Against Beer-Shaming

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For the most part, India pale ales are fine. Some, in fact, are really, really good: Maine’s Lunch and Dinner, for example, fit the bill if you’re into ELITE IPAs; most any mainstream Sierra Nevada offering does a bang-up job, and you don’t have to get a goddamn cash advance to afford one. People like to hate on IPAs–mostly because they want to hate on the people who love IPAs, which I totally get, and partly because the hop-industrial complex that is overrunning craft beer is both concerning and insane. On the merits of the India Pale Ale genre itself, though, it’s a weak case. IPAs are harsh, and they’re a bit of an acquired taste. But, Christ, isn’t all beer?

So I’m not here to denigrate the entire genus of IPAs; I’m also not looking to wrap myself to become its flagbearer in the beer debates that reach a level of, like, near-jingoism. Both IPA lovers and detractors make good points, although maybe not quite the points they think.

I think the argument that bros try–and fail–to make when they worship at the altar of IPAs isn’t that IPAs are the best beers. When they unwittingly advance such an argument, it comes across, like a bad IPA, overly strong and unpleasant. The more subtle justification is that IPAs–due to their more complex rendering of hops and ancillary ingredients–have a higher floor than any other genre of beer. The worst IPA undeniably beats the worst lager. This isn’t surprising: IPAs are more costly, more expensive. There’s a minimum threshold required to make, I don’t know, even Abita’s Andygator IPA (the worst beer I’ve ever willingly purchased), and that’s a taller task than Milwaukee’s Best is able to clear. If you’re making a blind choice–assuming cost is no object–and you’re hoping to minimize your risk of selecting a terrible beer, get an IPA.

Note that this is different from saying IPAs are the best. That’s an argument my brother made a few weeks ago, over Thanksgiving, as we stepped inside the esteemed Sam’s Quik Shop in Durham to select a few six-packs. Look at all the IPAs here, he said. When a shop like this has that many IPAs–I’m paraphrasing at this point, but it’s necessary to convey the pigheadedness of the sentiment–that’s just proof that IPAs are the best.

First of all, his claim reeks of confirmation bias; I highly doubt Sam’s selection is so imbalanced. But even if it were true, that’s a classic misconstruing of supply and demand. IPAs get stocked because they’ll inevitably get bought. While Sam’s tries to find the best beers in a particular genre, the store’s still resigned to offering what it thinks it can sell. And, as the number of people convincing themselves that IPAs are superior swells to a critical mass–which, clearly, is what’s happening in the American beer markets–the best strategy for a shop like Sam’s is to heavily concentrate on IPA sales. (I’d also imagine that IPAs, because of their perception of prestige, carry a healthier markup than other beers.) Said more simply, the phenomenon is demand-driven, and most prominently exacerbated by people firmly entrenched in the “IPAs are great” camp.

IPA drinkers also like to construct impenetrable feedback loops. They flock together. “I prefer IPAs,” says one, by way of small talk. “Me too,” says the second, in this very boring yet starkly realistic scenario. Then they abscond to the bar, offering each other recommendations on which beers are best, never fathoming dropping below 6.0% ABV or 40 IBUs. Perhaps someone joins them for the second round and offers to buy them a drink. “Another one of these,” they’ll say, posturing for their IPA compatriot while ignoring their amber-ale-drinking or, god forbid, hefeweizen-loving friend.

Entire classifications of beer, then, get tossed out in the contest of who can consume the most hops.

But this myopia cultivates something more displeasing: beer-chasing. Not the beverage itself, but the inexhaustible pursuit of having all the best beers. One of my old coworkers once talked about he preferred scotch to whisky, not because the former was better in his mind, but because it was more manageable to drink an encyclopedic quantity. Whisky (and whiskey) spans the globe, but scotch is at least confined to one country. Given enough time, you could drink your way across Scotland. Having every type of the other liquor, though, is an obvious fool’s errand.

Untappd has unlocked such a phenomenon for lager lovers: The popular app, designed for the user to rate beers and select, again, the best beer from a range of options, makes it easy to build a robust portfolio. The in-app badges, too, incent novelty in beer choice: A “Master” has 200 different beer samples; An “Elite” user has 2500. Each decision at the bar, then, contains a trade-off: Do I want what I enjoy, or do I want what will impress my digital and real-life peers?

I think, fundamentally, this is the problem with beer drinkers–and IPA drinkers, in particular. Too much choice has proved crippling; anyone who has visited Sam’s, or even just the neighborhood gas station’s now-mandatory “Beer Cave,” knows how the duration and agony of the selection scales with the breadth of options. Consuming beer is rarely never not a good time, but the average drinker needs direction. More often than not, that entails putting on blinders. Only drinking IPAs. Only drinking new beers. Only drinking the selections from a particular craft brewery–Maine Beer Co., Wicked Weed, Stone, etc.

