Sunday, August 4, 2019

If These Walls Could Talk: Stories from the Chicago Cubs Dugout, Locker Room, and Press Box - Jon Greenberg (2019)


I reserved this book after hearing its author speak on the Cubs Talk Podcast. It sounded lurid. To be honest, most of the juiciest stories were told in the podcast (which can find here https://open.spotify.com/episode/7pfCYkIql6n3xLeNK04cd9?si=e_Gkg5UpSq2aEpU--PWM5A). Regardless, this is a book worth reading - but only if you are a serious fan.

Who are serious fans? People that try to watch every game. And if not the whole game, at least parts of it. 

What I particularly loved about it, as a fan going back into the early 90's, is the way it situates 2016--and really the past 15 years--into the greater historical context of the franchise. 

The further back it goes, the more memories it invokes. I haven't read a book like this before. There are so many iconic moments in a baseball season, and we forget so many because each year brings more. Of course there are some things that we will never forget, such as the end of the 2003 NLCS (just as there are things we'll always have, like Paris, which is where I watched those games).

But I think some people forget the '04 Cubs. They very nearly made the playoffs and finished with a respectable 90+ win season. They added Greg Maddux for his 300th victory celebration. They had Wood and Prior and Zambrano and Matt Clement was probably their Jose Quintana (though I haven't compared their stats - maybe Clement was better). Query which rotation was better.

Maddux was at the end of his career and no longer as effective--like Jon Lester in another year or two. Definitely take Lester over him.

Though Hendricks is the more apt comparison to Maddux, he could be matched to Prior, and I take Hendricks any day (Prior tried to make a comeback as late as this year; Zambrano currently is doing so, how serious he's taking it is another matter. How I wish they'd get another shot! But that does not seem to be the Theo way.) 

Darvish is actually probably more like Prior (even though no one is a free agent pick up like him), or Wood for having an excellent start to his career and an uncertain future after Tommy John/other injuries. I'm still willing to bet on Yu. I don't think any of us are fully convinced he's turned the corner but he has been much better in 2019 on the whole.

Cole Hamels I guess maybe is the Maddux, but so far he's been much better than Maddux ever was on stint #2. And yes Jose Quintana = Matt Clement. 

I won't go through all the hitters. I think 90% of fans will agree that the 2019 cubs are as likely to make it to the world series as the 2004 cubs. The 2005 Cubs, also, were not a joke. They were still in it at the end. 2006, however, was a joke.

That was the summer I lived down the street from the park, at 1516 w. Addison. I went to a lot of games that year and they lost every one, I think. Maybe I was bad luck. Who knows. Because somehow they came back to make the playoffs in '07 and '08. And they weren't that bad in '09 and not even that terrible in '10 I think. '11, '12, '13, and '14 were brutal, of course. And I find it crazy to see that Zambrano was on the team as late as he was, and how Wood came back for his victory lap to retire a Cub -- I vaguely remembered that, but I had forgotten. 

Interspersed in there are anecdotes and analyses of players like Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster, Rich Hill, Milton Bradley, Derek Lee, Cliff Floyd, Daryle Ward, LaTroy Hawkins, Geovany Soto, Kenny Lofton, Aramis Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome, Alfonso Soriano, Henry Blanco, Michael Barrett, Jim Edmonds, Rich Harden, Mark DeRosa, Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Samarzdija, Randy Wells, Starlin Castro and others. Unfortunately, it misses the opportunity to reference Randall Simon and the sausage-race battery. And Zambrano's no-hitter apparently also didn't matter.

A real pleasure of this book is the way all the current Cubs crop are referenced much earlier in their lives. Such as Albert Almora, Jr. as a kid in Florida during the Marlins 2003 run. Or the improbable coincidence of Francisco Lindor and Javier Baez going from a high school-to-World Series rivalries. Or David Bote getting drafted even before Theo came onboard, and playing at the minor league level with almost every single player on the current MLB roster. 

The anecdotes in this book will enrich any fan's appreciation of the game. It's not exactly a biography of everyone--but it is pretty comprehensive at a little over 300 pages and a major emphasis on the 2015-Present Cubs. 

Because let's remember that Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, Albert Almora, Jr., Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Pedro Strop (and maybe a couple others I'm forgetting), are all still on the team. Some have improved, some have declined, and others have been replaced. Dexter is gone, Jake is gone, Rossy is gone, Montgomery is gone (quite recently). [Ed. Carl Edwards, Jr., gone as of 7/31/19] A bunch of relief pitchers have been replaced. It's probably comparable to what we had before. Chapman got replaced by Davis who got replaced by Morrow who got replaced by Kimbrel. Right now it looks like Davis was arguably the best overall closer. Chapman was lights out, but pushed to the brink. Kimbrel concerns me. I've already seen him blow 2 or 3 games and he's only been playing a month or so. Still you can't criticize the deal they signed him to.

As to Chapman, another distinct pleasure of this book is reliving classic moments from games and Joe Maddon's WTF managerial decisions. Like leaving Chapman in forever. Or letting Strop bat in a crazy situation with the wild card berth on the line in 2018: 

"The Cubs won the game 4-3 in 10 innings, a much-needed victory. But while Pedro Strop got the win, giving up no runs in 1 2/3 innings, it was a play involving him that stirred up a lot of talk about Maddon's managing and the future of this team.
Strop replaced Brian Duensing with one out in the 8th inning and the game tied 3-3.  He made it through that inning and the 9th with just one hit allowed in 21 pitches.  
Then, in the 10th inning, with one out and the bases loaded and the Cubs up a run after a Javy Baez's [sic] RBI bunt single, Maddon let Strop hit.
He wasn't out of position players.  It was only the 10th inning.  Strop hit a grounder to third and busted it down the line to beat a double play.  He ran so hard he injured his hamstring.  This was bad managing - death by overthinking.
'That's so unfortunate,' Maddon said. 'If we scored, he was going back out.  If we don't score, he wasn't.  That was it.  And we scored.  But listen, he hit the ball hard.  This guy can swing the bat a little; that wasn't a fluke.  He tried to beat it out, almost did, and you can never fault an athlete for competing.'" (294-295) 

Other stories are provided deeper detail, such as the legend of Daniel Murphy on the Mets in '15 and the Nats in '17 and his '18 stint on the Cubs and the tacit acceptance of homophobia. Actually I never thought Murphy was homophobic, I just assumed he was deeply embedded in Christian theology and unable to veer from the path of the righteous. Greenberg's gloss on his comments is big-hearted and humane, yet sharp. We should not lump Zobrist in with Murphy solely on the basis of spirituality but there is a cutting reference to his walk-up music (a song by his wife--ostensibly about him--ripping off Elton John) and now one could make a dark joke about it. Zobrist has been out most of the season with a divorce, but is making his comeback as we write. One hopes that his return will spark the team in the same way Schwarber did in the World Series, another story beautifully told here.

