Archive for category: Prose Work

A quantum of Oriole

25 Jul
July 25, 2014

This essay appears in the July 21, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated.  It appears on this site with the gracious permission of the magazine’s editors.   

 

To the beaten dog, every sudden movement is another impending brutality in a lifetime of such. Eventually, even the most modest and trivial move in the mutt’s direction induces a simpering cower.

Tell me on June 16 that Matt Wieters, after playing only 26 games, will cross into the valley of the shadow of Tommy John, and I am supposed to mark that date as the moment when the Baltimore Orioles of 2014 ceased to matter. Flay me with the knowledge that Chris Davis—he of the 53 jacks a year ago—will be hitting a buck-ninety-nine at the All-Star break, and I am supposed to lower my head to your rolled-up newspaper. Push my cold little nose into the mess that has come of Ubaldo Jimenez’s first Baltimore season on a four-year, $50 million contract—he’s 3–8 and now disabled—and I ought to accept the rain of blows that surely follows.

And yet, Steve Pearce.

Anything that can happen, will. And in an infinite universe, it will happen repeatedly. The full implications of the second law of thermodynamics apply to the American League East just as soundly as to a million monkeys at a million typewriters. Eventually, and regardless of all prior history, the Baltimore Orioles are going to type the complete works of Shakespeare.

How do we know this?

Well, for one thing, there is no God. There is only science. If there were a God, he would be—as evidenced by all of modern baseball history—a devoted fan of the Yankees. And God, at least the Judeo-Christian version of Him rather than the Aristotelian unmoved mover, is said to be good. Ergo, there is no God.

So, alone in this cold and expanding universe, we are left to consider the random motion of atoms, of protons and electrons and quarks, as these elemental essences dance and glance their way through the hollow space of, say, a Camden Yards, a Fenway, a Yankee Stadium. There is no romance to the matter, no theology, no purposed narrative even—if by narrative you mean a tale with a moral, with cause and effect, fate or redemption, hubris or vindication. No one is making a point here; the monkeys just keep typing.

Entering play on Thursday, the Orioles were 10 games over .500, three up on a Toronto team that was dominant a month ago and also three ahead of a battered, shield-down Yankees Death Star. The O’s run differential is +24—encouraging news indeed when you consider that the oh-why-the-hell-not O’s of two years ago, the ones who won 93, were only +7 as they stole every one-run and extra-inning game.

The current Orioles, sitting pretty atop the once-vaunted AL East, are actually more legitimate in some ways than the 2012 team that went to the playoffs for the first time since Clinton was president, Lewinsky was a name known but to him, and the world was still debating whether all electronics would cease to operate properly at the stroke of the millennium.

In other words, all I am saying is give Pearce a chance. We can win this.

Why? Because the Yankees’ rotation is shredded and their lineup ordinary, and because Tanaka couldn’t pitch every game and now may not be able to pitch at all. Because Toronto’s batting order—topped with speed and stacked with power—is now hollowed by injury, so much so that talk of trading only for a front-line starter now yields to talk of trading for some of everything. Because Boston is as flat as Shane Victorino on the trainer’s table, awaiting another epidural. And the Rays? Where did those guys go?

The electrons dance away from the great as well as the good. Overall, this is no comfort whatsoever; to accept probability theory is to acknowledge that eventually the United States and the Russians must engage in a nuclear exchange or that your goodly wife will eventually screw the mailman or the yoga instructor. But it also means the American League East can’t forever be the home of predominance.

All right, you say, maybe Baltimore can win the division. Maybe Jimenez gets off the DL and reels off a half-dozen wins. Maybe Davis finds his stroke. Maybe the monkeys can produce a Cymbeline or a Titus Andronicus.

