Friday, February 25, 2011

Out of the Park: Remembering why I admire Bill Simmons

I don't mean this to be an insult to Simmons.  I have been a fan of his writing for almost ten years and no matter what anyone says about his work I will always find it funny and full of the kind of sardonic pop culture references that I could never make, but love with a passion.  Things are just, well, different now.  Hopefully all will become clear.

You are who you read.

It is the voices that a writer is exposed to early in life that ultimately help influence the voice which that writer develops as an adult.  That isn't to say that someone who goes through a lengthy Hemingway phase as an adolescent is going to focus on concise dialog and simple declarative sentences any more than someone who reads too much Salinger is going to feel drawn to spend pages describing the contents of purses, cupboards and medicine cabinets in excruciating detail.  Unless you limit yourself to one or two influences or blatantly plagerize the style of some author you admire, your voice is going to develop as a varied amalgamation of those thousands of little "a ha" moments you had leafing through books as a kid, when some phrase or idea just sounded right and stuck in the back of your head.

Now, I'm not much of a writer.  This much I will freely admit.  That isn't to say I am incapable of producing something transcendent on occasion -- I have a few pieces of writing from the last year that I am very proud of and wouldn't change one bit.  I am simply not as consistent as I would like (is anyone?).  The more I immerse myself in the art and science of great writing, the more I begin to realize that truly great writers aren't the ones who hit the highest peaks, but the ones who produce consistently good writing on a regular basis.  Who is more valuable to a baseball team, the guy who hits .325 for his entire career on mostly singles and doubles, or the guy batting .200 that wallops a few homers but all too often shows only warning track power?  Sure, everybody wants to be Willie Mays or Hank Aaron, but there is a reason why the hall of fame is so hard to get into.  You don't find a lot of guys who are routinely knocking them out of the park.

All of this leads me in a round-a-bout way to Bill Simmons.  There is no other sportswriter out there who I attached myself to as early as Bill (with the exception of the late Ralph Wiley, but that tragedy is another column entirely).  I started reading Simmons' work as a Senior in high school.  I was a student aide for one of my high school teachers which often meant a great deal of downtime.  That left me alone in the back of the classroom with nothing much to do by surf the internet.  From there I naturally gravitated to, and it's cultural/sports hybrid: Page 2.  I have been reading Bill Simmons regularly ever since.

While I did a lot of reading during and after college, I wasn't as much a fan of particular writers as I was websites.  Only in the last couple years has that shifted.  Once I began to immerse myself deeper into the world of college football did I begin to seek out particular voices which I valued.  It started with guys like Brian Cook at mgoblog and Dave at Maize n Brew -- Michigan football sites, obviously -- and soon spread to phenomenal writers such as Spencer Hall of EDSBS, Matt Hinton of Dr. Saturday, Bethlehem Shoals of Freedarko, William Saleton of Slate, and Ty Duffy and Jason Lisk of The Big Lead (a very honorable mention goes to Chuck Klosterman, whose web profile is much lower) to name a few.  These were the guys I would search out on a daily basis.  The people whose insights I could count on when a trade happened or a scandal arose.

The thing about it was that the bigger the club got, and the more passionate I became about some of the writers in it, the more someone like Bill Simmons got marginalized.  It isn't that I've outgrown Bill (I tore through TBofB like it was only half of its 700+ page length) it is simply that the draw isn't as strong.  I still tune in for columns on certain subjects, but there is only so much discussion I can handle of the Red Sox or pro football gambling, no matter how many pop culture references are littered on the page.  What's more, I find myself searching for the soul behind some of Simmons work these days.  Maybe I have become spoiled that his wit and sarcasm work much better in podcast form (and I am a huge fan of his podcasts), or maybe there are just too many mailbags, but often I find his writing these days to be formulaic.  This player/coach/team did this, and according to this theory, person X will act in one of ___ ways (insert list), drop an 80's movie reference, and finish with a joke.  The humor is still there, but the passion of the fan isn't.  I can remember reading a piece either on Freedarko or by Shoals that essentially boiled Simmons' problem these days down to an overuse of the fratish, crude humor that originally vaulted him above the rest of the internet's unwashed masses, while ignoring of the kind of deeply personal fan "for the love of the game" nostalgia that shows just how wonderful and expressive a writer Simmons can be when he gets past himself and just writes*.

* (I am almost certain that this point comes from Shoals review of TBofB and contrasts the first chapter -- Simmons' personal account of growing to love the NBA and the Boston Celtics (not in that order) -- with the final chapter -- Simmons attempt to shoehorn a reference to Tupac's "Picture Me Rollin'" into his final interview with Bill Walton.  While I am a sucker for Tupac, after judging the two chapters I have to agree with Shoals).  

And that "vintage Simmons" is what brought me here to write when I have like five other things I should be doing right now.  I read Simmons' latest column this morning and was mildly amused.  Lots of lists, lots of theories, lots of name drops.  Basically what you expect from Simmons in 2011.  However, the end of the second part stuck with me.  No surprise it comes from Simmons examining, of all things, the Boston Celtics.  Specifically the part of him that isn't impressed with the trade of Kendrick Perkins.  I'll quote the whole damn thing below:
"And there's the rub. We don't play basketball on paper. I cared about this particular Celtics team more than any Celtics squad since Reggie Lewis was alive -- and that includes the 2008 title team -- mainly because the players enjoyed one another so much. I wasn't surprised to hear that Perkins cried for most of the day Thursday, that Boston's veterans were infuriated by the trade, that Rondo (Perk's best friend) was practically catatonic heading into Thursday night's game in Denver. These guys loved one another. As recently as last season, you couldn't have said that. But Shaq loosened everyone up; so did four full years of the core guys being together; so did Doc's belated maturation into an impactful coach (believe me, I'm as shocked as anyone); so did the contract extensions (Boston's four All-Stars are signed through at least 2012); so did the bonding experience of blowing Game 7 and having that purple confetti fall on their heads; so did the enduring belief that nobody had ever beaten them when they were healthy.

I attended Tuesday's game in Oakland and saw exactly what I expected to see: a well-rested, veteran team that knew it hadn't won there in six years and took care of business accordingly. In the first half, David Lee didn't like the way Perkins fouled him on a drive, whirled around and bumped Garnett and Perkins (standing next to each other) on his way to the line. Double technicals. I remember thinking, "Uh-oh -- no way we're losing now." Something like that happened frequently with these Celtics. They had become the modern-day version of the Bad Boy Pistons -- not the fighting, just the barking, woofing, shoving and general villainy -- with Perk and Garnett as Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn. That was the team's identity, for better and worse. They knew who they were. I left Oakland thinking that we were headed for the Finals. We had "The Look," as Mike Lombardi calls it.

Less than 48 hours later, I found myself staring at an "FYI: Perk for Jeff Green" e-mail for two solid minutes. What???????? I remember drafting Perk out of high school. I remember his being fat and awkward. I remember liking his mean streak that surfaced at the strangest times. I remember those flashes of potential as Perk banged the boards with Al Jefferson. I remember thinking we could count on him after the Garnett trade and not really knowing why. I remember watching that same ugly jump hook over and over again, hoping beyond hope that it might get better. I remember winning a title with him, and I remember losing a title without him. I remember seeing him warm up before opening night, a good two hours before the game, almost as though he didn't want the team to forget that he was coming back. Like every other Celtics fan, I watched him go from nothing to something. I certainly never imagined watching Perk play for another team.

My father was more crushed than me. He's been a season-ticket holder since 1973 and still attends 25 Celtics games per season. As he explained Thursday night, "I was invested in Perkins. I sit 15 feet from their bench -- I watched him grow up. I don't think sports is always about winning and losing. We might be better, but right now, I don't care. I liked the team we had. It doesn't feel right that he's not on this team."

