Beginning Anew Again

I retired from swimming in 2010. I gave a speech at my high school banquet, rode out a swan song at YMCA Nationals a few weeks later, and completed my final year of eligibility of swimming for my summer swim club. By the end of July 2010, I was finished. I was tired.

Since that last competitive swim, my swims have been limited in number. Occasionally, I hopped back into the pool for 45 odd minutes of swimming, doing a modified version of an old meet warmup with considerably more rest, noticeably slower results, and definitely less breath to spare at the wall. These swims were usually separated by months. I made more attempts in the early periods of my retirement to swim than I did as time passed. The length of time between swims stretched longer and longer. I swam two whole times in all of 2015.

My disinterest in swimming was not connected to dislike of the sport. I was head coach of my summer swim team for the four summers after I retired. My passion for the sport didn’t wane. Each summer, I convinced swimmers who were ready to quit to swim for one more season. I refused to acknowledge “no’s.” The “no” was simply a temporary roadblock in the way of the swimmer’s happy reunion with swim practice and meets. I kept more swimmers than I lost.

Fear and vanity kept me from the pool. I hated that I had become a washed-up former athlete. I compared every set, lap, and stroke unfavorably to what I used to be. Even while recognizing that my capabilities would surely decline after I stopped practicing eight to nine times a week, I could not accept the physical realities of being a civilian. The labored breathing after just one sprint. The utter fatigue after a mere 30 minutes. The disintegration of stroke technique that was honed over several years. All served as reminders of how much faster and better conditioned I used to be, which proved to be quite frustrating.

Which is why I was surprised to feel a pull back to the water. I waited before acting on the impulse to verify its authenticity, but I really did want to start swimming again with at least a little more regularity than once every five months. The timing suggests that it’s a New Year’s resolution, but, in this case, the timing is really just a coincidence. I ventured to a pool close to my apartment this past Thursday to take the first swim.

I entered the building to find a swarm of parents who were waiting for their small children to finish their swim lessons. The short hallways were filled with parents, strollers, and siblings dribbling various sized playground balls, oblivious to the prospective lap swimmer who was seeking anything that looked like a membership sign-in desk. I took a walk around the floor, only to return to the entrance and notice an office which was occupied by two men who looked like employees along with a woman who was towing a toddler behind her. I said I was interested in buying a day pass. I was then informed that day passes did not exist for lap swimming so the middle-aged African American man walked me through the process of registering. There was a one-month and three-month option. I decided to be optimistic and take the savings that came with the three-month membership.

I was surprised by how liberating it felt to say “I’ve never been here before and I’m interested in swimming.” I am wont to act like I know what I’m doing, especially when I don’t have the faintest idea. In this instance, I decided to be transparently clueless. I asked for a lap swimming schedule and was given one. I asked for directions to the men’s locker room. When I was still unable to locate the locker room, I returned to the office and told them I got lost. The man who registered me walked me to the locker room’s threshold. I thanked him profusely and told him I would remember next time, which made him smile.

I was not yet finished looking like a foolish, half-witted, New-Year’s-resolutionist. By the time I finished donning my suit, the swim lessons had finished. Parents were leading small children huddled beneath enormous towels into the locker room to begin the Herculean task of showering and dressing three-year-olds. Not keen on witnessing that drama, I decided to enter the pool at 6:32 even though I knew lap swimming did not begin until 6:45.

At that moment, I realized I had forgotten a lock. Rather than risk robbery, I decided to just bring all my things with me to the pool deck. This proved to be challenging. My reliable swim bag—the same one I have used since the seventh grade—lacks the capacity to hold all my clothes and winter outerwear. Ultimately, I put my shoes and clothes in the bag, stuffed my winter coat on top of the clothes, hung my towel around neck, carried my cap, goggles, and water bottle in one hand, held the membership card I needed to show the lifeguards in my other hand, and slung my swim bag over my shoulder. I left the bag unzipped to give my black coat room to puff out. It looked like the Grim Reaper was in the process of arising from my swim bag.

Saddled like a mule, I walked into the pool. I was pleased to spy an odd structure that looked like a shelf to my immediate right that would be perfect for my possessions. As I unshouldered my bag, I heard one of the lifeguards call out to me.

“Oh, I’m sorry, but you can’t swim right now. We’re not quite ready yet.”

“Oh that’s ok,” I replied magnanimously. “I can wait.”

As I sat down on the makeshift shelf, the lifeguard saw that I clearly did not understand. “No, I’m afraid you can’t be in the pool area while we’re transitioning the pool. We have to have someone in the chair whenever a swimmer is in the pool area.”

“Oh, I see. Sorry, this is my first time here.” After seven years of lifeguarding, I had become the idiot patron who didn’t understand the rules. I regained my things and shuffled out to wait eight more minutes.

By the time I was finally swimming, I felt grateful to be doing something familiar again. The strokes were the same and the length of the pool had not changed. However, one very important change took place in my head. It did not take long for the lactic acid to start pumping. As I started testing out my sprinting ability, I was soon short of breath. But this time, I did not bemoan what I had lost. I simply observed and noted what I was.

During the part of my swim that taxed my cardiovascular system the greatest, I could feel the lower half of my body wobbling. Water is a chaotic environment and the fastest swimmers are usually the swimmers who can move most efficiently through this environment rather than the swimmers who move their appendages the fastest. It took me years to swim freestyle while keeping all parts of my body perfectly aligned. It requires a combination of steady kicking, controlled hip rotations, a strong catch at the top of each stroke, and perfect head positioning. Unsurprisingly, I had lost this magic combination. As I picked up speed, I could feel the lower half of my body drifting in the opposite direction of my torso like I was a car fishtailing down an icy road.

This is usually the part where I get mad at myself for letting my form go to hell. But not this time. This time, I coached myself up. I turned my focus to a potential solution rather than the problem itself. I decided to breathe every three strokes and see if that would even out my hip rotations. It worked well enough that I continued breathing every three strokes for the remainder of the swim.

