Monday, April 11, 2016

The Hall of Fame Case for Tim Hardaway

Great Tim Hardaway image from:
Tim Hardaway failed to attain election into the Basketball Hall of Fame for the third consecutive year and I can't help but wonder just what it is that has not only kept him out but has allowed players with far less impact and far inferior statistical accomplishments to springboard past him to basketball immortality. I understand that hall of fame voting is a highly subjective venture--one that is often as controversial as it is commonsense. In Tim Hardaway's instance though the man's numbers and cultural impact should speak for themselves.

Here's the list of NBA players who have been or who will be enshrined as the classes of 2014, '15, and '16:

Alonzo Mourning
Mitch Richmond
Dikembe Mutombo
Spencer Haywood
Jo Jo White
Shaquille O'Neal
Allen Iverson
Yao Ming

Of all of those players I have issue with only one being elected--particularly at Hardaway's expense. Jo Jo White and Spencer Haywood are old school players whose merit I cannot attest to so I will give them both passes but having watched all of the others play, I believe that Mutombo's incredible defensive dominance warrants Hall of Fame consideration as does Mitch Richmond's three-point prowess and overall offensive excellence. Shaq is a no-brainer, Alonzo Mourning went toe-to-toe with arguably the best era of big men (or at least the most prolific), routinely trading blows with the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Shaq, Mutombo, and others, finally reaching the promised land in 2006 as an NBA Champion. Allen Iverson's contributions to the game extend far beyond the court as his cultural impact alone almost single-handedly ushered in a new era of ball and certainly a new style favored by up-and-coming guards.

Then there's Yao.

Yao Ming could have and arguably should have been the single most dominant center the game has ever seen. His height rivaled that of string bean centers like Shawn Bradley, Manute Bol, and Gheorghe Muresan but his bulk was more comparable to Shaq. He could shoot like Hakeem and move (at times) like a small forward. Simply put, he was the ideal video game create-a-player--the one where you slide the height and weight meters all the way to the right and then start maxing out the offensive and defensive skill points. The only problem was that persnickety injury category; were it not for Yao's feet betraying him (as they do so many men of his size) he might very well have gone on to be the greatest...

...but he didn't. Not even close. Yao's story is about what could have been and that's certainly what the Hall of Fame should have considered when they selected him over Tim Hardaway. Yao played in only eight NBA seasons of which he played in 75 regular season games or more only four times. Here are his games played from his rookie season to his last in the NBA:

82, 82, 80, 57, 48, 55, 77, DNP, 5

Yao managed to be named an All-Star in all eight of the seasons that he played in...even when one of those seasons consisted of FIVE GAMES. He was listed to the All-NBA Second Team twice and the All-NBA Third Team three times. He is in the top 5 of the following statistical categories for the Houston Rockets:

Free Throws (5th)
Offensive Rebounds (4th)
Defensive Rebounds (4th)
Blocks (2nd)
Blocks Per Game (3rd)

That's it. That's Yao's case for the Hall of Fame. He's possibly the second best center of all time on the Rockets but that's essentially all that he amounts to. He clearly has cultural significance as he served as an unofficial ambassador of sorts for the NBA generating an explosion in the popularity of basketball in China...but that sums it up.

Tim Hardaway made the All-NBA Second Team three times, the All-NBA Third Team once, and, in 1997, made the All-NBA First Team. From an impact standpoint, he was Allen Iverson before Iverson, bringing the crossover into the prominence of the public eye with the UTEP-Two Step / Killer Crossover--one of if not the first crossover to engender its own moniker. He was part of one of the most dynamic trios in league history running point in the fabled Run TMC triad of himself, Mitch Richmond, and Chris Mullin in Golden State.

Even more impressive than that though was his role in establishing Miami as one of the powerhouses of the NBA. Yes Pat Riley served essentially as the architect of the Heat contributing to the arrivals of Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning among others upon his blessed departure from New York but it was the play of Hardaway in large part that led to the Heat gaining mainstream notoriety. The late-'90s rivalry with the Knicks enjoyed its mythical status thanks partially to Tim Hardaway's electric offensive style and his clutch play; anyone who watched those games late in the fourth quarter knew that a 35 foot bomb could drop at any point as Timbug brought the ball up past mid-court.

All of that aside, Hardaway's career statistics with the Heat are stunning. Consider this: Tim Hardaway spent only four and a half seasons with Miami. In that brief time he managed to accrue a horde of team records. Now, in fairness, the team itself was only eight years old at the time Hardaway joined but what's impressive is the fact that, fifteen years after his departure--an era in which the team won three titles and had the likes of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh among eras--he is still on the team's all-time lists.

Think about the caliber of players that Miami has seen, particularly when it comes to shooters. Aside from Hardaway, they've had the likes of Eddie Jones, Voshon Lenard, Glen Rice, Dan Majerle, Jason Williams, James Jones, Ray Allen, and several other key players. At present, Tim Hardaway is still number one on the Heat's list of three point field goals made. He's tenth in free throws made and eighth in points--EIGHTH! He spent less than half a decade with the team and is on the top ten in points scored with the likes of Dwyane Wade, Alonzo Mourning, Glen Rice, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Udonis Haslem.

Hardaway was just as prolific a defender and passer as he was a scorer and was one of the best blocking guards of all time 6 ft or under. He is sixth all-time for the Heat in steals and second (!!!) in assists behind only Dwyane Wade and nearly a full thousand dimes ahead of Mario Chalmers and LeBron James who are third and fourth respectively. He's sixth in Points Per Game behind LeBron, Wade, Shaq, Glen Rice, and Chris Bosh--arguably all first or second ballot hall of famers in their own rights.

In total, Tim Hardaway is in the Top 10 for nearly two dozen statistical categories for the Miami Heat...but that's (literally) only half of the story. You could make the case that having such statistical significance to a single organization would be worthy of hall of fame consideration...but what about two?


See--before Hardaway came to Miami he had a none-too-insignificant stint in Golden State. In only five seasons with the Warriors, he managed to climb the statistical ladder in a slew of categories. Now, with arguably the greatest team in Warriors' history demolishing records left and right, Hardaway still lays claim to top ten positions in nearly a dozen statistical categories. He's fourth in three point field goals made behind Stphen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Jason Richardson and fourth in steals behind Chris Mullin, Rick Barry, and Stephen Curry. Even more astounding though is that he's still second in assists.

That's right: Tim Hardaway is second all-time in assists for TWO DIFFERENT TEAMS--ones that included players like Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Mullin, and Stephen Curry--names that barely scratch the surface of the depth of talent each franchise has fostered. 

I'll let that sink in.


Seriously: how the hell is this man not in the hall of fame?

Personally, I can't help but wonder whether or not the negative PR that he created for himself is somehow impeding his progress with this. The shame of it though is that the man brought it upon himself and has worked tirelessly at atoning for what amounted to an asinine, ignorant opinion of something utterly unrelated to basketball. He has since immersed himself in various activities meant to champion the rights of the LGBT community--something that was at once unnecessary but unique. He paid his price and lost his position with the Heat and yet all of the work that he's done and continues to do is performed of his own volition, mostly out of the public eye.

If it's not that snafu then perhaps it's the fact that his legacy and impact on the Miami Heat's basketball history has been somehow diminished in the minds of Hall of Fame voters. After all, he's the only member of Miami's first "Big Three" (Pat Riley, Alonzo Mourning, and himself) not to win a championship with the organization. The lustre of the so-called Big Three Era of this decade might be shining too brightly blinding voters to the value and significance of Hardaway's early contributions.Were it not for him (and the rest of those late-'90s Heat players) then Riley's own legacy would hardly be what it ultimately became and the so-called culture of winning in Miami might have been delayed indefinitely if it ever managed to arrive at all.

Still, the fact that this man's numbers persist almost in spite of the Big Three Era should work in his favor--not against him; his position of prevalence and prominence among the all-time greats of two storied franchises should all but have assured him a place at the table of basketball's elite. Instead, he remains an egregious oversight--yet another phenomenal player who persists at present as a face on the outside looking in.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Finding the Light to Lead me Home

I find myself of late experiencing a sort of existential crisis: I feel like a man in flux--my identity clearly delineated with no definition--the shape distorted and out of focus but undeniably there. I know who I am, I know where I am, and I know what I want to be...and yet at the same time I feel afloat. It's as if for the first time in my life the ground upon which my life was based is no longer beneath my feet and is instead receding, becoming a distant shore with each passing moment. I'm not quite sure how I feel about it even though it causes me no distress...I'm just not certain whether I'm resigned to it or relieved by it.

I've always been keenly aware of the passage of time--perhaps more so than most. I remember each aching, agonizing minute of particular school days that seemed to drag on forever and I'm all too aware of the fleeting, sacred seconds that mark the passage of my children's lives. As a child, I looked to the future in awe and anticipation. I wondered what the world would be like--what my life would be like--and I would envision all of the exciting experiences I would encounter along the way. As that future neared however in adolescence, it became drenched in dread--dampened by the very real responsibilities and expectations inherent in adulthood.

The passage of my youth and adolescence was essentially a linear one--something exemplified by my literal progression through school: my elementary school was on Gerritsen Avenue less than a half mile from my home. Junior high school came next a mile further up the road with a brief right turn. High school was another 0.7 miles further along--essentially one left turn away from the previous two schools. Thirteen years of my life confined to the same 2.1 miles traversed endlessly.

I suppose then that my wanderlust should come as no surprise though the limited geographic exploration of my youth contributed comparably little to it. On one hand, I felt like I had a strong sense of home as a child--a base from which to operate all of these adventurous excursions. At the same time though--and something that I am only now beginning to process--I never did feel at home. I don't mean in the literal house in which I was raised but rather the general area in which that house resided.

Whenever anyone asks me where I'm from I always say Brooklyn but it is always uttered with an unspoken asterisk at the end. I have no idea what non-New Yorkers envision when they hear the name of my favorite borough but I can all but guarantee that it's nothing like where I grew up. In describing my neighborhood in my second novel, I referred to it as being one part New York grit and determination, one part Midwestern values, and one part New England coastal charm--not exactly the poster child for what "New York" is typically considered to be.

Nowadays I'm sure people associate Brooklyn more with hipster culture and its requisite gentrification but even with that my little corner remains relatively unchanged. It's a coastal community surrounded on three sides by water with essentially one primary road in and out. It's a place filled with hard working, hard loving people who are content with the lives they've been given and who work within the parameters of those existences; I suppose this is where my deviation begins.

