In Praise of Gregg Berhalter

When Gregg Berhalter was announced as the head coach of the US Men’s National Team in 2018 that decision was not greeted with a lot of enthusiasm. Gregg’s managerial career consisted of a couple of non-descript years in Sweden followed by a solid run in charge of the Columbus Crew, losing MLS Cup in 2015 (at home) to the Portland Timbers. There were other big, international names that were allegedly in the mix, so this pick seemed underwhelming. It didn’t help that Gregg’s brother Jay was one of the higher ups in US Soccer at the time, leading to lazy charges of nepotism in Gregg’s hire. That Gregg had appeared 44 times for the USMT as a player, but never made the field during the World Cup where he was on the roster kind of said it all.

Gregg’s hire came in the shadow of the USMNT failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. His ultimate success will be judged solely on whether we qualify for the 2022 tournament in Qatar and, if we do, how well we do there. Up to this summer there hadn’t been a lot of meaningful games for Gregg to show fans what he can do at the helm. But, oh boy, has he had a very good summer.

Like everything else, the pandemic wreaked havoc with the international soccer calendar. League seasons that were suspended in early 2020 finished up later than usual that year, leading to the cancellation of major 2020 national competitions and the late start of the next club season. That season then got compressed so the delayed summer competitions could happen. So this summer has been packed solid with the Copa America and European Championships taking place on a year delay, not to mention the Olympics. And then there’s World Cup qualifying, which gets underway in September and will include schedules with three games played in two weeks (usually it’s only two).

For CONCACAF, the regional federation to which the United States and the rest of North and Central American and the Caribbean belong, its championship, the Gold Cup, was already scheduled for 2021. But the inaugural finals of the Nations League, a new tournament meant to fill in the gaps between World Cups and Gold Cups, was supposed to have taken place in 2020, but got pushed back. So, for Gregg and the USMNT this summer meant two games in the Nations League final, the Gold Cup, and then the start of World Cup qualifying, all with players who have been at it pretty much nonstop for the past year or so. Oh, and CONCACAF moved the Gold Cup back a month so as to not compete with Copa America and the Euros, pushing it into the preseason for a lot of European clubs.

Thankfully, Gregg had a plan. Step 1 – take the best team possible into the Nations League finals with the intent of winning a trophy. This would bet the core players, most of whom play in Europe. It would be the first meaningful chance to see them play together, in anticipation of a meeting with full-strength Mexico in the final. Step 2 – take a younger, mostly MLS-based team into the Gold Cup, with the intent of discovering roster depth that will help us when World Cup qualification begins, while giving the first-team guys some rest and letting them start preseason work with their club teams. Go as far as you can in the tournament, but don’t expect to win it, especially if we came up against Mexico, again. Step 3 – start World Cup qualifying with the strongest team possible and, hopefully, some momentum.

Well, as for Step 1 – this happened:

After a less than impressive semifinal win against Honduras, the US beat Mexico 3-2 in extra time to lift the first Nations League trophy. It didn’t go completely to plan – injuries kept the preferred Best 11 from playing together much – but you can’t argue with the results. Off to some vacation for most of those guys, on to the Gold Cup.

The Gold Cup was never going to be beautiful. The only real holdover from the Nations League roster was midfielder Kelly Acosta. More than a dozen players had appeared less than ten times for the USMNT. The guys called in from Europe were basically trying to make moves to new clubs. How much talent did this group have?

Enough to blow through the group stage, at least. By which I mean we won all three games, even if two of them were a lot closer than you’d like them to be. Rosters were rotated, players were given chances to sink or swim. Nothing convincing but, again, the results were coming. We were probably outplayed for large parts of the quarterfinal against Jamaica and the semi against Qatar (here as guests and reigning champions of Asia), but the result in the end was the same: 1-0 to the US.

But remember, the goal here isn’t necessarily to win, but to learn. What did we learn in all those games? That New England goalkeeper Matt Turner should be in the running for the top job when qualifying starts. That defender Miles Robinson and midfielder/defender James Sands are both worthy of the qualifying roster. The defensive depth we were worried about is here and it’s pretty good. The attack not so much (Matthew Hoppe’s enthusiasm aside), but we’re top heavy with attacking talent with the first-choice team. We’ve also learned that Gregg can make great use of substitutes – keeping in mind that FIFA is keeping 5 substitutes (as opposed the usual three) until at least the next World Cup is over.

