Thursday, February 28, 2008

Trouble In Paradise

I recently came across this interesting article from the Atlantic regarding the possible future of suburbia. The main culprit driving the crisis referred to in the article is the fallout from the bursting of the real estate bubble, namely the subprime mortgage meltdown and resultant credit crunch. Nowadays even in the wealthier jurisdictions of this sort, including Loudoun, there have been more and more foreclosure auctions and fewer and fewer takers.

Being the quinessential urbanite (my long commute from one central city to another notwithstanding - it's mostly on a train) I had never quite fully understood the appeal of the outer fringes of metropolitan areas. But all through the 1990s and even during the early years of this decade, most of the country appeared to disagree with me as outer suburbs boomed, notably nearby Loudoun County, Virgnia.

Nonetheless, from an objective point of view, it had occurred to me that outer suburbia was becoming a less desirable place to live for a variety of reasons.

* Some people moved to outer-ring suburbs or exurbs to be closer to wide open spaces, but the building boom in such areas over the last generation has brought more and more people and traffic, their appeal has declined, unless one was willing to live ever further from the city center.

* Much of the mass suburbanization the nation has seen has been driven by "white flight," white middle class families fleeing urban crime, urban blight, poor performing schools, forced busing plans, and other maladies that befell central cities over the second half of the 20th Century in particular. (Of course at this point "white flight" is something of a misnomer in many places since black middle-class families joined the exodus as well and in some locales have created their own patches of suburban development, some of them quite prosperous.) However, as recent immigrant populations come to the suburbs in search of more affordable housing, they often bring challenges to the standard assumptions about infrastructure needs in the subrubs - local school systems unaccustomed to language issues, road and transit systems not used to needing to provide the transportation and/or increased road capacity that these populations tend to need. The result has been a backlash and a backlash to the backlash. I don't need to mention that they make the suburbs look quite different then they did a generation ago, but racism is not the only factor and may not even be the most significant one.

* And of course, there's the factor I always thought would really sour people on the long commutes and hours waiting in traffic - the increased price of fuel.

I read peak oil theorist James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency upon a friend's recommendation and dismissed a lot of it as a little over the top, and when his prediction of a massive collapse in the Dow in 2007 utterly failed to materialize, I discounted or at least took with a grain of salt most of what was in the rest of the book. But a portion of the book where he described a scenario whereby some low-density suburbs might become the slums of tomorrow always stuck in my mind. With gas prices seemingly caught in an ever upward spiral, depending on residents to commute 40 or 50 miles every day each way to get to and from work seems like an unsustainable trend.

Other countries, those that have higher gasoline prices, are already ahead of the curve so to speak. I recently cam across ann odd little fact about the film Juno. In the movie, the title character and her family lived in a working class/lower-middle class suburb of Minneapolis with relatively small housing stock, and the Lorings, the prospective adoptive parents of Juno's baby live in a large house in a wealthy exurban area. But like a lot of movies, much of the filming actually took place in Vancouver, Canada. And while the pattern suggested by the movie still largely holds true in most American metropolitan areas, it turns out that in metro Vancouver, the modest house where Juno lives is worth more than the McMansion where the Lorings live, mostly because one could more easily walk or use public transit in Juno's neighborhood than in that of the Lorings, where a private vehicle is a necessity on every trip.

The bottom line here?

We junked our cities over the last 50 years in particular, in part to distance ourselves from poor people in general, and in part distance ourselves from other people in general. To that end, we built superhighways to facilitate our movements through these former open spaces that have now been filled with subdivisions and shopping malls and starved public transportation investments in most places, creating entire metro areas based exclusively around long car trips. We created almost by accident a tax system - federal, state, and local - that encouraged and incentivized people to move to bigger houses consuming more and space and more and more energy further and further outward. We fostered a politics of isolation, of alientaton, and of radical individualism - but ironically did so using a complex system of government subsidies and public incentives to a degree that a truly free market could not have indulged.

It was a shortsighted and foolish call on our part, but it was hard to notice that as long as oil was cheap and plentiful. None of this necessarily makes us any more or less venial than any other nation or culture on earth, for it cannot be said that the siren song that led us to where we are would have gone unheard by other nations or peoples. Indeed we are watching China and India trying to repeat our patterns of consumption before our very eyes. Whether or not the disaster that the Kunstlers of the world predict comes to pass, things will have to change and the sooner that we change our mindset the sooner we can get started.

Friday, February 22, 2008


Another alleged monster snowstorm has failed to materialize.


Not that predicting the weather is necessarily the easiest of things to do, but the news media seem fairly skilled at riling us up. I'm sure that that there's not much milk, bread, or toilet paper to be found at local supermarkets.

