twenty good years

I thought about calling this entry “The Seven Year Itch.” Seven years ago, I was just coming off a stint in higher education which lasted- wait for it – seven years. It’s difficult to imagine that I’ve been in DC as long as I was at Birmingham-Southern and Vanderbilt combined. It feels like at least two lifetimes. And yet, as I sit here tonight on the floor of my apartment, with absolutely no furniture and only a TV and cable box to go with my computer, I can’t help feeling that it hasn’t been that long since September 1997, when I lived my first month in Washington with nothing at home but clothes, a boom box, a TV, an air mattress, and a computer set up on an empty pizza box on the floor.

It’s an awful long way from a terrified kid, just months removed from prematurely ending a 20-year academic career, nursing literally thousands of dollars in credit card debt and whose Mac knowledge was largely limited to “trash the prefs and rebuild the desktop.” I barely had a pot to piss in, I barely knew anyone here, and I signed a six-month lease to start with so I wouldn’t have to pay to break the contract if it didn’t work out.

I had a plan, too, though I didn’t realize it at the time. It was based on my dad’s credo of “do the best you can and don’t be a horses ass.” It was based on an offhand remark from a teammate at the bar my first year of grad school, and it was appropriate for someone whose life had just fallen out from under him. My plan was to reach the point where I could prove that I didn’t have to prove anything.

I think I did all right. Nobody’s ever going to mistake me for Warren Buffett, but I’m paying the bills as they come in and in the same month at that. I did my last help call today, for the #2 or 3 guy in the company, with an intuitive fix for something that another so-called “tech” person outside our group had botched. And I have my crew, my friends, the kind of people you wait your whole life to be able to claim as your own.

And yet.

A few years ago, I read a book by Po Bronson, The Nudist on the Late Shift. It was written at the height of the tech boom, after I’d had a couple years in the business, and it dealt with everything from the tortuous route of an IPO to the pressure of developing web apps for major media companies to the concept of the hockey-stick sales pattern. But the part that was excerpted for Wired magazine was the story of half a dozen people who had picked up their lives and gone to Silicon Valley to find their fortune.

I had two thoughts after reading it, largely at once: “These people are out of their hyperventilating minds” and “What if…do I have what it takes?” To pull up stakes, pack the bags, and chase the big dream…and as the years rolled by, I realized that if I’m going to do it, it has to be soon. I’m so incredibly burned out in my current situation, the tech sector is starting to rebound…if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen now.

Seven years ago, I wouldn’t have tried it. I would have clung to what was safe and known until it forcibly dislodged me, no matter how miserable I was. The way I did in high school. And college. And grad school. I don’t *have* to leave…but I’m ready, and I want to, and I can. I can do this. I can take the plunge. I can make it happen.

I don’t know whether it comes from being Southern or Celtic or what, but I’ve spent an awful lot of my life being fixated on the past. Of wishing things could have been different, trying to figure out what I did wrong, as if by hoping hard enough and finding the solution, I could change what had happened in my life. But that’s not possible. I’m never going to quarterback Alabama to a title. I’m not going to drink and snog and hack my way through college. I’m not going to pick up a doctorate in political science. My high school dream girl isn’t walking through that door. The one that got away isn’t walking through that door. My father is not walking through that door.

There comes a time in your life – and if you haven’t felt it yet, trust me, you will – when you have to make the decision to stop trying to be the person you were, and let yourself become the person you are.

I’m going west, and I’m going to reach. Because if you don’t reach, you don’t get. And even though it’s going to hurt like hell to leave my team behind, even though it’s going to be terrifying to start over in a strange place with no job and no certainty, despite everything – I’ve never in my life been more convinced I’m doing the right thing.

Let’s go chase the big dream.

– 30 June 2004

Twenty years on, there is no questioning it was the right move. It worked. I found myself working for Apple by August 9, later hired on staff and promoted. We managed to buy a house, which more than doubled in value by the time we sold it sixteen years later. I eventually got my VW, albeit as a Rabbit rather than a New Beetle. I had TiVo and DirecTV, I had friends, and by the end of 2006 there was no disputing it was a triumph.

Part of the story, though, is that there’s no “happily ever after” where time and history stop. The years roll on. Other people move along with their lives. The biggest story for me in the last decade is just how many people moved away – some no further than Burlingame or Santa Cruz, but many more to Texas or Seattle or even abroad, and that had a meaningful impact on how my life changed after 40. Looking back through the old blog contents of the early days, it feels like my life 2004-06 was a natural extension of my DC days, just with better climate and more money and fewer places to smoke.

I wish I could explain what happened in 2007. I don’t know if it was purely chemical, triggered by homesickness, manifested by a toxic work environment or what, but the wave of chronic depression caused me to make the second biggest mistake of my life: rather than seek accommodation for my knee, I chose instead to find a more technical job elsewhere, afraid that I would wind up half secretary and half dockwalloper and permanently behind the curve on actual IT. Instead, I wound up a subcontractor with no benefits, working in an environment far behind the curve on actual IT, and when I finally crawled my way out of it, I was working at a different place with a 10% pay cut that took three and a half years to catch back up to…and I never got away from that place. And then that place outsourced me and carved up my benefits just as COVID struck…and now?

Now I live in a different house, with a yard and a shed and a hot tub, in a quiet pleasant neighborhood where I can walk to the grocery or the Starbucks or the local burger-brunch-or-beer place. I can easily bike downtown, and we’re close to the better freeway for getting up and down. Transit has ceased to be a viable option, though, which is a shame since Caltrain will finally deliver electric trains in September. I have achieved the dream of 1997: I can work from anywhere with internet access, from my front room to Gulf Shores to Prague, in a job that is not customer facing. The cars are a hybrid Chevy and an electric VW. I have become the person I am instead of the person I was.

I’m happy with my life right this instant. I like being able to start work from my phone before getting out of bed, padding to the kitchen to grind my coffee, walking out to happy hour at 3 on the odd Friday, building bits of community through church or civic service or just attending the downtown markets and festivals. It’s the bits of a cozy life, and that’s all I need for the next twenty years, if I can keep it. But that’s the real trick. There’s another existential election on the way. The high temperature has hit 100 degrees four times since Independence Day. I look in the mirror at the sun damage on one temple or how long a cut on the arm takes to heal or the dark circles under my eyes and see that even if it doesn’t feel like twenty years have passed, my body says otherwise. And there’s nothing that says my employer won’t absently strike a line item on the budget and I find myself having to get another job sitting a help desk somewhere for half what I make now, because over-50 in this place and industry is basically a death sentence on the job search market.

