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And So To Fade Away
2009-02-04 02:21
by Ken Arneson

To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.

-- Herman Melville

This blog entry is my white whale. It has been my nemesis since the genesis of this blog. I have never been able to tame it or capture it. My goal in starting the Catfish Stew blog was not, like so many other baseball blogs, to second-guess The Management, but to express what it feels like to be an Oakland A's fan. If I have failed as a blogger, it is because I lacked the willpower to bring myself to tell this story, to confront the core pain of my mission. Would Herman Melville have succeeded if he had tried to write his masterpiece without ever once mentioning Ahab's peg leg, the scar that drives his obsession? If you face the Truth, it hurts you; but if you look away, it punishes you.

Load the harpoons, gentlemen, it is showdown time. Today, my adventure as a baseball blogger ends. I'm going down, and I'm taking Moby Dick with me.

We look back and analyze the events
of our lives, but there is another way
of seeing, a backward-and-forward-at-once
vision, that is not rationally understandable.

Only God can understand it.
Satan made the excuse, You caused me to fall,
whereas Adam said to God, We did this
to ourselves.
After this repentance,
God asked Adam, Since all is within
my foreknowledge, why didn't you
defend yourself with that reason?


Adam answered, I was afraid,
and I wanted to be reverent.

~ Rumi

This is the last post on the Baseball Toaster network.  Unplugging the Toaster feels like a failure to me. Or more precisely, as its founder and presumptive leader, it feels like a failure by me. I did this to us. I feel like I should apologize to everyone affected. I could try to rationalize it, to argue that there are larger, more powerful forces at play than I could control, that this outcome was in many ways inevitable. But that's not what I feel in my gut. I feel like I should have tried harder to make this thing succeed, fought harder to win.

One of the blessings of age is to have learned to recognize my feelings for what they are. This feeling of failure is the American in me.

He who has never failed somewhere, that man can not be great.

-- Herman Melville

When you ask people what the "Great American Novel" is, two candidates tend to be mentioned above all others: Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Huck Finn probably best represents the American condition: two people, one white, one black, floating together down the great American river. Moby Dick, on the other hand, represents in Captain Ahab the American character: the utter refusal to accept failure, the relentless rush towards greatness, regardless of the cost.

When you, here, every one of you, were kids, you all admired the champion marble player, the fastest runner, the toughest boxer, the big league ball players, and the All-American football players.

Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser. Americans despise cowards. Americans play to win all of the time. I wouldn't give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That's why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.

--General George Patton

It's interesting to look at the 2008 Presidential election as a choice between the two Great American Novels, America's two metaphorical visions of itself. The Moby Dick version presents an America with a white whale to conquer. Patton's generation had the Nazis as their white whale, while Ronald Reagan's generation had the Communists. Those were Moby Dick kind of fights, where the mission is clear and unambiguous, where a single-minded obsession with victory was exactly what was required of us. John McCain, like Captain Ahab, is a salty old wounded and battle-tested captain, who clearly views the War Against Terrorism as another such white whale, where a clear victory over the Bad Guys is the only acceptable outcome.

But America had another choice, the Huckleberry Finn model. In Huck Finn, the enemy is more Ourselves than the Other Guy. Winning does not result in the defeat of the opponent, but in merging with them. Barack Obama is a Black-White-Christian-Muslim-African-Asian-Minority-Elitist-Pragmatic-Liberal-American, the ultimate merger of opposites, a one-man Huck & Jim.

After seven years of fighting terrorism as a Moby Dick battle, America decided to change models, to test if merging with the enemy is more effective than defeating them. America decided to float off on a newly constructed, untested raft, with racially ambiguous leadership, heading whereever the currents take them, with our objectives messy and undefined, into directions unknown.

When a baby is taken from the wet nurse,
it easily forgets her
and starts eating solid food.

Seeds feed awhile on ground,
then lift up into the sun.

So you should taste the filtered light
and work your way toward wisdom
with no personal covering.

That's how you came here, like a star
without a name. Move across the night sky
with those anonymous lights.

~ Rumi

We each begin life as Hyphenated-Humans of some sort, and accumulate more hyphens as we move through society. We get scarred both by the history of our own mistakes and losses and failures, and by those with whom we associate. These scars, like the wound that gave Ahab his limp, like the seedling that has not yet broken through the earth, make us experience the world with a dirty filter. We become biased, and we cannot see the whole, clear truth.

This Rumi poem suggests that we can eventually grow beyond our biases, but we cannot avoid them. We begin like seeds, growing in the dirt. We are nourished to maturity by the dirt, and if we succeed, we can finally break through the dirt to finally see the world clearly. And yet, even then, we still remain rooted to the earth.

If I am to confront my failure, I must confront both my inner Moby Dick, and my inner Huck Finn. I must be honest about my obsessions, honest about my identity, and honest about the conflicts between them. I have a simple story to tell. But to tell it right, I must recognize the dirt, stop hiding my scars, and show my limp.

I was a seedling of Swedish parents in the East Bay outside San Francisco. The California sun shone through our windows, while the Swedish tongue echoed off our walls. We attended a Swedish-language church. I became a fan of the nearby Oakland Athletics, who won three straight World Series championships when I was at the most impressionable ages of six to eight. Consciously or subconsciously, I came to taste the light through the filter of my Swedish-Lutheran-A's-fan-American roots. It is a nearly unalterable part of my identity, the personal covering hardest for me to shed.

Everyone’s born into losing. Can you bear witness to the losing and continue to show up, year after year?

-- Josh Wilker, Cardboard Gods

I remember clearly my first scar as an Oakland A's fan. The championships from 1972-1974 spoiled me from the start. I began my fandom expecting victory, as if winning were the most natural thing in the world. And though they lost in the playoffs in 1975, the A's still won their division for the fifth straight year. A young A's fan couldn't complain much. I thought the A's were perfect in every way.

But on April 2, 1976, the A's cheapskate owner, Charlie Finley, traded my favorite player, Reggie Jackson, to the Baltimore Orioles. That news stung a bit, but the shock didn't really strike me until an incident two weeks later.

I went with my mom to pick up my dad from the Oakland Airport. I remember going into the bathroom while my parents were waiting at the baggage carousel. As I walked back, I looked up and realized I was walking towards the baggage claim area side by side with Reggie Jackson himself.

I was flabbergasted. I wanted to say something, anything, but I was so excited, I was stunned speechless. What do you say to the man you considered your hero? So I just continued walking alongside him, in silence, until we reached the baggage claim.

That's where I got my emotional scar--not from Reggie, but from his luggage. He had been gone from the Oakland A's no more than two or three weeks. Yet his suitcases were already completely plastered with Baltimore Orioles decals.

I could tolerate the idea of Reggie playing on another team. That was Charlie Finley's mistake, not Reggie's. But Reggie's luggage advertised something much more hurtful than that: it announced in bright orange colors that Reggie was happy to leave. Why? Why did he want to forsake us? With that rejection, trading Reggie Jackson away no longer meant simply losing the magical moments that hadn't happened yet. It meant rewriting a perfect, glorious past into an uglier, messier story.

One year later, the A's dynasty collapsed completely. The other great players who helped the A's win those championships all left for other teams with less frugal owners. Suddenly, the A's were not a great team, but a horrible one. Over the next three years, the A's were the worst team in their division.

I don't know if there's a Great Swedish Novel to represent all Swedishness. If there's a Great Swedish Artist, however, it's director Ingmar Bergman. Here is the opening image of Bergman's Fanny & Alexander, the 1982 film that Bergman intended to serve as a summary and a final act of his brilliant career. A 10-year-old Alexander sits quietly, studying the scenery, daydreaming, and looking rather bored:
Untitled

It's clear Fanny & Alexander is not an American film. There are no great battles, no car chases, no explosions, no mighty adventures, no triumphant romances. The central theme is essentially Swedish: the conflict between the pure, intense love of life that bursts into bloom in the short Swedish summers, and the harsh climate that makes a fear of failure and strict Lutheran discipline essential for survival during the long, dark, frozen winters.

Bergman has a simple story to tell. He takes his time to tell it. The plot unfolds slowly, patiently. Every personality gets a full opportunity to blossom. Every character shows their limp, figuratively or, in the case of the voluptuous servant Maj, literally. Bergman is not rushing towards victory. And what victories arise are always magical, mysterious, haunting and untrustworthy.

There is no mention of the following season, in which [Todd] Van Poppel went 7 and 10 with a 6.09 ERA. This is a normal omission for baseball cards and last days of the year. You try not to dwell on things like failure, humiliation, disappointment, regret.

Likewise, you think of the future not as a minefield of anxiety and discouragement but as an uncomplicated distance to stride across, a mountain to scale, a series of batters to fan, a line for the back of the card that will make all the lines preceding it seem like a strange, soulful prelude to happiness.

--Josh Wilker, Cardboard Gods

Certainly, we baseball-fan-Americans don't like to dwell on disappointments like the 1977-79 Oakland A's, or on Todd Van Poppel, a teenage phenom who back in 1991 was supposed to be The Next Savior for our team. Van Poppel never lived up to the hype, and turned out to have a modest, but unimpressive career. Forget these losers, we Americans say, let's move on to the next winner.

If you're Ingmar Bergman, though, you live to dwell on the losers.

Fanny & Alexander is structured like three of the four Swedish seasons. It begins in a kind of metaphorical autumn. It's set at Christmas time, but shot in a home full with the colors of the fall, full of reds and golds and browns. But autumn implies impending death, and Alexander's father is dying. His passing is not sudden. He fades away slowly, with enough time to declare his loves and say goodbye.

Then a symbolic winter sets in. Alexander's mother, Emilie, gets remarried to a Lutheran bishop. Life becomes hard, difficult, cold. The bishop's home is bereft of embellishment, bereft of color, as white and blank and lifeless as empty fields of snow. The bishop decides Alexander needs to give up his childish imagination, to learn the benefits of tough discipline. Alexander's life becomes one tight fist perpetually in his face, ready to punch him with life's harsh realities at any time.

Untitled

Winter feels like it will last forever.

Spring eventually does come, and when it does, it comes as a miracle. And there, the film ends. Bergman leaves the summer unexamined. It is as if, in Josh Wilker's words, "all the lines preceding it seem like a strange, soulful prelude to happiness." But Bergman seems to say, let's linger on the prelude, on failure, humiliation, disappointment, regret--those are things we can understand. Happiness, on the other hand, is a Pandora's Box, best left unopened, not to be trusted. There be ghosts in there.

Untitled

In 1980, Charlie Finley hired Billy Martin to manage the Oakland A's. Martin was the Captain Ahab of baseball managers: emotionally scarred, hot-tempered, confrontational, self-destructive, but brilliant at his job and driven to win to the point of obsession. Martin would never last more than a couple years in any one job before he'd wear out his welcome, and so it was in Oakland. He took a young, last place team with a talented rookie named Rickey Henderson and guided it to a second place finish in 1980. In 1981, the A's won the division, before losing to Reggie Jackson and the New York Yankees in the playoffs.

But Martin, in his obsession to win, overused the arms of his best young pitchers, and they were never the same again. Martin got fired, and the A's again collapsed into awfulness, and spending five more years as hapless losers, during which the A's once again got rid of their best player. Worse, this time it was a superstar who actually grew up in Oakland. Rickey Henderson was gone, traded to the Yankees. The cycle had repeated.

Is there some principal of nature which states that we never know the quality of what we have until it is gone?

