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A Quick Letter to the Chicago Cubs

Dear Chicago Cubs,

I’ve hated you for a long time and a World Series victory isn’t going to change that. Most of the teams I personally really like, including the White Sox, Cardinals, and Yankees, are your archenemies. That being said, I’m pulling for you to win the Series – or at least the damned Pennant – for a few reasons.

Number one, I like baseball and Chicago more than I hate any team, and a Cubs championship would be an awesome story for both.

Two, I have too many friends who are Cubs fans still patiently waiting and hoping. I tend to care about my friends and want them to be happy, and a title would really make their day. Hell, it would make their year, because many of them also have relatives and other friends who lived and died through this horrible drought never wavering in loyalty and belief.

Three, you just OWE it to everyone. Okay? You’re closing in on 108 years, a length of time during which teams and even whole leagues have blinked in and out of existence.

Fourth, when I do my inevitable Cubs post for my blog Every Team Ever, I REALLY want to give your saga the happy ending it deserves.

Fifth, the Buffalo Sports Curse tends to spill into other sports.

And sixth, I don’t want to hear any more about the Billy Goat, the Lovable Losers, the Cubbies, and the Curse and The Greatest Fans in the Entire Universe being let down yet again. I’ve had enough of it, and just one title would lay it all to rest.

So quit acting like a team nicknamed the Lovable Losers or the Cubbies that play in The Friendly Confines. You need to be more like the Blackhawks, or the 2005 White Sox, or hell, the Yankees or Cardinals. In others words, you need to get over your history and shed the cutesy imagery. I don’t want to hear any more about adorable and playful little Cubs. I want you to finish a metamorphosis into a pack of hungry, pissed off Grizzly Bears, charge onto that diamond, and take what’s yours!


(Year-Late) Dispatches From The Rose City

(Year-Late) Dispatches From The Rose City

Where I took my first breath of the pacific northwest’s crisp air is more a point of contention than one would realize. It has a lot to do with the idea of just where the Rocky Mountains end and the pacific northwest begins. Is it the divide between Idaho and Montana, which would place the popular university city of Boise in Cascadia? Or is it the cultural divide at the Cascade Mountains that splits the western hipsterville from ‘Murica 30 miles out? Some people would say that my first exposure to the elements in the great northwest came in a tired daze, when I awoke in the early AM hours in Spokane and stumbled off my train to stretch while it was making a water stop and splitting in half to take travelers to respective destinations in Oregon and Washington. Or perhaps it was a stop in Pasco, Washington, as the Amtrak crept along the bottom of the Columbia Gorge when I stepped off into the thickest mist and most humid air I’ve ever felt, which soaked my skin and clothes in a pleasant layer of dew. The one part of my journey that comes without argument is that it ended on an early Monday morning in Portland, where I left the Amtrak and took my greeting steps into a part of the country which, until that moment, had never existed as anything but a rumor.

My final stop before my excursion into Oregon was, of course, Chicago. My home for five years of my life was also the only real home I had ever come to know; during my years there, I finally learned to stop hiding. Buffalo was merely a city I lived in for a long time. Although my nativity there gave me access that tourists and n00bs wouldn’t find without an effort, my radical ways of thinking forced Buffalo into defensive mode. As a result, the city was never able to get its arms around me, so my relationship with The Nickel City – always strained a little bit – got outright rocky after the welcome my community in Chicago gave me. Chicago was my shining beacon on a hill. It was there that my true potential started to surface. Chicago became the bar by which I judged every place I’ve been since, and nowhere compared. So it was on this journey that I promised to stop making comparisons of any other city to it.

That being said, Portland made it a hell of a contest. My placements of Portland and Chicago on my list of favorite cities are first and second, and which goes where depends on my mood. I only developed two problems with Portland: One was that crossing the Willamette River was a pain in the ass. The other was the lack of PTA programs where I could finish the line of education I’m pursuing. The first one I was willing to put up with. The second one was more of an issue, which disappointed me because had there been the educational opportunity I needed, I would have cast my anchor right there.

The train station in Portland was set close to the cute, quaint little village part that every city on the west coast seems to have. The first thing I did was hop into a cab and have it take me to my hostel on Hawthorne. Giving the driver my money after the ride, I was delighted to be handed a rare two-dollar bill as part of my change. I was so sure it was a joke that I went to two different stores afterward to ask if it was real, and was assured everywhere that yes, it was legit currency.

Portland was a city of many surprises. It was proof that somewhere, a city planner cracked my skull open and pulled out the “ideal city” folder, then got to work. My hostel was run on rainwater, there were two iconic donut shops and one very large used bookstore, I didn’t pay any sales taxes, there were locally-owned businesses everywhere, there were microbreweries everywhere, cyclists glided fearlessly in small mobs, the street layout made perfect sense, the transit system worked, and it was easy to find good coffee cafes where I could sit down and watch the world go by. In the last couple of years, I’ve fallen in love with the TV show Portlandia. I was aware of Portland’s reputation as an outpost for the quirky and weird. I knew the cliches: Keep Portland weird. Portland, where young people go to retire. Portland, where the dream of the 90’s is alive. But that was TV, so I tried to keep my expectations reigned in. When I got to Portland, though, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein were making less of an affectionate parody and more of a travel documentary. Anyone who’s been to Portland can’t look at me and tell me they would be surprised if a 3D printer just popped up along the Willamette River. And that there wouldn’t be people in Portland trying to build their houses one plastic brick at a time using it!

