Showing posts with label American Dream. Show all posts
Showing posts with label American Dream. Show all posts

Friday, May 10, 2019

Maybe There is Hope

Why?  Because baseball continues to reflect and give voice to the American Dream.  Work hard, have talent, succeed, in spite of ethnicity or humble beginnings.  It stands as a bulwark against the tide of dystopian xenophobia promoted by no less than the President of the United States.  It is rule based and while it has succumbed to instant replay challenges, pitch clocks, and exotic statistical metrics, it has essentially changed to remain the same.

There used to be a similar familiarity about the checks and balances of our three branches of government, comforting as a citizen, but we now have a disrupter in the White House, someone who has no sense of history, a disdain for culture, and who measures everything in clicks, sound bites, and winning and losing.  And now he is set to ignore an equal branch of government, Congress, and apparently Republicans there are willing to be accomplices, their sacred vow “to affirm support for the Constitution” relegated to mere hollow words.  If baseball was played this way, players might as well refuse to return to the dugout after strike three is called, saying the people want to see hitting, so let’s make it 4 or 5 strikes before one is called out.  Just tweet it and it shall be.

The recent political developments would normally envelop my blog with multiple entries, as well as more on gun control because of the recent tragic Colorado school shooting, However,with the publication of my book, Waiting for Someone to Explain It, I vowed it would serve as a cathartic statement on such topics, thus allowing my writing life to return to some kind of new normalcy as well.

“As American as apple pie” frequently gets conflated with baseball.  The baseball of my youth was mostly all white players with Jackie Robinson breaking the color line in the National League in 1947 and Larry Doby the American League a few months later.  As an adult I once sat next to Roy Campanella  (who came up to the Dodgers the year after Robinson) at a luncheon; it was sometime in the 1980s.  He was in a wheel chair because of the automobile accident that ended his playing years.  We briefly talked about the old days, not about race, but about baseball.  He was interested in my childhood dreams of pitching but of course I tried to turn the discussion to him, but he was reticent in that regard, I think there was an inherent sadness about missing his buddies, and his last years in baseball. After Jackie Robinson he was the second black player inducted into the Hall of Fame.  I remember his humanity and putting up with me and my questions.

I think of him from time to time especially as the landscape of American baseball changes to reflect our immigrant heritage.  It is truly an international sport and it is no more apparent than here in the United States.  One wonders, if baseball could change and still be the great sport of yesteryear, why not America?  Isn’t that what it means to “make America great?”

And it is nowhere more apparent than in the Miami Marlins’ farm system.  As the Marlins’ CEO (and one of my favorite Yankees of my adult life) Derek Jeter said: "We want Miami to be the destination for top international talent.  This organization should reflect the diversity of the South Florida community."  And indeed it does.

Although we’ve already seen a few Jupiter Hammerheads’ games this season, the Marlins’ Class A+ team in Jupiter, this was the first opportunity to write about one and although Wednesday night’s game involved dropping a 5-1 decision to the St. Lucie Mets, it was notable in other ways.

The first thing that caught my eye after the singing of the National Anthem was the image of the American flag in the background with the Hammerhead’s pitcher, Edward Cabrera, standing in the foreground waiting for the sign.  

He joins the ranks of players from the Dominican Republic, boasting probably more professional baseball players per capita than any place on earth.  We’ve truly, rightfully assimilated the best of the best on the field.  We just need to do so as a nation of citizens.

I was looking forward to seeing him pitch; a highly touted, skinny 6’4” ballplayer who can routinely throw in the high 90s.  His young, 21 year-old body still has time to fill out and will make him even more formidable.   During his last start he had struck out 13 and now has more than 20 scoreless innings to go along with his 1.50 ERA.  While he pitched well for 2 innings (scoreless, and 2 K’s), apparently he had a fingernail problem and had to leave the game.  But one sees how he gets his speed from his whip like delivery.  Edward Cabrera is a player to watch for MLB action, or at least moving up a notch in the minors this year.

He was replaced by Daniel Castano, a lefty who caught my fancy, my being a lefty with baseball dreams which never went beyond my teenage years.  When the Miami Marlins traded away Marcell Ozuna, they got three highly ranked minor leaguers and sort of as an afterthought the left-handed pitcher Castano was thrown in.  He’s labored in the minors but has good control.  His low base on ball to strike out ratio is an attribute of a more mature pitcher.

