baseball, reviews

Game 5: Chaos, as a force for good

I was sitting in temple with my cell phone burning a (metaphorical) hole in my left pant pocket. It was the most solemn day of the year. I was an hour into a set of concluding services. I freely admit that I already have at least one thing to atone for in 5780, because my mind was wandering away from thoughtful reflective prayer; I was into territory like, “how is Strasburg doing, how is Trea doing, has anyone gotten Max Muncy out yet.” Not profane thoughts by any means, but hardly “sacred” by any conventionally accepted definition.

To my great credit, I did not actually check the GameDay app in the sanctuary, nor did I make up a bathroom excuse. I actually waited for the evening service to end and only then did I make a beeline for the social halls, the nearest available areas in which I could politely congregate myself around a little blue screen to either live streaming video or little animated dots.

So, I get outside, I look down, it’s 3-0 Dodgers.

My father is an outstanding poker player and my father-in-law is a savvy investor and trader, so I blame them for the fact that the first question in my mind was not so much emotional, but rather, “down three-to-nothing, in the third inning, what’s our win probability?”

Fangraphs informed me, the Dodgers had an 81 percent chance of winning.

At this point, I had two contradictory reactions.

Analytics Alex said, “there’s just no way.” And the truth is, a 20 percent win probability is terrible. one-in-five, two-in-ten, however you want to spin it–those odds are awful.

Eye-test Alex said, “down three, third inning–ok, that’s 18 outs to work with, a ton of weird stuff can happen in 18 outs, I dunno, why not?”

Weird stuff did happen.

What I am going to put forth is my best analysis as to why what happened last night, happened, from the perspective of a quasi-learned Nats fan.

Individual skill sets have their role. Deployment of those skill sets has a role. Ultimately, as with everything in life, luck has something to do with it, too.

Step 1a. Controlling the deficit. I came up with this phrase late last night as I was trying to piece together for myself why the Nats ultimately won. It sounds fancier and more academic than “damage control,” or “stop the bleeding.” I feel smarter when I say “control the deficit.” It seems Joe Maddony. So I’m going with it.

What I mean is this. Stephen Strasburg got off to a rough start. Three runs in two innings via a double and two homers. Mathematically speaking, this all-but buried the Nats.

The first, most valuable thing Strasburg did, was that he didn’t give up another run after the first three. Even an additional tack-on run from Los Angeles would have made tying the game that much harder (and we all know what happened after the tie.)

Strasburg went into shut-down mode after that initial burst of Dodger activity. As the Nats lineup turned over, the top hitters got more at-bats, more exposure to an elite-premium pitcher in Walker Buehler, and were able to claw together a single run. Which made tying the game easier–and also contributed to exhausting Buehler.

Had the Strasburg dam totally collapsed, no rally would have mattered. Stras bent, but he never broke. This, to me, is the single biggest element that saved the game. It gave us the foundation for having a shot.

Step 1b. An acknowledgment of the extraordinary effort of Walker Buehler. He’s so good. He sits there spinning high-90s heat, he mixes a variety of evaporating breaking balls–it’s ridiculous. L.A. let him throw 117 pitches. This is not a condemnation of Dodger strategy. Just the opposite; I firmly believe, in the playoffs, you ride the hell out of the horses that got you there. I think the 117-pitch number just shows how much of a “max,” or “empty-the-tank” performance it took from Buehler, how brilliant he was and had to be, against an obviously premium opponent.

Did he come away with defeat? Yes.

Does that suck? Yes. It obviously sucks.

Was he amazing? Yes. I am so impressed with his both stuff and his disposition.

Step 2a. The lineup, line-up’d. The Nats didn’t plate runs but that’s not to say the team didn’t move the ball around. Every inning, you could feel the Nats getting closer and closer to an actual rally. You could feel the bats getting a feel for Buehler’s offerings, and eventually, an Anthony Rendon double and Juan Soto single got the Nats on board.

The very act of turning a lineup over is known to correlate with more winning, because it correlates with scoring. So, every single positive act against Buehler, while Strasburg kept the game close, meant not only that the Nats were never out of “striking distance,” and were actually getting closer to it.

The lineup didn’t produce a lot, but it was never totally dead, either, and that paid off.

Step 2b. Having Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto in the middle of your lineup is helpful. Their technique, their strike zone knowledge, their discipline, their ability to foul off and extend at-bats–they do everything up there. (Also, in the field, Anthony’s defense is known to be elite, and Juan’s defense is underrated.)

Step 2c. Trea Turner remains one of the five most underrated players in baseball.

Step 2d. How is that Michael Taylor can scuffle so badly in the regular season, and then show up and hit a few key singles here and there, and play premium outfield defense? Amazing!

Step 3a. Relief pitching eats sanity, part 1. By the numbers, the 2019 Nationals are known to have among the worst bullpens in modern baseball history. It’s incredible this team is in the playoffs at all, given some of the late lead-blowing performances I had the “fortune” to witness this year.

Everyone has a bad bullpen, it seems like, but the Nats bullpen mostly lived on the saddest end of badness.

Pat Corbin is a textbook example of why relief pitching is where thinking goes to die. Normally, Pat starts and throws six or seven innings of highly effective baseball.

In Game 5, he and Tanner Rainey tag-teamed one-and-a-third innings of brilliant baseball out of the bullpen, picking up where Stras left off. Rainey and Corbin continued holding the Dodgers scoreless, which, in turn, helped retain our ability to get back into the game.

Rainey eliminated some righties, and then Corbin came in.

Now, Corbin had pitched out of the bullpen in Game 4, too, and the results had been a catastrophic implosion. Six earned runs, four hits, two walks–as I said, it was a sad night for him.

So, here he comes, Game 5–I’m sitting there laughing like the fucking Joker, because why not? What else is there to do? Pat Corbin had an amazing year as a starter. He, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg are, by WAR, three of our top five most valuable players. So, okay, Pat Corbin, once more out of the bullpen, fuck it.

He gets three strikeouts.

Whee!! Relief pitching is great!!!!

