Thursday, April 28, 2011

#22: Sixty Feet, Six Inches by Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson with Lonnie Wheeler

273pp, New York: Doubleday, 2009

OK, some info for you non-baseball types.
Bob Gibson led won 20 games 5 times, led the National League in shutouts three times; in 1968 he posted a 1.12 earned run average, the lowest since Miner Brown back in 1906. Overall, he started 9 world series games, won 7 of them. Perhaps his most impressive game was game 1 of the 1968 World Series, which he won 4-0 and struck out 17 hitters.

Reggie Jackson, AKA "Mr. October", hit 5 home runs in the 1977 World Series and 10 overall in 27 world series games. Reggie was on 4 world champs, two with the A's and two with the Yankees. Yes, he is the all time leader in strikeouts with 2597. When Reggie retired, he was 6th all time in home runs with 563.

This book is not a collection of old baseball stories, but a sharp discussion about strategy by two excellent players. Reggie is still egotistical, opinionated, but absolutely driven. Gibson, even at 75, seems to have that same nasty disposition that he carried to the mound back in the 1960s, the disposition that made him great. While Jackson and Gibson give some excellent ideas about strategy and information on how to watch a baseball game, the book really shines in the later chapters.

At one point, Gibson, who arrived in the majors in 1959, states "I wasn't on a mission to prove anything on behalf of the black player. I was on a mission for me. I had to prove that I was better." (231) Both players talk a lot about pride and race, and a revealing statement about baseball in the 1960s is this, from Gibson: "Reggie makes a good point about pride, because if you didn't have it as a black player, you wouldn't get to the major leagues in the first place." (235) I have to agree, especially after having read the excellent book Shutout: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston by Howard Bryant. While the color line was broken by Jackie Robinson in 1947, players like Gibson in the 1950s lived in segregated hotels at spring training and on road trips in both the majors and the minors. Gibson credits his owner, Gussie Busch and fellow hall of famer Stan Musial with standing up to that. However, if you are a 23 year old black pitcher, how would you react to your manager calling another black pitcher a "dirty black bastard" during a game? Gibson says "It was all I could do to restrain myself." (235) Reggie points out that when he as beaned as a rookie player in the minors in Lewiston. Idaho, the local hospital refused to admit him. (233).

Pride segues into a discussion of steroids. Jackson is adamant that he would not do steroids, Gibson less so. "Steroids wouldn't have been a temptation for me at my peak in 1968 or 1970...but if I felt like my skills were slacking and there was something I could do about it, that's a different matter." (257) Looking at the players in the Mitchell Report and otherwise, the vast majority of ball players who were named as users were fringe players who were just hanging on. If your pride and identity is based on being a professional baseball player, it is not unlikely that there would be a temptation. I am not surprised to see Gibson be honest enough to admit that.

Gibson also states that "People in baseball have been cheating for years", naming Gaylord Perry and his vaseline ball. He continues this line of thought with an excellent question: "If you can be in the Hall of Fame after throwing spitballs, how can you be punished for taking steroids when baseball didn't have rules against it?" (259) Some purists would argue that this is equating spitters with steroids, and it is. However, Gibson raises the point that one was illegal (spitball, outlawed in 1920) and one was not (steroids were not declared illegal until 2005). This is a fault with major league baseball and Bud Selig. Bonds is accused of using 'roids starting in 1998. If so, he had already won three MVP awards, led the NL in walks 5 times and won 5 gold gloves. He was also 33 years old; when he saw Mark McGwire, with no MVPs, a player who played only 74 games total in 1994-95 get all the attention for home runs, I guarantee that pride kicked in.

Look at the numbers for these three through 1997:
1. Bonds: 374 HR in 6069 At bats, 3 MVP awards, 7 all star games in 12 full seasons. He also had 445 stolen bases. By 1997, he also had led the league for six consecutive years in intentional walks.
2. McGwire: 387 HR in 4622 At bats, 9 all star games. McGwire finished in the top 10 in MVP voting twice and won the rookie of the year award in 1986. A damn good home run hitter who improved his fielding by 1990.
3. Sosa: 207 HR in 4021 At bats, 1 all star game, led league in strikeouts in 1997.

