Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Babies; Geniuses

Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski are standing by their car on the side of a desert road. The car is a beat-up Chevy right out of one of those movies in which two characters travel the  USA in a similar beat-up Chevy. It is midday and hot. Werner examines the open hood, while Klaus paces angrily past the driver’s side.

Klaus: I hope the buzzards peck your eyes out.

Werner looks up from his work.

Werner: You know how I don’t like birds. I don’t appreciate your bringing them up. (He stares at the engine). There is no intelligence behind their eyes. They are soulless and monstrous and an unfair antagonist. Hitchcock knew this. (Pause) Do you know anything of carburetors?

Klaus: No.

Werner:  You are the shit of the world.

(Klaus takes a drag on a cigarette)

Klaus: Anyway, we are not wet.

Werner: What is this?

Klaus: We are not wet. The last time you and I were in such intolerable proximity, you had dragged me to the rainforest for the second time, and it was wet. You told me we were making a movie, Werner, not that I was to fall victim to pneumonia.

(The camera cuts to a small hill overlooking the two artists. A bear observes them silently from the hill’s crest. Small bits of clothing dangle from the bear’s mouth, including what is very clearly a wristwatch).

Klaus: Why must you always attempt to kill me in the name of cinema, Werner?

Werner: Kinski. We are not making a movie now, and you are not nearly dead. And I try to kill you because more people will watch the movie if you actually expire. I plan to build a grotto off the profits.

(Klaus looks shocked)

Werner: No such thing, now. Everyone thinks I’m such a serious damn artist. Well, they are right, but I do not starve.

Klaus: You would kill me for money?

Werner: I would kill you for far less. Certain small trinkets. Birdshot. A woman’s promise.

Klaus: Women find you repellent.

Werner: I cast you in Nosferatu because you actually look like the undead, so let us not go comparing appeal.

Klaus: Vampires have great power over the opposite sex, but that is not the point. Every time you make a movie that is not one of your horrid documentaries, you cast me as the lead. Were I do die, what would you do for your next piece of tripe?

Werner:  Very likely, find someone who does not act as if he were an underpaid prostitute trying to get off early.

(Klaus whirls around)

Klaus: What did you say to me?

Werner: I’m sorry, Klaus. I know how you hate being compared to your mother.

(Klaus storms toward Werner)

Werner: Or was it your father? I suppose after the war, jobs were hard to come by for amateur fascistii, so they took what they could get!

(Klaus is, by this point right in Werner’s face)

Klaus: Herzog.

Werner: Kinski.

(Klaus pushes him aside and starts to work on the car)

Klaus: You living shit. I have found this now. I will pack you in the back of this trunk and drive off with you to a dark place where the eyes of man do not reach, and I will consume you.

(Klaus is working with surprisingly alacrity at this point)

Klaus: I will do this because I am a hero of all humanity. You are too dangerous to live, Herzog, and too toxic to bury, so I will consume you. Before nature takes its course, I will build a pyre and throw myself atop it when the fire is at its height. I will be the hungry torch that removes the curse of Werner Herzog from this world, because I, Klaus Kinski, am the wrath of God, and you are the Anti-Christ.

(Klaus slams the hood down)


(Werner turns the key. The car turns over. He claps his hands in delight.)

Werner: You see!  I have ever been able to inspire you to the heights of greatness. You are very talented when you’re angry.

Klaus: What?

(He shakes his head)

Klaus: What happened? I blacked out there for a moment.

Werner: Funny. That’s exactly what your mother said after I was done with her.

Klaus: Herzog!

Werner: Or was it your father?

(Klaus lunges at Werner, but is stopped short by a loud growl. The bear is now less than twenty feet away from them, standing on its hind legs. The wristwatch dangles from the beast’s jaws, and finally dislodges, shattering on the ground. The two men freeze)

Werner: This all seems so familiar.

Klaus: Suddenly my desire to see you dismembered has waned.

Werner: Nature is hostile to us. Why did we ever leave Los Angeles?

Klaus: No one is going to be interested in you and me if nice things happen to us, Werner.

(The bear roars again. Hillbilly music plays. Klaus and Werner dive for the steering wheel. The screen freezes.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009


The forest is no fit place for a young Italian man to live.

I feel like I’m dancing around bear traps sometimes. Except for a pleasant four years in Chicago where I lived by a lake, every place I’ve called home has bordered on or been surrounded by a forest. My family’s property in Canton was, some years back, carved out of a copse of trees next to a cornfield. The trees were so congested that the few patches left are still sufficient to block out the sun at the right time of day. Wolves, languidly confident, sometimes venture out of the woods to stare. Huge deer munch on my father’s tomato plants despite the best efforts to fence them out. My father, my brother and I came across one mid-meal once, and fanned out in an attempt to capture the thing. What were we thinking, exactly? Even if one of us had something other than our bare hands, I’m certain that killing a deer in Massachusetts is illegal.