Then comes The Rally. Then comes The Win.

Step 3b. Relief pitching eats sanity, part 2, the Kershaw edition. There’s really no getting around this subject and I hate it. I hate it because I have so much respect for Clayton Kershaw, and so little respect for people who use terms like “Ker-choke” or other lazy-ass, garbage, thinking-replacement memes. He’s not the first guy to struggle in the playoffs and he certainly won’t be the last. But I have a lot more issue with how he was deployed, than what he did.

Dave Roberts piggy-backing Kershaw was an awful, stupid idea, for a host of reasons.

First, the Nationals had accomplished almost nothing against Kenta Maeda, from either side of the plate. There was no reason not to just throw Maeda.

Kersh had gotten one out already, the lefty, Adam Eaton. Fine! Use him as the “LOOGY,” and move on. There was absolutely no reason at all to try and squeeze another inning out of Kershaw in that situation, other than to say you’re doing it.

The Dodgers bullpen isn’t “good,” but it’s certainly better than the Nationals bullpen, at least on paper. If you can’t trust Kenley Jansen to get a 5-out save, or something like that, in that moment, why is he on the team? Plus there was that guy Adam Kolarek, who had wiped out Juan Soto.

Clayton Kershaw 2019 is not Clayton Kershaw 2016, who was essentially unhittable, who did come in from the bullpen and wipe out my Nationals, and that’s what Kershaw used to do. But he’s not that guy anymore. He’s very good; he can wipe out guys with finesse stuff, but he won’t overpower anyone, and he certainly won’t “overpower” either Rendon or Soto.

Even if this strategy had worked, it would have been a terrible one.

Anyhow, Kershaw is getting nuked as a choke artist, and that makes me sick. I won’t have it. He’s a total “mensch,” an absolute stand-up guy and an obvious Hall of Famer. He was not well-served by being deployed as a piggy-back starter.

Just because it can be done doesn’t mean it’s necessary. In the Nats case, it was much more necessary to use Corbin this way, because there’s only one other lefty in the bullpen–Sean Doolittle, who is essentially the No. 1b closer.

Breaking Corbin out as a reliever was a necessity for us.

Not so for Los Angeles.

Step 4. Stay in the fight. I am certain that, by WAR and by statcast analysis, the Dodgers were the superior team. I am also certain that baseball has yet to find a metric for teams that “stay in the fight.” I am not saying the Dodgers are not “mentally tough,” I am merely saying that I have never ever rooted for a team as mentally tough, as absolutely determined to yield no quarter, as this Nats club.

I don’t think it’s a talent. I don’t think anyone is naturally equipped to love sucking at stuff. I think “staying in the fight” can be taught, though. And how? By enduring the uphill hardship.

Watching this team survive a 19-31 cataclysm and become THIS THING has been one of the most amazing storyline “arcs” of my recent lifetime.

Stay in the fight, folks.

baseball, music, reviews

Your 2017 Nationals–if they were guitars

In the lead-up to the All-Star Game, Major League baseball launched a social media experiment: one last push to get some all-universe baseball players into the game, guys who hadn’t made it on popular vote alone, by tallying how many times a specific hashtag was hashed. It does blow my mind that an all-universe player like Anthony Rendon can be so criminally overlooked but that’s all-star games for ya, and it’s also what happens when you’re humble and refuse to self-promote, characteristics that are not exactly sought after (“actively rejected”) in today’s media marketplace, it’s making us all worse people living worse lives, but that’s another point entirely.

#VoteRendon was the hashtag of the day, and I tweeted it a few times, but just tweeting #VoteRendon in bulk was so boring and banal I sort of refused to do it unless I could come up with actual decent tweets. I tried this one:



That got some traction. As it should: penguin chicks are click-fodder. All animals are click-fodder, but penguins are fuzzy and round, which make them even more click-foddery than others.

I freely admit this was a cynical and planned manipulation of people’s clicking habits. But I like to also congratulate myself on having properly read the audience and formulated a social-media strategy of sorts, that “seemed” to work in the sense that I did actually gain a few followers from it.

And then I tweeted this one, a far more obscure, let’s say “elevated,” take:


This tweet didn’t get as much engagement but I failed to hashtag #Telecaster, a fairly major tactical shortcoming on my part, because I could have drawn in more clicks by bringing together two basically unrelated subjects and audiences.

This tweet, however, inspired further thinking, and is directly responsible for how I arrived at this abomination of an idea: If Tony is a Telecaster, what is Max? What is Harper? This is a bad bar-type discussion but if I’ve learned nothing else, it’s that bad bar-type discussions are the apotheosis of online discourse.

All you need to know about me is that I love reading more than I love guitars and music; I love guitars and music more than baseball; and then there’s other stuff.

Proceed at your own risk.

Max Scherzer: ’62 Les Paul


This is the classic of the classic of the classics. This is the guitar’s guitar. It’s less “raw sex appeal” and more like a rare artifact of human greatness. When I think of Max, I think that this is sort of why we have pitchers and pitching in the first place. I think that he pushes himself in a way that cause nearly all other bodies to implode and he does not. I think of a guy who has the mental toughness–learned, for sure–that few pitchers have. The ’62 Les Paul is so worshipped it’s almost a cliché but the fact is that there is just nothing on Earth that sounds as full, rich and powerful as this slab of mahogany. It’s a visceral guitar. It’s a guitar for a guy with high 90s velocity and command of four pitches including a “power slider” that goes off the grid as it enters the strike zone.

Bryce Harper; ’59 Les Paul, the “Black Beauty”


The ’62 LP has one rival when it comes to being the guitar, and that’s the ’59 Black Beauty. I personally prefer ’em Neil Young-style, with single-coil “p-90” style pickups, but it should be noted that I would happily take one with any pickup arrangement. I have had the extraordinary opportunity to play one of these and the neck, which I believe was original, was the greatest neck I’ve ever put my hands on. The ’59 Black Beauty has got tremendous power: it’s a solid slab of mahogany and two beefy-ass pickups. Bryce can swing it, we all know this. But it’s easy to overlook that he’s a hitter first, power-hitter second. His command of the strike zone is like he went into edit-player mode and gave himself a 99. His eye-hand coordination is alienesque. He’s a very good defensive player too, with a laser for a throwing arm. There is a lot more to his game than moon shot homers and there’s a lot more to the Black Beauty than chugging riffs.

