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Nine Books for a Spring Without Baseball

If you are already missing baseball, you have company. To help you through the gloom, I’ve gone back into the More to Come archives to gather my personal “Best Books about Baseball” list. Here you’ll find my top nine books — one for each inning — to help you through this spring. And there might even be some “free” extra-inning baseball at the end!

(NOTE: I’ve linked to my reviews, but they may be buried in a longer post containing information on multiple books. Look carefully and you’ll find the book in question.)

Okay, let’s play ball!

For the 1st and 2nd innings, we’ll have the top hitters from each team coming to the plate. So I’ll begin with some of the best: two baseball books which I included in the 2014 post Twelve Influential Books (And a Few More Thrown in for Fun)

Last Best LeagueHow Life Imitates the World Series by Thomas Boswell – The longtime Washington Post sportswriter’s first book of baseball essays, published in 1982, is still his best. How can you not love a book where the leadoff hitter (also known as the first chapter) is entitled, This Ain’t a Football Game. We Do This Every Day.

The Last Best League by Jim Collins – No, this is not the same Jim Collins of the management bible Good to Great. This Collins is the former editor of Yankee magazine. His Last Best League is a wonderful, loving tribute to the Cape Cod Baseball League — with its small towns and wooden bats. The book is a delight to read on a summer night.

As we head into the 3rd inning, we may have worked our way down to the bottom of the batting order, but that still doesn’t mean that some light-hitting glove guy (perhaps your second baseman) can’t come up with a big hit every now and then. Take, for instance…

Infinite Baseball: Notes from a Philosopher at the Ballpark by Alva Noë — This short and entertaining work, written by a professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a lifelong New York Mets fan, led me to go against my standing policy of rejecting books with jacket blurbs by George Will. Instead, I took a flyer on this set of 33 essays, most of them repurposed from National Public Radio’s discontinued science blog 13:7:Cosmos and Culture, and came away finding challenging and intriguing points-of-view on topics that every fan — philosopher or casual observer — would understand.

Here are three books about the changes in baseball that seem just right for the middle innings — the 4th, 5th, and 6th —when the sabermetric guys say you should head to the bullpen.

MoneyballMoneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis — My review of this transformative book is actually of the movie that it spawned (a Best Picture nominee, no less). Brad Pitt and especially Jonah Hill were terrific. But I digress.

This is a 2003 book that changed how so many people think about baseball. It describes how the small-market Oakland A’s used advanced analytics to level up the playing field with the New York Yankees of the baseball world. Seventeen years later, every MLB team has a large analytics department, made up of very smart people. However, they don’t always match those smarts with strong ethics…I’m looking at you, Houston.

Two more recent books update the analytics revolution.

Big Data Baseball: Math, Miracles and the End of a 20 Year Losing Streak by Pittsburgh writer Travis Sawchik — This well-written book tells the story of how the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates, stumbling along in a 20-year losing streak, turned around their fortune as a baseball club. The Pirates did it using big-data strategies, undervalued players, a leadership team willing to try new things, and an organization-wide commitment to integration of old-style and new-style insights to make the playoffs.

The Only Rule

The Only Rule Is It Has to Work by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller — This is a story of what happens when two numbers guys — Lindbergh and Miller — get the chance to run an independent minor league team for a season. Both worked at Baseball Prospectus and were eager to see how their sabermetric theories might play out in real life. Both are good writers and they have a great story to tell. For part of the season, they move slowly in implementing their theories. But after they make the bold move to fire the player/manager who pushes back on many of their suggestions, changes come more quickly.

There’s the added bonus of having their team—the Sonoma Stompers—become the first professional team with an openly gay player.

During our 7th inning stretch, let’s take a look around the old ballpark.

BallparkBallpark: Baseball in the American City by Paul Goldberger — Goldberger— Pulitzer Prize-winning architectural critic, Trustee emeritus of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and a personal friend — has written an elegant and engaging work on a subject that’s clearly as dear to his heart as it is to mine.

