On Gun Control

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Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin on Monday tweeted, “To all those political opportunists who are seizing on the tragedy in Las Vegas to call for more gun regs…You can’t regulate evil…” He posted this at 10:38 A.M., fewer than twelve hours after the massacre in Las Vegas that left fifty-eight dead and over five hundred wounded, the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.

I’m singling out Bevin for what is a pretty typical Republican* response in these all-too-frequent circumstances.** First comes the standard “thoughts and prayers” post, usually paired with how saddened the congressperson–and often his wife, also, because the republican is statistically a heterosexual, connubial male–are by the circumstances. Then, there’s the punting of the political football, the request to give a day’s breath, if not longer, before even attempting to discuss gun control in any serious capacity.

(*Yes, some Democrats, Bernie included, have complicated pasts when it comes to gun control legislation. On the whole, though, they’re greatly in favor of heightened gun control, much more so than their Republican counterparts.)

(**These circumstances being a white guy perpetrating a mass shooting, rather than a person of color and/or, god forbid, a Muslim. Those response playbooks are sinister in their own right.)

But inevitably, if anyone pushes back on these initial postings, what comes out next is the helplessness. The idea that this tragedy stemmed from a singular actor, a “lone wolf,” the mere bad apple of the harvest. The thought that no amount of paperwork and background checks could have prevented the final outcome. The conclusion that, given how preordained (and yet, somehow unforeseeable) these situations are, there’s very little to be done, except to pray for more “good guys with guns” next time. (Judging by the performance of publicly-traded gun stocks Monday, these hopes will be answered.) Mostly, there’s the finality and assured belief that something this horrendous, to paraphrase Bevin, can’t be regulated.

This attitude, of course, is a complete crock. It’s an attitude that, due to the sweeping, unfettered political lobbying power of the NRA, exists for questions of gun control but very few other issues. Does the right feel helpless when it comes to questions of abortion–after all, “nasty women” will manage to find the relevant doctors one way or another–or does it seek to restrict the funding for and accessibility to clinics throughout the country? Do Republicans throw up their hands on the issue of voter fraud–if you want to cheat the system, sooner or later you’ll manage to cheat–or do they milk every last ounce of difficulty out of the registration process to adversely affect the marginalized, time-strapped voter? Illegal immigrants will do whatever is necessary to ruin America, the Fox News-tinted logic goes, so, then, why bother building a wall or eliminating DACA?

The truth is these regulations, whether or not they’re 100 percent effective, have some impact. The victims and targets of these policies know this; republicans, certainly, know this, which is why in so many instances they eliminate regulations that hinder their goals. It’s for this reason that they want lower taxes for the rich. It’s for this reason they want to undo the Dodd-Frank Act and enable more perfidious banking practices. It’s for this reason that the right won’t abide the slightest, most token bit of lip service when it comes to combating climate change. 

The regulations we have in place in America–and those we don’t–are no accident. Whether it’s regarding gun control or any other hot-button issue, the Republican party line is clear: Undesirable, unacceptable, and unfavorable actions and activities can be regulated to the point of effective extinction; everything else, well, can’t. As such, this dichotomy invites a ridiculous but necessary question. For the right, will the carnage that we saw in Las Vegas–not to mention Sandy Hook, Orlando, and the 272 other mass shootings that have already occurred in America in 2017–ever truly become unacceptable?

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No Good Songs Are 3-4 Minutes Long

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Most people are dunking on Taylor Swift’s new song, as well they should. More so than her typical overwrought, focus-grouped maudlin efforts, this song, “Look What You Made Me Do,” repulses in every sense of the word. It’s a steaming pile of factory-farmed, eastern North Carolina hogshit, whose downstream impact will be felt for generations.

But this song was doomed–beyond its aimless lyrics, uninspired production, and general absence of intent beyond an attempting photobombing of a disinterested newscycle–by its length. At three minutes, thirty-one seconds, Swift’s latest is right in the sweet spot of the worst songs that get produced. The good three-to-four-minute song, much like the effective 600-word essay, or the seventy-minute movie that clips along nicely, does not exist.

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I need a “Mad Men” spinoff that just focuses on Harry Crane and radio practices in the 1960s. (Credit: Vox)

Songs trying to make it on the radio have coalesced to this length, a function of history (radio stations only could play music on 78s and, later, 45s, which held three or so minutes) and the insufficient time span and patience of listeners. As technology developed, average song length grew, but it has seemingly returned from its early nineties peak, settling in around 3:45.

It’s understandable, then, that music of this length has been produced in the past. But now, with the proliferation of streaming services and the decreased influence of the radio, there exists a chance to make better songs. Specifically, shorter or longer songs, because any song whose length starts with a 3 that’s immediately followed by a colon is–to use the technical term–trash.

The three-to-four-minute song can’t help being the way it is. It didn’t ask to be the awkward, gangly musical teenager that thinks it’s doing well but, in fact, is a tornado of idiocy, bad intentions and ill-conceived ideas. More to the point, the three-to-four-minute song inherently serves no purpose. Think of your typical radio play: Odds are it has a brief intro, two verses, each followed by a chorus, a third part with no purpose but to extend the song and, perhaps, invoke a key change, and a final chorus. If the artist is popular, maybe the third part features one of his/her friends; if the artist wants to have some flair, a saxophone. And then, after a seemingly brisk 3:39 (“Shake It Off”) or 3:46 (The Chainsmokers’ “Roses”) or 3:47 (“Despacito”) that simultaneously rambles on and on, the song draws to a close.

