Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Achilles and Icarus - Matt Harvey and Why We Watch Baseball

Last night Mets pitcher Matt Harvey had another disasterous start in what has, thus far, been a nightmare season for him. As much as it pains me to see him struggling, I do have to take a half-step back and remember that this is why we watch sports - this is, as frustrating as it is, sports fandom at its best. Why? Because the Matt Harvey saga is, at its heart, a classic story. He is the best kind of hero - one whose strengths and flaws mirror the city in which he lives and the fans who wish to love him. He has been at times beloved and maddening, a hero and an anti-hero. Perhaps even, for a moment, the villain. He is why we watch sports.

How it Began

In 2013, a twenty-four year old Matthew Edward Harvey was the undeniable star of a struggling New York Mets pitching staff. After the departure of fan-favorite RA Dickey, it was pretty easy to stand out in the remaining crowd, and stand out Harvey did. Fans greeted each of his starts as "Harvey Day" as he collected strikeouts, earned an all-star game appearance, and took his place in the pantheon of great Mets pitchers. He was a relection of our city - brash and proud, but able to back it up. He felt bigger than the team. He enjoyed the nightlife. He talked himself up on Twitter. He posed nude in GQ. In a near-anonymous starting rotation, he was a rising superstar, replacing the quirkier and more intellectual Dickey. 

Then, as the 2013 season ended, he suffered an elbow injury which would keep him out of baseball for a full year recovering from Tommy John surgery.

A Triumphant Return, and a Plot Twist
After a year away, he returned and returned strong, though sometime wasn't quite the same. Young fireballer Noah Syndergaard joined the team, and "Happy Harvey Day" gave way to "Happy Thorsday" (for his resemblance to the comic-book version of the Norse thundergod). Still, he pitched magnificently, helping carry the team to a national league penant, with sudden hope for a championship. That is where the story gets interesting. This is why we watch. 

In the final weeks of the season Harvey, through his agent Scott Boras, expressed concern about the number of innings he was pitching. Nobody had ever thrown so many the year after surgery, and Boras expressed concern for his client's long-term health. The playoffs beckoned, with what felt like the first real chance at a championship the team had seen in nearly a decade. Here was Harvey, the returning hero, threatening to withdraw to his tent, leaving his comrades in arms overmatched for the battle ahead. It was a moment which crystallized the changes which had been brewing all year: the contrast between the brash, loud, prideful Harvey and the more humble, "aw shucks" Texas kid with the overpowering fastball. We still loved Harvey, but he wasn't the only story.

A Storybook Moment 
After weeks of debate, Harvey's pride won out. He took the ball every fifth day, through the end of the season and into the playoffs, right up until a perfect storybook moment: with the Mets down three games to one in the best of seven series, Harvey was pitching to keep the season and the Mets increasingly slim hopes alive. He did his job, pitching eight shutout innings, preserving a slim lead which Mets manager Terry Collins could then hand to ace reliever Jeurys Familia. This is another moment in which we see pride - his tragic flaw - at work. Harvey demanded that he be given the ball to start the ninth inning. It was, after all, the perfect ending - after injury and absence, anger and controversy the returning hero was on the field of play. It was as a scene from a movie, but better than a movie. It was real. 

The crowd was chanting his name.
The manager handed him the ball for one final inning. 
He was determined.
He was strong.
He was Matt Harvey. 

And he failed, allowing two baserunners who would eventually score, sending the trophy to Kansas City, and sending the Mets home. Defeated.

Onward to today
It's a new year, and something in Harvey seems broken. He's been unable to pitch past the fifth inning, losing control and losing command. There were rumors and whispers that after his LAST bad start he was given the option to skip his next turn. To work on fixing what was wrong. To get stronger. To rest his arm. 

Harvey's fatal flaw is still hubris; nobody who has paid any attention would expect him to willingly skip a start. So he took the ball, against the Washington team who had humiliated him just a week prior.
And he lost.


This is where the story stands. Harvey is, as I said, like the city in which he lives. Strong, brash, proud, and flawed. He's perhaps reached a crossroad at which he will confront his demons, face whatever weakness has sapped his strength, and return better than ever.

Or not. 

Why do I watch sports? THIS is why I watch sports. For the story, and because I don't know what the next act will bring. Is it the tale of the brash young hero who overcomes his darkest moment, to arise phoenix-like and again become the hero we expect Matt Harvey to be? Or will he be a modern Icarus, who for one glorious moment soared overhead, almost reaching the sun itself before falling to earth, never to fly again?

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Notes from a reading: An Evening at the Brooklyn Museum

Yesterday the Brooklyn Museum (in Brooklyn New York, of course) kicked off May with their "first Saturday" program, in which the museum features free readings, entertainment, cultural programs, and even museum admission. This also happened to be a Saturday when I was already to be in Brooklyn for my niece's fourth birthday party (at a wonderful old carousel in Prospect Park, giving me an easy opportunity to wander to the museum for the one free event which caught my eye: a reading and discussion with Nnedi Okorofor, N.K. Jemisin, and Ibi Ozoi. This event consisted of brief readings followed by a panel discussion and Q&A. Members of the Brooklyn-based multi-media arts collective BKLN ZULU shared the stage with the writers, proving background music and video for the reading portion.

