To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.
— Herman Melville
This blog entry is my white whale. It has been my nemesis since the genesis of this blog. I have never been able to tame it or capture it. My goal in starting the Catfish Stew blog was not, like so many other baseball blogs, to second-guess The Management, but to express what it feels like to be an Oakland A’s fan. If I have failed as a blogger, it is because I lacked the willpower to bring myself to tell this story, to confront the core pain of my mission. Would Herman Melville have succeeded if he had tried to write his masterpiece without ever once mentioning Ahab’s peg leg, the scar that drives his obsession? If you face the Truth, it hurts you; but if you look away, it punishes you.
Load the harpoons, gentlemen, it is showdown time. Today, my adventure as a baseball blogger ends. I’m going down, and I’m taking Moby Dick with me.
We look back and analyze the events
of our lives, but there is another way
of seeing, a backward-and-forward-at-once
vision, that is not rationally understandable.
Only God can understand it.
Satan made the excuse, You caused me to fall,
whereas Adam said to God, We did this
to ourselves. After this repentance,
God asked Adam, Since all is within
my foreknowledge, why didn’t you
defend yourself with that reason?
Adam answered, I was afraid,
and I wanted to be reverent.
This is the last post on the Baseball Toaster network. Unplugging the Toaster feels like a failure to me. Or more precisely, as its founder and presumptive leader, it feels like a failure by me. I did this to us. I feel like I should apologize to everyone affected. I could try to rationalize it, to argue that there are larger, more powerful forces at play than I could control, that this outcome was in many ways inevitable. But that’s not what I feel in my gut. I feel like I should have tried harder to make this thing succeed, fought harder to win.
One of the blessings of age is to have learned to recognize my feelings for what they are. This feeling of failure is the American in me.
He who has never failed somewhere, that man can not be great.
When you ask people what the “Great American Novel” is, two candidates tend to be mentioned above all others: Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Huck Finn probably best represents the American condition: two people, one white, one black, floating together down the great American river. Moby Dick, on the other hand, represents in Captain Ahab the American character: the utter refusal to accept failure, the relentless rush towards greatness, regardless of the cost.
When you, here, every one of you, were kids, you all admired the champion marble player, the fastest runner, the toughest boxer, the big league ball players, and the All-American football players.
Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all of the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.
It’s interesting to look at the 2008 Presidential election as a choice between the two Great American Novels, America’s two metaphorical visions of itself. The Moby Dick version presents an America with a white whale to conquer. Patton’s generation had the Nazis as their white whale, while Ronald Reagan’s generation had the Communists. Those were Moby Dick kind of fights, where the mission is clear and unambiguous, where a single-minded obsession with victory was exactly what was required of us. John McCain, like Captain Ahab, is a salty old wounded and battle-tested captain, who clearly views the War Against Terrorism as another such white whale, where a clear victory over the Bad Guys is the only acceptable outcome.
But America had another choice, the Huckleberry Finn model. In Huck Finn, the enemy is more Ourselves than the Other Guy. Winning does not result in the defeat of the opponent, but in merging with them. Barack Obama is a Black-White-Christian-Muslim-African-Asian-Minority-Elitist-Pragmatic-Liberal-American, the ultimate merger of opposites, a one-man Huck & Jim.
After seven years of fighting terrorism as a Moby Dick battle, America decided to change models, to test if merging with the enemy is more effective than defeating them. America decided to float off on a newly constructed, untested raft, with racially ambiguous leadership, heading whereever the currents take them, with our objectives messy and undefined, into directions unknown.
When a baby is taken from the wet nurse,
it easily forgets her
and starts eating solid food.
Seeds feed awhile on ground,
then lift up into the sun.
So you should taste the filtered light
and work your way toward wisdom
with no personal covering.
That’s how you came here, like a star
without a name. Move across the night sky
with those anonymous lights.
We each begin life as Hyphenated-Humans of some sort, and accumulate more hyphens as we move through society. We get scarred both by the history of our own mistakes and losses and failures, and by those with whom we associate. These scars, like the wound that gave Ahab his limp, like the seedling that has not yet broken through the earth, make us experience the world with a dirty filter. We become biased, and we cannot see the whole, clear truth.
This Rumi poem suggests that we can eventually grow beyond our biases, but we cannot avoid them. We begin like seeds, growing in the dirt. We are nourished to maturity by the dirt, and if we succeed, we can finally break through the dirt to finally see the world clearly. And yet, even then, we still remain rooted to the earth.
If I am to confront my failure, I must confront both my inner Moby Dick, and my inner Huck Finn. I must be honest about my obsessions, honest about my identity, and honest about the conflicts between them. I have a simple story to tell. But to tell it right, I must recognize the dirt, stop hiding my scars, and show my limp.
I was a seedling of Swedish parents in the East Bay outside San Francisco. The California sun shone through our windows, while the Swedish tongue echoed off our walls. We attended a Swedish-language church. I became a fan of the nearby Oakland Athletics, who won three straight World Series championships when I was at the most impressionable ages of six to eight. Consciously or subconsciously, I came to taste the light through the filter of my Swedish-Lutheran-A’s-fan-American roots. It is a nearly unalterable part of my identity, the personal covering hardest for me to shed.
Everyone’s born into losing. Can you bear witness to the losing and continue to show up, year after year?
I remember clearly my first scar as an Oakland A’s fan. The championships from 1972-1974 spoiled me from the start. I began my fandom expecting victory, as if winning were the most natural thing in the world. And though they lost in the playoffs in 1975, the A’s still won their division for the fifth straight year. A young A’s fan couldn’t complain much. I thought the A’s were perfect in every way.
But on April 2, 1976, the A’s cheapskate owner, Charlie Finley, traded my favorite player, Reggie Jackson, to the Baltimore Orioles. That news stung a bit, but the shock didn’t really strike me until an incident two weeks later.
I went with my mom to pick up my dad from the Oakland Airport. I remember going into the bathroom while my parents were waiting at the baggage carousel. As I walked back, I looked up and realized I was walking towards the baggage claim area side by side with Reggie Jackson himself.
I was flabbergasted. I wanted to say something, anything, but I was so excited, I was stunned speechless. What do you say to the man you considered your hero? So I just continued walking alongside him, in silence, until we reached the baggage claim.
That’s where I got my emotional scar–not from Reggie, but from his luggage. He had been gone from the Oakland A’s no more than two or three weeks. Yet his suitcases were already completely plastered with Baltimore Orioles decals.
I could tolerate the idea of Reggie playing on another team. That was Charlie Finley’s mistake, not Reggie’s. But Reggie’s luggage advertised something much more hurtful than that: it announced in bright orange colors that Reggie was happy to leave. Why? Why did he want to forsake us? With that rejection, trading Reggie Jackson away no longer meant simply losing the magical moments that hadn’t happened yet. It meant rewriting a perfect, glorious past into an uglier, messier story.
One year later, the A’s dynasty collapsed completely. The other great players who helped the A’s win those championships all left for other teams with less frugal owners. Suddenly, the A’s were not a great team, but a horrible one. Over the next three years, the A’s were the worst team in their division.
I don’t know if there’s a Great Swedish Novel to represent all Swedishness. If there’s a Great Swedish Artist, however, it’s director Ingmar Bergman. Here is the opening image of Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander, the 1982 film that Bergman intended to serve as a summary and a final act of his brilliant career. A 10-year-old Alexander sits quietly, studying the scenery, daydreaming, and looking rather bored:
It’s clear Fanny & Alexander is not an American film. There are no great battles, no car chases, no explosions, no mighty adventures, no triumphant romances. The central theme is essentially Swedish: the conflict between the pure, intense love of life that bursts into bloom in the short Swedish summers, and the harsh climate that makes a fear of failure and strict Lutheran discipline essential for survival during the long, dark, frozen winters.
