Category Archives: How We Act

A Snowy Night in Brooklyn Reconsidered

The day before I left for the Philippines, a country I have lived in for the last few months, I was out buying some t-shirts for the trip. It was around nine and I was walking home through the snowy streets of Brooklyn, streets which were not empty but certainly had been put to bed for the night, when a white van pulled up next to a woman walking on the sidewalk about thirty feet ahead of me. She was bundled up against the cold and wind, and from behind in her long coat she looked like a wizard in faux-fur trim.

The van slowed down next to her and the head and breath of a man around thirty years old protruded out the window. I didn’t think anything of it, I assumed he knew her and was talking to a friend. But as she continued on, one determined stride after another, her head steadfastly forward, and as he leaned his whole torso out the window of the van rolling next to her, I realized I wasn’t witnessing two friends crossing paths on a Tuesday night. My curiosity piqued, I picked up the pace of my walk and got closer. He was hitting on her, asking her name and where she was going. Nothing overtly sexual or demeaning, but his meaning was clear.

What’s your name baby? Where you headed tonight?

When she didn’t respond, he quickly gave up and the van pulled away. As I was now fairly close,  I was tempted to say something to her, to let her know that I had seen what happened, that it was crazy, and that not all men were like that. But then I realized I was another strange man, walking behind her on a dark night, and that the last thing she would want was another unfamiliar man to engage her. I wasn’t going to get a chuckle of relief if I said “Out of a van? Did he think that would actually work?”

Because that’s what I was thinking. I was thinking that the guy, the scrub (he was, after all, hanging out the passenger’s side of his best friend’s ride) was sure, a creep, sort of an asshole, but mostly just an idiot. My reaction was one of bewilderment and, I admit, amusement. I certainly felt sorry for the woman to have to deal with male harassment as she was making her way home, but I was also amused by his “game,” I thought it was funny that anybody could think that a woman would respond to the overtures of a guy leaning out of the side of a van on a dark night, asking her name. Did he actually think that would work?

I was told repeatedly by my father growing up to not only respect women, but that it was a man’s job to protect women. I was told that was the very definition of man: protector of women. If the van’s passenger had tried to get out of the van or had grabbed her, I would have run up and tried to stop it, I know that much. If he had kept at it for a while, I would have picked up my pace to pull even with her, and the van probably would have driven away. If it had turned into something serious, according to my definition of that word, I would have intervened. That’s what I told myself anyway.

But in that moment, I thought 1) nothing was going to happen and 2) the ineptitude of his pick up attempt was funny.

I’ve only realized over the last day or two, getting gently reprimanded on Facebook and reading #yesallwomen tweets, how scared that woman may have been. I’m sure she wasn’t thinking “oh man, what a lame pick up attempt,” like I was. I understood at the time she was probably uncomfortable, which is why I quickened my pace to get closer, and why I wanted to say something reassuring to her after the van pulled away. But I saw that van as something like a really bad online profile, something creepy, a turn off, precisely because of the “rape van” connotation, but somehow in the moment I didn’t immediately  understand that “rapey” doesn’t just equal “creepy” it equals “potential for rape.” I only now realize that I interpreted a man making sexual overtures from the window of a stalking van as a turn off more than I did a threat of violence. That’s because I assumed nothing would happen, I assumed nobody was going to be snatched off the street in front of me. I assumed dudes hit on girls, and as distasteful and uncomfortable as it was, as unfortunate as it was, he would quickly drive away and the only damage done would be to his ego when she finished ignoring him (although if he lacked the self-awareness to decide to hit on a girl out of the window of a van at night, I doubt he would have the self-awareness to be embarrassed when it didn’t work.)

Good thing there were was a man like me around, a man who not only knew how to properly hit on women, but was raised to respect and defend them.

What an asshole.

I made that moment, a moment in which I watched a woman walking home on a dark night get harassed by men (at least two, because obviously the driver was involved, and who knows how many more guys were in the back) and thought about what a great guy I was. I thought about what a better man I was then those creeps that speak to women in catcalls from large vehicles and street corners. I thought about how different I was. I thought “I’m not like that.” Not, “how can there be men like that?” Not “what steps can I take to make sure I never have to witness something like that again?” Not “how many more women are going to have to deal with that tonight?”

No. “I’m not like that. I have value as a man, because I can both seduce and defend women.”

Not “is that woman’s heart pounding?” Not “is she remembering a time when the van stopped?”

If that woman turned and saw me walking behind her as the van pulled away, she wouldn’t have thought that she was safe. She wouldn’t have been thankful that I had been watching the whole time. She would have seen a man with his hood up on a snowy night walking behind her on mostly abandoned streets.

Even now, it’s about me. Christ.

I hope you made it home safe.

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You Can’t Teach Height. But You Can Move to Asia.

This is my favorite Basketball hoop in the Philippines. I took this while traveling to a volcano.

Red Auerbach once said, supposedly, “you can’t teach height.” He was right. Height is a genetic roll of the dice, and it can’t be practiced or learned in a gym, which is a shame because it really might be the most important attribute for any basketball player, or man running for office, seeking a job, or looking to attract a women. Once you’re fully grown, which for me was when I became 5’10 at fourteen years old, you simply must except that the growth plate is closed and that there is no more trading in your cards for taller ones. You have your hand and you must play it.
I have always been a person of average height on the street. On the basketball court, I was always a point guard, and not a particularly fast or agile one at that.  I had accepted this.

But then I moved to Manila. In the Philippines I am tall. Height, it turns out, is relative.

I am not a giant here. I do not have strangers coming up to me to find their significant others in crowds, nor have I gained an affinity for the blood of Englishmen. I am a tall person, as in, I am of above average height. This may seem like a minor, inconsequential thing, the kind of thing that can be obtained in small doses during afternoon strolls through Chinatown. I assure you it is not. Being a tall person for a prolonged period of time is different. I feel more confident in day to day situations. Even though I am a white person and a foreigner who sticks out in crowds and is an obvious target for thieves, I am sure I could defend myself against any attack by putting out my arm and holding my attacker’s head at arm’s length while they swung their fists wildly, unable to strike me.

Sometimes I reach up to touch signs and flyers posted high on walls, just to see if anyone is impressed.

Nowhere has my new found height changed my life more than on the basketball court. It should be noted that Filipinos love basketball. NBA TV is on every screen at every bar. Being a tall person in a place that loves basketball, and not one in one of those stupid countries that view height as something that comes in handy during headers, is to be tall in a place that properly respects the virtue of vertical length. This is a place where height is appreciated and celebrated.

As somebody who has always been a point guard and relied on bigger, taller people to do things like grab rebounds and put me on their shoulders so I could dunk, I was overcome with joy when I arrived on the court for my first pickup basketball game as a tall person. I was not the tallest person there, but I was taller than most. I was no longer a guard. I was a forward, a power forward even. Never have I been so invigorated by the name of a sports position. I felt powerful. And like sharks and stock cars, I would only be moving forward.

This court was indoor, hardwood, and real long, with an NBA three point line. I was ready to get the ball on the block and go to work with my arsenal of post moves. Like a black belt who can kill a man with one punch but has never been in a fight, I had been slowly developing my post moves over the years in case I ever needed them. The Josh Keefe-Kevin McHale up and under was ready to be unveiled to the world. Or so I thought.

When I got on the court I was told I’d play the back middle. Excuse me?

“We play a zone,” I was told.

A zone. Both teams played a zone. Every game was played with zone defense. This was because playing a zone saved energy when playing full court in the jersey-soaking humidity.

The thing about playing against a zone is that there are no one-on-one matchups, and you can’t really post up as you would in a man-to-man situation. You can’t take your man down to the block and enroll him in up and under school. Playing a zone also comes with responsibilities on defense. As a newly tall person, I was still not sure about playing the back middle of a 2-3 zone and protecting the rim. That was always a tall person’s job. Like a newly orphaned child with shorter younger brothers and sisters, I would have to step up.

I made it through the first game. The newly tall tend to forget they are tall and drift out to the three point line. I made this mistake a few times, forgetting that I must put my short days behind me and embrace this new world known as the paint, even though the zoning board had closed up and under school until further notice, so I had to rely on cutting through the lane on offense, much as a short person might. I was suddenly filled with sympathy for Josh Smith. When you are a tall person, the perimeter is not a lonely place far from the action like it is when you are short. It’s the edge. It’s rock and roll and sexy. It’s where the innovation happens. It’s the Silicon Valley to the paint’s industrial heartland.