But we want to win this thing, right? Over Mexico for the second time this summer? You’re damned right we did:

It should be noted that, due to injuries and Olympic duty, Mexico was missing a few first-teamers, but they had a lot more of their “A” team on the field in the Gold Cup final than we did. We won anyway. Was is pretty? No. Was is great fun to watch? Absolutely.

I’d like to say I was a Gregg booster from the beginning, but that would be a lie. I wasn’t as down on him as some other folks, but I wasn’t thrilled. As we waded through lots of friendlies with questionable roster selections and what not I wondered if he was up to it. Now I’m ready to buy in completely. Gregg might not do it the way I want him to, but his job is to get us back to the World Cup and regain are spot on top of CONCACAF.

We’re halfway there!

Can Anybody Write a Book?

A couple of weekends ago, scouring Twitter, I came across an interesting Tweet by a fantasy writer named Sara Scarlett:

I’m going to both agree and disagree with her here. I think that if somebody’s response to your news that you finished a book is “anybody can do that,” they’re an asshole and they are downplaying your achievement. That said, I think the truth of the matter actually is that anybody can write a book and it does writers well to embrace that fact.

First, we need to define some terms. When I say “anybody can write a book,” I don’t really mean any particular human on the planet. Some people, due to physical or mental limitations or educational deficiencies, won’t be able to read a book, much less write one. So, for “anybody” in this discussion, read “anybody who wants to and has a minimum skill set to do it.” That said, the “book” we’re talking about is defined pretty expansively – it doesn’t mean “good,” it doesn’t mean “best seller,” and it doesn’t mean “beloved by a small but passionate fan base.” It means a book – a collection of tens of thousands of words that tells a story. Leave quality judgments out of it.

With that said, it should be pretty clear that anybody can write a book. There’s nothing about writing a book that is inherently difficult – you put words on a page, you do that some more, and, eventually, you have a book. What matters most when it comes to writing is that you actually sit down and write. Orders of magnitude more people will start to write a book than will finish it, but there’s nothing mystical about the ones who finish – they just keep working. The same is true for any art, really – for most folks, it’s more perspiration than inspiration.

There’s another question, somewhat related, that I’ve seen elsewhere on the Internet, which is “can writing be taught?” This seems like a question with an obvious “yes” answer, but it hints at something deeper about creative endeavors. You can learn the skills necessary to do just about anything, but you still need the creativity to be able to do something interesting with it.

One time, my wife and I did one of those “drink wine and paint a picture” things, which we really enjoyed. I immediately analogized the blending of paints to create certain colors and effects with the way you blend and sculpt sounds on a synthesizer. I was enthusiastic that I could add this creative element to my arsenal – my wife even got me some painting supplies for Christmas. I never did anything with them. Not because I wasn’t excited by the process, but because the creative spark never came. I couldn’t figure out anything to do visually, the way I get ideas for stories or rhythms and melodies pop into my head. But could I bear down and crank out a painting? Sure, but would anybody care about it?

Ultimately, that’s why someone saying, “oh, anybody can write a book” can sound so hurtful. It’s usually said by someone who’s never even tried to do it, much less accomplished it, to someone whose passion, creative drive, and tenacity resulted in a work they’re proud of. They probably gave up time with friends and loved ones while working on it. They bled for it (metaphorically – I hope) and this is the reaction they get?

You know what? Fuck those people. It’s probably true that anybody can write a book. It’s also true that most people won’t even try. You did and you succeeded. Take pride in that and move on to the next one. Keep on working.

Getting Creative In Court

Lawyers, in general, write a lot in their work. I write even more, given that I specialize in appeals and other sorts of post-conviction cases. Over the two-plus decades I’ve been doing this, I like to think I’ve developed a good skill with words, with creation of sentences and paragraphs that convey meaning and argument while still being a pleasant read. The days of legal writing filled with “heretofore”s and meaningless Latin phrases (seriously, if you see any sentence with “inter alia” in it, cross it out and tell me how that sentence is any different) are long gone, thankfully.