-- Herman Melville

In 1979, when I was 13, my parents divorced and I moved to Sweden with my mom. Like Alexander's deportation into the harsh home of his new stepfather, moving to Sweden was my own life's winter exile. I had come to a cold, dark, and to me, mysterious place. It was a different culture, with different rules. Speaking Swedish and attending a Swedish church felt somewhat normal, but many other things were alien to me. The cold. The snow. The months on end where the sun only makes a short cameo each day. The paucity of choices. Sweden was a much more isolated place in its Cold War neutrality, before the European Union, before the Internet, before globalization. Sweden liked Western culture, but they acted afraid to be too Western. After all, the United States was thousands of miles away across an wide ocean, but the Soviet Union lurked about 100 miles from Stockholm, right across the Baltic. So there were Corn Flakes, but not Frosted Flakes. Plain potato chips, but no corn chips, no Doritos. Hamburgers made from Swedish pork, but no beefy Big Macs. Two, and only two, TV channels, both government owned, broadcasting a mere five or six hours a night, showing only the kinds of shows you can imagine a socialist government would think is good for you. No corrupting capitalist advertising, no subversive Bugs Bunny cartoons after school, no violent cop shows after dinner. And no baseball, at all, anywhere.

I was like a shirt that had been turned inside out. The hidden became visible, and the visible went missing. In America, I was Swedish-Lutheran-American. In Sweden, I became Swedish-Lutheran-American.

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The Great Swedish-American Artwork is neither a novel nor a movie, it's a sporting event: the epic, five set 1980 Wimbledon final between Björn Borg and John McEnroe. This could only been a more perfect metaphor for my inner conflicts if Borg and McEnroe had swung baseball bats instead of tennis rackets. Borg, the veteran from the old country, played with the icy, cold discipline typical of his Lutheran heritage, content to wait, wait, wait at the baseline until the right play revealed itself to him. McEnroe had a young Billy Martin-type personality-- fierce, petulant, ready to explode at any moment, willing to do anything to win no matter who got hurt in the process, impatiently rushing to the net to win every point as quickly as he could.

The thing that made their confrontation so compelling is that their personalities were central to their success. McEnroe could never succeed if he was passive and patient, and Borg could never succeed if he was emotional and impulsive. They each had to win in their own way.

Whenever I'm aggressive, forcing the action, angry about failures, insistent on success, that's my inner McEnroe, winning that interminable 18-16 fourth set tiebreaker. And whenever I overcome these instincts, whenever I stay disciplined and patient, that's the Björn Borg in me, outlasting the opponent, winning 8-6 in the fifth.

The hard part is knowing which side of my duality to reveal at which moment.

Take two of the versions of Sinatra singing “My Way.”

The first was recorded in 1969 when the Chairman of the Board said to Paul Anka, who wrote the song for him: "I'm quitting the business. I'm sick of it. I’m getting the hell out." In this reading, the song is a boast — more kiss-off than send-off — embodying all the machismo a man can muster about the mistakes he's made on the way from here to everywhere.

In the later recording, Frank is 78. The Don Costa arrangement is the same, the words and melody are exactly the same, but this time the song has become a heart-stopping, heartbreaking song of defeat. The singer's hubris is out the door. (This singer, i.e. me, is in a puddle.) The song has become an apology.

To what end? Duality, complexity. I was lucky to duet with a man who understood duality, who had the talent to hear two opposing ideas in a single song, and the wisdom to know which side to reveal at which moment.

~ U2's Bono, in the New York Times

All Along the Watchtower

"There must be some way out of here," said the joker to the thief,
"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth,
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth."

 

"No reason to get excited," the thief, he kindly spoke,
"There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke.
But you and I, we've been through that, and this is not our fate,
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late."

 

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too.
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl,
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.


~ Bob Dylan

I was greatly amused by the blogosphere's predictable reaction to Bono's debut essay in the New York Times. "Awful." "Absurdity...beyond parody." "Inane and totally pointless fartings". "Truly dreadful...the words make no sense at all. Ever." For blogging, I have found through experience, is a medium that punishes emotional and associative arguments. If you dare make an argument that does not logically follow from Point A to Point Z through Points B to Y, your commenters and fellow bloggers will snarl with their razor-sharp teeth of rationality, and quickly tear your little argument to shreds like a pack of hungry wolves pouncing on a fresh kill.

I put the core of Bono's essay and Bob Dylan's All Along the Watchtower side-by-side to illustrate the point. In a way, if you look at the phrases in bold, they're both making the same argument. Imagine if the New York Times had hired Bob Dylan instead of Bono, and Dylan had introduced All Along the Watchtower as an op-ed instead of a song. Would the blogosphere's reaction been much different? And yet, published in the right medium, that same message is a classic, having been covered by Jimi Hendrix and U2 and Bruce Springsteen and... well, just about anybody who is anybody in rock music.

So perhaps my experiment in blogging about what fandom feels like was doomed no matter how well I wrote. Perhaps a blog is simply the wrong medium for the task. Or maybe my mind just isn't suited for the medium. The short, punchy, and to-the-point rational arguments that the most successful bloggers seem to employ just isn't how my brain works. Just as all these bloggers advised Bono to "stick to music", perhaps I should have just stuck with limerick gig. The Score Bard poems weren't rational, but the were the closest to short and punchy I could manage.

(And here's where my blogging scars compel me to put qualifiers --- no, I don't mean to imply Bono's as good a lyricist as Dylan, or that I could in the right setting be as good a writer as Jon Weisman or Alex Belth or Josh Wilker or --- grrrrrr, to hell with all that. After today, I'm outta here. If you're going to miss the point, to quibble like that about my writing, to insist on your own point of view, you simply don't know what any of it is worth. Screw you. I'm done wasting time on the likes of you.)

The others throw to be comprehended. He
Throws to be a moment misunderstood.
Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.

Not to, yet still, still to communicate
Making the batter understand too late.

--Robert Francis (via VPR)

It is my belief, my theory, that sometime in the distant past, the ancestors of modern day humans developed the need or desire to share memories with each other, to deliberately transfer pieces of information from one brain to another.  These proto-humans, like other mammals, possessed two different kinds of memories, now called declarative and procedural memories.

For each of these memory types, humans evolved a specific method of transfer. To transfer declarative memories (which are mostly facts), humans use language. To transfer procedural memories (which are mostly patterns), humans developed art.

To complain that a song's lyrics don't make sense misses the point. If the lyrics did make sense, the artist would be transferring the wrong type of memory--placing facts into declarative memory instead of placing patterns into procedural memory.

Take a song like U2's Bad. Bono says that the song is about the death of a friend from a heroin overdose. Really? If Bono had never explained that fact, I could read the lyrics for decades without ever realizing it was about heroin.

Yet the song is effective whether or not I have that fact in my brain. The lyrics dive into the realm of pattern recognition, but keep out of the declarative memory system by deliberately avoiding any facts. When creating art, being understood on a linguistic level is at best irrelevant, and often counterproductive.

Hearing these "Bad" lyrics, the most you can grab onto is a vague sense of a foreseeable but unavoidable failure. And that's what U2 is trying to communicate: what it feels like to know that failure is coming, but being unable to take the steps to stop it. Then the harmonies pile on to this sense: nearly the whole song, verse and chorus, is but three chords--A, D, and Dsus2 (or Asus4; same notes)--rocking back and forth like a pendulum without variation. Moreover, unlike a normal three-chord rock song like All Along the Watchtower, all three of these chords contain one constant, persistent note, an A.

There's no escape, except--just before our protagonist fades away into the final, permanent slumber of failure, he has a moment of clarity, an instant of understanding, where he realizes his mistake. He shouts, "I'm wide awake!" three times, and on the second one, finally bursts free of the tyranny of these three chords, with a cathartic Gsus2 (but sorry, this new chord still has that inescapable A), before quickly settling back into to the old familiar pattern. He understood too late.

That’s what I think of any and all words in the aftermath of unspeakable events. Too late. You can look for someone to blame, some way that some or all of the bloodshed could have been avoided. You can psychoanalyze the murderer. You can send in troops or fighter jets or extra security to check everyone for handguns and grenades. You can even make speeches and talk about God. Too late. All of it. Too fucking late.

~ Josh Wilker

U2 released Bad in 1984, two years after Fanny & Alexander was released. If I hadn't read the heroin story, I'd have guessed that Bono has inspired by the Bergman film. The climax of Bad and the pivotal scene in Fanny & Alexander are eerily similar.

Spoilers: To escape from her strict and suffocating marriage, Emilie gives the bishop an overdose of sleeping pills. As the bishop suddenly realizes the error of his ways, understands that everything he has believed and wanted and done is now backfiring on him, that his strict rules and tight discipline haven't beaten Emilie into submission but into a desperate rebellion, he cries out in a moment of clarity, "Jag är vaken. Jag är fruktansvärd vaken!"  "I am awake! I am terribly awake!"

Sorry, Bishop. Understanding won't help you now. The events have been put into motion. You're too late.

What does it feel like to get everything you ever wanted, and still have it be hauntingly disappointing? (More spoilers:) Bergman never makes it clear who is responsible for the bishop's demise. Emilie had a role, as did the bishop himself, the bishop's mother, and Fate. Plus, if thoughts can kill, Alexander is just as culpable for the bishop's death as his mother. As a result, Alexander will never be able to fully enjoy his victory. The instant he feels happy and triumphant, the bishop's ghost walks by and knocks him down. "You cannot avoid me," explains the ghost.

Untitled Untitled

[Michael Rymer] and I had to agree on a look for the [spoiler] sequences.  We sat down and the first thing each of us said was, "Ingmar Bergman."  End of discussion.  We used wide lenses, pulled almost all the color out, and shot in long takes.


~ Michael Nankin, Battlestar Galactica director

Describing the Oakland A's 1989 World Series triumph over their cross-bay rivals, the San Francisco Giants is also as simple as those two words: "Ingmar Bergman." 

For how better can you describe these events than as the cruel intentions of a Bergmanesque God? The A's and Giants had never met in the World Series since moving to the Bay Area (and haven't since), so the unlikely event was cause for much rejoicing in an area where most people, including myself, root for both teams. But as much as the Bay Area was united in hoping for this matchup, when the matchup actually took place, it forced people to take sides. No more waffling, no more trying to have it both ways. You must choose. Which hat are you going to wear? 

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I, of course, was rooting for the A's. I secured tickets to Game 1, and remember crossing over the BART ramp to the Coliseum just as the A's Game 1 starting pitcher, Dave Stewart, was arriving in the players parking lot below. The person in front of me shouted down to him, "Hey, Stew, you gonna win tonight?" Stewart looked up, and without a trace of doubt or hesitation in his voice, asserted a simple, "Yup." It is the most confident and reassuring word I have ever heard uttered by a human being in my life.  The tone of voice was as decisive as God declaring, "Let there be light."   At that moment, after fifteen years of failure, I knew the A's would at last return to the throne I believed as a child was rightfully theirs.

A few hours later, Stewart threw a complete-game shutout.  I beamed.  The events were in motion.  Victory, fully foreseeable and utterly unavoidable, was on its way.

And I beheld when He had opened the sixth seal, and lo, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood;

and the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs when she is shaken by a mighty wind.

~ Revelations 6:12-13

Half an hour before Game 3 was scheduled to begin, a 7.0 earthquake hit the Bay Area. Candlestick Park was largely undamaged, but the stadium lost power, and game was postponed.  Fire destroyed much of the Marina District in San Francisco, a freeway collapsed in Oakland, and the a section of the Bay Bridge linking the two cities together collapsed. Dozens died, many more were injured, buildings were destroyed, freeways were rerouted, and ferry boats were called back from retirement to help people cross the water when a once-mighty bridge could not. A region that had been united by mutual triumph, then forced by the nature of the event to pick sides and divide itself, suddenly found itself reunited by this shared trauma. The shift in mood was shocking, and contemplating the odds of this unlikely series of events was utterly dumbfounding.

Ten days later, the World Series resumed, and two days after that, the A's were World Champions. But nobody was in much of a mood to celebrate. It's hard to gloat about a victory when you feel a kinship with the opponents. It was probably the least satisfying major championship in the history of professional sports.

