Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Another Break From Sports: I go Semi-Crazy on a Cross Country Flight after reading Chuck Klosterman

Note: Usually I try to watch my language in these posts. Today, I made no such attempt. Just so you know.
Another Note: The Title isn't a joke. I really just started typing what was on my mind, and didn't stop. And then didn't really edit it. Then I posted it on the internet. You would be right to question the wisdom of this. Whatever...
Today I want to write about writing. I am not qualified to write about writing. I don’t have any bestselling books, I don’t have any books period. I read a little bit, probably more than most, but all that much, I certainly spend more time watching video of one sort or another or working out than I do with books or columns. Even though I have a blog, the one that you are reading right now, it is nothing special. Chances are you know me if you are reading this. Chances are strong that you know me if you are reading this. I have Google Analytics. I know.
The fact that most of my traffic comes from Facebook or links that I send to people (yeah, I send links to my own shit to people…because I am a narcissist. I must be, I have a blog. More on that later), is not just by way of saying that I have no legitimate claim to an analysis of journalism. It actually brings me to my next point. Actually, to my next question.
Why the fuck do I bother?
I wrote about 90,000 words last year. Add them up. It is a lot. Bill Simmons wrote more, so did Malcom Gladwell. Hell, so did Sean Lahey and Mike Lynch, and you haven’t even heard of them. They all got paid, though. I didn’t see a dime. So why did I do it?
It wasn’t exactly because I enjoy writing. I do, sometimes, but not all the time. It can be tedious. It wastes a lot of time that I could be doing other tedious things like working out, looking for ways to improve my grades, trying to actually make money, socializing with friends or attempting to fornicate with women. But instead I was typing away at my laptop, and then posting to a website where almost no one reads what I write, and I get no reward if they do. Once again, why?
I already told you why, actually. It’s because I am a narcissist. We live in a culture where everyone needs to be heard, even though they usually don't have anything of value, or even interesting, to say. The whole ‘Web 2.0’ thing (blogs, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter etc, where the same people reading and consuming are producing the content, essentially the peer to peer internet that now exists), or ‘Web 2.LOOKTHEFUCKATME,’ as I just decided that I like to call it, is all about feeding a narcissism that is not only accepted, but almost universal. When I say that I am a narcissist, it isn’t because I am calling myself out, but because everyone is. I would like to think that I don’t fall into the ‘doesn’t have anything interesting of valuable to say’ camp, but the numbers suggest that I probably do (if you don’t believe me, or don’t know what I mean, hit the “NEXT BLOG” button at the top of this page for a few minutes. How many are interesting? Even readable? 10%? 3%? Not many), all I can do is try as hard to be interesting as I can, and hope it comes out as such, and maybe I can beat the odds. But I digress. Back to the question of why.
I like writing okay, but there is something that I like way more. Being right. Everyone likes being right. It is why we open our mouths, for fuck sake. Or why we go to school. Or why we give interviews. We want to be on record, and we want to be on record as having known something, preferably that you did not. I want to be right, so I spew 5,000 words at a time about a game that I think I understand, and I post it in posterity online because I want you to see that I am right.
Or do I? That’s the weirdest thing. I don’t even know if I want anyone to read my blog. I definitely want people to visit it. Shit, I check Google Analytics every morning, even when I haven’t posted anything in a month, and each day I hope that the number of views has skyrocketed. Only one time was I fulfilled.
So I want you to visit the blog, but I don’t know if I want you to read it. I mean I do, but I only want you to if you like it. And I don’t want you to associate it with me. I mean I do, but I don’t. If that makes sense, which of course it doesn’t. It isn’t so much that I’m insecure about how what I write will be received, as it is that I am cripplingly fucking terrified that you won’t like it. So, insecure.
And it isn’t that I don’t think I can write, either. I happen to think that I am a very good writer. I even enjoy reading my own work. I find it entertaining, and I already know how it ends. I just don’t want to be seen thinking what I’m thinking. Not directly, anyways. For instance, the girl sitting next to me on the plane I’m on just looked at my screen. I hid it. My aunt was looking over my shoulder a few minutes ago, and I refused to re-open this document until she went back to her book. If I ever post this online (I may or may not, I do most of my writing for myself, actually), I would be perfectly happy to have them read it, I just don’t want them to see it. Not now. Not yet.
