Tuesday, December 01, 2015

All time basketball team

On drive-time sports talk radio today, they were debating whether Kobe is one of the top 10 players of all time.  I'd say yes, probably -- this is my list of the top 12.

hakeem olajuwon
kareem abdul-jabbar
bill russell
wilt chamberlain
shaquille o'neal
michael jordan
kobe bryant
larry bird
magic johnson
lebron james
dwyane wade
tim duncan

Criteria: (1) Huge alll-time numbers, (2) starred on more than one NBA title team, (3) score high on the advanced stats at basketball-reference.com -- Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares -- even though I don't completely understand those. 

Bill Russell, I take on faith a little bit.  His offensive stats are not that great, of course, but he has the highest career Defensive Win Shares total, plus all those rings.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Bucket List of Trails

My wife took a business trip last week to the Canadian Rockies, including Banff National Park.  She had responsibilities, so it wasn't a pleasure cruise, but the hiking and sightseeing opportunities in Banff made me jealous.

I suppose it was my Western-Canada envy that made me delve into the National Geographic website and its lists of fabulous hikes.  I constructed this fantasy list of trails I'd like to take, and I post it here for my convenient reference.  Criteria: I was looking for mostly day hikes, without any special skill required: no ice, no rock climbing, no caves, no guides, no orienteering.  I have stuck to North America and the British Isles, which seem more feasible than more far-flung continents.

  • Aonach Eagach Ridge, Glencoe, Scotland (part of the 96-mile West Highland Way)
  • Devil's Path, Catskills Mtns, New York
  • Huntington Ravine, Mount Washington, New Hampshire
  • Dry Fork Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah
  • Crypt Lake Trail, Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
  • Croagh Patrick Summit Climb, Westport, County Mayo, Ireland
  • Old Rag Loop, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
  • Mount Lecomte, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee
  • Sargent Mountain Loop, Acadia National Park, Maine
  • Highland & Centennial Trails, Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
  • Franconia Ridge Loop/Traverse, New Hampshire
  • Solomon Gulch Trail, Valdez, Alaska
  • The Long Range Traverse, Newfoundland, Canada (6 days)
  • Dipsea Trail, Muir Woods National Monument, California
  • Fort to Sea Trail Lewis and Clark National Historic Park, Oregon
  • Loch Vale, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
  • Outer Line Drive Multipurpose Path, Valley Forge National Historical Park, Pennsylvania
  • Marin Headlands, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California

Monday, July 27, 2015

Things We Heard Today: Vince Gilligan talking to Marc Maron

My wife and I are just now catching up with Breaking Bad.  It's a pattern with us, to binge-watch a show a few years after its run is over and it's no longer buzzy. 

With no plan in mind, just looking for something to listen to at my desk this morning, I came across a recent Marc Maron podcast where he interviewed Vince Gilligan, the creator and show-runner of Breaking Bad

Gilligan is a good ol' down-to-earth guy, so it was a pleasure just to spend an hour eavesdropping on him.  He was disarming in talking about his career, the debt he owes to Chris Carter and The X-Files, the offhand way he and a friend had the original spark of an idea for a show about a guy who cooks crystal meth.  His career path started in Farmville, Virginia, not the likeliest launching point for a show biz career, so that made him extra relatable.  He seemed like someone I could have known in school. 

Gilligan recounted how he didn't know in advance exactly how things would unfold in BB, plotwise-- that he initially planned to kill Jesse off at the end of Season One; that he lost his sympathy for Walter White but was surprised to see that much of his audience retained their interest in Walter.  His account speaks to the potential for collaboration in a television series, for investing in actors and other members of the creative team; perhaps even for incorporating the audience response in how the show would evolve. 

None of these are brilliant insights, I realize, but Gilligan's story might be pertinent to me and mine someday, so I want to at least bookmark the link. 