I made a lot of friends growing up there and was acquaintances with even more people but I never felt like I fit in. I'm sure part of it was the verbal abuse and bullying that practically every kid endures at one point or another but even if that is connected to the genesis of this disentanglement it is hardly the root issue or even a cause in its own right. If anything, I think that mistreatment served merely to highlight to me that I was different--never really "one of them" for lack of a better phrase. It was never about feelings of superiority or inferiority nor was it a sense of being an outcast. I was never made to feel unwanted or unaccepted but at the same time I never felt like I was truly a part of whatever it was that everyone else there shared.

I suppose the biggest part of it was my purview: even at a young age I was looking beyond the borders of the Beach when, in most cases, no one else even considered leaving. I couldn't then and can't now blame them for not wanting to move. After all, they basically have everything that they need right at their fingertips. The irony too is that my family was one of the first to set up shop of the families who have persisted the longest and one that certainly proliferated to a comparable degree as the others (my first relative settled down there in 1930 and my godfather still resides there at present--86 years of continuous presence in the neighborhood).

A friend of mine from the neighborhood--a man whom I respect immensely and whose intellect I envy--once mentioned a study that had been proposed to him of studying not the majority that chose to stay in the neighborhood but rather the few who left and their reasons for doing so. I hadn't considered that much until I began reflecting on it myself and I realized that, out of my coterie, only one or two other people actually moved away--one as far away as Ireland. Though that particular individual's choice was based upon a professional opportunity I felt like it was emblematic of what those few of us felt: we didn't need simply to get out--we needed to get as far away as possible.

I've always wrestled with that sense of distance between me and my peers. I'm proud of where I grew up but at the same time I am critical of the place and its people. In large part, I do not share in their ideologies, their politics, their religion, or their lifestyles...but I understand them all. I don't judge any of them for their beliefs or ways of life but they are utterly foreign to me. In a way, I feel like we enjoyed a peaceful coexistence while I was there: they didn't know what to make of me and I kept my opinions about them to myself.

I make it no secret that Junior high school was the worst three years of my life and that, to this day, I still bear the scars of my time at Marine Park. Fortunately, that era is bookended by two wonderful periods: my elementary school years where my nascent self developed and my high school years where I finally began to find identity. I had always done well in school and identified strongly with my academic position but it wasn't until I attained athletic ability on a comparable level in high school that I finally developed that sense of self and obtained some burgeoning degree of self-esteem. The irony though is that I did so almost in spite of my beginnings.

In high school I got really good at basketball. I played on average about forty hours a week during the school year and even more during vacations. Rain or shine, day or night, you could find me at a local court practicing or playing. Part of it was undoubtedly my love of the game but a larger part of it stemmed simply from two-fold opportunity: I was a loner and it was a way for me to improve myself and do something without needing anyone else and it gave me an escape from a tumultuous home life throughout high school. I bonded with and earned the respect of many groups of kids that I would likely never have interacted with otherwise--particularly those of color. These folks and I shared two things in common: our love of basketball and our mistreatment at the hands of our white classmates. Their plight and mine differed in the details but were the same in spirit: in the eyes of the majority we were all outsiders.

And so it was that, the further I got from my neighborhood, the more I began to find myself. I was no longer choked by the history that existed there. Instead, I was able finally to stretch out and to explore not just the world around me but the world within as well. I came into my own in high school mostly by separating myself from those I grew up with and deviating from the herd. I was still present in that environment and we all still interacted from time to time--mostly on the basketball court--but I was undoubtedly beginning to move away from them. Again, not necessarily in any elitist sense but more of an ugly duckling one: I didn't belong there and I was finally becoming aware of it.

Any doubt that I might have had about the veracity of my existential analysis dissolved the moment I step foot into college. For the first time I was going to school not just further from home but in an entirely different borough. Commuting to Manhattan from the south end of Brooklyn was draining but it also fanned the flames of my emotional and physical departure; every mile I put between myself and where I grew up felt like one that pulled me closer to home--wherever that might ultimately be. The people I met at Baruch (including my future wife) confirmed for me that I was correct in my suppositions in a very intimate, meaningful way: I knew at long last that I never fit in where I was from because I finally found a community and environment with which I did mesh.

Baruch College was then and remains to this day one of the most culturally diverse institutions in the country. Unsurprisingly then, my friends and I represented a motley mix. Where diversity once meant "Irish AND Italian" growing up I now found myself in the white minority...and I relished it. At long last I was able to shed the trappings that came with my identity. Gone were the socioeconomic implications of the neighborhood I grew up in--the source of derision and ridicule from the Marine Park contingent--cast aside the ideological groupthink and questionable moral climate that I dreaded being associated with. Instead, I had for the first time in my life that which enabled me to decide utterly and truly who I was: a blank slate.

One might think that I soaked up every moment of my time in college as a way of recording over the remembrances of years' past but such was not the case. I suffered from such wicked anxiety and self-doubt that thoughts of whatever lie ahead were crippling. I was so stressed out by the uncertainty of the future that I chose instead to focus on the past. I've always had an insane ability to recall details and retain memories--so much so that I wonder whether or not I'm eidetic to an extent (I can drive somewhere far away and then recall how to return there simply from visual cues and memory essentially regardless of the distance, for one example, and can recall the outfits worn by people or the music playing in the background during some seemingly mundane memories for another).

The vividness and thus power of these memories is what allowed them to persist for so long and to such an extent but it was also the comfort that they provided; turning my attention towards happy moments from the past enabled me to avoid facing my fears about the future. Looking back, I realize now that that uncertainty stemmed in large part from an internal struggle born from my parents' vision of my future and its conflict with my own. In fact, as I sit here typing, I'm having a moment of epiphany and understanding for the first time that it was that exact circumstance not simply that engendered much of my pain and doubt but that also providentially led me to my inexorable present.

Amid all of my emotional and social turmoil, I knew one thing with utter certainty as a kid: I wanted to be a writer. I knew it from the moment I first had a poem published in the Bay News. Holy shit...tangential stream-of-consciousness secondary epiphany coming. I just looked up the picture of that poem and it had the date on it. Now, I'm incredibly attuned to numbers. I have an uncanny knack for knowing what the exact time is without looking at a clock or how many gallons of gas my car will end up getting while it's still pumping. I'm a firm believer in the relevance and importance of seemingly coincidental occurrences particularly as they pertain to numerical values (fortune cookie lucky lottery numbers aside). Including even my kids' birthdays and my wedding anniversary, the one date that I value more than any other is the day that I asked my wife to be my girlfriend. The way I see it, every good thing of my adult life stems from that one moment (I even remember the exact time and location of our first kiss that day). In a way, it's the single most important day of my life because it was the beginning of, well, everything for me.

That's the way I've always looked at that day: the beginning of everything. The hair stood up on my neck then as I pulled up the picture of my published poem and saw that, twelve years earlier, on the exact same month and day, my literary aspirations were born. As I'll explore in a moment, being a writer is at the very core of how I identify myself and is central to my present struggle: I'm seeking publication of a book as a way of validating that identity and existence. The very essence and nature of my being stems from being a husband to my wife, a father to our children, and a writer...and all of those circumstances had their geneses on April 9th.

Getting back on track, I knew that from April 9th, 1990 onward I wanted to be a writer. It was an idea that I fostered from that moment and was something that I cultivated and toiled at every day since then. I remember the way Mrs. Nancy Mail challenged me in fifth grade not to settle with my ability and instead to develop it further--to strive always to improve upon the wonderful foundation that I had developed under the tutelage of Noreen Quinn, Ellen Menkes, Elaine Noto, Michelle Shapiro/DiBiasi between Kindergarten and fourth grade. I remember every great English teacher that I've ever had and every terrible one; each served to mold me in one way or another, leaving an indelible mark upon my development as they helped me along my path.

As high school drew to a close though and I was forced to choose a direction of vocation I found little support for my innate desire to create. My parents, practical and well-meaning, dissuaded me from pursuing writing as a career citing the inherent difficulty in and daunting, nigh insurmountable odds of attaining commercial success as a novelist. Beyond my heart--aye in the deep, inner sanctum of my soul--the fire of creativity burned bright red...but my nature at the time forced me to shut the door and to lock that flame away. I was the good boy--the one who did as he was told and who wanted never to rock the boat or to buck authority.

And so it was that I decided upon what I felt was the next best thing: to become a teacher of writing. Early in senior year of high school, I declared my intention to pursue a career in education to my parents only to be roundly rebuffed a second time. Once more I was stung by their seeming lack of belief in me and in my abilities but the true nature of their concern grew slightly clearer. My father recommended pursuing a career in business (I was, after all, a part of the business program at my school) first and then going back to teaching far down the road when I had established myself financially. He questioned the efficacy of being a high school teacher who himself would be only a few years removed from the very student body that he was employed to instruct.

All of this is sound, solid advice--undeniably level-headed and pragmatic. With hindsight, I'm grateful that I took that advice...but not for the reasons one might think. Truth-be-told, embarking upon that recommended path caused me unspeakable internal turmoil, stress, and dissatisfaction with my life...but I wouldn't be where I am today without it. I needed that discord and darkness to light my way--to lead me to the promised land that I now found myself approaching. Without all of that heartache of the distant and all of the failure of the recent pasts I would have absolutely no appreciation for what I am on the cusp of achieving nor would I have anything even remotely resembling the life that I lead today.

I made the fateful decision to forego my dreams and to follow the recommended path and thus applied for and gained acceptance to Baruch and its renowned Zicklin School of Business. It all made sense from a logical perspective: I had and have great mathematical ability, I enjoyed the white collar lifestyle as glimpsed from my sister's corporate existence, and I graduated as the top student in the business program garnering a trophy that is, at present, taller than my youngest child. On paper it was perfect; internally it was hell.

Fate worked quickly now that I think about it. I started college merely two weeks before 9/11 happened and by April of the following year I was well on my way to my future. I got the dream job in late 2003--an internship with a prominent international trading company that would have set me up for life. I would have been flush with cash and yet I was abysmally miserable for every waking moment that I had during my time there. That's the funny thing with existential exigencies: they can happen seemingly in spite of the circumstances one finds oneself in.

