Spaceman's Pancakes

Subscribing to the Cosmic Snowball Theory: A few million years from now the sun will burn out and lose its gravitational pull. The earth will turn into a giant snowball and be hurled through space. When that happens it won't matter if I write this blog


Leave a comment

The Old College Try: A Season Watching NCAA Baseball


I am a rabid baseball. I have followed the Boston Red Sox my whole life, covered them with Over the Monster and SBNation on their way to a historic collapse and a glorious World Series run. I have written about trades and transaction both massive and minor. I have spoken on the radio about the game for audiences across the country, in Canada and in Japan. Typically, I spend this time of the year digging deep into the prospect rankings out of Baseball America, Minor League Ball, and Keith Law. In the desperate hours of winter, I have even turned to obscure broadcasts of winter league games, just to get me to the days when Pitchers and Catchers Report. I go overboard for baseball, I go deep.

But I have never gone into the world of College Baseball.

SAT-style analogy:  College Football is to College Baseball as Game of Thrones is to
A: Stranger Things
B: 9-1-1
C: Mad Men
D: AMC’s Rubicon

 

If you chose D, you are not only correct, you are a giant nerd who still pines for a slow-moving show with no stars that no one watched. You are me and only me.

Tortured analogy aside, there is no denying that, while College Football and College Basketball both own places of honor in sporting culture, College Baseball is fringey and weird and of interest only to a small subset of the population that consists of scouts, wanna-be scouts, prospect writers, ex-College baseball players and… I have no idea who else is in this group. While College Basketball and College Football feed the professional leagues with talent, College Baseball has to deal with kids signing out of high school, international prospects,  international free agents and a development process that is longer than the one that Good Will Hunting had to battle through. The other NCAA sports have their place at the center of the universe, but even in the baseball world, the College game is a tiny niche.

That is part of the appeal for me. I grew up on College Basketball and loved it with my heart and soul at one time. Give me God Shamgod in Friar black and grey in March and I am all in. But the NCAA has made it hard to feel that same thing now. Kids make millions for their schools and get one or two years of fake educations and we are supposed to look the other way, or worse, be indignant when it turns out that these kids are getting paid under the table. Fuck that. Pay those kids.

Baseball’s older roots in America have made it separate from that system of dishonors to at least a small degree. Kids actually choose college ball over the minors and they make that choice for a ton of reasons, all of which are interesting and worth thinking about. Some actually want to go to school. Some will get more money two years down the road when they have developed more, since baseball is not as accepting of 19-20-year-olds as other sports. Others aren’t in the draft’s field of vision and go to school hoping to get there. All of this makes College ball fascinating. All of this means that I should give at least one season over to watching the College game. If I want to better understand this game I love, I need to do this.

I had kicked around the idea the of following the college game before, but I am committing to it this season in part because of the encouragement and assistance of Michael Bauman, the Ringer baseball writer and one of my favorite baseball people. This off-season he offered help to anyone looking to get into the college game via twitter and I reached out to ask about the best ways to follow. In the course of making good on his offer, Bauman gave me advice on how to follow the game and pointed another interested tweeter to Northeastern teams worth watching. Among them, the St. John’s Red Storm, who are currently ranked 25th by Baseball America and who happened to be local for me.

So this is my experiment. I will spend the 2018 NCAA baseball season following St. John’s baseball team. I hope to see at least one game in Queens, in person. I will follow every game as best I can, watching them when possible, reading the box scores and recaps when I can’t watch and generally obsessing over the team as much as possible. I hope it will be fun. I hope it will teach me something about baseball. Whatever happens, I will be writing about it here, channeling a strange experiment about a silly obsession into what promises to be a bizarre read of minimal import.


Leave a comment

Thoughts on Michael Chabon’s Moonglow


Michael Chabon’s 2016 book Moonglow is a novel that sits somewhere between fiction and memoir. Chabon retells the account his dying grandfather gives him of his life from childhood through World War II and up until his final years in Florida as a widower. Chabon fills in gaps in the story with brief additions to the tales from his mother, from his own memory and from some scant research into the historical record of the events his grandfather was a part of. Like all of Chabon’s books, it is a mesmerizing read and a bittersweet story wound around issues of Judaism, the Holocaust, fantasy, and family. I find it hard to shake his books long after reading them and this one is certainly no exception.

