Thursday, June 9, 2016

Makin' America Great Again

This political season has validated every antipathic, misanthropic inkling that I've ever had and, in my opinion, represents the lowest point our country has faced in a long, long time. Some people scoff at the pervasive platitude that's dominated the scene: Make America Great Again! The sad part is that it's absolutely true--only not for the reasons most people think. In many cases, it's the very people who are perpetuating that phrase who are imbuing it with its truth. Worse, what they're really saying is, "Make America White Again!"

So much of what we deal with in modern American society stems from a centuries' old class struggle. Racism, in many instances, is generated from class conflict--sexism too. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people touting one candidate or another this year screaming about how there are people who are struggling economically in this country. They're right but the problem is how many of them use the word "we" in their cries.

It's time for some truth: the odds are that most of us have no idea what it means to struggle--truly to suffer on a daily basis. So many of the people who are whining about the 1% and the 99% don't realize that they're a part of the latter only because it's a lump sum, catch-all statistic. Really, they're a hell of a lot closer to the 49% or higher. I'm sorry but many of these people need a wake up call--especially the ones using social media platforms as perches for their feel-good rhetoric.

"We" are struggling? Really? And you posted this on Facebook, yes? Did you do so from your smart phone? I'll bet you did. And where were you at the time? Was it a Starbucks? A Panera Bread? Your apartment that costs somewhere between $1,100 and $2,100 a month?

So many of the people spewing the above are white and in their twenties. They might not have a ton of money but, kid, that ain't struggling! It's called being young and starting out. But if you happen to be white, well, it's also called having a leg up.

I had an epiphany recently where I realized that so much racism on the part of white people stems from schisms in economic beliefs and the consequent involvement of government but it really comes down to shared economic situations. I'm thinking of the blue-collar, middle or lower-middle class white men who are working 60, 80, or 100 hours a week to make ends meet. Sure, their families have some nice things but they're also drowning in debt to procure those creature comforts. They're consigned to a life of hard labor, they're tired, and so they're resentful. See--they look at government relief programs--welfare and the like--as opportunities for the lazy to loaf--to leech off of their hard work and at the expense of their time and energy.

What these people fail to understand is that the people who truly need such assistance are in the same financial situation as them or worse! The odds are that they are also people of color thereby putting them in an even more disadvantageous position. How many times have I heard, "Just go get a job." It's not that easy, especially when you're not given the same access to educational opportunities and the framework that we, as white people, take for granted.

These people often balk at welfare and talk about the black families who need food stamps to feed their kids and then use the money they have to buy expensive sneakers for their kids. They scoff at this while having absolutely no understanding of what that circumstance means. Those Jordans aren't just an expensive pair of kicks--they're an existential declaration--a fleeting, evanescent sense of worth in a society that denigrates and oppresses them--that fears them, all while devaluing their very identities. There's a reason that many poor, urban residents place such a heavy emphasis on appearances--the clothes on their backs and the sneakers on their feet--but too many white people refuse to put in the effort necessary to understand that. It's a way of saying: we're here and we're worthy of being here.

For the dominant social, political, and economic race, white people sure are a fearful bunch. Granted, the fear is primarily of losing that power but the inherent xenophobia stems, perhaps ironically, from an utter lack of interaction with other people. So many of the white people that I know live whitewashed existences utterly encapsulated and devoid of meaningful interaction not just with people of color but with communities of color. Making small talk with the black cashier or the Asian coworker doesn't equate with exposure; true understanding and empathy comes only with immersion--something that makes white people inherently uncomfortable.

I'll give them the benefit of the doubt--that the reticence to move beyond the invisible color boundaries comes from a place of fearful ignorance--of the unsettling unknown that such communities represent. The sad part is that, were they to interact with these communities, SO many of those misconceptions would disintegrate and they'd realize that so many of their own struggles are shared if not magnified by people of color. Plus, so many of these cultures are totally welcoming to outsiders, in large part because of the systemic bigotry that they face: in the face of oppression they are forced to rally around themselves, relying on the strength of their communities to create and to maintain their identities.