Friends, this is a horrible framework in which to operate. Let me be blunt: If an idea can be fully expressed in two and a half verses, perhaps it’s not worth writing about! In fact, most songs fall into this category. The easiest way to improve an overcooked piece is to simplify; you can edit those thoughts down to simply two verses, and we, the audience, can get out in a cool 2:18 (like with  “She Loves You,” by a little band called the Beatles). That song simply starts with the chorus. It’s delightfully quick. Nat King Cole’s “L-O-V-E”? Just two verses, a trumpet break, and then those two verses again. The entire conceit is simple, and it didn’t require Sammy Davis Jr. stepping in to upset things by spelling some different word halfway through. Which is good, because even at 2:30 it starts to seem stretched. The Marvin Gaye and Tami Terrell duet of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” actually follows a lot of the foolhardy road map above, but since, on top of maintaining a healthy, robust BPM, it doesn’t dawdle on the intro–four bars–and the choruses–a mere eight bars for each–the whole thing is a scant 2:24. Even Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” ends in 2:04, despite eighty percent of it consisting of him saying “I know.” Short songs work.

Long songs work, too. Long songs–the good ones, at least–are the kinds of songs that don’t get merely tossed off. They’re produced by way of significant, strenuous mental effort; their length is justified, earned. Could you imagine a three-minute version of “Hallelujah,” or “Stairway to Heaven” or “Purple Rain”? Even a song like Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky” which, honestly, has no real structure to it works at its extended length (4:40); to cut a minute would simply not make sense. These songs are statements, and more often than not, 200 seconds or so isn’t enough for a meaningful statement.

The artist can also take a note from EDM, which, for all of its drops and dopaminal excesses, at least knows how to create an effect on its listeners. Just say screw it. Do you know how long the intro to Earth Wind and Fire’s “Got to Get You Into My Life” is, before they actually start the first verse? One minute, eleven seconds. (The popular yet much inferior “September” is, of course, 3:35.) You ever hear “Vertigo and Relight my Fire” by Dan Hartman? No words until 3:57 in. It’s great, and the full album version is 9:44.

I will concede that good songs occasionally fall into the three-to-four-minute parameters, but not by design. The last example is a useful case study: The proper treatment of “Relight My Fire” is as the main course, following the four-minute appetizer of “Vertigo.” As such, most treatments pair these songs together. A single featuring simply the latter song exists, presumably for radio purposes (its runtime is 3:42). I have never heard that, because every version I’ve found on YouTube features the extended play. I’m sure the cleaved, barren version works; clearly, though, it’s inferior, as the fans have spoken and demanded the sprawling if indulgent effort, not the Garage Band-esque, training wheels-attached starter kit edition.

To cite a more recent example, take the Bruno Mars-Mark Ronson collaboration “Uptown Funk”: The album version is 4:28, yet the radio version is 3:57. From what I can tell, the intro in the radio version has been somewhat abbreviated but the ending has been completely neutered, with one of the best horn parts of the whole song (around 4:10) becoming a casualty in the race to the finish line. The 3:57 version still bangs–after all, it’s “Uptown Funk”–but it exists in lieu of a much better song that’s a mere 13 percent longer.

In that sense, I guess, a more conservative take is warranted; it’s also more damning. It’s not impossible to have a good three-to-four-minute song. But the easiest way to do that is to first create an incredible two-minute or five-minute song and then make it demonstrably worse. If you’re aiming for that sweet spot to begin with, then I question your taste, your level of mental complexity, and your general purpose, and I also reserve the right to turn off the radio, just like *that*.

“Oh, wow,” said the writer, now liberated from the incessant bleating on his eardrums, free to spend three-and-a-half minutes however he pleases. “Look what you made me do.”

Don’t go to the state fair

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After a friend’s wedding in Northern California last summer, I found myself the following evening at the State Fair in Sacramento. Six hours or so after ingesting some well-earned In-N-Out, I was no longer combating a headache and a dry mouth, but I was still ludicrously sleep-deprived; more crucially, we all had red-eye flights to catch and rental cars to return. As such, we spent maybe an hour and a half at the fair. During this time, I played no games, purchased no food, and rode no rides.

It was the best fair experience I’ve ever had, because the State Fair–every single State Fair!–is an abomination.

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Perhaps you have some recollection of the State Fair as a joyous time, as an event of rollicking gaiety, as something other than a soup-to-nuts shakedown, featuring opportunities to depart with your money as ubiquitous as the air flooded with the unmistakable waft of fresh hog feces. Maybe you went to the State Fair as a child–you being a rascal whose parents leapt at the chance to foist you into such an environment if only so society at large could share the burden of your presence. Likely you enjoyed yourself, because you were, at this time, mentally underdeveloped, and you found the incessant hum of consumption peppered around bright hues and the impotent thrills from the cheapest rides found in Roller Coaster Tycoon, somehow, to be enjoyable.

You managed–in your fledgling, youthful, subhuman state–to extract joy from paying to get outwitted by a gaggle of mouth-breathing, dental-plan-and-GED-lacking yokels. You begged to play rigged bar games (crooked pop-a-shot, warped Skeeball) at three times a going rate that you didn’t know existed. You positively hankered–for reasons that, once examined, will take a half-dozen shrinks to fully unpack–an absolute stranger to guess your weight, which, after a pensive rubbing of both his chinstrap beard and sole patch (yes, he had both), he managed to do quite capably. (It seemed impressive at the time until you realized, much later on, that the law of large numbers applies quite effectively to small numbers, too.)

You even liked the food–the curdled, invariably crusted creations that seem to be conceived both by and for stoners. You learned then, from the ALL-CAPS sandwich board items that could only be considered thinly-veiled middle fingers to coronaries and the proudly barren, big-calved masses waddling down dusty thoroughfares that (in theory!) should have been wide enough to accommodate everyone–you learned then that, much like love, gluttony is also in the eye of the beholder.

(You, at that time, did not realize that all fried food is delicious, and it doesn’t exist solely at the state fair. Had you gone anywhere–fast food joints, dive bars, diners, four-star restaurants–you would have known the possibility of great fried food that (gasp) even looks like it one time existed in nature.)

You adored the animals–the animals that you could see in abundance if you ever went to an actual farm, the animals whose more interesting peers all managed to at least secure themselves real estate at a zoo. You thought hay was something exotic, rather than a mindless add-on purchase easily made at The Home Depot. You found the large outdoor tents housing the animals quaint, you somehow, even then, recognizing the necessity for a refuge shaded from the hellish slurry of unmitigated self-abuse, queueing, and the fleeting, dead-eyed approximations of happiness that constitutes the majority of the Fair experience.

