Friday, June 25, 2010

Tim Winton: The Riders

I'm still slogging through, trying to read all of these books that are weighing down my house, causing it to sink further into the ground and causing an earthquake hazard to anyone who visits or passes through the living room. Tim Winton's "The Riders" has been in my house a long time, probably a hand-me-down from dad, though unclear, since it didn't have one of his trademark bookmark post-it thingies in it. The book is good, readable fiction, which I haven't been reading much of. But I was frustrated, because the back of the book ruins the main conceit of the plot, which makes the book almost boring from the get-go. A man, Scully, is in Ireland, working like a slave to get a house into shape for his wife and daughter to show up. Only, like the back of the book says, his daughter shows up without his wife. I have to read the back of the book to decide if I'm going to read all these books- I mean, doesn't everyone do some version of reading the back of the book before they decide to read a book? The alternative is just judging the book by its (front) cover, which I admit I do as well. You either read the cover, skim a few pages, read a review, or read a book because someone recommends it to you. So obviously, Winton and/or his publisher felt it was no big deal that I knew his wife wasn't going to show.

But it was a big deal. A good third of the book takes place before his wife arrives in Ireland, and Scully is a lovable character, and Winton doesn't write any sense of foreboding into the plot. Scully is lovestruck, the reader gets that, but he doesn't have any clue of what's going to happen. The reader knows, but not because Winton tells her. She knows because she read the back of the book. Weird. According to the book, the genre is "psychological thriller," so I guess the first third of the book is more thrilling because you know where it's going, but I'm not current on this genre- is that how it's supposed to work? "The Riders" is a good, if strange and not fabulous read, and now you know what happens, too. It's not a spoiler if it's already spoiled, right?

Film Friday: Forclosed


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Howard Swindle: Deliberate Indifference

About a year ago, I wrote a book review about Tulia, Texas where some bad cops busted almost 50 black men for a drug ring that didn't exist. I expressed my surprise that this shit still happens, reminded myself that yes, this shit does still happen, even in Oakland, Oscar Grant land, and then promptly forgot about this book (I've mentioned that I read a lot of books and have a bad memory). So while reading Howard Swindle's fabulous "Deliberate Indifference" which tells another tragic story of police brutality, this time resulting in the death of a black man in a Texas prison, but in 1988, I kept thinking, well, it was another time in another (shitty) place. I vaguely remembered reading "Tulia", but kept telling myself that the incidents in Tulia were the ones Swindle refers to a few times in the early '80s. No, this shit is still going down.

Short version: a black man and his two friends (brothers) are driving through Texas (they live in Louisiana) on Christmas. They have some alcohol in the car but are not drunk. They are pulled over, arrested for no real charge, brought to jail in Texas. Loyal Garner, Jr is beaten when he asks for a phone call. He is beaten to the point where he is non responsive, then brought back to his cell and left there, comatose, till the next morning. He subsequently dies in a hospital in a neighboring county. Although at least one of the three officers involved has a history of brutality, the officers are finally charged with murder, and civil rights abuses. It takes a long time for justice to (sort of) be served.

Swindle relays the eponymous deliberate indifference of Eastern Texas (a region he describes as being particularly insular and, some would say, backwards, though Tulia is in the panhandle, which is not Eastern Texas, so I can't say my general feelings about Texas and the state's relationship to W or really the state at all have improved) to civil rights. The state (not the State) mechanisms basically operate as though the 60s, civil rights movements, civil rights acts, integration, etc, never happened. The political correctness that I was raised with is only a tiny piece of the puzzle, and shows what a farce PC really is: in Hemphill, driving while black really *is* a crime, and Loyal Garner, Jr. paid with his life. The state, from the judges, the sheriffs, the police officers, juries, etc, all operate in the status quo that black "boys" have a place, and stepping out of it, or even driving through someone else's place is a very serious offense. Black people are scared to step out of line or challenge this place, because it can result in dire consequences. One of Garner's offenses was to ask (meekly) the police officers who had arrested him for driving what he was being charged with, and later, to ask for his phone call. Basically, to ask for his rights. I am using the present tense, because if I remember riht, it's the proper way to discuss a text, and also, because as much as I want to pretend that this doesn't happen anymore, as I said above, Tulia wasn't that long ago. And Texas really isn't as far away as I pretend it is. If Oakland falls into the ocean or burns up next week (more on that later), I've now ruled out Texas and Arizona as places to migrate to.

