Thursday, February 9, 2012

Cruising and Reading

Put me on a boat (a ship in this case) and give me a book and I am a happy man. And that about describes last week's cruise to places we've been before, San Juan, St. Thomas, and St. Maarten, the ship, Celebrity's Solstice, being a destination onto itself. We planned this trip with our good friends, Art and Sydelle, a couple we met on our very first cruise out of Ft. Lauderdale in 2000 on the Century. They are retired NYC teachers. If it were not for meeting them, becoming good friends, it is unlikely we would have taken last week's trip.

Travelling with them is an endless feast of chance meetings of acquaintances from their childhood, or from their days as teachers. They both grew up in Brooklyn, became engaged while at Brooklyn College, and Brooklyn folks from those days are like a tribe. Many have now migrated to South Florida, the starting point of the cruise. It's like radar; they can look at another couple and identify them almost instantly and, then, chances are they either know them or someone in common. ("Hey, I went to New Utrecht HS in Bensonhurst. We beat your school, DeWitt Clinton for the 1953 Championship at Madison Square Garden in overtime!")

Contrast that with us. I like to say I'm from NYC, but I grew up in Queens which any true New Yorker will tell you was a place where people lived who aspired to move to Long Island. Ann grew up in Atlanta although she moved to Manhattan sooner than I did. We rarely encounter people from our past.

And, if it were not for the fact that we celebrated out 40th wedding anniversary on board the Solstice two years ago, which, for us, lived like a small ship as we were in their "Aqua Class" category and loved the experience, we also would not have gone on this cruise: the ship and category being the main reason.

I like to joke that the main benefit of "Aqua Class" is being able to swim alongside the ship (rimshot, please, ba-dum-TSH), but we normally like to travel on smaller ships, and although the Solstice is 122,000 tons, accommodating 2,850 passengers and a crew of 1,500, it "lives" like a smaller ship. One of the reasons is their "Blu" dining room, available only to Aqua Class (about 150 staterooms so designated). Therefore, Blu is less frenetic than the Main Dining Room which serves the remaining passengers - with the exception of several specialty restaurants which all have an extra charge. The food in Blu was uniformly excellent, geared to a more healthy life style, smaller portions but beautifully presented. The dining room itself becalms the occupants, large windows, with the sea rolling by, uniquely shaped plates, and the signature white rose sculpture on the wall. Breakfast is served there too with the same relaxing ambiance.

Another desirable feature of the ship is the solarium, with pan flute music in the background, spa like cuisine offered for breakfast and lunch, dancing waters display, it's own pool and Jacuzzi, with very comfortable lounge chairs for relaxing or reading, and although this section is available to all, no children allowed! We're always amazed that more people do not seek out this section of the ship, but I suppose most booking a Caribbean cruise are seeking the sun and the tumult of the main outside pool. We're glad they do.

Another nice feature of Aqua Class is the availability of the heated tile beds, a perfect place to lie down and absorb the heat on tired muscles and listen to the soft, unobtrusive music. An easy place to fall asleep, as Ann did on several occasions. My own routine was to start the day at the gym as the sun rose, trying to get in at least a half hour on the treadmill at jogging speed, something to challenge my new unobstructed arteries and to neutralize the diet which, although "healthy" is far richer than I'm accustomed to.

So much of the days at sea, and even some of those in port, were spent in the solarium where I could dig into a good book. Reading preparation is a fun part of the trip for me as I can get a lot read on board, more so than I can at home. I was eagerly looking forward to making my main read Sondheim's second installment of his composing life, Look, I Made a Hat. I had read his Finishing the Hat, remarking that it was "one of the most remarkable documents of the theater that I've ever read."

However, when I picked up Look, I Made a Hat, its sheer heft of almost three pounds acted as a deterrent, not wanting to lug it around on such a trip. Also, it is a beautiful book and the thought of reading it in a wet bathing suit was abhorrent. If I haven't succumbed to a Kindle, I'm not going to desecrate an exquisite book as well.

If the Sondheim book was not to be my main read, I needed another from the stack of books I sequester for future reading. Or, to use a baseball analogy, I went to the bench and called up another heavy hitter, Jane Leavy's The Last Boy; Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood. I had been introduced to Leavy's other biographical work on Sandy Koufax by our traveling companion, Artie. Leavy's biography of Koufax was excellent; The Last Boy is a work of great passion and meticulous scholarship.

