The Flaws of Rankings Power Rankings

31 03 2015

power

  1. Ranking things under the pretense that treating opinion as fact is somehow humorous in its absurdity, while we each secretly wish that our opinions were treated like fact
  2. Ranking things under the pretense that the external world isn’t inexorably altered by our perception of it
  3. Ranking things under the pretense that we have the ability to truly communicate our feelings with one another
  4. Ranking things under the pretense that the world hasn’t already changed between the time the things are ranked and when those rankings are read
  5. Ranking things under the pretense that said rankings aren’t at least partially the product of the norms of the society they come from
  6. Ranking things under the pretense that people won’t be divided into halves that believe that rankings should be earned by past performance and those that should be projected for future performance
  7. Ranking things under the pretense that the word power has any meaning left in our cultural vocabulary
  8. Ranking things under the pretense that adding a numbered list to anything lends it an air of authority
  9. Ranking things under the pretense that people read any ranking other than the single item on the list that they personally care about
  10. Ranking things under the pretense that objective truth exists




Road Game

25 02 2015

The playground appears as though colored by children: the sky an unbroken blue, the trees scribbled green, the ground a sunburned shade of yellow. The heat swirls and leaps, biting my calves above my sneakers and white cotton socks. From beneath the ancient, storm-tarnished basketball hoop I take twelve careful paces and draw a line in the sand with my heel. I turn, and allow the basketball to fall from my fingers and strike the ground, leaving a whisper of dust behind. Flanking me are a dozen concrete obelisks, fifteen stories tall, each housing a half-thousand people. Flanking them are the rest of the four million people who live in this strange city. Here, now, the echo of the ball returns to me alone. It is Saturday; the children are all in school.

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I close my eyes for a moment and fill my lungs with hot, clean air. Then it begins, the familiar muscular repetition. The knees bend, the head bows, the arms raise all at once and in exclamation the wrist snaps. The ball strikes the chain of the net, hangs for a moment in triumph before releasing to the earth. This is a motion I have performed a million times in a hundred different places. I am at the park in my hometown, skipping math class; I am on vacation in Bend, Oregon, traveling with my family for the last time. I am in the empty carport of my childhood home, wasting away another summer vacation. And I am here, three thousand miles away from everywhere. I am misunderstood and peaceful and boyish and lonely. I retrieve the ball, walk patiently back behind my line, and begin again. And again.

A soft flutter, and then one arrives, a small boy, perhaps seven years of age, dressed by his mother in corduroy shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. As he notices me through his thick, square glasses he blanches, just as they all do. I pretend not to notice. He studies me from behind a cut of chain link fence as I wipe the sweat from my forehead with my shirt. Soon, a few more appear, and it’s not long before the call goes out, first in a dry whisper and then with emotion: “Migugiya! Migugiya!”

Within minutes the field is cluttered with young boys and girls, flailing and chirping at one another. Most have come to play soccer, but a fair amount of them have huddled in an audience around my forgotten basketball court. I release my connection with my old life and begin to perform, a series of lunging, spinning maneuvers, long-range shots and reverse layups. I share with them the crafts earned in my adolescence, a time when I had to be somewhere. Eventually one boy approaches with his hands extended. I fail to recognize the words but not the gesture; smiling, I pass him the ball. He collects it in both hands as though afraid to bruise it, and then uncoils, his body forming a straight line from sandaled feet to outstretched fingers. The ball meets with the underside of the rim and rolls harmlessly away.

I retrieve the ball and turn to find that the lone boy has been reinforced with a dozen comrades. Their competitive spirit surfaces and soon we are playing for the glory of our respective countries. Several of the older boys act as generals, barking orders to their underlings. Immediately they form an effective strategy: half their forces stand near the basket like soccer goalies, pikeman on the hill, while the others emulate skirmishers. They chase after me, shrieking with nationalistic frenzy, swiping occasionally at the ball but mostly at my knees. The energy is limitless, and as I sprint and spin to avoid them the sun beats down on me like a gavel.

I find that I can regain my breath at the cost of my pride, by standing still and holding the ball up in the air. The boys laugh and chatter with me in cheerful, birdlike tones. I shrug and smile, recite “Hangumal mulayo” apologetically, unable to offer any glimpse of comprehension or repartee. They simply continue unabated, in chorus. It’s likely that I am the first person they have ever met who doesn’t know their language. They revel in the idea of not being understood. I do understand, a little.