In the beginning of the book, the narrator gives the following qualification-

In preparing this memoir, I have stuck to the facts, except when the facts refuse to conform to memory, narrative structure or the truth as I prefer to see it.

That qualification should probably come at the start of every memoir, as the division between fiction and non-fiction is lost in the cloud of memory in the form anyway. But, this qualification at the start of this book is particularly warranted, because Chabon seems to me to want this book to live in a place between a novel and a memoir. What is fact and what is fiction is irrelevant the same way that it might be in a novel, but nothing- at least nothing of great consequence to the story- appears to just be created in service of the story.

Stories and storytelling are at the heart of Moonglow. The narrator- Chabon himself, we are to believe- recounts early on in the book the way that his grandmother would tell stories drawn from a set of tarot cards. Later, he reflects on a time when he uses the same cards to build a house-of-cards in the presence of his grandfather. In this later incident, he muses on the wordplay between a building’s stories and stories of the imaginative kind. It is something of an awkward moment in the book, in my opinion. It is the one time that I felt genuinely drawn out of the book as memoir and set back down in a novel. I immediately recalled the disclaimer at the start of the book which I included above. But even as this bit of novelistic sleight-of-hand gave away the trick, I could not help but like and admire the book even more for it.  Even if it is a writerly moment- and it is- it belongs to the world that is created in Moonglow and that world never feels different from the real world, even though it is a world built of stories.

Chabon’s work has often walked a drunken line between memoir and fiction. There are details of his real life throughout Mysteries of Pittsburgh and Wonderboys and both of those novels could easily be interpreted as quasi-memoirsThere is also a sense of place in his books that is so strong and well connected to the real world cities of Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Philly and Oakland that it grounds his fiction close to reality in a way that feels more like memoir. His skill in delivering a sense of place is incredible and every bit as vital to the impact of his work as his vast and sprawling imagination.
Moonglow is a book that racks up the frequent flyer miles. It runs through the swamps of a Florida retirement home, the Western front of Germany in World War II, Jewish Baltimore and its suburbs, a minimum security prison, a mental institution, and a French tannery farm. All of these places and others are brought to life without the need for Tolkienian-sidebars illuminating the landscape down to a blade of grass. The few details given are consistently the right ones and each stop on this long journey through space and time feels perfectly alive.
The places that require and get the wealth of the adjective and supplemental clauses are not the real ones, but the imagined ones- the models and moon-stations that Chabon’s grandfather crafts in his retirement. Chabon writes these with the same care that he tells us his grandfather devoted to building them and the effect that choice is, oddly enough, to make them seem less like real places and more fanciful. The moon-base is the books great metaphor, a place that never comes to exist in the real world but cannot fail to exist inside the members of Chabon’s family, their great shared dream of escape from the planet that made them the broke people and the broken family that they are. Were this simply a novel, the presence of such an obvious bit of symbology would be unremarkable. But lives do not conform to the demands of narrative and even if Chabon readily admits to reshaping them to that purpose, the idea of such an obvious literary device at the heart of a piece of memory is jarring.
Life simply does not conform to our idea of narrative like that.
Instead, life is picaresque. It is a series of often unrelated scenes, a collection of happenings brought about equally by will, by chance, by desire, and by defeat. The long life of Chabon’s grandfather is this way. He stumbles from youthful misadventure into war and espionage. He falls from suburban familial not-quite-grace to imprisonment and rises again as a maker of models of the great rockets he dreamed of building for real. There are cameos from a bearded lady, Wild Bill Donovan, Werner Von Bruan, kindly warden, a hapless dentist and a German priest, all of whom enter and exit life of the tides of chance and circumstance and leave as the ocean rolls back once again. It is the magical realism of memory, not entirely truth, but truer to life than what comes from exhaustive research into the matters at hand as they “really” happened.
If touches like the house of cards or the moon-base feel like they belong to the world fiction, that is no slight against them. Moonglow feels intensely personal and the person relating it is Chabon, a novelist. It is not surprising that he is able to find grand metaphors in the life of his own family and he does not dimish their tale but pointing them out. Instead, what he is able to do with Moonglow is to remind us that the division between fiction and memoir is a false one anyway. Just as buildings are built of stories, lives are as well. We all give segments of our lives the arches of narrative, the trappings of stories. We cannot help it. There are arbitrary beginnings and endings to those stories and their raw material is reshaped to make them worthy of the telling.
In some ways, the struggles of Chabon’s family in Moonglow are struggles with the stories they find themselves in. The stories turn on the moments that the stories that were being told fail the tellers. The grandfather lands in jail after going psychotic on his boss during his firing just as the narrative of a happy, family, at peace in middle-class suburban life is shattered by the ghosts of the past. The imagined kinship between the Jewish-American hero and Von Werner curdles in the light of the Nazi reality. In the most dramatic story in the book, the fantasy of the “night witch,” a character Chabon’s grandmother plays on TV and the demonic presence of the “skinless horse,” which haunts Chabon’s grandmother childhood memories and from her holocaust experiences  collide to become too real for her, sparking a mental breakdown.
In Chabon’s telling, his family’s stories are not defined by lines of fiction and reality, they are one in the same. That is literally true for his mentally-ill grandmother. At one point, he describes her tormentor- the skinless horse- as a way of casting her inner demons out into the world so that they will not have to live inside her. Madness might give Moonglow the most direct case of an inner story but every story in the book functions in this way. The stories we tell ourselves about our lives, our own fictions, build the lives that we live. Metaphors like the house of story-telling cards and its own stories or the sanctuary of the moon-base do not need to be created to better make reality fit the demands of a good story because reality itself was created by fiction anyway, it cannot help but fit the form it.
Moonglow is a family epic as much as it is a memoir, but it is a love story as well and it is as a love story that it had the most impact for me. The best stories we tell ourselves are about the people we love. Those are the stories that push us to reach for the moon, even if we can only reach it at a reduced scale.


