Even artists struggle with what their characters should wear. Charles Willeford, my vote as America’s most under-recognized great novelist, has his recurring character, Hoke Mosely, adopt the routine of wearing the same yellow, poplin jumpsuit every day in the unpublished Grimhaven.
What clothes to buy, and when and how to wear them, is bewildering. I needed new jeans recently because the only ones I had no longer fit well and were beginning to fall apart. So I read dozens of articles, watched a video, shopped at far too many online and in-person stores, and corresponded with a friend who knows a lot more about clothing than I do. I ended up buying some Uniqlo jeans and a pair of Levi’s shrink-to-fit 501s. I’m not endorsing either, though I think these were good choices for me, primarily because they fit my budget and my body pretty well.
During the course of shopping for these jeans, I made a list of all the things I consider when buying clothes:
How much does it cost?
How much does it cost compared to other, similar items?
How much is it discounted? Is this discount frequently available or is this somehow special? Is the price unique to this situation?
How much is it worth to me?
What does its price say about me?
Is it in new or relatively new condition?
Is it being sold in a secondary market (thrift store, consignment shop, eBay, Craigslist) but still have its tags?
Can I try it on?
Does it fit?
Is the cut flattering?
How quickly will the cut look dated?
Should I get it tailored?
How will it look if my weight changes?
Is the color or pattern right for me?
Does it go with other items that I own?
How frequently can I wear it?
Are there situations in which I’ll wish I had it?
Is it like other items in my wardrobe that I like and wish I had more of? Does it replace an item that needs replacing?
Have I bought anything from this seller or manufacturer before?
What do people I trust think about this seller or manufacturer?
What have a read or heard about this seller or manufacturer?
Is the item well made?
When was it made?
Where was it made?
Who made it and what were the working conditions (children, slaves, union workers, an artisan)?
Does it advertise itself or its manufacturer or some other entity, either explicitly or implicitly? Does it have any other text or images that I would be seen as communicating, either sincerely or ironically, if I wore it?
Is there anything else about it that would make others think that it affiliated me with a specific group or ideology, and how do I feel about that?
What is it made of?
Did any animals have to suffer or die in order for it to be made?
Is the material used in its construction sustainable? Organic?
How difficult is it to clean? How often do I have to clean it? Does it need to be dry cleaned? Ironed?
Is it comfortable?
The list of things I consider when deciding what to wear each day is shorter, but related:
Is it clean?
How’s the weather? The temperature in the buildings where I expect to spend my time today?
Where am I going today and who am I going to see?
How recently have I worn this item or this outfit? Did I wear the same item or outfit this day last week? The last time I saw this same group of people?
Would I prefer to hold off on wearing anything until tomorrow, or this day next week, or the next time I’m going to see this same group of people?
Does this outfit look all right?
Unlike Jobs, Obama, West, and Mosely, I don’t particularly want to simplify my wardrobe. I like the idea of dressing somewhat differently each day. I enjoy reading about fashion in places like Unrefinery and having Jesse Thorn tell me to Put This On. Finding clothes I like at thrift stores and consignment shops is satisfying, and it can also be fun to try on new clothes at pretty stores.
I feel confident when I wear the right clothes at the right time—when what I’m wearing and how I’m wearing it meet the criteria I identified above that seem relevant to the given situation. I don’t feel like a celebrity, as though any signaling I may be doing should make people like me more or give me extra attention. For me, it’s more resembles the idea of flow: like I can forget about the distractions associated with not feeling comfortable in the situation and focus on the matter at hand. Mentally, it feels like sleeping somewhere remote: I generally don’t realize how much ambient light and noise is around me, and how distracting they can be, until they’re absent. That’s how it is with clothing: I don’t appreciate how worried I am about my appearance most of the time until I’m wearing something that doesn’t make me anxious.
It seems this anxiety is pretty commonplace, even among other librarians. While we don’t have a uniform, as with many other professions there are a few librarian looks we can choose to conform to or reject, either of which should serve as a useful starting point in deciding what clothes to buy and how to wear them. And yet the library community seems as infused with clothing anxiety as I am, a situation highlighted recently by Sarah Houghton’s post at Librarian in Black entitled “Wear What You Want” and the discussion it helped to inspire (even though Sarah herself is comfortable with how she dresses).
