Baseball and literary legend Jim Bouton died today. He was 80. My full story about his life and work can be read over at the baseball site. Now, though, something personal.
I have spent most of my life as something of a square peg in a round hole.
What should I have done with all of those past uneasy fits and what should I do about the present ones?
It's natural for some to simply assess the landscape and do what needs to be done to conform and fit in. I can't do it and never have been able to. There are times I desperately wished I could do that. I often think about how much easier my life would've been if I could've done it. But I simply can't. It's not in me.
By the same token, it's natural for some to rebel. To embrace iconoclasm and nonconformity and to wear those things like a badge of honor. That's not me either. My inability to readily fit in is not a point of pride and lashing out at authority or the establishment is not a part of my DNA, even if its opposite is not either.
I've always been caught in between. I am aware that I have always been different -- aware that I don't fit in well with my surroundings -- and I am proud of those differences. But I have never been able to shake the reluctant realization that I want and need at least some semblance of the approval of others. At least some validation from my peers, however defined. At least some place within the institutions I respect and which I superficially inhabit. This conflict has often caused me to exist in the world I live in uncomfortably, torn between my desire to find peace within it and my inability to simply relax and let peace wash over me, chafing against those constraints.
Despite all of this, I am a man at peace. I'm a happy person. Not because I know how to solve this dilemma -- I certainly don't -- but because I know I am not alone. I know that there are many people who feel this way. I have even had role models who have faced these same dilemmas and managed to triumph. Jim Bouton was one of them. Maybe the greatest among them.
Bouton was a square peg in baseball's round hole. He figured out pretty early that he wasn't much like his peers even if his skills entitled him to a place alongside them. He might've done well for himself if he had managed to put his head down and conform like so many players before him and so many since. He might've pitched in the big leagues until the late 70s or early 80s as a rubber-armed knuckleballer. Or, at the very least, might've latched on as a coach and maybe could've become a manager or a front office executive one day. He was a smart guy. He would've done a good job with it, I bet.
But he simply couldn't. For all that he wrote I don't think he ever really explained why, but my sense is that, like me, it would've simply been impossible and self-denying for him to do so. He had to do what the voice inside his head told him to do, even when it was likely to send him into a bad place. Which, by the way, it did. It caused him to be involuntarily exiled from baseball and to be ostracized by his former teammates and peers. He landed well -- he became a sportscaster and an actor and did all kinds of other interesting things -- but there was no guarantee that would happen. Bouton did what his conscience and is id told him to do, foregoing the easier path that conformity would've offered him.
Yet, at the same time, he was no true rebel. He was no iconoclast and never claimed to be. He didn't want to burn down the game of baseball and walk away as he blew out the match. Even before the fallout, as he was writing "Ball Four," he wrote of his fear and anxiety about not being a part of the game anymore. He worried that he couldn't pitch anymore and openly wondered what and who he was if he could not get major league hitters out and stick with a team. Later, years after the professional success and professional calamity that was occasioned by "Ball Four," he still longed to play baseball. He worked his tail off in the minors and the Mexican League simply to continue to do what he loved, with his most famous written words -- "You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time" -- no doubt echoing in his mind.
And he was successful. His five games with the Atlanta Braves in 1978, eight years after he was more or less drummed out of the game, served as validation for him. He had bristled against baseball's culture of conformity and, as a result was pushed out of the game, but he still needed it and wanted to be a part of it, badly. And he got it.
I was only a teenager when I first read "Ball Four," but something in it beyond its merely enjoyable prose resonated with me, even if I had no idea what it was. When I re-read it in my 30s it hit me harder. I felt a push and pull in my life that I couldn't really describe and I saw something akin to it in Bouton's pages even if I didn't know quite how it all fit together.
Now, on the day he died, it has finally crystalized for me. The battle between Bouton's inability to conform and his inability to truly rebel was not one either side of him was ever going to win and success or failure in his life was never going to be defined by the outcome of that battle. Rather, Bouton was defined by that push and pull. His success in life -- which I believe he achieved in spades, and I hope he died believing it too -- was a function of his finding grace and peace in the midst of it all, knowing that conflict would never be truly resolved.
In this, Bouton provided a sterling example for all of us who find ourselves in that same dilemma. In this, Jim Bouton became the patron saint for those who chafe.
33 and Me: Fallen nobility, losing wars, arbitraging the Black Plague and my further adventures in genealogy
I recently took a dive into genealogy. I blame bourbon and Donald Trump.
If you’ve read my political posts you know I fight the good fight and all of that, but sometimes I just get tired and discouraged. Tired of the direction I see our country heading and discouraged at the realization that there are a great many people who seem OK with that direction. And, in all likelihood, always have been even if I didn’t want to believe it. It’s sobering stuff so, sometimes, the only way to deal with it is to get drunk.
A couple of weeks ago, once again tired and discouraged, I got drunk and asked myself if I had any claim whatsoever to citizenship or permanent residence anywhere but here. Then, before doing a thing about it, I went to sleep. The next morning I was back to wanting to fight the good fight, but it’s always good know if you have an exit, so I decided to run out the ground ball I’d hit the night before. I signed up for a trial account on ancestry.com and began climbing up the tree trunk.
While I waded into some of this before with my mother’s family in service of a good, bloody yarn of murder and insanity, I knew virtually nothing about my father's side of the family until these past couple of weeks. I won’t bore people with a full-on family tree, but here are some fun facts and random observations one finds when one dives into this stuff.
Thirty-three fun facts:
1. I didn’t go too crazy building my family tree out horizontally because that gets really labor intensive really fast. Exponents are no joke. Besides, cousins are mostly bullshit anyway. Sure, we can all trace ourselves back to the same few thousand homo sapiens who survived the last ice age, but you only have to go back a handful of generations until we’re all basically fucking cousins. I’ll leave the bullshit cousins to people who are super into genealogy. Instead I just focused on direct patrilineal and matrilineal lines, figuring they’re a bit more meaningful.
2. While my name is Craig Calcaterra I didn't look too deeply at Calcaterras, either, because I'm not really a Calcaterra for genealogy purposes. My dad was born Richard McIntyre, was adopted and had his name changed by his stepfather, Garfield Calcaterra, when he was in his early teens. I didn’t know any Calcaterras beyond my dad and his sister growing up and, frankly, the name doesn’t have much significance for me beyond its current record-keeping function and the love-hate relationship I have with being extremely Googleable;
3. I took a quick look back at the Calcaterras out of curiosity, of course. Garfield's father was from Milan and his mother was from Austria. They immigrated in the late 1890s, settled in Iron Mountain, Michigan and had a zillion kids (there are a LOT more Calcaterras than you may imagine). One of them, Garfield’s youngest brother, Ralph Calcaterra, ended up being a super successful real estate developer in Palo Alto and Las Vegas and died in his 90s, just a few years ago, a pretty wealthy man. There are Calcaterra Streets in both San Jose and Las Vegas, both of which are named after him. For years friends have sent me photos of themselves in front of the signs and we’ve joked about it. I had no idea until the past couple of weeks, though, that they were named after someone I’m actually related to. Well, sorta related to. Certainly not related to enough to have gotten a piece of that Bay Area real estate scratch, sadly. Which, by the way, is literally the only money that has been in my family for about, oh, the last 300 or 400 years or so. But more about that in a moment.
4. My dad has known he was born a McIntyre for most of his life, but apart from an aunt who sort of floated in and out of his childhood, he didn’t know any of them or anything about them. He assumed the name was Irish. Actually, it’s Scottish. I suspected this because of the spelling but I was able to establish it for certain when I traced the direct male line of McIntyres back to the early 18th century when my sixth-great grandfather, Nicholas McIntyre (1712-63), came over from Islay, Scotland with his wife Margaret and a couple of kids.
5. The McIntyres were part of the Argyll Settlement, which consisted of three boat-loads of families, totaling 400 some-odd people, which settled in what is now Washington County, New York between 1738-1740. The McIntyres arrived on the second boatload, in June of 1739 on a ship called The Happy Return. Lachlan Campbell was the captain. I only know this because there are a whole bunch of Lachlan Campbell descendants who seem to spend a lot of time on ancestry.com. Note: your ability to figure out your family tree without actually doing shoe-leather research in old libraries and government offices is directly proportional to the kind of PR your ancestors gave their ancestors.
6. The Argyll Settlement (sometimes called the Argyle Settlement, which gave the name to the town of Argyle, New York) was kind of a scam, actually. Captain Campbell put it together, getting the King and the Governor of New York to promise families 1,000 acres of Hudson Valley farmland for each adult and 350 acres for each kid. The motivation: respectable Englishmen and their families in Albany and points south kept getting raided by Indians and they wanted some Scottish tomahawk fodder to create a buffer.
Don’t judge, man. People have done worse things to get some land.
