Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Crowdsourcing a Very Important Question

In this post I'm asking for help from my readers who have spent time in Ireland.  Google stats tells me that I've only had one pageview from there, out of like millions basically, but maybe the rest of you with friends in Ireland can forward them this link or something.

OK, here goes: You know the song "The Boys are Back in Town," by Thin Lizzy?  If not, well, that's kind of weird.  But here, watch this.

So, there's a part of the song where Phil Lynott, the singer, is talking to one of his boys, about some of their friends who have been away somewhere for a while and are back, and he's basically reminiscing about old times.  In particular, he talks about this one incident that happened at their mutual friend Johnny's place.  He doesn't get into particulars, but there was an attractive woman there, one who liked to dance a lot and who was already known to the guys in this crowd for her dancing prowess. Well, long story short, on the night in question she got up and slapped Johnny's face.  

If you ask me, from what we know about Johnny, he probably had it coming, but that's not what I want to ask about.  I'm wondering about the line right after Lynott recounts the face-slapping.  Almost every internet lyrics site I've seen transcribes the line as, "Man, we just fell about the place.  If that chick don't wanna know, forget her."

Here's the thing: I had always heard the line as , "Man, we just fell up out the place," as in, they left. But now I'm really not sure.  Why would Johnny and friends have left Johnny's own place in response to the slap?  I don't know, but to my mind there are just as many question with the "fell about the place" transcription.  For starters, what does "fell about the place" even mean?  That they trashed the place?  Probably not, because again: Johnny's place.  Does it mean they cracked up laughing?  If so, why does he seem to be so angry towards the slapper in the following line?  

To my mind, none of these internet lyrics sites can be trusted -- they're basically all google bait, and most of the transcriptions on there are uploaded by users anyway, without being checked.  Many of them, for example, have Lynott singing, in the first couple of lines, "I still think them cats are great." Which is just comically wrong, and would honestly be kind of embarrassing, if lyrics transcription web sites were capable of emotion.

So I'm just wondering if people can tell me: Is "fell about the place" a commonly used expression in Phil Lynott's native Ireland?  Is "fell up out the place"?  Or alternately, was anyone reading this personally acquainted with him during his lifetime by any chance?  I would really like to know for sure what he's singing here, and the internet is surprisingly little help so far.  I'm hoping it can redeem itself starting now.

Newish Story

I forgot to say, I wrote this last week, about the short-lived showing of the Atlas Shrugged movie in Park Slope.  It was fun, though the hour and 42 minutes I was in the movie were definitely the weak link in the evening.

Some random thoughts that didn't make it into the story:

-- Aside from the obvious issues with the culture of the neighborhood, the movie faced some obstacles in Park Slope.  It had scored an 8 out of 100 on Rotten Tomatoes (that's down to a 6 now, by the way), and then there's the theater.  The Park Slope Pavilion has had what you would have to call some challenges recently.  There was a bedbug rumor (which the owners denied) and general disrepair so bad that the theater's 23-year-old manager wrote a heart-rending letter of apology to the Park Slope Parents internet group.

(Digression: Literally every single time I think of the Park Slope Parents internet group, which is an even more bizarre slice of the neighborhood than the Co-op, I laugh to myself about the saga of the "lost boy's hat."  It will be very old news to many of you, but if you're from Mars or something and haven't heard about that brouhaha, do yourself a favor and read up.)

-- I thought Tea Partiers hated high speed trains?  In the dystopian year 2016, they love them.  Who knew.

-- It's a movie about the glory of rich people, more or less, but one with a relatively limited budget.  This produces some unintentional comedy in the wardrobe and set design departments.  Lotta rich guys shopping at Men's Wearhouse in the year 2016, apparently.

-- I've googled around and I may have been the only person in the world who noticed this one.  Much of the film is set in Manhattan, albeit a Manhattan without an Empire State Building or basically any iconic skyscrapers, and one that in fact is pretty transparently downtown L.A. or Vancouver or something.  But there is a very quick glimpse of the heroine outside a subway station, and the stop is marked something like "Second Avenue/Seventh Street."  That's right: They've got a Second Avenue subway in 2016!  How dystopian can the future be if they've got the Second Avenue subway built?  Maybe union workers aren't so bad after all?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Mathematical Sublime

I had the strange experience this week of looking through a few dozen stories that I wrote 10 years ago in my first job, at the Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Va.  Strange because I had to get my parents to send them to me -- they were in a box in my old room, because I never thought I'd have any reason to look at them again.  But somebody wanted to see them, for reasons that are a little complicated to explain, so here I found myself getting decade-old ink all over my fingers -- and cheap ink, as I shouldn't even have to say that the Daily Progress uses, truly does get all over your fingers -- and reading stories I wrote when I was 23.

