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First and 10

Today’s nothing very special in terms of the history books, and that’s just as well. It’s special for me, though, for a reason as personal as it gets — today marks the 10-year anniversary since I took my first dose of estrogen.

I still remember the day, the place, the simplicity of the moment itself. Me, a musty office on the east side of town, a friendly doctor. He asked a few questions, agreed to go with my initial plan to start out at the lowest dose possible, agreed to regular check-ins and check-ups. That all said, laid out, I had what I needed: A prescription. Pills to pop and propel me toward an improbable future.

Getting even that far was an adventure worth remembering fondly. My medicine man came recommended by a sex worker I’d met and befriended in the huddled collection of shabby clubs on Half Street, down on Washington’s grimy southeast side. The Nationals’ new ballpark has long since erased the site of this crumbling gay ghetto down on Buzzard’s Point. It was populated by night spots like Ziegfeld’s and Secrets and the scuzzier spots that, even if they had names, were best forgotten. Like a piece of tarnished tinsel left over from a party in the ’70s that hadn’t remembered to end, this little strip of run-down clubs had been my weekend world for more than a year, and I loved them deeply as my parallel world, the world where I gained confidence as myself as I took longer and longer breaks from being Chris of old.

I loved these places for the escape they’d provided, of course, but I love the memory of them still more for the launching pad they provided me. And having made friends there, asking the right questions of the right (and a few wrong) people, having done my homework, 10 years ago today I was ready to take the next big step: Launching my transition, beginning my painstakingly researched and planned-out move to achieve my move the gender I belonged in. Thinking back on it I know that D.C. made me; not the sunny side of Washington up by Foggy Bottom or Georgetown or Bethesda. No, whether by choice or instinct, I was shaped by the seedier side of town, by nightclubs and the night’s folk. I was helped by people on the wrong side of the tracks, and I still believe I’m the better for it; D.C.’s trans community guided me with a care and consideration I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to properly repay, but because I learned about their lives, I learned a lot about where I wanted to steer my own.

So 10 years on, let me thank everyone who helped along the way. Thanks to the drag queens, dealers, escorts and patrons, barkeeps, weekend lotharios and late-night lookers, the wonderful people of Ziegfeld’s and Secrets. You didn’t have to help a white girl from the ‘burbs, but you did. To Taylor, Gigi, Billie, but most of all to my three regular partners in crime — Jim the disco economist, Joel the real estate diva, and lost, ill-fated Franklin — thank you. I’ve come this far because you were generous enough of spirit to help someone taking her first tentative steps into a happier future, and look out for me when I put my foot wrong.

Speaking of the lost, your absence is a cruel example I wish I’d been able to avoid. But to the two who were murdered in 2004, and the four who’ve died since — driven by despair to make your own exit — I remember you. Putting a tattoo of Sleipnir (Odin’s steed to travel between the worlds of the living and the dead) on my left wrist was perhaps an overly theatrical gesture, but as a result not a day passes that I do not know what it stands for, and who has been taken from us. None of you should be gone today, but my hope was and is that this constant reminder of your absence animates something more than mourning; it demands action to help others, to pay forward the benefits of the wisdom and experience I was given.

Let also me thank my friends and co-workers at Brassey’s, where I worked at the time, 10 years ago. Starting with telling my closest girlfriends in the office — Jen, Dorothy and Alex, one after another — then my boss and then my assistant, all in a planned-out order, to universal surprise, but with universal support, I could not have done it without you. In retrospect, I could not have been more fortunate in terms of co-workers to come out to.

I must also thank my friends, partners & compadres at Baseball Prospectus, because almost to a man you proved willing to accept an unexpected surprise and keep building something as wonderful as BP with me as one of your teammates. You were challenged to demonstrate a brand of everyday courage that not everybody has, or expects to have to prove. You had it, and it is perhaps cause for embarrassment that you have never publicly been given your due, as stand-up guys and as friends. Gary and Dave, Kevin and Clay, Joe and Steven, David and Jay, both Johns, Nate, Jonah, Keith, Kathy, and Steph, and more besides, thank you. I am where I am professionally, happy and successful, in no small part because you were all brave at the outset.

