A departure

The offerings have been pretty sparse from these parts over the past week or so, and there’s a reason for that. Last Sunday night, Delbert Crawford, my grandfather, died at a little after 11 o’clock, at 102 years of age.

My earliest memories of him are of his hands. Holding some toy or other we were showing him, they turned it over, examining it slowly, deliberately. They were strong then, and rough, so rough that they would catch on a sweater if you were wearing one.

The morning of the day he died, I held his hand and it was as soft as a dream. A final memory.

In between there is much, too much to set down here.

But this is how it works. At a Senior PGA event the mind wandered to the accomplishments of old men. At Churchill Downs, it sprinted to him telling about riding his horse, Buck, to school, and of how the horse would take off when he had barely gotten onto him. He wanted to be a jockey for a time, but outgrew it. These are the tracks your thoughts gallop onto even when you need them to go elsewhere.

So tonight, a full stop to look back. I have written about him before in this space, particularly on his one-hundredth birthday, but also when I missed his one hundred second birthday party, and at other times.

He was born in the latter days of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency, at the tail of the horse-and-buggy era, when this country had probably fewer than twenty miles of paved roads. Several months before he was born the Wright Brothers made headlines for keeping a plane in the air for more than an hour. Several months after his birth, Commander Robert E. Peary was hailed as the first person to reach the North Pole. Six months after his birth, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened for its first race – of hot air balloons. Gas was six cents a gallon.

I have written about how my grandfather went west prospecting for gold as a young man, and worked herding sheep after that venture didn’t pan out.

What I haven’t written about is what kind of man he was, the kind of man, who, as my father, Byron Crawford, related about him in remarks at his funeral, refused a handicap parking tag when my grandmother brought up the subject after he underwent hip surgery at age 99. The kind of man who walked to the hospital the day his son was born because the snow was too deep for driving – but walked off the road, in the woods, so no one would think he needed a ride. The kind of man who, at age 97 when his wife took him to Lowe’s to pick out new kitchen linoleum, listened to the salesman talk about a floor with a 30-year guarantee, then a 20-year, before piping up and asking, “Do you have any with a 5-year guarantee?”

On his next-to-last night, I went back back to the house with my grandmother, Lucille Crawford, his wife of 67 years who truly is the major reason he enjoyed such longevity, and who attended him virtually round-the-clock in his final years. She pulled off a shelf his dictionary, and I leafed through it. It was worn with a duct-tape spine. He would spend hours trying to work “Scramble” word puzzles out of the newspaper, and had placed a mark next to every word he ever looked up. He wrote lists on pages, as if putting down markers for his memory – a list of places he’d lived and worked in Arizona and New Mexico. A list of his brothers and sisters, with numerals beside each name to mark their birth order. The names of great-grandchildren and the spouses of grandchildren.

After he died, my dad fished out a number of notes and letters his father had written to him after he took a job writing for the newspaper, long, thoughtful pages from those same hands.

I won’t be able to quote my dad exactly, and I wonder even if he remembers the exact words he said at the funeral service, except to note that these pages, just days before, had been mere thoughts Delbert Crawford had written down. But today, for us, they are treasures.

In his last days, he had trouble communicating at times, struggling to form the words. Who would have thought in death he would speak so eloquently?

I’m afraid there’s no tidy conclusion here, just a period on the sentence. As a young man, he worked in a movie theater, and said those cowboy movies helped inspire him to head west toward adventure, that trek in a Model-T Ford to search for gold, and later to herd sheep on the southern fringe of the Rocky Mountains. He told of getting lost one day, and of getting plenty nervous until he dropped the reins and let his burro go where it wanted – which was right back to camp. Among the slips of paper we read after he died was one that said the cowboy life was probably best suited to those who grew up with it, not those who chose it for the romance or adventure. Regardless, having lived all that life out west seemed to offer him, Delbert wound up taking a bus back to Kentucky from California

In those last days, I thought about him on that burro. It seemed to me that having lived all that life had for him, he packed up his tired tent of a body, laid down the reins and went on back home.

But as with his dictionary, where the marks of his hands show where he had been, he marked the trail of his long life with enduring expression and a postscript of memories.

While the poet slept . . .

Another brief retreat from the world of sport.

Last year I spoke to a college writing class and, perhaps unsuccessfully, tried to relate to its students the relevance of poetry in their lives. It can be present, I told them, in the lyrics from their iPods or the taps of their Twitter posts. I told them at some time or other they will find themselves needing to say something important, to answer a question, to offer advice to someone, to say the right thing, to a child, to a friend, a spouse, to someone they’ve fallen in love with, to anyone, and in that moment they will want to be a poet, to say something that can be held, remembered, appreciated, something with meaning beyond its words.

But I don’t think anything quite got their attention like one little story, of a farmer and poet who decided several years ago to let it be known that he was fed up with the choices for governor and that he simply wasn’t voting in the primary out of protest.