Bergman has a simple story to tell. He takes his time to tell it. The plot unfolds slowly, patiently. Every personality gets a full opportunity to blossom. Every character shows their limp, figuratively or, in the case of the voluptuous servant Maj, literally. Bergman is not rushing towards victory. And what victories arise are always magical, mysterious, haunting and untrustworthy.
There is no mention of the following season, in which [Todd] Van Poppel went 7 and 10 with a 6.09 ERA. This is a normal omission for baseball cards and last days of the year. You try not to dwell on things like failure, humiliation, disappointment, regret.
Likewise, you think of the future not as a minefield of anxiety and discouragement but as an uncomplicated distance to stride across, a mountain to scale, a series of batters to fan, a line for the back of the card that will make all the lines preceding it seem like a strange, soulful prelude to happiness.
Certainly, we baseball-fan-Americans don’t like to dwell on disappointments like the 1977-79 Oakland A’s, or on Todd Van Poppel, a teenage phenom who back in 1991 was supposed to be The Next Savior for our team. Van Poppel never lived up to the hype, and turned out to have a modest, but unimpressive career. Forget these losers, we Americans say, let’s move on to the next winner.
If you’re Ingmar Bergman, though, you live to dwell on the losers.
Fanny & Alexander is structured like three of the four Swedish seasons. It begins in a kind of metaphorical autumn. It’s set at Christmas time, but shot in a home full with the colors of the fall, full of reds and golds and browns. But autumn implies impending death, and Alexander’s father is dying. His passing is not sudden. He fades away slowly, with enough time to declare his loves and say goodbye.
Then a symbolic winter sets in. Alexander’s mother, Emilie, gets remarried to a Lutheran bishop. Life becomes hard, difficult, cold. The bishop’s home is bereft of embellishment, bereft of color, as white and blank and lifeless as empty fields of snow. The bishop decides Alexander needs to give up his childish imagination, to learn the benefits of tough discipline. Alexander’s life becomes one tight fist perpetually in his face, ready to punch him with life’s harsh realities at any time.
Winter feels like it will last forever.
Spring eventually does come, and when it does, it comes as a miracle. And there, the film ends. Bergman leaves the summer unexamined. It is as if, in Josh Wilker’s words, “all the lines preceding it seem like a strange, soulful prelude to happiness.” But Bergman seems to say, let’s linger on the prelude, on failure, humiliation, disappointment, regret–those are things we can understand. Happiness, on the other hand, is a Pandora’s Box, best left unopened, not to be trusted. There be ghosts in there.
In 1980, Charlie Finley hired Billy Martin to manage the Oakland A’s. Martin was the Captain Ahab of baseball managers: emotionally scarred, hot-tempered, confrontational, self-destructive, but brilliant at his job and driven to win to the point of obsession. Martin would never last more than a couple years in any one job before he’d wear out his welcome, and so it was in Oakland. He took a young, last place team with a talented rookie named Rickey Henderson and guided it to a second place finish in 1980. In 1981, the A’s won the division, before losing to Reggie Jackson and the New York Yankees in the playoffs.
But Martin, in his obsession to win, overused the arms of his best young pitchers, and they were never the same again. Martin got fired, and the A’s again collapsed into awfulness, and spending five more years as hapless losers, during which the A’s once again got rid of their best player. Worse, this time it was a superstar who actually grew up in Oakland. Rickey Henderson was gone, traded to the Yankees. The cycle had repeated.
Is there some principal of nature which states that we never know the quality of what we have until it is gone?
— Herman Melville
In 1979, when I was 13, my parents divorced and I moved to Sweden with my mom. Like Alexander’s deportation into the harsh home of his new stepfather, moving to Sweden was my own life’s winter exile. I had come to a cold, dark, and to me, mysterious place. It was a different culture, with different rules. Speaking Swedish and attending a Swedish church felt somewhat normal, but many other things were alien to me. The cold. The snow. The months on end where the sun only makes a short cameo each day. The paucity of choices. Sweden was a much more isolated place in its Cold War neutrality, before the European Union, before the Internet, before globalization. Sweden liked Western culture, but they acted afraid to be too Western. After all, the United States was thousands of miles away across an wide ocean, but the Soviet Union lurked about 100 miles from Stockholm, right across the Baltic. So there were Corn Flakes, but not Frosted Flakes. Plain potato chips, but no corn chips, no Doritos. Hamburgers made from Swedish pork, but no beefy Big Macs. Two, and only two, TV channels, both government owned, broadcasting a mere five or six hours a night, showing only the kinds of shows you can imagine a socialist government would think is good for you. No corrupting capitalist advertising, no subversive Bugs Bunny cartoons after school, no violent cop shows after dinner. And no baseball, at all, anywhere.
I was like a shirt that had been turned inside out. The hidden became visible, and the visible went missing. In America, I was Swedish-Lutheran-American. In Sweden, I became Swedish-Lutheran-American.
The Great Swedish-American Artwork is neither a novel nor a movie, it’s a sporting event: the epic, five set 1980 Wimbledon final between Björn Borg and John McEnroe. This could only been a more perfect metaphor for my inner conflicts if Borg and McEnroe had swung baseball bats instead of tennis rackets. Borg, the veteran from the old country, played with the icy, cold discipline typical of his Lutheran heritage, content to wait, wait, wait at the baseline until the right play revealed itself to him. McEnroe had a young Billy Martin-type personality– fierce, petulant, ready to explode at any moment, willing to do anything to win no matter who got hurt in the process, impatiently rushing to the net to win every point as quickly as he could.
The thing that made their confrontation so compelling is that their personalities were central to their success. McEnroe could never succeed if he was passive and patient, and Borg could never succeed if he was emotional and impulsive. They each had to win in their own way.
Whenever I’m aggressive, forcing the action, angry about failures, insistent on success, that’s my inner McEnroe, winning that interminable 18-16 fourth set tiebreaker. And whenever I overcome these instincts, whenever I stay disciplined and patient, that’s the Björn Borg in me, outlasting the opponent, winning 8-6 in the fifth.
The hard part is knowing which side of my duality to reveal at which moment.
I was greatly amused by the blogosphere’s predictable reaction to Bono’s debut essay in the New York Times. “Awful.” “Absurdity…beyond parody.” “Inane and totally pointless fartings“. “Truly dreadful…the words make no sense at all. Ever.” For blogging, I have found through experience, is a medium that punishes emotional and associative arguments. If you dare make an argument that does not logically follow from Point A to Point Z through Points B to Y, your commenters and fellow bloggers will snarl with their razor-sharp teeth of rationality, and quickly tear your little argument to shreds like a pack of hungry wolves pouncing on a fresh kill.
I put the core of Bono’s essay and Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower side-by-side to illustrate the point. In a way, if you look at the phrases in bold, they’re both making the same argument. Imagine if the New York Times had hired Bob Dylan instead of Bono, and Dylan had introduced All Along the Watchtower as an op-ed instead of a song. Would the blogosphere’s reaction been much different? And yet, published in the right medium, that same message is a classic, having been covered by Jimi Hendrix and U2 and Bruce Springsteen and… well, just about anybody who is anybody in rock music.
