Better Read Than Never: FALLING MAN

Got DeLillo? Here he is, somewhere in New York City.

Not everybody gets Don DeLillo. If you don’t pay attention to the contemporary art of the novel, you may not have even heard of him. Presto! That’s why I’m here today! Mr. D. is in the pantheon of current American fiction writers. Literary fiction, that is – this is not a “page-turner”, and he’s no Dan Brown. (That would be like comparing Vincent Van Gogh to the guy who makes the blue outlines for the old “paint by numbers” craft sets.) And I’m no DeLillo expert: of his major, and often hefty, acclaimed novels – White Noise, Mao II, and the famous Underworld – I have read precisely none. I tiptoed into his work with a comparatively slender novel called The Body Artist. It was clever, admirable stuff, a bit morose, and I don’t remember much about it. It left me cold, or maybe I was there to begin with. I may, however, need to read it again.

My recent second voyage into DeLillo Country was his 2007 novel Falling Man, the post-9-11 book he hadn’t intended to write. I found it on a remainder shelf in a mega-bookstore back home in Canada, next to a non-fiction book by Martin Amis in the same historical vein: The Second Plane. I was trawling for all-things-I-can’t-get-in-China, and not only were these two volumes a few cultural steps higher than the Harvey’s burgers and Baskin-Robbins cones I’d been gorging myself on last July, they also seemed fated together to increase my lugging for the next month’s return trip to China. And here’s why The Body Artist might deserve a second look: Falling Man is a novel I’ll be thinking about for a long time, one that I immediately started re-reading once I’d finished. How did he do that? It’s brilliant, but also an accessible introduction to a challenging writer.

See those towers? On the left, the back jacket, peeking through clouds.

We later find that one of the central characters is Keith Neudecker, a thirty-something lawyer and lover of games. We first meet him, though, as he staggers down a New York street. The novel opens like this:

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(Never Forget. But.)

BLURT 11: We all remember on big anniversaries. ‘Never forget’ does ring less hollow when the horror is but a decade old. But few see 9-11 as the toxic symbol it is: the toxicity of privilege and resentment, the disease of disunity, the pathology of meaningful futures sought without meaningful changes in outlook or decadent practices.

World Series Baseball: Game ON

8:16 p.m.

What a great television! Thanks, Wendy and Bernie!

It’s the 103rd “World Series” of baseball, named not for its global reach — though the game is getting more international — but because it was initially sponsored by a long-defunct newspaper called the New York Globe. (You could look it up, and I hope you will. Going Google-free tonight.)

The participating teams are proving that baseball is a sport that is the least reliable of all the North American major sports in having its “best team” win. After all, baseball is a marathon 162-game schedule, and the playoff series can end in a shorter period than an individual engagement with another team in-season. So here we are, with the Red Sox having come from behind in the American League championship series to win. No surprise here, really. Boston is a big-money team and dominated their division most of this season. However, Colorado had to win 14 out of their last 15 games just to qualify for a tie-breaker, and they have now won eight straight post-season games to take the National League title. Whoever is hottest at the end seems to be the team to watch…

8:24 p.m.

Who gets the National Anthem for Game One of the World Series? “The Pride of Boston, and the epitome of our culture, Maestro John Williams…” At the time when he first won an Oscar for the score to Indiana Jones, he was the conductor of the Boston Pops orchestra. So we had brass in the outfield instead of some brassy blonde. I approve.

Pre-game introductions highlighted by one of baseball’s specialties, a close-up shot of Boston manager Terry Francona launching a brown spurt of tobacco juice for the edification of all. Spitting is the thing. Country ball.

Actually, no. The true highlight, and no sarcasm here, is having Boston Red Sox icon Carl Yastrzemski throw out the ceremonial first pitch. (He bounced it to the plate. But he’s still a hero from my youth. I changed my batting stance as a 10-year-old in homage to his high-held bat. The last winner of the Triple Crown, in 1967.) Quite splendiferously cool to see the visiting Rockies lined up along their dugout’s top step to watch the great Hall of Famer demonstrate his old-man arm. And he’s so central to the Red Sox team’s painful mystique, as all his greatness and all those seasons never brought him to the Series championship. They didn’t break the so-called “Curse of the Babe” — they traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1492 or so and had never won the big one since until the 2004 exorcism.

8:44 p.m.

