Monday, October 29, 2007

Front-running with the Sox and Pats

I got a short email today from a good friend and replied with an avalanche. Let's share:
Congratulations again.

Boston wins another world series and the Pats hang 52 on the Redskins (without running up the score).

I can't help but ponder the existential effect this all has on The Brown Psyche -- to go from backing perennial down and out underdogs to supporting 800-pound gorillas can't be easy ...
My reply:

Odd. I was thinking about that very thing this morning on my walk to work. I was also thinking about what you'd be thinking about it, given our conversations around 2001 and then again in 2004.

When people brought up this (former) harmony between me and my teams, I used to say something like, "I don't know whether I'm a Red Sox fan because of the way I am, or I am the way I am because I'm a fan of the Red Sox." Well, things are changing. I'm not as much that way anymore, for one thing. And obviously, neither are the Sox or the Pats.

I can't really say what effect it's had on me personally, yet, but I can tell you that I care a lot less about MLB now than I used to. It's lost a lot of the romance I used to attach to it and I come face to face with an important truth: unless the game in question has some inherent drama to it, I don't much care to watch. Baseball on TV (especially regular season) is boring. That's all there is too it--turns out I'm just not a fan the way I am with football.

With the Pats, it's different. Now we're winning, but not like the last 6 years or so. This is out of the realm of experience for me and, I think, everyone who's a fan of the NFL. Depending very heavily on this tilt with the Colts, we could be seeing something that is historic. If this kind of thing continues throughout the season and the playoffs, we might find ourselves referring to this team, without hyperbole, as the greatest football team ever assembled since the invention of the forward pass. In some ways, this has gone beyond "fandom," team allegiances or anything like that. It doesn't matter if I root for them or against them. It doesn't matter if I'm worried about the game or not. It doesn't seem to matter whether they're playing at home or on the road, if there are fans or no fans, if it's grass or fieldturf, rain or shine, hot or cold.

Of course, that bit about my support has always been the case. But this team is a machine like no other I've ever seen on TV or on tape. It's impressive and a little scary. If they lose (not counting the last few games of the year -- the 'perfect season' is meaningless in the context of the modern NFL), I won't be disappointed just because we lost (unless it's the playoffs). I'll be disappointed because what I think I might be witnessing will have proven not to be.

But if this keeps up, it will be impossible to argue that this is anything less than the greatest football team ever assembled and still be thought in touch with reality. That would be something to see.

With both, there is another problem: you get saddled with a lot of people who need to identify themselves by the team they're rooting for--it really means something to them, says something about who they are. Or they desperately want it to. This is hugely annoying to me. I love the Pats, and love rooting for them. I used to hate rooting for them (but I still rooted for them). It still makes me down when they lose (more than winning brings me up). But I don't self-identify in the aggressive, in-your-face way that some people seem to do. When all you can think to do is chant "Yankees Suck" something's the matter with your psychology. A winning team seems to hatch these folks like a basement of horseshit sprouts mushrooms.

There's something funny about it. When I was a kid (I was thinking about this this morning as well), we had a short string of station wagons that led ineluctably to the Dodge Caravan. I was on the brink of early adolescence when my Dad was driving the Ford Zephyr. The Zephyr was a light tan on the outside and a dark tan on the inside. It had vinyl seats and manual everything and an AM radio and I couldn't understand how my father stood to drive it. I certainly hid my face riding in it. It was only much later that I realized he had moved past thinking of a car as an expression and into a world where it was a straight-up tool for getting his family from place to place. It didn't bother him to drive it because he didn't care what people thought about his car.

Now, rooting for a team is an extravagance for the ego in the first place. But it doesn't represent some reality where you are the team and the team is you. Or it shouldn't. But successful sports teams seem to draw people out of the woodwork who need that to be true. That used to be me, all the time. I used to be that guy. Oddly, the more successful my teams have become, the less "that guy" I am. I don't know if that's because I've gotten older as they've gotten better, or if it's because I only identify with near-misses and not actual successes. But the more a given team seems to win, the more people like that seem to appear around them, wearing their gear and getting in people's personal space. It's like they're waiting for some semblance of dominance before they'll come out of the closet, as if they identify so completely that any whiff of weakness in the team would expose them as a weakling. And they are supremely obnoxious and annoying.

With the the Sox and the Pats winning regularly, it's become obvious that my failures and mishaps aren't part of a cosmic scheme anymore. Clearly they're just mine. Which is actually kind of nice.

And rooting for lovable losers is overrated. Winning is way more fun.

Friday, October 26, 2007

"For the grapes’ sake, if they were all, Whose leaves already are burnt with frost, Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—"

Today was the apotheosis of autumn. It reached in me all of the things I love about this season: its crystalline beauty, its bold fragility, the sense of ending, receding, of time and light dwindling. The seduction of something fleeting, the exhilaration of perfection that cannot last.

