Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Track Tales Tuesday: New Year's Day and Negative Pop Punk

Most people probably haven't heard of the short-lived pop punk band 5 Days Ahead. Hailing from Pennsylvania, they released one EP and one album, in 2001 and 2002 respectively. Those years were the first in my college days, which weren't exactly easy for me, and near the beginning of the mainstream success of the genre. 5 Days Ahead fit nicely in that niche. Their music was aggressive and energetic, and their lyrics and vocalist channeled the emo influence that was huge at the time. They were honest, passionate...and negative.

In my younger years, negativity wasn't a big deal to me. It was something I lived with. I'm not sure if it was due to the culture I grew up in, my upbringing, my experiences, or the ideas I held. Likely it's a combination of all of those factors. Still, the older I get, the less I'm able to deal with negativity, especially in the arts. 

5 Days Ahead are a memory of a time where I couldn't find a way around the obstacles in front of me or any hope that I'd ever find that way. The songs I remember by them all fit that theme. Some are linked with holidays. One is titled "Valentine" and features the lyrics:
It makes no sense to tell someone you love them
just because it's Valentine's Day.
I'd rather hang out with my friends
and bomb couples with chiclets till they run away.
Not exactly the model of happiness or a well-adjust psyche. Other songs such as "Another Wasted Year" show other manifestations of their perspective. I turn to this song on New Year's Eve because it's about the holiday and the pain of looking back, two things I am dealing with very immediately. However, I don't agree with the band's conclusion in their lyrical culmination: "It's just not worth it/It was all just a waste of time."

As is often the case in pop punk, this track is about heartbreak and dealing with the pain that accompanies it. After starting by setting the scene with "Toast your glass up high to the new year/I'll pray for better days," the singer pours his heart out, almost quite literally:
12 months, a crush I couldn't kill
I said one thing now I'm wiping tears from my eyes
You're damn right I feel stupid
Retarded schoolboy crush
Dreaming about you every night
Though unrequited love is admittedly painful, spending any amount of time loving or admiring someone is not a waste. By doing so you are admitting, whether intentionally or not, that you identify good in that person. That identification is a celebration of life, as it is, as you see it, as you want it to be. That positivity is impossible to escape in pop punk. The problem occurs, in this song, in the genre, and in life, when it is coupled with a focus on the feeling of hopelessness.
What should i say?
It doesn't matter anymore it all faded away
I'll tape up my heart
One minute, you didn't care and ripped it all apart
 I know it's been said a billion times before. I'm still going to say it again. Never let one person (other than yourself) affect your sense of self worth so greatly, no matter how well you think of him or her. It can take less than a minute for things to get, let's say, wacky and him or her to reveal a new side you haven't seen. More importantly, if the person isn't going to show you the same reverence back, why do you want him or her to be a part of your life, even if just as a motivating idea?

I'm going to stop for a minute here to clarify something. I'm not writing only about romantic love or love in general. What I'm discussing applies to any situation where you deal with other people--family, work, school, in the store, performers you enjoy. Each of us decides who we let become a part of our life, from a thought in our head to a spot in our bed. It's just as important to make that choice responsibly as any other.

Over the coming year, but especially the next month of Track Tale Tuesdays, you're going to see a focus on positivity become a theme in The Midside. I understand the focus on a feeling of hopelessness. It's why I've been able to stomach that side of my favorite genre for so long. I just can't dwell on it any longer. Those bands and songs bore me now, bringing a sluggishness to my brain and a soreness to my brawn.  Those pains are no longer ones I care to suffer.

As long as I'm breathing, nothing is a waste of time as long as I know why I chose it.

Happy New Year!

Upcoming Track Tales
A Perfect Storm of Self-Satisfaction by The Good Fight
So Positive by Down With Webster
Dreamcatcher by Set It Off

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Family Man: Growing Good

Every once and awhile I can annoy one of my friends enough that he'll watch a show a movie I've been raving about. The past couple of weeks has been one of those victories, as my friend finally binge-watched The Walking Dead and texted me his thoughts. He was most impressed with Shane and The Governor, the two main villains of the series so far, summarizing his thoughts:
"Contemporary media is so much better at portraying evil than it is at portraying good."
The observation is astute. As a culture, we're kind of obsessed with evil characters, at least on television. A few recent villain-cum protagonists are Dexter's Dexter, House of Card's Francis Underwood, and, of course, Breaking Bad's Walter White. They share similar personalities and plots, and viewers rally around them for some reason, hoping for their redemption. The question is why? Why are we, as a culture, so good at portraying evil and so ready to embrace evil characters? It's a topic so worth of heavy consideration that I intended to sit on for awhile.

Then I saw Nicolas Cage's 2000 Christmas drama The Family Man. The story of Cage's every-man Jack Campbell is nearly the same as Bryan Cranston's White, right down to the cynicism towards American empire-building, Capitalism, and living to maximize your own talents and desires. The similarities between the two made my viewing of the movie equally as uncomfortable as my viewing of the show--and revealed the answer to my friend's question.

Whereas White turns himself from a family man into the king of a meth empire, Campbell starts at the top of the finance mountain and works his way down it. He's the president of a company who lives in a Penthouse on Wall Street and thinks he has everything he needs. The only "problem," according to the movie's universe, is that he lives alone and is so wrapped up with work that he calls for an emergency strategy meeting for a $130 billion merger on Christmas Day. One chance meeting with a magical Don Cheadle and Campbell finds himself where White was in the first episode of Breaking Bad (minus the cancer).

In the suburbs of New Jersey, Campbell wakes up on Christmas morning in bed with his college sweetheart and current wife Kate, a character so close to Skyler (White's wife), I would've thought she was ripoff if not for the fact that this movie was released nearly a decade before the series about meth-making. Lacking memories of his marriage and the two children that came as a result of it, Campbell rushes into the city to return to the life he knows, only to be thrown out of his apartment and office buildings because the doorman don't recognize him. Magic Cheadle confronts him again, telling him he must accept his situation and learn from it.

What Campbell learns from the situation is what makes the movie so disturbing. The difference between his lives is extreme. His neatly organized and modern penthouse has been replaced with a messy, chaotic suburban home. His challenging and exhilarating job has been replaced with a retail sales position at Kate's father's tire and auto-parts store. His free time is spent participating in a sport he hates, bowling. This issue isn't of kind, it's of quality. If the movie portrayed a man learning the values in a different type of life (which it may have been trying to), it'd likely be enjoyable. Instead it portrays a man learning to accept a life well below what he desires in exchange for love.

The most revealing scene in the movie follows Campbell's hard-fought effort to regain elements of his empire-conquering life. His other-life-boss randomly ends up in the tire shop and Campbell sweet talks his way into a job. He then brings Kate to the city and reveals his plan to move there, double both their incomes, and send their children to private schools where they'll receive a better education--a completely reasonable proposition. The family would stay together and have an improved quality of life.

Kate doesn't respond as if it is reasonable at all. In true Skyler style, she hysterically objects to Campbell's plea, demanding he explain why he'd want to rip their daughter from the school she loves and doesn't care that she pictured them growing old in that house in New Jersey together. Campbell attempts to argue, but eventually acquiesces for some reason I forget.

The rest of the movie progresses predictably. Campbell comes to love his family and  realize he's lonely, wakes up in his real life, and rushes to pursue a still-single Kate. It's all lovey-dovey rom-commie (pun intended) and meant to demonstrate that the character has finally become good. In fact, he even spurns the emergency strategy meeting (and trip to Aspen to woo the merge partner) to reveal his loneliness to the love-of-his life. At this point the plot is propelling purely on emotion because if you stopped and examined Campbell's situation, you'd realize that he's throwing away a life that stimulates and challenges him in favor of the life that literally destroys everything he prides himself on (unnecessarily!) in favor of someone else's (namely Kate's) happiness.

That realization reveals a hidden definition of "good:" suffering for the sake of the people you love--and no one with an ounce of self-respect would enjoy watching a character who allows himself to suffer unnecessarily. The Family Man likely only survived on the fumes of love and the Christmas spirit of giving, two things which can be enjoyed without harming yourself. Breaking Bad thrived on White's self-empowerment. Though it was ultimately used to kill and corrupt in a misguided quest for wealth and power, viewers witnessed a defeated man attempting to break free of the straps his wife (and other circumstances) had tied him with. In that sense, White's end was much more victorious than Campbell's.

The reason contemporary media can't portray their definition of good is no one would watch. Watching someone intentionally lose is too painful and depressing of an experience. Imagine a Die Hard where John McLane has to sacrifice his life at the end to prove to his wife he's not a jerk, a 300 where Leonidas agrees to kneel to Xerxes to stop the bloodshed, and a Man of Steel where Superman gives himself over to Zod for the greater good of the Kryptonian people. If any of these heroes did as I described, they'd be throwing away what they think is right in favor of someone else's worldview.

I'm not suggesting what makes a character good is sticking to his ideas no matter what. That stubbornness can quickly turn any hero into a villain. Rather, sticking to the right ideas no matter what makes a character good. McClane refuses to die because doing so would see the elitist robbers get away with the money, Leonidas won't kneel because doing so would mean accepting an oppressive dictatorship, and Superman won't surrender to Zod because doing so would mean the end of a world and culture based on self-determination and freedom.

In Breaking Bad, White turns evil because his bitterness towards to the world causes him to embrace an any mean's necessary approach in building a meth empire. In The Family Man, Campbell turns "good" because his newly found loneliness causes him to embrace an any mean's necessary approach (which includes flouting the empire he built) in pursuing Kate.

Like Two-Face, these characters two sides to the same coin, and if we flip it, there's no real difference. Either way, we lose.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Track Tales Tuesday: What are your Blank Pages?

