October 24, 2017

Teaching A Man to Fish the Urban River

Public relations and politicians love the big shiny buildings pointing a finger at the moon. We’re number one on this property. A cool city, although no one knows what that really means. Urbanist Richard Florida wrote a book in 2001 about being urban and cool- The Rise of the Creative Class. Rolling Stone writer Mark Binelli’s new book  Detroit City Is The Place To Be offers an answer to the cool city question. It’s kind of cool not to get murdered on the way to work. Binelli’s book “dilutes the brand, dude.”

The ring of decay surrounding the business districts can make the beautiful architecture resemble the hood ornament on an old Chevrolet in the junk yard. Several men were fishing the river in downtown Grand Rapids, across from the Gerald Ford Presidential Museum. A few of the fishermen looked like retirees. A group of younger men were fishing farther down the river. They were gathered in a tight spot. Some of them smoked cigarettes and flicked the cigarette butts in disgust when their lines came back empty. They glanced at me suspiciously. The retirees didn’t even acknowledge my presence, completely at peace with their spot in the river. The younger guys worked the river harder than the retirees. There was a sense of need in every flick of the line. A homeless man with wild long hair surprised me as I went under the bridge to the fishermen.

It’s a very common urban scene. The bustle of a business district and just a few blocks away…the ruin porn. A native of metro Detroit and Michigan grad, Binelli’s best writing is when he’s following the Detroit bloggers. One of the bloggers drives around the city in search of good copy which is abundant as the acres of abandoned property. A Detroiter from Lebanon (where else?) is robbed so often, he surrenders and decorates his yard with everything inside that’s worth stealing. He hangs shirts on the trees. Take the shirts. Take everything.

The street view in Google maps shows a guy on a porch in Detroit aiming a shotgun at the Google car doing the mapping. A dead baby was found in the closet of a Detroit home this past year. It was the same home. But Twitter is opening an office in Detroit!

Although Binelli lives among the people in Detroit for the assignment, there’s a feeling of detachment, an outsider’s perspective. He can leave anytime and will when the job is finished. He isn’t trapped. His writing of a community meeting with mayor Dave Bing has a different undertone than the Detroit blogger who captures the true desperation in the shouting and heckling and demands to know if Bing’s staff lives in the city. Skin in the game is the game changer.

Detroit had a big celebration on the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Fort Detroit surrendered to the British two hundred years ago without a shot. I alternated reading Bernilli’s Detroit on the Kindle and an old paperback of Philippe-Paul De Segur’s Defeat. I read and skimmed the Kindle and turned off everything while reading Defeat, a good title for the plight of Detroit as well as Napoleon’s Russian campaign. Two hundred years ago this month, Napoleon’s Grand Army was destroyed after taking Moscow with almost as much ease as the British took Detroit in 1812. Nature and the rivers trapped Napoleon, with help from the marauding Cossacks. The desperation was chronicled with extraordinary passion in the diary of Philippe-Paul de Segur who truly had skin in the game with the hundreds of thousands suffering and dying on the retreat from Moscow.

When one of Napoleon’s generals confronts him with the terrible conditions, Napoleon says, “Why must you disturb my peace of mind?” The general repeats the message of his certain demise. Napoleon softens his tone, and says again, “Why must you disturb my peace of mind?” Napoleon knew his Grand Army was destroyed.

The problem with books about the demise of Detroit is that they disturb the peace of mind without offering a way out. Napoleon raged against the generals who simply recited their problems.

Defeat is a classic. You don’t read this kind of story on a Kindle where the story is thrown back into the Amazon river when finished. “Women were seen among the floating ice sheets with children in their arms, holding them higher and higher as they sank. When their bodies were under water their stiffened arms still held the little ones up… Then in the column of desperate men crowded together in the one narrow way of escape, a monstrous struggle took place, in which the weak and the ones nearest the edge were forced into the river by the strong; and the latter without so much as turning their heads, carried away by the instinct of self-preservation, pressed savagely on, deaf to the cries of rage and desperation of their companions or officers whom they were sacrificing to their own ends.”

De Segur blames an excess of inequality and misery for the selfishness. But in the terrible suffering, there are stories of heroism and sacrifice. A baby held above the frigid river in the arms of a dying mother is grabbed by a soldier who tells the baby, “Don’t cry. I didn’t save you from drowning just to leave you on the riverbank. I’ll see that you’re taken care of. I’ll be a father and family to you.”

An excess of inequality and misery on the banks of the urban river is forcing retreat. Its story shouldn’t be thrown back in the Amazon river.

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Signals, Noise, and the Amish Buggy

Amish buggy after collision with a truck

The week began with a Black Swan event and I was the Black Swan. His mouth was open, head tilted right and up. The little Amish kid had the most amazing expression of curiosity and bewilderment on his face. He couldn’t take his eyes off me, or close his mouth, or breath in and out. I smiled, amused, and kept walking. The Amish kid kept looking. I turned around and smiled again. “Mama,” he said to his mother, dressed in the black Amish clothing. Mother and son talked quietly. I could tell that she was trying to explain the stranger in his life. She grabbed his hand and led him out of the store. I smiled. She scowled. They left the store and took the buggy home. There are several Amish communities in Michigan. Although the Amish are leaving in some areas of the state, the stronger communities are resilient. Until the modern truck collides with their buggy.

This is the land where Ernest Hemingway formed his famous bullshit detector. If you look and think hard enough, you can discover some extraordinary secrets hidden in the mundane of life here.