I believe the awkward moments that preceded my swim were helpful in shifting my mental approach to swimming imperfection. The registration, the struggle to find the locker room, and the obliviousness to pool protocol made me feel like a novice. For the first time since I was 12, swimming felt very new. Once it felt new, it grew harder to compare my current swimming experiences to my past. I could swim in a mental vacuum, utterly divorced from all the other swims of my life. I was just a swimmer in a pool trying to improve my form and my speed from one moment to another. I was not coming out of retirement. I was starting a swimming career, again.

I am no longer an elite athlete and will not be one ever again. At long last, I’m finally comfortable with saying that. I am not moved to criticize myself for failing to meet a standard to which I no longer ascribe. I’ve stopped chasing a ghost. More importantly, I don’t even consider it a negative statement. It’s not an unfortunate reality or a resignation. It’s an opportunity to refashion myself, to paint a new masterpiece rather than continue to linger on the last one.

Wrestling with the Holocaust

After visiting both Dachau and Auschwitz along with the old Gestapo prison of Warsaw, Pawiak, I feel obligated to write something profound.  In the face of incomprehensible evil, I’m tempted to wait until I have an idea that is both insightful and new.  If I yield to that temptation, I may never write about it though.

I honestly struggle to wrap my mind around the basic realities of the Holocaust.  I know it happened and I know there were at least 11 million deaths.  I understand that Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled, and any others who did not fit within Hitler’s vision of the Third Reich were targeted.  I’ve seen a rail car that shipped prisoners to Auschwitz, been exposed to the intricate workings of the gas chamber, and seen the remnants of the inhuman living conditions.

These are the facts and I would not even say they are too cold or dry to give a meaningful picture of the horror.  The train cars to the concentration camps were so packed, some people suffocated before even arriving at the camp.  Each car had one bucket for lavatory needs and these trips could last for days.  In the bunks, it was best to sleep on the top of the four level construct because it was the only level safe from dripping excrement.  Using the bathroom was, in fact, a major problem for the inmates.  The camp allowed the prisoners two minutes to use the bathroom at the beginning of the day.  The prisoners would sprint to the bathhouse in order to be one of the fortunate few who gained access to a toilet or sink, which was nothing more than a trough.  The work was grueling and physically taxing, like carrying steel beams, and made even more difficult by the 300 calorie diet of the camps.  The flat terrain of Poland ensured that wind and snow had direct avenues to cut through the thin inmate uniform during the Eastern European winters.  I could go on.

These are not cold, bland facts that undersell the Holocaust.  They are graphic, shocking, and sobering.  Yet, even as I learn in greater detail the horrors of daily life in the concentration camps, I find my ability to imagine or truly appreciate them lacking.  I know cold but I don’t know what it’s like to be constantly underdressed for a Polish snowstorm.  I know hunger but not what it’s like to be perpetually malnourished.  I know pain but not the pain of constant manual labor accompanied by physical abuse.  I know grief but not the emotional trauma that must be associated with the separation of families and the sudden disappearances of people who just a day before were bunkmates.  No matter how hard I try, the sufferings of the Holocaust remain incomprehensible.  Not in the sense that I do not know what they specifically were, but in trying to understand the experience of a single person in a concentration camp.  And maybe that is a good enough indicator of the Holocaust’s dreadfulness.  It defies human imagination.

So how does something as appalling as the Holocaust come into being?  The overarching question over the entire tragedy is why so many people not just went along, but took active roles in the implementation of the “Final Solution”?  This is not a new question and it has never found easy answers.

The Holocaust was also not just simply a large group of people going along with a program of racial extermination without thinking or asking the right questions.  Leaders both at the government level and at the local camps thought deeply on the administration of the “Final Solution.”  Someone thought about how to transport the undesirables.  Another realized that reducing each prisoner to a number would simplify administration and dehumanize the inmates.  Perhaps a couple officers spent a couple hours mapping out an efficient means to kill the prisoners in the gas chamber and then transport the bodies to the crematorium.  Someone else came up with the idea of telling those set to die that they were taking a shower.  Human reason and creativity, its potential so magnificently demonstrated by Michelangelo, was turned towards profound barbarism.  It is safe to assume that hundreds of people had discussions about details, both large and small, regarding the mechanics of the Holocaust, ranging from how to feed thousands of imprisoned people to how to effectively punish miscreants.  The atrocities of the Holocaust did not materialize within a vacuum, but were human creations—evil ones but human nonetheless.

One of my teachers pointed out that the mechanics of the Holocaust have striking similarities to the mechanics of industrialization.  If we adopt the lenses of the Nazis and deny the humanity of the Holocaust’s victims, then the mass of prisoners resembles a load of cargo.  The people are shipped on a train and unloaded, directed to their new lodgings or the gas chamber, housed in sleeping structures that look like shelves, marched around as one unit, and even gassed in a veritable assembly line.  The Holocaust defies human understanding and is an astonishing act of depravity.  No other atrocity can compare with it, and hopefully none ever will.  However, it is important not to use the unprecedented evil of the Holocaust to think of it as a random, historically inconsistent, freak case of barbarism.  It was systemized evil, the intellectual product of many people working in tandem to annihilate multiple segments of the European population.

This horrifies me.  The fact that human reason can be used to create one of the great tragedies of human history—a tragedy I have trouble fully grasping—serves as a grim counter-balance to the Sistine Chapels of the world.

I have no explanations for the prevailing questions of the Holocaust—namely how and why.  Why did it happen?  How could so many people make it happen?  Why did no Allied nation take the reports of the Holocaust seriously?  How could so many people have the ability to, first, imagine and then implement the Holocaust?  They go on.

I am drawn to the end of Homer’s Odyssey.  Finally nearing Ithaca, Odysseus’ vessel is wrecked by Poseidon.  Odysseus swims to the nearby island, and is welcomed there by the court of the Phaecians.  The Phaeacians are a paragon of the exceptional hospitality so valued by the ancient Mediterranean world, as they feed him well, offer him passage home, and shower him with gifts.  Yet, instead of being rewarded for their praiseworthy actions, Poseidon, enraged that they helped Odysseus return to Ithaca, turns the Phaeacian ship to stone.

