Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Rocket's Red Glare


I don't really have much to say on this particular entry - I just wanted to post that title. (I wonder if anyone else has thought of that?)

Let's say it's been a bad year for Roger "The Rocket" Clemens. Just a few months ago, his legacy as the greatest right-handed pitcher of his generation seemed rock solid. It was even often argued that he might just be the best right-hander, ever.

Now, as I noted in an earlier blog post, his legacy is in tatters after former trainer Brian McNamee, and former pitching colleague Andy Pettite, nailed him for juicing during those fantastic, award-winning seasons a few years ago. He is also now in serious legal trouble after apparently perjuring himself in a Congressional hearing which he himself demanded be held. And just today, the New York Post broke the news that while Clemens was in Boston as a married, 28 year old father of two, he began a decade long sexual affair with a fifteen year old girl named Mindy McCready, who would go on to country music success.

Fifteen? That's young. That's illegal young. Jail young. Unforgivably young.

Clemens admitted today through his lawyer that he and McCready had been close friends for year, but denied there was any sexual component to their relationship. Taking Roger at his word, my question is: how many 28 year old guys go out of their way to become merely "close friends" with fifteen year old girls? Or...let's make it more accurate: How many millionaire, famous, 28 year old guys, go out of their ways to strike up friendships with obscure fifteen year old karaoke bar singers, just out the goodness of their heart, with no ulterior motives at all?

Or...at least we might ask: what kind of 28 year old guy sparks up a "close friendship" with a fifteen year old girl?

I think the first two answers are very, very few, and the last one is a total creep.

Clemens was always a jerk. That was his schtick on the mound. He was never a finesse pitcher. He won through bullying, intimidation, pure power, brushbacks and beanballs. But that's why people liked him, including me. He was really entertaining. It was like watching a bull on the mound.

But jerk "charm" has now given way to pure jerk horror: perjury, throwing his wife under the bus during the HGH scandal, 'roids, committing what I presume is statutory rape in the state of Massachussetts, the chronic lying...it's way over the line, and there's just nothing remotely charming about it.

Roger Clemens ought to hold a press conference and completely spill his guts - not just about these issues, but all the other things we've never heard about - and beg forgiveness from the public and by all his potential prosecutors. It's the only way now - he must obliterate himself as a sinner to have any chance at turning back into a saint.

But somehow, I can't imagine Clemens will do that. He still seems to think he's fooling people now...that people believe his lies...but no one really does now, except for a bizarre few. He really still ought to have a good conscience; but we still haven't seen any sense of shame - no rocket's red glare at all. All we've seen is an unblinking, belligerent defiance, as if the vehemence of a lie could make that lie more true.

Clemens was once a lock for the Hall of Fame. Now, it is impossible to imagine how he could ever get in.

That was fast.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Prime Time Food


If anyone had suggested twenty years ago that an assortment of food shows would one day regularly beat out sit-coms during prime TV view hours, they would have been thought insane. Everyone "knew" that cooking shows were daytime fare, and their only potential audience, a few bored housewives. And everyone also "knew" just what the format was for a cooking show: some cook standing in front of a range making something, the end. Even the Julia Child shows, better and more influential than the rest at the time, didn't exactly make for scintillating TV. Bo-ring.

My view is that two factors more than anything have changed all this. The first was the publication, in 2000, of the book "Kitchen Confidential", by an obscure line cook and failed novelist named Anthony Bourdain. The second is obvious: the rise of Reality TV.

"Kitchen Confidential" was, in effect, the autobiography of a kitchen nobody: a man seemingly lacking any touch of culinary greatness, but a man entirely in love with - addicted to - professional cooking all the same. It was brutal and bawdy, funny and touching, honest, and perfectly captivating. Bourdain intended it to be something of an underground piece: "I had no expectation that anyone - other than a few burnt-out line cooks, curious chefs and tormented loners - would ever read the thing", he wrote.

As it happened, "Kitchen Confidential" exploded. It became a New York Times bestseller, became fodder for water cooler talk in offices all over the world, and made Bourdain a wealthy, famous man. Most importantly, it cast most cooking crews not as groups of delicate PBS-style figures, but more akin to pirate crews or street gangs who got the job done by forming into primally rigid, virtually all-male hierarchies, held together by physical intimidation, appropriately-crushing insults, obscene, macabre humor, and a need for surrogate family. And let's face it - reading about that is a lot more exciting than reading Julia Child's placid explanation of how to flay a trout.

In a word, Bourdain's book cast professional cooking as an adventure tale bristling with derring-do and masculine energy - perfect material for a "reality TV" craze just about to hit. And somewhere or other, it clicked for some TV executive. Plug the real life drama of real cooking, punctuated with competition and outside confrontation, into the Reality wave, and it'll be a hit. And it was.

I don't really get watching Nigella Lawson make buttered scones for an hour. But I DO get Gordon Ramsay's "Kitchen Nightmares" or "Hell's Kitchen". I do get "Iron Chef". I do get Bourdain's own show "No Reservations", in which he travels around the world eating native cuisine. (In fact, in some ways, Bourdain's show is the best of all, in that it's the one which best shows the potentially religious meaning that food preparation and communal consumption have.)

There is something viscerally thrilling about taking crude elements and shaping and refining them into something new. It is even more thrilling when that shaping facilitates family and friends coming together to share their experiences and hopes and fears, joys and sorrows - their lives - with each other.

I'm not saying Bourdain's recent criticisms of the Food Network aren't well taken in many respects; but on the other hand, food TV is miles ahead of where it used to be. And that's good news for everyone who appreciates the joys of dining...and deep human communion.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Stuck with the Canucks


Last year, as another mediocre hockey season ended for the Vancouver Canucks, my then-thirteen-year-old son Ashton and I were driving somewhere. The car was silent for a few seconds, and then, out of the blue...he spoke. It was with a tone of...not despair...just a kind of grimness.

