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Bob Lalasz

An Ex-Fan’s Notes

by Bob Lalasz on January 16, 2012


Please. You had to see this coming, fellow Packer fans. And not because the defense couldn’t stop anyone — although that alone would have sufficed in the pitless mano y mano of the National Football League, where strengths become weakness and weaknesses become aerosolized, killing faster than a mutating bird flu. Rather, because of the offense, which was predicated on magic.

Countless times this season, Aaron Rodgers would throw the ball somewhere in the ecoregion of Jordy Nelson, running the simplest go route up the sidelines, slathered in defensive back. Nelson, not actually seeing the pass but rather merely detecting its hum, or perhaps the faint pressure change of its rapidly spiraling slipstream, would perform some impossible, porn-star contortion to simultaneously reach over, under and through (through not an armpit or helmet earhole, but through the actual physical flesh of the defender). The ball would strike one of his hands (almost never two) and, after the minutest songbird quiver, bond to the hand, as if cemented there suddenly, while Nelson continued the spiral with his own body, landing with clay-court softness inbounds, swaddled in a cloud of turf and defender curses. It was always hilarious, always astonishing, and always a little occult. My reaction, when I peeled down to it: Suspicion. We had just witnessed something not quite of our world (certainly the world of the Packer fan.) It was too good, and therefore evil. It reminded me of this short horror story I read once about an old tennis pro who played an new hotshot who was beating everyone on the circuit. The hotshot walloped the old pro, who asked him what his racket was strung with. “Gut,” replied the hotshot, smirking. They went to the locker room, where the old pro mysteriously lost consciousness and then woke up bound to a table and screaming, being disemboweled by the hotshot.

Well, sooner or later, you run out of guts.

[click to continue…]

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(It’s a dream of near-indecency to be able to justify writing a headline like that.)

Anyway, Jeré Longman’s huge New York Times profile of Lionel Messi and his gifts is now up on the Times site. Jeré was kind enough to use several of the “Spoken Word of Ray Hudson” poems from my soccer blog, Must Read Soccer, as punctuation throughout the piece. I think they work well. I’m also astonished at how well Longman was able to narrativize Messi’s two goals against Real Madrid in the first match of their Champions League semifinal.

Of course, many of the cognoscenti on Twitter have damned the piece, saying it says nothing new, saying it’s only being read because it’s in the Times. Soccer on Twitter has become a hyperbaric chamber of pure snobbery, a lot like music criticism was in the day of alt-weeklies. It was inevitable — structurally determined — that Twitter would evolve this way on niche subjects: a kind of hipster priesthood of the right way to look at things masquerading as a celebration of inclusion and difference. But it’s exhausting for me to step into its streams for more than 5 minutes, except for very tightly edited lists. A lot of the bloggers I admired and linked to on Must Read Soccer just a year ago have devolved into tweeters only, delivering themselves of little packages of snark instead of essays. Twitter doesn’t do vulnerability well. On balance, I’d say it might even be a loss for thinking about soccer.

Anyway, enough Jaron Lanieresque ranting. Many thanks to Jeré, and of course all credit to Ray Hudson for making our weekends brighter.

(Image credit: giveawayboy/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)



I know; it would have taken the courage required to land at Normandy Beach even to have gone into a development meeting with the idea. But Ebert is right about “The Adjustment Bureau” it’s a romantic comedy trapped inside existential hokum, and it was an audience rights violation not to let it out. This could have been one of the films of the decade — the paranoid screwball comedy that “A Scanner Darkly” never was — but instead we got Sisyphus in a grey flannel suit. Imagine a movie that gives John Slatterly its best lines and then keeps him out of the conclusion and you understand how this happened, or didn’t happen.

