Monday, February 28, 2011

A.J. Jacobs: Social (Anxiety) Sciences

With the exception of The New Yorker, I don't read enough magazines, or at least enough of the same ones, to be able to pick a columnist whom I follow closely or admire. While this idea is slightly pessimistic, I can easily rattle off a few magazine writers who irk me more than they educate me (Malcolm Gladwell and James Wood come to mind very quickly). However, there are exceptions to this: for years, I have admired Tom Carson's film essays in GQ, and Zadie Smith's occasional writings for The New York Review Of Books have been, in their non-cliched definitions, equal parts illuminating and challenging. For the past few months, I've been making mental notes to read more writings of A.J. Jacobs, an editor/writer for Esquire. I've taken in various handfuls of his columns over the years, and in that time, he has published three books: The Know-It-All, The Year Of Living Biblically, and, most recently, My Life As An Experiment. At first glance, Jacobs doesn't seem to be the type of writer that one could analyze for a full-length review. However, I found a lot of pleasant surprises in My Life As An Experiment, as well as a few essay themes that I would personally like to see more writers attempt.

Jacobs is an excellent contemporary representation of the old adage: "it's not what you say, but how you say it." In regard to other writers, I've mentioned in the past how I've enjoyed a given book or piece or writing, but could not help but wonder how terrible it would be had it been written by another (read: lesser) writer. My Life As An Experiment is a collection of essays documenting Jacobs's attempts to apply sociological experiments to his own daily life: he does a nude photo shoot for Esquire (at the request of actress Mary-Louise Parker, who wants him to feel the vulnerability and objectification that women feel during nude pictorials); he outsources daily tasks to a team in India; he applies George Washington's moral code to his own activities, and so on. With few exceptions, these experiments could be done by any writer. Jacobs manages to elevate himself beyond the basic label of humorist with some timely phrases and understandings. For example, I remember reading the essay "My Life As a Beautiful Woman" when it first appeared in Esquire. In this piece, Jacobs sets up an online dating profile for his son's nanny, helps her write her responses, and in the process, explores some of the less-than-favorable techniques of men in the dating world. But one of the opening paragraphs has stayed with me, and reading it a second time, it maintains its subtlety and humor.

"No one can believe quite how beautiful my nanny is. Among our friends, my wife's sanity is questioned about twice a week. Michelle [the nanny] is so enchanting, my wife has actually given me permission to have an affair with her, a la Curb Your Enthusiasm. Of course, she made the offer only because she knew there was no chance Michelle would ever be interested. Michelle is too sweet, too Catholic, too loyal, too young. It's like giving me permission to become a linebacker for the Dolphins (Jacobs 160)."

Going back a little farther to his introduction, my appreciation for Jacobs's style is also based on a belief that he and I happen to share. As I've mentioned many times, I've long despised the old rule of "write what you know," since I've also long championed the idea that writers (and really, people in general) should never stop educating themselves and doing their best to gain insights into ideas, places, and people. "Write what you know" should mean "write what you now know," not "accept being limited in your scope." Granted, most writers don't have the means to drop everything to immerse themselves in a new culture, but this can be done in smaller ways.

"But I'm addicted to these experiments. I've come to believe that if you really want to learn about a topic, you should get on-the-job training. You should dive in and try to live that topic. If you're interested in Rome, you can look at maps and postcards and read census date. Or you can actually go to Italy and taste the pesto gnocchi. As the old saying goes: To understand the Italians, you must walk a mile in their loafers.
You have to be interested in the topic. That's rule number one. If you aren't passionate, it shows. But if you are committed to the possibility of change, then there's nothing like it (Jacobs xii-xiii)."

The other theme that I admire is how, whether intentionally or not, Jacobs's essays are also explorations of masculinity. In one of the intentional pieces, "Whipped," Jacobs attempts to placate his wife at every turn, to appeal to her every whim. The essay has the occasional turn into the tired "battle of the sexes" motif that has been beaten into the ground by every magazine, television show, and comic strip throughout history. However, instead of just playing it for laughs, Jacobs injects an impressive amount of research into the topic, making a normally tired subject just a bit more thought-provoking. Like any good researcher, Jacobs offers a lot of secondary sources for further reading.