As a genre, Nerdcore is usually pigeonholed. The most frequent culprit is, unfortunately, the artists who identify with and accept the label. Their songs tend to be: video game, movie, television, video game, etc. Or, as intellectual-diss rapper Kabuto the Python spits in his song "Reference Desk:"
"Refer to shit that nerds like and you're the best in they mind
so the references are effortlessly peppered in mine." 
While Buto's outlook may be cynical, it's also true, and he manages to do something in those two lines that the large majority of nerdcore artists fail to do--fill the trappings they repeat with meaning.

Creating on a high-level requires more than outlines and mimicry. To a certain extent, what's inside the lines is what's lost in our culture. Nerdcore is just another form of this issue. Most people can roll with references, quoting lines and sometimes seeing parallels to their everyday life. Very few can understand what those quotes or parallels mean. It's the difference between Family Guy and American Dad. While both can be deathly amusing, American Dad is consistently funnier because the references add depth to their conflict. In contrast, Family Guy seems as random as manatees and beach balls.

Due to this tension, the more talented nerdcore artists are sometimes at odds with their ascribed label. Voice artist and rapper mc chris once created a controversy for trying to distance himself from the genre. Stanford graduate and nationally recognized MC Lars stirred another by declaring "Nerdcore Died." Beefyness, the self-declared crown prince of Nerdcore, questioned whether the genre was worth defending. The most recent artist to join this list is San Diego resident Dr. Awkward.

Like most nerdcore debuts, Doc's first album Unlimited featured video game reference after video game reference. One song was about meeting a girl at a LAN party, another was a love-song ode to three female Final Fantasy characters. While the album was enjoyable and had some shining moments (such as Timid and Geekquilibrium), it mainly felt like the labor of a quest for approval--the key word being labor. Since that album, Awkward has gained a loyal following, shed a record label, and re-evaluated his reasons for writing raps.

Blank Pages is the title track off of Dr. Awkward's second album. While the album still contains songs about cartoons, Star Wars, and superheroes, it also has songs about the difficulties of expressing love, the power of forgiveness, and yearning for a better world. Through it all, Awkward exposes the irony of his first album's title--"Joshua [his given name], truly you are limitless." On display is a man's fight to live the life he wants. He opens the song:
I feel this isn’t who I’m supposed to be
According to expectations of those close to me
This isn’t how I make the most of me
The man in the mirror is nothing but the ghost of me
Nerdcore carries with it a host of expectations. Awkward is talking about much more than that label however. In the first verse he delves into the expectations we place on ourselves due to family, culture and society, "Go to college, get a wife, and live the bored life." He ends the verse by turning to blank pages as the escape from that formula. The hook then declares that he's "breaking free of who he's supposed to be."

The second verse is a mediation on how to find direction when you're staring at nothingness. Cleverly he points out that there's no use in considering yourself as lost because happiness isn't a destination. He follows it up "Don’t have to search for happiness, it’s born of your creation." Part of the reason what's inside the lines is lost in our culture is we accept that the lines themselves have already been defined by other people. Doc is challenging that assumption, and us, when he ends the verse, "Don't let those be your blank pages."

The final verse, split in two by repetition of "I'm looking to these blank pages," is a declaration of motivation and passion. In it, Awkward lays out in a few lines what can only be truly understood through the process of constantly creating:
Take what you want this life is for the livin’
It won’t be handed to you, only death is givin’
Shake it off, shake it off, self-pitying is useless
There’s no endgame in your excuse
If you want something, it is you who must create it
Mimicking, repeating, referencing, these tactics can only get you so far--where everyone has already been. Don't misunderstand my point. I'm as big of a fan of a references as anyone. I love integrating them into my work. I do so though mainly as a source of humor, to point out the absurd parallels in our lives. Ultimately, despite all our similarities, we're each unique, so the lives we want and need haven't been lived or written out before us. That fact means we have to create our own paths.

With his second album Blank Page and its title track, Dr. Awkward is declaring "these are mine." He's proudly and admirably making the album he wants to, as he recently revealed, "I love everything on Blank Pages because it represents my life now wonderfully."

With the statement, he's also challenging his listeners: What are your Blank Pages?

Call Me Casual (Not an Apostle of Tyson)

Survivor: Blood vs Water threw me for a loop. The season was the tale of the pain brought about by bringing deeply personal relationships into the game. The players who suffered the most became the focus of the story, yet the player who turned his pain into the fuel for victory was relegated to a footnote, especially in the finale.

Each episode was "these two are struggling because of their love #bigbadwolf." Yes, #bigbadwolf was an actual Twitter hashtag the editors put on screen. If you used and followed that hashtag, you would've been right in the middle of a conversation about how great of a game eventual winner Tyson Apostol was playing. Yes, it's almost like they were leveraging the "superfan" community to write that part of the story.

Or were they letting them write their own?

I'm not a fan of Tyson. It's nothing personal. I don't know the guy, only his edited character on television. I've followed him on Twitter since Heroes vs Villains and felt the same way about most of his tweets that I've felt about his confessionals. Every once in awhile I chuckle, usually I shake my head and appreciate the intent.

As a communicator, the way Tyson says things intrigues me. He works hard to create an ethos of nonchalant investment through subtly deriding some absurdity of what he's doing or likes. His favorite target of these quips is himself. The day of the finale he tweeted, "Pretty sick on the day of the #Survivor finale. Similar, I would suspect, to Michael Jordan during the '96 NBA finals." Surely it's meant to be taken in jest because there's no way he'd be calling himself the Michael Jordan of Survivor...except he is calling himself the Michael Jordan of Survivor. Saying it in jest makes it easier for the audience to accept it. It's a clever approach that I enjoy a lot more than the content inside of it.

My favorite moment from the finale was when Tyson broke down and cried after the vote reading. Most winners whoop and jump around. The moment is the realization of a joy they knew was possible and made happen. For Tyson it seemed more like a release. He openly admitted at the Final Tribal Council that he didn't think he had a chance at winning at the start. Many of his confessionals echoed that belief, as he discussed the game getting away from him in previous seasons. As he wept, he seemed to let go of all the frustrations and apprehension that I'm accustomed to seeing from him. I enjoyed the moment because I finally understood and appreciated what the victory meant to him, I just wish that I was told the story of him building to that release.

The story I was told was a Culpepper sandwich with the Morretts and Baskaukases between the bread. Early on, we saw Brad Culpepper struggle to become the shield he promised Monica he would be (and surely has been during their entire marriage). His aggressive play and claim on a leadership position thrust Monica into the spotlight until he left. Similarly, Vytas Baskaukas excelled in letting others take the spotlight and the axe but it was his brother Aras' strong leadership skills and history of success in the game that did him in. Post-merge, Laura Morrett saw her game end when her daughter Ciera decided she couldn't win as long as her mother was there attracting attention to the two of them.

At the end of their games, each pair was given a catharsis by the editors. The Brothers Baskaukas seem to have worked through their rivalry to a new found respect. Laura witnessed her daughter blossoming into an independent and confident woman. What happened to the Culpeppers? Their dynamic became the subject of the finale.

As the numbers whittled down, Monica became the swing vote and only player who could possibly stop the Big Bad Wolf from blowing houses down. Over and over she asserted that she was playing for Monica, sometimes following up that claim with a contradictory assertion of selflessness. All her posturing culminated at the Final Tribal Council when the jury forcefully confronted her with a seemingly basic question, "Who is Monica?" In her own way, Monica admitted that she didn't know. It was truly compelling, and sometimes difficult, to watch.

I completely felt for Monica. I wanted the jury to lay off of her. I didn't understand what more Laura wanted when she asked for "vulnerability" after Monica had just bared her soul about her role in her husband and son's lives. I was relieved when Hayden had the class to explain to Monica what they were all confused about (and pained when Monica took it as another attack when it wasn't). At the end of it all, I wanted Monica to win so she could have the title of Sole Survivor to start building her independent identity on, but she was never going to. Regardless of my feelings on Tyson, this season was his and the story should've been his too.

Many of the "superfans" (a self-ascribed label that seems to mean a much-deeper-than-typical engagement with the show) did see the story as being Tyson's from early on. Similarly, they saw One World's story being about Kim and Redemption Island's story being about Andrea early on. Two out of three times now, they've correctly uncovered the winner. Zero times have they done it by taking the show as it is.

Tyson's win, like Cochran's the season before, is a superfan's dream come true. The game has had a huge impact on his life yet he never thought he'd win it. Hell, host Jeff Probst never thought Tyson would win it. He said as much pre-game, asserting people wouldn't respect Tyson enough because he is mainly about having fun. That persona is exactly what he cultivates to belie what it all means to him.

Just like superfans, Survivor means more to Tyson than I suspect we'll ever know or understand. It's why they wanted him to win. Before this season, he wasn't a historic Survivor legend like Boston Rob Mariano. His inclusion in his second season Heroes vs Villains was curious and his performance in it short lived. Now after his third season, he is a legend and a victor--and it took him one less season than Rob to become the latter. That fact is what the superfans will remember this season for.

Me? I'll remember Aras and Vytas' parallels with Jacob and the Man in Black on LOST, Laura's struggle to balance her desire to win with her desire to see her daughter win, and Monica's tears that came with her fight to assert herself. All of it taught me what helped Tyson win--you have to make sure your relationships in life fuel you, not cause you anguish.

That was the story of Blood vs Water. Maybe I'm a superfan for analyzing the editing on such an in-depth level to uncover themes (and for meeting players like the tall-as-fuck Aras). Maybe that means I'm supposed to be happy Tyson won. Though I tip my hat to and congratulate him on the feat, I'm still glad I'm not glad. Maybe that means you'll call me a casual derisively under your breath (or in secret Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms groups).

Say what you will. I love the balance I've found. Twice a year I'm told a story that enriches my life on a professional and personal level--a story that shows me what it truly means to survive.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

There's Something Wrong with Donald Glover, and That's OK.

