May 12, 2017

#128) Autopsy of an unfollow #4: Hey, “You Had One Job” – You had one job!

It’s time for another cautionary tale of a social media outlet that met a fate worse than death: the dreaded Unfollow!

Sometimes we need a humorous reminder that our life isn’t so bad and that we’re not the only ones who are idiots. A Facebook page called “You Had One Job” provided me with such reminders – until recently.

For a while, I’d enjoyed having my constant feed of kid pics and political fights broken up by the occasional picture of an intersection with “SOTP” painted in big white letters, cans of peaches labeled “TOMATOES” and the like. But “You Had One Job” stopped doing its one job.

As of the moment of my unfollowing, the last five posts on “You Had One Job” were:

  1. “25+ Crazy Tattoos That Will Twist your Mind”*
  2. “15 Hilarious Love Notes That Illustrate The Modern Relationship”
  3. “What If Guys Acted Like Girls On Instagram?”
  4. “Mom Sews Incredibly Accurate Costumes For Her Daughter To Wear At Disneyland”
  5. “Domestic Bliss: Mother Of Two Takes Darkly Humorous Family Photos

For me, it’s not so much that my desperate craving for photos of handicapped access railings going the opposite way of the staircase has been going more and more unfulfilled by “YHOJ” as it is that I’ve long been over-saturated by the type of content the site is sharing instead. I don’t want to see clever parenting. I want to see Storm Troopers coffee mugs in Paw Patrol packaging.

Would the novelty of “You Had One Job” worn off anyway? Possibly, but alas, I shall never know. The lesson: sometimes it’s better to be a one-trick pony, however niche that trick may be, than to become just another generic face in the social media crowd.

* Don’t even get me started on upstyle.

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April 30, 2017

#127) Drinking problems: Why “Worlds Apart” won’t get me to buy Heineken

There are two reasons why Heineken’s new “Worlds Apart” ad won’t make me buy the beer.

The short reason: I don’t like Heineken. No matter how artfully an advertisement’s visual look is curated, how lovingly its message is crafted or how on fleek its hashtags are, if I don’t like the product, I’m not spending money on it.

The long reason: call me a hater, but Heineken takes the easy approach with “Worlds Apart.” You’ve heard the old adage “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” Well, no one ever got criticized (at least by the media, the entertainment industry and other People Whose Opinions Matter) for touting diversity. No one ever got fired for joining the fist-shaking mob chasing down someone or something that has been publicly offensive: John Rocker, Larry Craig, Todd Akin and most recently Pepsi and their controversial ad.

Indeed, “Worlds Apart” has been hailed as the antidote to Pepsi’s reviled campaign that featured Kendall Jenner as a saint who instantly creates world peace by giving a police officer a Pepsi in the middle of a giant protest. By contrast, “Worlds Apart” is hitting all the right notes. An anti-trans man meets a trans soldier. A climate change denier meets an activist. A feminist meets a man who feels that feminism is all about man hating. Without knowing that they hold opposite views, these pairs of people get to know each other. After they build a bar together in a warehouse, they learn of each others’ contrasting opinions. They are then given the choice of walking out or discussing their differences at the bar over a Heineken. (Spoiler alert…)

Unity. Diversity. Beer. What’s not to like?

Perhaps if I felt marginalized the way some of the people in the commercial do, I might have an entirely different perspective, but my questions are:

  • Is it the job of a beer (or any other food or beverage product) to teach me about diversity or is its job just to taste good?
  • Has the “I used to hate _____s but now that I’ve met one, I don’t hate them anymore” trope perhaps run its course?
  • Are there sometimes when it’s best to just politely walk away from a discussion you would prefer not to have?
  • Does this commercial expect people with more “acceptable” views to rethink their positions too?
  • Doesn’t Heineken’s response to the Pepsi backlash feel like a perfect sibling volunteering to teach a kombucha making workshop at the prison where the family black sheep is doing time for soliciting an undercover cop posing as a 14 year old boy online? At least a little bit?

Granted, part of advertising is to convince the target audience that purchasing the product will make them feel a certain way – inclusive, tolerant, conscientious –  but, and I say this as someone who has quaffed an ale or two in his time, at the end of the day it’s just beer.

I do believe that “Worlds Apart” is coming from a good place. I think it was made by honest people who care about the issues – yes, they are trying to sell beer, but I also think they want to promote civilized debate and discussion – and want to create something positive in the wake of Pepsi. I’m just not quite ready to jump on the Heineken as Heroes bandwagon.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Heineken does hold a special place in my heart that no other brand – not even any IPA – can claim, but it goes back to something that happened when Kendall Jenner was a twinkle in Bruce/Caitlyn’s eye. My wife visited Amsterdam when she was in her early 20s, took the Heineken brewery tour, did what people do on such a thing and then became the only person I’ve ever known to go to the Anne Frank house while intoxicated. If that doesn’t prove that we’re meant to be together, nothing does.

But I digress.

And I still don’t like beer.