I’m the same way in school. God forbid one of my teachers should look at one of my tests before I turn it in. Or even after I do, but before I leave the room. They have to grade it. The entire reason that I had just written whatever it was that I had been assigned was so that they could judge my performance, just like that is why I will post this on my website. I guess I don’t mind being judged, I just don’t want to see you judging me.
It’s also a bit of a finished product thing, I think. If someone (be it a teacher, someone looking over my shoulder or whatever else) is to read off of my screen when I don’t want them to, they are seeing what is a rough draft. An unfinished product. I don’t do a whole lot of proofreading or editing. I would like to think that I mask this fairly well, although I’m sure that sometimes I don’t. Either way, what I post is fairly raw, and not overly thought out (in a good way, once again, I would like to think). Still, I have control of when people get to see it, and of when the process is finished (well, not so much when, but what it looks like at that time). It is, once again, an insecurity issue that makes it so hat no one can see the product until I am sure that it is the finished product.
That 500ish word tangent aside, I guess the reason I write is pretty simple. I want to be right. At this point, we seem to get to an impasse, sin after all, I am no smarter than everyone else. Chances are I am not the great hockey or sports mind of a generation. On the other hand, I am not simply repeating what I hear from other people (although I question the notion of ‘originality’ itself, but I will come back to that). So with those two caveats, how could I have anything meaningful to say that is right? The reason is simple.
There is a great thing about columns. No matter how batshit you may be, you are never wrong. That’s why as great as writing a column is, writing a hard news story is a massive pain in the ass, and no fun at all. Columns don’t traffic in truth, because in most of what I write, anyway, there is no truth. If I say that Ilya Kovalchuk is the most skilled player in the world, but isn’t the kind of player that is going to bring a championship, I can make all the arguments I want with the most sound evidence in the world, but it doesn’t make me right. It doesn’t make it true. It certainly isn’t wrong, either. It is an opinion. A subjective argument, made entirely for fun. It is me expressing the way that I see the game, but I will never be able to create a controlled environment to test what I have said. It is not that I have missed the target of truth, but rather that there is no target there for me to hit or miss. I will never be right, I will never be wrong. There is no truth, just what I think, and I think I’m right.
This isn’t unique to me, either. With some writers, Simmons being the obvious example, this is obvious. When he writes a column (such as his latest one) the title of which says that it is nothing more than 10 theories, he is certainly not claiming to have hit on an indisputable truth. Simmons is the obvious type, but others are like this too. A book like Frakonomics can easily be mistaken for a search for truth, but in fact it looks at trends and patterns, and then draws conclusions. Conclusions. Not truths. I can really only think of one writer who is both consistently interesting and consistently working with truths, and that is Michael Lewis. Lewis, though, is not as much a columnist and analytical force as he is a journalist. A reporter. A storyteller.
The difference comes down to the placement of one’s self in what they write. To be a journalist or a reporter, you are trying to take yourself out of the story. You are trying to write something apart from how you feel about the subject that you are writing about. This is both extraordinarily valuable to society as a whole, as it allows people to know what is going on in the worked around them better than any other system yet devised, and mindfucknumbingly boring to do. Column writing, or essay writing, is a form in which no such attempt is made. The writer is placed in the middle of the prose, the message being ‘this is what I think,’ rather than ‘this is what I have found to be true.’ In an odd way, it is both more egotistical, as it assumes an audience interested in the views of the writer, and less so, as reporting assumes that a truth has been found by the reporter, while columnists make no such claim. The middle ground in this would fall to feature writing, which takes hard news, but gives it a slant, or an angle, in which the writer makes opinions known, although they are presented in factual manner.

Every summer, this blog dies. Sure, I update from time to time, but for the most part it is almost completely dormant. I wish I was more consistent, but please, allow me to explain myself.
Fist and foremost, there is a lot to do in the summer, and for people in school, such as me, it is a digression from routine. When I go to the library to write an essay, I get sick of whatever I am being made to write about. I am on my computer, in ‘writing mode’ and it is easy to switch to sports. The result is 2,000 words about Olympic hockey when I have an essay on the differences between Keynes and Marx due the next day. In the summer, there are no essays, no library visits, and therefore there is no blog.
