half in the bag

I used to have Bag Glee, every bit as much as Phone Glee or Car Glee or Shoe Glee. I don’t know when exactly it began – probably when I got my first laptop in 1999, if I had to guess – but for years I was constantly trying to find the perfect bag for everything, whether backpack or Kensington Saddlebag or some weird hip-slung thing or whatever Timbuk2 had come out with. My very first post on this very blog – almost thirteen years ago – mentioned my chagrin at their discontinuing the Ace pack. And once I got into a mode of carrying one laptop back and forth every day – which was the case for seven or eight years – I was constantly fixated on what would best handle my loadout, and what that loadout would consist of.

As it happens, about five years ago I settled on a very minimal Timbuk2 black backpack, enough to hold the computer and not much else. Because I genuinely can’t remember the last time I traveled with a laptop other than for work. Maybe 2010, during the netbook experiment – but even once I had an iPad, it rarely left the house. Not that we did all that much traveling in the first few years of my iPad experience, but even then, my goal was to get to the iPad mini and fit it in a coat rather than a bag.

Because really, in the smartphone age, the goal is to have a phone do everything. Worst case scenario, you add a Kindle for reading and a battery pack to recharge everything and fit it all in the right jacket, which can be most anything these days. The iPhone X has meant that I don’t even bother with the Kindle, and so anything will work: linen blazer, Uniqlo blouson, Harris Tweed, Filson trucker jacket, Rickson bomber, pea coat, rain shell, zippered sweatshirt.

I still have my Rickshaw messenger, and my slightly larger custom Timbuk2 messenger, and they generally do for a carry-on (the Timbuk2 will even do for a weekend getaway bag, especially if no flights are involved) but I haven’t gone looking for new bags in a long time. The closest thing I’ve been tempted by at this point is a duffel bag, something to substitute for a suitcase going abroad at an age when I don’t have to schlep my life around on my back like an impoverished student on a EurRail pass.

But more and more aging backpacks and laptop sleeves and the like are finding their way from the garage or the closet to Goodwill these days. Which is just as well. There are things that are surplus to requirement with no sentimental value or prospect of future utility, and those are the things to get off your hands as quickly as circumstances allow.

defense in depth

You can’t trust anybody anymore. A blithe enough cliche, but then, cliches don’t get to be cliches because they’re wrong. In a purely professional sense, this crops up in the concept of “zero trust” – the idea that in computing, you never trust and always verify. Credentials at every step, least required privilege, and the use of certificates to automate the authentication process so that you can be forced to prove who you are literally every step of the way. It doesn’t matter if you’re inside the company network: you still have to authenticate to a VPN to access internal resources, and must log into those resources individually, and and and. The key thing being identity access management – the ability to prove who you are and thus move along.

Which made me think about what a zero trust society looks like.

The story of the 21st century is the tale of how the Internet, filter bubbles, social media and a firm belief that you’re entitled not only to your own opinion but your own facts created a post-truth universe. Ultimately, there are people with whom you can no longer communicate because the ground rules for what constitutes reality no longer obtain. You have no recourse to authority, because there is no authority. Ironically, all those postmodern academics that were the bete noire of conservatives during my college years are now underpinning the entire project of the right. There is no meaning beyond whatever narrative you can enforce, and if people don’t believe that narrative, there are no grounds on which to correct them or even come to some sort of understanding. We already have the very notion of science being kicked to the curb, while Fogust in NorCal is suddenly hotter than a two dollar pistol at an Alabama flea market.

Part of it, I think, is because of the old line about not being able to get a man to believe something if his salary depends on not believing it. Only inverse. Fox News makes its money because people believe conspiracy theories are real. WeWork and Uber and AirBnB make money because investors believe they are tech companies and not real estate, taxi or hotel companies. Scientology makes its money because…who knows. But as long as you can sell people something they want to believe in, they’ll pony up the cash. Maybe talk show hosts and tech startups are what replaced televangelists. Trade your cash for salvation.

