Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Books Read in 2015

No fiction on this year's list of 40-odd books read (well, one novel that I didn't like and didn't finish, and two cartoon strips). 

As usual, I've divided the list into my favourites, the ones I'm glad I read, and the few that just weren't for me. Tried to keep it chronological within each section...

The Best
I was fortunate to see Claudia Rankine speak on a panel with David Simon and Ta-Nehisi Coates this fall about race and violence in America. Upon returning to Toronto I immediately ordered her book. Like the panel, it did not disappoint. I’m not smart enough or articulate enough to do this book justice. It’s partially a catalogue of brilliantly captured racial inequities and injustices, part prose poem, part brilliant sports writing, part anger and eloquence -- it’s unlike anything I’ve ever read.  The last sentence on the final page of the book should be followed by a mic drop. BOOM. The type of writing you feel in your chest.
Two books in one – the front end is an outstanding essay, written in simple plain language, addressing the many of us who just sorta-kinda understand the economy and fiscal policy, explaining why knowing the language of money matters. The second half is a brilliantly written glossary of financial terms that combines the technical with the very funny (might be the only serious financial book that includes Wu Tang references). Also introduced me to the story of the man who tried to corner the global chocolate market, of course nicknamed Chocfinger like a Bond villain.
A selection of great essays touching on heavy topics including a sibling’s suicide, his increasingly distant father, a trip to a Russian orphanage. D’Ambrosio’s approach is very journalistic but the writing is coiled and powerful. He has a wonderful gift for observing not just people and place, but also language. The media appear in several pieces and his observations about their craft are incisive, and if it weren’t for his kindness/empathy, they would be even more eviscerating. A wonderful collection of great writing.
“His wife seemed kind and sweet and obsequious, with a soft chin that marred her real chance at beauty. Every time I looked at her face I felt lost. She had that bright-eyed, very dull niceness well-meaning people often have that strikes you as full of shit until you realize there’s nothing behind it. It’s real.”

I’m a bit of a news junkie but that addiction has been waning. I “read” at least two papers a day, but that often amounts to little more than a scan of the headlines. On average, I read maybe one full print story or column each. I’ve even cancelled the weekend papers, which were little more than blue box filler. This book provides an excellent examination of many of the shortcomings I’m experiencing with the news -  its propensity for easy targets, it’s failures to examine larger issues or provide adequate context. I found it to be a very thoughtful examination of the news media and it put into words a lot of what I’ve been feeling, and why I’m falling out of my news habit.
This is one depressingly good read. Putnam looks at trends in American society from the 1950s to the present and sees an increasingly divergent, bifurcated society. His home town in Ohio is the point from which he launches a thorough and engaging examination of education, mentoring, wages, employment, sports, the church etc. detailing how class/ socioeconomic advantages accrue from the earliest days. One of his interesting findings is that many of the societal structures, rather than leveling the playing field, are exacerbating an ever wider gap – it’s not just that the wealthy and well educated have their advantages it’s that these advantages are ever wider and growing. A terrific, yet sadly terrifying, read.
I love Twitter. I use it like a news ticker. It’s perfect for identifying great writing, interesting articles and essays. It creates a great communal experience around sports, and it opens me to new perspectives and experiences. The one downside is the hive mind - the mean spirited negativity, cruelty and piling on that often occurs when someone makes a mistake (or is just misinterpreted). Ronson’s book has several case studies of just that - people who have made public mistakes and have been publicly shamed, some excessively so. Like his other work, it’s sharply observed, clever and often very funny. It also changed how I try to behave online.

Packer tells the story of modern America, and where it might be headed, by interweaving the stories of several Americans: a Washington insider with connections to Joe Biden; a rust belt factory worker; a tobacco farmer trying to reinvent himself in the age of entrepreneurism; a reporter in Florida; and a silicon valley billionaire. Long form journalism at its finest.

Glad I read them

Vowell travels the US visiting the sites of various infamous assassinations. Like a very funny, well-researched, geeky, history paper.

An almost hard-to-believe account of a Scandinavian man who converted to Islam and ended up in the inner circle of Al Qaeda. Incredible, and often unflattering, behind the scenes looks at the intelligence communities of the US, UK and Denmark. This almost reads more like a Tom Clancy novel than the real life spy craft it actually is. Likely the perfect Christmas gift for your dad/ father in-law.

I nearly abandoned this book, but I’m glad I stayed with it. It’s a terrific look at the life (double life, triple life) of British Spy Kim Philby from his rise to his final days.

I was a giant fan of the Smiths back in high school. Was fortunate to see them on the Queen is Dead Tour and still am a fan. I quite liked the autobiography, Morrissey is a gifted long from writer. The front third, detailing his upbringing and influences, is especially good. The book lags a bit, and is far too detailed, on the lawsuit that emerged after the break up of The Smiths. Worth a read if you’re a fan.

