Sunday, August 31, 2008

Saturday, August 30, 2008

'Baseball Between the Numbers'

By now you might have noticed that I've mentioned baseball here a lot. The frequency of its discussion is entirely coincidental. The local team doesn't suck this year, prompting interest; pennant races heat up a little more each passing week, prompting more; and the non-baseball books I reserved from the local library keep getting renewed by whatever glacial readers currently have them, prompting the baseball books I reserved to keep coming in one after another.

Also, a few weeks ago, I read a review of one baseball book, which inspired me to check it out. While reading criticism of it, the critic mentioned and praised another baseball book, which I looked into, which led to the namedropping of another book and yet another. At that point, I figured I should try to cover all the bases (pardon the expression) and just read whatever everyone apparently considered to be the new "classic" sportswriting. After all, it beats another round of Nazis having their frostbitten toes gnawed off by mice.

As to why I'd be interested in baseball books in the first place, I enjoy the game. Even if I didn't, I'd probably affect an appreciation of it, considering The Wife absolutely loathes football, and at some point you just need to watch sports for no particular reason other than to watch sports. (Thankfully, she thinks baseball's all right.) But I also especially enjoy relearning about a game I learned in childhood by applying to it sabermetrics, the attempt to understand baseball from new, mathematically quantifiable standpoints.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Why 'Rambo' Is Probably a Better Movie Than 'Saving Private Ryan'

The opening scene of Rambo shows Burmese soldiers throwing mines into rice paddies, hustling prisoners out of a transport, then forcing them to run through the rice paddies until they trip the mines. The soldiers bet on which prisoners will be the ones to die. Eventually, a prisoner's body erupts in a fountain of crimson and muddy water. From there, the movie only gets more meaninglessly violent. The thing is, that's probably what makes it good.

Ten years ago, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan ushered in an era of ultra-realistic violence in film with a frenzy of dismemberment, fragmentation, ventilation and explosion that was accepted almost uncritically. This acceptance derived in part from the fact that Spielberg brings a great deal of gravitas to any production, in part because he's an excellent filmmaker — and in part because he's Jewish, which lends a cultural weight to his rightfully demonizing Nazis — but also because Spielberg is very good at controlling the narrative tone of what he's showing.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Stalingrad II: Thirteen Errors

The "story" of the Battle of Stalingradis fairly simple, so a brief recap for those unfamiliar with it should help before moving on to Beevor's arguments about those events.

In 1941, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, a massive attack on the Soviet Union. Despite ample evidence from his own intelligence agencies, Stalin refused to believe an invasion was imminent, choosing instead to believe that Hitler would honor the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Because of this unpreparedness and because of both extensive purges of high-ranked military officers and the politicization of the army, the Wehrmacht encircled hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers, forcing their surrender. The Germans soon found themselves at the gates of Moscow and controlling all of the Soviet territories west of a line that stretched roughly due south from Leningrad.

In late spring, 1942, the Germans began Operation Blau, which sought to capture Stalingrad, which would cut off a valuable industrial city and part of key trading routes while scoring a propaganda victory by taking "Stalin's" city. The capture would also provide strategic protection for future operations in the oil-rich Caucasus, which would hopefully fuel the Nazi war machine while bringing Stalin's to a sputtering halt.

The Germans succeeded in capturing all of the city but a westernmost sliver on the banks of the Volga. The Soviet troops remaining in the city stood between the Werhmacht and a river. Their supplies and reinforcements, from the other side, frequently failed to survive the crossing. However, the Luftwaffe's bombing of the city turned it to mounds of rubble ideal for ambushes, snipers and attrition streetfighting, which enabled the Soviet troops to hold out and repulse superior firepower. The Germans repeatedly flung their best troops against what they believed were the last remnants of the Red Army, only to be beaten back.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Stalingrad I: Reading History

Once every few months, a bell rings in my head reminding me that I used to be smart and am getting less so each passing day. For instance, the other day I stood in my kitchen and gestured feebly at a hand towel and said, "Hand me the... hand me the, uh... uh... drying flag." When this happens, I spend 20 minutes doing Wikipedia searches until I stumble across the entry for aphasia, swear this is the last time I'll forget to bookmark it, then pick a serious book to read in order to do some heavy brainisthenics.

This time I lucked into having someone to read a serious book with. I get to see my friend John about once a month, and while it seems he's the only person who reads as much as I do, he rarely if ever reads the same things I do at the same time. If he and I have both read de Tocqueville, it means I just finished it, and he read it in 1997. If we've both just finished something fictional, he's read something called Llanath, and the Transswaard Blood-Oath, which he swears is actually an excellent novel with literary qualities that just happens to be a fantasy novel, and which I would not read even if I were on fire and only the sight of its words could relieve my torment.

