“One need never leave the confines of New York,” Frank O’Hara writes in “Meditations in an Emergency,” “to get all the greenery one wishes—I can’t even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there’s a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not totally regret life.” Greenery may be a euphemism for sex here, but O’Hara is also making a serious point about the sometimes false distinction between the “natural” and man-made world. For O’Hara, everything in the world is “natural,” including buses and subways. Steel and rubber didn’t drop from the sky.

I thought of these lines while I was reading Niranjana Krishnan’s piece in Aeon this morning on the difference between synthetic and natural chemicals. People often think that synthetic chemicals are more dangerous than “natural” ones, but that’s not the case: “Many people believe that chemicals, particularly the man-made ones, are highly dangerous. After all, more than 80,000 chemicals have been synthesised for commercial use in the United States, and many have been released into the environment without proper safety testing. Should we be afraid of the synthetic chemicals that permeate our world?  While it is not possible to compare the toxicity of all natural and synthetic chemicals, it is worth noting that the five most toxic chemicals on Earth are all naturally found. When it comes to pesticides, some of the newer man-made versions are remarkably safe to humans; and at high doses, these pesticides are as toxic as table salt and aspirin. Rats continually exposed to low doses of these pesticides (ie, doses found in the environment) don’t develop cancer or problems in growth and reproduction. In fact, toxins produced by plants cause cancer at the same rate as synthetic chemicals, and we ingest a lot more of the plant toxins . . . All substances (natural and artificial) are harmful if the exposure is high enough.” Read the rest.

Since we’re on the topic, read Charles T. Rubin’s review of Mastery of Nature: Promises and Prospects, too: The . . . ‘project’ of ‘mastery of nature’ is not a project in the same way that my perennial effort to clean out my basement is a project. I attempt to clean my basement as one among many efforts which may serve disparate or shared ends. But the project of mastery of nature was self-consciously articulated by its intellectual proponents as a comprehensive horizon, a world view, a Weltanschauung. In Martin Heidegger’s terms, as Mark Blitz points out in his contribution to this volume, it is ‘an understanding of being’ or ‘a dispensation of being.’”

In other news: “A Berlin court on Friday ruled that the city’s renowned all-boys State and Cathedral Choir had not been sexist when it rejected a 9-year-old girl’s application. ‘The acoustic pattern of a choir is part of its artistic freedom,’ the presiding judge said. The court also found sufficient evidence of a ‘boys’ choir sound.’” Good.

The Spectator to launch an American print edition: “The Spectator, which has published weekly out of London since 1828, will launch a US edition this fall. Spectator USA has had a successful digital-only presence in America since the spring of 2018. It will publish its first monthly US print edition on October 1, only 191 years after the launch of the London edition. ‘Better late than never,’ says Andrew Neil, Chairman of The Spectator worldwide.”

Graham Greene in Havana: “Greene discovered Havana in 1954, enthralled by its cocktail of capitalist vice, casinos, burlesque cabarets, drug peddling and prostitution. He made multiple visits, including a key one in November 1957, when he began writing Our Man in Havana. This trip had a possible secondary focus, keeping his eyes and ears open to Fidel Castro’s year-old insurrection against Fulgencia Batista’s military regime on behalf of his wartime employer, MI6.”

Mark Oppenheimer praises Pittsburgh’s Amazing Books & Records and its owner Eric Ackland: “He seems to have read or listened to everything in his shop, from Isaac Asimov to Michael Connelly to that small-press biography of a dead Hasidic master. He’ll gladly neglect the endless task of computerizing his shelf-busting inventory to talk with you about his beloved 19th-century authors like George Eliot and Dostoyevsky, or his fine selection of Jewish theology. On his way to becoming an Orthodox Jew in his 30s, Ackland briefly took an interest in Christian apologetics, and one day last winter we talked G.K. Chesterton as the store’s hi-fi piped early Pat Benatar. ‘A bookstore clerk or owner is inevitably something of a therapist,’ Ackland, 47, said more recently. ‘I’ve worked dozens of retail and restaurant jobs, and this is the one that seems to invite the greatest degree of intimacy, probably because people think that the shop-person doesn’t have anything to do but read and talk.’”

Essay of the Day:

In Harper’s, Rich Cohen writes about that crazy American thing, the annual NFL Scouting Combine:

“The combine is an annual showcase, beginning in late February, where around three hundred top college football players, each carefully screened and invited, participate in a battery of tests, weigh-­ins, exams, interviews, contests—of speed, strength, athleticism, agility—before an audience of N.F.L. scouts, coaches, general managers, and owners. It’s where N.F.L. teams gather the information they’ll use in the upcoming N.F.L. Draft, which will take place over three days in Nashville, Tennessee, at the end of April. At the combine, players run, catch, and weave through cones—‘the gauntlet’—on the artificial turf of Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts—70,000 seats beneath a retractable roof. They then head to the convention center, where, with its 83 meeting rooms and 566,000 feet of exhibition space, they meet would-­be employers and coaches, then stand before members of the press—hundreds of reporters who cover them the way reporters on the ag beat cover hogs at the Des Moines Pork Convention.

“Only a handful of writers showed up for the first combines in the 1980s. There were ten times as many when I arrived in Indianapolis last winter, reporters from every N.F.L. city as well as from TV and radio, a sea of cameras and recorders. Several national roundtable shows (on ESPN, Fox Sports, N.F.L. Network) broadcast live from the convention center, using the trading floor as a backdrop. If you’re a football fan—and, let’s face it, in a nation where more than 100 million people watch the Super Bowl, who isn’t?—your future is mapped in this room: future stars and future busts, future two-­minute drives and future fourth-­quarter collapses, future ­D.U.I.s and future cases of spousal abuse, future concussed being taken away on future stretchers, future Hall of Famers and future mediocrities. Most of us live in the past. That’s human nature. They say you can’t live life backward, but you can and do. The N.F.L. Combine is one of the few places I’ve been—the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is another—that’s all about what’s coming, not what’s been. Being here means you believe, Trump or no Trump, in the continued existence of America and American football, because American football is the sport of American exceptionalism and American greatness.

“I’d been at the combine for not quite five hours and already seen a dozen things I’d categorize as surreal. I’d seen an agent tell a player to go back to the room and put on the shoes with the heels. I’d heard a young man, a huge man nearly six and a half feet tall, addressed, by a tiny reporter, as ‘Big Baby.’ I’d listened to an expert dismiss a twenty-two-year-old known as Lil’Jordan Humphrey, a receiver from Texas, as slow because it took him 4.75 seconds to run 40 yards. ‘Top teams are looking for something in the four-point-five range,’ the expert explained.

“I was eager to see future stars of the game tested and judged, and to see how the teams operate at their great merchandise convention. I believed that seeing this strange event, which, with its spectacle of young men made to perform for old men, resembles a Detroit Auto Show—you check out the engine, run your hand along the body, then slide behind the wheel to get an even better sense—would let me understand my country in a new way. Tom Wolfe published an essay in this magazine thirty years ago. In it, he criticized the novelists of his day, whom, lost in the minutiae of their cosseted lives, he believed were missing the weird realities of modern America. He called on them to leave their sinecures, to leave their heads, and go to the stadiums and convention centers where they could see what the hell America was really about. That essay was called ‘Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.’ I suppose that’s what I was doing at the combine. I was stalking the billion-footed beast.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Santa Maddalena

Poem: Mark Jarman, “Memory Song”

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