Thanks to some very dedicated lawyers, Garner's assailants are, after two trials and many missteps, found guilty of murder and sentenced to prison. However, the corrupt, racist, yes, backwards state mechanism grinds on. The town doctor, an authority figure who has basically treated every person around, paid the bail for two of the three cops, and denied under oath that Garner could have died from wounds inflicted by the officers. He also denied ever having treated any previous injuries sustained in the jail, though it was clear that the injuries could have been sustained nowhere else. The judge in the first trial against the officers refused to allow justice to be served, clearly having a predisposed outcome in mind, and remained on the bench. The sheriff, the highest elected official and I believe the boss of the officers, was never charged, and was reelected after the whole fiasco, with an even higher "approval" rate. And according to Swindle, the town became even more racially divided.

I've been reading this book for a week or so, and the Mehserle trial (the BART cop who shot Oscar Grant in the back) is about to wrap up. As usual, I picked up this book by chance from my shelves, and coincidences just seem to happen. But the big picture is brought home by literature, as usual, and yes, I'm being a little cheesy. Swindle closes with some really powerful thoughts, after pointing out that "jailhouse testimony" is never really taken very seriously, because jurors and judges are always going to take the badge's word over the suspects word, and if you're in jail, you're presumed guilty of something, therefore a liar. This makes, according to one of the lawyers prosecuting the Texas cops, beating up an inmate, the perfect crime. The victim can't easily accuse the officer or jailer, because the jailer's word is always going to win, and if he does, he runs the risk of retaliation, and the risk of the vicious cycle, where once again the cop says, "No I didn't," and everyone believes him. When the whole system is corrupt, like in Eastern Texas, and the doctors and judges and EMTs and bailiffs are all in the ole boys club, there's not a whole lot going for you.

But it's not just Texas, and it's not just 1988, Swindle points out. Rodney King would have just been another black man charged with failure to stop, and his serious injuries explained away, if not for the incident being recorded in 1991. The "Cop's Code," Swindle writes, had already been at work: "One of the four officers charged in King's beating had been suspended previously for kicking and hitting a handcuffed man; another was under investigation for making racial slurs and physically abusing two black college students..." It's a system-wide problem, not just in Eastern Texas, that allows this to continue. It's easy for me to say "it can't happen here," or "it's not happening here," but it's happening here. Swindle says, well, yeah, but, at least in LA they (after the riots) had a large investigation into the force and pointed to a large failure in leadership. I.E., they didn't just blame the bad cops, they said the whole apparatus was at fault. Did anything change? I don't know, I live in Oakland.

Oakland, where a BART officer shot Oscar Grant in the back on January 1st, 2009. BART police are a separate entity from Oakland police- but the shooting did happen in Oakland. Jurisdictional issues were an issue in the Garner case, as well. Oscar Grant did not have a clean record like Garner, but as I wrote above, the credibility issue is not negated because a person has a "past" or has been incarcerated. (Criminal justice system is a topic not for today, kids.) What Oscar Grant did have, like Rodney King, was a technological witness: cell phone videos that showed that not only was Grant restrained, but that the use of force outforced the problem at hand. Grant was prone and cuffed, with another officer on top of him, and didn't really need to be tazed, or shot in the back, whichever Mehserle *really* meant to do.