I'm from up north of course, and if I really hated snow and cold as much as I sometimes think I do, I'd have tried to decamp for Southern California or Florida. But I have to admit that that weird phenomenon known as the Washington Snowstorm is annoying.

I would think that a city that gets at snow at least a couple of times a year would know how to handle snow better than this. But this is part of what John F. Kennedy meant when he described Washington, DC as a city with "Southern efficiency and Northern charm."

That was banal. I have some less banal thoughts, but they're not in a usable form yet.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sense And Sensitivity (Temp Town Dispatches, Vol 1)

Lately, as days off have grown fewer and further between, I've been noticing one of the worst aspects of Temp Town that don't directly involve working conditions or the way the rest of the legal profession treats you as an untouchable.

When I'm on the clock or just off it (at either end) I notice that I'm more sensitive and in general and irritable in particular. That which is easy to ignore out in the open seems harder to suffer. I don't know if it's a lack of sleep, or boredom, or what it is. But something changes. The little tics and mannerisms of one's coworkers are thrown into high relief. Their speaking tendencies get noticed and scrutinized. Memoranda from supervisors and bosses about small matter at work that are objectively relatively benign can morph in one's mind into personal slights to one's dignity.

One person's tendency to act as self-appointed expert on everything, fond of confusing her various opinions with objective fact and smugly declaring them, seems to annoy exponentially more as the waking hours spent in a room where she isn't there grow shorter and more precious. I feel like I know her better than some of her relatives do, and I don't really want to know her. Another one's bizarre sense of entitlement cloaked in what might be self-deprecating humor grows more tiresome the more words she spends declaiming the not-all-that-dire straits she finds herself in.

I have my moments where I sound more like Larry David than someone truly put upon. I think the difference is that at some level I am aware that my concerns are often petty, so I tend to keep them to myself. Many of them revolve around my commute.

I wonder if being married is like this, except that one get to choose one's spouse and no one in this line of work gets to choose his coworkers. I certainly see way more of the people in this office than I do anyone else right now, and it's possible some of my married coworkers see more of me than they do their spouses.

Not all jobs are like this. Usually you hit it off with someone, and can develop good friendships, since shared adversity (such as it is) can bond people closer together. But that doesn't always happen.

Sometimes I think thoughts that make me not want to like myself much. Perhaps most people are like that, except some of them are missing the mechanism that tells them "Let's pull ourselves together and not act on what we know are bad impulses."

Existence in this sort of space makes one notice, and be sensitive to, small changes that in most contexts would go unnoticed. Small changes in temperature, general background noise level, the proximity of other people, the conversational tone of coworkers, the subject matter of conversations around you, the way one perceive the extent to which one's employers are watching closely, the way the workplace rules are changed (implicitly or explicitly).

And the little things can loom large.

For over a week I have watched my beloved Twix bars in the vending machine, buried beneath three Baby Ruth bars that I don't want. And finally someone has removed the last obstacle between me and that tasty combination of cookie, caramel, and chocolate that I so adore. And when the man who fills the vending machine comes by, I silently observe him place the candy bars into the slots that will determine what I do when the inevitable 2:00 food coma kicks in. In the normal world, off the clock, no way would I spent so much mental energy on how many candy bars stand between me and the Liberation of the Exalted Twix.

And I find it's not even just at work, but during the commute to or from work as well. I notice breaches of the little, mostly unwritten rules of acceptable rider behavior on Metro - people who stand on the left on the escalators, people who partially block the train doors when it's not their stop and there's plenty of room further in the train, people who stop at the top or bottom of the escalators because they're not sure where they're going next - that are relatively easy for me to ignore at other times. On those thankfully relatively rare times where I need to hit the roads during rush hour, nerves are more easily frayed when I'm going to or from work.

The slightest damn thing that happens on the Beltway can mean 30 minutes more time stuck on the road. And even a little precipitation is enough to foul absolutely everything up. And time never moves so fast as when you're trying to get to work so you can clock in...and never as slowly as when you're sitting there in the office.

And when I get home, not finding parking on my block, increasing ever so marginally the distance I'm going to have to carry my backpack and gym bag the next morning, just irks me more than by all rights it really should. Especially on any day where there's a chance I'll have to scrape ice or brush snow off the car.

I have no experience with the military or prison but I imagine that they might experience the same sort of sensitivities that seem petty and silly from a distance but not within the moment. And I'm guessing that in those sorts of environments, since the threat of death or bodily harm generally hangs in the air, some sort of survival instinct kicks in every so often that provides one with the sense of perspective that keeps one from wallowing too much in the moment. But seldom does such perspective come in Temp Town. A form of it surfaces when one learns that the end of the job, whether for everyone or just for you, will occur in the immediate future - but even then, it's generally on to the next gig before long. Not that I want to operate with my life in danger per se, mind you, I'm just saying that the small stuff would be harder to sweat if the proverbial Big Stuff were to surface. But it doesn't come; it's all small stuff.

