Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Starks, Not ‘Melo

March 2011, The New York Knicks acquired Carmelo Anthony.

On the surface, this was great news. For the first time since Patrick Ewing roamed the paint, it The Knicks had a legit franchise player; a 25-points-a-night scorer; a guy who had led his team to an NCAA Championship; in short, a star.

In a fortuitous turn of events, I happened to be in New York on business the day of ‘Melo’s first game as a Knick; my hotel a stone’s throw from Madison Square Garden. I had to visit an ATM to get the kind of cash the scalpers were looking for (I never carry that kind of cash) and soon enough I was seated in the upper rows of Garden for a historic game.

As much buzz as there was around Anthony’s arrival in New York, let’s be clear that there was also a fair amount of skepticism. A collection of lesser known players, many of them from abroad, collectively nicknamed “The European Union” had played team ball and brought the Knicks back to playoff contention over the last two years. A goodly portion of these players got shipped elsewhere to bring Anthony into town.

The new-look Knicks struggled that first night, and while they did ultimately pull off the win, it was far from decisive—just edging out the lowly Milwaukee Bucks in the final seconds of regulation.

That very same night at the Garden, a ceremony took place at half time to honor great Knicks of the past. Among those honored was John Starks.

John Starks. A hothead. A streaky shooter. The kind of player who probably had more fire than talent, but who had enough fire that when he got going and channeled all that piss and vinegar, he was among the very best in the basketball world.

The crowd at the Garden gave Starks a standing ovation that night, and there’s little wonder why. Although he had his moments when he had let The Big Apple down (e.g., an utter collapse in the final game of the 1994 Finals), he was the sort of player that the just same electrified a fan base, carrying the team on his shoulders for a full rollercoaster ride of ups, downs, and out-of-control moments. He was exactly the sort of player who could rally a crowd behind the Knicks for storied, oddly personal rivalries with The Indiana Pacers and later The Miami Heat.

In a nutshell, he was New York.

On paper, a player like Anthony is a safer better than a player like Starks. He’s a better scorer. He’s more consistent.

But he doesn’t really capture anyone’s imagination.

We live in an NBA era in which profound scorers like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Kobe Bryant have embraced superstar pacts; sacrificing individual statistics to ally themselves with other great players in pursuit of championships. Anthony is an outlier as a player who seems content to score, score, score and bend a team to his will (see the departure of coach Mike D’Antoni) with little regard for whether his squad ever makes it past the first round of the playoffs.

Anthony’s shortcomings went on display when the last year’s greatest NBA phenomenon took hold: Linsanity.

On a Knicks team plagued with injuries (benching many, including Anthony) unlikely hero Jeremy Lin got some minutes. The Harvard grad averaged 22.5 points in 12 starts, leading New York to a 9-3 record (a far better clip than their sub-.500 record up to that point). He enjoyed the kind of transcendent sports story that reaches well beyond Knicks fans, or NBA fans, or even sports fans in general, to the general populace. For about a month, he was the biggest story in basketball.

That’s how you capture the imagination. That’s how you make people believe.

Behind the scenes, there was more to the situation than Lin’s excellent play. It was the synergy between his game and the type of ball Coach D’Antoni had previously built his name off—high-octane, run-and-gun basketball. Lin ran. Lin passed. Lin scored. The Knicks won.

Then Anthony came back. He insisted on running the slower, half-court offense, centered around him touching the ball on every play. Management took his side.

D’Antoni left.

Lin lost his luster, before getting injured and sitting out the last leg of the season.

The Knicks limped into the playoffs and got swept in the first round.

This year, Lin will have a chance to prove that his abbreviated star turn in New York was no fluke when he laces up his sneakers for the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference. That’s right, the Knicks’ greatest “home-grown” star of the last decade or more has left town.

And The Knicks? They’ll carry on. Anthony at the helm, Amar’e Stoudamire and Tyson Chandler backing him up, and a cast of 1990s and early 2000s NBA all-stars behind them (Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace; former-Knick-favorites-come-home Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m hardly an expert on today’s NBA, much less on what makes Anthony tick, or what might lie beneath the surface of this New York bench. I hope I’m wrong when I predict little better than .500 record and another first-round exit from the playoffs for The Knicks this season.

I hope, but I don’t believe.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Two Chicago Stories

I’ve been to Chicago twice.

The first visited in 2006. Sometimes you know something important is happening in the moment. Sometimes times you have to wait. As I prepared to return to the six years after my first time through, that initial trip first time seemed rife with watershed moments.

The first trip was about family.

Growing up, my sister was my near-constant companion. Together, we assigned not only names, but well-defined personalities to our collection of stuffed animals and acted out any number of scenes with characters like Mud Puddle (a brown Pound Puppy) and Honk Creative (a My Pet Monster) at the fore. Over a period of years, we created a hand-written magazine for a readership of one (my wonderfully patient grandmother). My sister was my earliest musical influence, turning me on to artists like REM and Tori Amos, and taking me along to my first concert (I may have been the only 13-year-old boy at The Indigo Girls show). We grew apart a little when she got to high school, and more or less fell out of contact when she left for college; a shared ineptitude at keeping in touch left us estranged, if no less friendly.