The point: The State Fair is an outdoors Walmart–one where you have to pay for parking and to get in, and the friendly greeters are generally hirsute individuals whose police record and body odor precede them. Yes, it has a lot of things, all reasonably well-contained in one area. But the roster of these things–the rides, the food, the games, the token nods to cultural appreciation, and even the convenience factor, to be honest–at best broach the cusp of mediocrity.

If you were young, you didn’t know any better, but now? Now you know this truth; even if you think you know the fun soul of the State Fair, you, like much of the kitschy down-home environs in which you’re shrouded, are putting on an act. You’re lying to yourself to get your money’s worth this fall, and you’re lying retroactively to believe you didn’t waste your youth. You’re re-applying lipstick on a non-prize-winning pig each year, failing to realize the competition itself itself is unwinnable.

You’re lying at this point more out of habit than anything else, because you think it’s easier than the alternative, and you enjoy the challenge of maintaining your truculence more than the actual event. Soon enough, you’ll walk into the Fairgrounds one year and, seconds after you roll through the turnstiles, wallet noticeably lighter, you’ll break down crying at what you’ve done by attending–fully aware that nothing at the State Fair is good and that, of course, it also smells incredibly like shit.

The fall of the house of USMNT

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The first World Cup I remember was 2002. I don’t recall much of the buildup; I completely missed, for example, the now-famous, initial dos a cero treatment of Mexico in Columbus. All I recall from qualifying was reading, in Europe, in the one portion of the New York Times my parents had purchased that I cared about, that the USMNT had blown a winnable home game, but Bruce Arena was still confident. He said something about qualifying always being a slog, about how there were ten games and with two left his team still controlled its destiny, and about how that’s all you could hope for. The refrain, of course, sounds eerily familiar.

But then, my next memory is from the following summer, when I woke up and realized the USMNT had stunned Portugal in their opening World Cup game. I didn’t watch the games from South Korea and Japan live–except for Brazil-England, which my older brother erroneously convinced me was worth waking up at 2:30 AM to catch. My mom would study the schedule and set the VCR to record them. That’s how I watched Brian McBride’s heroics against Mexico in the second round, how I watched–after catching the ending live–Landon Donovan’s slew of missed opportunities against Germany in the quarters, before, of course, the handball that never was.

I was nine years old. From my perspective, soccer, surely, could only go up in America.

Until recently–even when I sat down to write this–I don’t think I fully appreciated the stable of talent on that 2002 squad. By the most basic metric of who was playing overseas at the time, eleven players (half the team, basically) were quality, from Claudio Reyna at Sunderland to Tony Sanneh at Nürnberg to John O’Brien at Ajax. This doesn’t even count, mind you, players like McBride–who had one stint in Germany already and would head to England in 2004–and Donovan–whose travails for Bayer Leverkusen had exiled him to a long-term MLS loan. Said another way, this team, by American standards both then and now, was stacked.

The roster the U.S. trotted out in Couva on Tuesday had eight players in non-domestic leagues, two of whom were playing in Mexico. Only three starters on the team–Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood, and DeAndre Yedlin–were receiving this top-flight European exposure. (Geoff Cameron fell into this group as well, but he was injured during the crucial last couple of qualifiers and didn’t see the field.) That’s not just a drop-off when compared to the countries the USMNT wants to be beating, the countries where the domestic league does provide top-tier competition. It’s a drop-off when compared to the USMNT’s own shadow.

In November 2001, two months to the day after 9/11, the USMNT played its final game in the hexagonal (or, “the hex”). It sat in second place, with a two-point lead on both Honduras and Mexico, who played each other at the Azteca for the final CONCACAF spot in the World Cup. The USMNT, regardless of the outcome in that match, would advance; they didn’t need to get a result at all.

While the U.S. played, Mexico pulled away from Honduras with three second-half goals. By way of comparison, in June 2017 at the Azteca, Mexico managed a victory by an identical 3-0 scoreline.

Conversely, in 2001, Honduras nabbed Mexico at home with a three-goal outburst. They did the same thing, now infamously, on Tuesday, generating just enough offense to squeeze the USMNT out of the intercontinental playoff.

There’s a bit of a revisionist history happening at the moment, about the levelling-out of the international soccer scene. The minnows, the theory goes, find themselves swimming faster than before, hanging with the sharks for longer and longer. (The theory conveniently ignores the fact that for all intents and purposes, the USMNT is a guppy on the international stage; only in the tiny fishbowl of CONCACAF could it be considered predatory.) And the game of soccer lends itself to violations of the food chain: one or two bounces, or a screwy refereeing decision, and the entire tenor of the match swings. (Again, see the USMNT sneaking a draw against England in 2010, or being one swing of the leg from beating Belgium in 2014.)

The truth is, though, the balance of power is pretty much as it ever was. Honduras and Mexico, clearly, haven’t seen a shift in their relative capacities. Mexico and Costa Rica, in the hex in 2002, combined for forty points with a plus-seventeen goal differential; in 2017, they nabbed thirty-seven, outscoring opponents by fifteen throughout the hex. More broadly, from 2002 through 2014, only four teams had ever qualified for the World Cup from CONCACAF–Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, and the U.S. Of the fourteen CONCACAF Gold Cups, only one has ever been won by a non-U.S., non-Mexico side: That was in 2000. On the global stage, only eight countries have ever won the World Cup, and never has a country outside Europe or South America.

With the tiers so firmly entrenched in soccer, what happened this time? Well, the USMNT has fewer good players competing at the highest level. The team, to be frank, is worse, and, whether this generation being full of coddled millennials or Bruce Arena being unable to coach like he used to is to blame, it played like trash in the final round of qualifying, both at the start under Jürgen Klinsmann and at the end under Arena.

