Month: January 2021 (Page 1 of 2)

Friday Playlist

Another week where I’ve reviewed a ton of new songs, and many of them have stuck. So it looks like you all are the winners, with another stacked playlist.

“Take Back the Radio” – Katy J. Pearson
A few of my loyal blog readers were also listeners to the music podcast I did for about 10 years, Carmel Liberation Radio. This would have been an easy choice for an opening song for CLR based on the title alone.

“Enough is Never Enough” – The Clockworks
DAMMIT! I’ve had this song in my Spotify current tracks playlist since mid-November, and apparently have never included it in a Friday PL. Which is a massive fail on my part, because it totally kicks ass. I can guarantee you it will be on this year’s favorites list as a missed track from 2020. “THESE FINGERS ARE MADE FOR POINTING!”

“Be My Friend” – THE GOA EXPRESS
Some scorching-hot rock from the north of England. We need more songs like this. These kids only have two songs on Spotify. I would submit that they need more.

“Help Me” – Low Cut Connie
I’m not sure what to think of this group, fronted by Adam Weiner. He definitely has a throw-back sound, some kind of mid-80s, white boy soul, and has built up a bit of a cult audience. Obama even included one of his tracks on one of his public playlists a few years back. I listened to the entire album this song comes from and it might be a little too ambitious for my ears. But this song has an undeniable groove and works just fine.

“Ten Feet Tall” – Charlie Hickey
The first time I heard this song I thought, “This sounds like a dude’s version of a Phoebe Bridgers song.” When the first chorus kicked in, I thought, “Damn, it even has a backup singer who sounds like Phoebe.” Wasn’t I surprised to learn it was, in fact, the Phoebe Bridgers singing with him! And that she and Hickey have been friends for nearly a decade. This is a terrific first listen to what Hickey can offer. I’m excited to hear more from the lad.

“Immune” – Jensen McRae
This song is about as meta as you can get. A few weeks back McRae posted a video of her doing part of a “preemptive” cover of a song she imagined that Phoebe Bridgers will write in 2023, looking back at the Covid pandemic. It was kind of a joke, but she took it and ran with it, turning it into an actual song. And, goddamn if it isn’t a hell of a track.

“Midnight Dipper (Soulwax Remix)” – Warmduscher, Soulwax
This would be my current choice for walkup music if I was a major league baseball player. And I would refuse to step into the box until all 6:10 of the song had played. I don’t think anyone would object, as players on the field and fans in the stands would all break into elaborate, choreographed dance routines.

“Anotherloverholenyohead” – Prince
I think this track gets overlooked a lot in the Prince catalog. The Parade album, other than “Kiss,” tends to get that treatment. It is a typically great, second-tier Prince track. But the video! There’s something about his Minneapolis Vice look that makes it extra special.

Reader’s Notebook, 1/27/21

Deacon King Kong – James McBride
My To Read list is always in flux. I’m constantly adding books, like any good reader should. And also culling books, figuring if a title has been on the list for a few years and I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, odds are I never will. The list tends to grow a lot in December, when various Best Of lists hit the internet, and I make additions that seem to be earning universal acclaim.

This book was on damn-near every 2020 Best Of list I reviewed. And with good reason. It is excellent.

It is a wide-ranging tale focused at a housing project of Brooklyn in 1969. The arrival of hard drugs, and the violence associated with them, are beginning to upset the uneasy balance of the community, which has allowed African Americans, Latino immigrants, second generation Italians, and third generation Irish to live in relative peace.

At the center is Sportcoat, a kindly old drunk who used to coach the projects’ baseball team. His wife has recently passed and he walks around the projects in a drunken stupor, talking as if she were still there. One day Sportcoat walks up to the project’s main dealer, a kid named Deems, and shoots him in the ear for no apparent reason. Deems was once Sportcoat’s best player, a pitcher that seemed destined to get out of the projects through his rocket right arm, but who chose the life of selling heroin over the uncertainty of baseball.

The aftermath of this shooting is the loose thread that holds the remainder of the story together. Throughout McBride spins out a series of delightful characters. There is a Hispanic couple, now divorced, who get into constant, humiliating and hilarious verbal battles in front of the entire neighborhood. There’s an old Italian lady and her son, a crime boss of some kind, who are a connecting point between the original, European inhabitants of the projects and their current, non-white inhabitants. There’s an Irish cop and an African American woman, who through several chance encounters find a spark that surprises them and gives their lives new meaning. And there are a small series of events from that past that combine to bring everyone together in a thoroughly heart-warming resolution.

I’m a sucker for a good ending. And McBride closes the book with a scene that hit me in all the right spots. It is right up there with the final paragraphs of Ben H. Winters’ World of Trouble as one of my favorite endings.


