Sunday, April 27, 2008
It’s become impossible to watch a professional sports contest without developing a molecular distaste for money. Especially in our recessive economic climate, resentment for professional athletes’ salaries is accumulating an ever-more-acerbic argot: Unconscionable. Unjustifiable. Obscene, disgusting, revolting, and criminal.
The only way to makes sense of athletes’ salaries is by looking at how much revenue they produce. A 12-man basketball team can sell 20,000 tickets to 41 home games each year, not including the playoffs. More popular players (the better-paid ones, almost without exception) sell oodles of merchandise, from jerseys and bobbleheads to basketball cards and posters. Autographs can go for hundreds, even thousands, and when you toss in multi-gajillion dollar TV and radio contracts, appearance fees, and ESPN exposure, the windfall is even more handsome for the billionaire owners than the millionaire players.
And beers cost $7 each.
Who sustains the whole thing—the salaries, prohibitive grog, new arenas, posters, sneakers, and even the workout facilities? Two groups: the players and us.
Without players, there would be no games in the first place. Sports have always been big business, and it wasn’t until a few decades ago that players started clueing in to their own importance. Once they realized that they could hold the game hostage by refusing to play—which has happened in the case of various lockouts and strikes—the players started demanding otherworldly sums of money. They coalesced into unions and upped their labor savvy. What’s obscene and criminal to some is fiscal pragmatism for the players—they bargain for a fair share of the money they generate.
It’s us, meanwhile—consumers and taxpayers (in the case of new arenas)—who underwrite sports. Without consumers, there would be no leagues, no teams, and no money. It would seem that, with the owners and players both drowning in dinero, the fans are getting screwed: the drudges who shell out big money simply to watch the players play; the plebeians who pay extra for sports television access.
Yes, it is true that even with all the money they make, athletes are unduly restricted. Players must operate within a demarcated court/field/rink and abide by a lifeless rule set. No taunting in basketball? Please. No excess fighting in hockey? Come on. No arguing with the umpire in baseball? Babe Ruth is regurgitating in his corpulent grave.
However, whatever the players suffer is miniscule compared to the fans' victimization. Just like the players realized, once upon a time, that they could demand huge money because they were indispensable, so too should we fans embrace the same reality. Sports cannot exist without us.
If we stop going to games, stop tuning in on TV, and stop grab-assing merchandise—if we strike, in other words—the owners would have to lower tickets prices. The extortionate prices on beer, sneakers, posters, DirectTV, etc. would deflate.
Sports would become affordable, and psycho-economically, way more fun. In an age, additionally, when all my favorite teams either suck (Jets, Nets), habitually break my heart (Mets), or are in the process of losing (Rangers), I must go on strike.
I cannot afford to root for them anymore.
Stay Savvy, Sports Consumer
Saturday, April 26, 2008
It was a tale of two genres: one, the saucy backbeat that fueled generations of pizzazz and overblown wardrobes, a style so alien to my life experience that I’d resigned to fandom from afar. The other, the downtrodden soundtrack to a tyrannized people, long ago banished to obscurity and disregard.
In the most unlikely of marriages, funk and klezmer found a way to coexist. Perhaps it was inevitable that David Krakauer, the virtuosic clarinetist and klezmer artist, would team with Fred Wesley, a funk patriarch who played trombone and arranged for James Brown in the 1960s and ’70s. After all, Wesley rose to stardom playing on such hits as “Super Bad,” and Krakauer continues to garner equal helpings of adulation and derision for his outré compositions.
In resuscitating classic shtetl progressions with new-age rhythms and exotic treatments, Krakauer proved himself an oxymoron: a dangerous klezmer artist.
In 2006, Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness! released “Bubbemeises: Lies My Gramma Told Me,” which included “Moskowitz,” an incendiary romp one part shtetl, one part speakeasy, and two parts Moulin Rouge. The title track, meanwhile, includes a rap section that lists about a dozen bubbemeises (grandma’s tales):
“Stay away from all the witches who live at forks in the road…. Don’t cross your eyes or they’ll stay that way…. These are lies my Gramma told me, superstitious devices, urban mythological rules and bubbemeises."
[Click here for both "Moskowitz" and "Bubbemeises."]
Together with Wesley — who moved on to Parliament-Funkadelic and then a solo career after leaving Brown — and Canadian multi-instrumentalist Josh Dolgin (aka DJ Socalled), Krakauer recently formed Abraham Inc. The 10-piece group (abrahamincmusic.com) is a polyglot mash-up of several styles, but most notably klezmer, funk, and hip-hop. With its debut record set for a fall release, Abraham Inc. will perform the album material for the first time at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater on May 3.