Ryan Zimmerman: ’57 Stratocaster


You find me a team without a power-hitting first-baseman and I’ll show you an incomplete team. You show me a guitarist without a classic, black-and-white Strat, and I’ll you show you an incomplete guitar arsenal. It really is that straightforward. Forget about the sentimental beauty of seeing Ryan slug again. His hot start fueled the hot start of the team, and that hot start translated to a critical margin later in the spring-summer as the team found injury and pitching problems cropping up. His scorched “oppo” line drives are a thing of beauty.

Daniel Murphy: ’59 Les Paul Jr.


The TV-yellow Les Paul Junior was brought to life as a stripped-down, student-type budget instrument. And it has become, over time, a classic instrument. I see Murphy in this guitar. I see a guy who hits everything at all times. Likewise, the ’59 LPJ is as much a punk and rock guitar as it is a jazz guitar; the p-90 pickups add a layer of complexity to the solid-body heft. Unlike the really swampy and intestinal classic Les Paul, the LPJ has a pronounced bite in the mid-range frequencies, a bark, almost a howl–it’s not a slugger but it has the kind of line-drive power that scores run upon run upon run. While not a superstar guitar like the LP, the Junior is suitable for every genre, and the fact that it really found its following many years after its initial introduction just speaks to me about the arc of Murphy’s career. Murphy has a plan for every at-bat and any musician with a plan should not be without a Les Paul Junior, or at least guitars with p-90 pickups.

Trea Turner: the J. Mascis custom Jazzmaster


Speed and power and just pure sex appeal come together in one instrument. Few play louder than J, but it’s not just slamming amps at maximum volume; his use of suspended chords and jangly open-string chord voicings are as much a part of “the sound” as anything. He’s Peter Buck wallowing in a well of sludge. Trea can small-ball you to death. Trea’s got the line-drive power to rip mistake pitches into doubles and home runs. He’s got the speed and the power and the aggression to take triples. His defense–range, the throwing arm, the glove work–is also outstanding. Trea’s all-around game is both overtly “sexy” and also subtle and quiet and that reminds me of the extreme contours of the Jazzmaster, a guitar that is flashy as hell, but not obscene or vulgar; it’s stylish and sleek, and it’s also a pure tone machine.

Anthony Rendon: pick a Telecaster


The Tele doesn’t talk about itself. The Tele doesn’t try to destroy your eyes with neon paint jobs or nearly pornographic angles. It’s just there, and it does what it does, all day, every day. It hits. It plays outstanding defense. It rocks. It’s bluesy. It’s jazz. It’s metal. (If you think you can’t play metal on a Tele, well, nobody bothered to inform Chris Cornell as such. He rocked ’em all the time. So does Mascis for that matter.) The Tele is Anthony Rendon because it is seems so humble and simple (“only” two pickups! “only” two knobs! “only” one switch!) but it covers an enormous spectrum of tone and it does everything as well as it can be. You pick it up and plug it in and 98% of your work is done. You give Tony a bat and a glove and you will have run production, defense, base-running and  steady, quiet, reliable greatness.

Jayson Werth: ES-335


Before going down with a foul-ball-induced foot injury, J-Dub was posting an OPS in the mid-800s while playing far-better-than-anyone-expected defense in the outfield. Everything about J-Dub says, “aging like a fine wine or scotch,” and nothing says that better to me than a wine-red semi-hollowbody where you can see the woodgrain and you can hear the depth of the notes, there’s a maturity and fullness to these guitars that are just inexplicable short of hearing and playing them. The shape is a classic guitar style but  they can bring the heat–see, Eric Clapton and Cream–these guitars surely can scream as J-Dub can still punish pitches. Maybe it’s not as “sexy” as a Jazzmaster, but it’s a full-throated rock machine that will always have a place in a guitar arsenal. J-Dub might be 38 but he looks like he could keep hitting in perpetuity.

Matt Wieters: Precision bass


The catcher has to do everything: defend the position, wrangle pitchers, call pitches for every individual opposing batter, create detailed plans-of-attack, oh, and also hit. Every great rock band has a great bassist. The bass is both a melodic “lead” instrument and a critical part of the keeping the “rhythm” section on track. Wieters has come up with some big, big hits for the club. He’s learned an entirely new pitching army essentially on the fly. He’s made some big plays defending the plate. He’s just been involved, and positively, in every aspect of the team. His OPS has tailed off and he’s had issues with passed balls. I don’t think anyone can deny that. But he’s also played through a few exhausting stretches and he’s done so at the kind of glue-level that I think of when I think of the essentiality of the Fender precision bass.

Stephen Strasburg: Rickenbacker 330


The Rick is neither a Tele, nor a Strat, nor a Les Paul–it’s completely its own thing. It’s most famous for its jangly, reedy twang. But, when pumped through, say, a 100-watt Orange or Marshall stack–watch out. The Rick 330 can be a real fire-breather. When I think of Stras, I think of the brilliant “stuff”–the evaporating curveball, the tumbling sliders, the barrage of high-90s fastballs. He’s really his own man. He’s not Max. He’s not Bryce. He’s profoundly gifted and also profoundly quiet about it. The Rick is not an obvious guitar. It’s not one that shows up in pop clichés. But those who know guitars, know the Rick 330. Fans who know pitching, know how good Stras really is.

