Once more, with feeling

A preview of the 2015 Cleveland Indians

Progressive Field

Going into the 2015 season, the bad news for the Cleveland Indians is that the renovations to their 21-year old ballpark might not be complete by the home opener. It was a historically cold winter in northeast Ohio, and despite the conservative planning and scheduling and the best efforts of the construction crews, the renovations to Progressive Field fell a little behind and it might end up being too much ground to make up this late in the offseason.

The good news is that Progressive Field is really the Tribe’s biggest question mark, which is refreshing because for the Indians that’s pretty abnormal. It seems like most offseasons feature a lot of roster turnover, some low-risk but nominal free agent signings, and at least a couple roster slots that are open for competition if not completely up in the air. But this year, the Indians will enter the season with their 2014 team largely intact: there were no major departures and there was only one major arrival in Brandon Moss. This is a team that won 85 games last season in one of the league’s more competitive divisions, so the fact that it’s mostly the same team returning is a really good thing. In fact, I think this is the best the Indians have looked going into a season in a long time, and with any luck, Tribe fans will be in for a fun summer and maybe even a fun October.

Ten days in Bhutan

Thimpu from above

They tell you that the landing is a doozy. They tell you that the task of landing an Airbus A319 on a small airstrip in the middle of the Himalayas is so difficult that only a handful of pilots in the world can do it. They tell you that even in this world of modern air travel, where a commercial airliner is able to perform all but the last thirty seconds of the landing all on its own, that landing at this particular airstrip is so challenging that the pilots are in control for the last quarter hour of the flight.

I had watched YouTube videos of the approach and landing beforehand, and I thought I knew what to expect. In most of the videos, the plane appeared to make a sharp left turn at about 500 feet off the ground before landing a few seconds later. I said before that only a handful of pilots in the world are qualified to make this landing, and obviously they are skilled and well-practiced because they make this approach two or three times a week. But it’s pretty abnormal for a commercial airliner to perform a turn that drastic that late in the approach; park outside almost any airport in the United States or abroad and you’ll see a long line of jets coming in on a straight approach for each of the runways. Approaches are designed like this intentionally: they’re safer, more fuel efficient, and just generally simpler to execute.

But sometimes, and in some places, like Paro, Bhutan, the straight and simple approach just isn’t possible. And going into that landing I thought I knew what I was getting into for that last 30 seconds in the air. But it’s not just the last 30 seconds that are exciting. I shouldn’t have been surprised by this, but I was: the entire approach, from 33,000 feet down to the ground (a balmy 7,333 feet in Paro) is just as exciting as the final touchdown. Weaving through mountain ranges and valleys, over crystal clear rivers and idyllic settlements, you even pass by a house perched on a mountain ridge at about eye level with the plane (imagine living there and seeing jets fly by your window like that every day). And when you finally land, you realize that you didn’t even notice the crazy left turn. The whole experience sort of blends together in an unforgettable fashion.

That’s how I felt about my trip to Bhutan as a whole. It never felt like a series of moments, but instead an interconnected and unforgettable experience. And so while the following are only snapshots of my time there, they’re not the only moments that mattered, but some of the stories and the experiences I remember most vividly.

If it bleeds, it leads

The best movies of 2014

Interstellar

Happy New Year! It’s now 2015, but before we get too far into the new year it’s worth looking back at 2014, which was another great year for movies. It was another year of sequels and sequels to the sequels (Expendables 3, The Hobbit Part 3, Transformers 4, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), but it was also a year showcasing directors at the top of their craft (Gone Girl‘s David Fincher and Interstellar‘s Christopher Nolan). We also had two Liam Neeson movies (Non-Stop and A Walk Among The Tombstones) as well as two other Liam Neeson movies with different actors playing Liam Neeson (The November Man and John Wick). It was harder this year than most to choose a top five, so I’ll also include some honorable mentions before getting down to business. And as a warning, I did my best, but there may be some minor spoilers ahead. So read on, with caution, after the jump.

A life fully lived

Uncle Jim and I

Last August, the world was stunned and horrified when it learned that actor and comedian Robin Williams had committed suicide. Any death is sad, and any celebrity death brings some amount of news coverage, but this one seemed to bring even more than usual because of the suddenness and shocking nature of his death. Regular programming was interrupted for breaking news and wall-to-wall coverage stretched into the next morning. His motive wasn’t immediately clear, and so speculation continued throughout the week on what might have caused Williams to take his own life. Makeshift memorials sprouted up all over the country at sites from his popular movies. Popular lines from his movies were quoted and repeated on social media, and people usually included an anecdote on how Williams or his movies affected them. But when I first heard the news, I didn’t think of his movies or his comedy. I thought of my uncle Jim.