Still, there’s only so much creativity you can squeeze into legal writing. For one thing, you’re limited by the realities of the facts in your case (particularly in an appeal) and you can’t really beef up the plot or characters of you brief to make them more persuasive. For another, you have to consider the audience. The truth of the matter is that judges (and their clerks) are busy, have countless things to read on a daily basis, and are interested in being persuaded as quickly and clearly as possible. An appellate brief is no place to play with the form of words and sentences, to be coy about meanings, or to roll out mysteries for readers to ponder.

That’s one of the reasons I started writing fiction, especially fantasy. What better escape from the horrible facts of real life cases than worlds where I get to make up anything I wanted to? Strange new worlds! Interesting creatures! Cultures and histories never before imagined! This is where my creativity gets to thrive, not in court.

Right? Maybe not, if I could draw anything beyond a stick figure.

Third Planet Sci-Fi and Fantasy Superstore is a comic book and related merchandise business in Houston. From the Google Street View image you can see that it’s a wide, one-story building next to a busy street. You may also notice that it’s next-door neighbor is a high-rise Crowne Plaza hotel that towers over the place.

Third Planet is suing its neighbors because . . . well, because there tend to be a lot of assholes staying there. According to a third (!) amended petition filed in state court, hotel guests frequently make use of the hotel’s open-air balconies and fire escape to “throw all manner of projectiles off those landings and onto Third Planet’s roof and parking lot. It goes on to describe one particular day:

On or about March 3, 2019, matters escalated to a new level of destruction. Hotel guests, residents, tenants, patrons, customers, or visitors launched at minimum fourteen large metal-canister fire extinguishers from the Hotel onto Third Planet’s roof and parking lot. The canisters landed on the roof with explosive impact. This caused significant compromise to the structural integrity of the roof. In sum, the roof was irreparably damaged.

The next paragraph simply says: “Then came the rain.”

Pretty compelling stuff, right? Nonetheless, according to the petition, the defense “has previously filed special exceptions, complaining that it could not sufficiently understand the claims and allegations against it.” So what does Third Planet’s counsel do? They write a comic book to lay out everything.

Over the next 13 pages, the comic tells the story of Third Planet, its bowling champion owner TJ Johnson, and the store’s history in Houston. As for those flying fire extinguishers? Well . . .

The whole complaint is here, with the comic part starting at page 6. It’s a bold brilliant move and, without knowing anything about the actual legal merits (property law is not my specialty), I hope Third Planet wins and wins big.

Bold as it is, Third Planet’s resort to visual aids in a pleading is not unprecedented.

A comment to the Volokh Conspiracy post that brought this to my attention pointed to an article from the ABA Journal in 2012 where a lawyer did something similar in federal court.

The case involved the United States’ antitrust complaint against numerous publishers for fixing ebook prices and an attorney wanted to file an amicus (friend of the court) brief taking issue with some of the Department of Justice’s positions. He originally filed a 24-page motion with a 29-page proposed amicus brief attached. The court said he could file an amicus brief, but it could be no longer than five pages.

Which he did, taking a more comic strip approach:

The comic complied with all the usual formatting rules for pleadings in that district (font size, margins, etc.), but that didn’t keep the US Attorneys working on the case from dealing with it without a lot of effort (and the settlement they were seeking was eventually approved). Still, it was pretty clever (you can read the whole five pages here).

Like I said, making your argument in pictures is a pretty bold gambit (easier to do when you’re not actually representing a client). If it works, it’s brilliant. If the judge takes offense, thinks somebody’s diminishing the process, it can be a disaster. Come to think of it, probably for the best that I steer my wilder impulses into fiction.

One Album to Rule Them All!

At my dayjob office there’s a whiteboard and bulletin board back near the break room. After a few years, one of our administrative folks has found its best use – asking questions of the staff about the important questions in life. Things like “what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?” or “if you could wake up one morning an expert in anything, what would it be?” Now, she’s come up with a question that, as she correctly warned me, is a real stumper:

If you could only listen to one album for the next year, what would it be?

Between my musical geekiness and my penchant for over thinking things, my mind’s been working overtime since the question came up. I think I’ve come up with a decent answer – here’s how I got to it.