Leave a comment

What We Are Drinking: Raphael Estate Merlot 2015


I am a devotee of Long Island wine. It is a region that has a great deal of personal significance for me and one that I have a far more direct connection than the more heralded regions that are- sadly- far, far away. It is also a region that has substantial issues right now. Wine production on the North Fork began in the late 1970’s when the area was just farmland and fishing posts and the area gained what little traction it has in the wine world in the mid-2000’s, just about the same time I began venturing out there. More than a decade later, as the value of the land just North of the Hamptons is swinging up and up, the prices for North Fork wines have started to outpace their quality. The winemakers have improved, to be sure, but when your quirky Cab Francs are now twice the price of those coming out of Chinon, there is a problem.

One of the producers that has managed to make good wines consistently without getting too pricey for their own good is Raphael. Their Cab Franc, Estate Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc all retail for under $20 in most places and are typically a good value. I picked up the 2015 Estate Merlot for $15 this week and found it to be a good example of what the grape can do in the North Fork for the novice Strong Island hooch.

The 2015 Estate Merlot is deep ruby in color and the nose is bright with notes of cassis, blackberry and cedar with a hit of alcohol that signals the youthful bit to come. The fruit up front is tart. Blackberries and sour cherry run ahead of sharp tannins that could do with some mellowing over time. The finish is arid with a hint of black pepper a key flavor in many of the Long Island reds.

This wine is drinkable now, but there is some projection needed to see it get to its ceiling as it feels a little green overall. At the price, I like the value, but mostly I would recommend this wine as an introduction to the North Fork. The best reds from Long Island share some of the details in common with the Raphael Estate Merlot and bring different tones along for the ride. This isn’t basic exactly, but it no enigma either

50/80- could mellow to an above average pro at it’s peak.


