A Flying Lesson

It was mid-afternoon and the sky was night black and offering no sign of brightening. Rain fell so hard I could hear it on the roof of the terminal. I was in the bar, along with what felt like everyone else at JFK, because no flights were leaving any time soon.

Most of the barflies around me accepted their delays with equanimity, but I felt considerably less charitable. I wasn’t waiting for a vacation to start. I was here because Lara was in the hospital, and she wasn’t going to make it through the night. I’d gotten the first flight I could after I found out, hoping to make it back to see her, and every minute that ticked by decreased the odds I would get to say goodbye.

I’d always known this day would come. I was friends with Lara before we dated, had entered the relationship with eyes open—as open as they can be when dealing with a disease that most people have never heard of, a disease that until just a few years ago was defined as a “childhood illness” in medical textbooks, because people who were born with it didn’t survive to adulthood.

I’ll spare the medical history, except to say that cystic fibrosis filled Lara’s lungs with mucus, made them susceptible to infection, caused terrible scarring. The regimen of medications she took could clean out a pharmacy. She did therapy three times a day, up to an hour each time, and her cough during those treatments could rattle walls. By twenty-five, she was on supplemental oxygen at all times. At twenty-six, she received a double-lung transplant. Those lungs had held for five years. Until now.

But I didn’t think about any of that while I sat in the crowded airport bar. Nor did I think about the good times we’d shared in the six years we were together: the Valentine’s Day when I took her to see Etta James, one of her favorites, at a tiny supper club; the weekend we spent at a tiny B&B on California’s North Coast, where the innkeeper, charmed by Lara’s rosy cheeks and perpetual smile—in spite of everything—upgraded us to the honeymoon suite at no extra cost.

What I thought about was the year that had passed since our breakup, and how we hadn’t talked, except once, six months before, when we’d gotten breakfast while I was home for the holidays. I had moved to New York, she was still in California, and I think we wanted the best for each other—and felt that the best way to move on was to give each other space.

That’s what I thought about, and hated myself for, as my delay stretched on for hours. I ordered whiskey after whiskey, and eventually the bartender, bless her heart, bought me back a round. The barroom offered some solace, however small, as it always does.

Eventually, the bar closed, and as I walked out onto the concourse, I saw a stream of people go past. My flight had been canceled. I followed the herd to the customer service desk. A long line had already formed, so I wandered back to my erstwhile gate and lay down on the floor. It was late, I wasn’t paying for a cab back to my apartment, and I sure as hell wasn’t standing in that line. I decided to let the universe sort things out.

And it did. A few minutes later, inexplicably, my flight was reinstated. Not that we took off right away; the storm still raged. I wouldn’t board the plane until almost 6 a.m.

I slept on the flight, fitfully, and went straight from SFO to Stanford Hospital. By some miracle, Lara had survived the night. She was in the ICU, sedated, intubated, her skin pallid, not bright and pink as it always had been, even when she was at her sickest, but she had made some small gains over the course of the night. Her family even had hope, however slim, that she could get back on the transplant list, get new lungs.

I’d like to tell you that this story has a happy ending. That Lara slowly got stronger, that she woke up, that I went to the hopsital and talked to her every day, that she did get new lungs. I’d like to tell you that Lara is still alive today, and that while we never got back together, we remain friends.

But that’s not how this story goes. I did go to the hospital every day, but she never woke up. Lara lived with a “childhood illness” for 31 years, and she stayed alive in the ICU for a month after the night the doctors told her friends and family she was going to die, but not even the strongest person I’ve ever known could win the fight that we all lose, eventually.

I gave a eulogy at Lara’s well-attended funeral. Her family chose to close the ceremony with one of her favorite songs: Tom Petty’s Learning to Fly. Then I flew back to New York.

Grief changes over time, but it doesn’t get easier. It’s a relief not to feel the acute pain of loss every day, but as that pain fades, so too does the vibrancy of memory. I have few things left of Lara to help keep my memories alive. A painting from the house where we once lived. A tattoo I got in her honor. Learning to Fly, which I play on guitar often, though it can summon tears.

And, strangely, I also have flight delays. Every time I’m sitting at an airport bar, drink in hand, waiting for a departure update, I’m taken back to that night at JFK. It was one of the worst nights of my life, but I’m thankful I have the story, because it’s a story that shows that I loved Lara all the way to the end. Because it gives me one more story about her, when stories are all that remains of her. Because it reminds me that stories are all any of us leave behind.

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10 Songs I Want Played at My Funeral

I probably need to start this post with a caveat, given that I’ve occasionally written about having issues with depression: I’m not thinking about killing myself. I’m not actually planning my funeral (although I recently told a few of the homies that since I imagine I’ll die in a way in which my body won’t be found, their duty as pall-bearers will be to carry a casket full of liquor to the ceremony while a second-line band plays behind them). Rather, my friend and fellow blogger Juan Alvarado Valdivia—a man who’s been known to have an existential crisis or two himself—noted that we haven’t done complementary Top 10 lists in a while, and he suggested this topic. Juanito clearly knows me well, because if there are three things I like writing, they’re Top 10 lists, music-snob posts, and ruminations about the impermanence of our existence. So, in honor of Kevin Costner (who was the body in the coffin in the famous You Can’t Always Get What You Want funeral scene at the beginning of The Big Chill), let’s make a going home playlist.

We’ll start with a bunch of honorable mentions for the extended playlist: Come On Up to the House, Tom Waits, because “The world is not my home, I’m just passing through”; Pour Out a Little Liquor, Thug Life, because y’all better pour some out; Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd, because duh; A Kiss Before I Go, Ryan Adams, because I want “One shot, one beer, and a kiss before I go”; Don’t Let It Bring You Down, Neil Young, because “it’s only castles burning”; Castles Made of Sand, Jimi Hendrix, because “Castles made of sand slip into the sea eventually”; 2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten, Lucinda Williams, because I like the notion of being “too cool to be forgotten,” even if it is bullshit; Brokedown Palace, The Grateful Dead, because “I’m going to leave this brokedown palace”; Angel From Montgomery, Bonnie Raitt, because “To believe in this living is just a hard way to go”; Paradise, John Prine, because “I’ll be halfway to heaven with paradise waiting, just five miles away from wherever I am” (and yes, I know I really just doubled-up on John Prine); The Boxer, Simon & Garfunkel, because “I am leaving, I am leaving, but the fighter still remains”; and Life Without You, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Yellow Ledbetter, Pearl Jam, and Samba Pa Ti, Santana, because those fucking guitar solos, man.

