The Ump

well it’s always been my nature
to take chances
my right hand drawing back

while my left hand advances

Bob Dylan, Angelina.  Circa 1981, A.D.

Preface: This little piece alighted on the author a few weeks ago when he was undergoing a bit of a midlife re-orientation.  The piece is presented as it presented itself, with edits for cleanliness only. 

Karma is simply the field of what you put in place in your last lifetime.  As a person you arrange your life in such a way that it leaves clues as to the road you took.  When it’s time to switchback, all you have to do is have the courage to take the turn.  After the turn, it’s basically just a matter of reading the tree markers in the forest.  The challenge is, some of the tree makers have fallen in the leaves, been washed out by rain, or moved by the wind.  So you are in new territory.  The map, the degraded set of markers you left behind, is not the territory.  However the last path was so densely specific that we keep trying to use our old map on the new path.  We need that old map for a bit because those markers are the only ones we have.   However we need to find our footing pretty darn quick in order to learn to navigate the new territory.  Otherwise, we follow the markers and mistake them for fresh signs.  Very quickly, the old signals become noise. And then we are in a deep dark wood and are in danger of over-exposure, or, worse, pure confusion and terror about where the path may lie.

The individual is mortal, and beyond mortality is the mystery.  Tribes and societies are forms of collectives, and collectives form a spiral pattern that we call a system. Collectives, and spirals, are mortal as well, and when a spiral approaches its switch back point, the map begins to degrade and the particles of the spiral, the people in the current incarnation of the pattern, must attempt to discriminate the signal from the noise.  Of course this is a much more difficult task than it is for an individual because there are many more tree markers and the winds and rains are howling all about.  This is simply because the field is larger to accommodate so many souls.  So instead of just having to read a few old tree markers, folks must try to receive the field.

To receive the field you have to read the field, and the only way to read the field is to be looking right at it.  In baseball, there is only one position that can see the field and this is the catcher.  That’s why catchers are said to be good management material in general. Another way to say this is they have a wider view of the constraint set.  However, although the catcher can see the field and understand the constraint set in front of him, there is one variable he cannot control.  And this is, of course, the umpire.  The ump.

The ump calls the balls and strikes and the ump is a court of no appeal.  After all, he has the power to toss you from the ballgame altogether.  The only way to deal with this particular variable is to hone the craft of a catcher.  The first piece of craft is the act of framing a pitch.  Here the catcher subtly adjusts his glove in order to obstruct the ump’s view of the location of the pitch.  It is easy for the catcher to whip his glove on a ball in the dirt back to the strike zone, but the ump will spot that in a second.  So a catcher, if he wants to be any good, has to learn a little guile.

This guile can taken pretty far; and there are other ways to work an ump as well.  The classic, “ah come on ump,” is OK, but it’s the same as whipping the bill out of the dirt really.  A more effective trick is chatting the ump up.  Becoming his friend and letting him think you are actually on his side.  This is effective to a point as well, and extends the craft.   However here is where we need to remember our Dylan.  From “Just Like the Tom Thumb Blues,” we learn the following:

I started out on burgundy, but soon hit the harder stuff/ everybody said they’d stand behind me, when the game got rough/ but the joke was on me, there was nobody even there to bluff/ I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough.

Dylan is saying that though the use of guile helps you work the ump, you can start to mistake guile for the deeper craft.  You start to fall into your own trick.  You start to think you are the ump.  And these are deeper waters indeed.  In fact, this is the most dangerous game.  And in this zone, we need a secret weapon.

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Breakdown: “To Beat the Devil”

Here comes the first “breakdown” on the kibbitzer. A breakdown is basically what the young folks these days call a “deep dive.” Only we’re not spending days falling through interweb rabbit holes to get there. That kind of action is reserved for “Tusk,” matters of that ilk. Tusk ilk is pretty thin on the ground.

Instead, a breakdown is just a close look at an item of interest. We’ll start with a couple of songs, see how the method wants to evolve. First off we’ll be breaking down Kris Kristofferson’s “To Beat the Devil.”

To Beat the Devil appears on Kristofferson’s self-titled debut album from 1970 on Monument. It is, by any standard, an astonishingly good record, featuring “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and “Just the Other Side of Nowhere,” along with the ol’ Devil. That’s four absolute classics right there for ya.

{Sunday Morning features an opening quatrain that most other songwriters would trade their career for:

Well I woke up Sunday morning/ with no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt/ and the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad/ so I had one more for dessert

I could play this game all day—Jason Isbell’s Southeastern features another couple life-work worthy couplets:

The first two lines of “Super 8”:

Don’t wanna die in a super 8 motel/ just because somebody’s evening didn’t go so well

And from “Different Days”:

Time went by and I left and I left again/ Jesus loves a sinner but the highway loves a sin.

We’ll do a Different Days breakdown a little later on. If I’d written a song that great I’d call it a career and sip martinis on the house for the duration.}

Sunday Morning and Bobby are probably objectively better songs than To Beat the Devil, yet what I like about this one is that Kristofferson states very clearly a kind of founding intention for his life in song and art, right out of the gate. The only parallel I can think of is Craig Finn’s The Hold Steady, whose first album Almost Killed Me kicks off with “A Positive Jam.”

Here’s the master telling it like it is:

I got bored when I didn’t have a band/ so I started a band/ we’re gonna start it with a positive jam/ hold steady.

Rock on Craig baby.

Anyway, let’s get to the focus of this piece. And if you’d like to experience it sans interpretation, here you go:

TO BEAT THE DEVIL

Kristofferson opens with a spoken intro.:

A couple of years back I come across a great and wasted friend of mine in the hallway of a recording studio. And while he was reciting some poetry to me that he had written, I saw that he was about a step away from dying, and I couldn’t help but wonder why. And the lines of this song occurred to me.

Here the singer is looking up at his idol who is both “great and wasted.” I wasn’t around quite yet in 1970, yet I can easily imagine Ginsberg’s “best minds” line hanging over talented folks across a lot of zones. Klosterman wasn’t quite there either (June 5, 1972–a mid Gemini of course), but he was close, and to indulge not for the last time in a little Klostermania, the zeitgeist seemed to be making people thirsty.

The singer receives some scraps of poetry, shards of shattered inspiration, and a song “occurs” to him. He doesn’t state it directly, however we imagine the song arrives fully formed, like “Pancho and Lefty,” or “Kubla Khan.” Thus, To Beat the Devil is also both an answer and an offer of redemption to his idol, who here is John(ny) Cash.

I’m happy to say he’s no longer wasted, and he’s got him a good woman. And I’d like to dedicate this to John and June, who helped showed me how to beat the devil.

The singer takes up the mantle of the master, and in so doing opens a possibility window onto redemption for his senior. This is no exaggeration—Cash also recorded To Beat the Devil in 1970 and we are basically stipulating that Kristofferson’s genius, descended from Cash while also original to himself, helped rescue Cash from addiction and the whole deal there. We won’t be deep diving into the archive on this one—as we said we’re just keeping it local and breaking it down, so you’ll have to take my word on it or search it up your own self.

Here’s the first verse, and we’ll tread a little lightly from here and let the words speak for themselves:

It was wintertime in Nashville
Down on Music City Row
And I was looking for a place
And to get myself out of the cold
To warm the frozen feeling that was eating at my soul
Keep the chilly wind off my guitar

A classic down and out in the big city piece of scene-setting. The singer is physiologically and psychologically frozen, a cold wind gusts across his art. The man needs a break. Read more