The game continues, and soon it is the parents who emerge to watch from the concourse. Perhaps they wonder what a grown man is doing in the center of a playground; perhaps simply to discern why everyone is laughing so much. I hurl a final shot that dances on the rusty metal circle before the chain net rings once more. Dehydration tugs at my tendons and clouds the corners of my vision. “OK,” I pant, as my legs give and I crash down into the hot dust. “Kamsa Hamnida. Kamsa. Oh, god.” The laugh catches in my ragged throat, and my skin itches with the first signs of a long, mournful sunburn. I lay there, covering my eyes with the back of a salt-encrusted arm as the shrieks of children fill my ears; and for a few moments, I forget about home.





The Duality of Dadness

31 12 2014

My daughter is asleep as I write this sentence. She will remain so for the next 28-63 minutes, unless my father’s tree-creaking heels rouse her earlier. We’re staying up at my parents’ house for Christmas, a cozy little two-bedroom Craftsman nearing its hundredth birthday. (My parents got the house on the local historic register. The plaque is in the mail.) I’m sitting in the kitchen on my laptop, waiting for the gurgle that signals the return of consciousness, then the expectations and fears that reside within it. Then the cries: sometimes “mom mom mom”, occasionally a “da da da.” Other times, when her shapeless protodreams take on a sinister hue, the alarm is a wordless wail. Then the laptop closes, and life returns.

When I learned about heaven from church and Looney Tunes as a boy, it confused me. I pictured the cotton fields and the gold-paved roads, the random obsession with harps, but was too young to question the logistics. I was particularly confused by dichotomies. I imagined myself in heaven in boy form, with my mother and father, living pretty much as I was now. (I had a good childhood.) But what about my grandmother? She wouldn’t want to shamble around in her current varicose state; she’d want the bloom of her own youth. And wouldn’t my father want to be a son, a child my own age? It seemed impossible to be both.

My Sunday school teacher told me that in heaven we didn’t really have bodies at all, that we were just floating cerulean-tinged souls. It didn’t exactly sell me. Without our terrestrial characteristics, didn’t we lose some of what made us who we were? How could I play baseball without a body, or more importantly, get better at it? And tag sounded like a nightmare. All it proved was that there couldn’t be a childhood in the afterlife, even for incoming children; life after life would have to be fundamentally different, less human, to avoid these paradoxes. The thought made me sad.

It turns out that I was on to something, and it precedes death. Not only is it impossible to wrap our heads around being two things, like father and son, at the same time, it’s the basis for much of human conflict. As we get older the difficulty curve of life goes up, and we become more things. It’s especially noticeable in a small house with un-childproofed Mission-style furniture on a cold winter morning. We all somehow play our many parts, and we take on more and more roles and faces the older we get. Some masks fit better than others.

Parenthood trumps all, especially in a house with so much mission-style furniture. My wife slides into this role so easily: she nurtures, she attends, she monitors. She is an instinctive and empathetic mother, a model for the occupation. I’m by no means negligent, and despite my lack of a sixth sense, I’d argue that I even approach competency. But I feel the constant tug of conflict that she and all the other smiling, poolside parents of the world seem to lack.

I’m cursed with a brain that recoils in the small pauses between things. I take books with me into the line at the post office, listen to podcasts at the gas station, mentally craft tweets in the shower. It makes the slow parts of childrearing difficult, and there are so many slow parts. When I monitor the child handling something that she will probably not but is fully capable of trying to eat, like piece of plastic fruit or a pine needle or a cat, my vigilance is quickly eroded by whatever ideas pop into my head. I get distracted by non-dad thoughts.

I know, intellectually, that every parent feels exactly the way I do, to some extent. I don’t know how they get by, or even how I do, really. Everyone else seems to be able to write and exercise and cook and function as if having a child doesn’t halt their life like a crippling disease. When the child sleeps, I have other roles, never quite congruent: husband, son, accountant. Taking time away from all these to write, especially the not-for-profit writing that I do, feels selfish. Either the rest of dads had more time in reserve, or forfeited it more willingly, or (and this is what worries me) I’m just really bad and inefficient at the process.

A year and a half ago, when my daughter was born and I whiled away deadlines pacing circles in my library, I was told it would get easier. It has gotten easier, and infinitely rewarding. It just doesn’t take any less time.

I love my daughter more than anything in the world. I also love writing, and I don’t know how to do it anymore.

The call has come. Today, relief: a cheerful little babble, a renewed acquaintance with her stuffed llama. Time to head in and be a dad.





The Completionist

30 10 2014

My love for baseball began with Return of the Jedi.