Anyway, when the Argyll families got there, guess what? That’s right, no land. They were allowed to settle and farm but they didn’t get title for another 25 years when the Governor of New York finally gave in. The McIntyres got their land — only about 500 acres in all, so they were still kinda ripped off — in 1764 in what is now Fort Edward, New York. They’d spend the next several generations farming that land. For all I know they still are. My third-great grandfather, Nicholas McIntyre (1821-96) went west in the 1840s, however, leaving them to it. I should maybe look and see if I have any cousins still living in Fort Edward. Wait, no, forget that. Like I said: cousins are bullshit. Let’s carry on.
7. I can’t find anything about the first Nicholas McIntyre or his ancestors beyond the fact that he was born in Islay, Scotland around 1712 or so. I can trace his wife Margaret’s family back pretty damn far, though. She was a Patterson, and a direct line of Pattersons go back to my 14th-great grandfather, Thomas, who lived around Edinburgh in the late 1400s. If you trace other various matrilineal lines up through that family you can find your way into Scottish nobility, including the Park Clan (going back to the mid-1400s, also around Edinburgh), the Cockburn Clan (early-1400s) and the Home Clan (late 1300s). The most distant direct ancestor of that line I have found so far is a dude named David Home, 1st Baron of Wedderburn (1382-1453), who is my 18th-great grandfather. His family resided in Wedderburn Castle in Berwickshire, Scotland for quite a few generations. The old one, not the current one. The current one only goes back to the 1770s and is so nouveau riche. Must be embarrassing for the people who have it now, really. They probably have fish knives and stuff, bless their hearts.
8. At least I think that was my 18th-great grandfather’s title and at least I think he lived in Wedderburn Castle. I’m a tad uncertain because one thing I discovered in all of this research is that people who do amateur genealogy seem to enjoy fudging it a bit if it makes their family look better. I couldn’t find any reason to question these particular lines, but some other person on ancestry.com who was looking at another random line to which I am related — some bullshit cousin, I’m sure — tried to tie in some pretty famous Anglican Bishop who was involved in a bit of history with Queen Elizabeth I as a something-something-great-grandfather of ours.
That would’ve been pretty cool! Except it made no logical sense for about 11 reasons that took only about ten seconds to Google.
Among those reasons: as far as I can tell via non-ancestry.com research, that guy had no kids and was never married because, in his heart, he was really still a Catholic priest even if he converted in order to keep from being imprisoned (note: he was imprisoned anyway and died there; do NOT fuck with Queen Elizabeth, man). So, yeah, that seems pretty dubious and is probably the case of a similar name and a bit of aspirational exuberance resulting in a sketchy family tree connection. There’s a phrase in media about stories being “too good to check.” There’s a notion in the law and in law enforcement about cases being a bit too neat. I think that applies to a lot of genealogy stuff too.
That being said, I think what I found out about my family between the 14th and 18th centuries is more or less correct. The specifics are less interesting to me than the patterns, however.
9. One clear pattern: my male ancestors, going back to those old Lords and castle-dwellers, were really good at falling down the social ladder as generations went on. I’m the direct descendant of a lot of third sons of fourth sons who were squeezed out of titles or land holdings in favor of older brothers or their sister’s husbands or by simple bad luck or bad choices. After their downfall they’d drift out on their own, somewhat aimlessly it seems. Thankfully they were, occasionally, lifted back up by good women and their more stable families. My family is still a pretty itinerant bunch, but when they have managed to stop and breathe for 50-70 years it was because a woman slapped some temporary sense and respectability into them. There’s probably a lesson in there someplace.
10. My family also had a really bad habit of picking the wrong side in wars. What follows is a brief survey.
11. One of those Lords of Wedderburn — my 15th-great grandfather — fought and died on the losing side in the Battle of Flooden Field. Thankfully for my sake he did so after having kids. This was offset by another ancestor — some random English nobleman who was one of those third sons of fourth sons — who fought on the winning English side at Flooden Field. We’ll call that one a draw.
12. Those two branches of the family would not meet up again for about 350 years, this time in Indiana of all places, when my great-grandfather — descendant of the dead Scottish guy — married my great-grandmother — descendant of the victorious English guy. Imagine fighting a war for the survival of your name, your clan, your land, and your life, only to have it all end up in some podunk farmer’s wedding in friggin’ Indiana.
13. I can trace my mother’s family, the Kniffens, back to the English village of Kniveton (the name was a bastardization of he village) in Derbyshire. The family became fairly wealthy landowners by — I shit you not — buying up a bunch of dead people’s land after the Black Plague. That was pretty savvy! It also got them granted a title of minor nobility, which just goes to show you how messed up capitalism is, now and then. Or maybe that was feudalism. Whatever.
14. Things went well for the Knivetons/Kniffens for a couple of hundred years and they eventually owned several thousand acres. The rents were pouring in. Again, savvy! What wasn’t so savvy, however, was when my tenth-great grandfather, Sir Andrew Kniveton (d. 1669), began to believe he was an actual knight instead of some landlord with a courtesy title earned over the dead bodies of plague victims and spent WAY too much time and WAY too much money fighting on the Royalist side of the English Civil War. The Royalists lost, of course, and while grandpa Andy didn’t lose his head like Charles I did, he had his title stripped, lost a ton of money and ended up having to sell off almost all of his lands. His son, my ninth-great-grandfather, wisely bolted Oliver Cromwell and England for the New World.
15. The Kniffens were born to lose, it seems, because after about 130 years of some rather prosperous farming in New York and New Jersey they went Royalist again during the Revolutionary War. The king lost again, natch, so they had to flee to Canada in 1781. As I’ve noted in the past, subsequent Kniffens became farmers, roofers, murder victims, truck drivers and such. We get by as best we can.
16. Finally, the whole reason the McIntyres and all the others of the Argyll Settlement left Scotland was because they either took part in or were the children of those who took part in the Jacobite Rebellion in 1715 which — anyone? anyone? — yeah, was a losing cause. As a result, political and economic conditions for people in western Scotland went south, crops failed and a famine hit. By the 1730s there was every reason to leave, so they left.
17. Thankfully, my family got their heads on straight, militarily speaking, after that:
Since then my grandfather, father and brother have all served the U.S. Navy during wartime. We’re due for a traitor, frankly. If I had to wager right now it’s Anna, but time will tell. Carlo has some moxie too, and they both have a strong distrust of authority.
18. After some time as a farmhand, my great-grandfather, William Woodford McIntyre (1881-1960), left Indiana where his people had been for a couple of generations and married the daughter of that Civil War hero. They moved up to Detroit, presumably for a job in an auto plant. He has a passport application from 1917 in which he said he intended to go to England and France to study aircraft manufacturing and design, but I don’t know if he ever went. As it was, the 1920, 1930, and 1940 censuses have him listed as working at a tool and die place. His son, my grandfather, Jim McIntyre (1914-1983), was listed as working at the same tool and die place on the 1940 census. At 25, he was still living at home. That year he met and married Irene Lazar (1916-1978), my grandmother.
19. Speaking of the census, the pre-1950 censuses were amazing. Instead of sampling, they simply went door to door and wrote down the name of every man, woman and child in the place, by hand, including their age, their job if they had one, their income if they cared to share along what languages were spoken in the house. Given current attitudes about privacy — and controversies about whether it’s even legitimate to ask about certain things — it’s insane to even think about the modern census going into that level of detail. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine doing genealogy research without those old censuses because they are a goldmine. Indeed, it’s much easier to find out stuff about a dead great-grandfather than a living uncle because of them.
20. That said, it’s worth asking whether genealogy is really all that important to begin with. At best it’s an exercise in privileged distortion. There are loads of records, going back centuries, for those descended from people from the British Isles or the parts of Continental Europe lucky enough to not have been bombed to bits. If, however, your family came from places that were bombed to bits — or if your ancestors were black, Indigenous, Jewish, Roma or were people who were otherwise systematically enslaved or exterminated by the folks whose records are intact — genealogy is a bit of a different matter. It’s a pretty superfluous bit of business, really. Do people other than whites descended from well-off Europeans do it? I have no idea. All I know is that if your roots go back to bombed-out and/or exterminated and/or enslaved peoples it’s not exactly the kind of thing you can easily track, even if you want to. The people whose histories are well-documented have spent centuries wiping out the histories of those whose are not.
This was evident when I made a brief foray into my paternal grandmother’s side of the family.
21. My great-grandfather, Abraham Lazar (1882-1954), was born in Romania. The town is unknown, as are the names of his parents or siblings. All that is known is that he was Jewish and was coming of age in the 1890s at a time when anti-Semitism was on the rise in Romania, with laws being passed to prevent Jews from attending college, voting and participating in certain trades. It seems likely that, against this backdrop, Abraham’s parents thought it best to get their son out of the country to find a better opportunity elsewhere.
22. And they did. How? I have no real idea. All I know for sure is that he somehow got to England, alone, and then immediately traveled from Liverpool to Montreal on the ship SS Lake Champlain of the Elder Dempster Beaver Line, arriving alone, on August 4, 1900. He eventually got to Grand Rapids, Michigan. I have no idea how. He then met his wife, Dora Sofferin (1886-1970), whose family, also Jewish, came over from Russia and settled in Grand Rapids in the 1890s. They were married in 1903 and eventually moved to Detroit. I recently wrote a bit about Dora’s youngest brother Sammy, but that’s all I really know about that family besides a few basic birth/marriage/death records.
