From “TransAtlantic,” by Colum McCann:
The elaborate search for a word, like the turning of a chain handle on a well. Dropping the bucket down the mineshaft of the mind. Taking up empty bucket after empty bucket until, finally, at an unexpected moment, it caught hard and had a sudden weight and she raised the word, then delved down into the emptiness once more.
Perfect. Simply perfect.
This is from David Mitchell’s brilliant novel Black Swan Green. A perfect description.
I felt giddy with importance that my words’d captured the attention of this exotic woman. Fear, too. If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, “When you’re ready.”
When Brayan Pena is managing the Reds on his PlayStation, he doesn’t care what inning it is, when he needs a big out, he calls on Aroldis Chapman.
“When you’ve got a guy like that throwing 100 mph, why not?” Pena said laughing, before adding he only calls fastballs for Chapman in those situations on the PlayStation.
I’ve been complaining for years that Reds managers won’t use Chapman in the most high-leverage situations, preferring instead to save him for the typical ninth-inning appearance. (I’ve also been complaining for years that Chapman is a closer instead of a starter, but let me save that rant for another day). Frankly, Chapman is criminally under-used.
If Pena can figure out the best way to use your best pitcher because of a video game, perhaps we need to chip in and send Reds manager Bryan Price a Playstation 4. I’ll pay for the copy of MLB 14: The Show myself.
That’s probably as deceiving a headline as I’ll ever write. Sorry about that.
It is, however, an exact quote from one of my brothers, Jordan, who has lived and worked in China for nearly a decade. The quote comes from an interview he gave (part 1, part 2) that mostly touches on the respective education systems of China and America, about which Jordan knows more than any one person should.
Mostly, I’m posting the link to this interview because he gives a bit of a glimpse into where he (we) came from, and how he got where he is. I am struck by his description, since his story tracks pretty closely with mine…up until the point he deferred graduate school and decided to do something interesting and exciting. I did not defer graduate school, even though I had a job opportunity to do something that I really wanted to do (that’s another story for another time). No, I went on to law school and did everything that was expected of me. And the rest is history, as they say.
Anyway, I’m proud of my little brother. When he moves to Sydney, I’ll be sure to visit.
I don’t write about basketball very often. Never, really. I guess I write about UVa hoops occasionally, but that’s generally less about basketball than it is about my alma mater, if that makes sense.
Today, I’m thinking about basketball, and the reason I’m thinking about basketball is that LeBron James is returning to Cleveland.
This LeBron free agent drama has been fascinating to watch, but I can’t say I’ve been following it closely. Mostly, I’ve been keeping up with the latest news via Twitter, but that’s as far as it has gone. Now that the decision has been made, I can’t get over how good this story is. So many interesting angles, and it concludes with the return of the prodigal son to the Sixth City.
I don’t care about the Cleveland Cavaliers. Never have. Growing up, I picked a favorite team almost at random, since there were no NBA franchises within spitting distance of my home. I chose the 76ers, almost exclusively because Julius Erving played for them. You might remember Dr. J. Even on the downside of his career, he appealed to an 8-year old boy.
Over the years, the Sixers haven’t exactly been the model NBA franchise, but they have allowed me to watch and admire the talents of Erving, Charles Barkley (surprisingly, I can’t find an image online of the Barkley poster that adorned my wall as a teenager), and Allen Iverson. If the Cavaliers had had some dynamic player back then (sorry, Ron Brewer), I suppose it’s possible that I would have decided to root for Cleveland. I think my son is about to do exactly that. And I’m okay with that.
I like superstars. In every sport. Part of the joy I get from watching sports — and between the Reds and UVa, sometimes joy is difficult to come by — is from watching the greatest players in the game ply their trade. I never joined the chorus of criticism of Barry Bonds back in the day; instead, I was mesmerized by his baseball talent. In soccer, Luis Suarez bites everyone in his way and is a bit of a lunatic, in general, but he’s a genius on the pitch and I’ll watch him every chance I get.
LeBron doesn’t fit into that same mold, but he has certainly been (unfairly) cast in the role of a villain since “The Decision.” I’m not going to try to make the case that the way James made the decision to take his “talents to South Beach” was anything less than a PR disaster, but it has been absurd to see how everyone decided they hated LeBron James all of a sudden. For the last four years, most everyone has reveled in the LeBron jokes and rooted against him at every turn.
