Why I Watch The World Cup in Spanish

The reasons are quite straightforward, and as might be expected, not exceedingly deep. They are only interesting because, I, like many others who watch Spanish-language broadcasts of the 2014 World Cup, do not speak Spanish. (At least, my Spanish has never risen above some minimal fluency.)

First, the most superficial reason of all. The Spanish language broadcasts on Univision are called by commentators considerably more animated than the ESPN crew: they are more voluble, they string together extended descriptions of play, each infused with a great deal of passion; the pleasurably interminable calls of GOOOOOOAAAAALLL are, of course, a bonus; when a game is running late and a team is desperately pressing for an equalizer, the crowd sounds plus the increasingly frenzied play-calling can build to a pleasurable crescendo. At the most basic level, watching a Spanish-language telecast of a World Cup provides ample and repeated confirmation of the Cup’s standing as the world’s premier sporting event; this year, the Cup is being held in South America, and watching in Spanish provides a better virtual connection with the venue. (Besides, I’m in New York City; watching the World Cup in Spanish seems like the right thing to do in a city in which so much Spanish is spoken on a daily basis by so many of its residents.)

Second, Spanish language broadcasts seem especially appropriate when watching South American countries play. In the catalog of pitiful attempts to construct the right kind of atmosphere for soccer watching, watching two Spanish-speaking countries go at each other accompanied by a Spanish commentary soundtrack will always find honorable mention. You can even fool yourself, for a second or two, that you have attained a deeper understanding of a more ‘natural’ or ‘beautiful’ or ‘skillful’ way of playing football. You can close your eyes and paint a picture or two in your mind of a game played far away, with a far away sensibility. (This past weekend, I watched part of the Brazil-Chile game on ESPN-Deportes; the commentary was in Portuguese, and was a particularly appropriate accompaniment to the game’s action.)

Third, perhaps more seriously, the primary sin, in my eyes, of the various combinations of British commentators that ESPN subjects us to is that they cannot shake themselves free of a dominant set of stereotypical and archaic narratives. To wit, to put it just a tad crudely, South American, Asian, and African teams are overly excitable, poorly disciplined, lackadaisical, more prone to psychological meltdowns; their brand of ‘instinctive’ soccer always somehow needs fine-tuning when coming up against the systematic execution of game plans by European teams.  This flavoring of the commentary can vary in its subtlety but it is unmistakably present. It equips the English-language commentary with a very particular evaluative frame; the average South American, African or Asian player is subject to a persistent exoticization, one which carries it with a heavy burden for its subjects. They have to perform to a standard of sporting and moral rectitude that they seem blithely unaware of. But which I seem just a little sensitive to–perhaps excessively so, but for the time being, watching in Spanish will do just fine.

Note: There was a time when I used to think watching Spanish language soccer broadcasts would improve my spoken Spanish, but I’ve given up any hope of that.

Being ‘Appearance-Challenged’ When Looks Matter

Many years ago, an uncle of mine was talking about one of my distant cousins:  about how hard it would be for her to get married, because she was, you know, kind of, how do you say it, “ugly”? He didn’t use the word, of course. He said something like “Her face is a little, you know, kind of…” And then his voice trailed off. He couldn’t bring himself to say it. Her looks were a singularity of sorts, a precipice to be approached with care, perhaps alluded to, hinted at, but not addressed. She faced spinsterhood as a punishment; why make matters worse with that kind of explicit reference?

A dozen or so years ago, in the course of a drunken conversation with my girlfriend and her friends, one of them, giggling loudly, said she always felt sorry for “ugly” people and always said a silent prayer when she saw one on New York City’s streets: “Girl, I’m so sorry this happened to you, but thank God it didn’t happen to me.” She was thankful that in life’s sweepstakes, her cards had come out just right. She had been saved, she had dodged the bullet; she could now try to make her way through this world unencumbered by homeliness of the worst kind.

So, pity in the first instance, and in the second too. In both cases, the appearance-challenged were women; in the first case, a particular woman, in the second, a class of women. (Though the initial reference was to “ugly people”, my interlocutor’ s use of “girl” seemed to indicate she had women in mind.)

Both these folks were correct in one cruel sense; we are an appearance-obsessed society. Looks matter. The data confirms it: if you are ‘good-looking’, you get more interviews, better jobs, higher salaries, live longer lives. You get better service in restaurants and stores; you’ll get seats offered to you. (Though there seems to be some evidence that being attractive works better for men than it does for women.) Psychologists have offered a variety of explanations for this bias–some of them, unsurprisingly enough, evolutionary in flavor. You can guess the outlines of those: partner-seeking takes many forms, including hiring at the workplace, or taking better care of your clients.

