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.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

From the Archives: Hate Theater

Back in 2006, my friend Phil Wiese and I were working together on a photojournalism project, in which we were instructed to take pictures of an outsider group. We ended up choosing, as our subject, the Westboro Baptist Church, an anti-...well, pretty much anti-everything hate group. This is an edited account of the trip, written on the way back to Evanston.

Phil and I cut through Chicago and smoggy Gary, Indiana to end up in Ann Arbor. A local theater group had decided to put on a production of The Laramie Project, which dramatizes the murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man. The Laramie Project has advanced beyond the realm of mere storytelling and become one of those things that sends people into a frenzy.

Fred Phelps is a preacher and lawyer, formerly a practicing attorney in civil rights cases around the middle of the century. He’s a wiry man with big teeth, a former Golden Gloves boxer fond of wearing a humongous cowboy hat. His flock is the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Counts vary as to their numbers, but a young man I talked to from the church says there are at least seventy. Most of them are related to Phelps. He has 13 children and 54 grandchildren. Eleven of his children are lawyers. Four no longer speak to him.

“What is happening now, is that this country is in the midst of a Jonah situation,” said Sam Phelps-Roper, 27, one of Phelps’ grandchildren, who quite clearly still speaks to the old man. It’s early evening and the Mendelsohn Theater is host to two productions tonight. Sam is in front of the theater with ten other members of the church. Two are children. Fred's not here tonight, but he doesn't need to be. They have their own area on the sidewalk, surrounded by yellow police tape. About five hundred Ann Arborites, University of Michigan students, and others have essentially surrounded the church members. Those closest to the church are yelling, and the church members have responded in kind. Sam has taken some time out to talk to me about the purpose of his group.

He carries a sign that says “God Hates Fags”. It’s neon green with a little bit of orange. The other side says “Thank God For AIDS”. Are they, I had asked, attempting to save souls, or merely warning them of their damnation?

“Do you know who Jonah is?” Sam asks me. I do, at least to some extent. Swallowed by a whale, right? Converted to Christianity afterwards?

Sam looks at me like I insulted his mother. Lack of scriptural knowledge is a big no-no amongst Phelps’ flock. “He didn’t convert to Christianity. He already was a Christian. Afterwards, he preached to the city of Nineveh that God was displeased with them. They repented and were saved, but he did not tell them to repent.”

So you’re trying to tell them they’re going to hell?

“Everyone here who does not accept the word of God will go to hell. He is not a forgiving God. The spiritual man judges everything.”

The Westboro Baptist Church, in one form or another, attends approximately 2500 of these protests per year. Their message is simple; America is a godless nation and is therefore condemned to be cast into hell.

Their main complaint with America is its tolerance of homosexuality; as one sign puts it, God not only hates Fags but also Fag Enablers, who are equally condemned. God hates those who do not follow his scripture to the letter. Women who cut their hair are condemned. Those who drink and party are condemned. I would imagine those who eat shellfish are also condemned, as Leviticus puts it, but I didn’t see any “God Hates Cephalopods” signs.

Recent events give the church all the proof it needs of God's wrath. Hurricane Katrina was sent to punish Godless New Orleans. 9/11 was sent to punish Godless New York. Even roadside bombs in Iraq are evidence of condemnation; how else, Sam asks, could a soldier from the most powerful army in the world be killed by a simple explosive? “Thank God for IEDs” is a more recent, popular sign, and the church uses it when they demonstrate at the funerals of U.S. servicemen killed in Iraq.

Not ten feet away from us, Charles Hockenbarger is arguing with Lee Chrisman. Hockenbarger is a bull-faced man with earmuffs and the sign informing Fag Enablers that they will etc. etc. Chrisman is a freshman, majoring in acting. Their conversation is set on a loop.

“You can’t even quote for me the correct verse! You don’t know anything about the Bible,” Hockenbarger yells. His voice is very strong and can be heard easily in a crowd. “How can you argue with me, you moron? You hate God. You hate him.”

