Monday, August 31, 2009

On Working for a Living

I did not wake up early in college. I still don't wake up particularly early, but now I make exceptions for such things as cross-country flights and interviews and deadlines and brunches with in-laws and fire alarms. In college, however, I made very few exceptions at all, especially during the summer. And because it was such an anomaly, I remember one day in the summer of '93, when I woke up at 6:30 on a stiff and humid morning and walked thirty minutes across the campus to the student newspaper for a 7 a.m. interview with Kerry Collins. I remember thinking, It's summer. Practice hasn't even started yet. And the only time Kerry Collins is available for an interview is at 7 in the morning?

So let me begin by stating the obvious: Playing college football consists largely of drudgery, pain and fatigue. It is hours of misery followed by a brief window of glory; it takes the four greatest years of one's existence and renders it into boot camp*. And we are supposed to believe that this is the price athletes pay for that glory, that they should take pride in what they do because they are taking free biology labs, that they should exude the same irrational and hopelessly biased love for their schools that we do, that they should volunteer to give their lives away in service to their sport. This, after all, is, like, the spirit of amateurism, or something.

That seems to be the pushback to Michael Rosenberg** and Mark Snyder's weekend expose in the Detroit Free Press about Rich Rodriguez and his apparent insistence on requiring players to spend up to 12 hours a day focusing on football the Sunday after a game (among other demands). It is pretty much the same argument we hear anytime a scandal arises in the modern era: Everybody does it. What difference does it make? The whistleblower--in this case, a considerable quorum of current and former Michigan players--simply doesn't respect the implicit implications of the modern system. The whistleblower doesn't understand.

And maybe this is true. Let's say everybody does it,*** which seems to be the consensus of the nation's most plugged-in college football writers. Fine. If the allegations are true, this still doesn't excuse Rodriguez, and it still means he has a serious likability problem--but if everybody does it, and nobody really wants to do anything about it, then there is obviously a much larger problem here, far beyond Ann Arbor. And the problem is that we can't even see the problem for what it is anymore. The problem is that all know the system is ridiculous and skewed and unfair, but we just don't care. It's not that we can't handle the truth; it's that we've been handling the truth for so long that it's become background noise. We assume everyone is getting something out of this deal, and no one is innocent, and therefore, no one should complain, for fear of upsetting the delicate balance of this great thing we've got going for ourselves.

I will admit it--I often feel the same way. Being a college football fan, even of a supposed "bastion of integrity" like Penn State, is an inherently amoral and contradictory position. (I understand that I am essentially encouraging a flawed system, and yet I have still never been more excited for a college football season to begin than I am for this one.) But allow me to suggest a simple way to repair the problem at hand and ease our consciences at the same time.

Let us imagine every member of the Michigan football team--and every other member of every other Division I-A football team--was getting paid for their service to the university, for their ability to generate millions of dollars in revenue and sponsorship agreements. Let us imagine they were paid for twenty hours a week of workouts and practices. It wouldn't even have to be a great deal of money; it could even be set aside in an interest-bearing account and presented to the student-athlete upon their graduation. Let us imagine that for any amount of time they practiced or worked out or studied film beyond the NCAA restrictions, they would be permitted to apply for overtime pay. Let us imagine that they would be able to file complaints to their employer if they felt the overtime policy were being abused, or if they felt it was affecting their pursuit of an education. Let us imagine we treated them the way we treat every other American who generates a tremendous amount of income with his/her skill: As protected employees, as skilled practitioners, as college students with an especially demanding and high-profile part-time job.

The problem isn't that everybody does it. The problem is that nobody really cares about solving the problem anymore.

Update: As proof that the Everybody Does It camp of college football fandom can swallow up even the most intelligent of thinkers, here is esteemed New Republic writer (and Michigan graduate) Jon Chait making an absurd and borderline childish case for his alma mater, largely by attacking the messenger.

That said, given the genetic makeup of the female population on an SEC campus, this boot camp does have some excellent benefits.
**Who, it should be noted, also wrote this truly excellent book.
***Though everybody speeds on the highway, but I think we can agree there is difference between driving 72 in a 65 and pushing 120 in a construction zone.