And I think part of it is because people want to believe a simple story, no matter how absurd it is. Ross Perot, all those years ago, had a simple story, and got 19% of the electorate to buy it, which should have been a fucking siren red alert to everybody: if one-fifth of the electorate can be convinced that platitudes and internally inconsistent bullshit will make the Presidency an entry-level political job, it’s no great leap to expand that to one-half over the course of twenty-five years, or close enough to make a disaster possible. People want to believe that you can magically get a cab from your phone without needing cash, or to tip, or to do anything at all, and that this money-losing service will somehow be sustainable and that the company behind it will be worth more than General Motors because [FILE NOT FOUND] – because, presumably, if you get in at the right time you can achieve jackpot wealth when it goes public. And we’re starting to see how well some of these companies survive first contact with a public market. It’s not pretty.

It annoys the shit out of me to have grown up in a world where imagination was suspect and only the hardest of reality was permissible six days a week (notwithstanding the premillenial dispensationalism fanfic of Sunday mornings in the 1980s Baptist church), only to find myself approaching age 50 in a world where it’s okay to believe whatever you like because there’s always someone on the internet or cable TV to validate it. Because…what do you do? You can’t shut down all the websites. You can’t shut down Twitter and Facebook, as much of a blessing as that would be on the world at large. You can lead that horse’s ass to water, but you can’t make him think.

Maybe that’s a big part of what makes me think about retirement away from Silly Con Valley. If you don’t much like or trust people these days, it doesn’t make the sense to plant yourself in the middle of three and a half million of them. My retirement dreams these days tend more toward Galway or Half Moon Bay or some even smaller possibly fictional seaside village on some Celtic coastline that won’t tumble into the sea before I turn 99. But then, I grew up in a town of three thousand, and below a certain threshold of population, it’s easy as pie for literally everyone to be in your business. Paradoxically you might have to move someplace with a million people to get some privacy, because there will inevitably be a social decision that you have to leave people alone in order to get on with your life. Which in a way, I suppose, is its own form of defense in depth.

so much for that

The continuing drama around 8chan and 4chan and other networks – and whether Cloudflare was right to kick off 8chan less than 24 hours after defending them as necessary to the cause of free speech – has only reinforced my thinking that ultimately social media will do for the 1st Amendment what the NRA did for the 2nd. I mean, think about it, and follow the bouncing ball:

1) Truth is a defense to libel, but libel is still a crime. Therefore, there is already a legal standard against deliberate lies.

2) The “fire in a crowded theater” argument already weighs against the absolute guarantee of free speech. Speech that is intended to do harm is expressly not protected.

3) If you combine 1 and 2, you can make a clear-cut case that a private company has no First Amendment obligations that force it to deliberately propagate malicious falsehood. And yet, here’s Twitter out here blithely selling itself as “the free speech wing of the free speech party” and Cloudflare defending its need to keep offering services to extremists even after the Christchurch shooting and Facebook doing…well, whatever the fuck it is Facebook does besides masturbate in a pile of money all day.

We’re in the middle of a war. Liberal democracy as we have idealized it for decades – flawed, imperfect, still struggling to include everyone, but trying – versus the open embrace of oligarchy, of dictatorship, of kleptocracy. William Gibson nailed it yet again: the klept is real and it isn’t funny at all. Russia. China. And now, a pretty clear case that Brazil, and India, and even the United States and Israel are on that track with the UK hurrying behind. We’re looking at a very real chance that the EU, a handful of Pacific Rim nations, and maybe a few others will be the bulwark of liberal democracy when the world’s largest and emerging economies are deciding that democratic values are an impediment to getting rich – or to the kind of conduct that you need to inflame the hayseeds into supporting the rich.

And the arguments are the same. Free speech was one thing when it was speech and printing, just as the right to bear arms was one thing when a militia of muzzle-loaders was the local military. Now, when foreign powers can whip up tens of thousands of bots to individually target a single person’s online presence as easily as an AR-15 can empty a clip on semi-auto, absoulute guarantees of protection don’t fly anymore.

What this means is that personal liability has to be a thing. If Mark Zuckerberg is going to control over 50% of Facebook stock, then it’s on him when another Cambridge Analytica comes down the pike. If Cloudflare is going to sell air cover to racist websites, that needs to be known and documented to their other customers, who need to act appropriately. The solution to these issues isn’t technological, it’s cultural. Things that are wrong have to be shunned, have to be abjured, and those who facilitate them have to face consequences. Otherwise, we don’t have a society.

