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.


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 “What were your instructions? If Kimbo doesn’t get knocked out, make sure he wins the fight?”
Fine, right? Only whoever runs 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.


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.