Thursday, June 29, 2006

Gimme Patience

So I'm on the subway coming home tonight, too tired to read my book, because it's one of those books that you really have to give your full attention to in order to read - it's all about the prose, so if you're too tired to take it in, there's really no sense in wasting good writing on tired eyes. And since my PSP got jacked, it looked like I was just gonna sit there (unacceptable) or bust out the ipod. Tonight's ride was a reunion with Spoon.

The thing I love about Spoon is that they are one of the few indie bands who can really rock at almost any tempo. Yeah, there are many out there like Okkervil River, The Wrens, or Band of Horses (just to name a few) who kick ass on their rocking songs, but who's slower or mid-tempo songs sound just like, well - slower or mid-tempo songs. It's not a slight, I love all of those bands, but the thing about Spoon is when they do it - their songs still sound so full and solid. No more so than on their last album - Gimme Fiction

Maybe it's their sense of space. They craft such spare parts for each instrument and just fit the songs together like little puzzles - each one usually based around a fairly simple rhythm or riff. I guess it all adds up to a sound where each note sounds so deliberate that it really adds a weight to it that is so often lacking in most indie rock. [The White Stripes have it, too, but right now we're talking about Spoon. Damn!]

Each previous Spoon album has been completely self-contained, creating it's own world, and Gimme Fiction is no exception. This one took a step back from the frenetic, largely piano-centered album Kill The Moonlight (amazing), and has a far more layered and subtle approach. On first listen, I didn't really care for it. And I wanted to. I'd loved all of their other records - and I had my hopes up. Obviously, I liked the immediate standout tracks ("I Turn My Camera On", "Two Sides of Monsieur Valentin", and "Sister Jack") but that was about it. I was prepared to dismiss it as a dud and leave it on the pile of albums that never quite make the cut (a huge pile). But for some reason it never made it out of the disc changer.

I'm glad for that. Slowly, after many times keeping the album on in the background, while doing other things, the other songs snuck up on me and began to reveal themselves. It was a wonderful thing. There's no better feeling than hearing a song like "My Mathematical Mind" or "The Beast and Dragon Adored" which at first sound repetitive and droney - and finally feeling like it makes sense. [I'm sure these songs worked for other people right away - in fact, when the album came out people couldn't get over My Mathematical Mind - everyone thought it was the masterpiece of the album!]

The thing that was missing, I think, was patience. On my part. Nowadays, most of the music I buy is through iTunes - I rarely buy actual CD's anymore. And while this may be a vastly more efficient manner in which to take in music I have found it to be infinitely less satisfying. Digital purchases are much easier to neglect (especially when you have a large collection) than a disc whose case (and cool artwork) is sitting on your desk, refusing to be put away (I prefer that explanation to my girlfriend's, who will try to tell you that I refuse to put it away). A case that you have to keep looking at will remind you to give it another chance. It will tempt you with the songs you know you like and win you over with the songs you don't.

For some reason, I was feeling a bit more patient tonight. It felt nice. It reminded me of a year ago, when Gimme Fiction came out. When I couldn't get "Sister Jack" out of my head. [And what great lyrics that song has - so Beatles-y...] When I could put on a CD without iTunes, before I felt the need to constantly keep my music on "shuffle" because my attention span was longer than four minutes.

Sometimes all it takes is a night where you're too tired to read to bring it all back.

Monday, June 19, 2006

"Weekends, I should point out, are totally different..."

To gain some insight into the mind of a true sports fanatic. I've sought the input of the afore-mentioned sports-fan friend to see how he does it.