I'm pretty much anticipating riots in Oakland when the verdict comes out. Apparently OPD is, too, and I heard they even had a tank in their "wargame"-like preparations. My sister wisely asked me last week what "side" I was on. I was surprised at first, not knowing there was a side to be on- a cop shot a prone, restrained man in the back on a crowded BART platform. But she was right- I'm not sure I want this dude to go away for life. Selfishly, and morally, I'm thinking that if he isn't sentenced for a very very long time, there will be riots in Oakland, and I will be scared to leave my house unless it's to head for the hills. If he isn't found guilty at all, I will feel that I have been transported to Eastern Texas. But there's more to it than that. As Swindle summed it up, the "win" for Los Angeles was that (hopefully) the system was revamped. BART police is a shitty system. They're armed and operate outside of but within many jurisdictions. They have no oversight committee- I don't know who ever decided they had jurisdiction to investigate the murder charges, but I know originally it was Oakland because the murder occurred in Oakland. But OPD is not in charge of BART, and Oakland surely has enough on its plate to take on another broken system. If Mehserle is sentenced to a bajillion years in prison and the case just goes away, he'll have a miserable life, and nothing will be solved. If he is sentenced to whatever a lot of years in prison is, he will still have a miserable life and hopefully the people who allowed this to happen will be held responsible.

We have a long way to go. This can happen here. This does happen here.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

TLR Tuesday

(twin lens reflex)


Monday, June 21, 2010

Oh, Happy Mondays: Sofafree, Oakland, and Fame

I made the front page of the fabulous news outlet Oakland Local today (although below the fold, I'm still tickled pink):

The whole blog is here, featuring one of the sofafrees found under the overpass right by my house, in the beautiful light.

In honor of this special moment, I proudly debut a sofafree, taken yesterday.


Friday, June 18, 2010

Luis Alberto Urrea: Across the Wire

In my effort to read all of my books, I inadvertantly picked up a book I've already read. Usually I can identify which books I've read by their covers: I know it's weird, but I have a very visual memory and even the color of the book is enough to tell me that I've read a book. This time my memory failed me. I am also never quite sure when reading if I've actually read a book till well into the book. Fortunately Urrea's "Across the Wire" was a fast read, and worth re-reading. I also vaguely remembered the name, and it turns out I've read another book of his, the novel "The Hummingbird's Daughter," which I remember enjoying, but can't be sure of, because I read too much to remember any book precisely. This is part of why I started blogging my book reviews, but since I can't find it here, I must have read it when it first came out, in 2006, before I started the blog.

"Across the Wire" is a series of short essays about Urrea's travels in the dumps of Tijuana with a missionary and the work they did there, the people they encountered, and the classic discord between the two sides of the border. The book is fastpaced and not really a thorough look at the issues, but paints vivid images for the reader, and I imagine even someone not obsessed with the border would be moved. Although published almost 20 years ago, it's still timely, and especially so with the move to further criminalize immigrants from Mexico and places further South in Arizona. Urrea touches on push/pull factors in the book, and it's hard to imagine anyone not desparate to get out of a life of trash collecting in a dump with no running water, no electricity, no medical services, etc, even if it means living "illegally" somewhere else. Urrea offers no solutions, just a bleak reality. He ends on a positive note, leaving the reader with a sense that something, even small scale, can be done. False hope or a good attitude? It's hard to know.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Monks in a Zoo

A few months ago, I wrote about photography as getting in the way of lived experience. There's a new movie coming out, "Camera, Camera" (incidentally the first movie I've wanted to see in a long time) about the colonization of Laos by the cameras of Western travelers and their lenses. The New York Times blog has a fascinating article and video clip of the movie today. The clip they have is better than the trailer embedded in the official "Camera, Camera" site, and more disturbing. There is a devastating moment when barefoot monks walk by the official camera in orange robes, attempting to ignore the camera with their begging bowls: "As the film shows, this sacred ritual is now swarmed by scores of bustling tourists, some of whom lean in with cameras and flashes for closeups as the monks pad silently past." It appears there is at least one camera per monk, and the amateur photographers aka tourists are about as respectful of the monks as they would be of tigers in a zoo. It's a depressing moment.