There weren’t a lot of political campaign signs in the rural areas like around the cement jungles south of here. The political messages targeted to the cement jungles were about fear and grievances. Nate Silver is the new social media hero of the Big Data era. He learned how to work the numbers first in baseball before crunching the numbers in politics.  He took his Moneyball statistics to the New York Times, replacing Jonah Lehrer in the brainy social media lineup.

There isn’t much noise where the Amish live in Michigan. A vast darkness covers everything at night. Fur with eyeballs darted in front of my car. I drove over it and heard the loud “thump, thump.” It felt big and heavy. I didn’t see anything in the rear view mirror for a hundred yards and finally caught the glimpse of the fur with eyeballs tumbling dead into a ditch. I didn’t stop. The two lane country road was too dark and lonely and way too far from the noise of the city. I turned up the volume on the radio for the football game. The signal wasn’t strong.

Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise is climbing Amazon’s sales ranking fast with his success in predicting the outcome of the election. His father is a political science professor at Michigan State and took him to Tiger games. Fantasy baseball is where he first learned to apply statistical analysis. I used to study the baseball stats religiously for our fantasy league back when Bill James and fantasy baseball were just becoming popular. In those days, we used the stats from the Sunday newspaper and calculated everything with pen and paper. I knew the minor league stats of every ballplayer that I was scouting for my fantasy team. I was in a tough league. My friends were ballplayers and smart. One was drafted and recruited to pitch in the Ivy League. Another bet he could pass the Mensa test. He qualified, although our fantasy league didn’t quite meet the Mensa objective “to identify and to foster human intelligence for the benefit of humanity; to encourage research into the nature, characteristics, and uses of intelligence; and to provide a stimulating intellectual and social environment for its members.” I just wanted Ricky Henderson to run like hell.

We read and watched everything. I knew the strength and weakness of the minor leagues, which was a pitching league, and which was a hitters league. The ratio of strikeouts to walks was a biggie to me. It was the mark of promise and peril for the pitching prospect. The stats didn’t tell the whole story. You still had to watch their form and athleticism. A baseball and football star at Michigan was considered the top baseball prospect in the country when he was recruited to play both sports in Ann Arbor. Drew Henson wasn’t the first two sport star to fall short of what the scouts projected. This star, a wide receiver, never took the bat off his shoulder when he played against Michigan State and I instantly knew he wasn’t a pro ball player. Kirk Gibson had destroyed college pitching as a two sport star. So did Bo Jackson.

Intuition isn’t given enough credit. There is science behind the intuitive feel. The science just hasn’t been totally developed yet. Steve Jobs was not a fan of waiting for the numbers to confirm everything. The problem with the Nate Silver type of analysis is that it doesn’t go far enough into the darkness. It cuts and measures what’s seen in the light. Nate Silver dumps a lot of state polls into his brew to make his projections. A poll in Michigan just a couple of days before the election showed Romney trailing by 6-7 points in Michigan. I deduced Romney was trailing by half of that in Ohio. The margin in other states could be also be calculated by that one poll, like Seabiscuit’s trainer able to project the horse’s potential on a single muscle because that one muscle is connected to everything else. More importantly, you have to go into the darkness to understand  why. Voting is about self preservation, not self identity. No one wants to have their buggy run over by the truck.

The Atlantic has a story on Noam Chomsky’s criticism of artificial intelligence- our failure to “decode ourselves.” The reliance on statistical analysis and data creates a shallow interpretation and poor understanding. They’re riding an Amish buggy on a dark road.

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Earth, Wind, and Stretch Limousine On Fire

Gale winds on Lake Michigan and thirty foot waves on Lake Huron haven’t inflicted any damage like what the East Coast has gone through with the hurricane. But the wind coming hard off the Great Lakes serves as a reminder, and warning, that Mother Nature, unlike the generals, can open up a second, third, fourth front, or whatever she pleases. And when Mother Nature’s in a foul mood, she becomes very hard to please.

The central air and PowerPoint have seduced the leadership into believing She can be tamed. Climate control, cap and trade, click, click, and She’s submitted her power to the leadership that until an ocean of water flooded their boundaries were regulating the belch of a 16 oz soft drink. She can’t be treated like that but the leadership is like the generals in the recent Atlantic article by Tom Ricks who have been promoted out of the mud and into the penthouse. Two centuries ago Napoleon made his generals of mud. Mother Nature buried his generals in the Russian snow. This past week large swaths of property on the East Coast have been lost at sea. The leadership, these computer commandos, went down like Napoleon’s generals.

A relative in West Virginia with the nickname The Great Communicator hasn’t been in communication since the massive snow storm hit that state. Earth quakes are rattling the West Coast. I can hardly wait for Iran to get the Bomb.

On Michigan’s Gold Coast- Lake Michigan- there was a sign warning the structure wasn’t built for the public access. Proceed at your own risk. A news crew was on the beach, filming a story about the storm on the Great Lake. A photographer was sprawled out, his legs wrapped around some rocks as 50 mile per hour wind gusts and cold waves hit him in the face.

Nature understands no jesting. She is always right and the faults are with man- the generals and computer commandos. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said it two hundred years ago, when Napoleon’s generals and men were dying with his glorious dream – “Nature understands no jesting. She is always true, always serious, always severe. She is always right, and the errors are always those of man.”