“David came to me with the idea for Abraham Inc., and I didn’t really see how it could work,” said Wesley, who lives in South Carolina. “But the more I got into it, the more I realized that all music was the same; it’s just where you put the emphasis. Funk and klezmer are very much alike if you slow it down or speed it up, and it’s worked really well for us.”
Listeners can sample the unlikely cohesion on the video section of Abraham Inc.’s web video section. The first clip, a live performance of “TweetTweet,” is a vibratory klezmer standard layered on top of a merciless funk foundation. Instead of compromising either style, Abraham Inc. simply welds the two together.
As with all interdenominational projects, there is the obligatory temptation to honor the human interest aspect. Indeed, Wesley said, “On a philosophical level, I hope it would bring some people together who never thought they’d be together.”
For music geeks like me, though, Abraham Inc. is less cross-culture than outright miracle. “A Funky Miracle,” as The Meters might title it, that legitimizes a part of my heritage that I’d written off to antiquated Eastern European plaintiveness.
Finally, we have the funk.
Stay Super Bad, Wesley
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
In search of noetic peace, of a worldly understanding that might quell the distance between what I see and what I understand, I started reading Freakonomics. A 2005 bestseller co-authored by the economist Steven Levitt and the journalist Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics is a 207 page eugenic purge against conventional wisdom, classic economics, and just-plain-dumb culturalism. With a healthy dose of data crunching, simple psychology, and manic curiosity, Levitt and Dubner answer such pressing questions as, “Why do drug dealers live with their moms?” and “How is the Ku Klux Klan like a group of real-estate agents?”
The answer to the first—mainly, that except for a few top-tier crack-cocaine “executives,” most pushers and corner-hawkers subsist on less than minimum wage—is revelatory. The solution to the second—that both groups manipulate information to create advantage and fear—is less gripping.
Yet, neither addresses the vicious water upon which these questions are floated, the primordial foundation upon which people might think that real-estate agents are always honest or that all crack slingers sit on fortunes:
Why do people think what they think?
Sure, Freakonomics susses out reality from illusion, but it doesn’t speak to why people think those illusions in the first place. Mysteriously, maddeningly, well-educated individuals with access to the Internet and a host of didactic tools bury their heads in the factual sand, relying on a bizarre combination of folklore, hunch, and rumor.
For instance, there is an e-mail circulating in Orthodox Jewish circles (typically very well-educated and hyper-informed) indicting Barack Obama in anti-Semitism and virulent anti-Israel-ism. Far be it from me to politic—I couldn’t care less about elections and I’ve already derided Obama for the vacuous hole that stands where most people have personalities—but both these accusations are wrong. Obama’s Congressional record is actually pro-Israel, and the anti-Semite claim roots in the talk—also untrue—that Obama is Moslem.
So, Steven and Stephen failed to ease my mind—they merely confirmed that people often think erringly. However, the true intrigue lies in deciphering why they do this.
So, I celebrated Passover.
Passover, like no other holiday, is rife with ritual and neuroticism. The two don’t necessarily overlap, but they often do. With a don’t-or-die ban (literally) on leavened bread—and attendant Sabbath-like restrictions—the first two days of Passover are a fine window into why people believe what they do. Faith? Family? Tradition? Trepidation? Bullying? Belief? Love? Lethargy? Perhaps some concoction thereof—but certainly, two breadless days could provide a representative sample for delineating root causes in rationale. Also, I like the Seder. So everybody wins.
After 48 carefully monitored hours, it seemed that some stupid beliefs germinate in a forced soil: faced with a potential conflict between faith, reason, hope, and communal/familial obligations, some people simply adopt the precious few philosophies that accommodate all of those pressures.
Freakonomics addresses this in passing. It quotes the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who invented the term “conventional wisdown:”
“We associate truth with convenience,” Galbraith said, “with what most closely accords with self-interest and personal well-being or promises best to avoid awkward effort or unwelcome dislocation of life. We also find highly acceptable what contributes most to self-esteem…we adhere, as though to a raft, to those ideas which represent our understanding.”
This issue is infinitely complex, and is essentially epistemology—the philosophical field dedicated to knowledge, its methods and validity. However, what I could glean from Passover is that people aren’t the arbitrary victims of insularity and ignorance—rather, they are the perpetrators.
They make the cocoon so that they can live in it: though they have a butterfly’s physiology, they live as worms. I will never understand this.
Unless, of course, I’m just fooling myself.