It was great that Marc Maron landed an interview with President Obama a few weeks ago.  WTF is a great success story of recent years.  It's remarkable to sustain something so quirky and personal and oftentimes coming from a place of conflict if not pain.  And even with success easing some of Maron's pain, the show remains good.  I don't think I'm Maron's target audience exactly, but I've enjoyed a lot of his shows -- I pick and choose a bit from his episode guide.  For all kinds of reasons, I like how Maron's guerrilla podcast got onto the agenda of our very shrewd, sensitive, culturally aware Chief Executive.  One reason is that some bigfoot media people got slightly sniffy that Obama would give Maron an exclusive interview and not give one to them. 

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

The Overnighters

POV, the public television documentary series, aired a film Monday called The Overnighters.  It focuses on a shelter for transient workers in the booming oil fields around Williston, North Dakota.

The principal figure is Jay Reinke, the Lutheran pastor who runs the mission.  This is the best, richest depiction of a pastor I've ever seen on video.  Pastor Reinke is busy damn near around the clock, housing dozens of men on the church floor each night--and trying to pacify church members, the neighborhood, and town officials each day.  He tries to be knowing, loving, and authentic in all his many relationships.  And he's relentless in pursuing his ministry.  If anyone is truly called by God, it would seem to be Pastor Reinke.

But he's in a horribly sticky situation.  Men stream into Williston from around the U.S. and around the world seeking a new start.  Some are immigrants from Africa.  Many are native born U.S. citizens carrying criminal records.  They live rough, and that's the point.  Each wants a job, a dirty oil field job, and each has a family somewhere else to whom he wants to send most of his wages.  So they sleep in their cars, or in dirty RVs, or on the floor of a church, and they eat meals straight out of a tin can.  It's the discipline.

The oil companies welcome these men, if needing their labor can be called welcoming them.  The town flatly does not welcome them, dreading the crime and the blight associated with these roughnecks.  After a point, under the strain of their unremitting need, the church doesn't welcome them either. 

Only Jay Reinke and his family truly love and welcome these men.

Most of the film, while rich in detail, traces a sad story of how that love is not enough.  The board of elders of Concordia Lutheran Church threatens Pastor Reinke's job if he doesn't close the shelter, and stanch the bleeding of church members quitting and neighbors complaining.  Town government, with its fire codes and parking rules, is a machine for maintaining small-town tidiness, and thus a scourge for roughnecks seeking a new start.  The town newspaper, claiming civic duty, publishes the names of men in town who are convicted sex offenders.  The list includes one man whom Pastor Reinke has been sheltering in his home, unbeknownst to the church. 

After months of Reinke's pleading, in formal meetings and one-on-one appeals, the shelter has to close.  The viewer has seen this coming.  There are some angry scenes in the final reel, where someone or other turns on Jay Reinke.  It seems he has made conflicting promises to various people, not all of which he could keep in the end.  As he himself admits, Reinke has trouble saying No--a common trait in ministers.  Despite good faith and the best intentions, he has disappointed people, and a few, mainly men from the Overnighters, cut him off abruptly.

The final development, however, is one I didn't see coming, and it gutted me.  (Spoilers follow.)  A man has been blackmailing Jay Reinke over a sexual encounter between them, and the scandal becomes public.  I'm not sure who the blackmailer is, but a good bet is that it's one of the oil field workers he has been ministering to.  Jay has spoken of his "brokenness" throughout the story; now it appears that the brokenness is his struggle with same-sex attraction.  We thought that Jay had lost his pet project, but at least kept his job and his family.  He loses both of those in the end.  Just ahead of the closing credits, a caption tells us that Jay is looking for work in the North Dakota oil fields.

I suppose at first I was bothered by this twist.  I'd been pleased to see a modern-day working pastor in Flyover America, portrayed in a nuanced, unsentimental, but generally positive way.  His being in a gay sex scandal didn't fit in my frame.  Leaving aside theoretical questions about documentary film, fiction vs. nonfiction--I wanted Jay Reinke to be exemplary. 

Having sat with it for a day and a half, I feel better about it.  Ministry is dangerous work, so I've heard.  I see that more deeply now.  Reinke was out on a limb: working too many hours, neglecting his relationship with his family, lacking a friend outside the church or The Overnighters who could lovingly keep him in check.  His apparent strength was wedded to a hidden weakness.  His Sisyphean determination left no space for lightness, for joy, for release, at least in licit or "constructive" terms.  So an illicit compulsion found release.

