Anthony Bourdain died today.
Unlike so many self-styled literary and entertainment industry badasses, there was simple skill, craft and humanity underlying the attitude, which he would freely allow to show. The former without the latter -- and without self-awareness-- is empty. Whatever he was doing to project that bad boy persona was immediately set aside when he got down to work writing about or chronicling a place, a people, a cuisine or whatever it was he was interested in at the moment.
In losing Anthony Bourdain, we didn't lose a "celebrity chef" or a "travel show host." We lost an insightful, empathetic and humane chronicler of the human condition. A man who could have so easily been a complacent, thrill-seeking, luxury-living, globetrotting celebrity but chose to be something more. He was an anthropologist who discarded dispassionate observation in order to advocate for the best in humanity, paying special attention to the vulnerable, the exploited and the overlooked.
Last year Bourdain went to West Virginia for an episode of his show, "Parts Unknown." In the space of one hour he did a better job of capturing my home state than a thousand poverty porn tourist journalists with pre-written stories parachuting in from coastal publications have ever done. It was typical of his work. He never went with the easy or expected narratives, even if doing so would've saved him a lot of work. Probably because he knew that those easy narratives obscured truths, perpetuated lies and, unwittingly or otherwise, served to work injustices, both large and small.
I embedded that episode below. You should watch it. If he ever went someplace special or interesting or unknown to you, you should watch that too.
Today Donald Trump opened a meeting by having his cabinet members go around the table to praise him. As it unfolded, each official attempted to obsequiously outdo the last with flattery of their boss. This actually happened.
This, by the way, is the same way Shakespeare's "King Lear" opens. Instead of cabinet members, it's Lear asking his daughters to praise him in order to justify their inheritance.
In other news, "King Lear" chronicles the descent of a leader into madness and death, set on his course by an almost comical but ultimately tragic narcissism.
I became a full time writer in November 2009. According to WordPress, I've written 23,509 posts for NBC. I don't know what the word count average is, but even if you estimate on the low side that's somewhere between five million and ten million words. That's the same amount of words as, like, 120 novels. They'd be really bad novels, of course, but writing 17 novels a year is a lot of writing, even if it's bad.
In addition to that, I've written all of this personal stuff. Five hundred words there, a thousand words there. A few projects of 5,000 or 11,000 words. I've written over 132,000 tweets since 2009 as well. I post on Facebook. I live on my laptop.
As such, it was probably just a matter of time before I got carpal tunnel syndrome. I was diagnosed with it on Tuesday. They gave me this brace and some stretching exercises to do.
The weird part: it only really hurts when I stretch my arm out at full length to reach for things. It doesn't hurt at all to have my hands on the keyboard typing. Indeed, that feels just like normal.
Which means that, nah, I probably ain't gonna get better. Here's to 120 more bad novels.
Today is the seventh anniversary of my being a full-time baseball writer. When NBC hired me I had been practicing law for 11 years, always in downtown offices. Since November 30, 2009, however, I have worked from home. If you’re curious, I wrote about how that all happened a few years ago.
As far as jobs go it’s wonderful. NBC has been nothing but fantastic to me over the years and the notion that I get paid to watch and talk about baseball all day has not lost its obvious appeal. Most old sayings are bunk, but I’ve been lucky enough to be able to live the one about how, if you choose a job you love, you will never have to work a day in your life.
But it is still a job. It’s easy to forget that sometimes, but it is. And, if anything, the fact that baseball writing is comprised of my favorite pastimes (i.e. baseball and writing) presents no small amount of danger. How do you keep a work-life balance when your work consists of your favorite activities?
I was quoted extensively in a story in the Columbia Journalism Review about sports writers who do not, as a rule “stick to sports."
Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein, talking about why he decided not to be a sportswriter:
“I realized I didn’t want to be a sportswriter when I was interning with the Orioles back in ’92, ’93, ’94. I did do a lot of media-relations stuff, and I saw that the life of a sportswriter is pretty lonely. You kind of work by yourself, sit there by yourself in the press box, go back to the hotel bar.”
The best parts of being a sportswriter – not having to work with anyone else and getting to drink on an expense account – is what made him not want to be one? Weird.
I don’t often get emails or messages here about what I write, but I got one today regarding the Trump piece from this morning. This was the question:
Craig–a sincere question re: your Donald Trump post. Why did you write it? I’m asking as someone who 100% agrees with it (and with most things you write). But, as a public figure, even writing that on your private blog, you have to know that it’s going to convince no one who isn’t already convinced. But, it *will* piss some people off. I 100% do not mean this as a criticism, but as a serious, respectful question. What led you to post this piece? I’d love to hear–
I left off the person’s name, and I responded to them privately, but I liked what I rattled off in a couple of seconds, so I reproduce it here:
Thanks for your question. I wish I had a deeper answer than “I am in the habit of saying what comes into my head, in writing, as often as possible.” But that’s a large part of it. When I write things here and, often, on my baseball website, I don’t think of whether it will make people happy or angry or if it will change many minds. I advocate, yes, but I realize that with lots of things, people are loathe to see things differently than they already do.
With this particular piece, I think what inspired it was the notion that, for all of the political back and forth in which people engage, they very rarely say plain basic things like “this person is literally incompetent and is actually ignorant.” They talk about the horse race. They talk about whether someone is getting “their message” out or how they’re polling with some subgroup or whether they “appeared presidential.” But for whatever reason, the press, and increasingly, the public, talk around basic questions of competence and intelligence in politicians, thinking that it’s a rude topic to broach. “Many millions will vote for him!” they say, “so how can you say they’re wrong?” That kind of thinking leads to pulled punches and the acceptance of a ridiculous amount of nonsense in the name of false balance and relativism.
The fact is, Trump doesn’t have the basic knowledge, intelligence or temperament that the leader of the United States of America needs to have to do his job effectively. It’s something that, for as obvious as it is, is not said that much. I sense that most of us are all too tribal and rah-rah in favor of our chosen factions to accept this, but it’s a pretty basic and objective fact that, today, even some of Trump’s supporters are admitting.
Will it make me friends to say it? Not likely. But it’s the truth. And I find a certain value in speaking plain truths whenever I can and, especially, when so few people seem eager to. If it costs me some baseball readers, well, so be it.
In reality, however, if I had made a habit of saying things that were aimed at pissing off the fewest people possible, I never would’ve gotten my job with NBC in the first place.
I sort of owe my career to Andrew Sullivan. Not in any direct way. He doesn’t know who I am and never did anything to help me get a job. But he and other web-based political writers who flourished in the early 2000s provided a model for me.
The model was basically:
I wrote a web column covering national topics in 2002 and 2003 and didn’t think of it as a blog, but looking back at those old bits, they were basically blog posts. After a hiatus I began again in 2007. While there were several baseball bloggers around then, they were mostly team-specific or didn’t post as frequently as I did. While I respected their work and still do, I didn’t really emulate any of them. No, by 2007 I was consciously aping the political blogging style, only about baseball.
I modeled myself particularly closely on Andrew Sullivan. While I did and still do disagree with him politically on a whole host of issues, there was a lot about his style that appealed to me. He wrote in the first person a lot and did not hide the fact that he was a human being with his own interests. While he was and still is accused of completely reversing course on various topics, he didn’t really care, noting that changing one’s mind upon encountering new information or simply reconsidering old topics was a sign of intellectual strength, not weakness. He was, with some rather notable exceptions, more self-aware than a lot of his peers and knew that some of his readers wouldn’t care about whatever hobby horse he was riding at any given moment yet still kept riding them anyway.
A lot can be written about some of the awful arguments and positions Sullivan has taken over the years, but his approach as a blogger always appealed to me. Emulating it in a baseball context set me apart from my peers. I wrote more, wrote more quickly, more frequently and covered a wider array of topics than most people in the baseball blogosphere. To the extent I was able to leverage two years of independent blogging into a larger platform at The Hardball Times and then, later, at NBC, it wasn’t because I had a ton of friends in the industry or because I networked. It was based almost exclusively on being that weird lawyer baseball dude who updates constantly and talks about everything. It was because I was the baseball Andrew Sullivan. I owe a lot to him, even if he doesn’t know it.
Though I stopped reading Sullivan on a regular basis several years ago, I was sad to see that he quit blogging in 2015. And I am sadder still to see what he wrote today in New York Magazine:
I Used to Be a Human Being
In the article, Sullivan talks about how he burnt out on blogging and all of the online reading, reacting, arguing and writing it requires. About how posting every 20 minutes and obsessing over every twist and turn in a news story, often before anyone even knew what the story was, caused him to crash. His personal health was a factor as well – he suffered from multiple respiratory infections – but his “living-in-the-web” lifestyle, to use Sullivan’s term, was his real problem. He says it took a massive toll on his health, his personal relationships, his intellectual capacity, his writing skills and style and maybe even his sanity. This is, quite obviously, not ideal, and I’m glad that the internet detox on which he has embarked and the meditation regime and sabbaticals and everything else he has done has been good for him. Real life matters far more than four paragraphs of thoughts hastily posted to WordPress.
Of course, it would not be an Andrew Sullivan article if it didn’t include some broad overstatement, generalization and projection of his own feeling and experience onto the rest of us (an occupational hazard of all bloggers, but one which dogged Sullivan more than many). And here it is: too much technology and time online was not just something that harmed him, he says. It’s the scourge of the entirety of 21st century civilization:
Just look around you — at the people crouched over their phones as they walk the streets, or drive their cars, or walk their dogs, or play with their children. Observe yourself in line for coffee, or in a quick work break, or driving, or even just going to the bathroom. Visit an airport and see the sea of craned necks and dead eyes … this new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.
With all due respect to the man on whom I’ve modeled my career: this is fucking bonkers.
I will grant that the manner and to degree to which technology has changed our lives in a very short period of time is, frankly, staggering. I’ll grant that all of us could use more time unplugged and offline and away from screens than we spend.
I’ll likewise grant that people in Sullivan’s line of work are particularly susceptible to being crushed in the manner which he describes. I never was nor have I ever been quite as immersed in the “living-in-the-web” lifestyle as Sullivan was, but doing what I do for a living, as obsessively as I do it, from home, usually alone, I am likely on the far right portion of the, ahem, Bell Curve, when it comes to full Internet immersion. I have over indulged at times. I have had loved ones tell me, hey, you need to unplug, get off of Twitter and close the laptop for a bit. It happens to most of us, especially if we work online.
But Sullivan’s article reads like a harangue from a recently sober alcoholic, convinced that everyone else is destined to fall victim to demon drink simply because he did. It’s calm and measured tone just barely hides what’s really being revealed here: a man with poor work-life balance skills blaming technology for what befell him as opposed to his own inability to unplug and pace himself
Sullivan talks about how he posted seven days a week, every twenty minutes. I remember when he did it and it was insane. I used to do something close to it. It was five days a week for me and it was every thirty minutes – with my blogging partners chiming in once or twice an hour to give us close to the same frequency of Sullivan’s blog – but it was pretty similar. It was also entirely unsustainable, both in terms of content – there really isn’t enough good stuff to write about 40 times a day – but more importantly in terms of the writer’s stamina.
