I’m Getting Married

There you go. That’s this week’s big piece of news, which might come as a surprise, or might not. I’d always viewed marriage as an outdated institution – you’re either committed to a person, or you’re not, and the presence of a ring isn’t going to make the slightest bit of difference. But try telling that to the immigration people here in the States, who are clearly an old-fashioned bunch.

No matter how long I live with my one true love, I’d always be at the mercy of my temporary work residency – were I to be fired from my position as webmaster of trashcity.com, I would theoretically have to leave the country immediately. Though since said employer is also my one true love (for immigration purposes, concepts like “joint partners” aren’t any good either), I like to think I have a certain amount of job security.

It will also allow Chris to become a McLennan, divesting herself of another remnant of her previous marriage, a nightmare she is otherwise reminded of every time she signs a cheque. Changing your name any other way is, I’m told, a somewhat troublesome process, but announce you’re getting married and it all kinda happens by default. Think the kids are going to hang on to their names – well, they are used to them – which might lead to some interesting times going through immigration. Yes, these are my kids. No, they don’t have the same name as me. Nor their biological mother.

As I write this, Chris is looking into booking venues for the wedding and receptions, with her customary fervour. It’s probably going to be back in Britain, but she’s used to long-range planning, having previously co-ordinated parties, including a surprise one for me, with the aid of much furtive maneouvering and a copy of the London Yellow Pages. Plotting a wedding from 5000 miles away should be a piece of cake – albeit a large cake, with two little figures on the top of it.

Part of me begrudges the money. Many venues appear to work on the principle that bickering over the odd thousand for your daughter’s wedding would be churlish, but we are actually paying for the damn thing ourselves. Hell, you could buy a really big plasma screen – or even two – for some of the prices we have heard: we just want to feed and water a few guests, not buy them cars and start them all up in business. I would be happy with a few sausage rolls and a six-pack of Irn-Bru – as long as we got the his and hers pair of plasma screens, of course.

So I come to the end of my first year in America: selling beads for a living, engaged to be married, and perfectly content to be both. How life does change…

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same”

The one thing the above lines teach us, is that Rudyard Kipling knew jack about sports fandom. Because, having sat through both in the past week, I have become painfully aware of the difference. Wednesday and Thursday night saw the Diamondbacks lose World Series games in heartbreaking fashion, not once but twice, in virtually the same way. Comments I made previously, specifically, “How people like our 22-year old Korean pitcher, Kim, will cope, I dread to think,” seemed like the work of Nostradamus. For in both games, he (and by extension, we) needed just one more out to defeat the Yankees; instead, a home run yanked the fluffy shag-pile carpet of victory from under our feet, replacing it with the hard and chilly lino which is defeat.

“There is no loneliness greater than the loneliness of a failure.”
Eric Hoffer (1902-1983

The second one in particular was heart-breaking. Just ask Chris, who felt like a baseball widow that evening as I struggled to contend with feelings of unfairness, loss and disappointment which… Well, Bill Shankly once said, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death…I can assure you it is much, much more important than that,” and the same goes for baseball. Uncomfortable though it is to say it, I felt more upset than I was over the World Trade Center attack.

Yet just when all seems lost… Last night, we crushed the Yankees 15-2 – merely setting a new record for World Series hits, and handing the foe their worst loss in 294 post-season games – and all is once again right with the world. It’s three apiece, and we head tonight towards the deciding seventh, with everything on the line. I just hope I have enough adrenalin to cope.

Why does fandom – and sports fandom in particular, since few other kinds can match the tremendous roller-coaster of emotions – exert such a terrible toll, making you care less about the deaths of 5000 people, than a white ball going over a fence? It’s a sense of direct connectness, perhaps; every day since March, the guys on the team have been a part of my life. I know Luis Gonzales has triplets. I know Matt Williams likes Rush. I know Craig Counsell’s nickname is “Rudy”. These are things I don’t know about our next-door neighbours.

