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Defeat of Bull Run: The Failed Division I Experiment

Defeat of Bull Run: The Failed Division I Experiment

This will always rank among the greatest mysteries of the universe: Why was Stonehenge built? What was Fermat’s Last Theorem and how did he come up with it? How on Earth was Danny White, former athletic director at the University of Buffalo, not fired once his plans for The New York Bulls Initiative came rolling out of his mouth? With White having departed Buffalo in 2015, we will probably never know.

I don’t want to decry Danny White completely. He did do a lot for UB Athletics: He improved the facilities, raised money, got the alumni association excited about UB sports for the first time in forever, and many of his coaching changes were upgrades. He can be credited as the guy who made the Bulls competitive. On the bad end, he also just plump dumped both Jeff Quinn and Bobby Hurley, and god only knows what he was thinking. And being one of those hotshot wunderkind executives, he was basically in and out. But we can deal with that; this is Buffalo, after all, and no matter what the sport or what level of said sport, we don’t expect anyone to stay very long. White came in and did his time on the bottom rung. We knew he wasn’t going to stick around.

You remember The New York Bulls Initiative. That was one of the two worst things he did to the university. The quick refresher is that White created a brand change which would have emphasized the “New York” over the “Buffalo” in the “State University of New York at Buffalo.” It was a victory for the school, but only in the most perverse way possible: The only people who approved of the change were a handful of treasonous alumni active on prominent digital media; the same people who graduated from UB, packed their degrees under their arms, and bolted. The students at UB were indifferent, and the residents of Buffalo rejected it with a capital R-E-J-E-C-T-E-D. The people of Buffalo are already pissed about having to qualify their home state with the phrase, “No, not THAT New York,” which packs an innate hatred of New York City. To see SUNY’s flagship – one of the very few things Buffalo can lay claim to that New York City can’t – try and attract attention by latching itself to a place no self-respecting Buffalonian can stand was maddening. It counted on the idea that potential recruits didn’t know geography, and one wonders how long it took for touring students to make it to downtown Buffalo and realize Times Square was eight hours away.

After White’s departure, UB relocated its brain and rediscovered is proper identity. The university mopped up the damage from The New York Bulls Initiative and rebooted its inherited call sign. But a week ago, we got to see the real damage left by White’s grandiose plans. Now, I don’t want to call White a bad guy for this: If anything, he was a visionary who saw the big-time potential for UB Athletics and tried to act on it. No one can complain about that. The problem is that White misread the sports interests of longtime Buffalo residents. He was from the south, in college football country, and was naturally inclined to think a Division I football team is the keystone of all college athletics. He convinced the university of that idea to such a point that, to keep $2 million in athletic subsidies for football, UB cut baseball, men’s soccer, women’s rowing, and men’s swimming and diving. All in the name of a bad football team with no local media coverage.

Buffalo is a professional sports city. I’m not saying the Bills and Bulls can’t coexist in harmony here. Following the sports in Seattle has shown me that football fans can be fanatical no matter what level the sport is being played at. Generations of football fans in the Puget Sound megalopolis were grandfathered into football fandom following the University of Washington Huskies. When the NFL finally popped into Seattle and introduced the Seahawks in 1975, all those Husky devotees took one look at this weird newcomer and… Decided they had enough room in their hearts for both teams. Every sports memorabilia store in Seattle has a couple of racks given to the Huskies. Come autumn in Seattle, you’re hard-pressed to find people NOT dressed in Husky purple on Saturdays. Sundays, blue and green light up the streets – and the Space Needle – for the Seahawks. And hell, fans of the Huskies’ primary rival, the Washington State Cougars, have a presence in Seattle too, even though the Cougs play way the hell over in Eastern Washington. (And not the close part of Eastern Washington, either; the university’s city, Pullman, is less than ten miles from the Idaho border.)

Now, I’m not saying this CAN’T be Buffalo. I’m pointing out there’s a million reasons why it WON’T be. Keeping with the Huskies as my reference point since their harmonious coexistence with their local NFL team is what the Bulls are shooting for, we can start with longevity. The Bulls don’t have any. Yes, the football team was founded in 1894, but they’ve had a rough and inconsistent go of it. The team was never very good, and it was actually suspended in 1970 because the student body didn’t want to use its fees to fund that sort of shoddiness. When it was reinstated seven years later, the Bulls were a Division III team. They moved up to Division I-AA in 1993, then took their big leap to Division I in 1999, and after that… Well, they’ve won a conference title and competed in two bowl games. Eight of their players were drafted since 2000, including Khalil Mack, the decorated linebacker who was taken fifth overall in 2014 and is being credited with the Raiders’ turnaround. It’s better than the first years of their Division I status, in which they were ranked dead last in a field of over 100-some odd teams. It’s really not fair to compare them to the Huskies, but since they’re playing at the same level of college football, we need to clarify what the Bulls are up against. The Huskies created their football program in 1889 and have always been playing in Division I. They’re established as one of college football’s legendary powers, a team you would not be ashamed to show to an Alabama or Michigan fan. Playing in the nasty Pac-12 since 1917, the Huskies have claimed a couple of National Championships, many conference titles, and played in a hell of a lot of bowl games. They’ve never had a Heisman winner, but seven of their players have finished in the Heisman voter top 10, and they’ve had players win a lot of other individual awards. Their alumni includes established NFL luminaries including Corey Dillon, Lawyer Milloy, and Warren Moon. Just this last season, they were ranked in the top five, won their conference, and played against Alabama in the Peach Bowl. Yes, they got hammered by an unstoppable Crimson Tide team which many thought would win the National Championship, but you can bet that Nick Saban planned every which way for the Huskies. Had Alabama played against Buffalo at all, the Bulls would have been written off as one of the Tide’s schedule creampuffs. Saban would have rested any players who weren’t trying to impress an NFL scout.