It bounded away at top speed before we got within fifty feet. Back into the forest.

That seems so long ago.

Quinctilius Varus took three legions from Rome to cement the Empire’s rule of Germania. This was two thousand years ago, give or take two months. Three legions is twenty five thousand men, all marching in red rectangles to civilize the barbarians.

Maybe a relative of mine marched with them. Unless I get a genetic test, I’ll never really know from where my family originated. As far back as I’ve  cared to trace it, we’re Italian to the core, but my family turns out light as well as dark, unlike what you’d traditionally see. Back in college, my brother researched the history of Cassino, my family’s hometown, and found that it had been invaded by (conservatively) everybody. English, French, Germans, Moors, Vikings, and probably Carthaginians and the Aragonese for all I know. I never really got how people could be terribly proud of a cartoon version of their heritage (KISS ME, I’M ITALIAN) after I heard about that little revelation. Better to embrace your commonality with everyone, and make where your ancestors came from the least interesting thing about you.

If a distant DeMartino did make that march, it didn’t end well for him. Varus was betrayed. His men were slaughtered. This doesn’t happen all that much in modern times, because you have lines of communication and advanced forms of transportation, so people can get away, but odds are that every single one of Varus’ 25,000 legionaries died or were captured. Rome was devastated by the loss – the emperor Augustus (who found Rome in brick and left it in marble) was said to have gone temporarily mad, banging his head against the walls of his villa and crying, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!”

The battle took place in the forest of Teutoburg.

I live in a condominium surrounded by several miles of forest, deep enough so that the woods will come to me as I’m walking from my car. It’s not all bad. A family of foxes greeted me once as I pulled into my parking space. All of them fled except for one, the youngest. We stared one another down until its mother came back to fetch it.

Other times, the darkness seems to stretch and stretch. We used to hold bonfires in a sandpit (the origin of which we never discovered) in the middle of a forest near my friend Yaron’s house. Heading back from the campfire one night, many years ago, my flashlight went out just as I reached the edge of the woods. I kept walking, because I was sure that if I looked over my shoulder, I would have seen nothing at all.

I hope someday I’ll end up sipping wine on a hill, overlooking a lake. It’ll be a nice change from the constant sense of menace they exude. I don’t know that it has anything to do with Teutoburg, but almost exactly two millennia ago, someone whose chin or eyes or laugh may have resembled mine was in a forest too, his shield soaked and useless, the trees suddenly teeming with painted men who sacrificed their captives to a woods-god.  For all I know, he may still be there.

Anyways, history hasn’t been kind to young Italian men in the forest.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Dragon Age: Origins is supposed to be the big role-playing game this year. You can tell because the trailers feature portentous music, big battle scenes, and a bunch of characters looking Very Serious about the Overwhelming Evil that is threatening the Vaguely Medieval* world they inhabit. Needless to say, I am playing the shit out of this game.  I’m a sucker for all of that. Drop me in Faux-Europe, point me in the direction of whatever horrible monster needs a-choppin’, and I’m thrilled.

*What is it about medieval times that made them the default setting for any RPG? Why not Rome? Why can’t I be an Aztec or a Pharaoh? Or like…I dunno, an Aborigine? I bet you could have a lot of fun as an Aborigine.

There’s a lot to recommend it. The combat system is fluid and complex, and responds well to what you’re trying to accomplish with it. The graphics are lush. The voice acting is excellent (have you ever seen what bad voice acting can do to a game? I played the first Resident Evil at my aunt and uncle’s house in Italy, and even the people there who spoke no English were laughing at how bad the voice acting was in that game). BioWare makes the game, and I’ve liked roughly everything they’ve done. Something about the way they put the whole package together just appeals to me; their games feel right. I can usually tell within about five minutes whether or not a game will hold my interest just based on the tone it sets.

What really sold me on Dragon Age, however, was a very brief trailer regarding the party interaction system. Your character walks around a campfire, talking to each of his buddies in turn. They respond to you with various ways; one is reticent, another flirtatious, one is grateful for something you did in a previous interaction. Another begs for food*. It’s designed to showcase how much work they put into making the characters seem believable.

*This character is a dog.

None of that is what grabbed me. I’ve seen tons of games that do characters well. Heck, most of them were BioWare’s to begin with, so it’s not like this is something I didn’t expect. It’s like EA Sports making a reasonable approximation of what it would be like to coach a football game if you could ride the SkyCam, or the guys who made Myst making another shitty point-and-click adventure that doesn’t go any-damn-where.

What grabbed me is this: you’re sitting around a campfire, and that’s all you’re doing.

If this seems strange to you, you have to consider the one factor that is the center of nearly every popular non-sports, non-puzzle game of the past ten years:



OK, murder is maybe too strong of  a word. I apologize. Sometimes I use words to shock you and draw you in despite the fact that they may be less-than-accurate. I wanted to be a sportswriter once. It’s a bad habit.