So perhaps my experiment in blogging about what fandom feels like was doomed no matter how well I wrote. Perhaps a blog is simply the wrong medium for the task. Or maybe my mind just isn’t suited for the medium. The short, punchy, and to-the-point rational arguments that the most successful bloggers seem to employ just isn’t how my brain works. Just as all these bloggers advised Bono to “stick to music”, perhaps I should have just stuck with limerick gig. The Score Bard poems weren’t rational, but the were the closest to short and punchy I could manage.
(And here’s where my blogging scars compel me to put qualifiers — no, I don’t mean to imply Bono’s as good a lyricist as Dylan, or that I could in the right setting be as good a writer as Jon Weisman or Alex Belth or Josh Wilker or — grrrrrr, to hell with all that. After today, I’m outta here. If you’re going to miss the point, to quibble like that about my writing, to insist on your own point of view, you simply don’t know what any of it is worth. Screw you. I’m done wasting time on the likes of you.)
The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.
Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.
Not to, yet still, still to communicate
Making the batter understand too late.
–Robert Francis (via VPR)
It is my belief, my theory, that sometime in the distant past, the ancestors of modern day humans developed the need or desire to share memories with each other, to deliberately transfer pieces of information from one brain to another. These proto-humans, like other mammals, possessed two different kinds of memories, now called declarative and procedural memories.
For each of these memory types, humans evolved a specific method of transfer. To transfer declarative memories (which are mostly facts), humans use language. To transfer procedural memories (which are mostly patterns), humans developed art.
To complain that a song’s lyrics don’t make sense misses the point. If the lyrics did make sense, the artist would be transferring the wrong type of memory–placing facts into declarative memory instead of placing patterns into procedural memory.
Take a song like U2’s Bad. Bono says that the song is about the death of a friend from a heroin overdose. Really? If Bono had never explained that fact, I could read the lyrics for decades without ever realizing it was about heroin.
Yet the song is effective whether or not I have that fact in my brain. The lyrics dive into the realm of pattern recognition, but keep out of the declarative memory system by deliberately avoiding any facts. When creating art, being understood on a linguistic level is at best irrelevant, and often counterproductive.
Hearing these “Bad” lyrics, the most you can grab onto is a vague sense of a foreseeable but unavoidable failure. And that’s what U2 is trying to communicate: what it feels like to know that failure is coming, but being unable to take the steps to stop it. Then the harmonies pile on to this sense: nearly the whole song, verse and chorus, is but three chords–A, D, and Dsus2 (or Asus4; same notes)–rocking back and forth like a pendulum without variation. Moreover, unlike a normal three-chord rock song like All Along the Watchtower, all three of these chords contain one constant, persistent note, an A.
There’s no escape, except–just before our protagonist fades away into the final, permanent slumber of failure, he has a moment of clarity, an instant of understanding, where he realizes his mistake. He shouts, “I’m wide awake!” three times, and on the second one, finally bursts free of the tyranny of these three chords, with a cathartic Gsus2 (but sorry, this new chord still has that inescapable A), before quickly settling back into to the old familiar pattern. He understood too late.
That’s what I think of any and all words in the aftermath of unspeakable events. Too late. You can look for someone to blame, some way that some or all of the bloodshed could have been avoided. You can psychoanalyze the murderer. You can send in troops or fighter jets or extra security to check everyone for handguns and grenades. You can even make speeches and talk about God. Too late. All of it. Too fucking late.
U2 released Bad in 1984, two years after Fanny & Alexander was released. If I hadn’t read the heroin story, I’d have guessed that Bono has inspired by the Bergman film. The climax of Bad and the pivotal scene in Fanny & Alexander are eerily similar.
Spoilers: To escape from her strict and suffocating marriage, Emilie gives the bishop an overdose of sleeping pills. As the bishop suddenly realizes the error of his ways, understands that everything he has believed and wanted and done is now backfiring on him, that his strict rules and tight discipline haven’t beaten Emilie into submission but into a desperate rebellion, he cries out in a moment of clarity, “Jag är vaken. Jag är fruktansvärd vaken!” “I am awake! I am terribly awake!”
Sorry, Bishop. Understanding won’t help you now. The events have been put into motion. You’re too late.
What does it feel like to get everything you ever wanted, and still have it be hauntingly disappointing? (More spoilers:) Bergman never makes it clear who is responsible for the bishop’s demise. Emilie had a role, as did the bishop himself, the bishop’s mother, and Fate. Plus, if thoughts can kill, Alexander is just as culpable for the bishop’s death as his mother. As a result, Alexander will never be able to fully enjoy his victory. The instant he feels happy and triumphant, the bishop’s ghost walks by and knocks him down. “You cannot avoid me,” explains the ghost.
[Michael Rymer] and I had to agree on a look for the [spoiler] sequences. We sat down and the first thing each of us said was, “Ingmar Bergman.” End of discussion. We used wide lenses, pulled almost all the color out, and shot in long takes.
~ Michael Nankin, Battlestar Galactica director
Describing the Oakland A’s 1989 World Series triumph over their cross-bay rivals, the San Francisco Giants is also as simple as those two words: “Ingmar Bergman.”
For how better can you describe these events than as the cruel intentions of a Bergmanesque God? The A’s and Giants had never met in the World Series since moving to the Bay Area (and haven’t since), so the unlikely event was cause for much rejoicing in an area where most people, including myself, root for both teams. But as much as the Bay Area was united in hoping for this matchup, when the matchup actually took place, it forced people to take sides. No more waffling, no more trying to have it both ways. You must choose. Which hat are you going to wear?
I, of course, was rooting for the A’s. I secured tickets to Game 1, and remember crossing over the BART ramp to the Coliseum just as the A’s Game 1 starting pitcher, Dave Stewart, was arriving in the players parking lot below. The person in front of me shouted down to him, “Hey, Stew, you gonna win tonight?” Stewart looked up, and without a trace of doubt or hesitation in his voice, asserted a simple, “Yup.” It is the most confident and reassuring word I have ever heard uttered by a human being in my life. The tone of voice was as decisive as God declaring, “Let there be light.” At that moment, after fifteen years of failure, I knew the A’s would at last return to the throne I believed as a child was rightfully theirs.
A few hours later, Stewart threw a complete-game shutout. I beamed. The events were in motion. Victory, fully foreseeable and utterly unavoidable, was on its way.
And I beheld when He had opened the sixth seal, and lo, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;
and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs when she is shaken by a mighty wind.
Half an hour before Game 3 was scheduled to begin, a 7.0 earthquake hit the Bay Area. Candlestick Park was largely undamaged, but the stadium lost power, and game was postponed. Fire destroyed much of the Marina District in San Francisco, a freeway collapsed in Oakland, and the a section of the Bay Bridge linking the two cities together collapsed. Dozens died, many more were injured, buildings were destroyed, freeways were rerouted, and ferry boats were called back from retirement to help people cross the water when a once-mighty bridge could not. A region that had been united by mutual triumph, then forced by the nature of the event to pick sides and divide itself, suddenly found itself reunited by this shared trauma. The shift in mood was shocking, and contemplating the odds of this unlikely series of events was utterly dumbfounding.
Ten days later, the World Series resumed, and two days after that, the A’s were World Champions. But nobody was in much of a mood to celebrate. It’s hard to gloat about a victory when you feel a kinship with the opponents. It was probably the least satisfying major championship in the history of professional sports.
