Wednesday, March 27, 2013

We never cared about you

You know who Buzz Bissinger is for mostly good reasons, particularly if you're in your 30s, specifically if you're a writer, almost certainly if you're a sports writer (or former sports writer) with a preference for long-form stuff. Friday Night Lights was a foundational text for anyone who gave a fuck about great storytelling within the context of sports, and for a 20-odd-year-old piece it holds up remarkably well. Whatever Bissinger earned from that one piece of work — millions of dollars, as much fame as a writer could conceivably hope to have, the juche to get someone to publish hoary, hagiographical drivel like Three Nights in August — was well-earned and earned honestly.

In the intervening years, those who follow certain segments of media came to know Bissinger in other ways, and as other things than simply the writer of an outstanding book. We now know him as a perhaps-reformed anti-intellectual who proudly uses a term like "douche juice" in social media and basically draws attention to himself using methods crafted over hundreds of years by teething infants. And, you know ... fine. The afterglow from Lights and sporadic demonstrations of writing talent meant he probably deserved a position from which he could continue to be a presence, even if that presence was unpalatable and boorish. It helps that even at his most vitriolic and incoherent, he wasn't as bad as anything you would be exposed to should you wander into the commentary section of virtually any major metro newspaper.

But now, we know this about Bissinger. And I'm really at a loss as to why. But more on that in a few hundred words or so.

The alpha and omega to becoming a writer is simply getting your reps in, which is why we have college programs for writing and attendant student publications. Yes, there are things that young writers need to be taught, but the vast majority of those things are fairly mundane and could be covered in a one-hour session if young people were willing to listen to anyone about anything. But that which is taught by teachers or advisors is much less important to development than the self-reflection that comes as a result of incessant, and public, failure. With one notable exception.

The hallmark of every 20-year-old writer is a self-obsession bordering on the pathological. Every kid thinks he/she is Gay Talese (only edgier!), and more importantly, thinks that everyone else wants to know more about them — what they think, how funny they are, how many members of the opposite sex so want the D from them, etc. — and views every opportunity to write for public consumption as a mandate to slake readers' unquenchable thirst. And that misperception will never be adressed unless an adult, at some point very early in the development process, absolutely fucking crushes that young writer for being such a solipsistic, uninteresting douchebag. This newspaper is not your fucking diary, a very wise advisor once said to this particular, then-young, then-writer after my umpteenth masturbatory column, so maybe you should pick up the phone AND ACTUALLY INTERVIEW SOMEONE. He had to say this to me more than a couple of times, and I remember each time thinking he was being such an asshole because, hey, Simers! But he was right, and he finally got through, and then I later became the person who ruined other young writers' day by telling them the exact same thing whenever they wasted 1,000 words on a story about a Vegas trip gone wrong, or whatever.

Thing is, it was a much easier lesson to sell when opportunities for public consumption were relatively limited, and my generation was the last to grow up thinking that in order to get readers, you had to actually listen to an adult (or an editor) at any point in time. And while I audibly groan whenever I hear people bitch about blogging or the internet or the death of newspapers, within those self-serving diatribes rested at least one legitimate complaint: Scarcity of space is important if what you care about is interesting content. Reasonable confines to copy space serve as an implicit contract with readers: We can't afford to run anything not really worth reading, so read with confidence. That shit is history now. Yeah, there are still editors in play, but they've been reduced to grammar-checkers and slideshow builders; "journalism" is now a euphemism for the serialized memoir. Were you a bully when younger and now regret it? Do you think prices for three-story walkups are simply outrageous?!? Are you proud of how brave Lena Dunham is for fucking dudes on television in spite of being a size 12?!?!? Here's $100 and the ability to put "Contributor to" on your goddamn CV.