We all know people who don’t vote. But when this man, Wendell Berry, said he was sitting an election out, people fretted. Many were upset. Even some who understood were upset. They wrote letters to the newspaper editor. They talked about it on the radio.

One missing vote out of millions, yet it mattered. Hands went up. Why such a big deal?

Why, indeed? It’s 2011. Everyone has a blog. What can an old fellow without an i-Anything or a Facebook account say that should stop a state to pause and think? It was a big deal, I told them, because of the voice he has become and, yes, the life he has lived but more even than that, because of  the words he has sewn.

You never know how much weight your words can carry until you hang all your mind and heart on them, particularly when they are rooted to where you stand.

Last night, the writer, poet and farmer from Henry County slept on the floor outside the Kentucky governor’s office with a handful of others as part of a protest of mountaintop removal for coal mining.

I’m not going to talk about coal. Berry and his companions are far more effective voices on their own behalf, and the governor has no trouble laying out the other side. The coal debate has plenty of fuel.

I want to gather around another fire, this notion that Berry, and Kentucky authors Silas House, Erik Reece and others, could wander into the governor’s office, ask to speak about something, and touch off a debate.

I work for a newspaper. “Print is dead,” I hear almost daily. The words I write are not even called by their name, but have been given the label “content,” as if they were toothpaste or flour or any other substance that fills a container.

“Print is dead” they tell me, and it is hard to argue given the mounting cultural evidence, even the financial realities. It’s easy to forget, in fact, that there are realities even beyond those.

I don’t know who will win in the final analysis in Mr. Berry’s attempt at a dignified dialogue. But it is evidence of something else, in any event: Regardless of whether print is dead, words are not.

A farmer-poet goes to the governor’s office talks, sits, sleeps, pulls out a copy of “The Tempest” and reads, and a state turns its head and eyes, if only for a moment, though one would hope for longer.

Wrote Shakespeare, in that very play:

Faith, sir, you need not fear. When we were boys,
Who would believe that there were mountaineers
Dew-lapp’d like bulls, whose throats had hanging at ’em
Wallets of flesh? or that there were such men
Whose heads stood in their breasts? which now we find
Each putter-out of five for one will bring us
Good warrant of.

And, perhaps, a few more words, these by a Kentuckian, who took up the subject of a mountain, and trying to see clearly. From Robert Penn Warren:

In the Mountains

II. Fog [A]

White, white, luminous but
Blind — fog on the
Mountain, and the mountains

Gone, they are not here,
And the sky gone. My foot
Is set on what I

Do not see. Light rises
From the cold incandescence of snow
Not seen, and the world, in blindness,

Glows. Distance is
Obscenity. All, all
Is here, no other where.

The heart, in this silence, beats.

For more updates on this continuing story, see Kentucky Rising and The Courier-Journal.

Planes, trains (of thought) and automobiles

I missed my grandfather’s 102nd birthday celebration on Sunday because of mechanical problems on an airplane in Providence, R.I.

There was, in that, a fleeting shadow of the transcendental.

When my grandfather was born, there was no such thing as a commercial airplane flight. The Wright Brothers, in fact, were not only alive and kicking, but working for the U.S. military.

The first Wright Brothers’ airplanes did not need batteries once the ignition was triggered. Not so for the Embraer MD-88. The one scheduled to start my trip home had dead batteries at 6 a.m. And, apparently, it takes 5 hours for Delta to rectify such a situation.

In this case, we were informed, the delay came in needing to send to just outside Boston, near Concord, Mass., 60 miles away, for the replacement batteries. What they neglected to tell us was that word was sent to Boston via bicycle messenger, and the batteries transported to Providence by none other than Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz at a lilting walk.

Had Paul Revere taken so long, the British already would have come.

Unless they had booked on Delta.

* * *

In the air, these lines, from The New Yorker:

“The company (AOL) still gets eighty percent of its profits from subscribers, many of whom are older people who have cable or DSL service but don’t realize that they need not pay an additional twenty five dollars a month to get online and check their email.” (Annals of Communication, by Ken Auletta, Jan. 24, 2011, p. 32.)

So here we have a major American communications company afloat only through the ignorance or laziness of the public.

Sounds about right.  But eighty percent of its profits from people who don’t realize they don’t need the service?

Let us call to mind a former Concord resident, Henry David Thoreau, who said, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford that he does not need.”

No, wait. That quotation has been doctored. But I can hardly be blamed. Via email just before Christmas, I received an urgent communication from the online store at Walden Pond that I could still order in time for holiday shipping.

I surveyed the merchandise and felt rich, indeed. I could afford to let it alone.

* * *

I should not be too hard on AOL. I work for a company whose flagship paper, USA Today, derived half its daily circulation as of April 2009 from major hotel chains. I don’t know which is more discomforting — depending for survival on the oblivious inertia of the American consumer, or on an item he steps over on his way to a continental breakfast.