Still, I scored a little inside. I grabbed some rebounds. I made outlet passes. It didn’t keep me from hating the zone. I wanted to have my first block party.

We won and our opponents for the second game wandered on the court. There was a giant among them, a 6’5 Filipino, who was not just tall, but wide. He was a beast. I saw him and was glad that I wouldn’t have to guard him, since I was a guard–

Oh my god. I am a tall person. I’m the one who has to play the back of the zone. I have to guard the giant.

I guarded him as a fly guards the tail of an elephant. I annoyed him when I was able make him remember I was there.

He got the ball outside of the paint and backed me down effortlessly. He grabbed every rebound. He would miss, and get the ball back, and miss, and get the ball back, and miss, and it wouldn’t matter because nobody could stop him from trying over and over until he made it, like we were parents and worried about his self-esteem.

As a newly tall person, I still remembered what it was like to be a short person. And seeing someone hold the ball high above my head and out of reach, finding my face in another man’s armpit, jumping up and down over and over for rebounds like a child futilely trying to reach the cookies on the shelf, all of this seemed like a short person’s experience.

But I wasn’t a short person anymore.

Being a tall person means nobody is too tall for you to guard. With great height comes great responsibility. And that responsibility extends beyond replacing the smoke alarm batteries. It means having to stay home from school and cancel the block party when monsters arrive on the basketball court.

Thank you Manila, for reminding me I’ll never be tall enough. Thank you for reminding me that true height lies within. In the bone structure.

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What I Learned While Stuck on a Mediterranean Cruise During the World Series

Red Sox Parade Baseball3_r620x349

There is a special kind of loneliness and melancholy that follows a momentous and joyous event that cannot be shared or expressed. Last night the world changed for the better, across a whole region millions are smiling throughout their day as they find quiet opportunities to stare off and remember, their burdens lighter, the pain inflicted by a madman lessened if only for a short time. I want to be one of those people. But I cannot be, because through my own silly decisions I put myself in a part of the world where nobody knows or cares about the fact that last night the Boston Red Sox won the World Series.

I’m writing in grandiose terms because the environment around me is so willfully indifferent to what has happened I feel like I have to compensate. I feel like some government agent who knows the world has just been saved from a mad man or a monster, but can’t share the news or his joy with any oblivious civilians.

This is why I’m wearing my Boston Red Sox hat at the Barcelona airport, hoping someone will share a high five, a congratulations, dare I hope a beer, or at the very least a nod of recognition on this Halloween day, 2013, the day the world awoke to see the Red Sox improbably hold the title of World Series Champions, an accomplishment and designation that I’m suddenly finding maddeningly inappropriate, since the world, like the cruise ship I just spent the last week on in order to ghostwrite a travel blog article about spa cruises, is giving precisely zero fucks about all of this.

Hell, right now I would even take a Cardinals fan that I could fake empathy with.

Morans

I went on a free Mediterranean cruise the week the Red Sox were in the World Series. And the viewing opportunities I imagined might be available to me never materialized and so I missed pretty much everything. David Foster Wallace wrote about the despair of cruise ships, but he never had to feel that despair multiplied by the longing to watch and celebrate a team that I spent the whole summer rooting for as they battle for a championship. Here’s what he said:

“There’s something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes yet simple in its effect: on board the Nadir (especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety ceased) I felt despair. The word “despair”is overused and banalized now, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. It’s close to what people call dread or angst, but it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable sadness of knowing I’m small and weak and selfish and going, without doubt, to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.”

Now my cruise wasn’t a luxury cruise in quite the way Wallace’s was, but the despair was palpable and real at night, because I wasn’t just made to despair by the emptiness of the vast ocean or the end of bacchanalian drinking and eating, but the knowledge that across the dark ocean my Red Sox were in for the fight of their life and I couldn’t watch them, or even worse, really talk about it with anybody.

This has happened to me before, being abroad when my team wins a championship, but never was I so sequestered in my joy, which is an emotion that, I know believe, has a rapidly self-devouring half-life if kept in such isolation.

I was in a small little village North of Seville in Spain named Galaroza in June of 2008 when the Celtics defeated the Lakers in the NBA finals. I was backpacking after college and I was volunteering with a friend at a nearby farm. The game was televised during the day, tape-delayed from the night before, and there was at least a modicum of interest because of the Laker’s seven-foot Spaniard, Pau Gasol. There was a tiny bar in town where I could watch the game with my backpacking companion, also a New Englander, as well as the same three old Spanish men who were perched atop the same bar stools every day, drinking watery Spanish beer. They didn’t care about the series, but they seemed to find my cursing at the refs and requests for celebratory high fives amusing (I spoke very little Spanish, they spoke no English). By the end I believe they were pro-Celtic by osmosis.

There was not anyone to turn to my side aboard the ship. There was no one watching because there was no way to watch it, and I’ve realized that the inability to watch and the inability to watch with anyone, even if it’s just a few strangers at the bar who are willing to discuss the game (or share cross-lingual high-fives) are very nearly the same thing. The joy in sports lies in the shared experience of the thing being viewed, not so much the viewing in and of itself. Of course the worst part is that I choose to put myself in this situation based on my ignorance of international viewing options on a boat, my hubris in believing I could find a place to watch and thinking watching by myself would be satisfactory, and my greed for wanting to get fed and massaged while half-drunk like a cow that will soon be Kobe beef.

I’m writing this for atonement, so here is the worst of it:

1)      The cruise was free. I would have lost no money by not going.

2)      I was not going with a girlfriend or any significant other or best friend or anyone that would have been really crushed had I chosen not to go. I went with my boss who is certainly a friend, but this was for work and not required. He is also not baseball fan at all.

3)      I got the opportunity a little more than a month ago when I had full knowledge of the fact that the Red Sox might play in the World Series.  Optimist that I am, I actually expected them to be there.

4)      I was going to ghostwrite a piece. On a travel blog.

Blogging is already pretty low on the hierarchy of written word quality and legitimacy. Ghostwriting a travel blog is even lower, I would say it falls somewhere between writing copy for porn sites (rule number 1#: “come” is always three letters) and penning missives on behalf of desperate Nigerian princes looking for a safe place to store their fortunes. So when the offer came up to ghostwrite a travel blog for a five-day spa cruise around the Mediterranean with buffet lines filled with soccer-loving infidels, I took it. And I went around and shook hands with cruise industry people while me and my boss both pretended that he was the one who would write the article and I was just a colleague and the recipient of the free guest pass that all the writers received, a pass so coveted that only one of the twelve people in our group besides my boss elected to use it.

I ate a lot, drank a lot, and stumbled around some medieval towns. I got a couple of massages. Mostly I wondered about the Red Sox, and as the despair that D.F. Wallace described in his famous Harper’s piece set in I started to wonder whether I was even fit to wear the beard I had let grow longer than usual throughout October.

When Judas got his sack of silver, was there enough in it for a cruise?

I thought that I might be able to watch the Series on the cruise. I actually expected to, but I admit that my complete lack of research on viewing possibilities beforehand might have been a way to allay the early rumblings of guilt I had about the real chance that there would be no such viewing opportunities. I didn’t ask because, I think, I didn’t want to know.

The cruise spanned most of the northwest part of the Mediterranean. After departing Barcelona we traveled to Palma de Mallorca, Corsica, Marseille, and finally Savona before returning to Barcelona.  So this was mostly an Italian, French, German, Spanish, and British crowd. I knew there probably wouldn’t be much of a baseball contingent, but I did assume that a floating fortress dedicated to entertainment would be full of glowing screens, one of which I might be able to commandeer in the morning hours for my own purposes. There were TVs in the cabin at least, a fact which initially gave me hope since the six-hour time difference would make watching the games at a bar difficult.

When I first boarded, I had some vague hope that the bars or the casino would be open 24 hours based on the idea that if the boat was in international waters there would be no legal reason to shut anything down.  But after dropping my bags off and doing a quick inspection of the listings of the bars and clubs on board, I saw that none were opened past one, except for the disco, which, like all the bars on board, had no TV. Unlike most of the bars onboard, the disco, I would later find out, was filled with over-caffeinated tweens clutching red bulls while swaying in awkward circles. This was not only a depressing development in my hopes to watch the Sox, it made me realize that the demographics of the boat were not going to be conducive to meeting any Italian models, unless there was an Italian model taking her parents on a cruise after her first high paying gig, or moonlighting as some kind of au pair.

