Saturday, May 28, 2011

Director's Cuts: The Last (Unpublished) Word on the Mets-iest Week Ever

What is this blog? Is it the place where I share my feelings about the state of Our Contemporary Pizza Situation with an audience of dozens? Yes, it is (and that topic should not be confused with The State of Our National Pizza Conversation). Where I type thousands of words attempting to connect two admittedly disparate jerkweeds, whose only real commonality is that I don't like them very much? That, too. But what is that? A blog, I guess -- a bloggy ol' blog, and one done by a writer who types quickly and realizes rather more slowly the distinctly bloggy folly of just banging away on random stuff. So it fits. But does it serve a purpose?

Not, like, ontologically or in some world-historical sense. Blogs don't work that way. But I've sort of wondered what exactly this blog is supposed to do for me. It's not a clean-and-easy-to-read real-time portfolio, or whatever I envisioned a year or so ago when I started it -- there is far too much Papa John Schnatter on here for that. And I haven't really followed through on the puppy vids thing as well as I should have -- that had real promise, and it pains me to know that those who read this blog have never seen Cleo with short hair. (She looks like a spazzy lamb!) But!

But, as a place where I put things that get bumped from publication at various venues and then don't really fit anywhere else, I suppose David Roth, The Writer could have some utility. I did this a couple weeks ago with a piece I wrote for New York Magazine about the death of Osama Bin Laden and a certain idea of Barack Obama, and it worked -- there wasn't anyplace else for it, and I liked the piece, and there it was. Internet in action! And I'm doing it again today, with another piece that got bumped from New York. This one's about a topic nearer-and-dearer, being as it's about the New York Mets and the ridiculous -- and ridiculously Mets-y -- week that they just had. I would've put it up on Can't Stop The Bleeding, but Gerard has covered the story really awesomely well all week, to the point where this would just be redundant. That's the problem, or a problem, with print-mag timetables. This sort of looking-back-at-the-week-that-was thing works okay when you only get a magazine once a week, in your mailbox. But in internet time, I might as well have written this whole thing on a cave wall. At any rate, same story as a few weeks ago holds here -- I'm happy to have gotten a shot at writing it, and I'm happy to be able to have a place for it to... be here, on this particular cave's wall, for study thousands of years hence? Yeah, that'll do for now. So, then, as part of this blog's new identity as a Prose Graveyard/Kill-Fee Redemption Center, I give you:

Our Uncle Fred

You've got your tragic-sense-of-life cypto-fatalists, and you've also got your grumpy masochists. But neither those groups nor the many others that combine those two ur-approaches to being a Mets fan, could actually have been all that surprised by what qualified as one of the strangest weeks in team history. At the conclusion of a week that began with Mets owner Fred Wilpon dumping on his team's best-paid players in The New Yorker and ended with hedge fund manager David Einhorn buying a minority share of the team , Mets fans find themselves back where they started, if perhaps a bit blearier and grumblier for the trip. The fatalists and masochists both have strong cases, of course. But in the end, last week's Mets-iest of weeks amounted to little more than a high-word-count analogue to the waves that periodically roll through the stands at CitiField – some unmotivated and not-unstupid noise and motion, some mild annoyance in response, and then, once the inevitable and inexplicable recedes, just another night at the ballpark.

Sure, it was startling when Wilpon admitted to Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci that his team was "bleeding cash" and cruising towards a $70 million loss on the season , or when he offered the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin an ultra-frank on-the-record assessment of stars Jose Reyes, David Wright and Carlos Beltran that displayed the sort of nuance and sophistication generally associated with WFAN callers who have to be asked by Mike Francesa to turn their radios down. But while Wilpon's underminer-y employee evaluations – call it his Fred from Rosyln moment – drew plenty of attention, they comprised just a few hundred words of a 10,000-plus word feature in which Toobin confirms just about everything Mets fans have ever suspected about their team's owner.

That Wilpon is a nice man who was probably too tuned-out to question the return-on-investment he received from former friend Bernie Madoff, or that he is the sort of billionaire who delights in telling you how many siblings he had to share his childhood bedroom with, is ultimately no more surprising than the fact that he regards his Flushing employees with the jaundiced peevishness of a hyperactive fantasy baseball GM. In the same way that Donald Trump's brief, bellowing presidential campaign re-revealed the short-fingered vulgarian so many keep forgetting that he is, Wilpon's WFAN-grade baseball-guy patter served as a reminder that not every great real estate fortune is the result of wide-ranging perspicacity. Some people are just luckier than others, and some people choose to be Mets fans.