Hellhound on His Trail – Hampton Sides
This is a book I’ve heard about for years, but never properly added to my list. However, each January I hear the calls, “You HAVE to read this,” from various trusted internet sources. And this year I decided to tackle it.

I’m a bit ashamed to admit I knew little about the topic of this book: the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the resulting manhunt for his accused killer, James Earl Ray. That, in itself, is a hell of a story. I had no idea that Ray was moments from getting on a plane in London that would have taken him to Brussels and, likely, prevented him from ever being captured. I had no idea about the FBI search for him, which took two months, spanned five countries and three different domestic intelligence services, and only had any success because of a handful of tiny, extraordinarily lucky breaks.

But what makes the book standout, and the reason people recommend it so highly, is how Sides tells the story. Through meticulous research, he is able to tell the story almost like a novel, reconstructing Ray’s life before and after the killing in extraordinary detail. One thing he did which I found interesting was always referring to Ray by whatever alias he was living under at the moment. Ray used at least five different identities between the book’s beginning and his capture, and referring to him by those names reenforces how difficult it was to track him down.

The book is not just about Ray, though. Sides gives as much attention to MLK’s days leading up to his death; the mood in Memphis, which was reeling from a trash collectors strike; and how MLK’s death along with a failed march on Washington in June to bring attention to poverty, in-fighting in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Robert Kennedy’s death all brought the Civil Rights age to an abrupt end.

This is a terrific book, presented in a style that allows those who don’t normally enjoy non-fiction to get sucked into it.

Weekend Sports Notes

Some sports notes while waiting on an ice storm to arrive.


NFL

So the Super Bowl is Chiefs vs Buccaneers, just like we all thought.

Seriously, I’m questioning a lot of what I’ve thought about football the last 20 years this morning. I was not alone when I believed, back when the regular season began, that Tom Brady would struggle in Tampa while the Patriots would continue to win with Cam Newton at quarterback. Then the exact opposite happened…

Obviously the outcomes aren’t solely tied to how Brady and Newton performed. And quarterbacks always get too much credit and/or blame for their team’s success. But the seamlessness with which Brady took over in Tampa and the struggles that Newton had in a very mediocre season for the Pats shakes me deep down.

What if the Pats’ success the past 20 years was primarily because of Brady and not because of some Bill Belichick magic? What if Tom Brady is legitimately a witch or sold his soul to the devil or holds some other mystic power over the NFL and that traveled with him from Boston to Tampa last summer? What if Belichick is just an average coach who got lucky with the greatest quarterback of all time who glossed over some fortunate personnel choices?

Yeah, I know that’s not a realistic take. But it is in my head this morning.

It sure felt like this was finally Green Bay’s year again, and Brady just destroyed that. He didn’t even have to play super great – he threw three picks for crying out loud! Yet it was the Packers who made a couple terrible decisions, both by the players and coaches, that led them to coming up short.

If the Bucs pull off the upset in the Super Bowl, I might start re-evaluating some of Brady’s nutrition choices that I’ve made fun of in the past.

I’m not sure how you pick against the Chiefs. I don’t watch them enough to know how well they are playing, but they look pretty much unstoppable to my eyes. Tampa has a very good defense, one that can bring a lot of pressure. But with both of their safeties injured as of last night, can they pressure Patrick Mahomes and still cover the Chiefs receivers well enough to take away his escape valves? I’m guessing not, and I would say Chiefs –8 right now. In the midst of the pandemic I reserve the right to adjust that line before kickoff.


Aaron Rodgers dropped a little bit of a bomb last night when he suggested there was a chance he would not be the Packers quarterback next year. I think that was just the frustration of another NFL title game loss and his issues with some of the play calls talking. But, still, it’s out there, and in a year when the quarterback market could be as hot as it has ever been, it has the potential to be a neutron bomb of a development if it does not get resolved soon.

Reports also surfaced over the weekend that the Detroit Lions and Matthew Stafford have agreed to part ways. The Colts immediately because one of the most likely landing places for him. As I wrote last week, he is probably the best case scenario for the Colts. With him apparently available, I think the Colts have to go hard after him.

But, what if Aaron Rodgers actually does force an exit from Green Bay? The Colts, Saints, and any other team close to winning that needs a quarterback will have to do everything they can do to get him, right?

There is a part of me that wonders if that would, in fact, not be a great move. Rodgers has become notably more prickly has he has gotten deeper into his career. He often plays with a joyless scowl and glares at anyone who does not perform to his expectations. Would he be willing and able to go to a new team with a new system and new teammates and be patient enough to work through the inevitable growing pains that come with a transition? Tom Brady’s easy adjustment to Tampa makes me think this is probably a dumb area of concern and Rodgers is still option A1 if the unthinkable happens and he becomes available.

