All ye who care about the Constitution, direct your eyes to Ferguson, Missouri

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The fiasco in Ferguson, Missouri this week began with the shooting death of a teenager named Mike Brown, at the hands of a police officer. Because brown was black and the officer was white (we assume, although so far he has escaped identification), there will be a predictable Red Herring tossed into the discussion by members of a particular sect of the political right. They’ll probably dig up a photo of Michael Brown in some “thuggish” pose. If he ever smoked pot or got sent to the principal’s office, they’ll throw that out there too. The implication being, what, that he just deserved to die on general principle? I don’t know.

Members of a particular sect of the left will focus on the racial dynamics. They’ll say that if Brown had been white, he would not have been shot. This may or may not be true in this specific instance (though it seems likely, we’ll never know for sure), but the history of police violence and harassment of black Americans is overwhelming and continuing. 

However, the goings on in Ferguson, Missouri since Saturday, when Brown was killed, have transcended his character or his race. The municipal government in Ferguson, Missouri has launched a wide-scale armored offensive against its own citizens and, by close and immediate association, the Constitution of the United States. The as-yet empty and timid response by the governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon, and the president of the United States, Barack Obama, can be taken as a quiet endorsement of a fascist police state, and an open invitation to police nationwide to attack their own citizens and suppress dissent with the threat of deadly force.

In short, the municipal, state and federal governments seem to be daring the people of Ferguson, Missouri to use the Second Amendment of the Constitution to defend their rights to the First and Sixth.

Let’s go chronologically, beginning with what happened Saturday afternoon.

1. The United States Constitution, Amendment Six: “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”

Michael Brown enjoyed none of these.

Brown was executed in the street by an agent of the State of Missouri without having been arrested or charged with a crime. The police account of the story and the eyewitness account of the story differ in only one way — the police say Brown shoved the officer inside the police cruiser and went for his service weapon, whereas eyewitnesses say that isn’t true. Either way, what happened next was that the officer drew his weapon, Brown fled and the officer shot him. Brown — who was unarmed — was wounded and raising his arms in surrender when the officer shot him dead in the street. Nobody disputes this. 

Insofar as the Constitution is concerned, it doesn’t matter what illegal activity Brown may have been suspected of doing, but for the record, the officer initiated the confrontation because Brown and his friend were walking in the street as opposed to the sidewalk. 

The law allows officers to use deadly force to save their own lives, but that is plainly not what happened in this instance. Brown submitted himself for peaceful arrest, at which point he could have been charged with whatever (Jaywalking? Resisting arrest?) and enjoyed his Constitutionally guaranteed right to a trial. 

Instead, a single Ferguson police officer detained, charged, convicted and executed an unarmed teenager and has not yet even been identified. 

2. The United States Constitution, Amendment One: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Wednesday, police in Ferguson arrested two journalists, one from the Washington Post and the other from the Huffington Post. Officers said they were under arrest for trespassing at an open McDonald’s, at which they were customers. And that’s just the employed reporters.

It doesn’t begin to describe the First Amendment abuses by police in Ferguson. They have pointed rifles in people’s faces and demanded they shut off their camera phones. They have thrown tear gas into crowds of peaceful protesters and onto private property. They have shot innocent people with rubber bullets. They have thrown tear gas at television news crews and dismantled their equipment. 

They have done so much of this that individual instances of it are hardly even worth detailing. It is obvious this is the municipal government’s intentional, tactical response to protest in Ferguson, Missouri. 

On Monday, police were protecting people and local businesses from a riot. That was Monday. Since then, the overwhelming majority of aggression and violence has been committed by police, who for the last two days have arrived on the scene of peaceful protests in full armor, pointed automatic weapons at protesters and attacked them with non-lethal weapons. 

The message from the government in Ferguson, Missouri is clear: You do not have the right to speak freely, to publish, to assemble or to criticize your government here. 

Mike Brown’s death was unnecessary and tragic and the officer who shot him, if there is any justice, will be arrested, informed that he is being charged with murder, and confronted with the witnesses against him in a speedy and public trial. 

May the legacy of Mike Brown be that his death was the flashpoint that began a reversal of what had been a slowly and silently expanding fascism in the United States of America.

TRANSLATED: Rick Perry’s Q&A with Texas Monthly

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For its July edition, the magazine Texas Monthly did an interview with Texas governor Rick Perry.

It was, as the best interviews are, a rhetorical boxing match. Perry is a popular Republican governor of a growing red state with a robust economy. This makes him a comfortable man.

He was interviewed by Brian D. Sweany, who is the editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly, a nationally respected magazine that I like very much.

You can read the original interview here. Consider this an artistic interpretation of how that interview went:

BRIAN D. SWEANY: Governor Perry, you got this job through a slick backdoor cheat and don’t even deserve to have it. You’ll also notice that I have a middle initial in my byline, whereas your name only contains three syllables. Whaddya think about that?

RICK PERRY: Well, if you want to just ignore my entire political career, then yeah, I guess you’re right. But, look, I’ve been in this game since 1985, Ok? And I’ve done the hard jobs. I’ve done the hard jobs and I’ve done the dirty jobs, but I came out clean, didn’t I? Yes I did. The thing is, I’m a bit of an outsider. I’m always nosing around at the edges of politics, trying to figure out how it works. I guess I’m technically a politician, but I’m not very good at politics. I’m not a smart man, Brian, but I know how to turn every knob in this cockpit.

BDS: You pretended to be a liberal to get popular, and once you did you turned conservative to get the money. You’re a hypocrite and a phony.

RP: I was raised by hillbillies. I have the soul of a hillbilly. Liberal? Conservative? Like I said, I’m a bit of an outsider, poking around at the edges. I’m still trying to figure out what both of those terms mean.

BDS: What were your biggest screw-ups?

RP: You know, I wouldn’t say I’ve ever actually screwed up. What I would say is that there have been a couple times where people thought my reasoning didn’t make sense. By the way, I read a book, and I want to tell you about it. There’s this book about how you can become an expert on anything by doing it 10,000 times, and I would say that I’ve done politics way more than 10,000 times, wouldn’t you? But I guess if I had to name one thing, I’d say it was that thing with the HPV vaccines. I still think I did the right thing, but people did seem to think it was stupid, so I guess I’d go with that, if I had to name a slip-up.

BDS: Good boy. Now you’re gonna sit here and take it while I drill into you about this. To me? Looked pretty clear you were just tossing your buddy some business and you made it worse by being all obnoxious.

RP: I’m pretty sure I did the right thing, but because people couldn’t understand my reasoning I learned a new thing about politics. It was probably like my 12,000th politics thing or something like that. I’m a sensitive guy. I was just trying to help women.

BDS: All right, fine. Then what good stuff do you think you’ve done because I can’t think of anything.

RP: Well, I did pass that tort reform thing. That was huge.

BDS: From 2003? Dude, you were pandering!

RP: Look at my stats after that, though! We’ve got, like, tons more doctors now. There’s a doctor near almost everybody. People are haters, man. But even my haters know I’m right. They have to attack me for something. But you just look at my stats, look at my record after that, and tell me things aren’t better. Job got done, didn’t it?

BDS: I’ve got a couple bullets to fire at you. They’re not much, but they’re all I’ve got on this. Ready? Here goes. Bullet one: Like 13 or 14 years ago, you went against a couple of medical programs, even though you now say health care is numero uno. Bullet two: Texas has the fewest insured people of any state. Knock these down and we can move on to a real question.

