Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Giving Hell: A Cubs Fan's Reaction to ESPN's "Catching Hell"

Last night, ESPN played one of their 30for30 documentaries and this one was called Catching Hell. It was about the infamous Steve Bartman and how he changed the course of history and the 2003 Cubs and how they choked away a chance to beat the Yankees in the World Series.

If you get a chance, I recommend watching one of it’s 8 million replays. It made for compelling television but like most documentaries these days, it failed to tell the whole truth—or, the truth was told from a certain point of view to hammer home an underlying point.

“You’ll find that a great many of the truths we cling to depend greatly upon our own point of view.” –Obi Wan Kenobi, Jedi Master

The point of this documentary was to show the classic theme, man’s inhumanity toward man. It opened with the hatred Bill Buckner experienced after missing a grounder between his legs in 1986 that cemented a World Series collapse and continued the Red Sox futility to win it all. It focused, however, on the incident in 2003, with the Cubs in Game 6 of the best-of-seven series with the Marlins. A Cubs win that day meant that the Cubs, after not having achieved the World Series since 1945, were going back to the World Series once again.

The Cubs were winning that game 3-0. We had our best pitcher on the mound and he was dealing and practically unhittable. Wrigley Field was JAM PACKED and Cubs fans who just wanted to be there filled the streets around the stadium so they could say that they were there and a part of the celebration. The city was abuzz—but that doesn’t do the state of the city accurately. Unless you live here, unless you’re a Cubs fan, unless you experienced it, you can’t possibly fathom what it felt like.

Just 5 outs away from a trip to the World Series, a foul ball was hit down the third base line. Moises Alou leaped to make a catch that replays show he almost certainly would have made. A fan named Steve Bartman (and many other fans in the area) reached out to catch the ball as a souvenir. Bartman’s hands were the ones that hit the ball though. He deflected it away from Alou and instead of having 2 outs in the inning the Marlins had new life.

Again, we get to one of those moments where, unless you were here, unless you were a Cubs fan, unless you truly understand what that entails you can’t possibly understand the aftermath of that fateful event. Cubs fans were waiting—just WAITING—for whatever was going to happen to pull the carpet out from under our dream. Cubs fans are Charlie Brown and Bartman was Lucy pulling the football away at the last second ensuring that once again, we wound up on our asses, covered in mud, laughed at, foolish and beaten.

The documentary showed the reaction of 40,000 people inside Wrigley and another 20,000 outside the walls—all of whom felt like they were on their asses, covered in mud, laughed at, foolish and beaten. They lashed out. Their target was this poor dork named Steve Bartman. He didn’t do anything that most other fans would have done in his situation. He didn’t do anything that other fans right next to him weren’t trying to do. His hands were the ones that hit the ball though. He was the one who changed the trajectory of the ball. And so, he became the symbol for changing the trajectory of our team.

Moises Alou threw a tantrum. Instead of handling it like a veteran player, he handled it like a toddler, told it’s time to go to bed. His antics exacerbated the situation. If he’d walked back to his position and played ball, none of this would matter. He didn’t. He acted like a child. The city deflated in that instant. We had a knowing feeling in the pit of our stomachs. We were Charlie Brown, in that final millisecond when his foot has started forward and it’s too late to stop and he recognizes that the ball is being pulled away.

We met the girl of our dreams and some dorky looking guy in a green turtleneck stole her away the day of our wedding. It was heartbreak.

Now, there were significant events that happened after that. There was still one out in the inning and the next play was an easy grounder to shortstop Alex Gonzalez that should have been a routine double play. He booted it. He kicked it. He flubbed it. If he’d made that play, like he’d made dozens of times that season the Cubs would still have made it to the World Series. That play, more than anything was the defining moment when it all went south.

Manager Dusty Baker sat on his ass and did nothing. He had a rattled team and he didn’t do anything to calm them down. A manager in baseball has so few things he needs to do but this was a moment when he truly could have felt the pulse of the situation, realized that everyone needed to take a deep breath and gone out to the mound to settle everyone down. He failed. The Marlins went on to score 9 runs.

It was over. The burden of not having won, the pressure of winning not only for that team, but all the teams and players and fans that came before them proved to be too much. The 7th game was lost as well. The Cubs, only 5 outs away from the Promised Land, had failed once again.

The documentary makes the Cubs fans look cruel and unfairly casts them in a poor light. Their immediate treatment of Bartman certainly warrants that and there was no excuse for the treatment he got from surrounding fans, but it’s greatest shortcoming as a documentary was the failure to place it all in the proper context.