How do you write an objective biography of a legend, one who you've worshiped as a kid? That was Leavy's challenge. But by telling the truth, Mantle with all his foibles, and there were many, she actually enhanced the legend.

Mantle's career in some ways is a real life version of Bernard Malamud's The Natural, published in 1952 only a year after Mantle's rookie season. Roy Hobbs is shot by a strange woman, while Mantle has his knee blown out by a drainage ditch in Yankee Stadium chasing a fly ball and trying to avoid running into the Yankee patrician, Joe DiMaggio, playing out his last year. Mantle and DiMaggio were never friends. Unlike Hobbs, Mantle did not have a "Wonderboy" bat, but his "Wonderboy" was a surfeit of guts. He played hurt when today's ballplayers would be seeking R&R. He played with a family history of illness and early death, and battled osteomyelitis throughout his career.

The book is as much a love affair as it is a scholarly biography, successful on both counts. And for me, it conjured up my own childhood, my own worship of Mantle, and my own indebtedness to baseball. As I was always one of the smaller kids in my neighborhood, I could not hit for power so I became a pitcher, and a crafty lefty has some advantages. At first I copied Eddie Lopat, one of the "Big Three" of the Yankees' pitching staff, which included Allie Reynolds and Vic Raschi in the early 50's. Lopat was known as "the Junkman." He was small for a pitcher and did not have much of a fastball, so specialized on the slow curve, thrown at different arm angles, and the screwball, and so did I. Another lefty, Bobby Shantz, became my hero in high school, after he was traded to the NY Yankees from KC. and like Lopat he used crafty off speed pitches to his advantage. In fact Shantz was one of the Yankees interviewed for Leavy's biography, one of about one hundred. Those names brought back memories of those glory days when the Yankees, the Giants, and the Dodgers all played in NY and we argued about who was the greatest centerfielder, Mantle, Mays, or Snider. I think Leavy answers that question (read the book to find out!).

Leavy's work is more biography than a recounting of the great baseball moments of the Mick's life, although it is that too. Mantle came from a dysfunctional family, the father controlling his life (before and after his father's early death). What "Mutt," the Mick's father thought or would think became pivotal to Mantle and one of the factors of Mantle's alcoholism. And Mick was a real "good ole' boy" a carouser who felt most comfortable with the guys in the locker room and not with his family. Even after hanging them up, he spent more time on the road, frequently with other women leaving his wife at home. He paid. His family paid. But one thing about Mantle in addition to his baseball ability, he was loyal to his friends, fiercely loyal, and generous as well. Overall, you have to admire him, and hats off to Jane Leavy for a brilliant biography, walking the line between adulation and scholarly criticism. And Leavy went one step farther in analyzing her subject, by bringing in experts on the mechanics and the physics of the sport.

As a poor hitter in my brief baseball career, I always wondered how in the world anyone could hit a fast ball being thrown only sixty feet away, and downhill from a mound as well. And how could anyone hit it like Mantle. To answer that question, Leavy interviews experts, concluding that Mantle hit "with felonious intent:"

In an effort to pin down how Mantle generated such power, I asked Preston Peavy, a techno-savvy hitting coach, to analyze Mantle's form, using the visual motion-analysis system he created for his students at Peavy Baseball in Atlanta. He converted film and video clips of Mantle into a set of kinematics, moving digital stick figures that show the path of each part of the body as it moves through space...(To view the kinematics, go to www.peavynet.com or www.janeleavy.com.)

A 90-mile-per-hour fastball doesn't leave much time for thought. Traveling at a rate of 132 feet per second, it makes the sixty-foot, six-inch journey from pitcher to batter in four-tenths of a second. The ball is a quarter of the way to home plate by the time a hitter becomes fully aware of it. Because there is a 100-millisecond delay between the time the image of the ball hits the batter's retina and when he becomes conscious of it, it is physiologically impossible to track the ball from the pitcher's hand to the catcher's glove. David Whitney, the director of the Vision and Action Lab at the University of California, Davis, explains: "A 100-millisecond delay doesn't seem very significant. But if a baseball is traveling at 90 mph, that translates to around fifteen feet. If we perceive the ball fifteen feet behind where it's actually located, the batter has to start his swing very early on in the baseball's trajectory."