Thing is, though, that while the old rules don't apply anymore, the new ones aren't much kinder to this kind of navel-gazing bullshit, which is why the old rules didn't suffer the diarists too well. doesn't survive on those stories, because outside of self-absorbed Brooklynites, friends/family of the author and assholes who like to go on Twitter rants about Lena Dunham stories on Slate, there isn't much of an audience. Readers still demand things that are interesting, or relevant, to them, just like the adults in journalism school were telling us all along. Be informative, or be salacious; them's your choices.

So here's where I admit that I was being facetious above: I know exactly why I now know that Buzz Bissinger isn't just the author of one great book and dozens of embarrassing public acts of stupidity or boorishness, but that he's spent more than a half-milly on overtight designer clothing, has a sexless marriage, and the rest of his life-cum-carwreck he cops to in that "essay." GQ probably set a two-year record in page hits, so that covers its motivation, which is really no different than its ever been. Lurid sells, because god help us we eat that shit up. I'll spare the readers of America that particular lecture.
As for Bissinger, he was kind enough to reveal his entire motivation in these two paragraphs that were ostensibly there to explain the roots of his addiction to designer clothing:
I am also a writer. I crave stimulation. I need it to create, to survive. Without it I feel dead, useless, overcome by the worst anxiety of all, nothingness, dead man walking. There was a time earlier in my life when I loved to write, the same feeling of orgasm that I now get with clothing. But in my mid-fifties the words were harder to find, the excuses to fuck around more pronounced, the anxiety multiplied that whatever I was working on would never reach the dizzying heights of Friday Night Lights. It had been my first book, written nearly twenty years earlier when I was 35—2 million copies sold, a film, a television series.
I began to dread the process, nothing ever good enough, the thoughts in my brain never quite finding the page, the withering negativity that had always been my guidepost in life only more withering. I fucked around more and more—nasty guillotine rants on Twitter going after everything and everyone, Googling my name six or seven times a day, craving crumbs of attention.
And there you have it. A once-great writer pimping out his last shred of credibility for the opportunity to spend a few thousands words answering all the questions about himself that absolutely no one asked. And what can readers take away from this, beyond a few images we can't hope to ever scrub from our mind and some shit to snark about on Twitter? The knowledge that $650,000 in Italian leather can buy you a portal back to your early 20s, as if anyone with half a fucking brain would actually want to go back there.

Post-script: Just read that he's now in rehab. I hope he gets well, because he's clearly not anything approximating well now, and hasn't been for a while. But this adds another layer to my disgust over the article: GQ basically ran an article by a sick man now getting treatment that served only to humiliate himself and his family in the most public of fashions. Whomever greenlighted this piece, released after he checked into rehab, should be ashamed of him or herself.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

How much more of a discount could you possibly want?

Albert Pujols was paid a total of $104 million for the first 10 years (and almost certainly the best 10 years) of his Hall of Fame career. It is safe to say the Cardinals got the single-greatest bargain in the history of the sport, relative to the market.

Ryan Howard will be paid $180 million for the first 10 years of his career. Mark Teixeira will be paid $144 million. If Prince Fielder is signed to a contract that pays him $20 million or above for the next five seasons, he will make at least $135 million for his first 10 years. And these are just Pujols' three main contemporaries at 1B. Without checking, I'm confident that at least 20 players have made, or will make, more than Pujols in the first 10 years of their careers, and none of them will offer the same level of production.

Pujols isn't necessarily deserving of sympathy: He made the decision to sign a below-market extension with the Cards, and the team was well within its rights to not renegotiate that contract. But to dismiss the fact that while Pujols was busy being the best player in baseball, the Cards went out and signed a great, but inferior player in Matt Holliday to a higher salary than Pujols' is to purposely prevent yourself from getting the point. The Cardinals knew they were getting a massive bargain in Pujols, and took advantage of it to sign a lesser player for more money, without offering their best player at least a matching salary.