The realistic odds of Rodgers leaving Green Bay this offseason are very, very low. If you think Stafford is the answer, you go get him now rather than waiting to see what happens with Rodgers and risking losing Stafford to another suitor.


A quick note about coaching decisions. I know I’ve made this point many times in the nearly 18 years I’ve been writing here, but coaches, at any level and in every sport, are inherently conservative. It’s easier to answer questions about losing when you played the game by the book and made cautious choices than when you are super aggressive and go against conventional wisdom. It doesn’t matter that conventional wisdom might be crap; if you decide to go counter to it, the howling will always be louder than if you ran power sweep right or whatever 27 times and lost a dull, boring game. That’s why almost every fall college basketball coaches make comments like “I think we’re going to try to press more this year,” and after they give up three layups to a crap team in November they scrap it. They’d rather lose with bad half court defense that at least makes the opponent work than by giving up open layups when no one is back to stop them.

I still do not understand how coaches refuse to adjust their mindset based on time, score, and opponent. If you’re playing the Chiefs, in Kansas City, in the playoffs, you have to be super aggressive the entire 60 minutes. You can’t pick your spots here and there, balancing aggression with caution. Unless you’re playing in the midst of an ice storm, you are not going to beat Patrick Mahomes with field goals and an effective punt game. Likewise, you can not give Tom Brady the ball back with 2:00 left needing a touchdown to win.

Yes, sometimes being aggressive backfires, and can backfire big time. But does it really matter if you lose by 28 instead of 14?


Finally, the worst play of the weekend had to be the touchdown Tampa scored just before halftime. For someone who wanted to see Rodgers get back to the Super Bowl and keep Brady from doing the same, that was an absolute gut punch moment. I’m sure it was 1000 times worse for actual Packers fans. There was pretty much no doubt what the final outcome would be after that play. Green Bay played far from a clean game, but that moment…that moment was pretty awful.


KU Hoops

Narrative is always a weird thing in sports. A week ago KU had a game against Iowa State cancelled because of Covid issues within the ISU program. The Cyclones are not good this year, and KU would have likely been a big favorite. Let’s assume KU wins that game. Suddenly instead of a three-game losing streak, they have only lost three of four. That is not a huge difference. But a three-game losing streak sure sounds worse, especially since you can throw up stats like “this hasn’t happened in eight years.”

Saturday just highlighted the issues that have plagued KU all year. They actually played decent on the offensive end, getting tons of good looks both at the rim and beyond the arc. They just shot like shit. They missed at least five, totally open 3-point attempts, all by their best shooters. They missed so many shots near the rim, including a wide-open dunk. While things broke down in the closing minutes, when KU was frantically trying to score, overall their offense looked decent. Some tweaks can be made, for sure, but I don’t think they look at the film and get super disappointed about what created those shots.

On defense, though, yeesh. They just are not good on defense. They remind me of L’s team: lots of guys playing straight up instead of getting into a defensive stance, not moving their feet, lunging for steals and leaving open driving lanes. Everyone thought this would be a good defensive team, and the guys on TV who are paid to know these things keep repeating that line. But over halfway through the season I think we know who they are, and that is a team filled with guys with poor defensive instincts who struggle to play team defense, and which lacks a shot blocker to make up for mistakes on the perimeter. I’m not sure that’s something that you can fix within a season.

The good news is that the back half of the Big 12 schedule is a little easier. Even if KU can take advantage of that, they’re likely looking at 11–7 as a best case record. Which is only “bad” if you are a spoiled KU fan who can’t accept results that don’t match those of the past 20 years.


Youth Hoops

A tough damn game this week for L’s team.

While we were waiting for it to start we watched a game on the next court and laughed that it was 9–9 late in the second half. A huge cheer went up when a girl hit a free throw to give her team a 10–9 win.

We should have kept our mouths shut.

Our game was a sloppy, defense-dominated contest. When I say defense-dominated I mean there were a lot of horrible passes, dribbling the ball out of bounds, kicking the ball around, etc. There was plenty of frenetic pressure forcing these errors, but it’s not like either team was playing good, fundamental D.

We got lucky and had a little 4–0 run early in the second half to go up 8–2. L hit a nice jumper deep in the second half to put us up 10–6. But then we had to hang on for our lives to pull out a 12–10 win. The girls all looked like they were in third grade again, with no idea how to play. At the end of the game parents from both teams were looking at each other laughing at how ugly the game was.