No theory will stand up to a chicken’s guts
being cleaned out, a hand rammed up
to pull out the wriggling entrails,
the green bile and the bloody liver
no theory that does not grow sick
at the odor escaping.
~ David Ignatow
The 1989 victory has not become any more satisfying with the passage of time. Back in those years, I would usually show up at the Oakland Coliseum right as the gates opened, two hours before game time, just so I could watch Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire launch home run after home run in batting practice. Thousands of other fans did, too. It was a show that was just as entertaining, if not moreso, than the ballgame itself. Rooting for a team with that sort of firepower was intoxicating, and I loved feeling like a part of it.
A decade and a half later, the entrails were pulled out of the 1989 champions, as it was revealed that Canseco and McGwire had achieved their impressive strength with steroids. The original sin is theirs, but thinking back now on the pride I felt in their accomplishments, I feel dirty, too. All that time, I was rooting for frauds.
Once I passed through a populous city, imprinting on my brain, for future use, its shows, architecture, customs and traditions
But now of all that city I remember only the man who wandered with me there, for love of me,
Day by day, and night by night, we were together.
~ Walt Whitman
If Canseco and McGwire represent the sins of the A’s, Rickey Henderson represents their redemption, their True Love. Circumstances would take Rickey away from Oakland many times–he had four different stints in an A’s uniform in his brilliant Hall-of-Fame career–but he remained true and faithful until the end. We knew that he grew up here, still lives here, and whenever he left he would always choose to come back here if he could. His talent was genuine, no steroids, just a simple regimen of sit-ups and pushups that helped him maintain the precious balance of speed and power that made him uniquely great. And the fact that, after his major league career ended, he played several more seasons in the independent minor leagues for a pittance, showed that his love of baseball was unselfish and pure.
The unanswered question about the 1989 championship is this: was the championship stained by the sins of Canseco and McGwire, or redeemed by Rickey’s mid-season return to an Oakland uniform, by the essential rightness of Rickey winning a championship in green and gold?
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Rickey Henderson’s second coming in an Oakland uniform, coming at the peak of his career, was not just an event to celebrate for its own sake, it was also the catalyst that set all the events in motion which we are still dealing with today. The current incarnation of the Oakland Athletics franchise, run by General Manager Billy Beane, had its roots in that second coming. Rickey was the harbinger of death for inefficiency.
At the time, Beane was a right-handed batting backup outfielder for the A’s, and was in a sort of semi-platoon, sharing an outfield position with the left-handed Luis Polonia. On June 21, 1989, Rickey was traded back to the A’s in exchange for Polonia, Eric Plunk and Greg Cadaret. Beane and Rickey both batted right-handed so Beane lost his platoon partner, and even if that hadn’t been the case, Rickey didn’t need no platoon partner, anyway. Rickey plays every day, against every pitcher. Beane’s playing time began to fade away.
Beane is now far more famous as a general manager than he ever was as a player. His strict, disciplined methods for using statistical methods of evaluating players were chronicled in the best-selling book, Moneyball. He has, and is, transforming his job from an art to a science, and his franchise from an uneven patchwork of players into a well-calibrated robotic machine for turning revenue into victories as efficiently as possible.
The inefficient old-school GM began to die the day Rickey returned to the A’s. Coincidentally, the inefficient political and economic system called Communism began falling apart right alongside Billy Beane’s playing career:
|Last moment before descent begins, singling while pinch hitting for Mark McGwire||June 4||Last moment before descent begins, before Solidarity wins free elections in Poland|
|Rickey traded to Oakland.||June 21||Rickey traded to Oakland.|
|Beane gets last MLB hit, a single to CF off Bud Black||August 16|
|August 19||Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a non-Communist, becomes Poland’s prime minister.|
|Late Sep||Pro-democratic demonstrations begin in East Germany|
|Beane’s last MLB plate appearance: sacrifice bunts with 1 out and a runner on 2nd in bottom of 11th.||Oct 1|
|Beane watches from bench as A’s punish Blue Jays in playoffs–Canseco goes upper deck in the SkyDome, while Rickey hits 2 homers.||Oct 7||Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev visits East Berlin, urges East Germany’s hard-line Communist President, Eric Honecker, to reform, saying “He who is too late is punished by life.” Honecker refuses.|
|Earthquake strikes Game 3 of the World Series||Oct 17|
|Oct 18||Mass demonstrations force Honecker to resign.|
|Oct 25||Soviet Foreign Minister Gennadi Gerasimov says in an interview that “political structures must be decided by the people who live there.” He called this policy of allowing these Soviet satellites to go their own way, the “Sinatra Doctrine.”|
|Oakland Athletics win World Series. Beane retires soon afterwards.||Oct 28|
|Nov 9||Berlin Wall falls. Communism ends soon afterwards.|
What was it like for Mikhail Gorbachev, seeing the Soviet empire dissolve in his hands, being unable or unwilling to stop it from happening? How did Billy Beane feel in 1989, knowing he was never going to be a great player like Rickey Henderson, that his career was slipping slowly away?
There comes a time when you have to choose, to decide whether to go down with the ship, like Captain Ahab, or to let it go, to let the dream fade away, to try something else.
Billy Beane made his fateful decision after the 1989 season. He could have probably stuck around in the majors for another year or three. But this was not a whale he could ever hope to defeat. He gave up playing baseball, and took a job with the A’s as a scout. The rest is history.
I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell” — and tore it up.
It seems appropriate that boats serve as major themes in the two greatest American novels. It captures a big part of the American experience: most of our families have stories about someone somewhere sometime getting on a boat, willingly or not, to cross a great ocean and begin a new life. My grandparents made the bold voyage over the Atlantic in the mid-1920s. I’m a second-generation dual citizen: my father and I were both born in America to parents with Swedish citizenship. My dad was born in Seattle in 1927, but grew up in Sweden. My grandparents moved back to the old country three years after my dad’s birth when they lost their entire life savings in a Great Depression bank failure. Theirs was an American adventure that was deferred by American history.
You’d think that after two years of spending his vacations helping to defend Sweden against its potential enemies, my dad would have a clear allegiance to the blue and gold. But I guess my dad didn’t look at his dualities that way. Something inside him made him opt to take the unfamiliar path over the familiar. When my dad turned 18 in March of 1945, he rebooted my family’s American adventure. He enlisted in the American Army.
But don’t be satisfied with stories, how things
have gone with others. Unfold
your own myth, without complicated explanation,
so everyone will understand the passage,
We have opened you.
It was never my intention to follow in my dad’s footsteps: born in America, move to Sweden as a child, return to America at my first opportunity. It just happened that way.
When my parents divorced, I didn’t really have the choice of staying with my dad in America. He worked for the US Navy, as an expert on electronics used on aircraft carriers. If something went wrong, he was the guy they’d send for, no matter where the carrier was. They’d fly him out to the carrier, in the middle of an ocean if need be, and have him fix whatever it was that needed fixing. But they wouldn’t fly him back–it wasn’t worth the cost to the Navy and he hated those takeoffs anyway–so he’d usually have to stay onboard until the boat came ashore somewhere. He was often gone for up to six weeks at a time. You can’t leave a 13-year-old unsupervised for that long, so there was no decision to be made. I followed my mom back to her native Sweden.
I remember exactly when I decided to return to America. It was just after I had turned fifteen. I was in P.E. class. Our teacher, Bosse Fransson, was one of those great teachers who didn’t just talk to you about the subject at hand, he talked to you about life. One day, he was telling the class a story, laying out a vision for our futures. And for whatever reason, he used me as an example in his story. He pictured me in the Great Swedish Dream, with a nice job and nice cozy home in the city in the winter, and a cottage by a lake in the summer, enjoying my five week vacation, steering a sailboat under the warm summer sun.
