Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Off Year

Bessie Braddock: Sir, you are drunk.

Churchill: And you, madam, are ugly. But in the morning, I shall be sober.

When I was three, I broke my right leg. Not in a cool way either. For reasons which I can't recall, I had a toy garbage truck among my various playthings. I have no earthly conception as to what I did with it--threw out my spare Legos, I suppose. Anyways, while running around in my grandparents' house, I got my right foot stuck in the back of said truck. My foot stayed put, but the rest of my body kept going forward, and I received a very early lesson in torque and the laws of physics when my right leg snapped. Spiral break. Not very good.

I'm relying on secondhand memories here--there's no real trauma resulting from this accident. I got a half-body cast and was doped up on morphine half the time, so I can't give you the true specifics. I had a talking Teddy Ruxpin doll at the time, and the morphine convinced me he was real. There's that.

I guess the only thing you could say was that, from then on in, I walked a little slower, a little more cautiously. My leg was wrapped in a cast, and when it came off, it took from me a sense of abandon. I was constantly prepared for a fall.

Over the past year, I've made a conscious and largely successful effort to improve my mind. I don't mean this in the sense of actually making myself smarter, but I've been trying to do more with what I've got. It's worked! I think it's worked. Friends of mine have commented on how much I've "improved". It's my own mini-redemption story, right? There's nothing America loves more than something that used to be tarnished. My confidence and sense of clarity--the idea that I have some kind of purpose--have never been higher.

It's not enough.

I've always been fascinated by the idea of physicality. We have bodies, and I think this is very strange to us. More than once, while staring into a mirror after washing my face or brushing my teeth, I've been struck by a sense of dissociation. The basic act of moving my hand, or the sensation of heat or cold becomes alien. Athleticism is a way to reconcile this--we can conquer the world around us through speed, strength, and endurance. We can become masters of our surroundings by making them surmountable.

Or, at least, some of us can. For my entire life, I've grown up with the belief there is such a thing as a "born" athlete, someone who effortlessly glides through life's pickup basketball games and backyard football contests due to an inherent advantage. Whether it's great size, fleetfootedness, or merely an advanced coherence of movement, it's not something that I think could ever be taught, or learned. It's merely inherent. You are, or you aren't.

But I know that I can remake my mind--strengthen the connection between concepts, beliefs, and expressions to form a greater whole. Why not my body?

I still believe that some athletes are simply born that way. You can tell by the way they move--I met Rangers' center fielder Josh Hamilton once, and he practically bounced down the hall, moving with a certain economy on the balls of his feet. It's something you have to accept if you want to do what I want to do.

I want to make myself into an athlete.

We've already gone over why the grand path of my life hasn't been leading in this direction. But this path is mutable. Perhaps for the majority of us, our surroundings dictate our future. You could have two kids with an equal amount of natural athletic talent, but one of them has an expansive backyard, a lot of free time, and dozens of other kids in the neighborhood with which to play team sports. The other broke his leg when he was three and spent the rest of his life watching his step. Which one would you pick first for a team?

I think this realization is an advantage. I may be far behind, but all I need to do is commit--to treat the base and the summit as one. I could be in for a fall, it's true, or a disappointment, but defiance at the precipice is a virtue. Can you make yourself something you're not? I plan on finding out now. In the morning, I'll be sober.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Myth of Nomar

I have been so terribly irritable over the past weeks, and I think it's Al Reyes' fault.

There are other factors at work. While the wide framework of my life is solid, I've been beset by a series of petty failures--the worst kind, to be honest. Ideally, in the event of a life-altering reversal of fortune, you have some kind of support system--friends and family rally around you if you're fired, or sick, or otherwise indisposed. Fail at something stupid, though, and you will receive no pity.

The core of it is this: I haven't been able to write for the past month. This happens sometimes, and though the reasons vary, it always comes down to procrastination. I spent hours today avoiding the whole writing process--having to actually translate the clear threads of my imagination into something muddled and lacking.

To that end, I tried (and failed) to do the following things:
  • Get the new version of AIM to work on my computer.
  • Get through even a quarter of Samurai Shodown II (one of those classic fighting games that requires one to have methamphetamine reflexes to even dream of defeating the computer. So far, the pattern seems to be as such: start match, spend twenty seconds having every attack blocked with a dismissive effortlessness by the computer, lose match, consider throwing controller, and, ultimately, sink back into chair with a certain amount of despair and embarrassment.)
  • Respond to e-mails sent by loved ones.
  • Go to the gym.
God, I suck. The only thing I'm good at, in times like these, is writing. It's the cure-all. But up until fifteen minutes ago, I couldn't do it. It's somewhat liberating to be actually doing this, and someday I may write about the process, as it applies to me.

That, kids, is why the basic idea of Al Reyes has put me in a dark mood.

**********
At twenty-three years of age, Nomar Garciaparra hit .306 with 30 home runs for the Boston Red Sox.

At twenty-four, Nomar hit .323 with 35 home runs.

At twenty-five, Nomar hit .357 with 27 home runs.

I've always liked baseball, but I didn't really love it until Anthony Nomar Garciaparra (his famous middle name, which defined him to the world, became one of those words, which leapt above their original meanings and came to stand for so much more) became the starting shortstop for the Red Sox. Here he was, in the full flower of youth, so audaciously talented that, to a 13-year-old with glasses and acne, he didn't quite seem real. Nomar, along with the hated Derek Jeter and the distant Alex Rodriguez, heralded a new age of shortstoppery in baseball.

Shortstops had been, for a long period of time, smaller and scrappier, defense-first types, broken only by outliers like Cal Ripken Jr. Nomar was a sinewy howitzer, both on the field and at-bat. Two images stand out to me, when thinking of Nomar: his uncanny ability to rove into the hole between second and third base, spear a sharp grounder, then (all in one motion), turning, jumping, and firing the ball to first; and his power-laden swing, which (preceded by a series of ritualistic toe taps and glove adjustments that became iconic) seemed to produce naught but frightening line drives, at every angle. He was otherwordly. There was no effort to his ability.

We will never know his true talent level, because of Al Reyes. Near the end of his age twenty-five season, Reyes hit Nomar in the left wrist with a fastball.

Life is rarely cinematic. There was no hushed silence, no frozen movie frame--Nomar was hit, but he seemed fine., and he had an entire offseason to rest it up. In his age twenty-six season, Nomar hit .372, which to this day doesn't seem like an actual number. He wasn't even in his prime yet.

In his age twenty-seven season, the wrist began to act up. He missed a hundred and forty-two games.

In his age twenty-eight and twenty-nine seasons, he hit a combined .305. He could still mash. But it seemed to us, at the time, that Nomar was struggling, at least a bit. He was always aggressive, but his walks fell, as pitchers felt they could challenge him more often. More and more of those line drives turned into weak popups. He was falling off a mountain in slow motion.

In his age thirty season, Nomar Garciaparra played in only thirty-eight games for Boston, before being traded to the Cubs. The Red Sox won the World Series that year. Al Reyes' fastball had finally found its mark.

I've reached a point in my life where some things I once found essential are falling by the wayside. I can't remember my sixth-grade history teacher's name, or the names of the next-door neighbors at our old house. They're lost in the haze. I wonder if Nomar remembers what it felt like to truly turn on a pitch, the way only an elite hitter can. For the past two years, he's been far below adequate. Once the toast of Boston, a future Hall of Famer, news of Nomar's potential retirement due to "constant physical ailments" is buried deep in an article about something else entirely.

Don't pity him. Nomar is a millionaire several times over, married to a beautiful and talented woman--his life has been better, on balance, than billions and billions of others.

But the man used to be able to do something, and he no longer can. That alone is a kind of death.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Loud Desperation

I play catcher on my company's beer league softball team*. We hold our games in an athletic complex set a ways into a forested area of Farmington, hidden just far enough in the dark forests that characterize this area of the country so that the entire area is plunged into a frankly primal blackness when the last of the field lights are turned off. It's a fun diversion and a nice way to build camraderie--I would suggest that everyone, at some point during the year, get involved in some form of competitive sport (according to your relative athleticism, of course--I stay away from pickup football because it inevitably forces me into covering someone. Let me be the first to own up to this--I am an appallingly bad cornerback, safety, or linebacker. Inevitably, the game takes on a deja vu-esque aspect, as the man I'm covering is thrown to, again and again, with little to no interference from me).

*We've gone over this before, but this tells you all you need to know about my relative athleticism.