Stephen Drew, Adam Lind, Michael Taylor, Brian Goodwin, Wilmer Difo, Jose Lobaton, Tanner Roark: beat-up Telecasters


This guitar has been through some shit. It’s been dropped. It’s been discarded. It’s been told, “you’re scrap.” It’s heard “your career is over unless you do x y or z.” It’s been written off. And yet here it is, continuing to just crank out fantastic tone, session after session after session, song after song after song. Where would the Nats be without any of these guys? Yes, Tanner’s having a tough year, but so what–he will be critical for us at some point this year, and we need him, just like we need a Tele that’s had it’s neck broken and has scratchy pots and has it’s intonation all shot-to-shit–all of these guys have grinded to create fantastic professional sport careers for themselves, and not only is it an honor to watch them play, and play well, and continue evolving on a daily basis, they’re incredibly important component parts to this club. And, as I’ve already said, you should never leave home without a Tele.

The bullpen: Um


Look I’m not here to trash the bullpen. That’s been done and it’s old and it’s boring. Let’s find something new to say. Let’s focus on what, for me, was a major first-half highlight: Enny Romero and his 101-mph heat as it K’d Freddie Freeman, Destroyer of The Nationals. I had the privilege of seeing him pitch in person here in L.A. and he was absolutely outstanding then, too. Matt Grace has had several moments of outstanding play, particularly (again) those two Ks of Freeman. Let’s focus on Ollie Perez coming in and throwing 95-mph heat after the Strickland-Harper brawl and locking down the win in San Francisco.

Let’s focus not on the brokenness of the bullpen; let’s focus on the fact that the raw parts remain so profoundly talented. Let us root for them to be used in ways that maximize their success; let us root for their health and well-being (KODA GLOVER, goddammit); and let’s root for them to get the most out of their ability, and yes, let us root for Mike Rizzo to make not just additions but the right additions.

Our bullpen is very much like a smashed Rickenbacker and a destroyed Marshall stack; artful, messy, and ultra-volatile–like The Who.


music, reviews

Black Hole Sun: We’re gonna miss you, Chris



Forgive my instant reactions but I cannot help myself today.

I guess I was 11 or 12 when I first encountered the album Superunknown. I remember that my best friend’s older brother had this record kicking around in his room, and I just caught a glimpse of the album cover. The shapeless howl caked in saturated reds and blacks. It was like seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time, or the first Terminator: I didn’t know what I was looking at or listening to. It was surreal and frightening and completely captivating.

And then I heard the music.

Good god.

The walls of guitar flattened me. “Let Me Drown”–the opening notes of the song, a colossal drop-D riff, absolutely throttled me, the speed, the intensity and power of every fucking note–it simply refused to let go. “Spoonman”–the pounding, African-Middle Eastern groove pulled me in even deeper. I remember hearing the wall of rhythm section that is “My Wave.” I remember the bizarre detuned licks of “Head Down,” and the crushing grind of “4th of July” and “Mailman.” I remember the quiet stalk and eventual explosion of  “Like Suicide.”

I remember being completely lost in the dynamics of each song, the ocean of tone, feeling like I was drowning in sound and it was the best thing I had even heard of physically felt in and between my ears; like all I wanted to do was play like that.

The voice. The voice that could lull you with pretty melodies and then turn on you in an instant, could sing gentle melodies and then unleash a norse-god howl from-the-mountaintops. Once you hear it, you can’t un-hear it; there’s no going back. Chris Cornell’s singing was both classic rock & roll, classic Robert Plant, and yet so much more  intestinal.

The music hit me, and then did the lyrics; and the lyrics were lyrical. It wasn’t sex-and-girls-and-dumbstuff. It was lyrics about sadness and loneliness and anger and depression and the gamut of the human experience, the hard and dark stuff nobody enjoys talking about. The lyrics were fucking literate. I understood that right away, this wasn’t some dumbstuff rock & roll to be cool; this was rock & roll made by people who either could do, or wanted to do, nothing else, and were expressing it in a way–in this poetic, anti-macho, anti-posturing aesthetic–that, particularly when paired with the apocalyptic riffs, hit me like a jackhammer. There was no intellectual explanation for it, no need for lengthy critical unpackings–there was just this stuff that seemed to have shown up like the monolith out of Space Odyssey, and blasted its way into my consciousness.

I recall seeing the Black Hole Sun music video and to this day I rate it as one of my favorite films. The free-associative, dreamlike imagery, paired with this song that was at once pretty and bright and gloomy and sludgy–it was unlike anything I’d ever seen and I just found it mesmerizing. I kept listening. I kept waiting for MTV to play the video again, even though MTV wasn’t something I was supposed to watch–the entire act of engaging with Soundgarden as a band, as a style of music, felt dangerous and underground and  contrabandy and also personal and intimate.

Eventually, I did try to “unpack” Soundgarden. I felt this deep, desperate need to know: who are these guys? How did they end up doing this? Technically, how did they do it? What gear did they use? What were they listening to?

These were the very early days of the mass-Internet and there wasn’t much information out there. The album art itself give nearly no details away. The entire band was an enigma to me. In the years since, I’ve unwound where Soundgarden came from–Motorhead, Sabbath, Zeppelin, Cream, the blues, even Moroccan music, “stoner” and “sludge” metal–but at the time, I was a pre-teen, an only child, basically a latchkey kid, with an acoustic guitar and homework and the mystery of this inordinately powerful, apparently inexplicable stuff.

Chris Cornell.

Lead singer, guitar player, songwriter, poet, artist, professional who had a long, fascinating career full of hits and even some misses and a voice that sounded like a columns of rock being driven out from beneath the sea.

Gonna miss him.

food, reviews

A tale of two beers

Let’s get this out of the way: beer is good. It goes well with cheese. It goes well with meat. It goes well with pizza. It goes well with pong. It goes well with sportsball-watching. It goes well with board-game playing. It goes well with writing. It goes well with sitting around doing nothing of any merit whatsoever. One might go so far as to argue that beer saved civilization. Thank you, Belgian monks.

I recently spent some time in the UK–Scotland (the Highlands, all over) and London–and was exposed to two beers that presented themselves in diametrically opposing ways.

The first beer I will review, the Innis & Gunn “original,” earns from me a strong recommend. Drink at any time and you will be rewarded.

The second beer, Flying Dog’s “jalapeño white ale,” is somewhere between pass and hard-pass. If you’re curious, it’s not a total waste of time and calories and money. If you find “craft beer” to be absurd, stay away. This will do nothing to change your mind.

