What Are We Doing Here?

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It’s occurred to me, since I’ve not confined my subject matter in this blog to anything in particular save what’s on my mind at a particular moment, that at times what’s on my mind may seem trivial or unimportant when measured against the huge issues that face the planet—climate change, income inequality, war, hunger, racism, among others—or when measured against the personal issues that many of us have to deal with whether we like it or not. Just to take a brief inventory, right now I have a number of friends on the brink of bankruptcy; I have a friend who just lost her husband to cancer; I have a friend engaged in a horrible custody battle with her ex-husband; in my own life, I lost my stepmother a little over a year ago, and my 95-year-old dad is in a nursing home beset by dementia. So why am I writing reviews of movies and rants about the pitch count in baseball? Is it a way of avoiding the big, painful stuff?

Maybe. It’s definitely occurred to me, although I do think there’s room to explore both. I remember a couple years ago Alice and I going to see the Anselm Kiefer exhibit at the Gagosian gallery on 24th Street. The scale, scope and magnitude of Kiefer’s work was staggering. Afterwards, we stopped in at a friend’s gallery down the block. The work there seemed small, colorless and insignificant to us after having our minds blown by Kiefer. It was like trying to read almost anything after reading Tolstoy. Or write anything for that matter.

But then I remember what a therapist once said to me when I was feeling ashamed to be talking about my small problems when there were so many people out there who had troubles far far worse than I. She said, “Your life is what it is. And theirs is what it is. Your problems are no less important to you than theirs are to them. There’s no need for you to compare yourself to them—or anyone.”

I think of my nine-year-old daughter and what constitutes a problem for her. Maybe her mother and I have decided to limit her TV watching time to 45 minutes a day or we’ve told that she can’t get a pet hamster. For her, that’s a crisis. For us it might be that our furnace is acting funky and it’s getting cold out and neither our handyman nor the plumbing people who installed it can figure out what’s wrong.

Then there are the Mets. Is it wrong for a 60-year-old man to be as unreasonably happy as I am because his team is two wins away from playing in the World Series? I remember a summer when I was much younger and trying to figure out my life, and my dad was going through a rough period of his own, and we spent a good part of a lost summer together watching a fine Mets team get eliminated on one of the last days of the season. The moment it happened, the season abruptly over, my dad turned to me, shook his head and said, “Baseball is not the answer.” I think I might have laughed at the time. But now I feel not only was he wrong, but that baseball might be every bit as important as the miracle drug that saves your life when all else seems hopeless.

In the great Preston Sturgis movie Sullivan’s Travels, a wealthy movie director who makes popular comedies, decides that what he does is frivolous, and that he wants to make a socially relevant film about the downtrodden. But what he learns is that his shallow comedies actually mean more to the people whose plight he longs to dramatize than would the “important” film he feels duty-bound to create.

It should be clear to anyone reading this by now that this is not a linear or logical argument. The search for meaning never is. I think of that moment in Manhattan when Woody Allen asks himself, what makes life worth living. “I would say, Groucho Marx, to name one thing and Willie Mays, and the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, and Louie Armstrong’s recording of “Potato Head Blues,” Swedish movies, naturally, “Sentimental Education” by Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne, the crabs at Sam Wo’s, Tracy’s face …”

Or Crash Davis, in Bull Durham, telling Annie Savoy what he believes in: “I believe in the soul. The cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing AstroTurf and the designated hitter…”

I’m not going to solve the problems of the world here–not that I won’t occasionally try. Mostly I’m just going to think out loud, and hope that some of the things I’m thinking about will have meaning to someone else large, small or in between, and that if they don’t necessarily inform, they will at least entertain.


Why I Hate the Pitch Count

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“Kershaw’s already up to 17 pitches and we’re not out of the first inning yet,” said my friend Richard as we watched Tuesday night’s Mets-Dodgers playoff game at an adrenaline-charged Citi Field. “This is going well.”

