Part 1: James Franco Joins the New York Yankees: the Prelude.
Let’s face it, you look like a Yankee. You’ve got the right jaw-bone structure, just enough stubble, and shoulders as thick as Yule logs. Wedge some tobacco under your cheek, throw a cap on your head, shuffle your nuts every thirty seconds, and you’d have us convinced.
Unfortunately, it’ll never happen. While your identity-dispersion technique is befitting to the practice of film, literature, art, and—interestingly—aviation, the ballpark gatekeepers enforce a rigid admittance criteria. They’re not interested in Hollywood sensations, fat wallets, and advanced degrees in creative writing. They want someone who can pulverize a 90 MPH fastball; whose pitch velocity makes the Lockheed Blackbird look like a rusty, weather-worn shopping cart. You, James Franco, are not fit for baseball. I’d be better off writing a blog called, “James Franco becomes the First Human to wipe his Ass on Saturn’s Rings,” or, “James Franco Drinks the Entire Pacific Ocean and Pisses it into the Atlantic. Crowds Gather.”
A world that would accommodate your athletic aspirations would be vastly different from our own. Imagine a complete inversion of social and cultural preferences: people consider sports elitist, and therefore contemptible, while celebrating art for its redeeming, all-inclusive significance. These same people would laugh at the idea of sports being integral to a child’s development. They’d ostracize kids who struggle to excel in creative endeavors. I did not grow up in such a world. Maybe things were different in your hometown of Palo Alto, but on my side of the mountain, boys grow their testicles on the football field, not at the opera house.
I’m up to the challenge of creating an irrational world where James Franco becomes a New York Yankee. Let’s imaginatively invert the suburban social order’s entire “teen-mainstreaming” ideological apparatus. (That was wordy. Someone wrote me an email after my last blog, informing me to get off the ivory tower. I understand—utilizing literary theory rhetoric not only alienates readers who aren’t familiar with phrases like “ideological apparatus,” but also, it draws attention to my heavy investment in intellectual currency. The thing is it’s awfully nice up here in the ivory tower. The draft is pleasant. We’ve got an Xbox 360, Tempur-Pedic mattresses, a cappuccino maker, and a hot tub. Suffice it to say, I’m not coming down. But you’re welcome to come up! All you need is a dictionary and some curiosity, both which might be difficult to obtain. We won’t spend too much time getting smart: just a little light reading of Lacan and Haraway. Then we can do bong hits and play GTA San Andreas all night.)
Anyway, let’s begin the story. It’s 1985. You’re eight years old. It’s a typical evening at the Franco house; your family watches television together in the living room. There are a variety of shows on, but your father presides over the remote. He turns on the Literature Channel, gnaws at his hotdog, and cracks open another beer. “This is going to be an exciting match tonight,” he says to no one in particular. Your mother is doing a crossword puzzle, and your two brothers are playing with Ballet Star action figures.
On the TV, the writer Philip Roth steps up to the microphone. Roth is your father’s favorite; almost everybody’s. Roth says, “I’d like to read you a segment of my new novel, The Counterlife.”
Your dad hushes everyone. Roth reads. His voice is a whisper. A minute later, the crowd is becoming antsy. They jangle their car keys and sigh. Roth’s had a rough year: John Irving’s been winning the crowds over. Word on the street is that Roth’s agent might send him away to teach college literature for a semester. Then, hopefully, he’ll come back rejuvenated, and win more book competitions,
Finally, someone yells, “Get on with it! Go to the next chapter!”
Roth turns the book’s pages frantically, his sweat-glazed forehead shining in the spotlight. He adjusts his glasses and starts reading again. Not even two lines later, the crowd boos. Your father says, “He should have seen that coming.”
You think about your Publishing Industry trading card collection, which you’d inherited from a cousin. You own the whole Philip Roth set of cards. Their values have been decreasing rapidly, but for his 1959 rookie card, a collector’s favorite. You consider cashing in on some of the cards before they become worthless. Hell, a few months ago, one of the kids at school offered to trade you his 1978 Joyce Carol Oates Reads “Son of Morning” at NYU card for your 1981 Roth Reviews the Proofs of “Zuckerman Unbound” in his Private Study card. Not that you even cared. You hated trading author cards. It’s just that card collecting gave you access to the youth barter economy. Last July, you traded a signed 1985 Margaret Atwood card for some firecrackers. You traded a 1985 Don DeLillo at the National Book Award Ceremony card for the baseball glove that’s been sitting in your cousin’s basement for a decade.
