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Chuck Klosterman (on sports and useless certainty)

[3-minute read]
The 'o' is long.

The ‘o’ is long.

If you’ve read one of these things before, you know my schtick. (It’s not so artificial, though, not really.) I’m a confirmed Accidentalist as a reader, about the farthest imaginable distance that a member of the homo sapiens tribe can be from A) a trend-watcher, eyes peeled for the New and the Hot and the Must-Read¹ or B) somebody with a plan. Usually, that means that when I get around to reading something I wish I’d read it long before. So.

 ¹ Cases in point: I’m still smart-phone free. I drive standard. I play vinyl records and CDs.

I’ve made no sudden conversion to Column A or Column B, but am still prone to literary accidents, which is how I ran into Chuck. Klosterman’s 2016 – wait, isn’t that THIS YEAR? – book-length thought experiment But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past. It’s my first book-length CK, though I used to read him often on the Grantland sports ‘n ‘popcult website (ah, Grantland, we hardly knew ye). The moral: it pays, in intellectual and vaguely spiritual terms, anyway, to go to the library. [That hyperlink right there was to a Neil Gaiman essay. You should go to it. And to the library.] BWIWW?, with its black text on white, upside-down cover, leaped into my sweaty palms from my local branch’s “Express Reads” shelf. Get it now, it’s hot, but you have only 7 days before library muscle is pounding on your door…²

² I should have bought it. Ended up costing me a $10 library fine.

It’s a smart and entertaining book, which concerns itself with “Big Potato” questions that cluster around the title query: how can we be so sure about nearly anything, when time so often (and often so quickly!) proves us to be out to lunch without a paddle? what can we safely predict about our futures? do we have even half-decent tools for justifying what we think we know for certain? Klosterman is stylish, contrarian and witty on such starchy questions as these³, there are any number of quote-worthy morsels, but I liked the one below. Sportsy readers don’t get nearly enough Cool Quotation time, so this one’s for them. And for you.

³ No small potatoes. Only big ones are his prey. “Starchy” questions. Get it, didja get it?
The front cover. The subtitle is on the back, right-side up, which forced me to regularly open the book at the back.

The front cover. The subtitle is on the back, right-side up, which forced me to regularly open the book from the back.

As he concludes the book, Klosterman turns his attention to sabermetrics, the growing movement to quantify and generally science-up the approach to appreciating and understanding sports, the teams and the athletes. Why care? you ask. I answer, Because there’s more to sports than just sweat and dunks, grunts and numbers, for one thing, but also because Klosterman makes reading about sports feel fresh and [gulp!] enlightening. He makes sport feel like a genuinely useful lens to understand human beings and their cultures. Bam. Tell the truth: you have to finish this piece now, right? And the quote is just around the bend.

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Triplet Homey Birthdays: Wise Guys!

[5-minute read.]
Some of my readers are family, but most of you won’t know who I’m talking about at all. You may think, Why should I read this? These people mean nothing to me. But I think they will. I suspect that you know gents kinda like these. Listen: they were good men. (One still is.)   

The end of July is reflection time – yeah hey, another one! Rumination. Ponderables. Wonderings and wandering attention, the occasional WHY and a whole posse of what-ifs. As July finishes baking, three sweet’n’sour birthdays follow one another, three days for three men that raised and sandpapered and marinated and confused and strengthened me. Do you know these guys, or men like ’em?

Today, my big brother is 6264. (Yikes! Nice math, Einstein!) We have the usual, the far-too-standard fraternal bond. We love the other guy but never mention it, unless you count the kind of merciless-but-never-toxic teasing that comes with confidence and a certain deep kind of knowing. We would do anything the other one asked, though we know he probably won’t request anything beyond a bed to sleep in or a pool table to move. We rarely call each other, and when we do there’s always a practical reason; we don’t write much, but are surprised at what a brother might say in an email and how good it feels to read it. Despite the obvious facts that we both love sport and are often more willing to explain things than some around us might prefer, I’ve always dwelt on noticing how different we are. I find myself chronically restless, incurably dissatisfied, and find Bill, my father’s namesake, eerily content. (I don’t believe in it, to be honest, but as the decades pile up, so does the evidence of his satisfaction. The guy seems to know what he likes and like what he knows! At a fundamental level, this strikes me as amazing. I can’t quite grasp it.) He’s a business man, good and smart with money, while I eagerly avoid thinking about cash and have most enjoyed work that mysteriously put monthly sums in my bank — or didn’t pay me at all. My brother signs cheques and legal documents with a painstaking, patient cursive signature where each letter is roundly formed. I practised a snazzy, jazzy penmanship designed to look good on the first page of the books I’ve never published and the autographs nobody asks for.

