Archive for March 3rd, 2005

Call Me Ishmael, But Not Unless You’re 30

March 3, 2005

First semester, first day, first class in graduate school. The professor walks in, and this is a hand-on-a-stack-of-Bibles Professor. Think Sean Connery. He doesn’t look at anyone, just walks to the chalk board and starts writing. For the first twenty or so minutes he writes what I eventually find out is a bunch of Heidegerrian theory [read: nonsense] on “Being”. I also eventually find out (weeks later and after I’d purchased a couple of Heidegger’s books so as to try to make sense of the notes I had dutifully taken) that neither Heidegger nor “Being” has anything at all to do with our seminar on Hawthorne and Melville. Then the Professor hands out the syllabus. He still hasn’t said a word. Asks us, he finally does, if we notice anything missing from the syllabus. We had no chance to respond: Moby Dick, he said with a scoff that let us know we were all but wasting his time. “It’s not there because you aren’t old enough to read it. [He’s almost spitting at us by this point.] It’s a thirty-year-old novel. [He’s sighs and is just downright pitiful looking now–like a bassett hound with no teeth.] You have to be thirty years old before you can even begin to understand what Melville is trying to do in that book.” He went on [and on] about how you have to have a few more disappointments in life, a few more failures and heartbreaks and come out of them on the other side before Moby Dick would do you any good.

You Crotchety. Old. BAStard, is what I ended up thinking. Don’t you know who I am? My mother was an English teacher. My mother was MY High School English Teacher! I did a written AND oral report on Billy Budd when I was a Freshman! In High School! So we didn’t read it. We read all of Melville’s “lesser” works and everything Hawthorne even thought about writing, but there was this absolutely-nothing-short-of-an-actual itch inside me to read Moby, to see what the big deal was. I took the Professor’s theory as a challenge. I would read it, and I would understand it. And I was only 24.

The next semester I read it. I didn’t, in fact, “get” it, at least not on the level The Professor had meant. Other than a couple of scenes in the book (like when the sailors use whale penises as rain coats, and then there’s this beautiful scene where the sailors are burning whale blubber and sparks are flying every which way and they [the sailors] are dancing and it’s truly one of the best scenes I’ve ever read), I thought I’d pretty much wasted my time. I understood the book intellectually, but it didn’t move me.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that there are several different ways to “get” a book (I know this is nothing new, but humor me). To understand Moby Dick on an intellectual level, you need to understand the context in which it was written: understand Transcendentalism, the American Renaissance, 19th Century American culture. But that’s only one level on which to “get” a book. Over the years, I’ve begrudgingly come to accept The Proffessor’s idea that there are some books that can move you on an emotional level when they are read at certain points in your life.

I’m less concerned with reading books too early. I mean, I can always go back and reread Moby and see if it moves me on an emotional level (I never will, but I could). I have had a few more heartbreaks and failures and disappointments. But looking back on my reading experiences, I’ve come up with a variation on The Professor’s theory of reading. There are certain books that you can read too late in life if you really want to connect with them. A couple of examples that keep haunting me are The Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22 (oh, and On the Road). I read them in my late twenties, and I appreciated them. But I didn’t have the same response to them as I think I would have if I’d read them when I was 19 or 20. I was too old. Don’t get me wrong, I actually like those books a lot, I just really believe I would have loved them when I was younger. I would have been part of the cults that surround these books. I probably would have majored in English as an undergrad rather than Biology. I would probably compusively buy copies of them and hand them out to people on the street.

My point. I don’t really have one. I guess this is just a way of introducing part of how or why I read books. I have a big stack of books next to my, well, actually, stacks all over my house, to be read. I usually just pick up whatever is next on one of the stacks, so my reading is somewhat random. Regardless of this randomness, the books that stick with me the most are the ones that I am able to connect with on several different levels. I like books that make me think (like Moby is, theoretically, supposed to do), but if that’s all a book does, I’m disappointed. My favorite books are the ones that (and I hate this term, but I can’t think of a better one) move me–to think, yes, but more importantly, to feel, to act, to talk about, to think: hey, that’s exactly what I wanted to say in my gut but didn’t know how. And the books that move me the most are ones that in some way mirror some ongoing experience in my life. Love in the Time of Cholera, for example. Read it when you’re heartbroken and it will change your life [thank you, Leigh, for helping this book mean so much to me]. I don’t think I’d have liked it as much had I been happily in love at the time. The Grapes of Wrath. If I hadn’t been doing hard labor 60-ish hours a week for a millionaire who paid very little over minimum-wage and suspected all of us laborers as potential thieves or as though we were infants, I would have had much different experience reading that book.

My theory is flawed, and I know it. For some reason, I love some books written for children and adolescents. I’m not ashamed to admit that I like the Harry Potter series. Even more, I love Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials. I’m a bit scared to analyze myself to find out why I like these books so much. Maybe it’s because I’m still in school and feel like there are evil professors plotting against me? Maybe it’s that I want school to turn into some big adventure rather than just being a boring exercise of sitting in the library. Whatever the case, I feel some connection with them, so I like them (and pluswise, the Pullman books are very, very smart, I think).

Most of the time in this column, I’ll discuss a single book rather than general nonsense about reading. I just wanted to get it out in the open that I end up liking books that have the intangibles that don’t necessarily make them “Great” books, and I love hearing why people like reading what they read [as long as it’s not because the chapters are short]. And in the future, I’ll try not to say that a book “moves” me unless it is an absolute necessity. Next week, I plan to discuss Nicole Krauss’s novel: Man Walks Into a Room. It moves me.