What I hope for is a return to simpler times. It’s the golden age of drinking craft beer. There needs to be a way to simply have a favorite yet standard beer–a reliable choice, readily available. Something to drink regularly and not feel like a pud. Not every purchase needs to be a momentous event. Not every pint glass needs to come with a checklist attached and an Instagrammable pour. Corona encourages customers to Find Your Beach, but my plea actually takes a step back from that: Please, Just Find Your Beer. I’m sure it’s fine.

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Raleigh, the MLS, and Amazon

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I think I would like Raleigh, in the next round of Major League Soccer bids, whenever those come to pass, to make the list of expansion cities. (The city was passed up this week in the first wave of finalists, but a second selection period is on the horizon.) As a soccer fan and Durham resident, I’d be delighted to have a top-tier team–even if it must compete in the insipid MLS–within driving distance. And as someone who increasingly feels a sense of civic and regional pride, I’d love to claim a local professional team in a sport that doesn’t seem–sorry, ‘Canes fans–horribly anachronistic in North Carolina.

A quick summary: The bid that Steve Malik, the local tech entrepreneur and owner of the area’s flagship soccer franchise, North Carolina FC, crafted doesn’t rely on bottomless founts of public financing; he promises to privately fund the $150 million bill a new stadium would entail. The location would not grossly disrupt a neighborhood–like, say, the Verizon Center (the Capital One Arena as of August) did in Washington D.C.’s now-parodic husk of a Chinatown–but rather nestle between the existing commercial spaces where Seaboard Station and Halifax Mall exist. The proposed buildings to be razed are strictly government facilities. I’m skeptical the stadium can create the revenue and jobs Malik says–most projects fail to hit these marks–but by and large this proposal is as innocuous as expansion projects come.

Still, I hesitate. Raleigh and Durham face major questions now and will continue to face them in years to come. They are vibrant communities now earning just recognition for that vibrancy, perennial features on the clickbait rankings circuit–among the best cities for millennials, young entrepreneurs, anyone who has ever used a Juicero while texting, etc. They are changing rapidly: Durham projects a population increase of twenty-two percent by 2030; Raleigh-Cary is the fastest-growing metro area in the state and the fourteenth-fastest-growing in the country. In the mayoral elections this past November, in Raleigh and Durham alike, the lack of affordable housing was arguably the most ubiquitous and pressing issue.

With that topic in mind, focusing on a luxury like the MLS seems irresponsible. But the MLS isn’t the most harrowing potential guest from afar: No, that would be Amazon.

Raleigh and Durham are still semi-longshots to land the Seattle-based company’s second headquarters, but they’re pining for the opportunity to dole out tax breaks and other incentives to Amazon, were Jeff Bezos to be sufficiently wooed. The consideration of such a development is frightening to anyone hoping the Triangle will maintain a semblance of livability and culture. The 50,000 jobs (heavy eye-rolling) the company promises will, if Seattle’s experience proves an accurate harbinger, be given disproportionately to white, well-to-do males; in concert, rents will skyrocket (in Seattle it has doubled in just the past five years), homelessness will rise, traffic will grind to a halt, and public resources will be consumed at a rate beyond that which the higher tax base can support. (These negative factors–among others–contributed to the decision from San Jose and San Antonio not to bid for Amazon.) This process has already begun, but if and when Amazon comes to the Triangle, the gentrification of D.C.’s Chinatown, and Brooklyn, and post-Katrina New Orleans will quickly loom over the Oak and Bull Cities much like the inevitably-erected $2,000-a-month apartment buildings will.

There is, undeniably, an excitement to these bids. Both Amazon and the MLS are big names. It would be *cool* for the Triangle to host either of them: Seeing the somewhat-overlooked region mentioned in national headlines, just by virtue of its being considered, provides a nice dopamine drip.

What is the opportunity cost, though? In that downtown Raleigh space Malik proposed, what else could go there? Affordable housing stock? A no-ticket-necessary public park from which everyone can derive some benefit? And the eight million square feet that Amazon will reportedly need for its new campus: If that can be carved out for a corporation, how can the city make use of it to benefit its current tax base?

Or will the influx of outsiders be the only ones to enjoy the land’s newfound fruits?

In a sense, the MLS bid is fine–in a vacuum. But if getting a sports team becomes merely another step in a large-scale revitalization–an influx of disruptive investment, a whitewashing of culture that is an inherent byproduct of urban privatization, a commitment to building glitzy new toys for some citizens to enjoy while ignoring the essential services its other citizens lack–it’s much less palatable.