I've been trying to think about these issues when out and about photographing, which I do a lot. I was at the fair yesterday, and I really wanted to get a shot of the young women in the lemonade/corn dog booth. I've been shooting a lot with my twin lens reflex cameras, the kind with the two little lenses on the front, that take film. These cameras cause me to slow way down- I have to do a light meter reading before I can even begin, and because I have to look down into them to decide where to aim, it takes me a few minutes to focus. The photos come out square, so compositionally it's a totally new effort. It also means I have to stand there for awhile, which can be creepy for humans. The shot was perfect colorwise, and to capture the "essence" of the fair. But the girls quickly became wise to me and stopped doing their ornate corn dog dipping ritual right in front of the window and I settled for a picture of the lemonade cups in their vibrant primary colors. Was I being a colonizer of the "carny" atmosphere? Or just looking for a pretty picture, full of over saturated color in the style I like, without though of whose feelings I was affecting? I did catch myself having the thought yesterday that people at the fair are used to being photographed. Is that a useful justification? Or just a justification that allows me to keep on keeping on?

I've been shooting a lot more inanimate objects. I get weird looks lying on my back in the street trying to get the perfect shot of a car, or taking pictures of the 0 comments

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Valentina Napolitano: Migration, Mujercitas, and Medicine Men

"Migration, Mujercitas, and Medicine Men" is one of those books that I don't think normal people read, unless they are a)in college or b)writing a thesis. I'm neither. I am not sure where I picked this book up, but I'm sure I chose it because it's about many things I'm interested in: Mexico, migration (mostly within Mexico), the Catholic Church and liberation theology, gender roles and their de/construction, etc. And I read it now because I'm still trying to get through all of my books, although I've given up on reading them in alphabetical order (can't believe I started that project in 2007!). Valentina Napolitano has written a dense, masterful enthography, just the kind of book I loved to read during my liberal arts days. I love serious nonfiction, but a review seems unnecessary on

I will say, if you're studying poor neighborhoods in urban Mexico, or if you're interested in how the practice of holistic medicine is intertwined with CEB's, or curious about how quincieneras affect the liminality of young women in Mexican suburbs, it seems like this is the book to go to. It's a fascinating read, but not really... something normal people read. The other reason to read it is if you're a big fat dork like me who reads everything they can about Mexico and gender and especially things about Mexico AND gender. Wait till you see what I've got next...

The Curse of the "Cougar" Moniker

I hate that older single women dating younger men are called "cougars." I just hate that expression. While pretending to be playful, the expression hides so much more- since when are cats? It also suggests that we are just our nether regions, our "pussies." As The Gender Bender Blog writes
An older woman who dates much younger men merits a label while an older man who dates much younger women is fine? The whole (ageist) premise behind the “cougar” label is that after a certain age, women get desperate for men and prey on younger men. Oh, what she wouldn’t do to get in bed with a younger man! Meanwhile, reverse the roles – if you have an older man who dates much younger women (like older men who divorce their wives and find themselves younger trophy wives) that’s not perceived as desperate or predatory. Instead it’s almost like a status symbol, just something more to make the men seem more distinguished and successful.
The rich old (white) man with the young, booby, babe on his arm is cool. The older woman with a young man on her arm is a predatory cat, practically "robbing the cradle." Really?

Kim Cattrell, apparently an actress playing a main character in "Sex in the City" (we all know I don't have a TV), turned down a magazine cover that would have required she pose with a cougar (the animal kind, not an older, single, female woman who seeks out younger men), and the astute blog suggests if more women took a stance against the icon of the cougar, women over "forty wouldn't have to constantly reiterate that they don't have to be either sexless matrons or sexed up cougars." It really has sort of become a dichotomy: Meg Whitman or a Sarah Palin type in her low cut shirt. (By the way, why does the media spend so much time on Sarah Palin's sex appeal? Can we imagine a world where this happens with male politicians? Would Secretary of State Hilary Clinton be more popular if she wore something other than classy business suits?)