If these three had not done steroids, how would they have ended up? On home runs alone, based on aging and their career marks before 1997, here is my estimate:
1. Bonds 607
2. McGwire 518
3. Sosa 473

McGwire probably would be a hall of famer without steroids, Sosa is a borderline hall of fame player without them, Bonds is in fourth place all time in HR without them, with an outside chance to be the fourth player in baseball history to hit 600. Oh well, not quite about the book, but I could not help myself. Bob Gibson and Reggie Jackson both are worried about the "spirit" of the game. I am also.

Monday, April 25, 2011

#21: The Killing of Crazy Horse by Thomas Powers

536pp, Knopf, 2010

While this book is classified as a biography of the Oglala chief Crazy Horse, it is actually much more. It is a sweeping collection of biographies, ethnology and legend connected through Crazy Horse, a man who does not so much leap from these pages but rather challenges the reader to find him. No photograph exists of him, he is modest in speech told by people who new him. I knew that Crazy Horse was killed on Sept 5, 1877 at Camp Robinson in far Northwest Nebraska. I did not know what he meant.

Powers himself writes that this book is an attempt to explain why Crazy Horse was killed (469) and this is accomplished. The amount of research that went into this text is enormous (the endnotes alone span over 60 pages) and the theory advanced by Powers is thoughtful and powerful. However, the true quality of the book lies in the writing. In taking notes on books, I rarely write down entire paragraphs. I did several times over the better part of two days while I devoured this book.

For example, take Powers words on the ride out to fight Crook's troops in the Rosebud in June of 1876, some 10 days before the Custer Fight. This was given after a in depth description of Crazy Horse's preparation for battle, which included painting lightning bolts down the front legs of his pony from the shoulder down and dotting himself with white spots to represent hailstones:

"That is what rode south toward the Rosebud on the night of June 16-17, 1876: thunder dreamers, storm splitters, men who could turn aside bullets, men on horses that flew like hawks or darted like dragonflies. They came with power as real as the whirlwind, as if the whole natural world...were moving in tandem with the Indians, protecting them and making them strong. Frank Grouard had tried to explain the power of the Indians, but it is doubtful that Crook's officers understood what he was telling them. The whites all thought they were a match for any rabble of ignorant savages." (181)

There are myths here on both sides. Myths surround a lot of "the West" in history and in the conceptions of Americans. This book does not resurrect the "noble savage" idea, nor are all of the whites depicted as evil, two currently en vogue myths. This is a book about politics, relationships, friendship, family, culture and misunderstandings. This is a text about paranoia, careers, power, glory. People create myths about these things every day for many reasons; what the reader takes from this book is that Crazy Horse was of four parts, at least.

He was myth, a powerful figure distinguishing himself in battle. This is the Crazy Horse that his friend He Dog said "made everybody brave." (461) It is fascinating that in Power's collection of sources, Indians (Crow, Shoshone and others) speak always of noticing Crazy Horse in the thick of battle. These men knew each other; this was power, the stories of bravery, cruelty and respect. This is where the myth comes from for whites, who saw only Indians.

He was a quiet man, not given to dishonesty. He complained, after he brought his band in, that the army immediately wanted to sign the men up as scouts to fight the Nez Perces. Crazy Horse wanted to return to the grounds to hunt buffalo, not other Indians. Crazy Horse told Lt. Clark, commander of Camp Robinson, that "Kola (friend), I want this peace to last forever." (262) For him, peace meant exactly that.

He was a master tactician, nearly destroying Crook on the Rosebud and leading the charge that broke the resistance of the 7th cavalry during the Custer Fight.

Last, what the whites did understand all to well, he was dangerous. He was dangerous because he was true to himself, and unafraid. That means he was dangerous to nearly everyone. Where Crook and Clark found him "unrepentant" and "sullen", and rival chief Red Cloud saw too much power, Crazy Horse rises from the pages as his own man. This book is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding I have read in the last five years. Get it if you can.

Friday, April 22, 2011

#20 Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World by Greg Critser

232 pp, Houghton Mifflin, 2003

As someone who used to order up the #2 value meal Super Sized for much of the 1990s (that was the 2 cheeseburger meal) this book showed me something that I did not know. Namely, that my beloved value meal did not exist before I was a junior in high school. On the eve of the 1990s, McD's and the other Purveyors of Possibly Food finally gave us what Critser says we wanted: bigger size fries with a side of bigger, fatter burgers. This then led to relaxed fit and baggy fit jeans, spandex and the Gap increasing its largest closing size to a House/Mama Cass-esque 16. I wear relaxed fit jeans because the crotch size in the "slim" cut jeans cannot handle my junk. That's right. I said it.