We're all on the younger side for this league. Your typical beer league softball player emerges from a stable of previous few varieties--the middle-aged former high school baseball stud, the fat guy who can hit home runs, and the old guy who can place hits wherever he wants. This is a universal thing. To that extent, we've been struggling this season--our skillsets, which include daring baserunning and good outfield defense--are rendered moot by the onslaught of beer-bellied sluggers who can place the ball just out of our reach.

Maturity is another thing we have on them.

You wouldn't think so, but it's true. We had a double-header Wednesday night, and the leadoff hitter (and shortstop) for the other team complained about the cosmic injustice of every close call pretty much as soon as the game started. He was a lanky white guy, late 30s, with a shaved head and a knee brace--the kind of man whose jittery intensity was apparent from every flared nostril and wide-eyed gesticulation. He would make hard, risky throws when he had no chance of getting a runner out, which is a rather boorish thing to do in a league without batting helmets.

Early in the second game, I popped out in foul territory to the third baseman. My roommate Phil (who has, and I would be remiss if I did not mention this, a really excellent arm) was coaching third base, and evidently was a bit too slow in moving out of the way of the third baseman's path. The catch was made, and before running off the field, the third baseman threw the ball at Phil.

"WATCH where you're going. You have to get out of the WAY!" said the third baseman.

"I was out of the way," said Phil, who used to coach high school baseball, so he's somewhat familiar with the rules.

"NO you WEREN'T," said the shortstop, now choosing to join in. "Why aren't you PAYING ATTENTION!?"

I mean, what do you think this is? A game?

***********

Despite my promise to ignore news related to the election, I've found myself drawn to a bizarre phenomenon which I promise I'm going to tie to that asshole shortstop at some point. I'm voting for Obama, just to get that out of the way, for reasons as complex as his views on the economy, and as simple as the fact that, if you fuck up running a country for eight straight years, you don't get another crack at it.

I'm open to disagreements from the other side. There is a perfectly legitimate case to be made for voting for John McCain--I just don't think it's as convincing as the counter-argument. All I really require is a set of logical arguments for your guy, and we're cool.

That's not what's been happening, however. Take this article on CNN.com, titled "Rage rising on the McCain campaign trail":

At a rally in Minnesota on Friday, a woman told McCain: "I don't trust Obama. I have read about him and he's an Arab."

McCain shook his head and said, "No ma'am, no ma'am. He's a decent family man...[a] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. That's what this campaign is all about."

One man at the rally said he was "scared of an Obama presidency." McCain later told the man he should not fear Obama.

"I want to be president of the United States, and I don't want Obama to be," he said. "But I have to tell you, I have to tell you, he is a decent person, and a person that you do not have to be scared as President of the United States."

McCain's response was met with boos from the crowd.

And:

One member of the Palin audience in Jacksonville, Florida, Tuesday shouted out "treason." And at another rally in the state Monday, Palin's mention of the Obama-Ayers tie caused one member to yell out: "kill him" -- though it was unclear if it was targeted at Obama or Ayers.

At several recent rallies, Palin has stirred up crowds by mentioning the "liberal media." Routinely, there are boos at every mention of The New York Times and the "mainstream media," both of which are staples of Palin's stump speech.

Some audience members are openly hostile to members of the traveling press covering Palin; one crowd member hurled a racial epithet at an African-American member of the press in Clearwater, Florida, on Monday.

And at a McCain rally in New Mexico on Monday, one supporter yelled out "terrorist" when McCain asked, "Who is the real Barack Obama?" McCain didn't respond.
Here's what we're dealing with:

Bewilderment
Obviously, these people are scared and confused. On some level, I think, this is a natural reaction to being put in a losing position--they've identified with a party and a candidate who are down significantly in the polls, and this upsets them emotionally. That being said, how can you "not figure out how this is happening?" I'm not a huge fan of campaign coverage in general (check out this essay by David Foster Wallace and this one by Matt Taibbi [both in Rolling Stone, unfortunately] to find out why. Basically, it's like a bunch of eighth graders reporting on drama in the cafeteria), but there are thousands of articles out there to tell you why things are happening as they are.

Tantrums
There's a man in a flannel shirt and glasses featured in that article. He looks to be in his late 50s--an avuncular type, someone you'd expect to see reclining on a couch, watching college football with his nieces and nephews. He is SO ANGRY. It's really a sight to see. He's mad--he says it twice, in a half-furious, half-pleading tone. He practically stomps his feet.

Fantasizing
The man who shouted out "Kill him!" at the Palin rally may or may not actually want to kill Barack Obama. What he really wants is an easy solution to his problems. He figures that a loss by John McCain would remove something essential from his life--whether it's security, or financial solvency, or some kind of vague sense that an old and familiar something has been taken from him. And he sees no way to stop this--no way to deal with his problems--other than for Obama to just go away. This kind of adult wishing isn't anything new--it's why books like this:

And books like this:

are actually the exact same book. They're just addressing different fantasies.

Different escapes. These people don't want to deal with reality. They want an escape.

That Really Annoying Way of Arguing, Where You Make a Point that SOUNDS Good, but Doesn't Actually MEAN ANYTHING, and Then You Say "OHHH, I GUESS THAT ARGUMENT'S OVER, YOU HAVE NOTHING TO SAY TO THAT".
There's a lot of that shit going on too.

************

One of the newer members of our team is from the area. He told us that the bald shortstop with the knee brace used to coach youth league baseball, but was fired. He couldn't control his temper. He'd yell at the kids.

What that really means is that he was probably bewildered, and frustrated, and angry, and hoping that somehow, these qualities would lead to a miraculous solution, whereas his kids would, I dunno, win the Little League World Series.

He was fired because he was no older than his kids, emotionally. Maybe even a bit younger.

An adult deals with his or her problems. The trials of the world are difficult, and sometimes life can be overwhelming, but everything can be fixed (if not totally) with a sober assessment of the problem, followed by action. Stomp your feet, get red in the face, hope for a miracle solution, and you will be trampled into dust by the red hooves of history.

"He's an Arab!"

"He's a socialist!"

"He's a terrorist!"

"Kill him!"

That's what they're saying. But it's not what they mean.

They are children.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Jersey Shore, or the Death of the American Dream, Part II: The First Night

I.

"Make sure you wrap everything up, alright?"

Glenn, our landlord for the weekend, smirked. A muscley dude with spiky hair and a tan, he showed no sign of having spent his life at anywhere besides the beach and the clubs. It's not a bad life, necessarily, but it's one that can really only exist in towns such as this one--tourist traps geared around tits and bronzer, just waiting to be washed away by a class-5 hurricane that Pat Robertson can blame on the wrath of an angry God.

After Glenn's warning regarding the level of venereal disease present among the female populace of Seaside Heights (here, I imagined a tiny particle of syphilis, its flagellum spiked and blown out, meandering its way from guido to guido, techno-dancing all the way), we surveyed our surroundings. The place we had rented teetered unsteadily on the border of livable and shithole--two bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room, and a kitchen. Furnishings included a pull-out couch, a tiny refrigerator, and an eight-inch TV. We were going to have to rough it to survive.

The first order of business was exploring the boardwalk.

II

Actually, the first order of business was getting ready, which is unremarkable save for a story which I'm honor-bound to relate.

The weekend was hot as balls, and our air conditioner was barely worthy of the name, so we each relied on different methods of staying cool and dry. I had just finished applying an extra layer of deodorant, when Phil offered a fascinating alternative method, which I hadn't yet considered.

"Do you need some GoldBond powder?" he asked.

Now, I'm an arrogant bastard. Out of everyone who had made that trip, I was the consensus choice for "most likely to get us all killed by mouthing off to the wrong guy". I don't like to admit that I'm wrong. But, in certain situations, I will reveal the limits of my weakness and allow that, yes, perhaps I don't know everything. Case in point: I had never in my life heard of GoldBond powder.

I suppose, at some point, I was familiar with the concept of deodorant powder, but I had neither used nor seen it used. I pointed this out to Phil, who had a quizzical look on his face.

"You know, you put it on you, keeps you dry," he said.

The rest of the crew chimed in with their assent. Apparently everyone had heard of this shit except for me. I felt out of place. What was this strange world, where blowouts ruled the day, where the smell of bronzer permeated the air like the stench of death on a battlefield, where...where...where...

"You use it to GoldBond your nuts."

A beat of time. No one said anything. Everyone looked at Phil.

"Right?" he said.