L’s other highlight came on an inbounds play under our own basket. She broke away and started making strange noises like she was possessed. The defenders all looked at her and froze, our big broke to the bucket, got a pass, and laid it in. Our girls laughed all the way up the court on D. She kept doing it on every inbound play but it never worked again. I guess it’s a once a game thing.

Friday Playlist

Phil Spector died last week. To say he leaves a complex legacy is an understatement. He crafted some of the most unforgettable songs ever, and created a sound that will forever be synonymous with his name: The Wall of Sound. But he was also, by many measures, a horrible human being. He ruined the life and career of his one-time wife, Ronnie Spector. His wildly erratic behavior put the lives of people around him at risk. This caught up with him in 2003 when he shot and killed actress Lana Clarkson. He was convicted and remained in prison until his death from Covid.

He made incredible music, though.

“Be My Baby” – The Ronettes
“Then He Kissed Me” – The Crystals
For all his issues with women, Spector had a true gift for working with female-fronted groups. “Be My Baby” was his biggest hit with his wife Ronnie. “Then He Kissed Me” is the ultimate Phil Spector song to my ears.

Well, I should say the ultimate traditional Spector song. His 1963 A Christmas Gift to You From Phil Spector is one of the greatest Christmas albums ever made, and Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is one of the greatest Christmas singles ever made. You know how I am with playing Christmas music outside the season. Feel free to play it on your own time.

“You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” – The Righteous Brothers
Spector also worked with Ike and Tina Turner and the Beatles, both as a group and in John’s and George’s solo work. To represent his non girl group work, though, you have to go with “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” which was, by one measure, the most played song of the 20th century.

All three of these songs demonstrate the Wall of Sound sound. Spector built his songs upon layers and layers of music, often having the same parts played on multiple instruments to give the recording a dense, massive feel. There is always a strong emotional element in these songs that comes from that depth of the music.

“Born to Run” – Bruce Springsteen
Spector had nothing to do with the recording of “Born to Run,” at least directly. But a young Springsteen, knowing he needed a hit to get his career moving, pulled in everything he loved about Spector’s classic songs to build “Born to Run” into the huge, almost overwhelming, recording that turned it into one of the cornerstones of American Rock.

“The Woodpile” – Frightened Rabbit
On Inauguration Day, after hearing poet Amanda Gorman speak, I was struck by her closing lines:

For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it

That made me think of the final lines of “The Oil Slick,” the final track on Frightened Rabbit’s Pedestrian Verse album:

There is light but there’s a tunnel to crawl through
There is love but its misery loves you
Still got hope, so I think we’ll be fine
In these disastrous times, disastrous times

That night I listened to all of Pedestrian Verse for the first time in ages. The feel of “The Woodpile” fit the moment, as it is a song about coming together and finding community in moments of emotional stress. Inauguration Day felt like that opportunity for those of us who have been stressed by the reign of our previous president. As I think about it this morning, there is even a Wall of Sound element to it, making it perfect for today’s playlist.

“Ooh Child” – The Five Stairsteps
My brother-in-music E$ sent me this video earlier this week. It is incredible. Seriously, there are 800 incredible elements of this video. I counted them.

Indy Sports Notes

When banging out my most recent Sports Notes post, I overlooked one very important local story. Which may have been a good thing because there was another very important local story that broke yesterday. Looks like I better bust out an Indy edition Sports Notes post!


Pacers Make a Big Trade

Anyone who follows the NBA knew a James Harden trade was close last week, it was just a question of where he would end up: Brooklyn or Philadelphia. I was pulling for Brooklyn mostly to see Harden and Kyrie Irving try to coexist, but also to keep Harden the hell away from Joel Embiid.

I think I was as surprised as the rest of the world when the trade finally went down and the Indiana Pacers were involved.

After nearly two years of stress that never quite became full public drama or acrimony, the Pacers sent Victor Oladipo to Houston and in return received Caris LeVert and a second round pick from Brooklyn. Other than the Malice in the Palace, this might be the next biggest Pacers bomb to drop in my years here. After an offseason when there were reports that Oladipo desperately wanted out of Indy, it looked like he and the team had achieved an uneasy peace and they would be together until at least the All Star break.

Guess not. I will be fascinated to learn more about the mechanics of the trade, whether it was Kevin Pritchard inserting the Pacers into the deal or the Rockets looking for a replacement for Harden and reaching out to Indy knowing that Vic was unhappy.