The country has seen its fair share of false saviors throughout the years–the wunderkind creative midfielders Freddy Adu, Mix Diskerud, and Julian Green; the injured-to-never-fully-recover Charlie Davies, Stuart Holden, and Oguchi Onyewu. Only now, perhaps, has the true talent arrived with Pulisic. And yet, one player is not enough, even in CONCACAF. While players like Pulisic, Donovan, and Clint Dempsey have provided great attacks from the wings over the past fifteen years, the USMNT has never come close to developing the backbone in central midfield and central defense that is essential to success, especially against FIFA’s upper crust. These players are neither past their prime nor on the way; they simply haven’t been. Their absence perhaps indicts the country’s developmental attempts more than any international failure should. It’s not just that things aren’t improving; they’re actively devolving with the aging of the current guard, with no help to come in the foreseeable future.

These flaws came to a head Tuesday. The spurious flicker of potency that had intermittently waned and shined throughout the hex finally died out. I don’t know if Trinidad and Tobago deserved to win on Tuesday. But the U.S. certainly deserved to lose. Top to bottom, the team just wasn’t good enough.

As it turns out, on November 11, 2001, the USMNT was playing at Trinidad and Tobago in their final CONCACAF qualifier. The Soca Warriors until then had garnered four points in the hex, one more than the 2017 T&T team had before the tenth and final matchday.

The showdown in Port of Spain was meaningless. Trinidad and Tobago had been eliminated and were playing solely for pride, and the USMNT experimented with lineups: Arena rested Claudio Reyna, Tony Sanneh, and goalkeeper Brad Friedel (who’d go on to have a spectacular 2002 World Cup). He reached deep into his bench, starting an unknown nineteen-year-old with just two CAPs to his name, DaMarcus Beasley, at left midfield. He started Landon Donovan for just the fourth time in CONCACAF qualifying. Both players went on to have historic international careers: Beasley as the only American to play in four World Cups, and Donovan as the country’s all-time leading goal scorer.

The talent pipeline, it seemed, was there. The USMNT, it seemed, had a bright future.

At the very least, unlike their successors on Tuesday, in 2001 the USMNT could at least earn a goddamn draw.

R.I.P. Charles Bradley

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I first heard of the late Charles Bradley, the “Screaming Eagle of Soul” in 2015. By then, he had gained public notoriety, partly through the documentary Soul of America, as a member of Daptone Records who released his debut album at the shocking age of sixty-two. His remarkable story has been covered in detail elsewhere–here and here, to start–but now, with his passing due to cancer on Saturday, I just wanted to share the brief story of when I first heard his music.

I had listened to Bradley’s songs on occasion via Spotify’s suggested artists (perhaps because I was listening to a lot of his Daptone Records peer Sharon Jones, who died last year). When I first delved into his listings, it was a matter of due diligence; he’d be playing live the next day in southeast D.C., and I hadn’t decided whether it was worth attending.

But in the grander picture, it was a sad and incredibly weird time for me. I’d been getting my ass beat at a job I didn’t care for; I’d lost control of my own schedule, such that I was privy to weather fluctuations and weird aircraft regulations more than any human should be, such that I went on the Charles Bradley Soundcloud binge in the Cincinnati airport after my return flight to D.C. had been inexplicably cancelled. I’d punted and procrastinated on my reading and writing, which I believed to be my path out. I’d recently struck out horribly with a girl, but at the time, I was stuck in the middle ground where I hadn’t yet confirmed I’d struck out with her despite harboring the creeping sensation that I had. I had worn the rest of my life down to a nub, neglecting the ancillary items to such a degree that my car would sit in the garage for six months with a failing battery, my now-frayed phone charger incapable of the one job it had.

So when I began listening to Charles Bradley (on my laptop), I was in a particularly charged state of mind. What happened, though, was a shift–a leavening of my modest, inconsequential complaints. Bradley’s voice, which everyone almost rotely compares to James Brown’s, has an impossible quality of simultaneous mournfulness and hope. It makes the listener feel overwhelmed with Bradley’s lived, almost incomparably pained experience: At once, you become small and awed, crushed and liberated and inspired.

I learned Bradley’s story, how he ran from home and bounced around the country, working odd jobs at every stop. He even spent time in my hometown of Bar Harbor, Maine, during a stint with the Job Corps. He’d stare at Cadillac Mountain, the tallest of the peaks there, pondering how to make a career as a musician. I had spent seventeen years there, with the mountain occasionally fogged out but never too far from view; I’d never done that. I’d never bothered. I thought things would be easy because they had been. I’d never thought that a career could take four-and-a-half decades to build.

When I got home that evening, I was–in hindsight–a bit different. More impatient, more determined. I ordered a new phone charger. I texted the girl to see if she was free that weekend, but I didn’t get a response. Nevertheless, the next day, I went to Southeast D.C. on my own, for the sole purpose of seeing Bradley with the Menahan Street Band in-person. When his next (and final) album Changes came out, on April Fool’s Day 2016, I was set to start a new job as a writer in just a couple weeks.

I listened to those eleven songs in order, in full, in a very different set of circumstances. They still hit the same way, with a weight impossible to ignore.

Trusting the (writing) process

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I hate few things more than empty promises, and for a half-decade the Philadelphia 76ers have provided the most vacuous of oaths to fans: “We will be good at some point, trust us, just don’t worry about the short-term,” a koan originating with former GM Sam Hinkie’s “The Process.” I’ve thought and written about Hinkie a lot and won’t spill much ink about him here. But the general nature of what he’s promising is nothing more than delayed gratification, tucked within the zero-sum confines of professional basketball. Take some early Ls, and win big later on. Don’t fear the pain–rather, embrace it–for the grass will be greener, eventually.

It’s a dishonest statement, since it required placing faith in, and empowering, an incompetent executive. But as a metaphor for writing, it’s fantastic. The worst part of any writing comes when the empty page sits in front of you, the first sentence elusive, the perfect start impossible but seemingly attainable, leaving you in a state of paralysis. Any good sentences come not at the start of a drafting session but sometime in its final third, at which point, inevitably, it warrants a reviewing of the opening majority of what has been jotted down. It’s far from efficient, this process.