* * *

A final stop, from wandering thoughts to cogent. Robert Lowell. Out of a group titled Mexico. Let’s let him tie things together:


South of Boston, south of Washington,
south of any bearing . . . I walked the glazed moonlight:
dew on the grass and nobody about,
drawn on by my unlimited desire,
like a bull with a ring in his nose, a chain in the ring. . .  .
We moved far, bill and cow, could one imagine
cattle obliviously pairing six long days:
up road and down, then up again passing the same
brick garden wall, stiff spines of hay stuck in my hide;
and always in full sight of everyone,
from the full sun to silhouetting sunset,
pinned by undimming lights of hurried cars. . . .
You’re gone; I am learning to live in history.
What is history? What you cannot touch.

Footprints of a wandering mind

I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions. In fact, I don’t make them. I intended to make an exception this year when a local magazine asked me to submit a few, and I did take a thoughtful stab at it, but to no good purpose. I am, it seems, resolute, in my anti-resolution stance.

My recent resolve has nothing to do with New Year’s. I have been trying lately to pay attention to where my mind is going when it wanders, and to focus less on bringing it back to where I want it than in following to see where it goes. Often it goes back. Sometimes it goes nowhere. In the absence of other things, you will find some of its wanderings here. As in the following . . .

* * *

Something got loose in the dishwasher last night. It was beating in time with the machine, a deep thump against the waterproof wall, like a primitive rainforest drum pounding out a prayer.

No, I wasn’t under the influence when, for a flash, I pictured the dishes dancing inside, spoons splashing.

There is a tribal tendency in all of us to return to some kind of roots, or to be taken away at a moment’s notice.

I have taken to running the same route every evening, so as to pass, purposefully, the same honeysuckle bush by the side of the road, out of place against the approaching strip malls, even though in the wintertime its scent stays hidden. Still, in warmer months, I made out the following beat in my footsteps:

Honeysuckle by the highway
one hundred paces past the
coin car wash, two hundred sixty
from the drug store sign,
halfway between
Home Depot and home,
between zero and sixty, its
fragrance drawn out by the draft
of sport-utility distractions.
In the driver’s seat, head bumping
the truck ceiling, my father’s lap,
his foot on the pedals, steering wheel
knob in my hand, jerking away
with each new dip of meadow,
he climbs out to unchain a gate.
I turn the knob on a broken radio,
skipping past silent stations,
the straight orange tuner unmoving,
like the haggard heifer, rolling her eyes
while I wait in the summer scent
of gasoline, of manure, of grass,
of tobacco, of honeysuckle.

* * *

I don’t like poems where you wind up where you started, so there’s a problem with that little set of lines. But that tends to happen when you wander. You take off to run three miles and wind up going back 35 years.

Christmas recollection: Santa Scores

I usually try to post a little extra on here at Christmastime, but haven’t gotten around to it this year. So to kick things off, this column I wrote in the Christmas Eve, 2007, edition of The Courier-Journal


Dec. 24, 2007

Dear Santa,

I’ve not written you for a long while, I know.

I’m only writing now because I should have written this long ago, but didn’t.

It’s been 30 years since you brought me the best Christmas gift I ever received. Maybe you remember it. It was the only thing I asked for that year a Dallas Cowboys football helmet.

You must get this a lot, Santa. Everybody has one gift they remember more than the others. We all have our own “Red Rider B.B. gun” stories.

I wish I could tell you what it felt like to see the helmet under the tree that Christmas morning, but I can’t. I don’t remember. That’s all right. It holds other memories that are far more important.

It couldn’t have been an easy gift to find. Back then, the NFL didn’t have replica merchandise. The only people wearing Cowboys football helmets were the Cowboys.

The year Santa worked overtime

But I didn’t know the real story behind it until another Christmas, 23 years ago, when in the pages of this newspaper my father wrote about how hard it had been for you to locate that gift. The long-distance phone calls to Chicago, and then Dallas. The fretting over finding it. The worrying over whether it could be found at all.

Way out where we lived, there weren’t many kids to play football with. In fact, about the only one my age was a couple of miles down the road, and she wasn’t really into football and was probably faster than me, anyway. But what I lacked in competition I made up for in room to roam.

On football fall days, I’d take off to yard or field and somehow manage to play all 22 positions plus special teams by myself. I’d save my biggest plays for when the wind would whip the turning leaves into a roar. They were my applause. I kicked the extra points over an electric wire attached to the house.

I didn’t want a real audience, but once in a while somebody would remark to my parents at seeing me diving and falling, making passes to myself in the yard.

When it was too cold, I’d line up under center above the family room couch, Roger Staubach about to hand off to Robert Newhouse for a short-yardage dive.

I played on real basketball and baseball teams, but football, Santa, was always a game in my head, a game of image and of words.

