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May 30, 2005

Manchild in the Promised Land

At last, after having to listen to Bill Walton blather on for a week about the "special magic" of the San Antonio Spurs, the Suns I know and love have returned. If anyone tries to tell me they got lucky with the calls, they are wrong. As is typical in the NBA this year, both teams got burned by bad officiating. That stuff evens itself out. For once in the series, the Suns actually made the real clutch plays, in totally original style. Robert Horry could hit a clutch three while being gnawed at by starving rats. But could he block Tim Duncan with the game on the line? Could he make a desperate pass while falling out of bounds six inches from the ground? Could he out-hustle Manu Ginobili for a loose ball with six seconds left on the clock?

OK, that last one he could do. But it was nice to see the team I love, even for one game, be the team that pulls it out with incredible plays. I will remember that game as long as I live, which, considering the level of my blood pressure the last week, might only be another five years.

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After MASH

The above title is a reference only available to my readers over 25. Anyone who thought a TV show could get carried by Harry Morgan, William Christopher, and Jamie Farr must have been smoking an early shipment of CIA crack in L.A. But that's not the point here.

My weepy period is over. The loony corners of the Internet can go ahead and call my wife and I Mr. and Mrs. Mengele. It's not like we keep our son chained in the basement and feed him dog food. At least not at the same time. That would be cruel.

The irony is that Elijah has been a delight since he got bounced nursery school. Sleeping until eight, affectionate, responsive, and hilarious. Let me relay this bit of dialogue to you. I went to get him out of bed yesterday morning. The first thing he said to me was:

"Daddy, you have a big peenie!"

"Yes I do, son."

"I have a little peenie."

"That's right."

"Mommy has breasts!"

"Yes."

"You have two nipples!"

"Yes."

"I have three nipples!"

"You do?"

"NO! I no have three nipples!"

"OK."

"I take my peenie to Sea World?"

"Yes son," I said. "You can take your peenie to Sea World."

No more childhood writing. I have a Phoenix Suns funeral to attend tonight.

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May 29, 2005

Once Bitten

When I wrote the piece about my child's expulsion from preschool for Salon (see link below), I expected some criticism. I realized that my wife and I come off a little whiny. We'd just experienced an extremely traumatic and humiliating defeat as parents. The wound was raw, and the piece reflects that; I tried very hard to be honest, and I have no doubt we did some things wrong along the way.

But I'm stunned, discouraged, and even appalled at the response I've received. In the past 36 hours, we've been called "people who should not be parents." It's been suggested that we all go through family therapy, or that we turn over our kid to someone who "knows how to take care of him." A number of people have told me they feel sorry for my son because he has such neurotic, self-absorbed parents. Respondents have mocked what my wife and I do for a living, and they've mocked our recent financial troubles. I've been preached to that parenting is hard work and that I should deal with it and just love my son, as if I don't love him and as if I don't work hard at all.

I don't need to detail my life as a parent here. That can wait until my groundbreaking memoir, Daddy Was A Sinner, is published by Pantheon in the fall of 2006, and I know that most of the criticism is grounded in little more than supposition, misreading between the lines, and, to use a lame-o psychobabble term, the respondents' "own baggage." But I still think the overall response was shameful. I was trying to elucidate a legitimate sociological phenomenon, based on a study that came out the same day that my son got expelled, and to point out certain defects in our country's child-care system. Few people seem to care about that, though. It's easy to call someone a bad mother or to feel sorry for a perfectly lovely, and well-loved (if somewhat high-strung) two-year-old who you don't even know. But it's not easy to recognize the need for social change. I'm trying, just a little, based on difficult real-life experience, to help point the way.

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May 27, 2005

Splat

If any of you are interested in a preview of my upcoming memoir, you can find a taste of it here. Writing about this kind of stuff is uncomfortable at best, painful at worst, but "literature" these days is just a thin disguise for "therapy." Regardless, I hope you find something worthwhile in my online wrist-slitting. Whiny bohemian-leaning white yuppies of the world unite!