Still, “The Adjustment Bureau” is worth seeing for how simple banter can create a sexual force field between characters played by actors as seemingly ill-matched as Matt Damon and Emily Blunt. David Thomson wrote a column for Salon almost 10 years ago about the death of talk as seduction in the movies, as good a thing as he has ever written. It begins:

What was the last movie you saw in which people fell in love because of the way they talked? I don’t mean simply to each other, but the way they used words, and how that usage reflected on such things as spirit and soul, as well as knowledge and experience. I mean the saving interplay of sadness and humor; the poetic grace or fancy that can deliver a compliment better than a caress. I mean an essential tenderness toward the cadence and sound of language — let syntax look after itself sometimes. Much as, early on in a relationship, we might only want to make love to and with the other person, surely words will have their hour and their lifetime. Marriage, I suggest, or partnership, depends on how urgently and wittily people continue to talk to each other. It is, if you like, the difference between saying (in the middle of a night or the middle of a relationship), “The field marshal sometimes forgets what he wanted to say when standing at attention,” and facing the blunt bathroom wall advertisement “9 inches of hot metal. Fucks forever.”

And I think I’m correct in saying that what gets most of us around the bases isn’t mere attraction or sexual urge. It’s the talk that makes a path, the feeble jokes, the better one; all couples need to learn humor. I am hesitant in raising education, but even “9 inches” will never face a greater need for schooling than finding ways to woo, or finding arguments to open some intransigent entrance. (Just call him or her “an intransigent entrance” — it’s so unexpected — and you may be halfway home.) I don’t guarantee it, but the thing most people are most denied in life is not actually sex or orgasm — we help ourselves. It’s being well talked to, in a way that persuades you the other person wants to know you. Never forget the second word in “carnal knowledge.”

He goes on to praise, of all things, “Notting Hill” as a prime example of the power of repartee, which of course makes sense when you remember how unlikely a couple Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant would make. What Thomson had not seen before writing this piece was the ravishingly famished look in Emily Blunt’s eyes in this film; she looks as if she’s going to devour Damon and jump inside him all at once. Ferocity doesn’t begin to describe the sexuality of her performance, sharpened all the more by Damon doing a very good Jimmy Stewart, deadpan wittiness just falling out of his mouth and surprising both of them.

“The Adjustment Bureau” would have us believe that its leading couple were always meant to be together, and that’s why they’re so instantly at ease with each other — that it’s the resonance of God’s plan they are vibrating to. Within 30 seconds of hearing them simply talk to (and bait) each other, you know they’re creating their own plan, one they have been hungering for all their lives. Seldom has a script been so at war with itself, like Preston Sturges was on the rewrite committee with the Wachowskis.

(Image credit: 4rilla/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)


An Apology to Seth Godin

by Bob Lalasz on January 8, 2011


A little more than a year ago I wrote a blog post attacking Seth Godin, one of the preminent marketing gurus in America, for professional ignorance and stylistic heresies. I was responding to what Godin had just written about the timidity of non-profits, especially in marketing, and how stupid that timidity is in an age when a) it costs virtually nothing to communicate your message, and (b) so very much is on the line, both for non-profits and for the world.

At the time, his post seemed out of touch with what a lot of non-profits were actually doing online (including the one I worked at), and it set what sounded like an absurd measure of success for brand awareness — why hadn’t a single non-profit broken into the top 100 of Twitter accounts for followers? he asked. So I wasn’t alone; lots of social mediaistas working for non-profits ripped him that week.

But I ground some special axes. I accused Godin of sliding into banality with his daily posts of marketing and life wisdom, which I called horoscopes, gnomically exploiting people’s workplace angst with rebellious little maxims that would give you the courage to change your life…for five minutes. I called him a hypocrite about Twitter (I embedded a video of him calling the vast majority of social networking “fake networking”). I made fun of his glasses, his baldness, his Typepad site. It was quite a little performance, and posting it reminded me of the sneaky little graffiti pleasures of blogging. It also gave me a small hope that maybe I could make some hay making social media pronouncements. Shooting a man and then using his body as a bridge to somewhere nice: that should have clued me in to what I was doing.