Of which.

root hog or die

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

The paradigm was The Jetsons. Someday robots will do all our work for us, and we will live lives of leisure (as filtered through whatever the suburban middle class white paradigm of the Mad Men era decreed). The notion that we would work more and more for less and less didn’t really factor into it. Certainly the idea that you could be reduced to a human robot in the service of a phone algorithm, so that millennial Eloi in San Francisco can have you do for them what their mother doesn’t anymore, was never part of the plan.

(It also wasn’t part of the plan that Uber and Lyft, which are definitely absolutely positively not taxi companies, no sir, would end up representing one out of every seven cars on the streets of San Francisco, some of them driven from two hours away in search of gig income. But I digress.)

The problem is that we need money. Because money is the quickest way to achieve freedom from consequences. Have enough money and it doesn’t matter what happens, for the most part. Have enough money and you can live somewhere safer, be more secure in life, not be at the mercy of every little thing. And what is the fastest way to get money? Have someone hand it to you. What’s the fastest way to have money handed to you? Be famous. What’s the fastest way to be famous? Social media sideshow freak – sorry, “creator” or “influencer”. 

Which makes sense, because we’re building a world around selfish egotism. See above about ridesharing being one-seventh of the traffic in the city; if it seems like it’s impossible to get around San Francisco these days, maybe it’s because of a double-digit increase in vehicle traffic that simply wasn’t there before. Susan Faludi touched on this in Backlash: the paradigm of masculinity went from being a good soldier and a team player to being the biggest swinging dick on the block. Abuse the commons for fun and profit? I Got Mine, Fuck You? Spartan worship and rugged individualism as the only way forward, no matter whether there’s a way forward or not?

I mean, think about it. People act as if separate vacation and sick leave, or defined-benefit pensions, or a modicum of job security are some kind of wild-eyed socialist plot. Instead, they’re the things that used to be there for everyone, and are now only around for the most legacy class of government employees or certain nonprofit corners of academia or the like. Vacation, sick leave and even paid holidays are now bundled up into “PTO” that you can choose to take whenever you like – including when you get sick or if the calendar says December 25 or July 4. Pensions become 401k plans and you have the choice of how to invest your retirement, either going against the predators of Wall Street yourself or paying them protection money to shepherd your life savings through the swamp. Retirement? Why would you want to retire if you could still be crushing it at age 70? Get out there, you hard charging hustler, and show that just because you’re a grandparent is no reason you can’t work just as hard as a kid straight out of college with six figures of debt!

There were things that were absolutely taken for granted a generation ago that are presently classed as unrealistic expectations, and which will be construed as a fantasyland that never existed within another generation. Time was, each generation wanted their kids to do better than they did – and now the Boomers have essentially pulled the ladder up to make sure they got theirs, no matter the cost. The only way you can avoid the spectacle of an endless grind for fifty years is to somehow come up with as much money as possible as quickly as possible. No wonder the kids are all trying to get rich quick, because nobody has enough life left to get rich slow any more.

away on business

So Spencer Hall shut down EDSBS today.

I think I first ran across the site when looking for someone to admit that Vanderbilt got hosed by the refs against Florida in the Swamp in 2005. I don’t know how exactly that worked out, but it was long before the SBNationing. I was there in my office in Cupertino, the one that got bulldozed to build the Spaceship, reading posts with tags like “drunk white women” and “Alabama man he can drink he can bowl he can drink some more” and “my God the Orgeron”. Will Leitch was crafting the glory era of Deadspin, and EDSBS seemed like the perfect rough-and-tumble dive-bar version devoted exclusively to what was still ostensibly my favorite sport.

And then, and then, and then. It’s not unreasonable to say that EDSBS was my principle online social outlet for about six years there for a while. I remember racing home for the national title game, trying to load the comments on my Kindle browser (seriously). I remember it being the place where you’d go to watch the sort of things people watch with Twitter open these days – the Osama bin Laden announcement, the Final Four, all manner of stuff. The Commentariat made up most of my Twitter feed for a long time, and I think many of them still follow my Vanderbilt account. (The personal ones, obviously, were lost in the act of ritual Twittercide when I blew up that account in the dark days of December 2016.)

I haven’t been a regular poster for at least three or four years, maybe more. Certainly not since the end of Brigadoon at Vanderbilt, not with college football becoming ever more intolerable and ever more annoying. My online society has become circumscribed and limited to try to avoid making a bad world worse. But I couldn’t take EDSBS out of my RSS feed, not when I would get things like this or this or this or this.