At least until my next day off.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Early this morning, I noticed that some Facebook application, one of a million that has somehow found its way onto my Facebook page sent me some automatic email - the Compare People one. As some level, it's supposed to be and really is just a little parlor game. Most of the questions of a vaguely frivolous nature - who's the best singer, who's the best dresser, etc.

But not all of them.

I ran through some friend comparisons, mostly in a rapid-fire manner. I tended to skip the ones that involved Facebook "friends" I didn't know in person or didn't know well. But I wasn't really using deep thought neurons, so to speak.

And then I looked at how people rated me.

Apparently, while I am smarter, apparently braver (never thought of myself that way, but go me!) more dependable, have better taste in music, am more creative, and more useful than whoever it was I was being compared to. On the other side of things, I'm not the snappiest dresser out there and I'm not the most outgoing sort.

But then I felt something, like I was staring into something I probably should have looked away from, like Pippin and the Orthanc-stone. And I had never thought of myself as a particularly sensitive sort - but it felt odd. I don't think the people who rated some other person higher than me meant it as any sort of slight, but it still feels weird to see that most other people (either friends, or more likely, friends of friends I know either scarcely or not at all) that you got randomly chosen to go up against for this exercise were nearly universally deemed as kinder, as better friends, as more loyal and as more trustworthy than you. I don't care how unflappable you are, if that doesn't hurt a little bit, you're not human.

No one wants to travel with me versus whomever else, and would rather spend a day with other people...but apparently they would rather be stranded on a desert island with me. Go figure. This is probably a sign that I'm wasting too much time writing all this.

Continuing the thought from Saturday, it's yet another sign that knowledge, even imperfect knowledge to be taken as a grain - nay, a shaker - of salt, can be a burden of sorts.

I suppose between some unfortunate incidents I've been involved in and the kind of view of humanity that three years in law school taught me, I'm not exactly the most trusting soul out there, and that probably comes out in more contexts than I would like it to, and I imagine that if you're seen as someone who's slow to let his guard down, other people you encounter might sense a need to act in kind.

I am reminded of the time that I was at an internship and was asked to sort through a filing cabinet of junk - something that I would gain a lot more experience with on some of my old paper document reviews, not to mention filtering out all the junk mail I started getting once the marketing people found out I had passed a bar exam (and now two of them), once they found out that I have a decent household income (especially for a one-person household), once they found out I'm a single gay man, and once they found out I buy a lot of electronic equipment....I'm a freakin' marketer's dream. So I have a giant bin of junk mail to go through when I get a spare minute.

Therefore, the people who picked the other person in the "Who is more organized?" question were 100% justified, unless they opted for certain friends of mine who are demonstrably less organized than I am.

Anyhow, one of the things in there was a report that was evaluating the interns that I can't imagine I was intended to see. I got tagged as "very intelligent" and "a good writer" but also as "unstable" and "overly intense." It may seem funny to anyone who has not known me for long and who has never seen me play quiz bowl or been involved in any of my relatively rare athletic endeavors, but I suppose back in those days I could see how someone could see me as a bit intense, particularly in my former guise as an aspiring politico. But man, seeing "unstable" next to my name didn't feel good.

I'm not sure if it makes sense to be more disturbed by a negative opinion that comes as a surprise than such an opinion that one could anticipate, and yet that's just another sign that humans aren't necessarily rational creatures.

Although I decided right then and there not only that it would be imprudent to say something to the person who wrote it but that I was only going to let this bother me to the extent that I needed to present a better face to the workplace.

Seeing those words probably changed me a little for the better.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

All We Have Is Now

Long hours of boring work and a lack of social interaction give one a lot of time to get lost in one's own thoughts. Armed with the iPod and surreptitous websurfing...

The shuffle widget today brought me "All We Have Is Now" by the Flaming Lips, a song where the narrator is told by a visitor from the future that he and whomever he is speaking to are "not going to make it" and "not going to be part of the future."

I had always through my youth told myself that knowledge was always better than ignorance. That version of me would scarcely have hesitated to opt for the affirmative if asked something like "If an omniscient being gave you the opportunity to know to the minute how long you are going to live, would you let him tell you?" (Note that I'm further assuming that the answer doesn't involve the being killing you while saying "your time is up now.")

With some more age I wonder if that's still true. I've been told that human beings have more capacity for dread and terror than other animals. I wonder now if I'm more the sort of person who's going to be counting down the days, like I used to do as a kid during the second half of summer vacations, knowing exactly when I'd need to be back in the classroom.

But knowledge can be a burden, which at one point in my life I found very tough to acknowledge.

