about that pitch clock

We have baseball! Terry and I are both happy about that. Spring training games began this past weekend, and that is a Good Thing.

The game looks noticeably different this year, or so it seems at first glance. I wrote about the rule changes for 2023, but the most obvious is the pitch clock. There is now a thirty-second timer between batters and a fifteen-second timer between pitches, or twenty seconds if runners are on base. If a pitcher does not start his motion within that time the batter gets an automatic ball called. The batter must be in the box and alert to the pitcher at the eight second mark or the umpire calls a strike against him.

The Dodgers played their first exhibition game on the road Saturday against the Brewers. Due to the setup at the Brewers stadium they couldn’t show the pitch clock as part of the data on the screen. But back home at Camelback Ranch on Sunday the pitch clock was ubiquitous.

baseball pitch clockDoes the pitch clock speed up the game? Apparently so. Saturday’s Dodger game came in at two hours and twenty-one minutes. On Sunday, when the Dodgers had eleven walks the game was just under three hours. Sunday’s Angels game was over in two hours and thirty-six minutes. In the past it was rare for a game to run less than three hours.

Certainly the players need to get used to the new system. In Sunday’s Dodger game there were two pitch clock violations early in the game: one by a hitter, the other by a pitcher. Things settled down after that. But the weird event was in Saturday’s Atlanta-Boston game. It was the bottom of the ninth, there were two outs and a full count. The batter was called on a pitch clock violation, which meant an automatic strike and the end of the game.

As Dodger color commentator Rick Monday kept pointing out during Sunday’s game, baseball has always changed and evolved. He described how the strike zone has changed drastically. It is much smaller today than it was fifty years ago.

It will probably take the entire season to determine whether the pitch clock is taking things just a little too far. Right now I’m undecided.

Culture: The Story of Us

Culture: The Story of Us coverCulture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop
Martin Puchner
W. W. Norton & Company (February 7, 2023), 371 pages
Kindle edition $16.90, Amazon hardcover $31.50

When I saw this book listed as an upcoming release in a New York Times rundown, I knew it was something I wanted to read. I originally thought about describing it as a Western Civilization course focused on specific individuals, but that would be unfair. The author has a global perspective, going well beyond the West.

He opens the book in his introduction describing ancient cave art from 35,000 BCE. The first chapter delves into the world of Egyptian queen Nefertiti and her husband Akhenaten who upended Egyptian polytheism with their focus on the worship of Aton, the disk of the sun. He discusses Plato and his view of the ideal society, certainly central to western civ. However, Puchner points out that Plato was a great admirer of Egyptian culture, something we often forget when making him central to western thought. Puchner then heads to India, where king Ashoka built an empire and a culture in the third century BCE.

The author discusses ancient Pompeii and its cultural diversity. He points out that Pompeii was a provincial town, and while we have so much preserved from the city that it “is simply too good a time capsule not to be used,” it is not necessarily typical of the Roman empire. Giving ample attention to the East, Puchner discusses Buddhist thought and diplomacy in ancient China. The author writes about an Ethiopian queen and the legends about her affair with King Solomon, Christian mysticism, and Aztec encounters with the Spanish.

Puchner devotes considerable space to literature and literacy. He discusses how Baghdad became a storehouse of knowledge shortly after the rise of Islam. He describes how Charlemagne, though illiterate himself, ordered the collection of manuscripts from throughout the empire. His scholars were faced with a variety of scripts from across Europe, so to simplify matters they developed a new script to improve legibility. That was Carolingian minuscule, the basis for our modern scripts.

In the modern era Puchner writes about George Eliot, whose real name was Mary Ann Evans and who wrote historical works under her own name. Puchner then discusses Japanese art, and in the last chapter describes Nigerian cultural conflicts with the west while the country sought its independence.

The subtitle of the book is a bit misleading, as we see nothing of K-Pop until the epilogue, but the author does a superb job of helping us to widen our definition of the word “culture.”

when a home improvement project is more complicated than expected

Some time back Terry and I decided we wanted to replace our sliding glass door with a French door. The slider was clunky and unwieldy, and we really liked the French door we had installed in Gilroy. Last fall we decided it was time to get it done. It turned out to be a more complex task than we expected.

Our first action was to contact our local general contractor, who had done such a good job for us on other projects, such as upgrading our kitchen sink and counters. Turns out French doors are not in his wheelhouse. He would have installed an off-the-shelf French door from Home Depot. That would not work.

Our next move was to contact a national company that advertises regularly in the newspaper. The salesman came out and gave us a dog and pony show that included setting up a heat lamp and a pane of glass to demonstrate how good his product was at deflecting heat. He then had us sit through two videos that did nothing to help us in our decision-making process. When he finally got around to giving us a quote it was, well, sticker shock.