And this is where I get to my (hopefully) succinct point: The Cardinals were playing with at least $35 million in house money, when you compare what they would have had to spend to get 85 percent of his production from another player. You could argue that the figure is probably closer to $100 million, when taking into account how much better Pujols has been than his contemporaries, one of which is going to be paid $80 million more for his first 10 years. The Angels have no credit with which to work, so the $250 million they'll pay for Pujols is based entirely on what they hope he produces for the next 10 years. The Cards, on the other hand, could have offset the inevitable years of overpay in his late 30s and early 40s with the money they already banked from his services while he was drastically underpaid.

The Cardinals had every economic incentive imaginable to ensure they offered Pujols more than any other team. You can argue they made the correct decision to not take on the risk of that 10-year deal, but you cannot argue that Pujols was disloyal for taking the highest bid after 10 years of being underpaid by a very large amount. Loyalty in an employer-employee relationship is always based on money, which is how we measure the esteem with which the subordinate is held. In this case, the employee got a pretty good idea of how his employer felt about not only his future worth, but the worth of his past efforts, and made the entirely rational decision to head elsewhere, where he was wanted more.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Contemplating Paterno, McQueary, and outrage

I feel sorry for Joe Paterno and Mike McQueary. I really do. Both men can be counted amongst the victims of Jerry Sandusky's monstrous crimes, even if they are not the victims we should be most concerned with, or feel the most sympathy for. Both those men were violated in a basic and awful way by Sandusky, and for that they do deserve sympathy.

Joe Paterno and Mike McQueary are awful human beings, and I wish them nothing but misery for the rest of their worthless lives. Those two men are wholly complicit in the continued brutalization of young men by a monster who should be put down with no more dignity than a rabid pitbull.

As we go through life, we can only hope to not be exposed to the depths of the human soul that Paterno and McQueary had so forcefully brought to their immediate attention. I cannot fathom what I would feel if a friend of mine, someone I loved, was revealed to be a monster. I am sure it would cause me to never love, or trust, again, and that in and of itself would render me something less than a whole person. Paterno and McQueary could never be whole again, from the second they discovered what a man they knew, admired, maybe even loved, was doing to at least one young man that day in the bowels of an institution they undoubtedly love as if it were itself human.

But let us not speak of what we would do. I cannot attest to my fitness for navigating this situation, nor can anyone else, except those who have been dealt the blow of actually having faced it. To even consider the hypothetical is to equivocate, to pretend that a choice really exists when it doesn't.

Instead we must speak of what must be done by any human being in that situation: Stop it from ever happening again, no matter the cost. Paterno and McQueary failed a test they didn't deserve to be faced with, and for that failure there is no punishment severe enough on this realm to, upon its execution, grant them absolution. This is not arguable, unless you do not value anything in this world.

You might say, but these men have families, and children of their own, and it is for those reasons they have worth. But those men already betrayed their families and children, and their worthiness as fathers, or spouses, or loved ones is invalidated by their awful crime against the very essence of what makes us human. There is no amount of good they could have done in their lives to outweigh their complicity in child rape. My hope is for both that they die with no other thought than what misery they wrought on Sandusky's victims.

"I am disappointed in the Board's decision," said Paterno in a statement released just moments ago. What incredible proof that this man is unworthy of anything but our most vicious contempt. He just walked out of his house with a smile and his arm around his wife, who herself has abdicated any notion of humanity, as deluded students screamed they loved him, and said he loved them too, before asking as a coda to "pray for the victims." There are no words.

As for those students, the ones on his front lawn, the ones holding gobsmacking silent vigils for the decrepit coward in front of his statue, the ones rioting out on Beaver Street: Our society will not be whole until you leave it, one way or the other. Paterno and McQueary indeed suborned child rape, a crime that defies our ability to express its horrors in words, but did so in a crisis of the soul, and failed their test as humans because they didn't have the moral fortitude to do the only thing a real human being can do. But you, "students," you are animals who mitigate the horrors of child rape with the benefit of reflection, and do a disservice to our species. The stain you have put on us all is one that will not fade for some time, but we can only hope you all begin the healing process for the rest of us by removing yourself from our society, sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

So a cross walks into a federal preserve ...