I suppose it would be useful at some level to know that the short term was all I had to look forward to - I'd worry less about student loan payments and working more overtime and such.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Barack Obama For President

"You drank the Kool Aid." That's what a couple of friends have told me when they found out who I was voting for tomorrow.

The Presidential Primaries in Maryland (as well as Virginia and Washington, D.C.) are tomorrow.

The Republican race is basically settled. Mike Huckabee has a barely breathing campaign, Ron Paul never really had a chance, and everyone else worth mentioning has dropped out. It appears that John McCain is going to be their candidate.

So that leaves the Democrats, a party with whom, conveniently enough, I usually identify myself. And, for a whole host of reasons I can get into later if anyone cares, there is simply no way that I'm going to vote to give more power to the Republican Party the way that it currently exists at the national level. And that their choice is John McCain, whose dislike by certain types of movement conservatives is a point in his favor, does not really change any of that. Just because I think John McCain is probably a better human being than George W. Bush does not mean I think he'd necessarily be better as President. Sure he sometimes takes moderate positions to make himself look good for the press; apart from a relatively ineffective campaign finance reform measure, most have little substance behind them. Perhaps most importantly, he will be selecting from the same pool as Bush for political appointees in general and judges in particular.

And at this stage, with all the other Democratic candidates having departed the Presidential hunt, we are down to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Either way, the choice will be a momentous historical first.

How did I make my call?

I used to look at candidate websites extensively and compare the minor details of their various policy proposals until I concluded that substantive differences in micro-policy issues don't generally amount to much. They would matter a lot more if we were electing a dictator, but whoever becomes President is going to have to get his proposals through Congress and they're going to have their own ideas. Presidents don't, except in the most extreme circumstances, get up-or-down votes on their policy prescriptions. And in any case, there isn't a ton of daylight to be found in most of the differences between the stated platforms of these two Senators. I find much in their respective records that I like, and a few things about both that concern me.

I look at Hillary Clinton, and I see someone who is capable, sharp, and a good debater. If it came down to voting for her vs. John McCain, I wouldn't hesitate to pull the lever for her. She's had everything but the kitchen sink thrown at her by the Republican attack machine, who probably have no new ammunition. She's been a fairly effective Senator by most accounts, able to work with members of both parties despite having been tagged as a "divisive" politican. There has been a lot of criticism aimed at her by Republicans and Democrats alike and not all of it is fair. I watched the Republicans turn John Kerry into a "divisive" figure, and having watched Kerry in action for nearly two decades, I can say that he if he can be pilloried that way so can almost anyone.

Hillary is in part selling herself as a sort of "bridge to the 1990s," harkening back to her husband's term of office. Which, to most people who aren't staunch Repuiblicans, looks even better thanks to the seven-plus intervening years of the administration of George W. Bush.
It was a more fiscally responsible administration, and one that pushed America's image in the world in a positive direction.

On the other hand, I see some causes for concern, particularly if we're talking about the Iraq War as an important issue. Likely opponent John McCain is even more enthusiastic about the ongoing conflict than the current White House occupant; the foreign policy neoconservative set was the only portion of the GOP establishment that preferred McCain to Bush in 2000. And what exactly is Hillary going to say when the topic is addressed? I look what happened to similarly compromised John Kerry, a combat veteran unlike Clinton, on this issue and I don't want a repeat. Yes, we all know that it was easier in 2002 for Obama, then a state legislator from Chicago, to take a stand against the Iraq War we all know was coming than it was as a Senator (even one with a safe seat) with an eye on the White House. But her subsequent hawkish remarks make such a plea for latitude ring somewhat hollow. Clinton voted for the Kyl-Lieberman Resolution, widely interpreted as the first stage of beating the drums for a war against Iran. Kerry by then had grown wiser, Edwards came out against the resolution (albeit he was no longer in the Senate.) However sympathetic one wants to be about the 2002 force authorization with respect to Iraq, a position taken by a large number of Democrats, the fact is that she has not only continued to defend that vote but in way repeated the blunder in 2007 with respect to Iran. Which makes her either a supporter of the Bush foreign policy agenda, someone still clueless about that agenda, or someone too frightened to take a clear stand against it. None of those possibilities reflects particularly well on her.