I don’t suppose I’d be writing this if I hadn’t been out in the garage yesterday looking for a place to hide a present. And there, in the floorboard of a battery-powered Hummer, sat the old helmet. There was a T-ball glove next to it, and up on the seats were a Wiffle Ball bat, a pair of roller skates and a tackle box that had been converted into a motor pool for a fleet of toy Army vehicles.

From time to time through the year the helmet will come charging at me on the heads of one of my sons, and I will remember those afternoons when I was the only game in town.

But more than that, I will remember the Santa who loved me like a son.

The gift of lasting memories

It was a gift that gave both of us more than we ever suspected, and I’m not just talking about newspaper columns though those are no small things in themselves sometimes.

Sports has changed since then, Santa. You wouldn’t believe. But I’d like to thank you this Christmas Eve, and I know a lot of other folks would too, for similar gifts they remember. People like us are thankful that, despite it all, sports can still be about more than winning and losing and controversy.

They still can be about families and memories that burn long after the lights on scoreboards and Christmas trees have gone out.

Byron Crawford's "Kentucky Footnotes"

The book, as they say, has dropped. Well, at least it has dropped into the lap of its author, and soon will be available to the public, including folks who attend the Kentucky Book Fair on Saturday, Nov. 13, at the Frankfort Convention Center. (The fair runs from 9 to 4:30, admission is free.)

Byron Crawford’s Kentucky Footnotes, published by Acclaim Press, is his third collection of columns from The Courier-Journal. You’ll be reading more about it in the coming weeks, and I’m hardly an unbiased reviewer, but I will share with you the best introduction to the book that I can provide, which is the one I wrote as the book’s Foreword.

For those who do their shopping online, you can order the book at this link.


When I first went to work for The Courier-Journal as a clerk in 1992, it wasn’t unusual to have people wander up to me and say, “I’ve worked here for years, but I’ve never met your father.”

Indeed, The Courier-Journal building at Sixth and Broadway in Louisville never was a good place to look for Byron Crawford. He never had a desk there. You were better off heading out of town, finding a little general store somewhere off the main road and asking if they’d seen him. Chances are it hadn’t been too long since they had.

In 1979, Barry Bingham Jr. installed him as the paper’s Kentucky columnist with a great commission — to go therefore into the hills and hollows, the forgotten corners and favorite haunts of his home state, and write about his fellow Kentuckians in his own voice, which was also theirs.

For nearly thirty years, he took his readers into places they lived, or never would have gone. Some days he carried them back in time to a Kentucky as it used to be, or would not continue to be for long. Some mornings, if they were lucky, instead of mountains he would walk them through memories, or his own reflections.

He strived to give his subjects center stage and was reluctant to turn the column toward himself. Yet in compilations like this one, now his third collection of pieces from The Courier-Journal to be published, it is hard to miss his unmistakable voice, his sense of a story told right, his feel for expressing the essence of his subjects.

These pieces do tell us something about him. But perhaps they tell me something more. Growing up, I watched him labor over columns on an evolving series of machines, big bulky computers with screens no bigger than today’s smart phones, lugging them out to the truck for another run through the state.

And I watched him later, when we wrote for the same paper, work with the same effort and care. Most of these stories did not shout from the front page of the newspaper, though some did. But he brought front-page dedication to each one.

I know what his work has meant to the state, if only because one by one, people tell me now and again about the time he came to interview a family member, and how they still talk about that day, or have framed the column, or read a portion of it at the funeral of someone he wrote about. He wondered what the interest would be in another collection of columns. I told him if only his friends bought the book, it could take him through two or three printings. Of course, the appeal of his stories is much wider. They’ve been used in schools and college writing courses, and a while back I even heard of one of his books being used to teach English to students in Greece.

Truly, you never know where his stories will take you, or where they might wind up. I suppose my best lesson in his eye for a story came a couple of years ago. He called me to ask about a member of the University of Louisville football marching band who my mother had seen playing his trumpet from a wheelchair. I told him I didn’t know, that I never watched the halftime show.

While I was focused on writing about what I thought was big news, nationally televised football games, I missed something that he was instinctively drawn to. He called several times to ask me if I was sure I didn’t want to do that story, but I passed.

Shortly after he wrote his column about blind trumpet player Patrick Henry Hughes and the moving story of his father, who not only pushed him through band practice and performances, but to every class, Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly graciously emailed my dad to ask if he could take a crack at writing it, too.

Soon, Hughes was on the national morning shows, and then the Oprah Winfrey Show. His story culminated in the network program Extreme Home Makeover completely re-doing the Hughes family’s house, and millions of Americans were touched by this tale that was told first in The Courier-Journal, by its one writer who saw the value in such stories the most and told them best.

It was an inspiration for many. For me, it was one more example of dad taking a small story and doing big things.

In the following pages, you’ll see what I mean.

