Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Tom Tomorrow here

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Friday, October 28, 2011

Crazy cell phone girls

Here they come, one-by-one, out of Ward 204, then Ward 203 . . . and Ward 202 . . . and the women's restroom right across from Ward 204 . . . flipping their cell phones open, firing up their iPhones, scrolling through all those missed calls that went directly to voice mail because their professors -- Luddite jerks like me -- had the nerve . . . the NERVE, to tell them they could not answer or talk on their phones during class. They put their phones up to their ear, place a folded arm across their chest and begin pacing eagerly for someone . . . . ANYONE . . . to pick up the phone so they can talk.

And talk. And talk. And talk.

To whom or about what, I don't know. But they just need to talk.

Because they are Crazy Cell Phone Girls.

"Like, you have so got to be kidding me, that's is, like, so insane for you to have to do that . . . like, so what are going to do . . . are you going to, like, tell your professor that you, like, have done no work or are you going to make something up . . . that's what I would do because there is, like, no way I could write a 25 page paper in, like, one night," begins the machine-gun banter by Crazy Cell Phone Girl #1. A slight pause, perhaps for oxygen, and then more . . .

"Oh, God, like, no way . . . you have got to come up with something to tell him," CCPG1 continues. "Like, here's an idea: how many fake funerals have you been to this semester because I have been to, like, three . . . but I keep track so I won't use the same people over and over because, like, in high school, I, like, forgot that I told my school that I had, like, all these funerals to attend and, like, my advisor said to me once, 'How many grandparents do you have?" and I was, like, 'Like my parents' parents remarried so these were, like, step-grandparents,' and my advisor was, like, 'We called your mom to ask her how many mothers and fathers she had,' and my mom was, like, 'What ARE you talking about, you know,' so I was, like, so busted. But the cool thing about college is that you can start over. I am like the master of the fake funeral."

Wow! "Fake funerals." I'd never heard that term before. See you can learn something from your students. That's what makes this such a rewarding profession, other than the money, of course.

Wait . . . wait . . . wait . . . the women's restroom door opens and CCPG2 bursts out in full-volume, everyone-needs-to-hear-my-conversation mode: "FUCK THAT SHIT!" is the well-thought out piece of advice on this end. Left arm flailing about as she barks into her phone, "You should just tell him, fuck you, asshole, and let him go fucking crawl back in his fucking hole, fucking asshole that he is, fucking jerk, GOD, he is such a fucking asshole that I can't wait to see him get, like, smacked down. Full bitch armor . . . that's what you need to do!"

Well, that was easy, wasn't it?

And Justice Kennedy had the nerve to write that women aren't decisive enough to know if having a late-term abortion is really the right thing for them? CCPG2 had it going on that morning. So imperative was the need to straighten out her unseen friend's relationship crisis that the call couldn't wait until was out of the restroom. I almost felt sorry for this poor "asshole" who, unknown to him, was going to feel the wrath of his girlfriend wearing her "full bitch armor." I mean, CCPG2 was kicking ass and taking names at 10.10 a.m. on a Monday, and coming out of the restroom, yet. For an undergraduate at my university, that is the equivalent of 4.30 a.m. grown-up time. In less than 30 seconds, seven uses of the word "fuck" -- as a verb, an adverb, an adjective . . . smack-down threats . . . full-bitch armor. Gotta admit . . . I hope this showdown ends up You Tube.

"Hey, do you think I should buy this guy's refrigerator?" asks CCPG3 into her phone, needing guidance on this important potential purchase. What better time to get appliance advice than while waiting for the previous students to leave the classroom on a Monday morning? "I think it's one of those dinky ones, but we could put, you know, some stuff in there, don't you think?"

Yes, you probably could put "some stuff" in an empty refrigerator. Not a lot. But some? Easily.

"Look at all these jobs," she continues. "Do you think I should get one? . . . I don't want to but my mom is, like, all over me to get a paying job this summer and I'm, like, I thought you wanted me to get an internship and I'm, like, telling her that they don't pay and she's, like, 'Then find one that does," and I'm, like, where? Oh, my God, did you know that, like, classes are over in, like, a week or something, and I'm like, so not ready to get a job. What should I tell my mother, because my dad is, like, whatever?"

"You should so NOT get a stupid job like waitressing or hosting because that is, like, so stupid," comes a voice from just down the hall. This is weird . . . it's almost as if CCPG4 is talking on the phone to CCPG3, who is standing just 10 feet away from her.

"That's, like, what I'm trying to tell them but, like, my mom is so, whatever. She really pisses me off with all her, 'You need to find a paying job' shit. Like I'm not trying, sort of. Let her come try to get a job in D.C. . . . she'd be, like, saying the same thing."

CCPG3 has a point. The stress of finding a summer job in college cannot possibly compare to the cushy life of this young woman's mother. She should pick up the phone and tell her mother, "Do you really expect me to sell my Vuitton purse and fake-Nicole Richie sunglasses to pay my rent? No way." That would show her. I know I would back down if this were my son or daughter.

"Totally," comes CCPG4's response. If I had my phone, I would have taken a picture of this scene. CCPG3 and CCPG4 were talking to each other, in the hallway of their classroom building, with their backs turned to each other, and, for about a minute, had no idea. Until CCPG4 turned around and said . . .

"Oh, my God, you are standing right here! This is so crazy. So what are you doing here?"

CCPG3: "I decided I should go to my 8.55 since the semester's almost halfway over. And, like, my professor is all, like, where have you been and I'm, like, thinking, 'You're lucky I'm here,' but I just told her that, like, 'I have been here but she hasn't noticed.' Why are you here?"

"I have a 10.20," says CCPG4. "But do you think I should go? I've been to, like, three classes in a row?"

"Hell, no. Let's, like, blow it off."

Off they go, CCPGs 3 and 4, not talking to each other, of course. Phones back open, they're scrolling and dialing, hoping that someone, ANYONE, will pick up the other end, giving them some company other than each other as they skip off to their newly appointed date with nothing.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Go ahead and pass me, or why 50 is not the new 30

Last week, as I was bicycling home from work, about six or seven real cyclists blew by me with the speed and precision of a small squadron of fighter-bomber planes zeroing in on some clueless bastard worshipping his Condi Rice shrine in a cave or a group of sailors, unaware of that they’re about to be blown to bits, playing poker on a battleship in the middle of the Pacific. At least that’s what happens in the movies. WOOSH . . . WOOSH . . . WOOSH . . . they went, pedaling with power and grace, perfectly synchronized, as only athletes fully devoted to their training regimen could be. Once upon a time, say twenty or thirty years ago, I would have taken being overtaken personally, and started out after them. Pass me? Fuck you. Faster than me? Really? Fuck you again. “Passing on your left . . .” Passing? Fuck you a third time.

But now, twenty or thirty years later, two things are very different than they were back then. First, I just turned 50. Second, because I just turned 50, I just don’t care. There is, come to think of it, a third thing as well. I was never a serious cyclist and I’m not now. I was once, though, a pretty serious runner, particularly between the ages of 20 and 35. Back then, if I’d been out for just a routine training run, I would have said something like, “How far you going?” toyed with him for a while, and then said, “Gotta get going. Thanks for the run,” and left him in the dust. Then I’d find someone a few phone poles up ahead, draft him and then cruise right on by, refusing to return his “Hey, how’s it going?” courtesy greeting because I was a SERIOUS runner, and serious runners didn’t acknowledge “joggers.” Or run with portable music players – remember, there were no iPods until 10 years ago. No chance, no way. Not when you are monitoring your mile splits or calculating whether you are a few seconds ahead or behind your time from the previous day or week.

Yes, yes indeed. Twenty or thirty years ago I cared whether I could hit golf ball straight, or draw or fade it to suit my shot. I cared about finding the time to even play the damn sport. I cared about whether my records were arranged in the correct order, spending more time than any normal person should debating whether my Weather Report albums, or, later, CDs, should go in the Jazz or Rock section of my shelf. I cared a lot more about who came and went in the latest incarnation of the Allman Brothers, whether Branford and Wynton Marsalis were on speaking terms, or whether anyone found out that Paul McCartney, not John Lennon, was always and still is my favorite Beatle. I cared a great deal if the fast pitch softball team I played on while I was in graduate school was going to make the City of Atlanta playoffs, and I cared even more about where my team’s manager put me in the batting order. I cared about qualifying for the Boston Marathon while I was at my running peak during my early 30s, something I did, although I was unable to compete in the race because of an injury. I cared what people thought who might come to my apartment or house or wherever I was living at the time thought about my books or the posters I had decided to frame that I had interpreted as art. I remember caring about turning 40, and thinking that my friends all cared about that, too, so much so that I threw myself a birthday party. I cared about all these things and many more lesser things as well.