And the 1990s were not all wine and roses as far as Democrats are concerned. When Bill Clinton came into office, Democrats had at least institutional control of both houses of Congress, a majority of state legislatures and gubernatorial offices - and all that changed dramatically during his tenure. As masterful as Clinton was at playing himself off against the slash-and-burn Gingrich Republicans, the relatively ineffective (dare I say impotent?) Bob Dole, and the screaming banshees of AM radio - it did not ultimately help the party, who left the Clinton presidency disenchanted and rudderless. It made the unfortunate Bush Presidency possible. Clinton gained much of his goodwill among Democrats by fighting the Republicans more on style than on substance. We were so outraged by the nature of the Republican attacks on Bill Clinton and their overreaching that we sometimes forgot that he undermined his own Presidency with the Monica Lewinsky affair. Between that and his considerable charm, sometimes we even forgot that many of the accomplishments of the Clinton presidency - NAFTA and welfare reform in particular - were more the brainchild of Republicans than of Democrats. Now maybe Hillary Clinton is different, but if she has criticized any of these aspects of her husband's administration or stated that her Presidency would be a totally different story, I have yet to hear it. Their own manipulations and careful positioning have led many people to believe that the Clintons were far more liberal than they really are/were - and why on earth would we nominate a centrist whom everyone seems to think is a flaming liberal? (If we're going to go for the center, I would think we ought to at least get credit for that from swing voters.)

Don't get me wrong. If the 1990s are all I can have - if the alternative is more bellicosity, more make-the-well-off-even-better-off tax schemes, more Scalia acolytes on the federal bench - I'll be the first one to bust out the plaid flannel shirts. I'll refight the fights over a soundtrack of Better Than Ezra and Hootie & The Blowfish.

But if I see something that I think will be better, that's where I'm going. And I think I see something better.

When I look at Senator Obama, I see someone who looks more like where America is going than where America has been. I see someone I can point to and say "I guess anyone can become President after all." And there are a lot of people who don't believe that now, and I think we'd be far better off if they could.

I look at someone who has had life experiences that people my age and younger can relate to, someone who has not necessarily been gunning for the White House his entire life. I see someone has spent a good deal of time outside the United States, a good quality to have in someone whose decisions and statements cause ripple effects the world over.

When I listen to Senator Obama, I hear something that sounds different. I hear someone who can inspire people, even - to some degree - this somewhat hardened cynic, jaded by years of living in Washington and witnessing the whole sausage-making process at close range.

And furthermore, I see the same deftness and capabilities I see in Hillary Clinton, and without the baggage that comes with all the old wars. That's not entirely fair to Senator Clinton, who has a record of her own, but this is about who to vote for, not necessarily who "deserves" the nomination.

I've seen the game as it is now played up close - from the goalposts to playbooks. And it hasn't been all bad, but I think I'm ready to play a different kind of game. And that's why I am going to the polls tomorrow morning. Kool Aid and all.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Temp Town

What is Temp Town?

It's where you might end up if you made it through law school, passed a bar exam or two, but still somehow, one way or another, fell through the cracks of the legal profession. And being here will teach you all the different ways that that could have happened to people. It's a culture all its own, a veritable Island of Misfit Toys. People from all walks of life, with only the law license in common, can be found here. Calling the work professional might (generally) be something of a stretch, but it's not quite a proletarian experience either. You won't get rich doing it, especially considering how far in hock you probably went for that JD - but if you play your cards right, you can feed, clothe, and house yourself, and maybe even treat yourself to the ocassional fine dinner or snazzy gadget.

When you walk out of the work space - whether it's for an hour at lunch, for the night, or for forever - it's as if it doesn't exist. Your fate and the fate of whatever matter you're working on aren't connected in any meaningful way. Maybe you have a work ethic, or maybe your boss is good at figuring out if you do good work or whether you do much work. And maybe not.

If you're lucky, it's like visiting the Wood Between The Worlds, just a way station on one's way somewhere else. If you're not careful, though, it becomes something of a way of life.

Like much of nature, the profession's pretty good at kicking you when you're down. While here you never get to prove to anyone that you can do anything outside Temp Town, and it's assumed that you don't belong anywhere else after a while. It's sort of like an aspiring actress who ends up doing a few porn movies. Once you're a "porn actress," no one else is going to want to cast you.

As I am fond of saying, it beats sewing buttons on shirts in Bangladesh for $3.00 a day. And most working-class people don't generally like their jobs. They have to be bribed to do them.

I guess I am bribed pretty well, all things considered.

No one knows for sure if it's a place where one can hide from the elements of the job market, a fallback one can count on if he can find no other way to pay the bills. No one knows if the well that nourishes this strange landscape will dry up. It doesn't seem terribly efficient from a client's point of view, and yet it's much more efficient than the traditional law firm model of things.

Everything has a price and a value, and they're not necessarily related.

Temp Town is nothing like Hell as depicted in the Divine Comedy, but it can be quite a bit like Hell as depicted in No Exit.

It's where our hero now finds himself.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Patriot Games

In case you've been living in a fallout shelter sealed off from outside contact for the last week, last Sunday most of the rest of the known universe outside of New England (and the New England diaspora) got the Super Bowl result they wanted to see.