Friday, August 28, 2009

On Inconsequential Things That Matter to Me (Lack of Subtlety Edition)

1. Eve Best
I will admit, I did not have particularly high expectations for Nurse Jackie, the Edie Falco series that just completed its first season on Showtime; I expected Falco would be surrounded by actors who could not challenge her the way Gandolfini had done all those years in Jersey. But there's something to Nurse Jackie's harshness, about its very black soul, that seems to capture all the ugliness and disarray of the modern American health-care system at this crucial and contentious moment in our nation's history. And no one is more indicative of that than the doctor Best plays, a callous and unsentimental soul named Eleanor O'Hara who finds children off-putting and generally views her occupation as a conduit to an excellent lunch table in Manhattan. She is the doctor we've all encountered, the doctor who seems entirely disinterested in our problems, the doctor who sweeps into the examining room after leaving us hanging for 45 minutes, the doctor who sweeps out thirty seconds later, having delivered an irrefutable diagnosis and an inscrutable presciption, and then defers all questions to the nurse in her wake. Dr. O'Hara is the embodiment of Hippocratic arrogance, and I love her for it, even as I find myself dreading her very real presence in my life.

2. The Beatles
And suddenly, it feels like 1969 all over again: Tonight, I watched a PBS documentary on the Kennedys while reading a story in Rolling Stone about the breakup of The Beatles. And now I'm listening to a newly remastered version of the White Album, which I will admit sounds pretty much the same to me, except louder and with extra blackbirds. If Namath starts making proclamations about the Miracle Mets, I'm tie-dying my office chair and mainlining lysergic acid.

3. Nuance As a Intellectual Drawback

I try not to delve too deeply into politics in this forum, but this is really not about politics. This is a matter of basic human intelligence. This is about the notion, forwarded far too often in public life, that complexity of thought is somehow a frightening proposition. And now someone has finally come forward and embodied this ideal, and that someone happens to be Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee, who admits in this remarkable interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep that nuance is, in fact, a pejorative term. I'm not kidding; Inskeep tries to tell Steele that he finds the nuances of Steele's articulated position on health care more intriguing and complex than the broad propaganda of the health-care debate, and Steele takes such offense to this claim that he seems to accuse Inskeep of having a liberal agenda, or at least of being overly "cute." So, there are two possibilities here: Either Steele doesn't know what nuance actually means (perhaps he thinks this is the name of a Fraggle Rock character?), or he finds nuance so utterly intolerable, so unbearably cute and cuddly, such a merlot-soaked tool of tree-hugging hippie socialists, that he will disavow any invocation of it on his behalf.
And with that, I'm going outside to walk the dinosaur.

(Photo: Ken Regan/Showtime)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

On the Curious Case of Pete Rose

For some reason, I don't remember the day that Pete Rose was banned from baseball. I don't remember where I was, and I don't remember what I was doing, and I don't remember how I felt about it. Maybe that's because the argument has carried on for so long that it no longer seems like it ever didn't exist; it has become the Great Running Sports Debate of the past two decades. Your opinion of Pete Rose is now indicative of your politics, of your upbringing, of your tastes, of your viewpoint on the entire direction of modern society. It is, as former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent admits in this excellent "Outside the Lines" piece on the 20th anniversary of the Rose decision, about something far bigger than Pete Rose; it is essentially a parable, a deterrent, a running commentary on the consequences of gambling in sports. And I guess this could be a valid viewpoint (I do recognize that gambling in sports is perhaps the worst transgression imaginable), even though I disagree completely, even though I find it sort of haughty and naive to imagine that the spectre of Pete Rose's banishment could possibly serve as a deterrent any more than handing out copies of Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song to members of the Crips could stem gang violence.

At this point, unless I'm missing something, it seems obvious what's happening here. Rose has become such an iconic outsider that he engenders more and more sympathy as the years pass; a recent USA Today poll found that an overwhelming number of people found Rose's crimes to be far less severe than those of the Steroid Generation, proving that there are still inherent advantages to martyrdom. In the OTL piece, Rose's former teammate, Joe Morgan, says that Rose's greatest strength, his willingness to keep on fighting, is actually working against him. That may be true, but at some point, I think it became irrelevant whether Rose actually gets back into baseball, or gets into the Hall of Fame. At some point, this whole thing clearly became about the fight itself.

