Archive for October, 2012

When You Can’t “Say It Ain’t So”

Posted in Theater of the Absurd on October 24, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

If you have any love in your heart at all for baseball, then the Robert Redford film The Natural is on your short list of movies that you either have owned since it came out on Betamax, or stop down and watch every time it shows up on ESPN Classic or whatever Versus is now. The story of Roy Hobbs, who finds his high school sweetheart just in time to redeem himself, his Wonderboy bat, and even his manager. When Roy destroys the light banks at Knights Field with the home run that brings his team the pennant, driving the insidious influence of the Judge (the malicious owner) out of the team forever, he completes the American tale. He is Jay Gatsby hopping up and down under the green light, Daisy Buchanan’s arms around him; T.S. Garp an elderly grandfather, his Helen at his side; Rabbit Angstrom at peace with himself surrounded not by his coffin but by his wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

Of course, Roy Hobbs didn’t always hit the game-winning home run. The magic of film adaptation has taken a far more complex, far more tortured story and given it the ending we all want. In Bernard Malamud’s novel, which was the inspiration for the movie, Roy keeps the bribe from the Judge, agrees to throw the game. Even though he changes his mind during the game, he strikes out in the final at-bat. He runs to the Judge’s office, throws the money back, and charges out into the street, only to find a young boy begging him to “say it ain’t so.” Roy can’t — instead, he just sobs.

The vigilant Max Mercy follows Roy Hobbs vigorously, throughout both the book and the film, trying to track down just where this mysterious man came from. Roy ridicules him, finding him annoying at best and malicious at worst. By trying to figure out Hobbs’ past, Mercy sees himself as a protector of the game of baseball. When Roy asks Max to explain himself, he says that he protects the game “by making or breaking the likes of you.”

ImageThe intrepid Max Mercy…watching batting practice.

Cycling has always been an unusual sport to me. Baseball, hockey, basketball, football — all of them are games that make sense to me. There are some odd rules in each of them, but the interplay between the greatness of the individual and the fortitude of the group makes each of them special in its own way.

Hopping on a bicycle in bright colors of Spandex and flying up and down hills, over asphalt, concrete, and even rounded cobblestones, has long seemed the domain of the insane. Back when I was starting to pay attention to more than the NFL and the (then) hapless Texas Rangers, the name of Greg LeMond hovered at the back of my sports brain; I vaguely knew he was a cyclist, but that was about it.

And then the phenomenon that was Lance Armstrong began to grow. We all know the story: the cancer, the divorce, the rock star, Livestrong, 7 Tour de France titles. The accusations, the denials, the threatened litigation, the legions of negative screenings for performance-enhancing drugs.

I never developed a taste for watching stage after stage of the Vuelte, the Giro, or even the fabled Tour, but the stories that grew out of those stages are amazing. The miraculous comeback of Floyd Landis, who came out of nowhere to win the 2006 Tour, at least until he started his own strange journey toward the Court for the Arbitration of Sport. The strange hybrid of cooperation and rivalry between teammates Jeffrey Wiggins and Mark Cavendish in the 2012 Tour. But most of all, the yellow wristbands that stand for defeated tumors but also for lost sons, daughters, parents, husbands, wives.

Lance Armstrong stood for hope. Not just against the dread of cancer, but against the temptation of cheating. He was a peaceful Josh Hamilton; a truthful Barry Bonds; a champion who had done it the right way.

He even had his own Max Mercy: the reporter David Walsh, who early on saw the bullying that Lance Armstrong used to silence those around him. Too many of us saw this as just part and parcel of being the alpha male, the cycling champion. When Lance called Walsh a “troll,” when Walsh was blackballed within the journalistic circle that covered cycling during the doping heyday, too many of us laughed at him as, apparently, Lance Armstrong was able to get around the WADA’s scrutiny with a package in his refrigerator.

But Max Mercy got his story. Now, David Walsh has his.

Now, Lance Armstrong stands silent. As the legions of lawyers prepare to descend, even his own Twitter biography has already had those glorious titles torn away. He may lose his Olympic medal; he may be sued for millions in prize money. Whether he becomes the Pete Rose of cycling, brash and unrepentant to the last, or allows the Peter Sagans and the Jeffrey Wigginses and the Levi Leipheimers to take their place in the limelight for cycling’s next phase, Lance Armstrong has empowered the cynics, those who refuse to believe in the purity of sport, the purity of anything.

But if we want those we idolize to look us in the eyes and “say it ain’t so,” then we have to turn the harsh light of scrutiny on ourselves, and refuse to let it be so. Not just for them, but for us. Saying no to shortcuts, to fibs, to convenient truth, to sound bites, is what must happen. Of course, if we actually did that, we might find that great endings are all around us, even without the benefit of special effects and kindly screenwriters.


Three Characters In Search of a Purpose

Posted in Book Reviews on October 1, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

A Mind of WinterA Mind of Winter by Shira Nayman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Judging from the news, we are just beginning to reap the harvest of psychiatric disorders that will haunt our military servicemen as they return from years of war without much in the way of leave. The experience of being constantly on tour, or about to leave for another tour, has stresses of its own — let alone the ethical disconnect that makes murder and violence not only legal but a requirement.

Because of the brevity of our national attention span, though, these problems have not spread to the rest of us. One must look back to the Second World War to find a conflict that affected so many of us. The mass enlistments, along with the social upheaval that drove Rosie the Riveter to work and forced us to ration everything from gasoline to pantyhose changed our nation — and changed every nation that the war touched. Three people in particular (Robert, Christine and Marilyn) find themselves adrift in the odd moral seas that the outrages of the first half of the twentieth century stirred up.

Robert seems to be running from war crimes investigators; Christine has fled a host of horrors in her own past, including a disillusionment in her own relationship with Robert, for the forgetfulness of Shanghai. The easy availability of opium allows Christine to forget the abuse that marked her childhood, as well as the forbidden love that ended her tenure as an English schoolteacher. Once she found Robert wanting, she lost all hope in life and headed east, having only her sensual looks to keep her from starvation, once her savings run out. Once Robert takes on a new name and heads to America, Marilyn (and her husband Simon) are a part of his salon, floating in and out of his lovely home in Ellis Park. A character traveling through all of their lives is Barnaby, who is adept at luring women for his own gratification, but stopping at the point of commitment. He is only too happy to have an affair with Marilyn, but he makes it quite clear that he does not want her to leave Simon for him. His feelings for Christine (whom he began to ply with opium as part of a relationship prophetic of the Kardashian Era) seemed to be stronger, but by the time he finds Marilyn, he has learned the parts of a relationship which he likes best.

Several mysteries are in play here — the nature of Robert’s crimes in the shadowy days of the Second World War being the most cryptic. However, the choices that Marilyn and Christine will make are ultimately just as compelling. The narrative moves from Christine’s point of view to Marilyn’s, and then to Robert’s, and Shira Nayman ably slips from one voice to another; the sedated Christine reminds one of a languid Ingrid Bergman, while Marilyn could well be John Cusack’s (at first) incredulous girlfriend in “Being John Malkovich.” The imagery of postwar Shanghai and the dark moonlight in which Marilyn, Barnaby and (ultimately) Robert all move create a captivating world.

The poem that is the inspiration for the title is Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man.” Without giving away the resolution to all of these mysteries, I can report that while the 30-minute-sitcom optimism that has come to formulate our national attention span will not do much more than keep us entertained, as the powers that be fumble away more of our future while we sit glued to our entertainments, the courageous depths of true faith and hope can bring redemption, just as they always have.

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