I'll never forget the time my best friend and I undertook an epic bike ride from south Brooklyn all the way up practically to the Bronx. It was a seventy mile ride in total and it was my first time going through areas that I had only heard of but the seminal moment came with an unexpected encounter with a Dominican festival. We were on the return leg of our journey when we passed through a park with a huge party going on. Some kids were looking over a flat on their bike and so my buddy and I stopped to try to help. The generosity of these people engendered by a simple act of kindness on our part was humbling. They offered us food--invited us to join their party. As a Hispanic himself, my buddy was used to such encounters but for me, coming from a place where diversity meant Irish AND Italian, it was a revelation; it was also merely the first of many eye-opening cultural encounters.

The problem, primarily, is that whites are oblivious to their own privilege. Sometimes it's willful ignorance but in many cases it's really just that it's never been pointed out to them and they've never had the opportunity to consider it. I'm 33 years old and I've been discriminated against exactly twice. Twice! I remember both instances vividly. One was in Chinatown when I was in high school and I went to a store that had the old school Generation One Transformer action figures. I asked what the price was for one and the clerk quoted me something astronomical. I had a feeling that I was getting ripped off so I asked a friend who was Chinese to go in the next day (since he went to the area every day after school anyway) and ask about the same figure; he was quoted a price that was 60% lower.


I was pissed off about getting ripped off but it gave me pause. I considered the circumstance and realized that shit like that happens every day to people of certain cultures. Yeah, it sucked that the guy tried to dick me over and it made me feel really bad but then I thought of how much worse other people feel going into stores and being mistrusted--followed around or side-eyed because of the color of their skin or the type of clothes that they're wearing.

Suspicion.

That one word sums up so much of what people of color have to deal with and it's something that's almost totally foreign to white people. They've never imagined what it's like to be categorically questioned because of their aesthetic--to be stopped and frisked, or to have an eye kept on you in a store, or not to be given a fair chance in a job interview. It's sickening when you begin to realize that, for your entire life, you've had this privilege bestowed upon you and you never even knew it.

My wife is half Chinese and half Irish. One of my best friends is too and the other one is from El Salvador. I've seen and heard what they have had to deal with in their lives and it makes me hate not just the people that put them through that but myself too for sharing that ethnic background. I'm nothing like them and yet I have to bear the shame of that similarity.

Then again, that sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it? Looking like a group of people who behave in a particular manner and then, though you bear no association to them beyond physical appearance, you're automatically assumed to be just like them? You wear camouflaged pants and a hoodie so you must have been incarcerated, right? Or your eyes have a particularly exotic tilt to them so you must be good at math and computers?

Funny that the ones making these assumptions are almost always white.

It's easy for me to get caught up in that self-loathing but it's become easier to pull the plug on that pity party before it gets started because I understand now that it accomplishes nothing. It won't effect change and it certainly won't help me open any eyes to the root problem. All it does it make me feel better about my whiteness--about the fact that, though I'm one of them, that it reassures others that I'm not "one of them."


That sense of self-disgust was born in that other instance of discrimination in 2006. My wife and I were on a road trip going to the Four Corners Monument out west. We had called ahead and been told that there were vacancies at the one hotel in the one town nearby. When we arrived at around eleven that night, the proprietor just happened to be walking in just as I was approaching the door. She was a very old Native American woman and when I asked her about the vacancies she looked me dead in the face and said there were none. I could see in her eyes that she was lying but that wasn't the only thing that she was emitting. I debated about whether or not to press the issue and it was either give it a shot or sleep in the car so I told her that my wife had called earlier, had spoken to her, and had been told that there were rooms available. She hesitated for a minute, shook her head, and then motioned me inside.

For the first time, I realized what I represented to that woman and I was ashamed. Again, I realized that what I was feeling was just a drop in the bucket when compared with what so many of my friends have had to deal with in their lives. Years later, my wife, my buddies and I were staying at a cabin upstate and me and two of the guys decided to go out for a really, really late walk. It was desolate along the highway until all of a sudden we saw headlights. Partly for the thrill, we flung ourselves over the guardrail and down along the snowy embankment on opposite sides of the highway. A few seconds later, we see the red and blue lights flip on. A few seconds after that we hear the cop saying that he saw "them go that way."