I was wrong. Not because Godin wasn’t in a patch of mediocre posts back then (I still think he was, but he turned it around quickly). Not primarily because I was snarky — although the snark was embarassingly cheap. The deeper shame of it is that I had been blinded by whatever idea I had had about becoming a social media guru that I couldn’t read his post properly. (Reading it now, I admit it: He’s spot-on about the culture of non-profits, which is what the post is really about. Their timidity is the #1 subject their employees talk about, every day. I’ve been in those rooms, watched those enormous lists of reasons to say no to things being drafted in blood.) Also: Ashamed that I had attacked him because he wasn’t being quite as useful as he had alway been, as I sought advice every day for changing my life.

Finally: I was wrong because, although I didn’t know it at the time, Godin was about to help me enormously, by publishing his new book Linchpin.

So, Mr. Godin: I apologize. Let me try in a very small way to make this right, by talking briefly about Linchpin and how relentlessly useful it was for me.

Linchpin is a self-help book, literally. It has no methods, no tricks; it has diagnoses and inspiration, and it’s up to you to use and combine those to find your own way. (You do borrow a lot of ego — as therapists say — from Godin in order to get to the point of helping yourself.) The evaporation of job security in Western societies has been written about to death, but I’m not sure anyone has said “It’s about time” in the way Godin does here. He has special venom for the public educational system in the United States, which was invented to turn out quiescent workers who got 40 years of stability in the same job doing the same thing for their bargain. That’s gone, obviously (although the educational system is still with us). Most of us are fearful and on our own. We have no map for what comes next.

The solutions Godin suggests — redefining yourself as an “artist,” seeking out opportunities to be generous, making change in others the object of your daily work, cultivating your everyday courage in the face of that absent map, prioritize shipping over perfectionism — sound so squishy in summary as to be beneath contempt. In fact, this is the hardest-headed book I’ve read in some time, and an essential book for anyone trying to thrive in the madness of consensus and control that seizes so many non-profits. He leaves you nowhere to hide, hunts down and systematically tries to kill off all of your resistance to transformation — it’s a great work of therapy and enforced maturation, among other things.

In order to survive and thrive, he says, many of us will now have to create our own economic lives. But to do that, we need to develop new emotional and psychic skills for making more out of the jobs we have. We’re not talking about whistling while you work, and this is not a work of Randian smugness or social Darwinism. Linchpin is clearly written out of pain and empathy for the fix so many people are in. But, if you’re stuck working at 7-11, you still have a choice: You can be mad, or you can use it as a dojo where you spread generosity and work on yourself, which is of course also the best way toward eventually working someplace and on something better.

I’m doubtful that we can base an entire economy on linchpins, but that skepticism doesn’t invalidate the book’s force for me. This is really a book about interpersonal ethics, and your relationship with yourself as you work, and how a praxis on those things is your best chance at increasing both your economic opportunities and your happiness. For those who would say that that leaves out politics — well, it does leave out collectivism. But the kind of self-empowerment Godin is preaching has a profound relationship to power dynamics. The style of American prosperity we saw from 1945 to 1970 isn’t coming back. We need to find new ways of creating dignity, and the process starts with the way we treat each other and ourselves.

The truth is, even after I wrote that snarky post, I never stopped reading Godin’s blog. I was in too much pain about being in precisely one of the situations he talks about in “Linchpin” to stop seeking his advice. By the time the book came out, I had already moved toward creating a new position (at the same company) that gives me enormous creative freedom, the daily opportunity to work with brilliant people, and the chance to reach audiences with compelling content about a very good cause. But it took a long time to punch through institutional resistance to that position, and I had a lot of days of despair. Linchpin perfectly described what I was fighting against and told me I was right for fighting it, and gave me a lot of ego to borrow for the struggle. It also inspired me to start a blog curating the best soccer writing online, which, although I’ve taken a break from that project, was a wonderful school in the myriad self-disciplines (and pleasures) of shipping daily.

