Sunday, November 03, 2013

The 2013 Red Sox: Champions of Baseball and Beards

If you're reading this (and God knows few of you have endured) you know that I've said about as much as a fan can say about one team. I wrote a book about the 2004 Red Sox. A very, very poorly selling book. The worst selling book.

But the 2013 Red Sox really are fascinating. They were great, to be sure. But they were great in a  compelling, unexpected, way.

 They kind of had to earn our affection. The beards helped, but an overwhelmingly bearded team that ends up third in the AL East is just a bunch of hairy, ugly bastards.

But they started to win. And you know, the idea of chicken and beer in the clubhouse -- the horror! -- seems a lot less horrible when you're winning.

"Boston Strong" is a narrative hook that means something from the inside and probably grates from the outside, but I don't want to buy into some  simplistic causal relationship between the Red Sox title and the Marathon bombing. No team deserves a championship because of proximity to tragedy. A team deserves a title if it wins.The marathon tragedy, after all, did not help the Bruins win the Stanley Cup nor did it turn the Celtics into a playoff force.

Parades through Boston have become commonplace in a decade-and-change that has turned our fans ever more insufferable even if it has been glorious to be a part of. As a New England expatriate I get to avoid some of the worst of the obnoxiousness but also have missed out on the day-to-day enjoyment of being there, of enjoying the social elements of fandom, the rituals and totems and communal spirit.

There are children born in the 1990s who have no idea what a barren decade that was, and how for more than a generation only the Celtics carried the torch of Boston postseason success. But since then the Celtics won another title, the Bruins broke a  long Stanley Cup drought, the Patriots won three Super Bowls, and the Red Sox -- the RED SOX!!! -- have won three World Series titles.

It won't always be this good, kids. Enjoy it. But realize that this is not the way things have always been, and it is not the way things always will be.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

More (and Less) Hope in Zimbabwe

This past weekend South Africa's Sunday Independent published a lengthy (by op-ed standards) piece of mine on the Zim elections, which are taking place today. It continues one of my prevailing themes in the last few weeks, and indeed represents an attempt to synthesize my last month's writing on Zim. They titled the piece "Only thing left for Zim voters is hope," which, sadly, seems about right, though I am crossing my fingers that I'll be proven wrong as the votes are counted in the next few days.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

When Williams and UT Met

In February 1964 CBS news made its was to the bucolic, isolated campus of Williams College, my undergraduate alma mater. the purpose of their visit was to tape a discussion between Williams' legendary President John Sawyer and the equally outsized chancellor of the University of Texas System, Harry Ransom. Their discussion was far-ranging. What is especially fascinating, though, is just how salient to today's debates over higher education their conversation is. You can read about the discussion, see clips, and read current Williams professors' responses here

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Hope in Zimbabwe

The UK-based Fair Observer just published my "Hope in Zimbabwe." It is basically a republication of something I wrote for the Foreign Policy Association while I was in Southern Africa.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

London-South Africa-Zimbabwe

Today I head off for a trip that will take me to London, where I will be participating in a conference, Boycotts Past and Present, at Royal Birkbeck, University of London as well as conducting research at the Institute for Commonwealth Studies. After a week I will head to South Africa, where I expect Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Bloemfontein to be on the itinerary.

I also am going to go to Zimbabwe, assuming getting in is no problem, for a few days, but absolutely, positively not to practice journalism. Doing so would, under the current dispensation, be illegal in Zimbabwe. I absolutely do not plan to get a feel for the country in the run-up to the elections, to get a sense of whether the population has been cowed by the threat of violence, whether there is any glimmer of hope for the immediate future. I am not going to be observing and watching and gleaning what I can from conversations about the state of Zim today, and I certainly do not plan to write about it while I am in southern Africa, say, when I return to South Africa, or after, when I return to the United States. I'm going in as just a tourist to see friends and to enjoy Harare.

China Radio International

In the last month I was on China Radio International's "Today" show twice. Once to discuss Obama's so-called "scandals" and the other time to discuss the status of the War on Terror.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Mediocrity is as Mediocrity Does

So it turns out that the poster child for the latest challenge to affirmative action, Abigail Fischer, was actually a significantly sub-par applicant to the University of Texas, falling well short of both the top 10% of her high school class that would have guaranteed her admissions and with an SAT score well below the UT average. This mediocrity combined with entitlement makes her typical of so many (though not all) opponents of affirmative action. She would not have gotten into UT anyway, but wants to claim that she is a victim of racial preferences rather than her own undistinguished high school record.