At first glance it was a pretty brilliant move. LeVert has never played at Oladipo’s peak. But it also seemed doubtful that Vic would ever play at that level consistently again following his ruptured quad injury of two years ago. He was off to a decent start this year, but still lacked the explosion he had before the injury. It didn’t seem like Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon were great fits, either. LeVert is young, under team control for three years, seems to lack the ego issues of Oladipo, and looks poised to blossom into a really very good player. Likely not an All-NBA player, but a really solid cog on a team that has many other good parts.

News of the trade broke last Wednesday, but the NBA league kept putting off confirming the deal. Finally, Saturday, word came that the four-team deal was official (Cleveland was part of it as well). Moments later the Pacers announced that the deal had been delayed because a routine physical that is a part of every trade revealed that LeVert has a “mass” on one of his kidneys, and that he would be unavailable indefinitely.

That seems less than ideal.

There hasn’t been much clarification since Saturday. LeVert is with the team and has met the press, but did not share if the mass has been better identified or what the next steps are.

Obviously in a situation like this your first thoughts are with the player. You have to hope that this isn’t something life-threatening and it won’t affect his quality of life. If he plays again, that’s just a bonus. In his first press release LeVert noted that getting traded could have saved his life, which is a crazy footnote to one of the most consequential trades in recent NBA history.

So I guess the jury will remain out on the trade for awhile. Indy is one of the most difficult markets to build a team in. Kevin Pritchard was far from my favorite KU player. But seems like he’s been bold and creative in trying to keep the Pacers successful since he took over from Larry Bird.

It’s a shame that Victor was not happy here. As an Indiana alum and someone who blossomed from draft bust to All Star and All-NBA here in 2018, he seemed like the perfect guy to build around after Paul George whined his way out of town. But he had other ideas.


Rivers Retires

My phone kept dinging Wednesday morning with breaking news since it was Inauguration Day and there were a lot of things happening. But when the news that Philip Rivers was retiring came across while I was at the grocery store, I honestly think I let out a gasp.

Not that I wanted him to stay. My dislike for Rivers is well documented. I was like most people, though, who completely expected Rivers to return for the 2021 season.

Colts GM Chris Ballard told Rivers to take a month to make his decision. It took about a week. I wonder if that means the foot injury he fought all season was going to take more serious surgery and rehab than initially thought. Or maybe he was just ready.

I won’t give him much props for anything, but I do admire the athletes who can quit a year too soon rather than a year too late. Maybe he saw Drew Brees break 157 ribs this year and thought, “No thanks, that’s not for me.”

That leaves the Colts in a very interesting position. They have a young, talented, cheap roster. They can be aggressive in making a move.

There just aren’t that many blockbuster deals in the NFL for quarterbacks who don’t have deep flaws, though. Lots of names have been thrown about in the last 24 hours, and none of them wow me. Yet the Colts can also probably trot out any random, replacement level QB next fall and win enough games where they can’t slip into a top draft pick in the 2022 draft like they did when Peyton Manning got hurt and they were able to draft Andrew Luck.

And in the NFL, you can’t really press pause for a year. Windows open and close quickly. Let’s say someone like Trevor Lawrence was out there for the 2022 draft. And let’s say everything goes poorly enough next year that the Colts were in position to draft that player. You have to figure that guy needs at least a year to be ready to win in the NFL, more likely two. So you’re looking at a roster that is ready to win today being three years older, having faced three more years of injury chances, and being three years more expensive. That shit won’t work.

Seems like Ballard either has to do something huge to win now, or sacrifice some success in the short term to get a long term QB. Nothing about either option seems very appealing.

The dream scenario would be to somehow get Deshaun Watson. But Houston isn’t trading him within the AFC South, and multi-team trades don’t work in the NFL.

I see almost zero chance that Dak Prescott does not re-sign with the Cowboys.

That likely leaves convincing Detroit to part with Matthew Stafford as the best path if Ballard chases an established QB.

Ballard seems like kind of a high-strung guy. I imagine he’s not going to sleep very well for however long it takes to get the Colts a new quarterback. Hell, he may continue to sleep like shit after the position is filled, knowing the guy he gets isn’t the guy he needs.

Sports Notes

Some notes from the sporting world.


KU Hoops

First back-to-back losses in Big 12 play in eight years, first Big Monday loss in 18 games.

Neither of those are a surprise. Against both Oklahoma State and Baylor KU looked utterly overmatched early. Overmatched for sure in the athletic sense, KU looking slow and bound to the floor where their opponents raced up and down the court and flew for dunks and blocks.

What was a bigger concern was how they looked overmatched in being prepared to play. Defense was supposed to be a strength for this squad, with so many similarly-sized pieces that made switching easy. For whatever reason this team seems to start every game extremely slowly on the defensive end, struggling to communicate and cover the right spots on the court. Against OSU it took switching to gimmick defenses for the Jayhawks to find a way to guard the Cowboys. They switched briefly against Baylor Monday, but I think Baylor’s lull was as much about the Bears losing interest as KU doing anything to slow them down.

