Decent guy Peyton Manning does a decent thing

Peyton Manning has done an altogether decent thing and even though I am naturally biased when it comes to this particular issue, I think I have a perspective that can hopefully be illuminating.

Here’s what I’m talking about: Manning called a beat writer at the Indianapolis Star to say thanks and goodbye. I just now read that story, and as I type these words, I am still in a state of shock recovery. Not because it was Manning; he has always seemed like a decent guy. And not because the athlete felt he had a relationship with a reporter; that’s common, too.

But it’s because either I’ve never covered someone who liked me enough to do something like that, or because Peyton Manning is one of the nicest guys to become an athlete in the modern age.

I can’t say with certainty such an act is unheard of, but I’ve never heard of it happening. This is mostly because of the complicated nature of the relationship between reporters and their subjects. We are taught not to trust them, and they are taught not to trust us, and there are good reasons for both.

There is a common tension between athletes and sportswriters that goes something like this:

Athlete: “Why do you guys have to be so negative all the time?”

Reporter: “Athlete, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say 90 percent of what I write is overwhelmingly positive.”

Both of them are usually right.

Let’s say a reporter is talking to a veteran point guard about his team’s season. The team is winning, although it is winning in part because this veteran point guard has accepted a reduced role while a younger star has taken control of the team.

The reporter’s budget line looks something like this: Joe Dingleberry, once the Toledo Sphincters’ great hope, is finally on the precipice of an elusive championship. It just took a reduced role to get there. 

Now, this certainly will be a story that makes some perhaps uncomfortable implicit observations — Dingleberry could not get it done. — but the eventual takeaway will be that Dingleberry is a good guy who made a personal sacrifice for the good of the team.

Yet in order to report that story, the reporter is going to have to ask Dingleberry some pointed questions about his role, how he felt about conceding it to a younger star, if he has any regrets about the years before, and so on. That’s the conflict that makes the story interesting.

But to Dingleberry, there is a decent chance he is going to feel like the reporter is merely trying to bait him into saying something inflammatory. He also might feel insulted by some of the questions and begin feeling defensive. This depends on myriad factors, including everything from the physical setting of the interview to the tone of the reporter’s voice to whatever pre-existing relationship the two of them have.

But, generally speaking, it is in the reporter’s interest to get the player to speak humanly and interestingly, and it is in the player’s interest to do the opposite of that.

So in the end, the reporter writes the story and can honestly say it painted the athlete in a positive light, and the athlete can honestly say, “Yeah, but you were poking me the whole time.”

So it’s complicated. We aren’t adversaries, but we aren’t on the same team, either. There is a good bit of confusion about that among the general public. People often assume sports writers are fans of the teams they cover. And I suppose, in most cases, we are more happy to cover a winning team than a losing one. But when it comes right down to it, our identity is not attached to the team the way it is for a fan. To us, this isn’t recreation or entertainment (even though it is often entertaining); it’s work. My former boss Kurt had the best way of putting it.

“I root for me,” he said.

And yet Peyton Manning called a Colts beat writer to say thanks. For what, it’s not entirely clear. It sounded general, like, Thanks for all the work over the years. It was recognition that those two men had gone to work (sort of) with each other every day for many years and that Manning respected Phillip Wilson’s work and their relationship.

That doesn’t mean much on a practical level. Manning can’t give Phillip Wilson a raise. And a journalist is always going to be a little bashful about receiving praise from one of his subjects, because he wouldn’t want it to indicate his coverage hadn’t been objective.

But it sure was nice of him.

Driving fast and getting married; the evolution of manhood (as experienced by me)

I had removed the back seat, I had left the gas tank nearly empty, pulled all my crap out of the trunk, mixed the carburetor a little rich and pulled off the air filter for good measure.

I did this because I wanted my 1975 Dodge Dart to be faster than Leon White’s 1976 Chevrolet Camaro. We would be testing  our manhood … er, vehicles on about a mile-long strip of flat, lonely blacktop that cut through a wheat field and finished with a cemetery on one side of the road and the Reno County Jail on the other side. I am not making that up. It was as if a concerned mom was on the city planning committee, knew what open stretches of road were used for, and appreciated a good metaphor.