Friday, August 22, 2008

My Friend Cory Has Been Trapper-Keepered by a Lack of Imagination

You may remember my friend Cory from the first chatlog I posted. You know, the good one. Cory — who Google's "I'm Feeling Lucky" function tells me is the person pictured at right — has gone back to school to get an MFA in Creative Writing, and he's already made two huge mistakes.

First up, the degree. Do you have any idea how many chumps who want to get an MFA in creative writing enroll in a creative writing MFA program? Like, all of them. Idiots. If you really want to wow the prof. with your creativity, you need some misdirection. You ever notice how all magicians have really hot lady assistants with tremendous racks? Of course you did. What you didn't notice was the magician inserting a tiny plastic barrier into the tank to keep his face separated from the piranhas and the wolf eels. Misdirection.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Executioner's Song

Clocking in at a hefty 1,050 pages of both non-fiction and life that will not be returned to me, it's sort of a waste to not talk about this book. It's also sort of a waste because it's an excellent book.

The Executioner's Song is probably categorized best as a "new journalism" book. Constructed from thousands of hours of interviews with hundreds of people, it tells the tale of Gary Mark Gilmore, a man who spent most of his life behind bars, was released, fell in love, murdered two people, was sentenced to death and was then almost forbidden to die after he asked that he simply be executed on schedule and without appeal.

The book begins with his parole, follows his non-adjustment to life outside, his love affair, his murders and then ends after his death. (This isn't a spoiler, by the way. At the time the book was written, everyone in America knew who Gilmore was and what happened to him.) Gilmore is a fascinating main character. He's a career thief, a violent ex-con, a charming and bright autodidact, a painter and an amateur poet.

The book is as much a character study as it is an indictment of the American penal system. Gilmore, for all intents and purposes, should be "reformed." Yet what the reader finds is a man so malformed by prison that fundamental aspects of being a free man are absolutely alien and unimaginable to him. Further, the book is also a meditation on capital punishment. Gilmore's execution came at the end of an eleven-year moratorium on executions in the United States. As such, executing Gary Gilmore said something, legally, about what America was.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How's the Weather?—A Hurricane FAQ

One of my favorite hobbies involves answering the phone during hurricane season and calmly explaining to friends and family that, no, the storm 250 miles off the coast and moving westward away from my house hasn't really been a big deal for me. My friends and family aren't dumb, so it's a regular source of amazement that, somehow — despite wall-to-wall media coverage of any significantly large tropical storm — a rough understanding of hurricanes' effects and basic geography continues to elude them.

The second thing baffles most of all. I live in a boring interior suburb, but it's close enough to a large and nationally well-known area of Florida that people just assume I'm from there. It's on all the maps, and the people in galoshes and yellow "I'm going to the Sizzler" rain slickers on the TV talk about it. In fact, it's almost impossible to not detect it when they show a map of the state. So when they show a hurricane crossing the state 300 miles to the south, east or west of me and I still get phone calls, it makes me wonder if these people breathlessly call San Francisco residents after an LA earthquake and ask ARE YOU ALL RIGHT???

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Soul of Baseball

In the early parts of the twentieth century, a gifted dark-skinned Cuban player named Luis Bustamante committed suicide. In his farewell note he wrote the five haunting words that summed up crushed dreams and suppressed rage.

He wrote: "They won't let us prove."

— Joe Posnanski, The Soul of Baseball

If Gandhi had played baseball, he would have been Buck O'Neil.
— Leigh Montville

At first glance, the title The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's Americacould describe practically anything. Author Joe Posnanski could have gotten bored with his Kansas City Star gig, found some Morrie to have Tuesdays with and driven him to every minor league park within Prius distance. A backwoods getaway with a senile old coot, or maybe two men's journey through the heartland to try to find the "soul" of the game wrapped inside a socio-political metaphor. It isn't until midway through the book that you understand the Soul of Baseball is Buck O'Neil.

Even if you've seen O'Neil's interviews in Ken Burn's excellent documentary, Baseball, it's an easy mistake to make. Too many pedestrian "my year at the ballpark" books or vacuous player bios hit the shelves annually with misleadingly existential or mythic titles. Part of what makes baseball great — the richness of its poetic references, terms and nicknames — affords bad writers' conventional narratives an unearned profundity. Classic lore and terminology are subverted and tarnished by the below-average work for which they wind up serving as titles, and, later (worse) descriptions or metaphors. Witness columnist George Will's banally extolling the nobility of The Sacrifice Bunt — an at-bat perceived as the ultimate "team" gesture — in one column, and in another explaining how wealthy individuals should be freed from the heavy burdens of preventing thousands of fellow citizens from dying of curable diseases by paying a nominal tax. So many writers and commentators have co-opted baseball's history and terms for enough nauseating clichés that it's a surprise when a book's eponymous hero so deserves his title.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Dolphin Stadium's Confused Immigration Policy

Sign on Left-Field Fence: MICCOSUKEE.COM
Sign Behind Home Plate: Noticias 23! Univision
Sign on Right-Field Fence: U.S. BORDER PATRIOL — — NOW HIRING

I'm not really sure who the last one appeals to. I understand who it's meant to appeal to: the sort of proto-Minuteman Miami native who's just sitting there on a weekday afternoon, marinating in Budweiser and alternately thinking, "I remember when this town was Miami, not Little Cuba," and, "I'm going to need a job if I want to buy any more Bud." (Only he thinks these things with an accent.) But I'm pretty sure that guy isn't watching the ballgame.