Eventually, I ratcheted back a bit. Instead of writing 20 things a day I wrote 12-15. Many days now I don’t write even that much. Partially because blogging has changed a bit over the years and partially because I have people who work for me whom I trust to handle nights and weekends and those times when I have life to live and errands to run. Mostly, though, because I realized a few years ago that there was no way I could continue that pace into my 40s while still being a sharp thinker, a present father and an all around healthy person. I still write more than most people in my field, but I write way less than I did a few years back. Both I and my writing are better for it and my readers have not complained about it.
I’ll grant that baseball is not as important as politics, but Andrew Sullivan’s blog was not defending us from invading hordes or keeping Democracy alive single-handedly. No matter how important the underlying subject matter, no one was ever going to save the world with a blog post. At the very least the world would have survived for a few short hours if Sullivan had taken his husband out to a nice diner during the Green Revolution or if he had unplugged one night and read a good book in 2008 rather than writing yet another post about Sarah Palin’s baby.
Ultimately, reading and writing about crap on the internet is a job. It can be an extraordinarily immersive job. One that, if you’re not careful, can cause you to lose yourself. But still a job. If Sullivan wasn’t killing himself with this job, I strongly suspect he would’ve been killing himself with another one. I suspect he’s just wired that way.
One final point: Sullivan’s article is illustrated with famous paintings, photoshopped to show their subjects using cell phones, such as Edward Hopper’s “Hotel Room,” at the top of this post. It’s cute, and you can see what he and his editors are getting at with the little joke. But it also proves too much.
Most of Hopper’s best works portrayed subjects who were isolated and lonely and detached. Amazingly, something besides the Internet was to blame.
At the prompting of a couple of friends, I recently read J.D. Vance’s memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.”
It was a major mistake. Don't believe Vance's hype and don't believe for a second that you need to read this book to gain some deeper understanding of "real Americans." It's a simultaneous exercise in (a) shaming the working class as shiftless and lazy; (b) ignoring why their plight today is what it is; while (c) ignoring why, exactly, they resent so-called "cultural elites."
Over in Baseball Land I recently wrote about how I was getting out of the business of mocking the Hall of Fame ballots of other baseball writers. There’s no real point in it and I find myself not really caring much about it anymore. I made an exception, however: I won’t mock ballots just because I disagree with them, but I reserve the right to comment on vile, petty and borderline defamatory reasoning in the course of columns explaining a given writer’s Hall of Fame votes. We’ve seen a lot of that over the years and, upon reflection, that has always bothered me more than the actual votes with which I disagreed.
A great example of this can be seen in today’s Washington Times. There, columnist Thom Loverro dives into the messy politics involved in the candidacy of players who took performance enhancing drugs such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Like many voters, Loverro will not vote for them. Which, while I disagree, is not really a problem. Roughly two-thirds of Hall of Fame voters don’t vote for those guys. There is a legitimate ethical debate about their careers to be had and if that’s where Loverro falls, that’s where he falls. Battling over those particular ethical considerations is that business I decided to get out of when it comes to the Hall of Fame.
Loverro’s column, however, goes beyond merely reasserting his position regarding drug cheats. He goes after Bonds and Clemens’ supporters, including fellow Hall of Fame voters, and equates them to the Black Lives Matter movement and mocks them as the “No Justice/No Peace Wing of the Baseball Writers Association of America.”
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will not get in. But don’t worry about them — they’ve got the No Justice/No Peace wing of the Baseball Writers Association of America fighting for them.
The Black Lives Matter movement on which Loverro thoughtlessly plays was born in 2012 following the murder of Trayvon Martin. It campaigns against violence against black people, particularly killings of black people by law enforcement officers, which typically go unpunished and, sadly, unnoticed. It works to combat racial profiling, police brutality, and racial inequality in the United States criminal justice system. In short, it concerns itself with serious business. Matters of literal life and death, justice and tyranny. Matters every bit as significant in the grand scheme of things as someone’s Hall of Fame ballot is insignificant in the grand scheme.
That Loverro applies a variation on that label – and “No Justice, No Peace,” which is a venerable slogan of the civil rights movement and other protests throughout history – in his typical mocking manner is pathetic and, frankly, disgusting. In so doing he simultaneously belittles and insults serious people with serious and legitimate concerns by equating them with those who, in his mind, are unethical and feckless crusaders for cheaters who should not be taken seriously in any way whatsoever. Based on the context it would appear that, to him, the criticism goes both ways. He takes neither the Black Lives Matter movement seriously nor those who disagree with him about baseball things.
Of course Loverro has always been like this. He’s a poor writer, a poor thinker and an attention-seeking troll who writes inflammatory columns so he can have fodder for his bad radio show and vice-versa. Nothing I say here will change that. Indeed, I am certain he will use this post and similar disapproval of his column as a launching pad for his radio show on Monday. Good for him.
But I’m not really aiming this post at Loverro. I am aiming it at his peers in the Baseball Writers Association of America in the hopes that, eventually, its members stop tolerating this kind of garbage and that, eventually, they’ll start calling out their peers who engage in it.
We rarely see that sort of thing, of course. “Takedowns” of other members of the baseball press are seen as impolite. It’s simply not done. You do not criticize a fellow credentialed writer. It’s mean. It’s an “attack.” In sportswriting, at least among the upper echelon and at least publicly, every opinion is good and valid and calling out your colleagues is considered rude. It’s the ultimate sin in the world of sportswriting. You can make up stories from whole cloth and be considered an institution, but don’t even think about criticizing another writer where anyone can hear you doing it. Many sports outlets specifically forbid their writers from criticizing other members of the media as a matter of policy.
This is why you see so much bad sportswriting. While no one likes to be criticized, it’s undeniably the case that criticism – even sharp criticism, as long as it’s aimed at the work and not the person – leads to a better product. This is the case in just about any field. Whether it’s doctors being put to the test in morbidity and mortality conferences, lawyers’ arguments being challenged by opponents and judges in appellate practice, academic peer review, competing columns and editorials of political and business writers or even through the application of generalized media criticism, the act of pointing out the flaws in the logic or the practice of one’s fellow professionals works to raise the discourse and improve the work. That a line is drawn with respect to this practice at sports writing makes little sense and it’s why sports writing is considered by some to be trivial. The “toy department” of journalism, as they say.
It shouldn’t be that way. Sports writing can be – and in the hands of solid professionals often is – vital and important and illuminative of both the world of sports and the world at large. We’ve all seen great sports journalism. We know how edifying and enjoyable and uplifting it can be. We know how, at times, it can even enhance our enjoyment of the game itself by its very existence. In some rare cases topics with importance and implications to life and society in general are better-handled by sportswriters and in a sports context than they are if they were set in a different, real-world milieu.
I will never stop wanting sportswriting to be better and, for that reason, I will never stop critiquing bad writing. I simply won’t surrender to the notion that sports are so unimportant that there’s no harm in sports journalism being bad. I talk to sports fans every day and it’s clear how many of them base their opinions on bad sportswriting and commentary. It’s easy for them to do this because that bad writing and commentary goes almost wholly unexamined and unremarked upon. I love to talk about sports with people and I want that discourse to be elevated as much as possible. As is the case in every other walk of life, the way to elevate the work is to critique it and seek its improvement.
But I’m just an uncredentialed blogger, easily dismissed by the Thom Loverros of the world as “the Internet mob.” How nice it would be if he and others who traffic in his sort of garbage were called out by people he actually respects in the industry. By the people he considers his peers. Maybe not in lengthy columns or posts like this one – they’re sportswriters after all and have sportswriting to do – but how about on Twitter? How about on radio shows and podcasts where the subject matter opens up a bit? How about, instead of merely presenting the bad work with a hands-off, “no judgments here” tweet, the giants in the industry call out the garbage for what it is?
I’m not holding my breath until that happens. But I sure as hell would like to see more of it.
Ohio’s governor, John Kasich, is going to announce his presidential candidacy tomorrow. So I would like to take this opportunity to tell the story of how some friends of mine and I sort of freaked him out one time.
For real: I suspect we were on a watch list of some sort for most of the 1990s.
In early 1993, my friend Ethan and I signed up to take part in the Mershon Conference on Global Affairs, which was put on by what is now called the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University. The upshot: teams of four undergraduate honors students would work together to present a position paper on a given matter then relevant to the international community. It was to be judged by leading international relations and security experts of the day. Among them: Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO policy, Joe Kruzel, and then-Congressmen John Kasich.
The topic, inspired by unrest in various former Eastern Bloc counties, was “Should we support or oppose nationalism in Eastern Europe?” Ethan and I were teamed up with two guys named Prabal and Marty and had a few weeks to come up with our presentation.
While we were honors students, we were also three college sophomores and a freshman, so obviously we knew what the topic of the conference should be far better than the assembled scholars and diplomats who created the thing at the Mershon Center did. In our minds the real question wasn’t nationalism in Eastern Europe – how boringly vague! – but rather the Bosnian War, which was less than a year old at the time. Specifically, we decided that we would come up with a proposal on how to stop it. Or win it. Or whatever one does in a war in which one is not involved. We weren’t sure what that was, but dammit, we were college sophomores from the United States of America, and we’d solve it and let the world sort out the semantics.
We set to work in the way that highly-motivated, high-achieving social science sophomores did in January 1993: we read some secondary sources on microfilm, found some editorials from The Economist and kind of mashed them all together. That was rather boring, though, because all of those sources explained how fraught with difficulty the Bosnia thing was, how there were no good solutions to be had, how the international community was paralyzed and how there seemed to be no end in sight to the mounting violence and unrest.
So, to spice things up we took advantage of some declassified DOD maps in the map room at the Ohio State Library. Some of them, likely from the Detente-era of the Cold War, featured oil, natural gas and hydroelectric assets in Yugoslavia. We really liked that one because it gave us targets. And targets were important at this point because by then we had decided that the bulk of our presentation would be how we, the United States of America (and whichever weak sisters of NATO had the balls to join us) would bomb most of the former Yugoslavia into submission unless hostilities ceased.
Now, to be sure, we were young men of peace. No one wanted war and we did not take our (fake) responsibility lightly. But having big fat targets in front of four kids weaned on sanitized comic-book cum video game productions like “Top Gun,” “Iron Eagle” and “The First Gulf War” it was inevitable that, at some point, we’d get carried away.
Marty: “Give me another target we can put in the bullet points.”
Prabal: “Hmm, we seem to be out of energy assets. Maybe a port city?”
Ethan: [scanning map]: “Ummm … how about Trieste.”
Me: “Sounds good. Write down Trieste.”
Marty [looking up at the map] “Guys, Trieste is in Italy.”
It didn’t matter, though. We we sure that what we lacked in precision we would make up in enthusiasm. Besides, Prabal had sweet-talked the librarian into letting us take the map with us for our presentation. This thing was gonna be KILLER.