Stay Seductive, Seder
Friday, April 18, 2008
As the New Jersey Transit bus accordions into an exit off the New Jersey Turnpike, Teaneck’s religiosity comes into full view. With its suburban burnish and perfectly manicured small businesses, Teaneck is a sleepily tolerant religious ecosystem, with Catholic, Jew, and Muslim perfunctorily resigned to one another. Up the hill from a major park is a Baha’i log cabin temple, cast inside a forest veil.
Though I rode this route hundreds of times in the 16 years I lived in Teaneck, I could not recall the church off the Turnpike advertising as it does now.
A large placard promises, in avuncular bold, that “GOD ALLOWS U TURNS.” The next side shows itself as the bus pushes forward: “DON’T GAMBLE WITH ETERNITY.”
How convivial, even playful. But…the NJ Turnpike; a bus; gambling; a u turn; hometown dread…suddenly I feel like hightailing to Atlantic City to do the exact things that might endanger my eternity. Still, the sign swears that there’s always time to repent, so I figure that pushing off my prodigious U-turn until after a weekend of roulette and self-loathing is perfectly within reason. The only way to truly gamble with eternity, after all, is to deny the possibility of repentance. So long as I remain somewhere between conscientious and contrite, I will remain in good stead with the Almighty.
Despite all the misgivings about rolling through my hometown (Teaneck and I have an icy, adversarial relationship, dating to the time it removed the mailbox on my family’s block), there is something unfailingly comforting about being back. The houses never change, the people always walk slowly, there are two 7-Elevens, and the religious institutions try their best to save your soul as you careen onto Teaneck Road. “Make a U Turn,” they beseech. “Your fate is worth it.” I may not care for Teaneck, but Teaneck cares for me.
Meanwhile, in New York City, the Church is far more unfeeling. When the Pope visits, the Powers That Be stage him at Yankee Stadium, home to more spit, urine, and profanity than R. Kelly’s diary. Religious communities are marred by infighting and turf wars. The fratricidal air even extends to the outer boroughs, where fragmented worshippers splinter into countless synagogues and cells, content to pursue the afterlife with an irreconcilable distaste for fellow pursuers.
During my early childhood (late 80s-early 90s, approximately Michael Jordan’s first reign of dominance), I succeeded in finding every reason to hate suburbia. Most of those reasons had nothing to do with suburbia itself, but rather with its maddening inability to be a major urban center. I complained often that being seated in an uneventful picket-fence universe imposed an artificial ceiling on my opportunities. I told my parents and teachers that Teaneck was the ambition graveyard, and that the only way to try at superstardom was to migrate to New York City.
Now that I am in the city (in the aforementioned outer boroughs, at least), my original claim still rings legitimate—city life affords manifold routes to success that northern New Jersey simply cannot accommodate. I don’t miss the snail’s pace, either, and there are more 7-Elevens here than the suburban child in me could ever imagine. What I miss, though, is the caring air, the way that people build a cohesive community and protect their families in its structure. A monolithic and homogenous structure, yes, but (I like to think) well meaning.
The bus continues past the sign-bearing church and the Dairy Queen and the hospital and both 7-Elevens. I disembark at a shopping complex and confirm its intertia. Blockbuster, Walgreens, and Dunkin’ Donuts are still there, as are the same sundry shops that always lined this shoehorn-shaped stretch. I spy three people I haven’t seen since high school, and they look exactly as they did years ago.
I turn around, away from the impending “hey-how-are-you-what-are-you-up-to” conversation. After all, God allows U-turns.
Stay Static, Suburbia
Monday, April 14, 2008
We consume a constant stream of music, television, conversation, books, sights and sounds. The difficulty with writing is that it is a reversal of the process—it constitutes and demands a one-way conversation that vests agency in the writer. It is a far less passive than most things, and in that way is uncharacteristic of usual interaction.
Once the direction is reversed, however, it can be hard to allow oneself to be mindlessly entertained. Initiating brain function is addictive, and lends clarity to an ironic koan: ‘tis better to think than to be thought for. Whereas The Simpsons used to perform much of my cognitive function, I now traverse an altogether more active realm, pent up in my room as I am with a laptop, a stack of unopened albums, and a string of thoughts awaiting expression.
Irradiating this exercise is the only time in recent memory that I turned my brain off. Marcus Miller, one of the great bass heroes, came to B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in Times Square with his funk cohorts. Not only is Miller a Queens College dropout (why else would I matriculate there?), not only is he a veteran of ensembles belonging to Miles Davis, Luther Vandross, and David Sanborn, and not only does he always wear a fedora, but he brings the funk very, very hard. Almost illegally hard. Were music likened to basketball, Miller would be half-superstar, half-dunk contest, with pyrotechnics enough to mute Marv Albert.