I agreed, continuing to keep my eyes glued to the portion of the scoreboard tracking the Dodger ace’s number of pitches. Once upon a time, the most important numbers on the scoreboard were hits, walks and runs. Now it’s the number of pitches. Kershaw’s pitch count was the dominant lens through which I was viewing the game. Sure, the Mets were losing 3-1 by the sixth, but if we could only get Kershaw’s fucking pitch count up, we’d be golden.

The most absurd part was that it was actually true. I was not the only one counting pitches. The Dodgers were counting them, too. And once Kershaw got up near the 100 mark, he would be near the end of the line. That was true whether it happened in the 4th inning or happened in the 9th. That’s what baseball has become. It is, like everything else in this computerized age, driven by data. And the data indicates that a pitcher’s effectiveness after pitch number 100 is much lower than it was before. Plus, he is more susceptible to injury.

I’m not arguing with the premise or even the science. It’s undoubtedly true. But that doesn’t make it a good or a fun thing for the average fan to know about and pay attention to. I was much happier when I was in a blissful state of ignorance, when the way a pitcher looked and how he was actually doing determined how long the manager stayed with him.

I didn’t feel anxious about Dwight Gooden’s pitch count when he threw a no-hitter for the Yankees (yes, I rooted for him even though he was a Yankee). Hell, it wasn’t even a recorded statistic then. But I did have a bit of agita when Johan Santana pitched the only New York Mets no-hitter in history in 2012. Because by then the dreaded pitch count had become a thing. Near the end, as Santana surpassed the 130-pitch mark, I was overcome by a sinking feeling that something bad would befall him.

The fact that he was never the same pitcher afterwards, and his subsequent arm trouble was attributed by many baseball experts to his high pitch count in that game, does not change the fact that nobody should have been worried about his fucking pitch count while he was throwing a no-hitter. That’s just wrong. Anxiety about him allowing a hit, yes. About his pitch count? No!

Beyond us fans, though, what about the players? What does thinking about pitch count do to them? If some statistician or scientist tells me that I can only play my best poker for two hours and after that there’s going to be a notable drop in my effectiveness, guess what? There will be a notable drop in my effectiveness after two hours. Humans conform to what’s expected of them. They just do. You tell your 9-year-old that she’s bad at math, what do you think happens? You think that helps her?

Yeah, yeah, I know what the stats geeks say, it’s a measuring stick. Well, I got news for you, buddy. I don’t need a ruler to know I’m not playing in the NBA. And lucky for him, neither did Spud Webb.

See, when we’re only paying attention to data and numbers we lose something big, the elusive mystery of trusting our instincts, our gut, and the magic that makes sports special.

So fuck the pitch count.

On Second Thought: While we’re at it let’s also ditch WAR, wOBA, VORP, PERA and every other stupid new baseball statistic they try to throw at us. I don’t care if home runs and RBIs and batting average don’t measure a ballplayer’s worth as accurately. No one’s going to tell me that Hack Wilson’s 191 ribbies or Ted William’s .406 BA weren’t as splendidly transcendent as I always thought they were—or as easy to understand. If it takes more than thirty seconds to explain a stat, I don’t care how awesome a gauge of performance it is, I don’t want to know.


And away we go

Peter Alson

I never thought I would be doing this.

Back in 2006 when my daughter was born, the blogging phenomenon was already going strong. And I definitely thought I had a handle on it, that I understood what it was about even if it seemed not to make sense for me personally. I was a professional writer, after all. Why would I want to give my work away for nothing when I had labored for years to get to a point where I could get paid for it? For people who weren’t professional writers, the chance to be able to put their words and thoughts out there publicly on the internet, to have a platform (to use the kidnapped word now attached to that idea), was exciting.

What I didn’t understand at the time was how being able to “self-publish” was part of a larger societal and cultural transformation that would lead…

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I was listening to NPR this morning as I often do while cooking breakfast and helping get Eden off to school. I’m usually half awake and moving slowly, and I find that the mellifluous voices of Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne tend to soothe my foggy brain and ground me enough so that I don’t burn the kitchen down. One of today’s stories was about cops who lie while on the witness stand. It turns out the practice is so common that there’s even a term for it: “Testilying.”