April 18, 2017

#126) Book review: “House of Nails” by Lenny Dykstra

Some baseball fans remember Lenny Dykstra for his hard-nosed, balls-to-the-wall style of play that earned him the nickname “Nails.” Others remember him for bankruptcy fraud, falsifying documents while leasing a car and writing a bad check to a prostitute. Dykstra’s ups and downs are chronicled in “House of Nails” – a memoir that is part self-reflection, part shit show (if you are offended by the term “shit show” don’t read this book; it contains an amount of cursing that would make a longshoreman uncomfortable.)

Anyone looking for balance, meaningful remorse or nuance in this book will want to keep looking, but that shouldn’t come as a shock. “House of Nails” is written by a die-hard Lenny Dykstra fan and is best read through that filter. Given that, how well does Lenny Dykstra present the awesomeness that is Lenny Dykstra?

Like the New York Mets in the years following their 1986 World Series championship, “House of Nails” is a collection of promising parts that never quite live up to their potential. The pieces are all there – no holds barred accounts of steroid use (by Dykstra and many others); unapologetic descriptions of life on the road with two of baseball’s most notorious teams (the 1986 Mets and the 1993 Philadelphia Phillies); boasts about blackmailing umpires; an insider’s perspective on the real estate crisis of 2008; escapades with Charlie Sheen – but while the anecdotes are by turns entertaining and cringe-worthy, the potential for a bigger whole is never realized. Granted, this is a sports bio, not Shakespeare, but with a little more finesse, “House of Nails” could have been a seminal baseball book of our times: “Ball Four” meets “Scarface.”

A mythological interpretation of the story, to which I don’t think Dykstra would object (he refers to himself as “a Greek fucking statue” in a way that may or may not be tongue in cheek) would see Dykstra as a tragic figure who starts from humble beginnings and achieves greatness but is undone by a desire for the forbidden (steroids, girls, Wayne Gretzky’s house). Our hero then pays his penance and becomes a New Man. However, Dykstra’s repentance is generic and conditional (“Undeniably, I have made some monumental mistakes in my life, some of which, inadvertently, have had a negative impact on my family”) while his accounts of those whom he feel wronged him are given much more detail (“Please note that [my attorney’s] letter is dated February 28th, 2012….eight months after I was incarcerated for grand theft auto.”) Dykstra enjoys playing the tough guy card (“I called him a cunt, and [Dodgers catcher Rick] Dempsey took something that resembled a swing at me”) but also the victim (“I was placed in solitary confinement for leasing a car”) when it suits his narrative.

Dykstra’s grievances have legitimacy. Major League Baseball turned a blind eye to steroids when record-breaking home run races were filling seats and then took the moral high ground when it made them look good (and why exactly did the federal government feel the need to step in anyways?) Dykstra may have been obsessed with buying Wayne Gretzky’s mansion, the prize that would prove to be his undoing, to the point where he irrationally walked into an unsound home loan, but at the height of the real estate bubble, banks weren’t exactly known for doing the right thing either. As for Dykstra’s treatment while incarcerated, the book may only give his side of the story – but misconduct by wardens and other officials in the L.A. County jail system is a matter of record.

Ultimately, “House of Nails” could be seen as a microcosm of Dykstra’s baseball career. Hall of Fame? No. Fun to watch/read? Yes. Considering how many books and baseball players alike come and go without making an impact, one could do worse than Lenny Dykstra did both on the diamond and the printed page.

 

April 13, 2017

#125) Why the 1985 World Series matters

If there’s one thing I love, it’s squeezing teachable moments out of the game of baseball. Often times, the more of a stretch it is to find a lesson from an event on the diamond, the more I enjoy trying to do it. With another baseball season underway, let’s examine the fallout for one of the most controversial calls in the history of the game, one which is still dissected and debated more than 30 years later.

If you’re a baseball geek, feel free to drop down to the Important Life Lesson part of this post. For those of you who actually have lives, here’s the backstory:

In the 1985 World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals led their in-state rivals, the Kansas City Royals, three games to two. In the sixth game, Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog brought his closer, Todd Worrell, in to protect a 1-0 ninth inning lead. The first Royals batter, Jorge Orta, hit a chopper which first baseman Jack Clark fielded and tossed to Worrell, who had run over to cover the base. First base umpire Don Denkinger called Orta safe. Despite arguments from Clark, Worrell and Herzog and replays that clearly showed Orta was out, the call stood. A misplayed pop fly, a passed ball, an intentional walk and a two-run base hit later, the Royals had a 2-1 win to force a seventh game. Angry and deflated from the loss, the Cardinals imploded the next night. Both Herzog and relief pitcher Joaquin Andujar were ejected for arguing with Denkinger as the Royals rolled to an 11-0 win.

Needless to say, St. Louis fans saw Don Denkinger as the reason their team lost. In the ensuing months, Denkinger would receive much harassment from irate fans, up to and including death threats. Losing in such a manner had to suck for St. Louis fans, especially with Missouri bragging rights on the line, but scapegoating Denkinger didn’t account for Clark misplaying an easy foul ball that could have been the first out or for the passed ball that put the Royals in a prime position to win the game. This was game six, not game seven and despite the momentum having swung in the Royals’ favor, the Cardinals had another chance to win.