In each game KU fought back. Hell, they probably should have won the OSU game but played stupid for the final minute to blow it. I guess that’s where KU hoops is right now: finding solace in nearly erasing huge deficits to get conference road wins.

In each game KU had one or two guys play well, but they could never get more than that rolling. KU’s good players aren’t good enough to go out and score 30 and carry the team alone. They need multiple guys being effective every night to have a chance against the top half of the conference.

That said, point guard is the big, glaring weakness that just can’t be corrected. Eventually Jalen Wilson is going to get hot again. There are going to be nights when all of KU’s shooters are hitting and they look good. Against the right matchups David McCormack can be effective. But point guard is a mess with no answer. Marcus Garrett either dribbles too much on the perimeter or goes barreling into traffic to throw up a horrible shot (that usually gets blocked), toss some blind pass out to space, or flat turns the ball over. DaJuan Harris has much better instincts, but looks utterly overmatched physically right now.

For the rest of the Big 12, it’s time to get used to your new overlords in Waco. Until Bill Self can convince a legit point guard to come to Lawrence – and he has yet to do that for next fall’s incoming class – the Jayhawks have no chance to win the Big 12.


NFL

After a highly entertaining Super Wildcard weekend, the Divisional weekend was a bit of a letdown. A couple of the games – Baltimore-Buffalo and Tampa-New Orleans – were close until late, but still not super exciting. The only nail-biter of the weekend was, surprisingly, in Kansas City. Maybe Chiefs fans were nervous and Browns fans excited, but my pulse never jumped a few notches at the prospect of an upset. The Browns were still the Browns until they took the lead, and they never got close to that.

Hopefully the conference championship games will be more fun to watch.


Kid Hoops

I don’t think I’ve written about L’s winter league basketball team yet. She’s playing on a team with girls from four different schools. They were supposed to play in one local travel league, but after that league postponed games until February they jumped to a different league that plays at private facilities in one county, rather than public gyms in multiple counties, thus had more predictable Covid rules.

They first played two weeks ago and got beaten pretty handily. L told us before the game that they weren’t ready to play – they had not had all 10 players together at any one practice – and it showed. They got down big early and had to play hard in the second half to only lose by 9. It was sobering to learn that the team they played was made up of girls that play club soccer together and play basketball to stay in shape in the winter.

Week two’s game was cancelled when their opponents went into quarantine.

The league they are in currently limits fans to one per player, but the gyms all have high-level cameras so families can stream games at home. These videos are also archived for later viewing. At last Friday’s practice, L’s coaches pulled up their next opponent’s most recent game and watched to get some ideas. L came home from practice all pumped up, “Dad, their guards are not good. I’m going to try to steal it every time.” I chuckled at her confidence. I get on her for playing too upright on defense and not being aggressive in going for the ball. “We’ll see,” I thought to myself.

Saturday she went out and had six steals in the first half. She added eight points and four or five assists before the break. She and her teammates played really well. They started the game on a 16–0 run and lead 28–4 at half.

But, I have to be honest: the team they played was awful. Just brutally bad. L’s team was missing four girls, including one of their best players, and still won by 31 points. L ended up with 12 points and eight steals. She said she tried not to steal in the second half, but the other guards were so bad sometimes they would just kind of hand her the ball and she had to take it.

I liked that she was aggressive on offense. She was looking for her shot early and often. She did not shoot well – I’m guessing she went something like 6–20+ from the field – but she was unlucky on several jumpers that spun out. She is still brutal trying to make a layup on a fast break. I think she’s something like 3–30 on those this academic year. She just can’t find the right angle/speed to keep the ball from hitting the backboard way too hard.

Reader’s Notebook, 1/18/21

A busy start to a new year of reading.


Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man – Emmanuel Acho
These are a series of essays by Acho, a former NFL player and currently a talking head on Fox Sports, to help white folks understand people of color a little better. It is light and breezy, at times almost too light and breezy. But the title is accurate: for things to get better in this country, those of us in the white community need to have some uncomfortable conversations and accept that we need to make sacrifices in all aspects of our lives for change to come about.


Life Among Giants – Bill Roorbach
I’ve has this book for several years, a gift from fellow book lover Dave V. I think I put off reading it because he told me it was decent but not great. I could be wrong on that. I just never felt any urgency to get to it when so many other books were on my list.

I decided to finally knock it out and remove it from the stack of books in my office cabinet.