The longer I interact with the lying mirrors in my life, though, or actually listen to my own spoken rhythms, the more I’m forced to admit that we look and sound a lot alike. I still listen to music that he had fairly brief adolescent enthusiasms for, and well into adulthood have feverishly played (and later coached) sports that he taught me to play. I continue to dream of baseball; I presume he was my first pitcher and catch-and-throw partner, but it predates my conscious memory. (I do, however, bat from the opposite side of the plate than he did.) It was because of playing road hockey with him that I became a goaltender on ice. I had to learn not to lean to the right in shooting my first basketballs, once I’d gotten tired of being a slapshot target, because that’s the way he did it. Ask me to punt a football, and I’ll be inclined to slip off my shoe, since Bill hit his high boomers off a bare instep and I learned that way, too. Though I hit a golf ball only very rarely (and that from the goofy side of the tee), while Bill is an avid golfer, I have to admit that we’re more similar than I used to think.  I’ve spent a lot of time searching for brothers in my life. I think we all need brothers, and I’m glad, and still mighty curious, about the one that I was given. (Hello there!)

July 28, yesterday, marked the birth day of another guy who formed me.

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What, So We’re a RUGBY Family Now?

UPDATE: A revised and condensed version of this sportsy meditation on sonship and daddery appeared at the on-line long-form sportswriting site The Classical on November 26, 2014. I still like the sprawling ME-ness of this piece, but the tighter form @Classical has lots to recommend it, too, even apart from costing you less time!

The thunder began at 5:45 a.m. The shower is next to our bedroom, and Rugby Boy was in it. (Spoiler alert: this time, he did not flood the bathroom.) I tried to imagine myself back into dreamland, but I fear the thunder. 6:13: Size 11 hooves rattle the beams as a herd of buffalo thunder manfully to the kitchen. (Wow, I think. Half an hour from bed to breakfast. He’s getting faster!) It didn’t look like dreamland was an option, but after a few more rumbles of downstairs thunder, I heard the sonic boom of the front door banging shut. 6:45! Wow the second. He’s going to be early for practice! What had gotten into my son?

Where it started: Rugby School, England. Young Ellis picked up the ball and the rest is rugby.

Where it started: Rugby School, England. Young Ellis picked up the ball and the rest is rugby.

I’d thought that I might get out of bed and bike over to see Thunderhoof and His Flailing Limbs on the high school rugby pitch for his 7:30 workout. Meanwhile, I continued doing what a tired old coot-of-sporting-colours does when sleep is hopeless: I thought about basketball. Rugby isn’t my game, and never was. Back in Canada, I’m a wanna-be hoops guru again. I’m reading and noting, observing practices and networking, and obsessing over possibilities and plans, to say nothing of all the technical adjustments and teaching points my stormy brain whips up for imaginary teams. (Fire in the belly: sometimes it feels more like heartburn.) I want to blame Thunder Bunny the Rugby Boy for my broken sleep, but his crashing about only punctuates my sentence of wakefulness. Besides, going to rugger practice with him might be <yawn> fun.

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Brian Phillips (on the World and the Cup)

Who’s Brian Phillips? His @runofplay Twitter account is devilishly clever and often funny. (This is possible.) He writes some of the best and most thoughtful prose I’ve read on sports. Phillips is in Brazil for the love of football and words — and, I hope, an excellent salary to boot — and a few days ago he captured some of the essential magic of the great soccer conclave:

“Every World Cup does one thing better than any other event that human beings organize. It focuses the attention of the world on one place at one moment. Around a billion people watched at least part of the final in 2010….When a game becomes so ubiquitous, it almost ceases to be entertainment and becomes something else,

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2013 in Review: The Great Eighteen. Writing you can READ.