It used the idea of the curse as context. It made the reaction of the fans out to be a reaction based on a curse. Make no mistake about it, Cubs fans feel snake-bitten, unlucky, unfortunate and like fate is against them, but the idea of the Curse of the Billy Goat is just kind of a fun, cute way to encapsulate that feeling. The curse is something that only a very small portion of Cubs fandom takes seriously. More than anything else, it’s part of a tradition. It’s something to talk about and joke about as a means of explaining the unexplainable. It’s hearing a bump in the night and telling your wife that it must be a ghost as a means of breaking the tension and the immediate feeling of fear that might accompany it before realizing it was just the dog.

It made it out to seem as if all Cubs fans placed blame on Bartman. That was never true. The fans were angry that night and looking to lash out and they did. There is no excuse for that. Ask ANY Cubs fan to this day where it all went wrong and just like with the curse, they’ll make the joke that it was Bartman because he is the symbol. But any real Cubs fan will go on to lay the true blame at the feet of one of three people: Moises Alou, Alex Gonzalez or Dusty Baker and most likely, all of them. Bartman was the symbol. Alou, Gonzalez and Baker were the ones who collectively failed. There’s no real debate about that here in Chicago. It’s the reason Baker gets booed every trip he makes back to Wrigley Field managing other teams. It’s the reason you don’t see Alou or Gonzalez making any appearances in a city that LOVES it’s former greats.

The documentary makes it seem like Cubs fans ignored the true culprits and focused all attention and energy and hatred on Steve Bartman. That is false. The media focused all the attention and energy and hatred on Steve Bartman. And as sure as extremist political opinions on “news” channels incite angry people to false and idiotic points of view, so did the way the media grabbed this story, held on to it and kept after it help to draw out the loud and unintelligent who always need someone to blame.

The Cubs choked, after it seemed that it was finally going to be the year. Steve Bartman was just the punchline to the joke. And even that was and continues to be unfair—no doubt about it, but I promise you that any Cubs fan, when asked about Bartman, will immediately talk about the groundball hit to Gonzalez. That’s a fact. It’s a fact that wasn’t pointed out in Catching Hell.

In fact, Catching Hell seemed to go out of its way to protect the media. Oh, it placed a piece of the pie at their feet but it was a small slice and the underlying tone was always that while it was unfortunate, they were just being responsible journalists and doing their jobs with as much integrity as they could. In fact, Steve Bartman was salt that the media got to use to throw into the gaping wound of a dispirited and disappointed city who had come to believe only to be let down once again.

Cubs fans don’t feel any animosity toward Steve Bartman today. He is and forever will be part of the lore and part of the punch line the same way the Billy Goat Curse is but the man lives and works in Chicago to this day. His reclusiveness and his exile are self-imposed. It’s perfectly understandable that he would choose to do so, he was treated HORRIBLY that night by the worst of the Cubs fans. But the people who threw beer at him weren’t the ones sitting next to him. They were the whack jobs who came from all over the park, drunk and stupid as fans often are at sporting events.

The newspapers, the local news shows, the national media all focused on Bartman. Alex Gonzalez’s error wasn’t the leading story anywhere. No one thought that it was a good idea to publish Gonzalez’s address in a newspaper. They had no such issues with releasing Steve Bartman’s address though. If the media had focused on the actual news, Bartman would be a footnote. There’s no romance, intrigue and excitement in that though. Players make errors every day. Managers fail to do their jobs and players throw tantrums all the time. That’s a one-day story. Bartman offered the media a chance to run with something for weeks. They took it. The play itself incited the idiots in the crowd. The media incited all the rest of the idiots in the third largest city in the U.S.

And they were convincing. They got a lot of us. They incited a lot of anger and it was easy to blame Steve Bartman, it was easy to make him the symbol of failure.

Catching Hell seemed to want to show the dark side of man. It wanted to show how cruel fans could be. It made the city of Chicago and it’s people out to be small and petty. It failed to make it’s audience understand what that trip to the World Series would have meant to us. It failed to give an accurate account of the silent majority. It further amplified the voice of a loud minority and it left the media virtually blameless and in many ways, even reluctant and noble.