A 1975 Dodge Dart. Mine was a lot like this, down to the hood scoop.

Leon's Camaro was just like this, only with fatter tires.

It was perfect for drag racing. Here’s how that would go:

We’d bring up the idea at about maybe 4 p.m., two hours before our workday was over at Ferguson Service, a full-service gas station and mechanic in Hutchinson, Kansas. If there wasn’t much work to do, we’d pull our cars into the double bays and tinker a little. You’d want the fuel-air mixture a little rich, and you’d want to eliminate as much weight as possible. Thus the removal of my back seat. And the second the clock struck 6, we’d take our paper time cards, punch them out, lock the doors and head for the road that led to jail.

Once there, you’d have to do a couple burnouts (to warm up the tires; warm tires get better traction).

Lacking any kind of lights or a third person, we’d toe our bumpers up to a mostly imaginary line, put them in drive and, with our feet on the brake, give the engines as much gas as the brakes could handle. This would push the car up on its haunches, like a cat preparing to pounce, and Leon and I would look at each other, side by side, and hold up three fingers … 2 … 1 … GO!

As soon as you release the brake, the car shoots off (hopefully without a burnout, though that’s probably happening most of the time). We never did mark off a quarter mile, so we’d race to a sign that made the race quite a bit longer than the quarter-mile drag standard. For 18-20 seconds, we’re driving our cars literally as fast and hard as they can be driven, foot mashed on the floor, shifting out of second gear at 65 miles per hour, you know, ruining the cars. By the end, we’d be at about 105 miles per hour. And, although these cars were beasts in the quarter mile,  with a three-speed transmission geared the way cars were geared in the 70s, when the highway speed limit was 55, 105 miles per hour is about as fast as you can go.

When I was 20, I traded that car to my uncle for a 1992 Subaru SVX. Most people are not familiar with the Subaru SVX. I suspect this is because they are pieces of crap. The SVX was Subaru’s attempt at a high-end sports car. The company’s target demographic was people who wanted a Porsche, but couldn’t quite afford one, but could still afford to spend $25,000 (in 1992 dollars) on a two-door sports car. In modern terms, they were after the Nissan 350Z market.

Anyway, although this car was the result of the Japanese trying their hand at German engineering, it was very fast, but in the opposite way of my Dart. I had read the SVX could reach a top speed of 135 miles per hour.

I checked, and it could.

Then my dad found out I had checked. With my sister in the car.

What comes next I still consider one of the most profound moments of my transformation into manhood, and one of the most perfect lessons my dad ever taught me. He did not rant and rave. He did not try to belittle me. He did not hit me with a guilt trip. He did not even mention the high probability I would have gone to jail if a cop had seen me. He just said the following in that way only dads can, that way that you instinctively understand.

“What you do by yourself is one thing,” he said. “But you can’t do that with other people in the car.”

And that was it*.

*Well, my mom was there later to remind me I could have gone to jail, but that’s what moms are for, isn’t it? To tell you that you could end up in jail.

Maybe it sounds silly that I needed to be told that, but the fact is, I did need to be told that. The profundity in the way my dad handled it was that he did not offend my considerable hubris. Maybe only men can understand this, but at 20 years old, men are unstoppable and cannot be convinced otherwise.

I knew I could safely* drive my car 135 miles per hour and my dad knew I could do that, too, and he knew he could do that and probably even thought that was kind of cool. This is a man who used to street race Camaros in his Hyundai. This is a man who used to do power slides into our driveway. This is a man who gave me my first pocket knife at six and put me behind the wheel of a 1967 Ford Pickup with no power steering at 10 and sent me out by myself with a shotgun to hunt dove at 12.

*You know, relatively.

This is a man who understood the primal value in men doing manly things.

So he did not offend my manly delusions. But in the most subtle way, he revealed to me that there is another side to being a man.

Seven years later, I got married.

See? It's true.

People keep asking me if I feel different now that I’m married. I really don’t. I mean, I feel like I have to do the dishes now, which sucks. But I don’t really feel like a different person, except for one thing.