In five innings he allowed five hits and four runs, although two were unearned, and he struck out five. His ERA is still around 4.00, but his mechanics were powerful, mustering up speed and good breaking stuff.  He was at the low end of the draft (picked in the 19th round) and he is one of the “old guys” on the team at the age of 25.  He’s listed at 6’4” but seems smaller as at 230 lbs he is stocky.  Somehow I think this guy has some chance of making the majors.  Here he is in action:

But that is not the end of the multicultural story.  The shortstop Jose Devers, only 19 years old, is another Dominican.  Disappointingly, my New York Yankees traded him to the Marlins.  He is now one of the high ranking shortstops in the minors, hitting around .370.  If the name sounds familiar, he’s the cousin of Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers.  How cool would that have been if the NYY held on to him for the Sox / NYY rivalry?  During Wednesday night’s game he went 2 for 4. 

Also on the team is the highly touted 22 year old Cuban Victor Victor Mesa who the Marlins signed for about $5 million, along with his 17-year-old brother, Victor Mesa, Jr. for $1 million. To my knowledge, the latter is yet to play minor league ball, but his older brother looks like he has the right stuff.  They’re sons of the famous Cuban baseball player – you guessed the name, Victor Mesa.  Here’s Victor Victor at bat:

Finally that game was the first rehab assignment for one of the Marlin’s regulars, Garrett Cooper, who unfortunately made a bush league error playing left field and seemed to have difficulty getting back into the grove, but the last I looked he was batting over .500 so I can only assume he’ll be joining the parent club soon.

It was one of those special Florida nights, a cool breeze and on the field the kind of multiculturalism which is to be embraced, not feared.

Friday, December 9, 2016

American Ingenuity and Pragmatism – The Wright Brothers

For a change of pace from the constant drum beat of politics by Twitter and the soul-searching fiction I usually read, I needed a non-fiction reminder of what made this country so unique and special.  Toward that end, I turned to David McCullough and his biography, The Wright Brothers.  McCullough has the ability to present history as a living entity, a time machine into the past.  Once you read something by him, you feel connected to that era.  I read his award-winning 1776 and John Adams before I started writing this blog and later returned to his The Great Bridge which he wrote early in his career.  It is the story of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge and as Brooklyn is near and dear to my heart, I marveled at his tale.

He is a natural born writer and honed his craft as an English major at Yale University.  He is not an historian by education, but historical literature is nothing more than great story telling using facts where possible and filling in the blanks.  I’ve always found that the line between fiction and non-fiction is very malleable.  Being a good writer brings history to life.

In The Wright Brothers he captures the persona of two distinctly American men, Wilbur and Orville Wright, problem solvers and entrepreneurs who after establishing a successful bicycle manufacturing business in Dayton, Ohio around the turn of the century became fascinated by flight, studying birds for their beginning education in aerodynamics.  Against the then current belief that human flight (other than by balloon) is impossible, and without funding, they methodically and pragmatically tinkered with glider design, picking the Outer Banks -- Kitty Hawk, NC -- as their testing site, not exactly around the corner from Toledo, Ohio, because of the unrelenting winds there.  It was completely desolated during those times and at first they lived in tents, graduating to a little shop they set up.  Not many people followed them, thinking they were just eccentric.

Having access to the extensive Wright Family papers allowed McCullough to tap into primary source documentation, quoting sometimes from these to tell the story.  Imagine Wilbur setting up camp, awaiting the arrival of Orville, writing a letter to his father which so clearly sets out the methodical thinking behind their experiments with flight:

I have my machine nearly finished. It is not to have a motor and is not expected to fly in any true sense of the word. My idea is merely to experiment and practice with a view to solving the problem of equilibrium. I have plans which I hope to find much in advance of the methods tried by previous experimenters. When once a machine is under proper control under all conditions, the motor problem will be quickly solved. A failure of a motor will then mean simply a slow descent and safe landing instead of a disastrous fall.