Let’s rephrase. One series I’ve kept up with along the years is Halo; I’ve played it since its inception and through its various sequels. The most recent incarnation has an online application that tracks your various stats—medals won, hours played, and so on. I checked it recently and found that, in the campaign mode (in which you Save the World from an Alien Menace), I’d killed something along the lines of 7,000 enemies in three playthroughs.

This didn’t take me as long as you’d think. I’ll be conservative and estimate that each playthrough took 20 hours, maximum, so that’s a little more than a hundred baddies dead per hour.

A hundred per hour! In game-time, Halo 3’s campaign takes place over the course of maybe…three days? A week at the outmost if you’re being generous with estimating what you don’t see in between levels? The most deadly soldier in history, in terms of enemy lives personally ended, is a Finnish guy by the name of Simo Hayha*, who killed something along the lines of seven hundred Russian invaders during the Second World War. He did this in three months.  That works out to eight per day.

*In case you’re wondering, his answer to how he pulled this particular feat off is “Practice”.

Now, Halo 3 is awfully well-paced, but you’re basically killing, killing, killing constantly. There’s no downtime.

Pretty much every other game does this. You’re either killing something, in transit to killing something, or spending a perfunctory amount of time recovering from killing something. From Mario to Master Chief, I’d say I’ve probably ended hundreds of thousands of virtual lives.

Let me be clear: the effect this has had on my fragile conception of right and wrong has been zero. If you’re a sociopath, you’re not more likely to kill someone because Call of Duty 4 somehow presented you with the idea that killing is good. About the only real-world skill that could possibly be carried over is the importance of leading one’s target. The first and only time I picked up a gun*, which was in a skeet-shooting activity on a cruise ship when I was twelve, I hit exactly half the moving targets I shot at, simply because I had the good sense to fire at where they would be rather than where they were. ‘

*Shotguns are really heavy. Also, my shoulder hurt for a day afterwards.

In the context of games, however, this has two effects. First off, why the hell are there no consequences from my character outdoing Rambo in half the time the movie took to get him to Vietnam? Video game writer Tim Rogers has written about this at length*, but if there’s a psychological consequence from killing one person in real life, why do video game characters (many of whom start the game as adventurers or scientists or some other relatively non-murderous profession) mow down hundreds without even a sniffle? Do they all go straight to the PTSD ward of their virtual Walter Reed after I hit the power switch?

*He writes about everything “at length”. If you think this is long, try slogging through 12,000 words about it.

Second, and this is where the crux of my argument lies, constant conflict is just not believable, because it’s actually kind of stressful. Even Simo Hayha had time to chat with his buds in Finnish before sending some poor Ukrainian conscript to an early grave. He wasn’t cooking off thousands of rounds in ten minutes. My favorite part of all of Gears of War 2 was a short segment where you’re on top of a mobile drilling rig, looking out at a vast and tree-covered valley, and nothing is trying to murder you. That lasts about a minute. Give me some time to hang out, guys. Let me chat with the other gruff space marines riding shotgun before you barrage me with stuff I need to aim at in order to progress to the next part where I (in a stunning and newfangled concept) find more stuff I need to aim at.

I can get plenty of non-stop bullet storms in the game’s online mode. This is single player. Let me relax.


Back to Dragon Age.

Most of the games I mentioned above are not RPGs, so this argument is a little bit less applicable to them. RPGs do have downtime (you have to go to a town to purchase supplies or break into people’s houses or whatever), but they’re so rarely an actual break. You’re just replenishing the numbers that represent your life, or stamina, or killtasticity. What Dragon Age is selling is the promise that there’s something to do beyond all the head-cutting. Sometimes, you have to take a break, but that break can still serve the story. Maybe it’ll even be the best part of the game.

Monday, November 2, 2009


I had a discussion recently with my friend Ben where we speculated on a graphic novel series featuring Amelia Earhart as a central character.  The comic would start at the point of her last known contact with humanity –- the transmission of “We are running on line north and south” picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca. Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, through either natural or supernatural means, would survive the storm and make lives for themselves as itinerant crime fighters or revolutionaries or adventurers.

Neither of us can draw.

I doubt it would get off the ground anyways. You remember Anastasia? The whole conceit was that the Russian princess had survived the murder of her family and had gone off to live as a street urchin or something. She ends up fighting against Zombie Rasputin*. Quite a charming animated tale that had the good fortune to be made before modern DNA analysis discovered that, yes, Anastasia’s charred and scattered bones were interred with the rest of her kin. Any sequel would be  a non-starter.

*One would argue that “Zombie Rasputin” is redundant – the man was poisoned, shot four times, beaten, and thrown in an icy river in his almost-botched assassination attempt, and he only ended up dying from that last bit.