My sister moved to Chicago with her fiancée right after undergrad. In 2006, the better part of a year removed from college myself, I decided to make a concerted effort to rekindle familial bonds. I made the trip west.

I thought the trip would be about introducing my then-girlfriend to my family.

She said she didn’t want to go.

When I broke up with her two years later, I cited her unwillingness to engage with my family as a part of the reason. She said if I had asked her to come to Chicago again instead of moving along to invite a buddy in her place, she would have said yes. We weren’t the best at communicating. But then, I don’t think it hit me how much I cared about her not coming on that trip until well after I got back from Chicago.

The trip started something new.

About a month before we embarked for midwest, my friend and I had taken a road trip to Rhode Island to see then-girlfriend’s a cappella group sing in a competition (something we did a number of times in those days). Along the drive I pitched the idea of a new website called Average Joe’s A Cappella Blog—a collection of opinion pieces about a cappella, from the perspective of fans of the genre who were in no way experts. On the train to Chicago, we sketched and wrote and crossed out and circled and numbered and all but filled a pair of legal pads, brainstorming everything from site content to layout to philosophies. By the time the train reached Chicago, we had dropped the “Average Joe’s.” The A Cappella Blog would launch eight months later.

Little did I know, six years later, it would be The A Cappella Blog that brought me back to Chicago.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We visited The Field Museum. We saw Second City. We had a pizza at Gino’s and watched The Bulls drop a game to the visiting Miami Heat. We walked up and down Michigan Avenue in the March chill. It was every Chicago clichĂ©, plus the nuance of recounting the eccentricities of childhood with my sister. (Our old man gave us enough fodder that I doubt we’ll ever stop marveling at how we lived like that, and how we ever came out the other side as relatively normal, high-functioning adults… but that’s another topic for another time.)

Long story short, that first trip, buffered with all manner of watershed moments, was itself a pretty fantastic little vacation.

Fast forward six years. In a week with no new material posted, The A Cappella Blog is getting around a thousand unique visitors a week; in weeks when we are active that number gets multiplied several times over. I’m not saying this to boast (and I suspect some folks who may read this have a larger audience at their own sites), but rather for perspective. Against most odds and some logic, we have a readership.

Then I made a list.

After seeing a reference to the Maxim Hot 100 this past summer, I thought about creating my own list; one that objectified people less and celebrated them more. For The A Cappella Blog I write about groups all the time, but rarely about individuals. And so, I carved out an hour or so most summer nights after work to compile a ranking, do Internet research, and write bios of 100 of the coolest people in a cappella. The ranking ran as a ten-part feature, Monday through Friday of the first two weeks of September. “The List,” as it became known in a cappella circles, drew a lot of traffic to the site, and produced a lot of *ahem* discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

Non-a cappella fans, bear with me, I promise this is all going somewhere.

While plenty of folks liked the list, plenty hated it. I got lampooned for snubbing most of the big names in a cappella recording; because of a heavy bias toward Americans (fewer than ten non-US citizens made my ranking); for the use of the word "cool" making it feel like a shallow popularity contest; and for the sheer principle of ranking human beings. Some of the criticism was quite valid and I’ve learned from it. Some of it was less constructive.

Midway through this series of posts, and before things got very heated at all, I got an email from a friend in the a cappella community, inviting me to emcee the professional showcase at ACappellaFest in Chicago that October. The role would entail introducing The Edge Effect and Sonos (truly one of my favorite groups) to hundreds of fans. I wasn’t just flattered. I was stunned. And all too eager to accept.

After the fall out of “The List,” I won’t deny I was a little less excited for my return to Chicago. Sure, there’d still be Sonos, and plenty more music, and plenty more friends. But after the vitriolic reaction so many folks had to The Cool 100 I had visions of getting booed off stage; of groups refusing to associate with me. I actually went so far as to compose an alternative emcee script in my mind—for emergency purposes only—if the boos did outweigh the cheers when I got in front of the audience.

And so I returned to Chicago, this time without a traveling companion and without a host (my sister and brother-in-law have moved twice since 2006). I got up at 4 in the morning to catch my flight, then drove through and walked around Chicago until it was time to check in at my hotel. I ate chicken-and-waffle pizza at Dimo’s; saw American Gothic and windows by Chagall at the Art Institute of Chicago. I paced the length of Millenium Park.

I felt calm going into the a cappella festivities that started Friday night; I enjoyed a good show and spoke with friends—many of whom I had only known via email Facebook up to that point. Afterwards, I got more pizza (Giordano’s this time) and called it an early night.

Saturday went well, too—the series of workshops and classes I visited throughout the day, and, yes, the emcee gig that night. “The List” was a topic of conversation; a majority of the folks I spoke with brought it up in one form another. But I was pleasantly surprised when most of those exchanges were more curious than argumentative; some of them even supportive. I didn’t get booed off stage; by the time I was up there, I even had the gumption to make a joke about the list, and while I couldn’t see most of the audience (the houselights were turned down) I heard laughter in response. Not one rotten tomato hurled my way.