I lost it, though, when I saw that the SFSPCA is advertising older cats with the "cougar" motif. Sure, cougars actually ARE cats. They're not necessarily OLDER cats. (By the way, if you search for "cougar" on google, the first definition that comes up is the urban dictionary definition, the one I'm talking about that bugs the shit out of me. In fact, it's quite hard to find information on *cougars* via google. You have to filter through a lot of shit about adult women to get there.) A *real* cougar, though, is a large cat, not an older cat as the SFSCPA would have you believe. They're about 50 to 105 lbs, and serious predators. I'm guessing the SFSPCA doesn't have any of them for adoption. Playing on an ageist, anti-feminist theme is a crappy way to advertise pet adoptions.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Follow Up: More Politics of Food

I finally found the article that I couldn't find when I wrote about fitness last week. Oakland North has a map showing supermarkets, stores with liquor licenses, farmer's markets, produce markets, demographics, etc. There's a great link to Oakland Local's Food Justice section, including a map of Oakland's Food System.

I visited LA last week, which is one of my least favorite places on earth. I love my family, but LA gets under my skin like a bad case of bedbugs that I can't shake. It's a city that you can't walk in and really isn't even designed for public transportation, which I've heard is pretty shoddy. I'm reminded of John Ross's description of Mexico City and the double-decker-freeway that was being constructed: the more freeways LA builds, the more the city sprawls out and seems to be consumed by the cars and the smog. Fitness is totally a privilege in Los Angeles- think of all the plastic surgery and the gyms and the yoga studios and the stars and the star-wanna-be's with the focus on appearance. I know there is more to LA, and I know I'm a northern California snob and that it's my job to hate LA, but I think much of the emphasis on appearance in LA is based on a structure of privilege. The people who can eat right and workout do, on the backs of those who can make the fancy supermarkets and gyms and yoga studios work. These folks can do the laundry, stock the shelves, vacuum, mop, etc. And wash the cars that travel on endless miles of freeway. Fitness is not a given in a city of freeways. And owning a car to get in and out of the city is not a given, and living close to... anything is not a given.

Watch Ross Ching's amazing time lapse video of Los Angeles for an amazing view of LA without cars. You can read about how he made the video, or just enjoy it. The city is huge, and the images are armageddon-like, fantastical, and unreal- not because they're photoshopped, but because LA is not possible without the ability to drive to fancy food and fine exercise equipment and an underclass who can't drive, and who can only walk to the liquor store.

Running on Empty from Ross Ching on Vimeo.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Film Friday

clean car

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Friday, June 04, 2010

Exercising Because You Can: The Privilege of Fitness

About two years ago, I saw a man on my commute home from work on a little scooter thingy, the kind that were so popular about five years ago, that you put one foot on and push with the other foot, holding handles. He wore birkenstock-type sandals and socks and carried a reusable grocery bag. I smiled a little smile to myself and thought something along the lines of "How cute!" because there are not a whole lot people who do errands on scooters or in any other non-car ways in my neighborhood. That little smile has bugged me ever since. I seem him almost every day, and I have begun to totally rethink his mode of transportation. I don't think he chooses to ride his scooter around the neighborhood except as maybe an alternative to walking; I think he is car-less and his scooter is his wheels. (I still think his birkenstocks are kind of cute).

I tell that story because I've been thinking a lot about what it means to run, to jog, to go to the gym, to ride your bike in events like Critical Mass or to work, or to fuss about Muni/AC Transit/BART service when you *can* drive. I'm not saying anyone shouldn't exercise or take public transit, or that they shouldn't fight for public transportation to be better. I'm just thinking of all the people who walk, bus and bike because they have to, not because they want to or think it's a good idea. People who are seriously affected by the cuts in public transportation because their walks to bus stops are doubled and tripled, or their waits for buses are doubled and tripled. People who are seriously affected when a Muni bus or BART train fails and more affected than just enough to tweet and laugh about it. People who don't join a gym to exercise, and don't join Critical Mass because bike safety in downtown San Francisco isn't really a high priority.