For a long time I fantasized about having someone weed my closet and dresser with me, then take me shopping for additional clothes I should own. I wanted that to be a friend, though occasionally I tried to think of ways I could get one of those fashion shows to do it without actually making me appear on a program.
So my new dream is an app that will analyze my wardrobe, suggest what to wear each day, and let me know about items I might want to buy. There are a few apps and websites that are beginning to approach this idea, including Who Brain, 123dressme, Pocket Closet, and the Male Fashion Advice sub-Reddit, but their heuristics and interfaces aren’t yet anywhere close to what I want.
Perhaps the problem is even more intractable than I want to acknowledge. It seems easy enough to take photos of my clothes for a database of potential outfits, photograph them again each time I put them in the laundry, and photograph them once more when they’re clean and I’m putting them away. But if it were that easy, someone would have probably built this app already. And if I were actually willing to spend several minutes each day photographing my clothes, I could probably instead use that time to learn how to buy stuff that looks good on me, and how to combine that stuff into appropriate outfits.
We started composting last year. Again. But this time we seem to be better at it than the last few times we tried. Our system is simpler. We put fruit and vegetable waste and coffee grounds in a gallon-sized, airtight, plastic container that sits next to our sink. When the container is full, I take it out to the back yard and bury its contents in the ground during the six warmer months, and during the six cooler months I put it in a trash can-sized tumbler we keep near the back door.
So far, there has been only one point of disagreement. My wife found out that it’s a bad idea to put citrus in a compost pile, but I kept insisting on putting the citrus in our pile anyway because it didn’t make any sense to me that it would be a problem.
Her argument was stronger than mine, given that her information came from smart people whom we also happen to love. One of them is a landscaper and landscape designer. The other is an engineer who seems to know everything, including a lot about organic farming. These aren’t people I typically question, especially not about areas in which they have so much expertise and I have so little.
But I couldn’t stop myself from questioning them, so I did an internet search and found no reliable sources that said citrus was a problem for compost piles. I did find several that tried to figure out how the myth had originated.
I was right, but it was a fluke, a semi-random bit of bad luck. My experts were wrong.
We like when the experts are wrong, but not our experts. This is why we love writers like Michael Lewis and Atul Gawande and Gary Taubes and James Surowiecki: when we read them, we don’t necessarily feel smarter than the experts in the establishment, but we feel like we’re right and they’re wrong. We feel like we see the world more clearly than they do.
We also have our local experts. As a librarian, it’s my job to be one of those. Also, as a son and brother and husband and friend, I get to play that role on occasion. People will ask me about their computer, or what book they might want to read, or where to take a friend to dinner.
In those instances, people want me to be right. They don’t want to have to turn to Google or Yelp or Consumer Reports. They want an expert to save them from having to personally research every little thing.
Being right about the citrus, and being disappointed about being right, got me thinking about what I want in an expert. For empirical questions, the answer is relatively straightforward: I want an answer, I want an explanation I can understand, and I want reliability. For non-empirical questions, it’s more difficult.
For instance, the idea of pain has been on my mind since I started running more consistently over the past several months. Like most sometime runners, I long ago had an injury that kept me from running regularly for quite a while. Even after I healed, I figured it wasn’t worth committing to running because I would probably just hurt myself again. It wasn’t until I read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run a couple of years ago that I decided to commit to running more regularly once again. I started with minimal running and liked it, and then tried barefoot running which I like even more. The idea is that pain is your friend, because it teaches you what not to do. If you pay attention to little pains, you avoid injury.
During the warm months, on roads or simpler trails, and on short or middle distances, barefoot running seems to be ideal for me. If I push too hard or my stride is off, I know it immediately. But now it’s cold, and I sometimes want to run over craggier surfaces, and I sometimes want to run farther than I can currently run barefoot. So I bought some running sandals from Luna, and I like them quite a bit, but now the pain is asynchronous. When I run barefoot, any pain I might feel is generally limited to the run itself. When I run in sandals, I tend to feel great during my run, and usually for a while after, and then I’ll find myself feeling sore hours or days later.