Not long thereafter, I hear my two friends--both Hispanic--talking with the cop as he ran their IDs. I realized also that no one was looking for me. It's late, we're in a predominantly white part of New York State, and two Latino guys just got stopped by the cops. I didn't know what to do so I walked up to the street with my hands up and tried to get the cop's attention. He whipped around and his hand went immediately to his gun but then something terrible happened: he looked at me and relaxed. I can't help but wonder what the response would have been if I had been standing on the road and one of my buddies was the one who came up from his hiding spot.

The point is that so many white people haven't allowed themselves the exposure of moments like that--instances where the sweet facade of society is pulled back to reveal the ugly, sneering skin hiding beneath. They stand there and bitch about things like Black History Month and channels like BET or shows like Blackish, saying asinine things like: "We'd get killed if we asked for a White History Month or an all WHITE television channel without ever realizing the obvious truth: "HISTORY" is white! EVERY OTHER GODDAMN CHANNEL IS THE "WHITE" CHANNEL! Damn near every show that we grew up watching in the '80s and '90s were about white families with predominantly white characters!

Until more people open up their eyes and realize the true nature of things though nothing's going to change. There's more that makes us similar than there is that makes us different--we just need to promote more self-honesty, self-assessment, and critical examinations of the way society is structured, particularly in New York City and other multiethnic, urban environments. When we take ownership over our whiteness, how we are perceived in communities of color, and why we are perceive that way, then we can begin to engage in productive discussion.

The idea of reverse racism is also a common one shared by whites who are offended by the fact that they are viewed negatively by some people of color. The problem though is that there is no such thing as reverse racism--it's a feel-good fallacy that whites have invented to make themselves feel better about the umbrage directed towards them while still managing to ignore the root issue. Racism is inherently about power--it's prejudice based on a sense of superiority by the sociopolitically dominant race thereby diminishing the other, purportedly inferior race. So-called reverse racism is really just the oppressed letting you know that they've had enough of the bullshit and refuse to stand for it any longer.

All of this doesn't even touch the issue of sexism though, which is the one that has me the most heated right now. Part of me can almost understand genuine ignorance when someone holds viewpoints that they've been told are true about people they've never met before...but how the fuck can men discriminate so easily and freely against women!? I don't care who you are, EVERY male has had at least one strong female role model in his life! Everyone has a mother or a sister, an aunt, a grandmother, a teacher--SOMEONE who they can think of as a female figure that they respect.

I'm baffled by the fact that there is still the inequality that exists between male and female salaries--that women are still viewed as sexual objects who have to put the utmost care into their appearances while men can do whatever the fuck they want and wear whatever they want. People have been having conniption fits about Hillary Clinton's $12k ensemble but if Obama, Trump, McCain, hell--even BILL Clinton--had worn a $12k suit, no one would have said a goddamn thing.

And men who have daughters who perpetuate this shit? Ugh. It kills me.

I'm a father of three amazing kids who have the blessing and the burden of multicultural backgrounds. My daughter, in particular, is the one whose future I think of most often and most intensely. I've been fortunate to have had strong female presences in my life throughout my life: a phenomenally strong mother, sister, grandmothers, aunts, and cousins--none of whom kowtow to the societal expectations placed upon them. My mother sacrificed her corporate career to stay home and take care of me; my grandmother, too, raised eight children while still doing what she could with her employment. I look at these women and I think of the discrimination that so many of them have faced and continue to face simply because of their gender--the assumptions made because of how they look and dress--and it infuriates me. Then I think of my daughter and what her future could be like and it makes me absolutely fucking sick. I believe that we will make strides when it comes to resolving racial issues by the time she's in her golden years but I have absolutely zero faith that we will even put a dent in the gender inequalities that exist--it's simply too deep-rooted.


I want her not just to believe that she can be whatever she wants and do whatever she wants with her life but rather to have the unshakable confidence that, regardless of what stands in her way, that she will succeed. As her father, I want to tear down whatever obstacles she faces and yet I know that I can't because them I'm just perpetuating the myth that, in order for a woman to succeed, she needs a man's help. Instead, I have to sit back and bite my tongue, supporting her as she faces those struggles and suppress my anger, providing her with the encouragement to figure it out for herself and never to stop pursuing the things that she wants in her life. I want her not to be content to be a cheerleader (both literally and figuratively) but to want to be on the field or the court showing the boys how it's done. If she wants to be a cheerleader, or a dancer, or a gymnast, or whatever the typically female pursuit is then that's fine with me as long as it's what she wants because she wants it--not because "it's what girls do."


