Once upon a time, I wrote a semi-regular column consisting of five or 10 non-tennis-related items every couple of weeks or so, just because . . . just because I felt like it, I guess. The break from thinking about forehands and backhands—and occasionally volleys—was needed. I’ve been wanting to get back to it, but with a book to write and Grand Slams to cover, I haven’t had the time. Now, before the season begins in earnest at Indian Wells, is my chance.
The Voice in Your Head
How do you know a book is a good one? There’s the plot that keeps you coming back, yes. There are the characters that move you, definitely. But I know a book has gotten to me when the author’s voice works its way into my head. When it briefly and tentatively becomes the voice in my head, and I start to observe the world the way the writer observes them in the book. A few years ago, a trip to Paris for the French Open was made all the better because I was reading Updike’s Villages and seeing the city through his detail-hungry eyes. It’s like getting smarter, temporarily.
The last novel I read, The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach, was too long, and I never felt much for a couple of the characters whom you were supposed to feel much for, but it was worth the read because I found Harbach’s lightly ironic voice roaming around in my head as I walked through my neighborhood, took the subway, bought a bagel, and did other routine activities. It didn’t last, which I guess is a good thing; gives me a reason to read another novel.
Lester Leaps Out
I visited the huge and sleek Apple store in lower Manhattan on an unusually warm February afternoon this week. From there I kept walking, through the West Village and up Bleecker Street. The fabled bohemian thoroughfare is now mostly lined with upscale clothing and shoe stores; I looked for the old glass storefront of Bleecker St. Records—it was much smudgier than Apple’s wraparound glass storefront—in vain. It may have been gone for years, I don’t know, or maybe I wasn't on the right block. Two decades ago, on one of the first days after I had moved to New York, I walked past that vintage vinyl store and heard some suave old jazz sax blasting from inside. It fit perfectly with the sunny afternoon and the otherwise quiet, summer-dusty Village street. Inside, the song ended and a DJ’s voice replaced it. He said, “You're listening to Lester Young radio.” My first thought was, “Aha, Lester Young”—I knew the name, of course, but had never had much access to the music in those pre-ITunes days. A lifelong love was born. My second thought was, “Wow, New York has a radio station that only plays Lester Young 24/7. I’m going to love this place!”
It turned out that the station was Columbia University’s, and that every year they played Lester exclusively for one day (his birthday), rather than all 365. After a second or two, I decided I was willing to take that.
The Good Hypocrite?
I wonder how political pundits come to their conclusions as to who is the “winner” of a presidential debate. I watched the Republican candidates talk for 90 minutes on Wednesday and came away thinking that Rick Santorum had done the best job—he seemed more confident and less shrill than he had in earlier debates, and I felt like I knew more about him than when it started, which wasn’t true for the other guys. Afterward, though, the experts were unanimous: Santorum had had his “worst debate in months” and Romney his best. The consensus seemed to be that it could be the turnaround Romney was looking for.
I'm guessing they partially judged the debate based on the reaction of the crowd, which booed Santorum for saying that he had compromised his principles to help his party, as well as for supporting a moderate Senate leader who could help get conservative Supreme Court justices installed. These revelations had actually made me like Santorum more, not because of the particular issues being discussed—I disagree with him about most things and wouldn’t vote for him—but because it showed that he had experience with the subtleties of government, that he was willing to lose a battle to win a war, and that maybe he even liked governing. I wonder if at least some of the other non-pundits watching across the country thought the same thing. We may never know; once a meme has been started—Romney comeback!—it's tough to stop.
Anyway, here’s a similar, funnier take on the subject by one of my favorite political pundits, Timothy Noah.
“I could be a very good New York Times reader,” my aunt from Philadelphia said once on a visit to my parents’ place. She had spent most of two days making her way slowly through the Times, discovering a dozen surprising or intriguing stories, as all of its regular readers do, along the way.
I still get the print version each day. It’s the easiest way to do what my aunt did, to happen upon good stories that you would have trouble drilling down to on the paper’s website—it’s the news that doesn’t have to be reported that often makes for the best read.
One possibly morbid example: Who clicks on the obituaries? Not me. But leafing past them on my way to the op-ed pages, I'll often discover an interesting life that I otherwise never would have known about. I did this a few months ago when I came upon the obit for South African cricketer Basil D’Oliveira. I had never heard the name, but he had been a kind of Jackie Robinson of cricket in his country.
“Classified as colored under Sputh African apartheid,” as the Times put it, "Oliveira, unable to play at the highest levels of the sport in his country, moved to England, became a British citizen, and joined the national team there."
According to the Times, “He rose to international prominence when, in 1968, South Africa canceled a much-anticipated visit by the English team because it wanted to include him in the contests, against whites. Because of its refusal, South Africa, long a cricket power, did not play another international match until 1991. Nelson Mandela, who led the fight against apartheid, called the D’Oliveira episode decisive in his movement’s eventual triumph.”
All over the world, sports gives us, at the very least, a way to talk about bigger subjects that wouldn’t be as easily grasped or compelling otherwise. They also can serve as markers for how much progress has been made over the last few decades.
Song of the Week
Remember the scenes in Mean Streets when a song comes on in the bar and the camera and the action begin to float, like a music video? (If you don’t, here’s an hilarious example). The director, Martin Scorcese, said he wanted to evoke that feeling you get when you hear a song and suddenly feel lifted out of yourself.
I felt that way a few months ago at a bar in Brooklyn. The place was dark and crowded, but above the chatter and drooping Christmas lights a great old ska song that I had never heard began to play. The scratchy high harmony was the highlight, a reminder that the best instrument is the human voice, and as with news stories, the best notes are the ones that the singer doesn’t have to sing. The jukebox told me the song was called “Really Now,” by a Jamaican group called the Dreamletts. In the olden days, I might have had to go back to that bar to hear this song again; now, of course, it was waiting for me YouTube, where I downloaded it onto my computer the next afternoon. And now here it is, on this blog. I'm not tired of it yet.