On the day of the conference, Congressman Kasich gave the opening remarks to the assembled honors students, Mershon scholars and diplomats. The topic: his concern that the newly-inaugurated Bill Clinton and his Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, had no plan for the post Cold War world. That it did not know how to be the planet’s lone superpower and that, unless some set of overarching principles were defined, the administration would likely lurch from crisis to crisis. This excited the four of us, for our presentation would show that we had overarching principles in spades. Or at least power. Fear would keep the local systems in line. Fear of this democratically-elected arsenal.
The presentations soon began. We scoffed as the other teams, boringly and predictably, outlined how fraught with difficulty Eastern Europe was, how there were no good solutions to be had, how the international community was paralyzed and how there seemed to be no end in sight to the mounting violence and unrest. Most ended with a listing of the pros and cons of supporting nationalism as a means of promoting stability. We grew increasingly smug as each balanced, measured but ultimately waffling presentation was given. Then it was our turn.
“We declare the war in the former Yugoslavia over,” Prabal, our first speaker stated in simple terms. “And the failure of hostilities will result in serious consequences for all who choose war instead of peace.”
Our judges, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO policy, Joe Kruzel, and Congressman John Kasich, were somewhat surprised by our presentation. And by surprised I mean that Kruzel was literally slack-jawed and Kasich had a pursed-lipped smile and a slightly-raised eyebrow in what I have come to learn over the past couple of decades is the universal “these motherfuckers CANNOT be serious” expression.
Their expressions didn’t change all that much as we listed off, one-by-one, the way in which we would end the war in Bosnia: a no-fly zone. Armed troops landed and deployed to protect urban centers. Strategic air strikes to cripple the war-making capacity of the aggressors (which we considered to mostly be Serbia, but which we left undefined because the microfilm and the Economist editorials were somewhat confusing on all of that). All of this was accompanied by meaningful, pointed gestures to the DOD map we taped to the front of the conference table. I can’t remember how we finished, but I’m certain that it fell somewhere between a wish for healing of this war-torn region and the declaration of a Pax Americana.
Kruzel and Kasich were silent for a moment. And then Kruzel haltingly thanked us. We were convinced that we would win.
Indeed, we almost started to think that winning was beside the point because we had clearly impressed Congressman Kasich. During the reception before the awards ceremony we got a couple of moments with him and asked him what he thought. His words were measured and diplomatic, but we knew he was just being polite in case other honors students overheard him. We knew what he was really saying “Boys, we need bright young men like you in Washington!”
Our euphoria was so great that we weren’t even that disappointed when another team was announced as the winner of the conference. True geniuses aren’t appreciated in their own time and certainly not by their peers. Let these other teams be popular tastes like the Eagles or Boston. We would be the Clash.
Back in the sophomore dorms, we polished and repackaged our presentation into a position paper and sprung for the laser printing and clear-covered binder at Kinkos to make sure it looked professional. With a cover letter on top we sent it to Congressman Kasich’s office. At the end of the letter we listed our names and phone numbers and expressed our willingness to “work with the Congressman” on this or other policy matters of the day. We thought maybe we’d get staffer jobs out of it. But in our heart of hearts we assumed Kasich would want us to serve as a secret policy strike team whom he’d call if and when he needed some real outside-the-box thinking. I only think part of that made it into the cover letter, but what did likely leaned heavy on the strike team angle.
A few weeks later, my dorm room phone rang. The man on the other end of the line identified himself as an aide to Congressman Kasich. He acknowledged the receipt of our package. I waited for him to launch into ecstatic praise or, perhaps, a job offer, but he didn’t. There was an awkward silence.
Aide: “Um, why exactly did you send the Congressman this?”
Me: “Well, it’s our proposal.”
Aide: “I see that. And … you want … “
Me: “We’d like the Congressmen to feel free to use it. In policies or, um, legislation. Or in meetings.”
Me: [realizing I’m not getting through]: “And we have lots of ideas on other things too. The Middle East! NAFTA! South Africa!”
After some more awkward silences the aide thanked me and said they may be in touch. It’s been over 22 years. I’m starting to doubt they’re going to call us back.
Not long after that telephone conversation, stepped-up enforcement of a mostly toothless no-fly zone was imposed over the former Yugoslavia by NATO’s Operation Deny Flight. A little over two years later NATO launched Operation Deliberate Force, which was a sustained air campaign to undermine the military capability of the Bosnian Serb army and to provide close air support of the Bosnian national army and Croatian forces. While it took some time, and while there were still tremendous casualties and atrocities to come – as well as the death of Joe Kruzel, the man who stared at four mini-neocons in slack-jawed horror as we outlined our audacious plan – the NATO campaign has generally been credited with pressuring what remained of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to take part in the negotiations that resulted in the Dayton Peace Agreement, ending the war.
In hindsight, the military and foreign policy call cooked up by four profoundly ambitious, arrogant and naive war hawks turned out to be the right call. It has proven to be the only time such a call has been anyplace close to right by anyone fitting that description in this country in the past 25 years. Even if men fitting that description keep on trying to make it.
While we lost track of Marty, Ethan, Prabal and I have remained close friends to this day. To this day, when any two of us get together, we talk about this little episode in our lives. It’s almost always kicked off by someone uttering our catch phrase from those days: “SURRENDER, OR WE’LL BOMB TRIESTE!” It never fails to make us laugh, mostly because as each year goes by, those profoundly naive college sophomores seem less and less like the men we eventually became.
Ethan and Prabal are easily the smartest, most accomplished people I know. Ethan has spent the past 20 years in Silicon Valley, building businesses, creating cool products and making the future sound more amazing than scary. Prabal is a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, inventing untold number of little miracles and showing up on lists in major magazines with names like “The Brilliant Ten of 2014.”
More so than that, they’re both thoughtful men with families, liberal sensibilities and, as far as I can tell, a complete and total abhorrence of war. And for what it’s worth, if you’ve read my stuff here for a while you know where I stand when it comes to politics, violence and the idea that anyone can really know anything for certain, let alone know things so certainly that they have standing to send others into harm’s way. It’s not exactly the stuff that a would-be 2016 Republican nominee would be all that interested in.
Still, if you’re reading this Governor Kasich: reach out. None of us belong to your political party and I, as the lone remaining Ohioan of the bunch, haven’t voted for you once. But we still have lots of great ideas. And we have access to much cooler maps these days.
June 3: --I'm Off
I’m off on my Amtrak Writer’s Residency. I leave today, stop in Chicago and then head across the country to Seattle. A short jaunt down to Portland and then back across the country to Chicago and home.
There are a few people I will see and/or meet along the way and I am looking forward to that. But mostly it’s about losing the day-to-day distractions of home and immersing myself in writing.
I have a project I’m working on about which I’m rather excited. It won’t be posted here any time soon and I can’t really mention it yet, but if something comes of it I’ll let you know.
I’ll try to post updates from the rails here. And because I’m an addict, I’ll probably be tweeting too.
June 4 -- The Joy of Being Alone
Columbus, Ohio doesn’t have an Amtrak station. People don’t believe me when I tell them that, but it’s true. Thurmond, West Virginia (population: 5 – really, that is the actual population) has thrice-weekly train service to D.C. or Chicago, but if you live in the 15th largest city in the United States, you have to go elsewhere to hop a train. I’ll leave it to others to investigate why such inefficiencies exist in our nation’s passenger train service, but know that that’s why I’m starting my writer’s residency in Chicago. I got here yesterday. My train leaves this afternoon.
Yesterday I walked around a bit and then went to the Art Institute. It’s one of my favorite museums because it has a bunch of stuff I know already. You’re not supposed to admit that sort of thing, of course. But just last week in Columbus 60,000 people paid $100 per ticket to hear the Rolling Stones play “Satisfaction” and “Brown Sugar,” so I figure it’s OK if I paid $23 to see Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” That limited-time medieval Asian teapot exhibit may be wonderful, but it’s equivalent to hearing Mick Jagger say “here’s a new one we’ve been workin’ on …” I’ll admit that I’m a philistine if you’ll just play the hits, man.
After the museum I met a friend for a drink. Met him for the first time, actually, even though I’ve known him in that way you know people on the Internet for many years. Such virtual friendships are an increasing part of everyone’s life, but they’re a much bigger part of my life than others. Once you’re out of your 20s most people’s friendships come via work and romantic relationships. In the past six years I’ve left my regular job to work at home and I got divorced, so traditional friendships have largely melted away for me.
Which isn’t a bad thing, actually. I’m something of a hermit and maintaining acquaintances seems to get harder for me the older I get. The Internet allows you to be on or off with the flip of a switch. You can enter or leave the “room” without having to make apologies and if you disappear for a couple of days no one worries too terribly much about you. There are some drawbacks to this, of course, but I rather like being able to start talking to people without having to make plans and meet up and pretend we want to hear about each other’s kids, jobs and property values first.
Another bonus is that, thanks to the Internet, I am in a position where I “know” people in most cities in the country. I like to travel and I like to socialize in controlled bursts with definitive end points, so this arrangement works very well for a person of my temperament. Last night I could meet Levi for a drink in Chicago and on Saturday I can meet Brandon for lunch in Seattle and on Monday I can meet Rob for a beer in Portland. My hometown is filled with strangers, but I have friends, such as they are, all over the country, and we don’t ask too terribly much of one another.
I have had real life, in-person friends tell me that they worry about me and the amount of time I spend alone or on the Internet. But what seems worrisome is in the eye of the beholder. This morning I had breakfast at a cafe near my hotel. The place was empty except for two twentysomething servers behind the counter who gave off a vaguely and somewhat calculatedly bohemian vibe. I didn’t hear most of their conversation but it was about travel. At one point one of them said to the other, “No, I’m never going to Texas. I promised myself years ago that I will never step foot in Texas.” Later he said that he didn’t like to travel much anyway and that “everything I need is here.” If one can judge by appearances I’d guess that this person has a vibrant social life here in Chicago with a lot of friends, but his comment made me feel sorry for him. I’d rather be alone in any number of places than stuck in a silo with oodles of friends.
As I listened to the servers’ conversation I was eating breakfast alone. Yesterday afternoon I walked through a museum alone. I spend most of my day working alone. I like to go to movies and go out to restaurants alone. Outside of the time I spend with my kids and my girlfriend, I spend most of my time alone. Alone is comforting to me.
This afternoon I’ll be getting on a train and traveling across the country alone. Outside of that drink with Levi, lunch with Brandon and the beer with Rob, I’ll explore three cities alone. Maybe this makes me strange. Maybe it’ll become a bigger problem the older I get. I’m not sure. But being alone is not the same as being lonely. And I’m not sure how else to be.
June 4 -- A Human Way to Travel
We rolled out of Chicago on time at 2:15 PM. The ride to Milwaukee reminded me of the commuter train route I take when I visit the NBC home office in Connecticut. Short, halting and very little scenery. Things open up after that, however, as we rolled through lush Wisconsin farmland dotted with little red barns. Whoever designed the Wisconsin license plates was clearly inspired by a ride on the Empire Builder.
I’m researching and outlining a possible book project on this trip. It involves wading through 350 pages of legal documents and cross-referencing two other books. Based on how that sort of thing used to go back in my lawyering days – and based on how hard I find it to work when I’m on a plane – I was worried that I’d be unable to concentrate. But I fell into a nice working rhythm as the farmland went past.