The freaks and vagrants are magnetized to Portland, and it was easy to see why. As long as you were a decent person, anything you believed or did would be met with a quick shrug and a “that’s cool, man.” I can’t help but believe Portland exists in its own bubble, but I despise that description because it implies the dominance of a narrow set of beliefs that never got penetrated by the larger world. (And we all know what city I have in mind when I say that.) Portland wants the riffraff and will reject any corporation that tries to drop in with the sales pitch of making the city more “normal” or “family-oriented.” They’ll ignore Walmart, but they’ll be happy to accept Wall Marte as long as the profits all circulated in their own city. They hate Domino’s, but if someone thought to set up a Donny Moe’s, that’s okay as long as the pizza is edible. Even my hostel bunkmates were on the far side, even by the standards of hostel people. Politicking punks were typical hosteler fare there. One night, a very friendly surfer-like kid asked me if I wanted to learn how to ride a unicycle. I took him up on the offer, of course. Turns out that riding a unicycle isn’t quite as hard as it looks once you get a sense of balance for it. And it’s not as dangerous, either; if you fall over, your feet will almost automatically be the first parts of your body to hit the ground, and from there it’s easy to right yourself. The kid who was giving me my lesson said there was nothing to worry about. He had taught many people to ride unicycles, and only one of them had gotten hurt. The one who got hurt also happened to be drunk off his ass.

I spent my time in Portland trying to hit up good coffee and microbrew places suggested by a friend who lived in the area, but I also discovered a few spots of my own. I liked Blue Star Donuts, which makes French-style brioche donuts. They took 18 hours to make and were done every day by hand, and turned into unique flavors like Blueberry Bourbon Basil. I also came to understand the fierce rivalry between Blue Star Donuts and the more established and prevalent Voodoo Donuts. As I read and drank my way through the city, I kept getting thrown off by the lack of a sales tax. Oregon is one of five states that doesn’t have a sales tax, and it’s probably the best-known one. Like every other American, I learned early on to hate the sales tax with a passion because it’s a hidden cost. It’s being intentionally dishonest about the price a place will have on a product in order to try to squeeze out a little extra money. It was tempting to end all my monetary transactions with the question, “Are you SURE?!” and that did slip out of my mouth a few times.

I don’t go out of my way to visit kitschy attractions when I travel. I travel to see what’s interesting and unique about places and interact with the people who live there. But Portland had Mill Ends Park, a public park space consisting of a single evergreen tree and 452 square inches of space. No, “inches” is not a typo. The park is a single circle, two feet in diameter, sitting on SW Naito Parkway. It’s the smallest public park in the world, and a part of the best park system in America. But that was the only must-see thing on my Portland List. Everything else, I just went out and happened to stumble into. The Library, the Courthouse, Portland State University, Providence Park, and everywhere I found beer and coffee was a place I happened to walk into. Not that I’m complaining, because the lack of corporatization made every corner in the city look unique. Between that and the easy layout of the city, Portland is a place where it’s difficult to get lost. On the off chance you do manage to get lost, the people there are the types who are friendly enough to give you directions.

It was halfway through the week when I got the chance to see a friend I hadn’t seen in years. I let her know where my dates for being in Portland were set in stone, and she took pains to throw a wedge into an obviously busy schedule in order to see me and catch up. She was also a big help in letting me know what was worth trying, coming through a series of Facebook messages she sent me while I was on my way into the city. Apparently, Portland had stayed fluid even during the years since she moved there. We went to one of the local breweries, and even in there changes were always happening. She explained that the last time she went to that particular brewery, they didn’t serve food, and the place had been smaller at the time.

In Portland, I found something I didn’t think existed: A city that was tailor-made to my own specific tastes. Unfortunately, a possible move there may still be a few years off. I have a specific educational goal to finish pursuing which Portland didn’t offer. Maybe one day, though… In the meantime, I think I’ve found my new favorite vacation spot. You can keep your corporatized McDisney family tourist shit. I’ll go to Portland.

Game Over

Game Over

My latest video game purchase was sometime in the middle of last year. It included the rare Suikoden III for the Playstation 2, one of the most acclaimed video games that came out during the PS2’s console generation. Everyone who ever played Suikoden III loved it, with the exception of a particular staffer at Netjak who believed the customization system overhaul was hellspawn. So I took it home and threw it into the pile with Fable II, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and all those other RPG’s I was hacking through with every intention of beating in my spare time. I bought the game just before my graduation, which meant I wasn’t swimming with the extra time an experienced gamer needs to commit to a 50-hour-long RPG. Someday, though… One of these days, I’m going to find that time and play through it. One of these days, I’m also going to buy that Xbox 360 so I can finish Fable II and Knights, both of which I abandoned just when school started.

Wait now, was that the Xbox 360 or the Xbox One? I always get the two of them confused. I’m also a little unclear on anything that’s going on with the Playstation 4 and the Wii U. Are they even still things? I’ll get to them one day between my bicycle excursions, writing, work, and the school I’m trying to get into. I can’t do everything at once and, aw, fuck it, who am I kidding? I’m a video game nut and an aficionado. I always will be. But in the last year, I’ve turned into a world-class liar in trying to call myself a gamer. Tabletop games have made a surprise – and quite welcome – comeback in my personal life, but I haven’t picked up a video game controller in over a year. It seems hard to believe now, but here I am, barely even thinking about the hobby that spent decades defining my life. All that time dished out exploring every aspect of video games and then going to Netjak to write about those games is in the past. And for those minus-three people who read this blog and were familiar with Netjak, you now know why Netjak hasn’t existed in the last seven years. The staff – mostly in their late-teens and 20’s – grew up and wasn’t able to keep up.