There are also the circumstances that led up to game 6. After winning three of the first four games of the Series, the Cardinals had had a chance to close it out in game 5 as well but didn’t. The Cards’ offense was M.I.A., even in the three games they won. Their four-run ninth inning rally to win game 2 was the only inning in the entire series in which they scored more than one run. To be sure, losing rookie star Vince Coleman in the infamous “runaway tarp” incident during the previous series against the Dodgers didn’t help, but that alone didn’t explain the Cardinals’ team average of .185 against K.C., setting a record for lowest batting average for a team in a 7-game World Series. The Cardinals even benefited by another questionable umpiring call earlier in game 6: Kansas City’s Frank White was called out on a stolen base attempt despite appearing to have been safe from multiple replay angles. The next Royals batter lined a base hit which would have likely scored White for the game’s first run.

Important Life Lesson Part of This Post

Are there parallels between one of baseball’s most controversial calls and one of America’s most controversial elections?

Every Denkinger moment has both a history and a subsequent series of events that made it significant. It didn’t come from nowhere and after it happened, it could have been contained. Donald Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. While his Republican opponents were bickering and posturing, Trump got alienated voters on board. Sure, many of them saw him as the least of several evils but a desirable Republican candidate could have easily put an end to the issue. Similarly, the Democrats put up a candidate who failed to inspire. Perhaps they never took the opposition seriously; perhaps, like the St. Louis Cardinals, they felt as if being right should have trumped (sorry) winning. Either way the results on November 8th, 2016 were, as they were on October 26th, 1985, tough for the losers to swallow.

The most compelling, actionable parallel however, is in the reactions following the key moment. After the self-fulfilling prophecy of the Cardinals’ game 7 meltdown, there was little reflection among Whitey Herzog, the players or the fans about how the team could have done better. In the months since the election, I have seen articles making fun of Melania Trump’s inefficient planning of the Easter Egg Roll; re-posts of tweets by Trump against Syrian involvement vintage 2013; all manner of clever Sean Spicer memes and a general contest among bloggers, YouTubers and Instagrammers to be the most shareable critic of the administration.

What I haven’t seen is any serious indication of who the Democrats plan on grooming for 2020. The decisive winner of a March, 2017 Harvard-Harris poll, with 45% of the vote, was “Someone new.” Vegas apparently likes Elizabeth Warren, but the Massachusetts senator, with declining numbers in her own state, faces a no-sure-thing election in 2018 – possibly against former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling (see, you just can’t escape baseball!)

Will the Dems (and other Trump opponents throughout the political spectrum) continue the path to self-destruction as the Cardinals did or will they take a page from Armando Galarraga’s playbook? The Tigers pitcher had a perfect game ruined by a first base umpire’s blown call, on a very similar play to the one from 1985. Talking to reporters after the game, Galarraga was calm and forgiving of umpire Jim Joyce, saying, “Nobody’s perfect.”

I leave you with the words of Seth Godin: “You can disdain gravity all you want…seek to have it banned. But that’s not going to help you build an airplane.”

 

February 3, 2017

#124) Movie review: “The Founder”

founder1It’s almost too easy, right? A ruthless tycoon screws two honest, hard-working brothers out of their idea and makes billions selling food that causes obesity and other health problems. I mean, come on, this guy makes Vader look like an Eagle Scout. The script practically writes itself!

Not so fast.  “The Founder”, directed by John Lee Hancock, written by Robert Siegel and starring Michael Keaton as McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc, isn’t a character assassination. Nor does it present its subject as a charismatic anti-hero a la “The Social Network.” The film’s restraint – criticized by some as “wishy-washy” and “as bland as the burgers the businessman hawked” – is in fact its strength.

We already know what happens and there are few surprises en route. The trusting, values-driven McDonald brothers (John Carroll Lynch as Mac and Nick Offerman as Dick) don’t have any more of chance against Kroc than Kroc’s loyal but sullen wife Ethel (Laura Dern) has against Joan (Linda Cardellini), the young, forward-thinking blonde whom he meets on a business trip. The film’s ending seems abrupt but it’s only because ultimately there’s not much to add: Kroc died uneventfully in 1984, never having experienced consequences for his business tactics.

“The Founder” works by staying out of the audience’s way, resisting the urge to score obvious points. There is no blistering indictment of Kroc’s actions, the unhealthy product he sold or employee wages. The period details are accurate without calling attention to themselves. The recognizable but not ubiquitous cast don’t treat their roles as platforms to make statements. The script is not too witty for the subject matter (sorry, Aaron Sorkin) and the dialogue is realistic. There is one clever exchange between the brothers but it’s subtle enough that most viewers will miss it and those who catch it will smile knowingly and appreciate that this touch of symbolism remains just that: a touch.