It quickly occurred to me that there are two questions you have to ask before you start evaluating answers for a question like this. It has to do with getting the most out of whatever you select.

The first is, do you go for something that’s a stone cold favorite or something more mysterious? The case for the favorite is obvious – you want to listen to something you like, if it’s all you’ve got for a year. But there’s also a risk – would listening to any favorite album for a year cause you to sour on it? Get so sick of it you’d never want to hear it again? Something less familiar, or more dense, might be more rewarding over multiple listens.

I didn’t let this issue detain me very much. While I toyed with the idea of choosing something like Brian Eno’s Music for Airports (Ambient 1), as its details would surely be sharpened by lots of repeated listening, ultimately I decided that if I have to listen to only one thing for a year, I want it to be something I really love. A lot of my favorite albums I’ve known for years, if not decades, and I’m not yet tired of them. It’s a risk I’m willing to take.

The second, and more difficult question, is one of quality versus quantity. Favorite albums might not be very long, might not provide the best bang for your buck, so to speak. But longer ones might not be as good. The best example of this in my collection, probably, comes from Zappa. My favorite Zappa album is probably Roxy & Elsewhere. While originally a 2-LP release, we’re talking about Frank’s 1970s stuff, so the sides are short and it sits comfortably on a single CD. Läther, on the other hand, is a 3-CD release of what was originally intended to be an 8-sided album. It’s crammed full of music, full of variety and skill, even if it’s not my favorite. Which to pick?

In the end, I decided to go with the “more is more” philosophy, at least to an extent. It was made easier by the fact that bands in the 1970s would produce fairly short (by standards of the CD era I grew up in, at least) studio albums, and then release multi-disc live albums. Those albums often cover a lot of ground and sometimes do it with versions that improve on the original studio recordings. With that in mind, it came down to two choices.

The first was Yessongs, the first live Yes album.

This is one of those “if you only own one album by a band, buy this one” kind of albums. Originally three LPs (it fits on two CDs) and recorded after Close to the Edge, it really captures the band at its prime. It includes all three songs from that album, as well as most everything important from Fragile and The Yes Album. More than that, lots of the live versions of those songs are bangers. What’s not to love? Well, a couple of things. First, it doesn’t touch at all on either of the band’s first two albums, which have some gems. Second, the main thing missing from Fragile is “South Side of the Sky,” which is my favorite track on that album. Finally, there’s a lack of Bill Bruford on this release. Drummer Bruford left Yes after Close to the Edge to join King Crimson and he’s only on a couple of tracks. His replacement, Alan White, took over the drum stool for good (having worked with some nobody named John Lennon previously), which is saying something for a band whose membership rivals Spinal Tap (or King Crimson!) for turnover. He’s a great player, but I like Bill better and these are “his” tunes.

The other contender was another live album (originally a double LP, still a double CD), Seconds Out by Genesis.

As you might expect from the title, this is the second live album from Genesis and is the swan song of the prog era. Peter Gabriel was already gone and Steve Hackett was on his way out the door and the band was about to reshuffle into the pop/prog trio that conquered the world in the 1980s and 1990s. It focuses on the albums released since Live, but that’s still prime real estate – Selling England by the Pound, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, A Trick of the Tail, and Wind and Wuthering. It also dips into the further past for the main oversight of Live – the side-long epic “Supper’s Ready.” That starts off disc two with a bang that never lets up – side four of the original LP release contains the definitive versions of “Cinema Show” and “Dance on a Volcano/Los Endos.” That whole disc is one of my very favorites. Down sides? Well, there’s only one track from Wind and Wuthering, which is odd since it was the newest album at the time. And, although it’s apocryphal to say that Hackett was “mixed out” since he was leaving the band, it’s not the strongest of his albums with the band.

In the end, there was only one solid choice – Seconds Out. Much as I love Yes, Genesis may be my all time favorite band (certainly during the Gabriel/Hackett years) and if I could only listen to one thing for a year, wouldn’t that be it?

Widows of the Empire – Coming November 10!

So remember when I said I hoped to see the end of a particular tunnel by the time July rolled around?

Well, guess what?