What I’ve found worthwhile about writing–in contrast to many other pursuits–is the sense of satisfaction derived from those good sentences. Inevitably, even if accidentally, something graceful will coalesce on the page. And the good stuff sits there, accessible, gloating, at a height and size and spacing perfect for reading over and over again. It’s like you were playing football, scored a touchdown, and then, instead of playing the rest of the game, could hit pause and just watch your highlights in perpetuity. (It’s indulgent as hell, but at some level, that’s all writing.) Those highlights, too, completely overshadow the middling efforts that precede them. Somehow, the sessions can’t help but finish on an upswing. Somehow, the act swings from frustrating to addicting.

The writing process, then, is pretty much a consolidation of Hinkie’s philosophy crossed with the plot to Groundhog Day. The day starts off poorly, but inevitably, some golden mental nuggets get mined. If you do this each day, more nuggets get found; the pace may intensify, and the intellectual doldrums may cease. If you do it right, the highs in the latter half of each session linger, propelling you into and through the next day’s achingly slow start. You get the full gamut, and by the end, you realize the gamut isn’t that bad; in that sense, you go beyond just trusting the process. You enjoy it.

Some Thoughts on Kevin Durant’s Pay Cut

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(Full Disclosure: I’m a Warriors fan.)

1. The best thing I’ve read about Durant’s decision to take a 2-year, $53-million contract, about 25-30% less than what he could have earned with his “max” contract, is this comment on a Deadspin article:

“Choice is not the same as freedom. The league presents superstars with two garbage choices. Take an already below market value max contract and play on a shitty team or take an extra pay cut on top of that and play on a championship caliber team.”

What Kevin Durant is “worth” isn’t currently reflected in the marketplace. Nor is LeBron James’ worth or Steph Curry’s worth–the same Curry who signed a 5-year, $201m contract that is a massive discount. The NBA’s undervaluation of the best of the best, because of both the salary cap and the max contract system capping players’ individual earnings, proves that these players are not operating in a fair marketplace.

When viewed from a behavioral perspective, any contract Durant signs will be inadequate (that is, less than what he ought to get, which is in the ballpark of $40m per year), and there’s a diminishing pain with each subsequent dollar sacrificed: As Kahneman and Tversky would explain, the first million he sacrifices is much more emotionally resonant than the ninth million. If Durant is resigned to making less money than he should–which, given that the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) won’t get rejiggered until at least 2023–then it can be rational, from a personal utility standpoint, to try to maximize his team’s likelihood of winning by taking less money. But he is, of course, under no obligation to do so.

What matters is what Kevin Durant wants. His decision last 4th of July cemented that his focus was on winning, at the modest expense of higher (yet still unfair) paychecks. (He has the luxury, at this point in his career, to not need to demand the most robust contract.) By moving from Oklahoma City to Golden State, he took an initial pay cut  and, knowingly, set himself up for less impressive sums in the future, as subsequent raises would be based on his first-year salary with the Warriors. What he’s doing now is consistent with that decision last year: His focus remains on winning. If he’s okay with it–which he apparently is, given that he took a much larger pay cut than expected–then it’s totally fine. He’s a grown man; he can decide for himself what he wants to do.

2. The worst thing, as always with these contracts, is the arrival of comments from mouth-breathers about how either A) an annual pay cut from $34m to $25m is inconsequential, as Durant’s still a millionaire regardless or how B) they, the mouth-breathers, would be willing to play NBA basketball for free. After all, it’s just a game.

Both of these points are never not funny to me, and I always want to know who is making this argument. I bet they are fascinating individuals, and I would love to know how they see the rest of the world.

3. The second-worst thing about Durant’s decision, though, was the pearl-clutching from The Ringer and Yahoo! Sports about the precedent this sets for other players.

There’s an idea that now, because of Durant’s pay cut, other owners will expect this behavior out of their star players in order to save them, the owners, massive luxury tax payments. From The Ringer:

“It’s noble in a way, but taking demonstrably less than his full market value hurts the players union as a whole (since most players don’t have the same access to alternative avenues of income that Durant does). Durant’s decision makes it painfully clear that it will always be the players who have to make ‘sacrifices,’ never the owners.”

Some temperance is required. Call me crazy, but I’m not too concerned about a precedent set by a player on a team that boasts, well, an unprecedented collection of talent. For a player like Durant to be able to join an already-historically great team like the Warriors required an incredible confluence of events–most notably, Curry signing a 4-year extension that paid him like Corey Maggette just before Curry blossomed into a top-3 player in the league; the salary cap exploding just when Durant became available; in the 2016 playoffs, both Durant losing to the Warriors and then the Warriors losing to the Cavs in heartbreaking fashion to make such a move feasible for both sides; the one weak spot for the Warriors being occupied by a perpetually disappointing Harrison Barnes, who happened to play the same position as Kevin Durant, etc. etc. Point is, the slippery slope fallacy is always worth questioning, doubly so when the ground appears, beyond a doubt, flat.

Moreover, the idea that Durant’s decision affects the players in future CBA negotiations in a negative way, six years out, or even down the line as some sort of top-tier trust-busting is ludicrously preemptive. (That Ringer line about “Will always be”? Good lord, that’s a stretch.) If anything, I predict the opposite result (a version of the Streisand effect) will come into play–by highlighting how even players of his caliber can end up grotesquely underpaid, and how restrictive the current cap / max salary system is, Durant may have brought overdue attention to the inequity of the battle between players and owners.

Finally, of course, there’s the implied yet comical idea that these analysts are impartial. (Again, see my disclosure at the top.) The NBA doesn’t know how to grapple with a superteam like the Warriors, both from a tactical perspective and an editorial one. Based on the finals, it seems like the gap between them and the rest of the league is further than the average fan would hope, and with both the Cavaliers and Warriors sprinting through these playoffs, the league risks becoming roundly uncompetitive. It’s in everyone’s best interest if that doesn’t happen; either the Warriors need to decline, or the rest of the league needs to catch up. (And despite the activity of free agency, it’s doubtful any moves amount to more than mere deck chairs on the Titanic.) Durant’s decision frustrated folks, in part because he alleviated the financial threat inevitably waiting for GM Bob Myers and, mostly, owner Joe Lacob: How far is Lacob willing to go into the luxury tax; how many of his many, many millions is he willing to spend to keep these guys together?