Today I walked to some errands because I couldn't drag myself out of bed. I walk a fair amount, but I always walk with some sort of purpose, although compared with people who walk because they have to walk, it seems frivolous. I walk with my dog a lot, and I walk with my camera a lot. I never walk without one of those- I barely know how. But I decided to walk to the grocery store, which meant no Mac. I did bring my camera with me, but I knew that there was little chance I'd find something to shoot- it's not a super scenic route and the light was terrible at midday. It turns out I didn't even take my camera out of my bag. The weather was atrocious, for Oakland, hot and humid, and I could see that I was potentially going to get drenched on the way back, but it was too hot to hurry. I saw very few other people walking to anywhere till I got closer to the stores, but they were there. Once I got to the more commercial area, there were definite signs of walkers, including people pushing the little mini-carts designed to push home groceries.

Once in the grocery store, I realized I had to change what I was going to buy based on what I could and would carry home. I skipped buying two heavy items- beer and laundry detergent- because really, I didn't want to deal with it on the hilly and hot walk home. I suppose I could have caught a bus, which probably is something regular walkers to the store do, but I'm not that familiar with AC Transit. I frequently take BART and Muni, but I don't know a single Oakland bus line, and I'm not even sure if one runs in my neighborhood. I see a lot of people standing around and waiting, and it seemed a lot more practical just to buy beer later at my corner store (and spend more money) and make another trip for laundry detergent.

So I walked back with my stuff, and I know I passed at least 4 corner stores/liquor stores, and I'm sure more, those are just the ones I've been to. I probably could have gotten 2 of my 4 items there, plus the beer- dish soap and onions- at at least two of them. I would have paid more, but I wouldn't have had to walk as far, in that nasty heat. One of them would have let me bring Mac into the store, which makes me happy. This article talks about how in many poor and "minority" neighborhoods, this kind of corner/liquor store is much easier to access than a grocery store, unlike in richer/whiter neighborhoods. It sure rings true in my neighborhood and in those of other other bloggers. And if you're walking/biking/scootering to your food, and you have to carry it home, and you're anything like me, I know where you'd go most of the time. The article is not simple: grocery stores aren't the only answer. On the other hand, eating healthy is expensive, and even harder if you don't have access to a store with expensive but healthy items. Karen Jetter writes
For people in higher-income neighborhoods, access to the healthier substitutes recommended for a healthy diet is as easy as their access to a supermarket. Almost all supermarkets stock a variety of the recommended substitutes. However, small independent grocery stores, usually found in low-income neighborhoods, often do not have in stock the higher-fiber breads and whole grains, or ground beef with ≤10% fat. The items may never be available, or available only some of the time. Within these neighborhoods, people who lack transportation may not have consistent access to healthier foods.
This is one of those race/gender/class issues. Janani Balasubramanian of Racialicious unpacks the white male privilege of the sustainable agriculture/local food movements. The back to the kitchen to prepare nice healthy food movement is nice, she writes, if you like to look back to (and project forward) nice wholesome family dinners where mom cooks and serves dinner at the kitchen table on the family farm. Sustainable, organic food is great, but extremely expensive at this point: none of the corner stores near me sell it, and the books advocating it (with the exception of Fast Food Nation) pretty much ignore it. Jamelle at Post Bourgie discusses a recent study about where people shop: skinny people shop at Whole Foods. Cooking isn't easy, she says, it takes time, which not everyone has: some people are working, and don't have time to navigate expensive (crowded) grocery stores, cookbooks, and the kitchen.

So back to being fit. I think it's great that people are walking, biking, eating well, going to the gym. I think it's important to acknowledge the privilege involved. When we walk and stop and get coffee, when we walk the dog because he needs it, when we're annoyed because the bus is late but it won't jeopardize or job or our childcare situation, that's privilege. When we can drive to any market we want, and get any food we want, that's privilege.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Tom Piazza: City of Refuge

I haven't read Tom Piazza's "City of Refuge" before, but I've read it before. Like books about Mexico and the border, I pick up almost everything I can pick up about New Orleans and Katrina, so somewhere I picked up this book. It's ok, I guess, but it's been done before: Dan Baum did it better with "Nine Lives," and he did it better in a nonfiction form. Spike Lee did it better in documentary film. Those works are real: Piazza's fiction is like reading the book for people who somehow missed Katrina and need to be reminded about what happened and the emotional impact of it all.

