Archive for February, 2019

Regulars

When the regulars appear
there is no need to glance at the clock,
they are her timepiece.
Although she is aware of every name,
“Honey” suffices for each.
A priestess, this is her congregation.
For most, she does not
bother with a notepad; their orders,
unchanging as the view
of that parking lot, are memorized.
Retirees ushered in
by the two-lane outside her cafe,
this might well be their
only social interaction for the day.
Refilling coffee cups
and not rushing the check’s arrival,
at no extra charge
she banters before clearing the table,
never minding the tip.

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Brusque Rebuke

In yesterday’s
warm abundance of sunshine,
exuberant as
a brook freed from winter’s
tight corset,
no longer tongue-tied by ice,
how I babbled.
Absolved from the season’s
monastic vows,
I indulged in the sin of song.
But today
again finds me monosyllabic.
Despite dawn’s
defiant soliloquy of bird song,
I’m left sullen as
an adolescent sternly shushed.
March’s brusque
rebuke has once again chilled
hope’s response.

Catcher In The Wry / Bob Uecker and Mickey Herskowitz

Bob Uecker has served as a play-by-play announcer for the Milwaukee Brewers radio broadcasts since 1971.  As a fan of that particular baseball team, I’ve been entertained by him every summer since 1980.  Uecker is “Mr. Baseball” to the Wisconsinites who tune into his broadcasts each season.  But before he became a broadcaster, he was a major league baseball player, serving as a catcher for a number of teams from 1962 through 1967.

As a player, even though considered a good backup catcher, Uecker was only a lifetime .200 hitter.  For those not acquainted with the game, that is a statistic that reflects poorly on a batter’s skills.  During and following his career, he developed a comedy act of sorts, poking fun at himself as a player.  Over the years, he became well-know for boasting about his mediocrity in the sport.  This side act led him not only into broadcasting but also to becoming a frequent guest on The Tonight Show, as well supporting roles in movies and TV.

Catcher In The Wry (published in 1986), features the deadpan humor that Uecker has honed throughout his long career.  In this book he writes about the wide variety of misfits that he interacted with during his player days.  He paints a picture of a time period long gone in the sport.  When he was in the league, bad behavior and drinking to excess were the norm.  And sexism and racism were still widely accepted as appropriate behavior.  Although never racist, a number of the passages in this book could be perceived as sexist by today’s standards.  For readers interested in the past greats of baseball, Uecker provides a treasure trove of nuggets about famous teammates such as Hank Aaron, Bob Gibson, Richie Allen, and Warren Spahn.

While this book is clearly dated, Uecker’s autobiography of his life in baseball still charms.  Fans of the sport’s history will delight in his irreverent take on “America’s pastime.”  Brewers supporters have been blessed to have such a sports icon on their radio broadcasts for the last forty-seven years.  My hope is that the team finally delivers to him a much deserved World Series championship before he decides to retire.

Istanbul : Memories And The City / Orhan Pamuk

In recent years, the author Orhan Pamuk has become Turkey’s best known cultural export.  The first thing I noticed when picking up this book was that Pamuk and I share the same birth year.  And so in this work – an autobiography as shaped by a city, the childhood time period he describes overlaps with my own.  However, even though he grew up in a family which had adopted a Western world lifestyle, the place where he has spent his entire life, Istanbul, was far different from my own Midwestern American home.

His city is a meld of Eastern and Western influences.  Torn between its Ottoman Empire past and an emerging Turkish republicanism, the conflicting halves continue to live uncomfortably together.  His family was a privileged one, but throughout Orhan’s childhood, their wealth slowly drained away in the reality of a new political landscape during the 1950s and 1960s.  Like their city, Pamuk’s family had trouble reconciling their past glories with their current life.

One of the topics that Pamuk focuses on is Hüzün, a condition best described as a congenital Turkish melancholy.  Throughout, he uses this term to chronicle Istanbul’s and his family’s conjoined history.  His own melancholy was partially induced by his parents’ unhappy marriage but also seems to be something he inherited.  Channeling this emotion, the adolescent Orhan began to paint landscapes.  What bewitched his art were the city and its environs.  Adding flavor to this book, he includes numerous photographs of Istanbul from the period he is writing about.  The Bosphorus is a major river that flows through the city, and it becomes, in a sense, a key character in the book.  So, too, do the Western writers and painters who visited or lived in Istanbul during the 19th and 20th Centuries.  

Reading Istanbul is like opening a chest of drawers filled with memorabilia.  There is not always rhyme or reason to the bits and pieces pulled out for examination, but they intrigue nonetheless.  This account provides an insight into the place that has haunted Pamuk’s prose throughout his career.  Interwoven with his descriptions of its various cultures and history is the revelation of how Istanbul shaped the hopes and dreams of his younger self.

Exit West / Mohsin Hamid

The opening chapters of Exit West are set in an unnamed city and country.  However, the impression given is a place with an Islamic culture.  The characters at the story’s center, Saeed and Nadia, are just beginning a courtship.  It takes place at a time when a civil war is raging and armed rebels are nearing the city in which they live. This threat of impending danger lends a sense of urgency to their romantic relationship, hurrying the process along.

Nadia wears a long black flowing dress when in public, and one might be led to believe she is an observant Muslim.  However, the dress is worn as a disguise.  She is not in the least religious, is a strong feminist, and smokes marijuana.  While Saeed dresses in a western style, he is more traditional at heart, and observant of his religious obligations to pray twice a day.

As the rebel forces begin to capture more and more of the city, rumors begin to circulate of doors appearing in various locations, portals that allow those who step through to emerge in a different part of the world.  When their city is overrun by rebels, and beheadings for a wide variety of offenses becomes common, Saeed and Nadia decide to pay a large amount of money to locate an “open door” and escape, even though they do not know where they will end up.  The first door they go through takes them into the heart of London, and later another delivers them to California.

Exit West is a novel that focuses on the intersection of war, love, and the plight of refugees in societies that are not always welcoming.  While the war itself is not graphically described, its effect on daily life is masterfully addressed.  So too is the portrayal of the difficulties refugees face adjusting to a new culture while somehow preserving their own.  But even here, rather than revolve his story around the clash between western and eastern cultures, Hamid offers a picture of accommodation between both.  He also addresses the effect this adjustment has on romantic relationships, how it can tear couples apart.

In 2013, I read an earlier novel by Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.  It ranked as my top favorite that year.  Exit West did not wow me in quite the same way;  there was something impersonal about the novel’s tone that I found slightly off-putting.  Even so, it is a work that proves Hamid is an author deserving attention from discerning readers everywhere.  Its message is indeed an important one, and certainly timely.

Gravity’s Thrall

How did I suddenly
become aware of gravity’s presence,
its pressing weight?
Tonight, it is no longer possible to
stand up straight.
Even though I have been reduced
to a heap of bones,
every joint, as if overburdened by
an unaccustomed load,
has buckled into a rebellious ache.
A humming tedium
provides no relief for this thirst or
my raging fever.
Mind has been humbled by body.
Oh cavalier health,
where are you when needed most?
In gravity’s thrall,
how old I feel, bound in its chains,
pinned to a couch.