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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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.

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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.

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What ‘God made a farmer’ did and didn’t say

I think it’s important I disclose this right up top: I am not a farmer and never have been, although my dad grew up on a farm and I lived on a farm for the first five years of my life. I grew up in a rural part of Kansas. I now live in Houston, Texas.

Ever been in church and felt like the pastor was speaking directly to you? That’s what it feels like when I watch commercials made by the Chrysler Corporation these days.

It started with that Eminem spot for Chrysler, which I’m sure you all remember. The motif was that of a comeback, specifically for the City of Detroit, for the American auto maker and, to an extent, American manufacturing at large. Eminem narrated it, and the instrumentals for “Lose Yourself” played in the background. I got chills the first time I saw it.

The second was the spot in which Dodge (successfully) expressed what you might call “The American Spirit” using muscle car and Revolutionary War imagery. Chills again.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen another ad campaign that stirs the soul the way this one does. It makes me feel like Dodge is saying so many things I would like to say about cars and America, and it’s obvious I am not the only one. These commercials wormed into parts of the American psyche I think a lot of us have let sit off to the side. It was like our psyche was a thick soup that had filmed over on the top, and this Dodge campaign was a big wooden spoon that mixed it all up again and turned on the heat.

For some of us, anyway.

Last night Chrysler dropped another one that made me take a couple deep shaky breaths. God Made a Farmer was the idea. It used an old speech by Paul Harvey, whose voice you know if you ever listened to an AM station in the Midwest and heard someone say “And that’s the rest of the story.”

That commercial summoned all sorts of feelings for me, almost all of which I was happy to feel. But a lot of people disagreed. More people disliked this ad than disliked the Eminem or Challenger spots, it seems, and I think it’s informative to explore the reasons why.

The first kind of person who didn’t like the spot is someone who thinks farmers are plain and corny and backward and stupid. This is someone who thinks he’s better than a farmer because he wears ironed pants to work and voted for Obama. This person is a bigot just like any other kind of bigot and doesn’t deserve to be listened to.

Some more open-minded people have no issue with farmers or the celebration of their craft, but don’t like it when people say God created things. They also may have felt it sounded a bit like Paul Harvey was delivering a sermon designed to make them feel guilty for not being a farmer, and found that to be off putting. This wasn’t my reaction, but I get it.

Still others enjoyed everything about the spot, right up until the end, when all these wonderful words and beautiful imagery about farmers was spoiled by a cheesy tag line — “To the farmer in all of us.” — and a cynical attempt to hock Rams, even though the connection between the Ram and farming is only sort of meaningful.

I experienced that same icky twinge right at the end, which was curious because I hadn’t felt that way at the end of the Eminem or Challenger commercials, even though Chrysler was doing the same thing in all three — stirring the soul with patriotic and nostalgic ideas and connecting them to an expensive machine.

But here’s why that happened: The Eminem commercial was an attempt to sell a car, but can you even remember what the car was? I think it might have been the Chrysler 300, but it hardly mattered. Chrysler wasn’t selling a car with that ad, it was selling American Cars or, more broadly, American Manufacturing. It was trying to inspire belief that American cars, and Detroit, would again be what they once where. And this is important. It is important that America makes good things, and it is important that Americans believe America makes good things, and Detroit is such a perfect metaphor for the whole thing.

Chrysler had to stretch a little further with the Dodge Challenger commercial, but if you know anything about the muscle car era, you can appreciate the connection. The original Challenger (after which the new one is styled) was the product of one of the most important periods in American history. The years between World War II and the election of Jimmy Carter were without question the golden age in the American auto industry. Nobody in the world made cars like Americans did. They were big and fast and beautiful. They had huge chrome bumpers and fins that reminded you of spacecraft, which was because we were literally sending people into outer space at the time. As the 50s and 60s moved toward the 70s the designs got a little sexier and a little less regal. The engines got bigger. From 1970-74, Dodge made the Challenger, and what a name for a car built at that time, on the heels of the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam.