Runners understand pain. Scott Jurek’s new book, Eat & Run, is as much about pain as it is about ultramarathon running or food. He is an expert in all three, but he’s the sort of expert I rely on more for inspiration than practical advice, like Marco Ament when he writes about photography. They have resources I appreciate, but don’t anticipate possessing.
David Morris’s sublime Culture of Pain brought me as close as I’ve ever come to understanding how people experience pain. Reading it changed my life. But it’s not the place to look for answers about running, about distinguishing between sensation and discomfort and pain and injury. Morris provides explanations I can understand, but not answers, and in the process calls into question the possibility of reliability. For Morris, pain is real, but it is also personal.
What we are left with is a scientist’s serenity prayer, a wish for the ability to accept sensible empirical explanations, the courage to question empirical explanations that don’t make sense, and wisdom to know the difference.
If you could choose the circumstances of your own death, would you do it?
I don’t just mean the date, time, and location, but also your mental and physical condition, the activity you would be engaged in, your cause of death, and even your sense of fulfillment. In this scenario, as you lay dying, you would have a chance to remember your personal and professional accomplishments, your thoughts and feelings during important events in your life, the knowledge you gained.
The counterbalance would be that you would always know the circumstances of your death. You would know what you needed to accomplish before your time ran out. You would know what you were going to learn and think and feel prior to the actual experience, meaning you would have no way to avoid the inevitable, so everything would take on the sheen of inevitability. Charlie Munger has said, “Tell me where I’m going to die so I won’t go there.“ Given the choice, I think I would prefer not to know.
But if I had to choose, I can’t imagine a better death than Sarah Vann’s. She died of natural causes on May 25, 2012 in Hawaii. She was 96.
I became a fan of Dr. Vann’s work soon after I began studying library history. As she wrote in her dissertation, which she completed at the Graduate Library School at Chicago in 1958, the first modern era of library science education started with Melvil Dewey and lasted until the publication, in 1923, of a report that Charles Williamson prepared for the Carnegie Corporation.
Andrew Carnegie’s belief in libraries is well known: the donations he made through the Carnegie Corporation helped create over 2,500 libraries around the world. Of course, these libraries were just buildings. There was no guarantee they would be staffed by people who could help communities get the most out of their new libraries.
In 1919, the year of Andrew Carnegie’s death, the Carnegie Corporation made its last library grant, which was kind of a shame, but it also hired Charles Williamson to create a study on library education, which was brilliant. That study helped lead to the accreditation process for American library schools, and it also led directly to the creation and proliferation of modern library education, most notably at the University of Chicago, which awarded the first Ph.D. in library science in 1930 and for many years set the standard for library education.
While Dr. Vann was working on her dissertation, she met Charles Williamson, and he wrote her two letters. In those letters, we learn that one hundred years ago, in 1912, Williamson had just been hired by the New York Public Library, which was working on a new grant from the Carnegie Corporation to set up its own library school. He helped provide assignments for the students and sometimes served as a lecturer. As he wrote to Dr. Vann, “I am afraid I always had a rather dim view of the nature and quality of the instruction in that school, including especially my own little part in it. Later I found that the School at the New York Public Library had the reputation of being one of the best in the country.”
Williamson, in 1912, was beginning to form a vision of the curriculum and standards being used by library schools today. In 1918, the Carnegie Corporation hired him to study its Americanization project. In 1919, it hired him to study library education. In 1921, he turned in that report. In 1923, that report was published.
Dr. Vann, through her research and their correspondence, is a direct link to Williamson. Many of Dr. Vann’s students are working in libraries today, and also educating library students. So that’s one hundred years, and the modern history of a profession, summarized in one or two or three lifetimes.
The major biography about Williamson is called The Greatest of Greatness, and his papers are archived at Columbia University, where he was the library director and dean of the library school from 1926 until 1943. I’m not sure where they are now, but Columbia’s archive does not include the two letters he wrote to Sarah Vann, dated May 23 and June 27, 1955, when she was a graduate student at Chicago. Long excerpts from those letters are included in The Williamson Reports: A Study, which Vann published in 1971.
A few years ago, I co-founded In the Library with the Lead Pipe. At the time we thought of it as a blog; the other members of its editorial board and I now think of it as a journal. I got to publish its first full-length article on October 8, 2008. That article ended up being a book review, though for several months leading up to our deadline, I had hoped instead to publish a study of the relationship between philanthropy and librarianship. A key element of that article was going to be my correspondence with Sarah Vann, which I saw as an homage to her correspondence with Charles Williamson.