This was the genius behind the Wright Brothers experiments, start with the obvious, recognizing that like a bicycle, lack of control will defeat this mode of transportation.  Well funded experiments such as those conducted by Samuel Langley, with a machine called “The Great Aerodrome” which had the backing of $50,000 in public money from the U.S. War Department and another $20,000 in private backing, including an investment by Alexander Graham Bell, was doomed to crash.  Contrast that to the total of $1,000 the Wright Brothers invested in their successful experiment and you have yet another example of private pragmatism triumphing over public profligacy.

Much of their work was done almost secretly, which is the way Wilbur and Orville wanted it, eschewing publicity and crowds until, well, their experiments resulted in a real flying machine.  In fact they had to take it to Europe to make their mark publicly.  That is an interesting story onto itself, particularly given the fact that the European chapter in their lives involved not only them, but their sister Katherine as well.  She became increasingly involved with their work after Orville was seriously hurt (but fully recuperated with her help) after their one serious accident.  They knew the work was dangerous and for that reason they had a cardinal rule never to fly together (their next generation of the “Wright Flyer” was outfitted for two people), a practice they dutifully followed until later in Wilbur’s life when flying was more commonplace.

While inspiration and perspiration were in large part the necessary ingredients in their ultimate success, so was fortuity.  The unsung hero which McCullough cites in his story is Charlie Parker, an itinerant mechanic who the brothers occasionally used for making parts for their bicycles, who was finally hired full time.  As he later recalled:  They offered me $18 a week…..that was pretty good money…Besides, I liked the Wrights….So far as I can figure out, Will and Orv hired me to worry about the bicycle business so they could concentrate on their flying studies and experiments…And I must have satisfied them for they didn’t hire anyone else for eight years.

Indeed, Parker ran the business while the brothers were working on their experiments, but that was just a small part of Parker’s contribution to solving the riddle of powered flights.  When the brothers finally felt they licked the problem of controlled glider flight, they were ready to add an engine for powered flight.  Accordingly, they asked various automobile manufactures to submit specifications for a light engine with sufficient power but received only one reply and that engine was too heavy.  They themselves had insufficient knowledge to build such an engine but happenstance there was Charlie Parker, a brilliant mechanic.  As he later recalled and recounted by McCullough:  While the boys were handy with tools, they had never done much machine-work and anyway they were busy on the air frame.  It was up to me….We didn’t make any drawings.  One of us would sketch out the part we were talking about on a piece of scratch paper and I’d spike the sketch over my bench.

Does it get any more seat of the pants than that?  He later finished a four cylinder engine, “with a 4-inch bore and a 4-inch stroke.  It was intended to deliver 8 horsepower and weigh no more than 200 pounds, to carry a total of 675 pounds, the estimated combined weight of the flying machine and an operator.  As it turned out, the motor Charlie built weighed only 152 pounds, for the reason that the engine block was of cast aluminum provided by the up-and-coming Aluminum Company of America based in Pittsburgh.  Other materials came from Dayton manufacturers and suppliers, but the work of boring out the cast iron for the independent cylinders and making the cast iron piston rings was all done by one man with a drooping walrus mustache working in the back room at the bicycle shop.” 
The brothers led a monastic life, totally dedicated to their work.  They were bachelors and except for strict observance of the Sunday Sabbath, it was work 24 x 7.  All that sacrifice and McCullough movingly recounts the moment in time when they alternatively flew the first four successful times, the last by Wilbur, 852 feet in 59 seconds.  “It had taken four years. They had endured violent storms, accidents, one disappointment after another, public indifference or ridicule, and clouds of demon mosquitoes. To get to and from their remote sand dune testing ground they had made five round-trips from Dayton (counting Orville's return home to see about stronger propeller shafts), a total of seven thousand miles by train, all to fly little more than half a mile. No matter. They had done it.”

After that their life changed, becoming celebrities of sorts, but still focusing on their work for the next several years, better known in Europe than here in many ways as they went to France to demonstrate their work to the government who had more interest at the time than their own.  Wilbur was the first to go abroad.  His time there was unlike any he’d known back in Dayton, beginning with his first transatlantic voyage on the Cunard Line’s Campania which was advertised as “a flying palace of the ocean,” a phrase which of course appealed to Wilbur.  We made 466 miles the first day he wrote back home and he took a tour of the engine room, amazed at those engines delivering 28,000 horsepower vs. the 25 of the new engine for the Flyer III he was about to demonstrate across Europe. He took copious notes during the crossing and walked its decks to the tune of 5 to 10 miles a day. Wilbur was a person of contemplation and action.