Wow, this Josh Beckett is all I’ve heard. The starting pitcher for the BoSox just threw bullets, nothing but fastballs in the high 90s to strike out three straight Rockies. Yikes. (That was 90 as in miles per hour. This may be the World Series, but we are in the Excited States of Anti-Metric Measurement.) But here comes the pride of Canada, the first Canuck to start as the pitcher of a Series game since Reggie Cleveland did in the mid-70s. Jeff Francis, a big left-hander with stuff and style.

8:50 p.m.

Wow. Runty little second baseman hits it out. Dustin Pedroia hit a big home run in the ALCS, too. Second batter Kevin Youkilis lines a double. David “Big Papi” (this reference to him is already getting annoying) Ortiz moves the runner over, and Manny Ramirez drills the first runner home. Not a good start for the Canadian.

8:58 p.m.

The black and purple/blue of the Rockies’ uniforms remind me of the cover to Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality album. Those little armless vests don’t work for me at all, especially with the guys showing off their guns with polyester long-sleeved undershirts. 3-0 at the end of one inning, and the Rockies would love for the rain to turn into a monsoon. One of the many things that make baseball a distinct game: it’s outdoors, and you can’t play it properly in anything more than the lightest of rains.

9:07 p.m.

The Rockies are going to need a second time through the order, after their eight days off, to catch up with Beckett. Four straight Ks now. Whoa! Why bother throwing the curveball? It results in a double that nearly went over the massive Green Monster, the left-field wall in Boston’s Fenway Park. Nice to see a park like Fenway in the World Series, not just a boutique field designed to evoke nostalgia for the days when baseball truly was the National Pastime.

Hey, and there’s my new shortstop hero, Troy Tulowitzki, ripping a double to get the Rockies on the board. (I was a fan, still am, of Khalil Greene of the San Diego Padres, though I haven’t seen him much; but hey, he belongs to the Baha’i Faith, and the minority religionists have to stick together.) Some of his teammates have been waving fairly helplessly, but two doubles in the bottom of the first may have broken the Beckett mystique, just a little. Baseball is, perhaps more than any other team sport, such a mental exercise. You most often can’t overcome poor play with hustle, effort, all that “old college try”. In true baseball-speak, you gotta try EASIER.  

9:37 p.m.

Lots of car commercials, of course. Boy toy night at the television. There was one that had, though, more than just jolting music and chaotic camera angles. There was actually an appeal to ideals and ethics, a frontal attack on our tendency to materialist impatience. But I can’t remember what the product was. Ah. I’m sure I’ll have another chance at it. It played, after all, twice in the first half-hour of the broadcast. And it’s raining hard now in Boston. Oh, oh…

9:51 p.m.

It’s the top of the fourth inning, less than halfway through the regulation ballgame, and all the young baseball fans in North America, at least in the Eastern Time Zone, should be long gone to dreamland. And this is one of many reasons that baseball is dying out in large parts of the continent. I used to race home from school to catch the end of Series games that started in the afternoon. Money, money, money. Seven Ks for Beckett in four innings. Nice. (“K” is the baseball scorebook symbol for a strikeout. Boston fans have been provided with “K” placards by a local radio station. This being the Series, they may not require JumboTron appeals to “Make noise” and “Clap your hands!” I am ever an optimist.)

10:12 p.m.

Canada’s Pitcher just escaped the fourth inning, but there’s another crooked number on the Red Sox scoreboard. (The occasional one run doesn’t always hurt, but those bent numerals…) Francis may be done for the night, in which case he will continue one of the odd little facts that litter, even more than they always have in baseball, this number-crazy game: no Canadian has ever been the winning pitcher in a Series game. A nice little piece of conversation about Francis a couple of innings ago: born in Vancouver, named for a legendary Montreal Canadiens star (Jeff for Geoffrion, nicknamed “Boom Boom” as the hard-shooting Hab also was). And never learned to skate. So the American broadcast duo has a little fun with that, but I’m thinking What? You name AND nickname your kid after a hockey star and never let a good little athlete play the game? Not that every Canadian boy has to be a hockey head — none of my four have, although the youngest gets outdoor hockey in Canada’s cold capital’s outdoor rinks — but there’s a parental oddity there that I’d like to know more about.  

The rain has eased, and now the necessary five innings to make the game official are in the book. All Red Sox. More of those little ballcaps with the old-fashioned ‘B’ on them will be adorning male heads all over the continent.