I had been put in touch with a former student and colleague of Sarah Vann’s, someone who visited her frequently at the care home where she lived and who had recently collaborated with her on a project. I emailed a few questions to my contact, who passed them to Dr. Vann, but then things fell apart. Sarah Vann was in her nineties by this time, she was recovering from an illness, she hadn’t thought about this aspect of her research for decades, and she had given away her books so she didn’t have them as references. Though she had forgotten a lot, my contact informed me, Dr. Vann remembered that what Williamson appreciated about her was that she was willing to say that she didn’t know something if she didn’t.
Writing to me seemed difficult for Dr. Vann, so I asked my contact to interview her on my behalf. She responded that it might be better for me to write her a letter or call her. I was told that she was in good spirits, was extremely lucid, and had a strong voice.
I couldn’t make myself do it.
My grandmother had died six years earlier. We were very close. I called her every Sunday and flew to Alabama to visit her a few times each year. I wouldn’t have wanted someone she didn’t know to ask my grandmother a lot of questions about events she hadn’t thought about in decades. My grandmother would have tried to help, and she would have been flattered by the attention, but it would have been frustrating for her.
Regardless, I made the wrong decision about Sarah Vann. I should have called her or written her a letter. Even if she didn’t respond, I could have told her how much her work meant to me. I don’t think her life was any worse for my not having contacted her directly, though maybe she would have enjoyed our interaction. Maybe, when my time comes, it might have been one of those moments that I would have remembered.
This past August, thirty of Dr. Vann’s friends and former colleagues gathered at one of the University of Hawaii’s libraries to celebrate her life. She had requested a cocktail party rather than a memorial service, so the tributes that evening were accompanied by champagne and martinis.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but I can be awfully possessive about things I don’t own. Even things that no one owns. Even things that don’t yet exist.
That’s how I was with Mark Pilgrim’s writing and software. Every time he published something new, I stopped what I was doing to read it or play with it. His narrative pieces, in particular, felt like they meant more to me than they meant to other people in the same way that my favorite bands' music had, back in my teens and into my early twenties.
It was similar with Why the Lucky Stiff, though he was so prolific that I couldn’t always keep up, and sometimes I had no idea what he was talking about. He was sort of like an imaginary friend made mostly real, but left partially in a self-creating dream state.
The reason that’s how I was with them, rather than am, is because they’re both infocides, probably our most famous. They took their software, which was all open source, and their writing, which was all Creative Commons-licensed (if I recall correctly) and disappeared it from the internet, completely without warning.
Joseph Reagle, of Northeastern University and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, has published the draft of an article on infocides, “‘410 Gone’: Infocide in Open Content Communities.” His article is an interesting and comprehensive look at infocide, and includes well reasoned speculation into why Internet Famous people choose to disappear themselves. Though, as Reagle points out, “my approach also has a serious limitation: it does not include the voices of those who have enacted a successful infocide. (That is, those who really do disappear.)”
Which is what makes Dean Allen’s recent reappearance so interesting: it may offer some insight into the kind of situation that might inspire infocides to return to Internet Life, or at least explain a bit more about why they disappeared in the first place. Allen probably isn’t as Internet Famous as Pilgrim or _why, though he’s about as Internet Famous as you can get without earning your own Wikipedia entry. He created Textile, a peer and competitor to Markdown, and Texttpattern, a peer and competitor to WordPress, as well as TextDrive, which was the basis for Joyent, a web hosting company. He also had a popular blog, Textism.
But Dean Allen began to fade away. He wasn’t an infocide, but for several years it was as if he were on infohospice.