"In fact, wifely obedience was pretty much synonymous with marriage. Confucius defined a wife as 'one who submits to another.' [Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History] writes that ancient Romans opposed gay marriage not because of homosexuality, which they had no problem with, but because 'no real man would ever agree to play the subordinate role of a Roman wife.'
Throughout most of history, I'd be seen as a traitor to my gender (Jacobs 184-185)."

There's a fair amount of science, too. Arguably the best essay in the book is "The Rationality Project," in which Jacobs attempts to avoid every sociological, psychological, and cognitive bias that he can think of; naturally, given human nature, this is virtually impossible. As Jacobs identifies the dozens of everyday biases "Source Amnesia," "Confirmation Bias," and "The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy," to name a few, it becomes difficult to avoid applying such mental tics to everyday activities and consumptions.

"What makes news? The unusual and the spectacular, which by their nature distort reality and pervert our decisions. You read headlines like 15 KILLED IN PLANE CRASH IN WYOMING. You don't read headlines like ANOTHER 2,000 DIED OF HEART DISEASE YESTERDAY. This leads to the Availability Fallacy. Our lazy mind gloms on to the most vivid, emotional examples. When we think of danger, we think of hideous plane crashes or acts of terrorism, even though boring old cars kill eight-four times more people (91)."

My Life As An Experiment has its share of occasional stumbles. "My Outsourced Life," for example, could have been elevated with more citations or personal opinions as to how outsourcing has affected the current American economy. "What Would George Washington Do?" would have worked much better has a strictly historical essay, although Jacobs's attempts to live by Washington's moral code does provide an occasional chuckle. However, even that fault is a highlight of Jacobs's skills as a writer. I'm currently between major reading projects, and opted to read this book as a sort of "break" between other essays and books. This is not meant to be an insult to Mr. Jacobs, but I wasn't expecting the wealth of research and intelligence that went into these essays. It's easy on the scholarly aspects, but provides just enough to warrant further research and studies for anyone who is so inclined. My admiration for his style has increased, especially with his gentle nudges to his readers. He's subconsciously urging us to learn more, and with the well-placed information he provides, his writings are infused with just enough outside information to satisfy a casual reader, but also to satisfy people who want substance, even if they view this as a "casual read."

Work Cited:
Jacobs, A.J. My Life As An Experiment. Copyright 2009 by A.J. Jacobs.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Other Borders Voices

Last week, I scribbled down some gut reactions to my impending unemployment, as well as the loss of a community space and haven for friends and artists that was cleverly disguised as a retail outlet. I got some thoughts out of my system, vented some quick critiques of upper management, and paid tribute to some of the close friends I've made thanks to my (soon to be former) company. If I remember correctly, I wrote the entire piece in roughly one hour. While I'm a stickler for editing and transition, I wasn't going for anything academic or scholarly; it was one of my rare public writings that was done out of passion and stress. I posted it, linked it on Facebook, and figured that would be the end of it.

I was wrong. A lot of my friends (most of whom are former or current Borders employees) took the essay to heart, and after a week, "The Fall Of Borders" has proven to be very popular. Anyone who knows me will understand that I'm not stating this out of glee or to stroke my ego; I'm usually the opposite in that I'm normally too self-deprecating for my own good, especially where my own writing is concerned. I use the word 'popular' in the terms of hitting nerves that a lot of Borders employees felt. While I never expected this blog to have a large audience, nearly sixty people, most of them complete strangers, have posted my essay on Facebook and who knows where else. I would assume that most of the re-posts were done by friends of friends as a sort of domino effect: I posted my piece, my friends re-posted, and their friends re-posted, and so on. However, what strikes me as most touching and beneficial is that some of my close friends have written their own takes on the situation. I want to share these other opinions. Yes, I'm linking these pieces because they were written by my friends, but I'm also doing this because these essays are emotional in the literal sense. As my best friend and former supervisor told me: "Like it or not, that place was a big chunk of my life."

