Day 264: WWEGD?

The 20th edition of the 10,000 Days newsletter goes out tomorrow. Here is the essay from No. 19.



The wonderful, exquisitely weird Edward Gorey once addressed the clutter in his house by noting, “I can’t go out without buying a book.”

Perhaps the only thing he and I have in common. Alas.

For the last two months, I have been working on a piece about a subversive chef who has provocative ideas about local food economies, farming as stewardship, and the relationship between climate change and how we eat. I’ve spent hours hanging out with him and other food people and could write the story based on those conversations. But I seized on the assignment as an excuse to buy four books. It would have been five, but I already owned Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

In October, my wife and I will venture to Churchill, Manitoba, to watch and photograph polar bears. The tour company sent a suggested reading list. I bought every book on it. Maybe I skipped one; I don’t remember.

When we travel, I always look for independent booksellers and keep a mental list of landmarks. Bookmarks. Booklandmarks. McNally Jackson in New York. Tattered Cover in Denver. Eliot Bay Books in Seattle and Powell’s to the south in Portland. Sundial Books in Chincoteague, Scuppernong in Greensboro, Labyrinth Books in Princeton. Baltimore? The Ivy. Washington? Politics and Prose or Kramerbooks, depending on the day. Lenox, Massachusetts? The Bookstore, “Serving the Community Since Last Tuesday.” I almost always buy a book or two when I’m in any of them, justifying my purchases as support for indie shops against Amazonian hegemony.

Sometimes I accumulate books with more purpose. Or more purposeful excuses. I own a couple of translations of Homer and have shelved with them seven more Homer-related works. Barry Unsworth, Christopher Logue, Alberto Manguel, M.I. Finley, Simone Weil. Two more lurk on my iPad. I harbor the woozy notion of someday writing an essay on books that orbit The Iliad and The Odyssey. When the time comes, I shall be ready. For a similar reason, I've been collecting works on walking. I have five unread novels by David Mitchell, witness to my intention to read all his work in chronological order. (He keeps writing them, so you see the pitfall there.) The inventory of books on quantum physics is a sign of another future project. That one might be a novel. A really nerdy novel. Or I might end up just knowing an odd assortment of things about string theory.

I have books I bought 25 years ago that I haven’t read yet. New York Review Books sent me five volumes last week—they just had a big sale—and I haven’t gotten to those, either. At least twice I’ve bought books, only to come home and find that I already owned them. I hope this happens to other people.

You’ve heard of those bracelets that say WWJD? At troublesome moments, you are supposed to look at them and hear an inner voice counsel, What would Jesus do? I should have one engraved WWEGD. What would Edward Gorey do?

I’ve bought books ever since I was a teenager, but I used to be better about not buying new ones until I’d read all those I had on hand. When I was in my early 20s, I brought a date home. She looked at the books stacked everywhere in my apartment and asked, “Have you read all of those?” I said, “Most of them.” She said, “You must be smarter than you look.” I stopped seeing her.

The only thing to conclude here is I just love buying books. I never buy anything that I don’t intend to read, and now that I’m a pensioner and man-of-leisure, I’m starting to work down some of my back stock. But if I stopped buying today, I’d be years reading all that I’ve accumulated. That’s okay. I might be sentenced to five years of house arrest someday; if it happens, I’m ready.

Next week, I travel to visit kin in Cambridge, Ohio. I have sworn not to return with any new books. Not one. You may doubt my resolve, but I don’t. I can do this.

It will help that Cambridge doesn’t have a bookshop.

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 183: The medal

The new 10,000 Days Newsletter goes out tomorrow. Here is the essay from the previous one.

The Medal

I wasn't much of a Boy Scout. I didn't like the men who were the troop leaders, I didn't like most of my fellow Scouts, and I didn't like to camp. The only thing I liked to do was hike, because I was good at it, a stubborn, tough little nerd who would not quit no matter how far the endpoint. (I walked 50 miles in 19 straight hours when I was 12. No surprise I grew up to be a marathoner.)

My father was not the sort of dad who took part in his son's recreational activities. He rarely attended my baseball or soccer games, and never accompanied me on a Scouts outing, but for once. On a sunny Saturday, he joined me and the rest of Troop 270 on a 10-mile walk through the horse farms outside of Lexington, Kentucky. The hike was sanctioned by the Scouts and called the Bluegrass Trail.

Well, he joined the hike. He didn't exactly join me. After a few miles, he lagged so far behind I became worried that he was going to drop out. That was a silly idea, but not to an 11-year-old kid. When other kids fell behind, it usually foretold quitting, which was scorned. I had looked forward to this day, never imagining that my dad would embarrass me by sagging out.

When he caught up to us at a rest stop, I asked him what was wrong. He looked at me bemused. He'd stopped to take some pictures of race horses, and besides, he didn't see any reason to be in a hurry. It's not like he was going to get lost, and he wasn't the only laggard. Among the others was my friend Kenny, who I don't think had ever finished a hike in all his time as a Scout. Kenny was obese, and suffered for it, physically and socially. On this day he was well behind before the halfway point, but at least he had his father with him. Bob was overweight too, and had a bad heart, but he kept trudging along with his boy, and with my father.

Eventually, for the last couple of miles, my dad walked beside me, maybe finally picking up that this is what I'd wanted from the start. We finished the 10 miles and climbed onto the converted school bus that ferried the troop around. On the bus was a surprise. Anyone who completed an official Boy Scout hike was entitled to a medal, but we usually had to order them and wait a few weeks to pin them on our uniforms. But today the leaders had medals waiting for us. I still have mine—a metal horse head appended to a Confederate flag ribbon. (This was 1965, so there you go.)