Man, I could do this all day. That’s a lot of great songs, and we haven’t even gotten to the party yet. On to the top 10. (And for even more great music, check out Juan’s list here.)

10. No Woman No Cry, Bob Marley

Sort of an obvious one, but I’ve always found this to be the most soothing song. I remember driving in a car with my sister once years ago when we were both having astonishingly shitty days, and singing along with this tune had a healing effect for both of us. I like to think it could do the same at an event where at least, I don’t know, a few (?) people would be sad.

9. Bring It on Home to Me, Sam Cooke

You don’t get to change your mind about anything after you’re dead—especially not about leaving anyone behind. But there’s something so timeless about the want and the need in this song that makes it a perfect goodbye number.

8. They Reminisce Over You, Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth

You know there’s gonna be some old-school hip-hop at J$’s funeral, and this one from early-90s golden age rappers Pete Rock & CL Smooth has been an unavoidable goodbye jam since I first heard it, long before any notion of my own mortality had really risen to the surface. (Side note: On a visit to New York in the mid-90s, I made my dad drive around the Bronx in rainstorm looking for a record store where I could find a copy of this album; Apple was a little late for me on this one…) It’s a beautiful shoutout to family and how we’re bonded together for better and for worse. And I can imagine climbing up through the clouds on the notes of that sax solo—you know, if I actually believed that we had spirits that went somewhere when we died.

7. Happiness, Elliott Smith

As one of the world’s most devoted Elliott fans, it was hard for me to pick just one of his songs. Ultimately, though, I couldn’t go any direction by Happiness (a song I once wrote about in detail). It’s sad, of course—about how most of us fall into making our lives lies and not sharing our true selves with those we care about—but the coda is one of the most beautiful passages in the history of pop music:

What I used to be
Will pass away
And then you’ll see
That all I want now
Is happiness
For you and me

It’s so simple and so hopeful and so sad and goddamn, isn’t it how we all feel about our lives?

6. Life Goes On, 2Pac

Every funeral I’ve ever been to tried to bill itself as a “celebration of life,” and while I dig the sentiment, that’s just not how this shit works. People are gonna be fucked up no matter what. That said, I expect my people to send me out by partying as hard as they fucking can. 2Pac was obsessed with death—I could make an entire funeral playlist of songs he wrote abut his own death, and there’s already a ‘Pac song in the honorable mentions—but the tune I really want played from my all-time favorite rapper is the one that has this verse in it:

Bury me smilin’, with Gs in my pocket
Have a party at my funeral, let every rapper rock it
Let the hoes that I used to know
From way befo’ kiss me from my head to my toe
Give me a paper and a pen, so I can write about my life of sin
A couple bottles of gin, in case I don’t get in

Pour another one out for me, yall.

5. Learning to Fly, Tom Petty

Here’s where three trends start: the sentimentality, the flying theme, and the songs I took from other people’s goodbyes. This one played at my longtime ex-girlfriend Lara’s funeral, so I’ll always associate it with her, but it also runs deeper than that. It’s about a fundamental aspect of life: We’re all just learning how to get by; as soon as we think we’re taking off, we’re sure to crash again. But no matter how hard you crash, you have to pick yourself up and try to take off again. What goes up must come down—but the time you spend rising and soaring among the clouds makes the descent, however painful, worth it.

4. I’ll Fly Away, Gillian Welch & Allison Krauss

I’m blatantly stealing this one as well. When the owner of my favorite bar in the entire world, Sunny Balzano (of Sunny’s Bar in Red Hook), died a couple of years ago, there was a second line from the Catholic church service to the bar, where seemingly the whole community had a shot and a beer. The song I remember from that second line? This one, of course. I’m not a spiritual person, so it may seem odd for me to want a gospel song at my send-off, but I’ve actually long loved gospel music, and well, when I die, hallelujah bye and bye, Ill fly away

3. To Live Is to Fly, Townes Van Zandt

This is the last of the flying songs, and it’s a less ecstatic, more contemplative one. Townes Van Zandt was in many ways the ultimate philosopher-songwriter, and there would be a whole block of his songs at my send off, but this is the one he really packs it all into. I could quote every lyric and pontificate on each and every word, but the bottom line is that for Townes (much like with Tom Petty), flying isn’t’t what we do when we’re trying to get to heaven; flying—both low and high—is what we do in our lives everyday, and this song isn’t about being sad about what we’ve missed out on or what we’ve lost. Rather, it’s about appreciating the journey we’ve taken. Even if life is sad and fucked up, there’s still beauty in it. So shake the dust off of your wings, and the tears out of your eyes.

2. Wild Horses, The Rolling Stones

When I was in college, there was a bum named Guitar Dave who used to sit on the stoop of the liquor store and play songs for beer money. My buddy Josh always told me not to talk to him—that I would cause a rip in the space-time continuum by getting too close to future Justin. Guitar Dave used to play Wild Horses, and while I’m sure he’s not around anymore, I sure hope I get to jam on this number—one of my two or three favorite songs ever—with him in the afterlife.

1. Desperados Under the Eaves, Warren Zevon

There are few songs I relate to more than this one. The loneliness, the fatalism, the fog of alcohol—that’s a Justin cocktail! But, really, when I’m picking the number one song on this list, what I’m choosing is the last song I would want to hear as I faded away. And I can’t think of a melody I’d rather ride off on than the air conditioner humming as we look away down Gower Avenue. Vaya con Dios, amigos.

 

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Why I’m Done With Football

Hello all. It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything on here—almost a year, in fact, since I begged my few readers not to vote for Donald Trump. We all know how that went, and over the last few months we’ve seen the disgraceful, disheartening, entirely predictable results of a monstrous, racist, anti-intellectual con man taking over the most powerful office in the world.