Pandemonium. Chances are, if you see Phil walking down the street, he'll be fully protected from the evils of genital flop-sweat. He's a better man for it.

III.

The boardwalk was half-continual bar and half-carnival, though clearly catered toward a more adult sensibility than your average sideshow. Our trip up and down the boardwalk was unremarkable, save for a rather ill-advised idea to consume at least one Long Island Iced Tea (aren't we FUCKING HARDCORE, eh?) at each place we stopped. I estimate we each lost something on the order of eighty dollars attempting to win various carnival prizes.

One game in particular enchanted us--a giant roulette wheel which promised an authentic MLB jersey as a prize. AP won a Mike Schmidt Phillies jersey on his first try. Juan countered with a bright orange Cal Ripken Jr. jersey. Struggling only a bit more than our first two winners, Phil took home a Derek Jeter All-Star game uniform.

Ron and I were left with nothing. The vendor, a hefty and good-natured woman with a tattoo spanning her ample chest, implored us to continue, but fortunately for our wallets, it was about time to start hitting the clubs.

IV


I've referenced the concept of a "blowout" several times here without truly describing it. A blowout is a haircut that has found somewhat of a habitat on the skull of your average Jersey guido. Perhaps you want one of your own. Here is a quick guide on how to style your hair in the form of a blowout:
  1. Get the bangin-est, most hardcore, industrial strength hair gel you can possibly find. You may have to order it from shady arms dealers, because in some countries, you can make certain low-grade chemical weapons from this stuff.
  2. Stand in front of a concussion grenade. Wait for it to go off.
  3. When it goes off, use the gel to keep your hair in the exact same place said grenade has left it.
We had decided at the outset of the trip that we would try to blend in as much as possible with the locals, so Ron had brought an impressive array of gel with him. Unfortunately, I was the only one with hair long enough (and silky enough, and beautiful enough, and manly enough) to fashion into blowout shape. Ron handed me a bottle.

"This is probably the second-strongest stuff I have," he said. I shuddered. The strongest stuff was probably toxic.

"I had better have all my fucking hair in the morning," I said, as I went to work.

Andrew is ron to joe: “he’s defining the hairline right now.” 12:35am

I was still getting that shit out of my head three days later.

V

At the beginning of the trip, we had half a notion to institute a rule that would increase the sociability of everyone involved. The rule was as such; were you caught eying a girl, and someone noticed, you had to go talk to her. Phil and I thought this rule was a great idea.

We stood watch on the balcony of Bamboo, apparently the best nightclub in the area, and we observed with a mounting horror just how irrelevant our rule was.

Bright orange neon bamboo trees bathed the place in a hellish light, and techno music blared from three or four separate sources (I was vaguely reminded of sleep-deprivation torture at Guantanamo Bay). The assorted humanity either writhed on the dance floor or chatted at tables.

I looked at one group of girls. Teased-out hair. Deep, bronze-aided tans. Screeching giggles.

I shifted focus to another group. Teased-out hair. Deep, bronze-aided tans. Screeching giggles.

Now disoriented, I spied another group. Teased-out hair. Deep, bronze-aided...wait, was this the same group as before?

Phil shook his head. Behind him, I took a picture of a man with terrible cornrows, and another guy with a graphic t-shirt featuring what looked like an imperial Eagle (used by the Romans, but also by a group of clean-cut German fellows from the 1930s).

"They look the same," he said. "They all look the same."

We left. But we'd be back. The rest of the night is a haze, your typical extended bar-hop, consuming drink after drink at each location until the alcohol has backed up to your eyeballs, until the bare thought of drinking more is getting you more drunk, but you couldn't be, man, there's no way--there's no WAY--you could be more drunk than you are right now, so you feel a sudden need for food and--bless it, bless it--Steaks Unlimited is still open, and the steak sandwiches and cheeseballs taste better than anything you've ever had before in your life, save maybe for the last time you ate something while hammered, and you're all laughing to the blue neon heavens about everything and anything as you all stumble into the apartment, but now AP has decided he needs must swim in the motel pool across the way, so you're cheering him on as he hops the fence and dives in, but now he's trying to get out and he trips and the motel is booing him, which just makes you laugh louder and longer, and you settle back on the floor feeling like ten billion dollars, because this place may be hellish, but it is hilarious, and you've got a whole day-and-a-half left, and

wait

A day-and-a-half?

Suddenly, I began to feel sick.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Jersey Shore, or, the Death of the American Dream: The Drive

I

I can't say the Jersey Shore is the worst place in the world, because I've never been to Turkmenistan.

Before I committed to the idea of a trip to Seaside Heights, New Jersey, my friend Juan, being of a generally honest comportment, made sure I knew what I was getting into.

"We're going to the Jersey Shore," Juan said. "Watch these videos. These are the people we'll be dealing with."



"These are the clubs we'll be attending."



"This is the food we'll be eating."



"Do you still want to come?"

Well, fuck it. At least the cheeseballs will be tasty.

II

So we went, shooting down the east coast like a blood comet, a portent of doom for all to see. Would it be our doom, or the Shore's? We rolled five deep: our planner and driver, the aforementioned Juan; our minister of hair gel and graphic tee-shirts, Ron (also the one who, in a pinch, could pass as a native); AP, champion drinker and latter-day ninja; Phil, my roommate and the man in charge of music; and finally, myself, purveyor of refreshments and widely acclaimed as the one most cynical about our prospects of having a good time.

Immediately, the mood turned ugly. It centered around the snacks.

"You brought baby carrots?" AP said, more of a deflated statement than an actual question.

Heads swiveled. I found myself on the defensive.

"I don't see the problem," I said. "They're nutritious, easily snackable, tasty, and they'll improve your eyesight. Plus, I didn't just bring baby carrots. I brought apples, and pears, and grapes."

Glares all around. AP warily took a carrot. We ended up polishing those carrots off, but at the cost of this conclusion, preserved through the magic of mobile phone updates to Facebook:

Andrew is eating baby carrots on the way to the shore. that’s the last time we put joey d in charge of the food. 5:51pm

I swear, guys. Three years ago I would have totally gone for M&Ms and such. I eat healthier these days. That didn't stop them from expressing abject horror at the mere prospect of eating baby carrots for the entirety of our four hour-ish trip.

Consider this my apology. Next time I'll bring macadamia nuts or something.

III

Have you ever heard of the story of Nate the Snake? It's a Shaggy Dog story, which is a tale that begins with great promise, descends into redundancy, and concludes with infuriating ambiguity. The intent is to stretch it out as long as possible. While stuck in traffic, I took advantage of a captive audience and regaled them with the story for a half an hour.

I won't reproduce it in full. I do want you to finish reading this.

There's this guy, Jake, who gets stuck in a desert, and he's about to die. Just before he does, he happens upon the Garden of Eden, here represented by a lever stuck in the ground, guarded by a talking snake. The snake, named Nate, promises him eternal health and wisdom if he promises to oversee the lever in time of need. The lever will end the world if pushed by the guardian, so he is being given a great responsibility. If, at any time, he judges the world to be past saving, he is to travel to the garden and push the lever.

Jake says yes, and spends his next few years attaining wealth and fame. He visits Nate and the lever now and again, and one day Nate reveals that he has a son, named Sammy. Nate says that it's past time he retired, and wants Jake to train Sammy to be Nate's replacement, after which he wants Jake to kill him in a highly ritualistic manner.

Jake and Sammy travel the world, and when it's finally time, Jake purchases a samurai sword and, with Sammy, travels back to Nate and the lever. He crests a hill, and to his horror, realizes that his brakes have failed. He's pointed straight at the lever that will end the world.

Jake struggles with the steering wheel. He sees Nate next to the lever. He realizes that the only way he can avoid striking the lever and ending the world is if he runs over Nate. So he turns to Sammy, tears streaming down his face, and screams:

"BETTER NATE THAN LEVER!!!

Groans. Facebook updates send the highly abridged version to the world at large.

Keith Jackson is is amazed that they made it to the Jersey Shore without killing Joe D. 9:36pm

IV

The traffic soon abated, and we hit the home stretch. The GPS system in the car showed us on a long strip of land, surrounded by the bright blue of the Shore. We'd made it.

The character of the land is quickly revealed in the stores on the side of the road. We wound our way through an endless strip mall, which seemed to consist only of tanning salons. Tanning salons and Italian places. Five spires, brightly colored garish neon, soon rose in the distance. The GPS led us to them, as if we were wise men following a perverse Star of Bethlehem, inexorably drawn to the birthplace of some wretched Anti-Christ, just waiting to devour us in its birth throes.