Then, as if on cue, I stopped caring so much about whether Braves choked again in the playoffs and whether the world would continue to turn after Bobby Cox retired. I stopped getting into arguments with opposing fans at baseball and hockey games because I realized we were arguing about someone or something that had nothing to do with my own welfare. Really, is it worth getting ejected from a game you paid to watch because the guy next to you thinks that Alex Ovechkin sucks, or that the Washington Nationals are just one quality starter and an everyday center-fielder away from going to the World Series or whether Jayson Werth is worth $126 million when it's not my money? Politics? Fortunately, I stopped caring about politics a long time ago, shortly after I moved to Washington. Actually, that's not quite true. I never really cared about the game of politics . . . who's up, who's down, who is working for whom or what the polls allegedly tell us 18 months before a mid-term congressional election, who got elected or why, or what an unseasonable winter in D.C. might mean for the 1988, 1992 presidential election, or the antics of former D.C. Mayor-for-Life Marion Barry. Ideas, yes. Politics, posing and the self-importance that goes with it? No. I once believed that Washington was a place where "serious" people thought about "serious" ideas and had "serious" conversations about them, sometimes even on television. Then, one Sunday morning, about twenty years ago, as I was watching some television political impresario scream at some reporter about why he was wrong about something that didn't matter, an anonymous voice grabbed my ear and asked, "Why the hell are you watching this shit?" I didn't have an answer. It didn't matter that the voice was lodged somewhere inside my head. All that mattered is that I heard it. I had no answer. And that was the end of that. Then, the following Friday night, I had the same revelation while I was watching "Washington Week in Review," the straight-laced PBS show where "serious" reporters sit around a table pretending to be interested in each others' opinions. The difference between this show and the others was that they were intent on being civilized, or "agreeing to disagree" about the big issues of the day. Peel back the veneer just a bit, and you realize that the Washington establishment doesn't really disagree on much of anything. Its members are all in on the joke, collecting ridiculous speaking or appearance fees to give their eager admirers desperately wanting to connect to this selective fraternity the impression that their "insider" status somehow translates into some very important information that they really, really need to know. Bulletin: what these "insiders" know isn't very important, unless you consider an advance warning that a deputy press secretary for some second term congressman is about to get fired something essential to your daily existence. Coming into possession of this important knowledge will not affect my life or yours, unless you're the person about to get fired. But it will give you something to talk about with your friends, and that little, bitty piece of information, for a sadly significant number people in Washington, is worth caring about.

A friend of mine who turned 50 about six months before I did told me that, when it comes to your work and career, once you hit this magic number you become part of the furniture. Smart man, my friend. Since the beginning of this year, I have indeed become the invisible man in my office corridor. I was once under the impression that the doors to our offices had hinges and the extra chair or two that we all have were for our guests to sit down. If you felt the necessity to talk to your colleague about the colleague across the hall or next door, your new dependent variable, or the exciting new conclusions you have "found" in your research ("In conclusion, we find that politicians are likely to talk when they campaign, but it's unclear that what they talk about matters to voters or to the media who cover them. We believe that further research, preferably funded by a grant that gives me a course reduction, is needed"), you could invite that person in your office, close the door and have a conversation. But no more. Now, my younger colleagues, brimming with all the excitement of college freshman living away from home for the first time, think nothing of holding court on the status of their path-breaking research with their doors wide open, lest any of us miss out on their glorious new findings. Better yet, I'm often treated to doorway discussions of the latest rumblings of the barflies at the most recent academic conference about what department is falling apart or which young star professor will soon be leaving for even less teaching, more money and less accountability to the taxpayers or the undergraduates that pay the tuition that supports their all-important research on some arcane topic that matters not at all to anyone who lives in current political world . . . or whoever lived at all. Once I realized that there was no point to getting frustrated or upset with my colleagues' behavior, which would not change even after a polite request or two or six, I asked for and received permission to move out of my building. I seriously doubt if my colleagues will even know I'm gone, transfixed as they are with their model-building, hetereoscadasiticty and the occasional bout of kurtosis.

Understanding that 50 is not the new 30 means much more than waking up even sorer than you were ten years ago after playing ice hockey the night before, or giving up even the occasional glass of wine or bottle of beer because it makes you sick, passing on the hot sauce, turning down gigs that require you to begin playing at 10 p.m. and end at 1.30 or 2 a.m., squinting so that you can see better the potential side effects of the vast assortment of purple pills that drug companies are marketing to guys my age or . . . and I take no pride or pleasure in saying this . . . when you don't laugh when you see the trailers for the new Farrelly Brothers or Will Farrell feature when you're at the movies because you don't find their movies funny anymore. No, it's about letting things go, learning not to care about things, people and events that don't really matter and embracing the reality that the cycle of life applies to everyone.

Even me.

On the other hand, I have noticed that I've knocked 1.15 seconds off my 5K times since July. Hmmm . . . maybe I should think about entering a race, perhaps in the Masters' category.

Or then again, maybe not.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Tom Tomorrow here

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Jethro Tull

Do you, or does anyone, have any idea what these lyrics mean?

"Happy and I'm smiling, walk a mile to drink your water/
You know I'd love to love you, and above you there's no other/
We'll go walking out while others shout of war's disaster/
Oh, we won't give in, let's go living in the past."

"Once I used to join in every boy and girl was my friend/
Now there's revolution, but they don't know what they're fighting/
Let us close out eyes, outside their lives go on much faster/
Oh, we won't give in, we'll keep living in the past."

To this day, I'm not sure what this song, "Living in the Past," by Jethro Tull means. A quick guess would have me say that it's a nostalgic look at a relationship challenged by modernity and complex times, or the need of a couple to hang on to their innocence in the wake of war and revolution. Or maybe it doesn't mean anything at all. Maybe the lyrics just sounded good and they were written for their sonic value. Whatever the case . . .

Thirty-seven years after I first heard this song drift out of the speakers of my transistor radio in the late (or early) hours of some Saturday night (or Sunday morning) in 1972, "Living in the Past" remains one of the Big Three songs I heard right in a row that forever changed the way I listened to rock music. At 10 or 11 years old, I was still finding my own music. I had, of course, been listening to the Beatles since I had come out of the womb thanks (naturally) to my mother and my ultra-cool teenage neighbor, Marcy Pitt. Motown records also provided an almost constant background, depending on which AM radio station our car could pick up and what the teenage and college black guys who worked in the neighborhood where my dad had his store were listening to on their portable radios. My friends with older brothers and sisters occasionally put on a Hendrix or Steppenwolf album, and that was certainly a jarring alternative to "Sgt. Peppers" and "Abbey Road." At that age, though, I could not claim that I had "discovered" a band yet.

One night changed that. Right in a row, I heard "Do It Again," by Steely Dan, "Long Distance Runaround," by Yes, and "Living in the Past," by Jethro Tull. The next day, I went to the Woolworth's dime store and bought all three singles, a terribly uncool thing to do, since "real" music geeks only bought albums. Not that I cared, at that age, although I did, whether I had been accepted into the neighborhood club of music geekdom -- that would come soon enough, when the Gregg Ivers seal-of-approval was required to buy any new Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd and, yes, Jethro Tull album. The song's melody, led by Ian Anderson's flute playing, was hypnotic. Underpinning the entire tune was an incredible bouncing bass line supported by a rhythmically supple drum pattern. Anderson's vocals were hardly in the tradition of any other singer. He sounded like he was snarling at you while he was singing and, at the same time, fighting off a bad head cold. Only Donald Fagen of Steely Dan had a voice that came close to Anderson's in its nasal distinctiveness (both voices stood could not have been more different than Jon Anderson's of Yes, whose contra-tenor choirboy vocals soared above that band's majestic, orchestral music). Yet, in this song, the notes he is singing follow the bass line, not the chord progression of the guitar, a very unusual choice in rock music (and something more or less invented by Paul McCartney. Just listen to "All My Loving" and you'll hear what I mean).

After "Living in the Past" came "Aqualung," the first album in what would become Tull's classic period. Anderson's lyrics -- he was not, as many people commonly believed, actually named Jethro Tull, who was a famous 17th and 18th century English agriculturalist -- were strange and often off-color. How many bands have as the opening verse in their most famous song lyrics like these:

"Sitting on a park bench, eyeing little girls with bad intent . . ."

or

"Snot is running down his nose, greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes . . ."