I loved the location I was in, the people I worked with, and, to an extent, the routine that I had and the work that I was engaging in. It was exactly as I imagined it would be except for one minor detail: it left me feeling empty inside. Until that moment, my only jobs were working in a supermarket, a deli, and a video game store at the mall. I never considered the value of my work because there essentially was none: I was there to help out--to perform a task that literally anyone else could have performed. I loved my job at New Dutch, enjoyed my time at Electronics Boutique, and survived my days at Associated but I never considered the intrinsic importance of what I was doing. It wasn't until I was standing alone around 11 p.m. on the 24th floor at 1440 Broadway staring up at the Empire State Building lighting the night sky that I wondered just what the fuck it was that I was doing with my life.

I cannot describe the emptiness that I felt in that moment other than that it prompted me to make an immediate change. I was under a four year scholarship at a business school pursuing a degree in finance that I knew I would never use...but it didn't matter. See, in that one incredible moment, I did something that I never had done before: I made a decision for myself by myself. It was basically my moment of growing up--a declaration of independence and adulthood not theretofore experienced by the supposed prototypical ideal boy.

In an instant, that internal flame grew into a firestorm--a maelstrom of epic proportions that could no longer be held back. Still, though, my parents' influence remained and I never for a moment considered shifting to becoming a writer. Instead, I returned to the practicality of a teaching career and embarked upon that path as best I could within the framework of my circumstances. I earned my degree in finance before moving on to earn my Master's in Adolescent English education.

Throughout graduate school I experienced an awakening--the first notion that things were not as they seemed with me. As noted earlier, I had always been the good soldier--following the rules, playing nice, playing fair, and sticking to the tried-and-true. I had never given much consideration to any sort of creative need or at the very least failed to consider its importance in my life. Slowly but surely though I began to realize just how critical it was to my identity--first as a musician but more importantly as a writer.

Fate intervened once again in the form of a hiring freeze that prevented me from obtaining a teaching position in 2009. By the time my first son was born in January of 2010, I found myself staying at home and, for the first time, seriously considering the idea of pursuing a writing career. Over the course of the next few years, a slew of experiences helped me to shed whatever self-doubt remained and to identify and accept writing as my life's calling. It makes perfect sense to me now but only because of everything that I went through to get here.

The only thing standing in my way is obtaining that first published book and though the thought of not getting something published terrifies me to no end I cannot and will not allow it to prevent me from trying. Though it might seem arbitrary that commercial recognition is the aspect of delineation for me in terms of being a writer versus being one who writes, it remains something of unparalleled value to me; after all, it's been the very specific dream of mine since April 9th, 1990. That seemingly innocuous detail--having a book published by an actual publisher--is the source of all vindication and actualization for me: without it I will feel like I have failed in my pursuits regardless of how many articles I might go on to see published or other literary pursuits achieved.

Still, getting published allows me to ascribe the title of writer to myself but it doesn't change my identity as a writer, does it? It's arbitrary but at the same time it's what fuels me--propelling me forward and forcing me constantly to evolve and to improve; without that drive I would likely stagnate and settle. I know without question now that, in my heart, I am a writer. Hell, the signs have always been there--I've just been oblivious to them for the better part of my life. You might even say that...the writing was on the wall.

I'll show myself out.

The more I learn about writers--their irascibility, how notoriously difficult they are to get along with, their sense of alienation and misanthropy--the more I find myself identifying with them, especially among my favorites. Joyce was intellectually gifted but socially outcast, ultimately exiling himself in part for his art's sake but also because of a lack of kindred kinship with his countrymen and women: he was incontrovertibly connected to his fellow Dubliners but impossibly separated from them--at once one of them but never one with them. Thoreau too needed distance from society while Oscar Wilde disdained it from within (one of my favorite quotations comes from the latter, which states that, "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars"). Mary Shelley basically flung up a gigantic middle finger at convention and did what she wanted to do in spite of the societal and gender expectations of the times.

I can't help but connect with these people, their experiences, and their perspectives and, as such, not feel destined to join their ranks.

Looking back, I realize now that I share the iconoclastic sensibilities of the artist--the insatiable need to create and the utter inability not to live for my art. I've always viewed myself as a ball-buster and a prankster but I realize now that it runs deeper than that--an anarchistic streak masked by probity and perspicacity. I'm a social chameleon with a sixth sense for knowing how to manipulate the situation to suit my needs. I suppose that's why my dream and my present pursuit of publication fills me with fear: I am utterly incapable of influencing the outcome. No amount of invisible puppeteering on my end will alter the result of a proposal once submitted. Instead, I have to rely simply on fate and my belief that this is all meant to be.

There is incalculable value in the struggle of achieving one's artistic pursuit as well as in the act of creating itself--something that is indescribable to others who haven't experienced it themselves. Roland Barthes cited la petite mort as being the chief objective of reading literature but I would argue that it is also that of writing it as well. Creating art for art's sake is a concept I have encountered and embodied only in adulthood but, looking back throughout my life, it was clear even as a child to be something of immense importance to me.

I realize now in retrospect that my identity as an artist clashed with my parents' socioeconomic backgrounds. Both of them grew up under middle class conditions and vowed to provide their children with better existences. In their minds, and given whatever financial difficulties they encountered throughout their lives, that meant more money and from a more stable source; thus the advice that they gave me about my career choices. What they failed to consider though was the intrinsic value of the work that would garner those wages and its importance and meaning in relation to the material wealth that it would provide.

Don't get me wrong--I don't fault them for their perspective. For one, their intentions were unassailable: they wanted me to be able to provide more for myself and my future family than they felt they were able to provide for me. For another--they worked so hard and wanted so desperately to avoid the conditions of their own upbringings as to be consigned to the notion of that hard work. In their minds, greater compensation was paramount versus a life bereft of financial security and the requisite availability of physical goods thereof.

I remember famously clashing with my mother in high school over my spending and saving habits. She chided me for not saving up for a car like my cousin had done. I told her that I had run through the permutations and realized that, if I worked every possible hour for the entire summer that I would indeed accrue enough income to procure at least a used car but would then have difficulty a) in paying for the insurance b) keeping it fueled and c) attending to the inevitable necessary repairs. I would be working all the time to obtain something that I ultimately couldn't afford in the long run and I would be miserable the entire time. I then cited the fact that I would have to work damn near every hour of my adulthood and that these were my last few precious summers as an adolescent. I told her that I valued my free time over whatever money I would earn and she not only scoffed at me--she held that statement over my head for the next ten years.

In hindsight, the problem stemmed from differing purviews and philosophies. Even then as a teenager I exhibited the embodiment of and appreciation for Bohemianism over material trappings. Simply put, I was happy that money procured me certain things but I didn't need them or the money to be happy.

Don't me wrong--I'm not saying that I didn't love and appreciate every single bike, toy, book, video game, and whatever else they bought for me. Instead, I'm saying that I would've found a way to be happy with less and felt that what they did provide me with represented truly a beautiful, bountiful boon of material objects. I valued what toys I did have without ever envying the ridiculous surfeit that others had and hardly cared about because I knew how hard my parents worked to provide me with them. Whether that meant I had one Transformer or all of them, I found value in all of my possessions because they were earned for me. The consequence of that then was that I grew to cherish the inherent quality of the things that I had rather than lust for their quantity and thus the financial means of providing myself with them; I was happy with less money because I was content with what that money provided. The value of being a writer and creating with the written word could never be approached by the financial compensation of vapid, vacuous paper-pushing.

And thus I find myself where I am at mentally, emotionally, and physically at present. I believe that I am on the threshold of a metamorphosis--a moment of shedding skin or in this case lives and identities. For years, I took solace in those aforementioned memories of the past but I have noticed that, over the past half decade, their lucidity has begun to fade. I find myself thinking of them less frequently and even then their recollection induces less of a visceral reaction as if they have lost their lustre. I thought at first that this was simply a byproduct either of getting older or more specifically of becoming a parent; at this point in my life there is an enormous amount of memory material from which to sort through with more being generated every day.

Only very recently did I begin to consider that these memories--and indeed the identity they are imbued with--might simply not be as important to me anymore. Their relevance evaporating, I find myself relegating them more and more to the deep, damp, depths of my mind--an attic of sorts filled with musty memories gathering dust. I have been aware of this occurrence on a subconscious level for some time but only now am I recognizing not just its existence but its importance as well.

For most of my twenties, I clung to the relationships of my past. They were reminders of bygone times and wonderful moments captured with those people. More importantly though--and something I'm only now realizing--they represented me and my prior existence. I didn't notice it at all until 2007 when I moved to Staten Island and then later when I made my way out here. Suddenly, home didn't feel quite the same way. It went from being the source of my identity to a place I could visit. When my parents no longer lived in the house I grew up in, that sense grew only deeper.

Slowly but surely I found myself with fewer ties to my past--fewer claims staked in the location of my birth and development. Before I moved out here, I fought to maintain relationships with the people who remained there but I culled little sense of fulfillment from many of those interactions. They felt artificial as if I was clinging to artifacts of an era that long ago exhaled its final breath. I realize now that I did so out of a sense of obligation more than anything else--a sense that I needed ties to that place and to those people as a way of defining myself; now however I recognize that by holding onto the ropes of the past I've been incapable of letting go and moving on into my future and thus the rest of my life.

The first step that I took in that direction was getting rid of Facebook. I've covered my thoughts on social media ad nauseum and thus won't retread that ground but what's important is that, of the nearly 500 people that I interacted with, exactly one reached out offline to get together. I extended myself out to others voluntarily and received varying degrees of responsiveness, which served only to confirm further for me that I was making the right decision. Now, I understand that the people that I have in my life are the only ones that I need even if I want to have others.

I'm very proud of where I'm from and I take further pride in the fact that my two best friends are from there as well. What's interesting and perhaps telling in its own right is that, though they both remained in Brooklyn after I left, things are changing. One has moved out to Long Island and the other presumably will relocate elsewhere within a few years. In a way, it's like a physical manifestation of the feeling that I've been having that the place I once called home is like a bar where last call has come and gone. Slowly all of the chairs and stools are being placed upon the tables.

To run with the darkened room analogy, I think of each relationship that I have had with people who still live where I grew up as candles. Getting rid of Facebook was like slamming the door to that room shut, blowing out the flames of the majority of those candles. Still, I grasped tightly onto a few relationships and did my best to maintain them. Despite my efforts though, one by one, each wick has sizzled out. One of the better friendships that I had ended ironically over a "public" scolding on Facebook while another--indeed my oldest male friend--I had to end because of the unhealthy, parasitic nature of that relationship.

