Thursday, January 26, 2012

Review of Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt

My first thought when seeing that A.S. Byatt had written a novel exploring the Norse mythology of Ragnarok, was “weird.” My second thought was, “In a way, Byatt has only written about the end times.” Ragnarok however isn't so much a retelling of the Norse end times, as it is the story of a young girl trying to understand the madness of the world around her, which included the chaos of WWII, through the Norse myths. Evacuated to the countryside while her father flew in the RAF, the book Asgard and the Fall of the Gods became the structure that allowed the young girl to organize her life in war times.

However, this use of the myths in the novel is both overt and indirect. Most of the novel is almost a translation or transliteration or retelling of the Norse myths with the brief passages of the skinny young girl providing real world context. Because of this Byatt adds very little to the general understanding of how mythology works in human consciousness in general or in our modern incarnation in particular. The classics by Joseph Campbell and Lewis Hyde, other works in the Cannogate Myths series, particularly Victor Pelevin's cyber-minotaur novel, and the works Byatt sites in her afterword, all dig deeper into those ideas. But for Byatt, I don't think this is as much about understanding myths in general, as it is about exploring the role of these particular myths in her particular life. One could describe Ragnarok as a love poem to a way of explaining the world.

Fans of Byatt will enjoy and appreciate her impeccable prose style, whether she is frolicking in the names of things or shuffling through the politics and agonies of gods and monsters. Furthermore, she takes an infectious delight in the names of those gods and monsters. And, as she says, “The thin child was quite a bit older when she understood the beauty of words, Nether Edge, as opposed to just saying them quickly and thinking of the place where the butcher had his shop.” (p158) In the same way this could be a love poem, it could also be an incantation, a spell to raise and old monsters from their oblivion.

However, the most compelling part of the novel might be the “Thoughts on Myth” afterword. It is an insightful introduction to thinking about myths and a great starting point for anyone looking to explore more deeply how we relate to myths, and how that differs from our relationship with fairy tales and novels. And she says this, “We are a species of animal which is bringing about the end of the world we were born into. Not out of evil or malice, or not mainly, but because of a lopsided mixture of extraordinary cleverness, extraordinary greed, extraordinary proliferation of our kind, and a biologically built-in short-sightedness.” Whatever else Byatt accomplishes, or doesn't in this book, that insight alone is worth the price of admission.

Ultimately, Ragnarok is a good introduction to the Norse myths even if it doesn't go very far, at least in my opinion, in exploring those myths and the relevance or lack there of in today's society. If you're unfamiliar with them, Byatt is as good a guide as any. Furthermore, though not a “translation” or even a “compilation” Ragnarok achieves some aspects of both. Finally, Byatt's prose is as good here as in her other work. For many of her fans, that will be enough, even if they're not particularly interested in the subject. Byatt's love of words is shown to be even stronger than her love of the gods and ultimately, all we ever read are words.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

How To Leave

There was a time when professional athletes didn't leave their teams. Sure, there was a sense of loyalty, of identify, of place, but that had far less to do with the stability of players than the fact that players couldn't leave their teams. The early American professional sports contracts were like, well, pretty much all early labor contracts; feudal. The owners controlled everything and that was that. Then, just like in all labor contracts, the workers eventually got sick of it and fought for a better one. They eventually won the right to have some control over who they play for and how much they are paid for doing so.

The next couple of decades were a nice mix. Players could move and many did, but many others chose to not move. As the free agent system matured, the economics of sports changed, and the sports agent became powerful, the “home town discount” has almost vanished into the world of general stores with rocking chairs on their porches; nice to think about, but you never actually see one. For better or for worse, and again oddly mirroring the working world in general, it is now much more common for a player to play for several teams than just one. It is now a part of the milieu; a player will leave.

As with all things, there are good ways to leave and bad ways to leave, and both the players and the teams can really make a mess of things. In the last few years though, I've seen two examples of what I consider the right way to leave, from both the player's and the team's perspectives, that I think illuminate some of the ways to not trample on the hearts of fans. They both come from Boston teams, because they're the teams I know about, not because I think Boston teams are paragons of virtue. They've made their mistakes and I'm sure other teams of done it right. It's just, nobody's paying me to do this (would anybody like to pay me to do this?) and there's only so much time in the day, so the scope of my knowledge is somewhat limited. Caveat, caveated. On with the point.

