July 27, 2012

I hate the Olympics.

Every two years, I shudder.

Not because a goose just walked over my grave. Because it's time for the Olympics.

And the Olympics are awful.

You know they're coming because you start hearing stories. It's a just a pitter-patter at first, like the little ripples in the water cup in Jurassic Park, but anyone paying attention will notice a slight increase in boring, repetitive human interest stories.

Then, all of a sudden, it's time. Now there's a boatload of guys and girls you've never heard of being thrust, literally forced, into the national conversation. We're told that they now matter. Most of them participate in events that no one likes; almost all of them are faceless nonentities. They might as well have popped out of a player creator in a video game.

And many people blindly cheer for them. Because they're supposed to, I guess. Because "tradition" dictates that you should.

What's easy to ignore, though, is that "tradition" often goes hand in hand with "old-fashioned" and "obsolete."

The Olympics are an outdated concept. I understand that they used to be a grand spectacle, bringing everyone together for a few weeks of seemingly random sporting events. But now there's very little need to bring everyone together, besides the fact that they've been doing it for hundreds of years. The world is more connected than ever. Teams and athletes from different countries face off all the time.

And the world's best athletes are already on our televisions every night. You can watch soccer matches featuring players from a handful of different countries; the NBA has become a massive global entity. I'm pretty sure people run races against each other and swim against each other all year, but nobody watches that shit. Because it's boring, or because it "doesn't matter." I think things matter as much as you make them, though, and the real issue that no one actually cares. They just think they should when it's branded as "THE OLYMPICS."

They hop right onboard with the idea of cheering like robots "for our country." And its fine, brave athletes. But who are these people? Why am I cheering for them? Because we're all Americans?

I love America, but I certainly don't like all Americans. This is generally a healthy notion; few people are buddies with everyone.

That's not how it works at the Olympics, though. Sports are suddenly linked with all the good things in the world; things are great, everyone is equal. I've had people tell me that I should just enjoy it all. That I should find something to like about every shitty event, because it's "important."

"Important" is a word that gets thrown around a lot in regards to the Olympics. But what does that mean? Who decided that the Olympics are "important"? They do have history, yes, and Jesse Owens did some truly impressive things as a runner and a human 80 years ago. It's a grand stage, but one that's becoming increasingly arbitrary. Why are the Academy Awards the final word in appraising the year in motion pictures? "Because they are," right? Because someone created them a long time ago, and everyone knows them, and they have clout with everyday folks.

But that doesn't mean you have to respect their choices, or enjoy what they're feeding you. You have choices and options in this ever-expanded world. You have access to whatever kind of sports you prefer. If you like the Olympics, fine. But don't pretend like they genuinely matter. Or that I should, must, need to to watch them.

That's the worst part, and it also applies to other big events like the World Cup. People who love the Olympics, or think they love them, will get genuinely mad if you dislike them.

"You don't like the Olympics?! Why not?! Don't you like America? Don't you like sports?"

Well, why don't you like hockey? Or baseball? Or football? Or the other year-round sports that are played in many different places? I don't see the distinction that some people have arbitrarily created. Despite what they may think, there's no special pedestal that Olympics fans get to stand on, no soapbox from which they preach their precious pro-Olympic rhetoric.

You know who I like? Usain Bolt. Because he's charismatic and it's fun to watch him run really fast. But that's why I like him, not because he's "involved in something special." Because when he shows off his athletic ability, it's extremely impressive and it makes me happy. No one told me to feel this way; I decided it for myself.

I guess the other pro-Olympics argument is that everyone is "cheering for the spectacular," or something like that. So you mostly want the Americans to win, but you're also really pumped if some random guy from Russia jumps really high, or a lady from Antarctica throws a mighty javelin?

Again, my thoughts are that people perform amazing athletic feats all the time. If that intrigues you so, why are you limiting yourself to one three-week extravaganza every two years? You can probably find some high jumps or some javelin tosses to watch every now and then, and there's certainly a whole bunch of swimming and running accessible online or on television. 

It goes back to the World Cup; I fully understand why it gets true soccer fans so excited. It's a legitimate spectacle, a worldwide tournament of stars who've earned the right to represent their countries in a grueling, epic event.

