Thursday, March 23, 2006

Words Exchange

There was a story on the radio about the English Screen Actors Guild. It seems a lot of actors were not joining because so many of the names had been taken. So if your name just happens to be Roger Moore, and you wanted to keep your name and join the union you'd have to wait until Roger Moore died before you could do so.

What would it look like if writers had to do the same for words? Once a person realizes that they want to be a writer they'd put in a petition for a batch of words. You can only get new words when someone dies and there's a lottery held and you put in a bid for a word. Or you can trade words with another writer. Imagine Toni Morrison calling you and telling you that she'll trade you August, a word she had bought from the Faulkner estate with the money she made as an editor. In return she'd like your word beloved because she has this story she's trying to get out of her marrow. Marrow she tells you is a word that was once owned by Charles Chestnutt, you know, the famous turn of the century African-American writer.

Sensing your hesitation she agrees to toss in Carson McCullers' and Dorothy West's old word wedding because she bought that one for five dollars from this writer who was just trying to raise some money to buy groceries for a week, but she eventually realized that like most women of her generation, that word might not be worth as much. Therefore she'll throw it into the trade for beloved because you might be able to get some use out of it.

Right now, as much as I love Morrison’s work, the author whose words I’d probably most want to own, or in fact may owe a huge debt too because of how his language parachuted throughout my speech in the last year is John Kennedy Toole. Immediately after reading it Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces immediately shot up to the top of my favorite books list. It’s wonderfully imagined and even more exquisitely written. Words that for me always seemed mundane, trite and sometimes even harmful exploded off the pages of A Confederacy of Dunces with a vigor that I have never encountered in another book.

Prior to reading Toole words such as “abomination,” “corruption,” or “abortion,” had become stale in my writing and thinking; and if you had asked me what a “pyloric valve” was, I would probably told you to ask your mechanic. But as I read A Confederacy of Dunces these words blossomed again like a plant long thought dead which for inexplicable reasons buds anew one spring.

Well enough of my thoughts on the man’s words, I’ll let them speak for themselves:

A firm rule must be imposed upon our nation before it destroys itself. The United States needs some theology and geometry, some taste and decency. I suspect that we are teetering on the edge of the abyss.

John Kennedy Toole

Some how, some way, instead of thinking about the fact that this week marks the 37th anniversary of his suicide, I wonder if we would not improve our theology and geometry by giving some serious thought to the import of those words in our contemporary moment.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Don't Call it A Comeback

Of the current top 5 topics you don’t want me to get started on: (1) The Knicks (2) Tim Thomas (3) The Bush Administration (4) Haiti’s Recent Elections (5) Reinhold Niebuhr

Number two Tim Thomas is admittedly the least compelling and soon to be the first one off the list. His ascension to the top five was a surprise in itself. One day while reading Bill Simmons, aka,'s "THE SPORTSGUY", column I found myself doubling over in laughter as he brought up the peculiar saga of then Chicago Bulls' castoff Tim Thomas. As far as I, and most basketball fans know, the Bulls essentially asked Thomas not to bother showing up for work while they tried trading him and his expiring contract. This was bizarre for two reasons, one as Simmons alludes there was no reported Thomas outbreaks. Secondly, he was in the last year of his contract a year where NBA players usually play at a high level, thereby implying that he'd bust his bust behind this year and what NBA team could not use a gifted 6'10" forward capable of playing all three frontcourt positions giving his all on the floor as he plays for a new contract.
In fact the Bulls were in need of very such a player as they fought off early season injuries along their frontline and a Tyson Chandler slump.

What struck me most about Simmons' column (in which Thomas is only alluded to by the way) was the following claim:

Here's one of the underrated sports stories of 2006: What about the Bulls' acquiring Tim Thomas, burying him on the bench, then telling him to just go home while they try to trade him ... even though he's making $14 million this season. Has anyone ever made more money for doing nothing? Shouldn't magazines be assigning writers to hang out with him, just to see whathe does every day? If he's making $14 million, that means he's getting a check for about $525,000 every two weeks (minus taxes). Would you even work out if you were him?

