new baseball rules for 2023 (and other musings)

Baseball is instituting several new rules for the 2023 season. I wrote about them before the 2022 season when they were just proposals, but now that they are official and set in stone I thought they were worth revisiting. I thank Jorge Castillo for his article on the topic in the Los Angeles Times last week.

  • Pitch clock. I’m not sure how I feel about this. It may be OK, but it depends in part on whether the clock will be visible to the television viewer. I’ve seen this in women’s college softball and found it distracting. Still, I regularly watch women’s college basketball where the shot clock is an integral part of the game (as it is in all of basketball). So perhaps it will be all right.
  • baseballPickoff limit. This is a limit on the number of times a pitcher can throw to first when a runner is on base. Castillo says this is tied to the pitch clock. I think this makes sense. It should help speed up the game.
  • Ban on the shift. I like this one. What in the hell is the third baseman doing over there between first and second base? Let’s ensure that the players play their positions.
  • Larger base size. The idea is to make it easier for the baserunner to steal a base. To me this removes some of the finesse from the game. Baseball needs finesse.

As a Dodger fan, I suppose I need to comment on Trevor Bauer, the elephant in the room. My take: Do not bring him back. Do not even think about it. End of discussion.

Dodgers pitchers and catchers report on February 13 or 15, depending on whether or not they are participating in the World Baseball Classic (WBC). I am counting the days. Speaking of the WBC, don’t get me started on that. I hate it. It distracts from spring training and team cohesion. Opinions differ, but I believe it can have lingering effects into the regular season.

What’s important, however, is that we have a full season of baseball in 2023. I’m looking forward to that.


Declassified

Declassified: A Low-Key Guide to the High-Strung World of Classical Music
Arianna Warsaw-Fan Rauch
read by the author
Penguin Audio (October 11, 2022), 6 hours and 48 minutes
$14.62 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

The reviewer in The New York Times Book Review who wrote that this audiobook was delightful to listen to had it right. Declassified, part memoir and part classical music primer, is eminently listenable and thoroughly enjoyable.

Arianna Warsaw-Fan Rauch’s father was a professional musician, and Arianna got her love of music sitting underneath her father’s piano as he played. This led to her getting a violin and lessons at age two. Rauch writes about her relationship with the violin and music. She writes about her various violin instructors (some of whom she loved and some of whom she hated), and the path of her music education. Rauch initially auditioned for Julliard but was turned down, so she went to Northwestern. She again auditioned at Julliard for her junior year where she was accepted, and where she got her bachelor’s degree followed by her master’s. The author mentions her stormy relationship with a man she refers to only as Golden Violin Boy or GVB, and how she broke up with him right before a performance. She tells us about a much healthier and more stable relationship with a non-musical German.

Intermixed with the memoir Rauch writes about the world of music in a lighthearted manner filled with wit. She discusses the stories she heard about competition and sabotage at college music programs and how that compared to the reality. (The competition was friendly and the sabotage was a myth.) She playfully lists the stereotypes of various musicians and their instruments. But Rauch writes less playfully about conductors, most of whom (except for the first one she worked with) she held in low esteem. She discusses the relative selling price of various instruments in the orchestra and tells stories about composers and their romances. Rauch provides an overview of the various genres in classical music and offers advice on how to listen to it.

The author does not hide her biases. For example, she hates medieval music. (I personally rather like Gregorian chant). Because Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” uses a similar musical framework, she also hates their music. Nor does she hide the fact that she is a movie fan. Movie references abound throughout the book, culminating with a list of classical music related movies at the end of the book.

Interestingly, what prompted Rauch to write this book was not her life as a professional musician, but her giving up that life. She writes about a Mendelson violin concerto which

quoteset me down the path of becoming a serious violinist, a path that would ultimately take me away from my early love of music and into a prison-like labyrinth of technical pressures and demands.

After learning that she was pregnant she completed one last concert tour and then put her violin away in favor of becoming a listener and teaching her child an appreciation of music.

Accompanying the audiobook is an extensive PDF that provides comprehensive resources on genres, composers, works, and movies. I assume all of this content is somehow integrated into the print and e-book editions.