The TV in the cabin room had twenty or so channels, not a few of which looped safety demonstrations or various shots of the ship’s deck taken from the ever present CCTV cameras.  I didn’t have to find a schedule to know the BBC was not broadcasting the World Series, although I did flip on the TV during game times to check.

In spite of all of this, I really thought I was going to be able to watch Game 3. Game 1 I had watched at my apartment in Brooklyn with a mixed crowd of Sox and Cardinal fans. I had jumped about during Napoli’s 3-run double, and I gloated that Jon Lester had beat cancer, and that the Cardinals lineup and the supposedly great Adam Wainwright were not anywhere near as potent an adversary as cancer, and that if they were a disease they would be a weak form of VD, easily cleaned with a simple regimen of antibiotics and Lester cutters.

You see, like all Red Sox fans, I am obnoxious.

But honestly, I didn’t pour it on too heavy, and we were all having fun, and it was my apartment, and we were drinking, and mocking those hilariously over narrated Chevy commercials in which a gruff, weathered voice describes exactly what’s on the screen (“A man. A man and his truck. A man driving his truck. A lost cow. A man looking at the lost cow. A man picking up the cow.”) We were having fun, it was social, and the Red Sox won.

I missed all that on board.

Game 2 I missed as it occurred while I was on a transatlantic flight. But I was sure I could watch Game 3 because I had bought MLB.TV’s international post-season package before I left, which allowed me, in theory, to stream games online from outside the U.S. (the networks had all the postseason rights domestically, so like fashionable mullets and legal public male beach nudity, it was only available abroad). My roommate and I, a fellow Mainer and Sox fan, had bought the MLB package at the all-star break when we both agreed that this was a special Red Sox team and that we owed it to ourselves to splurge for the $300 package and ensure near-nightly viewing. (We live in Brooklyn, deep in enemy territory, so no NESN). It had not worked over the PS3 as promised, but we attached my computer to the TV with an HDMI cable and watched the games that way, never experiencing much in the way of technical difficulties and always watching the game with clear audio and video.

But that was with a decent Wi-Fi connection. The Wi-Fi on the boat and was expensive and weak. For three hours of Wi-Fi I had to pay 24 euro, or about $32. I paid this for what I thought was Game 3. I stayed up until two drinking with the VP of Marketing for the cruise line and his wife, both American and surprisingly cool and fun, as well as with the more adventurous members of a media group that were experts on “cruising” (like any experience with serious devotees, the cruise ship experience is turned into a verb, because then it something you do, not something that happens to you, although I can’t think of any activity that implies less action or agency on the part of the participant than “cruising”).

Stumbling from both booze and rough seas, I wandered back to my room, turned on my computer, paid the extortionary WI-FI fee and logged into MLB.TV. The video did not work for whatever reason. I could listen to the audio, but it was choppy at best.  Realizing I might not be able to find enough bandwidth to actually watch the game, I searched for and found an illegal stream of the game which, given the setting, was the most pirate-y thing I’d ever done.

As the streaming video kicked in, I realized 1) it was game four and a I had SOMEHOW MISSED GAME 3, 2) The Sox were down 2-1 in the series, 3) it was already the sixth inning, so I had gotten the time difference wrong and 4) I was seeing about every fifth frame of the video and hearing every fourth word out of the announcer’s mouth.

Off to a great start.

The first at bat I saw, and I swear this is true, was Johnny Gomes’. And when I say I saw the at bat, I mean I saw him walk toward the plate and then I suddenly saw the catcher react to a pitch. Watching the video on board that ship was like watching one of those flip books you make when you’re a kid, the ones that when flipped fast enough create little animations of stick men running. Although in this case, it was like the person flipping and simultaneously narrating was suffering from Parkinson’s and a pretty serious case of the stutters.

I saw Johnny in the batter’s box waiting the 2-2 pitch, then a shot of the left field stands, then Johnny rounding second. Using context clues, I surmised that Johnny had hit a three run homer, blowing Game 4 wide open. I drunkenly danced around the room, the room I was sharing with my passed out boss. I silently did a fist pump in the dark, which sounds like a not-so-subtle euphemism for masturbation for a reason. Joy so isolated and hidden in darkness and silence is the emotional equivalent of jerking off. It’s hollow and leaves you feeling weirdly guilty.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox

Four pixelated and choppy innings later, I saw Koji go from the stretch to jumping in the air for joy. Series tied 2-2. I looked around my dark room, my headphones filled with garbled and intermittent words of praise for Boston’s effort. I turned off my computer, and went to sleep with feeling of elation that, having no outlet, quickly became a sort of weird pit-of-the-stomach warmth that I guess they call melancholy but just felt like high-five blue balls. At least I was spared the knowledge that I had just seen my last live image of the 2013 World Series.

I don’t know if the slideshow I witnessed even really counts as watching, but somehow I told myself it did, especially since I had fought sleep, jet lag, and AV difficulties until the last pitch. I realized the next day that I counted difficulty as something that made the quality of my watching better, as if one could really watch badly or watch well, which I suppose is sort of like cruising badly or well. It’s weird that the price we pay as a fan somehow dictates how great the experience was. We pride ourselves on going to great lengths to support our team, but when we say support our team, what we are really talking about is watching, with some yelling thrown in. How are we really supporting our teams? What do we mean by cheering or rooting, especially when we aren’t even at the game? At the game, we can measure a fan base’s impact by volume and the loudest stadiums are said to have the best fans, but I often wonder how much of that is really just a measure of arena acoustics and how easily fans can get beer from their seats.

Why do we still feel the need to cheer, to yell, even when we aren’t there? Why was I jumping around my room, and why did I feel immediately sad after when I realized there was no one to share it with?

I think the answer is that being a fan isn’t really about the team, or the game, although fandom certainly wouldn’t exist without them.  Being a fan allows us to tap into a hive mind, a kind of consciousness larger then ourselves that is not new age or mystical but very tangible and real.  Sports allow 60,000 people to scream and enter a state of group ecstasy while piled on top of each other. It allows us to enter a group consciousness, which is a beautiful and wonderful temporary cure for the kind of existential dread and despair that DFW attributed to cruise ships (although given how DFW turned out, it’s possible he mistakenly attributed that sort of despair to cruise ships instead of his own brain chemistry). Sports and cheering allow us to lower our inhibitions and harmonize feelings with a crowd of other people. This is why we drink when we watch sports, because it contributes to the lowering of ego and consciousness that we need to go crazy and be one with the crowd we sit in, or connect the strangers at the bar wearing our team gear.

That’s why the cruise was extra depressing for me, I realize now, because I had so closely associated this feeling of blissful temporary ego death with my teams success, and now, when they were achieving the highest level of success possible, I wasn’t feeling it at all.

Some people go to religion for that feeling, some go to drugs, some art, the worst among us go to hate. Sports allow us to get to that place of diminished individuality safely, because, outside of a few random maniacs who drink too much, it’s safe. You don’t want whole stadiums of people losing their minds over a politician’s speech. Art and drugs aren’t the same because they are open to individual interpretation. When you’re a fan, and your team does something spectacular, you are feeling the same thing as all the other fans. There’s no individual interpretation like there is with art or music or drugs. And it’s all based on a gaze toward an arbitrary act some dudes are performing with a stick or a ball. The fact that it persists across cultures shows how fundamental it is to the human experience, and why we speak of the places where we can experience it, like Fenway, in reverent semi-religous tones.

In spite of talk I heard from the other writers on the ship about the magical ability of cruises to provide an escape from worry, I daresay that a cruise ship is not a place to experience that.

I met up with the press group the next morning. One of the writers was from Rhode Island and we immediately informed the other that the Sox had won, a fact she had learned while reading an email from her son that morning. I wanted to talk about the game and Johnny Gomes and Papi’s unbelievable hot streak, but I quickly realized that she was being friendly and sort of humoring me and she had no real knowledge of the team and was mostly just happy for her son and me.

The group all listened politely as I explained the outcome of the game and blamed  my bleary-eyed quietness on the late finish, and they were happy for me, but I didn’t want them to be happy for me, I wanted them not to be happy for anyone in particular, but happy themselves because the Red Sox won and that made them happy. If they were able to produce that kind of happiness we could combine happiness and feel an exponential happiness increase, since combining sports happiness has an multiplying effect. That’s what I’ve come to believe anyway.