The Fight has become the new definition of Pete Rose; it's become his identity in the latter half of his life, and it's reinforced the identity he established as a baseball player, as a willfull overachiever who never gives in, as the kind of man who would trample over a catcher in an All-Star game if it served his own singleminded purpose. If anything, admission into the Hall would defuse Pete Rose's entire persona, which may be the best reason, at this point, for Bud Selig to just let him in. It would render Rose into an ordinary human being. All the reasons for his defiance would wither away, and Rose would finally appear the way he should have from the start: As a great figure in the history of baseball, and an extremely small man.

(Also, it should be noted: This book will no doubt give far more insight into Rose's psyche, then and now.)

Friday, August 21, 2009

On the Death of the Sports Columnist

I'm not sure how this happened, but it's been fifteen years since I graduated from college, which means it's been fifteen years since I moved to Akron, Ohio, and secured a furnished one-bedroom apartment on Arlington Road that cost approximately three hundred dollars a month. I didn't really know anyone in town, except some friends of a college friend of mine, and so I found the apartment by default, with the help of a real-estate agent who, when I inquired about the quality of the neighborhood, cupped a hand to her ear and said, "Listen to that quiet," just as an ambulance scurried past and a car backfired and a neighbor began screaming at his dog. I broke my lease and moved across town a short time later, but that's not what this story is meant to be about; this story is meant as a response to this piece from the New York Observer, about the supposed death of the general newspaper sports columnist, and as a response to the varied blog responses to the Observer piece, which can essentially be summed up as, "Good riddance."

Fifteen years ago, I was a fledgling sportswriter at a mid-sized newspaper; fifteen years ago, I sat in that dank apartment on Arlington Road, reporting on high-school football two-a-days and awaiting the inevitable theft of my car. I tried to log on to this thing called America Online, but I couldn't quite figure it out. I tried to cook a steak, but the pilot light on the stove was broken and the kitchen reeked of gas, and so, to keep myself from losing my mind, I began to read.

It wasn't like I hadn't read books before. I spent my childhood reading, but this was different. This was the first time I can remember actually studying the writing while I did it. I read novels; I read The Catcher in the Rye and Of Mice and Men and several others I'd skimmed over in high school and college, presuming, for some reason, that they did not apply to me. At work, I would spend my idle time scanning the wires, reading newspaper columns from faraway cities, printing out the ones I liked and hoarding them in a manila folder. I had no idea what I was doing, or where I was going, and then one day, I was browsing at Borders--I spent hours at Borders, browsing every inch of every section--and I purchased a collection of columns from a Detroit sportswriter named Mitch Albom. I knew of Albom, of course; I had read his columns over the wire, and I had read them in the early incarnations of The Best American Sports Writing collection, and yet this was the first time I had read a group of them, all at once. I brought it home that night, to the apartment on Arlington Road, and as I listened to my neighbor scream at the television, I read Albom's series of columns about the Iditarod.

Now, I will admit I haven't gone back and re-read these columns in many years. I'm not sure if they'd still seem as good to me as they did then, but all I know is that in the summer of 1995, these columns absolutely blew my mind; every day, Albom filed a missive from another faraway Alaska outpost. I remember the columns were so good, so well-liked, that the newspaper sent him back to Alaska for more after he'd returned home midway through the race. I remember the columns as a near-perfect synthesis of observation and reporting and storytelling, each day's missive leading directly into the next. I remember reading those columns and thinking, We can do this? In a newspaper?

Obviously, a few things have happened since then. Albom changed (he became a different kind of writer, and made a fortune in the process, for which it's hard to blame him); but newspapers also changed; the Internet changed; and in turn, the culture changed. I think you can make a strong case that certain sports columnists got far too caught up in these changes, that they became tangled up in the outside influences of talk radio and television and blogs, that there was a tendency to retreat away from reporting and storytelling and into formula, into the argument model, into sentimental treacle, into facile thought and armchair posturing. The model itself was obviously reliant upon the space available in print, and on natural daily deadlines, and all of these things are now either fluid or irrelevant. Everything is changing, and in a way, I agree with Spencer Hall and Dan Shanoff and all the others who hail this new model, in which word count is irrelevant and styles are more wide-ranging. I also agree that, in the end, the writing is the thing, but this is also what concerns me, because so much of the writing I read--online, in print--seems overly colored by these new priorities.

