June 23, 2020

#164) Remembering Dalko

The virus that has shortened the 2020 baseball season has also taken one of the game’s cult legends.

Stephen Louis Dalkowski, Jr. died in April at age 80. To be sure, “Dalko” wasn’t exactly a picture of health – he had been in an assisted living facility since 1994 and suffered from alcohol-related dementia – but the cause of death was complications from COVID-19. Like Bobby Fischer and Sid Barrett, his death caused grief but also at least some surprise that it hadn’t happened sooner.

I learned the sad news from one of my periodic “Is Dalko still alive?” checks. To be sure, I haven’t burned too much midnight oil thinking about Dalkowski, but his story has always intrigued me and every so often I see fit to dig a little deeper to see what I can find about him. In keeping with this blog’s tradition of ignoring big issues in favor of obscure ones and responding late to news stories, I present a homage to the man said to have the fastest pitch in the history of baseball, two months after his death.

Steve Dalkowski isn’t completely irrelevant to today’s culture; if you’ve seen the movie “Bull Durham” you…

Scratch that, let’s try a different tack.

While Dalkowski’s name might not ring a bell outside of certain (read: baseball geek) circles, his story has universal elements: simple origins, great talent, unfulfilled promise, loss of way and redemption. Long story short: his fastball was legendary but he had no control, on or off the field.

How fast was Dalkowski? Like many folk (anti)heroes, some stories are true, some are exaggerated and some are myth. For example, accounts of him intimidating the great Ted Williams as an 18-year old are apocryphal, but the story of him breaking umpire Doug Harvey’s mask and giving him a concussion is true. While it’s generally agreed that he threw at least 110 miles per hour and was said by some to be close to 120, no accurate account exists. Only once did he ever throw for a radar machine, measuring either 88 or 93 miles per hour, depending on the source. However, the technology was primitive by today’s standards. Using a flat surface, not a mound, he had to throw for 40 minutes (the day after pitching) before the machine could read him. The measurement was also taken at home plate, not 10 feet from release as is done today; this alone may have cost him 9 miles per hour.

Steve Dalkowski grew up in New Britain, CT, where he played football and also set a high school baseball record by striking out 24 batters in a 9-inning game. Upon graduation, he signed with the Baltimore Orioles and began an itinerant career that resembled a Rand McNally atlas: Kingsport, TN; Aberdeen, SD; Elmira, NY; Pasco, WA. His control problems followed him to each of these stops. In a 170-inning stretch, he struck out 262 batters and walked 262 batters. In a single game, he walked 18 and threw 6 wild pitches.

In Aberdeen, future Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver figured out that Dalkowski had a lower than average IQ and couldn’t process mental tasks such as focusing on the batter while also paying attention to baserunners. He had Dalkowski simplify his approach to the game and asked him to stop drinking the night before he was to pitch. By 1963, Dalkowski was invited to attend spring training with the Orioles.

Though exact accounts of what happened vary, at some point during his last game before he was to head up north to begin the season Dalkowski suffered an injury to his left elbow, possibly a pinched nerve. It was the beginning of the end of his career. After being released by the Orioles organization, spent some time in the Pirates and Angels farm systems before retiring in 1966, having never thrown a pitch in the majors.

Life after baseball was rough on Dalko, and he spent the next three decades unable to hold even menial jobs such as picking fruit alongside migrant workers. He accumulated a police record (mainly low-level barroom scuffles), drank heavily (it’s said that he could outdrink even noted partier Bo Belinsky and that as a fruit picker, he would leave a bottle of wine at the end of the row to keep himself motivated) and eventually, like Bobby Fischer, was found wandering the streets of Southern California. He was taken in by a family of strangers on Christmas Eve, 1992. They connected him with his sister, who placed him in assisted living.

While his fate may seem ignominious for someone who once had such potential, there is at least some redemption in the Dalkowski story. He received steady visitation from those who were curious about his past and on several occasions was asked to throw out ceremonial first pitches at games. When people talk about velocity, his name still comes up. “Bull Durham” director Ron Shelton played in the Orioles minor league system in the ’60s, a few years after Dalko, and heard the stories. Dalkowski was the basis for Tim Robbins’ character, “Nuke” LaLoosh. It’s probably not too much of a leap to say that he also inspired “Wild Thing” Vaughan, Charlie Sheen’s character in “Major League.”