But that’s not what brings me back to blogging now. (If you want to read about all the ways Trump and his cronies are tearing apart the fabric of this country, I recommend subscribing to The New York Times and/or The Washington Post, two insitutions that are hopefully going to take that fucking huckster down and that could use your support.) No, what I’m here to talk about is another crumbling American institution: the game of football, and more specifically the National Football League, which today kicks off the first NFL Sunday of the 2017 season.

ready-for-some-football

I’m sure many of you are excited for today’s slate, but I’m not. In fact, I’m here to say that I won’t be watching this afternoon’s games—or any others this season. I am quitting the NFL, cold turkey.

It has taken a long time for me to get to this point. I used to love football. Being both small and slow-footed, I was never much good at playing the game, but going back to age 9 or 10, I could spend an entire Sunday, from morning to night, engrossed in one game after another. My nerdy side enjoyed the minutiae of play-calling; my rough and tumble side enjoyed the hard hits. And growing up in the Bay Area, it was easy to be a football fanatic, as we had the Joe Montana/Steve Young/Jerry Rice 49ers, one of the most iconic, dominant dynasties in sports history. From the time I moved to the Bay in 1991 to my high school graduation in 1999, it was a given that the Niners would be in the playoffs and contending for a Super Bowl (and that’s not even considering the ’80s, which were even better years for Bay Area football fans, or the underrated fun of the Mariucci/Garcia/Owens teams I rooted for in college, or the Harbaugh teams that came oh-so-close to bringing home a title of their own).

In college, football continued to be an integral part of the rhythm of my life. I went to UCSB, which didn’t have a team, but every Sunday morning, my roommates and I would gradually, one-by-one, shlep our ways out of bed and into the living room, where we would flop on the couch and stare our half-blind, hungover stares at the Niners. I vividly remember watching with my roommate Josh when T.O. scored a late-game touchdown and then basically took a shit on the star at midfield of Texas Stadium, starting a brawl with the Cowboys and endearing himself to us forever.

Football, and the Niners, continued to be a big part of my life all the way into my thirties, particularly when I moved to New York. Shortly after I arrived in 2010, I started hanging out at Finnerty’s, a burgeoning Bay Area sports bar in the East Village. I spent every football Sunday in that bar, made a lot of friends there (including my occasional guest-blogger, Tierney), and took a lot of wicked hangovers to work on Monday mornings. The fandom I shared at Finns helped me find a community in this intimidating city. And it didn’t hurt that I discovered the bar right before Harbaugh took over and led the Niners to three straight NFC Championship Games. During that time, I started this blog, and some of the “Niners Awards” columns I wrote remain among my all-time favorite From a Brooklyn Basement posts.

The Faithful

I appeared in a video about Finnerty’s that ran on the Niners’ website in 2014

A number of things began to cause my interest in football to wane. First, I got a real editing job, which cut into the time I had to write those Niners columns. Around the same time, the Niners embarked on a descent into chaos—moving to Santa Clara, firing Harbaugh, dropping to the bottom of the standings—that made me less-inclined to spend my Sunday afternoons in a bar watching them. (Another side effect of having a real job: I couldn’t tolerate those godawful Monday hangovers anymore.)

The Niners being tragicomic losers freed me from having to watch football every week, but that wasn’t the death knell of my interest in the game. All sports franchises go through success cycles, and I surely would have gotten sucked back in when the team’s fortunes began to improve again. But at the same time the team and its owners were displaying willful, destructive incompetence, the league was doing the same thing.

First, there was the terrible—and ongoing—spate of domestic violence cases. It was bad on so many levels. There was the violence itself, the awfulness of which needs no explanation. But then the NFL and its teams tried to pretend like they care about women—pink jerseys for breast cancer!—when clearly they don’t. The Ray Rice video was an eye-opener for me, but not in the way it was for some. The league initially suspended Rice for just two games—half the length of the suspension Tom Brady got for allegedly deflating a few footballs—only banning him indefinitely when the video of him punching his pregnant fiancee in an elevator became public. Putting aside whether or not the league office had seen the video (although I will bet you any amount of money you want that it had), the sudden lengthening of the suspension raised a question for me: How were people so surprised when they saw the video? At the time, the league called it a “game-changer,” but everyone knew Rice had knocked his fiancee unconsicous. What do people think it looks like when someone gets knocked out? The only principles the NFL exercised with regard to Rice were public relations and ass-covering.

It was around the same time that the public became aware of the breadth of football’s concussion crisis. As more and more retired players began to kill themselves, or to admit to their post-career debilitations, and more and more studies revealed the extent to which literally all of these players are causing themselves horrific harm simply by playing football, the league responded by trying to weasel out of providing health care for retired players. It’s despicable. It also raised the question that has become perhaps the most common talking point around football: Would you let your kids play? My answer might surprise you; if I had a kid who wanted to try out for his high school team, I would make sure he was educated to the dangers of the game, but if he still really wanted to do it, I would probably let him (putting aside the extreme unlikelihood that any kid of mine will be big enough or athletic enough to make his high school football team). But at the same time, what I told everyone who ever asked me that initial question was this: If you wouldn’t let your kids risk their health by playing, how is it right for you to watch someone else’s kids doing it?

The callous, condescending way the league’s billionarie owners treat the players and fans while continuing to cash checks (I haven’t even mentioned all the teams abandoned their fans in the name of acquiring publicly funded stadiums in other cities) pushed me to the point of not wanting to support the league. Colin Kaepernick pushed me over the edge.

Kaep

That’s me in front of Finns in 2013, wearing a Colin Kaepernick jersey. I loved the way he played, and I was a true believer that he was a future superstar. I was saddened by the regression of his skills and his ultimate exit from the team, but I have been infuriated by the league’s response to his free agency. Let’s not mince words here: Colin Kaepernick has been blackballed by the NFL for kneeling during the national anthem and continuing to be politically outspoken afterward. Teams pretend that he’s not good enough to be even a backup, despite the clear dearth of starting-quarterback-level talent in the league. They release phony self-serving critiques of Kaepernick through the league’s uncritical journalistic mouthpieces—I’m looking at you, Peter King—to justify his continued unemployment. The last team to take a serious look at Kaepernick, in fact, was the Baltimore Ravens, who have employed not only Ray Rice but also Ray Lewis (who was probably at least an accessory to murder in 2000). The Ravens decided Kaepernick lacked the necessary character to be allowed into their locker room.