Articulating exactly how hard the funk was laid down is a sheer impossibility, but a few excerpts from my friend Rivas’s diatribe come closest. I came a few minutes before him, and secured standing room in front of the bar. Miller opened with “Blast” (the hummus-flavored sass that plays when you load his website), then worked into his cover of “Higher Ground,” in the middle of which Rivas strolled in, unaware that his loins were about to implode.
After 30 seconds, he said, “This is completely irresponsible. I am far too stoned to be listening to something this funky.”
“I’m not going to survive this concert.”
But survive we did, and as we hobbled out onto 42nd St. our faculties began returning to us, albeit in pieces. We quickly devised a funk vocabulary—we’d long ago termed extremely funky things “irresponsibly funky,” but Miller demanded a whole new set of adjectives.
In ascending order, the funk hierarchy.
1. Sufficiently/Pleasingly Funky
Standard, assembly-line funk. What my funk band would sound like, assuming I permed my hair and moved further south. A 2-4 out of 10.
2. Cooperatively/Flippantly Funky
When a band coalesces into a deep, rhythmic unit, showering you with funk rain, but forgoing brilliance. A 5 of out 10, perhaps.
3. Unnecessarily/Offensively Funky
Unnecessary not in the pejorative, but in the way that one might emerge from a threesome with two Swedish wet nurses and say, “Wow, that didn’t have to happen.” A 6-7 out of 10, with a strong push towards greatness.
4. Irresponsibly/Recklessly Funky
For most, this is the pinnacle of funketeering. Seeing NYC bass legend Shyndigg use his elbow to solo actually birthed the qualifier “irresponsibly funky”—if I recall, Rivas is the term’s etymological father. And 8-9 out of 10, and capable of scarring for days afterwards.
5. Conspiratorially/Debilitatingly Funky
The Marcus Miller level, inaccessible to most mortals, demarcates the point at which sensory experience is incomprehensible and bowel control is dubious. In my experience, only Miller has funked as such. Not just a 10 out 10—this stage transcends numerics. “It's as conspiratorial as the assassination of Benazir Bhutto,” Rivas said, contemplating Miller's performance. “If I had to directly compare the assassination of a world leader to Marcus Miller, that’s the one I would choose.”
Stay Sufficient, White Funk
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
At the outset of a recent sleepless night, I suddenly recalled Cal, Seth Rogen’s character in The 40 Year Old Virgin. He sponsored an ex nihilo appreciation for sedative subversion, demarcating downers’ rightful station in silver screen mythos.
[Click here for YouTube clip]
“You know what's a fun game?” he offered the virginal Andy (Steve Carrell), poised to lay down the IQ.
“You take three Excedrin PMs and you see if you could whack off before you fall asleep.
You always win, is the best part about the game.”
Earnestly, perhaps too earnestly, Cal litigated for the pseudo ne’er-do-wells, the indulgent but not quite objectionable among us. In Knocked Up and, more emphatically, in Superbad, Rogen’s merry men continued to make the mediocre American more sexy, couching him/her (mostly him) in a benign, endearing framework. Rogen’s cadre helped create the comedic middle class, a race of casually self-deprecating, white, not so poor, not overly privileged smartasses. People, in other words, with empty pools in the backyard and boozy fraternity memberships.
Average becomes vogue.
And so it was that I, an average white male, popped two sleeping pills and tried not to summarily pleasure myself, but to make it through an entire episode of Top Chef. Saddled with an inane, droning insomnia, I have an emergency stash of saccharine grape flavored sleep-well tablets that work every other night. Since I can’t remember the cycle, I am often surprised by being laid pathetically low or remaining curiously unaffected.
On this particular night, Cal’s game dogmatized the evening: Get in sweats. Brush teeth. Set alarm on phone. Plug in laptop. Take sleeping pills. Wait 5 minutes. Pour three fingers of Jameson. Put on Top Chef. Await destiny.
Somewhere in the middle of an apple-brie flambé, concentration became a chore. Jameson emptied, I guessed, with incipient gratitude, that the pills were going to stymie the string of insomnia-riddled nights.
I was wrong.
In the absurd throes of medicated sleep deprivation, the battle for everlasting wakefulness launched its opening salvo on my couch. Accustomed as I was to sleeplessness, my survival instinct engaged as soon as the first wave of numbness careened down my being. I memorized recipes, formulated a pneumonic to remember the chefs’ names, and even started Googling ingredients. Anything to keep my mind alert, I told myself—anything to ward off the frightful specter of sleep.