Whether “Wild Thing” was a homage to Dalko (who also wore thick glasses), a bit of dialogue from “Major League” sums up his legacy. “I thought you had to do something good to get into the Hall of Fame,” Wild Thing broods while nursing a beer at a bar. “Not if you do it colorfully,” his catcher Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) cheerfully replies. Indeed, despite having never played a major league inning, Dalko is remembered more than many truly great baseballers (quick: what position did incoming Hall of Famer Ted Simmons play?) Having not made the Show may have contributed to the Dalkowski legend.  A journeyman career in the big leagues would have been forgotten; having the fastest pitch ever but coming up just short is romantic and tragic. Also, by having not played in the majors, Dalkowski was witnessed by fewer, allowing more room for his story to grow more with each retelling.

There might not be a Dalkowski plaque in Cooperstown, but in 2009 he was inducted into baseball’s Shrine of the Immortals. The criteria: “Distinctiveness of play (good and bad)”; “The uniqueness of character and personality”; “The imprint the individual has made upon the baseball landscape.” The Shrine includes actual hall of famers such as Yogi Berra, Roberto Clemente and Jackie Robinson and other cult figures such as Bill Buckner, Dock Ellis (the Pirates pitcher who may or may not have thrown a no-hitter while high on LSD) and Moe Berg, the catcher who served as a government spy and could “speak a dozen languages but couldn’t hit in any of them.”

Will there ever be another Steve Dalkowski? Probably not (without even considering the effect that COVID-19 will have on the future of the game). There may be pitchers who approach or even surpass his velocity, but offbeat personalities just don’t thrive in today’s game. We loved Jeter because he did and said the right things, but it’s been a while since we’ve Feared the Beard.

Historians will have much to keep them busy when it comes to writing about 2020 and Steve Dalkowski’s death will not be at the top of the list. Still, in his own small way, Dalkowski left an impact. Man, legend or myth, he is now free of his demons and regrets about what might have been.

May 5, 2020

#163) Autopsy of an unfollow #5): The Skimm

For this edition of Autopsy of an Unfollow, we turn to a blog whose recent offerings have included a drunken rant about Tara Reade, a breakdown of a decision to purchase an app, a review of a John Grisham book and a…

Oh, sorry, wrong victim. The latest content cadaver to grace our autopsy table is a newsletter called the Skimm.

The good news for content creators is that because of Coronavirus and its restrictions, people are bored. The bad news for content creators is that because of Coronavirus and its restrictions, people are bored. I can only speak for myself, but by this point, I am kind of tired of social distancing memes, videos of celebrities washing their hands, YouTube personalities telling me to stay home and inspirational videos of remote musical collaborations. Will something new grab my attention? Maybe, but keeping it is another story.

The Skimm came into my life by sponsoring a site on which I needed to go to take care of an unrelated matter and then counting on the fact that I didn’t realize that the default setting on the browser was to subscribe to the newsletter. I was then greeted by a chipper email that began with the salutation “Oh, heyyyy” and promised “all the news and information [I] need to start [my] day.” I tried to frame it as a win-win: either my mornings would truly be “about to get a whole lot better. Promise” or I would have a new subject for an Autopsy of an Unfollow post.

The short reason for the unfollow is that I simply don’t need more online content in my life at this point. If I did, would I continue to follow the Skimm? Probably not.

Just as the Amazing SlowDowner came into my life by a word of mouth recommendation, I would have been more likely to buy into new content that was recommended to me personally, rather than presented by a newsletter for which I accidentally signed up. Given that I opted in (or forgot to opt out, depending on how you look at it) to the Skimm, I tried to be open-minded. Would the Skimm provide me with something I couldn’t find elsewhere in cyberspace?

No.

While the Skimm can’t be faulted for trying to be witty or original with their presentation and attempts to engage, the newsletter simply doesn’t stand out. I don’t need another “Quote of the Day.” I don’t need a guide to creating the perfect bath, a list of eight books that my mom will love or “three totally random things that made us happy.” If I ever decided that I was in desperate need of a new background for a Zoom call, odds are I will be able to find one elsewhere.

I found the writing style of the original articles to be, if not condescending, definitely not geared toward challenging the reader. Typically the format is to highlight bullet points and then elaborate on them, concluding with “The Skimm” – a summary. By doing this, the Skimm authors are telling the reader what is important, instead of letting them decide for themselves.

Does a newsletter of curated and original content have a fighting chance in today’s media climate? Perhaps. The first step might be to cultivate a following with the goal of quality, not quantity (I don’t care that 7 million people already subscribe – Cardi B has hundreds of millions of followers and that doesn’t make me want to become one of them) that is likely to personally recommend the Skimm to others. Maybe this could be done by asking subscribers questions about their interests or by using algorithms to figure out what type of material will drive specific users’ engagement. Offering a weekly digest for those who don’t want a Monday – Friday newsletter could help too. Having a different delivery time, or at least options for a different delivery time, rather than first thing in the morning, would be a useful feature. It’s Internet 101 that looking at your phone first thing in the morning is bad for you (although given how many people, including the author, are guilty of that maybe that’s something the Skimm shouldn’t change.)