They’re both distinctly modern beers, in the sense that they are “boutique.” Boutique is the new paradigm, the new zeitgeist–the new shorthand that almost means nothing. Boutique beer–in the sense that both drinks posses small-production-run, unusual, experimental traits that appeal to the “connoisseur.” In one case, the experiment made sense, was interesting and worked. In the other, the experiment failed not because it was “bad,” per se, but because it was totally unnecessary.

The “original” from Innis & Gunn spends 77 days in an “Oakerator.” The story behind the idea is interesting enough, but what totally hooked me was how well the execution was carried out. First and foremost it tasted fantastic. The oak age augmented the natural carameliness and vanilla-ness of certain brews. To my tongue, the beer was creamy and smooth. The hoppy punch was present but not overwhelmingly sour. It was heavier than the lemony, citrusy wheat beers I usually enjoy, but it wasn’t unpleasantly bitter or leaden. I could absolutely taste the oaky, smoky whiskyness–but in sum, everything was balanced. It was a beer that had taken disparate parts and identities and traditions, and had derived something harmonious and good. I had it with a beautiful fresh-caught haddock fish & chips (outstanding) and I had it with a gluttonous aged cheddar and angus beef burger (outstanding)–the beer made both dishes sharper and more potent.

Secondly, because Innis & Gunn is a Scottish firm, and Scotland is sort of the religious homeland of whisky, the merging of both drinks is not merely a post-modern mashup, it’s culturally and aesthetically relevant. It matters. It makes sense. It feels right for the place. I couldn’t drink enough of this stuff and now I’m on a mission to find it here in Los Angeles.

The other beer, this “jalapeño white ale,” was the exact opposite. I bought the bottle at Borough Market, a place full of foodie-paradise type stands, for better and worse. I walked into a beer shop that looked like they had all kinds of good drinking. I asked if they sold any Innis & Gunn, and the reaction was–almost verbatim–oooooh that’s too big for us.

Too big? I knew I was in trouble right then and there. Innis & Gunn might be big by the standards that they bottle their beer in enough volume for peons like me to be able to find and drink it, but Budweiser they are not. I almost felt like I had to apologize for mentioning the name.

I looked around and eventually stumbled into this jalapeño beer, which seemed so ludicrous that I had to try it.

Was it good? Put it this way: I finished the bottle. I got a lot of chili on the nose. I found the beer to be crisp and bright, and then also earthy and sour, with a low, smoldering chili heat. I didn’t find it too spicy but then again I love habañero peppers, so my tolerance for heat is quite high. The ale might possibly have paired well with literally nothing that I can think of quickly. I’m certainly not going to have a jalapeño beer with spicy food, right? A jalapéno ale-battered fish & chips might be exciting. Of course, since there’s something like one bottle of this stuff, could you really justify using it that way?

I kept thinking about the fact that one of its main selling points was not that it was particularly tasty drink, nor even that people were craving for more, but rather, that it was a rare experiment. I kept settling on, so what? It’s rare–great. Maybe it’s rare because nobody wanted more of it, and maybe nobody wanted more of it because it’s a bottle of limited-interest so-what.

Experimentation is good, but just because it can be done, does not mean it needs to be released into the world, let alone packaged as some kind of special issue this-or-that. As far as I can tell, jalapeño white ale is a bottle of in-group signaling and not any kind of advancement into making new, delicious beers.


What happens when you ski into a tree: A review

I recently wrapped myself around a tree on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Northern California. I am from the East Coast, where the mountains are gently rolling tree-covered slopes that are, occasionally, graced with snow. They are beautiful but they are old and well-worn; relentless Time has shaved down and rounded out their sharp edges and peaks. The Sierra Nevadas are the opposite. This is a range of sky-defying, God-affirming, snow-sheeted towers; raw, unhinged, un-harnassable monuments to the colossal energy released when Geology happens.

Mammoth Mountain sits in the heart of the Sierra chain, and it is here where I encountered what I believe was a western white pine, a spindly spear of pure evil, a stationary bark-armored hell-demon that cleaved my collarbone into thirds; and it is here where I got my first–and I sincerely hope final–meeting with three narcotics: dilaudid, fentanyl and percocet.

A while back I laid out a rubric for how I thought reviews should be done and I aim to tell this story in that style.

Okay. Like a ski run, let’s take this from the top.

Ch. 1: How to fail to fly

It’s easy to start skiing. You snap yourself into about four layers of clothes and gear, find a snowy slope, point yourself downhill and fall. I won’t waste time describing the lesson that I had because the lesson that I had, a half-day of instruction, had me starting and stopping on a dime, making broad S-shaped curves, carving patterns in lightly dipping practice runs–the lesson itself made perfect sense; explanations were clear, and I had demonstrated enough non-ineptitude for the instructor to say I was more than ready for the “green” or “beginner” slopes.

So this is exactly what I did.

My wife, Carrie, grew up skiing, and it’s wonderful watching her graceful slicing through snowy hills. She offered to go down a beginner slope with me and it was wonderful for about five minutes, as I weaved behind her, feeling a degree of freedom and unlimited possibility and complete abandon unlike any Earthly feeling I know. Skiing, I thought, felt like an exorcism from the daily anxiety-grind of thinking. It was Pure Motion, Pure Action–the only important thing being the Feeling of feet and legs and torso slipping across snow-slope; the only focus being on eyes-forward down-hill floating. Being with Carrie, doing one of her favorite things, moving through air as though air was not a thing at all–truly, I thought, God is real and magnificent and loves us.

And then I attempted to merge onto another green trail. The merge was a narrow path, steeper and more complex than I anticipated, and rather than navigating it successfully, I kept gathering downward, vertical speed–obviously, failing to “snowplow” successfully until I encountered a gully and then my collarbone made impact with the pine.

I came to quickly and the degree of pain I experienced cannot be adequately described. It was a combination of searing power-drill hell and frigid numbness. I immediately knew I was in a bad way. My arm itself was alright; my fingers and toes worked; that, I thought, was good. I wasn’t cloudy; I knew where I was. I also saw neither blood nor any other fluids pouring from holes in my head. Also promising, I thought.

