Sunday, June 27, 2010

Breaking News: Vegas Eats Man's Soul

"Warm bodies, I sense, are not machines that can only make money."
- Ed Kowalczyk

In one of the legendary wild west towns - Deadwood or Dodge City or Tombstone - they had a sign at the city limits that said something like "Now entering (legendary wild west town.) Leave your guns with the Sheriff." Having just returned from Las Vegas, I am thinking there should be a sign there offering a place to deposit your soul during your visit.

Las Vegas can be blamed on Herbert Hoover. It was the building of the dam nearby that created a huge mass of restless, horny men with cash, and wherever such a huge mass is found prostitution and gambling and other vices will grow. Unlike other western towns where cattle, ore and other fast-money propositions led to rampant growth and manly indulgence (like Deadwood, Dodge and Tombstone, and even my hometown of Joplin, Missouri, which was a lead and zinc mining mecca and noted for it's wide-open nature in those days) Las Vegas did not falter when the initial attraction faded. Instead, opportunists like Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky came west and began to manufacture a black hole of hedonism that thrives to this day.

WARNING: Sarcastic and elitist screed ahead.

What is there not to like about Vegas anyway? It celebrates so many of the family values and institutions we Americans hold dear, such as the hope of getting something for nothing, superficiality with pretentiousness, and all-you-can-eat buffets, all swept along on a endless river of beer. What's not to like about having a wide array of choices in the realm of "entertainment that will not make you think"? And consider how many Americans have been afforded the chance to experience the charms of Europe while avoiding bothersome Europeans by spending their time in faux-Paris and faux-Venice on The Strip while enjoying a refreshing 40-ounce Mai Tai in an attractive souvenir cup?


I know that Vegas and I don't get along because of my frequent difficulty with the simple concept of "having fun" in a common way. Spending the day on a lake riding around in a boat, or at the ballpark, or lying on the beach are all pastimes that only seem to push my pleasure button when I am in the right company. And I admit to a relentless need to learn something when I travel, to come home with some new knowledge, at least, if not understanding. But Las Vegas to me is a soul-free zone where the only learning is a lesson in human nature. A town full of damaged people who debase themselves for money and silence their demons with booze and drugs. A town that is 90% id and 10% ego and leave your superego with the Sheriff.

At the end of a three-day parade of the seven deadly sins, our visit to Vegas was capped with a cinematic moment. Riding in an airport shuttle with heartfelt Christian anthems blaring, the driver pulled up behind a paramedic van parked in front of one of the casino-hotels. As the bags and bodies boarded, a gurney was rolled into our view, and on it was a lifeworn woman who had been given a thorough beating. Eye swollen shut, bleeding from cuts, missing teeth. It was 6 a.m. and likely the victim of a classic Vegas night of drinking and gambling and whoring that didn't turn out to be "fun." She produced a weary smile for the paramedics as the radio played a sincere lyric "Jesus, I give my heart to you."

I'm taking it as a message.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

An absolutely necessary post about the World Cup

(Chances are you don't give two shits about the World Cup. But if I let the occasion pass without weighing in I couldn't live with myself, so here goes.)

It doesn't take much to be a guru these days. Not in the literal sense of "religious leader and spiritual teacher," but in the modified modern sense of "a
n advisor or mentor; a leader or expert in a field." You can quite quickly become a guru just by being the first person to buy the latest gadget and investing the time to figure out a third of the crazy shit it will do, and voila! You will be your local iPhone guru or PS3 guru or Zune guru. Ok, never mind the Zune, nobody cares.

So in that vein, I have become, to certain people, a soccer guru - wise enough to know that the rest of the world says "football" and means what we call "soccer," but only a pretentious douche will call it "football" if he/she is American - which means I know just a little bit more about the game than the average soccer-hating American. My guru-ness in this regard was well earned. Hundreds of hours out on the field, hundreds more watching the English Premiere League and Serie A and Bundesliga, and by now you can tell by my dropping of obscure names I must know what I'm talking about. At least, I know more than you, so tug your forelock and bow down to my largely worthless knowledge.

Once every four years, for a month, I get to display my exceptional wisdom and explain things like the offside rule and Dutch "total futbol" and compare one Ronaldo to another and tell stories that make me seem even more guru-y than ever. Unfortunately, the average person's eyes glaze over after about one minute of my bloviating and they regret they ever brought it up in the first place. And of course, it's once every four years because that is the frequency of the (reverence, please ) World Cup finals.