Then, of course, the newsletter would have the unenviable task of standing out and being heard above the noise. How to accomplish this is subjective, but as short as my attention span is, stories that draw me in and make me want to learn more, as opposed to going for the quick, easy digestible takeaway that is cleverly framed (or “skimm’d”) have proven to be of more long-term value for me. An example is “Lost Soul”, the SI Longform piece about Bison Dele; I didn’t know who he was before I read this article, but it pulled me in and made me care. With timeless themes as searching for one’s place in the universe and finding fulfillment in unlikely places while experiencing emptiness in what most people consider to be success, “Lost Soul” is a piece I’ve come back to multiple times. It’s like a high end restaurant that has a small but loyal base of repeat customers who spend more money than their casual dining counterparts might and then go on to recommend the experience to their friends; the Skimm is more like fast food that is easily produced and consumed but soon forgotten.

Maybe I’m missing out on a golden opportunity by not becoming a Skimm’bassador; maybe I’ll miss waking up to the peppy newsletter of information that has been Skimm’d for me. If so, I’ll just go back to the partner site and “forget” to opt out again.

May 1, 2020

#162) The importance how not to complain #12 of timing

My goal is not to drag the name of Tara Reade through the mud. I am not a Joe Biden apologist; there’s a chance I may vote for him in November but I’m not exactly going to be falling over myself to get to the polls (where are you when we need you, Kyrsten?) What I am curious about is Tara Reade’s timing in coming forth with her allegations that she was sexually assaulted by Biden in the early 1990s. Human behavior intrigues me, especially when I can’t understand it – it’s like a Kakuro puzzle from which I can’t seem to divert my attention – and while it may sound as if I’m trivializing Reade’s ordeal, for the life of me, I can’t figure out, why now?

I don’t claim to be a political genius. I barely graduated high school and I am day drinking as I write this (who isn’t above a little day drinking these days? Besides, what goes better with politics than alcohol?) But unless I’m missing something, Reade’s timing is obviously an attempt to throw a wrench into Biden’s run. Unless she hopes that taking down Biden will pave the way for a viable third party candidate or she believes that women will thrive under another four years of the incumbent, my guess is that she’s looking to be paid to go away.

When You See the Hey l'Ve Seen This One Meme Hey Ive Seen This One ...

Is it my place to judge? Of course not*. Do I begrudge her for wanting a payday in uncertain economic times? I really can’t. For all I know, in a year or two, Tara Reade may have gone the way of the “Yanny/Laurel” debate, the Super Moon of 2015, #hasjustinelandedyet and Michele Bachman. But if her allegations do take Biden down, she will be remembered as a cautionary tale for those who are willing to sacrifice the war to win the battle.

* like that’s ever stopped me before

February 6, 2020

#161) Apps I’ve paid for #3: Amazing Slow Downer

As a boomer stuck in a Generation X body, I’m not a huge fan of smart phone apps. Sure, some of them are useful, but many of them seem to exist solely to use data, gather information and slow down processor speed, all to line the pockets of the dev…

Ok, boomer, let’s get focused here.

With hundreds of thousands of free apps available, why would anyone pay for one? That’s the focus of this series, in which I spotlight apps I have paid for and the process that made me decide to pull the trigger. In previous editions of “Apps I’ve Paid For” I broke down my decisions to buy the Prince of Persia and Modern Hiker apps – both of which cost $2 in 2013 (shows you how often I pay for apps.)

Today, we will look at why I decided to buy the “Amazing Slow Downer” app for…dun dun DUN…TEN dollars!

Short story: it was a word of mouth recommendation.

Long story: the idea that word of mouth is the best possible marketing is not exactly an earth-shaking concept, but how do you GET it?

I learned about the Amazing Slow Downer from Maureen, a violinist in my community orchestra. She overheard me and the other bassist talking about how the music was kicking our ass and suggested the app to us. Being able to slow down recordings to practice along with them was helpful to her and more enjoyable than just playing with a metronome, or struggling to keep up with the music when it was played on CD or Youtube. Technology that slows down music without altering the pitch has been around for a while, but being able to conveniently do it on one’s phone was a selling point. Four days later (a nearly instantaneous response to a suggestion by my standards) I bought it.

In Malcolm Gladwell terms, Maureen would be an example of a “connector” – someone who has contact with many people and can spread the word quickly. As a member of an orchestra, she sees dozens of people each week at rehearsal and even if she’s not particularly close friends with all of them, they all have music in common and are all potential customers for a helpful music-related product.