"City of Refuge" follows two extremely over determined characters: Craig, the middle class educated white New Orleans transplant who moves with his young, white, middle class wife to New Orleans and becomes the editor of an alt-weekly music journal, living the dream. Except that his marital life sucks, and he can only get through the day using his family therapy techniques. The other character, SJ, lives in the Ninth Ward and is almost 60, a black man, an upright pillar of the community who does construction for a living and is altogether rather Jesus like. He is a father figure for his sister's son who is trying to find a way in the crime-ridden New Orleans world and he helps out his sister stay on the right path. He stifles memories of Vietnam and generally stands in for black people in the Ninth Ward. The Hurricane hits and of course the white family has the means to flee, though their evacuation is not seemless, and the black family is stuck in New Orleans. The Jesus-like elder statesman even helps rescue other people in the community after he finds a boat floating in the muck. We watch his nephew struggle with hard choices and his down-and-out sister make conniving choices in a makeshift camp thingy. Meanwhile, the white couple are driven further apart than back together by their struggles and traumas. Because white people don't have economic problems, right, only marital ones?

I kept reading this book, and there are moments close to real genius, where Piazza hits it: the men really are shaken to their core and don't know what to do or how to do it. They've been uprooted. Their lives are gone, their homes are gone, they're totally disoriented and lost. Reading those moments made *me* feel disoriented and wondering where I was, which is not a good feeling. Craig, the white dude, is stunned and angered by the people walking around like everything is normal, which is a humbling thought: I walk around every day like everything is normal. It's not, for so many people all over the world, and it's good to acknowledge this. We live in our little bubbles, and it's vertigo inducing to be reminded of this. Piazza does this well. But if you need a book about the Katrina experience, go straight to Dan Baum or even watch Spike Lee, and skip this one.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Matt McCarthy: Odd Man Out

This is a great baseball book written by a baseball nerd. It's also a book written by a nerd, who happens to have played baseball, which makes it all the more likable, at least for a baseball nerd like me. I don't mean a person who is obsessed with baseball, I mean a NERD, like me, who is a baseball nut. Right. Matt McCarthy went to Yale and is a doctor now, but once he was a professional baseball player, which made him the eponymous "Odd Man Out," or a baseball nerd. He has written a un-put-down-able book about his quick tour with the Angel's farm system and what it's like there. I seriously read this book in two days with wide eyes. It's ugly.

McCarthy is pretty deadpan about the whole thing, and leaves the reader to pass their own judgement, and a lot of times paints himself sort of as an anthropologist dropped in just to observe the racist, homophobic, misogynist, cut-throat world of minor league ball. I'm not sure if he really was the unbiased almost saint-like figure he paints himself as, but it's not that hard to buy it, since he really was an outsider. There aren't a lot of Ivy League players to be drafted to pro-ball. Craig Breslow, now of the Oakland A's (don't get me started), and McCarthy's Yale teammate and best friend, was one of 6 Ivy Leaguers in the big leagues in 2009. So when McCarthy describes the going-ons of his teammates from the perspective of someone literate and not particularly racist, it is a cut above and actually credible. He has an educated head on his shoulders.

For example, in the minors, everyone who is from any Spanish speaking country is a "Dominican." It doesn't matter if they're from the DR or not, they're "Dominican." The "Americans" don't speak to the "Dominicans" and visa versa. It doesn't sound like there's a translator amongst them who sort of bridges the gap, even between teammates, so no one talks to each other. The players even have decided that one group will swing at certain pitches and the other will swing at others. The Dominicans shower first and seem to have fun (a lot of it sexual) in the club house, and the Americans shower later. The Dominicans sit in the back of the bus on bus rides- and there are many. When Spanish speakers and English speakers are assigned to room together, they don't speak to each other, because they can't. No one learns each other's names, because they can't.