The likelihood of Buffalo playing for the National Championship here isn’t improbable – it’s impossible. The dirty little secret of the FBS is that it holds some conferences in higher esteem than others. The Huskies play in the Pac-12, the harsh conference which includes USC, Oregon, and Colorado. Alabama plays in the downright brutal SEC, that conference smack in the middle of college football country where LSU, Auburn, Florida, Tennessee, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, and Georgia are in a constant state of almost-war. Buffalo plays in the MAC, which people serious about college football see as a cute little sideshow. The people in charge of the college football cabal threw the MAC into the Group of Five, better known as “oh, those OTHER conferences.” The college football teams people have heard of and, you know, follow, are in a group of conferences called The Power Five. Those are the teams that get automatic bids to big, cool bowl games like the Rose Bowl and the Orange Bowl. They’re the ones that are ranked in the national polls to visit the playoffs and ultimately compete for the National Championship. Members of the MAC don’t get to go to those or play for a national title. Buffalo is an MAC team, which means that International Bowl invitation from 2008 is as good as it gets. And the backhanded write-off is justifiable; the Bulls have played against nationally ranked teams 14 times since moving to the FBS, and their only victory came against Ball State. The other 13 teams they’ve faced obliterated them in short order. Their best showing was probably the nationally televised game against Ohio State in 2013 which unveiled Khalil Mack to the football world, and they lost 40-20.

You’re free to argue that Buffalo hasn’t turned up with an enormous fanbase because it hasn’t been playing top flight college football long enough. A fair point, but Buffalo is never going to find that non-alumni fanbase because there are other factors in play which help connect fans to their favorite teams. Let’s start with the location. UB has its north campus and its south campus. South campus is easily located right on the northern edge of the Buffalo city limits, between Main Street and Bailey Avenue. That’s a convenient location with seemingly half the bus lines in the city, plus the rail stopping and starting there. Although south campus is the more scenic of the two, it’s north campus where the crux of student activities happen. North campus is the home of The Spine, UB’s response to a common university quad. Most of the classrooms are there, more students live there than on south campus, and all the athletic facilities are there – including both UB Stadium and Alumni Arena. Now, at most universities, the campus offers an idyllic setting: Syracuse University is set on the peak of Syracuse’s University Hill neighborhood, where it’s conveniently between the Syracuse Business District and Westcott, the local bohemian enclave. The University of Washington is on the southern peak of a gorgeous bluff overlooking Lake Union, in close proximity to The Ave, a lively small business strip on University Way. It offers incredible views of downtown Seattle and Mount Rainier. UB North is… well, if there’s such a thing as an island on land, UB North is it. A major pain in the ass to get in and out of, UB North is locked up in the center of a set of thruway lanes and parking lots in Amherst. It offers nothing photogenic, and if you want to walk down to an off-campus chow joint, well… Good luck with that. You’ll need to take the shuttle to south campus first. Any take-out orders on north campus WILL be delivered. Lots of college football teams offer great tailgating. UB North makes tailgating more trouble than it’s worth. As for public transit to UB North? Forget it. The campus gets a couple of inconsistent lines, so if you plan to take public transit to Bulls games, it’s easier to enroll and jump the Stampede busses. As for the stadium itself, it’s a bleacher version of a tool shack which was knocked up in an hour by your suburban uncle who doesn’t know anything about construction. It’s a converted track field with around 30,000 seats, and even a sideline seat is far off enough to require a telescope. Husky Stadium, by comparison, has 70,000 seats in a football facility that keep selling out.

In short, UB is under the delusion that a football team that regularly gets hammered by the Army Black Knights (which they do, since they play each other most years) that plays in glorified bleacher seating in a spot longtime Buffalo residents barely know how to get to is going to turn into Notre Dame. And this is a win/lose gambit to boot – with Buffalo’s football loyalty sole property of the Bills, anything less than national contender status will leave the Bulls somewhere around The Yukon. THIS is what the UB suits are trying to make into a national power, the thing four other sports teams were cut for. It was a resort so they could get a subsidy for the football team. Subsidies are last resorts. They’re grants to prolong the suffering of already-dead programs. You don’t see universities from the Big 10 using subsidies, because they have revenue. FBS Bulls football is a failed experiment which could rescue its dignity by swallowing its pride and dropping back a couple of divisions.

How many scholarships got dumped so UB could keep itself convinced of this charade? The football Bulls already play like a Division III team, so why keep pretending? Why NOT get bumped back down to the lower divisions? Anyone who felt pressure would be removed of it, and everyone could go back to enjoying football for fun again. Four sports teams wouldn’t have been unceremoniously ditched. No, UB wouldn’t have any power to attract big-name high school prospects to their football team, but guess what? They’re not doing that anyway! Buffalo has never been the place where players with serious NFL ambitions wind up. People who want to play football while they learn things are the only players who play for the Bulls, and that’s always going to be the case no matter what division the Bulls are in.

This is frustrating because of what the university is ignoring in its attempts to boost its helpless football team: The basketball team turned legitimately good right under everyone’s noses. Basketball is a huge college sport with millions of fans too, and the basketball Bulls have emerged as a somewhat known and respected commodity. 351 schools play Division I basketball between 32 conferences. Since being admitted to the MAC in the late 90’s, the Bulls have won the conference tournament twice, been to the NIT once, and received ultimate validation in 2015 and 2016 when they played in the March Madness tournament. They’ve been the regular season champions twice and the division season champions three times. Now, Alumni Arena is on north campus, so it shares a few of the same problems as UB Stadium. But the basketball team has a few distinct advantages over the football team besides being good. The Bulls don’t have an NBA team to compete with, and they’re in ideal position to kick off rivalries. Canisius is is slightly more storied team which has also made a handful of March Madness appearances. The Canisius campus is also located right in Hamlin Park. Niagara and St. Bonaventure would also be big local rivals, but the big advantage is that Syracuse University and the mighty Orange are two hours down the road. The Orange is one of the greatest college basketball teams in the sport’s history, and they play in the ACC. The blood rivalry would write itself if the Bulls moved to the ACC – it would pit New York’s largest private university against New York’s largest public university.

Furthermore, the cartel that decided the Bulls are ineligible to compete for football’s national title isn’t nearly as omnipotent in basketball. The college basketball structure isn’t as convoluted. 351 teams compete in Division I. All 351 have a shot at the National Championship. Yes, the NCAA still plays favorites with conferences, but there are still Cinderella teams in March Madness every year which can make deep runs and spoil the giants’ hopes. That gives the Bulls opportunities in basketball to make waves in ways the football Bulls can only dream of.