Video games were always a fluid medium. They grew up, evolved, and changed from an outcast hobby for delinquents into an art form acknowledged by academics all over the world. They also embraced better technology to turn from minute-long coin munchers into interactive epics which let the people engaged with them to go at their own pace, exploring the virtual world or uncovering the story as they see fit. Unfortunately, that draws out the length of games to the extent that only outcasts are the ones with the time of day to make a deep run on today’s machines. And time is just the first problem. There’s also the weird business of having video games hooked up to your account; searching everything and trying to blow up every wall for the 100 percent completion rate; online hookups so I can get my ass kicked by someone in East Outer Jahunga; downloadable content; open-world games where travel takes up 50 minutes of an hourlong mission; and padding through eight-piece fetch quests. That’s to say nothing of the aspects of gaming that I was happy to do in games of my own generation: Level grinding; games that shame players for playing on lower difficulty levels; reading box after box of inane text; tutorials; solving surprise puzzles in games that aren’t supposed to have puzzles; and searching for the lost missing items that will let me continue through the final three levels.

I’ve run out of both time and patience to do any of it. If I don’t like a video game right away, I no longer even have the willpower to fight my way through the first four levels in three game hours to see if it gets better. Life is too short and there are good bicycle trails I haven’t explored yet. I no longer care about having ultimate domination over a video game that spent five months kicking my ass in the second level. Simply getting through the game once is accomplishment enough, because with 206 bones in the human body and me needing to know every single one, I don’t want to expend the mental energy trying to memorize layouts and patterns. There’s too much effort in trying to keep track of everything.

Yes, this is me, everyone’s favorite amateur video game historian. This is still me, saying I’ve lost touch with video games because I’ve replaced them with different hobbies and interests. And it’s also me saying that I realized awhile ago that, as an adult, I’m allowed to play video games to two or three in the morning and have, the vast majority of the time, just didn’t. Okay, well, I did have a few Star Wars Battlefront marathons in Buffalo that ran until the early morning after a bad day, but even then I put the games away when too much fatigue set in. I’m not reading about them very often, I’m barely writing about them at all, and when I do keep up with video games, it’s to visit the local used game store to see if there are any rare novelty games that could make a leap in value or to find out what kinds of deals exist. There’s no point to trying to buy the latest game right when it arrives in the store anymore. New games are expensive, and there’s a planet of good games available for under five bucks, so why kill myself over a near-day of wages when I can wait a year for all the new purchasers to get bored?

Portable games have the attraction for me these days, but I don’t yet have my DS and Game Boy Advance so I can play when I go out and am forced to wait for something. But even that attraction is limited, because the evolution of video games has managed to push them to the point where they’re getting to be more than games. There are games now where you pay real, physical money straight out of your bank account to developers who reward you by giving your in-game avatar a new T-shirt. I don’t want to sound like I yelling at the kids to get off my lawn, because if gaming is something they’re into, that’s okay. But the new wave of video games being sold as 100-hour interactive experiences stopped my gaming dead in its tracks. It’s a little ironic for anyone who liked the games that I did growing up: We’ve come to the point where unlimited role-playing is normal and stories run for months. When I was a kid, I dreamed about what video games could be when the technology got to the point where it was that good. But as I get older, the only games I can enjoy with any depth are the simpler games I first played when console gaming was introduced to my generation. It’s not that I wouldn’t be enthralled by the experience; it’s that I don’t have enough time in a session to make a serious dent in one sitting. Everything I did would be hacking through in snippets that were an hour long at best.

The new technology is overwhelming me. Video game irritants used to be limited to what happened in the game’s world. Now they’re showing up in the very act of trying to play the games. We have pay-to-play, wherein developers are basically forcing the gamers to pay by the level. Games are coming with bank account hookups and subscriptions to new content. I don’t care about multiplayer games if I can’t watch the stupid look on the other player’s face when I crush him after performing the super move that caps an incredible comeback; I also don’t like the wave of online bullying the internet’s anonymity included for free. I don’t care about setting up some sort of avatar for the console’s weird little hub.

It’s a little odd to think that one day, people will be wishing tomorrow’s games will be more like today’s games. When I play video games, that’s what I want them to be – games. Nothing fancy. Perhaps this explains why I went to the retro extreme and have embraced the tabletop again.

When I was Your Age: The Real Version

Here’s a post that’s been popping up on Facebook a lot from my Buffalo people:

“I grew up on (random street name) in Buffalo, NY during the 80’s and 90’s, during a time when everyone treated each other like family. We went outside to play, got dirty, and we didn’t eat fast food, well maybe McDonald’s but not very often. We ate bologna and salami and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cooked food, and got ice cream from the ice cream truck. We ate penny candy, yes I said “penny,” because that’s how much it cost back then. We played Mother May I, 1 2 3, Red Light Green Light, Hide and Seek, Truth or Dare, Monkey in the Middle, Tag, Dodgeball, softball, basketball, baseball, kickball, football, rode bikes, and raced against each other in the street. We cried if we couldn’t go outside and play. There was no bottled water, we drank from the tap. We watched cartoons on Saturday morning, we walked to the corner store, and we rode our bikes for hours without a cell phone. We weren’t AFRAID OF ANYTHING. If someone had a fight, that’s what it was – a fist fight. Kids didn’t have guns when I grew up. The street lights were our curfew. School was mandatory and we watched our mouths around our elders because ALL of our neighbors were our parents so we knew if we didn’t we were in big trouble when we got home.

Re-post if you’re glad that you came from a close-knit community and will never forget where you came from!”

This is idyllic-binder bullshit. All of it. While this is the prevailing oral myth passed from generation to generation about Buffalo these days, I have a unique hatred for this version of it because it seems to be snaring people who I thought wouldn’t become so Buffalo-ized. In other words, I see it being posted by people whom I’ve long believed know better.

