Archive for May, 2009

Ten Reasons To Watch The Stanley Cup Playoffs

stanley-cup-playoffs-20091. Hockey is played on ice skates

2. Hockey is a contact sport

3. Hockey is the only team sport other than polo that’s faster than a man can run

4. Hockey is continuous – five or more minutes of unbroken play can occur

5. Hockey player substitutions can take place without a stoppage in play

6. Hockey rule infractions result in the offending team playing short-handed

7. Hockey players control the game – within defined limits fist-fighting is tolerated

8. Hockey has the impact and violence of football

9. Hockey has the grace and beauty of ballet

10. Hockey has dynamic complexities of quantum mechanics.

The Great War and My Post-Modern Memory

imagesIf you’ve ever wondered in referencing a long ago book, whether or not you really had “gotten” what you’d read, then you might understand my decision to re-read certain books from my past. There are books, many read years ago, that have seriously influenced, for better or worse, how I think today. Recently, I began re-reading several of those works, particularly those centered on the events and consequences of the First World War, books whose decades-old ideas remain lodged in my mind.

I first read George Dangerfield’s 1935 classic “The Strange Death of Liberal England” in 1969, a beautifully and wittily literate survey of the political, social and imperial crises of Edwardian England. The book is as good a read in 2009, as it had been in 1969. Particularly gripping is Dangerfield’s treatment of how the now largely unknown Ulster Crisis of 1914, and the threat of civil war in Ireland, were considered a more imminent danger in most British minds of the day than the impending conflict with Imperial Germany.

Two works of the Hungarian-born historian John Lukacs “Historical Consciousness,” 1968, and “The Passing of the Modern Age,” 1970,” have kept my head spinning over the intervening decades since my first readings. Lukacs’ voice – learned, dazzlingly intelligent and wonderfully eccentric – continues to resonate and inform so many of my own attempts to decode and come to grips with the meaning of history itself.

For years, I’d question and second guess myself as to whether or not I had actually “gotten” the essential elements of Lukacs’ many then, and still, unconventional theses. Going back into his writings was somewhat reassuring as well as rewarding. It was not difficult to doubt my own thinking when, for example, Lukacs would cite at length and in depth things like the role of Heisenberg’s “Uncertainty Principle” to argue for the primacy of history among intellectual disciplines. Heady stuff, indeed.

Another “bowl-me-over” reading experience from my past was Paul Fussell’s much-cited 1975 National Book Award winner, “The Great War and Modern Memory.” In an examination of English literature just before, during and following the First World War, Fussell makes a case that the events of 1914-1918 destroyed much more than the crowned dynasties of Europe. They also, he claims, blew away the intellectual supports of English literature up to that point. The underlying literary assumptions of a pre-1914 world – a naïve optimism in the benign powers of science, the smug innocence that presumed a future of continuing human progress – were no longer sustainable by 1918. Fussell then traces the origins of the irony that became the dominant tone of literary English directly to the war, and particularly to Britain’s experience of the war.

A plausible case can be made for looping Fussell’s “Great War…” back into Lukacs’ “Passing…”, and one could perhaps even point to a specific date for that passing of an age, July 1, 1916. On that first day of the First Battle of the Somme, a confident, all-volunteer British Army went over-the-top to decide the issues of Europe once and for all. At the end of that first day, the British Army had suffered over 57,000 casualties. The total casualties for the continuing battle topped 1.5 million. Nothing in the English-speaking world has ever been the same.

In this recessional re-reading of selected books from my past, I’ve come to recognize that those long-ago writings of people like George Dangerfield, John Lukacs and Paul Fussell, each from their own disparate perspectives, have provided a matrix or screen that in some way helped me to sort out and order an ensuing forty or more years of steady reading in early Twentieth-Century European history.

At this writing, my mind is being knocked about by a re-reading of William Irwin Thompson’s 1967, “The Imagination of an Insurrection, Dublin, Easter 1916.” A posting is almost certain to follow.

Finally, A Must-Read for Hockey Fans

Print“Blue Ice, And Other Stories from the Rink” a short-story collection by Frank Ewert is probably the best thing to come out of hockey since the elimination of the rule against the two-line pass. Ewert, a young Canadian writer of great ability, and a hockey player since the age of five, has an understanding of and a love for the game that comes through in every one of the six jewel-like and eminently readable stories.

In his introduction to “Blue Ice,” Ewert notes a Canadian tradition of “Hockey Literature.” I would argue that point, citing that while there’s lots of hockey writing in Canada, there seems to be damned little literature. In fact, I believe Ewert’s “Blue Ice” is the first literary fiction with hockey at its core since Peter LaSalle’s 1989 short-story collection, “Hockey Sur Glace,” and LaSalle is an American. That’s twenty years in between of a hockey literature populated almost entirely by fan books, team sagas and accounts of great games.