The last time I compiled a “Best of Howdy” list, for 2012, it was easier. I browsed through the year’s posts, remembered some things I liked, whittled it down to 10, gave a brief description, done. This time I tried to get more scientific, more democratic, and it’s been a mess. Not a lot of people responded to my invitation to submit favourites of the year, but they were some of my best readers and it was satisfying to hear about posts they liked. But.

My correspondents were far from unanimous in their preferences, and often those didn’t match the things I’d have chosen. And now that I have slightly more sophisticated analytics, I can easily check which posts had the most page views, which was often a completely different list from mine or the sometimes-odd choices of my panellists. A blogger’s work is never done. All this did cause extra work, but it was good thinking – along with the sidebar reflections that my Choice Readers had made – about what I’ve done, what worked and didn’t, and especially about what got read, and how. As it turns out, a tour of these will give you a pretty good idea of what I’m on (and off) about.

So here it is, again in the form of a quick trip through the Howdy catalogue. And I know: eighteen posts? Well, I plead indecision, for one thing, but it’s hard to choose among your children. There were 128 of them birthed on JH.com for 2013; also I reached my 500th post overall. Not a bad year, I’m not afraid to admit it.¹

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Love and Hate in the Palace of Sport

OR: Don’t Shoot Brian Phillips, He’s Only the Typist

George Orwell first brought it to my conscious attention, this capacity of ours to accept violently opposite things at the same time, using the same set of brain cells. “Doublethink”, he called it. With adolescent loftiness, I had started in my early teens to notice how my reading and my family urged me to be reasonable all week, while Sunday morning church seemed to demand that I put sense in a headlock and believe a dozen dubious things before lunch. (After that, I could return to the eminent reasonableness of NFL double-headers or five hours of road hockey.) By the end of high school, I’d come to 1984, and

Language is power. The pen is mighty.

been punched by Orwell’s description of a totalitarian regime with its Thought Police and, of course, its doublethink, “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”

Since at least those high school days, I’ve felt conflicted about my deep and dedicated love of sport. Most of the time, it just meant that I was the “flake” on the team, even when I was its best player, or that I always felt dislocated. As a “grown-up” athlete, I sometimes felt like my face in the team picture was out of focus; I didn’t share my teammates’ affection for beer or pickups (female or automotive), nor their enthusiastic ignorance of books and other flaky ponderables. “Don’t think too much, Howdy, you’ll hurt the ball-club” was at first the wise and kindly advice of an educated vet of the ball diamond, who occasionally caught me trying to understand hitting at the same time that I was doing it. (Yogi knew.) As time passed, though, in the locker room and finally in my own mind, it became a mocking sort of mantra which suggested that sport and introspection were, or maybe ought to be, mutually exclusive.

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Sports Day 1: Track & Field With Chinese Characteristics

JamesHowden.com is always concerned about the reading pleasure of its visitors. Because the report on my university’s June athletic competition is full of dudgeon and joy, it has been split into two parts. (Well, okay, my bride also said, “It’s too darned long!”) This is Part 1, while Part 2 is here.

I wrote earlier about the (nearly) annual Sports Day at my university (though that story only covered the day’s first 90 minutes). It is a mark of how deeply North America-centric I was (and likely still am) that I was mildly shocked, on arriving in China four years ago, to find that universities had no sports teams. The alliance between higher education and elevated levels of sporting competition is mainly an American thing, so I should’ve known; non-academic sports clubs and academies are the rule in Europe, Asia, and South America.1 There are glorified intramural basketball or volleyball games involving different faculties, which sometimes draw hundreds of drumming, shouting supporters. Yes, and there is (usually) a track and field meet, bumped off the schedule last year for the 60th anniversary commemorations of my university.2 In my earlier piece, I didn’t get past the pageantry, so here, by popular request3, is the sporting part of the story.