See, you can't truly love a team until you've suffered with it. The 2008 title team always felt like a fantasy team that had been thrown together in some sort of euphoric basketball dream that wasn't quite real. Losing Garnett in 2009 (and eventually, the Orlando series) definitely hurt; blowing the 2010 title was 100 times worse. The agony of those last two games pushed our relationship with the team to an entirely different level. I still remember seeing Perkins rolling around in pain during Game 6 -- it happened about 20 feet away from me -- then the veterans watching him get helped off, his right leg dangling in the air, the life sinking from their bodies like Apollo watching Rocky wave him back to the corner. With a healthy 2011 Garnett in that Game 7, maybe we could have survived. Banged-up 2010 Garnett couldn't get it done. The trophy was sitting there, and we couldn't take it. A crestfallen Perkins spent the summer blaming himself, busted his butt to come back … and the Celtics dumped him a month after he returned. Claiming they couldn't afford him only made it worse: The kid signed a discount extension four years ago and outperformed it. They owed him.

Selfishly, I wanted one more chance with them: Garnett, Pierce, Allen, Rondo, Perkins, Baby and Doc, the only seven guys who mattered here. But that's the thing about sports -- "them" always seems to change when you least expect it. We traded Charlie Scott when I was in the second grade. We traded Danny Ainge when I was in college. Now Perkins. Those were the three most brutal Celtics deals of my lifetime. Each one hurt the same. Doesn't matter how old you are, where you are in your life, where you're living … there's no feeling quite like your favorite team trading someone you genuinely liked.

You might remember LeBron and Carmelo getting excoriated for stabbing their respective teams in the back. You want to know why they didn't care? Because, deep down, they know that teams don't care about players, either. They probably witnessed 20 variations of the Perkins trade during their first few years in the league. Hey, it's a business. Hey, that's just sports. Hey, trades come with the territory. Isn't loyalty a two-way street? When a team does what's best for itself, we call it smart. When a player does the same, we call him selfish. We never think about what a double standard it is.

I thought Perk deserved better than getting blindsided in Denver, then having to limp around with a sprained knee and pack his stuff with tears rolling down his face. Maybe I'm a sap. But that was our guy. Family. On the phone, my dad decided -- completely seriously -- that he would rather have lost the 2011 title with Perkins than have tried to win it without him. Why?

"Because he was truly part of our team," Dad said. "I don't want to root for laundry. I watched that guy for eight years. That should mean something. Continuity should mean something."

Within a few weeks, both of us will have talked ourselves into the Jeff Green era. That's what fans do. We take the hits, shake them off, keep coming back. The Celtics will morph into something slightly different: a little more athletic, a little more flexible, a little younger and, hopefully, almost as tough. Perkins will fly to Oklahoma City, live out of a hotel room, make new friends and try to help Durant and Russell Westbrook make the Finals. Maybe the Celtics will see him there. It won't feel weird at all, because that's the way professional sports work. We are rooting for laundry. Whether we want to admit it or not."
After I finished reading that I left the tab open in google chrome for around two hours.  I didn't even know what I was going to do with it.  I wanted to link to it somewhere.  Send it to a friend and say "Isn't this great?  Doesn't it just get to the heart of the complex love we have for players on our favorite teams?"  I finally closed the tab, but quickly came over here and started writing.

It would be foolish of me to say that Bill isn't still the kind of writer that is absolutely worth following.  To extend the baseball analogy a bit further, he is consistently productive enough that ESPN has decided to build a whole team around him, he has reached a point in podcasting that makes them almost more essential than his columns, and his work in bringing about the 30 for 30 project from a dream to reality might be one of the most important and relevant areas of growth that ESPN has seen in the last decade.

However, it still put a smile on my face as I read Simmons talk about the Perkins trade from such a personal standpoint.  I may be wrong when I say that his writing has been growing complacent over the past couple years.  Certainly the jobless hack writing on a blog for essentially his friends and family is in a precarious position to throw stones at the most successful sports writer of the internet age (and I don't think I am throwing stones as much as gently critiquing.  With love, of course).  As a fan and someone who thinks he might be able to make some waves as an occasional writer, I'll be damned if it wasn't great to see Simmons definitively hit one out of the park, just like I remember him doing when I was a high school kid looking to kill some time before the bell.  After all, it is this kind of writing that made me want to get into the game in the first place.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Revisiting The Wire

"What the fuck did I do?"
I just finished watching The Wire for the second time. A few weeks ago I decided that I wanted to watch the whole series again, and Sunday -- after staying up until after 2am -- I finally put down the rest of season 5. Watching the show for a second time was great, as it let me rethink a lot of my opinions from the first time around. Knowing what was coming allowed me to really get critical of things as they happened, and look at the way that the story flowed from one event to the next. While I would kill to be able to watch the show again for the first time, it was very rewarding to rewatch it.

Perhaps the thing that I found most interesting is the way in which I have reevaluated two of the seasons. After watching the series for the first time I had quite a few discussions with friends that revolved around ranking the seasons in terms of most to least liked. My rankings always had seasons three and four in the top two spots, followed by season one and two and finally five. It was never a question for me before which seasons were the best. Now, I'm not so sure.

I think in terms of actual narrative structure and excitement that season one is much stronger that I initially gave it credit for. All the other seasons do a great job, obviously, but they build off the foundation of season one. It was so good that I was inclined to just go back and watch season one as soon as I finished it a month ago. Furthermore, season two was always one of the seasons that I was down on after my first viewing. After watching it again I have completely come to my senses. The Sobatka detail rivals the kids storyline from season four for the most heartbreaking. After watching the series for the first time I was down on this season because it shifted away from what I liked so much about the series to begin with, the drug game. We saw Stringer running the Barksdale crew, but that was about the most of our time on the street. Having watched it season two again with knowledge of how it fits in with the rest of the series, I appreciated it that much more.

However, the season that I have changed my tune on the most is season five. The first time through I was really bothered by the serial killer plot that seemed to be too sensationalist for a show grounded in the gritty reality of the street. However, looking back on it now I think the season is much better viewed as a satire. If you look at it through the lens of the first four seasons of The Wire, it is sure to disappoint. Jimmy and Lester, the two main heroes of the first four seasons go off the reservation and end up as something like villains. However, if you look at season five as it was meant to be looked at, as a perverse look at just how messed up everything is in Baltimore, then season five becomes much more funny and tragic.

Season five is akin to watching a version of Dr. Strangelove about the Baltimore PD (So says even David Mills, one of the shows writers when asked about the season). Think about it. Things are so messed up in the department that they can't afford anything outside of the 8 hour paychecks for the cops and the bare minimum of logistical and tech support. Because it is over a year old, the worst string of murders in Baltimore history isn't even enough to keep the brass from shutting off the money. Carcetti called for a new day early on, but in politics there is always another bowl of shit to eat, and he can't fix the one thing he promised in his campaign: crime. So what does McNulty do? He creates a crime out of thin air. He stages crime scenes, tampers with case files, and even makes a prank call as the killer. The whole thing is riotously funny when viewed as the last desperate act of a man trapped in a broken system. I see a lot of Joseph Heller's Catch 22 in season five, and you can make an easy comparison between the main character, Yossarian, and McNulty. They've both been driven crazy by the system, and they have no other escape than to try to beat the system at it's own twisted game of appealing to the political aspirations of the higher ups. The only way anything ever gets done in the show is if someone upstairs thinks it will help them move up a rung on the ladder.