The dialog throughout “Blue Ice” has the the feel of effortless authenticity, always the fruit of talent and painstaking work. The atmosphere of the game, playing it, thinking about it, talking it, are delivered glitch-free. Ewert creates likeable, believably flawed, multi-dimensional characters with voices that reflect their self-awareness, like Wade, the narrator of the opening story, “The Protector.” A matter-of-fact junior hockey role player of limited talents, Wade explains his job of using physical intimidation to shield his team’s star player, a former friend Wade now can’t stand, and by doing so keeps his own place on the team.

The title story “Blue Ice” goes in unexpected directions. In what might have been just another sweet boy/girl unrequited puppy love story, Danny is the struggling goalie for his school’s contending hockey team. The tale turns when his once harmless, vicarious romantic dreams begin to threaten his team’s chances.

On their surface, the stories in Blue Ice might seem light, easy and commonplace, but under the ease of the story-telling, there is an implicit stable of serious themes. The half-American kid, Trevor, in the “Canadian,” his U.S.-born Mom “says the word ‘roof‘ funny,” over-compensates in his defense of “Canada’s Game.” And the three hungover Calgary Flames fans of “The Cup” in lamenting their team’s loss in the Cup finals to a Florida-based team, further address the issues of Canadian insecurity about the migration of hockey away from its roots. The usurpation of Canada’s game by a dominant American market, the rising ascendancy of European and American players and the failure of Canadian teams to bring home the Cup, seems to have undermined Canada’s sense of itself. Don Cherry nows makes news by demeaning any non-Canadian success in hockey, think Alex Ovechkin. Even a revered figure like Wayne Gretzky has been coming off sourly chauvinistic in his defensive “our game” public comments. Ewert very effectively captures this collective Canadian unease over the future of their national game.

In “Taking the Man,” Ewert tells a story of a player’s creative on-ice solution in dealing with a petty, arbitrary and egotistical official, and does so without ever explaining the hockey rule being exploited. Ewert assumes slyly and correctly that the reader already knows that a referee calling a penalty can’t blow play dead until a player on the offending team takes control of the puck. it may be “inside baseball,” but it’s fun when you realize exactly what is happening out on the ice.

And if as a non-hockey playing reader, you wish to get some idea of what it feels like to rush up the ice one-on-one against a defending goalie, Ewert includes a two-page gem titled “A Breakway.” You are inside the head of an uncertain skater named David who finds himself with a puck on his stick and nothing but open ice between himself and the goaltender.

I’d recommend that “Blue Ice” be declared a Canadian National Treasure.” Okay, it’s not the Stanley Cup, but it is first-rate literature that just happen to be about hockey. Here’s hoping Frank Ewert has lots more books in him.

A Highway Vigilante Hangs It Up

imagesA revelation yesterday on my way to Home Depot. On a four-lane county highway, a forty mile-an-hour zone, I was in the right lane moving slowly past an Infiniti sedan that was blocking the left lane despite there being no one in front of it. In my rear view mirror I spotted a rapidly approaching BMW, looked like a new one, a convertible with the top down. I could see that the driver; white-shirted, lots of hair, sunglasses on top of his head and talking on a cell phone, was closing the gap between himself and the Infiniti. Mr. Wonderful swung sharply in behind me, nearly riding my back bumper. He seemed to figure he could push me until I got far enough ahead of the Infiniti so he could swing left, pass me and leave the lane blocker behind. My default setting in these situations has become more and more to succumb to an irresistible urge to play fuck-around.

I slowed just enough to form a two-lane block with the oblivious Infiniti. Behind me the BMW driver was getting increasingly agitated. I loved it as I watched him, obviously frustrated, swing back over into the left lane and then back in behind me. He never stopped yakking into the cell phone

What happened next remains a mystery to me, but I found myself suddenly thinking, “why am I doing this. The guy is in the BMW is probably a fourteen-carat asshole, but what does all this make me?” I remembered that old admonition about arguing with a fool, that people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It was also obvious that my social insecurity and economic envy had me engaging in some classic passive-aggressive behavior. Did I really want to reflexively react to the absurd and dangerous behavior of some jerk-off in such an infantile way. This guy was not my problem. Let him find his objective correlative in somebody else, a state trooper for example, and not me. Taking a deep breath, I slowed down enough to allow my nemesis a quick to swerve to the left and around me. At a good thirty-miles-per-hour above the speed limit, he zoomed past the Infiniti, toward wherever it was he was in such a hurry to get.

I made myself a promise to try never to repeat what had become of late a pattern in my driving. It is a relief of sorts to know that it’s no longer up to me to teach the rules of the road to the multitudes of arrogant, stupid or the self-absorbed motorists. There are so many others out there, some with badges and sirens, so much better-suited than me for that role.