I feel a greater responsibility to not die. This is not to say I ever felt like dying, but it is to say I was the kind of guy who drag raced to the jail and drove his car 135 miles per hour and chased storms over levees and through creeks.

And that was all fun and manly and maybe even necessary, in an odd way. But there is a different side to being a man.

And there’s somebody else in the car with me now.

I try, and fail, to write about The Bachelor

I don’t like to be The Ripper Guy. There are a million Ripper Guys out there, bashing away at everything. The goal here — generally, but with many exceptions — is to write thoughtfully and insightfully about things whose meaning might otherwise be overlooked. I’m not sure I ever really succeed in that, but at the very least I’m usually taking the subject seriously when I write about it.

That was the attempt, here.

For the first season in its history, I watched The Bachelor, which was the tale of a ham sandwich falling in love with one of the girls from Coyote Ugly.

Or something.

I’ll admit, I had plenty of preconceived notions about The Bachelor, most of which were not good, almost all of which were confirmed. So I’ll say this right off: I am not a fan of the show. I think it is ridiculous, and I think even fans would have to agree with that. The premise — the way for a man to find “true love” is to run 25 (moderately insane) women through a tournament — is preposterous.

None of this is to say I wasn’t interested. Tournaments are inherently interesting. The single-elimination tournament is by far the most entertaining way to determine sports champions, even if it isn’t necessarily the most accurate. And the show does a nice job of setting up the People’s Champ vs. Villain matchup that pretty much single-handedly made professional wrestling the success it was (is?) and has been the overwhelming narrative in every Major League Baseball season since 1996.

Fortunately, the entertainment media play along.

Based on the photos alone, guess how Us Weekly wants us to feel about the respective girls in this photo.

Some Googling, combined with sitting next to my fiance, Abby, revealed there has been a tremendous amount of vitriol expended in Vienna Girardi’s direction. America, it seems, really, really did not want the ham sandwich to love Vienna, most likely because she is divorced, has surgically augmented breasts and had allegedly been a stripper or a Hooter’s waitress or posed not-quite topless for a photo or once kissed a girl and liked it. Nobody seems to know for sure what she did, just that at some point she did something vaguely skanky and therefore does not deserve to be loved. And certainly not by someone with abs, blue eyes and the charisma of a squash.

That, and it is painfully obvious she is going to systematically destroy the ham sandwich, who seems like the kind of guy you could literally kick in the face and then reasonably expect  to hear laugh and say something like, “Well, I just got kicked in the face, so I’m feeling  a little overwhelmed right now.” But that is neither here nor there.

"If you look at my biceps long enough, you will not notice the crater where my personality should be."

I’m trying hard to be fair to this show,* and to give it the treatment it deserves as a pop culture phenomenon. I have, after all, written about Miley Cyrus in this space, so I don’t have any room to look down my nose at anything.

*Not that hard.

By, man, this show makes that difficult. During the season finale, I had already begun annoying Abby with my commentary, so I avoided saying anything when Tenley, upon being tearfully discarded  from the ham sandwich’s life, actually said these words: “Goodbye St. Lucia sun.” I did not question the sincerity of a man who, let’s face it, barely knows these women after just a few weeks of filming and, oh yes, dating up to 24 other women at the same time. I did not note that in 13 seasons of this show, not one single couple has gotten married (although supposedly one is about to do so), despite that seven of them got engaged on the season finale*.

*Granted, this was mainly because I did not know that at the time.

But when the ham sandwich chose the Coyote Ugly girl, and in total sincerity they played this song …

I mean, even Abby was shaking her head.

This show is awful. The shame of it is, it doesn’t have to be awful. This is not “Rock of Love.” The Bachelor, while ridiculous, is at least actually a show, not just a 30-minute YouTube clip. It’s formulaic, emotionally manipulative, and startlingly misogynistic*, but I can forgive all that as long as the show is willing to operate within some reasonable bounds of believability.

*If there was no opportunity to be on television involved, would any woman willingly enter a situation in which she was dating a guy who was also dating 24 other women? It requires the total forfeiture of pride and dignity.