In slightly more than 300 pages, Paul takes the reader through a detailed, intriguing, often unexpected, and richly-illustrated history of the intersection of baseball parks, the American city, architecture, urbanism, business, sports, and culture. Always a clear and lively writer, Paul brings his vast knowledge of cities, architectural history, urbanism, and historic preservation to bear on a building type that differs from many other public buildings and landmarks found throughout the country.

The writing on the urban and rural natures of baseball is poetic without becoming sentimental. In his estimation, one of the most important points in building a good place to play the game is that the space be “so open, as to as allude, at least symbolically, to the notion that the outfield extends into infinity.” I join Paul in finding PNC Park in Pittsburgh to be one of the sport’s best new venues to watch a game and to see the city.

It is getting late here in the 8th inning. What happens when the game is over?

A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings of A. Bartlett Giamatti edited by Kenneth Robson — This small collection of essays contains the gem:

“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.”

Giamatti — an English Renaissance scholar, former president of Yale University, National League president, and the courageous commissioner of baseball who banned Pete Rose for life and then died of a heart attack 8 days later — was writing in the excerpt above about an earlier Red Sox loss on the last day of the season many years ago. But the “breaking your heart” line applies in all sorts of baseball situations.

And now…for the incredible 9th inning.

Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game by Dan Barry — This book became one of my all-time favorites for a variety of reasons. Yes, it is about baseball’s longest game, a game that began at 8 p.m. after a 30 minute delay due to faulty lighting on April 18, 1981 — Holy Saturday — and was extended until 4 a.m. on Easter morning, April 19th, when the game was suspended after 32 innings and 8 hours with a 2-2 tie. Two months later, on June 23rd, the Rochester Red Wings and Pawtucket Red Sox resumed the game at the top of the 33rd. In 18 minutes it was all over, a 3-2 Pawtucket win.

Bottom of the 33rdDan Barry’s book is full of the intersections of baseball and life, told against the backdrop of the holiest day of the Christian calendar. There are two future Hall-of-Famers in the lineups — Pawtucket’s Wade Boggs and Rochester’s Cal Ripken, Jr. (known in those days as J.R.). But since this is Triple A minor league baseball, the intriguing stories are about the men who have devoted their lives to baseball and yet — except for the occasional “cup of coffee” stint in the big leagues — won’t make it to the next level.

The game would have never achieved notoriety if the rule book that umpire Daniel Cregg was using wasn’t missing the section on an automatic curfew after 12:50 a.m. — a slip up in the International League offices that year. This book is full of such “you won’t believe this” stories. Among my many favorites are these three:

  • Pawtucket pitcher Luis Aponte is permitted to head home after pitching three innings in relief, yet when he arrives his wife won’t let him in the door because she doesn’t believe his story as to why he was out until 3 a.m.
  • Rochester outfielder Dallas Williams went 0 for 13 in the game — a “bad month.”
  • Pawtucket’s Sam Bowen hit a ball so hard that it left the field…but the nasty wind blowing straight in blew it back into play and into the glove of the outfielder.

This is a book to savor.

10th Inning “Free Baseball” bonus.

The 1960 New Yorker essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” by John Updike — As Washington Post writer Michah Pollack wrote recently, this was Updike’s “only true foray into sportswriting. He was one of 10,454 at Fenway Park on that chilly, overcast September day. He stayed to watch (Ted) Williams homer in his final at-bat. Then he left to write about it. He retired as a sportswriter, undefeated.”

Feel free to let me know your favorites. And let’s hope we get to “play ball” this year.

More to come…


History and Hope in the Midst of Denial and Darkness

Hand and candle (Image by Myriam Zilles from Pixabay)

Harry S. Truman famously said, “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”

Each day we are facing a crisis that some describe as “unprecedented.”*

Serious? Absolutely. Life-changing? Unquestionably. Worthy of all our attention? Definitely. But unprecedented?

Thankfully, historians are speaking up to help make sense of what we are facing today, and to provide hope for what can come. John M. Barry — who, in Rising Tide, wrote one of the best histories I’ve read of how a disaster changed our country for the better — has also written a book that is invaluable in understanding our current crisis.