What it adds up to is that the viewers are given a clean slate on which to draw their own conclusions. Was Kroc an opportunist who wasn’t able to contain his excitement when he saw a chance to escape years of mediocrity or was he a true villain? Did Kroc actually want to give the McDonald Brothers a fair shake in the beginning but acted selfishly and impulsively when his vision outgrew theirs, or was he out to swindle them all along? Was he a genius or simply in the right place at the right time? Some film goers won’t want to give Kroc the benefit of the doubt, but Hancock and Keaton make sure he receives a fair trial. We see Kroc drinking regularly but not excessively. His late night talks with Joan appear illicit at first but are strictly corporate. He hides his financial difficulties from Ethel, but the film knows better than to expect pearl clutching: no, not everyone is 100% transparent about money with their spouse.

Some may see the movie’s lack of an obvious moral stance as an attempt to pander both to Middle America and the coasts; others may be disappointed that more heads don’t roll. On the other hand, among blockbusters and issue-oriented pictures, a no-frills $7 million film that allows the audience to ask and answer their own questions also just might have a place.

 

 

January 6, 2017

#123) Learning from idiots 6: The Cherry Sisters

cherry-sisters-adIf Donald Trump had won the 1896 Presidential Election, he would have found suitable performers for his inauguration in the Cherry Sisters. At first glance, the four sisters from Marion, Iowa and their infamous vaudeville act might seem an ancestor to the “so bad, it’s good” oeuvre of Ed Wood or the car-crash-you-can’t-take-your-eyes-off appeal of the Kardashians. However, close examination shows that the story of the Cherry Sisters just might share some unlikely parallels to that of our president elect.

In 1893, Addie, Effie, Ella (the oldest, who only appeared during the early years), Jessie and Lizzie Cherry decided to put together a performance act to raise money to attend the Chicago World’s Fair. The sisters had recently been orphaned and their brother Nathan had disappeared under unknown circumstances. Although their friends in Marion were supportive, on the road, the reception wasn’t quite so warm. As one reviewer wrote, “Their long skinny arms equipped with talons at the extremities, swung mechanically, and soon were waved frantically at the suffering audience. Their mouths opened like caverns, and sounds like the wailing of damned souls issued therefrom.” The dumpster fire drew the attention of struggling New York producer Willie Hammerstein, father of famed librettist Oscar II. Hammerstein’s rationale in bringing the sisters to Broadway might be compared to that of recent voters: “I’ve been putting on the best talent, and it hasn’t gone over…I’m going to try the worst.” His investment paid off as Cherry Sisters sold out his Olympia Theater, saving it from bankruptcy.

The Cherry Sisters often played the delusional victim (“Although we have the best act in vaudeville and are the best drawing card on the stage, we have no swelled head, as some others have…We have had more knocking since we went into the theatrical business than any act in the history of the world”) and described their modus operandi in a, shall we say, somewhat circuitous manner (“I have recitations and readings; recite and read in costume. Sometimes I have worn men’s clothes. I never dance. I recite essays and events that have happened, I have written up of my own.”) On the other hand, they may have been shrewder than they let on. Author Jack El-Hai argues, “Though undoubtedly lacking in artistry, they exploited badness to stay in the public eye. It was their brand.”

Another parallel-if not directly between the sisters and Trump, between their time and ours-can be seen in the the girls’ relationship with the press. It was darkly symbiotic: terrible performance = scathing reviews = newspapers sold to bloodthirsty readers = publicity for the act = new audiences for more terrible performances. As this NPR article notes, “The journalistic jabbing, which rivaled some of today’s most caustic comments sections, became part of the strange, interactive audience participation that surrounded the sisters.” An early review rings eerily familiar today: “Such unlimited gall as was exhibited last night…is past the understanding of ordinary mortals.” The critic went on to point out, “At one minute the scene was like the incurable ward in an insane asylum, the next it was like a camp meeting.”

A non-symbiotic episode between the sisters and the media was their 1901 libel lawsuit, Cherry vs. Des Moines Leader. The Iowa Supreme Court found in favor of the defendant: “One who goes upon the stage to exhibit himself to the public…may be freely criticised. He may be held up to ridicule, and entire freedom of expression is guarantied dramatic critics, provided they are not actuated by malice….Unless this be true, liberty of speech and of the press guarantied by the constitution is nothing more than a name. If there ever was a case justifying ridicule and sarcasm–aye, even gross exaggeration–it is the one now before us.” (Though, as the Strange Company blog notes, “The popular suspicion that both sides in the dispute were staging a mutually advantageous publicity stunt was probably not unfounded.”)

Whether they were too dumb to know better, gluttons for punishment or secretly enjoyed the debacle, the Cherry Sisters persevered in the face of unrelenting adversity from critics and audiences until the youngest, Jessie, died from typhoid at age 31 in 1903. The older sisters then retired the act and returned to Iowa. In one last parallel, Effie ran for mayor of Marion in 1924 on a platform of “early curfews, efficient garbage collection, and the prohibition of profanity.” Here, her story takes a decidedly different turn from Trump’s; she received 805 out of 10,000 votes.

Effie was the last surviving sister when she died in 1944. Her New York Times obituary noted, “Maybe the laugh was on their side. Maybe the Cherry Sisters knew better than the public what was really going on. Be this as it may, they left behind an imperishable memory. And they gave more pleasure to their audiences than did many a performer who was merely almost good.” It may be a stretch to speculate that Trump will be remembered in a similar manner, but while we’re waiting to find out, we just might be able to look to the Cherry Sisters for some context on the unusual election cycle we just witnessed.