4. What we can all agree is that this favors Lacob (and Peter Guber, but mostly Lacob, who is annoying as hell and a totally valid reason to hate the Warriors), and that’s a bad thing.

Durant just saved him, likely, $30-40m in luxury tax payments this year alone.

To be clear, there’s nothing inherently noble about taking a pay cut. Durant’s move isn’t altruistic; it benefits Durant to make sure his teammates Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston get theirs and return to Golden State, which they did. But ultimately that pressure ought to be felt by the owners. Durant has made the life of Lacob, an egotistical billionaire who made the infamous “light years ahead” comment to The New York Times last year, easy. And Durant’s and the Warriors’ collective leverage to get Lacob to pay the check, coming off a dominant postseason, might never be higher; perhaps this is a mistake on Durant’s part.

But at worst, it’s a short-lived mistake–he takes a decreased salary for one year while locking Iguodala and Livingston up for three. Alternatively, maybe the hope is that Durant will bite the bullet this year, Lacob will do so next year when he pays Durant’s larger contract, and when Klay Thompson’s contract expires after 2019, then maybe he picks up the tab. In some sense, perhaps Durant is playing the long game here, as Tim Kawakami describes here: Durant’s making a small-ish sacrifice now to prove his long-term commitment and to keep the team together, and he’s signalling to Lacob and Myers that both had better be reciprocated in the years to come. No one really knows, which is why the rush to judge Durant–to excoriate him–is incredible.

Honestly, I think it’s great that a lot of fans are pro-player and anti-ownership, and that they claim to be in favor of players getting everything they can from teams in terms of salary. Beyond the proliferation of taxpayer-funded stadiums and excitement over fantasy sports–the commodification of players for the fans’ sake, not to mention the deification of general managers–it’s a viewpoint that seems fairly unique to the NBA. And yet, even these fans have a limit to their embracing of players’ actions: when it no longer suits the fans’ interests.

5. The larger, more interesting debate here is about player power. It’s been a simmering topic in the NBA sphere for most of the last decade, with the players holding the cards in free agency more so than the team ownership; it’s led to pushback, most notably from older generations of players and fans. After all, the only difference between the Warriors superteam and, say, the Bulls of the 90s is that Durant, the final puzzle piece, chose the Warriors in free agency. Had he been traded, it would’ve been heralded as a coup for the ownership, rather than a reason for seething claims of softness, inadequacy, and a dearth of self-reliance.

What Durant’s moves show, though, are that even when making his own decisions and being beholden to no one–the most definitive stake to power that a player can have–the NBA star will perpetually be perceived as lacking power or failing to wield it properly. Durant’s move to Golden State was regarded as weak, his pay cut last week seen as either a shortcut to domination or a betrayal of his NBA peers, rather than the reflection of the reality for NBA stars. Never mind that other players across other sports get regularly praised for this behavior–just search “Tom Brady pay cut” or “Dirk Nowitzki pay cut” and see the response. (Without diving too deep down this rabbit hole, race, just maybe, might be a factor here.) Never mind that the alternative–taking everything he could from Golden State–would kneecap his own goals and open himself up to claims of selfishness and greed. Even when the NBA star has power, he faces a chorus of paternalistic pitter-patter, a slew of “what-you-should-have-dones” from those with much less knowledge of the situation.

LeBron faced this chorus when he took a pay cut to go to Miami and play with his friends. Durant’s facing it for the foreseeable future. Now that these stars hold the cards, a lot of folks sure seem willing to tell them they’re playing their hands all wrong.

Mitch McConnell’s Holiday Email to His Colleagues, Ghostwritten by George Saunders

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DATE: 2017-07-04

TO: Staff (R)

FROM: Mitch

SUBJECT: A reminder

When we met almost nine years ago, we agreed that we had a job to do, and we agreed to do that job whenever necessary. And now has come the time to do it. The job, that is.

One of the bits of feedback you’ve submitted (no shortage of feedback on this one, to be sure, ha ha) is that this job is not quite what you thought it would be. Some of you have said that, in fact, the reported numbers make this latest aspect of the job one of the worst that you have ever seen, and in no uncertain terms you have voiced your displeasure if you were to be “heavily coerced” into doing this job. Now I’m not saying that that would even happen, nor have I ever said that. But it seems that there’s a notion going around that two brothers from Kansas may phone in a favor and gauge your interest in no longer having healthy knee caps, politically-speaking. I think we all know this is not the case, yet the slightest semblance of a hint that such coercion might be even considered in this situation is causing at least one of you to—pardon the language—shit your suit. And I think I speak for us all (not to mention the congressional janitorial staff!) when I say it’d be preferable if all our collective suits, to borrow a phrase, remain shit-free.

So let me say this: The job may not be as bad as you think. Which, okay, I know. You’re thinking, Mitch, my man, this is what you always say. And it’s true: I do have a stubborn streak when facing tough situations, just ask my dermatologist, ha ha.

Here’s a question, though: Has it really been that bad?

When I first gathered us in 2009 and said what our job would be, I distinctly remember hearing the complaints that doing nothing day after day, month after month would be an impossible task. I remember, even, some audible gasps out of Jeff from Alabama on this very point (although to be fair that also happened when he heard about the plot of Precious). But was this job hard? Not at all! In fact, as far as jobs go, it was a pretty cushy gig. And in fact it only became easier when we had even more of our friends join us after just a couple years of doing nothing. Doing nothing, it turned out, was actually something that—once we put our mind to it!—we were pretty good at.

Now some of you objected when, in 2012, we found out that the entire job—which was easy but, I’ll admit, also kind of ennui-inducing on a persistent basis—was done in vain. And while I know that I have quite the poker face, a face that some across the aisle have, apparently, claimed looks like the face of a man who realizes he is perpetually on the verge of climaxing in his pants, a face that never changes and wouldn’t betray the slightest emotion even in a trying time such as this…my friends, I was disheartened. We had worked so hard at doing nothing, and yet it seemed like it was all for, well, naught.