Your dad changes the channels. A jazz band is playing to a full stadium. Half the crowd cheers, half hold their ears. He flips to another station, which is airing a Broadway production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Your father says, “Christ. They show the same damn plays over and over!”
Your brother, Tom, recommends the Classics of Greek Drama Channel. Your father retorts, “Same thing; they’ve got a seven-play rotation, followed by minor-league experts reading their sub-standard scholarly work. Though, I did like that young woman from Berkeley who was on last week—”
Tom interrupts, “Mina Andersole! Everyone’s talking about her lately!”
And they certainly were. Her Lacanian critique of Euripides’ Electra was shocking and bold—to some. The morning after her televised reading, you overheard the playground chatter at school: “Did you watch that Andersole woman read her essay on the Greek drama channel? It was amazing!” Someone else commented, “Whoever thought that Orestes’s revenge was motivated by an unconscious need to compensate for his abrupt removal from the environment that fostered his pre-linguistic identity formation?” You had no idea what the hell your peers were talking about. You’d gotten horrible grades in Literary Theory classes. Nonetheless, this reading had such an immediate cultural effect that some kids already had Mina Andersole jerseys. A limited first edition printing of her Scholars Trading Card was on backorder everywhere, and some people believed that once Andersole’s card becomes available, there’d be a higher demand for it than the king of all Scholar cards: the 1982 Stephen Greenblatt Reads a Draft of “Towards a Poetics of Culture” at Oxford.
Your father changes the station again. On channel eight, analysts critique a painting by Guy LeLullod. You wish you could watch some sports, but there aren’t any sports on TV because nobody cares about athletics; because sports attract social deviants, non-conformists, communists, atheists, drug users, the promiscuous, and the immoral. Athletes, you’ve been told, hate America. They want your children to hate America too. Their goal is to transform America into a godless society. They want to destroy the sacred institution of marriage by seducing men’s loyalties and passions, which should otherwise be rooted in family. They despise intelligence, along with our entire heritage of great books and dramas and paintings and songs. They refuse to honor reading as our national pastime.
At least the government permits baseball. Were it not for the National Endowment for the Sports, baseball would have perished a long time ago. Also, academic institutions help keep the game alive: a number of colleges offer a Masters in Fine Baseball. These programs are excessively competitive, very few give scholarships, and of course, there’s no promise that you’d go on to play Major League Baseball after graduation. You might have better access to a regional league, if lucky, but you’d have to supplement your hobby by adjunct teaching courses on Intro to Playing Sports. It’s a nightmare course for teachers: students are required to take the class because otherwise, they’d sit around all day and get fat. Yet, Intro to Sports is universally hated. Most students fail: they refuse to do anything other than sit in the middle of the football field, chain smoke, and read Kafka.
You think of all this: the enormous college loans you’d have to pay off, the difficulty of even getting drafted onto a Independent League team, let alone receiving a Player Development Contract from an AA team with major league affiliation, and the social shame inherent to a career based on an impractical vocation. As the reasons why you shouldn’t devote your life to baseball pile up, you catch a glimpse of a commercial on the TV. And old man is at a typewriter, clunking away. He looks terribly important. He turns and faces the camera. “Hi. I’m John Updike,” he says. He lifts his pale, ancient leg so that everyone can see his Nike shoes. They look horrible on him; they’re hanging off his bones, and you can see varicose veins coursing beneath his flaking skin. He’s promoting a new line of shoes called “Air Updikes.” Updike says, “When Rabbit runs, he runs with Nike.”
You rush to your bedroom. You’ve got a project to finish, anyway. Your school requires you to participate in the weekly art competition, and for this round, the theme is “Our Lives, Our Flowers.” You were given a clay flowerpot, upon which you must to paint something that relates to the theme.
This year, you’ve finished last place nine times, consecutively. You feel no incentive to follow the rules anymore. They’ll call you a quitter or a sore loser, but who cares? After all, it’s not fair how they overburden you with art all day. There’s mandatory art class, for one. Then, at recess, you’re expected to do something creative. All the popular kids hang out on the field and perform scenes from Shakespeare plays, or they pull easels and paint from the activity bin. Once, you saw Billy Crawford practicing a ballet dance all by himself, and you pulled him aside. You said, “Hey, if I can find a basketball, would you like to play one-on-one?” He tilted his head and replied, “James, nobody plays sports during recess! You’re such a dork!” As if art class and recess weren’t enough, parents and teachers “encouraged” children to do after-school competitive arts. You’ve about had it with Matisse and Merce Cunningham.