Another thing Maureen is is a boomer, or at least close to it. Though I don’t know her well enough to ask her age or be able to derive it from casual conversation, I would guess that she is closer to Boomerdom than Generation X-ness (or certainly Millenniality). While Roni Music, creators of the Amazing Slow Downer, might not have consciously been marketing to boomers/Gen X., their product was intuitive enough for someone like Maureen who probably did not grow up with a home computer to figure out. Seeing someone who is (likely) older than me using scary new technology makes it…well, less scary, and suddenly the idea of joining the 21st century isn’t so intimidating.

In the past two editions of “Apps I’ve Paid For” I noted that neither of the two apps has a free counterpart. There are probably free apps that do basically the same thing as the Amazing Slow Downer, but based on Maureen’s recommendation, I decided it would be better to plunk down $10 and save myself the hassle of browsing Google Play (something that I find about as appealing as going to the DMV) and possibly wasting my time on a free but inferior app. Thus, $10 isn’t just an investment in the Amazing Slow Downer; it’s buying myself time.

So…yeah, word of mouth.

 

January 21, 2020

#160) Book review: “Bleachers” by John Grisham

“Bleachers” came into my life at the right time. When I first read in a long past October, the month in which it takes place, my mother was on her death bed, just as coach Eddie Rake, one of the central characters in this John Grisham novel, was. In need of some gallows humor, I would, based on medical reports from across the country and the pacing and tone of “Bleachers”, make daily predictions about who would die first, my mother or Coach Rake (as I recall, it was Rake). The book’s other main character, former star quarterback Neely Crenshaw, was approximately the same age as me and like me at a crossroads of is life: mourning for love lost and bridges burned but also hopeful that it wasn’t too late to change.

It was no masterpiece, but it was the story that I needed at the time. After twelve years, a marriage, two family deaths, travels, successes, disappointments and two presidents, would “Bleachers” hold up?

If there is a small town high school sports trope that “Bleachers” misses, I’d be hard pressed to name it. You have the All-American QB and his contentious relationship with his coach; the crazy linebacker who threatens his own teammates with bodily harm when they miss blocks; the nice girl who gets dumped for the hot bimbo; the nutty groundskeeper who’s been there as long as anyone can remember; the player who falls in with the wrong crowd in college and ends up in jail but gets a pass to attend the funeral; the non-fans who resent the resources spent on the football team at the expense of other school activities and old-timers at the coffee shop who reminisce about the glory days. (All this in a mere 163 pages!) Add these familiar elements to a plot that includes a dying coach and a “prodigal son” returning home for redemption and you have a prime set up for parody, intentional or otherwise, at least if the author isn’t careful.

Grisham is careful. He likely knew that handled poorly, the story could easily make people laugh at inopportune times while groaning at moments meant to be inspirational. Maybe as a former high school quarterback himself, he was wary of seeming self-indulgent. Whatever the reason, much of “Bleachers” has  a detached, dispassionate feel, often resembling nonfiction more than fiction. “Bleachers” is full of “facts” about the history of the Rake era (1958-1992) at Messina High: we learn that the 1968 team was not only undefeated but never scored upon; that Neely Crenshaw threw 63 touchdown passes (47 to his favorite target, wide receiver Paul Curry) and that Rake’s teams won 13 state titles. As former players of all ages make their way to Rake Field for the memorial, they are recognized by their fellow Spartans.

“That’s Orley Short,” Paul said, finally putting a name with a face. “Late seventies.”

“I remember him,” Neely said. “Slowest linebacker in history.”

“And the meanest. All-conference, I think. Played one year at a juco then quit to cut timber for the rest of his life.”

“Rake loved the loggers, didn’t he?”

“Didn’t we all? Four loggers on defense and a conference title was automatic.”

With the book’s brevity, Grisham doesn’t give himself much of a chance to develop his characters or create memorable dialogue. None of the characters seem to have memorable individual voices; in some cases, such as the brutish “Silo”, the words are too witty for the man saying them.

Yet that may be the point. “Bleachers” feels like a reunion: rushed and falling short of expectations. If the climatic events of “Bleachers” don’t feel like the payoff we hope for, maybe that’s because that’s how it would be in real life; we have expectations for reunions that we hope will come true even if our rational adult brains know they probably won’t. We know that it’s unrealistic to expect our past story lines to be neatly wrapped up in the course of a busy weekend, but after months of anticipation, it’s hard to let our hopes go. If Neely’s climatic speech leaves us wondering if he really believes what he is saying, maybe his real-life counterparts might act the same way. Unable to find his own closure, he tries to help give the town theirs.