There is another reason, though, because it isn’t like I write exclusively while killing time and procrastinating. The dirty little secret of the sports calendar is that summer is fucking boring. Not the whole thing, June is great, and the beginning of July is action packed, but from about July 20th until the NFL and NHL seasons start, there really isn’t anything to talk about. Nothing worth fighting the allure of, well, working out, looking for ways to improve my grades, trying to actually make money, socializing with friends or attempting to fornicate with women (that’s called a call back, ladies and gets, ba dum CHA!).
The fact is baseball is just too long for me to give a shit about a Royals-Tigers game in the middle of summer. Or a Red Sox game for that matter. I watch, I enjoy. I just don’t give a shit. And to write, you have to give a shit, otherwise you are Ray Ratto, Mike Lupica or one of the other douchey hacky columnists who are hard to read and don’t even seem to like sports and has to either diagnose them like a medical procedure or make everything huge and profound and about something else as if the games themselves don’t hold up.
The sports landscape goes from 60-0 in July, when we have championships, drafts, tournaments dour-de-Frances and free agency, then nothing. Just baseball, and Brett ‘I won’t go the fuck away’ Favre talk (I WROTE THIS TWO FUCKING YEARS AGO. WHAT THE FUCK.)
So that’s why the blog dies.
Let’s just accept the above as the reason that I choose to write, even though it was rambling and it never really got to the crux of the question. It is as good an answer as I can give, and so it will have to do, at least until I come up with something better. Fine. But why, then, do I write about sports. There are plenty of more important things that I could right about, like justice, money, politics, hunger poverty, success, failure, banking, economics, media. I mean, break it down. What is actually more arbitrary, yet more universally cared about than sports? Only entertainment (movies, TV, music etc) comes close, and really, sports are just another branch of that.
And yet I chose to dedicate my hours and my creativity to this vapid genre. The reasons are actually fairly straightforward, though.
The first and most prevalent reason that I write about sports is because I know about sports. The reason I know about them is as simple as the fact that I enjoy playing them, and I enjoy watching them, and when you do enough of something, you begin to learn about it. Stretch that out over 15 years of my life, and I have come to learn quite a bit about sports. On top of that, when you like something, you often learn about stuff surrounding it, in the case of sports, that is history, stats, rules transactions and so forth, and so simply from enjoyment, I have come to garner a fairly extensive knowledge, and making it an easy subject to write about.
There are more philosophical reasons that I write about sports though. One is because they are arbitrary. I don’t know. Maybe it makes me a pussy, but I don’t want to write about something that is too heavy. I want something devoid of consequence, but seeming to have one, and that is what entertainment, but particularly sports brings. If the stock market has a bad day, people lose money and houses. If sports has a bad day, you come back for the next one, or worst case, the next season. Sports don’t operate within the bounds of necessity, but rather a loss manages to be both devastating and of no consequence, a win uplifting yet empty. The vapidity is what makes sports appealing, not the meaning. It is no fun to write about something where being wrong is weighty. Or even where being right is weighty. Writing is fun when it is light. Sports are light.
Those characteristics of lightness aren’t unique to sports though. Other sectors of entertainment like movies, tv shows and music bring the exact same qualities. The difference is where both are light, sports bring yet another level of lightness. While no form of entertainment has true substantial impact beyond entertaining, sports are not only free of impact, but also of meaning.
When writing about a book, movie, album, tv show song or play, the first direction that almost any reviewer will go is to what is meant by the piece. It is hard to write about an authors use of sentancd structure, or the way they use verbs. It is booring to break down when the notes of a song go up or down, or the mechanics of a scenes blocking. Instead, what was the author saying, what does it say about society, and other philosophical questions like that are the crux of writing about any form of entertainment. Except for sports. If Miguel Cabrerra hits 43 home runs, what does that say about society? Absolutely nothing. If the Saints win the super bowl, what were they trying to tell their audience? Not a single thing, other than that they were better than the other team at football. Sports are complex, they have strategies, different methods of training, preparation and execution, but at their core? They are simple. One team wins. Another looses. That’s it. And that’s the beauty.