Now, you’ve got this fucking flowerpot and you have to paint thought-provoking crap on it. Something about life. Something that can speak to everyone’s values. Undoubtedly, your peers are painting their families. They’re doing it artfully: one kid’s going to depict his mother’s skin in Warhol-neon exuberance, and another will use the Picasso’s Steamroller technique to flatten his family’s three dimensions into two. You could easily represent your father immersed in a pink, Monet mist, and explain that the nebulous shroud symbolizes your father’s greatness permeating all of life. You could adopt the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic, splatter paint all over the pot haphazardly, and tell everyone it’s a portrait of your brother. Instead, you etch the names of all the New York Yankees around the pot’s perimeter, along with all player statistics spanning from 1926 to now, 1987.
You anticipate what will happen at the competition. The judge—some San Francisco Art Institute grad student (who’ll ask your female peers, in private, if they’d like to pose nude for one of his “studies on form”)—will hold up your creation for all to see. He’ll say, “I don’t see how this contributes to the conversation about Our Lives, Our Flowers. All these names; who are they? They’re all men. Are you trying to be ironic about sexism? And what are these numbers? Some kind of commentary on using Systems Theory to evaluate art? What’s the New York Yankees? Is that a ballet troupe? Sounds familiar.”
You’ll say, “They’re baseball players.”
He’ll gasp. Everyone will take a sharp breath at once, and when the shock settles, they’ll roar with laughter.
The judge will say, “Putting sports and art together is like trying to staple Jell-O to a tree.”
Humor. Laughter. Everyone loves a witty judge. You’ll explain, “As much as you don’t like it, baseball is my life. I was supposed to express something about my life, and—”
“Our lives!” he’ll say. “Nobody cares about baseball. It’s too difficult to understand, and it’s not like ballplayers are trying to make it easier for us, with all their difficult rules and jargon and statistics. Besides, these days, who has time to watch a two hour game? Who has time to play? It requires attention and energy, and frankly, after a full day’s work, why would anyone want to do more work? Duh! That’s why we read.”
You’ll glance into the audience, hoping that someone—some social deviant of a father—would stand and speak on your behalf. You’ll only see amused faces. Even worse, you’ll notice the school psychologist approaching you parents. She’ll tap them on the shoulder, whisper, then walk away. Your parents will look ashamed.
The judge will say, “James, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes, the artist doesn’t know his intentions. I once did this nude study of a college freshman, and… never mind. What I’m saying is, maybe, unconsciously, you were mirroring Warhol’s method of elevating low culture to a higher—”
“Warhol was a hack,” you’ll say. The crowd will boo so loud that the windows will rattle. You’ll look out into the audience and see parents throwing their hotdog condiments at the back of your father’s head, dumping their popcorn in your mother’s hair, spitting at your brother.
You don’t want this to happen, but no matter what you do with your flowerpot—whether you keep the Yankees theme, or play by the rules and produce something generic—it’s going to suck. You have three days left before the competition. How many more times must you go through this? Why not take this instance as a motivational opportunity, a chance to stand up for yourself, to express your passion with pride, to form a plan of action that will lead you to become what you’ve always wanted to become?
You have an idea. You can find a mentor, someone who will take you seriously. As it is, one of the great modern regional baseball players, Dave Winfield, has a second job at a gas station near Stanford University. He works the nightshift because he plays ball all day. You look at your watch and devise a plan. In an hour, your parents and brothers will be in bed, asleep and dreaming of artistic utopia. You’ll steal your father’s car, drive to the gas station, and say to Dave Winfield, “I want to be a baseball player. Can you help me?” He couldn’t possibly turn you down; to dissuade a prospective ballplayer is to contribute to the sport’s death.
You put the flowerpot aside and wait for your parents to retire for the night. You can hear the television downstairs, a commercial for Cadillac automobiles. A deep voice speaks, “My name is Robert Pinsky, and there are two things I can’t live without: poetry and Cadillacs…”