The beauty of Albom's columns, when I stumbled upon then fifteen years ago, was that he appeared to have crafted every word. He was especially aware of the rhythm of his prose, of the way the words sang, of the way they came together to form sentences and paragraphs, of the way they danced rather than wrestled you to the ground. They weren't "takes." They weren't overly aggressive, or overly snarky, or overly sentimental, or overly anything. They were real stories. That was, I suppose, the beauty of writing in a confined space; you had to craft your voice in order to fit. You had to work at it.

Done well, it was an art form. It still is. And that discipline translates into other forms; that discipline, I have no doubt, is what allows Dan Jenkins to craft sublime 140-character Twitter posts, and 800-word columns, and 5,000-word profiles. And that discipline, I fear, is what could be lost in the Internet age.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

On a Favre Crawling from the Muck

A friend who played quarterback in high school once told me it was the hardest thing he's ever tried to do. I have no reason not to believe him; I never even had much of an opportunity to play quarterback in a backyard pickup game, but whenever I did, I was inevitably paralyzed by indecision: There were nine receivers running post patterns and shouting desperately for the ball, and one moment they all looked equally open, and one moment they all looked equally covered, and a 170-pound sixth-grade pituitary case named Bull had just counted to Five Mississippi and was bearing down with unmerciful vengeance on my head, and the play usually ended with me ducking and sprinting into the woods and taking refuge under a neighbor's deck.

Indecision, it would seem, is the bane of any effective quarterback; indecision leads to breakdowns, and breakdowns lead to implosions, and implosions lead to...well, apparently they lead us back to Minnesota, where Brett Favre has just pulled one of the craziest stunts in the modern history of pro football. Seriously, I'm like you; I would prefer to pretend this whole thing isn't happening, either, but it is--or at least I think it is--and while no sane American thinks this can possibly work--even Fran Tarkenton has decried it as a publicity stunt, and Fran Tarkenton once hosted a show where guests caught bullets with their teeth--I ask you this, a question no one particularly wants to consider:

What if it
does work?

If Brett Favre somehow leads the Vikings to the Super Bowl this season...if a fragile 39-year-old who makes Hamlet seem like George W. Bush can step in and win games for his longtime team's archrival, perhaps it would be the ultimate proof that delusional egotism is in fact the greatest asset a quarterback can have,* and that the key to playing quarterback is possessing the requisite self-regard it requires to cut through the tumult and the shouting, even if those same qualities eventually render you personally intolerable. Perhaps it would reinforce one thing about football that we would prefer not to acknowledge, which is that the greatest quarterback in the backyard was very often the most insufferable kid in the neighborhood. And those same kids are often the last ones who actually learn how to grow up.

*See: McMahon, Jim, whose complex persona--plug alert!--is examined in my upcoming book...release date still TBD...

Monday, August 17, 2009

On Life in the Fast Lane

I spent this weekend holed up in a fortified compound in Lake George, New York, consuming low-calorie beer and Oreos, interfacing with especially patriotic bears and hurling skeeballs at pontoon-boat captains.* However, I was informed by electronic missive of a number of weird occurrences in the world of sports: Michael Vick signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, thereby offending the delicate sensibilities of a town that considers Cheez Whiz a delicacy; Tiger Woods coughed up a major championship hairball at the hands of a previously unrevealed member of the DHARMA Initiative. And yet here was the strangest moment of all: A Jamaican named Usain Bolt pulverized his own world-record in the 100-meter dash, and everyone agreed that he could actually do much better...

Even though I have never owned a dog, even though I once had my knee punctured by a playful pit bull who mistook me (a jogger) for a milk-bone chew toy, these first two developments can be easily explained: Dogs are viewed by the masses as inherently human creatures, prone to suffering and heartbreak; Tiger Woods is not.