About the only positive thing to come out of this whole situation from our perspective that we have the new ability and desire to mock Bill Simmons the way that fans of the other 31 NFL franchises have likely been doing for a while now.

You know... it's not just that you jinxed the team, Bill. You don't need me to point that out to you. You did it in a tedious and obnoxious fashion, imputing motivations to people that make no bloody sense whatsoever. Yes, when we saw that the Chargers took out the Colts, the parallel to the Rockets beating the Lakers in '86 did cross some of our minds. But hardly any of us thought that either the Lakers or Colts lost on purpose subconsciously because they somehow knew the Celtics/Patriots were going to beat them. And if we did, we kept that nonsense to ourselves.

There, I said it. And I used to like Simmons, for which I have been much ridiculed by my fellow Baseball Think Factory dwellers.

Now every team that has anything like the kind of success the Patriots have had in the last eight years are going to get their share of bandwagon fans. Every team is going to have its share of obnxoious fans, and those two categories are going to share some overlap.

But, taking a broader perspective, this phenomenon will never cease to be weird to those of us old enough to be adults who have been following this team all our lives.

New England had a football team for years mostly out of a combination of inertia and the fact that Boston is the #7 media market in the nation (and were once higher than that.) They ranked a distant fourth in the hearts and minds of Boston-area sports fans among professional sports teams.

Part of this was the fact that they played in a crappy stadium way out in the periphery of Metro Boston, whereas the Celtics and Bruins played downtown and Fenway Park was a relatively short ride on the T. For many Boston sportswriters, this meant "Out of sight, out of mind." To go to a Patriots game involved sitting for an eternity on a long stretch of Route 1 that's possibly the least scenic stretch of road in the entire state, both before and after the game, navigating one's way in and out of expensive unpaved parking lots that often got muddy, followed by a long schlep to the stadium. The stadium itself was mostly cold, slightly bent aluminum benches that seemed to attract snow and ice like magnets during late season games; many fans bought personal pizzas so they could sit on the cardboard instead of on ice-encrusted aluminum.

And all of that is before mentioned their general lack of success, and a general lack of noted personalities of any kind. I'm not merely talking about titles or even team records; the Pats never really commanded anyone's attention. They were not the worst franchise in the league, but may have been the least noteworthy one. If you were to come up with a list of "Boston/New England Sports Heroes of the 20th Century," there would be at least a dozen Celtics (start with Bird, Russell, and Cousy and work your way down) and a dozen Red Sox (Teddy Ballgame, Yaz, and Pudge Fisk to name a few) on the list, not to mention several Bruins (Orr, Bourque, and Esposito for starters) and even a couple of boxers (Marciano and Hagler) and a pair of runners (Joan Benoit, Bill Rogers) before you got to any Patriots.

I don't mean to overstate this. Not to say that every season was bereft of hope. Most of their "good" seasons, many of which blur together in the mind, they finished somewhere between 9-7 and 11-5 and usually involved having to win either a playoff game or a crucial late-season contest on the road in either Denver or Miami. Which you could pretty much count on never happening. (Well, it did happen once, in 1986, but considering what happened after that, perhaps we were better off if it hadn't happened then either; for one thing, I wouldn't have had to add this run-on sentence to this essay.) And during the "bad" seasons, things could get really embarassing; while they weren't quite as bad as the New Orleans Saints, to name one, they could make up for that in other ways. Like that 1-15 season where a female reporter named Lisa Olson was sexually harassed in the Patriots' locker room, and in the course of doing so became as famous as anyone else associated with the team that year. If that wasn't bad enough, the owner of the time - Victor "Remington shaves so close, I bought the company!" Kiam - made a crude joke about her to the press. As best as I can remember the joke:

Q: What do Lisa Olson and Saddam Hussein have in common?
A: Both got to see Patriot missles up close.

Imagine rooting for a team like that.

Now imagine rooting for a team like that when your schoolmates are breaking ranks left and right. The NFL, partly because of the way the TV contracts are written, is more of a national phenomenon insofar as there seem to be lots more fans who pick teams based on something other than local civic affinity than there are in other pro sports leagues. In the 1980s there were plenty of older folks in New England who remember a time when the New York Giants were the "local" team. Some of those people, particularly in Connecticut, never abandoned Big Blue for the fledgling AFL franchise in Boston - and a fair number of them passed that affiliation down to their offspring. Teams with big national followings who were on TV a lot sold a lot of merchandise in my hometown in the 70s and 80s, from the "Steel Curtain" Steelers to the "America's Team" Cowboys to the "Silver & Black" Raiders. My own brother became enthralled with Dan Marino and his Dolphins, a fan affiliation he retains to this day. My stepfather, born and raised in Worcester like me, grew up a Dallas Cowboys fan. Heck, towards the end of some years the Pats would fail to sell all their tickets and get blacked out of broadcast TV, meaning that it was actually easier to follow some of the teams mentioned above. (Remember, these were days before instant results on the web or rolling boards of out-of-town scores on TV - hell, we had to guess where the first down marker was.) Little wonder that it looked for a season or so like the team was heading to what looked like greener pastures in St. Louis.