Despite fulfilling all cultural obligations, the Phaeacians are still subject to a great tragedy.  It doesn’t make sense.  Even in Homeric Greece, human being struggled with why there was evil in the world.  In the early twenty-first century, that struggle continues.

Evil is an unfortunate but very real part of the human experience.  Human ingenuity and reason can be turned towards the most barbaric behavior.  Sometimes, we don’t even know why it happens.  All we can do is acknowledge this human capacity for great evil, remain hopeful that human energies will be directed towards more noble pursuits, and vigilantly guard against these moments of evil—when corruptible human beings are wholly corrupted.

The Overlooked Mastery of Michelangelo

Michelangelo might be the most underrated person in history.
After having the opportunity to see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the stunning David, I realize that I was not prepared for the sheer grandeur of these touchstones of art history. Is it possible to downplay something’s greatness by constantly calling it a masterpiece? Can we become so conditioned to accepting a work of art as a seminal mark of human achievement that we lose a sense of what made it great in the first place? I believe I did.
The first part of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling I noticed that could not be gleaned from textbook pictures is just how high the ceiling is. As someone who does not care for heights, I shudder to think of Michelangelo lying on sixteenth century scaffolding for four years, much less painting the most beautiful frescoes I have ever seen. The painstaking attention to detail and sheer amount of time the ceiling commanded is difficult for me to comprehend. Then the beauty of the frescoes becomes evident, and it seems impossible that the scenes on the ceiling could have been created by a human hand.
The “Creation of Adam” is the most iconic section of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, but that emphasis does injustice to the rest of the ceiling. The ceiling’s size makes it difficult to absorb the frescoes quickly. Upon first entrance into the chapel, the ceiling was a bit overwhelming. How could anyone give the necessary respect each section of the ceiling is surely due without overlooking another section? Will I spend too much time gazing at the center of the ceiling at the expense of the corners? Admitting that I probably would not be able to observe each section adequately was my ultimate source of consolation. As a limited human being, no matter the intensity or length of my observations, I was unlikely to be able to appreciate fully everything that went into the ceiling—Michelangelo’s precise paint strokes, his brush with blindness, the physical toll from contorting his body into necessary painting positions, the ability to create unparalleled beauty.
David presents a similar intimidation. Although a far more tangible, approachable piece of art than the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the sculpture is just as striking. Its size caught me by surprise, towering over the exhibit hall at seventeen feet on a platform of about ten feet. The size also allows Michelangelo’s stunning ability to capture every groove, ripple, and bump of the human body to be totally self-evident. I could look at my forearm and then David’s and observe practically no discernible differences between the two. David stands unevenly and Michelangelo accurately portrays the various muscle tensions involved. The sculpture was created out of a piece of leftover marble that the Florentine government was going to discard. Michelangelo literally created beauty out of garbage.
In the end, the best way for me to appreciate the greatness of Michelangelo was to concede that it was impossible to do so. He can be placed on lists of true geniuses, influential artists, AP Euro names to know, and great Italians, but that reduces his mastery to a blurb, a line in a textbook next to a small, rectangular picture of the “Creation of Adam.” Even witnessing his art makes his mastery seem more incomprehensible. He truly was a god among men (though his papal patrons probably would not feel too comfortable with that phrase). He will remain immortal and we may never be equipped to give him the praise he deserves, but, as long as his name and art remain part of the human experience, perhaps we will one day.
I Googled “quotes about Michelangelo” to see if anyone in history had a similar reaction to Michelangelo’s work as me. Johann Goethe seemed to share my wonder with Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel: “Without having seen the Sistine Chapel, one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving.” That will be Michelangelo’s lasting legacy with me. Not just an otherworldly talent impossible for us mortals to grasp, but a testament to human possibility.

On My Absence

I logged in today and realized I haven’t posted in two months.  If you were hoping for more regular posting, you will find no disagreement from me.  Summer work commitments grew bigger and more demanding, squeezing out a lot of time for writing.

However, I have also been working on pieces and keeping them in reserve for the launch of The Wine and Cheese Crowd (wineandcheesecrowd.com).  The site launches August 25th and will provide a forum where I can continue to comment on sports and pop culture.  After the initial launch and a flurry of pieces, I will settle into a weekly column.

Future pieces include a look at the future of hating LeBron, the Batman trilogy, Thomas Hobbes and the new Spider-Man movie, and the Pandora’s box the NCAA is trying to shut at Penn State.  So stick with  me and pieces will start coming again.

 

Thanks for your continued support.  Remember wineandcheesecrowd.com on August 25th!

 

Crack in the Throne: The Problematic “No Church in the Wild” Video

Jay-Z and Kanye West have finally done it.  They have overreached.  The duo’s Watch the Throne shamelessly provides the soundtrack to the finest way of living, introducing the average music listener to the wide variety of luxury goods available to the very privileged few.  The two rappers manage not just to flaunt their wealth, but compare it to the work of American civil rights icons by framing it next to their rags-to-riches story.

The magic of Watch the Throne is not its decadence, but the ennoblement of this decadence through the language of racial triumph.  Jay-Z and Kanye are not interested in reliving their attainment of an American dream.  First, they want to elaborate on every petty detail and the size of their wealth in order to distinguish themselves among all humans—rich, poor, in between, and über-rich.  Then they want you to know why it means something.

Jay-Z and Kanye don’t just rap about a nice car they bought.  They happily discuss the many luxury cars parked in their garages.  Ye kindly points out in “Otis” that people struggle to find him because he pulled up in his “other Benz,” after appearing in his “other other Benz” the previous week.  “Gotta Have It” features the line “Maybachs on bachs on bachs on bachs on bachs,” revealing Kanye’s apparent tendency to roll in a fleet of luxury cars.

The two have so much wealth that they grow indifferent towards luxury products.  The album is littered with offhand references to products of the wealthy.  Ace of Spades champagne, starting at $249, is in such supply that it can be spilled upon their choice Air Jordans.  Spending “like six days” in Paris’ extravagant Le Meurice is a legitimate option when the need to “get faded” arises.  Jay has enough money to plank on a pile of a million dollars, has “so many watches, I need eight arms,” and carries the legendary American Express “Black Card.”  Kanye wants to make sure to apologize to the listener for being in pajamas, and hopes that he or she understands that he just disembarked from his private jet.  In other news, Kanye announces that he threw a party at Miami nightclub Prive that was off-the-chain enough to shut it down permanently.