And yet! Despite this setback, did we stop going? It would have been very easy to do so then, and I remember drawing a line in the, well, carpet, as it were, and then proclaiming, This Is It and offering each of you the chance to pack your proverbial bags and go to the train station. And collectively—and I remember I was so proud (!)—you told me that you simply could not take a train at that hour, which I took not as a referendum on WMATA’s strangely limited operating hours but rather your symbolic commitment to our shared goal. At which point I became, in some sense, re-heartened.

Because that day we realized that the only way to potentially accomplish the initial job that we had set out to do was to keep going. That if we hesitated for even a second in the pursuit of this job any of our modest gains would be threatened. Even wiped out.

And this realization was scary. It was, in fact, frightening for all of us except Ted, but we all know that—no offense to him—Ted’s not exactly one that you can count on for an accurate temperature check, emotion-wise. But we had now gone into this unknown, and the only job left was the original job that we had set out to do. Which was pretty circular logic, unfortunately, and kind of made us question what was the point of doing the job in the first place? Yet there we were, pursuing the job.

But then: Good news. While our initial attempt at completing the job was unsuccessful, the subject of our job (You-Know-Who) saw his approval rating keep fading and fading. And while we weren’t popular, we were at least not the direct target of the Others at the voting booth. Better yet, in 2014 the Others somehow wanted more of us in office. Which was great, because of strength in numbers, and we could pass Ted off to the new members and let him accost them. (The people, that is. Not their members. Clarifying so that Mike doesn’t email me later.)

And 2016 made our job even easier. Impossibly easy. Which is why I am writing today in a somewhat confused state of mind, because, well: We have already done the hardest part of our job.

Allow me to explain by way of metaphor: These past few years have been a long swimming lesson for us. Our job, in some ways, has been to become swimmers. Like all swimmers, we have first learned how to tread water—quite effectively (!)—during this time. And some may say that treading water is simply a fancy way of doing nothing and going nowhere, but they are wrong. Treading water is going nowhere but not drowning. It is a miraculous achievement. Much harder than actually swimming, but necessary to swimming. Many of the greatest swimmers, in fact, started off by learning how to tread water and, subsequently, found swimming much easier than treading water. Michael Phelps. Newt Gingrich, to hammer home the metaphor (he, of course, literally can’t swim). But in truth: The list goes on.

And now, by way of treading this water and not drowning for eight straight years, we have set ourselves up for swimming greatness. To swim, all we have left to do is simply say yes—“Yea” —one time. Perhaps some Others may be hurt as a result of this “Yea.” But do you know for a fact that these Others are not being hurt right now? Do you know, down to the individual, that no one is being harmed as we delay our declaration of that final “Yea”?

I say this with great respect: I highly doubt it.

But I will also say this: We are where we are now because of our work on this job, and now is the chance to complete that job. Doesn’t that sound good? You are lying to yourself if that offer doesn’t sound enticing, like a thorough back scratch or massage after you have been sitting stationary in an ergonomically poor chair for eight straight years. I hope that you all think about that during the recess. Think about how good it will be to finally say “Yea,” to have the chance to lie down and relax and loosen up your back, to finish off this massage in the happiest way possible (sorry, Mike) which will ensure no more sore backs, ever, for always.

Well, I have gone on and on, but please come by my office after the recess, anybody who’s having doubts about this job, or this massage (!), and I will show you my very clean suits that are as clean as my conscience, as clean as I hope your suits are, too, currently. And of course any doubts you have about this job, and how it may impact the Others, are of the utmost concern, but they won’t be repeated outside of my office, and certainly not to those brothers from Kansas.

Happy 4th of July.

-M

On Moderates

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Hamilton Nolan writes for Gizmodo Media Group. He writes a lot, and in some sense, every post of his hits the same key talking points: Don’t play nice with political opponents simply for the sake of playing nice; don’t trust entrenched interests; and unionize. That fact that he’s right on each of these counts makes his dogged, ceaseless repetition less grating. And in a recent article, which notes that requesting civility in politics is like requesting decorum in a bum fight, a few lines of his struck a chord with me. Here’s the key section:

Everything in politics cannot be solved by compromise. Abortion is legal, or it’s not. That awful Supreme Court justice is confirmed, or he’s not. Pollution is properly regulated, or it’s not. Our tax system is sufficiently progressive, or it’s not. We go to war, or we don’t. Every one of these choices is ultimately a statement of morality—a conviction about what is right and wrong. Valuing “bipartisanship” on the really important issues is an admission that you have no real beliefs.

A thread that Nolan doesn’t fully explore, and that I’d like to here, is encompassed in that final sentence. One group that’s become lionized–that may never not be lionized, in certain circles–is the so-called “moderate.” Moderates have no stake in the game, you see. They’ve matured beyond the mudslinging of partisan politics and are able to evaluate positions strictly on the basis of each position’s inherent values. They are the kinds of fellows who don’t get worked up about the triflings of Affirmative Action or the gender gap: They recognize those groups have been disadvantaged historically, but they merely want (over and over they proclaim their desires for!) a truly meritocratic system. While other fringe politicians and hard-wired activists can get triggered by hot-button issues, these moderates–unicorns, really–rise above it all for common sense.

There are three kinds of individuals who may find themselves deemed “moderates.” First is the False Moderate, whose political leanings pull a la carte from the dominant parties. Here lies individuals such as the textbook libertarian–chill with weed and gay marriage, yet opposed to taxes–or those who want more government involvement, if only because they can help quell Black Lives Matter protests a bit more quickly. For the purposes of this post, I have no truck with these “moderates,” who tend to be complex individuals with preferences drawn from their immediate, narrow surroundings. Mostly, though, it is worth clarifying that these individuals are not moderates, for there is nothing moderate, or toned down, in their belief structure; they have merely managed to incorrigibly patch different positions into an idiosyncratic political quilt.