23. Earlier I joked about bullshit cousins. It’s a 100% certainly that, between the Nazis and the Soviets, I have no cousins left in Russia or Romania, bullshit or otherwise.
24. My grandmother Irene married Jim McIntyre in 1940. My dad was born in 1943. Jim and Irene were not a good match — he was a drunk and they both had volatile personalities — and they divorced by late 1948. She married Garfield Calcaterra in early 1949. When you put it all together it was pretty clear that she and Jim had been separated for a long time by then. It’s also clear that she and Garfield had been shacking up for a long time by then too and they were just making it legal once their divorces finally came through.
25. Irene and Garfield raised my dad and his younger sister in Dearborn, Michigan, which at the time was easily one of the most segregated places north of the Mason-Dixon line thanks to both Henry Ford’s virulent racism and antisemitism and thanks to longtime mayor Orville Hubbard, who was George Wallace, North. I’m not sure how an Italian guy with a Jewish wife managed to settle in Dearborn peacefully in those days, but it probably had at least something to do with Garfield Calcaterra being, well, as crooked as hell.
26. Garfield owned a taxicab company, Lorraine Cab. My dad remembers a lot of shady business around all of that. He told me once that, at Christmastime, police would show up at the house, one after another, and Garfield would give them a free ham. He kept the hams in the trunk of one of his cabs. There are about ten things wrong with that, the least of which is that no one seems to know where the hell the hams came from, but I choose to let it remain a vague, unexamined, grifty mystery. It’s also worth noting that my grandmother did the bookkeeping for the cab company, it was an all cash business and my dad remembers there being piles of bills stacked on the kitchen table every day. That may not have been as sketchy as my great-whatever grandfather arbitraging the Black Plague, but it’s certainly a hell of a thing.
27. Garfield Calcaterra died unexpectedly in 1965 so, obviously, I never met him. Then things got weird.
28. Garfield was only 58 when he died. My dad was already in the Navy, His little sister was close to graduating high school. My grandmother, not even 50 yet, did not deal with it well. I don't know her exact diagnosis, but she, in layman's terms, went crazy. Catatonic. Stopped responding to the world. Needed to be taken care of by her sisters and her daughter. It was really, really bad. In my family people referred to it as "her trip to Europe." If ever something came up from the mid-60s through the early 70s and she didn't remember she’d say "oh that must've been when I was in Europe” or someone else would say “you missed that, Irene, that’s when you were on your trip to Europe.” I'm told that she snapped out of it when my brother was born in 1971. Having a grandchild helped I guess.
29. In the meantime, Jim McIntyre moved to Kansas City, where an older brother lived. He sobered up. He went back to work as a draftsman, which had been his trade before he hit the bottle. He was living a clean but spartan life in a small apartment. A few years ago I found photos of my grandmother and Jim McIntyre in his apartment in the mid-70s. They had reconnected. Both damaged as hell but both having found a bit of light on the other side. The pictures are sad. Haunting, even. But sweet. They were in their 60s, but they seem like children.
30. My grandmother died of cancer in 1978. She was only 62. I have only vague memories of her. I wish I could have talked to her when I was old enough to do so. I wish I could’ve learned how she dealt with what she dealt with and not only came out on the other side of it but found both grace and room for forgiveness. There’s so little of that in the world. They’re the hardest things to grasp and to give.
31. Jim McIntyre died in 1983. My dad never reconnected with him and never seemed to have an interest in doing so. I never met him. My mother, somehow, and for some reason, made a few trips to Kansas City to help take care of him before he died. She has some observations and we got some of his few belongings when he died, but he remains more of a set of genealogy records than anything else to me. Oh, and one photo that my grandmother took when she was visiting him in 1976:
Add a few decades, a few pounds and a little more hair and I suppose that’s me, right down to the eyeglasses. I’m not sure what to think about that.
I’m not sure what to think about any of this, frankly.
32. My dad was brought up without his biological father around. My mom grew up without her mother in the picture. My brother is adopted and had no connection to his biological parents until he was in his 30s. I’m the only person in my family who grew up with both of his actual parents. None of that seemed to matter to any of us one way or the other.
33. I know that, unlike a lot of people who dig into their family's past, I got no feeling of connection or identity discovering any of the dozen and a half generations of relatives I uncovered. I found things to joke about and riff on and a few things that were interesting, intellectually speaking, but they still all seem like abstractions to me. Characters in stories more than family of any kind. I only began to feel some things when I got to the people I either knew or at least who knew people I know. Connections that mattered to people I care about and had some sort of influence, even if only tangentially, in my life.
Blood never mattered much to my own, immediate family. It doesn’t seem to matter all that much when applied across the generations either. Relationships matter. That’s probably all that matters, really. That's all we have. The rest is just . . . documents.
Sammy Sofferin started selling cigars on Detroit street corners when he was a teenager. He was the youngest of five children and was still living at home with his widowed mother. By 1920 the then-21-year-old had parlayed his cigar money into owning, and living in, a flophouse on Henry Street with a couple dozen tenants.
By the mid-20s Sammy was the proprietor of the Powhatan Club, one of the most famous -- and notorious -- speakeasies and gambling joints in town. Around this time he bought a house in Dexter-Linwood, the upper-middle class Jewish neighborhood on Detroit's northwest side. Sammy was moving up in the world.
By the mid-30s Sammy and his growing family lived in a large mock Tudor on Wildmere Street, two blocks from the exclusive Detroit Golf Club which, then as now, was a center of power in the city. It was an interesting choice, as Sammy would almost certainly have been denied membership because he was Jewish -- Sammy was a member of Knollwood, a Jewish country club in West Bloomfield -- but it spoke to his ambition.
His true arrival came in 1940. That was the year he opened "Sammy Sofferin's Wonder Bar and Indian Room" on the ground floor of the Book Tower on tony Washington Blvd. It was an immediate hit. It, and Sammy, quickly became Detroit institutions.
A typical evening out at the Wonder Bar would start with strong cocktails followed by brandy-spiked turtle soup or "shrimp a la Powhatan," which was bread shaped like a pyramid onto which fried shrimp, chicken livers, anchovies and scallops were attached with frog legs arranged around the base. Beef was always the centerpiece of dinner, with reviews of the 1940s focusing on "roast beef so tender and juicy it melts on the tongue," prepared "so pinkly rare, sliced nearly half an inch thick, swimming in its own rich brown juice." Later steaks moved to the fore, with the Wonder Bar credited as the first restaurant to introduce New York strips to Detroit.
Entertainment was also on the menu. One night you might be treated to the jazz stylings of Lee Walters. On another it might be Pedro DeLeon's samba quartet or "Spanish blues singer" Linda Garcia. Or maybe you'd be lucky enough to visit the Wonder Bar on a night "Latin troupe extraordinaire," the La Playa Dancers, led by "the exotically beautiful Grace Conrad" were on hand. On more tame nights you might get something a bit more standard from Charles Costello and his orchestra. Still, you could dance to it.
Sammy's track record with the Powhatan Club and his connections with lawyers, judges and business leaders around town ensured success for the Wonder Bar, but its location across the street from the Book-Cadillac Hotel gave it an added boost. Visiting entertainers and athletes were regular fixtures. So too were criminals. Prominent members of the Jewish underworld patronized the Wonder Bar for both business and pleasure. The mobster Moe Dalitz took meetings in the exclusive Indian Room. He met his second wife in the cocktail lounge where he was a regular.
Between Sammy's history with gambling and speakeasies, the nature of his business, the nature of his clientele, and the fact that he was, quite clearly, a lifelong hustler, it's hard to imagine that Sammy wasn't, at the very least, on extremely friendly terms with organized crime. Indeed, it'd be hard to imagine how he'd be allowed to run the Powhatan Club in an era when the Purple Gang controlled the liquor and gambling trade in Detroit without being on very good terms with them.
When Sammy died in 1969, two years after retiring and selling the Wonder Bar, the Detroit Free Press' obituary nodded at all of that but didn't quite make it explicit. Probably because they didn't have to.
So that's my uncle Sammy. Who, for as much fun as that all was to write, may as well be a total stranger to me.
As I mentioned when I wrote about my murderous great-great grandmother a couple of years ago, my extended family is a total black hole to me. I didn't know any of that stuff about her when I did that research and I didn't know anything about Sammy Sofferin this time last week. All of the information included in this piece came from looking at census records, telephone listings, real estate records, some newspaper clippings, restaurant reviews and other assorted documents I dug into after impulsively signing up for a trial account on Ancestry.com last Sunday afternoon. It certainly wasn't well-known family folklore of any kind. At least among anyone who is still alive.