Chrisman is a Roman Catholic, a group for which the church saves special disdain. “I don’t hate God! I love God, and I love you too! You have to realize what you’re doing is wrong! God does not hate! God loves everybody.”

Again, says Hockenbarger, Chrisman is ignorant of scripture. “Haven’t you ever read Psalm 5:5?” he screams. “It says that God hates Esau! God does not love everybody. And how can you say you love me when everybody here has been threatening us? Why do we need these cops here?”

In internet-speak, a troll is someone who posts on a message board with the specific purpose of riling up its inhabitants. Skilled trolls will take an outlandish position, present it as nonchalant fact, and watch as the board blows up in aggrieved response. The Westboro Baptist Church is both the best and worst kind of real-life troll. Their positions are outlandish, but sincerely believed. They have message discipline; no one strays off the basic God Hates X theme. They are deliberately provocative, as children as young as eight stand, bundled against the cold, holding these signs.

They've set it up so they're in a no-lose situation. You can't argue with them as the Bible disproves you. You can't judge them as your sin is infinitely worse. You can't even join them. That's what makes the group unique among fundamentalists--no converts are necessary or wanted. The church just wants to taunt. To provoke. To infuriate

Their law degrees come in handy whenever they provoke a bit too much. A middle-aged woman records the proceedings on a handheld DiviCam, focusing on any particularly intense arguments. If a fight breaks out, they will use the footage as evidence in a court of law. Likely they’ll win; they never start physical confrontations, but they know how to profit from them.

This nearly comes to a head as the church members pack up their signs and leave. Phil and I had been allowed complete access behind the yellow line up until this point. The police officers asked us and anyone else not carrying a sign to back up, so we did, despite protests. Hockenbarger and Phelps-Roper called everyone together into a tight clump, where they deposited their signs into a small green bag. As they begin to leave, a few young guys wearing Michigan sweatshirts begin to run toward them. The crowd starts to cheer, although the perceptive ones realize that this is exactly what the church members want, and yell at the others to stop. They do, but only because the cops have formed a protective wall in front of the church members.

Everyone disperses. The play outside is over, and the one inside is just beginning. There is nothing here for anyone. The church hasn't convinced anyone, but they never wanted to. The protesters didn't prevent the church from coming, but they never wanted to either. Our pictures will later reveal that, aside from a few heated arguments, most people in the throng surrounding the church members were smiling, or ignoring them.

A good time was had by all.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Get Out of My Head

Have you ever had a song stuck in your head?

These are the first words I've written about one Juro Patton in about six years. I created him as part of a collabrative storytelling effort for a now-defunct fan website for a series of books, games, and online short stories*. I was perhaps 14 when I started frequenting the site's message boards, fleshing out the universe in which our characters would inhabit, discussing minutiae that seemed important at the time but escape me all these years later. We had a structure to the whole thing, but there was freedom to develop our own characters, stories, and niches.

*I won't be linking you to the site for a few reasons. First, it only semi-exists anymore. The front page doesn't have any links on it, and you'd have to fiddle around to get anywhere. Second, I'm not gonna lie--this whole enterprise was more than a bit nerdy. I started this whole blog thing to impress women, after all, so we'll be avoiding any temptation to comb through my unfortunately well-preserved post history. Sorry. You can probably still find it if you're a good internet detective.

Central to the whole process was the creation of a character that you'd use in writing said collaborative stories. It was part amateur sci-fi, part game. You'd write part of a story from your character's point of view, leave off at a dramatically appropriate point, then let the next person take over from their character's point of view, and so on. The point wasn't really to win, per se. Just to tell an interesting tale.

I came up with the idea for Juro Patton out of a need for a strong central character in one particular area. Juro, embarrassingly enough, started off as a bit of a Mary Sue, and for a short while was named Joseph Patton, which combined the names of my favorite general with, uh, my name.

Give me a break. I was 14.