French doorWe then called a company that advertised in our Four Seasons community magazine. The salesman started out by telling us why we didn’t want to get solar for our house right then. Say what? We wanted a French door; we weren’t asking him about solar. From there he had his own dog and pony show. The quote came in on the high side, and when we looked at his company’s reviews on Yelp the firm did not fare well.

Undeterred, we called a company that advertises in the local monthly advertising magazine. The salesperson came out, took measurements, and gave us a quote. The price was reasonable and within a couple of days we decided to proceed. He came back to complete the paperwork, pick up our check for the deposit, and confirm the measurements. The office manager emailed us a drawing to confirm that the door opened the way we wanted it to.

It was a twelve week wait (supply chain issues, you know) but the installers arrived last Monday. They were here right at 8:00 a.m. and did a thorough and meticulous job. They were done and out of here in less than three hours. The door looks great and functions smoothly.

Sometimes you just need to walk through the process to get to the desired end.

We Play Ourselves

We Play Ourselves coverWe Play Ourselves: A Novel
Jen Silverman
Random House (February 9, 2021), 323 pages
Kindle edition $5.99, Amazon paperback $17.00

I first read about We Play Ourselves when it was published in 2021. The New York Times Book Review had good things to say about it. I downloaded the Kindle sample and pretty much forgot about it, as I read mostly nonfiction.

I was, however, recently nonfictioned out and a mention of the book in the Newest Literary Fiction group on Goodreads jogged my memory. Given that We Play Ourselves focuses in part on the theater, and given that I have long loved theater, I thought it would be a good choice for my next book. It was.

The first-person protagonist, Cass, has been laboring in the New York theater world for several years without a great deal of success. Finally a script she wrote won a (fictional) prestigious prize. This got her an agent and the agent facilitated the production of her play to be directed by a well-regarded director. The reviews of the play were highly unfavorable. Meanwhile, another winner named Tara-Jean Slater, a dozen years younger than Cass, is achieving success with what Cass sees as absurdist productions. Cass inadvertently causes a scandal at the younger woman’s opening night party and flees to the West Coast in humiliation.

In Los Angeles Cass secures a bedroom from an old high school friend, Dylan, who is gay. Living next door is a woman named Caroline who sees herself as a director and is producing a movie with a group of high school girls she has recruited. Caroline hears Cass’s name as Cath and asks her to assist with the film. Cass doesn’t mind the name change as she sees herself in the light of the old New York Cass and the new Los Angeles Cath. Cass’s life is complicated by the conflicts between Dylan and his lover, by her discovery that Caroline will cross ethical boundaries to get the film she wants, and by Tara-Jean Slater’s arrival in Los Angeles to complete a big Netflix deal. (Cass always refers to Tara by her full name.) Things spiral out of control to the point where Cass returns to her parents’ home in New Hampshire.

The final 15 percent of the book somewhat falls apart as Cass’s mother recruits Cass to produce a puppet play at her church for Easter. But that notwithstanding, the rest of the book is an engaging page-turner with plenty of twists and turns. What little I have said here is not enough to diminish your enjoyment of the novel with its character development and the angst that Cass experiences.

Author Jen Silverman writes briskly and with wit. She knows the residential areas of Los Angeles well. When parking near the home of one of the high school girls she has Cass notice:

quotea particularly complicated three-part sign that seems to be saying either that it’s okay to park on weekdays between certain hours or else that it’s okay to park at all times other than weekdays between those specific hours.

Silverman’s knowledge of the California coast is less solid. She has Cass saying that she can drive from Monterey to San Francisco in an hour. Don’t think so.

That’s just a quibble, however. If you like a good novel and if you appreciate the world of the theater We Play Ourselves is enjoyable reading.

an unfinished story

Both Terry and I want to support the monarch butterfly population. There was a shrub In the front yard near the front porch that was there when we moved in. It eventually died. We replaced it with a mock orange that also died. Finally, in our quest to support the butterflies, we put a butterfly bush there, but that died as well. I think there must be something toxic in the soil there.

caterpillarWe continued our quest. A while back Terry went to our locally owned garden shop and bought a milkweed plant. She put it in a container in the backyard, right at the edge of the patio where we could keep a close eye on it. In short order we had three monarch caterpillars munching away. We’ve had some good rains and winds this winter, but the caterpillars hung in there. If the weather was inclement they sheltered beneath one of the leaves. If the weather was nice they sunned themselves on top of a leaf. They kept eating and getting bigger. We were looking forward to their achieving their chrysalis state and eventually becoming butterflies. I wanted to get some pictures and write about the process.

caterpillar plantAt one point one caterpillar disappeared, but we still had two eating the plant and getting bigger. We maintained our hope of seeing the full cycle. Then, after some stormy weather we were down to one caterpillar. That lone survivor moved from the milkweed, now pretty much stripped of its leaves, to a frost cloth that we used to protect our plants in the winter. It was not in use at the time and was draped over a patio chair. Our caterpillar spent several days on the frost cloth before it, the last of the three, disappeared.