And the alacrity with which Raleigh, Durham, and the entire region have sought to please this corporate behemoth–with apparently little consideration for the downstream effects Amazon’s presence will have on its citizenry–can only be viewed with trepidation. Economists have evinced, time and time again, the fallacy of sports stadiums as a magnet for investment. I’m thrilled that the Malik’s MLS bid, then, is perhaps the most sensible possible model. But I’m growing afraid that, in a future urban analysis, cities like Raleigh and Durham will feature in the telling of a cautionary yet not unfamiliar tale, the one where a tornado of a corporation rolls through a town of storm chasers.

Don’t eat soup in public

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Let me start by saying I’m no puritan. I’ve been known to have a bit of a devilish tongue. From time to time, my thoughts have maybe even breached the boundary of what one considers “unwholesome.” So I write here not to litigate, judge, or certainly censor, but rather advise: Don’t eat soup in public. It’s disgusting.

This isn’t a clever, sly, in-crowd euphemism. No, I mean this literally: Don’t eat soup–or bisque, or chowder, or even chili below a certain viscosity–in public. I know that we’re steadily approaching winter. I know you’re cold and hungry, maybe even parched, and that soup–that dietary utility player–seems like the solution to all of your problems. Do it. Go buy some soup. I respect your choice as a consumer.

But I don’t respect your right to consume that slop in my general vicinity. Much like electricity, water, and internet prior to next month, we should treat a genial lunchtime–one without neighbors interrupting conversations every ten seconds with a puckering minestronal SCHLURPPP–as a utility. We should respect the sanctity of the public dining table, be it in the office, the cafe, or the food court, and refuse to besmirch it with some pud who has to furiously blow (look at him, he’s NURTURING THE SOUP) on his disgraced slurry to make it palatable.

I’m spilling no secrets when I say soup has inherent structural flaws. Once soup has become the right temperature, it is then too cold. To eat enjoyably, soup requires a mechanic’s tinkering, a Buddhist’s patience. Its fluidity necessitates the manual precision of a calligrapher–better yet, of a sculptor–to put the liquid into its vessel; the final transfer, likewise, begs Dizzy Gillespie’s lung capacity and embouchure to avoid disaster.

That’s before getting into the etiquette for eating soup–the delicate coiffing of the spoon away from oneself, the dizzying heights the spoon must rise before one can dip one’s head to meet it. It is a hopeless, frantic extraction that inevitably ends in dripping, slobbering imperfection. Yes, there are “proper” ways to eat soup. But there’s no way to eat soup and retain one’s dignity. If you engage in this act in my line of sight, I’m afraid I can no longer respect you.

The truth is, when eating soup, you’re consuming a scalding liquid from a height at which liquid shouldn’t be consumed. There’s a reason drinks arrive in graspable, vertical containers. There’s a reason drinks, McDonald’s coffee aside, invariably arrive within an acceptable range of temperatures. Most food and drink make sense; soup doesn’t. (That sentence also presents a tertiary sub-argument against soup, that your public consumption of it will invite the galling, faux-intellectual pondering of whether one “eats” or “drinks” soup. The correct answer is neither: When having soup in public, one “burdens society.”)

Perhaps this take comes across as elitist. After all, public soup kitchens are a great, necessary service. For others, soup is simply an economical option, the most rational budgetary choice. Surely, Lucas, you’re not advocating these soup-buyers are forced to languish alone, shamefully downing their entrees in solitude whilst the Paninarazzi gaggle together in unfettered gaiety?

My response is three-pronged: First, my advice is mainly targeting those foodies in Corporate America, for whom I am skeptical that soup is always the cheapest option: take Panera Bread, for example, where soups, salads, and half-sandwiches are priced equivalently in the “Pick 2” menu, despite the caloric deficits that soups offer. Second, I think a large-scale coordination of purchasing decisions can change the way in which we consume soup. Should bowls become cylindrical? Should spoons be replaced with very wide straws? Should we revive Juicero by reducing every soup to its late-capitalism, inevitably all-liquid state? These are the questions we need to be asking.

Third, soup consumption can be inoffensive in public–but only when undergone unanimously. When the souping is wholly communal, that is, when everyone is being disgusting, there is no dignity to be claimed, no pearls to be clutched. It is a barbaric experience and roundly objectionable to an outsider, but in the absence of none claiming offense, the outrage is vaporous like the famous Zen koan: the sound of one hand clapping back.

