Damn it PJ

Carla and I are wrapping up a week’s vacation and tonight we got blindsided by awful news. PJ Neumann, co-owner of Boomtown Biscuits & Whiskey, has passed away. Out of respect to his family’s privacy at a time when things are nuts and everyone is trying to sort things out I don’t want to go into details, especially considering I don’t have many of them anyway. From my perspective they’re exactly that: details. The only thing that matters is that he’s gone. And I don’t like that one bit.

Most people who knew PJ knew him better than I did. To me he was one of Carla’s favorite students ever. I don’t say that lightly. There aren’t that many. She’s been teaching for a very long time and you could fill up a pretty good-sized zip-code with them and have some left over. But there are a few that took up residence in her heart. PJ was definitely on the short list.

That’s not supposed to be in past-tense, damn it. This sucks.

We would be out somewhere on the town and if it was someplace PJ worked (Rock Bottom was where it started) we’d make sure to see if he was working. Or we wouldn’t know he was working and he’d see us and come over. The next morning or sometime later Carla would just blurt out “It was so good to see PJ.” And I’d agree. He seemed like a good guy.

We celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary this past July and we decided we wanted to have our meal at Boomtown. I’d never been there, but I’d heard so many good things from so many people. I spend much of my time in a daze and, while I knew PJ was involved in the management there, I’d somehow completely spaced on the fact that he co-owned the place. I’m an idiot sometimes.

The minute we were through the door PJ was there to greet us. While we had a really nice server who was well up to the job, PJ kept coming over to check in on us. It was during one of these interludes that he touched my life in an important way that will stay with me for the rest of mine. It’s probably going to sound silly, but I find life to be a largely meaningless trek from one moment to the next that occasionally gets interrupted by something worth getting out of bed for.

For me, one of those things is biscuits. (Cats are another). I don’t know if that make me simple or complicated, but it’s a part of my personal ontology. I’m 56 years old and I still haven’t made my best biscuit yet. The food scientist Shirley Corriher has an extended riff on how “tender-flaky” biscuits are a holy grail that can happen, but the odds are stacked against you. I’ve tried — and subjected Carla to — dozens of techniques. Some even came close to working.

I’d been making some good progress, and one time when PJ came out that night we started talking biscuits. Understand something: this is a restaurant that has the word ‘biscuit’ in the name. He could have copped an attitude. He could have gone the “secret recipe” route and what could I have really said? But he didn’t. He shared a technique I wasn’t aware of and has been transformative to doing a thing that makes me happy in a world where not much does.

Freeze the butter. Grate it into the flour, including some between each layer when folding.

Oh. My. God. Good low-protein flour (rhymes with “White Lily”), frozen grated butter and impatience (so you don’t work the dough too much). I’ve still not made the best biscuit I ever will, but I’m closer now than I was before. And I have PJ to thank.

We were talking about going back down sometime. I so wanted thank him in person for the hint. Now I won’t be able to and I’m equal parts pissed at him and sad. Carla is gutted. I’m gutted. Dude, you’re supposed to be here. I’m a casual acquaintance, really. I cannot begin to comprehend the pain for those who were really close. My heart goes out to all of you.

We touch the lives of everyone we meet. Most of the time it’s a good thing and we’re utterly unaware of it. PJ was a good guy and the world was better place with him in it. I doubt he knew. One never does. Keep his family and friends in your hearts. There’s an awful big hole in all of their lives now.

Thanks PJ. I’m thankful for what I learned and I wish I’d learned more. Rest well.

Forever an Astros Fan

The hammer dropped the other day when I wasn’t looking. The long-awaited report and sanctions against the Houston Astros dropped on Monday. Hinch is gone. Luhnow’s gone. Money and draft picks are gone. Any sense of proportion about this whole thing was gone a long time ago, so nothing much changed on that front.

Carla and I are traveling and I wasn’t paying attention to any news. Carla told me later she saw it, but decided to let me find out on my own. That was good. I was having a good day Monday. I was having a good day yesterday, too, but on Monday the news would have been an intrusion while yesterday I was poking my head up to see what was going on in the world. I seldom assume what’s going on in the world is it’s going to be good, so it’s not like I wasn’t prepared. It didn’t upset me. It was never going to.

I read the report (that link is a PDF, by the way). I think it’s fair in the same way I think Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich’s reporting in The Athletic has been excellent (I’m not linking to specific articles because I don’t know what they do and don’t have behind the paywall). I hate what I read, but I’ve never hated that it was written. They did good work. I don’t know if they’ll be recognized for what they wrote — awards are screwy things — but good for them if they do. Rosenthal has been very clear (and studiously ignored by everyone) in his stance that the problem with the use of technology to decode pitcher’s signs isn’t limited to the Astros. The difference between the Astros and everyone else is that Mike Fiers decided he didn’t want to get Christmas cards from anyone on the Astros anymore. This doesn’t happen without Mike Fiers deciding to settle some score he had in his head. (When are you sending back the money Mike? It’s tainted, right?). The cheating isn’t what distinguishes the Astros from other teams, it’s the fact that someone was willing to drop the dime on them.

