Monday, December 31, 2012

A Sometimes Food

Shakespeare once wrote that brevity is the soul of wit. George Costanza once left on a high note. A mind more respected than those two is not easy to find. Taking that into consideration, I will do my best to keep this brief.

As I mentioned about a month ago, I recently started a new job as an Associate Editor for Cincinnati Magazine. It's a position that I am both grateful for and excited about growing more and more comfortable with. It also comes with new responsibilities and changes in lifestyle; I hope to be writing more and more for the mag as time progresses, in addition to my other editorly duties. All of these things are welcomed and galvanizing, as I'm getting to work in the profession I always hoped to, at a publication that is well-respected and offers the chance to dabble in myriad facets of the magazine industry. It is not lost on me how fortunate I am.

Because of this, Arbitrary JudgEment is now a “sometimes food.” Over the past two years, I've kept a steady schedule of two posts per month on this site, writing on whatever topic for which I felt conviction or held some amount of interest. And as easy as two posts per month may seem—and honestly, it really wasn't that difficult—I feel that now is a good time to dissolve that schedule and transition to the next phase of this blog's existence. I'm not shutting down Arbitrary JudgEment. In fact, I plan to post here as often as I feel the urge to do so. I just don't foresee that impulse manifesting itself into longer explorative pieces twice a month. Maybe it will be once every other month, maybe it will only be three or four times a year. It'd be foolish of me to assume I know how the winds of change will shift.

I started this site during my freshman year of college at Ohio University. One of my journalism professors suggested to our class that with the ease involved in self-publishing via the web (which in the fall of 2008, was still relatively fresh, new, and void of the flocks of tools with snarky Tumblr accounts), it would be wise for our future if we invested in this opportunity. I followed this advice, and soon found quite a bit of pleasure in the freedom and creativity that the site offered. It took me a few years to develop the blog into what I wanted, but the beauty in it was just that: It could be whatever I wanted. I wasn't making any money off of it. I wasn't obligated to fill any quota or navigate censorship in any way. As long as I didn't make a complete ass of myself (and I probably walked that tightrope once or twice), the site stood to help me moving forward as a writer. I believe it did. I don't know that any of the opportunities I've had in my short life as a journalist have been aided or influenced greatly by the work I've done on this site, but I know without a doubt that the writing and editing I've done for it have made me better writer and editor, expanded my creativity and critical thinking, and provided a bit of self-entertainment (which in many cases is the most important kind). It afforded me a vessel through which I could transform my brain into a cohesive conglomeration of words. It was the hoop outside my house where I could craft my game, my style. It was my arbitrary judgment bestowed upon ideas and topics that were important to me. If the site was read or appreciated or aroused discussion among anyone else, I'm genuinely appreciative of that (seriously), but that ultimately wasn't the point.

About two-and-a-half years ago, I eased into the pattern of posting twice a month, the site finally finding its form, at least in my eyes. I'm proud of the work I did before that, but I'm especially proud of the work I've done since then. (If you are at all curious, I even selected four of my personal favorites if you wish to look back on them, linked to here, here, here and here.) I wrote only what I felt passionate about or intrigued by. I don't claim to be an expert on any of these topics, but I also avoided writing about things that held little interest to me or would purposefully stir up controversy. This site has never even been a true “blog,” but rather a personal column through which I could spill out my thoughts. It will continue to be that, whenever I feel the desire for it to do so.

This venture was never meant to be widely read or popular, and it never was. If I may be completely candid, it probably received more eyes than I ever dreamed it would. This was due in large part to the friends and family who made a point to check back every couple weeks. You know who you are, and your devotion is much appreciated.

I've also witnessed, more recently, some of those very same friends and family being forced to attend to difficult and unfortunate events in their personal lives. And if I've learned anything during my time on this impermanent earth, it's that the same thing that applies to the soul of wit and Constanza's showmanship also applies to life in general: Far too often, it is far too brief. Spend it doing what you love and with the people that you love. Arbitrary JudgEment has allowed me to experience the first part of that. Moving forward, I intend to focus more on the latter as well. And from time to time, I'll be sure to stop by again.

If you wish to keep up or keep in touch, you can follow me on Twitter, on my website, or at the magazine.

As always...

Thanks for reading

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Best Albums of 2012

If you read this blog religiously—which, as flattering as that might be for me, is probably a bad omen regarding the level of excitement in your life—then you've probably been a bit concerned by my erratic posting schedule. I've been pretty consistent over the past two years with publishing two pieces a month, generally about two weeks apart. No longer, but no need to worry. I have reasons and excuses and apologize if it in any way caused you any amount of apprehension. But I'll get to that in the near future. For now, I give you the fifth annual Top 10 albums post from Arbitrary JudgEment (plus a few extras), capping off a half-decade of pure, unconditional, musically biased enjoyment. Read like no one is watching.

  • Close Only Counts in Horseshoes and Hand Grenades
Grizzly Bear—Shields; The xx—Coexist; Metric—Synthetica; Band of Horses—Mirage Rock; Mumford and Sons—Babel; Beach House—Bloom; Imagine Dragons—Night Visions; M83—Hurry Up, We're Dreaming; Two Door Cinema Club—Beacon; Alabama Shakes—Boys & Girls

  • The Best Songs That Didn't Appear on any of my Best Albums
The Avett Brothers—“I Never Knew You”
Infectious, foot-stomping beat with lyrics haughty enough to make you consider dumping your significant other, purely so you can gain the scornful satisfaction of posting a link to this song on their Facebook page.

Walk the Moon—“Ana Sun”
The best way to appease my generation is to sympathize, rationalize, hyperbolize, and cement the profundity of every trivial and arbitrary moment of our lives. Setting these notions to music is just gravy. This is probably why there has been a bevy of danceable tunes in recent years portraying a random, drunken night at the bar as some seminal and defining moment in all of our lives. (This is also largely why Ke$ha and Katy Perry exist as relevant figures in our culture.) “Ana Sun” is the pinnacle of this classification of song.

Passion Pit—“Hideaway”
One of a few tracks I thoroughly enjoyed off this album, and the one I seem to keep coming back for the most. Although a tad disjointed compared to 2009's Manners, “Hideaway,” “Take a Walk,” and “Constant Conversations” will keep this album in my rotation for the foreseeable future.

  • The Top 10
10. Minus the Bear—Infinity Overhead
I may have been a tad swayed after seeing the band live and talking with them earlier this year, but I thought Infinity Overhead was a beautiful return to form for the group. I probably enjoyed the risks and deviations of Omni a bit more, but standard Minus the Bear is still good Minus the Bear.

9. Taylor Swift—Red
“We are Never Ever Getting Back Together” is really just terrible. But “I Knew You Were Trouble” is impossible to turn off, “22” makes the lamest possible age actually seem fun and enjoyable, and “Stay Stay Stay” could probably turn love's biggest cynic into a blubbering puddle. Plus I can just imagine, the month after this album came out, when all of my friends that are still in college were whispering “Loving you is red” to impressionable young coeds at deafening house parties or in the corner of a crowded bar...and that line actually working for them.

8. The Lighthouse & The Whaler—This is an Adventure
My two greatest discoveries while living in Cleveland were eating at Borderline Cafe across the street from my apartment, and listening to this band. At least I can take TLATW with me. I wish I could do the same with Borderline's banana nut french toast.