Widows of the Empire, book two of my Unari Empire Trilogy is finished and I’m shooting to release it on my birthday, November 10! Of this year!

Okay, so not quite finished, but the main text is done. Needs formatting and a couple of final flourishes, but, barring tragedy, you’ll be able to reach more of Aton and Belwyn’s adventures as the Unari Empire begins to come apart this fall.

Gone Editin’

 Since it’s now summer and time for a break anyway, I’m going to step away from the blog this month to concentrate on getting Widows of the Empire in nearly-final form. Got beta-reader feeback to work through so hopefully, come July, I’ll be able to see the end of this particular tunnel. Also there’s, like, a shit ton of soccer coming this month, including the start of the delayed Euros and the conclusion of the CONCACAF Nations League. So, you know, I have obligations.

Until then, these two will be keeping an eye on the shop.

Don’t take advantage, ‘kay?

When the Character Has No Deep Dark Secret

There’s been a lot of press recently about the 20th anniversary of the release of Shrek and its impact on the culture. One of the most memorable parts of the movie is when the main character explains that ogres are like onions, as they have layers. It’s more than a nice message about not judging people for their looks, though. It suggests that fictional characters are supposed to be the same – they should have layers that peel away the more time we spend with them. Some of them, maybe most of them, wind up with deep dark secrets that motivate their actions or hold them back.

So what happens when you find a character that has no layers at all? The surface they project to the world is exactly who they are. How do you handle a character like that?

A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is, in one way, a movie about Mr. Rogers. With a title like that, how couldn’t it be? But in a more accurate way, it’s not about him at all. The main character is a (fictional) writer sent to do a short puff piece on the children’ TV legend. Cynical, bitter, and having just had a drunken punch up at a wedding, he’s the one with layers.

Mr. Rogers is . . . well, he’s Mr. Rogers. He’s kind and patient and he cares about this guy’s well being. The writer is an investigative journalist, so he (and, by proxy, the audience) thinks that some dark reveal is just around the corner. Surely Mr. Rogers will curse like a sailor in private or abuse his staff in petty ways or something like that. Nope. All we see of him is that he’s a nice, kind guy and that’s all there is to it. Not at all like this:

That made Mr. Rogers great guy. It doesn’t make him a great character to build a movie around. That’s why he’s not the lead in the movie that’s practically named for him.

There’s an interesting comparison here to the Showtime series Kidding, which stars Jim Carey as a children’s TV icon named Mr. Pickles. He is very much the main character of this story and, as expected, he has layers that the series digs into as it goes along – he suffers from a kind of stunted development, his marriage dissolves after the death of a child, etc. It’s funnier than it sounds (in a very dark way), but it has what you’d expect out of a central character.

Which is what makes A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood such a nifty work of leger de main. It is undeniably Mr. Rogers’ movie (as played by Tom Hanks, again, how could it not be?), but it can’t be about him, right? So let another character be our focus, our entry into that world, and let the rest seep in around the edges. Which it does, in spades. Bottom line is, a movie about Mr. Rogers that isn’t really about Mr. Rogers has no business working as well as it does. It’s something to consider when planning out stories.

And I have to say, every time I think of Mr. Rogers this is actually what jumps into my head. I blame my brother, Todd, who does, indeed, play the bass:

Why “The Cold Equations” Is Still Horribly Plausible

Netflix recently released a new sci-fi flick, Stowaway. The trailer gives you a sense of what it’s about:

A spaceship on the way to another planet, finite resources, and an extra person. It’s the classic lifeboat problem IN SPAAACCCEEE!! FYI, expect spoilers from here on out if you’re worried about that kind of thing.

Stowaway also owes a lot to “The Cold Equations,” a 1954 short story that’s one of the most talked about in the history of science fiction. The release of Stowaway has lead to another round of reevaluation of the story, although there are some pretty big distinctions between the two.