RP: Having nearby doctors and having health insurance are not the same thing, bro. One is part of your environment, and one is a consumer decision made by you. Even your hero, Obama, says Medicaid is broke, so why would I put money into a broke thing?

BDS: Why do you seem to be the most hard-assed of the Republicans? I mean even Arkansas seems more chill than you. Arkansas.

RP: Yeah, but Arkansas isn’t all that Republican.

BDS: (Audible sigh). All I’m saying is, I want us to fit in with everybody else. I want Texas to be one of the popular kids that wears the latest fashions and listens to the coolest music, and you’re just making us like a bunch of jocks in dirty cowboy boots.

RP: Look, those other states? They’re fine, they’re good, they do a good job. But they’re dorks! They’re desperate dorks huddling around the pretty girl, sniffling and pushing their glasses back up their noses and spitting dork lines to the prom queen, which is Obama. And they’re doomed! They’re totally doomed to get their hearts broken. They’ve made it impossible for guys like me, because now the President won’t let us do anything.

BDS: But, dude, some of this stuff happened under Bush, so are you saying this is a problem of pencil pushing? Of clerical tedium? I sincerely hope that’s not what you’re saying, because that will have made this line of questioning a complete waste of time.

RP: Haha. That is what I’m saying.

BDS: Says here I have to ask you about Ronald Reagan. So: Ronald Reagan … GO!

RP: Like Reagan, I’m a big capitalism guy. And my state is makin’ it rain right now. I would say there’s a lot of Reagan in me, but I’d never go full Reagan.

BDS: We heard you got in a fight with Tom Craddick and David Dewhurst.

RP: Fight? With Craddy and Dewbaby? Nawl, those are my friends. Look, we’re smart guys and we’re passionate guys and we’re big strapping guys, and when you get smart, passionate, big strapping guys in a hot room, sometimes it gets a little raw and the bodies collide and I don’t think any of us need to be held accountable for what may or may not go on in there.

BDS: Remember when you vetoed all those bills in ’01? What was up with that?

RP: Well, I fought the speaker of the house. Laney. Laney and I fought.

BDS: Oh, bullshit.

RP: Here’s how I’d put it: We were all feeling each other out.

BDS: Let’s test your Texas history, shall we?

RP: Big fan of Sam Houston.

BDS: Yeah, he was good. He was pretty against Texas secession, which is funny, because you seem to like bringing up secession every now and then.

RP: Yeah. I really like him. I have a ring just like his, that’s how big of a Sam Houston fan I am. I also was studying up for this question on Wikipedia and I read about this guy named Dolph Briscoe, who was the governor of Texas. He built the roads from the farms to the towns and that was a pretty big deal. So I’d say I’m a big Dolph Briscoe fan too.

BDS: How come we’re still praising the jocks and cheerleaders all the time? I mean, still? In 2014? We give all our money to football coaches and practically no money to poets! That just doesn’t seem right, does it?

RP: You want me to hire some poets?

BDS: Not you, per se, but, I dunno, somebody. Doesn’t anybody have a love for poetry anymore in this state?

RP: I don’t follow. What would you want me to do about it?

BDS: I don’t know, I just get very emotional about poetry. Forget I brought it up.

RP: Aw, don’t go getting all … It’s Ok. I mean, things are getting better for nerds like you. You have to admit that. Our schools in Texas are pretty good, really, and the UT football team stinks. You have to feel good about that.

BDS: I do, thanks. With my next three questions, I’m going to try to get you to ramble about a given topic and see if you make a gaffe, OK? Topic one: tuition deregulation.

RP: I’d buff some stuff here, polish some stuff there.

BDS: Topic two: death penalty. And, you know, try to ramble a bit more.

RP: For it.

BDS: Topic three: seriously?

RP: Yeah.

BDS: Insult Bush, man. Come on, just do it. You know you want to.

RP: I do, but I’m not going to. Look, George Bush and I are not the same guy and this is not the year 2000. He’s good at some stuff, bad at some stuff. I’m good at some stuff, bad at some stuff. I would just tell you to look at my advanced stats and not worry about comparisons. I’ve got a BPS+ of over .600.

BDS: What?

RP: I don’t know.

BDS: So, how conservative are you, really? Are you, like, “I drove a Cadillac in the 80s” conservative or are you “confederate flag mud flaps” conservative? Are you a country boy with a shave or are you a city slicker in a hat?

RP: I mean, I don’t think we should impeach Obama, if that gives you some idea where I’m at. I think if we do that’ll just make people vote for Democrats. The other thing I wanted to say was, I don’t get why Hispanics aren’t Republicans. They should totally be Republicans right?

BDS: What are you gonna do after this?

RP: Probably hit up Whataburger.

BDS: I mean after your term as governor is over.

RP: I’ll be a little bit happy and a little bit sad. It would be kinda like when you taste something that’s sorta strong and then sort of … egh – you know what I’m trying to say? A taste that’s kinda icky?

BDS: You mean “bitter?”

RP: That’s it. It would be like if you had some of that, and then combined it with something sugary.

BDS: Bittersweet?

RP: Bittersweet, that’s exactly right.

BDS: How do you think you did, like, overall?

RP: Pretty good.

BDS: You wanna give me the scoop that you’re running for president?

RP: Nope.

BDS: Come on. I was nice, wasn’t I?

RP: (Blank smile).

BDS: You screwed it up pretty badly last time, you know. You’re not gonna do that again are ya?

RP: The last time, honestly, I just didn’t have time to be the governor and run for president. The sun got in my eyes, coach. I don’t have that problem anymore.

So long, cupcakes/rights

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It appears that cupcakes — the small, cup-shaped versions of the popular dessert, “cake” — are over.

Not over, over. They’re still technically “legal.” It’s just that your right to eat artfully prepared single-serving cake-based treats is now being infringed upon by that no longer being a profitable enterprise. The stores are closing.

We get this grim news from the Old Gray-Bearded Lady, The New York Times, which reports the venerable New York cake hustlers Mia and Jason Bauer have closed Crumbs Bake Shop (NASDAQ: CRMB), thereby denying the rights of New Yorkers to Crumbs’ delicious celebrity-themed cake treats, which come in three sizes and flavors such as apple cobbler covered in streusel crumbs. Crumbs also sold a gigantic cupcake (a cake?) for like $25.

Crumbs’ 820 employees are now cast on the street, victims of a free-enterprise economic ecosystem that no longer supports $4 cupcakes. How could they have ever seen this coming?

How could any of us?

After all, who doesn’t love cake? And what’s more: Cake tastes even better when it’s your own special cake that can fit in the palm of your hand and nobody else gets to touch. Cake is best when it’s all for you.

This seemed like the perfect business model: Sell people tiny cakes. Why didn’t I think of that? I mean, sure, you’re going to have to find people with outrageous amounts of expendable income. The only people who can justify spending $4 on a miniature cake are the wealthiest people on earth. So slang your cakes in the nice part of town and make it feel obnoxiously trendy in there. The vibe you want to create is that your cupcake boutique was opened, like, just now by a 26-year-old artist/baker who looks exactly like Jennifer Lawrence and drives a white BMW. And don’t put one on the menu called “wedding cake” — turns out eating a tiny wedding cake alone in a strip mall is a bit of a sour feeling for most people.

Crumbs opened in 2003, starting a craze that reached the Great Plains in about 2009.

“Yeah, they’re cupcakes,” people would tell you. “But they’re, seriously, the best cupcakes ever. They have, like, a margarita one.”