However, what is so shocking about Usain Bolt is that no one can begin to put his accomplishment in context. This is either A.) An incredibly well-thought out doping scheme, or B.) An unfathomable evolutionary leap. Either he has succumbed to human yearnings and (so far) gotten away with it, or he is somehow superhuman. Bolt just shattered his own world record in the 100 meter-dash by 11/100ths of a second, and according to a Canadian sprinter named Donovan Bailey, he still didn't even run a particularly good race. “In Beijing, of all the finalists, he was the worst technically,” Bailey told Christopher Clarey of the New York Times. “He’s improved a lot, but he can still go faster and improve his first 30 meters.” (And yet, even now, he can outrun the Beatles!)**

I mean...what? Is this some kind of collective hallucination? Has Usain Bolt found a way to manipulate the time/space continuum? Has he found a way to advance the science of blood-doping? Or is he merely (and rather suddenly) gifted with the most prolific fast-twitch muscles in the history of mankind? In a world where quarterbacks torture dogs and Tiger Woods loses to strangers, I know I shouldn't be so utterly naive as to believe that this, of all things, is really happening in a vacuum. I do suspect that Usain Bolt is guilty of something, even if it is merely hubris.

Then again, maybe I don't really care.

It is inherently fascinating to watch a man run very fast; Ben Johnson's performance in the 1988 Olympics is still stunning to watch, even if it ushered in an age of moralizing and deceit. Sometimes I think that this is one pursuit that should be driven by scientific experimentation. Even if that's what Usain Bolt is engaged in, we cannot fault him for failing to entertain us. Maybe, in the modern age, humanity doesn't matter at all. Maybe a few fleeting seconds of entertainment is the best we can ask for.

*In truth, I was attending a bachelor party with a rogue gang of music critics, who spent their time debating the relative merits of Pavement drummers and listening to songs like this.
**Or at least the Beatles before they discovered the merits of performance-enhancing drugs.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

On the Morality of Chemical Consumption

"You think this country really cares about what ballplayers put in their bodies? If we really care, why are we pumping Coca-Cola in every kid's mouth, and McDonald's, and Burger King and KFC? That (stuff) is killing people."
--Reds' pitcher Bronson Arroyo, to USA Today

So maybe this is where we are today. Maybe we have finally plodded through our denial, and maybe we have vented our anger and completed our bargaining phase and endured a drawn-out depression, and maybe we have finally arrived at the point where we can speak honestly, without fear of recrimination. And maybe we can strip away the artifice and the moral outrage and the equivocation, and maybe we can acknowledge the layers and inherent complexities of the steroid era, and maybe we can all just come clean and let it all go. And maybe the Pirates will win the National League pennant, and maybe Vida Blue will come back to Oakland and win twenty games next season, and maybe Ray Kinsella's father will come strolling out of that cornfield wearing Shoeless Joe Jackson's glove, arm-in-arm with Barry Bonds...

But hey, at least this is something. In an extraordinary interview with USA Today's Bob Nightengale, Bronson Arroyo just kind of laid it all out there; at one point, as Deadspin's Dashiell Bennett points out, he actually utters the extraordinary phrase "I don't give a f---." It is, as far as I can tell, the first semi-rational case for the defense issued by someone who did not hit a home run with his own noggin, and while you can maybe even question's Arroyo's ignorance of one key question--the level-playing-field issue inherent to this argument--you cannot deny that he raises another crucial question, which is: Where do we draw the line with our moral outrage? If every supplement Arroyo takes was legal and sold over-the-counter at the time he took it, how is this somehow more sinister than the bowls of amphetamines that littered NFL locker rooms in the 1970's, or the bootleg Xanax I swallowed on my most recent cross-country flight (thereby permitting me to sleep, thereby permitting me to perform more effectively on my vacation than my fellow passengers), or the fine Colombian (bonus link, as I saw Steely Dan in concert last night) Gary McLain hoovered during the 1985 NCAA tournament*? For that matter, since Arroyo brought it up, here is the composition of McDonald's scrambled eggs:

Pasteurized whole eggs with sodium acid pyrophosphate, citric acid and monosodium phosphate (added to preserve color), nisin (preservative). Prepared with Liquid Margarine: Liquid soybean oil, water, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, salt, hydrogenated cottonseed oil, soy lecithin, mono-and diglycerides, sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate (preservatives), artificial flavor, citric acid, vitamin A palmitate, beta carotene (color).

I don't pretend to know the answers, especially now that I'm nauseous; I haven't eaten a McMuffin since summer day camp in 1982, and while I certainly don't begrudge anyone an occasional fix of monosodium phosphate or freeze-dried hotcakes**, I think Arroyo should be at least be credited for questioning our assumptions, for reminding us, the fan, of our own inherent hypocrisy, and for pointing out that this issue is not as morally clear-cut as we would like it to be.