After my overview of the game there was nothing more to say about it or discuss because nobody cared. Then we started our tour of the kitchen facilities and I wished I could get a coffee to carry around with me during the tour but I couldn’t because they don’t do that in Europe, they drink thimbles of coffee aggravatingly slowly while sitting around medieval squares.

Between the charge for another three hours of internet, the head-ache inducing video connection, and the disheartening lack of satisfaction I got from a huge Red Sox win, I did not watch Game 5. I did read about it with the few minutes of internet time I had left, and when I relayed the information to the group, I got the same warm but ultimately indifferent response. I wanted to talk to anybody about the game. I was looking high and low for any kind of New England affiliations displayed across t-shirts or hats, but there were very few Americans, and the few that were there all seemed to be from the upper Midwest.  I felt jealous of the soccer loving infidels around me. One afternoon I played basketball on an eight-foot rim with a group of French teenagers who knew a handful of English words, all of which were R-rated, and although they enjoyed yelling “Carmelo Anthony!” and “LeBron James!” at me, when I tried to pantomime Baseball they looked at me like I was an insane person and that it wasn’t their country that had invented pantomiming in the first place.

The five-day cruise ended in Barcelona, where I stayed the night in a hotel before flying back to Newark. When I put my bags down in my hotel room there were nine hours until the first pitch of Game 6, which was back at Fenway and with the Sox riding the momentum of another late inning comeback in Game 5 and the reentry of the DH into the series, it seemed like this would be the clincher and that Sox were just hours away from what Koji called a “champagne fight.”

I was sure I could watch the game in Barcelona. I was there for a few nights in 2008 when I was more or less permanently attached to a fifty pound backpack. I was sure I remembered bars open until four in the morning. If nothing else, the Wi-Fi in the hotel room would be superior to that on the ship. I had time to hike around the city and while I did I stuck my head into a few English style pubs and sports bars and asked about the possibility of watching the game. I slowly realized that none of the sports bars were open past two, which was right about the time of the first pitch. Each bar gave me a suggestion for a place that might be open later, which seemed like a lead, but each new suggestion would bring me to another bartender telling me the establishment closed at one or two and that they probably didn’t even have a channel carrying the game, although maybe bar x would have it. Pretty soon bar x was always somewhere I had already been and my explorations, combined with some Googling back at my room, made it clear there was nowhere to watch the game. The Googling in my room led me to the final heartbreaking discovery: the internet at this hotel was somehow even worse than the ship. And I was still five hours away from game time. I tried to watch YouTube clips but the connection made that impossible as well.

So I drank some in Barcelona, came home early, and went to bed, hoping for a strong start from Lackey.

When I woke up I immediately reached for my laptop and part of me hoped, and I don’t even dare to quantify the strength of this feeling, that they had lost so I would have a chance of seeing at least part of game seven back home that night. But they won, and I smiled to myself as I read about Victorino’s double and Drew’s solo shot and the crowning of Papi as series MVP.

I was happy, of course, but now I know, more than ever, that sports are an experience to be shared. It doesn’t have to be with friends or family, although that is best, and it doesn’t have to be shared with 38,000 people under the lights at Fenway. It can be shared at a bar with one other person, a stranger who for a brief time feels the same thing you do before he goes off his own way, happy to have some time outside of his own head.

You don’t need to board a boat halfway around the world to get that escape.  But you do have to get to a certain level of dedication to access those shared experiences that make up fandom, in all its silliness and hysteria. You have to really genuinely care about something that you know is arbitrary. I like to think I’ve gotten there, which is why not being able to tap into the warmth of regional championship joy feels not just like I’m missing out on something fun, but like the whole thing didn’t even really happen. And the cruise was fine, it was fun, but knowing I was missing out on an opportunity to join the hive mind made the outlying status of my demographic and nationality feel that much more isolating (and I usually love traveling). So I ended up feeling this strange paradox: I felt jealous – the most brazen ego-driven emotion – that I didn’t get to escape my narrow ego for just a few moments.

Thank god it’s only sports, so none of this is life and death. And thank god I’m a New Englander, so I’ll (hopefully) get another chance at that championship feeling soon enough.

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The Friday Night Lights Grand Unified Theory of Female Desire

We are undoubtedly living through the golden age of television, especially the golden age of television drama. One thing that many of the truly great television dramas have in common is the destruction of dichotomies, especially moral dichotomies. Ours is the age of television anti-heroes whose complicated moral decisions and sensibilities call into question the nature of right and wrong, and often force us to see that human beings might make decisions that can be considered either moral or immoral, but its rare that we can confidently apply those distinctions to a person. People don’t fall into binary categories.

friday-night-lights

That’s why Friday Night Lights might be my favorite TV show ever. If I want moral complexity, I’ll go to books. On TV, I want to like at least some of the characters. I know in terms of quality FNL is nowhere near the pantheon of great television dramas, which is populated by The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, all of which have either have ambiguous or challenging moral compasses, or, let’s be honest, none at all. Friday Night Lights had moments where my suspension of disbelief was really stretched to its breaking point, which is why it can’t be considered a member of the highly venerated top tier.

(Isn’t this show taking place now? Why do none of these teenagers have cell phones? What happened to Buddy’s Hispanic charge? Wait, Riggins was a Sophomore in season 1 yet he’s best friends with senior Jason Street? Does no one in this town keep their thoughts to themselves instead of confronting people at night on their doorsteps to deliver honest confessions or accusations? We aren’t worried that Landry MURDERED a dude in season 2?)

But what Friday Night Lights did have is fantastic characters who often struggled with right and wrong in a (mostly) believable way, and always seemed to find a way to get to right. What Friday Night Lights did was to say that it is possible in the modern world, with its intense pressures and crumbling civic spirit, to figure out the right thing and to do it. That might seem simplistic or even preachy, but it’s not, and it’s actually a harder act to pull of successfully than it is to create a world where people just sort of do things and there may or may not be consequences (I love you Mad Men, but I’m looking at you).

In FNL there is right and wrong. Dichotomies are part of the FNL universe. People are given choices, and they have to do one thing or the other. Does Coach take the job or not? Does he start Saracen or J.D. McCoy? Does Riggins take the fall for Billy or not? Does Jason Street go the Mexican surgeon to get his back fixed or not? (I forgot that one in the list of ridiculous FNL plotlines, along with Jason becoming a professional sports agent with only a high school degree). Does Becky get the abortion? Does Vince listen to his Dad or Coach?

FNL’s  binary decisions might be tough, damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t types of calls, but they still ultimately result in some sort of breakdown of right and wrong. Likewise, FNL offers its female viewers a similarly difficult binary decision. I do not think this was necessarily on purpose. I’m not sure whether the impossibility of escaping this choice is due to the addictive nature of the show combined with its imperative that everyone has a choice to make. Or whether the male leads are just that good. But I’ve never seen another show create two completely different camps. FNL dichotomizes female viewers like the school board’s redistricting bifurcated Dillon.

Here’s my theory, which I’m calling the Friday Night Lights Grand Unified Theory of Female Desire (FNLGUToFD). I’ve developed it after watching FNL with women, speaking about FNL with women, and eventually testing this theory by proposing it to women. It is based on a few simple axioms.

1) All women LOVE either Tim Riggins or Matt Saracen.

2) No women love both Tim Riggins and Matt Saracen, at least not equally.

3) No women love neither Tim Riggins or Matt Saracen.

4) You can learn a lot about a woman by which she chooses.

This is not so much an opinion as it is a verifiable mathematical certainty. I would write out the equation, where Riggins=R and Saracen=S and all women= W, but I am really not sure how math works. But I know Landry could do it.

Let’s examine our two choices, what they represent, and what they say about the women who choose either.

Tim Riggins, Fullback, #33, Played by Taylor Kitsch

tim riggins or jeff smith?
Tim Riggins, or Riggs as he is affectionately known, is the hard-drinking, promiscuous, never-say-die, puppy dog eyed, smoldering piece of brooding meat with a heart of gold that is the quiet leader of the Dillon Panthers. He exudes sexuality, which wafts away from him in fumes that are created by beer being held at a low boil using the energy produced when teenage angst mixes with any and all feelings being buried deep, deep down.

What He Represents: 

The bad boy with a good heart.