The final flames flickered recently as I tried one more time to reach out to those I left behind. This time however I conducted it as an experiment--a way of verifying my hypothesis. My communiques were well-received but ultimately led to no meaningful personal interaction--much like most such conversations nowadays. It has become endemic of our society that simply attempting to arrange a get together now constitutes physical time spent together. Nearly every time that I have expressed an interest in arranging a meeting with one of these people that interest was mirrored if not surpassed but when it came time to confirm a date and a location nothing materialized.

Obviously, it could be me but given how many others have shared in the same experience and with how varied a population I am dealing with I doubt that that is solely the case. It could also be societal as I denoted earlier...but even that doesn't ring entirely true. Instead, I think that what the circumstance connotes is of the utmost importance and thus accurately describes the situation: it's simply time for me to move on.

I hadn't given that idea much thought since I had physically moved on almost a decade ago. Still though the emotional ties remained--ones that I tried desperately and inexplicably to keep secured. I realize now that it was foolish and foolhardy to do so: I will never become what I'm destined to be until I let go of the past. I needed some distance to make sense of what is behind me and to allow me to see the bigger picture of what's coming ahead.

I remember being told to cherish every moment of my children when they were young because "they grow up so fast." Initially, my snarky comment was always that they grow at the same pace that we all do--one second per second. Now though as the years begin to clump together--to move at a seemingly accelerated rate--I realize that my solipsistic viridity prevented me from appreciating my temporal privilege. I'm living in arguably the greatest era of my life and I need not to worry about the obfuscation of the future nor the permanence of the past but to focus instead on the preciousness of the present. In order to do that, I have to move on from what lies behind so that I can be led towards what lies beyond.

I don't believe in any organized spiritual ideology because of the inherent moral turpitude and requisite hypocrisy of both leaders and followers. I have questions about the notion of any sort of creator just as much as I ponder the plausibility of the universe giving birth to itself. What I have no doubt about however is the idea that there is some guiding force in my life. For me, its influence is undeniable especially in hindsight. Such a position is invariably predicated on perspective though and so many others might doubt my assertion and accuse me of prevarication or falsely attribute it to some deity or another based upon their own antediluvian acceptance of reality. All of that is irrelevant though because the only thing that matters is that it's my personal truth.

I believe with all of my heart that, despite the odds, I am destined to become a published writer. Too many occurrences and coincidences have happened for me not to believe. It's one of the few things in my life--maybe even the only one aside from knowing that I would marry my wife even before I had asked her out--that I feel and believe in the deepest parts of myself and with every bit of my being.

I have lofty ambitions and dream often of the success that I hope to achieve. Though I will be happy simply seeing one of my books in print from a real publisher the idea of establishing myself as a commercially successful writer has certainly come to mind from time to time. I fantasize about being featured at some convention or being a guest on some show or podcast. Regardless of how far I travel or how well known I might become I will never forget where I came from. Even though I am leaving it behind I can never truly separate myself from it; it's forever a part of my being.

I am living now in the place of my dreams--the first location that I've ever been able truly to call my own. Each day here is filled with laughter and love--of making memories with my wife and children that I will carry until my dying day. Each moment pulls me further away from the scared, uncertain boy that I was growing up in Brooklyn and closer to the confident, fulfilled man that I am becoming. Regardless of where life takes me I know that I am who I am because of and in spite of the very place that I am from.

After all, there's no place like home.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Why Pet Parenting Represents the Nadir of Modern American Civilization

Man and beast have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship for thousands of years. Our quadripedal companions have long looked to us for sustenance whilst providing us with companionship and security. It's an arrangement that's been pretty swank for the animals (mostly dogs due to their training efficiency and degree of affection) and certainly useful for us. Somehow, though, a seemingly trivial, minor distinction has been lost in the past ten or fifteen years--one that seeks to undermine the validity of this interaction and, dare I say, to degrade and devalue our own existences. At some indeterminable point in the past two decades, animals went from being pets to family members. This might not seem problematic to you but it scares the living shit out of me because, well...

...but pets aren't people.

We live in a society where everything has to have an additional level of value--unnecessary descriptors that serve the sole purpose of seemingly elevating our own overinflated egos; nothing is simple or sacred anymore. It used to be just an apple but then somehow it had to become an organic apple (or "AW-GAH-NIC" if you're from Staten Island). I get that distinction though, especially in light of the harsh hormones and caustic chemicals that are used in food growth. You want to know what's going into the food that's going into you and that's a good thing. What's not a good thing is the added layers of distinction that accompany damn near everything nowadays.

"Organic" no longer suffices; now it has to be "locally harvested," "hand-raised," "farm-to-table," or derivative of one of the myriad, asinine dietary subcultures like vegans and paleos. The coffee you're drinking is no longer simply light or dark roasted: it's coffee from fair-trade, Ethiopian/Sumatran/Himalayan, medium-bodied, saturnine roast, hand-picked, organic, ethnically sensitive and environmentally sustainable beans. Just the thought of reading a sign with all of that bullshit written on it is making me sick.

We are a society of self-promotion. I say society and not generation because it's not the up-and-coming youth of America who are furthering this egoistic agenda but rather the goddamn adults! Think about it: people between the ages of twenty and sixty are setting the example for the next generation who are already assholes by association. It's not limited to food and coffee but is endemic in damn near everything including two of my most ardent passions: music and craft beer. EVERYONE is a music critic in his or her mind nowadays and no one stops to question whether or not they are qualified to make the bombastic claims that they do or to explore the history of the genre they're lambasting. And don't get me started on the self-aggrandizing snobbery in craft beer; beer geeks are achingly wannabe elitists.

I could write tomes about all of the different groups of people that piss me off with their narcissistic, self-serving behavior but in the interest of keeping my own level of agita to an acceptable level, I'll focus on the folks who belong in the ninth circle of hell: pet parents. I'm amazed by the rush of anger and aggravation that just rippled through me when I typed that. These people are enough to make me want to drive off a cliff or take a chance on a SpaceX trip to points unknown.

I'm sure that what I'm about to say will piss off a lot of people and I'm okay with that because getting angry is the first step towards awakening; actually feeling something real like that is akin to being detached from the Matrix and marks the beginning of a new life in some ways. Raw emotion is shunned in present-day America in favor of the endless self-esteem masturbation that you people engage in on a daily basis; therein lies the bigger issue that I hope to tackle by the end of this acerbic address.

Everything has a surfeit of superfluous nomenclature nowadays and yet there is an alarming dearth of value and meaning in these tag lines. It's painfully obvious to me that most of these descriptors exist for precisely two reasons: to make us feel like we are better than we are and to give the appearance to others that we are better than them. It terrifies me that that's really all it comes down to and yet, to me, it seems like an insurmountable obstacle to getting people to extract their heads from their asses.

We have become a people incapable of actually feeling anything because our capacities for emotion and
criticism have shriveled like an old man's prostate; we're tumbling down Maslow's pyramid at an accelerating rate and no one seems to notice or to care. People are engaged in a never-ending pursuit of praise through self-promotion, chasing the meaningless adulation from the masses that has somehow become the American lifeblood. It's funny and sad how often I hear people complaining about the fact that every kid gets a trophy just for participating (I refuse to employ the word "competing" because there is no competition involved in those attaboy/attagirl eliciting activities; competition belies a winner and a slew of losers in his or her wake, which is patently impossible when everyone walks away with an award) and yet no one seems to realize that they're engaging in the same type of behavior in their everyday lives!

The difference is superficial but achingly telling: people post things on social media to obtain likes. Likes, for crying out loud! Jesus, it's right there in front of you goddamn lemmings and none of you are willing to pull your dead, vacant gazes away from your screens to notice. You live your lives sucking at the teat of empty, insipid praise under the guise of happiness and self-fulfillment without once questioning the purpose of what you're doing or the actual retail price of the emotional satisfaction that you think you're deriving from these endeavors. Every act of self-aggrandizing is a vacuous attempt at feeling special and important in a world where less and less matters simply because you oafs have stopped paying attention to what has any actual worth. You're all oblivious to the vampiric nature of social media and the way each and every post, poke, and like sucks a little bit more of your soul and self-worth away from you, turning it into garmonbozia for the puppeteers who keep feeding you the same meaningless bullshit you all just keep lapping up like warm milk.

Remember, kids--you can't spell "meme" without "Me!"...two of them, actually. And isn't that precisely what a meme is all about? Me! Me! Look at me! Look at how clever I am! Look at how witty I am! Well aren't I ironic! Who's ironic? ME! ME!

Ahem--I digress. Everything has an extreme end to it and, to me, pet parents are the worst of the worst when it comes to the aforementioned praise-seeking bullshit. I cannot tell you how viciously I disdain these people but I can tell you why I loathe them with such vociferous ferocity: they are knowingly perpetuating the farce I outlined above and are intentionally seeking your attention. It's akin to the brightly colored advertisement on the road that says, "You just read this sign." There's no value in that act--no accomplishment to be had because it caters to our basest reflexive actions. It's akin to Kevin Durant swatting this kid's shot. Sure it counts as a block on KD's stat sheet but did he really achieve anything?

What I'm getting at is the people who shove their pet ownership in your face usually by way of bumper stickers, car magnets, and t-shirts, saying nothing of the bullshit that occurs online. Nothing infuriates me more than seeing a "Who Rescued Who?" magnet on the back of the car in front of me; it takes every ounce of willpower I have not to slam a dull, heavy object repeatedly against both vehicle and operator in those moments. This bothers me on multiple levels (the least of which is grammatically--it should be "Who Rescued Whom" but no one gives a shit about grammer or speling nemore so y should i,) and it really embodies the sentiments that represent the culture we live in.

First, here's an actual quotation I found online about that magnet:

"I really admire the bumper stickers with a paw print that states: “Who Rescued Who?” It’s so cute and powerful and to the point."

This single couplet sums up everything that is twisted and wrong about you fuckers mostly because of the sheer number of you who probably agree with him or her. I'm going to use that quotation as a jumping point for the dressing down to come.