If you were at Fenway, you wanted it to be a close game going into to the ninth, because Shipping Up to Boston would start playing and Jonathan Papelbon would make his rock star entrance. Whatever you thought about Papelbon, this was one of the coolest sports experiences available and I am bummed that I'll never get to see it again. But it's important to remember that Papelbon's association with the Dropkick Murphy's cover of a Woodie Guthrie fragment has nothing to do with some deep spiritual connection between Pap and the city of Boston. It was blasting over the loud speaker, the Sox were celebrating, and Papelbon threw down an ersatz jig. Major League moment born.

Papelbon's true relationship with the Boston Red Sox was made clear in an interview he gave after the first contract negotiations after he had established himself as a premier closer. The Sox made an offer. Papelbon shot it down without a moment of thought and openly (I believe using the term “ixnay,”) admitted the swiftness and completeness of his rejection. I think we can safely assume the first offer included a “home town discount.” Though Pap always pitched his guts out when he was on the mound, though he was always an intense presence in the Red Sox organization, though he was passionate to the point of psychosis on the field, Papelbon made it clear that it was baseball and not Boston fueling his furnace.

I was bummed to see him go to the Phillies this off season because he's a great closer and a lot of fun to watch. But the important thing about his leaving is that Papelbon never pretended he was going to stay. He never acted as though Boston were unique to him. He never assured us that he was pitching for a retired number. He stayed because we paid him enough the first time and left because he wasn't going to get a long enough contract from us this time. And that was it. I, personally, am not a fan of the whole “business is business” philosophy of professional sports, but I am even less a fan of players and owners telling us one thing and doing another.

There are a few phenomena in the NHL that one could truly describe as “weapons” and Michael Ryder's snap shot is one of them. His release is one of the quickest out there, the puck comes off the stick faster than most, and he can let it go from just about anywhere. We also know he's got a pretty good glove hand in case he needs to see time in net. But when the Bruins assessed their team after the Stanley Cup, and given the NHL salary cap, it was hard to see how Ryder fit in the long term. Sure, it would be great to have that weapon, but with Tyler Sequin, Jordan Caron, Zach Hamil, all waiting in the wings and the younger stars already there, it was hard to justify Ryder's salary.

There were a lot of ways the Bruins could've handled this. They could have thrown him a “home town discount” offer, they could have tried to bid him up and make him take up more cap room on another team, they could have tried to finagle a contract that made cap sense (like Mark Savard's) and tied him up in a long negotiation, but they didn't. They told Ryder to see what was out there. If he found something he liked, then good luck to him. If he didn't, they'd try to work something out. Dallas was out there and Ryder liked it.

In a lot of ways, leaving well isn't that different from acting well in other emotional relationships. We're not burning Paplebon jerseys because he never promised to stay and never promised to never be a Philly (Hi, Johnny Damon.). Where he played was always business to him and we can't be mad at him for making a business decision. We all hate Lebron James because he played mind games with his fans. It would have been a different story if at the end of the season he said something to the effect of, “Though I've loved playing here, I think it's clear that we are not capable of bringing a championship to Cleveland. This has been my home for years, but now it is time for me to move on and the organization to try a different strategy.” He still could've had his disgusting ego session deciding who he would play for, even after being clear who he wouldn't. (And I personally have no doubt he was done with Cleveland.) And he probably would've had a Crawford-like ad in the local paper.

That openness is key to how a team moves a player as well, unlike how the Red Sox handled Jason Varitek this off-season, despite a decade of being one of the most important factors in their success. He had to find out second-hand they signed another catcher. Could the Red Sox have worked out a productive contract with Varitek? I guess we'll never know because the Red Sox never tried. (Was the clock ticking on Shoppach? And they clearly didn't take my advice about carrying three catchers.)

There is a lot we can learn from the way players leave and our reactions to it (perhaps mostly that we should tone it down a bit, but, would sport still be fun if we did?) but this is what sticks with me; being a good professional athlete or team, isn't all that different from being a good person.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Golden Age of American Beer

I decided to check out a new-at-the-time bar and meet Riss after work. I went early, got a seat at the massive horseshoe bar and had a few beers while I was reading Under the Volcano. (Yeah, that guy.) In the quiet couple of hours between about 3 and about 5 it was a pretty nice experience. Not much to distinguish it, but the beer was good, the bar had enough light to read by, and it had the quiet atmosphere of people grabbing a couple of early beers.