Sports is the ultimate unscripted soap-opera. Perhaps Kipling had a point; in any season (especially one with 179 games in total), there will be ups and downs, wins and losses, injuries, triumphs, mistakes and everything else you can imagine. It’s a true microcosm of life, and we live it through the players. Their success becomes ours; their failures become ours too. At one point, I found myself wondering if moving from the office to the living-room to watch the final moments had caused the defeat somehow, in an inexplicable butterfly-in-the-Amazon way.

They’ve done studies into this (your tax money at work in a useful cause, for once), and one suggestion is that it recreates the emotions from back when humanity lived in tribes. “Our sports heroes are our warriors,” said psychology professor Robert Cialdini of Arizona State. And studies have shown that testosterone levels rise after a victory and fall after a defeat by over 25% – Chris will testify to this one, since I think my line on Thursday night was, “I just want to be held…” 🙂

Just a few short hours to go; for the moment, anything is possible. In my best dream, I see Kim back on the mound, successfully getting the final out this time, and being carried off on the shoulders of his team-mates as the stadium erupts. Where else is such redemption possible? But whatever happens, it’s going to take me a while to get to sleep tonight.

[And verily, in the bottom of the 9th innings, Arizona were losing 1-2, and they did swing mightily and scored two runs. And there was much joy in Phoenix, and much gnashing of teeth and weeping and wailing in New York. Kim never did get to pitch though…]

Everybody Wants to Rule the World (Series)

or All Your Baseballs are Belong to Us…
or Why is a Brit watching anyway?

Phoenix is a city than runs by car; no-one walks anywhere. But last night, even allowing for it being Sunday, the roads were incredibly quiet: the local baseball team, the Arizona Diamondbacks were playing game 2 of the World Series, and the whole town, it seemed, was glued to the screen. Even I wouldn’t have been out except for parental duty, returning a visiting small child to its owner – with bad grace, and at a speed that would have been reckless, had not all Phoenix’s finest been in the donut shop watching the game too. It is painful to be dragged away from the screen, simply to stop the whining of someone who doesn’t appreciate the potentially once-in-a-lifetime nature of this event.

For my hometown team to be taking part was miraculous, as the Arizona Diamondbacks made it to the game’s ultimate showcase in just their fourth season. While I’d been supporting them since their inception (partly through proxy via Chris, partly through the Reuters feed at HSBC), it was my first World Series actually living here and there are cities which have gone DECADES without winning a World Series. No team from Chicago has made it this far in 42 years, while Boston last won the World Series in 1918. Boy, they must be pissed.

Particularly so, since history is part of the sport’s essence. It has far more than any other popular sport in America, with the first organised league forming in 1858. This may not seem particularly impressive, but is pretty good considering that basketball wasn’t even invented until more than thirty years later, and the first Superbowl took place as long ago as, er, 1967. Compared to this, baseball holds a unique place in the American psyche.

Fancy a game of pool?

And in mine too. Chris and I attended about a dozen games this year, in addition to countless more on TV, the radio or the Internet. Their home, Bank One Ballpark, is a fabulous new stadium with a retractable roof, air-conditioning and a swimming pool in which spectators (albeit rich, corporate ones, mostly) can frolic during the game. It’s all very civilised – you can even get Newcastle Brown Ale on draft (albeit at a rich, corporate price) – despite the intensely irritating mascot, D.Baxter. The logic of a team named the Diamondbacks having a bobcat as a mascot escapes me entirely, and his smugly furry grin and childish antics are sufficient to get the most stoic animal-rights advocate reaching for a rifle.

To any statistically-minded individual (waves pencil in air), the game is a paradise, with RBIs, ERAs, slugging percentages and more decimal points than an accountant’s convention. But you can just sit there and absorb it – baseball is the sort of game that creeps up on you, until you suddenly realise you’re wondering whether the pitcher will lay down a sacrifice bunt, or if the manager will pull him for a pinch-hitter capable of going the other way against a hanging splitter, up and in. I appreciate that sentence probably made no sense to 95% of readers, and will try to restrain myself.