Nnedi Okorofor
I've mentioned Okorofor earlier on these pages for her younger readers' fiction. She's also written some very smart and very different adult SF novels, including the "aliens invade Nigeria" novel Lagoon from which she read yesterday evening. Her work is hard to classify, straddling the lines between science fiction, fantasy, and "Afro-futurism" (more on that label later). I honestly found the inclusion of the supernatural in what was otherwise a science fiction novel to be jarring at first, but fiction SHOULD be jarring. If it isn't, then it's likely not that interesting, or at least not taking any chances or risks. In the following conversation, Okorofor called out the sharp division between fiction dealing with the supernatural and fiction which is strictly "realistic" to be a peculiarly Western phenomenon, while other cultures have more comfort weaving the mystical and the mundane. The chapters she read involved an encounter between an internet scammer and Ijele, a supernatural  Igboo entity called a Masquerade, reminiscent of street performances but, in this context, all too real. Okorofor had quite a commanding reading presence, and the multimedia dovetailed very well with her work, abstract colors interspersed with the computer-generated text of classic email scams.

N.K. Jemisin
Next to read was N.K. Jemisin, who did not read from her ongoing Broken Earth series of novels because she thought - perhaps rightly - that secondary-world fantasy is tough to introduce in this format. Instead she went to an older work, a piece she wrote for a lesbian steampunk anthology. Hers was the most playful of the three, dealing with the perfectly absurd (yet undeniably fun) assumptions made in Steampunk settings. Eschewing the more traditionally Steampunk Victorian England or American West, Jemisin proposed a world in which Haiti grew to superpower status following a successful slave revolt, defending itself with rum-fueled Dirigibles. Yes, it's insane on its face, but no more so than any other Steampunk futures. Her  reading was the most playful, but there was an edge behind it in the wish-fulfilment of an oppressed people fighting to keep their freedom - and a character recounting the horrors of how slaves were tortured following an earlier, failed revolt. It toed the line between "fun" and "serious wonderfully. Sadly, Jemisin is getting over a bit of a bronchial infection, interrupting an otherwise wonderful reading with periodic coughing. Like the other two women, she commanded a strong presence on the stage. She's quite active and vocal on Twitter (about writing and about politics), but uses the image of a housecat as her avatar, so I've never had a mental image of her. I can report that in person she does not look like a housecat.

Ibi Zoboi
The final reading was Ibi Zoboi, the only one of the three writers I didn't already know. The work from which she read is YA novel taking place in Detroit and featuring a young Hatian protagonist in an encounter with Legba, a mystical person who, like the devil, stands at crossroads and has presence in this life and the next (part of me wonders if the image of the devil at a crossroad is borrowed from this tradition, if they developed independently in parallel, or if the Haitians borrowed from Christians. Either way, the two images are similar, but different). She did a lovely job with the voices of her different characters, and again was supported by multimedia. I found it interesting that Zoboi and Okorofor used similar elements to very different effect - Okorofor's Ijele was powerful, alien (not in the literal "from space" sense, but in the "not like us" sense) and unknowable. Papa Legba, on the other hand, walked in the guise of a homeless man, answered questions, and sang cryptic little riddle-songs which I'm sure will serve to answer challenges her protagonist will have in her journey.

Following the reading was a discussion on writing, on the place these writers hold as African-American women in the SF world and publishing at large, and a bit on classification. Okorofor gave the most personal about herself, opening the discussion with a digression to recount masquerades in Nigeria where, as an American-ibo  visitor, she was often a target of the masked figures chasing kids through the streets. She pointed at one of the members of BKLN ZULU (the one in the grass-looking outfit) and said that the one she remembers looked just like him! There was also a personally (to me) shocking moment when she recounted the beginning of her life as a writer as needing the activity to keep herself sane after being (temporarily) paralyzed following spinal surgery to correct severe scoliosis. Those of you who've followed me know our recent history with that issue; while our experience wasn't hers and I don't know first-hand what it is like to live with back pain and surgery, I DO know something from seeing it up close. It gave me the absolute deepest sympathy for Okorofor and left me thankful that she was able to channel that difficult experience into a flourishing career as a successful and acclaimed writer. Jemisin told of being sent off on "adventures" when she was a child, with a subway token, a few dollars, and a destination. Later, in the Q&A section, she discussed "living a life" as the one thing writers don't discuss enough. She thinks "write what you know" is poor advice, especially for a fantasist writing about a world in which there are people who can control earthquakes. Her advice is to live, experience, and learn what you want to write about. Unlike Okorofor, she's always seen herself as a writer, binding little books with cardboard and yarn as a grade-school student.

In another note from the discussion, the panelists didn't much care for the term "Afro-futurist". Jemisin isn't that interested in labels overall, and wants people to read her work regardless of what it's called (and would write whether or not anyone read her). For one thing, it's a term which predates "Afro-futurist" literature, originally applied to a musical genre. For another thing, it's seen by some as an American term, marginalizing actual African artists. I'm in agreement with Jemisin on this, in that I'm not a huge fan of genre labels. I'm an unapologetic fantasy and SF fan, but I'm fine getting literature in my SF and SF in my literature. That Okorofor mixes fantasy elements in her SF and that Jemisin's work has fantasy elements but can be read as SF are not only fine with me, but really positive developments. We should think about how fiction makes us think and how it makes us feel rather than squabble over which box into which it should be put.