Now we are engaged in a great soccer war, testing whether this nation, or any nation, can long endure through to the championship game. And in just a few hours, the US National Team - an ever-changing assortment of 23 players who have collectively killed my soul at least 37 times in the last 20 years - will take the field. Glory and abject failure seem equally possible, as they always do, and here's where the game holds the mirror up to nature.

Sport as a analogy to life? (What a concept! I think I may have discovered a new thought?) But yes, it plays out (pun intended) most beautifully in "the beautiful game." Already we have seen inspired performances by lowly, hopeless but strong-hearted teams that have bested better rivals - already we have seen the mighty brought low when capability is not matched by passion - and already we have seen the French throw their arms in the air shouting "Mon Dieu!" and fall to blaming and infighting. (All that remains is for them to collaborate with the Germans now.)

National teams in the World Cup carry their national pride and hopes and, on the pitch (or "playing field," for the non-pretentious non-douches) display the style of their nation in the way they play the game. For the relatively small but growing number of American soccer nuts, each World Cup match is a test of our national will. It remains the only sport in which we aspire to greatness but have never achieved it. Perhaps it is essentially the modern American experience to always have high hopes but low expectations? For the relatively large but also growing number of soccer nuts in all the other nations, their teams are cast as valiant Davids slinging stones at Goliath - or rightful Goliaths who should slay the unworthy foe and tilt their chins up with pride. Everything is on the line. Make the magic happen now, or slink away and wait four years for another chance.

In sanskrit "gu" means darkness and "ru" means light, says Wikipedia. Over the next two weeks, the World Cup will reveal both the darkness and light in the human spirit, displayed on the mock battleground that is the soccer field. Spirits will be taken to new heights, and hearts will be broken - lifetimes will be lived in the three minutes of added time. In the end, some team gets a trophy and 31 others don't, but it's the getting there that makes the trip worthwhile.

And there will be lots of cool commercials.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Always the worst reason for a decision: "That's the way we've always done it."

It's 4:30 in the morning and outside the air smells like summer for the first time, and I am wondering about things. Things like why every apple has to have a sticker on it that delays my first bite, and why some people are trying to provoke a(nother) war in the Middle East, and why the auto-correction logarithm in my iPhone thinks it's more likely that I'm trying to write the word "lice" than "love." And I'm thinking about the unperfect game.

Every blogger and pundit worth his or her salt has long ago weighed in on this topic, I know. My turn now.

Quick primer for those who don't follow baseball: a perfect game is when a pitcher gets the other team out for all nine innings and no batter reaches base. No hits, no walks, no batters hit by a pitch, no errors that allow a base runner, nothing. Nine innings of three-up-and-three-down. 27 batters come to the plate, 27 batters walk back to the dugout. It's only happened in the big leagues 18 times since 1900, and when you consider the thousands of games that have been played in 110 years, you get some perspective.

Earlier this week, as described in Wikipedia...

On June 2, 2010, Armando Galarraga of the Tigers was charged with a single when Jason Donald of the Cleveland Indians was incorrectly ruled safe on an infield grounder by first-base umpire Jim Joyce. After the game, Joyce acknowledged that he had made a mistake: "I just cost that kid a perfect game. I thought he beat the throw. I was convinced he beat the throw, until I saw the replay." The New York Times game report by Tyler Kepner called it "easily the most egregious blown call in baseball over the last 25 years."

The unique circumstances here have fostered a lot of talk about the absolute truths and purity of the rules of baseball, the class shown by Galarraga in not throwing the kind of baby fit we've come to expect from professional athletes, the need for instant replay in baseball, and other topics. Some, myself included, think the waste-of-life baseball commission Bud Selig, who has proven to be the most consistently wrong-headed dipshit in the history of the national pastime, has remained silent. He has the authority to right the wrong, but evidently lacks the huevos to do it.

Why make an exception here and review and overrule? Why violate the sanctity of the game for this one situation? For me, the answer is simply because it's the right thing to do.

Most of the mistakes we make in life can't be undone. In day-to-day life, you can't un-say something hurtful - you can't accidentally un-crash into someone's car. On the larger stage, you can't un-bomb the wrong Afghani village or un-shoot a guy you meant to Taser in a BART station. The mistake is made, and you're left with apologizing, paying reparations, going to jail - but the mistake remains uncorrected. In this case, a few words, a stroke of the pen, and justice would be done. Baseball would not be harmed by making it right. When there are so few things in the world over which we have this retroactive control, why pass over this chance to do the right thing? To perpetuate an injustice "because that's the way we've always done it" just doesn't wash for me.