Day 226: The beautiful jazzy game

My custom is to publish essays from The 10,000 Days Newsletter the day before a new one goes out. But this one has a time stamp and would be past its sell-by date were I to post it in 10 days or so.


© Calla Kessler, The New York Times

The Beautiful Jazzy Game

The first sport I loved was baseball. In 1960 when I was 6, my parents moved us from a fourth-floor walkup in the city to the suburbs and signed me up for knothole baseball, as kids' leagues were called then. I was terrible at first, an urban only-child who had never swung a bat at a pitched ball until my team's first practice. Way behind the other kids who'd grown up with backyards and playing fields and older brothers and fathers who would instruct them, I endured the beginner's embarrassments and learned to play. In a few years, I wasn't half bad.

My first summer academy of hard knocks coincided with the unforeseen run of the Cincinnati Reds to the 1961 World Series. As a young reader, I went from Dick and Jane to the sports page in about two weeks, and by summer '61 I was following professional baseball with all the fervor I could muster, which turned out to be a lot. I collected baseball cards, memorized player stats, watched the Reds on television and listened to them on the radio, and can recall everything about the first time my dad took me to Crosley Field—warm day, sunshine, grass unbelievably green, the echoey quality of sound that's unique to ballparks, the peppy organ between innings, and the score: Reds 10, Giants 5. I wore a black-grey-and-white knit shirt, which may seem an odd detail to remember until I tell you that before the opening pitch, Dad bought me my first ballpark Coke and promptly spilled it all down the front of me. "Don't tell your mother," he said as he sponged me off.

When I entered my teens, football began to crowd out baseball for my attention. There weren't many games on television in those days—four at most across a weekend—so that made them events in my house. College games on Saturday (especially if Ohio State was playing), the pros on Sunday (Cleveland Browns the first choice when that was the only Ohio team, and every Thanksgiving the Packers and Lions). The most anticipated game of the year was the Rose Bowl, especially if Ohio State etc.

I grew up, grew up some more, and for decades followed football more than anything. But by the time I'd reached mid-youth, that is, my mid-50s, the game was starting to lose me. In my young youth, football seemed all speed and violence and skill and excitement. Then it didn't. One day, I realized that most of what I was watching for three hours was one meeting after another, broken up by commercials and, when the players weren't in another meeting, a bit of action, 20 seconds here, 40 seconds there. In the 1980s, a commentator watched the Super Bowl with a stopwatch in hand and reported that during more than three hours of real time and 60 minutes of game time, the ball was actually in motion for a little over 14 minutes. That meant meetings for about 2:45.

I hate meetings.

Later this morning, I will watch my favorite team in what has become my favorite game. The US women's national team is set to play for the World Cup, and I will love every minute. I came late to soccer, but it commands almost all of my sports attention now. The game demands every athletic virtue from every player: speed, balance, lightning reflexes, courage, toughness and durability, endurance (midfielders typically run about 8 miles in the course of a 90-minute game), imagination, and the flair for improvisation of a jazz musician. It rewards—no, it demands—close attention. Soccer bores many Americans because paying attention has become a lost art. They miss the sublime string of passes that sets up an attack, the dozen little things a resolute defender does time and again to take a leading scorer or playmaker out of a game, the footwork, and the touch, and the vision of what is about to happen 30 yards away. Fail to pay attention and you will miss one of the fastest, most exciting things in sports: how after 15 minutes of thrust and parry to little advantage, probing for weakness and responding to every gambit, one player will make a barely discernable mistake and almost before you can lean closer to the action the other team has pounced and scored, or nearly scored, which is nearly as exciting. It's like watching with held breath as a cobra strikes.

The genius of the game—which broadcasters and the sport's governors are doing their best to ruin with bad ideas like video-assisted refereeing—is that it never stops, it never resets, and it imposes a minimum of rules and defined roles. Like a jam by great musicians, it just keeps flowing, everybody on the pitch making it up as they go along, taking solos in response to what's happening right now and where they want to go for the next right now. Don't think, don't analyze, don't confer—just play.

I grew up working class, and so although I've never in my life had a blue-collar job, I have always been on the side of labor and always will be. Soccer is labor's game. Management assembles the resources, coaches figure out the starting 11 and design a plan to thwart the opponent (a rare few are remarkably good at this). But when the game kicks off, management has to shut up and sit down and turn the players loose. Coaches can only stand on the sidelines and wave their arms while the players mostly ignore them. For only 90 minutes that count, the workers run the game. And there are no meetings.

Did I mention how much I hate meetings?

Day 222: Another day, another newsletter

Issue No. 17 of The 10,000 Days Newsletter goes out tomorrow. Here is the essay from No. 16. If you wish to sign up, click up top where the complex instructions say "click right here."