It was just that my shoulder region no longer felt present.

I became aware of Carrie hollering at me and also for ski patrol. Now, at her workplace, she is a crisis management team leader. These skills–basic triage, but more importantly a focused and even-keeled temperament–proved useful here. She got down in the gully with me, on her hands and knees helping stabilize and reassure me. She is a saint, and I’ll hear no words otherwise.

Recalling that this was a beginner slope, ski instructors kept passing me by, asking if I needed help. I recall finding this line of inquiry uninspiring. My responses were along the lines of: MOTHERFUCKER, I’M WRAPPED AROUND A TREE.

Obviously the instructors who passed me by didn’t have any way of knowing what had happened and were doing an excellent job in making sure I was being attended to. My wife was far more civil and useful, and as I said, she is a saint.

Ski patrol showed up after a geologic epoch which I am told lasted a few minutes. I remained seated in snow, freezing, hyperventilating, trying to regain some control over my breathing. Ski Patrol Dude (“Ryan,” I believe was his name, bless him) ran me through a battery of concussion tests and back and neck tests, all of which, thank god, I passed. My head had connected with the lumber-demon, but it had not borne the brunt of the impact.

Yep, that’ll leave a mark.

He put me in a gauze sling, which at the time felt like the only thing holding my arm-shoulder module to the remainder of my person–and I got down the hill in a sled. I recall Ryan taking the shortest and fastest possible route, which meant I was taken down a steep hill, and as we made this journey together, I reflected on the possibility that I could wipe out again. I recall laughing quietly; I figured that, if I could mess up a beginner trail, surely, I could find a way to batter myself while being rescued, too.

I got to the bottom successfully.

I was sent to the ER–my wife and father-in-law got me there by folding me into the front passenger seat of our Jeep–and when I got there, I had to get several layers of clothes off me. They kept insisting that they didn’t want to cut me out of my ski-outfit. I hate admitting that I cursed at the doctors BUT I DIDN’T GIVE A FUCK ABOUT THE SHIRT, MY ARM ABSOLUTELY WILL NOT MOVE AN INCH FURTHER, CUT IT OFF, FUCK IT. Amazingly, I only lost one clothes-item, a thermal undershirt that cost me about $20. Until writing that very sentence, I’d given that lost clothing item no thought at all. Folks, if your limbs are wrecked, you will not miss the clothes that are cut off from your person. Trust me.

I am sure the doctors knew immediately what kind of special case I was, because my left shoulder was several inches shorter than the right one. I saw on the x-rays how this had come to pass; my collarbone had snapped into thirds, into a z-shape, and had basically collapsed. It was one of the more fascinating sets of pictures I’d ever seen, and the miracle that neither my head nor neck had been seriously affected was something I kept in mind throughout the process.

Anyway! I was laid into a bed, carted into the Serious Problems Ward, and here begins the next part of the story.

I would give my wife, my father-in-law, all of my in-laws, and my own family a bunch of extremely strong recommends. These are people you want to have in your life.

I would give the shattering of my collarbone an extremely hard pass. You don’t want to replicate this.

The tree itself, I would also give a hard pass. Fucking trees, man. I hope some beaver finds its way there and cuts you down, tree. I have half a mind to haul my ass back up there with a chainsaw or even an axe and chop you into something I actually want, like a guitar or firewood or lumber. Skiing I have more complicated feelings about, and will return to this in the end.

Ch. 2: Dope

I’ve largely lived a straight-edge kind of life, meaning that I have, almost entirely, avoided “drugs.” I used to never drink alcohol, either, but in my advancing age I discovered that there were people who could drink in an enjoyable, non-self-abusive way and I found that that beer, caffeine, wine all had aesthetics. They had principles and could be life-affirming. So I eventually came around to, “man, getting buzzed on good liquor is actually a blast.”

Point is that prior to this day of bone-annihilation, I’d had about one joint in my entire life, forget about opiates. I suppose I’m so fascinated with the painkillers because I’d never experimented with narcotics nor even wanted to, and here I found them not merely forced upon me, but close to essential for my well-being. I have since learned I was put on a cocktail of some of the heaviest hard drugs on earth–Fentanyl, Dilaudid and Percocet–and I would say they left me with “profound pharmacological impressions” which I have attempted to record here, in the style of, say, Alexander Shulgin.

Fentanyl was administered to me almost immediately after I was wheeled into another room, waiting to see one of two doctors. I felt the opioid kick in just short of immediately. I don’t know what my dose was but the nurse was not shy with the needle. I began to feel like I was swimming in a warm bath of liquid world. Everything turned to mush. I started laughing because what else was there to do when reality feels like a blender? Sounds, sights–everything got cylindrical–it felt like I was living and breathing inside a Univibe. My legs tickled. I was on a bed and couldn’t really move anywhere to begin with, but a blast of this shit made me want to move even less. It utterly annihilated the pain I was in, so for that, I am quite thankful.

I have since learned that fentanyl abuse, including the illegal “bootlegging” of fentanyl, is a key player in a crushing opiod addiction problem in North America. I hope that neither myself or anyone I know ever finds themselves in position to need this stuff. Extremely hard pass.

Dilaudid was something I got after the first night post-surgery. What happened was a long and miserable story about failing to account for “what’ll happen when the local anesthetics used in surgery wear off.” In the end, I had to go back to the ER, reporting for duty with a combination of panic attacks and raw, chainsaw agony in my left shoulder module. So I was given this chemical.

The big difference between this and Fentanyl is that the intoxication lasts much, much longer. For me, the high was between six and eight hours in duration. I was driven home to Los Angeles after having this administered to me, and for the most part, I felt not like I was sleeping, but rather, that I was disappearing into the seat, evaporating into thin air; dematerializing; totally un-sensed to just about everything. One particularly unnerving element here, that I did not find true of Fentanyl, was that I could literally feel my heart–indeed, everything–moving at about 100th of normal speed. I had a semi-conscious dream-thought at one point, “ha ha ha ha what if my heart just stops entirely that would be hilarious eh I can’t feel anything anyway.”