This post is the ultimate embodiment of Buffalo’s refusal to change its guard. It drives me nuts, and not just because its platitudes revolve around a generic kidsville where every Boomer claims to have been raised.

Let’s break this ridiculous sucker down. First, you’ll notice that there’s nothing unique about it. It’s the life of kids from 80’s sitcoms, which does sum up the city in its desire to stay inside its fake little bubble. A post like this says to the rest of the world, “we never moved on.” It says that yes, someone saying it has seen that the planet left the past behind, but their little corner of the world has refused to acknowledge it.

The first delusion of this post is right in the first sentence: The whole neighborhood treated each other like family. It’s true that Buffalo has some close-bonded neighborhoods, but in this case, the bonds are all a bit TOO close. If you’re thinking of moving in with the hopes of integrating yourself into the action straight off, you’re going to have your work cut out for you. What this post doesn’t say anything about is the way they welcomed the newcomers with baked gifts. That’s because that doesn’t happen. You’re going to be welcomed by a lot of closed doors and binds, and that’s in the best-case scenario. There’s a good chance the people in your new neighborhood are never going to come around, and if you’re a minority moving into a white neighborhood, just forget it. My close-knit neighborhood where everyone treated each other like family chased every minority that tried to move in right back out in a matter of months.

For next couple of sentences, the food comes up, and it’s purely kiddie food culture. You can tell because processed junk gets brought up in a nostalgic way. Now, anyone who really missed processed meat sandwiches can go out, buy the ingredients from the grocery store, and make them at home, but I’m guessing they don’t. That’s because we know it’s bad for people. That line about not eating fast food just isn’t true – fast food is one of the primary dietary staples of the city. The people of my generation in Buffalo ate it all the fucking time. They just don’t recognize anything outside of national chains as fast food, which is why all the pizza and chicken wings they chowed down aren’t being counted. I’ll give them this: At least they’re eating local fast food. But as for the platitude about not eating fast food, don’t believe a word of it. And no, nobody cooked food, either, unless microwaving frozen and boxed dinners from the grocery store suddenly counts as “cooking food.” Ice cream from the ice cream trucks was an occasional treat, but most people got theirs from grocery stores as well. And anyone who repeats that penny candy bullshit to you just needs to be smacked in their fucking face as hard as possible. Penny candy has never existed in our lifetimes, so anyone feeding you that line better be a grandparent.

Now we come to the point of the activities, which is just funny to me now. People claim they used to do these things, which got them outside for fresh air and exercise. Now the question is, what’s stopping them now? There are organized leagues dedicated to most, if not all, of those games mentioned. It’s not that someone who posted that can’t go back out and do those things. It’s that they won’t. I chalk this one up to being a bad side effect of what happens when people develop too much of an obsession with the interests and habits of “proper” adults, and that phrase holds almost no meaning in Buffalo. Proper adults drink beer and watch TV. And no one cried about not getting to go outside and play. They played video games, because this was the time the age of video games was starting.

Or they played with the toys that their favorite Saturday morning cartoons were created to sell. I hate to come down so hard on this part, because I have the same fondness for those same cartoons as everyone else in my generation. So after all my anti-corporate, anti-studio ranting, it was grounding to learn that toy companies were busy back then making cartoons to sell already-existent toy lines, and not the other way around.

The original author of this post seems to have a thing for kids bicycling. He makes two references to it. This is another thing that’s funny to me, because if the author is native to Buffalo, they probably have a cold heart toward cyclists. I’ve already spent a lot of words in this blog writing about Buffalo’s attitude toward cyclists, so the only thing to think about now is how many people who were brainless enough to repeat this post have assaulted cyclists after becoming adults. Cyclists are like door-to-door salespeople in that the older they are, the less people are eager to see them. Little kids? Great! Teenagers? Just don’t pull anything outrageous, you little shit. Adults? You need to be killed. I can only hope repeat posters are cyclists themselves, because if they’re not, there’s a good chance they hate cyclists and have verbally – and maybe physically – assaulted a cyclist at some point, since bicycle hate is a prevailing ethos in Buffalo.

My friends and I were never afraid of anything either, and here are some things we did: One friend broke another’s arm; we climbed on top of a moldy and old tool shed that was older than our parents but still being used; climbed down to the bottom of a bridge; climbed back up that same bridge using a vertical pillar with lots of sharp rocks below; ran through mazes of tall sidewalk grass while onlookers threw rocks; brought down a phone line; ran screaming across backyards which weren’t ours; fell off low-hanging tree branches; and chased cars which were driving down the street. No, we weren’t afraid of much, even if we could be killed. Fistfights were part of playtime, and bullying was seen as a toughen-up tactic rather than a mental scar. (I had a neighbor who swore by the advice that a bully would leave me alone if I ignored them. This has never been true in any time or space. I’m pretty sure said neighbor hasn’t been very far outside of Western New York.) If someone had a REAL problem with someone else, the knives came out. The Police were called in at school at least five times.

School? Mandatory? You don’t say! Well, I guess it would have to be. Where else could a teenager find a teacher to try to beat up? Yes, this happened at my school; in fact it was so commonplace that, after one particular assault which was covered on the news, the big deal in school was that the footage showed by the station was of a student/teacher attack that happened at a different school. It amazes me that anyone could write with any pride about how school was mandated, because my schools all specialized in propaganda. Most of my schooling took place in the inner city, where City Hall didn’t care for real education. They cared that we knew just enough about the American Dream to let our corporate overlords do our thinking for us and were blatantly grooming students for 50 years in the nearest factory. Or the Military.