Soon after I posted my piece, Terrance Terich took to his blog to offer a much more detailed look at the downfall of Borders, alternating between honestly scathing critiques of company management as well as an ode to serious readers who call bookstores home. I was humbled by his decision to cite my piece just as equally as I had cited one of his previous pieces. Without hyperbole, he was one the greatest managers, both from a personal and business standpoint, that anyone could care to have. And his writing is superb:

Blogsmos: Readers Without Borders: A Diatribe and Manifesto

"But, the truth is, these self-same commenters most likely didn’t purchase books there, and in their comments about ‘hanging out’ prove that the stores were more used as libraries and social centers as opposed to community businesses. Both the corporation and the customer were complicit in this arrangement, purposefully providing an atmosphere for reading as opposed to buying, complete with comfortable chairs and caf├ęs. What should have been emphasized is the culture and enjoyment of reading, or even building a personal library, which, in my sixteen years in the business, I never saw from a corporate bookstore."

This was followed by Jamie Thomas, a close friend who experienced a rush of sadness, not because she's losing her job, but because she's going to miss seeing some of her friends everyday. She just started her own blog as a public notebook and personal guide to the new phase in her life once our Borders location has closed. Allow me a moment of being self-serving, since I'm quoting my cameo in her list of Borders allies. But the end of the citation made me misty-eyed when I read it, since she met her husband Andrew at a Borders in Georgia, and their transfer to Chicago gave me the opportunity to meet two of the smartest, kindest, hilarious people I know:

The JQT Plan: Liquidity

"I met a fellow book nerd, a person who makes me eternally optimistic about my ability to read Ulysses one day, at a book store. To him I say this: our staff pick endcaps are already empty, even at just 20% off. That proves that we have good choices and that there are people out there who value our thoughts. We did everything we could, sir. Keep up the fight.

And I met my husband, my favorite person in the world, at a bookstore. If I didn't have him to come home to right now, and if I didn't have him to clean up the apartment unprovoked so I would have a day to do nothing but cry and write cover letters, I don't know how I would make it through this."

Last but not least, Jennifer Diers, a former co-worker of mine, explores the lack of serious bookstore patronage, the serious view that books will never die out, and how working at Borders mirrored a revelatory period of her life:

be not simply good: Books Aren't Dead

"I found myself while working at Borders. That sounds really stupid. Ugh. Well, it's basically true. I went into that job a nervous actress-singer-painter-writer-poet with an unfinished manuscript and a chip on my shoulder. I didn't really know who or what I wanted to be when I grew up, or when I was going to grow up, or how. Working for that bookstore, surrounded by people who love the arts and love literature, made me happy every day. I loved my job in a way that I had never really loved acting, or even singing. I finished my book while working there. I started another. I worked through my screenplays and made decisions about grad school. I got married while working there. I became a grown-up while working for Borders, and I appreciate that so much. I am thankful to the staff I got to work with, who are, for the most part, incredibly giving human beings. They love books, and they loved their jobs, and they're really hurting now (even if they won't admit it). I know, because I'm really hurting too."

I think this will be my last blog post about the demise of this corporation, but I didn't want these excellent, touching voices to go unmentioned. I cannot thank them enough for being so open and honest, and in all honesty, it's proof that an underpaid retail establishment often houses intelligent, creative people who are worth a hell of a lot more than they are paid or acknowledged. These are just a sample of the many great people I know thanks to that place. You are all eloquent, and I'm grateful to have worked with you.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Fall Of Borders

I'm going to be unemployed in roughly six weeks. While the true magnitude of this idea has not fully hit me, the days following Borders Group Inc. filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy have had their own moments of recognition, especially when, for better and for worse, Borders has been a part of my life for the last eight years. In all honesty, the fact that I'm acknowledging my employment with the company is against policy, since they frown upon social networking comments and blogging. While making this acknowledgment has no legal weight as a disclaimer, I feel I have the right to share my opinions in essay form. There will be no name-calling, no major revelations of confidential company policies or news (not that I have any tidbits of that nature anyhow), and nothing that can be misconstrued as anything but tough love. In essence, I'm merely writing about the collapsing world of book-selling, mirrored through a large chapter of my life. Borders is not completely going out of business, although over 200 locations are being liquidated in the coming weeks, including my Chicago location and my former store in Lynnwood, Washington.

