Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Stirring the pot (of America's racial stew) again.

Here is my review of Michael Eric Dyson's new book, The Black Presidency. I gave him 3 stars for the general panache of the writing, and for enunciating the "white privilege" argument about as well as anyone, both overtly and between the lines. But as to the argument itself...?

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Update on football's mental game.

I rest my case.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

How to watch Super Bowl 50.

This piece ran originally in the New York Daily News in 2011, but I've updated it and added some color. (Alert readers will recognize the one or two lines unlikely to appear in their daily newspapers.)

As any gridiron aficionado will tell you, it's impossible to appreciate the Super Bowl without a keen understanding of the attitudinal factors that control every single game element, beginning with the coin toss. Ahh, the coin toss: to the uninitiated, a simple matter of physics and the laws of chance. Insiders, however, know that it's one of those improbable competitive subtleties where reality can be forced to yield to the power of the human spirit. This in turn explains why only the most seasoned team captains—men of profound mettle and valor—are dispatched to midfield to yell “heads” or “tails.” As Knute Rockne put it, and on the same day as his immortal Gipper speech, no less, “You don't want to risk having a raw novice go out there and fuck it up.” 

Following, then, is a primer in the rest of football's so-called mental game. If you're a casual fan, or you'll be watching with others who are, this will enable all of you to decode the insightful banter from the broadcast booth.

Recognize first that an athlete competing at the Super Bowl level is well versed in the potent psychodynamics of winning. He knows there's no “I” in team, yet can personally carry the team on his back when circumstances call for it. He stays within himself while also knowing how to stretch. This superb athlete walks the fine line between limitless confidence and overconfidence. He goes into competition with a clear head as well as intense concentration, and while he recognizes that winning is everything, not for one second does he ever worry about losing. He has mastered the art of pacing himself in an environment in which he's expected to give 110 percent at all times—and he still has another gear left if he needs it.

The Super Bowl being the Super Bowl, fans can rest assured that teams will be in the zone, not looking ahead to next week. Surely in this one game, players will leave it all on the field. (NOTE: The NFL has contracted with specially trained crews to come to Santa Clara's Levi's stadium Monday morning and pick it all up again. It is then mailed back to players during the off-season.) From the moment the athletes race onto the gridiron, they're out to make a statement—although some teams prefer to let the other team make its statement first, so they can answer with authority.

By newly enacted rule this season, every NFL game must feature at least one momentum shift. Befitting its name, this is an epochal development wherein the side that seemed to have matters well in hand suddenly turns the ball over at an inopportune moment, thereby allowing the other team back in. (The epidemiology of momentum—the precise mechanism whereby it spreads from player to player or team to team—remains controversial. Some believe it's genomically related to the zika virus.)

Momentum shifts are not, however, irreversible. They can be undone by a loss of focus or poise. As such mistakes are unforgivable at this point in the season, top NFL brass are mulling whether a loss of poise should be penalized with a loss of down in Super Bowl 50.

If the game is close and circumstances afford one team a final chance to seize its destiny, the stage is set for another time-honored competitive phenomenon: the gut check. This requires players to reach deep inside themselves in order to find out what they're made of (and, while they're in there, find that other gear). In keeping with a recent trend involving the commercial marketing of all discrete moments in a given contest (“This kickoff brought to you by...”), Super Bowl 50's gut check will be sponsored by HMB, a leading manufacturer colonoscopy equipment.

Favored teams that find themselves behind as the Super Bowl moves into its later stages may turn as a last recourse to a player who knows how to win. It has been posited by Stephen Hawking that these elite players emit energy waves capable of causing fumbles and broken plays; some can even summon gusts of wind that deflect field goals. Such a player will now be asked to communicate this proprietary know-how to the rest of the team. This ceremony usually takes place at a sideline meeting, where the elite player imbues his teammates with the will to win by screaming inspirational totems like “just win, baby!” or “now let's go out and kill the motherfuckers!" (Emerging science suggests that, Will Smith's latest film to the contrary, concussions actually result from collisions between opposing players who both know how to win. Such players soon may be required to wear prominent W's on their helmets, analogous to the green dots worn by the guys who are mic'd up; this, to help them avoid one-on-one contact.)

Important caveat: A player who knows how to win must never exercise that gift prematurely. He may not, for example, inspire his team to score four touchdowns in the first quarter, thereby putting the game safely out of reach. Rather, he must bide his time while awaiting the perfect moment to enable his team to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The delicacy of this balancing act is such that a player sometimes waits too long, rendering his team vulnerable to opponents who have no quit in them.

Thus illuminated, now sit back and enjoy the game.

(Helpful hint: Turn off the sound?)

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

And Steve invents a new line of Valentine's Day cards.

I was looking back through my old Valentine's Day content, and I thought this would be appropriate for those of you who're searching for just the right card, and encountering problems with what Hallmark (even at its cheeky best) has to offer. I posted it originally in 2008, but I think it stands the test of time. Hope you get a chuckle out of it.