I’m sorry, but if all your neighbors are your parents, you’re from a creepy neighborhood. People complain about how social media invades privacy, but if you’re from a place like this, you probably never had much of it in the first place.

Naturally, here was my response to this post, altered to be realistic:

“I grew up on (street deleted) in Buffalo, NY, during the 80’s and 90’s, during a time when everyone treated each other like family unless they were outsiders, who were all suspicious intruders. We chased every minority that tried to move in off the block. We didn’t go to McDonald’s; well, maybe once a week, but we fucking gorged on fast food – pizza and wings from local joints ARE fast food. We ate bologna and salami and other kinds of unhealthy processed trash, microwaved food, and got ice cream from ice cream trucks if we were lucky. We ate penny candy – yes I said “penny,” because I’ve now confused reality with stories my grandparents told me about their childhoods. We played Mother May I, 1 2 3, Red Light Green Light, Hide and Seek, Truth or Dare, Monkey in the Middle, tag, dodgeball, softball, basketball, kickball, football, baseball, rode bikes and raced against each other in the street; healthy activities that got us fresh air and sunshine but which we now get together and deride and disparage people who do those things as adults while we sit on our asses drinking beer and watching football. If we couldn’t go outside to play, we stayed inside and played video games; hell, we did that anyway. There was bottled water, but we were too smart to buy it; we bought ice water for a nickel at local fast food places instead. We watched corporate advertising disguised as cartoons on Saturday morning. We walked to the corner store for junk and rode our bikes for hours without a cell phone but but now hate and try to kill anyone we see on a bike. We weren’t AFRAID OF ANYTHING, which is how my best friend nearly killed himself climbing a bridge on Cazenovia Creek and brought down a telephone line. If someone had a fight, someone would get stabbed. Kids didn’t have guns when I grew up. They just had knives. School was mandatory but we never worked or studied. We watched our mouths around our elders because ALL of your neighbors were fucking creeps who despised anything that was different and didn’t meet their weird obsession with “normality.”

Re-post if you’re proud that you shed your when-I-was-your-age binders and have vowed to never repeat the same lines of bullshit to any kids that grown-ups used to tell you about what things were like when they were kids!”

Tradition and Colin Kaepernick

I’m going to be blunt with my definition of what tradition is: Tradition is a series of things you keep doing even though they’re useless and unnecessary and useless at best and dangerous to the welfare of other people at worst. No one ever bothers to give it any thought because that’s the way they were raised, dammit, and the way they’ve always done things, so therefore it must be right. Tradition is a series of hollow, meaningless gestures which maybe – MAYBE – had some great purpose back in the Victorian era, but since then has been worn down by the demands and conditions of a surrounding society and become stupid and self-destructive.

There are good traditions, but even those hold no more meaning than the bad ones. If you’re using tradition in an argument as your sole excuse for trying to preserve a practice or an idea, you’ve already lost.

You’ll have to excuse me for wondering what all the hoopla is about when people talk about traditions. If tradition was still king, women and black people would still be considered property.

Let me be clear about this: Tradition has never had anything sacred about it. It was something someone sat down and drew up on a lunch napkin during break that blew out of proportion. It’s also used as a way to get people to ignore certain issues about the surrounding world which need to be addressed.

Take the American flag, for example. We get so busy huffing and puffing over it that we forget the root of what it really is: A piece of cloth with a specific dye pattern. Broken down, it’s not even close to sacred, and even the pattern on it which is so recognizable everywhere in the world hasn’t been solid in basically forever. Everyone knows the stars on the flag represent the 50 states in the United States. What gets lost among all the nice unity chatter is the fact that the 50th state, Hawaii, was granted statehood in 1959, right on the heels of Alaska. That’s means there’s a sizable chunk of the population both alive and old enough to remember a time when this great sacred object only had 48 stars. You can imagine what it must have been like before then, especially during the 19th and 20th century turnover, when the country was adding a new star to the flag every three years. How tiring that must have gotten.

The precious, Precious, PRECIOUS flag is steeped in a tradition which has been surprisingly fluid is what I’m getting it. They never kept the damn thing the same. Wikipedia even has a section about the United States showing the planned flag designs of the future just in case more states are added to the country. The thing changed, and it’s going to keep on changing.

That brings me to the American Flag Code. Yes, there’s an American Flag Code, a good long list of behaviors and regulations of what to do when the flag is barging around the room. It was apparently written by over 60 organizations – including the Daughters of the American Revolution, Boy Scouts, Knights of Columbus, and American Library Association – and adopted in 1923 by something called the National Flag Convention. “Written by over…” is usually a code term for “the interns punched it out in a couple of hours.” But what really gets me about the American Flag Code is that the fucking thing is COPYRIGHTED. That means if you’re dying to get access to a hard copy of it, you’re going to have to engage in the one thing about America that has always been it’s great inarguable tradition: Paying money for something which, given the unique circumstances surrounding it, should be free! It’s the American way, really: We make you think it’s cool before selling it to you.

Having familiarized myself with a little bit of the American Flag Code, it’s a shock how extensive it is and how little the general public gives a shit when it gets violated. Section 176 specifically forbids the flag’s use as clothing or drapery. But how many people would be out of their jobs if that section was honored? The number of workers in factories making American flag clothes has to be in the thousands. And not everyone stands up and salutes the flag while the National Anthem is blared over the loudspeakers, either. They’re all still milling about and socializing amongst themselves, and the Respect the Troops rhetoric that these flag ceremonies hypothetically represent is left on the shelf while I-don’t-feel-like-it takes over.