First of all, what the fuck is admirable about that self-serving slurp-fest? I admire hard-working folks who toil away at thankless jobs to provide for their families without ever complaining. I admire people who give freely of their time to help others without ever asking for anything in return. I admire those who struggle and fail but who pick themselves back up and remain determined to achieve their goals.

You people admire others who are so emotionally empty that they seek to sate themselves with vapid, inane self-indulgence.

Trust me: there's nothing powerful about that crap. And just what in the holy hell is the point? The common answer would likely be some insipid shit like, "I was lost but Bowser (or whatever other yuppy puppy, hippy dippy, bilbo baggins bullshit name people give their pets) saved me."

Seriously--stop for a second and think about that. Let that marinate in your cranial juices for a moment. The implication is that the pet owner was emotionally lacking in his or her life and that the presence of this animal somehow saved them from that aching loneliness. Sounds innocuous enough on paper until you look back at the original statement:

"Who Rescued Who."

This is where my vitriolic fury really begins to heat up. Why can't it just be a pet like it's been for literally thousands of years? Why does it need the distinction that it's a "rescue"? And why do you have to point out your role in the transaction? (I'll answer that question in a moment--I'm on a roll so I can't stop now!)

As a literal person, I'm offended on a deeply cognitive level by the whole notion of "rescuers." Notice that I didn't say rescues and that there are quotation marks around the word I did elect to use. I can get behind the idea of rescue animals and I genuinely admire (!) the folks who elect to adopt those animals over a degree. I'll type this next sentence v e r y  s l o w l y  s o   y  o  u    c  a  n    u  n  d  e  r  s  t  a  n  d    i  t:

YOU did not rescue that animal.

Phew! I can't believe how much relief that just gave me. It was so much fun I think I'll try it again!

YOU did NOT rescue that animal.

One more time for posterity!


There! I said it. (And I seriously derived a sick amount of pleasure from that.) My biggest gripe with the whole rescue thing is the fact that it is devoid of logic (or, more importantly, why it is purposely devoid of logic). That animal was actually rescued by someone other than you therefore it is physically impossible for you to be the rescuer! You're making false claims and operating under an assumed identity, which is probably illegal but most certainly should be. Shame on you for the farce!

Let's cut the bullshit out for a minute and have some real talk, shall we? Let's call it exactly what it is and then explain why this distinction is crucial and egregiously, intentionally overlooked. Unless you personally rescued an animal from a dire, life-threatening circumstance, you, yourself are not a rescuer. The fact that that animal might be put down if it wasn't adopted before a given termination date does not make you a rescuer--it makes you a pet owner. The person who emancipated the animal prior to adoption is the sole rescuer; you simply moved it from its present safe-haven into your own home. And what does that make that act?

A transaction.

Back in the day, you went to a pet store and you bought a pet. How we managed to fuck up something as simple as an exchange of cash for a product is beyond me but it has undeniably become drenched in the pathetic deluge of profligate self-gratification. Again, I respect the choice to purchase an animal that might be overlooked by most folks because, let's face it, everyone loves puppies and kittens. There also are people who genuinely elect to adopt these animals solely because they recognize that a) there's a good chance no one else will and b) that animal will subsequently be put to death.

Funny, though, that the same people who have no problem snagging the unwanted, one-eyed mongrel with a gimpy leg won't touch that bruised peach or dour-looking lettuce in the produce aisle. There's a specific reason why that's true though: there's no social currency to be gained by the latter but rather a perceived amount through the former. Think about it: no one ever boasts about buying food that's near or past "expiration" (another fallacy for another rant) and yet EVERYONE who has obtained a rescue animal vocalizes that act in one way or another; the reason for that is the crux of this entire diatribe and sits at the core of what is slowly sucking out all of our souls.

Residents of the year 2015 have an innate, insatiable need for recognition by their peers. It makes me think of Lisa Simpson during the school strike when she freaks out and screams, "Grade me...look at me...evaluate and rank me!" People are so pathetically unfulfilled that they seek the most minute modicums of approval from others and interpret that as being somehow valuable. Their lives are so empty that they have to bolster every single act that they perform by adding purported layers of meaning just to feel like they're actually doing something worthwhile and good. The problem though is that what is gained in esteem from these things is so minuscule it's almost non-existent (thus the Kevin Durant video--sure he blocked a shot but there was no challenge--no chance of failure in what he did thus stripping the act of any true meaning).

Many if not most pet owners are not content simply with having an animal companion to take care of. Instead, they flaunt the animal's past as if it were their own thereby elevating themselves, enhancing their perceived self-worth in their warped, twisted minds while simultaneously degrading and devaluing the rest of us. They believe, genuinely, that they have done something noble--courageous even!--by adopting these animals. They go so far as to refer to the animals as their children and themselves as the pets' parents...

...and that's where I draw the line.

There is a very real, necessary caveat that I have to throw out there before I press onward. I recognize and respect the fact that some couples experience difficulty in conceiving a child. For some, it's a physiological issue while for others it's simply shitty luck. Regardless, not being able to achieve something that you desperately want to while many others who are far less worthy seem awash in good fortune is a gutting thing to go through. My children represent the source of the richest happiness I enjoy in my life and it makes me ache to think of others who go through life wanting to produce offspring but for whatever reason are not able to. THESE people have a very real void that they often fill with something else--travel, hobbies, or, occasionally, pets. I can understand them treating their pets like children because, psychologically, they are balancing out their emotional needs--plugging the hole in their hearts and providing themselves with an avenue for the affection they've always had but were otherwise incapable of bestowing upon progeny.

The same could be said for couples who actually had children but who lost one or more. That must be even more emotionally excoriating and I can't even begin to fathom that pain. Nothing can ever replace that child or fill the emotional void left in its place and, if it was an only child, it might simply be too painful to have another one. That's when the empty nursery gets turned into a home office or a craft area and the perfect opportunity to adopt a pet.

The notion of pet parents--these pitiful perpetrators of vainglorious acts of mass asininity--is beyond reproach in any other case. The scariest, saddest part though is that many of these people actually have children. That's the most addling aspect to me--the fact that that filial void doesn't exist for these people and yet they still feel the need to self-aggrandize. Then again, that just speaks to the zeitgeist of social media--the emotional sweet that is slowly rotting our souls leaving behind an aching cavity and some crumbs in our facial hair.

It's become anathema simply to be a pet owner; what once was the norm is now an atavistic endeavor shunned by the masses in favor of something a little glossier. People nowadays say shit like, "my pets are my children" without ever considering the lunacy of their ludicrous proclamations. No, actually, they are not your children. Biologically speaking, do they share your D.N.A.? Did they spend time in your womb?

"Well, adopted children are still children and they don't fit those criteria," you might say and you would be right. But the difference is that those adopted human children count as dependents on your taxes, must engage in some sort of compulsory education, and, most importantly, they will someday (potentially) join society by gaining employment, moving out, and beginning their own families.

You're so hellbent on proving that your pets are your children? Fine. Let them tend to your needs when you're an invalid.

The one overarching reason why pets can never be your children is this: you can walk into any pet store and buy a replacement if yours gets flattened by a moving van or dies of old age at fifteen. All it takes is cash or credit to have your very own Snowball II or Santa's Little Helper the Second.

The saddest part of all of this is that there are many, many children who would benefit from adoption. These kids would enjoy a very real rescuing from the foster-care system and would provide far more emotional fulfillment than a pet; the problem is that they require more out of you in every way possible. And isn't that the central issue in all of this? People don't want to be challenged anymore: they want the most amount of reward for the least amount of effort and commitment. No one wants to earn anything and in-so-doing they are losing everything there is to be gained through the process; they want the physique without the aching muscles.

People will take whatever ego stroking they can get whether it's Facebook likes or nods of approval and adulation for their saccharine car magnets. They would rather portray themselves as valiant heroes and heroines worthy of your praise for essentially buying an animal. It makes me sick and it leaves me wondering what the hell is next in this cesspool of absurdity--our throwaway culture that overvalues the most evanescent moments of panegyrical praise while turning a blind eye to the ugly emptiness in their own hearts and the fact that they simply aren't as important as they've been made to feel.

It's only a matter of time before adopted children start being referred to as rescues; by then, will we all be beyond saving?

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Asininity or the American Obsession with Fireworks

Professionally prepared and launched fireworks displays bear a certain mystical aura that resonates with the very core of our American identity: the majestic sights and sounds of light exploding in the twilit sky hearken back to the unrest and conflict that led to the birth of our great nation. The sensory overload that accompanies such a display evokes deep rooted emotions that are indelibly linked to our national anthem, which, unsurprisingly, often serves as the sonic backdrop for fireworks shows along with other patriotic tunes. Such shows are at once awe-inspiring and enthralling, captivating onlookers with their dazzling demonstrations of vibrant variegation and thunderous din.

Small scale fireworks, however, are fucking asinine.

Since I was a kid, I've been unable to understand the allure of fireworks for people. To me, the appeal must be to the most basic, primal pleasure portions of the brain favored only by the heaviest of mouth-breathers and knuckle-draggers. Most fireworks simply make a loud noise and an evanescent burst of light--both of which could be easily attained, say, by dropping pots and pans onto the floor from some height or rapidly flipping a light switch on and off. Ironically, I feel like people who are entertained by small scale fireworks would be equally enraptured with the aforementioned pastimes.

Maybe it's the danger aspect of it that gets people going. Sure you might wind up with sore toes dropping the pans but there's no real risk of losing any digits nor is there a true chance of suffering debilitating burns by the intense heat of an exploding firework when one diddles a light switch. People knowingly endanger themselves for some sort of cheap thrill all the time (B.A.S.E. jumping or running with the bulls for example) and though I understand that and can even appreciate it to a certain extent, when it comes to fireworks I just can't wrap my mind around the derivation of enjoyment. I guess it's the same thing with riding really loud motorcycles but at least with that the rides often look awesome and you're doing something marginally productive.

Nearly everyone I know has had a close call with fireworks or has suffered some sort of injury as a result of mishandling them. When I was little, someone shot off a bottle rocket from our yard and it went through my great aunt's window across the street and lodged in the back of her television set; it didn't explode until it was in the TV. Perhaps you can piece together why that would be a problem (unless you're a fan of fireworks in which case please continue staring at your feet in wonder). Fireworks lead to property damage and utterly gruesome injuries but offer little in the way of offsetting positivity.