For instance, he didn’t remove his software. Unlike Pilgrim and _why, who generally developed their projects on their own, Allen tended to collaborate. When he left, his projects continued on under the guidance of the people who had become their primary developers. He didn’t abandon TextDrive; instead, he and his TextDrive co-founder, Jason Hoffman, merged it with Joyent, which continued to support its customers, at least until recently. His blog’s front page was changed to a one-word sentence—"Retooling.“—but its pages, such as its (funny and entirely specious) "About” page, continued to be reachable if you knew their URL. Even his Twitter feed presented just the hint of a pulse; his entire output for 2011 consisted of a single word:
One of the things that is unique about TextDrive is its origin story, which is about 80% Kickstater and about 20% YCombinator. Trading on his Textile and Textpattern credibility, Dean Allen crowdsourced the funding of TextDrive by allowing up to 200 people to pay $199 each to fund TextDrive, “a webhost that offers the best in performance, security and stability, backed by intelligent configuration and great software.” In return, he offered webhosting for the life of the company. I was one of TextDrive’s VC200.
Last month, Jason Hoffman, who stayed with Joyent as its Chief Technology Officer after its merger with TextDrive, sent an email to everyone who participated in the VC200 capitalization effort, as well as a few capitalization rounds that followed. As of October 31, 2012, Joyent would no longer support the legacy service still being used by many of the folks who had sponsored its VC rounds. I was about to lose my webhost.
A couple of weeks ago I received, at the same time as Joyent’s shared hosting customers, a message announcing an end to support for shared hosting, affecting customers who’ve been with us for years, some of whom invested in accounts we had intended to support for the rest of the life of the company. The announcement struck many as abrupt. Some took it to be an abandonment of, if not an insult to, your good faith, written in marketing and lawyer speak.
I soon spoke with my friend Jason, who by then was deluged with abusive emails and imaginative threats. After I rubbed some salt in his wounds, we began imagining what it would take to continue providing what we’d intended all along to those who put their faith in us. After some wrangling, we’ve found a way to make it work.
I’d like to announce that on November 1st, 2012, TextDrive will relaunch anew as a separate hosting company, staffed and funded, run by me. Please consider the recently announced end-of-life for Joyent’s shared hosting customers now revised to be a continuation-of-life, to be carried out in the same friendly, creative, publishing-centered spirit of TextDrive’s early days.
And just like that Dean Allen was no longer in hospice. Like TextDrive itself, whose hardware and service ethic had begun to fade over time, his years of infohospice became instead a continuation-of-life.
I realize this is precisely one data point, but perhaps this is what it will take to resurrect Mark Pilgrim or Why the Lucky Stiff. There’s no way for those of us who simply read their work and used with their software to know with any certainty why they abruptly left us, but perhaps the reason they haven’t returned is because they know they aren’t needed.
A website, _why’s Estate, is a collection of everything _why published on the Internet. A bit of sleuthing will reveal most of what Pilgrim published as well. And, frequently, their best work has not remained static. One of the tools _why developed to teach people how to program, Hackety Hack, remains under active development, and many people celebrate Whyday every August 19. Pilgrim’s last book, Dive Into HTML 5 is now credited to “Mark Pilgrim with Contributions from the Community.”
Unlike Allen’s legacy, neither Pilgrm’s nor _why’s is threatened. Which means that, if I’m right about a threat to their legacy being the thing that would mostly likely inspire their inforesurrection, I have mixed feelings about Pilgrim or _why returning. As much as I miss them, I’m not sure I’m eager for the kind of occurrence that would provoke their return.
Some things have lower prices than a lot people are willing to pay. Bruce Springsteen concerts are in this category. The reason 100,000 people are willing to pull their credit cards out of their wallets and spend a morning hitting refresh on their browsers is because he’s selling 30,000 tickets at $100 each. If tickets were $500 each (or whatever they end up going for in secondary markets like StubHub), the number of buyers would more closely match the number of tickets.
Others things have a level of quality that is associated with much more expensive comparables.
Consumer Reports recently recommended a sunscreen that costs $.59/ounce over sunscreens that cost as much as $20/ounce.
More than a thousand people on Amazon love the coffee they get from a $26 coffee press, an opinion shared by notable coffee geeks, including Marco Ament.
Just to be clear, I’m not endorsing any of these products. I chose these examples specifically because I’m not a Springsteen fan, I don’t drink coffee, I’ve never tried the sunscreen, and the company that made the amplifier is out of business.
What I am interested in is the idea of inefficiencies in the consumer marketplace: outstanding and unique products whose standard price presents an anomalously good value. As a consumer, I want to know about these products because I want to buy them. And as someone who believes he offers such a product, I want to figure out the best way to market it.