It’s a tough book to write about because it is so sprawling, told through three threads taking place in the early ‘70s, late ‘70s/early ‘80s, then more modern times. Along the way it is a wild, wild ride.

There’s so much going on it’s hard to share a decent summary. The story contains: a murder of parents in front of their teenaged son, a house full of celebrities living life to the early ‘70s highest, two athletic prodigies and two ballet prodigies, an NFL career, an odd sexual awakening, another mysterious death that haunts many of the characters, a truly strange sibling relationship, a look into the struggles of running a restaurant, and a vengeance killing that goes wrong.

I’m not sure whether it all worked. I also don’t know if I had much sympathy for the main character, who seemed a little too good and gifted to be true. But I poured through the pages and read it in about a 52-hour window, which has to say something about my enjoyment of it.


The Intern’s Handbook – Shane Kuhn
This is a fun assassin story with a twist. Rather than a straight narrative, this is presented as a handbook for interns at Human Resources, Inc., a company that takes out some of the most protected targets in the world by placing assassins and “interns” inside their organizations. Through the handbook HR, Inc’s best assassin, John Lago, relates his final mission, one that goes severely off the rails and brings down the entire company.

It is written with a very cinematic feel, and a movie was optioned from the script seven years ago but seems to have died. It would have been interesting to see how the story translated to the screen. While most of the story is fine, it fell apart a bit in the final quarter. I wonder if that would have been corrected/cleaned up as the story was reduced to screenplay.


Rocket Men – Robert Kurson
I know plenty about Apollo missions 11 and 13, the most famous of NASA’s manned flights to the moon. But I did not know much about Apollo 8, which many inside NASA think is the greatest mission of the bunch. Some podcast listening piqued my interest and I snatched this up and read it in two days.

Apollo 8 was an outlier in the Apollo program. NASA was normally very formal and conservative in how they moved through the process of getting to the moon. A had to happen before B, and B had to be completed before C, and so on.

So it was a massive change in process when NASA suddenly, in the fall of 1968, decided to leap ahead and launch a manned rocket to the moon in December of that year. This was a big deal because it was jumping past several milestones that had not yet been satisfied, most importantly that the Saturn IV rocket had not safely taken men into orbit and had failed its most recent unmanned tests. But with the Soviets seemingly very close to launching their own manned lunar mission, NASA decided to throw caution to the wind and proceed with a crash course to orbit men around the moon before year’s end.

The mission worked. Along the way it sent men outside earth’s orbit for the first time ever, had men travel the fastest they had ever travelled (over 22,000 miles per hour), and checked off numerous other firsts. And the entire mission was flown under the mystery of whether what they were attempting to do was possible. Some inside NASA thought the mission had, at best, a 50–50 chance of success. There was a constant undercurrent of not knowing whether making the next set of maneuvers would send the astronauts crashing into the moon or off into space where they would be unrecoverable.

The days when the Apollo missions can be recalled first hand are nearly over. Amazingly, all three men who traveled on Apollo 8 are still alive, and were available to Kurson to help re-tell their story. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders add great depth to a flight that can be largely reconstructed from NASA documents and recordings.

Apollo 11 is more significant to the broader world, and Apollo 13 more dramatic. But Apollo 8 turned the theoretical into reality. I’m a sucker for a good space program book, and this one was excellent.

Friday Playlist

“Start All Over Again” – Candy Opera
This sounds straight out of the early ’80s New Romantic movement, with a few modern flourishes. Which makes total sense as Candy Opera got their start in the early ’80s Liverpool music scene. They plugged along for about ten years, split up, and went their separate ways. Then, three years ago, they reformed. They put a new album out last fall and it was filled with majestic pop like this track. I guess they just needed 30 years of rumination to put it all together.

“In the Future” – Neutrals
If I told you this band had a similar story to Candy Opera – that they got their start in the late ’70s London punk scene – you’d likely believe me, based on the sound of this track. But they are a fairly new band (although with a couple older guys in it) from San Francisco. Crazy! This could easily be an early Clash song.

“Complete Control” – The Clash
Did someone say “The Clash”?

“The Bandit” – Kings of Leon
I’m not always the biggest KoL fan, but the two new songs they released about a week ago suit my ears just fine.

“Galvanize” – The Chemical Brothers
A classic from 2005, with a little help from Q-Tip.

“R U 4 Me?” – Middle Kids
I have a bunch of music sites plugged into my RSS reader so I like to think I’m always up-to-date on what my favorite bands are doing. I heard this song last week on SiriusXM, did some checking, and was flabbergasted to learn it was released back in October. I swear none of the sites I follow shared it back then, and all of them have given Middle Kids plenty of attention over the years. What a disappointment!