Wikipedia has a pretty good summary of “The Cold Equations”:

The story takes place entirely aboard an Emergency Dispatch Ship (EDS) headed for the frontier planet Woden with a load of desperately-needed medical supplies. The pilot, Barton, discovers a stowaway: an eighteen-year-old girl. By law, all EDS stowaways are to be jettisoned because EDS vessels carry no more fuel than is absolutely necessary to land safely at their destination. The girl, Marilyn, merely wants to see her brother Gerry and was not aware of the law. When boarding the EDS, Marilyn saw the ‘UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT!’ sign, but thought she would at most have to pay a fine if she were caught. Barton explains that her presence dooms the mission by exceeding the weight limit, and the subsequent crash would kill both of them and doom the colonists awaiting the medical supplies. After contacting her brother for the last moments of her life, Marilyn willingly walks into the airlock and is ejected into space.

The thrust of the story is that the EDS is designed to do a particular job in a particular way and the additional variable of a stowaway wrecked all that. Physics, the “cold equations” of the title, mean that’s a problem and there’s only one solution.

While those same equations play a role in Stowaway, it’s really quite a different story. For one thing, the “stowaway” of the title really isn’t. He’s an engineer who wound up on the ship by accident. He did not intentionally sneak on like Marilyn in “The Cold Equations.” It puts him on a completely different ethical/moral footing. Another important distinction is that the problem in Stowaway that creates the drama is a mechanical malfunction, not just the presence of an additional person on the ship. Again, it changes the moral calculus. Most importantly, the eventual sacrifice is completely different – a crew member in Stowaway sacrifices herself to save the rest of the crew, whereas poor Marilyn has to take the task on herself.

That said, things are close enough to make mention of “The Close Equations” understandable (it even comes up in this really interesting video from one of the science advisors on Stowaway) and it’s always worth revisiting classic works. However, a lot of the criticisms of “The Cold Equations” always struck me as a bit off.

Lots of people who read “The Cold Equations” want to change it somehow to create a happy ending. There’s lots of criticism (much of it summarized here) of the entire setup, both of the fine margins in the EDS which subjects it to not having any room for error and for the society that would not go to greater lengths to keep someone like Marilyn from sneaking on in the first place. Surely they’d do more than put up a sign that said “KEEP OUT,” right? They’d place armed guards or design the EDS with more room for error? Why wouldn’t they do that?!?

For a certain idea of science fiction, I can see where these criticisms are coming from. For some folks, sci-fi is a genre of positivity or showing people overcoming odds and crises through knowledge, ingenuity, and hard work. David Brin is famously an exponent of this theory of sci-fi, which excludes things like dystopian fiction as “sci-fi” since it doesn’t have a positive, “go humans!”  message.

Thing is, humans are often awful to each other and that is sometimes reflected in sci-fi, too, as it should be. Anyone with a passing familiarity with history would know that the corner cutting that leads to tragedy in “The Cold Equations” are really plausible. That summary of criticisms I linked to above notes this history, but presumes that it’s just that – history, something we’ve moved passed as a species. Sadly, it isn’t. After all, if laws passed to ensure safe working conditions have been on the books for the past century or so, how could 29 coal miners die in an accident in the 21st century caused largely by ignoring and working around those law? Laws don’t get followed or enforced just because they’re on the books, not when the bottom line is at stake.

This really came into sharp focus for me recently when I was reading Midnight In Chernobyl, Adam Higginbotham’s excellent book on the 1986 meltdown in the Soviet Union. One of the reasons the disaster happened is that the RBMK-type reactor was an inherently flawed design. Experts had said it was flawed for years. Indeed, in 1975 a similar accident happened in another nuclear plant that highlighted this design flaw. Did they redesign the reactor? No. Did they move on to an entire new design? No. Did they rewrite the manuals and assume human beings would react rationally if the same thing happened again? YES! In other words, they decided to put up a sign that said “KEEP OUT” instead of spending extra money to fix the problem.

The same dynamic is evident in Stowaway. Lots of people talking about the movie complain that NASA would never allow this problem to happen. The oxygen problem is similar to what happened to Apollo 13, so wouldn’t NASA know to have backups on board? Problem is, the mission in Stowaway isn’t run by NASA, but by a company called Hyperion. More to the point, there are bits of dialog that suggest that Hyperion is not beyond cutting corners in order to save money. Should space travel work that way? No. Does history suggest it could? Absolutely. We may progress to the point where such thinking doesn’t happen, but we’re a long way from there (if we ever reach it).