My spiritual director suggested that perhaps the last caterpillar did not leave of its own volition. That’s entirely possible. It would certainly be easy prey for a bird in the neighborhood.

So there you have it. I wanted to have a story to tell, and I suppose I do. But it’s not the complete story I wanted to be able to share.

All is not lost, though. I was out on my walk one day shortly after the disappearance of our last caterpillar and I came across a beautiful monarch. Sadly, it flitted away before I could switch from the exercise app to the camera on my iPhone.

Terry and I did not contribute to the cause in the way in which we would like to have done, but the butterflies are out there. That’s reassuring to know.


Rooted coverRooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit
Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Little, Brown Spark (May 4, 2021), 241 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon paperback $17.99

The subtitle of Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s book is a bit misleading, in that Rooted doesn’t really contain a lot of science. There is plenty of nature and spirit here, however. The book is reminiscent of the work of Loren Eiseley or Annie Dillard’s early masterpiece, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, with a good dose of medieval Christian mysticism thrown in.

Haupt writes about hope. She says that a Benedictine definition of hope is “that virtue by which we take responsibility for the future,” which imbues our actions with a “special urgency.”

Where Haupt does engage in science is where she discusses how science has proven that spending time in nature improves our physical health in measurable ways. She discusses what she calls forest baths, the practice of mindfully spending time in nature. And she invokes Carl Sagan who kept reminding us that “we are star stuff.” You may remember Sagan intoning those words if you watched the original PBS Cosmos series in the eighties. Haupt quotes Dr. Ashley King, a meteorite researcher at the Natural History Museum, who validates that sentiment. King says, “It is totally 100 percent true: nearly all the elements in the human body were made in a star and many have come through several supernovas.”

Haupt does not hide her anger about human offenses against nature. She fumes about a deer that was killed by an inept archer on a nature preserve located on land owned by the University of Washington, where hunting is prohibited. She writes about orca whales separated from their pods and taken to aquariums where most of them did not live long. Haupt is furious with her city government’s plan for destroying a starling nest and rescues one of the birds which becomes a loved household pet (about which she wrote an earlier book).

The author describes how, as a child, she discovered a pond near her house which frogs inhabited. She learned the frogs would sit with her if she was quiet and moved slowly. She called this her frog church and, being raised Catholic, felt the need at confession to tell the priest that she had another church.

Haupt embraces the Christian mystical tradition. Without mentioning St. Francis by name she refers to the animals of the natural world as brother and sister. In the beginning of the book she lists the medieval Christian mystic Hildegard of Bingen as one of her mentors. And throughout she quotes another medieval woman mystic, Julian of Norwich.

So, yes, in Rooted you will find a lot of nature and spirit with just enough science to tie it all together.

getting serious about exercise

I have been rather inconsistent about getting my exercise of late. Since my primary form of exercise is walking outdoors, that inconsistency is due to a combination of the weather (love the recent rains, though!) and my own laziness. But then I had a revelation shortly after the first of the year. It hit me that I am having a milestone birthday this year. One of those with a big zero in it. It reinforced for me that my doctor was right in emphasizing exercise when I saw him in November.

Map My Walk screen shotFortunately I have a new app to help me with that. I had long used a walking tracker on my iPhone that worked all right, but with which I was not terribly happy. I got tired of the prompt to upgrade to the paid version every single time I started the app. This was particularly annoying because the developer updated it only rarely. Then there was the fact that the corresponding web site was on United Kingdom time, which meant if I wanted to look at a walk I did today, but if it was after 4:00 p.m. I had to go back a day. The last straw was when I went to save a walk on my iPhone and it zeroed out the whole walk.

So I did some searching. I found an app called Map My Walk. It has a nice clean user interface on my iPhone and it plays nicely with my podcast and Audible audiobook apps, something the previous app did not do. The web site is also much cleaner and easier to use than the previous one.

I certainly feel better when I exercise, and keeping in mind that milestone birthday I am motivated to do so.

The Hard Crowd

The Hard Crowd coverThe Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020
Rachel Kushner
Scribner (April 6, 2021), 246 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon paperback $12.99

I first became familiar with Rachel Kushner a while back when I began reading her novel The Flamethrowers. I only got halfway through with it when I got bogged down. It wasn’t too much of a loss, though, as I bought the Kindle edition in an Early Bird Books sale for something like $2.99. How I was not aware of The Hard Crowd, which was published in 2021, until recently I have no idea. I’m always happy to read a book of well-written essays, however, so I thought I’d give the present volume a go. I was, for the most part, not disappointed.