The difficult and ornery stallion who can’t be broken and who throws off all riders, except the right woman who pets his nose and feeds him sugar cubes in just the right way.

Unbound testosterone production.

The cowboy at the dawn of the automobile. The closing of the frontier.

Pure talent given to somebody who doesn’t know what to do with it.

The early peak.

The carnal gaze.

Unlimited confidence in limited contexts.

The potential energy of stored, buried emotions.

The wisecracking hero.

Indifference in the face of great pressures.

Living in the moment.

The mix of sexual danger and safety that drives women crazy. A roller coaster that  looks terrifying but has passed inspection.

Great hair.

Types of Women Who Love Him:

Women that would rather fuck than make love.

Women who use men for their bodies.

Women with daddy issues.

Confident women who know their bodies and what they like.

Bartenders.

Cougars.

Women who bungy jump. Women who bike down mountains. Women who surf in shark infested waters.

Women who have done cocaine more than twice.

Girls who loved Jonathan Taylor Thomas and then grew up and became women.

Women who are the exact opposite of all of these things, but sort of wish they could be all of these things. Riggins is their gateway drug.

The Reasons Women Who Don’t Love Him Cite as the Reasons They Don’t Love Him:

He is rudderless, directionless.

He would be a terrible boyfriend.

He doesn’t have his shit together.

He insists on never leaving Texas.

He got through one week of college, and then gave up. C’mon.

He would have trouble being faithful.

He isn’t in touch with his emotions.

He is a bad communicator.

He’s drunk, like, most of the time.

What You Can Tell About a Woman If She Falls on the Riggins Side of the FNLGUToFD: 

She values excitement over comfort.

She is in touch with her sexuality.

She would absolutely cheat on you with Taylor Kitsch given the opportunity (and really, who would blame her?).

Matt Saracen, QB, #7, Played by Zach Gilford

matt-at-work

Matt Saracen is the nervous, adorably awkward, artistic, and responsible Quarterback of the Dillon Panthers, a role, like most of the roles he finds himself in, that was thrust upon him before he was ready.  He is nervous, unsure of himself, but gosh darn it does he know how to dig deep and find a way to get the job done, even if he’s not sure he can. He goes to school, takes care of his demented grandmother, works at the Alamo Freeze, Quarterbacks a state championship level-team and still manages to find time for his needy girlfriend. He has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and he makes it work. Is he overwhelmed? Yes. Does that stop him? No.

Women love Saracen because he speaks truth, even if his voice shakes. Which it always, ALWAYS does.

What He Represents: 

The boy blossoming into a man before our eyes.

An honest man doing the best he can with some shitty cards. 

Responsibility, loyalty, freckles. 

The devoted boyfriend. 

The tender lover. 

The adorableness of chivalry performed with self-aware awkwardness. 

The scrappy underdog.

Rising to the challenge. 

Pure potential. 

The achievability of the American dream through hard work. 

Cuddling. 

Types of Women Who Love Him:

Women who do not sleep with men until the eighth date.

Women who have been with their boyfriend for six years and are only 24 years old. 

Women who value comfort and safety. 

Women who also think Michael Cera is super cute.

Women who only use “cute” to describe attractive men, and not “hot.” 

Daughters of coaches. 

Women who stick to the plan. 

Pre-school teachers. 

Hipsters who use ironic distance to protect themselves from the scary, scary world. 

Women who have never had a one-night stand. 

Moms. 

Women who have normal and healthy relationships with their boring and responsible fathers. 

Women who planned their weddings when they were little girls. 

Women who value family over everything. 

Women who loved boy bands when they were girls.

Guatemalan home health professionals. 

The Reasons Women Who Don’t Love Him Cite as the Reasons they Don’t Love Him:

He is not hot. 

He’s so whiny. 

He would last thirty seconds in bed. 

He’s boring. 

He can’t finish a sentence without using at least three “ums.”

He’s sort of annoying. 

He loves his grandma. I get it. 

He’s a ginger. 

What You Can Tell About a Woman if She Falls on the Saracen Side of the FNLGUToFD: 

She values comfort over excitement .

She doesn’t care all that much about looks.

She demands to be treated with kindness and respect at all times.

She doesn’t like sexual positions that make eye contact impossible.

What the Synthesis of Saracen and Riggins Would Look Like (i.e. The Perfect Man):

coach-eric-taylor

I choose Coach Taylor. Um…no homo?

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You, Me, and Everyone We Know: The Little Brother Army and the Rise of the Hall Monitor State

On Thursday, a man was jailed in Reno after he was shamed, humiliated, and excoriated on social media for committing a crime so heinous nothing short of a digital scarlet letter would suffice. The man, according to the AP, skipped out on a $100 bill at a local brewpub.

The Pillory

And in today’s New York Times, there was this story about locals in the Hamptons starting websites to share and publicly expose the boorish behavior of the moneyed vacationers who flood the area every summer.

These stories appeal directly to my liberal sensibilities and my townie upbringing, especially because I’ve 1) worked in restaurants and 2) worked at restaurants in vacation spots that were populated by the often oblivious and inconsiderate uber-rich (of course, most of them were fine, but there’s always a few who provided the fuel for many after-shift bitching and drinking sessions). It’s good to see people use social media and the internet to expose assholes. But like all tools we use to punish bad guys, we need to think about our definition of bad guys before using them.

The idea of humiliating people publicly for not following the rules or sticking to the culture’s plan is not new. What is new is how instantaneously we can do this, how anonymously we can report violations, and how impossible it can be to separate yourself from a violation you may have committed, no matter how far away you move or how much time passes. The power of society to use social media to self-regulate and expose negative behavior, whether illegal or not, is growing at the rate at which the percentage of our behavior that is public and easily documented increases. While the federal government’s snooping brings immediate Orwellian accusations of Big Brother type monitoring and control, we are less likely to be outraged about the increasing power of the people around us to ensure we are acting properly. In the examples above, we are talking about the digital equivalent of old school, throw-him-in-the-stocks-punishment for breaking law(s) or hurting  the community. It starts to get tricky, however, when we start talking about doing the same to ensure compliance with the social contract.

Big brother is scary (see, Snowden, Edward, or Hastings, Michael) and we need to have a serious debate about the power the government has to track our communications. But that’s an old, monolithic idea, and if there’s anything that this age does pretty well its finding ways to make old monolithic ideas irrelevant. Big Brother, real as it may or may not be, is a twentieth century idea. The digital age has produced something else, a decentralized network of behavioral monitoring and shaming that we both participate in and are influenced by. We need to be aware of our enlistment in, and our monitoring by, the army of Little Brothers.

We all know that everyone is a journalist now, that everyone has a camera, and that any ridiculous behavior can be documented and publicized. Politicians and celebrities were the first to be aware of this. George Allen thought he was aware of this in the video below, which is why it’s so amazing that he can be talking about the constant documentation of his campaign speeches and events by his opponent, while calling the guy doing it “macaca,” which may or may not be a racial slur.

George Allen saw the camera. The lesson Mitt Romney learned is that you can’t ever be sure there aren’t cameras around.

By now, everybody knows they could be documented at anytime. But that doesn’t stop a white NFL player from dropping an N-bomb on a black security guard at a Kenny Chesney concert, and doing it INTO A CAMERA.

These moments that result from a perfect confluence of rage, hate, ignorance, and inebriation are perfect for the internet because they produce short, explosive, declarations that, if documented, can be watched in seconds. There’s no context, but when someone behaves this inappropriately none is really necessary.

Then something like this goes viral. It’s a woman getting very angry at a retail employee, which is never cool, even if the employee has a frustratingly misleading title like “Genius.”

That women yelling? She’s really not saying anything bad or wrong. All she’s doing is saying she was promised something she isn’t getting. She’s just doing it at an inappropriate volume. She had a mini freak out. She will be known for this forever now. I’m not sure the punishment fits the crime.

Our ability to shame people for doing hateful things is a good thing. Our ability to know where the sexual predators live, to force people confront their rotten behavior, to put all actions up to a jury of our peers will hopefully force us to think about our own behavior in ways we maybe would not have before. However, people make mistakes. In this era, when a name can never be truly separate from the results Google connects to it, a simple mistake can define you forever. Even if it isn’t caught on video.