Meanwhile, I've received a nice volume of email regarding my recent intellectual shift sportsward. Tender memories of Suns failures past will wait until the current failure is actually written in blood. But meanwhile, Chris from New Jersey writes,

"I, for one, love the fact that you have decided to move on to sports as a topic. It seems over the years we have lost the sportswrites that are true fans. Instead, we have a bunch of jealous punks who want to trash atheletes and try to create hollow news stories or people who are pimps for the league's agenda. I also feel the pain with having to explain to pretentious, egg-head a-holes why sports are the last outpost of truth and substance in a world where Paris Hilton can be famous.

On the same topic, I noted that you pay close attention to the announcers. I do too. The presentation of an NBA game, which reached its all time peak with the Marv Albert, Mike Fratello/Marv Albert, Bill Walton, Snapper Jones tandems on NBC, has slipped tremendously over the past few years. ABC gets the contract, drops John Tesch's "Roundball Magic," hires the most boring commentators this side of public access and immdiately gets all of its games off of network TV. The announcers are of particular interest: Mike Dunleavy (a good coach, who may know basketball, but should not be listened to prior to operating heavy machinery), Rex Chapman, John Thompson, Sean Elliot, Garr Heard, Tom Tolbert (who is a moron, doing a Bill Walton impersonation) etc. Has ABC heard these people before they choose them to do NBA games? Are they deliberately choosing the most boring people in the universe to add "color commentary?" I am getting tired of listening to cliche analysis like, "defense wins championships," or "rebounding is important here." I am also tired of announcers who are afraid to criticize anything that is going on. If you listened to Shaun Elliot, every player in the league is an all-star and every game is officiated perfectly. This is seriously hampering my enjoyment.

I was wondering if you had any thoughts on this issue.

P.S. Have you had the displeasure of having to listen to Spiro Dides on NBATV? He must be dating David Stern's daughter..."

Chris, I know not of this Spiro Dides, but I do know that watching NBA TV is excruciating, which is a shame, because the NBA is so cool, and all its coverage should be as good as "Inside The NBA," which, the other night, had Charles Barkley commenting on some show model's dress by saying, "I didn't know they sold eveningwear at TJ Maxx." He and Kenny Smith are the ultimate fashion snobs.

So yeah, "Coach" Thompson is a dinosaur, and the clones they have manning the mikes at all Fox Sports Network regional coverage events are blow-dried Stepford Announcers. But there are still some characters left. Walton and Snapper Jones continuing to be entertaining, though Walton's schtick was old a long time ago, but then it seemed fresh again for awhile, and now has backslid to old again. My favorite announcers right now are Kevin Harlan and Doug Collins. They seem genuinely excited to cover the games and Collins' analysis is usually right on the bean.

I could go on about Jim Rome, but I won't.

Baseball announcers are a whole other story. I watched a Dodgers-Giants game the other night and had to endure three hours of Chris Berman and Joe Morgan wheezing on about their visits to the Hall Of Fame in Cooperstown. The Cubs are unwatchable now, which is sad, because Skip Caray and Steve Stone, post-Harry, of course, were always entertaining, even when they were needling each other about not having picked up the check the night before. Why don't the professional sports leagues realize that fans neither want jealous punks, as our reader put it, or lickspittle yes-men? They want enthusiasm, irreverence, and humor, and The Best Damn Sports Show Period doesn't count.

Y'all have a good weekend. I'm going to Cooperstown with Joe Morgan.

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May 25, 2005

Gloat If You Must

I'm guessing that I've got at least a half-dozen "I Told You So/So Long, Sucker" emails waiting for me, though I can't confirm that for sure because there was a power outage in San Marcos, Texas last night that knocked my email server offline and the stoner who operates it didn't wake up for the day until about an hour ago. So if you think I'm being a coward, I'm not. I just don't have access.