If you are acquainted with classical music you may find some passages rather basic and simplistic, but any classical music lover would, to my mind, find it difficult not to enjoy this book.


Dodgers winter blues

Like most Los Angeles Dodgers fans, I was delighted with the team’s 111 regular season win record in 2022. And also, like most Dodger fans, I was disappointed, ticked off in fact, at their collapse in the division series. The team certainly didn’t seem engaged or have any sense of urgency in that series.

So after that loss we looked forward to the 2023 season and the moves that president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and Dodger management would make during the off season.

Or not.

Yes, they did re-sign Clayton Kershaw. That was good. But they let Trea Turner get away. And they failed to exercise the club option on Justin Turner. They could have signed him to a contract at a lower salary, but they did not seem inclined to do so. Instead, they awarded a one-year contract to former Boston Red Sox designated hitter J. D. Martinez. Say what? And Justin Turner? He signed a two-year deal with Boston. The teams essentially swapped designated hitters. That makes no sense.

So where does that leave the Dodgers? Not exactly looking like they will cruise to a National League West championship in 2023.

We will be there. We will watch. But we will not be happy with management.


A Line in the World

A Line in the World coverA Line in the World: A Year on the North Sea Coast
Dorthe Nors
translated by Caroline Waight
Graywolf Press (November 1, 2022), 184 pages
Kindle edition $9.99, Amazon paperback $15.99

Dorthe Nors is apparently a highly regarded author in Denmark. I’m glad that translator Caroline Waight has made this memoir for available to English-speaking readers. Nors writes she was planning to work on her next novel when her publisher asked her to write a travel book about the coast of the North Sea. The result is A Line in the World.

Nors covers a lot of territory in this book. She writes about her childhood home and how the government evicted her family because the site of their home was planned as an exit on a new expressway that was being built. (I can’t help but think of the earth being destroyed to make way for a new galactic superhighway in Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) She then turns to history and discusses the Viking invasion of England, but from a Danish rather than a British or American perspective.

The author describes her family’s summer cabin where she goes to write. It has no electricity and no running water, but it is, she says, a good place for her to be productive. Nors also describes how the cabin is located across the bay from a former chemical plant. That plant was responsible for a lot of pollution, as bad as the pollution from some plants in the United States. That surprised me, given my preconceptions about Scandinavia. On a completely different note, Nors writes about a day trip she took with a friend to look at frescoes in rural churches so her friend could draw them in her sketchbook.

Nors devotes one section to the past of a remote community where the men were often away at sea. When, as sometimes happens, a man didn’t return, Nors explains the women banded together to take care of the one who lost her husband. Over time they developed a sort of uniform whose configuration depicted a given woman’s status: married or unmarried. She writes the longtime locals do not like city folk replicating those uniforms at a present-day annual festival.

Nors segues from a discussion of how birds navigate to a reflection on her experience of a private retreat at the edge of the Wadden Sea. She comments on how one brings all of oneself to a retreat, demons included, despite one’s best intentions.

I have no way of knowing, of course, how Waight’s English compares with Nors’s Danish, but the English flows beautifully. The spelling in A Line in the World is British as are the idioms, but that is not a distraction. In fact, it seems appropriate given the relative proximity of the British Isles to Denmark.

For a readable memoir or travelogue, one could do worse than A Line in the World.


Writers and Their Notebooks

Writers and their Notebooks coverWriters and Their Notebooks
edited by Diana M. Raab
University of South Carolina Press (May 1, 2018), 206 pages
Kindle edition $11.99
purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $2.99

I had not intended to review this book here. I always keep a couple of books on my iPhone to read at odd moments during downtime or while waiting somewhere. When I saw Writers and Their Notebooks on sale I thought it would fit nicely into this category. It did.

The editor asked several published writers to document how they used notebooks. There were a variety of responses, but some common themes. A few writers talked about having a small notebook they carried with them to write down thoughts. Many talked about having a journal in which they wrote their reflections. Several discussed having a diary as a child or teenager. A lot of the respondents described how the particular format was important to them. They used a very specific type of notebook, and often a particular kind of pen.