Well this was too much. A margarita cupcake?! Oh, 2009, you are being good to me. This space must be explored immediately. Everyone went. Everyone went and then asked their friends if they’d been. And if they hadn’t it would be like, “Well, they are just cupcakes, but they’re not like any cupcakes you’ve ever had.”

Everybody went once. Half of everybody went twice. Seven people went all the time, and here we are.

Thrown out on the street, cupcakeless.

 

 

 

 


 

Aside

M’uncles, Muscle and Merica: Why cars aren’t just cars

 

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That’s the house where we did it, right there. It’s an old Kansas farmhouse, boxed in on three sides by crops and on the fourth by a stretch of US-50 three miles east of Burrton, Kansas. My dad grew up in that house. He’d take my mom on motorcycle rides out to there.

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That house has always been the gravitational center of Corcoranism as I know it. In 90 or 91 a tornado took the roof off it, Grammy moved into town and my uncle Shaun took over the farm, which made sense. Of all my dad’s brothers, m’uncle Shaun is the one that most evokes the memory of my grandfather, George, who died before I was old enough to know him. When Grammy died my family moved into her in-town house. That’s the house of my high school years. I waxed my old 67 Dodge at that house and took it to prom. My parents still live there.

The car had been sitting in their garage for 15 years. My dad bought it for me for $1,250 when I was 15, and it needed a lot of work. Engine, transmission, paint, interior. This was a project car. We bought it from some stupid rednecks at this dusty salvage yard where these morons would do things like take body panels off a Pontiac and fit them to an El Camino. On the car I bought they had the fuel line running into a Dr. Pepper bottle. That allowed them to start it just long enough to prove the motor wasn’t seized up.

We towed it home using a truck and trailer we borrowed from muncle Kim’s metal fabrication business. My dad has worked for him in Burrton for about 23 years now. On the way, Dad wanted to keep my expectations reasonable.

“Don’t expect it to be done the first day of school,” he said.

Well we started in on it right away. Dad and I re-did the brakes and cleaned out the gas tank and put a brand new set of tires on it – fatter ones on the back.

I cleaned the interior a few times those first few months. I didn’t have any money, but I was too excited to just let it sit there without getting fiddled with. This was my thing. I knew just how I wanted my car to look and sound. I had pages in the parts catalog earmarked. It was going to be those wheels and these valve covers and that intake manifold. What I did all day as a 10-year-old boy was look at hot rod magazines and parts catalogs. I can’t claim that part of my interest in these magazines and the culture at large was totally unconnected to the bikini babes that turned up in these magazines. Consciously, my interest in cars was about the cars, but as I examine it now it seems impossible to remove a sense of sexuality from American car culture without changing that culture in a fundamental way. You often hear rock musicians say the reason they picked up a guitar in the first place was that chicks seemed to dig guys who played guitars. American men have a similar association with cars that sometimes manifests itself in hamfisted ways.

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Dad worked with a guy who subscribed to Car Craft and Hot Rod and a bunch of other magazines like that. When he was done with them he’d send Dad home with a box of old magazines for me. Well, to me a box of hot rod magazines was a year’s worth of entertainment and a precious source of information. I kept them all in a trunk that filled up in chunks, like a suburb. When I came across an article I thought would help me in the future – painting tips, horsepower helpers, brake jobs – I would clip it out like a recipe and put it in a file labeled “car ideas.”

That was data storage, baby. This was way before the Internet arrived at the Corcoran household.We lived in a 90-year-old transplanted farm house with no air conditioning. It had been built without accommodations for running water, so the bathroom was an aftermarket job. It was a long time before we even got an answering machine. We made do, is how you’d put it.

I owe a good deal of my interest in old cars to my cousins, Torey and Tyler, who lived in Burrton. As kids, an unfair world denied us driver’s licenses, so we souped up bicycles instead. We learned how just by trial and error. You could change the way your BMX performed by changing the sprocket ratio or lengthening the stroke on the pedals. The principles of locomotion reduced to their core. Torey was the oldest, and when he got to be about 12, he started mowing lawns. With that money and a loan from his parents, he bought a brand-new riding lawnmower, which as far as I can remember he used mainly as a loophole in the driver’s licensing laws.

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Burrton is a zero-stoplight town, so it wasn’t scandalous for three pre-teen boys to hook up a little wooden flat-bed trailer to that lawnmower, toss our bikes on it and go joyriding around town looking for dirt piles to ramp off. Bigger the better. Sometimes we’d drive it up to Phil Hoskinson’s service station and buy a candy bar and a pop. That would cost 75 cents. Phil always jollied with us about what we were up to. Once he told me about the time way back when that he outran the cops in his 55 Chevy. The trick was a switch that would allow you to turn off your taillights while the headlights stayed on. Then you take him down a dirt road.

I’m sure we talked about girls — Tyler and I spent one afternoon chasing some, though I’m not sure what we would have done if we had caught them — and I know we talked about sports and whatever else little boys talk about, but what I remember most is talking about cars. That conversation always starts, for little boys, with their fathers, and what cars they had. Torey and Tyler knew all about their father, Marvin, and his Plymouth Fury. I knew about my dad’s 54 Ford pickup and 64 Plymouth Belvedere. We were MoPar kids, Ford kids in a pinch, but definitely not Chevy kids. Those are the kinds of allegiances you form at age 8. Other than a sports team, it was the first social group I had ever joined.

Muncle Marvin — muncle, by the way, is Corcoran for “m’uncle” or “my uncle,” I think, although I can’t remember the etymology ever coming up in conversation — had an old four-wheel-drive International truck he’d take us to the lake in. One night Uncle Marvin heard the sound of his truck rapping out in the driveway and found Tyler in the driver’s seat revving the engine. He was probably 8, already known for fearlessness, and he was just desperate for that sensation. Tyler grew up to be a soldier. Torey joined the Air Force.

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Their neighbor was a kid named Andy, and I can remember going to Andy’s house and seeing these meticulously crafted Lego creations in his room. They were huge and perfect, that perfectionism no-doubt inspired by his father, Bart, who built race cars. When it came time to build the motor and fix the mechanical flaws, that’s who I called.

They were always Chevy people, and they kidded me about bringing them a Ford. Couldn’t help themselves, either. They fitted my car with a Chevy alternator.

At that time, the 90s, our family car was a 1967 Dodge Coronet that got handed down to me in high school. It’s what we took to church, it’s how I got to baseball practice, and every other week my mom and me and my two little sisters would take it to Wichita to buy groceries at ALDI.  At the time it was the nearest one, and the savings justified the trip. Plus, the knockoff Captain Crunch tasted almost like the real thing. One time the water pump went out on that trip, and Dad left work, drove over and changed it in the parking lot. I can remember fishing dimes and nickels out of the seat cushions in that car so she could buys us some cinnamon rolls at Burger King.

I’d imagine this is part of the reason I took an interest in old cars as opposed to new ones. To me, buying a new car was something done by the sort of people who ate name-brand breakfast cereal. My parents have bought brand spankin’ new cars since then, but I never have.

That spirit roots in American history.

American car culture really started in two places: The South during Prohibition and California after World War II. These guys out there in California – you could call them artists, but that’s not what they called themselves – would take these old boats their parents used to drive and start cutting and bending and painting. Shaping metal into these graceful shapes we now all identify with that era. The lines on the Las Vegas sign, the Fender Stratocaster and the 57 Chevy all have something similar about them, don’t you think?

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Well that came from these cats out in California. Poor kids, mostly, who figured out how to make old stuff look cooler and go faster than the new stuff. That tradition is still alive in California.