We dream of roadkill

It also possesses a timeless nature, with games being open-ended, continuing until someone wins – however long this takes. And it can take a while; even the average game is around the three-hour mark, but earlier this season, we played eighteen innings – twice as long as a regular game – which took just shy of six hours. We won 1-0, and that wasn’t even the longest game played in the major leagues this year. Any sport capable of playing such utter havoc with TV schedules can only be loved.

In line with this languid approach is a regular season which lasts for a mere 162 games, followed by playoffs leading to the World Series, a best of seven matchup scheduled over nine days. Non-Americans tend to scoff at the term “World Series” given the only teams ever taking part come from the USA and Canada, but these days, the game is seriously international, with the two likely Rookies of the Year coming from Japan and the Dominican Republic. As mentioned, the Diamondbacks made it to this final showdown, after fewer years in existence than any team ever, but in American sport, less important than longevity is an owner prepared to plough lots of money into the club.

Yankee star DiMaggio with his wife, believed to be an actress

The D’backs have that – their owner also has the local NBA basketball franchise – but it was still something of a surprise, given most of the team are the wrong side of 30 (or in pitcher Mike Morgan’s case, 42) and seen as past their prime. We were given little hope, especially as our opponents are the New York Yankees, the Manchester United of baseball. Like the Reds, the Yankees are extremely rich, very successful, and hated by everyone outside their own city, and indeed a good chunk of those inside. [Just as United has City, so the Yankees have the New York Mets] Their history is peppered with name familiar even to non-Americans, like Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio. The Yankees had won 26 World Series in all, including the past three with little trouble, winning 12 games and losing only one in that time. Just this once, they also had more outside sympathy than usual, being a symbol of national pride after the events of 9/11.

No-one gave the Diamondbacks much of a chance before play started on Saturday. As mentioned, history plays a big part in baseball, and the Diamondbacks don’t have any to speak of. Most of the population in Phoenix is from elsewhere, and bring their loyalties with them – when teams like the Chicago Cubs came to town, it was hard to be sure who was the home side. Die-hards were largely limited to people like myself, who moved here after the franchise started, and we failed to sell out some earlier playoff games against St.Louis and Atlanta, which is like having tickets left over for an FA Cup semi-final.

Randy Johnson auditions for Scanners 4

But here we are, on Monday morning, and the Diamondbacks are two games up, having won 9-0 and 4-1. What the hell happened? Two words: Schilling and Johnson. They are the star pitchers for the D’backs – in cricketing terms, it’s a bit like when Lillee and Thomson played for Australia, with both at the top of their best seasons ever. Their styles are different: Curt Schilling uses pinpoint accuracy and movement to deceive the batter, while the very scary Randy Johnson – 6’10” tall – blazes it past them at 98 mph. Rounders, this ain’t.

Normally, even good batters only manage to hit the ball three times out of ten, one way or another, but in those first two games the Yankees batters – reigning world champions, remember – managed barely one out of ten. The bad news is, the effort involved is so extreme that most pitchers need four days of rest to recover before they can be used again, and the rest of the D’backs staff are nowhere near as effective. In addition, the next three games take place in New York. In the Bronx. In Yankee Stadium. Where the lovely fans have a reputation akin to Chelsea supporters with a hangover, and are renowned for slinging batteries at opposing players. How people like our 22-year old Korean pitcher, Kim, will cope, I dread to think.

But just at the moment, Arizona is the centre of the baseball universe, and with a 2-0 lead, there’s no better place for this recent convert to baseball to be. All is truly right with the world…

Of Girls and Guns

As American ground-troops storm into Afghanistan, I suppose I could perhaps continue to comment on world affairs. But frankly, I can’t bothered, because it really now just seems like another world squabble that has no impact on me – see Kosovo, Somalia and East Timor for further examples. And you’re probably fed up with it all too: even Chris didn’t peruse my last rantings, because, as she said, “it had nothing about me in it”. Time to put the career as a world-renowned political commentator on the back burner for a bit.

Slightly worrying phone message this morning. A little while back, we registered girlswithguns.org, though so far, we’re still trying to accumulate a sufficient volume of appropriate material – such as the Anna Nicole Smith double-bill DVD (bought in an inebriated state, I have to say in mitigation). But picked up the following on the TC voice-mail today:

“Hi, I was calling about a domain name that’s listed to you, that’s called girlswithguns.org. We have a small women’s marksman’s group and we’re looking at doing a new website and we were wondering whether or not that name might be available. So please call me at ______. Just ask for Laurie.”