Usually fans of most of these other teams had nothing in particular against the Patriots. There was no reason to, unless you rooted for a division rival. It would have been a waste of perfectly good sports hate better spent on the Raiders or Cowboys or 49ers or Redskins or something.

Times sometimes change. First the Bruins systematically eroded their fan base by cutting corners and shipping anyone good enough to command serious money out of town, and before long they were losing 50+ games a year and replacing the Pats at the bottom of the pecking order. Then as the glow of Golden Age of Bird, McHale, and Parrish faded, the Celtics hit the skids and spent much of the 1990s near the bottom of the league. The Red Sox remained Topic #1, but Foxboro seemed a lot closer.

If you had told me at the dawn of the century that the Patriots, after one last year of the usual futility, would have seven straight winning seasons, six postseason berths, five AFC Championship Game appearances, four Super Bowls, and three Super Bowl titles, I'd have said that you were ready for a padded room. (And no fan of any team in any sport would turn down that deal if they were offered it.)

But not only that. A lifetime of cheering for this team and making it something of a matter of personal pride that you never bailed on them doesn't prepare you for the dynamics of this season. Not that we couldn't see it coming. Aside from a coach that has, to put it mildly, a public relations problem, some players that one sometimes wishes one did not have to root for (not that most NFL teams don't have at least one guy like that) on your team, and all sorts of other controversies ("running up the score," various complaints about officiating) there's a lot of ammunition lying around- enough that certain sports humor sites have been converted to round-the-clock Patriots-hate.

But those of us who have kept the faith have seen it all and experienced nearly the entire range of sports fandom, from objects of pity to middle-of-the-road to scrappy underdogs to perennial contenders to the team, above all others, that everybody else loves to hate. And there may yet be more acts to come.

It will most definitely not be easy, but it might help if we found someone to steal Gisele Bundchen away from Tom Brady. The last time Brady played back-to-back games that were this bad, he was bedding Tara Reid. It's part of my Billy Joel theory that explains how much cheesier his music became after he bagged Christie Brinkley, which conveniently enough also explains why Coldplay's first post-Gwyneth Paltrow album, X&Y, was mostly lame. I suppose at least Tom's taste in women has improved.

And, really, whatever happens from here on out, it's been a hell of a ride.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

And Then There Were Three...

I was going to write something about Super Tuesday but work and other things just got in the way. Oddly enough, it looks like, contrary to what people were expecting, the Democratic race (which I'll get to later) has considerably more drama left in it than the Republican race.

And now Mitt Romney is out of the race, leaving only John McCain and the longshots Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul.

As someone who's not even considering voting for any kind of Republican in November, I'll say that at some level I feel a little sorry for Romney. He has a history of competence in an executive office unmatched by any of the other candidates, and his record shows he'd be likely to place more value in capability than any of the other Republicans, which would be a welcome change after Bush. There's something to be said for genuine private-sector achievement, absent in other candidates on both sides and fairly a rare attribute among politicians, even in the business-worshipping GOP. I probably wouldn't like his policy agenda any than I like Bush's, or would like McCain's, but I think there would have been a better chance that I might not have the suspicion that he was trying to turn the conservative mantra "government can't do anything right" into something of a self-fulfilling prophecy as much.

But he had a tough row to hoe. Now, we just generally assume that politicians will say anything to get elected, but Romney over the course of his career has made that a little bit too obvious. You're not going to be able, the way the GOP exists in 2008, to pitch yourself as a Rockerfeller-style Republican when running for office in Massachusetts and then pivot your way 180 degrees and campaign on a hard-right platform and stay credible to primary voters.

And then there's the whole Mormon factor.

Many Evangelical Christians consider the Church of Latter Day Saints, even though they share similarly conservative politics in most cases, to be little better than a "cult." The LDS has what one could describe as a checkered history, but it doesn't make any more sense to blame Romney for the Mountain Meadows Massacre or some of the very strange beliefs about racial differences that once existed in Mormon theology than it does to blame the Spanish Inquisition on John Kerry. It wasn't a factor in Massachusetts, not just because Evangelicals are few and far between in the Commonwealth but because Romney never ran for any office as a "Christian." In that race, he was running as a manager, a competent technocrat who would provide something of a counterweight to a legislature dominated by Democrats on a seemingly permanent basis. It was a successful sales pitch to swing voters in the Bay State, a generally liberal-to-moderate set who tend towards the secular and weren't concerned at all with the details of Mormon theology or where and how it deviates from that of other denominations and sects. Even if those beliefs and teachings were difficult to reconcile with the values of most Bay State residents, pointing them out to Massachusetts voters would have been of no help to his opponent and might have even created a sympathy backlash for Romney.

