Sports Were Better When I Was a Kid*

Sports are happening right now. Sports are always happening. But this is the month when the big college basketball tournament happens. March Madness! Except the Final Four is actually in April. But hey, why let facts get in the way of Branding, sponsored by Pepsi and brought to you exclusively by the ESPN/ABC/Disney family of networks (who bought those rights for a trillion dollars.)

When I was a kid I watched so much sports. But it all seems so icky and evil now. The NCAA is evil. The NFL is evil-er, and that period of my life when I wrote a lot about the NFL left me rather unhappy. So I willed myself to start following soccer again, which I hadn’t done seriously since my brief college soccer career ended. But FIFA is currently in the process of literally killing people to hold its major tournament in a country that has no business hosting the tournament, and which is only doing so because of widespread and poorly-hidden bribery.

Maybe the answer is in following smaller leagues. I’ve been following Motherwell FC, a small club in the Glasgow suburbs, this year — they’ll never get bought by oil billionaires and turned into the New York Yankees like my last favorite soccer team. So maybe the answer is in smaller leagues, and the non-money college sports like college baseball and soccer (men’s and women’s) and track and field and women’s basketball — the sports where the students are actually students, there are fewer ridiculous things like national websites ranking and rating sixth graders.

The thing is, the NCAA has done an incredible job turning its two big money sports — football and basketball — into events with literally-month-long championship seasons. The college football championships really begin in December with the early bowl games — and now there’s a playoff to extend it a little further. With March Madness it’s explicit. And the NCAA and team/school officials and brands make exorbitant sums of money off of this, which many smart people argue means the athletes should be paid, too, because the NCAA’s claims of amateurism are a sham. I chafe at this, because it would expose the lie that these kids are anything but hired mercenaries playing a year or two or three before leaving to try to make it in the big-time. (Which a shockingly small fraction actually succeed in doing.) Because remember, for example, University of Maryland basketball does not really represent the state of Maryland. It’s mostly teenagers, largely from out of state basketball factories, brought in for a couple of years to play in exchange for a scholarship and under the table benefits.

I think that the better answer is to take the money out of it, remove the brands and the sponsors and the big money TV contracts, let the sports be less “successful” financially but more truly amateur. The future NBA and NFL stars can go to some truly professional development league, but let the colleges be colleges and let the students be students. This will never happen, of course.

So meanwhile, go Steelmen.

*This post was initially titled “Everyone Needs to Lose, Except for Those Who Need to Win” and was intended to be an examination of rooting for the underdog, inspired by this Vox article. But then I got on a rant, so here we are.

On Sexism and Cookbooks and the Aspirationality of Food Media

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and today is the 50th anniversary of the US’s spectacularly ugly version of Bloody Sunday. Civil rights and equality are very much on the mind at the moment. Yesterday, Helen Rosner at Eater (the website that used to write my paychex) posted an enormously thoughtful essay on sexism in cookbooks — more specifically, sexism in cookbook criticism.

The impetus for the essay was a minor brouhaha (sorry Raphael) in the food writing world, the long-and-the-short of which is this: a food website asked a very good writer to compare two very good cookbooks. The writer liked one more than the other because the other felt phony. The author of the phony-feeling one felt the criticism was slightly-veiled sexism. The author of the criticism disagreed.

In Eater, Rosner argues that they’re both wrong. Her full discussion is worth the 10 minutes (maximum) it would take to read it, but to sum: The author of the cookbook is wrong, because she thinks the critic was being sexist for judging the book on its pictures and aesthetic (what Rosner calls the “everything-else”), rather than just its recipes. The blogger is wrong because his criticisms are indeed rooted in subtly sexist values, which run much deeper than his own thinking and, indeed, are inescapable in the food world.

Everything Rosner says feels right to me. And it got me to thinking about related problems in the food world, which got me to thinking about why I left that world.*

The thing is, the Foodie Industrial Complex (otherwise known as the food media) is based on a sort of artifice, this idea that you, too, can be like the pros. This differentiates it from any other segment of the entertainment industry. A music album isn’t designed to convince you that you, too, can make beautiful music. It’s designed to make you Shake It Off. You don’t watch a movie to learn how to make movies; you watch a movie to be entertained.

With food, though, it’s all based on an aspirational ideal. You, too, can throw a glamorous dinner party in the Hamptons with all your best gay friends. You, too, can make authentic Italian food while pretentiously pronouncing “cilantro” with a rolled “R.” You, too, can live a glamorous life in Paris surrounded by beautiful people and beautiful food, or you, too, can be like the most bad-ass of bad-ass Southern chefs. That’s what the whole field is about.