I listened to Donald Glover's new Childish Gambino album "Because The Internet" yesterday. There's some stuff I really liked. There's some stuff I didn't. I'm not going to attempt to judge whether I think it's good or not because I got the impression he didn't make it for us. He made it for himself.

The album is constructed almost like a bunch of EPs strung together, each having its own tone and topics. As you progress deeper into the tracklist, the mood becomes darker and the verses shorter. For me it felt less like a man trying to create for the audience's enjoyment and more like a man trying to capture his emotions in music. A lot of people may not say there's a difference between those two things, but there is. The creation of art is necessarily a self-aware process. You are creating it to be consumed. You just have to decide who your audience is.

I still think we're Glover's audience on this album. He's just not trying to entertain us. He's trying to connect with us. As he's always done, he's using his abilities with music and the written word to reach, he's just doing so on a different level than before because of how his life has changed.

It's well known that he left his beloved role as Troy Barnes on "Community." It's an action that's confusing from a distance, but makes more sense upon a detailed look. Recently, Glover released pictures of a series of handwritten notes on Instagram. Some of his statements are pretty innocuous. Others are revealing.
I didn't leave Community to rap. I don't wanna rap. I wanted to be on my own. 
I've been sick this year. I've seen a bunch of people die this year. This is the first time I've felt helpless. But I'm not on that.
I feel like I'm letting everyone down.
I'm afraid people hate who I really am.
I'm afraid I hate who I really am.
 And (underline his)
I got really lost last year.
But I can't be lonely tho.
Cause we're all here.
We're all stuck here.
I wanted to make something that says, no matter how bad you fuck up, or mistakes you've made during the year, your life, your eternity. You're always allowed to be better. You're always allowed to grow up. If you want.
These admissions, mixed in with insecurities about his parents, relationship, and future, point to a deep-seated loneliness that stems from feeling unimportant/invisible. I know because I've been there. I struggle with it every day. The first excerpt reveals what triggered these feelings. The second demonstrates how he's taking them out on himself. The third reveals why he's taking them out on himself. He doesn't think he has a right to say there's something wrong with him because "we're all the same."

Unfortunately, the feedback Glover is receiving is only going to reinforce this idea he holds. The first comment on the article I linked to has 56 likes and normalizes Glover's experiences:
This is heartbreaking. If it's possible though, I love and respect Donald Glover even more because of it. He has written down and shared things that most of us are afraid to even admit to ourselves.
The older I become the more I hesitate to say what I feel and go through is what most people feel and go through. I'm not in other people's heads. I have no way of knowing their experiences. I'm sure other people have similar experiences to mine or Glover's, but I've learned the more I said they did, the more harm I caused to myself.

By repeating these are the "things most of us are afraid to even admit to ourselves," I made myself feel as if I didn't have a right to complain that I felt invisible, which made me feel even more invisible.

Random commenters on the internet certainly aren't the only people trumpeting this normalization either. ThinkProgress has an article titled "Is Donald Glover Cracking Up? Or Having A Normal Reaction To The Pressures Of Fame And Being 30?" The author writes:
But what’s struck me most about the messages that he posted isn’t anything Glover is feeling in particular. It’s how confusing it is to watch a star act like an actual person in public.
We’ve become so used to unnaturalness, or to a studied facade of naturalness, that when we encounter the real thing in all of its contradictory insecurity, we mistake it for evidence of serious problems, rather than a healthy processing of legitimately complex emotions.
No wonder Glover’s openness is so confusing. But as he put it to People, “If I’m depressed, everybody’s depressed. I don’t think those feelings are that different from what everybody’s feeling. Most people just don’t tell everybody.” The real difference is that most of us don’t have so many people to tell, and so little expectation of being rationally understood.
The Glover quote the author uses further reinforce his unwillingness to assert his unique life experience. The unspoken conclusion in it is "these depressed feelings are normal, this is what the human condition is." This notion comes from a culture that says what Glover is feeling and doing is "acting like an actual person" and "a healthy processing of legitimately complex emotions."

The problem, as the author suggests, isn't that people are telling him he has a serious problem. It's that they're telling him he doesn't have one so he isn't actually "processing...legitimately complex emotions" in a healthy way. That message is why he has "so little expectation of being rationally understood." He's repeatedly being told what he's feeling isn't a big deal to the point that his only choice is to attempt to rationalize it away as "normal" by saying things like "I can't be lonely tho. Cause we're all here."

We're not all there. Even though there's overlap between what I've experienced and he's experienced, I'm not even there. I identify with him to a degree, which is how I know and accept he's struggling with something unique that runs deeper than this past year.

On his 2011 album Camp, he included a a spoken word story following the last track on the album "That Power."  In it he recounts being 13 and revealing his feelings to a girl on the bus ride back from camp. He mistakenly says the word "destiny" and falls asleep. When he wakes, the girl is gone. Some other girls are laughing. One comes up to him and says "destiny." Obviously, he's hurt. What's revealing though is how he copes with the pain.
This isn’t a story about how girls are evil or how love is bad, this is a story about how I learned something and I’m not saying this thing is true or not, I’m just saying it’s what I learned. I told you something. It was just for you and you told everybody. So I learned cut out the middle man, make it all for everybody, always. Everybody can’t turn around and tell everybody, everybody already knows, I told them.
While there's a logic in his attempt at self-protection, there's also a much more damaging flaw. Glover has taken away his own right to an identity. Rather than saying he made a mistake in trusting the girl and would choose who he trusted more carefully in the future, he decided he was just going to tell everyone about himself always, basically blurring any line between "me" and "them" in his mind.

Basically, he decided the way to make sure he never felt that pain again was to make his private self belong to the public. Except the self isn't a public property. Trying to make the choices that are necessarily yours belong to everyone else only denies the self, harms it, and distances it from everyone else--bringing about feelings of invisibility and loneliness. I know.

The bus story resonated with me deeply. I too was publicly made to feel ashamed and embarrassed for liking girls in Middle School, as if I had no choice in who I liked and would one day end up with. The difference is, I retreated inward, denying other people the chance to know me--the opposite of his choice, though no less lonely.

Glover concludes the story with an even more revealing admission about the source of his pain:
I wish I could say this was a story about how I got on the bus a boy and got off a man more cynical, hardened, and mature and shit. But that’s not true. The truth is I got on the bus a boy. And I never got off the bus. I still haven’t.
I speak from personal experience when I say, let's not underplay and marginalize this man's struggles as if they're fine. There's something wrong with Donald Glover, and that's OK because he 's finally starting to accept it and try to get off the bus.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Track Tales Tuesday: The Dark Side

If City Light's first album "In It To Win It" is an exercise in youthful hope, then their followup "The Way Things Should Be" is an ode to the determination that comes with a sense of identity. Picking one song off of the latter, which was released today, to highlight is a difficult task. Each features a number of lyrics that inspires the band's determination in the listener and are perfectly complimented by their beats and breakdowns. Still, the strength of one song soars above.

My dislike of Star Wars is no secret. It'll probably come back to haunt me at some point in my life. I'd never heard a good argument for the ideas in the films...until I heard "The Dark Side" by City Lights. Perhaps predictably, the infamous Yoda quote from The Phantom Menace is included:
I sense great fear in you
and that could only mean one thing
Fear leads to anger
and anger to hate
and this is why darkness surrounds your fate
That quote is an example of my biggest problem with Star Wars. It's underdeveloped. Yoda tacks on "hate to suffering" to create a nice sounding platitude, but none of it explains why fear leads to anger and anger to hate and hate to suffering. Even more importantly, the source of fear is never mentioned.

Maybe the ultimate issue that Yoda is ignoring is the young padawan feels alone in dealing with something which makes him feels afraid. Yoda's silence on the matter would then only increase the fear, which makes me wonder something else. Is suffering the result of Yoda's progression or the start of it?

City Lights answers all these questions by adding psychological depth around the reference. They open the song:
Everyone you hold close
is poison to your mind
Be mindful of your feelings
they may pull you from the light
Immediately the role you allow other people into your life is brought into question as well as how you treat your own feelings. There is no advocating for emotionalism here. You have to be critical of what you're feeling and consider how it's affecting you. In the chorus, the band paints a picture of this solitude:
The voices in your head
Don't listen to what they say
Just keep doing what you do
When you're doubting yourself
and it's clouding your mind
stay away from the dark side 
You must fight to endure
Fear is a disease
and hope is the only cure
Unlike Yoda, City Lights shows an understanding of what leads to fear--the negativity in your head, concretized in "the voices" of people who haven't believed in you (a running theme on the album) leading to doubt. They then go on to provide an antidote to this poison--hope.

How do you find hope? Part of the answer to that question is in the chorus--doing. Do what you want and believe is right. Actions in reality trump words, especially words in your head. The rest of the song provides the other part of the answer. After dispensing some more platitudes in the second verse, the band hits the nail on the head in the bridge:
The universe can make you feel invisible
so don't forget about your principles
Keep your friends close
and your demons at bay
An underlying theme in all of pop punk is feeling like you're fighting the world on your own. Strangely, or maybe appropriately, it's only recently that bands have started to really celebrate exactly how important independence is. As a young band, City Lights is an example of this development. Another example was With the Punches, one of my all time favorite bands who recently broke up or went on hiatus or whatever they're calling it these days.

Both bands focus on internal improvements turning into external actions. They discuss developing your principles so that your definition of "friend" isn't arbitrary and so you can take action with a surety of purpose. That surety, as well as the positivity from your true friends, is what keeps your demons at bay, gives you hope, and keeps you away from the dark side.

The world adds a lot of noise to all of our heads. Developing the principles to properly sort through it is a necessity. Without them, you suffer. What Yoda didn't realize is, it's not a progression, it's a cycle--suffering leads to fear which leads to anger which leads to hate which leads to more suffering. When you're already in the cycle, one of the worst things someone can tell you is it's all your fault. While you do have a level of personal responsibility for your feelings, being told so in such a manner makes you feel even more alone.