Finally, let me thank my family. Having handed you a fait accompli, understanding and acceptance did not come all at once, but it didn’t need to. In the words of Grandma Kay on the day I told her of the shape of things to come, “I love you just the same.” That we all — save her — are here 10 years later, is no small cause for additional joy.

Thinking about it, I don’t really know or expect that I’ll note the completion of the next decade, or the next. In the words of the great philosopher Popeye, I am what I am, myself as I would have asked for had I known to ask Santa sooner. Even in my anxiety dreams that pull me back to some past horror — I’m forced to go back to take a high school German exam in Frau Dangerfield’s classroom, lest I lose my job or my master’s degree — I am as I am now, as if the subconscious were a willing accomplice with the active present.

But what I do know is this: That this first decade was a gift, and not one I gave myself. Instead, this time, this happiness, was created in no small part by you, by the collective efforts of friends and colleagues from every walk of life. The least I can do is try to repay it now and then, now and in every forever yet to come.

A day after loading up on Turkey Day with Charley and friends in Rogers Park, I headed to New York City for my cousin Pam’s formal celebration of her wedding vows to Nat.

Whatever your particular reason why, Manhattan is already an easy enough place to drop in on, and even if my own tolerance for life on the ever-crowded isle generally runs out after about three full days, this was an irresistible opportunity, especially given an unused travel voucher and the opportunity to crash at the home of a friend near Union Square to move the dial from easy to ludicrously easy. With my logistics well in hand, this would also be the chance to see my folks face-to-face for the first time in a year, and also see both of my brothers, meeting the second wife of one and the new girlfriend of the other.

Petty personal considerations aside, this was also the chance to celebrate the good fortune of a family member for whom too many good things can’t happen to — Pam deserves the lot. If, in some way, we all seek to balance the beauty within and the beauty without in who we are and what we do, it would be difficult to invent a more worthy paragon of the virtue than Pam. So, it’s my good lot to call ‘cousine’ as warm and wonderful person as it would be anyone’s eminent good fortune to be related to, and she’s long been up to her share of cool things. I’m still personally grateful that she put me in touch with the folks from Friendfactor when they were first starting out. Add in that her marriage to Nat is a true love match, and even a bonne vivante like yours truly can’t concoct a better excuse to raise a glass.

So off I went…

Day 1, November 23: … was fairly straightforward, flying into Newark, training to Penn Station, uptown to catch the shuttle to Grand Central, downtown to Union Square and dropping off the luggage, then cab over to Dublin 6 in Greenwich Village in time for drinks the night before the big event. Nat’s a long-time local businessman, so we were definitely on his turf. The party was crowded and lively, a reminder of how much New York is still essentially alien to me, but nevertheless gives an impression for being a city of the young (and, perhaps none too coincidentally, willing to crowd within its tiny spaces).

I quickly catch up with Nat, winging my way through a hockey conversation — including my lone thought on the subject, that it was a long-term mistake to abandon so much of Canada for short-term gain to move to markets where generational loyalties don’t exist. Whether that proves prescient after the NHL’s labor war ends or utterly besides the point, beats me, but that’s the reliably lovely thing about sports, we can make conversation and express opinions on the subject easily enough. Here as ever, sports proves to be America’s indispensable social lubricant, suitable for every occasion with any level of mastery.

Saying a quick hello with Pam to ask after sundry matters, I also catch my uncle Mike’s ear, and we catch up about the aftermath of the election. We spend some time going over how much those family members who’d invested all their hopes in a Romney win had joined the chorus of despair. Our family survives such disagreements time and again. We drain a few glasses, celebrate a toast to Nat & Pam’s good fortune, and call it a night.