But that was Ian Anderson, never on the inside of much of anything! In the true tradition of the 70s British progressive bands, Tull produced an album, "Thick as a Brick," that was a two-sided opus of one song! Long before Spinal Tap produced "Smell the Glove," Jethro Tull gave us "Thick as a Brick," and "A Passion Play," another one-song "concept" album over two sides. Yes, it was pretentious as hell. But compared to so much other of the three-chord crotch rock of the day, it was a marvelously creative and very welcome alternative. And just as fans and critics felt that Tull had disappeared down a drain of ponderousness too incomprehensible for music nerds like me, the band produced the folk-driven, almost pastoral, "Songs From the Wood," the last, in my opinion, great Tull album.

Over the years, too many great musicians to name here have wandered in and out of Jethro Tull, which is still alive and, from what I understand, well enough to tour. The only other musician to remain with Anderson over the years has been Martin Barre, the brilliant guitarist whose guitar break at the end of "Aqualung," is one of the most frequently committed-to-memory air guitar solos of the last 40 years.

I don't listen to Tull that much anymore. When I do, though, the clever lyrics and completely original instrumentation remains without imitation. C'mon . . . when you can make a flute, a lute and an accordion a staple of rock music, sing songs about Mother Goose, jock straps, hurricanes, stupid English school boys, shire horses and, well before Sting, untrustworthy school teachers, you've earned your place in popular music history.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Like, am I so molding minds or what?

"Like, are you in your office," asked the high-pitched, squeally voice on the other side of my slightly ajar office door.

I was -- and, thanks to this nail-gun of a voice, even awake. But should I tell her? After all, I wasn't holding my official "office hours," so technically I wasn't "in" my office even though I was, in fact, there. Somehow, though, I had a feeling that French existentialism was too much for my visitor.

Hmmmmmmmmm . . . sit there quietly, or get up?; sit there quietly, or get up?; sit there quietly, or . . .

Before I could continue to volley this moral conundrum in my head, the door slowly opened at a pace consistent with a horror movie scene, you know, when the door opens to reveal a foot gingerly walking on a squeaky floor, while the potential victim hides under the bed, meat ax in hand, hoping to avoid a confrontation with her stalker, yet ready if it happens. Standing in front of me was a young woman, hair pulled up into a scrunched knot, with a pony tail shooting straight up into the air, dangling about. Red sweats tucked into brown suede boots with enough exterior fur to stir the consciousness of even the most devoted hunter and trapper. She twisted the top of a Diet Coke bottle and began to look around my office. Then she looked at me.

"Like, oh my God, you are so here! Would you like a lollipop?"

"I am here," I acknowledged, smiling on the outside, crying on the inside, for this was a sure sign that I was now holding office hours, even if I wasn't. I was now talking to someone I did not know and had never seen. "And no thank you."

"Oh, my God, you totally don't know me, but I so know who you are, because, like, my friends have all had your class and they were like, you so have to take this class and because, like, you know, like, they were so all about you that I'm like, definitely!"

Dear God, Perry Mason, Tony Soprano, Sandra Bullock . . . someone, anyone, please help me.

"So, are you selling Tupperware, or is this just a courtesy call," I volunteered.

"Selling Tupperware, oh my God, that is so funny! No, but can I come see you when we have my sorority fundraiser? . . . I think we're selling something for cancer or the homeless shelter, I'm not sure. My friend, do you remember her (she offered no name) said you were like, so funny, and I'm like, really, and she's like, oh my God, and then my other friend, who you may not remember because he's not very smart said like, yeah, but like you really have to work in your class and that you call on people, so, like, whatever, I'm ready."

"And what class are you taking?"

"See, here's the thing: like, I'm not signed up yet."

"So . . . which one do you want to take?"

"How many are there?"

This stranger who, by now, had morphed into a novelty act, was now going to pay for her untimely interruption of the nap I felt coming on before SHE ENTERED MY LIFE, UNINVITED.

"I thought you said your friends took my class that you had to take. I assume you know which one that was?"

"Oh, my God, like, you are so right! Okay, it's the one about the Constitution, definitely!"

"In one way or another, they're all about the Constitution."

"Really?"

"Really."

"All right, oh my God, you must think I am so, like, whatever, for coming here and being, like so clueless. All I know is that it's the class I have to take before I graduate."

My visitor had just uttered a sentence without using the word "like." Progress. Or was it?

"What class did your advisor say you needed to graduate," I asked.

"My advisor? Like, I not sure which one it is, but I so haven't gone to see her yet."

"So how do you know which class you need to graduate?"

"It's the one my friends took."

Through the looking glass; in the twilight zone; caught in the funhouse -- pick any literary metaphor you like -- we were deep inside of nowhere-land now.

"So when you say you need this class, which you can't identify, to graduate, do you mean something like I won't have lived a full life until I climb Mt. Everest? It's not something I need to do; it's something I want to do so bad that it is, in a way, a life necessity."

Her mouth came open, and she gave me a very serious look. For the first time since coming into my office, she stopped twisting the bottle top to her Diet Coke. "Oh, my God, you climbed Mt. Everest?!? When? That is sooooo amazing."

"No, I haven't climbed Mt. Everest nor do I plan to. What I'm trying to say is, that for you, your college experience won't be complete until you've taken this class that you can't identify?"

Blink-blink. Blink-blink. Blink-blink.

"Try this: you don't need to go to Paris or Venice or Rome or London to live your life. You won't die or go to jail if you don't go. But your life will be much better for it, and you'll come home and say, "You just have to go to Paris or your life isn't complete."

"OH, MY GOD, THAT IS SO TRUE. I WAS ON STUDY ABROAD LAST SPRING IN MADRID AND IT WAS SO, LIKE, AWESOME, THAT, LIKE, I TOLD ALL MY FRIENDS THEY SO HAVE TO GO OR THEY WILL DIE!"

"Right," I said, "but you didn't mean that literally they would die if they didn't go."

"NO! Not, like, they would "die" (the hands went up for mock quotation marks) die. They would just like, you know, die."

"Well, you still haven't said which one you want to take. And are you aware that class registration hasn't started yet?"

"Oh, my God, really, not even for me?"

"Not even for you, whose name I don't know, and who I have never seen until now."

"Really, you don't remember me?"

"Have we met?"

"You know, like, I'm not sure. I think my other friend introduced us when we saw you one day in, like, Mary Graydon. Right on. Look, I have to go because I have a class. But I will so see you in January, so be ready for me!"

"The only way I'll see you is if I see you around campus. Registration hasn't started yet."

"Okay, you'll see. I'll be an awesome student and so read everything you assign, I swear . . . I don't want to be one of those people you make fun of."

"You, make fun of you," I answered. "How could I possibly make fun of you?"

"See, told ya!"

And with that coda, she turned around and left, fully convinced that she was signed up for a class that wasn't open for registration and, better yet, one that she couldn't name.

Stay tuned.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The "student-athlete" delusion

Death, taxes, chaos in the Whole Foods parking lot and some daily delusional, idiotic statement by a Republican presidential contender are not, despite what you hear or may have been told, the only certainties in life. Autumnal change brings with it two sure-bets: the days do get shorter, and a legion of sports screamers and elite Op-Ed commentators masquerading as voices of populism and reason begin their annual drive on behalf of "student-athletes" in Big-Time, Division I programs to stop their "exploitation" by having the universities that already fund their education pay them for the work on the football field.

(Note to self -- before I continue, remember that the days do not get shorter or longer as the seasons change. They remain at 24 hours. Sunrise and sunset simply come at different times).

The argument to pay athletes who are already being paid to attend college to play, primarily football or basketball, the largest producer of revenue for college athletic programs, is that the universities that employ them -- and I choose the word "employ" deliberately -- make astronomical amounts of money off television contracts and, in recent years, an array of secondary sources, from equipment and apparel companies who pay universities a fee to become their official supplier to the licensing agreements that allow them, but not the players, to collect royalties from the sale of personalized jerseys, golf club covers, shot glasses and all the other sorts of oddities that the lunatics who never moved on from their undergraduate years buy to support "the program." Here is Michael Wilbon of ESPN:


I used to argue vehemently against paying college athletes. Tuition, room, board and books were compensation enough. And even if, increasingly, it wasn't enough and virtually every kid who accepted a scholarship was in the red before Christmas of his freshman year, the notion of pay-for-play was at best a logistical nightmare. Where exactly would the money come from? How could you pay college football players but not baseball players or members of the women's field hockey team? And how in the world would you pay men in a way that wouldn't violate Title IX?