Was I in actual danger? No, I was under the control of highly skilled professionals. Was my pain muted? You’re damn right it was. My consciousness was elevated into oblivion and beyond.

Apparently, I helped arrange luggage and move bags and pull out a change of clothes while under the influence. If I recall correctly, I ended up bringing my wife two shirts and leggings, but no pants. Go figure.

Extremely hard pass on this, too, unless you’re in a dire, mega-severe medical situation. Just because it’s not called heroin doesn’t mean that’s not what it is.

Percocet was the final ingredient in my painkilling suite and I have to say that I had the least unpleasant, most useful reaction to it. I was on two pills and then tapered down to one. Shortly after administration I felt dizzy and then more dizzy and then everything got funny and then I was just chill. As far as feeling like my heart was going to cease –none of that. I would not say this was a “mild” anything. I would say it was “least extreme.”

Hard pass. Oxycodone is no joke. It didn’t send me to the outer reaches of the Milky Way like the other two trips, but this hits hard and has all the (very bad) side effects of the other two. Stay away. Far, far away.

Ch 3. Surgery

The surgeon, Dr. David Hackley, reviewed the x-rays with me. These were some remarkable images, by the way. What I mean is that x-rays are often ambiguous and hard to read, and that in this case, mine were stark. The bone was clean-broken in a z-shaped figure. I was told that repairing it surgically, by inserting a roughly five-inch long stainless steel plate into my clavicle, was the best option. After some thought–after battling my own anxiety (“absolute terror”) about surgery and being put under–it was clear to me that operating immediately was the right call.

In retrospect, getting the process started then and there, with that medical staff, was completely correct. Especially because I was in an addled state, I give myself and my decision-making skills a strong recommend.

Dr. Hackley did a remarkable job, as far as I can tell, getting my body reattached to itself. I was able to play chords on my guitar less than a week after my skeleton got an unwanted stainless steel boost. I consider that a win. I am told that the anesthesiologist (one Dr. Davis) took special care with me and stayed with me long after I was out of surgery to make sure whatever post-surgery re-awakening complications that I had, were tended to.

I’ve been thinking a lot about bedside manner. Dr. Hackley, the anesthesiologist, really that of the entire staff at Mammoth Hospital. What I encountered, in general, was a confident but not arrogant disposition. People were genuinely concerned for me and my pain level and general well-being. I got vibes of serious, sure-handed, prepared  professionals–nothing over-the-top, no bravado, which would have really turned me off. Their attitudes made a huge difference to my own mindset and my own positivity about the situation.

If you are at Mammoth and need medical attention, extremely strong recommend to the entire hospital.

Ch. 4: Thoughts & prayers

I have never really been part of the crowd that comments “yay get better” or whatever. I didn’t grasp what it would do, other than make me feel better for having said something. I guess I thought it amounted to a kind of well-meaning slacktivism.

I was sitting in the hospital, or at our condo in Mammoth, or in the car on the way home, and I began to spill out details of what happened to me, and I was absolutely floored that people–some of whom I only know through message boards and forums–would reach out and ask how I was doing, via direct message or Facebook comment or tweet or text or phone call. People said they were praying for me.

That last bit frightened me.

As a quasi-atheist, as a doubter, what right did I have to receive anyone’s prayers? Perhaps it felt fraudulent to me, to accept overtly non-secular wishes of well-being. One thing I can say, with certainty, is that, whatever was offered up by my friends and family and acquaintances, it bolstered me in a gut-level, inarticulate way. Just to know  that people wanted to know my status; just to hear concern and love–I cannot say that it had any direct physical effect on me, but it absolutely had a mental and emotional one, which in turn, I am sure, has helped my physical recovery.

Would I “pray” for someone else? I have to give an extremely strong recommend to the simple acts of reaching-out and offering words of encouragement in any form. If those things are what constitute a prayer, then I absolutely would.

Will I ever ski again?

Had I been asked this T+24, 48, 72, 96 hours form the event, I would’ve said, and indeed I did say, not a goddamn chance. Life’s too short; I have too many other interests; it’s expensive; why would you throw yourself off a mountain, you idiot, things like that. But I have, in classic Alex fashion, changed my mind.

I refuse to let that tree shake my faith that skiing is beautiful and liberating from Earthly constraints. I refuse to let that collision be my lasting memory of the act of mountain-sliding. I don’t know when I’ll get back up there, but back up there I will get. Is it dangerous? Sure. So is driving a car and many other things. My assessment, “life is too short” isn’t wrong. Life is short–so short, in fact, that it ought not be wasted by hiding at home, afraid of the “what could happen” boogeyman.

Mammoth Mountain, you got me this time, but you haven’t seen the last of me.


Repeat Offender, by Bradley Nickell

I came across this book almost entirely by accident: I realized I’d picked up a follower on Twitter who wrote first-person, true-crime stories. That was sort of “say no more” territory for me for a variety of reasons. What can I say? I am an inveterate reader and Amazon one-click purchasing is dangerous.

There might be spoilers ahead. I really don’t care about spoilers too much–it’s just not something that bothers me–but it really bothers some folks. So, warning issued.

Executive summary

A veteran Las Vegas detective attempts to take down a career criminal who operated more like a minor industrial enterprise than a simple burglar. The characters are dynamic and dangerous; the storylines are quietly gripping and are told in a fashion that is meticulous to a fault.

If you’re looking to be impressed with someone’s literary bona fides, i.e., how many times they can cite “DeLillo” or “Pynchon,” if you’re looking for postmodern “flourishes,” if you’re looking for Wes Anderson-twee-magical-realism, you’ll be miserable. This book is Earthy and genuine–it’s the real deal. Recommend.