When it’s all over, life returns to how it was; the funeral was a last hurrah, not a turning point in the characters’ lives. The convict goes back to prison; the banker goes back to his bank; the girl goes back to her family in Chicago and the town settles in for another forgettable season of post-Rake Spartans football. As for Neely, there’s a vague feeling that he got the cleansing he sought, although we’re not exactly holding our breath to see what he does next.

In the literary community, the popular opinion of “Bleachers” is that is basically chick lit for readers with “Y” chromosomes, good for little more than allowing ex-football players to relive their glory years. I said it once and I’ll say it again: “Bleachers” is no masterpiece, but despite the fact that in high school I was squarely on the nerd side, not the jock side, it resonated with me both times I read it. Not everyone plays or watches small town high school football, but many of us have had love-hate relationships with authority figures or once-close groups of friends that drift apart. Many of us have kept vigil during someone’s final hours. Many of us have made mistakes in our youth or been victimized by them. Ultimately, Neely Crenshaw and the other current and former Messina residents might not have the gravitas of Romeo and Juliet, the Joad family or even Harry Potter, but I’m not ashamed to say that they have now twice come into my life at the right time.

January 1, 2020

#159) Language court 2020: the D-Theory verdicts on the 45th annual LSSU banished words list

OK, boomers! I literally hope you are living your best lives and none of your friends made you totes jelly at your New Year’s Eve vibe check by posting curated pictures of artisanal cocktails with great mouthfeel, just like the ones they saw on their favorite influencer’s Instagram feed.

As anyone who has read this blog (you have my sympathies) knows, the Lake Superior State Univeristy’s annually released Banished Words List is like my Rose Parade. This year, the process of combing the list and rendering my own verdicts about whether a word or phrase belongs is bittersweet. My father, who recently died following a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s disease, was, among many other things, an incorrigible language curmudgeon (Lord help the poor soul who said “quantum leap” or mixed up “lay” and “lie” within his earshot). Though we never specifically geeked out on these lists together, we would often bemoan how certain phrases would, to paraphrase LSSU, be misused, overused or become generally useless (Dad once suggested that any restaurant or other business that used extra “E”s in its name for effect should have to pay a tax – pony up, Ye Goode Olde Tyme Inne.) So Therefore, I dedicate my verdicts on this year’s list to the memory of my father, Willie Lockeretz, a wonderful man and a relentless grammar douche to the very end.

Quid Pro Pro

Charges: The most nominated word of the year; “Its popularity had the committee wondering what it should offer in exchange for next year’s nominations.”

Verdict: Not guilty. Yes, it has been overused, but the precedent of this court is that mere annoyance isn’t enough for a conviction. In the case of “quid pro pro”, the use has been largely limited to a specific event and correctly used within that context. Therefore, the court finds “quid pro pro” not guilty with the condition that it…wow, look at the time! We’ve got to get moving with this docket.

Artisanal

Charges: Attempting to make something more than it is.

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor). The court was tired of this one a long time ago but doesn’t want to waste energy on the appeals that will result from a felony conviction, so misdemeanor it is.

Curated

Charges: Attempting to make something more than it is.

Verdict: Not guilty by double jeopardy. While the court agrees with Barb from Ann Arbor that the word should be saved for the museum, it was included on the 2015 list and found guilty.

Influencer

Charges: “A word Instagram users use to describe themselves to make them feel famous and important when no one really knows or cares who they are.”

Verdict: Not guilty. Remember, the concept itself is not what’s on trial; it’s the word we use to describe the concept and “influencers” do just that. As for self-described influencers, they are usually more laughable than annoying and their career only lasts as long as it takes for them to realize they aren’t influencing anyone. The court leaves it to social media to respond in the careful, nuanced way that it usually does.

Literally

Charges: “One of the few words in English that has begun to serve as its own antonym.”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor).

Living my best life

Charges: “Are there options for ‘multiple lives’?”

Verdict: Guilty (felony). However altruistic the idea may be, the phrase “living your best life” has been rendered meaningless through overuse (cough *influencers* cough.)

Mouthfeel

Charges: “Where else, exactly, would you like to touch your food or beverage?”

Verdict: Guilty (misdemeanor).

Chirp

Charges: “Before we get chirped for being out of touch, why don’t we leave it to the birds?”

Verdict: Not guilty.

Jelly

Charges: “Better left for toast.”

Verdict: Guilty (felony). No, overuse didn’t spike in 2019, but like a “three strikes” convict who is sentenced to life for shoplifting Marbs, its past has caught up with it.

Totes

Charges: Being “totes” overused

Verdict: Totes guilty (felony).