So you know what caused me to do a 180 on the issue? That $11 billion deal -- OK, it's $10.8 billion to be exact -- between the NCAA and CBS/Turner Sports for March Madness between 2011 and 2024. We're talking $11 billion for three weekends of television per year. On top of that, there's a new four-year deal with ESPN that pays the BCS $500 million. So, if those two deals were worth, say, a combined $10 billion instead of $11.3 billion, would the games not be televised? Would the quality of the broadcasts or the coverage or the staging of the events be somehow diminished? What if people in the business of money took $1.3 billion off the top, invested it, sheltered it and made it available to provide a stipend to college athletes, how could anybody stand on principal and argue against paying the people who make the events possible in the first place?
But not to everyone.
Let me declare up front I wouldn't be the slightest bit interested in distributing the funds equitably or even paying every college athlete. I'm interested in seeing the people who produce the revenue share a teeny, tiny slice of it. That's right, football and men's basketball players get paid; lacrosse, field hockey, softball, baseball, soccer players get nothing. You know what that's called? Capitalism. Not everything is equal, not everything is fair. The most distinguished professor at the University of Alabama won't make $5.9 million in his entire tenure in Tuscaloosa; Nick Saban will make that this year. So I don't want to hear that it's "unfair" to pay the quarterback of Alabama more than all the sociology students in the undergraduate college.

No, Wilbon, that's not called capitalism. That's called corporatism, or facism -- take your pick. There is no "invisible hand" allocating income here. Rather, you have an organization acting as a titular government head, the NCAA, that is distributing the income based on the power that particular organized interest has to alter a "natural" outcome. The model Wilbon suggests is actually based on the American political system, which allocates goods and services based on the ability of a particular interest -- farmers, big banks, insurance companies and labor unions -- to influence the outcome of decision-making through money and power. Congress neglects to address important public interests all the time for no other reason than too many people have too much to lose by altering the status quo. No serious person can possibly argue that the reason that the United States is the only developed country in the world without a public health care system because we're on to something no else has quite figured out. Insurance companies, drug companies, pharmaceutical companies, doctors, hospitals and the lawyers who represent them all make too much money under the current system to even think about starting over from the ground up. That's what the United States needs to do; but the current arrangement, as amoral and corrupt as it is, benefits the people in power, and they are not about to give it up. Perhaps Wilbon can explain why we continue to legalize tobacco, a carcinogen that has more adverse consequences on public health (and health care costs) than any other substance on the market, but not asbestos.

College football and basketball players do not deserve to be paid any more than they already are. A scholarship player at Duke University is getting a $225,000 education for free. More than that, he is being admitted under a completely different set of standards than any other non-legacy, non-affirmative action applicant. A smart guy like Michael Wilbon cannot possibly believe that Alan Iverson got admitted to Georgetown after barely graduating high school and serving four months in jail because he was an academically promising student. Nor can he believe that most "student-athletes" in Big-Time Division 1 programs are academically qualified to attend the colleges they do. In my view, these athletes are taking resources from other students who have the ability but not the money to attend good schools. Really, what's a bigger rap on American society -- a college athlete at the University of Maryland already receiving a free education not getting paid an stipend of some sort or a kid admitted into Maryland who will have to attend community college because she can't afford the tuition, room and board? To me, it's not even close.

The problem with college athletics is not the exploitation of the athletes recruited to play the sports that produce all this money. The problem is a warped, immature American public that values competitive sports over the need to fund a college education at the appropriate level for anyone who wants one, a problem that begins when adults begin valuing their kids "careers" on the field, the court or the ice more than their intellectual development. I know plenty of parents who are not hesitant to drop whatever takes to get their little star athlete the individualized coaching they think he or she deserves and put them in grueling travel sports programs who are quite comfortable having their kids get their schoolwork done in the back of a car or bus on the way to some practice or game. Get a tutor for the kid struggling in Spanish or math? Not at the expense of some extra time in the batting cage or on the ice with a "certified" coach.

I stopped watching college sports around the time I graduated from college almost thirty years ago. There were many reasons, but chief among them was what I learned from my two weeks in a Division 1 college baseball program and my subsequent, misguided yet quite profitable time during my junior and senior years as a tutor for a Division 1 (different school) athletic program. In the early 1980s, I made $15 an hour to tutor football and basketball players, almost all of whom, including two who went on to play in the NFL and NBA, either wanted me to take the tests or get them, or write their papers for them. I was no stranger to the occasional dishonest dollar by that point in my life, but fraud was something I just wasn't willing to commit. I got caught cheating on my 10th grade math test, and that was enough to scare me straight. But I knew many other "tutors" who were all to happy to make even more money under the table, money that came from "boosters" and other "friends" of the athletic program. As I told a friend after my experience, an athletic tutor was the academic equivalent of a paid escort -- it sounds a lot more legitimate than it is.

Hell, yes, I love watching the sports I love, baseball and hockey, on television. I love going to as many games as I can. As I get older, I find myself screaming at my television or vacuuming my carpets even more than I did when I was younger. I spend more time calling pitches during games than I did 20 years ago and trying to out guess managers and coaches. But I only watch and keep up with pro sports. I do have many friends who continue to root for the colleges they attended and occasionally make a weekend out of going to a football or basketball game. I have friends who cannot understand why I don't go see Tennessee and Missouri football or basketball games, especially if they're playing nearby me. My answer, then and now, is pretty simple. I prefer to watch games played, managed and coached by people who I know are doing it for money rather than by people who keep pretending that they're not.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Should drunk white girls dance in public?

Now that Sarah Palin has left the 2012 presidential campaign, hopefully for good, and Michaele Salahi has settled down, at least for the next few hours . . . or days, maybe, with Journey singer Neal Schon, I can now turn to other matters that have simmered in the back of my mind for quite some time.

Like whether drunk white girls should dance in public.

I know I should be embarrassed to admit this, but, for some strange reason, I'm not. This question has gnawed at me for years and years, and I am embarrassed to admit I was never able to resolve it until now. I think it started in college, when I noticed that white people only danced when they had crossed that invisible tipping point from a warm, social beer-powered buzz to that condition when the outward facade of seriousness or nerdiness gives way to giggliness and a near-complete loss of social inhibition. Not the squinty-eyed, hiccupy, close-range, "Who are you?" or "Like, you're cute, did you know that?" or "YOU'RE THE ONE WHO NEEDS TO LOOSEN UP!!!" or "Who did you come here with?" or "What the fuck did you say?" or "You know, just fuck you if that's how you're gonna be. . ." phase or when the intoxicant starts endlessly repeating phrases like, "Woo-hoo! Woo-hoo! Woo-hoo!" over and over again. There's that fairly harmless middle-ground that's kinda-funny-as-long-as-you're-not-around-it-too-long. And when you can't escape there's often nothing more annoying.

So, the other night at the Washington Capitals home opener, the music starts to pump during a television time-out, since the idea of more than 3 seconds of idle time at any contemporary professional sporting event is simply out of the question. And the public address announcer bellows, "ALL RIGHT CAPS FANS! LET'S SEE YOU DANCE FOR THE CAMERAS!" Normally, I take those few moments to browse through the stat sheets or read a snippet of a game program I always bum from the people who sit next to me. This time I watched because I hoped the Jumbotron would show my son and three of his hockey teammates on the ice, since they were getting to serve as part of the crew that cleans the ice during breaks in play.

No luck. All I saw was one beer-buzzed white person after another attempting to dance. They all begin at with a certain set of base moves. And before I go on, let me dispel any accusation that this column is sexist. Notice that I don't even bother to suggest that drunk white boys should attempt to dance in public. They just shouldn't and if you have to ask then you should never ever dance anywhere within a 50 mile radius of one in any public space. Of course, no one other than a drunk white boy would even ask that question, so that this means they have a better chance of getting arrested for dancing in public than urinating in public on the side of a building because -- you guessed it -- they're really drunk and had to pee. Perish the thought.

First, white persons who dance in public only do so if they are holding a beer in one hand. Come to think of it, I don't recall ever seeing a single white person in college dance without holding a beer or drink in one hand. I think it must be in the Unofficial White Person's Manual that any public dancing must take place while drinking an alcoholic beverage. Perhaps this is a concession by white people that dancing is just not their thing, and they are, in a way, apologizing in advance for dancing so badly by admitting they are partially, if not entirely, drunk.

Second, white persons who dance in public know they must either hold their beer over their head, preferably to one side, so they can better rotate their arms. Or, if the beer isn't over their heads, it must be held up against your chest, so you can gesture with the other arm while talking to the person you are pretending to dance with.