City Lights breaks down the noise in a way Yoda couldn't. Oh well, at least the little green guy tried, right?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

For Hershel

Being on the run
for too long
plays tricks on the mind.
Dull gray walls
rusted metal bars
and leaning fences
transform safety into comfort
under the guise of life.

Too little growth
leads to stagnation,
a coffin for the soul.
and accepting,
desires disappear
and trifles turn trivial.

We were too far gone.

Now, so are you.
We’ll mourn
in the morning.

We all have jobs to do.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Track Tales Tuesday: Nothing for Christmas

Believe it or not, it's Christmas again. Every year the holiday season and it's cultural overhaul seems to appear fast and disappear even faster. It's like New Found Glory says on their song Nothing for Christmas, "December comes in a flash then it's gone."

Perhaps the most controversial part of the culture of Christmas is the music. When's too early to start hearing it? What versions of the classic songs are the best? Hell, what are the classic songs? It seems right to start playing Christmas songs right after Thanksgiving, maybe even after Santa's sleigh slides by at the end of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Pressing play then would only give you about 30 days or so with the unique set of songs though. Of course, many people would say 30 days is too many with such an annoying playlist.

I'm not one of the people who finds Christmas music annoying, though I understand the objection. Something about the style is so inoffensive and indifferent. There is almost always a lack of passion in songs that purport to portray the heartbeat of the average American. It's one of the main reasons I prefer pop punk to plain pop. Predictably, I feel the same way during the holiday season.

Nothing for Christmas by New Found Glory is the lead track on Fearless Record's latest installment of their Punk Goes... compilation, Punk Goes Christmas, and captures everything I feel about the holiday and how it fits into life in general. New Found Glory is my favorite band for a reason. Their unabashed enjoyment of life and their genre is at the forefront of their music which carries the lyrical undertone of fighting for belonging in friendships and romantic entanglements. Their song on this compilation is no different. In the second verse they pinpoint the underlying yearning of the season:
I think back to when I was younger
when everyone's together and I want you more now than ever
to not think about our troubles
No matter where you're living, you're supposed to return "home for the holidays." It's a season built on the concept of togetherness. You're not really going home though. You're chasing the feelings you associated with home when growing up. If you live somewhere for 11 months and 26 days a year, that place is home, not where you go to eat a feast, unwrap some presents, and reconnect with loved ones. I'm not saying there is no value to Christmas visits. There is and I don't know what exactly that value  is for you because I don't know what feelings you associate with the place you grew up. I only know what feelings I associate and that's what New Found Glory gets.

This year is the first I won't be going back to Massachusetts for Christmas. For the first time in 30 years, I won't be spending the holiday with my parents. If you step back and think about it for a second, it should be pretty disconcerting to do something 29 years in a row and then stop on the 30th. While I don't remember a lot from being really young, I still remember most of those 29 years. They were a lot different than I know the next 29 are going to be.
And I think back through fall, and the summer
and how it changed everything.
Let's walk through snow in the winter
and forget about our troubles
Snow not withstanding because I live in Southern California these days, I've changed a lot over the summer and fall. My brother who's a year younger than me got married in August. It was basically a big family reunion which allowed me to step back and look at my place in it in a way I never have before. This Fall I've come to realize I've never felt that togetherness. I'm not saying that I've been a perpetual outsider in my family, just that I've felt that way. It's surely why New Found Glory's music resonates with me so strongly, as their chorus on this song does:
Christmas is coming, so don't buy me nothing.
I got what I wanted, I got what I needed.
And Christmas is coming, so don't buy me anything.
I got what I wanted, I got what I needed, it's you, it's you, it's you.
When I heard that hook for the first time I immediately thought of my girlfriend and how I asked her not to buy me anything for Christmas. In lieu of spending the holiday with our families, we're taking a trip to Las Vegas to spend time away from everyone else and with each other. I asked her not to buy anything because things aren't what I want or need right now. Her money would be better spent on herself. What I want, I need, is to be here with her focusing on enjoying myself and figuring out where to go next. That's what Christmas means to me this year. That's what New Found Glory gets.

For the first time in my adult life I'm starting to feel present, and that's the only present I need.

(Punk Goes Christmas features songs from All Time Low, one of the most underrated bands in the world, genre up-and-comers Man Overboard and Real Friends, and veterans Yellowcard. Most of the songs hit the perfect balance of pop punk and Christmas.)

Monday, December 2, 2013

The (s)Words of Antonio Smith and The Governor

(Note: This article contains spoilers for Seasons 3 and 4 of AMC's The Walking Dead.)

I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news. Sometimes it doesn't matter what you do. No amount of hard work or time investment can make you a success. Well, let me be a bit more precise. You can reach your goals and produce your desired results. Some people will just attempt to undermine, deride, and nullify you with one simple statement because they want what you have, are unable to earn it themselves, and are unable to accept that you have it.

In case you ever want to employ this tactic against the New England Patriots, the keyword to use is "spy." Houston Texans safety Antonio Smith provided a perfect example of how-to following his team's 34-31 loss to the Patriots on Sunday. "Either teams are spying on us or scouting on us," he said in a post-game interview. Why does he think that? It seems the Texans used tactics that they hadn't in their previous 11 games yet somehow the Patriots were still able to cope with them well enough to win. Smith summarized:
"I'm very suspicious. I just think it will be a big coincidence if that just happened by chance. I don't know for sure, but I just know it was something that we practiced this week."
In Smith's mind the Texan's new tactics were so powerful they could only be combated by two methods: cheating or chance. The reality of his team being 2-9, riddled with injuries, and starting an inexperienced quarterback against an 8-3 team starting a future hall of fame quarterback and coached by a future hall of famer known for his ability to out-scheme his opponents, an ability most recently put on display the previous week when his team came back to win from a 24-0 deficit doesn't matter to him. Smith believes he deserved to win and since he didn't, he's going to find a way to say the loss doesn't actually count.

In 2007 the Patriots were the center of a huge NFL scandal called Spygate. You may have heard of it. You may have also seen the South Park episode where Bill Belichick, their coach, was mocked as a cheater. Even though most people have little to no knowledge of the details of the Spygate incident, our cultural acceptance of the Patriots as cheaters because "they spied on other teams" makes it easy for anyone to undermine their accomplishments. Smith demonstrated just how easy when speaking to reporters. By merely saying "spying," he brought the legitimacy of the Patriots victory into question. In essence, he played a trump card so he didn't have to accept what actually happened.

The Walking Dead episode "Too Far Gone" saw the series most recent and ruthless villain Phillip Blake use the exact same strategy. The tyrannical Governor of Woodbury in the post-apocalyptic world, Blake saw his small town crumble and subjects escape when he encountered the show's protagonists and their community-in-a-prison. Six months later, he had seemingly come to terms with the defeat and possessed new subjects and a tank. The prison (and victory) would be his because it was the best place to survive...if he could only convince his followers that they had the right to take what belonged to other people.

In the zombie apocalypse of The Walking Dead, people are much looser with their morals. Killing becomes an everyday occurrence. Mainly it's zombies that have to be dealt with. Sometimes though other people are so dangerous that killing in self defense is socially acceptable to such an extent that Stand Your Ground laws seem mild. In spite of this moral leniency, the one rule most characters can agree upon is you do not kill people without good warrant. Thus it's easy to see how labeling someone as a "killer" could give you justification to kill them and take their stuff--a dangerous thought if someone has stuff you want or need...like a well-fortified place to live.

"The people in this prison, not all of them are bad, but most of them are thieves, murders," the Governor tells his new followers, "Now why should people like that have peace of mind when we're burying our own just about every day?" This argument convinces even the weakest-stomached member of his ground, a young woman who pretended she was ex-military when they first met. It's completely understandable why too. When other people are bad and you're good, why do they deserve to have better stuff, a better life, than you? The problem is, that specious argument is almost exclusively used by people who don't deserve what they're trying to take.

The young woman watched as the Governor revealed his true character--and that he hadn't gotten over the loss of Woodbury and the power he had there. Our protagonists in the prison offered to share their residence, suggesting they live in separate cell blocks until the two groups learned to co-exist. The Governor refused in horrific fashion sending the standoff into an unnecessary blood bath. The young woman crawled away from the battle saying, "We're not supposed to be doing this." When her girlfriend reinforced that they were, she replied, "He chopped a guy's head off with a sword." The Governor, unlike the protagonists and their peaceable offer, was too far gone. He didn't want the prison. He wanted to punish the people in it. They refused to live in line with the fantasies he tried to force on them whether by word or by sword.

Accepting defeat is often the most difficult process in life. It's also the most humbling. It allows you to honestly assess your mistakes and what went wrong. Denial, worse yet denial at the word of another person, only avoids the issue and prolongs suffering. When someone quickly dismisses another person, you have to ask yourself why it's so easy for him to do so. Why was it so easy for the Governor to call the protagonists in the prison killers? Why was it so easy for Smith to say the Patriots spied?

Smith probably thinks he's right about the Patriots and now so do many football fans looking to nullify the team's continued success. What they're avoiding, however, is the simple obvious fact that ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith yelled on First Take, "You don't have to cheat to beat the Texans." I'm not sorry to be the bearer of that bad news, and I'm not going to listen to someone looking for excuses to pretend otherwise. You shouldn't either.

People like that are too far gone.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Picking Up Flags, Putting Down Integrity

There's an ESPN explosion of coverage on the controversial call that ended the Patriots at Panthers game on Monday night. I'll summarize it this way. The Patriots were at the end of a last gasp effort to win the game, a common occurrence in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era. Down 24-20, time ran out as Brady threw a pass into the endzone intended for (on a path for) Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski was running for the back of the endzone. He was also being bearhugged by Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. (The use of the word "bearhugged" is not an exaggeration.) Brady's pass was intercepted near the front of the endzone. The clock expired. Game over, right? Right...except for the flag that was induced by the Kuechly-Gronkowski bearhug and then picked up following an official's conference.