As a teenager, I discovered my passion for writing and reading, and even at the age of eighteen, I knew that, no matter what the form, I was going to devote my life to these mediums. At that time, I daydreamed of working in a bookstore. I'd browse Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Chicago's plethora of independent shops, and imagine reading as much as I could, and sharing the joys with other readers and writers. I began filling out applications rapidly, sometimes with multiple submissions at the same location, until, at age twenty, I was finally called for an interview with Borders. The interview was focused on books, my reading habits, and how I'd go about sharing my love of books with other people. When I was offered the cashier job, I took it immediately, even taking a pay cut from my previous part-time job, just to be able to work in a bookstore.

What I didn't anticipate was the closeness of the staff. Like any company, retail or otherwise, there are co-workers who heavily dislike each other and do not get along. For the most part, Borders fostered some of the greatest friendships I've ever had. When people are drawn together in an environment based on the arts--books, music, and cinema--there's an excellent chance of having things in common. Booksellers laugh together, bond together, cry together, drink together, sleep together and become friends, partners, lovers, roommates, spouses, and allies. Personally, I know not one, but two couples, one married, one engaged, where the relationships blossomed when working as fellow booksellers. My best friend and former roommate was my old supervisor. I fell hard for a female co-worker, dated her, lost her, and after time, she became one of my closest friends.

None of this changed, but the culture of book-selling began to crack a few years ago. In the face of a struggling economy, Borders (like any major corporation) began to panic and look for outside influences for their leadership. What began as a true bookstore became overrun with people who had backgrounds in everything besides literature. They believed that they could increase sales and save the company by focusing on everything besides books. Terrance Terich, the creator of Blogsmos and a co-founder of Treblezine, is my former manager in Washington, and can recommend a book like nobody else. After he left Borders, he wrote about the troubling trends of chain bookstores. The full article can be read here, and his points are essential, even if they'd be shrugged off by corporate leaders who view books as merely an item, and not a way of life.

"When I left, the chain bookstores were coming dangerously close to devoting more space to 'other stuff' than the books. Overpriced candy lined the register aisle, knick-knacks and tchotchkes took up a whole department, and the kids section was converted into a toy warehouse. How could customers take us seriously as a bookstore if we couldn't?"

A lot of critics will make the valid point that Borders failed to make its online and digital presence known. While this is true in some capacity, any serious bookseller or book buyer will tell you that books are what make a bookstore special. Yes, it was a financial necessity to stock the stores with the 'other stuff,' but when that happened, the soul of the bookstore was lost. Yes, Borders and Barnes & Noble killed off a lot of venerable, respected independent bookstores. But in its heyday, Borders had the atmosphere of an independent shop. Even today, look at the music world. Yes, record shops are not nearly as frequent as they used to be, especially in the face of torrents, iTunes, and the Internet. But vinyl sales have increased, and local record stores are still respected, because in the end, it's not about the format, but the content. In private meetings, message boards, and casual conversations, people can and will come up with endless reasons as to why Borders had to eventually come to its lowest point and file bankruptcy. The photo below has been featured in a few news articles, and it's still shocking that this is what my co-workers and I will see in the coming weeks:

It's really like a slow death of a family member. However, I'll still have the memories of the great books that I've read and owned thanks to Borders and my co-workers, past and present. Books will never die out, and even as I begin to explore the next phase of my career and income, I'm going to be carrying a lot of happy memories with me, and the friendships that I made thanks to Borders are the ultimate employment benefits that are never listed in any employee handbook or list of guidelines. And to everyone who reads: PLEASE support your local bookstores, whether chain or independent. There can be a balance between online sales and actual buildings. Record stores were diminished, but never completely eliminated. Think about that the next time you stop into a bookstore on a whim and find yourself losing track of the time as you skim through the shelves.