No theory will stand up to a chicken's guts
being cleaned out, a hand rammed up
to pull out the wriggling entrails,
the green bile and the bloody liver
no theory that does not grow sick
at the odor escaping.

~ David Ignatow

The 1989 victory has not become any more satisfying with the passage of time. Back in those years, I would usually show up at the Oakland Coliseum right as the gates opened, two hours before game time, just so I could watch Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire launch home run after home run in batting practice. Thousands of other fans did, too. It was a show that was just as entertaining, if not moreso, than the ballgame itself. Rooting for a team with that sort of firepower was intoxicating, and I loved feeling like a part of it.

A decade and a half later, the entrails were pulled out of the 1989 champions, as it was revealed that Canseco and McGwire had achieved their impressive strength with steroids. The original sin is theirs, but thinking back now on the pride I felt in their accomplishments, I feel dirty, too. All that time, I was rooting for frauds.

Once I passed through a populous city, imprinting on my brain, for future use, its shows, architecture, customs and traditions
But now of all that city I remember only the man who wandered with me there, for love of me,
Day by day, and night by night, we were together.

~ Walt Whitman

If Canseco and McGwire represent the sins of the A's, Rickey Henderson represents their redemption, their True Love. Circumstances would take Rickey away from Oakland many times--he had four different stints in an A's uniform in his brilliant Hall-of-Fame career--but he remained true and faithful until the end. We knew that he grew up here, still lives here, and whenever he left he would always choose to come back here if he could. His talent was genuine, no steroids, just a simple regimen of sit-ups and pushups that helped him maintain the precious balance of speed and power that made him uniquely great. And the fact that, after his major league career ended, he played several more seasons in the independent minor leagues for a pittance, showed that his love of baseball was unselfish and pure.

The unanswered question about the 1989 championship is this: was the championship stained by the sins of Canseco and McGwire, or redeemed by Rickey's mid-season return to an Oakland uniform, by the essential rightness of Rickey winning a championship in green and gold?

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

~ William Butler Yeats

Rickey Henderson's second coming in an Oakland uniform, coming at the peak of his career, was not just an event to celebrate for its own sake, it was also the catalyst that set all the events in motion which we are still dealing with today.  The current incarnation of the Oakland Athletics franchise, run by General Manager Billy Beane, had its roots in that second coming.  Rickey was the harbinger of death for inefficiency.

At the time, Beane was a right-handed batting backup outfielder for the A's, and was in a sort of semi-platoon, sharing an outfield position with the left-handed Luis Polonia.  On June 21, 1989, Rickey was traded back to the A's in exchange for Polonia, Eric Plunk and Greg Cadaret.  Beane and Rickey both batted right-handed so Beane lost his platoon partner, and even if that hadn't been the case, Rickey didn't need no platoon partner, anyway.  Rickey plays every day, against every pitcher.  Beane's playing time began to fade away.

Beane is now far more famous as a general manager than he ever was as a player.  His strict, disciplined methods for using statistical methods of evaluating players were chronicled in the best-selling book, Moneyball.  He has, and is, transforming his job from an art to a science, and his franchise from an uneven patchwork of players into a well-calibrated robotic machine for turning revenue into victories as efficiently as possible.

The inefficient old-school GM began to die the day Rickey returned to the A's.  Coincidentally, the inefficient political and economic system called Communism began falling apart right alongside Billy Beane's playing career:

Beane 1989 Communism
Last moment before descent begins, singling while pinch hitting for Mark McGwire June 4 Last moment before descent begins, before Solidarity wins free elections in Poland
Rickey traded to Oakland. June 21 Rickey traded to Oakland.
Beane gets last MLB hit, a single to CF off Bud Black August 16  
  August 19 Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a non-Communist, becomes Poland's prime minister.
  Late Sep Pro-democratic demonstrations begin in East Germany
Beane's last MLB plate appearance: sacrifice bunts with 1 out and a runner on 2nd in bottom of 11th. Oct 1  
Beane watches from bench as A's punish Blue Jays in playoffs--Canseco goes upper deck in the SkyDome, while Rickey hits 2 homers. Oct 7 Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev visits East Berlin, urges East Germany's hard-line Communist President, Eric Honecker, to reform, saying "He who is too late is punished by life." Honecker refuses.
Earthquake strikes Game 3 of the World Series Oct 17  
  Oct 18 Mass demonstrations force Honecker to resign.
  Oct 25 Soviet Foreign Minister Gennadi Gerasimov says in an interview that "political structures must be decided by the people who live there." He called this policy of allowing these Soviet satellites to go their own way, the "Sinatra Doctrine."
Oakland Athletics win World Series. Beane retires soon afterwards. Oct 28  
  Nov 9 Berlin Wall falls. Communism ends soon afterwards.

What was it like for Mikhail Gorbachev, seeing the Soviet empire dissolve in his hands, being unable or unwilling to stop it from happening? How did Billy Beane feel in 1989, knowing he was never going to be a great player like Rickey Henderson, that his career was slipping slowly away?

There comes a time when you have to choose, to decide whether to go down with the ship, like Captain Ahab, or to let it go, to let the dream fade away, to try something else.

Billy Beane made his fateful decision after the 1989 season. He could have probably stuck around in the majors for another year or three. But this was not a whale he could ever hope to defeat. He gave up playing baseball, and took a job with the A's as a scout. The rest is history.

I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

"All right, then, I'll GO to hell" -- and tore it up.

~ Huckleberry Finn

Untitled It seems appropriate that boats serve as major themes in the two greatest American novels. It captures a big part of the American experience: most of our families have stories about someone somewhere sometime getting on a boat, willingly or not, to cross a great ocean and begin a new life. My grandparents made the bold voyage over the Atlantic in the mid-1920s. I'm a second-generation dual citizen: my father and I were both born in America to parents with Swedish citizenship. My dad was born in Seattle in 1927, but grew up in Sweden. My grandparents moved back to the old country three years after my dad's birth when they lost their entire life savings in a Great Depression bank failure. Theirs was an American adventure that was deferred by American history.

Untitled The black and white pictures you see here are of my father, ages 16-17, during the summers of 1943 and 1944. He spent his summer vacations from school working for the Swedish military, camping out on one of the thousands of islands along the east coast of Sweden, performing the tedious task of being a lookout. They'd keep watch over the skies and the waters, looking for any signs of a Nazi or Soviet invasion. Because if either Hitler or Stalin reared his head and came into the air space of Sweden, where would they go? Over my dad's head. Fortunately for Sweden, despite having Communists to the east of them, and Nazis to the south, the only reports my dad had to phone in, as he is doing in the picture on the right, contained nothing but "all clear" messages.

You'd think that after two years of spending his vacations helping to defend Sweden against its potential enemies, my dad would have a clear allegiance to the blue and gold. But I guess my dad didn't look at his dualities that way. Something inside him made him opt to take the unfamiliar path over the familiar. When my dad turned 18 in March of 1945, he rebooted my family's American adventure. He enlisted in the American Army.

But don't be satisfied with stories, how things
have gone with others. Unfold
your own myth, without complicated explanation,
so everyone will understand the passage,
We have opened you.

~Rumi

It was never my intention to follow in my dad's footsteps: born in America, move to Sweden as a child, return to America at my first opportunity. It just happened that way.

When my parents divorced, I didn't really have the choice of staying with my dad in America. He worked for the US Navy, as an expert on electronics used on aircraft carriers. If something went wrong, he was the guy they'd send for, no matter where the carrier was. They'd fly him out to the carrier, in the middle of an ocean if need be, and have him fix whatever it was that needed fixing. But they wouldn't fly him back--it wasn't worth the cost to the Navy and he hated those takeoffs anyway--so he'd usually have to stay onboard until the boat came ashore somewhere. He was often gone for up to six weeks at a time. You can't leave a 13-year-old unsupervised for that long, so there was no decision to be made. I followed my mom back to her native Sweden.

I remember exactly when I decided to return to America. It was just after I had turned fifteen. I was in P.E. class. Our teacher, Bosse Fransson, was one of those great teachers who didn't just talk to you about the subject at hand, he talked to you about life. One day, he was telling the class a story, laying out a vision for our futures. And for whatever reason, he used me as an example in his story. He pictured me in the Great Swedish Dream, with a nice job and nice cozy home in the city in the winter, and a cottage by a lake in the summer, enjoying my five week vacation, steering a sailboat under the warm summer sun.

Until then, I had never really given much thought to my future. I had always just floated along with whereever the currents took me. But that day, I remember thinking, "That's it? That's my future? A sailboat? That's not what I want. That's not what I want at all."

A few months later, being old enough to have a choice, I crossed the Atlantic, and went to live with my dad.

 

Untitled

(Photo via Asten using Creative Commons license. Translation mine.)

I sometimes wonder if there's a bit of genetic or cultural selection in the American population. Those of us whose ancestors willingly made that ocean crossing are descended from people who are more genetically and/or culturally predisposed to take that big leap than the population they left behind. I have six cousins in Sweden, and only one of them shows any signs of the kind of wanderlust that drove my grandfather, father, and me to all toss aside our Swedish roots and replant ourselves on American soil. The others are so firmly rooted in their old, small hometowns it would shock me if they ever took me up on my standing invitation to come visit me across the pond, even if just for a week or two. There's a lack of ambition I find it difficult to relate to, even if I am related to it.

I don't necessarily think our way is better--my Swedish cousins seem quite content with their lives, while we seem perpetually uneasy with ours. How satisfied was my father was with his life? I'm sure he was proud of his service in keeping America Communist-free. Having a job that involved a lot of travel probably satisfied a lot of his need to keep moving. But would he have preferred another fate? When I was young, he lost a huge portion of our family's savings in a bad real estate deal. My mom was livid--that was my college money he had squandered--and made him swear that there would be no more risky speculations, and that he would make damn sure that I could go to college without ending up in debt.

He kept his promise. And once free of that obligation, right around my college graduation, he started wandering--moving here for one year, there for another, sometimes in Sweden, sometimes in America, each time leaving most of his possessions behind in the old place, and starting fresh in the new. When he died in 1996, he was living in a trailer in the desert outside of Las Vegas.

Now the dawn's broken even
On an empty horizon
No reason for folding
No reason to stay
It's too soon to be leaving
Too late for criticising
And the sands of Nevada
They go drifting away

~ Mark Knopfler

Cleaning out that trailer was the most stressful thing I've ever done.  Trying to capture his cat roaming around between the cacti and taking it to the shelter broke my heart.  My mouth exploded with about 40 or 50 canker sores.

I wrote the following poem, to try to deal with the grief:

 

An ant is crawling in my bathtub.
A lonely pioneer
in a deep dry canyon.

I lurk.
Like stormclouds.



Forty-five days
before my father passed away
he took me
one and a half hours
from his home in the desert
to Death Valley, California.

I saw:
Millenia.
A vast unchanging
thirsty sea of pure white salt
watched over by
long
impulsive
alien-skinned
rockfaces.

Eons.
Earthquakes and barren winds.

A century-
old abandoned building.
Futility.
Resignation.



I,
naked, thirsty,
cold and growing colder,
my face soiled, my muscles aching,
look down upon the oblivious ant.
He will not find fortune in that landscape.




I never asked my father
why he moved to the desert.

As we drove through the valley,
he expressed his admiration for the sagebrush;
how wisely they space themselves
so as to ration water,
how they wait years for a rare rain
to quickly bloom,
spread their seeds,
then fade away.

I think he found
in this dry, open desert
that miracles,
when spread apart,
are easier to see.



The adventure ends.
An inevitable grief
rains upon the valley.
The ant,
helpless against the mighty currents,
is gone.

The warm water cleanses.
Between the shower tiles
specks of mildew begin to grow.

 

Does sunset sometimes look like the sun's coming up?
Do you know what a faithful love is like?

