Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Nothing Ends/Happy Holidays

This morning, for the first time in my life, I came down the stairs to find a large, lavishly decorated Christmas tree with carefully wrapped gifts arrayed around it. This wasn't totally surprising -- the tree was there when I went to bed, and I did not awake suddenly at my apartment in New York to find stairs and a second, more rustic story below. I am at my in-laws in Maine, they decorated the tree, the staircase was theirs and so on. It was snowing outside, big fat festive flakes.

The Classical is resting, but there's still work to be done, because there's always work to be done, but I felt a sort of comfort and relief I haven't felt all that often of late. Not just because of the usual stress and strain, although there's that -- I finished this week's column for Sports On Earth, on Kobe Bryant's vampirically batshit and typically fascinating team-hijack in Los Angeles, at the Portland Jetport Monday afternoon. Mostly because these are deeply uneasy times, even by the usual standards for this. Maria Bustillos and I talked about this at The Awl, with regard to the wonderful and way out-of-print dystopian Catholico-baseball apocalypse novel The Last Western.

Maria: So do you think the world is going to end, David? 
David: I'm of two minds on the apocalypse. 
David: (I just wanted to type that.) I certainly have a difficult time, looking at the things that are wrong and the responses they're engendering, feeling too optimistic about solutions. The abstraction and the deep and dimly understood grievances and the distance, all these different types of retreat: those are a bummer both because they give us a shitty discourse and stupid art, but also because problems as big as ours require non-individuated solutions, and a basic recognition that other people are as important as we are, and that we all ought to be thinking about each other a bit more. And working on that. Current events and all. 
David: But on the other hand: we're still here. People can be great. And the alternative to not fixing things is not tenable. The status quo is not tenable. People seem to be realizing this. 
David: It's difficult not to. I just can't see how that translates, or what it translates into. 
Maria: Well, here we are, agreeing about that, so there is a chance; where two or twenty or two thousand can agree, so can multitudes. Sometimes I fancy I can almost feel the change coming. I do not believe the world will end anytime soon, in part because it's been ending my whole life. There are always surprises, fair and foul. Things are dire, certainly, but I have what I am going to have to call faith.

Maria is smarter than me, and most anyone else. It can be difficult to have faith. I have difficulty with it myself. But it is nice to wake up someplace safe, with nothing to do, surrounded by people you like. It's restorative, and I hope you're there, too, today and tomorrow and for as long as you can be. Take care of yourself.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Bigger and Bigger, You and Me

You don't need me to lifehack this shit for you, presumably, but here is a thing to do on one of those days when some robustly armed narcissistic mutant turns peak military kill-technology on a crowd of innocents: stay the hell off of social media. This isn't the worst advice most days, and should be even more so on days like today that are so much worse than most. Today a 20-year-old in Connecticut killed his mother, took her car and her .223 assault rifle, drove to an elementary school, and killed 18 children and a handful of teachers, a principal and a school psychologist, then killed himself. This is not even the first time this week that something like this has happened, as a similarly well-armed kid killed two and shot others at a mall in Oregon, then killed himself. That was four days ago. Everyone caught something of a bleak break in that case, as the shooter's gun jammed and as police had trained for just such a scenario and responded quickly.

That this is the sort of thing police must train for is sobering enough. That it keeps happening is sobering enough. That every time it happens it is followed by queasy condolences and teary commemorations and nothing at all else is the worst. Well, it's not the worst. The worst is individuated, unimaginable, crushing, and it's happening in Connecticut today and Oregon earlier this week and Colorado before that and Arizona before that, and there is nothing much to say about it except that it is terrible. That is one kind of horror, and that it is not ours in particular is occasion to feel whatever we may feel about that. A guilty blessedness or big-hearted anger or nothing much in particular.

But that is what one person feels. It's relevant and revealing as far as that goes, but only that far. The fact that this keeps happening, and happening everywhere -- in gun-saturated states like Arizona and gun-averse ones like Connecticut and everyplace in between -- suggests that this is not a one-person issue. This is a problem for all of us, everywhere. And what spending time on social media in the wake of something like this reveals, the killing thing, is how profoundly difficult it is to think of these shared things in that way.

What you get, on Twitter -- in this case and, in general -- is the one-person bit. One side abstracts the other unto/into parody: kooks and communists, gun-nuts and libtards, grenades into opposite trenches forever. Crack that nightmare ceiling and we're still there: the robust defense of abstractions, one way or the other -- rights or non-rights, bickered and dickered over until muscle failure -- and various huffy responses to other huffy responses. A cycle of individuated offense, impregnable, forever and ever. There are ghouls with spammy Twitter feeds looking to leverage it; there are the inspirational fake-celebrity feeds popping off ponderously on it, an army of Not Really Will Smiths getting serious about a really real thing; there is some two-fisted foof from Esquire bringing the fatuous Writerly Imagery that no one needs at this moment; peevish strident certitude on peevish strident certitude. All of them on their own turf, tooth and nail after their abstractions of choice. Little arguments to distract from the big ones, everyone great and small letting their personal trolls out. 

Yeah, that never got answered. It's not about answers, really. It's about assertions, and it's about on to the next one. Points and points and points, fresh takes and bold stands all the way into this endless living oblivion; this violence and these deaths as a fact of life, everyone getting very sad when the situation demands, which is often enough that you'd remark upon it. Nothing changing, or even really coming terribly close to changing. All these values that can't or won't reconcile with others, and the colossal waste of real human lives as the collateral damage from all that righteous abstraction.