And of course, there was God’s Away On Business, to this day still the single greatest thing ever written about college football, with the paragraph that hits home more than anything on the internet probably should…

“There is another edit. The one between naivete and cynicism. It is a delicate one. You will first have to accept that this breaks your heart. You will have to accept that this is in some part a scam. You will have to accept that you are bad firewood walking: wooden, a puppet guided by strings pulling you in directions you can’t always understand or accept. You’ll have to accept, in one form or another, that God’s away on business, and you will have to take care of this yourself no matter how long you have to run. You have to accept that the only redemption for the large, cheap machinations of life is the redemption of experience, the only thing you can control…”

I got laid off a couple of weeks ago. It doesn’t take effect until the middle of September, and I have the same job waiting the next day through another employer: doing the same thing, at the same place, for the same salary, with diminished benefits and total compensation and a reduction in stability and security. That’s what life is in 2019, really: first priority has to be holding close to what you have already, because you’re not promised to keep any of it.

Writ large, that paragraph explains why I’m running, trying to use a couch-to-5K program to make cardio a regular thing. That’s why I’ve been seeing the nutritionist for a year and forcing more vegetables into my system and swearing off almost everything over 4.5% ABV except on very special occasions. That’s why I’m sitting alone making ridiculous vocalizations for fifteen minutes every day to try to strengthen my palate enough to put a dent in the apnea. That’s why I’m seeing more assorted health professionals than I’ve ever seen simultaneously, even if I can’t see how it’s going to do any good right away. That’s why I’m trying to force myself through Python and Swift, expanding my skill set ever so slightly. That’s why I set LinkedIn to “casually looking” in hopes that I might catch someone’s eye before I have to.

There are bad things in the world and bad things in my life, and I have no control over most of them. I can’t do much for the health of my loved ones, except try to support them however I can. I can’t change the politics in this country, other than by voting and trying to throw a few shekels where it might do some good. I can’t make Silly Con Valley take a fifty year old seriously as a job candidate, aside from picking my spots and shoring up my weaknesses.

But I’m doing these things anyway, and I’m going to keep doing them, and Spencer explained why.

“The horizon is always hungry for daylight, and takes it ray by ray. Run one way or the other. Stay still and your choice is made for you anyway.”

it’s been quite a year this month

I’ll only say this: the problem with having your metaphorical leg amuptated is less the fact of having it done and more the risk if having it done badly. 

Which brings up the problem of doing things badly, which seems to be the core incompetency of the tech sector these days. Twitter has done Yet Another Redesign, apparently thinking that new bottles for old vinegar mean you can sell it as wine. Facebook got a slap on the wrist, as evinced by the fact that a FIVE BILLION DOLLAR FINE actually made their stock price go up. And all the while, they profess how hard they are working on the very difficult problems that they were indifferent to for years.

The problem is, they may be right about the inability to fix them. Consider our previous wide-open solutions. We had USENET until spam went out of control (it’s where the term originated, after all) and the plethora of kill files and cancel orders (salute to the memory of Cancelmoose and Afterburner and their peers). We relied on email until it became both an identifier and the thing you have to consent to have spammed to do business (I don’t know how people without a domain name of their own or some other differentiation mechanism make it through their mail). And then, Facebook – which started as a walled garden, which was supposed to be safe and private – threw down the walls.

No open system can survive contact with human beings at scale, because enough human beings are assholes at scale that open systems will always be compromised by bad actors. These platforms enabled mass distribution without considering bad actors because “most people are good” – but if one hundredth of one percent of people are bad, and you scale to three billion users, that’s 300,000 bad actors, all able to connect and interoperate without impediment. That’s the entire population of Pittsburgh, bent on malfeasance and bad action, with algorithmic connection helpfully provided by Facebook and YouTube to ensure that they get all the connection and mutual reinforcement they need. We brought everything up into the light without making any value judgement, and while we got gay marriage we also got a major political party handed over to white supremacists and foreign powers.