The emphasis on football also has the effect of ignoring Western New York’s greatest athletic talent resource. Yes, when Buffalo sports fans talk about their teams, they tend to lead with the Bills, but that’s because football is the country’s everywhere reference. Buffalo’s true sports roots are in hockey. The culture of the city revolves around hockey. Hockey – and ice skating in general – are leading off Downtown Buffalo’s redevelopment. The city has hosted several important hockey tournaments, and an amateur ice hockey tournament is held every winter. The city is home to many NHL professionals. The extent of football’s culture in Buffalo is… Well, what? The Bills? The Bulls? The fact that chicken wings are now tailgate staples? Well, what? You think about that. I’ll wait… Okay, get the idea? Buffalo is a hockey city at its core, and for whatever bullshit reason, its most prized university doesn’t have a team. This is one of the biggest no-brainers we’ve ever seen in the city; more so than even the Chicken Wing Festival. With the insane reserve of hockey talent running around upstate New York, the Bulls would go from nonexistent to contender within a few years – and that’s the worst case scenario.

The University of Buffalo is writing this off as a result of economy. It doesn’t have to be. All it would require for UB to keep the four teams it’s cutting and football is a little thought. And the ability to swallow pride and admit that Division I football at UB is a failed experiment. Yes, the university will have to swallow its pride, but so does anyone with the misfortunate to have to root for them.

Car Search

Car Search

It’s hard to believe I had basically closed on a car way back in November. All that was left was to write out the check and drive the thing – a white 1992 Nissan which I hadn’t bothered to christen yet – back home. Unfortunately, a family tragedy closed that deal off when I had to spend my car proceeds on a trip to Buffalo. But here I am now back on the car market, wondering why the hell everything just can’t be as easy as it was last time.

Last time, I lucked out. It was my second or third viewing, and an immediate fit. I didn’t think I would end up getting that lucky again, but the whole process of searching for the right car is getting frustrating. I keep thinking of giving up, then the next day, I roll out of bed again, eat my breakfast, walk out the door three hours before I’m supposed to start my shift, and then remember why I need a car in the first place. Up, down, around trying to get back and forth and having my journey stretched out to an insane length…

See, I’m doing pretty much all of my searching on Craigslist, vis the recommendations of my Father and one of my housemates, two people who know. And their Craigslst methodology received an added boost by the fact that I visited a couple of used car lots and was told that if I ain’t buyin’, they ain’t sellin’, please get lost.

Craigslist, of course, limits my options. But then again, so do used car lots, and I’ve noticed that Craigslist tends to have better offerings than the standard used car lot choice of either paying a truckload or buying a fixer-upper. My housemate and my Father have both chimed in with their own two cents; the short list of cars they say I should be looking at includes the Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, a type of Nissan I’m always forgetting the make of, and a couple of others. Long-term reliability is the name of the game here, and much to my surprise, I’m finding that Craigslist is pretty accommodating with the brands I want. I browse the car sales list every day and can usually find a couple on my desirables list.

After I find something I want, though, the hard part comes: I have to initiate some form of contact. Since a system of blinking is clearly out, that usually means I’m sending out a short email to the seller. Then the wait begins. Half the time, I don’t get a response. The times I do aren’t always a good response. One person told me he had already sold the car. Another kept sending me nearly dodgy, single-word responses to my questions. (Those were tough questions: Where is your address so I can view the car, how do I get there, you know, things no one would be expected to know about a car they were selling.) Finally, he got around to admitting that if I wanted to, you know, move the car I would have bought to my home, it would have to be towed there.

Creating appointments to look at those cars presents another problem. Since I don’t have a car, it’s tough for me to cover a wide-reaching area in search of someone selling one. My preferences tend to lean toward people in North Seattle or Snohomish County. Anywhere south of Downtown Seattle and I may be looking at a day trip. So my appointments have to be scheduled for weekend days, when the busses are being sent around less. Then we’re going into negotiation and debating over terms.

Yes, this is a process which would drive a lesser person insane. Hell, its got me halfway there myself. But between the labyrinth I have to navigate to get back and forth to work and the times I’m always getting up in the morning, I figure getting my hands on the car of my dreams – which, right now, is something I would describe as “something that runs reliably” – I think this will all pay off around the time I go shopping for my straightjacket.

St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick’s Day

What if I proposed a certain holiday where we celebrated Africans by dressing up in plastic clothes that were the colors of their flags, eating chicken and waffles, wearing things that said “Kiss Me I’m African,” and basically turning the day into a giant frat party where we celebrate the worst of the Hollywood stereotypes about African-Americans? Maybe the answer to that question depends on your political leanings: If you’re a liberal, you’re probably already calling me a racist because this idea IS as racist as all fucking hell. If you’re a conservative, maybe you’re saying that if we’re going to do that with African-Americans, we should be doing it with people of every race.

Here’s a news flash: We’re already doing it with at least one other ethnicity. (My hypothetical liberal up there might argue that we’re doing it with two, since there’s a strong case to be made that Thanksgiving is the same thing.) The Irish are dragged into the spotlight on St. Patrick’s Day for such a holiday for such a thing. St. Patrick’s Day is considered a minor holiday in Ireland. Although the Irish who immigrated to the United States brought it with them as a way of holding on to their home, America has turned it into the ultimate excuse for public drunkenness and debauchery.

I don’t think it was my parents’ intent to instill me with any sense of pride in my lineage, but it’s something that happened. I’m not sure it could have been helped: Buffalo is a VERY Irish city, and I was raised in the most Irish part of it. The South Buffalo Irish District served as the city’s Irish ghetto during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the influence of the old Irish guard there was still very powerful when I was born. A lot of the residents were from the Motherland straight or first-generation born in the United States. There are several Irish dance troupes, Irish flags line a section of Abbott Road, and the street names are written in both English and Gaelic. Although St. Patrick’s Day in Buffalo is stretched out into a season and everyone has a lot of fun, there’s a traceable solemnity underneath all the festivities. The Irish population in South Buffalo knew its past well and everything during St. Patrick’s Day took place in honor and recognition of our history, in both Ireland and America.