It’s not a recent phenomenon, although, given the current antipathy toward law enforcement, it definitely seems as if it reflects and reinforces a current perception. But hearing about it, brought me back to a stint I did on a jury twenty years ago in which me and my fellow jurors were called upon to make a conviction based pretty much solely upon the testimony of a police officer.

During the voir dire selection process all of us potential jurors were asked if we would grant a police officer’s testimony any more or less weight than we would anyone else’s testimony. I said honestly that I would judge what a police officer said based on his credibility and how he came across. In other words, I would look at him the same way I would look at an opposing poker player in order to determine if he was lying or telling the truth.

The case, itself, was a pretty straightforward one, what is called a buy and bust operation, in which an undercover cop poses as a potential drug buyer and then arrests the guy selling him the drugs. Whatever you think of the method, it is—or at least was at the time—considered a legitimate way to attack the problem of street purveyors.

So the entirety of the case rested upon whether or not you believed the arresting officer. Despite my liberal bias and distaste for the technique, I found the officer to be credible and thought the case was pretty much a slam dunk. In the jury room we took an initial poll to find out where we were at, and the vote was 10-2 in favor of conviction. As we subsequently began to discuss the case and find out what the two dissenters were thinking, it came out that they both automatically dismissed the cop’s testimony “because he’s a cop.”

“But you said during voir dire, while under oath, that you wouldn’t give more or less credence to a cop’s testimony,” I said with indignation.

“Cops lie,” was the response.

The two holdouts from our guilty verdict were steadfast in their beliefs, no matter what they had told the lawyers and judge during voir dire. In the end, after many hours of arguing, after which we were urged by the judge to try and reach a verdict, our jury was hung.

At the time, I was angry. The case had seemed very cut and dried to me. I was angry that the jurors hadn’t gone into the jury room with an open mind. That they had lied. But this morning, listening to NPR, I wondered, all these years later, if they hadn’t been right in their conclusion. Maybe I had been overly naïve, too trusting in the system. Maybe the cop had just been doing what cops do and I had been duped. Of course that didn’t change the underlying premise of whether or not, as a juror, you were obligated to disclose your prejudices. Still, it’s curious to look at what one thought was settled history—namely how I had decided to frame that story when I told it to others and myself—and have to consider that perhaps I had lost the forest for the trees.

Post Script: Out of curiosity, I googled “buy and bust,” and it turns out that in NYC the DeBlasio administration has recently halted the practice. There are liberal and conservative arguments for and against, but in the end, interestingly, the most compelling argument to end the practice is that particularly in Brooklyn and the Bronx, the DA’s have “gone soft on punishment.” In other words, even when they’re getting convictions, they’re not asking for stern sentences. So it’s costing the taxpayers money and using manpower with no apparent benefit. Unsaid is that they might also be having a hard time getting juries to convict based solely upon the testimony of a police officer.


It’s Time (again)

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I’ve made a decision. I’m going back on what I call my no-fun diet. I’m stating this publicly in the hope that doing so will actually help me follow through, else suffer in the knowledge that my mouth has written a check my stomach can’t cash.

I’ve been telling myself for a couple of months that it’s time. My body’s been telling me. When I first went on the no-fun diet five years ago, it was after years of suffering sinus issues and other problems: a lack of energy, headaches, digestion difficulties, concentration problems, quasi-narcolepsy and a host of other minor and not so minor annoyances. I had gone to dozens of doctors, both traditional and nontraditional, looking for a diagnosis without luck. No possible cause was ignored. One doctor thought I had fibromyalgia. Another thought it was Lyme Disease. Another thought it was tree pollen. Another thought it was polyps. I had sinus surgery. Cranial sacral therapy. Deep tissue massage. Acupuncture. Homeopathy. I took drugs ranging from nasal steroids to powerful antibiotics. Nothing worked. Eventually many of the doctors came to feel that my problems were not physiological but psychological. Even my wife—maybe especially my wife—began to believe I was simply being a whiny neurotic. Still, it was my body. I knew when it was working the way it was supposed to and when it wasn’t. Unfortunately, because my ailments weren’t crippling, I conducted my twenty-year search for a cure not with urgency but with a growing sense of resignation that this was just a condition (whatever the hell it actually was) that I was going to have to live with.