Finally, there was a Q&A. I'd like to speak to my fellow audience members for a moment. First, "I have a comment...." isnt' a question. It's a comment. I showed up to listen to the panelists, not random audience members. Second, "I have three questions...." is not a question. It's three questions. If there's a line of six people at each of two microphones then you're not doing anyone any justice by asking three questions at once. Finally, I know that the panelists were African American SF writers. I know that Octavia Butler and Sam Delaney are African American SF writers. That doesn't mean you have to ask about them! It strikes me as slightly reductive to bring in Butler every time there's a discussion of African American women in SF. (That said, all three writers had interesting answers regarding Butler, so what do I know? I was especially intrigued by Zoboi admitting her disappointment on finding that the Butler  was not as  "black liberation" focused as she expected her to be. I still think it was a silly question).

Quibbles about the Q&A aside, it was a wonderful evening and a great chance to hear from some of the most interesting writers in SF today and, as an added bonus, have a few free moments to tour the museum. I've not talked about "diversity" in this piece, but it IS noteworthy that these are not only three African-American women, but that two of them are among my favorite writers. Without taking some effort to do otherwise, many of us only read those who echo our experiences, who fit what we expect, who feel easily relatable. This is a disservice to ourselves more than to the community at large, and a trap into which I've fallen at some points in my life. The point isn't that you should read these women because they're African-American women; it's that you should read a broad section of everything available to broaden your context and your experiences. To be a complete person, we need to experience more than one kind of book, more than one kind of thinking, more than one culture. 

As I said, this was a wonderful and special evening. Hats off the the Brooklyn Museum for hosting this event and to Okorofor, Jemisin, and Zoboi for their participation.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Flash Fiction Friday - Messages to the Dev Team

It's Flash Fiction Friday!!

This is about art, about adaptation. A quick throwaway, painted with perhaps too broad a brush but fun to write nonetheless.

Adaptations are interesting. The best take the source-material and create something new which couldn't exist without both the original AND the input of the new creator. The worst... well, the worst ignore the source material entirely, save as window dressing.

With so many of the new content created in the 20th century - from Superman to Gandalf to Mickey Mouse - locked up in what appears to be indefinite copyright we'll continue to look to the past for inspiration.

From: GameBoss (
Subject: Re: Hamlet Playtest


Just got through the first part. Nice job so far! There are a few things we need to tweak before we think about going live.

1) I'm a third of the way in, and he hasn't said "To be, or not to be". We need to include this! Without it, it won't feel like "Hamlet" -- it may as well be just any FPS. Maybe it can be a kiss-off line? He can just say "not to be" when he offs someone?

2) We want this to feel literary. Do you think the "Something is rotten" voiceover at the beginning fits the tone we're looking for?

3) The ghost scene needs to be more interactive. Maybe the player has to fight the ghost to get it to tell him its secret? We can't just hand out plot points for free, especially at the start. Interactivity!


From: GameBoss (
Subject: Re: Re: Hamlet Playtest


Thanks for the continued hard work. And yes, I know it's just you. But we need to think like a company, right? So DevTeam messages go to the DevTeam group - no matter how many or how little people that is. Fake it til we make it, right?

I didn't realize that about the "something rotten" line. You think it's as famous as the "Not to be" thing? We definitely need to use that one more. Let 'em know they're playing Hamlet!

Anyway, we need to talk about Ophelia. There's no vavoom there, if you know what I mean. I've been reading up on this, and do you know that "nunnery" can mean "whorehouse" as well as "convent"? What if we go for a sexy-nun look for her? And unlock sexier options as the game moves on.

Also her boobs should be bigger.

Good job, DevTeam!


From: GameBoss (
Subject: Ophelia


Awesome job with the Ophelia redesign. We might want to work on a nude skin for her too. Maybe a super-high-level reward for a flawless win or something. Or purchased extra content. We'll see.

Speaking of rewards, we need to talk about the ending. It's way to hard. Even with the "godmode" code I die every time. Laertes always taps me with the poisoned sword (nice touch!) and I can never heal enough to not die. Maybe nerf the poison a bit?

You did a great job with the castle setting. I like all the fog.


From:GameBoss (
Subject: Re: re: Ophelia


No, that won't work at all. I like thinking out of the box, but no choice but to die at the end? That's too much a downer. This is Hamlet, one of the greatest works in the English language. The player should feel good about himself after he finishes it, not sad and depressed.

Maybe that skull from the graveyard scene can do something. It seems we spent lots of time introducing it and then it just vanishes. Maybe when Laertes is about to stab you the skull flashes and the killing blow is redirected to Horatio. That way the skull stands for the people around him who died to make Hamlet who he is. Symbolism. That's what makes this literary. Symbolism.

Good work with all this. I think we're making real art.

The gaming community will soon have the Hamlet they've always deserved.