At one of the first Irish festivals I ever attended, I stood staring at a wooden door sign, trying to decipher it. It said, “now hiring – Irish need not apply.” My Mother spotted me looking at it and whispered into my ear, “See, it happened to your people too.” It hammered home the point that America’s playing field was never quite as level as it was supposed to be, and told me there was a lot my school history books were leaving out. As I got to learn a little bit of the history of Ireland, it started to create a sense of real ethnic pride. I had been taught by my school system that all people were of some color. But it was learning what I did about Irish history that I started to identify as an Irish-American. I even have a few subtle ways of showing my pride – wearing subtle hints of orange and green, telling people how much I love salt potatoes and soda bread, trying to stay up to date on old Celtic gods, and learning the origins of several well-known St. Patrick’s Day traditions. Even though I have an English surname, grew up as a practicing Protestant, and am the first to say what a huge asshole the real St. Patrick was (really, we’re talking Columbus-level assholery here), I always held true to my Irish lineage.

I was excited to move to Chicago and celebrate my first St. Patrick’s Day in my new home. I had heard all the stories about the parade in Chicago and the way the Chicago River was dyed green every year. So as I left work at the Symphony that Saturday, I made a zipline path right to the Michigan Avenue bridge, where everything was taking place. Now, I’m not a dummy – I’ve seen all the ridiculous hats and loud horns and novelty t-shirts in stores. I also thought, who buys this crap? I had never seen anything like them being worn around in Buffalo.

In Chicago, they were everywhere, and my heart just sank as the realization hit me: The people around me saw St. Patrick’s Day as nothing but a reason to have their heads in the bar at the top of the morning. I was finally wearing the moccasins of all the Native Americans I had once denounced. What they felt during Thanksgiving was now what I was thinking of St. Patrick’s Day. Hell, I even have my own version of the people telling me that I should just suck it up and get over it because it was supposed to be an honor that celebrated something good. All the liberals who were jumping on people about Thanksgiving being a bastardization of real history were now telling me to kiss their blarney stones over St. Patrick’s Day.

Maybe it’s the Catholic guilt present everywhere in my home neighborhood eating at me, but I never forgot that. As I walked along the Chicago River watching the drunken revelers, I couldn’t help but feel like there was something very wrong with the whole scene. Were these people even Irish? Did they have any kind of lineage to call their own? Why did they feel the need to claim mine, and why did they just want to hold the Hollywood version of it?

I’m not sure how many of the old Irish stereotypes I live up to, but I do identify as an Irish-American. I think one of the most important things I got out of that St. Patrick’s Day was the fact that I see it as my duty to tell people about Irish history and the origins of many of the Irish traditions they’ve come to know, and correct their perceptions of them when I can. Fortunately, I’ve found that most people are pretty receptive.

The Definitive Ranking of Every Star Wars Movie (Including The Clone Wars)

The Definitive Ranking of Every Star Wars Movie (Including The Clone Wars)

With the recent selling of Star Wars to Disney, we Star Wars fans know what we’re all about to get: Star Wars up the ass. A few weeks ago, the first movie is a series of canonical spinoffs, Rogue One, appeared. Last year we received The Force Awakens, the first in a line of direct sequels, and still before that, an animated series called Star Wars Rebels began a run on The Disney Channel.

Naturally, that gets one wondering what the best and worst Star Wars movies are, especially if they’re one of the few who have somehow managed to avoid exposure to Star Wars. Well, being a major league Star Wars nerd myself, I started asking myself that very question as well. If every Star Wars movie was to be ranked, what would be the best one? What would be the worst? How would everything look in between? So I sat down and thought, and this was the list that eventually popped up. Before getting to the list, here are a couple of things to remember: First, these are movies only. To qualify, they have to have made a run in theaters. That means anything shown only on television doesn’t count – not the original Clone Wars movie or the Holiday Special. Second, the pilot episode of The Clone Wars TV show DID visit the theaters, so it counts.

9: The Phantom Menace (Episode I)

Yeah. You already knew what this one was going to be, didn’t you? Even in a media universe as expansive as Star Wars which has so many differing opinions about what is and isn’t worth your time, hatred of The Phantom Menace is something that’s as universal as returning to The Force.

If you were a newcomer to the Star Wars universe watching this and then asking hardcore fans their opinions, a lot of them would be pretty Star Warian: The whole Midichlorian issue, the apparent virgin birth of Anakin Skywalker, the fact that Anakin was now the creator of C-3PO, and a few other things tend to rub fans the wrong way. But you would also notice that there are a few hallmarks of filmmaking which is just bad: Jar-Jar Binks might be the face of everything wrong with The Phantom Menace, but he’s not the only problem. A lot of character development is just off. We got nothing about Darth Maul – although he proves to be one of the most badass characters of the EU, he’s just a figurine-pusher in the movie that introduced him. Anakin himself – the boy who would become Darth Vader – isn’t evil enough to hit back a cheater in the pod race. The space shootout at the end seems composed of bridge shots, and it’s pretty disgusting that Anakin destroys the space station by accident.

I’m one of the few people who doesn’t completely decry The Phantom Menace. It does have a few redeeming values. I always thought Qui-Gon Jinn was one of Star Wars’s most underrated characters, the final action sequence is great, and even Episode I’s loudest detractors think highly of the pod race and lightsaber duel. But the movie does keep getting bogged down in things that it’s not. Ultimately, there are a number of problems that glare brighter than Darth Maul’s lightsaber. The first is that despite the Clone Wars and the friendship between Obi-Wan and Anakin being noodle incidents, George Lucas focuses more on bringing the Star Wars universe full circle when he really should have been concentrating on telling the story of a friendship blossoming and going bad. The second is that with The Phantom Menace, Star Wars forgets its identity and tries to be a kids’ version of Star Trek. Jar-Jar is another figurine-pusher, no one wants to see a kid Anakin when they dreamed of being Han Solo while growing up, and The Phantom Menace gets bogged down in politics. Politics doesn’t work for Star Wars, which has always been a classic good against evil tale.