The product I offer is shared access to books, movies, music, the internet, and live presentations. I’m the director of a public library.
For decades, libraries have operated under what we now think of as a freemium model. Access to a public library is generally included as part of your taxes, just as access to free or freemium web-based services are generally included as part of the fees you pay for internet access.
Most libraries lend you a book or DVD or CD for free for a limited time. If you want to keep borrowing it for free beyond that limited time, you need to renew it. If you want to keep it even longer, you usually pay a small fee for each extra day you keep it (at the library where I work, “extended use fees” for books are 10 cents/day). If you want to keep the item indefinitely, or if you lose it or damage it, you have to pay its full replacement cost, along with a modest processing fee.
Seen from this perspective, libraries fit the definition of being a great deal both for category 1 and for category 2. Regarding category 1, the Springsteen Ticket Model, we collect extended use fees all the time, and frequently have to charge people to replace items, so we’re clearly charging less than people are willing to pay. Regarding category 2, the Wow So Cheap for Such a Great Product Model, we’ve seen considerable growth over the past few years, so it seems likely that we’re perceived by many as providing services that are at least acceptable relative to those offered by our more expensive comparables.
Perhaps for this reason, some libraries have found that they’re able to charge for services, such as borrowing DVDs, reserving an item, getting an item from another library, printing, faxing, or speeding up your access to especially popular items. These fees are controversial: those who object to service tiers worry about the damage to libraries' egalitarian ethos and reputation. Those in favor of charging for premium services believe the additional revenue can help to keep libraries solvent and provide a rising tide of income that lifts all boats: premium services for some could equate to better services for all.
I don’t know the answer. Perhaps there is no definitive heuristic. What’s the right price to charge when your users think of your services as free, or believe they should be free, especially when advertising isn’t an option?
Like many others, I’m eager to see how Twitter users react to increases in advertising, and if Google and Facebook can continue to grow while simultaneously becoming less reliant on advertising. If advertising continues to work for companies that offer “free” services, they’re simply different from libraries. But if these companies start charging users for services that were previously free, it will be telling. It will also be telling if they don’t, because it likely means they can’t.
The thing I hated about taking graduate courses in English is the thing I love about being a sports fan.
In English, the farther you go, the farther you get from the stories that first drew you in. In their place, you read metatheory about theory about criticism, commentary stacked on commentary, and each additional layer is less insightful and more poorly written than the one that preceded it.
In sports, it’s the opposite. The commentary that is most thoughtful, both in its reasoning and in how the writers present their ideas, is found farthest from the story that took place on the field or in the arena. As near as I can tell, baseball analyst Bill James was the first one to point out the advantage of being an outsider, that it gave him time to reflect and it freed him from accepting the distorted views most people seem to develop when they work closely with athletes.
These distorted views affect the athletes, their coaches, and the team’s announcers and beat reporters, as well as the radio hosts whose livelihood depend on the most immediate and emotional reactions of fans at moments of elation or, far more often, despair. Dispassionate observation and careful analysis generally don’t make for great drama.
Except when they do. Those who are drawn to genuine drama realize that objectivity mixed with empathy is the only way to get there. Unfortunately, most writers and radio hosts seem incapable of creating great drama, so instead they get it on the cheap by making statements and asking questions that activate our cognitive biases (e.g., recency bias: “Bases loaded, two outs, game on the line, he strikes out. The guy’s washed up!”).
But there have always been a few people writing about sports who appreciate context, such as Roger Angell, and a few broadcasters as well, including Vin Scully and Lindsey Nelson. These are the sports broadcaster equivalent of Jimmy Stewart or Michael Cera as romantic leads, people who play against type, break the third wall, yet still come across as more genuine and believable than the performers who meet our expectations. The best thing about contemporary sports is that Angell and Scully’s successors are finding an audience on the web and in podcasts.
The host of Slate’s “Hang Up and Listen,” Josh Levin, and his regular collaborators, NPR contributors Stefan Fatsis and Mike Pesca, love sports the way that I’ve wanted to since I was a teenager, with a sort of resolute, post-modern wonder. They know they probably should be doing something else with their time, they knew the XKCD punchline years before Randall Munroe penned it, and they’re just as aware of Eugene McCarthy’s observation: “Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it’s important.” But rather than doing whatever more sensible thing they might have done instead, they’re getting paid to do something they like doing, and watching sports is only half of it.