And so, my uncle saw his niece’s looks as a curse; she would not be able to find a suitable groom; she would be rejected again and again–as indeed, till that stage in point she had been, though I do not know if her looks were ever cited as the reason for why. And then, she would become a source of anxiety for her parents; perhaps even an economic burden. My ‘friend’–I use the scare quotes because I was never very friendly with her–also saw the looks of the folks she pitied as a curse. They wouldn’t be able to hook up; they would not be able to score; they would not be able to enjoy their youth’s appropriate quota of sexual abandon.

Talk of beauty being skin-deep was never going to make much headway against such deeply rooted discomfort.

Note: Needless to say, our society regards obesity as a form of ugliness, which, because it seems like a personal failing is to be castigated in especially severe terms.


Helping Writers Through Social Media

A very smart writer friend of mine wrote something on her Facebook page today, which I think makes a lot of sense and is worth reproducing widely. Comments and feedback from writers welcome.

Here goes. The first status:

I think we’ve reached the point at which a Like doesn’t necessarily mean Liking, or endorsement, or anything besides a vital sign? But there is a place where a Like counts, and that’s publishing. Something I’ve learned from a lot of writers and editors this week is that, if you are a writer, and your friends on the FB aren’t clicking Like on your work, and you don’t have a gazillion followers on Twitter, you have even less of a future in writing than everybody else who has no future in writing. That’s not the way things should be; that’s one of the cruel corporate realities of the profession. But so long as that remains the case, there is something you CAN do: if you have friends who are writers whose work you respect–they don’t have to be me, of course–do THEM a favor and throw a couple Likes toward their work. Follow them back and repost/RT. And though it kills me to say that you don’t have to give any more of shit about their poems and stories than about a baby or a sunset or a plate of deliciousness, because we ought to care about our friends’ work, and we ought to read, and talk about ideas…even if you don’t care, you can still click Like and parlay that uncaring into something real for them: the difference between nothing, and a gig–a solicitation–a book. In case you’ve been wondering, that is why I’m increasingly shifting my own social media (more on Twitter lately than FB, but I’ll circle around again) toward promoting my friends: because I would *like* to see them going to restaurants and ordering plates of stuff to photograph, but they can’t, if they’re broke. Am I talking about the debasement of the culture, in asking people to indiscriminately click Like for the sake of marketing? Fuck yeah, because an absence of even debased interest can kill whatever glimmers of culture we’ve got. 

And then, a follow-up comment:

Of course, reading and talking and taking our friends’ work seriously is essential–and reviewing…is even more important than tweeting and FB-ing–so is the sharing of contacts and networking, which has worked out well for me in the past month. I wouldn’t want anybody to think that I don’t believe in the importance of all that, especially in how it makes a difference in my own life (those of you who’ve cheered me on and argued with me and talked books have been, and continue to be, my very favorite people in the world). And this isn’t even necessarily about me, because luckily I often do the kind of work that finds a home among people who are accustomed to small audiences.

However, marketing: it’s ugly, but it can make the difference between an annual income of $26 (mine last year) and making a living as a writer. Unfortunately, the conversations I’ve been having have revealed some pretty depressing stuff about the market. Every piece that gets published online has page view, Like, and Tweet counts. Magazine and journal editors notice that; it’s the kind of thing that can earn commissions, repeat gigs, and contributing writer and staff positions. Book editors will refer to that stuff, and, as I found out from some other writers to whom it happened, may reject a proposal or manuscript that they like, on the grounds that the author failed to build a sufficient social media platform–it’s considered not only as a marketing fail, but also a sign of irresponsibility. The editor doesn’t care if the Like is “passive.” And when the editor rejects the book because you don’t have enough Twitter followers, s/he doesn’t care if you have a fiercely passionate support group of thinkers who will console you with reminders of your high-mindedness offline. And though I’m going out on a limb here, my guess is that DP’s point about people of color and women goes double when the social media presence is being reckoned in these decisions.

This is a really easy way to make a small difference, for people who don’t, actually, care about reading or talking ideas, but do know writers they care about, whom they’d like to give a boost in some way. And of course, not all venues are subject to these pressures. But there are enough that are, and enough that are struggling, who need the social media in order to justify publishing what they want to publish in an increasingly corporate market.”

April Bernard on Margaret Drabble as Moral Psychologist

In reviewing a selection of Margaret Drabble‘s novels, April Bernard writes:

Drabble, as a moralist, seems to believe that it is less important what and why we do what we do, than how we think about it—before, during, after….If the reason that a man always sins is that he is sinful, what matters can only be what he does, spiritually, with these hard facts.

“What we do” i.e., our actions. “Why we do what we do” i.e., the reasons for our actions. Agents’ reasons–their beliefs and desires–are the causes for their actions. And then, finally, “how we think about what we do”–before, during, after–our beliefs about our actions and their reasons, introspectively and retrospectively.