As a boy, my mom and I would visit Manhattan Drug, the nearby shop. It was 1983, and I was five. Taped to one of the windows was a picture I had recently colored for a contest, and somehow won: ten dollars, which I used as seed money by buying more crayons and a carrying case for them. The case quickly found its way into a drawer. It was the last time I was paid to make fine art.

Manhattan Drug was one of those shops with low ceilings, dirt-flecked tile floors and long narrow aisles lined with tightly-packed metal shelves. The store sold everything: socks, Whitman samplers, makeup, cassettes, and maybe some actual medicine. Each time everything was in a different place, according to my flawed kindergarten memory. We’d go in and I’d wander into the jungle, looking for treasure: the old childhood economics of picking a toy cheap enough to qualify as an impulse purchase, but interesting enough to occupy the ride home. In one forgotten corner lay a box of trading cards for my beloved Return of the Jedi, and my mom would throw in a couple extra quarters for a few packs.

vintage_topps_jabba1The cards had bright red borders and grainy photographs of Luke and Han, mostly retelling key plot points, sometimes just promotional headshots of the actors in character. In an era before home video, those cards were my way of reliving the film. I kept them in order, and flipped through them, reciting the events that I didn’t have cards for yet. After a few months, and a dozen more visits to the drug store, we’d built enough of a collection to start thinking about compiling the complete set. We bought pack after pack, hunting for the last couple of cards I needed, cursing at yet another goddamned C-3PO.

But before we could, the cards weren’t there anymore. The movie was too old. I still have those cards, somehow still flecked with the scent of the bubblegum that stained the back, sitting in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups tin.

A couple of years later, 1985, I chose instead the brightly colored borders of Fleer baseball cards. I didn’t know the names yet; my parents hated sports and the games were rarely on television anyway. Instead I just searched for the bright yellow border of the Seattle Mariners. The team was full of fresh faces: Alvin Davis, Mark Langston, Jim Presley, Ken Phelps, Phil Bradley and Danny Tartabull were all rookies that year. Small heroes for a small kid. According to my checklists, marked with ballpoint pen, at one point I had a Kirby Puckett rookie card, but it was probably stepped on and discarded one groggy morning. I searched forever for it, combing through piles, never thinking (like any kid) to put them all neatly in one place.

Baseball cards were supposed to be a way to relive baseball the way that those Return of the Jedi cards were for the movie, but for me it was the other way around. Baseball cards made me love baseball. The tiny numbers on the back enthralled me; I loved statistics and used to track my own as I played one-player wiffleball in my gravel driveway. With card sets ranging from 660 to 792, the idea of completing a set was beyond both my imagination and means. Instead I sat with them in piles in front of the fireplace, sorting them by color, examining and ranking the poses, making fun of the pitch faces, reading the trivia on the back. I’ve always treated baseball the way I treated those cards, when I think about it: detached, amused.

101-499FrI’m writing this on the last day of everything, the last day of NotGraphs and the season, and it seems funny to me that I ever wanted to finish that Jedi set. I don’t like endings, especially the end of good things. I finish books because I make myself do it, but it’s rare for me to find a book that I felt ended really well. Regarding television, I’m less disciplined: in ten years I’ve watched seven episodes of Firefly, because that way it’ll never end. Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthrone still alive in my unwatched DVDs of Yes, Minister. But you can’t escape conclusions: my cat’s fourteen, my daughter wants to do everything without help. It’s all so much. It’s why I make so many jokes about death; because I can’t really grasp or deal with the concept.

It’s also a reason why I rarely watch the World Series. As a Mariners fan, I never have to worry about the culmination, the letdown, the sense of any narrative arc whatsoever. Being a Mariners fan is a sort of immortality. So is writing, I’m told, though it feels more like the cobbling of a raft. But baseball especially: baseball really isn’t about anything or for anything. It just is. Any metaphor of it is a mockery of itself, which is fine as long as you don’t mind mockery. It’s unfocused energy, a literal way to pass the time, over and over, the same windups and the same batting stances and the same different scores rolling across the scoreboard. Baseball is Waiting for Godot only, you know… pleasant. Something to pull us out of the terrible future and into the present.

Until we run out of present. Infinity is terrifying, but so is the alternative. We all have our own way of escaping the finite, of expanding it: sports have developed the offseason, and the transition to fandom-of-management that prevents us from ever having to detach from the game. The Star Wars fans turned to novelizations, comic books, and fan fiction to perpetuate their universe of choice. Baseball card collectors turn to errors and variations, the 1990 Topps Frank Thomas and the 2006 Alex Gordon, to redefine their concept of “set completion.” The true collection, in sport, life and even baseball cards, is never done. The alternative is unthinkable.