Then I read a book called The Yeast Syndrome by Dr. John Parks Trowbridge. The thesis of the book was that there were a lot of people out there suffering from some of the same low-grade mystery ailments that I was, and that they were caused by something called yeast overgrowth—or candida. Over the years, I had gotten my hopes of a diagnosis and cure aroused by other books, one on migraines, in particular. But the Trowbridge book outlined so many of my symptoms that I found myself once again letting a glimmer of hope be kindled. The solution to yeast overgrowth consisted of a diet that I can only describe as Spartan and ascetic. Without going into all its particulars, it basically consists of giving up sugar, alcohol, caffeine, dairy, wheat, gluten and anything starchy or processed. In short, everything that makes eating fun.

But five years ago, I was feeling sufficiently terrible, that I was willing to give it a try. The hardliners for this approach believe that you need to adhere to the diet for three straight months and that if you fall off the wagon even once, all the good you might have achieved is undone and you need to start counting again from the beginning.

In other words, if you stuck to the diet for two and a half months and then ate pasta or drank a glass of wine, you were basically stripped of your entire achievement up till then. I didn’t necessarily subscribe to such a rigorous and unbending approach, but I wasn’t going to risk finding out the hard way. Nothing much seemed different for my first couple of months on the diet, except that I was losing my mind from the deprivation. But in the weeks after that I noticed that I was actually starting to feel a little better. Then much better. At the three month mark, I was like a new man. My brain fog was gone. I had tons of energy. I felt like a million bucks. I felt so good, in fact, that I stuck to the diet for another three months.

Some people believe that once you’re “cured” you can begin to reintroduce things into your diet and see how you feel. I started doing this after six months. But I quickly learned it’s a slippery slope–at least it was for me. It turns out I’m kind of an all or nothing guy. Once the wraps were off, I was back into my old eating habits full bore.

For a while, I maintained my sense of well being even so. But gradually, I began to slide backwards. My sinuses clogged up. The brain fog returned. The loss of energy. And a host of other minor ailments. Still, I resisted going back on the diet. No fun was right. It took so much energy and discipline to be good. I went on like this for a couple of years, gradually feeling worse and worse. Two years ago, Alice and I both resolved on New Year’s Eve to go on the diet for a month. At the end of the month, she quit. I kept on it for another month before I stopped too. I felt better, if only slightly.

Now two more years have passed and I can’t kid myself. I need to do it again—and not for a month or two. I need to really do it. I’m older so I have less energy than I used to anyway. I need every edge I can get at this point. I remember hearing how Amare Stoudemire was taking red wine baths to help heal his wounded body. I wish that was all I had to do. For whatever reason, I have to do this. This is my cross to bear. But there are worse things in life. Plenty worse.

So before I begin this, I just ask one thing of my friends and family: Wish me luck and don’t take it personally if I seem a bit cranky these next few months.


Without Us, They’re Nothing

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This is a postscript to the piece I wrote yesterday about the DraftKings/FanDuel Daily Fantasy Sports scandal.

Last night, I had dinner with a friend who said he took exception to the point of my piece, as he understood it.

“You seemed to be saying that the cheating aspect of it wasn’t the thing people are upset about. But I think that is what they’re upset about.”

“Obviously they’re upset about the cheating aspect,” I said. “But underneath that, the real issue is that Americans have this unhappy moral relationship with gambling. They love to gamble, but they feel that it’s immoral. So in actuality, the cheating has underlined that this activity–fantasy sports–that had heretofore been seen as essentially innocent, is in fact gambling–and in the end that’s what’s going to mobilize the moral police force to outlaw it.”