You're crying. You say you've burned yourself.
But can you think of anyone who's not
hazy with smoke?

~ Rumi

1996 was the most profound, transformational year of my life.  My father died in January, and it took me a couple of months to clean up his affairs and recover emotionally.  A couple of months later, the business-to-business PC reseller I was working for was bought out by a larger B2B PC reseller.  I was kept on as a computer programmer to help the new company start developing intranet web technology.   Web technology was just getting started, and I happened to fall into it at just the right time.  But this larger company was just a massive, bureaucratic mess, and it quickly became clear that no intranet was ever going to happen quickly.   A small group of us, including the former CEO and CTO of our old company, quickly started scheming to form our own web business.  But what?

One day, a venture capitalist from Kleiner Perkins talked to our CEO and mentioned that Netscape, the new browser company, was having incredible trouble getting a foot in the door with resellers to sell their products to large corporations.  The problem was that Microsoft and/or Bill Gates owned a percentage of nearly every single major B2B reseller out there, including the one we worked for.  And none of those resellers were going to risk angering one of their major shareholders by helping Netscape compete with their owner.

And so a business model was formed.  We would join the crew of the USS Netscape in its quest to hunt down the mighty whale named Microsoft.  We would become their reseller, the place for businesses to buy web software.  It was perfect for us, because we already understood the B2B reselling business.  We would use web software to sell web software. And because our product was digital, we could dispense with the biggest expense of reselling:  maintaining a warehouse filled with boxes to ship.  I came up with the name for the company:  Intraware.

Then one morning in July, 1996, our CEO came bounding into the office.  "I just got off the phone.  We got funding!  Let's go start a business!"

Half an hour later, my wife called me.  "I just got the test results.  I'm pregnant."

All Software Companies Fail. So if you are ever in one which is worth anything, sell.

Lundblad's Law

The next few years were a blur.  I became a father.  I worked long hours, deep into the night.  Intraware grew quickly, and went public in February, 1999 at $16/share on the NASDAQ stock market.  On December 30, 1999, one day before the big millenium party, Intraware stock sold for $99 a share.  How the hell did that happen?  One day in 1996, we were three guys in a small room tossing around an idea, and three years later, that idea had a market cap of $2.1 billion.

Damn that party felt good.   Ingmar Bergman was not invited.  The new millenium was a summer that would last forever.

Of course, two months later, the dot-com stock bubble popped, and Intraware's stock value plummeted.  I managed to sell some shares in the interim, which made me comfortable, but still little compared to my fancy dreams or, say, an aging free agent middle reliever.  I wish, we all wish, we had known my friend Eric Lundblad's Law before all this happened.  Or that I had studied my Ingmar Bergman more carefully.  Still, I can't complain.  It's the history of my grandfather's and father's losses that made me cautious enough to sell the shares that I did, when most of my fellow co-workers held on, hoping for more.  My forebears suffering paid off, in a way, in the end.

Intraware survived the market crash of 2000, barely, but I left the company later that summer when my second child was born, and as the company was severely downsizing, shedding everything but the most profitable elements of the original business plan.   I used that money I made to take a break, spend time with the family, and recover from the intense rollercoaster adventure of the previous four years of my life.   Intraware ended up surviving longer than Netscape did, and was finally sold last month to Accresso Software, the maker of InstallShield, for $27 million.  They are still running on the original architecture I designed.  That's more reward, I think, than the modest check for my small remaining ownership that's probably now in the mail.  Ask me, maybe I'll buy you an ice cream cone next time we meet.  We'll celebrate what modest victories we get as they come.

I didn't last too long as a semi-retiree.  I quickly got itchy for something to do.  That yearning for adventure, where ever it comes from, sent me into the world of blogging not too long thereafter.  Next thing I knew, I had a wife, two kids, and a Baseball Toaster.

On the way to Mecca, many dangers:  Thieves,
the blowing sand, only camel's milk to drink.
Still, each pilgrim kisses the black stone there
with pure longing, feeling in the surface
the taste of the lips he wants.

This talk is like stamping new coins.  They pile up,
while the real work is done outside
by someone digging in the ground.

~ Rumi

Rumi, a philosopher who born in Afghanistan near Iran, moved to Baghdad, and then settled in Turkey, is currently the best selling poet in America.  Part of that is due to Coleman Barks' beautiful translations, and part of that is due to the times we live in, where people are seeking an alternative to an Ahab/whale relationship between the Muslim world and the west.  But mostly, it's because of the timeless and inclusive beauty of his words.

The last three lines of the poem directly above are especially apropos in these economic times.  America has been living on talk for too many years--creating "value" from money borrowed from someone else, instead of doing the hard, dirty work of creating something solid and real.

I learned a lesson from the follies of dot-com mania, and I tried to apply that to my efforts at Baseball Toaster.  To borrow a Muslim sentence structure, my mantra became, "there is no value but value."  That is, the only true value comes from the difficult task of creating products and services that human beings actually want and need.  Anything above and beyond that is a mirage, as fake as the muscles on Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, and will vanish quickly when the market finally gets close enough to realize its true nature.

I could never get past the thought that the business of selling banner ads is exactly such a mirage.  No reader wants to see them.  In fact, most people in eye-tracking tests ignore them completely.  I'm also convinced that 90% or so of all click-throughs on ads are accidental.  So the target audience doesn't want to see it, tries to ignore it, and the person buying the ad space is not really getting what they're paying for.  The best way to optimize banner ads is to place them in a way to be just below the threshold of annoying the readers so much that they'll leave the site.  I cannot grasp the value of the product.  To me, it's an awful business.

So I could never work up the obsessive drive needed to make the business work.  So I went into Björn Borg mode, keeping the ball in play, ball in play, ball in play, waiting for an opportunity to present itself.  It never did.  This was not a playing surface inducive to Borg tactics.  The John McEnroes of the blogging world--Jason Calacanis, Markos Moulitsas, Tyler Bleszinski--the guys who have been aggressive are the ones who are winning.  And good for them.  In this case, Gorbachev's warning, "He who is too late is punished by life," certainly applies to me.

Ironic, then, in my effort to prevent history repeat itself in failure due to overestimating the value of the product, I probably made history repeat itself due to underestimating it.  Meanwhile, on the triumphant side, I have, like my father, spent days upon days keeping watch against potential invaders. Over half of Toaster's user registrations are spam from either from Russia or Germany.  So, до свидания, mail.ru. Auf Wiedersehen, keymachine.de.  Once again, the Russians and Germans have failed to get past the watchful guard of the Arneson clan. 

There remains one unresolved causal loop.  Not wanting to repeat the mistakes of my father and grandfather, both of whom saw most of their life savings disappear in one fell swoop, I took my Intraware money and invested it in the safest investment I could find--California tax-free municipal bonds.  For the state of California would never default on its loans, would it?

Here we are, though, in 2009, after a series of bank failures (sound familiar, Grandpa?) caused by bad real estate investments (sound familiar, Dad?), the state of California now finds itself its biggest economic crisis ever.  Loan defaults are no longer an unimaginable impossibility.  They are an imaginable possibility.  And the person responsible for preventing me from repeating the mistakes of my father and grandfather, the person I am forced to root for, is a man who (a) first achieved success by being a world-champion steroid user, and (b) is most famous for his work as a time-traveling robot on missions to first prevent history from repeating itself, and then second, to ensure that it does.

I don't know what is going to happen.  I do know that sometimes you just can't win.

"If you believe in the gods, then you believe in the cycle of time, that we are all playing our parts in a story that is told again, and again, and again throughout eternity."

"All this has happened before, and all this will happen again."

~ Battlestar Galactica

"I need an adventure," my 11-year-old daughter recently proclaimed at the dinner table.

"You mean right now?" I asked.

"No, not right now. Just sort of in general," she replied.

"You mean you need an adventure because you're kinda bored with your life?" I asked.

"Yeah."

"Oh," I said. "Okay."

"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation."

-- Herman Melville, Moby Dick

After my girlfriend (now my wife) Pam and I graduated from UC Berkeley in June of 1988, we decided to set off for a year to go live and work and travel in Sweden.  It would be an adventure together before we returned to America to settle into a career and a home and a family.  I landed a job as a translator at the Nigerian Embassy in Stockholm.

Moving to Sweden didn't actually seem like much of a novelty to me since I'd lived there before, but the fact that I ended up working with Nigerians instead of Swedes certainly made it more adventurous.  I experienced first-hand African and Nigerian culture, and learned much about my own cultures, as well.

The most startling revelation was how easily Americans and Swedes submit to the gods of efficiency.  We don't give a second thought to subjugating our behavior in the name of an efficient process, but the Nigerians don't automatically accept this choice.

My office was in the room with all the filing cabinets, and the Nigerian diplomats would come in and out all day long looking for files.  Often, the file wasn't there, someone else had them.  So they'd literally spend about a third of their days knocking on doors, asking if someone had seen such-and-such file.

The obvious idea was that since I was sitting right there anyway, that whenever someone took a file, I should just write down who had the file.  Then if someone else came looking for the same file, and it wasn't in the cabinet, I could tell them who had it.

Nix.  The Nigerian culture had a completely different set of taboos and rules for getting along with each other from ours.  The Nigerian culture was extremely hierarchical, and they yielded to the hierarchy rather than to efficiency to resolve conflicts.    So the Ambassador vetoed the proposal to have me keep track of the files.  It would have given the lowly translator Ken an unacceptable form of authority over the diplomats ranked higher than him.  So the Nigerian diplomats continued to waste their days away in search of all those missing files.

A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision
We'll be clean when their work is done
We'll be eternally free yes and eternally young

~ Donald Fagen, I.G.Y.

History is a progression from inefficiency to efficiency, from art to language, from emotion to reason, from instinct to science, from the subconscious procedural memories to the conscious declarative memories, from chaos to understanding.  Each day we learn a little more about who we are.  In politics, we create a more perfect union.  In baseball and in business, we move from instinctive decisions to ones informed by statistical analysis and scientific methods.  But what happens when you arrive at the goal, when your system is finally perfectly rational, optimally efficient?  When you've figured out a rule set for creating a society that is fair and free and just and prosperous, or when everyone has figured out the best algorithm for how to win baseball games or to make the most profits--then what?

What's left is the question, "Why?"  Why are we here?  Why do we play?  Why do we watch?  The answers cannot come from the tool that helped you solve the other question--the rational mind.  History cannot answer it.  Discipline cannot reveal it.   The solution lives, permanently, in our emotions, from our connections to other beings.   You spend all that time and effort moving from pure instinct towards pure rationality, but no matter what you do, you end up right back at pure instinct again.  History is a circle.

"You kneel before idols and ask for guidance and you can't see that your destiny's already been written. Each of us plays a role, each time a different role. Maybe the last time I was the interrogator, and you were the prisoner. The players change, the story remains the same."

~ Battlestar Galactica

Sometimes you're Captain Ahab, sometimes you're the whale.  If you're the whale, you simply ask, "Why me?" and you fight back.

You attack your opponent at their weakest point, and they attack you at yours.  If you move to fix your weakness, you often reveal another one.  And so you cycle, over and over, until you've either been destroyed, or optimized.

As Billy Beane creates a more and more optimized system, more disciplined at selling off players at just the right time, we A's fans begin to feel like Emilie did under the strict rules of Bishop Vergerus.  Just as we fall in love with A's players, rationality demands that we trade them away, perpetually cycling out the old expensive players with cheap young ones.  In a league where nearly every team makes more money than the Oakland A's, discipline is as essential for survival and success as it is for a society living in a cold, harsh, infertile climate.  The A's must be as relentless as Captain Ahab in hunting down inefficiencies and killing them, before the enemy kills them first.  