Juxtaposed with Jay-Z’s and Kanye’s exhaustive account of their favored drinks, vacation spots, and private jets is their conviction that their wealth means something.  While economically successful people may also enjoy the same luxuries, Jay-Z and Kanye are the premier wealthy black men—“the new black elite.”  Kanye notes that at black tie events, “what’s the last thing you expect to see? Black guys.”  Jay-Z echoes this sentiment more simply, succinctly asserting, “we ain’t even s’pose to be here.”  From the projects to Paris, from cooking rocks to smoking cubans with Castro, Kanye and Jay-Z want the established, prototypical wealthy to know that their wealth and current lifestyle borders on miraculous.  As black men born into urban poverty without much contact with their fathers, the beginning portion of Jay-Z’s and Kanye’s stories are unfortunately common.  Their rise to unprecedented wealth is a decided exception to the norm.  In this exception, Jay-Z and Kanye declare themselves exceptional.

Wealthy African-Americans, typically, are not as quick to people’s lips as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are.  Some of the wealthiest African-Americans are figures like Oprah, Tiger Woods, and Michael Jordan who have become so successful that some pundits claim they have transcended race.  Woods and Jordan had real relationships with their fathers.  Jay-Z’s and Kanye’s claim to be a rarity is not without merit.  Sensing the uniqueness of their meteoric rise, the two then make the connection to civil rights pioneers.

The album makes this connection towards its conclusion.  In “Murder to Excellence,” Jay-Z and Kanye recount instances when blacks were shot by police, and lament the high number of black-on-black murders for the first half of the song.  In the second half, the song moves to a “celebration of black excellence,” which Jay-Z immediately associates with “black tie, black Maybachs.”  The transition is jarring as the “Excellence” portion of the song is so out of touch with the opening “Murder” section.  How Jay-Z’s and Kanye’s material success will eventually alleviate these social ills is left unclear.  If a call for hope for eventual success is the duo’s only goal, it is undermined by their repeated reminders that they are not normal.  The album’s next song, “Made in America,” begins with Frank Ocean singing the names of the Civil Rights Era’s power couples—Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, and Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz.  We are supposed to be convinced that Jay-Z’s and Kanye’s journey to an unprecedented economic position falls in the same tradition as these leaders’ quest for previously unprecedented rights for African-Americans.

This connection proffered by Jay-Z and Kanye seems unproblematic in and of itself.  Claims that the duo is woefully out of touch with the realities of most Americans living in a bleak economic climate are fair.  However, just because the artists are out of touch does not make the music intrinsically less enjoyable.  It might just augment it.  Listeners are free to live vicariously through the “Throne,” or resent them for their ostentatious display of wealth.  Art is supposed to inspire emotion.  It is useful to identify which emotions are most often elicited, but unwise to rank some as more important than others.  I even think the album can be interpreted as an over-the-top exploration of excess and vanity taken to what the rappers’ believe to be its most logical conclusion—a bizarre rationalization for this wealth drawn from activists for social justice.  Admittedly, I find it hard to believe that Kanye is capable of being facetiously self-righteous.  Yet, there is nothing wrong with Jay-Z and Kanye making the album of the 1%, while successfully drawing their millions from the purchases from their traditional consumers in the 99%.  Let the free market reign.

The problem arises when Jay-Z and Kanye attempt to associate and identify with the disgruntled and angry commoners.  After describing their lavish life in vivid and unapologetic detail, the two rappers cannot simply flit between that very life and the life they used to know.  Jay-Z actually offers a “middle finger to my old life.”  The only nostalgia the two seem to have is when stepping back from the moment to view their accomplishments.  Nothing suggests that they miss their old life in any way.  They’ve arrived and they want everyone to know it.

This is what makes the “No Church in the Wild” video so frustrating.  The album’s opening song is a haunting rejection of traditional religion and morality that anticipates Watch the Throne’s embrace of materialism.  The fact that the video is just choreographed mob versus police violence in a semi-anarchic state is woefully unrepresentative of a song that mentions Socrates and Jesus in the same vein as “cocaine sheik” and a Rolls-Royce Corniche.  The video depicts levels of violence that could be seen as total anarchy.  However, the fighting is clearly between civilians and uniformed, organized police officers, revealing a degree of order that is not found in the Hobbesian state of nature.

In the current political atmosphere, the image of a raging 99% or even the protests at the NATO summit two weeks ago can be drawn from this video.  Those who marched with the civil rights activists risked police brutality and harassment from the crowd.  All of these activists, especially the leaders, sacrificed personal well-being, security, and in some cases life pursuing an end to the status quo.  Similarly, the rioters in the video seem desperate above all else.  They have reached a point where nothing left in the world is precious enough to stop a likely doomed attempt to eliminate the institution protected by the police.

Populist anger and resentment boiling over into action is the purview of the dissatisfied.  Throughout the bars of the Watch the Throne, Jay-Z and Kanye appear incredibly satisfied.  The album is free from the feuding that characterizes much rap.  They seem to have risen above such petty squabbling.  Jay-Z and Kanye rap about a life that favors the status quo, about being members of a class that typically favors law enforcement officials who keep their gated communities safe.

After joyously rapping about enjoying some of the most expensive pleasures in life, they cannot simultaneously claim to understand and sympathize with the plight of a common person struggling to pay off a mortgage and put three kids through college.  Jay-Z and Kanye promote themselves as inspirational, ground-breaking, and, above all, rich, but not sympathetic.  To raise a fist to the sky in support of the struggle and anger of the unemployed and poor, while adorning that hand’s very wrist with a $5,000 watch is disingenuous at best and deceitful at worst.  It is reminiscent of Jay-Z’s T-shirt supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement that benefitted his company.