And I wonder about the next twenty years. Will I be retired by then? Will that even be possible? What happens to democracy? What happens to people I care about if things turn ugly and the worst people in America get the controls? Never mind hoping for twenty good years, can I expect twenty years total? I’m sure my father did, at some level. Twenty years ago, all I wanted was one more chance at a fresh start. And now, all I want is one good chance at a graceful finish.

I guess that’s what it means to get old.

final impressions

The watch alone isn’t sufficient. I didn’t realize how frequently I need the camera, especially when I need to confirm something at the grocery store or get a pic of that thing on the road. There might be a little more utility with my own phone number, rather than a test number, but Signal is too much a part of my routine for the watch to stand alone.

The Apple Music piece works great, but I also find myself dependent on SomaFM and RadioGarden, neither of which is on the watch. And honestly if I’m out doing pub night stuff, I need reading material, which probably means the phone anyway. In short, the use case for cellular on the watch is for when I’m away from home, without a phone, with access to public transit or other people and no WiFi. Which is a mighty thin reed.

I think in the grand scheme of things, what I want is a world where I don’t need the phone. Having the Internet on my person at all times is an invitation to be too much in this world in a way that becomes more untenable with every passing day. The trick is going to be to put aside the need to see it coming, the anxiety of being caught unawares, just long enough to remain sane.

And if at any point the cellular is a $5 add-on, then sure, why not. But at this point it’s a $25 add-on and that’s not going to work. Still, better to have paid $35 to get it out of my system and be done with that glee.

No Future 2024

Well, if that was what we can expect the rest of the way, we are deader than fucking fried chicken. A press that does not push back on lies at all, that embraces the framing of bad actors, that has spent the past thirty years somberly reporting that opinions differ on the nature of the Emperor’s new wardrobe and who is to say what is true – that is a media that will carry a liar around the world while the truth is trying to get a word in edgewise.

The structure is broken. Thanks to 1929, we are fixed at 435 Representatives and thus 538 electoral votes. If the Congress expanded at the rate it should have in order to remain proportional to population, we would have a couple thousand members of the House, and the gerrymander afforded by the Senate would be reduced. But then, the Senate itself would be less of an issue if the filibuster were properly done away with – which couldn’t happen because the Democratic majority hung on two senators who have since left the party to huff their own righteous farts.

The problem isn’t that Biden is old, or sick, or too moderate. The problem is that the structural issues in our government skew things one way in the favor of those who lie, those who trade in bad faith, and those who benefit from keeping a broken system that puts a thumb on the scales. And their commitment to keeping it broken has gotten them a Supreme Court whose “NOT TOUCHING YOU” jurisprudence is allowing states to secede in everything but name and keep pocketing blue-state tax dollars while they establish theocratic bigotry – and then point the finger of blame at the victims for fighting back, with the willing compliance of a docile press.

The time to fight back was 2001, when the Court gave defeat to the candidate with the most votes. The time to fight back was 2009, when there were enough votes to break the filibuster and end the obvious practice of using it to defeat legislation that would have won on a majority vote. The time to fight back was 2016, when the Senate refused to allow a vote on a new Supreme Court justice with no pushback from the press or the electorate. The time to fight back was 2021, when one side used actual physical violence to try to undo the result of an election.

The time to fight back is now. But there are too many people who will roll their eyes because Joe doesn’t give them tingly feelings in their chicken parts, too many people who will say that Trump is good for the markets, too many people who will shrug and say there’s no difference really, and the indolence and malice of the stupid will deliver a body blow to American democracy that we might not come back from this time. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

The courts are rigged. The Congress is broken. There is no plan B. It’s Joe or nothing. And when the public doesn’t grasp and act on that, we will all be absolutely fucked.

second impressions

Everyone has two apps.

It’s mostly WhatsApp and Spotify, because that’s what the rest of the world runs on outside the United States and China. But as I look through Reddit forums and reviews of “feature phones” and blog accounts of “going light,” the recurring theme is always that if I just had [APP] and [OTHER APP] this phone would be perfect.

In my case, for the Apple Watch, the two apps are Lyft (or some other ride sharing option) and Triode (or some other streaming radio app that can handle SomaFM, Bluegrass Country, Arctic Outpost Radio and Radio Siamsa). But in a pinch I could actually try calling a cab, and Apple Music will cover most of the music options in some other form. So it’s not a dealbreaker.

In fact, a quick Sunday test down at the local proved that any WiFi you’ve already saved credentials for will still work with no phone present. I didn’t need the cellular while there. Which means if I could only harvest the WiFi credentials for the Duke, or the local downtown bars, or the San Jose spots, I might well obviate the need for wireless altogether. Which is devoutly to be wished when it looks like the actual cost of moving to Visible full time will be an extra $25 a month, and that ain’t hay.

Because really, where am I going with just the watch and no phone and no WiFi (or WiFi that depends on an interstitial page)? Pub night out once a month? Disneyland in another year or two? Maybe biking down to the farmers market? Church? Not a lot of use case under those conditions. If it were $5 a month to add it to USMobile, sure, it’s no big deal and a nice thing to have, but not for $35 a month sack and all, not while work is still floating the bill for my primary number.

Still, it’s interesting to have a thing on my arm that would use the same phone number and give me everything I need and absolutely nothing I shouldn’t have. I’m still trying to will a slightly better future into existence. Of which.

first impressions

I don’t know exactly when I first gravitated to the idea of the shutdown-night phone. I assume it was in those dark days of late 2010/early 2011 when I needed to detach from the world, and it became a thing as social media and news and everything else crept into my space. Sometimes you need to filter it all out, put it all away, force the world to leave you alone – but at the same time, you don’t want to cut yourself off from absolutely everyone and everything. You still need music in your ears, something to read, the ability to be contacted in an emergency especially if you go out to do this, possibly some way of getting a cab back, etc etc and so on and so forth.