To connect the new incarnation of the Challenger — released in 2008, by the way — to the genesis of the United States was a mouthful, but if you understood what a muscle car really was, it was one you could swallow.

The Ram has no such associations. We associate farmers with pickup trucks, but the pickup truck does not register with me as being more culturally important than any other kind of implement. Sometimes people drive trucks as an expression of personal style, the same way some people wear cowboy hats. But the real reason the cowboy hat exists is to keep the sun off your neck, and the real reason pickup trucks exist is so you can throw stuff in the bed. These things are iconic, but they’re iconic because they’re ubiquitous, and they’re ubiquitous because they’re necessary.

In short, there is not a farmer in all of us.

That tagline undermined everything Paul Harvey said. It took two minutes to build it, and two seconds to destroy it. The whole point of the commercial was that farmers are special, and then it swoops in at the end to tell us that we can be a farmer just by buying a Ram? What’s the message here?

I don’t mind that Chrysler was trying to sell something. You’re watching the Super Bowl — you know somebody is trying to sell you something every second you’re watching .I think if not for that tagline, the commercial would have been perfect. Just show the Ram at the end and don’t say a word. Paul Harvey said everything that needed to be said.

But if you rolled your eyes because you thought Paul Harvey was stretching the truth a little bit, then you obviously don’t know any farmers.

What doesn’t kill you probably makes you a moron

For a long time, I have wondered why anybody ever uses the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It is supposed to be empowering, I suppose. But there are lots of other choices when it comes to empowering little sayings, and most of them are at least kind of true.

This one isn’t even the least bit true. At the risk of being pedantic and obvious, I am going to explain why, because apparently this actually does need to be explained.

A nonexhaustive list of things that wouldn’t necessarily kill you but definitely would not make you stronger:

  • Losing a leg.
  • Schizophrenia.
  • Muscular atrophy.
  • Alcoholism.
  • A donut.
  • Anxiety.
  • Cataracts.
  • Bullet in the leg.
  • Bear trap.
  • Etc.

I know this saying is supposed to be partially metaphorical. Seems that it is most commonly used by young women who are making a vague reference to a romantic relationship. I am painting with an awfully broad brush, here, but in my personal experience the people most likely to apply this saying to their love life are the people who are constantly experiencing destructive relationships. In other words, they do not seem to be getting any stronger, and certainly not any smarter. They do, however, write things with MiSplaCeD CaPiTalS (for some reason) and take self-portraits in the bathroom mirror.

These kinds of people are especially fond of this saying for two main reasons: (1) It allows them to perceive their self-destructive behaviors as a type of delayed-gratification self-improvement, a tearing down in order to build back up, like they’re lifting weights, and, (2) they’re morons.

Most people can see that this saying is inaccurate and mostly meaningless, but the people who can see that aren’t the ones who need it to be true and meaningful, because they can view their own experiences with at least a marginal degree of objectivity.

Most of us (if we find any sort of inspiration in little sayings at all), can get by on more realistic, practical sayings, like the following;

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” — Mike Tyson.

“Keep sawin’ wood.” — Mark Mangino.

And

“Remember to always be yourself, unless you suck.” — Joss Whedon.

The Ironic Athlete is coming

Sometime soon, there will be a true hipster basketball player. He will be a point guard from Brooklyn, and he’ll be one of the top 25 players in his class. His recruitment will be a national story. He will take visits to all the big schools. Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, etc. And he will take lots and lots of other visits to schools he has no interest in attending whatsoever. Miami, Seton Hall, Washington, etc.

And then, on signing day, he will have a “press conference” in the library at his high school. When it comes time to announce his decision, he will pull out a Nebraska letterman’s sweater.

Someone will ask him why he chose Nebraska.

“I just thought it would be hilarious,” he will say. “Like, me at Nebraska. It’s so funny to me.”

He will be the first player to choose a school for its ironical impact.

