Thursday, October 9, 2008


Speaking of David Icke, a thought occurred to me while watching the Presidential debate the other night. In Icke's book, he makes several claims about the shape-shifting fourth-dimensional reptilians that have infiltrated our planed and control our government (no, really). But, in making all these claims, he never actually proves anything.

John McCain and Sarah Palin are using the same strategy in their campaign. Every time Palin responds to a policy-related question, she replies that McCain is a 'maverick' and that they will take on the Washington establishment. When McCain is asked what he would do as president about a given issue, he talks on and on about how he will 'work across the aisle.' Neither one of the ever says what they would actually do about anything.

I'm not sure what this means, but it can't be good.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Book Club: Exodus, by Vivien Goldman

I like reggae. I have a big collection of it in my Itunes library, and I might even be listening to some right now. This affinity means that I'm much more likely to read a book about reggae than I am to read a book about knitting, say, or goldfish.

By one line of thought, a (historical) nonfiction book is good to the extent that the reader is interested in the subject. The author's job is little more than getting out of the way of the story. By this metric, certainly, Vivien Goldman's Exodus: The Making & Meaning of Bob Marley & The Wailers' Album Of Century should be loved by any Bob Marley fan that picks it up. Goldman's time as a sort of beat reporter for the Wailers gives her plenty of inside perspective to share, and her interview subjects seem to trust and respect her. The book focuses on the time around the creation of the Wailers' album Exodus, starting a year or two ahead and winding down with the subsequent promotional tour (although the book does carry on through Marley's death from cancer in 1981).

The problem I have with this book is ultimately, I suspect, not with Vivien Goldman. Again, she's a fine enough writer, and she has plenty of great source material. The problem is that Bob Marley is too iconic a figure to have a decent book written about him. Without arguing the merits of the comparison, I think a biography of Jesus Christ (assuming, you know, that Jesus Christ were a contemporary figure and the lead singer of a internationally acclaimed band or something similar) would run into the same difficulties. People simply have too much invested in Marley, whichever side of the prophet vs. dreadlocked pot-head fence they come down on. Goldman, for what it's worth, is firmly on the prophet side.

It's not just that Goldman doesn't criticize Marley, it's that at times it feels as if she's doing everything short of anointing him with oil. I'm sure it's difficult to be neutral about something one believes strongly in, but I find it frustrating that the most cogent article I've seen on the Rasta faith is on Wikipedia.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in Bob Marley, in spite of it's unconscious proselytizing. It's certainly not the most blatant bit of propaganda I've ever read.

(While I was reading Exodus, by the way, I found a ticket for Die Zauberflote - The Magic Flute - an opera I saw at the Met. In 2006. I'm not sure what this means, other that 1. Time flies and 2. I have wide-ranging interests.)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Book Club: Franny & Zooey, by J.D. Salinger

Anyone who has survived a high school English class probably knows that J.D. Salinger doesn't think much of 'society.' His anger and alienation made the pages of Catcher in the Rye practically warm to the touch, and those same emotions that make the book so appealing to teenagers tend to distract readers who are more comfortable with their place in the world.
For most of its pages, Franny and Zooey strikes a similar chord. Franny Glass can't stand her Ivy League boyfriend, her mediocre classmates, or her pretentious professors. Her spiritual crisis mirrors Holden Caulfield's, but without the vitriol. Her struggle is of frustration and despair, rather than pure anger.
And if that was all there was to the book, it wouldn't be particularly interesting or worth reading. Although I suppose gender theorists could build careers on dissecting the differences between Holden and Franny. This time, though, we are saved from our crushing angst and alienation by the emergence of Franny's brother Zooey in the second chapter. (The book is divided into two eponymous chapters, each of which was originally published separately in The New Yorker.) Far too unreasonable to be called a voice of reason, Zooey rides an unique wave of knowledge and arrogance that changes the tenor of the book. He gradually leads Franny - and the reader along with her - to a satisfactory spiritual (as opposed to religious) answer to Franny's yearning, and in doing so fosters a sense of optimism I haven't previously seen in the reclusive Salinger.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Book Club: Gang Leader for a Day, by Sudhir Venkatesh

*Note: The author of this book, Sudhir Venkatesh, has a very long name. There are way too many letters in Venkatesh for me to type it over and over. In fact, my fingers are exhausted from the three times I've already typed it. Therefore, the author will be referred to as S.V. from here on out.*

One of the most popular chapters in Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's book Freakonomics centers on the economics of a Chicago street gang. So you can imagine people were excited when they got word of Gang Leader for a Day, written by the man responsible for the studies profiled in that chapter. The book is a chance for this self-styled 'rogue sociologist' to take us deeper into a world many know nothing about. (In fairness, the whole 'rogue sociologist' thing could be a marketing ploy - Freakonomics' subtitle refers to a 'rogue economist.' I, for one, am somewhat alarmed at the sudden rise in rogue -ists running around the streets of our nation. Someone should do something.)

And, as an expansion on that same Freakonomics chapter, I suppose S.V.'s book is OK. There are many more pages to work with here, so we get more time, more characters, and more anecdotes. But I had several problems with the book that kept me from enjoying it as a much as I wanted to.

Power. No matter how embedded he was or felt, S.V. was not black. He was not poor. He neither lived in nor grew up in the projects. And, unlike the residents of Robert Taylor Homes, he could leave whenever he wanted. Even when he didn't want to leave, the gang members would often shield him from especially brutal or sensitive events. Is any of this particularly S.V.'s fault? No. We're all stuck with our own perspective. Forgive the moment of solipsism, but no one can ever truly transcend the blessing/curse of subjectivity. S.V., though, is so far out of his element that it feels like anthropomorphizing when he attempts to talk about people's motives. He dehumanizes in his very attempt to humanize.