Few things are as peculiar as airport layovers. Bear with me. It is like a distilled shot of a city’s local culture, at least it seems to be, but it could be completely wrong for all you know. I went to Minneapolis Minnesota today, but not really. I was definitely in Green Bay Wisconsin, San Jose, California, and even South San Francisco, California. Physically, I was every bit as ‘in’ Minneapolis as I was in Green Bay and South San Francisco, where my stops consisted of arriving at the airport and leaving, and landing, walking out of the airport and getting on a train to San Jose, respectively, but the fact that I was in that town, and I saw the rest of it, not just this small sampling makes it infinitely more real.
There are even some cities that I know only in this way. Ask me if I have ever been to Atlanta, Cincinnati, Detroit or the aforementioned Twin Cities, and I will likely tell you that no, I have not. And yet, I have. I have spent a significant amount of hours, confined to the airports of these cities, but only as a medium between two other, theoretically more desirable or at least more relevant locations. I have never been by Piedmont Park, experienced to Minnesota state capitol building or had skyline chili, but to say that I have never been to those cities ignores a basic fact of the space time continuum (I think. It could be ignoring a basic fact of something else entirely, but I’m not sure what that would be, so let’s go with space time continuum. That makes me sound smart.). At a certain time, a person cannot physically be in two or more places, yet as a physical object, they must be in one place at all times. So, when I deny having visited Michigan, Georgia or Minnesota (as again, I would, and this makes the paradox I am getting at a bit clearer, since it is debatable to say that an airport is part of a city, but not that it is a part of the state), with A and B being that I must be in one place and can only be in one place at all times, and the only spot that I was in from 12:45 until 2:45 today was well within the boundaries of Minnesota (speaking of which, add Kentucky to the list. I just remembered, the Cincinnati airport is in Kentucky. I have been in Ohio- Toledo, before, but not Kentucky, so I can use all four cities that I know as layover cites in my example. This does nothing to prove my point, I just felt compelled to point it out.) so the only logical C is that I have been to Minnesota, and yet I haven’t. My experience is that of a layover, which is to say not really an experience at all.
There would be an easy way to fix this paradox (I stop short of calling it a problem), and that is that it is by simply saying that I have been to Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan and Minnesota. But that would feel like cheating. On the giant checklist that is the 50 states of the Union, to put a mark next to Georgia based on Jackson-Hartsfield Airport seems contrived. Sneaky. Dishonest. And so I am back to the paradox.
Right now I am on a flight from Minneapolis, MN, to San Francisco California. I can have internet access if I so desire. At more than 10,000 feet in the air, while I travel at more than 300 miles. A normal person may be excited by this convenience, or filled by a sense of wonderment at the age in which we live. Not me. I’m pissed off. It costs 9.99 for the flight, or about 2.50 an hour. That’s about what a 20 liter bottle of water, the most abundant liquid on the planet, or Pepsi, an overly sugary drink which has nothing but adverse effects on your body will cost you if you go to one of the newsstands once you get off of a plane like this one. To access an unfathomably large information superhighway which would allow me to browse the works of my favorite writers, answer any question that I wanted (at least any to which we have an answer), find out anything about my favorite sports teams, or watch Italian Americans make fools of themselves in South Florida (and you’re kidding yourself if you think I’m not choosing the last one). And I’m pissed. In fairness, I make like $9 an hour, but even if I made more, I feel like I would be mad, just for principle, even though it is perfectly reasonable to charge for a service like that and I have no idea what that principle was.
I have no point, other than that I’m spoiled, I guess.
I’m sick of stupidity. So goddamn sick of it. Does that make me a snob? Of course it does. But I’m still sick of it.
Maybe stupidity itself isn’t quite the right victim for my outrage, though. Stupid statements, maybe. Yeah, that’s more like it. I just saw a tag line, ‘Not all conspiracies are theories.’ I think it was AMC. If they hadn’t given us Don Draper, I would hate them for it. As it is we can call it even.
As for the line itself, I will start at the beginning: YES THEY FUCKING ARE. Your point is that not all conspiracies are wrong. Fine. I mean if you believe a lot of conspiracy theories, you are probably going to be wrong most of the time, but I will grant you that some are true. So say they aren’t all wrong. Understand the goddamn language that you use. You are worse than the ‘global warming is just a theory’ idiots. At least they were close.