Third, white persons cannot dance in public unless they have perfected off-beat snapping. Translated, white persons know they must snap the fingers on their one free hand slightly ahead or behind the beat, simply to confirm that they are, in fact, rhythmically-challenged and to confirm further that are making no serious effort to really dance, but merely shuffle along while attempting to pick-up or make conversation with their dance partner, or communicate their indifference to the art of dancing more generally. This is a valuable technique, one that says, "I don't dance, as you can tell, so I want you to know I'm doing this because I like you." On the other hand, holding a beer bottle while you dance, especially if you start to peel the label with the other hand, can also communicate the following: "I don't want to do this, and the full attention I am giving my beer bottle should tell you that I can't wait for this song to be over." Or it could be a sign of sexual frustration. That's a plausible theory, and might explain why I don't remember what kind of beer I drank in college -- the labels were never on them by the end of the night.

Fourth, white persons carry a beer bottle to the dance floor as protection during those songs that start "fast" and end "slow," thus saving the aggrieved party who didn't really want to dance in the first place from actually having to touch their dance partner. Bad drunk white dancers still retain enough of their faculties to know, as they were taught by the Bush administration, that touching during dancing can lead to sexual arousal and thus unwanted pregnancies.

Back to the Jumbotron . . .

The first drunk white girl on the Jumbotron hoisted her beer over the head as soon as she realized the cameras had captured her. She sort of grooved from side to side, while pointing at her beer with her free hand, which she also appeared to snap. Nothing special -- routine drunk college girl dancing. This one needs to work on her game, and she can start by NOT pointing at her beer bottle. Rookie mistake, since it says to everyone assembled, "Hi! Like, I'm either totally underage or just, like, totally turned 21 or whatever and I am, like, so psyched to be here, wherever here, like, totally is or whatever!!! Woo-hoo!!! OMG, I'm taking a picture of myself with my cell phone!!!!!!!"

The second drunk white girl had stripped down to a sports bra and had painted her body in a way that would have landed her in jail in certain parts of South Carolina and Eastern Tennessee. Nonetheless, there she was, hands above her head, beer bottles in both hands, swaying to the computerized beat blasting throughout the arena.

The third drunk white girl was actually two drunk girls dancing without the benefit of proper choreographic training. Not only did each one have a beer hoisted above her head, they started to grind, much to the pleasure of extraordinarily large number of fat, bearded and drunk white men who make up about 97% of hockey crowds. The cameraman, or maybe camerawoman, or even the person of camera or who or whatever, must have gotten lost in the moment, since it took about 5 seconds longer than normal to pull away from this brazen display of drunk white girl-girl sexuality unseen since Madonna kissed Britney Spears on television.

But the final contestant ruined everything. He was a drunk white boy, not a drunk white girl, so that made a mess of everything right off the bat. He was sitting in a seat that looked very far away, somewhere literally near the rafters and not quite too far from the emergency exit. And when he saw his big ole' face on the Jumbotron . . . well, did he put on some kind of show! . . . a real step forward in performance art. First, he clucked like a chicken while holding his beer bottle. Then he started pretending to bicycle, exaggerating each revolution to make it appear that this wasn't really straining the hell out of him. His crescendo? All of a sudden, he just stopped, like a child playing freeze tag, turned to the side and chugged the rest of his beer, just like John Belushi did in "Animal House," or, more recently, Will Farrell in "Old School."

Standing-O from the crowd, which made him the winner, and, in turn, rewarded him with a free pizza from Papa John's, something that this guy definitely didn't need.

This chance to reflect on a matter that has simply not gotten the attention it deserves confirms the hunch that I suspect I had long harbored but never wanted to admit: that drunk white girls, when they sober up, should be able to do anything and everything a drunk white man should do.

Never, ever . . . though, should they dance in public.

Steve Hackett

Blues-drenched rock guitarists who dominate the rock music pantheon have never done it for me. Strangely enough, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, around the time that guitarists like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page emerged -- justifiably -- as the Guitar Gods of rock, I found myself drawn to players that could not have been more different. Until I was about 11 years old, I never listened to music "seriously." I listened to music all the time, but I didn't think much about what it was I was listening to. Either I liked the song on the radio or I didn't. And after the Beatles, I didn't really think much about what other bands had to offer musically. For me, the turning point came when I heard three songs in succession on the radio one night that changed how I listened to rock music: "Living in the Past," by Jethro Tull; "Do It Again," by Steely Dan; and "Long Distance Runaround," by Yes. The unusual melodies and rhythmic feel of the first two songs grabbed my ears, and the vocals of Ian Anderson and Donald Fagen were far different than the conventional rock singers of the era. Their voices weren't great, by a singer's standards. But they were perfect for the music, and added a voice that complimented the instruments perfectly. Jon Anderson of Yes was entirely different. His angelic, contra-tenor voice was unlike anything in rock music, and perfectly suited the jazzy, sophisticated feel of the song. Everything about that song registered with me -- the vocal harmonies, the melodic bass playing of Chris Squire, the jazz-influenced drums and precise cymbal playing of Bill Bruford and the clean, scale-based guitar runs of Steve Howe. That "clean" guitar sound appealed to me much more than Hendrix, Clapton, et. al. (Duane Allman is only one of that bunch that still resonates with me, simply because you can really hear and feel the blues in his playing). I read an article about Steve Howe in a music magazine soon after I heard the tune, and discovered that his influences were not the blues-based guitarists, but jazz guitarists like Joe Pass, Jim Hall, Tal Farlow and, of course, the incomparable Wes Montgomery. To this day, Steve Howe is one of two rock guitarists I'd pay top dollar to watch from a living room distance.

The other guitarist is much less well known, yet arguably one of the most original and creative guitarists of the post-Hendrix era in rock music. I had never heard of Steve Hackett until a the stoner-guy who owned the used record shop around the corner from my house played "Genesis Live" for me and some friends one afternoon while we were hanging out in his store. The first song I heard was, "Watcher of the Skies," which remains one of my all-time favorite Genesis pieces of music. The dramatic mellotron opening by Tony Banks, the "tap-tap-tap" in what sounded like Morse Code on the hi-hat by Phil Collins, the counterpoint bass of Mike Rutherford and the altered-state vocals of Peter Gabriel were quite an introduction to this band. But what really shook me -- literally -- was the first searing guitar line by Hackett that ended the first chorus. I'd never heard a guitarist play like that in any genre. Whoops, swoops, near-orchestral approaches to structuring a guitar line . . . rock guitarists didn't play like this. And while I had decided after hearing that entire record that I wanted to learn to play like Phil Collins (don't laugh -- between 1972 and 1982 he may well have been the best drummer on the planet. Plus, he's left-handed), I also concluded that Steve Hackett was about the coolest guitar player around, save only for Steve Howe.

From 1971 to 1977, Steve Hackett was the lead guitarist for Genesis, leaving after the "Seconds Out" live album to begin what has been a very interesting and musically diverse solo career. A couple of weeks ago, one of my still-best friends from my teen years and I traded our "Top 10" Genesis songs. Not a single song after "Duke" made the list for me. Only one song from 1982 forward made my friend's list. We distributed fairly evenly between the "Gabriel" and "Collins" eras (a false distinction, but it serves a purpose here). Only three tunes, though, did not have Steve Hackett playing on them. My friend and I agreed that Hackett's departure was much more musically significant for the band than Gabriel's. Peter Gabriel is a great, great talent, and was a great vocalist and interpreter of Genesis's early music. But he was fortunate to have Tony Banks, the most underrated great keyboard player in popular music, as the compositional backbone of the band. Rutherford and Collins were completely original players, especially the latter. And Hackett's completely unorthodox approach to the guitar was the perfect foil to Banks's cinematic approach to composition and keyboard playing. At one moment, Hackett could play perfectly formed classically-based pieces as part of a song, then in a later section introduce a guitar part that bore through like a laser. Listen to his guitar solos on, "Supper's Ready," "The Knife," "Watcher of the Skies," "Firth of Fifth" (his most famous), "One for the Vine," and "Los Endos," for starters. Then listen to the gorgeous composition, "Blood on the Rooftops," "Unquiet Slumbers for the Sleepers," and "Entangled." Save the best for last, "In That Quiet Earth." Some of the most beautiful moments in modern rock music come from Hackett and Mike Rutherford's 12 string duets in such songs as "The Cinema Show" and "Ripples."

Steve Hackett is a musician who traded fame for artistic integrity. He left Genesis just as the band had made a major breakthrough to the American market because he wanted to play his own compositions and believed the Banks/Rutherford axis in Genesis allowed him no room for his own material. The move benefited Hackett much more than Genesis, which went on to staggering commercial success by departing from the aural seascapes upon which it based its early identity. I've seen Steve Hackett play live twice, once on the "Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" tour (when he sat crouched over in a chair) and the "Wind and Wuthering" tour (when, in a complete makeover, he stood tall in knee high boots, black scarf and all-white shirt and pants, looking too cool to be real) and listened to his recordings over the years. Yes, he can summon up the flurry of notes that possess erotic-qualities for many guitar enthusiasts. What still impresses more than anything else about his playing, though, is his use of the guitar as an expressive voice in ways that defy rock convention. Listen to Steve Hackett and you'll get a clinic on the admonition that less is often much, much more.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Ugg point

In case you didn't know, barometric pressure, or the pressure at which air density changes with altitude, can be determined either of two ways.