But again, "stars." "Tournament." "Epic. "Grueling." These are the things that make the World Cup great, not just the fact that it's happening. Plus, it's the culmination of years of effort. You get invested in these soccer players growing and maturing as athletes, and then they get their big stage. Everyone knows it's coming; the anticipation is allowed to grow naturally.

Because it's big and exciting and you look "plugged-in" and I guess "smart" if you're onboard, the World Cup still gets far too many bandwagon jumpers, folks who will ram it down your throat even if they don't actually like soccer. That can be annoying, but oh my god it is a hundred times worse for the Olympics. There is no buildup; it's just dropped in our laps, and we're expected to chow down. I remain amazed at how many people do just that.

Well, I'm not. I hate the Olympics, and I know I'm not alone. We're just not as unbearably vocal about it as the pro-Olympics crowd, and for that you should be thankful.

Enjoy your shitty event.

July 26, 2012

Why I only kinda liked The Dark Knight Rises.

The Dark Knight Rises is a good movie. Not a great one.

I wasn't necessarily expecting greatness, just a satisfying conclusion to Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. And to that extent, I got what I was looking for; I walked out of the theater last Friday feeling thoroughly entertained.

But in retrospect, there are things worth nitpicking. Legitimate holes in a well-made film that make christening it "the best ever" seem very odd indeed. Perhaps Batman Begins and The Dark Knight have a bunch of these issues as well, but that's a blog post for another time. For now, let's take The Dark Knight Rises down a few pegs.

Editor's note: Spoilers below. Traverse downward at your own risk.

First off, Bane is no Joker. No one expected a repeat of Heath Ledger's award-winning and totally unprecedented performance, but there's really nothing to Tom Hardy's character at all. He's bulky, he's rebellious, and he's into ruining Bruce Wayne and snapping Batman in two. He breaks into the stock market (!) to use stolen fingerprints (!!) to short some stock and fuck up a guy's finances (!!!). Say that outloud to someone and see if they think it's "cool" or "interesting" or "makes sense." But more than that: Why? Were Bane's motivations shrouded in mystery on purpose, or were they just casualties of a jam-packed movie that just didn't feel the need to provide more backstory?

While writing about Inception a while back, I attacked Nolan for refusing to "examine a thought for more than a fleeting second or two." Lately, however, I believe that's the only reason Inception -- and, to a lesser extent, The Dark Knight Rises -- works at all. Nolan is skilled at telling a story quickly and with great confidence; he gives you no time to wonder about a plot point or a bit of dialogue because ten seconds later he's already onto another visually stunning action sequence or key conversation between two wonderful actors adding gravitas to bit parts.

This isn't a strategy that should always be employed, but it does help hold things together that might otherwise fall apart. Nolan's job with these blockbusters is mostly to send you home with a smile on your face, or at least a pleasantly intrigued look. He sneaks big ideas and sprawling plots into popcorn flicks and dazzles his fans with how cohesive it all seems. But when you sit down and consider his work after the fact, it doesn't always fit. The leaps from A to B to C can be tenuous at best, and while it's impressive when it "succeeds" with a movie like Inception (or, on a smaller scale, Memento), that doesn't mean it's above reproach.

For example, and I think this is a very fair question to ask of a movie created by an expert storyteller like Nolan: When Bane takes over Gotham, why was there virtually no mention of how its citizens responded to his rule?

I came upon this point in an preachy review of The Dark Knight Rises and its politics, and I couldn't agree more. Based on what we saw, Matthew Modine and his pals holed up in their houses for five months until Batman randomly returned. If the movie had taken another route -- if the people of Gotham began to accept this new overlord, maybe because of a "hero vacuum" without Batman around -- then the quest to win the city back would have a lot more meaning. Maybe Bane does something horrifying and reminds everyone of his true purpose. Maybe Batman does something selfless and reminds everyone of his true purpose.