It’s all about personal space. You simply have more of it on a train than you do when you fly. No, the 8’ x 4’ roomette I’m in is not luxurious, and if you’e expecting your house, a hotel room or the Orient Express, you’re in for a rude awakening. But I can shut out the rest of the world with a door and curtain if I’d like. I can put my feet up. I can scatter my documents all over the place and leave open books lying around without worrying about bumping someone’s elbow. I can walk around if I need to stretch my legs and get a drink if I want a drink. I’d never argue a train is a more quick or efficient way to get one’s ass across the country than flying is, but in an age of security theater, fasten-seat belt signs, air marshals and ever-shrinking legroom it’s certainly more human.
I plowed through a couple hundred pages of work before dinner, which is served cruise-ship style, in that if you’re less than a party of four you share a table with someone. My love of being alone notwithstanding, I found this to be a pleasant experience. I was joined by an older couple from the U.K. who are making their first visit to the United States and an ornithologist from Montana who was returning home after visiting family. We ate our better-then-you-might-expect steak and had a lively chat about the Mississippi River which we crossed during dinner, and English soccer. The Brits thought the Mississippi went east-west rather than north-south and we corrected them. I thought they said they supported Manchester United when they actually supported Leeds United and they corrected me. The ornithologist briefed us about how meals and tipping work on Amtrak, as he has traveled the Empire Builder at least once a year, every year, since the mid-1990s.
Back to my roomette for more work and the pleasure of doing something else I can’t do on a plane: cracking open my own bottle of whiskey I brought along, putting on a pair of pajama pants and laying back with my feet up. Did I mention that train travel is more human?
The sun went down and the sky turned a brilliant red just as we left Red Wing, Minnesota. As I write this it’s 10pm and we’re pulling into St. Paul. I’ve adjusted nicely to the gentle rocking of the train and anticipate a nice night’s sleep. When I wake up I’ll be someplace in North Dakota. I’ll get my bearings, walk down the hallway and get a fresh cup of coffee, stretch out a little and then get back to work.
June 5 -- Boomtown
The good night’s sleep I was anticipating last night wasn’t quite as good as I had hoped. Not terrible, but I was jostled awake a number of times. At 5:19 A.M. a couple of loud people got on board at Grand Forks, North Dakota and made their way into their roomette just down the hall from me.
“I’LL TAKE THE TOP BUNK, OK?”
“YAH, YOU CAN HAVE IT, I’LL STAY DOWN LOW!”
“BOY, IT SURE IS CRAMPED IN HERE. NOT SURE HOW I’LL SLEEP!”
Oh, believe me. If you try to sleep I’ll be sure that space is the least of your problems.
Whatever. I wake up at 5:30 most days anyway. At home it’s the cat. Here it’s the loudmouths from Grand Forks. May as well keep my usual rhythms. Besides, it could be worse. After getting a cup of coffee I made my way back through a couple of coach cars to the observation car and passed by people sleeping in all manner of contorted angles in their seats and, in some cases, on the floor. The coach seats recline and have lots of space, but at some point you need to be horizontal to sleep well. For all that I have loved in my day on the train so far, it’s worth remembering that I’m very fortunate to be in a sleeper car. Even with the loudmouths.
I watched the sun rise over the prairie for a little while. After a few minutes a rather hard-looking man in his 30s sat down next to me. We made small talk for a minute and then the talk got big.
“So what do you think of the marijuana legalization stuff?” he asked me.
“I’m in favor of it,” I said. “It’s not hurting anyone.”
“Do you think they should legalize hard drugs?” he said.
“I really can’t see anyone having the political will to ever make that happen,” I said.
“Oh, they won’t.” He said. “But I’m asking should they?”
Something in his tone and his look suggested that he had a greater stake in this than mere intellectual curiosity. It seemed like he was looking for validation. I made some non-committal grunts, changed the subject back to the weather and bid him good morning.
Over breakfast I talked to two women from Minot, North Dakota, which we were quickly approaching. They’ve lived there for a long time and make the trip between Minneapolis and Minot a couple of times a year to visit family. Minot and all of western North Dakota has experienced radical change in recent years thanks to an oil and gas boom. A boom which has lined a lot of pockets but which has brought in workers and wildcatters, some just looking to earn a living, others looking to strike it rich. They told me that, as with any boom, it has brought with it a lot of problems in the form of transients and troublemakers, heavy drinkers and hard drug users. Many of them are rootless and work two-week-on, two-week-off schedules, going back and forth between Minot and either Minneapolis or Seattle. Often on the Empire Builder. “Watch yourself in the lounge car later,” one of my breakfast companions warned me. “Sometimes they get rowdy.”
I can’t say I’ve seen any of that yet. But looking out across the rather bleak North Dakota landscape I can certainly see how being here might inspire a non-native to seek out pleasure and excitement however one can. Like most places, including most places I’ve lived, I’m sure it has its beauties and its charms. They’re just not obvious to an outsider merely passing through.
As I write this we’re pulling into Williston. It’s the last stop in North Dakota. We’re close to an hour behind schedule which, based on what I’ve heard about the Empire Builder’s track record, is better than I assumed it’d be at this point. Montana is next. For four or five hours it will look a lot like North Dakota, and I plan to use that time to work on my book proposal. By around dinnertime we should be into some pretty country, including Glacier National Park.
June 5 -- Losing Time
I’ve been on this train for about 30 hours, but time has ceased to mean much. The meal service structures it somewhat, but just somewhat. For the most part I’ve just sort of … floated.
Normally such circumstances are torture for me. I thrive on structure and schedules and I don’t do the just-sit-there-and-stare-into-space thing very well. And I’m not good at waiting for anything. At all. Ever. But today has been quite relaxing for me.
I got more work done than I planned to yesterday so I didn’t feel too terribly pressed to write as much today. I’ve written some, but I’ve also looked out the window a good deal. There’s no Wi-fi on this train so I’ve only briefly gotten online when I’ve had a strong enough cellular signal to tether to my phone, but that hasn’t been often. I’ve read some. I’ve listened to music. Mostly I’ve watched North Dakota and Montana go by.
Or not go by. The train was stopped near Wolf Point, Montana for close to two hours early this afternoon due to a track obstruction. Even minor flight delays cause me aggravation, but being at a dead stop in the middle of the prairie that long didn’t bother me a bit. We’re something like three hours behind schedule overall, but I don’t care. I don’t have anything pressing that I’m at risk of missing and I’ll get there when I get there. All of this time out here in the middle of nowhere is a feature of this trip, not a bug. A delay here and there almost feels like a gift to me.
At a time when our jobs and families require so much planning and structuring and even our vacations are scheduled to the nth degree it’s important to just get lost sometimes. To just float for a while. So far doing so has cleared and quieted my head. And that’s almost as important to my writing as the actual writing is.
June 7 -- Life Hacks: Wake Up Early, Travel Alone
I woke up at 4am on Saturday morning. My body thought it was 5am due to the time change, though, so I guess that makes it OK. Idaho turned into Washington and we reached Spokane just after sunrise. The Pacific Time Zone is made for morning people. It gets bright there so much earlier than it does in Ohio. A Mennonite farmer from Indiana who had been traveling with me since Chicago agreed. “I have no use for it being light at 9:30 in the summer,” he said. “I’d love it to be light at five, though.” So the Mennonites and I have at least one thing in common.
By now our train was three hours behind schedule. As a I said before, keeping a schedule isn’t important to me on this trip. One downside, though, was that instead of reaching Glacier National Park before sunset the night before we reached it after dark. I’ll see it on the way back I suppose.
It’s hard to figure that the scenery could compare to the Cascades anyway. The stretch between Wenatchee and Seattle was breathtaking. The route follows the Columbia to the Wenatchee to the Skykomish rivers. Though the Okanogan National Forest and past a half dozen beautiful mountain peaks and over a few dozen bridges above waterfalls, rafters, kayakers and fishermen. The only part that wasn’t beautiful was nonetheless amazing: the Cascade Tunnel, which took us under Stevens pass. At nearly eight miles long it is the longest tunnel in the United States. I turned the lights off in my roomette an went through it in near total darkness.
I took some pics from the train window. I can’t imagine how amazing it would be to hike and raft in this country. I plan to someday.
At Everett we turned south and headed into Seattle with Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains to our right, Mt. Baker behind us and Mt. Rainer ahead and to the left. The day was sunny and crystal clear. The conductor said that we were lucky to see them all.
A baseball writer friend – another one I had never met in person – picked me up at the station. We had lunch and talked about our various writing projects. He’s writing a book I’m rather excited about, as it encapsulates and will attempt to quantify an idea about baseball, fame, stardom, hype and media bias that has fascinated me for some time. I was flattered when he asked me to write the foreward. I hope I can do the thing justice and I hope for my friend’s sake that the book is a success.
I made it to Safeco Field late in the afternoon. By sheer happenstance some baseball bloggers I know were holding a group event before the Mariners-Rays game, so I bought I ticket to that. I met a handful of HardballTalk readers and people I know through social media and enjoyed a couple of innings of Felix Hernandez shutting down the Tampa Bay Rays. Midway through the game I left the group to get a better look at the ballpark. Just after the fifth inning I hit a wall, however, with a couple of days worth of sleep deficit finally waylaying me. I hate to leave a ballgame early but I could tell that I wasn’t going to be good company if I had stayed.
It was a nice night so I walked the mile and a half back to my hotel, going through Pioneer Square, stopping at Pike’s Place Market – the fish-throwers were closed for the night, sadly – and trying to soak in what little bits of Seattle I could in my short time here.
I made it back to my hotel, got a drink in the bar and took it upstairs. The hatch to the fire escape at the end of the hallway was open for some reason. I climbed through it and sat on the fire escape for a while listening to the sounds of the city. My head hit the pillow just after 10 and I was out a second later. I slept eight and a half hours, which I never, ever do. A bed that didn’t rock back and forth was just what the doctor ordered.
When you’re a morning person breakfast is really important. Which makes Sundays hard sometimes because I don’t want brunch, goddammit. I want breakfast. Not at 11, not at 9. But at 7. At the latest. Denny’s and Waffle House are always there for you, of course, but we morning people who are interested in something a bit more adventurous on Sundays usually have to wait. Luckily I found a nice place near my hotel that opened at 7. I only had to wait outside five minutes for them to open instead of my usual 15 minutes. I sort of have a problem.
From breakfast I walked to the Space Needle. I was told that after 10am or so on the weekends that the line can stretch forever and you can wait over an hour to go up to the top, but for me there was no wait. Another clear day gave me a great view of Mt. Rainer and a city that has no business being as beautiful as it is. Once back down I wandered through an interesting neighborhood, found a cafe, got some coffee and relaxed.
On the train I’ve felt like I’ve been working. In Seattle for the past 24 hours, however, I have felt like I am on vacation, which is not the sort of thing most people do by themselves. I suppose people think it’s odd to do it. They really shouldn’t. It’s pretty fantastic. You can make decisions quickly. You can sit in a cafe or on a bench and watch people and listen to their conversations. Or you can do nothing for a longer period of time than you might otherwise. You can get lost in your thoughts and not worry that you’re being rude to your companions.