Some amount of this could be put down to phone addiction and FOMO on my part, certainly. But I think something has shifted in society. The phone is barely a phone any more. A contemporary iPhone has about as much in common with a Nokia 3310 as a virtual reality headset has with a pocket calculator, and that’s not a comparison I make lightly. Cyberspace is now the sea in which we swim, and the phone is the flippers, the wetsuit, the oxygen tanks. You can splash around on the beach, but if you’re going in, you won’t last long without it, and people expect that you will be in the sea now. Boomers act like a cell phone is a sign of wealth and luxury, and in the meantime, going to the San Francisco Farmers Market without one would entail finding train schedules somewhere, buying a ticket from a machine, taking cash for payment and finding a book or Walkman or something on the ride up. Do you need a phone? No, but modern life without one is a much higher degree of difficulty.

Which is why I had the shutdown phones – simple dumb phones first, later superseded by the Moto X or the iPhone SE, devices that I could pare down to just the Kindle and Wikipedia and music apps and maybe Lyft if needed and…that meant another SIM card and another phone number or having to constantly move between. It was preposterous and ultimately pointless, especially once the Downtime controls in iOS meant you could lock out all the offending apps and notifications for the duration of a Sunday night. And that’s when the separate phone stopped being a thing.

But the temptation to bypass those controls is occasionally too much to overcome, especially when one is not in a great frame of mind. And you’re back to “I want to set the degree of isolation higher, but without having to give it all up.” Make it possible to leave the house and go to dinner with just one phone, a dumb phone with the same number, be able to contact people if need be but without having to delete a bunch of apps.

I say all this to say: I have temporarily activated the cellular feature of the Apple Watch through Visible, the Verizon MVNO. I could not do it through my work account, because they won’t allow it to be activated, and if I’m going to have a second line it should be on a different network than my main line, so Cricket and Consumer Cellular (both AT&T) are out, and Visible is the only other MVNO that supports Apple Watch.

Because the watch then becomes the dumb phone: leave the iPhone at home and you can still place and receive calls and texts on the same phone number from your arm. You can pay for things. You can get transit and walking directions, you can look up when the next bus is coming, you can even pop in your earbuds and listen to your music. But you can’t get into a doom scroll, you can’t go numb surfing the web, you can’t stare into the watch display for hours on end. That’s for the book you bring with you (okay, probably the Kindle this day and age).

The question then becomes: where are you going with your watch that you aren’t going with your phone? Church, sure, and pub night, and maybe a quick run around the block or to the gym or down to the market and back without needing to grab your phone. But the cellular only kicks in when there’s no connection to the data of the phone itself or to the WiFi. Which means it’s a very occasional fallback at best, one my wife has already test-driven for months and found no use for.

But then, she’s a lot better at putting down her phone than I am.

I guess we’ll see. On the second attempt, I had a blowout on my e-bike, and had to wait for help with no phone and no earbuds. So the immediate limitations are of a piece with, say, the wee little SonyEricsson Z520 that the old Apple lab crew standardized on in 2006. But the functions of a phone from back then, albeit with modern processors and networks, are sufficient to have all alone on one arm. So at some level, it’s worth asking: is it enough to leave the phone at the bedside and venture out with a device you can’t get lost in?

We’re going to find out.

just too much stuff

So in a moment of mental abstraction, I managed to leave my teal 16 oz Yeti tumbler behind at Union Station in Los Angeles. I’m bummed, too, because it was a limited edition color that suggested the best days of high school and was a sort of birthday present to myself. I have since replaced it with an 8 oz Yeti tumbler that has the California graphics on it, which is the perfect size for cocktails or as an overflow/keep cup and might be a better size for bedside use and portion control. Because I already had the 16 oz stackable Yeti that was actually closer to 19 ounces and is sort of an all-purpose size, which was going to just be the cocktail shaker going forward…and of course there’s all the other ones I already have, even though many of them are not going to be regularly used. (The Vanderbilt ones are going in a drawer just because the logos are no longer obtainable, the work one is in the bag, and the water bottle…we’ll see. It has not been great for travel purposes so far.)

I say all that to say this: I am starting to accumulate stuff again. A couple of American Giant resort shirts. A Yeti flask, of all things, which I definitely can’t justify (at least the California keep cup is sort of a memento of 20 years in the state). A new black and gold lightsaber, and the black and red one probably going as a present to someone before long. And I keep looking for hats from the Birmingham baseball this summer even though I need another hat like a hole in the head…

What the Hell am I doing?

I know what tomorrow is (of which more later) and I know it’s 2024, and I think that despite how much better and less anxious I feel on the Zoloft, at some subconscious level I am acutely aware that tomorrow is not promised and the end of the world rests upon the edge of the knife, and this is no moment in history to defer any joy no matter how slim or ridiculous. The sucker punches are lurking in the shadows, and you never know when something you put away months or years ago will rear up and try to whack you in the back of the head.

I think part of it also comes back to my eternal quest to find the 100% right thing. Even though it is just a hair too small, that Yeti was just right in terms of hand feel, balance, and versatility – I wouldn’t have taken it on the train if it weren’t. Problem is, the one I already have isn’t quite right in the hand or quite as easy to clean, but at just over 0.5L it splits the difference perfectly for coffee, soda, beer, what have you. (Although all the coffee goes in my mother-in-law’s old 24 oz mug now, to keep the staining confined to one thing, and I don’t brew tea concentrate any longer, and large-scale consumption of cold beverages is now in the 35 oz which is also the road trip vessel…)

Maybe this is a sign that even though I feel materially better (and people notice), there are still underlying things gnawing at me that I need to come to terms with. Which, like I said, of which and all that.

the world and the land

The Disney park experience is complicated these days, to say the least. Bob Chapek’s plans to monetize every drop of blood that could be squeezed from the turnip is still reverberating through the experience, and that’s even before taking into account the complexity of running parks in totalitarian states like China or Florida. But having done both parks within 12 months for the third time in my life, I finally feel like I have some thoughts on why I like what I do.

Walt Disney World, quite frankly, is just too big and too spread out. You basically have to stay on property, and it’s difficult to things in more than one park per day (barring perhaps a quick hop from Hollywood Studios to EPCOT or vice versa). Lightning Lane and Genie+ are mediated through a terrible application interface that drops you into a browser as often as not, and trying to coordinate activities for a large group is very nearly impossible, to the point that I don’t think you could visit WDW with a group larger than six and hope to do things together routinely. If we hadn’t had our own team coordinator booking things on a nightly basis, I don’t know how we would have pulled it off.

