• Robert Birnbaum

I got ramblin', I've got ramblin' on my mind...

Updated: Dec 14, 2018

I have had trepidations about going out in public, as I am without a "I voted "sticker. The new found enthusiasm for a basic element of citizenship puts me in mind of Edmund Burke's counsel, "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little." My hope is that now that many Americans have done this little bit, that perhaps they may do a little more...

Before manifold literary sites and various clattering opining and self congratulating outposts festoon the ]infosh*tstream] with their year-end lists , I am thinking to presume to create a list of the most important books of this calendar year (subject to capricious alteration the next 6 weeks or so. And by 'importan't, I mean capable of altering one's view of the world or adding to a greater understanding ...

The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism by Howard Bryant

Howard Bryant skillfully points out the links that culminated in Colin Kaepernick's respectful dissidence, going back to the mid 20th century — reminding us of Jackie Robinson. And Paul Robeson, Olympians Tommy Smith and John Carlos, Curt Flood, Mohammed Ali, Arthur Ashe. and Craig Hodges. As Albert Einstein correctly understood, progress is made because we stand on the shoulders of angels.

John Carlos and TommySmith , Mexico City 1968

The Overstory: A Novel by Richard Powers

Richard Powers' twelfth novel is transformative —you will not look at trees and the natural world with the same eyes after reading it. Power's has always skillfully employed real science in his fiction but he knows enough to wrap that science in a good story. In this case, 7 diverse and quirky characters form an ensemble that tell this enthralling story. One of the characters is a psychologist, who dedicates his life to trying to understand “the personality factors that make it possible for some individuals to wonder how everyone can be so blind.” "Who’s crazier," he asks, "those protesters camping on top of a doomed redwood or the mass of consumers ignoring the flames of their only planet?"

“All good stories,” Powers writes, “kill you a little. They turn you into something you weren’t.”

The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis

"Journalism largely consists in saying 'Lord Jones Dead' to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive."G.K.Chesterton

Michael Lewis is one of the best reporters and storytellers (and reporters) practicing journalism today ( well, with Erik Larson, Tony Horowitz, Mary Roach). The fact that three money making films (MoneyBall, The Blind Side, and The Big Short ) are based on his books, has contributed somewhat to his name recognition and yet he is still overshadowed by the flatulence of Thomas Friedman and Bob Woodward. Lewis's latest opus, The Fifth Risk, exhibits most of his narrative strengths . He examines a group of legitimate dedicated public servants in the Departments of Commerce, Agriculture and Energy who have critical responsibilities like overseeing nuclear waste, school lunch programs and food stamps, the dispersal of funds for local initiatives in distressed communities, the collection of meteorological data (hurricanes and tornados) and so on. All very important work, And of course there is well reported facts of the Trump regime's indifference to real job of government. Reportedly the Obamas who have a deal with Netflix had garnered the rights to The Fifth Risk. Which is a modicum of god news...

Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution by Ben Fountain

Ben Fountain, is the author of a prize wing story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara: and a novel Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk ,( the textual basis of the film of the same name)— a story notable for raising the issue of the militarization of professional sports,

His new book, Beautiful Country Burn Again (thank poet Robinson Jeffers for this title), splendid (creative) non fiction is a welcome return to original and thoughtful presidential campaign coverage by someone who is not one of 'the boys on the bus'—a sober but acute tip toeing on the 2016 campaign trail ( a genre pioneered by the one and only, Hunter Thompson). Undoubtedly Fountain is angry, yet able to proffer a necessary quotient of humor, “Fear is the herpes of American politics. The symptoms bloom and fade, but the virus never dies.”   

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by Michael Pollan

The prosaic title suggests another smarmy self help book until you realize that its author Micheal Pollan is a creditable writer. And the subject, the usefulness of psychedelic drugs like LSD, psilocybin, Ayahuasca and 5-MeO-DMT in psychotherapy has been undergoing a research revival. In the not too distant past, when Richard Nixon called Timothy Leary, the most well known advocate for for consciousness expansion via LSD,"the most dangerous man in America" ( no doubt hoping to take some of the focus off himself ) that effectively suspended serious investigation and experimentation for 40 years or so. The recent resumption of studies, have in the short term shown the usefulness of what are also called entheogens for PTSD sufferers and terminal patients.

If you are as hip as me (and also looking for some kind of validation ) than Leonard Cohen's taxonomy of male allure comes as a welcome and comforting insight into the aging process:

On the other hand, Kevin Mahogany's, Old Men Sing The Blues, offers a less sanguine


Robert "Red" Birnbaum in Full Regalia (July 2018)

Having spent a good part of the last decade 'adjudicating' Little League baseball games, I have a practitioner's interest in the art and science of sports refereeing in general and, baseball umpiring in particular. Take my word for it, it is a very particular vantage point from which to see sports and the world beyond.