Of course, hindsight being 20/20, we now know that Democrats' predictable and futile warnings in Massachusetts that Romney was a stealth candidate for the far-right proved to be true in a sense. He got generally high marks for his first year or so in office, but then he got the idea that his job was a stepping stone to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Around that time, Romney decided that he was opposed to embryonic stem cell research, which of course doesn't serve a state with a huge biotech industry very well. After trying on a few different positions concerning legal recognition of same-sex couples, he realized that his sales pitch to Republican voters in Iowa and South Carolina required him to adopt the view that any such recognition would be a threat to Western Civilization. Illegal immigration was a plague to be fought - except of course when it came to the people mowing the lawn at his mansion. He decided that he was now anti-abortion, not that that was a huge issue at the state level in anything but a theoretical sense. And suddenly the most liberal state in the country was being run - when Romney was around, as he was travelling a lot - by a dittohead.

Running for governor of such a state and running a national Republican primary are two completely different undertakings. In the latter, you're looking to appeal to a group of voters many of whom are looking for someone who is a "Christian" who is going to govern as a "Christian." And in that specific context, having a belief system whose tenets state that there are additional books to the Bible found in the 19th century that reveal that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri suddenly becomes a problem. If that wasn't enough, Romney was of course on record more than once as having previously professed to hold liberal positions on some major hot-button social issues. Primary voters almost couldn't help wondering to themselves whether he was lying to Massachusetts voters then or lying to them now. And I suppose I can't blame them too much.

Regardless of what I said above, two things please me about this development.

One, Romney was clearly the darling of the sort of people that fund the Republicans and their campaign apparatus, even more than the departed and largely unlamented Rudy Giulani. The money men distrust McCain as someone more than willing to sell them out (even if he comes around more often than not) for some quick favorable press and dislike Huckabee's attempts, however modest, to redefine Christian governance as something other than a facade for their favored policies.

Second, it goes to show that money isn't everything in elections, since Mitt was by far the richest man in this race and had the most cash to play with. In many ways, he is to the 2008 race for the White House what Phil Gramm was to the 1996 race. Money will help you get your face on TV, get your message to the the media, and ensure that lots of people will see your signs. But just as that money couldn't make Phil Gramm likeable by anyone outside his core audience, nor could it get voters to overlook what they thought was wrong with Mitt. The parallels are numerous, from the outright purchase of the Iowa Straw Poll by both men to the endorsements by local pols that proved useless in the end.

Third, the whole episode may have exposed more fissures in the conservative movement that has grabbed control of politics and government and done a lot of damage that needs to be cleaned up. The candidate promoted almost solely on the basis of keeping the different factions of the movement together, Fred Thompson, fizzled. The darling of the Christian conservatives, Mike Huckabee, is still in the race but is getting no support from anyone else. And now both candidates heavily promoted by the money interests, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, were rejected by the base. The only major faction of the GOP that is truly happy with John McCain as the clear-cut front runner is the neoconservative foreign policy set, as he's even more in favor of preventative wars than Bush.

The Republicans seemingly have their candidate in McCain, and while the media adores him and he polls well thusfar against Democrats, he currently owes neither the religious conservatives nor the Republican money machine anything, and that can only be a good thing.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Saga Begins

Here's my first post, which I suppose is where my manifesto as to what this blog is supposed to be about goes. But it's not really about anything. It is desgined with an eye towards mass consumption I suppose, but I don't really have a theme in mind.

I'll write about pop culture because it fascinates me so. I'm not really interested in celebrity gossip; I'm more interested in what the purveyors of popular culture actually produce - i.e. the things they're ostensibly famous for. I'm especially a huge music fan, as the blog title suggests.

I'll write about sports because, well, once upon a time I got into sports to have something to dicuss with my peers, and it all kind of mushroomed from there. I am a down-the-line Boston sports fan, which comes from my deep roots in New England, though I don't live there now. There will be more on that later.

I'll write about politics because, well, that's what almost every blog I read regularly talks about. I'm joining the fray after occassionally posting to various blogs, which I'll probably step up in an attempt to perhaps get similarly-minded people to start reading what I have to say.

And then there are the little observational slices of life that for some reason seem worth documenting.

I may include some things that are semi-personal, but this is intended to be about thoughts and observations I'm going to try not to talk much about my personal life, except in such a way that might interest total strangers in a non-prurient way.

Those are the goals anyway. We'll see how it goes.