One would think this methodical, technical man might not appreciate all that Paris could offer but he became a regular visitor to the Louvre and spent countless hours among its masterpieces.  Ultimately Orville and Katherine joined him and they became the toast of France, Wilbur at first.  “As said by the Paris correspondent for the Washington Post, it was not just his feats in the air that aroused such interest but his strong ‘individuality.’ He was seen as a personification of ‘the Plymouth Rock spirit,’ to which French students of the United States, from the time of Alexis de Tocqueville, had attributed ‘the grit and indomitable perseverance that characterize American efforts in every department of activity.’”

I think that observation is the essence of McCullough’s biography about the two brothers, their pragmatic approach to problem solving and faith in doing what no one thought possible.  They were finally recognized back home at the White House, President Taft himself presenting medals and acknowledging the tardiness of their recognition at home and the accomplishment which given their lack of support is uniquely American, diligence prevailing above all:

I esteem it a great honor and an opportunity to present these medals to you as an evidence of what you have done. I am so glad-perhaps at a delayed hour-to show that in America it is not true that "a prophet is not without honor save in his own country." It is especially gratifying thus to note a great step in human discovery by paying honor to men who bear it so modestly. You made this discovery by a course that we of America like to feel is distinctly American-by keeping your noses right at the job until you had accomplished what you had determined to do.

This recognition was finally followed by the largest celebration ever staged in their home town of Dayton, Ohio.  It is mind boggling to think that the invention of flight was only little more than 100 years ago.  It demonstrates the rapidity of change today.

Reading this masterful biography was the perfect antidote to a disheartening election and now post election season, with its invective rhetoric, a display of American unexceptionalism and gullibility.   One can only hope this too shall pass and we will revert to the mean that made this nation so special, as typified by the Wright Brothers and so brilliantly portrayed by David McCullough. 

While I was writing this, the report came in that the Wright brothers’ fellow Ohioan, John Glenn, died at the age of 95, the last surviving member of the Mercury Seven.  I remember watching Glenn’s launch on a small B&W TV with my college classmates in our dormitory.  We were in awe of his bravery and felt particularly proud to be an American on that day in 1962.  He and his fellow Mercury 7 astronauts were immortalized by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff.  The Wright brothers had the right stuff too and Glenn had already flown as a WW II combat pilot while Orville was still alive.  The Wright Brothers and John Glenn:  Ohioans, pioneers, pilots, uniquely American. 

 I was not able to attend the ticket tape parade for Glenn and the Mercury 7 astronauts as I was in class on that March day in 1962.  But Tom Wolfe captured its mood; the Wright Brothers were certainly there in spirit: “They anointed them with the primordial tears that the right stuff commanded….Somehow, extraordinary as it was, it was…right!  The way it should be!  The unutterable aura of the right stuff had been brought onto the terrain where things were happening!  Perhaps that was what New York existed for, to celebrate those who had it, whatever it was, and there was nothing like the right stuff, for all responded to it, and all wanted to be near it and to feel the sizzle and to blink in the light…Oh, it was a primitive and profound thing!  Only pilots truly had it, but the entire world responded, and no one knew its name!”

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

When She Was Good – and Roth is Great

The time had come to leave our boat and return to Florida.  We wanted to beat the weather for a safe drive.  Ann needed to see her surgeon because of an arthritic flare up in her knee and as much as we love being in Connecticut, seeing friends and family, living on our boat at our Club, there comes a time when the confines of the boat simply get to you and we long for the spaciousness of our home.  It’s the earliest that we’ve ever returned from our 15 years of bifurcated home/boat living, just in time for what we thought might become a Category 1 Hurricane, Erika, which thankfully disintegrated into remnants with only brief heavy rain and an eerie sunrise the day after.

Right before leaving the boat I picked up a novel I had brought (again, avoiding short stories for the time being), this time Philip Roth’s When She Was Good.  I’ve read a lot of Roth, and think his American Pastoral is one of the more important novels of my time.  I wasn’t expecting much from this novel, one often not discussed, but I was curious about it as to my knowledge Roth’s only novel with a woman (Lucy Nelson / Bassart) as the protagonist, particularly given the accusations over the years of Roth being a misogynist.  Furthermore, as Stanley Elkin’s brief blurb on the cover states, When She Was Good could be compared to Theodore Dreiser’s work ( I've read practically all his work in college and can count him among my favorite American writers), particularly in my mind his American Tragedy.