But we ended up being a thirty-second walk from the cheeseball place. So it all evened out.

Our minds weary, our legs numb, and our nostrils foully assailed by Juan's unfortunate gastric tendencies, we spilled out of the SUV and surveyed our surroundings. A motel next to our apartment shrieked with the cries of high schoolers on a prom bender. The boardwalk of Seaside Heights lounged not two minutes away from us, uncoiling like a great Wyrm, grown fat on hair gel and silicone.
Bike-mounted cops rode past us, giving us and legions of tattooed, muscled guidos the evil eye.

This was truly the raging hemorrhoid of America.

We had arrived.

It was going to be a great time.

NEXT: The First Night, or what parts of it I can recall.

Friday, July 25, 2008

A Metal Primer: Blacker than the Blackest Black, Times Infinity

What's the most embarrassing album you own?

For most of you, I'd bet on some early pop crap you bought on a lark as a kid. Backstreet Boys, LFO, something of that nature. If you asked that question to my parents, it'd have to be Jermaine Jackson's Jermaine, which I found while flipping through their joint record collection once. Both of them deny ever purchasing it, but it's there, which meant that, at one point in their lives, my parents thought that buying the third- or fourth-most talented (depending on your opinion of LaToya) Jackson kid would somehow enrich their lives, musically. I've never let them live that down.

My most embarrassing album trumps all of yours by a wide margin. I am the longtime owner of Blind Guardian's Nightfall in Middle Earth. This is a concept album about J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings. Only it's not about the coherent, somewhat familiar story we all watched on the big screen a few years back. This album is based around the Silmarillion, which is Tolkein's attempt to create a detailed backstory for his fictional universe.

Nightfall in Middle Earth is based on a HISTORY TEXTBOOK for a FICTIONAL UNIVERSE. I own this album. I've never read the book. I bet that copy of Pop by N'Sync doesn't look so bad now, does it?

Welcome to the Lovecraftian horror that is my taste in music. What can I say? I loves me some metal.

Metal is, out of all the major genres, perhaps the most misunderstood. Now, I am by no means an expert on the subject, but I am a pretentious know-it-all who can bullshit with the best of them. To that end, I've decided to provide all of you with a quick primer on metal music.

Like all good musical genres, metal is as much about the music's subject matter as it is the actual sound. Metal covers a wide variety of topics, but it's very important to understand what is and is not metal.

Death is very metal. Many metal songs revolve around the concept of death, or someone dying, or how life is pointless and we all should die--this is basically a very tiresome concept in the realm of metal. Go to a Metallica concert and request, say "Kill 'Em All", and they'll probably play it, but with kind of a jaundiced ennui. Death is old hat to the experienced metalhead.

To this end, Murder, Suicide, and occasionally Arson are all metal. Burglary, Kidnapping, Tax Evasion, and Treason are not metal. Murder and suicide are prickly topics in the metal community, primarily as a result of one Norweigian black metal band called Mayhem.

Now, Mayhem is not a band I listen do. Doesn't do it for me, and besides, their story is really all you need to know. At one point in the band's history, they employed guitarist Oystein Aarseth (known as Euronymous) and vocalist Per Yngve Ohlin (known as Dead). Bear with me on the names.

According to the rest of the band (keep in mind that this is a group of people who gave themselves names like "Necrobutcher" and "Hellhammer"), Dead was a bit of a weird guy. He would bury his clothes in the ground prior to concerts, and dig them up so they'd have the "smell of the grave" still on them. Upon finding a dead bird by the road one day, he put it in a jar and would smell the jar onstage, so he could "sing with the smell of death in his nostrils".

You can see how he got his name.

Did I mention that I don't listen to this band? Just wanted to reiterate it.

Dead was melancholic, humorless, and depressed, so it should come as very little surprise that, in a woodland cabin that the band shared, he committed suicide with a shotgun. This would be about 1991 or so. He was discovered by his friend and bandmate, Euronymous.

What would you do in this situation, after freaking out? I'd like to think you'd call the police or something of that nature. I don't know whether or not Euronymous freaked out, but he did not call the police. He went to a local shop, purchased a disposable camera, arranged certain items around Dead's...well, dead body, and took several photographs of it. One of these photographs was later used for the cover of the Mayhem album Dawn of the Black Hearts.

Rumors surfaced that the band had made a stew out of Dead's brain, and had constructed necklaces out of of his skull fragments. The band vehemently denied the first accusation. Brain stew! Ridiculous and offensive. Brain stew? What kind of freaks do you think you're dealing with here?

The second part was entirely true.

Euronymous, incidentally, was later stabbed to death by fellow band member Varg Vikernes, otherwise known as "Count Grishnack". Vikernes claimed that most of the 26 stab wounds in Euronymous' body were not his fault. The stab wound right in the middle of Euronymous' forehead was entirely his fault, however, and Vikernes remains in jail to this day.

So yes. Murder, Suicide, Depression, Darkness, etc., etc.---all metal.

War is also very metal, perhaps because it combines all those things you've read about above. What's interesting is that the further in the past the war is, the more metal it is. For example:

The Iraq War is not metal at all, but The War of the Roses is.

The Vietnam War is only a little bit metal, while The Punic Wars are incredibly metal.

The cutoff point, I think, is World War I, which is very metal. World War II is not metal. Perhaps that's because World War II contained Genocide, which is surprisingly not metal, whereas World War I involved Trench Warfare--very, very metal.

You could probably say that The Past is, in general, metal, while The Present is variable. The Future is almost never metal, unless it involves Post-Apocalyptic Situations or Historical Anachronisms. Take Star Wars, which is not metal in and of itself. If Luke Skywalker was a Viking and had used a Battleaxe, Star Wars would probably be the most metal movie in existence. This would be despite Luke riding in Spaceships (not metal).

Vikings are probably the epitome of metal. There is nothing that is not metal about Vikings. Think about it: you have essentially nihilistic medieval warriors, raiding and fighting for the hell of it, dressed in wolf/bearskin, covered in blood, and wielding all kinds of nasty pain instruments. That's metal as fuck.

My brother (who is in a metal band of his own, The Arkham White) loaned me a CD once by Amon Amarth, called With Oden On Our Side. The first song was a rocking tune that described a viking raid on a village. Awesome stuff. Great for pumping yourself up before sports.

The second song was about a viking raid on a village. OK. Maybe it's part of a triptych?

Once I got to the fifth song, which dealt with the heretofore-unexplored territory of a village, raided by vikings, I kind of realized that the whole album was going in one very basic direction. But at least none of the members have murdered one another.

Makeup is not metal. By extension, Hair Metal is not metal. Wearing Paint that Makes You Look Like a Corpse is very metal, just keep the spray out of your hair, wuss.

Faeries are not metal. Elves are actually very metal, as are Dwarves, Orcs, Trolls, Goblins, Wizards, and most assorted fantasy concepts that don't seem too feminine.

Religion in and of itself is not metal. Aspects of religion are totally metal. Jesus is not metal, but Crucifixtion is incredibly metal. God is not metal, but Satan has his own branch of metal.
Concept albums are very metal, but the concept needs to be Obscure, Socially Awkward, and Repellent to Women. Kamelot's Epica is a concept album about Faust. We've already mentioned Nightfall in Middle Earth. Queensryche's Operation Mindcrime "tells a story of a young man, Nikki, awoken from a coma suddenly remembering work done as a political assassin, then falling in love with a nun, mixing around with heroin, seeking help, then being ordered to assassinate his love", and oh God, just kill me now.

Nu-metal is not metal, and it's just embarrassing.

This is metal, though it is equally as embarrassing:



Running through the forest behind your parent's house whilst wearing a wizard hat and carrying a torch in broad fucking daylight is, unfortunately, metal.

Really, it's just a lot easier these days for me to listen to funk. Funk is not metal, but Sex, Dancing, Getting Up, Getting Down, and Booty Shaking are all funky.

James Brown is both metal and funky. Let's end this with a little bit of the Godfather of Soul, in his prime, to make you forget about vikings and Dead and whatever.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Worst Party Ever

The last place I expected my views on theology to change was at a party.

Like all good young Catholic boys, I had some semblance of belief drummed into me as I grew up. I took to it for a bit, even indulging the briefest of notions that I would one day become a priest. The years faded that belief, and I left college fully agnostic, leaning toward atheist.