January 2, 2017

#122) Language court 2017: the D-Theory verdicts on the LSSU 42nd annual list of banished words

on-fleek

(Well, are you?)

New Years Day means different things to different people. For some folks, it’s the first day without alcohol, tobacco or child pornography. For others, it’s the day they have to start remembering to write a new number in the “date” field on their personal checks. For nerds such as the court, by which I mean myself, it’s the release of Lake Superior State University’s eagerly awaited list of words and expressions that are “banished from the Queen’s English for misuse, overuse and general uselessness.” I often find vindication in seeing phrases that annoy the estrogen out of me singled out on these lists (surely I can’t be the only one who wants to sack-tap anyone who says ‘curated’ – from the 2015 list – or ‘break the internet’ from 2016) and I’ve even gone so far as to make my own (after the response I got, I decided it would be better to let LSSU do the dirty work).

In that spirit, I ask that you dock your selfie drone and focus on this historic town hall meeting in the echo chamber as we guesstimate how many of the 831 items on Lake Superior State University’s 42nd annual listicle of banished words are true bete noires and how many are mere simply post-truths.

YOU, SIR

Charges: “Hails from a far more civilized era when duels were the likely outcome of disagreements.”

Verdict: Not guilty. The court has found that while those who use this expression tend to think they are more droll than they actually are, it is not ubiquitous enough to warrant punishment.

FOCUS

Charges: “Overused when concentrate and look at would be fine.”

Verdict: Not guilty. The court finds that when looked at in the context of….ooh, shiny!

BETE NOIRE

Charges: Being a pretentious synonym for “pet peeve.”

Verdict: Not guilty; the prosecution didn’t even seem to care that much about this one. Note: the court apologizes for not being able to figure out how to create the accent circumflex that goes over the first “e” in “bete” in the WordPress platform.

TOWN HALL MEETING

Charges: Being a misnomer (“Candidates seldom debate in town halls anymore.”)

Verdict: Not guilty; given the election cycle we just witnessed, what we call our debates is the least of our problems.

POST-TRUTH

Charges: Being a trendy way of describing how politicians and others have been able to get people to ignore facts.

Verdict: Guilty. Just as Capone’s tax evasion and O.J.’s memorabilia hijinks stood in for more significant crimes, we are happy to set up “post-truth” as a fall guy for all of the other annoying “post-” expressions that inundate pop culture: “post-punk”, “post-hardcore”, “post-Sasha Fierce”, “post-Freddy Got Fingered” et. al.

GUESSTIMATE

Charges: Overuse

Verdict: Not guilty. The court finds that prosecuting this chronic low-level offender will be more trouble than it’s worth.

831

Charges: Shorthand for “I love you” – 8 letters, 3 words, 1 meaning. “Never encrypt or abbreviate one’s  love.”

Verdict: Not guilty. If this one survives until 2018, it will only be from hipsters using it ironically, which may prompt the case to be reopened.

HISTORIC

Charges: Being “thrown around far too much.”

Verdict: Guilty. The court hopes that this verdict serves to inspire those in attendance to avoid hyperbole and find more creative adjectives.

MANICURED

Charges: Overuse

Verdict: Not guilty. The word does have a sort of real-estate-salesman-y feel to it but has not been overused to the point of being divorced from its original meaning.

ECHO CHAMBER

Charges: Overuse

Verdict: Not guilty (for now). Like its accomplice “confirmation bias” this is a reasonably concise way of describing a clearly valid concept.

ON FLEEK

Charges: “Needs to return to its genesis: perfectly groomed eyebrows.”

Verdict: Guilty. The fact that as a society we find eyebrows important enough to nickname is bad enough; worse is that this phrase is already on track to become inescapable and will cause adults to embarrass themselves when using it in the name of hipness, such as Taco Bell CEO Brian Niccol.

BIGLY

Charges: Being used by Donald Trump

Verdict: Not guilty. This is the aspect of the pending Trump presidency that we’re going to get upset about?

GHOST

Charges: Being slang for abruptly ending communication, especially on social media

Verdict: Not guilty. Even the prosecution has its doubt: “Is it rejection angst, or is this word really as overused as word-banishment nominators contend?”

DADBOD

Charges: “Empowering dads to pursue a sedentary lifestyle.”

Verdict: Guilty. This word (“the flabby opposite of a chiseled male ideal”) isn’t the one who actually robbed the bank; it was just slower than the ring leader (“dad joke”) in running to escape the word police after the alarm was tripped.

LISTICLE

Charges: A portmanteau of “list” and “article.”

Verdict: Not guilty. The problem is the item itself, not what we call it.

“GET YOUR DANDRUFF UP…”

Charges: Unknown.

Verdict: Not guilty.

SELFIE DRONE

Charges: Breaking new ground in selfies by tasking a drone to enable new angles (“How can this end badly?”)

Verdict: Not guilty. As with “Listicle” there is a difference between a truly annoying, overused expression and simply naming something that shouldn’t exist in the first place.