I'm not sure why I signed up for the Ancestry account as I'm actually not all that interested in genealogy for its own sake. Oh, sure, I've found out a lot of stuff about what ship my sixth-great grandpa McIntyre came over on from Scotland in 1739 and what castle my 10th great-grandpa Kniveton lost in Derbyshire after he chose the wrong side in the English Civil War, but that's not super important to anything that matters in my life or the world. We are what we do and what we experience, not what someone who shared genetic material with us 300 or 400 years ago did. Even if it was, my mom, dad and my brother were all raised by at least one adoptive parent, so I'm a very strong proponent of family being about relationships over blood and nurture trumping nature.
Still, it's amazing how much information is out there if you simply look for it. Or, rather, if you take Daryl Zero's advice at the top of this article and don't look for any specific thing and just see what appears before you. Indeed, in some ways I like finding out about my family's history this way. If I had grown up around these people -- or around the people who knew them -- it probably wouldn't be so fascinating to me.
Family stories have a way of insisting upon themselves and their own narratives in ways that make it difficult to question what you hear. If you've been told your grandma was 1/8 Cherokee for your entire life you're probably not very likely to easily accept the fact that, nah, actually she's not. It's too much a part of your family's folklore. The same might happen if I had heard stories about my great-great uncle Sammy from some grandparent or second cousin. I'd have some opinions about it all based on their opinions about it and all of it would be filtered through some storytelling and unreliable narration.
As it is now, though, I can kind of take this all in with fresh eyes and no expectations. I can think of Sammy as just some person who seems to have led a pretty damn fun and interesting life and not some family member from whom I feel obliged to glean some meaning or significance. Or, as I suspect happens more often with people who are super into genealogy, I won't feel obliged to project favorable or admirable things onto him and hope it reflects well on me.
Families are just people. Some of them are murderers. Some of them are gangsters or, at the very least, friends of gangsters. It's a lot more fun to find that kind of thing out yourself than it is to hear some sanitized or exaggerated stories about them that colors your impressions.
Not that it's all facts and data to me. I mean, now that I know all this stuff, I'm probably gonna fantasize a good deal about going back in time -- let's say 1949? -- to order some strong cocktails and eat some Shrimp-a-la-Powhatan at the Wonder Bar. And yes, in my fantasy, I get a table up close to the exotically beautiful Grace Conrad and I get it all on the family discount.
I haven't lived in West Virginia for a long time, but if you ask me today I still say that's where I'm from. It's the place that, more than anywhere else, made me who I am and helped me figure out what I cared about.
West Virginia has long been the poster child for states which are hurting or backward or down on their luck. There are some heavy stereotypes which come with all of that -- and there's a lot of misleading broad-brush painting when even the most sympathetic folks talk about its nature and its plight -- but there's a lot of truth too. I love my home state, but I also hurt when I see how much it and its people hurt. I want better for West Virginia.
Last night I met someone who wants better for it too. He's the first person who's come along in a long, long time who seems to understand how to make things better too. His name is Stephen Smith and he's running for governor in the 2020 election.
Smith is running hard now, early, because he has to. He has to because he's decidedly not the hand-picked choice of the Democratic Party establishment to take on incumbent Republican Jim Justice. When you listen to him speak, as I did last night, you quickly understand why.
Smith's aim is not merely to put an end to Republican rule in West Virginia. It's to end more than a century's worth of exploitation of West Virginia's people, its wealth and its resources at the hands of wealthy, largely outside-the-state interests. Businessmen, landowners and extractive businesses who have treated West Virginia as their personal piggybank but who have no stakes in its people, its future or its prosperity. It's a system of exploitation that was just as prevalent during the 80 years when the Democratic Party dominated state politics as it has been under the relatively recent phenomenon of Republican dominance. Its a system that the current Democratic establishment, led by former governor and current U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, has shown no interest in fighting.
Smith's argument is that West Virginia's problems are not a function of Democrats vs. Republicans. Not a matter of the left vs. the right. Rather, "it's the good old boys versus the rest of us." Smith says to, "find the West Virginians who are working the hardest and hurting most -- that's whose side we're on." That side is not one anyone in power or most of the people seeking to take power in West Virginia have cared too much about, historically. As such, when you're aligned against both the Republican and the Democratic establishment as Smith is, you have a tough fight on your hands. They're backed by powerful, wealthy forces.
Smith, however, has some things working for him.
Chief among them is organization. Smith has spent 20 years as a community organizer, running the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. Such work is not done from an office in Charleston. Most of it is done on a hyper-local level. It's the sort of work that lends itself to local organization and such organization has been the core element of his campaign.
Already, more than a year-and-a-half before the 2020 election, Smith has recruited campaign captains in each of West Virginia's 55 counties and has recruited 41 down-ballot candidates at the local and county levels to help spread his message. By the end of May he expects to have visited every single county in the state. That early work has already led to a network of volunteers and donors that, in numbers, are several times larger than his closest competitors. In a state where candidates tend to rely on a few TV commercials, a few mailers and the belief that West Virginians will simply do what they're told by the people in power, Smith's campaign has a remarkably uncommon energy that is sure to work to its advantage. West Virginians are hungry for candidates who will listen to them and talk to them rather than talk at them, patronize them and take them for granted.
The message, obviously, is just as important as the organization.
Smith is not afraid to speak frankly about class. About race. About people taking that to which they are entitled as citizens as opposed to politely asking those who have taken so much from them already to kindly give a little back if they can be bothered to do so.
His campaign appearance last night began with a video referencing the Battle of Blair Mountain in which striking miners took up arms against coal companies, bought-and-paid for sheriffs, strikebreakers and their hired guns. He talks about how he worked personally to help aid striking teachers during the 2018 work stoppage who, like the miners at Blair Mountain, wore red bandanas when they marched (he handed out red bandanas to people in attendance last night). He notes that some of those miners and some of those teachers were Democrats, some Republicans, some independents and some apolitical. He notes that the miners who took up arms and the teachers who hit the picket line were white and black. He notes that the majority of striking teachers were women. The common thread was that the wealthy and powerful will do anything they can to divide and exploit those who are less powerful, but that when the less powerful band together they can take back what is rightfully theirs.
Smith minces no words when he says how to do that:
All of these are things which make perfect logical sense but which, for whatever reason, political candidates are afraid to say out loud. Probably because they get most of their support from the wealthy interests who have taken for so long and stand to lose when the people stand up and fight for themselves. Or because they are simply afraid to fight those interests.
I'm a politically outspoken person. Anyone who reads this site knows that. I'm not, however, a person who has worked for campaigns, donated in any great amount to campaigns or who has spent much time advocating for a specific candidate. That's probably because I care deeply about a certain set of ideas and values and, in my lifetime, it has been extraordinarily rare to find candidates who share those ideas and values in more than the most temporary or tangential of ways.
That has changed with respect to the 2020 West Virginia gubernatorial race. I am supporting Stephen Smith, both with my time, my effort and my money. I'd ask that, if you share these ideas and values, that you consider supporting him too. I'd ask that you do that whether or not you're from or whether or not you live in West Virginia. I ask that because if Smith's organizational model, his energy and his message can win the day in West Virginia, it'll be proof that they can win anywhere.
And God knows we need more of that everywhere.
Learn more about Stephen Smith here. Help join the fight here. Help fund the fight with a donation here.
I just read that they're going to shoot most of the "Hillbilly Elegy" movie in Georgia, not Ohio because Georgia has tax credits for production. I know that's not J.D. Vance's decision or anything, but I find it amusing that the movie about a guy who got famous for a book in which he argued that people need to take responsibility for their lot in life and how they should not expect handouts is chasing government subsidies. The only way this could be more delicious would be if Vance cited the lack of Ohio tax credits as poor people's fault.
Still, this is pretty on-brand. I mean, Vance's book was all about enriching himself by leveraging a people and a place of which he is a not a part, so using Georgia taxpayers for this Ohio-set movie in about a guy who wants people to think he's from Kentucky is only right. I'm not sure how the dissonance between the whole taxpayer subsidy thing and his by-your-own-bootstraps ethos will be resolved, but I'm sure he'll make an effort to do so in some glib New York Times editorial soon.
If you're wondering why I'm so cranky about this, you can go back and read the stuff I wrote about Vance and his book in the past. It'll explain it all:
The short version: while Vance had a genuinely rough upbringing and talks about it in frank and often affecting terms in his book, he is far more interested in using his experience as a vehicle with which to advance a conservative political agenda which blames the poor for their own struggles. His doing so found an eager audience on both the right and the left, with conservatives citing his personal success as evidence of the efficacy of their blame-the-poor ethos while liberals nodded along with him, not questioning his portrayal of the rural poor because his version helped assuage their guilt and gave them license to continue to look away. It's pretty odious all around.
If you want two better books about what it means to live in Appalachia and which explains the actual, not imagined, struggles Appalachian people face, I'd ask you to go read Elizabeth Catte's "What you are getting wrong about Appalachia" and Brian Alexander's "Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town."