I don't think the official sponsor of Minutemen.Gov has stopped to think this through. Admittedly, right before an unemployed white guy spies the right-field sign and thinks, "Ah, the Border Patrol! That's what I'll do," he's probably yelling, "GODDAMNIT, YOU UGGLA SONOFABITCH, USE YOUR FUCKING BAT AND DRIVE JORGE AND GONZALEZ HOME!" But he probably just wants the Marlins to score a run.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Chatlog Post #1

Me: What are you going to grad school for? More book learnin'?
Cory: I'm going to be super-pretentious and get an MFA in Creative Writing
Me: Yeah, like that's an original idea.
Cory: I just need an excuse to wear more hats.
Me: If I were a professor and you came to me with that story, I'd fail you because I've heard that before.
Me: Now if you told me you'd come to get a degree in blowing lead glass, I'd be all, "Mmmmmm, tell me more."
Cory: Yes, but I'd do it IRONICALLY. That's all the rage.
Me: Do you think you can troll a creative writing course? I just picture deadpanning the reading of my story for a room of six other really fucking serious creative writers and finishing it with, "And with that, the Space Dracula, like Cincinnatus, laid down his anti-proton laser forever."

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Rick Suttprecipice's Book Adventure

SCENE: Top of the 8th, Texas Rangers at the Boston Red Sox. Your ESPN Wednesday Night Baseball announcers are Rick Sutcliffe and Dave O'Brien.

Dave: The Boston Red Sox have scored 27 runs in the first two nights of this series. The difference is tonight they are getting serious pitching from Jon Lester, as they have all season long. The man who has tossed a no-hitter after winning a World Series Game last year, and who has really put himself on the precipice of becoming a real star in the American league, amongst starting pitchers.
Rick: On the what?
Dave: Right on—right on the edge, the precipice. Seven innings pitched for his seventh consecutive start. So he's been money for Boston, the 24-year-old from Tacoma. What are you doing?
Rick: I'm prepared.
Dave: Foul. What is this? Oh, it's the thesaurus.
Rick: You know it was my daughter that graduated from Harvard, not me.
Dave: (laughs)
Rick: She was kind enough to get me one of these (holds cover of pocket Webster's New World Thesaurus up to camera) so I can keep up with you.
Dave: She—she got that great intellect somewhere.
Rick: (laughs) I tell everybody she got her good looks from her mom, because obviously I kept mine, and everybody reacts just like you do.
Dave: That's a line that, that you never manage to wear out. I don't know how you do it.
Rick: The [ESPN production] truck is cracking up right now. That's not funny!
Dave: I've met your lovely wife Robin.
Rick: (staring into camera) And I will be in the truck when the game's over with.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Years ago, when I went to Yale, a nice guy and friend-for-the-summer named Josh Rauh introduced me to a proud tradition. Josh was the musical director for The Spizzwinks(?), one of the university's oldest a cappella groups, which he insisted was a fun but tough job. The toughest part was keeping a bunch of guys interested in singing without accompaniment when they could otherwise get shitfaced or bone ugly coeds or get shitfaced and bone each other during the fifteen year wait before they became constitutionally eligible to have their parents' handlers turn them into presidential candidates. To enliven the practices, the singers replaced the words "heart" or "love" in every applicable song with "butt."

Now, keep in mind, only the noun form of "love" qualified, as the verb form generally produced only nonsense. ("Butt Me Tender"?) For the most part, this modification immeasurably improves almost any song. "Open Your Heart to Me" immediately has a depth of meaning greater than any other Madonna song and vivifies the lock/key metaphor. "I Can't Get You out of My Heart" becomes a far more serious lamentation about one's inability to let go. "Endless Love" probably describes some form of eating disorder. The only two downsides to the practice involve giggling like a moron when certain songs come on the radio or — as Josh's singers discovered — forgetting the original form of the song and accidentally singing the buttified version in public.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Throat-Punching Subtlety You'd Expect from a Film with the Word 'Requiem' in the Title

Sometime toward the end of high school, I, like virtually everyone I knew, developed a taste for anti-heroic, hateful, morose, alienating films that exposed just how horrible the world is. After emerging from the fibs and fairytales of childhood, opting to watch two hours of darkness appeared just so enlightened of us. After 15 years of watching that kind of content, you should be bored, depressed and probably disgusted.