I plan to vacation with my kids and my girlfriend and other loved ones throughout my life, of course, but I think I’ll always make a point to take some trips by myself too. Traveling is about getting away from that which is familiar. That applies just as much to your headspace and routines as it does to your home.
I’m getting on the train to Portland now, where I’ll spend the next couple of days. More updates to follow.
June 9 -- Portlandia
I have spent the past 50 hours in Portland, Oregon, my new favorite city in the country.
I think most people, on every good vacation, get that “man, I’d love to live here!” feeling. It usually goes away in a day or two after the trip is over and real life resumes. Maybe that will be the case with me too, but I’ve never gotten that feeling as strongly anyplace else as I have in Portland. Assuming I’m still doing the same sort of live-anywhere-you-want kind of work in a few years when my kids are out of the house I could quite easily see myself moving to Portland.
The beer, coffee and food is fantastic. It’s a beautiful city aesthetically speaking. The people are generally pleasant and helpful to obvious tourists like me. The city is nice and compact and walkable and when it’s too far to walk it’s got the best mass transit system I’ve ever used. In the past couple of days I’ve taken the light rail, the streetcar and the bus, all of which has made a big city feel small. I haven’t even been bothered that it’s been unusually hot while I’ve been here.
The “Portlandia” stuff is pretty obvious here, of course. In some ways this is a good thing for someone like me. I’m a pretty liberal guy with progressive social, economic and environmental attitudes and those sorts of sensibilities would fit in here. I could see myself getting somewhat exhausted by it in excess, however. I met a guy for a couple of beers yesterday. He works in public health and he says that the uber-granola tendencies of Portland also lead a lot of people to be anti-vaccinators, to oppose fluoride in the water supply and other similar bits of dangerous nonsense.
That might drive me a little nuts, but then again, living in places with stifling conservatism for most of my life already does. I’d be willing to risk the opposite for a few years.
I’ll forego the blow-by-blow of my time here and just offer some observations:
The Ace Hotel: I stayed here. On one level it’s a somewhat ridiculous conceit of a hotel, with its old-timey everything and extraordinarily self-conscious hipster vibe. That notwithstanding, it’s a wonderfully pleasant place to stay. I like the simple, uncluttered aesthetic, wood floors and old plumbing fixtures. And even if it is sort of contrived, it is a legitimately old building – it was the flop house in “Drugstore Cowboy” – and old buildings rule.
Beer: I went to two places, each of which would be the best beer bar in most other cities. Bailey’s Taproom is downtown. Apex Bar is in southeast Portland, but it’s easily accessible via the number 4 bus, which runs often. The selection is fantastic and everything is fresh.
The Heathman: it’s a hotel, but I’m referring to the restaurant. I likely wouldn’t have thought to go there, but my friends in Chicago know their sommelier, James Rahn, and recommended I visit. I ate dinner there Monday night and James sent out drink after tasty drink. Which today has necessitated …
Coffee. And lots of it. Everyone talks about Stumptown, which is excellent, but the best cup I had was at a place called Case Study. I also had great coffee at a place called Barista. I imagine there’s bad coffee in this city. Luckily I didn’t find it.
Salt & Straw Ice Cream: People from Columbus (and a few other places) are familiar with Jeni’s. This is Portland’s Jeni’s. Or Jeni’s is Columbus’ Salt and Straw. I have no idea. Upshot: crazy-inventive flavors. Including a whole selection at the moment inspired by local food carts. Kimchi. Poutine. Yes, poutine ice cream. I got strawberry/honey/balsamic, though. Really couldn’t bring myself to try poutine ice cream. Especially given that, when I was there, I was still pretty hungover from the night before.
Kenny and Zuke’s Deli is known for their pastrami and other classic Jewish deli fare, but the breakfasts were great too.
I took a bunch of pictures too. You can see them all here. I’m back on the train now, rolling out of Portland and heading back east. Back to the working part of this working vacation. Installments when and if cellular service allows.
June 10 -- The People You Meet on the Train
We pulled out of Portland a bit late yesterday but, again, time means little on the train. My decision to come in via Seattle and leave via Portland was validated by the views of the Columbia River gorge on the way back east. I’ll give the Cascades up in Washington a slight edge, but the Gorge was nothing short of gorgeous in its own right.
On the way west I was in the first car past the engine and crew quarters. For this part of the trip I’m in the absolute last car. I don’t think it’s my imagination making me believe that it’s a less smooth and steady trip being in the back. The car seems to rock and sway far more back here than it did up there and going to sleep was a problem. Staying asleep was a problem. Sleeping without dreaming about being on a pitching ship or on a roller coaster was a problem. I’ve been sleeping on the fold-down bed the whole journey, but at midnight last night I switched to the lower level, fold-together lounge chair bed because I was legitimately worried about falling the hell out of my rack.
This morning I woke up just as we headed into Whitefish, Montana and then Glacier National Park. I missed that on the way out due to darkness, but seeing it at sunrise was worth the wait. The tracks hug the south bank of the Flathead River and my roomette on the north side of the train gave me spectacular views of the mountains forests and yes, global warming notwithstanding, some snow fields on the peaks.
I don’t always do social situations well, but by now the lottery-like nature of meal seatings has started to appeal to me. At breakfast I was sat next to a Japanese woman and her adult son. She lives in Japan and speaks no English. He has lived in Las Vegas for 19 years and makes a point of showing her around the United States on various trips. Over the past few years I’ve learned that I can talk baseball with just about any Japanese person I meet, and they were no exception. The mother wanted to know what I thought about Yu Darvish. I’m not sure what it is, but every Japanese person asks about Yu Darvish first. Ichiro? Eh. Hideki Matsui? Old news. It’s all about Darvish.
At lunch I met a guy whose job it is to drive brand new RVs off the assembly line in South Bend, Indiana and deliver them to customers on the west coast. His employer makes a deal with him and his fellow drivers: they can get paid a certain rate if the want the employer to fly them back or they can get paid a much higher rate if they take care of their own transportation. A betting man, my lunch companion has, for years now, taken the latter option and the train has been his secret weapon for coming out ahead.
I just finished dinner where my companions were an academic couple from Madison, Wisconsin and the closest thing to Dos Equis “The World’s Most Interesting Man.” The academics wanted to talk about whether I think Bernie Sanders has a real shot at the presidency, and they REALLY hope he does. The World’s Most interesting Man – in his mid-60s with a salt-and-pepper beard – spent time in the Peace Corps in Venezuela, road tripped through pre-civil war/breakup Yugoslavia and is on his way to some place in Minnesota where an Airstream trailer is waiting for him, which he’ll then take to the Maritime Provinces of Canada for the summer because, hell, why not? I want to be him when I grow up.
Let’s see, what else. Oh yes! The smokers. There are a lot of smokers on Amtrak. Someone told me that a certain sort of smoker likes to take Amtrak, even if it takes way longer than a plane, because it’s impossible for them to go five hours across the country on a flight without a cigarette. That seems extreme to me, but there are certainly eager smokers on Amtrak. We stop every couple of hours at a station that affords them time to burn one, but for some it’s still not enough. This afternoon, during one of the longer stretches between stations in the middle of Montana, an announcement came over the P.A. from the conductor saying that he knew someone on board was smoking and that, if caught, they would be put off the train. I’ve been told by others that it’s not at all uncommon for someone to be kicked off the train on long hauls either for smoking or for being drunk, so I was sort of looking forward to the drama. Sadly, the offender was not caught and cast off into the prairie land to die of exposure.
I’ve gotten more work done on my book proposal today than I have in several days. I still don’t know if it’s any good, but I feel that way about almost everything I write. For all of the people you talk to on the train you do spend a lot of time alone as well. In my roomette alone, I have zig-zagged between confidence and self-loathing with respect to my writing. I’ve had moments of supreme self-satisfaction and moments where I’ve questioned why I’m bothering or why anyone would want to read any words I put down on a page.
The more real writers I talk to the more I learn that this duality is an inherent part of the gig. I’m not sure if that should comfort me for being on the right track or scare the fuck out of me for choosing a life that is fraught with such highs and lows.
I’m in North Dakota now. I’ll wake up in Minnesota and be back to Chicago by early evening. The journey is almost over.
June 11 -- Thanks, Amtrak
I woke up yesterday morning in western Minnesota. I got a cup of coffee and talked to the sleeping car attendant who told me that a couple was put off the train at Grand Forks, North Dakota in the middle of the night because they were caught smoking pot. I asked if they got arrested or anything and she said no, they were just kicked off. I imagine to some people it may be preferable to get arrested than to just be dumped in Grand Forks at 2AM, but I wouldn’t know about that.
A little while ago I did some Googling of “marijuana on Amtrak” to see how common this is. Most results were about getting through the station carrying. The consensus; no one cares if you’re just holding, which squares with my observations. No dogs, no metal detectors.
It rained most of the rest of the way to Chicago, which was good for working and good for occasional reflection. Work on what is turning into a pretty OK book proposal, I think. Reflection on my last week and change, mostly, and how different it is to see the country by train than it is to fly or drive through. It’s not fast as flying and it’s not as comfortable as being in your own car on your own schedule, but I feel like it has its advantages as well.
It forced an introvert like me to interact with people. The folks I rode with and ate with and the folks who fed me and the folks who attended the sleeping car. The people who picked me up at train stations. I still like to do things alone including travel, but it’s amazing how little one can interact with other people if one sets their life up just so. Taking the train disrupted that and I think that’s a good thing. And, if anything, gave me more license to travel alone because I knew that even in doing so I would not be isolated.
It made me let go of time. I was delayed three hours on the trip out and over two hours on the trip back. Sometimes I had to wait for the dining car to clear out and sometimes I had to wait to use the bathroom or the shower. It didn’t matter. I was not in a hurry, by design. There were some minor frustrations while traveling by train, but there was very little stress.
There was no Internet on the train. Yes, at times I tethered to my phone to post one of these entries or to waste a few moments online, but a lot of the time I didn’t even have a cell phone signal. I’m not one of those people who believes it’s bad to be online, but it was good for me to be offline more than I usually am. And I imagine being offline had a great deal to do with me feeling little stress and not worrying too much about time.
Mostly I was just happy to see some places I’ve never seen and do it in a way that I had never done. I have a lot of responsibilities in my life. I don’t lament the fact that I have them and I don’t resent those to whom I owe them, but if my responsibilities disappeared tomorrow, I would be traveling, possibly constantly. That I was able to freewheel for ten days was a rare treat which I savored and will always savor. And that would be the case even if I didn’t make a lot of headway on a writing project that, if I’m lucky, will turn into something fun.
Thanks, Amtrak, for giving me this writer’s residency. Thanks for the time to think and not think and to see the country in a way people don’t see it too terribly much anymore. More people should.
Maybe book a trip the next time you get a few days off. As long as your expectations are realistic and your mind is open, you’ll probably learn a lot about yourself. And about some other things.