As soon as 5 o'clock hit, it was like the Army Corps of Engineers ignored the disrepair the levies had suffered and Hurricane Yuppie washed my peaceful city away. All bars have multiple personalities, so that shouldn't speak too much one way or the other for the bar in question, but ultimately, I ended up not being too fond of this particular bar. But that's not the point of this post, the point is that I found myself assessing the bar in question, thus, “It just seems like they have the same hundred beers as everybody else.” That's right. We have reached a level of beer in this country, and in the Boston area that having 100 plus artisan, craft beers on tap, does not necessarily distinguish a public house. To me, that sounds like a golden age.

The roots of the Golden Age of American Beer lie several decades in the past when a President of this great land, in an act of governmental restraint and deregulation, freed brewing beer from the tyranny of Federal oversight. And that president was Jimmy Carter. (In direct contrast to Reagan, who raised taxes, and spent shmillions on a complete science fiction of a defense system, while negotiating with terrorists, which I guess is how you get an airport named after you.)

Home brewing eventually lead to a cottage industry, that lead to the early successful small brewers like Sam Adams, Magic Hat, and Sierra Nevada. Add in some politics of sustainability, the growth in the importance of local products and production, and the fact that many Americans now have a decade or more between graduation from college and having children, and you've got the Golden Age of Beer. Though we can never be certain, the argument could be made that America is the greatest beer nation on earth right now. But rather than making some kind of big argument about beer in America and the world, or playing out the idea of a “Golden Age,” (why gold and not platinum and how really gets to decided?) I'm going to highlight some of my favorite things happening in beer right now.

Harpoon Hundred Barrel Series. Not unlike a movie studio that churns out a rom-com every six months in order to fund its art films, many bigger brewers do special series along with their more popular beers. Harpoon now brews 100 barrels of some different, experimental, interesting beer every few months or so. I've tried just about every one and they have all been fantastic. Sometimes they're takes on less common styles of beer. Other times, they add an atypical flavor. Sometimes it's a twist on something traditional. Whatever the stated goal, they've all been interesting, delicious, creative express of beer.

Pretty Things. If you're into beer in the metro-Cambridge area, you've heard of Pretty Things. You've probably heard a lot about Pretty Things. You might even be sick of hearing about Pretty Things. But every one of their beers is good. Some of their beers are fantastic. And their English India Porter “December 6, 1855 EIP,” a historical beer not unlike the kind of stuff that made Dogfish Head famous, was the best beer I've ever had. But more importantly, I like the fact that they are tenant brewers, renting spaces in other brewers to make their beer. It means there is a system in place, in brewing, for people with great ideas and great recipes, to start a business without necessarily needing a ton of capital.

Mayflower. My favorite even newer brewery, their seasonal Summer Rye Ale, might be the most convincing proof that American beer is in a special place right now, because it is a high quality porch beer. You know what generally passes for porch beer and though I have a special place in my heart for High Life and PBR, the Summer Rye Ale, hits all the taste expectations you have for cracking a cold one on the porch, but at, like 11, without being “at 11.” All their other beers are great too and if the only “craft” beer you've tried in your life is Sam Adams, Mayflower would be a great next step.

Bombers. $5-$14, 16-24oz bottles give you the chance to try a lot of different beers without filling up your fridge with six-packs of stuff you might not end up liking. Some of them might seem a little pricey but so are high quality steaks, or wines, or bourbons, or, well, really anything that people put a lot of work into. In fact, the bomber itself might be a driving force in the Golden Age of American beer, because it gives small brewers an economically sustainable, marketable product.

You Probably Have a Friend Who Makes Beer. In a lot of ways, the renewed quality of American beer, has lead to a re-resurgence of the home brewing that started this age in the first place. As with well, everything, from baking bread to making clothes, there's a kind of extra flavor with home made beer. Sure, sometimes you or your friend mess it up, but it's still yours and that means something. Furthermore, whatever is produced, is something no one else will have ever had. Which I think is really cool.