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HotRodders

Then there were the liquor bandits in the South. They wanted the cars to look stock but dust a police cruiser. Most of this was done thanks to the cocktail of Scotch and Irish geneology. There is a peculiar blend of bravery and stupidity in that bloodline. People of Scots-Irish decent are highly over-represented among Purple Heart recipients and Navy test pilots. They’re the people took the cops on high-speed chases through wooded areas and invented stock-car racing.

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So those two ideas started to mix, and these hot rods became such a sensation that Detroit noticed and pretty soon all the cars started coming out of the factory with these California lines and West Virginia motors. It was the space race, too, and that showed up a lot in the cars — taillights that looked like jet engines, fins, interiors shaped like cockpits. People were captivated, inspired — proud.

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“But why, some say, the moon?,” John F. Kennedy said at Rice Stadium in Houston in 1963. “Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, Why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

A year later, at a Ford plant in St. Louis, some union guys assembled a Ford Galaxie 500 XL, painted it “prairie tan” and sent it on its 34-year, 78,000-mile journey to a 15-year-old boy who towed it down the same dirt driveway where he had learned to pitch by practicing curveballs to his mom.

The Galaxie 500 was Ford’s full-sized car, and the XL meant it was a two-door fastback with bucket seats and the good trim. The lines were round and swooping and there was chrome everywhere. That part wasn’t new. American cars had been that way since the War. But then they put a big block motor in it, and that changed everything.

This was the beginning of the Muscle Car Era. This is not to say the Galaxie was the first muscle car, but just that all American car companies seemed to get the same idea at the same time. Execution varied slightly, but almost all the cars were powerful and almost all the cars looked cool (or tried hard to).

Because of World War II the economy and babies were booming. Gasoline was relatively inexpensive (about $2.25 a gallon in today’s money). Rock-n-roll was a new thing and more doctors smoked Camels than any other cigarette.

And we beat those Commies to the moon! Stabbed that big blue hunk of cheese with Old Glory.

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In a span of about 30 years the United States had defeated:

  • Hitler
  • Japan
  • Prohibition
  • The Great Depression
  • Enforced racial segregation
  • Russia
  • Outer space

Now it was time to spike the ball in the end zone.

And, hey, the United States had its problems in the 60s, but nobody could look at the 60s in this country and say people weren’t inspired. Americans thought they could change the world in the 1960s.

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I can’t do the 60s justice here, mainly because I didn’t experience them for myself. But there has to be a reason that the music from that era still resonates today, that something about George Harrison’s guitar solo in “Good Morning Good Morning” makes a kid who was born in 1983 feel like someone is saying with a guitar what he wishes he could say with words. There is some reason that when you drive a muscle car 600 miles across the country everybody from the high school girl working the register at the barbecue joint in Oklahoma to the bum on the street corner in Dallas to the Mexican guy in the expensive truck in Conroe wants to talk to you about it. There’s something in there Americans intuitively understand. To me it feels deeper than a preference. It’s more like DNA.

And you know what people want to tell you? They want to tell you what cars they have, or had, or want to have. And they never tell you about their Camry, because they know a Camry and a Corvette are as similar as an iPod and an electric guitar. There is something in there about individuality, expression, adventure.

“When Americans tell stories about themselves, they set those stories in the West. The American heroes are Western heroes. When you begin to think of the quintessential American characters, they’re always someplace over the horizon. There is always someplace in the West where something wonderful is about to happen. It’s not what has happened, it’s something wonderful is about to happen. And even when we turn that around, even when we say something has been lost, what’s lost is always in the West.”

– Historian Richard White, Ken Burns: The West, 1996.

IndianRailroad

The Europeans who settled the American West exhibited the best and worst of humanity. Heroism and cowardice. The story of that settlement haunts as often as it inspires, but it is the American story, and it is America’s story to tell. It’s about moving, usually West, for a fresh start.

People came West from Europe, and they settled and they moved West again, to the mountains, and then through the mountains and West some more. Some in search of fortune, some survival, some because they wore out their welcome elsewhere. Keeping going, westward ho, whether dysentery or typhoid fever. Whether following the Oregon Trail or looking for California gold or Kansas soil, there’s a sense that if you just keep going, you’ll make it. Sometimes the American Dream gets misconstrued as the American Guarantee. It isn’t that, and was never supposed to be, but to me it seems there is something in the blood of an American, for better or worse, that tells him he’s got The Right Stuff, if everyone would just get out of his way.

There are plenty of people who say they hate the internal combustion engine, but most of those people drive gas-burning cars. There are other options, but those options just aren’t as good. They drive their car because their car takes them where they want to go. It takes them quickly and anonymously. No ticket to buy, no driver to talk to, nobody across from you on the train.

Nobody to spoil your alibi.

In Houston, we live next to an elderly couple. The man has lost his sharpness, but his white-haired wife still has hers. Every so often the doorbell will ring and I’ll answer and her little body will be standing there holding a plate of cookies. Just being neighborly, like I suppose she was to the people who lived here before us and the people before that. Our house was built in the 60s.

She has this Louisiana accent I recognize as the city accent from New Orleans — it has the funkiest Bronx quality to it. As I was washing my car she walked over and wanted to look at it and talk about it, have the conversation people always have when they’re standing around a car.

“I awl-ways wonted a red sports car, a convuh-tibul,” she said. “I nevuh got one.”

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Early in the morning, last June, I started the Galaxie to drive it to muncle Shaun’s house, The Farm, where in 1956 George and Louise Corcoran settled down to raise their seven kids. I had learned to fire a gun and ride a motorcycle at that farm. That was where the Corcorans would usually gather on the Fourth of July. Shaun would always have the tractors, four-wheelers and dirt bikes all gassed up for us kids, and we’d tear off into the fields on small adventures that felt big. We were free and unwatched, out on the prairie, finding whatever we were going to find, learning a little bit about ourselves and our limits along the way.

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When I turned east onto a dirt road, the sun was rising, stretching its dusty yellow and citrus orange across the fruited plain. The air was cool as my left arm cut through it, cool in a way it never is on the Gulf Coast. It reminded me of driving that Dodge into Hutchinson for morning football practice, and then that reminded me of my mom, who drove us kids around in that same 30-year-old, $2,600 car bought from muncle Shaun without ever a hint she was embarrassed by it. The night before I drove out to The Farm, Mom stayed up with me until 2, helping me install the carpet in the Galaxie. A few hours later she got up for work. In front of me on that road was my dad, who used to watch fuzzy Chiefs games with me on our 13-inch TV, take me to junior college basketball games and always made sure I got to play on the traveling baseball team and my sisters got to take gymnastics lessons. I always had a nice glove, a nice bat, and a decent pair of cleats.

When I was starting high school and learning to drive, my dad and I drove all over south-central Kansas looking at old project cars. He knew that’s what I wanted. Most of the cars in our price range were too far gone, of course. One night we were driving back from having looked at a 71 Charger. It was shot-out past the point we could realistically restore it, but it’s difficult for a 14-year-old boy to see it that way. He must have sensed my frustration with the search. “If I could afford it, I’d buy you the nicest car you could find,” he told me, and I knew that was true.

But really I didn’t want to be bought some $25,000 trailer queen. I’m not saying I would have turned it down, but it would have felt like someone else’s car and someone else’s life. The day we finally dragged that crusty old Galaxie home, I guarantee you I was the happiest boy in all of Kansas. I told my parents they could just buy me car parts for every birthday and Christmas, and I meant it.

