Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Archeress, Part 7

These are going to start showing up faster...I'm getting toward the end, and she's talking to me again!
Decision  (Part 7 of The Archeress)
“My friends, we cannot continue this way!  We must look to new ideas, new people.  The old Masters were a vital part of our history…but that is where they must stay.
“You all know of my connections to the Way…my love of the honored traditions.  But they simply CANNOT help us in this new time of crisis!  We must discard the Masters, discard the Mantras, discard the servants of the Way…and make our own way forward!”
The crowd burst from hushed anticipation to thunderous applause.
Her eyes filled with tears as she pulled the bow string taut.
“Goodbye, my love…”

Previous Installments:
Part 1:  Preparation
Part 2:  Infiltration
Part 3:  Eyrie
Part 4:  Patience
Part 5:  Stirrings
Part 6:  Action

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Complaints from a Sore Fantasy Football Loser

Fantasy football is my white whale.  Every season, I’m called to join whatever league shows up on my social radar.  It all seems so hopeful in August.  The voices, Costner-like, tell me things that make me believe.
“This will be the year you draft the explosive, durable back that no one else knows about.”
“Former backup quarterbacks finally ‘getting their shot’ as a starter are a sure thing.”
“Kickers matter.”
And so I join a league.  Never a pay league…I’m not stupid.  Putting real money into what is effectively a glorified multi-player video game is not something I’ve ever considered.  But I’ll almost always jump in and make a team with a witty name recalling some isolated chapter of my life, like “Chile’s Legion” or “Team Kaos.”  Then the draft is announced, and all happiness begins to drain from my Sundays.
This is where I should mention that the leagues I always seem to play in are populated mostly by people much younger and less, let’s say, spoken-for than I.  This year it’s a league at work featuring mostly under-25 engineers, many without wives, children, or mortgages.  Other years it was with fraternity brothers who were mostly still active at college.  College, where napping at 2PM on any given Tuesday is perfectly plausible, and staying out all night the following Wednesday even more so.
You can see where this is going. 
League Commissioner:  “OK, the draft is going to be Tuesday night at 11:00!  Good luck everybody, or, if you’re a frail old man, set up your autopicks!”

Indeed I will!  Now, who still wears the leather helmets?  Those are the gents I want on my team...

That…doesn’t work for me, and never will.  Late weeknights are a thing of the distant past.  The last ones I remember involved walking a hallway at 3AM with a colicky baby, and truth be told I don’t clearly remember most of those (that’s probably a good thing, since if I did I’d probably scowl inexplicably at the boy way more often than I do now).  The concept of staying up well past midnight agonizing over which 3rd year running back is going to peak in his contract year and which one is about to reach the median NFL retirement age doesn’t even register for me.  The following day at work would not be pretty, especially for any subordinates who have a problem I would normally cheerfully help them with.  So, live drafting with youngsters—not advisable.
That leaves the autopick feature, helpfully included in almost all fantasy sites.  The idea is simple:  before the draft, go through the available players, pick out the ones you’d most like to have and arrange them in descending order.  When your turn in the draft comes up, the site automatically picks the best one available on your list, filling the roster slots as it goes.  Or, even better, do nothing, since the fantasy nerds at the site already rank every NFL player by whatever arcane witchcraft they use anyway.  This idea was more attractive to me this year, since I doubt I know more than the nerdy witches, and in previous years every time I’ve tried to arrange my own list I’d end up with a bunch of Bengals because subliminally I’m a self-loathing diehard fan.  So that’s what I did…nothing.  I went to meet-the-teacher night at my kid’s school and let the draft gods do what they may that evening.

Allison Hannigan is like the 5th pic that shows up for a Google Image search of "nerdy witch."  And while I'm sure you agree that's awesome, I doubt she knows all that much about fantasy football.

The problem is, autopick is f-ing stupid.
Like any computer program, it’s limited by the parameters within which it is working.  This year, the parameters did not include the fact that Peyton Manning could barely turn his head from side to side, and as a result would miss at least the first 4 months of the season.  Autopick didn’t know this, he just saw that PM was rated #3 on the draft board this year, and pulled the trigger for me.  It went downhill from there.  6 running backs (most past their prime or still waiting for one that’s not going to show), zero usable quarterbacks, and several slot receivers filled my roster the next morning.  And since it’s a deep league, waiver pickin’s were slim (Kerry Collins?  Why sure!  Why the hell not?).  I am currently 0-5, with no end in sight.  Check out the results of last weekend’s titanic struggle:

Hey, great game Kolb.  The pundits assured me that Philly wasn't a fluke.  Chump.
You thought I was kidding about Team Kaos, didn't you?