As Jimmy stages all of this and builds this serial killer case out of nothing, he drinks furiously. He is taking swigs from the bottle at the first homeless scene that he tampers with, and you can see that the only way he gets the nerve up to do it is with a few drinks. The whole season is a farce. The department is so eff'd up that not only could something like this go unnoticed for weeks, but it would be the only way that any real police work gets done. Whats more, McNulty essentially becomes a boss once the serial killer scam gets legs in the media and the brass upstairs is worried about how it will make them look. How he is doling out cars and man hours to other detectives in homicide. Even more he begins to feel the frustration of being this high up the chain. One detective games him for a free weekend in Hilton Head, and on top of things in homicide getting away from McNulty, Lester keeps pushing for more help and time, driving McNulty to declare that he knows why Daniels always cringed when Lester spoke: because Lester is a bosses nightmare -- ironic coming from a man who never knew a chain of command he didn't feel like wantonly breaking at his first convenience. Even the way the whole thing begins to unravel is hilarious. The case grows way too big for Jimmy to control. Now every homeless death is swamped with officers, Landsman is giving Jimmy too much manpower to use --taking away from real policework -- and the FBI gets involved with one of the funniest moments ever in the series, the serial killer profile, where McNulty sits uncomfortably as the profiler that he laughed off just minutes earlier describes him in such exact and unflattering detail that he cant help but begin to hate himself for being the Jimmy the audience has always loved -- the smartest guy in the room.

And how does it all end? Just the way you would expect a satire like that to end. Jimmy and Lester have made a big enough mess that the bosses have to play along or risk their own jobs, but the Stanfield case is screwed up beyond belief and both their careers are over. The one cop, Kima, who looked up to them the most eventually ratted them out. In the end all the people at the top who have gamed the system for so long just find a way to twist this mess into better jobs (as Norman comments in the office, this is the second time that a faked murder has helped Carcetti advance politically). It seems unfair the way things ended for a lot of the characters in politics and the upper seats of the police department, but I think it was spot on. This is the way things work in Baltimore. The way things have always worked. All the hacks turned the disaster into a better job by wheeling and dealing, and all the good cops (Daniels, Lester, McNulty) end up out of the system after being fed up by just how fundamentally screwed up things are. Of course there are new cops to take over, like Carver, Sydnor, and Kima, but only time will tell how they will fare.

In the end the Hollywood style happy endings are few and far between (Bubbles, Namond), but more often than not you see characters just dealing with a transition that is neither good nor bad (Lester and Jimmy adjusting to life off the force, Bunk and Kima honestly plugging away at another murder). In a system so screwed up as the Baltimore PD (and schools, and city hall) you have to end it this way. After five seasons of setting up a place where the audience's omniscient and morally enlightened sense of justice doesn't jive with events on the street, the writers couldn't just backtrack and throw the hacks out and give the department over to real police. Guys like Levy and Rawls almost always win, and even when they don't, they still never lose (see Clay Davis and Ervin Burrel). Even someone like Omar -- who exists outside all of the systems in place, be it the game or the city bureaucracy -- eventually gets got. He tried to fight the system and was swallowed up by the corner culture he wouldn't adhere to. Thats why, in my opinion, Kenard killing Omar works so well. Kenard is a product of the environment that guys like Barksdale and Stanfield created. Kenard is hardened by the street to the point where he pushes around Dukie and talks much bigger than he actually is. He sees his chance to kill the great Omar, and does so. But in that moment as he stands over the body you can see the kid in him again. He has just taken a real human life, and for a moment he is a terrified little kid again. Omar knew it just like Snoop, Slim, and the rest of the soldiers -- sooner or later, everybody got to get got. Guys like Stringer and Prop Joe were off the street too long and they both forgot that. They tried to buy and talk their way out. Omar's death is indicative of just how rough the game is. In the end, season five may be ridiculous for the serial killer and the Templeton story, but it is the cap on the four previous seasons of frustration over an ineffective but culturally ingrained way of doing things. The system is broken, and it is fitting that the end of the story shows us more of the same for Baltimore.

After a second viewing of the series I don't think I could rank the seasons anymore. It is too hard to elevate one season to the top of the heap and drop one season to the bottom. The beauty of The Wire is that all five of the seasons work so well together that if you remove one it cheapens the rest. If anything I'd like to look at just what was the standout part of each season:

Season One: Best Written - Most gripping 12 episode story arc. The reason you came back for, and understood the world of the next four seasons.
Season Two: Best Drama - Could be titled "the death of the american working class". The fates of Ziggy and Frank are horribly saddening despite the fact that we've only known the characters for a dozen episodes.
Season Three: Most Revolutionary - Hamsterdam worked, until it didn't. While it solved real problems on the street it was never sustainable because of how it looked on paper. Honorable mention to Carcetti's campaign*.
Season Four: Most Frustrating - The MCU under Merimow, the vacants filling up with bodies, Marlo's hold on the west side, the failure of the school to do right by Dukie and Colvin's program, the failure of the cops with Randy, and the failure of anyone to reach Michael. Season four made you want to beat your head against the wall, and I almost didn't watch it just to avoid the heartbreak. I know I'm not alone.
Season Five: Best Comedy - "Tell me you didn't kill them yourself, McNulty. At least tell me that." Lines like that (from Rawls) and the utter breakdown of the system are set up as the darkest of black comedy. Season five is the culmination of four seasons of utter breakdown by the system.

*(After watching the series a second time I am even more firm in my belief that Carcetti is not a bad guy, but rather someone who got swept up in the system and kept putting off the real nitty gritty of helping people for some latter date. You can tell in the way Carcetti speaks, not just in front of a camera but behind closed doors, that the guy does care about change. And you would think that Norman would have sense enough not to jump on board with some political hack. I think season three and the beginning of season four are supposed to be about the good people want to do before they get in the system. Looking from an outsider perspective, Carcetti wanted to enact positive change. However, once he got into office he began to realize that it wasn't going to be easy. He had to make sacrifices. Eventually, Steindorf (the devil) won out over Norman (the angel) in the battle of Carcetti's conscience. However, I still believe that in his heart Tommy feels like he is trying to do right for his city. He has just gotten too deep into the system.)

So, that was kind of long, but anyone else have any thoughts?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Surf's Down

Not me.  Not even close.

Let me begin by saying that I feel infinitely cooler carrying a surfboard.  I'm not sure what part of lugging a long awkward board down the boardwalk to the beach does it, if it is the additional glances you get from passer-bys or the feeling that you have somehow been inducted into some exclusive underground club   a culture that looks exclusive as hell from the outside   but I know I walked with my head held just a bit higher as we strolled to the beach last Sunday.

The feeling didn't last.  You quickly realize why surfing seems so cool to the rest of the tourists and sunbathers on the beach:  it is a pain in the ass.  The ocean is not a forgiving body of water.  For someone who is used to calm lakes in northern Michigan and the occasional trip to swim in one of the relatively tame great lakes, the Atlantic ocean might as well be on a different planet.  Even on calm days the waves have enough power to knock you backward as they crash onto the shore.  But with hurricane season upon us and a storm having swept northward through the Atlantic, the waves were higher than I had seen them in my entire stay in Virginia Beach.  Surfers love hurricanes, because if they aren't directly in your area they are making enough noise out in the ocean to raise the surf to dangerous levels.  All the flags on the lifeguard stands were red as we picked up the boards and made our way to the water.  They were red for good reason.

When we went out at first there was just two of us, both completely new to surfing.  My friend Joe had a slight leg up on me since he is an experience snowboarder.  My only attempt at snowboarding ended with a trip to the ER and a separated shoulder.  Don't think that wasn't in the back of my head as I started to paddle out.