Well I chipped away at it — a camshaft here, a set of pistons there. Machine work. I had the motor halfway rebuilt in my basement when I left for college, and that’s how things stood for about 10 years.

After high school I worked at a service station in Hutchinson for two years while going to the juco. Tire repairs, alternators, brake jobs, pumping gas for old ladies. The owner had a friend named Bill, who as I understand it had been the coolest man on the face of the earth for most of his life, the kind of guy who flew airplanes and drove Corvettes and made risky bets on the stock market. But he had gone blind from a car accident and as a result began spending his days at that service station. He took an interest in me, and pushed me. He wanted me to be a really good pump jockey, to see the big picture of what I was doing. The business of it. When he found out I wanted to be a sports writer, he had me bring him some things I had written and he sent them to his nephew, Kurt, who was the sports editor at the Topeka paper.

Kurt thought I was good enough to take volleyball scores over the phone, so when I moved to Lawrence for school, I had a job waiting for me in Topeka.

I have, in so many ways, moved on from the kid I was when we bought that car. I lived in a liberal college town for eight years, and Kurt eventually hired me to do a job that took me all over the country. New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Miami and half the college towns in between. That job led to a book project on another small-town Kansas kid, a project that got me the hunk of cash I needed to finish the Galaxie. Now I live in a big city and I do big city things and, on the whole, I’d have to say it’s all about as exciting as 15-year-old me would have expected it to be.

But nobody ever looks happy behind the wheel here.

When I got to The Farm, muncle Shaun was drinking coffee on that old porch my dad had surely jumped off, the way kids do, on the way to grade school. Shaun’s dog, a stray he found at a landfill, came out to make sure I wasn’t an intruder. A little while later muncle Marvin came out. He was out there every day, helping, just because he wanted to. When we needed to cut off the bumper, we called a guy named Mark Danner, who built race cars. He brought out his plasma cutter, and we tried to pay him for the trouble but all he’d accept was breakfast.

So for five days we sanded and filled, sanded and filled, sanded and filled, morning to night, ending with primer and paint. It’s achy-body work for me, and I had only just turned 30. We did in five days what should have taken five weeks. One night, right as we were finishing up for the day, a storm came in. One of those good, strong Kansas thunderstorms that makes you close all the doors and run inside. So I stayed out at the farm while it passed, my uncle and I drinking tomato beers and playing guitars as the rain pounded the windows and the wind knocked down branches. He showed me a new way to play an A-chord on a Fender Mustang he got long ago in a trade for a car.

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Muncle told me he was selling the farm. The buyer was going to be tearing the house down to make room for more farmland. He’d be moving into Burrton, and his business, Southwest Wheels, would be moving to Newton. A new beginning. I’ve since learned he needed that. “No more ghosts,” Marvin said.

What do I owe you, I asked when we were finished. “Not a bloody thing,” he said. “That’s what M’Uncles are for.”

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So I bumped the key and that old car with the new beginning answered loud, like a dog barking at a train. And I started driving south. No radio, no cell phone charger, no GPS. Just a little Kansas kid and his car, pushing across America toward the coast and a life that has gone better than I expected, carrying with me a piece of everybody who has helped make it that way.

I had to baby it for 500 miles to break in the motor. When I got south of Dallas, and I knew she was ready, I punched the pedal, and the engine took a deep breath and shot me into the galaxy, and I never felt more at home.

Aside

Thumping the melons in the BBQ capital of Texas

Barbecue arguments are like political arguments, only less objective. Which is to say they’re infuriating and unresolvable. For example, every time I hear someone say Oklahoma Joe’s or Jack Stack is the ultimate Kansas City barbecue joint, I want to stab them with a rib bone.

Barbecue is personal. 

So I know that a barbecue argument is an inevitable outcome of this post, and I accept that, but that is not the goal here. I am not going to try to convince anybody of anything one way or another.

Having said that, I don’t think I can in good faith not write that the best brisket I know of in the world is made in central Texas. If you are at a barbecue joint in Texas and you don’t order the brisket, you have committed a cultural crime equal to that of driving past the Grand Canyon and not stopping to look at it or going to the Kentucky Derby and not betting on the race.

Texas barbecue is brisket, brisket is Texas barbecue. Anything else is a neat little sideshow. And how can I describe it? Well there is something about the smoke itself down here. I assume they’re all using at least some mesquite wood but I didn’t ask. When you walk into Smitty’s in Lockhart, you are greeted by an open flame burning on the floor.

You think I am embellishing.

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And that, sirs and ma’ams, is why they can’t make good barbecue in California. Too many codes. In Texas, you can build a fire on the floor right next to the cash register and you don’t even have to put a little rope around it.

Oh, has somebody gotten burnt up? Well then this was a good lesson for them about fire being hot. Bet they won’t make that mistake again.

If you don’t know, Lockhart is sort of the barbecue capital of Texas, which would put it high in the running for barbecue capital worldwide, up there with Kansas City and Memphis and whatever part of North Carolina you want to choose. It’s a small town with one of those Main Streets that remind you of the 50s. On Sundays you can see Al Dressen and the Barbecue Playboys play at Black’s Barbecue.

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I was with my wife, Abby and my friend, Jacob. In Lockhart, we visited Kreuz’s, Black’s and Smitty’s and near as I can tell the whole operation doesn’t differ much from place to place. At Kreuz’s and Smitty’s, you walk into a hot smoky room to order. You tell the guy at the register what you want — One rib, a 1/4-pound of brisket and a sausage link? Sure. — and then he tells another guy who reaches into a giant black metal box and stabs a slab of meat, pulls it out and carves it up to order. I didn’t pay close attention to the prices, but that hypothetical order I just made would probably be something like $7. It’s not expensive.

Other than the smoke and the brisket itself — it really is different — the primary distinction between Texas barbecue and all other styles of barbecue is that Texans have developed what I consider a strange and silly kind of pride regarding barbecue sauce — they seem to think of it as cheating .

Only one barbecue place I have ever seen was so pretentious as to not only disallow sauce, but to preemptively warn you not to order it, and that distinction belongs to Kreuz’s.

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Pretentiousness is something not usually found in barbecue restaurants or small towns, but by golly there it is in the warning palate of black and yellow.This was our first stop and we went with brisket, turkey and sausage. All of it was good, in particular the brisket, some of which was served chopped and some of which was served in the slices you’re used to seeing. I thought the slices brisket was better, but that wasn’t unanimous. However you got it, it had a robust, salty bark on it with that burnt pink smoke ring on the inside.

On the way out, we evaluated.

“That was great, but you know what would have made it better?” Jacob said in the car. “Some barbecue sauce.”

Thankfully all the other places we visited offered sauce, but none of them seem to be real proud of it. It’s an afterthought, a garnish, offered with a reluctance that says, “You’re the customer and we guess that means you’re always right, but we’d really like you to try it without the sauce first.”

Well OK fine but I’ve done that plenty of times and I like sauce, all right? IS THAT OK? I especially like sauce when there’s been some real effort put into it, the way it is done in Kansas City, but that is uncommon in these parts. I have to say, though, that my compulsion to have my meat swimming in it like buffalo wings has been eliminated. Its best usage is probably closer to the way you use Tabasco on your eggs or honey on your biscuits. You’re not mopping it, you’re not slathering it, you’re not trying to drown this velvety meat in sugar and acid. You’re just drizzling it. It allows you to taste all that wonderful, delicate smoke and just complement it with a touch of tang and some sweet.