The Disneyland Resort – comprising Original Disneyland and Disney California Adventure – is a lot easier to work with. While there are on-site properties, and nice ones, you can stay in the Sheraton at Harbor and Katella and be just as close to the main gates, and bopping back and forth between both parks is pretty straightforward – even running all the way to Trader Sam’s for a drink or two is not an insurmountable addition to the day. It just feels like the locals’ park, a sensation made stronger during the early days of 2022 when it reopened solely for California residents. Honestly, at this point, I don’t think I ever need to go back to WDW for anything other than Guardians of the Galaxy and maybe a few drinks through World Showcase.

But for best results, you need to hold it to a group no larger than six, just because if you don’t have previously booked reservations, it’s going to be tough to find sit down food (one of the problems with WDW is that you basically have to schedule everything you’re going to do weeks in advance) and more than six makes impossible to find walk-in seating. It also feels like best results can be achieved with a three day park-hopper, taking one day to tag all the must-do in DCA and one for ODL with a third day for mop-up. And you’ll need mop-up, because the number of mechanical ride failures is creeping up. Rise of the Resistance, possibly the best Disney attraction of all time, is routinely down now, but we also ran into issues with Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Pirates of the Caribbean, and of course the closure of everything from Critter Country to Haunted Mansion for construction purposes.

Which brings me to the past thought: we wouldn’t have made this trip if we weren’t going with friends. We have done the Disneyland experience almost once a year on average going back to 2009, even adjusting for the pandemic outages, and honestly if it’s just us, there’s no incentive to go other than to ride Soarin’ repeatedly if it’s the California version, pick up new content in Star Tours, and (for me) attempt to spend a whole immersive day in Galaxy’s Edge, which honestly is not compatible with doing anything else in the parks.

But I was reminded that we were there in June in 2014 and 2019 (at least those visits presaged Vanderbilt baseball championships) by the thick gray skies in the morning. Which are just the best, whether entering Black Spire Outpost from the Resistance end or lounging on the patio at Trader Sam’s. This is the time to be there, honestly, and it was a delight. Again. (Made even better by taking the train down and back. Bring on the high speed rail ASAP.)

Happiest place on Earth? Hard to say. Highly satisfying, though.

flashback, part 118 of n

It looks like Alma Mater, not content with its current ignominy, is on the verge of dropping out of NCAA Division I and going to non-scholarship sports.

This is a bad idea on a lot of levels, but here are just a few of the problems:

1) Not to put too fine a point on it, but if it weren’t for scholarship athletics, the campus would be a lot less diverse. I mean, a *lot*. I mean, there was ONE non-white guy in my entire graduating class who wasn’t varsity.

2) BSC averages something like 94% graduation for athletes, which is several dozen percentage points above the campus as a whole. Never mind college athletics as a whole. Clearly, you cannot make the case that academics are suffering from too much sport.

3) We have a couple of first-rate coaches in basketball and baseball who won three NAIA national championships between them from 1990 to 2001. They went through the move to Division I, including several years where we were ineligible to compete for postseason honors. (Basketball came within an eyelash of going to the tournament the FIRST YEAR IN…except we weren’t eligible.) Are these guys really going to hang around to coach glorified intramurals?

4) We’ve been down this road before: in 1939, BSC scrapped ALL its varsity sports in favor of “Sports for All,” the intramural program. It took sixty years before we got back to the same number of sports…hell, it took sixty-five years to get to the same number of WOMEN’S SPORTS that we had in the 1930s. You would be hard-pressed to make the case that BSC was a better school from the 40s to the 70s thanks to the absence of every sport but men’s basketball (and a pretty crap team at that). And the much-vaunted “Sports for All” is basically nothing but an organizing framework for fraternity leagues.

5) Speaking of which – if they can find the money for new sorority townhouses AND new fraternity houses, they can goddamn well cough up the money to keep a campus entity running that a) actually unites the student body and b) doesn’t fucking embarrass the alumni on CNN in front of God and the nations.

6) Those blasted Baptists over the mountain at Jesus A&M manage to keep a full slate of sports and a football team too. If they can, and we can’t, I respectfully suggest the Methodists of the United Conference of North Alabama and West Florida aren’t doing their part. 

7) So there’s a cash crisis and we have to make the money up somewhere? And enrollment’s down? Maybe they should pay less attention to the drain of the sports teams and more attention to THE FUCKING RICH PRICKS WHO ARE BURNING DOWN CHURCHES FOR FUN. It is possible – just barely slightly possible – that seeing these kids packed off campus in cop cars on every news show in America MIGHT have had a deleterious impact on new applications and alumni giving! I mean, call me crazy, but you don’t miss your enrollment goal by 25% because you had too much money in the conference-champion women’s rifle team…

8) I do not have a lot of happy memories of my time on the Hilltop. It was insufficiently Hobbesian – it was poor, nasty and brutish, but it sure wasn’t short enough. I have very little good to say about my time there that doesn’t involve basketball. But I joined the alumni booster club with two years of school left to go. I wailed on a trombone in the band for three years. I took over as sports editor of the campus paper my senior year just to make sure it acknowleged that we *had* a team, let alone that they were contending for a national championship. I have kicked in God knows how much money to keep the basketball team at the top of whatever level they play in, be it NAIA, transitional, or Big South. After I threw in my Black Tie Club money every single year – including some years when I didn’t have a pot to piss in – I will NOT be happy if the college decides to pull a Brave Sir Robin with the only entity on campus that doesn’t make me want to stick my head in the fucking oven every time I remember I went to school there!

In fact, if they pull the plug, I’m done. I am now taking applications for a new alma mater. If you can whip up a convincing story of how I went to school at your institution for four years, Photoshop up some pictures and arrange for post-hypnotic suggestion, I will gladly throw in my lot with your school and bestow my support on it for the remainder of my days. Provided, of course, it’s not just as embarassing as my own. If you went to Auburn or Tennessee, don’t even bother.

One of these days, I’m going to get around to posting about the utter dysfunction of my college experience, from age 5 to the present, but this will have to do for now. Gah. Also, gah.