FRANKENFRUIT

Charges: Being “another food group co-opted by ‘frankenfood’.”

Verdict: Guilty. People have a right to get their dandruff up about genetically modified organisms, but words such as “frankenfruit” that are intended to scare people into ortheorexia nervosa instead might scare some of them straight to McDonald’s.

DISRUPTION

Charges: This classic Van Halen guitar solo is charged with inspiring would-be guitarists at music stores across the country to butcher it while trying out instruments, thus making a…oh, sorry, I thought you said “Eruption.” “Disruption” is charged with “bumping into other over-used synonyms for change.”

Verdict: Not guilty. There can never be enough synonyms for “change.”

As for “that/those/dat ____, tho”, “I’m just going to leave this here” and “[no words]”: consider this a warning.

What say you, sir?

November 30, 2016

#121) Book review: “The Sex Lives of Cannibals”

It’s hard not to have one’s interest piqued by a book with a title such as “The Sex Lives of Cannibals” but it also begs the question of whether the rest of the book will live up to that promise. Thankfully in the case of J. Maarten Troost’s travelogue of two years on Tarawa in the Republic of Kiribati (pronounced KEER-uh-bahss), the answer is yes.

“Sex Lives” combines two related themes – fish out of water; American attempts to “civilize” the savages but ends up learning from them – and throws in a welcome shot of self-deprecation. Granted, the effectiveness of self-deprecation depends on how deeply the self is willing to deprecate, but Troost’s humor is believable. While he occasionally makes his writing skill and deep insights part of the story, for the most part he keeps it real. In the mid 1990s, before his Tarawa odyssey, Troost, having recently completed graduate school, finds himself professionally and emotionally adrift. “Job offers were not forthcoming, most likely because I didn’t apply for any jobs…Instead I went to Cuba….One may wonder how an unemployed ex-graduate student…could afford a trip to Cuba…in an act of colossal misjudgement, American Express had agreed to give me a credit card.” En route to Tarawa, Troost and his girlfriend Sylvia stop at Johnson Atoll, a desert island with a long and infamous history of U.S. nuclear testing. “It is tempting to dash off a page or two and expound upon the philosophical implications of Johnson Atoll….for writers more ambitious than I this would be like catnip,” Troost notes. “However….I was not struck by any profound ruminations. My thoughts were more along the lines of Could someone please close the fucking door before we all turn into mutants?”

The dichotomy of lofty ideals and mundane reality is an ongoing theme of “Sex Lives.” Many well meaning white Europeans and Americans have had big plans for Kiribati, including Sylvia, who is hired as a country director for the Foundation for the Peoples of the South Pacific-Kiribati Office. Her job is to educate the natives; one way she does so is to produce “message oriented plays on the importance of green, leafy vegetables and the proper treatment of diarrhea, among other topics not typically explored on Broadway.” Meanwhile, the islanders, with their “if it ain’t broke” attitude view these outsiders (I-Matangs) with a mix of amusement and resentment. It doesn’t take Troost long to understand their perspective. While he’s shocked at how complacent the I-Kiribati are about rampant disease, an infant mortality rate of almost 10% and an average life expectancy of 52 (men) and 55 (women) he also notes that “the greatest beneficiaries of I-Matang aid were the I-Matangs themselves.” On editing a feasibility study about farming on the island, he says, “It must have looked like a sensible thing to do over an espresso in Rome. Of course, how one transports perishable vegetables from an island that lacks electricity and refrigerators was never quite addressed…” When a team of anti-smoking specialists try to educate the I-Kiribati about the tobacco industry’s evil plans: “The moment these sullen but healthy Western people departed [the I-Kiribati] opened up their tins of Irish tobacco and rolled their cigarettes with pandanus leaves and had a good laugh as they began an evening of serious drinking…the 1996 figures on causes of morbidity in Kiribati…included 99,000 cases of influenza…15,000 cases of diarrhea…and 44 new cases of leprosy…no one lived long enough to be mortally embraced by lung cancer or emphysema.”

Another dichotomy is the two faces of life on Kiribati: “[a] visceral form of bipolar disorder. There is the ecstatic high, when you find yourself swept away in a lagoonside maneaba [meeting house] rumbling to the frenzied singing and dancing of hundreds of rapturous islanders. And there are the crushing lows, when you succumb to a listless depression, brought about by the unyielding heat, sporadic sickness, pitiless isolation, food shortages…” For a Westerner used to modern comforts and conveniences, Kiribati is a culture shock, but as Maarten and Sylvia adjust to life on Tarawa, their perspective about necessity and priorities change.  As Sylvia’s contract ends, they consider staying longer. “Once I aspired to be a foreign correspondent for the New York Times,” Troost muses. “Now I aspired to open a coconut with the same panache as the I-Kiribati.”

Lessons not withstanding, Troost isn’t out to make us pick between the simplicity of island life and the complexity of the modern world as much as he is to find comedy in the differences between the two. When he decides that he simply must get a hold of the New Yorker to read about the Monica Lewinsky scandal (“I often found myself approaching other I-Matangs. ‘I’ll trade you my December 1978 Scientific American – it’s about this new thing called computers – for your March 1986 Newsweek’“) the resulting phone call is on par with Peter Sellers’ conversation with the Russian premier in “Dr. Strangelove.” “There are no street names, there’s only one street here,” Troost tries to explain to the befuddled woman in the New Yorker’s international subscriptions department.

