Pro Ball by Fred Russell

All games are child’s play. This includes the games played by adults, though not all adults who play games are childish. There is, after all, a lot of money to be made playing games, so you can’t really blame anyone who has the knack for it for devoting the best years of his life to frivolous pursuits like hitting a ball with a stick or jumping up and down. The essential stupidity of adult games, of sports as a profession, of what grown men and women are actually engaged in doing with a golf club or a tennis racket or a baseball bat or a hockey stick, has less to do with the athletes themselves than with the society that glorifies them, that watches, not just sports but everything else – in a word, the viewing audience.

Not even the Ancient Romans or Byzantines in their most degenerate phases attached themselves so enthusiastically to the heroes of the arena. We all understand pretty well what is behind all this, for nothing is more boring, even for the diehard sports fan, than watching a game where you aren’t rooting for one side or the other. We do not watch a game for its own sake but for the sake of living vicariously through a surrogate self. We require this in societies such as ours in the absence of personal distinction, which is the fate of the vast majority of mankind. It is a sad commentary on our society that the heroes we choose to idolize are not scientists, artists, doctors, teachers or simply decent human beings, but ballplayers, and of course movie stars.

From time to time, ballplayers and movie stars get together for some gala event, and then you have a curious situation where you can’t really say who is going to be starstruck over whom. The ballplayers, after all, are actually doing something and doing it very well while the actors are only pretending to be what they are not and have no real skills. On the other hand, the celebrity of the actor is greater than the celebrity of the ballplayer, his offscreen life is more interesting to the viewing audience, and what is more he usually has a lively personality whereas the athlete usually does not, is in fact pretty dull, talking in platitudes or mumbling something about going out there and having fun. In all of pro basketball, I can think of very few players you would have wanted to listen to for more than 30 seconds: Shaquille O’Neal certainly, Dennis Rodman, Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson for his edge, Michael Jordan for his presence. As for baseball, I have never heard any player say anything that would interest a 10-year-old child. And in boxing there is only the incomparable Ali.

It is a basic feature of modern societies that people are rewarded for the economic value of their work rather than for its social value. This is natural and desirable from the entrepreneur’s point of view. Work that produces money is worth more on the market than work that doesn’t, and therefore executives in the dog food industry make a lot more money than teachers and nurses and baseball players make a lot more money than cleaning women, though the work of the latter has considerably more social value than the work of the former, since without cleanliness we would get disease while without entertainment we would only get boredom. In this respect, medieval man was far more sensible than modern man, rewarding jesters and jongleurs modestly and holding them in fairly low esteem in contrast to our own times where clowns become idols and sometimes even get their own talk shows.

It may be said that, if not for social or intellectual achievement, surely we might have chosen to idolize manly heroes of a more worthy kind instead of frivolous ones: military men, law enforcers, fire fighters, for example; and many of us do in fact admire them greatly, especially when they are portrayed on the screen by Hollywood stars. In real life, however, their careers interest us less, for the simple reason that their lives have not been sufficiently commercialized to keep them in front of us wherever we look: no live broadcasts, no instant replays, no postgame interviews. no endorsements, no bubble gum cards. Also, their contests are less dramatic, less sharply focused. On the ballfield you get a winner in just a few hours, each and every day, so the rush is bigger and better when it comes. Soldiers and fire fighters can’t compete with baseball players when it comes to giving the viewing audience the fix that it needs.

The really diehard fan, it has to be said, the fan that professional sports organizations are always thanking, the fan who inspires the players, the fan for whom they are playing, is a pathetic figure. He lives and dies with his team. His destiny is bound up with it. He has invested everything he has in it. Days before big games his stomach is already in knots. You can’t talk to him. He won’t even take out the garbage. And after a loss he is inconsolable. It takes him days to recover. Not everyone is this sick of course. There is a kind of recovery index that will tell you just how sick one is, running from seconds for healthy individuals to days for terminal cases. The fan is an inseparable part of sports culture. Now that we have talkbacks you will find him in front of a computer cursing everyone in sight from morning till night. Without such fans, where would professional sports be?