And Brandon Morrow. Morrow is glossed over. His injury from putting on pants is hardly mined for laughs. His extended rehab is basically a long-running gag. However, he could be available late this year.

One notable omission is the suspension of Addison Russell. While the domestic violence charges are referenced briefly, the more lurid details are kept confidential. Perhaps some of the stories hadn't come up at press time, though his "robotic" press conference in spring training made it in under the wire. Russell is a complicated story to tell. He is given short shrift here, as he has generally this year. For all of his shortcomings as a player in recent years, and despite odious past behavior, I feel for the guy when nobody gives him the benefit of the doubt, when nobody believes that people can change. I doubted whether the Cubs were making the right decision not to release him, but ultimately I think the front office handled it about as humanely and professionally as practicable. It would be a nice story if Addison Russell turned it on 2015 Starlin Castro-style and became the player everyone thought he was.

So there are some storylines currently being written that are not quite as compelling as the overall scope of 2016, but still arguably more compelling than any other team's, except perhaps the Angels--the consensus emotional favorite to win the World Series due to player personnel and strength through adversity (like the 2002 Cardinals after the death of Darryl Kile, or the 2001 Yankees after 9/11). That is, however, an extremely unlikely scenario. It will probably be the Dodgers and the Astros again. I believe, however, that there will be another Cubs-Dodgers NLCS this year, and that anything is possible.

I doubted the hype around Theo for a long time, probably until the 2014-2015 off season. At this point I'll concede that, while every decision he's made hasn't been perfect, he is still the greatest executive in sports today, and one of the greatest in history. He will be remembered forever for the towering accomplishment of bringing titles to the two most legendary franchise droughts in sports history. It was twice with the Red Sox, so let's hope it's twice with the Cubs.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Short Form: Let's Play Two, Perfect Sound Forever, The Great Believers

Let's Play Two - Doug Wilson

I will reserve the majority of my thoughts on this book for my review of Let's Play Two by Ron Rapaport. It is too perfect of a review to avoid writing in long form. I will not be able to provide excerpts from this as it has been returned to the library (the other one was bought for my mom). In short, workmanlike prose, and research that does not quite get beneath the surface of who Ernie Banks was--this is why it's necessary to read the other. An enjoyable read on the whole--Banks is a difficult subject for a biography and the book was above average, apart from one or two unfortunate turns of phrase.

Grade: B

Perfect Sound Forever - Rob Jovanovic

While we are on the topic of surface level biographies, this is another good example of one that leaves you wanting more in a similar way. Unfortunately even though I really, really love Pavement, and even though this reignited my interest in them, it's a lazier book than the above so I have to give it a lower grade with the caveat that there are no other books on Pavement and reading it should give any serious Pavement-head at least one bit of arcania they didn't previously know (like that SM Jenkins shaved his head and became super anti-social on the Brighten the Corners tour). The rest is largely covered (and mostly better) by Slow Century. Great material from Gary Young and various show ephemera make it an essential read for fans of the band. Still it would not likely be read or found by any potential converts. 

Grade: B-

The Great Believers - Rebecca Makkai

Fantastic read. Almost perfect. Except for the scenes in Paris. I see I'm getting ahead of myself. The book is about the AIDS crisis in Chicago in 1985/1986. I don't want to spoil too much. It is also about events in Paris in 2015. One character ties the two eras together. There is a lot about trying to get lost paintings from past masters in a gallery. This stuff is kind of a trope in the same way it was in The Goldfinch, though not to the same degree. I still think Goldfinch is slightly better. However this is as close as you can get to the Best Books list without actually being on it. I usually cry at movies and not at books. Not so for this one. Very, very deeply affected by this. I would accuse of it being melodramatic for effect--but what kind of big statement book isn't? At first blush the closest reference point is Angels in America. That play is rightly considered a modern classic. However I would argue this is better. There may be other books or films of which I'm unaware but I don't think this has been done before--there have been things about AIDS but not the effect it had on a closely-knit group of friends that may or may not sleep with each other and/or in what types of venues and/or go crazy with paranoia. I needed to keep reminding myself it was fiction. Beautiful character development. I'm reading Educated right now and it's really good and I would put it alongside this and Asymmetry as the best books of 2018.  

Grade: A








Wednesday, May 29, 2019

White - Bret Easton Ellis (2019)



As the blog is back from the dead for a long form review, we go back to the beginning and revive the oeuvre rule. I've read Less than Zero, the Rules of Attraction, the Informers, Glamorama, Lunar Park, and Imperial Bedrooms. I read about 1/2 of American Psycho. It's problematic to read the book after seeing the movie, much of the time. I'm most interested to re-read Glamorama, because I think it might make the Best Books list. Lunar Park was read shortly before Flying Houses began and I liked it fine, I guess it was kind of original, I'd have to read it again. As far as his oeuvre goes, White is a better read overall than the Informers, but is probably weaker than everything else. BEE is something else though, the rare writer that can make me drop everything and read asap after publication. Enough ink has been spilled over this book but I need to say my part, in lieu of a Facebook post on the political landscape of 2019.

Imperial Bedrooms came out almost a decade ago, and was the sequel to Less than Zero, 25 years later. It's his longest break between books. While I don't care to comment on the creative process, I would not be surprised if the increasing centrality of the social media landscape and smartphone culture gave him a little writer's block. Or he was off writing the Canyons or hanging out with Kanye West or making ill-advised tweets. Regardless, here is White, arguably his version of Joan Didion's The White Album (which I haven't read yet, regrettably) and his commentary on being a privileged white male in 2018.