I'll take this interstice to announce that I've read three books since the Phoenix Suns last won a game. I was out of town last weekend on a top-secret mission related to my Judaism and had a few airplane hours combined with some hotel-room time. The books were short, but they are books, so they count. Book Number 20 was Silbermann, by Jacques de Lacretelle, sent to me by someone who saw that I was keeping a book journal and thought that I would be the ideal vehicle for promoting a reprint of a 1922 novel, in translation, about anti-Semitism at a Paris lycee. The book is simply written, powerful, and morally challenging. Have at it, kids.

Number 21 was a book about the Kabbalah, but please don't make fun of me. I'd heard about a guy named Sabbatai Zevi, a Jewish mystic who declared himself Messiah in the 17th Century and persuaded the entire diaspora to follow him to Turkey, where he promptly converted to Islam. The book had some good anecdotes about that.

Then there was book 22, Original Bliss by A.L. Kennedy, which I have in my possession because the library was out of that Paradise thing people seem to be reading. Sometimes books cross your path just because. There's not much I can do with a novel of "ideas" about an abused housewife having an affair with a motivational speaker in Germany.

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May 24, 2005

I Get Paid For This?

My mania for the Phoenix Suns has translated into a paid gig at Slate.com. Based on the last five minutes of responses, I have a feeling that I'm going to get more letters on this topic than I ever did when I was complaining about the Anschluss of the Christian right. Anyway, tonight is Game Two. Joe Johnson is still getting fitted for his special mask. Wouldn't it be funny if he found a magical mask in a museum that made his eyes bulge out when he saw a pretty lady? I should be publicly executed for that last reference alone. Prediction: Brent Barry does not score 21 tonight.

To answer one correspondent already: I am aware of the entertainment value of the Suns' lovable 12th man, Paul Shirley. But "Sports Nut " columns can only run 1,000 words, and something had to go. The writer David Roth--because you can never have too many writers named Roth--provides all the Shirley information you need to know here.

Getting paid to write about the Suns has long been one of my two greatest dreams. The other was getting paid to write about the Dodgers, which GQ Magazine asked me to do last summer, though they never ran the article. I got to set in the press box next to the despicable but entertaining T. J. Simers, who spend the entire game (where the Dodgers were completely shut down by Carlos Zambrano), trying to get a press aide to take him to Tommy Lasorda's box, where Lasorda was entertaining Loni Anderson. In the 9th inning, I got to go down to field level and interview Frank McCourt, the Dodger owner. Maybe GQ didn't want to publish an article called "Frank McCourt Is A Lying Douchebag," or maybe I held back too much and they would have published it if I'd gone all the way.

Regardless, I'm vaguely hoping that someone with clout will read my Slate hagiography of the Suns and invite (or assign) me to sit on the Suns' bench for games 3 and 4 in San Antonio. The thrillingly named SBC Center, let me just add, is precisely 80 minutes driving time from my back door. So it's not like you'll have to buy me a plane ticket, o mysterious benefactor.

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May 18, 2005

Notes On A Posting

There are a few pink post-it note around my computer. They read, consecutively:

Blog:

--Suns. How you hope they will stage a glorious comeback and show the world that a fast-break team can win the title. Does the world really want another 10 days of Erick Dampier?

--Uzbekistan. Man, it's terrible what's going on there, killing protesters, etc. No way to make joke about that, right?

--More talk about Bruce Wagner. Finished I'm Losing You and found the non-linear narrative less effective than it should have been. Language too baroque and self-absorbed, some characters thin to the point of not really being characters at all. But definitely a serious effort to capture Hollywood.

--Koran flushed down toilet? Hilarious. Make joke about Torah flushed down toilet?

--Remind people that both of my albums are available for downloading on emusic. com, where I also write a column. It's worth a subscription. I've booked two Neal Pollack Invasion gigs for next March. I can't help it. They asked, and they're paying. The rock won't die, no matter how badly everyone I know wants it to.

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May 14, 2005

Yeah, Yeah The Day Of The Locusts

L, a reader, writes: "No mention of N. West? C’mon. He created Homer Simpson, fer Chrissakes. One of the U.S.’s most cheerful writers ever. And it’s obligatory to mention him when the words Hollywood and satire are knocking around anywhere near one another."