For this particular party, I had been invited by someone with whom I had a passing acquaintance. There's always a risk in going to parties blind to the identity of the participants--you run the risk of experiencing a nightmare scenario. Bondage freaks. Nazi sympathizers. Nudists. Furries. My brother and I were trapped at a gathering once where the following things happened, in no particular order.
  • The hostess claimed she wrote editorials for the New York Times, and got testy when I asked her pertinent questions, like what she wrote about, when she published it, and how exactly she had managed to convince the Old Gray Lady to bump William Safire off the page for a week.
  • Her boyfriend made a loud and extended farting noise with his hands. He did this in a restaurant. Angry that I didn't find it funny, he decided a second-go-round was in order.
  • Fancying herself the arbiter of musical quality, the hostess dismissed my brother's band as one of "those" bands after hearing nothing but the band's name.
We left quickly and said nothing about it until noon the following day, when both of us turned to one another simultaneously and said something along the lines of "What the HELL!"

This recent party, fortunately, had only the vice of being dull. I suppose it just was, like a million parties before it. People mingled. Music was played. I didn't know anyone there, and I wasn't really feeling the crowd, so I parked myself in front of an NBA playoff game and started drinking. And you know, it wasn't that bad. I had just finished calling Sam Cassell a "worthless sci-fi reject" when the host brought out a microphone and speaker.

"OK, everyone," he said. "It's time for the PIE-EATING contest!"

There are phrases in life whose mere utterance causes fear and anxiety. "We need to have a talk," is one. "I think the condom broke," is another. "Remember how your house USED TO have three stories?" is one I bet you don't hear all that often. "I just injected you with a fast-acting poison, Mr. Bond," is just patently ridiculous. But none of these compares to the sheer terror I experienced at the mere mention of a pie-eating contest.

These things have their place, you see. Were I at, say,, a county fair, or a sock hop*, I doubt I'd have given a pie-eating concept a second thought. There are PERFECTLY APPROPRIATE venues for the rapid and competitive consumption of circular arrangements of fruit and crust.

*What is a sock hop, exactly? Am I using this term correctly?

But we are young, you see. We are young and we live in the state of Connecticut, where one must strangle as much fun as possible out of every night, 'cause the state itself isn't helping one bit. It seemed to me like taking time out of preparing for nuclear Armageddon by...well, having a pie-eating contest.

My horror at spending one of my limited allotted Saturday nights watching a pie-eating contest was compounded rapidly. Two contestants were plucked from the crowd. One was nondescript, someone I had no connection to. The other was a guy whom I had encountered briefly at yet ANOTHER party. He took it upon himself to narrate a Dodgers game in the style of noted announcer Vin Scully. He did this for five minutes. No one was paying attention to him.

But he had the stage now, and he took advantage of it. Have you ever watched a professional wrestling show? Much of it isn't really wrestling--it's buildup, posturing, speechifying, storytelling. The kid must have had a bloody library of that stuff in his head, 'cause he launched into a lengthy diatribe regarding the world of pain his opponent was about to travel. My head started to throb.

The host brought out a belt. Not a real belt. A cardboard facsimile of one of those over-sized championship belts for boxers. A trophy. This had been done before, I realized. The whole point of this party was to provide a venue for pie eating. I sank heavily into a chair, the full Lovecraftian horror of the whole happening attacking the corners of my diminishing sanity. The curtain had been thrown back on the whole charade. But it was far too late.

The two contestants dug in. I felt the sky tremble. A great white light appeared, and out of it stepped God himself. I was dimly ware of the kid I disliked beginning to pull away, his face covered in a purple jam. I stood, gaping in awe--whether of the spectacle, or Yahweh, I cannot say to this day.

God approached me. What do you say in a situation like this? A million questions flew to my mind, but were dismissed, one by one, like so many imperfections. I had only one thing to ask.

"God, why am I, a young man in the prime of my youth, spending my Saturday night watching two people eat pie?"

And He placed His hand on my shoulder, and He smiled. Behind Him, the Vin Scully-wannabe roared in triumph, his entire face a purple mask of victory.

"BECAUSE, MY SON," God said. "BECAUSE, I HATE YOU."

Needless to say, I left immediately afterwards. Pie and the Almighty. Too much excitement for one night.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Will No One Help the Widow's Son?**

Eight years after the widely-accepted Future Demarcation Line, the past still has power.

West Hartford center has undergone a transformative binge of construction in the past few months, cutting into the last vestiges of pastoralism surrounding Hartford proper. It's added a small but modern theater, plus a Cheesecake Factory and a White House, Black Market. The place is good for a walk now, and has brought out the younger element in the area.

All this development stands in marked contrast to an old church, the First Church of Christ, West Hartford, which looms over Main Street like a great brick elephant. You have seen a million of these churches if you've ever lived in New England. They seek to impose the terror and majesty of their religion through sheer height. Once, they were the tallest buildings for miles around, marking God's country to all who could see. This is no longer the case in the city, but places like West Hartford never had a need for skyscrapers, so the great white spire of a church is still king.

I never gave these churches, and indeed this particular church, a second look, up until a few weeks ago. On my way to pick up some groceries, a hawks' cry caused me to look in the direction of the church. I took it in as a full entity for the first time, and for one bare second, it was if my vision had blurred and contorted.

I had seen this church before.

There is a graphic novel out there called From Hell. It's written by the great Alan Moore, master of subtext and structure, a storyteller without peer. The book concerns one particular theory about the 1888 murder of five prostitutes in the Whitechapel section of London--all killed in brutal and horrifying fashion by a madman who would come to be known as Jack the Ripper*.

*Every once in a while, history will surprise you by injecting a little bit of modernity into events which seem remote and ancient. In this case, you may not know that the police actually took photographs of all of Jack the Ripper's victims. I will now provide you with a link to that of Mary Jane Kelly, the fifth victim. Don't look at it. I apologize for saying this, because now you will.

The novel postulates that Jack the Ripper was one Dr. William Gull, Royal Physician to the Queen of England, and that the murders were actually part of an elaborate and arcane ritual. Gull was a Freemason, part of a fraternal brotherhood of powerful and influential men. Freemasonry figures heavily in a number of conspiracy theories, most concerning things like shadow governments, the Illuminati--tinfoil hat stuff. Anyway, Gull remarks on several occasions on a church in Whitechapel that holds particular significance to Masonry and Masons--Christchurch, Spitalfields. It's full of pagan symbolism, most notably the fact that the steeple is essentially an obelisk. Here's what it looks like:

Incidentally, Christchurch is supposed to be unsettling in person. The architect, one Nicholas Hawksmoor, designed it so that it it appears as if it's going to fall on you. It won't. But still.

This is what the First Church of Christ in West Hartford looks like:


They aren't carbon copies of one another, obviously (actually, after I took a closer look, there are big differences in certain structural aspects), but the key elements are all there. Most notably, the obelisk on top stands out, a weirdly pagan symbol atop a Christian building.

There is, I think, a bit more at work here than mere coincidence. I do not believe in conspiracy theories (how would you keep half these things secret, for instance). But I have to admit, a small thrill ran up my spine when I realized that the church is right across the street from a Masonic temple.

Later, driving to a party, I found myself flying past churches, all topped with a history's cold stone dagger. I will never not notice it now.

The past looms over us all.

**The title of this piece comes from what is rumored to be a Masonic distress call. Bend your elbows, hold both your palms up in a gesture of acceptance, and say it, and a Mason is obliged to help you. Or so the story goes. I did it for kicks in front of the temple on Main Street. Nothing yet.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

It's Osgood's Fault

I can't remember the last time I actually sat down and read a newspaper. I'm sure I've glanced at the occasional article, but actually picking up the latest issue and reading it is practically unthinkable at this point. This is very bad for the newspaper industry, because I am a journalism major.*

*Actual sequence of events during my academic career at Northwestern:

1. Promises are made regarding Medill's 100 percent job placement rate after graduation.

2. NU raises $1.5
BILLION dollars in a huge effort.

3. Professors inform us that the news media industry, in addition to being a frightening and horrid place where terrible people excel and truth is a habitual consequence, is losing money and lots of it. So it's a frightening and horrid place etc. that will not be hiring us.

4. NU raises tuition.

Don't major in journalism, kids
.