10:40 p.m.

And my attention is wandering. Past my bedtime. But I can watch Manny Ramirez, one of the oddest-looking great athletes ever, hit. Three hits tonight. Everybody knows a hitter has to keep his head down on the ball, but he’s perfect. Wow. A flaky dude, a chaotic and sometimes even incompetent outfielder, but what a hitter. (Okay, perfect? Sorry. My error. Had he been a left-hand hitter, now then he’d be perfect.) Just detected another Howden error: Red Sox captain Jason Varitek does indeed wear the traditional knee-high knickers and tall red stockings. (I lost it in the sun.)

10:56 p.m.

12-1. Fifth inning. Another Colorado relief pitcher. I need a relief bloggist.

11:02 p.m.

The Red Sox are still up, now 13-1, and they’ve finally gotten the 3rd out of a 5th inning that seemed to have started yesterday. Cameras just caught a shot of writer Stephen King in a rain poncho, reading a magazine. You may have heard of his novel The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. Okay, I haven’t read it either, but Gordon was a Red Sox pitcher with a fine curveball, as I recall. Naturally, he was called “Flash”. And here’s another one of those things about baseball: no sport has been written about better. There are lots of short stories, a few fine novels and tonnes of creative documentary writing about the game. It’s the only game, I used to joke — and I love baseball — that’s more interesting to talk about than to play. Almost true.

Macho guitars and turbo-charged video about a minivan from Toyota; at the end is slipped in the printed fact that it has the best fuel efficiency among grocery-getters. Not hard to see that peak oil hasn’t entirely penetrated North American consciousness. And then comes the ad for recreational gas-guzzling, the Polaris ATV.

11:26 p.m.

Wendy and Bernie just got home. They’re the guys with the three televisions, any one of which is at my disposal when my lust for sport cannot be sated by radio or on-line reports the next morning.

Just when I thought there was nothing more to say, here comes Ashanti singing “God Bless America” as the since-9-11 7th inning stretch song of choice. No more taking anybody out to the ballgame. Patriotism. Bowed heads. (An echo, of course, of the U.S. Air Force fly-by to punctuate “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Bowed heads and blood lust. Ooh. Did I just say that?) The extreme patriotism of Americans has always been an irritant to me, Canada having traditionally been a little quieter about our national pride (except certain hockey blowhards). We’re getting a little more vociferous, in our reserved Scottish way, and I wince about it sometimes. Our pride is not mainly based on military might, so I feel less compromised about our occasional chest-thumping. But the attachment of national glory to every single athletic contest? I mean the solemnity of l’hymne nationale before each game beyond high school. Surely this is a tradition that, if it weren’t so deep and patriotism such an American article of faith, would have long outlived its usefulness. And to add the alternative national anthem for a mid-game bit of national self-importance is sickly sweet icing upon a cake that’s past its best-before date. I wanted to paste my favourite little bumper sticker over Wendy and Bernie’s TV: God Bless ALL The Nations.

And on in relief for the Red Sox is Mike Timlin. Mike Timlin? He’s still living? He was relieving for the Blue Jays last millennium, for goodness’ sake. And speaking of great relievers, the other Canadian chucker won’t likely get off the bench for the Red Sox. Whither the Eric Gagné of old, he of the unhittable Dodgers closeouts? Hard not to be a bit suspicious about how he fuelled his earlier exploits, but maybe he’s just old. I know that feeling.

12:02 a.m.

Sheesh. Error number three for the typist. Gagné is in, but this IS, after all, a twelve-run ballgame. We’re finally in the ninth inning. We’ll soon be home. And my current favourite name just made the catch for the Sox in centre field: yes, friends, Coco Crisp is in the game as a defensive replacement.

12:07 a.m.

Big Eric closes the game with a strikeout. Yawn. Zoom, zoom, zoom. More car sales. Time to jump into my car.

Earth Day: David Suzuki and the Primal Shout

At our house, we still have something of an Earth Day hangover. EcoBride, naturally, was at the centre of several events over the weekend, and I was over-doing it, too. In other words, we were pooped before the work week even began. Mainly, though, my brain is buzzing from renewed attention to environmental responsibility. Time to be mindful. Time for a change. Lots of changes.