Equation 1

{P}=P_b \cdot \left[\frac{T_b}{T_b + L_b\cdot(h-h_b)}\right]^{\textstyle \frac{g_0 \cdot M}{R^* \cdot L_b}}

Equation 2

{P}=P_b \cdot \exp \left[\frac{-g_0 \cdot M \cdot (h-h_b)}{R^* \cdot T_b}\right]

Simple enough, right? Good.

The dew point, or the temperature at which a parcel of air must reach before vapor turns into water, is calculated like this . . .

A well-known approximation used to calculate the dew point Td given the relative humidity RH and the actual temperature T of air is:

T_d = \frac {b\ \gamma(T,RH)} {a - \gamma(T,RH)}

where

\gamma(T,RH) = \frac {a\ T} {b+T} + \ln (RH/100)

Knowing how we derive both barometric pressure and the dew point is essential to calculate accurately the "Ugg point," or the point at which the occasionally worn and seen Ugg boot suddenly becomes the essential footwear statement for the female fashionista between the ages of 13 and 34 and, sadly, the teen-wannabe Cougar Moms between the ages of 37 and 53. You know how in mid-March, at least in the Washington, D.C.-area, those few days in the middle of the month when, after two or three consecutive days in the high 60s, you notice a couple of crocuses here and there, and the bulbs you forgot you planted in the fall yield a couple of tulips? And then just as quickly as temperatures rose and the ground teased us with glorious color, winter comes back, and we have to endure two or three more weeks of dark and gray before the pastels of spring emerge again? So it is with the Ugg boot, perhaps the shoe industry's most unsightly contribution to popular culture since whatever those strange objects are called that resemble a hybrid of a ballet flat and a child's corrective shoe. Once the temperature drops below 60 degrees in Washington, sending the nation's elite scrambling for their L.L. Bean catalogues so they can begin layering themselves to death in enough clothing to guarantee population management for at least the next seven months, you're likely to see a few Uggs here and there. But the real onslaught comes once the average temperature drops to:

UP = U(x) - % [NFF + BSL]
_______________
[L,W + OMG!! (xx)]


whereas

UP= Ugg Point
NFF = North Face Fleece
BSL = Black Stretch Leggings
LW = Like, Whatever
OMG = Oh, My God!!

so
AVGT = B(1) RHy + HUH? (x) FIH
______________________________

SHOEUNCOOLNESS

whereas

AVGT = Average Temperature
B = Barometric Pressure
RH = Relative Humidity
HUH= Clueless
FIH = Four Inch Heels

then

The Ugg point, or that point at which this inexplicable cultural phenomenon, moves from occasional nuisance to c

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

So long, Washington Post

If, somehow, the Washington Post defies the odds of the economics of newspaper publishing and manages to survive another five, ten or even a hundred years, it won't be because of me. After twenty years of reading the Post on a fairly regular basis, and waiting about the same amount of time for some . . . any . . . just a wee-wee bit . . . a tiny inkling of evidence that it is, in fact, the "great" newspaper that it proclaims itself to be, I have finally come to the decision that it's time to cancel my subscription.

Not that I haven't had a zillion reasons before my latest one (I'll get to it) to give the Post the heave-ho. Where even to start? The pathetic editorial page, which, to demonstrate its "seriousness," generally accepts at face value any statement issued by the congressional majority and presidential administration in power at face value on virtually every issue, and feigns shock that politicians act like politicians by lying, withholding evidence or just plain avoiding any accountability? Of course, the Post does insist that . . . wait for it . . . it is necessary to form the all-knowing, deadly serious and "bi-partisan"Blue Ribbon Commissions on occasion, usually headed by Bob Dole, Donna Shalala, Madeline Albright, Sandra Day O'Connor or some nominally partisan Washington establishment lawyer (Bob Strauss, C. Boyden Gray, Vernon Jordan) or former governor (Thomas Kean, Lamar Alexander) who meets the all-important test of "seriousness" and "bi-partisanship" by not taking a position or stand on any issue that might sacrifice their social, economic or political status in the all-important Washington hierarchy of fame and power.

And how about the stable of thoughtful, erudite and original columnists that grace the Op-Ed page . . . such as Charles Krauthammer, George Will, Richard Cohen, Jim Hoagland, Jackson Diehl, Sebastian Mallaby, Fred Hiatt, David Ignatius and Robert Samuelson? Add to that the Post's new trioka of "women's voices" on "serious" matters . . . Anne Applebaum, Ruth Marcus and Kathleen Parker, and what do you have? Other than concrete proof that the Fourteenth Amendment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 has allowed women to rise to a level of incompetence to match their male colleagues. Taken together, these purveyors of conventional wisdom constitute perhaps the most incompetent, uninteresting and utterly unimaginative collection of Washingtonians in any one place save City Hall. Imagine the Pundit Class taking the field against the Vincent Gray administration at the next company picnic. Now that would be a corporate softball game to remember.

Don't forget the A section either. Headline: "Nuclear Weapons Explode in Four Different Locations Around the Capital" Sub-Head: "Unclear How Radioactivity Will Shape 2012 Elections." Sub-Sub-Head: "Gingrich, Cheney Tie Attack to Obama's Muslim Background; Pelosi, Reid Struggle to Defend President." Sub-Sub-Sub-Head: "Palin to Switch Countries, Citing Lack of Constituents to Vote for Her." Sidebar: "A Nation Looks to Joseph Lieberman to Find Centrist Path."

And then there is the Style section. Naturally, how much "style" can there be in a city where men wear Timex Ironman watches with their suits and women still wear neon-red suits with big gold buttons as a serious fashion statement? Leaving that aside, there are still, sadly enough, plenty of people in Washington who really do care where Newt Gingrich had lunch last Thursday, or that some ex-Deputy Press Secretary to the Interior Secretary sold her house in McLean to an assistant producer for some blab-fest on Fox or how a couple of congressmen got into the bi-partisan spirit by hosting a fundraiser for the Left-Handed Shortstops Awareness Fund -- and just how much fun it was to "agree to disagree" to raise $15,000 for such an important cause!

Count me out.

* * * * * * * * * *

Sometime around the 10th or 11th grade, I began to think about what I might want "to do" if and when I ever graduated from college, assuming, of course, I would be eligible to attend one. I use the phrase "think about" in the most generous, abstract fashion possible, since pretty much all I thought about at that point in my life was about the next 3 to 24 hours, if even that far in advance. But, growing up in a house of proud, unabashed, anger-on-their-sleeve Nixon-haters -- my father hung a portrait of Nixon over his bathroom toilet so that he could pretend to pee on him every morning and evening. My mother was always pissed at the government about something -- the Vietnam War, foot-dragging on civil rights, the space program, which, she was absolutely convinced, was taking resources away from badly needed investments in education and health care -- so I was acculturated, socialized . . . okay, maybe even brain-washed not to accept authority, especially elected authority, at face value. In 1974, when I was in the 7th grade, the Watergate scandal had become almost as much of a national obsession as it was in our house. My 7th grade teacher, Miss Lynn Powell, had us do a "simulation" of the Watergate hearings being held in Congress. Knowing my mother as she did, Miss Powell chose me to serve as the Special Prosecutor, which meant I got to decide who would be prosecuted and hopefully go to jail. So, while the other kids went home to report their progress in math, spelling and reading comprehension, I was permitted to eat dinner at my family's expense depending on how many people I had successfully sent packing. Really, I'm not making this up. That, and my second place finish in the county-wide social science fair the year before for my "re-enactment" of the JFK assassination, complete with a second shooter behind the grassy knoll, were my two greatest academic accomplishments prior to receiving my Ph.D twenty years ago.

At first I thought being a sportswriter would be a great job, since I could attend games for free, travel to stadiums and arenas I otherwise probably would never see -- at someone else's expense, meet famous people ("Dr. J! How've you been? "Pete Rose? Sure, I saw him last week when the Reds were in town . . .") and get paid to write about sports. And this was long before a job in print journalism was just a segue way into a television gig on ESPN as a screaming head ("GODDAMN RIGHT THEY SHOULD ADOPT NO-TOUCH ICEING! WHAT ARE YOU, SOME KIND OF MORON?"). Then, during a field trip to the Atlanta Constitution at the beginning of my senior year in high school I met a couple of the writers who covered college and professional sports in and around Atlanta.