Either way, it's a wasted opportunity. Give this whole conflict some legitimacy with five extra minutes of screen time, and now we're considerably more invested in the fate of Gotham under Bane. There's a big opportunity here for Nolan to "show not tell," too; to offer up some insight into what's really going on in the city. Maybe there's anarchy, maybe allegiances are shifting, maybe there's more than Scarecrow's kangaroo court afoot. The people are afraid, sure, but is that all? We're supposed to accept that "OK, Bane and his scary mask and the tanks in the streets make everyone quietly uncomfortable" and then wait for someone to save the day?

It's arguably the crux of the whole movie -- Batman's city has been taken away from him -- but we get more of Bruce Wayne figuring out how to climb some rocks (with the power of fear!) than the trials and tribulations of his hometown. There's a lot going on by then that Nolan still has to get through, but if there was ever a time to take a breath and make the threat a little more real, a little more personal, I think it was right then and there.

There's also another scene that bothered not only myself but a few others I spoke to: the cut to Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, alive and out in the world, at the very end. Come on. How much more power might that scene have had if you just show Michael Caine's Alfred smiling at an unseen figure? The end result is the same, and you don't have to smack the audience in the face with "BATMAN IS ALIVE DON'T WORRY," which feels more and more like a creative cop-out. Not the biggest deal, but when you're a talented filmmaker who is supposedly crafting a "masterpiece" it's a glaring swing-and-miss.

And let's not even get into the Talia al Ghul "twist." When a character switches sides at the 140-minute mark of a movie with no subtle foreshadowing at all and the only motivation being her real last name, that's just lazy. It sucked a lot of the life out of Batman's day-saving and an ending that, despite its flaws, I was very invested in.

I did enjoy the renewed emphasis on Bruce Wayne/Batman as the main character, though, along with how good Anne Hathaway turned out to be. I'm a huge fan of Rachel Getting Married yet expected nothing from the young actress, and boy did I feel dumb afterwards. I'd also feel shitty if I didn't mention the opening sequence, which was intriguing, complex, unfathomably expensive and instantly forgettable. Only a film like this, on such a grand scale, can start you off with that kinda scene and then just sweep it away for whatever comes next.

But too much of the movie felt contrived: Chris Nolan plowing us forward with skill and technical mastery while offering up an incomplete story and an unsatisfying lack of character development. Considering how much hype and buildup it has resting on its shoulders, The Dark Knight Rises mostly delivers. But if you think it was "great," or some other overly positive adjective, perhaps you and I were seeing different movies.

July 17, 2012

Sell sell sell. Then buy buy buy.

As of July 17, the Philadelphia Phillies have a 0.4% chance of making the playoffs in 2012.

I know that Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and (as of tonight) Roy Halladay are back on the active roster. I know that a team with a $172 million payroll is expected to bring home a championship.

But it's over. The Phillies aren't going to leapfrog seven wild card contenders and make up a 10-game deficit with only 71 games left. Despite what Ruben Amaro Jr. might say, even though they're in the middle of a three-game winning streak, it's time to admit that 2012 is a lost season.

So let's start the selling process. There's no reason to keep guys like Joe Blanton and Juan Pierre. Both will be at least a little enticing to a contender, even if the return is just a mid-level prospect or two.

For the sake of fielding a proper team, it might be tough to swallow trading Placido Polanco. I don't think anyone wants to see a Mike Fontenot/Ty Wigginton platoon at third. But if you get a decent proposal, move him too.

The Cliff Lee-esque contract that the Phillies have apparently offered Cole Hamels is a credible one, but it probably won't get the job done. Hamels could see $20-30 million more on the open market. Whether it's fair or not, if he won't sign, say goodbye. For now. Maybe he'll see a more generous deal from Amaro over the summer.

I'm warming to the idea of trading Hunter Pence (with one more arbitration year remaining, he may have the most value) if Shane Victorino will consider a three-year deal, but that seems unlikely. I expect Shane will be gone in a week or so, and you need to keep one of the two good outfielders.

Either way, the point is that the time for changes has come. Minor changes, of course. Joe Sheehan tweeted recently that the Phillies need work on minimizing this upcoming (and possibly inescapable) down period, to take a more long-term view, but that's tough to do when you've got over $104 million committed to six veterans (Howard, Lee, Halladay, Utley, Jonathan Papelbon, Jimmy Rollins) in 2013. That's a team that needs to compete, one that has entered the upper stratosphere of baseball franchises. A place with certain expectations.