I don’t know that truth can entirely quash a legend. There will be, without a doubt, people claiming to be the Lindbergh baby, or his son/grandson/great-grandson for presumably as long as people actually remember the story. However, truth can pale a legend, can cause its evocative power to become reedy and indistinct. 

So long as Amelia Earhart still lurked among the Pacific storm clouds, she would have remained a legend. We could have made her a female James Bond, or a rescue angel, or a Nazi-fighting air huntress. Who would have argued?

It seems they may have found her. As is customary, the truth is more striking than the legend. Experts from The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery* believe Earhart and Noonan crash-landed on Nikumaroro Island, where they became castaways and quickly succumbed to injury, starvation, exposure, or the island’s extreme heat. Their bones were carried off by crabs.

*That is a remarkably specific group. How do you get into something like that? Do you have to stumble on Yamamoto’s transport? How many of these things can there be?

So we mourn, for two people who set out on an adventure and met a bleak end. We mourn for their legend, as something has been irretrievably lost. In a very real way, Amelia Earhart was alive all this time. The intrepid fellows who are closing in on her final resting place do so with a sort of murder in their hearts.

Don’t get me wrong. Being a legend is nice, but this is a mercy killing. Amelia and Fred have spent almost a century frozen at the moment of impact. They’ve been lost longer than they lived. The one thing we owe everyone who has gone before us is our attention. Take heart. We’ll do the best we can to find you.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Give Me Wings. No; Real, Actual Wings

Gene therapy transforms eyesight of 12 born with rare defect

Pennsylvania researchers using gene therapy have made significant improvements in vision in 12 patients with a rare inherited visual defect, a finding that suggests it may be possible to produce similar improvements in a much larger number of patients with retinitis pigmentosa and macular degeneration.

The team last year reported success with three adult patients, an achievement that was hailed as a major accomplishment for gene therapy. They have now treated an additional nine patients, including five children, and find that the best results are achieved in the youngest patients, whose defective retinal cells have not had time to die off.

The youngest patient, 9-year-old Corey Haas, was considered legally blind before the treatment began. He was confined largely to his house and driveway when playing, had immense difficulties in navigating an obstacle course and required special enlarging equipment for books and help in the classroom.

Today, after a single injection of a gene-therapy product in one eye, he rides his bike around the neighborhood, needs no assistance in the classroom, navigates the obstacle course quickly and has even played his first game of softball.

What an unvarnished good this is! You were blind, said the doctors, but now you can see. Downright biblical. Jesus with a lab coat.

Obviously, this kind of thing is designed for those whose eyesight was thought to be irreparably damaged by various genetic forms of degradation. My own vision, clouded as it is by astigmatism and the like, is a much more manageable 20/400, which allows me to utilize contact lenses and glasses in an ultimately successful attempt to attain normal sight. It’s non-essential for those of us who are merely blind compared to Ted Williams, not blind in reality.

However, should gene therapy become available to the point where it’s feasible for my doctor to prescribe it, I want to make my stance on the matter as clear as possible:

I will mainline that shit DIRECTLY INTO MY AORTA if I need to.

Look, I’ve heard all sorts of things about flaws being an inherent part of one’s character, ultimately necessary in the full construction of a personality.  I tend to subscribe to that point of view, except for the fact that physical flaws don’t count. A bad leg isn’t a character trait; it’s an impediment. Same with oily skin, or a bum ticker, or whatever. If there’s an option to improve one or all of the various maladies that beset me (as they do you all), I don’t see why we should stop for anything but tests to make sure this stuff doesn’t cause you to grow horns.*

*And who says that’s a bad thing?  I can think of lots of uses…well, OK, I can think of one use (handy-dandy can-opener), but that’s one more use than you had before you grew horns.

This plays heavily into my view of the steroid problem in sports, which is as follows: the problem with steroids is that the steroids they use are not good enough. Use them all you want, Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire or Manny Alexander or whomever. I don’t have a problem with what you’re doing. It’s the chemists I have a problem with. Come on, guys! You’re telling me this stuff is still giving our poor baseball players bacne? Step your game up!

As is customary, the trap here is economic. To mangle a great philosopher, with great purchasing power comes the ability to turn yourself into Spider-man. I can make my eyesight 20/10 through your standard gene therapy cocktail, but what’s to stop my richer neighbors from adding telescoping vision, or the ability to view the heat spectrum, or elbow-mounted machine guns?*

*I consider the lack of elbow-mounted machine guns, heat-seeking toenails, and laser hair to be compelling evidence against Intelligent Design, as all are frankly unforgivable oversights that would have gotten a putative Designer fired a long time ago.

