Friday, October 31, 2008

Al-Quaeda Endorses McCain

MOST OF US WERE wondering what to make of Nicholas Kristof's op-ed in Sunday's New York Times, when he mused on the significance of Al-Quaeda's endorsement of John McCain for president. For Kristof, a McCain presidency would mean

four more years of blindness to nuance in the Muslim world would be a tragedy for Americans and virtually everyone else, but a boon for radical groups trying to recruit suicide bombers.
It's a bizarre endorsement that no one has really been talking about.

The staff here at TWR has been wondering what we could do to get Al-Quaeda's endorsement for something---maybe "Least-threating blog." However, because of our "confrontational route," we may be out of luck there.

Still, while we wait for that one, we came up with a list of other potential groups we're going to try to get to endorse us, simply out of mere confusion:

Operation Rescue
The Washington Times
Fox News

If you have other suggestions, let us know!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

God is Basketball, by Chris Haven

IN HONOR OF THE tip-off of the new NBA season, TWR is proud to publish Chris Haven's mantra on God and basketball. We like many things about this poem--not just the conflation of basketball and divinity--including how, in the second-to-last stanza, the poet uses basketball terminology as metaphors for the essence of God.

Haven is an assistant professor at Grand Valley State University, where he teaches in the writing department. He is at work on a novel that takes place in Oklahoma just after the land rushes.

God is Basketball

God the ball
God the leather
God the air

God the net
God the rim
God the gym

God the floor
God the shine
God the squeak

God the clock
God the tick
God the buzzer

God the lights
God the time
God the outs

God the shot
God the muscle
God the memory

God the glass
God the angle
God the drop

God the one
God the deuce
God the three

God the deal
God the steal
God the foul

God the block
God the walk
God the blood

God the forward
God the guard
God the center

God the crossover
God the stab-step
God the fadeaway

God the loss
God the win
God the crowd

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Season Finale of Mad Men + A Second Shot at Swingtown

TONIGHT'S SEASON FINALE OF season two of Mad Men was more about the future than the past. Crippled by the Cuban missile crisis, the merger of Sterling Cooper, and the unexpected news of both pregnancy and paternity, the men and women of the show braced themselves for the invisible unfolding of the future, even though the audience sees them as relics of a charming era when people actually ordered gimlets and wore tie clips without irony.

It is a tribute to the show's writing that so much of the program eschews the easy nostalgia for 1962 and instead focuses on the unsettling encroachment of postmodernity with its incredulity toward metanarratives and its tofu. And now it's going away!

If Mad Men's hibernation has you antsy for an interesting companion program, check out Swingtown. The first season, originally on CBS earlier this year, is currently being rebroadcast on Bravo.

Though it is set in a suburb of Chicago in 1976, Swingtown shares a great deal with Mad Men. In particular, both series feature detailed examinations of the romantic and emotional relationships of unusually attractive (and slim) suburban couples who seem to be drifting apart. Much of the topical source of the tension in Swingtown is a long-married couple's decision to "swing" with some saucy new neighbors, but, like Mad Men, the roots of the infidelity are deeper than mere fad. Though the contexts in the two shows are different, it's astonishing how similar (and awkward) suburban communication between men and women can be on TV--even more awkward than the hair.

Like Mad Men, Swingtown revels in the trivia of a bygone era, pulling more generously from music, icons, and the joie de vivre of the times than its '62 counterpart; but it lacks the historical or political depth of the older model. It's less dark, less moody--in short, less cable--and, as such, Swingtown is also less enjoyable. It lacks Mad Men's relational tension, its pressure of codes and restrictions. In Swingtown's suburban Chicago of the 70s, pretty much anything goes, which you would think would make for fun TV. But that lack of circumscription (plus network TV's enforced circumscription) makes the series about wife-swapping not quite as swingin' as you might expect.

Still, it's fascinating to see how fashion, interior design, music, culture, and sexual freedom changes from the 1962 of Mad Men to the 1976 of Swingtown. It's hard to imagine the era between the two is only 14 years; it seems like twice that much. And yet, it's equally stunning to see how little gender roles alter, despite the fact that so many other aspects of American life seem to completely invert. In these suburbs, women still stay home, they still depend on their husbands, and they still have no idea what their partners really want. The women--particularly the wives--also don't know what they want. Both programs are at their best when the changing shape of culture catalyzes the women's moments of self discovery.