And for us, the ones in the stands or listening to Keith Hernandez sigh his way through SNY broadcasts? Well, we're free to ponder whether the 43-year-old Einhorn – whose minority ownership deal likely includes right of first refusal should Wilpon ever sell the Mets – could be a finance-dude-turned-owner like Tampa's Stuart Sternberg or Boston's John Henry , a pair of comparatively hands-off types who built winning teams by hiring and trusting forward-thinking young executives. We're free to subject Wilpon to the same sort of scorn we always have, nail him for his muddled and meddlesome macro-managing or roast him for reliably displaying both thriftiness and spendthriftiness in all the wrong instances. And of course we're also free to get up and leave, or change the channel, or even see if our souls and stomachs could take being a Yankees fan. But if we haven't done that yet, it's tough to imagine one more goofy week – or one more thunderously meh, intermittently charming Mets team – changing our minds.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Order Up

Long before this humble website became the internet's formeost venue for long-form politically oriented pizza criticism, it was intended to be something of a professional (snirk) site for me. I'd link to things I wrote and talk about them and maybe if I ever got business cards printed up I would even put it on those business cards. "Here," I'd say, "go to my website and check out my work." And were someone to actually do that they would find My Work as opposed to My 1600-word Pseud-Opus on Donald Trump and Papa John Schnatter or a heartfelt essay on stuffed crust pizza and The Culture. Those things are "my work" as well, and I'm proud of them beyond reason, but they're also not necessarily the sort of thing that leads to more work. Unless and until The Journal of Rambling and Impressionistic Food Studies launches a For Kids version, they're just things on a writer's website. Which I'm cool with, honestly. But I feel the need to counterbalance them with things that are a bit more professional-ish than that. So, then: here is some of that.

I had a very busy week last week, which was satisfying and unsatisfying in the usual ways. I published a great many words, was paid a small amount for a few of them and no money at all for the rest, and spent the week oscillating between cruising my twitter and refreshing my email for the This Makes It All Worth It props and wondering why I am still writing so often for free. The answer, it turns out, was the same as it has been since I wrote this a longish time ago: I'm happiest writing the stuff I care about most, and I write that stuff best, and few of the places that run things that open-ended are willing to pay for it. (That I'm not getting paid by GQ is a different and more complicated story, but boils down to a similar thing) (And also the GQ situation relates to the other part of writing for free, which is that it allows me to get read by people who might want to pay me later on) Anyway, here's a selection of what I wrote last week. I'm not going to mention what paid and what didn't -- it was, as usual, all a lot of fun. And also I live very frugally so whatever on the money thing for the time being, I guess.

- Twitter Is The Instrument: Meet Baseball's First Tweeting, Crowdsourcing Organist, from Wired's Playbook blog. I really enjoyed this one: it's a great story, and while the piece itself isn't incandescently brilliant in its prose or content or whatever else, writing stories like this is always, always fun for me. And I like Wired, so this felt cooler for that reason.

- Yakkin' About Baseball Part IV, with David Raposa. Nothing much to add to these. They happen every two weeks and make me very happy.