I love baseball so much that I turned it into my job. I love bourbon so much that I drink it like it’s my job. The drinking parts of baseball are pretty much owned by beer, so the two of those things don’t come together very often, but when they do I am about the happiest camper there can be.
I am midway through a fantastic new book by Reid Mitenbuler called “Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey.” It’s a bourbon history, basically. And so far a good one. My favorite part of it is that it is, in essence, a debunking. A debunking of the myriad myths surrounding bourbon, its history and its culture. About how those old frontiersman named on the bottle of your favorite whiskey had little if anything to do with it. About how hardly any of the stories about bourbon and its provenance are really true, even if you hear these tales on an actual distillery tour. Maybe especially if you hear them on a distillery tour.
“Bourbon Empire” is not a mean-spirited debunking by any stretch, however. Mitenbuler clearly has affection for his subject and the demystification of bourbon has led me to enjoy the two or three glasses of bourbon I’ve drank since I opened this book the other night even more than usual. There’s something uplifting about knowing the mess of history whence those glasses came. I’m a big fan of messes and chaos. Such things are far more amenable to the creation of great things than a neat and tidy order.
A lot of my baseball writing involves debunking the news and narratives of the day and a lot of my favorite baseball writing of others involves debunking baseball history, so this all has a natural appeal to me. Like bourbon’s origin stories, baseball’s origins were, for years, presented in as neat and tidy a manner as you could imagine. Baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday one fine afternoon. Or, if you don’t believe that, its rules were laid down by Alexander Cartwright. Or would you believe Henry Chadwick? OK, maybe we can’t agree on who the “father of baseball” is, but the idea that baseball was simply invented one day by some father figure is true, right?
Well, of course not. Baseball developed from any number of stick-and-ball games like rounders, bat and trap, and stool ball. The games which, over time, meshed together in important ways to form what we now know of as baseball. It’s a fascinating history, featured in a great documentary a few years back, which reveals that baseball wasn’t truly invented. Rather, it evolved like many other games, from some primordial common ancestor, probably in England, often due to pragmatism and random chance.
Modern baseball is likewise filled with neat and tidy tales. We don’t identify them as tales that often because they come to us in the form of news reports or commentary. But they’re tales. Whenever something can’t be sufficiently explained, fantasy is sprinkled on top of it in order to make it make sense. Sometimes that fantasy is old, unfalsifiable conventional wisdom. Things like a player’s “will to win” or “hunger” for success. Or his lack of fire, motivation or respect for the game. Sometimes people attempt to fill those empty spaces from another direction altogether. Analytics and sabermetrics which, though I am clearly partial to them, have their limits and are probably in need of some cosmic-level rethinking.
Such is the case with bourbon. It was born of a similar pragmatism. The availability of corn as opposed to other grains. The practicality of shipping it in barrels, which led to the serendipitous discovery of some interesting new flavors. The borrowing of distilling and aging concepts from other spirits like brandy and consumption and criticism habits regarding it from things like wine, even as the entire macho frontiersman gestalt of bourbon encourages a rejection of fancy-pants things like brandy and wine.
On page 52 of “Bourbon Empire” Mitenbuler quotes the author Julien Barnes in identifying everything you need to know about the marketing of bourbon. Specifically, that it can be characterized as:
“ … that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
And so it is with so much that is written about baseball. Most people in my industry are content to fill up that empty intersection with bullshit or false, tidy narratives. Hey, if you don’t buy it, prove them wrong! If they’ll stop appealing to their place of perceived authority long enough to even listen to you.
The longer I write about baseball, the more I prefer to allow that intersection to remain empty. And, at times, messy. The world is sometimes empty and messy, after all. Why should baseball, bourbon or anything else be an exception?
Someone snagged some alcohol and took it, quite illegally, to where it shouldn’t have been taken. It wasn’t an impulsive crime of opportunity, however. It wasn’t someone knocking over the corner liquor store. This was planned. Planned by professionals who knew exactly what they were taking and exactly who would be drinking the illegally-obtained booze. And the people who would be drinking it would be paying top dollar for the privilege. Far more than the retail price.
Why? Because the alcohol in question was scarce. Not the sort of thing you could find just anywhere. Its scarcity is what made it valuable. Its scarcity likely even made it taste better to the folks who would eventually drink it. Better to them than it would taste to someone who drank from the same bottles obtained through legal means. Better than stuff that, objectively speaking, was not much different and may have in fact tasted better than the illegal stuff before its qualities were enhanced by the air of danger and intrigue which infused it with … greater complexities.
The booze in question: Coors beer. Obtained illegally by Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed in the 1977 film “Smokey and the Bandit.” It was illegal to ship Coors east of Texas in 1977 and that illegality made it a highly sought-after commodity to Big Enos and Little Enos Burdette, who bankrolled the racket in order to get the stuff to serve, quite appropriately, at a banquet in honor of the winner of the Southern Classic truck rodeo in Georgia.
It seems preposterous now that the plot to the second highest-grossing movie of 1977 was set in motion by someone coveting Coors beer. Because, with all apologies to the good folks at the MillerCoors Brewing Company, Coors is kind of crappy. A mass-produced light lager that your dad probably drank because that’s about as good as he could do for the price and which you probably drank when you were in college because, Jesus, you didn’t know any better.
But drive the plot it did. Its believability as a McGuffin supported by its scarcity east of Texas. Its value supported by a small handful of wealthy men who used its scarcity and their ability to overcome it as a means of showing off to their friends. When the Bandit and the Snowman smashed their way through that last police blockade with that truck full of Coors and handed their haul over to Big and Little Enos, the retail price of their load didn’t matter a bit.
The same goes for another bunch of booze illegally swiped: 200 bottles of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, stolen from the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky back in October 2013. Those bottles go for anywhere between $40 and $250 at retail but, because of their scarcity, can fetch over $1,000 in private sales. Some sales have netted as high as $5,000. And those are just the sales between friends and acquaintances on the so-called “gray market.” There’s no telling what they’d go for on the truly black market.
It’s not that Pappy is so much better than any other bourbon. Oh, it’s good. Thanks to a good friend with family near Lexington I was lucky enough to have some back before the bourbon bubble truly inflated. I enjoyed it a great deal. But it’s not hundreds of times better than the next best thing. It really can’t be.
All bourbon, in order to be bourbon, has to have a mash bill (i.e. the proportion of grains used in the fermentation process) of 51% corn. Up to that point, the stuff is all identical. It’s what makes up the other 49% that gives different bourbons their different tastes.
But here’s bourbon’s little secret: there are generally only three different taste profiles once you get past the corn:
Pappy Van Winkle is a wheated bourbon. It’s a good one, usually aged longer – 10, 15 or 23 years compared to the 3-7 years of most bourbons – but it’s still a wheated bourbon. Unless you’re in the bourbon industry and have tasted multiple different bourbons hundreds of different times as a point of professional purpose, you’re not going to be able to identify a great many bourbons by taste alone. it’s safe to say that the occasional bourbon drinker couldn’t tell the difference between Pappy and, say, Willett Pot Still Reserve, W.L. Weller or a Maker’s 46. After they’ve already had a couple, a novice bourbon drinker could probably be fooled with a bit of Old Fitz. Maybe even some of those occasional drinkers.
Yet there Old Pappy sits at the top of the bourbon pyramid, coveted, sought after and, yes, even stolen. Not because it’s so great but because the folks at Buffalo Trace produce only 1% of the amount of it as the folks at Jim Beam 70 miles to the southwest make of their white label bourbon each year. Because celebrity chefs like David Chang, Sean Brock, and Anthony Bourdain have conspicuously endorsed it. Because its annual release has been well-marketed as “Pappy-Day,” creating a land rush effect.
Of course, Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon is not unique in this respect. Simple economics suggest that the low supply of any product combined with its high demand will beget a higher price. But there’s something else going on with Pappy Van Winkle. There the low supply and great demand is baked into the price. It comes before the price is set. But then an after-effect of exclusivity washes over it where either the price or the overall scarcity of the product works to make people think it actually tastes better than it really does. Ask anyone who has been fortunate enough to drink some Pappy recently. They’ll tell you it’s the best they’ve ever had. Mostly because they’ve been fortunate enough to have it.
It’s not simple snobbery at work here, however.
Back in 2008 some Caltech economics professors conducted a study which found that changes in the stated price of a given wine influenced how good volunteers thought it tasted. But it wasn’t just an instance in which vanity and exclusivity entered into things. The lead researcher, Antonio Rangel, concluded that "prices, by themselves, affect activity in an area of the brain that is thought to encode the experienced pleasantness of an experience.” Put differently: the price tag on the wine bottle literally made the person drinking it think it tasted better.
Another product which, I suspect anyway, affects brain chemistry is In-N-Out Burger. Here it’s not about price. In-N-Out Burger’s menu prices are pretty low, actually. It’s really about exclusivity. As a result of the company’s obsession with quality control and its refusal to franchise, In-N-Out’s reach has been limited to five states: California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Texas.
My brother worked at an In-N-Out burger in San Diego for several years. He can vouch for the quality of their food. But the taste? It’s good. Quite good! But are the burgers better than Shake Shack? Five Guys? Any number of other burger joints across the country which use fresh, high-quality ingredients? Maybe a bit. Maybe a good bit if your palette is simply more amenable to the extra Thousand Island spread, mustard grilled patties, and extra pickles of an animal style burger. But it’s not so much better than the next chain down to justify the frenzy and the hype, is it? My brother grew positively sick of the stuff after six months and started taking his lunch breaks at the Del Taco across the street.
I’m a baseball writer, and an annual tradition among baseball writers is for the ones sent to Arizona for spring training to gloat about the availability of In-N-Out Burger to the sad, unfortunate baseball writers who have to cover spring training in Florida. Whenever I travel from Ohio to California to visit my brother, I’m always asked by friends if I plan to stop at In-N-Out before or after I go to his house. And there those celebrity chefs again – among them Thomas Keller and our old friend Anthony Bourdain – singing In-N-Out’s praises, stoking that perception of quality and feeding that demand.
I’ll leave it to Antonio Rangel and his colleagues at Caltech to parse all of that. But for now I will try to find “Smokey and the Bandit” streaming online and giggle anew at the fact that the whole damn thing was set off by Coors beer. And wonder whether, if and when there is a reboot of the franchise, Big Enos and Little Enos Burdette will send the Bandit after Pappy Van Winkle, In-N-Out Burger or something else entirely.
There was a little dustup this morning in the baseball blogosphere. Background: outfielder Josh Hamilton, a drug addict who has authored an amazing story of personal and professional redemption, recently relapsed. It was minor and his playing career will now resume, but it created a rift with this team, the Los Angeles Angeles. Yesterday the rift was resolved when the Angels traded Hamilton back to his old team, the Texas Rangers. You can read the background of it all here if you care.
Last night an Angels blog called Halos Heaven wrote an ignorant and hateful good-bye to Hamilton. It was vile, even by the standards of worst parts of the Internet, essentially predicting and almost wishing for, it seemed, Hamilton’s decline and death due to drugs. The company which hosts Halos Heaven – SB Nation – removed the blog post this morning, but you can see it preserved for posterity here. UPDATE: SB Nation and the guy who wrote that blog have “parted ways.”