Yeah, that's 118-38, and there are more scores like that behind it.  So, this year’s not my year, sweet August voices be damned.  But even in decent performance years, fantasy football is a burdensome yoke.  Take the time factor alone.  The draft is really just the tip of the iceberg there, since it’s over in a defined amount of time.  The week-to-week research quickly becomes unsustainable.  In case you’ve never watched an NFL game, it’s sort of a dangerous undertaking.  Hulking men who are also faster than you’ve ever been smash into each other hundreds of times in sometimes horrible environmental conditions.  This understandably results in injuries.  Lots of injuries, especially to the delicate skill position players your roster is full of.  So your whole world begins to revolve around the Wednesday injury report.  If Adrian Peterson didn’t practice on Wednesday, you’d better start second-guessing.  That will lead to further second guessing about the rest of the roster, based on their performance the previous week.  Will he have another monster game like he did against the Seahawks?  Of course not, everyone has a monster game against the Seahawks, you say.  But if you bench him and he has another monster?  You hate yourself until the following week.

Like all those stock brokers from the last few years, but with slightly less life-destroying.
The entire season is full of these little quandaries, which take on great meaning when we’re talking about pissing contests with your friends and colleagues.

But the worst is the problem of compromised allegiances.  I am an unfortunate Bengals fan, as referenced above.  Even though I grew up in Browns country, the allegiance still took hold when I was young—my older brother was a fan, the striped helmet was cool, Cincinnati seemed like a way cooler city than Cleveland (true enough).  Normally this is simple.  I sit on my couch with a beer and scream at the TV like any other fan, and enjoy a simple, uncompromising hatred of the Pittsburgh Steelers and everything they stand for.  But now superimpose a fantasy football team onto this idyllic scenario.  What if my primary RB is Rashard Mendenhall?  Who do I root for?  I can’t happily cheer for my team in full, because to do so successfully would limit one of my only fantasy horses.  And it’s worse when I have players from both teams.  It also forces me to give a damn about games for which I could happily care less.  Raiders-Broncos?  Not interested…except for Knowshon.  How’s he doing?  And you’ll find yourself getting irrationally pissed off when the little stat tracker graphic on the TV coverage doesn’t pop up after a complete pass.  I must know how many points he’s accrued!  My Sunday happiness demands it! 
That’s no way to watch football.
Why do I keep doing it?  Not chicks, that’s for sure…my wife thinks I’m an idiot when I complain about the kicker for the Vikings shanking a field goal attempt, or Arizona’s quarterback sailing a pass to the free safety.   I guess it’s for the same reasons lots of people do—a sense of camaraderie, the thrill of competition, the quest for glory. 
Now, while we’re on the subject of glory, would anyone like to deal a mid-ranked starting quarterback and a healthy kicker for two goal-line specialist running backs and the San Diego defense?  I’m telling you, it’ll pay off for you in the long run…just forget everything I’ve just written and think of the glory…

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Archeress, Part 6

We're getting there...I promise.

Action (Part Six of The Archeress)

The opening speaker was finishing a lusty call for “reform” of the old ways, firing up the crowd.  It made her stomach sour and her blood burn.
His closing lines turned both to ice as he introduced the man everyone was really here to see.
 The elevated position gave her bow another fifty yards of effective range.  She would need all of it to reach the stage.  As he walked confidently to the podium, waving to the crowd, she stood and strung the bow.  The arrow she’d caressed into the quiver the night before whispered free, for its final flight.

Previous Installments:
Part 1:  Preparation
Part 2:  Infiltration
Part 3:  Eyrie
Part 4:  Patience
Part 5:  Stirrings

Our Edison is Gone...

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention it.

Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

Whatever your opinion of Apple products, or the veritable cult that has grown around them, no one can dispute that the computer geek turned rock star that created them made a lasting impact on the world and the way we live in it.  Even if you narrow it down to only the iPod, the monumental shift in the way we listen to and buy music now would be enough to make him a historical icon.  Add in the iPhone, and the shift extends to telecommunications.  And go back far enough...the idea of a "personal computer"...amazing.

He'll be missed by a lot of people, and not just the nerds.

So long, sir.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

1300 Words About How I Never Finished Huck Finn

Literati, please don't hate me.

A few months ago I alluded to a series of book-related pieces I was going to start writing about my favorite authors.  I still plan to do this, of course, since I want to talk about the authors I've really learned to love, especially in the interest of promoting some that many people may not be familiar with.  I'd like to think my reviews of indie authors in this space have increased their visibility just that little bit.

However, the first installment was going to be for an author that literally no one is not aware of.  Mark Twain (or, for the historically accurate, Samuel Clemens) is perhaps America's most celebrated writer.  He is our Shakespeare, our Hugo.  Tom Sawyer, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, endless satires, essays, stories...all are well-known to nearly every American high school English class.  And the work that has come to define him, and maybe the idea of the Great American Novel, is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

I know for a fact that I have been assigned to read this book on at least two separate occasions:  10th grade English, and a British/American Novels class in college.  And I didn't read it either time.  (I'm sorry, Ms. Black and Dr. Tierney!  You were both formative teachers, honestly!)  Oh, I know the story well enough, and a certain knack for cultural observation--and my own natural bullshitting ability--allowed me to both write and talk about it with what sounded like some authority, so I don't think anybody knew at the time.  Besides, at least as far as the college class was concerned, it was an intellectual break from designing make-believe airplanes and pretending to understand quantum physics for a few hours each week, so I didn't approach it with perhaps the zeal I should have.