A brief political interlude

Heading from a "Coffin Handbill" circulated against presidential candidate Andrew Jackson.

Off the field again, in another rare non-sports, non-newspaper foray into the real world.

Sometimes when you’re a sportswriter, you watch what’s going on around you in “real” life and realize that the biggest games are nowhere near a playing field.

The NFL, for instance, is all up in arms over the subject of head injuries. Meanwhile, some activist woman gets her head stepped on while making a pass rush on a Senate candidate in Kentucky. So, in fact, it appears that your skull might well have been safer on a professional football field than outside a political debate last week.

Every time the election ad season rolls around, I wish I had one of those really deep voices that oozes indignation, you know the ones they use for voiceovers in political attack ads: “We all need air to breathe, but John Candidate (mock disbelief) wants to deny air to senior citizens. Our seniors can’t afford John Candidate. That’s why the Daily Megaphone called John Candidate a ‘worthless sack of #*$*&.’ No air, no way (mock disgust). Tell John Candidate to blow it up his *$$.”

But some time ago I stopped lamenting the rancor of the process. In fact, I’m proposing stricter debate formats that limit, say, U.S. Senate candidates to nothing but, “Your momma” insults.

Let’s take the current Kentucky race between Republican Rand Paul and Democrat Jack Conway. It might sound something like this:

Conway: Your momma’s so stupid she put paper on the television set and called it paper view.
Paul: Your momma’s so stupid when they told her it was chilly outside she ran out with a spoon.
Conway:Your momma’s so poor when I rang her doorbell, SHE said “Ding dong.”
Paul: Your momma’s so fat when she goes to the movies, she sits next to EVERYBODY.

Etc. Etc. Now you may ask, what has any of that kind of talk to do with the important issues of the day? To which I answer — about as much as anything you’ll hear in a current political debate.

It’s like this — in this Internet age of public revelation and exposure, to run for political office is very much akin to those crazy couples who used to go on the Jerry Springer show. They’re sitting there in those chairs, but you know the ex-girlfriend (or current girlfriend) is waiting just off stage. In American politics today, the boogeyman is always in the wings.

In Delaware, a female senate candidate just had some dude come forward to tell about a Halloween hook-up last year. In Kentucky, we’re hearing about college pranks.

And it’s all predicated on the same theme, the theme of every campaign being run in America today. And that theme, in short, is this: “My opponent is the worst person in the world. Ever. No, really. The literal worst person. I’m not exaggerating. Don’t look at me that way. Evil. EEE-ville.”

It is discouraging. But not because the tone of the discourse is negative. It is discouraging for me because it is unoriginal. We’ve been around a long time in this country, and yet, our political attacks have really not evolved nor kept pace with technology.

Return with me to 1828. Andrew Jackson was running for President of the United States against John Quincy Adams. This country was so young that it still had that new Constitution smell.

But these guys hated each other. Jackson had won a plurality of electoral votes in the election four years earlier, but lost the election when it swung into the House of Representatives and speaker Henry Clay supported Adams and helped swing the vote to him in that body. Several days later, Adams named Clay Secretary of State, and Jackson went ballistic.

Adams’ forces attacked Jackson as an adulterer. Jackson had married his wife, Rachel, thinking she was divorced, but the papers were not yet finalized and he had to re-marry her once the papers were complete. They also labeled Jackson a murderer for his part in court martialing and executing U.S. Army deserters, for his well-publicized duels and for his attacks on Indian villages. They produced the famous “Coffin Handbills,” some of the the first well-organized attack ads in American politics, which detailed these killings with six coffins printed across the page.

They also put out this charming little pamphlet with a catchy title: “Catalogue of General Jackson’s Youthful Indiscretions between the Age of Twenty-three and Sixty.” In it were listed all of Jackson’s supposed fights and duels. It reported him to be an adulterer, gambler, cockfighter, slave-trader, drunk, thief and liar. It also claimed that his wife was too fat.

Jackson fought back. Seizing on Adams’ time as ambassador to Russia, he accused Adams of giving his wife’s servant to the Czar for unwholesome purposes. Adams had introduced the young lady to the Czar, but that was as far as it went. Didn’t matter. The charge of “pimp” was promulgated. When Adams bought a billiard table and chess set for the White House, Jackson accused him of bringing in a “gaming table and gaming furniture.”

The attacks on Jackson’s wife Rachel were especially severe. She was called a whore and a dirty wench. The Cincinnati Gazette asked, “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband be placed in the highest office of this free Christian land?”

As happens sometimes, the negative ads had little effect. Jackson won the presidency.

Shortly after the election, before her husband even was sworn in, Rachel Jackson died of a heart attack. Andrew Jackson always believed that the stress of that campaign killed her. I don’t doubt it.

But the stress of election season shouldn’t get the better of us. If anything, the 1828 election shows us that we’ve been slinging mud for a long time, and frankly, much more skillfully and artfully than the ham-handed productions we see today.