Unfortunately, I do not exactly trust Amaro to make the tweaks necessary to rejuvenate this last-place team and legitimately threaten the Washington Nationals and Atlanta Braves once again. But he's what they've got, and he would be wise to surrender properly. They have some assets that could net young talent, perhaps even the kind that could contribute immediately.

And I really think there could be reason for optimism. A few smart moves -- a young third baseman, a solid free-agent outfielder, a few bullpen arms, improved -- and there's no reason you can't contend in 2013. Maybe not be a favorite to win the whole thing, but to have that be a possibility again.

But to run it back, to go down with the ship and offer Cole the maximum and act like this is all just an aberration, that would be foolish. I don't think they're going to do that, but I'd love to see them sell hard now and then buy hard in the offseason. I believe that could truly work.

For better or worse, they need to start acting like the Yankees. Or the Red Sox. A team that can get away with joke contracts for John Lackey or A.J. Burnett (or Ryan Howard) because they've got deep pockets and at least a solid farm system. A team that has no problem dropping a few million on some relievers or a centerfielder if that's all that stands in the way of contention.

Farm system's a little barren right now, but the number of talented pitchers and outfielders that'll hit the market in a few months is staggering. So dump what you can, restock the ol' cupboard to the best of your abilities and write a few more checks over the summer.

This 2012 team is majorly flawed, but the 2013 team doesn't have to be. Know when you're beaten and use that knowledge to supplement an expensive core properly. It's not the easiest thing in the world, but it's what Amaro has to do. His legacy, and the immediate future of Philadelphia baseball, depends on it.

July 12, 2012

This is an adventure.

A bowl of soup was placed in front of me.

My girlfriend had asked for "everything." And boy, did we get everything.

There was chicken, or pork, or some kind of meat. That was fine. Noodles, and broth, and some veggies.

And liver. And intestines. And what I later found out were probably brains, but they looked a lot like chicken so I think I accidentally swallowed them.

At times, I gagged a little. I ate around the organs. I discreetly (or so I hope) spit out one particularly gross bite and dropped it on the ground.

But what I really did was think, for the first time, "Welcome to Malaysia."

I had no real expectations before arriving. Until this trip became a reality, I never really planned to visit this area of the world; maybe in some later-in-life travels but definitely not at age 26. Which turned out to be a blessing in disguise; I ultimately threw myself into the unknown with vigor and embraced whatever I came across.

Doesn't mean I was in any rush to eat a bowl of animal colons, though.

Thankfully, that particularly jarring meal of mystery soup wasn't the first I had in Southeast Asia. Our three nights in Singapore were my actual introduction to the area, and it turned out to be the perfect beginning for a tried-and-true American who'd never been anywhere truly "crazy," just a bunch of islands and the cushier parts of Western Europe.

Of course, even in Singapore there were trials and tribulations. I was forcefully ejected from the airport for wandering around at 3 in the morning (my flight arrived at midnight and I was unable to book a hotel room for the "evening"). I slept on a couch in the baggage area for a few hours and then took to the streets, visiting the Botanic Gardens and holing up in a Starbucks until our room opened up.

When I finally arrived at my hostel, exhausted and drenched in sweat, I'm surprised they didn't turn me away. They've surely seen their fair share of big smelly white dudes before, but I had to be the grossest in recent history. My friends and I joke about how the lead singer of Springsteen cover band Bruce in the USA always mentions the air being "like soup" up on stage; I'd love to see him walk even a few blocks in Asia. He'd literally melt.

The rest of my journey's early moments are a blury haze; traversing through Little India with my girlfriend -- Fulbright scholar studying in Malaysia but a Singapore newbie -- attempting to lead the way. I think I bought lotion to combat a pesky bit of chafing. It's the closest I've ever been to "blacked out" without drinking; I didn't remember any of the scenery until days later, when we took another jaunt around the same area and my mind began to recall the images from wherever it'd stored them away.