A few more hours passed, enough time that I could have won Cal’s game many times over were I not preoccupied with all things trivial—arcane break dancing contests, environmentalist poetry, old NY Rangers highlights from when they won the Cup. Only in abject exhaustion does one encounter the Internet in its manifest function, its nimbus in the dark: the definitive portal to infinite uselessness.
I begrudgingly yielded to sleep after sunup and awoke for class two hours later, only to vouchsafe the details of my sleeping troubles to a relentless classmate who wanted to know why I was so tired. I explained about Padma Lakshmi, Jameson, selectively effective sleep aids, and all the rest.
She looked at me, incredulous, and asked, “Really? That’s what you were up so late doing?”
“No,” I said. “It really has to do with Seth Rogen and a fun masturbation game, and that’s all I’m going to say.”
Stay Satisfied, Seth
Saturday, April 5, 2008
I’ve never been pregnant. As a relatively young male, I also have limited experience with death, bankruptcy, 401(k)’s, mortgages—the (mostly fiscal) trappings of adulthood. I derive from a tribe that weds early, so I’m well versed in matrimony, but pregnancy is another of the institutions that escapes me. The all-holy embryo only exists in two contexts: one, that at some point I was a fledgling fetus (and, according to ultrasound imaging, appeared slovenly even in utero); and two, it’s something I desperately want to avoid creating, especially if I join the National Basketball Association.
As an identity-forging enterprise, parenthood is the most indelible. Marriages can dissolve and businesses can capsize, but babies are biological facts that cannot be reversed. Quotidian though it may sound, the concept of, “Oh God, this is for real,” didn’t synapse completely until I was walking through a Barnes & Noble with my friend Elle, who is unavoidably pregnant. Yes, she craves Godiva chocolate and describes her morning sickness, but she’s only unavoidably pregnant because no one can shut the hell up about it. Store clerks ask her when she’s due, strangers stare at her stomach, and people she’s never met impose themselves on her gestation.
“I was in a public bathroom the other day, and some woman came up to me and said, ‘You look like you’re about to pop,’” Elle told me, laboring along the check-out line. “Complete strangers come up to me, unsolicited, and rub my belly.”
Well-meaning or obnoxious, oglers and tummy handlers never seemed so obtrusive to me. Feeling a bit reprehensible, since I’ve been known to pepper pregnant women with thoughts on Weebok baby shoes, I told Elle that we all mean well.
“It’s just that people are always so positive about the whole thing,” she said. Walking back to her apartment with a bag full of books, she covered her face with a scarf while two men smoked cigarettes two feet in front of us.
“I mean, they’re always smiling and saying things like, “Ooh, it’s a baby, that’s so much fun!” she cooed. “But really, it’s like, I’m nauseous all the time, I’m huge, my back hurts, there’s really nothing fun about this.”
As she and her husband Yosi led me into their apartment building, an older lady ambled up to Elle's midsection. “Oh hello, mommy,” the lady said, eyeing future mother and future baby all at once. The three of us sighed. She continued, “You know, you should really look into new nursery rhymes. My son’s daughter loves it when I give her a pacifier and sing her these new nursery rhymes.” Elle and Yosi nodded politely, their disdain almost palpable.
When we got in their apartment, Elle said, “You have to be polite. You can’t yell at someone who’s genuinely excited that you’re pregnant. But everyone has something to say, everyone thinks they’re entitled to tell me how to be pregnant, and I just want to tell them to shut the hell up.”
Intrigued by the pregnant plight, I did a little web browsing. On pregnancy-info.net’s discussion board, a reader named Teresa (fourth comment down) echoed Elle’s grievances.
She wrote, “…mostly it really, really tires me being asked if I'm having twins, being told that I am so big, being told what a big baby we will have, being told I look like I'm ready to pop. I mean, are all these people without sensitivity? Don't they know we, preggers, are self-conscious enough about our weight and do not need any "reassurance" in that aspect?”
Shauna, the next poster, was more pithily pissed. “I am so tired of all the stupid advice people are giving me just because they already have children,” she said.
Perhaps I will continue to humor pregnant women, and perhaps I will have a retirement fund before I learn some sensitivity. For one night, however, I watched while a friend weathered a maternal maelstrom, and I reaffirmed my most solemn promise to myself.
I will never play in the NBA.
Stay Celibate, Athletes
MC Milk Chocolate