Athletes and irony do not (intentionally) mix well. Beginning in the latter stages of the Reagan administration, American culture started becoming ironic and hasn’t really stopped since. We are a highly ironical people.

But athletes are, generally speaking, the exception to this. It’s remarkable. Athletes and grandmas are the most earnest people in America. Just listen to how they talk. They are so serious. They are so tuned in. This thing they do is an Important Thing.

I could easily make fun of this, but I shouldn’t, because earnestness is a good quality and irony is a dead end. Irony only begets more irony. It’s a response, not a prescription. In this way, we should all be more like athletes. (Can you tell I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace?)

That said, I think that day is coming, and when it arrives I will love it.

The soft simple lesson of Mr. Rogers

I am sure this story by Tom Junod is the best thing ever written about Mr. Rogers. It might be the best thing ever written about anybody, for that matter. So I am not going to embarrass myself by attempting to write some terrific Mr. Rogers thing.

But for the last 24 hours I have been thinking about Fred Rogers without stopping. It started when I saw that haunting and catchy “Garden of your mind” remix somebody did on YouTube.

I then went to Wikipedia, and found this wonderful quote, which Mr. Rogers said in court in the now-famous Betamax case. He was defending the use of recording devices like the VHS:

“Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. My whole approach in broadcasting has always been ‘You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions’ … I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important.”

Then someone sent me a link to Junod’s piece. Then I watched Mr. Rogers give a speech to Congress, defending PBS back in the 60s. Watch him melt this senator:

Then, maybe the greatest moment of all is the one Junod mentions near the bottom of that story. It is Mr. Rogers accepting a Lifetime Achievement award at the Emmys– one of the biggest celebrations of self in our culture — in 1997. By that time he had spent almost 30 years as the host of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” a children’s show unlike any other. He wasn’t teaching us to count or spell, he was teaching us how to be human, how to handle our feelings, how to believe in ourselves. It was his vision and he had turned it into one of the most iconic television brands in history.

There he was at the Emmy’s, among the glitterati, on stage being honored for a lifetime of his work. You only get a couple of minutes up there, and this is how he used them:

Mr. Rogers died of stomach cancer in 2003, so he is no longer around to care about the way children are talked to or the things they’re learning from the medium he cared so much about, and mastered.

There will never be another Fred Rogers. Some people are one-off creations, and he was one of them. It is fitting that his message orbited so tightly around individuality. Mr. Rogers was never afraid to be who he was, to say what he felt and to work for what he believed in.

So even though there will never be another, I think we can take something from Mr. Rogers that even transcends his simple message. And I think what we can take from him is the incredible power of sincerity.

Mr. Rogers could pulverize you with it. Watching him speak in those videos made me feel like he crawled inside me and just started mixing everything around like a pot of stew.

Watching Mr. Rogers can give you the sensation the he was not of this world. You’ll see that idea in the comments on YouTube. But I think that’s the wrong idea. It suggests that he is gone for good and everything he was about left with him.

I hope that’s not the case, and I don’t think it is.

On unwritten rules, video game football and the Oregon girls state championship

I don’t know which of us was the weird one, but my friend Bill and I had dramatically different approaches to playing video games.

Our game was the NCAA College Football series. The competition between Bill and I began in 2003, and he and I could not have played the game more differently. The first difference was in the mere selection of teams. I often chose Notre Dame, a team I have kind of cared about since I was a kid living in Indiana, or some other random school that felt good at the time. Georgia or something.

Bill almost always chose Oklahoma, because Oklahoma was awesome. Bill has never been an Oklahoma fan, he just liked that OU was awesome on the game. Now, there was no technicality stopping me from just picking USC or Florida or whoever. It wasn’t like he expected me to choose an inferior team as a way of setting some kind of handicap. But nonetheless I did not do this, even though I knew this put me at a decided physical disadvantage (and I realize how ridiculous that is to write about a collection of pixels).