The kind of risk that is warned of here is not for the urbanologists, until Katrina or Hurricane Sandy come into town. The warning signs along the roads are about deer, as if the deer obey the crossing signs. Urban areas have signs warning of dogs- the attack kind, not the lap poodle. Signs of icy roads, always helpful in the summer heat. Soccer moms have stuck signs in the front lawn warning of children- specifically theirs- at play. I passed a mother and her child riding a horse. It was a beautiful fall setting. The child was wearing a helmet and clutching his mother as the horse eyeballed me in the other lane. The latest research is questioning the need to wear a helmet, whether for riding a horse or a bike. The helmet is creating both a false sense of fear, and security.

Neither the professional photographer wrapped around the rocks, nor I with the camera phone right behind him, needed a helmet or public service announcement that proceeding another three feet was risking a very cold bath in Lake Michigan. Mother Nature was sparring with both of us, hitting hard enough to send a message that she can hit much harder.

On the beach a young woman was running alone against the wind. She reminded me of the girl in northern Michigan that I saw running home from school in a cold rain. The grin on her face contrasted with the grumblings of everyone else complaining about the rotten weather. I guess guys are never too old to get inspired by teenage girls.

Time to leave this inspiring setting for more urbanology.

The limousine driver on the side of the expressway probably began his sweet ride with a big ole grin. Cocky little snot all dressed up and forcing travelers to put wary commuter eyes on his sweet trophy limo. He cut in front of me and took the expressway exit. I got caught by the light and watched him ride into the sunset. Both of us were leaving a factory town so his ride would definitely turn heads here. No gas shortage or passenger restrictions was going to ruin his ride.

I was watching the sunset and wishing I was on the Gold Coast instead of hitting pot holes out of this factory town. A white cloud of smoke was up ahead and squinting through the windshield, I noticed a tire bouncing and rolling directly at me. A big flame shot up through the smoke. I drove around the tire as it rolled behind me and across I-75. Neither the fire or the tire were done. The tire bounced and spun back across I-75 to its rightful owner in the smoking hot (literal) stretch limo.  The limo driver jumped out, running pants on fire laps around his burning hot hot hot limo. His limo was on fire and some prized cargo (non-human) was about to go up in flames with it. He was lifting something as flames spread around the back axle and darn near the gas tank which would go BOOM! and I believe get him FIRED! by the owner of the important cargo waiting impatiently for its delivery.

The Boss Bruce Springsteen is helping the people affected by Hurricane Sandy. The limo driver can only console himself with “Stretch Limousine on Fire” by Catie Curtis. The suspense for another sunrise goes on. Take the risk and laugh.

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Building New Bridges and Burning Old Ones

The sign at the Canadian border admonishes you to call the 1-800 number if you see any boats landing passengers and leaving, especially late at night. I’ll keep a sharp lookout for Navy SEALs and sneaky Canadians. Americans can sleep well at night knowing brave men and women in Port Huron have the U.S. Border Patrol on speed dial.

Escape from Camp 14 is a story from the other side of the world, literally and figuratively. There are ten laws of Camp 14 that everyone must memorize. Failure to comply with any of the ten have the same outcome: you will be shot immediately. Do not try to escape. No one escapes from this political prisoner camp. No one. If you try to escape, you will be shot. Prisoners must watch each other and report any suspicious behavior immediately. There isn’t a 1-800 number. Failure to do so means you will also be shot…immediately. Failure to fulfill your work quota for the day is punished with being shot…immediately. Not everyone in the camp is shot. Some prisoners are hanged. Shin Dong-hyuk’s mother and brother were hanged for trying to escape. Shin snitched on them and was forced to watch their hangings. Every prisoner in the camp was conditioned to be more faithful to the guards than their own families. A new prisoner arrives and Shin is to work with him, and spy on him. This new prisoner, unlike Shin, knows the outside world. Shin was born in the camp and knew nothing of North Korea or anything else outside Camp 14. The new prisoner had been to China and was sophisticated, and polite to Shin. He taught Shin that the prison camp was his cage. Shin didn’t snitch this time. He listened and plotted an escape with this new prisoner. Shin became the first person to ever escape from Camp 14 when he crawled over his friend’s dead body that smoldered on the electric fence around the camp. Shin managed to cross into China and enter South Korea, and told his remarkable story to Washington Post journalist Blaine Harden, author of one of the best books you’ll read this year.

Canadians want a new bridge to Michigan and are willing to pay for it. A billionaire businessman on this side of the proposed bridge is fighting it with his considerable power and wealth. He is the owner of the bridge to Canada that’s causing problems for Canadians who dislike the congested traffic of truckers. He’s making one hundred million a year from the traffic across his bridge. A new bridge reduces his profit but will clearly benefit both Michigan and Canada.

Boundaries are about being in control, finding the strike zone. Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale had a reputation for sending hitters into the dirt with his knockdown pitch. His rule was that the batter can have the inside part of the plate or the outside but not both. Try to take more and down you go.

In some places you’ll be shot immediately for trying to stretch your meager boundaries beyond the high voltage fence. Or the electric fence will make the final verdict on your fate as you lose your balance in the below zero temperatures and fall on the wire. Your buddy who was supposed to go first but also slipped before reaching the fence will use your dead body as a bridge to freedom and a book deal. Freedom, fame, and money can’t burn the bridge to his horrific past. He wants to blow up that bridge but can’t. The demons of the political prison camp stalk and torment him like the guards.

In metro Detroit, perennially the worse metro area in the country according the BLS, something obvious as a new bridge requires a ridiculous amount of effort to persuade people to go for it. The opposition, funded by the billionaire and his high powered Washington consultants, preys on the ignorance. They can’t afford to go for it. The price of the unknown is too much.