No, it’s not the anger or spite or uncivil tone of our campaigns that will get us in the end. It’s incompetence, greed and ignorance. In other words, it’s one thing to talk like an idiot on the stump. It’s another to govern like one.

Book Report: What I'm reading

I walk into bookstores and know that I should welcome the “Nook” and other e-reading devices that stop you just a few feet inside the door; and I definitely know the newspaper industry should be embracing that technology, wherein consumers are already used to paying for content.

But I can’t see myself ever using one of them, unless I went back to school and just needed a way of keeping 15 or 20 books in one place for an extended period.

Then again, I’ve had more than my share of back problems from carrying books around on trips to cover some game or another.  Anyway, I hear people ask each other, “What are you reading?” more often now than I probably ever have, so with my nod to the Nooks, and Kindles, and whatever else is out there, here’s a quick look at what I’ve been reading. (Only mentioning the stuff I like, and bear in mind there is no method to my selection of stuff to read. I grab what I think will be good. Sometimes I’m right.)

1. The Thousand Autums of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell. Probably my favorite work of fiction over the past several years. Fans of Mitchell, an almost unfairly talented writer and storyteller, might be disappointed in his more conventional approach here, but this is a good, old-fashioned story, expertly told. It is set in a Dutch trading colony off the coast of Nagasaki in 1799, thereby taking readers to a time and place with which most have no familiarity. It’s the book I have recommended most this year.

2. The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk. I was a little late reading this one, but it was worth waiting for. Pamuk, even in translation, is extremely rich. Here, he takes on the subject of an engaged Turkish man who falls in love with a young distant relation. The echos of Nabokov are unmistakable, and if you enjoy Nabokov, never a bad thing.

3. Henry Clay: The Essential American, by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler. This is a major piece of work, and I must admit I’m just about three-quarters of the way through it. But I didn’t have to get that far to tell that this was an exhaustive work of research, complimented by writers of high narrative power. Probably the most groundbreaking part of this work is its portrayal of Clay’s wife Lucretia, whom I had never read about in such detail. I daresay this will come to be known as the definitive Clay work, and must-reading for any Kentuckian who wishes to truly know about the state’s most influential political mind and life.

4. The Fiddler in the Subway, by Gene Weingarten. The two-time Pultizer Prize-winning feature writer for The Washington Post collects some of his best pieces in this book, which I had to do some searching to find in Louisville (no, I didn’t want to give in and order it online). I finally found it at a Borders, mis-stocked in the Fiction shelves. It’s easy to understand. Weingarten’s stories are crafted like good fiction — though they’re wonderfully real. The title story, a Pulitzer winner, is well-known, about a concert violinist who agrees to play in a subway terminal just to see who notices. But Weingarten also includes his favorite piece, “The Great Zucchini,” the story of a children’s party entertainer that goes much deeper than his act. I like reading how really good newspaper pieces are put together, and this book could be a primer on newspaper narrative and storytelling.

5. Mentor: A Memoir, by Tom Grimes. This autobiographical work is a tribute to Pat Conroy, whose friendship with the author dates back through their teacher-student relationship in the Iowa Writers Workshop. It not only provides a warm and insightful look at Conroy, but a bit of an inside look at one of the most influential writing programs in the U.S.

6. The Poetry Lesson, by Andrei Codrescu. This little novel takes the reader through the first day of a creative writing course through the eyes of its all-over-the-board professor. Just one excerpt. Here, he lists for his students …


1. Mishearing
2. Misunderstanding
3. Mistranslating
4. Mismanaging
5. Mislaying
6. Misreading
7. Misappropriating cliches
8. Misplacing objects belonging to roommates or lovers
9. Misguided thoughts at inappropriate times, funerals, etc.
10. Mississippi (the river)

7. Late Wife, by Claudia Emerson. Haven’t read much poetry recently, but this tiny volume carries some heavy subjects, and was a winner of The Pulitzer Prize. Late Wife is an autobiographical portrait of her marriages, the first as it dissolved, and the second to a man who had list his first wife three years prior. Those subjects would be easy to take over the top. Emerson takes them places you don’t expect her to. One of the shorter poems:


It was fifty cents a game
beneath exhausted ceiling fans

The smoke’s old spiral. Hooded lights
burned distant, dull. I was tired but you

insisted on one more, so I chalked
the cue — the bored blue — broke, scratched.

It was always possible
for you to run the table, leave me

nothing. But I recall the easy
shot you missed, and then the way

we both studied, circling — keeping
what you had left me between us.