-May 18, 2006

The Board of Trustees announced that they intend to pursue a move to Division III, beginning with the 2007-2008 academic year. One lame-duck season in Division I, followed by an end to scholarship athletics.

In addition, they announced plans to start football in Division III, complete with an on-campus facility.

In related news, the Birmingham News reports that the NCAA was approached in February by an institution, requesting anonymity, seeking to explore a move from Division I to Division III.

So the question is twofold:

1) If we don’t have the money to stay in Division I, exactly where in the FUCKING FUCK do we have the money to start up the most expensive sport a college can play, and build it a new stadium to boot?

2) Has this move been in the works for three or four months now, and if so, why has so much effort been made to keep it secret?

I can answer both of those in one: because Birmingham-Southern College is a garbage institution with a garbage administration.

I’d really appreciate it if you could all forget I ever went there. I know I’m starting right now.

-May 26, 2006

I knew what a four-year scholarship was before I was five years old.

I say this to illustrate the pull exerted on me by the concept of college. As a child, the notion that I would go to college one day was a fact as self-evident as the color of the sky or the wetness of water. As an adolescent, I was fed a steady diet of lies by the likes of Val Kilmer in Real Genius. By the time I reached high school – and especially when things weren’t going well, and ESPECIALLY my senior year – I was told over and over how great things would be in college, how I would thrive once I got to college, how the college experience would be exactly what I needed.

I didn’t do too much to get ready, though. I applied to only three schools: Vanderbilt (main aspiration for any southerner), Alabama (more or less guaranteed and affordable) and, in an odd twist, Birmingham-Southern College. Those who have paid attention know what I think now, but at the time, I knew it only as the place where I took piano lessons for the better part of twelve years and where I first set foot in 1977 for a piano recital. 

And they came after me HARD. I got some sort of correspondence just about every day for most of the year. Senior Days, an overnight stay, homecoming basketball tickets (in fairness, Alabama did come across with three different non-conference football games in Tuscaloosa, and far from the worst seats you could ask for). but nobody sweated me harder than BSC. And like an idiot, I stopped at three schools.

Come the spring, and BSC offered me full tuition. Vandy did not. Until they didn’t, I hadn’t realized just how much my heart was set on going there, and I was devestated. It only took a couple of days after that for me to call BSC and accept their offer.

Summer came, and I started to get the invites to the various summer fraternity rush parties. I didn’t think anything of them, couldn’t really envision myself in a fraternity – and then my mother did some calling around. (In my life, my mom has done two things I didn’t really think highly of at the time but which, in retrospect, were sound. One was insisting I go to RLC for high school, and the other was pre-investigating the rush business at BSC.) Come to find out that 85% of the day program students at BSC (i.e. not Adult Studies or masters’ program) were in fraternities and sororities.

Well hell, this changes things.

So I went to all six. I still remember the order: ATO, Sigma Chi, Sigma Nu, Theta Chi, SAE, and KA. I met some of the guys I would share a dorm with that fall. I met a lot of guys, for that matter. Ate a lot of overcooked hamburgers, fell off a sailboat, flipped an inner tube, heard some of the worst garage bands in Birmingham. And while I didn’t really feel it from these people, I figured, well, what the hell, might as well give it a shot, this is a big part of things, right? And I was assured that yes, it was a VERY big part of things. Right up until the beginning of school, the first week of classes, and the formal rush week. So I stooged around between the houses for a couple of nights, went to my dorm, and waited for the invite for the next stage of the process…which never came. And just like that, the end of the fraternity experience. 

A few of the usual counselor and administrator-type people immediately began a big song-and-dance about how the Greek experience wasn’t really all that critical a part of life at BSC, and I nodded in all the right places, but this was my formal introduction to the only real tradition BSC has: the blowing of smoke up the ass. Students, faculty, teams, clubs, buildings – they all come and go from the Hilltop, but the blowing of smoke up the ass of everyone from students to parents to alumni to media – that is forever. I probably know more about the history of BSC than anyone who hasn’t written a book on it, and I can tell you that it lacks for any kind of tradition. There’s no statue that crumbles if a virgin graduates, there’s no brass panther with its nose rubbed bright for luck, there’s no bicycle race in your underwear every March, and the fight song doesn’t even have words. The one tradition at BSC is that things will be handled in the dark, without your input, and you will be deceived about it for as long as they can get away with it.

It became apparent rather quickly that if you weren’t in one of the Greek organizations, your social life was going to be a bit limited. There was a band party in the fall and another one in the spring, and occasionally a movie on a screen up on the dorm quad. That was it. That was the full extent of college-supported social life. There was a gameroom in the basement of the dorm-quad eatery…that stayed locked up all the time. There was a ten-foot fence around the campus and dire warnings about leaving it after dark. And there was a city that I already knew better than the back of my hand from my high-school days…one whose under-21 entertainment options had long since been tapped to dry. As for the other students – well, they retreated into their pledge groups and pulled the ladders up behind, and in a perverse parody, so did the theater students, the fine-arts majors, the soccer team, the baseball team, the basketball team, the international students, and just like that, the music stopped and I was looking for a chair. That was early September, 1990. A mere three years and eight months until graduation. No problem.

I knew this one girl from Governor’s School the previous summer. We had a bit of a fling, that sort of adolescent fling where you don’t actually make any physical contact or even speak to each other for a week and a half out of the two you’re in school. But hell, I was grasping at straws, and she had a roommate, and she said her roommate had a crush on me. And I looked around me, and thought that this might well be the only shot I got at having a girlfriend for the next four years, and I gladly bought the line she was selling…We were together for three years, and I was miserable for two and eleven-twelfths of them. But I stayed with her, because just about everyone I knew, I knew through her. I built a little rapport with some of the guys on my floor, but at the end of the semester, everyone moved around to bunk with one of their pledgemates. (I ultimately wound up with 6 different roommates in 4 years.) I got to know some other people, but she got increasingly clingy and took up more and more of my time.

If I could travel back in time and speak to my freshman self, I would open my remarks by smacking him HARD across the face and explain to him that poor self-esteem and defective social skills were NO excuse for staying in a dysfunctional relationship, and that if he was miserable, he should either get out of the relationship and make his life his own and make a fucking EFFORT, or else transfer. Obviously that didn’t happen.