Our crash course in surfing 101 was terrifyingly brief.  "Keep your leash on.  Don't ride someone else's wave or they will have a few choice words with you  Paddle with the wave and try to stand up when you feel the wave begin to lift you."

"That's it?" I thought when the friend of a friend we borrowed the boards from finished up with, "Oh, and have fun."  Joe and I shot each other a quick glance of confusion and worry over this sink or swim method of instruction, then grabbed the boards and made our way in, determined to make the best of it.

You can easily tell who is a surfer and who isn't just by the way they carry themselves.  The air of confidence they have as they stroll to the water, walk the board out and paddle far enough out to sit on the board and wait for the perfect wave.  Conversely, even the most clueless of the tourists on the beach could tell I was woefully unprepared as I struggled to harness the leash around my ankle as I was standing a foot deep in the water and the waves pushed the board away from me.  I was fighting a battle against a leash that was too small and the surf that even ankle deep wasn't going to take any shit from a first timer, and I was losing both.

Once I was strapped in I began to paddle out.  The choice waves are tough to get up on, and even tougher to get past for the inexperienced surfer, and there were a few times I was thrown backwards just as I thought I had made it to the crest and would make it down the other side.  One wave hit me so hard that it threw me backward, and then threw the board fin first into my elbow, knocking the feeling out of half of my left arm and hand.  Had I not been able to see that part of my hand still attached, I would have swore that I lost it somewhere in that wave.  Even a day later my fingers tingle and my elbow aches.

Finally I began to make headway and get out past the bigger of the waves.  Now it was time to try to ride one.  I turned the board so it pointed toward shore and waited for what I thought was a suitable wave.  Not knowing what I was supposed to be looking for, I paddled with the first wave that I saw, and fortunately I was right, it was a big one.  Unfortunately, before I was able to get my body off the board and into a standing position, the wave had grabbed the back of the board and flipped me end over end.  Getting dumped was exhilarating.  The waves were powerful and fast, and it made me even more determined to harness one, even as I spit a pint of sea water out of my mouth.

Beaten and queasy with sea water, I gathered myself and made my way out for another attempt.  This one ended much the same.  My body catapulting off the board on the power of the wave rising up behind me.  This happened a couple more times, but I was beginning to get my bearings.  I knew what the waves I wanted looked like, and I knew what they felt like.  Now I just needed to know what it was like to get up on one.

After making my way back out, I saw the next wave and began to paddle with it.  I felt the back of my board rise, and I started to pull myself up as I noticed a flash of color coming toward me from the left.  It was another surfer, already up and riding down the wave as it crested.  He hit me at full speed and we toppled over in a mess of arms, legs, and boards.  The hastily made leash that was rigged up that morning came unattached and after sorting myself out of the aftermath of the collision and assuring the other surfer that I was okay, I swam to shore, frightened that the board I had borrowed would somehow be sucked out to sea, to wash ashore somewhere in New Jersey.

As I waded in I saw a man pluck a board from the shallow surf and set it on the beach.  I knew it was mine when he made his way over to me.  "Are you okay man, I saw that guy come down on you," he said to me, as he motioned to my marooned board lying on the beach.  I told him I was fine, and wanted to ask if he had seen my pride wash up somewhere with the board.  As I went to check on the board a lady nearby laughed at the state of the patched together leash and told me in no uncertain terms that I couldn't possibly take the board back out. Beaten up, bruised, and still hungover from the night before, I agreed with her whole-heartedly.  I grabbed the board and walked through the throngs of people to our spot behind the lifeguard stand.  This time my head was held a little lower as I walked.

This is not a tale of redemption.  I put the board down for the rest of the day.  The ocean beat me on Sunday, and I will admit it.  However, this isn't the end of the fight.  It is merely the opening round.  I'll be back another day, when the waves are a little lower and the beach a little less crowded.  I've felt what it is like to be part of the surf culture, and I've felt what its like to get swept up by a wall of water, if only for a few fleeting minutes.   Next time I'll be a little more prepared and a little less uncertain.  I'll ride that wave.  Next time.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Time Marches On

I am no psychologist, but I would imagine it is a universal property of human nature to be averse to change.  Continuity is comfortable.  We like our routines and don't like having to deviate from them.  We get comfortable in the present, and quickly forget the changes that brought us to where we are.  Its easy to get lost in the present.  To get caught up in the status quo.

As a child I was so afraid of change that I would get sad at the end of the school year as summer vacation approached.  I wanted the familiarity of where I was, and I didn't want to blaze a path through the summer only to re-establish myself the next year as I advanced to the next grade.  Change scared the hell out of me.  Still does.

Change isn't bad, but it isn't good either.  Change is simply a fact of life, for better or worse.  Time marches on.  What we know today was an unknown future yesterday, and the uncertainty about tomorrow will eventually be a comforting present.  The only constant in the world is the laws of physics that guide the universe.  Everything else is fleeting.  It is this constant evolution of everything around us that forces humans to adapt.  We have to make the best of our world as it is, not as we wish it to be.

Funny thing is, we often don't notice that things have changed until the rug is already yanked out from beneath our feet.  We ignore the little signs and tell ourselves that everything will keep humming along like it always does, even though it never has.  Humans have the tendency to be extremely short sighted.  We lose the forest for the trees.

Lost in all the talk of Big Ten alignment scenarios is the fact that the real change has already happened.  The fighting continues over what should be kept the same, what rivalries to protect, what geographical considerations to value in this new landscape of mid-western college football.  But things are already radically different, even when it comes to the greatest rivalry in college football:  The Game.

I am an unabashed Michigan fan.  Always have been.  The Game means more to me than just about any other college football tradition behind the winged helmets and The Victors.  I grew up loving Michigan Football wholeheartedly and waiting for that final fall Saturday to face off against the team from down south.  I hated OSU more than I hated anyone or anything.

But college football isn't the monolith of tradition that we sometimes believe it is.  Changes slowly creep across the landscape inciting pockets of rage from effected fan bases.  Today, the loudest voices come from the "Big Two", crying out for the sanctity of the storied rivalry:  It won't be the same in October.  This is all about the money.  Won't someone think of the children?

Fact is, the game lost its significance months ago.  Once the Big Ten decided to push for expansion to 12 teams, with a conference championship game as the goal, the writing was on the wall.  The Game has been the hallmark of the Big Ten for as long as any football fan can remember.  Over the past 75 years of the regular season showdown has been the de facto championship 22 times (30%) and had a direct influence on the Big Ten champ another 24 times (Credit to Maize and Brew for the numbers, and a good counterpoint to my argument).  While it bothers me to think that the Big Ten title won't run through Columbus or Ann Arbor every year, we can't cling to the notion that this rivalry carries the same significance it always has now that the road to the conference championship and the Rose Bowl is going to run through Lucas Oil Stadium.  Moving The Game to mid October won't diminish its significance, deciding to stage a championship game already did that.  In a college football landscape where conference championship games fetch big money, a clash of old enemies in mid November loses its luster, especially when there are ten other teams that would benefit from a bona-fide championship game.

The game will always mean the same to fans on either side.  I don't hate OSU any less in October than I do the week before Thanksgiving, and I would hope they would feel the same.  That universal vitriol is what makes the rivalry great.  The hatred and bad feelings were born from years of struggle for conference supremacy, but a showdown in November no longer sets up the same way.  If The Game is played on the last week of the season it will always be in the shadow of the championship game.