They won't make fancy movies starring Amy Adams out of those books, but they have the benefit of containing actual information.
The website I write for a living -- HardballTalk at NBC Sports -- is ten years old today.
The longest I ever held any other job was five and a half years. I only practiced law, in total, for eleven years.
Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.
. . . it points to something much more frightening — that love itself exists outside the framework of justice. There is no court at which to plead your case, no authority who can grant you recompense.
Over three years ago I wrote an essay about how environmental calamities that have hit the places where I grew up -- Flint, Michigan, Parkersburg, West Virginia and Southern West Virginia -- were not mere accidents. They occurred because those with wealth and power consider the lives of poor people in poor places like that to be cheap by design.
I ended the essay by noting that such has always been the case and that, in all likelihood, it always will be the case. It will happen again and again because politicians simply don't care about the people who live there and the general public, for the most part, cannot be bothered to care.
This morning I woke up to see this:
I've lived long enough and I know enough history to know that our system is frightfully efficient at crushing both hope and the hopeful. I know that powerful forces will align in an effort to thwart anyone who dares push back against the power and the priorities of the wealthy. I know that a handful of progressive politicians and activists are, at present, no match for both the machinery of corporate America and the apathy of most Americans.
But seeing a politician actually say things like this out loud is unbelievably inspiring. Every bit as inspiring as it is shocking.
A couple of years ago I wrote about my seven favorite movies in this space. Number one on that list was "The Conversation." It's still number one. I'm having a hard time imagining it will ever not be number one.
It's not a movie that, when you finish it, you say "ah, that was fun." It's not at all uplifting and there's very little action in it. Many people find it boring. I understand that. I don't blame those who don't like it for "not getting it" or whatever. Slow burns and character sketches are not for everyone. Most people watch movies to enjoy themselves and be entertained. They should, too. That's kind of the point of a movie, even if I like to torture myself with bleak, contemplative stuff like this on occasion.
Its lack of action and lack of feel-good appeal notwithstanding, aesthetically it's just a beautifully-shot and perfectly-acted movie. There isn't an ounce of fat on it. Gene Hackman is, if not my favorite actor of all time, in my top three, and this is his greatest role. And, as you can tell by our shared taste in eyewear, I like Harry Caul's personal style.
More deeply, I identify with its themes.
I've spent a lot of time in my life trying to find the right balance between observing the world with objective detachment and actively participating in it. When I was a lawyer I'd often find myself keeping myself too far removed from my clients when I found them or their interests objectionable or getting too close to them, sometimes losing my objectivity, when I did not. Since I've become a writer -- working at home, not interacting with many people in person on a daily basis -- I've felt like more of a voyeur than a participant in the world on occasion, with a tendency to disengage. This tendency is far more pronounced when I'm under stress or when I'm unhappy. It's not a good quality, and it's something I've worked hard to notice and head off when I slip into it, but I'll likely always have to work on it. To not become a low-tech version of Harry Caul, letting life simply happen to him. Either not caring to participate in the business of living beyond watching others do it or not knowing how to participate in it until it's too late.
I write all of this today because a friend of mine just pointed out a great interview of Francis Ford Coppola -- conducted by Brian DePalma of all people -- about the making of "The Conversation." It's from 1974, just as the movie was being released in theaters, so there is none of that reverent, "talk about your classic movie" stuff. You can tell Coppola knew he had a good movie on his hands -- it was nominated for Best Picture several months later, in a year that was stacked with amazing films -- but he freely talks about its flaws too, in a way I bet he wouldn't now if you asked him. It's also interesting because (a) there's an exchange in there in which I suspect DePalma got the seed for making the excellent "Blow Out" seven years later; and (b) based on stuff he says about his movie making style, you can see the hell Coppola would go through making "Apocalypse Now" a few years later coming straight down Market Street.
There are a lot of great technical details in the interview too. How Coppola went about filming the opening segment in the park, the choice of lenses to give it that voyeuristic feel and all of that. I've read a lot about that stuff before, but there's a new bit in there I hadn't read about the sound editing which kind of blew my mind. There are a lot of jarring transitions from loud to quiet in the movie and I used to think it was just because it was poorly mixed like a lot of 1970s movies are, but Coppola talks about how that was intentional and explains, quite satisfyingly, why that is so. It's one of those things that makes perfect sense and which I'm somewhat embarrassed I didn't think about while watching it, oh, 10 times.
It's been a year or two since I last watched it. After reading this interview, I'm going to have to make it 11 soon.
A couple of Twitter friends recently told me about how, as a fun exercise, they identified the number one song on the Billboard charts on their birthday for every year they were alive. It sounded like a fun idea.
And it was a fun idea until I remembered that I'm older than them it takes me a lot more time to do this sort of thing. Which is fine. I got a lot of time. It's what I have most of, actually. So let's do this thing.
Per the Billboard Hot 100 chart archive, here is the number one song on July 14 of every year since I was born, along with a thought or two about each song or, short of that, a tangential thought or two each song inspired in my too-much-time-on-its-hands brain:
1973: "Will It Go Round In Circles" -- Billy Preston: Preston is one of many who has been called "The Fifth Beatle." In related news, just before this one took the top spot, a George Harrison song and then a Paul McCartney Song hit number 1, so he was the third "Beatle" to have a hit that summer. Note: I do not think he was the fifth Beatle. That was Clarence Walker.
1974: "Rock Your Baby" -- George McCrae: The second of three "rock" songs to hit number 1 in 1974, along with "Rock the Boat" by The Hues Corporation and "Rock me Gently" by Andy Kim. This one was the best of the three. In other news, I was baptized on my first birthday, so this is a fairly appropriate song.
1975: "Love Will Keep Us Together" -- Captain & Tennille: They actually divorced eventually, so this song was a lie.
Last year I wrote a long true crime story that hit close to home. Like, really close to home: my great-great grandmother killed my great-great grandfather with an axe one snowy December morning in Detroit back in 1910. You'll be happy to know that she did this after my great-grandfather was born, thus allowing me to exist. Thanks for holding off on that, Nellie. I owe you one.
I had published all of this as a short ebook on Amazon and many of you bought it. Thanks for that! It's been out a while now, so I figured it was worth publishing the whole thing for free here, so here it is, in all of its dysfunctional family glory. Feel free to share it with family members who annoy you. It will really creep them out and, I suspect, treat you more kindly in the future.
If you paid $2.99 for the ebook and feel ripped off now that it's free, well, sorry. I'll make you a deal though: if someone important and powerful reads it and decides to option it for a Netflix movie or something fun like that, I'll invite you to the screening and/or buy you a beer at some point.
Two weeks ago I wrote a story about the history of the namesake for the University of North Carolina's football stadium. The upshot: in 1898, William Rand Kenan Sr. -- for whom Kenan Memorial Stadium is named -- led a white supremacist paramilitary force which rode through Wilmington, North Carolina on a horse-drawn wagon, massacring dozens and possibly hundreds of black citizens with a machine gun. The aim: to commit a coup d’etat overthrowing the local government, led by blacks and their white Republican allies.
My aim in writing that story was to bring to light a dark chapter of American history the specifics of which had been long-buried, but the reverberations of which have lived on for 120 years. History has whitewashed the Wilmington Massacre itself, but a direct result of the massacre was full and thorough ushering in of the Jim Crow era, the effects of which are still felt socially and economically to this day. What's more, many of those responsible for Wilmington -- while having their crimes either excused or forgotten -- went on to fame, fortune, greatness and, in the case of Kenan, were immortalized in monuments to their memory.
When I wrote that story, I hoped that it would start a conversation that might lead to a greater awareness of just how much of modern American society rests on a foundation created by slaveowners and white supremacists. I hoped that, eventually, someone might ask whether or not a giant college football stadium, for example, should stand as a memorial to a guy like William Rand Kenan Sr.
I didn't think, however, that the conversation would last only two weeks:
UNC-Chapel Hill will change the name on a plaque at Kenan Memorial Stadium to distance the university from William Rand Kenan Sr., who was involved in the Wilmington racial violence of 1898. The plaque on the stadium will be altered to honor William Rand Kenan Jr., Kenan Sr.’s son . . .
While it's being couched as merely changing the plaque, the fact is that the place is "Memorial" stadium, with said memorial being the plaque. If you change who is being memorialized I think it's fair to say that, technically speaking, you are changing the name of the stadium. Or certainly the purpose of its name.
I likewise think that while changing the memorial to Kenan's son is something of a cute move by the university -- no new signs or letterhead or anything else needs to be ordered -- it is, in this case, significant enough.
As the university's chancellor noted in her official statement on the matter, the son -- William Rand Kenan Jr. -- is a far more important figure for the university. His multi-million dollar bequest to the university in the 1960s led to a $300 million+ foundation that continues to benefit the university in countless ways. While some of his money was, in fact, family money inherited from the Kenan's slave owning past, it was only a small fraction of it, earned at least a couple of generations before him. He built the vast majority of it through his work as an industrialist and inherited a great deal more through his sister who had married the oil man Henry Flagler who predeceased her.
