Needling The Winners: Football, Hypocrisy, and the next Patriots Scandal

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By Shawn Stjean

One of the first critical acts children are capable of is to observe the often-wide gulf between how the adults around them speak, and how they act.  They do this unconsciously, even before they can articulate their conclusions.  And yeah, there’s a word for what they see *cough* in my title *cough*.

So what are they perceiving as the 2014 NFL season draws to a close?

1. Americans are, as always, at-any-cost ultra-competitive.  Ever hear “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”? If not, you didn’t grow up in the USA.  No one complains about stupid little endzone dances, or Gronk with his signature, juvenile spike of the ball following a touchdown, or “We’re number one” foam fingers or terrible towels, all of which would have been called poor sportsmanship by every previous generation of human beings to inhabit this planet.  Is it any surprise when we hear, then, in the wider culture, of wiretapping foreign governments and citizens’ phone calls, an income inequity between rich and poor that staggers the mind, and drone strikes? There’s a chilling consistency there.  Doesn’t Brady himself pull down more yearly salary than most of us could see in six lifetimes?  Um, unfair advantage, anyone?

2.  Football is a sport of deception.  Like chess.  Hell, like tennis, volleyball, or poker, with perhaps a bit more planning.  At its core level, it’s lying.  Are they going to run or pass?  Who’s getting the ball?  Will it be a trick play?  What do those signals mean?  What’s that hurry-up offense about, anyway?  We could have predicted something like another impending “cry foul” when Tom Brady had to remind reporters following the Ravens game that the Patriots do read the rulebook, and then take every advantage allowed them.  In an age where athletes are routinely busted for steroid use, beating their wives, and even murder, and yet are still valorized and lavished with 1000 times more media attention than a battalion of firefighters, doctors and nurses, or teachers, a few PSI more or less in a pigskin are supposed to matter?

3.  BUT we have fast become a culture of childish and narcissistic whiners.  There is nothing more pathetic than grown men playing drama queen after a play they didn’t execute, throwing up pointed fingers at opponents in a “He touched me!” gesture.  Well, maybe one thing.  And that’s a so-called news media with nothing better to do than fan the flames of outrage, because their very livelihoods depend on having a wide-open piehole every day.  Plus, they love to hear the sound of their own voices.  “Deflate-gate”. Wow, that is so incredibly clever, and not in the least predictable.  Like any number of headlines using the word “Balls.”

Grow up.  It’ a game.  None more so than the Super Bowl, which functions as much as a delivery device for advertising, not Football, as a pill does for Ritalin or a syringe does for saline, or a needle does for air.  For crying out loud.  Everybody loses.  Even Patriots.  Most of us lose more than we win.  And the last lesson any kid needs to take away from her or his role models is this: Fire up the Excuse Machine when you sense a loss coming.  Because the next logical step is to lay down and stop trying, ‘cuz if you lose it’s never your fault.

By the way, Kids, turn on any screen device and imbibe the clear message to drink, smoke, eat crap, waste your days on games and more TV, consume mindlessly, go into debt, go to work all day every day, pay the government and insurance companies half of all your earnings, BUT: don’t ever cheat.  That would be taking unfair advantage.

By definition, a football is a gasbag.  There’ a lot of that going around.

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Casting Call–Miscellaneous Characters–Angelic Mother, Demonic Father

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For William Wyrd’s parents (both of whom are only seen in flashback,) we add an even more international flavor to the cast of a hypothetical film production of Clotho’s Loom.  Irish actress Susan Lynch (known in the U.S. as Maggie from Waking Ned Devine,) and currently working in the TV series Monroe, could well handle the role of Will’s unnamed mother, who, like the heroine of the novel and her daughter-in-law, Nexus, has to raise her son alone following the disappearance of his father (in this case, into North Vietnam.)  Earlier, she even defends the boy against his father at several points, doing her best in spite of a clear lack of power–so she functions as a foil for Will’s future wife.