It’s funny how a kneeling quarterback suddenly reminded us how much we love the flag. Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, recently did something pretty simple: He kneeled during the National Anthem because he was tired of being forced to salute a country where no one can seem to get over the habit of treating black people as something between second-class citizens and threats. Kaepernick was protesting Police violence against unarmed blacks on the outside, but his protest gained traction because this is coming at a critical juncture. Texas has banned the use of the term “slave trade” from school textbooks, Fox News has used on-air arguments justifying and excusing slavery, and the Republican Presidential candidate might as well be BFFs with David Duke. We like to think racism ended with Jackie Robinson; in fact, the school textbooks I grew up being force-fed adopted that attitude. “Hey, there was a ballplayer named Jackie Robinson who was black! Then Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream! After that, racism went POOF! in a cloud of hippie love!” It doesn’t mention that the hippie love puff was probably a cloud of weed – it made us look for and sometimes even see something that wasn’t there.

Yes, laws changed, but that doesn’t mean the people changed. Hell, even poor Martin Luther King only hit the public school mainstream because his famous dream is the only thing people want to remember about his beliefs. The dream sticks with people because it’s warm and fuzzy and deals with the individual viewpoint. Delving further into his work reveals the pissed off writing of a very angry man who believed the white moderates who emphasized his dream were more of a threat to his people than the KKK for that reason: Their belief in order and civility above real justice. Kaepernick’s protest is starting to reveal the people King was writing about. No one seems to care about all the crimes committed by countless other NFL players and the league not giving a damn. But Kaepernick broke our sacred tradition and now we’re talking boycotts. People use a lot of different methods of hiding from a lot of real issues in the country, and by kneeling during the National Anthem, Kaepernick cut them off from one of their escapes: Football. Now he’s being accused of creating controversy, but as another famous loudmouthed athlete I like, Charles Barkley, once said, he’s not creating the controversy. The controversy was always there. Kaepernick is merely bringing it to our attention.

It’s funny to me that our obsession with tradition is the only thing that’s making Kaepernick’s action controversial. I don’t believe most other countries would raise an uproar like this. They have something that we have and claim to love but appear to secretly hate: Freedom of speech. That’s the first law written in the United States Constitution, a document which does – or at least should – mean something to the country because it’s the supreme law of the land. What’s written in the Constitution is what goes, which is why there’s been so little change in it. Kaepernick probably knew about the uproar he was going to cause, because we’ve come to accept that our flag and song mean something – god only knows what – over his own right to express his displeasure over the fact that his people are routinely shot to death on traffic stops while white rapist Brock Turner was put in jail for all of six months because the judge worried about his prison time having the kind of impact on him that prison time should have on rapists.

If you want to drag one of our stupidest traditions into it – I’m talking, of course, about religion – you should know the god of your Bible specifically forbids the creation of graven images, and that’s what has now become of the flag. It’s apparently something to be worshipped no matter what. And if you want to bring the third Abrahamic religion (Islam) into it, the Quran’s version of the story of Abraham takes a special pain to point out how stupid it really is. In the Quran, Abraham’s father was a man who made idols, and Abraham wondered if there was a contradiction apparent in creating something which you then bow down and worship. That’s why God started sending him messages. Back in the land of reality, if we weren’t so busy being outraged at someone for having the gall to not stand up because our favorite idol was now blasphemed by someone expressing a constitutional right, then we could be enjoying the new season and this whole thing never would have been an issue.

But that’s the kind of bullshit that blind obedience to tradition makes you do. Ultimately, we’re going to go home and not give another thought about it until someone breaks from the sacred flag traditions again. In the meantime, we’re going to wear our American flag Calvin Klein underwear and send kids to school to recite words they won’t even think about. I’m of course referring to the Pledge of Allegiance, which wasn’t formally adopted until 1942, and which wasn’t written in its current form until 1954. And which was originally written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy. You may want to look him up. He was an outspoken socialist.

Drew’s Song:The Most Misunderstood Buffalo Bill

Drew’s Song:The Most Misunderstood Buffalo Bill

Rob Johnson must have been laughing his ass off somewhere. I assume it was after he bench-rode his way to his Super Bowl ring with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he was laughing somewhere along the line.

I don’t think I have to bring up the mess that preceded the 2002 Buffalo Bills season. The Bills, a hapless and luckless team for the first 25 years of their existence, made a serious bid during the late 80’s and 90’s to change their fortunes for good. Even though the team pulled the trigger on Rob Johnson after the ugly quarterback controversy between Johnson and Doug Flutie, and Johnson proved to be a disaster, the Bills were still so closely removed from respectability that the horrific 2001 season could have come off as an aberration. In fact, that’s what most onlookers dismissed it as. It was a little hiccup from a rebuilding team which would be back in the playoffs quick. It seems funny nowadays that Bills fans were that optimistic, but it seemed perfectly feasible back then. But the Rob Johnson fiasco did lead to one of the quirkiest eras in Bills history when general manager Tom Donahoe tried to make up for Johnson by trading for New England Patriots All-Star quarterback Drew Bledsoe.

Drew Bledsoe was a Bill for three years, and I never quite thought he got a fair shake from Buffalo. Fans continue to pile blame onto him for the circus act the team turned into. That happens for a couple of reasons: He was the quarterback, and as the quarterback, he was credited for setting the tempo during games; and he DID have one disgusting year in Buffalo – his second one – which set the tone for every Keystone Cop and Monty Python incident the Bills have endured since. I can even theorize that Bledsoe’s reputation even played a part in his lasting image in Buffalo. It wasn’t that Bledsoe had some obvious character issue which spending-crazed owners like Jerry Jones or Dan Snyder would have ignored. Bledsoe was always a stand-up good guy and a class act who took his licks after every game, but that habit sort of started and ended at the post-game press conference. He seemed willing to take all the undeserved media punishment that came his way, which may have turned him into the typical non-leader in fans’ minds. When he finally got fed up and lashed out during his final season in Buffalo, it was a little late, but it did manage to light a fire under the team’s ass.