It’s a far greater disparity than the fact that he has a Porsche and I have a Toyota – the only real difference is speed, aesthetics, and the amount of speeding tickets he gets compared to me—because such enhancements will fundamentally change who you are. “All men are created equal” may not look so profound when some of us have grafted wings to our backs, while others muddy along on the ground, still wholly human. “All men”, perhaps, but we’ll leave that second word behind. Perhaps sooner than you think. Or want.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Bagging It

A few nights ago, my friends and I were at our usual Wednesday night karaoke haunt, Sully’s Pub. Nice place, that Sully’s. I’d never thought I’d be a regular at a bar, but I like the atmosphere there—it borders on charming without pretending to it. The usual crowd is a mix of slumming hipsters, angel-voiced war vets, crooning ex-drama stars, and a Led Zeppelin-obsessed man named Jonathan, who looks like a meek investment banker but we think might be a serial killer. The clientele rotates on a regular basis, but you tend to see at least a few of the same faces crop up at some point each week.

When the douche walked in, therefore, it was easy to spot him.

Backwards hat? That’s the first sign, and not a good one. Reversed caps work on a precious few people. Actually, the only one I can think of is Ken Griffey Jr., and even then, it only works when he’s in the Home Run Derby, which he’s too old to participate in anyways, so the point is moot.

Pink shirt? OK, well, in certain situations, I can see one working. In fact, my friend Zach has made the pink shirt a key part of his wardrobe. Still, as we will see, it is often an indicator of true douchebaggery.

Purposely-ripped jeans? Unambiguously douche. We’re nearing critical d-bag level and honestly need only one thing to complete the image.

Sandals? At night? In a bar? Who are you kidding?

I do so hate to judge a person based on his appearance, but honestly, it’s disingenuous not to do so. Merely neglecting how a person presents himself in developing your assessment of him suggests powers of perception that you do not actually possess. Appearance can be by necessity or choice, but it is never insignificant.

In our own subject’s case, his appearance was obviously calculated to convey a sense of laid-back dudeness—to say, in a sense, that it would be perfectly OK and in fact preferred to call him “bro”. He had the typical lips-parted half-smile of the greater North East d-bag*, with dull eyes and just the barest hint of stubble.

*A short digression on the different types of d-bag. One would think they’re the same all over, and in truth there are certain commonalities that link douche to douche in the grand douche circle of life (if represented visually, such a circle would vaguely resemble a badly-drawn barbed-wire tattoo). In the interest of assembling as authoritative a compendium of the various types of douche as is possible in this space, I will briefly address their distinguishing characteristics:

North East D-Bag: Already addressed in some detail. Crucially, a NEDB will often pop his collar for reasons unknown (possibly in a pale and unwitting imitation of a peacock, though protection from Vampires has not been ruled out). The more advanced versions of this variant will wear several collared shirts, all with collars a-poppin’, tripling or even quadrupling the douche level like some kind of douche layer cake. NEDBs can often be found behind a friend’s house (the friend will usually be named Foley) for the express purposes of drinking a thirty-cube of Miller.

Guidouche: I’m subjecting myself to this once again this year, because I consider running the Guidouche Gauntlet to be some kind of rite of passage, like hunting down and killing an elephant or a lion (only both would be bright orange). Guidouches typically wear muscle shirts or tank tops, tan themselves to a fine burnt sienna hue, spike their hair in blowout fashion, and make kissy-faces. Guidouches are dormant for the entirety of the workweek, but come alive immediately upon exiting work on Friday. They retreat to clubs for the duration of the weekend, venturing out only to flex on the beach during the day. A Guidouche lives his life in a kind of tunnel—his vision too clouded by a haze of Axe body spray and pulsing strobe lights to ever see anything but the equally bronzed girl at the bar.

Lord Fauntleroy Douchington: “Well, I don’t know if you’ve ever BEEN on a yacht, but FATHER’s is just FANTASTIC! MUFFY and I spent nearly two weeks on it, and it was just the most MARVELOUS time (father’s terribly rich, so I haven’t had to work for AGES)! “ Lord Douchington, at one point in his life, watched one of those 1980s teen romantic comedies where the nerd moves to a new town and gets the girl, all while dealing with a cadre of spoiled rich kids led by the likes of Billy Zabka. Lord Douchington looked up to Zabka and has spent his entire life trying to tie a sweater around his neck in exactly the correct fashion.

Roidouche: When this variant goes to the supermarket, he has to ask for help in reaching for the muscle supplements on the top shelf. Swimming is a no-no—not only is it a slimming activity, the only stroke the Roidouche can manage is a dog paddle. Where the Guidouche spends his whole life in the club, the Roidouche holes up in the gym—though he usually confines himself to the bench press exclusively. His “guns” are of paramount importance, as the Roidouche can often be found gazing admiringly at them, kissing them, or in one terribly disturbing YouTube clip I won’t inflict on you, making out with them. Full tongue.