Sheesh. I should have a T-shirt printed for myself: I DROVE MY CAR TO THREE EARTH DAY EVENTS. It wasn’t all laziness and irresponsibility. Event the first, Saturday’s “Sacred Earth” meditation/story-telling/dance session, and the EcoFair that followed it, required some materials to be transported and was followed by another event across the city. I had a shaky excuse for Event the second, David Suzuki’s talk Sunday at the WritersFest. I was going to bike to it — I really was! — after riding with Li’l Bozo to a schoolmate’s birthday party. EcoBride was off on her B bicycle, which left her A machine and my hunk o’ crap to choose from; however, both had flats and the party was starting and tears were flowing. Sigh. As for Event the third? It was another WritersFest talk on “The End of Food”. I was just tired and lazy. I drove.

But enough of my excuses. If you’re a Canuck, you likely know who David Suzuki is. If you’re not, but you pay attention to environmental heroes and the sustainable changes they long for, you probably know him, too. (But check out his Foundation here, whether you think you know him or not. It will help you live well. Really.) Suzuki is over 70 now, but his passion for environmental issues burns hotter than ever. His Earth Day message at the Ottawa International Writers Festival – besides his eco-evangelism and television fame, Dr. Suzuki has written over 20 books – was characteristically smart and skilled, but I’d never heard him so emotional. He was a volcano. He has grandchildren. He has been banging the drum of ecological warning for decades, and absolutely fumes at the continued political dithering and partisan point-scoring. He is outraged and desperate.

And so, he says, he was quite taken aback when his 27-year-old daughter, Severn, told him recently, “I think we’re living in the most exciting period in human history!” She’s been an environmental crusader herself since, aged six or so, her famous father caught her selling off his hardcover books to raise funds for the rainforest. And David Suzuki has come to accept her viewpoint, though he couches it in rather more dour terms: “Exciting? Well, yes. We will, in this relatively brief period of time, decide whether or not we are just a spectacular flash in the pan as a species.” His energy and his arguments were exciting, but even though he went over his allotted time (none of us were grumbling), he hadn’t the time to get to the good news, the hopeful stuff. (“Read Good News For A Change. It’s all there.” Good book.) The consistent mis-steps and political forgetfulness, the rampant materialism and hubris of our societies make for a dismal tale. Suzuki didn’t spare the overflow crowd that had come to hear him on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Here are some things that stood out to me in his talk.

 I still haven’t read Silent Spring (1963). Suzuki paid heartfelt tribute to Rachel Carson and the way she brought ecological issues to the forefront. She also chastised the overweaning pride of scientists, who thought their laboratory findings were universally applicable. (Suzuki himself, self-described “young hotshot geneticist”, had his life changed by Carson.) They thought DDT was a miracle chemical. Suzuki remembers his mother spraying it in the kitchen during meals so no insects would bother them.

 “We are an infant species.” By the time recognizably homo sapiens creatures appeared in the Great Rift Valley of Africa, life on Earth had existed for nearly four billion years. Suzuki whisked us back 150,000 years to imagine scoping out these critters, and at first glance we didn’t look too promising: small, weak, slow, with only average senses. But we could learn. Above all, we were the only species that showed foresight. We could analyze, we could predict, and we could plan ahead for the needs of our offspring.

 From that small group of Africans, living in a world of unbelievably abundant animals, fish and fowl, our population very slowly grew and spread through tens and tens of thousands of years. We finally reached a billion people only about 200 hundred years ago. But population is now on an incredible upward slope, literally growing through the roof, and at 6.5 billion we are now the most populous mammal on earth. “More humans than rabbits – that really impressed them in Australia! More humans than rats. More humans than mice…”

 “Consumption” was the gentle old name for the disease tuberculosis, which in our part of the world barely exists anymore. “But the Earth is now suffering from consumption,” says the good Dr. S., meaning our seemingly insatiable desire to buy more stuff. “The most humiliating Canadian statistic I know,” Suzuki said, “is that, compared to fifty years ago, our families are twice as small but our houses are twice as big.” Monster houses. Unbelievable amounts of stuff that we can’t seem to stop acquiring or know what to do with once we’re tired of it.