Coincidentally, yesterday Middle Kids released single #2 from their upcoming Today We’re the Greatest album, which is due on March 19. Where “R U 4 Me?” sounds right in line with what their best songs have sounded like, “Questions” goes in another direction. I daresay there is a little Frightened Rabbit in the back half of the song, when the horns and orchestration comes it. It strikes me as a poppier take on a song like “Things.” Middle Kids have honored FR’s sound before, so that comparison isn’t super crazy. With two new (to me) songs this week, I’ll share the video for “Questions” as a bonus.

Food Mysteries and Menu Additions

This is the best thing I’ve read this year.

What the Hole Is Going On? The very real, totally bizarre bucatini shortage of 2020.

Rachel Handler looks into the mysterious shortage of bucatini. It is hilarious and fascinating.

I have to admit, I don’t think I had ever had bucatini before I read this. Magically I found some this week and made the Bucatini all’Amatriciana recipe Handler includes in her piece. It was fantastic, and got thumbs up from the entire family. Bucatini is now in our high rotation! Assuming we can keep finding it, of course.

Reader’s Notebook, 1/12/21

In my final piece of 2020 business, here are the last three books I read for the year. These put my total at 59 books for the calendar year. I know this sounds dumb, but I was disappointed with that number. I’ve read that many books in a normal year. Surely in a pandemic year I should have knocked out a few more. Oh well, a goal for pandemic year #2, I suppose.


The Birdwatcher – William Shaw
A solid thriller told in two intertwining stories. The first takes place in current-day southeast England, with community police officer William South pulled into a murder investigation of his neighbor and bird watching partner. The murder spins out to be much more than a random event, and South pushes the investigation forward where the proper murder police thought they had it wrapped up quickly.

The second story is from South’s childhood during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, centered on the defining event of his youth that led to he and his mother fleeing to England.

Naturally what happened to South as a child becomes a big part of his modern investigation. And both of those stories are really good. But where Shaw slips a bit is in how he brings the story to its dramatic conclusion. I did not buy for a second the coincidence that tied the two stories together. Which is a pity, because this book had great potential.


The Last Ballad – Wiley Cash
A wonderful historical novel based on real events that took place in rural North Carolina in 1929. Much of the state’s economy is transitioning away from farming to millwork, where cotton and other raw materials are turned into threads and cloth. After a boom during World War I, things are slowing down, work is harder to find, and conditions in the mills are getting tougher. Unions from New York are attempting to organize workers to fight for better wages and work environments. These activities have led to strikes, violence, and the use of force to break them.

In the middle of all of this is 28-year-old Ella May Wiggins. She has four kids, her husband has abandoned her, and she has become pregnant by her new boyfriend. To top it off, she and her kids are the only white family in a small community of Black mill workers.

Wiggins is intrigued by the idea of a union and attends a rally. She is asked to sing, and her voice and lyrics about working in the mills amaze the crowd and union leaders. She is quickly pulled into the leadership circle and begins organizing, not just to get her co-workers into the union, but also to integrate the union, which the union brass aren’t enthused about.

After a confrontation between some drunk, off-duty cops and striking workers, shots are fired, a sheriff is killed, and tensions ratchet up even higher. In an attack on a union truck convoy, Wiggins is killed.

There are echoes of the current moment in political history in the book such as manufactured stories to sway public opinion, a supposedly free press putting the views of the corporate class first, and the belief that anyone who follows a non-capitalist view of the world is un-American and deserves any violence that falls upon them.

It is also a pretty sobering reminder of how recently large swaths of the US population toiled in horrible working conditions, with little hope of advancing their cause.


Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Evolution – Brian Freeman
I was quite surprised to see this on a couple Best Of lists for 2020. The Bourne series has never been high art, although Ludlum’s originals were quite good.

As thrillers go, it is pretty standard. Jason Bourne is framed for the assassination of a very AOC-like congresswoman, and has to fight two different organizations that want him dead as he struggles to uncover the truth. A very attractive woman gets sucked into his world and has her life threatened in the process. Lots of violence and death. Some tasteful sex. Again, standard.

What earned this book its accolades, I believe, is how it addresses the age we are moving into. There are three different “evil” organizations in the story, and two are concerned with scooping up all your data and steering your behavior based on that information. Not just through getting the public to consume products, but by encouraging them to get out and protest or take direct actions that higher actors desire. Ten years ago it would have seemed far-fetched. But in 2021, it feels like we’re awfully close to losing whatever grip we have left on reality and large segments of the population can be coerced to act based on manufactured prompts.

(I wrote the above paragraph about two weeks ago. Clearly it is even more relevant after the events of January 6, 2021.)

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