The process of creating him was convoluted, so I'll spare you most of the nerdy details. You had to come up with the obvious physical traits, habits, hobbies, and so on. The real meat of the process was in a character's Virtues and Flaws, heroic traits and failings that could come up at any point in a story. This was important to the whole system because another player, while not allowed to take direct control over your character ("Biff Manly* shot a rocket at Juro Patton, blowing him into little piles of barely-recognizable gore"), could utilize his Virtues and Flaws in an appropriate way ("Biff Manly insulted Juro Patton, noticing that his words had a visible effect on the quick-to-anger soldier").

*I once created a fake player named Biff Manly in a baseball video game. He was seven feet tall and weighed four hundred pounds. I think he hit a hundred home runs in the one season I had him play.

The whole process actually helped me get better as a writer. It's useful to realize that your characters need to have realistic flaws and can't be super-awesome badasses a hundred percent of the time. Juro Patton eventually took form as a charismatic but deeply flawed tragic hero, an intensely loyal leader of men whose temper was quick, blinding, and almost crippling. He was mischievous but lacked tact. He leapt at danger but constantly overestimated his own capabilities. He was, without a doubt, the best character I'd ever created.

I should have stopped there. But I kept refining him.

The best movies, stories, characters, and plots are ambiguous and uncertain. The scariest and most memorable image from Jaws isn't the shots of the shark rising up out of the water--it's his fin, inexorably moving beneath the waves toward his prey. I should have left Juro Patton as a strongly defined collection of traits, bound together by a loose physical description, background, and anecdotes.

The end result was that I only ever wrote ABOUT him. Every time I thought he was ready, some perceived flaw would crop up--was kind of music did he like? Where did he get that scar on his cheek? What color were his parents' eyes? Was he a sportsman? A conservationist? What were his political positions?

Juro Patton became a Koch Snowflake.

It's a mathematical fractal, made by adding triangle after triangle to the primary shape. Here's an example of the first four iterations:

The length of a Koch snowflake is infinite, as it keeps on getting more and more complex. Its area is finite. You could draw a circle around it and it would never touch the boundary, even after increasing its area a billion-fold. By constantly redefining my character, I limited him.

I never wrote a story featuring him. Not one. He exists only in my head.

Worse, he's stuck there. If one puts that much effort into defining a character, it's tough to get rid of him. Juro Patton is six feet five inches tall, two hundred and thirty pounds, with blue eyes, shoulder-length black hair, a scar (from a teenage gang-fight) on his right cheek, extending from his ear to his lip, fond of jaunty uniforms and history, a harmonica player who loves the outdoors. I'll probably remember that for years.

You ever have a song stuck in your head? Try an entire person.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Honest Wagner

This is a re-post of a previously written piece I've posted in various pieces. I figure it's good to get it in a central place. So, for your consideration...

Which is the real man?

Meet John Peter Wagner, a squarely-built shortstop of the late-19th and early-20th century, known to the writ of history as, alternately; the Flying Dutchman, Hans, Johannes, or simply and most memorably, Honus. He spent the vast majority of his21-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who were a dominant franchise back then, far removed from the bottom-dwellers they are today. He led the league in slugging six times, stole over seven hundred bases, slapped over three thousand hits, knocked over six hundred doubles, and legged out over two hundred and fifty triples.

He may have been the best defensive player of his day. Playing in the inky, primordial days of baseball’s past, before gloves came into widespread usage, he was perhaps the most adept at scooping up hot grounders and spearing line drives with thick, meaty hands that never went wrong.

You could go on all day about his accomplishments, reciting line after line of numerically outstanding seasons, but there’s really only one way to sum him up. He was Honus Wagner, the greatest shortstop of all time.

Only that's not really him. Not quite

What you’re looking at is something Duchamp and the Dadaists would have had a field day with. The T206 Honus Wagner baseball card is the rarest and most expensive card ever made. Between 50 and 200 were produced, with only a fraction surviving. One version, at one point owned by no less a person than Wayne Gretzky, has been sold for progressively greater and greater amounts, over and over again. It last went for $2.8 million dollars.