Do you think if we called Wall Street what it really is–namely state-sanctioned gambling–the moral police would go after it, too?

Meanwhile, speaking of cheating, the Supreme Court just denied a request to review an appeals court decision that makes it easier for Wall Streeters to engage in insider trading. The appeals court decision essentially gives Wall Street insiders the right to pass on privileged and valuable information to their friends and family just so long as they’re not being directly paid for it. This seems like an excellent ruling: let’s make it even tougher to nail people for insider trading. That’ll keep ’em honest.

What’s particularly funny about this for me is that yesterday, when DraftKings, in damage control mode, said that going forward their employees would not be allowed to play on theirs or any other DFS site, my first thought was that that didn’t preclude them from passing on insider info to their friends and family the way Wall Streeters were prohibited from doing.

Oh, right.

Daily fantasy sports and Wall Street do have an awful lot in common. Probably the biggest thing is that both need the suckers of the 99% to put their money up in order to sustain the whole crooked enterprise. And mind you, when I say crooked, what I mean is that the rules aren’t the same for everyone. Whether it is the math quants, the data crunchers, or the people with information unavailable to others, the deck is always and brutally stacked against everyone else. So what’s an outsider to do? Don’t play! Because if we don’t play, the whole enterprise can’t be sustained. So keep that in mind the next time you pony up your hard-earned dollars.


American Schizoid

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There’s a lot of handwringing going on right now about the scandal that has rocked the daily fantasy sports business. For those of you who haven’t been following it, an employee of DraftKings named Ethan Haskell used insider information to help him win $350,000 on a rival site, FanDuel, this weekend. Not surprisingly, there’s a media shitstorm surrounding the scandal, because this has been the year that Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS, as it’s shorthanded) really exploded, making its way fully into the mainstream of American culture and consciousness. You can’t tune a radio or television into a game anymore without hearing an ad for either DraftKings or FanDuel, the two biggest sites. And the industry has gone as legit as you can get, making partnership and sponsorship deals with the NFL, MLB and the NBA, among the major sports leagues.

I find it amusing and something of a head scratcher that people are getting so upset by the news that there’s cheating happening. On the surface, they’re griping about the scandal, but underlying that is how the scandal has highlighted what DFS is actually all about: namely, that people are betting on a game. They’re gambling. Well blow me down with a fucking feather. I mean, I’m shocked—shocked—to find out that there is gambling going on in this gambling establishment. Not to be glib about it, but this is America. We live in an economy built on gambling. Oh, sure, the degens on Wall Street wear suits and go to Ivy League colleges and business school and use terms like derivatives and short sell instead of favorites and longshots. But don’t let that fool you. They’re in the gambling business as sure as the night is dark. Because Americans love gambling. Just like they love socialism. Only you’re not allowed to call it what it is. If you do, they tell you it’s immoral and unAmerican. Just listen to the Christian right and the holy rollers.

Below are a couple of typical comments accompanying Joe Drape’s Times’ piece on the scandal.


New York 4 hours ago

Gambling is one of the worst plagues of our society, because it hurts so many people other than the gambler themselves.

The Rabbi

Philadelphia 4 hours ago

This is gambling and the game has now been proven to be rigged. If our government doesn’t step in and shut these sites down immediately then our government is in on the take.

I kind of wonder who mediapizza is referring to when he says that gambling hurts so many people other than the gambler, himself? Was he thinking of the gambler’s nearest and dearest? Or the American public that had to pick up the check when Wall Street banks gambled and lost? And what of The Rabbi, who is adamant that if the government doesn’t step in and shut down these sites immediately then they must be in cahoots with them? Was he equally critical of the government’s handling of Goldman, Sachs and Citigroup?