This book has gotten mostly bad press (please read the New Yorker interview, now). It's a flawed product. It is practically designed to tick you off and push your buttons. Approximately 30% of the time reading this book, I wanted to slap my forehead. Ellis could have written a better book if he didn't enjoy courting controversy. And because he pulls back the curtain and explains, for example, that even he doesn't know if Patrick Bateman really committed or just imagined committing those murders, it takes some of the mystery out of his work and unfortunately limits its scope. Thankfully, he says very little about Glamorama, so we can go on pretending that it really is his true masterpiece, even as Zero and Psycho loom essential. 

And are any of his books really essential? Probably not, but they're extremely important for the young writer who wants to go hot and fast out of the gate, and as artifacts of their milieu. Sadly, really young first time novelists are probably all wussy nowadays anyways, and their art is likely pedestrian.

This is one of the overarching themes of White. While it is comprised of 8 essays, only a couple of them stay limited within its discrete subject. Most of them end up ranting about social media leftist scaremongering. And I do think it's a valid viewpoint. I've said the same thing myself multiple times. Stop trashing Trump---you're playing into his hand! BEE doesn't even go that far, because it's clear he doesn't want come off as sheepish in the least. We should attempt to define Ellis's ideal political party, so that you can decide whether you want to read a book that is going to tell you what you want to hear.

He defines himself as a moderate, but he comes off as more of a closet-republican. He thinks Bernie Sanders ideas are ridiculous and unrealistic. He didn't like Hillary Clinton (he didn't vote in 2016). He personifies Trump as Patrick Bateman's hero in American Psycho and admires him for his provocative political gamesmanship. He is an ardent supporter of gay rights and while I don't remember reading it, one presumes he also believes in a woman's right to bodily autonomy. It seems as if he is skeptical of social welfare. I don't think there are many comments (if any) on foreign relations. 

What we do know is that his boyfriend is in his early-mid-30's, and a disappointed Bernie bro. He had trouble finding work after college except for unpaid internships. He may or may not be unemployed still. I am not sure what I would do if I were BEE's boyfriend but I would personally be scared of living perpetually in his shadow. And I would probably be annoyed by the way he wrote about me. Because he writes about him as if he's about 10 years younger. He's only a couple years younger than me, and I am an old millennial/young gen x-er (the way BEE is an old gen x-er/young baby boomer).

[Aside I may have made before: whatever happened to Generation Y? That's us (children of the 80s). Millennials should be Generation Z, i.e. the end of civilization as we've known it through the latter half of the 20th century, when we created these labels.]

Now I am not like him. I feel more like BEE. But this isn't about me, this is about White. Regardless, BEE writes as if all millennials have the same values, adhere to groupthink, and follow all trends like sheep. 

Side note: I keep using the word "sheep" here. BEE uses the phrase "clutching their pearls" 1-2 too many times here.

Generation Wuss is something you could say 1-2 times as a joke, but to refer to Millennials as wusses is terribly reductive. Not all of us get butthurt about stupid bullshit.  Not all of us automatically assume that anything we write or create deserves to be praised. (BEE curiously suggests, in one paragraph, that they deserve respect, because they have less money and have to work harder for it, etc. His comments on that demographic are otherwise largely perjorative.)

I see I am getting sidetracked, but ultimately this book goes off on about a hundred different digressions and they end up in the same place. 

He writes about some celebrities and his relationships with them: Richard Gere, Tom Cruise, Charlie Sheen, Katheryn Bigelow, Judd Nelson, David Foster Wallace, Sky Ferreira and Kanye West. The book basically ends with Kanye and it's kind of perfect.

That's basically what I wanted to say about this book: it's a flawed product, it's probably BEE's 2nd or 3rd worst book, but it's still got moments of greatness. Ultimately, what I think it aspires to be (though BEE would likely dispute this and suggest no, he's not important, he doesn't necessarily think he's right, he's just a provocateur) is a time-capsule of our era. So much of our culture is disposable. Music, film and literature are no longer driven by or contained in objects or things. Everything is digital. We do everything on our phones. Even laptops are too unwieldy. A printed book (one of the few mediums, like vinyl, to retain a foothold) is thus an artifact in the future, more easily accessible than any google-able news story. BEE must know that he is one of the last major literary icons and that his work possesses a certain gravitas that few others match (though he is no Milan Kundera or J.M. Coetzee). His subject matter is shallow, and prefigures the culture our society would assume as its own. Less Than Zero is all about the 80's and partying and music and drugs and nothing is really all that different now except the popular genres and drugs have changed. Our culture today is not an ideal breeding ground for artists. The art that will come out of these times will not take real risks because people are too worried about getting "cancelled" or not seeming "woke" enough.  Ultimately, I think these fears are unfounded. When he says, for example, that American Psycho would not be published today, I have to disagree. Granted, I know far less about the publishing world than he does, but dark, misogynistic subject matter can still be depicted, so long as the perpetrators get theirs. Maybe that's a problem, I don't know. Maybe art can be great because it inspires real conversations and disagreements. 

Several rhetorical flourishes here could make for compelling performances at readings. Young people will hopefully read this book and be forced to reckon with their experiences and their attitudes towards trigger warnings and safe spaces and censorship and witch hunts. However, many of them will dismiss it because of BEE's left-baiting. Let me be clear: I AGREE that unapologetically liberal friends on social media are annoying, and do not truly consider the implications of the type of world and culture they hope to achieve through their "shaming," but I do not agree that things like the New Green Deal aren't worth discussing or trying to work towards. Maybe he would agree to that point, too. It's just that extreme viewpoints, on the left and the right, are predominating the discussions, and probably affecting the elections as much as the Russians. It's all a big bubbling soup of brainwash. We can consider the ridiculousness of Trump and denigrate his methods, but at the same time (as Dave Chappelle said) he is our president, and we're stuck with him for better or worse, so we have to try to work together. It's almost over. Talk about infrastructure. Pretend like you're not going to talk about the investigation anymore. Resist the urge to bully the bully. The U.S. won't become Nazi Germany, but a gigantic wellspring of Apple products and interconnectivity. That's not Trump's doing. What has he done, really, that wasn't orchestrated by his political party? The point BEE seems to be making here is that the whole 'they go low, we go high' thing is B-S when democrats are being just as obstructionist as Republicans were to Obama. It's like an annoying roommate that cant take a joke and says things like, if you're going to dish it out, you better be able to take it, while exhibiting a cognitive dissonance about the purpose of the apartment, or the government: bring people together, organize them effectively, so they are best-equipped to lead happy and fulfilling lives. Clearly that doesn't come from concentrating wealth amongst the top 0.1%, but it can come from charitable efforts, which (as tedious and commercialized as it became) Celebrity Apprentice at least encouraged. We all need to look past our differences and be open to the idea of friendship with people on different sides of the political spectrum, and I do not think that is a dangerous idea at all.





Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Short Form: The Four Agreements, The Impossible Fortress, Sabrina, Garden State (redux), Beastie Boys Book, Rock Steady, Let's Go (So We Can Get Back), Asymmetry, Go Tell It on the Mountain

The Four Agreements (Don Miguel Ruiz) 
I read this book because a girl I matched with on a popular dating app asked me if I had and I said no. I proceeded to be "really bad at this" and reserved it from the library and messaged two months later, thanking her for the rec, at which point I was unmatched.
(1) be impeccable with your word
(2) don't make assumptions
(3) don't take anything personally
(4) always do your best
Good rules to live by, but the book could have been much better. He really could have fleshed it out better. Instead it's kind of a philosophical text with very basic vocab.
C+ (6/10)

The Impossible Fortress (Jason Rekulak)
I read this book because my younger sister brought it home with her for Christmas last year and she gave it to me and said it was good, but she wasn't going to read it again. I pretty much feel the same way. It really has a cookie-cutter plot and paper thin characters. It was the lightest read I have done in a while, and it was a pure guilty pleasure. It was sort of unintentionally hilarious, but I grew to love it for how silly it was. Also the game on the authors website (based off the computer game programmed by its main characters) is really addicting and fun (I had to play until I won).
C+ (6/10)

Sabrina (Nick Drnaso) 
I read this book on about 2 hours on Saturday. It's a beautiful book in every sense. First graphic novel nominated for Man Booker prize. I do not think it should win but it deserves the nomination and I think everyone should read it and then give their loved ones a hug.
A (10/10)

Garden State (Rick Moody) (re-read) [http://flyinghouses.blogspot.com/2009/09/garden-state-rick-moody.html]
Not as good for a 35 year old as it was for a 26 year old.  Still a good book, but its flaws are more apparent to me (it also has a charming, almost antique quality now).  This is also the subject of the Flying Houses Podcast (Episode 3 - projected release date September 2019)
(6/10--should be 5/10, boosted for nostalgia)

Beastie Boys Book (Adam Horovitz/Michael Diamond, etc.)
I only got through about 20 pages of this.  It's the nicest book I've ever taken out of any library ($50 list price) and also one of the hardest to finish in 3 weeks.  I got it for my brother(-in-law) for Christmas in the hopes that I can finish it one day.
(10/10)

Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice from my Bipolar Life (Ellen Forney)
It's taken me about 3 months to read this book, and it should only take a couple days.  It's a really easy read.  It's sort of like a comic book.  It wasn't as helpful as I thought it would be.  If you live with a mental illness, you learn how to take care of it yourself (or you just die sooner or less happy).  The book may be useful for teenagers and young adults.  It may be useful for adults but the only reason I didn't like it that much is that it seems to infantilize its audience, just a little.  
(7/10--should be 6/10, boosted for public service quality)

Let's Go (So We Can Get Back) (Jeff Tweedy)
One of the best memoirs by a rock musician I have ever read.  The only thing that keeps it from a perfect grade is that it could have gone even deeper.  It is not the authoritative book on Wilco.  It could have been, but there are several others.  Tweedy does not attempt to write the only book on Wilco that matters.  I know Greg Kot wrote a book about them, and it's probably very good and worth reading, so I can understand the impulse not to want to do everything.  In any case, this book is an absolute pleasure, even when Tweedy kind of/sort of floats into the territory of pseudo-humblebrags--and no one could begrudge him that.
(9/10)

Asymmetry (Lisa Halliday)
Uneven, yet highly recommended.  I heard about this a lot last year.  I think it came out before Philip Roth died.  In any case, his DNA is all over this.  It wasn't exactly top 10 of 2018 material, but one NY Times reviewer put it on his honorable mention list, and said just to read Part 1 ("Folly") and skip Part 2 ("Madness"). Now as a reader, I could never do that to a writer, but I have to concur.  Part 1 is 10/10, and Part 2 is 5/10 (Part 3 is N/A, probably 5/10 too, only worth reading because it "unlocks" the mystery of the apparent dissimilarity between the two). "Folly" is a flawless piece of fiction.  
8/10

Go Tell It on the Mountain (James Baldwin)
It's not really fair for me to review this, because I still have about 20 pages left, but I have many thoughts.  First of all, it's great, there's a reason it deserves to be in the category of 20th Century American classics (and it was shelved in the African-American literature section of the library, which I can understand, but feel is unnecessary).  Second, it's rather slow.  There is a LOT of religious (mostly Christian) rhetoric.  It's kind of hard to figure out what's going on, but now, by the final (or penultimate) section, I think I get it, and it's a beautiful way to tell a story about a family.  I wouldn't recommend it as highly as Asymmetry but I know it is the better book.
9/10




Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Chicago Cubs 2018 Year in Review


No report cards this year for individual players, just a long hot take on this year's team and performance. I know I retired FH but I only write 1 Cubs post per year and it was really close so I'll do it.

The other reason is that, this year, I've had to listen to a lot of podcasts. I only listened to the Cubs Talk Podcast last year. This year I added Locked on Cubs and it was just those two until Locked On did not update for a week and I thought it had been abandoned. So I added in Cubs Related, Away Games and Wrigleyville Nation's Podcast. For the record, here is my ranking:

(1) Cubs Talk Podcast 

Even though it is the only one sponsored by a major corporation, they still sometimes maintain a very DIY feel, such as commenting on the ambient sounds of a lawnmower on the field during recording after a game. They also quoted Jon Lester last night even though it was NSFW: "You need to get your dick knocked in the dirt to appreciate where you're at. Maybe we needed that, maybe we needed to get knocked down a peg or two and realize nothing's going to be given to us." Highlight from year: Doug Glanville commenting on A-Rod commenting on Yu Darvish.