So, at the end of the day, you have a league that employs serial woman-beaters, puts forth a product that endangers its players’ lives yet offers fewer contractual and health benefits than any other major sport, and blackballs a player for having an unpopular (and true, by the way) political opinion—all while being a multibillion-dollar industry that prints money for its fat cat owners. Well, I’m refusing to participate in that industry anymore. Not only am I taking a pass on watching football from now on, I’m refusing to read any articles, listen to any podcasts, or buy any merchandise. The NFL won’t get another minute or dollar of mine ever again. If you see me sporting any Niners swag, it’ll be that Kaepernick jersey. Fuck you, NFL. I’m out.

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An Open Letter to America

Hello America,

It’s been a while since I checked in from the old Brooklyn Basement. Even when I was writing on here regularly, I usually tried to steer clear of politics, for the same reason that I mostly avoid political posts on social media: The vast majority of people who follow me or care enough to read what I write have the same general political views that I do, and I’m not under the illusion that I can change the minds of those that don’t. Besides, while I try to stay reasonably politically informed, I’m not particularly a news junkie, and the reality is that I’m not going to write anything Earth-shattering that Jonathan Chait or Ryan Lizza hasn’t already.

With all that said, I don’t think I can let this election slide by without saying something about it. Because, without being too dramatic about it, I really believe that if tomorrow goes badly, it will be the end of America as we know it.

Before I start my rant on Donald Trump, I want to point out that I am the furthest thing from a Hillary Clinton fan. Truth be told, I have never—not once—voted for her in any election for any office (and I have had multiple opportunities). I’ve never forgiven her for her vote to go to war with Iraq and her subsequent refusal to disavow that vote. I’m not happy with the hawkishness she displayed as Secretary of State. I think that the critics who accuse her of being corrupt, of being in bed with Wall Street, of flip-flopping to whatever viewpoint is politically advantageous, are correct. And at the end of the day, she’s too conservative for my taste. I’m in the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren area of the political spectrum, and, frankly, Barack Obama, despite being labeled a Socialist by Republicans, is also too conservative for my taste. (He’s pretty much exactly where I’d want him to be on social issues, but he’s an economic centrist who failed to punish Wall Street for the financial crash and didn’t do enough, in my opinion, to reform the banking system). You don’t have to agree with me on these viewpoints, but when I hear people say they wish there was a moderate Republican to vote for in this election, I always respond that there is. Her name is Hillary Clinton.

Two Goldwater Girls

Hillary has admitted to being a Goldwater girl in 1964

In essence, I believe that a vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote for the current system, for status quo (other than the whole “first woman president” thing, which is of course a big deal). This is not something I would normally advocate. But when the alternative is an end to the very idea of America as we have come to know it? That, friends, is enough to get me to cast my first ever vote for Hillary. Because whatever her faults—and they are many—they pale in comparison to Donald Trump’s.

48651722-cached

Let me stop for a second here, take a deep breath, and gather myself, because I have a lot of things to say about Donald Trump.

Donald Trump likes to tout his business successes, despite his numerous bankruptcies and failed endeavors (some of which, like Trump University, have been blatant con jobs). The truth is, if he had done nothing with the fortune he inherited except let it sit in a bank account and collect interest, his net worth would be higher than it is today. In 1995, he declared a $916 million loss on his taxes. In one year! He lost money in the casino business. That’s fucking impossible! Donald Trump was born on third base and got caught in a rundown while trying to steal home.

Donald Trump is a vapid, borderline illiterate buffoon, whose greatest success was being the host of a reality TV show in which the climactic moment of every episode was when he cruelly fired someone. In a way, Trump is the logical conclusion of our reality TV society: People think they deserve to be rich and famous for no reason, without doing anything of actual value—see the Kardashians—and since Trump is already rich and famous, he thinks he deserves to be President, even though he knows nothing about politics or world affairs. He is, in many ways, the President that our dumbed-down, TV-narcotized nation deserves.

kim-kardashian-gq

Fuck you, you no-talent twerp; this is partially your fault

I was having lunch with my father recently, and he told me that, given a recent spike in his income (good job, Dad), he really ought to vote Republican. My response to him was something I’d like to say to every economic conservative who is going to hold his nose and vote for Trump: It doesn’t matter if your tax rate is 10 percent or 20 percent or whatever percent lower if the moron you elected starts a nuclear war. This is not an exaggeration: Trump has repeatedly asked members of the intelligence community why we can’t use nuclear weapons. When Cormac McCarthy’s The Road becomes a day-to-day reality, you’re not going to be worried about the deductions on your fucking 1040 form.

the-road

What’s my Adjusted Gross Income?

Sadly, Trump’s stupidity isn’t even his worst characteristic. Let’s take a minute to talk about his bigotry. His behavior with women is disgusting. (An aside, regarding “Grab ’em by the pussy” and “locker room talk”: I played sports for much of my life. I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms, and have occasionally heard some shitty things said about women, but I’ve never heard anything that approaches that Trump tape. Even the misogynistic dudes that I’ve known aren’t rape-y about it. Also, “Grab ’em by the pussy” just isn’t a phrasing that anyone would ever use. Trump sounds to me like a high school virgin who’s trying to convince his friends he gets laid all the time.)

His attitude toward people of color is arguably even worse. Calling Mexicans “rapists and drug dealers,” maligning a Muslim Gold Star family, and failing to disavow the Ku Klux Klan are just a few blatant examples of his racism. And it’s not like racism is a new thing with the Trump family: His father was reportedly involved with a KKK rally in the 1920s and was later sued for discriminatory housing practices. It’s not a coincidence that Breitbart’s “Alt-Right,” which is really just a White Supremacist movement that has somehow been accepted into the mainstream, has joyfully embraced Trump. When Trump says he wants to “Make America Great Again,” what he really means is that he wants to make America white again. That’s not happening. The demographics have shifted, and even if you immediately shut all of the nation’s borders today, we still wouldn’t have a white-majority population going forward.

By the way, people, another thing that’s not coming back? All those manufacturing jobs that Trump (and Hillary, for that matter) claim they’re going to create. Bruce Springsteen was writing songs about those jobs disappearing in literally 1984.

