Wednesday, April 25, 2007

"Writers all seek resonance"

I'm a couple of days late on this, but I'm not sure I could continue to have a blog and not write about David Halberstam, who was killed in a car crash on Monday.

Everything I've read and heard about him from friends and colleagues over the past two days mentioned how energetic and tireless a worker he was, so it has to be at least somewhat fitting that he died while on his way to conduct an interview. Halberstam was working on a book about the 1958 NFL championship game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts, which is considered by many to be the greatest football game every played. He was planning to talk to the quarterback of that Giants team, Y.A. Tittle.

I became familiar with Halberstam through his sportswriting in books like Summer of '49, October 1964, and The Breaks of the Game. I was actually surprised to soon discover (and am now embarrassed to admit) that he wrote about a hell of a lot more than sports.

It was obviously naive of me, but I guess it never quite occurred to me that you could write about sports and also write about subjects such as failure of leadership during the Vietnam War, the evolution of the relationship between media and politics, and the formative influences of the 1950's.

As a journalism student and aspiring writer, I found it tremendously inspirational to realize that you didn't have to limit the interests and focuses of your work. Halberstam had a voracious curiosity, something I don't think any writer can exist without. The moment you stop being intrigued by anything, you're just phoning it in. And I don't think you could read any of his books and not sense that he cared deeply for what he was writing about.

Looking back at those journalism classes, I find it astounding that we never read The Best and the Brightest, an account of America's involvement in the Vietnam War and how the military and government misrepresented their intentions to the American people. (Sound familiar? It's scary to consider how much that book can be applied to what's going on today.) In his reporting at the time, Halberstam had the courage to point out that what he was seeing in Vietnam was not what the people were being told back home. And he had the conviction to stand up for the truth and his profession. In a tribute from today's New York Times, Eleanor Randolph cites a 1963 press briefing in Vietnam:

Mr. Halberstam recalled that the Army brass had been so angry about his coverage that a top officer had tried to order him not to ask to go with the troops. “And I stood up, my heart beating wildly — and told him that we were not his corporals or privates, that we worked for The New York Times and U.P. and A.P. and Newsweek, not for the Department of Defense.”

Has any journalist taken that kind of stand during the Iraq War? (And I'm not talking about now, after the fallacies are all too clear.) David Gregory bickering with Scott McClellan at White House press briefings is one thing. Telling an officer to shove it while covering a war, when the President of the United States is also demanding that your newspaper take you off the beat, is quite another. Hell yes, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his work.

What I find amazing is that Halberstam never let the skepticism and disillusionment he developed after his experiences in Vietnam destroy his appreciation for history and the people he admired. He could've decided to give it all up and isolate himself in some lake house with a bottle of booze after what he'd seen and been through. Or he could've become an obsessively negative curmudgeon who just constantly railed against authority and declared everything to be hopeless.

But Halberstam still had that curiosity. He enjoyed sharing his awe for those with impressive talent and achievements. Because he wanted to write. He wanted to tell stories, big and small. He'd tackle serious subjects, and then "take a break" by covering sports. One book would be about the decline of the American auto industry and the growth of Japanese carmakers. The next would be a profile of Michael Jordan. From there, he'd tell the stories of 12 firefighters who lost their lives on 9/11. And then he'd write about the friendship four men maintained over 60 years, going from professional baseball players to elderly men facing their mortality.

In 2000, Halberstam was the commencement speaker at the University of Michigan, and I remember my mother asking me if I was familiar with him. And I told her that Halberstam's work was so good that it made me want to be a writer. Yet it was also so good that it made me want to give up because there was no chance I could do anything like that. My dad enjoyed that line.

▪▪ "If you're a reporter, the easiest thing in the world is to get a story. The hardest thing is to verify. The old sins were about getting something wrong, that was a cardinal sin. The new sin is to be boring." -- David Halberstam

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Trying To Make Some Sense of the World

For most of the last two days, I've been wondering whether or not to post something about what happened yesterday at Virginia Tech. The news that continues to come from Blacksburg is just unbelievably sad. It's horrifying. It's numbing.