The irony in Simmons's suggestion that "Shouldn't magazines be assigning writers to hang out with him, just to see what he does every day?" is that the very magazine/media empire that Simmons writes for did exactly what he was asking to be done for Tim Thomas. In fact, they did it twice in the past year.

First was last year's ESPN's hawking over Barry Bonds carried out by ESPN reporter Pedro Gomez . Gomez followed Bonds around during the entire 2005 baseball season, from spring training through when the Giants season ended last August. Given Bonds superstar status and the fact that he was on pace to break the all-time home run record, it's not that surprising that he might have a reporter following his every move, (I guess). But it is surprising when this athlete does not play until the last fourteen games of the season.

So instead of Bonds' chase for Babe Ruth's and Hank Aaron's home run records, we got Pedro's stalking of Barry which produced a lot of copy about his steroid allegations, a very serious public matter. However it also ratcheted up the volume on some of Bonds' very personal problems and struggles relating to his marriage and relationship with his children, the latter culminating in a bizarre interview conducted with his son at his side.

If Barrygate was not enough, ESPN followed that up with TOgate in the fall of 2005. Now TO, unlike Bonds, was a willing participant. He wanted to use the media to strong arm the Eagles into giving him a better contract, and the media wanted to use T.O. to... actually it never really became clear what use T.O. had for ESPN, so I guess why they were able to dispense of him so easily.

But during their shotgun marriage, viewers were provided with stories featuring T.O. working out in his driveway, getting booted from Eagles camp, walking back into Eagles camp, and boarding flights from Philadelphia to his home in Atlanta.

The private investigator, uh, I mean reporter, assigned to T.O. was Sal Paolantonio. Paolantonio did an excellent job of reporting the non-news that was often the trademark of the T.O. saga. Unfortunately all of this over-reporting trivialized the central issue in this case, the right of an employee to renegotiate with his employer. T.O. had a fair case, he outplayed his contract and deserved a new one. But the public quickly forget that nugget of information as it became a matter of his attitude, approach and feud with quarterback Donovan McNabb.
Instead of becoming a champion for worker's rights T.O. was turned into another spoiled, self-centered athlete who offered little character wise to his team or society.

Every once in a while during all the chatter about T.O. a football player would come on and talk about how NFL players hate the fact that their contracts unlike those of NBA and MLB players are not guaranteed. Which brings us to the case of Tim Thomas, NBA role player, who happens to be making 14 million dollars this season.

As you can see Tim Thomas is no Terrell Owens when it comes to physique and neither of them are Barry Bonds when it comes to stature. In fact these three barely belong in the same sentence. When placed alongside each other however, they do reveal a strange and rather disconcerting development within the sports world, in particular within, the ranks of the Disneyfied world wide leader in sports. A network founded on delivering sports news is struggling like general news outlets to keep the interests of its audience. Rather than sticking to their guns and doing what they do best, or selectively incorporating the elements of network TV, ESPN, has picked up the worst elements of network news and entertainment. The network has put a premium on entertaining its audience, while forgetting what made it entertaining in the first place, and that sports themselves are inherently entertaining.

Even their own ombudsman, George Solomon has addressed the troubling ramifications of the networks continuing ventures at blurring the lines between sports news/reorting and entertainment (see: here and here ) From simulated press conferences to the most recent attempts at stirring a feud between Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen during a televised game between the Sonics and Lakers on ABC, ESPN's sister station. A graphic outlining a comment made by Allen last year concerning Kobe was repeatedly brought on screen to remind the audience that there was a feud between Bryant and Allen. The comment was trivial at best, and the concocted feud was a wildly unimaginative way of drawing interest to a game that at first glance may have seemed undercast by the poor records of the two teams. However, Allen, Bryant and their teammates did what they were supposed to and played good basketball and in turn put on a spectacular performance for those in attendance and watching at home. They did not need broadcasters drumming up a feud, what they needed was a ball, two hoops and eight other guys willing to run, and once you gave them that Allen and Bryant were more than capable of taking care of the rest.