But the discipline becomes the weakness.  Your biggest enemy is no longer your enemy, it's yourself.  If you're not Ahab, if you're just a crewmember along for the ride, you cannot escape the urge to call for mutiny, to burn your season tickets for good, to replace Ahab and the whale with Huck & Jim, to escape the destructive cycle of single-minded behavior.    Because it's frustrating.  There must, you feel, be more to all this than just organization and discipline and efficiency. The soul craves something else, something persistent, something beyond the battle.

 

We got ready and showed our home.
The visitor thought: you live well.
The slum must be inside you.

~ Tomas Tranströmer

Because of socialized housing, it's really hard to find a place to live in Stockholm, so we ended up getting the only thing we could find and afford:  subletting an flat in a sea of apartment buildings in a Stockholm suburb called Alby.  We rented from Bangladeshi family who were returning home for six months.  This apartment complex turned out to be somewhat of a Muslim enclave, as the population of the town was filled with Iranian, Iraqi and Turkish immigrants.  It's odd to have gone to Sweden, and end up spending more time among Muslims than Lutherans, but that's what happened.

It was a depressing place.  Not because of the Muslims, but because of the Socialists.  In theory, putting people in large apartment buildings saves space and organizes people efficiently.  But these large socialist apartment buildings are utterly soulless.  There's no character to them. They don't work on a human scale.  I needed a roof over my head, and I was grateful for that, but I yearned for a home I could connect to.

Or for a way to connect back home.  The most painful thing about living in that apartment was that it lacked a radio.  At my mom's house, I could pick up radio signals from the Armed Forces Network in Germany, so I could listen to ballgames late at night on a nice big radio with large rabbit ears.  This was 1988, the first time the A's had made the playoffs in seven years, and even though I knew the game wouldn't be broadcast on TV anywhere, I was determined to be able to listen to it.  But all I had was the radio in my portable walkman cassette player, and that only had a small, weak internal antenna.  I tried to find Armed Forces Radio, but I had no luck:

 

We got a radio jingle for you, OK?
OK, here we go, it's named "Radio One, You're The One For Me."

Radio One
you're the only one
for me.
Just turn that dial.
Make your music worthwhile.
Radio One
you stole my gal,
but I love ya' just the same.

I am a DJ, I am what I play
Can't turn around no, can't turn around no
I am a DJ, I am what I say
Can't turn around no, can't turn around,
I am a DJ, I am what I play

I've got believers (kiss-kiss)
Believing me

Somewhere out on that horizon
Out beyond the neon lights
I know there must be somethin' better
But there's nowhere else in sight
It's survival in the city
When you live from day to day
City streets don't have much pity
When you're down, that's where you'll stay.

A great soul hides, like Mohammed, or Jesus,
moving through a crowd in a city
where no one knows him.

All of you undisturbed cities,
haven't you ever longed for the Enemy?
I'd like to see you besieged by him
for ten endless and ground-shaking years.

Until you were desperate and mad with suffering;
finally in hunger you would feel his weight.

My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever.

We begin bombing in five minutes.

The girls don't seem to care what's on
As long as it plays till dawn
Nothin' but blues and Elvis
And somebody else's favorite song

Well I wish I was a catfish,
Swimming in, Lord, the deep blue sea.
I'd have all you pretty women
fishin' after me, fishin' after me, fishin' after me.

When I went down, my girlfriends house.
And I sat down, Lord, on her front step.
And she said, come in now Jimi.
My husband just now left, just now left.

Well there's two, two trains runnin',
but there's not one, Lord, that's goin' my way.
You know there's one train runnin' at midnight.
Other one leave just for a day, leave just for a day.

Some of my friends sit around every evening
And they worry about the times ahead.

But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference
And the promise of an early bed.

You either shut up or get cut up, they don't wanna hear about it
It's only inches on the reel-to-reel.

And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools
Tryin' to anaesthetise the way that you feel.

Even whispers aren't heard in the garden,
Everything has died down till morning.
If you only knew how dear to me
Are these Moscow nights.

The river moves, unmoving,
All in silver moonlight.
A song is heard, yet unheard,
In these silent nights.

Late and starting to rain,
it's time to go home.
We've wandered long enough
in empty buildings.
I know it's tempting to stay
and meet those new people.
I know it's even more sensible
to spend the night here with them,
but I want to go home.

Wir fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n auf der Autobahn

In front of us is a wide valley
The sun is shining with glittering rays

The driving strip is a grey track
White stripes, green edge

We are switching the radio on
From the speaker it sounds:

Wir fah'rn auf der Autobahn...

Show me around your snow-peaked mountains way down south
Take me to your daddy's farm
Let me hear your balalaikas ringing out
Come and keep your comrade warm
I'm back in the USSR.
Hey you don't know how lucky you are boys
Back in the USSR.

We've seen enough beautiful places
with signs on them saying
This is God's House. That's seeing the
grain like the ants do,
without the work of harvesting.
Let's leave grazing to cows and go
where we know what everyone really intends,
where we can walk around without clothes on.

Why do you, dear, look askance,
With your head lowered so?
It is hard to express, and hard to hold back,
Everything that my heart holds.

But the dawn's becoming ever brighter.
So please, just be good.
Don't you, too, forget
These summer Moscow nights.

Keep me out of country in the word
Deal the porch is leading us absurd.
Push that, push that, push that to the hull
That this isn't nothing at all.

Straight off the boat
Where to go?

Calling on in transit
Calling on in transit
Radio Free Europe
Radio...

FISH #2: They haven't said much about the meaning of life so far, have they?

FISH #1: Well, it's been building up to it.

FISH #4: Has it?

FISH #2: Has it?

FISH #3: Yeah, I expect they'll get on to it now.

FISH #5: Personally, I very much doubt if they're going to say anything about the meaning of life at all.

FISH #6: Oh, come on. They've got to say something.

FISH #3: They're bound to.

FISH #2: Yeah.

FISH #4: Yeah.

FISH #1: Yeah.

Burn down the disco
Hang the blessed dj
Because the music that they constantly play
It says nothing to me about my life
Hang the blessed dj
Because the music they constantly play

I had been an English major at UC Berkeley, and it would be several more years before I returned to school to get a second degree in Computer Science, but I should have recognized then that I had an engineer in me, waiting to burst out.  One night before bed, I suddenly thought of a technical solution for my problem.  While I hate hate hate these godawful ugly 1960s socialist concrete apartment skyscrapers, but since I had one, I realized I could make good use of it.

Untitled
For you see, these apartment buildings all have a single heating system, a network of radiators filled with superheated water.  And these radiators were all made of metal, which meant that I had, in the form of my apartment building, a seven-story tall, one-hundred-yard-wide antenna at my disposal.  So I put my walkman right by the radiator, so that its internal antenna was as close to the radiator as possible, and--voila!  Armed Forces Radio!

Of course, in our little tale here, we were not satisfied by a full and complete victory.  For it turned out that the frequency on which I could listen to Armed Forces Radio, broadcasting somewhere out of West Germany (as this was still a full year before the Berlin Wall fell), was only available from somewhere around midnight to somewhere around 6AM.  During the other hours, Radio Moscow would broadcast on the same frequency, and drown out the signal from Armed Forces Radio.

And this was not an accident.  If it were, the broadcast would have been in Russian.  No, on this frequency, Radio Moscow broadcast in English, using DJs with pitch-perfect American accents.  This was a completely deliberate act of sabotage.  Damn Commies!

I could never figure out why they didn't broadcast at night.  Or when, exactly, they would start and stop broadcasting.  Their broadcast would start by first a little Interval signal every five minutes or so.  This was a brief, five-second excerpt from a song called "Vast is My Country".  That would go on for about half an hour or so, where every few minutes, I could hear the Armed Forces Radio signal get interrupted by this little chime.  Once I began to hear those short Communist jingles, I knew that the Armed Forces signal only had about thirty minutes left until defeat.  Once Moscow progressed to playing the full Soviet victory anthems, the battle was over. 

My motherland, it is so vast.
It is a magnificent country of workers
With rivers of pure, fresh water.
I do not know of any other such place
Where workers breathe so freely.

From Moscow to the very borders
From the Southern mountains to the Northern seas
There is only One Ruler
Workers own everything, everywhere
It is their rightful homeland
Our country is truly free.

 

Lacking an explanation as to why the Radio Moscow broadcasts never started at a regular time, my imagination fills in the gaps.

Here's the Radio Moscow DJ with the early morning shift.  The previous night, he was home alone in his one-room apartment in a vast, endless hive of 10-story concrete one-room apartments, watching some schmaltzy TV drama laced with subtly Communist propaganda, drinking one too many vodkas. He falls asleep on the sofa.  Next thing he knows, the alarm clock rings.  He sits up, but stops, groggy, and waits for his brain to give him permission to continue.  Some untold minutes later, his legs lift him up.  He puts on his coat, hat and shoes, and doesn't bother to change the other clothes he slept in.  His legs drag him down the stairs, through the snow, to the bus stop.  Just as the chilly October air begins to make him feel uncomfortably cold, the bus comes.  Twenty-three minutes later, he arrives at the radio station.  He takes off his outer garments, and turns on the broadcast equipment.  He plays the interval signal chime, to let the world know yes, he has arrived at work.  Then he pulls out of his desk drawer the bag of coffee he had spent two hours queueing for last week.  He boils a pot of water on the electric burner, then mixes his brew.  He plays the interval signal again.  Then he slowly sips the coffee and waits for the caffeine to kick in.  When he feels sufficiently awake, he places the usual two patriotic songs onto the turntables, and sets them spinning.  Five minutes of peace now remain, then it's show time. 

Why should we grieve that we’ve been sleeping?
It doesn’t matter how long we’ve been unconscious.

We’re groggy, but let the guilt go.
Feel the motions of tenderness
around you, the buoyancy.

~ Rumi

Both Moby Dick and Fanny & Alexander have characters named Ishmael (or Ismael in Swedish). The name means, "God is listening." And appropriately, they're both somewhat omniscient. They both see more than they should logically be able to see.

     Ismael:  Perhaps we are the same person.  Perhaps we have no limits.

In Moby Dick, Ishmael is the narrator who guides us through the whole story. In Fanny & Alexander, Ismael is a mysterious androgynous character who leads Alexander through his pain, to face his deepest darkest desires, to bring him the evil miracle he so desperately wants but is afraid to actually admit.

     Ismael:  You are an odd little creature, Alexander. You won't talk about what's in your mind all the time.

I've been waiting, waiting, waiting, for the right opportunity to present itself.

     Ismael:  Wait, I know who you're thinking about.

I've been building up to it.

     Ismael:  You bear terrible thoughts. It is painful to be near you, but enticing.

It is time get on with it now, isn't it?

It was part of my job to assemble orders from a tax-free wholesale catalog for embassies, and then distribute the orders once the shipment came in from its distributor in West Germany.   Eager to be a good new employee, I volunteered to show up at work on a Sunday morning to take delivery and organize the distribution for the staff of my first order. As it happened, that ship was due to arrive in port on October 16, the morning after the World Series between the Oakland Athletics and the Los Angeles Dodgers was supposed to start. 

     Ismael: The doors open. A scream is to go through the house.

     Alexander: I don't want to.

     Ismael: It's too late. There is only one way to go, and I am coming with you.

I could not help myself. I knew I had to get up early the next morning, but I had to listen.

     Ismael: I obliterate myself. I merge into you, my little child. Don't be afraid. I am with you. I am your guardian angel.

 

 
Untitled

 

The game starts at 2:35am, Sweden time. I pull the mattress off the bed and put it by the radiator. I grab a blanket and pillow, and throw it down.

     Ismael: You are not to hesitate.

     Alexander: Please don't talk like that.

     Ismael: It is not I who is talking, it is you, yourself.

I shove the walkman against the metal. I lie there with my head under the radiator for the next two-and-a-half hours, listening to Jack Buck call the game, wishing I could just fall asleep, but too nervous and excited to actually do so.