8: The Clone Wars

The Clone Wars were first mentioned in the very first Star Wars movie, A New Hope. They were a noodle incident: They were mentioned and implied to be something huge, but otherwise left to the imagination. We knew two things about the Clone Wars from there: First, there were clones. Second, they were wars. No need to be descriptive. Then the Prequel Trilogy came along, and for a set of movies that delves into the Star Wars backstory, we didn’t actually get to see a whole lot of them.

Since Star Wars has always been a classic tale about the battle between good and evil, it usually shows us its best when the two sides are duking it out in the traditional fashion. That’s what The Clone Wars is, and holy hell, what a spectacle. The Clone Wars is bare-boned, straight-laced action rushing at you in a form video game designers from the 16-bit Golden Era would have appreciated. A fan of a well-done action movie will love every waking moment of it, and there are plenty of blasters, lightsabers, duels, and all that other great jazz we know from action movies. Taken as that, The Clone Wars is pretty fucking awesome. It lets us view the spectacle of the legendary conflict right up front, starts giving out details of why Anakin Skywalker was the great pilot and warrior Obi-Wan first described in the original, and introduces us to Ahsoka Tano, one of the greatest characters in the Star Wars universe for my money.

The reason it ranks so low is because it barely feels like a Star Wars movie. Aside from the lightsabers, there are almost no hallmarks of Star Wars anywhere to be found, and so a movie nut who has never seen anything Star Wars (a stretch, I know, but bear with me) would never figure out just from watching The Clone Wars why it is that Star Wars stands out. Lest that be written off as the ranting of an outsider, there are a few things in The Clone Wars to piss off Star Wars fans too: The Jedi are working for the Hutts? How many Sith are there anyway, and where do they keep coming from? Padme was almost certainly shoehorned in, the twists are clearly in the movie to extend the running time, and I’m not sure many fans are all that interested in more of Jabba’s relatives. But this movie was the pilot to an animated TV series – yes, even though it was a feature film – and what it blossomed into was incredible. The TV series showed us the full potential of what The Prequel Trilogy should have been drawing out, the conflict and the friendship between Obi-Wan and Anakin.

7: Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)

Few fandoms are weirder about their fandom than Star Wars. For everything Star Wars envelopes, there are still legions of fans who proclaim that true Star Wars consists solely of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back and The Clone Wars TV series. Vaunted though The Original Trilogy may be, there’s a surprising mass of fans who hate – and some who even refuse to accept – Return of the Jedi. Yeah, it can be tough to take Star Wars fans seriously when they refuse to defend the entire trilogy that started everything.

It’s confusing, but Jedi was written to be the grand finale of what was back then expected to be the only Star Wars media that ever existed. George Lucas and director Richard Marquand wanted Jedi to be a testament to finality, and holy shit did they deliver. Episode VI is littered with some of the biggest and grandest sequences the whole series has to offer: The revelation about Luke and Leia’s relationship, the speeder bike chase on Endor, the death of Yoda, the Sarlacc Pit, Luke fighting the Rancor Monster, Darth Vader’s return to the light, Wedge and Lando navigating the tight innards of the Death Star in a race to its core, and a Rebel Alliance pilot guiding his terminally damaged starfighter in a kamikaze attack against the Executor. There’s plenty here that screams out for attention, but despite so many scenes that carry heft, there seem to be only two things scenes that people remember: Anakin coming to the rescue of Electroshock Luke and Leia’s official and permanent embossing as a teenage fantasy.

There’s good reason for that, too: Jedi’s structure was a clear rush job. The movie’s entirety goes like this: Jabba the Hutt’s palace, Dagobah, Rebel meeting, Battle of Endor. The Dagobah and Rebel meeting parts run a collective total of about 20 minutes. So what we’re left with is Tatooine and Endor sequences bookending 20 minutes of blah. It was like George Lucas was in a hurry to finish up Jedi so he could get to his other landscape-altering projects like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and, ah… Willow and, er… Howard the Duck… It’s a blatant example of trying to put style over substance, at least in terms of the story. As if that wasn’t offensive enough, Return of the Jedi also marks the spot where Lucas came to fully realize the marketing potential of his onetime sci-fi serial pet project. Gold Bikini Leia? That was done to appease the crowd adolescents. The Ewoks were there to sell to the kids. To really drive the kid angle in, an animated TV show was later created about the Ewoks. When Jar Jar jumped to the small screen, he did so as an important but bit player on The Clone Wars, not as some Alf clone wannabe.

6: Attack of the Clones (Episode II)

After The Phantom Menace hit audiences with a loud thud, George Lucas started making a push to bring Star Wars back in The Original Trilogy’s direction. Attack of the Clones doesn’t miss what his goal was, but it doesn’t quite hit it, either. It may be the best movie in the series as far as pure action movies go – at least the live-action movies and exempting The Clone Wars, anyway – and it brings the series back in the proper Star Warian direction it had to return to after The Phantom Menace’s bad reception.

Attack of the Clones is good at holding your attention. Unfathomable action scenes are sprinkled everywhere, Christopher Lee gets to play the villain, Yoda finally goes into combat himself and shows us why he’s the ultimate Jedi Master, and Jango Fett gets to be the badass everyone thinks of Boba Fett as. At the same time, it starts to plant the seeds of the Star Wars universe of The Original Trilogy, right down to the Death Star. As with Return of the Jedi, Lucas seems to be taking the big-scene-of-impact approach. The difference is that the statement scenes don’t seem to contain as much heft. It’s also in Attack of the Clones that we start to see the dark side of Anakin Skywalker. He comes out in an arrogant and angry fury, especially in a scene where he slaughters a group of Tusken Raiders.

And then there’s that damn love story. Because of course there is. The story between Anakin and Padme is pretty trite and cliched – it ranks in the wretched annals of love stories right along with Romeo and Juliet. It slows the movie down, makes no fucking sense, and has water/oil chemistry. And the delivery of Hayden Christensen, who plays Anakin, doesn’t help matters. Now, this is just the delivery I’m talking about. In every other respect, Christensen actually does a great job portraying Anakin. He has a sense of regret, sadness, and anger which drives Anakin into doing a lot of things a proper Jedi wouldn’t do, and it’s through his array of gestures, unsure postures, and facial expressions that Christensen gives a performance which is actually very effective. Acting is about much more than line delivery. Unfortunately, line delivery is often the most noticeable part of a performance, and Christensen is so bad at that part that it overwhelms a lot of the other aspects of his performance. It’s almost as if Christensen himself can’t believe the load of shit he’s being told to recite. But he doesn’t deserve all the blame for it. Do you honestly believe that even Marlon Brando could have ever rescued the atrocity that was Anakin’s sand monologue?