And that was how my trip began. Exhausted, soaked in my body's own juices, unwilling to eat, unable to take in my surroundings with any sort of pleasure.

Luckily, it got a lot better from there.

Singapore had the potential to feel comfortable. It had maybe the best city subway system I've ever encountered. And malls. And a Mexican restaurant in the mega-touristy area, which I felt bad about visiting but desperately needed at the time. The idea of a hawker center, where street food is gleefully served by skilled but random locals, was still too much.

But I got used to everything. And on day three, despite my stomach's continued occasional protests, we housed a plate each of wanton noodles and shared a big pile of fried dumplings.

"It's the same shit I'm used to," I thought, "only better."

It wasn't all "better," of course. Even though my mindset was largely "put your head down and power through," the differences were jarring. This was not my beautiful house, this was not my beautiful country. I don't want to call it "culture shock" but there was a lot of "holy shit what is this place where do I go I have no idea whoa" going on. For a little while, at least.

Also, I genuinely love the Internet -- checking my sites, sending emails and tweets, evaluating my fantasy baseball team's performance -- and my complete lack of access shook me to the core. I made sure we took our fair share of pit stops in coffee shops and fast food joints, where I'd bust out my smartphone. To my girlfriend's occasional (OK, frequent) dismay.

We saw a bunch, though. The beaches of Sentosa, a tourist trap of sorts located next to Universal Studios that also proved to be an easily accessible, relaxing oasis for weary travelers. The aforementioned Botanic Gardens, which were lovely and particularly nonthreatening. Chinatown, where we got a pork bun and drank the trip's first beer.

And that was only in Singapore. By the time we got to Malaysia, I was beginning to feel like a regular human being.

But then came the Soup of Death, and a boatload of other unexpected "complications," for lack of a better word. The place was called Penang; we thought it would be touristy and welcoming. Turns out it was just a regular Malaysian town, which isn't bad but certainly isn't what you'd call a prime destination. The other travelers were all backpackers. I had my roommate's big gray suitcase. I stood out.

Even that was get-used-to-able, though. The food was excellent. Seriously excellent. Chicken rice, tandoori chicken, roti canai, toast and iced coffee. I'm sure you've had a few of those dishes before; so have I, but never done so right.

And when Penang got a little boring, we went to the mall. There were three: one was shitty, one was decent and one was nicer than most malls in America. We ate waffles and drank bubble tea and saw The Amazing Spider-Man, which was pretty awful. But it was easy and it passed the time on a day when we needed some serious time to pass, so I don't think either of us had any regrets.

One overnight train to Kuala Lumpur later, we were back in the big city. Sort of. It was big, sure, and it had a monorail. But seriously, a monorail? That's a thing people still use?

There was still street food everywhere, but it was a little more organized. And we stayed in a nice hotel that was right next to some of the fanciest shopping you'll ever see. The president of the Czech Republic was staying next door. His motorcade went in and out all day and caused a nice little fuss, until we found out he was just the president of the Czech Republic.

As the trip came to a close, we stopped by the Batu Caves. There was a giant gold statue and about 400 steps that led to some great scenery and a temple. There were also a bunch of monkeys who ate necklaces, stole candy and opened bottles of soda with their two little front paws. Lovable, besides the fact that they're most likely swimming with disease.

We never "roughed it" or anything like that. I won't pretend like I'm suddenly a world traveler or that I have any real newfound understanding of all the mystery around me.

But I was seriously taken out of my comfort zone, and I loved it. Sure, I was more than ready to come home after eight days (and a sudden 11-hour layover in Beijing after missing a connecting flight wasn't exactly welcomed) but I'd survived. And, occasionally, thrived.

In the end, my trip ended up being a lot like my bowl of chicken (or pig, or monkey) guts. Some of it was scary, but that stuff was easy to avoid. And the parts I did feast upon, well, they were delicious.

I want to thank my girlfriend for her amazingness throughout the whole experience, and I want to thank a few assorted Southeast Asian locales (and residents) for being very welcoming to a doofy, curly-haired American.

The fact that I made it through more than a week in Southeast Asia is further proof that human beings can do anything. Although it helps if there are attractive women and delicious food at the end of your particular rainbow.