Poor judgment leads to most of the negative situations people find themselves in when it comes to fireworks--something that has an alarmingly high occurrence rate. Case in point, barely a week ago on the Fourth I was sitting on the beach with my 10 month old son playing in a small pool of water as the tide rolled in when three teenage boys came walking towards us. One kept playing with a lighter and eventually set off a small firecracker when they were still some distance off. My wife urged me to scoop up our son and bring him over to her but I wanted to give the kids the benefit of the doubt thinking foolishly that they would exercise at least a modicum of sound judgment; they did not. As they approached the other end of the small pool of water that I sat in with my son, the same kid lit another firework and dropped it into the water presumably to see if it would explode and make a splash.

Take a second to let that sink in: twenty feet from a ten month old child this kid dropped a lit firecracker into a pool of water to see what would happen.

Saying nothing of the fact that this genetic defect could have dropped it, oh, I don't know, into the fucking ocean that was right behind him where no one happened to be swimming, this kid thought absolutely nothing about the fact that he was lighting what is essentially a highly explosive device within feet of an infant. One might be tempted to chalk it up to his age and immaturity but I won't. Teenagers often exercise a disconcerting lack of judgement but when it comes to fireworks adults are just as bad if not worse. Teens and toddlers both exist in this id-driven, myopic state so in a sense I wouldn't expect the kid to have utilized what common sense he had available to him...but it didn't stop me from lighting him up for endangering me and my kid.

Many people seem incapable of understanding that the risk associated with fireworks simply isn't worth it, including, apparently, an alarming number of professional athletes. Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants had a finger amputated along with suffering several severe injuries as a result of a fireworks accident over the weekend. Not to be outdone, Tampa Bay Buccaneers' cornerback C.J. Wilson lost two fingers in his respective incident.

Whether or not the loss of the phalanges will impact their careers remains to be seen but I can't help but wonder why anyone would waste their time with such an inordinate amount of risk for such a disproportionate amount of pleasure or entertainment.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

LeBron's Legacy

I am a nearly lifelong, diehard Miami Heat fan and I couldn't be happier for LeBron James this morning. Though I'd undeniably prefer to be rooting for my favorite team in the NBA Finals, I'm content to root for LeBron and will be pulling hard for him to bring a title to Cleveland. In a perverse way, it's almost better that it's the Cavs and not the Heat vying for this year's title; the response to LeBron's departure by a number of Heat fans was not only inexcusable but mortifying as well. The behavior exhibited by a slew of South Beach knuckleheads served only to worsen the opinion of the general public towards a fan base that's already derided for being fair weather and only cursorily interested in their team's games. Way to go, clowns.

My rooting for LeBron in no way lessens my Heat loyalty; if anything, it is deepening the respect that I have for one of sports' most polarizing figures. I wasn't a LeBron fan during his first stint in Cleveland but I didn't hold his reputation against him either. He was thrilling to watch but there was nothing in his game or his mien that made me want to include him in my very small group of favorite athletes.

Truth-be-told, when he announced with the Decision I was initially more excited by the fact that he wasn't going to the Knicks than I was with the fact that he signed with the Heat. I had zero expectations in terms of what sort of impact he would have on my all-time favorite sports franchise but the disappointment that his selection rendered in Knicks fans brought me almost as much joy as a championship. The New York Knicks have the single most schizophrenic fan base in all of sports: they are at once fair weather (the Garden is a ghost town when the Knicks are irrelevant) but incredibly pompous and high-flown in their opinion of their preferred team. Basically, they have the overblown self-confidence of Yankees fans only with about 1/14th the number of titles.

See, people seem to forget that about the Knicks: they're as mediocre as they get when it comes to sports franchises. I constantly hear the Garden referenced as "The Mecca" of sports. Really? If so then it's for a) events unrelated to the Knicks or b) events that happened to the Knicks (remember that season where LeBron and Kobe each dropped 50+ on them? Mecca indeed). As referenced in a post from a few years ago, the Knicks, Rangers, and Mets are almost exactly even across the board in terms of championships, championship round appearances, overall records, number of winning seasons, and number of playoff seasons. The Mets are the laughable, loveable losers of the sports world and the Knicks with nearly identical statistics are somehow the creme de la creme of franchises? Give me a break.

Thus LeBron's flight to Miami. It was a humbling moment for the Knicks and their fans--the first in a number of much needed doses of reality. It was a huge, "Thanks but no thanks moment"--and the first since Pat Riley's departure nearly a decade and a half earlier. Of course, in true Knicks fashion, they wind up getting Carmelo Anthony midway through the 2010-2011 season and Knicks fans rejoiced. Using their superpowers of delusion they managed to convince themselves somehow that 'Melo was just as good--no, wait--even BETTER than LeBron and that he was their ticket to Title Town.

How's that working out for you guys?

The differences between LeBron and Carmelo are legion but the only one that matters is this: LeBron has a sense of where he came from and players like 'Melo don't. Sure Carmelo "grew up" in New York (he spent his first eight years here before actually growing up in Baltimore) but he didn't re-sign with the Knicks to bring a championship to a title starved city--he did it to line the Carmelo coffers. Sure he could've bolted to another city that would give him a much better chance to win...but he didn't. Instead, he took more cash while simultaneously using the opportunity to run a ruse on Knicks fans. Ironically, the fact that he all but ensured that he wouldn't be winning proved to be a win-win for him: he got the most money he could AND he was able to avoid taking a public heat by returning to the Knicks.

Classic 'Melo.

I bring all of this up not to rub salt into the wounds but rather to provide a counterpoint to LeBron's experience. LeBron did exactly what Carmelo Anthony didn't have the stones or the ambition to: he chased championships instead of money and exposed himself to the most heated hatred perhaps ever levied upon a professional athlete. That's not to say that LeBron wasn't compensated for that decision but more to highlight the fact that, for all that he gained, something was indelibly lost in the process--something that money and even titles couldn't buy.

I remember going to the bagel store last year while wearing my White Hot Heat LeBron jersey. The guy behind the counter asked me if I thought that LeBron was going to leave Miami to go to Cleveland. I scoffed at the idea and said that if he wanted more titles that he'd be crazy to do so, asserting that he would stay in Miami at least until his contract was up and then potentially re-sign for a year or two before going back to Cleveland; I was wrong on both counts. What I underestimated was how much value he placed on what was lost--that ineffable sense of self that would forever be tied up in the wine and gold of the Cavaliers and not the similar but undeniably different shades of the Heat.

When LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh got on stage shortly after The Decision and pranced around like it was a rock show, I realized that something big was happening. After a lifetime of disappointment as a sports fan, I felt the nascent stirrings of excitement and, worse, hope beginning to build. I was 3 when the Mets won the title in '86, I endured all of those awful losses to the Knicks as a Heat fan and the Giants as a Vikings fan in the '90s and early '00s, I watched John Kasay kick the Panthers' chance of a Super Bowl victory literally out of bounds, and I watched Brett Favre literally throw the Vikings' chance of a Super Bowl berth into the hands of Tracy Porter. The lone meaningful championships came in '06 when the Heat beat the Mavericks and in '07 when the Ducks beat Ottawa but I was on a road trip and missed the Miami victory and didn't manage to watch most of the Ducks' victories as I was gearing up for my wedding in 2007. If LeBron managed to make good on his promise then this would shape up to be something special.

During that first season in Miami, I experienced a lot of theretofore unknown things as a sports fans--things that became apparent rather quickly. I became a Heat fan because of the Knicks (when I was little I had read about Muggsy Bogues in some magazine and I happened to be the same height as him. It sparked my hoop dreams and gave me hope that if he could make it in the league then perhaps someday I could too. It caused me to root for the Hornets for a few years. They made the playoffs with high expectations only to be taken down by the Knicks. My heart had been ripped out of my chest and I vowed that whoever played the Knicks next would have my undying support. It wound up being Miami and the rest is history) and I suffered most of my most agonizing moments as a sports fan because of them (::cough:: Allan Houston ::cough::).

I was never really paid any mind for being a Miami fan in Brooklyn because the Knicks were still relevant and the Heat basically weren't; we were the kid brother trying to be admired to the same degree as our big brother. No one ever really talked about Miami and most people, if anything, were bemused or confused by my fandom. As a result (and outside of the few epic playoffs clashes between the Heat and Knicks), I never really dealt with taking any flak from people for being a Heat fan.

That all changed in 2010.

All of a sudden, EVERYONE had an opinion on the Heat. Suddenly there were bandwagon fans everywhere rocking gear that, to that point, I saw only myself wearing. On the flip side, there were people who vehemently hated not just LeBron but the Heat as well. Conversations abounded that were constantly putting me on the defensive; suddenly, I felt like I was on trial simply for rooting for my favorite sports franchise. It pissed me off that I was thought to be another newfound fan when, for all intents and purposes, they were the first team that I really genuinely thought of as "my team"--a moment that came almost fifteen years before LeBron's arrival.

As pathetic as it sounds, I willingly lost friendships over the vitriol that spewed forth locally from jealous Knicks fans who were at once spurned and out for blood. They didn't just want LeBron to fail but Miami as a whole. Suddenly the Knicks' dominance over the Heat from the late '90s was everywhere as the scabs from the Pat Riley-inflicted wounds were picked off. Every misstep by Miami was mocked--every failure put on display. Friends that never spoke a word to me about Miami were riding me over every little thing and, unsurprisingly, few had the maturity to handle my retorts (Knicks fans are notoriously soft-skinned in that regard). I drew a line in the sand and prepared for all that was to come.

All of the hatred served only to solidify further my connection to and appreciation for the Heat. Basketball has always been my outlet--the court my safe-haven. There were some years where rooting for Miami got me through some awful times, as pathetic as that is. There's an inexplicable bond that I have both with the sport of basketball and Miami as a team that will not only never be broken--it will serve always to define me. I was an outsider in my own hometown--a situation that I've faced and felt in many other aspects of my life as well. With this circumstance though there was the chance of a positive, fulfilling outcome: a championship and all that came with it.

The hate worsened throughout the 2010-2011 season and I dug my heels in. I still wasn't a LeBron fan but seeing all of the absolutely mind-blowing level of contempt that even the most casual sports follower had for him made me want to root for him. I was obviously thrilled when they made the Finals that year but part of me wasn't entirely unhappy that they lost; LeBron's cocksure attitude made it hard for me to root for him. His words made it seem like he felt not just entitled to a championship but that it would be hand-delivered to him. I didn't appreciate that as a Heat fan--not with all of the work Dwyane Wade had put in through the years--the ups and downs that he endured. I knew that he "got it" but LeBron? I wasn't so sure.