Jay-Z and Kanye cannot have it both ways.  They cannot give the world “luxury rap” and still be viewed as relevant activists or voices in non-materialistic causes.  Nothing should stop a wealthy person from being an effective, respected leader in any of the hot contemporary issues from economic welfare to climate change to drone strikes.  Jay-Z and Kanye are not the men who can show this possibility.

Jay-Z and Kanye do not invite the listener to join them in the enjoyment of their riches.  Rather, they construct a throne so that all can see their riches.  Any bridge connecting them to the violence, poverty, and injustice of their old lives is burned down in a marvelous inferno, stoked by their gaudy imagery of a life most people will know only vicariously.   A clear line is drawn between the rappers who have the jets, cars, and champagne, and the rest who do not.  Jay-Z and Kanye are free to do that.  They just sacrifice their ability to express solidarity with the rest of us.

Jay-Z and Kanye can descend from their self-constructed thrones to sell music or T-shirts to the masses.  They are fooling themselves if they think that these commoners will forget the elevated position from which they descend.  They insult the majority of their listeners by assuming that they can be viewed as two men aware of the financial realities most people face after selling a Platinum certified album loudly proclaiming their indifference to them.  They have not stoked a Marxist style class conflict, but they have accentuated the economic divide.  By brazenly claiming that they have it all, Jay-Z and Kanye forfeit the capacity to truly understand and connect with those who cannot make such a claim.  This leads to the question, do they still have it all?

The Lost Pieces of the Staples Center Puzzle

Discovering that at least one piece of a jigsaw puzzle is missing just when the puzzle was nearing completion is one of the more underrated frustrations life can offer.

First of all, resorting to a puzzle for entertainment is already a desperate move to stave off boredom.  Chances are high that the attempted puzzle mastery was inspired by a power outage, and probably a power outage caused by a Level 3 Snow Emergency that shuts down the local thoroughfares.

Then, the actual process of putting puzzle pieces is not exactly rewarding.  After being dumped out of the box, every piece is turned face-up.  Following prolonged scouring, the four corners are located and set in position.  It is likely that locating the final corner demands more time than the first three combined.  Next, the edge pieces are collected, reducing the size of the pieces pile and providing a framework within to work.  Once a credible rectangle is constructed, a tedious yet (theoretically) systematic game of guess-and-check ensues.  What was never suitable for Algebra teachers becomes the only way to proceed.  An epic struggle to differentiate the dark bluish hue of ocean from the dark bluish hue of a semi-stormy sky from the dark bluish hue of a stupid sailboat’s stupid sail renders the finest analysis irrelevant.  The only way to proceed is to try to match pieces together.

Eventually, a couple pieces do actually fit as guess-and-check inevitably leads to some success.  As more pieces fit together, the pile shrinks, shortening the length of the guess-and-check process and generating some much needed momentum.  At long last, the puzzle starts to be fun as the way pieces fit together becomes more obvious, and the picture on the table finally resembles the picture on the box.  Then, as puzzle completion approaches, an alarming discovery is made—there are more remaining spaces in the puzzle than available pieces.  The fun comes to an abrupt end.

The act of creating a puzzle has fun elements, but they are dependent on the puzzle’s completion.  Coming to the realization that the puzzle is missing pieces is akin to nearing the top of a large hill on a rollercoaster, only for the ride to stop.  All the time spent waiting in line and gathering momentum to get to the top of hill is wasted without the ultimate payoff.  The next step varies from person to person.  Some may leave the puzzle on the table as a monument to their dissatisfying use of time, and others may fling it across the room.  Persistence is usually enough to best even the most complicated puzzles, but not when pieces are missing.  This reality stings.

After being eliminated by the Oklahoma Thunder in Game 5 on Sunday night, the Los Angeles Lakers are experiencing a similar sting.

The Lakers were outnumbered, outclassed, and outplayed in their Western Conference Semifinals series.  Reduced to an essentially seven man rotation, Los Angeles’ leads in the first three quarters and even the early minutes of the fourth always carried an unmistakable sense of transiency.  With the exception of Game 4, big men Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum showed clear signs of fatigue, struggling to establish position in the paint late in games.  Ramon Sessions was lost and out of sorts the whole series, reminding everyone who thought that he was a legitimate championship caliber point guard that he has been on four teams in five years.  Steve Blake never regained the moxie he displayed in Game 7 against Denver in the first round.  And Kobe Bryant simply struggled to find his shot in the fourth quarter.

This Lakers team took on the distinctive flavor of its 2006 edition when the team’s success every night was tied to Bryant’s ability to score.  The 2012 squad is undoubtedly superior to the 2006 team for many reasons—chief among them Smush Parker did not start for the Lakers this year and Luke Walton was never a regular member of the rotation before being traded.  Yet, in the last six minutes of each game, Kobe looked alone, playing one-on-five.  Like 2006, he struggled to trust his teammates.  Bynum drew front iron on baby hooks.  Gasol passed up eight-footers for ill-advised passes.  For every three Metta World Peace drained, he made a reckless drive to the hoop for a wild layup attempt.  Blake was overwhelmed by Russell Westbrook and Sessions was overwhelmed by the whole series.  Surveying the situation, Kobe decided that he needed to be the primary scorer and playmaker.  So the ball resided in his hands.

Bryant’s self-imposed mission was doomed.  His body may have never been capable of successfully beating a very good team by himself, but it is certainly not up to the task now.  Worn down by fifteen seasons and a playoff career that totals three seasons itself, Kobe could not beat the youthful Thunder off the dribble consistently.  Even when successful, his lift is not enough to soar past the big men at the rim.  His game then became a cross between AND1 commercials and HORSE.  Create space from the defender and then release a semi-difficult to certifiably ludicrous shot.  At various points, shots of all difficulty levels found the bottom of the net.  When Bryant’s team desperately needed a shot to fall down the stretch, the ball did not oblige.

Bryant was simply unable to will his team to success in the fourth quarter.  He shot 37% from the field for the entire playoffs in the quarter, and the Lakers often lost control of games when his shooting went south.  In Game 4 when the Thunder erased a thirteen point deficit, Bryant shot 2-10 from the field.  Late in the quarter, Bryant found himself contending with the 6’11’’ frame of Kevin Durant.  He made only two three-pointers for the series against the Thunder.  In decisive end game possessions for the Lakers, Kobe missed a three at the end of Game 2 for the win and never got free for the chance to tie in Game 4.  In the lone Lakers’ win, Bryant closed from the free-throw line, not with contested jump shots.