Day 2, November 24: First up is grabbing lunch at Union Square Heartland with a gaggle of baseball girlfriends and colleagues. Reflective of the vibrant chatterocracy we’re all members of, some are those I’d previously known only virtually — like Jessica Quiroli of “High Heels on the Field” and the ubiquitous Stacey Gotsulias — while Diane Firstman is a friend of long standing, going back to my days at Baseball Prospectus. I’d hoped that Rebecca Glass could join us as well, but she wasn’t able to make it.

It’s a disparate group: Diane’s not just cheery good company for the wordplay that she flashes in person as well as in her prose, she’s one of the few non-players associated with baseball who I literally look up to, no easy feat when I’m pushing six feet in heels. Stacey is an outspoken blend of brassy and brittle, a self-aware writer with much ahead of her and the strength to achieve it. And Jessica proves to be as passionate an advocate for women in the press box in person as she is online, unapologetically impatient with any hint of the double standards that still exist.

I’ll admit to being delighted to be among them. Is it selfish of me to feel validated? Perhaps, but regardless I see it as a matter of my own honor to think ahead of times to come that I can help each of them, however I can. In the meantime, lunch is time spent enjoying the camaraderie born of shared love of the game, an effortless thing that knows no gender and flits across any boundary. Rather than disappoint my hard-won reputation for long-winded pedantry spiced with infrequent humor and useless anecdotes, I bring up my big-picture concerns with sabermetrics and social media, and in my conceit offer a few bromides and suggestions of speculative value.

Three hours later, I have perhaps worn them out and we break. I head back to confront the truly difficult challenge: The full-length gown, or an open-throated brocade blouse & silk skirt from Chinatown? The “black tie-optional” invite makes matters no easier, but in the end I stick with the Chinese glad rags I love best, and trek uptown to the Edison ballroom. No sooner do I enter than I spot Mom & Dad, each resplendent in their finery. Moments later, my brother Justin appears with his girlfriend, Brittany. The ceremony starts quickly so there’s no time for chatter, but after a suitably lovely and wonderfully personal service reflecting Pam & Nat’s transparent joy to be together, we get down to familial palaver over drinks and food.

Some things are as they ever were: Dad is thoughtful and avuncular, a man who clearly delights in the company of his family; Mom is regal, quick to laugh or provide critiques by turns thoughtful or sharp. Brother Justin is what some might call an “old soul,” a man who may only be just entering his thirties but has the gravitas of someone much older. It probably helps that he’s the lone Kahrl with the self-discipline to have transcended the love affair each of us have with the sound of his or her own voice; his dry asides crackle like lightning in the desert, lighting up a landscape deliberately left featureless for this and other reasons all his own. But perhaps most of all, he is an admirable man, a serious man, an adult in a country where a few too many men never grow up. All of which I share with Brittany at dinner out of Justin’s hearing; she quickly strikes me as his match, whip-smart, attractive and eminently capable of making him laugh, making him think, and perhaps making him happy.

The others retire early on, while I trail Nat & Pam’s crew to the afterparty. I move from wine to vodka, figuring that my liver may have gotten bored with the proceedings. I engage a young couple (one of whom used to work with HRC, and doesn’t seem to remember them fondly) about activism and its discontents, and finally decide I may as well call it a night before I strike someone dead from boredom with my conversation. Besides, I have to be up in six hours to get to the family breakfast.

Day 3, November 25: Breakfast at Rue 57 is a perfect exercise in full-throated Kahrlist noisemaking, jabbering about football, the source of the best donuts in Chicago (Do-Rite, of course), tattoos and more. The obvious glee we take when we’re all together results in an inevitable cacaphony of catchuppery, and having Ben and his active, engaging children adds to the fun. Ben’s wife Ann asks about the tattoo on my left forearm, sharing that she has one of her own; I explain the backstory of its meaning to me — those lost or slain but never to be forgotten, the avoidable examples who animate my desire to do before I’m done.