I used to read all types of papers, among them being the New York Times. That's over now, 'cause I get my news from the internet*, but the Times is technically part of the internet, so it still makes up a small part of my daily news gathering. There's been this really distressing trend I've been noticing recently that I've never picked up on before, and it centers on the Old Grey Lady.

*When did it become OK not to capitalize the word "internet"?

It's become cliche to call an institution like the Times "out of touch", but MAN, they've been doing this...thing that drives me up the wall. Take this story regarding the recent Mixed Martial Arts fight last Saturday:
“Way to go ‘Dirty Dan’ Miragliotta!” read one post on mmajunkie.com. “What were your instructions? If Kimbo doesn’t get knocked out, make sure he wins the fight?”
Fine, right? Only whoever runs mmajunkie.com didn't write that. A commenter on the post wrote it.

POSTS are written by a blog's author. COMMENTS are written by people COMMENTING on a POST. This seems like a basic issue, one not worth getting worked up over, but it's similar to saying, "A story in the New York Times said recently that 'The New York Times sucks! I've read better writing out of Pravda!'--Jim Bob Jaworski, Bangor, Maine". It's merely commentary!

They get this wrong OVER and OVER again. It's misleading, and lazy, and weird.

There was a similar issue that happened today. If you haven't watched Barack Obama's victory speech on Wednesday, here's a screen cap from right before it, showing Michelle Obama congratulating her husband:
That's a fist pound. Or fist bump. One of those two things. You can really use either expression. Simple. Pound, or bump.

The Times referred to it, in this story, as a "closed-fisted high five".

What the hell.

There aren't any people at that paper who've ever engaged in a fist bump? Not a one? Impossible!

There's only one explanation.

Somewhere in the Times' copy desk, there is a man. He is old, likely over 70, clearly past retirement age, but no one will fire him because he has been at the paper for almost his entire life. I can picture his desk: full of pictures of him with the movers and shakers of the past fifty years, old Sinatra tapes, perhaps some quirky memorabilia he's acquired in his decades reviewing all the news that's fit to print.

His name is Osgood.

He's an institution at the paper. He is stubborn as the lid on a pickle jar. He does not understand anything after 1990 or so, when his mind started to go.

For some inexplicable reason, the Times sends every piece of technology or modern culture-related news his way to be edited.

I can see him now, in the fading half-light of his corner of the floor, peering over the story referencing that picture. He squints at the picture, then at the phrase "fist bump", that the reporter used to describe it. Osgood can feel the world closing in on him. What is this new means of expression? He can't fathom it.

Osgood snorts, and changes the phrase to "closed-fisted high five".

If he can't understand it, he'll be goddamned if anyone else can.

Monday, June 2, 2008

From the Archives: Exclusively Regarding Bobby Abreu's Approach to Hitting

Sorry, non-sports fans, we're taking a left turn back into the ballpark for a bit. This is something I wrote that plays off of my enduring fascination with hidden greatness, those people without whom the world would fall apart. In this case, we deal with the curious case of New York Yankees right fielder Bobby Abreu, the greatest player no one can stand.

Bobby Abreu looms over the plate. He is exactly six feet tall but has mastered the cobra's trick of making himself look larger than he is. Abreu holds his hands high and tilts his stocky body forward, giving the impression that he is a frightening power hitter, but this is fiction. Bobby Abreu averages 22 home runs per season, which is respectable but not exceptional. What he has done, in totality, is eschewed exceptional power and turned himself into baseball's version of a meat grinder--a relentless, terrifyingly effective destroyer of pitching.

He's so good at it that nobody wants to watch him. You'll eat hamburgers, but you don't want to watch them get made.

At some point in his life, I imagine Bobby Abreu read Ted Williams' book, titled "The Science of Hitting". His philosophy (Ted Williams is second only to Babe Ruth, who played in an era without integration or the slider, in most important rate categories, so his philosophy on baseball is more "absolutely right" than a true philosophy) was quite simple. Ted Williams wanted young hitter to get a pitch to hit, and when that pitch came, to hit it.

Simple.

Hard to follow, though. Ted's philosophy required an extreme degree of discipline. If a pitch was an inch off the plate, you were not to swing*. If it was an inch too high, you were not to swing. If it was a strike, and your particular collection of skills and swing mechanics would not allow you to put the ball in play for a hit or foul it off safely, you were not to swing. Anything else was giving in to the pitcher's plan to get you out.

*Some players, through a collection of unique skill and confidence, can ignore this rule, but that list is vanishingly small. Vladimir Guerrero of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (this translates to "The Angels Angels of Anaheim, but whatever) swings at more pitches that are not close to the strike zone than anyone else, by a humongous margin--something like three times as often as the next closest guy. But he can get away with it because he has near bizarre strength and hand-eye coordination. I saw him hit an opposite-field line-drive home run on a pitch outside and eyeball-high off of Brad Penny in an All-Star game, and I swear to God I've seen him clock a double off a pitch that bounced in the dirt. Vlad the Impaler. A marvel in a pine tar-stained red helmet. You may never see his like again.

You could not alter the plan under any circumstances. It didn't matter whether that inch-high pitch came in a spring training game or the seventh game of the World Series. You were not to swing. Trust Ted. It would work itself out. You'd come out ahead more often than not. If you swung at the bad pitch, you would make an out. If not, you could get a pitch to hit. Or walk. Either way, you win.

Not swinging is what Bobby Abreu does best. He looms over the plate, looking ten feet tall and coiled like a viper, and he doesn't swing. Bobby Abreu has broken down the batter-pitcher matchup into its component parts. 106 times a year, the umpire calls ball four and Bobby Abreu walks to first. 128 times a year, the umpire calls strike three and Bobby Abreu walks to the dugout. Approximately a third of the time he comes to bat, Bobby Abreu does not put the ball in play.

This infuriated fans in Philadelphia, where he played for eight and a half years. Why, asked the Phillies faithful, would Bobby Abreu refuse to swing (as an aside; he has 1800 or so career hits, so he is clearly capable of doing so)? With a man on second, Bobby Abreu would prefer to walk, to put another man on base without necessarily affecting the score?

Was he selfish? Foolish? Ignorant?

It was certainly a possibility to the fans in Philadelphia. Their franchise is approaching 10,000 losses, the first professional team ever to do so. They could not afford to wait. Bobby Abreu could. So they blame Bobby Abreu, the best player on their team, for their sorrows.

To wit: Bobby Abreu's career batting average is .300. Nothing to write home about. Lots of people have done that.

His career on-base percentage, which is a measure of the number of times he gets on base without making an out, is .407.

On-base percentage is the statistic most closely correlated with scoring runs, which is one of the two ways you win baseball games (the other is preventing runs, which he's also pretty good at, but we are talking about hitting here). This ranks 32nd on the all-time list.

He's ahead of Jackie Robinson. He's ahead of Rickey Henderson. He's ahead of Joe DiMaggio. He's ahead of Mark McGwire. He's ahead of Willie Mays. He's ahead of Arky Vaughn, Hank Greenberg, Honus Wagner, Ralph Kiner, Johnny Mize, Hack Wilson, and Cap Anson (you don't know who these people are, but they're all Hall of Famers).

Furthermore, when he does hit the ball, he hits it hard. His refusal to swing at bad pitches means that a higher percentage of his swings come against good pitches, which are easier to drive on a straight line, hurtling past the infield and coming to rest far away from any outfielder. Bobby Abreu doesn't hit an overwhelming number of home runs, but he smacks 41 doubles a year, bringing his slugging percentage (total bases/at-bats, essentially a measure of overall power) to an even .500. This puts him in the top 100 all-time, ahead of people like Reggie Jackson, George Brett, and Yogi Berra.*

*Admittedly, some of this is due to the fact that he's a corner outfielder, where it's easier for a hard-hitter to thrive. And more of it is due to his era, and his ballpark, and plain dumb luck, and the fact that he hasn't entered a true decline phase. Still, I think it's clear the man is an elite-level hitter.

A team composed entirely of Bobby Abreus would score a thousand runs. They would eat pitchers alive, destroying the coherence of pitching staffs and causing a new outbreak of horrific arm injuries. Heck, they'd even play decent defense and run the bases well.

They would win a hundred and twenty games per year.

But their games would take five hours. They'd almost never swing. Nothing you could do would change them.

This is the curse of Bobby Abreu's approach to hitting. It's like a meat grinder. It gets the job done in the most efficient and effective way possible.

And no one wants to watch.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Must He Be Like Putin?

I think there's something terribly wrong in Russia.