Leave a comment

What We Are Drinking: Chateau Marjosse 2014 Bordeaux


The Bordeaux region of France produces some of the most desirable and collectible wines on earth, wines that are breathtaking in both taste and price. For the vast majority of us, those wines are out of the picture. It just isn’t happening. But, the region is vast and so are its offerings. I have found that it a place to go for reliable quality in reds running from $17-$30 a bottle, where there is a high floor for these wines and still the chance at hitting on something really great. The 2014 Chateau Marjosse didn’t blow me away as a rare gem for the price but it definitely came through enough to be a good value and a safe bet for a meal that needs a quality red wine beside it.

This Bordeaux blend features 80-percent Merlot and 20-percent Cabernet Franc and it is deep ruby color, almost black in the glass. The nose brings some black cherry, allspice, and suede notes. There is a nice medium to full-bodied feel on the mouth with a good deal of black fruits up front, soft chewy tannins and hints of tobacco and bitter cocoa on the finish. Basically, this is a great introduction to what Bordeaux and Bordeaux-style blends are like. There is a lot to like and there is some room for projection here as well, since this is currently a bit harsher than it should be in the future.

While this particular wine is far from the best value-buy I have found from Red Bordeaux blends, with a price tag between $15-$18 dollars, it definitely over-delivers.

60/80 solid starter Bordeaux with some room to age into itself


Leave a comment

What We Are Drinking: Wimmer 2016 Gruner Veltliner


White wine can be a tough thing to get right. There is an ocean of uninteresting, inexpensive white that is boring to drink, adds little to a meal and can only be positively described as unobjectionable. There is also a good deal of white at the low end that is just plain bad. So, I get excited when I find an inexpensive white that goes when with a wide range of foods and has enough complexity to stand on its own. Right now, those qualities have made the Wimmer 2016 Gruner Veltliner basically our house white for the winter.

This Austrian Gruner has a light yellow hue and a subtle nose that hints at flavors of lemon, orange, and pear with just hint of herbs. It is crisp and refreshing with good minerality, a hint of candied lemon and tropical fruits on the palate that is much more subtle than what you typically get from New World-style Sauvignon Blancs. The finish is bright and clean,  leaving only a pleasant lingering of acidity behind.

We had this one with Scallops and artichoke and chickpea tagine one night and with Greek-style roast chicken breast and veggies with yogurt sauce and it complimented the buttery seafood and the herbed chicken equally well. It runs under $15 for a 1000 ml bottle, so it a perfect wine to toss in the fridge for whenever you need a solid white.

55/80- A utility player that can hold its place in the lineup and bring a little pop.


Leave a comment

The Re-Animated Podcast: Episode 3- Return to Oz


What if the merry old land of Oz we all came to love from the 1939 Judy Garland-classic was less merry and more of a horrific post-apocalyptic dreamscape? Well, then you’d be watching the 1985 Disney film Return to Oz. 

It’s bleak. It’s terrifying. It has the structure of an actual nightmare. And it co-stars a chicken. Yet, we watched it as children and we loved it (maybe?). Now we have watched it again as adults and tried- unsuccessfully- to wrap our heads around it. Even as adults it is incredibly scary, but as ridiculous it may be, we could not look away.

Enjoy the third episode of the Re-Animated Podcast as we break down Return to Oz. 


Leave a comment

Are McDonald’s Recent “Fails” a Strategy?


Bob Dylan sings, “She knows there’s no success like failure/ and that failure’s no success at all” in his song She Belongs To Me.  It’s one of those great Dylan lines that is both totally captivating and essentially meaningless. But, while it is more of a clever construction than an actual insight, it has the tendency to reverberate in an interesting way in the modern culture of the internet and social media, where getting people’s attention takes either a massive dedication to quality content and breathtaking consistency or a single instance of hilarious ineptitude. #Fail is often the most successful thing there is these days.