For Will’s father, known only as Sergeant Wyrd to us, no particular actor is needed because we would never seem him very clearly onscreen.  A black operator, possibly, or perhaps even CIA, his shadow is imposing and threatens to suffocate both his wife and son, and his voice gritty and vaguely Germanic (Will’s grandparents were German and Irish immigrants to America).  I tried to write into the novel the psychological trauma of the strong father, from many angles: even when moral, as with Nexus’ father Lambert, the voice of Vader can be paralyzing.

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From out of the unconscious to Oedipus Rex to Star Wars to the latest video game, HE just keeps turning up. . .

So When Did Black Friday Become A Bigger “Holiday” Than Thanksgiving?

Need I say more?  Well, I’ll say a little.  If aliens are intercepting our media transmissions, they can’t help but come to the above conclusion.  I barely watch 1-2 hours of television nightly, and yet I’ve seen hundreds of BF-hype commercials this week, and hardly one that even  mentioned our nation’s unique holiday of gratitude.  I seem to recall this started out as a kind of ironic joke–“Black” means awful in this context, right?  Now, forget aliens, what message is this sending the kids?  “Okay, we’re grateful for what we have through the preceding year, blah, blah, let’s get 3-4 hours sleep and rush out for more.  Why such a hurry?  Well, little Joey and Sara, it’s so cheap.

My broad interpretation is that the vendors and stores and conglomerates and credit agencies and banks are slowly and surely buying us and our values–and they’re getting us pretty cheap.  Now, I know everyone is not participating.  But someone must be.  Otherwise these things wouldn’t get bigger every year.

Anyway, in a spirit of Thanks and Gratitude, I’d like to take a personal, non-commercial moment to name a few of the milestones for Clotho’s Loom (the website and the book)–ironic, I know, as these are by definition commercial entities. So if you’re reading this, you might want to stop here–your time would be better spent meditating on your own stuff.

CL the site has been in existence for about six months.  Since that first post, “A Modest Beginning,” we’ve had about 100 posts, and 5000 unique views.  CL the book has gotten on 100 shelves over at GoodReads and 250 people have entered the giveaway of the forthcoming print edition there.  I have just finished laying down the raw audiotracks of the Audiobook edition (all 205,000 words–whew!)  The print edition is on schedule, unbelievably enough.

So if anyone is still here and has contributed to any of this, THANKS SO MUCH.  Enjoy the holiday season, wherever you are. . .

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Marvel Comics pays tribute to Norman Rockwell’s famous painting, and more importantly, the American Holiday

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Cowboys and Indies: Amazon and Monopoly in the Free Market

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poster for High Plains Drifter

The last few years have been a revolutionary ones for book publishing—five centuries shackled to the mechanical printing press are over. Yet, with all that free-for-all, a new sheriff was bound to come to town, to corral the anarchy. One of the largest distributors and retailers of both physical and e-volumes has aided, but not unequivocally endeared itself, in 2012, to the largest, most sensitive group of content providers: self-publishers, and “Indie” authors.

It’s no more a secret that Amazon.com would like to be the default sales engine for books, than that Google wants to be the default search engine for the internet, Microsoft Windows wants to be the default OS for PCs, and Intel the default hardware manufacturer. It’s all too easy to forget that ITunes (and Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords, and your local library, and many littler guys,) Bing, Linux, and AMD make great products/provide great services, too. Why so easy? Well, we as consumers are so busy, we’d just like a nice comfortable place we can be sure of, in many aspects of our lives. Everybody loves having a go-to restaurant, or saloon: “Ahh, that’s one load off my mind.”

For the record, and from this consumer/content-creator’s perspective, at this point I think Amazon has it about 75% right. Remember when they were just books and movies? But, in their apparent quest to be and sell all things to all people (just look at the logo, with its arrow from “A” to “Z”,) they must necessarily do a lot of experimenting. Some of those attempts, as in any general store, fail to produce the expected or hoped-for results.

So, first take a paragraph to give them their due: they have certainly provided a valuable opportunity for authors (not all of them first-timers, and some extremely talented) to bypass the stranglehold of the traditional, brick-and-mortar publishing establishment–whose time had certainly come. Amazon’s KDP Select Program, which currently balances a modest exclusivity agreement with attractive royalty terms and good exposure schemes, deserves particular praise.