The big question you are all of course waiting for me to answer is, were they good? And my answer is, actually, yeah, some were.  Maybe slightly dated, given that I referred to email, in one of them, as a "relatively new technology." Either way, some that I remembered being good were not so good, but a few that I didn't remember at all were pretty decent.

You'll just have to take my word for it, because at the time I worked there, the Daily Progress didn't archive stories on its web site.  This was a source of great frustration to us writers at the time, but honestly, maybe it's for the best.  This way I can tell you that I wrote some really solid stuff back then and you have to believe me.  (Although, I guess some will believe me and some won't.  This is why I found myself in the 99-cent store photocopying the paper copies of a few of the stories today: to provide one such doubter with proof.  There is a higher threshold of proof in some quarters.)

At this point, the truly curious reader does have one other recourse: If you google me just the right way, you can find stories of mine that random people copy/pasted onto random web sites.  Like, the Rivanna Trails Foundation has a story I wrote about the Rivanna Trail.  By the looks of it, I wrote it either just before or just after a very long Friday lunch.  Upon finding this story the other day, I figured I could save myself a bunch of photocopying time if I could just find some of the old stories online that I actually liked.  This led to a spiral of self-googling and, at the bottom of that, a deep existentialist dread brought on by the vastness and depth of the internet.

Long story short, I didn't find any of the good stories.  I found a strange one about a guinea fowl named Peep who appeared on the Rosie O'Donnell Show.  I found some people (who I hadn't really forgotten about) who think I conspired to get a Republican elected to the City Council -- which makes perfect sense, right?  And, most intriguing, I found this: a blog post, written in Charlottesville, about a different blog post I wrote in New York, for the Times.  It's a little hard to explain why exactly that link made my head spin, but I'll try.

(Tangent 1: The dude who wrote that blog post must not have been paying his hosting bills, because it seems to have been taken down.  But I'm hoping that the magic of Google cache will keep it viewable for a little while longer.  If not, I'll summarize: In my post for the Times, I referred to Charlottesville's bygone yellow bike program.  This blogger saw that post, and my mention of having lived in Charlottesville, and wondered where I used to work when I was in town.)

(Tangent 2: This wasn't what made my head spin, but I was nonplussed to read the comments at the end of that post, in which somebody proclaims, "I have it on the best authority that Mooney is a total arse. LMFAO."  I don't remember offending any British people down there. Still,  I'm sure it's possible or even likely.  Those were the days before I was saved by the love of a good woman.)

(Tangent 3: This commenter is great:

30 Nov 2007 at 5:35 pm
Horatio said:
Apparently Mooney did not know that Charlottesville stole the idea from Portland, OR (or some other city on the west coast), which in turn stole it from countless cities in Europe.
Makes sense that Mooney used to work for the Daily Progress, as fact checking has not ever been at the top of the reporter’s creed there. Surprising he can get away with it at the NYT…

30 Nov 2007 at 5:37 pm
Horatio said:
Perhaps I should have read the column at the NYT before posting, as Mooney did in fact acknowledge the other cities before Charlottesville. Talk about not fact checking…

Hahaha.  Nice posts, guy.)

Anyway, anyway.  What made my head spin.  Since this post is now too long, I'd guess I'd just say, the vastness and depth of the internet.  It's amazing when you start to think about it.

The thing is, when you're writing for a newspaper, at least in my experience, you're generally not thinking about the number of people who are actually going to read the story. But even if you are, the numbers are basically finite -- as long as the internet isn't involved.  If the Daily Progress circulates to, say, 30,000 people, then you can figure that some percentage of 30,000 people are going to read about Peep the guinea fowl.  (Probably a pretty small percentage, since from what I remember, roughly two-thirds of the paper's readers buy it just for the supermarket coupons.)  Even with a big paper, like the Times, I could guesstimate the number of readers, and the number of readers in New York, and the number of readers likely to flip to section Q or whatever the City section used to be.  And that's how many people would see the story.  And then a short time later, all the paper copies of the story would end up in the dump or in the library and that would be that.