Well, you must excuse me. I'm very distracted by the amazing Phoenix Suns right now and I didn't give a full dissertation on the Bruce Wagner book and the history of Hollywood satire. Of course I'm Losing You isn't the book Day Of The Locusts was. Wagner is very insider-y, whereas West at least adopted the pose of the outsider. There is no sense of any world outside Wagner's Hollywood, whereas West focuses more on the disastrous effects Hollywood culture wreaks on the rubes of the Heartland. Then again, West didn't have circuit parties and the porn industry in his arsenal. Wagner covers a lot of ground with wit and style, but no, I don't think his book will be taught, if that matters.

Where I live, probably two out of five parents would pull their kids out of school if the school assigned that book. My approach would be different. I would just say, you like gay satire, son? Here's a little book called Myra Breckenridge. Check out this Edmund White omnibus, and then the Oscar Wilde one after that. Let me tell you, that kid had better appreciate all the gay satire to which I'm gonna expose him.

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May 13, 2005

Orbital Boned

I've been quiet in this space for a couple of days because Jewish law demands silence after one of the best players on your favorite basketball team breaks his right orbital bone after hitting the floor while attempting a breakaway dunk. It's an obscure bit from the Talmud, but I know my Talmud. The Suns can and will endure without Joe Johnson. They must, for the future of humanity. Dallas played well on Wednesday, but tonight is Friday, if you didn't already know.

Meanwhile, Book number 19 is in the can. I tried to get the new Bruce Wagner novel at the library, because I've always wanted to read one of his Hollywood satires, but it was unavailable, so instead I got his first one, I'm Losing You, which is a little dated but still delightfully vicious. There's a great parody of a "Kathy-Acker-style" novelist in there. That's why the book is so sneaky. It manages to mock literary culture as well as Hollywood culture. The dirty secret of literature is that it's really controlled by Hollywood, because that's where the real money is for writers. More and more, authors are being advised to make their books more cinematic, so they can get an option. It's not bad advice, really. What's wrong with a well-told story? But readers would do well to remove the blinders of naivete.

Anyway, I'm Losing You. Sometimes it's a little too baroque, a little too dense, but you can't deny the power of Wagner's satire. That back jacket author's photo creeps me the hell out, though.

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May 10, 2005

Fantasy Basketball Meets Calvino

Those of you who don't consider sports "boring" probably appreciated the work of art that was the Suns' walloping of the Mavericks last night. They played a perfect basketball game for 48 minutes. It was art and it was beautiful to watch. Finally, the hoops cognoscenti (and kill me for just typing that term) is waking up from a 15-year dream to realize that basketball can look like this and can be played like this. Or maybe this is the dream. Or, as my favorite author named Jonathan said, "maybe time is the wound." Indeed.

Last night's game reminded me of the 18th book I've read this year, Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics. Admittedly, this was a re-read, but it's been at least a decade, if not more. I recommended this book to one of my satire-writing students at Salon last semester and then couldn't remember if it were satire or not. I think it qualifies, if only because Calvino creates characters out of molecular particles and gives them human qualities. This gives him wide berth to satirize our insecurities and foibles. Anyway, it's a really fun book, though not my favorite Calvino. That would be Difficult Loves, his book of World War II stories, which dabbles in realism to great effect. So yes, Calvino.

Now I have a small backlog. I went to the public library here looking for new books by A.L. Kennedy, Bruce Wagner, Seth Greenland, and Sam Lipsyte, but this is not a top-20 library market and I ended up walking out with earlier books from some of those authors. Stupid libraries. But a book doesn't have to be published this year to be good, right? Right.

Speaking of my Salon class, another round of classes starts next week. If you're interested in studying at the feet of the master, go here to read more. Also, coming this summer, I'm teaching a noir writing workshop! That should be a real tightrope act. Come along if you dare.