- Profiles in Obscurity, for GQ's Balls Out blog. This is the NBA Playoffs blog I'm doing with Bethlehem Shoals and an increasingly astonishing list of guest-writers -- we've had Tom Scharpling and Carles from Hipster Runoff, and Lang Whitaker and a bunch of others are in the pipeline. The original role I was to have there, I think, was sort of as a chat-specific Joke Monkey, and while I've enjoyed doing that, the editor has also given me room to do some other fun stuff. Most recently, that meant the opportunity to spoof over-the-top glossy magazine profiles by writing two-graf leads for profiles of NBA end-of-benchers. I did one for Troy Murphy and one for Royal Ivey, and there are others coming this week and they were a total blast. They also proved strangely controversial -- after a great response on the day they went up (Royal Ivey even retweeted his, which is amazing), some troll-y blogger dude from Oklahoma City with 5,000-odd followers and a big red face that made him look like a smug char shiu pork roast encouraged his followers to bomb me on Twitter as an offensive anti-Oklahoma bigot because of a joke I made in the Ivey piece about Oklahoma City's restaurant scene. That is, for a joke in a joke piece that was clearly labeled as such. So for a day I had a bunch of Okies calling me a moron and a faggot and so forth on Twitter. Being from New Jersey, I know how it feels to have someone make fun of your home state with no actual knowledge of the place. (Alternately, people who have only seen the Turnpike shred New Jersey for its ugliness, which is kind of like making fun of someone's face based upon a glimpse of that person's colonoscopy) That said, whatever sympathy I felt for these dudes dissipated fairly quickly and I wound up just retweeting the most offensive slag tweets and thanking my lucky stars that there was no such thing as a Twitter when I was young. Because, man, neither 16-year-olds nor (apparently) your more thin-skinned Oklahoma adults are ready for that sort of connectivity.

- And one last one, from this week, is this piece for the very great baseball blog Pitchers and Poets, in which I ruminate on Rico Brogna's Mets tenure -- and, more to the point, on my parents' cluttered home and my own dusty memory attic -- as part of their terrific '90s First Baseman Week. (Paul Sorrento had already been taken, sadly)

And that's that for now. Look how professional of me! I'll see you sometime later this week with 1300 words on McDonald's' "Mr. Snuggles" Sweet Tea/Diabetes Cooler commercial, I'm sure.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Unpublished Thought, Bin Laden Edition

I realize that I'm in a different position from most people as regards writing things. Where many writers struggle to come up with perfect or even serviceable sentences, I routinely drop jewelz even on Twitter (feel 'em), and am often moved nearly to tears by the spare elegance with which I do things like order tacos. Where others agonize over whether or not to write about thunderously unimportant things that sort of irk them, I write about those things and then I write about those things again. Is it a blessing? Is it a curse? It's a blessing. But I am aware that it sets me apart from most people. So if you were going to write me an email or something about that, it's cool, I know. But thanks, I really appreciate your concern.

So you can imagine my surprise when writing-related things don't go my way. And I'm going to drop the grandiosity, here, and get briefly and hopefully not too unbearably into emo-serious mode. But I'm not actually even a little bit surprised when writing-related things don't go my way. I've had a good last half-year, in terms of getting work and developing some self-esteem ("Barf, dude" -- You) and, over the last couple months, actually making more money than I need to spend on things like water and shelter and tinned meat/fish, but I've had way more full years of freelance jitteriness and anxiety and disappointment and what was at best the most tenuous of solvency. Which is not that cool, but which is also the career I chose and furthermore was never going to leave me out on the street. It makes it that much sweeter that venues I respect are giving me space in which to BS about basketball with semi-idols of mine (or about football, or about baseball, with people I admire like crazy) and write at length about things I care about in ways I never would have dreamed were allowable, let alone available to me. I'm not getting paid for those things, but they've made other good, paying stuff possible and they have brightened my life and it's good. But for all the confidence I have in my ability to write sentences -- the first graf was a joke, but I can find myself Feeling Myself just as easily as anyone who does this -- I don't really have any idea how this business works, or how to work in it all that effectively. What I know about that is what I've managed to teach myself, and I can imagine many better teachers.

So when I meet composed and well-dressed adult-seeming people who blog professionally, or even when I so much as ponder what it would be like to make a good living writing for a living, my internal compass sort of spins. It's not just that it doesn't compute, although honestly it does not compute. It's that it's easier for me to remember not getting emails back on pitches or just generally getting the high-hat in a dozen different ways from editors than it is for me to indulge in even the humblest fantasy of mundane, baseline success and solvency from this stuff. I don't know how many more good things will need to happen before I stop thinking this way, but my guess would be a few dozen hundred.