Vibe/vibe check

Charges: “This one just doesn’t vibe with us anymore, unless the speaker is actually vibrating.”

Verdict: G-g-g-g-g-g-guilty (m-m-m-m-isdemeanor).

OK, Boomer

Charges: Self-explanatory.

Verdict: Guilty (suspended sentence). This first-time offender has shown potential in community service, aka reclaimed use by boomers (and the occasional Generation X-er, such as the court). The court will monitor “OK Boomer” in 2020 to see if fulfills its community service by turning itself against millennials and Gen Z – like a parent who realizes that the best way to get your kids to stop smoking pot is to say, “So, gang! What are we going to for 4/20?”

What say you?

December 31, 2019

#158) Of obstacles and pussy, part II: My new direction for the new decade

“I’ll bet you if there was some pussy on top of that obstacle, you’d find a way up there!” So yells Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, unforgettably played by R. Lee Ermey, to an out of shape recruit in Stanley Kubrick’s film “Full Metal Jacket.”

While Ermey was characteristically crude about it, his point is one that dates back to our hunter-gatherer days: when the prize is exciting or important enough, we will overcome obstacles. The “P. on the O.” formula is frequently employed by modern man: athletes logging that extra hour in the pool or on the track in pursuit of Olympic dreams; cubicle drones working late at the office while envisioning a promotion; young men picturing their new girlfriend naked as they pretend to agree with her father’s political views.

I have been a devout disciple of P. on the O. for a long time. As a musician, the goal of playing better shows for bigger crowds and more money often motivated me to practice more and cold call venues. When I started my hiking site, Nobody Hikes in L.A., dreams of cyberspace glory helped me embrace some of the less glamorous aspects of blogging as a business, such as search engine optimization, navigating lowball offers for sponsored posts, keywording and (gasp) establishing a social media presence. In some cases, P. on the O. became literal: surviving the dark days after a breakup by imaging myself finding the woman of my dreams (something that I’m happy to say, actually did happen almost 12 years ago.)

Yes, I have always used pussy as a motivation for tackling an obstacle. Now, I am going to take a break.

It doesn’t mean that I am no longer pursuing goals. It doesn’t mean that I am gay, although I have made some jokes over the years that might have caused people to question my sexual orientation and I do love “The Music Man.” It doesn’t mean that I think the concept can’t be a good motivational tool for others or that I myself won’t return to it someday. It only means that I am heading in a different direction.

I have long been more motivated by the result than the process; the destination rather than the journey. I have realized that as I approach the middle of my fifth decade, it’s time to find processes and journeys that I can enjoy, regardless of the payoff.

Lately, a lot of people have been sharing the “At some point in your childhood…” quote/meme/article. While it doesn’t directly apply to me – I didn’t have much of a social life growing up, and to the extent I did, it revolved more around D&D and video games than outdoor activities – I can still relate. At some point, I played a musical instrument for the last time without it being preparation for a gig or rehearsal and I wrote my last song without being preoccupied with how I was going to record and promote it. At some point, I went on my last hike without thinking about how I was going to write it up or which pictures to submit to stock photography sites. I miss that, more than I miss the successes that felt important to me before they happened but empty once the euphoria was gone.

How does one motivate themselves without pussy on top of the obstacle? I don’t claim to know, but perhaps it involves redefining what an obstacle is. For me, it could involve reorganizing my practice shed into a place where I want to go instead of forcing myself to when there’s a gig coming up. Making new play lists for my workouts, or watching my new kindred spirit Bob Menery on Youtube so I’ll want to hit the elliptical regardless of whether I’m getting ready for a big hike (Don’t know who Bob Menery is? You’re welcome). Looking for new grassroots level content providers whose work I enjoy and want to share just because I think other people will too and not because I want them to link back to me. (Although I won’t say no if they offer).

Will any of this work? I don’t know, but I do know that while I once envied people who had all of the trappings of success – the hot chick, the legions of followers, the big endorsement deal, the high profile brand partnership – I am now more jealous of those who are committed to the journey, who find meaning in an activity even when no one is watching. The good news is that I can become one of them. After all, I was before.

December 9, 2019

#157) Book review: “The Valedictorian of Being Dead” by Heather B. Armstrong

Heather Armstrong is known as the founder and creator of Dooce, one of the first widely read and financially successful blogs. But what happens when a pioneering mommy blogger finds herself so overwhelmed by single parenting that she wonders if her kids would be better off without her?