While living in Pocatello, Idaho, I drove by the county's courthouse on an almost-daily basis. Erected out on the otherwise nondescript lawn was a rather crude monument depicting the Ten Commandments, which is to many courthouses in America what a red light is to a den of iniquity. As a unabashed and often vocal atheist, the memorial was a daily annoyance, though not for the reason many would think. I don't have a problem with signs of faith anymore than I do proclamations of the absence thereof. I am not personally offended or bothered by the concept of spirituality, I just think spirituality itself is silly and dangerous to our world writ large.

The underlying cause of my being annoyed, and the reason I wanted that monument removed, was because I shuddered to think of how totally stupid the lawn in front of the courthouse would look if it featured monuments of faith for the wide variety of religions practiced in the city. I'd just rather we just tell everyone — Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus — that such displays are best left to the front window of one's house. Or, say, churches.

The response to this argument — and it's almost always the Christians who posit such — is that Christian symbols aren't inherently exclusive. Like the champions of the repulsive Confederate Flag that flew over the South Carolina state house, they'll say it's history that's being protected here, not the particular set of beliefs represented by the symbols. That's the tack pursued by Justice Antonin Scalia in defense of the "White Cross World War I Memorial," a five-foot tall white cross erected in 1934 which sits in the federally owned Mojave National Preserve.

"It's erected as a war memorial! I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead. The cross is the most common symbol of … of … of the resting place of the dead."

The article I've linked to covers its bases in terms of the back-and-forth, and I'm certainly not interested in exploring the various legalistic questions at play in this case. What interests me are two things: 1) The fact that Scalia, a brazenly intelligent man who rarely walks into an intellectual gunfight with a knife, actually believes that non-Christians would ever be buried under a cross (this isn't even the case with large plots of anonymous military burial grounds, where any recognized Jew would have a Star of David substituted for a cross); and, 2) That Scalia actually believes that the universal sign of Christianity ever ceases to be so, even if it's being employed in a non-religious context (in this case, a war memorial).

Of course he doesn't actually believe the second premise implicit in his objection; no human being on earth would ever recognize a white cross as anything but a symbol of Christianity, just like no American would recognize the Confederate Flag as anything but a symbol of slave-owning secessionists who once took arms against fellow citizens and America itself. What he's really arguing here is intent, as clearly those vets who put the cross up in the first place did so with no intention of creating an Establishment Clause skirmish, mainly because America was a much more hegemonic place then than it is today.

It's a sticky situation, as almost every fight surrounding the Establishment Clause is. Tearing down the memorial seems a rather crude exercise, since it was and is a war memorial, and memorials are what little solace we have to offer to our military dead and their families. But the alternative is to open up the memorial space to more demonstrations of faith, as was proposed by a Buddhist on this very site. No one will argue that allowing a Buddhist exhibition would be more consistent with the principles of our pluralistic, multi-faith society, but it would also be a logistical and aesthetic nightmare. One can see a situation in which, come the passing of a decade, the site would look more like a "Faiths of the World" exhibition at your local high school than anything resembling a war memorial.

So we have to ask ourselves, what's worse? Nothing, or everything? Because our constitution does not properly allow for the possibility that a majority's religious beliefs somehow affords those followers more rights for public display than the followers of less popular faiths. To argue otherwise would simply be arguing in favor of de facto establishment, which is a short and token step away from just going ahead and ratifying Christianity as our nation's official religion.

Many Christians, particularly those of a rightward bent, find arguments like mine to be repugnant. They express mock or real outrage at the idea of someone being "offended" by Christian displays on public land (and I'll concede that the verb "offense" and its various conjugations have been abused to a tragic degree). They see any challenge to public displays of Christian symbols as being an "attack" on Christianity, just like they see the use of the term "Happy Holidays" as part of a "war" on Christmas. Yet, they don't see their support of passive exclusion as being an attack on Judaism, just the nature of the world when your tribe is the smaller one, and doesn't boast the commonly recognized name of its deity in a passage of the Declaration of Independence (contrary to a rather disturbing commonly held belief, "God" is not mentioned once in The Constitution, a document that actually holds up the concept of "liberty" as that which bestows any and all blessings).