And so there's a sort of bleak satisfaction -- worst suspicions confirmed and all that -- in getting a story spiked. But at the risk of patting myself on the ass for doing what I am supposed to do as a grown-up, I think I might be getting better at dealing with this. That's good, because there isn't really an alternative to that, but it's also good because I'm angry and sad less often and less intensely and less self-destructively; skipping directly to get-drunk mode has never worked for me, and I've tried it a lot. The story below, on Osama Bin Laden's killing and Barack Obama's presidency, was assigned to me by my editor at New York Magazine on Wednesday, written Wednesday night and Thursday morning and, on Friday, bumped from the upcoming issue. Which sucks, because this was something I'd been wanting to write about here or somewhere else -- I still may write more on it if I can get my brain together on it -- and which I was excited to get to write about for a magazine I respect so much. But which is also very much a thing that happens to stories, and which my editor apologized for and was very forthright and cool about, and which I'm going to get a kill-fee for. And I can run it here without anyone getting mad.

All of which is good, and all of which pales for me next to the fact that, while I was obviously disappointed, I actually feel kind of okay about it. I know it's a thing that happens, but I've always known that. I think the difference, and the part that makes me happiest, is that I've gotten better at realizing that it doesn't happen only to me, and that it's not the only thing that could happen to me. And anyway, I still think the story is pretty good, which helps with the dealing-with-it. And those are the feelings that I have today! I hope you have enjoyed them! Here's the story:

Big Things

Barack Obama is, when it comes down to it, a good and competent man with an impossible job, whose noble intentions have been hamstrung by a broken Congress. Or, if you prefer, Barack Obama is a fearless and cynical revolutionary intent on using the considerable powers of his office to do whatever he wants, regardless of popular support or, indeed, any basis in law. There's plenty of room between the narratives favored by the president's supporters and detractors – and everyone on both sides at least agrees that congress is currently a gilded playpen full of nightmare babies – and the truth of Obama's not-as-transformative-as-advertised presidency probably lies in that in-between space. But with the assassination – "the capture and death," in the President's opaque and queasily parse-able phrasing – of Osama Bin Laden, Obama managed to confirm and confound both narratives at once. That's a strange and impressive feat, and one that might also be the most representative moment of Obama's strange, fraught presidency.

To be clear, that ambivalence has nothing to do with the mission – essentially everyone agrees that the world is a manifestly better place without Osama Bin Laden in it. And the deeper ambiguities of the assassination have barely entered the mainstream discourse, which has thus far consisted of "U-S-A" chants, politicians on both sides using the success to justify previous policy positions , and a series of Drudge-ready headlines for miniature stories – "Palin Says Pics Or GTFO ," "Bush Wants More Credit ," "Majority in U.S. Say Bin Laden In Hell. " Well, that and a persnickety squeakiness from the right that Salon's Alex Pareene summarized as: "Actions are not enough! We need words ." The broader significance of killing Bin Laden isn't simple, but the thing itself can be understood as simply as you please.

One of the prime differences between Obama and his predecessor in the White House, though, is that we assume that this President does not see things simply. Whether you see him as the left's good-hearted nuance-jockey or the right's cunning collectivist conspirator, Obama routinely gets credit (and blame) for his ability to see both sides and work towards an outcome somewhere in the middle. This pragmatic approach long ago tempered the "we do big things" optimism of his 2011 State of the Union address into "we generally do the best things possible," and it hasn't always delivered inspiring outcomes – major legislation on health care and financial reform came off as vexingly over-compromised to the president's supporters, and terrifying strides towards socialism to his detractors. In killing Bin Laden, though, the President has done one of those "big things" with an undeniable decisiveness – there's nothing half-a-loaf about ordering a very public political assassination in another sovereign nation, and there's no negotiating with a Navy SEAL.

But while the successful mission to kill Bin Laden revealed Obama as both as competent and as ruthless as his supporters and detractors respectively imagined, it also raises a bleaker truth about the current state of 2008's hope-and-change optimism. It shouldn't be surprising that the greatest catharsis Obama has given the nation since his inaugural came through violence instead of by, say, reforming college loans. But there's something jarring about the relative ease with which Obama has dropped bombs in Libya and dispatched commandos to Pakistan after punting on numerous campaign promises and passing heavily compromised versions of others. "Tonight," Obama said in announcing Bin Laden's death, "we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to ." The confounding part, for Obama and for us, is how both true and untrue that statement is – how much simpler it seemed to order a secret kill-mission on the territory of a putative ally than it was to secure a few extra weeks of unemployment insurance in the middle of a prolonged economic downturn. Amid the relief at Bin Laden's demise, it's hard to shake the sense that this isn't the sort of change anyone, on either side, expected from this President.