That non-called penalty is the focus of all the post-game banter. Was it actually a penalty as the ball would have been intercepted anyway as there was no way for Gronkowski to get to it? Does it matter if the ball would have been intercepted anyway because a bearhug is a bearhug and is illegal? What do coaches and officials that weren't involved in the game have to say about it? All of these questions are irrelevant and are an example of the minutia that permeates the content put out by the mainstream media. What happened, happened. There is no point in speculating if it should have happened differently and what would have happened afterwards if it did. Rather, the discussion should be about why what happened, happened and if that reason is right.

In other words, this "controversy" is an example of missing the forest for the trees. The focus is so intensely on one tree, the picked up flag, that all the other ones are being missed. Other ones such as:

1. Kuechly bearhugs Gronkowski
2. Panthers Tight End Greg Olsen holds Patriots Cornerback Devin McCourty and McCourty is called for holding

Both trees demonstrate the same issue--players doing what they know is against the rules in order to gain any advantage possible. In number one, Kuechly is trying to prevent a big and tremendous pass-catcher from moving how he naturally would to catch the ball. The rules are specifically written to prevent this type of action by defenders. In number two, Olsen is holding onto McCourty in a way that makes it seem like McCourty is holding him (I wish I had a better picture) in order to draw a holding penalty. That action is, in a word, dishonest. Players, coaches, and fans sidestep that dishonesty by saying you do whatever it takes to win. "Whatever it takes" includes intentionally flouting the rules in hopes of not getting caught, apparently.

Winning by breaking the rules is an oxymoron. The rules are what make the game what it is. They are the parameters you play within. You're talking about different footballs if you score by kicking a ball into a net or if you score by moving a ball into a specific zone. Even if those rules are the only ones you play with, they are still parameters. They are limitations on reality that tell you what a "score" means. The game then is about measuring who can score in that manner the best--who has the most skill at completing that goal. Any rules that are subsequently added are intended to make sure the process for determining who can score the best is fair and correct. You want to make sure you are measuring the right things.

We could argue all day about whether the rules in the NFL fulfill that purpose (and I agree, there are many that don't), but the rule book is agreed on prior to each season by owners, coaches, players, league officials, and/or representatives of each of these groups. By agreeing to play by the set of rules, a person is agreeing that process is proper for determining who is better at a certain skill. So what does it mean when a player openly flouts the rules to do "whatever it takes to win"? He doesn't care about the game. He only cares about winning. The only problem is there's no such thing as winning without rules. Everyone works towards achieving different values. Rules ensure that a group of people are working toward the same value. That is what winning a game is. "We both find this skill equally valuable. Whoever can do it bests deserves to be honored for it."

The "whatever it takes to win" mentality is certainly not limited to football. (I would argue it's a larger cultural issue.) However, in recent years I've seen it's prevalence grow in the game. The Panthers are the most recent franchise in a series of defensively oriented teams that have utilized this approach. (The most notable would be the Ravens.) Each of these teams has been known for their mentally tough and physically brutal play--at least, that's how they're characterized. I, on the other hand, find their play to be dishonest, dirty, and dangerous. This in-congruence is an important issue. When the "whatever it takes" approach is intentionally whitewashed in post-championship exhalations by exaggerating other supposed strengths these teams possess, it devalues the entire game, season, and league.

I know, I know, how dare a Patriots fan write about this issue and continue to support the franchise after "Spygate." Honestly, I'm tired of that argument. Accepting that the Patriots were using the "whatever it takes to win" approach with Spygate requires that you accept Belichick is a despicable human being who not only used that approach but then lied about using it afterward. The evidence just doesn't support that view of Belichick, even though many people do. That's fine, of course. It's up to them to decide what they believe, but it makes me wonder, are these people the same that advocate the "whatever it takes to win" approach (I mean, everyone does it, right?) and are just mad that Belichick does it (according to them) better than them or their team?

I know, I know, I also sound like a pussy right now. I should nut up and be a man. I'm just complaining because I'm not good enough, right? Wrong. People who believe they aren't good enough flout rules because they don't think they can win within them. Men come to agreements and stick to them because they believe the agreements are right and they are good enough to succeed within those agreements. Ultimately, respect for rules (that you've agreed to) is respect for yourself.

I don't care that the Panthers beat the Patriots on Monday night. I've witnessed much worse losses in my time as a Patriots fan. (18-1 for one,) I care that I'm supposed to sweep all of it under the rug by accepting that the Patriots didn't play nearly well enough to deserve to win even though it was an extremely close game the entire time; and if I don't except that, I'm a whiny crybaby who isn't smart, mature, or masculine.

The Panthers won. The refs fucked up. I accept those facts. I also trust that the NFL is run in a manner so that most games won't end this way; and if a lot of games do end this way, the NFL will do something to fix it as soon as possible. If I couldn't confidently say any of these things, I wouldn't be a football fan. It would be a waste of my time. I just wonder why so many people who can't say these things insist on remaining involved.

There's a lot of trees in the forest. Find another one to climb.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Breaking Down Breaking Bad: You Can't Destroy to Live

(Note: If you intend on watching Breaking Bad and don't want to be spoiled, stop reading. This post is heavy on spoilers as there's no way to write about the show without them.)

I finally did it. After some good old fashioned peer pressure and one very good argument, I watched a man recently diagnosed with cancer slowly die over 62 episodes of a television series. This wasn't a tragic tale of a disease debilitating an honorable man either. This was a descent into evil and madness--a cleverly plotted, deeply dark, and difficult to watch modern Western that serves as a depressing and scathing indictment of the American ideal.

Over the five season run of Breaking Bad, protagonist Walter White transformed from mild-mannered science teacher Walt to America's-Most-Wanted Meth kingpin Heisenberg. The show is the story of that transformation. What happens to a man when he becomes pure evil? Every character other than Walt is nothing more than a tool to demonstrate how he has changed.

 Skyler, Walt's wife, and Jesse Pinkman, Walt's protege, are two sides to the same coin--prisoners who suffer the depth's of Walt's emotional and intellectual manipulation. Hank, Walt's brother-in-law and foil, is the constant reminder that Walt isn't meant to be viewed as a hero. Gus, Walt's distributor-cum-boss and another type of foil, is a reason for Walt to resort to even more ruthless and reckless methods. Everyone else is just a bit player, including Walt's children--necessities of plot development or the fleshing out of the situations that brings about the rise of evil.

I mean, what exactly does Walt Jr. aka Flynn do with his friend Lewis in all that time they spend together? Hell, why did he specifically choose to be called "Flynn?" The answers to these questions don't matter, just as it doesn't matter what happens to any of these characters when Walt isn't around anymore. Not since 8 Mile where Eminem's Jimmy Smith was in every scene have I seen a motion picture, let alone a television series, focus so intensely on one character.

Perhaps for that fact alone Breaking Bad should be applauded. Television series are known for being ensemble pieces, long drawn out sagas where each character and actor gets a turn in the spotlight and under the microscope. At times this approach can become tedious and trivial as we learn Claire once dressed like a goth (LOST) or mostly anything that happens with Jason Street beyond the pilot (Friday Night Lights). There are no such deviations from Walt's world however, and that's just how he wants it.

Despite any pretense to the contrary about family (not-so-subtlety planted by corrupt lawyer Saul Goodman), it's all about Walt (and Bryan Cranston's sublime portrayal of him). Sorry Jesse fans (and I may mainly be speaking for myself here), if you hoped for more than 10 minutes of screen time for him in the final episode (or any other character for that matter), you were severely disappointed. Perhaps you should count your blessings though. Jesse may have limped away at series end as a physical and psychological mess, but that's much more than most people who crossed paths with Heisenberg can say.

The other reason to laud Breaking Bad with praise is its well paced and compelling plotting. As with any descent into drug culture, it's a narrative of escalation. As Walt goes from unknown cook to kingpin of a Meth empire, he deals with more and more powerful drug movers and dispatches them with more and more complex and violent schemes. He becomes intertwined with an international company based in Germany. He hires neo-Nazis to off six people in different prisons in a two minute span. Early on, I thought this plot pattern would become redundant. Thankfully, in the middle of Season 3, the introduction of Gus signaled a shift in quality and scope. Suddenly the developments are compelling and logical as Walt is a pawn in the schemes of a drug lord embroiled in a feud with the Cartel. Of course, if there's one thing Walt hates, it's being a pawn.

Throughout the series, Walt hides behind the veneer of self-interest and rationality while working toward the antithesis of rationality--destruction. He harps on the fact that people owe him because he devised the formula for the purest meth ever and repeats that he earned all his money from cooking it. Yet somehow he thinks that whenever anyone else tries to assert that they deserve a piece of the pie, they're illegitimately controlling him and thus killing them is justified.

Walt can give lip service to the idea of creation and earning as much as he wants. In reality, all he does is take. He sees everything as a power struggle. Either you're in control of other people or they're in control of you--and whoever's in control takes from those people he controls. Logically, such relationships can only progress to one point--force, either through manipulation or violence. That is exactly how Walt treated every character in the series until his empire crumbled. When someone stopped allowing Walt to take from him, either emotionally or financially, their death arrived sooner rather than later.

If you followed my live-tweeting of my viewing of the series, you know that I frequently compared Walt to the eponymous main character of Dexter. Both protagonists are anti-heroes who live a double-life that involves manipulation, violence, and a search for self-actualization. Notice how that description also applies to many contemporary television characters--Francis Underwood from House of Cards, Dr. House from House, Don Draper from Mad Men, Nucky Thompson from Boardwalk Empire. The list goes on. Also note how each of these characters work and/or exist in fields, locations, and time periods that are revered parts of the American identity: education, justice, medicine, politics, advertising, Washington DC, Manhattan, the 50s, Prohibition.