To be sure, the slave holding past of the Kenans is significant and should be noted by the university (efforts are being made to do this) and, as I wrote in my story, Kenan Jr., like so many men of his time, chose to overlook and minimize what happened in Wilmington specifically and in America at large. They should not be absolved of that. It's the case, however, that Kenan Jr. was born after the Civil War, was not involved in Wilmington and does not have any documented history of active participation in white supremacist organizations, white supremacist history or white supremacist acts. Yeah, I realize that's a pretty low bar when it comes to memorializing someone, but in light of that and in light of his undeniable impact on the university during his lifetime and in the decades since his death, it does not strike me as inappropriate to memorialize him if UNC thinks it appropriate. Especially given that the alternative would be either keeping the current monument to a murderer or mounting a long and 100% certain-to-fail challenge to get any reference to the Kenans removed from the stadium.
Being satisfied with the move from Kenan Sr. to Kenan Jr. is not just a matter of pragmatism, however. I think there's a benefit to be had in doing it this way.
As a result of the removal of the current monument and the stadium's re-dedication, the university is committing to working with UNC's "history task force," which is charged with contextualizing the university's past. If they were to simply change the name of the place to "Tar Heel Stadium" it'd be pretty easy to paper over the Kenans and their history and pretend it never happened. By changing it to William Rand Kenan Jr., one holds out hope that there will be a bit more room, in the new memorial, to explain both his history and the history of the stadium's name change. That's what "contextualization" is, after all. William Rand Kenan Sr.'s actions in Wilmington were completely and utterly unknown by almost everyone before now. By keeping it Kenan, it'll be a lot harder to bury that uncomfortable history.
And that should make everyone happy, right? So many people who dislike the revisiting of our country's slave-owning and white supremacist past decry that to do so is to "erase" history. They should be pleased then, because this does the exact opposite. It brings history that had been intentionally obscured by darkness back into the light.
Good job, UNC. You have a long way to go to fully contend with your past, but at least in this instance you got it right.
I came from a couple of small and disadvantaged towns that did not have some prefabricated assembly line of future leaders. The people who came from those places and who did, in fact, accomplish things did so because they sought to transcend geography or race or socio-economic status or family history. They had to. They needed to break the mold of their surroundings or their ancestry in order to do good things in life because falling into the common expectations and routines of their environment meant doing less than they aspired to do.
Later, when I went to college and especially when I went to law school, I began to encounter Brett Kavanaugh types. The ones I met were angrier and jerkier than most because George Washington was their safety school and they were disappointing dad by not getting into Yale, but they were of that mold. A lot of them, actually, came from Bethesda and prep-school-laden suburbs like them.
I never heard of Brett Kavanaugh until recently, but I've spent my entire adult life thinking about guys like him. The ones for whom trying to transcend anything would be bad for them rather than good, because everything had been set up for them to succeed and they had better not fuck that up.
Most of them did succeed, of course, but almost all of them are boring, average and pathetic people, no matter their station, wealth or power. Pathetic because they never had to do a damn thing. Because they never once, in their entire lives, had to dream or to work particularly hard. Because they did not, in fact, ever consider the possibility of doing so.
Over at Jacobin today, Megan Day writes about Brett Kavanaugh, men like him and their sheer, mediocre banality. In doing so, she puts her finger directly on that which I've been feeling about guys like him my entire life. It's a feeling that is often claimed by others to be envy, but it's anything but. I feel sorry for these men. I feel sorry for those who have been handed everything in life and, thus, appreciate nothing.
I feel sorry for men who never stop to think of how far they have come because, really, they never went anywhere.
My daughter texted me from school today. She was in her freshman humanities class which is basically an English/social studies mashup. Anna texts me from school a lot. When she does so it's usually the best part of my day. Today, like most days, it was because she wanted to share something funny with me.
Today, however, my credentials and I were the butt of the joke:
Anna later explained that her teacher was not talking about me, my political science degree and my sports writing career specifically. Rather, she was just making a point about how, when you read something, you should be critical of the writer, who he or she is and what his or her background is. Today they happened to be discussing an article about the value of a liberal arts education and the teacher approvingly noted that its author had a history degree so, obviously, he knew what he was talking about. The crack about the political science degree-possessing sports writer was an imaginary horrible meant to portray a true ignoramus.
I won't lie: I was less than pleased about all of this. Not because I thought of it as some sort of personal attack, as I have never met her teacher and she doesn't know a thing about me or my career. And not because of the underlying lesson, as I agree it is vitally important to assess and be critical of one's information sources. Rather, I was pissed about how superficial a notion it is to look at a person's formal education to assess a person's credibility.
I've gone at length about my unconventional career path, but I'm not the only person doing something radically different than their college transcript might suggest they'd one day do. My father grew up working on cars at his father's taxi cab company and wanted to work on jet engines one day but, due to a typographical error by the United States Navy, wound up in meteorology school and spent the next 40 years as a weather man. Anna's mother has a degree in French but has spent the past 23 years working in the office furniture business. My best friend from college has an M.A. in history but has nonetheless spent most of the past 20 years working at technology companies in Silicon Valley. I'm sure all of us know many people who have careers that are completely unrelated to whatever it was they studied in college and who can speak as authorities on those topics regardless of what they happened to major in back in the day.
My displeasure with what I heard today was not, however, simply about a teacher who does not seem to appreciate that career paths are often crooked. It's about her seeming not to appreciate the value of a crooked career path in and of itself.
I am not exactly a typical or a popular figure in the baseball writing world. When I began this job a decade ago it was pretty unusual for a large media company like NBC to give someone with no journalism experience the kind of platform I have. One used to pay their dues for years, serving time as an agate guy, a high school football stringer, a backup beat writer and then, maybe, if everything broke right, they could be a columnist, which is roughly equivalent to what I do. I jumped the line. I had never been part of the baseball writing fraternity. What's more, my writing tends to skew pretty sharp and critical and includes a lot of media criticism as well so, while I have made many friends in the business over the years, I'm still not welcome in the club. If my credentials had been in order -- if I had gone to journalism school and if I had written game stories for the Des Moines Register or the Sacramento Bee -- I'd likely be invited to more meetings and parties.
But I'd probably also not have this job.
NBC was late to the online sports game and, when they launched my website, they wanted to make up for lost time. They did so not by aping what everyone else had done ten years earlier, but by making some noise. They hired a lawyer to be their football writer and, with that precedent set, hired one to be their baseball writer too. Our lack of a journalism background and our willingness to say and do whatever the hell we wanted to was a feature, not a bug, and nearly a decade later it's still working pretty well. It's working well, I'd argue, precisely because neither Mike Florio nor I approach our job like someone who went to J-school would and because, as such, we give readers something they can't get anywhere else. Our lack of traditional qualifications for our job were strengths, not weaknesses. NBC's hiring people with unconventional resumes helped them solve a problem they likely could not have solved (i.e. catching up with their competitors quickly) if they had done the conventional thing.
A couple of lawyers with liberal arts backgrounds are not alone in that, of course. There are a lot of people who contribute to society in ways far more important than writing about sports despite the fact that they are not doing what they had set out to do back in college. There are companies being run by people without business degrees, artists who never went to art school, musicians who never had lessons, and tons and tons of people making a difference in the world despite the fact that they simply fell into jobs adjacent to -- or often not adjacent to -- the disciplines they initially set out to pursue.
That's true even of the guy who wrote the article about the value of a liberal arts education they were discussing in my daughter's class today. The guy who was deemed OK by Anna's teacher because he had a history degree. His name is David Brooks. He's a columnist for the New York Times who didn't spend a day in journalism school and who hasn't spent a minute pursuing the academic study of history since he graduated from the University of Chicago 35 years ago.
There's probably a lesson in there someplace. If Anna doesn't learn it at school, I'll make a point to talk to her about it separately. I think I can do it too, despite the fact that I didn't study education.
I took my kids to Cleveland for the Orioles-Indians game on Friday night. They’re not really big baseball fans, but they like going to games. Partially because it’s fun and there’s junk food, but mostly because it provides them a new venue for the sort of savage and absurdist commentary for which Gen-Z kids are quickly becoming famous.
I’ve watched this from a front row seat for a couple of years now. Anyone who follows me on Twitter is familiar with how brutally my daughter Anna, 14, owns me via text messages (and some old timers around here may remember her greatest hits from WAY back in the day). Others who follow me know how deeply into absurdist and envelope-pushing meme culture my son, Carlo, 13, happens to be. Every day is a new, eye-opening adventure. I’m impressed by the level of savagery they’re capable of in their early teens and terrified at what they’re going to capable of once they reach adulthood.
I’m likewise suffering from no small amount of whiplash. I mean, I once thought my fellow Gen-Xers and I had perfected ironic emotional detachment and that whole “whatever, nothing matters anyway” stance. I also thought that a decade’s worth of Millennials restoring an earnestness and emotional honesty to the lexicon of our nation’s youth — the likes of which we haven’t seen for probably 60 or 70 years — had all but buried that jaded sentiment once and for all.