(2) Locked On Cubs

Only because they were pretty consistent M-F and stuck to a set format and were relentlessly depressing. Total debbie-downers but I loved them for it. This should be the default setting for true Cubs fans. Optimistic Cubs fans are not real Cubs fans. Highlight from year: playing old clips of 5 biggest home runs (Glenallen Hill rooftop shot was #1)

(3) Away Games

By far the most humorous on this list, I didn't start listening til the end. They did it about once a week. They both come off as likable and they usually make good points but you couldn't listen to it every day as a substitute for watching or listening to the game itself, which is the main reason I listen. Highlight from year: telling Theo & Jed to sign Jesse Chavez and Cole Hamels today to maintain positivity.

(4) Cubs Related

This was the most long-winded on the list. Episodes had longest running time and driest tone. It may have been updated just as frequently, if not more so, than Locked On. Hosts had good chemistry. Occasionally hilarious, and also relentlessly depressing. Highlight from the year: host nonstop crushing on Jon Lester.

(5) Wrigleyville Nation's Podcast

I only listened to 2 or 3 episodes of this pod and no shade on it (because in the 2 episodes I've recorded so far of the Flying Houses podcast, I sound like a junky) but the host always sounded kind of a drunk, like he had just gotten back from the game more than a few in the bag and recorded. Maybe he's always been totally sober and I'm way off base here and I'm only mentioning it because I don't know what else to say about it. They did have good guests. The host seemed more like a moderator for the guests, at least in the last episode. Also recorded once a week. Highlight of the year: breaking the news about Russell being placed on leave (breaking for me, 3 days later).

***

These podcasts have changed the way I watch and talk about the Cubs. For example, the only things anyone seemed to care about near the beginning of the year were rumors about acquiring Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. Then it was always about Yu Darvish. 

One of the big storylines of the year was that the Cubs spent about $200 million on 3 pitchers that turned out to be busts. OK not true about Brandon Morrow. He is one of my favorite players on the team and performed admirably when he was not injured. 

Tyler Chatwood and Yu Darvish should not be lumped in with one another. Yu was injured and Tyler had a control problem (which seemed almost Mark Wohlers-esque). Yu will get another chance next year and Chatwood may not.  Regardless, fans liked Chatwood for his attitude. Their attitude towards Darvish was likely compromised by inexact translation. When A-Rod went off about how Yu was managing his own rehab and how other guys lost respect for players that did that (told the team they weren't ready to come back), the national spotlight briefly landed on the troubling situation with their blockbuster free agent signing. They needed a new guy when they announced he wouldn't be back at all.

Enter Cole Hamels. The Cubs briefly flirted with Hamels a couple years back, perhaps around the time they signed Lester. They didn't get him for whatever reason and maybe if they had, they might have had a better shot in 2015 and 2017, but it doesn't matter--they got him when they needed him and he came to play. He would get an A or A+. Lester would also get an A. Hendricks would get an A-. I don't know why he got brought in during the 12th or 13th inning of the wild card game (to be honest I was having a smoke break due to stress when that change was made) and I don't question it so much as wonder what happens if Hamels stays in. I don't blame him for the loss at all. Quintana I would give a B+, almost an A-. Chatwood would get a D+ or C- (because he was still relatively effective in spite of his outrageous number of walks). Montgomery would get an A for his first 5 starts in the rotation and a B+ thereafter. He was just stunning when he first got the nod to start. He showed up like he wanted to compete for a Cy Young. Then he went back down to earth. Morrow I would give an A, Jesse Chavez was a great late-season move, also an A. De La Rosa in similar territory but B+. Strop I would give an A. Cishek overused, B+. Kintzler was not good, C+. Mixed feelings on Justin Wilson, feels like I rarely got to see him pitch (maybe that means he just got the job done), B+. Probably missing a few.

Baez gets an A+ and became my favorite player (after Arrieta, then Hendricks). Rizzo gets an A. Bryant gets an A- (should be B+ but don't fault him for team's mistake of potentially exacerbating his injury). Contreras gets an A-. Almora gets a B+. Zobrist gets an A. Schwarber (slimmed) gets an A-. Heyward gets an A-. Happ gets a B and Bote gets a B+. Caratini gets a B-. Daniel Murphy gets an A-. Russell gets a B-/D (B- player (A on defense)/D as person depending on DV investigation). La Stella gets a B- for being a great pinch hitter. Probably leaving a few out.

This year I watched the team more and paid closer attention to them than I had ever before (though I only went to one game in person). My take is that Maddon deserves an A for managing them to a 95 win season and a tiebreaker game for best record in the national league with the upstart Brewers. Rumors are already swirling about Maddon being on the hot seat and I just want to say, stop that. I disagree with a few of his decisions in the wild card game but on the whole, on balance, he knew what he was doing with this team and steered them toward phenomenal success in spite of a multitude of very challenging situations. I don't see Theo & Jed losing faith in Joe just yet and as sad as everyone must be right now, I think we all remain optimistic about the shape of the team going into 2019 and will watch the off-season decision making closely. 

The team limped into the postseason, incredibly burnt out from playing about 35 games in 37 days. They looked like they did last year in the NLCS. They could barely get a hit. Still, they stayed in it til the end. Fantastic wild card game and kudos to both the Brewers and Rockies for their victories, which they deserved. Cubs fans can afford to be charitable. Everyone could tell it was going to be a longshot this year, just as it was last year, and though they had their earliest exit yet, it was arguably more impressive than last year. We will now have to wait out a cold, lonely winter, but they will remain an exciting team to watch next year, and hopefully for several more (6?) to come.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Farewell

I just put Sabrina on hold at CPL and I realized that I would not be obliged to review it and that while I had announced on Facebook that Flying Houses would be "retired" after post #400, I had not made any comment here for the limited readers that have found it outside of the social media publicity bubble I have (poorly) cultivated. 

It is prudent at this juncture to define the parameters of this so-called planned obsolescence.  It's not easy to walk away from the outlet into which I have spewed all of my misguided opinions, and so I will need to maintain a certain outlet: the current plan is to confine critical assessments to podcasts but since I haven't actually released one yet officially, don't hold me to that. Don't hold me to anything. 