What does this all have to do with Tim Thomas you ask. Well Tim Thomas never got his show and ESPN never assigned a reporter to stalk him. Maybe the network was tired of going to the well or with Gomez and Paolantonio still assigned to Bonds and T.O. respectively, they could ill afford to dedicate other reporters to such limited beats.

It's a shame that in all this talk about players and their salaries the network has not done an expose on the owners that pay these salaries. It would have been really interesting to hear Jerry Reinsdorf explain to a city in which Hotel workers have been struggling to get a fair contract, and workers in general have been fighting for a fair minimum wage--to explain to these people how he can agree to the release of one of his top five players without any compensation. Workers throughout the city of Chicago who have put up far more earnest fights than Tim Thomas, who by the way is not even clear put up a fight at all, and can not get a deal half as good as he did. Even T.O. would have probably kept his mouth shut if he were dealing with Reinsdorf, and Bonds would definitely give almost anything for the three months of anonymity at full pay that Thomas was recently granted.

In either case, ESPN opted not make a story out of this and on March 1st Tim Thomas was bought out by the Bulls and then proceeded to sign with the Phoenix Suns with very little fanfare. In his first game back after this three month sabbatical Thomas scored twenty points in twenty minutes in 123 - 118 Suns victory over the Orlando Magic. I'm tempted to call this performance a comeback, but then again, who knew he was gone in the first place.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

A Change is Gonna Come

This past Monday (March 6th) my editor told me that they've decided to push my book back a year.

I smiled at the news, surely making my editor think I was a bit more off-kilter than he could have imagined after reading my memoir. It's funny I told him, yesterday's sermon at church was about patience, the virtue of waiting and putting oneself in a position to make the best of the best opportunity, rather than blindly seizing the first opportunity. Normally, I'd pick at the ideas in the sermon a bit more, but as I sat at dinner listening to my editor talk, I was quite content. He thought he was delivering bad news. I thought he was delivering good news. I am now going to get a chance to produce a better book.

All of this came at a price though: (1) I would have to seriously reorganize my summer now that there was not going to be a book tour; (2) I would have to think strategically how I was going to spend the next year and a half of my life; (3) That decision to keep myself off the dating market until September 06 (the end of the tour) would have to be seriously rethought--yet again; (4) I would have to learn to stop making decisions based on events that are six months away and learn to be comfortable in the present fettle of my life's skin.

Within days the news and what lay before me began settling in. I was gone from the publisher's pages (here and there) which made me think whether this was the first stage toward the eventual end? Then again I remembered the other lesson of that Sunday's s and every other Sunday's sermon, one must have faith, so I kept the faith that this book will come out, and started keeping an eye on what me, what Ferentz, will come out of this process, will emerge from this journey. I got scared. But as the believers like to say, "no weapon formed against me shall prosper."

I don't know about you, but in my experience my fears have been my greatest obstacles. Every girl I never tried dancing with, half the scholarships I never got, half the competitions I never won, were lost, or rather, never gained because my fears amputated my will compete. My fears amputated my chance to receive a blessing.

Then it hit me, this was not only a chance to write a better book, but a chance to become a better writer, and more importantly a better person.

The book may not be arriving in June, but I still got work to do, and I'm still on the grind because as one of the elders so beautifully sang out long before I had a story to tell, "A Change is Gonna Come"
A Change Is Gonna Come
(Sam Cooke)
As Performed Sam Cooke (1964)

I was born by the river in a little tent
And just like the river, I've been running ever since
It's been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come

It's been too hard living, but I'm afraid to die
I don't know what's up there beyond the sky
It's been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come

I go to the movie, and I go downtown
Somebody keep telling me "Don't hang around"
It's been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come

Then I go to my brother and I say, "Brother, help me please"
But he winds up knocking me back down on my knees

There've been times that I've thought I couldn't last for long
But now I think I'm able to carry on
It's been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come