We also called plays differently. I ran the ball a lot. I’d run the option, I’d run between the tackles, I’d set up the pass. Bill, on the other hand, quickly figured out that with Oklahoma, a play called “Slot Wheels” was pretty much indefensible. He didn’t complete it every time, but every time he did, it went for a minimum of 40 yards. And he completed it a lot.

So Bill just ran slot wheels every time. I’d blitz every time, and I’d either get there or I wouldn’t, and this was basically how our games were won and lost. I would run on first down and I’d punt on fourth down and I’d either sack Jason White or I wouldn’t.

It was not a very realistic representation of football, but Bill could not have cared less about that. He would have beaten me 100 to nothing if he could, and on one baffling night he very nearly did. He laughed until his face looked like a tomato.

I was a little different. Certainly I considered it a thrill to humiliate him, but I liked it when the game came down to real football strategy — when to throw, when to blitz, when the draw might be there, when to use your timeouts. All that. I wanted to beat him, but I wanted to beat him because I had outdone him with my football intellect. Bill wanted to exploit a weakness in the game to the fullest extent.

Neither of us is “right.” Neither of us was trying to win by cheating. I am no more noble for wanting to win a video game in a realistic way. I am probably more of a dork, actually.

All of which brings me to the Oregon Class 5A girls state championship basketball game.

You may have heard about this game by now. The final score was 16-7. The reason was that the underdog in the game, Willamette, decided its best opportunity to beat a Springfield team it had already lost to three times this year was to hold the ball until the end of the quarter and take a 3-pointer. This strategy was designed to reduce the effect of Mercedes Russell, who is (evidently) otherwise unstoppable.

It worked, kind of. Russell only scored seven points, although that was the same number Willamette scored, and Russell’s team won.

This brings up a couple questions. The first — why is there still not a shot clock in high school basketball? — is ultimately dependent on the answer to the second — should people be expected to abide by unspoken rules?

The result of that game is deeply unsatisfying, of course. I don’t think very many people would disagree with that. All of the things that make basketball aesthetically wonderful were removed. The game was far more interesting than a girls basketball game could otherwise expect to be, but for reasons that have little to do with basketball itself.

Assuming all you know about the person who coaches Willamette is that they are the kind of person who would try to win a state championship by (theoretically) taking four shots the  entire game, do you assume this is a good person or not?

Does this bother you? If Willamette had won 7-6, would you have considered that more or less of an accomplishment than if it had won 55-54?

In other words, do you expect people to follow unwritten rules?

I have not discussed this game with my friend Bill, but I have a high level of confidence he would find that strategy both (1) hilarious and (2) totally defensible. To him, the object is to win the game, to get the girl to go out on a date with you, to get the free upgrade at the rental car counter, to get a few extra potato oles tossed into your Taco John’s order, and anything (legally) done in service of those goals is perfectly acceptable, no matter how transparent or cheap or inauthentic it may seem to someone else. Once you get the girl, it doesn’t matter how you did it. You can do anything you aren’t specifically told you can’t do. I assume that’s how he would see this.

My perspective is different. I don’t think Willamette did anything wrong. I just don’t like it. I think that strategy was an attempt to exploit the good intentions of the people who make the rules in high school basketball. The reason there is no shot clock in high school basketball is that high school basketball is supposed to be a training ground. It’s where you learn to run the motion offense, to set a good screen, to use a screen, to make a V-cut, to throw a backdoor bounce pass. It’s where Normal Dale tells you to make five passes before taking a shot. A shot clock would distract from the teaching. Basketball is a tricky game. You don’t really figure it out until you’re too old to play it. Putting a timer on a high school basketball team’s possessions would only impede that.

That’s why there is no shot clock in high school basketball, and as long as nobody has their fingers crossed behind their back, then it can be played at a pace that suits the sport. Up and down. Run your offense, set your screens, make your five passes, take the shot.

Yeah, you can run off the clock if that’s what you really want to do, but is that really what you want to do?