5: A New Hope (Episode IV) (AKA Star Wars)

And lo, we have it – the phenomenon that started it all. The original Star Wars movie that came out in 1977, Hope was expected to be nothing more than a quick cash-in B-movie. It was supposed to run a familiar trajectory: Plop it into all the theaters, let it make a few million bucks for the local studio, then put it on this new thing called a VCR while it dissipated in the backwoods, forgotten by all but the biggest bad movie nuts. No one was expecting Oscar nominations, let alone Oscars. No one was expecting Star Wars to break every box office gross intake record known to man. No one was expecting a massive multimedia empire with stories in a fictional universe that dated thousands of years. And no one was expecting Star Wars to be influencing movies and filmmakers 40 years after the fact; even the great hit movie of 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy, was a clear nod to Star Wars.

Being the first of a long running series, you know what that means: Early-installment weirdness! Except in the case of Hope, there’s not as much of that as you would probably think. A lot of the regular Star Wars Easter eggs are in there. Lightsabers, The Force, the Millennium Falcon, hyperspace jumps, Star Destroyers, the grandiose score of John Williams, X-Wing and TIE Fighters, Stormtrooper aim, and all those other things. The installment weirdness is less in retcon than in simple tone – the dramatic heft of most of the other movies is notably absent in Episode IV. Luke’s aspirations of Jedi-dom are a quick vocal McGuffin; he’s more interested in getting off Tatooine. The original lightsaber duel happens between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader; it’s clearly shoehorned in so a couple of earlier scenes featuring the lightsaber have some sort of significance.

There’s not a whole lot to hate on here. Hope is two hours of condensed fun and awesomeness which is as joyful as an adult as it was as a kid. The problem comes when you go back and watch it, and it sinks in just how many of the lines in it no longer make any sense. George Lucas himself clearly had no idea of what Star Wars would become, and his attempts to retcon it in the ensuing two movies were just clunky. (See, he was doing it back then too.) Darth Vader wasn’t originally Luke’s Father – in Star Wars, he’s described as a former student of Obi-Wan’s who murdered Luke’s father. Although Lucas finally got around to explaining it in Jedi, it was given a single-line throwaway so hasty that it pretty much pegged Obi-Wan as a puppet master. Luke and Leia’s relationship comes out of nowhere, and Obi-Wan and Darth Vader seem rather benign toward each other after what they went through. (Well, okay, there was 20 years since their last meeting, but still…) Did I say early-installment weirdness? Yes, I did, a couple of times. And this can’t be said enough: HAN SHOT FIRST!

4: Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)

Here’s the end of The Prequel Trilogy, where Darth Vader makes his transformation into Darth Vader. It doesn’t happen the way The Original Trilogy would have had us believe, where the cool suit is part of the identity and went with everything, and I think that may be something that a lot of fans are upset with. But I think one of the big parts of the issue fans often take with Revenge is that, once again, they were expecting something that was quite different from what was actually shown.

George Lucas did a lot of things right with Revenge that Menace and Attack got wrong, and one of those things was placing the full circle of The Original Trilogy on the backburner while focusing on telling the story. This is where Anakin’s fall into the Dark Side finally happens – and it’s pretty anticlimactic. Remember Obi-Wan in A New Hope telling Luke that Vader was seduced and tempted by the Dark Side? Well, Revenge of the Sith shows us that it’s more like he was tricked into joining it out of his love for Padme, whose health he was fearing for. More to the point is that it’s presented in such a way that we don’t really blame him for doing it, either; Palpatine offered Anakin a real way to cure her while the Jedi sat on their worthless asses and told him to not do anything. (In the EU, we learn that the story Palpatine tells Anakin about the Sith Lord who found a way to live forever was true.) From there, we have to wonder if there was any sense of nuance from Anakin – he goes from wanting to save his wife to greasing a group of little kids in nothing flat.

Revenge is Palpatine’s great show more than anything. The slimy, two-sided power monger is the standout star, and Ian McDiarmid has the time of his life playing him. The movie gives a full display of exactly how powerful Palpatine is and why the people in the Star Wars universe fear him. The way he gradually slides himself into greater evil and power is something McDiarmid portrays with such mastery that it’s worth it just to watch Revenge for him alone. This is a character so powerful that when four Jedi Masters are sent to arrest him, he quickly slaughters three of them in no time, and the fourth is Mace Windu, the greatest lightsaber master in the galaxy. He manipulates the entire senate into consolidating its power and giving him absolute control and no one thinks twice. He lies to his personal pet project – Darth Vader – about how Padme dies so Vader completely loses it. He fights Yoda so hard that Yoda gives up. (And yes, Yoda just plain fucking gives up in that lightsaber duel.) In the meantime, Obi-Wan and Anakin give us one of the greatest scenes in all of Star Wars. The only thing that drives me crazy about Revenge – besides Vader’s big “NOOO!!!!!” – is Padme’s death: She “gives up” while her damned kids are being born? Wouldn’t having her kids turn her into a stronger, more resolved Mama Bear? What the fuck, George? That’s even worse than the virgin birth of Anakin!

3: The Force Awakens (Episode VII)

Remember all the lines in A New Hope – and, hell, the entire Original Trilogy in general – that don’t make any sense in hindsight? The Force Awakens is that ridiculously expansive – and expensive – Youtube video that goes back and corrects all of them. At the same time, it also serves as Hope’s gritty reboot and the remake millennials pissed off with The Prequel Trilogy didn’t realize they wanted until it came out. Director JJ Abrams doesn’t do anything to hide it, either. Even Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill were tapped to show up and say, “Hey, look! Star Wars is gonna be good again real soon!”