The Fantastic Four

March 3, 2005

So, how would you like Juwan Howard’s job? Sure, you get to hang out with T-Mac and Yao, but check out how Juwan spent his February. After easing into the month against the Sixers, Howard had to guard the league’s reigning MVP in Kevin Garnett before tangling with the unique skills of Lamar Odom. After an “easy” matchup with Antonio Davis, he faced, in succession, Jermaine O’Neal, Zach Randolph and Antawn Jamison. After a rest against Seattle’s Reggie Evans, it was on to the big fundamental, Tim Duncan, before finishing the month up with the bruising Carlos Boozer. But this was an easy month for Juwan; he didn’t have to face matchup nightmares Chris Webber, Dirk Nowitski or Shawn Marion. All of which illustrates how the power forward position has become the premiere position in the NBA.

The NBA, more than any of the other big 3 1/2 sports (can you really count hockey any more?), is defined by it’s stars. After the Magic-Bird epoch, we had the Jordan era, and are now in the last stages of the Shaq regime. (And though we dream of a Ming dynasty in Houston, the future surely belongs to King James). But while Shaq and Kobe have been the face of this era, no position has the across-the-board quality of the four spot. Tim Duncan will retire as the best ever at the position, and Garnett will likely be his closest competition. However, he may not hold the title for long if superfreak Amare Stoudamire continues to develop and moves back to the four, which seems to be his natural position. Then there’s Dirk Nowitski, the 7-footer that shoots like Bird and might be the best four in the league if he played any defense. And what of Webber, or Rasheed Wallace, or Jermaine O’Neal, who would have likely dominated the position in most eras, but are in the second-tier of power forwards in this one? Or unique talents like Lamar Odom and Antoine Walker? Elton Brand? Zach Randolph? Antawn Jamison?

So why has this become the glamor position in the league, if not for highlights, then at least for effectiveness? Here are some guesses:

How slow can you go?For those that remember the eighties, it was a time of freewheeling, high-flying, ne’er-play defense basketball. Teams averaged well over 100 points, the greatest dynasty of the time was called showtime, and the game was played in transition rather than the half-court set. The stars of the game were predictably transition players — 3’s like Bird, Dr. J, and Dominique, and guards like Magic, Isiah and the young Michael. There were great power forwards as well, but, other than McHale, most of them played more like 3’s; Worthy and the young Barkley and Malone were more well-known for running the floor than posting up. Then came the triangle offense, which dominated the game in the Jordan and Shaq eras, and forced coaches to focus on defense and running precise offensive sets to increase the odds of scoring every time down. As a result, scoring has plummeted in recent years, and the emphasis on half-court offense means that your most valuable player is one you can feed on the low blocks, i.e. centers and power forwards. This slower game has created an arena in which power forwards can thrive.The Shaq effect

Another factor is the 300-pound gorilla (more like 340-pound gorilla) , Shaquille O’Neal, who has dominated the league like no other man in its history. The slower pace favors him more than anyone else, and his presence in the league may have lead to some true centers playing the four spot. Think about it; if you matchup with Shaq, you’re nearly guaranteed to foul out, you’ll be physically punished all night, and you’re likely to expend so much energy on defense it throws off your offensive game. Not that guarding Duncan and Garnett is fun, but they don’t pound a sledgehammer into your chest all night the way Shaq does. It simply benefits a team more to have its skilled post player in a position where he can stay out of foul trouble (and thus in the game) and save his energy for the offensive end.

The freak factorThis era features some of the most uniquely-gifted players the NBA has ever seen. Kevin Garnett has the skill and size to play any position on the floor. Dirk Nowitski has the body of a center and the shooting touch of a Reggie Miller. Rasheed Wallace, Chris Webber and Antoine Walker are also superior shooters, though not in Nowitski’s class. Amare Stoudamire may have more sheer athleticism than any post player in history. Webber, Walker, and Lamar Odom are all gifted passers with the post moves to play the four. Unusual talents like this have no real “natural” position, so where do you play them to maximize their effectiveness? The four position seems to be the best answer, to take advantage of their size and rebounding on defense, while still giving them the chance to run the floor on occasion, or trail the break like Nowitski to hit the three. It also presents matchup problems for teams not blessed with a freakish four; how can you guard a big man whose range can stretch to the three-point line? Most times, you don’t. The futureScoring is up this year, thanks in large part to the razzle-dazzle Suns who moved their great four, Amare Stoudamire, to the center position, and replaced him with their great small forward, Shawn Marion. Is this a sign of things to come? One can only hope, though the Suns may have to prove their formula works in the playoffs before other teams buy in. However, the momentum seems be trending to a more wide-open game that will favor the wing positions more. The stars who will carry the game in the future, LeBron and Dwyane Wade (along with Stoudamire), may lead us to a game that looks more like the 80’s than the late 90’s. However, before they do, we should take a moment to realize the incredible power forwards we’ve gotten to watch these last several years.Quick takesNBA — how good is LeBron James? I think he’ll average a triple-double one year before he retires, joining Oscar Robertson as the only man to do so. Just remember, he’s 20! How good is Carmelo Anthony? I’m not convinced he’s a franchise player. I get a real Jim Jackson vibe from him. College Hoops — Who’s the best shooter in College basketball? Before you say J.J. Redick, check out these numbers: Salim’s Stoudamire’s shooting 53.4% from 3-point range to Redick’s 41.2%, and his range is just as lewd as Redick’s. Of course, he doesn’t play for Dook, so you won’t hear Dicky V screaming about him nearly as much. MLB — Can anyone challenge the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL? Keep your eye on the Indians. They have as much good young hitting as anyone and their rotation features four studs — Sabathia, Millwood, Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee. They should win the Central and be very scary heading into October. NFL — Matt Jones ran a WHAT? 6’6″ white boys are supposed to run 4.39 in the forty. Somebody has to take a chance on this guy in the first round. If he can be taught to run a pass route at all, he’ll be devastating. NHL — can you spell MLS?