College football is still changing, and what we see today will be radically different than what we will see at the start of the next decade.  When we look at the way the sport changes we see large leaps to new rules, different conference membership, and more intricate (asinine?) championship calculations.  But it doesn't happen like that.  Change flows like a glacier, creeping along and tearing up the landscape in ways that we don't notice until we are right in the path.  The changes that will lead to a playoff or four super conferences are happening now, in every athletic department and stadium.  Or maybe they aren't.  We won't know until we are confronted with the new reality.  Thats where we find ourselves today.  Two fan bases in disagreement on everything but the storied rivalry that both hold dear.  The Big Ten has changed.  Who are we to stop it?

Michigan-OSU won't be the same no matter when it is played.  You don't have to like it   and God knows I don't   but we can't refuse to accept that things have changed in the Big Ten.  This decision is going to be made with or without the support of the proponents of The Game.  Time marches on, with or without us.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Stadium Rock for All Ages

When did liking Green Day become a cross generational phenomenon?  What brings together a group of 40 year old women, twelve year old punk kids, and mid-twenties stoners?

As I walked through the throngs of people smashed together on the lawn at DTE music theater, I couldn't help but wonder what brought each one of the spectators into the wooded outskirts of the metro Detroit area.  What songs were they hoping to hear?  Were the fifteen year old goth kid and his girlfriend excited about hearing songs off Green Day's breakout album Dookie?  Was the balding man a few feet in front of me an old school punk fan, or just a disciple of top 40 radio?  What made the five middle aged women in front of us dance?

I could have spent much of the three hour setlist trying to find the unifying thread behind Green Day's widespread popularity, but it would have been at the cost of the spectacle unfolding in front of me.  The concert itself was less about the music of Green Day, and more a piece of performance art that tries its best to bring you in to Green Day's universe for three hours of uninhibited fun.  More circus than rock show.

I would not consider myself a Green Day fan.  I haven't actively followed their music since I bought Nimrod when I was in middle school, and of the 30+ songs they played I could probably only name a handful.  I have nothing against Green Day, and I must say that the songs I loved when I was young haven't lost their luster.  I still get excited to hear When I Come Around, Basket Case, She, and the rest of my early alt-rock radio favorites.

Luckily, Green Day does their best to make sure you don't have to be a hardcore fan to at least enjoy yourself.  They reward the casual listeners in ways you only see in big amphitheater and stadiums.  They are the perfect example of a band that has "made it", and the show pulls no punches in that regard.  The mildly popular album tracks come out in the beginning of the show, played with as close an ear to the studio renditions as you can get on a live tour.  Rising up behind the band is a wall of digital screens that look almost like a city skyline   shooting up into jagged peaks and valleys.  The screens alternating music waves and flashes of color with pictures of the band that descend into static.  Just in front of the screens, there are a handful of firework cannons that spit out blasts of white light and sparks to punctuate the ends of songs and the crashing of guitar chords and bass drums.  As the show wore deeper, the band began bringing kids on stage to sing along, much to the chagrin of the majority of the audience   at one point my friend summed this annoyance up perfectly: "we paid twenty dollars to hear Green Day not sing Longview."  The songs at this point began to grow more grandiose in scale.  Early verses would be backed by just the strumming of an acoustic, with pauses before the chorus, only then to explode into a fully backed verse soaked in fireworks and cries from Billie Joe Armstrong to join in.  By the encore, the audience was in a state of rapture that wasn't quelled until the stage lights came on.

At one point the band teased the audience by playing bits and pieces of classic rock songs such as the opening riff to Stairway to Heaven, a verse of Sweet Child O' Mine, and Back in Black.  If it was funny to imagine what brought an eclectic group spanning three generations to a Green Day concert, it was surreal to see everyone immediately react to the highlights of an average hour of classic rock radio.

I was probably one of the only people out of around 15,000 to think that three hours of Green Day was a little much, but I was tired of standing and still feeling the effects of a long weekend spent drinking in the sun on a lake in northern Michigan.  Cultural fascination can only carry one so far in the face of exhaustion.

As I made my way to the car after the show, tired and in pain from hours on my feet, I couldn't help but go back to my original question.  What brought these people together?

Only now, looking back on the evening does it start to make sense.  Green Day has a little something for everyone.  This is a band whose musical career spans over twenty years.  They were playing garage band punk music and listening to The Replacements and The Ramones before I was even enrolled in kindergarten.  Since then they've put out solid punk rock (everything on Dookie), hokey "class song" material (Time of Your Life), emo tinged pop music (Boulevard of Broken Dreams), and wildly popular political commentary (American Idiot).  What used to be a staple of the alternative rock stations of my childhood has slowly grown to be a cash cow and chart topper.  Something for everyone.

All of this comes together as a picture of a band that has accomplished all its goals.  They have built a feverish audience, put out a handful of very successful albums, and developed a piece of performance art fit for the stages it is played on.  But I can't help but feel like they have lost some of that same energy that originally attracted me to the three chord fuzz of the early hits.  The hunger is missing.  Can a band that is filthy rich and wildly successful ever capture the same magic that helped get them to the top?  The songs were all hiding behind fireworks and call and response, cues that tell people when to cheer and when to sing.  The chords sounded the same, but didn't always feel the same.  When Billie Joe Armstrong talked to the crowd between songs about how much he loves Michigan, it felt like something out of This is Spinal Tap.  The sheer scale of it all can't mask the gimmicks and air of workmanlike performance from everyone involved.  The band is going through the motions, but it's all part of the show.

Is this a bad thing?  Do I feel bitter that Green Day has sold out?  No.  They obviously play the music they want to, and love the chance they get to perform in front of crowds this size.  And those crowds are full of genuine fans who love the music for what it is.  Green Day aren't the punks they used to be.  They are fathers just like some of the men in the crowd.  They play music for fun to an audience that just wants to have a good time.

And after all is said and done, isn't that what rock and roll is supposed to be about? 15,000 soccer moms, sons, classic rockers, punks, stoners, hippies, and at least one detached twenty-something music snob had fun at a Green Day concert yesterday.  It was all part of the show, and I couldn't be happier.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Killing the Messenger

What do you get when you send a glorified gossip reporter to Las Vegas to cover a party?

If you answered anything other than, "a gossip column," you're either an editor for ESPN or an idiot   the two no longer seeming so mutually exclusive.

And so we are treated to another chapter in the LeBron James saga of media saturation.  A column goes up and comes down in the course of ten hours, only to later to blow up online as another example of rampant ethical miscues that have plagued the worldwide leader since The Decision   and the fact that I can capitalize that shows just how ludicrous the situation surrounding LeBron James has become.

By all accounts, Arash Markazi did exactly what he told his editors at ESPN-LA he was going to do.  He went to the Tao nightclub in the Venetian hotel and casino and spent the night in the company of King James and his army.  Markazi, by all accounts, has a great deal of access across Las Vegas   hint, hint ESPN   and used this to go behind the ropes.

The article in question is fairly innocuous by NBA nightlife standards.  Star and entourage take up residence in VIP section of nightclub, star surrounded by legions of bodyguards and yes men, and star catered to all night by nightclub staff.  The only controversy outside of James beating Lamar Odom in a dance off (I would have thought spending that much time with the Kardashians would have him better prepared) is a one off remark from James about his preference for panty-less women acrobats, an almost universal sentiment held by twenty-five year old men I can assure you.

The article, seemingly edited and formatted for print, was down almost before it was able to be swept up by the summer's growing fascination for all things James and media conspiracy theories.  However, in pulling the article, ESPN opened itself up for a great deal more criticism than it would have received had it just let another irrelevant "after hours" piece run on one of its local affiliates.  Some in the sports blogosphere would have picked up on it, but most would have shaken the article off as another superficial glimpse into the life of a celebrity athlete who has the fame and resources to live like many of us sometimes dream we could.