7. Bob Dylan—Tempest
No need to repeat myself.

6. Cloud Nothings—Attack on Memory
They have that ever-elusive, rock band ability to sound both content and anguished at the same time, proud and chagrined, accepting and ambitious. The album's intent is never more evident than through the evolving lo-fi sound and Dylan Baldi's deep, humming voice on “Stay Useless”: Can I feel, so utterly unreal / But nothing I could do would make things change / I am stuck in here / I am tired of everywhere / I'm never gonna learn to be alone / I need time to stop moving / I need time to stay useless.

5. Japandroids—Celebration Rock
“The House That Heaven Built” is musical perfection. The gritty sound is a lost art among today's scene. The lyrical concepts are existential. The three- to four-minute constructions are incensed yet wholly satisfying. It's as if the band's sophomore effort put the indie scene at ease with a style quite the contrary. They are the Black Keyes with a little extra umph—in sound, not stature. But maybe someday.

4. Of Monsters and Men—My Head is an Animal
The haunting and pressing sound. The mystical imagery. This weird, crazy video, but more importantly, that song. Now wait, wait, wait for me, please hang around / I'll see you when I fall asleep...

3. Jack White—Blunderbuss
I've put my appreciation and infatuation with Jack White into words on plenty of occasions at this point, and this album—his first solo work—is on par with some of his best work. The now-routine rattling riffs and ear-splitting solos are accompanied by vague yet cutting lyrics. As the title of the fantastic New York Times Magazine feature by Josh Eells stated: Jack White is the Coolest, Weirdest, Savviest Rock Star of Our Time. I'm pretty sure he inspired that character on the show Nashville, too. (The Connie Britton fans out there know which one I'm talking about.)

2. Best Coast—The Only Place
There are times when simplicity is preferable to complexity, when retro is worthy of being revived, where the calm achieved by multiple moving facets is fulfilling in a way that rambunctiousness and instability can never be. These times also seem to be far less prevalent in music than they are in various other forms of art and entertainment. But on The Only Place, Best Coast ascends to each and every one of those levels, basic achievements begetting impressively nuanced results.

1. Imperial Teen—Feel the Sound
The album is essential Imperial Teen: bubbly, poppy, peppy, crisp, clear, blissful alt-rock, unencumbered by the fact that this is no longer the late '90s or that so much about the side streets of rock their style has pushed them toward is actually changing as well, working to get closer to the metropolis as opposed to being smitten staying where they are—as long as they can continue to be who they are, who they've always been. The band is doing nothing new or shocking on Feel the Sound; there are no surprises, save for the overall pleasant one directed at an album that is cohesive and familiar and welcoming and warm. “Runaway” is addictive, “Out From Inside” is rollicking and demands that you clap along. Look, I'm a bigger fan of Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, Joni Mitchell's Blue, or Springsteen's The River than most people probably are. I hit play on Cat Stevens and Gordon Lightfoot and Warren Zevon's late-in-life stuff with regularity. But there is something necessary and under-appreciated about perpetuating all the good and positive things that music and life and other broad, cliched tropes have to offer. We don't do if often enough. It's a good thing Imperial Teen is around to help out.

Thanks for reading

Thursday, November 29, 2012

It's Still Knuckle-Puck Time

For Americans aged roughly 17-30 that have possessed even a marginal appreciation for popular culture over the better course of their lives, Kenan Thompson is most likely one of the longest, non-familial relationships they can lay claim to.

I'm currently 23 years old, and I have very few life memories in which Kenan was not a relevant part of my personal entertainment zeitgeist. This isn't meant to suggest that Kenan played a role in all of these memories—in fact he did so in very few, or at the most a perfectly healthy amount—but rather that during the time in which these memories were initially harvested, I was cognizant of Thompson and his role in my own pop culture spectrum.

I, like many other young adults that are currently proactive on the internet and with social media, am a child of '90s culture, despite sneaking onto this planet just under the '80s cutoff line. And I, like those that identify their formative years with this same decade, are undoubtedly equally familiar with the many legendary and cult-followed projects Kenan was involved in. Beginning in 1994, Thompson played a significant part in D2: The Mighty Ducks, All That, Heavyweights, D3: The Mighty Ducks (yeah, it sucked, but everyone saw it because of how amazing D2 was), Kenan & Kel, Goodburger, and more, not to mention cameos and appearances in a handful of other ‘90s staples (Cousin Skeeter!!!!). This was all bookended by Kenan joining the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2003, a position he currently remains in.

To run back over his résumé is staggering, not necessarily in a historical sense, but certainly in a “things watched by kids that grew up in the ‘90s” sense. It should be unnecessary to regurgitate the importance and splendor that was (and is) D2: The Mighty Ducks, spurring Kenan’s introduction to the world as “the knuckle-puck kid.” And while I’m quite positive that All That wasn’t nearly as prominent and celebrated (and hilarious) as my nostalgia has tinted it, I am also quite positive that everyone still remembers it through the same rose-colored glasses that I do (which eventually is all that matters). Many of the other previously noted endeavors fall under this same awning, which of course merits a nod to Kenan’s longtime partner in crime, Kel Mitchell (who, as you may remember, was quite fond of orange soda). But Kenan’s legacy was cemented when he hopped aboard Saturday Night Live, which simultaneously validated and made up for all those times he had to suffer through Kel dropping the screw in the tuna.

Whether you actually found Kenan to be all that funny in his earlier years and once he hit the big stage at SNL is somewhat secondary. I wouldn’t consider myself a diehard Kenan Thompson fan or anything to that extreme, and I venture to say that you would be hard pressed to find many people who would classify themselves as such. But I was/am a fan of the projects he was/is affiliated with, and I’ve always been impressed by his professional accomplishments, a decade on SNL being an obvious example (and overshadowed only by D2, obviously). For as long as TV and movies have had a conscientious impact on my life, Kenan Thompson has consistently been at the forefront (or at least the horizon) of those mediums on a varied and up-to-date basis.

Numerous media outlets, including The Hollywood Reporter (who I believe had it first) recently reported that Kenan is developing a comedy series for NBC with a little help from SNL grand poobah Lorne Michaels. The currently untitled show would feature Thompson as writer, executive producer and lead actor, which probably signifies that Kenan is not much longer for the Saturday Night Live world. And while there is clearly quite a ways to go before a pilot gets the green light and any episode commitments are made, I truly hope those things happen.

I have no confidence in whether or not this particular show, if it makes it to the screen, would be funny or watchable. Based on the success rate of new comedies each year—along with my personal response to Kenan's comedic performances—I certainly wouldn't put any money behind it. But if it's on, there's a good chance that I'll tune in, and I genuinely want it to flourish and build an audience. Otherwise, it's unclear when and if Kenan Thompson would be relevant again in my pop culture spectrum.

And that's a scenario I feel unprepared to handle, seeing as how I've never had to before.

Thanks for reading

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Promotion of Thine Own Self Be True

If you know me personally, engage with me on social media, or have an obsessive impulse to stalk my life in search of constant updates and information, then you probably know by now that I have a new job. For those of you that don't fall into any of those categories, I recently joined the staff of Cincinnati Magazine as an Associate Editor, an endeavor which I am extremely excited about and very grateful for. I'll be undertaking numerous responsibilities at the publication, one being to contribute to and oversee a few of our online blogs, particularly those of a sports-related subject matter.