Until then, I had never really given much thought to my future. I had always just floated along with whereever the currents took me. But that day, I remember thinking, “That’s it? That’s my future? A sailboat? That’s not what I want. That’s not what I want at all.”
A few months later, being old enough to have a choice, I crossed the Atlantic, and went to live with my dad.
I sometimes wonder if there’s a bit of genetic or cultural selection in the American population. Those of us whose ancestors willingly made that ocean crossing are descended from people who are more genetically and/or culturally predisposed to take that big leap than the population they left behind. I have six cousins in Sweden, and only one of them shows any signs of the kind of wanderlust that drove my grandfather, father, and me to all toss aside our Swedish roots and replant ourselves on American soil. The others are so firmly rooted in their old, small hometowns it would shock me if they ever took me up on my standing invitation to come visit me across the pond, even if just for a week or two. There’s a lack of ambition I find it difficult to relate to, even if I am related to it.
I don’t necessarily think our way is better–my Swedish cousins seem quite content with their lives, while we seem perpetually uneasy with ours. How satisfied was my father was with his life? I’m sure he was proud of his service in keeping America Communist-free. Having a job that involved a lot of travel probably satisfied a lot of his need to keep moving. But would he have preferred another fate? When I was young, he lost a huge portion of our family’s savings in a bad real estate deal. My mom was livid–that was my college money he had squandered–and made him swear that there would be no more risky speculations, and that he would make damn sure that I could go to college without ending up in debt.
He kept his promise. And once free of that obligation, right around my college graduation, he started wandering–moving here for one year, there for another, sometimes in Sweden, sometimes in America, each time leaving most of his possessions behind in the old place, and starting fresh in the new. When he died in 1996, he was living in a trailer in the desert outside of Las Vegas.
Now the dawn’s broken even
On an empty horizon
No reason for folding
No reason to stay
It’s too soon to be leaving
Too late for criticising
And the sands of Nevada
They go drifting away
Cleaning out that trailer was the most stressful thing I’ve ever done. Trying to capture his cat roaming around between the cacti and taking it to the shelter broke my heart. My mouth exploded with about 40 or 50 canker sores.
I wrote the following poem, to try to deal with the grief:
An ant is crawling in my bathtub. A lonely pioneer in a deep dry canyon. I lurk. Like stormclouds. Forty-five days before my father passed away he took me one and a half hours from his home in the desert to Death Valley, California. I saw: Millenia. A vast unchanging thirsty sea of pure white salt watched over by long impulsive alien-skinned rockfaces. Eons. Earthquakes and barren winds. A century- old abandoned building. Futility. Resignation. I, naked, thirsty, cold and growing colder, my face soiled, my muscles aching, look down upon the oblivious ant. He will not find fortune in that landscape. I never asked my father why he moved to the desert. As we drove through the valley, he expressed his admiration for the sagebrush; how wisely they space themselves so as to ration water, how they wait years for a rare rain to quickly bloom, spread their seeds, then fade away. I think he found in this dry, open desert that miracles, when spread apart, are easier to see. The adventure ends. An inevitable grief rains upon the valley. The ant, helpless against the mighty currents, is gone. The warm water cleanses. Between the shower tiles specks of mildew begin to grow.
Does sunset sometimes look like the sun’s coming up?
Do you know what a faithful love is like?
You’re crying. You say you’ve burned yourself.
But can you think of anyone who’s not
hazy with smoke?
1996 was the most profound, transformational year of my life. My father died in January, and it took me a couple of months to clean up his affairs and recover emotionally. A couple of months later, the business-to-business PC reseller I was working for was bought out by a larger B2B PC reseller. I was kept on as a computer programmer to help the new company start developing intranet web technology. Web technology was just getting started, and I happened to fall into it at just the right time. But this larger company was just a massive, bureaucratic mess, and it quickly became clear that no intranet was ever going to happen quickly. A small group of us, including the former CEO and CTO of our old company, quickly started scheming to form our own web business. But what?
One day, a venture capitalist from Kleiner Perkins talked to our CEO and mentioned that Netscape, the new browser company, was having incredible trouble getting a foot in the door with resellers to sell their products to large corporations. The problem was that Microsoft and/or Bill Gates owned a percentage of nearly every single major B2B reseller out there, including the one we worked for. And none of those resellers were going to risk angering one of their major shareholders by helping Netscape compete with their owner.
And so a business model was formed. We would join the crew of the USS Netscape in its quest to hunt down the mighty whale named Microsoft. We would become their reseller, the place for businesses to buy web software. It was perfect for us, because we already understood the B2B reselling business. We would use web software to sell web software. And because our product was digital, we could dispense with the biggest expense of reselling: maintaining a warehouse filled with boxes to ship. I came up with the name for the company: Intraware.
Then one morning in July, 1996, our CEO came bounding into the office. “I just got off the phone. We got funding! Let’s go start a business!”
Half an hour later, my wife called me. “I just got the test results. I’m pregnant.”
All Software Companies Fail. So if you are ever in one which is worth anything, sell.
The next few years were a blur. I became a father. I worked long hours, deep into the night. Intraware grew quickly, and went public in February, 1999 at $16/share on the NASDAQ stock market. On December 30, 1999, one day before the big millenium party, Intraware stock sold for $99 a share. How the hell did that happen? One day in 1996, we were three guys in a small room tossing around an idea, and three years later, that idea had a market cap of $2.1 billion.
Damn that party felt good. Ingmar Bergman was not invited. The new millenium was a summer that would last forever.
Of course, two months later, the dot-com stock bubble popped, and Intraware’s stock value plummeted. I managed to sell some shares in the interim, which made me comfortable, but still little compared to my fancy dreams or, say, an aging free agent middle reliever. I wish, we all wish, we had known my friend Eric Lundblad’s Law before all this happened. Or that I had studied my Ingmar Bergman more carefully. Still, I can’t complain. It’s the history of my grandfather’s and father’s losses that made me cautious enough to sell the shares that I did, when most of my fellow co-workers held on, hoping for more. My forebears suffering paid off, in a way, in the end.
Intraware survived the market crash of 2000, barely, but I left the company later that summer when my second child was born, and as the company was severely downsizing, shedding everything but the most profitable elements of the original business plan. I used that money I made to take a break, spend time with the family, and recover from the intense rollercoaster adventure of the previous four years of my life. Intraware ended up surviving longer than Netscape did, and was finally sold last month to Accresso Software, the maker of InstallShield, for $27 million. They are still running on the original architecture I designed. That’s more reward, I think, than the modest check for my small remaining ownership that’s probably now in the mail. Ask me, maybe I’ll buy you an ice cream cone next time we meet. We’ll celebrate what modest victories we get as they come.
I didn’t last too long as a semi-retiree. I quickly got itchy for something to do. That yearning for adventure, where ever it comes from, sent me into the world of blogging not too long thereafter. Next thing I knew, I had a wife, two kids, and a Baseball Toaster.
On the way to Mecca, many dangers: Thieves,
the blowing sand, only camel’s milk to drink.
Still, each pilgrim kisses the black stone there
with pure longing, feeling in the surface
the taste of the lips he wants.
This talk is like stamping new coins. They pile up,
while the real work is done outside
by someone digging in the ground.
