Monday, March 28, 2016

Death of the Hired Hand by Robert Frost

Photo: Haymaking, undated, oil on canvas by American artist Dwight William Tryon (1849–1925). Image courtesy of The Athenaeum. (I stole this from the Library of Congress's website of Frost's poem, "The Death of the Hired Hand," which you should read by clicking this link, or the one below.)

So I'm back to the Library of Congress's "Story of the Week," though I'm as behind on them as I am on my work and on my writing. It seems that I'm always behind everything these days, including my sleep. (Though, thankfully, not my mortgage.) Actually, I am very behind on my "Story of the Week" emails, which I have sent directly to me. That causes the backlog, of course, but they are definitely worth it. As far back as I can remember, I've only read maybe five that I didn't care for. (One, recently, was about Henry James's last assistant in his final eight years. I thought she'd have more fascinating things to say about the latter 19th Century's more famous writers, but mostly she just wrote about how he changed a lot of wordy sentences in his most popular works. She says some things that directly contradict what I've read about him; the worst was when she said he never used his fame to threaten or to use against somebody for nefarious purposes--which is a lie.)

Anyway, I just read "The Death of the Hired Hand," by Robert Frost. It's the one with the famous lines: 'Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in.'

This line is meant much more negatively than you might think. It's followed by 'I should have called it/Something you somehow haven't to deserve.' It's said by a farmer whose hired hand keeps taking off on him, so the guy is someone you can't trust, but who you feel obligated to take back in again. Not because you've missed him, but because he's like a lost dog and you pity him. The famous line is said by most (who haven't read the poem) as a line that someone will say about actual family who has to take you in because they're family. But Frost, who was shockingly cold and quite the nihilist, meant it to come from the POV of the farmer saying it, and not from the POV of the one who has to go home. It's not meant nicely, and those who say it like it is, like they have to be allowed in, are missing the point that they're supposed to feel like the pitied, like they'll be let in like the neighborhood's wet mongrel who people just can't leave out in the rain. The line means you'll be taken in not because of family obligation, but because of pity. The hired hand, in fact, had a brother who lived just 13 miles away, but this brother was a banker, and the hired hand didn't want to be pitied by his brother the banker. He'd rather be pitied by the farmer he keeps deserting. Again, the famous lines make more sense knowing the whole poem. And it ain't pretty, and it ain't happy. Frost is rarely either.

Frost is often misread, mostly because of those campfire poetry readings where he came across as a pre-Mister Rogers Mister Rogers.

I've got an English degree, but I somehow managed not to read too much of Frost. I guess I thought it was mostly homespun but drawn-out wisdom, amongst quaint New Englanders, who mostly keep to themselves. Good fences make good neighbors, after all. But there's a lot of genius there, and Frost is a magician who ably hides his literary tricks, which most poets seem incapable of doing. I don't see the obvious alliteration or cadences in Frost that I spot elsewhere, and when I see those, I lose my suspension of disbelief. (I speak like I'm Shakespeare, though my poetry mostly sucks. I've written exactly one that's sold.)

But I've mostly liked what I've read, though I stayed away from his longer ones, like this one. This poem is almost a short story, really, and is almost completely in dialogue, which I don't like in my poems. I also don't like them long, as per Edgar Allan Poe's dictum that all poems should be short--and then he wrote long ones. But I liked this one now, though I didn't when I was younger, perhaps because I didn't get it, or because I felt I might be the one who would have to go home and be taken in--and thereby pitied. Which I kinda was, I think. Best not to think about that now.

At any rate, there's genius here, and a message about human nature. You'll feel like you're the farmer who keeps getting deserted, yet you'll also feel like the hired hand, who keeps deserting, and then coming back with his tail between his legs. You might feel like you're the banker up the street, if you're lucky.

But sooner or later we're all the hired hand who lays down for the last time. And when that moment comes, you have to decide who you're willing to be a burden to.

Like I said, it ain't pretty, and it ain't happy. But it's real, and it's true. That's Frost's genius.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Writing Life: Writers on How They Think and Work

Photo: The book's cover, from its Goodreads photo.

So it occurred to me, genius that I am, that I've been selling short stories and writing novels (notice the difference there), but I don't know any writers. I mean, at all. Harlan Coben once bought be lunch at an agent's conference in Dedham, Massachusetts, and even sat with me to eat (so of course I've bought all of his books since), but that's it. I don't know any writers at all.

Yes, that's a cry for help. Writers, befriend me!

But I almost digress. The point here is that there are questions writers need answered that non-writers can't help with. Like: Where do ideas come from? What happens when your writing chair and desk don't help you produce anymore? How do you deal with the postpartum depression that hits when you finish a novel you've lived with (in my case) for over 20 years? Should I feel badly that I didn't write today? Or this week? Or this month. (Answer: No. Maybe not. And yes.)

You get the idea. I saw this book in the library, after I realized that I didn't have any writer friends (I do have friends--who think I'm nuts for staring at a computer screen or notebook as often as I do--but I don't have any friends who are writers.) and that I didn't have any answers to these questions, and to many more like them. And that I needed some damn solace. So I checked this book out and read it--sporadically, like I write.

Some selections were minor miracles. Some were breakthroughs. A couple were of no interest and I skimmed those. But, just to share a few things:

--The introductions of the writers and of their works, all written by Marie Arana, are just as interesting as the writers' pieces themselves. Sometimes, more so. To whit: "It may have been when Jane Smiley's husband announced he was running off with her dental hygienist in 1996 that Smiley found herself asking the big questions about life, love and work" (387).

--Jimmy Carter writes about how the Presidency bankrupted him. He had a thriving business going when he got elected. He shelved the business, but four years later found that it had accumulated over $1 million in debt. He had to write his first few books just to make enough money to pay off the debts to keep his house. His real, actual house.