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May 6, 2005

Full Bore

I received an email the other day from a longtime reader who told me I should go back to writing about politics because sports is "boring." All I know is that the day after Election Day, I vomited in a parking lot, which cleansed my soul, and after four or five days of soul-crushing misery, I emerged clear-headed and peaceful-feeling, my rants about "Christian lunatics" behind me. It's not that I don't care about politics, because I do, but a) there are lots of other people on the beat and b) I don't get paid for writing about politics. If I'm going to not get paid to write about something, it should at least be something that makes me happy. Hence my current transformation of this site into a books and sports blog. Lest one question my political commitment, one should click on the "Appearances" button to one's left. Soon, I will appear on stage with political figures and will no longer be considered "boring."

Let's examine the headlines at The Daily Kos, standard bearer for exciting political coverage on the Web. "Violence In Iraq." Not boring, but what can I say on that topic? Oh, look, there's violence in Iraq. Violence is terrible. We should get out of Iraq. Then we have: "The Nuclear Option: Bad Faith-Based Initiative," "Sirota On Clintonism," and "Blair's Mandate."

Snore. What would you rather read about: Sirota on Clintonism, or my glee at the fact that Houston and Dallas are pounding the shit out of each other directly north and south of where I live while the Suns are poolside, basking in destiny? The choice is clear.

One more try. I haven't looked at Talking Points Memo in about five months. Let's see what's up top today. "Guest-blogging today, Kenneth Baer, a Democratic strategist and founder of Baer Communications. His book Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton came out in 2000."

Well, tickle my boner with a feather! That's the most boring thing I've ever read. How could you possibly want to read that while Barry Bonds is getting fluid drained from his knee?

Is there any way to make the Rockets-Mavericks series go nine games?

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May 4, 2005

Nash's Hope

Now that I'm writing about sports and books, I get nothing but friendly emails offering to talk about sports and to send me books. When I was writing about politics, I received either pre-Cambrian bile defending Michael Savage, or incomprehensible "satire" from many people, including a guy who called himself "Captain Enron." Well, I prefer not to gaze into the heart of darkness.

Brandon, a reader, writes:

Hello Neal,

I recently watched your Suns complete their weeklong bitch-slap of the Memphis Grizzlies and was left rather impressed with their performance. (Though I’m still not convinced their defense is championship-worthy. They did give up an average of 103 points per game to the Grizz, no?)

I have been enjoying your playoff commentary, but am curious why you haven’t yet tackled the “Steve Nash for MVP” argument. While he’s been chosen by a number of NBA experts as the rightful recipient of the honor (pointing to the Suns’ astounding +33 win differential from last year), there are others that don’t even see him as a top five candidate (pointing to his shoddy defense and his former team’s +6 win differential).

That nerdy sports columnist you referenced last week makes a compelling argument that not only is Steve Nash undeserving of the league MVP, he’s not even the MVP of his own team. Your thoughts?

Let me address your questions one at a time. Giving up 103 points a game, to the "Grizz" or to anyone else, doesn't matter when you're scoring 111 points a game. Defense is relative. For the Suns, defense just means making sure the other team scores fewer points than you. They don't have to play Gregg Popovich-style ball where you need to call a timeout after every basket to make offensive/defensive substitutions. Their strategy is simple: No timeouts, no fouling, just run and shoot, and, on defense, clog the passing lanes and always be ready to back up the guy who's facing down an inside threat. This may be an alien philosophy to people who grew up with the triangle offense on the brain, but it works and there need be no apologies made.

By contrast, look at how the Spurs play ball. Dump it to Duncan on the left side, either in the post or 14 feet away. Stand around while he banks it off the glass. Once in a while, swing the ball around to Horry or Bowen so they can make a dagger three. Watch Tony Parker glower like MC Solaar. Oooh, Tony. Je t'aime! Je t'aime! Admittedly, Manu Ginobili is a lunatic who turns the game inside out every time he touches the ball. That's why I respect and fear the Spurs. Because they are an old-school team with a new-school player. But come on. You know the Spurs are the dark side.