We live in a globalized economy now, and companies turn a greater profit when they do their manufacturing abroad. That’s capitalism. It’s a sad situation, because it has led to the shrinking of the middle class, as people now have to resort to service-industry jobs in the place of manufacturing—this, by the way, is why raising the minimum wage is so important—but it’s not something Trump (or Hillary) is going to fix. That ship has sailed.

Take all the lies, all the stupidity, all the bigotry and misogyny, and you still haven’t hit on the worst aspect of Trump’s candidacy. The thing that makes him truly scary, truly a threat to America, is his authoritarianism.

To be clear, I’ve never subscribed to the Reagan-esque notion of America as the shining city on the hill. People tend to romanticize smalltown Mayberry, America, while glossing over how that supposed paradise was built on the backs of a subjugated race of people who were often promptly lynched when they decided to try to get a slice for themselves. And then there’s our history of Imperialism, through which we completely fucked over every country in Latin America. (United Fruit Company, anyone?) The good ‘ol USA isn’t nearly as morally superior as they teach us in grade school.

But you know what? As flawed as this country is, it does still stand for something. There’s a reason why, when I look out from the F Train in the morning and I see the Statue of Liberty out in New York Harbor, I feel something. A lot of it is bullshit, but we are supposed to be a beacon of liberty, of freedom, an ideal for the people of the world—including us—to live up to.

Trump is the gravest threat to this ideal that we have ever known. This is a man who has casually advocated for the assassination of his opponent, who has mused about throwing his opponent in jail after the election, who has suggested that another country should engage in espionage against his opponent. This is a man who has vowed to punish news media outlets that have had the temerity to report on him. This is a man who offers no solutions, only the boilerplate assertion that he and he alone is the answer to all of our problems. This is a man who admires Vladimir Putin, who is, make no mistake, a dictator.

Combine Trump’s desire to consolidate power and crush his rivals with his bigotry and his strange populist charisma, and you have a man that can legitimately be compared to Adolf Hitler.

That is not a comparison that I make lightly. I come from a very small family. We never had family reunions when I was younger, as I have just one aunt and one uncle—and no cousins at all on my father’s side. My family is so small because Hitler murdered nearly all of us during World War II. When Trump suggests banning Muslims, I think of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws. When Trump describes rounding up Mexicans, I can’t help but think of Nazi concentration camps. When Trump maligns Syrian refuges, I think of the fleeing Jews who were turned away from America and Western Europe in the 1930s.

It’s easy to downplay comparisons to Hitler as being extreme, given that he is generally regarded as history’s greatest monster. But to paraphrase Louis C.K., the Germans didn’t know they were electing Hitler when they elected Hitler. Our Constitutional system has checks and balances built into it to prevent a demagogue from seizing too much power, but these have been eroded over the years as presidential administrations have increased executive power (both Bush and Obama accelerated this trend). Imagine President Trump with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress and a Conservative-leaning Supreme Court (thanks to the justices he would be able to appoint). The GOP has already shown a complete inability to control him. If he actually assumed power, there would be no one to stop him from running amok.

This is the crossroads at which we find ourselves, and there’s only one thing that any of us can do about it: vote for Hillary. If you give even half a shit about this country—and really, the entire world—get your ass to the polls tomorrow and do the right thing. I do not believe that it is an exaggeration to say that human civilization depends upon us keeping Donald Trump out of the White House.

You have one chance, America. Don’t fuck this up.

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My Muhammad Ali Moment

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The Greatest

Muhammad Ali, the three-time heavyweight champion and self-proclaimed “Greatest of All Time,” died on Friday at the age of 74. The moment shouldn’t have been much of a shock—Ali had suffered from the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease for more than 20 years—but when I saw the news, it stopped me in my tracks. People across the world reacted in a similar fashion, and over the weekend came an outpouring of tributes and remembrances. I don’t have the personal connection with Ali that many do. I never met him, after all, and the actions both in the ring and out that made him famous nearly all happened long before I was born. But I do have one brief Ali story that I think illustrates, in a small way, Ali’s enduring legacy.

Seven or eight years ago, I lived in the Grand Lake neighborhood of Oakland. The Town’s gentrification process had begun, but this was before the tech boom truly took off, and Grand Lake was a sort of Bay Area crossroads—you could make an argument that between the diversity, Oakland’s nice weather, and the proximity to nice restaurants, the farmers market, parks, and Lake Merritt, Grand Lake was the best neighborhood in the Bay Area. At any rate, Grand Avenue had a few old dive bars that I used to like to hit up. The best one of these for watching sports was a place called Smitty’s. Smitty’s was a dark, dank dive, a place populated by old-school Oakland Raiders fans, where you drank Budweiser and well liquor and where smoking was still tacitly permitted long after it had been made illegal in California. In other words, a real dive bar.

Anyway, one random weeknight (I seem to remember it being a Thursday, but I was in grad school, and the nights kinda blend together) I was barhopping my way around Grand Avenue with a friend and we stopped into Smitty’s. The bar was pretty lively, a good crowd of old-school Oakland (i.e., black) dudes drinking cheap booze, smoking, talking shit. I guess there wasn’t any live sports going on that night, so the TV above the bar was tuned to ESPN Classic, which was showing the Rumble in the Jungle, the famous 1974 Ali–George Foreman championship fight in Zaire that was later the subject of the fantastic documentary When We Were Kings. This bout was Ali’s greatest triumph: He was attempting to become the first three-time heavyweight champion after having been stripped of his title and sent to jail for refusing to serve in Vietnam. His opponent was the towering Foreman, who had recently destroyed Joe Frazier and who seemed invincible. (People from my generation mostly associate Foreman with his eponymous grilling machine and with the goofy-uncle persona he took on in TV commercials, but in the 1970s Foreman was the scariest man on Earth. He was basically Godzilla in boxing trunks.)