The first three chapters point out the increasing size of the meals, and our increasing likelihood of eating out more often. I like the organization, as it shows that the ever increasing size of fast food (check out Del Taco's "Macho Taco") both worked in our favor (more for less) and will eventually kill us and reduce our children to quivering blobs of diabetic fat. As one study cited by Critser concludes, "Human hunger could be expanded by merely offering more and bigger options." (28) Within this section, Critser discusses the impact of increasing intrusion of fast food into public schools. Yes, we still have public schools. Taken along with the late 1990s book Affluenza, Pepsi, Coke, Pizza Slut and the rest should be banned from schools. Kids eat more if the pizza is from Little Seizures; I would rather eat the box, as it tastes better and has more nutritional value. Why were "evil" corporations allowed to turn kids into fatty minions at lunchtime? Well, it is the same reason our roads suck. What? Government workers are fat and lazy and the Lunch Lady Local 242 of the International Sisterhood of Hairnets went on strike? Well, no. Schools gotta get money from somewhere, and less is coming from us. You cannot cut the football team in schools, but you can cut phys ed courses.

 In chapters 4 and 5, Critser tackles why the calories stayed on us, and what fat is and what fat is not. This is the true heart of the book, as it addresses the ties between obesity levels and income. "By the mid 1990s, CDC studies found that among people with $10,000 or less of annual income, 33% of blacks were obese, 26% of Hispanics, and 19% of whites." (110) One may ask, well, if you are poor, how can you afford to eat at McD's? Enter the Value Menu, 99 cent menu and the rest. Add in the "aggressive cultivation of poor inner city neighborhoods" by these businesses, and they may be the only place to eat out. (112) Also, one must consider the true lack of grocery stores in these neighborhoods. By the mid-to-late 1990s, inner cities were hosts to fast food joints, check cashing places, liquor stores and convenience stores. This is also true of poor rural neighborhoods in the south, contributing to the "food desert" phenomenon. Having lived in a town of 1000 people in downstate Illinois with no grocery store, two gas stations and three taverns, this phenomenon exists.

A person working minimum wage takes home $290 a week for 40 hours, $1160 a month, $13,920 per year. Critser rightfully points out that most people who take home $290 a week cannot pay to join a gym or health center. In Morgan Hill, the adult membership rate is $55 per month, with a $50 payment fee. Non member resident classes cost $14 bucks each. If you are of the "working poor", you aren't gonna lose that gut in any of these places. Critser lauds the "safe neighborhood" programs to build parks that are well maintained and policed. However, in these budgetary times, this won't happen. I have always found it interesting that the kids who don't play outside anymore because of "stranger danger" are the ones who really aren't in any danger.

Critser's synopsis of the media treatment of exercise is well written and should cause you to not trust any of the media types talking about exercise. We are getting larger because we exercise less and eat more. Period. And, eating a high protein Atkins diet will not make you thin. A far better predictor of fitness level for the yoga pant wearing, SUV driving, rushing-kids-from-karate-to-soccer-to-tutoring set is income level. So the next time you hear some rail thin 45 year old say "No carbs this week" feel free to laugh. Critser's short history of the Atkins Diet is an illuminating bit of chapter 2. All in all, this book was quite good.

Friday, April 15, 2011

#19: As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s by Karal Ann Marling

325pp, Harvard University Press, 1994

Marling's main thesis in this text is the idea that "life in the 50s imitated art--as seen on TV." (6). In a sense, all of us (or our parents/grandparents) who sat down to watch Davy Crockett with a dinner straight from the Betty Crocker Home Cookbook after Dad drove home in a 1957 Olds with tail fins the size of Christmas Trees with lights to match were living the life we saw on TV. This is not a Marxist reading of the sheep sucking soma in the form of TV dinners and paint-by-number sets while the Organization Man heads out to his cubicle. It reads in some ways like a celebration, in some ways a slightly sad reminiscence. It works because of Marling's writing style and the subject matter itself.

Each chapter addresses a certain element of what adds up to a life on TV. The focus is the visual characteristics; Marling is an art history professor, and her discussion of the color "pink" in the first chapter (Mamie Eisenhower's New Look) and chapter five (When Elvis Cut his Hair) is first rate. Who knew that the "feminization" of the color pink probably comes from Mamie Eisenhower's obsession. Mamie had an entire pink bathroom in the White House, and a pink motif in her bedroom at the Eisenhower's retirement home in Gettysburg. While some businessmen were getting pink shirts for Christmas in 1951 and 1952, by the time Elvis bought his mom the pink Cadillac in 1960 a pink shirt was unthinkable.