The Songs that Saved Your Life is a chronological look at how each of the Smiths singles came to be. I read it alongside the Morrissey autobiography and really enjoyed how they complimented each other.

A rather sprawling critical history of film.  It’s a very fun read, great in short bursts. I felt as though I always wanted a second screen with youtube so I could have a quick look at so many of the films he was discussing.

A look at how big data and algorithms affect our lives (much of which goes on unseen and unacknowledged). Quite liked the lessons learned from health data and how they could be applied across other sectors. Some startling revelations and insights into financial irregularities too - I read most of the chapter on the Wall Street shenanigans aloud to my wife (which I'm not sure she enjoyed as much as I did).

This book is like a counterpoint to Chris Anderson’s very engaging Long Tail theory. It posits that the surest way for businesses to succeed - whether in sport, music, movies or literature - is to agglomerate superstars. There’s some compelling stuff here, but for every success story in the book, my contrarian brain served up just as many superstar failures.

A collection of short essays by Hornby on movies, books, writers, music and TV.  Read it on a cross country flight, a great book to take on a trip - smart writing on fluffy topics.

A troubling juxtaposition on the gross inequities of inner-city policing compared to how the justice system handles white collar crime. A bit sloppy, somewhat repetitive but nicely bellicose too (Taibbi is at his best when he’s almost at screed level). Very eye opening, I'm glad to have read it.

Had no idea Wallace Shawn was the son of William Shawn, long time editor of the New Yorker; had no idea he was also a playwright and essayist (I knew him only as an actor). This collection of essays is spotty - it has a few outstanding entries and a few that read like a first year student coming to terms with liberalism.

Almost a pre-history of what we now call hacking. The story of people who discovered and exploited flaws and loopholes in the early phone system and the authorities' efforts to catch them. The most remarkable part of this book is likely how the judicial system restrained large corporations from chasing individuals and amassing huge data sets. Seems unimaginable now...

This was one of several Calvin and Hobbes books I revisited with my kids this year. Waterson is the subject of a very thoughtful introductory essay and interview timed for an exhibition of his work at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University. To my mind, no one has captured childhood like Waterson.

Podhoretz is no longer friends with some big names - Mailer, the Trillings, Ginsberg and more...this is his account of how those relationships ended (badly). From a bygone era when ideas really seemed to matter.

Orwell's Homage to Catalonia is one of my favourite books. Picked this up to get a better insight into that period of Orwell’s life. Thorough doesn’t begin to describe this biography - exhaustive is likely the better word.
A deep dive into the world of Scientology. There were many times that I had to put this book down and mutter something along the lines of “Really?!?” or “Come on!” or “What the f*#%k?” Not many books leave me speechless, but this one did.

My first computer was a Commodore and I remember it well. In late grade school, I upgraded to an Atari 800xl with a hard drive (felt like going from the stone age to the modern era). I spent too many weekends coding in computer programs line by line from various magazines in hopes of getting a simple game to work (they rarely did, you often had to wait a month for the magazine to run corrections). This book brought back incredible memories of those times as it detailed the emergence of the home computer and the wealth of industries that sprung up in its wake. I especially enjoyed the section on Sierra On-Line. A very fun read, highly recommend it.

The opening section of this book might be the best thing I read this year. Interviews with all of the progenitors of heavy metal - Ronnie James Dio, Ozzy Osbourne, Joe Elliot, Lemmy, Rob Halford, Penelope Spheeris. They are so candid, unguarded and funny - it’s an amazing look at the birth of a cultural phenomenon.  The middle section moved into an era of music that I’m far less familiar with (Megadeth, etc.) and the book lost some of it’s magic for me. A very fun read. I’d love to read a similar book on punk, new wave, grunge, etc.

Colson Whitehead’s write up of his experience playing in the World Series of Poker. A big chunk of this appeared on Grantland.

I’m a bit of a map/ globe geek. This book was a fun read - each chapter was a different take on maps and cartography, some of which dealt with the practical others with the hypothetical.  I quite liked the section on video game maps and mapping.

Picked this up as it won a Sports Book of the Year award and had been cycling a lot with my son. The biography of an East German competitive cyclist and how he ultimately defected to the West.

Another book of two halves. The first, an open letter to Auster’s younger self, is tremendous. A beautiful piece of writing that made me think of my childhood and made me fret and wonder about my kids. The second half deals with his later years and he spends far too much time recounting the plots of a few films in extreme detail - a very odd choice given the strength of writing in the book up until then.

I really enjoyed this book even though I only agreed with about half of it. Very well researched, well written, and timely - it looks at what the increase in automation - e.g. self driving cars and trucks - could mean for our economy and our society. I’m more of a glass is half-full kinda guy, and Ford’s outlook is much more gloomy.