I have suggested before that Mad Men is really about women, and I would make the same argument for Swingtown. The guys are fine, and their extra-marital conquests are fun to watch. Or, are they painful to watch? Regardless, whether it's the 60s or the 70s, the emotional landscape of women--with its hidden pitfalls, its peaks and valleys, and its rivers of consequence--is just more interesting terrain to map.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Why Saturday Night Live Actually Matters Right Now

AS WE'VE SAID IN an earlier post, this year's presidential debates have proven neither insightful nor entertaining. As my colleague Christopher Kamrath argued on a recent panel, the debates have devolved into a kind of sporting event--people tune in to see how the home team has done. The debates are so scripted, so predictable, we no longer look to them for information but to confirm what we already believe.

This time around, the debates did so little real work, they abdicated their claim on political culture and migrated entirely into the realm of popular culture.

From appearances of the candidates on Late Night with David Letterman to the Sarah Palin drinking game during the vice-presidential debate (every time she says "maverick") to the Palin as President website, to the goofy photos of John McCain, to the Sarah Palin debate flow chart. None though have resonated so often and with so many as the various skits on Saturday Night Live and in particular, Tina Fey's spooky embodiment of Sarah Palin.

Because the presidential debates are presidential debates, we have to distill them through some sort of lens. We can't ignore them. And, since we can't really look at them through a political lens, we have chosen to view them through a comedic one. SNL has been particulary good at showing us the appropriate ways to see both the debates and the candidates themselves.

The candidates' attempts to control the setting of the debates may make the debates themselves safe texts, but that lack of drama also makes them unusually fair game for parody. This is especially the case given the high stakes of this election and its revolutionary components. With the first serious African American presidential candidate and the first serious female Republican candidate for vice-president, one would think the discourse of the debates would be commensurate with the significance of this election.

But not so much.

Senator Obama has to look presidential, so he can't afford to be provocative or surprising. Senator McCain has to stick so closely to the conservative platform the Right Wing has laid out for him, he can't really maverick things up. So, Tina Fey becomes our maverick and SNL becomes the most useful TV media outlet (not Fox, not MSNBC, not PBS) to help us place the candidates and their debate performances in the proper cultural context.

If Marshall McLuhan is right and the medium is the message, it is worth inquiring into the ultimate message sent by both the televised debates and their televised parodies. Now, for example, Gov. Palin seems to be impersonating Tina Fey impersonating Gov. Palin. How can we tell the dancer from the dance if they both shoot moose?

What we finally learn from SNL about the debates and the candidates is that the gap between earnest performance and earnest parody may be narrower than we ever imagined.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

On Battlestar Galactica

NO ONE IS MORE surprised to see a post about science fiction on TWR than the already cranky staff here at TWR. But, here it is: the first and probably the last entry about a science fiction text, unless, of course, you count Lost. But, that's another story.

This story is about Battlestar Galactica--the remake of the 1970s TV show, the remake ridiculed on last week's The Office, the remake beloved by geeks and non-geeks alike (though, I think, more by geeks, as indicated by the photo on the left)--and its provocative stance on religion. Very few television shows deal with issues of religion in complex ways. Programs like 7th Heaven and Touched by an Angel sentimentalize spirituality and the supernatural; they don't really explore its contradictions or look at how religion shapes cultures. Friday Night Lights, oddly enough, may do the best job of this on network TV in exploring the degree to which religion forges behavior, cultures, and attitudes.

The most interesting plot point of the new BG is the tension between the fundamentally different religious systems as held by the two warring civilizations: the humans and the cylons. Within the weltanschauung of the humans (with whom we are supposed to identify--they are looking for earth and may be our ancestors) the cylons are merely machines. The humans believe the cylons are incapable of rational thought or valid spiritual beliefs--in part because the cylons were created by humans. But, the cylons evolved; in fact, they sort of out-evolved the humans. They are more advanced, in many ways, despite their machine-ness. The humans are humans with all of their human flaws, their human desires, and their human beliefs.

Interestingly, though, one human belief on the show is the unwavering certainly in many gods; whereas the cylons believe in only one true omnipotent god. And thus, in the vast frontier of space (yes, it is all too familiar), a religious war is waged--monotheists against polytheists.

What's not familiar is the alignment of those beliefs. Within the narrative trajectory of the story, we find ourselves, of course, rooting for the humans, who seem to embody many of the standard characteristics of mainstream Christians. They pray, there are holy books, they ask for forgiveness, and they tend to ignore the gods except in times of distress. It's just that they pray to many gods, instead of, you know, just one.

On the other hands, the cylons make as part of their fundamental modus operandi the enactment of God's vision and design. In other words, the machines--who can appear ruthless and anti-human (even anti-American)--are more devout, more holy, more Christian than the humans.