And to my fellow co-workers who will also be unemployed soon: Good luck, and keep your heads up. We were never paid well financially, but none of us did it for the money. It was ultimately for the books, the people, and the atmosphere. Let's never forget that.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"Exit Through the Gift Shop:" New Abstractions


2010 saw the release of two drastically different documentaries, one of which (Casey Affleck's I'm Still Here) was touted as a documentary, but turned out to be an elaborate piece of performance art by Affleck and actor Joaquin Phoenix. I still haven't seen this film, and part of me is hesitant, and it's a rare film that may end up being less entertaining than the articles and discussions that have come in its wake. The other documentary has been accused of being a fake, even though there's a better chance that it's actually a real documentation. I recently screened Exit Through the Gift Shop, the directorial debut of street artist Banksy. The emotions that this film has generated are genuine, and would remain so even if the entire story did turn out to be fabricated. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and even viewing this film as a fictionalized account would not diminish the questions about creativity, the public reception to art, and/or the way certain creators are viewed in the public eye. Given Banksy's history, elusiveness, and intents (his street art is both beautiful and heavily political), Exit Through the Gift Shop provides no easy answers, but instead steers the conversation into the realms of philosophy. Political or social documentaries are normally standard fares: the viewing public either agrees or disagrees. With Banksy's work, there is support and criticism, but so much more to explore beyond whether one agrees with his defiance or is against it.

The film relies heavily on video narration by Thierry Guetta, a French-born boutique owner who lives and works in Los Angeles. His hobby (or compulsion) is video-taping every possible moment of his life, and examples included are heart-warming (videos of his young children growing up) and nauseating (one of his film clips shows a flushed toilet, and thankfully the audience isn't shown the footage that was possibly taken minutes before). In a quick aside, it's hinted that Guetta's desire to film his life stems from his mother's death, and his belief that not taping even the most inconsequential moments might mean that he'd miss something. As the film goes on, it's obvious that Guetta is probably more comfortable in front of the camera than he is behind it. His video interviews are rambling, in both good and bad ways, and he's naturally comfortable being the center of attention. His heavy French accent, curious facial hair, and hipster chic attire combine to show someone who seems almost created for the Los Angeles scene, be it film or art. Guetta discovers the high of being a cameraman for both famous and underground street artists: his cousin (whose face is blocked out on camera) is Invader, a Frenchman known for his worldwide tile art of the video-game Space Invader. This leads to Guetta meeting, filming, and sort-of befriending Shepard Fairey, a street artist best known for his iconic "Hope" image of Barack Obama. Fairey then introduces Guetta to Banksy, an artist with both international acclaim (and detractors) and an equally famous aversion to being recognized or identified. His interview footage consists of him in a large hooded sweater, in the dark, and even with his voice modified.

Guetta's goal is to create a standard documentary on the graffiti movement, and when he finally culls together the footage into a full-length film, Banksy is unimpressed, and for good reason: Guetta's footage is a dizzying collage of random images with virtually no outline or narrative, a confusing mess that may have worked as an underground experimental film, but not as a documentary. After this, the film dives into its most perplexing moments, leading up to the ending. Banksy decides to take over the filmmaking duties while Guetta performs his own tagging in order to gain a better understanding of how street artists work. Guetta adopts the handle "Mr. Brainwash," sells his business, rents a large studio with a team of assistants, and begins creating a myriad of canvases and art pieces. He rents an abandoned CBS studio in California to house his first gallery exhibition, and asks Fairey and Banksy for blurbs to promote the show. Banksy's simple endorsement gives Guetta a wealth of esteem and potential that, in all reality, he never had to begin with. LA Weekly magazine runs a front-page preview, and the opening night of the gallery exhibition draws thousands of people. Almost literally overnight, Guetta is an "acclaimed artist" with nearly a million dollars' worth of sales in the week after his opening. Not out of jealousy or envy, but rather out of creative puzzlement, Fairy and Banksy close the film with underhanded critiques of Guetta's style and rapid rise, and the question that remains is one that's as old as creativity itself: Is Guetta really an artist?