Second, we have the shrewd politicians, like Maine Senator Susan Collins, Arizona Senator John McCain, and Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, who recognize the clout that being perpetual tagged as a “Moderate Republican” provides. (It’s worth noting that “moderate Democrat” means you’re Joe Manchin and you’re hated by your colleagues; the true independent Democrats–Maine’s Angus King and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders–swing far to the left.) Even though the Republicans narrowly control the senate, Collins, McCain, and Murkowski are perpetually identified as swing voters, singled out in newspapers and new media articles alike as bellwethers to keep in check the right’s rampant conservatism. Their moderateness is merely a cloak, used to tag them as “too good to be a mere partisan rube,” despite voting patterns that show them to be much more partisan than an elected official from their fairly purple states ought to be. These are Opening Clause Moderates, needing only to express the slightest, most cursory reservations to Betsy DeVos before they turn around–always with the rejoining “but” or “however” or “nevertheless”–and gut spending on education.

Mostly, I want to discuss the final group of moderates, who I will term the Liz Spayd Moderates. The Liz Spayd Moderates exist in a separate universe where every opinion has merit, and differing viewpoints simply must be heard–if not in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, then on the idyllic unfettered quads of our nation’s college campuses. There is an assumption that the Liz Spayd Moderates make, a flattening of magnitude and removal of nuance, that, for example, equates the work of Black Lives Matter activists and terrorist groups, that allows climate change scientists and climate change deniers equal real estate in their pages and, presumably, in their minds.

What I’m getting at, really, is that being a moderate on a particular topic often indicates not a cooled, morally responsible detachment from the emotion that topic provokes; rather, it indicates an intellectual laziness. This isn’t to say that the only valid position is an extreme position. But it is to say that constant hedging and inability to stake a definitive claim as to which side has more merit is a cop-out. It is a binary codification of evidence–some people say A, while others say B, therefore who knows?–that ignores the fact that those people saying A represent 99.9% of experts and that those saying B are unfailingly funded by the Koch Brothers. And when that initial Liz Spayd Moderate is distilling this information for the masses, he/she stacks the scales in a manner that misleads. The Liz Spayd Moderate builds debate from consensus, forging an ESPN First Take episode that pits actual scientists against race scientists, Nazis against Nazi protestors, and tries to make an argument for each.

The context of “hearing both sides,” then, is an exercise for “moderates” that is couched in one or two leading impulses: either the perfunctory political maneuvering that plays well in headlines, or the desire to announce to one’s peers that critical thinking is an elusive skill not currently in one’s possession. This understanding leads, quickly, to a loud, far-from-mincing conclusion: Moderates are not to be trusted, and, certainly, they’re not to be praised.

Avocado toast is bad

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I have never had avocado toast, and barring a catastrophe or a lost bet, I never will. This take isn’t a moralism based on how the excessive price point of the dish is limiting your growth as a human; odds are, if you’re eating at a restaurant that offers avocado toast, you’ll be overpaying for one thing or another regardless.

No, my take is both gustatory and reflexive: Avocado toast is unappetizing. First of all, I–a mere bystander–am embarrassed by the item’s branding. You don’t call salsa and eggs on a tortilla “Salsa Egg Tortilla”–it’s huevos rancheros. You don’t call strawberries and whipped cream on a waffle a “Cream and Fresh-Cut Fruit Waffle”–it’s a Belgian waffle. Perhaps avocado toast should be called “pan al verde” or “hangover bread” or “gentrificante.” But I’m not here to make friends (I never am) nor am I here to otherwise increase a bad food’s Q-score.

Mostly, avocado toast is bad because toast is a garbage vehicle for the avocado. As you likely know, l’aguacate is a superfood, which means even the fats in an avocado can salvage your troubling marriage or something. What you may not know is that it’s also a scene-stealer; the ingredients the avocado gets paired with inevitably wilt in its presence. That’s totally fine: Avocados are kick-ass. But it means that the toast is superfluous. When half your dish is superfluous, that means you have a bad dish.

A word on toast: it’s disgraceful. The benefits of toast are 1) its crunch and 2) its protective layer to shield your hands from jelly and honey and all other good liquids that you, let’s be honest, would drink straight from the container in the morning if society deemed it acceptable. When bread is necessary as a vessel for tastier foods, as it is in most sandwiches, it is functional and fine; when it is unnecessary, it is pointless. Of note, toast has an even weaker flavor than bread, a comically bland sub-food to begin with. Here’s a sentence that has never before been uttered: “Wow, that plain toast was amazing.”

(There’s also the hilarious inconsistency of the pairing from a health perspective: if you prefer avocado toast over other breakfast / brunch / snack options because an avocado is so good for you, then you’re undermining those modest gains by pairing it with a tasteless, indistinct, eighty-calories-later-and-none-the-wiser carb.)

Putting avocado on something isn’t a bad idea; I, like most white people, love avocados. What infuriates me about avocado toast is that superior alternatives to toast aren’t hard to find. Want crunch? Have an avocado cracker, which at least boasts some salt and notes of butter. Want some hint of texture to make sure your oral cavity doesn’t become a coddled snowflake? Add that avocado on eggs, or hash browns, or grits, or even some steel-cut oats, put it on a plate, and dig in with a single piece of cutlery.

Oh, no, you’re probably mewling, frightened of temporarily not being able to eat with your hands like a goddamn toddler, but what about the protective layer? I need to feel my soggy food while I consume it. Well, do you know what the inside of an avocado looks like?

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A never-before-seen image that’s currently on its way to the Smithsonian.

Look at that! It’s almost like the avocado’s tailor-made for hosting a flavor party in its own backyard. Seriously, just dump any and all sauces and liquids into the avocado itself for an in-hand brunch. Avocados are nature’s bread bowls–their shell can neatly nest their green goodness right alongside whatever else you want. Some Sriracha, some honey, grape jelly, peanut butter, hummus, pesto? You do you. The world is now your avocado, and you’ll never betray yourself with a dumb order again.