And that’s why you can’t “fix” Facebook, or YouTube, or any social media at scale. You have to start over and build in a way that prioritizes security and responsibility over hockey stick growth. You have to build at human scale – and consider both of those. You have to have human scale, which is why the group chat is the premier social network of our age. People are more interested in their friends than a constant stream of random shit. And you have to build. Entropy is easy. Entropy takes no effort at all. You can get a car crash free of charge by just leaving off the brake pedals and steering wheel, and it’s probably cheaper. But you don’t want a car crash, do you? You have to build seat belts and air bags, and ideally collision sensors and lane change warnings, and all manner of safety equipment – partly to help prevent you from doing something stupid yourself, and partly to make you less vulnerable to other people being stupid.

You have to reduce the risk from others and the risk of what you might inadvertently do to yourself. If that isn’t a fucking mission statement for the next ten years of this godforsaken hell mouth of an industry, I’ll kiss your ass.

plinka plinka plinkin’ out loud, round 2

I used to have a pile of phones. And then the iPhone landed in my hands 12 years ago and that was the end of Phone Glee…for a while. But then things changed around 2013 when the Moto X dropped, and ever since, I’ve been prone to fits of dissatisfaction. To wit:

* I went for the iPhone 5 on Verizon, because they had the most viable LTE network in 2012. But their non-LTE network was slow and unsatisfying, and the battery issues with the Verizon version of the 5 once iOS 7 landed were legendary. I don’t doubt that was a big factor in casting my eye toward…

* The original Moto X, whose feature set in late 2013 included things like 2 GB of RAM, an AMOLED display or always-listening voice command that Apple wouldn’t fully get around to for years. And at 65mm wide, it fit a 4.7″ display into a smaller handset than Apple ever has, and the 2200 mAh battery is bigger than Apple ever managed to fit in a sub-5.5″ phone. But it was Android, and even if I’d been able to coax everyone to Signal (or even WhatsApp back then), the pace of updates was gruesome. It took over a year for Android 5 to be available and that was the last version upgrade it ever got.

* The iPhone 6 from work was a hair bigger than the Moto X, and thus just a hair too big. I kept being tempted back toward the Moto X, and as soon as the iPhone SE shipped, I threw the 6 in a drawer at work and never pulled it out again.

* The iPhone SE was perfect, and mostly snuffed the glee for a long time (not that I wasn’t tempted by the Moto X until it became completely untenable as even a shutdown-night device). I put in for work to buy me the iPhone X as a goof – and then they did. And now here we are.

So as it sits right now: the iPhone X is locked, and too large for me. A hair too big to be a hair too big, and yet because of the modern nature of phones, it’s the primary device and difficult to move away from. The iPhone SE is the perfect size and is perfect for travel (as proven in London, Ireland and Patagonia) but the 6S chipset and camera are starting to show their age, and there’s a real prospect that iOS 13 may be its last hurrah.

The next time I’m eligible for a replacement phone through work is 2020, assuming they still provide phones by then at all. But it would be locked again, which means international travel is a non-starter. If I lose my work phone for any reason, the iPhone SE (and self-paid service through T-Mobile) is the move until September 2020, when we presumably get a new wave of phones and iOS 14.

And that is when things get interesting. Because the Great Mentioner has a 5.4″ iPhone on the cards for 2020. If you follow the proportions of the iPhone X, that would be a phone roughly the same size as the current iPhone 8, but full-screen. And I wouldn’t even be that bothered about the AMOLED if it packed the same cameras (and computational effects) as the XR, along with replacing 3DTouch with a 2000mAh battery.

At that point, a 5.4″ iPhone, unlocked, would be enough. International ready (camera and all), plausibly one-handable, still more than big enough for video watching or Kindle reading or even writing a blog post (as I am on the iPhone X right now). And more to the point, it would have me down to one device. One thing that’s 100% of what I need instead of two things that are 80%. Which is really my whole approach to acquiring stuff in the last ten years or so.

No Future 2019

We’ve been here before.

Remember how the popular vote was lost by an amiable yet quietly vicious dry-drunk from Texas, who slept on the threat of international terror before invading the wrong country in retaliation? How a major American city was swamped by a hurricane with no federal response worth mentioning, and how the economy was blown to pieces? And then, when the other party was voted into power by a commanding margin, it was proclaimed from the rooftops that any effort at accountability would be “criminalizing politics” and that we should move forward as if nothing existed before Obama was inaugurated, and that all problems were therefore his responsibility and he should be resisted at all costs?