Keep in mind that in college admissions there are admissions rates, but there are also yield rates. And so when someone does not get into an incoming class, they did not just fall short of those who entered the class, but of a whole lot of people who chose to go elsewhere. If a school has a yield rate of 50% it means that the freshman class that enters is only half the number of people accepted.  Abigail Fischer's racialized resentment does not necessarily make her a racist, but it does show someone perfectly willing to play the role of aggrieved white person victimized not by her own limitations but by the supposed privilege that African Americans have in a state with a long history of slavery, segregation, and institutionalized racism, including generations of segregation and a long struggle to combat it at the University of Texas.

The Coaching Treadmill

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a remarkable story about one man's heartbreaking pursuit of stability in the world of college basketball coaching. I've been on several search committees for head coaches here at UTPB and I have been able to see just how many outstanding candidates are out there even for Division II coaching positions. (Of course an American history or American/English literature position will receive even more applications from every bit as qualified people). Good luck, Coach McRoy.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Grups, Yupsters, and Alterna-Yuppies

Somehow I had missed seeing this 2006 New York magazine article on the way that a certain sub-section of Generation X (which is to say my generation) has managed to avoid the generation gap with their younger cohorts and both the up and down sides that this leveling implies. Because I resemble a lot of myself in the class that is being depicted I am inclined to be charitable toward this epi-phenomenon (I still listen to [good] new music! I dress casually! I know contemporary cultural references!] but there is a lot of room for Portlandia-level self-parody in this particular version of the Peter Pan complex.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Talking US Politics in China

Today (in China, last night in Texas) I was again on China Radio International's "Today Show." Last night's theme was US politics, with particular focus on the State of the Union, the sequester, and the like. I was in especially cranky form.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

On UTPB 's Athletics Program

UTPB's Athletic Director, Steve Aicinena, has a nice piece on the role of sports, especially at my university, in the latest issue of Academe. It is well worth your time.

I've gotten to know Steve quite well through my own affiliations with the athletic department. I am chair of the University Athletics Committee, have been the voice of UTPB Falcon men's and women's basketball on the radio since I arrived, have served on several search committees for coaches, served as an assistant coach for a year when our past cross country coach tried to get a club track program started, and I am the faculty advisor and coach for our club soccer team. I have thus been present for the massive growth and growing success -- both competitively but also as a spark for the university -- of our athletic program. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Why I'm Done With Movie Theaters

I just got back from seeing Lincoln at a movie theater in Odessa. It was remarkable, will likely sweep the Oscars (especially if the nominations are any indication) and you should see it. I have things to say about the movie as both history and as film, but that's not what I'm here to discuss.

Instead I'm here to announce that with the exception of movies geared toward my seven-year-old nephew, I am done with movie theaters. I thought I was done a few years ago after a series of events during the first Sherlock Holmes movie a few years ago, but I came back (albeit rarely). But I have now decided to forego the theater experience entirely in favor of our wonderful drive-in theater in Midland that puts on double features of three pairs of first-run features for less than the cost of one theater ticket and waiting to watch dvd's or On Demand in the comfort of my living room.

The long-stated advantages of the theater experience have been extolled by critics and other aficionados for generations. Movies are best enjoyed as a communal experience, they say. Or, the theater, with its surround sound and seating and popcorn and the big screen elevates the experience.

Let me dispense with the second half of that defense first: Sure, the theater is great in its idealized form. But the problem is that I can come pretty close to that experience in my car at the drive in, and in many ways I can surpass it at home. My sound at home may not compete, but my couch is a lot more comfortable, and I can make popcorn and can snack throughout for a lot less money (a small popcorn today would have cost me $5.50), and while it may make me a philistine, I am happy with my big-screen High def television. During the day I cannot envelope myself in darkness, to be sure, but on the other hand, at my house I can munch on braised short ribs, drink beer or wine, and, if I need to, I can stop the movie to go pee.

But none of these would be enough to make me sacrifice those things about the theater that I admit I do appreciate, especially on opening night for a huge new movie, or something I have been waiting to see irrespective of its bigness.