That is why the recent failings of McDonald’s marketers are fascinating to me. The most recent one was the Black Friday twitter fail. If you missed it, McDonald’s Twitter account was set to make some deal offer for the biggest day of the year and the poor person in their social media department hit send before… oh, you know… adding whatever deal was planned, resulting in- “Black Friday **** Need copy and link****” going out to the world. Predictably, people jumped online to mock the ubiquitous fast-food restaurant and slap together sarcastic memes. But buried in the L.A. Times article linked to above is the casual observation that-

“Some social and community managers even expressed their empathy for the situation, which although embarrassing proved to be an excellent source of social traffic”

That simple mistake drove traffic for one of the largest companies in the world. And beyond that, it is not embarrassing in any way that is actually costly to the McDonald’s brand. No one tampered with the food or did anything else that would injure the company in a real and substantial way. It is the kind of innocent mistake that is easy to sympathize with and somehow actually reminds us that a restaurant chain is so mammoth that it feeds one-percent of the earth’s population every day is made up of actual people, some of them just as bad using twitter as we are.

The net results of this fail are:

  • A social media traffic surge
  • The brand being talked about on the biggest shopping day of the year
  • A sympathetic, humanizing moment for a corporate behemoth

No Success like failure.

If the Black Friday tweet was intentional (I doubt that it was) it was social media genius of the highest order.  Though this instance was probably unintentional, I am willing to bet that somewhere out there, a sharp-minded social media manager is looking for an opportunity to fake a fail like this one for the attention it will bring.

If that sounds paranoid, just hang on a minute because the Black Friday tweet is only the tip of my McDonald’s social-media-conspiracy-iceberg. The real stroke of possibly-evil genius was the companies “mishandling” of the Rick and Morty promotion.

First, a quick recap of the incident. The Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim show Rick and Morty, a dark comedy about evil super-genius Rick, revealed in the third-season premiere that Rick was doing all his evil deeds to acquire the Szechuan sauce McDonald’s had released as part of a Mulan promo back in late 1990’s when that film was in theaters.  McDonalds, a company never known for being hip and which has a complicated relationship with today’s younger costumers, saw a chance to look cool and edgy. They set-up a limited re-release of the sauce to satisfy the demand of the rabid fans of this cult TV show and offered the product at select stores on October 7. The “limited” release turned out to be far too limited for the shows fans and they raged against the company online until the company was forced to apologize and promise more of the now-deified sauce.

As Claire McNear’s article for The Ringer that I linked to above points out, nobody came out looking great here. It is really hard to imagine that this was an engineered move to attract attention because mega-brands don’t take risks as a rule and intentionally infuriating a group of people to get people talking about your brand is an enormous risk.

But.

We, as a culture, are talking about a McNugget sauce from an ad campaign for a bad Disney movie that came out around twenty years ago. The story got covered by CNN, The New York Times, The Ringer, Gizmodo, everyone. It was big news. Rick and Morty is a very popular cable comedy, one of the most popular, in fact. But what counts as the audience for one of the most popular shows on television? Between three and four million viewers a night. McDonalds feed around 70 million a day, everyday. Among viewers, the subsection of die-hard fans- the ones who waited in line for Szechuan sauce- is a small percentage. Even if that percentage is as high as thirty percent of the total audience, that is still just a million people. Alienating a million people is probably not something any brand wants to do, but would it be worth the risk if it attracted a million other people who didn’t care at all about the product before?

After all, die-hard fans die hard. They might be mad that they didn’t get Szechuan sauce, but they are going to just stop wanting it. They are coming for the sauce regardless. The whole problem was there no being enough of it, after all.  From the evil-social-media-marketing-conspiracy perspective, the beauty of this “fail” is that I now want it (well, a little anyway). I have never watched Rick and Morty and I rarely eat McDonald’s, buying it only in desperation (or inebriation, maybe). Yet, because the fine folks at McDonald’s created this sensation and then failed massively in delivering it, I am now interested in two things that were not even previously on my radar. I am certain I am not the only one. A brand like McDonald’s could spend millions on ads and social strategies and never reach me in any meaningful way. I know what McDonald’s is. I have known McDonald’s as long as I have been alive. Their ubiquity is their biggest liability. They are just part of the landscape. They are as easily ignored as telephone poles. I might eat their food occasionally but I do not care about them at all. Or I didn’t care about them at all until they let down thousands of fans of a TV show I have never seen. That may not be success, but sometimes, as the man says, there is no success like failure.