In that way, we need to treat eating soup like eating peanuts–hazardous in public. You can eat whatever repulsive things you want–however you want–in the privacy of your own home. But, please, as you go about your day, SCHLURPPP on this: As soon as you step outside, once you start eating soup, you start affecting people’s lives.

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?

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.”

An incomplete list of people I’d like to see the NYT profile before sympathetically profiling another Nazi, Trump supporter, or other unspectacular dumbass

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That guy who beat the absolute piss out of Rand Paul

Someone who has read and, like, understands Gravity’s Rainbow

I don’t know, maybe a person of color or something

A Mets fan (not Bernie Madoff)

A Browns fan not from Cleveland

Norm Macdonald

Literally anyone involved with the OJ trial

The cast and crew of Ballers

A Juggalo

Oh, and if that person of color is a woman, that’d be awesome

A Scientologist

David Lynch’s personal assistant

Guy/gal with a foot fetish

Norm Macdonald, again

Those big bad, scary antifa folks

Especially the dude in Charlottesville who had a homemade flamethrower

Guy with a handlebar mustache

Guy with a sole patch

Person who serially over-shares on Facebook

Person who RTs Twitter bots

Someone who genuinely enjoys Andy Borowitz, Darren Rovell’s analysis, and/or Nickelback

Anita Hill, for example, wouldn’t be a bad choice

The guy who invented Crocs

Any of the writers who were passed over for David Brooks’ job

https://twitter.com/gregpak/status/934579716539011072

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On Voting and Paul LePage

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Tuesday’s a big day, in the sense that each opportunity the Democrats have to rebalance and ever-shifting electoral map constitutes a big day. There’s a sick voyeurism to the proceedings, if you’re not in a major state like Virginia, New Jersey, or Alabama: In North Carolina, for example, I’ll only be voting on a new mayor and city council. Any right-wing carnage that emerges in the state to my immediate north is, to some degree, not my problem. I can take it in as a soccer fan does a last-second opposition goal to put his team who, already down 5-1, now down 6-1. It sucks, but if the comically disastrous outcome results in the hiring of a new manager (read: a DNC shakeup, new platform, etc.), then maybe it’s actually worth it.

Nevertheless, though, I feel compelled to deliver the paternalistic advice that wherever you are, you should vote. It’s easy. This year more than any, the lines won’t be bad. (And similarly, this year more than any, your vote is likely to make a difference.) You’ll get a sticker. You’ll skip work. It’s not cool, exactly, but it’s surprisingly useful.

And if you’re bothering to get out the vote, please do one small-but-important thing: Vote smartly. Look to your local papers for advice, for details on candidates’ platforms. Pick one of the favorites who sounds the most appealing. Protest votes, on the national level, are merely a gesture; at the local level, they have a more tangible, damaging impact.

Depending on where you’re coming from, this is likely obvious or an incredibly specific warning, but there’s a reason for it, I swear.

Just this past week, Maine governor Paul LePage–a slightly more human version of Mitch McConnell–vetoed a voter-approved bill that would legalize recreational marijuana in the state. He linked it, spuriously, to the developing opioid issue in Maine, an issue that he’s fought by denying those without insurance treatment and merely looking to expand prison facilities. But by LePage’s standards, his failure to respect the will of Maine voters is rather far down on his list of crimes and embarrassments.

He’s a governor who, during his first month in office, went out of his way to blatantly ignore MLK Day.

He’s a governor who, in an unerring case of foot-in-mouth disease, has compared the IRS to the Gestapo.

He’s a governor who has invoked a record number of vetoes for a governor, to the degree that he, leaning fully into his role as a political heel, named his dog Veto.

He’s a governor who has blackmailed a school charity organization–threatening to withhold state funds–over their selection of a new president. He’s a governor who, after that episode, can claim to have survived an impeachment attempt.

He’s a governor who cried fake news before anyone else, overtly telling newspapers he didn’t want their endorsement in the run-up to his 2014 election.

He’s a governor who, before taking the Blaine House, made his living running Marden’s, the local Maine surplus chain. It’s a depressing place, a Salvation Army with no mission beyond profits, where you paw through crap that’s only available because some flatbed tipped over on I-95. It is the perfect place for LePage to thrive: Second to the now-abandoned paper mills that dot Maine’s eastern corridor, it’s the purest, saddest distillation of capitalism in the Pine Tree State.

On that note, he’s a governor whose perhaps only feasible promise was job growth; and yet, from 2009-2014, while the U.S. economy grew nearly 10% and the New England economy grew nearly 6%, Maine’s economy shrunk.