Most of the time, people do abide by unwritten rules, and everything works OK. And I don’t blame Willamette for trying to win the game that way, just as I don’t blame my friend Bill for  running “slot wheels” all the time. You play to win the game.

It’s just that this is the kind of thing that forces people to write down the rules, and I think some rules are best left unwritten.

Tyshawn Taylor’s messy thrilling beautiful masterpiece

I remember the first time I met Tyshawn Taylor, which is unusual. I don’t remember meeting anybody else on that team. It was 2008, and he had just arrived on Kansas’ campus for summer school. He was wearing a white v-neck shirt. That look would become pretty popular over the next year or so, but Tyshawn was the first person I saw in it. He looked cool. I wrote earlier this week that sports are not cool, even though there are cool people in them. Tyshawn is one of those people. Tyshawn is cool. He just is. He has style and charisma. He’s his own man.

I don’t know exactly why I bring that up, but for whatever reason that has always seemed significant to me. I don’t know much about Tyshawn’s aptitude outside of basketball, but I have always assumed he is the kind of person who would thrive in a creative field. He has always seemed so sharply aware of the world and his place within it. He sometimes seems tormented by perception. His own and that of others. Tyshawn has always worn his emotions on the outside. He is a beautiful basketball player to watch, in part because he plays brilliantly, but also because watching him play basketball makes it feel like you know him. No other game is as intimate. In basketball arenas, the fans are right there. Close enough to read the tattoos. The players don’t wear helmets or hats. And basketball is not played behind the wall of structure and design the way football is. Basketball is naked and free. It is played at 5,000 RPM with no seatbelt, and Tyshawn Taylor plays it so honestly. His face always lets you in. His shoulders tell a story. Most players aren’t like that. Most players play covered in the pretenses of Intensity, Unflappability and Invulnerability. Tough guys. Tyshawn isn’t like that. Tyshawn always seems a little vulnerable, and a lot human. The beauty is in that honesty. It can sometimes feel like you’re watching an artist.

When Kansas played at Kansas State recently, and Tyshawn was messing up at the end of the game, and his shoulders started talking and his face started beaming out his insides and he missed the free throws and turned it over, I wrote on Twitter that it looked like Tyshawn was about to paint a masterpiece and cut off his ear. When I say watching Tyshawn play is like watching an artist, I don’t mean he is such a great player he transcends sports, I mean he makes it feel like you’re watching someone express themselves in the most imperfect, crazy, honest way they’re capable of doing it.

You can say many things about Tyshawn, and everybody seems to have something  to say about him. But whatever you say, say this too: Tyshawn Taylor is unforgettable.

If that wasn’t true before, I don’t think anybody at Kansas will ever forget about him now. I do believe Tyshawn became a Kansas legend on Saturday, when he played 44 minutes at an intensity and under a pressure most people will never know. He made one turnover. He scored 24 points. He scored nine points in overtime. Twice, he answered a huge Missouri play with one of his own, and when it came time to decide the game, it was Taylor on the foul line, with that face and those shoulders. He made them both, and Kansas won.

Jason King of ESPN.com got a great anecdote about that moment. Tyshawn’s mom, Jeannell, covered her eyes when her boy stepped to the line. She peaked through her fingers to see her son come through in the clutch, to see her son become a hero. “I broke down and cried,” she told Jason. “That’s my baby.”

Jeannell is such a big part of Tyshawn’s story. That sounds stupid, because considering she is the one who gave him birth, she is pretty much the biggest part of Tyshawn’s story. But there is more to it. It is difficult to explain without getting into vagueness and conjecture, and I don’t think it’s responsible to do that, but it is fair and accurate to say Tyshawn carries a heavy burden in his family, a greater one, even, than most kids from tough backgrounds. A greater one than someone his age should have to. I don’t know much, and I don’t mean to imply I do, but I know enough to know some of the valleys in the rolling hills of his career have not been his fault.