Numbers. Maybe I'm a geek. Maybe I would have been better off reading his dissertation. But Gang Leader for a Day seemed surprisingly low on data. This is a book of stories, not information.

Motive. On multiple occasions, S.V. wonders why he is studying this community, and what he hopes to get out of his research. Even with these doubts, we see him crossing lines to get what he needs. He indulges residents' delusions of grandeur by allowing them to believe he's writing about them individually, rather than the community as a whole. He betrays people's confidence when he thinks it will help his research. Eventually, he justifies his actions by deciding that, like many of the buildings residents, he's a hustler. To make matters worse, that isn't even his own conclusion, but something told to him by one of the residents, and he clings to the idea like a life saver.

As I said earlier, I really wanted to like this book. Maybe I went in with unrealistic expectations, but I left feeling hollow and disappointed, like I had just eaten a candy bar when what I really wanted was something salty. Don't get me wrong - S.V. did something fascinating in exploring the lives of a hidden segment of society. But Gang Leader doesn't do it any justice.

Personally, I might have liked the book better if he had gotten his ass kicked at least once for his impudence, his naivete and his condescension, a la the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson in Hell's Angels.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Book Club: Coach, by Michael Lewis

At 91 double-spaced pages, Michael Lewis’ Coach is not much longer than an issue of Sports Illustrated. This little book overflows such tiny confines, though, as Lewis carefully interweaves a paean to Billy Fitzgerald with larger musings about the lessons we all (should) learn on the road to adulthood.

At its most basic level, Coach is a well-constructed tribute to the man who taught Michael Lewis to be more than just a ball player. Coach Fitz's story is not a unique one, and for that matter neither is Lewis'. And while I wouldn't go so far as to call Coach a vanity project, I'm not entirely convinced it would have been published had Lewis not found mainstream success with the publication of Moneyball in 2003. Nonetheless, Coach is eminently readable, and worthwhile not just for Lewis' nostalgia, but also for his thoughts on the over-protected atmosphere today's kids often grow up in. What struck me, though, was not the minutiae of Lewis’ personal experience, or his sky-is-falling concerns regarding modern youth. Coach, for me, was an unexpected reminder of how I got to be the person I am today.

In my sports-filled life, I have had too many coaches to count. As the years have passed, I find that I can clearly remember very few of them. Time has reduced some to mere names, and others are left with only faces. Many have been completely erased from my synapses. None of them, though, no matter how misremembered, had anywhere near as much impact on who I was then or who I am now as my own father. From watching M.A.S.H. on his knee as a small boy to our ongoing discussions about what is and isn't "important" in life or sports or family or whatever, I don't think any one person can claim a bigger role in the shaping of my personality.

My dad was a carpenter when I first arrived in this world, but a serious knee injury eventually left him without a job or much of a future. Ours wasn't a house for complaining, though, so while my mom waited tables at night to make ends meet, my dad set about reinventing himself. Before my young mind really knew what was happening or what was at stake, the man who never finished college was taking courses and soon found a job as an estimator for a structural steel company. He cooked dinner for my brother and me every night. He commandeered our 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System and beat the holy hell out of the original Legend of Zelda before I even conquered the first boss. His hard work saved our family so completely that I was an adult before it even occurred to me we might have been in jeopardy. To the eight-year-old me, a new house wasn’t anything special. A new routine, some new friends and, hey, my own room, great. But to my father, it must have been…redemption.

Growing up, I never suspected that my parents were anything out of the ordinary. Surely every father got up before dawn on Saturdays to drive his sons to hockey practice along the dark corridors of highway 101 while they slept in the back seat? And what dad didn’t patiently instill the belief that anything was possible, even a cross-country pilgrimage to Woodstock, so long as it was planned and worked for? And didn’t all the neighborhood kids learn about patience, hard work and dedication by reassembling an old truck piece by piece alongside their old man?

I’m a little bit older now, and whether you consider it wisdom or a Michael-Lewis-in-Coach-style cynicism, I’m finally starting to realize that not everyone grew up like I did. And the more I learn about my father’s life, both before and after me, the more about me I realize he deserves credit for. My convictions and my stubbornness. My belief that I can do anything I want, so long as I get around to deciding just what that is. My loyalty to the people most important to me. The rocks glass full of M&Ms next to me as I write this, an eerie parallel of the cup next to my father’s armchair.

So whenever my mother calls to vent about his latest project or tic or obsession, I laugh, I sympathize, and I comfort. And when she finally runs out of steam, she lets out an exasperated sigh and says, “That’s your father.”

And I smile, and I think the myself, “You’re dammed right.”

Monday, April 28, 2008

Zito to the Bullpen

Last week I posted the Barry Zito Salary Calculator, and now the Giants are sending Zito and his 7.53 earned run average to the bullpen. I hope he loses his 0-6 record somewhere along the way.

The Giants didn't really have much of a choice. Not only are they paying Zito fourteen and a half million dollars this year, but a demotion to the minors would probably wreak havoc on the kid's (that's right, he's only 29) psyche. It was either send him to the 'pen or announce that he was "injured" and let him miss a few starts while he got his mind/arm/chakras right.

I can't sit here and pretend SF doesn't need their 156 million dollar man. Even if he was only 3-3 instead of 0-6, the Giants would be sitting at 14-12, in second place in the NL West. Maybe the change of scenery will do him some good.

Then again, if Francisco Liriano comes back from the minors throwing asprin tablets for Minnesota, we'll know the Giants made the wrong decision.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Happy Marshawn Lynch Day!

Marshawn Lynch updated his blog today, for the first time in way too long. I love the kid, I really do. And it's fun to cruise the comments for people who can't handle his Oakland accent.