I realize now that so much of my mistrust of organized religion stems from its inherent, across-the-board misogyny. I don't understand how so many strong, smart, self-confident women can support these paternalistic practices that serve only to undermine and subvert their very identities. It scares me too that the dominant culture in our country is, at once, male, white, and Christian.

All I know is that we are in a bad, bad place in American history right now--stuck in the past as we look forward towards an uncertain future. The progressiveness of other nations--whether in terms of politics, economics, or race relations--is utterly foreign to us and that saddens me. We were once a shining beacon in the world--a place of refuge for so many--one that called out to and welcomed those who were struggling and gave them the opportunity to fulfill their dreams. Now, we're fighting amongst ourselves--squabbling on Facebook instead of having the face-to-face conversations necessary to understand each other. People unfriend and unfollow others with differing viewpoints with reckless abandon--homogenizing their newsfeeds and their walls without realizing the cost of what they're doing.

In a way, what's happening on Facebook is a microcosm of what's happening in the United States--the virtual is no longer the surrogate of but has instead supplanted reality thereby becoming the actual. If we can't even see the patterns in our behavior in this ephemeral world then how the hell can we possibly expect to take ownership over the ones in our everyday lives?

We'll never make America great again and make peace among us if people are utterly unwilling to turn a critical eye upon themselves as individuals and own their responsibilities as global citizens.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Why Fear The Walking Dead is Failing in its Mission (Spoilers within)

Please note that this entry contains potentially MAJOR spoilers for Fear the Walking Dead, The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad, LOST, and Better Call Saul. Please also note that this is entirely subjective in nature and is not intended to offend or inflame anyone who holds these shows near and dear.

I was thrilled when I first heard about a new companion show to The Walking Dead. For me, few programs have ever approached the amalgam of success that The Walking Dead has fostered and improved upon during its run on AMC. The characters are engrossing as they are written but even better are the performances by their respective actors; the dialogue is often meaningful and thought-provoking--the special effects and settings are inimitable; and the action sequences are among the best television has ever produced.

With that said, I had the highest of hopes for Fear the Walking Dead before it began and now, after the past few weeks of painful squirming, I feel like I am on the verge of tapping out. I can count the number of shows that I've bailed on on one hand, which makes this all the more disappointing. I don't watch a lot of television to begin with and so the shows that I watch I usually get behind early and remain an ardent supporter of even through their often untimely demises (Playmakers, Tilt, Invasion, Jericho, Firefly, and the Whispers to name but a few).

Upon further reflection, I feel like the overarching reason that spurs on my bowing out of viewership of a given show is simply this: a drastic departure from the initial driving conflict or style. The shows that hook me do so without any flashy gimmicks or over-the-top premises; instead, I find myself compelled to care about one thing or another--sometimes the characters, the circumstances they find themselves in, or even the time or setting of the show. When one or more of those things change for the worse then I find myself questioning whether or not I am wasting my time; I have reached that point with Fear the Walking Dead.

To provide a final preparatory example--I remember being excited to hear that Under the Dome would be coming to television. Admittedly not one of Stephen King's best stories (or at least not one of his strongest endings), it was still compelling enough to render me intrigued. I hopped on board from the premiere episode and, though concerned by some of the creative liberties taken by the show's writers and producers, I felt like it was worth sticking with. Then, as has happened with so many shows of late, things took a bizarre turn and the show transmogrified into an unrecognizable shell of itself; in short, it lost sight of its original direction.

For me, LOST is still the greatest show I've ever seen (Breaking Bad was a better show but because I watched it after its television run I missed out on the week-to-week cliffhanging aspect along with the communal discussion that followed each episode of the two shows) but it wasn't without its warts. Most of the things that bothered people about the show didn't perturb me in the least. The reason for this is simple: the things that I was interested in learning about I knew wouldn't come until the very end. Again, many people griped about how things concluded but I was satisfied because I understood that a) not every answer would be hand fed to the viewers and b) it didn't feel like a cop out.