I visited the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust at their offices, in a post-and-beam building on a dirt road in the middle of what was once a farm. It was a perfectly mellow autumn day. Brilliant, slanted light of the late year, air that would be cold if not for the sun. Apples from the tree behind the Trust building had fallen. The straw had been cut from the field. A steady breeze shivered the birch leaves and, from time to time, would sweep the field. When it did, I could smell dirt, the thick scents of decaying dead grass and leaves, the tart-sweet tang of rotting apples. Through now-naked branches, the sun sparkled off the brook.

A red-shouldered hawk was circling above the trees across the field. It seemed to be riding the updrafts, but not to a great height. Once or twice the hawk flexed its wings—just to maintain. I thought it would hunt. Finally, seeming to have lost interest in the land in front of me, or perhaps sensing greater luck in a different place, it took off on the wind. Barely a stirring of wing, but rather a silent, still coast; yet incredibly quickly he was gone, over the forest.

There is something about the light in fall, the way it strikes us obliquely, as if through clear water. The further north you go, the more marked is this phenomenon. Last year at this time I spent a couple of weeks working on an island in Penobscot Bay. So sharp those pines stood against the sky! The air was optically perfect—seeming to make my eyes sharper. I could see every needle, every cone, every brush of witches broom stood out like a spot on the sun.

That place and this time are achingly seductive. They beg to be lived in—that singular smell of dead and dying leaves bears no comparison, has no analogue. The smell of the earth is so sharp yet always seems just beyond sensing; shyly, adamantly present. The colors are truer, richer somehow than spring or summer ever could be.

Yet there is such weight in this time, like the unseen side of the basement door when you’re five years old. There is the certainty of winter. The shortness of the day, each day darker, sooner, and noticeably so. The earth seems to linger at a doorway, on a step by the churchyard. Time is whittled away, we are stripped down to what we are, beyond pretense. We find ourselves no longer drawn backward into the future, like Fitzgerald said, but suddenly facing it squarely, seeing it clearly. We look into time coming toward us as it blows the leaves from the trees, takes the hawk from the sky, and irresistibly reveals the pewter light of winter. Winter will cast its watery light on the bones of summer – the only truth is the bones – dark boles of maples, cold granite and schist, the faded straw of the stubble field.

For a brief few weeks, we have truth. Then, if we’re lucky, snow will fall.

FoxNews? We don't need no stinkin' FoxNews...

In 1787, Empress Catherine II of Russia visited the Crimea which was in the care of her ambitious minister Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin. As Catherine floated down the Dnieper River on her royal barge, she was favorably impressed with its bustling waterfront and prosperous-seeming settlements. Tradition holds that Potemkin had fabricated mere facades of buildings and had fires built at night to hold the illusion of prosperity: the banks of the Dnieper were, in reality, deserted. In his ambition, he deceived Catherine into thinking him a crackerjack administrator.

Fast-forward 220 years: In what promises to be a bold new strategy for this administration, FEMA will no longer rely solely on FOX to lob softball questions and provide Bush-friendly, right-ward spin to the news. Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the Potemkin Press:
[A]s the California wildfires raged Tuesday, Vice Adm. Harvey E. Johnson, the deputy administrator [of FEMA], had a 1 p.m. news briefing.

Johnson stood behind a lectern and began with an overview before saying he would take a few questions. The first questions were about the "commodities" being shipped to Southern California and how officials are dealing with people who refuse to evacuate. He responded eloquently.


"And so I think what you're really seeing here is the benefit of experience, the benefit of good leadership and the benefit of good partnership," Johnson said, "none of which were present in Katrina." (Wasn't Michael Chertoff DHS chief then?) Very smooth, very professional. But something didn't seem right. The reporters were lobbing too many softballs. No one asked about trailers with formaldehyde for those made homeless by the fires. And the media seemed to be giving Johnson all day to wax on and on about FEMA's greatness.

Of course, that could be because the questions were asked by FEMA staffers playing reporters. We're told the questions were asked by Cindy Taylor, FEMA's deputy director of external affairs, and by "Mike" Widomski, the deputy director of public affairs. Director of External Affairs John "Pat" Philbin asked a question, and another came, we understand, from someone who sounds like press aide Ali Kirin.
This "press conference" was carried live by MSNBC and FOX, looking for all intents and purposes like the real thing. This is so much better than flogging a Press Secretary! It won't be long before they're using this technique at Pennsylvania avenue, methinks. Simply call a press conference on short notice, like 30 seconds. Close the doors, fill the seats with staff, and you could even have W up there, basically reading off a teleprompter. Why rely on outsourcing the production of propaganda when you can just do it yourself?

Of course, this gives a bad name to Potemkin, who actually did good work for the Empress in Crimea. It does make one thing pretty clear, however. FEMA isn't actually interested in doing a good job. No, that would require competence, some level of experience and money that could otherwise be spent on denying children healthcare or hiring mercenaries to kill civilians with impunity. No, clearly the lesson of Katrina is not that FEMA should be fixed, but that it should be sheltered in its criminal inefficiency from the prying eyes of what has been (let's face it) and almost completely complicit press.

FEMA must be set free to tell its own lies directly to the American public without the pesky filter of Sean Hannity or some other minion of Murdoch! Long live the revolution!