Adding to this tension are other plot lines that come straight out of the Bible: a search for a promised land, a miracle baby that seems to embody the hope for the future, prophets and visions, temples and scriptures. To its credit, the show doesn't sympathize with the humans over the cylons. Both races are equally noble and ignoble. Similarly, the show doesn't indicate which system of belief is "correct," though much more time is devoted to the human polytheism. In fact, one of the annoying sci-fi traits of the show is to have the humans utter phrases like "oh my gods!" or "gods damn the cylons," rather than the singular noun. The human polytheism and its normalcy gets coded and recoded again throughout the show.

What will be fascinating is to see how the writers reconcile the ultimate destiny of the two races--will it have anything to do with one or many gods? In other words, the show poses the same question Columbus, Cabot, Cabeza de Vaca, and many early Pilgrims asked not only each other but their own god--who is right? Those who believe in many spirits, or us, trained to rely solely on one?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Reading Debate #3 As A Text

TO BE SURE, DEBATES are constructed texts.

They have authors and audiences, plots and themes, rising and falling actions, both composition and juxtaposition. In general, debates in the contemporary era (over any office of any real authority) are pretty dull. Rarely are they, in fact, debates but rather as many, many have noted, little more than staged responses to anticipated questions. This fact makes them even more of an intentional text than extemporaneous back-and-forthing might be.

In the text that was last night's presidential debate, a protagonist and an antagonist emerged. Barack Obama seemed to fully embody his persona as favorite, front-runner, and cypher for the hopes and dreams of the majority of the American electorate, while his nemesis, the cranky, jowly, stiff, and persnickety John McCain relished his role as the adversary. How happy and comfortable he appeared as the thunder at Obama's picnic, the tank full of water in Obama's Porsche, the jackhammer during Obama's nap.

Characters become what we want them to be. No one knows more than actors in a play that they are actors in a play. The debate is no different. Sure, it's a sleepy play, but the price is right, and, even better, the audience is big. McCain knew people were going to expect him to play the role of the aggressive underdog, and he wore the collar with pride. Similarly, Obama took direction to play the role of the contender with poise and confidence. The word "presidential" may have even been invoked once or twice during rehearsals.

If texts are about tension and counterpoise, the debate stuck to its guns: young vs. old; black vs. white; smooth vs. crotchety; jowels vs. ears; hope vs. experience. Thematically, this meant few surprises, just the regular resolution such plot points dissolve into.

So, then, if there is little to learn, what can we learn?

Well, we learned that we don't really want surprise or excitement in our politicians--especially in a time of economic and military crisis--we want predictability. We don't want a lyric poem or a literary novel; we want a light hour-long TV drama, like Monk or Grey's Anatomy. We want reassurance, and we don't want to be challenged. We want hope, sure, and perhaps even change--just not from us.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Poems Katie Couric Would Like: Brian Clements, "Basketball Benediction"

IN HONOR OF HER good work in the Sarah Palin interviews, TWR features another round of its smashing new series, "Poems Katie Couric Would Like." True, it's a basketball poem, but it's one that is funny, accessible, and sympathetic to the perils of aging. The poet, Brian Clements, incorporates long lines and lists of names reminiscent of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsburg.

One of the many things I like about this poem is how Clements conflates the personal with the public. Friends (Anthony Headly & Tom/Pat) are just as present in the poet's memory as icons like Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Sometimes, nostalgia trumps celebrity.

Blogger is not a great tool for posting poems, but I hope the energy and expansiveness of Clements' text comes across.


And soon will come the time, when the knees have taken on the
permanent aspect
of Willis Reed’s ankle forever frozen in stiff-legged memory

To wave goodbye to basketball… Goodbye! Goodbye to shin splints
and sweatsox up to here like the Ice Man used to wear with the short
shorts on top of those spindles knee up and coming at your chin like
Tony Headley’s elbows when he used to do his Moses Malone in the back yard (butt poke, elbow, straight to the board)

Goodbye to the blacktop right after Game 7 wishing just once for that kind of air or, hell, just to be able to play baseball as well as Jordan or
even Ainge though
I’m pretty sure I can golf as well as Barkley probably gamble better too

Goodbye to the turn-around to the baseline that I copied from Hakeem
when he was
Akeem Olajuwan in the old SWC I always thought Larry Michaux was a
mofo and Clyde the Glide always smoother than shinola but never
up when it mattered and the time I saw Guy Lewis in the lobby of the Parker Meridian, “Hey, Coach Lewis!” “Hey young man, how’re you?” he seemed a hell of a lot nicer
than on TV but never did he have as sour a puss as Old Abe Lemmons who must have been
born 80 years old with crabs up his ass