That’s not what happened. That’s not how it went down. That’s what happens when a Boston Red Sox fan makes a documentary about the Chicago Cubs. Make no mistake, Steve Bartman is a tragic and unfortunate scapegoat. He has suffered pointlessly and cruelly. But if you think you got the whole story from watching Catching Hell, you’re wrong. You got a biased and uneducated version from someone who applied what he knew—the situation with Bill Buckner in Boston, to something he didn’t know—the situation with the 2003 Cubs and while there are similarities, it just wasn’t the same. The situations are not the same and they never were. The perspective of Catching Hell was clouded by a Red Sox fan’s perspective and point of view. And that is why it failed. It made for great television. It was very compelling. It just wasn’t very accurate and that’s sad because the real story is one worth telling.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Warren Buffett & The War on Billionaires

I know what you’re up to Warren Buffett. You don’t fool me for a second. You may think you’re slick—but you are not, sir.

By now, most of us have read the article in the N.Y. Times written by Buffett where he chides us not to coddle the super-wealthy, like himself, and supports higher taxes for those in the top echelon of the tax bracket. I’m sorry. I’m not buying it though. Something smells fishy and I think I’ve figured it out.

Buffett is scared. And he has good reason to be.

The 2012 election is rapidly approaching and the Yes-We-Can Man that Buffett supported the last time around has become the Well-I-Tried-Really-Hard-But-The-Other-Guys-Are-Really-Mean Guy and he’s in danger of not being elected for a second term. And I don’t know if you’ve taken a good look at any of the Republican Party hopefuls but the group as a whole is crazier than a guy trying to do cartwheels up a flight of stairs.

And here are the facts: We’re in debt—big time. And the Repubs—well, they all like low taxes and starting wars. They’ve learned from the last dummy and this time around when they start lowering taxes they know they’ll need to climb out of debt somehow and no matter how many programs they cut, they’ll never do it that way which leaves one, fairly obvious plan.

Declare war on Billionaires.

Let’s face it. The groundwork has been set. The days of having to declare war on countries is OVER. We can now declare wars on groups of people. The Terrorists came first, but the War on Terror came about when our problem was being afraid. We needed to beat somebody up so we could feel better, tougher, safer and less afraid. Mission accomplished. Just a decade removed from the horrors of 9/11 we do nothing but whine and complain about long lines at airport security checkpoints. We’re positively arrogant, once again, in the face of terrorism.

The new problem is money. We don’t have any. And we don’t do or make anything here anymore. We’re a country full of people with desks, laptops and chairs with good lumbar support. The only thing we actually make are spreadsheets and power point presentations. We fill both of those things with information skewed to prove this point or that one. We talk about metrics and forecasts and synergy. We learned one thing really quick when the economy failed. The majority of the workforce is superfluous. A business owner can fire half of his or her employees and the only difference is less meetings to attend where people try to prove to one and other how smart and important they are and fewer spreadsheets to read.

So, what does this all mean for the future? Well, there’s a good chance that Crazy-Eyes Malone or Maverick McGee is going to be our next president and when they’re in charge there’s really only one possible course of action to take: The War on Billionaires.

It’s a win-win proposition.

These silly bastards have amassed their billions of dollars without ever having built personal armies or allocating vast portions of their wealth to defense! They’re practically helpless! We can invade Warren Buffett’s estate or Bill Gates’ mansion with virtually zero resistance! This is exactly what the GOP needs, a war without a single casualty and no need for an exit strategy! Hell, I’m sure the troops won’t mind occupying the Gates Mansion for a couple years anyway!

We kick guys like Buffett out of their homes, take all of their money and let them live on the streets so their bleeding heart liberal friends can feed them with foodstamps and in the process, we amass enough money to buy our way out of debt and probably even have a little surplus when it’s all said and done! So what if we make 600 former billionaire’s upset in the process? As long as we take care of the millionaires and those making six-figure salaries the Repub base will remain strong.

Oh, they won’t run on this platform of course, but if you pay attention, you can see it forming already. Warren Buffett has certainly seen the writing on the wall. It’s actually pretty comical that he thinks he can volunteer to pay a little bit more in taxes and somehow avoid the inevitability of The War on Billionaires.

It’s too late, I’m afraid. Barrack Obama will be a one-term president. He said he could, but it turns out he couldn’t. There isn’t a single good leader in the entire group of Republican candidates and even if there was, it would be impossible to tell because they all get their talking points from the same place. No, it’s inevitable now. President Palin will be running the show soon and The War on Billionaires will commence. She’ll be posing for pictures in a flight suit after flying onto an aircraft carrier anchored on the slip for Bill Gate’s yacht before you know it.

Debt resolved. Crisis averted. Problem solved. The billionaires may as well adopt a moose with a bad limp as their logo. You had a good run Mr. Buffett and this last gasp effort with the equal tax thing really was a nice try. I hope you make a mean spreadsheet.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Not Quite Ready for Prime Time

Deion Sanders is a Hall of Famer now, enshrined with the other NFL greats in Canton, Ohio. It’s an honor he has certainly earned. His play, on the field, over his 14-year career, spoke for itself. His mouth and his “Prime Time” persona, however, left many divided on two-sport star though.