There is something magical about Wonder bread, barbecue sauce and smoked meat all dancing together (to the BBQ Playboys, most likely), and I say this as a guy who places high importance on bread quality. It’s just that, quite simply, cheap white bread is the most ideal bread medium for barbecue. I submit that if you are in a barbecue place that is offering something other than Wonderbread with its barbecue, you are in a barbecue place that is missing the point. That is a combination that cannot be improved upon and should not be messed with. It’s like a buddy cop movie about a young rule-breaking hot shot and an old vet who’s one day away from retirement. It is tried and true.

Near to Lockhart is a town called Luling, which we learned is best known for something called the “Watermelon Thump.” It is the kind of event where you can ride rides and get a funnel cake. Teenage girls compete to be voted “Thump Queen,” which sounds more like an insult than a social decoration, but nonetheless it was clear Luling is big-time watermelon country. Unfortunately the Thump Festival didn’t begin until a couple hours after we left.

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We ate more brisket, sausage and pork ribs at Luling’s City Market, the ribs being the best of the trip. Luling’s offered little bricks of cheese for 75 cents (which is uncustomary) along with dill pickles and raw yellow onions (which is). I have a bit of a ideological (and, given my stance on sauce, possibly hypocritical) objection to adding cheese to barbecue, but I can’t say I didn’t quite enjoy folding some brisket, cheese and onion in between that Wonder bread.

Because you’ve been so nice to read this far, I feel I should come with a STRONG TAKE about some of this. So here you go: If I had to stop eating meat forever, I still think my last pile of it would be the beef sandwich from Arthur Bryant’s. The best pulled pork sandwich I have ever had was at B-B-Q Shop in Memphis and there is no doubt about this: Nobody does brisket better than Texas.

An argument with myself over Yeezus

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Why is he yelling?

I mean, right? Why does it sound like he’s making this music with power tools? I am laughing, but I am laughing at this record. This album is totally preposterous.

Then again, preposterous is probably just what Kanye was going for, wasn’t it? All Kanye ever thinks about is Kanye, so he would have had the self-awareness to know we were all going to be snickering at this under our palms while trying to look like we’re taking it seriously. Right? He would know that. So we and Kayne are both laughing at the same thing: “Kanye.”

Right?

Then again, does Kanye seem like an ironical person to you? Has he ever given any indication that all of his narcissism had led to anything resembling self-awareness? Does he seem like the kind of guy that would laugh at a joke made at his expense? There is NO WAY he wanted people to find this funny. He thinks he’s The Beatles, and he thinks this is his Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

But, see, that’s just the thing. Sgt. Pepper’s was largely an album of The Beatles making fun of Beatlemania, or at the very least recognizing how preposterous Beatlemania was and reacting to it. So this is Kanye West recognizing how ridiculous his public persona is and poking fun at it. This is his Sgt. Pepper, at least in that, so far as his iconography is concerned, this is the Ultimate Kanye Album.

But come on. Sgt. Pepper’s? No way. It doesn’t deserve that comparison. For one thing, it’s not much fun. Sgt. Pepper’s was fun. If you were listening closely, The Beatles were letting you in on the joke. And at times it sounded like they were sort of just messing around, and that would be followed by something downright symphonic.

So let’s not allow him the honor of a comparison to The Beatles.

Yeah, that’s it. That’s true. This is not even Kanye’s best album, but it is the thing I’ll always remember him by. And that’s not a compliment.

I don’t think.

Look at Me So I Can Get Close To You: An idiot listens to jazz for the first time

What you are about to read is a review of a jazz album by someone who has listened to a whole jazz album for the first time in his life.

I am not a music critic. I like music, and I really like criticizing things, but I don’t feel I have the credentials to be sitting here evaluating music with any kind of authority. Especially not jazz music, which has been depicted to me via popular culture as the background music while our hero seduces the leggy blonde in the cocktail bar.

In this review, you are not going to get a nuanced “take” on this record, but you are going to get an honest attempt and listening to, and describing, the music by someone who does not know how to do that.

You need to know the guitar player on the album, Andrew Trim, is my friend. We have known each other since high school, when Trim — I’m not being formal, that’s just what we called him — was a combo guard who also played loud teen-angst punk with some other guys at my school. They were called Third Person and played songs with names like, “Matt’s New Haircut.”

But anyway that was a long time ago and Trim has grown into quite the guitarist. I have no inclination to write anything about this album I don’t actually think, but I have learned in life that when you have a relationship of any kind with a guitarist, it’s best to just disclose it right off.

So, about the music.

Sitting there and just listening to music, the way you just sit there and watch a movie or just sit there and read a book or sit there and look at the paintings, is difficult for reasons I assume are obvious. We are at least the second, maybe the third, generation of Americans to whom music is really just part of the ambiance, like the curtains or the couch pillows or the scented candles. We think of music as a soundtrack to something else — a day at the beach, a house party, a romantic evening, etc. I’m going to skip the weighty cultural reasons this is probably true, because they’re tedious and everybody already knows what they are. But my point is, sitting there and listening without doing anything else required me to fight some urges possibly brought on by Twitter overdosage.

I have been doing a lot more of that, and I’ve come to enjoy listening to rock albums from front to back as a singular work rather than a collection of singles. I think a lot of people start doing this at a younger age, but I am always behind when it comes to stuff like this.

But the point is, that’s how I listened to this album.

And, let me tell you, the whole thing felt downright cinematic. This album – Look at Me So I Can Get Close to You by Danny Meyer, Andrew Trim and Charles Rumback – feels narrative, but movie narrative not journalism narrative. The wife and I both couldn’t help imagining a scene in our heads. There were sad scenes and triumphant scenes. One song in particular, “Thom Told Them to Take the Train” sounded confrontational, like when an underdog stands up to The Man in a sports movie. “Realm Devil” felt like an honest conversation at a bar at 2 a.m.

During “Fines” the wife said, “This is giving me anxiety.” Quite a trip, that “Fines.”

I wish I could speak more articulately about the musicianship, because I suspect it is quite high. Some of it was more experimental than my palate is prepared to savor. The wife had the same issue, and I likened it to being young and drinking Keystone Light and plastic-bottle vodka all the time and then being handed a glass of good whiskey and the first thing you want to do is add Coke. You’re just not ready yet. You’re not there.

But then other songs were more melodic. One of them made me think of “Planet Caravan” by Black Sabbath. Some of the songs reminded me of that kind of music, that more musical classic rock.

I found it helpful to try to make those kinds of mental connections. Something about connecting dots felt good. I feel like there are a few degrees of of separation between the music I’m familiar with and the music on this album, but I also think this album was highly emotionally communicative. I felt like the music was forcing me to consider it.

It was more escapist than most of the music I know.

This was not background music. It would not work that way. This was a little dark and a little more magnetic than that.

And that’s all a way of saying I had a nice time.

I just ate fast food and I feel terrible

I just ate a cheeseburger from a popular fast food chain, and let me tell you, I feel terrible.

It’s not just the vomiting, either. I gained 13 pounds while sitting in the drive-thru. My doctor says I am “post-diabetic,” which means the diabeetus has grown into my body like an extra appendage. There is like a mini me inside my body and if I kill him, I kill myself. What’s worse is, my body has already adapted to the cheeseburger and will accept no substitutes. I just tried to eat an apple, and my body rejected it like I had swallowed gasoline. There is apple splatter all over the kitchen, but I can’t clean it off because during the short time it was inside my body, the cheeseburger transformed it into kind of a polymer-based glue, much like that stuff you spray inside your tires to fix a leak. Fix-A-Flat. Yeah, that stuff. That’s what it turned the apple into.