Now, the not-so-good: I was lately asked, in an interview, if I’m afraid that Amazon will try to gain a monopoly on ebooks. My response was that, in order keep relative parity with a self-regulating market, they will have to play fair with creators and consumers. I still believe that, today—but apparently, some of us may have to put it to the test, ourselves.

I have heard a few, varied, and repeated charges against the giant bookseller, ranging from shorted royalty payouts (a serious problem, if true,) to frustration with the arcane ranking system that no one seems to be able to adequately explain (but which is clearly sales-driven to a large extent. Unless one is a best-selling author, I don’t consider unknown variables in ranking to be too bothersome. My own rises and falls several hundred thousand places, every week.) The current experiment I’d like to focus on is the “review-policing” that has recently caused an uproar on message boards and blogs.

I don’t have to cite the experiences of others (just “Google” it—sorry, Blekko, I jest). I personally had two 5-star reviews taken down. For a first-novel that was published only two months ago, this is fairly devastating—those reviews are hard to get. And for all the wide and sundry types of promoting we self-publishers do, reviews are really our lifesblood. I received a belated, boilerplate e-mail from Amazon informing me that “during a quality review of the Kindle catalog, we determined that one (or more) of the reviews associated with your book does not meet the Amazon General Review Creation Guidelines.” Upon consulting these guidelines, and in considering the seven reviews I had up at the time, I could glean no clue as to which guidelines had been violated. In even the most broad interpretation, I can at least say that the reviews, as a group, were not targeted consistently. My attempts to complain, and requests for restoration of the seemingly random victims, have gone ignored. I was even able to track down one of the reviewers (who had been provided with an ARC, but who also had officially purchased a copy, as had the second reviewer whose text had disappeared,) and convince her to re-post with best-guess modifications. This was summarily removed within several minutes, obviously by a ‘bot. Is this person then banned from reviewing my book?

Furthermore, I had a reader (whom I have never met, but is a friend of a friend) denied a posting because, even though he has an Amazon account, he had not purchased the book from them. Does this mean that the thousands of people who downloaded it for free will be denied, as well?

If this doesn’t seem like a big deal to some (“oh, just wait for more good reviews,”) that attitude would be misconceived. I worked very hard at producing a nontraditional, non-formulaic novel that some will love and some will hate. That’s fine: I wanted no compromises, and Clotho’s Loom is certainly not for everybody. But the wrecking of my average (I had four 5-star reviews, one 3-star, and two 1-stars) is not just a blow to my fragile, writer’s ego—in fact, to me the positive-biased spread helps confirm the book’s legitimacy to my target audience of potential readers. But going to a much more dismal review distribution has effectively put, in the short-term at least, a stake-to-the-heart of sales. Let’s face it: it’s quicker and easier to scan a few two-sentence condemnations, and assume you’ve run across a hack who couldn’t find a “real” publisher, than to actually read the generous sample provided. And that smarts.

Assuming this all gets straightened out, not just for me, but for all the authors out there (a BIG assumption,) it troubles me because it may be symptomatic of the slide toward monopoly. I was already bothered by the fact that links to external blogs are disallowed on product pages—this seems needlessly restrictive, as blogs are many writers’ primary promotional channel. ITunes has alienated a lot of potential repeat customers with its (some say) fascistic Digital Rights Management protection. I personally paid nearly $40 for books I cannot read, because I don’t own an IDevice. It strikes me that the review-policing we’re seeing, across town, is really the same kind of problem: designed in intent to protect consumers and creators, what happens in practice is that Amazon/ITunes actually dictates what gets read, and how, and to some extent by whom. Too much control, which can be called a form of greed. Remember, I started out by calling them a distributor and a retailer. Publishers and authors own the texts and rights. And just as we had to bow to the conditions of the people who “managed” the printing presses for 500 years, or to the railroad barons, so too now we’re in the position of negotiating our rights with the new technology-holders.

The difference is, there are now a lot more choices for us.