Adam Nicolson’s dad bought a large Island off the coast of Scotland. Nicolson inherited it when he was 18 and his son will inherit it from him when he turns 18. This book is a loving history of this all but barren island and what it has meant to Nicolson’s family and the others that once lived there. An excellent book.

Who knew that a few Swedes have written and produced countless big hits in the last 20 years. I saw the Sign, ...One More Time, Quit Playing Games (With My Heart), Since U Been Gone, I kissed a Girl, One More Night, I Want it That Way, Teenage Dream, Bad Blood, Shake it Off. Top 10 hits for Pink, the Weekend, Ellie Goulding, Christina Aguillera, Shakira, Ariana Grande, Avrial Lavigne, Taylor Swift and Adele. One producer in particular, Max Martin, has sold over 135 million singles. This book is their story. It’s all six degrees of separation and a whole lot of “Wow, I had no idea…”

I love this long-running cartoon series. Even better in book form.

Not for Me

I wanted to like this book more than I did. An unbelievable true story of a back-up goalie who defects from Transylvania to Hungary and takes up a much celebrated life of crime.  It has all the elements of what should be a very fun book (heck, a movie!) but it just didn’t come together for me.

It takes a special skill to take two controversial polarizing figures like Bush and Cheney and write an absolutely boring book about them, somehow Baker managed it. A somnolent read about what should be a very hot topic.

The title is the best part. Might be the only decent part.  I made it maybe 20 pages. Sophomorically bad. My kids could write a more nuanced informed book on the Wall Street melt down of 2008.

I’ve been reading a lot about Chesterton so I decided to read Chesterton. I did not like the Chesterton I tried to read. The text has not aged well and I’m not so good with the fiction...
I like McArdle’s work with the Atlantic and I still like her work with Bloomberg but I did not like this book. It was like it missed the middle step in the failure to success transition. Yes, people fail in all manner of ways and yes, many learn from it and bounce back but in this book the failures and the later successes received far more attention that what it took to transition from failure to success. It’s that transition that I was interested in and it's what I wanted to read about.

Previous lists of books ready by year can be found here:

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

2014: My Year in Books

This was a very good year in reading as I enjoyed almost every single book I picked up. Not sure if that was down to luck, being more selective or getting great referrals and recommendations from friends but I hope it’s a trend that continues into 2015. I also read six novels this year – likely the most I’ve read in 10+ years. And I even loved a few of them… 

The Best 

Boy, Roald Dahl 
Roald Dahl wrote so many great books, but this one might be his best. It’s the first volume of his autobiography covering his parents moving to the UK up to his early 20s. It’s a lesson in using simple words and phrases to tell incredibly powerful stories. I doubt there’s a three syllable word in this collection, yet my whole family read it and loved it. (My wife and son sitting in the next room reading aloud to each other about the death of Roald’s mother made me weepy). So many of the seeds of Dahl’s later works can be found in these wonderful stories, especially his distrust of adults and how awful they can be to children (there was even a chocolate factory next to one of his boarding schools). My Boy did a book report on it and read one of the chapters aloud to his class. Easily one of the best things I read this year.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty 
A surprisingly accessible, very clearly written, and remarkably well thought out book about economics and increasing inequality. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book – especially the clarity of Piketty’s thesis. There were a few times where I stumbled with the math, but on balance one of the most interesting things I’ve read in a long time. 

Down and Dirty Pictures, Peter Buskind 
I love movies and I’m a big fan of Biskind’s other movie books – this one does not disappoint. An extremely thorough and critical look at the Weinstein brothers and their Miramax empire. Nicely gossipy and biting, the book magnifies the ugly side to the entertainment business and illustrates how powerful people can operate when they go unchecked. A very entertaining read. 

Flawless, Scott Andrew Selby 
I’m a sucker for heists – be it books, movies, magazine articles - you name it. This is the story of an incredible real-life diamond heist that took place in Antwerp. Two years in the planning, the robbers were somewhat undone by the most trivial of items – a deli receipt. It’s a great story, very well told. 

Red or Dead, David Peace 
Peace has a unique style; it’s extremely repetitious yet lyrical. In the hands of a lesser writer this would be awful putrid stuff - the sort of thing that gets a book closed by page three, if not thrown across the room. But in Peace’s hands it’s mesmerizing. This novel is Peace’s interpretation of the Liverpool football club under Bill Shankly from the late 1950s to the 1970s and it’s a tremendous read. I read this right after I finished a book on Homer’s Odyssey and the Iliad, it was fascinating to encounter Peace’s cadence and rhythms in the wake of that ancient text. A terrific book, so glad I read it. 