This isn't about practicing law but it's related to that. I've learned a little too late that the legal profession is one of the worst there is. Actually there is no profession that seems "good" except for skilled trades. One thing I do not understand about life is how people get paid fairly. I don't feel good about any job when I get paid more than I think I should. Yet this is not a problem most people seem to have. And I don't want to work any job when I get paid less than seems worthwhile. It is very hard to gauge the reasonableness of legal fees. Courts will approve attorneys fees that are well-documented, and I am developing a fee scale for the cases I feel competent to handle. $100 per hour is basically what I would charge most people for most things. Yet it is rarely easy to determine the value of extraordinary stress and humiliation. Personal injury done on contingency (when I am able to believe there is a worthwhile case to be litigated--which is approximately never), simple bankruptcy for $1,000, complex bankruptcy for $2,000, retainer of $3,000 for various other matters. I could get organized one day but as noted above, I almost never feel it's worthwhile to get involved, and the work I've done for most other firms (apart from doc review, where you know you are worth nothing and low expectations are the rule) leads me to believe that every reason I gave for why I wanted to be a lawyer was based upon a miserable lie. I'm not quitting law because I still have debt. If I can make $100/hour consistently, 2200 hours per year, I'll pay my loans off in a year. Until then, I'll stay on PAYE.

I did not go into debt to start Flying Houses. It did not require an advanced degree, nor investment of any capital other than time. Time, unfortunately, is running low.

I am not sick, so far as I know, yet I am. I often feel as if I will not be around much longer. This is not meant to be a depressing thought so much as an empowering one. It is time to put my affairs in order. I have nothing to give but a small amount of money which will barely cover funeral expenses in today's increasingly expensive world. This post does not bear the requisite will formalities for enforcement. Holographic wills are not recognized under IL law. Yet sometimes one must peak behind the curtain and determine the will of the testator.  Here, now, there is no person that I would single out for special treatment, no one I would trust beyond my immediate family, and so dying intestate is not the tragedy I once considered it to be. Suffice to say, I will never be able to repay my parents the debt they undertook to raise me properly (though we will disagree about what expenditure of resources was actually necessary), and they should be entitled to everything I've made. Yet what I've made monetarily hardly amounts to anything. 

I often feel as if FH is my life's work, the work of which I'm most proud (even though perhaps 40-50 of the 375 posts are regrettable, and would not be published today). I have done some good legal work of which I am proud, but those instances have been relatively rare and not at all proportional to the enormous strain that the debt to afford the privilege has placed upon my being. FH is a good balance. It's not a great novel and a blog is not as significant as a published novel, and it has paid nothing, but it has helped a (very) small number of people and for that I believe it should be considered a public service. It's not Cliffs notes or Wikipedia but it's real. We turn people onto books here. We try to get people to think for themselves. We try to take the BS out of criticism and work outside the margins of publicity (except for a few notable exceptions, which have always been telegraphed). We try to be honest and we risk ostracism. We try to make people laugh and forget about all the parts to life that turn it into an unpleasant slog. We try to educate people about the great writers of the past and the present, and we have never claimed to be authoritative. We try to recognize the Best Books when we come upon them. We try to define and pin down what makes great literature, and we often make contradictory statements and hold contradictory positions. We try to be even-handed in our assessments, and we often come off as ambivalent or wishy-washy, as if we're not entirely sure of what we actually like or want. We put ourselves on the line emotionally with every review, all too cognizant that every single one of our Facebook friends will be put on notice of every single book we have read and may form attendant judgments as to our tastes and sensibilities (which, to be sure, are not always attractive). We try to show that we have capabilities that have heretofore gone unrecognized. We try to show love to the things we love, and indifference to the things we don't (while recognizing that hate makes for better writing but also leaves one more vulnerable to trolls). We try to be fair and we try not to be mean and we try to stand up for ourselves when others try to knock us down. 

***

I'm stopping because I think my work here is done. I tried, and nobody really seemed to care. Yet I'm also stopping because I want to do better. I've edited others here, but no one has really edited me. Accordingly, 90% of the total word count of this blog is garbage. I've allowed myself to be more disposable and present more problematic viewpoints here than I would be permitted in a major market publication. This is both a blessing and a curse (or a double-edged sword, or another cliche I have lazily allowed myself to dispatch here). I have tried not to sanitize my work for fear of reprisal, yet I have often lost confidence in my critical faculties and avoided overly controversial statements. I've felt lately that just saying you like or don't like something is not enough as a critic. You have to situate it within the larger conversation. To take a recent example, I am reasonably certain that my appreciation for one of our last subjects, Less, would have been enhanced if I had consumed the pertinent literary precedents. The character writes books spun out from classics like The Odyssey and Ulysses (really, modern updates) -- so was Less itself modeled after something of which I'm unaware? We can't all read everything but we can at least be honest about our backlog of literary knowledge (not claiming to know about a book because you read 20 pages of it and heard other people talk about it) and that is what I tried to do here. 

To diminishing returns. We started with the oeuvre rule and we ended with the referral rule.  It became more about publicity and my willingness to play guinea pig than literary contextualization and my desire to design a new system.

***

There's also very little original thought in the posts. Clearly, the best parts of FH are the excerpts, the parts I have not actually written. This is potentially a copyright violation ~x315.  Nobody has come after me for that, and I thank them. 

However, people have come after me for certain other things. And not for the things they should. Life is bad enough as it is, we don't need anyone making it worse. Nobody wants to see you succeed on the internet. There is too much insecurity and desperation and envy. They want you to fail. They want you to be as pathetic as they are. There's not enough economic space for the two of you. There is no easy way to get paid and build a respectable life and so when someone seizes upon an idea and makes it for themselves, there are naturally copycats. No one wants to copy FH because they know there is no money in books (unless it's about the White House). 

I told a friend today that I made my own Hell. I literally founded another plane of existence post-death. FH is that. Another place for me to live forever, fixed though it may be, and one day unable to respond to comments. And it is not a heavenly place at all. We leave the bad stuff there for anyone to see. I probably can't get a good job because of FH. I should probably remove the link from my LinkedIn. 