Sports books

Just a few sports titles, all of them anthologies:

1. The Only Game in Town: Sportswriting From The New Yorker. I like to think of David Remnick penciling in the order of these pieces the way a manager would fill out a lineup card. No surprise, he has Roger Angell leading off, then A.J. Liebling followed by the ever-versatile John Updike. But batting cleanup he brings in film critic Anthony Lane, and that signals that this is no ordinary collection of sports writings. It is rich and varied, and well worth the time. My only complaint is that Remnick did not call his own number at least once. His biography of Muhammad Ali is one of the best, and it would’ve been nice to see him step up to the plate at least once.

2. Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper’s Magazine. As big a fan as I am of The New Yorker, I have to confess that I enjoyed this compilation more. It leads off with a fantastic 1968 piece from Tom Cartwright titled, “Confessions of a Washed-Up Sportswriter,” then follows with the great George Plimpton. By the time you’re finished you’ve heard from Tom Wolfe, Rich Cohen, Shirley Jackson and Mark Twain.

3. Sports Illustrated: Great Baseball Writing. The SI collection of Fifty Years of Great Sportswriting is the one in this series to have, but baseball lends itself to the written word, and this collection is everything you’d expect: Frank DeFord, Plimpton, Steve Rushin, Roy Blount Jr., Gary Smith, Bill Nack, Rick Telander, Tom Verducci, Rick Reilly, Roger Kahn and even the poet Robert Frost.

Lanyard ho! Buses taking education for a ride

Another of my rare, non-scheduled and non-newspaper forays into the land of local news:

It was the first day of public school here in Possibility City, and the kiddos learned a new vocabulary word:

Lanyard: noun, a cord passed around the neck, shoulder or wrist for holding a knife, whistle, or similar object. Origin: From the Middle English for “short length of rope.” Usage: By placing bus assignments on lanyards to be worn by students, school officials proved once again that, given even a short length of rope, they will hang themselves.

When I heard that the local district was hanging its bus-plan hopes from strips of nylon around the necks of its pupils, I could not avoid a bus ride down memory lane.

There on the hot plastic seats of history where the smell of prepubescent armpits mingled with the occasional waft of flatulence, I concluded the following: Had they provided lanyards to my crowd during our elementary heydays, someone would have wound up a). bound; b). lanyard-whipped; c). killed by strangulation, or some combination of the three, within the first week of the policy, provided all of us didn’t lose our lanyards at home after the first day, which would have been a distinct possibility.

I must admit, the thought of thousands of elementary children walking around like little groupies with back-stage passes brought a smile to my face. But that was only until I started to see news reports that the new bus plan was losing children faster than Britney Spears pre-rehab.

A dozen kids didn’t get home until after 9 p.m., too late to catch the beginning of the live 2-hour edition of “America’s Got Talent.” Not that it mattered. They got to be a part of their own reality show: “America’s Got No Brains.”

The following items were actually part of the opening-day activity in elementary schools:

— An instructional video on how to ride the bus, wherein students watched “Mandy” get in line, get on and off the bus.

— A dry-run of the bus line-up procedure in lieu of recess. (Tomorrow, reportedly they will practice lunch.)

Welcome to Possibility City, where our kids study the three “R’s” — Reading, Riding, and ‘Rithmetic — where anything is possible, even your child getting home from school in time for supper. It has gotten this bad – high school students are so embarrassed by the bus performance that they are asking drivers to let them off a block away from school.

Granted, I don’t remember everything about my grade school days. I’m pretty sure we never had to use class time to talk about how to ride the bus. But those were simpler days, before a bus ride home required more transfers than a coast-to-coast Greyhound trek.

Which brings us to the serious root of all this.

On the first day of school, the center of everything — from administration to instruction to media coverage — has been on transportation, not education. When this much time, effort, money and attention is expended on the lone job of getting students to and from school, someone needs to blow a whistle.

Busing, desegregation and diversity are hot-button topics that churn up long-held and deep-seeded emotions. But at some point, emotion must give way to evaluation. At some point, historical heft must be weighed against the experiences and best interests of children today. At some point, people need to be given an explanation of why this very costly way of doing things is the best way, and if it is, why it has not yielded better results in four decades. Where are the success stories? Where is the data?

Proponents contend that it’s about giving those in low-income or some inner-city schools which traditionally have had fewer resources and success a chance to go to better schools. They argue that it ensures that student bodies are culturally diverse, which most of us would agree is a good thing, though there is little evidence to show that it brings a learning advantage to anyone.

No one is arguing to turn back the clock to separate but equal. Separate was not equal. But we’re finding, together is not equal either, not in many cases.

I keep coming back to the kid who has to climb those bus steps before 6. To the first- and second-graders riding 20 minutes to a bus depot, then having to change buses and do it all over again. Twice a day. To the working parents from lower or middle income families who would like to get involved with their child’s school but can’t because it is across town. To the kid who wants to play a sport or take part in an after-school activity, but must arrange a ride back across town when it is over, sometimes by city bus.

And finally, I keep coming back to the expense of all this — expense that could be used for teachers or instruction materials in schools that don’t even have enough books for every student. Is the benefit worth the cost? And when we can pay for more buses but not for enough books, what does it say about our priorities?