Where The Appalachian Trail Meets Appalachia

imagesWe’re just back from a week in Hot Springs, North Carolina. It took ten hours going and twelve coming back, most of it through some of the loveliest country imaginable, down through the Shenandoah Valley and into the Appalachians. Hot Springs is in the mountains at the very western tip of North Carolina where Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina come together. The big attraction down there is Asheville. We had been there about ten years ago and Asheville remains a very hip town; good restaurants, arts, crafts, lots of music, coffee shops, book and record stores, a cool place.

Hot Springs, where we stayed is about thirty-five miles northwest of Asheville, deep in the mountains, absolutely beautiful country, but very much a part of a still depressed Appalachia. With a population of just over six hundred, Hot Springs has escaped, though not completely, some of the visible poverty from squalor of the “hollers,” if only because of its proximity to the Appalachian Trail. The trail comes down into town to cross the French Broad River on the bridge at Hot Springs, and then climbs back up into the woods on the other side of the river.

We were vacationing in the North Carolina mountains in the first place was because my niece’s husband knew somebody who knew somebody who had a house to rent, an Octagon House. Octagon Houses were a sort of nineteenth-century architectural fad, one whose idea never really arrived. There are just a few surviving. The one we were in was built in 1857 and was eccentric in the extreme, just the right touch for our stay.

The town of Hot Springs itself, about a block and half of ramshackle sprawl, includes a couple of decent restaurants, a whitewater rafting outfitter and well-equipped store filled with hiking equipment and supplies. There is one very upscale bed and breakfast and spa a block in from the main street. What the presence of the Trail does for the town is that it creates an interesting mix of locals and hikers, and those who serve the hikers. Think of a hardcore country music audience mixed in with a Dead show crowd. It’s a jarring combination of rural hardscrabble caricatures with dreadlocked through-hikers. At breakfast one morning in the local diner, the smoking section had enough toothless, jug-eared old locals to conjure up the Walker Evans Depression photos, while the rest of the place was filled with bearded, tattooed young guys in tie-dyes and technical gear. Everybody seemed to get along. If you said hello to people in either group, you usually got a smile and a response.

The presence of the hikers is everywhere. At first, I thought the empty parking lot of the dumpy motel meant no guests, but going past just after dark, every window was lit. Hikers come out of the mountains after however many days, looking for a shower, a bed and some restaurant meals before getting back on the trail. I chatted with one kid who looked about twenty. He was coming off at Hot Springs after sixteen days on the trial, alone. It was his first time doing extended hiking and I asked him if things got a bit weird after a few days alone in the woods. He grinned and said, “you bet.”

Most of the properties in the town and along the winding switchback roads leading in and out of town are marked by run-down trailer homes, usually surrounded by lots of old cars and pickup trucks. One place I walked past all week defined hard-core Appalachian shack squalor. It looked like nobody in three or four generations had ever thrown anything away, including empty stacks of old twelve-pack cartons lying everywhere. The drive from and to the Interstate is gorgeous in terms of scenery, but heavy on collapsing shacks, trailers, though most do have satellite dishes, and rusting old cars.

It would seem that the problems of Appalachia are rooted in an obvious truth: there are just not enough jobs for far too many of the people still living there. It also seems that if you are there and fortunate enough to land a paying job, life can be quite good. Even the clerks in the Dollar General store had that gloss of prosperous respectability that most of their customers seemed to lack. However, if you are on the outside looking in, there’s not much left but a subsistence lifestyle supplemented by state and federal programs. The storefront offices of social service agencies appear to be the dominant business and administrative activities in many of the communities we drove past. If there seems little evidence of the current economic downturn, it could be because Appalachia is a region that has been pretty consistently bypassed by the good times. And, the region’s history of moon-shining adds credence to rumors of a thriving cultivation of backwoods weed.

One evening, we attended a bluegrass jam in an adjacent town, the county seat. Aside from the coffee shop where the jam was held, another restaurant and the county court house, most of the commercial buildings on both sides of the main street were empty. I’m sure that the town of Hot Springs, where we were staying, would be a ghost town if it weren’t for the Appalachian Trail traffic bringing in the outside money it does.

Another night, we drove close-in to Asheville where a friend’s band was playing old-time acoustic swing from the 20s and 30s; two guitars, a jazz banjo and a bass. The proximity to Asheville assured that the town was quite up-to-date, but a drive of just a few miles would put you back among the old trailers in the left-behind hollows.

Back up here, the cities isolate the poor and render them almost invisible. In the Appalachian back country, the reality of poverty is inescapable, third-world hardscrabble in such a beautiful place.