"Who here wants to be a sportswriter?" one asked our class. I raised my hand. "Do you like the idea of covering high school sports in a town of 10,000 year 'round for about five years after you finish college?"

"No, no I don't," I remember saying. "I don't even care about high school sports now and I'm in high school and play on the baseball team and run cross country."

"You'd better learn," he replied. "Because that's where you're going to start out."

Pass.

So, having ruled out a career as a sportswriter, I then decided that I would aim my sights for the big time and become a Washington-based political correspondent and opinion-writer. I thought back to my moment of glory in Miss Powell's 7th grade social studies class, when I brought down the Nixon administration. Although my mother was sure this marked me for a career as a lawyer, I was actually more inspired by the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. I became intrigued by the idea of combining two of my favorite activities, writing and spying on people, into a singular profession. Political journalism seemed like the perfect choice. After all, Woodward and Bernstein were channeling their inner-James Bond as much as they were the muckrakers of the Progressive era. I imagined myself walking softly around parking garages, carefully eavesdropping on conversations by famous people I recognized but who wouldn't recognize me, chiefly because I wasn't famous. I thought about who might play me in the movie version of whatever book I wrote that chronicled my crack reporting . . . Robert Redford? Too handsome. Robert DeNiro? Bad fit. Sean Connery? Wrong accent. I made the mistake of thinking out loud about this one afternoon at a pool party, inspired by perhaps one beer too many.

"Oh, my God," screamed a girl sitting at my table. "You know who should play you?" And then she began reeling off one impossibly dorky, bad-looking actor after another who not only never ended up with the cool girl, but usually found his way to prison or, worse, living in Detroit or Birmingham.

"You know, that will never happen, so it's really not worth getting into," I said.

"No, no, this is really fun," another girl called out. "Hey, who do y'all think should play Ivers if he's ever famous?"

"Ron Howard!!!" shouted one. Oh, boy. Opie from Mayberry RFD

"I got it, that guy from "Leave It To Beaver," Eddie Haskell!!

"Wrong," said a guy I thought was my friend. "It's whoever doesn't get the girl."

And on it went.

That was not the kind of question you asked a bunch of semi-inebriated 20 year-olds on a hot, humid summer afternoon in Atlanta. At that point, I decided that whatever I did in life, being famous was not on my list. Sitting through a casting session would be a precursor to suicide, getting a tatoo or some other form of self-mutilation.

My infatuation with a career as a Washington journalist lasted until about my junior year in college, when I gave the wrong answer to my journalism professor when he asked my Reporting 301 class how many us relished the idea of being rousted out of bed by an editor's phone call at 3 a.m to go cover a fire or mob hit -- and what is it, by the way, about "3 a.m." that screams fire or mob hit or terrorist attack or some other tragedy? Why never 1.30 a.m or 4.45 p.m. or some other time? Everyone raised their hand but me.

"Mr. Ivers, why the objection?"

"I don't really like reporting all that much," I responded. "I'd rather write a column offering my opinion about the fire or mob hit."

Silence. Dead silence. Mass murder silence in the room.

That's when I knew that a career in journalism was not for me.

* * * * * * * * * *

Despite opting for a career in the big time as a political science professor, I remain somewhat interested in journalism, but from the perspective of a jilted lover who simply doesn't understand my ex- sees in the loser she's now dating. The kind of journalism in which I'm interested is not the "journalism" practiced by the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, the major commercial and cable networks and smaller opinion magazines I read (and admired) in college, like the New Republic (now better known as the New Republican). The people who work for these organizations understand how to produce a paper, magazine or broadcast that looks authentic. For substance, though, you're not going to get anything from reading or watching any of them. Establishment journalists in Washington are celebrities, and celebrities are only interested in doing what they need to do to remain celebrities. In Hollywood, actors and actresses get breast implants, face lifts and other cosmetic restoration to maintain their "appearances" or remake them. In Washington, journalists trade whatever interest they might have had when they were younger for a Volvo, a house that gets featured in the Washingtonian, their children's acceptance into the elite network of private schools that effectively serve to condition them to other worthy of their company and all the other accouterments that go with what passes for high society here. How else could someone like David Gregory, a man who has never had or uttered a serious thought in his life, become the host of "Meet the Press" and one of Washington's most sought-after dinner guests and interviewees? In what serious democracy does someone so vacant achieve such "status" as a "serious person?"


For the twenty years I read the Post, it never really offended me or impressed me. It never reminded me as much of any other great media institution of days gone by, for the primary reason that the truly great reporting in American history has never been done by large corporate entities as much as it has by individuals with no ties to the government, membership in the Washington social elite or, something that most journalism "companies" will never admit, to advertisers to temper down their work. The Post reminds me more of Sugarloaf, a rock band from the early 1970s that had one really great song, "Green Eyed Lady," and then disappeared until iTunes put them in the "one-hit wonder" section and made this song available again. Watergate was the Post's "Green Eyed Lady" moment. Since Watergate, the Post has lived off a reputation it never really deserved and hasn't subsequently earned. Pop songs, though, don't really shock the conscience or call into question the moral underpinning of democratic institutions. A newspaper that refuses to call torture "torture," knowing full well that it would not have ever referred to the tactics used by the strongmen of Saddam's regime as "enhanced interrogation techniques," doesn't deserve to survive into the digital age.

Besides, you can get your sports from ESPN.

Tom Tomorrow here

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Friday, September 30, 2011

Jazz for the beginner

I came across one of those articles recently by a jazz writer recommending recordings for the jazz novice . . . as in someone who might have heard something he or she might have liked and decided it was "time to get into jazz." Not surprisingly, I found the critic's suggestions pretty strange. I have no idea why anyone would recommend Eric Dolphy's "Out to Lunch" as one of the first ten recordings to own. Don't get me wrong: I love Eric Dolphy and I love "Out to Lunch." I have several recordings on which Dolphy plays (mostly with John Coltrane) and as a leader. But to start? No. Dolphy, Andrew Hill and Tony Williams were pushing bop into a freer place, although still a good standard deviation or two inside Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, both of whom I love. A novice does not need Miles Davis's early '70s recording, "On a Corner," a period in which Miles was at his lowest creative ebb, having followed the "fusion" movement launched by Weather Report and Gary Burton. As much as I love Miles Davis and deserves every great thing that can be said about him, I never liked his electric period (post-1968). I love music that fuses genres -- Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Joe Zawinul's world music, for starters; I just don't think Miles did this very well because it wasn't him. His heart, which he fought against in the latter part of his career, was always in the beautiful melodies of the great jazz standards and the freedom and beauty of modal jazz.

Anyway . . .

Here are my ten starter jazz recordings in alphabetical order. I begin with Ellington, the great American composer and bandleader, who bridged the gap between old swing era and the bebop revolution. I end with Wayne Shorter in 1966, a time when jazz had reached sort a peak in terms of boundary-pushing. Ornette, Cecil and Andrew Hill were moving jazz into a place so free that few could even understand where the pulse was. Miles was about to disband his second great quintet; the fusion movement was building but had not yet rocked, literally, the jazz world; the Beatles were at their peak, and African-American recording artists like Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, The Temptations and James Brown were drawing black listeners, and the young white music fans, who would have grown up on Bill Haley and Elvis Presley a decade before they were about to turn to Jimi Hendrix and the Who to stake out their claim in the late 60s cultural rebellion. On these ten recordings you'll hear most of the major instrumentalists and composers of the early modern era, which is one of the main reasons I chose them. Remember, this is for the beginner! And in alphabetical order.

Enjoy!

Dave Brubeck, "Time Out"
Miles Davis, "The Complete Birth of the Cool"
Miles Davis, "Kind of Blue"
John Coltrane, "Blue Train"
Duke Ellington, "Live at Newport 1958"
Bill Evans, "The Complete 1961 Recordings at the Village Vanguard"
Thelonious Monk, "Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington"
Wes Montgomery, "The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery"
Charlie Parker, "The Complete Savoy Recordings, 1947-48."
Wayne Shorter, "Adam's Apple"

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Moneyball meets academia

Of course I saw "Moneyball" the first day it came out.