This, to me, is the most important paragraph in the nine pages:

Some Astros players told my investigators that they did not believe the sign-stealing scheme was effective, and it was more distracting than useful to hitters. I am neither in a position to evaluate whether the scheme helped Astros hitters (who were unquestionably a very talented group), nor whether it helped the Astros win any games. There are so many factors that impact the outcome of games that addressing that issue would require rank speculation. But for purposes of my decision, regardless of whether the scheme was effective or not, it violated the rules and, at a minimum, created the appearance of unfairness, and for that, it necessitates severe discipline.


In re Houston Astros Decision
Page 5

That really is the crux of the matter. Anyone who lived through that season knows we were a much better road team than home team in almost any meaningful statistic. We could all see something changed when we came home and it’s pretty hard not to argue now that people were changing their approach at the plate. The report says Hinch broke the screen twice. Carlos Correa’s ribs got off easier with his masseuse. He clearly wasn’t happy with it. What I’d like to know is what really stopped him from shutting it down. We’ll never know. I’m most disappointed in him, but I suspect he feels the same way. After the warning came down from the Commissioner’s Office, Hinch and Luhnow should have shut it down (given that it was too late to shut it down before warnings became necessary). They didn’t, and that’s why I can’t get too upset about the consequences. The suspensions were justified and I can’t fault Crane for firing them both. Hinch took the hit. Luhnow blamed the players. I think that says all that needs to be said about their characters. (And Taubman? Fuck that guy. He was employed several days longer than he should have been. And despite Crane’s defense of them, he needs a new Media Relations department).

So what have we learned? Players will seek an edge wherever they can find it (whether it works or not) and senior management can range between spineless and malevolent. When I was younger I saw with my own eyes a senior member of the Baseball Operations Office run halfway across the Astrodome to make the ambulance coming to get the stricken J.R. Richard turn around and come in around the warning track. The guy is literally dying and this jerkwad is worried about the already-worn-out Astroturf. So pardon me if I remain standing when I hear that front offices are a snakepit just before getting hit by a feather.

The thing that has driven me nuts about this whole thing — and is literally the reason I closed all my social media accounts — is the reaction of “fans” that hang out there. This “Say it Ain’t So Joe” attitude is tiresome at best, and sociopathic at worst. They could dissolve the team, burn the stadium to the ground, behead Orbit and plant his head on a pike in the smoking crater where the pitching mound used to be and Joe from East Bumfuck still won’t be happy about it.

“But they knew what pitches were coming!”

“Gee Mr. Psychic, Arnoldis Chapman is going to throw you a fastball. Go ahead and hit it.”

I never knew how easy it was to hit major league pitching until this happened. Apparently it’s pretty damned simple. Don’t get me wrong: knowing off-speed vs. fastball is a good bit of info to know when you’re going to the plate, though in principal it’s OK for you to know that. You can steal signs all day long. There just can’t be any electronics involved. There were and there have been consequences. But STFU with all this “tainted championship” crap. Your head is closer to your taint than you are to any demonstrable evidence that this was more help than hindrance.

They shouldn’t have done it. One of my favorite books from my time teaching in Media Informatics at NKU is Bernard Suit’s The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia. It’s a philosophical exploration of games and how they work written as a dialog between the Grasshopper from the Ant and the Grasshopper fable and various characters who question him about his … well .. lifestyle choices. It’s a serious work wrapped in a playful package (and it occurs to me that I’ve written about it before). Everything in the book flows from his definition of a game:

To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs […] using only means permitted by rules […] where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means […] and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity […]. I also offer the following simpler and, so to speak, more portable version of the above: playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.1

Suits, Bernard. The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia . Broadview Press. Kindle Edition.

The Astros were guilty of two things: doing something counter to the rules and doing it in such a way that showed contempt for the idea that rules need to be followed in order for the game to be a game. A rap against the Astros front office has long been that it was run by management consultants who didn’t understand that the point of playing baseball is to accept that there are things you just aren’t allowed to do because … The Game. Suits called it the Lusory Attitude and it was the key to understanding the difference between playing a game — any game — and every day life. But for Baseball to start going nuclear — lifetime bans and stripped titles — they’d have to show that routine violations of rules are rare and swiftly punished. I swear on Javy Molina’s chest protector that I have my doubts that would hold up in court. MLB gets to decide how it handles this since they set the rules. And now they have. Feel free to adopt your local independent baseball team if that isn’t pure enough for you. (You actually should adopt your local independent baseball team anyway).

I was an Astros fan before many of the people who were involved in this were born. And they’ll be gone someday, as will I. God willing and the creek don’t rise2, the Astros will still be there. My personalized license plate reads simply “Astros” and will continue to do so. I will continue to wear my 2017 Astros World Series Championship hat with pride, and will politely tell you everything I don’t like about you in excruciating detail if you say a goddamned thing to me about it. I will judge you. And I won’t be nice about it. You wanna play? I’ll play. Bring it.