Rumi, a philosopher who born in Afghanistan near Iran, moved to Baghdad, and then settled in Turkey, is currently the best selling poet in America. Part of that is due to Coleman Barks’ beautiful translations, and part of that is due to the times we live in, where people are seeking an alternative to an Ahab/whale relationship between the Muslim world and the west. But mostly, it’s because of the timeless and inclusive beauty of his words.
The last three lines of the poem directly above are especially apropos in these economic times. America has been living on talk for too many years–creating “value” from money borrowed from someone else, instead of doing the hard, dirty work of creating something solid and real.
I learned a lesson from the follies of dot-com mania, and I tried to apply that to my efforts at Baseball Toaster. To borrow a Muslim sentence structure, my mantra became, “there is no value but value.” That is, the only true value comes from the difficult task of creating products and services that human beings actually want and need. Anything above and beyond that is a mirage, as fake as the muscles on Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, and will vanish quickly when the market finally gets close enough to realize its true nature.
I could never get past the thought that the business of selling banner ads is exactly such a mirage. No reader wants to see them. In fact, most people in eye-tracking tests ignore them completely. I’m also convinced that 90% or so of all click-throughs on ads are accidental. So the target audience doesn’t want to see it, tries to ignore it, and the person buying the ad space is not really getting what they’re paying for. The best way to optimize banner ads is to place them in a way to be just below the threshold of annoying the readers so much that they’ll leave the site. I cannot grasp the value of the product. To me, it’s an awful business.
So I could never work up the obsessive drive needed to make the business work. So I went into Björn Borg mode, keeping the ball in play, ball in play, ball in play, waiting for an opportunity to present itself. It never did. This was not a playing surface inducive to Borg tactics. The John McEnroes of the blogging world–Jason Calacanis, Markos Moulitsas, Tyler Bleszinski–the guys who have been aggressive are the ones who are winning. And good for them. In this case, Gorbachev’s warning, “He who is too late is punished by life,” certainly applies to me.
Ironic, then, in my effort to prevent history repeat itself in failure due to overestimating the value of the product, I probably made history repeat itself due to underestimating it. Meanwhile, on the triumphant side, I have, like my father, spent days upon days keeping watch against potential invaders. Over half of Toaster’s user registrations are spam from either from Russia or Germany. So, до свидания, mail.ru. Auf Wiedersehen, keymachine.de. Once again, the Russians and Germans have failed to get past the watchful guard of the Arneson clan.
There remains one unresolved causal loop. Not wanting to repeat the mistakes of my father and grandfather, both of whom saw most of their life savings disappear in one fell swoop, I took my Intraware money and invested it in the safest investment I could find–California tax-free municipal bonds. For the state of California would never default on its loans, would it?
Here we are, though, in 2009, after a series of bank failures (sound familiar, Grandpa?) caused by bad real estate investments (sound familiar, Dad?), the state of California now finds itself its biggest economic crisis ever. Loan defaults are no longer an unimaginable impossibility. They are an imaginable possibility. And the person responsible for preventing me from repeating the mistakes of my father and grandfather, the person I am forced to root for, is a man who (a) first achieved success by being a world-champion steroid user, and (b) is most famous for his work as a time-traveling robot on missions to first prevent history from repeating itself, and then second, to ensure that it does.
I don’t know what is going to happen. I do know that sometimes you just can’t win.
“If you believe in the gods, then you believe in the cycle of time, that we are all playing our parts in a story that is told again, and again, and again throughout eternity.”
“All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.”
“I need an adventure,” my 11-year-old daughter recently proclaimed at the dinner table.
“You mean right now?” I asked.
“No, not right now. Just sort of in general,” she replied.
“You mean you need an adventure because you’re kinda bored with your life?” I asked.
“Oh,” I said. “Okay.”
“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago–never mind how long precisely–having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.”
— Herman Melville, Moby Dick
After my girlfriend (now my wife) Pam and I graduated from UC Berkeley in June of 1988, we decided to set off for a year to go live and work and travel in Sweden. It would be an adventure together before we returned to America to settle into a career and a home and a family. I landed a job as a translator at the Nigerian Embassy in Stockholm.
Moving to Sweden didn’t actually seem like much of a novelty to me since I’d lived there before, but the fact that I ended up working with Nigerians instead of Swedes certainly made it more adventurous. I experienced first-hand African and Nigerian culture, and learned much about my own cultures, as well.
The most startling revelation was how easily Americans and Swedes submit to the gods of efficiency. We don’t give a second thought to subjugating our behavior in the name of an efficient process, but the Nigerians don’t automatically accept this choice.
My office was in the room with all the filing cabinets, and the Nigerian diplomats would come in and out all day long looking for files. Often, the file wasn’t there, someone else had them. So they’d literally spend about a third of their days knocking on doors, asking if someone had seen such-and-such file.
The obvious idea was that since I was sitting right there anyway, that whenever someone took a file, I should just write down who had the file. Then if someone else came looking for the same file, and it wasn’t in the cabinet, I could tell them who had it.
Nix. The Nigerian culture had a completely different set of taboos and rules for getting along with each other from ours. The Nigerian culture was extremely hierarchical, and they yielded to the hierarchy rather than to efficiency to resolve conflicts. So the Ambassador vetoed the proposal to have me keep track of the files. It would have given the lowly translator Ken an unacceptable form of authority over the diplomats ranked higher than him. So the Nigerian diplomats continued to waste their days away in search of all those missing files.
A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision
We’ll be clean when their work is done
We’ll be eternally free yes and eternally young
~ Donald Fagen, I.G.Y.
History is a progression from inefficiency to efficiency, from art to language, from emotion to reason, from instinct to science, from the subconscious procedural memories to the conscious declarative memories, from chaos to understanding. Each day we learn a little more about who we are. In politics, we create a more perfect union. In baseball and in business, we move from instinctive decisions to ones informed by statistical analysis and scientific methods. But what happens when you arrive at the goal, when your system is finally perfectly rational, optimally efficient? When you’ve figured out a rule set for creating a society that is fair and free and just and prosperous, or when everyone has figured out the best algorithm for how to win baseball games or to make the most profits–then what?
What’s left is the question, “Why?” Why are we here? Why do we play? Why do we watch? The answers cannot come from the tool that helped you solve the other question–the rational mind. History cannot answer it. Discipline cannot reveal it. The solution lives, permanently, in our emotions, from our connections to other beings. You spend all that time and effort moving from pure instinct towards pure rationality, but no matter what you do, you end up right back at pure instinct again. History is a circle.
“You kneel before idols and ask for guidance and you can’t see that your destiny’s already been written. Each of us plays a role, each time a different role. Maybe the last time I was the interrogator, and you were the prisoner. The players change, the story remains the same.”
Sometimes you’re Captain Ahab, sometimes you’re the whale. If you’re the whale, you simply ask, “Why me?” and you fight back.
You attack your opponent at their weakest point, and they attack you at yours. If you move to fix your weakness, you often reveal another one. And so you cycle, over and over, until you’ve either been destroyed, or optimized.
As Billy Beane creates a more and more optimized system, more disciplined at selling off players at just the right time, we A’s fans begin to feel like Emilie did under the strict rules of Bishop Vergerus. Just as we fall in love with A’s players, rationality demands that we trade them away, perpetually cycling out the old expensive players with cheap young ones. In a league where nearly every team makes more money than the Oakland A’s, discipline is as essential for survival and success as it is for a society living in a cold, harsh, infertile climate. The A’s must be as relentless as Captain Ahab in hunting down inefficiencies and killing them, before the enemy kills them first.