I spent most of this morning watching the frequent reports and testimonials from the VT campus, trying to get the latest news. If I didn't already realize what a tragedy had taken place, seeing several pictures of those who'd been senselessly killed was paralyzing. Those kids look so damn young, far too young and hopeful to have their lives taken away.

A college campus should be a safe place, where someone feels free to grow, to find him or herself, to become part of a community, to learn. For so many of us, some of the best years of our lives were spent in such environments. It should never feel like a place where you'd fear for your safety. And it most certainly should not be defined by such a heartbreaking outbreak of violence.

I can't even comprehend what it must feel like to be a part of that community right now. Or to be a parent or friend of one of the victims (or even the shooter, for that matter). All I can do is try to imagine myself in such situations - as a student, a brother, or friend - and it's almost too much to bear.

Yesterday, I felt like I should just keep my feelings to myself and do what I was supposed to do. Besides, what could really be said? Everyone had seen or read the news. We all knew what had happened. On my Detroit Tigers blog, I guess I just felt like the best I could do was try to provide some escape from the real world. At least that was something to offer.

But reality and escapism heartbreakingly collided today when news circulated around the Tigers online community and blogosphere that Brian Bluhm, someone who'd been a friend and colleague to many people who follow the team (or cover it), was one of those who'd been lost in yesterday's shootings. And I just got an e-mail from the University of Iowa student newspaper that also mentioned Brian, as he was a native of Cedar Rapids, IA.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that as I'm sitting here right now, I feel like writing about this.

As unseemly as it might be to link to my other blog, I've posted links to several of the tributes to Brian that have been written. My deepest sympathies are extended to those who knew Brian. My condolences to his family, as well as to everyone who has been affected by this tragedy. No one should have to go through something like this.

That's What She Said! (Episode #20)

Safety first, people! This week's episode of The Office was very concerned with personal safety in the workplace, so I'll try to keep this post short, lest I increase the possibility of carpal tunnel syndrome. Keeping in that spirit, we were worried about Michael Scott's mental health on the latest edition of the That's What She Said podcast.

How far will a man go to demonstrate the signs and dangers of depression in an office environment? And if that demonstration includes considering jumping off a five-story building, does that indicate problems of a different nature? But if it all turns out to be more dangerous than sticking your hand in a machine that crushes recyclables, that could be worth proving a point, right?

You know what? I bet that you will love this episode. In fact, I'll lay down 10,000-to-1 odds. You have to take that bet every time, I hear. Or you could bet that I'll make another crack at Nickelback Chad Kroeger, but you wouldn't get very good odds on that.

Episode #20 is available for your downloading and listening pleasure, either from the That's What She Said home page or via iTunes.

If you enjoy what you hear (or have some issues with it), please send over an e-mail or leave a comment at our blog page, where the community continues to grow. Or leave a review at that very same iTunes page. (Just don't get personal, unless you're also going to be really funny.)

As always, thank you for downloading and listening. Are you our heroes? Yes, you are.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Here's To You, Mr. Robinson

Major League Baseball can get a lot of things wrong (last week's decision to play the Angels and Indians in Milwaukee might be the latest example), and professional athletes often get knocked for lacking a sense of history and tradition. Today, however, both parties are getting it right by commemorating the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In honor of the first black man to play in the major leagues, more than 150 players will wear Robinson's #42 on the field today. Six Detroit Tigers - Gary Sheffield, Craig Monroe, Pudge Rodriguez, Marcus Thames, Lloyd McClendon, and Curtis Granderson - will pay tribute, while six entire ballclubs - the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers, Houston Astros, Philadelphia Phillies, and of course, the Los Angeles Dodgers - will outfit their players, coaches, and ballboys with Robinson's number.

I wrote a longer piece about the occasion (as well as a paper I wrote in high school) over at Bless You Boys, and am hoping you'll head over there to check it out. I also included a bunch of links to other places that have posted a wealth of material on Robinson, his experiences, and his legacy. Today should be a pretty special day, one we don't get to see too often anymore in professional sports.

Friday, April 13, 2007

"All this happened, more or less"

Here's a footnote to yesterday's Kurt Vonnegut post that is just too funny not to share. During my nightly frolicking across the internet, I found a hilarious anecdote at Awful Announcing (via The Wade Blogs) about Vonnegut's early writing career.