Goodbye to Weepy Simms so curly haired and sad faced he looked like Lenny Wilkens on
the side about to cry on Jack Sikma’s shoulder I don’t know a damned thing about
Lenny Wilkens personally but he always looked like he was ready to quit just
quit it all goodbye, goodbye, and goodbye

Goodbye to my 20-inch vertical leap and good riddance of Larry Bird his Indiana St. never
should have made it to the Final Four cheesy ass travel call when US Reed was
tripped let Bob Heaton come down and bump a fifteen footer around the rim,
fall lucky in I’d rather see Magic Fucking Johnson hit a half-court hook shot
every year to win the championship than Larry Bird a single time

Kareem! Abdul! Jabarr!

Which brings to mind Chris Jackson Mahmoud Abdul Raouf goodbye to him I miss his
jumper from the top of the key he was hot shit at LSU with Shaq
or was he before Shaq not great in the pros but I tried to pull
my feet up for a while like Chris Jackson Mahmoud Abdul
Raouf I don’t like to sing the national anthem either

Goodbye to the wristband and the sweatband and goodbye to Bill Walton of the similarly
gimpy knee I once heard Walton on TV mention Paul Arizin as though speaking
of an Avatar of Vishnu who the hell is Paul Arizin?

Goodbye to the clothesline, the nutgrab, the shortpull, the titty pinch. These all are your
legacy, dirty guy I played with in Binghamton, and yours as well, Kevin McHale!

Goodbye to the fantasy All-Star game we used to play on 4t St. in Sonny Campbell’s
driveway I barely knew how to play but I knew who the hell Wilt Chamberlain and
Rick Barry were and Barry Heinley was the tallest so he was Chamberlain and that
may have been an appropriate casting a few years later I saw him once
at the mall kissing two girls at once and whoever got picked last had to be Rick Barry
and shoot free throws underhanded (Goodbye to the underhanded free throw) an
old guy down the street used to come by and play when we needed one
and always wanted to be Jerry West



Goodbye to the scattershot point guards I usually have to guard like Chris Haven or that
little guy I played against at the Boy’s Club who moved laterally across the lane
faster than I can lift a hand I got to see Tiny Archibald play his last year or two and
sometimes I imagine Hal Greer played that way though I also sometimes imagine Hal
Greer lumbering something like Rosie off the stage and onto the floor after Sirhan
Sirhan and shouting the gun

Goodbye Tom/Pat I know we played a few times though I can’t remember much about your
game except perhaps that you moved well without the ball and that you’d gun it up
from anywhere and that too soon you left Pistol Pat

Goodbye to 98 degrees Arkansas pickup games so sweaty you can’t pick up the ball so much
sweat in my eyes it took me a while to realize that the star of the UCA Bears was in
the game, kid named Scottie Pippen Goodbye Scottie—we all need
a Scottie Pippen

Goodbye to the pick and roll I don’t even have to put the names here you know who
they are unlike say Isaiah Thomas what the hell was so great about Isaiah Thomas if
he didn’t have Dumars and Laimbeer would he have been any better than Gary
Payton hell or Mookie Blaylock a one-time six category guy Goodbye Mookie
Blaylock formerly of Garland, Texas and namesake of a kid my wife taught in
first grade Goodbye Mookie!

Goodbye to the six foot eight guy with a pony tail a writer whose name I can’t remember
Patton or something like that the inevitable big guy who thinks he’s a shooting guard
and refuses to step foot in the paint as though the Admiral were down there just
waiting for his ass to come within ten feet I love that Goodbye wimpy big guys!




Goodbye to the cocky big guy in the church league in Dallas who took pleasure in dunking in
a no-dunk church league I didn’t go to church but I did enjoy the church league
except for Big Daddy Diesel here come down among the mortals I wished Kevin
McHale had been around to punch him in the nuts even though it was a church league

Goodbye to the guy with a waist the size of half a gallon of milk who rose above me on a
breakaway in a pickup game at UT ball extended to the heavens like he held up the
sun and fired the ball through the net without touching the rim like a solar flash it was
a thing of beauty I always wondered what it would be like to be dunked on by Dr. J
Thank You skinny UT student and Goodbye!