     Ismael: It is five in the morning and the sun has just risen. The doors are thrown open.

I am so tired. So sleepy.

     Ismael: No wait. First a scream, a horrible scream echoing through the house.

I want to shut my eyes and fade away.

     Ismael: A shapeless burning figure moving across the floor, screaming.

     Alexander: I don't want to! Let me go! Let me go!

It's the bottom of the ninth, and the A's are leading, 4-3.

Dennis Eckersley, a future Hall-of-Famer, enters the game to pitch the final inning.

  C'mon, Eck. Close 'em out, buddy. I'm ready to sleep.

Abruptly, Jack Buck's voice fades into static, and is replaced by the Interval Signal.

The race is now on. Can Eck finish the game before Radio Moscow jams the signal for good?

Eck quickly gets two outs.

Some static, then another interval signal.

Mike Davis, who played for the A's the year before, now comes up to hit for the Dodgers.

Eckersley, who had only walked four batters all year, walks Mike Davis.

Static. Interval signal.

Now the Dodgers call Kirk Gibson out of the dugout.

Gibson is injured. Not expected to play.

He can barely walk.

Gibson moves to the plate with a clear, obvious limp.

Sometimes you're Ahab, sometimes you're the whale.

Gibson works the count to 3-2.

Another interval signal.

Then Jack Buck's voice returns...
   then you would run for Gibson
   and have Sax batting.
   but we have a big 3-2 pitch
   coming here from Eckersley.
   Gibson swings...

And the signal fades again.  Static.  I can't hear a word.

   Damn.  Damn damn damn!
   of all the moments to fade out
   the last pitch of the game
   you couldn't wait one more minute
   to start broadcasting
   Mr. Russian DJ?

But we Americans do not give up so easily.  Jack Buck fights through the static, and suddenly bursts out,

   I don't believe what I just saw!
   I don't believe what I just saw!

   Whaaaaat?
   What did you just see?
   What did you just see!?!?!?

   "Is this really happening, Bill?"

   What this?
   What's happening!?!?!?
   What did...

Sudden realization.  Maybe that sound was not static.  Maybe that sound...was cheering.

   Never mind.
   Don't tell me.
   Just don't tell me.
   I don't want to know.
   I'm pretty sure I don't want to know.

The interval signal drowns out the commentary for another few seconds.  Then Jack Buck resurfaces.

   I've seen a lot of dramatic finishes
   in a lot of sports
   but this one might top almost every other one!

I spend the next several minutes trying hard not to imagine what just happened, which means I spend the next several minutes imagining what just happened.

At some point, while I was lost in thought, I fail to notice that Jack Buck stops talking and starts singing...

   Why do you, dear, look askance,
   With your head lowered so?
   It is hard to express, and hard to hold back,
   Everything that my heart holds.

   But the dawn's becoming ever brighter.
   So please, just be good.
   Don't you, too, forget
   These summer Moscow nights.

The music ends.   Jack Buck says,

   This is Moscow.
   Good morning listeners!
   You are tuned to the European service of Radio Moscow.

Damn.  And now there's no way I can get to sleep.  I am wide awake.

I am terribly awake.

Comments (89)
Show/Hide Comments 1-50
2009-02-04 06:29:52
1.   Shaun P
Happy birthday, Ken.

A brilliant post. You'll be missed.

2009-02-04 06:47:28
2.   dianagramr
1

I couldn't say it any better, on both counts.

2009-02-04 06:52:53
3.   fordprefect
So long, Ken. Hopefully there's some way I'll manage to bump into you for that ice cream, or better yet, a few choice words.
2009-02-04 07:35:32
4.   D4P
There's at least one thing about which I'm unclear. Which happened first:

1. Bronx Banter and Dodger Thoughts leave the Toaster

2. Ken decides to unplug the Toaster permanently

I initially assumed that 1 happened before 2, but I then realized that 2 could have happened first...

2009-02-04 08:09:56
5.   dianagramr
4

In the grand scheme of things, does it matter?

2009-02-04 08:14:21
6.   D4P
5
It matters to me, at least in the insignificant scheme of things.
2009-02-04 08:15:24
7.   Josh Wilker
A comment by Toasterite mehmattski responding to an earlier Arneson opus ("Of Holes"; http://tinyurl.com/anmoky) seems even more fitting now:

"Well, the internet is over, this post won. Thanks for playing, everybody."

2009-02-04 08:17:12
8.   Ken Arneson
4 . 1. They didn't leave because I unplugged it, I unplugged it because they left.
2009-02-04 08:20:59
9.   D4P
8
Thanks, Ken. I like to understand such things.

BTW: For auld lang syne, if it's not too much trouble, might you post a final "Top 50 Toaster Content Creators"?

2009-02-04 08:29:57
10.   D4P
Another question for Ken:

If the "failure" (or, "your failure") of the Toaster is ultimately a function of Bronx Banter and Dodger Thoughts choosing to leave, do you feel as if you "should have" been able to convince them to stay, but failed in that endeavor? If so, What could you have done to keep them that you didn't do?

From my standpoint, I have a hard time seeing why this would be your fault, or believing that you "failed" in any way, but maybe I'm missing something.

2009-02-04 08:42:16
11.   underdog
Terrific post Ken. Moving and full of life beyond baseball, but it captures how interwoven it has become for us in our own, real histories. I can't say more other than that I hope we'll find your writing continuing where we can read it, beyond this.

I also think this piece could/should exist somewhere else, perhaps in print, in some fashion...?

At any rate, thanks again for all your work over time. I shall miss this place. Don't be a stranger!

See you in the world series in a couple of years. ;-)

2009-02-04 08:44:25
12.   Ken Arneson
10 If I had been able to find a way to pay them even a decent fraction of what the competition could, they would have stayed. I was not aggressive enough to make that happen.
2009-02-04 08:51:05
13.   kinbote
7 says it better than I ever could, but I'm pretty sure you just wrote the great American blog post.
2009-02-04 08:54:14
14.   D4P
12
How realistic would it have been for increased aggressiveness on your part to have resulted in being able to pay them enough to stay?

Without being able to read their minds, I tend to think that both Alex and Jon probably always had grander ambitions for their respective blogs, and that their idealized future scenarios did not involve staying here, but rather hitting the big time and going mainstream.

I don't think you should feel like a failure. On the contrary, I think the fact that the Toaster lasted as long as it did (and that the bigwigs stayed around as long as they did) should be viewed as a rousing success.

2009-02-04 08:58:01
15.   Jon Weisman
14 - Toaster was in fact my idealized scenario. But I wouldn't call Ken a failure either. But I understand why he uses the term, considering the many ways I apply it to myself.
2009-02-04 09:00:13
16.   Bob Timmermann
I would have stuck around if Ken could have made me an omelet made from a dodo egg.

I drive a hard bargain.

Happy birthday Ken. I hope to stop by and say hello the next time I'm up in the East Bay. Thanks for all your hard work.

2009-02-04 09:04:03
17.   kylepetterson
12 Ken, you've done a great job here creating an atmosphere of friendship unlike I've seen on any other blog. I'm a Yankees fan and actually have been coming around and reading Dodger Thoughts (until they left) and the comments that go with it just because I enjoy the sense of family that is here. I don't think it was the individual blogs that created this, although they certainly helped, but I think it was the toaster. While the posts are as good if not better at the new location, the sense of community at the banter, at least for me, is not. Congratulations, Ken, you built something larger than yourself and while it was around, was a great thing.
2009-02-04 09:04:33
18.   D4P
considering the many ways I apply it to myself

Do you mean in general, or within the current context?

2009-02-04 09:08:41
19.   mbtn01
Terrific
2009-02-04 09:30:47
20.   Ken Arneson
Quick question: did any actually try to "turn that dial"?
2009-02-04 09:36:31
21.   Jon Weisman
18 - I guess in general, but there are certainly moments when I'm doing Dodger Thoughts when it comes up.
2009-02-04 09:37:15
22.   Jon Weisman
20 - Holy cow!
2009-02-04 09:39:20
23.   Ken Noe
Thanks, Ken, I mourn its passing.
2009-02-04 09:41:25
24.   Bob Timmermann
Remember, no man is a failure who has friends -- Clarence Oddbody
2009-02-04 09:46:17
25.   D4P
24
That line always chokes me up.
2009-02-04 10:05:50
26.   scareduck
Advice: stay away from CA general obligation bonds. Not that I've been burned by this, but the one bright spot of our portfolio has been bonds. And the state's credit rating just got downgraded to A, the lowest of all 50 states.

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/money_co/2009/02/california-cred.html

2009-02-04 10:09:01
27.   berkowit28
Thanks for everything, Ken, and sorry to see you go.

Not being a New York sports fan, I couldn't see what was so special about the new home for Bronx Banter that Alex evidently felt it was clear to all why he had moved there. It already had two other Yankees blogs, for a start. I asked and never got a straight answer, except that it was somehow meant to be better for Alex himself. Eventually I figured out that all the ads on that site must mean that it paid him something.

It makes sense that writers like Alex and Jon who start something for the love of it, are very good at what they do and are also in a place (meaning here big markets like NY and LA, though that in itself is nowhere near sufficient as Chicago is just as big a market and the Cubs just as popular as the Yankees and Dodgers) that interests enough people and become very successful at it, would eventually hope to earn some part of a living from what they love to do - otherwise they have to spend that time working for their daily bread somewhere else, doing something less interesting. I wish for something similar for you too, if it would suit you. Thank you for the idealized version that lasted as long as it did, and all the best to you.

2009-02-04 10:45:21
28.   trainwreck
Wow, what a great look into your feelings and your past. It is great to really get a sense of you, even if it may be the last time I possibly get to see you work. Loved the way you went back and forth between your stories. As the first person in my family to be born in America and have stayed in the town I was born, I feel unfulfilled. Thankfully, I should have time to make up for it and I can try take those risks.

Thanks for creating this great community that has really improved all of our lives. That definitely does not make it a failure. Just look how sad all of us were to see it go, even if it did not necessarily have to go.

Thank you.

2009-02-04 10:50:43
29.   Lexinthedena
The Toaster was a huge contribution, and it will never be replaced. I will continue to comment on Dodgerthoughts but I know it will never be the same. This was a truly unique place.

Thanks.

2009-02-04 10:53:48
30.   Daniel Zappala
Simply fantastic, Ken. A fitting end to a wonderful service you have run. You've made a place where great writers honed their craft, and the rest of us had a place to come to read, chat, and be at home. You're not a failure at all. You're a magnificent success.
2009-02-04 11:00:54
31.   Daniel Zappala
Musing over your post ... "there is no value but value" ... that is why the Toaster was such a remarkable place. This entire forum was centered around the value -- the writing and the comments -- and that's what made it so special. I understand now and I am in awe.
2009-02-04 11:05:32
32.   Andrew Shimmin
"We'd like to stop playing this rubbish and dedicate a song to the Cream, regardless of what kind of group they might be in. We'd like to dedicate it to Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker, and Jack Bruce."

(Sunshine of Your Love, instrumental)

"We're being put off the air. . ."

(drastic ritardando for no obvious purpose

(canned applause; Lulu silently seething)

I don't remember how I came to own that CD (two CD set, though, I think; I only listen to it as mp3s, anymore), but it had quite a lot to commend it.

2009-02-04 11:30:29
33.   ToyCannon
I've already thanked you for making the toaster and bringing together the best bloggers I've read. Now I'd like to thank you for a memorable read. Simply amazing.

I'm really going to miss this place, a part of me is moving on but I'd much rather stay. I'd always harbored a little fantasy that some day I could write for the Toaster. I'll find other fantasies but I hate to have to put that one to bed.

Thanks Ken and good luck wherever your writing takes you.