Part of what made LOST stumble in the middle of its run is also at the heart of what has been making Fear the Walking Dead almost unwatchable. The characters, at times, have been running in circles--recordings looping ad infinitum. Think about LOST and those two seasons or so where, in every episode, one group of characters went into the jungle looking for another character or group of characters. It seemed like every episode repeated this trope as if signaling that the writers simply didn't know where to take the show; I feel like the same thing is happening on Fear.

How many more times will we have to hear Madison and Strand argue? Or Madison and Travis? Or Travis/Madison/Strand with Daniel? How many self-indulgent emo moments will Chris subject us to? I hated Nick in season one because of the repetition but he's arguably the only one who is interesting in season two! He's changed enough to warrant our buying into.

Here's the problem: Fear the Walking Dead was pitched initially as a prequel of sorts to The Walking Dead. The primary draw was being able to see the devolution that fans of the latter missed out on by way of Rick Grimes' comatose state. We were promised to see the gradual unraveling of society with an emphasis on how these everyday people would first encounter and then ultimately cope with the unthinkable. It would likely be a far more psychological and emotional source of terror that these characters would face as opposed to the corporeal horror that has captivated us for more than half a decade in the world of The Walking Dead.

Now, admittedly, it's incredibly difficult to build the necessary amount of tension in only a six episode season (as season one was) BUT--and this is an important but--it is hardly impossible. One need look only a day and a time slot ahead to Better Call Saul to see a show that did not allow its length to limit its storytelling ability. Some fans of Saul expected to see Jimmy McGill's transformation be complete by the end of season one if not season two but the fact that (*SPOILER ALERT*) that hasn't happened yet is a testament to the storytelling abilities of Gilligan and Gould.

Think for a second about what these two have managed to do: they took a minor character from arguably the biggest show in history--one whose outcome we already know--and have managed to make a compelling narrative not about what happens after Breaking Bad but what happens before and presumably during it.

Masterful.

For Saul's writers the intention was at the beginning and continues to be the transformation of Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman. The assumption is that this will occur at some point but the purpose is the journey not the end result. Fear the Walking Dead could have and should have taken a cue from this.

In only six episodes of Fear they ran through the entirety of what they wanted the show to be about. Again, I understand that they weren't sure of whether or not there would be future seasons but neither did Into the Badlands! They told enough of the story to end it on a compelling note but left MANY doors wide open to keep the narrative going. And what did Fear do?

They took us out to sea.

Seriously? The show was supposed to be this insightful slow burner that brought us into the heart of society's collapse and instead we're stuck in season one with Madison whining about Nick multiple times an episode, Travis trying too hard to be the good guy and to do the right thing, and Chris and Alicia rendering themselves incapable of being rooted for as the angsty, too-old teens. At times the performances were competent and the moments captivating but until Strand and Salazar entered the fray the show was, at best, treading water.

And so we find ourselves in season two on a boat--the characters as lost on turbid water as we are as viewers of a show that is clearly adrift. There is little beyond a superficial level that is worth rooting for in these characters and their often overwrought performances (Madison as moralizer, Strand as the aloof pseudo-villain, Nick as the detached antihero). This of course falls on the writers and producers of the show and not the actors who are clearly doing the best that they can with what they are given.

Again though: this was supposed to be a show that we would get behind emotionally because of our ability to relate to the characters and their predicament. We root for who we do in The Walking Dead because those characters exhibit the aspects of ourselves that we suppress but secretly wish we could employ. We have been given reasons to root for these people over several seasons! Remember Carol early on? Most people couldn't stand her! Then, at least until the last few episodes of season six, she was arguably the best character on a show with Daryl Dixon and Rick Grimes!

The problem with Fear the Walking Dead is that it was rushed through the exact thing that made it interesting in the first place. In only six episodes we're basically where we start off in The Walking Dead. Worse, in only a few more episodes, we find ourselves nearly caught up to speed in terms of the mindsets that Rick and company have taken literally years to develop.

Stay with me on this: at the beginning of Fear the Walking Dead, Madison is a high school guidance counselor with a sordid set of circumstances at home. She exhibits a willingness to defend her family at all costs but hardly the acumen becoming of a postapocalyptic survivor--even when facing the recently-risen familiar faces of a coworker and neighbor.

Fast forward to tonight's episode and, BARELY THREE WEEKS LATER, she is *SPOILER ALERT* leading the charge on a rescue mission with gun in hand to retrieve her husband and daughter.

