Wednesday, January 30, 2019
Thursday, January 24, 2019
“Your toddler is starting to have a ball – first by rolling that curious round thing you’ve handed him or her… and then by attempting to throw it – or more likely, dropping the ball and watching in delight as it moves across the floor.”
What to expect the second year: from 12 to 24 months, by Heidi Murkoff
France and the U.S. are separated not only by language, but also by ball obsessions. The football that charms the heart of the French boy is of a different species than that which makes the American highschooler’s heart go pitter pat.
However, I’ve forever been an American dissident. Between the ages of 11 and 21, the ball I followed with passion was knocked around by a tennis racket. It was fuzzy – close cropped fuzzy when new, just a little ruglike to the palm, and very fuzzy when wet and old, when it was retired from the court and used to, for instance, make a dog take off running in the back yard for a game of fetch. The cans would make a satisfying whoop sound when you took off the top and broke the vacuum seal. They were made so that they began all bouncy and went flat – unlike footballs or soccer balls, which ride on their inner air. I have since not been an attentive tennis fan, or a player of tennis – save for odd times when I can scare up a racket and an opponent. I miss it. I miss, more, the body that would, like a dog’s, haul ass on even impossible to respond to shots. I have the body of a 61 year old – which is all well and good, since I am 61 years old – and its legs, its arms, its heart, its lungs, its lights have the usual wear and tear of 21st century man – not, I should say, the way they would bear that stigmata if I were a manual laborer. I did a reasonable amount of illicit substances when I was young, and drink a reasonable amount of wine now that I am old, and eat a reasonable amount of veggies and an unreasonable amount of fats, which makes me a sort of cog when it comes time for the medical examination, an uninteresting assembly line bourgeois widget. Perhaps the tide will change and I’ll become one of those leathery tanned types on a tennis court, those dinosaurs, those hale old men, but I think you have to make other choices than the ones I have made to end up there.
There is a tremendous literature about sports in the 20th and 21st century, but really little about the ball. The ball itself. Yet the ball is fascinating. A couple of years ago I tried to get into racket ball, and one of the things that fascinated me was the compression of the racket ball balls, their hardness, which is, paradoxically, part of their sharp bounce. They seem poised to slam off a wall. That is satisfying, but somehow I couldn’t ride those balls.
When I was a teenager, I even subscribed to a tennis magazine for a while, and scanned articles that were guaranteed to make me better. Back then, the new thing was Zen. The Zen of everything. In the case of tennis, though, the Zen approach oddly fit. If I lost myself in the ball, if I had that moment, it did seem, at least, that I played better. In tennis, sometimes you have a growth spurt – you play above the level of your play, you get it in a new way, the ball is your second self, your not so secret sharer. You sign a new contract. But I could never climb to that level and stay there – that is, after a certain plateau had been reached. Not enough dedication. Even so, I knew that when I played well, it was about the ball. The racket, the beautiful racket, followed, obeyed, it was a part of you, but it wasn’t idiosyncratic, it didn’t have a free will, it wasn’t a ball.
It is odd that economists don’t consider the ball. All the activity, the immense labor, that is woven around balls. Because why? Because you want to win, and to win means doing your thing with the ball, which is the thing – the object and the symbol – between you and your opponent.
Balls have evidently been around a long time, but they don’t get the study that, say, coins do. They should, though. Take, for instance, the American football. That ball is grotesque. It is less ball than projectile. If Adorno had had a sportif bone in his flabby kritikdrenched body, he would have recognized the intimacy between the football and Hiroshima. In fact, football is a tremendously interesting game, but it is interesting the way the war in the Pacific, circa 1941-1945, is more interesting than the Thirty years war.
On the other hand, you have the baseball, which is all Renaissance, a thing of beauty that would have been recognized by Alberti or by da Vinci. The stitching and the whiteness and the generally regal bearing of that ball, the great materials it is made of, mystically color the entire game.
Yet even so – there is the ball – not the individual balls. In baseball, for instance, hitters will have favorite bats. Just as tennis players have favorite rackets. But a favorite ball – that doesn’t happen. Partly this is because balls are individuals in just the way methodological individualism imagines individuals – free, wild, and total substitutable. One doesn’t play a ball game with the individual ball in mind, although a crooked ball can interrupt play. For instance, in baseball there are cases when the ball has been subtlely and illicitly altered. There are, of course, balls that are fetishistically claimed – bowling balls, for instance. But mostly the balls are disposable in their very essence. You might try to live on the tennis ball during the game, you might try to clear your mind of everything else, but in the end, you have no affection for the ball qua that particular ball.