As for Stowaway as a movie – if you can swallow the setup it’s pretty good. How the stowaway got on board is never satisfactorily addressed (leading to a lot of people to assume it was intentional, which really doesn’t fit the film), but once you’re beyond that things greatly improve. The performances are all good. The filmmakers made a choice to keep the action entirely focused on the four people on the ship, to the point that we don’t even hear the other side of conversations with ground control, much less see any of them grappling with the problem. I found that this reinforces how cut off the ship was, how on their own they were, and was very effective. The ending just kind of is there, but it would have been hard to go much further without changing the vibe of the thing. Worth a watch, certainly.

What Makes a “Heist” Story, Anyway?

One of my semi-regular podcast listenings is The Rewatchables from the folks over at The Ringer. In each episode they take a deep dive (sometimes too deep – the episodes can tend to sprawl) into a movie that they can watch over and over again. It’s good fun if they’re talking about a movie you’re familiar with.

Recently, they did an episode on the 2006 film Inside Man. Directed by Spike Lee and starring Clive Owen, Denzel Washington, and Jodie Foster (among others), it’s about an elaborate bank robbery that’s about much more than money.

What really got me thinking, though, was the introduction to this episode, where they talked about “heist” movies and how great they were. No argument from me – but is Inside Man really about a heist? What makes a heist, and therefore a heist story, anyway?

Maybe Inside Man fits, if we’re just going by dictionary definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary defines heist as “a hold-up, a robbery.” Far be it from me to disagree with the OED, but at least when it comes to storytelling, “heist” means something quite different than “robbery.”

I should say here that when I think of robbery I’m thinking of it in the legal sense that I deal with everyday – that is, the taking of property from the person of another by use or threatened use of force. Other thieving is something different. Think of it this way – if I go into a bank and point a gun at the teller, I’m committing a robbery; but if, as an employee, I secretly steal money without anybody noticing, I’m committing embezzlement. Both felonies, but quite different from one another.

The distinction, for me at least, comes down to brute force. A robbery can be elaborate and kinetic and exciting – think the beginning of The Dark Knight – but, at the end of the day, it’s “your money or your life.” It’s simple, effective, and brutal. “Heist” conjures up something more clever, more deeply thought out. It’s about getting the object of the robbery without the violence. It’s a better, more elevated, kind of crime, if you will.

I’m thinking of things like The Thomas Crown Affair or Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels. Those movies are about the scheming to pull off the job, not just rolling up with guns and forcing people to do your bidding. To be sure, sometimes the scheme goes sour and the heist goes bad, so I suppose it’s a question of intent. If the thieves are trying to get away with it without using violence, it’s a heist. Otherwise, it’s not.

There are also things that don’t fit in either category. There’s a new(ish) Neflix documentary called This Is a Robbery about the 1990 theft of the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston in which over $500 million worth of art was taken. On the one hand, it involved a clever ruse – the thieves posed as Boston cops and got in by saying they were responding the report of a break in. On the other hand, they tied up the two night security guys pretty violently, so there’s that. Is that a heist story or not? Honestly, I’m not sure.

As I’m writing this I’m watching/listening to a 2017 in-studio performance by Monobody, a band whose music is really hard to classify. In one of the interview breaks the guitar player talks about genre labels as a necessary label, since they help people talk about things like art. But, ultimately, they’re meaningless when considering whether any piece of art is enjoyable or not. So whether I think a story is a heist story or not is irrelevant.

And I’m completely will to admit I’m full of shit about this. Such is life.

Weekly Read: The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War – A Tragedy In Three Acts

What if the CIA hasn’t been a bad idea all along? That’s the theory underpinning The Quiet Americans, a look at the early days of the agency and its roots in World War II. Fascinating and detailed as the book is, I’m not sure I completely buy Scott Anderson’s thesis that if the guys on the ground would have been allowed to do it their way things might have worked out better.