The mecca of cheesesteaks

A review of Citizens Bank Park

Those clouds you see over the stadium have been hanging over the Phillies all season.

Those clouds you see over the stadium have been hanging over the Phillies all season.

In many ways, the style of Citizens Bank Park is a mix of the old and the new. On one hand, the stadium is situated a few miles outside of downtown Philadelphia, adjacent to Lincoln Financial Field and Wells Fargo Arena, and follows the cookie-cutter era strategy of placing the ballparks outside the town itself. That strategy provides easier access and parking, but tends to make the ballpark feel isolated from the city and its unique culture. On the other hand, Citizens Bank Park is actually one of the newer stadiums in the league, built in 2004 in the retro-modern style made popular by Camden Yards. Once you’re inside, the ballpark is immersive enough that it’s pretty easy to forget that you’re actually a few miles outside of Philadelphia.

I made my first visit to Citizens Bank Park this past Tuesday night. It was the 14th park I’ve visited (12th active), and I’ve now visited every park on the eastern seaboard except the two stadiums in Florida. My review of Citizens Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies, is after the break.

Halfway

The unexpected first half of the 2014 Cleveland Indians

Progressive Field

The Indians opened the unofficial second half of their season last night with a comeback 9-3 win over the Tigers. The Indians started the second half at 47-47, and despite the fact that 47-47 is only .500 and only good enough for third place, I think I’m mostly relieved, if not pleasantly surprised, at what the Indians have managed to make of their season so far. The Tribe aren’t out of it by any means, and if they’re able to reverse some of the problems they’ve had in the first half, we’ll be well on our way to another October run.

The dawn

New teammates

On this day four years ago, I wrote a post in the aftermath of The Decision. I recalled how bizarre the whole experience was, and how unfun it was to see your team and your city excoriated on national TV. I wrote that I liked Dan Gilbert’s letter, even if it was a little childish, because the people of Cleveland needed someone speaking for them that night. I made the point that it wasn’t that he left, because I couldn’t really blame him for that, but the fact that he did it on national TV that made it such a ruthless betrayal.

Something to build on

A preview of the 2014 Cleveland Indians

The Indians at Progressive Field

This past Christmas, my parents gave me a board game called Ticket to Ride. The game begins with you choosing up to three route cards, which become your mission for the rest of the game: it becomes your job to build a network of railroads across the United States that fulfill each of your route cards. You can only build track between certain cities, and your opponents may be competing for similar sections of the same route. But at the beginning of the game, everything is wide open and you’re starting from scratch. It’s a little intimidating at first because it’s not clear which segments will be in most demand and what your opponents are trying to do. But as the game progresses, you start to build your own little rail network. Most of the time, you’re able to finish your initial route cards and so you take more. But with your new routes, you usually have something to build on. For example, you might have had New York to Los Angeles as an initial route and a new route is Chicago to Boston. If you built your New York-LA route through Chicago, then you only need to connect New York and Boston and you’ve fulfilled another route, and you get the same amount of points even though you had to do very little additional work.

At the end of the game, everyone shows the routes they’ve fulfilled and the ones they failed to fulfill, and they add up their points. And then you declare a winner, and the game just sort of…ends. For me at least, it’s sort of a letdown. Playing again seems exhausting, because you’d have to start all over again, and you feel like you’d rather have kept going with the network of tracks you already have built.

That’s the same feeling I had at the end of the 2013 Cleveland Indians season. The Indians had made an improbable run, capped off by a ridiculous September where they went 21-6 and ended the season on a 10-game win streak. It was enough to capture the top Wild Card seed, and earn home-field advantage for a one-game playoff against the Tampa Bay Rays on October 2nd. But baseball is a tricky game, and even though the Indians were as hot as any team in the league going into that game, they came out flat against the Rays and failed to advance to the division series. Just like that, the season was over. Back to an empty board.