Or hell, maybe I have it quite wrong, that last bit.  Jay Reinke isn't dead, and God isn't finished with him or anyone else in the film.  Reinke may resurface as a Brokeback Prairie preacher, or leader among LGBT Lutherans.  I'm sure he repents part of his story, but I hope and believe he embraces part of it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


The morning after the shooting, I was at my desk at work, monitoring the online news as it steadily unfolded.  The count of the dead; the photos of the shooter and his car; the account of what he said given by the woman he left alive.  The fact that he sat there for an hour before rising and producing his gun.  His uncle ID'ing him to the police.  The press quickly tracking him via Facebook, seeking comments from his relatives and peers.  I say "peers" since he didn't seem to have friends. 

(Key quote: “I never heard him say anything, but just he had that kind of Southern pride, I guess some would say. Strong conservative beliefs.”)

The unsurprising news of his capture. 

Then the second day: Enterprising net-sleuths digging out his racist manifesto.  His confessing to the crime; his hapless attempt to kill himself at Emanuel AME.  He remarked that the people at the church had been so nice to him, he almost didn't go through with the murders.

It was useless for me to be glued to the news those days; it might have been better to be traveling or something, to be unplugged.  The only cheap satisfaction was seeing conservatives casting about in a panic, looking for a way to spin it.  I was messaging friends online, and everything I wrote was delivered in the tone of deadpan snark.  Hold up everybody, Rudy Giuliani says we don't know what his motivation was...

There was a meeting at my church last night, a bunch of Southern honkies not directly affected by the attack, but with shocked consciences.  We went around the room and were each asked to say a word or two to describe our emotions about the shootings.  Everyone expressed sorrow, but most were groping for some more transcendent feeling: hope, solidarity, tolerance.  I went last.  My words were action, which white folks need to take because sorrow and guilt are not enough; and determined, which the people of Emanuel certainly are, opening their doors for worship as scheduled, determined to overcome.

I realized at that moment that what I am, simply, is angry.  My words are not transcendent; my jaw is clenched.  I feel I'm supposed to forgive.  Some loved ones of the Charleston victims told the shooter they forgive him.  That's astonishing.  I don't forgive him because my heart is hardened toward him, but also because I don't feel it's my place to forgive him.  I am one on whose behalf he believed he was acting. 

From the first day after the news broke, there were people lifting up the names of the dead, and saying that the perp is nothing; let's not even honor him with our attention.  There is wisdom in that attitude: to focus on these embodiments of love and faith, not to focus on the one in the grip of hatred.  I hope I'll attain that attitude eventually.  At the moment I'm fixed on this young white man.  He was pure in his stupidity.  It's facile to say he was a perfect failure, that he will unite the races rather than divide them.  He meant to shed blood, and make widows and orphans, and he did.  But despite his declared mission, he may have taught a lesson quite contrary to what he intended.  He revealed the original sin, scar, and stain on our people, his and mine.

Monday, May 11, 2015

On the abrupt departure of Bill Simmons from ESPN

So, if his writing was always shitty, and fame and access actually improved his skill-set, then why don’t you like Simmons as much as you used to? What changed?

You did. You are not 19 anymore. You matured, read other, better writers, and eventually discovered the difference between an analogy and a reference, between affectation and personality, between pointless maundering and having something to say. You grew to prefer coherence over in-group signaling. You figured out that writing that claps you on the back and congratulates you for being careless and white and male and steeped in mainstream pop culture is the precise opposite of subversive. You lost your taste for Bill Simmons, whose writing is bad. You grew up. Good for you! Growing up is cool.

Yeah, pretty much.  For my case the sentence should read, "You are not 36 anymore."  When I discovered Bill Simmons, it must've been 2000 or so, I was charmed.  It didn't take too much reading in his ESPN archive to catch on to (and, I suppose, be flattered that I caught on to) his inside jokes, the private language and set of pop-culture references. 