Everything is great about the movie adaptation of Michael Lewis's terrific book on how Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's, managed to field a competitive team with scarce resources by junking the conventional model of team-building in major league baseball and emphasizing instead the "hidden" statistical performance of players who had either been written off or, as was more often the case, never had their worth properly assessed. Prodded by a 29 year-old Harvard-educated economics major named Paul DePodesta,who had developed, while working for the Cleveland Indians, a complex model of player performance, Beane retooled his management style that put him at odds with the way professional "baseball men" had assessed the talent and, in the post-reserve clause era, the monetary worth of free agents. He didn't have a choice. As a small market team with a payroll that was roughly a little more than one-third of the New York Yankees team that defeated the A's in the 2001 American League Divisional Series -- indeed, the typed graphic across the screen as the highlights of that series are replayed at the beginning of the movie emphasizes the David and Goliath context of Beane's challenge (the A's payroll is around $39 million per year; the Yankees, about $114 million) -- Beane was operated at a distinct disadvantage. After the 2001 season, the A's lost their three highest paid players to free-agency.

If you read the book or saw the movie, you know what happens next (there are a number of liberties taken with the book for dramatic effect; nothing fatal to the basic story, though). Billy Beane or Brad Pitt or whomever is sitting around a table somewhere in the dank bowels of the Oakland Coliseum with a group of scouts, most of whom look like they were extras on "The Sopranos." The old guys rattle on about the "five tools," "athleticism," and discuss gaudy stats like RBI and HRs, determined to find the right players to replace the ones they lost. One guy even says he doesn't trust a player because he has an "ugly girlfriend," which suggests that he lacks confidence. Others see his point. Beane stops them in their tracks and tells them they simply can't afford to replace all three, so they're going to have to find players that, in the aggregate, can replace first baseman Jason Giambi, center fielder Johnny Damon and relief pitcher/closer Jason Isringhausen, who, together, comprise about one-third of the team's already small payroll. And that's where the search for hidden talent comes, through a process that Bill James, who made his living as a security guard for a company called Stokley Van Camp, which made and canned baked beans, in a small Kansas town, introduced in the late 1970s caled "sabermetrics." James explicitly rejected the star system, and instead argued, through hard numbers and empirical evidence, that many players who nobody ever heard of were, in fact, quite valuable, and that many star players were not, in fact, nearly as important to a team's ability to win as the conventional wisdom seemed to believe. Compounding the problem was the enormous amount of money that owners were lavishing on position players and pitchers that had put up one or two decent seasons, only to watch their "investments" tank after a decent year or two or never put up a good season again. Something wasn't quite right, and James knew it before almost anyone else.

Naturally, when I watched the movie, I wasn't thinking too much about the novelty of the Beane approach, which was, in reality, was something that Sandy Alderson, who preceded Beane as A's general manager, had begun tinkering with in the mid-1990s. I've never believed in the star system in much of anything, mostly for the simple reason that it doesn't work. And it's not just because of the big busts this year in major league baseball, such as Jason Werth and Carl Crawford and John Lackey. That happens every year, and it will happen again next year. Owners will pay absurd amounts of money for reasons that have nothing to do with winning baseball games. They want to "prove" to the fans they're committed to winning (the Nationals and Werth); or they just can't help themselves (the Red Sox and Crawford/Lackey); or they're sentimental (the Braves and Chipper Jones, who I love, but is barely a WAR player at this point in his career). Some teams even believe it because sometimes -- sometimes -- it works, like when the Phillies bought the best starting rotation in baseball for one complete season, and they won the most games in they're history and are easily the odds-on favorites to win the World Series this year.

No, I thought instead about the mentality of my employer, and the belief, almost universally shared among my colleagues, that our department will get "better" if we hire the "best" political scientists entering academia from graduate school or hire a senior professor away from another university. Think of the former as first-round draft picks and the latter as free agents. Naturally, all employers, regardless of profession, want to hire the best people they can. But in a world where buyers and sellers are not equal, who you want to hire is largely based on the resources you have. Those resources are not equal. Understanding that, you hire the person that best fits the what the firm, institution, organization, baseball team or political science department is really there to do -- represent clients, advocate for the homeless, win baseball games or teach students. The problem with much of academia is that hiring professors often has nothing to do with the people who will pay our salaries and sit in our classrooms. In my department, the problem, in my view, is even more acute: we are a university that is approximately 95% dependent on tuition to operate. Nonetheless, our hiring decisions for about the last ten years or so have not been based on our undergraduate curriculum needs or by the need or desire to engage our undergraduates. Not at all. Instead, we hold meeting after meeting to discuss how we can address a "hole" in our graduate program, and that usually means finding a someone who can teach a course in advanced research design and/or statistics. These are important needs IF you are a major research institution -- Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, Chicago, etc. -- that attracts the very best students and educates them specifically to land in other elite academic departments, where they will teach very little and instead bury their heads in their computers and hope that make a "significant contribution to the discipline." Undergraduates will never discover what those "significant contributions" are for two reasons: (1) they are not, in any real world sense, "significant contributions" and; (2) on the odd chance their contributions are significant, these professors will not teach them to undergraduates; rather they will teach them to the graduate students who sit in their seminars, all the better to perpetuate the illusion that they are all doing something very, very important.

But as someone -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, I believe it was -- once said, "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different than you and me." Just like the New York Yankees were and remain different than the Oakland A's, Harvard is a very different place than American University. Harvard's operating expenses are nowhere closely related to the tuition they charge their students to come to Cambridge. My university's expenses, on the other hand, are almost entirely dependent on the tuition we charge our undergraduate students. For me, the analogy moves to another dimension of baseball: the fantasy leagues in which people with no real stake in a team and no real money to spend play a season by "drafting" players and "competing" against their friends for bragging rights, a small pool of money that the members of a "league" cobble together, beer, or, for the very rich, significantly higher stakes. In the end, though, it's just a fantasy, sort of like pornography, romantic comedies and professional wrestling. Cold, hard facts aside, we continue to hire (and fire) professors who do not meet our definition of a "productive scholar," which is the kind of person I described above and in more recent post on the diminishing role for professors in the classroom.

For example, we don't hire a professor with a particular research or teaching interest based on our curriculum needs. We hire someone because we think it will impress professors in other departments and prospective graduate students, who we think will come here to study with a new or established "star" professor. In all likelihood, we will adjunct-out our new hire's teaching responsibilities so that s/he may concentrate on publishing and teaching graduate students. Forget that we don't attract very many graduate students, and the ones that we do attract don't get good academic jobs. All that matters is that we think we are making an impression on the cocktail circuit at academic conferences held periodically around the country, where political scientists gather not to share any genuinely interesting work, but to gossip about what's happening in the "profession" and to hustle for book contracts and publishing opportunities. If the talk is that AU is hiring some "really good people" who will have an "impact" on the profession, that's considered a successful recruiting year. And that, in turn, makes us a department that is "on the way up."

But are we on the way up, and, if so, where are we going? Since 2000, we have hired 14 new professors. Of the professors we hired between 2000 and 2005, only one is still with us. Three were denied tenure, one left after a year to attend law school, and two more moved on to large universities that historically have not emphasized teaching in their hiring and promotion decisions. They were free agents who were never a really good fit for what we do. Only one who was tenured has remained with us. Since 2009, we have hired two established professors and five untenured assistant professors, so it's too early to tell how these hires will work out. But when you are unable to retain almost half the people you've hired over an 11 year period, and the two most "productive" professors leave for institutions with greater prestige in the field, it's not a bad idea to ask if we are hiring the right people for the kind of school we are. We are not asking that question. Instead, we hire professors who don't teach undergraduates very much, and, in some cases, not at all. But that's by design. Among my newer colleagues, this means that we are getting better as a department because we are becoming more "visible" in the profession. Are we really getting better? And visible, though, to whom?

We are the academic equivalent of a small-market team in baseball. Our hope for growth and prestige lies not with the star system and the misguided notion that we can compete with the richest and most powerful universities in the country by hiring people who don't really fit with the kind of institution that we are and think we should be. With an undergraduate population of roughly 6,000, a good number of whom did not consider AU their first choice when applying to college, our focus should be on delivering the best undergraduate experience we can in the classroom and developing an environment where professors and students can form a community. For the most part, professors who do the most teaching are the closest to their students and the most engaged in student life. At AU, those professors consist of adjunct, temporary and other non-tenured faculty, not the stars making the most amount of money and eligible for the longest-term contract available in all the professional world -- tenure.

So, for most of the baseball-heads who rushed out to see "Moneyball" last week, the movie was about baseball, and how a small band of unconventional thinkers challenged themselves and the sport they had grown up with to think beyond the star system. For me, the movie was about much more than that. Others in the theater saw the Oakland A's payroll of $39,722,689 vs. the New York Yankees payroll of $114,347,764. I saw $52,236, the cost of attending one year of college at my university, and wondered why continue to adhere to a business model that does little more than give those in power the feeling that they, and not someone else, are really in charge.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Tom Tomorrow

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