That's always been our aim in literature, hasn't it? To achieve immortality, to play beyond the grave, to leave a breadcrumb trail or mystery to solve, some other form of interaction. 

Before, I wrote to try to show people something I thought was beautiful. Now I've learned that is no longer necessary. No one cares what I think. My perspective is best nurtured through pathos and destruction. Or nothing at all.

I digress! Let's not stoop to feeling sorry about our demographic plight and using that as an excuse for our failure to obtain an opportunity to achieve success. We make success our own way. On the whole, it is patently ridiculous to claim that failure comes as a result of discrimination. For certain individuals that is no doubt true, and has been true for decades (women who didn't get a job because they had self-respect). For others such as myself, maybe we're really just not any good. Or "difficult."

No, the prose itself is weak. If I wanted to be a true literary critic, I would have completed an English B.A. and gone on to graduate school for that. I don't have those degrees, but I have other pretty useless ones. Still, my problem with English was that it was boring. I didn't get why it mattered what Canterbury Tales said about queerness or feminism or subconscious desire. Maybe that these issues had always been part of the cultural conversation, and never spoken aloud for fear of reprisal.

Now we fear reprisal but it is of a different sort. We're not worried about someone seeing us at an I.W.W. meeting. We're worried about saying something on Facebook that could be interpreted as having a conservative stench. We write people off without digging deeper into the context of understanding their viewpoints. We applaud the victims and we denounce the powerful as unworthy (or incompetent--sometimes rightly so). And sometimes we just don't want to like anything someone does, because we've made up our mind that they're a garbage person and they can live out their days in shame.

I can no longer wield this responsibility on my own. That is why I have decided to stop seeking your attention through my reading history. What I say doesn't matter. Obviously I think it should, but I'm not sure it should in this realm. I don't know if there is any topic that I can adequately speak to as an authority. I've always had a bit of a problem with that anyways.

There have, however, been some wonderful moments here over the years. The authors themselves have sometimes popped in to offer a "gotcha" moment (side note: I really hate how people have started to use that word to me, though I'm sure I've misread the tone). Most everyone has been charitable, and there have only been a few trolls who have tried to take me down on my own blog. The comments, by and large, have yielded several beautiful exchanges. 

Most of us will never amount to anything beyond our small social circles. Everybody will have their 15 minutes of Fame, but for me it has only been shame. I remember when there were only 265 million people in the U.S. Now it's 330 million--maybe 340 million. We have to make peace with the fact that we are Insignificant to the wider world. Really, the only people that care about what I do are the people I know (and many, I imagine, wish I had never been there to infect their lives and waste their precious breath and attention). There's probably about 50 people that regularly read the posts and most all of them are from Facebook. I really don't like using that platform for publicity. It is a necessary evil in this day and age, but it is not one that I wish to continue to entertain. 

I have enjoyed self-mythologizing and referencing prior posts with links and interacting with literary culture, though my name (and brand, as it were, which again must be credited to Scratch Acid) will never be uttered in hushed tones and reverential gestures. This may not be the appropriate vehicle for me, and I thank everyone for forcing me to figure that out on my own, rather than telling me that I couldn't. I'll always love books and I'll always read but I won't force myself to write about them any longer. My work is not done, but I feel that I have harvested everything out of this exercise that I can. It is time to say goodbye. I do not know what the future holds but my hope is that one day I will, in fact, do what I love, and not only in my spare moments.

XOXOXOXOXOXOXOXOXO

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Kitchen Confidential - Anthony Bourdain (2000)




For 18 months of my professional career, to this point, I've been a server. It's not an industry I'm looking to get back into, and indeed I spent the last free year of my life prior to starting law school at a restaurant. That experience is not readily relevant to my present professional hopes and dreams, but anyone that has done it knows that it changes you and makes you into a more ruthless individual (in a good way!). Like the rest of my life, I don't regret it, but I wish I had done it better at the time.

Enter Kitchen Confidential, which should be required reading for every student at every culinary school in the country, and any employee of any restaurant (that expects excellence from its staff). That may sound hyperbolic. And this book may be dated. But Anthony Bourdain did something very special here. It is the seminal, definitive book about the restaurant industry, and obviously belongs in the category of Best Books, even if it may suffer at times from literary pretentiousness. It was a pleasurable read from start to finish, and though I am no expert on the Canon, justifiably stands alongside The Art of French Cooking as a giant of its genre.  Had I read Kitchen Confidential prior to either of my serving jobs, it undoubtedly would have made me better at what I did, or at least I would have gone about it with less self-consciousness and anxiety (though one could argue these are inescapable in the situations one is generally faced with on a nearly constant basis).

The book starts off with Bourdain traveling to the south of France with his family in the 1966 and falling in love with food after having his first oyster. Ironically, this author shared a similar experience:

"August of that summer was spent in La Teste de Buch, a tiny oyster village on the Bassin d'Arachon in the Gironde (southwest France).  We stayed with my aunt, Tante Jeanne, and my uncle, Oncle Gustav, in the same red tile-roofed, white stucco house where my father had summered as a boy.  Tante Jeanne was a frumpy, bespectacled, slightly smelly old woman; Oncle Gustav, a geezer in coveralls and beret who smoked hand-rolled cigarettes until they disappeared onto the tip of his tongue.  Little had changed about La Teste in the years since my father had vacationed there.  The neighbors were still all oyster fisherman.  Their families still raised rabbits and grew tomatoes in their backyards.  Houses had two kitchens, an inside one and an outdoor 'fish kitchen.'  There was a hand pump for drinking water from a well, and an outhouse by the rear of the garden.  Lizards and snails were everywhere.  The main tourist attractions were the nearby Dune of Pyla (Europe's Largest Sand Dune!) and the nearby resort town of Arcachon, where the French flocked in unison for Les Grandes Vacances.  Television was a Big Event.  At seven o'clock, when the two national stations would come on the air, Oncle Gustav would solemnly emerge from his room with a key chained to his hip and ceremoniously unlock the cabinet doors that covered the screen." (14)  

At least the Dune de Pyla part (I've never really been able to enjoy an oyster like that).  I'm sure he wouldn't have known the town of Sainte Foye la Grande and I'm sorry I'll never be able to ask. Not that I ever would have had the opportunity. But Bourdain was cool. Actually he was a guest on the Turned Out a Punk podcast, which is one other example of his greatness. Hearing him talk about how he thought "Bodies" was a great song, or how Raw Power was an amazing album, filled me with warmth and happiness. 