Marling also equates Disneyland with a TV show, a place where we all walk through Main Street USA to places we see on TV. I loved the description of the souvenir shops of Main Street as "antique stores in reverse", especially as the Main Street that Disneyland celebrates is long gone. Marling is refreshing in that this absence is not Disney's fault; it is no ones fault. Disneyland is presented as a living TV show, but is also presented as an organic growth from Walt Disney's interest in trains. Disney in this text is most definitely NOT a symbol of suburban sprawl and its attendant inanity. Marling sees it as a reaction to the increasing importance of the suburbs, cars and freeways. I had not seen this take before, and it struck me as very thoughtful and refreshing.

Ahhhhhhhhh, then there is Elvis. I did not know that the first show that Elvis did after returning from the army was a duet, in tux, with....Sinatra. Marling quotes Feisty Rock Critic Lester Bangs who wrote in 1977 that "When Elvis got his hair cut, rock died." I agree with Bangs, and so does Marling. Think of the Rock Acts bouncing around in 1958: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Link Wray (inventor of the power chord), Fats Domino, Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps...the list goes on and on. Bad ass attitude, cars, sex, playful thuggery. Only the Rolling Stones and The Who approached this in the 1960s. Elvis sings with Sinatra, puts away his dick and becomes a caricature in Hollywood for the next eight years. Marling places Elvis in his time using his eclectic wardrobe and a welcome discussion of his voice, something that routinely gets missed.

Finally, Marling wraps up the text with the famous "Kitchen Debate" between Dick Nixon and Khrushchev in Moscow. She points out that "Khrushchev was utterly baffled by Nixon's enthusiasm for product redundancy." (278) This is the central theme of the text; that the 1950s emphasized the triumph of style over function, a very visual triumph. Khrushchev saw function, Nixon and the Americans saw style. Think about the Beatles in those matching suits. The music (function) was toned down in favor of style. Only live could it come out, and only then in 30 minute increments.

#18: In the Shadow of the Oval Office: Profiles of the National Security Advisers and the Presidents They Served by Ivo H. Daalder and I.M. Destler

385 pp, Simon and Schuster 2009

If I could summarize this book with two words, they would be absolutely absorbing. While the authors focus on the National Security Advisers from the 1950s on, some of the most effective portions of the text focus on the Presidents. The authors present the actions of the NSA in the context of both the world events which they were to analyze as well as the management styles of the president and the personal rivalries of the cabinet. While the anecdotes and "behind the scenes" items are worth the read in itself, the analysis of management styles of the presidents makes this book wonderful.

What emerges is a split between "hands on" Presidents (Nixon, Kennedy, Bush I), "delegators" (Reagan, Bush II) and those in between (LBJ,Clinton, Eisenhower). Nixon and Kissinger "demonstrate the policy power potential of the NSA position and the costs of a closed system." (93). Indeed, some of Kissinger's rivals in the cabinet did not even know what he was negotiating or who he was talking with. For example, as Nixon and Kissinger worked to open relations with China, Kissinger traveled to India with three different teams and three different sets of instructions:
--the first to talk to Indian officials, which was to divert attention from
--the second to work back channel communications with Pakistan, which was to divert attention from
--the third, which traveled to Beijing to meet with Zhou Enlai.

Kissinger emerges from these pages as the most powerful NSA while Condaleeza Rice emerges as perhaps the most ineffectual. The authors stress, and I agree, that this is more the fault of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld than Rice. One telling comment included from Cheney about Rumsfeld goes "When I look at Donald Rumsfeld, I see a great secretary of defense. When he looks at Dick Cheney, he sees a former assistant of Donald Rumsfeld." Rice was hamstrung from the start because of Cheney's ownership of the ear of President Bush. Rice was "Bush's enabler and enforcer...but was heavily constrained over how the other people in the administration did their jobs. (252). While not a sympathetic figure, you get the feeling that Rice was in over her head...and what might have happened if Rumsfeld was not such a self-serving egotist.