Barry’s 2004 work, The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in Historymakes him the historian who arguably knows more than anyone about the 1918 flu influenza that is the public health event most often compared to today’s outbreak. Barry writes that in that year, “a new respiratory virus invaded the human population and killed between 50 million and 100 million people — adjusted for population, that would equal 220 million to 430 million people today.”

Just yesterday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who also knows and understands this field, said the U.S. could see millions of coronavirus cases and 100,000 or more deaths.

Barry’s lessons from 1918 and how they translate to 2020 are worth everyone’s attention. You can find them in a video from The New Yorker and in his op-ed from the New York TimesIn the latter, Barry wrote about the most important lesson to be learned from the 1918 pandemic:

“…one that all the working groups on pandemic planning agreed upon: Tell the truth. That instruction is built into the federal pandemic preparedness plans and the plan for every state and territory. (emphasis mine)

In 1918, pressured to maintain wartime morale, neither national nor local government officials told the truth. The disease was called ‘Spanish flu,’ and one national public-health leader said, ‘This is ordinary influenza by another name.’ Most local health commissioners followed that lead. Newspapers echoed them. After Philadelphia began digging mass graves; closed schools, saloons and theaters; and banned public gatherings, one newspaper even wrote: ‘This is not a public health measure. There is no cause for alarm.’

Trust in authority disintegrated, and at its core, society is based on trust. Not knowing whom or what to believe, people also lost trust in one another.”

Tell the truth.

Think about those in positions of power speaking out today. Even a small amount of common sense and research will identify the ones speaking the truth. (Hint: it is not the individual who keeps changing his story every day.)** When people fear the unknown, they are looking for leaders who show competency, credibility, and empathy.

We learn lessons from history on how to respond effectively to a crisis. We can also look to the past to see the good that comes out of disasters, to provide hope for how we can respond in a time of fear. Barry, in his work, certainly speaks to what can change in health care and the economy after this crisis diminishes. And just last week, on the anniversary of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, I received a message from my friend Morris Vogel, the director of New York’s Tenement Museum.

He wrote to remind us of the anniversary of the fire that killed 146 young immigrant women workers. Most lived on the Lower East Side. As he noted, “Their stories form the core of the Museum’s stories.” Morris continued:

“Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson organized the Tenement Museum to continue the struggle for social justice that New Yorkers launched in the wake of this horrific tragedy. Much of what we take for granted as hallmarks of a civilized society owe to those early 20th-century reform efforts. We honor the individuals who committed themselves to improving the conditions under which the most vulnerable Americans lived even as we mourn those who died on March 25, 1911.” (emphasis mine)

History helps us remember the heroism that ordinary people display as they face extraordinary circumstances, whether in dealing with a pandemic where leaders provide false narratives in hopes of smoothing over their own greed and ineptitude, or in responding to a tragic fire that in hindsight seems inevitable given the crowded and unsafe working conditions forced upon hundreds of young immigrants.

Dealing with crises is serious business, requiring our full attention. But these events are seldom unprecedented. David McCullough, who stands as one of the giants of American historians, said it best in his 2017 book The American Spirit where he makes the case for “the importance of history as an aid to navigation in such troubled, uncertain times.” One of the speeches included in the book, and which I was privileged to hear live, came shortly after 9/11.

“We think we live in difficult uncertain times (McCullough said in 2001 in Providence). We think we have worries. We think our leaders face difficult decisions. But so it has nearly always been….It is said that everything has changed. But everything has not changed….We have resources beyond imagining, and the greatest of these is our brainpower….And we have a further, all-important, inexhaustible source of strength. And that source of strength is our story, our history, who we are, how we got to be where we are, and all we have been through, what we have achieved.”

The struggles and bravery of those who came before us hold powerful lessons for our own difficult time. Listen to the public health officials and doctors in this crisis, who are telling the truth. And follow the advice of President Truman: know your history.

Stay safe and well this week.