L.A. Douche: Has been on at least one reality show. This is not surprising, as he has been trying to Date a Cougar or Get a Celebrity Out of Here for most of his adult life. The L.A Douche splits his time between drinking by a pool and drinking by a beach. He retains the unique ability to monetize his doucheness, thereby making himself the most dangerous of all douches. Fortunately, he will generally waste his money on a grotto.

What makes a man aspire to douchedom? I pondered this as the douche sat down at the table next to us, in an open chair at the same table as a few attractive girls. Much of it is women, no doubt. The douche is like a mildly retarded peacock, running around with his tailfeathers out all the damn time. Eventually, they’ll just get covered in shit.

Which is appropriate, because he wasn’t exactly covering himself in glory. Though he acted overly familiar with the girls, they seemed to be having none of it. You know the expression a women gets when she’s simply not interested?* Eyes down and elsewhere, mouth in a thin line of disapproval that would seem appropriate on the face of some tyrannical nun. That’s what the douche created in the middle of a rollicking bar: a fucking convent.

*There’s a story, somewhat apocryphal, about the casting process for “The Graduate”. Apparently, Robert Redford auditioned for the lead role. His performance was good, but not quite what the producers were looking for. They took him aside and told him to act more wounded and less confident.

“You know how sometimes you’ll be hitting on a woman and she’ll reject you?” they asked.

Redford gave them a blank look, and without a hint of guile, said “Huh?”

The pattern repeated itself many times over the course of the evening—a cold approach, a sense of familiarity, a sudden but striking cooling of anything resembling ardor, disengagement, etc. Finally, the douche heard his name called by Don, the DJ karaoke at Sully’s. It was time for him to sing.

I’m ashamed to say that I can’t remember exactly what he decided on, but I’m going to pretend it was something from the douche catalogue that epitomizes douchiness. He sang Nickelback.

Nickelback is an aggressively awful band that makes aggressively awful songs, but a singer that has something of a clue can at least make their 4:00 ditties go by with very little aggravation. The douche was not one of those singers.

As I watched him hem and haw his way through the song, it dawned on me the essential problem with douches. Break them down into their component parts and you find a lot of qualities that aren’t necessarily bad. They’re confident, for sure, and somewhat social. They’re always down for a drink. Most of them keep in reasonably good shape. It’s also not a bad thing to dress a little ostentatiously.

What, then, is the problem? Why do they take so much from the table?

Substance. The douche, in one way or another, makes a promise with his outlandishness, and his overconfidence, and his willingness to engage. He says to you, I promise that I am an interesting person, the life of the party, a go-getter. I’m someone that can make things better for everyone in this bar.

He always breaks it. He can’t help it. There’s nothing backing him up.

On stage, the douche took advantage of a quiet moment in the song to raise his arms up


“I need some ladies up here now. Where are all the ladies at tonight?”

No one answered. Douche.

Monday, May 4, 2009

No Surprises

We can't keep anything secret anymore.

Cambria and I have been watching Battlestar Galactica recently, and Wikipedia has been a huge problem. I'm an inveterate completionist when it comes to understanding and interpreting what I've just watched, so I'm in the habit of, at the end of an episode, searching out recaps online. This works best for movies--they're self-contained and have no plot details beyond what I've already seen.

But BATTLESTAR. The plot is overlaid and intricate--you have to pay attention lest you miss something important, so recaps help fill some of the gaps. For the first few episodes, Wikipedia was a big help, cataloguing (in its obsessive way) all the important details of each episode. That is, until it COMPLETELY TOOLS ON YOU.

Take this sample recap, exaggerated slightly for dramatic effect:

"This episode, the second season's finale, establishes the relationship between Character X and Character Y, which is important later on in the SERIES FINALE, when they both KILLL ONE ANOTHER, and also EVERYONE ELSE DIE DIE DIE DIE DIES. Would you like to know what ELSE HAPPENS in every episode you haven't seen yet?"

There will also be a picture of Character Y with one less eye or arm or whatever than you last saw him with. You get tooled on both visually and textually.

This is a bit of a change from previous years. My thirst for knowing all that happened was denied in the pre-Internet TV-watching age. It was tough to follow up on an episode you missed, and if the series changed its airtime, you might lose your place entirely. For the longest time, I didn't know when new seasons of Quantum Leap started, so I was stuck watching the occasional disconnected re-run. Did Dr. Sam Beckett ever make it home?* The hell if I knew.

*SPOILER ALERT (Highlight this to reveal all): Nope

If you're even remotely connected to pop culture, avoiding spoilers becomes a child's game of "La la la, I can't hear you!" Friends of mine who had caught up on the series early on posted gushing Facebook updates immediately following Battlestar's finale, so I had to avoid the news feed for a few days. I couldn't read interviews with the cast, lest they reveal an important plot point. The Onion posted a story entitled "Obama Distant, Depressed Following Battlestar Finale"*. Tuesday Morning Quarterback, a lengthy column by Gregg Easterbrook ostensibly about football, posted a lengthy dissertation on the show's end right in the middle of a draft column. All media seemed driven to drive every detail of the show's dramatic final season into my brain before I'd even decided to watch the show.