--A remarkable number of very successful authors have been "late-life" writers, as Dominick Dunne put it.

--About 90% of the successful writers in this book also have other careers that actually pay the bills. Over 90% of those are professors.

--There are some excellent quotes and thoughts about what writing is. Everyone chronicled here said that writing is a necessary, blessed vocation--with occasionally large drawbacks.

If you're a writer, or if you're interested in writers or writing, you should read this book. I'm going to find it in a bookstore somewhere shortly.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

For Belgium

                                                                    When will it end?

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Retirement of Adam LaRoche

Photo: from his Wikipedia page. Or, this is Adam LaRoche, running from his responsibilities.

Please bear with me here, even if you don't like baseball, because this really isn't a baseball entry. For those who don't know, Adam LaRoche, part-time first baseman for the Chicago White Sox, and a player due to earn $13 million this year to mostly sit on the bench, suddenly retired and forfeited said $13 million when he was told that he could not bring his 14-year old son to the locker room and to the clubhouse for every single game. This has been his MO for each of his past 11 major league seasons.

--Read Justin Gorman's short article about Adam Laroche's sudden retirement here, at the Sons of Sam Horn page. I couldn't agree more. Brilliant move by Executive Vice President (and former GM) Ken Williams, if it was indeed planned. Had LaRoche stayed, the White Sox would've had to pay $13 million for the honor of having LaRoche ride the bench with his son beside him, and at most LaRoche would've come in as a defensive replacement in the later innings. The South Siders thought so much of LaRoche that they've given him five Spring Training at-bats. In 2009, the Red Sox traded two prospects for him, but had him for all of 6 games and 19 ABs, before they decided they'd rather have Casey Kotchman. And the Nationals were so pleased with his 26 homers and 92 RBIs last year that they bought out his option for $2 million. Williams said, "In what other business can you bring your son to work every single day?" and he's right. Now the Pale Hose have $13 million in their pockets, and two lockers for more deserving bodies.

--Yes, that's right. Two lockers. The son was there so often that he got his own locker. The kid must've been there longer than many minor leaguers, some prospects, and a few veterans.

--And I don't care what Chris Sale says. So Williams went back on his verbal agreement about the kid from last year. If LaRoche hadn't been paid $12 million just to barely hit above the Mendoza Line, maybe this wouldn't be an issue. (Though Williams never should've agreed to that to begin with.)

--Then again, he never should've signed LaRoche to begin with.

--My guess is that Gorman was right: Ken Williams wanted to get rid of this contract, and he knew the button to push. I say, good for him.

--This is all about one word: Entitlement.

--Now, because I can't say it any better than this, I offer you, off her social media, the sage wisdom of Bethany Randa, wife of former major league third baseman Joe Randa:

“I’ve gotten so many messages about what a wonderful thing it is that Adam retired for his son ... and yes, my boys spent time in the clubhouse when it was approved and appropriate and loved every minute of it!!! My concern is and ALWAYS has been that these kids already live a privileged life, where rules don’t always apply, where ridiculous money just pours in, where so many of the things we could afford were free, and where we were offered immediate seating at restaurants and other events ahead of hard working people who were there before us. My boys saw this. It sounds ridiculous to most people, but our job is to raise dependable hard working and respectful men. It’s hard enough in the world they see, but to teach your child that when your boss makes a decision you don’t agree with, you just 'retire'?? In the REAL world, that’s not an option.’’

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Lost Painting

Photo: The Taking of Christ, from its Wikipedia page

Jonathan Harr's The Lost Painting is a surprisingly fascinating book that chronicles how Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ was "found" in Ireland in 1990. It tackles the story from two ends: research student and assistant Francesca Cappelletti, in Italy, and Sergio Benedetti, a restorer who actually found the physical work in a Jesuit church, in Ireland. Roughly two-thirds is spent watching Cappelletti research Caravaggio and his paintings, from the hugeness of Rome to the tiniest archive in a small mountainside town on the other side of Italy. Her investigation for this missing Caravaggio (there are many others still missing) takes her to Dublin, Ireland, where it deadends at an auction house that had gone out of business--and had not left any paperwork. The last third is spent with Benedetti, who nobody seems to like (including Harr, who sounds maybe a little too opinionated about his nonfiction subjects), and his realization while looking up at a huge painting in a small Jesuit building. He also restores the painting--almost ruining it in the process.

This is a good read for many reasons. Like good Bourne or Bond movies, the locales, buildings, peoples and environments all take center stage. Italy, a very old country, is juxtaposed nicely between present-day and the early 1600s. (The differences aren't as many as you think.) The book also goes into Caravaggio's short and violent life; he was a genius known for his fighting, who put his favorite prostitutes in his paintings. He was very popular and well-paid in his lifetime, even though Church leaders, his best customers, rejected the work they'd paid him for. (They didn't approve of famous Bible characters made earthy, nor of Mary, Jesus's mother, being portrayed by the famous, well-paid prostitutes of his day.)

You'll learn things about the Italy of Shakespeare's day (1590s-early 1600s) that you didn't know you wanted to know. You'll learn about how masterpieces are bought, sold and evaluated. You'll learn about how paintings are restored, and about how easy it is to ruin or to lose a masterpiece worth tens of millions of dollars. Most importantly, you'll learn a lot about Caravaggio, his paintings, his life, his Italy. Whether I make it sound like it or not, this is very fascinating stuff that will leave you wanting to know more.

At a time when seven Ty Cobb T206s, with the super-rare Ty Cobb backs, were found together in a crumpled paper bag about to be thrown away, you will believe that a $30 million Caravaggio was found in a small, neglected ancient church in Ireland. And this book makes you think: What other rare treasures are out there, waiting to be found? And why can't I be the one to find it?