(And this is just talking cookbooks and food TV. The whole idea behind websites like Eater and Grub Street is letting normal people have the sort of insider-y  knowledge of restaurants usually reserved for, you know, restaurant employees.)

As Rosner points out, the whole damn thing is pretentious, but it’s the lady-oriented stuff from Martha Stewart of Gwyneth Paltrow or, in this case, Mimi Thorisson — stuff that gets shoved into the catch-all term of “lifestyle” writing — that’s more easily written off as such. Shows and blogs that let you live vicariously through Anthony Bourdain or John Currence or Sean Brock or Chris “Put Me On Every TV Show Plz” Cosentino are more legit and more respectable and, of course, more inherently masculine. But the basic aspirationality of this side of the food world is less easy to mock or dismiss**.

And that leads me to why I left the food world anyway. For me, food has always been less about Doing It Like the Pros or aspiring to a very specific, monied way of life full of travel and fine food and wine, and much more about understanding my own culture and others through the lens of food. For the overwhelming majority of people interested in food, though, it’s the opposite. Many of the consumers of food media are the lawyers and financiers who have the money to have all the coolest grilling and cooking equipment and can try to Do It Like the Pros. But they’re only Doing It Like the Pros when they’re not out four nights a week spending so much money in restaurants that they can claim to be friends with the chef, when in reality they’re usually just privileged white men really good regulars. Besides, I’ve spent the last ten years trying to get out of restaurants, thank you very much. Put simply, I never identified with the aspirational aspect of it, and after moving to New York City to try to make it, I ran out of money before I could figure out how to achieve the anthropological aspect of it. (Not to mention I ran out of patience with the anonymous commenters, the most vile of all the rich white guys who could afford to go to the restaurants I couldn’t and really, really wanted that sort of Do It Like the Pros insider knowledge that, as I’ve mentioned, was secondary for me.)

So bringing this back to the question of sexism, I guess my point is this: it’s only going to change as women continue to gain positions of power in restaurants (especially in the back of house) and in the sorts of food media that are now dominated by men. It’s going to take more people like Helen Rosner and Amanda Kludt at Eater, April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig, and all the other Truly Badass Women who are doing awesome things, to show that the awesome things that we more often see men doing are not inherently masculine, and that women don’t have to strive for the Martha Stewart Ideal of Domestic Goddess.

*I’ve only left the food world inasmuch as I stopped food writing. After working the 2013 wine harvest and in restaurants over the last two years, I hesitate to say I truly (or ever will) have “left that world.”

**This goes way back, too. There have always been two dominant streaks in food media: the Do It Like the Pros world of James Beard and company, and the domestic goddess-ery of Martha Stewart et al. The two strands are related, occasionally opposed, but always co-existent.

What’s a Pea-Shooter Anyway? 480 Words of Nonsense

“Put that pea-shooter down.” It keeps running through my head. But he doesn’t say “down,” does he? It’s more like “day-ow-n.”

“Put that pea-shootah day-own-n.” What’s a pea-shooter anyway? It sounds delicious. Like an oyster shooter but instead of an oyster there’s a frozen pea, and instead of bloody mary mix (or whatever they put in oysters shooters; I don’t really know because I’ve never actually had one) it’s split pea soup. Though I guess if you put a pea into split pea soup you wouldn’t even notice it’s there. Kind of like the princess and the pea, you know, but with soup instead of a towering stack of mattresses.

So presumably you’d need something else. What goes with peas, potatoes? So it could be a shooter with really, really thin mashed potatoes and a pea.

Then I’d call it “Frog Eye Soup,” though, because that’s what my big sister and I used to call it when we mixed our peas into our mashed potatoes. We thought we were so clever, but actually we were just elementary school kids. Anyway, close enough to a pea-shooter. And besides:

“Put that pea-shooter down.”

The whole point of this is that a couple of weeks ago my lady and I watched Robin Hood. Not Men in Tights, not the bizarro Kevin Costner one, but the real one. The one with music by Roger Miller. “Every town / has its ups and downs / Sometimes the ups / outnumber the downs / Not in Nottingham.” But again, it’s more like “day-ow-ns.” But when you’re rhyming a word with itself it doesn’t really matter how you pronounce it.