What I eventually had was basketball. Somehow, somewhere in the midst of my senior year of high school, the “raging sports maniac” gene that had been supressed for eighteen years lit up like a Christmas tree. Everything in the world of sports that wasn’t Alabama football was new to me, and I devoured it voraciously, just like I would the Macintosh in 1994 or New Wave music in 2002. (Let’s overlook how long it took me to arrive and just celebrate that I made it at all, okay?) And BSC was just coming off their first NAIA national championship in basketball. A huge deal, a massive win…and an empty arena, for the most part. One fraternity regularly delivered a full-throated cheering section, and the band wailed like maniacs, but for the most part, you could hear the scoreboard tick. As the season wore on, it got better, and in February, the two rivalry games brought a decent crowd (if mostly from the other school sometimes), but for the bulk of the year, it was band, friends, family, Sigma Nu, and yours truly.

But I loved it. I found out the Pep Band wasn’t all that picky and would train you to play the music, so at the beginning of my sophomore year, I signed up, and next thing you know, I had a bumblebee-striped shirt and a bottle of Gatorade for the breaks. I found out that you didn’t have to be an alum yet to join the alumni booster club, so at the end of my sophomore year, I signed up, and have done so ever since, even when I thought that the check might bounce if it arrived too soon. My junior year, I found myself on a hall with half the team, and started putting up scores and highlight notes on my wipe-off board (I can’t say whether they paid attention, but one player greeted me one night with “SUPA FAN IN THE MUTHA FUCKIN HOUSE!” and I was “SF” for the rest of the year). And my senior year, I approached the editor of the campus paper about covering the team, only to be greeted with “I was meaning to talk to you…our sports editor flaked. Would you be willing to take the entire section?” Which is how I became a sportswriter for one short year. All things I had for myself, things I could call my own, things that didn’t entail standing around awkwardly through another sorority formal with my girlfriend or another rehearsal night with my girlfriend or another hysterical wailing fit with my girlfriend. I got two spring break trips to play at the NAIA national championship tournament. I got hospitality-room food after every game. I got space to myself, something to take pride in, something I could call my own – the program gave me things I didn’t have the nerve or the brains or the skill set to make for myself.

I remember the last week at BSC vividly – my last paper turned in, my last exam skipped in favor of talking NBA with the professor in his office, the realization that those four years were done. It was a dagger. All I could think was “There’s so much I still have to do.” I would do some of it at Vanderbilt, which had made me a University Graduate Fellow in political science with the goal of a PhD, but using grad school to fill the gaps in your undergrad life is a really really bad idea. Trust me on this one.

In 1999, I got a letter: an anonymous donor had poured literally millions of dollars onto the athletic department and they were going to NCAA Division I. Not only were they going to finally offer a full slate of varsity sports, not only were they finally going to offer women’s sports on an equal footing, but they were going up against the big boys. Samford – the ancient Baptist rival! UAB – the crosstown power! Alabama and Auburn – the Death Stars! We were going to compete on equal (well, sort of equal) footing. We would be the next College of Charleston, the next Gonzaga, the next Bucknell or Holy Cross or Hampton – a giant-killer, the team nobody wanted to see on the 15 line in the tournament. I was thrilled. I actually wore my BSC ring the next day. The challenge had been laid down, and we were rising to meet it.

That was seven years ago. The transition took four full years, during which time we were completely ineligible for postseason play. Entire classes came and went without even a chance to compete for postseason glory, knowing they were building a foundation for the future. Students actually started to show up for games. I went to a basketball game the night before Thanksgiving in 2001, when we were still ineligible for the tournament, when classes were out and the dorms were closed. The place was packed, with a full student section and a raging band. The band director looked at me and grinned, “We’ve got more band for this one than we used to have fans.”

We played SEC schools and scared the shit out of them. We played Texas A&M and beat them by double-digits on their own court. We saw our name on the front page at ESPN.com as their basketball writers campaigned for us to get a berth in the NIT. We won the Big South title in our first season of eligibility. Not only basketball. In three years, BSC teams have won seven conference championships, and the baseball team has played (and won) in the NCAA tournament.

The first time I saw Avenue Q, off-Broadway, it was hysterically funny and true to life, right up to the song “I Wish I Could Go Back To College.” And it hit way too close to home, right up to the line “I wish I had taken more pictures.” Ain’t no need of lying. It wasn’t dusty, or misty or anything. I was crying. Hard. I was blubbering like a wronged mistress in a Mexican soap opera. Not because I wished I had taken more pictures, but because I wish I’d had more to take pictures of. I was young and stupid and I pissed away what should have been some of the best years of my life with nothing to show for it. But I had one thing: as long as the Panthers were clawing their way forward, I could feel like I was part of something special, like I had been there at the beginning of things. They were saying “Here we are, we’re too small and not good enough and we shouldn’t be here, but to hell with you, we’re staying and we’re going to prove we belong.” They were doing exactly what I couldn’t or wouldn’t or just didn’t.

Now they can’t anymore. The trap door just opened up. This year’s incoming freshmen are not guaranteed scholarships after two years. This year’s rising sophomores will have to find some other way to pay for their senior year. In its infinite wisdom, the NCAA has opened the door for anyone who wants to leave to transfer without penalty to another Division I school…but we still have to play next year in a Division I conference with a Division I schedule and, in all likelihood, with Division III talent.

That’s what makes me absolutely fucking insane about this. If it were really about the money, if our situation were that dire, they would do what they always do and start shaking down the donors like crazy. But my phone never rings, the e-mail isn’t any more frequent than once a month or so, the campaign for Panther Athletics doesn’t exist. So they’re jerking the rug out from under our teams for some other purpose, and trying to do so under cover of darkness without a full airing of facts. Smoke, ass. Same as it ever was.

To paraphrase a line from elsewhere: We don’t blame BSC for obfuscating, deceiving, lying, and doing what they do with no apparent goal or purpose, any more than we blame a dog for humping our leg. It’s just the way they’re programmed and they can’t help themselves. But when the dog doesn’t stop humping our leg, we cut his balls off.

That’s why I’m not a Panther anymore.

-May 28, 2006

Eighteen years later, it’s over.

I was right. I was absolutely right. David Pollick was blowing smoke up the ass of everyone. A bell tower, an on-campus lake, a football team and a stadium, all paid for with money they didn’t have and miscalculated the return on – and which my old computer science professor figured out from publicly available data, just before it was too late.