This all interests me from the perspective of someone who, like the Halos Heaven guy, writes a baseball blog at a larger media company. A “vertical,” to use the parlance of the business. Just as that guy runs the Los Angeles Angels “vertical” for SB Nation, I run the baseball “vertical” for NBC. The biggest difference is that SB Nation’s entire model is verticals, essentially – they have hundreds of them across multiple sports – whereas NBC has a small number under the “Talk” brand like ProFootballTalk, HardballTalk, ProBasketballTalk, etc. while still doing lots of other things. Still, not terribly dissimilar in theory. And not uncommon in online media today. It’s been around quite a while.
The vertical model is useful. And robust. With it, a large media company can cover a lot of ground it wasn’t otherwise covering. People who use words like “scaleable” call this a “scaleable” model. (note: limit your interaction with people who use words like “scaleable” a lot). As opposed to having some central editor back at corporate actively managing and gatekeeping coverage in a zillion different disciplines, you get some “experts,” for lack of a better term, delegate and let them do their thing with much less day-to-day supervision.
But there are tradeoffs, of course. When you delegate you take risks. A big risk of the vertical model is that one of your vertical mangers may be a freakin’ loon who writes hot mess content like that fellow at Halos Heaven did. When that happens, it doesn’t just reflect poorly on the vertical. It reflects poorly on the entire company. In this case, SB Nation. The same scalability that works to the media company’s benefit comes back to bite it when things go sideways.
Of course, there’s a good way to protect against this. Not by having some editor look everything over first, for that defeats the purpose and kills the robustness of the vertical model. The protection comes from hiring adults to run your verticals.
You’d think this is obvious. I mean, who in any business would delegate responsibility to someone irresponsible or with no accountability? No one, really, except for companies which publish stuff on the Internet. There you still see this a lot. Companies getting contractors or even unpaid folks to provide content. Attracting writers who, quite understandably, are looking for any break they can get. Often media companies sell this to them as “providing exposure,” but let’s be clear about it: it’s just a way for a company to get someone’s labor on the cheap.
Sometimes it’s young people who, however talented and promising they may be, might not have the market cornered on good judgment just yet. It’s not just an age thing. Indeed, I’ve seen better work from younger people overall than I have from older people, at least in sports. And the Halos Heaven guy, I understand, is at least my age and may be older. But there is a certain risk in delegating to someone so green.
The far bigger reason you get questionable content, I think, is because a lot of it in this day and age is being produced by people who are not being paid a living wage or for whom the internet content biz is not their day job. These people, young and old, may be talented, but they can’t really be expected to have the same level of accountability as an experienced, dedicated and full-time person. If you have a term paper due or a end-of-year accounting to be done at the company which supplies your health insurance, it’s not hard to understand why that bit of sports analysis came up half-assed. People prioritize in life. And, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for.
I realize this is self-serving and/or ass-kissing given that they employ me, but there’s a reason why NBC’s sports verticals work. And why they rarely if ever have stepped on it with questionable content: NBC hired grownups. Guys like Mike Florio, Kurt Helin and me. Adults who take our jobs seriously because they are, you know, our jobs, not our hobbies. Because we have been tasked with some responsibility and strive to demonstrate it in equal measure. Not because we’re better or more professional people or anything like that, but because that’s just how the basic social contract works when it comes to employment in our society.
The other “Talk” guys and I may write stuff that people disagree with. Heck, we do it often. But based on my experience in the real world back in the day, I know that an employer can deal just fine with an employee simply being wrong about something. I lost cases as a lawyer and I’ve blown bits of analysis as a blogger. It happens and will happen again. But what an employer does not like is having to answer constant questions about what the hell you just did from people who normally wouldn’t be paying attention. And what an employee can’t come back from is being an agenda item at a meeting to which he or she is not invited. These are the measures by which a model based on delegation is judged internally. And these are the things that happen when you delegate to people who aren’t as invested in your company’s mission and future as you are.
So: scale away, media companies. Achieve efficiencies and synergies with robust models until your heart and bank accounts are content. But understand that when you do so, you’re handing someone the keys to a truck with your name on the side. Make sure you give those keys to someone you trust and make sure you incentivize them to be just as careful with your truck as you would be.
Dustin Parkes penned a thought-provoking essay today. It’s about the fate of writers in a world that seems to value longer, more in-depth writing and reporting less and less as time goes on and values shorter, bloggier, clickable content more and more.
Parkes has some recent experience with this. He used to write for the sports site The Score where he specialized in longer form writing. Deeper dives. A year or two ago, however, that site let Parkes and a lot of other good writers go, deleted their archives and has attempted to pursue a more flashy, gossip-driven and viral content existence. Parkes uses the term “snackable content,” which I believe was actually coined by people who like the shorter stuff, even if it sounds like something of an insult.
A lot of people who have done the sort of work Parkes did at The Score but who are finding it harder to make a go of it these days aren’t terribly happy with the demand for shorter, fluffier content. Indeed, many in journalism who have found themselves on that side of this content divide have taken to disparaging modern tastes and modern media and have chalked it up to the dumbing down of the culture. Parkes gives some excellent examples of this based on some recent controversial changes to The New Republic.
But rather than join in that chorus, as many a smart, deep-thinking writer has done of late, Parkes calls for an end to that. Or at least points out how useless it is for a writer to take that stance. And it’s not just a surrendering, hands-up, “well, the mob has spoken” kind of thing. Parkes acknowledges that journalistic form will, inevitably, follow the function its readers want it to serve:
“It’s absurd to imagine changes in the production and accessibility of writing not affecting how we read it … Being willing to experiment and innovate will propel us much farther than wallowing in the fact that current trends don’t match our sensibilities. As our reaction to the changes at The New Republic illustrates, it’s easier to bemoan what was great about the past than adapt to the future. We’d rather shame the people looking to make writing economically viable than consider how content is being consumed. And that’s to our detriment.”
Adapt or perish, Mr. or Ms. Writer Person, because this is a business.
It’s a sentiment with which I completely agree. As I found in my previous career, if you think you’re part of some greater noble calling which should be immune to commercial considerations, you’re gonna find yourself on the unemployment line eventually.
But knowing that you need to get with the times and actually doing it are two different things. Parkes spends a lot of time wrestling with it, but even he concedes at the end that it’s easier said than done. The path to being a decently-compensated writer in this new world is still shaking out, really, and that was the case even before Facebook started wading into things, which is likely to cause even greater disruption in existing models.
Though I got and have, somehow, managed to keep a job in the world of snackable content, I can’t say that I have any monopoly on wisdom here. Especially wisdom that allows writers to continue to keep working and keeps them from having to reduce themselves to the lowest common denominator to do it. But I can say what has worked for me over the past six years.
While my writing in this space often skews long and while I, personally, am quite comfortable with more in-depth analysis, the media consumption landscape doesn’t really tolerate that anymore. Unless you’re Gary Smith or unless you have a particularly compelling story, people won’t read 3,000 words from you on anything approaching a regular basis. And if people aren’t reading you on a regular basis, no one will want to give you a regular outlet for your work. Writing three cool things a year just doesn’t pay anyone’s bills.
But people will read 200 or 400 words over and over and over again. If you have a distinct point of view and a decent set of principles you can write 200 or 400 word pops every day – or multiple times a day – and manage to attract readers who keep coming back for those little snacks. If you keep your mind on what is important and maintain that distinct point of view and that decent set of principles, you can say a few things in the process that matter. At least in the aggregate.
Sure, there are some tradeoffs involved here. You have to pay the bills, so you you may have to play videos. Or write a list once in a while. You have to make jokes or embed Vines and assorted crap like that. And, apart from the rare indulgence, you won’t be able to hold up a brilliant 3,000 word essay and say “I did this; this is important!” But you will have a body of work which, while no one single thing may be earth-shatteringly important, amounts to something that you can call your own and which your readers can say gave them something valuable.
In my experience, I probably write something of any serious length a couple of times a year. A couple of times a week I may write something that exceeds 1,000 words. Mostly I’m writing 15-20 short hits, some of which are just links to other articles, some of which are jokes or pictures or videos. A few of which are short bursts of sharp opinion. All of that taken together provides something my employers can monetize and which my readers willingly and easily consume.
But I think it’s also fair to say that all of these short bits amount to something of substance. Yes, my readers come for laughs and videos and little snacks, but they also know that I stand for some things and that I can be trusted to offer some wisdom or insight on the things that are more or less in my wheelhouse.
Maybe it’s not as writerly or noble as the stuff a house columnist at a prestigious periodical produced in the 1950s through the 1990s. Maybe some of it is base and commercial and calculated to get people click, click, click. But it’s a way to get ideas out there while simultaneously giving readers and publishers what they want. And that’s about as good as someone can hope in these strange new times.
Baseball lends itself to nostalgia. It’s a sport with a rich history and a tendency to embrace (and sometimes exploit) that history so you really can’t escape its past.
Not that most people want to escape baseball’s past. Many fans are introduced to the sport when they’re young, wander off for a few years in their late teens and twenties and then wander back, often at the same time they’re trying to find some sort of greater meaning or stability in their lives. It’s understandable, then, that people tend to look back a bit when taking it all in. It’s nice to remember the past sometimes. To remember things from back when life wasn’t so complicated.
But some people can’t stop with a fond glance backward or the invocation of a pleasant memory. Some people get caught up in a more toxic strain of nostalgia that blinds them to the beauties and wonders of the present and chains them to the past. Surprisingly, it’s often the people who are closest to the game who most easily fall prey to this habit. Indeed, it’s not uncommon at all among baseball writers who have been around the block a time or two to do so. To come to decide that they no longer like or understand what they see in our national pastime and come to pine for a time in baseball’s past when everything seemed to make so much more sense. Of course it’s rarely couched in the terms of such a dilemma. Usually it’s defensively couched in terms of a rejection of the allegedly flawed present and is followed by a demand that the game be returned to its idyllic past.
Earlier today I came across a particularly egregious example of “back in my day-ism” from an established baseball writer, complete with lamentations of all that the game has become and wishes – hard, sincere wishes – that it could once again be like it used to be. This particular writer was ostensibly trying to address the legitimately pressing matter of Major League Baseball’s diminishing appeal to children, and no doubt believed he was being helpful by prescribing changes in the game which would make it much more like it was when he was a kid. Which is not surprising as the timeframe for “baseball like it used to be” is, invariably, the time when the speaker was about 12 years old. That’s when it was perfect and it should be just like that today. Most people who talk like this will deny that, but the writer today didn’t. He came right out and said “the kids need to see the game we saw as kids. That’s what we fell in love with.”