Why did ESPN pull it?  Editor Rob King cited Markazi's failure to, "identify himself as a reporter or clearly state his intentions to write a story."  That certainly hasn't stopped many of the great journalists of the past (not to say Markazi's piece even belongs in the same universe as the work of Talese).  And it seems likely that Markazi, while not explicitly stating his intention to write a story, was probably not purposely vague or deceitful when speaking with James' crew about his background, and his being well known around town further casts doubt on his ability to go undercover.

So what is the problem with all of this?  It isn't necessarily ESPN's on-again-off-again relationship with journalistic ethics, since it is becoming widely known that ESPN has painted itself into a corner as both a news source and a entertainment provider.  And since ESPN has spent the summer cozying up to James, any questionable move is bound to end up, and rightfully so, the topic of the day on Deadspin or The Big Lead.

The real problem, in my mind at least, is that ESPN wants to punish a writer for doing exactly what they sent him out to do.  Markazi went to Las Vegas to spend the night partying with LeBron and write about what he saw.  When he returns with a predictable piece about fame and excess and what it is like to be the most wealthy and popular twenty-five year old on the planet set loose in the kind of town where even a unpopular, poor twenty-five year old can find himself in any number of questionable situations, the editors  feign surprise and ax the story.

ESPN is having enough trouble juggling the dual responsibilities of being the worlds largest sports news source as well as the worlds largest sports entertainment provider.  To try to juggle worlds biggest sports gossip provider as well is a recipe for disaster that is compounded when a case of cold feet gets a questionable story yanked.

A friend of mine, after reading the piece in question, asked me what the big deal was.  I didn't really have an answer.  There is nothing in Markazi's piece that we haven't heard 100 different times from TMZ or the New York Post.  The only really interesting bits are the reaction that other NBA players had to the spectacle, a simple shake of the head.  Perhaps Chuck Klosterman said it best in a tweet yesterday, "For 3 weeks, people whine about seeing too much LeBron coverage. Except when ESPN spikes a story about him. Then it becomes essential news."

For almost thirty years the people at ESPN have known exactly what they were doing, and executed the plan so effectively that ESPN has become the unquestioned leader in sports coverage.  It seems to me there are two ways to go:  ESPN gets its act together after a regrettable stretch of poor judgement, or we all see just how hard it is to be the top dog when you want to have your cake and eat it too.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Internet Comment Board: Where Thoughtful Discussion Goes To Die

It is the end of July and all across the college football universe it seems clear that we know one thing for sure:  we know nothing.  This is the nature of the sport.  When teams experience 100% turnover every four years you are necessarily limited in what you can predict.  Things come together quickly, windows close almost as soon as they open, and unless you are on the top you spend all your time fighting and clawing to get there.

Four years ago the University of Michigan was a bad penalty and a last minute comeback from playing for the MNC.  Today?  Well, laughingstock might be too strong a word, but that only depends on what bar you are hanging out at.  We don't know what we are going to get year in and year out.  Will the all world recruit live up to the hype, or will he get the "special teams touch of death" and spend the next two years as nothing more than a human bowling ball?

This doesn't end the fascination, speculation, and rampant argument that accompanies any sport where enough people have emotionally invested themselves to the point that they will sit through unbearably hot September afternoons and bone chillingly cold November snowstorms for a chance to watch their alma mater.  Pair this with the anonymity of the internet and you have the perfect storm of stupid comments being amplified by stupid people gathering in groups and message boards.  Every fan base has them, and you have no doubt seen it for yourself.  These are the kind of people who think "scUM" is a clever moniker for UofM, and any mention of MSU is followed by the obligatory prison joke.

Its all fun and games until it isn't.

Earlier today I read an article on MSU's chances at making the Rose Bowl this year   not out of the realm of possibility by any means.  The schedule is set up well, the team returns a lot of offensive firepower and the best defender in the Big Ten, and with solid play from the most unknown units (offensive line and defensive backfield) the team could conceivably make a strong run through the Big Ten.  I finished the article and broke one of my own rules of the internet:  I read the comments.  I wanted to list a few of the most egregious comments in this post, but I didn't have the heart to even click through two of the seven pages of comments.  In fact, those two pages provided one comment that even referenced the article in question.  The rest were a series of insults and bombastic statements aimed to belittle the opposing team.  What do last year's discipline problems at MSU have to do with this year's team now that all those involved have been dealt with?  Why is the quickest comeback to a UM fan a swift kick to the dead horse that is NCAA sanctions?  What is the point of arguing for arguments sake?  Are we as fans so bitter toward our rivals that all we can respond with is petty name calling?

It is July, and what do we know?  Nothing.  But that doesn't stop the chatter.  People will argue about who will win the national championship, who will inevitably disappoint after huge pre-season expectations, and why anyone still lets Eastern Michigan play football (seriously, someone needs to take Ron English's squad out back for some Old Yeller treatment).  Most of those arguments are interesting, and when taken with a grain of salt they can lead to some very heated but enjoyable barroom discussions or emails.  However, do yourself a favor.  If all you have to respond with is a played out internet meme (lolsparty, scUM) or personal attack, remember what Mark Twain said:
"It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt."

Friday, July 23, 2010

LeBron, Legacy, and Letting Yourself Love Sports in the Moment

I admittedly haven't been a sports fan for long in the grand scheme of things.  If you want to trace my roots of true fandom back, you would inevitably start in the late 90's.  Those were my middle school year   the dregs of every child's development   and probably the first time I really cared about sports and a team.  I had watched sports before then, but it had always been somewhat coincidentally.  I watched the Lions play every Sunday in the fall because my father would have the game on.  I would watch golf and baseball during the spring and summer, but again, it was on TV.  Sports were something that happened in the background, and while I enjoyed going to games and watching on TV, I had no real connection.  But in the closing years of the 90's I started to become invested.  I started to switch the channel to sports, started to talk to my friends about games and players, started to develop my own identity as a fan.  Through th years that identity has grown as I have spent more and more time watching, reading, and thinking about sports.

Sometimes it feels like I have let the beast grow out of control.  Do I care too much about sports now?  Do I spend too much of my day reading college football blogs, NBA trade rumors, and Bill Simmons columns?  Sports bring me a lot of joy, but I find myself   somewhat unfairly   wanting more.  That idea of more seems to be one thing sports fans have in common.  The joy of watching sports in the moment has taken a backseat to wanting more of those moments.

After years of watching Michael Jordan lay waste to the rest of the NBA, fans clamored for the next big thing.  The league did its best to deliver, anointing young up and comers like Grant Hill and Penny Hardaway as the next big things, but it never stuck.  Michael Jordan gave every game he played in an added significance.  You felt like you were part of history when you were watching those Bulls games in the 90's because you never knew what feat might be next.  I can personally remember watching game six of the 98 NBA finals at a friends house gathered around the living room TV to watch what still may be the single most important moment of basketball I have ever witnessed.  Jordan put his team on his back, stole the ball, and with time winding down, as he dribbled the ball in the back court, everyone sensed the weight of the moment.  He drove in, pulled back, and unleashed a beautiful jump shot.  With that shot, history was made.  The man walked off the floor as arguably the greatest champion to ever play the game.

