielding.

Among my favorite books as a kid were sports stories of the Matt Christopher ilk, especially basketball and baseball books.  These books more or less always featured a preteen or teen whose real-world problems overlap with and affect their sports abilities.  I still have one of these, which I’m pretty sure I bought through Weekly Reader for $4 or so: Johnny Long Legs, featuring a new kid in town heroically struggling to improve the strength of his freakishly long legs and help his school’s basketball team, the hilariously named White Cats.  But I loved the baseball books, too, and have a vivid memory of reading one on my bed on a rainy summer afternoon, swept away by a young shortstop’s difficulty with turning the double play.

I mostly read these books for the descriptions of the games: the main, non-sports conflict in the book was only useful insofar as it enhanced the conflict I really cared about, that of the Cougars vs. the Eagles or whatever mascots were involved.  To be honest, I also just loved the creation of team and player names, uniforms, and mascots.  My favorite sections of pretty much all of these books were the expository paragraphs at the beginning of the games, the scenery of names, colors, gyms or fields.

All of which is to say that, though I’ve done an awful lot of reading since then, there’s still a big part of me that craved the baseball action in The Art of Fielding, and that valued it as a baseball book with a nostalgic, Christopher-esque structure: boy loves baseball, boy has baseball-related life problem (or life-related baseball problem?), boy finds help and solves problem to improve baseball skills.  Harbach intentionally embedded this nostalgic structure, I think, having a similar reading background: in this interview, he mentions growing up reading “Matt Christie” books, which I think is a reference to Matt Christopher.  And you can feel his delight in the creation of the Harpooner’s uniforms and logo, and those of their small-college rivals.  The “powder-blue jerseys” of the Muskingum Muskies (a real school whose colors appear to be red and black).  The “beet-red” jackets, uniforms, faces of the preppy Coshwale “douchetards.”  And, especially, the mild satire of the Opentoe College Holy Poets, in “threadbare brown-and-green uniforms” like a bunch of John the Baptists or Thoreaus.

Of course, because this is not a kids’ book, Harbach uses Henry Skrimshander’s baseball problem as a way into complex thinking about life and the process of becoming a functioning human adult, and critiques its own embedded YA sports-book structure.  But it’s also a really good baseball book, and one of its interesting sidelights is that it might, in its roundabout way, show how maybe athletics of the small-college variety could still have a place in the educational mission of institutions of higher learning.  (There’s no point in even trying to defend big-money Div I programs anymore.  They’re hopelessly corrupt alum-appeasing farm systems with zero educational reason for being.  And I’m pretty sure that, deep down, every administrator knows that.)

The device that brings this all together is the eponymous book within the book, The Art of Fielding by Aparicio Rodriguez, Henry’s idol, a Hall of Fame shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals.  Rodriguez’s book is a collection of numbered items of practical advice, epigrams, and aphorisms, some of them cryptic koans.  The two most important appear very early in Harbach’s book:

3. There are three stages: Thoughtless being.  Thought.  Return to thoughtless being.

213. Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does.

These epigrams form a fascinating thought.  These two statements are bookends to Rodriguez’s book, the earliest and latest excerpts we are given from it, and keys to Harbach’s book, as well.

The first is the journey of Henry Skrimshander compressed to a “simple” Buddhist thought.  In the book’s gorgeous, idyllic 50-page opening overture, Henry is a “natural”: a scrawny South Dakota kid whose preternatural grace, constant practice,  and passionate love for the game have made him the perfect defensive shortstop.  He thoughtlessly is a being made to play shortstop.  If such being is useful, we call it talent, and Mike Schwartz recognizes and hones Henry’s talent.  In a bravura passage at the book’s center, Mike reflects on Henry’s development, and “[t]he making of a ballplayer: the production of brute efficiency out of natural genius.”

For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport.  You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition.  The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.

Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine….

The body of the book constitutes “Thought” in Aparicio’s formulation, introduced to Henry’s mind by his near-fatal errant throw into the dugout, and brings us to the second aphorism.  Sanction is a complicated word.  A sanction can be a permission or encouragement; it can also be a punishment, and this seeming contradiction stems from the word’s original meaning of a law or decree — and, even more interesting, its etymology from the Latin sancire, “to render sacred or inviolable” (per OED).  Death can be the athlete’s sanction in the sense that Mike uses above — encouraging production of the grace and beauty that athletes feel and display in the use of the lively body that will eventually perish and move no more.  But it can also be a warning or punishment, as when Henry nearly kills Owen with a bad throw, and has his own brush with death later.  And athletes grow older, lose their skills.  The athlete must become reconciled to the mini-death of losing the body’s ability, an image of the larger, final death of the body and spirit.