I’m somewhat baffled women like this show. It would seem to represent the worst possible scenario a woman could imagine for dating a man. Women seem to desire, above all else, being made to feel special. This show makes all of them completely expendable. I don’t get the appeal, but I’m obviously wrong.

I’m not asking the show to admit it is ridiculous, but a little self awareness would be nice. Just don’t ask me to suspend everything I’ve learned about people and relationships in order to believe what I’m seeing is plausible. It is interesting enough to watch a single man date 25 girls and narrow it down to one. There’s enough intrigue and enough drama there to carry the show, especially when we’re all in on the secret that all of these women have a screw loose.

Why stuff the love down our throats? Why can’t we just watch the tournament and make our own decisions?

Actually, don’t answer that.

Is love really a battlefield?

I suppose it’s one thing to rip off somebody else’s ideas when those ideas are really good, or at least really relevant.

Look, Grandmaster Flash (along with the Furious Five) made “The Message” in 1982, and pretty much every rap record made since has said the exact same thing.

Just a sample of the lyrics.

Grandmaster Flash: “It’s all about the money, ain’t a damn thing funny.”

See?

So it’s not exactly that I’m against jacking someone else’s mood or worldview or thought, exactly. In any type of art, that’s invariably how it works. Everything is a reaction to something else.

But I object to Jordin Sparks, and not just because her name is spelled wrong. I object to Jordin Sparks because she has taken the idea that love is a battlefield, which was a moronic idea in the first place, and recycled it.

This is the chorus of her song, “Battlefield,” which, you’ll notice, is strikingly devoid of soldiers, gunfire, explosions, nerve gas, gruesome death, politics or emergency amputations:

I never meant to start a war
You know, I never wanna hurt you
Don’t even know we’re fighting for
Why does love always feel like a battlefield, a battlefield, a battlefield
Why does love always feel like a battlefield, a battlefield, a battlefield
Why does love always feel like

I bring this up not because I’m offended by war metaphors. Although I think they’re trite, I don’t really mind them when they make sense. The basic strategy in football, for example, is the same as the basic strategy in battle. Both are about gaining ground on the opponent, taking key patches of ground (first downs) and involve physical clashes. The metaphor works a lot better if you’re thinking about war before the invention of the airplane, but still. It’s a logical metaphor.

Love is not like a battlefield or football.

No matter what Pat Benatar says.

It was Benatar, of course, who first introduced us to this idea in 1983. Now, I’ll admit 1983 was a crazy year (half of which I actually lived through). A nuclear power plant in New Jersey malfunctioned, Ronald Reagan announced plans for a missile interception system* (one of the most manly and awesome things a U.S. president has ever done), Tom Brokaw became the lead anchor for NBC Nightly News.

*Note: This was because Russia had nuclear warheads aimed at the United States at the time. We were not messing around in 1983.

This just got serious.

So we have to evaluate these things in context. Anyway, here’s the best passage in “Love is a Battlefield”:

You’re beggin’ me to go, you’re makin’ me stay
Why do you hurt me so bad
It would help me to know
Do I stand in your way, or am I the best thing you’ve had
Believe me, believe me, I can’t tell you why
But I’m trapped by your love and I’m chained to your side

This guy Benatar’s dating seems like a real schizo, telling her to go, then begging her to stay all the time. But as annoying as that sounds, it doesn’t really seem like a battlefield to me.  It sounds more like a conversation with a first-base coach.

My fiancee and I get into our share of arguments, but I don’t really ever get the impression she’s trying to destroy me, even metaphorically. It’s quite the opposite of that, actually. We’re both trying to be happy, and are sorting out how to best make that happen for both of us.

Love isn’t a battlefield, it’s a negotiation. And that isn’t even taking into account all the good stuff.

I guess “Love is a board room” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

I get hit on by a gay or insane guy

I think most men are generally terrible at hitting on girls, and I think this is primarily because most men have so little experience being hit on.

It’s probably not actually as complicated as it seems. If more guys would just think to themselves, “What if somebody said this exact same thing to me in this exact same context?” they’d save themselves a lot of stupid attempts.