Watch. It doesn’t matter if Warren or Harris or Booker or whoever wins 60% of the popular vote and control of the House and Senate. Any attempt to hold individuals responsible for the last four years, however feeble or symbolic, will be “criminalizing politics” and any attempt to restore the old norms in law will be tarred as “not moving forward” and “trying to relitigate old fights”. All of the principal figures of the present kakistocracy will go on to well-paid sinecures at Fox or CNBC or the WSJ or some other wingnut welfare outlet where they can exhort the masses to massively resist the tyranny of someone who actually got the most votes. And the usual gang of po-faced catamites at the New York Times and CNN will bemoan the coarsening of politics and the extremism of both sides and demand to know why the Democrats won’t just yield and surrender to the prejudiced imaginings of old white yokels as the Only True American Voice.

It happened already. It happened ten years ago. Never mind living memory, I’ve got booze in my liquor cabinet older than that. And there is absolutely nothing at all that will prevent it happening again, other than a commitment to fight. And keep fighting. Even after it seems we might have won. Until the last boomer is strangled with the entrails of the last Confederate, we are in danger.

The old rules got torn up, long ago, and by the other side. Only a fool would continue to follow those rules on the advice of those who supervised the shredding.

as the years go by

I.

Donny Everett’s last pitch was 101 miles an hour.

A few days after he threw that pitch, he was gone – drowned in a pond in a swimming accident between the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. His teammates, grief-stricken, went out of the regional with as much fight as you could hope for from a bunch of teens going through the unimaginable. And Tim Corbin, the iconic coach of Vanderbilt baseball, wondered if that class, that team, this program could ever recover from a blow like that.

Donny would have been a senior this year. All of his teammates came back for one more bite at the apple. His heirs were the top rated freshman class in the country, lead by a fireballing pitcher from Georgia who might himself touch 101 before it’s all over and done with in Nashville. And they played like brothers on a mission. Wednesday night, in Omaha, the circle was finally closed, and Donny’s parents were on stage with the players and coaches of the 2019 College World Series national champion Vanderbilt Commodores.

The numbers alone are staggering: most strikeouts thrown in a season, breaking a record set in 1972. 59 wins, most in a season for a champion since 1989. First SEC team to ever defeat all 13 other SEC teams at least once in a season. First SEC team since 2009 to win the conference AND the conference tournament AND a national championship. Lost one game in regionals and super-regionals combined. Lost one game total in the College World Series. Went 3-0 on the year against the #3 team in the country. Won 35 games against the top quartile of college baseball teams. Thirteen players taken in the MLB draft. And Kumar Rocker, the freshman with the exploding slider who threw a complete game no-hitter with 19 strikeouts in the Duke super-regional, threw another gem with 12 more K’s facing elimination in game 2 of the championship and wound up only the sixth freshman in history to be named Most Outstanding Player of the College World Series.

59-12. Triple champions. The most dominant Vanderbilt baseball team of all time going back to 1886, barring neither the 2014 champions or the 2013 team that won 25 games in the SEC or the 2007 team that went wire-to-wire as regular season #1 in the polls. This instance of the VandyBoys was ranked the consensus preseason #1, and finished as national champions.

More than ever, this year felt like what it must feel to be a decades-long Warriors fan in the Kerr era, or a Bama fan under Saban, or a Bulls fan in the 90s. It’s a juggernaut. It’s the Death Star. The only drama is the form of the domination, or the comeback, or who the night’s designated hero will be. This team felt inexorable, inevitable, unstoppable. If Thanos had tried to snap his fingers he would have been frozen looking at a fiery strike 3 from Tyler Brown, assuming that JJ Bleday’s bat didn’t decapitate him and send his domepiece 440 feet into the stands.

You have to deal with a lot to support the black and gold. The difficulty of finding players who can win games and make the grades and stay out of court. The challenge of a conference with thirteen other “schools” [sic] who aren’t worried at all about the diploma or police blotter. The drumbeat of a media, local and national, in thrall to the Narrative. The weight of history and the expectation of disaster. And then, after years of falling through what feels like hundreds of miles of horse shit, one night out of nowhere you ride out on a stallion. And ride like the wind, way past the border of Mexico.

After all, if there’s any program that combines smooth with money like a yacht rock concert, it’s the Commodores, right?