He’s a governor who blamed the growing drug trade in Maine on “guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty” who “come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home. Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young, white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue we have to deal with down the road.” He, when asked about these comments, claimed to have a binder of such criminals; when reporters filed a request to see the binder, LePage dialed up one of them and called him a “son of a bitch, socialist cocksucker.”

LePage is, in short, horrible. He is so bad that the state voted in 2016 to form a new way to vote–an instant runoff vote–that would prevent such an catastrophic, undesired figure to take control in subsequent elections; in short, he is so bad that, like a bumbling time traveler, he has killed off his future self.

You see, in 2010, LePage won a de facto 3-way race with a mere 38.1% plurality, as independent Eliot Cutler and Democrat Libby Mitchell split 54.7% of the votes among them; fewer than ten thousand votes separated LePage and Cutler. In 2014, LePage won again, but still with Cutler and the lead Democratic candidate splitting the majority of votes.

The new system would punish candidates with “high negatives,” making it much harder for an odious figure–one who ostracizes sixty percent of the electorate but currently allows almost any alternative to seem better, thus splintering the opposition vote–to prevail. Alas, this system–the first of its kind in the nation–hasn’t yet been implemented; based on a recent ruling from the Maine Supreme Court, no elections will be affected until 2021 at the earliest. There’s no guarantee that other states will follow suit.

Really, the only reason it has received such a groundswell of support and made it to the ballot stage is because Maine’s current governor is an absolute clownshow. On one hand, it’s nice to see those on the left, when pushed to the brink, actually doing something. But of course, from Maine’s perspective, these ends really, really, really don’t justify the means.

With instant runoff voting on hiatus, preventing future episodes like Maine’s requires contributions throughout the electoral process–from candidate selection to town hall participation to local advocacy. Today, this wave must culminate with smart choices in the voting booth. There are countless more LePages waiting in the wings–Roy Moore in Alabama, Ed Gillespie in Virginia, and many sprinkled throughout city council and mayoral ballots. This Tuesday is a chance to learn, to reflect, to respond.

New Ways to Undermine Halloween

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I don’t particularly care for Halloween. Much like puns, April Fool’s Day, or describing literally anything as “fake news,” it presents an opportunity for the masses to clear a very low bar of both cleverness and pop culture fluency. The end result, then, equates to a clunky game of Cards Against Humanity, where all the cards are written by the players, players who, on average, constitute the core demographic for Alec Baldwin’s insipid Trump impression. It is a holiday for everyone–most of whom are unfunny, few of whom are witty–to try to be funny and witty.

Effectively, it is a roving open mic night that has merged with Comic-Con. It’s awful.

I’m not the first Halloween curmudgeon, though. There have always been people who are lazy with costumes, those who piss on others’ jack-o-lantern carvings, or the neighbors whose houses wouldn’t get knocked on for fear of razor blade apples. But those attacks are, to be honest, played out. As the rest of our holidays have evolved–Thanksgiving with Turducken, Columbus Day with not existing–it’s time for the haters of Halloween to look themselves in the mirror; get a tummy tuck, some yoga pants, and maybe a new and ethnically-ambiguous personal trainer; and start moving to make this October 31 one to remember with these suggestions:

  • Celebrate Halloween like everyone else, but when you go door-to-door, sing Christmas carols at full volume
  • Stay at home, but dress in a full gimp outfit for when trick-or-treaters arrive
  • Dress completely normally; when someone asks who you are, say “Hillary Clinton, because I also rarely spend time in Wisconsin”
    • NOTE: Only works if you rarely spend time in Wisconsin
  • Go as O.J. Simpson, but the depressed, mid-2000s O.J. Simpson and accuse every third person of “stealing my shit”
  • Dress as a newscaster and, regardless of what happens, continually say in a solemn tone: “We. Can’t. Normalize. This.”
  • Stay at home, but give any and all trick-or-treaters bags of chopped honeydew
    • Good alternatives to hand out: Copies of Ayn Rand, decks of cards with only 51 cards, your now-expired medications, leftover meatloaf, NBA Live 09, those de facto laxative gummi bears, your neighbor’s wi-fi password
  • Dress completely normally; explain that Halloween is just a distraction from Russia and tell people to please contribute to your Patreon page
  • Dress up as Matthew Lesko aka the Question Mark Suit Guy; tell people about all the “Free Money” they can save by not getting hit with the 12x Uber Surge at 1:30 am.
  • Dress completely normally, but act inconsolably offended and shocked by everyone’s predictably tasteless costumes; when someone asks who you are, reply “Barron Trump”
  • Have your face modified to resemble Robert E. Lee and get embalmed in a public square

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.

***

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.