My immediate gut reaction is "no," but of course, this is my opinion. Guetta's gallery pieces reminded me of crappy Andy Warhol knock-offs, not that I've ever considered myself a major Warhol aficionado in the first place. In one of the film's closing titles, Banksy states that he's never going to participate in any future art documentaries, and he's long been a critic of art buyers, even though his own pieces have sold for vast sums. Long arguments and hypotheses can be formed as to whether Exit Through the Gift Shop will give Banksy more recognition beyond his own pieces, and if so, is it attention that he really doesn't crave, or is it a sly tug of the sleeve in order to gain a bigger audience? If the film is truly his from start to finish, he's definitely an able filmmaker, and whatever he does in the future, it will probably be even harder to maintain his desired anonymity. I felt that the film was much more compelling when focused on Banksy's philosophy; when interviewed, he was vastly intelligent, but not one to build his own work up in egotistical ways. Guetta, on the other hand, clearly realized his calling as an "artist." Banksy's street work, however, stands perfectly well on its own. In both small and large mediums, his work is at best politically thought-provoking, and even at worst, inspires a healthy reaction. He displays his art on buildings around the world, stages gallery shows, and even modifies outdoor pieces--Exit Through The Gift Shop
features a London phone booth welded to look like its bent or melting, and he's also created a version of Stonehenge with portable toilets.

As I screened the film, I realized that, in some ways, Banksy could be classified as a hacker, and obviously not in the sense of computers. I've spent a few years reading passages from Australian media theorist McKenzie Wark's A Hacker Manifesto, a 2004 work that explores the ways in which hackers (defined as computer hackers, writers, artists, and philosophers) have long been in a battle to use and manipulate information, not so much for their personal needs, but in an attempt for full creativity and the often-controversial desire to keep information free and open for use. Wark divides the book into themed chapters ranging from "Abstraction," "Class," "Production," and "Representation," to name a few. I was tempted to read the entire book again for the purposes of this essay, and in being slightly pressed for time and schedule, I realized that citing select, random passages is really the spirit in which Wark wrote the book. While I'm not claiming the information as my own, I'm in a sense "hacking," much like Wark describes and Banksy does on a regular basis: I'm using information at my disposal as part of a bigger landscape. This might be a stretch for my own definition, but Banksy's use of materials and "off-limits" landscapes seems to be perfectly exemplified in Wark's manifesto.

"Production meshes objects and subjects, breaking their envelopes, blurring their identities, blending each into new formation. Representation struggles to keep up, to reassign objective and subjective status to the products of production. Production is the repetition of the construction and deconstruction of objectivity and subjectivity in the world (Wark 157)."

Banksy's aforementioned telephone booth could be an immediate example of this. The phone booth as an object and a subject is intentionally maligned, worked into a new formation, and literally (and subjectively) hacked into a new form. To use the words in their literal definition, the phone booth is both constructed and deconstructed:

"All abstractions are abstractions of nature. Abstractions release the potential of the material world. And yet abstraction relies on the material world's most curious quality--information. Information can exist independently of a given material form, but cannot exist without any material form. It is at once material and immaterial. The hack depends on the material qualities of nature, and yet discovers something independent of a given material form. It is at once material and immaterial. It discovers the immaterial virtuality of the material, its qualities of information (Wark 015)."

"It is at once material and immaterial." The artists interviewed in Exit Through the Gift Shop are appreciative of Guetta's services as an accomplice as well as a cameraman partly because their work is always in danger of becoming immaterial--taken down or painted over--and having the documentation of what is usually a temporary piece of art is important for the body of work. With someone like Banksy, there's usually a message behind the work, but sometimes, it's just about the abstraction, the intentional difference-making in a landscape or on a drab building. While this essay may seem to hint otherwise, on an aesthetic level, I'm not a supporter of all tagging, but there is a difference between art and graffiti. Like any medium, one has to take the good with the bad, and while I'm not at all comparing myself to him, certain critics and supporters like the late Norman Mailer can get caught up in the immediacy of an artistic movement, and not immediately take into account the fact that just because something is done audaciously, that doesn't mean it has true merit.