I've had to institute a strict regimen of avoidance--every time I even see the words Battlestar Galactica in a story, I stop reading by "-tica". It's an exercise in discipline that is somewhat straining. Who knew watching a show would be so much damned work?

That's not to say one can avoid spoilers completely. The list of movies that I've seen is much, much smaller than the list of movies I know the endings to. Look, there are some movies that I'm just not all that interested in wasting two hours watching. I just want to know how they end. The same goes for television shows--I'll probably never watch Twin Peaks or Six Feet Under, 'cause I don't have the time and all, but they're interesting enough and important enough that I feel the need to possess the knowledge.

I just don't get the experience. That's what I'm trying to preserve here, as Cambria and I finish out the last season of what's proven to be an exceptional TV series. It's the difference between reading about a meteor shower and seeing a space rock, flaming and doomed as it comes to pieces in the atmosphere.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Everybody Goes Home Happy

I can’t say that I’ve ever found Andrew W.K. to be a genius. He certainly cracked open his own niche with his debut album, I Get Wet, which featured several blistering tracks devoted to some variation on the theme of partying (“It’s Time to Party, Party Hard, Party Till You Puke). The songs were the very essence of straightforward: joyous celebrations of the ethic of having a good time, and nothing else. You want a message, as W.C. Fields used to say? Try Western Union.*

*How many expressions like this will soon become meaningless to us, what with the passage of time and technology? Remember ‘you sound like a broken record’? Such a rich phrase, evoking something both auditory and visual, rendered nearly useless in a fifteen-year span. I’m all for the evolution of our discourse, but I feel that we are made poorer in our progress.

That being said, I think he’s hit upon something in his latest venture—that being a club called Santos Party House, located in Manhattan. Much like other clubs in the city, the place features dancing, drinking, and music (it is legally classified as a cabaret, meaning the dancing can continue until 4 AM), with one markedly different catch:

Anyone can get in.

"Along with his partners—the downtown artist Spencer Sweeney, the architect Ron Castellano, and nightlife veteran Larry Golden—Andrew began conceiving of Santos three years ago, long before the economy nose-dived. But their vision has proven to be almost presciently in line with recession-era New York. While Santos is a big, commercial, high-profile dance club, it has a decidedly democratic, unpretentious vibe. There are expensive drinks and a line out front, but the club isn’t defined by $900 bottles of Cristal and a bitchy door policy. Unlike Marquee and the countless other clubs that have metastasized in West Chelsea, Santos positions itself as a self-consciously friendly place, letting in anyone and everyone who believes that forgoing inhibitions is a more noble pursuit than flaunting wealth."

This is a beautiful thing and should be rightly celebrated. I’m not much of a club person, but I’d go to this club. So many clubs embody their name far too rigidly—you are restricted to dress codes, you can’t get in if you’re the wrong size or income level, you are at the mercy of a rigid quota system. You are made to feel lucky at having gotten in to the damn place at all. You’re part of the club. Aren’t you special?

At W.K.’s place, the emphasis is where it should be—on having a good time. Aside from the occasional solitudes that are good for one’s mental health, isn’t an experienced shared amongst us all one that is also enhanced?

Exclusivity has its places. You don’t want your pilots or presidents to be held to no standard at all. The idea of a club, or a clique, or a list is corrosive, however, as it creates divisions and enforces the idea that some are above the rest, not in talent or appeal or skill, but in worth. It’s where we get a rigidly defined idea of the “it” crowd or the cool kids, with the rest of us striving for acceptance or recognition that, once attainted (I hesitate to use the word “earned” for reasons that will soon become clear) is almost immediately obsolete.

What’s the point of a system like this? I can’t see what it accomplishes except to imbue a certain lucky few with a sense of belonging at the expense of the misery of the many. The operative word here is lucky, because who are you except the product of blind chance? You were born in this or that location, with this or that family, and this or that economic situation, with a billion other factors that you had no control over whatsoever—all of this combined to create YOU. Certainly, you had some input in the process that brought you up to whatever point you’ve currently reached, but that’s a product of luck as well. Have you ever considered that drive and motivation and talent are also products of these factors?

You shouldn’t be put on a hill merely because you hit a couple genetic trampolines on your way through life. You’re not so damned special.

So, good on you, Andrew W.K. We all have something to offer, and if everybody goes home happy, all of us benefit.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Right As Rickey

Twenty-eight members of the BBWAA did not vote for Rickey Henderson in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame.

Cosmically, this is irrelevant. Rickey (one of the few players afforded the singular honor of needing only his first name for identification) breezed into the Hall with 94.5% of the vote, one of the highest totals ever. Only 75% is required for induction, so some months hence, on a sunny day in the small town of Cooperstown, Rickey will make a heavily-anticipated* speech and take his place amongst baseball’s immortals. It’s no skin off his back.