What took a little longer to figure out: Simmons and his group of college buds, who featured in his columns, reminded me of my group of college buds.  That had a powerful nostalgic pull on me.  At the time, I was in a doldrums related to being the parent of small kids, a life stage that can make one feel boring and prematurely old.  I was missing my male circle from college days.  We too had our private vocabulary, our favorite movies and pop songs and other clever references.  I thought this dense groupthink made us distinctive and rare. 

It does NOT make us distinctive or rare, I've come to understand, after yet a little more time.  Five million frat bros can't be wrong, from a mass marketing perspective, but they can't all be special.  That has been a little painful to accept, along with other intimations that my college experience was not as magical as I once felt it was. 

Parallel to that sad acceptance, I've found it harder to slog through Simmons's prose.  To his credit, Grantland publishes some writers I really admire (Charlie Pierce, Bryan Curtis, and Brian Phillips are the principal names) who make Simmons's own writing look pedestrian by comparison. 

(It also publishes some folks who read like obsequious Simmons acolytes.  That's understandable; he certainly hit on a winning formula, for anyone able to follow it.  Deadspin itself could be said to take the Simmons M.O. and improve it.)

As this piece hints, Simmons has turned out to be pretty good as a publisher, producer, and all-round businessperson.  At ESPN he leveraged his pageviews into the 30 for 30 videos and Grantland, and both those things have had some good moments.  I hope Bill surfaces somewhere that understands him and gives him latitude to sponsor more good young writers and filmmakers. He has an aptitude for that.  But his writing... I'm over it.

Friday, May 08, 2015

On whether being an adult might be better than being a child

Mike isn't nice to waiters or waitresses.  He may not be outright rude, but he's brusque.  There's not a lot of Please and Thank You.  At breakfast at the hotel, he sends back the bacon, asks if it can be crispier.

That's a difference between us, and I don't mean to flatter myself.  I am polite to a fault, compulsively polite.  And I don't think I've ever sent back a plate of food in my life.  Some of them should have gone back!

It must have felt good to Mike to grow into that.  Kids are expected to defer.  It must have been sweet for Mike to grow up, get a little thicker and balder, and become the brusque, slightly imperious person he was meant to be.

I have marveled at how my oldest child has adapted to college.  She struggled in high school, I just assumed there would be struggles in college, but she has come into her own.  She can deal with adults on a more equal basis, and there are certain kinds of crap that she used to hate, and now doesn't have to put up with anymore.  Hall passes, bell schedules, parents and teachers telling her where to be every minute of the day.  No more.  She organizes life for herself now.

She is nice to waiters and waitresses, though.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015


John was calling to say that he couldn't come to my wedding.  He had won a sales contest at his job, the prize was a Caribbean vacation, and the departure date was the same as our wedding date.  He apologized sincerely, he hated to miss the wedding, but he had put a lot of planning and energy into winning the Caribbean trip.  I understood, I wasn't mad, and I tried to turn the conversation to other topics, news of our lives.  But John kept reiterating how sorry he was, how much he regretted the date conflict, and not being there on my big day.  Finally I said, "No hard feelings," and I realized those were the exact words he needed to hear out of my mouth.  His relief was palpable as soon as I spoke the words, the sentence of absolution.  The whole conversation was designed to get me to say it, and would have continued all day if necessary until I said it. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Squinting and Savoring

There was a Letter to the Editor in my local paper on Friday, bemoaning the paper's decision not to print Major League Baseball box scores in the Sports page any longer. 

At first glance, this seemed just a generic rant of the kind the newspaper Letters page specializes in, of the Old Person Yelling at Passing Traffic variety.  What makes it interesting is that the author is the poet Michael McFee.

Can I access such data online? Sure. But it’s not the same as holding the folded newspaper in my hands, following the numbers with my fingers, smelling the ink and hearing the shaken-out pages, appreciating how neatly a box score (which takes up very little room) summarizes this beautiful game and doing so the way generations of fans and families have always done. It’s not even close.