Despite the blatant tributes, though, there was also more than enough inside The Force Awakens to bring back the old Star Wars magic that captured imaginations in the 70’s and 80’s. It was pretty cool that one of the main characters, Finn, was a reformed Stormtrooper. Rey is a great character too, and the way she spends the movie slowing learning and growing in the ways of The Force is a good way to show the kind of person she is and the kind of character she can grow to be. Of course, those are also callbacks to Episode IV – Rey, like Luke, spent the movie trying to learn and use The Force, and the way she comes out using it is more overt than what we saw at the end of Hope. The reformed Stormtrooper angle of Finn is a way of redoing Han Solo, the reformed smuggler. And I know I’m not the only one wondering about the issue of Luke’s old lightsaber. The plot revolves around the old blue-bladed lightsaber Obi-Wan gave Luke in Hope and which Luke himself finally wielded in The Empire Strikes Back; you know, the very same lightsaber last seen taking a swan dive to the bottom of Cloud City’s repulsorlift shaft with Luke’s severed hand still attached. It would explain Luke’s look at the end of the movie. He’s thinking, Who in the name of The Force went to pick THAT up?!

All in all, though, The Force Awakens cured the collective cynicism and doubts of Star Wars fans left disenchanted by The Prequel Trilogy. After three movies which were drowning in computer effects that are starting to look dated, Episode VII brought us a return to a Star Wars defined by characters we don’t have a whole lot of trouble thinking up general descriptions for. It gave us back the special effects and classic action of The Original Trilogy, brought back a lot of our favorite old characters to show us that our opinions were heard, and basically showed us that Star Wars can still have plenty of life left in movie form after all. I’m sure there were several Star Wars fans who walked out of every movie in The Prequel Trilogy wondering if the problem was on them, and that Star Wars had lost its magic because they were now grown up and critical. The Force Awakens showed us that that wasn’t the case after all. The problem with The Prequel Trilogy really was the movies themselves. And Disney and JJ Abrams took Star Wars and said, “We know you love Star Wars, and you don’t have to worry about it anymore. We got this.”

2: The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)

The second movie from The Original Trilogy, Empire was the movie that raised the bar on the series. It still stands tall today as the movie that every other Star Wars movie is judged against. More to the point, Empire is the movie in which Star Wars truly became STAR WARS. The universe hinted at in Hope was fully realized, and a lot of the series’s mythos that we know and often take for granted was first introduced in The Empire Strikes Back.

Remember how we all assumed Darth Vader was the supreme universal bad guy after seeing Hope? Empire was the movie that showed us that he himself had to answer to Emperor Palpatine. Remember how Obi-Wan told Luke all about his Father, the best fighter pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend? Empire brought on the plot twist that Luke’s Pop wasn’t dead at all, that he was the one who fell to the Dark Side and became Darth Vader, and that turned into a million terrible plot twists in a million bad movies afterward. It developed the love story between Han and Leia and introduced Yoda and the Force Ghost of Obi-Wan. Lando was seen for the first time, and we got the true scope of how dangerous the Galactic Empire really was and how The Force could really be used in the hands of a capable user. Most importantly, it was Empire that went out of its way to bring the characters to the front and center in an effort for us to better KNOW them and understand them. What we saw in every piece of Star Wars-related media from here on out was based on character traits from Episode V.

While Empire revolves around Luke’s quest to become a Jedi while Han and Leia search for safety from the pursuant Empire, this movie is Darth Vader’s show. Think about it: What did Darth Vader DO in Hope that was so bad besides kill Obi-Wan? You could build a good argument that Grand Moff Tarkin was the true villain – Vader answered to him, and he was the one who ordered the demolition of Alderaan. But in Empire, it’s Vader who takes out Echo Base, invades Cloud City, chokes two of his Admirals to death, carbon-freezes Han Solo, and nearly kills Luke. And don’t forget, he’s still taking orders from Palpatine. It’s because of Vader’s coming out that Empire takes a more operatic tone than Hope. It plays out like a tragedy, and by the time it ends, the only good thing about what the Rebels just went through is that they’re still alive after it all. It’s an incredible testament to Empire’s staying power that it still holds up among the fans as the highest-regarded Star Wars movie, but once more, I have a wild disagreement with the general consensus…

1: Rogue One

The fact that Rogue One is the newest Star Wars movie doesn’t detract from its quality. I take nothing away from the other movies in the series, but there’s a new champion. Yes, Rogue One is an unusual feat among Star Wars movies. Whereas the other movies in the series essentially centered around the bad mojo of the damned Skywalker family, Rogue One is the movie that gets us to wonder about the scale of a full-fledged rebellion and what the sentient cost of it would really be. We’re looking at a war movie set in space, among characters who are somewhat aware of their roles as cannon fodder.

You remember the opening crawl from A New Hope? About Rebels striking from a hidden base stealing plans to the Death Star? Rogue One is about that battle. The buildup to that battle, though, provides some nuance to the Rebel Alliance and Galactic Empire that much of the Star Wars series has been lacking. The Rebels in Rogue One are frequently prone to use techniques which would be condemned if the Empire tried them. There’s an entire scene late in the movie where the Rebels argue about whether or not trying to keep going with their fight would be worth it if the Empire to build something as powerful as the Death Star. Many of the battles are sudden and random and make it difficult to tell who’s on what side, alliances among characters are formed at random and very shaky until loyalties are proven, and the bad guy isn’t a face of traditional Star Warian evil. The main villain is Grand Moff Tarkin, our old pal that got himself blew up with the Death Star in Episode IV and was never seen again. Tarkin has always been a representative of more bureaucratic evil than the more light and dark forms of it, and it makes him a downright chilling villain. So no, this isn’t a typical Star Wars movie.