But for Hamlet or Lear, you’re thinking I’m going to need more simians and more keyboards. In the AL Central, Detroit is running away and showing no holes. And the Athletics are throwing up gaudy numbers. Here you sit, Simon, hermetically sealed in your 12-foot-wide South Baltimore row house, nattering on about the Orioles’ run differential? Really? The A’s have scored 163 runs more than their opponents—better than a run and a half more in every game. That’s a statistic that doesn’t smell of probability theory but stinks of certitude.

To which, I reply by discarding stats entirely. To hell with Billy Beane. Chew instead on more quantum mechanics—the uncertainty principle of which clearly states that any effort to measure quantities is disturbed by the very act of observation. In other words Heisenberg has Bill James by the ass.

Remember: Anything that can happen in an infinite and expanding universe eventually will. And despite some long years wandering amid the deep-space weight of baseball dark matter, Baltimore has now crawled from its black hole.

I’m a scribbler by trade. And like all the other scribblers, I know it’s as tempting to assert for a narrative of tragedy as to exalt in glory. Either outcome is food and fuel for poets, who can throw meter at men in the thrush of righteous victory or, even easier, at those bravely facing inevitable doom. We want it all to Mean Something.

I have a close friend, an Emmy-nominated writer, who expends his finest verbiage sending out midseason pontifications on his beloved Cubbies—missives writ in the lofty stylings of a Mencken or a Perelman, speckled with almost as much literary and historical reference as North Sider profanity. Strung together, end on end, season after season, these emails are as comic and inflated a baseball jeremiad as ever committed to language.

Of course my friend, being a lifelong Cubs fan, would wish to remain paper-bag anonymous, but anonymity is for Mob witnesses. His name is Jim Yoshimura, and he is a romantic and a chump and is playing a mug’s game. The Cubs are merely the Orioles of tomorrow. The quarks are still in play for them as well, and all things, mathematically, must pass. Believe in the expanding universe, Jimmy. Believe as I do.

Except, well, there’s this:

In 2003, at the University of Plymouth in England, researchers experimented with a half-dozen Sulawesi crested macaques in a Devon zoo, and discovered there were more unexpected variables than mere simian typing. After a month the monkeys had produced only five pages of work, heavily invoking the letter s throughout. And the lead male eventually took to smashing his machine with a rock, after which the other monkeys urinated and defecated on the keyboard.

So if Chris Davis could start hitting the baseball, that’d be nice too.

Libel per se – UPDATED TWICE

02 Jul
July 2, 2014

UPDATE:  12 p.m., July 4

I am informed that the Huff Post piece has now removed the reference to my having been fired.  Instead, apparently, my revenge was had upon editors who spiked one of my articles because my writing wasn’t “Dickensian” enough.  They never said anything of the sort to me or anyone else, and that is not actually the reason that particular article was spiked.  I carefully related the actual sequence of events to Dr. Williams in my April memo as a discussion of  that particular article and its fate features throughout her manuscript, but no matter.  With regard to the Huff Post essay at least, I am libeled no more and I thank the author for her apology at the bottom of the essay.

A brief word on the non-performance of the Huffington Post in this matter, on their publishing ethic, and on the manner in which this institution conducts its business:

The abdication of editorial responsibility in the case of aggregated sites such as Wikipedia or barely-edited copy dumps such as the Huffington Post is one of the sad retrenchments in news distribution and commentary.  The ethos of such entities — hey, we don’t write the stuff; we’re just the blackboard it’s scrawled upon —  sounds at first to be an ennobled argument for an open and unfettered marketplace of ideas, where some unseen hand of libertarian idealism ensures that better notions triumph over bad ones, and the lies are all, in the end, run down and brutalized by more powerful truths before much harm is done.  Demagogues from Huey Long to Joseph Goebbels have an answer to that naivete; shit, John Kerry will sell you a used Swift Boat if you’re credulous enough to believe such tripe.   These policies are not ennobled.  They are craven.  They allow web entities to profit off the slanders, provocations and irresponsible claims in the real-time battles that make their sites central and profitable to every argument. Lies and cheap provocations become as essential to the dynamic as the truth, and accuracy and falsehood are accorded equal honor.  It’s yellow stuff indeed.  