It's the first half of the equation, the "movies as communal experience" myth that has, at least for me, long been debunked. I don't want to seem like an old man, I really don't. But I suppose the largely rhetorical question that follows will give the game away: When the fuck did it become ok to chatter throughout movies? And when did it become ok to ignore repeated requests to turn off one's phone, to neither text nor talk (nor allow one's ringer or message chime) during a movie?

Today should have represented the perfect movie experience. A Saturday matinee of a serious film several weeks after its premier should not have been the venue for widespread idiocy among the patrons. And at first it was promising -- there were possible a dozen people, perhaps a few more or less, in the theater. And yet the promise failed. At least five different people used cell phones during the movie. Three of them for texting purposes, one incessantly -- do people not realize just how distracting the lights on a cell phone are anywhere within range of one's vision, peripheral included? One woman several seats down to my left spent a good 20 minutes on her phone during the middle of a movie that really required one's full attention. Two other people let their cell go off multiple times.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but what the fuck were these people thinking? As soon as previews come on (and preferably well before that) at minimum, anyone in a movie theater or who might be in a movie theater should turn the volume (and vibration mode, which makes its own distracting noise) to zero. But really, if you have something urgent going on outside, why are you at the movies? Turn your damned phone off. I am as bad as anyone about checking my phone. I know I have let my phone become the appendage that has me glancing for texts during conversations, surreptitiously (or so we all think) checking emails, mindlessly doing Words With Friends at random moments. But that's exactly why I turn my phone off at times when it is not appropriate to do any of those things.

And while it would be convenient to say that it's all the fault of those pesky teens with their iPhones and smartphones and emoticons, the reality is that every single one of the violators in the movie today were my age or older -- in two cases substantially older. I never ant to go to a movie again with a heavy teen demographic, but my experience today reminds me that when it comes to how too many of us act at the movies, we are all one giant teen demographic.

And then there is the talking. When people speak quietly they tend to speak at a lower range, at a murmur. But what most people do not recognize is that that can be exactly the sort of sound frequency that is most pervasive. Stage whispering, sotto voce, whatever it is, other people will hear it. And it will distract them. And if everyone in a theater does it once, that makes for many distractions. And it makes the movie watching experience worse.

Now, I'd love to end this with the power of my outrage giving me moral superiority. I'd love to claim the high road and maintain that I rode it to martyrdom only to let loose with my silent, clench-jawed suffering to any of you who might be reading this.

I'd love to. But it's not true.

I have an issue with keeping my feelings to myself (source of greatest strength is my source of greatest weakness and all that) or keeping things bottled up. With me you know where you stand. But the irony is that if you make a scene during the movie you end up not only committing but surpassing the very sin you are combating. So I let it build. And fester. And simmer to a low boil. And then heat up to a full on bubbles raging with fury boil.

And when the movie was done I let loose. To everyone there (I'm effectively quoting but obviously cannot perfectly replicate it here, so no quotation marks.):

There are two rules. Any adult knows these rules. No talking. No cellphones. And a lot of you people violated those basic fucking rules. (Yes, with f-bomb.)

That did not go over well with at least a couple of the guardians of morality in the theater. The first guy confronted me on the way out and we had a heated but by and largely civil walk and talk. I probably should not have used the f-word, and acknowledged as much, but also pointed out that any adult who feigns to be offended by that word (used at least once in the film, btw) or worse yet feigns offense for others probably should not go out in public too much. Not much came of it, but it certainly set me on edge.

The second guy was a bit more aggressive in the lobby. Well, sort of aggressive. Mostly passive aggressive. He starts the conversation, after telling me that I "need to calm down."

That's the kind of thing that can get your ass kicked. 

Well, if someone is inclined to kick my ass I'm standing here. 

We're not all pussies here in West Texas.

Hey, Emily Post, I'm not the one talking about kicking someone's ass who is standing right there in front of them. 


The friend I went to the movie with knew the other guy (and probably was not thrilled with my comportment, fair enough -- I'm wishing I'd acted differently too) and did enough to diffuse the situation.

Now, a general rule of thumb is that if you piss one person off to the point of confrontation, well, so be it. Twice? Well, it's probably on you. So: it's on me. 

Still, I'm done with going to the movies.

Nonetheless, on behalf of what I hope is still the silent majority of movie-goers`: Please. Pretty please. With a cherry on top: Shut the fuck up, and turn off your goddamned phone.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

On Zimbabwe's Pending Election

Over at the Foreign Policy Association I have a post on the election in Zimbabwe that is likely to happen later this year. The short version: Not optimistic.