Children’s encyclopedia’s retail glorious myths about the invention of fire, or of the wheel, or the pully, or bronze – but they never bother to imagine the invention of the ball. The ball, in fact, seems part of nature. A pebble, a nut. Yet the ball is surely the very symbol of culture – it is the very symbol of the symbol. In itself, it is nothing. But in play, it becomes more than itself. It starts to mean. It is Victor Turner’s symbolic object, and as such, it defines spaces and limits. It creates a passage, traversing a space that is charged with meaning. But unlike those objects – human beings – who also go through passages, the ball can mean but it can’t express. This, of course, brings us back to the afore mentioned fact that balls do not earn our affection, as say a piece of furniture, a house, a car do. A ball is always being subsumed into the great collective of balls.
Having a ball. The whole ball of wax. There goes the ball game.
Enough about balls.
Thursday, January 10, 2019
In the movie Vice, which I saw this Christmas and heartily recommend, there is a sequence on how Zarquawi, an Iraqi thug who called himself al qaeda's representative to Iraq, went from being a small time delusional to being a major player in the creation of Islamicist paramilitaries by way of D.C.'s intentionally aggrandizing view of him (with the purpose of linking Saddam H. to Osama bin Laden) in 2003. By making him seem much more important than he was - I mean, this is Washington D.C. making you a supervillain! - he attracted thousands who figured, if it pisses off the Americans, it must be good. As Vice shows, this tactical move in the propaganda war to get the American public to accept an unnecessary and stupid invasion bore terrible fruit - among them, ISIS.
It is interesting that the Macron government is playing the Zarquawi card with the Gilets Jaunes. From the beginning, instead of treating these people as citizens with complaints - which are supported, incidentally by about twice as many French people as support Macron, 55-60 percent vs. 23-28 percent - the government treated them as hooligans. As it amped up the hooligan image, and as the compliant press, lorded over by corporate heads who benefit massively from Macron's tax cuts, conveyed the government's rhetoric, there arose a considerable cohort of real casseurs. They came to the call. Now, of course, having tried to cast the GJ as hooligans, the Zarquawi effect is in stage 3: using the violence the government provoked to legitimate clampdowns on opposition to the government. As a bloomsburg article today shows the laws being proposed by Edouard Phillipe to allow the government to patrol, control, and surveille the opposition are harsher than those imposed by the Putin government in Russia. Particularly beautiful is the law against covering your face. For really, if the gendarme lob tear gas at you and you cover your face, you are violating your duty to endure pain for the state, citoyen!
I don't think this will end well.
Sunday, January 06, 2019
The ancient Greeks, those great nomenclaturists, had a word for the tale in which the hero came home after many adventures: nostos. There’s a very fine essay by Anna Bonifazi in the American Journal of Philology, Winter, 2009 – your fave journal, reader, and mine too – that explores the way this word played out in Greek literary culture.
“From the literary point of view, a nostos tale basically concerns a sea voyage, including a storm that causes a shipwreck, a landing in an unforeseen place, and the survival of the one who experiences all this. Even before the Odyssey narrative was conceived, nostos tales and Odysseus' nostos tales were presumably widespread.”
Our return to Atlanta did not, thank God, include shipwreck or the culling of our crew by one-eyed giants. But as in any return home, journey’s end puts in question the identity of the endpoint – of “home”. In fact, my relation to Atlanta – or more properly, the Atlanta metropolitan area – is not that of a native. I wasn’t born there. I was raised there. On the other hand, my mother, father, and father’s parents have all died there – it is the country of all my significant ghosts. It is where my brothers and one sister live. It is the place I left, when I was eighteen, and have come back to for variable stays, but always with the plan to depart. And maybe, maybe that really is home – it is where one plots one’s departure from. Odysseus did not want to leave Ithaca – he pretended to be mad, when the proposition was put to him that he should join the insane Greek expedition to return Menelaus’s wife to him by main force, but was found out and forced to go along. Yet when he returns, and rejoins his wife Penelope (“journeys end in lovers’ meetings”), he sets off again on a journey whose purpose is only to fulfill an oracle.