And in these thoughts, I wonder if Banksy, by making Guetta the true subject, has given himself more credit by having his own art featured less prominently than Guetta's incarnation as "Mr. Brainwash." Despite not being immediately visible, for all of his fame, Banksy doesn't seem to fit into any artistic stereotype, unlike Mr. Guetta. I would imagine that most people would agree that Banksy's work is stronger than Guetta's, but as far as the film subjects go, the label 'a film by Banksy' would be much more realistic if changed to read 'a film about Banksy.' Perhaps his nearly mystical persona is part of a longer act, but the film left me wanting to see more of him, at least artistically. And that ultimately hints to his creative strengths. Even when he doesn't want the spotlight or the attention, being linked with someone who is virtually his exact opposite makes him that much more compelling.

Work Cited:
Wark, McKenzie. A Hacker Manifesto. Copyright 2004 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Football's Head Games (For Whom the Bell Tolls)

Even with (or, depending on how one looks at it, because of) Super Bowl XLV being two days away, the city of Chicago seems to have moved on from the Bears' loss to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game. It has been even more noticeable in the past few days, with Chicagoans being more concerned with digging out from the massive blizzard on Tuesday and Wednesday that effectively shut down the city. Personally, I bounced back from the loss to Green Bay very quickly, since I've never been shy about my preference for baseball and basketball, with football being a very distant third in my sports-watching hierarchy. This puts me in a minority within my own city, and also puts me at a slight disadvantage for this article. I'm a passive football fan, and there are a lot of aspects to the game that are often lost on me. Then again, my curiousness and interest in other subjects (sociology and current events, for example) can be applied to football in a more encompassing fashion. Despite the lead photograph, this piece will open about Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, but it is not about him. However, the attention he received during and after the NFC Championship game ties into a layered subject of the mentality of football, especially given a much-discussed topic that Cutler knows firsthand: concussions.

During the NFC Championship game on January 23rd, Cutler suffered an MCL tear in his knee and missed most of the second half as backups Todd Collins (completely ineffective) and Caleb Hanie (effective, but too late in the game) tried to keep Chicago within comeback distance in a game they ultimately lost, 21-14. Even before the game ended, Cutler was the recipient of immense backlash, especially since he was shown walking along the Chicago sidelines and not talking to his backups. Current and former NFL players questioned his toughness, claiming that they themselves would have to be physically dragged off the field in such a major playoff game. The news of the MCL tear wasn't made public until after the game, but Cutler's image, not that he was revered beforehand, had taken a major hit. Even news reports about the serious damage that could have been inflicted had he stayed in the game did nothing to ease the perception that Cutler gave up and wasn't trying his hardest to get Chicago into the Super Bowl.

Even non-sports bloggers were caught up in the moment. Horatio, a contributor to Careful With That Blog, Eugene, expressed these sentiments:

"For two seasons in Denver, this was Jay Cutler's permanent pose. And it didn't stop when he got traded to Chicago either. In Week 4 of the 2010 season, he was sacked for a record NINE times in the first half when the Bears were up three to zip. He left the field bawling his eyes out and didn't even come back to the bench to even support his team. Reporters were quickly dismissed, saying that Cutler had suffered a concussion and would not be returning.

Even if this is true, I refuse to believe this, if only for the idea that football players should only show three emotions. Happy, Angry, and Ambivalent. Never sadness. If any man cried as much as Jay Cutler does for getting sacked and picked, you'd kick that dude in the balls just to check to see if he was still a man."

Granted, Cutler wasn't ENTIRELY to blame for getting sacked nine times by the New York Giants; his offensive line wasn't exactly stellar. However, Horatio's opinions bring up another aspect of football: men are supposed to play through pain. It's a tough game, and if one can't handle the pressure, then get out. Masculinity has long been a favorite subject of mine on this page, and reading between the lines, Horatio's sentiments echo loudly throughout football's culture: man up.