In its early days of publication, Sports Illustrated tried to boost the quality of the magazine's writing by brooming out mediocre sportswriters in favor of literary-grade storytellers who may or may not have cared or known anything about sports, but could write one hell of a feature. One of those writers was Vonnegut, who was hired to compose a piece about a race horse that had jumped over the fence and into the stands.

How did that go? Here's the account from a 1998 review in the Lexington Herald-Leader on Michael MacCambridge's The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine (which appears to be out of print):

Kurt Vonnegut worked briefly at SI until being told to write a story about a race horse that had jumped the rail and terrorized the infield at a local track. Vonnegut stared at his desk for what seemed like hours before finally departing the building without a word. Inside his deserted typewriter was this: ''The horse jumped over the fucking fence.''

C'mon, how great is that?! Vonnegut's editor certainly couldn't have complained that he buried the lead. Maybe I'll try that on the sports blog. Here's how a post responding to tonight's Detroit Pistons-Toronto Raptors game might go: One basketball team scored more fucking points than the other one.

▪▪ "Who is more to be pitied, a writer bound and gagged by policemen or one living in perfect freedom who has nothing more to say?" -- Kurt Vonnegut

Thursday, April 12, 2007

"I've had a hell of a good time"

I'm kind of embarrassed to say that I didn't begin reading any of Kurt Vonnegut's work until my mid-to-late '20s. (Of the several "if I could do it over again" laments of my life, reading better books in high school is near the top of the list.) But I definitely made up for that when I worked at a bookstore. It seems like I bought a new Vonnegut novel almost every month. Although I believe my collection is built largely upon a bunch of 50 cent used books I hoarded at a library sale in northern Michigan a few summers ago.

In my time at the University of Iowa, one of the running jokes in the writing program and English department was that "all roads traveled through Iowa City." But it seemed true. Many writers that came up in chats and workshops often had a tie to the area.

I'm guessing it was kind of boring for anyone who visited me (I apologize, Mis Hooz), but if we drove around town, I'd often try to make things seem interesting with little anecdotes such as, "Raymond Carver decided to become a full-time writer in that laundromat," "Denis Johnson used to get drunk in that bar," or "Flannery O'Connor lived in that little house."

Also, you could always drop a name whenever talking to family, friends, or acquaintances about famous writers that either studied or taught at Iowa. The author I probably mentioned more than any other was Kurt Vonnegut. I distinctly remember Vonnegut being the one name that most captured my father's attention, and as he talked about reading Cat's Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five, I ended up discovering something about my dad that I hadn't known previously.

And that's one of the first things that came to mind when I heard that Vonnegut died yesterday at the age of 84. That he passed away because of brain injuries recently suffered (and not the suicide he seemed to think he was destined for, at one point) seems a particularly cruel twist, considering the wit, commentary, and brilliance his brain created.

At MGoBlog, Brian Cook wrote an unexpectedly powerful tribute to Vonnegut yesterday. (And by "unexpected," I just mean that I didn't expect to read such a thing there.) I don't even want to try and match such an effort. What I will do, however, is post a few memorable quotes, with some witticisms that maybe all of us should adhere to.

▪▪ “Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.” -- Slaughterhouse Five

▪▪ "I will say anything to be funny, often in the most horrible situations." -- Kurt Vonnegut

▪▪ "Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter can be said to remedy anything." -- Cat's Cradle

▪▪ "I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you any different." -- Kurt Vonnegut

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

That's What She Said! (Episode #19)

Our long national nightmare is over. The six-week hiatus for The Office has passed, which means we finally got a fresh new episode last week (and we'll have one more, before the reruns kick for two weeks so the season can be extended through the May sweeps). That also means, of course, that That's What She Said is back with an all-new podcast.

I joked with Matt that I kept thinking about Eddie Murphy's routine about women withholding sex, how if you're starving and someone throws you a cracker, you'll think it was the best damn cracker you've ever eaten in your life. So how I was going to feel about a new episode of The Office after being left hungry for six weeks?