As sports fans we crave moments like this.  We want drama, we want achievement, and we want to see the greatest players exceed our expectations on the biggest stages.  It is a sick relationship really.  Half child-like reverence for larger than life heroes, half projecting our selves into these moments, living vicariously through the athletes we love because they have accomplished the things we never could.  When our heroes let us down in big moments it hurts us deeply.  We invest ourselves emotionally in the teams and players we root for, and that relationship is all too often one sided.  If you were a Lions fan when Barry Sanders prematurely retired, you felt hurt.  If you were a Supersonics fan when the team moved to Oklahoma City, you felt crushed.  And if you were a Cavaliers fan a few weeks ago when LeBron James ripped your heart out on live television, you felt angry and betrayed.  If you love a team or a player on some level, you have invested parts of yourself into them.  You've taken time to watch the games, paid money to sit in the stands (and if you were over 21, you probably paid 8 dollars for a beer), and you invested your emotions into the fate of the team.  You cheered when the won and cried when they lost.

But the relationship is largely one sided no matter how unfair it feels to the blue collar guys in the upper deck, the season ticket holders who show up every night, or the kids at home whose rooms are filled with posters and pennants.  All the love and adulation we throw at our heroes isn't in exchange for loyalty or championships.  Pro athletes owe the fans one thing and one thing only: effort.  It is hard to blame Cleveland fans for wanting more.  Feeling that they are owed loyalty from one of their own, a native son of northern Ohio.  But what is interesting when you view the LeBron saga from the outside is the reaction of fans of the NBA in general.  Fans like me.

Like most anyone who has invested themselves in sports themselves, and not just specific teams, I spend a lot of time thinking about legacy.  I read up on the history of the different leagues.  I love the stories and the significance.  The reverence you hear in the voices of interviewees on NFL network or 30 for 30 documentaries when they speak of those moments from the past that meant so much.  I get caught up in thinking and talking about how everything relates.  These debates matter to me.  They matter to a lot of people.  We spend more and more time arguing about the past and future of sports than we ever have.  Bill Simmons once proposed that these arguments mean so much to us because we always want to believe that what we are witnessing is the peak of performance.  We want today's NBA players to be "better" than yesterday's because it will validate the time we spend invested.  Nobody wants to think the best years are behind them, even if it is the best years of competition.  We naively believe that the game and players are always getting better.  And so we look to the stars of today to make that next step, to become the greats that history will remember so we can be satisfied with what we see today and look back long into the future and say, "I remember when."  We want feel like we are a part of that history.

In the last couple weeks the sports world has gotten the input of players like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson on LeBron's decision to sign with Miami and play along side Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.  Would Jordan have done it?  No.  Magic?  No.  And the reasoning seems simple.  Those guys wanted to beat each other, not hang out.  They wanted to win championships and destroy their opponents and prove to everyone that they were the best out there, and we loved them for it.  We identified with Michael Jordan's unwaivering desire to win because we the fans felt the same way.  This was the way a pro athlete was supposed to carry himself.  Jordan wanted to win above all else, and we have loved him for it.

So when someone says that LeBron "closed the book" on the debate over the greatest of all time, it hurts.  In Cleveland he was his own man, and the rise and fall of his team was almost squarely on his shoulders   I guess his and Danny Ferry's.  In New York, New Jersey, and even Chicago things would have been the same.  It would have been LeBron's team, and he could have set about trying to build a legacy that rivaled or surpassed Jordan.  If you loved LeBron you wanted him to have that chance to maximize his talents, and if you hated him you wanted to see him falter alone, with no one to blame but himself.

Miami offers none of those options.  If LeBron wins, he doesn't do it as "the guy", the shadow of Dwayne Wade obscures what could have been his achievement.  And if he loses?  Face it, this team won't lose.  They may not run off a string of 6 NBA titles (keep in mind that it could happen), but they will reach the mountaintop.  So what are we left with, as sports fans craving history.  We get to witness a potential dynasty, one which is quickly becoming akin to the nWo in terms of ire felt by opposing fans.  It will be interesting, but will it be enough?

As a long time fan of the NBA, someone who cares deeply about its history, I feel robbed of the chance to see the kind of history that I was too young to appreciate during the prime Jordan years.  However, I realize that my disappointment is no more valid than that of Cavs fans who believe that LeBron was indebted to toil away in Cleveland and deliver their city the championship that it seems may never come.  I can't allow my dreams for LeBron's legacy to seem important.  My expectations of him don't matter, only his expectations for himself.  History wasn't stolen from NBA fans like me in the same way the O'Brien trophy wasn't stolen from Cleveland.  It was never ours to begin with.  It belongs to the teams and the players.  All we can do is sit back and watch, try to savor the victories a little longer and move past the losses a little quicker. There is nothing wrong with loving your team.  Just know that your team won't always love you back.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Crying Wolf

I won't begin to excuse the state of political discourse in the country today.  We take too many of our opinions from the talking heads floating around Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, et al. to have any meaningful discussion on the issues that matter.  So when I hear someone complain about almost anything to do with politics I usually just walk away.  The intelligent observers still exists, but it can get frustrating wading through all the chaff.

This is the fundamental problem with the 24 hour cable news cycle:  24 hours of news doesn't exist, and frankly, even if it did it doesn't sell.  We tune into cop shows to see action, soap operas to see quarrels, and reality TV to see humiliation.  Today's viewers aren't of the same breed as those who watched the evening news through televisions golden years of network dominance.  Substance can only take us so far, and the best news is almost all substance.  So instead, to fill the airwaves and the corporate coffers we get Glen Beck, Keith Olbermann, and everybody's favorite curmudgeon, Bill O'Reilly.

Is it any wonder that we are where we are?  When O'Reilly exists for a large portion of the population as the heir apparent to Cronkite, Brokaw, and Jennings? (A statement that I have no doubt would tickle Bill pink if he ever heard it).  We now live in a time where outrage passes for genuine interest and sound bytes pass for legitimate discourse.  For a country that is staring down some dire straits this is not the place to start.  It seems now we can't begin to confront issues because we don't even know what we are looking at.

Two weeks ago, LeBron James made a hasty   to say nothing of ill-advised   exit from Cleveland, drawing the ire of fans, journalists (with the exception of the few who were so star struck that they lent their names and credibility to the slimey proceedings.  I'm looking at you Wilbon), and a somewhat rightfully betrayed owner.  And when that owner made the mistake of sending out the first draft of his statement (and there is a lesson in this for everyone:  write your angry email, but wait twelve hours before you hit send) most of the sports world divided into the two reasonable camps, "Dan Gilbert is right to be outraged," and, "Dan Gilbert is crazy if he thinks the Cavs will even win 30 games before LeBron wins a title."  The letter read like something you write after being dumped, with insults and disappointments thrown together in a barrage of caps-locked statements and chest pounding.  Regrettable, yes, but for a city that hitched its collective hopes and dreams squarely on the shoulders of a 25 year old man-child surrounded by a posse of sycophants and yes men, it was an understandable response.

But it wasn't enough.  Soon, Jesse Jackson got into the game for no other reason than someone turned on a  microphone within a three block radius.  Now the conversation was shifting, was this letter just that of an angry and betrayed owner, or the embodiment of a slave-owner mentality that pervades professional sports   hockey excepted.  People talked, talking heads argued, and some awoke to this unforeseen outrage that had been "going on" under their noses for years.  Eventually things cooled off when the Heat began to sign players at an alarming rate and everyone began what might be the only pastime more beloved that arguing over hot-button issues, wild speculation over the future.

Was Jesse right?  No, and I cant say it any better than Jason Whitlock.  Jesse was just looking for a way to steer the conversation to attack what he saw as an unfair attack against a black man by a white owner and a large portion of the white media.  For all the bad things that can be   rightfully   said about Jesse Jackson, he has good intentions, but we all know what they say about those.  Jackson misread a complex situation in a way that is becoming all too common.  He saw black vs. white, and figured "where there is smoke, there must be fire."