But then, it never is.

*Interesting things you learn while researching a book about the 1980's, Part XXXII: Less than one year after Len Bias' death from a cocaine overdose, his college coach, Lefty Driesell, said this at a conference in Rhode Island: "I'm a firm believer that if you know how to use cocaine and use it properly, it can make you play better." For obvious reasons, he "clarified" his anti-drug stance shortly after making this statement.
**I am still wondering if my copious consumption of Hot Pockets between the ages of 15-25 will result in the growth of a third eye at age fifty.

(Photo: Michael E. Keating, Cincinnati Enquirer)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

On Embracing That Which You Despise

At the behest of my agent/girlfriend, I am deeply ashamed to unveil this link:

Now if someone will only inform me what all these strange characters signify, I will go about addressing the whole spectrum of modern human existence in disjointed sentence fragments.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On the Comfort of Low Expectations

I've mentioned this before, and it will come up quite often again as the months progress, but there is only one entity of which I still consider myself a true and unabashed and vigorously biased fan, and that is my alma mater, Penn State. This is no doubt based in some kind of Freudian yearning for a return to my childhood, but hey, that's how it is to be a modern dude, and that's how it shall always be, and that's why I find myself, precisely two days into the start of football practice, already worried about the way things are going. This is because the preseason critical consensus for my alma mater is alarmingly positive (see above left), and overwhelming positivity tends to scare the hell out of me.

I feel this way, in part, because I have a genetic tendency toward pessimism. My father taught me early on that a sunny disposition gets you nowhere in life. But there is more to it than that; this is about the fundamental nature of what it means to be a sports fan. There are two types of us, really: There are those people who return every year with the same relentlessly optimistic outlook, who dismiss bad news and ugly results as an aberration, who refuse to whine or complain or concern themselves with the sudden and inevitable complications of losing, who attribute any unflattering reports about their particular team to either A.) Media bias in general, or B.) ESPN in particular. These people revel in high expectations. These are people I generally do not trust. The large majority of them are not serious about the entities they portend to support. They are the spiritual equivalent of Stepford wives. They are the reasons The Secret became a bestseller.

For the rest of us, our fandom is couched in wariness and distrust. We would rather our teams not be discussed at all (at least until that moment when they are actively not included in a discussion in which we feel they should be included, which arouses a peculiar maelstrom of jealousy and confusion). We would rather not read things like this--"Can you say 12-0?"--because what immediately comes to mind are unfulfilled expectations, years of ignominy and defeat and hopelessness, the inevitable memories of 1999 (see above), of 1997 (the other year that Sports Illustrated, given its penchant for making championship picks by assigning intoxicated three-year-olds to throw darts, chose Penn State as the preseason No. 1), of 1988 (the first losing season for Joe Paterno since advent of the New Deal), of all the great disasters that have befallen us in years past. When they say--as they have, early and often--that our team has "the easiest schedule in the country," this does not ease our minds, either, because what immediately comes to mind is the fact that our particular team is capable of losing to anyone, at anytime. (Remember this? Yeah, me neither.)

So here's what I sometimes wish, when I am feeling especially dour and skeptical and concerned about overhype, as I am heading into this season: That my alma mater could enter every year with absolutely no expectations. That there was somehow an embargo on preseason polls, that preseason "watch lists" would be considered a violation of federal law, that the very notion of prognostication did not apply to my alma mater; that the games themselves could somehow be vacuum-packed and left untampered until the first Saturday in September. At these moments, I wish that fandom remained spectral and irrational, and consisted of nothing but nostalgia and a vague cloud of hope. That way, we could always expect the worst. And if something good happened, we could just say we knew it all along.

Monday, August 10, 2009

On Drugs

Today I will unburden myself, engage in full disclosure, and permit the unvarnished truth to emerge: I am guilty of taking a performance-enhancing substance.