But the discipline becomes the weakness. Your biggest enemy is no longer your enemy, it’s yourself. If you’re not Ahab, if you’re just a crewmember along for the ride, you cannot escape the urge to call for mutiny, to burn your season tickets for good, to replace Ahab and the whale with Huck & Jim, to escape the destructive cycle of single-minded behavior. Because it’s frustrating. There must, you feel, be more to all this than just organization and discipline and efficiency. The soul craves something else, something persistent, something beyond the battle.
We got ready and showed our home.
The visitor thought: you live well.
The slum must be inside you.
~ Tomas Tranströmer
Because of socialized housing, it’s really hard to find a place to live in Stockholm, so we ended up getting the only thing we could find and afford: subletting an flat in a sea of apartment buildings in a Stockholm suburb called Alby. We rented from Bangladeshi family who were returning home for six months. This apartment complex turned out to be somewhat of a Muslim enclave, as the population of the town was filled with Iranian, Iraqi and Turkish immigrants. It’s odd to have gone to Sweden, and end up spending more time among Muslims than Lutherans, but that’s what happened.
It was a depressing place. Not because of the Muslims, but because of the Socialists. In theory, putting people in large apartment buildings saves space and organizes people efficiently. But these large socialist apartment buildings are utterly soulless. There’s no character to them. They don’t work on a human scale. I needed a roof over my head, and I was grateful for that, but I yearned for a home I could connect to.
Or for a way to connect back home. The most painful thing about living in that apartment was that it lacked a radio. At my mom’s house, I could pick up radio signals from the Armed Forces Network in Germany, so I could listen to ballgames late at night on a nice big radio with large rabbit ears. This was 1988, the first time the A’s had made the playoffs in seven years, and even though I knew the game wouldn’t be broadcast on TV anywhere, I was determined to be able to listen to it. But all I had was the radio in my portable walkman cassette player, and that only had a small, weak internal antenna. I tried to find Armed Forces Radio, but I had no luck:
We got a radio jingle for you, OK?
OK, here we go, it’s named “Radio One, You’re The One For Me.”
you’re the only one
Just turn that dial.
Make your music worthwhile.
you stole my gal,
but I love ya’ just the same.
I am a DJ, I am what I play
Can’t turn around no, can’t turn around no
I am a DJ, I am what I say
Can’t turn around no, can’t turn around,
I am a DJ, I am what I play
I’ve got believers (kiss-kiss)
Somewhere out on that horizon
Out beyond the neon lights
I know there must be somethin’ better
But there’s nowhere else in sight
It’s survival in the city
When you live from day to day
City streets don’t have much pity
When you’re down, that’s where you’ll stay.
A great soul hides, like Mohammed, or Jesus,
moving through a crowd in a city
where no one knows him.
All of you undisturbed cities,
haven’t you ever longed for the Enemy?
I’d like to see you besieged by him
for ten endless and ground-shaking years.
Until you were desperate and mad with suffering;
finally in hunger you would feel his weight.
My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever.
We begin bombing in five minutes.
The girls don’t seem to care what’s on
As long as it plays till dawn
Nothin’ but blues and Elvis
And somebody else’s favorite song
Well I wish I was a catfish,
Swimming in, Lord, the deep blue sea.
I’d have all you pretty women
fishin’ after me, fishin’ after me, fishin’ after me.
When I went down, my girlfriends house.
And I sat down, Lord, on her front step.
And she said, come in now Jimi.
My husband just now left, just now left.
Well there’s two, two trains runnin’,
but there’s not one, Lord, that’s goin’ my way.
You know there’s one train runnin’ at midnight.
Other one leave just for a day, leave just for a day.
Some of my friends sit around every evening
And they worry about the times ahead.
But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
And the promise of an early bed.
You either shut up or get cut up, they don’t wanna hear about it
It’s only inches on the reel-to-reel.
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
Tryin’ to anaesthetise the way that you feel.
Even whispers aren’t heard in the garden,
Everything has died down till morning.
If you only knew how dear to me
Are these Moscow nights.
The river moves, unmoving,
All in silver moonlight.
A song is heard, yet unheard,
In these silent nights.
Late and starting to rain,
it’s time to go home.
We’ve wandered long enough
in empty buildings.
I know it’s tempting to stay
and meet those new people.
I know it’s even more sensible
to spend the night here with them,
but I want to go home.
Wir fahr’n fahr’n fahr’n auf der Autobahn
In front of us is a wide valley
The sun is shining with glittering rays
The driving strip is a grey track
White stripes, green edge
We are switching the radio on
From the speaker it sounds:
Wir fah’rn auf der Autobahn…
Show me around your snow-peaked mountains way down south
Take me to your daddy’s farm
Let me hear your balalaikas ringing out
Come and keep your comrade warm
I’m back in the USSR.
Hey you don’t know how lucky you are boys
Back in the USSR.
We’ve seen enough beautiful places
with signs on them saying
This is God’s House. That’s seeing the
grain like the ants do,
without the work of harvesting.
Let’s leave grazing to cows and go
where we know what everyone really intends,
where we can walk around without clothes on.
Why do you, dear, look askance,
With your head lowered so?
It is hard to express, and hard to hold back,
Everything that my heart holds.
But the dawn’s becoming ever brighter.
So please, just be good.
Don’t you, too, forget
These summer Moscow nights.
Keep me out of country in the word
Deal the porch is leading us absurd.
Push that, push that, push that to the hull
That this isn’t nothing at all.
Straight off the boat
Where to go?
Calling on in transit
Calling on in transit
Radio Free Europe
FISH #2: They haven’t said much about the meaning of life so far, have they?
FISH #1: Well, it’s been building up to it.
FISH #4: Has it?
FISH #2: Has it?
FISH #3: Yeah, I expect they’ll get on to it now.
FISH #5: Personally, I very much doubt if they’re going to say anything about the meaning of life at all.
FISH #6: Oh, come on. They’ve got to say something.
FISH #3: They’re bound to.
FISH #2: Yeah.
FISH #4: Yeah.
FISH #1: Yeah.
Burn down the disco
Hang the blessed dj
Because the music that they constantly play
It says nothing to me about my life
Hang the blessed dj
Because the music they constantly play
I had been an English major at UC Berkeley, and it would be several more years before I returned to school to get a second degree in Computer Science, but I should have recognized then that I had an engineer in me, waiting to burst out. One night before bed, I suddenly thought of a technical solution for my problem. While I hate hate hate these godawful ugly 1960s socialist concrete apartment skyscrapers, but since I had one, I realized I could make good use of it.
For you see, these apartment buildings all have a single heating system, a network of radiators filled with superheated water. And these radiators were all made of metal, which meant that I had, in the form of my apartment building, a seven-story tall, one-hundred-yard-wide antenna at my disposal. So I put my walkman right by the radiator, so that its internal antenna was as close to the radiator as possible, and–voila! Armed Forces Radio!
Of course, in our little tale here, we were not satisfied by a full and complete victory. For it turned out that the frequency on which I could listen to Armed Forces Radio, broadcasting somewhere out of West Germany (as this was still a full year before the Berlin Wall fell), was only available from somewhere around midnight to somewhere around 6AM. During the other hours, Radio Moscow would broadcast on the same frequency, and drown out the signal from Armed Forces Radio.
And this was not an accident. If it were, the broadcast would have been in Russian. No, on this frequency, Radio Moscow broadcast in English, using DJs with pitch-perfect American accents. This was a completely deliberate act of sabotage. Damn Commies!