Unfortunately, it’s not just on the bus that some of our children are being taken for a ride.

UPDATE: The district superintendent, promising “swift action,” today suspended with pay two elementary principals whose buses had particularly poor first-day performance. Neither, however, appeared overly concerned about being thrown under the proverbial bus, figuring it would be very late anyway, if it even showed up at all.

After the flood

Floods come in different depths and types. This one came from the water heater.

The water rose maybe an inch, then receded into the carpet.

My office was the least-damaged of the basement rooms. Still, today my job on the first day of vacation was to empty it, which meant the evacuation of hundreds of books from their shelves to uncertain stacks in the hallway.

I wasn’t going to write anything on vacation, then I walked down tonight and saw them standing against the wall, waiting as if in a bus station or airport terminal.

What happens when you have to move your books is that you run into people you did not expect to run into. Paul Guest, a poet who is paralyzed, sits in my hands. I haven’t seen him in ages. But here he is with a long, lightning-rod of a sentence that halts the cleanup effort, at the beginning of a poem titled, “User’s Guide to Physical Debilitation.”

Should the painful condition of irreversible paralysis
last longer than forever or at least until
your death by bowling ball or illegal lawn dart
or the culture of death, which really has it out
for whoever has seen better days
but still enjoys bruising marathons of bird watching,
you, or your beleaguered caregiver
stirring dark witch’s brews of resentment
inside what had been her happy life,
should turn to page seven where you can learn,
assuming higher cognitive functions
were not pureed by your selfish misfortune,
how to leave the house for the first time in two years.

But I can’t go to page seven. I am amazed at how many of my notebooks stop when they are three-quarters full. What does that say about me? And then here’s Walt Whitman, “Specimen Days & Collect,” or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up,” and what business do they have writing better in their notebooks than most people do for show?

Whitman was a newspaperman first. So was Hemingway. That he went undamaged by the waters should be understood. And on another shelf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Somewhere on my desk is a newspaper lead he wrote for El Ecspectador, a Colombian newspaper, in a series about a disease-ridden part of the country. Yes, here it is, “Several years ago a ghostly, glassy-looking man, with a big stomach as taut as a drum, came to a doctor’s office in the city. He said, ‘Doctor, I have come to have you remove a monkey that was put in my belly.'”

That’s a lead.

My daughter, Katie, just the other night was looking at my high school yearbook and saying, “You look funny.” I pick it up now and flip over a few pages to my friend Bill Nelson, who is battling cancer in brain and lungs and God knows where else. Doctors told him his chances were less than ten percent a couple of weeks ago. Try anyway, he told them. He wants to live. I look at his picture and pray for him.

We all look so small in our little yearbook photos. I felt so small then. So many big rooms.

Now, in this small office, I do not feel small. I like little rooms. What does that mean?

I think of New York City hotel rooms, the tiny ones. The Mansfield Hotel, that’s the last one I stayed in. A beautiful place. It was a couple of doors down from the original New Yorker offices, and I liked to think about E.B. White and Co. walking down the sidewalk to work.

In the 1950s, an impeccably dressed man named Maz von Gurach lived in the hotel. Some people think he was the model for Jay Gatsby, used by the aforementioned F. Scott Fitzgerald. Also a painter visited there named John Butler Yeats, whose son, William Butler, was just about to start cranking out some of his best poetry in Ireland.

Yeats (W.B.) is here too, but I’ll be damned if I can find him.

The goal on vacation is not to think much about sports, and certainly not to write about them. But every Monday night at 8 o’clock or so, I go on a local radio sports talk program. Tonight we talked about Tiger Woods. Just a day ago, as a sports columnist, I wrote about Tiger, and said that he needs to adjust his game to his age, to evolve the way the great ones do, whatever that means (and only the great ones really can understand it). But tonight as I talked about him, not so much as a sports columnist but as a guy surrounded by all these impatient books, I felt a voice inside me saying, “Just leave him alone. Let him figure it out.”

Those voices don’t talk too loudly when deadline is approaching and you need a topic. The one thing that pops into my head as I hang up the phone and go back to cleaning the office is that the new home he’s building in Florida is 9,700 square feet. Who needs that much space? His kids could visit and need two days to find him. That’d be my advice to Tiger. Get yourself a smaller room.

The news on the radio says that BP has capped its gushing undersea oil well, but that now the fear is that oil could begin to seep up through the ocean floor. Which sounds about right. There’s always something else. I’ll probably pull up this carpet to find mold. And even once the mold is scrubbed, something will emerge. I’m pretty sure the water heater’s leaking again.

Paul Guest has written a great opening line in his poem, “Audio Commentary Track 2.” It begins: “As you can already see, everything is f- -ked.”

He may know something. His shelf was awfully close to the carpet.