To wit, I recently wrote a piece for our Bengals Blog regarding Carson Palmer's return to Cincinnati, facing the Bengals for the first time since his temper tantrum and subsequent trade last season. I'm taking this opportunity to not only apprise you of the new path I'm journeying forward on, but also to shamelessly promote myself and the new column. If you really like me (or have a particularly intense obsession with me), you can even subscribe to the magazine in a few different ways.

Don't worry, I promise not to bog you down any longer with inane updates of my quotidian life. That's what Facebook posts are for. So without further ado...

Thanks for reading

Sunday, October 28, 2012

No Particular Place to Go

As the curtain races toward the ceiling, there he is, standing in the flesh. Black pants, black shirt, white sailor hat that has become ubiquitous in his later years perched atop his head, his wrinkled hands clutching a guitar that appears far too heavy for him, his fingers strumming along to a song that surely sounds much too loud. He looks different than the pictures — partly because the most prominent ones were taken some 50 years ago — his skin a bit darker, his iconic smile slightly weaker. He seems a little confused, to be completely honest, slightly overmatched by the music, the stage, the force of the moment.

And the entire crowd rises to its feet, whistling and hollering and slamming their hands together in pure and genuine appreciation.

“Hello.” You see him mouth the words but can't quite hear him, standing just out of range of the microphone a few feet in front of him. His left arm pulls the neck of his guitar a few inches higher as his fingers rollick up and down the frets, a man that looks an awful lot like Chuck Berry launching into a song that sounds fairly reminiscent of “Johnny B. Goode.”


It's impossible to designate one person as the creator of rock 'n' roll music, just as it's impossible to diminish Chuck Berry's role in the whole ordeal. He certainly didn't invent the genre or the culture surrounding it all on his own, but he was there on the ground floor, a sure-fire member of the First Continental Congress of Rock if there ever were one. His influence is found in nearly every musician of popular music that has followed, from Paul McCartney and Keith Richards to Kanye West and Carly Rae Jepsen. We know this because they told us or because we can hear it in their songs; nothing new is ever truly original, always impacted in part by something that preceded it, traced back to the very beginning. Rock 'n' roll would no doubt still exist whether Chuck was involved or not, but it certainly wouldn't be the same.

This is why Berry received and deserves his recent honor of American Music Master via the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. He was a member of the hall's initial induction class back in 1986, an honor as warranted as it must have been obvious. The only natural step was becoming the newest recipient of the hall's most prestigious award, earning him a weeklong celebration titled Roll Over Beethoven: The Life and Music of Chuck Berry, all culminating at a tribute concert paying audible homage to his incredible legacy.

The outpouring of respect and reverence proves to be the most memorable part of the final evening, with each original Chuck Berry song sandwiched between words of unconditional gratitude from the musicians in attendance. And that's the way it should be. The event, and honor in general, are ultimately about celebrating the man that made it all possible (“it” being rock music), whether by those like Ronnie Hawkins, Lemmy Kilmister, Darryl DMC McDaniels, Merle Haggard and Ernie Isley who were all there in person, or by those like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen who have esteemed him with their own talents over the past many years. The greatest thing you can say about Chuck Berry is that he's responsible in part for the legacy of all those previously mentioned, among countless others. None of it exists without Chuck's influence. His fingerprints are all over rock 'n' roll, his reach extending to the farthest distant corners of popular music. He's everywhere. Elvis may forever be known as the King, but Chuck Berry built the throne.


After a good three hours of performances by just a small fraction of those he touched, this is what we all came to see. This is the man that put the butts in the seats.

Berry stumbles through what is simultaneously the sloppiest and most beautiful rendition of “Johnny B. Goode” that has ever graced my ears. Every person that shuffled across the stage that night could have delivered a version that sounded superior, though none would have felt even half as satisfying. It's not important that Chuck is no longer the man he used to be. What's important is that he ever was in the first place, and that he stood on stage tonight just long enough to give a kid like me the chance to see him do it live yet again. Closer to 90 years of than age than he is to 80, he's a shell of what he once was, which is more than plenty for those of us in the audience.

“What's my next song?” he turns and asks with a confused look, just seconds after the amps belted out the final strum of his first selection.

Right. “Reelin' & Rockin'.” He knew that, of course. Relying on adrenaline and decades of muscle memory as he strums along, a gruffly voice tosses in mangled lyrics here and there. The number of songs he has left in those fragile fingers can't be high, his voice on a steady pathway to being completely shot. But his eyes still dance and his smile is close enough, and you get the sense that he relishes the chance to be out here just as much as we all do to see him. As long as he wants to keep picking up the guitar and waltzing up to the mic, I doubt he'll hear any complaints.

Berry lurches to the end of his second and final song on the evening. It was almost as if he payed tribute to himself, fittingly, his performance brief and scattered enough to serve as him covering the past as opposed to revisiting it. But we don't mind. We wish he'd play longer, but are eternally grateful that he played at all. We'd probably stand and cheer for hours if that's what he wanted. It's the least we could do for a man that has given us all so much, one way or another.

“Very happy to be here,” he shouts out, that smile looking more and more like the one in those pictures from over half a century ago. “I'm 86 years old. I'm happy to be anywhere.”

Anywhere. Everywhere. Same difference.


I eventually separate myself from the hoard of people pushing through the doorway — black and white, young and old, Motörhead and Merle Haggard fans bunched as one. The night sky is chilly and dark and peppered with tiny drops of rain, growing ever quiet the farther I get from that lone saxophone player standing on the corner.

Strolling the few blocks to my car, I enjoy the walk and the solitude — or maybe just don't think about it at all — surprised at how quickly I arrive at my parking spot. Sitting alone on the side of a red-bricked street and sheltered by leaves still clinging to their branches for at least a few moments longer, I slide into my automobile and turn the engine, flipping on the headlights while resisting a sudden unexplainable urge to roll down the window and hang my left arm out over the side.

I make a right at the first stop sign, my wheels returning to the customary blacktop, my eyes glancing up at the glowing lights in the rearview mirror, dimmer and dimmer by the second. The streets are noticeably empty. I press heavier on the gas pedal, presumably heading back home, though I can't quite say for sure.

Cruisin' and playin' the radio. No particular place to go.

Thanks for reading

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Load-Out

There are reasons for what happened to the Cincinnati Reds in the 2012 MLB Playoffs. There are explanations and even excuses for squandering a 2-0 series lead against the San Francisco Giants by dropping three straight games at your home ballpark. Advancing in the postseason would have been preferred, obviously, but boy if this season wasn't a heaping pile of steps in the right direction. I mean, the Reds pulled out an impressive 97 victories, running away with the NL Central division like Usain Bolt racing the cast of The Biggest Loser. The squad was one mere win away from taking their opening-round playoff series, a position that plenty of other ball clubs would have gladly traded fates for while watching the games from their sofas. Regardless of how it ended, it was still a great season. Plus, there's always next year.

That's one way to look at things. It's probably the best and most rational point of view, really, considering the fact that sports are just entertainment and those losses were just games and this season was the best the team has had since winning it all in 1990. There are real issues in the world today, like the election and the economy and education and probably something else important that starts with the letter “e” if I thought long enough. As my 8th grade math teacher used to say, “It's not tragic, but it's not good either.” If the worst part of your day is a baseball team ending its season sooner than you had hoped, well, you probably have to chalk that one up in the “not too shabby” column when everything is said and done.

All of this is true.