I’m always fascinated by the way people are represented in art, especially a sodden and violently commercial medium like baseball cards. I have no doubt that, at one point, the artist commissioned by the American Tobacco Company to immortalize Honus Wagner on a baseball card may have seen a picture of his subject, or even met him in person. This makes his representative choices all the more…puzzling.

This is what Honus Wagner actually looked like, around the time this card was made:

Now, I’m not saying the card looks nothing like the man. They’ve got the same nose.

But other than that? Honus Wagner’s face is that of a man who has spent his life playing a rough sport in perhaps its roughest period. He is weary and taciturn, with lines criss-crossing his face, each one a reminder of every time a pitch came near his head, or some runner flashed into second base, spikes high. I’m almost entirely certain that this picture was taken right after he finished playing a game, as his uniform is rumpled and careworn, a mirror of his face.

You can’t see his eyes. They’re sunken into his face, blocked by the gathering shadows of late afternoon. No night games back then, you see.

Compare that to the youthful fellow in the T206, and we’ve got quite a conundrum. I can understand cleaning up the uniform and haircut a bit, but why the youthful countenance? The bright, clear eyes? T206 Honus Wagner has rosy cheeks.

Ceci n’est pas une Honus Wagner. Magritte would have been proud.

What is Honus thinking in that second picture? Does he know his course is set for him? He may have some kind of inkling that he was one of the greats of the game, but he couldn’t have known that he’d be one of the first ever members of the Hall of Fame. He couldn’t have known that, improbably, he would break out of a crippling shell of shyness to become beloved by an entire country (except for Ty Cobb, but he hated everybody).

He couldn’t have known that no one would remember him for that.

How will you be remembered once you’re gone? Assuming you are remembered, of course, by anyone outside your family and friends. Odds are, it’ll be for something stupid, or at least trivial. William Howard Taft was the only person to ever be President and a Supreme Court justice, but everyone remembers him most for being fat. Ty Cobb has the highest lifetime batting average out of anyone who has ever played baseball, but everyone remembers him for being an asshole.

Ted Williams—Teddy Ballgame!—was perhaps the greatest hitter ever, a legendary sportsman after he retired, and fought in two wars, shooting down enemy airplanes left and right, but I bet the first thing one thinks about when one hears his name is his head, frozen and cracked in a forgotten part of Alcor’s cryonics lab. Maybe the collective memory of our culture has room for only so many personality traits, and we weed out that which doesn’t interest us.

We strive so hard to make our mark, and it can all be undone by an accident of history. Honus Wagner mastered the game of baseball like few have before or after him. But he’s remembered as the subject of a card that some rich idiot buys every few years. He's practically incidental to the card's fame. It doesn’t even look like him.

Look at that second picture again. John Peter Wagner. The Flying Dutchman. The greatest shortstop who ever lived. A scarred wraith, rising from the dawn of history, struggling to keep his name. He is forever in the shadow of a piece of cardboard.

Look at that card.

This is not Honus Wagner.

But it is.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Big Time

It's tough to get a sense of size beyond what we can directly observe. An elephant is big. Mount Everest is big. Shaq is big. You can stand next to any of these and marvel at them. Our brains aren't built to think past what we can reliably compare. It's why we use tropes like "the length of two football fields" or "the size of Rhode Island" to sum up things like aircraft carriers and asteroids.

You really can't use those types of measurements with VY Canis Majoris. It's a star in the Canis Major constellation, which represents a dog following Orion the Hunter. VY Canis Majoris needs a whole host of summations. You've got to conceive of it by pieces.

First, the Earth. 40,000 km around at the equator. It'd take you about three years to walk around the entire thing.

The Earth's star, Sol, is 109 times that circumference. A good way of looking at it is to imagine how many Earths could fit inside our sun were it hollow: about a million, give or take. It'd take you about 350 years to walk around the entire thing.