Here’s a rather interesting case study of a guy just sort of being a douche and getting publicly destroyed for it. Basically, a married dude hit on a girl he was sitting next to on a plane. I have overheard cringe-worthy attempts by men to ingratiate themselves to attractive young women sitting next to them on planes (and one time, I witnessed a truly awful attempt by a middle aged man to hit on the girl sitting in front of him). I know this is a bad practice. A few kind words to establish some friendly appreciation of shared space is one thing, but to hold a woman (or anybody) hostage for the duration of a flight with focused attention, explanations of personal philosophy, and intrusive questions is really brutal, since she can’t go anywhere. But it’s also not really enough to make the recipient freak out, which is what makes it such a dick move. It is a gross exploitation of the social contract.

Of course, it happens all the time. And there is no real penalty for it.

So what supposedly happened is an actor named Brian Presley held a model named Melissa Stetten hostage during a cross-country flight in the way I just described (although he did go to sleep after awhile, so it wasn’t the whole flight).  We know this because Melissa live tweeted the whole thing, which is not a really objective way of reporting something, and is nothing like getting caught on video. Still, reading her tweets, Brian sounds like a total douche, and also like a satiric incarnation of the collective Hollywood fakeness and hypocrisy in good looking bro form, which is why ripping on him is so appealing.

But Melissa never says Brian’s full name, nor does she seem interested in finding out who he is, at least at first. She just thinks its funny and probably a little embarrassing for everyone involved and is going to use the experience as an opportunity to entertain her 13,000 Twitter followers.  She allowed him to do things like take off his wedding ring in the bathroom and spout about his relationship with God in relative anonymity.  But then her followers tried to figure out who he was, and when she confirmed his identity, all of a sudden Brian was outed nationally as an asshole. Brian hadn’t done anything illegal, or cruel, and he hadn’t even propositioned her in any real way. He was just being sort of a douche bag.

This might be one thing if Brian was famous before this. But he really wasn’t. Now he sort of is. After hearing about what happened, Brian posted this on his Facebook wall, which, all of Melissa’s accusations aside, makes him sound guilty by talking like a “cool” church youth counselor:

article-2155961-1381E47E000005DC-800_634x499

Certainly, it’s better if Brian didn’t do what he allegedly did. But do we know he was trying to cheat? Maybe he was just flirting? None of this really matters at all, and the only reason we know about this is that both people involved are D-list celebrities, and in the words of Derek Zoolander “really, ridiculously good looking.” What is worrisome is that this kind of borderline behavior can be punished swiftly and quickly without really knowing the story, and tattle tales and gossips have real power to destroy people on the public record. Whereas Big Brother turns the world into a police state, the Little Brother army turns the world into a hall monitor state, where a few people with an overdeveloped sense of duty and limited power feel the need to point out any and all malfeasance. Anybody who has read Yelp reviews sees the indignant person who needs to record a tiny mistake made at a restaurant for posterity. These people are terrible, and usually the overwhelming flood of information will drown them out. But a person isn’t a business, and while we forgive a bad restaurant experience as one of screw up among thousands of meals delivered, I’m not sure we give people the same amount of leeway.

We live in a time where a strange paradox has begun to take effect. We give ourselves more personal power to  express our opinions publicly, while simultaneously allowing other’s opinions of us to be permanently attached to us. This gives society a remarkable ability to identify criminals, abusive people, and assholes and make examples of those who are breaking the social contract. It also allows people to destroy people for a mistake. It’s both a good and bad thing, I suppose. What worries me however, is that people make mistakes, and it’s becoming nearly impossible to leave those behind.

We will see where this leads. My hope is that the we will become increasingly forgiving of people who humiliate themselves publicly, that it will happen enough that we learn forgiveness and don’t judge people on what a Google search pops up about them. This is what I hope. I think it’s possible. Remember the Star Wars kid? Turns out he’s doing all right now, thank god, although it sounds like he had a real rough time.  He was the one of the first normal, anonymous people to be really humiliated in a viral way on the internet. And it wasn’t just some cyber bullies who did it, although the kids who put it online certainly bear the most responsibility. We all took part in it.

As always, the golden rule applies. May those without sin cast the first tweet.

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An Invocation of the Muse for the Digital Age

MUSE Live in Hong Kong

Oh Muse! I appeal to thee, bestower of voice, granter of artistic license, whisperer of things unborn in this world, come to my aid!

Oh Muse! Of all the wonders of the world, both long dead and buried and still walking on shaky, new-born legs, tell me which to write about, deliver me a narrative, fully formed, that I may share with the world the glory of creation, the workmanship of the gods, and my humble WordPress website.

Oh Muse! Wouldst thou use your sweet sonorous voice, your melodic song of heaven’s gifts, to impart to me that which you deem worthy to share with the world? And can you do it loud in my ear, loud enough to ensure the evil sirens call of fantasy football research does not trap me with its promise of $240, maybe, if I am the best out of twelve teams come January?

Oh Muse! Help me navigate the hoary-capped and ship wrecking waters that compose the Sea of Creation, help me pass through that impossible gauntlet to the shores of new material and viral blog posts, keep my bow true and pointed there, and do not let me sway either port or starboard toward my own personal Scylla or Charybdis, or what is actually watching porn, jerking off, and taking a nap on one side, and unlimited Netflix content on the other. No! Help me stay true! Remind me with your gentle reason that Arrested Development died the first time, that neither god nor man can truly bring it back, and that, well, porn will still be there when I finish writing.

Oh Muse! Silence the city around me that I might partake of your treasures, silence its mighty roar of opportunity and happy hours, its beckoning for me to provide failed actresses and amateur fashion designers from Ohio with comfort, its breathless and irresistible promise of hole-in-the-wall sanctuaries not yet Yelped! Begone devil city!

Oh Muse! Hold my mind and spirit above the shallow preoccupations of the flesh, remind me that no food can satiate the spirit like a 1000 word blog post, gently turn my head away from drink, from summer ale, from all things Dogfish Head, from deep fried Macaroni and cheese, from the opposite as well, from the endorphin haze of a running long distances, from the devilishly deceptive satisfaction of a gym visit, all which I succumb to when I forget that the body will soon be long gone, but a Google PR1 website can live forever in the annals of history, glory, and caches!

Oh Muse! Deliver your wisdom, your story unto me! May I be worthy of you, of your godly heritage, of the many you have spoken to in the past and will continue to speak to in the future! May we bring the world the fruits of our intercourse, the creative delights that together we can use to illuminate the darkness! Oh, speaking of that, I have to buy a light bulb. I should do that now. But when I return Muse, oh Muse, we will begin reshaping the world according to your dreams and desires if you will only let me be your conduit, your vessel!

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Giving the Brain a Break: A Sensory Deprivation Tank Session

My brain works hard, not on anything particularly important, but it keeps me alive, healthy, mostly sane, and really good at bar trivia. So I wanted to reward it with some time off, which even in sleep, it never gets. I wanted to give it an hour where it could take a break from handling the overwhelming flood of sensory input it processes, sorts, and very rarely, calls my attention to everyday.  So I decided to reward it with a session in a sensory deprivation tank, or “float tank.” These are tanks, first invented by scientists in the sixties and now adopted by the spa and new-age crowd, that let you float in body temperature salt water in a dark, silent tank, completely cut off from all sensory input. My brain, and my body, would have an hour off from input and gravity.

Basically, I wanted to see what my brain does off the clock.

What happens when you unplug your brain while still awake, with nothing coming in? What would it do? What would it focus on? We know the brain is always trying to construct a reality out of whatever it’s given. What if you cut it off from the input, the raw material, what if you threw it in solitary? Would it go crazy? Or would it finally be off the clock for real and free to use its immense powers on the larger questions of reality and being, of self and awareness? Would it transcend the daily drudgery?

I had read about sensory deprivation tanks recently on Slate.com, and I had heard them discussed while listening to the surprisingly excellent, deep, and philosophical Joe Rogan Experience podcast. The discussion of the a tank session as an opportunity to have a transcendental or hallucinogenic experience  had made me want to get naked in some salt water, although maybe not while on pot brownies like Rogan suggested. At least not the first time.

This is what the inside of the float tank looks like. Notice the darkness.

This is what the inside of the float tank looks like. Notice the darkness.