The status of ballplayers, like the status of movie stars, is indicative of a very sick society, a society whose members look around desperately for some source of satisfaction, something to lift them up, something outside themselves to which they can attach themselves when it becomes clear that they aren’t going to get any satisfaction from within themselves. They are not to blame. This is the ethos. The American Dream is a hollow dream, of wealth and fame. It leaves very little room for other dreams, it seduces and captivates and dooms an entire society to chasing after distant stars.



Newsspeak by Fred Russell

Journalists talk and write in platitudes. This is not surprising. They are not, after all, writers. Their command of the language is limited. Their minds are commonplace. They are also not scholars or political scientists. I occasionally watch Fox News, but what is true of Fox is true of any other news organization. The ideologies may be different but the mediocrity isn’t, except for a kind of starry-eyed machoism among Fox’s noncombatants whenever the subject is the military or national security, and hence their breezy, insiderish tone and the penchant for hardass army talk, referring now to soldiers as warriors and speaking incessantly about boots on the ground, gridlock, lockdown, Intel, recon, choppers, nukes, and all the rest. It is true that journalists lack the talent to invent anything. They are the middlemen of language, picking up on words and phrases that are in the air and wearing them out through excessive use. The Bush administration, for example, gave them troop surges and enhanced interrogation techniques, which sounds a lot better than reinforcements and torture, though it is supposedly the job of journalists to cut through the crap and call a euphemism a euphemism. Fox fields an all-star lineup of nonstop talkers. What they say doesn’t have very much value or meaning. It plays to the biases of their viewers, gives them new scandals and new arguments, but doesn’t have the slightest effect on how the country is governed. On the whole, in their superficiality, journalists contribute only to the ignorance of the public and of course to the degeneration of language.

It is sometimes hard to distinguish between an idiom and a platitude. For this reason, one of the few real services that journalists provide, aside from giving us the weather report and ball scores, is to draw the line for us, as though they were themselves lexicographers. A platitude then becomes simply a word or phrase used repeatedly by journalists, which grates so abrasively against the ear that no real writer would ever think to use it. Here are a few: slippery slope, fiscal cliff, crunching numbers, growing the economy, do the math, level playing field, cutting edge, no brainer, game changer, harm’s way, take a listen, sound byte, outside the box, under the radar, in the loop, proactive, Obamacare, outsourcing, win-win, toxic, viral, uber, czar, buzz, spin.

What kind of mind uses such language? Clearly a lazy one, and that is a fair characterization of the journalist’s mind. Because his use of language is so narrow, and his ideas are so banal, the first word or phrase that pops into his head when he tries to express a thought is naturally one that he has used before, that is, a platitude. Unfortunately, he lacks the critical sense to reject it and look for something better. He finds the familiar comforting and feels that he is using the language well when he comes up with a hackneyed phrase. For the journalist the platitude represents clear and incisive language. It would never occur to him that it is dull. This is the standard. When he reaches into the barrel, nothing is there. That is why he is a journalist and not a writer.

The news networks and journalists in general are forever assuring us that they are keeping an eye on things for us. That is their job, they tell us. They are always working for us, bringing us the news, so that we can – what? The idea, I suppose, is so that we can make the right decisions at election time, penalize the politicians who let us down and reward those who don’t. But of course the net result of the entire political process is to elect representatives with whom the public is invariably dissatisfied and holds in very low esteem, so it is hard to see what the news networks accomplish other than sensationalizing events to hold our attention until the next commercial break – now a scandal, now a decomposing body in someone’s garage, now some disaster footage from Nepal or New Orleans, and then the endless commentary, day after day with the same tedious arguments – Benghazi, ISIS, the IRS, the Ebola epidemic, whatever. They never let up. They are like dogs with a bone.