I do not know if Bernard intends to describe Drabble’s views of moral psychology as being a paradigmatic instance of what moralists do, or whether she is taking her stance as a particularly idiosyncratic one. Be that as it may, it is interesting to consider a moralist as being more concerned with our reasoning about our reasons for our actions than with our actions and our reasons for them.

Consider for instance, a putative rebel who consistently fails to file taxes on time and sometimes fails to do so altogether. A little introspection on his part reveals he does so because he believes that tax-collection authorities are instruments of oppression and thus want to let them know–however indirectly–that he cares little for their intrusion into his life.  For Drabble then, the failure to file taxes and the resentment of authority is not as interesting as the actual introspection indulged in by the agent.

The reasons for this should be evident: such introspection–prior to actions, concurrently and retrospectively–is bound to be interestingly revealing, a tapping into a rich mother lode of psychologically acute facts about oneself. Our rebel may find–when he commences his archaeological investigations, in guided or unguided form–that his resentment of authority stems from other deeply held beliefs, primeval in origin, shrouded perhaps by childhood amnesia. He might find that he does not derive as much pleasure as anticipated from the commission of his action, that indeed, while he delays his payment of taxes, he is gripped by acute anxiety and fear–while he resents authority he fears it even more. And lastly, he may discover that his actions, rather than leaving with flush with the glory of success, bring in their wake a curious emptiness.

The visible actions we take and our publicly professed reasons for doing so may then just be a kind of froth on the seemingly placid–and occasionally disturbed–surface of our beings; they are interesting precisely because they suggest we look deeper and wider. Perhaps we could find a broader pattern that indicts the same set of reasons and provokes the same kind of introspection, thus suggesting the fundamental importance of the issues brought to the forefront of our consciousness.

These closer looks at oneself thus may point to further avenues for exploration of that most uncharted land of all: our inner spaces of motivation and fear and pleasure.


Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’ and Post-Apocalyptic Literature

There comes a moment, as the reader moves through Part Two of Ian McEwan‘s Atonement, of sensing something familiar and  recognizable, a deja-vu of sorts, in the sparse yet rich, brutal, unsparing descriptions of physical and moral catastrophe on the long, hot, bloodstained road of retreat to Dunkirk. They are all here: the dead–animal and human alike, the wounded–ditto, the breakdown of social order, the confusion, the  stupidity of attempting to impose order on the essentially chaotic, the slippage of  familiar hierarchy, the formation of new alliances and the disintegration of the old, the cruelty of the mob, the heroism of the individual, the relentless reminders of the eternal importance of the most basic things of all–food and water, the suppurating wounds that will not heal, the dirt and squalor, the fragility of life, the greed and desperation and violence of the desperate, the sordid and sublime actions of those trying only to survive, the fear hanging over all human actions and pronouncements, the grim determination to persist matched by the hopeless flopping down, the giving-up in despair. This is post-apocalyptic literature.

Descriptions and evocations of the aftermath of the apocalypse-whatever its reason, whether pandemics, or vampires, global heating or cooling, asteroid, comet and meteorite strikes, or killer zombies, or human interference with the order of nature gone terribly wrong–are a modern staple of literature and film and television. They exercise a peculiar and particular fascination on our imagination and sensibility; we are obsessed by the opportunity the various apocalypses provide for all manners of investigation and speculation. Here may be found laboratories for moral experimentation, that will reveal how human ethics will reconfigured by challenges to its comfortable verities; here exist all manners of paradigm shifting notions of politics–anarchism and libertarianism obtain traction, perhaps?–and economics and law–think new modes of property and ownership and inheritance and criminal justice.

McEwan’s revisitation of an old disaster reminds us post-apocalyptic speculation is as old as the hills. (Darren Aronofsky‘s Noah is a Biblical tale of the supposedly oldest apocalypse of all.) And the most familiar member of that genre is the war novel or film. The battlefield is the oldest venue of apocalypse; the scorched, smoking, stinking, corpse-littered lands through which invading armies moved have always been classic settings for post-apocalyptic reckonings of the changes induced in man and world by catastrophic, deranged violence. The Grande Armée‘s retreat from Moscow was an apocalypse for its soldiers, as they fell, stumbled, froze, were picked off by wolves and Cossacks, or were sometimes beaten to death or had their throats slit by vengeful villagers. They too found occasions for heroism and cowardice; they too, fought for scraps of food and drops of water and betrayed friends and rescued strangers. They too, found on those frozen wastes of the endless, pitiless, Russian landscape, moments for the most elemental decisions of all, and found themselves turned into either saints or sinners.

To be fascinated by the apocalypse is the oldest form of staring into the abyss.