"I think I'm going to start rooting for a new team".

"What?", I said.

"A new team. I just don't think I can take the Canucks anymore. Every year...it's so frustrating. I'm going to start rooting for the Flames".

A second passed. I breathed in. It was time to reveal cosmic law, no matter how disappointing it was.

"You can't", I said.

"What do you mean I can't?".

"You can't change", I said.

"Sure I can".

"Uh -- no you can't", I said. "We're from here. Manta (my dad) rooted for the Canucks, I rooted for the Canucks, you do, and your kids will...and...there's no way out. It's like trying to 'change your ancestry'. You can't".

Ashton snickered. "Funny".

"It's not funny - it's the law. Not my law - just the law. You can't change".

"The Flames are great, though. All I need to do to 'change' is to start rooting for them. It's-"

"You don't understand", I interrupted. "I don't mean you 'can't'. I mean you CAN'T. It's not possible. It's against THE LAW - the cosmic law of team affiliation".

I went on.

"I sympathize with you, I really do. I've been following the Canucks since I was five, when Manta used to take me to the games at the old Coliseum. They've never won a cup. They probably never will. Every year opens with such promise, but outside of two lucky runs to the final over the past four decades, they never get anywhere. I get that. But...all I'm saying is...there's no way out. We can't change".

Ashton fell silent. For a moment I thought he would burst into tears. But within seconds, it was as though he understood; we couldn't escape it. We were powerless to change it. It just was.

And sure enough, this year was another frustrating, stupid season for the Vancouver Canucks. I'm frustrated - frustrated with how delusional so many of the fans are, frustrated with how goalie Roberto Luongo left his pregnant wife 5000 miles away in Florida which ended up distracting him down the stretch (we went from one point out of first in our division to out of the playoffs in the last two weeks of the season), frustrated with Markus Naslund, frustrated with how Nonis and Vigneault didn't rip the captaincy off him last year, or Crawford the year before...and I honestly don't see any promising changes in the next few years.

To get anywhere, the Canucks would have to trade Roberto Luongo for a solid goalie and some offensive talent. And that will never happen. It won't happen because Dave Nonis, the Canucks GM, has a serious mancrush on Luongo, and Luongo (thanks to Nonis) also has a "no-trade" clause on his contract which he would have to agree to waive. It will never happen; and as a result, the Canucks will begin next season similarly unable to score, and it will be another struggle which will end either by missing the playoffs again, or being eliminated in the first round. They're turning into the west coast version of the consistently mediocre Toronto Maple Leafs.

There is always the possibility of a miracle, of course. That can happen. The Canucks of '93-94 got on a roll as the playoffs started, and even got to Game Seven of the Stanley Cup finals against the powerhouse New York Rangers (Canucks lost by one goal).

But miracles cannot be counted on...and certainly, this team doesn't seem particularly miracle-prone. The foreseeable future looks just like the last ten years: frustrating.

And there's no way out...those of us who have inherited "Canuckness" are stuck with them, forever.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Against Utopia


The world can become paradise; we are so close; all we need to do is...

Does it matter what comes next? It could be "eradicate religion" (Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris); it could be "convert everyone to Islam" (your local imam); it could be "abolish private property and share everything equally" (your local communist); it could be "hasten the return of Jesus Christ" (your local rapturista); it could be a million things, but which one doesn't matter, because the truth is that Utopia - insofar as that concept can have any meaning whatsoever - will be unachievable as long as there are humans around to imagine it.

Pessimistic? No - realistic. Think about it: human beings are not even capable of "putting an end to conflict" within themselves. We love our boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse but yearn for someone else. We want the cheeseburger but also the fish and chips. We like Obama's speeches but are worried about his lack of experience. We wish to discipline our teenagers but don't want to drive them away from us. We want freedom to do what we want, but also want to evade responsibility for some of our actions. We want a million different things, and their opposites, just within ourselves. So on what grounds could anyone seriously imagine that all potential conflict between two human beings, let alone two hundred million, or two billion, could ever be eliminated?

All attempts thus far at creating a true heaven on earth - where all people are of "one heart and one mind", where the lion shall lie down with the lamb, etc. - have failed. And not only have they failed, but often they have led instead to the creation of hell on earth. The grandest experiment in paradaisacal living in world history, for example, ended with somewhere between sixty and one hundred MILLION human beings being slaughtered in service to its guiding (Marxist) ideals, with millions more being imprisoned, harrassed, and tortured. Ah, but of course - humanity could become perfect, but humanity just keeps getting in the way. So, humanity must be eliminated. Funny how it always works out this way.

I submit that there is no intellectual excuse anymore for Utopian thinking. That self-styled critical thinkers like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins could seriously entertain Utopian fantasies ("we can achieve heaven on earth as soon as we banish religious belief!") in their recent anti-theism books ("The End of Faith" and "The God Delusion") is embarrassing. It is especially embarrassing in view of the example just mentioned, since communism, if nothing else, constituted an atheist fundamentalism. Dawkins, for some reason which he cannot explain, thinks that the tens of millions murders committed under communism weren't committed in the name of atheism; but atheism being absolutely central to Marxist ideology, this simply cannot be true. To commit a murder in the name of communism is to commit a murder in the name of atheism, as inexorably as to commit a murder in the name of Catholicism is to commit a murder in the name of theism. There is no way around this. The man who wrote a book entitled "The God Delusion", himself turns out to be just as deluded as those he criticizes.

More on this later.