The Sun is a medium-sized star, pretty much smack-dab in the middle of the stellar range. VY Canis Majoris is the largest star we've ever observed, by an absurd magnitude.

Just to give you an idea of this monster, here's it compared to the Sun:

You can't even see it without that handy-dandy magnification.

It would take you SIX HUNDRED AND FIFTY THOUSAND YEARS to walk around the entire thing. If you put VY Canis Majoris in the middle of our solar system, where the Sun is now, it would extend out past SATURN.

Light travels 186,000 miles per second, meaning that it could circle the earth eight times in one second. Light emitted from VY Canis Majoris takes EIGHT HOURS to circle the entire thing.

I'm fascinated by this absolutely beastly collection of superheated gas and matter, as all people are fascinated by the Biggest and Most and Greatest. It's 5,000 light years away from us, fortunately too far away to affect us when it goes...supernova? It's got to go more than that. Hypernova, maybe. A whole new category for the biggest Dog we know of.

Infinite space removes grandiosity's shackles. There is so much for us to discover.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Scouting Report: Joe DeMartino

Player's personal comments in italics


Weight: 170 lbs. (and dropping!)

Bats: Left

Throws: Right

Sings: Tenor


Hair: Brown, awesome


  • Strengths: Good throwing arm, reliable glove, excellent plate discipline
  • Weaknesses: No power, no strike zone judgment, slow, afraid of balls thrown more than 60 mph.
  • Positions played well: Catcher, second base, third base
  • Positions played incompetently: Outfield (all), pitcher
HIGHLIGHTS: Once tagged two people out at home on the same play. Wore out pitchers with ridiculous refusal to swing at close pitches. Dove and caught a ball once in center field. Mashed the occasional double. Still holds record for killing mosquitoes in dugout at Kennedy Field (fifty in one night!)

Walked four people in a row during disastrous stint as pitcher. Almost threw ball at fat kid who mocked him for walking said people. Fat kid was walking down first base line at the time. Struck out with frequency and flair. Bad eyesight. Struck out on purpose against last pitcher ever faced, due to pitcher's first offering going an inch over his head at eighty miles per hour. Catcher's return throw to the pitcher once hit him in the head while he was in the batter's box. Struck out--looking!--on a full count with the bases loaded and two outs in the final inning of the local championship game*.

REASON FOR RETIREMENT: Couldn't hit a curveball.

PLAYER SUMMATION: Futility infielder.

*OK, while technically true, the circumstances were bullshit. We were down by five, so even if I hit a grand slam, we still had the autistic kid who hated baseball coming up after me. I read Ted Williams' "The Science of Hitting" (fat lot of good it did me), and its central tenet was that it's pointless to swing at a pitch you can't hit. So I didn't swing at that pitch. Wanna know why? IT WAS AT MY FRIGGING ANKLES! When the ump rang me up, I had to restrain myself from breaking his arm with my bat.

  • Strengths: Ability to understand plays. Advanced sense of self-preservation.
  • Weaknesses: Average size. Slow. Lacks agility. Afraid of contact. Averse to pain. Glasses.
  • Positions played well: Left bench
  • Positions played incompetently: All
HIGHLIGHTS: Nicknamed "The Professor" by first Pop Warner coaches. Felt awesome sense of inclusion with every team played on. Great sideline motivator. Good snapper. Planned and led successful raid on defensive unit's cabin in freshman year training camp in Vermont. Successfully explained concept of a light-year to star nose tackle. Was the only person to quit freshman year football with honor and to the coach's face. Received no major injuries*.

LOWLIGHTS: Refused to go all-out in drills. Shied away from every tackle. Run over constantly at the line of scrimmage. Cried when formerly undefeated team lost a heartbreaker to North Attleboro. Lost a cleat in the mud of a Martha's Vineyard field. Fractured right pinky finger after catching it in opponent's facemask. Mocked by creepy drunken townie for sitting out with said injury.

REASON FOR RETIREMENT: Spent week-long training camp in hellish Vermont locale with two-a-day practices, shitty food, and no pillows/sheets/mattresses. Literally slept on wood.