The editor divided the book into five parts, all beginning with “The Journal as…” Her categories are tool, survival, travel, muse, and life. The essays in each section describe how the writer used their journal in that particular fashion. Authors in the tool section, for example, turned to their journals to extract plot points for their fiction. One writer in the travel section wrote he was not a regular journal keeper, but when he received this assignment he decided to keep a journal on an upcoming foreign trip.

There was a consensus that these journals were for the writer’s eyes only. One author wrote that her journals were not to be made public after her death. Another writer threw all of his journals into the trash compactor in his apartment building. It was the rare exception who suggested that blogging had replaced journal keeping.

I was a serious journal keeper for the two years I remained in Claremont after I had graduated from college. Those blank books at B. Dalton Bookseller where I worked were just too tempting. (I may still have those in a box somewhere in the garage.) I also kept carbon copies of typed letters sent to friends in a three-ring binder. These days I am one of those people for whom blogging has replaced writing in a journal.

The editor provides some resources in the back of the book. An appendix entitled “Use Journaling to Spark Your Writing” seemed a bit directive and overdone to me. More useful are two bibliographies, “Published Journals and References” (there are those authors who are happy to make their journals public) and “Books on Writing.”

For someone wondering how journal writing might be helpful for them Writers and Their Notebooks might be a useful tool.


Constructing a Nervous System

Constructing a Nervous System coverConstructing a Nervous System: A Memoir
Margo Jefferson
Pantheon (April 12, 2022), 209 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, Amazon hardcover $22.95

I added Constructing a Nervous System to my stack of Kindle samples when the book first came out in April. Its appearance on the 100 Notable Books of 2022 in The New York Times jogged my memory and I decided it was time to read it.

The book is called a memoir, but it really consists of a series of essays on various topics. The opening chapter is a stream of consciousness recollection about the author’s younger years, including memories of the end of her mother’s life. The rest of the book is a collection of essays on a variety of topics.

Jefferson is angry. Given that she is an African American woman she has every right to be. She writes, “The destiny of our people was tracked through the male line.” She goes on to say that although everyone knew about the lynching of Black men, Black women were lynched as well. She notes she was not aware of this until college.

The author devotes several essays to entertainers. She discusses Ella Fitzgerald and her struggles, saying, “You labored to be beautiful. You earned your diaphoresis, day by day, night by night, rehearsal by rehearsal, tour by tour.” She writes about Hattie McDaniel in her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, which won her an Oscar. (And Jefferson notes that her mother and friends flocked to their local theater to see the movie, while feeling guilty about doing so.) Jefferson engages in a detailed discussion of Josephine Baker about whom she seems to have mixed feelings. On one hand the author admires Baker’s joining Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington. On the other, she seems disdainful of Baker’s deliberate strategy of making herself provocative.

Jefferson also writes with mixed feelings about the novelist Willa Cather. When she first encountered Cather the author appreciated her feminism, but Jefferson later understood how seriously racist Cather was. In the realm of politics, Jefferson does not look kindly on Condoleezza Rice and her admiration of the second President Bush.

I’m embarrassed that I was not aware of Margo Jefferson before finding this book. (She has won a Pulitzer, after all.) But I’m happy to have discovered her here, with her insights and superb writing skills.


Creativity and Your Brain

Creativity and Your Brain coverCreativity and Your Brain
Indre Viskontas, Ph.D.
University of San Francisco; San Francisco Conservatory of Music
$49.95 when on sale at The Great Courses
if it’s not on sale check back: the sale price will come around again
or stream the course with a Wondrium subscription

I’m always interested in the subject of creativity, so when I saw this course publicized I had to take advantage of my Wondrium subscription to watch it.

The course covers a lot of material in its twenty-four lectures. There is a lot of material about brain research and what part of the brain handles what functions, complete with graphics that show where in the brain a particular activity is handled. Professor Viskontas early on dispels the myth that the left brain is strictly analytical while the right brain is strictly creative. But in later lectures she makes clear that the right brain does play a role in creative thinking and the left in analytical thinking; It’s just not as clear-cut as popular culture would have us believe.