Bledsoe was a victim of circumstance more than anything else. His years in Buffalo were a little on the odd side because in the three he was there, he ran the full gamut of possible types of records in the NFL: An even record, a losing record, and a winning record respectively. The even and the winning records are two of only four non-losing records the Bills managed to pull in the millennium. Despite not making the playoffs – even the winning record was a 9-7 effort in which the Bills were denied a tournament appearance because they couldn’t beat the Pittsburgh Steelers’ third-string players – he is the owner of ten team passing records, including most yards in a single season and most yards in a single game. His own famously dominant show against the Patriots which opened 2003 is one of only three victories against them since Tom Brady usurped Bledsoe and enabled Pats fans to become the worst people on Earth.

Let’s look at Bledsoe starting in 2002, his best statistical season in Buffalo. The 2002 season put an 8-8 tally on the board, but that year was an 11-5 year in disguise. Jim Kelly himself couldn’t have run the offense any better. Bledsoe, Ruben Brown, Eric Moulds, and Travis Henry all went to the Pro Bowl. The Bills’s offense was second in the NFL only to the AFC Champion Oakland Raiders, and they seemed to do it all: There were comebacks, blowouts, narrow escapes, game-changing plays, no-huddles, and he-can’t-possibly-be-able-to-do-that heroics and plays. There were about two plays which prevented the Bills from ten wins and the damned AFC East crown. (I know what you’re thinking, and here’s the answer: The Patriots went 9-7 that year.) In 2002, Bledsoe was also assisted by an army of excellent receivers which included Eric Moulds, Peerless Price, Larry Centers, Josh Reed, and Jay Riemersma. And when Price, Centers, and Riemersma split after the season, Moulds was suddenly the constant target after Reed fell into the league’s traditional second-year slump.

One of the better methods of building a team is to figure out your strengths, then fill out the roster by getting players who are good where the team is weak. In one way, the Bills prepared for 2003 by doing just that. Despite signing London Fletcher in 2002, the defense was garbage. So after the season, the Bills quickly signed linebackers Jeff Posey and Takeo Spikes. Unfortunately, Buffalo’s coach happened to be Gregg Williams, the former defensive coordinator with the Tennessee Titans. And the problem with defensive coordinators being head coaches is that they think they can get by with a smash mouth offense no matter what they have in position. No one is blaming Price, Centers, and Riemersma for taking their talents – and their collective total of around 100 receptions in 2002 – elsewhere. But one can point at Williams and Donahoe for replacing Centers and Riemersma – respectively a receiving fullback and tight end – with blocking fullback Sam Gash and blocking tight end Mark Campbell. Their sudden issues at wide receiver were ignored, and Donahoe’s first round draft pick was a damaged goods running back. Despite Bledsoe’s talent, this was clearly an offense built for punching holes in the forward lines.

With the offense rebuilt from the ground, Bledsoe had all of one threat to throw to. Travis Henry regressed, and newfound kicker Rian Lindell was missing so many kicks, you’d think he had a mob boss to pay off. Although the defense boasted All-Star talent like Spikes, Nate Clements, and Antoine Winfield and put on a hell of a show, the suddenly frail offense went through a stretch of several games without scoring a touchdown. The Bills went 6-10 and Williams was fired after the season. The new coach of the Bills became Mike Mularkey, who won the job in the traditional NFL fashion of convincing the team that he was some sort of guru. They also addressed their recently-bad passing game by drafting receiver Lee Evans. Aside from that, though, they didn’t do a whole lot to upgrade their roster, which showed when they started 0-4. It was around that time they pulled Travis Henry and plugged in running back Willis McGahee, their 2003 draft pick. Although McGahee was still slowed by a severe injury that he was hit with during his last year of college football, his installment sprang the offense to life. The Bills won their first game in week five, against the Miami Dolphins, then lost to the Baltimore Ravens – Deion Sanders scored the final touchdown of his career in that game – and then won two more before getting killed by the Patriots again just because some things don’t change. It was around this time that the media and locals started to harass Bledsoe again, and this time the mild-mannered Bledsoe responded by flying into an angry rant. The Bills finally woke up, swept the NFC West, and rattled off a six-game winning streak which placed them in playoff position. Their advance was finally stopped by the Steelers in a win-and-in game, and the Bills hit the golf course with a 9-7 record.

Although Bledsoe seemed to enjoy playing in Buffalo and liked the idea of ending his career there, the Bills suddenly deemed him expendable after drafting quarterback JP Losman in 2004. Bledsoe naturally didn’t want to sit on the bench when his team was on the verge of contending again, and you can’t really blame him. Management thought different, and that was the end of the Drew Bledsoe era. Bledsoe reunited with coach Bill Parcels on the Dallas Cowboys for a couple more years before calling it a career.

As for the Bills, a five-win 2005 in which upper management meddled every which way with what Mike Mularkey tried so hard to establish the previous year forced Mularkey to walk off after the season in frustration. If there was a single point where the Bills were clear that they would never again be the dynamo my generation in Buffalo grew up knowing, that was it. That point on was a welcome return to a sort of football irrelevance the Bills hadn’t known since the early 80’s, just before Marv Levy turned them around. There weren’t a whole lot more stars and keepable keystones – just a revolving door of players and coaches picked out by general managers trying to outsmart themselves. There are 122 professional sports teams in the big four leagues, and of those 122, 121 have made their playoffs during the millennium. Even perennial trash teams like the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Pittsburgh Pirates, Los Angeles Clippers, and Florida Panthers have been to the playoffs. The Bills haven’t, and they’re now setting themselves up to create a new brand name as the NFL’s lovable losers. And sure, with Donahoe in charge of player movement, this may have been coming no matter what. But we can’t lay the blame for it at Drew Bledsoe’s feet. If anything, he prolonged the team’s respectability while Donahoe was hard at work destroying everything it built up in the previous decade and a half.