If I were writing this over at my baseball blog, I’d probably launch into an argument about how baseball today is, despite popular sentiment to the contrary, really fantastic and how the writer is blind to the fact that baseball in his day had problems of its own that are often ignored. I’d point out his factual errors (the Oakland Athletics didn’t just used to wear white shoes, they still do) or make note of his intellectual dishonesty (Bill “Spaceman” Lee, whom the writer holds up as a “colorful character” of baseball’s past, was actively loathed by a baseball establishment that, then and now, discourages individuality and eccentricity and that writer knows that very damn well). But I’ve written that column a hundred times and I’m sort of bored with it. I can write that takedown in my sleep. Sometimes I almost do.
Tonight my thoughts are bigger than baseball. Tonight I’m less inclined to be sharply critical of such a mindset – past criticism in this regard has won me no friends and has changed precisely zero minds – than I am to be sad about it.
Sad that so many people seem reluctant to let time march on. Sad that they don’t want to try to keep up or, if keeping up is too hard, which it sometimes can be, they are unwilling to acknowledge that time and progress is bigger than they are and that it’s OK to let it march on. Sad that they cannot abide things moving beyond their reach and their mastery and that, despite this, they must nonetheless attempt to impose their authority on the subject at hand via any means available, even if that authority comes by virtue of intellectually erroneous things like their own subjective memory of an allegedly idealistic past.
I suspect that this reluctance is a product of fear. Fear that, if their authority over a subject ceases to be recognized, they cease to exist in some way. It’s a fear which is necessarily premised on the notion that their very existence is a function of their authority and that their authority is a product of their job. With said job being given to them decades ago and, well, now here we are. If all of that all goes up in smoke then what is left? Death, I guess. Because certain middle-to-upper middle class parts of our culture have largely decided that when you cease to be professionally relevant and useful all that is left is death. And, holy shit, death is scary! So let’s fight it off with any weapon at hand, even if the only weapon at hand is questionable nostalgia.
But it’s wrong to fear death. At least that narrowly-defined bit of professional death I just described. Because if we’re doing things right, we die a little every day and at no time should we be premising our existence and vitality on who we were when we were younger, let alone when we were twelve years old.
John Updike, in his 1996 memoir “Self Consciousness” got at this notion pretty damn well. He noted that human beings’ very identities are, or at least should be, a product of incremental evolution. Daily evolution, even. And that for this reason we should not fear the passage of time or the changing of our opinions based on the changing of realities in the world we observe:
Not only are selves conditional but they die. Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time? It is even possible to dislike our old selves, those disposable ancestors of ours.
There are old versions of me I don’t much like. Ignorant Craigs who didn’t know then what I know now. Intolerant Craigs who had not yet opened themselves up to new experiences. Wrongheaded Craigs who didn’t value that which current Craig values. In turn, I suspect that future Craigs will hate aspects of current Craig. Or, at the very least, shake their heads, wondering what on Earth he was thinking.
But there’s another way to think about this concept. To think that, every time you look back to the good old days (or the good old you) and either claim them to be superior to the present or wish you were still back enjoying them, you’re killing all of the selves you have become since then. You’re killing those incarnations of you which leaned and evolved and, per Updike’s construction, became born anew with fresh knowledge or perspective. And that’s a best case scenario. An alternate one is that you have never learned, changed or evolved and that your callback to the good old days is a signal of your defiance against all of the forces that, in the normal course, help humanity advance and evolve. “I’ve learned nothing and experienced nothing new worth mentioning” you’re smugly saying. “And I’m damn proud of it!” That’s about the saddest thing I can imagine.
None of which is to say that we’re all going to be able to keep up and stay relevant forever. We should certainly endeavor to, but at some point you or I may truly not understand what these kids today are going on about. You or I may not be quick enough to pick up on every new trick. You or I may simply not understand what’s going on in, say, baseball anymore because it may have gotten too damn complicated for us or it may have ceased to hold our interest.
But if that does happen, we have a choice to make. On the one hand we can choose to live in denial, claim that we are still interested in the subject at hand, claim that we still know everything worth knowing about it and proceed as if we learned it all by the time we were 12 years old. Or we can accept the fact that we’re no longer able to or interested in keeping up, be comfortable with that fact and then go on to find new things to care about and new selves to become.
Personally, I want to find new selves to become. I want to die thousands of more times and wake up a new person thousands of more times before my actual life is over. I want to do everything I can to know and experience new things. If there comes I time when I can no longer really do that, I want to be happy with how far I’ve come and admit to myself that others will continue to do so rather than falsely claimed that, really, there is nothing new to learn or experience.
Because if we believe that there is nothing new to learn or experience, then we truly die. Long before our time.
While I work for NBC, my office is really Twitter. Indeed, I spend most of my working day on Twitter, both monitoring the baseball news and tweeting like crazy. Insights, jokes, things even more useless than that. There are some days where I’d wager that I tweet more words than most writers write in actual articles or columns. I kinda have a problem.
Against that backdrop, my friend Ethan forwarded me this post from Dustin Curtis called “What I would have written,” which describes how Twitter kills his writing:
Twitter takes complex ideas and destroys them by forcing my brain to compact them into little 140-character aphorisms, truisms, or jokes. For every great tweet, there could have been four insightful paragraphs, but there aren’t, and never will be, because Twitter removes my desire to write by killing my ideas. Once I tweet something, I stop thinking about it; it’s like an emotional release of idea liability.
I couldn’t disagree more. For all of my tweeting, I don’t think that Twitter harms my writing at all. Quite the opposite, actually.
I use Twitter to workshop ideas. I’ll tweet some random observation or jokey thing and, occasionally, I’ll follow it up with a bit of elaboration. Maybe a four or five tweet stream will develop. In turn, people’s replies to the tweets – pro, con or indifferent – help me refine the idea. Or persuade me to chuck the idea totally if it’s just stupid or if I missed something.
At the end of all of that, if the idea is more than just a joke or a random observation, I’ll think “hmm, this is a post,” and I’ll then expand the tweets into a more fully-formed idea. The result, quite often, is a blog post I wouldn’t have otherwise had, all because I started tweeting crap that popped into my head. Here’s an example of something I wrote as a result of some tweets. Here’s another. Here’s another. There are probably three or four a week like that.
Twitter is a great tool. A writer spending all day on Twitter is like a guitar player sitting around with friends riffing. Most of the time nothing comes of it other than camaraderie and bullshit. Occasionally, however, a riff will be particularly good and he’ll make a song out of it.
The idea that Twitter kills one’s ability or desire to write is nonsense. If a tweet kills one of your ideas, it probably was a crappy idea anyway.
I wrote about home a couple of years ago. About what we consider to be our hometown and why. About how it doesn’t have to be where you live or where you were born but how subjective things – memories, emotions, one’s conception of oneself – can determine it. For a lot of reasons I said then that I considered Beckley, West Virginia to be my home, even if I didn’t move there until I was a teenager and even if I haven’t lived there permanently for over 20 years.
That’s been complicated for me in the past year and a half. Because my parents moved away from Beckley in he mid-90s, my strongest connection to the place came through my former in-laws who still live there. My wife and I would go back often. Her parents’ house was the closest thing I had to a childhood home. Christmas was there. Thanksgiving. Family gatherings, involving both her family and mine, over the course of 20 years. I came to think of that little house in the holler as my home and to think of her family as my own.
But when we split up I lost that connection. I still love my ex-mother-in-law. My ex-brother-in-law and his family. My wife’s aunts and uncles and all of their people. But they’re no longer regular parts of my life. I see my ex-mother-in-law once every few months when she’s visiting, but it’s nothing more than a hug and a hello through the passenger side window when they come to pick up the kids. Anything more would be awkward, in all honesty, so I can see how it really can’t be any other way.
I also lost the connection to southern West Virginia. I love it so and miss it dearly, but there’s no reason for me to go back there anymore. And there are a lot of reasons, mostly having to do with the maintenance of my mental health, to avoid it altogether. The past can be a difficult place for me these days. Even thinking about it for too long can derail me for a good while. In light of that, actually spending any real time in a place that is haunted by so many ghosts of the past is a terrible idea, no matter how important the place has been to me in my life.
Thank goodness, then, for Scott McClanahan and his book Crapalachia. A memoir of sorts – he’s called it “nonfiction lite” – it’s best described by its subtitle, “a Biography of a Place.” That place is Danese, West Virginia, not very far from Beckley, in western Greenbrier County, where McClanahan grew up. He tells of his life with his hypochondriac grandmother Ruby, his uncle Nathan who suffered from cerebral palsy and his friend Bill who, thanks to OCD, is constantly listening to “Dust in the Wind” and telling everyone the elevation of every surrounding hill.
McClanahan’s life and family in Danese are not a close approximation to my former life and family in Beckley, but there are enough intersections to make “Crapalachia” an exercise in safe nostalgia for me. He tells of a life of close connections to odd people, the likes of which he’s unlikely to ever know again. Stories of family members who worked in the mines. The weird mix of ancient mountain culture and 80s-90s cable television-driven pop culture which makes the place something less than old, something less than new and something altogether odd for a teenage kid in that place at that time. Eccentric people who might stick out in places like Columbus, Ohio but who were just part of the everyday in southern West Virginia. He name-checks the radio station I worked for. The K-Mart and the Captain D’s on Valley Drive. The kinds of places where I’d get beer and get up to no good when I was 16 years-old.
McClanahan says he wrote the book so he could remember these people and places. So he could document their existence and memory before they started to slip from his mind. But Crapalachia is more than just a personal document. His final chapter starts this way:
“My home was gone. So I decided to write this book. I tried to remember all of the people and phantoms I had ever known and loved. I tried to make them laugh and dance, move and dream, love and see … I put the dirt from my home in my pockets and I travel. I am making the world my mountain.”
I didn’t know McClanahan’s people but I knew people like his and I certainly knew his places. And like his home, my home is gone now too, at least for me. McClanahan talks constantly of ghosts in this book. I could feel my own ghosts swirling about me as I read it. It’s been years since I’ve read anything which resonated with me so deeply.
I write for a living, but a lot of things I write never see the light of day. Personal things. Bits of my history. Scenes in my life that I’m still trying to process and which I render in type so that I might go back to them one day when I am wiser and see if I can make better sense of it all than I can now.
I can’t explain the comfort I feel knowing that someone not terribly unlike me has done the same thing about many of the same sorts of people and places – ghosts, for all practical purposes – which haunt me still. And that he seems, from a distance, anyway, to have achieved some amount of peace about it all as a result.
I’m often asked how I got a job writing about baseball for a living. How I managed to turn a legal career and life in an office tower to blogging in my pajamas. The people who ask me that do so in the same way that they might ask a magician how he guessed the card they picked. As if there were some simple trick to it all that, were I so moved, I’d be willing to divulge.
I don’t have an answer for them. There was a lot of luck involved. Some of that luck was the residue of design. It wasn’t good design. Indeed, looking back I’m struck by how reckless I was to make many of the decisions I made while crossing over from the real working world to however you’d describe the world in which I’m more or less paid to argue with people on the Internet all day.
I write a daily recap of the previous night’s events in baseball called “And That Happened.” It doesn’t seek to explain all that much. It merely sets forth what occurred and tries its best to place those events into some kind of understandable context. That’s the best I can do with my career path as well.
I wrote it all up in late 2011. This is it. It's long.