When we sing America’s praises (which many equate with capitalism and the free market, as much as basic human rights,) one of the things we’re endorsing is the value of competition. I certainly was, until recently at least, willing to put all my horses in the Amazon stable: I’m currently producing an Audiobook edition (to be sold on Amazon-owned Audible.com) and a mass market paperback for Createspace (also a creature of Amazon.) I’m continuing research on the alternatives, and there are some very viable ones out there. I’m particularly interested in watching the extreme potential of the audiobook marketplace over the next several years, as no single contender has yet risen to dominate it (entrepreneurs, take note.) There is no better way of sending a message to a corporate entity whose practices one deplores, than to not only withhold one’s money, but to redistribute it to a competitor.

So how badly does the sheriff want my vote, for re-election? Or will it be shoot first, answer questions later?

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Clint Eastwood and Chief Dan George in The Outlaw Josey Wales

Casting Call–Miscellaneous Characters–the Old Man and the Young

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Martin Sheen as Nexus Wyrd’s blue-collar father, Lambert

Before I reveal my pick for the major male character of William Wyrd for my hypothetical film production of Clotho’s Loom, there remain a few minor characters that fill important supporting roles.  First is Nexus’ father, Lambert.  An uneducated but nevertheless sharp, liberal influence on the heroine, Lambert undergoes minor adventures of his own in the course of the novel, and provides it with a pure, moral voice.  Famous from his breakout role as Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now, later as the president in The West Wing, Martin Sheen has shown such a flexibility throughout his career, and lately seems to be featured as a father so often (even onscreen to real-life sons Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez,) that I think we should get in on the privilege.

I know little of Days of Our Lives‘ Dylan Patton, and even though he’s now about twenty years old, he just looks like James, Nexus’ adolescent neighbor, and helper, to me.  His line, “Because I hate the bastards,” is one of my favorite in the novel.

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Dylan Patton as James

WHO Women Want—or, Will a Real Man Please Step Forward?

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A woman and child look for America’s future

With presidential candidates Obama and Romney alternating between courting and alienating women voters, that old, quintessentially male question, “What do women want?” rears its head again this October, with no less power than a coven of Wiccans.

I wrote a novel in which I took on the dubious task of sustaining a strong female protagonist, who shared the stage with males, proving better than most of them.  Unlike her husband, she had to do it without a BFG (“big fraggin’ gun”) and a 400–horsepower car. In creating this character, I put a lot of thought into this puzzle, because, as a middle-aged man, I have no direct access to women’s inner minds—except what I’m told, and what I can observe.  And I see and hear a lot about children.  And it makes sense: What woman would choose a leader for her country whom she wouldn’t trust near her own family?

I’m sure no expert–so everything I’m about to say may seem presumptuous–but it seems to me that long-term security for their children would be foremost on many women’s shopping list for a powerful man, whether for romantic-involvement, or otherwise.  They’d like a leader who can deliver an America in which those kids can still dare to dream, and moreover, have realistic opportunities to pursue those dreams: in short, they want sensible educational reform, affordable and equal access to higher education, market regulation, and more jobs in the future.

Now, don’t try that bunk about how we can have ALL that, AND everything else too.  Most women learn, sooner or later and as a practical necessity, how to budget money.  And one of the first things they learn is that it’s hard to have both a decent set of kitchen appliances, AND a Harley in the driveway, without going way into debt.  Some, a few, are certainly comfortable with debt—-but again, you’re eating into that future, aren’t you?

Of course, they want border security and military strength, the same way a dog about the house and a deadbolt are deterrents to burglars.  But if you look at how most adult women distribute their own spending—-regardless of social class—-I’m really not sure that the percentage-equivalent of buying a medieval moat, a solid iron drawbridge, not to mention a hundred catapults and a standing army to go out and make sure none of the other barons have their own catapults, is really how they would budget.

And speaking of job creation, how many mothers, aunts, cousins, sisters, and grandmothers of a five-year old—-either boy or girl—forsee a career in the military for the little ones?

How about a man who is tough enough to need fewer guns, secure enough to love his children openly, responsible enough to show it in deed and not just word, and reliable enough to keep on truckin’, year after year?

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Sarah and John Connor of the Terminator mythology