Not like that's a particularly bold statement. You could make the argument that the huge and disparate entity known as "Russia" has never really been "right--it's just been in various stages of barely-holding-shit-togetherness. This is a place where winter wins wars, where the country practically exists in all four hemispheres at once. It's a freaky place, which I suppose is inevitable when you live right next to the Mongols*.

*Just a note on what the Russians were up against in the Mongol Golden Horde. The Mongols under Genghis Khan were the first truly modern army, in that they were organized, professional, and hierarchical. The bulk of the army consisted of horse-mounted archers, a concept which really is quite ingenious. It's built on a the very simple principle of me being able to shoot at you without you being able to catch me. The Mongols utilized one technique known as the "Parthian Shot" (named after the Parthians, a steppe people who used it to bitch-slap the Romans a thousand years before). They'd ride like bastards up to the enemy, firing all the way, fight for a second or two, then pretend to panic, wheeling around to retreat. When the enemy gave chase, they'd fire while running away ("parting shot"--get it?), and when the enemy was dispersed, tired, and scared, they'd turn around and massacre them. To get an idea of how well this worked, bear in mind that "Mongolia" used to mean "Southeast Asia, Russia, the Middle East, and Poland".

Now, a lot of this explains why the place is so weird, but I think it's recently entered a special level of screwed-up. After a brief period of being one of two big dogs on the world stage, Russia's been on a really noticeable tailspin for the past twenty years or so. Think of it this way: Russia had a really hot girlfriend, lost her, and is now showing up to parties in an old and sauce-stained sweatshirt, drooling all over himself, refusing to take a shower or pay his soldiers. He's knocking back vodka like it's water, creepily hitting on all the hot chicks there, and failing to keep track of his nuclear stockpile, so there's about a ten percent chance the entire place is going to go up in a blinding flash of nuclear light. It's just awkward for everyone involved.

But then, along comes Putin.

Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin is a former KGB agent and the current Prime Minister of Russia. All you really know about him is that he used to be Russia's President, but he seemingly got bored of that, so he nominated some crony to be President, and took the PM spot for himself. But no one talks to the new President, because Putin basically switched up the role of President and Prime Minister. He's at the point where he does whatever the deuce he wants and gets away with it.

And they love him for it.


Don't get me wrong: the election was probably a bit rigged. First, he got 71 percent of the vote, a wee bit too high unless you're Reagan or something, and second, this is Russia we're talking about here. It's not like there's a longstanding democratic tradition in place.

But for a guy who really hasn't brought Russia out of the doldrums (the economy is better, but the country still isn't going anywhere), it's astonishing how much the country loves him. They have Vlad Putin fan clubs, Vlad Putin youth groups, Vlad Putin posters. I recently came upon a Vlad Putin music video, presented here for your consideration:



Just so we're clear on this, you just watched two appallingly hot pop stars sing about how they want to jump a president's bones. Again, just so we're clear.

So, why does Russia love Putin? I think it has pretty much everything to do with image.

Every shot I've seen of Putin has a certain quality to it:



Namely, it makes him look badass. I don't think he purposefully had that particular lighting done just for that picture, but it seems to happen to him an awful lot. He probably just naturally creates ominous lighting.

If you're a country, down and despised, spitting up all over itself at a party, wouldn't you want someone out there who at least gives off a good impression? The impression of "don't mess with me?"


Or, "do what I say, before I smack you?"


Or "I MUST BREAK YOU!"

A lot of the guy's pictures show him shirtless. I think it has something to do with virility.

There's a lot wrong with this whole situation. Putin is practically a dictator. He has opposition leaders jailed, kills journalists who disagree, and likely steals a great deal of money from the country. The love he gets is part fear, but I have the sinking feeling that at least some of it is genuine.

But that's not what bugs me. At least not truly.

I don't think Putin is a real person. I think he's escaped from some lost Ian Fleming novel, one that he wrote but never finished. It lies, forgotten, in a safe deposit box somewhere, and the pages are blank, because the idea inside was too powerful to be contained, and made itself flesh. My problem isn't that Putin is a dictator. He wouldn't be the first.

But when have we had to deal with a real-life, honest-to-goodness supervillain?



I don't know about the rest of you, but I for one am not looking forward to dealing with the nuclear bomb drills heading toward the Earth's core. A man can only do so much in a day.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Fear Itself

"Diplomacy, like seduction, only improves with practice."
Ben Franklin

When I took swimming lessons at the pool up the street, I never "got" the concept of diving off the side of the pool. The first time I tried it, the girl diving before me dove straight down and scraped her face against the side of the pool. She came up crying, bleeding, and scared.

In the process of analyzing and remaking myself, I've come to determine that *why* I fear is more important than *what* I fear. I don't think anything is really scary, in and of itself. Nothing is immortal or implacable. You can charm that stunner at the bar, if you have the right words. You can kill the robber in your house, if you shoot first and straight. You can move the world with a big enough lever, at least according to Archimedes.

To dive, all I need to do is fall forward and down. To let myself go.

If I had gone before the nameless girl who reddened the pool at Blue Hills Regional High School, I probably would have been fine. I wouldn't have had to think about it.

This will come as a surprise if you know me at all, but I am a consummate planner and obsessive worrier. I try to reduce the disparate tendrils of my life into a bound and catalogued series of steps, all laid out like a grand table map in my head. It's how I keep myself company when I'm bored or lonely, or if I can't sleep, or simply when the mood strikes me.

In approximately five billion years, our sun* will have finished converting all its available hydrogen into helium, and will expand to a monstrous size, engulfing all the inner planets, including ours. I used to worry about this. About something so far into the future that the actual number is practically meaningless. It kept me up nights, worrying while my brother (who's always been much more laid-back) slumbered in the next bed over. How would we survive? What would my future descendants do about the slow, inevitable destructive kicks of a dying star?

*The Sun technically has a name other than "The Sun"--it's actually called "Sol". Which means "The Sun". Kind of like the Earth is "Terra", which means "The Earth" and the moon is "Luna" which means "the moon". This is part of a weird syndrome which, I think, maybe be peculiar to America--we'll call something what it is, but we'll need another language to do so.

Eventually, I consoled myself by rationalizing that any future version of humans would have left Earth long before the Sun went boom. That didn't solve more pressing issues, of course. What would I do about a vampire attacking me in the middle of the night? (solution: grab bible and rosary, wake up brother, force vampires out door while chanting "The Power of Christ Compels You!", arm rest of family with facsimiles of wooden stakes)

Well, that's fine, but say there's a bully at school, and he tries to punch me from behind? What then? (Duck punch if possible, kick backwards with heel of my foot, hopefully impacting the shin, spinning elbow to the nose, run away if bully is not incapacitated).

Like I said, I did this for pretty much everything. I tried to do the same for diving.

Go to one knee at the edge of the pool.

Put your hands over your head so that they form a point.

Lean forward, hands first.

Follow your hands into the water.

And, like almost everything else I had planned out step-by-step, it never worked. I always belly-flopped.

I can fall into conversation with a pretty girl with no problem, but ask me to cold approach one and I'll get flustered. I am unimpressed by famous people, but when I interned at a local newspaper, I would stammer when asking people on the street their opinion of the weather. I can catch screaming line drives right at me, but every high popup is an adventure.

This isn't to say that planning is a bad thing. It diffuses and makes ordinary the concept of the lion in the tall grass, or the monster outside your window. But I've come to realize that , while step-by-step instructions are fine for working out and assembling furniture, they'll only trip you up in the end. You replace one fear with a more insidious one: that of unexpected situations. Better to form your plans on the fly, around the pursuit of concrete goals. Get that girl's number. Get a quote from Joe Public. Pluck that popup out of the sky.

Sometime this summer, when the Get Jacked plan is in full swing and producing truly tangible results, I'll find a pool. I'll kneel at the edge, imagine the blood in the water, and dive. Then I'll do it again, and again, and again, until the blood disappears and the blue welcomes me.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Insulated

About a week ago, I was at work when I saw my friend Jamar drinking some kind of flavored grape drink. It wasn't Gatorade, it was more like a knockoff energy drink that's like Gatorade, only packaged to look slick and modern.

"That's disgusting," I said. "I bet you like grape soda too."

"I love grape soda," said Jamar.

Now, grape soda--really, anything grape-flavored except actual grapes--and I have a simple understanding, namely I hate that shit and won't let it touch my lips. I think we've been able to replicate pretty much every flavor with varying degrees of success*, but science has simply failed to make artificial grape. It's TERRIBLE. It just tastes like purple--widely acknowledged to be the least tasty of any color. Blue is the best, in case you were wondering.