More to come…


*The politician with the biggest megaphone used his standard “Nobody knew that” line when he said at a press conference “Nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion.” Journalist Steve Benen recently wrote, “When Donald Trump says, ‘Nobody knew that’ — or related phrases such as ‘A lot of people don’t know that’ or ‘People don’t realize”‘ — he’s generally referring to things many people already know, but which he only recently learned.”

**Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin has a good approach to how to respond to the president’s “pronouncements.” She writes, “When Trump says such things [such as his knee-jerk call for a tri-state quarantine], serious journalists should: 1. point out how abnormal (if not illegal) such conduct would be; 2. note how, if carried out, the presidential directive would be disastrous; 3. remind readers/viewers that he regularly does this sort of thing to sow chaos; and 4. then report what is actually taking place.”

Image by Myriam Zilles from Pixabay.

Geography and Imperialism

Earning the RockiesI picked up Robert D. Kaplan’s 2017 book Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World based on several high profile recommendations. In a short 178 pages, Kaplan — a card-carrying member of the East Coast elite that he proceeds to denigrate throughout the book —describes a cross-country trip taken in 2016 and mixes in his thoughts on how our geography led the U.S. to become a benevolent imperialist power. And calling on his impressive foreign policy experience and credentials, there are parts of this meditation on America’s rise and decline that are skillful and insightful.

Kaplan argues that America became a great country not just because of our constitution and values, but because it occupies some of the best, most fertile land on the planet that is connected by a river system (running diagonally) that unites the heartland into a strong political unit. “America’s greatness,” in his words, “ultimately, is based on it being a nation, an empire, and a continent rolled into one.” And in taming the frontier, America — according to Kaplan’s analysis — learned how to be a global power. He would argue that we are a benevolent and necessary power, but imperialistic nonetheless. On the flip side, the size of America has made it difficult to build a national identity and unity around our role in the world. There’s a great deal of contrast provided between the isolationist heartland and the global, world-facing values of the coastal cities and college towns throughout Kaplan’s story.

In discussing the goodness that America has brought to the world, Kaplan acknowledges that “the American narrative is morally unresolvable because the society that saved humanity in the great conflicts of the twentieth century was also a society built on enormous crimes — slavery and the extinction of the native inhabitants.” What he doesn’t acknowledge very directly is the moral ambiguity that continued throughout the 20th century and into today. In the first World War, for instance, Americans were led by one of the country’s most racist presidents in Woodrow Wilson, while we continued our discrimination and racism during and after the second World War, not only against African Americans but against all people of color. Kaplan does recognize that our work has not always been for good, and that we have bungled our way at times through being a global power (e.g., the Iraq War, which he originally supported but came to renounce). He’s right in asserting that our country’s narrative is morally unresolvable. But his own narrative bogs down when he strays from the impacts of geography and tries to draw inferences from the traits of the residents of the Midwest and West. In one of his few references to Donald Trump, he suggests that Trump “represents a sort of antipolitics: a primal scream against the political elite for not connecting with people on the ground, and for insufficiently improving their lives.”

That’s an interesting case to make from someone who seems to have difficulty actually talking to people he meets along his road trip. Early on Kaplan indicates that he will sit at nearby tables in diners and eavesdrop, the better to understand the real people. So his meditations about the nature of our power seem haphazard and drawn from his readings of early 20th century historians as much as from strong analysis of what the people on the ground are actually thinking in the 21st century.

Sitting here in the fourth year of a presidency where the world, and our role in it, is turned upside down due to Trump’s allegiance to Russian president Vladimir Putin, his disdain for NATO, and his affection for strongman dictators, this book left me with questions. Kaplan’s final chapter appears to be fighting a rear guard action against the upheaval he saw coming in the Trump administration. But I also wonder if the author wrote this at a time when he believed that our foreign policy and military structures could withstand a frontal assault from our own president, supported by clandestine assaults from our primary Cold War adversary. Given the timing of the trip and the book, there isn’t enough here to address that question, at least from my perspective.