Viskontas discusses issues such as dyslexia (apparently Beethoven was dyslexic), brain damage, and conditions such as autism. She is sensitive about placing labels on people with non-normative brain functions and explains why it is often better to talk about “a person with autism,” rather than “an autistic.” At the same time, she acknowledges that sometimes a person with autism is comfortable with the adjective “autistic” because it accurately denotes how their brain functions.

The lecture on drug use and creativity was interesting because of its balance. While Viskontas admits that sometimes drugs (including caffeine) used in a certain way can enhance creativity, on balance chemical stimulants rarely do a lot for creativity.

The most interesting part of this series is the professor herself, Indre Viskontas. She has a PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from the University of California, Los Angeles and is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco, where she runs the Creative Brain Lab. But she is also an accomplished professional musician. She has played starring roles in professional opera productions, has directed opera, and has coached vocalists. I can’t imagine a more accomplished person to present this course.


Improv Nation

Improv NationImprov Nation: How We Made a Great American Art
Sam Wasson
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (December 5, 2017), 582 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon paperback $9.98
purchased on sale for $2.99

I have loved improvisational theater since I was a freshman at Pitzer College. At the Claremont Colleges there was a four-college improv troupe called Karma Pie. I loved attending their weekend performances. Living in Claremont after graduation in 1975, Saturday Night was appointment television from its first episode that fall, long before appointment TV was a thing. So it’s no surprise that this book got my attention.

When Sam Wasson documents show business he does not do so in a small way. Perhaps best known for his 2013 biography Fosse, coming in at 757 pages, his chronicle Improv Nation hits page 452 before the backmatter begins. It’s everything you ever wanted to know about the history of improvisational theater in America.

Wasson begins his story in the 1920s when Viola Spolin, working with multiethnic young people, gave them a safe place to interact. In 1940 Spolin introduced the idea of audience suggestions in a local theater, which Wasson marks as the beginning of improv in America. From there he covers the development of improv through the decades, all the way to 2001 and the reaction of the improv community to 9/11.

The author writes about the development of improv in New York City. He describes how Mike Nichols and Elaine May hit it off and became that legendary comedy team (until May lost interest). But before they were headliners in their own right they opened for Mort Sahl, who sometimes bumped their act when he was ready to go on early.

The book covers the development of Second City, beginning as a struggling comedy troupe in Chicago and developing into a popular entertainment venue. Wasson recounts the decision to add a theater in Toronto. He discusses how many well-known names in the field got their start in Toronto, including Gilda Radner, John Belushi, and Dan Aykroyd. As everyone knows, when Lorne Michaels created Saturday Night he recruited heavily from Second City, including those three. It was Saturday Night’s popularity that prompted Second City to create the television show SCTV.

Wasson discusses the movies as well. While one would expect movies like Caddyshack and Groundhog Day to have an improv influence, it also showed up in other genres. The author describes how Mike Nichols used improv techniques in rehearsals with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft for The Graduate.

Nichols and May both went into movie directing, each independent of the other. While Nichols was tight and disciplined, and could deliver a movie efficiently, May would not let go of the editing process and deliver her final product, getting her into trouble with the studio more than once. Wasson delves into this in detail.

There are a few odd omissions in the book. Steve Allen isn’t mentioned at all, and he was a master of his own brand of improv, using audience questions to great effect in his own act. But for the Chicago/Toronto/New York cluster of the improv world and the associated movie-making endeavors, Improv Nation offers a definitive history.


updating Garner

One would think that it would be a simple thing to order and receive a copy of the new fifth edition of Bryan Garner’s Modern English Usage, wouldn’t one? Guess not.

Garner coverI was looking forward to the release of the book, which I had preordered. It was published on November 17, and as an Amazon Prime member I expected it within a day or two of publication. I had wanted the Kindle edition, but Amazon did not show it available in that format. November 14 arrived and Amazon told me I could expect the book on November 29. Say what? At that point it also showed a Kindle edition. I tried to cancel my hardcover order, but Amazon responded by telling me, “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to cancel the items you requested and these items will soon be shipped.”