Shows like Dexter have fallen short at taking a stance on their anti-hero and his self-indulgent ways. At the end of its final season, Dexter had its psychopath protagonist suddenly develop empathy and lose his desire to kill. Breaking Bad makes no such misstep. Walt is unequivocally one of the worst villains in television history (perhaps in American lore). By series end he is compared to the Unabomber. His laser-like focus on asserting his control on the world has destroyed the lives of everyone he touched, including his own. That irony is what Walt never realizes. True evil never does. (In contrast, Dexter's new-found humanity helps him realizes the destruction he brings so he exiles himself by disappearing to a logging job and one-room cabin in the Northwest.) You can't build anything, an empire or a life, through destruction. It's a chilling commentary on how Americanism viewed solely as empire building changes a man.

Still, despite the quality plotting, production, and protagonist, I'm still left with the same question I had when I started the series, the one that kept me from watching it for a good while. Why do I want to spend my time watching a show completely focused on pure evil? Is the point to understand it? Can't that goal be achieved through other types narratives? Bryan Fuller's Hannibal gives a closeup look at evil through the gaze of Will Graham, a man trying to stop and not succumb to it. Sometimes his struggle feels harrowing, others hopeful. In contrast, there were few moments that moved me in Breaking Bad, and when I was moved it was most often to a deep hatred for Walt. What value does that add to my life?

As an aspiring writer, Breaking Bad enriched my life by teaching me plenty about plotting and some about characterization. As a viewer seeking to be entertained, the show shined through with a few glowing moments before leaving me like Jesse Pinkman--limping away, glad its over, finally free of its control.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Keep Calm and Focus on the Themes: The Survivor Community, Tyson, and the Brothers Baskauskas

This season of Survivor is being edited tremendously. There is a compelling narrative with a couple players that a strong winner's story case can be made for. Then there's the conversation around the season.

If you've followed this blog and/or my engagement with Survivor, you know two things about me:
1. Analyzing and discussing the story captivates and excites me.
2. Hearing the online fan conversation about the show annoys and frustrates me.

I'm sure you can see that those two points are at odds. How do you have a discussion if engaging in conversation isn't an enjoyable experience? The short answer: you don't. My answer: I try really really hard to ignore the negativity--the illogical, the insulting, the immature, etc. Thus I don't read many columns, don't participate in many forums, and don't follow many people on Twitter. I am very selective of what I let through the noise.

Earlier today, a Stephen Fishbach (expert strategic player and growing-in-quality columnist) tweet made its way into my stream by way of a retweet. Thanks to whoever retweeted that by the way, I don't remember who you are. For my money (which is none), this column is the best Fishbach has ever written. It's succinct, clear, and true. He states his analysis and acknowledges the possible objections. Except there was one problem.

The tweet Fishbach shared the column in claimed that this edition of his thoughts was the one that people have told him is the most off-base. Reading the comment section corroborates this claim. In short, everyone is telling him that Tyson deserved Fishbach's praise in this episode, not Aras--a counterpoint that Fishbach acknowledged and disregarded for good reason.

Ignoring the fact that Fishbach gives his weekly "Fishy" based on moves made and people want it awarded to Tyson based on his not making a move, there are two major points that are impossible to refute that make Aras deserving of the award:

1. Aras switched the vote on his tribe from a less dangerous member of the minority to a more dangerous member of the majority and his alliance of 5/6 still voted together.
2. Nothing in the editing portrayed the move as negative for Aras besides he himself saying he needed to be cautious to not be too manipulative. There were no echoes of Brad Culpepper's too-aggressive-villain edit. There were no confessionals from other players saying negative things about Aras.

Why then, with these two facts as readily available information based on mere observation, is there such an outpouring of comments against Fishbach's analysis that favor Tyson?

I don't have a good answer to that question. It reminds me of the conversation around Redemption Island Andrea. What bothers me the most is the surety of the belief that seems to be shared. Like Andrea, Tyson is likable, perhaps more-so. Like Andrea's edit in Redemption Island, Tyson's has had some strong moments early on. None of these facts necessarily lead to an emotional investment in celebrating and asserting Tyson's dominance though. It makes me wonder if there's a spoiler out there I don't know about that.

In Caramoan Cochran's story was deeply intertwined with the theme. He ingratiated himself with the tribe to overcome his past mistake. In the Phillipines, Denise's story was deeply intertwined with the theme--she balanced head and heart by seeing everyone's story. Even Fabio just went with the flow and let himself be seen as a goofball instead of overplaying like everyone else in Nicaragua. Remember, I'm talking about the edit here and episode one moments that encapsulated it.

In episode one of this season, Tyson said he was in a good spot and would be willing to cut all the loved ones. Those comments are not a theme. They are exposition. If anything, they are against the theme. If the key to this season is staying calm and drama-free, then cutting all the loved ones is not the way to do it. Has Tyson said and done things since that fit the theme? Yes, but thematic strength in subsequent episodes don't erase a week first episode. Rather, they reveal a major character in someone else's story--just like Andrea in Redemption Island.

My purpose here isn't to make the case against Tyson (whoops already did that) and for Aras and Vytas though. Truthfully, I'm still not 100% sure what the theme of the season is. That is my point. Is this season about being drama-free, concretized in yoga, or redemption? It would seem to be the former and that favors Aras. However, Vytas' edit is arguably stronger, most notably containing two very powerful visual moments, one in the premiere--one in the most recent episode. Then again, in the Sumo at Sea, Vytas was the one who resorted to a dramatic cheap shot and still lost...and then the brothers' rivalry was evened up in this past episode's immunity challenge. That moment was very clearly edited as important. Now I'm back to square one.

See what I'm getting at? This edit is tremendous. We don't know who wins and have good reason to want Aras or Vytas (and even Tyson) to win. They're both (all) strong and sympathetic protagonists. Why then should the conversation be focused so predominantly on one player (who arguably has the third strongest edit)? It shouldn't. Yet it is.

I briefly contemplated attempting to make the Survivor Story Analysis Commission more of a "thing" in the online community this season. I tweeted a little bit from that account and considered some strategic options. I'm officially removing that possibility from the table. Some may say I'm taking my ball and going home. Maybe I am. I don't really care. It's much more enjoyable for me to discuss the episode with the friends I watch with, the friends I talk to in Facebook messages, and the Facebook group I created and am the admin for. Doing so is how I turn the noise turn down to a minimum and focus on the themes. It's how I enjoy the show in this new era.

I want engage with the story, not the community.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Getting on My High Horse: The Wasteland of Internet Conversation

Perhaps this one has been a long time coming. If you were to track my internet usage history, this blog post might be the inevitable conclusion, like the obvious resolution of a story arc that spanned several seasons of a show. By the time you reach the final stages of the character’s journey, you know what comes next. It doesn’t mean you can’t and don’t enjoy it, just that you called the shot like Babe Ruth in the World Series. I mean, everyone knew Neo was going to die in the third Matrix, right?

In Middle School I was a huge Star Trek fan. Mostly I watched Deep Space, a show I transitioned into from a sustained interest in The Next Generation. Unlike TNG, the rick darkness of DS9’s pilot captivated me. There weren’t long scenes wasted on the bridge or in the ready room. The episodes all connected and flowed together into a larger narrative. Like Doctor Julian Bashir said, it was the frontier, both in the sense that the space station was on the edge of Federation’s territory and of Star Trek and television storytelling. I watched every episode, read the novels based on the series, bought the action figures, and carried around the Star Trek Encyclopedia. DS9 was perhaps my first great passion.

Around the same time DS9 premiered another three letter acronym was making itself known across the United States—AOL. America Online asserted itself as one of the leading internet service providers during the internet boom of the 90s. Its popularity was in part due to it being more than an ISP. It was also a community of messaged boards and chat rooms. In fact, before you could access the internet you first had to make a conscious decision to ignore and circumvent that community. Here I was introduced to talking to people I don’t know about a mutual interest through cyberspace.

Before my parents brought AOL into our home, my Dad had it on his computer at his office. During one of my visits there, probably on summer break, he showed me the Star Trek club (basically just a rudimentary message board that you could only access with an AOL screen name). He told me that lots of people from lots of places with lots of different jobs talked about the show there rather than with the people they knew didn’t like it. Obviously I’m paraphrasing to an extreme amount. I’m sure my Dad’s actual words didn’t lack sympathy and understanding. Regardless, there I sat at the gateway to the digital abyss.

When we did finally get an AOL account for the entire family a couple of years later, I already knew what my screen name would be (Odvok, a combination of the names of two of my favorite Star Trek characters Odo and Tuvok). I spent hours reading the Star Trek message boards, perusing other users’ profiles, and tweaking my own profile. It wasn’t long before I was hanging out in chat rooms, both about Star Trek and not. Eventually my main hang out was “NEW Young Adult.” AOL called it that as a rebrand from teen. Strangely they never removed the new from the name. It wasn’t the last “new” hangout I found on the web.

Over the years that spanned then and now, I bounced around chat rooms, message boards, Facebook groups, and blog/site comment sections. Each time I found myself going down the rabbit hole not to wonderland, but a wasteland. Like the real world I was perhaps escaping, I always found myself on the outside of a social schema with rules and roles that were beyond my understanding. Perhaps what perplexed me the most was the ferocity with which users asserted themselves. No matter the application, program, or URL, one constant remained—anonymity bred consent.

The more users operated in the shadows (going to great lengths to hide their true selves, creating multiple usernames, complaining to moderators via private message, etc), the more the communication centered on their topics and opinions. To this type of person the internet isn’t a place to be whoever you want; it’s a place to be no one at all, an e-persona disconnected from their real life. Thus their anonymity becomes their #1 value and reality the enemy. The subject they’re supposedly there to discuss (be it Star Trek, philosophy, Survivor, or New England Patriots football) becomes secondary to the fact that “they can post whatever they want.”