*Rickey is what is commonly referred to as a “character”. He has a habit of referring to himself in the third person, and although this may be exaggerated, it’s become a defining part of his image. Before games, Rickey would stand in front of a full-length mirror, completely naked, and shout “Rickey’s the best! Rickey’s the best!” over and over again. He framed the first million-dollar check he ever received, without cashing it. Late in his career, searching for a team that would give him another shot, Rickey called up Padres GM Kevin Towers and left this message: “This is Rickey, calling on behalf of Rickey. Rickey wants to play ball”.

Where it matters intellectually is as such: Rickey Henderson is, conservatively, one of the top 25 players in baseball history. He is so far above the standard of the Hall of Fame that it’s almost silly; you would do better to create a separate wing for players of Rickey’s caliber than to vote against him. To wit: Rickey has stolen 1406 bases in his career. The second-highest guy has 938. He’s first in runs scored, first in unintentional walks, won and excelled in two World Series, won an MVP award, broke a million and one smaller records, and (I’m convinced of this, and it may warrant a separate post), turned otherwise-unremarkable sluggers into mini-superstars. Rickey went beyond Great—he was Exceptional and Unique.

Twenty-eight writers looked at that sterling resume, scratched their heads, and thought “Naaaah—just don’t see it”

And that’s a problem.

Sure, it’s not a problem on the level of War or Famine or even Fall Out Boy, but it’s still a problem. So let’s look at the ballots.

According to several online sources, at least two writers did not submit any names on their ballots. This is due to a policy of not voting for any players who played during the so-called “Steroid Era”, roughly the mid-90s to mid-00s. So those guys probably thought Rickey was good enough to merit induction, but were making a political statement about baseball in general (Rickey is considered to be above steroid suspicion, as he never blew up like a balloon or developed severe backne).

One writer, Corky Simpson of the Green Valley News & Sun, simply left Rickey off his ballot without explanation. He explained his “no” votes on several choices, as well as his “yes” votes (for such a luminary as Matt Williams, for instance), but relegated Rickey to a “And Here Are Some Players Who May Yet Be Elected” list. Later, Simpson explained on the Columbia Journalism Review that:

“No one in the history of baseball has ever gotten into the Hall of Fame on a unanimous vote,” he notes. “I mean, we’re talking about Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb and Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson—nobody. And if anyone out there thinks that Rickey Henderson can carry one of those guys’ shoes, he’s crazy.”

That’s twenty-five ballots left unaccounted for. I have a feeling most of them fall into the Corky Simpson line of thinking, which is where the problem’s crux lies.

The first Baseball Hall of Fame class was named in 1936—Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Christy Matthewson, and Walter Johnson. None were elected unanimously—Cobb came closest, with 98.2 percent of the vote. According to Simpson and, ostensibly, most of the naysayers on Rickey, this is a sign that no player should ever be elected unanimously. After all, if the Baseball Writers of 1936 didn’t believe that Babe Ruth—the greatest player of all time, a name synonymous with “baseball”—wasn’t worthy of unanimous induction, then no one should be given said honor. Therefore, a set of “guardians” will simply leave players off their ballot if they are up for their first year of eligibility. There’s no thought process to it—they just don’t check the box next to said player’s name.

The problem is that this doesn’t jive with history. Baseball-Reference.com (probably the greatest pure website ever invented by man) has statistics going back to—wait for it—1871. Players in this day and age are eligible five years after they’ve retired, and can stay on the ballot a maximum of 15 years—hence, you never have any player who retired more than twenty years ago on the ballot.

Voters in the first election were working off a SIXTY-FIVE YEAR backlog of players. A special veteran’s committee was set up to vote exclusively for pre-1900 players, but the rules were unclear, and several players appeared on both ballots. Twenty-three players appeared on the 2009 ballot. There was no such list of eligible players on the 1936 ballot, but FORTY-SEVEN received at least one vote apiece.

Do you see the issue here? A voter might have felt that the stars of yesteryear were being forgotten, and tilted his ballot away from the obvious stars in order to give the Edd Roushes of the world a better chance. The more options you give people, the better chance they’ll lack unanimity on the obvious choice.

These writers are holding up a standard which doesn’t exist.

So, you might say, why not simply educate them on their mistake? Perhaps a little enlightenment will shock them into some sense.

I have a feeling that’s not what would happen. The writer—as well as the pundit, or the politician, or some combination of the breed—isn’t interested in being right. He’s interested in being weighty. Rickey Henderson is not a Hall of Famer because of his statistics, or his accomplishments, or his sheer brilliance on the field of play.

Rickey Henderson is a Hall of Famer because I say so.

And I don’t say so.

And that’s the problem.