But with the internet, this stuff just keeps expanding and expanding outward.  The number of readers is potentially limitless.  I was talking with somebody about all of this after a bunch of Old Overholts the other day, and he started telling me about the philosophical concept of the sublime.

The sublime, Wikipedia reminds me now, has to do with greatness or vast magnitude and its effect on us. There are a few different types of it.  Here I'm going to borrow from Kant, as explained to me after a bunch of whiskey, so please bear with me.  As he saw things, the first type, the dynamical sublime, has to do with when we're awed by an overwhelmingly powerful natural force, like a thunderstorm or the ocean. Its strength makes us ponder our own weakness, etc. The other type is the mathematical sublime.  To quote a guy on the internet:
The experience of the 'mathematical sublime' is occasioned by an almost ungraspably vast, formless object. Kant suggests that at a certain point, the powers of our senses and of our Imagination (the faculty of the mind that schematises and grasps the sensory world in images and 'forms') fail to be able to synthesise all of the immediate perceptions of such a huge and formless object into a full and unified image of a single figure; its sheer scale threatens to overwhelm the mind's powers of comprehension, our ability to grasp its magnitude with 'the mind's eye'.
This is how I feel when I google my stories and see all the weird places they've ended up, and imagine all the weirder places where they still will.  It's also, incidentally, how I feel when I look at the blog stats that Google helpfully provides and see how many people are reading this crap, some of them in countries where I'm fairly sure I don't know anybody. Basically, I think that roughly 90 percent of you are people who know me personally.  But that 10 percent, even that little bit makes my head spin.

I used to have this recurring nightmare when I was a kid that I could never really explain, and still can't.  Basically I'd have the feeling of being in the presence of something overwhelmingly large, and being dwarfed by it, and I'd wake up with a sensation of unplaceable dread. (Fun kid, right?) But I guess that's the mathematical sublime.  The mathematical sublime is also when I imagine my stories being read for the rest of eternity. And it's also when I consider how many people reading them think I'm an "arse."

Bonus content, because anybody who read all of that deserves a little bit extra...

-- Here's some stuff I wrote and actually got published recently:
City Limits
New York Magazine

-- I'm working on a thing about the NYC bike lanes now. If you haven't read the New York Magazine story on them yet, it's really good. Also, this piece by Tom Vanderbilt, who is a terrific reporter, and who sold me my current desk chair.  (Great chair. Around the same time, I sold my portable dishwasher to the guy who played piano on Range Life.  It's the circle of life.)

-- The original conversation on the mathematical sublime ... man, you should have heard it.  Much smarter than what I've managed to scratch out here.  Unfortunately -- Old Overholt, etc. -- most of it is lost to history.  Reminds me of a story I heard about Dylan, from around the time the Eat the Document documentary was made.  I guess he was staying up late in hotel rooms with Robbie Robertson writing some of the best stuff either of them ever wrote, but they were both so tired and strung out on drugs at that point that they never bothered to record or even write down most of them.  The little fragments that survived -- and please click on that link, because it's so beautiful -- just make you heartbroken that there aren't more of them.  And yes, I am comparing me and Austin and our butchering of Kant to Dylan and Robbie Robertson. Though I will grant you that Robbie Robertson is ever so slightly cooler in that video than we were at the bar.

-- Finally, somebody is impersonating Ghostface Killah in blog form.  There's something sublime about that too, though I'm not sure which type.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Saw a story in the New York Times magazine about the Phillies' rotation and groaned, because I have Cliff Lee fatigue (sour grapes) and because I think they're overrated as a team, considering Ryan Howard's limitations against lefties and Chase Utley's physical state.

BUT, it's really good.  Pat Jordan is a terrific magazine sportswriter.  I had never heard of him until he started popping up on Deadspin a while back, but maybe that's just because I stopped reading Sports Illustrated a long time ago. I keep thinking maybe I should buy his book.