The irony is, if they’d decided in the mid-90s that they were going Division III, and been honest about it, and gone through some kind of evolution – would I still have been alienated? Would I have burned the bridges and then napalmed the ashes the way I did? Because I surely did. The athletic programs at BSC were the one thing that gave me any sense of belonging the whole time I was there – the one thing it turns out I needed more than oxygen – and without that, there was no point clinging to a bad time.

The last graduates are done and gone. The college will wrap up its affairs on May 31, and that will be the end of the story.

Except.

The baseball team is still going. They won a super-regional in two games despite having multiple players down with food poisoning so severe that two were hospitalized and a reliever had to pull an IV fluid needle out of his arm to go pitch almost three innings of relief with the bandage still on. But they are going to open the D3 College World Series on May 31, the last gasp. There is no school behind or beneath them. There is no money to fund and support them other than what can be cadged from GoFundMe. There is no future but what they make themselves. Just a bunch of Panthers, all that’s left after all this time.

So I paid into the GoFundMe. I dug out the hat and put it on. I dug out the ring and put it back on my finger. Because now, with nothing else left, all that remains of BSC is the bit I was able to belong to. And then, win or lose, I have an undergraduate degree from an institution that no longer exists. Nothing they can do any more to embarrass me or make my life worse. No chance of people burning down churches, of camping in trees for years, of hosting blackface frat parties or putting faculty on TV to advocate for idiocy or constantly smashing themselves into a sports brick wall in a college environment that is anarcho-professional now. The last thing BSC might give me is an off-ramp to gracefully get away from college sports for good.

But if they’d been honest, if they’d been realistic, if they’d stayed the course in D-1 and been in Coastal Carolina’s spot in the mid-2010s, or just gone straight to D-3 and followed a path like the city itself to become the kind of place I wouldn’t be sorry to have attended…

Wouldn’t that have been something.

flashback part 117 of n: thirty years and climbing

I found out on the evening of February 28, 1994 that I had been accepted at Vanderbilt for grad school – complete with a prestigious fellowship with more money associated than any other offer I’d had. The next day I ditched all classes, got in my car and drove to Nashville to ram-raid the bookstore and have lunch at Old Spaghetti Factory. And at that point, I was basically done with undergrad in my mind except to play out the string.

For thirty years, I’ve said that attending BSC was the biggest mistake of my life. I stand by that. But only slightly less a mistake was the misapprehension that somehow, graduate school would launder my undergrad experience – that it could actually be what I’d been told college would be from the time I was five years old, the place where I could pursue my interests and feel belonging and be self-actualized as a person. Grad school can be many things, but a do-over on college is absolutely not one of them, as I learned to my cost.

But that was in the future. To me, it felt like a second chance, like vindication, like being received at last. If I’d had the sense God gave a golf ball, I would have taken the opportunity for a completely fresh start and a total do-over, but I didn’t. I was going away for school to a new city with different interstates and different TV and radio stations, but I was staying together with a girlfriend who was already showing signs of serious mental instability. Which might be why I stayed with her, because heaven knows BSC was not great for my mental health, and I thought I owed her that much. So it goes.

But all those regrets and recriminations were also in the future. What I had instead was a quiet spring, full of humid orange sunsets through fresh green leaves and leisurely drives in my barely-year-old Saturn. Classes were more an afterthought than ever. Vampire’s hours were in effect. A handful of people would go to the grocery store at midnight for ice cream. Once, we drove up to Jasper to the 24-hour Walmart just because it was there and we needed something to do. And as graduation approached, I was increasingly gripped with regret – that I’d never actually pursued starting that college bowl team, that I’d spent three years with my first girlfriend instead of trying to build a life of my own, that there hadn’t been any evenings out on the dorm quad patio hanging out with friends. And as I was walking back to my room alone on that last night before graduation, I blurted out to the night “there’s so much I still haven’t done.”

That, honestly, is when it began. That was the seed for three decades of angst and despair and wishing for a better past and endless hours and days and years of trying to find a way to make the pebbles have been worth counting. And yet, the next day, when I walked into Boutwell Auditorium to the soaring organ strains of “Pomp & Circumstance” and saw the blue and pink lights behind the college seal on stage, it was with a tremendous sense of mission accomplished. The job was done. Now I could do what I want with my life. And maybe if I’d cut all the ties then and moved on completely, that feeling would have stayed…but that took another three years, by which point I was done forever with Birmingham. Or so I thought.

It was in 2006 when I finally cut ties for good, after the David Pollick fiasco which I correctly predicted would come to no good end. A growing sports program, one in Division I which had won a Big South men’s basketball title and sent a baseball team to the NCAAs to beat an SEC team, was axed in favor of Division III because it was “unaffordable” – then they added the most expensive and problematic sport a school can play and built an on-campus stadium for it and then dug a lake for no apparent reason and built an all new fraternity row. They couldn’t have given me a bigger middle finger if they’d come to my house and shat in the driver’s seat of that old Saturn. And thus did BSC finally disappear down the black hole, the same as everything in my life before 1998 (and soon, it seemed, everything before 2007).

I started to get things back. I exhumed Vanderbilt and turned it into most of my personality for the better part of a decade and a half, mostly as a way of coping with being squeezed between Stanford and Berkeley. I recovered my high school, thanks to Facebook, at least until Facebook turned to shit. But there was never any attempt to go fishing for the remains of my time on the Hilltop, because there wasn’t anything to fish for. No friends. No connection. Nothing from those four years I wanted to relive or remember that hadn’t been done more effectively in the 21st century in Arlington or California. And honestly, it was not difficult to draw a line from 1990 to 1997 that would deposit me on the steps of National Geographic after seven years of a life lived on offense rather than defense, where I’d actually had the experience I had been told since kindergarten would allow me to be myself and thrive and be validated as a human being.

But in kicking BSC down the well, I set myself up. Once I had only Vanderbilt as a touchstone, a reset, I was forcing myself to start from a higher bar. It was as if I’d hit a double, stolen third, then decided I was born on third base and kicked myself for never making it home. Thirty years on, sat in the courtyard of U Fleku where I’d been in 1992 and enjoying the dark beer instead of staring at it in dread and intimidation, I realized just how far I’d come. That kid who still had so much left to do had no idea how much, and how far. Four continents, a half dozen more countries, National Geographic, Apple, marriage, California, home ownership, electric vehicle ownership, the Internet in my pocket. From this end of three decades, it’s a lot easier to feel like it all came good eventually, even if it took longer and went rockier than it could have.