1 I may have been fooled by watching Kung Fu Dunk, starring Taiwanese singing sensation Jay Chou, known here as Zhou Jielun, on my first flight to China in 2009. A disgraced Shaolin monk (Chou, whom you might have seen as Kato in the movie version of The Green Hornet), is recruited by a semi-criminal sleazeball to transfer his other-worldly martial skills into stardom in the C.U.B.A. (Chinese University Basketball Association). It was spectacularly and delightfully bad. Anyway, only a few prestigious universities participate in the CUBA, which it turns out is mainly a place to enroll unqualified students – those who came up through State basketball academies, but have no future as pros – for the glory it will cast on school administrators. Hmm. Maybe it’s not completely different from American schools…

2 That day had pageantry and enforced student enthusiasm by the bucketful, so apparently there was no need for running and jumping that year. This reinforces my suspicions about what this “athletic meeting” is for, and for whom.

3 Well, my buddy JP has been bugging me about it. And my wife. That’s popularity!

A view of the finish line area from across the infield: officials, marshals, timers, medical volunteers, team spirit leaders, and a bunch of random people milling about. Photo: J.P. Mayer

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The Rich, the Poor, and the Playground

I have known for most of my life, at least in a shallow way, that extremes of wealth and poverty are toxic to world unity and peace. The Baha’i teachings have insisted on their elimination for something close to 150 years. I accepted the tenet as fact – alongside the necessities of defusing all prejudices, widening all loyalties, and rethinking all assumptions – as an idealistic young man, no more than a boy, really.

During my privileged, Canadian-born lifetime, the gap between rich and poor has only widened, and now I live in a country hell-bent on leading the world in this dubious marker of development. (My understanding is that the Excited States of America is still in front by a nose, but China and Brazil are

Sorry, this is a bit graphic. Yes, that is Chairman Mao on the 100-yuan note, China’s largest denomination (about seventeen bucks Canadian). Families live on that for a month.

closing fast. To the winner goes the spoiling, the rot, the instability, but the runners-up will know it, too.) Lately, I’ve been  brooding on the reasons for my steadily – sometimes violently – growing disillusion with sports, at least at the pro level.

Stratospheric salaries for the best horse-hide whackers and roundball  bouncers (and all their sweaty peers) are, of course, a cliché these days. Spaniard Pau Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers will make $19 million next season, and he’s far from the highest-paid jock. I made a good and steady North American income for nearly 30 years, and my take was somewhere between a mil and $1.5 million, I figure. Such comparisons are so banal that nobody really talks about it anymore, which is why I just did.

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The World Serious: Game One

Just for fun, I’m going to not only watch Game One of the World Series tonight — it’s the Colorado Rockies against the Boston Red Sox, and it’s BASEBALL, a curious game played mainly in the U.S. and Latin America — but also write my urbane and knowing commentary on the whole she-bang. My site isn’t really well-equipped for this up-to-the-minute reporting, but my basic article will swell in volume, if not in perspicacity and wit, as the evening goes on.

You’ll find this in the It’s All About SPORTS!  section, though I’ll no doubt be ranting about the broadcast and the commercials and the fact that most of the alleged Red Sox won’t even have a red sock showing…

Thanks for Coming Out, John

Sigh. I hadn’t intended to join the gossipy legion by writing about one of the few pro athletes — and the first basketball player — to have publicly declared himself a homosexual. Former NBA forward John Amaechi, during his career, stood out more for his speech – he’s a British black man, unusually articulate for a pro athlete, quite apart from his distinctive accent – than for anything remarkable about his game (he was a blue collar banger) or, mercy me, for his sexual preferences. Apparently, he didn’t bring his gayness, as one current player put it, onto his teammates on several teams.

ESPN, though, has had wall-to-wall coverage of this sporting “breakthrough” because its book division has published Amaechi’s closet-busting memoir Man in the Middle. I’d heard about a few other player reactions – calm and dignified from the likes of Grant Hill (no surprise), nervous or incredulous or even mildly indignant comments from others – but it wasn’t until a former NBA All-Star left it all out on the floor during a radio interview that I decided to write about this. Until then, I agreed with the on-line NBA beat writer Tony Meija : a pro player coming out after his retirement has a high titillation rating, but it’s not a big hoops splash.