I’m reading Linchpin again now, and happy to find out that I’ve ingested a lot of it. And, weirdly, happy that I still have a lot left to ingest, as I continue to push against walls that are no longer there.

So Seth: I’m sorry. And thank you.

(Image credit: cyberdees/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)



A lot of people hate the ending of the new “True Grit.” I loved it without immediately knowing why, other than that it made my head snap back; it was like finishing an opera with an unadorned solo sung by a child, lit by a single spotlight. Without it, the rest of the movie is enough, although nothing like the glimpse into hell its trailer promised. With it, the film becomes an argument with God, with how He has made us and the world. You understand what a weak force memory is, and how necessarily careless human beings can be with even the most vivid experiences. Time’s arrow runs one way, and it is so difficult — a denial of life — to attend to anything that has happened in the past. You knew that going into the film; you’re not liable to forget it coming out.

The ending is a fast-forward of about 25 years, from the 1870s and the 14-year-old girl Maddie Ross, a girl with astonishing promise, who has just had the adventure of anyone’s lifetime, to the turn of the century and the verging-on-old-maid Maddie Ross, puckered as a pickle. Spinster Maddie has heard that the man who saved her life, Marshall Ruben Cogburn, is now with a traveling circus, performing feats of marksmanship. She hasn’t seen him in a quarter-century — she never saw him again after he rode her through the night to safety; she travels to see him, but finds out upon arrival that he died three days before. She arranges to have his body transported back with her to Arkansas, to be buried in her family’s plot. She makes the decision alone, as she has all her decisions; there was no prior agreement as she and Cogburn had in the original “True Grit” movie, which gives that film’s finish sweet tears and closure. You next see her staring at his headstone, snow swirling down, her anger vivid, even on a face already abused by anger and unmet aspiration. Then she turns and marches off through a barren field into the snow, rationalizing her regret. Her last line: “Time just gets away from everybody, I guess.”

So many regrets. Of never thanking the man who had saved her life. Of the constraints of a woman’s life in the last half of the 19th century in the United States. A brilliant girl who today would be voted by her class most likely to become president — a girl with street smarts, a punishingly logical mind, stunning oratorical skills, and bottomless drive and courage — became nothing but another spinster, a woman unsuited for marriage, the one thing available to her in her time. Her talents have been wasted, her honesty and lack of tact likely turned against her in what likely became a crushingly ordinary life.

This enough would be occasion for tears, too, at the poignancy and waste. There’s something more, though. Our emotions are not sympathy, but self-recognition. Even today, when the 19th century’s sense of time and distance have been obliterated, forgetfulness has not. Youth has not. Youth is about looking forward, not holding on, not attending. She couldn’t Facebook with Marshall Cogburn, but she could have attended to him, somehow, once, in those 25 years. But of course she didn’t, and of course we wouldn’t have, either. We are young, and then that slips away, and so much with it, because we weren’t paying attention.

The clarity that narrative fast-forwarding seems to generate is always a cheat; even when it satisfies, as in Edward P. Jones’ “The Known World,” it’s the spectacle of the author’s continued mastery over his characters that’s satisfying, not the logic of the specific ends to which he or she puts them. (Or, often, it’s just a cheap shocker; think of the ending — admittedly butchered — of “The Magnificent Ambersons.”) But this time is different. This time, the subject is time, and how we unfold within it. It’s an act of philosophy or renegade theology. Stanley Fish is right to note the Calvinism of the film’s world, but wrong to argue that the film itself is a Calvinist argument. (He thinks that the Iris Dement version of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” that closes the film is about Maddie’s unwavering faith in God; I think it’s about the arms of Cogburn, which clutched her throughout her rescue.) The Coens show the world God has created — random in its grace — and then, through their ending, argue with Him about that world, or at least dissent at its cold embrace. A fantastic choice.