*We can replicate popcorn in jellybean form, for chrissakes.

Jamar is the first person* I've met IN MY LIFE who will admit to liking grape soda. I see it on supermarket shelves all the time, so someone has to be buying it. You'd think I know more of them.

*It has come to my attention that Adam Small and Marc Puleo both enjoy grape soda. Whatever. Point still stands.

Occasionally, I see advertisements for Christian music on television, and they fascinate me utterly. Apparently there are armies of people who go to these concerts and know every lyric, who close their eyes and do that thing where they lift their arms up in affirmation. That freaks me out a bit. I guess it allows you to commune with your fellow man in the spirit of group worship, but what if, like, someone steals your wallet? I guess theres a lot of trust at these things.

I don't know how popular said music is, but I gather it's got a pretty extensive fan base. I've met two people in my life who listen to it. Ever.

Preference and taste are important things. I may not be my khakis* or the music I listen to, but they define parts of me.

*Do I even own khakis anymore? I should check.

Could I be missing some key element in that whole process? Could all of us?

More than ever, it's appallingly easy to edit one's cultural experience. I don't listen to the radio anymore, so it's not necessary for me to hear music I hate in order to get to music I like. I can know everything about every movie that's out there right now--from plot, to cinematography, to character background--months before opening day. I read sports blogs by writers friendly to sabermetrics and the Red Sox. Ever get mad at something Bill O'Reily or Rush Limbaugh has said? I used to, but not anymore, cause they literally do not exist in my world. I don't know anyone who watches them.

Just now, my friend Yaron is editing movies of trips he's taken. His Mexico trip movie is on Facebook. Maybe fifteen years ago, this would have been a VHS tape. Thirty years ago, a slideshow. He couldn't just put it out there. He'd have to have people watch it, face-to-face.

They wouldn't be forced to, per se, but it'd be awfully rude not to. But now, it's buried somewhere in my mini-news feed on Facebook (made up only of people that I want to know), as an option. Only if I feel like it.

I've only tasted grape soda once in my life. How do I know I still don't like it?

Monday, April 28, 2008

My Ancestors are Horse Thieves

Selected excerpts from A Tragic Legacy: DeMartinos Throughout History, my upcoming magnum opus tracking the genetic history of my family. Described by Newsweek as "like Roots, but terrible." Presented in capsule format.

Pierluigi DeMartino (1821-1895)

Often described as "the Poindexter of Italian Unification", Pierluigi was a boon companion to the great Giuseppe Garibaldi, the flamboyant and charismatic leader of men who was instrumental to making Italy what it is today. Pierluigi's main duties included serving as a human stepladder for Garibaldi, massaging Garibaldi's pet parakeets, and hiding during battles. Pierluigi is most remembered for the manner of his death, as described in a contemporary history:

"Announcing his intention to be the first man to fly, DeMartino clambered to the top of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican. Strapped to his back was a most marvelous contraption, consisting of complex wooden wings, a makeshift tail festooned with the feathers of a goose, and a barrel in the shape of a reverse-cannon, filled with saltpetre and gunpowder. With a brave cry, Pierluigi lit the gunpowder with a nearby brazier, propelling him up and above the golden dome of the basilica. All watching were amazed, as the flying Florentine made several circumlocutions of the plaza, finally coming to rest safely approximately six hundred meters away from his takeoff point.

Whereupon he was pecked to death by a flock of angry parakeets. This situation was reported to have brought much merriment to the Pope.


Lord Fauntleroy D'Martin, Second Earl of Shropfordshire-upon-Weezington (1550-1631)
Primarily responsible for kickstarting the period of scientific advancement, philosophical debate, and artistic explosion known as the Rennaissance, Lord D'Martin was famous for simply making crap up. Among the examples:
  • He wasn't British
  • He was a commoner and not a member of the nobility
  • "Fauntleroy" wasn't even a real name at the time
  • Shropfordshire-upon-Weezington has no Earl, because it doesn't exist. When asked where his lands were, D'Martin would reply, "Oh, somewhere between Scuzzyville, Fauxtown, and Wales."
  • Wales also did not exist until D'Martin came up with the concept. Scuzzyville and Fauxtown did not catch on.
Whenever D'Martin was presented with evidence of his deceptions, he would evidently laugh them off, saying something along the lines of "Forsooth, get thee a loade of HIM!" This was seemingly enough to charm even the most stringent of critics, until he made the mistake of saying it to Pope Urban VIII, regarding the pontiff's objections to D'Martin's claims of "totally being an angel". This remark and consequent defiance were overheard by several important thinkers of the time, and the Enlightenment soon followed.

Reportedly charmed by D'Martin's insouciance, the Pope nevertheless had him burned at the stake. D'Martin's last words were "Better a Hot Stake than a Cold Chop!", followed by screaming.

Ragnar Bloodaxe (972-1011)
Likely responsible for the strain of light-colored eyes in the otherwise quintessentially Italian countenance of the DeMartino clan, Ragnar raided up and down the coast of the Mediterranean for many years. His last name is actually a slight mistranslation of a nickname bestowed upon him by his war-leader, Eric the Fuschia--"Blood Ass".

The reasons for this should be fairly clear upon examining Eric's newly-discovered journal entries, in which he recounts several raids in which Ragnar took part:

April 10, 990 Took the crew on a raid today. Totally rad! We captured several oxen (which we ate), many chickens (which we ate), and approximately fourteen Spainiards--men, women, and children--which of course, we ate. Only one casualty--young Ragnar, on his first raid, was shot in his left behind with an arrow.

September 22, 993
Another successful raid! This time, we messed around with some French peasants. Boy, do I love French food! Lost Hrothgar and Buliwyf, unfortunately. Ragnar was stabbed in the right behind. This is becoming kind of a concern as he is having difficulty sitting down in prime rowing position.

June 4, 998
Guess what? Blood Ass got hit
AGAIN! He'd never gotten hit with a shuriken there before, but this Far East trip has offered all of us new experiences. I don't even think it matters at this point--it's basically all scar tissue back there.

January 1, 1011
Italy this time. Yet another raid. Captured the Pope. You know, it occurs to me that no one has ever really taught Ragnar how to defend his flank. Which may explain all the ass wounds. I'm going to work with him on that. Anyhow, the Pope thought it was funny. We ate him.


Analysis of Ragnar's corpse indicates that he did eventually learn to successfully defend the rear portions of his anatomy. Unfortunately, that left the front portions rather open to attack--Ragnar Bloodaxe was killed on the raid just following this final entry, victim of approximately forty-seven assorted arrows to the chest, stomach, and head. His ass was unharmed.

Julius Caesar (100 BC-44 BC)
You can't prove otherwise.

Pharaoh Jodmaru XII (3672 BC-3640 BC)
An outside-the-tomb thinker, Jodmaru XII decided the traditional pyramid structure was yesterday's news. He summoned the greatest architects from across his great and mighty empire in order to create the greatest of tombs. The soon-to-be God told the assembled experts that he wanted a thousand-foot tall tomb that would dwarf any currently built or expected to be built. He wanted a pyramid, alright, but there was a twist.

He wanted it point-first. Upside-down.

His greatest architects told him he was an idiot. Being a kind and enlightened despot, Jodmaru killed them and hired his less competent cousin, who owned a chariot dealership down by the Nile, to construct his tomb. Jodmaru fully expected his upside-down pyramid to be the toast of North Africa.

Unfortunately, while observing construction of the pyramid (which had reached a great height of 15 feet), Jodmaru was crushed to death when the thing toppled over, ironically burying him under a correctly-constructed pyramid, right-side up. This caused the high priest of Anubis much merriment. The location of this totally embarrassing tomb has been mercifully lost to history.

Mar (40,000 BC.--39,970 B.C.)
A common ancestor to ten percent of humanity, not much is known about Mar. He was discovered, perfectly preserved, in a bog in northern Italy. On his person was a makeshift spear, assorted religious trinkets, and one of the earliest instances of a journal. Mar seemed to be attempting to make a list of his ancestors. The language is indecipherable, but Mar was able to make one illustration of his most recent ancestor, getting pecked to death by a gigantic prehistoric bird, while a fellow caveman (wearing something eerily resembly a papal mitre) points and laughs at him. We can learn much from studying this fascinating individual.