The opening essay suggests Kushner has a lot in common with her female protagonist in The Flamethrowers. In the novel, the character is involved with a team trying to set a land speed record in the salt flats of the American Southwest. In the opening essay of The Hard Crowd, a rather long piece, Kushner describes participating in the Baja 1000, an illegal motorcycle race that went from San Ysidro, on the California/Mexico border, to Cabo San Lucas, at the southern tip of Baja California. The author explains she had been a motorcycle enthusiast since childhood, her father having had a prize motorcycle on which he worked regularly. Since her love interest at the time was participating in the race she felt the need to do so as well. Kushner describes the ordeal in excruciating detail, recounting a crash caused by another racer, having her wrecked bike hauled away by pirates from whom she had to buy it back, and losing all of her money and identification because of the incompetence of the crew on the rescue truck.

Her taste for adventure shows up in other essays as well. In one piece she describes visiting a community organizer in the Palestinian refugee camp in Jerusalem. In another, she describes buying a 1963 Chevrolet Impala near Asheville, North Carolina and how it broke down in Iowa as she drove it back to California. (I am not a car and motorcycle buff like Kushner, but I have to like her. She says that she still owns a 1964 Ford Galaxie that she bought years ago. My first car was also a sixties Ford Galaxie.)

Kushner’s quirkiness comes to her naturally. Her parents once converted an old school bus into a sort of makeshift motor home and drove it to Oregon one summer where her father was going to start a college teaching job in the fall. She writes that her parents “looked like hippies, lived like hippies, and were very often mistaken for hippies” but, she says that “they didn’t really consider themselves hippies—which, to them, seemed a movement with its own conformities, and they were against conformities.”

In the final essay, Kushner describes her life as a young adult in San Francisco, where she waited tables and hung out with people who sold and consumed drugs.

At the end of that final essay she writes, “I’m talking about my own life. Which not only can’t matter to you, it might bore you.” I didn’t find Kushner’s stories the least bit boring. But I am slightly surprised, though happy, that she still lives to tell the tale.

Still Pictures

Still Pictures coverStill Pictures: On Photography and Memory
Janet Malcolm
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (January 10, 2023), 165 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon hardcover $26.00

As someone who deeply appreciates the art of the essay I would like to say that I have long been a fan of Janet Malcolm. But that’s not true. The first time I really paid attention to her was when her book of essays, Nobody’s Looking at You, came out in 2019. I read the Kindle sample and just wasn’t engaged. However, something or someone brought my attention to her 2013 collection, Forty-one False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers. I thoroughly enjoyed those essays, so when Farrar, Straus and Giroux published Still Pictures posthumously this month I made a point of buying it.

Malcolm was suspicious of the art of memoir and autobiography, but late in her life she apparently decided it was better for her to tell her own story the way she wanted it told rather than leaving the task to someone else. Most of the essays are based on a photograph in her possession: either of herself, her family, or people with whom she dealt.

I was not aware that Malcolm was an immigrant, but the second essay describes her departure by train from Prague with her parents in 1939. Their escape was fortunate, as the Malcolm family was Jewish. Malcolm’s father was a doctor, and he was able to obtain his license to practice in the United States, so the family, though not wealthy, lived comfortably.

Malcolm writes a lot about her Czech family and fellow émigrés. She writes about an “after-school Czech school” that her parents sent her to so she could keep in touch with her heritage and language. In a somewhat contrasting move, her parents sent her to a summer camp run by a Congregational minister and his wife, apparently to help the Czech Jewish girl better integrate into Christian American society. In a similar manner the family celebrated Easter not by attending church but by dressing up in new, colorful clothes. Her parents even sent Malcolm to a Lutheran Sunday School.

While most of the book is about her childhood and youth, she also writes about her life as an adult. She admits to having an affair with a man whom she later married. He leased an apartment for their rendezvous, from which the tableware and china that they brought in were stolen. She explains how she went to a speech coach named Sam Chwat to help her with a libel lawsuit. She writes the jury had convicted her but could not agree on a dollar amount for the award. Chwat coached her to abandon the staid, low key New Yorker style (where she spent so many years as a staff writer), in favor of a more flamboyant approach, both in tone of voice and dress. The jury in the new trial decided the plaintiff deserved no award.

Before she was a writer Malcolm was a photographer. As a writer she often thought like a photographer. In her essay on her summer camp she writes:

quoteMost of what happens to us goes unremembered. The events of our lives are like photographic negatives. The few that make it into the developing solution and become photographs are what we call our memories.

Malcom was unable to complete a planned essay on photography before her death in 2021. Instead, her daughter provides a tribute to her mother as a photographer and reflects on Janet Malcolm’s feelings about autobiography.

You’ll find this book well worth your time if you appreciate the craft of the essay or if you enjoy the art of photography.