Some of the best parts of this work relate to the life and impact of the Civil War soldier and geologist John Wesley Powell. Kaplan makes the point that Powell understood, better than most, that westward expansion would require cooperation; strong government intervention (e.g., geological surveys, federal land grants, irrigation projects, and military protection); and limitations on individualism. If you take that key point out from Kaplan’s work, you can see a way forward for the U.S. to acknowledge its past and its geography while building a new role in the world in the 21st century.

I found much to absorb in Earning the Rockies, even among the arguments where I disagreed with Kaplan’s analysis. It is worth the time to stretch your mind.

More to come…


Saturday Music: Sarah Jarosz

Red Wing Festival Sarah Jarosz 07 12 14

Sarah Jarosz at the 2014 Red Wing Roots Music Festival

Sarah Jarosz is one-third of the trio I’m With Her, which I featured in last week’s edition of Saturday Music. In addition to their work with the band, each of these very talented young women has a robust solo career. Saturday Music will focus on their music as individuals over the next three weeks, beginning with the gifted singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz.

I began hearing Jarosz at venues such as the Red Wing Roots Music Festival when she was in her early twenties and already an established artist. The bio from her website captures Jarosz’s amazing rise from her teenage debut:

“With her captivating voice and richly detailed songwriting, Sarah Jarosz has emerged as one of the most compelling musicians of her generation. A three-time Grammy Award-winner at the age of 28, the Texas native started singing as a young girl and became an accomplished multi-instrumentalist by her early teens. After releasing her full-length debut Song Up in Her Head at 18-years-old, she went on to deliver such critically lauded albums as Follow Me Down, Build Me Up From Bones, and 2016’s Undercurrent, in addition to joining forces with Sara Watkins and Aoife O’Donovan to form the acclaimed Grammy winning folk trio I’m With Her.”

Jarosz’s songwriting is very lyrical, often with a chamber music quality as seen in the title song from Build Me Up From BonesFrom her album Undercurrent, the intense House of Mercy is about an abusive relationship, with the emotion pouring through both the vocal and instrumentation. Jaroz is also a wonderful song interpreter, as seen in her version of Bob Dylan’s Ring Them Bells.

An accomplished multi-instrumentalist, her most distinctive instrument is an octave mandolin, which is similar in size to a mandocello but tuned differently. Her octave — built by Northfield Mandolins —is tuned just like a regular mandolin, but an octave lower. She uses is to great effect on many of her songs, giving them a deeper and darker sound.

Jarosz’s most recent video is part of a special project developed by Chris Thile, the host of NPR’s Live From Here. With the coronavirus shutting down live versions of the show, Thile asked some of his regular guests to post Live From Home videos. Jarosz was one of the first asked, and she plays a beautiful version of James McMurty’s Childish Things, on what appears to be an old Kay guitar.

World On The Ground, her newest album, is set for release on June 5th, with Johnny as the first single from that album. It is anyone’s guess if the festival will take place, but Sarah Jarosz is slated to appear on July 11th at the Red Wing Roots Music Festival in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. I certainly hope we will all have a chance to see her in live performance soon.


More to come…


No Baseball Today

No Baseball

No Baseball…until who knows when

Today was to be Opening Day 2020 for the World Series Champion Washington Nationals. Alas, the Covid-19 virus had other plans for the world.

But I have a suggestion for you.

Last week the Washington Post asked their writers to name their top sports movies to watch during the coronavirus crisis. They really only needed to have included one.

Watch Bull Durham. The best baseball movie ever. Its not even close.

I’ve written many times — most recently earlier this month — about my personal spring training regimen of reading a baseball book and watching Bull Durham. I watched the movie again earlier this week, and it didn’t disappoint. Regular readers know how I feel. But don’t just take my word for it.

I’ve recently been reading a number of columns about culture and politics by the Post opinion writer Alyssa Rosenberg. She’s smart and a very good writer. So no surprise to learn that she thinks Bull Durham is a great movie, and well deserving of the moniker of a film classic. As her Post colleague Tom Boswell once said a long time ago, “Marianne Moore loved Christy Mathewson. No woman of quality has ever preferred football to baseball.”