Our society has too long and rough a history with black vs. white narratives to allow many to step back and view those issues in the proper context.  We become mixed up in first impressions.  Some want to punish guys like Don Imus for being racist, when they should really just punish him for being an idiot.  Others cry about affirmative action as "reverse racism" without paying attention to the hundreds of years of mistreatment and segregation (be it overt or de facto) that have built the society we live in.  We as a country have a knack for injecting racial outrage into issues that  have little basis in actual racism.  We see smoke, and we believe there is fire.

Racism still exists.  Discrimination still exists.  But the steps taken since the days of MLK and Malcolm X have driven those problems underground.  Today's racism is subtle, and todays discrimination is based in deeply rooted inequalities that have been shaped over hundreds of years.  African Americans still overwhelmingly populate the poorest sections of our inner cities, and for that reason are locked into a section of the education system that struggles to keep its head above water.  When "proficient" becomes just another word for three grade levels behind, then we know we are faced with a bigger problem than some idiot using the n-word on TV or rap videos glorifying wealth and excess.

But the types of problems that face this country in it's long slow march toward true equality are the kinds that aren't easily understood and even harder to fix.  So we focus on the superficial problems and hope that the rest will sort itself out.  This gives everyone the satisfaction of "doing something about racism" without really doing anything.

This is why it doesn't surprise me when I read that Shirley Sherrod was pushed out of her job at the USDA for her remarks at an NAACP banquet.  She stated that when helping a poor white farming family she:
"was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farmland and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land. So I didn't give him the full force of what I could do."
If all you look for is the racism that bubbles to the surface, you are going to miss the real stuff that does the most damage.  Worse yet, you are going to miss the real lessons that not everything is about race.  Some people have learned that.  Shirley Sherrod certainly has, because later in the same speech she got to the point that many missed when they railed against a black public servant withholding the full scope of her power in helping a white family.
 "I did enough so that when — so I took him to a white lawyer that we had — that had attended some of the trainings that we had provided because Chapter 12 bankruptcy had just been enacted for the family farmer."
"So I figured if I take him to one of them that his own kind would take care of him. That's when it was revealed to me that the job is about poor, versus those who have. And not so much about white — it is about white and black, but it's not — you know, it opened my eyes. Because I took him to one of his own."
This country has enough battles to fight to overcome racism.  We certainly can't afford to be fighting the wrong ones all the time.

(I implore all of you to follow the work of Jason Whitlock and John McWhorter, two of my biggest inspirations in writing this piece.  My ideas on the subject have been shaped by their thoughtful and provocative commentary on race relations in this country, and for that I thank them.)

Monday, May 3, 2010

Train wreck, in real time

If you are lucky enough to know me, and I mean really know me well, I might have let you in on a dirty little secret of mine. It is something I am not particularly proud of--the type of thing for which the term 'guilty pleasure' was meant to be applied. I am hopelessly addicted to celebrity gossip.

Step one: admit that you have a problem. Check.

I came to terms with this problem a long time ago, and have set about pursuing a path of tasteful moderation. I only have two gossip blogs I will check on a regular basis, and two more that I might wander to every few days. I refuse to look at these sites on anything but my home computer--I don't need WWTDD popping up on my work history. I even limit my intake of stories. I won't read about the Gosselins. I skip over everything related to Paris Hilton. And until recently, I had exhausted myself on anything to do with Lindsey Lohan.

Lindsey and I go way back. I remember sitting around the house with my younger sister watching Lohan in the remake of The Parent Trap with Dennis Quaid and the late Natasha Richardson. She may have been 11 at the time, but hell, I was only 14, and I was smitten. So smitten in fact that a few years later while home sick I threw in my sister's DVD copy of Freaky Friday, a movie which provided me nothing other than an hour and a half to leer at an older, more intriguing Lohan. Once I had seen Mean Girls--which I proudly own to this day--I was officially hooked. The movie became a staple around the dorm room, usually played opposite Mario Kart as we pre-drank on Friday and Saturday nights. We all loved the movie, and all the more because of her. She was the sex symbol of the times. The barely legal knockout. Red hair, long legs, and just enough freckles to drive you nuts.

The honeymoon, as they say, didn't last. Lindsey started partying harder and harder, around the same time that the internet seemed to be making it easier to keep up with your favorite celeb while they were off screen. Sure, she would release other movies over that time, but they never drew me in like Mean Girls, and even if her album had been any good I wouldn't have been able to take it seriously because I was in a four year exodus from the world of popular music.

By the time the wheels had come off I had cooled on Lindsey. She still looked like what I fell for as I was growing up, but the person behind the mask had changed.


Enough nostalgia and retread. The world knows the saga of Lindsey Lohan and I can offer no additional information on that. There were drugs, eating disorders, mental breakdowns, burglaries, car accidents, and sensationalist claims from family and friends that hit on either the extremely positive (Lindsey is brilliant and misunderstood, but sooooo strong as a person) to the extremely negative (Lindsey has AIDS, Lindsey is a thief, etc.). She has even gone to great lengths to compare her life to that of another drug addict that was spit out by the Hollywood machine--Marilyn Monroe.

At first I laughed. Lindsey broke into a house and stole jewelry? Hilarious. Lindsey kicked out of Club ____ for drunken behavior? What an idiot. Lindsey launches a clothing line and it flops? Funnier still. But after all the bad things seemed to pile up with no end in sight I became disillusioned. People joke about rubbernecking, the fascination with watching accidents occur and seeing the aftermath, but rarely do they actively engage in watching a tragic fall from grace, and derive pleasure from it. I hated myself because I hated Lohan. I felt she deserved what was coming to her, and that ultimately the universe was punishing her for her outlandish behavior and inflated ego.

And so I stopped reading. When I saw her picture or her name in the banner I would simply scroll past to the next story. My tolerance level had been reached. This went on unchanged for months. I avoided any mention of Lindsey's name and was generally a happy person.

Eventually, however, the curiosity crept back in. I started reading a blog post here or there about her. How could I not? The headlines were getting even more ridiculous than before. Now she was over a half million in debt and making a scene outside clubs after being refused service. This was the big leagues. No more getting fired from movies, she wasn't even being considered for movies in the first place.

It seems too cliche to say Lindsey is a case of the American Dream gone horribly wrong. Talent and beauty rewarded too fast. A poor soul who couldn't escape the clutches of her selfish and overbearing parents. It doesn't fit for the same reason anyone with a brain mocks VH1's "Behind the Music"--it's too predictable. Of course the drummer died, the singer and the guitarist fought over a woman, and nobody cared about the bassist. Thats how it always happens.

Too often we look for ways to pass off blame for celebrities. Different ground rules apply. People say Michael Jackson was just a product of an extremely dysfunctional childhood, but what does that really mean when we look at some of his actions? Is his pedophilia somehow less revolting because his father was a religious maniac? Are the molestation charges somewhat softer because he was denied a proper childhood? No. These actions matter, and anyone who says anything else simply has his head in the sand.

So I will continue to watch the downfall of Lindsey Lohan. I'll read about her next arrest, look at pictures of her stumbling drunk outside a club, and probably even watch a couple minutes of the sex tape that she is bound to release at some point. I am not saying I will feel good about any of this, but I won't feel bad either. Lindsey has had all the chances in the world to straighten up.

Ultimately, watching Lindsey slowly bankrupt herself of money, credibility, and dignity isn't about feeling good or bad, but simply feeling something. Ill do this for the same reason that millions of people will watch The Bachelor or Jersey Shore--entertainment. Somehow I get the feeling that is what Lindsey wants.