Anyway, cool piece for those who care too much about baseball, like me, or those who like it a little bit but want to learn more about the subtle physical and strategic stuff that isn't apparent on the surface.

Also, from a journalistic perspective, I can't believe he got so many people in the game -- Mike Schmidt! -- to go on record as candidly as they did.  There's a little bit of this phenomenon at play where old players always want to think everyone was better and tougher in their heyday, like when Goose Gossage refuses to fully acknowledge the greatness of Mariano Rivera.  But still, impressive to see player talk that goes beyond platitudes.

Finally, since I'm officially a blogger-in-my-pajames now (though currently not in my mom's basement), how about a prediction: I think the Braves will beat them.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Google stats tells me that somebody found my blog today by searching "what is ok to say to new parents". If you're still out there, friend, go with the bourbon thing.

Also, shoutout to my fans in Denmark, Austria, Panama and the United Arab Emirates.  I think I know who most of you are.  Stumped by Canada, though.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Clearly, More Than a Slum

I was writing a newspaper story about the Upper West Side of Manhattan the other day -- a real estate story about, basically, what a pleasant, family-friendly, and expensive place it is to live.  Whenever I'm working on a story like that, I find myself thinking of my father's great-aunt and great-uncle.  As it happened, they lived on West 85th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus Avenues -- owned a house there -- and my dad, who grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, used to stay with them for extended visits in the summers.

The reason I always think of them on stories like this is that their Upper West Side was a very different place. Very nearly unrecognizable, I'd say.  The reasons are pretty complicated, rooted partly in housing and immigration policy and in partly in the postwar economy of New York City, but let's just say, for the moment, that it was rough.  At one point, actually, mayor Robert F. Wagner famously declared a block of West 84th Street, exactly one block south of my relatives' house, the worst block in the city.

My dad has one particular story he tells, about a racially charged gang war that culminated in a mob trying to storm my relatives' neighbor's house, and that neighbor then shooting one of the intruders and going to jail.  There is, in fact, still a bullet hole in the front of one of the townhouses up there on 85th Street, and my mom and dad have seen it, and I keep meaning to swing by one day myself.  I'm not sure I'm getting all the details of this incident right, because I haven't been able to find any news accounts of it.  That, actually, is what brings me to the point of this post.

The other day I was thinking about all of this again, because I had been talking to a real estate agent who also grew up on 85th Street.  So I went searching the Times' web site for some contemporaneous accounts of the neighborhood, including the "worst block" one block south.  Didn't see anything about that one shooting, but I did come across this.  Do yourself a favor and check this story out, because it's a doozy.

So ... where to begin?

How about that lead? (Note: People in the newspaper business often refer to the opening paragraph as the lede.  I have no idea why it's spelled that way, and it's always bothered me.  So I'm just going to say lead.)  So, how about that lead?  Are there any of the seven deadly sins that don't take place on this block?  Also (and thanks to Jeff for the tip on this), if you want to play a fun game, try scanning the rest of the story to see where homosexuality fits into the whole brawl.  It might take you a while, because homosexuality is never mentioned again.  McCandlish Phillips evidently just figured he'd throw it in because, what the hell, why not?  Just for fun, though, try substituting some other, equally random detail into the lead: "Drunkenness. Unemployment. Gambling. Overcrowding. Prostitution. Sweet Potatoes." Doesn't have the same ring, I guess, but it's equally relevant to the narrative. (Edit: No.  I mean more relevant.  At least sweet potatoes actually come up later in the story.  And they're delicious and good for you, by the way, so I don't really get the hate in there.)

Oh and also: "fighting for they knew not what"?  Because they were "Negroes and Puerto Ricans," presumably?  I mean, can't we just give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they knew what they were fighting for?  Or does only The New York Times know that?

At this point you may detect a certain snideness in my tone toward the story and its author.  This is because the more I read it, the more it bothered me.  Don't get me wrong: My initial reaction, and a large part of my reaction still, is to laugh at how hilariously overwritten and self-consciously dramatic it is.  It's just that, by all accounts my relatives, the McGinleys, were nice people -- certainly not, let's say, sociopaths.  Which is what the story's author basically comes out and calls them and their neighbors.  Am I reading this wrong?  I don't think so: "This is, clearly, more than a slum. A slum is good people in bad houses. But this, as one man put it yesterday, is 'a ghetto of sociopaths.'"