When you go card shopping on days like this (or I should say, for days like this), you realize with ton-of-bricks clarity the extent to which the card industry evinces that same uplifting/"isn't that special!" nonsense that has thoroughly hijacked America's schools and sports programs, increasingly influences politics, and variously afflicts so many other cultural realms. The vast majority of Valentine's Day cards that are intended for spouses to give to one another insist upon selling a view of long-term married life that makes it sounds as if, even in 25 years, you've never once thought of walking out the door and just not coming back. This is especially true of cards designed for husbands to give to wives, the assumption being that we men are simply hopeless and helpless without our women, and thus eternally grateful that after all these years, they still address us by our correct names—instead of, say, just shouting "hey, moron" in our general direction. The same assumption, by the way, dominates today's TV ads as well as most sitcoms. I swear, one of these days I'm going to organize a boycott of all consumer products whose advertising makes men look like ineffectual wimps who'd somehow end up stapling their heads to the mailbox and, overall, could not long survive, if their wives didn't rescue them from their own stupidity at regular intervals. Few things infuriate me nowadays—I have mellowed from the hair-trigger temper of my youth—but that infuriates me as little else ever has.

Anyway, yeah, you can find more realistic cards (somewhat paradoxically) in the humor section of the card aisle, where it's understood that the card is meant to be facetious. These cards are instantly recognizable by the cartoon characters and other lighthearted touches on the front; they're made that way on purpose, lest the recipient get the idea that the giver might actually mean some of the satirical things the card says. If, however, you invest* in a serious card—the kind with the big red bow on the front that's encased in protective shrink-wrap (which the labeling helpfully reminds you to remove before giving)—the sentiments are almost always way over-the-top. Though you may find a token nod to a few "rough patches" you've hit along the way, those rough patches are always environmental: money problems or your son's most recent arrest for that crystal-meth lab he's got going in the basement (and you wondered what that funny smell was!). You do not find sentiments like the following:

"Sometimes I want to just stab you
and stage it to look like a home invasion
but the forensics people are so damn clever these days...."
"It's been 25 years, honey, and to this day
there are times when I still think of you while we're having sex..."
No, I kid, really (as Bill Maher likes to say). I happen to be a great believer in timeless romance and true love—certainly "for a guy," I am. But there's a huge difference between, on the one hand, being optimistic about love and "the future"—which I very much subscribe to—and, on the other hand, reflecting candidly on what one's marriage has actually been up to now. I just don't understand why we need to engage in this purposeful, winking charade wherein, for a few days each year**, we pretend to ignore the warts-and-all realities of married life. And we even codify that charade by putting the ornate sentiments down in black and white. ("From the day we met, sweetheart, every hour has been a joyful, unending....") Are you telling me, seriously, that both parties, when they receive such cards, don't know that the poems therein are putting a rosy spin on things? And doesn't that knowledge undercut the meaning of the act of card-giving? And in turn, might that not, in some subtle way, make both parties feel less secure about the relationship? Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that you're supposed to give someone a downright downbeat card. Just, why must cards strain to make every single relationship sound like Romeo & Juliet? (Let's not forget what happened to them, either.)

This need to believe what we know isn't so goes way beyond cards, of course, and we seem especially vulnerable in the area of romance. We'll listen to a guy like Tony Robbins drone on and on about how to "keep the magic in your marriage"—even though we know that he himself couldn't do it. And I'm sure that Dr. Laura, today, will field dozens of calls from women seeking her expert advice on how to repair the stress fractures in their relationships, despite the fact that Schlessinger simply walked out on her first husband and then, having set her sights on a new guy, broke up his marriage in order to claim him as her own. Similarly, a lot of people still don't realize that Robin McGraw isn't the first Mrs. Dr. Phil; she had a predecessor, and that woman, Debbie, whom I interviewed at length for SHAM,*** tells some interesting stories about the pre-Oprah version of our boy, who today presents himself as the world's foremost authority on harmonious living.

The point, again, is that relationships aren't neat or easy. Marriage isn't easy. Fidelity isn't easy. Life isn't easy.

Why do we need to pretend it is?
* And I do mean invest. Sheesh. What happened to the 79-cent card?
** Mother's Day, birthdays, wedding anniversaries, etc.
*** See pp. 72ff, if you have the book.

Friday, January 15, 2016

My take on Trump. In black and white (and read all over).*

In Writerdom it's generally considered bad form (downmarket, gauche) to tout one's letter to the editor. Not much of a coup, as things go; no money changes hands. That is far less true, however, when the letter appears in Harper's, where the cut is brutal and the opinion-leading reach extreme. Thus I commend you to my letter in the February issue, which Harper's editors have smartly titled "Why Trump Towers." (Scroll down to find it.) If you're a Harper's print subscriber, it's on magazine page 98. 

I wrote the item in response to Lewis Lapham's stylish/snarky November piece on Trump-mania. For many years the magazine's iconic editor, Lapham bought and published my very first magazine submission back in 1982, a memoir of my decade as a shop-at-home mirror salesman in Harlem. That's the cover at left. So one might say Lapham got me started in this business. Someday I may even forgive him. 
* which of course is the first joke every child's father tells him.