Part of what McFee is praising is the sensory experience of reading a newspaper.  I can relate: My wife and I let our subscription to the physical paper lapse a couple of years ago.  But we missed it, so we re-upped.  We missed it most of all at the breakfast table.  Does it clutter up our lives?  I suppose so, but it also gives texture to our lives, concrete and local.

It was nice, also, to be reminded that the daily box score can appeal to a poet as well as a baseball stat nerd.  If you know its syntax, a box score tells a story in an economical but resonant way.  Sports reporting on the Web has almost no space limitations, so some of the beauty of the box score is lost due to the abundance of real estate. 

Michael McFee has published at least a couple of poems about baseball.  I liked this one; I have been struck by the image of a baseball diamond seen from an airplane window, especially at night.  But this one dazzled me.  I reprint it here.

Old Baseball Found Under A Bush

On this ultimate spitball
 steeped for who knows how many unseasonable seasons
  under a parkside bush,

two tiny snails are tracing
  fingerings: fast ball, slider, split finger, curve,
   a patient rehearsal

over horsehide so putrefied
 the regulation pressure-wound muscular core beneath
  is dissolving like newsprint.

This is something you want
 to drop, not throw: the old flirtation with gravity
  has gone sour, there’s too much

dirt and scuff and sweat and smell,
 the delicate infinite swell of the hand-stitched seams
  protrudes from its flayed skin

like a skeleton, a bone of hope.
 This thing is meant for the heavy hands of the dead.
  So I tuck it back in the dark

as the snails polish their trail,
 a couple of umpires searching for whatever it was
  that made this ball jump once.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

"We’ve just been obnoxious and stuck around anyway"

Emma Green at The Atlantic, writing about the Allegheny Mennonite Conference debating the status of LGBT persons.  This is a terrific article: it adds to my understanding of the Mennonites, and it is a great case study of how these issues are playing out in American denominations.  No easy answers are offered.  On principle I side with the progressives, but I respect the traditions and heritage that the conservatives are defending.  I also like the audio clips.

My title here is taken from a quote by the pastor of the Mennonite congregation in Hyattsville, MD.  It was the first church in its conference to accept openly gay members, and the conference yielded to the congregation's wishes in the beginning.  As Hyattsville's identity as LGBT-affirming became stronger, it began sending gay members as delegates to the regional meetings, and it was then that the conflict emerged: Hyattsville was placed on probation, its voting rights suspended, its pastor's ordination reviewed. 

You'd think the Hyattsville group would take a hint at this point.  But they didn't; they kept attending meetings, "obnoxiously" making themselves visible if officially powerless.  This year things came to a head: the limbo of probation could not be sustained. Hyattsville won the vote to be restored, but by the narrowest margin.  As a consequence, three other congregations withdrew.

Part of the legacy of the Reformation is that some issues are important enough to split over....

Another choice quote -- One conference delegate, a gay man and Hyattsville member, is confronted with people who quote the Leviticus verse calling same-sex relations an abomination.

But Miller said he tries to ignore them. “I don’t react very much any more—maybe an eye roll. Anything that biblical writers were addressing had nothing to do with modern same-sex couples,” he said. “Some people’s whole focus about gay and lesbian relationships is all about sex—thinking below the belt, and that’s not the totality of what our life together means.”
 That's a great, succinct response -- painfully arrived at.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Heroism and Bureaucracy

I feel vaguely unworthy, sometimes, reading the blog Crooked Timber.  It's mostly by and for academics, and the topics discussed are often ones where I have only a Cliffs Notes level understanding.  This one, by Corey Robin, is about Hannah Arendt and the history of bureaucracy.   I want to bookmark it.  Does a hero have to burst the bonds of bureaucracy, or institutions generally?  Or can a hero operate, even luxuriate, within a bureaucracy?  The post concludes:

Ever since Weber, probably Tocqueville, we’ve tended to think of the soulless bureaucrat as the very opposite of the impassioned political actor. In her sharpest and darkest moments, Arendt saw otherwise: not only would the political aspirant have to work with and in a bureaucracy, but in his desire to be remembered for all time, to do something that no future could ever forget, he would happily find himself basking in paper, festooned in red tape.