 

II.

I didn’t see a single postseason game.

Five years ago, I worked from home on the day of Game 3. I walked out on the porch about an hour before first pitch and let the door hang open behind me. No humidity, cool summer breeze, golden sunlight through green leaves. And I told myself that it’s a good life, down deep where it counts, and win or lose I needed to remember that. And then I listened to Joe Fisher – I tried to sync the audio and the TV, but the two digital delays were impossible to reconcile so I wound up with the audio about an out ahead of the screen. And when the final out was recorded, I shouted out, overjoyed, and then we headed to the pub to celebrate with our weeknight trivia group – and won. There’s a picture of me with the trivia belt thrown over my seersucker blazer, Vandy hat on over the shades, throwing up that VU.

This year, I literally didn’t watch or listen to a single second of postseason ball before there were two outs in the ninth of the final game. I followed the games through Twitter, piping the Vandy baseball account through a little-used Twitter timeline separate from the one most Vandy fans know me by. And as the tournament went deeper and deeper, I stopped even that, preferring to look in only after a couple of hours had gone by. I didn’t see a single pitch of Kumar Rocker’s epic no-hitter, or his clutch performance in Game 2 of the CWS. I haven’t seen a single homer from Bleday or Scott or Clark or Infante. No epic Brown multi-inning saves, no Harry Ray web gems, no Austin Martin running like the wind and hitting .400.

Fear? Anxiety? Maybe? To be blunt, 2019 isn’t 2014. Deep down where it counts, it’s not that good a life right now. Every condition that pertained five years ago in my life is arguably either just as bad or worse, whether it’s an utterly unstable situation at work or a troubled and traumatic relationship with Alabama people or a world on fire with little hope of pulling back from the abyss. Next to that, you need escape, and escape through sports means the Giants – San Jose or San Francisco alike – or the A’s, or maybe some sort of soccer. Something without an emotional investment attached. Because right now, my emotional investments need to be the equivalent of a Treasury bond – safe, solid, and backed by the full faith and credit of something that isn’t ever going anywhere. And if there’s one thing an emotional investment in Vanderbilt athletics isn’t, ever, it’s safe.

I dug Vanderbilt out of the hole in 2006, at a time when I was finally and fully alienated from my undergraduate school, when Alabama football was at its lowest ebb in my lifetime, when I was having that dull-moment year and casting about trying to decide “who am I now” at a fairly liminal point in my life. And honestly, Vanderbilt felt as strange and exotic as if I had decided to support Aston Villa or Newcastle United, despite the fact that I was actually an alumnus with a degree and a ring and plenty of ticket stubs from football and basketball alike. Probably because the person who actually went there for three years is a different person than the one who went into the dark in 1998 and was rebuilt in DC.

And then, a handful of years later, Vanderbilt became my shield and sigil at a time when my entire world seemed to be defined by the University of California on one side and Stanford University on the other. Vanderbilt was mine, however tenuously, and it was something I could hold up and call my own and then punch at roughly equal weight with the forces around me. And then, of course, Stanford became China’s Oxford, the Hellmouth first of the tech sector and then of the Wall Streeting of Silly Con Valley. And as much as I despised Stanford – as much as I despise Stanford – the unpleasant thought began to dig at me that if I were in Nashville, and not an alum, I would probably have similar feelings about Vanderbilt. I don’t think we are as transparently the baddies as the Beast of Palo Alto, but it would be the height of folly to think we’re the good guys.

And my relationship with Vanderbilt is much closer to a sidewalk alum than someone who actually went there. I’ve done alumni events, they’re fine, everyone is very pleasant, but I am so not the correct demographic for the sort of people who turn up to the San Francisco Vanderbilt Club meetings. I’m as old as the new arrivals’ parents, I don’t live in the city, they don’t live down the South Bay, and my Vanderbilt experience is patently not their Vanderbilt experience and vice versa. And proper sidewalk alum-ness kind of requires you to be on the sidewalk. I’ve been to two football games in Nashville since 1996, and the last one was in 2013 (plus extra credit for the bowl game in Birmingham the same season). 