As for the literal promise of the title, there’s not much in the way of sex or cannibalism, but “Sex Lives” provides consistent mental stimulation and entertainment nonetheless. It’s the type of book of which I wish Bill Bryson and his ilk would write more: intellectually engaging without being ponderous; dryly humorous without being too arch. No, this book didn’t make me want to vacation in Kiribati any time soon but that’s not Troost’s goal. His goal is to find life, culture and humor in a place that many will go their whole lives without ever realizing exists and he succeeds.

November 10, 2016

#120) What do we tell the children: why Harry Edwards matters

Like many I’m still grappling with my feelings about the presidential election; in my case disappointment that Gary Johnson didn’t reach the threshold of votes necessary to secure federal funding for the Libertarian party (despite having more than three times as many votes as last time) and a sense that America, while justifiably weary of the status quo, has committed to a massive roll of the dice. Also like many, I’ve been staring at my social media feed (note to self: disabling the Facebook app on your cell phone doesn’t have any net effect when you can’t stop looking at the damn thing in your browser) and simultaneously absorbing the interesting insights folks have about our unique situation and the shit show. (I believe there’s a place for both in life.) Several common themes pop up: screen shots of the crashed Canadian immigration website; pictures of Katniss; memes with clever variations on the theme “Orange is the new black” and articles addressing the question, “What do we tell the children?”

Well, if there’s one thing that parents love, it’s getting advice from people without kids, so here goes. What do we tell the children? We tell them about Dr. Harry Edwards. Nearly 30 years ago Edwards made a move that had minimal impact outside of its immediate context but nevertheless provides an example of a way to move forward in these contentious times.

In April of 1987, to mark the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the baseball color barrier, Los Angeles Dodgers vice president Al Campanis, a former teammate of Robinson, was interviewed by Ted Koppel on Nightline. Koppel asked Campanis why there were still so few minorities in upper level positions across baseball. Campanis, then age 70, who by various accounts had recently suffered a stroke and was exhausted from traveling said, “I don’t believe it’s prejudice. I truly believe that they may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager.” A surprised Koppel tried to give Campanis a chance to walk it back, to which Campanis rambled about his former black teammates who were “[O]utstanding athletes, very God-gifted, and they’re wonderful people, and that’s all that I can tell you about them.”

Within 48 hours, Campanis was gone by firing or resignation; sources vary. By the summer, he was back. Campanis’s replacement was African-American sociology professor Harry Edwards, who re-hired Campanis. “We are going to have to deal with the Campanises in baseball and it’s good to have one in-house who knows how they think,” he said. Another Edwards comment has been echoed in analyses of Trump’s campaign. “[Campanis] represents millions of Americans in terms of the views he articulated. We can’t just consign him to the trash can without consigning millions of our fellow citizens to the trash can as well.”

What do Edwards and Campanis have to do with what we tell the children? Depending on the age of the children in question, the message may be articulated differently – never argue with a fool because bystanders might not be able to tell the difference; play nicely with the other kids in the sandbox, even the one who defecates in it – but it still boils down to basically the same thing. Many people will do and say things that will cause you to scratch your head, but avoiding them or pretending they don’t exist is like trying to hide your lousy report card (not that I would know anything about that.) Living in a society where everyone agrees all the time is at best boring, at worst dangerous.

Will Edwards’s reaching across enemy lines be a model? Like everything else with the pending Trump presidency, we’ll just have to wait and see, but at least it’s an idea for one of many things that we can tell the children.

September 18, 2016

#119) Classic at a crossroads: the 20th anniversary of 20 strikeouts (v 2.0)

There wasn’t much reason to attend the Detroit Tigers baseball game on Wednesday, September 18th, 1996. The Tigers had not had a winning season in three years and were currently mired in a 10-game losing streak, a whopping 36 games out of first place in their division. Yet whether it was to catch Alan Trammell in the final days of his illustrious Tigers career, to celebrate making it through “Hump Day” or maybe just due to pure boredom, 8,779 fans showed up to Tiger Stadium that night as their team took the field against the visiting Boston Red Sox.

The Sox season had been disappointing as well. They sputtered into Detroit all but mathematically eliminated from the pennant race, 8 games behind their rivals the New York Yankees, a team led by rookie all-star Derek Jeter and new manager Joe Torre. Pitcher Roger Clemens took the mound for Boston, in danger of posting the second losing season of his career with a record of 9 wins, 11 losses. Clemens was in the final year of his contract. Sox general manager Dan Duquette commented that he hoped to “keep him in Boston during the twilight of his career.” Perhaps some of the fans in attendance wanted a chance to see the 34-year old fastballer before he hung it up, but like Trammell, it would have been hard to watch Clemens without any sense of loss for the glory days. For Sox fans, Clemens’ three Cy Young awards must have seemed forever ago, as was the night just over a decade earlier that he set a major league record by striking out 20 Seattle Mariners.