Look, here’s the deal: gambling in this country, whether you want to call it gambling or something else, is at the root of what it means to be American. We’re a country born out of a huge gamble taken by a bunch of Puritans who sailed across the ocean to make a new life in a strange and barren land. If that wasn’t a gamble, I don’t know what is. Just don’t call it gamble to their no-fun faces. It’s immoral and they would object. Really.

Are Daily Fantasy Sports any different than any other form of gambling that takes place in this country? It’s certainly no different than online poker. The difference is, they found a loophole in the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act that allowed them to set up shop and not call it gambling. But we all know what it is. Is there cheating going on? Undoubtedly. Whenever there’s big money involved, some clever mofo is going to find a way to game the system. That’s American too. Just ask Donald Trump.

There are all kinds of different cheating that goes on in this world. Some is black and white—as in the case of Bernie Madoff. Some is gray–as in most of it. When asked how much vig they were taking out of the prize pool of a million dollar tournament, a DraftKings spokesperson said, “about ten percent.” But was it actually eleven percent? Or twelve? Why, in fact, don’t we know the actual number?

From a gambler’s perspective, that’s something I’d really call immoral.


What Do You Call an Aging Bicycle Boy?

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My new exercise routine involves riding my bike along the Hudson river path that runs along the West Side highway. Most mornings, after dropping Eden off at school, I go home, change into a pair of shorts and sneakers, cue up my iPhone and hop on my bike. The bike path is gorgeous, overhung with tree branches, running right along the river park, an oasis in the maelstrom of the concrete jungle.

But here’s the thing: as great as it feels to be out there—wind on my face, legs pumping, heart pounding—it’s killing my ego. Other riders are flying past me like I’m standing still. Okay, okay, I get it. I’m riding a heavy old Schwinn that used to belong to my wife and has too small a frame for me and also has the added weight of a banana seat on the back for ferrying my 9-year-old daughter around. It’s not a fast bike. And I’m not a kid anymore even though I still think of myself as one. I’m sixty. And I don’t expect to be keeping up with the guys on their ultralight racers outfitted in full biker regalia. But it’s not just them. I’m getting left in the dust by women in dresses on Citibikes and businessmen on small-wheeled folding bikes. I’m getting passed by kids on friggin’ skateboards! And it’s humiliating.

I try not to let it affect me. I remind myself that I’m doing this for my health not my ego. I’m not in a race. It’s not a contest. But still, it bothers me. Is it just that my bike is painfully slow? Or is it me? Can I really be this pathetic and feeble? I want to be the one passing people. I want to be the one flying along, feeling like I’m king of the bike paths. So, I’ve been seriously thinking about upgrading my ride. Getting a bike-path torpedo, something that’s going to move. But then I think, What if I’m still getting passed? What if it doesn’t change anything? What then? Will it make me give up this whole biking venture?

So I’m kind of in a quandary. I don’t really want to know the truth. I don’t want to know that I’m slow and old and that’s why everyone and their mother is passing me by. For the time being, I think I’ll probably just stick to my clunky old Schwinn and pretend that it’s not the carpenter that’s the problem, it’s his tools.


Mississippi Split

Since we're in 70s nostalgia mode - here's me in my Serpico days
Since we’re in 70s nostalgia mode – the author in his Serpico days

I played hooky from work this morning (otherwise known as procrastinating writer’s syndrome) to go see the movie Mississippi Grind. I was excited because it had gotten some good buzz and some good reviews, and because good gambling/poker movies come along so rarely. The movie opens with a long static shot of Iowa farmland over which a double rainbow breaks overhead. Something about the framing of shot struck me as distinctly ‘70s in style, and put me in the right mood for what I already knew was going to be a tale about a couple of gamblers dreaming and chasing after the evanescent pot of gold that lies at the end of the rainbow.When we are first introduced to Grind’s protagonist Gerry (Ben Mendolsohn), he is listening to Joe Navarro’s Two Hundred Poker Tells on his Subaru’s CD player. Soon enough we’re in the card room of an Iowa casino, where Jerry, in his slouchy jacket and jeans, looks so much the part of the slightly desperate, down-on-his luck rounder that I almost wanted to give him a hug—except that I could tell he would stink of cigarette smoke. The accompanying banter and affect of the other players at the poker table feels utterly authentic, and when the good-looking and charming Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) joins the game, a fledgling friendship is forged between these two lonely men with gambling habits.