I’m not going to say “it was all worth it,” because it really wasn’t. Just because you can walk on the leg you broke once doesn’t mean it was never broken. There were lessons I would have been just as happy not to learn, especially since I didn’t seem to learn them until I was flat on my face. But I made the best of it. I learned I could write a little bit – the basketball team never included the campus paper in their annual media scrapbook before I became sports editor. I learned my way around computing a little, enough to know I would really rather have a Mac, and we know how that turned out. I clung to Chapel at Six, which thirty years later would be the first step toward realizing I was actually Episcopalian. And I learned to value those times when you do get to hang out with other people and have a good time, and conversely, to value those times you have to yourself with no obligations. And if you plug BSC back into the gap between RLC and Vanderbilt, suddenly the trajectory looks a lot more impressive, and I have a complete 22 years in and around Birmingham – a place I will claim now in a way I didn’t have time to wait for then.

And the rumblings are that Alabama A&M – the historically Black land grant college that so many of my brother’s teammates attended – is offering $52 million to buy the campus, retain much of the faculty and staff, and open a Birmingham campus. A public HBCU in a residential college setting in a city defined by its Black history. And if that’s the fate of my undergraduate alma mater, I will be thrilled, because that would mean it was reincarnated as a place that genuinely fits its city, fills the needs of its people, and engenders pride in one of its forsaken sons.

Maybe it conquered me once, but at the end, I prevailed. Maybe that’s what I did eventually win in the end.

the Man

It’s weird not to have your phone. My beloved 13 mini is getting a badly-needed battery replacement, and hopefully the next one won’t be as urgent because Bluesky has fixed their app to cut down on power drain, but for a window of two hours during a workday I am away from home with no phone. It feels like time has rolled back about 20 years, as I wander around with a backpack looking for sufficient free wifi to get online and work. No podcasting, no streaming, just bouncing back and forth between windows and trying to stay in the shade.

Apple ignited the personal computing revolution twice: once with the Apple II, and once with the iPhone. That’s what caused cyberspace to evert; now we don’t go online, online is all around us. I have everything I need for work on my laptop, other than 2FA. I have everything I need for personal use, other than a phone number, on my iPad. But only my iPhone can cover both. The phone has become an extension of my brain, the appendage I use to see into the parallel universe around me. It is the reason I can walk off in a random direction in a foreign city I’ve never visited without hesitation or concern. It is the reason I can stay stretched out in bed until an hour into the workday without missing a beat on actually doing my job. It’s where most of my social life is. Apple’s old PowerBook advertising slugline is far more appropriate for their most successful product: what’s on your iPhone is you.

And this is why that iPad ad is worrying: absolutely tone-deaf given the present situation of tech. Made in-house where nobody thought to say “hang on a minute” first. Symptomatic of a company that in the last twenty-seven years has gone from the brink of extinction to the richest company in tech, the prestige brand in hardware, and ironically the only company at the forefront of technology whose profit stems from goods and services rather than advertising and data mining…other than Microsoft. And lo and behold, here comes the DoJ to break up a monopoly, and irrespective of the merits of the case, the fact remains: Apple has become The Man.

But that’s because technology has become The Man. The Silicon Valley ethos was allegedly a reaction against the mainframe IBM do not fold bend spindle or mutilate computing culture. But at some point, that got completely swamped by the get rich quick ethos pouring out of Sand Hill Road and Stanford and washing along a tide of the kind of people who would have been junk bond traders from Wharton rather than CS50 dropouts in Shallow Alto if it hadn’t been for the 2008 financial crisis. And just like then, the money decided it must be the brains, and now we have what we have now: a cult of VC awash in ayahuasca, eugenics, freshman-dorm-pothead philosophy and the rock-solid belief that they are the highest caste stood on the edge of paradise if only their lessers would have the decency to submit.

Tim Cook isn’t a bad guy, Auburn and Duke affiliations notwithstanding, but he is a logistics guy. He makes the trains run on time. Under Tim, you know what’s coming: there’s going to be a new iPhone announced on the second Tuesday of September every year and it will be in stores on the third Friday of September, and a new upgrade version of iOS will be released on the third Wednesday of every September not because it’s ready, but because the new phone drops in two days. The process is a fine tuned machine, the envy of the industry. But he outsourced taste to Jony Ive, and as a result, everything crept up to become ever thinner, ever more expensive, ever an expression of design rather than design for life. Pace William Gibson, being able to tell that something was designed is a sign it wasn’t designed well, and one decision after another – USB-C only for everything on the Mac, flat design on iOS with a minimum of visual cues, a smaller battery in the phone to make way for risible 3DTouch technology and then the removal of the headphone jack to get the battery back up to snuff – suggests that actual utility was trumped for a decade by Jony Ive’s vision.

Now the wolves are at the door. The Vision Pro is the first AR headset worth criticizing, but it’s also $3500 and selling like hemorrhoid cream. The creative community that sustained Apple through its darkest years is genuinely pissed off and not without reason. And the Silly Con Valley fixation on AI as the new blockchain, the new Bitcoin, the new get rich quick scheme that doesn’t require actually making anything, means that now Apple has to either keep up with producing bullshit as a service or craft a meaningful story as to why their vision for machine learning is actually better and more sensible and safer and reliable. And there are rumblings that like so many head coaches in the age of NIL, Tim Cook is looking at the changed landscape and thinking “this would be a lot easier if it were someone else’s problem,” and at that point, who knows. It’s not hard to see a new Amelio or Spindler running the company into the ground – after all, their dominance is largely American; the rest of the world runs on Android and WhatsApp. I could get by without Apple on a personal level – it would be less elegant, more of a pain in the ass, and my whole life would be constantly filleted for advertising and training large language models, but I could get by. (The Google Pixel 8A is actually a very attractive device that should be lighting a fire under Apple in the $500 space, but who even knows if they want to sell a phone for less than four figures any more.) But my entire professional livelihood for that entire 27 years has relied on the Mac and other Apple goods, and I have probably fifteen years before I can retire.

I really need Cupertino not to fuck this up.