Some of the best and most courageous journalism that I’ve witnessed involved the decision by good and careful editors NOT to publishing something incomplete, or inaccurate, or ethically impaired.  Such things seldom happen with our present internet.  Instead, the editors of the Huffington Post are not only untroubled at the thought of unknowingly participating in a libel, they prove comfortable with maintaining that libel even when its falsehood is known.  They throw up their hands, cry that we shouldn’t shoot the piano player, who’s merely playing the music of others.  As if carrying a lie about another citizen to a mass of people isn’t still the tort of libel and a thoroughly scumsucking thing with which to be engaged.

UPDATE:  2 p.m., July 3

Today, I spoke with the director of Duke University Press.  He informs me that Dr. Williams’ book, which had been sent to the printer without any changes since I viewed the manuscript three months ago, is now on hold while the publisher consults with its author and with legal counsel.  Given that this gentleman was coming to this issue suddenly and without prior knowledge, and, too, that some time is required to reach people, gather information and address complicated matters, I’m inclined to leave it here and keep the details of my conversation private.  At present, I am content to believe that Duke University Press is trying to address the issue.   More to come.  Or not.  Hard to know. 

ORIGINAL  TEXT:  July 2

The permanent churn of the internet is such that if you allow a dishonesty to stand for more than a moment, it will be endlessly repeated as fact for as long as there are humans left to link to it.   We all sense this.  And even so, for some falsehoods, we have to laugh and let it ride; the stakes just aren’t that high.

But every now and then comes a moment when — as someone who counted himself as a professional reporter for some certain years — I find myself stunned, like a cow with a sledgehammer, to see just how indifferent another practitioner is to any basic responsibility and ethics.

In this instance, the practitioner is an academic author, Linda Williams, who has published a book of themes and arguments relating to a television show I once wrote and produced, “The Wire.”  Her book, published by Duke University Press, is currently being hawked as new books always are, and Ms. Williams has written a piece for the Huffington Post, which appears on that site today as part of that publicity campaign.  For obvious reasons, I will not link to it because of the libel contained therein.

Understand, it is not merely an error.  Everyone makes mistakes.

The reason that I can attest that this is no mere error is that a few months ago, Duke University Press sent me a galley of the book and asked that I look at it.  As I explained to them, I am without public opinion as to Dr. Williams’ thoughts and theories regarding “The Wire.”  She is welcome to all of them.  I do, however, find myself capable of opinion on any narrative that suggests I was at any point unethical as a newspaperman.  Those years matter to me to a much greater degree than how anyone might view my later performance in the entertainment industry.

And indeed, embedded in the original manuscript was a theme, conjured from god knows where by the author, that I had been fired from the newspaper after a falling out with editors that involved an ethical breach on my part.

I don’t know how else to say this:  There was no ethical breach.  No lapse in any ethical standard of journalism was ever suggested or referenced in any of my work, even by those editors with whom I had deep and fundamental disagreements over the direction and priorities of the newspaper.  No ethical question was ever raised by those editors with me, nor with any of my immediate supervisors.  Nothing of the sort was ever discussed or brought to my attention in any way, ever.  It.  Just.  Did.  Not.  Happen.

I was not fired at all.  In fact, because of more philosophical disagreements, I elected to leave the Sun voluntarily in November 1995, taking a buyout with about 120 other newsroom employees who were offered a year’s salary and benefits to leave the newspaper.  Further, when it became clear to the editors in question that I was determined to depart the paper, one of them, Mr. Marimow by name, came to me in the last hours of the buyout window and put a slip of paper in my hand.  It promised a $5,000 raise immediately if I would withdraw my buyout papers, and a second raise in the subsequent fiscal year.  I thanked him, but noted that my differences with him and with Mr. Carroll were not really about money, and I left the paper.