Every book has a signature passage for me. Escape from Camp 14’s is when the new prisoner arrives and Shin discovers his life in the prison camp isn’t normal. He now sees his world inside the camp as a cage that he must escape. He knows the odds aren’t good. But he also understands the price of staying in the camp. The most poignant passage in Argo wasn’t about the embassy hostages in Iran. It was when CIA officer Tony Mendez rescued one of their spies in Iran before the embassy hostages were seized. The Iranian official was terrified that he wouldn’t be able to fool the guards at the airport. The disguise that Mendez made for him was good.

But as Mendez explains, the person must believe the story. They must buy into the cover story to the point it’s no longer fiction in their mind. It’s their true story. It’s their real identity. To get from point A to point B, they must believe to cross that bridge. If they fail to believe completely, they won’t be turned back like a trucker transporting cargo of women’s wear to a retail outlet. They won’t be stoned to death on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange for the treasonous act of delivering clothing out of season. They will sufferer extreme agony that will make them plead to be shot immediately. Mendez saw that this man was faltering psychologically. His disguise was good enough for him to make it safely into the boarding lounge. He was safe now. All he had to do was go on the plane, cross the bridge to freedom. But he didn’t get on the plane. Mendez was watching for him to just get on the plane. He was safe. Just walk onto the plane and he’ll be a free man. Mendez didn’t see him and took the risk of sneaking past the guards to search for him. He found him sitting on the toilet, hiding and shaking in fear. He was stunned when Mendez came into the bathroom. Mendez led him onto the plane at great risk to himself.

Clay Shirky gave a popular talk for TED on how the Internet will transform government into more open access. The political prison camps won’t go down without a fight.

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The Trip to Destination Further

In 1964, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” author Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters planned a road trip cross country from Palo Alto, California to the Big Apple. A station wagon was the original idea for wheels to New York. Then one of the Merry Pranksters discovered an ad for a 1939 International Harvester bus. Kesey and the gang painted the bus a “frenzy of primary colors” and placed a sign on the back of it with the message: “Caution: Weird Load.” The sign on the front was misspelled “Destination: Furthur.” Not that punctuation really mattered. The big deal was that the bus had a motor and enough wheels to chase destiny. They were bustin’ out, and trippin’ out, with Tom Wolfe along to chronicle their adventures.

Tom Wolfe caught up with Kesey in a San Francisco jail after the Feds in shiny black shoes finally caught him returning from Mexico where he ran to escape the drug charges. This was after Kesey became famous as the author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” which he wrote almost by accident. Kesey got a job at a psychiatric ward and intended to use his spare time to finish a novel called “Zoo.” Instead, Kesey “became absorbed with life on the psychiatric ward” and saw it as the “perfect anti-cure for what ailed the men on this ward.”

Keep ‘em cowed and docile, play on their weakness, “stupefy and shock the bastards.” Wolfe writes in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” that Kesey saw the theme of his novel in the faces of the men on the psychiatric ward. The terrain of the deep lines on their faces and dark, desperate eyes said “Me! Me! Me! Me! I am- Me!”

So off the Merry Pranksters went on the cross country trip- “Me and Us, the attuned ones amid the non-musical shiny-black shoe multitudes.”

New York was the destination to celebrate the publication of Kesey’s second novel “Sometimes A Great Notion.” But the critics weren’t nearly as unanimous with it as with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Some critics said the second novel was  his true masterpiece, comparing “Sometimes A Great Notion” to “Moby Dick.” While the Sunday New York Times writes of all the stellar five star ratings on Amazon thanks to paid reviews, in 1964 Kesey’s book got roasted by the New York Times book critic who wrote: “His monstrous book is the most insufferably pretentious and the most totally tiresome novel I have had to read in many years.”

Before Kickstarter, there was just a kick in the nuts as a motivational tool.

Kesey dismissed the negative critics as out of touch, like old fashion writing, like the old bus transporting their Hun invasion to New York. You were either on the bus or off the bus.

I saw the Partridge Family bus parked in the driveway last week. A real dude owned it. The driveway and house were like a thousand other around town. This was Flint, a psychiatric ward with zip codes to the Big Nurse.These were the kind of characters that made Michael Moore famous as Ken Kesey.

Expatriates were returning to Flint to run the Crim, the ten mile race in its 36th year. More than fifteen thousand entered the Crim and not one was wearing shiny black shoes. A record crowd attendance and thousands more spectators from some of the poorest zip codes in the country cheered the ten mile block party and race to destiny, offering water, doughnuts, and beer to runners who on a typical day would have done anything to avoid these zip codes. Flint Olympic gold medalist boxer Clarissa Shields was there. At the eight mile mark, a woman in front of me clutched her chest and collapsed. A female runner behind me said to her female running mate “Another fucking hill.” These women were tough.

Training on memories is a pretty bad substitute for the real thing. It’s almost like living on memories. Like an aging prize fighter, I took this opponent for granted. I ran five miles a day throughout the year, never “further,” was one of the last to register, and showed up at the start thinking no sweat. Been there, done that. At the eight mile mark and in 90 degree temps, I also thought another f…ing hill.

I was surprised how much better these neighborhoods appeared when everyone shared the same mindset of destination further. The ruin porn receded and signs of neighborhood watch groups were embarrassingly out of place. The watch groups on this morning had a different motive.

Ken Kesey began his destination further road trip in what today is Silicon Valley. The Crim race is at the birthplace of General Motors and the UAW. Opposite ends of the century, and economic spectrum. His second novel was about a logging family that refused to strike with the other loggers. Similar themes to the famous Sit-Down Strike in Flint that led to recognition for the United Auto Workers during the Great Depression. The obstacles never end in Kesey’s stories. The trip to Destination Further always seems to have another f…ing hill.