WH - Dude, I'm coming to you because you watch an inordinate (or is it ordinate? I don't even know...) amount of sports and you keep up with everything. Frankly, I find it both ridiculous and fascinating. Can you describe your daily routine for me? I want it all - online time spent - sites visited, newspapers, number of episodes of Sportscenter - the works.
First of all, inordinate. At least among the relatively normal people that I know, I watch more sports than anyone else, maybe than the rest of them combined. As for the daily routine, I guess it's basically as follows: wake up, check on the fantasy teams, then watch Sportscenter rerun while reading the paper, eating breakfast, etc. So that's about an hour. There's not really any sports on for the rest of the morning (World Cup and Tour de France times excepted - those are special events), so that's a sports-free zone. Most early afternoons don't have much going on either, except for the occasional weekday baseball game (on ESPN, or a Cubs game on WGN). If those are on, I'll tend to move myself in front of the TV and do work or read while watching the game. Doesn't matter who's playing. Late afternoon is Pardon the Interruption on ESPN at 5:30 - that's a daily routine. Then dinner, and then the baseball game in the evening, either going to the park (season tickets are a joy) or watching on TV. If the Sox aren't on, then I'll watch whatever other game is on. That's the weekdays, basically. Probably on average about four to five hours of sports on TV for a weekday, counting Sportscenters, Baseball Tonights, and actual games. Because I work at the computer, online time is pretty high - I'm constantly checking my fantasy team and I read everything that's free about baseball on (stupid "insider" articles), and other Boston sports news, and whatever else catches my eye.

Weekends, I should point out, are totally different - then it's basically sports all day. Whenever the Sox are on, obviously, but also day games of baseball, and Lord knows during football season, I cancel all my Sunday plans. I realize I've focused on baseball season, because that's what we're in, but of course during the offseason I'm watching basically every Celtics game, and the occasional Bruins game, and pretty much any other pro basketball game that's televised, if the C's aren't playing at the same time.

As for print media, I read the sports sections of the Globe and the Times (what little there is in the Times), and Sports Illustrated every week. Not too much there - when you watch Sportscenter every day and read the stuff online, there isn't too much other than local articles on the Sox or Yankees and the columnists that's worth much in the papers. SI is just for fun. So I think that's the basic outline of the sports in my life. Lots of TV, a considerable amount on the internet, and some print. Every Sox game, every Celtics game, every Patriots game, every other nationally televised baseball, football, or basketball game, and highlights of everything. It sounds like a lot when I put it this way, but my wife would tell you that it's actually much worse.
WH- As you know, you've roped me into your sick little world of fantasy leagues. This was after years of listening to you talk about how they have improved your enjoyment of the game. I liked this idea - but find that I've had a much greater response to the theory of fantasy leagues than the practice of them. How have they worked for you and what have they added to your quality of sports-fan-dom?
Fantasy leagues are basically a way for me to demonstrate that I could be a general manager of a professional sports team. I don't know whether they've added to my quality of sports-fan-dom. The biggest knock against fantasy sports by its opponents is that people stop rooting for teams or for good games, they only care about their one guy on whatever team, and everything else is irrelevant. I totally understand that danger - I'll admit to watching games that I have little interest in (and that aren't even good games) because I've got one of the starting pitchers, or one of the hitters. Or even a reliever, for God's sake. But that particular danger is more acute, I think, for people who are not already enormous sports fans. Which is to say, I was already watching every game and reading all the stats before I started doing fantasy leagues. But doing fantasy sports does make me more aware of really every single player out there - if you're good at them, you find yourself constantly on the lookout for the next great player, or for the overlooked guy, or whatever. It means that my knowledge of the statistics and abilities of marginal players has vastly improved. For whatever that's worth.
WH - Can fantasy leagues work for the casual sports fan, or do they require a degree of obsessiveness that a casual fan just can't provide?
Hard to say. I think that they can work - if you're the right type of person. That said, you're probably not going to beat someone who's really obsessed - I mean, there are people in fantasy leagues who are picking up and dropping players during games that they're watching because they think they've found something great. I'm not even doing that, for the most part. So a casual fan would just be a step or two behind, because he wouldn't be on top of the latest injuries, breakouts, etc. The plain fact is, most casual fans aren't going to care enough to want to play. You really have to be obsessed to join one in the first place - and you have to have that drive I was talking about to prove that you can be the general manager of a team. That's really what it's all about for me - it's a way of living out a dream job.
WH - If I were to spend a limited amount of time following sports news per day - say 20 minutes - how would you recommend I do it? TV? Internet? Newspaper?
First of all, your limited time is too limited - I'm going to expand it to 30 minutes. So you've lost your ten minutes of self-doubt every day. Boo hoo. Now - here's the simplest way to get the most sports news in half an hour: watch ESPNews, not late in the afternoon, but late at night or early in the morning. You get all the day's sports highlights in half an hour, plus the scroll at the bottom of the screen with breaking news, stats, etc. It's by far the best way to get it all in.
WH - You are one of the most skeptical people of new technology of anyone I know - so I suppose this question will probably answer you read any sports blogs? Deadspin seems pretty good, but I don't really know the landscape that well. What say you? Speaking of sports blogs, have you seen any of the NYTimes coverage of the World Cup? I personally think they've gone blog-crazy and are spreading themselves too thin. Discuss.
Sorry, the question answers itself. Apologies to anyone who's going to read this and be offended, including your girlfriend, but I just don't understand the whole blog thing. I won't say any more than that, because we both know I'd just get my ass in trouble.
Editor's Note: When I spoke with this friend again later this same day by phone, he revealed that while this was indeed "a lot of sports," he felt that he "could be doing more." Couldn't we all?