I made an appointment with Sam Zeiger at Blue Tank Floatation a few weeks in advance, because business is apparently booming. I showed up at Blue Tank, which is in what appears to be Sam’s apartment in Chelsea.  Sam has been running Blue Tank since 1985 so his lengthy “orientation” speech was practiced and professional, but was delivered in a totally in-the-moment and organic way that made it feel like he was teaching me, not just rattling off info. I took in this orientation, which was all very practical advice on how to relax, how to get in and out of the tank, and gentle warnings about the technical realities of floating, like “don’t scratch your nose, because the water from your hand WILL run into your eyes because your head is tilted back way more than you think, and the water is salty and it stings” which I know was totally correct because I didn’t follow it and his prediction of ocular discomfort was stunningly accurate.

I sat on a very comfortable couch and listened to his patient description of the realities of the tank, a description that stayed away from deep existential or mystical explanations of the human consciousness in the tank environment and stayed in the physical world and its obstacles. This was taking place in a room filled with prominently displayed books on meditation, awareness, and new age philosophy, including a book I recognized by the great and incomparable Ken Wilber, whose book “A Brief History of Everything” should be required reading for everyone in spite of its grandiose title. After the orientation, which took about fifteen or twenty minutes, Sam asked me if I had any questions. I replied that I didn’t have any questions about the nuts and bolts of it, but I was curious about the general nature of the experience. How long do you go in for? I asked. He told me he used to go in for an hour or so every day, but nowadays he just does one long session a week.  He had just done a three hour session the day before. He told me that when he was doing it an hour or so a day, he actually needed far less sleep.

It must be very much like a sleep state, I said, and I began to ask him about the similarities between the way your brain operates in the tank and the way it does when you’re sleeping, when he gently and politely cut me off.

“It’s best to just experience it and see for yourself what it’s like,” he told me.

And there it was. My problem and a problem shared by a lot of people in this intensely analytical and spiritual devoid time, a time when every experience must be cataloged, photographed, documented and shared. I wanted to talk about the nature of an experience instead of actually experiencing it.

I laughed at myself, and told him let’s start, while sort of apologizing for wanting to get theoretical with it.

“Well, that’s an easy trap to fall into,” Sam said.

I really, really needed to turn off my brain. We probably all do.

After a quick shower, I stepped into the tank pre-room which felt like an air lock from a sci-fi movie. It was narrow and in the corner were all sorts of pipes that were silently waiting to do whatever filtration was necessary between sessions. I opened the door to the tank room, and slowly, as I was instructed, lay down.

When I pictured sensory deprivation tanks in the past, I pictured something like a tanning bed, a sort of tube, that I imagined being a bit claustrophobic. But the room is a large private bathtub, the tub itself being about seven feet long and three feet wide. There’s no airlock, just a hinged door that you step over the base of as you enter, so entering the tank room is just like stepping into a bath tub. What makes the bath tub special is that the highly purified water in it is filled with 1000 pounds of Epsom salt, which makes you float, in addition to opening your pores and cleaning you more than soap. It also makes you feel like you’re floating through space, and after a few minutes of floating, the salt and the temperature (94 degrees) makes it feel like you are sort of melting into some sort of body-temperature Jell-O, which as someone who has long fantasized about a swimming pool filled with Jell-O (shallow end only, to drown in Jell-O sounds like a recurring nightmare that only Bill Cosby has) this was worth the price of admission.

Once you lay down, you hit a round underwater button by your left hand that turns off the lights.  Once you do that, there is no light, no sound, and no smell, but you do have to feel the sides of the tank to stabilize yourself. Otherwise, you will float from one side of the tub to the other, since any motion at all sends you drifting, and since the tank is rather small, if you drift at all a hand, foot, or the top of your head will hit the side, thus destroying the floating-through-space effect. The key is to gently extend both arms away from your body until your pinkies both touch and anchor you to the side of the tank. Then once you are stabilized, you let your arms drift away from the side and begin to float.

The weird thing is, in spite of the fact that I was trying to relax, focus on my breath, and practice some very basic mindfulness meditation, I kept feeling like I was drifting to my left. Pretty soon, I realized that was impossible, because although I had the very real sensation of moving to the left, after a few seconds, I knew that I couldn’t have been for the simple reason that the tank was three feet wide and that if I was moving in any direction I would have hit the side of the tank within a second or two of starting to drift. I realized that my mind was playing tricks on me.

I told Sam about this after I got out of the tank and was enjoying my on-the-house herbal iced tea, and he told me that the sensation of drifting toward one side of the tub or the other was very common. He also told me that many people get the sense that they are spinning in the tank.

These are the weird things your brain does when it has no input. Some people apparently itch for the first twenty or so minutes in the tank. Like some old butler who finally gets a day off after forty years and ends up doing chores because he knows nothing else, the brain creates input or sensory sensations that don’t exist, in effect it creates work for itself to do. The easiest sense to fool and create false input for when input has been cut off from the traditional sensory sources is the sense of balance. Which is pretty weird.

After a few minutes I lost the sensation of floating to one side and found a good equilibrium. I tried performing an exercise Sam suggested called a body scan, which is just the simple process of being aware of your toes, and then your feet, and then your ankles and so on until you reach the top of your head.

This is a very simple meditative exercise, and I’ve done it plenty of times outside of a flotation tank. The idea is to just become aware of your whole body, and through that process, relax your body and mind. Although the relaxing part was not hard, I noticed my awareness constantly drifting away toward other things, which required me to direct my awareness back to the part of my body I had been scanning. This redirection of lost attention is a normal part, even the point, of any meditative practice. But this was a bit different, I found my mind was harder to control and focus, that my brain, instead of being free of distraction and therefore more easily used as a tool, was more like a dog off the leash, ready to run in any direction and pursue any idea, thought, or perception.

After the body scan, I decided to just give into the experience and let my mind wander away, which might be overestimating my own choice in the matter. As I became more relaxed and the perception of where my body ended and the primordial space goo started to blur, I found that my brain was operating very much like it does when it’s asleep. That is, my brain was making strange, nonsensical connections and it was combining fictional characters and real people I knew into imagined conversations, it was organizing reality and fantasy, memory and hope, into bizarre collages of thoughts and images that made no real sense. It wasn’t stressful in anyway, and I was wide awake, so I was able to consciously understand that this was happening and I could have wrestled myself back into some sort of intellectual analysis, however temporary, at any point. But why would I? I was having waking dreams, far more vivid than any daydream. And they were relaxing, pleasant dreams. But like real dreams, I could not repeat what any of them were even if I wanted to.

After a few minutes of this, I found that my body would occasionally twitch involuntarily, which both forced me back into the physical present by reminding me I had a body and wasn’t just a cloud of dream energy floating through the cosmos, and by creating enough motion to cause drifting (for real this time), which in turn required me to stabilize myself.

These twitches were very similar to the ones you have in your sleep, and when I asked Sam about them afterward, he again assured me that they were common. He explained that you build electrical charges throughout your body during the day, and at night part of the healing process of sleep is to get rid of these charges by firing them off. That’s what your body does in the tank; it begins the healing process that we experience every night. Except this healing process is more refreshing than sleep because you are giving your body an hour off from gravity, which is something it never gets, unless you’re an astronaut or super hero, and much of what your body is and how it operates is a function of the constant need to maintain an equilibrium against gravity.

After re-positioning myself in the middle of the tank a few times, I no longer had any charges that needed to fire off. I happily floated and watched my brain do weird dreamy things. I’ve never had a lucid dream, as far as I know, and I wouldn’t even call these lucid in the sense that I wasn’t consciously creating the content of the dream, although I was consciously aware that I was in a sort of dream state at all times. At some point, I wondered how much time had gone by. I had purchased an hour-session for $80, and I estimated that I was probably approaching the half-hour mark. When I first started floating, I thought “an hour is a long time,” but now, fully relaxed and happy to watch my brain run around off the leach, confident it would stay in sight, I was looking forward to the second half of my session.

Then the gentle music came on from the speakers at the bottom of the tank. My session was up. It had been a full hour.

I was amazed. I was sure I had been in there for thirty minutes at the very most. As a sporadic and not very committed or disciplined practitioner of meditation, I was used to thinking I was close to the fifteen minutes I had committed to meditating and then looking at my watch and seeing only seven minutes had passed. I had never experienced any sort of meditation or exercise session, or anything that required doing nothing, that flew by faster than I expected.

I began to move a bit in the water, just to see what it was like to create some gentle waves on purpose and feel my body move against the goo, instead of rest within it. It felt great. I really didn’t want to get out.