I arrived at this conclusion shortly after an encounter at the gym in which I may or may not have been hit on by a guy who may or may not have been gay. It’s possible this guy was just totally insane. Either way, it felt like I was getting hit on by a gay guy, and that’s all that matters.

Awkward sexual advances are for pacifists.

Let me begin by telling you that the first thing this guy did was walk into the weight room and start mimicking the sound of a siren with his mouth. It sounded something like a tornado siren. He thought this was hilarious. He walked up to a group of mostly espanol-speaking teenagers and, without any introduction, began making the siren noise, more or less, in their faces. He then motioned for them to watch him walk into the basketball gym, where he walked behind a stairwell and performed the noise, briefly confusing everyone in the building.

“That guy is freaking crazy,” one kid said.

When he came back in, he began speaking in some foreign tongue to the espanol-speaking teenagers. They didn’t say anything. They didn’t do anything. They were utterly befuddled. This is behavior I’ve never encountered before, and not only am I probably 10 years older than these kids, I’ve been living in Lawrence for the last five years.

“You know what that is?” he asked.

Stunned, they offered no audible response.

“It’s latin,” he said. “It’s a Catholic prayer.”

Theres nothing in there about hitting on teenage mexicans.

There's nothing in there about hitting on teenage mexicans.

He went right from that to inspecting their teenage arms and abs. I’m not kidding. Squeazing and touching and looking, he compared them to his own, which were extremely flabby and attached to a face that looked like it was 40-some years old, but an excessively abused 40-something, if that makes sense. His face looked kind of like a ball of bread dough, after it’s been kneaded for a while. And fat.

“I know latin, italian, french,” he told them, loudly. “A little spanish. Espanol. Petit espanol.”

He made several remarks about the teenagers’ muscle tone, then had one of them feel his (supposedly) surgically repaired shoulder, which he had (supposedly) injured in a car accident.

Soon, the boys left. That meant it was me, him, and two 20-something girls, which he totally ignored, except to loudly mock something one of them said.

I knew he was going to say something to me. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to respond to the tornado siren or touch the shoulder. And I certainly didn’t want him to recite a prayer all in my face.

I was preparing what I would say to him. And I will say, I’m pretty good at making people feel unwanted for conversational purposes. So good, actually, that I sometimes do it accidentally, causing people I actually like to think I don’t want to talk to them.*

*Does that make me a jerk? That doesn’t seem fair, but I honestly don’t know. It’s not like I derive any pleasure from this. I don’t make people feel uninteresting just for kicks, or to make myself feel better. It’s just that I don’t like small talk, unless there is some realistic expectation that it will become something more interesting. Some people find other people necessarily interesting. I don’t. That’s all.

Not everybody has this skill. My friend, Lance, for example, cannot ever extracate himself from a bad conversation. He’s so engaging (or, perhaps, engagable), that people think he’s interested when he actually isn’t. He accidentally makes people feel like they are entertaining him (often, as I think about it right now, probably me). This is a fine skill to have. I’d probably be better at my job if I were like Lance but, alas, I’m not.

The point is, when I set out to be unapproachable, I’m usually effective. Probably 95 percent effective, I’d say, in warding off unwanted conversation.

So I pulled the bill of my hat down, kept my eyes focused on what I was doing, or the wall, and adjusted my workout so that I would not be in his vicinity.

And if he started to talk to me in latin, I was going to say this:  “Hey, I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t want to talk about this.”

It’s direct. It leaves no room for misunderstanding. It’s just, “Don’t talk to me. No offense.”

But he did not talk to me in latin. And he did not make the siren noise. Instead, he hit me with this:

“Nice work with those 50s.”

I was sideswiped. What he had said to me was neither intrusive nor overtly annoying. What could I say?

“Thanks,” I muttered, not looking at him.

And then he went for it.

“Nice arms, too.”

That was it. I hurriedly finished my last set, and bolted out of there. I can’t imagine what he was going to say next, but I knew it wasn’t going to get any less weird from there.