Their claim of “will soon be shipped” notwithstanding, Amazon took its time getting the book into the pipeline. Eventually it made its way from Chambersburg, PA and Baltimore, MD on the East Coast to San Bernardino and then San Diego, CA here on the West Coast, where Amazon handed it over to the United States Postal Service, and thence to my local Hemet post office.

From here the post office took its time. Tracking showed that it was “Out for Delivery” on Saturday, November 26, but the postman never delivered it; it ended up back at the post office that same day with a status of “Ready for Pickup.” Again, say what? I completed the provided online redelivery request and the book showed up in my mailbox on Monday, after our regular mail delivery.

I have it now, though, and I’m happy to have the latest edition of Garner there on my shelf. I look forward to making good use of it, both for reference and for browsing.


The California Days of Ralph Waldo Emerson

The California Days of Ralph Waldo Emerson coverThe California Days of Ralph Waldo Emerson
Brian C. Wilson
read by L.J. Ganser
Tantor Audio, 8 hours and 35 minutes
print edition published by University of Massachusetts Press (May 27, 2022)
$15.30 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

The California Days of Ralph Waldo Emerson, documenting a railroad trip that the Sage of Concord took to California late in his life, shows us that Emerson was not as New England-centric as we might believe.

Emerson had been slated to give a series of talks at Harvard, but aging as he was, he struggled with preparing those lectures. Emerson’s friend, railroad magnate and philanthropist John Murray Forbes suggested a railroad trip to California for which Forbes would make the arrangements. Those making the trip included Emerson’s daughter Edith and her husband, Forbes’s son. Fortunately, Emerson’s friend, James Bradley Thayer was in that group as well because it is to him we owe much of our knowledge of the expedition. Few of Emerson’s letters home to his wife Lidian survive, but we have Thayer’s (puzzlingly unsuccessful) book A Western Journey with Mr. Emerson along with letters to his wife Sophie to document the events.

Forbes was not one to do things in a small way. For the trip he arranged for the party to travel in a private Pullman car which would meet them in Chicago. The car had a sitting space which was converted into a dining room for meals, a separate sleeping space, and a full kitchen. The car was fully staffed with employees of the Pullman company.

Author Brian C. Wilson goes into detail about the trip and describes the travelers’ daily routines and the operation of their private car. In Utah, the group made a detour to Salt Lake City so Emerson could meet Mormon leader Brigham Young. Wilson makes a long diversion into the history of the Mormon religion and Young’s establishment of Salt Lake City as the center for the religion. Odd, as all this is somewhat tangential to Emerson’s thought and interests and to the trip as a whole.

Wilson’s detail about the group’s journey across the continent and through the Sierra Nevada is such that that their arrival in San Francisco seems almost anti-climactic. Once there, the men in the group make an odd choice for entertainment. They visit some rather sleazy venues in Chinatown. But it wasn’t all about slumming. Although Emerson gave up his role as a Unitarian minister early in his career, the Unitarians still claimed him, and when San Francisco Unitarians learned of his arrival they insisted he offer lectures. Anticipating this, daughter Edith had made sure several lectures made their way into Emerson’s trunk.

The travelers split up their San Francisco time with a visit to Yosemite, a journey that the time took four days. Wilson writes the trip would be difficult, “requiring travel by ferry, railroad, stagecoach, wagon, and finally horseback.” (Terry and I would drive to Yosemite from the South Bay in five hours or so.) Not only did they enjoy the beauty of the region, but a young John Muir wanted to meet Emerson and took the group on a trip through the region.

The author tells us that there is little record of the journey home and concludes the book with an account of Emerson’s final years. He also recounts the lives of his traveling companions after the trip.

When a book is produced in its audio format by Tantor you know it will be a quality production. This is no exception. L.J. Ganser’s narration is superb. I could quibble about his pronunciation of the term “placer mining” and of Kearney Street in San Francisco, but his work is so listenable and so professional that these lapses are insignificant.

If Emerson and the Transcendentalist world fall within your realm of interest, do not miss this book.