So, you're sure it's not just good people in bad houses?  Or maybe only some of them are good?  Nope.  Ghetto of sociopaths.

Let me digress for a moment to explain another newsroom phenomenon. A lot of the time, vivid writing isn't the top priority in the newspaper business -- it's mostly about conveying information, and you can get fairly successful as a reporter while being basically fairly utilitarian as a writer.  I actually think that's a good thing.  But then every now and then, in this environment in which writing tends to be fairly straightforward and writers fairly humble, you get a guy who fancies himself a wordsmith.  And somehow, through self-promotion or just by being somewhat more of a stylist than everybody else in the office, he gets a reputation as "the best writer at the paper."  Every paper has one or more of these guys, and often their writing really is good (I read a Rick Bragg story from the 1990s the other day that was genuinely emotionally affecting).  But just as often, it's terrible, because in a newspaper environment, when a writer gets a reputation as a stylist, people start encouraging him to be more and more vivid, and he starts believing the hype more than he used to, and editors are less likely to rein him in, and eventually you have pretentious florid disasters like this story.

I was thinking about all that when I figured I'd google McCandlish Phillips, and sure enough, this popped up:
Gay Talese, who left the paper in 1965 and became a best-selling author, says, “He was the Ted Williams of the young reporters. He was a natural. There was only one guy I thought I was not the equal of, and that was McCandlish Phillips.”
Well, Gay Talese is a living legend and I don't want to contradict him in any way, so I guess I'll just say that even in his best season Ted Williams only got a hit in four out of 10 at-bats.

Oh, and the last thing that gets me about this story? See in the second-to-last paragraph where it notes, not disapprovingly, that the area is in for some slum clearance?  And that "Fifteen buildings on Eighty-fifth Street and six buildings on Eighty-fourth Street, near Columbus Avenue, have already been condemned and vacated to make space for a new grade school"?

That resonated with me too, because I know what happened to the McGinleys on the Upper West Side: The city took their house away.  They got some money in return, sure, and it was an amount consistent with the ghetto of sociopaths they were living in.

At times like this, though, I can't help wondering how things might have been different if someone from the family had managed to stick around.  Entire buildings don't come up for sale often on West 85th Street, so this is just a rough comparison, but when I think about the whole situation, I think of places like this: A building a block away that's selling for $5 million.

Clearly more than a slum is right.

Unhelpful Things People Say to New Parents

"You should sleep when the baby sleeps."

This is a thing that people tell you as advice, in response to the fact that babies tend to wake up at, I don't know, 4 a.m., and want to suck on your finger for an hour.  Whereas at 4 p.m. they're basically paperweights. So just sleep when they sleep during the day, the thinking goes, and that way later, you won't mind sitting in a rocking chair with the Sleep Sheep in the dark hearing your neighbors snoring and/or having sex through the walls. (Hello to the people in E-23. Please don't feel awkward.)

It sounds like it makes a lot of sense. In fact, I think I remember somebody saying it to me before I had an actual baby, and my reaction being something like, "Oh, good idea."

Well, it's a dumb idea and people should stop saying it.

Here's the thing: One, as adult human beings, we don't have off-switches where we can sleep on command in the middle of the day, just because a one-month-old has closed her eyes.  Two: OK, so say her eyes are closed.  Are they going to stay closed?  And after that?  Hint: Nobody has any idea.  I know that because I now spend my entire life trying to answer these questions, and if I don't have any idea, nobody does.

Finally: When the baby sleeps, that's when I want to, you know, "do things." What things?  Well all kinds of things that I used to really like doing around a month ago, like read about the Yankees or listen to a record, or, like, wash my clothes or shave or do journalism or something. Anybody who thinks I'm going to waste my precious baby-is-asleep time on sleep for myself is out of their mind and deserves scorn.

Thank you for trying to help, though.  Sorry.

Dad blog bonus content: This is pretty funny.  I need to figure out how to write dad shit for the Op-ed page for money.

Dad blog bonus content, part 2, or, Helpful Things To Say to New Parents:

"Please enjoy this glass of bourbon while I empty your dishwasher."

"Lunch is on me."

That last one might actually belong under "Helpful Things to Say to Freelance Journalists."  Either way.