Last Minute Sports Fan

I wouldn't say that I'm a Johnny-come-Lately. Although I suppose no one thinks of themselves that way. This is how I'd put it - I simply don't (yet?) have the discipline to follow most sports regularly enough during the season. In almost any sport. It's not that I don't find it interesting, it's that I find it boring.

Now obviously it's a no-brainer that playoff games in any sport will be more exciting than regular season games. Once the playoffs kick-in, I'm invariably drawn in by the sheer intensity of the action. This urgency is what I find lacking in regular season games - it's just tougher to get excited about a game that (at least on the surface of things) doesn't matter as much.

But this is the thing: I'm convinced that these games do matter. It's in the watching of these regular season games that you get to really know the players, the teams, the tendencies, the whole thing. And it's this knowledge that makes the playoffs such a special time for real sports fans. I think that the average sports fan gets something close to the same amount of enjoyment out of a regular game that I get out of a playoff game. And they probably enjoy a playoff game twice as much as I do. This must be corrected.

The problem is, I get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of sports news available at any given time. You're telling me I'm supposed to watch 18 editions of SportsCenter, make my home page, plus read the sports section of the daily paper....AND have time to watch games?

I honestly don't see how people do it.

And I've tried.

Not that hard, but I have tried. I read Sports Guy. I read Game of Shadows. Hmm. That might have been be the extent of it...

I should try harder. Why? It's not like I owe it to anyone to become a more knowledgeable sports fan. But this is the thing: I am certain that I would be a happier sports fan were I to be more knowledgeable. Doesn't it stand to reason that if I had a better sense of the narrative of any given team/league/player etc, that I would enjoy the playoffs THAT MUCH MORE? As it stands, my usual routine goes something like this:

• notice that it's the playoffs/finals in some sport (currently NBA - how much fun are these finals? one-point overtime games? the best!)
• call my biggest sports-fan friend for a briefing on all i need to know to watch said series
• enjoy series
• promptly forget about said sport
• repeat

Hmm, when I put it this way, the system seems fairly self-contained and functional. Yet every year it leaves me somewhat unfulfilled. As if watching these games was a marginal participation (at best) in the world of sports. True, I may have seen some games, but I've missed out on what makes them valuable. How can I appreciate that (whoever) is playing the best (whatever) of the season, or they finally worked out that kink in their game which kept them from performing to the best of their capabilities? The only way that I can do that is to take my friend's word for it. And it's just not as much fun that way.

One other note on the problem with my approach: the "good game" problem. I don't closely follow any given team. Because I grew up outside of Boston, my heart will always be with Boston teams. [Note: this was not always the case. Because my parents came from both Northern and Southern California, I felt free to cherry-pick my favorite teams from their hometowns which conveniently meant that I got to root for some great teams during their heyday (the 49ers, the Lakers, whoever). My sports-fan friend will not let me forget this. This is among the many reasons that I don't tend to return his calls promptly.] However, I have lived in New York for the past 10 years and have lost touch with the goings on of my teams. And I just can't become a New York sports fan. Sorry. I'd root for the Lakers over the Yankees any day.

Moving on - the good game problem. Because I haven't been following the season in any meaningful way - I haven't formed any opinions about any of the teams that I may end up watching play. Therefore, all I can root for is a "good" (ie, close) game. And while I'm sure this is a "sportsman"-like attitude, I can't help thinking that this is not what most sports fans think about. Don't they all have strongly formed opinions about all the teams in the league and don't they inevitably take sides? Well I want to take sides. I'm sick of just rooting for overtime or last minute drama. I'm certain that there are many more minutes worth enjoying than just the last.