A lot went right for the Indians last year. The 2013 Indians had a Pythagorean win expectation of 0.553, which was only slightly below their actual win percentage (0.568) and means the Indians should only have won 2 less games (although it should be noted that those 2 wins were the difference between a Wild Card spot and not). But they were 10-2 in extra innings, which is somewhat indicative of a strong bullpen but mostly just means they got lucky. And outside of those basic statistics, the Indians got better-than-expected production: from Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir, who were were both as good we could have hoped; from the bullpen, who proved to be remarkably durable despite some bad performances by Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez; and from the offense, with contributions from journeymen like Mark Reynolds and Ryan Raburn as well as the ageless Jason Giambi.

In 2014, the Indians won’t have Jimenez or Kazmir, they won’t have Chris Perez, and they’ll be relying on bounceback years from Vinnie Pestano and Asdrubal Cabrera as well as repeated success from Ryan Raburn and Jason Giambi. After that ridiculously long introduction, I’ll break down the Indians’ chances after the break.

We

The godfather of dystopia

We

I just finished reading We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin. I could try to sound impressive and say that I read the novel because I enjoyed (is enjoyed the right word for a dystopian novel?) Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, and because most literary critics contend that both novels are influenced by We, it was almost my responsibility to check it out for myself. But I’ll be honest: I’ve always wanted to read a novel written by someone named Yevgeny.

I’ve wanted to write a comparison between Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World for some time now. And since I now have the so-called godfather of dystopian novels to add to the comparison, now seems like as good a time as any.

Writer’s block

I have writer’s block, and I hate it.

I hate the feeling of not producing anything. For me, writer’s block hasn’t just affected this blog, but all or most aspects of my creative life, which are basically this blog and my programming projects that I like to work on on nights and weekends. I don’t tend to do a lot of partying or going out on weekends, so the fact that I feel so fatigued and unmotivated on weekends means I’m pretty much a waste of space.

It’s why I’m up late on a Saturday night: I’m trying to figure out things I can write about that can get me out of my blogging slump. (One of my topic ideas was this.) One of the things I’ve discovered over the last few weeks and months, for me anyway, is that writer’s block doesn’t necessarily mean I’m out of ideas: I’ve had half-formed post ideas in my head for a Catching Fire review, a Lone Survivor review, a healthcare.gov analysis, and even something about Richard Sherman. I actually have unpublished and unfinished drafts sitting in my WordPress install for three of those topics. Each time, I logged in to WordPress and started writing, but either before I could get to my pithy sentences or just after, I’d say to myself, “who cares?” (Much like you’re probably saying now.) Each time, I eventually started to get frustrated: frustrated that I couldn’t phrase an idea exactly how I wanted it to, frustrated that the ideas I had weren’t substantiated enough, frustrated that the ideas weren’t even unique.

That’s what writer’s block is for me: the feeling that my ideas are unimportant and not worth sharing or developing. This sort of follows from how I behave socially: my personality is fairly introverted, and in general I make a conscious effort not to speak unless I feel like I have something to say that’s worth saying, because it drives me absolutely nuts when people say things that they have to know aren’t worth saying. So when I’m writing a post about healthcare.gov, I’m constantly asking myself: “is this worth saying? Has this already been said?” If I’m working on a side project like a static blog engine, I’m asking myself: “is this even worth doing? Hasn’t someone way smarter than me done this already?”

Looking at this objectively, these are fairly impossible standards. On the blog post side, I’m comparing my tiny little blog to pieces and articles I read every week by professional, published writers who do this for a living. Do I really expect my post that took me 90 minutes to write, edit and publish to look and feel like a Grantland.com feature, which take days, or even weeks, with all the research, writing, and editing involved? On the programming side, I’m comparing my tiny little side projects to the work of the best programmers in the world, often working in teams. I’m working on this stuff on the side, but most of the open source software I compare my work to is developed by people who do these projects at least 20 hours a week with teammates.

I’m reading a book called “Every Good Endeavor” by Timothy Keller, and in the prologue the author mentions a short story J.R.R. Tolkien wrote called “Leaf by Niggle” as sort of a side project while he was working on Lord of the Rings. I’ll leave it to you to read the plot summary, but the gist of the story is that it’s not worth getting hung up on small personal projects in this life and that ultimately your time is better served in your community. It was encouraging to me to know that a) the frustrations of writer’s block (or more generally, creativity block) aren’t permanent, and b) that even a writer as prolific as J.R.R. Tolkien was capable of writer’s block.

All of that to say, again: I hate writer’s block. And I think in order to get through it, I’m going to try writing a little less, a little more often, and try not to be so hard on myself. If that doesn’t work, I’ll just switch to writing exclusively on Twitter. (Kidding…ideally.)