I happily sat next to my dad, clutching my medal, only vaguely aware that Kenny and Bob were not on the bus. They were still walking. When I realized it, my thoughts were, Whoa, Kenny might make it. My father's thoughts were, Bob shouldn't be doing this with his heart. Looking back at these events with admiration, I understand now that Bob was not going to give up on his son. If the kid had it in him to keep going, he was going to there for every step.

Not much later, they limped into view and then climbed onto the bus, exhausted. Kenny looked more weary than triumphant. Bob was ashen, wincing as he stepped up into the bus. He was one of the troop's leaders, the only one I liked, and now he looked at the other adults and said, "You have the medals?"

No, they didn't. When they'd preordered them, I suspect they could not imagine needing one for Kenny. They had handed out all. They didn't have one for him.

A bad feeling came over me. Not compassion or sympathy for my buddy or outrage at this small injustice, but dread. I was sure of what my dad was about to do. He had already complained to me during the hike that the adults were not making the older, stronger boys look after the younger, less strong ones. Weren't they supposed to be molding boys into responsible men? I just knew he would lean close to me and quietly tell me to surrender my medal to Kenny, my oldest friend. I was trying not to cry. He was right, of course, I knew it even at age 11, but I didn't want to give up my prize. I was proud of what I'd done in front of him, and already hurt, I think, that he hadn't spent more time with me. Not like Bob had been there with Kenny. And now...yeah, I just knew it.

He put his arm around me and leaned close. I looked up, bleak. "What do you think?" he said. "Will Mom fix meat loaf tonight? That would taste good, wouldn't it."

Day 169: Next newsletter goes out tomorrow; meanwhile, a ruckus

Issue 13 of The 10,000 Days Newsletter goes out tomorrow. Here is the essay from the last one. Thank you for reading.

Photo by Faye Cornish

Ruckus at the feeder

They announce themselves before they swoop. From up in the trees, one or two or three trumpet a piercing fanfare that sounds like an angry hawk, which some ornithologists believe is no accident. Then they dive to ground around the feeder. Blue jays go in a straight line like a bullet, flaring wing feathers as they land. They seem never alone. The first one appears and in an instant there are five, six, eight; the most I have counted under the feeder at one time is 12. They have large vocabularies and a gift for mimicry, which I suppose is handy when dinner for ten convenes. Captive jays have been known to torment the cat by learning how to meow.

The pigment in the feathers of blue jays is melanin, and melanin is brown. So…then…. Quite the optical trick, it turns out. Their feathers have barbs and the barbs have cells on their surface that scatter light; we see the scatter as blue. Jays have crested heads. Drawings and sports mascots always show the crests at full flare, but as the birds hop about picking seeds out of the grass, they wear their crests flat against their heads, creating blue tonsures that, in some light, are the same blue as the headscarf worn by Vermeer’s girl with a pearl earring. Naturalists regard a flattened crest as a sign of low aggression, and I notice that if there are doves or cardinals or squirrels already on the ground, the jays leave them alone. Plenty for all. Despite their reputation for pushiness, jays are frequently bullied off feeding trays by woodpeckers and grackles.

They usually partner for life. About 20 percent migrate, the rest stay home, where they work as foresters. Ornithologists once tracked a half-dozen with radio collars and observed that in a single autumn each cached 3,000 to 5,000 acorns. They did not remember all those caches, so a lot of oak trees got their start from those half-dozen jays. They carry acorns in their upper throats, as many as five at a time, which seems to me like a human coming home with five oranges stuffed in his mouth. Don’t try that—use a hemp bag instead.

They come in varieties: Steller’s jays, pinyon jays, Mexican jays, Canada jays, and various scrub jays labeled Florida, California, and Woodhouse. The extended family includes magpies, Clark’s nutcrackers, and green jays, which look like someone grafted a blue jay’s head on a canary’s body.

Suburban folklore casts them as thieves and predators. They will raid nests for eggs and nestlings, but one study of 530 jays found traces of either in just six. Still, one summer evening when I was a boy, my father pointed out a jay in our apple tree that had pinned a sparrow to a branch and was stabbing it over and over again. Sparrowcide. After the jay fled, we examined the crime scene and found the sparrow’s body minus its head.

Before they eat ants, jays will rub the insects on their feathers. This may be to rub off formic acid and improve the gustatory experience.

They may have problems being fully in the moment. In 2000, Dukas and Kamil published a paper, “The Cost of Limited Attention in Blue Jays,” in Behavioral Ecology. I quote: “Consider a blue jay perching on a tree trunk and directing its gaze toward the bark in search for cryptic insects. The blue jay has the visual ability to simultaneously detect approaching predators while foraging, but such detection may be hindered due to limited attention, at least when the foraging task is difficult and attention-demanding.” To me, this is obvious. What else commands attention like a cryptic insect?

The term of venery for larks is widely known, for some reason: an exaltation of larks. Generic birds flock, but a flock of doves is a dole, of crows is a murder, and of goldfinches is a charm. (That’s lovely, isn’t it? A charm of goldfinches.) The term of venery for blue jays is a scold, and that’s good, but I propose something better—a ruckus. A ruckus of jays.

Out back, a spring rain has eased. From the trees sounds the clarion and they come again, their feathers scattering light as their beaks unscatter sunflower seeds.