Call me a homophobe, if you want. If you’re a woman, imagine how creeped out you’d be if a guy like that started commenting on your legs while you were doing lunges.  Now, multiply that by whatever you multiply by to allow for unwanted homosexual advances.

So I started to think about this, and I wondered how often things a lot like this must happen to women. Some random guy at the gym making some out-of-place and completely transparent compliment, then ignoring all nonverbal signals that this was a poor idea. And how often do men make the creepiest compliment possible at the weirdest possible time?

I think you can only get away with this stuff if you’re really, really ridiculously good looking, and if that’s the case, why are you complimenting women in the first place? You’ll do much better by insulting them.

So that’s my useless advice for the day.

Girls+Guys=Friends: Probably not

Originally posted 9.2.2006

A girl I know told me she didn’t understand why she couldn’t seem to maintain friendships with guys. She said, at some point, the guy would want something more, she would reject him, and the friendship would basically end right there.

She was torn about this, wondering if there was something inherently unfriendly in her.

She was way over-analyzing it.

The answer, women, is this: Guys will never pursue friendships with girls. If a guy make an effort to talk to or spend time with a girl, he either has romantic feelings for her or wants to have sex with her. We are pretty satisfied with our male friends. We have to act differently around girls, and we don’t want to do that unless we’re getting something out of it.

For those reasons, girls just don’t make good friends for men. We have to eliminate a minimum of 65 percent of our conversation topics when girls are around, we can’t expell gas, we have to exhibit the most basic forms of civility. It sucks.

This is not to say we cannot have female friends. Guys will tolerate female friendships for the following reasons:

1. The girl is your buddy’s girlfriend — Often times, mixing girlfriends and bros is like mixing Al Franken and Ann Coulter, but if the girl is a relatively reasonable human being and doesn’t require constant attention, we can be friends.

2. We’re still in the interim period between meeting and, um, whatever is going to happen thereafter — The interim can usually last no longer than a couple of months, at which point the guy will have either ruined it by being too pushy or have given up for lack of positive signs.

3. You’ve known eachother forever –If you went to grade school, junior high, heck, even high school together (assuming you saw eachother almost every day during that period), friendships are acceptable, although the girl should know that the guy is probably making a move on her at some point. In this case, rejection won’t end the friendship.

4. The guy is gay — This is a whole ‘nother blog altogether.

Why Men Don’t Buy Underwear

Originally posted 9.21.2006

Anyone who is living (and that includes pretty much all of us, except for maybe Larry King) has probably noticed that men tend to ride the same pair of boxers for years on end. Essentially, our only requirement for underwear is that it form a protective barrier between our zipper and our manhood.

Thus, we stick with our boxers until they can no longer serve this function, which usually means the underwear has disintegrated, become a part of the atmosphere and been carried away by a nitrogen molecule which, if it is a male nitrogen molecule, has given the boxers particle a quick sniff and put it on.

Women, of course, find this repulsive, which is the only reason men every buy new underwear. In fact, men would probably still be living in caves, walking around naked and communicating in well-timed scratches and gutteral noises if women did not demand a basic level of civility from us.

We go to dance clubs because girls go do dance clubs. We clean our bathrooms because girls like clean bathrooms. We buy fancy shirts with stripes and buttons because girls like fancy shirts with stripes and buttons.

(Incidentally, we buy pink polo shirts and pop the collars because we’re homosexuals and other men like pink polo shirts with popped collars. But that is neither here nor there.)

I think, to varying degrees, women are aware of this phenomenon — that we spend a great deal of effort solely to make ourselves presentable to women. This it seems would make for an empowering feeling, particularly for women being pursued by multiple potential suitors. On the other hand, I have no idea what it is like being constantly approached with bad pickup lines, offered free drinks and insincere compliments and asked for “dates,” although, as a man, that sounds fantastic. I think that’s what it’s like being in a rock band, which explains why so many men, who would never touch a piano or a trumpet, want to play guitar.

If you’re waiting for some profound point to come out of all this, you probably have not yet realized this blog is being generated by a mind barren of profundities.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some underwear shopping to do.