I hit the light and slowly sat up. I felt relaxed in a way I never have before. I could feel every pore. My brain had run around off the leash, and now that it was back on it my brain was calm, satisfied, and completely obedient. My head was clear. When I stood up it was like I could feel each muscle fiber gently extend and contract in unison like a group of happy factory workers from an early Disney movie whistling while they worked.

I felt great.

After rinsing off, I put my clothes on, and returned to Sam’s couch. He unhurriedly asked me about the experience, patiently answered my questions, and even, prompted by me, talked a bit about the rising popularity of flotation tanks and the increasing need people have to take the time to unplug their brains due to the ever increasing level of information the brain is battling to keep up with on a daily basis.

After leaving a thought occurred to me.

In the tank, which is dark, silent, and super comfortable I had:

1)      Twitched like I was asleep.

2)      Dreamt like I was asleep.

3)      And lost track of time, as if I had fallen asleep.

Good god, I thought. Did I just actually fall asleep in there?

Would I even know if I had?

I was sure I had stayed awake the whole time. I thought about the experience and tried to remember everything that I had contemplated in the tank as I walked through the ridiculous heat to the subway. What I had experienced, I decided, was a state very similar to sleep, but any attempts at cessation or minimization of the conscious mind would be.

I was sure, looking back, that I was awake the whole time. But I couldn’t prove it in any real sense. It’s possible that my ego wouldn’t allow me to think I spent $80 on a nap. I think it’s more possible that sleep and awake are two components on a spectrum of consciousness, and the only two components I experience in my day to day life, which meant my experience in the tank got thrown into that limiting dichotomy. We know there are many other kinds of consciousness on the spectrum of conscious states that can be experienced through meditation, drugs, or sensory deprivation tanks. I had experienced one of them.

And just like that, my brain was back on the job.

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On shaving your head – Follicular Euthanasia

There is the knowledge, always there in every mirror and every Facebook tag, that it is inevitable.

Every shower reminds you of it, every hoodie put up, every beanie pulled down, every brim curved just so, reminds you that your hair is fading. Retreating. Dying.

Which, in and of itself, is fine.  This is the way of things, the nature of the universe. The world will take your hair away, strand by strand.

What’s terrifying is knowing that you will have to, at some point, decide that the fight is over. You will surrender, on your own terms, and shave your head. You will keep your beard, maybe get it down to a goatee, and then you will look like Stone Cold Steve Austin, but flabby, which is kind of the opposite of what Stone Cold is all about.

You’ll have to do it, go right at it with the razor, knowing that there is no going back to running your fingers through your hair, knowing the last time a woman grabbed your hair by its roots had already happened, and that you probably hadn’t even appreciated it. There’ll be the moment when the hair will start to tumble down off you in clumps as the clippers howl a swan song.

That’s when you will know that you have taken matters into your own hands. (You can’t just let it wither and die).

You will reassert your autonomy, your humanity, your power to control your environment, all at once. You will be refusing to engage in an agonizing campaign of attrition against the inevitable. So you’ll trim it down to stubble with the clippers, and then finish the job with the razor on bare skin. There might be a little blood. You’ll be choosing to cut your losses, to blow up the bridges, to burn your own crops. You’ll set the oil fields on fire, and watch the flame grab at heaven from the tops of the derricks, burning the night apart.

You will leave nothing behind.

You’re going to have to shave your head. It’ll be a woman who does it, who convinces you. One who swears she’ll love you after it’s all gone.  Who gives you the courage.

Or maybe it will be the next one who convinces you. The one you don’t know yet, the one waiting for you to rip up the carpets and find out what’s underneath before she walks into your life.

Asking Strangers Questions – A Preemptive Eulogy

Strangers still ask me questions. Usually the questions are about directions, and I usually stutter and stammer giving useless and imprecise instructions that culminate in me pointing toward a rough point on the horizon and saying “that way.”

I am new to New York. These strangers should see how loose my jeans are, realize how un-native I am, and not ask me.

But the truth is my familiarity with the area shouldn’t affect by ability to give directions. My direct knowledge of the area only matters because I don’t own a smartphone.

The strangers who ask me for directions have that in common. They don’t own smartphones either. If they did, they wouldn’t need to ask for directions. They would be getting effortlessly from place to place via algorithm generated vectors and coordinates, their journeys data sets ready for analytical compilation and review.

Sure, sometimes the technology fails, or you don’t have access to it, or it leads you somewhere wrong. But these are only growing pains that will be rectified soon enough, like bed wetting or drawing on walls. We are in the infancy of the information age. If you don’t trust the map on your phone, it’s not because the concept isn’t good, it’s because you don’t trust it to sleep through the night or be left alone with crayons in a white-walled room.

The point is the time when we get directions from other people is almost over.

I ask people for directions sometimes. Sometimes I emerge from underneath the pavement out of the subway exit and I’m disoriented, unable to find a cardinal landmark I can use to start the lyrical reminder to Never Eat Shredded Wheat, and therefore, unable to figure out where I’m going, assuming I even know an address, or what direction my destination is in relative to the subway exit.

So I ask strangers for directions. If they don’t know, they pull out their phones and look it up for me, and while I wait (only a few seconds and getting shorter with each new iPhone release) I excuse myself for not having a smartphone, or I lie and say its dead.

I am a 21st century hitchhiker, depending on the kindness and technology of strangers to get to where I want to go.

As someone who has hitchhiked the old-fashioned way, let me tell you: when you’re standing on the side of a highway, thumb out, and you make eye contact with a passing driver through that windshield, that windshield feels like a thousand miles between you and that driver, it feels like a mortgage, a swimming pool, a trust fund, being called “sir,” it feels like two tax brackets and wine knowledge, it feels like all of that and the judgment that goes with it.

People stop, and obviously not everyone who has a car is rich. But that’s what it feels like.

Soon asking people for directions will feel like that too.

Years from now, when the last of the baby boomers have either adapted to smartphones and finally figure out how to type with their thumbs, or when they are just gone, and when obsolete iPhones are being handed out like after dinner mints, and when they figure out how to keep cell phones charged at all times, asking someone for directions will be the same as declaring:

“I’m too poor to own a smartphone.”

If you are well-dressed enough to convey a certain class status, that status being comfortably above the unwilling luddites of the lower class, people will respond to requests for directions with:

“Did your phone die?”

As of now, everyone gives directions. That is, just about no one refuses to answer the request, whether they know the answer or not. That’s because answering requests for directions is part of the basic social contract. But when access to smartphones become ubiquitous to all but the untouchables, will there be a point where providing directions moves from social nicety to charity? And if so, will people refuse to answer that question, will people ignore it the way anyone looking poor enough asking a question or starting a conversation is ignored? Will the very act of asking directions mean that the person must, by the fact their question betrays a lack of essentials, want something from the one being asked beyond the stated? Will the follow up question automatically be about money?

You want to know where the nearest Starbucks is? Get a fucking job.

I’ll admit that this all seems like pretty meaningless speculation until you consider that directions are just the most common kind of information that we can gather from strangers without feeling intrusive or making anyone uncomfortable. But there are other types as well, other questions we ask strangers from time to time in order to gather objective information.

Consider that with smartphones, we have the entire human knowledge library in our pockets, which, to paraphrase Louis C.K, is a fucking miracle, one that makes the printing press look like a blue ribbon entry in the science fair.

So when will asking questions seeking objective answers disappear altogether?

With all of the world’s information a finger stroke away, how can we continue to justify asking someone about the weather, or the score of the game, or where the subway goes? (And don’t worry, there will be network access in all subway stations soon enough).

How soon before asking someone for information becomes an obvious ploy to start a conversation?

But outside of trying to hit on people at bars, when do you ever need ploys? We don’t really speak to the strangers around us all that often anymore because we don’t have to. We are never bored enough to have to make conversation with strangers, unless we are at some party where the point is to meet people. We play with our phones on buses and in line, and when we are lonely we can call up anyone we know, because everyone has a phone on them, and everyone is reachable.

We are eliminating the space between us and our friends, and the space between our questions and the knowledge that those questions seek, thanks to the direct line we have to the group consciousness that we carry in our pockets.

But what used to occupy that space between us and our friends and between our questions and their answers was other people, strangers who might have the information we are seeking, who might provide conversation on a boring train ride, who might tell you about the hidden gem in the neighborhood you are in, who might even become a friend.

The problem is you can’t map your way to serendipity.

Strangers still ask me questions. I’m dreading the day I’ll judge them for it.

I’m dreading the day they’ll stop asking even more.

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