25 January 2013

Softball Diaries

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:49 am

On my walk this morning I was thinking about a writing project. Here’s an illustration of how it would work. The indented italicized bit is the first half of the first paragraph of the first novel in the series that I’m coming close to finishing. The non-indented, non-italicized commentary is the imagined writing project.

* * *

The dining room looks inviting, but today it’s the bar that calls to you. Maybe it’s because you don’t want to hear the hostess pose the inevitable question – “Just one?” – in that reflexive tone of pity and scorn. There is no television perched up in the corner replaying football highlights, no stereo system blasting rock oldies on tinny speakers – only the classic silent aesthetic of bottles and glasses and polished granite. A long mirror stretches across the back wall; there’s even a bowlful of clementines on the bar. When the young woman in the black velvet jacket asks what you’d like you don’t have to think twice: a bottle of Bass, please.

I’ve never spent much time in bars. On summer breaks during my college years I played on a softball team sponsored by Boomer’s Tap, a neighborhood bar frequented mostly by middle-aged working class men from the neighborhood.  Once I reached official drinking age I would join my teammates at Boomer’s to drown our sorrows after yet another defeat. I was the team’s pitcher, but I didn’t take my responsibilities very seriously. I wore a 60 on the back of my jersey, the number corresponding to the percent effort I typically put out during the games, as evaluated by my teammates. I thought of myself as an outfielder, the position I’d played since Little League. But this was 16-inch slow-pitch, the game of choice for beer-swilling middle-aged working class men in Chicago. For some reason I had a hell of a time judging flies, even though the ball was so much bigger and moving so much more slowly than a real 9-inch-in-circumference baseball, the flight of which I could track with great accuracy. Because I was a good hitter I was deemed an offensive asset to the softball team, so to minimize my defensive liabilities I became the pitcher.

In 16-inch softball, as in hardball, pitching is a glamor position. It’s understandable in hardball, where speed and spin and location dramatically affect the batter’s ability to make solid contact. But this was a big old softball arcing slowly toward home plate: there’s not much a pitcher can do to fool the batter. Sure, you could try to aim inside or outside, high in the strike zone or low, propelling the ball on a big looping trajectory or a relatively flat one. But with that big fat ball floating up there the batter has plenty of time to adjust, shift stance, step backward or forward in the batter’s box, take a big swing. Backspin, trying to induce a popup rather than a line drive or a deep fly ball? Against the rules. The pitcher is, however, allowed to pretend to pitch: wind up, begin the underhanded throwing delivery, then suddenly stop and hold onto the ball for a moment or two before starting again. Two feints are allowed before actually delivering the ball to the batter. A lot of the beer-belly pitchers in the Chicago softball leagues loved the showmanship, the theatrics of pretending. Between the feints and the pitch they would drag their back leg forward or to the side, glare intently at the base runners, pull their waistbands up over their bellies, and so on. As a batter I would just wait, bat on shoulder, for these guys to finish their contortions, not shifting the bat into actual hitting position until the ball was finally on its way toward the plate. As pitcher for the Boomer’s Tap team I just couldn’t take my  job seriously. No feints: just throw it up there and let the hitter take his best shot. That’s why my teammates gave me a 60% score for effort.

I can with complete honesty and some shame report that I never, not once, picked up a girl at a bar etc. etc. I do like dining alone at a café table though etc. etc.

The mirror, the bowlful of clementines, the barista’s black velvet jacket, the bottle of Bass Ale — reference the painting by Manet:


We bought a print of this painting after seeing the original at the Courtauld in London. For years it hung on one wall or another of one house or another that we lived in. Our daughter’s violin teacher loved this print, so when we got rid of most of our belongings in preparation for moving to France we gave it to her. Etc. etc. about trying to arrange for violin lessons in France, about the violin being lost in transit on our move back to the US, about never having actually visited the Folies Bergère on any of our trips to Paris.

*  *  *

After this little experiment I realize that, if I were going to pursue this project, I’d stick to the more precise ways in which the fictional corresponds to the nonfictional. So I’d skip the softball vignette but include the Manet and maybe also the violin lessons. Then the text is framed not so much as an autobiography but as an illustration of how seemingly random elements in a fiction have parallel manifestations in the writer’s life. It’s not as though every line of fiction I’ve written would have a direct correspondence in my memoirs, but with enough fragments a reader might be able to triangulate on who I am. All the more reason not to do it.