Think about that: in twenty or twenty-one days these people are supposed to have gone from completely normal (and clueless about the undead I might add) to fucking cold blooded experts!? Connor, the presumed antagonist only an episode ago, seems to have managed to arrange an intricate pirating gig for himself despite being a normal, everyday person less than twenty days earlier. I'm all for suspension of disbelief when it comes to my fiction...but that's pretty fucking ridiculous.

Again, I understand that art imitates life only to an extent and so, in theory, it's plausible that these people could undergo such drastic changes in such a short amount of time...except for one thing: the whole point of the show was supposed to be normalcy not evolution. It was supposed to be about the journey that these characters took to reach the point of Rick and the Atlanta survivors at the beginning of The Walking Dead. Twenty days simply doesn't cut it!

I remember when Hurricane Sandy hit our area. We were without power for six days but a few of the neighboring regions went much, much longer without it. During that time of being off the grid there were lootings and a general sense of unease but the entire fabric of society managed to stay intact. Even in the places that were the hardest hit (like Staten Island and southern Brooklyn) people managed to retain their humanity. No one became a bloodlusting murderer or an Anton Chigurh-inspired pirate. There were no primal orgies in the streets or inversions of societal norms. There were ordinary people coping with extraordinary circumstances with the intention of returning to a previous way of life.

Fear the Walking Dead is based on a far more calamitous premise and yet these characters go from being utterly clueless about their circumstances to exerting their wills in highly unlikely fashions. You've got Nick becoming a secret agent of sorts--Madison the gun-toting superhero. Strand the not-so-bad-guy. Arguably the only character who might have performed such a feat on The Walking Dead was Shane and he was a goddamn sociopath!

And therein lies the rub: these characters have become caricatures of themselves--almost completely unbelievable to varying degrees. Give me a break!

Everything has been rushed and now it's all falling apart. This show's staff are attempting to cash in on the success of The Walking Dead by surreptitiously transforming its own plot and performers into pathetic mimeographs of the already established ones of note. We were promised a show that would focus on the rise and fall of the undead and society and instead find ourselves in nearly the exact environment that The Walking Dead took literally years to establish only in a few weeks instead.

We have had eleven episodes of Fear the Walking Dead so far. How many main characters have we lost? My current total is 0.75 because Eliza was hardly there enough to count as a full character and Mrs. Salazar was ancillary at best. In the first eleven episodes of The Walking Dead we lost Ed Peletier, a slew of Atlanta Camp Survivors, Andrea's sister Amy, Jim, and Otis.

Would a main character death help or save Fear the Walking Dead? I can't say for sure but it would certainly help! I'd hate to see Strand, Madison, Daniel, or Nick go but as for the others? Chris and Ofelia are undeniably expendable, Alicia has at least been engrossed more in the plot, and Travis could go either way. In all that's eight characters that this show is dragging from one episode to the next! EIGHT!

You want eight from The Walking Dead?

Rick, Carl, Carol, Daryl, Michonne, Maggie, Glenn, and Sasha.

Pick any ONE of those and put them up against even the best that Fear the Walking Dead has to offer. There's just not enough substance in the latter to warrant an attachment like the former has engendered throughout its run.

Without some sort of emotional manipulation I feel like this show will squander what interest it has managed to sustain to this point. If the initial build up was supposed to be towards the very early days of the end then what the hell are we supposed to look forward to now? Some impossible reunion or crossover with characters from the main show? A happily-ever-after story by way of Baja? It's not a rhetorical question--I genuinely have no idea just what it is that we're supposed to care about.

I'm willing to stick it out through the end of this season but I have a bad feeling that this might be AMC's first dud for me--a premium channel version of Under the Dome that had the utmost promise but became ultimately nothing but sweet nothings whispered into our ears.


Monday, April 11, 2016

The Hall of Fame Case for Tim Hardaway

Great Tim Hardaway image from:
http://www.basketwallpapers.com/USA/Tim-Hardaway/tim-hardaway-heat-widescreen-wallpaper.php
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?

Yes.

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.

Second ALL-TIME for TWO DIFFERENT FRANCHISES in only FIVE SEASONS OR FEWER!!!

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.

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 others...to 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!

YOU DID NOT RESCUE THAT ANIMAL!

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