And get back to me about the sanctity of the rules the next time this happens:

Also in 2017…

1 What I left out of the quote were his use of terms that he clearly explains elsewhere, but would be more distracting than helpful since they have very specific meanings that can’t be explained quickly.

2 Literally. Global warming? Heard of it?

Can Christmas please be over already?

It’s been a weird Christmas. I think it’s the fact that Thanksgiving came so late and also that the world is basically a hellscape. It’s kind of tough to get into the holly-jolly mindset when every morning feels like “what fresh hell is this?” Turnout at all my events have been a little lower than usual (with one notable exception).

This weekend I’m doing two more “Pictures with Your Pets and Santa” sessions at Feeder’s Supply in Walton. And then that’s it. Done for the season. Ironically, last weekend at Feeder’s was the one event that beat previous years. The money goes to support the Boone County Animal Shelter, so if one is going to go right, that’s the one I’d pick.

One first for me this year: Someone brought in a python for pictures! It was extremely cool. Here are a couple of shots. I look a lot more nervous in the second shot than I felt. He stuck his head right up against my nose and I was really taking it all in. And check out the bow!

Mini Spoiler-Free Review of “Knives Out”

I remember a time they used to make movies like this fairly frequently. Now we’re in sequel-and-remake Hell, so this film doing well is important. Go see it. It’s both A Good Movie™ (in the Scorsese-sense) and fun. Actual laughs. Actual suspense. Great misdirection. Every performance — no matter how much screen-time — excellent. It’s a throwback in terms of quality and style but this is a movie definitely set in today.

True to the genre? Yep. Formulaic? No. I will say Daniel Craig’s low-country accent takes a couple (but only a couple) of minutes to adjust to, but it’s true to establishing his character. If it weren’t for those piercing eyes, you’d forget who he was. In a cast full of powerhouse box-office names, the movie lives or dies on the performance of Ana de Armas. I’d say “remember her name,” but I suspect we’ll all be seeing a lot of her, and that’s a great thing.

I’ll watch it again. And I bet I see something I missed before.

Can’t recommend it enough.

Life after social media

(Spoiler alert: it just keeps going.)

It’s been just over a week since I killed off my social media accounts (the ones I remembered anyway) and it’s been … fine. I already knew I spent way more time on both Twitter and Reddit than I should have. I’ve had some withdrawal symptoms, but they’re fading pretty fast. No, I’m not as plugged into the zeitgeist as much as I once was, but the zeitgeist never seemed to care much whether I was there or not. So I’m not seeing the downside. There are still plenty of places for me to go if I want to despair about the state of humanity. (I call it “going outside.”)

The dumbass in the White House has said something or tweeted something or done something stupid today. His enablers have done something evil. My congressman failed a Turing test again. These are all safe bets. Here’s how they affect me:

  1. I don’t know what it is.
  2. I can’t do anything that changes anything about it.

This was the list as it existed while I was still on social media:

  1. I can’t do anything that changes anything about it.

It’s a subtle, but important, difference.

I’m compensating in a number of ways, but that’s not exactly new. I think that’s the story of my life since roughly, oh, I don’t know, 1968. I’ve dusted off the blog, obviously. I’ve sought out some of the survivors of the Great Blogging Outbreak of the late 1990s. Some are still around. And I’m finding others. And Carla is still on social media so I see pictures of cute kids and animals. Oh yeah, and family news. That, too.

This picture is why I’m going to keep the blog:

Me as Santa in a fire truck
If you’re dressed up as an imaginary character, is it still a selfie?

It’s kind of hard to tell, but that’s me about a year ago getting ready for the City of Florence Tree Lighting. I’m sitting in the cab of a Florence fire truck. It. Was. Awesome. I will never forget it. I’ll also probably never do it again because the process of getting my fat ass into the cab was this weird mash-up of raising the flag in Iwo Jima and the Hunny Tree scene in Winnie the Pooh. It took three of Florence’s Finest to get me in there. No one needs to go through that again.

I often joke that the purpose of my life is to serve as a cautionary tale to others. How can I fulfill my purpose without a place to tell the stories? So I’m keeping the blog. And — because I don’t want to post my email address for all the world to see — I’ll eventually get comments turned back on (once I get a minor spam-protection issue worked out). Being off social media has taught me that I never really cared that much if anyone saw what I wrote. I just wanted someplace to put it.

By the way, this year’s lighting is December 3 back at the Florence Government Center. No fire truck. I’ll post all my public Santa gigs before Thanksgiving.

Missing Twitter

So I have no idea what the ‘ aside’ post-type looks like. So I’m finding out.

Maybe I’ll make my pithy observations here. At least it allows editing.

Done with social media

New technologies only allow people new opportunities to be people. Thus it is, thus it will always be. And people are, by and large, shit.

I’m starting the process of disabling all my social media accounts. I don’t want to have to pay for spam protection, so I’ve turned off comments here, too. I may decide it’s not worth the money to maintain this either, but for the moment it’s how I’m letting people who I don’t see regularly where I went.

If you need to get in touch with me and I have any interest in talking to you, you already know how to do it.

I’d say it was fun, but it wasn’t.