I could never figure out why they didn’t broadcast at night. Or when, exactly, they would start and stop broadcasting. Their broadcast would start by first a little Interval signal every five minutes or so. This was a brief, five-second excerpt from a song called “Vast is My Country“. That would go on for about half an hour or so, where every few minutes, I could hear the Armed Forces Radio signal get interrupted by this little chime. Once I began to hear those short Communist jingles, I knew that the Armed Forces signal only had about thirty minutes left until defeat. Once Moscow progressed to playing the full Soviet victory anthems, the battle was over.
My motherland, it is so vast.
It is a magnificent country of workers
With rivers of pure, fresh water.
I do not know of any other such place
Where workers breathe so freely.
From Moscow to the very borders
From the Southern mountains to the Northern seas
There is only One Ruler
Workers own everything, everywhere
It is their rightful homeland
Our country is truly free.
Lacking an explanation as to why the Radio Moscow broadcasts never started at a regular time, my imagination fills in the gaps.
Here’s the Radio Moscow DJ with the early morning shift. The previous night, he was home alone in his one-room apartment in a vast, endless hive of 10-story concrete one-room apartments, watching some schmaltzy TV drama laced with subtly Communist propaganda, drinking one too many vodkas. He falls asleep on the sofa. Next thing he knows, the alarm clock rings. He sits up, but stops, groggy, and waits for his brain to give him permission to continue. Some untold minutes later, his legs lift him up. He puts on his coat, hat and shoes, and doesn’t bother to change the other clothes he slept in. His legs drag him down the stairs, through the snow, to the bus stop. Just as the chilly October air begins to make him feel uncomfortably cold, the bus comes. Twenty-three minutes later, he arrives at the radio station. He takes off his outer garments, and turns on the broadcast equipment. He plays the interval signal chime, to let the world know yes, he has arrived at work. Then he pulls out of his desk drawer the bag of coffee he had spent two hours queueing for last week. He boils a pot of water on the electric burner, then mixes his brew. He plays the interval signal again. Then he slowly sips the coffee and waits for the caffeine to kick in. When he feels sufficiently awake, he places the usual two patriotic songs onto the turntables, and sets them spinning. Five minutes of peace now remain, then it’s show time.
Why should we grieve that we’ve been sleeping?
It doesn’t matter how long we’ve been unconscious.
We’re groggy, but let the guilt go.
Feel the motions of tenderness
around you, the buoyancy.
Both Moby Dick and Fanny & Alexander have characters named Ishmael (or Ismael in Swedish). The name means, “God is listening.” And appropriately, they’re both somewhat omniscient. They both see more than they should logically be able to see.
Ismael: Perhaps we are the same person. Perhaps we have no limits.
In Moby Dick, Ishmael is the narrator who guides us through the whole story. In Fanny & Alexander, Ismael is a mysterious androgynous character who leads Alexander through his pain, to face his deepest darkest desires, to bring him the evil miracle he so desperately wants but is afraid to actually admit.
Ismael: You are an odd little creature, Alexander. You won’t talk about what’s in your mind all the time.
I’ve been waiting, waiting, waiting, for the right opportunity to present itself.
Ismael: Wait, I know who you’re thinking about.
I’ve been building up to it.
Ismael: You bear terrible thoughts. It is painful to be near you, but enticing.
It is time get on with it now, isn’t it?
It was part of my job to assemble orders from a tax-free wholesale catalog for embassies, and then distribute the orders once the shipment came in from its distributor in West Germany. Eager to be a good new employee, I volunteered to show up at work on a Sunday morning to take delivery and organize the distribution for the staff of my first order. As it happened, that ship was due to arrive in port on October 16, the morning after the World Series between the Oakland Athletics and the Los Angeles Dodgers was supposed to start.
Ismael: The doors open. A scream is to go through the house.
Alexander: I don’t want to.
Ismael: It’s too late. There is only one way to go, and I am coming with you.
I could not help myself. I knew I had to get up early the next morning, but I had to listen.
Ismael: I obliterate myself. I merge into you, my little child. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. I am your guardian angel.
The game starts at 2:35am, Sweden time. I pull the mattress off the bed and put it by the radiator. I grab a blanket and pillow, and throw it down.
Ismael: You are not to hesitate.
Alexander: Please don’t talk like that.
Ismael: It is not I who is talking, it is you, yourself.
I shove the walkman against the metal. I lie there with my head under the radiator for the next two-and-a-half hours, listening to Jack Buck call the game, wishing I could just fall asleep, but too nervous and excited to actually do so.
Ismael: It is five in the morning and the sun has just risen. The doors are thrown open.
I am so tired. So sleepy.
Ismael: No wait. First a scream, a horrible scream echoing through the house.
I want to shut my eyes and fade away.
Ismael: A shapeless burning figure moving across the floor, screaming.
Alexander: I don’t want to! Let me go! Let me go!
It’s the bottom of the ninth, and the A’s are leading, 4-3.
Dennis Eckersley, a future Hall-of-Famer, enters the game to pitch the final inning.
C’mon, Eck. Close ’em out, buddy. I’m ready to sleep.
Abruptly, Jack Buck’s voice fades into static, and is replaced by the Interval Signal.
The race is now on. Can Eck finish the game before Radio Moscow jams the signal for good?
Eck quickly gets two outs.
Some static, then another interval signal.
Mike Davis, who played for the A’s the year before, now comes up to hit for the Dodgers.
Eckersley, who had only walked four batters all year, walks Mike Davis.
Static. Interval signal.
Now the Dodgers call Kirk Gibson out of the dugout.
Gibson is injured. Not expected to play.
He can barely walk.
Gibson moves to the plate with a clear, obvious limp.
Sometimes you’re Ahab, sometimes you’re the whale.
Gibson works the count to 3-2.
Another interval signal.
Then Jack Buck’s voice returns…
then you would run for Gibson
and have Sax batting.
but we have a big 3-2 pitch
coming here from Eckersley.
And the signal fades again. Static. I can’t hear a word.
Damn. Damn damn damn!
of all the moments to fade out
the last pitch of the game
you couldn’t wait one more minute
to start broadcasting
Mr. Russian DJ?
But we Americans do not give up so easily. Jack Buck fights through the static, and suddenly bursts out,
I don’t believe what I just saw!
I don’t believe what I just saw!
What did you just see?
What did you just see!?!?!?
“Is this really happening, Bill?”
Sudden realization. Maybe that sound was not static. Maybe that sound…was cheering.
Don’t tell me.
Just don’t tell me.
I don’t want to know.
I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know.
The interval signal drowns out the commentary for another few seconds. Then Jack Buck resurfaces.
I’ve seen a lot of dramatic finishes
in a lot of sports
but this one might top almost every other one!
I spend the next several minutes trying hard not to imagine what just happened, which means I spend the next several minutes imagining what just happened.
At some point, while I was lost in thought, I fail to notice that Jack Buck stops talking and starts singing…
Why do you, dear, look askance,
With your head lowered so?
It is hard to express, and hard to hold back,
Everything that my heart holds.
But the dawn’s becoming ever brighter.
So please, just be good.
Don’t you, too, forget
These summer Moscow nights.
The music ends. Jack Buck says,
This is Moscow.
Good morning listeners!
You are tuned to the European service of Radio Moscow.
Damn. And now there’s no way I can get to sleep. I am wide awake.
I am terribly awake.