I’ve always rooted against Prime Time. Those who self-aggrandize themselves are the ones I want to see fall. I wasn’t alone in that. Deion isn’t shy about calling out “the haters.” These days he does it while praising the Lord, yet another big mouth in the sporting world giving praise to Jesus on the inhale and screaming “look at me!” on the exhale of every breath.

My issue isn’t with the hypocrisy with which he throws the Lord’s name around though. That can stay between he and Jesus and I trust it’ll get worked out just right. My issue is with Prime Time’s speech and more specifically the message it contained and that it was directed at a bunch of kids in a corporately sponsored tee shirts.

In his speech he says: “I never told you, Mama, I played for a youth team called the Fort Myers Rebels. Everybody on that team, their parents were doctors or chiefs of police. Me and my friend were the only African-American kids on that team. I was ashamed of my Mama. My Mama worked in a hospital. She pushed a cart in a hospital. I was ashamed of my Mama, who sacrificed everything for me to make sure I was best-dressed in school.
One of my friends in high school saw her pushing a cart and clowned me because of my Mama. So I made a pledge to myself that I don't care what it takes, I'm not gonna do anything illegal, but my Mama would never have to work another day of her life.”

I forgive you, Deion, for being ashamed of your mother, as a kid, in that situation. And I understand how something like that can motivate a kid—as it apparently did in Sanders’ case to achieve more. Kids are foolish and stupid and don’t understand what’s truly important in life. What’s unacceptable is that Prime Time doesn’t seem to truly understand that what his mom did for him is real. He fails to appreciate that there was honor in pushing that cart. There was honor in sacrificing so that he could be, “best-dressed in school.”

Deion, you gave your mom more money than she’s ever probably known what to do with, but you didn’t save her. She didn’t need saving. It sounds like she had honor and integrity and a strong work ethic and life may not have been easy for her, life may not have been a piece of cake, but she was managing and doing the best she could. Deion said that he had been ashamed of her. He never said that he stopped being ashamed. He talked about how he tackled every bill she was sent after he turned Pro.

He went on to say that he created the Prime Time persona as a way of seeing to it that cornerbacks got paid more in an NFL where a premium wasn’t really placed on that position. He thinks that he’s the reason why they do now, though pass-happy offensive guru Mike Martz, in attendance in support of Marshall Faulk who was also enshrined, probably had more to do with that than Prime Time ever did. He said that he did it all for his mama. Everything was for his mama.

I’m sorry, Deion. I’m just not buying it. The honest part of what he said was that he was ashamed of her. That shame certainly motivated him. He has, unquestionably, provided for his mother and given her a luxurious second half to her life. It wasn’t all for her though. It was because he didn’t want to push a cart in a hospital. It was because he still doesn’t see the honor in pushing that cart.

He went on to say later in his speech: “What are we doing with this platform? Are we just walking around with these gold jackets? Let's provoke change. Truth family, I love you. We are raising your kids to be CEOs, not employees, leaders, not followers.”

I’ve got some news for you Prime Time. CEOs sit around in boardrooms and talk but their subordinates are the ones who get things done. And every General in the history of war will tell you that it was the soldiers, not themselves who won the battles that shaped the world we live in. Success isn’t the money in your bank accounts, it’s not the number of celebrity friends who come to watch you give a speech, it’s not a matter of whether people see you as a shot caller or a follower. Success is about being the best you can be.

Your mom was a success long before you gave her cars and jewelry and a big fancy house. She wasn’t a leader; she was a follower. She wasn’t a CEO; she was an employee. She was a woman with a kid who wanted the world and she provided him with the opportunity to take it. She provided that opportunity by pushing a cart. She provided that opportunity by cleaning up after people who probably didn’t appreciate what she did. She provided that opportunity because it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t about getting respect for her. It was about putting food on the table.

There’s dignity in pushing a cart, Deion. There’s honor in cleaning up after others. There are important people in this world who will never hold a press conference or fly in a private jet. Prime Time was never about your mother. Prime Time, like everything else in your career, was all about you.