I’m going to pull a few quotes from her review to whet your appetite, but you should go read her full piece. Then find the movie online and watch it.

Here’s Rosenberg’s beginning of the 2018 Bull Durham review:

“Try to define what counts as a classic work of art, and you’re virtually guaranteed an argument. But in film, one potential measure is whether a movie makes it into the Criterion Collection, a series of carefully preserved and presented home-viewing editions of “the defining moments of cinema.” So it was with total delight that I learned this week that Ron Shelton’s “Bull Durham,” one of the greatest movies ever made about baseball, a brilliant romantic comedy and a film that stands as a rebuke to many of the false choices the entertainment industry now seems to take for granted, is getting a Criterion Collection release in July.”

She’s exactly right in noting that the film reminds us that we don’t have to accept the false choices given these days by the entertainment industry. For example:

“Bull Durham” makes no apology for being a romance movie; it takes for granted the idea that two grown-up people finding their way to each other, and finding new places for themselves in the world, is a subject of interest. The film is also comfortable assuming that its audience is literate and intelligent, that they know what quantum mechanics are and who Walt Whitman is, or at least that they’re not going to feel insulted when those terms get thrown around in conversation. This is not a movie weighed down by the need to make sure that members of a certain demographic are lured into theaters. In 1988, “Bull Durham” pulled in almost $51 million at the box office, making it the 18th-highest grossing movie of the year.”

And one final quote:

“One of the central insights of “Bull Durham” is that baseball and sex and romance are of equal interest to men and women. This is not a movie where a woman blithely wanders into a male realm she knows nothing about and finds love, nor one where a hard-bitten professional man finds himself distracted by a woman who reminds him that domestic life has its charms. Instead, Annie and Crash are both deeply knowledgeable about baseball history and the technical aspects of the game, even if they disagree about the best way to improve Nuke’s performance.* “Bull Durham” is a love triangle, with Nuke and Crash competing for Annie’s attention, but it’s also a triangle built around mentorship, with Crash and Annie jostling for preeminence in Nuke’s journey to the big leagues.”

Enough. Go read the full review. Then go watch the movie. You may even forget, for a while, that there’s no baseball today.

More to come…


UPDATE: Truth be told, I ended up watching the Nationals World Series Game 7 win this afternoon as part of MLB TV’s special “Opening Day” presentation. That 7th inning was just as incredible again as it was back in October of 2019.

*Okay, one other quote to give you the lay of the land on the characters:

“Bull Durham” takes place over a single summer, or more precisely, over a season for the Durham Bulls minor league baseball team. It concerns a love triangle among the team’s biggest fan and part-time English professor Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon), rookie pitcher Ebby Calvin LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) and aging catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner), assigned to prepare LaLoosh for the majors. Annie, who takes a new player as a lover each summer, identifies the two as “the most promising prospects of the season so far.” And though she ends up with LaLoosh, whom she nicknames “Nuke,” when Crash explains that “after 12 years in the minor leagues, I don’t try out,” she can’t get the older man out of her head — not least because he sees baseball the same way she does: as the encapsulation of a certain American idea and a particular approach to life.

Reflect. Reconsider. Reset.

Flowers from Pomona Family Weekend

Navigating through difficult times is both a personal and communal journey. As we each  chart our course through this particular crisis, it is important to concentrate on the ways we can show love and live with hope.

Inspiration for my journey comes from a cross section of writers, historians, thinkers, theologians, poets, activists, and friends. One of my personal favorites is Rebecca Solnit.  “When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brothers’ keepers,” Solnit writes. “And that purposefulness and connectedness brings joy even amidst death, chaos, fear, and loss.”

In a 2016 interview with The On Being Project’s Krista Tippett — posted on the project’s website as one of the “conversations we’re longing to hear again and finding useful right now” — Solnit speaks of how the world wants to categorize and pigeonhole love. But coming from a place of abundance, where there is room for everyone, Solnit said, “There’s so much other work love has to do in the world.” That resonated with me.