The other half is reading what other people they respect are writing, listening to what they’re saying, and talking sports with people whose company they enjoy. They’re having a good time, and seem mostly guilt-free about it. They have removed themselves not only from macho posturing, but from the irritability that marked Bill James’s early writing.
The analytical heirs to James, the founders of Baseball Prospectus, Gary Huckabay, Christina Kahrl, Rany Jazayerli, Joe Sheehan, and Clay Davenport, project a sort of sports equanimity as well. Huckabay, the initial organizer behind Baseball Prospectus and at the time its best writer, seems to have moved on from sports writing. Davenport was always more of a statistician than columnist. But Kahrl, who writes regularly for ESPN, has found her voice and quietly become one of the very best writers ever to cover sports. And Jazayerli, a Chicago-area dermatologist, as well as the proprietor of Rany on the Royals, a contributor to ESPN’s Grantland, and a co-host of a weekly podcast with Sheehan, has become not only my favorite sportswriter, but one of my favorite writers in any genre. Sheehan alone remains voluble, but it is charming, and he knows it, which doesn’t make it any less sincere. His targets, rather than the players themselves, are almost always petty injustices or preventable stupidity.
Others who like sports, and like writing and talking about sports, like it much as they do music, in the case of Grantland contributor Chuck Klosterman, or food, in the case of ESPN’s Keith Law, or birding, in the case of SB Nation’s Rob Neyer. These are not the kind of writers who engage in hagiography, and if they did, athletes would not be the people they would lionize. They love sports, but they know far too much about the rest of the world to lose track of sport’s importance. They are cerebral people, geeks in the best sense of the word.
We may, right now, be living in the best time ever to be a geek, even one who likes sports. And there may be no better emblem of that than Joe Posnanski. Though he is still in his mid-forties, he is already among the most recognized sportswriters ever, and has gotten to the point that organizations appear to be creating awards just to bestow them on him, then naming the award after him so they don’t have to give it to him every year. His writing is serious and comic, universally human and analytical, persuasive and vulnerable, and invariably lengthy. He is starting his own version of Grantland, called Sports on Earth (which is in preview mode now but due to go live any minute) and on August 21, Simon & Schuster will be releasing his book about disgraced Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, which he started researching and writing before anyone outside of Penn State knew about the serial incidents of child molestation that took place in the football team’s training facilities. It was the best timing, and the worst.
Joe Paterno wasn’t a topic that interested me when Posnanski announced that he would be writing a book about Paterno’s last season at Penn State, and I stayed as ignorant of the scandal as possible when it dominated the news. But now, in part because of a post by Rob Neyer, I look forward to reading Posnanski’s book. It will likely be controversial, because anything published about Penn State now is certain to be controversial, but the appeal of Posanski is that he’ll likely view any rifts he engenders as a failure. This is not a man drawn to heroic tragedy. This is a man drawn to our common experiences, the things that bring us closer. The book must have been torture for him to write.
Not that writing should ever be considered torture. Even when it is difficult, it is a privilege. The real torture happens when we experience actual loss. Not the kind of loss that happens in sports, but the kind of loss that happens to almost everyone: the loss of a parent, or a sibling, or a child.
A couple of weeks ago, that kind of loss happened to the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. Andy Reid’s son, Garrett, was found dead in his room at the team’s training camp. He had been helping out with the team’s weight training program, and living in the dorms with the rest of the coaches and players. His death reminded everyone that sports don’t really matter. And, from what I can tell, it also reminded all of us why sports exist.
I don’t know Andy Reid. Even though I live a fairly short drive from his home, I don’t know anyone who does. But I know hundreds of people who are mourning for him, in a way many of us have difficulty mourning even for ourselves when we experience our own personal losses. We’re too close to it when this kind of loss happens to us, and so it fills us with conflicts we never knew we had, and forces us to deal with a type and level of attention that most of us never experience at any other time in our lives. It is too much, and so we shut out much of it, delay it, fixate on details. But when it happens to Andy Reid, someone we know so much about but don’t actually know, when it is right there for us but also removed, we can simply be sad.