Except that sports have become much more than entertainment in today's culture, and the money that's going in (and coming back out) is stacked far too high to just dismiss these games as trivial or unimportant or something with which to pass the time. Sure, there are things in life of much greater importance, and at times we do lose sight of that when it comes to our athletic rooting interests. But the old cliché of “don't tell me that sports don't matter” has some validity to it. Maybe it's because of the communal aspect and triumph of human spirit and the joy and togetherness and interaction it spawns among family and friends and relative strangers. Or maybe it's just because we like sports and want our teams to win. I assume the answer falls somewhere between those two. Either way, “It's just a game” is never something uttered by the winners.

And that's why the Cincinnati Reds' complete and utter collapse in the NLDS totally sucks. We the fans can offer up all of the explanations and excuses we want — Johnny Cueto got hurt, Joey Votto's knee still isn't 100 percent healthy, Mat Latos got jobbed on what should have been a called third-strike — but that in no way diminishes how disappointing the series and, subsequently, this season ended up. Yeah, winning 97 games and a division title is great. But if it's followed immediately by blowing a seemingly in-the-bag lead and laying a giant turd in front of your hometown fans for three straight days, what's the point? They don't hand out diamond-encrusted rings for a strong regular season. This isn't fat camp.

I could easily roar off on a lengthy tangent about this simply being another example of how dreadful Cincinnati sports have been for the better part of my lifetime — how everything after the 1990 wire-to-wire Reds has been nothing but failure and incompetence, with the few flickers of improved-but-ultimately-fleeting success the only things separating us from Cleveland sports fans. I could drone on about putrid seasons by the Reds and Bengals, playoff berths that ended far too quickly, and Kenyon Martin's shattered fibula. I could drum up all of my feelings about Stanley Wilson's coke binge or Carson Palmer's busted knee or the absolute and irreversible breakdown of Ken Griffey Jr.'s entire body over a multi-year span. But I'm not up for it. Whether it stands alone or is tossed on the massive pile of Cincy sports suckfests, the Reds collapse hits in a place that hurts. Yeah, there are more important things, but it doesn't change the outcome of this one. It's not tragic, but it sure isn't good either.

Longtime Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty wrote post-choke: “The Reds still should be playing, and they aren’t. They were outhit and outmanaged. They let die a once-in-a-generation chance. ... It’s darned near impossible to duplicate the sort of season the Reds had, to make the playoffs this year. The karma, the chemistry, the health. It doesn’t align like this much, for small-money teams.”

Doc is right. The last 20 years is proof enough that entering the playoffs with a legitimate chance to win is not a year-to-year thing, at least for the majority of teams. It's not even a semi-regular thing. For the Reds, this was the first time in 22 years that a World Series ring would have been anything short of miraculous, assuming any championship is to begin with. And yet, the Redlegs let it slip away in dramatic and demoralizing fashion. Maybe the team, the fans and the city will all have that same chance again next October. Unfortunately, history suggests otherwise.

Jackson Browne once sang, “But the only time that seems too short / is the time that we get to play.” This holds true for the 2012 Cincinnati Reds, in spite of all the good — and there was quite a bit — that came along the way.

But hey, at least there's always next year. Which is both the best and worst thing about sports.

Thanks for reading

Sunday, September 30, 2012

What the Dog Said

I got a family dog late in my childhood. A few months before my high school graduation, my parents finally acquiesced to my sister's years of requests for a puppy. As a birthday gift, she got to pick out Cosmo (for whatever reason, I was allowed to pick the name, and my family somehow agreed to name him after Kramer from Seinfeld), and I finally had a real pet for the first time in my life. On a semi-related note, fish are stupid and a waste of time.

What I quickly discovered about having a dog — in the months before I went away to college and during the breaks I spent back at home — is how simultaneously smart and moronic he was. I was amazed at how quickly he took to potty-training, realizing that if he rang the bell hanging from the door, someone would let him outside. (I was even more impressed when he began to ring the bell just so he could get attention, waiting at the door long enough for someone to walk all the way there before he ran away, doing whatever a dog's version of sardonic cackling might be.) He knew all the best ways to guilt someone into giving him a treat, and when they would finally put their foot down, he would smugly jaunt over to his most recent hiding spot to chew on one he had previously stashed away for such an occasion. He began to recognize our cars as they came down the street. If you told him to get his rope, he would go and get his rope. I once bought him an edible bone for Christmas and placed it in a taped-shut box in the basement. I found him gnawing on the bone in the kitchen less than an hour later, a seemingly carefully opened box left strew on the carpet a floor below his cream-colored paws. As the star of the sitcom responsible for Cosmo's name once said: “Dogs are the leaders of the planet. If you see two life forms — one of them's making a poop, the other one's carrying it for him — who would you assume is in charge?”

And yet, dogs are also ridiculously stupid. Cosmo never seems to learn that you don't actually have a treat in your hand. He turns and takes off no matter how many times you fake the throw and hide the ball behind your back. He always, always, always looks only at your finger when you point to something, instead of looking where you're pointing. And no dog in the history of existence has ever figured out that it's a mirror, not an identical dog staring right back at them. They are shocking on both ends of the spectrum, the ideal example of an idiot savant.

Dogs have mastered the art of contradiction.

The television series Wilfred on FX has become one of my favorite shows on television over the course of its initial two seasons. Adapted from the Australian series of the same name, it's a dark comedy about Ryan (Elijah Wood, AKA Frodo Baggins), a previously suicidal young man whose smarts (he went to law school) are in a constant battle with his mental unease, and Wilfred (Jason Gann, series co-creator), the dog who lives next door. Everyone else — including his attractive owner, Jenna — sees Wilfred as the regular dog that he is, while Ryan instead sees him as a full-grown (Australian) man, wearing a dog suit, walking upright and speaking to Ryan the way Ryan would talk to any other human being. Wilfred is still a dog, but that's just not quite how Ryan sees him. Rather, he sees Wilfred acting essentially as a person would act were they wearing a dog outfit, while also partaking in vices such as smoking, drinking, using corse language, doing profane things with stuffed animals and manipulating Ryan's life in destructive yet hilarious ways.

Ryan, a completely functional and otherwise rational adult, seems fully aware of how insane and crazy his relationship is with Wilfred...but he's ultimately ok with it. Regardless of how many times Wilfred gets Ryan into ridiculous situations and shenanigans, or the fact that Ryan realizes and acknowledges the unexplainable control Wilfred seems to have over his life, or the reality that everything about Ryan's life is more or less normal other than the HUMAN TALKING MAN-DOG THAT SPEAKS WITH AN AUSTRALIAN ACCENT AND LIVES NEXT DOOR — the two of them become best friends. Ryan comes to believe that deep down, Wilfred genuinely has his best interest at heart and in some way holds the answers to the personal issues plaguing Ryan's mind. And despite all evidence to the contrary, I as the viewer almost feel the same way. The show manages to manifest this odd desire to trust the vulgar talking dog next door as much as the young man from The Shire seems to.

The show recently finished a very entertaining and hilariously quirky second season, a perfect pairing alongside Louie for FX's summer comedy lineup. The dark and twisted storyline of (what one can only assume to be) a mentally disturbed young man drifting, unbeknownst, through young adulthood is offset by the constant Aussie-twinged canine humor that Wilfred employs. The show is able to succeed comedically with Wilfred as this deviant, evil genius thanks to the ubiquitous reminders that he is actually just a regular dog (from the viewpoint of everyone else). His scheming and chain smoking are “humanized” by him describing his fondness for the sunspot he naps in, unconsciously keeping a grip on the tennis ball after he retrieves and returns it during fetch, or pondering if his owner still exists elsewhere in the world when she leaves the house (not to mention the humorous exaggerations of an X-rated evening with a stuffed giraffe, a battle for cuteness with a newborn baby or eating a refrigerated bucket of his own vomit).