PLAYER SUMMATION: Looks a bit lost out there.

*This one kid I knew, Derek Durkin, was a fleet and nimble running back. Really talented, just loved the game. We had this one drill where two players faced off, about twenty yards apart. The coach held a ball in the air between the players, and they had to run forward and either a) get the ball or b) tackle the guy with the ball. This was the dumbest fucking drill I'd ever been a part of. I always slowed up so I wouldn't get the ball and made a half-hearted dive at my opponent. My coaches were always pissed. One of them headbutted me while I was wearing a helmet. Derek Durkin, maybe eleven or twelve years old at the time, received THREE CONCUSSIONS from this and various other drills. So yeah, no thanks. I like my brain intact.

GOLF (age 14?)
  • Strengths: Hit the crap out of the ball
  • Weaknesses: Didn't know where the ball was going. Hated golf.
  • Positions played well: Not golfer.
  • Positions played incompetently: Golfer
HIGHLIGHTS: Found out he hated golf*.

LOWLIGHTS: Crazy kid who ended up being a townie nearly decapitated him with a five-iron after some gentle mocking of his swing.

REASON FOR RETIREMENT: Found out he hated golf.


*"When I hit a ball, I want someone else to go chase it."--Hall of Fame second baseman Rogers Hornsby. Hell yeah, Rajah.

FENCING (ages 14-present)
  • Strengths: Strong wrists. Totally awesome salute. Looked cool in a white kevlar bodysuit. Awesome hair looked cool when mask was taken off dramatically. Got to keep sweet purple warmup suit from Northwestern.
  • Weaknesses: Mediocre footwork. Tended to fall in love with parries and neglect offense. Usually faced off against D-I scholarship athletes who had been fencing their entire lives and occasionally were Olympians. Lost to girls*.
  • Positions played well: Pain-in-the-ass defensive specialist
  • Positions played incompetently: Attacker
HIGHLIGHTS: Once just absolutely destroyed this arrogant prick who gave him a "come and get it" hand signal after lunging. At least seven confirmed wins, including three in a row against another club team when the rest of his squad was unable to continue due to injury/fatigue. College coach had sweet Civil War-era mustache.

LOWLIGHTS: Unconfirmed number of losses, possibly in the thousands. Lost 15-0 in Ohio State Duals against some guy who he later found out was captain of "The Excalibur Squad", whatever that is. Tried and failed to cause crippling knee injuries to Ohio State fencers. Never went to supposedly mandatory workouts due to combination of 7 AM start time, two-mile walk, cold weather, and alcohol.

REASON FOR RETIREMENT: Combination of daily three hour practices, vastly increasing academic workload, and constant ass-kickings.

PLAYER SUMMATION: Looked cool, at least.

*To be absolutely fair, these girls were the cream of the crop. NU is one of those schools which is ranked anywhere between No. 1 and No. 5 in the country at any given point, so these kids had all kinds of family traditions, dating back like a hundred years. Not that you care, you jerks.

TRACK (age 15)
  • Strengths: None
  • Weaknesses: Slow.
  • Positions played well: Sitter.
  • Positions played incompetently: Runner
HIGHLIGHTS: Found out he hated track

LOWLIGHTS: Brought a book to the only practice he attended. Read it while coach was talking. Quit after first quarter-mile due to boredom.*

REASON FOR RETIREMENT: Slow, hated track.


*Neil Gupta, noted track stalwart, has never let me forget this. I still don't have the foggiest idea why I decided to try running, considering I hate running and have to listen to angry-man music to get through 15 minutes on a treadmill.


Strong arm. Good hands. Slow feet. Hates pain. Loves competition. Used to wish he was Ted Williams. Will now settle for Joe Posnanski.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Caveman

Some people just have an advanced sense of themselves.

About seven months ago, I broke up with my girlfriend of four and a half years. As you might imagine, this left me with just oodles of newly-formed questions about exactly who I am. This type of thing crops up with me every three years or so. I usually come out of it as a better person, or at least a different one.