My excuses are manifold; I was in my twenties, and I was single, and perhaps most damning, I lived in Akron, Ohio, a Gomorroah of lawlessness and abundant rubber products. And so when a friend tipped me off to a substance called "creatine," I tried it, presuming that even if it didn't improve my biceps, perhaps it would somehow pump up my medulla oblongata, allowing me to compose brilliant copy about high-school football while working on deadline and thereby enabling me to sign a 10-year, $252-million contract to cover Andover High School for the Boston Globe. I bought this creatine from a shady character who used to hang out at the Summit Mall, wearing a bright-red shirt, dressed as an employee of a flashy front that referred to itself as "General Nutrition Center." Six months later, burdened by guilt and boredom, I gave it up. My performance in every single area of life, as far as I could tell, was exactly the same, though I may have improved slightly at billiards.

Today, despite the enormous toll creatine took on my life,* it remains a legal substance. "Everyone consistently using creatine is making HUGE, AMAZING gains!" claims one bodybuilding website, which also offers me the opportunity to "GET SHREDDED LIKE ABZILLA!"**. Since I am older now, and not particularly interested in shredding myself, I no longer make deals with shopping-mall pushers. But this is what appears to have happened with Rashard Lewis, who took something store-bought and made from wild yams (because everyone knows of the health dangers of farm-raised yams) and is now paying the piper.

Lewis claims he was taking something called DHEA, which supposedly produces testosterone, and happens to be readily available on two full shelves at your neighborhood Vitamin Shoppe. According to experts, it doesn't work particularly well, but it is also perfectly legal, and so I'm not sure why I should care much at all about the fact that Rashard Lewis stimulated the economy with his GNC Gold Card. At this stage, I am like the rest of you, including, I'm guessing, Rashard Lewis himself; I am hopelessly confused. I no longer have any idea what is real and what isn't anymore, and I have no idea what any of these substances do and why some are legal and some aren't, and why some are banned and some aren't--and as usual, this is baseball's fault, because baseball fooled us for so long, because baseball altered our perceptions and broke our trust and wounded us so badly that it eliminated any intelligent and rational and nuanced conversation over these issues, and now many of us struggle to discern the difference between a man who walks into a Vitamin Shoppe and someone who purchases horse tranquilizers from a Bolivian cocaine dealer. If the standard for cheating can be found at the mall, then we are all users; me, you and ABZILLA! are all varying degrees of the same desperate and curious human.

But at least my conscience is clear.

*Which essentially consists of my friend Chuck, whenever the topic arises, referring to me as a "rampant and unapologetic steroid user."
**Little-known fact: ABZILLA! once defeated Moth-Ra without the use of his hands or feet.

Friday, August 7, 2009

On the Weirdest Science of All

Let me begin with a caveat: It is not possible for those of us who endured an awkward phase of adolescence in the 1980s to even pretend to have an unbiased opinion of John Hughes. I am willing to accept the premise that Hughes never wrote/directed a truly great film*, and yet I also find it difficult to imagine that there was a more important and influential and thoroughly enjoyable director to emerge from that period. In an era defined by artifice, Hughes' movies were an attempt to strip that away, to chronicle the daily angst of growing up in a material age, etc., etc....

And now I will stop pretending to be a film critic and get down to business. Because in all the enconiums and memorials and essays about Hughes and his films, I've seen very little about one movie in particular, a fantastic tale of wish fulfillment, Frankenstein, computer programming, thunderstorms and greasy pork sandwiches. I am speaking, of course, of Weird Science, considered by most thinking humans to be a second-tier product of the Hughes oeuvre, the story of two nerds who manage to create a woman named Lisa on a TRS-80 using DOS prompts and harnessing electromagnetism, a government mainframe, and photos cut out of Playboy magazine. They then take her to the mall, get doused by milkshakes and taunted by Robert Downey Jr., drink moonshine at an African-American blues bar, throw a hardcore house party, foil an outlaw biker gang**, wear bras on their head for no apparent reason, and learn, over the course of a weekend, how to be cool, largely by osmosis, but also through the use of nuclear weapons and illegal firearms.

It's funny, but you forget after a while just what it's actually like to be teenager; if anything, it's more erratic than what Hughes portrayed in his films. Recently, a girl who had come across one of my books friended me on Facebook. Her status updates are bracing and blinding and unexpurgated. At one point, she declared her undying love and subsequent hatred for three different boys over the course of two weeks; she is often bored, then briefly excited, then bored again. Then she is hungry. Everything is an obsession; her life, like every teenager's, is a fishbowl from which maturity is the only escape.