The ensuing two seasons are the ones that ultimately sold me on LeBron. What he did and how he changed not only his game but his entire mental attitude made me root for him big time. I was elated when they won the first one because it finally silenced the haters and then the second one managed finally to quell the talk about legacy. I thought for sure that they would get the three peat but they didn't and I think fate had a lot to do with that.

Professional wrestling offers the best analogue to what LeBron experienced. There are the good guys (faces) and the bad guys (heels). Which performers fall into which category is obviously scripted but there's an undeniable personal element to the level of success they attain in their given roles. Essentially, certain guys are born to be bad while others will never be as popular as when they're the good guy. I think of Bret Hart and the Rock as two guys who could jump the fence on a moment's notice--effortlessly going from the people's champion to the villain and back. Others, however, are incapable of doing so: they thrive in one role but simply can't handle the other.

LeBron James is one of those guys.

I noticed it during his second season with the Heat. It was obvious not just that he didn't anticipate the level of venom that would be directed at him following the Decision but that he wasn't prepared to handle it. He tried to embrace his role as a villain but it just wasn't him--it didn't fit. Sure he absolutely destroyed opposing teams but that's because he took as constructive approach as possible to solving the situation. He used the negativity as motivation to get better figuring that, by improving, he would silence his critics with his play. Essentially, that's exactly what happened but it was clear by the end of the 2012-2013 season that LeBron simply wasn't comfortable or as happy as he thought he would be: he had gotten what he wanted in the titles but it wasn't everything he thought it would be. Something was missing and it wasn't until last year that he seemingly figured it out.

He needed to win a title back home.

I'm a big believer in soul mates--the idea of "the one." I'm fortunate to feel like I have found mine and I know what such a bond and a relationship means; it's indescribable to anyone else who hasn't experienced it. In part though it makes everything that you do that much better--all of the positive moments that much sweeter. For LeBron, his soul is in Cleveland. He thought that he wanted the legacy--the chance to win not five, not six, not seven championships--but what he really wanted was to do that for his city--something that Miami would never be. South Beach is the place that Wade built and it will forever belong to #3; in order for LeBron to etch out his own immortality, he would have to head back to Northeast Ohio.

And so, last year, when he released the letter saying that he was going home I was stunned and stung but not angry. I felt hurt as a Heat fan; it was as if I had just been broken up with, asking and wondering what went wrong--what was it about me that wasn't good enough for him anymore. But then I realized that it had nothing to do with the Heat or the city of Miami; it was always about Cleveland.

Legacy has a lot to do with it too. I'm sure LeBron wants to be considered the best ever but that's an unwinnable argument. For one, there is no surefire, clear-cut winner in that department. Essentially, it all comes down to what criteria you're using: if it's number of championships then Bill Russell is the greatest of all time--if it's points scored then it's Kareem. Those two rarely come up in the conversation of the best ever though so there must be some other definable quality that makes a player "the best." I think that dominance has a lot to do with it but it's not the endgame either. Wilt was the most dominant player of all time but the competition wasn't up to his level both figuratively and anatomically and so that hurts him. Shaq, by comparison, was the biggest guy on the court pretty much all the time and he won four titles with two different teams including three in a row with the Lakers...but he had "help," which, again, hurts his claim. I would argue that he was the most dominant player on his team but he had Kobe and later Dwyane Wade backing him up.

We've got a few ingredients laid out with utter certainty though: in order to be the absolute greatest of all time you have to be dominant, statistically exclusive, and have championships. I think that the solution to the rings argument is simply that a player has to have, among several other things, an above average number of titles. I'd say at least three but probably four to be considered for GOAT status. Jordan is the one that everyone seems to judge others by and his number is six. Kobe has five and so does Duncan so they're close but not close enough for most. The thing with MJ though is that his greatness transcends his dominance, his statistics, and his championships. Michael Jordan never made it to a fourth consecutive Finals but that's because he retired twice after the three peats; who knows what would have happened had he stayed for those two middle seasons?

To me, and many others, Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player ever to play the game. He was the most dominant player of his time (think about how many other phenomenal all-time greats failed to win a title because of MJ!) going to six NBA Finals, winning all six NBA titles, and being awarded all six NBA Finals MVPs. Yes Russell won more championships (eleven in total including eight straight) but he did so at a time when the competition, again, wasn't up to snuff. Jordan is at or near the top of many offensive statistical categories and was an impressive defender in his own right. Sure Wilt and Oscar Robertson had better career stats but there is an intangible aspect to MJ that puts him head and shoulders above them. To me, THAT'S the defining quality of the Greatest of All Time: legacy.

Michael Jordan's legacy is unsurpassed in all of sports. He became the face of his sport and helped it to transcend globally. He's arguably the single most recognizable figure in the history of sports (I'd wager that more people from other countries would recognize Jordan as the Jordan logo than they would Jerry West as the NBA logo). He engendered interest in basketball on an incomprehensible level and spawned entire generations of future hall of famers simply because of his own renown (LeBron being included among them). Michael Jordan is synonymous with basketball the way that Wayne Gretzky is with hockey and Pele with soccer; those guys aren't merely the faces of their respective sports--they are the embodiments of them.

And so on to LeBron's legacy. His dominance is beginning to reach Jordanian levels. He's going to his fifth consecutive NBA Finals and in the process has prevented a number of future all-time-greats from getting rings while owning particularly successful franchises in the process (the Bulls and the Pacers among them). He's a far more diversely skilled player than Jordan was combining Michael's scoring prowess with Magic's passing ability and possibly surpassing Wilt's defensive capabilities. He can play and can defend all five positions on the floor at an elite level--something that very few players can claim and something that, I believe, Michael Jordan cannot. A win this season would give him what I consider an above average number of championships but it would be this one that I believe will define him.

See, right now, he's the John Elway of basketball. Elway went 2-3 in five Super Bowls--LeBron is presently 2-3 in five NBA Finals appearances. Michael Jordan and Joe Montana line up and, naturally, are considered the respective bests in their sports (Montana won four Super Bowls with three Super Bowl MVPs) but the ones that Elway won meant more. If Elway's titles came at the beginning of his career a la Tom Brady then they wouldn't have meant nearly as much. He and the city of Denver suffered collectively for them finally winning them back to back before Elway marched off into the sunset; LeBron is now trying to do the same for his hometown.

It's easy to overestimate the importance of sports (after all--we refer to athletes as warriors and the sports arena as war when they are both anything but) but its importance shouldn't be devalued either. I can speak first hand about what it meant for "my team" to win it all. Oddly enough, LeBron's years in Miami coincided with the best years thus far of my personal life and I associate so many good memories with what was going on in basketball at the time. I watched the Heat win their second title but LeBron's first in 2012 and then, early the next afternoon, I went with my wife to close on our first house. The very next year I sat outside in our yard with a glass of Jack in my hand at 3:30 in the morning too amped up to sleep celebrating the second title back-to-back. And though they didn't win it all last year, I enjoyed an early Father's Day present when I flew down to Miami for Game 3 of the Finals; it was the first time in my life I got to root for my favorite team in an environment where the support was almost unanimously geared towards them.

I remember all of those things that happened around the time of the championships but I also remember exactly how it felt; it's one of those things that I'll hopefully someday tell my grandkids about. It was an exhilarating concoction of excitement and vindication--pride and giddy glee. I'll never forgot how much it meant to me--how much it still means today--and because of that fact I understood why LeBron decided to return home. It's also why I didn't fault him for a second and why I was so livid and disappointed in the Heat fans who were burning his jersey and t-shirts. There is exactly one thing that Miami Heat fans should be towards LeBron James and it's appreciative. The four years that we had with him on our team are likely the best we'll ever enjoy. He didn't rip our collective hearts out like he did with Cleveland and he didn't fail us in his quest for a championship--quite the opposite, in fact. Because of him we were thrust into the limelight for nearly a half decade--a perpetual ride of attention and conjecture. There's also the four consecutive Finals' berths and two titles back-to-back. You don't burn that man's jersey--you hang it on your wall if you're a Heat fan.

Knowing how much those four years meant to me, I can only imagine how much more it would mean to the people of Cleveland for LeBron to win them a title. LeBron certainly understands it though because he is one of them. Being a Heat fan transcended the sports arena and entered my personal life--hell, it helped to form my very identity. My first-born son is named after my all-time favorite Heat player and my third born will be having a Miami Heat birthday party when he turns one later this summer. I bought my daughter a pink Heat jersey at Game 3 of the Finals that she wears with pride often for days on end. It doesn't matter to her that Miami isn't playing right now: she's just excited to root for her "Hot Hot Heat."

It's all about legacy. I hope that my kids will be lifelong Heat fans but I won't stand in their respective ways of rooting for whatever teams capture their hearts. My oldest son is still a Heat fan but he's a LeBron fan first. He hounded me for months to buy him a Cavs jersey beginning almost immediately after LeBron announced he was going home. He was bummed at first that he left the Heat but, in his mind, there was only one thing to do: cheer for the Cavs.

And that's what I'm doing too. I'll never consider myself a Cleveland Cavaliers fan but I'm "All In" for #23.

Thanks for the memories in Miami, LeBron, and good luck in the Finals.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Band Evolution Versus A Complete Departure In Sound

I've heard some people say that you should never listen to a band beyond their third album.  Fortunately, I rarely follow absolutes and have seen many instances of bands hitting their stride later in their careers.  Many if not most modern bands wind up being one hit wonders with either a smash hit single or, if they're lucky, an album rife with solid material; it is when they release their sophomore efforts that they begin to fade slowly into the ether (The Calling and Crossfade are two great examples).  Some manage to repeat their success and have either a remunerative followup or simply sustained support with a string of solid singles later on (The Wallflowers, Goo Goo Dolls, and Vertical Horizon).  Fewer, of course, are those who write an unforgettable album--one that assures them a spot in music history--but who fail to find that magic a second time (Nine Inch Nails' "The Downward Spiral" is one of the most amazing albums ever written but, despite Trent Reznor's musical brilliance, he's failed to write anything remotely comparable to that opus).  Fewest are the bands who craft not simply a great album but a legendary one and who go on to duplicate that fame and fortune later in their careers.