And yet there he was. Here he is. He has been on a peak for two months, mostly. He might be the Big 12 player of the year. He might end up on the All-America team, and if he does for the rest of time you’ll look up into the rafters at Allen Fieldhouse and see it: Taylor 10. Right up there with Chamberlain, Manning and Pierce. Can you imagine that?

What is the point of all this? I don’t know, really. That’s the good thing about having a blog. I don’t need a nut graph. I just found myself thinking about him last night and today, this incandescent kid from New Jersey who loves clothes and Jay-Z quotes and is at his best when he is right up on the rails, skating on the razor blade that separates control and chaos, the kid who can make basketball feel like something ethereal.

And I think we might have seen his masterpiece.

Gratuitous predictions for 2012 (and beyond, if you like)

Some director will create a scene, probably in a television show, in which a character is caught dancing and singing to Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” while doing something that is only slightly embarrassing and not at all controversial.

It’s going to be a loud crash back to earth for both Lil Wayne and Zach Galifianakis.

You will start hearing people say things like, “…back when Zach Galifianakis was funny” in the course of normal conversations. The truth will be that Galifianakis is no more or less funny than ever, but that won’t matter. It never does.

Someone will develop a musical instrument that imitates the sound of a human voice, and is capable of pronouncing and singing approximately 75 words with enough clarity that an untrained ear wouldn’t be able to tell it was a machine. The machine will collaborate with Kanye West on a song called “ones and heroes,” which will peak No. 7 on the Billboard Top 100 chart.

Intelligent life discovered in New Jersey.

Citing the cost and concerns about protecting its original content, a major metropolitan newspaper will terminate its relationship with the Associated Press.

A 22-year-old Orlando woman will contact the editors at Deadspin claiming to have photographic evidence she had sex with Tim Tebow. The photos show a man who looks like Tebow engaging in sexual acts with a young woman, but they are of poor quality and were taken from an angle at which it is not possible to see the man’s face directly. Deadspin will run the photos under a headline that reads, “This lady says these are picture of Tim Tebow having sex with her.” The majority of the public will believe the photos are authentic until it turns out the 22-year-old Orlando woman is really a 41-year-old male programmer from Atlanta.

Metta World Peace will change his name to Chad Johnson.

The makers of Axe Body Spray will intentionally get their Super Bowl ad banned.

Somewhere, at some wedding, somebody will “make it rain” on the dance floor. He will do this with toy $100 bills, and event he had been planning for weeks. He will perceive this as a “hilarious” wedding gag. Instead, somebody’s father will cry. And by “father” I mean “America.” It will probably be the groom.

Tim Tebow will propose to somebody.

The entertainment media will finally figure out that Jay-Z’s retirement announcements are just ways to get himself on TV, but they won’t be able to stop covering them because if they were to start only covering things that are news, they’d be out of a job immediately. Instead, the coverage will take a barely noticeable turn toward self-awareness.

Ryan Seacrest will start to look a little older.

Adele will lose 35 pounds, appear on the cover of every women’s magazine in the world and suddenly  be lauded as proof that “curves are beautiful.” The irony will be lost on 60 percent of the population, and 100 percent of the entertainment media. Her next album “22” will be panned as “downright cheerful” and “a departure from the soul-crushing Adele of ’21.'” It will be a commercial failure.

With sales sagging, Pringles decides to go with tennis balls after all.

On the first waves of popular culture, wine drinking will start to be considered passe and cigar smokers will be considered “sadly clueless.”

Someone you know will buy an all-electric car and never drive it.

Through TMZ, the nation’s women will learn Casey Anthony has begun dating a “creepy but actually kind of good looking” 34-year-old entrepreneur from Las Vegas.

The sports team in your area will win some and lose some.

At home, where the buffalo roam

The Flint Hills speak to certain people.

These are not words I ever would have imagined writing, because the Flint Hills are hilarious. In case you don’t know, there is a swath of earth that stretches from central to northeast Kansas which is known as “The Flint Hills.” There are signs for it.