And in this fishbowl, in 1985, Weird Science was a lifeline. Maybe, I thought, I could somehow learn to be cool. I wasn't delusional; I didn't imagine that one day during a thunderstorm, Kathy Ireland would emerge from the monitor of my Apple II+ and use alchemy to form a Porsche 928 in my driveway. But Weird Science, like all of Hughes' movies, was about adolescent identity, about deriving some sort of comfort in who you were, about taking control of a situation rather than allowing it to subsume you. Lisa wasn't real, and the whole premise of the movie was as far from reality as any Hughes movie ever got, but so was this high-school hierarchy we felt like we'd never get away from.

Hang in there, Hughes seemed to be telling us. None of this is real.

And as usual, he was right.

*Don't get me wrong: I love The Breakfast Club, too, and would readily watch it straight through on any rainy Sunday morning for the remainder of my existence, but I am not sure if it is really a great movie or a product of my own nostalgia. As for Sixteen Candles: I am among those who like this movie more than The Breakfast Club, but I dare you to engage in a serious deconstruction of a movie involving a rampant stereotype named The Donger.
**How a hardcore biker gang was notified about a teenage beer bash in the Chicago suburbs, I have no idea. But then, this subplot coincides with the moment when Bill Paxton, as Wyatt's domineering brother (the greatest role of his career to date--seriously), is (temporarily) rendered into, and I quote Wikipedia here, "an antrophomorphic pile of feces." I will admit that this movie is not based on peer-reviewed science.
It does, however, have Oingo Boingo.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

On Canadians and prolate spheroids

I spent a few days in Vancouver last month, doing what Canadians do, or at least what they do in Dave Thomas movies and Glass Tiger songs: I drank potent beer, browsed tourist shops for an astonishingly overpriced Winter Olympics tuque, waited in the streets where lovers meet, and pronounced "about" as if I were discussing footwear. Also, I watched a live televised football game in early July, which made me realize A.) How desperately I missed anything even resembling football, and B.) How strange and wonderful and nonsensical Canadian football actually is. Watching Canadian football is the cultural equivalent of listening to a version of Exile on Main Street sung entirely in Welsh*; it is still football, and there is still a prolate spheroid at the center of the action, but the field is stretched and the goalposts are in the wrong place and there are three downs and before the snap there are men scrambling about and receivers sprinting toward the line of scrimmage, and I kept thinking to myself, on every single play, "That dude must be offsides. How can that dude not be offsides? How is it physically possible that this dude is not offsides?"**

Still, it was football, in July, and the fact is, three downs instead of four just speeds up the whole process; it is like watching a game starring Jason Statham. For instance: In the contest I watched, the BC Lions were trailing by ten points with three minutes to play. They scored, held their opponents to a "two-and-out," and got the ball back approximately 24 seconds later. They had so much time to score again that even after their quarterback hurled a strike directly into the arms of an opposing linebacker, they still nearly got the ball back one more time. (The consolation, of course, was that the winners had to go back to Hamilton, Ontario, whose sister city is Flint, Michigan.)

Anyway, I am no longer naive enough to assign credibility to everything I read on these Internets; however, this caveat does not apply within Canada, Mexico and Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. Therefore, I have no reason not to believe this entirely unsourced report from a man in Toronto claiming that the Buffalo Bills are considering a move to the CFL, even if writer of said report seems to imply, at one point, that the National Football League discriminated against the provinces when it sent the Dolphins to play in Toronto last season, and even if writer of said report actually says, at one point, that the NFL "despises foreigners" (which totally justifies those Morten Andersen conspiracy theories I've been espousing since 1996).

If this were to happen, I would feel sorry for Buffalo, which is best-known for its proximity to Niagara Falls and its running backs who have been tried for mass murder. But I will not lie: If the CFL invaded America, I would probably watch. At this point, I am so hungry for the game I would pay at least $15 to watch a gang of wolverines set loose on an oversized electric football board. Even if they were offside on every single play.

*Preferably by the Super Furry Animals.
**The other great fascination of Canadian football is that you spend a considerable amount of time murmuring statements like, "So that's what happened to Ken-Yon Rambo."