(Actually, I got my Eddie Murphy stand-up movies mixed up on the podcast. I said "Delirious," but the joke I'm thinking of was in "Raw.")

There was some violence, along with steamy romance. And awkward tension! There was a man fighting for what is rightfully his. And the struggle of the working man taking on the corporate culture. But perhaps best of all, there was some sweet superheroic action. In other words, "The Negotiation" had something for everyone.

Episode #19 is available for your downloading and listening pleasure, either from the That's What She Said home page or via iTunes.

If you enjoy what you hear (or have some issues with it), please send over an e-mail or leave a comment at our blog page, where the community continues to grow. Or leave a review at that very same iTunes page. (This week, we broke the 100 mark on reviews. Whoo-hoo!)

As always, thank you for downloading and listening. And thank you once again for sticking with the podcast during the sitcom dry spell.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

You'll Be Able to Say You Knew Him Back in the Day

One of my good friends, Mr. Peter J. Schwab, is an aspiring filmmaker, and has been working on a particular pet project for quite some time. However, his short film is finally finished, which probably means Pete can erase the word "aspiring" from my introductory sentence. And thanks to YouTube, everyone can take now take a look at it.

I should probably throw out the ol' Not Safe For Work warning. Although there's very little potentially objectionable visual material in here, you might not want anyone seeing the climactic image on your monitor while walking past your desk.

Ladies and gentleman, I present a Drive-In Rebellion production. A film by Peter J. Schwab, this is... The Most Gorgeous Penis.

A point of discussion from the director:

An in depth analysis of society's obsession with the phallus or a drawn out purple vein dick joke? You decide, gentle viewer.

I had opportunities to read the script in a couple of different stages, so it's exciting to see the final product. Seeing Pete's words brought to life by actors made me practically giddy, so I can only imagine how frickin' joyful he must feel when he watches this. Or maybe he's like so many other artists (like one particular writer I know) and just sees the flaws. I hope that's not the case, because I think he created the film I saw in my head as I read his script.

Pete, I'm damn proud of you, sir. I hope you guys enjoy the short film.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Last Night's Ziti Was Delicious

"If you have hollow point bullets in anything, take 'em out today."

And with that line of dialogue, all seemed right with the world. The Sopranos is (are?) back, and I've never been so happy to see someone get punched in the face or shot in the head. (How did your Easter Sunday go?)

I don't know about you, but to me, there's something so comforting about a show that takes almost twice as long to watch because I keep rewinding to see a key scene or hear a great line again. It's been too long - late August/early September; whenever Deadwood went off the air - since HBO gave me such a pleasure.

(If you haven't watched last night's episode yet, you might want to hold off on reading the rest of this post. I'm not sure I'll spoil anything, but probably will. And if you don't watch The Sopranos, you'll probably have no idea what the hell I'm talking about.)

My second favorite line of the episode was Carmela wondering, "Is this it?" when she and Tony were awakened by heavy knocking on the front door by the police. Maybe it was a little bit too clever, since this is the final season of the show, but Carmela surely echoed what many of us were thinking as the episode began. How exactly is this thing going to end? No matter how great this has been, we knew it wouldn't last. And the end will almost certainly not be pretty.

Some people might say this was kind of a slow episode, especially after such a long hiatus. (And if there are only eight episodes remaining after this, how fast will the entire story have to culminate?) But I think the tone reflected the contemplative mood of our beloved main character. Tony Soprano can see the end coming. He just doesn't know how it's coming. And after being shot last season, he's not sure if he's ready for it. But his arrogance and machismo won't quite let him accept his fate humbly.

Bobby Bacala, however, probably has more pressing concerns. Not only did he sucker-punch the boss, but he lost a small part of his soul (whatever remained after marrying Tony's shrew of a sister, Janice) after finally doing the one thing that may have truly kept him from advancing his career as a mobster: whacking someone. He also lost the front of his shirt during the hit, something that will surely become a key piece of evidence later in the season. (Such an outcome was basically foreshadowed in an earlier scene between Bobby and Tony.)

It's just another set of repercussions to consider, in what should be a final season full of them. So much has been built up. Man, I can't wait for the next episode.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Sneezing and Coughing Keeps Me from Traffic and Weather

This week might already be too much to handle. First, baseball season started yesterday. And today, the new Fountains of Wayne album, Traffic and Weather, was released.