It is nothing, really, except unadulterated Kansas. In the spring it is green and soft. In the fall it is golden and crunchy. Tall yellow grass waves as you pass. You may see some cattle here and there, a windmill off in the distance, a rusty reminder that some day long ago some family settled up there. The houses are always long gone. But that’s it. You can’t call the Flint Hills “settled,” because there is nobody there, and hasn’t been for ages.  It doesn’t take much imagination to think about Native Americans who once lived out there, where the buffalo roam. The terrain is uninhabited, unfarmed and unvisited. We are all just passing through on the way to someplace else.

The funny thing about the Flint Hills is not the Flint Hill themselves, but that they are seen as an attraction. You are greeted by a limestone sign as you enter them, “Welcome to the Flint Hills.” You have arrived. You have arrived nowhere. Which is supposed to be the point, I think.

Brady grew up in Louisiana and Buffalo and went to college in Ann Arbor. He now works for the newspaper in Kansas City, and drives through the Flint Hills to Oklahoma at least twice a year. He marvels at them. He thinks there are tourism dollars to be made there. Brady, I remind you, is not a business man. He is a newspaper man, which is the opposite.

But Brady is a romantic, and the Flint Hills seduce him. They have that effect. My wife and I were driving back to Kansas from our home in Houston this last weekend. It was still light out when we passed through the Flint Hills, but the sun was tucking itself in. There are days in Kansas when the air is crisp and dry, but the sun is warm in a cloudless sky. It feels like walking in from a snowball fight and finding your mom baking something. The flannel sunlight lays on top of the dry cold, and if you have a sweater on, it is perfect. A lot of places aren’t quite like that. A lot of places sit near bodies of water, and the cold feels different there. It’s a little wet and a little heavy. I’m thinking of Chicago or Minneapolis. Even Houston gets that way when it’s cold, which isn’t often. The wind comes right off the Gulf of Mexico. In Kansas, it has dried out before it gets there. In Kansas, paradise comes in small packages.

It was one of those days we were driving through. We agreed that one day we’d like to move back to Kansas, back to Lawrence, specifically. We had our first date there. We got married there.

Life is good in Houston. There is no state income tax, jobs  a plenty, the winter is mild, real estate is affordable, and the Mexican food will sit you back in your chair. We like it here. We want to settle in. Our kids, should we eventually have some, might think of this as home.

But home whispers to you when you go near it, and we felt that. Yes, we thought, maybe some day we will come back. We’d like that.

That was Saturday afternoon. On Saturday night, I stood in downtown Lawrence, right outside the Red Lyon. The wind was up. The temperature was down. The door guy stood there smoking a cigarette, and I wondered if he was doing it to keep warm. I had on two shirts, but they didn’t stand a chance.

It stayed that way through the night and into Sunday morning, and when we were leaving, set out for an a.m. pass through the Flint Hills, we both agreed it was a good reminder that things are never quite as romantic as you remember them.

Andy Rooney was an influence (as trite as that sounds)

I don’t have a lot to say about Andy Rooney. This isn’t going to sound like one of those hilarious Tim Kurkjian monologues where he exhausts the catalog on somebody’s career and then tries to put them in their proper historical place.

But I did want to say this:

There are not many television personas or even “things in general” that had existed my entire life. That list is like four things long. It’s Andy Rooney, Big League Chew, Sesame Street and Monday Night Football. I cannot remember a time when he was not on TV (mostly because that time predates my lifetime). My family watched 60 Minutes quite a bit, and I was often watching because it came on right after the late football game. Even at 10 and 11 years old, I liked Andy. I liked how he would talk about societal minutia. I liked how he was always complaining about how the world was changing, and he was able to communicate that sentiment to someone to young to have ever experienced that sensation himself.

I had never thought about this before Andy died, but he has to have been part of the reason I ended up wanting to become whatever it is I have become. Andy Rooney, Rick Reilly and Bill Nye the Science Guy were my introduction to social commentary.

It is probably something other than a coincidence that the vast majority of the content of this blog is of no real societal import whatsoever.