Beyond the level of the individual, Henry’s crisis of thought — his severe case of “Steve Blass Disease,” or “the yips” — also has cultural significance.  In another great passage, the literary scholar Guert Affenlight reflects on the apparent lack of such cases before 1973:

It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation — the Modernists of the First World War — would take a while to reveal itself throughout the population.  And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action, then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the realm of utmost confidence in same: the realm of professional sport…. that might make for a workable definition of the postmodernist era: an era when even the athletes were anguished Modernists.

Rodriguez’s Buddhist formulation has an important codicil: “33. Do not confuse the first and third stages.  Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.”  Henry has to come to realize that he cannot un-think the thought — the consciousness of life, and death, to which he has been awakened — which has been introduced, but must understand and learn from it.  His (and Mike’s) desire for life to remain forever the same must be understood as impossible.  Like any college student, and any baseball player, he has to move into the world, and become an adult, to be able to play again.  There’s a lovely little intimation of this cycle in an early training scene. Henry, in the batting cage, seeks to “meet the ball so squarely that it retraced its path and reentered the mouth of the pitching machine, sending the big rubber wheels spinning in the opposite direction, as if reversing time.”

More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #3: “A Wild Holy Band,” Mike Scott

January 30, 2011 § 6 Comments

This song was released as a demo on the CD that came with the Believer‘s 2009 music issue.  I liked it when I first listened to it, then more or less forgot about it for a year.  I generally don’t listen to this kind of compilation CD very much, but for whatever reason I put this one back in earlier this year, and promptly became totally obsessed with this song.  (Unfortunately, it’s still unreleased in any other form, so far as I can tell, so I can’t give you a link to it here.  [UPDATE, 1/25/12: Mike Scott has posted the song for one night only to http://soundcloud.com/mickpuck/long-strange-golden-road-a.  Listen there!]  You can find plenty of the Waterboys, Mike Scott’s band, to get a sense of the sound.)

The song’s ten-plus minutes: for the first nine or so, it’s just piano, acoustic guitar, and what I’m guessing is a drum machine, plugging along, workmanlike (with some quite lovely passages on the piano and guitar), under Scott’s really great Scottish lilt.  Five verses and an absolutely killer chorus.  It’s a song that cries out for interpretation, analysis, but even though it’s supposedly a demo, it forms a gestalt: it’s a song, not a poem, and you can’t get it all just by looking at the lyrics.  So much is in the delivery.  But what lyrics!

I was longing to be booed/ I was ready to be humbled/ by the words that you had written/ by the syllables you mumbled

Yeah, I was ready in my heart/ to have my heart invaded/ by the fervor of your passion/ yes, I came to be persuaded

But when I heard your ragged voice/ something switched in my perception/ and I knew I was the victim/ of a beautiful deception

All my once exact beliefs/ like tangled threads unraveled/ I walked out stunned and liberated/ and so began my travels

CHORUS: Keep the river on your right/ and the highway at your shoulder/ and the front line in your sights, Pioneer/ keep your eye on the road/ remember what you told her/ this is all in code, my dear

The only word in the whole song I’m not reasonably sure about hearing correctly is that “booed” in the very first line: it sure sounds like “booed” to me, though I always assumed it was “moved” before I started listening closely to transcribe the lyrics.  In context, “booed” makes some sense, leading to that readiness “to be humbled” — but I’m not sure.  [UPDATE, 1/25/12: Mike Scott posts to Twitter: "Mystery word in verse 1 is "wooed," not "booed."  Thanks to Mr. Scott for clearing it up!]  Either way, this first verse sets a great scene.  It could be some combination of a “Dear John” letter and a confrontation at the end of a relationship; it could be a teacher/student relationship, the switch in “perception” being that the teacher has nothing more to teach the student; it could be any number of more allegorical or spiritual meanings.  But I really love those last two lines of the chorus: “remember what you told her/ this is all in code, my dear.”  Is “this” the song?  Is there a code here?  And is “Pioneer” a name, a code name, a type, a la Whitman?