There’s a Hall of Fame for people though, Prime Time. I know that you know all about it because you’re big on praising Jesus. When it comes time for induction into that hallowed hall, I think you may be surprised to find that all the first ballot inductees to that sacred place are the people like your mom who pushed the carts because they cared about others, more than they ever cared about themselves.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Harry Potter and the Failed Finale

The Harry Potter movie series ended this weekend with a resounding thud, but you may not have heard it. You may have been there in the theater cheering and clapping and crying and under the assumption that you’d just seen a great movie and a very satisfying ending to the franchise. I propose that you’ve been cleverly bamboozled.

Let’s start with the basics. This movie wasn’t bad. On many levels it was even good. One thing it did particularly well was use a number of touchstones from the books that, often with just a single shot, (instead of a well-played scene) stirred great emotions. There were quite a few times when a well-placed image caused the waterworks to start for people around me in the theater. However, it wasn’t so much the movie they were crying at as it was the memory of a scene in the books. It’s a clever ploy, but it’s entirely dependant upon the book. I’m guessing that people who have never read the books came away with a much different experience than those who did. Of course, you’ll say that anyone who didn’t read the books isn’t a real Potterphile and that’s why they didn’t get as emotional as you may have, but in fact—the movie didn’t inspire the emotion, the memory of the emotion the book stirred was simply referenced to bring it back to the forefront of your mind.

You could almost excuse the director for this tactic if he was trying to cram the very robust book into a single movie, but he took two movies up telling the final story and his failure to nail the emotional scenes leaves this series with a very empty ending.


Another sour note, and this one quite literally, was the musical score of the final movie which failed miserably, and as much could have been predicted when it was announced that legendary composer John Williams wasn’t going to return for the final installment. Williams, of course, composed the famous Harry Potter theme and did the score for the first three Potter movies. He’s also responsible for a few other little ditties you may have heard such as the theme music and scores for movies like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Jaws, Indiana Jones, E.T., and Superman. Do you know what all of those movies—and their sequels have in common? You left the theater with those songs in your head and feeling magical because of it.

Since Williams stopped doing the scores for the Potter movies, that hasn’t been true of those films and certainly wasn’t true of the final chapter. In fact, the main theme, the music written by Williams for the original movies, the song that IMMEDIATELY comes to mind when you think of Harry Potter and even plays in your mind as you read the books now was entirely absent until the actors were off screen and the movie had faded to black. It certainly wasn’t on my mind after I’d left the theater.

It will be argued, of course, that the movies took on a darker, more ominous tone than was apparent in the first three movies and that the original themes did not fit. This couldn’t be further from the truth of course. Over the years, Williams has proven to be a genius at adapting his own, light and grand themes into dark and permeating ones. Through the use of different instruments, different parts of his orchestra and different accompaniment to his base tune, he could have stapled the theme all over this movie, as he did with the various themes in Star Wars.

Want proof that the musical scoring has been screwed up since Williams left? I’ll make it simple. Can you hum the Darth Vader theme? How about the Voldemort theme? The former is the most famous bad-guy music in the world. The latter does not exist because Voldemort doesn’t become an actual character until after Williams stopped doing the composing for the movies.

One final point on the music is this one: When I read the book, I remember being most moved by the scene where Harry makes the long march to confront his fate at the hands of Voldemort accompanied by all those he’s lost. It was an emotional and heartrending scene. I remember thinking that the music during the march could literally make or break the movie version. I knew it had to be a version of the famous Harry Potter theme. I knew it needed to start timid and afraid and it needed to work its way up as Harry gained courage from those with him and by the end of his trek, it had to be at it’s crescendo and I imagined this amazing brass baseline staccato with a powerful snare drumline making the theme into an actual march. I knew that if they got the music in that scene right they’d nail the movie.

Of course, that never became realized in the movie. In fact, that fantastic scene was truncated and the music didn’t play much part in it at all. What a shame and a waste.


If you’re making a book into a movie, there are certain things that need to be changed and they can’t be helped. It’s the reason why people almost always say that the book is better than the movie. So, it’s reasonable and understandable that certain parts of the book needed to be changed in order to bring it to the big screen. The most egregious changes were the ones that didn’t need to be made at all. The above-mentioned scene where Harry marches into the woods to meet his fate is cut down to a quick pow-wow and a, “okay, I’m here” scene. That one of the most powerful chapters in the final book was cut to shreds even though the director had two movies to get it all in is an absolute shame. That scene was THE tear jerker scene in the book. It’s the perfect example of the director just showing a quick glimpse of something that readers know means much more. So, did the lovers of the book get choked up at that scene? Probably. Was it because of the movie? No.