Apparently, this (along with tour dates being announced - Detroit in June!) was all too much for my system to handle, as I appear to have finally come down with the sick that's been afflicting many of my fellow citizens (and which I taunted with my good health mere weeks ago).

But was I truly ill, or did I feel worse because I knew that constantly blowing my nose and trying to sleep off whatever is currently plaguing me wouldn't allow me to get my hands on a copy of Traffic and Weather?

Why the hell didn't I just pre-order the damn thing from Amazon or the band's website? No, I have to go out and buy it - because it reminds me of how I used to get my music - even though whatever big box store is more convenient for me to shop at probably won't have it in stock. That'll be my next blog: How many stores did I have to go to? Dammit.

Someone, bring it to me. And can you also get me some more orange juice? Maybe throw in a box of tissue paper, too. Or a bottle of whiskey, if that's easier to find.

Monday, April 02, 2007

That's What She Said! (Episode #18.5 -- Retro!)

With The Office on a six-week hiatus (allowing Steve Carell to film Get Smart), NBC hasn't been very kind to anyone looking for fresh material to fill a podcast about the show. So once again, That's What She Said has decided to mine the past for nutritional, intellectual value.

This retro podcast takes a look at "The Injury" from the show's second season. How can a man who burned his foot on a George Foreman grill possibly be expected to act rationally - especially when his staff refuses to show him the care and sympathy an debilitated man deserves? Can't a brother get some butter rubbed on his scorched extremity?

Also, if a co-worker crashed his or her car into a telephone pole driving out of the parking lot, how would you react? And what if the driver got out of that car and then vomited all over the rear windshield? Would you be a little bit concerned? Just checking.

Episode #18.5 is available for your downloading and listening pleasure, either from the That's What She Said home page or via iTunes.

If you enjoy what you hear (or hate it, for that matter), please send over an e-mail or leave a comment at our blog page, where the community continues to grow. Or leave a review at the aforementioned iTunes page. (We're at 95 and counting! Push us over 100!) Thank you for downloading and listening! And thank you once again for your patience during this hiatus.

Today Should Be a Holiday!

With it being Opening Day in baseball, the new gig is taking up most of my attention today. If you're interested, please check out my 2007 Detroit Tigers and AL Central previews over at Bless You Boys.

Otherwise, I have a couple of four-sentence movie reviews I'm eager to share, and Matt and I also recorded a podcast last night that should be posted within the next day or so. Until then, however, today is the best sports day of the year, I hope you'll indulge me repeating much of what I wrote around the same time last April (with a few appropriate edits).

Today might be my favorite day on the calendar. Christmas brings some nice presents, and so does my birthday. Halloween allows you to dress up. Memorial Day often means the first cookout of the spring.

But the first Monday in April, with Major League Baseball's Opening Day games being played in the afternoon and evening, followed by college basketball's National Championship game at night, is a sports holiday. We should all have the day off - especially if your team is playing at home today, as the Tigers are in Detroit.

Some of you might think the opening Sunday of the NFL season is more exciting. And I wouldn't argue much with that. I'm much more likely to spend the entire day in front of the TV (especially because it's a Sunday) on that day than I will be today.

I'm not saying it's my favorite time of year. That would be September, with college and pro football getting started, and the late-season pennant races in baseball. Every weekend (and most weeknights) seems to have something at stake in the fall.

But there's something about today - with the end of one season and the beginning of another - that feels more special to me. And this will be the first time in a long time that I'll really be able to enjoy it. In the last few years, I either couldn't (or didn't) get the day off from work, or I had a paper due and ended up pulling an all-nighter because I spent all day watching TV. Of course, I could never fully enjoy watching baseball and basketball with the dark cloud of a term paper and a night of no sleep looming over my head.

Not this year. The calendar is cleared. I have a big sandwich ready. The day began with picking up the Detroit Free Press baseball preview this morning, and they're on my coffee table, along with Sports Illustrated's preview, ready for my perusal. It's time to rock. Bring on the Blue Jays and Tigers!