 After the shock of 9-11, when he made his first public address to the American people, what was President Bush’s first message? What central truth about the reality of citizenship and life did he use to console and inspire his people? “I want you to go out and shop.” Yes. Show the terrorists that nothing can stop us from buying stuff. We consume, therefore we are…

 It’s now 15 years since 1700 of the world’s greatest scientists, including most of the living Nobel Prize science winners, issued a dire warning about the declining state of the Earth’s soil, water, and air. They foresaw that continuing along the path we were on in 1992 could lead to a fundamental and irreversible change to life as we know it. (Foresight. Foresight. And we have continued.) Only one problem: neither CBC nor the Globe and Mail in Canada, nor the American newspapers of record (the Washington Post and the New York Times), even bothered to report it. There is always time for celebrity obsessions, of course, but do you remember what we were gossiping about while our greatest minds were pounding on the door, unheard?

Scientists warned that New Orleans was inevitably going to be creamed by the big hurricane, more than 20 years before Katrina. Hello?! Is anybody home?

 Good news: human beings are endowed with foresight. We can use our big brains to avoid problems. Bad news: we can get used to almost anything. Adaptability is important, but it also means we can learn to accept the unacceptable, and this is why we need the wisdom of elders and a longer frame of reference than the 24-hour infotainment cycle. Elders remember when the word “disposable” didn’t exist, when wastefulness was considered one of the worst sins. We must listen to what they know. Suzuki reluctantly concedes that he, too, is now an elder.

 ECOLOGY: The word comes from Greek roots than mean “study of the home”, understanding how our environment thrives (or doesn’t). Ecology is routinely put on a low-priority shelf, since caring for it might temporarily affect our great political god, the ECONOMY. But listen: the root meaning of “economy” is something like “management of the home”. The overriding principle in running our economies is growth, that there must always be MORE: more production, more consumption, more hours in the working day. “Economists think that growth has no limits!” Suzuki thundered. “THIS IS THE CREED OF THE CANCER CELL!!” We know as a matter of common sense that there must be limits to growth, but our dominating ideas of “management of the home” ignore this.

 “Economics must become subservient to the care of the Earth’s ecology, and not the other way around! In the name of economic growth, we have been dipping into the ecological capital of our children and grandchildren! How DARE we say that we cannot afford to care for the environment?!” Wow. Righteous indignation. Suzuki is furious.

 And then, by way of hopefulness, Sukuki took us back 50 years. In 1957, he had just completed his undergraduate biology degree in the United States. It was a startling year for Americans: at a time when the U.S. military branches were failing repeatedly in attempts to reach space, the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite into Earth orbit. (And then the first animal, and then the first cosmonaut, and then the first woman in space…) It was the Cold War, of course, and the Americans were shaken to the core by the evident Soviet superiority in science and technology. And so they decided. At all levels of society – governmental, scientific, industrial, popular – there was a national commitment to meet this scary challenge and win it. Nobody complained about the cost. And nobody could have predicted all of the incredible, indirect technical breakthroughs that resulted from the financial and human resources that the United States committed to the Space Race: stunning advances in computing and communications are only two of the most obvious benefits from this investment.

 “The world we have now,” Dr. Suzuki reminded us, “where youth in Uzbekistan can whip out a cellphone and call anywhere in the world, where Americans now win nearly every Nobel Prize in science, in large measure was created because the collective will of a frightened United States said, ‘We WILL do this!’” And so, in the face of the catastrophic effects of human growth and waste on our planetary home, we need to summon the same kind of united, cooperative and urgent work on a global scale. And we can’t worry about the price tag! What will be the price if we don’t?

 What to do about it? Well, we could start with Suzuki’s Nature Challenge. Don’t wait for the politicians to lead. Let’s lead from the grassroots. Let’s do something ourselves. Dr. Suzuki wants a million people to take the challenge in Canada. “You don’t have to go live in a cave. These are practical but useful measures we can all take in our homes.” We’re signed up. What are you waiting for?

Dr. Dave was once a brilliant young geneticist. Startled by Rachel Carson and other visionaries, he turned his talents to public education, towards a better understanding of the truths and the role of science, and especially towards greater societal awareness of ecology and stewardship. He’s been a TV superstar scientist and a prolific author, and has become over the decades a national hero. He can explain the science of climate change – or of anything – in such a way that jocks and poets can understand it. Suzuki is a master communicator.

But his conclusion on Earth Day was pretty primitive, radically blunt. He was shouting at the politicians, and at all of us whose complacency gets in the way of essential change.


Because he doesn’t have much time, and neither do we.