I had returned to Solnit at this time because her book A Paradise Built in Hell focuses on how people respond to disasters. In that 2016 interview, she asserts that trashy Hollywood movies and news accounts show that “humans are fragile, disasters are terrible, and we’re either terrified, because we’re fragile, or our morality is fragile,” causing us to revert to our “savage, social, Darwinist, Hobbesian nature.” But based on her investigations of the moments of altruism, resourcefulness, and generosity that arise amid disaster’s grief and disruption, Solnit makes the case that the common story we’re told is misguided and one-sided.

For Solnit, the important questions coming out of crises are, “How do you stay awake? How do you stay in that deeper consciousness of that present-mindedness, that sense of non-separation, and compassion, and engagement, and courage…and generosity?”

How do we show love and live with hope?

This period of self-isolation and social distancing is a good time for us to reflect, reconsider our priorities, and reset our approach to life and to each other. We have the opportunity to find out what really matters. This is our time to make a difference, just as those who came before us made decisions to get us to where we are today.

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine famously wrote in the opening to The Crisis But we often forget that he added that while crises are not easily overcome, “that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.” Abigail Adams, writing to her son (and future president) John Quincy Adams in 1780, said something similar: “The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues.”

We are in a time of great necessities. In my experience, I have found the following five pathways helpful. Perhaps they will be useful as you consider changes in your personal and communal journeys.

Build in Times of Silence

Some of us are alone. Others are focused on the health and isolation of older parents. Many are coping with young children facing long changes in their daily routine. Whatever the circumstance, we have the opportunity to discover the blessing of silence. A 2017 Harvard Business Review article entitled The Busier You Are, the More You Need Quiet Time, suggests that it may be time to get off Twitter in order to “get beyond the noise.” Researchers have found that “taking time for silence restores the nervous system, helps sustain energy, and conditions our mind to be more adaptive and responsive to the complex environments in which so many of us live, work, and lead.”

Think Downstream

Business leader and writer Robert Glazer has encouraged his readers to focus downstream to support the people who depend on us. Out of an example included in his recent post, I thought of the yoga studio where we attend classes. They have had to suspend regular on-site sessions, but the good folks at Grace have set up live-streaming options so that we can continue to connect with our favorite teachers. Perhaps Grace will find a new business model out of this experience. Read Glazer’s Friday Forward post to see other ways to move your focus beyond yourself.

Rely on the Knowledge of Others

It is easy to become isolated mentally as well as physically. For those in the work force, many are facing the need to work off-site and on-line for the first time. Leaders are being asked to manage organizations without the advantage of physical proximity. Consultants are unable to hold on-site meetings which may be key to a project’s success. In these instances, look to those who have successfully navigated this field in the past. If, on the other hand, you are trying to figure out new ways to engage your children as daytime care-giver and home schooling teacher gets added to your job description, consider these crowdsourced Ideas for Social Distancing.

Straighten Out Your Mental House

“Most of the choices we make each day may feel like the products of well-considered decision making, but they’re not. They’re habits.” That’s according to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. A period of enforced isolation is a good time to consider what we do, why we do it, and how we can change those things we wish to stop doing. I had an epiphany when the annual NCAA basketball tournament — marketed as March Madness — was abruptly cancelled earlier this month. In other years I would have camped out on the couch, watching basketball games for hours on end. But upon reflection I realized that I couldn’t pick out five players from any current college basketball team if my life depended on it. I haven’t been engaged and would be watching simply out of habit. Thankfully, habits and routines can be changed, and I’ve turned to other, more productive ways, to fill my time. The larger issue is how to do that without being prompted by a crisis. At their most basic, habits include “cues, routines, and rewards.” Once we recognize the cycle — and understand that we can change the routine to override a bad habit — we can make the conscious decision to change.