Night Moves

Night Moves

There’s no controlling it. At some point, your zombie switch just flips. Your body wants to sleep, you’re never sure if your brain is asleep or awake, and in general it starts to feel like you’re on some sort of unpleasant drug. Actually, there is a drug involved: Caffeine. You’ve been sucking it down since dinner, and on every break, because it’s closing in on 3 AM – which makes it the seventh hour of a ten-hour shift – and you can’t help but think of that warm, wonderful bed you have back home that you should be in!

Hell, thy name is night shift.

One of the strangest things about working a night shift is how many people you meet who don’t believe they’re talking to someone who works a night shift. Sure, they’ve heard of such a concept, but it seemed so faraway and alien that they quickly disregarded it as the make-believe of JK Rowling or George RR Martin. To meet someone who has to work this mythological concept is the equivalent of receiving an Owl Post acceptance letter from Hogwarts. There’s no possible way this could exist. Night shift! Didn’t those things go extinct when the governor of Peoria passed the work act of 1569 or something like that?

Well, they’re there. And for awhile, I worked on one. It wasn’t something I was looking to specifically do, but my transportation circumstances resulted in my asking for the night shift over the day shift. I’m not sure my body has been able to forgive me just yet. I know every night shift worker acts according to this idea that your body will adjust to working on the night shift, but for me that just didn’t happen. Then again, most of the people who told me about adjusting my body weren’t factoring in the schedule I was working. See, not only was I working a night shift, but that night shift happened to be a 4-10 shift: Ten hours per shift, four nights a week. And when we factor in my commute – which was two and a half hours for one way – I was basically working a 60-hour week which was crammed into four days.

I rode the bus and overshot my stop more than once because I caught myself sleeping. That was the primary issue with me: I was that kind of person who read about how Navy Seals in training go through Hell Week – a week in which trainees get four hours of sleep, total – and thought to myself, “Four hours a week. Must be nice.” My sleep on weeknights was nothing more than a series of extended naps, then travel naps while riding the bus back and forth. At one point, I took to buying coffee for the bus ride home to be awake enough to not overshoot my stop, but that never kept me from falling asleep. Once, I spilled coffee on myself because I could’t stay awake and keep my hand upright long enough to make the trip back home.

Being up and at ’em all night has a weird effect: It doesn’t seem to stop or alter the onset of night aches. The only difference between night shift and bed in this regard is that night shifters get some extra pain in their feet because they have to spend the night running around in a frozen warehouse. (Well, I did. That’s where I was working.) By the time I was let out of my shift, I usually felt like I was one of the damned, doomed to walk for all eternity.

My days went like this: While your own lazy ass is just rolling out of bed in the early AM – I mean about 8:30 here, just so there’s no confusion – I was unlocking the front door of my sublet from the outside. See, it was at that time that I was just getting back home from a hard night in the pits. So I would walk in, maybe head upstairs to the kitchen for a ludicrously light breakfast, shower, and be in bed between 9 and 9:30 AM. Up again somewhere between 12:30 and 1:30 PM for a quick workout, then two or three hours of free time before heading off to my next shift. Now, I had to leave early because of the way the public transit runs, and factor in a walk of about a half hour to the first bus stop I need. Bus came, I got on, and rode close to another half hour before getting off for a five-to-ten-minute wait for an altogether lesser bus ride to my NEXT bus stop. This one was the biggie: Almost an hour to get to the next county. Get off, wait a few more minutes for, YES! ANOTHER BUS! That one was a short ride to the sport where I got off and walked another three blocks.

At work, I quenched my hunger with a light dinner which was take out-bought more often than I prefer to admit. I didn’t want to get too loaded up because there was still a ten-hour monster in front of me that I didn’t want to tackle with a full stomach. I clocked in and started work. After the first hour and a half, there was a short break so I could get some of the free coffee generously provided by the corporation. Then came three hours of more work, followed by lunch, two and a half more hours and a break, and finally punch out after a three-hour final leg. My feet were throbbing by then, so walking the three blocks back to the bus stop was never exactly comfortable. At the transit center, I would try to grab a coffee and maybe a light breakfast – usually something from Specialty’s, but I made the switch to Blazing Bagels after Specialty’s apparently got tired of never being quite prepared for their opening with an oder I was looking for. The ride home wasn’t quite as trying as the ride in, because there was a more direct route home available. This was my nightly routine for four nights a week.

It’s easy to go crazy trying to keep a routine like that up. This was something I doubt I would have been able to pull in my 20’s, let alone right now. Fortunately, there was always that extra weekend day there to rescue my sanity. The extra sleep alone made me appreciate sleep more than ever before, and three days of doing whatever I wanted may have kept me from the sauce – if, that is, I had had time to get on it.

The great irony of this was that this job wasn’t a bad one, and the corporation is generally in excellent standing with the people who work for it. I was a temp while working there, which is how at least half the people who work permanently for the corporation are hired. I applied for conversion, and all my co-workers and supervisors expected me to be a shoe-in. My only complaint – besides the insane hours – was that I wasn’t included in the task rotation nearly as often as I should have been. And that’s a serious complaint, so when, on my last night, I was told by one of my supervisors that the corporate offices had waffled for so long about conversion that my contract simply ran out, I felt a bit of relief.