When I viewed RBG , the documentary on the beloved Supreme, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it occurred to me that the area of government of which my fellow citizens are most ignorant is the role of the Supreme Court —an ignorance most blatantly exhibited with each nomination circus, e.g. Brett Kavanaugh

You may recall the silly comparison Justice Kavanaugh made between jurisprudence and baseball officiating—a comparison which requires a bit of pretzel logic to make it fit. In any case, there is not a lot of literature about baseball umpiring —lot's of biography and memoirs of former MLB men in blue — two of the more useful books are Al Clark's amusing memoir Called Out But Safe( the first Jewish American League umpire, whose energetic gestures once caused him to tear a hamsrting ejecting a plater from a game)

Called Out But Safe: A Baseball Umpire's Journey by Al Clark

Doug Harvey's modest They Called Me God.

They Called me God: The best Umpire that Ever Lived by Doug Harvey

My favorite account of the arcane calling of umpiring is New York Times writer Bruce Weber's—taking us inside the almost secret society of a small group of mostly men and splendidly refreshing one's sense of baseball.

As They Seem 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires by Bruce Weber

In a piece called Umpires v. Judges , Weber adresses this misleading piece of conventional 'wisdom'

It was in September 2005, just as I was starting research for a book about umpires, that the man who would become chief justice, John G. Roberts Jr., elevated my subjects to the central metaphorical role in American jurisprudence.

“Judges are like umpires,” Judge Roberts declared in the opening remarks to his own confirmation hearings. “Umpires don’t make the rules; they apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules. But it is a limited role.”

Judge Roberts was far from the first to make the comparison, which dots the literature of the 20th century, legal and otherwise. He wasn’t even the first to make it in the Senate that day. Addressing him in his own introductory remarks, Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, asserted: “What we must have — what our legal system demands — is a fair and unbiased umpire, one who calls the game according to the existing rules and does so competently and honestly every day.”

But since the Roberts hearings, the umpire metaphor has become synonymous, at least in public debate, with judicial restraint, the idea that judges are merely arbiters, that their job is not to set aside precedent and create law but to decide cases on the basis of established law. To do this, the argument goes, judges must check their personal beliefs and biases (not the same thing) at the door of the courtroom, just as an umpire should bring no opinion about how baseball ought to be played or rooting interest to the diamond.

“Activism is when a judge allows his personal views on a policy issue to infect his judgment,” Mr. Sessions warned Judge Roberts during the hearing.

Thus does the umpire metaphor misleadingly jumble together the ideas of belief, bias and activism, as though all personal viewpoints are somehow tainted for being personal. Judges with personal beliefs make objective decisions all the time, after all. (That the senator used the word “infect” rather than “affect” might be construed as indicating his own bias.)

And for a really insightful analysis of the most contentious area of baseball by (calling balls ands strikes) Daniel R Epstein, Are you kidding me, Ump!?! :

Alexa Cora, uncharacteristically demonstrative, disagrees with Umpire James Hoye- which h earned him a rare ejection

In the first game of the American League Championship Series, home plate umpire James Hoye stole the show more often than he probably intended. He ejected Red Soxmanager Alex Cora in the fifth inning for arguing balls and strikes, several of which were questionable calls. The Sox lost to the Astros, 7-2, but the game was tied at two after five innings.Joe Kellybegan the top of the six on the mound for Boston, and let’s just say it was probably for the best that Cora had already been ejected. With runners on first and second with no one out, Tyler Whitecame to bat for Houston. Kelly’s second pitch, called a ball, is presented below:The pitch was middle-middle. Frankly, it’s hard to throw a more blatant strike than that, yet the count went to 2-0. White popped out harmlessly to second base a few pitches later, but clearly that at bat could have been a disaster. It’s easy, and perhaps a little lazy, to just blame Hoye for missing a clear strike call. In reality, it takes a total group effort of failure from everyone involved for things to go this wrong. Who else is to blame here, and how much?

Epstein goes on to assign varying percentages of blame to pitcher Pitcher Joe Kelly: 35 percent, Catcher Christian Vazquez: 40 percent, Batter Tyler White, 10 percent, Umpire James Hoye, 80000 percent ... It's a thoughtful rendering of the variables that comprise a serious at bat...

Children and staff at the Trump administration’s tent facility for detaining migrant children separated from their parents, Tornillo, Texas, June 19, 2018 Joe Raedle/Getty Images

At the New York Review website, 80 authors signed an open letter,*

...This generation will be remembered for having allowed for concentration camps for children to be built on “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” This is happening here and now, but not in our names.

Did I hear someone say, "Never Again"?


Concentration Camps for Kids: An Open Letter:Rabih Alameddine, Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster, Jon Lee Anderson, and Andrea Bajani,

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