© Aaron Burden

Selections from my Notisbücher Leuchtturm

  • When I was in my 20s, I wanted to be Bruce Chatwin. At least, the next Bruce Chatwin. (In my 50s, I made him the subject of my master’s thesis.) I read everything he wrote, and was especially enamored for many years of The Songlines, especially the numerous excerpts in that book from his many notebooks. This was Bruce Chatwin, who liked to make a show of anything, so the notebooks could not be cheap and everyday mais non. In six paragraphs of The Songlines, he extolled the virtues of a specific black notebook with an elastic closure that he called carnets moleskines, available from a papeterie on the Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie (well, of course). For years, to no avail, I sought facsimiles so I could take Chatwinesque notes of my own. Then, one day in a Baltimore museum shop, there it was—an honest-to-god carnet moleskine. No, a Moleskine®, because a company in Italy had begun manufacturing and marketing them as the notebooks favored by the fabled Bruce Chatwin. I bought one straight off. My mood improved. My prose did not.
  • I had no way of knowing what that discovery portended for notebooks. What used to cost $3.00, with a wire spine that always snagged your best sweater, is now $25, no longer wire bound (fortunately), and available in a half-dozen sizes and 20 colors. Near my Dupont Circle apartment in Washington is the one brick-and-mortar store of Jenni Bick, an online retailer of all things notebook, and do I love that place. Strolling its aisles the other day, I was bemused by how many companies have staked their fortunes on the carnet moleskines template of stiff covers, elastic closure, ribbon bookmark, back pocket, and 200+ pages of not-very-good creme stock. Moleskine®, of course, plus Stonit, Archer & Olive, Rhodia, Ciak, Midori MD, Semikolon, Leuchtturm 1917. (The latter is my favorite. Buy one, pull it out at your favorite coffee shop, and when someone comments on it, reply, “This is the notebook used by Dale Keiger, you know.”)
  • Last Thursday, front and center at Jenni Bick was the shop’s rainbow LGBTQ Pride Day merchandise display, notebooks and pens and literary tchotchkes arranged in a proper spectrum. Pride Day is a big deal in DC, and a couple of weeks after the June 8 festivities, one business after another still had rainbows in their windows and on their merchandise tables. All of which got me to thinking—and this is where I’ve been going with all of this—about how much the cause of queer rights has been furthered by the realization on the part of American business that there’s money in it. I’m not dismissing the commitment to LGBTQ rights on the part of U.S. companies. There are thousands of retailers, bars, restaurants, and corporations that are genuine in their support of the queer community. But walk five or six blocks down any street in the business districts of DC neighborhoods like Dupont Circle or Adams Morgan or Logan or U Street and you’ll see ample evidence of how much it helps the cause that LGBTQ support is profitable. If you’re an elected official or bureaucrat in an American city of any size and you express anti-gay sentiments, you are going to find the local business community in your ear advising you to find some other minority to push around.
  • And I would not be surprised if that drives some African-Americans crazy. They would be justified to wonder, Where are the Black Pride parades? When is African-American Pride Day? When will every tavern on my block fly their AAPD flags? In what year will I walk into Jenni Bick and find its Juneteenth display? When do black Americans get their Pride bottles of cava brut?
  • I have no data to support this, but I suspect that within the city limits of places like Washington, gay and trans and bi people have, as a group, prospered more than African Americans. In cultural politics, if you can afford a $30 entree, a $12 cocktail, or a $25 notebook, your cause will find support. Prosperity begets clout. Jot that down in your Moleskine®.

Day 209: Flat White

The 16th edition of The 10,000 Days Newsletter goes out tomorrow morning. If you want in on this, click the "subscribe" banner at the top of the page.

This was the essay in issue no. 15.


Flat White

What you are about to read is amazing. It is incredibly well written and totally awesome.

The bit you’ve read so far is BWAP: bullshit with a purpose. What follows will not be amazing, but it will be good because I’ve been a working professional for 40+ years and I know what I’m doing. I’ve no hope—or desire—that it be incredible or awesome. Just a newsletter essay done well.

The pandemic misuse of adjectives and adverbs like those above produces what historical linguists call “semantic bleaching.” The term dates from at least 1891, when the bleaching metaphor was used by German linguist Georg von der Gabelentz. It refers to the diminished intensity—the bleaching out—of modifiers like “terribly” or “horribly” or “amazing” through constant use buffing and puffing up the mundane and mediocre. At one time, “awesome” meant so intense, large, or overwhelming as to inspire the real, overpowering sensation of awe. Now it mostly means “good” or “well done.” “Yes, you’re right” or “you’re correct” has been replaced by “absolutely!” I’m absolutely sure you’ll agree that my examples are incredibly awesome. (That’s double bleaching plus italics—a triple-bleach! Told you I know what I’m doing!)