Nope. The Gen-Z kids are going to stomp on the Millennials’ throats and pour acid all over their hopes, dreams and pretensions of an earnest and hopeful world. Then they’ll laugh mockingly at the Gen-Xers as we’re exposed for the amateurs that we are, and will rhetorically kill us, like some warrior coming back to vanquish their sensei. The only saving grace is that whatever Boomers are still left as this happens will just die of shock and outrage. Gen-Z will not be attending their funerals either unless they need some pics of dead grandpa for a devastating meme or two (Carlo has already told my father that he’s going to meme him once he passes away; my father does not quite know what to make of that, mostly because he’s 74 and does not know what a meme is).
Anyway, I’ve blocked out most of what they had to say during the game as a means of psychological self-defense, but trust me when I say that it was three straight hours of running commentary at turns hilarious, frightening and truly disturbing in ways that are hard to pin down. I do, however, remember or have documentation of a few things that went down in between the hot dogs and bon mottes:
All of that being said, I don’t want you to get the impression that Anna and Carlo’s entire existence is savage owns and joking and ironic detachment. They are actually smart, sweet and sensitive kids who, when they’re not joking around, possess more empathy for their fellow humans than most adults who have seen and experienced far more than they have do. I am proud of my kids for that. Truly proud. Indeed I worry that the jaded exterior I’ve been describing is a defensive perimeter they and their generation have been forced to erect because the generations which came before them have thrown so much fear into their world and, perhaps, are even ruining it before my kids get a chance to live in it as adults. That’s a lot to put on anyone, but the fact that we’ve put that sort of weight on our children is a tragedy. Knowing that the’ll have to cope with what we have done to make their lives harder and, quite possibly, shorter, breaks my heart.
Those thoughts were swirling around my head as the game neared its end Friday evening. As they did, I looked over to Carlo and Anna sitting next to me. They were watching the game intently. And, even though it had started raining, quite contently. They seemed happy. The cynicism and the wiseguy routines had been left back in the middle innings somewhere. When Cody Allen struck out Kyle, er, I mean Joey Rickard, for the game’s final out, they both stood up and cheered a genuine and exuberant cheer. When they did, I figured it was a good opportunity for some rare heartfelt sincerity.
“So, Baseball. You like it, eh?” I said in my proudest dad voice, thinking that, just maybe, we had bonded over something near and dear to my heart. Anna looked at me and smiled. Then she said something I’ll never forget.
“Not really. But I guess I sort of have to respect it because if it wasn’t for baseball you’d be unemployed and I’d probably be homeless.”
My wife and I just got back from nine days in England. It was our honeymoon, delayed a year for various reasons, but coinciding with our first anniversary. I was going to write up a proper travelogue, but I'm too lazy to craft narratives, transitions and connections into something approaching passable prose, so I'm just going to barf out a list of stuff that happened and stuff I observed. Of course, it's gonna end up being longer than a travelogue would've been, but sometimes when you start barfing, you just can't stop.
Click through via that "Read More" button to the lower right if you're into that sort of thing.
Most people in the United States haven't heard of James, and those who have heard of them know them primarily through a surprise college radio hit they had with the song "Laid" back in 1993, later used in the "American Pie" movies. They're far more than a one-hit-wonder, however.
James has put out 13 studio albums with a 14th on the way in August. They've had scads of hits and top-selling albums on the UK charts and a fervent following there, in Europe and in Latin America. A seven-year hiatus in the early-to-mid 2000s notwithstanding, they have been and remain a working band and, unlike a lot of their contemporaries, they remain creatively vital. They put out a new EP and released a couple of songs from the new record a little over a week ago. Some of 'em are bangers.
My wife Allison has been a James fan for 20 years or so, has met the band, has friends she's met through James fandom around the world and has seen them live both in the U.K. and in America. We recently took a trip to the U.K., primarily for our honeymoon/first anniversary -- here's a fairly massive travelogue about the vacation -- but also to go see three James shows on a short tour they did of small venues in small towns across England, Scotland and Wales. As a super fan, Allison would've found a way to see them again eventually, with or without me, but this trip was my first time seeing them live. The first show, in Warrington, was the best show I've ever seen. The other two, in Blackburn and Halifax, were right up there. I'll spare you detailed reviews, but suffice it to say I enjoyed the hell out of myself.
Until I met Allison in late 2011, I was one of those people who didn't know much more about James than "Laid." In the past six and a half years they have become my favorite band. Part of that is a function of "guy meets girl who turns him on to some different music and the association sparks something," but there's more than that going on for me.
As we grew up and matured, men my age were never rewarded for feeling. The benefits of feigning indifference and affecting a pose of ironic and cynical detachment, on the other hand, were considerable.
As I entered adulthood, what one genuinely felt about anyone or anything was less important than the fact that people understood that one liked the right someones and somethings. The Gen-X-approved canon of music, movies, books, fashions, attitudes and personalities which were accompanied by a heaping amount of snobbery directed at those who did not share such tastes. For 1990s 20 or 30-somethings, one was living one’s best life to the extent one made it appear as if one’s life was directed by Quentin Tarantino, released on Matador records and written by David Foster Wallace. Those who did not fall into those general parameters were judged and judged harshly. Rob, from "High Fidelity" was a role model. It escaped us all, of course, that Rob was an emotionally-stunted jackass.
On a personal level, the archetypical Gen-X man exuded the sense that things were humming along just fine at all times and, if they were not, it was never much discussed. Staying in a narrow band of critically-approved tastes went hand-in-hand with portraying a nearly unshakable equanimity. Just as liking the wrong music risked judgment, deviating from a certain personal stance -- showing vulnerability and uncertainty -- was to invite uncomfortable personal conversation and scrutiny for which none of us were prepared.
Ironically, this highly regimented emotion-denying existence and self-imposed conformity was considered a sign of "authenticity."
Not that it felt phony or contrived. The cultivation and maintenance of the quintessential 1990s Gen-X male identity felt organic in the moment. The life I personally constructed around this larger ethos came to me naturally. I went to college, got married, began my career and had children, not just portraying every life event as if it were scripted and thus unremarkable, but feeling as if they were so. I was not some robot — there was happiness, sadness, joy, sorrow and confusion as life unfolded — but those were deviations from the cooler-than-the-room course one’s life was expected to take. Those deviations were expected to be temporary and were expected to right themselves over time.
In hindsight it’s no surprise that everything came crumbling down for me in the space of a few years. That the contradictions and self-denial my career presented and required of me were too great to ignore forever. That the problems in my first marriage were features, not bugs. That the strong and positive emotions inspired by fatherhood and by aging did not jibe with my well-cultivated sense of ironic detachment. I did my best to skate past the remarkable highs and the nearly unendurable lows of life with the help of just the right soundtrack, just the right wardrobe and enough culturally acceptable distractions to make it seem like everything was under control, but it wasn’t sustainable and never could have been.
I was in a very dark place when I met Allison and she knew it. Among the many things she did to help me get through that bad time was to play play me some James stuff.
The first song she played for me was "Tomorrow." The sentiment and structure of that song is pretty obvious and straightforward -- the singer once introduced it as a song he wrote "to keep a friend from jumping off a roof" -- but when you're emotionally stunted and emotionally raw, you need something straightforward like that. Having wallowed in enough dark, depressing music and sad bastard jams over the previous few months, "Tomorrow" was a breath of fresh air. It was the first music I had listened to in a while which suggested to me that things can and will get better rather than give me permission to embrace darkness and depression.
From there I began to listen to some other James stuff and I liked what I heard. While, critically speaking, one can slot them in with a lot of their Madchester and Britpop contemporaries, they don't fit in terribly neatly. They have been described by some critics as the "outcasts" or the "freaks and geeks" of that scene. I get that. They opened for the Smiths once upon a time, played with New Order and traveled in the same circles as The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and all of those wonderful bands, but unlike a lot of their contemporaries they mined veins of positivity and non-conformity not typically covered in 1990s rock. Maybe this explains why they never broke big in an America which, at the time, was into far darker and sludgier sounds. I'm no music critic and I can't be totally sure about that, but I do know that I really needed to hear some positive, even anthemic music in late 2011 and James delivered.
The immediate need to pull myself out of a funk soon passed, but I have returned to James pretty frequently since that time, listening to their music both old and new. Doing so has helped address the larger problems associated with that emotionally-stunted world view of the typical 1990s Gen-X man I described before.
Allowing myself to feel things -- to like things, even if they're not cool things, without apology, excuse or shame, and to be fearless in doing so -- has been critical to my mental and emotional health and personal development over the past several years. It'd be an overstatement to say that getting into some band from Manchester has been the primary reason I've been able to do that, of course. Therapy, emotional reflection and support from and good examples set by loved ones has been far more important. But given that pop culture played a big hand in messing me and my contemporaries up in the first place, listening to a band that embodies that more open and positive ethos certainly helps.