As for the MVP debate, I don't give a knee-high sock who's the MVP. That's like caring about who wins the Best Actress Oscar. Or any Oscar, period. I like it when players from my favorite teams are recognized, but I also dismiss award debates as soap-opera fodder for men. It's pointless gossip that only serves the sports media, which doesn't actually know anything about sports anymore. Let Woody Paige blather about this on Cold Pizza, which is mostly over before I wake up in the morning. I'll stay up late and actually watch the games. The NBA could give the award to Stacey Augmon for all I care.

Boy, that Bulls-Wizards series really has me enthralled. How about next year, every team makes the playoffs, and the first round is best of nine? That's my opinion. Face! You should have one, too. Own it! Pat it and prick it and mark it with B! Put it in the oven for baby and me!

Sorry. I was briefly possessed by Jim Rome there. It won't happen again.

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May 2, 2005

Walking Over Memphis

Well, that was easy. And it proved wrong every single negative thing that's been said about the Suns this year. They can play defense. They can rebound. They can score under pressure. They have enough of a bench to get them through. Better take a look at the new face of basketball, people, before it whizzes by you on the highway. And now, a week to kick back, smoke some weed (I have no objective proof of this, of course, but in my dreams, my favorite basketball team is comprised of stoners), and watch Houston and Dallas pound the shit out of each other for three more games, at least one of which will go to overtime.

I found it quite gratifying to beat Memphis, which is as close as the NBA has to a villainous team these days. Gasol and Battier are fine. But the rest of those guys are stupid punks. If wraparound passes that go out of bounds were the only qualification, Jason Williams would be an automatic Hall Of Famer. Tatooed knuckles were cool when Robert Mitchum did them in Night Of The Hunter, but I doubt that's what "J-Will" was going for. Also, it's a great sign when players are wearing armbands out of solidarity with a guy named Bonzi who got booted out of the playoffs because he can't get along with the coach. This is what was supposed to have given the Suns trouble? A team that gets a hanging-on-the-rim technical in the fourth quarter of an ostensibly close game? Also, nice temper tantrum by James Posey there in the third. Who gets castigated by Mike Dunleavy for not being cool? And on the Charles Barkley watch, the Chuckster had no comments on the game at halftime because he said he'd been watching Desperate Housewives instead. And he meant it. Now that's the kind of job I want. Come to think of it, that's the kind of job I have. Only I don't get paid as well as Barkley. Or as Barkley's driver. Or pretty much anyone who works for TNT.

I have one more sports comment to make. Does anyone really care who Phil Jackson coaches next season? It's a distracting plotline, like the police procedural scenes on a daytime soap when all you really want is for the hot tan couple to get naked. And the way the sportswriters talk about it! "Is P-Jax headed back to La-la land?" It's like children's writing that can't get published. My favorite was the hot item last week that "P-Jax" and "Kobe" had lunch together! Oooh! Stop the presses! Did they have salads or go straight to the entree? Was the tuna sashimi grade?

Now let me switch gears as only I can and say that I finished book number 17 over the weekend. I tried desperately to get it done by Saturday at midnight, so I could have 17 through the first third of the year, thereby putting me on pace for 51, but I got tired around 11:30. Fortunately, or not, depending on your perspective, I had bad insomnia that night, so by the time I got done watching a weird Eddie "Rochester" Anderson movie on TCM, I still had miles to go before I slept, so I read.

That book is Happy Baby, by my literary friend Stephen Elliott, which I meant to get to last year. And when I say "literary friend," it means someone who I've met and liked during my fascinating voyage through the world of the literary elite and over the cliff of obscurity again. It gives me great pleasure, then, to say that Happy Baby is a extremely impressive display of both literary substance and style. The narrative conceit, which moves backward in time, works extremely well and doesn't seem gimmicky at all. In fact, it feels to me like a true formal innovation. Also, the sentences are clear and crisp and everything adds up to perfect effect.

Even more impressive is the book's howl at the center for a more just treatment system for troubled teens. In that way, it's like Dickens, but it's gritty as Hubert Selby, but also shot through with feeling. Can you call something an emo version of Last Exit To Brooklyn? Highly recommended.

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