During the early rounds of the match, the crowd at the bar didn’t seem too interested in the fight. After all, the early part of the fight wasn’t that interesting. Ali threw the occasional jab and hook that caused Foreman’s face to puff up, but he was mostly content to pull his arms in and allow Foreman to throw huge punches at his sides and elbows. These punches looked daunting, but they were mostly harmless, and Foreman grew tired from carrying the action. Ali later called this his “rope-a-dope” strategy. Then, late in the fifth round, Ali fired back at Foreman, landing a series of blows to the head, and all the eyes in the bar shifted upward. My fellow patrons started pointing at the screen, talking about the fight. Then Ali went back to leaning against the ropes, taking more harmless shots, and sprinkling in pinpoint accurate jabs—while talking shit to Foreman the entire time. By the end of the seventh round, Foreman was listing and stumbling as he threw his punches.

Then, the eighth round, which all students of boxing know was the last. From the bell, the whole bar was rapt. For most of the eighth, Ali kept rope-a-doping, and then, with 30 seconds left, he finally attacked.

That roar you hear from the crowd in Kinshasa? I swear that it was just as loud that night in Smitty’s. As Ali launched that vicious four-punch combo, the men around me flew out of their seats and screamed at the screen, jumping up and down and slapping hands like the fight was happening, live, in that very moment.

At the time, I thought this was a quirky, only-in-Oakland moment. But over the years I’ve changed my mind. Yes, it probably matters that it was in Oakland, the home of the Black Panthers, a city that, perhaps more than any other, can identify with a fighter who stood for Black Power. But I also think that it transcends Oakland, and shows how iconic Ali was. Could any other boxer, any other athlete, captivate a crowd like that—in any city—more than 30 years later?

Ali was not a perfect man. He was vindictive, and unforgivably cruel to his great rival, Frazier. But he was also a hero, a man who stood for his principles, who reached the greatest heights of his sport only to be cut down early and publicly by disease. He was larger than life. And yet, he was human.

On Friday night, I was at a friend’s apartment playing music. I took a break to look at my phone, and saw the news of Ali’s death. I turned to the room and said, “Holy shit. Muhammad Ali died.” We all grew quiet for a moment. And then we played this song, our own small, folky tribute to the Greatest of All Time. Ali may be leaving, but the fighter still remains.

 

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2016 NBA Playoff Preview

My faithful readers (both of them) may have noticed that I haven’t written an NBA column this season. There are two reasons for this. First, lack of time (once again, adulthood sucks); second, and more importantly, the record-breaking season that my beloved Golden State Warriors just played has been so unbelievably full of joy and amazement that I didn’t want to risk jinxing it by making any predictions or proclamations. My anti-jinx efforts are all well and good, but I’ve been writing this particular column too long for me to quit now. I know my attorney will probably cease to represent me if I don’t write this (although he’s stopped taking my calls anyway, for some reason, ahem). Plus, just in case I’m right, there’s no way I can let the playoffs go by without getting some picks on record. So, here goes. We’ll start with the JV conference—which actually isn’t all that JV anymore.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

First Round

Cleveland over Detroit 4-1: Most analysts think that the Pistons can actually push the Cavs in this series, and I’m inclined to agree that the games will be close. This sort of series happens all the time: a young squad makes the postseason for the first time and gos up against a veteran championship contender. Anecdotally, it seems like the young squad always wins one home game, blows a winnable home game, and then can’t quite figure out how to win a road elimination game. I see that formula coming through here. The only real question: will LeBron ask Andre Drummond to donate some of his shoulder hair for LeBron’s hairplugs.

Toronto over Indiana 4-2: I see Paul George winning at least one game by himself, and the Pacers will probably grit at one more win at home, but I really like this Toronto team—I know they’ve choked in the playoffs the last couple of years, but they played the Dubs very tightly in two different games, and Kyle Lowry is a true badass Philly point guard. He’s not letting them go out like that this team.

Atlanta over Boston 4-3: The Celtics were a great story this season, and they looked great in both their games against the Dubs, but I think Atlanta has a little more high-end talent,  Coach Buds neutralizes the edge that Brad Stevens would have over most opposing coaches, and the homecourt in Game 7 will ultimately matter.

Charlotte over Miami 4-2: I don’t really believe in this pick, honestly. But every other pick of mine went chalk, and I wanted one first round upset, so I picked the team that has a star point guard from my home borough, the Boogie Down Bronx. I will say that Charlotte has played really well in the second half, and they have a great home record, and if they do get to Game 6 with a chance to close at home, I think they’ll do it.

Second Round

Cleveland over Charlotte  4-1: I’m just really bummed we’re not gonna get a Cavs-Heat series.

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This would have been fun

Toronto over Atlanta 4-3: I could definitely see Atlanta taking it from Toronto, especially given that I think that having Coach Buds gives them a late-game tactical advantage. But I think those Toronto fans will show-up big for a Game 7 in the T-Dot, and the Raptors will pull it out.

Conference Finals

Cleveland over Toronto 4-2: God, I want to pick a Raptors upset soooooooo bad. I really think this Cleveland team is overrated and that, given the drama they’ve had this year courtesy of LeBron’s Twitter account, the locker room will fracture when they face real adversity. But while I like the Raptors, I just can’t quite see them pulling it off. (If Toronto does make the Finals, I’ll hate myself for not having the guts to pick it.) So LeBron will make a remarkable sixth straight trip to the Finals.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

First Round

Golden State over Houston 4-0: The truth is, I was hoping the Dubs would avoid the Rockets, only because of this scenario: Patrick Beverley dives at Steph Curry’s legs, knocking Ghost Pepper out for the playoffs (like Beverley did to Russell Westbrook a few years ago)…

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And then Draymond Green murders Beverley (in the NBA’s first ever on-court homicide) and gets banned for life. Dynasty over. There’s like a 10 percent chance of this happening. But otherwise, even though Houston played the Dubs better than people remember in last year’s Conference Finals, I just don’t see this Dubs team fucking around and losing focus and dropping even one game in this series. Think Rockets fans will be doing MVP chants for the Beard when they’re down by 25 in the fourth quarter and about to get swept? Um, no.

San Antonio over Memphis 4-0: The Grit-n-Grind Grizz deserve so much credit for overcoming an Iwo Jima of a season to make the playoffs. But the Spurs are gonna wipe the floor with them.