For his part, LeBron just won some MVPs and some championships and cemented his place in basketball history. He also became as a billion-dollar industry. His move back to Cleveland enhances that brand name to an almost unimaginable degree. I think the days of LeBron as villain are over; he’s now going to be a hero and a global icon on a scale that we haven’t seen since Michael Jordan.
It will be amusing to see NBA fans who were previously hostile to LBJ twist and turn to praise him for “coming home.” Not me. I’ve always been in awe of his talent, whether they were displayed in the midwest or South Beach. I’ll watch more Cleveland games this year than ever before probably, and I’ll never watch the Heat as often or with as much interest. That’s because LeBron is the greatest player on earth and I’m not ashamed to follow him wherever he goes. I love watching the greats.
Michael Jordan was never my favorite player (Erving/Barkley, remember?), but there is something that I used to say about MJ that applies to LeBron, as well. Every single time I watched MJ play, he did something that made my jaw drop. Maybe it was a crossover, or a pass, or a dunk, but you always got your money’s worth with MJ. Same with LeBron. I don’t think I can say that about any other basketball player in my lifetime. Other than Spencer Hawes, perhaps.
I’m very interested in the unorthodox rebuilding job that GM Sam Hinkie is doing in Philadelphia. Can’t wait to see how that turns out, and I’ll keep watching the Sixers while the building process continues. After Cleveland drafted UVa great Joe Harris a couple of weeks ago, I figured I’d be watching more Cavaliers basketball this year than before. That’s a certainty now.
I don’t know very much about sports, but this is one prediction that I nailed. Back on November 8, here’s what I tweeted:
Prediction: This will be the best Virginia basketball team since the Ralph Sampson years. Deep and talented.
— Chad Dotson (@dotsonc) November 9, 2013
Today, Virginia earned a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since…the Sampson years. They put together the best record (28-6) of any Cavalier squad since…the Sampson years. After winning the regular season ACC title, Virginia won the ACC Tournament for the first time since…well, since 1976, which was even before Sampson enrolled at the University.
This has been such a fun team to watch. They play the best defense in the country, and they have a disciplined, efficient, and unselfish offense. Now I have to decide whether to head down to Raleigh next weekend to watch the Hoos, or if I want to take the chance that Virginia will make it to the second weekend of the tournament. If that happens, maybe I can figure out a way to make it up to New York and Madison Square Garden for the Sweet Sixteen.
Better yet, this is only the beginning of some great things for the Virginia program. Tony Bennett has built something special. Hope the University opens up the checkbook and makes Bennett “coach for life.”
I never thought I’d see the day when UVa was 13-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Over on Twitter, I gave my quick and dirty assessment of Woody Allen’s latest film:
"Blue Jasmine" was very good. Cate Blanchett was very great.
— Chad Dotson (@dotsonc) January 22, 2014
Permit me to elaborate. As I’ve mentioned before in these pages, I’m a committed admirer of Allen’s work. His films over the last fifteen years have been uneven, at best, but there are some beauties sprinkled in there. Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona are fabulous, and 2011’s Midnight in Paris compares favorably to anything you’ll see from his peers.
The flip side of that coin is that Allen has written and directed some stinkers — You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, anyone? — but the best thing about Woody is that you only have to wait a year, and he’ll have another movie for you to pick over.
Which brings us to Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett as the title character. Jasmine is a Manhattan socialite who has her world tossed asunder when her husband (ably played by Alec Baldwin) is sent to prison for his role in various financial shenanigans. Broke, and broken, Jasmine moves to San Francisco to live with her working class sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins).
Allen moves the narrative forward in very focused fashion, skilfully weaving flashbacks of Jasmine’s previous life (relaxing in the Hamptons, for example) with her struggles to adjust to her new life. It is well-written, with all the hallmarks of an Allen comedy, including very strong performances by an ensemble cast. No performance is stronger than Cate Blanchett’s.
Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if Blanchett were to win her second Academy Award next month. (No, I’m not really stepping out on a limb there. Blanchett just won the Golden Globe for this role.) She is engaging from the time she makes her first appearance on screen, seated on an inbound flight to San Francisco, as she bores the woman next to her with a barely-uninterrupted commentary on everything that has gone wrong with her life. Blanchett’s Jasmine is never particularly likable, but somehow, she becomes eminently sympathetic throughout the course of the movie. If not a direct homage, the film was clearly inspired by A Streetcar Named Desire. More than once, I saw Vivien Leigh’s Blanche DuBois in Jasmine.