Even more inexplicable were some of the changes that seem to have been made for the change’s sake alone. For the entire series we’ve seen that memories, extracted by wand and put into a vial are what you pour into a Pensieve allowing others to see your memories. All the sudden, for no reason, and without any explanation, the scene is changed so that Harry collects Snape’s tears to use in the pensieve? Why? Why change it? Was that supposed to make it more emotional for us? Was that designed to jerk a few tears? All it did for me was confuse things and make me wonder why a book with so many emotional scenes for a director to choose from was changed so that some of the most touching scenes were skipped over with unemotional scenes changed to stir sentiment up in the audience.


This movie franchise captured our hearts and minds in a way similar to the books. Seeing Diagon Alley brought to life for the first time was amazing. Getting to see Quidditch actually being played was truly very cool. The early movies in this series gave a depth to the books and forever associated certain images in our minds. You know it was done well because as we went back to books as they were released our own perceptions of those places and things had been forever changed—and not in a bad way. Books are all about imagination and the reader’s interaction with author to jointly create the scenes and characters. Movies steal that from us. They say THIS is what the characters look like. THIS is what this place looks like. The participation of the viewer is much less than that of the reader. However, so brilliantly were the early movies cast, imagined and shot that very few people I’ve ever encountered have challenged them.

I’m happy with my image of the three main characters being that of the actors who play them. I’m happy with my image of Hogwarts being the one shown in the movies. Any and every detail they might have gotten wrong could have been a major issue for the readers of the books, but they did such a fantastic job in the early movies in imagining the world and staying true to what J.K. Rowling had written that it seemed to almost magically fit into all of our own imaginings.

Then things took a turn for the worse. John Williams absence can’t be understated, but more than that, as the movies took on the books increasingly darkening subject matter they lost the sense of magic that propelled us in the beginning. The humorous moments in the final installment were so out of place that they seemed entirely forced when they came. The final three movies (from the final two books) failed miserably. And somehow, they still managed to be well received. I think it’s more the fact that they could have been so much more than they were than that they were bad. I think it’s more that they took short cuts and relied on their audience knowing the books in order to bring on emotion and feeling than doing it in the movie itself that most disappoints.

There was wild applause at the end of the movie in the theater where I saw it. Quite a few people walked out with tears in their eyes. I’m willing to bet they had all read the books. And the people who walked out looking slightly confused were the ones who didn’t read them. Every review I’ve read has been positive. Every opinion I’ve heard has been good. I’ve read a lot of Facebook status messages talking about people who had a good two hour cry after the movie, but I’ll be surprised, upon further reflection, and down the road if this ending is so universally liked. I think the cheap tricks used to stir emotion won’t hold up to multiple viewings. I think the lack of that magical feeling will be missed and when people look down at their box set of DVDs of the whole movie franchise, I bet it’s the early movies they tend to pick out to watch, not the later ones and rarely, if ever, the finale.

With all of this said, I didn’t dislike the movie. I didn’t hate it. The problem was that I didn’t love it and after years of being a fan, years of going to see the movies, years of following along online I felt I was entitled to an ending that I could love and I think the director, David Yeats and the producers failed to deliver that to me. And I suspect, when the smoke clears and you see through the clever misdirection, you’ll come to find that this movie was a bit more empty than you first thought it was too.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Pottermore: A Whole New Ballgame

In sports, it’s called a game-changer. It’s that play, that moment, that person who shakes everything up and changes forever the course of a game. Recently, J.K. Rowling has decided to be a game-changer in the publishing industry and where this may lead, no one knows. Ms. Rowling has announced the launch of Pottermore, a website from which she will exclusively sell her famous Harry Potter book series in digital format.

Until now, if you wanted to read any of the Potter books you’ve had to do it the old fashioned way and actually buy or borrow an honest-to-goodness, book of printed word on bound paper. But starting with the release of the Pottermore site on Harry’s birthday, July 31st, you’ll be able to pay for and download the e-book version of each of the seven bestsellers over a wide number of platforms.

Yesterday, publishing companies were cutting book stores out of the loop by shifting sales to e-book and online-related merchandise and today, just like that, in one fell swoop, Rowling has eliminated the need for publishers by skipping them in the process. The question is what does this mean for the future?

Initially, it means very little. J.K. Rowling has power that very few other authors do and that is the power to make the buyer come to her. The Potter books are a proven commodity, they are books that draw people in not just to read once, but to re-read multiple times, like visiting old friends. They are also collectible in that parents want to have them for their own kids to read someday (and to help explain why they might have a tattoo of a Hippogriff on their chest). To tech savvy young parents that means collecting them digitally, not on some dusty old shelf. In other words, Rowling can confidently set up her Pottermore website, announce it to the world and fully expect the buyers to come to her.

