Life in the Hands of an Able Writer

An only child who had to oversee the passage of his parents, Christopher Buckley wrote about this lonely role with grace.

Many of us who struggle with the task of finding ways to give heat to ideas can usually point to favorites: cases where a writer has put the perfect image together to make his or her point.  These passages are moments of rhetorical grace, sometimes represented by economy of style or an evocative image.  Writers read partly to experience these moments. They add more fuel for the long slog of putting words on the page.

Christopher Buckley with his Parents

One personal favorite is from an unlikely source and subject. Christopher Buckley’s 2009 memoir of the last year of his celebrity parents is funny and wise on the demands of coping with the inevitable.  In Losing Mum and Pup we see the conservative gadfly William F. Buckley Jr. and his socialite wife struggle to the end.  An only child who had to oversee their passage through what his father often described as “this vale of tears,” Christopher also bore the role of keeper of the flame of their outsized legacies.

That the book could be characterized as a pleasure to read is a credit to his dry wit and effective storytelling. Humor and melancholy merge seamlessly.  Among other things, his dad’s ability to cope with the death of his mother produces the kinds of serio-comic episodes that any caregiver with a sense of humor would recognize.

This is not just a memoir about wheelchairs and vacant faces. The younger Buckley has the good sense to understand the end of his parents lives mostly in terms of the consequential work done in their most productive years: Pat, in the upper stratosphere of New York museums and philanthropies, Bill in publishing and conservative politics. The senior Buckley had some awful views, but he was also a polymath with a wide collection of interests and talents.

Here’s a favorite passage seemingly about his father’s love of sailing, but also much more.  It contains a wonderful image.

Pup was an avid sailor. He had learned to sail as a child in upstate Connecticut, on a not very large lake. Now we live on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound and kept a thirty-eight-foot wooden sloop. It was named Panic, a name my mother found all too apt. . .  I now get that Pup’s greatness was of a piece with the way he conducted himself at sea. Great men always have too much canvas up. Great men take great risks. It’s the timorous soul—souls like myself—who err on the side of caution; who take in sail when they see a storm approaching and look for a snug harbor. Not my old man. Or as Mum used to put it, “Bill why are you trying to kill us?” Great men are also impatient. This particular aspect showed up most vividly in my father’s manner of docking his boats. Most people, when guiding, say a ten or twenty ton vessel toward a dock, approach slowly. Not my old man. His technique was to go straight at it, full speed. Why waste time? This made for memorable episodes.1

“Great men have too much canvas up.”  It’s an apt image that seems completely faithful to the person who published the National Review.  It was the perfect verbal image. Anyone who had observed  Buckley on his Firing Line broadcasts or his work as a conservative essayist could also see the literal extended to the behavioral.  Fearless sailing was typical of who the father was, even when he was heading in the wrong direction.

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1 Christopher Buckley, Losing Mum and Pup, Emblem Books, 2010., pp. 121-22.

Can We CGI the Outfield As Well?

Is it any surprise Americans can’t seem to face so many unadorned and troubling truths right now?

I happened to catch part of the telecast of a baseball game played in Philadelphia last Sunday between the Phillies and Mets. And it was an interesting moment: less so for the game than for what it may say about us. The only folks visible at Citizens Bank Park seemed to be the those scheduled to play, unless we include cardboard cutouts of fans in at least several thousand of the seats in the lower tier. The two men calling the game for SNY network seemed to be in a studio offsite. The only viewer in the stadium appeared to be the Phillie Phanatic, unless he was created virtually using Computer Generated Images. To be sure, he was disturbingly green.

All of this went off as planned for what is going to be a shortened season. What was odd, however, were the attempts to normalize the game by augmenting the audio.

Denial Was Not an Option

The stadium is loaded with 1400 loudspeakers, and it sounded like they were busy smothering the empty seats in sound. Music showed up between almost every pitch, along with boisterous introductions of each batter by the stadium announcer. There was also a generous degree of crowd noise and the noise-makers spectators would normally bring with them. I could be wrong, but none of this faux-life appeared to come from network sources, other than the mics picking up all the stadium ballyhoo to know one. Citizens Bank Park must have its own sound designer.  All of the racket seemed to have the purpose of not letting viewers see the game as it happened, but as they might wish it happened.  The Park is known for creating a lot of noise. But this all struck me as evidence that we are a society that needs to be entertained even under fraudulent circumstances.

As any minor league player moving to the majors knows, a promotion is often called “moving to the show.” Fair enough. But the phony normalcy seems unfair to the players and field staff who are taking risks to play, and a bit of a con on the television audience.  In entertainment terms, the game was more or less the equivalent of a sitcom filmed in a studio, with an audio effects guy “sweetening” the whole thing with “canned” applause and laughter. Apparently baseball and some of the networks desperate for sports content need the fakery to sell to their audiences.

Is it any surprise Americans can’t seem to face so many unadorned and troubling truths right now?  Some colleges have already sent their students back home because of the virus.  But not the football team.  For too many Americans wearing a face mask or staying out of bars or not watching contact sports is unimaginable. Many prefer the magical thinking required to have sports seasons this year. Forget the harder realities of the moment.