Oklahoma City over Dallas 4-1: I referred to the East as the JV Conference earlier, even though that side of the bracket is actually much more balanced and competitive. The reason, of course, is that the top two teams in the league are in the West, and three-seed OKC is probably dead even with the East favorites. I have a ton of respect for Dirk and Rick Carlisle and what Dallas managed to do with a patchwork roster this year—and that’s the only reason I’m not predicting a sweep, because the Thunder are going to run the Mavs off the floor.

LA Clippers over Portland 4-2: The Clippers, despite being the biggest head-case franchise west of Cleveland, are probably the fifth best team in the league. They’re really good, even if no one’s sure how they’re going to react to reintegrating Blake Griffin. I’m probably a little biased toward the Blazers because of my love of both PDX and Oakland’s own Damian Lillard, but I think Portland will push th Clippers and send this to six before CP3 puts his foot down. Keep representing the O, Dame.

Second Round

Golden State over LA Clippers 4-0: I’m probably being too cocky here. The Clippers really shouldn’t get swept in this series. But there are a couple reasons I think it will happen: 1) The Dubs mind-fucked the Clips early this year with that big comeback in LA; and 2) This Dubs team fucking HATES this Clippers team because of the 2014 playoff loss, the shit Doc Rivers talked this offseason, and the years of chippy play. I think the Dubs are going to come out and do their best to embarrass the Clippers.

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San Antonio over Oklahoma City 4-2: I reallllllly want to pick an OKC upset. But I can’t. This would be a fantastic series, but the discipline and coaching of the Spurs trumps the athleticism of Westbrook and Kevin Durant, who will walk off the floor in Oklahoma City for the final time (yeah, I’m calling it) with a loss.

Conference Finals

Golden State over San Antonio 4-3: It’s the series we’re all waiting for—the series that is most likely going to end my life. By far the two best teams in basketball, the offensive juggernaut that just finished the greatest regular season of all time against the impenetrable defensive machine. Having watched these teams play this season, though, I think Steph, Klay, and Draymond have enough magic in them to get the buckets when they need them—and the Spurs never had a good offensive game against the Dubs, even in the one they won. I would pick Dubs in six, but I can’t see San Antonio losing an elimination game at home, considering they went 40-1 there this year, so the ultimate trump card—homecourt in Game 7—pushes the Dubs to the Finals.

NBA FINALS

Golden State over Cleveland 4-1: Part of me even thinks it’s generous to give this stupid Cavs team even one win—I’m only chalking up the one out of respect for what LeBron is capable of. But the Dubs figured the Cavs out in the Finals last year, and I have seen nothing to convince me that Cleveland has an answer for Golden State’s Lineup of Death. Also, I just want to see this go 5 games so that the Dubs can finish off the greatest season of all time with a championship victory in front of the fans in Oakland.

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God, I hope I didn’t jinx this.

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My Off the Cuff, Completely Uninformed MLB 2016 Season Preview

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I’m not gonna bother with too much of a preamble here. Y’all know the drill. Baseball is more than just my favorite sport: It’s basically my first true love. But I’m far too busy—thanks, adulthood—to follow the offseason transaction wire or read season previews like I did when I was a bookstore clerk killing time for eight hours a day. Still, I have to get my picks on record, so here’s my annual MLB Season Preview. I know this didn’t go up until a week after the season started, but I promise it was mostly written before then—as you’ll surmise from my Word Series pick, who suffered a key first-week injury. (Note: I didn’t change the pick out of any sense of honesty or morality. Just sheer laziness.) Anyway, as always, the best strategy with this column is to print it out, take it to Vegas, and bet the other way. Because I know nothing.

REGULAR SEASON

AL EAST

Toronto 89-73 – For years, I would always pick the Jays to win the AL East, and they always let me down. Last year, I finally jumped off the bandwagon, saying, “I’m not falling for the Blue Jays’ act anymore”—so of course they finally got it together and won the division. They lost David Price to the division rival Sawx in the offseason, but they’ve still got the best lineup in baseball, with reigning MVP Josh Donaldson and Bat-Flip King Jose Bautista, so I think they’ll repeat. I may just be saying this because I want to see Joey Bats in the playoffs again.

Baltimore 86-76 (Wild Card) – I think the O’s will get a good bounceback this year—they’ve got a lot of “solid vet” type guys on the team. And while he may behave like a punk little kid on the field sometimes, Manny Machado is probably gonne be a legit MVP candidate for the forseeable future. In fact, I’ll go so far as to predict that he goes nuts this year, and wins the MVP, and carries Baltimore into the playoffs.

New York Yankees 81-81 – The Yanks kinda had everything go right for them last year. Would you bet on A-Rod and Teixeira repeating their renaissance seasons from last year? I wouldn’t.

Boston 78-84 – Do I even need to say it?.

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Tampa Bay 76-86 – The Rays have a chance to have a decent young rotation, but their lineup? Yuck.

AL CENTRAL

Cleveland 90-72 – I asked my buddy Sean, a native Ohioan, about his Indians the other day. His response was, “We’ve got pitching. But we’ve had pitching. We still can’t hit.” Well, I think having Francisco Lindor for the whole year will help, and they’ll get a nice year from Jason Kipnis and some power (if not a lot of average) out of the Carlos Santana/Mike Napoli combo. And that pitching staff? It’s dirrrrrrty.

Kansas City 88-74 (Wild Card) – KC brought back pretty much everyone from their World Series–winning squad, save for deadline acquisition Johnny Cueto, who was pretty up-and-down in his time with the Royals. The sabermetric projection systems (yeah, I took a peek, sue me) once again don’t like this team, but Baseball Prospectus thought they’d be under .500 last year, and you see how that worked out. I think they’ll have a bit of a playoff hangover, but rally late to make the playoffs.

Detroit 85-77 – The Tigers once again threw a bunch of money at the free agent market in an attempt to be a sort of Midwest Yankees. As with the Yankees of most of the last decade, the names look good on paper, but a lot of them are old; flashy names don’t flash nearly as bright when they’re on the disabled list. I think the Tigers will be pretty good, but I see them just on the outside of the playoffs.

Minnesota 81-81 – Byron Buxton has arrived. Miguel Angel Sano is big and hits baseballs really far. There’s a lot to be excited about with the Twinkies. But I feel like they were a little ahead of schedule last year, and they might need a consolidation year before they become a true contender.