On Not Failing the Soccer Tebbit Test

A few days ago in a post on the US men’s soccer team, I wrote:

I find myself cheering for the US when it goes up against a European soccer powerhouse. When they play South American, Asian, or African countries, my underdog sympathies kick in.

Well, on Sunday night, the US was most certainly up against a “European soccer powerhouse” – in this case, Portugal.  And so, as promised, I was cheering for the US. But the nature of my support was markedly different. I think it marked a turning point for this naturalized American citizen of fourteen years.

First, I had noticed–even during the game against Ghana–that I was urging the US on to a win. The US are underdogs in the Group of Death, and so, despite their African opposition, they had my support.

Second, my sense of anticipation of Sunday’s game was palpably distinct from the sensations which have preceded past games played by the USMNT. I was keyed up; I had scouted my immediate surroundings for a viewing venue (my family and I were spending the weekend at a cabin in Bethel, NY, and so I needed to find a restaurant or bar with a large screen television); I had secured all the necessary home-front rights and permissions; my daughter’s sleep time had been suitably delayed; my wife would accompany me. We showed up early, found a table, ordered food and drinks and set ourselves up. This felt like a Big Game; I have never, ever set myself up for a US men’s soccer game like this.

Third, there is the business of Reactions to Goals. I groaned at the first goal by Portugal, and hooped and hollered at the two US goals. Indeed, Dempsey‘s goal brought me to my feet and prompted an exultant punch. Finally, that last-minute Portuguese goal left me stunned and speechless. I don’t think I managed anything more coherent than a ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ as a verbal reaction.  For the first time during a US men’s soccer game, I anticipated glory and tasted bitter disappointment. It was the first time I had taken their setbacks to heart.

Finally, there is the matter of fan solidarity. My viewing venue was relatively denuded of American soccer fans; besides my family, there seemed to be only one other couple paying attention to the game. But with them, I found easy companionship, a shared exultation and then, cruelly, at the last moment, a joint fall.

After the game was over, I walked out into the beautiful summer sunshine, crestfallen to the point of incoherence. I had to quickly drive back to our cabin to put our daughter to bed, and kept muttering inanities on the way back home. A couple of hours later, when I had finally calmed down, I ran the various group qualification scenarios through my mind and relaxed just a tad. Who knows what else this team is capable of?

I didn’t fail the soccer version of the Tebbit test. And it happened during the 2014 World Cup.

Teach Them Yo Damn Self

Tim Egan writes, in the midst of some sensible commentary on Walmart and Starbucks’ role in combating inequality:

It’s a sad day when we have to look to corporations for education…

But there is a certain kind of education–especially in the technology sector–for which it makes eminent sense to “look to corporations for education.”  To wit, we should expect corporations to train their employees in the particular technical tools that might be needed for them to perform their jobs well in their environments. This would be a boring and staid enough point were it for not for the pernicious effects that result from its being ignored by all concerned–universities and corporations alike.

I taught for several years in the computer science department at Brooklyn College, and during that period, served on the undergraduate curriculum committee. A constant refrain sent our way by those apparently in the know about the job market our graduates were entering was that we needed to make our education “more relevant.” Invariably, on closer inspection, I found that our department was being asked to provide instruction in highly specific computing tools and technologies–the current flavors of the month, if you will. We were constantly excoriated for concentrating too much on ‘abstract theory’ and not enough on ‘applied stuff’ – material that would help our graduates succeed in the job market. (Most of these jobs, as might be expected, were in the financial sector.)

It seemed to me then, as it does now, that an academic department was expected on take on a task, at its expense and time, that rightfully belonged to the employers. The department’s task–at the undergraduate level–as I understood it, was to provide basic instruction in the fundamentals of computer science so that our graduates could then go on to master more advanced concepts and techniques alike. It most certainly was not to displace aspects of this education in favor of instruction in specialized, domain-specific tools which would all too soon become obsolete. The net effect of following the advice of our corporate masters would have been to produce graduates severely lacking in an understanding of the fundamentals of their discipline, one which would enable them to transition smoothly to new technologies as and when an opportunity to apply them arose.

The corporate strategy was transparent enough to some: raise a din about the irrelevance of current university education, pressure universities to change curricula, and most importantly, cut training budgets to increase profit. Perhaps you wouldn’t even need to provide retraining when new technologies rolled around; you could dump the old, and just hire a new batch.

Note: In the past, it was standard practice for American research and development powerhouses such as Bell Laboratories to set aside fairly large budgets to provide post-graduate education to their new hires. An engineering or science student would typically be hired straight out of college with a bachelor’s degree, receive some training in his particular area of research at the labs, and then return to graduate school to earn an advanced degree. Tuition and expenses would be paid for by the labs. The graduate would then return to work on completion of his degree. I do not know what sort of post-degree commitment was expected, and whether any such programs currently survive.