***

Okay to be honest, my food service career spanned just two restaurants, and the first one could hardly be called that (Sticky Fingers, while an above-average barbecue joint, hardly qualified as good food). It was at the second that I heard about Bourdain for the first time. My colleague Mike mentioned something about him and how he was hardcore and used to do heroin. It was probably right around the time he started Parts Unknown. Much of the bad behavior detailed in this book (as emblematic of all restaurants) took place at Sticky Fingers. The second place was a bit classier and I have consequently fonder memories for it (except for the few druggies, thieves, homophobes, and power-trippers* I came across over the course of serving for a year straight).

Can we talk about homophobia? Bourdain realized that he wanted to be a chef, and began his career at a restaurant in Provincetown, MA. Later he was the chef at a Manhattan theater district pickup joint owned by a same-sex couple. There are plenty of jokes about taking it in the butt, but they are all meant to be brushed off. Even in 2000, barely a year removed from the atmosphere that gave rise to mass sexual assault at a music festival meant to symbolize peace and love, he demonstrates a compassionate attitude:

"But let's say you do suck dick, you do 'take it in the twins'; it's no impediment to survival.  No one really cares about that.  We're too busy, and too close, and we spend too much time together as an extended, dysfunctional family to care about sex, gender preference, race or national origin.  After level of skills, it's how sensitive you are to criticism and perceived insult--and how well you can give it right back--that determines your place in the food chain.  You can cover your ears all you want, pretend they're not calling you chino or morena or indio or gordo or cachundo...but they are.  Like it or not, that's your name, your street tag, whether you chose it or not.  I've been called flaco and cadavro, probably borracho.  That's just the way it is.  I call down to my prep kitchen on the intercom--calling for butter or more sauce--and that little gangster who keeps my stock rotated and makes that lovely chiffonaded parsley for me is going to reply (after I'm out of hearing), 'Fuuck YOUU!!' before giving me exactly what I asked for.  Better I say it first: 'Gimme my fucking mantequilla and sauce, motherfucker.  Ahorita...and...fuuuck YOU!'  And I love that little thug, too--the headband-sporting, baggy-pansted, top button buttoned, bottom button open, moon boot-shod, half Puerto Rican, half cholo vato loco, with his crude prison-style tats and his butterfly knife tucked in his wristband.  I have, on many occasions, pondered adopting him.  He's everything I'd want in a son." (221-222)

But you do not come to this book for the views on humanity. You come for the food. And while you may not find recipes, you will likely learn a lot of basic things about cooking and preparing food. The chapter on tools of the trade, and the items that any amateur chef should stock in their kitchen ("How to Cook Like the Pros"), will be worthwhile for anyone that has a desire to cook. It may also make you want to try to make certain dishes (such as when he asks Scott Bryan about his go-to late night drunk meal - beef bourguinon).

The writing itself is uneven. He would wake up at 5 am and smoke cigarettes and write for an hour or two before starting his legendarily long days in the kitchen. Sometimes the chapters feel sort of randomized, like an album with a bunch of songs that don't necessarily complement one another. There are callbacks, for sure, but there are also outliers like the long-winded story that is the chapter "What I Know about Meat." In any case, it's a no-brainer to add this to the Best Books list. Just thinking about him overusing the term "rube" or talking about "eating crow" makes me want to smile. 

Unfortunately, we have to be a big downer and talk about suicide because wow, does the dark humor in this book take a turn. Addicts, artists, writers, chefs, punks--each is predisposed towards depression/suicidal tendencies and Bourdain was one and all of them. And there are chilling moments that can cut one dead:

"I was utterly depressed.  I lay in bed all day, immobilized by guilt, fear, shame and regret, my ashtrays overflowing with butts, unpaid bills stacked everywhere, dirty clothes heaped in the corners.  At night, I lay awake with heart palpitations, terrors, bouts of self-loathing so powerful that only the thought of diving through my sixth-floor window onto Riverside Drive gave me any comfort and allowed me to lull myself into a resigned sleep." (154-155)

Am I the only one that has often felt the same way? There is peace in contemplating one's own tragic demise, to shame all that made a good thing bad. One cannot know for sure the impetus behind such gestures and we will not engage in hypotheses in this review. Suffice to say, he had that personality type. And there is nothing wrong with it. 

I could write a lot more about this book.  There's something noteworthy to excerpt or discuss every few pages.  Most of the comments to be made could center around banalities such as "I knew a guy just like that!" or "Isn't that story insane?" So we should resist the urge to give our own little personal take on Bourdain any longer, here at least, and end with a few his words about regret:

"I often use the hypothetical out-of control ice-cream truck.  What would happen if you were walking across the street and were suddenly hit by a careening Mister Softee truck?  As you lie there, in your last few moments of consciousness, what kind of final regrets flush through your mind?  'I should have had a last cigarette!' might be one.  Or, 'I should have dropped acid with everybody else back in '74!'  Maybe: 'I should have done the hostess after all!'  Something along the lines of: 'I should have had more fun in my life!  I should have relaxed a little more, enjoyed myself a little more...'
That was never my problem.  When they're yanking a fender out of my chest cavity, I will decidedly not be regretting missed opportunities for a good time.  My regrets will be more along the lines of a sad list of people hurt, people let down, assets wasted and advantages squandered.
I'm still here.  And I'm surprised by that.  Every day." (267-268)

Sadly that last part is no longer true, and the world is a little less comforting because of it.  Yet none of us will last forever, and while we may lament not getting to see the work Bourdain might have done over the next ten or fifteen years, or ever getting to meet him, he bestowed gifts onto the world that can be binged, consumed and dissected for years to come.  One should be rightly astounded (perhaps intimidated) by his body of published work.  Few could hope to reach the artistic heights he did while essentially retaining a popular appeal.  The great gift of this book is that part of him can always be with us, and we can look to it for guidance when faced with a difficult choice: what would Anthony do?  He would likely tell you specifically not to listen to his advice.  He would also likely do something great.