If any of this did some good, made a difference, gave us something other than drama and spectacle – that is, entertainment – then there might be some justification for the enormous price the media demand for their supposed services. The price they demand is the right to invade people’s privacy and to conceal sources of defamatory or illegally obtained information. That is quite a price, but since they do not really deliver what they promise to deliver, they are in effect engaging in a species of fraud, representing themselves as the guardians of democracy and of the public’s “right to know” when they clearly are not. Both legislators and law courts have been completely taken in by this deceit and habitually pay lip service to the notion that the press really is the watchdog of democracy and thus deserving of the widest latitude. But the cornerstone of a democracy is in fact its legal system and the traditions that sustain it. The guardians of democracy are the courts. All the investigative reporting and all the talk shows in the world have not had the remotest impact on how governments operate.

I am not suggesting that we shut down the news organizations, any more than I would suggest that we ban poorly written books. By all means, let them go on doing exactly what they have always done if that’s what people want or need, but without their special privileges. Let them be hauled into court for hounding and harassing whomever they deem newsworthy and sued, fined or prosecuted for stalking them. Let them pay a price that hurts for their gossip, innuendo and calumny.

This would obviously inhibit them. The question is whether the public would suffer, no longer know what is really going on, as if it does now, become more ignorant than it already is, as if this is possible. The answer is of course no. It wouldn’t make the slightest difference. It would not make the slightest difference if people were or were not told who smoked marijuana thirty years ago or slept with his neighbor’s wife, or for that matter were or were not told what is going to happen in a week or a month by talk show sages who don’t know what is going to happen in the next five minutes. We think we are being kept up to date when we get the news. What we are in fact getting is a kind of alternate reality, the journalistic equivalent of pulp fiction where “stories” are selected for their dramatic value and seldom coincide with real historical or social processes. This too is not surprising. Journalists are not equipped to give us anything more. If they were they would be historians or even novelists.

The Tragic by Craig Stormont

a class on drama
has reached O’Neill
his family’s journey one night
the effect
it was to be withheld
yet spurred me in youth
a man who knew agony
after reading it
all of his plays followed
by respect for his truth
shared human frailty
the hunger to avoid reality

this evening
I board a ferry that passes his home
Monte Cristo Cottage
after a day of sorrow boredom and mourning
the inability to live with my young son
having spent three hrs with him yesterday
for dinner buying clothes and ice cream
knowing I won’t see him again for eight days

destination a casino
for the night
with no pipedream of even winning

only an escape
on another night of fog


Book Review: Ring the Sycamore Sky by John Swain


A debut poetry collection written by John Swain, Ring the Sycamore Sky transports the reader into a lush, primitively embalmed atmosphere of human and natural instincts.  Agape at the grotesque monstrosity of love and the complex fragility of human emotions, Swain expertly weaves a rich tapestry of unusual poetic flair combined with myriad emotional and nature related intersecting symbolic patterns of implied sublimity.  Swain is a gifted poet possessed with a sensual and lyrical storytelling capacity that imbibes ageless wisdom, deep undercurrents of romantic discourse, all the while enthralling the reader with the nuances of a rich lingual feast. Examples of his writing are shared in the excerpts below, his work is available on Amazon.  He resides in Louisville, Kentucky and Ring the Sycamore Sky is his first book length publication.

 I say joy to you,
receive a wreath of hands
and featherbells
for the days
we live without love.
And of this bed of embers
I will not lie in grief
for all the glowing world
within breathes
rain and sleep.

(from Wreath, Ring the Sycamore Sky)

The monastery lake
empties itself to the sky
like a nourishing birth
allows the blue changeling
to find its hiding shape.
I removed my shoes
and touched moss on rocks
in the summer forest
where the creek begins.
Farther down the meander
a wood thrush led me
softly past the hermitage,
I would not disturb him,
I will find my own quiet
beneath a sky of sun
as water touches water.

(from Hermitage, Ring the Sycamore Sky)


Cuttyhunk by Ag Synclair

in the halo of
gay head cliffs


masts rise
to greet the stars

we thank the drunken sailors
and cranes

we follow them here
we listen to their stories

drink the sailors whiskey
marvel at the deep swirl of it all

then strip down
to sleep in the blue depth

hidden from the jagged
the disconnected.

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