This all happened within the last 25 minutes. It should be no surprise fast food works fast. It’s right there in the name.

I shouldn’t have gone there in the first place. I know that. But the trouble is, I like cheeseburgers and I especially like them when they cost less than $4. I am not a wealthy man. I cannot afford wagyu or whatever.

I just wish somebody had stopped me. Or stopped them. I wish somebody had arrested me and thrown me in jail for thinking about a cheeseburger. That way there wouldn’t be apple glue all over my kitchen right now. Either that or I wish it was illegal to form animal flesh into patty form, cook it on a grill and serve it between two pieces of bread. Don’t they know what they’re doing to us?

The government should step in.

Maybe, if we’re going to get real libertarian about this, people should be allowed to make foods I like, but they certainly shouldn’t be able to tell me about it on TV. What am I supposed to do, see a cheeseburger on TV and not buy it? Who thinks like that? Who has that kind of willpower? What, I’m supposed to be able to think for myself and make my own decisions?

I think the government should pull together a collection of really smart people. Like, the people who know the most about food and nutrition, and they should come up with the ideal human diet — something that will work for everybody. And three times a day, they should ring a bell and we could all go to our nearest trough for the feeding. There would be a community trough in every neighborhood. That way we would all eat the right things and nobody would be fat or malnourished.

The freedom to choose a lifestyle seems like a good idea in theory, but that’s an antiquated idea. What are we, cavemen? I can’t handle freedom, and I bet you can’t either.

Here is my position on advanced statistics

I am getting really tired of having this argument about advanced statistics, and I find that having it point-by-point on Twitter or G-chat or wherever ends up leading down all kinds of tributaries to nowhere and people start adopting this posture that is somehow both defensive and pompous and I’ve just had it.

So I’m going to just write it all out. That way it will be here on the Internet and I can just send out this link whenever I get involved in one of these things.

Here goes:

Like 12 years ago Brad Pitt and fat Jonah Hill figured out that baseball scouts were evaluating players based on all kinds of ridiculous myths like how hot their girlfriends were. It should have been obvious this was nonsense, but because baseball is more stuck in the past than a Mississippi diner, this stuff was allowed to pass as real scouting for like 3,000 years. Fortunately, fat Jonah Hill was so smart he realized the most important thing was to get on base and it didn’t really matter how you got there. He then expanded this kind of thinking to every aspect of baseball, and destroyed a million stupid myths. Brad Pitt applied all of this to the Oakland A’s, pissed off everybody in baseball, and won 500 games in a row with a bad team. This changed baseball forever.

No rational person who understands the subject matter would argue this is not the correct way to analyze baseball. Baseball was not originally designed to be a statistician’s game, of course, but it is the ultimate statistician’s game. Almost everything that happens in a baseball game can be isolated and, therefore, converted into a probability. If you don’t understand this, you can’t speak intelligently about the game, and this has become obvious to most baseball fans.

As a youngster, I even applied an extremely rudimentary level of this kind of analysis to my own baseball performance. My mom would keep track of the data, and then we would do the best we could on the back of an envelope to look past things like ERA and batting average to see a more precise truth. If you are in the business of trying to win baseball games or are trying to have a baseball career, you are a fool to not look at the sport this way.

That all said, I am not in the baseball business, I don’t care who wins baseball games and I don’t personally find these kinds of conversations to be interesting. They make the sport less fun to me, because they make the games themselves feel empty and somehow even more pedantic than they already are. But many other people love all this and that’s fine. They are talking about a sport they like in a smart way.

We good? Everybody OK with this? All right.

What happened next was that people started applying this kind of advanced statistical analysis to other sports. Much of this was logical to the point of being obvious. An example of this is “effective field goal percentage” (eFG%), which makes the simple observation that if you’re shooting 3-pointers you don’t need to make as many as you do if you’re shooting 2-pointers. This doesn’t need to be explained to most people, but eFG% is nonetheless a nice neat little way of expressing that idea with a specific number, if that what makes you feel good. There are lots of other examples of things like this. We have statistics that measure not just how many rebounds a player gets per game, but what percentage of the available rebounds he gets, which eliminates numerous variables (pace of play, shooting percentages, etc.) to give us a more precise measure of how well a certain player performs a task. A lot of this stuff, to me, seems to be an exercise in quantifying the obvious — for example, there’s one in which somebody will watch a game with a 4-point differential with 12 minutes left and calculate the trailing team has 48 percent chance of winning or something — but whatever.

Great. Love it. Go forth and prosper.

We run into problem here, though, because unlike in baseball, the individual performances of basketball players can’t be isolated from each other. If you are (1) not an idiot and (2) somebody who has watched both sports, the reason for this doesn’t need to be explained to you, so I’m not going to bother. The point is, the basketball metrics aren’t as precise as the baseball metrics and never will be because of the nature of the sports.

But they’re still pretty good. They’re pretty good at telling us what happened. It’s up to us to figure out the Why but at least we are pretty close to knowing the What.

So this seems like it’s working out, and now we start trying to do this kind of thing with teams. Except we aren’t just tabulating what happened in their games, we’re trying to compare them to other teams. When they all play each other, as they do in the NBA, this seems to work out OK. Every NBA team plays every other NBA team multiple times per season. And there aren’t very many NBA teams, but there are an absolute buttload of NBA games. Further, the level of talent in the NBA has very little variance from team to team, in part because there are only 450 playing jobs available and partly because like most professional sports leagues the NBA is structured to create as much parity as possible. The worst teams get the best draft picks, there is a salary cap, there is free agency, and so on.

Now, if you’ve ever attempted to lay wood flooring (which, I’m sure, is totally all of you), you’ll be able naturally conceptualize what I’m about to describe. But even if you haven’t attempted to lay wood flooring, you should be able to get this. Ready? OK: You lay the first plank, and it’s straight on the line. Then you lay the next one, and butt it right against the other and it looks pretty much perfect, but it’s off just a tiny bit, so little you can’t even see it. And then you lay the next one, and it’s a little bit off too, and this goes on and on until you get to the other side of the room and — oh no — you’re off by six inches and you stand up and the lines in your floor are fanning out and you’ve got this weird triangular shape that can’t possibly be filled with boards and you realize you were off just a little in the beginning but it compounded and even though you hammered those boards in one-by-one just like the book said, you aren’t even close.

Well, we’ve started laying flooring with college basketball, and we’ve got big problems, starting with the two factors I mentioned about the NBA. Because there are more than 5,000 scholarship Division I basketball players out there, the talent disparity is enormous. And because there are 347 Division I teams out there, the schedule doesn’t even come close to pitting every team against every other team.

The metric that is easiest to understand and therefore cited the most is the RPI, which attempts to measure the strength of a team’s schedule and its performance against that schedule. This would be a wonderful thing to know, because it would basically end every argument about which college basketball teams are deserving of which seeds.

Unfortunately, it’s Utopia.

The basis of the RPI, Strength of Schedule (SOS), is a simple formula — two thirds of it is the winning percentage of the teams you played, and the other third is the winning percentage of the teams those teams played. (I’m sure some calculate it with fifths or fourths or whatever but it’s still arbitrary and that’s not the point anyway). That’s pretty logical. I mean, you can see how the first board could get off by half a centimeter here, because a third of the formula is based on the transitive property, but at least we’re trying, right?