The audience sees Wilfred in the same way Ryan does, leaving us with similar questions and curiosity as to when they will all be answered. How long will this relationship last under its current structure? Is it like a Fight Club or Sixth Sense situation? Is Wilfred a creation of Ryan's manic insanity? Is the show tapping into a nuanced examination of mental illness? Is this an artistically adapted prologue to Lord of the Rings?

And that is really the show's greatest accomplishment. It combines those gripping and suspenseful questions with a talking animal. It touches on topics of mental health, broken families and death alongside jokes involving dog sex and churros. It forces us to contemplate whether the bearded Australian — wearing a furry grey onesie and greasepaint on his nose as he lights a bong — is evil, good-intentioned, or even real. It's the perfect blend of low-brow and high-brow; serious issues mixed with immature humor.

An ominous drama contradicted by a man dressed up as a dog.

Thanks for reading

Sunday, September 16, 2012

His Back Pages

Bob Dylan has long been a man with a noted interest on the topics of life and mortality, the inescapable pain of lost love and the inevitability of life ending. Now, he's embracing these things.

The 71-year-old Dylan released (what I believe to be) his 35th studio album last Tuesday, entitled Tempest. It comes just over a half-century since his eponymous debut in March of 1962, still touching on those similar themes of life and death and the true value of what occurs between them, only now with a much more contented air of acceptance. As Eric Forman of That '70s Show once said: “You know, life is like a train. It's bearing down on you, and guess what? It's gonna hit you. So you can either start running when it's far off in the distance, or you can pull up a chair, crack open a beer and just watch it come.” Bob Dylan has transitioned to the full, more eloquent embodiment of the latter half of that dilemma. Although as Tempest makes quite obvious, the train still has some ground to cover.

The album is widely being claimed as Dylan's darkest and most sinister thus far (more ominous than the gloom and sorrow of Blood on the Tracks, less contemplative and more brash than Time Out of Mind), and yet it still manages to retain a wry, crooked smirk through all 10 tracks, almost reveling in the darkness. “Tin Angel” weaves yet another of Dylan's notorious and melodic yarns, this one about love and betrayal and murder. “Narrow Way” touches on lust and carnal desires, “Long and Wasted Years” on the magnetic yet ultimately fleeting powers of companionship (“So much for tears / So much for these long and wasted years”). The title track spends 14 minutes on the fate of the Titanic, while the culminating song laments John Lennon's death, though one can almost imagine Dylan singing it for himself when his time comes. He remains the same masterful Dylan that he always was (even more so in relation to his past few albums), with just enough mystery and aloofness hanging around to in any way nail him down. Never has there been a person held in such reverence, but of which so little is truly grasped. He is simultaneously renowned man and unattainable myth.

Though it takes a bit longer to appreciate, time has been just as kind to Dylan's voice as it has to his songwriting prowess. Never known for his pitch-perfect crooning, Dylan has always been praised more for how his singing fits his overall sound and persona — the nasally delivery meshing with his folksy constructions; the haunting spitfire of his protestations; the reserved, easy flow of his sardonic tracks; the pressing nature of his electric compilations. Age and repetition have relegated his current vocals to some combination of an angel and garbage disposal, his gravelly growl peppered with the beauty of soul and wisdom, the perfect pairing for an album such as this. The voice is striking and slightly off-putting the first moment you hear it, before gradually rollicking so seamlessly with the music that any deviation would only cause those initial, now-forgotten moments of brow-furrowing to return.

But the man's voice and enigmatic traits are merely evidence of how he has continually redefined himself as an artist countless times over the course of his life: from folk to electric to country to Americana, constantly bouncing back and forth between them and blending them together. For better or worse (and it's often been for better), no Dylan album sounds quite the same. Even the legendary stretch of Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde were all distinct masterpieces in their own ways. His steadfast greatness has long been sparked by his reinventions; his unchanging brilliance owed as much to his lyrical artistry as it is to his fearless hatred for complacency.

Though ultimately, it is not his singing or songwriting that deem him so intriguing, but rather the response to it. What makes Dylan special is how strange it is to think of his career in terms of something as trivial as that of a musician. It even feels weird to discuss Dylan in terms of having a “career” at all, as it seemingly devalues his life's achievements in some way. It's odd to think of his “profession” providing for himself and his family and making him rich beyond our wildest dreams, because we so often focus instead on how important and revered he is in the zeitgeist of our culture and individual lives. We refer to him as an artist because singer/songwriter seems too superfluous; we idolize him as a deity because “musician” doesn't pay him enough respect.

Maybe that's why Tempest is so dark in tone. Maybe it's so obsessed with death because its effects on Dylan will prove to be meaningless. Maybe he's embraced mortality because the concept feels so foreign to him. All that he's accomplished and the impact he's had on so many will allow him to live forever. The number of breaths that remain in his lungs will not determine whether he lives or dies.

In 1965, Dylan sang “He not busy being born is busy dying.” Despite being somewhat depressing, this sentiment is true. In 2012, Dylan sang “The more I die, the more I live.” For him, this sentiment is also true.

Thanks for reading

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Remote Control...Or Lack Thereof

I'm quite good at recognizing the issues. I'm not so good with figuring out the solutions. I'd venture to say that the majority of people fit into these same categories, including those who think they have plenty of solutions to plenty of issues, but are actually just complete jabronies. This is also why being President of the United States, when you think about it, totally blows.

I recently spoke with Cleveland native Yvette Nicole Brown, who plays Shirley on the NBC sitcom Community, for our Cleveland Magazine Fall Arts Preview. One of the things we discussed  was the incongruity between what the overwhelmingly positive television critics and cult-like viewers think of the show, contrasted with the program's overall low ratings. Yvette noted that she felt the conventional viewership ratings method (the Neilsen system, essentially) was a poor barometer for Community and its impact on TV viewers and pop culture.

“The funny thing is that I feel the Nielsen system probably needs to be revamped. … I get recognized for Community way more than anything that I do, which tells me that there are more people watching than we know,” Yvette told me. “So I think the people that are watching Community, they're watching in groups, they're watching it online – they're not necessarily sitting around a family table with a Nielsen box. So I think it's unfortunate that the love of this show is not being counted, but I think there is way more [people] watching than we know of.”

Her answer was pretty typical of what I would expect from someone in her position (which isn't to say that it wasn't a good answer), but I still found it rather intriguing, and I actually agreed with her general sentiment. Community is an extremely popular show among people of my age group, and anyone that delves into the this country's current pop culture rabbit hole is well aware of how passionate the fanbase truly is about this sitcom. And yet at the same time, you can't fault NBC for only giving it a half-season slate of episodes this year and banishing it to Friday night's this fall, because the ratings overall remain extremely low. It's remarkable the show (entering it's fourth season) has lasted this long in the first place. So what's going on here? Which is correct: the ratings system, or Yvette's criticism of it? Is the viewership merely small and boisterous, or is it misrepresented and overlooked?