Certainly woke me up, and at least it made a change from people quibbling about non-delivery of beads. Politely-worded and very friendly though the request might have been, I remain very British in my attitude to guns, and my sole experience of them, outside of movies, remains a Valentine’s present of a session at a shooting range bought by my one true love [there, that’ll get me at least one reader this week!]. When someone who likes guns – enough to join a club for them – goes to the bother to find out your telephone number, you listen. And then probably cave in and give them whatever they want.

Actually, an amicable solution is not hard to find, since Chris fortunately had the foresight to also acquire girlswithguns.net. So we can probably transfer that one over – and then go back to hiding under the mattress, while girlswithguns.net launches an all-out assault on evil dodgy porn site, girlswithguns.com. We’ll buy up the movie rights to that one, though knowing our luck, it would probably end up starring Anna Nicole Smith.

Or perhaps Emily, our daughter, who is currently making a film in the hallway with her friend, our video-camera, and a bowl of food-coloured syrup. They are currently having to deal with the problems of low-budget film-making, e.g. the family dogs meandering across the “set” (a.k.a. said hallway), and the inevitable “Who’s going to turn the camera on since we’re both sleeping?” problem. Naturally, with Halloween only eleven days away, it’s a horror movie, though I’m wondering if we really should have taken her 13-year old self, to see prostitutes being viciously slaughtered in From Hell. Guess we’ll have to wait and see the finished product before deciding whether she is in need of psychological counselling…


So now we’re bombing “military targets” in Afghanistan and lobbing cruise missiles in there. S’funny how little attention was paid to this here: no baseball games were cancelled, and TV schedules were only disrupted for about two hours at most. There’s a sense of divine retribution here, and so the inevitability of it meant there was no sense of outrage or shock. And after all, any casualties aren’t American, so who cares?

It also was a damn sight less photogenic; the coverage of the attacks seemed largely to consist of green blobs moving about a screen, like a particularly retro computer game, rather than footage from ever-more explicit camera angles, shot by a myriad of amateur cameramen. There’s only so much you can say about fuzzy lights that might be anything from a truck to a cruise missile, before going back to your regular diet of ex-soldiers, former directors of the CIA and all the other pundits who were having a field day during this all-you-can-eat buffet of talking heads.

Perhaps the most disturbing events, however, were the pulmonary anthrax cases in Florida. They were the first reported cases in America for over twenty years, and even more bizarrely, took place in the buildings where most of America’s scuzziest supermarket tabloids (such as The National Enquirer) were published. They have effectively become one of their own stories, but it’s hard to see why any terrorist would attack a bunch of newspapers possessing not an ounce of credibility. Well, not with anyone whose brain-cell count surpasses three. In idle moments, I speculate that the contamination was maybe actually carried out by an unholy cabal of Tom Cruise, Oprah Winfrey and Prince William.

Whoever is responsible, it has hardly been a major disaster. That form of anthrax, though hardy as hell [there’s an island off the coast of Scotland – Gruinard – which was out of bounds for decades after germ warfare tests], isn’t actually contagious, and there have only been three people so far confirmed as exposed. However, there is a grim precedent here. Nine months before their attack on the Tokyo subway, the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan had a “trial run” for their Tokyo subway attack, releasing sarin near the dormitory of three judges presiding over a case involving Aum.

Incidentally, they also dabbled in bioweapons, such as Ebola, and in June 1993, attempted to release anthrax spores from their office building in Tokyo… What this means in the current context, I don’t know. But it helps make more explicable the reports I’ve heard of people “holding” tap water for a couple of days before drinking it, in case it’s been contaminated – effectively, using the rest of the population as canaries. On the plus side, we must acknowledge that even an extremely well-funded and organised group such as Aum had only very limited success with chemical and biological warfare. Hopefully this means that Florida marks the end and not the beginning.