“The Valedictorian of Being Dead” is Armstrong’s first-hand account of her journey: “The true story of dying ten times to live.” Dying to live may sound like a Zen parable, but in Armstrong’s case, it was rooted in blunt reality. Feeling as if she had run out of options, Armstrong became the third patient ever to undergo a radical treatment for depression, one that had her brought to the brink of brain death and back ten times in a three week period. Developed as an alternative to electroconvulsive therapy, the idea of this treatment was to reboot the brain, not unlike restarting a computer.

How did Heather Armstrong get to the point where she was willing to take that drastic a step? As the youngest child in a family with a history of depression, Armstrong felt pressure to be perfect, especially after her parents’ divorce. This self-pressure led her to accomplish many things, including being valedictorian of her high school, only to still feel inadequate, ultimately leading to a profound burnout. By the time she decided to undergo the treatment, she would regularly go for days without bathing or changing her clothes. Yet once she agreed to the treatment, her old perfectionist impulses were triggered and she resolved to become the valedictorian of being dead.

In telling her story, Armstrong illustrates the difference between the effects of clinical depression and simply feeling exhausted by life’s responsibilities and circumstances. Before her treatment, she writes, “As I’m driving back to the house…I suddenly remember, Oh no! Marlo was supposed to have taken empty milk cartons to school for an art project, and I totally forgot…Someone else would have remembered those milk cartons…someone else would be a better mother. They would be so much better off without me.” Later, when she starts experiencing the effect of the treatments, she writes, “What I was feeling was rooted in urgency, not sadness. I was overwhelmed, yes, but not hopeless.”

The book’s darkest moments are nicely balanced with humor. “The morning routine…was the one I dreaded most. Because it began with waking up and realizing I was alive. Again! Jesus Christ, it just kept happening.” At one point she tells her nurse that it’s been so long since she’s had sex that she should apply to have her virginity reinstated. Armstrong even manages to work in a dig on Trump: part of her treatment including taking the Montreal Cognitive Test about which she says, “[Trump] bragged that he had passed it with flying colors, and good for him. He can recognize the outline of a lion!”

Ultimately,”Valedictorian” is, more than anything, about the importance of asking for help. Armstrong had to ask for help on two fronts: committing to the medical treatment and accepting help from her mother and stepfather with day to day tasks; her mother in turn asked for help through prayer. The book concludes with Armstrong explaining the struggles that people with depression have, not just with the condition but with those who think they can just turn it off at will and asking the reader, “Please believe us.”

December 4, 2019

#156) Kaepernick and the NFL are in on it together

There, I said it.

You can’t tell me the thought hasn’t crossed your mind.

The saga has gotten to the point where neither side’s behavior makes any sense, at least if the goal is to find the right NFL team for Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who has been out of a job since he started taking a knee during the National Anthem.

Were any of the NFL teams that attended Kaepernick’s recent workout in Atlanta serious about signing him? As Andrew Hammond notes in this News Tribune article, “[A]ll 32 teams in the league have had three years — a lengthy three years — to do their due diligence on Kaepernick, check his commitment to football and see if he was keeping in shape. You don’t need a closed-door, staged event to put those questions to bed. If you did, it may be time to reevaluate your free-agent scouting practices.” As for Kaepernick, did he believe that his appearance at an Unthanksgiving event was going to get Jerry Jones beating a path to his door?

If it all is in fact a long con, someone has to be benefiting. Who and how?

In the 2016 season, when he started protesting, Kaepernick already had a relationship with Nike (dating back to 2011) and a contract that ended up being worth $39 million. However, in the years following the protest, he was featured in a much more high-profile Nike ad and landed a new endorsement deal which included his own line of branded apparel. However one interprets the motives of Kaepernick’s protests, it’s a little naive to say that in no way has he benefited from the controversy.

For the NFL’s part, like every sports league, they need a villain. With incumbent bad guy Tom Brady near the end of his career (sorry, fellow Patriots fans but we all know it) who will be next? Due to rules that favor parity across the league, it may be a while before the NFL gets a good on field villain. Kaepernick seems to ignite more ire among his detractors than almost anyone on the planet, with the possible exception of Greta Thunberg. As long as he is not in the NFL, he will be a news story, begetting loud fist-shaking mobs both pro and con. If he were to sign? Sure, there would be some outrage, but Kaepernick is a 33-year old quarterback with (sorry, I know it’s not woke to say this) a losing career record. His return would be short lived and after gloating about it on 4chan, the Nike burning crowd would get bored and move onto inter-racial couples reading the Koran.

Regardless of who is the villain and who is the victim, Kaepernick and the NFL need each other, just like Superman and Lex Luthor, the Hatfields and McCoys and Taylor Swift and the Kardashian/West family. But the relationship is only symbiotic as long as Kaepernick is not with a team. Once he sets foot on the field, his supporters won’t have a face for their cause and the NFL will lose a story line.