When you're trying to grow as a person, you need to shed your skin. To strip away your protection. To laugh at the wonder of it all. To cry at the sadness of the world. To dip on in, to leave your bones, leave your skin, leave your past, leave your craft and leave your suffering heart.
Or so I'm told.
UPDATE: If you don't know that much about James, I made a playlist of my favorite songs. They may be too obvious for serious James fans, but it's a good introduction to the band.
This evening I did a segment on BBC World News about today's announcement that the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will play a two-game series in London next year. They allowed me on the air even though I spent most of the day trafficking in the silliest British stereotypes and mocking the monarchy.
Come for me talking about baseball, stay for the Shrek Funko Pop! figurine I had forgotten that my children put on my mantlepiece.
Saturday was Karl Marx' 200th birthday. I hope your party went well. Hope you brought enough cake for everyone, making sure to cut it into equal-sized pieces. If you took too big a piece, I hope someone expropriated it from you.
I make a lot of tongue-mostly-in-cheek Marx and communism jokes. I also own a decent amount of commie kitsch artwork and stuff like that. I have since I was a teenager and didn't know my ass from my elbow when it came to history, economics or political philosophy.
My taste for such things developed as a reaction to growing up in Reagan's America. I am not some sort of revolutionary or iconoclast, and while I'm something of a non-conformist, there is more about me and my life that is unremarkable in that regard than I usually care to admit. Still, when most of America zigged toward materialism and the glorification of business and capitalism in the 1980s, I zagged. It didn't hurt that my father was a government employee and my relatives and the parents of most of my friends were union workers. The cultural zeitgeist of the 1980s tried to tell me that they were what's wrong with America, that simply did not compute, nor has it ever, and thus you get a kid like I was, playing around with subversive ideas even if I didn't understand them.
In college I actually took the time to study history, economics and political philosophy, getting my degree in the latter category. In those courses I read plenty of Marx, Hegel, Smith, Mill, Keynes, Rawls, Weber, Kant and a bunch of other guys. Because I was short-sighted and more influenced by that 1980s materialism than I let on, I ended up going to law school and thus spent a good 14 years zigging back into the glorification of business and capitalism I had zagged away from when I was younger, but I eventually remembered what I cared about and started doing more fulfilling things. Despite the passage of time and a far more relaxed reading regimen than that which I undertook 25 years ago, I feel like I still know enough about all of that political philosophy to at least hold my own when it comes up. Despite some pretty big changes in my life over the past couple of decades, I think I'm more comfortable with where I now stand politically than I ever was before.
There's still something of that high school contrarian in me, though. I often joke that I'm not a Marxist, but I play one on the Internet. There's more than a little bit of truth to that. Despite what people with whom I argue say about me, I'm not a Marxist or a communist. I lean pretty hard to the left and, when I envision an ideal way to set up society it contains a lot more public ownership and regulation than what's viewed as desirable by most folks running things today, but I'm not an actual commie. When I cite Marx or someone like him in an argument or a tweet it's usually for rhetorical purposes or, sometimes, because I'm just goofing around.
It's much easier to pretend to be a Marxist in modern America than to actually be one, of course, for reasons that have very little to do with Marxism itself.
Political philosophies don't have actual public relations firms working for them, but if Marxism did have one it sure as hell did a bad job. Of course, even the best P.R. guy would have a hard time spinning that whole "multiple tyrannical regimes killing millions while claiming to follow your teachings" thing. There isn't a Powerpoint deck or Harry & David gift box that can change a lot of minds about that. It's something that's rather hard to be massaged, as they say.
There is a technically correct defense of Marxism that notes how, actually, those murderous regimes weren't truly practicing Marxism, but you're not gonna win that argument with most people. Shouting "scoreboard" isn't always an intellectually honest way to win an argument, but it sure is a damn effective way of ending one. Leave your "actually, the Soviets weren't Marxists" argument alone, comrade. It's not gonna go well for you in most contexts.
Maybe an even tougher problem for the Marxist P.R. Firm is the fact that, irrespective of the mass murders, Marx's central thesis was discredited in the eyes of most people by events on the ground for a long damn time.
For the bulk of the living memory of the people running things today -- and for the living memory of the parents and teachers of nearly everyone else -- the very foundation of Marxist observation wasn't panning out and seemed hopelessly out of touch with reality. Part of this was because of intentional reforms made to the capitalist system during the Depression and in the postwar period. Stuff like the success of the labor movement and subsequent pro-worker regulations and the advancement of civil rights improved the lives of the folks who Marx predicted would rise up in revolution. Accidents of history helped too, such as, you know, a massive global war decimating the planet, paving the way for insane economic growth in the parts of the world that didn't get bombed to bits. America in the postwar period was a place of so much abundance that the proletariat's chains weren't nearly as uncomfortable as Marx predicted they would be.
Between the murderous tyranny of those waving Marx' banner and the postwar progress in countries like the U.S., it was completely understandable why two or three generations of Americans dismissed Marx completely. Given what could be seen with one's own two eyes, what possible reason would there be to take anything but a derisive look at this seemingly discredited, hirsute radical? It's hard to sell any kind of revolution in that environment.
I think it's fair to say, though, that the America of 1945-1980 was a historical anomaly. The progress of that time, measured in terms of growing economic and social equality and the improving wages and conditions for workers, is the historical exception, not the rule. Since the 1980s the progress we witnessed in that period has been slowed and, in some cases, reversed. Indeed, one of our two major political parties sees reversing that postwar progress as its mission. As a result, we are falling into patterns that have historically persisted.
As was the case in Marx's time (and most other times) a very small number of people own and control most things. Conditions and compensation for workers are degrading. Even people's health and life expectancy is degrading. This is talked about as a crisis -- and and it is a crisis -- but it's not unprecedented. Historically speaking it's merely reversion to the mean. As someone once said, history repeats itself. I'll leave it to the drama critics to decide if its doing so now is tragedy or farce.
Which brings us back to Karl Marx. As a philosopher who sought to put thought into action -- he did not think of himself as some mere thinker; he truly aspired to be a revolutionary -- he was obviously lacking. As Lennon (not Lenin) put it, "we all wanna see the plan." Marx didn't have anything approaching a specific one, those who took up his mantle had some horrifying ones and, as such, we can't took to either Marx or to his followers for instructions on how to set up a good and just society. I am a lot of things, but one of those things is a pragmatist, and this is why I don't call myself a Marxist or a communist. Proof-of-concept matters to me.
That does not, however, mean that we should ignore Marx. His observations about the current capitalist order being thought of by its proponents as inevitable (note: it's not), the flaws and injustices which come with that order (note: there are many), and the need for that order to be reorganized or, at the very least substantially reformed for the good of humanity (note: it is great), are worthy and instructive.
We must contend with those questions. We must ask ourselves whether current conditions are just and optimal and, if not, how they can be improved. To do so, we are obligated to critique capitalism and to rein in its excesses rather than pretend that the capitalist system as currently constructed was ordained by God Almighty and that questioning it is heresy or treason. If it weirds you out to call those observations, critiques and any subsequent reform derived therefrom Marxism, fine, don't call it Marxism. If it weirds you out to even read Karl Marx, well, don't read him (note: Das Kapital is a boring slog, but The Communist Manifesto is a banger). As a child of the Cold War, I get it: commies are bad and evil and even acknowledging their existence makes Lady Liberty cry.
But unless you look at the current economic, social and humanitarian conditions that persist and say "This is great! This is absolutely perfect and we mustn't change a thing!," you must contend with and seek to fix capitalism's flaws. Marx did that first and a lot of folks who are seeking to do that now -- hopefully to more humane and practical effect -- have followed that path.
That may not justify you putting on a fake beard, going to Denny's and asking for a free meal in honor of Marx's birthday, but it does mean you can't dismiss him or pretend that he and his ideas never existed.
My daughter participated in the student walkouts yesterday. I didn't prompt her to. In fact, we hardly talked about her doing so beforehand. I simply told her that, if there was a walkout, and if she chose to participate in it, that I would support her.
It was clear that the school didn't want her and her fellow eighth graders walking out. In the runup to it, parents received emails in which the principal talked about an assembly the school was holding and how kids were being encouraged to "walk up, not out." Meaning: "walk up to kids you may not know or who are loners or who are marginalized in the interests of forming some sort of connection that, I suppose, would prevent them from becoming murderous psychopaths one day rather than protest gun violence."
That idea pissed me off. Its message, like so many establishment political messages these days, is aimed at blunting genuinely sharp political statements, not supporting them. It's akin to "Black Lives Matter" becoming "All Lives Matter." Something that, superficially, sounds pleasant but which actually negates the original idea, by design.
This morning I wrote a letter to the school superintendent and the school board about it. It was an open letter which I shared on Facebook and Twitter:
An open letter to New Albany-Plain Local Schools.
I'm not sure if I'll get a response. I'm pretty sure that, either way, I'll have my name placed in the "pain in the ass" file for future reference. Kinda don't care.