You know pretty early on, with its soundalike title and 70s washed-out color that Mississippi Grind has been conceived as an homage to the Robert Altman classic buddy gambling movie of the 70’s California Split, with Mendolsohn playing the George Segal role and Reynolds doing Elliot Gould (there are also sprinklings of James Toback’s The Gambler thrown in—and Toback, himself, even has a small cameo as the menacing proprietor of an underground poker game in New Orleans).

For a while, in fact a pretty long while, I found myself happy to be along for the ride with Gerry and Curtis as they travel from Iowa to New Orleans on their quest to win a stake for the big poker game Curtis has talked up. Along the way, Gerry wins at first but then loses everything on a river card from hell that will resonate painfully with everyone who has ever played high-stakes no-limit hold’em. But it was in a scene with Curtis’ hooker girlfriend and her roommate, lifted straight out California Split but without the matching wit or style, that I began to feel that Grind was less homage than a case of talented filmmakers who were too fucking lazy to come up with a story of their own.

I mean, it’s nice that the creators of Mississippi Grind, who also made the art-house favorite Half Nelson, are so enamored of the 1970s and California Split and The Gambler (because who isn’t?), but if I’m going to watch Reynold’s Curtis, dressed in a sports jacket, challenge a group of brothers in a rough neighborhood to put their best man up for a one-on-one game of hoop, just as Gould did in California Split, then I’d like to at least see them put a new fucking spin on the ball. It seems as if in this sampling culture, sometimes people think lazy theft is tantamount to a creative act.

Um, well, no.

California Split ends with Segal’s realization that even when you find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it isn’t enough. Mississippi Grind ends up in pretty much the same place. It’s not terrible in the way Mark Wahlberg’s recent remake of The Gambler was. And let’s face it, despite screenwriter’s William Monahan’s writing chops, that movie was a stinker of epic proportions. But at least that movie took a risk on a new thematic angle, even if it lost horribly. Grind plays it like a nit, risking nothing, and gaining less.


And away we go

I never thought I would be doing this.

Back in 2006 when my daughter was born, the blogging phenomenon was already going strong. And I definitely thought I had a handle on it, that I understood what it was about even if it seemed not to make sense for me personally. I was a professional writer, after all. Why would I want to give my work away for nothing when I had labored for years to get to a point where I could get paid for it? For people who weren’t professional writers, the chance to be able to put their words and thoughts out there publicly on the internet, to have a platform (to use the kidnapped word now attached to that idea), was exciting.

What I didn’t understand at the time was how being able to “self-publish” was part of a larger societal and cultural transformation that would lead to a different conception of what it means to be a professional writer or a professional anything for that matter. I didn’t immediately recognize how large segments of us were being baited and switched out of formerly paying occupations by the new “Free” business model of the digital age that called writing “content” and writers “providers.” Or that unpaid internships would become the economic model for a whole generation of new college graduates who would have to work for free in order to later (they hoped!) secure paying jobs. Or that musicians, who once went on tour to promote and sell their records, would have to give away their music for nothing to create demand for live performances for which they could still, if they were lucky, get paid.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against apprenticeship and paying dues. When I was starting out as a young aspiring writer, my primary goal was to get published and read. Getting paid was the lagniappe, the something extra, for doing the thing I loved. At the same time, when a short story I wrote in college won an award that came with a cash prize, my joy was amplified by a vision of the next rung: I might just conceivably, just possibly, be able to do this thing I loved professionally. And when I actually did start getting paid consistently for writing, it was a wonderful and empowering feeling. I took pride in my achievement. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t write anything for which getting paid remained anything more than a pipe dream. I spent six years working on a novel that never got published. That was as pure a labor of love and compulsion as anything I’ve ever done. But I was also able to support myself during that time by doing journalism for magazines like Sports Illustrated and Esquire and Playboy. I considered myself lucky to be able to make a living doing something I was good at and enjoyed.