The most shocking comments came from former Packer lineman Greg Koch (pictured to the left), comments that have received surprisingly little backlash, despite their sexism and shots at Chicago's head coach:
"Man, I just never thought that his tampon would fall out on national TV...If you're a professional athlete, you answer the bell until they tell you there's no way you can play. You can brace that thing. Nobody would have kept Tom Brady off the field if he wanted to play. Nobody would've kept Peyton Manning off the field. Then you don't just sit there on the sideline and ride a bike like a little girl...I've never seen anything like it. If that's the guy leading your team, you deserve a coach named Lovie [Smith]."

Despite the insulting nature of Koch's beliefs, his notion of "answering the bell" hits close to the aforementioned subject of concussions. It's now an NFL rule that any player suffering an in-game concussion is ruled medically ineligible to play the following week. In the January 31st issue of The New Yorker, writer Ben McGrath published "Does Football Have a Future?", a stunning profile on the concussion crisis, as well as more hinting at football's toughness and masculine expectations that end up causing more problems, even in the face of a true medical epidemic.

"What was missing from this picture was the effect of all that impact on the brain. You got your 'bell rung,' they used to say. You're 'just a little dinged up.' This was not merely macho sideline-speak; it was, as recently as a decade and a half ago, the language of the NFL's leading doctors (McGrath 43)."

While concussions are serious, is this why Cutler received so much flak? Had he received a concussion instead of a potentially career-altering knee injury, would players have taken to Twitter to question his heart and his manhood? The NFL is trying to address the concussion problem while also trying to increase the regular season and, therefore, the further potential for threatening injuries. However, the resistance to changing the NFL's culture boils down to perceived toughness. Players, executives, and fans are accustomed to tough contests, even though potentially life-threatening ailments shouldn't be "just part of the game." Just below that surface, it's a question of masculinity; players don't want to be perceived as weak or scared:

"If the reaction of the league--levying a hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars in fines on three hard hitters and threatening suspensions for future infractions--could be considered excessive, then so, certainly, were the inevitable gripes that followed, about putting pink skirts on the players. October is a month in which the NFL has taken to courting female fans by celebrating breast-cancer awareness. A number of players, victims, and offenders alike, were already wearing pink accessories (gloves, cleats, chinstraps) in honor of the cause (McGrath 45)."

Given my admission of being a passive football fan, I would expect more die hard NFL fans to scoff at these assessments, especially since the week leading up to the Super Bowl is normally used to celebrate the game, not to criticize it. But as McGrath's article explains, it is possible for the game to maintain its quickness and artistry, not to mention its toughness, even with changes to minimize the potential for brain injuries. However, rule changes and even helmet redesigns are years away, and even immediate changes might prove irrelevant. Some have even called for the banning of football in the face of the concussion epidemic; this will never happen, since the NFL is a multi-billion dollar empire. My humble opinion is that athletes should be able to address the severity of the game without their masculinity immediately being called into question, especially in the minutes and hours following a game. Greg Koch probably didn't know about the severity of Cutler's knee injury, but even if he had, I suspect that he would have made the same comments. While some may laugh and say "boys will be boys," McGrath's article cuts through any gender-related implications, and while the effects of concussions are long-term, there is the potential for immediate outcomes:

"Go to You Tube and search for 'Austin Collie 3rd Concussion.' Look at the faces of the fans, many of them with their hands instinctively covering their mouths, as medics attend to the felled Indianapolis Colts receiver. Those aren't expressions of morbid curiosity. They reflect a guilty fear that, one of these days, millions of us are going to watch a man die on the turf (McGrath 51)."

Work Cited:
McGrath, Ben. "Does Football Have a Future?" The New Yorker, January 31st, 2011.

"You Against You" in Hobart; "I Don't Want to Pry" in Pidgeonholes

Hey y'all. I'm a little late posting these, but I was fortunate to have two new publications this week, working in new genres, a...