Bands who manage to create a sustainable writing career often do so with a particular sound--something that they are recognized for instantly and that serves to define them.  They become the best at what they do, which ultimately proves to be a double-edged sword: they grow to be inextricably linked with a particular genre and set themselves up for failure should they try to break free of those classifications.  Some manage to find success by working within the confines of their genre but many others struggle to break free, often to their own detriment.

There are numerous instances of bands with an identifiable sound resorting to a formulaic approach.  To an extent, every album sounds the same and there is little evidence of the band pushing musical boundaries.  Nickelback is arguably the best example of this approach.  It's not unreasonable to declare that every Nickelback album sounds the same because, essentially, they all do.  There are a few heavier tracks, the requisite (see: money making) ballads, an oddball acoustic track here or there, and a slew of filler.  Of course, the Nickelback sound is not limited to the actual music but the lyrics as well.  Nearly every song is about sex or is sexualized to some degree and few if any have any remotely memorable quality to them.  That is not to say that the songs and their words are not catchy just that there is nothing redeemable about them.  On the contrary, it's Nickelback's infectious sound that has generated the insane level of success that they have enjoyed over the past decade.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are bands who suffer from musical A.D.D..  Their sound is mercurial at best, shifting constantly either from one song or one album to the next.  Weezer is emblematic of this approach but in their case it works to their advantage; Rivers Cuomo's inability to sit still, musically, is part of what Weezer fans love about the music.  The problem with this approach, consequently, is that there is no rhyme or reason to the albums and thus no stability.  Fans of these bands rarely if ever know what they are going to get and many often lose patience and interest in the long run.

Arguably the most successful and interesting bands are those who will dabble within the parameters of a particular style, branch off to something different but still related, and ultimately make a return to the sound that made them famous, putting a new spin on it that only years of experience and experimentation can provide.  The first band that jumps to mind that fits this description is Metallica.  The metal mogul's first few albums were quintessential thrash, even following a particular formula (e.g. the mega-hit, the Em based song, and the instrumental track).  There was an evolution of sorts towards a cleaner, more listener-friendly sound that culminated with The Black Album.  From there, though, things got a little bumpy with the release of Load, ReLoad, and then St. Anger.  These three albums serve as the experimental members of the Metallica canon, causing derision and division among longtime fans of the band.  A return to form with Death Magnetic gave the sleeping giant new life as the much anticipated followup album looms in the distance.

Part of what rubbed people raw about the aforementioned Load and ReLoad is the fact that both seemed like a huge departure from the sound that made Metallica famous.  As a music fan and musician myself, I find this point highly salient and love contemplating the question that it engenders: when does a band's evolution become a complete departure in sound?  For me, I would say that the answer lies in the motivation behind the change and in the execution.  Many rock bands are releasing albums that are heavily influenced by electronic sounds and are incorporating elements of styles like Dubstep.  Again, for me, this seems more like a pathetic effort to stay relevant and to cash in on a current trend rather than a form of evolution for the band.  That's not to say that there aren't instances of brilliance but rather that most do not seem to jive with the band's identity to that point.

Evolution, of course, is a slippery slope when it comes to music.  I cannot say with any degree of certainty where evolution ends and experimentation begins; it is something that needs to be determined by the individual listener.  I find bands like Incubus and Linkin Park to be excellent examples of evolution gone awry.  With regards to the former, most fans who encountered Incubus with their album S.C.I.E.N.C.E. have hated everything since because of how different the sound is.  Ordinarily, that would represent less of an evolution and more of the aforementioned departure but in this case I think it's a little more nuanced than that.  Incubus was heavily influenced by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and, having gained confidence in themselves from the commercial viability of S.C.I.E.N.C.E., they wanted to establish themselves in their own right rather than being labeled an R.H.C.P. ripoff. 

What followed were four of my favorite albums and the core of the Incubus canon.  Make Yourself was phenomenal and is an album that demonstrates extensive musicianship despite being written off as another piece of nu-metal garbage.  Morning View, the followup to Make Yourself, is one of if not the greatest album I've ever heard and is a clear evolution from its predecessor.  A Crow Left of the Murder and Light Grenades, in turn, are easily linkable to the other two albums despite showing considerable changes in sound.  There are fewer heavier tracks on the later albums but the complexity of the arrangements improved to an impressive degree. 

I absolutely abhor the latest album but many feel like it is yet another step forward.  I felt like the lyrics were insipid and that the music was uninspired.  To me, the heavy aspect of the music is part of what made Incubus great and to see it replaced with mellower, almost muzakian elements saddens me.  Still, as I see it, the band made one left turn after S.C.I.E.N.C.E. and has followed a relatively straight path since then without playing it too safe.

As someone whose introduction to Incubus came after S.C.I.E.N.C.E., I have an easier time appreciating all of the albums than someone who began with it.  An extremely latecomer to the world of Slipknot (I first became familiar with them in 2012), I have a similar appreciation for their body of work and can see a clear progression from their inimitable self-titled debut and their most recent effort.  Fans of the Slipknot and Iowa albums, though, often hold Vol. 3 and All Hope in Gone in disdain because of a lack of edge and aggression.  I see them both as being the pinnacle of their musicianship despite the aforementioned beginning efforts serving as their defining works.  So perhaps when you encounter a band might also influence the conclusion of evolution versus exploitation.

I can think of no better example of that exploitation argument than Linkin Park.  I was a huge LP fan when they came out and was with them right up until A Thousand Suns came out.  The first two albums were amazing and incredibly similar.  Not wanting to be pigeonholed as a rap rock band, Linkin Park then shifted towards a more mainstream rock sound with Minutes to Midnight.  For me, the focus on the musical instruments and the move away from the rap-centric tracks represented an evolution; the guys seemed to have grown as musicians.  The problem came with the fourth album, A Thousand Suns.

Experimental at best, A Thousand Suns took a long time to grow on me.  I can now appreciate it as an excellent album in its own right but I have a difficult time accepting it as part of the Linkin Park canon.  It sounds like nothing else that they've done and it just doesn't seem to fit among the collective of their work.  Thus the problem with that complete departure in sound.  See, I feel like an album like A Thousand Suns would fit in the canon if it was portrayed as being an intentional experiment--an album in its own right but one that was meant to serve as a pet project for the members rather than the next link on the album chain.  I can see a sort of bond between their most recent release, Living Things, and the first three albums but still do not feel like there is any relationship with A Thousand Suns. 

The band risks further alienating its fan base--one that is clamoring for a return to form of sorts--with its next release.  To date, Linkin Park has released two rap rock albums, one rock album, one ethereal experimental album, and one electronic album.  There is little relationship between the later works and the earlier ones and, frankly, it feels like the band is losing sight of who and what they really are.  That's the danger with too much experimentation within the brand of the band.

When a band is known for a very particular sound it can become extremely difficult to produce something new that doesn't sound stale and contrived.  Green Day became legends with the release of Dookie in the early '90s.  The problem for them was that they tried to stick to the pop punk formula without ever really hitting it big within the genre.  It wasn't until they released arguably their most prolific hit, "Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)" that the opportunity for evolution presented itself.  Suddenly, this high-energy punk band was known worldwide because of an acoustic guitar-based track (much like Plain White Ts with "Hey There Delilah" of recent fame).  They tried the Dookie formula one more time before drafting their magnum opus, American Idiot, in 2004.

Touching upon my initial point, that's precisely why you cannot give up on a band you love, even when it seems like all hope is lost.  Their legendary status solidifying album was their third but their best work to date didn't come until their seventh record.  And how did they follow that up?  With one of the most ingenious moves in music history: they released an even more different-sounding album under a fake name.  This deflected the insane level of expectation that American Idiot generated and allowed the band to write another phenomenal album (though one that I admittedly dislike).  Rocking the boat one more time, they followed THAT up with three record releases in a single year.  Granted, none of the triad was particularly good but it shows that the band is not content to rest on their laurels.

And then there are the Foo Fighters.  Easily my favorite band of all time, the Foos are fronted by one of the most brilliant musical minds we've ever seen.  How do you follow the demise of one of the most beloved, successful bands of all-time?  You go out and do your own thing.  The honesty of the first Foo Fighters album showed that Dave Grohl was not content to cash in on the fame of his previous band but was intent instead on blazing a new trail for himself.

Here's the great thing about the Foo Fighters: they have an instantly identifiable sound but one that is not easy to define.  I can hear a single note and know that it's from a Foo Fighters album and, in some cases, if it's a b-side, know which album it was connected to.  The band's sophomore album featured numerous tracks of which any single one could have made their career and was followed up by two more excellent albums.  The danger at that point though was releasing another record like numbers three or four.  Instead, what followed was the best example of musical evolution I've ever encountered.

After penning There Is Nothing Left To Lose and its mega hit "Times Like These," Dave Grohl decided to flex his musical muscles and to demonstrate both his and his band members' instrumental prowess.  The band released In Your Honor, a gargantuan album almost unrivaled in its scope.  One disc was electric-based, heavy, uptempo rock while the second featured stripped down, sparer acoustic tracks, exclusively.  The collective serves to define who the Foo Fighters are with each disc standing alone as its own incredible album.

On the heels of In Your Honor came Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace--a sleek, slick studio effort that produced some of the band's most popular songs.  Not content to craft another polished record despite its success, Dave Grohl and company then went to work on the quintessential, career-defining album Wasting Light.  Recorded analog instead of digitally, in a garage instead of a multimillion dollar studio, this album stands as the band's crowning achievement.  Heavy, soft, complex, catchy, it has all of the elements of the perfect album...and the scary part is, when the Foos finally lay down their instruments for good, it might not even prove to be their best.

And that's just it.  You can never count a band out no matter what changes they make if it's a part of their evolution.  The ones who try to ride on the coattails of current trends will ultimately fail if that's the only thing that they do; it's those who draw from those experiences in an effort to sharpen their definition further that will ultimately succeed.  The best bands, then, have an easily identifiable sound--one that varies but never completely changes as they move forward through their careers--and an insatiable desire to push themselves to new musical heights without selling out to the lowest popular denominator.  They release extremely different music as EPs or side projects without tainting their legacy.  And, ultimately, they find their way back to who they are if ever they lose sight along the way.

Linkin Park, Foo Fighters, Green Day, Incubus, Slipknot