What Rogue One does do is successfully give us the trench viewpoint. Few standards from the other movies are mentioned at all. Darth Vader makes only a short cameo. But where Rogue One succeeds is placing us on the ground with the Rebels who fight even knowing their time is going to come. The AT-AT walkers from The Empire Strikes Back return in this movie, and the look like the giant monstrosities they were supposed to be. Darth Vader’s cameo is short, but he takes on his original role as a menacing terror who cuts through a swath of Rebel Alliance soldiers with ruthless efficiency and immunity; Vader is finally faceless again. The Rebel Alliance, as Rogue One points out, is built on nothing but hope. Throw that mix in with an in-your-face final space battle which sets up the famous opening scene in Episode IV (and includes a spectacular scene of two Star Destroyers smashing into each other), an explanation for why the Death Star had that silly weakness at all, a very funny reformed battle droid played by Firefly’s Alan Tudyk, and an array of well-developed characters, and Disney has delivered on its ultimate promise: Star Wars is back. Surely anyone who remembers falling in love with The Original Trilogy at an early age remembers how overcome they were with the incredible scope of it all. Then we got older, started tacking adult meanings to everything, and were pissed off at various points with subsequent Star Wars media, and that original magic was lost even among the best Star Wars stories. But I never forgot four-year-old me and the way he felt watching Episode IV. And I’ll never forget how, seeing Rogue One for the first time, the surrounding world dropped out of sight and, for two and a half hours, I was that four-year-old watching Star Wars for the first time once again.

 

The 2016 Acid Martini Award

The 2016 Acid Martini Award

Ah, language: That thing we use to prevent communication from being reduced to a system of blinking. The trouble, however, begins with the fact that language has a habit of changing and evolving. Today’s rude slang word is tomorrow’s popularly accepted word, which becomes a dictionary term the day after. If you went back to the past, the language even in English-speaking countries would sound like some sort of alien-ese that couldn’t be deciphered by the linguistic experts of either Klingon or Elfish.

It’s at this point that I should pause to remind you that Klingon and Elfish are both fictional languages and that, despite being fictional, they ARE languages. Not like pig latin – which is just an annoying way of revising English – but LANGUAGES, with proper words, pronunciations, sentence structures, and words which condense entire ideas into a singular expression or term. Let that sink in. Also consider the fact that to avoid linguistic confusion between international boundaries, scientists use terms in latin in order to maintain a sense of universality. Latin has been dead in common usage for thousands of years.

That doesn’t mean all the changes will be for the better, though. Slang comes and goes in ridiculous and sometimes ugly trends. That’s why I’ve created the annual Acid Martini Award, which I named after the drink I would serve to anyone I heard using the worst, most annoying slang words in English. I started them a couple of years ago, giving out awards to a battalion of words and phrases that cropped up which I considered an insult to our Germanic lingual roots. Then I relocated, meaning I skipped them last year. But now, this is going to be a yearly thing, as I award the word, phrase, or expression which got under my skin the most during the last year. This year, the winner of the Acid Martini Award is…

Jelly
No, I don’t have anything against your favorite toast spread. But that’s the problem I’m having. If “jelly” were still a reference to something you digested, I would consider it normal and not bother it again. But lately its come to the forefront of my list of annoying truncations: “Jelly” is apparently the truncated way of saying “jealous.”

It’s also a case point for what the oldens hate about the millennials. As far as truncations go, “jelly” has an unpleasant and valley vapidity to it. If the movie Clueless was 20 years younger, Cher and Di would have been spitting it at a rate which would force its viewers to jam rail spikes into their skulls, and the movie wouldn’t be the cult classic it is now. Say it aloud to yourself and you can project the full valley girl picture in front of you.

The greatest absurdity is that “jelly” doesn’t even shorten the word. Both “jelly” and “Jealous” contain the same number of syllables, so it’s not as if you’re even saving yourself a mouthful or any unpleasant things you’re forcing your tongue to do.

It’s the Little Things: Short Takes on My First Year in the Pacific Northwest

It’s the Little Things: Short Takes on My First Year in the Pacific Northwest

I moved out to the pacific northwest a little over a year ago, and here are the things that really struck me about it:

I’ve never worn hoodies so often in my life. They’re the most useful clothes you can possess here. They run counter to the way I usually try to dress these days, but holy shit are they comfortable.

A lot of restaurants have three garbage disposals: Trash, recycling, and compost. I’m still not quite sure how to tell the difference between them.

The pizza places on every corner they had back east have been replaced by Asian food on every corner.

I do miss the autumn foliage of New York, but evergreen forests offer the corollary of not looking dead for the eight months of the year when there aren’t any leaves.

Coffee kiosks are the greatest things since Betty White.

Starbucks is a local business now. It’s also a life saver, even though the people who live here would never admit that out loud.

Salmon Chowder seems to have a lot in common with New England Clam Chowder.

The weather is awesome when it’s not raining. Even on cool days, you can get away with just bundling up in one of those aforementioned hoodies and a good long-sleeve shirt.

Speaking of the rain, I don’t know who said that this place receives less rain annually than New York, but I’m willing to bet it was someone who worked for the tourism department.

Airplanes seem to be nearly a part of the local culture. Seems every time I go out, I see a Cessna or some other four-person prop job flying around or performing jumps.

You know you live in Seattle when one in every three people you know works for Boeing.

For a place where the sky spends so much time coming into physical contact with your head, I don’t see very many people carrying umbrellas.

Seattle really is a sports city. Everyone outside thinks the place has nothing but fair-weather fans, but the fans know everything about football and I’ve met a lot of diehard hockey followers.

Everyone talks about the rain. No one mentions the wind, and that’s the real weather hazard here.

Seattle has the greatest selection of radio stations I’ve ever heard in my life.

I’ve never heard so much grunge in one place. It’s like the dominance of blues in Chicago. Every day, I can count on hearing old cuts from Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam, and old deep cuts from Nirvana. And by that I don’t mean the deluxe version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I mean the deeps and unknowns. (“I’m on a plain… I can’t complain…”)

I also think its weird how the two most prominent and influential musicians associated with Seattle – Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain – both played left-handed guitar. I don’t mean they were southpaws who happened to play guitar; I mean they played guitar using the lefty grip. That’s rare, because learning to play left-handed guitar is such a pain in the ass that most southpaws say fuck it and learn to do it right-handed.

Why the funny noises coming for the walk signs on street lights?

I’m amused that the cable car system isn’t a real cable car system.

Yes, there’s a commuter train. It’s called the Sounder, and it’s damn near useless unless you’re trying to get to The Clink.

Also yes, this is a microbrewer’s paradise. If you go to a bar and you don’t know what they offer, you can say pretty much any random combination of words and be given a beer.

Tradition and Colin Kaepernick

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.