It’s hard to run around off-ball screens for open jumpers while holding the ball.  Kobe Bryant attempted to score while running the offense, even as it simplified the focus of the Thunder defense.  Watching the Lakers get eliminated in Game 5 was like watching Kobe drown—in his distrust of his teammates, the growing deficit, the swarming Thunder defense, and the swath of blue T-shirts.

The potential lifesaver to Kobe’s plight was actually ripped from his hands just when it was in his grasp.  Chris Paul is the playmaker that would have lightened Kobe’s fourth quarter load, but he was vetoed out of a purple-and-gold jersey by Commissioner David Stern before the season began.

Paul still ended his season with an LA team in the same round of the playoffs as the Lakers.  Like Bryant, Paul’s team was overwhelmed by a superior opponent, succumbing to the San Antonio Spurs in four games.

Paul was even more vital to the Clippers’ success than Bryant was to the Lakers’ this year.  Paul could not lean on two talented seven foot big men, but had a rising star in Blake Griffin, an overpaid center, and a cast of role players.  Griffin improved a great deal from his rookie campaign, and was a very reliable and significant contributor to the Clippers’ playoff run.  However, his dependence on getting to the rim limited his usefulness in the fourth quarter.  Tim Duncan could deny Griffin the chance for any acrobatic dunks, and keep him on the perimeter.  Griffin still lacks any recognizable shooting game, shooting 32% ten to fifteen feet away from the basket.  In the fourth quarter when possessions become more precious, Griffin passed on more shots as his field goal attempt average dropped from 4.2 in the first three quarters to 2.5 in the fourth.  Griffin did not disappear in the playoffs, but Paul was the engine that drove Griffin.  He could rebound, set screens, and dunk down the stretch, but the team needed Paul to win.

The Clippers did not get swept by the Spurs because Chris Paul was the center of the team.  Just about any team blessed with his talents would be constructed in the same manner.  The sweep came because Paul, like Kobe, found himself alone.  If Paul did not score, the perimeter shooting was dependent on Eric Bledsoe, Nick “Heat Check” Young and Mo Williams, who reprised his Cleveland role as the inadequate wing scorer alongside a superstar.  Their success came in streaks, and not in the fourth quarter.

The Spurs made it extremely difficult for Paul to drive into the lane and release floaters on any regularity.  When Paul averaged 8 points and 7.5 assists in the first two games, the Clippers were blown out.  When his production picked up to 17 points and 11 assists in the next two games at home, the Clippers still fell.  Game 3 featured the Spurs methodically erase a 24 point first half deficit.  At best, Paul could keep the Clippers close and maybe even pull one out if Griffin gave a masterful playoff performance.  With the Clippers’ two key players nursing injuries, attaining a victory approached Herculean proportions.  An extended run in the playoffs was truly impossible.

At the end of Game 4, Paul uncharacteristically came unglued.  Coming out of a timeout, down one, inside of two minutes in regulation, Paul drove the lane and lost the ball.  After Danny Green made one of two free throws, Paul again had the ball and attempted a shot, but missed.

Paul took the blame for the loss, confessing that “to let my team down in that situation is probably the toughest part of the season.”

The reason for the Clippers’ sudden turn to relevance, Paul was also gracious enough to be the center of blame for the team’s shortcomings, regardless of the fact that he dragged some young talent and a collection of misfits and specialists to one of the best seasons in the franchise’s sorry history.  The increase in total wins, victory in the opening series of the playoffs, national attention, and the surprisingly resilient Clipper swagger are all direct results of Paul’s addition.

The Clippers were not beaten through a bizarre case of misfortune that has characterized their history.  Rather, they were eliminated in a highly conventional manner.  The Spurs beat them in virtually every facet of the game, and Paul’s talent was suffocated—just like his presence in the paint.  With the Griffin aerial threat mostly neutralized by the Spurs, Paul’s fruitless forays into the lane ended in a kick-out to the perimeter, where he could only pray that the flavor of the moment playing shooting guard found the bottom of the basket.

Forever linked by the trade that happened for just a few hours,  a backcourt of Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul will always be a popular what-if to debate.  This season, both players met defeat in the same round with teams that just did not have enough collective talent to advance further.  With their seasons on the line, the Lakers’ and Clippers’ playoff lives fell solely on Bryant’s and Paul’s ability to make playoff magic.  Neither made quite enough.

Some may angrily disavow any comparisons between the two for fear that Paul may be tainted by Bryant’s controversial love to shoot all the time and from anywhere on the floor.  Bryant’s lack of a single assist in Game 5 against the Thunder is certainly a stark contrast from Paul’s 11 assists when the Clippers faced elimination.  Bryant will always be a better scorer and Paul a better point guard.  Debate may rage about who took over his team to a greater extent, and who was more justified in doing so.  This debate is irrelevant in this discussion.

What is worth noting is how the two could complete each other.  Bryant the cold-blooded outside shooter could play off Paul’s dynamic playmaking—Bryant’s swish to Paul’s dish.  Bryant notably put Paul and Derrick Rose in the same rarefied air he places himself, affectionately and respectfully calling him “a dog.”  Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak thought that he had managed to remake the team and still give Kobe Bryant the chance to compete for championships the next three years.  Now, he still deals with the fallout, probably with the same surly, dissatisfied look he sported as the Lakers were booted from the playoffs.

Even if the Lakers’ Chris Paul trade had not been vetoed, overcoming Oklahoma City or San Antonio would still be far from given.  Yet, it seems highly unlikely that we would have seen both Paul and Bryant falter together like they did separated.  They may not have completed the championship puzzle, but they would certainly have brought the puzzle to that tipping point where pieces start falling into place.