Telling even part of the history of the CIA is a sprawling affair, which Anderson does by focusing on four early agency operatives, all of whom came out of the hastily assembled intelligence groups the United States used during the war. This Washington Post review summarizes them well:

Frank Wisner, the first chief of the CIA’s covert-operations unit, provides a top-down view of the early Cold War, while Michael Burke, a jack-of-all-trades charmer, delivers an agent’s experience from the ground up. The German émigré Peter Sichel, the most intriguing and least known of Anderson’s characters, spends most of his time in Berlin and Eastern Europe, while Edward Lansdale, the best known of the four, traipses through the Philippines. Lansdale gives the book its title, borrowed from Graham Greene’s novel “The Quiet American,” rumored to be based on Lansdale’s misadventures in Southeast Asia. An early adopter in the emerging field of “psychological warfare,” Lansdale would become best known for his clandestine scheming in Vietnam, but Anderson captures him at an earlier moment, as a young man grappling with the moral and logistical complexities of foreign intervention — more “Lawrence of Asia,” as his nickname suggested, than Dr. Strangelove.

What the CIA eventually becomes – a black hole out of which clandestine operations toppled governments and propped up dictators – has an origin story in Anderson’s telling. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Soviets treated the areas of Eastern Europe they liberated less as newly freed lands than as conquered territories. They installed puppet regimes, stripped resources, and even hauled people away to work in the Soviet Union in scenes reminiscent of the transport of Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust. This was evil, without a doubt, but it was also a kind of fait accompli and there wasn’t anything short of another war that the US and its allies could do about it.

With Eastern Europe locked up, US foreign policy eyes turned toward what was now being called the Third World. The problem was that the thing that gave the Soviets such leverage in Europe – geographical proximity and boots on the ground – didn’t apply in Asia, Africa, or Central and South America. More to the point, populations in these areas often had legitimate grievances arising from generations of colonial rule. Instead of recognizing and working with that anger, the US saw everyone who didn’t toe their line as communists and battled against them accordingly.

A large part of Anderson’s story is about how the four titular quiet Americans came to become disillusioned with the CIA’s work. Part of that came from the abandonment of two American ideals in the name of fighting communists. The first was rejecting the anti-colonial position of the Roosevelt administration in favor of helping Cold War allies prop up their failing empires. This was always a bit hypocritical – we’ve got our empire, too – but siding with, say, the French in Southeast Asia over local independence movements only proved to the locals that if they wanted outside support it wasn’t coming from the Americans. Most spectacularly, this led to the morass that was the Vietnam War.

The other guiding principle that the US let slide in the name of fighting communism was a commitment to democracy. Two of the early CIA’s successes were orchestrating coups in Iran and Guatemala that deposed popularly elected leaders that were perceived as problematic. In Iran it was more down to British oil interests than anything else, while in Guatemala the CIA managed to turn an elected president who was, at most, a little left leaning into a communist scourge who had to be stopped at all costs (though Moscow didn’t even know who he was).

If ditching those principles were strike one and two, then the third was the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. For most of the Cold War up to that point CIA operatives had staged operations behind the Iron Curtain, flying in expat agents (many of whom were captured or killed – or both) and generally trying to lay the groundwork to aid in a popular uprising, should it come. When it did, in Hungary, the US didn’t do anything. Part of this was due to the specter of a nuclear war which everyone figured would arise from conflict in Europe. That led to the CIA guys, as one of them put it, not knowing what to do if they “won.”

Of course, there was no “winning” the games they were playing. I followed up this book with The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins, which focuses on the CIA’s role in overthrowing the Indonesian government in 1965. What’s interesting is that, in laying the background, Bevins provides some more detail on things like the Iranian and Guatemalan coups, making their unsavorinous clear, while pointing out the long-term consequences for those countries. In other words, even the successes of the early CIA really weren’t, in the long run.

This comes out sounding a little harsh on The Quiet Americans, which isn’t really fair. It’s a very compelling book, with lots of interesting details about not just some of the overseas operations, but also the political context back in the US. Indeed, one running thread was how J. Edgar Hoover pretty much had it in for the CIA from the beginning, since he wanted to run the intelligence show from the FBI. But there’s a definite theme that the CIA itself wasn’t a failure, but that it was failed by higher ups, in much the same way that, for years, the debacle in Vietnam was framed as what happens when the politicians don’t just get out of the way and let the military run the show.

But, overall, this is a very worthy read. Just remember to take it with just a few grains of salt.