My 1996 was about as uplifting as those of the Sox and Tigers. I’d just retreated to my parents’ house following a dramatic breakup. One of my best friends had just moved out of town and I’d been downsized from my band, which decided to have the rhythm guitar player take over on bass.  Like the fans in Detroit, I had little else to do that night. The game would distract me for at least a couple of hours so I plopped in front of the TV in the living room where I’d grown up, tuned to NESN and let announcers Bob Kurtz and Jerry Remy do their thing.

Jeff Frye popped up to start the game. The second Sox batter had a long name that I didn’t recognize and didn’t appear on the TV screen long enough for me to figure out how to pronounce. Like most people watching the game, I had no idea that Nomar Garciaparra, a shortstop who’d made his debut three weeks earlier, would become the first Red Sox Rookie of the Year since 1975 the following season. “No-Maah”, as he would soon become known, walked and stole second but was left on base when Jose Canseco grounded out to end the inning. The novelty of seeing the former Sox nemesis in a Boston uniform had long since worn off for me; I almost felt bad for the poor bastard. In Oakland he had been Rookie of the Year and become the first player ever to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same year. Since then his off-field shenanigans seemed to overshadow his play on the diamond, which included injuring himself during an ill-advised pitching stint and letting a fly ball bounce off his head into the stands for a home run.

In the bottom of the first, Trammell gave the fans a taste of the past with a base hit, but it was all for nought as Clemens struck out the next two batters. He struck out the side in the second inning and picked up two more in the third.

In the top of the fourth, Mike Greenwell got a hit and scored a run. “Gator” had been an all-star back in ’88 and ’89, but would play only 77 games in 1996, his last season. He and Clemens were the only veterans of Boston’s 1986 American League champion team still with the club. The Sox posted three runs before No-Maah struck out to end the inning.

Clemens remained strong, striking out five consecutive batters over the next two innings. After allowing a leadoff single in the sixth, he struck out the side, good for an impressive total of 15 as the game headed into the seventh. The hometown fans were starting to applaud each strikeout, the drudgery of the lame-duck season forgotten.

The Sox added an insurance run to make it 4-0 and Clemens picked up two more strikeouts each in the seventh and eighth innings. After Canseco struck out to end the top of the 9th, Kurtz told the TV audience, “Don’t go away, folks.”

I wasn’t going away. It had been a while since a Red Sox game had held me captive like this. I’d been too young to remember anything much of Clemens’ first 20-strikeout game. The last Red Sox no-hitter had happened in 1965. The last Red Sox World Series win…well, the less said about that the better. But tonight, in an otherwise lackluster season, Clemens was knocking on history’s door. I felt a wave of excitement and stood up, shaking myself loose before sitting back down. My recent  break-up and other tribulations suddenly didn’t matter; I had a chance to watch the most notable positive Red Sox moment in recent memory.

Trammell popped up to start the inning, drawing a smattering of boos from the crowd. After allowing a base hit to Ruben Sierra, Clemens got two strikes on Tony Clark but the Detroit batter kept fouling off pitches before finally sending a fly ball to Greenwell, deep in left field. As more boos rained from the stands from fans who now knew that no record would be broken tonight, Remy commented, “Well, it looks like the record is safe.”

I too was disappointed to know that I would not get to watch a record get broken, but at least the game had distracted me for two hours. I still had a chance to see Clemens match his record – a feat that might well be even more impressive and meaningful than the first time he did it.

Clemens, baseball and myself had all grown older. His record-setting game and Cy Young awards had electrified Boston but hadn’t been able to bring the city the one thing it wanted more than anything else. Now Clemens and Boston were a couple together for too long; for the last few years he’d made the news more for running his mouth at umps and reporters than for strikeouts.

Travis Fryman took the first two pitches for balls. Perhaps he was wary of being a part of history. Some of the fans who had been standing sat back down.

We often look back at the past with rose-colored glasses, but in 1996, it was hard not  to feel as if Clemens’ 20-strikeout game of 1986 was an event of a bygone era. The strike of 1994 was still a sore memory for many fans. Pete Rose was now known more for his gambling and tax scandals than for his record-setting career. Players’ salaries were already raising eyebrows in 1986, but by 1996, they had nearly tripled. Baseball’s new playoff format and division re-alignment had met with a response that was mixed at best; traditionalists were also upset about the onset of inter-league play, scheduled to start the following season.

Clemens’ 149th and 150th pitches of the night were strikes, bringing the count to 2-2 and once again sparking the interest of the fans. For the moment, the recent strike, inflated salaries, Clemens’ looming departure from Boston were forgotten. Clemens was one strike away from proving that even in complicated times, the game of baseball still has the power to thrill. No matter how disappointing the season may be, you can still go to the ball park and have a chance to see history. Even when a relationship had run its course, there could still be one last shot at glory. Even when a local hero’s best days seemed long gone, he could still add one last chapter to his legacy.

Clemens got the sign from catcher Bill Haselman. Peering in at Fryman, he set, wound up and delivered one last pitch.