Atlanta, I think, is actually a very fine place to call home. When I was a disconsolate adolescent – moaning for arty circles and bohemian parents, like the worst snobbish teen you can imagine – I thought of Atlanta as a provincial place, where the ethos would always be Lennard Skinner. Now, so many eons later, I see that the provincial was myself. Atlanta is an amazingly diverse place: unlike Los Angeles, it is not a place, for the most part, of ethnic conclaves. The distant metro suburban counties, Cobb, Gwinnett, or even Dekalb, which in my youth were white flight chickenhouses, have long become rainbow: black, Asian, Latinx, white, jumbled together as in some advertisement or sitcom. Our last afternoon in Lawrenceville (the county seat of Gwinnett, most famous for being the place where Larry Flynt was shot by a person unknown, or at least unprosecuted - although Joseph Franklin later confessed to the deed) was spent, given the sogginess of the afternoon, going to Sugarloat Mills Mall – which turned out to be a wonderful place. The Mall’s great anchor store is a huge depot of sporting goods that stocks boats, fishing poles, bows and arrows, a huge aquarium stocked with bass and gar, and guns. Adam, in fact, got to shoot a play gun at targets in one of the store’s dioramas, and so did I. The Wikipedia entry on Sugarloaf Mills describes it, unkindly, as “struggling” and catering to “low income” shoppers. Whatever. To my mind, it was infinitely superior to the shopping mall at the end of Third Street in Santa Monica, where you couldn’t get a shirt under one hundred bucks or a belt under forty. Fuck that, as they say at Sugarloaf Mills (not really – politeness still reigns in the South!). Here, you can get that shirt for ten dollars and they will throw in a belt that is just as good as any you can get at Nordstrom for five. But what you can do, besides, at Sugarloaf mills is sit on a massage chair for five bucks, experience virtual reality at the virtual reality kiosk, play weird childfriendly variants of miniature golf, have a medieval theater dinner, race toy cars in a shop that is laid out in the most economically inefficient way possible (seemingly the shop can only accommodate five racers at a time, which means that even on the best of days, they cannot make more than a few thousand dollars – which made me wonder, as we raced cars there, how they can afford the upkeep), watch a discount movie or shop, miraculously, for books – or even get mild head shop-ish paraphernalia. I know that Walter Benjamin would pick Sugarloaf over Santa Monica’s mall every time. I’m with Walt.
The Christmas week was soggy. About five -ten years ago, Georgia and the whole southeast was suffering such a drought that Alabama, Georgia and Florida nearly came to armed battle over who got dibs on the Chattahoochee water flow. Now – according to the Viconian rule of corsi e recorsi that rules the Gods, the stars, and mankind – Georgia has an overabundance of the stuff that W.C. Fields so despised. We sortied out to several parks during intervals of non-sogginess and saw the landscape, which gave me a deep satisfaction. I’ve always liked the Northern Georgia forests – even when I was a teen, I would apply to them that line from Yeats: “The trees are in their autumn beauty”. Melancholy was my fave teen mood – followed by brooding and above it all. Hey, I was a snot, what can I say? Everyone to their own teenage emotional shell, and devil take the hindmost. I retain, as a merry old man, my liking for oaks that are bluesing their loss of leafage. We went out and saw plenty of that action. We also surveyed the new developments around Emory University, thus upsetting my mental map of the area. In contrast, the area around Stone Mountain and Lithonia seems still to be in the era of Flannery O’Connor. While my hometown, Clarkston, long ago became an emblem of immigration and change. Never in my wildest dreams – when I was a teen – did I imagine that the most vibrant religious denomination in Clarkston in the 21st century would be centered around a mosque. My sister told me that the Baptist Church in Clarkston, amazingly, has been sold to some other denomination. There goes the very symbol of everything I rejected when I first read Nietzsche. Somehow, I feel it is a case of lese majeste – they can’t do this to Nietzsche!
Adam was a great hit with my family. And they were a great hit with him – at a certain point, he started complaining about how “boring” Paris was compared to Atlanta. It is true – your kids are your parents revenge on you.
And then we came back to Paris. Hope this New Year is better on every dimension than 2018 for all who read this – and for all who don’t!