And Sonos was amazing. The Edge Effect, too. But, come on, it’s Sonos.

When I got back to Baltimore Sunday evening, I looked through my photos from the weekend. I looked at the ones from the festival, of course, with an eye toward which ones I’d upload to share with the a cappella people. But then I looked at the ones from my walk through Chicago. I took this one, a self-portrait of sorts at Cloud Gate.

For the unfamiliar, Cloud Gate, or “The Bean” is a large public sculpture by Anish Kapoor that resides in Millenium Park. It’s said to have been inspired by liquid mercury, and has unusual reflective properties, distorting views of the skyline and of visitors. In this reflection, I stand, ostensibly amidst a crowd of people, and yet, also, ostensibly alone; in either case, distorted by another artist’s vision.

It may be true that these two trips to Chicago were two entirely separate experiences; separate stories, bound by nothing more than a common setting. But then, I’m the same person, am I not? Still looking for family, in a sense? Still spending too much time thinking about other people’s art—musical, bean-shaped, or otherwise?

Or am I (still) grasping at threads?

I made a lot of mistakes
All things go, all things go

Friday, October 26, 2012

American Horror Story

American Horror Story is the most compelling show on TV today.

Three reasons why:

1) Pacing. Most TV shows for which each episode is part of an extended story arc pace themselves out. You see the egg in the first episode. The skillet in the second. The burner comes on in episode three. By episode six or seven, someone is eating scrambled eggs. In AHS someone mentions eggs, and seconds later someone is cracking one open against his forehead and swallowing the raw yolk whole (not an actual scene from the show; a metaphor).

The show operates in 12-episode chapters; season one told a story; season two features many of the same actors but in entirely different roles and settings. When, no matter how well the audience receives your story, you only have 12 episodes to work with, it means you have nothing to lose. AHS comes at us with the urgency of a short story, not a novel, with absolutely no fear of about emotionally or physically eviscerating major characters (worst case scenario, they can always come back as ghosts). It’s television without fear, about fear.

2) Human Horror > Monster Horror. To date, AHS has included in its cast of characters ghosts, monsters and aliens. While the supernatural creatures allow for atmospherics, plot twists, and wonderful subversions of the viewer’s expectations, they ultimately amount to sizzle; human nature is the steak. The first season’s haunted house story was themed around infidelity; most prominently the aftermath of an extramarital affair, but more broadly betrayal of family, values, and even oneself. Season two, set in an asylum, seems concerned with different forms of perfidiousness: hypocrisy; selling out the ones we love or our ideals for the sake of our own self-preservation.

Note the choice of words: our, not their; self-preservation, not self-betterment. The characters are all too real, and the best of them rarely make choices any rational person, in the same distorted situation, wouldn’t agree to (or at least strongly consider). These characters are out of luck, conflicted, and make choices that don’t just make the plot move, but seem necessary for their very survival. We relate to them because, at our worst, we are them. That’s horrible, terrifying, and beautiful.

3) Indulging our worst instincts. This has to do with both pacing and human horror. AHS sets us up to have preconceptions, and has a tendency to do one of two things from there: undermine the expectations gradually, or deliver on them with shocking rapidity.

SPOILER ALERT—IF YOU HAVEN’T BEEN WATCHING SEASON TWO AND INTEND TO, DON’T READ THE NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS

We see a corrupt woman running a corrupt asylum. We see a reporter out to reveal her to the world. We see a man who ostensibly does not belong in the asylum getting all-but-tortured. We see the reporter wander the darkened halls of the asylum when she’s not supposed to be there. We realize that, if the reporter isn’t careful, she could find herself wrongly imprisoned and subject to the same horrors. We pat ourselves on our backs, because we think we might have foreseen a major story development that could come up later in the show and grow drunk on the potential.

Then the reporter gets caught. The next time we see her, she wears institutional garb and is strapped down to an examination table. Our worst fears and greatest hopes for the season have been realized in a matter of minutes. And the season premiere still hasn’t even finished yet.

END SPOILERS.

AHS can be gratuitously gory and sexual, particularly for a free TV show. It’s not for everyone. But if you have the stomach to get past all of that (or if all of that is your cup of tea) there’s no richer hour of television going today.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Live Your Life

I messed up.

I drank too much at the downtown bar. The things I said; they weren’t coming from my better self, but rather the bastard who surfaces when a broken heart and an excess of whiskey take hold of one another beneath my skin. I hurt a girl I thought I loved. I was an embarrassment to the friends who stuck with me.

The next day I sent text messages. Apologies. Weak jokes. Drivel.

The messages went unanswered.

I asked a good friend what I could do to make amends.

"It's not about what you say or do now," he said. "Or tomorrow. Or the next day. It's about waking up every morning and showing the world you're not that bastard. It's not about one night. It's about how you live your life."

Many years have passed since that night. I've made amends and torn new wounds, built some things and broken others. But those words about the way you live your life have stuck with me, much the same as the old writer's adage about how you have to show your readers something instead of telling them about it.

I can't tell you exactly what this blog will be. You'll just have to stick around and let me show you.