  1. What’s more interesting than the specific intertextual making-of talmudic commentary on the fictional text — my softball career and so on — is the possibility of identifying another axis, orthogonal to the original story or situation or fragment, along which a parallel story can be constructed. This isn’t an unprecedented scheme, and I already play the game to a considerable extent. Within a page of the book’s beginning the narrative follows two bar customers out the door and into the street, but many pages later the barista returns, and the necklace she wears becomes a kind of iconic object that replicates itself at various points through subsequent books. The uncanny physics of the mirror’s reflection in the Manet painting also plays into an event that occurs later in this bar. If I were to do it again, extending additional axes parallel to fragments my own life story, I’d be more interested in veering off on fictional tangents from the memoir. So e.g. something strange might happen in a particular softball game, the violin teacher who inherits the Manet might become a central figure, the fate of the lost violin might be explored, etc.

    But there is something ouroboros-like about building a fiction that interacts with randomly-assembled fragments of the writer’s real life, then coming back and structuring a memoir of the writer assembled in the order of the fictional flow. Maybe I would attempt this strategy if I wanted to get more explicitly metafictional, weaving myself into the fictional world I’ve already assembled. It’s a possible answer to a central question I expect to leave open at the end of the next book in the series: will this fictional world cut itself off from its author, or will the author cut himself off from the real world in order to live inside his fictional world? Again, not an unprecedented question in the annals of fiction-writing — it must be an occupational hazard.


    Comment by ktismatics — 26 January 2013 @ 7:26 am

  2. I don’t know. All very interesting if you can execute any of it, I know I couldn’t and am not writing anything of substance anymore anyway.

    Surprised about softball in post-high school years. I think we had to play it in gym class sometimes, with the underhand pitches (is that always the case?). I never liked it much, except in the country when the girls would play too. It seemed so banal after baseball, I did Little League too, and one summer enjoyed it. I was also a very good hitter, but not such a good second-baseman or shortstop or even outfielder.

    The question of how much you want anybody at all, not just readers, to know about who you are, is a daily matter. The internet is the worst, and anyone could easily betray himself by talking about something too important for any kind of public to know. And once you’ve done it, you can’t undo it. I’ve typically been careful, even in my most dissolute moments, not to talk about certain things that were difficult, realizing that they would only be exacerbated. You’re talking about something else though, but those may be something you can’t keep readers from being able to pick up no matter what, if you write anything at all. Obviously, people on the blogs already have a strong portrait of you and me, even if it’s got lots of inaccuracies. I don’t take ideas of fiction so seriously as you do, I mean these matters of ‘separating off from the fiction’ (or it cutting off from the author), or the author going to ‘live in the fiction’. These things either happen or they don’t, and would be temporary and relative. One of them, the ‘fictional world cutting off from the author’ is to some degree impossible, even if the author doesn’t live the characters’ lives literally, because he made them up himself, even if they’re facts he then presented as fiction.

    Bass Ale is not bad as far as beers go. Always interested that, like Tiptree Preserves, it’s one of those products ‘By Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen’. Security for heads of state was not tight as recently as the 60s and 70s in UK compared to presidential security, until the Queen was shot at (or aimed at) by an unloaded shotgun while horseback riding in some ceremony. Noel told me she used to drive to pubs in London with only a scarf, so i can see her having a beer, which I otherwise wouldn’t imagine. I think that kind of security is still not anywhere near that of an American president, though. I don’t know about the P.M., probably so, since Thatcher missed assassination by about 20 or so seconds at some point in the 80s.


    Comment by Patrick Mullins — 26 January 2013 @ 11:34 am

  3. I agree about the problem of self-exposure in one’s writing. You’ve done an admirable job in your books, and in your blog, of being very personal, very subjective, without being particularly explicit. It’s a unique feature of your writing, focusing the reader on certain aspects of your environs world through your distinctive subjectivity. Is that how you understand your own texts?

    The cutting off from fiction is metaphorical, looking at the possibility of my losing interest in the fictional world I’ve invented from that world’s point of view. As I mentioned, in the next installment I’m having the fictional world “go underground” into a kind of crawlspace, but in my real life I’ve had visual images of this fictive underground as if I’m looking down on it from the ground, through thick semi-translucent glass. I can see light down below, and movement, but I can’t tell what’s going on, and I have no point of access for getting down there myself. Speaking of baseball, Robert Coover’s novel The Universal Baseball Association explores this theme: what happens when the author of an imaginary baseball league dies (or loses interest in his invention)? Of course it’s still Coover writing this fiction, so he had enough interest to persist. Awhile back I had a nice little email correspondence with Coover about this book. Have you ever read Coover’s Pinocchio in Venice? Pinocchio is now an old man, a famous artist, occupying the role of the old perv von Aschenbach in Mann’s Death in Venice. Pinocchio is a strange book, much darker and necrotic than the Disney movie.


    Comment by ktismatics — 26 January 2013 @ 3:40 pm

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