I’ve had some good times. People have been very nice to me. Vanderbilt as a whole has probably treated me better since 1994 than I earned from it in my three years there. But to be perfectly honest, I would gladly accept the wave of a magic wand tomorrow that replaced the entire seven years after graduating high school with some other higher-ed experience. As long as I had the kind of undergrad career I wanted and the fates deposited me at National Geographic at the end of the summer of 1997, you could take Vanderbilt from me and I would be all right.

 

III.

So now what?

It’s entirely possible that thirty years on from only applying to three schools, I may have put the college thing to rest. Not because I’m all right with it or found some way to make it all worthwhile in the end, but because I accept that what happened, happened. There’s no do-over, there’s no making it right, there’s no way I will ever have not attended that stupid undergrad school. I don’t need Vanderbilt to be a stand-in any longer, my first job out of college dressed up in a varsity sweater and raccoon coat masquerading as my alma mater. I suspect that if I were to change my current employment, I’d feel the need even less than I do now, and the college thing wouldn’t even be a thing.

Except.

That Vanderbilt-related Twitter account I mentioned? Has over 1400 followers. My congratulatory tweet after the game got over 400 likes.  I know real live people because of Vanderbilt sports, and have introduced them to other real live people that have knit them into a greater whole. Hell, I’m the person who named David Williams “the Goldfather” in an Insta post from Rogue Tavern the night before the bowl game. Irrespective of how I got to this point, Vanderbilt sports have allowed me to build a persona, a small following, and a simulacrum of an actual affinity group.

Those are thin on the ground. I don’t think it’s a secret that I have struggled to build any kind of personal connections since leaving Apple. I haven’t done it through work, at first deliberately and then because even if I’d wanted to, the sort of people I vibe with are thin on the ground at the office. I tried things like RCIA or a cappella chorus singing or even looking at churches (of which more later), but nothing really offered me a hook. I don’t have the kind of local “where everybody knows your name,” and even if I did, I don’t frequent the pubs enough to make myself a regular anywhere anymore. Most of the trivia competitors from five years ago have moved away, or aren’t around routinely anymore, and that pub doesn’t even do trivia now as far as I know. My celebration of a national title, in 2019, was to pull a pint of Phish Food out of the freezer an hour and a half later and eat maybe half a dozen spoonfuls before putting it back. 

I did it through social media for a while. But it was obvious by 2011 that Facebook was a cesspool of scum and villainy and not worthy of trust, so I blew that up with a quickness. I was relying heavily on Twitter for a while, which sort of worked, until the election – and then I blew up my personal account and then went through a series of reductions and mutings and reconfigurations to try to keep out the noise, and then as it turns out so did most everyone else I know. I have Instagram, but the day is coming when Facebook will turn that into a shit fountain too. There’s Slack, with the same Internet friends I’ve known for close to a quarter-century, but not all the ones I wish would be on there. As really close friends go, there’s one up the Peninsula a ways, and then there are people on the other side of the country or the other side of the world. And then there’s my wife, who as a result has to shoulder a disproportionate load – one I’ve been on the other side of in a past life and one I’m consequently uncomfortable dumping on any individual person.

So…now what happens? The 2019 College World Series was a triumph for the ages, the final blast of a dreadnaught the likes of which college baseball – hell, college sports – has rarely seen, and never from Vanderbilt. But in three months, Vanderbilt sports means football, and a team that has played since 1890 without ever once winning ten games in a season, with the biggest delta in America versus its archival institution and permanently handicapped by membership of its conference. And then, even assuming an unimaginable fourth straight win over UT in football, comes basketball, with a new coach taking over a team that has so far lost 20 consecutive games in 2019, which went completely winless in conference play for the first time in history and which finished with single-digit total wins for the first time since they first hired a full time basketball coach. And maybe women’s tennis or women’s bowling will shoot for the stars successfully again, or maybe another little-followed sport will suddenly ascend to prominence, or maybe miracles will happen.

But maybe not. More likely that after Labor Day, Vanderbilt sports will be back to “why do you do this to yourself?” and I will be forced to contemplate again whether what it brings to the table for me emotionally is worth what it takes off the table emotionally. If there’s one thing in my life that I don’t need in 2019, it’s elective sources of anxiety or misery. The world is enough for that right now without me throwing gas on the fire. 

Apprehend the moment. Consider it. Appreciate it. Then release it. Time to move along. Better to seek out something that sparks joy instead of trying to force something that doesn’t.