Romany and Tom, Ben Watt 
The best book I read this year. Consumed it in two sittings, staying up way too late to finish it. Ben Watt, of British pop duo Everything But the Girl, tells the story of his parents – two people whose career trajectories went in opposite directions but who remained together. (Watt’s father was a famous jazz pianist who’s career came undone by the emergence of the Beatles and pop music; his mum, a classically trained actor, reinvented herself in the 70s as a magazine columnist and travelled the world interviewing Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and other big celebs). It’s an amazing re-telling of their lives, their shifting fortunes, their declining health and, ultimately, of the spark that launched their complicated relationship. It’s beautifully written. Watt is staggeringly good at conjuring up images of childhood memories and weaving them into his parents’ lives.

A Rumour of War, Philip Caputo 
 I read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried at least once a year. It’s been one of my favourite books since it was published 20+ years ago. A Rumour of War is a complementary text in the best sense. It’s Caputo’s take on being among the first Marines into Vietnam in the early 1960s, the senseless deaths, the strange bureaucracy of large organizations and the blood lust of war.  

The Snapper, Roddy Doyle Out for beers with Pat McLean one night and mentioned that Doyle had written one of my all-time favourite pieces on sports. He asked if I’d read the Snapper, I hadn’t. Came home, found it on our bookshelf and read it over that very weekend. What a terrific book it is. Lyrical, funny, insightful – all the hallmarks of Doyle’s work. Glad I went for that beer with Pat. 

Glad I read them 

Barcelona, Robert Hughes Found this under the Christmas tree and read it prior to our first trip to Spain last March. I love Hughes and here he turns his critical eye to the history, politics, planning, art and architecture of Barcelona

Beauty and Atrocity, Joshua Levine 
My family is primarily Irish (with some folks from Lithgow and others from Woolwich), but we’ve never self-identified as such (Orange Order, sure? Irish? Not so much). Last year I read and loved Blood Dark Track and realized how little of Ireland’s history I actually knew, so I picked this up. It’s contemporary history of the Troubles and it’s a very sad read. Well written and disturbing. 

Contempt, Alberto Moravia 
One of the six novels I read this year. Not sure what to make of this one – so much subtext and implicit content – I always feel like I’m missing significant bits of the story. There’s a nice paradox to the writing here – very calm, clear writing about an increasingly tense, unsettling domestic situation as a marriage unravels. 

CopyFight, Blayne Haggart 
My pal Blayne wrote this. Pick it up for the smart overview of how copyright laws and policies came into being, stick around for the clever pop culture asides. 

Flash Boys, Michael Lewis 
 Another  great read from Lewis – follow a Canadian investment executive in New York as he tries to understand how the stock market is being gamed through microsecond arbitrage. All the classic hallmarks of a good Michael Lewis book – smart protagonists trying to understand incredibly complex systems and taking us along on a terrific journey.

A History of the World in Six Glasses, Tom Standage 
 Each chapter looks in-depth at an alcoholic beverage, how it came about and what it meant for society. Some fun stuff. 

The Irish Game: A true story of art and Crime, Matthew Hart 
Once again into the heists (and Irish History – this is like a Venn Diagram of reading interests). Tells about numerous art thefts in Ireland, the gangsters who pulled them off and the fascinating cop who cracked one of the main cases. Good fun. 

Let’s Start a Riot, Bruce McCulloch 
I love the Kids in the Hall. This isn’t a biography so much as it’s a 290 page quirky monologue from Bruce McCulloch riffing on what it is to be pushing 50, married and the father of two. Like all of his monologues, this book has plenty of sharp observations, brutal honesty, strange bits, and solid laughs. Not a typical bio by any means, but worth it for the running Alzehimer’s insurance joke he has with his daughter. 

Making Movies, Sidney Lumet 
Could’ve been called a day in the life – a very factual, by the numbers take on Lumet’s process for starting, making and finishing a film. 

The Manager, Mike Carson 
Not sure what to make of this one. It’s part business book, part sports book, part management mumbo-jumbo. Carson interviews many of the top football managers – Arsene Wenger, Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, etc. to learn how they approach various facets of football (player acquisition, strategies, tactics, etc.) and tries to apply these lessons to the modern management/ business world. When it works, it’s great; when it doesn’t… 

My Lunches with Orson, Henry Jaglom 
One of the strangest “books” I’ve read. For a few years, Jaglom ate a weekly lunch with Orson Welles and recorded their conversations. Each chapter of this book is a transcript of one of their lunches, two men bullshitting, trash talking, and opining on everything from philosophy to film making to the latest Hollywood gossip. 

Nikolai Gogol, Vladimir Nabokov 
Nabokov weighs in on the works of Gogol, being a big fan of both I dug this a whole lot. 

The Numbers Game: Why Everything you know aboutsoccer is wrong, David Sally and Chris Anderson 
Advanced stats for the footy crowd. Some of this writing was insightful and terrific, other bits were questionable (as to when to sub-on players, I’m very skeptical one can be so precise about timing). 