In any event, I had largely moved on from Yvette's comments until a few weeks later, when I read an interview on Rolling Stone's website with Rashida Jones, who plays Ann Perkins on NBC's Parks and Recreation. Parks & Rec is in much the same situation as Community — lauded by television critics and adored by fans, but also with pretty disappointing audience returns (albeit slightly better than those of Community's). But while reading the interview, my eyebrows noticeably arched at the similarity of Ms. Jones' comments to what Ms. Brown had told me less than a month earlier.

“People aren't really watching TV. They're watching box sets. They're watching Tivo. They're watching DVR. They're streaming movies and TV shows on their laptops. They haven't found a way – not to get too nerdy about it – but they haven't found a way to monetize that,” Rashida told Rolling Stone. “Advertisers pay for TV, right? And they don't know how people are actually watching these shows. People actually watch Parks and Recreation, but not in the way that they can monetize.”

I suppose it's entirely possible that the parallels in these two comments are the results of NBC passing along a few coaching points to the impressive actors of its fledgling sitcoms, but I doubt that's the case. What's more likely is that Rashida and Yvette simply both feel the same way about their shows; in spite of the dismal numbers they are receiving in viewership, the reception these actresses receive in their everyday interactions with the outside world are all pointing to the complete opposite. These are two ladies that have done a lot of major TV and movie spots, Jones especially. And if they aren't being completely and downright dishonest about their individual experiences — and really, what good would lying do them? — then there is probably some amount of truth to what they are saying. The question is, how much truth?

Writer Will Leitch, of Deadspin and New York Magazine notoriety, authored an interesting article during the Olympics for the beta blog of the newly launched Sports on Earth website. The piece delved into the topic of NBC tape-delaying the majority of the London-hosted Olympic Games (I didn't realize NBC would be so prevalent in this post, but at least it's now prevalent somewhere, AMIRIGHT???). I thought Leitch did a nice job of detailing the divide between the collective grumblings regarding tape-delay programing by the media/younger, social-media-savvy sports fans and TV viewers, compared to the still stellar ratings of those nightly tape-delayed events and the large portion of older-skewering Americans that were contently watching. Leitch's point focused more on the development of Twitter into a two-week message-board where people could relentlessly bash NBC for its seemingly short-sighted plan to air major medal events six hours after they actually occurred...and that ultimately, NBC didn't care, because the fraction of Twitter users in this country is realistically pretty minute, something obvious only to those that don't use it. But in a macro sense, Leitch's column was pointing out the ocean-size chasm between how the hipper-and-younger culture consumes entertainment, versus the quieter-yet-richer and larger-than-you-think population that has no clue who the hell One Direction is.

“The vast, vast majority of people are not following these Games through Twitter or; they are following them through their televisions. … NBC isn’t doing a disservice to its viewers. It’s just ignoring the ones who don’t matter,” Leitch wrote. “NBC didn’t just sign a $4.38 billion contract over the next eight years so it could make me happy on Twitter. NBC did it so people could watch on television.”

This is the alternative side of the TV spectrum. At odds with the young and more technologically advanced audience, alluded to by Yvette Nicole Brown and Rashida Jones, is the older and more traditional audience that Leitch was describing — ya know, the people that own houses and have families and pay for cable subscriptions and actually sit through commercials when something other than live sporting events are on.

So if both groups are relevant, which certainly seems to be the case, and both groups are important — the one will eventually usurp the other, unless the confines of modern medicine take some major leaps forward in the near future — which group is more relevant and more important?

The truth is, most likely, that we are somewhere between the two. The way people watch TV is changing, but that doesn't mean it needs to be completely revamped overnight. Those comprising the back end of the transition haven't quite dwindled so much that they can be disregarded, but we are constantly moving in that direction. Things do need to change, but only at a pace fluid enough to appease one side and stagnant enough to not piss off the other.

I don't exactly have a solution for this, but you have to admit, I've done a damn fine job of recognizing the issue.

Thanks for reading

Saturday, August 18, 2012

New Red Machine

The Cincinnati Reds might be the best team in Major League Baseball. And you might have had no idea.

At the risk of jinxing all of this (and I pray that I don’t have that much power), my hometown Redlegs currently sit atop the National League Central division, a handful of games up on the (resilient and impressive) Pittsburgh Pirates. We (yes, I’m an adamant user of ‘we’ in relation to sports teams I root for) have been consistently flirting with the Washington Nationals for the best record in baseball — not just the NL, but the whole league — and have done so without our best player for the past month. When you look at the standings and the stats, we are on the short list of those at the top. This much, I know.

Nevertheless, I am careful not to make a definitive statement about the team’s level of prowess. Claiming that the Reds “might” be the best team is far different than crowning us with anything. “Might” because, while we’ve played well without recent NL MVP Joey Votto, we’re going to need him to return to form if we plan to make any type of October run. “Might” because we haven’t been in this position much in recent years, and got swept out of the playoffs when we made it two autumns ago. “Might” because there is still a month and a half left in the season. “Might” because you become the best by getting rings, not by merely leading a division that also claims the Cubs and Astros.

Etching in the Reds as the best team in the sport, at the moment, would be foolish. But we’re squarely in the conversation — a conversation that I feel is less boisterous than it probably merits.

People in Cincinnati and that follow this team know this is a good squad. Those that keep tabs on the club on a nightly basis know they are watching quality baseball. Even those who devote their careers to analyzing the league as a whole have the Reds on their radar. And yet it’s all seemingly overshadowed by the bigger and brighter lights found elsewhere.

But does that matter?

Obviously, the national media will always focus more on the big-market teams (Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, Mets, Cubs) regardless of whether they are playing well or poorly (and often especially when they are playing poorly). The Nationals, who have largely sucked since they moved down from Montreal a few years ago, are the only team at the moment with a better record than the Reds, and have begun garnering more and more attention on the big stage, aided by the star power of youngsters Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg. The same could be said of the Texans and Angels, who have both seen an increase in on-field success and stud ballplayers in recent seasons (Josh Hamilton, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout).

It's not as if the Reds are being tossed on the back burner in lieu of crappier or less important teams (or more accurately, teams that are simultaneously crappy and less important). They're just being regularly clumped in with those teams in terms of coverage and exposure. It would be ridiculous to bemoan the Red Sox for getting so much coverage in spite of having a pretty bad season – that's just the way sports coverage works. It's simply intriguing that the Reds aren't more celebrated for having a pretty good season.

But does that matter?

When Joey Votto is healthy and on the field (which he has been quite consistently, save for the last month while dealing with a knee injury), it is my opinion that I am watching the best Reds player of my lifetime (and unquestionably one of the top players in the game today). The obvious counter argument to this is Barry Larkin (although it should have been Ken Griffey Jr.), and it's a good one at that. The newly inducted Hall of Famer and Reds lifer won a World Series (in '90, which I don't exactly remember) and a ton of hardware (including an MVP) during my lifetime. If Votto's career for some reason ended right now (which would totally blow), then yes, Larkin would have to go down as the best. But if Votto competes at even 80-90% of what he has been for the foreseeable future (and it's actually quite reasonable that he could be better), he trumps Larkin in my mind. Also, if you are wondering why Votto's star power doesn't have the same type of impact for the Reds that Harper and Strasburg have for the Nationals, it's because Votto is almost painfully boring – which is totally fine with me.