This actually didn't bother me too much for a long time.  There were lots books I was assigned to read in various classes over the years that I didn't read, partly because I hate reading on a schedule, and partly because a lot of them simply didn't interest me in the slightest.  For instance, I will never, ever read Pride and Prejudice.  Like, ever, no matter what my sister says about it.  But recently a passing news story about Huck Finn rekindled my interest (and some latent guilt, it seems) in the book. 

One of the reasons the book has remained so culturally significant more than 125 years after it was first published is the way it deals with race relations in the Midwest in the mid-19th century.  The book frequently uses the n-word in a casual manner when referring to people of color, especially one of the chief characters and centers of conflict in the story, Jim.  (By the way, we all know what n-word I'm talking about, but I will not print it here.)  Anyway, the issue has popped up now and again for years, especially since the civil rights victories in the 1960's, specifically relating to whether the book should be banned from schools. 

Back in January (okay, so it wasn't that recent), the media lit up with the arrival of a new edition of Huck that replaced all instances of the word with "slave."  A couple of well-meaning scholars had produced the edited version of the classic in an effort to keep it off the banned book lists in so many high schools (not mine thankfully, though I didn't show much gratitude, see above).  This of course touched off a minor--or major, depending on how deep into the world of American literature you are--controversy about whether our society has finally reached the point of no return on the PC issue.  This is the usual sort of thing that happens when an issue this sensitive is brought out into the light for everyone to notice again, but a very interesting, and I think important question emerged from the chatter:  is Huck Finn a racist book?  Is there good reason for it to be banned?

Now, I can't begin to answer that question here, as I'm  not qualified and I don't write in this space to solve thorny societal questions...hence all the columns about cartoons.  For what it's worth, my opinion is that Huck Finn is not racist, meaning it doesn't have a racist agenda.  Twain wasn't condoning the system his characters lived in, and I have the feeling he was shining a light on the uglier part of the institutional racism entrenched in the still very wild Mississippi valley in the mid-19th century.  These were the thoughts I had when I heard the story about the "slave" edition, but I felt it was necessary to back them up, grow up little bit, and read it.  So I did...

...or I tried.  I bought a nicely unabridged Kindle version of the book (so I couldn't even read it in a public place and get credit for it!), and began.  As another small confession, I've never actually read Tom Sawyer either (though again, pop culture, bullshitting, yada-yada), so there was some initial confusion at the beginning since Huck Finn is technically a sequel, even making the reference in the opening line.  But this didn't stop me from getting into the story initially, since Huck is an interesting character with somewhat unusual motivations, caught squarely between opposing forces vying for his soul.  His moral compass is somewhat flawed, but the best heroes' always are, and besides, he looks to be doing the right thing as he eventually aids the runaway slave Jim. 

But my progress gradually bogged down until about 45% in, when I couldn't go on, for the stupidest of reasons:  I simply got tired of translating.  Reading the dialogue in this book is exhausting.  You ever watch an episode of Swamp People on the History Channel?  You know how even though those guys are ostensibly speaking English, HC helpfully puts subtitles along the bottom or else all of us Yankees would be hopelessly lost?  Yeah, Twain didn't use any subtitles.  Trying to figure out what Jim and Huck are saying to each other requires rereading and analyzing every truncated syllable, and that's not counting when Huck's drunkard father starts talking.  I got about as far as the Hatfields and McCoys-style feud that Huck managed to get himself involved in before I gave up.  However, Wikipedia assures me that many adventures and hijinks were had before the final, happy, ending.

Am I ashamed of this dismal failure to appreciate one of Americana's most treasured masterpieces?  A little, yes.  I always feel bad when I can't finish a book, even books I hate.  And I certainly don't hate this book--I just find it too tiring.  This was one of the first novels to embrace "dialect" writing, meaning the characters didn't speak Oxford English for the Earth-shattering reason that they weren't from Oxford.  This was something of a revolution at the time of the book's publishing, so maybe I'm not alone in my issues.  There are plenty of dead literature critics that agreed with me.

But did I answer the question for myself?  Is Huck Finn racist?  Twain approached the issue of racial inequality with a good deal of common sense at a time (less than 20 years post-Civil War) when everyone still viewed the practice as some sort of God-given law.  For that reason alone, I have to go with "no."  Also, Mark Twain was known to be a brilliant man.  I've personally never met a smart racist, and don't think they exist. 

One last question:  should it be read in high schools?  Of course it book should ever be banned from a school.  Even Mein Kampf has importance when read with the right perspective (the right perspective being that of a wackaloon with daddy issues and terrible painting skills).  Maybe if some of the hand-wringers who've had Huck Finn banned had read 45% of it first, there'd be a little more racial understanding in the world.