Setting Aside the Script

Whenever I’m feeling a bit lost in the woods, a scene from Conan the Barbarian pops into my head. In it, Conan is receiving the brief philosophical portion of his Barbarian training program. He’s sitting around the dinner table with some other would-be warriors. One of them (a philosopher-king?) asks a simple question: “What is best in life?” Some half-wit with a Fu Manchu pipes up, saying something about riding a horse with the wind in his hair. “Wrong!” yells the wise man. He turns to his star pupil. Conan will know the right answer (even if…

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End Times

For many years now we’ve been enduring the Postseason. Capital “P” Postseason (™). That’s the official brand name for Major League Baseball’s sequence of elimination games culminating in the World Series. The Postseason has its own logo, which is constantly displayed on broadcasts and promos, and these days when commentators or players talk about October or November (or someday December) baseball, they don’t call it the Playoffs or the Gauntlet or the Shitstorm, they call it the Postseason. The brand is strong. Players, managers, and umps sport the Postseason logo; the MLB app on my phone has…

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Deliberately Vague

About halfway through the Euro 2016 soccer semifinal, with Germany absolutely (but somewhat toothlessly) dominating France, veteran German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger did the unthinkable. He handled the ball in the penalty area and, in a way, handed the game to the French. Or did he? Schweinsteiger’s handball went unnoticed at first by most fans and even many of the players around him. It happened fast: French fullback Patrice Evra leaped diagonally toward the ball that had been crossed from the right corner. Schweinsteiger, slightly behind Evra, lunged himself toward his opponent, hands first. Evra redirected the ball…

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Wild Horses

We were standing outside the magnificent striped Duomo in Siena, Italy, when my father decided to buy a souvenir from one of the many carts alongside the church. They all had the same scarves hanging on racks. My niece Sophia wanted the blue scarf with a shell on it, the scarf that represented the Nicchio neighborhood. She made this choice for aesthetic reasons (She is nine. She likes seashells), but I also knew she was on to something. It was the day before the Palio, the bareback horserace that pits the colorfully named neighborhood associations or contrade…

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World Cup Dad

Immediately after my wife gave birth to our first child, three weeks ago, my brother asked me, “Do you think it’s weird that your son is from New York?” I was confused by his question at first. I have lived in New York City longer than I have lived anywhere else. Of course my son would be a New Yorker. That wasn’t strange. What was strange: my brother still thought of me as an exile from our City of Brotherly Love. I realized, though, that his question harbored another meaning and that in a way I was,…

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The Armed Circus-Pony Competition

Every four years I am drawn, like a moth to a dull flame, to biathlon. I’m not sure why. I suppose, in part, it’s the raw, hunter-gatherer image of it. You ski and shoot. You are trekking across the tundra. It’s probably Siberia or Alaska. Or both! You have to hunt down a bear and kill it, and then you have to live inside that bear for three weeks, slowly eating your way out. Biathlon is a fundamental sport. But it’s not my fundament. I’ve never been on cross-country skis, and I’ve never eaten a bear. I’ve…

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Coded Hate Speech on the Pitch

What makes something offensive? This question comes up as soccer authorities mull the appropriate punishment for a recent goal celebration by West Bromwich Albion’s Nicolas Anelka. After scoring against West Ham a few weeks ago the French striker performed the “quenelle,” a gesture invented by a comedian and named after a fish dumpling. Doesn’t sound that offensive. But the comedian in question, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, has been convicted of anti-Semitism in France and banned from performing. No one really knows what the gesture means, it seems. It is often described as “a cross between an inverted Nazi…

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The Team Dream

Although I love it now, I hated baseball when I was a kid. There were so many potential humiliations – dropped fly balls, strike-outs, right field. It was the loneliest of team sports. It didn’t help that I played Little League with kids from a different school, kids who seemed bigger and more aggressive than my friends, strangers. The concept of the team is, of course, an ideal. It is a place for cooperation, communication, compromise, and community. On a team we can accomplish more than we can alone, and we can do so for the sake…

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Lessons in Quitting with Rory McIlroy

After Rory McIlroy walked off the golf course in the middle of his ninth hole last week, some commentators took issue. McIlroy blamed his exit on wisdom tooth pain, prompting tough-guy columnists to tell him to wise up… Grin and bear it… Quitting is inexcusable… When the going gets tough… and so on… I suppose some corporate bigwigs and maybe even some fans had invested a lot in McIlroy trudging on through his miserable round, but it’s hard to feel bad for Nike, and who wants to see their favorite golfer shank into the woods again and…

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The Lunatic Fringe

When I was a freshman in high school, I joined the wrestling team. It was a mistake. But my prep school, in the tradition of old English public schools, forced students to play sports every season. The idea was that young men, or more specifically young aristocratic men, would learn moral toughness on the wrestling mat or in the rugby scrum or anywhere they were likely to bleed. So I bled. Wrestling wasn’t my only option for winter sports. I could have played basketball or squash. But I was 5’2”, and I couldn’t jump or shoot or…

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