Beyond this squad claiming (arguably) the franchise's best player during my lifetime, it's also easily arguable that it contains the best defensive player (Brandon Phillips) and most exciting/impressive player (Aroldis Chapman) of my existence. Guys like Johnny Cueto, Jay Bruce and NL Rookie of the Year candidate Todd Frazier are all noteworthy as well, as are guys like Ryan Ludwick and Scott Rolen, both of whom “embody what this team and this city are all about.” (This is how fans stereotypically praise players that work hard, are great teammates and are well-liked, but might not be — or in Rolen's case, may no longer be — the most talented/skilled/consistent guys on the roster.) The starting rotation is the only one in the league to have used the same five guys through the first 120 games of the season (a streak ended not by injury, but by a 26th man call-up for a weekend double-header). All told, it's quite the lineup...even if casual fans of the sport don't know half the names.

But does that matter?

Maybe I'm exaggerating things. Maybe the Reds have been getting more attention than I'm giving credit for. It certainly doesn't seem that way to me, but I don't exactly have an unbiased eye. The fact that I'm invested enough to believe in this apparent slight is intriguing though. I'm not ashamed to admit that I've lost interest with the team down the stretch a few times during the course of my life. It's hard to stay attentive for 162 games when the last half of them are being played nowhere near the vicinity of first place. It's the biggest factor in why I've always been a bigger football and Bengals fan than a Reds and baseball fan. I can stay invested in a terrible team when they don't even play 20 games in a season (and at times, boy have I). But 162? I'm not a robot. I never stop rooting, but I'm far from fanatic. Attendance would suggest that a lot of Reds (and baseball) fans feel the same way. We overreact when things are good and bad. We're always loyal, we just aren't always positive. Cincinnati is a fickle city and we're a fickle fanbase, as are most. When it comes to sports, delusional is the only other option.

But this year seems to be different. The front office has gone all-in. Contracts have been extended. Core players have been retained. Big signings, trades and risks have been made. The team appears much closer to the rich history of the '70s than to the suckfests of the '00s. Management has done its job, and thus far, so have the guys on the field. Those in the Reds organization have done their part — a competitive, winning baseball team — to earn attention and support from a fanbase that has long requested exactly that. So far, we (the fans) seem to be reciprocating, as we very well should. There's certainly no excuse for the contrary.

And ultimately, that's really all that matters.

Thanks for reading

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Irrationally Bipartisan

Imagine you have a brother (maybe you actually do). Now imagine you hate your brother (again, maybe you actually do). You don't hate him to the extent that you are overcome with deep, dark thoughts about clunking him in the head with a shovel and burying him in the woods. You don't dream of dispensing rat poison into his tap water or planting PCP on him and calling the cops. This is not a crappy slasher flick, Edgar Allen Poe story, creepy Phil Collins song or reconstructed tale of Cain and Abel. You wish no unmitigated harm or tragedy on him. You simply don't get along, don't want him to triumph or succeed. Despite how similar and connected you are in so many ways, your opinions differ on too many topics. Your personal beliefs are not kindred. Your viewpoints are virtually opposite.

You've grown further and further apart as you've gotten older over the years. Your interactions are limited to snarky back-and-forths and contentious squabbles. You don't actively avoid contact, but only because it still allows you to trumpet just how right you truly are and just how wrong he always is. And yet for whatever reason, you find it within yourselves to come together in support of hometown pride every so often. There's something special about the place you grew up, the place your childhood will always live. And for you and your brother, this allegiance remains among the ruins of anything else you ever shared.

Now imagine that the younger members of your native community just happen to compete amongst their neighbors in some quasi, winner-take-all contest every few summers. It's like a battle-of-the-bands, but for small towns as opposed to angsty teenagers who spend their weekends boosting their parents' booze. The aspects and qualifications of this tournament aren't important – in fact a great deal of it is downright trivial – but that's not the point. It's important because of what and who you're choosing to support. Which is why you and your brother, that wretchedly brainwashed chowder head, can always find a way to put aside your differences and direct your loyalties to a common goal, collectively and positively. You both recognize how odd and somewhat shocking this cooperation is – even if it's on a subconscious level – but you both also realize, almost implicitly, that it would be much weirder and much more reprehensible if you did not come together in this manner. You do it not for appearances or out of any joint obligation. It's completely genuine, even if for very superficial, archaic and unalterable motivations.

You are – for this brief period of time, every so often – on the same side, pulling for the same horses. You don't particularly stand to gain or lose much of anything other than your civic pride and the small bits of your heart that go out to those from your old stomping grounds. Victorious or not, there is very little tangible worth that can be measured in gains and losses from the inevitable outcomes. As fiddling or petty as the usual incongruities between you and your brother may often be, the very same could be said for the events that have now brought you together. Yet you seem to show far more respect for these fleeting moments than you ever do for each other. If it were in any way possible, you'd hitch your fates together to aid the efforts of your roots, selflessly giving of yourselves for the glory of the place you forever call home.

You know that any successes your allegiances obtain will be more or less temporary; largely forgotten, regardless of the notions of immortality you boast and attach to them. You're intrinsically cognizant that as soon as this brief and sunshiny intermission is over, you'll go back to hating your brother for the comparable (and in your mind, twisted) allegiance he happens to cast on everything else in his life. The abbreviated sentiments you shared will essentially be dismissed, just like the hometown subjects those sentiments were directed toward. You'll be indignant and defiant and cruel, and you won't even care, because your brother with mercilessly act the exact same way. The things that separate you will once again be your most defining qualities, while the things you share will return to the scrap heap of unimportance. You won't always be right, and neither will he, but that's not what matters. What matters is selfishness and stubbornness, your personal preferences challenged only by a desire for the failure and shortcomings of his. It's narcissistic, childish and pathetic, but you embrace it anyways, because in your mind, it's better than losing. The price you pay for your gains is favorable to the cost of the contrary.

It is oddly ironic how we as a country come together for the Olympics. It is admirable how unabashedly patriotic and proud we are to be Americans, how irrationally unified we become in pursuit of medals the vast majority of us will never touch and podiums the smallest fraction of us will ever get to stand on. Our eyes swell with tears at the sound of the same National Anthem that we constantly daydream through at high school basketball games and major league ballparks. We root against the French merely for being the French. We work ourselves into a lather over archery and water polo and words with “athalon” tacked on to the end of them. We vault teenage girls to the ranks of national heroes for nailing their dismounts. We buy Wheaties boxes and Subway sandwiches in the name of athletes who spent their lives training for an activity that we do for fun in our spare time. Our loyalty is pure. Our pride is communal. Our respect is reciprocal. Suddenly, everyone is rooting FOR LeBron James. All at once, we're all on the same team. It's weird. It's beautiful. It's weirdly beautiful.

It's also fleeting. In seemingly no time at all, it will be cast aside in light of our differences, tossed back on the scrap heap of unimportance, disregarded for personal preference – worthless, because the price to gain is far more favorable than the cost of the contrary.

It's what makes the Olympics special. Though I'm not quite sure what it says about everything else.

Thanks for reading

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Activating Nostalgia

Topanga Lawrence was my first crush. Yeah, Boy Meets World Topanga Lawrence. Cory Matthews’ Topanga Lawrence. She was the first girl I thought I was in love with, before I actually knew what love was. She was the first girl I stayed up at night thinking about, that somehow had me convincing myself, “Yeah, she’s a little older than me, but I bet if I could just meet her, that’s all it would take.” Despite understanding nothing about girls or relationships (newsflash: I still don’t), there was something about Topanga that I knew I liked.

Or at least that’s how I remember it.