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A View from the Cheap Seats

Dow Diamond, in Midland, MI

Dow Diamond’s back gates were unlocked and since this wasn’t Yankee Stadium or any stadium in the big leagues, I invited myself inside and took a walk around the stadium. The Great Lakes Loons are an A ball team for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Here is where the ballplayer has better odds of making The Show as a scout than as an active player. No one expressed any concern that I shouldn’t be there. I went into a party store for work and the owner demanded to know if I was from the state liquor commission. If so, he was going to “throw my ass out.” His little store was in a neighborhood that you make doubly certain the car doors are locked. I forget to lock the doors at Dow Diamond but it didn’t matter. I didn’t get a negative kind of reception inside Dow Diamond. I didn’t get any reception at all. I had the whole ballpark to myself. For a little while, it was my Show.

Clint Eastwood’s baseball movie “Trouble with the Curve” is going to be released in September on the same day “Moneyball” was released one year ago. Clint Eastwood is said to dislike “Moneyball” and made his movie in response to it. The old scout with bad eyes has more faith in flesh and blood analysis than statistical analysis.

The best managers, scouts, and leaders in other arenas, as well as writers, have spent important time in the cheap seats, absorbing the drama of success and failure and trying to make sense of it.

More from my story The Coach Killers, written from the cheap seats:

Willie reached for a raindrop. He had never seen raindrops so big. “Raining big as baseballs, Coach,” Willie said. Willie sat on the porch and watched the rain clouds swirl overhead. “Ms. Butler coming back?”

“When she’s ready,” Coach Hawkins said.

“Ms. Butler returning in time for school?”

“Yes, Willie.”

“I have a play to perform,” Willie said, hesitating. He didn’t feel comfortable talking to Coach Hawkins about something other than baseball.

“Lucy Butler will be back in time for you to star as Paul Bunyan, Willie.” Hawkins read the letter a second time, unable to believe the content of it was really true.

The letter was soon followed by a couple of phone calls. A meeting was arranged for the steakhouse twenty miles east of Sleeping Bear. Hawkins knew it well. It was a favorite for the baseball scouts.

Hawkins sat in his car and watched the freight train grind metal. He was stuck at the tracks. Cars behind him were turning around for an alternative route. He watched the windshield wipers hit the big rain drops like a fungo bat. He turned on the car radio as a group of kids on bikes weaved between the stuck cars. Then he heard the news. Alan Perkins of the Perkins Group was dead. The old tycoon and journeyman second baseman was dead of a stroke. His surreal vision of teamwork died with him. Bankers, lawyers, and shareholders would fight over his legacy. At the birthplace of the Perkins empire the stadium lights were turned off and the children of the streets wept in silence.

A green Toyota lurched from traffic and struck one of the kids on a bike, sending him into the ditch. The kid bounced up, covered in mud, and laughed in the rain. Hawkins sat lost in thought, not realizing the freight train had gone on to Grand Rapids. He was late for a meeting with the Detroit Tigers.

Hawkins thought he heard a stopwatch click when he entered the steakhouse and went to the old scout’s table. The old scout’s notepad was marked in precise penmanship. His face was browned as old bacon from years of sitting in the sun.

“Hawkins, you still act like a pitcher, sauntering in here late. Was that how you went to the pitcher’s mound? Walking to it like going in your favorite restaurant? I never was good with pitchers like you,” the old scout said. “Didn’t trust them. A bunch of nonconformists wanting to stretch the strike zone.”

“I heard you signed Mark Fidrych,” Hawkins said.

“Never signed a pitcher. Couldn’t find one I liked. Denny McLain was another bad one. Good pitching is a bad sign for this country, Hawkins. It means people aren’t comfortable with the strike zone. The ballclub wants to find some good pitchers now. This country is going to hell. That’s why they’re interested in you working as a scout. It won’t be an easy job. The motels won’t be the nice ones.”

“I can live cheap,” Hawkins said.

“You won’t get rich. Do you have any leads?”

“Yes,” Hawkins said. “I got a name.”

The old scout leaned over the table. A crackle of thunder whipped the storm clouds off the Great Lake. A waitress with a hacking cough dropped a plate in the kitchen.

“His name is Hank Patterson,” Hawkins said.

The old scout wrote down the name in his precise penmanship. “You got a philosophy, Hawkins? A special way of looking at things? What’s your vision, Hawkins? Why do you get up in the morning, Hawkins?”

“I believe a team and the country are only as good as the pitchers,” Hawkins said, a smile as wide as the Great Lake.

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Pain, Fame, and the Better Life Index

Kronk Gym in Detroit- credit Ross Dettman for ESPN.com

Thirty world champions in the sport of boxing went down the blood stained steps and through the blood red door to train in Detroit’s Kronk gym. The message on the door is missing some letters, like missing teeth. There’s one boxing ring and two heavy bags inside. That’s it to the extravagance of the boxing club inside Kronk that was started by Emanuel Steward in 1970. It’s probably one reason why the Big Ten athletic directors decided boxing was too harsh for a college sport. The Kronk gym is a shocking contrast to the luxurious training centers and weight rooms on the college campuses.  The spooks at the CIA are also asking for more fancy exercise machines and better gym at Langley. A boxing ring and two old heavy bags are apparently the wrong kind of office furniture for acquiring insight on how the world really works.