In the discussion of management, an "ad hoc" approach to foreign policy seems to be the most dangerous and most likely to cause difficulties. Clinton's 1st term and LBJ's work in Vietnam were ad hoc arrangements. GHW Bush came on the scene as one of the more qualified Presidents, with Brent Scowcroft, "perhaps the ideal NSA...the temperament of a team player...and, a person rare in Washington, willing to park his ego to ensure the process moved smoothly." (171) As a result, Bush I and his team emerge quite well from these pages. Clinton, on the other hand, emerges as someone not qualified for the job during his first term. He learned fast, thanks to his NSA Sandy Berger and Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

A key piece of analysis from the authors points to the "increasing domestic politicization of foreign affairs following the Cold War." (228) This in turn pushed Clinton and Christopher to make assistants "issue managers" who could speak to both the domestic and foreign repercussions of U.S. policy. All in all, especially for those interested in the inner workings of bureaucratic Washington, this book is highly recommended.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

#17: Whores: Why and How I Came to Fight the Establishment by Larry Klayman

Larry Klayman was the founder and director of Judicial Watch, which uncovered numerous Clinton Administration fund raising irregularities. "Chinagate", as it is known in some circles, basically amounted to Clinton and Janet Reno calling off SEC investigations into Chinese government contacts with US defense firms in exchange for campaign dollars.I agree completely with Klayman's assessment in the book that this was tossed under the semen-stained dress of the Lewinsky scandal by the "left-leaning mainstream media." Why? The Lewinsky bull shit actually helped Clinton. I don't know if I would go that far, but Klayman makes a good case in this text. It also made him a "pop culture figure", a term used multiple times

During the Bush Administration, Klayman sued Dick Cheney...for cooking books at Halliburton. Klayman writes well; very well, in fact. However, his claim that he is not interested in ideology or party is nonsense. This is not because of the bashing of Clinton that he engages in; I could give a fuck about that. I would engage in the same thing. Ask anyone! The two words that most commonly occur in sentences uttered by me about Bill Clinton are "letch" and "sleazebag". And, it is not because Klayman points out that "Hillary being a lesbian" was "common knowledge on the left." (95) He attributes this to Seymour Hersh. A common theme in this text is Klayman attributing the more scurrilous aspects of his tale to other people.

It is Klayman's constant use of the outdated and bullshit labels "left" and "right" that really started to piss me off. He labels the American Council of Churches as "leftist". Of the democratic senators mentioned, 90% of them are "leftist". NPR is of course "leftist". And President Obama gets the obligatory sobriquet of "socialist". In other words, the usual suspects. What are Republicans? A common trope in this text is that "I really liked (insert a dropped political name here) at first." When did Klayman stop liking them? Usually when they either

a) stopped listening to his bullshit, or
b) Klayman started to investigate them on their ethics.

The insinuation is that while Democrats are sleazy, Republicans are whores. Oh, and the judges we meet in this text are either drunks, too liberal or downright incompetent. While this strikes me as about right for the most part, Klayman misses the wider point in bashing the one of the Clintons for being a closeted lesbian and the other for not keeping his dick in his pants. It is the corporate influence on policy and government that most of these so called "conservatives" don't pay attention to. As this country attempts to go running back to the 1890s with a Soma-esque overlay of Facebook and Netflix, corporate influence in politics grows ever larger. This book was to be released by Harper Collins, who backed out of the deal at the last minute. Klayman maintains that this is because the "secrets" in the book were "too hot to handle". (The Clintons had Ron Brown and Vince Foster killed, Hillary and Bill date the same women, etc. Standard Limbaugh, circa 1997)

I think they really dropped it because it isn't that good. The sections on the Bush Admin and its corporate man pleasers strike me as added to support the "I am not an ideologue" stance. Why then is Dick Cheney not called a "rightist"? Or a "corporate stooge"? Klayman DOES at one point call Antonin Scalia to account for a duck hunting trip with Cheney and his son, but you get the feeling that he wouldn't have done so if the trip did not effect a case he was arguing. I'm sick of this B.S. idea that "I'm not beholden to ideology, 'cause I go after everyone equally". Let's stop going after these corporate candidates, empty suits with empty heads, men and women who will jump on a corporate cock for some cash. Stop electing these fuckers. Like the song said 60 years ago, "Our representatives are the finest men/And we elect them again and again." Klayman, along with the Limo Liberals that populate most of the democratic party and the "conservatives" who bitch and whine about government, care about money and fame. They don't care about working people, and have not for 30 years. Don't take what's mine, Mr. Government; the coming fight in this country is about urban vs. rural and the poor vs. rich. Try to put a left/right on those two things, and I'll give you $50.