And yet, here I am in the Huffington Post today under the byline of Dr. Williams, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley:  “Thus did David Simon have his sweet revenge on the bosses who once fired him from the Baltimore Sun…”

Again, I conveyed all of the above corrective facts to Dr. Williams and her publisher both, in writing, by early April.  I wrote that they should look at the material and endeavor to do the proper and responsible thing.  I did not hear back from them.  I do not know if substantive changes have been made to the book manuscript.  I only know that I am nonetheless, in today’s published essay, someone who needed to be fired from his newspaper.

Being fired from any job certainly implies cause.  It is defamatory on its face.  And when a writer is informed in advance of the facts and chooses to publish such a claim regardless, it meets the definition for libel, and actionable libel even of a public person.

Today, I’ve written to my original contacts at Duke University Press, asking, in effect, what the fuck.  I also attempted to correct the record using the disembodied and bureaucratic uselessness that is the Huffington Post’s corrections and legal inquiry forms.  Nada.  No replies.   No follow through at all.  As of a few moments ago, the lie stands, comfortably, amid the warm breezes of a web where truth is always late to the picnic.

There is a presumption that the academy — with its research standards and its intellectual rigor — is ever superior to the slapdash, first-draft-of-history half-assedness that is daily journalism.  We made mistakes in print all the time.  Yes, we did.  But if someone sent me corrective material months in advance of publication and I still managed to print a libel without regard to that material, I would have been, well, fired.  And I would not have complained.

Liner notes essay – Steve Earle’s new boxed set

13 Aug
August 13, 2013

I had the distinct honor of being asked to write an essay for the recent release of Steve Earle’s extraordinary post-1995 songbook, when he came roaring back from addiction and a brief incarceration to reassert himself as one of our most relevant songwriters.  Yes, Steve is at this point a friend and colleague, having worked with us on “The Wire” and “Treme” both.  But I’d’ve written what follows if I had only the music itself on which to rely.  For those who have not yet savored Mr. Earle and his work, the new boxed set, “Steve Earle: The Warner Brothers Years,” which includes audio and video live performances from that period as well as three essential studio recordings, is a perfect entry point into what has become an extraordinary canon of American roots music.

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Fear the Bird: The Sports Illustrated reprise.

26 Jun
June 26, 2013

Last fall, when the revived Baltimore Orioles made their first journey to the playoffs in fifteen years, I was contacted by Sports Illustrated and asked if I had anything in the way of an essay.  As a matter of fact, in the closing days of season, with the O’s on the heels of the hated Yankees for the division title, I was about ready to open a vein.  What follows appeared in the October 1, 2012 edition of the magazine, which featured a cover shot of the Oriole outfielders jump-bumping in celebration of a victory.  I was a proud fan indeed, though terrified as well that I had provoked the dreaded SI cover jinx.

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Pickles and Cream

18 Jul
July 18, 2012

The following is reprinted with permission from Lucky Peach #4, published by McSweeney’s.  It is on sale now.  And, yes, payment for this essay will require co-publisher David Chang slaving over a hot stove.

Bernard Simon

 

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I want to embrace the best of the kitchen.

But if DNA is destiny, and genetics holds any sway at all over the human palate, then I have much—probably too much—to overcome.

The Simons come from peasant stock, and by that I don’t mean the countryside of Alsace or Tuscany or any other place where cuisine makes the days true and beautiful, where gardens and orchards and farms and village butchers conspire for a cuisine both purposeful and ingeniously simple. We are not the progeny of any agrarian ideal worthy of Impressionist paintings.

No, my father’s people were kicked-to-the-ground-by-Cossacks peasants, wandering Pale of Settlement Yids who lived with one or two bags always packed and spent the early moments of the last century running ahead of whatever Jew-hating militia was on whichever side of the Polish-Russian border. Like fodder for an Isaac Babel story, we hauled ass from pogrom to pogrom, dragging our huddled mass west until a sign said NEW JERSEY.

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