She doesn’t need the book resellers. She doesn’t need a publishing house. She doesn’t need Amazon or anyone else. All she has to do is ring the dinner bell and wait for the crowds to come running. In doing so, she deprives resellers and the publishing industry of millions, if not billions of dollars—all of which they would have gladly taken for doing what actually amounts to very little. If Rowling had announced that she was simply releasing the books in an e-reader compliant version and gone through traditional channels, it would have been seen as a boon to the entire industry. Instead what they receive is a harsh wake up call.

Fortunately for publishers, it doesn’t mean much more than the loss of some free revenue in the short term--the U.S. & U.K. Publishers are only receiving a small percentage of the earnings with Pottermore Publishing receiving the lion's share. J.K. Rowling may have the power, influence and product to be able to step out on her own and cut out all the greedy little hands grabbing at percentages of her work, but few other writers do. Even writers as prolific as Stephen King would have trouble, drawing customers to a site, which sold only his works. Cult favorites like Stephanie Meyer may be taking notice though.

Looking ahead, you can almost map out the strategies for the publishing giants. They will insist on total control from new writers. They will squeeze even more than they already do from writers who are desperate to make their way into the business. That strategy is as flawed as is it is obvious the direction they will take. It reminds me of a line from Star Wars when Princess Leia says: “The more you tighten your grip…the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” Substitute dollars for star systems and you can see the murky future of book publishers and retailers.

What writers are going to start to do is to take a good look at what exactly they get from their publishers. Do they offer marketing support in line with the percentage of revenue and rights they demand? The answer for most writers will be, simply, “no.” By pushing the publishing industry toward the e-reader and sales through online platforms, they have essentially made themselves obsolete.

Do you think the people at Amazon aren’t taking notice of this event? What they have to be asking themselves is what is it exactly that the publishing houses offer them? Amazon is the unquestioned king of online retail and marketing. As we steer closer to a paper-free world, why wouldn’t a company like that approach recognizable authors and tempt them to sell directly and only through their company? The publishing giants have made themselves irrelevant middlemen in the process.

Authors have to ask what a publisher truly does for them now? They demand much, that’s for certain. But what do they provide? Do you think the online outlets will stop selling the works of best-selling authors simply because they are no longer attached to publishers? Of course not. Do the publishers manage the distribution of the product to stores around the world? Not anymore they don’t. Do the publishers market books to the world in a way that creates excitement and generates sales? No. The marketing arm of the publishing industry is as impotent as old men before Viagra and as creative as a 4th grade math teacher.

The answer, plain and simple is that the publishing industry, which is going to demand more and more, is capable of providing less and less. The tighter they squeeze, the more writers and dollars will slip through their fingers. Self-published books have been something of a joke until now, but in the blink of an eye they have become so much more. Every author in the world is questioning his or her relationship with their publisher today. Every one of them is asking themselves, besides stifle creativity, sap financially and control draconically—what does my publishing house do for me?

The next question they’ll ask is who can do it better? Who can do it for less, allowing me to earn more for the work that I have done? The weeks of touring cities and doing book signings will become a single sit down for a live webinar marketed to millions. It will be twice as effective, take a fraction of the time and allow the writers to more quickly get back to what they do best—write.

The launch of Pottermore is historic one. It won’t be overnight, but this is the beginning of the end for book publishers. They worked to usher in the next age, forsaking trusted, long-term partners and now they will pay the price for their lack of vision. They have made themselves obsolete. J.K. Rowling is just the first in what is sure to be a long line of defectors. The game has changed and nothing will ever be the same again. The switch to e-reading platforms is now solidified and the need for publisher is gone. The online giants will take over now. Here’s hoping they take better care of literature than their forbearers have.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

We All Want To Be Appreciated

I know that it wasn’t meant to be, but Facebook has become something of an interesting sociology study for those of us who care to pay attention. It’s amazing you learn about your friends and about people in general by watching the various status updates they post. I’m sure it would be much different if I was 15 years younger—I’d spend my time reading about which parties were fun and who hooked up with whom. My social circle, on the whole, is a bit past that though. My friends are living for the weekend so that they can spend time with family and get things done around the house. It’s pretty boring really.

Some people (okay, maybe me) try to be funny in their posts, others are constantly trying to help the rest of us find Jesus (apparently he’s lost). Some post pictures of kids and vacations. Some are on crusades to end child abuse by changing their profile picture to a cartoon character from their own childhood (no one has been able to explain to me exactly how that works though). If you pay attention to all of this you can really learn a lot about the people you supposedly already know.