As it happens, I've filed a .223 rifle. I wrote about it a little bit last year, in something I wrote about the tenth anniversary of September 12, 2001. It's a terrifying and weirdly exhilarating experience; it's quite a machine, and it kicks out the endorphins whether you want it to or not. I believe that there's no reason why a non-infantryman should ever hold one of these weapons; a lot of Americans are broadly cool with that, and with making the ownership of such a weapon somewhat harder. 

I don't trust President Obama, who did seem legitimately moved -- and maybe legitimately chastened by what a decade of tactical neglect on this issue has given us all -- to do much beyond responding to this, as he put it, as a father. As a father, he is doubtless painfully aware of the stakes today. But if he wanted to react to this as a President and as a politician, he would have to negotiate with people whose sole selling point to their constituencies is their supreme intransigence. To have that discussion, and win it, Obama would have to set out to sell something that people may not want to buy; he would need to ride for a value beyond mature and equitable process, which seems to be the value he relates to most innately. He might lose. That last bit has, for the most part, been enough to keep him out of similar fights in the past.

This is a failing on his part, or would be. But the greater failing is ours, and it's there on Twitter and Facebook and anywhere else online where we can declaim into ether. Guns kill people. People kill people. Our desperate false certainties and righteous umbrage and personalized pieties, our dedication to not talking about what is: all of these things are killing us. There is indisputably a problem, and we can either solve it or we can't.

But we -- not a nation of lone strapped-up heroes defending shrinking homesteads, standing our ground and wild of eye and scared as shit, but a nation fully and full-stop -- will have to be the ones to solve it. It's not about me or you or our various offended values or deeply held personal beliefs or feelings or metaphors on the issues of the moment, although of course good luck with all those. It's about us, kids and grown-ups, armed and un-armed, all of us together and working to prevent the devastation to come, or it's all of us lost in it, hunted by what we are too vain or blinkered or scared to face. It's as big as all of us, no smaller. It can be figured out, but not if we can't talk about it.

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Curious Bird

Sports columnists are about the easiest characters in all of media to goof on. ESPN, which does them the great disservice of putting them on television and encouraging them to shout things they may or may not actually believe, deserves much of the credit for that, but columnists have done their part, too. Lord knows I will indulge in some columnist-goofing, and will almost certainly continue to do so as long as your Woody Paige and Bill Plaschke types are drawing breath/paychecks for bombastically writing things they haven't thought about on topics they don't care about, or don't believe are true but do believe will agitate people, and/or all of the above. It won't have any impact on them, or on anything else, but it's easy and gratifying and seems like the right thing to do. I've got my own column inches to fill, after all.

I'd like to say that I have some more appreciation for the columnists I joke about since becoming a columnist myself; I'm now doing two columns per week, one for Vice and one for Sports On Earth (which doesn't have an author page for me yet; I wrote this and this and this and this and this for them). I enjoy it as an exercise and a job, although it's clearly easier some weeks than others. Last week, for instance, was not an especially news-y one, and the absence of actual incident made it difficult to have a take -- HOT, LOUD AND FIRST on some Skip Bayless shit, or really even at all -- worthy of a column. It's on those sorts of weeks that I understand, and come as close as I come to appreciating, how difficult and unpleasant it can be to be a columnist, and to have been a columnist for a long time, as the worst columnists typically have been.

The job doesn't change from week to week. The job is to discuss a thing that everyone is already discussing, whether you want to or not, in a way that will stand out for one reason or other from the dense discussion that's already happening; the deadlines are non-negotiable, the outlines are non-negotiable, and the fact that there are only so many things to say about the SEC's dominance of college football or LeBron or whatever doesn't matter at all, really. Do this for a few decades, and it's easy to see how a person could become as curdled and distant and broadly bummed/bummer-inducing as many columnists have. I don't know that I can imagine doing this for decades, although thinking in terms of decades makes me dizzy anyway. I'd like to think that I'd either stop if I didn't like what I was writing about anymore, or that I'd find some enduring meaning in it somehow. But who would want to think about the alternative? (There are, thankfully, some examples of people who love sports enough to keep it fun for the rest of us; see what I wrote about Bill Raftery and Bob Ryan at The Classical, for instance)

So last week, with nothing much to write about, I wrote for Vice about the New Orleans Hornets maybe changing their name to the New Orleans Pelicans. It had a lot of jokes in it, many of them centered around the team name of the Utah Jazz, and one of which was brought to glorious life by the internet mega-hero Sorry Your Heinous above. I was not necessarily relishing writing a column during a week that didn't quite offer anything column-worthy, but I wound up liking the piece a lot; it's one of my favorites to run at Vice in some time, actually.

Writing columns isn't as difficult or unpleasant as it can be made to look; it's not really all that easy, either. But for all the grousing I do about this work and the things that are wrong with it, I keep coming back to a sort of tired-out gratitude. The Classical is a year old, and as punishing and demanding and wonderful as any one-year-old could be; I'm very proud of it, and cautiously but hugely hopeful of what it could become. Writing columns about sports can be a pain in the ass, but is also finally more or less paying my bills, and is something I like doing. I can complain. I can always complain. But lord knows I've had worse jobs.