What mesmerized me is Roth’s lapidary characterization of Lucy.  This is a character, like the one in Dreiser’s other great novel, Sister Carrie, who you are unlikely to forget and it is Roth’s characterizations and dialogue which sets this novel apart. .  It reminded me of my own mother’s struggles in a man’s world.  There are two edges to this sword, though, Lucy as standing for and rationalizing what she considers “the truth” and then where her expectations stemming from” the truth” almost borders on mental illness.  Although she is described as a “ball buster” at one point, I think Roth is clearly rooting for Lucy in a world that does not reward her stalwart individualism.  Like Anita Shreve’s Olympia in Fortune’s Rocks, Lucy is a woman before her time. And like Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, this is a multigenerational novel, but with a darker view. 

Willard Carroll is from a dysfunctional family but as a young man he finds the American Dream waiting for him in “Liberty Center:”

     So at the sight of Liberty Center, its quiet beauty, its serene order, its gentle summery calm, all that had been held in check in him, all that tenderness of heart that had been for eighteen years his secret burden, even at times his shame, came streaming forth. If ever there was a place where life could be less bleak and harsh and cruel than the life he had known as a boy, if ever there was a place where a man did not have to live like a brute, where he did not have to be reminded at every turn that something in the world either did not like mankind, or did not even know of its existence, it was here. Liberty Center! Oh, sweet name! At least for him, for he was indeed free at last of that terrible tyranny of cruel men and cruel nature.

     He found a room; then he found a job-he took an examination and scored high enough to become postal clerk; then he found a wife, a strong-minded and respectable girl from a proper family; and then he had a child; and then one day-the fulfillment, he discovered, of a very deep desire-he bought a house of his own, with a front porch and a backyard: downstairs a parlor, a dining room, a kitchen and a bedroom; upstairs two bedrooms more and the bath. A back bathroom was built downstairs in 1915, six years after the birth of his daughter, and following his promotion to assistant postmaster of the town.

That daughter, Myra, becomes the mother to Lucy, Willard’s grandchild.  But Myra married a man with a drinking problem and as a young girl Lucy calls the police as her mother was hit by her drunken husband, Whitey, blackening her eye.  The shame of having the police involved, and their name the subject of gossip, seems worse to Lucy’s grandparents, and even her mother, than the act itself.  It is from this action that the novel finds its themes and its energy, Lucy condemning her father, totally ostracizing him, and men in general, unless they tell the “truth” and abide by her expectations of how a man should behave, taking responsibility, doing the right thing.

These “blue threads” of shame and anger and expectations culminate in her savage condemnation of her malleable husband, Roy, with whom they now have a child, the fourth generation in the novel.  These very words could have been spoken by my own mother during the height of her own unhappy marriage to my father:

     "You worm! Don't you have any guts at all? Can't you stand on your own two feet, ever? You sponge! You leech! You weak, hopeless, spineless, coward! You'll never change- you don't even want to change! You don't even know what I mean by change! You stand there with your dumb mouth open! Because you have no backbone! None!" She grabbed the other cushion from behind her and heaved it toward his head. "Since the day we met!" ….
     She charged off the sofa. "And no courage!" she cried. "And no determination! And no will of your own! If I didn't tell you what to do, if I were to turn my back-if I didn't every single rotten day of this rotten life ... Oh, you're not a man, and you never will be, and you don't even care!" She was trying to hammer at his chest; first he pushed her hands down, then he protected himself with his forearms and elbows; then he just moved back, a step at a time.

This tirade is in front of family and in front of their child.  It is a novel that resonates with me for personal reasons.   I’ll leave it to the reader as to whether Lucy is a “ball buster” or just a person living in a world that has turned on her because “of that terrible tyranny of cruel men and cruel nature” -- as experienced by her own grandfather before he fled to “Liberty Center.”

I’ll miss Roth (who has vowed to write no more) as I’ve missed Updike.  To hear from them no longer is like losing close friends.