By far though, the most commonly repeated status sentiment is that people want to be appreciated. On any given day, I can sign in and see that a teacher, police officer, firefighter, active military personnel, military wife, veteran or nurse is feeling neglected and take the opportunity to remind the rest of the world that we are lucky that they do what they do for us.

I don’t dispute this. We are lucky. There’s a good chance you owe quite a bit of appreciation to any or all of these people. I know I do.

I suppose where I have a difference in opinion is the part where I am supposed to acknowledge and leave a note, re-post it if I agree or “like” this status—or the sentiment behind it. And granted, I certainly have the right to just pass it by if I so choose but these things really start to bug me after a while.

The idea that these certain professions are of greater nobility than others is the part that irritates me. Last I checked, all of the people I listed above—directly or indirectly, are getting paid for what they do. With the exception of the military personnel and veterans, the people who do these jobs are doing it for the paycheck. This isn’t to say that it’s not a calling for some of them and that they don’t devote their entire being to doing it well. What I’m saying is that I’ve had more bad teachers than I’ve had good ones. I’ve been treated rudely by more nurses than those by whom I’ve felt truly cared for; I’ve witnessed police and fire professionals using their jobs to gain free food and tickets to the game. I’ve been pulled over and given tickets by police officers who have treated me like I was the scum of the Earth for going five miles an hour over the speed limit—no matter how respectful I was of them.

Now my friends are my friends because I believe them to be good people. I have no doubt that they do their jobs and do them well for reasons that go far above and beyond the paycheck. Still though, I have a problem universally appreciating their professions. A police officer will tell you that we should appreciate them because they keep us safe. True enough. Without construction workers we’d have no homes to live in or roads to drive on though. I’ve never seen any of my friends who work construction asking to be appreciated. A nurse will tell you that they are on the front lines, taking care of you when you are sick. They certainly are. You’re more likely to see the Easter Bunny and Santa Clause tap-dancing down the halls than you are to see your doctor more than once a day while you’re in the hospital. Of course, you’d starve if not for the people down in the kitchen making your food.

The point isn’t that we shouldn’t appreciate nurses and cops and firefighters. We should! The idea that we should appreciate them because they somehow live a higher calling than the rest of us is bullshit though. We all make the world a better place in whatever way we can. We all deserve to be appreciated for that. The customer service representative who helps you fix some problem, the mechanic who gets your car running, the person behind the deli counter who slices your lunchmeat extra thin the way you like it. Appreciation should be given for how you do your job not just because of the job itself.

A good teacher imparts a value that cannot be repaid in a lifetime. The difference between a good nurse and a bad one can mean life and death. Police officers and firefighters often have to put themselves into harm’s way so that we can be safe. Our Soldiers, Marines, Airmen, Seamen and Guardsmen selflessly fight for principles most of us have long forgotten and take for granted every day. Their spouses are forced to raise families on low income and too often on their own. These people deserve appreciation but are any of these people truly more noble than a single mother who works three low-wage jobs waiting tables to support her kids? I say no.

You deserve appreciation because of who you are and what you do, not for the job you hold. And we all want and need to feel appreciated. We all do the best we can. We all try to make the world a better place in our own way. And though appreciation is always nice, the people who truly make a difference in the world don’t do so for the appreciation. The joy of service isn’t in the thank you, it’s in the difference you make in the world around you. The truly noble don’t pander for appreciation, it’s nice, but it’s not the high they get from simply doing good, doing right and not allowing all of the shit in the world to drag them down to it’s level.

If you take anything away from this take the reminder that we all need and deserve to be appreciated. We can all use a reminder that the things we do make a difference in the lives of others. If the smile on the face of the barista at your local coffee shop is infectious and starts you off in a good mood—tell them so. If someone holds a door open for you, look them in the eye and say thank you. If you know a single parent who struggles to get by it’s okay to let them know that you admire them. And yes, when your life is touched by any of the people I’ve talked about through this piece, don’t just take what they do for you for granted. Let them know how much it means to you.

We all want to be appreciated. We all want to feel important. We all want to know that the things we do to make a difference are noticed by others and that we are valued and respected for them. And the next time you feel the urge to post a plea for that appreciation, for that value and respect, show that you are truly a noble person by choosing instead to give some thought to those people in your own life who might feel underappreciated and take the opportunity to make them feel valued instead.

“And I hear them saying you’ll never change things
And no matter what you do it’s still the same thing
But it’s not the world that I am changing
I do this so this world will know
That it will not change me.” -Garth Brooks, The Change