Cynical? Sure. Crazy? Probably. But maybe just crazy enough to be true.

December 1, 2019

#155) How not to complain #11: Whom do you WANT to be president?

Sometimes people just don’t learn.

In this case, people are Michael Harriot, who recently called Democratic candidate Pete Buttegieg a “lying motherfucker” and Guardian columnist Poppy Noor who responded to Buttegieg’s phone call to Harriot by writing, “It’s telling that we are so grateful for the scraps thrown our way by powerful white men who make mistakes.”

You see, eight years ago when Buttegieg was campaigning for mayor in South Bend, IN, he said that “[T]here are a lot of kids—especially [in] the lower-income, minority neighborhoods—who literally just haven’t seen it work. There isn’t someone who they know personally who testifies to the value of education.” According to Harriot, “Pete Buttigieg went to the best educational institutions America has to offer and he—more than anyone on the goddamned planet—knows that everything he just said is a baldfaced lie.”

To which I ask Harriot and Noor, is a remark from 2011 really worth this level of vitriol and if so, to what end does the vitriol serve? Does it help the current political climate? If a perhaps ignorant but reasonably intended comment from 8 years ago makes someone a “lying motherfucker”, how motivated will future candidates be to connect with the inner city? If an apology is a “scrap”, then what do Noor’s powerful white men have to gain by apologizing? Why shouldn’t Trump continue to double down? As John McWorther noted in The Atlantic, “[T]his sort of response is more religious than rational; it bypasses into the realm of imposed liturgy, of ritual: We are less to think than to pose and follow.”

Harriot and Noor’s grievance with Buttegieg basically amounts to, “You don’t know us.” Noor asks, “Is [Buttegieg] the right person to be pontificating on why poor minority kids weren’t motivated enough to make it to class?” Maybe not, but are any of the three candidates that currently lead Buttegeig (Biden, Warren and Sanders) “the right person to be pontificating?” Is Trump? This is not about whether Mayor Pete is the Democrats’ best bet – it’s too early to tell – but does calling him a “lying motherfucker” pave the way for a candidate who is better equipped to help solve the problems of impoverished America?

Maybe by making an example of Buttegieg, Harriot hoped to send a message to white candidates who claim to understand black struggle. If so, will the result be meaningful political change, or will it just make speechwriters revise their candidates’ messages to avoid certain talking points? Should candidates not even try to empathize with inner city voters unless they came from poverty themselves? Unless someone such as Kyrsten Sinema suddenly throws her hat into the ring, the 2020 Democratic candidate will be from a privileged background. Perhaps a more nuanced, less combative take might have given the Democrats something to think about for 2024.

The search for a perfect candidate hurt the Democrats in 2016 (Bernie Bros sitting out the election or voting for Trump out of spite) and it is on its way to doing the same in 2020. Every 2020 candidate has baggage if you are willing to spend time looking for it (as opposed to celebrating a candidate about whom you feel positive) and in this case, you have to go pretty far back for something that most people would probably consider pretty mild by today’s political standards (wouldn’t we all love to go back to the time when Mitt Romney turning his nose up at store-bought cookies was a news worthy faux pas?) To quote McWorther again, “Our antennae must go up when notions of what an insult is become this strained…If Pete Buttigieg has done anything that reveals him as an MF, it was not that night in 2011.”

And so I say to all Democrats, white, black, brown, yellow, red, blue, pink, purple, chartreuse, aubergine: don’t be the political equivalent of Marian the Librarian, Shirley Jones’ spinster character from “The Music Man” whose mother warns her, “There’s not a man alive who could hope to measure up to the blend of Paul Bunyan, St. Pat and Noah Webster you’ve concocted for yourself out of your Irish imagination, your Iowa stubbornness and your library full of books.” Or, to quote How Not To Complain alumna Sara Benincasa, don’t throw your vote away because of your personal brand.

Am I just another white man trying to tell black people what’s best for them? Maybe. But I’m also a white man who will be voting in the 2020 election and Harriot’s rancor hasn’t changed the fact that I am as likely to vote for Buttegieg as I am for whoever his candidate of choice may be (I haven’t seen him say, “Pete Buttegieg may be a lying motherfucker but _____ isn’t, so you should vote for them”). If Harriot’s goal was shock value or to galvanize people like Noor who probably wasn’t part of the Pete Patrol to begin with (not to mention, a British citizen who can’t vote in the upcoming elections) then he achieved it. Will his dressing down of Buttegieg ultimately convert anyone to his opinion? I don’t claim to know how many people read Harriot and said, “You know, that Mayor Pete is a lying motherfucker after all.” I just know I wasn’t one of them.