The door to the Kronk gym is the anti-recruiting tool. At least the military wipes off the blood and puts on the dress whites to make the sales pitch to young recruits. This is the kind of place college admissions use as a motive for enrolling in college. Put a dead bolt on that door and get the hell out of there. The historic gym was closed a couple of years ago because of financial problems. Ross Dettman took the pictures of the 85 year old Kronk Recreation Center for ESPN before the door to pain and fame was shut for the final time.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke made a follow up speech on Monday to his “Economics of Happiness” commencement address two years ago. Economists are enamored with the field of happiness and concept of well-being. Governments are creating National Happiness Indexes to replace the gross national product:

“This line of research has generated alternative measures of well-being that are frequently survey-based and incorporate elements such as psychological wellness, the level of education, physical health and safety, community vitality and the strength of family and social ties, and time spent in leisure activities.  These measures have begun to inform official statistics and have started to be discussed in policy debates.”

The Kronk gym ranks higher on the Ruin Porn Index than the Better Life Index. Tommy Hearns, the most famous fighter to come out of Kronk, was forced to file for bankruptcy a few years ago. Detroit’s a tough town, evoking much love and hate. You have to be able to take a punch. If the size of another adult’s soft drink is important to you, Detroit probably isn’t. If you think Twitter and beach volleyball at the Olympics are a sign of progess over Howard Cosell and brothers Leon and Michael Spinks, you’ll probably choose the Better Life Index over the Ruin Porn Index. A line from  Cosell’s bio which would be a gold medal Twitter profile:

“Cosell said of himself, ‘Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. I have been called all of these. Of course, I am.'”

After winning the gold in 1976, Leon Spinks beat Ali to become heavyweight champ. As with Tommy Hearns and many other boxers, Spinks lost everything. The Olympic gold medalist and heavyweight champ enrolled in bartender school and got a job pouring drinks at a place in metro Detroit. The fat guy playing the piano was former Detroit Tiger Denny McLain, a 30 game winner, World Series champion, and ex-con. McLain’s agent got him the piano gig in Detroit. I think I’ll create a category on the Ruin Porn Index for fallen athletes and their agents. It was 1989 when Spinks and McLain hooked up. The fall of the Berlin Wall added Eastern Europe to the Ruin Index. Newspapers were still taken seriously and sportswriters were up there with the foreign correspondents and Peter Jennings’ trench coat. A sportswriter from Pittsburgh caught the Spinks and McLain gig. Spinks mixed drinks with pretty colors, McLain worked the piano keys, and a woman was at the mic, singing “Don’t throw our love away… don’t throw our love away.” The Motown anthem for Ruin Porn.

Stories of pain and fame were delivered every week through the Sporting News where the writers treated their typewriters like jabs and left hooks, except for Dick Young the New Yorker who preferred using his typewriter like it was a jackhammer. Another gold medal Twitter profile, from the New York Times in 1989 when Young passed away: “With all the subtlety of a knee in the groin, Dick Young made people gasp… He could be vicious, ignorant, trivial and callous, but for many years he was the epitome of the brash, unyielding yet sentimental Damon Runyon sportswriter.”

If you want to attend Governor Cuomo’s Yogurt Summit in Albany, you probably like the idea of a Better Life Index. Another New York governor, Teddy Roosevelt, was also concerned about the health of America’s youth suffering from “sloping shoulders of a champagne bottle.” Roosevelt believed “without the help of the body the mind cannot go far as it should.” Through boxing, the sport of one, Roosevelt discovered “self-improvement was not only a possibility but an imperative.” Roosevelt, as with Hemingway, was a lover of the outdoors. He shot a 1,200 pound grizzly bear from “eight paces,” according to John J. Miller’s The Big Scrum. And some today tremble at the sight of a 16 oz soft drink an arm’s length from the champagne bottle shoulder.

Roosevelt believed the urban lifestyle weakened the body and the mind. Roosevelt’s criteria for a Better Life Index might be different than a contemporary Index. Boxing is the only sport that really hasn’t changed. A ring and a pair of gloves about the size of a medium Coca-Cola. Football is the game that Roosevelt is credited for saving but Roosevelt was a boxer at heart. The game of football is being attacked again. The pain of the game is outweighing the fame.

The Freeh Report is a harsh attack on the football luxury box culture at Penn State, which as with the other Big Ten schools, has banished boxing to a permanent place on the Ruin Porn Index. Louis Freeh created a timeline of the Sandusky scandal. The second week of February in 2001 is when Freeh delivers his first punch at Paterno and Penn State officials. That week was also noteworthy for an FBI Director named Louis Freeh. FBI agent Robert Hanssen was arrested on February 18, 2001. He had been spying for the Russians for 15 years, one year longer than Sandusky’s unreported crimes. Critics accused Freeh of rushing to establish a friendly blue ribbon panel to avoid a “nasty probe.”

Robert Hanssen wrote to his Russian handlers: “Eventually I would appreciate an escape plan. (Nothing lasts forever.)”

But nothing lasts forever is a good line to write on the Kronk door beneath pain and fame.

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The Stories of Ruin Porn

Abandoned Buick City Complex

Ruin Porn is a new concept to me. Although its origins are in the Rust Belt, and primarily Detroit, I never noticed the phrase being used to describe pictures of abandonment. The main complaint of ruin porn is that it ignores the people and focuses on the abandoned buildings. I must have been focusing too much on the people who come from these fallen monuments to industry.

One year ago the most memorable street person that I’ve ever seen emerged from a field of weeds and broken bottles. He was wearing a heavy coat, gloves with the fingers cut off, and had the dusty orange hue that’s so familiar to the homeless exposed to years of sunshine. The sunshine of the homeless doesn’t brighten the day. It just means they’re on the clock in the miles of walking to an unknown destination. This homeless man was strumming a guitar and singing as he marched. A woman’s eyeballs almost popped from her head when she came around the corner and saw this incredible apparition coming at her.