Linguists will point out that semantic bleaching has gone on as long as there’s been language, or at least adverbs and adjectives. (Though nouns can be bleached, too. “Shit” used to refer to…well you know what it referred to; now it can stand in for just about anything, and shit.) But I think the pace of bleaching has picked up in the last few years. I’ve lost track of how often I hear smart, literate people toss out “incredibly” like salt on a t-bone. I don’t know what they say to describe an encounter with something that really does go beyond the credible. Probably totally incredible!

Semantic bleaching can be placed in a much deeper context of the flattening of experience through technology. What I’m talking about extends way past the information tech that so many of us love to blame for everything from election tampering to attenuated attention spans to the alt-Reich to the Kardashians. As soon as we invented audio recording machines we applied them to flattening the experience of music. Successive developments in recording media have progressively flattened the incredibly amazing sound of an orchestra in full roar—vinyl LPs to CDs to mp3s, each one a shallower, colder simulacrum of what can be experienced in a concert hall.

Flattening can be nested. Albums flatten live music, and streaming has flattened the experience of a well-crafted album. Musicians used to make records that, when done right, were deep in texture and storytelling and interplay, a layered, complex musical experience. Now only the song matters, streaming through our sonically flattening earbuds.

Four-color printing enabled the flattening of painting and sculpture. (You’ve never experienced “The Starry Night” until you’ve seen it on an umbrella in the museum shop.) Compared to painting, photography further flattened images, and now digital technology has flattened photographs to the point that photographers use digital processing software to put grain back into images, so they more resemble the pictures we used to make with film.

You will be stunned to hear that technology has flattened politics and journalism. I could exhaust you by itemizing all the ways, but that’s okay, I don't have to because I can substitute an awesome flattened list: soundbites, top five takeaways, internet memes, listicles. Fucking Twitter and Facebook.

Seems to me we can’t help ourselves. First we invent ways to create rich new human experience. Then we invent technology to create wan but glossy mediated substitutes that don’t inconvenience us by requiring attention, thought, or the willingness to be challenged and made uncomfortable. We human beings are natural abbreviators.

So am I. Australians invented the flat white, a coffee beverage that uses microfoamed milk to smooth the bracing edge off a shot of espresso. It’s my favorite drink at Starbucks when I don’t have the time to sit down for a single-origin pourover served in a proper ceramic mug. What I really like is a flat white made with soy milk, which further overrides any espresso bitterness with soy’s natural sweetness. It takes strong black coffee and makes it flat and white. And it’s incredibly awesome. Really, just amazing.

Day 201: Take the fucking donuts

In a bit more than a month's time, I will publish The Man Who Signed the City—self-publish. Figuring out how to produce it has been fun, studying book design and publishing platforms and promotion and distribution and finances and all the rest. I am confident about the contents—there are 21 pieces slated for the book and they're all good. But I have not been confident about desiging the cover. I don't own design software and I'm not a designer, and that last one has been quite the hindrance.

I have two dear friends who are also fine graphic designers, and I've been sending them prototypes, asking only that they keep me from embarrassing myself. The other day, one of them looked over my latest ideas and said, "Would you let me help you with this?"

I never would have asked for her help beyond glancing at some PDFs and saying, "What you're doing there? Stop that." When she offered to take over, I had a hard time saying yes, despite knowing that she wants to help because she's a friend, she'll do a wonderful job, and the book will look really, really good. So why did I have to nudge myself into acceptance? Why did I have to tell myself to take the fucking donuts?

Regarding the latter: Musician Amanda Palmer is known for at least four things: her music, her marriage to Neal Gaiman, her prowess at funding her art, and her fondness for the word fuck and its many useful variants. She's also the author of The Art of Asking. In that book, she observes how so many people deride Henry David Thoreau for all the times he enjoyed weekly delivery of donuts from his mother or sister during his time roughing it at Walden Pond. Then she delivers this pungent bit of advice, derived from thinking about Henry in his cabin with some fried dough:

Taking the donuts is hard for a lot of people.

It’s not the act of taking that’s so difficult, it’s more the fear of what other people are going to think when they see us slaving away at our manuscript about the pure transcendence of nature and the importance of self-reliance and simplicity. While munching on someone else’s donut.

Maybe it comes back to that same old issue: we just can’t see what we do as important enough to merit the help, the love.

Try to picture getting angry at Einstein devouring a donut brought to him by his assistant, while he sat slaving on the theory of relativity. Try to picture getting angry at Florence Nightingale for snacking on a donut while taking a break from tirelessly helping the sick.

To the artists, creators, scientists, non-profit-runners, librarians, strange-thinkers, start-uppers and inventors, to all people everywhere who are afraid to accept the help, in whatever form it’s appearing,

Please, take the donuts.

To the guy in my opening band who was too ashamed to go out into the crowd and accept money for his band,

Take the donuts.

To the girl who spent her twenties as a street performer and stripper living on less than $700 a month who went on to marry a best-selling author who she loves, unquestioningly, but even that massive love can’t break her unwillingness to accept his financial help, please….

Everybody.

Please.

Just take the fucking donuts.