“You better get yourself a coat”/ said the handsome taxi driver/ and he sighed like seven bridges/ like a natural-born survivor

As we drove into the night/ I could feel the forest jangling/ all the choices laid before me/ and their consequences dangling

We came upon a stricken ship/ that must have once been splendid/ the captain as he died said/ “Boys, our revels now have ended”

I heard a wild holy band/ playing jazz that was outrageous/ that recalled the days of rapture/ when our love was still young and contagious

[CHORUS]

This is my favorite verse, and a helluva piece of poetry in its own right.  That “forest jangling” from adrenaline (or something more?), that cryptic ship, the “jazz that was outrageous”: it’s here that we start to realize that we’re in Beat territory.  “Seven bridges” is another lyric I’m not 100% sure about, but I kind of like its mystery.

In a dim-lit motel room/ two sad lovers were discoursing/ on the dignity of exile/ and the merits of divorcing

She said/ “All certainty is gone”/ but he leapt up, still denying/ cried, “I won’t believe the flame I lit/ is dead or even dying”

She left him drooling in the dust/ and with rucksack packed begun her/ bitter journey to the border/ which is where I wooed and won her

She was Aphrodite, Helen, Thetis/ Eve among the satyrs/ she was Venus in a v-neck sweater/ she was all that ever mattered

[CHORUS]

And this is probably my least favorite verse: I like “Eve among the satyrs,” not so big on “Venus in a v-neck sweater,” and the rhythm of the third quatrain is a little strained.  As the verse begins, you think this might be a flashback to the opening scene, until hearing that the narrator “wooed and won her” at the “border” after this confrontation — similar, perhaps, to his own.

Like Dean Moriarty’s ghost/ I came in quest of secret knowledge/ in the winter of my journey/ to a crumbling Druid college

There I read the books of lore/ and contemplated in seclusion/ but I took my leave embittered/ still in love with my illusions

In the drizzling Irish rain/ as a tender dawn was breaking/ in a doorway I stood spellbound by/ the ancient music they were making

I took my breakfast with the gods/ on a blushing summer morning/ a wind blew them all away/ without a moment’s warning

[CHORUS]

Quite a change in scene, here, and the song comes to seem more like a bildungsroman, or a story of the narrator’s spiritual quest.  We have here a direct allusion to On the Road, and that’s fitting, with that work’s blend of the profane and sacred, the sexual and the spiritual.  “Still in love with my illusions” seems a very important line here, and the mystery of the “breakfast with the gods” and then their sudden absence.

Under cold electric light/ I watched the scenes mutating/ like an old-time frontier ballad/ or a carousel rotating

As if in a moment from a film/ with astonishing precision/ the camera zooms in closer/ and a figure comes into vision

I’m in Tokyo; it’s dawn/ and it’s raining hallelujahs/ down the bright-lit neon canyons/ along the sidewalks of Shibuya

I’m trying to take a stance/ and rise above my contradictions/ but I’m just a bunch of words in pants/ most of those are fiction

[CHORUS x2]

[AWESOME ELECTRIC GUITAR SOLO]

This is another pretty fantastic verse, with one helluva final quatrain.  “Just a bunch of words in pants”!  Jesus, what a line.  Most of us should be so lucky to write one line so great; this song has three or four at that level.  This verse really makes me think of the song as a spiritual quest, with serious Buddhist underpinnings: its recollection of epiphany or near-epiphany (what does it mean to “rain hallelujahs”?)  in Japan, followed by the (necessary?) devastation of realizing the hollowness of existence or identity, of being mostly “fiction.

And yet there’s that inescapable, beautiful, hopeful chorus, which Scott uses with such versatility and passion throughout the song.  Somehow — and this may just be me — I connect it in my mind with that Irish blessing you see in pubs and shops and elsewhere: “May the road rise up to meet you./ May the wind be always at your back./ May the sun shine warm upon your face;/ the rains fall soft upon your fields; and until we meet again,/ may God hold you in the palm of His hand.”   Yeah, it’s a song about God, I think, or about one man’s quest for “secret knowledge” of something like a god, at any rate.  The first verse is covered in this kind of language of the spiritual.  Is that the “code” that “this is all in” — the code of the pop song that seems like it’s about sex or lust and is actually about the desire to let go of the self, to find the divine?