Goodbye to the basketball politician, the basketball broadcaster, the basketball executive but
Goodbye too to the basketball dentist, the basketball plumber, the basketball maker of
tool and dye. In your minds and in mine you all are Earl the Pearl and Clyde Frazier
combined not really but it’s nice to say so Hey did you ever notice on Knicks games
that Clyde uses funny words Goodbye Clyde’s funny words

Goodbye to the little guy who used to block my shot every time I turned to the right you’d
think he was Bill Russell Goodbye to Bill Russell you seem like a very nice man I
would like to have had my shot packed by you and Goodbye to George Mikan you
too were probably pretty nice though in film your game looks like my Dad’s shooting
semihooks over the backboard I’m sure you never shot it over the backboard

And goodbye to all the other guys including the girls I ever played with I didn’t like some of
you but some of you I loved to see curling around a pick at the free throw line
ducking head down and shuffling toward the basket I didn’t even have to look just
knew you’d be there sweet that’s probably what it was like playing with Parrish or
Unseld or Hayes maybe even no not Ewing but KAREEM ABDUL JABAAR! there
are some other guys who were great but I’d feel dishonest mentioning them because I
never saw them play even on tape just saw them on Lectric Shave commercials or
HAVLICEK STOLE THE BALL! I’m sure Oscar Robertson must have been great
just look at those numbers but the Big O that fills my mind is Oliver Miller dishing to
a cutting Big Nasty Goodbye Big O and Big O Goodbye Big Nasty

And goodbye in the end to the bonehead move and the jubilation in its wake; if only in that
game in junior high when I scrambled on the floor and came up throwing to the
opposing coach I’d been the James Worthy and not the Fred Brown whole lives might
have been changed Goodbye, Fred Brown I’ll be with you in the annals of infamy
with my flat-footed jumper and my flag crew D and with Phi Slamma Jamma and the
New Orleans Jazz and with the greatest never to win big I’ll be there with you soon
Fred Brown and with the candy-ass Mavericks and the missed-chance Suns and with
sadsack C Webb in perpetual time out

Friday, October 3, 2008

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Paper Delivery: LeAnne Howe, Miko Kings

IN HONOR OF THE arrival of the MLB playoffs, the new Paper Delivery for October is the best baseball novel I've read in years: LeAnne Howe's Miko Kings.

Using letters, photographs, diary entries, film stills, time-travel, and veiled autobiography, Howe deploys a postmodern narrativity to make a provocative but compelling assertion: Indians invented baseball. The novel is too complicated, too layered, to capsulize easily here, but suffice it to say that Howe creates frames within frames, stories upon stories, rendered through many voices over many eras.

One segment of the novel tells the intertwined stories of Lena Coulter, a Choctaw writer, and Ezol Day, a progressive, artistic Choctaw postal clerk who lived in the early 1900s and who travels across the decades to visit Lena. When she was alive, Ezol was in love with a star player on the Miko Kings--an actual Choctaw baseball team that dominated the Indian leagues and even defeated the team of the Seventh Cavalrymen from Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

The story of Choctaw baseball, its connection to Choctaw culture, and American baseball’s debt to Choctaw “base and ball” is the subject of the second strain of Howe’s novel. Ezol appears in both sections, connecting both history and sport. She also functions as the moral compass of the novel. She not only understands the tribal impulses of baseball, she also foresees how Choctaw baseball will influence how the tribe moves forward into the future.

The future, at least for Lena, can't shake the shackles of the past. Lena, who has traveled the world but never felt centered, longs for information about her family and the Choctaw, a substantive root fastening her to a people and place. And, as a writer, she wants her own storying to intersect with Choctaw storying, but at present, all aspects feel fragmented. Near the novel’s end, Lena asks Ezol the reason for her groundlessness, to which Ezol responds: “Because when your mother died, you had no other real ancestors to turn to . . . I may not have been your blood grandmother—but I should have been. And I have always been with you in spirit. That is the true story I came to tell” (221).

As it turns out, it is Lena’s ability in the present to write about the past’s line through to the future that brings everything into right relation with each other. “As you know,” Ezol tells Lena, “I continually occupy myself with patterns and questions. The interpretation of time, the speed of love, the velocity of a meteor shower, or the time it takes for a small white ball to fly from the pitcher’s hand across home plate. These things still interest me. As you have always interested me, my girl” (221). Home plate is a double metaphor here. A place of arrival and completion that is both inside and outside of time, rooted to a place but with connections across all space.

Fans of baseball, fans of Native American fiction, and fans of time-traveling sci-fi will all find something in this novel to appreciate. Furthermore, aficionados of postmodern fiction's matrix-like structures, plurality of voices and non-linear narratives will also dig Howe's collage-like text. It's also just fun to de-bunk the myth of America by de-bunking the myth of America's Game. Somehow, through an invention of baseball, Indians engage in an inversion of conquest.

Would anything make Manny Ramirez happier?