It’s important that I tread carefully here. I don’t want to come off spurned, as if I’m complaining because I’ve never been recognized and my self-esteem is impugned.  The internet generally isn’t the place to go for some psychological visibility. Rather what I feel is a deep disappointment and frustration. While I subscribe to the Penn Jillette theory that throughout history the world keeps getting better and people keeps saying it’s getting worse, I can’t help but think we could do it better. We have the greatest communication tool in the history of humanity at our fingertips and we use it to feel important instead of exchanging ideas.

Let me put it another way. Every Sunday I go to a local Boston bar to watch Patriots games (because I don’t have cable and like the pro-Patriots atmosphere). As I sit there and watch, I do three things. The first is monitoring the progress of my fantasy football teams. The second is reading my Twitter feed and the ESPNBoston blog for breaking news and analysis. The third is avoiding as much conversation at the bar as possible. There’s only so much Brady-blaming and Belichick-bashing I can take when the team is losing. The team goes down a couple of scores in the first quarter and suddenly everyone knows more than a head coach with 3 Super Bowl rings and 5 Super Bowl appearances. Fine, alright, get angry, show emotion, vent. I can understand that. But it goes to another level when you actually start to put forward arguments as to why you know more than the professionals you’re watching. It’s why I ignore—and sometimes see if there’s better conversation elsewhere.

The most bothersome thing about the comments on the ESPNBoston blog during games is not that they’re as negative as the ones I hear in the bar, it’s that they’re worse. If the bar patrons say the game is over, the blog commenters say the season is over. If the bar patrons say Brady is having a bad game, the blog commenters say his career is over. Hell, I think if the bar patrons said the world was in danger, the blog commenters would say the universe was ending. Yes, the conversation on the internet (which can involve anyone from anywhere in the world) is worse than the conversation in a local bar (even if it is in a major city). And this isn’t just a manifestation of Bostonian culture. Football is just an example. Pick a topic and think about what the worst conversation you could have about it is. Something worse is being said about it on the internet. Want to discuss your favorite show with other fans? According to them it’s the worst show ever and will never be as good as it was. Want to discuss a major court case with people who are watching as closely as you are? You don’t know what you’re talking about because you don’t have the proper perspective and education to understand how it’s the end of society.

(Note: A friend of mine struggled over the online responses to the recent season of Mad Men. As commenters said the show had become stale and repetitive and the main character completely unlikeable, she asked me to catch up so we could discuss it. When I finally watched I found that these commenters had missed he proverbial forest for the trees. Most notably, episode three featured a brilliant parallel (and obvious) narrative that none of them even mentioned. Sometimes I wonder if these people are so negative because they’re so smart and clever that they don’t bother with the trivialities I do. Nothing can ever satisfy them because they’re so evolved. Then I remember that they seem to hate everything they spend their time on.)

That’s why I’m tired, disappointed, and frustrated. Recently I tweeted, “I am never more wrong about things than when I post in an internet comment thread. Instantly I'm told how I'm dumb, delusional, and a liar.” I can even hear the responses to this post as I write it. “Hypocrite much? Ur being just as negative sayin the internet isnt bein used right.” Um, missing the point much? (Which, by the way, is what I almost always want to say people who respond to me so harshly. They claim to recount my argument, but never do.) I’m not telling anyone how to use the internet, I’m asking why we use it as we do and expressing how it makes me feel—sullen and sunken.

On July 2nd ESPN.com announced that their comment sections would be switching to Facebook comments from their current proprietary and barely moderated system with an extremely low barrier for registration. As you would expect, the current system breeds immense amounts of trolling and off topic discussions. It has always amazed me how a post about a rookie linebacker’s skill set and personality is responded to with 100s of comments dedicated to an international soccer match, if New Girl is better than Friends, or what people did over the weekend. The Facebook system promises high quality moderation and transparency on the part of the user. It’s a seemingly obvious victory for high quality, on topic conversation. The responses to the change from the current users gave me perhaps the last bit of information I needed to abandon the medium.

ESPN.com was dead, they stated. The only people who would comment from now on would be “pink hats” (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=pink%20hat). All of the humor and intelligence would disappear. They would make fake Facebook profiles to continue posting or move to another site that let them have anonymity. They came to the site for the culture and camaraderie. Very few of them mentioned the actual content that ESPN.com provided.  (The ESPNBoston blog features some of the most intelligent and straight forward reporting I’ve seen on any topic.) Mind you, this wasn’t just a few users. I was the only person saying how the change was a good thing (to which I was told, among other things, to stop being pretentious and get off my high horse). I write the following with full seriousness, the level of hysteria at their anonymity being threatened scared me.

I don’t know what it says about me, our culture, or the internet that I’m unable to comprehend why people would want to spend their days with only small bits of their true selves squeaking out from behind the screens with which they obscure themselves. I’m transfixed by Catfish the TV Series even though it’s highly edited and formulaic. Each situation is a new twist on the same theme—someone has such disdain for him or herself that he has to hide behind technology to interact with other people who s/he harms as a result of that interaction. I’m enthralled at how shortsighted it is.

We’re living in the most prosperous time in human history. Despite whatever problems the world and you may have (and believe me, we all have our stuff to work through), you have access to cutting edge technology and quality food, shelter, and clothing. What is so bad about your life that you need to use all of those advantages to escape it on a daily basis and drag others down with you? Most importantly, is that really what you want your life to be? Is this really how we want it to be?

It’s not what I want. That’s why I wrote this blog post. It’s why I write this blog. Every day I go to bed with the hope that tomorrow will be just a little bit different, just a little bit better. For a long time I’ve thought the conversation enabled by the internet was part of that process of improvement. Now I’m afraid the potential wonderland will never be more than a wasteland.

And I’m not so sure if there’s a way back up the rabbit hole.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Tebow Myth

Tim Tebow isn’t an NFL-caliber quarterback; at least, that’s what they say. You know, them, they, the people who said Tom Brady was too small to be any good, Peyton Manning was a lot better than Eli, and Michael Vick was the first (or second) coming. Admittedly there’s a flipside to this myth. A large contingent of fans believe Tebow is the second coming (perhaps the literal one), though not without good reason (besides the mystical part anyway).

Tim Tebow is not just a successful college quarterback, he is one of the most successful college quarterbacks ever. In three seasons as the starter at the University of Florida, he won two National Championships, one Heisman, and 35 games (while only losing 6), threw for 83 touchdown passes (and only 15 interceptions) and 8,928 yards, and ran for 49 touchdowns and 2,478 yards. That resume isn’t evidence of excellence. It’s a declaration of dominance. Yet, despite this success, the tarnishing of Tebow began almost immediately upon the completion of his senior season.

He simply wasn’t good enough. His throwing mechanics were all wrong. He didn’t have the arm strength. He was better suited, due to his physicality and running ability, to be a tight end or running back of some kind. Never had a player been scouted and analyzed by so much of the American populace. Soon it seemed that almost every person was absolutely sure that Tebow would never be able to play quarterback in the NFL. That opinion became the unquestionable and irrefutable truth. Anyone who supported the former Gator from that point on wasn’t just a Tebow fan; he was a Tebowmaniac.

What happens while Tim Tebow is on the football field hasn’t mattered since he was in college, and that’s exactly why I’m glad he’s become a New England Patriot. The story here isn’t about Belichick’s willingness to take chances other coaches won’t or Tebow being persecuted by the mainstream media (sorry, right wing Christians). It’s about someone getting the chance he deserves and our respecting and appreciating the fact that he deserves it. The problem with The Tebow Myth isn’t the chasm of a divide between believers and nonbelievers; it’s that every single person is so damn sure her side is right before the man has been given a chance to prove himself.

Contrast Tebow’s career with Sam Bradford, the quarterback for the St. Louis Rams who won the Heisman the year after Tebow and was selected first in the 2010 Draft (24 spots ahead of Tebow). Bradford has started 42 of the possible 48 Rams games since being drafted. (He missed the other six due to a high ankle sprain.) Tebow has started 16 of the possible 48 games for his teams. Yes, you read that correctly—“teams.” While Bradford has settled in with the Rams, Tebow spent two seasons with the Denver Broncos and one with the New York Jets. While in Denver, Tebow started two playoff games and won one. Bradford’s Rams have yet to make the playoffs. Why then has he become the face of his franchise and Tebow is on his third team in four years?

My mere writing the previous paragraph pushes me into the outskirts of Tebowmania in the eyes of some. Unfortunately most people seem to think you can only fit into one of two categories, maniac or detractor. In actuality, I am neither. As with any player at the beginning of the season, I think Tebow still has a lot to prove, and since I’m an atheist I don’t exactly celebrate his Christianity. Still, in spite of all the pundits and psalms, I find a lot to admire in the quarterback that hasn’t-yet-been: his work ethic, his intelligence, his professionalism, and (as of this week as the latest Patriots Project following Dillion, Moss, Thomas, Haynesworth, Johnson, Lloyd, and Blount) what his potential success means.

Often it seems that the most difficult thing in today’s world is to be given a chance you deserve in spite of widespread opinion (for whatever reason) that you don’t deserve it. Worst of all, the most meaningless or unfounded claims can brand you simply because a large number of people repeat them. Modern politics is almost completely built upon this idea. Obama’s campaign branded itself with the simple slogans of “hope” and “change,” but how much of either has the President really offered since taking office? Entertainers live and die by this double edged sword. Ask M Night Shyamalan who transitioned from critical darling after The Sixth Sense to overrated hack since The Village. His recent film wasn’t even sold using his name and was still a critical and financial failure. He has become so unmarketable that I am stunned his movies continue to receive funding. That point is the low Tebow’s career sank to this offseason. There was legitimate question as to whether he would be on an NFL team in the Fall.