As it is, these two pieces were flung to opposite sides of the same arena by David Stern’s “basketball reasons” induced hissy fit.  Given the Lakers’ available assets and limited salary cap maneuverability, the chance to pair Paul and Bryant together has likely come and passed.  As the Los Angeles based basketball teams enter their off-seasons and the images of an overwhelmed Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul fade away, we are left to wonder how the puzzle might have looked if we had access to all the pieces.

‘We Were Soldiers’: The Soldier’s Ethos in The Avengers

We’re moving into the valley of the shadow of death, where you will watch the back of the man next to you, as he will watch yours. And you won’t care what color he is, or by what name he calls God. They say we’re leaving home. We’re going to what home was always supposed to be. Now let us understand the situation. We are going into battle against a tough and determined enemy.” –Hal Moore, We Were Soldiers.

The iconic shot of The Avengers is the encircling, overhead shot of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” standing back-to-back, taking a momentary pause in combat to regroup.  It was featured in nearly every trailer, played nicely into Robert Downey Jr.’s “headcount” monologue, and was bastardized by Target to advertise for its cheap, Marvel-certified, Chinese-produced, I-hope-there’s-no-lead-in-the paint merchandise.  Selected to “fight the battles we never could,” the Avengers stand alone against the Chitauri horde, conventional forces rendered useless by the extraterrestrial menace.

The back-to-back imagery is evocative of Lt. Colonel Hal Moore’s final instructions to his men in the movie depiction of the Vietnam War’s opening Battle of la Drang, We Were Soldiers.  Moore does not deliver a polemic against the Viet Cong, nor does he attempt to inspire with an eloquent defense of the American way of life.  He simply appeals to each man’s experience as a soldier—living, training, and dying together.  The reporter who follows Moore’s unit in Vietnam, Joe Galloway, observes how this emphasis on the shared experience of combat animated the soldiers on the ground: “They went to war because their country ordered them.  But in the end, they fought not for their country or their flag.  They fought for each other.”

Although Galloway is only describing the soldiers involved in this first major battle of the Vietnam War, the sentiment can be extended to all who fought in Vietnam.  Stuck in an unpopular war that polarized the home front and spawned the demonization of American soldiers, combatants in Vietnam looked to their comrades for motivation and inspiration.  The Avengers are not confronted by an angry public, but they must contend with a distrustful, mysterious Security Council that opts to nuke Manhattan rather than trust the band of heroes.  Isolated by their grim role as humankind’s last line of defense, the Avengers fight for and rely on, not the people it defends, but each other.

This unity is far from a given at the film’s outset, and the journey from “time bomb” to team is instructive of how the Avengers manage to adopt the mindset of Moore’s 7th Calvary Regiment.  The scene aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. command helicarrier’s laboratory, where the protagonists’ early coalition devolves into distrust and bickering, demonstrates how the stories that shape each character do not lend themselves to instant compatibility.  The Avengers are truly a unification of multiple stories common to the human experience, some very old and others quite modern.

The most ancient story represented in the team comes from Thor.  Literally, Thor can be traced back to his origins in Norse mythology, but Marvel’s Thor is evocative of the ancient epic, specifically Beowulf.  Beowulf is tasked with defeating monsters that seem unbeatable and are unquestionably evil.  He embodies the values that the Anglo-Saxon people who created him deemed admirable and, most importantly, defeats the evil in glorious fashion.  Even if Beowulf’s commitment to slaying evil ultimately costs him his life, it is an enviable death that will secure an immortal legacy.

In the early going of the movie, Thor still operates with a worldview where good and evil are perfectly delineated.  With a healthy dose of paternalism, he commits himself to protecting the people of Earth from harm.  Anything that threatens the human race must be evil, and he must destroy it, because no one else can.  It never crosses his mind that the people on the ship carrying Loki might actually share his motives, and be highly capable in their own right.  He is focused on the singular goal of capturing Loki and returning to Asgard.  Anyone who stands in the way must also oppose the force of good—hence the fight between Thor, and Iron Man and Captain America.  Like Beowulf, Thor remains supremely confident in his own fighting ability until he suddenly finds himself overmatched.  Like Beowulf, Thor is able to defeat this formidable enemy with the help of comrades, but unlike Beowulf, Thor comes to this realization before being mortally wounded.  After being humbled by Loki and encountering his own limitations in fighting him, Thor returns to New York with his proclivity for unilateral action chastened, prepared to work in a unit.

Bruce Banner/Hulk lives a story that has historical roots but remains quite timely—the internal struggle of the individual.  Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Banner struggles with a split personality disorder—just even more pronounced and created by gamma radiation.  Yet, in an age where the most popular handheld devices begin with “i” and Drake can go platinum rapping about his own emotional struggles, Banner’s internal battle should arguably resonate with today’s audience the most out of all the characters.  Individuals are now better equipped than ever to document their internal conflicts, whether it is about food or gay marriage, in 140 characters or more.  Banner’s struggle with the angry green man inside him is this modern dilemma in epic proportions.

Shunned and hunted, he reluctantly answers Nick Fury’s call, and only with the assurance that Fury desires solely the mild side of his personality.  Aboard the helicarrier, Banner seems confident in his ability to control himself, but he still makes those around him anxious, unsure of what will make him crack.  He has been called out of isolation incompletely as one side of his personality is still shunned.  If the team’s toxic environment is akin to a “time bomb,” then Banner is the spark.

As the Hulk falls thirty thousand feet into an empty factory, he is poised to remove himself from society and melt back into the periphery.  This peace and safety in isolation is all Banner desired in the Hulk’s origin movie.  Now, however, Banner returns—first because he is able to control the Hulk inside him, but, just as importantly, Tony Stark seeks his return.  At this point, Stark certainly finds more potential help in the Hulk than mild-mannered Bruce Banner, but his invitation is free from fear—a stark contrast from Black Widow’s approach in the outskirts of Calcutta.  At last, Banner has found an environment where he will be welcomed, not attacked, for his whole personality, not half.  But it takes a war for this opportunity.