A theory is a heavily tested hypothesis for which there is overwhelming evidence pointing to it being correct, but a fundamental element that makes it improvable. That is a theory. Global warming is a theory. There is evidence for it. Even if there isn’t, saying that it is ‘just a theory doesn’t prove the point you think it does. If there is no evidence or it isn’t credible, or it is just what some people think, then it is a hypothesis. (Maybe) not all conspiracies are baseless. (Maybe) some are true. But the part them that are conspiracies are actually significantly less than theories. They are suppositions at best, people throwing shit against a wall, more likely. That makes your stupid tag line simultaneously true, and more wrong than it was before.
Know what you are trying to say before you open your effing mouth.
When did hypocrisy become the worst thing in the world? I’m not saying that you shouldn’t hold yourself to the same standards as everyone else, in fact I think you should hold yourself to higher standards. But is it really the worst thing in the world to not practice what you preach 100% of the time? It isn’t, but one could be forgiven for thinking it is these days, since it seems to be the most common way to criticize.
It is annoying as hell when someone is hypocritical, there is no getting around it. Still, isn’t it better to say the right thing and do the wrong thing than steadfastly maintain that your error was in the right?
Al Gore seems to get a lot of this, and is often labeled with the H-word for living in an energy suckling compound and making movies about global warming. Is he a hypocrite? Absolutely. Should he try to be less wasteful himself if he is going to talk about global warming? Yeah. The world wouldn’t be a better place though if he were to make a movie, the gist of which is ‘I use as much power as I want and guess what? I’m still rich. Do whatever you want! We will be long dead before the consequences of global warming come around, if they do at all!’ The legitimacy of the global warming argument aside, the world is probably a better place if Al Gore tells you to turn off the lights when you leave the house, so can we please get over the fact that he doesn’t?
(And for those of you on the right, who feel picked on by my defending a democrat, a great example of this is The Daily Show. I love it. Watch it whenever I can, but for fuck sake every other segment is about a republican saying something about Obama that Bush had done. Can we please leave behind the whole hypocrisy thing and concentrate on being right? )
The reason is simple. Finding hypocrisy is easy. It is hard to say when someone is wrong, because most things are debated for a reason, and that reason is that the truth isn’t clear. You can’t say someone’s wrong if you don’t know the truth. And the truth is hard to find. And we’re lazy. And Jersey Shore is on. On the other hand, it is easy to see what someone did. Hypocrisy is too easy. Let’s get back to wrong.
While old man Morgus is on his soapbox, there is another thing I’m sick of. Can we, for the love of Christ, stop banging on about originality? I have never plagiarized anything in my life. Hand to god. I hope I never will. That doesn’t make me an original, though. I am an amalgamation, and so is everyone else. Take, once again, my writing style. I have created my own voice, but it isn’t really my own. I took elements of writers I liked and put them together. My creativity wasn’t actually in making something new, but in deciding what elements I liked, and which ones I didn’t then deciding how I was going to use them and put them together.
It is human nature to emulate. I could read any column that I have written and tell you who I was reading at the time (Bill Simmons, Peter King, Tucker Max- these never saw the light of day, and never will, Mark Titus (Club Trillion), Michael Lewis and now Chuck Klosterman). It isn’t just me, though. You could probably match those columns to those authors without me. I even see it in other writers sometimes. It is just the way creative processes work.
It isn’t just me, this is how everyone learns to write. No one makes anything up. There is no new ground. Sorry, there just isn’t, but the fact that someone took their styles from someone else doesn’t make them less enjoyable to consume, so can’t we just get over it and enjoy what is out there?
It isn’t a conscious process, either. I never said, ‘wow, I love how Bill Simmons works in constant analogies, how Malcom Gladwell looks for patterns, and how Mark Titus makes random jokes that catch you off guard. I should try to put that together.’ I just read them, then I wrote my own stuff and that’s how it comes out.
Once again, I use my self (and writing itself, for that matter), to make the point, but it could work for anyone. And for anything (Kobe isn’t Kobe without Jordan, and there are no Foo Fighters without Nirvana, for instance). It makes these things unoriginal, but no worse, so who really cares?