The most surprising performance, as you may have heard, came from Andrew Dice Clay, as Ginger’s ex-husband. Clay is legitimately good here, even if he didn’t utter a single nursery rhyme in the entire film. Also good was Louis CK, as a seemingly-sweet guy who woos Ginger.
My only quibble is that some of the working-class dialogue didn’t seem to ring particularly true, but that’s a small criticism. Blue Jasmine is well-executed, and is a worthy addition to the Woody Allen filmography. By almost any measure, Allen remains near the top of his game, a formidable filmmaker still, after nearly five decades in the game.
I’m not a TV critic (yet), and I don’t even play one on, well, TV. But this is my site, so indulge me, please. I don’t think it’s spoiler-y, but if you are worried about that sort of thing, you may want to stop now.
The Netflix original series “Orange Is the New Black” was released last July, and I finally got around to watching the 13-episode first season over the last couple of weeks. I do have some criticisms, but let’s make one thing clear from the outset: “Orange Is the New Black” is an outstanding show, nearly as good as anything else on television. I just wish it were on HBO.
There is much to love about “Orange.” It’s the story of a privileged woman — Piper, played by Taylor Schilling — who is engaged to be married and starting her own company, when she is charged with crimes committed when she was young and in love with a drug runner. Ultimately, she accepts a plea, and the story begins as she is incarcerated.
It’s a brilliant idea for a series, based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name. In most respects, it is well-executed. The ensemble cast is filled with great characters, most of whom are nuanced and interesting. Series creator Jenji Kohan displays a deft touch in slowly revealing each character’s backstory, and our view of several of the characters (notably Crazy Eyes and Mr. Healy) changes completely within the arc of one season.
There are notable exceptions, however. Two characters — Natalie Figueroa, a prison administrator, and Mendez, a correctional officer — are ludicrously over-the-top. “Orange” is a dramedy, so sometimes these characters are played for laughs, but their behavior is so exaggerated that it can be distracting. Often, it’s like these two characters were pulled straight out of an Adam Sandler movie. I’m love Billy Madison as much as the next guy, but that’s not a compliment.
Jenji Kohan probably should have toned that down, but subtlety doesn’t seem to be in her arsenal. To wit: listen to the music that plays whenever Daya (an inmate) and Bennett (a C.O.) are together. It’s ridiculous, and worthy of a 1980s Afterschool Special. And they play it Every. Single. Time. Before “Orange,” Kohan was known primarily for the Showtime series “Weeds.” I’ve never seen a single episode of “Weeds,” so I can’t compare, but I have real questions about some of the creative decisions on this show. (Also, I could do without the Jason Biggs-inspired American Pie inside jokes.) That’s why I mentioned HBO above; in the best HBO original dramas, these little wrinkles have all been ironed out. (Then again, it’s still the first season for “Orange” so there is time.)
When looking at the big picture, however, those are very small quibbles. In most respects, Kohan has put together a captivating portrait of life inside a women’s prison. Piper is a fascinating character study, but she is arguably the least compelling personality on the show. Taystee Jefferson may be my favorite character, but the entire group of inmates — Alex, Yoga Jones, track star Janae Watson, Sister Ingalls, Big Boo, and especially the Bible-toting meth-head Pennsatucky — are each engaging in their own way. I’m not sure how Kohan was able to make each of them a fully-formed character in only 13 episodes (the flashbacks to life before prison helped), but it works.
I was happy to be able to watch the entire season over two weeks, one episode a night, thanks to the Netflix model of distribution, but “Orange” is a series that would have benefited from the traditional model. At the end of each episode, I didn’t like the idea of waiting until the following night to see what would happen next (alas, my wife goes to sleep early, and she was just as engaged with the series as I). Imagine waiting a full week to see how Piper was going to resolve whatever issues were still lingering from the episode before. It’s a series that could have built even more buzz than it actually did by giving each episode some water cooler time.
Either way, I am definitely looking forward to the second season, especially after the eye-popping cliffhanger at the end of season one’s final episode. “Orange” isn’t as good as “Mad Men” or “Sherlock,” but it’s just a cut below. Which means that it’s better than most everything else on television (or whatever delivery device you prefer).
Yesterday, a 12-year-old told me this:
The only thing I know about judges is that they sit up there and yell at people to be quiet. I know there must be more to it, but I don’t know what it is.
That’s a pretty good job description, actually.