Tony Stark’s story is the most decidedly modern one.  Stark is the offspring of the Jack Sparrow hero—a self-assured, irreverent figure who can clash with other characters and become the epitome of cool in the audience’s eyes.  He is part of the twenty-first century’s need for heroes who don’t just beat evil—they need to be badass while they do it.  Stark’s unwillingness to completely trust Fury displays the social media age individualism reflected in a hero.  He is “good” in the sense that he fights for the “good guys”—the side that is not trying to subjugate the human race.  Yet, he must do it on his terms and he distrusts S.H.I.E.L.D. authority enough to hack into their mainframe.  Stark’s naturally playful personality is unaffected by the dire circumstances requiring the Avengers Initiative to be put into action.  He takes shots at everyone gathered, and makes quips that suggest he has no sense of the moment’s gravity.  Of all the people gathered by Fury, Stark is the consummate individual.  Ever since his declaration at the end of Iron Man that “I am Iron Man,” Tony Stark has been the name on people’s lips.  He is rarely called Iron Man, and the force of his personality defines him not as a suit of armor, but the man inside the armor.  While Stark flirts with narcissism, we forgive him because he is just so damn cool.  We want to think that we will be as calm, witty, and effective as Stark in any crisis.  If we can watch a hologram of Tupac on a computer in a city on the other side of the world, while paying our bills and eating out-of-season fruit imported from another side of the world, why the hell can’t our heroes be good and cool?

The first two Iron Man movies showed that such a hero is possible.  In The Avengers, such a hero proves to be inadequate.  Stark’s state of mind is nearly the antithesis of a soldier’s when he first enters the helicarrier, bringing him to frequent clashes with Captain America—the super-soldier, emphasis on soldier.  It is through Captain America that Tony Stark becomes a soldier.

Captain America and Stark are destined to clash.  Stark’s unapologetically cowboy mentality simply does not jive with Captain America’s experience as a soldier.  Captain America’s suggestion that “we have orders, we should follow them” is met by Stark’s “following’s not really my style.”

Captain America is transplanted from the middle of the largest, most destructive war ever known into the twenty-first century, without the benefit of experiencing the changes since 1945 gradually.  A member of what Tom Brokaw dubbed “The Greatest Generation,” he wryly notes to Nick Fury that “they say we won the war.  They didn’t say what we lost.”

Captain America’s grievances with Stark follow a common theme—Stark does not know what it means to place a group of people above the individual.  World War II was a total war where the massive armies demanded an involved home front.  There was no escaping the reality of war.  Although he fights in a fictionalized account of World War II, he still fights against a fundamentally evil regime in Nazi Germany.  His friend Bucky makes the ultimate sacrifice in this struggle, and Rogers sacrifices himself when he flies the Hydra technology into the North Atlantic.  He matured in an environment where individual needs and desires were subordinated to the larger mission—an environment still totally foreign to Tony Stark.

Lost in Stark’s snappy comeback about being a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” without his suit is Captain America’s reply: “I know guys with none of that worth ten of you.  I’ve seen the footage.  The only thing you really fight for is yourself.  You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play.”

At first glance, Rogers’ sentiment is just an example of his disconnect from the current time.  However, it is deeper than disconnect, but a sharp distaste for Stark’s self-absorption that is ignorant of the sacrifices and losses made in the Second World War.  Casualties in war remains a foreign concept to Stark until Agent Phil Coulson is killed in the line of duty.

In a remarkable about-face, Captain America is the most collected of the heroes in the aftermath of the attack on the helicarrier.  His experience in the military has trained him to accept death as a part of war and remain undeterred from the larger objectives.  As Stark works his way through the stages of grief, expressing anger that Coulson was foolish enough to fight Loki alone, Rogers simply asks him “is this the first time you’ve lost a soldier?”

Stark immediately and still angrily declares, “we are not soldiers!” but after a pause, he lowers his voice and supersedes the previous statement, stating “I’m not marching to Fury’s fife.”

For once, Steve Rogers agrees with him.  He denies the need to blindly follow Fury, but focuses on the still present need to defend the Earth from a massive invasion.  It is Stark’s realization that Rogers’ soldier mentality does not mean he will blindly follow orders from an authority figure that begins to modify his way of thinking.  It provides a framework on how to continue even in a moment of tragedy.  This conversation is an epiphany for Stark.  Nick Fury’s ploy with Coulson’s old Captain America trading cards provides an extra push, but Stark’s adoption of Rogers’ mindset allows the push to work.

It is then Stark who actually rallies the troops.  We are made to understand that he contacts Thor and Hulk (somehow) to reunite the unit.  He is the one who tells Black Widow and Hawkeye—the modern, post-9/11, Jason Bournesque version of soldiers—to “suit up” and prepare to return to combat.  Thor and Hulk have their own experiences where they adopt the soldier’s ethos, but without Stark, there is no guarantee that both heroes return to demonstrate their transformations.

Two instances in the Battle of Manhattan demonstrate how the Avengers have assumed Captain America’s philosophy.  First, without being formally recognized as commander, Captain America gives orders that everyone follows—even Tony Stark.  The hero with the most conventional military experience directs the rest of team in order to fight most effectively, and he is unquestioned.  The second is Stark’s willingness to sacrifice himself by flying the nuclear missile into space.  Stark is prepared to sacrifice himself so that the Avengers might find victory as a whole.  Fortunately for the future of the franchise, it was not Stark’s time to die, but his selfless act reflects the influence of Captain America on him.

For whatever reason, saving the world did not provide the cohesive force necessary for the Avengers to fight together effectively.  The glue of the Avengers is created in the aftermath of a decisive defeat and the loss of a comrade.  The teammates fight for a variety of reasons—acceptance of the need for help, gratitude for an invitation out of isolation, obligation to complete the unit’s objective.  Fundamentally, they all fight for Phil Coulson.  Standing back-to-back, they fight to avenge the death of a comrade that came in an attempt to engulf the Avengers in chaos, and not for some obscure Security Council or even the good of humankind.  Loki’s assumption that Stark will appeal to his sense of humanity seems startlingly out of touch in light of Stark’s newfound soul of a soldier.  At the end, they all stand calmly amid the chaos, trusting and fighting for the soldier beside, behind, and beyond them, brothers(or sister)-in-arms to the end.