Whether you like the man or not, Tim Tebow has not gotten his fair shot in the NFL. It is not debatable that he has a lot of progress to make to be successful as a professional football player. The rookies that are ready to perform on that level are rare. Most are drafted, signed, and developed based on the potential to transform into such players. Tebow, despite what they say, has that potential—and the Patriots provide the perfect place for his transformation.

When the players and staff enter and exit Gillette Stadium there is a sign posted that reminds them of four principles that are important to being a Patriot. Two are: “Ignore the Noise” and “Don’t Believe or Fuel the Hype.” Myths are, more often than not, noise fueled by hype. Tebow is now training behind Belichick’s iron curtain with a contract built solely upon his performance as a prospect. Maybe he can finally transition into the man he could rather than the myth fueled by them, they. Ultimately it’s like Smash Mouth (yes, a supposed “one hit wonder”) said. “Them, they, who are they anyway? They’re just beating each other at being each other with nothing to say.”

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Zombie Survival 312

A running gag every time I watch New Girl with my friends is how much like Nick I am. He's a big football fan, continually frustrated with other people's stupidity, and a writer. Often he even gets into situations or responds to them as I would. It's extra layer of humor to enjoy. Personally though it's also a bit disturbing especially considering that a recurring gag this season has been his zombie novel and recently I've come up with an idea for a zombie movie.

The working title is "How to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse." It will be about the main character coming to terms with who he is in order to survive in a post-apocalyptic society filled with zombies. I won't say anything further about what he is coming to terms with and the design of the society because that's the meat of what will make this zombie movie different. I've been racking my brain for awhile now (pretty much since I saw Serenity) trying to figure out how to evolve the concept of zombies to make them more interesting without sacrificing what makes them such a strong monster to begin with.

Zombies are the ultimate horror monster because they concretize the worst of humanity both intellectually and visually--the death brought about by collectivism. It's important to note here that collectivism is more than becoming part of a group. That definition is far too simplistic. For instance, sometimes it's good to be part of a group. No, collectivism is a manner of living that always favors the group over the individual. In yourself, it's sacrificing your individuality to fit in--changing your words, actions, and appearances and suppressing your thoughts. In other people, it's ignoring their unique situations and personalities in favor of inclusion in a group--racism, us vs them, religion, the greater good, cultural "movements." From either perspective, it leads to death. That's exactly what zombies are: dead, decaying, mindless, and indistinguishable from one another. Likewise, a single zombie is not scary because it's easy to outsmart and outrun. What makes zombies scary is they often end up wandering in packs or hoards. Though slow and lumbering, a bunch together are frightening because they're all using the same tactics to reach the same goal (to take away the brains the alive still have). In contrast, the living use each of their individual skills, knowledge, and thought processes to survive.

Perhaps it seems like I've given away the point of my movie with that last sentence, but that approach would be far too simple. What makes a story good is it's complexity. I'd like to explore different ways collectivism can manifest in the "us vs them" mentality forged by people who hold the belief that their survival is dependent upon the destruction of others. The main character will encounter two different versions of that belief concretized in an organized city populace and a disorganized group living in the wilderness. However, the city population doesn't see the wilderness as the group that needs to be destroyed and vice versa. Rather, the city sees anyone who doesn't want to follow their rules as dangerous to the group's survival whereas the wilderness sees anyone who isn't aggressively self reliant as dangerous. Yes, those perspectives are the same only manifested differently. That's part of the complexity. And remember, an extra layer is added when I introduce my evolution of the zombie concept to the equation.

Of course, all of this exposition will be couched in the most important part, main character's journey. Right now I'm developing characters and the natural conflicts that would arise between them. Then I can figure out how to thread the main character's story through it all. I also need to flesh out his arc more. I know how it starts and some basic beats, but without knowing its climax, it's hard to go anywhere. I suppose that'll be my next step. From there I can make a character and overall beat list.

I'll post more updates to this projects in the coming weeks.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Composition of the Ravens: Flacco Flies Upon a Midnight Dreary

The Baltimore Ravens winning Super Bowl 47 feels a bit like a Mighty Ducks movie. The only problem is how appropriate the bird change is. The 2012-2013 Ravens just aren't that likable. They opened the season with unimpressive performances against the Eagles (a loss), the Patriots (a replacement-refs-aided win), the Browns (a 23-16 win with little second half offense), and the Chiefs (a 9-6 win). They won their division with a 10-6 record by means of a tiebreaker and limped into the playoffs by losing four of their last five games. Even their Wild Card playoff victory was an uninspired offensive quagmire that seemed like more of a result of the Colts inability to get off the block than a demonstration of defensive dominance.

Then there's the personnel. Somehow the Ravens always seems to walk the tightrope between respectable toughness and unnecessary roughness. They hold their opponents just a second longer than is legal, but not long enough to be flagged for it. They get in an extra hit after the play is blown dead...only when the referees aren't looking. It's a mentality that spearheaded by Ray Lewis, a former murder conspirator that is still haunted by the many unanswered questions about that night, who leveraged his retirement to emotionally motivate his team to play. Worse yet, the more likable players disappeared as of late. Ray Rice's production trailed off as rookie Bernard Pierce looked far more impressive in the playoffs. Certain Hall-of-Famer Ed Reed seemed to have one foot out the door as he made asides about playing for Bill Belchick the week leading up to the big game. Then there's the non-intriguing enigma known as Joe Flacco.

I want to be clear that my purpose isn't to belittle the Baltimore Ravens Super Bowl Championship. It'd be near impossible to do so. They swooped into Denver and New England and silenced Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Bill Belichick. They sauntered into New Orleans and slaughtered Colin Kaepernick's gold-rushing Niners before a power outage necessitated they dig in and refuse to surrender to the growing momentum of a comeback that looked more and more likely as the scoreboard clock approached zero. Yet for some unknown reason down by five with two minutes and two timeouts left, the 49ers and their dominant rushing attack chose to throw the ball on three of their last four downs. Even then, their last throw featured what looked like obvious holding by the Ravens that went uncalled. Following some obligatory theatrics the Baltimore Ravens were improbably holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Did the 49ers comeback really fall short because they wouldn't run the ball with Kaepernick or Frank Gore? Was Ray Lewis really retiring the way every athlete dreamed? Was Joe Flacco really Super Bowl MVP?

Joe Flacco is the new Eli Manning, except he doesn't have his brother's shadow to live under so it's easier to hype him. In 16 regular season games, he threw 22 touchdown passes. In four postseason games, he threw half of that number, 11, with no interceptions. That number is astonishing considering he only threw for over 300+ yards once in the playoffs and for more yards than the opposing quarterback once in the playoffs, both against Denver in the AFC Divisional round. It's even more astonishing if you witnessed every one of the 11 TD passes. More often than not, Flacco seemed to be lost and just chucking the ball up only for them to be improbably caught (you know, what everyone criticized Tim Tebow for doing last year). The most notable of these plays were to Jacoby Jones, at the end of the game against Denver into double coverage for 70 yards and a TD to send the game into OT and under two minutes in the second quarter of the Super Bowl for 56 yards and a TD where Jones had to fall backwards to catch it. They were the kind of plays that made you jump up in simultaneous excitement and confusion. They were that improbable.

Except they weren't that improbable at all. A certain amount is certainly explainable as a player and a team getting hot and staying hot, an important factor in any Super Bowl run. The rest, however, is easily understandable by looking at how the league has been trending for years and why. Ever since the Illegal Contact rule was instituted, the passing game has grown in importance. Flags for defensive backs came more furiously. Scoring rose. Passing records fell. Finally, we saw the logical result in these playoffs. It's nearly impossible to play in defensive coverage in the modern NFL. You are completely at the mercy of the officials. Sometimes a play such as the 49ers final fourth and goal gasp is called as holding, sometimes it isn't. After every incompletion receivers look to the officials for a call and people on the teams' sidelines gesture for a flag to be thrown. Often balls that look like they have long odds to be caught turn into 30+ yards Pass Interference penalties. So, knowing all this information, if you're a quarterback wouldn't you hurl the ball long if you found yourself in a tight spot, especially if your team features speedy receivers like Jones and Torrey Smith? If you're saying no it's either because it's not in your gameplan or you don't have the arm strength.

I don't begrudge Flacco or the Ravens for what they accomplished, but it is interesting that they are the fourth wildcard team since the 2004-2005 season and the fourth team since the 2007-2008 with six or more losses in the regular season to win the Super Bowl. Yes, that means four out of the last six Super Bowl Championships have been won by six to seven regular season loss teams. Many people, the NFL front office members included, might celebrate this as an era of parity and unpredictability. It's the outcome NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and others have been trying to socially engineer through changes such as the Illegal Contact rule that give every team a strong chance to win. It's best for business. If anyone can win it all, because all you really need to do is keep games close and sneak into the playoffs, then every fan will have a reason to cheer during the season, if not the next. It's really easy to market and for the media to cover too. Every team has a storyline. All the media has to do is pick up all 32+ strands all season and discard the other 31 as they're eliminated. If it wasn't Lewis, Flacco, and the Harbaugh Bowl it was Peyton Manning proving his greatness with the greatest comeback season ever or Tom Brady beating his boyhood team to tie his boyhood icon for most Super Bowl titles or Matt Ryan finally realizing his potential or Russell Wilson completing the greatest rookie season ever or...well, you understand what I mean.

I'm not saying football is no longer enjoyable or there's a giant conspiracy to make sure the best possible outcome to market the league happens every season. Rather, it's all set up so whatever the result is can be easily sold as the best possible outcome and then quickly turned over into the next season when the draft rolls around. It's booking Vince McMahon surely envies. It's marketing that the producers of Days of Our Lives and General Hospital have to admire. It's a series without a script and there's no need to look any further than this season to remind us of that. The deeper their team went into the playoffs, the more legendary instead of lackluster Flacco and Lewis became...at least if what was said off the field is to be believed. It's  a composition even Edgar Allan Poe would admire.