The first book I wrote that did find a publisher was done “on spec,” that is to say without a contract or the promise of remuneration, only with the hope that if it was good enough, someone would want to pay me to publish it. When it became the object of a bidding war amongst four publishers, I thought I had truly arrived. My next three books were all contracted for in advance. After two decades of hard work, it seemed I had established a firm place in the world of words, I had earned my bones. I had achieved the status that Fred Exley in his wonderful book A Fan’s Notes finally sees his hero Frank Gifford achieve, in which his toughest critic finally relents and says, “Dat guy is a pro.”

I was a pro.

Now, apparently, I’m not. The landscape has shifted. It’s not something that happened overnight, even if it feels that way. It’s a bit like climate change. The signs have been there for years. But nobody really wants to believe. For me, willful disbelief has been mixed with the distraction of fatherhood. At the same time I published my last book some nine years ago now, my wife gave birth to our daughter. So I lost a couple of years to parenting an infant, my balance thrown off by the mindblow of first fatherhood at the age of 51. I was not  unaware that the publishing industry was in flux. But Ebooks were in their infancy, and the sense that something apocalyptic was going on didn’t fully register.

Now there is no doubt. Newspapers, magazines, traditional book publishers are all hurting. Professional writers, at least most of the ones I know, are scrambling to stay afloat. The ones who are managing best are either sufficiently high-profile to have weathered the changes, or are writing tons and tons of stuff for little or no money and raising their profiles so that the beleaguered publishing houses will feel confident enough that they have a “selling platform” that can justify an advance that will not hurt the dwindling bottom line. The average advance, by the way, except for blockbuster writers like J.K. Rowling and Stephen King, has been steadily decreasing.

In his book Free: the Future of a Radical Price, Chris Anderson describes what is happening to journalists and the field of journalism in the digital age, although it might also be applied to the field of writing in general:

“There may be more of them, not fewer, as the ability to participate in journalism extends beyond the credentialed halls of traditional media. But they may be paid far less, and for many it won’t be a full time job at all. Journalism as a profession will share the stage with journalism as an avocation. Meanwhile, others may use their skills to teach and organize amateurs to do a better job covering their own communities, becoming more editor/coach than writer. If so, leveraging the Free—paying people to get other people to write for non-monetary rewards—may not be the enemy of professional journalists. Instead, it may be their salvation.”

Whatever shape the Thing I Used to Be Able to Do For a Living ultimately winds up taking, this much is safe to say: the ground has shifted, and figuring a way forward from here, a way to stay relevant and not turn into a casualty has become the greatest challenge of my life. As Chris Anderson predicted, paid writing work has been much harder to come by, so I have recently been using my writing and editing skills to help other writers with their work. I even started a website,, to promote my services as an editor and coach.

The late fifties (I actually just turned 60) are an awkward age to be making major transitions in the best of circumstances. In my case, blessed and burdened with the responsibility of providing what I hope will be a good life for my young daughter, the task is more daunting, the stakes are higher. So even as I undertake this, it is not without conflicted feelings, the sense that it might not be the best use of my remaining time. Not only is there no guarantee that the time and energy I devote to this will come back to me in compensatory ways, there is a very high likelihood that it won’t. But then the best writing I have ever done has always come without the expectation of reward. And maybe, despite my resistance to that idea, that is a good thing. What I know is that I plan to write in this space about whatever moves me, amuses me, pisses me off, makes me sad, makes me happy.  Politics, sports, poker, family, aging, books, movies, basically anything and everything that gives my life whatever meaning it has. “Life has to be given a meaning,” wrote Henry Miller, “because of the obvious fact that it has no meaning.”

As Jackie Gleason liked to say when opening his show, “And awaaay we go!”