So we were watching Robin Hood, the real one, the good one. And we fell asleep on the couch. Maybe that’s what adults do when they watch children’s movies. And now two or three or four or five weeks later (who’s to say how long ago we watched it?) one random phrase from the movie is running through my brain. Like, literally running. Inside my head there’s a vast emptiness, where for other people a functioning brain would be. And I mean it’s vast. Have you seen the size of my head? Huge head, tiny ears. I’m the anti-elf.

So there’s this vast emptiness, and there’s a marquee that just spans the entire width of it. Sometimes (usually) the marquee has random song lyrics running across it, just on a loop, singing non-stop. Sometimes it’s names that I encountered and liked, like Quincy Pondexter. But today it’s Robin Hood. “Put that pea-shootah day-ow-n.”

And the funny thing is I still haven’t figured out what a pea-shooter is.

Maybe the whole point of this is that sometimes we take things so seriously, and we should just cool it and snuggle on the couch and take naps while watching children’s movies from the 1970s.

That’s just me over-utilizing my pea-shooter. I need to put that pea-shootah day-ow-n.

On Being a Tugboat Captain

Or, Thoughts on the New Year, 2015 Edition

This is the fourth year in a row I’ve used Tumblr to write an essay for the new year. Read previous year’s musings here.

This is something I do. Every year I write the same essay, looking back on the past year, looking forward to the next, getting deep-and-thought-y, drinking too much coffee, listening to music, feeling big emotions. I still firmly believe that New Year’s is sort of a stupid holiday — in that we put too much stock in it, demanding big things when, at most, it’s just the worst of the drinking holidays. And New Year’s resolutions are gimmicky and too easy to forget about when January becomes February. Still, as I wrote at the end of 2011, there is value in marking the arrival of a new year.

Today’s feelings are muted. 2014 was fine — it was full of a number of personal victories, but still it feels like sort of a throwaway year. Perhaps that will change with time. I did, after all, start this past year feeling just about as low as a person can get. As I wrote last New Year’s, I was completely unsettled, floundering in my work and my life, feeling like everything was basically the worst. I didn’t like myself and had trouble showing those around me that I loved them. In 2014 I got back to equilibrium, which (in light of how I ended 2013) is itself a pretty big victory.

Instead of making resolutions, I make big declarations. 2010 was The Year of the Alex, 2011 was The Year of Good Decisions, 2012 was The Year of Good Work, 2013 was The Year of Getting Right (ha!), 2014 was The Year of Good Returns. I think that title for this past year was pretty accurate.

There was a point, in mid-April, when I was getting pretty down about my attempts to get out of restaurants and back into my career*. I wanted to move from online publishing to doing digital things in traditional book publishing. I was applying for jobs, never hearing anything back, and I felt awful. But an opportunity arose that, through much effort and difficulty, could lead to something good. When faced with the option of re-enrolling in community college to take an internship, which would require me to work seven days a week (commuting into the city for two of them), I found myself in the parking lot of Napa Valley College saying unto myself: “Just do the damn thing.” I did the damn thing, got the internship, got a job, kept working seven days a week across two jobs, moved to Walnut Creek, got myself down to just six days a week in two jobs, and am truly moving forward. Lots of work, but good returns.

Here, an inexhaustive (and non-chronological) list of my victories from the past year. I did these damn things:

  • Ran my first half-marathon in Oakland in March
  • Ran my second and third half-marathons in San Francisco and Walnut Creek
  • Ran my first full marathon in my hometown of Baltimore, coming in 73rd place overall
  • Saw my family in Baltimore twice this fall, both helping satisfy (but also feeding) my growing homesickness
  • Started a new job back on my career track, at a fun little office doing and learning interesting things
  • Started a new restaurant job at a restaurant that, for the first time in a very, very long time, I truly enjoy
  • Moved back into our own apartment after a year with the fiancee’s parents

This next year will be huge, too. I’m getting married in June, and that large event — and the smaller events associated with the big one — will define this coming year in a very real (and very great!) way. But somehow I have this feeling that by the end of this year, I won’t be in all that different of a place. I’ll be married, sure (yay!), but I plan on still being in both of my current jobs — hopefully being more successful in both, but still there — and in my current apartment. But that stability, that unrelenting forward momentum pushing ever slowly and consistently like a tugboat pushing a barge upriver, is its own victory. I’ve never had stability in my adult life. I crave it, and having it will contribute to further growth, further victories, and future adventures.

This, then, is the Year of Stability. It’s the year of moving forward with maturity and consistency and dedication. It’s the year of chugging along like a tugboat.

*Funny. I just re-read last year’s essay and my pessimism about getting out of restaurants is so apparent. I didn’t get out of restaurant work, but I got back into my career, and that’s a victory.