Chicago White Sox 70-92 – I know people don’t believe in chemistry anymore, but shit, I can’t believe everything that went on this preseason is setting the Pale Hose up for success.

AL WEST

Houston 94-68 – A full year of Carlos Correa and continued improvement from their young players spells great promise for Houston. Don’t forget that this team was just a few outs from knocking off the Royals last year.

Texas 85-77 – This team has got some nice talent, but I don’t believe Yu Darvish will be fully operational until next year. Another team that just misses out on the playoffs. Also, I’m always obligated to note that George W. Bush once owned this team, so fuck them.

Seattle 81-81 – Another team with a nice rotation and a very questionable lineup. Free King Felix!

Orange County 77-85 – Mike Trout is so great that the only reason to pick someone else as MVP is because it’s boring to pick Mike Trout (guilty!). It’s a shame he’s wasting his prime with this Mickey Mouse (see what I did there?) team.

Oakland 71-91 – Man, what a mess. Free Sonny Gray! Also, build a goddamn stadium at the Howard Terminal, already.

NL EAST

New York Mets 92-70 – The Mets caught lightning in a bottle last year, and that may be hard to replicate—but there was no luck involved in the pitching staff. Harvey and DeGrom and Syndergaard are for real, yo.

Washington 90-72 (Wild Card) – The Nats disappointed some last year, and this is another club that has um, issues with the personalities in its clubhouse. But there’s still so much talent here, with a pitching staff fronted by a true ace, Max Scherzer, and a lineup led by Bryce Harper, who’s the closest thing we’ve had to Barry Bonds since Barry Bonds. I’d be very surprised if they don’t make it back to the postseason this year.

Miami 84-78 – Jose Fernandez is always fun. And the whole “Barry Bonds is the hitting coach and he’s 51 years old and he can still beat the entire team, including the Mighty Giancarlo Stanton, in home run derby” thing is pretty fun. And Dee Gordon is pretty fun. But this is still one of the grossest organizations in baseball.

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Philadelphia 66-96 – Just a tiny bit less shitty than the Braves.

Atlanta 64-98 – That Shelby Miller trade is gonna reap serious rewards down the road. But right now, the Major League roster is a tire fire.

NL CENTRAL

Chicago Cubs 96-66 – The prohibitive World Series favorite. Which should make everyone on the North Side of Chicago verrrrrrry nervous. (Note: The Billy Goat has already gone to work, taking a bite out of Kyle Schwarber’s leg. Sorry, Cubs fans.)

Pittsburgh  91-71 (Wild Card) – I know a lot of people are predicting that this team will take a step back, but I still like them. That outfield is gonna produce big-time.

St. Louis 86-76 – The Cards can’t be good every year for the rest of time, can they? Missing out on all their free agency targets has to hurt them, right? I can keep picking against them forever, even if I’m always wrong and they always make the playoffs, right? Right.

Milwaukee 74-88 – I never have much of an opinion on the Brewers, so I was ready to just pencil in 81-81. Then I took a look at their projected lineup. Yikes.

Cincinnati 69-93 – Yuck.

NL WEST

San Francisco 93-69 – EVEN YEAR BITCHES!!! But seriously, the Giants look solid. The lineup was really great last year, and Denard Span should be a nice addition, if he can stay healthy. And while the additions of Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzijaziajaiza are hardly guaranteed to succeed, I’ve talked myself into them. I mean, what choice do I have?

(NOTE: Okay, we’re a week into this season now, and I’m already head-over-heels in love with this team following an Opening Day blowout win, an excellent first start from Cueto, and two fantastic comeback wins over the Dodgers. God, I love baseball.)

Arizona 87-75 – I don’t know that Zack Greinke’s contract is gonna look great long-term, and I’m pretty sure that the Snakes will regret the Shelby Miller deal down the road, but there’s no doubt they made themselves better this year. I think in the AL they’d be a playoff team, but they’re not gonna quite got there in the stronger NL.

Los Angeles 84-78 – Don’t even need to say this, either.

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San Diego 73-89 – Oof.

Colorado 68-94 – Double oof.

(Note: As always, I did not try to make these records come out to .500. I’m not even going to add them up. They’re just rough benchmarks for where I see these teams ending up.)

On to the PLAYOFFS

AL Wild Card Game

Kansas City over Baltimore – We’ve seen this movie before.

ALDS

-Houston over KC in 5 – The Astros get revenge for last year’s ALDS.

-Cleveland over Toronto in 4 – I continue to believe that Cleveland’s pitching will be devastating in the playoffs.

ALCS

Cleveland over Houston in 6 – I continue to believe that Cleveland’s pitching will be devastating in the playoffs.

NL Wild Card Game

Washington over Pittsburgh – The poor Pirates keep running into nasty aces in the Wild Card game. Bumgarner, Arrieta, and now Scherzer.

NLDS

-Chicago over Washington in 4 – An upset wouldn’t shock me … but I don’t have the stones to actually predict it.

-San Francisco over New York in 5 – This would be a great series. The Mets would actually likely be a slight favorite … but I will never pick against Madison Bumgarner in an elimination game..

NLCS

Chicago over San Francisco in 6 – God, I want to make the Even Year pick so bad … but I also don’t want to jinx the Giants. (Turns out I jinxed the Cubs! Well, me and everyone else for the last 100-plus years.) And besides, this pick sets up…

World Series

Chicago over Cleveland in 5: Are you kidding me? A Cubs-Indians World Series? The two most cursed franchises in baseball, if not all of pro sports? This would be insane. And the Cubs would win. And then the Earth will implode on itself. It’s been nice knowing y’all.

And, for just a little more fun, here are my Regular Season Awards

AL MVP: Manny Machado (As stated above.)

AL Cy Young: Corey Kluber (Might as well go all-in on the Tribe.)

AL ROY: Byron Buxton (Just gonna go with the obvious choice.)

NL MVP: Bryce Harper (I’m just gonna pick him every year for the next decade.)

NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw (Probably should have won last year.)

NL ROY: Steven Matz (Lefty looked pretty good for the Mets last year.)

There you have it. My only guarantee is that today is my favorite day of the year. Happy Opening Day, everyone!

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