Neurologically speaking, every batter is a guess-hitter. That's where implicit memory comes in. The ability to infer the type of pitch and where it's headed with accuracy and speed is inextricably linked with stored experience-the hitter has seen that pitch before, even if he can't see it all the way. Add the reflexes to respond to that memory and a visual motor system that allows the batter to react on the fly to a change in the trajectory of a flying object, the right DNA, and Mutt and Grandpa Charlie out by the shed throwing tennis balls, and you have Mickey Mantle.

Every at-bat is a dance of double pendulums. The pitcher leads, using his body as a kinetic chain to deliver energy from his legs through his trunk into his shoulder, arm, and, finally, the ball. The batter follows, reacting in kind. The converging and opposing forces may or may not be equal, but the goal is the same-to turn potential energy into kinetic energy as efficiently as human physiology allows.

The pitcher has the inherent advantage of foreknowledge-he knows •what he's going to throw-and he has the downward slope of the mound to generate momentum. With only flat ground and muscle power at his disposal, the hitter creates force by twisting his upper and lower body in opposite directions like a rubber band. When that human rubber band is stretched taut and is ready to snap, it uncoils, propelling the bat through the strike zone.

This deceptively simple act is an intricate biomechanical task requiring the coordinated mobilization of virtually every muscle in the body in than a second. "Everything but the chewing muscles," said Dr. Benjamin Shaffer, a specialist in orthopedic sports medicine and head physician for the Washington Capitals. "Unless you grit your teeth."

Nobody gritted more than Mantle. Lefty or righty, he swung with felonious intent.


I just could not get enough of The Last Boy, and even read the Acknowledgements, Appendices, and Bibliography in detail. I did not want it to end, but it did, as did the last boy's life, riddled by cancer, and not long after he had successfully ridded himself of alcoholism. Moose Skowron, Hank Bauer, Whitey Ford, Johnny Blanchard, and Bobby Richardson (who was then a minister) were with him near the end, but he was with his son, David, and his wife Merlyn at the very end, dying on Aug. 13, 1995.

Such a downer, so I turned to a novel, How To Be Good by Nick Hornby, an English writer. I had picked this up because Jonathan Tropper is touted as "the American Hornby" and as I admire Tropper, I had to see/read for myself.

And I can see why there is the comparison: like some of Tropper's work it almost reads like a screenplay with a similar sardonic sense of humor. And like Tropper it is a fast read, a story of midlife crisis and its effect on the nuclear family. As the main character says: "We are the ideal nuclear family. We eat together, we play improving board games instead of watching television, we smile a lot. I fear that at any moment I may kill somebody." Interestingly, it is written in the first person by the female protagonist. How Hornby can do that so effectively is a mark of a good writer, although at times I had the problem of thinking to myself, is this really how a man might think about how a woman thinks?

But it is the humor, or the truth in humor that is Hornby's strong point, such as his riff on organized religion, as expressed by our heroine, Katie, who in the midst of her crisis decides to go to a church, any church, with her daughter, Molly, although she has rarely gone to church and needs to pick one randomly. She describes her experience after arriving at a nearly empty service at a local Church of England ("C of A"):

I start to drift off. I have never been to an ordinary church service before. I have been to weddings, funerals, christenings, carol services, and even harvest festivals, but I have never been to a bog-standard, nobody-there Sunday service.

It all feels a long way from God-no nearer than the bring-and-buy sale would be, and much farther away than I imagine Molly's friend Pauline is at this precise moment. It feels sad, exhausted, defeated; this may have been God's house once, you want to tell the handful of people here, but He's clearly moved, shut up shop, gone to a place where there's more of a demand for that sort of thing. And then you look around and wonder whether the sadness isn't part of the point: those who are able to drag themselves here once a week are clearly not social churchgoers, because there is nothing social happening here. This isn't a place to see and be seen, unless opera glasses are placed on the backs of the pews. You'd have to walk twenty yards to shake somebody's hand. No, these people are the hard-core, the last WASPs in Holloway, the beaten and the lonely and the bereaved, and if there is a place for them in the Kingdom of Heaven, they deserve it. I just hope that it's warmer there than here, and there is more hope, and youth, and there is no need for bring-and-buy sales, and the choir of angels isn't singing elsewhere that day, but you rather fear it might be; C of E heaven is in all probability a quarter-full of unhappy old ladies selling misshapen rock cakes and scratched Mantovani records. Every day of the week, for all eternity. And what about the nice lady reading the notices to us? Is she ever dispirited by her hobbling, careworn flock? I thought that I could detect a touch of weariness, maybe even despair, during the appeal for flower arrangers, but maybe this is because flower arranging is not her thing.