Unruly Places, Alastair Bonnet 
This book looks at places that aren’t captured by maps – islands in the Bay of Bengal that have been swallowed by the sea, Russian ammunition centres that were left off old maps and have decided to remain off new ones. The chapters that tell the stories of these places are wonderful – the stuff of childhood daydreams – the bits between the chapters made me want to pelt the author with atlases. So over written, such purple prose, such a shame (the subtitle of the book was a dead giveaway that I was getting into Wonderdick territory, "Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies") 

Oh the glory of it all, Sean Wilsey 
A sprawling mess of a book that tries to capture the author’s boyhood, as he split his time between his divorcing filthy rich parents in upper crust San Francisco. You could likely cull 250 pages out of this and not change the book one bit. I suspect each reader would want to remove a different 250 pages. 

On Writing, Jorge Luis Borges 
 The transcripts of a lecture series Borges did at Columbia University in the 1970s. It’s an illuminating look at language, authors, criticism, literature and (ick) poetry. 

Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning, Guillem Balague 
A decent biography of the former Barcelona star, manager and current man at the helm of Bayern Munich. The forward and first chapter was nearly enough to put me off, but it was worth sticking with. 

Periodic Tales, Hugh Aldersey-Williams 
I’ve got a bit of a thing for taxonomy and the periodic table of the elements. In this book, Aldersey-Williams spends each chapter examining a single element – how and when it was discovered and by whom, as well as the uses for each element and its place in popular culture (the chapter on lead is some of the best writing I encountered this year). Enjoyed this one immensely.

Psychopath test, Jon Ronson 
I’m a Jon Ronson fan-boy and this book doesn’t disappoint. Ronson takes a course to learn how to identify psychopaths and then sets out to identify/ profile psychopaths in our everyday lives. These range from some disturbing/ hard to believe examinations of the Canadian psychiatric system and some very odd treatment ideals to a hilariously awful interview with a corporate raider and CEO who has some disturbing psychopathic tendencies. The insights into the reality tv industry come as a bit of a shock, though they shouldn't. 

Quiet, Susan Cain
This is one of those books that you find yourself referring to and thinking of long after you’ve read it. A very thorough examination of introversion and what it’s like to be an introvert in a world largely designed for and run by extroverts. As someone who tends toward introversion, I found the insights in this book very intriguing, helped me get a better understanding of how I’ve acted/ felt in many situations over the years (and why open concept offices drive me absolutely batty). 

The Quitter, Harvey Pekar 
A graphic (novel?) autobiography of Pekar, with an emphasis on all the things he quit/ failed at. No warts, failures left uncovered. 

Reading for Survival, John D MacDonald 
I was a HUGE John D. MacDonald fan back in university. I read each and every Travis McGee novel with gusto. This very slim novella is a Socratic dialogue between McGee and his best pal Meyer as they discuss the role of the novel and the importance of reading in modern society. A great little read. 

La Roja, Jimmy Burns 
Burns visits each soccer team in Spain and does a write-up on their origins, stadiums, stars, etc. It was ok. 

Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 and a half, Sue Townsend 
I had largely forgotten about this book, which was essential reading when I was about 12 years old. When Townsend died in 2014, I immediately grabbed a copy and was stunned at how much of the story and characters I could remember before I had cracked the spine. I must have read this book a dozen times as a tween/teen. Was hoping it might be a fun read for Kid1, but I fear the content is still slightly too adult for her. A fun read and a nice trip back to my childhood.

Soccer Men, Simon Kuper 
A series of bios on the bigger soccer stars of the past few decades. Read it on a plane, it was perfect for that setting. 

Soccernomics, Simon Kuper More soccer + stats / analytics (sorry, bit of a thing for me). 

A Time to Keep Silence, Patrick Leigh Fermor 
Read this on trains in Spain as we travelled through largely empty countryside. Couldn’t have picked a better environment. Fermor writes of moving into a series of monasteries in Europe and what they meant for his writing and his life style. A very quiet, contemplative book about routines, patterns, church services and the monastic life. Wonderful, clean writing with some beautiful insights. 

Why Homer Matters, Adam Nicolson
I have never read Homer but I still enjoyed this book. It’s a detective novel of sorts as Nicolson travels the world in search of clues and understanding of the origins of Homer’s stories and the oral tradition.  There are trips to academic conferences, meetings with aged locals, and visits to long abandoned Mediterranean villages. It’s a nice mix of personal, historical and academic exploration.

Not for Me
The Dog, Joseph O’Neill 
I’m a big fan of the two other O’Neill books I’ve read (Netherland; Blood Dark Track) but this book irked me to no end. A sprawling narrative, an idiot of a narrator, pointless digressions – if it wasn’t by O’Neill I would have abandoned it early on. I wish I had. The Dog is a dog of a book. 

Sex on the Moon, Ben Mezrich 
A true story about students who stole priceless moon rocks from NASA, sadly overwritten by an author clearly in search of a screenplay deal. There might be a great story in here but it was smothered by too many adjectives and too much authorial hype.