If you're not, Darren Aaronofky's Requiem for a Dream presents the perfect panacea. Coming off Pi's phenomenally dull force-fed artiness, Requiem proved he was no one-trick pony by similarly bombarding the audience with a series of one-dimensional one-note elements. The light in outdoor scenes fuzzes and diffuses like a 1970s Kodak moment, while other scenes compress and distort with funhouse mirror effects, as if to suggest either:
a. You, the viewer, are too stupid to understand that drug addictions distort reality, so perhaps you need this visually reinforced in virtually every scene.
b. The shittier it looks, the more authentically artistic you will think it is.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

L.A. Times Columnist Bill Plaschke Eats Penis

Some of you may know Bill Plaschke from his appearances on ESPN's Around the Horn or from his L.A. Times column. I prefer to remember him from his many deserved roastings on Plaschke's hooting and whooping as part of the torch-bearing villager posse that ran sabermetrician and former Dodger GM Paul DePodesta out of town is disgusting enough, but his smug satisfaction in refusing to learn anything new and factual about the sport he writes about professionally is worse. Both could probably be written off as the rantings of an easily spooked luddite who fears God's wrath at man's discovering the many Mathemagicks of the Sabermagician, if only he didn't repeatedly devote his column to fellating snakeskin-boot-wearin' chaw-spittin' 100% gen-u-wine traditional baseball moron Ned Colletti,*, a man who's made exactly one good trade in three years, and only then after Red Sox GM Theo Epstein called him up and said, "Ned, I am going to pay you to take the greatest right-handed hitter of the last 60 years."

Friday, August 8, 2008

Hush ... Hush, Y'all

I've been on a bit of a Bette Davis kick recently, which I'll start to worry about only after I buy several wigs and Judy Garland records. For years, my Comic Book Guy impression has been aided in part by the sneering line, "Now I know whatever happened to Baby Jane," and a few months ago I realized that I had absolutely no idea what had happened to Baby Jane. I found out, though. She became a crazy drunk.

I'd always sort of liked Bette Davis as a kid, for no real reason I can determine. I know the horrendous pop song had nothing to do with it, because that was one element of eighties schlock I managed to avoid, leading to an exchange in college that went something like:
Me: I've always sort of liked Bette Davis.
Someone Else: Is it because of her... Bette Davis eyes?
Me: No.
Someone Else: Oh.
Me: Why would it be that?
Someone Else: What?
Me: Why would it be because of her Bette Davis eyes? I mean, who else's eyes would she have?

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Bob Uecker Talks About Furries

I figure everyone knows who Bob Uecker is. From his role as the play-by-play guy in Major League, to Mr. Belvedere, to the "Bingo! Most be in the front row!" Miller Lite ads, probably everyone knows The Ueck.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Book Rating System

Rating System (Literature/Fun Books/Non-Fiction)
5 — Entertaining, unquestionable classic
     e.g. Crime and Punishment, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,
     The Struggle for Mastery in Europe
4 — Slightly flawed lit, excellent pop book, good but
     dated/historiographically questionable history
     e.g. War and Peace, Patrick O'Brian,
     The Origins of the Second World War
3 — Good but dullish literature, good but unserious book,
     workmanlike history
     e.g. Bleak House, any Bill Bryson, Gilbert's History of the
     20th Century

2 — Seriously flawed but entertaining, airplane novel, pop history
     e.g. late Vonnegut, Tim Dorsey books, almost any history on a
     Barnes & Noble discount table with a title like, Typhus!
1 — Burn it! Send it to hell!
     e.g. Richardson, Clancy, Coulter

Meretricious Mission Statement

A couple months ago, I resumed email correspondence with a few old friends from high school and college and was surprised to discover how much I looked forward to coming home and writing a new email, even if I hadn't received a reply to the last one yet. I found it much easier to write replies instead of wholly new emails, but I was happy to write anything, regardless. Those of you who've known me for long can probably guess that this was a good thing. For someone who liked to self-identify as a writer in college and even — depending on the audience — today, I wrote and write astonishingly little, very irregularly and rarely at my own initiative.

Naturally, I enjoyed the correspondences so much that I managed to find a way to sabotage one of them, writing a cringe-inducingly obnoxious email that I couldn't delete all traces of fast enough. (After I sent it, of course.) The whole debacle put me off writing specifically to individuals, which effectively ended my new burst of creativity. Apart from ongoing satirical identity theft of an Indian plagiarist — my riff on performance art, trying to create a three-dimensional quasi-illiterate bisexual racist failure who adores unchecked capitalism — I returned to reading and periodically making fun of things on the internet, which wasn't nearly as rewarding.