I still have my 1985 Fleer cards, in the corner of my garage, relics of the Manhattan Drug that is now, according to Google Maps, a Starbucks. Those cards are shameless links to my childhood, the blissful irresponsibility I’ve had to slowly, begrudgingly release. I think the set’s about two-thirds complete. Every once in a while a new one will find its way into my possession, and I’ll add it in. Now, in the modern age, I could finish the set (or just buy a full one) for less than an hour’s worth of work, a couple clicks and a Paypal transaction.

But why rush? I still have time. Just enough time.





The Only Poem about Lyle Overbay

5 01 2013

overbay

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There once was a man from Centralia
Who looked like he hailed from Australia
His skills are no dream
But when building a team
He’s bargain-bin paraphernalia





Endings, Beginnings, and Basketball in Seattle

16 02 2012

On the afternoon of July 3, 2008, I walked across the street from my dead-end accounting job, climbed into my car, and flipped on the radio.  The voice that greeted me was a stew of emotion: weary, righteous, disgusted, and calculated.  It was the voice of then-mayor Greg Nickels, who was in the middle of declaring what we had long since known, if not admitted: The Seattle SuperSonics were no more.

I felt just as conflicted.  The ugly battle over the fate of my basketball team had raged for a year, the earth already razed and salted.  I remember the promises of funding, the siren’s song of potential investors, and the prideful leaked e-mails.  I read every story as I pushed paper, counting off my twenties with every David Stern-imposed deadline.  When the end came, I was almost too tired to be angry.  It felt like getting laid off from a job you hated but also needed.

Losing a team is complicated.  It puts an endpoint on a pastime, fandom, that should never have one.  All that time I spent rooting for Xavier McDaniel, Šarūnas Marčiulionis, and Danny Fortson was finished.  It severed me from a childhood when I used to listen to games while practicing my dribbling in the basement.  It ensured that I would never be rewarded with the championship that every fan ultimately deserves.  (I was one when the Sonics won their trophy.)  It also reminds you, constantly, of the millions of things that are more important than sports, and makes you feel bad about feeling bad about it.

I swore to give up the NBA that day, even though throughout my childhood, it was perhaps my favorite pure sport.  And of course, I didn’t.  I watched new general manager Sam Presti build foundations out of the ashes of a decade of incompetence.  It began before they left, while I knew they were leaving, and knew I was watching a future champion, my future champion, taking shape.  And after they left, I continued to watch the pieces slowly assemble, pretending that they were still my team, or at least my players.  Now my team has the best record in the NBA.  Every week or so, I check the standings.

On the afternoon of February 16, 2012, I looked up from my homework and flipped on the radio.  This time it was Mike McGinn, his speech a barely-cloaked triumph.  He provided the details of the proposal like a State of the Union Speech: no new taxpayer money, private responsibility for cost overruns, a thirty-year city-controlled lease.  He has, I admit, every right to his jubilance; the deal is quite advantageous for the public, and hopes have begun to stir on the radio stations.  And yet I still feel torn.

Is it because Nick Collison is still grinding out minutes for the Oklahoma City Thunder?  Is it because facsimiles of our banners hang from their rafters?  Perhaps.  But what stings to me is that this is no Cleveland Browns situation.  There will be no expansion.  Seattle has only known new teams, and has lived with the painful adolescent experiences that accompany them.  A decade of losing does not faze us.  It does not even surprise us.

What troubles me is the inevitable change that will undergo the fan base as its attention turns to the attendance figures at Arco and New Orleans Arena.  The same pragmatic, corporate excuses that infuriated me before will be trotted out: the NBA is a business, owners have a right to make money, they simply don’t have the economic model to hold a team. The guilt will be there, but it will be shoved down beneath the excitement, until inevitably forgotten.

The next step is bargaining.  I think about New Orleans, with its shorter history, second professional sports team, its history of relative mediocrity and, of course, its ownership situation.  There wouldn’t be many banners to steal, and the framed glossy photographs of Larry Johnson have already been relocated once.  But it’s still rationalization, and it’s one I don’t want to have to make.

With or without my support, Seattle will someday have a basketball team.  More than likely, it’ll be somebody else’s basketball team.  Will I be complicit in that crime?  How would I even begin to avenge it?  I don’t know.  But I hope I never forget sitting in that parking lot, the car battery slowly dying, as I remember dribbling that basketball between my legs, over and over.





The Greatest Story Ever Forgotten

27 10 2011

I wrote a guest piece for the folks at ProBallNW about a forgotten Mariners pitcher and a pitching duel that has never since been equaled. Read it here.








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