For now, though, I'm in the middle of a grand re-imagining, trying to develop aspects of myself that I had previously cast aside. It's actually going pretty well. I'm solidifying. My goal is to become, in some way, a fully-formed Renaissance Man.

My goal is the Caveman.

I don't know the first thing about rugby. It bears a resemblance to football, so I can kind of follow what's going on. I gather you need to run into an end zone with an oddly-shaped ball and prevent other players from doing so by physical force. Regardless, it's tough to follow if you're not familiar with its quirks*.

*This exact same thing applies to cricket. I know it comes from the same family of games as baseball, but I couldn't make heads or tails of the one cricket game I've ever watched. The pitcher (bowler) wound up, hurled the ball at the batter, and the guy just crushed this freaking ball. Walloped it into the stratosphere. I don't think it's landed yet. All I know is that he hit what must be the American equivalent of a home run.

And NO ONE REACTED! The announcers barely made mention of it. Weird sport.

I don't know where I first heard Sebastien Chabal's name mentioned, but I do remember the first time I saw him in action. Ready for it?

A couple of things:

1. Sebastien Chabal plays rugby for the the French national rugby team, and also the Sale Sharks. He is 6'3" tall and weights 260 lbs.

2. He's the one with the beard who looks like a caveman.

3. I think he killed that first guy.

4. In fact, his nickname is "l'Homme des Cavernes"—the Caveman

5. His other nicknames are "The Seabass" and "The Anesthetist".

6. He might have killed that second guy too.

Have you ever met someone who is exactly what they should be? No wasted effort? No doubt? The sum totality of their lives has become plain on their faces, and you get the sense that their world will never fall apart. It's contained from within by a strong magnetic force, too well-maintained to ever fail, like a benevolent black hole.

Sebastien Chabal was put on this earth to hit other gentlemen very hard in the pursuit of athletic glory, while looking like a monster from the dawn of time. It's a simple thing, but here's the rub. He's accomplished what so many of us strive our entire lives to do: he has discovered his purpose and, in the discovering, has found he enjoys it. You can't break him. He is forever himself.

I take heart from this. At times, I feel alone and despised, but I take heart from this giant Frenchman, playing a strange sport in a distant land. My purpose awaits me, but I'm in no great hurry to find it. Sebastien Chabal was born as Sebastien Chabal, but it took him a while to become The Caveman.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Because "" was not available...

Adding a simple "The" solves that problem.

"The Toy Cannon", incidentally, is the nickname of 1960s-70s Houston Astros center fielder Jimmy Wynn. He got it by hitting moon-shot, tape-measure home runs despite being (charitably) 5'6" tall. The name itself has no relation to this blog save for two things.

First, we'll be talking about baseball. Not all the time or anything. But it'll come up.

Second, as nicknames go, that one is absolutely perfect. I mean, boy, is it ever perfect. We've entered a real down-time in terms of nicknames and I worry that it's a permanent thing. Look, the best player in baseball right now is Alex Rodriguez. Fifty years ago, he would have been called something like "Moonshine Al" or "The Impossible Machine". Something evocative, you know? The best we've come up with for him is "A-Rod", which tells you bloody well nothing. If you were looking at Jimmy Wynn up at bat and asked who he was, and I told you "Oh, that's Jimmy Wynn, the Toy Cannon", I suspect you'd have a good idea of what he was like as a player. Not so with Alex "A-Rod" Rodriguez.

That's not his fault, incidentally, horrid Yankee though he be. The "X-Rod"* nicknaming convention is insidious. Ivan "Pudge" Rodriguez had a great nickname (though stolen a bit from Carlton "Pudge" Fisk), but I've heard people refer to him as "I-Rod". For shame, people.

*This same problem extends to politics. Otto von Bismarck was "The Iron Chancellor", which is kickin' rad. George W. Bush is "Dubya". Christ. It's just his middle initial, mispronounced.