This is one of the oddest parts of the whole book to me: minor league ball, at least rookie ball in the Angel's organization as McCarthy describes it, is not about teamwork, or even about winning games. The team doesn't care if they win their post-season games, they care about going home. This is partially due to their grueling schedule- they have 3 off days or something in 80 days with 17 hour bus rides during the 3 off days. But it's also due to the competition: these guys are competing for Major League roster spots, and they don't really care about the long term status of their team. But the Angel's organization doesn't seam to care about their team, either, except for the bizarre and seemingly unstable/unhinged manager, Tom Kotchman (dad of Casey Kotchman). If there were team building exercises, McCarthy leaves them out (I don't think he did). There's no introductions, there's no team workouts to speak of- these guys literally don't know each other's names. It's bizarre. I wonder if the majors are like this, too, but I doubt it. In Major League ball, the team DOES matter. At one point, McCarthy notices the lack of emotion in the game, even when first place is on the line. "In this league, and in this organization, wearing your heart on your sleeve seemed to be viewed with contempt. I wondered what long-term effect that had on people."

The only team bonding comes at the expense of the "other." The team can't help ridiculing Mormons- they are based in Provo, Utah, and they can't believe the Mormons there. They can't wait to take advantage of the "Jack Mormons" who say one thing and do another, which for the men on the team, means sleeping with them. Kotchman's lucky charm is a giant black dildo, which he waves around and hits people with- his "rally dildo." He says he doesn't care what his teammates look like or believe, as long as they aren't gay. The players talk about "slump busters"- the fat women they have to sleep with to get out of their slumps, but then harass each other if the women are "too" fat. They save their money to go to strip clubs, and at one point there is an excruciating incident with a house party and two high school girls. McCarthy played the uninvolved anthropologist here- I desperately wanted him to walk out, or do SOMETHING, but he stayed and drank himself silly. According to his book, that's all he did. I want to believe it.

McCarthy has moments of true insight.
Baseball, the old saying goes, is a game of failure. But on Opening Day, everyone has a blank slate. Gone are the painful slumps and disappointing defeats of the previous season and in their place are an unbridled optimism and the sometimes irrational belief that this year, for once, everything will come together. For many, Opening day is the happiest day of the year. It marks the time before the aches and pains of the season set in, before the mental aspects of the game begin to toy with your psyche- it's the time when, in theory, baseball can still be fun.
McCarthy is talking about being a player, I think, but also a fan. This is the story of an A's fan in the off years- the moment we suspend disbelief, even though we know the team has nothing, and think wow, it's April, we waited all winter for this, it's gonna be FUN this year! We know it's irrational, the pain hasn't started yet, but maybe, just maybe. The crowds fill the stands for one of the few games of the year, and everything looks bright. It is almost always sunny on opening day (it was freezing this year and Ben Sheets looked terrible, but we were optimistic). Baseball is always a game of failure. Baseball nerds like to beat themselves up. We're masochistic assholes that way. But we keep coming back. It's an addiction.

It's a great read, and fun to hear how he played with future Major Leaguers, many of whom are still in the game. Their Minor League antics are often strange- Eric Aybar in the showers, Bobby Jenks (well documented) attitude, and Casey Kotchman one of the few gentlemen that McCarthy meets. Joe Saunders, future All Star, pisses the whole team off, because he was a #1 draft pick and knows it and flaunts it. He really respects and adores Craig Breslow, which makes me want to respect him a little more, even though he usually pisses me off when he comes in from the bullpen. I will try, McCarthy, out of respect for you.

McCarthy leaves baseball when the Angels cut him at spring training in his second year. The pitching coach he's been working with offers to call around and get him a spot on another team, but he's had enough. From one nerd to another, I would have had enough, too. His arm hurts, the travel is grueling, and the people aren't really fun to be around. There's no sense of teamwork or community, and McCarthy strikes me as the kind of guy where competition becomes exhausting, not exhilerating. Not cut out for professional sports, basically. As a doctor, baseball antics still make him smile. He's a true baseball nerd.