2009-02-04 11:45:25
34.   s choir
Job well done, Ken. Thanks for the memories.
2009-02-04 11:59:37
35.   Linkmeister
Ken, that was wonderful. Even as the Toaster departs, don't stay silent too long. Surface somewhere, writing.
2009-02-04 12:11:40
36.   jmoney
It's really a pretty rare occurrence when you come across a blog that you can call a work of art. This post, along with several of Ken's other long pieces, is really a work of postmodern literature.

I feel like I just read the Rooftop Concert of blogposts. Catfish Stew will be missed.

2009-02-04 13:26:26
37.   Eric Stephen
Ken, thanks for creating a wonderful place for baseball fans to share.

This post was so awesome, even more so because I read it on my phone this morning and couldn't stop reading!

2009-02-04 13:57:23
38.   68elcamino427
Ken - I love that Dial.

"Brown Sugar"
Words and music by Billy Gibbons.

My friends, they all told me,
Man, there's something gonna change your life.
My friends, they all told me,
Man, there's something gonna change your life.
Gotta have that brown sugar.
Man it's just gonna change my life.
Man, I gotta have that brown sugar.
Man, it's just gonna make me feel so right.

There's something make me feel good,
and it's gonna change my life.
There's something make me feel good,
and it's gonna change my life.
I gotta have some of that Brown Sugar,
Gotta try it before I die.

Man it sure do save me
when there's no place left for me.
Man it sure do save me
when there's no place left for me.
Gotta have some of that Brown Sugar
as long as that's gonna set me free.

Man, there's somethin' make me feel good
and it's gonna change my life.
Man, there's somethin' make me feel good
and it's gonna change my life.
I gotta have some of that Brown Sugar,
Gotta try it before I die.

Thanks so much to everyone here.
The joy that this site has brought to my life ...
well - it is a whole bunch.

Thanks again ...

2009-02-04 14:07:43
39.   El Lay Dave
Ken, again, thank you, simply thank you.

20 The dial is amazing!

2009-02-04 16:02:41
40.   doppelganger
As a lurker/very occasional commenter, I'd like to say that this is an amazing post, and Catfish Stew will be missed.
2009-02-04 16:27:17
41.   LogikReader
Ken, it's been a pleasure. I wish you the best in your new endeavors. It was a short, but fleeting moment when we had the best single resources of baseball bloggers, the Toaster. I even liked the name "toaster".

Many of us will still be around on the new homes of several of these blogs. Jon on the Times' site, Alex on the SNY site.

Ken, your final post was mesmerizing. I'm going to miss you. I'm going to miss many of you. I'm going to miss this place.

Good night all. For the final time on the Toaster, this is Dave Medina, LogikReader, signing off...

2009-02-04 16:41:46
42.   Greg Brock
Thanks for everything, Ken. It's been wonderful.
2009-02-04 16:48:42
43.   sporky
I look forward to reading this, but in the mean time, I just want to thank you.
2009-02-04 16:52:34
44.   williamnyy23
As someone who probably spent way too much time posting at the Toaster, I vehemently must protest any characterization of your efforts as a failure.

Before finding Bronx Banter, I had drifted around the blogosphere looking for a home and even thought of starting one myself. Then, I found BB via the Toaster and figured there was no need for that...it was being done to perfection here. In addition to BB, I'd also check in on Dodger Thoughts, Cardboard Gods, Juice, etc. Heck, trying to decipher those mystery photos was one of the more enjoyable things I've done by way of a blog.

Even after BB moved to SNY (a move I still regret), I still used the Toaster as my bookmark so I wouldn't forget to see what else was going on in the margins. Clearly, Alex and John deserved their pay days (they don't tell me how to earn a living), but it does seem a shame that something couldn't have been worked out.

To make a long story short, the Toaster was a resounding success. Instead of devolving into a troll-laden shouting match like most blogs, this forum was able to create a stable environment for the rational expression of passion.

Taking a page from MacArthur, I guess old blogs never die, they just fade away. Then again, it should also be noted that MacArthur's most famous utterance was "I shall return"!

Best of luck.

2009-02-04 18:25:03
45.   fordprefect
12
Ken, I apologize for asking what must be a stupid and long overdue question, but could we as users help pay enough to keep the toaster on?
2009-02-04 18:59:44
46.   Ken Arneson
45 That's probably yet another thing on a long list of options that I should have explored more aggressively, but now it's too late.
2009-02-04 19:06:15
47.   fordprefect
Please put me first on the list of potential resurrectors. I believe you have my address.
2009-02-04 19:08:47
48.   jjf3
I'm with posts 7, 13, and 36. That may have been the best single post I've ever read on the internet, in any way, shape, or form. And I just re-sent DFW's piece on Federer to some friends of mine last night...

And I'm with 45 as well...yes, it seems too late, but this was content I would have gladly paid for. Was that never a consideration? Or did that not fit the image of what you hoped to create? Because this enterprise was never a failure in any way, and neither are you, in any way. You created an incredible community (something that is incredibly hard in this internet/ADHD/sound-byte world), just by pulling the "right" writers together.

I don't expect that I ever will, but I truly hope that I run into you one day, just so I can thank you for what you gave to so many of us here...

Thank you.

2009-02-04 19:12:10
49.   Matt T
Hooooooooly shit.

Get over yourself.

2009-02-04 19:19:04
50.   Phil Bencomo
Thanks, Ken, for this and for everything. And happy birthday, too.
Show/Hide Comments 51-100
2009-02-04 19:39:54
51.   Chyll Will
Happy Birthday, Ken, in more ways than one.

And thank you for giving me something else to make something of myself with. I've learned so much in such a short time, yet I feel like I've been here forever. If it means anything, I think you're a hero. Period.

>;)

2009-02-04 20:06:30
52.   popup
Thanks Ken.

Stan from Tacoma

2009-02-04 20:17:42
53.   Ken Arneson
48 Well, that's Baseball Prospectus' business model, and I would have been happy to have them swallow us up to provide that sort of subscription infrastructure. It always made sense to me, but they were never interested. And beyond the issues of building the infrastructure to support that sort of business model, and whether we had a level of traffic that could support such a model, I was reluctant to go down a path that puts us on a trajectory towards direct competition with BP. First of all, that would have made my relationship with Will Carroll pretty awkward. Plus, I kinda sensed that there were probably better ideas than going head-to-head with a company run by a brain the size of Nate Silver.

49 Halfway through writing this, I was feeling the exact same way. "Holy smokes, I am writing one monstrously pretentious piece of crap." But the idea was in my head, I couldn't stop it; the hooooooooly crap needed to get out.

I was consoled by the fact that if it did turn out to be the most pretentious thing ever written, at least it would be the last time anyone would have to suffer through my garbage.

2009-02-04 20:44:53
54.   jjf3
Ken,
I never saw you as a direct competitor to BP (in fact, I saw you all as a compliment, though I would have understood them buying into you, and you then not wanting to head down that path - I'm surprised they weren't interested)...

This last piece is magnificent. Is it monstrously pretentious? Sure it is. But its also "art" - the real thing...Art. I'm glad you let it all out...

And I hope you find a new outlet for your writing, because that was one hell of a way to go...

2009-02-04 20:53:45
55.   popup
Ken, I do have an idea. I am the fellow who sponsored the blogads on Dodger Thoughts for Baseball Direct to benefit the Red Cross and for Hungry for Music. My idea is a simple one: invite toaster readers to do the same. Send in a hundred bucks and have a blogad run for a couple of weeks for a favorite charity.

Thanks for putting the toaster together. I don't want to see it unplugged. It is inevitable that writers are going to leave and even healthy that they do so. But the structure of the toaster is worth preserving. If that structure becomes stiffling by all means tear it down. But like all those who have commented here I think what you put together is very much worth preserving.

Stan from Tacoma

2009-02-04 21:43:46
56.   LAT
Ken,

Thank you for the toaster. It was the only site I visited on a daily basis. That being said, I think you are a little hard on yourself. The measure of success is not whether you were asked if you are going to Disneyland. Most of the time its much subtler. You created something special here. You should spike the ball and do a touchdown dance in your backyard in nothing but your underwear.

One last but important point, at least to me. I learned a lot here at the Toaster. When I stumbled onto the site a few years ago I had never heard of VORP, never mind Bill James. I did had no idea how contracts were structured or free agency really worked. I didn't understand arbitration or draft picks. Egad, I used to think veteran moxie was actually worth something. I have learned a lot. This site has educated me and made me understand the game so much better (something I have passed on to my daughter, I hope). So now I ask you, how can that be a failure?

Enjoy your retirement--hopefully it won't last very long. Thanks again.

2009-02-04 22:00:51
57.   Ken Arneson
Well, if somebody in the Toaster community wants to copy the structure and idea and the layout (sans Toaster icon), they have my blessings. I'd even give them one of the spare domains I own, too. (I own baseballcommunity.com and baseballvillage.com, and have done nothing with them.)

Sorry, though, I can't let anyone else use the software--I gave up the rights to it a couple years ago. But you're probably better off using WordPress or MovableType anyway.

On a personal note, I've got three kids now and a (non-baseball) startup business incubating, so I'm already stretched way too thin in my life as it is. I am sad to see it go, but on the other hand, it's also a huge burden that's been lifted off me. It's time for me to move on.

2009-02-04 22:16:04
58.   Ken Arneson
56 I think you misunderstand my point. I'm not saying Toaster was a failure. I understand intellectually that it was not.

I'm saying that letting Toaster get to the point where it died feels like a failure. I keep on going over in my head the things I could have done differently to result in a different outcome.

I can control my intellectual understanding of the situation. I cannot control the emotions that I feel. And I am past the point in my life where I want to deny my emotions anymore.

2009-02-04 22:33:09
59.   Scott Long
Your piece was pretentious in a David Foster Wallace if he was a tech nerd/baseball geek way. I loved it. It was cool to find out more about your past. I always have loved when you wrote about Sweden in your posts. I'm all about reading authors who have a unique voice. Most blogs (let alone baseball blogs) don't have that. The Toaster was the best of it's kind when it came to sports. Actually, when I run across a good baseball blog now, I wonder if they had been inspired by someone at the Toaster.

I know when the Toaster began there were high hopes among some of the writers that we might actually make some real money doing this. At this point, I realize the folly in that idea. If major newspapers can't make it in today's marketplace, despite all the inherent advantages they have in getting readership, how is a niche blog going to bring in real money? Their are few exceptions to this and they had people who as Ken mentioned, were hustlers selling their wares at the exact right time.

I mean, if it just came down to quality of writing, Josh Wilker would have gotten a deal with AOL, not Jay F-ing Mariotti. I'm willing to bet, though, that Josh would get smashed by Plaschke or Paige on Around the Horn because being an entertainer is more important in the current marketplace, not artistic merit. As someone who behaves in a fashion closer to the buffoons on Around the Horn, I know this all too well. The things we do for a buck...

As I wrote at my site's farewell, I will miss being part of the community that was the Toaster. As someone who always identified with the Groucho Marx line, "I won't belong to any organization that would have me as a member", the Toaster was the first place that made me realize maybe I could enjoy being a member of a large group. (of course one where I didn't have to meet and hang out with them in person, probably helped this.)

Thanks again, Ken.

2009-02-04 22:34:16
60.   LAT
58 Understood. I just wanted to let you know that I appreciated your efforts and learned so much here. I'm sorry you are feeling badly but I applaude your courage to embrace your feelings rather than deny them.
2009-02-04 22:53:59
61.   JMK
Just wanted to add my thanks, Ken. It seems odd for me to say this but the Toaster was a big part of my life. I laughed and learned a lot here. Although I almost never posted, I did feel like I was part of a community. I enjoyed this last post and I'd pretty much read anything you write. I know I'm gonna sound like a cyber stalker, but I'm gonna google you from time to time to see if you're writing anything. All the best to you and your family.
2009-02-05 00:12:01
62.   bablue
Thanks for everything Ken. The Toaster was a great place. I recently came across a line from T.S. Eliot that feels appropriate:

"What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from."