But professed outrage is a poor substitute for logic, and there is ultimately no logical defense available to those who believe Christian symbols can expect special protection in the public sphere. And, since I know men like Scalia would be even more scandalized by opening up the floodgates and turning the front lawns of every small-town courthouse into a smorgasbord of religious symbology, I think we can all agree that it's just better to have nothing at all.

Mr. Scalia, tear down that cross.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Joyce Carol Oates is a monster

From her recent contribution to the torrent of Ted Kennedy remembrances:

Yet if one weighs the life of a single young woman against the accomplishments of the man President Obama has called the greatest Democratic senator in history, what is one to think?

Is this what it's become? The guilt for Oates and her like over loving Teddy has seemed to overwhelm a rather intelligent woman's last grasp on logic. We're now justifying the kind of callousness and negligence that led to a young woman's unnecessary death — and it's worth noting that she was a wonderful, liberal woman who had dedicated much of her short life to the cause of civil rights — by measuring what that person does with the rest of his undeservedly free life?

And then, this horrifying sentence from someone with much less of a Q rating (and hopefully influence), worse than anything I've heard usual whipping boys O'Reilly, Beck or Limbaugh say recently (though I'm sure they're scrambling now that the stakes have been raised):

Who knows -- maybe she'd feel it was worth it.

I don't suppose it's worth mentioning that Kennedy's worth as a politician is in the eyes of the beholder; one shouldn't need to point out to Oates and the HuffPoTroll (HPT from here on out) that there's a significant portion of the American population that wished he was locked up precisely to prevent his "second act." No, even if it were accepted by every person in America that Kennedy's contributions as a politician were positive, it would not aid their arguments in the slightest.

There is something so completely revolting about how easily Oates, HPT and many Kennedy defenders, have sloughed off the death of Mary Jo Kopechne as nothing more than a "nadir" of an otherwise great man's life. Perhaps Oates requires reminding that actual human lives aren't slaves to a narrative arc; Kennedy was no vessel for a fiction writer. He was a real man, who could have had the political career he did without Kopechne's death. And Kopechne was a real woman — do we really need to trot out the "somebody's daughter" bullshit to make this point? — who herself aimed to make a real difference in this country. Who knows? Maybe she could have been an even more influential figure in the civil rights movement than Teddy himself?

Maybe I'm expecting too much from the writers who clearly were trying to set themselves apart from the chatter. Maybe I'm overreacting. Maybe I'm allowing my harsh summary judgement of Kennedy's political career — he is one of the leading proponents of the government as omnipresent force in my daily life — to cloud my dim view of Oates and HPT's rather cruel-sounding calculus.

But to accept what they've said is to accept that the ends always justify the means. And many of our worst sins as a country and a human race have been perpetrated using that very justification, including many of the sins we continue to commit today. And it also makes me wonder if Oates, and HPT, believe we should start searching our penitentiaries for more men like Kennedy, who simply needed their own "nadir" before doing great things. Because, surely, these lions of equality and liberalism don't believe such redemption is only available to the rich and privileged.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Boy, I don't know if I can really do this

So, I'm about 99 percent sure that, beginning this September, I will begin a Master's program at the University of Phoenix for secondary education. But, before I finalize anything, I'm doing some research on my possible future career, and stumble across this nugget of pure government beauty in the list of requirements for a full secondary education accreditation:

A passing score on the performance portion of the Arizona Educator Proficiency Assessment. Currently, the assessment has not been developed.

You just can't make that shit up.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Adventures in online content

Far be it from me to accuse someone else of prejudice, but the absence of "Puerto Rican" on the following list of possible answers shrieks of blatant bias.

For shame, ESPN.