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“I got a grand piano to prop up my mortal remains” – Waters

What’s of greater value — getting better with something at which you’re innately good, or good with something at which you struggle ? I would argue for the latter, though there is no right answer. Clearly those starting out best at what they do have a distinct advantage and often go on to greatest success. Willie Mays’ love of the game was expressed with fluid motion, boyish enthusiasm, and a sense that he was born in center field with a glove on. But there was a particular beauty to Pete Rose, that most un-beautiful of ballplayers, too. Watching him lumber full-speed after a meaningless late-September foul pop before snagging it in a dusty, violent tumble was a thing to behold. Often those we admire most for what they do look at their ability with curious disregard and long to do something else. Gary Larson, perhaps the greatest of one-panel cartoonists, put down his pens to pursue jazz guitar. Michael Jordan tried to play baseball. Johnny Carson loved playing drums and wanted to be Buddy Rich. When people pursue these things passionately and outside the realm of vocation, we say they have “hobbies.” For most working stiffs this is a distinction made of necessity and because nobody will pay them to play jazz guitar. Some people are so crushed by the weight of their work-a-day world, they have neither time nor energy to consider that what they’re best at isn’t what they do. Others learn to hate that which comes naturally because they’re trapped making a living at it. There have to be a lot of natural-born accountants out there who could give a rat’s ass about their ability.

What’s this got to do with anything? Not much. Were I in a more constructive state of mind I’d find a segue here between Pete Rose and Theresa May or global warming. Or find a link between Gary Larson and the start of baseball season. But that’s just a parlor-trick; a device to try and trick the reader into thinking you know where you’re going.

I was watching the author, neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris on Youtube the other night. How’s that for a cocktail party show-stopper? “What do I do? Well I’m an author, neuroscientist and philosopher .. but I really want to play jazz guitar. Want to see my van?” Harris’s command of speech is admirable .. a close-second, perhaps, to the late Christopher Hitchens. He was making a point about the dangers of religious fundamentalism with an argument about how nobody on an airplane, regardless of secular devotion, would sit calmly if the pilot came on and told them he was turning off the controls and relying upon divine intervention to fly the thing. Except Harris made the point both extemporaneously and better, despite my having the time to consider and edit here. This — for a variety of personal reasons — might be what impresses me most these days. We take for granted the ability to form words in our head and spit them out of our mouths. But it’s a small miracle, even for those with limited vocabulary. Then there are people like Harris and Hitchens who seem not only to always have a salient point at the ready, but the effortless ability to use the right words in making it. I would argue that this form of intellect is more of the Willie Mays than Pete Rose variety. Sure, being a voracious reader and practiced public speaker helps, but there are geniuses of the first order who become tongue-tied no matter how they try to make a point. The ability to speak well and intelligently is a natural gift and great advantage in asserting one’s view. A decent argument will often beat a great one when expressed fluently and with the right words.

And finally, what’s the deal with San Francisco? I love the place and suspect I wouldn’t do well in Akron or Billings, but has there ever been a city more filled with unfriendly and weird stiffs? When I first moved to New York and was using Craig’s List extensively, somebody pointed out that even this was different in the two cities. People in San Francisco, he said, would contact you and arrange to meet or purchase something, then drop it without ever getting in touch. I thought at the time it had to be an errant observation. I was from San Francisco, after all, and would never do this. But the past few months in both cities have underlined his point both emphatically and empirically. For all its liberal posing and “community” activism, San Francisco lacks a strong sense of cohesion. Then there was “Max”, the guy who emailed multiple times to berate me for not offering enough to haul off a dismantled piece of furniture. “It costs $40 just to take something to the dump .. so what am I making here??????” (He included the six question-marks and an equal number of exclamation points elsewhere in his rant.)  I hadn’t contacted Max directly; he was responding to my posting. Instead of going on to the next one, or offering to do it for more money, he chose to lecture me. Yeah, yeah .. I know .. there are plenty of Maxes in a city like New York with eight million people. But I lived there and almost never ran into them. Or maybe it’s just that there’s a different brand of idiot in New York, and it’s more to my liking. Fortunately, a guy name Michael from the Avenues and with an Irish last name responded to my post well before Max did. He came by the place in the rain half an hour after I posted the ad and gladly hauled away my stuff, pocketing some extra cash to take an old bed frame as well. He said nothing and smoked a cigarette as we loaded the bed of his Toyota Tacoma, but offered an “Awesome – thanks” when I handed him the money and before I watched the red tail-lights fade into the damp March night. There was hope for me in and beyond his two words .. more than I could adequately explain here. Where’s Sam Harris when you need him?

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4 Comments

  1. Coleman Miller wrote:

    Harris is quite a bit drier than Hitchens, for sure. But at least we can look forward to what he has to say/write in the future. With Hitchens we’re stuck(?) with YouTube and Vanity Fair articles and God is not great, etc etc. I say ‘stuck’ but in truth, we’re blessed (hmmmmm seems like the wrong word considering) with many debates on youtube most often with a defeated looking man of the cloth at the other podium. oh well. If you’re going to push bullshit, you have to take what you get.

    Monday, March 27, 2017 at 8:39 am | Permalink
  2. admin wrote:

    Hitchens made most people who disagreed with him look foolish .. or at least disabled. I don’t think they had to be “of the cloth” as you say. He was an equal-opportunity place-putter. Harris lacks his charm and wit but he’s a capable speaker. About atheism, he says he feels it’s an unnecessary word; like having a word for those who don’t believe in astrology. Being a Cancer, I’m not sure what he’s getting at ..

    Monday, March 27, 2017 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  3. cookierojas wrote:

    I recently watched I Am Not Your Negro the doc about James Baldwin and thought the same thing about his verbal abilities. I’d kill to be that articulate on my feet, to be able to speak like that off the top of your head and to have it sound like you’d spent hours writing it, what a gift….says cookie rojas

    Thursday, April 6, 2017 at 9:02 pm | Permalink
  4. admin wrote:

    There’s a Charlie Rose interview with Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, James Fenton and Ian McEwan about Hitchens after his death. They noted that it took a while for his writing to come to full fruition .. which is notable for a guy who spoke so well. It seemed almost as though his talent was based in the extemporaneous. The charge of thinking in the moment fueled him. And he was obviously crocked or at least inebriated in many interviews but his knack for speaking eclipsed his being a “functional alcoholic.” He seemed to use booze as means or reason to redouble his focus and make his point. It was that high-wire act thing that appeared to get him off; he obviously knew that people were expecting him to say something great or at least clever and were paying full attention. You can’t get that from writing.

    Friday, April 7, 2017 at 11:17 am | Permalink

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