Either way, the kick-ass electric guitar kicking in at the end here never fails to absolutely delight me: it’s such a surprise, and it functions as a kind of wordless, wild epiphany and ecstasy after minutes of repetitive sound with little variation.

Compulsive Thinking

March 1, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Memoirs of My Nervous Illness.

Reading next: VALIS, by Philip K. Dick.

A brief note about one of the most affecting touches in this deeply alienated book: Schreber’s discussion of his “compulsive thinking” and the “not-thinking-of-anything-thought” which he used to combat it.  He introduces the concept in chapter 5:

The nature of compulsive thinking lies in a human being having to think incessantly; in other words, man’s natural right to give the nerves of his mind their necessary rest from time to time by thinking nothing (as occurs most markedly during sleep) was from the beginning denied me by the rays in contact with me; they continually wanted to know what I was thinking about.

This leads to arcane and obscure attempts by Schreber to “falsify” his thoughts, and to use a kind of mental “static” to block out the voices he heard: counting, recitation of names, etc.  His only real relief comes from the few activities during which he is actually able to forget about the voices incessantly bothering him.  These are playing chess, playing the piano, and exercising. From chapter 12:

The feelings aroused in me when I resumed this occupation [playing the piano]… I can best describe with a quotation from Tannhauser:

“Total forgetting descended between today and yesterday.  All my memories vanished rapidly and I could only remember that I had lost all hope of ever seeing you again or ever raising my eyes to you.”…

I must confess that I find it difficult to imagine how I could have borne the compulsive thinking and all that goes with it during these five years had I not been able to play the piano.  During piano-playing the nonsensical twaddle of the voices which talk to me is drowned.

Schreber is describing the necessity of getting out of one’s own head.  When he plays the piano, he feels, he does not think; when he plays chess, he thinks only of the moves of the game, not the cosmic battle he believes he is fighting with God.  The quotation he uses above is touching, isn’t it?  How wonderful it feels to forget, and how glad he is to have some preoccupation from his hellish life in the asylum?

In light of Schreber’s reinvention of the Christian cosmology, it’s interesting how Buddhist this idea is: a defense of oblivion, of the “not-thinking-of-anything-thought” as Schreber’s own demons put it, against the incessant Western pressure to do, build, accumulate, think, be.  If I’m understanding some of the wonkier aspects of Schreber’s universe (and I may not be), it would also be better for God and the spirits that harass Schreber if they could also accept his right not to think constantly.  God is attracted to Schreber the living being whom he does not understand as he does the dead; God’s “rays” are irritated when Schreber is not thinking, because they think him dead, and so they curse and speak in half-sentences to make him think and come alive.  If Schreber could just be left alone, not to think, perhaps God could withdraw back to his rightful place in the universe.

Western Devils, Eastern Devils

April 13, 2008 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

One of the more interesting sections of Mandeville is his description of the “Vale Perilous,” which so far as I can tell he thought was somewhere in India.  It is full of gold and silver, or at least the illusions thereof.  It’s also full of the corpses of Christians and others who have been tempted by the riches, only to be killed by the demons that live there.  This is the scary-campfire-story section of Mandeville, and for whatever reason this passage did give me a little chill:

In the middle of the valley under a rock one can clearly see the head and face of a devil, very hideous and dreadful to see; nothing else is seen of it except from the shoulders up.  There is no man in the world, Christian or anyone else, who would not be terrified to see it, it is so horrible and foul.  He looks at each man so keenly and cruelly, and his eyes are rolling so fast and sparkling like fire, and he changes his expression so often, and out of his nose and mouth comes so much fire of different colours with such an awful stench, that no man can bear it.

Quite a word-picture, that; for some reason the thought of seeing a devil’s head under a rock spooks me.  I’ve been interested in demon iconography for quite a while; I’m especially fond of Hieronymus Bosch’s whacked-out devils, and this Schongauer engraving is one of my favorites.  I’ve gotten really interested in Buddhist sculpture in recent years, especially Japanese.  This guardian figure in the Boston MFA is one of my favorites, and is scary as hell in person (it’s the crystal eyes).  Interesting that this is actually a benevolent figure in Buddhism, a protective deity and defender of the Buddhist law.  Also interesting that it’s dated to the 14th century, when Mandeville was touring around Asia.

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