Friday, May 09, 2014

And so it ends...

With the news that the Leafs have extended coach Randy Carlyle, I found myself asking what the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise stands for?

They’re no longer about their storied history. Tim Leiweke rejected the club’s past within minutes of arriving in Toronto.

They're not about innovation. Has any sports team in any league so loudly and proudly proclaimed their ignorance about and rejection of what new statistical insights might yield?

They're not about process. This is a team that has only won games when they’ve had unsustainable goaltending and/or unsustainable shooting.

Surely, if they're not about process they must be all-in on outcomes -- except the Leafs had just four regulation wins between November and January and just three wins in their last 15 games.

Their rejection of outcomes is strong evidence that they're not about accountability. Nonis and Carlyle were handed rewards that are completely incommensurate with their mediocre results.

Perhaps it’s irony or hypocrisy that best defines the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.

I can think of no greater irony than the men who run the team believing the building blocks for a successful hockey team are identity, leadership and accountability --- the very characteristics that these men and this organization are completely devoid of.

Cheering for laundry is defensible, cheering for an organization that willfully rejects history, innovation, process, outcomes and accountability is not. I won't do it.

With the news that the Leafs have extended coach Randy Carlyle it’s become all too clear what the Toronto Maple Leafs stand for and it’s something I just can’t stand.

Friday, April 11, 2014


There was a time when the hiring of a new President for the Toronto Maple Leafs would have mattered to me. I would have passionately researched the new hire's history, draft records, trades, business deals, professional associations -- just about everything materially imaginable to gain some insight into what the move might mean for the blue and white.

That time has passed.

I haven't watched a game in almost three months.

The Leafs changed the culture but I don't think many of us contemplated that it would be a change for the worse.

Being wilfully ignorant, arrogant, consistently wrong, and unable to budget is now way to go through life and it's no way to run a sports team. 

I presumed Leiweke would hire Gretzky to coach, buying the Leafs more time in their never ending attempt clear the low hurdle of mediocrity and more goodwill from the all too obsequious media. In my haste to make the Gretzky prediction/ joke, I didn't stop to consider the Leafs might hire a former jock with zero head office experience.

In hindsight, the Shanahan hiring is as predictable as Steve Simmons guffawing at spreadsheets or Darren Dreger devoting yet another day to spackling over Dave Nonis' deficiencies like the Leafs' own Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf.

Shanahan's arrival is as meaningless to me as possession metrics are to Carlyle. 

There was a time when what the Leafs did and even might do mattered to me.

That time has long since passed.

It's up to the Leafs to win me back. Some off-ice accountability would be a terrific place to start. 

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Spain Part 2

I used to think the best sporting event I ever attended was the Canada-US game at the 1987 Canada Cup. Lemieux, Messier, Gretzky, Hawerchuk, Gilmour, Coffey, Borque all on the same team. Lemieux had a hat trick in a 3-2 win.

Then I went to Spain.

* * *

I only purchased two tickets to see AC Milan play Atletico Madrid. When we were planning the trip, my daughter did not want to go to a game and my wife did not think it wise to look into babysitting services so far from home.

My son wasn’t sure about going. We’d watched Atleti and Barca play to 0-0 draw earlier in the year and the boy said Atleti coach Diego Simeone looked like a very bad man.  An evil man. At one point in the game, he actually hid behind me on the couch. (Simeone does look like the bad guy from a 1980s Kurt Russel film).

If I had known what we were in for, I would have purchased four tickets and I would have worn a GoPro camera on my head.

If the Barcelona game was like Christmas, the Atleti game was like Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, New Year’s Eve and my 19th birthday compressed into about three hours.

* * *

At Alonso Martinez Metro the crowds were already thick. We squeezed into a subway car full of red and white striped fans of all ages. At each stop more people somehow managed to crush in. People sang and chanted on the subway. Old men chatted to the boy in Spanish and rustled his hair.

Crowds can feel crushing and crowds can feel ominous but there was almost a giddiness to this experience - a bubbling over of good will and happy expectations.

We emerged from Piramides metro into an ever larger crush of people. I had no idea how to get to Vicente Calderón Stadium but our lack of directions didn’t matter, if we had stood still we would have been carried there by the crowds.

The size and mood of the crowd reminded me of when the Jays won the World Series in 1993, but this was pre-game. It was as if someone was running the film in reverse – the elated crowds going back into the stadium.

Flares were going off. There were giant homemade banners. The gutters were overflowing with beer bottles and plastic cups. Everywhere people congregated they were signing and happy. It was amazing. And it was soon to get better.