Here's to defeating your white whale. Good luck with everything.

2009-02-05 00:24:51
63.   Bluebleeder87
thank you Ken.
2009-02-05 05:30:22
64.   bhsportsguy
Thanks Ken, you created a wonderful community and I appreciate all you did, good luck and best wishes in your post-Baseball Toaster future.
2009-02-05 07:41:57
65.   delias man
Thank you Ken - this community made me appreciate the love of my life even more than I could have ever imagined the last 3 years.
2009-02-05 09:20:39
66.   standuptriple
I suppose all good things must come to an end.
Ken, at the very least let me buy you a cold one (I'll even pop for "premium") @ The 'Net. Can we perhaps have a set "Toaster Day", preferably a mid-week daytime (i.e. excuse to leave work) so we can pour some of the 40 oz?
And remember, it's the Year of the Ox. That's kind of like and Elephant. The AL West crown is within reach.
2009-02-05 10:33:47
67.   68elcamino427
67
2009-02-05 10:35:40
68.   68elcamino427
68

68elcamino427

signing off ...

{sigh}

2009-02-05 10:38:47
69.   RIYank
Just wanted to say, for me, the Toaster gave birth to baseball blogging. Before you were only labor pains; after you is blogging growing up.

Also: no, I didn't play with the Dial until I read 20 and went to see what you were talking about... very cool.

2009-02-05 11:43:26
70.   Ken Arneson
9 I posted the final Top 100 Toaster Posters over on the Fairpole thread.

http://fairpole.baseballtoaster.com/archives/1204218.html#65

2009-02-05 11:59:02
71.   Bagel Boy
I'm sorry I told you to go eat Stew. This place is rare in being an internet community where passion and reason peacefully co-existed (for the most part). Many, many thanks for all your hard coding work, inspired Swedish design sensibilities, and your eye for great talent. I've learned more about baseball and life here than any other place on the pipes. This place was a true success if there ever was one of the Internet Age. The credit, rightly, begins and ends with you.
2009-02-05 13:26:21
72.   singledd
Ken, while I understand how you feel, everything you have done looks like pure success to me.

I guess it's how you define success.
There are many people who make/represent a shitty product and somehow become commercially successful. And there are many talented, dedicated artists, who produce works of great value, yet are not commercially viable.

It is too bad that many that most of us, myself included, judge ourselves and our success in commercial terms. It's easier to make money then art, if you are so inclined.

Your work is brilliant, as is your writing. The Toaster and it's community were the best on the Net. I am a long time Bronx Banterer (before the Toaster, in the Big Red Blog days), and the new format of Bronx Banter is not near as nice as this one.

My best work (aside from my daughter), sits on my computer, unsold and unused... being 'beaten out' by people of less talent and passion with an inferior product.

It sucks!
You can be an artist and work for quality and self satisfaction. Or you can work with your goal being commercial/financial success. Sometimes these things overlap, but not that often and usually by accident or luck.

I'm sure you will be successful again, in whatever you do next.

Larry
OldYanksFan

2009-02-05 13:53:15
73.   arborial
A fitting send off for the toaster.

Here are my random thoughts:

I find it difficult to relate to, even if I am related to it.

As others have said, this is the strength of the toaster community. People that you can relate to even though they are not related

Your story of the startup reminds me of a documentary I just saw at Sundance called "We live in Public" mostly about Josh Harris and his crazy life, if you get the chance I think you would enjoy it.

Lastly, your story of working in the Nigerian embassy helps me to remember that both efficiency and tradition have their flaws. I recently submitted a paper to a professor from Sierra Leone. I was hoping to pop in and out as I work across campus and did not foresee being gone for very long. He sat me down and asked how my wife was doing and we discussed the class and other things. It was half an hour into the discussion that I realized I was having a cross-cultural experience.

That story doesn't have a point I was just reminded of it when I read your story of the Nigerian embassy.

I hope the outlet made available by unplugging the toaster provides an opportunity for you to plug-in in a deeper sense in another area of your life.

2009-02-05 14:30:22
74.   Ken Arneson
73 Yeah, one of the interesting things about a culture that does not instinctively yield to efficiency is that every transaction and interaction is strictly personal instead of strictly business.

On the plus side, it's rather liberatingly human to look at things that way. You don't have any human-to-bureaucracy interactions, everything is (wo)man-to-(wo)man.

On the other hand, it's easy to see how corruption can thrive in that kind of environment. There are no universal rules, just whatever the two of us decide between ourselves.

The part of my job I hated most was when I would get stuck between Swedish and Nigerian culture like this. A diplomat would have a car in the shop, say, and the Swedish repair shop would say, "the car will be ready at 2pm on Friday." And the diplomat would always make me call the repair shop back up and try to get the job done by Wednesday, sometimes multiple times. They simply couldn't understand that when a Swedish business says "2pm on Friday", they mean "2pm on Friday." I did as instructed, and I'd always get yelled at by the Swedish shops who were insulted that I would dare question their professional integrity.

2009-02-05 15:41:16
75.   The Hawk
Sorry it had to go. Sorry I had to go, but I realized the Yankees were by far my main concern, though I dropped in now and then anyway.

I love the spirit of this post though the Moby Dick part I just don't see. If anything it's about the part of America, you no-one wants to be, but everyone has to contend with.

Anyway it was good while it lasted.

2009-02-05 17:17:52
76.   pericos
"I have to remind myself that some birds aren't meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. Still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they're gone. I guess I just miss my friend."
2009-02-05 17:19:38
77.   pericos
A wonderful send off, Ken, like everyone we wish it could be otherwise, but it is what it is. Good luck w/ everything, it's been real.
2009-02-05 18:11:26
78.   vockins
Three things:

1. I use InstallShield every week.

2. I had to go London a while ago (on InstallShield related business) and I met a friend of mine in a restaurant. Her friend was a filmmaker from Sweden. My daughter had just been born, and we were talking about the experience of raising a child. Eventually he started talking about the maternity/paternity leave time when a Swedish citizen has a child. I can't remember the details, but it was insanely long time. I recall that the time could be broken up any way that the parent wished, i.e., if Dad wanted to use his year off by taking every Friday off for the next five years, that was cool.

He punctuated his point by saying, "If I want to spend every Friday for the next year playing Ramones songs in my basement, it's OK!"

I responded, "But you'll never get The Ramones with those kinds of policies."

3. I thought the whole thing was good.

2009-02-06 04:02:19
79.   SF Yanks
This place was my first internet "home away from home". Easily the most readable blog on the net, too. I'm sure there are some fantastic writers out there that would love to be the ones to take over/blog/write for their respective teams. Can't be that tough to find em, right? Which would allow the Toaster to continue. Just a thought, as I would hate to see this wonderful place leave.

Either way, thanks Ken for the amazing job you've done here.

2009-02-06 11:33:05
80.   joejoejoe
Thank you Ken!
2009-02-06 13:19:23
81.   Jay Jaffe
Remarkable post, Ken. Thank you for sharing all of that. It connects some of the dots with an email you sent me back in 2003, before you'd unmasked yourself as the Score Bard, and I feel lucky to have read this piece with that unique vantage point in mind.

My toast to the Toaster: http://futilityinfielder.com/blog/2009/02/toast.shtml

Here's hoping you find another avenue to share your voice, Ken, whether it's related to writing about baseball or not. A belated happy 43rd birthday, and best wishes to you in all of your endeavors.

2009-02-06 21:04:09
82.   Sam DC
Thank you Ken, for the Toaster, and for this.

A lot to chew on in there, but my strongest feeling is admiration for the depth of your engagement with the moments of your life.

And what a rich and wonderful emotional and intellectual snapshot of this transition in your life to be able to preserve for your kids. They're lucky to have it.

Best wishes -- sam

2009-02-07 05:35:19
83.   studes
What a wonderful, final post, Ken. Of course, Toaster wasn't a failure at all -- it was a spectacular success. It had the best combination of writing and community anywhere in the baseball blogosphere.

Like Toaster, THT doesn't have a viable business model, and I'm not aggressive enough to find one, either. We'll only last as long as some of us are willing to plunge a lot of free time and energy into something we love. Eventually, we'll get tired of doing it, and closing shop will indeed feel like failure.

When that happens, I hope I remember the elegant coda you've written for Toaster. I won't try to replicate it, because I can't, but it will certainly inspire and comfort me.

Thank you, and best of luck.

2009-02-07 05:55:24
84.   Mark T.R. Donohue
I read all of this. I didn't understand all of it, but I read all of it!

It's becoming increasingly obvious that sportswriting as a literary discipline is a dead field. Nowadays if you want to make money you either have to have insider information, which means access, which means affiliation to one of the big portals, or you have to have powerful math skills that allow you to produce the projections that fantasy guys find so useful. Just writing well, or eloquently, is worthless. There are dozens of people more obsessive than you, with more spare time, who will gladly do it for free.

"The Nightfly" is a great record. I listen to it all the time. My girlfriend hates it. She calls it "that damn elevator-music album." It's amazing the differences just five years in age can raise. I don't think anyone under 25 has the ability to pay attention to any given thing for more than five minutes, so the old-fashioned Sports Illustrated/Baseball Toaster in its heyday lengthy think piece was doomed from the start.

What plays today is "news" about which football player accidentally exposed his junk in the locker room, which ballplayers enjoy beer and attractive young ladies (a lot of them!), and other gossip of that sort which isn't relevant to the games. It's vulgar, it's distracting, and it's enough to put you off following sports. If searching the web for the most revealing streaker photos is a requirement for today's sports blogs, I'm getting out at the right time.

2009-02-07 11:44:26
85.   Agronox
This is sad news, very sad news indeed!

Too bad it couldn't work. I always enjoyed reading everyone's thoughts over here.

2009-02-07 12:37:36
86.   kylepetterson
Ken, it may be too late, but what about hosting a forum here so that the former toasters can still chat?
2009-02-07 13:05:42
87.   Ken Arneson
86 The Fairpole software requires a server with a lot of memory, and without the ad revenue from the Bronx Banter and Dodger Thoughts traffic, I'm going to be losing a lot of money to keep the site up running the same software. So that's part of the reason I want to shut it down and move everything over to a simple static non-interactive web server, which is much cheaper. Interaction is more expensive to run, and time-consuming to manage.

Plus, mentally, I just need a break.

Like I said earlier, if someone wants to set up something similar elsewhere, they're welcome to. I'm sure we can the the news out.

2009-02-07 14:22:38
88.   Ken Arneson
84 Every generation makes "kids these days" arguments, so I'm never willing to accept that conclusion without a lot of evidence.

To me, I think the problem with the "news" is that the market for news is fractured. In the days when there were only three TV networks, you needed about 20-30% market share to be profitable. These days, 4% market share is very good.

I don't you can or could ever get to 20-30% market share by being vulgar. But these days, you can easily disgust 96% of the population, titillate the remaining 4%, and suddenly, you're the leader in your market.

As for business models, everything I've learned over the years has taught me that a small fish will never eat a big fish, unless the small fish has a completely different business model. Ever.

In our case, the Toaster sells ads, and LA Times sells ads, SNY sells ads--it's all the same business model. There's no way we could ever pass them in the long run, unless we did something different, that the other organizations don't want to do. That's why I didn't have the drive to even try very hard. I didn't think we could win.

In my other startup business, we are trying to do just that--attack a problem from a different and unique angle, to do the hard work that others don't want to do--but if I'm going to be honest and disciplined about it, that other business really has nothing to do with baseball, and it's time I forget that fantasy. I need to focus my creative energies into something I think might actually work.

2009-02-13 00:44:37
89.   Ken Arneson
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince:
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

Comment status: comments have been closed. Baseball Toaster is now out of business.