Live a Generous, Grateful, and Loving Life

It is too easy to allow home confinement to change who we are at our core, drowning us in negativity or perhaps in escapes into the digital world. I was surprised, recently, when I came across an article on the science of empathy that noted that, “The impulse to help others isn’t simply the result of a good upbringing, a strong moral compass or adherence to a faith-based code of conduct. The drive to assist is born in empathy — that ability to feel and understand what others are feeling.” According to recent neuroscience, empathy is hardwired into all mammals. Peggy Mason, a neuroscientist and professor at the University of Chicago, adds, “At a fundamental level, the default is to help — in order not to help you have to actively suppress that urge.”

We’re hardwired to care, but we have to nurture that impulse. It is easy, as we are isolated, to supress that urge toward empathy in order to focus on our own selves and those closest to us. But getting through this crisis is going to require resilience and innovation. We still need human connections and we should cultivate a long-term orientation. Successful passage is also going to require a generous mindset.

There are many things we can do while quarantined to show love and generosity: call our friends more frequently; write thank you notes; set up a daily video chat with someone who is alone; offer to pick up groceries for a neighbor who is housebound. The possibilities are limited not by our physical confinement, but by our lack of imagination.

Dorothy Day was eight years old and living in Oakland when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake hit. She saw that in disaster there’s this falling together that we don’t acknowledge. People were capable, all along, of doing what is right. And the formative question of her life became, “Why can’t we live this way all the time?”

Why indeed?

More to come…


Installment #25 of The Gap Year Chronicles.

Saturday Music: I’m With Her

Watkins, Jarosz, and O'Donovan

I’m With Her – Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan – at July 2015 Red Wing Roots Music Festival

“When you go to heaven and hear singing, it will sound like these three women.”

Those were the words of mandolinist Chris Thile at a Kennedy Center concert in 2016. He was describing I’m With Herthe Grammy-award winning roots music trio composed of Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, and Sara Watkins. These three women bring together lyrical songwriting, sterling instrumental chops, and ethereal harmonies to make beautiful — some would say heavenly — music. The group of singer-songwriters came together in 2014 and have been steadily building a catalog of mesmerizing songs and a loyal following. Yes, that loyal fan base includes me, as they were also involved in my first and only case of celebrity stalking, but that’s another story. I first saw the group live in 2015. Having seen each of them with earlier bands and in solo appearances, I knew that they could forge a distinct and memorable musical partnership.

I was not disappointed.

There’s so much to highlight here. Nina Simone’s acapella Be My Husband was one of the first songs of the band that captured my attention, especially the weaving of sound between the unison and three-part harmony vocals. John Hiatt’s Crossing Muddy Waters is a 2015 recording that showcases the bluegrass and roots origins of their work, especially with Jarosz’s clawhammer banjo, played off against Watkins fiddle in support of O’Donovan’s beautiful lead vocal. On Thile’s Live From Here radio show, they go full-on bluegrass with a medley of Toy Heart / Marry Me / Jerusalem. Sarah Jarosz has a great time with Dolly Parton’s He’s Gonna Marry Me, and Watkins’s shivering vocal and the band’s round in Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Moan is, simply put, bone-chilling. The tune Little Lies comes from the band’s 2017 EP. It is a good display of the interplay of instruments and voices that makes the band so appealing.

This is a band that isn’t afraid to go out on a limb. Anyone playing Joni Mitchell is taking a chance of looking pale by comparison, but in their live version of Carey, they nail it and have fun in the process. (Check out the harmonies at the 2:25 mark, and then the great unison line at the end.

See You Around IWH

Call My Name was awarded the Grammy for 2020’s Best American Roots Song, and their performance at the awards show is a great example of the beautiful harmonies that are integral to their work. Their website notes that the sonic textures and urgent beat result in “a song both stark and luminous, perfectly capturing the potent tension within even the most loving relationship.”

If you want to go all the way down the rabbit hole, look at the music videos on their web site, check out their full NPR Tiny Desk Concert, or their one hour and 20 minute set at Boston’s House of BluesYou won’t be disappointed.

Tour dates are all up in the air with the coronavirus outbreak, so I won’t even try and highlight where they will be appearing. For now, we’ll have to be content with the work that’s already posted online and in their CDs.

Over the next three weeks, I’ll look at each artist individually. But for now, enjoy I’m With Her.

More to come…