One of my most vivid childhood memories is my annual trip to Maple Leaf Gardens with my dad. He’d get us one game in the greens each year.  We’d enter off Carlton Street and head for these narrow escalators with their round, crenelated handles. When you stepped off the escalators, if you looked through the narrow entries into the seats, you’d get your first glimpse of the ice. The TV lights made it so bright and vivid, the massive Dominion score clock hanging from the iconic roof, a shocking whiteness to that light and to the ice that I've rarely, if ever, seen replicated.

Vicente Calderón Stadium looks like it might be of the same vintage as Maple Leaf Gardens. It has the cinder block and chain link aesthetic I associate with Buffalo – either the old Aud or Ralph Wilson stadium. It might be the most bare bones sporting venue I’ve ever seen.

After passing through the turnstile, we entered into a wide tunnel where one security agent kindly held my son’s hand and had a friendly chat with him while I was frisked by another (note to self – give the contraband to the boy to carry).

The entrance to our seats was just to the left, as we passed through it I was taken aback by the stadium lights, the green of the pitch and the proximity of the field. I had not prepared myself for the shock of entering right at field level at the half-way line. 

Suddenly, I was the eight year old boy back at Maple Leaf Gardens, surprised by the whiteness of the lights and the startling proximity of the field of play. We could almost touch the grass.

The entire stadium was a pixilated mass of red and white. Flags, banners, signs, even the railings at field level were carrying Atleti’s colours. And the noise. Oh my, the noise. We were at least 20 minutes to kick-off and the crowd was in full voice. The supporters section full of drums, all of them jumping and bouncing.

I finally pulled the boy away from the field-level rail and we walked up to our seats. They were filthy. Plastic bucket chairs that wouldn’t have been out of place at Exhibition stadium in 1979. They likely hadn’t been cleaned since 1979. There had to be an inch of sunflower seed shells trapped in the rim of my chair. The boy’s had a solid patina of bird droppings. The group in front of us brought newspapers and spread them out on their seats before sitting down. They were clearly old pros.

We were given red and white flags to wave and we joined the throng. The stadium reverberating with songs, drums, chants, jumping fans. It felt like more energy was being expended per minute than at 41 Leafs games at the ACC combined.

When the teams emerged (Milan in uniforms that called to mind Elvis’ gold lame phase) the roar was something you felt more than heard. 

I was into it, so was the boy.

Our seats were sensational, 16 rows up from mid-field. Even over the roar of the crowd we were close enough to hear the players calling out, arguing calls, scuffing the ball.

The fans surrounding us were great. When an AC Milan player got a yellow that I did not understand, the man to left my did his best to explain in simple English: “When he fall on floor he hand the ball.” (Confession: my Spanish is so pitiful that it was only after about 10 minutes of fans randomly screaming “Asiento!” that I realized they weren't cheering on a player or calling for a play, they were telling other fans to take to their seats so we could see the game.)

When Diego Costa opened the scoring just a few minutes in the stadium boiled over.  The fans, already at a fever pitch, somehow found another more frenetic level. The boy stood on his seat and waved his flag joyously, screaming alongside the 50,000 supporters.

My little Barca fan, terrified of Diego Simeone, had been swept up in the fever and joined the masses. 

When Raul Garcia just missed on an incredible bicycle kick before the half, it was as if 100,000 arms went into the air in exclaiming "if only!" 

At half time, we took to the bowels of the stadium in search of snacks. The boy tried his first ever Coca-Cola, which he did not like claiming it tasted like donuts. I, wisely, stuck to beer.

The second half was all Atleti and we did our best to sing and chant along "Ole, ole, ole, Cholo Simeone!"

It was an incredible experience to be a part of -- the fans were so welcoming, so passionate and so enthralled by the game -- I’ve never experienced anything like it.

And then Atleti scored their fourth and final goal. It was bedlam. The gentlemen to my left pulled off his Atleti scarf and gave it to the boy who accepted it with wide-eyed enthusiasm. We joined the chorus shouting “Atleti! Atleti! Atleti!”

The night was complete. It couldn’t get any better.

And then the film was played the right way through – tens of thousands of elated fans spilling out of the stadium and into the narrow streets of southwest Madrid. Deliriously happy. The crowds continue to sing, chant, celebrate and congregate around the few bars that were open. 

The boy, smiling broadly, carried both our flags and wore his new Atleti scarf.

As we approached Piramides Metro, he did have one moment of startling clarity: he begged me to turn on my phone to check the Barcelona – Man City score.

* * *

Three small post-scripts:

My son has carefully hung his Barcelona FC and Atletico Madrid scarves on his bedroom door with a team Spain “a por ellos” scarf acting as a demilitarized zone of sorts. I occasionally have a guilty pang (wracked with guilt is a better term) that the Atleti scarf was only for the boy to wave or to hold, that it wasn't for him to take and keep from that kind fan. It’s a lovely 10 year anniversary scarf 1993-2003 and I only hope the gentleman who passed it over realizes how happy it’s made my son.

The boy is no longer terrified of Diego Simeone.