Despair in humor. You get the point. As to the rest of the novel, a worthwhile read, no sense going into more detail here as reviews are readily available on line. I'll read another Hornby book again.

I finished my trifecta of books during our seven day cruise by going from the satiric to downright despair, the path of Philip Roth's most recent, novella length works, and in this instance his The Humbling. In a sense it completes the circle, the sunshine of youth as Mantle emerges from the playing fields of Oklahoma into the big leagues, the midlife struggles of the modern family in London, to the "loss of magic," decline at the end of life of Simon Axler, a famous stage actor who suddenly loses his acting abilities, a metaphor for life, and tries to resurrect a life with a woman twenty five years his junior, the daughter of one-time friends. As Axler's agent reasons with him, trying to convince him to see an acting coach:

Look...everyone knows the feeling 'I can't do it,' everyone knows the feeling that they will be revealed to be false -- it's every actor's terror. 'They've found me out. I've been found out.' Let's face it, there's a panic that comes with age. I'm that much older than you, and I've been dealing with it for years. One, you get slower. In everything. Even in reading you get slower. If I go fast in reading now, too much goes away. My speech is slower, my memory is slower. All these things start to happen. In the process, you start to distrust yourself. You're not as quick as you used to be. And especially if you are an actor. You were a young actor and you memorized scripts one after the other after the other, and you never even thought about it. It was just easy to do. And then all of a sudden it's not as easy, and things don't happen so fast anymore....So you start to feel afraid, to feel soft, to feel that you don't have that raw live power anymore. It scares you. With the result...that you're not free anymore. There's nothing happening -- and that's terrifying.

So it is with aging and obviously a mordant fixation of Roth in his later works, something I understand. And I guess that is why I still appreciate Roth. I've "grown up" with him as I did with Updike. Roth fights desperately against the gravity of it all, Axler seeking respite in the arms of a younger woman, Pegeen, but as Roth beautifully and concisely writes: "A man's way is laid with a multitude of traps, and Pegeen had been the last. He'd stepped hungrily into it and then the bait like the most craven captive on earth." Roth remains one of the great living American writers.

I've said little about the ports we visited, as we've been to all before, but I will say that St. Thomas conjured up feelings of our visit there almost 23 years earlier to the day, when we did a bare boat charter with our friends, Ray and Sue, visiting many of the American and British Virgin Islands. So here we were again, that many years later on a cruise ship, on the one island that is better known as a shopping port. But our bare boat adventure is imprinted in my mind and remains one of my favorite trips, leaving me to wonder why we haven't done it again.

Life on a big cruise ship is highly regimented. There are lectures, discussions, games, shows, cooking demonstrations (even hot glass blowing demonstrations sponsored by Corning on this ship), etc. and that is probably why I prefer to hide out and read most of the time. One of the exceptions was the talk by the Captain, the most personable one we've met on any of our cruises, Captain Gerry Larsson-Fedde who, unlike most of Celebrity's skippers, is Norwegian, not Greek. He gave a PowerPoint presentation with a question and answer on navigation. The gorilla in the room of course was the Costa Concordia disaster,and the question was finally asked but, as expected, Capt. Larsson-Fedde deferred. The facts are still speculative.

I think after his talk, though, it is more understandable. Capt. Larsson-Fedde described the heavy reliance by large ships on Differential Global Positioning Systems which can triangulate a position within about 4 inches. Electronic charts are constantly being updated, but only for major shipping lanes. The more a ship strays from those lanes, the more likely it will have to depend on paper charts that might have been last sounded decades ago. I recall that the Captain of the Concordia said the rocks were not on his chart. That might be, but the ship had no business being where it was.

The first mate of the Solstice followed that with a talk about the construction of the ship, an outstanding engineering accomplishment. He was there during the entire construction in Germany at the Meyer Werft yards, one of the prime companies for building cruise vessels, some 22 miles from the sea up a relatively shallow river. But this was the largest vessel they've ever built. Amazingly, bridges had to be dismantled to deliver the huge vessel to the open water. There it tested its four Wartsila diesel engines that generate 92,000 horsepower, channeled into two 20.5 MW Azipods that swivel 360 degrees to act both for propulsion, rudders, and stern thrusters.

But the most surprising part of Capt. Larsson-Fedde's "work" on the ship is that he is an accomplished entertainer and hopefully this brief clip captures that aspect of his role:
video



.