Order versus chaos

On the surface, this is a simple story and a staple of the crime genre. We have Daimon Monroe, a career criminal who essentially ran a contraband Best Buy out of his home. We have the author, Brad Nickell, a veteran Las Vegas detective pursuing Monroe as part of an elite “repeat offenders” unit. These two men are set on a collision course and collide they do, over, and over, and over. The surveillance and counter-surveillance games are fascinating. Observing Nickell piece together Monroe’s modus operandi though reading and listening–particularly with the “Matthew” riddle–is the kind of obsessive work that fans of the genre will stay up well past bedtime reading.

The narrator-detective has the microscopic meticulousness and relentlessness that  we crime-readers and crime-writers crave in our investigators (Sherlock Holmes, George Smiley, Harry Bosch–take your pick!) He reveals himself to be both principled and pragmatic.

  • Principled: the desire to protect society from its predatory members.
  • Pragmatic: protecting society is great in the abstract and in the concrete, you need informants, and they are often fellow predators.
  • Pragmatic: you need to sit and listen to hours of phone calls made from jail.
  • Pragmatic: you need to figure out what or who “Matthew” is–the Matthew episode is a terrific detour.

One of the big breaks in the case doesn’t come through a car chase or a raging firefight– but rather the careful discovery and intuitive, emotionally sensitive handling of Monroe’s romantic partner (for lack of a better phrase), a young woman named Tammy.

By night, Tammy helped Monroe hide his ill-gotten gains. By day, she was a school teacher, raising their two children. She is never gawked at or treated sordidly, nor is she given carte blanche to erase her past mistakes, which are quite serious. She’s neither pure saint nor pure sinner–she’s just a person living a turbulent life. She’s given room to have her own set of circumstances that led her into a toxic, brutal relationship with Monroe, and then she encounters a way to, possibly, change things. The detective doesn’t “gift” her anything or “save” her; Tammy has options and sets her own course.

She’s a terrific character, and, in the end, she is central to helping our detective crack page after page of Monroe’s coded, indecipherable phone calls, confirming or re-defining certain details and elements. Her insight into how Monroe operated his stolen goods shopping mall from their house was eye-popping. I would argue that as much as the detective-narrator showcases fearlessness and professional capability in the field, what sealed the case was his ability to connect with Tammy as a caring, interested, authentic human being. The portrayal of her own trajectory, along with the arc of the relationship with the narrator, are major artistic triumphs in this work.

Any good story has a boogeyman, the more intense and dangerous the better, and Repeat Offender does not lack in this regard.

Daimon Monroe was a wild, extreme character. He looked liked he played in a Poison or White Snake cover band, not like he was a industrial-grade robber with an enormous rap sheet–but, indeed, stealing is what he did for a living. He lifted jacuzzis; he emptied out spas; he picked off commercial refrigerators and lined them with stolen food; he took practically entire art galleries; sports memorabilia, gemstones–if it could be had, he went after it.

I used the word wild to describe him and that should be taken literally. Monroe was animal-like, totally untamed, and is most likely untamable. He simply refused to sign on to the compromises and negotiations that people must make, no matter how unhappily, to exist in civil society. And as attempts to rein him in grew in strength, the more civil society refused to accept his flaunting of the basic legal customs of day-to-day life, things that keep order, ordered–the angrier and more unhinged he became.

He attempted to alert fellow criminals to the “Repeat Offenders” unit that had found him. He plastered signs all over Las Vegas to this effect. In retrospect, attempting to “out” officers in this type of unit strikes me as a remarkable, daring idea–as well as an extremely dark and dangerous one. Monroe’s most extreme act came while in prison; he attempted to carry out a series of hits against the law-folk assigned to his case. Mercifully, this action never came off.

A key reason why: a fellow prisoner.

This prisoner, no angel himself, found the idea of assassinating three law-folk to be morally unacceptable, so he agreed to inform on Monroe. People surprise you in ways good and bad. People have codes and principles. This, I believe, is even true of Monroe, though his code (anti-code, perhaps) would be best summarized as: whatever works for me, now, everyone else be damned.

You’ll notice by now that I’ve glossed over large parcels of plot. That’s because I do not think we read for plot; we read for characters, and we read to follow characters to their logical conclusions. This book goes to extreme places, quickly. The patient stalking, the paranoia, the “sleeping with an AR-15 at your bedside and wondering if you’re going to use it”–this book takes the reader right up to the razor’s edge of sanity.

Given that the author is a detective, it will come as no surprise that the book is staunchly pro-law. Yet the author takes great pains, in my view, not to reduce his views–religious, social or otherwise–to cartoonish stereotypes. Nor does he overly simplify Monroe himself. I was amazed at the author’s candor that he saw elements of his own life in the guy he was trying to put away. This just reinforced my belief that the narrator was being fundamentally authentic and genuine with me, the reader. The narrator’s voice was a rich, complex one that was easy to follow through the pages of a book.

The last third-ish of the work takes place in the courtroom, and it’s a mixed bag.

On one hand, it was like having two books in one; the pursuit, and the courtroom drama. On the other, the drama seemed to stall for me because I was “ahead” of the jury information-wise. There was an enormous amount of legwork done into compiling how the lawyers operated in court-battle and I found that interesting. I just didn’t find myself sitting on pins and needles anticipating the back-and-forth as much as I wished.

On the third hand, I had to remind myself, this is how trials work for the detectives. Their jobs were done long before–now they have to wait and hear everything again and see what the jury makes of it. The verbal combat, the slow process of building up and breaking down an argument, are captured at length. They were most capitvating when laced with the detective’s personal, running commentary about the work taking place before him.

Final thoughts

The narrator is neither an only-action, invincible Jack Reacher, nor a navel-gazing, whining, “don’t know what I want to do with my life” mumblecore-whatever. The detective is action-oriented and thoughtful. When the contract is offered on the narrator’s life, the story doesn’t veer into bombast. If anything, it gets quieter, offering up simple details of the narrator’s new reality–that seriously bad bad guys have the motive and means to kill him, while he’s also trying to pin down his case. The character delivers a Sam Peckinpah-like unspoken resolve, a refusal to back down to base, corrupt, criminal anarchy. This is a type of specifically male character, and it’s desperately needed today.