For my money, the top ten best nicknames in all of history are as follows:

1. Edward "The Black Prince"

Just an absolute stunner of a nickname. You have to marvel at how badass a man has to be to be nicknamed "The Black Prince". I can just imagine the conversation back in France:

French Soldier 1: So, I hear the English are coming. We can totally take them. Who's in command?

French Soldier 2: The Black Prince.

French Soldier 1: God damn it.

French Soldier 2: I know!

For what it's worth, Edward was never called "The Black Prince" in his lifetime, so the above conversation never really could have taken place. Still. "The Black Prince". Damn, son.

2. James "Cool Papa" Bell

This nickname is good enough that it's subsumed James Bell's actual name; I know an awful lot about baseball*, and I had to look it up. Cool Papa Bell was a Negro Leagues great, said to be so fast that he could flick a light switch and be in bed before the room went dark. The marvelous part about this legend is that it actually happened once, due to faulty wiring.

*God, I'm so smart.

3. Jimmy "The Toy Cannon" Wynn

Covered previously. Jimmy Wynn played in a cavernous pitcher's park in a low-offense era that killed his chances at the Hall of Fame. One year, he alone accounted for 37 of his team's 93 TOTAL home runs. His wife also stabbed him this one time. So there's that.

4. Walter "Sweetness" Payton

Most football nicknames run the super-macho gamut; Mean Joe Green, Jack "The Assassin" Tatum, Jerome "The Bus" Bettis. Just saying "Sweetness" actually makes me smile a little bit. It's completely non-conformist, rolls off the tongue, and tells you all you need to know about the man's running style.

5. Attila the Hun, "The Scourge of God"

Visigoth Soldier 1: So, I hear the Eng--uh, Huns are coming. We can totally take them. Who's in command?

Visigoth Soldier 2: The Scourge of God

Visigoth Soldier 1: God damn it.

Visigoth Soldier 2: Also, we're about to enter the Dark Ages.

Visigoth Soldier 1: *forgets how to read*

Fun fact: Typing "Scourge of God" into Wikipedia takes you directly to Attila's page. You know you've a great nickname when no one has dared to take it for 1600 years.

6. Illich Ramirez Sanchez, "Carlos the Jackal"

Leftist revolutionaries have a bunch of great nicknames (I'm not a huge fan of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, but you have to admit, that name has sticking power), but Illich Sanchez' is the best. Reduced slightly in power considering the guy is in prison and did not die in a hail of gunfire.

7. Martha "Calamity Jane" Cannary

Another nickname that has completely subsumed the subject's actual name. Whatever your opinion* of Calamity Jane, it will change dramatically once you watch HBO's "Deadwood".

*Unless your opinion of Calamity Jane is that she is a drunken mess of a person whose every other word is a profanity. Then your opinion probably won't change much.

8. Manfred von Richtofen, "The Red Baron"

English Pilot 1: So, I hear the Germans are coming. We can totally take them. Who's in command?

English Pilot 2: *dies of trench foot*

English Pilot 1: God damn it.

9. Erwin Rommel, "The Desert Fox"

Are there foxes in the desert? I think there are, but I'm too lazy to confirm that independently. I doubt they're really all that fierce. Anyways, I hate to give a great nickname award to a Nazi, but "The Desert Fox" is too good to pass up.

Is a movie made better by the inclusion of the Nazis as the main villain? I'm pretty certain that's true, based solely on the Indiana Jones movies. The first and third? Excellent. Lots of Nazi-punching/shooting/dissolving-due-to-the-terror-of-the-Almighty. The second one? Tribesmen. Not so good.

10. Bob "Death to Flying Things" Ferguson

19th-century infielder who apparently was very good at catching spherical white objects before they hit the ground. This nickname is really long and wordy, which is usually the worst thing a nickname can be, but it's just so goofy that it gets the nod. It's one of those things that only drunken men with bowler hats and handlebar mustaches could come up with.

That's a hell of a list.