The man was a ruin porn star if there ever was such a thing. The abandoned Buick City complex is a massive structure of broken windows and piles of twisted metal, surrounded by a high fence with warning not to trespass signs on the fence about every fifty yards. Homeless like the Guitar Man walk the empty streets around the complex. Some of them have small backpacks. These people are the supporting cast to the Guitar Man. They’re in their element here.

Earlier in the day, a young homeless guy with a worn backpack and jug of water was sitting outside an upscale produce market in a very nice area many miles from the Buick City complex. I felt sorry for him and wondered where his parents must be, or some relative who could help him. Suburban shoppers walked around him, eating free corn on the cob samples. Everyone pretended not to notice him. He wasn’t their problem as long as their eyeballs didn’t connect with his.

Or mine. I also walked the long way around him. Fear is the motive for avoiding ruin porn in the bad areas. Greed is the motive in the nice area. The Michigan blueberries were mine, damn it.

Billy Durant took charge of Buick in 1904, a year after Jack London’s Call of the Wild was published. Durant incorporated General Motors in 1908. The ruin porn reminds me of Buck in the Call of the Wild. The “dominant primordial beast” grew and became strong in Buck as he was forced to do or die- adapt to the fierce environment. Buck learned from the harsh experiences. The man with the club, the packs of dogs waiting to kill him if he showed weakness, the wild environment shaking him from the comfortable suburban domestic life- it arose in Buck the instinct to survive and compete fiercely as a wolf. Buck’s muscles hardened and his tolerance to pain, his and others, became callous.

I felt more callous to the homeless walking near the abandoned Buick City complex. I expected them to have a higher tolerance to pain. Ruin porn numbs the soul, another criticism of its obsession with abandonment. Critics accused ruin porn stars of exploitation without offering solutions. There’s an abandoned Vietnam Memorial park near the Buick City complex that qualifies as a ruin porn war memorial. The nearest literary “celebrity” to this place is Thomas Lynch, the poet and funeral director in Milford. In his book The Undertaking, he writes about the coffin business shifting from wood to metal in the early 1900s, copying the transportation industry’s demand for sheet metal. The metal coffin offered permanence and protection from the elements. Loved ones didn’t share the Call of the Wild for the deceased lowered into the grave. But the bombs of World War One and World War Two blew to bits the graveyards. The British discovered the value of cremation.

Historian James MacGregor Burns writes in The Workshop of Democracy of the “pulse of the machine” and the rise of mass production. Henry Ford’s Rouge plant in the 1920s employed an army of 75,000 workers that were treated as industrial soldiers. Mass production “reduced the necessity of thought on the part of the worker.” Of course, historians and writers become obsolete as machines. History has a way of reducing books, even those from historians, to literary ruin porn. James MacGregor Burns had a strong leftist perspective. The totalitarianism of thought from the left and the damage it inflicted on the 20th century escapes him, making his own body of work exposed to rapid decay. Maybe the poet and undertaker Thomas Lynch has the best perspective. Everything is cremated over time.

Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat is about the importance of openness. “Cultures that are open and willing to change have a huge advantage in this world” says one high tech CEO interviewed for his book published in 2005. The World is Wild is a good title for the history of ruin porn.

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Playing Shirts and Skins On The Road

Owner of this van in a Walmart parking lot expresses his (or her) politics

The road trip is a seasonal disorder for many of us, the desire for something different out there beyond the familiar street signs and neighborhoods.  Jack Kerouac’s On The Road was published in the 1950s, during the Eisenhower years. His cross country trip became a literary classic of observations. A decade later in the rebellious sixties, Tom Wolfe went on the road to write of  Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and returned with a literary winner The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. 

The road trip hasn’t taken me coast to coast but the Ford now has over 162,000 miles in four years. I learned to drive with one hand and take a picture with the free hand, take short notes at the stop lights, and make quick, unplanned turns to follow something of interest. I used to worry about getting lost. Now I don’t really care. Getting lost means discovering something new.

Last Monday, the lieutenant governor of Michigan announced flags would be flown half staff on Wednesday in honor of Army Staff Sgt. Matthew J. Leach, killed June 26 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. I was in Tawas in northern Michigan on Tuesday, where the Veterans Memorial Flag atop a 141 foot pole needs five people to lower it. This Veterans Memorial requires some effort to raise and lower, enough to make people stop and think of what it really means to have skin in the game. People whisper when they see a flag at half staff, embarrassed because they don’t know the soldier’s name. At a restaurant on the way home, a muscular military man came in and sat alone in a booth next to me. A few minutes later a small boy comes over and acknowledges him and sits across the room, in another booth.

“You can sit with me,” the military man said to the boy, his son.

They talked in low voices. The son held his father tight and never let go. His mother came in and sat in the booth across from them. She hardly said a word and murmured when the military man asked her something.

“Stop touching my leg,” the father said to his son.

The father was gone a long time, in some place distant and very tough. He had that demeanor and skin tone. There are muscles you get from working out and muscles you get from working hard. His muscles came from hard work.  His son was intimidated. Everyone else in the restaurant was oblivious, too indulgent in their own comfort zone.