Now, remember how this is all an attempt to shatter myths? Well, in this case the big myth is the Top 25 poll, in which coaches or media just sort of observe basketball and rank the teams based on their impressions of them. It’s easy to see how this could be problematic. There are all kinds of potential biases at play, but maybe the biggest one is actually built into the system: Everything begins with a preseason poll. Thus, the polls are making a baseline assumption at the beginning of the season that we know EVERYTHING about all the teams and only adjust as we are proven wrong. Team X is the best until proven otherwise. This, of course, is absurd.

But in order to bust this myth, someone created a system (the SOS) which begins with an assumption we know NOTHING about any of these teams until the games are played. All 347 Division I basketball teams are assumed to be equal when the season begins, and only as they play each other does this begin to be sorted out. This is equally absurd. We know a whole heck of a lot about college basketball teams before the season begins. We know who the coaches are and how they have performed in the past. We have a pretty good idea who the best players are and who has them. We know who has the best home-court advantages. We know how teams performed against each other the previous season. We know how the NCAA Tournament from the previous 2,000 years has gone. We can accurately identify styles of play for a gigantic number of teams. The average college basketball fan has in his brain a huge amount of information about the sport — some quantifiable, some not — before a single game is played.

Of course, some of what we think we know is really just some kind of bias, but here’s the point: It is just as illogical to assume we know nothing about college basketball as it is to assume we know everything about college basketball.

This problem is compounded by there being an enormous number of teams and a small number of games. It’s not just that everybody doesn’t play everybody, it’s that you have to play Six Degrees of Robert Morris in order to compare Duke’s performance to New Mexico’s.

Old Dominion beating Santa Clara is the mythical butterfly that flaps its wings in China and causes an hurricane or gets Gonzaga a No. 1 seed. We are asking numbers to do things numbers aren’t capable of doing. The data are spread too thin. We’re trying to paint an entire landscape with two drops of lacquer.

And whenever I try to express this, somebody comes along and treats me like I just said the earth was flat, like I’m dragging brontosaurus bones into my cave and ranting about Aaron Craft’s grit. I’m not the idiot, here. I’m the one applying critical thought to the matter. Citing KenPom doesn’t mean you’re smart; it means he’s smart and you know how to read. Congratulations. I don’t want to hear somebody say, “It’s just math,” like I’m trying to argue 3 x 3 = 40. Multiplication only helps you if you’ve counted correctly in the first place.

I want to discuss this stuff just as intelligently as the next guy. I’m not some crusty baseball scout trying to do things the way they’ve always been done because I know change will make me obsolete. I’ve got nothing at stake, I just want to be right.

For some reason, everybody thinks you have to pick a side. You are either a Stats Guy or a Traditional Guy, and the Stats Guys get super defensive. They sound like Kip Dynamite when Napoleon doubts the effectiveness of his time machine. And the Traditional Guy gets defensive because he feels like people are telling him what he just saw didn’t really happen. And they both just start defending their sides to their own detriment, and it ends with both of them sounding like they don’t know how to think for themselves.

I think the stats are good. They’re useful tools and I think we should put them up to the X-Ray light and put our subjective observations up to the X-Ray light and if they don’t show the same thing, we should be open-minded enough to try to figure out which is wrong without just assuming anything with a decimal point in it is objective reality.

I just want to be able to point out a gap in the floor when I see one.

Elijah Johnson is not finished with you

Credit: @RobotEJ

Elijah Johnson’s basketball career is a good argument against drawing conclusions.

Before he arrived at KU, I was talking to someone who had been around him a fair bit as a high school kid, and I asked what he was like.

“He’s kind of a surly, asshole kid,” the person said.

So I’m a KU beat writer at the time, and I’m dreading this guy. We reporters do wear people down, and turn otherwise cheerful people into surly asshole kids, and it’s not like it really matters, but these players are people you’re going to be dealing with a few times a week for a few years and it’s just nice if they start off friendly.

Then I met Elijah, and he was not surly at all. He seemed introspective and emotionally dynamic, sometimes a little weird. Those traits can make a person seem rather like an a-hole at times, but I didn’t perceive him as generally selfish, condescending, mean or any of the common symptoms of an a-hole. I could be wrong, obviously — it’s not like we were friends. But that’s the way it seemed to me.

I don’t mean to imply Elijah was some kind of darling. He could get … dark … sometimes. He either can’t fake it, or has no interest in doing so. And he’s one of those people who is often either giddy or brooding. At one point early in his career he made it pretty clear he thought he was better than Tyshawn Taylor (and he might not have been wrong), and yet other times he was Mr. Team Player. One time, after a game at Oklahoma, he came out for postgame interviews and seemed downright loopy. Those of us who were there talked about it. Had he gotten a concussion? Was he on some kind of medication? We never found out and, again, it’s not like it really matters. It’s just that right when you think you’re ready to draw a conclusion about Elijah Johnson, you find out you’re not.

Straight out of the capital of Nowhere, he scored 39 points Monday night in an overtime win at Iowa State, which was the most anybody at KU had scored since Paul Pierce. His performance was heroic and historic and yet the first thing he had to do after it was all over was apologize for doing a pointless uncontested dunk as time expired.

“I shouldn’t have dunked that ball,” he said. “I got caught up in the moment.”

This is a guy who in a blowout loss at Kansas State dunked on somebody and then got  tech’ed up for taunting on the way up the floor. And Monday wasn’t the first time he’d been accused of using the dunk shot as a weapon of mass insult, either. So I don’t know, maybe this guy is an a-hole after all. Or maybe he’s not because he does seem genuinely contrite when he apologizes for this stuff. This stuff he keeps having to apologize for.

His play has been no easier to define. As a recruit he was described as a ball-dominating slasher who’d go chucking at a moment’s notice. His first two years at KU he was a ball-mover and a defender and for quite a while he had this confusingly great assist-to-turnover ratio and an equally surprising percentage on 3-pointers. It looked like one of the coaches had told him “If you want to play, you have to not turn it over and shoot only when you’re wide open and in rhythm” and he followed those orders to within the strictest possible tolerance.

He often explains things with that kind of simplicity, anyway. He did it again Monday, when he attributed his performance to a conversation between himself and coach Bill Self. He did not reveal any details of this conversation, nor did he even bother to characterize its nature, but he assured the audience that he and Self had shared some 39-point words with each other.

Beyond the simplicity of that story, I don’t have any reason to doubt it. It does sound plausible, especially for a guy who seems to be so emotionally absorbent. And I’m sure he and Self did have a conversation and I’m sure Self’s goal was to coax his player into the proper mindspace. I think most of us can identify with just needing to hear somebody say something, and sometimes it doesn’t even matter if you believe they’re being sincere.

But there are other times. It wasn’t three weeks ago that Johnson looked like he was done — doner than a diner steak, doner than Dane Cook, doner than the dishes in Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. There’s no point in getting into the statistics, but Johnson could not make a shot and seemed to have blown a gasket in whatever mechanism controls dribbling too. It looked sad, not because a basketball player wasn’t playing well, but because a person appeared to have lost his confidence, which is one of the  most heartbreaking disasters of the human mind.

We call these things “slumps” or “funks” and those are terms that say, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.” I did not think Johnson was in a funk; I thought he was broken.

But, no,  he was just in a funk.

What he did Monday in Ames was technically legendary. Years from now, KU fans will still sometimes talk about the time Elijah Johnson scored 39 at Iowa State. But this one feels different, because most legendary performances are made by legendary players and I feel quite strongly that Elijah Johnson is not a legendary player.

But you don’t want to speak too soon.