Having spent enormous amounts of time teaching, coaching and parenting teen-aged boys-to-men, the wariness of the players about homosexuality in a pro sports locker room is not surprising. Ignorance is not bliss for young men; I never quite get used to how frightened (and therefore often hateful) young men are about gays. (I remember showering with other guys after grade nine gym class being awkward for a day or two, and then it was just what you did. By the 1990s, it was hard to convince even 18-year-olds to shower after a workout. Spooky.) As for the Association players who are being quoted, most of them are under 25. These are tall and powerful kids who have lived in a protective jock bubble of privilege (and of encouraged ignorance) for much of their young lives. They wear expensive suits to the games, but many of them spend their off-court hours playing X-Box by the hour or trying – MUCH more successfully than the average high-schooler – to get laid. (Sex comes to them, like free shoes and team buffets.) Suddenly, microphones are under the noses of these (mostly) physically astonishing and intellectually sheltered youngsters, asking them to comment on difficult societal issues. Sometimes I feel sorry for them. Why do we expect them to know better?

Tim Hardaway, now, has stepped forward as the Bad Guy, the retired star who felt as free to publish his homophobia – “I hate gay people” – as Amaechi was to air his sexual preference. The NBA has duly banned him from its All-Star festivities in Las Vegas. (I’m relieved that the Association has maintained its moral purity.) Apart from everything else, Hardaway made a startling breech of the Athlete Interview Code, for which he has since apologized. (The AIC is re-enforced by public relations flacks and interview coaches, which Hardaway apparently doesn’t have access to anymore. We got to play hard or I know he’s got my back might not have the right connations in this case, but surely this was a perfect You know, it is what it is opportunity.) His regrets might be better late than never, but it sounds more like the classic non-apology I’m sorry if I offended anyone with my remarks than a self-examining I can’t believe I came out with such a bigoted statement; being a black man, I should surely know better than to judge people by externals, and I will work to educate myself…

As for Amaechi, he seems an honourable guy and I don’t doubt that this required some soul-searching on his part. However, the tendency of talking or writing heads to counter hateful attitudes by exalting his courage, his heroic leadership, strikes me as misplaced, too. He is, after all, selling a pile of books, and among his circle of friends and friendly colleagues that he cares about, I guess that his homosexuality is not news.

This story is so big because it’s tabloid fodder, gossipy tickling of the private life of someone who was somewhat famous for awhile. Sex is is pretty important and all, but how did it get to be the centre of our public conversations? It’s as if the frequency and geography (and the ratings!) of our private pleasures are what defines us, whereas any healthy adult knows that it makes for a small (if sweet) proportion of a human life. (My favourite experimental proof that sexuality is a tiny, private business was in high school classrooms. Even the gentlest suggestion that an adolescent’s parents are sexual beings elicits howls of protest and revulsion. Exactly my point. Their business, not ours. Touché!)

And in the Toronto Sun, of all places (speaking of tabloids and titillation, though the sports section is pretty good) appeared this thoughtful dismissal of “tolerance” and call for genuine respect from Toronto Raptors coach Sam Mitchell. Like Hardaway, he speaks his mind, but it is a more broad and interesting one, as much as one can tell from an upstairs bedroom office in Ottawa. Asked about Amaechi and the players’ reactions to the thought of a gay teammate, Mitchell hoped that a man would be judged by his character and his actions, not by private preferences over which he may not feel much choice. He added, “It shouldn’t be about tolerance. It should be about respect. People should treat people as human beings….Are people supposed to tolerate me because I’m black? Or are they supposed to treat me with respect because I’m a human being?”

Thanks for speaking out, Sam.  As for Mr. Amaechi, I hope this means more to him than money. I hope it’s true that his openness gives solace and encouragement to the alienated, but I’m with Pierre Trudeau: The State has no business in the bedrooms of the nation. Neither do we, except for our own.