In the mail box at home was the July newsletter from the Flushing school board. The front cover was about the 2012 Alumni Hall of Fame Honoree. His name is John Wayne Marcum, Navy SEAL, Senior Chief Petty Officer, two Silver Stars, Bronze Stars, a member of DEVGRU- SEAL Team Six. He was killed September 11, 2008. He had been on his twelfth deployment since 9/11. He refused several opportunities to save his skin, put on a clean shirt, and get assigned to a softer job.

I know the exact moment the economic bubble was going to burst. I had gone in a hotel in Bloomfield Hills in 2008. A group of businessmen were in the hotel lobby. All of them were dressed in black shirts and sport coats, copying Lee Iacocca’s attire on the cover of his latest book Where Have All the Leaders Gone?. A woman sat in the lobby, unimpressed with the fake machismo. You would have thought from her expression that she was surrounded by artificial pink Christmas trees in July. After the market crash, Iacocca changed attire again and now reportedly copies the simple attire of Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat and Chrysler.

Everyone has skin in the game. They just might not realize the extent until it’s too late. The beauty of a road trip is that it takes you out of the comfort zone. The red van covered with protest graffiti in the Walmart parking lot looked like it had been through a road trip to hell and back. The irony was in the 99% scribble. The owner was still seeking a comfort zone. That he or she was in the majority. Never the minority, like the military man in the restaurant, the Navy SEAL on his twelfth deployment, or the Army Staff Sgt. coming home in a coffin covered in the American flag. This Walmart was in a pretty nice neighborhood. All the other vehicles in the parking lot were the kind of vehicles that would have kept the auto guys in hip black shirts and sport coats for a lifetime. Their machismo could have raised and lowered the Veterans Memorial Flag in Tawas Bay all by itself.

But this red van was in the one percent. Its skin was exposed in protest. Most ignored it as they went inside to shop, preoccupied with stocking their comfort zone. If history is a good guide, their turn will come, or already has, in the game of shirts and skins.

The 141 foot high flag in Tawas Bay needs three people to raise and five to lower, to be exact. Two extra people are to make certain the flag doesn’t hit the ground. I don’t understand what’s so wrong about the American flag hitting the ground. It’s where rubber meets the road.

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Uprooted and Unplugged From Modernity

I’m old enough to get nostalgic about electricity, the Internet, gas stations with pumps that worked, and tree roots that stuck in the ground. Those days were last week. I thought “bummer” when reading about the loss of power in Washington D.C. Utility crews from Michigan were sent out east to help restore power. Then the power went out around here.

They say that reading fiction is good for the brain. The escapism gives the neurons a little morale boost that you really can’t get from reading the Detroit Free Press. I always seem to get a Jack Reacher feeling from one of Lee Child’s novels when passing through a small town. My car’s gas gauge was on empty when I pulled into a small town gas station. The town was surrounded by farmland, which meant the next gas pump was about twenty miles away. Twenty miles I wasn’t sure I had in fuel. A middle aged woman came out to my car and shook her head. Her gas pumps didn’t work. She was on the phone with someone out of state trying to explain to her how to restart the pumps without making a fat fingered mistake. She told me the next gas station was only a few miles down the road. A few miles sounded better than twenty so I watched the gas gauge as each mile increased my odds of getting out for a long walk in one hundred degree temps.

A handwritten sign was on the next gas station. So sorry but we’re closed due to loss of power. Bummer.

The morale boost of a Jack Reacher image in my head was gone. Now it was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Darkness had descended on the land, with marauding gangs of ten and eleven year olds raiding 7-Elevens for Big Gulps and melting ice cream. We were uprooted and unplugged from all the tools of modernity. Busy intersections became four way stops while traffic lights gave us blank looks. Homeowners were trapped inside without air conditioning. Garage door openers wouldn’t go up without power, having the effect of impounding the owner’s vehicles.

“You might have to lift the garage door yourself,” I said.

The last time I hitchhiked a ride on the expressway was in the Great Crusades of the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan and Lech Walesa were liberating Poland and Eastern Europe from the tyranny of Communism. No one thought to ask Lech Walesa for his position on gay marriage. The G word for that era was gulag, not Google.  Most of Google’s future employees were still in grade school while their parents struggled with using whiteout on the typewriter.  A truck full of construction workers sped past me and swerved to a stop. Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan was the image in my head at that time. But these construction dudes, drinking beer and eating bologna and crackers, were more concerned about the local cops than Russians. A legitimate concern when pushing pedal to the metal at over one hundred miles an hour. They told me to get in, offered me a beer and crackers, and suggested I pay the speeding ticket if a cop snags them for speeding at more than fifty miles above the limit.

Hitchhiking was so 1980s. Keeping a sharp eye for gangs of youths sucking on straws of Coca-Cola, I turned around and returned to my favorite gas station owner within twenty miles. I was on empty. She was on the phone, receiving new instructions for operating the gas pumps in postapocalyptic times. She waved a nervy index finger over the computer console, waiting for the word from this out of state technician to give her if no one else, the green light.  Out on the street were mothers with their children, eating ice cream cones in open defiance of the sweltering heat and blackouts.

The ten year old in everyone comes out when taking the first puckering sip on a straw or lick of ice cream. I didn’t mind waiting for the pumps to work again, or for energy to be restored.  I felt a loss of freedom in a weird way after utility crews restored the digital age to full power. During the blackout, I realized the shallowness of Silicon Valley, its algorithms turning writers into gerbils on the wheel, “curators” acting like human turnstiles. Lech Walesa didn’t have to jump out of a plane wearing Google glass to sell his message of freedom.  A political commentator asked on Twitter recently when was the last time a union had a big win. No one thought of  Lech Walesa, the man who unplugged Communism in Eastern Europe. He was so 1980s.

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