Nostalgia is an interesting sentiment. Second only to love, I’d venture to say that it’s probably the most desired emotional response (I would consider happiness a result of other emotional responses). That more-sweet-than-bittersweet twinge that engulfs everything meaningful, special or somehow memorable from one’s past is distinctive and special in a way that few can truly recognize when those things are happening in real time. It has the unique ability to highlight only the good things that took place, regardless of how they ultimately turned out.

There are, in the most rudimentary sense, two types of nostalgia: general and personal. General nostalgia is brought on by things like Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ‘69” or any half-decent movie about people being in high school. (The smartest, most spot-on thing I ever read about the television show Friday Night Lights was that when you watch it, it makes you nostalgic for something you never had.) Personal nostalgia, as you might have gathered, is onset by things that are meaningful to an individual or select group of people – often assumed to be a relatively small group (old friends, family, those that have experienced seminal moments together). And while that distinction between the two may be almost painfully obvious (even if you never really considered it before just now), what is odd is that despite each of those being separate and differing paths in the vein of nostalgia, they so often seem to culminate at the same end point. Or maybe it’s not that weird at all.

But where nostalgia becomes most interesting to me is the moment when those two lines – the personal and the general – start to blend together. Being still a rather young man, nostalgia is not something I’ve had much interaction with thus far in my life, for the simple reason that I haven’t lived long enough. Yet it seems as if right now, I’m at a bit of wistful crossroad, having just graduated college and moving into my so-called “adult life.” I’m finally approaching an age where it isn’t completely ridiculous to reminisce about certain things in my life, things that were so defining at one point or another but will most likely never be attainable again. And even beyond that, I’m beginning to realize how many of those presumed personal recollections that comprised my past are actually far more general than I had ever imagined. The current state of my life is activating my nostalgia, and yet it is clearly not a singular act.

If you follow me on Twitter (shameless plug), then you’ve certainly noticed how the subject of Boy Meets World has hijacked my daily tweeting. This all began a few months back when I started my big-boy job and had to roll out of bed every flipping day (for the rest of my flipping life) at a time I had always previously associated with farmers, degenerate meth addicts coming off a bender, or those sick bastards that go for morning runs at the break of dawn. I soon discovered that every day while I was getting ready for work, the highlights I was seeing on Sportscenter were identical to the ones I had watched about six hours earlier as I was trying to fall asleep; I needed something different to watch while I stuffed my face full of Cinnamon Toast Crunch and whiskey (ok, maybe not whiskey). Much to my surprise, I discovered that ABC Family screens Boy Meets World episodes every morning - a beacon of my childhood preserved in syndication, the staple of ABC's TGIF lineup returning to brighten my day and help keep my a.m.'s whiskey-free.

As viewing the show immediately became a daily routine, I was amazed at how much recall I had of the program, all the way down to specific plot points and exact wording of quotes. It wasn’t quite Seinfeld level, (I caught myself keeled over with laughter at the marine biologist episode the other day, despite the fact that I’ve probably seen it at least 50 times; about 5 minutes later, I realized I had the TV muted the whole time. Yes, that’s a true story.) but it was shocking nonetheless. For a show that I hadn’t watched in nearly 10 years, I never realized how integral it was to my pre-high school childhood. My feelings for Topanga suddenly came rushing back to me (and now I was old enough…maybe a little too old). The outrageous hijinks of Cory and Shawn had me chuckling during every morning commute. I suddenly felt compelled to start tweeting out a couple weekday thoughts on each episode I watched. And as I soon realized, I wasn’t the only one that felt this way.

The reaction I got via my peers from tweeting a simple episode recap and quote every day was shocking. So many of them clearly had a similar appreciation; a few quick internet searches revealed the same sentiment among a much larger consultation. This stereotypical ‘90s network sitcom had managed, for whatever reason, to trigger the pensive nodes deep inside my brain. And seemingly everyone else who had experienced the show in the same arc as I had was getting all nostalgic too, right along with me.

It wasn’t limited to Boy Meets World, either. Turns out that D2: The Mighty Ducks (which I honestly believe is one of the top 5 movies ever made) remains popular beyond just a few of my high school and college friends. Nickelodeon spent the past year or so bringing repeats of all their classic '90s shows back into their programming schedule. Men in Black was so revered that they somehow bankrolled a $215-million third installment, 15 years after the original (and it still grossed upwards of $610 million worldwide). As my generation continues to creep into the corporate and professional world, our influence is continuously becoming more and more evident, the impacts of our upbringings openly on display.

The truth is, things have probably always been this way. Nostalgia has more than likely been a cultural and demographic experience for years, I just wasn’t privy to it, seeing as how I justifiably wasn’t a part of it. But it’s also undeniably true that the current state of media and technology has made my generation’s nostalgic activation blatantly and transparently communal, more so than any other generation before. In fact, nostalgia – both the individually specific origination and subsequent embrace of the emotion – is, in a sense, easier to ascertain for my age group. Twitter first enlightened me to the widespread appreciation of Boy Meets World. Just in the past few months, Cory Matthews and those venerable Mighty Ducks have popped up on some of the foremost pop culture websites. (Ed.'s Note: Another one!) There are ENTIRE websites devoted to “things from the '90s.” Heck, YouTube is essentially a labyrinth of nostalgia waiting to be explored (with clips like this); the internet as a whole is a breeding ground for collective reminiscing. So yeah, maybe nostalgia has always been experienced this way, but certainly not to this extent.

One thing, however, has forever held true: it’s never as good as you remember it. The glaring downside to my generation’s more literal ability to “relive” aspects of our childhood is the fact that we are exposed to both the good AND bad. Yes, I still thoroughly enjoy re-watching Boy Meets World and contemplating the impact it had on me growing up. But I also get to see just how ridiculous and implausible it was at times. For instance, the entire episode about Cory and Shawn – as high schoolers – stumbling into jobs with the mob, followed by a Robert Frost poem somehow enlightening their consequence-free exit strategy. Or the fact that Mr. Feeney permeates every aspect of Cory’s life, seemingly from the day Cory was born until the day he (spoiler alert) and his wife Topanga (and his other wife, Shawn) move away to start their lives together. Or the fact that the show began with our main characters belonging to the Class of 2000, yet ultimately graduating high school in 1998 (am I supposed to believe Shawn Hunter skipped two grades?).

And yet it still isn’t enough to keep us from looking back. Recognizing and admitting the idyllic haze through which we see our past is never enough to change how we feel about it. It’s why every person in the history of the United States couldn’t wait to graduate high school and get the eff out of there, only to spend the rest of their life wishing they could go back, flash-forward-and-splotchy-bearded-Jack-Sheppard style. It’s why so many parents strive to live vicariously through their children, be it in a normal/productive/loving manner, or a creepy/over-bearing/Toddlers & Tiaras manner. It’s why people universally love Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” regardless of how cheesy the lyrics might be.  It’s why the concept of nostalgia even exists at all, our wistful desires remaining forever unattainable. As Bob Dylan once said, “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.”

But the details aren’t important. Nostalgia is such a dominant sentiment because of how little it resolves, not in spite of it. It’s not important that you’ll never go to your Senior Prom again; it’s important that you want to. It’s not important that I was never actually in love with Topanga Lawrence; it’s important that 13-year-old me had convinced myself of it. And it’s not important whether the things that make you nostalgic were truly as good as you remember them; it’s important simply that they were there at all.

Or at least that’s how I’ll always remember it.

Thanks for reading