Even though I occasionally hear the boy somewhere in the house chanting “Atleti, Atleti, Atleti” or even singing “Oh Simeone!” (to the Macarena), his heart remains with Barcelona. When the teams drew against each other in the UEFA Champions league quarter finals he was quite sad as he knew one team had to lose and be eliminated.  With that elimination game just hours away, he wants Barcelona to win – but only just. He doesn’t want Atleti to lose in a blow out.  Ever the realist, he also said that if any team is going to eliminate Barca, it’s best that it be Atleti...

Monday, April 07, 2014

Spain: Part 1

Some kids rebel by growing their hair long, others drop out of school. I sometimes think my son rebelled by rejecting hockey.

I play hockey two to three times a week year 'round. I sit on the board of a community hockey league and even ran my own one-day tourney last year.

From the age of three, the boy has wanted nothing to do with hockey. Won’t play it, discuss it or even watch it on TV. He sulked through the last Leafs game I took him to. I didn't even bother asking him if he wanted to go to a game at the ACC this year.

When the boy was in grade one, he came home from school one day with questions about Lionel Messi and a team called Barcelona. Soon thereafter, we were regularly watching youtube clips and La Liga highlights together.

It wasn't long before he was coming home from school asking questions about transfer windows and what players would generate the highest fees.

For his seventh birthday he asked his grandmother for a number 10 Barcelona jersey. When he turned eight, it was a Messi Argentina World Cup jersey.

He sometimes struggles with maths but can easily explain the away goal rule and calculate which team needs to score what to win on aggregate.

Last year, when our family went to Washington D.C. for March break, I asked the boy what he most wanted to do. His request? Watch the second leg of AC Milan vs. Barcelona at a bar or restaurant that served chicken fingers.

We went. He wore his Messi jersey, ate his chicken fingers, and boldly predicted a 4-0 Barcelona win. 

The boy was into that game. He screamed in delight with each goal, yelled at each chance and was positively elated that his team won. I think he did a lap of our section when Barca went up 3-0. He didn't even brag that he got the score right.

It might be the most fun I've ever had watching sports on TV.

* * *

This past March break, we took the kids to Spain for two weeks.

On our third day there, still jet lagged, we all went to Camp Nou to see Barcelona play Almeira.

It was magic.

It was dark when we emerged from the Collblanc metro stop. The game didn't start until 9PM. Camp Nou is only about 600 metres away from the station but it doesn’t reveal itself at first. A block and a half stroll through a few narrow streets with the growing crowds and suddenly there it is – huge lighting stands atop the stadium creating a corona in the night sky, the structure lit like an enormous spaceship on the horizon.

The boy was humming with excitement as we walked up to the stadium, pausing for dozens of photos before we got to our gate. Drinking it all in. A curious mix of excitement and acute observation. He told me getting to go to the game was better than Christmas Eve.

We bought a bag of Barca brand patatas fritas and a few Fanta Naranjas from a tiny concession stand tucked away behind the seats and access stairs and then took to our seats in the middle deck.

There was an entire row of grandmothers behind us eating bocadillos brought from home. Other families appeared to have brought entire picnics to the match. It was clear we weren't in the corporate confines of a North American stadium.

The boy watched warm-ups with his mouth agape. Alves, Neymar, Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Puyols - his Sunday afternoon heroes just a few hundred yards away. And there they were doing some of the same drills he does each Sunday at soccer.

We sang the Barca Anthem (clap clap clap) and then the game began. He was mesmerized. Huge stretches of football passed and I don’t think he even blinked. He roared when Alexis opened the scoring and leapt out of his seat like a rocket when Messi made it 2-0 with a beautiful curling free kick over the wall, high fiving the fans sitting around us.

My pouting distracted boy from Leaf games past had been replaced by a kid who was equal parts fixation and euphoric. I could almost feel the happiness exuding from him, like it was palpable.

He chanted like a madman standing with the crowd when Puyols, in his return from injury, bundled in a goal right beneath us to make it 3-1. Xavi's strike late in the game brought him out of his seat one more time.

The boy declared seeing Barca play as "Better than Christmas."

We stayed long after the 4-1 final. Taking photos, re-living the goals, chattering about Puyol’s return (the funny video of him heading flower pots to save a flight attendant) and wondering about who might replace Valdes in net next year (I tease him it will be Begovic).

Even my daughter, who didn't want to go to the game, was a convert, taken in by the quickness of Neymar and the spectacle of the game.

* * *

Often the stories we tell, the stories that help shape us and become part of our lexicon, take a while to form and even longer to burnish. Our night at Camp Nou was one of those rare moments where you're aware of the weight and significance of an event as you experience it. It was already a story we were telling post-game in the stadium and re-telling as midnight approached and our family strolled together towards Collblanc Metro to catch a subway home, with five more wonderful days in Barcelona to look forward to...