Aferwards, Mom, Dad & I repair to their hotel before seeing the afternoon show of Mamet’s “The Anarchist.” I brief them on my activities in Chicago, and my short-term objectives now that I’m on the board of the Lakeview Action Coalition as well as that of Equality Illinois. I’m hopeful for what we can achieve, but that’s my persistent optimism peeking out from under poorly maintained hauteur. (I’ll have to set aside my thoughts on “The Anarchist” for a separate post for brevity’s sake, but the short form: It’s provocative and well worth seeing.)

They have plans all their own for the evening, so I kill the balance of my afternoon at the bestest time-filler/killer ever: The Strand. A few hours among the shelves, and I walk out with a stack of spurs for curiosity, may it never wane: Histories of Prussia and the Vikings, an evaluation of the impact of smallpox epidemic in the 18th century America, a biography of Queen Christina of Sweden, Solzhenitsyn’s out-of-print novel about Lenin’s life in Switzerland.

Dropping off the loot, I find my hosts have returned from Connecticut: Nancy and Bob, loquacious and engaging, Nancy with her far-ranging reporter’s inquisitiveness and insight (we first met almost three years ago, when she was researching a story on Christine Daniels for GQ); Bob because of his background in sports, publishing, and web work, common ground between us. I have little time to catch up beforehand, though, because I have dinner plans in Brooklyn, joining old BP comrade Jay Jaffe, Emma Span, ESPN colleague Amanda Rykoff and Diane Firstman for dinner at Fort Reno BBQ in Park Slope. The food is excellent — I strongly recommend the fatty brisket, the pulled pork, and the hot pickles. The company was even better, not least because congratulations were due to Jay for the triumph of seeing his indispensable Hall of Fame metric, JAWS, added to the equally indispensable Baseball-Reference.com. We retire to a bar to watch the Giants build up a big first-half lead over the Packers before packing it in ourselves. Then it’s back to Union Square and more conversation with Nancy and Bob, late into the evening.

Day 4, November 26: Getaway day, but it starts early with a trek up to the Neue Galerie to have breakfast with the parents, followed by a trek through the exhibit. The current exhibit of Hodler’s work has its moments but provides no conversion experience; happily 10 minutes with Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer more than makes up for it. Popping into the superb bookstore, I add the first volume of Harry Kessler’s diary to what figures to be an increasingly heavy suitcase. Over lunch, we jabber or argue agreeably enough about the election, Weimar & its discontents, the utility of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, reproductive rights — no middle ground to be found there — the career of Helen Mirren, and more. Even when we argue, I’m struck by how much my parents are who they have always been to me: Friends, mentors and role models, all in one. Another reminder of my immense good fortune, of course.

As they made their departure for LaGuardia, I popped by Forbidden Planet for some comix shopping, grabbing volumes 2, 3 & 4 of Alan Moore’s riff on the Wonder Woman-like theme, Promethea. The first volume grabbed me — with a reference to Hypatia, one of Reason’s martyrs at the hands of a mob of religious zealots, how could it not? — so I figured I’d indulge my sporadic taste for lighter fare. OK, it’s official, I’m checking my bag and carrying a satchel full of books aboard with me.

Repairing to Nancy & Bob’s place, I find that the copy of The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily for their daughter has finally arrived in the mail at their place (I’d ordered ahead, knowing the Strand would disappoint me on this one score); I cannot imagine a childhood without its tale of glory, monsters (ursine, human & more besides) and properly Italianate vengeance, any more than I could one without Thurber’s reliably wonderful The 13 Clocks. It doesn’t even begin to repay my debt of gratitude to them, but I’m out of time.

This story’s done; ’tis time to jet
Having found New York & I this time well-met.

Getting back in action

Well, it was a rough spring and summer, but after getting pressed into action as the overnight editor at the regular gig, I was generally sleep-deprived and unable to keep up on all the fronts I would have like to. But now I’m looking to get back in action on this front, if only because I miss writing as often as I’d like, and I’m exactly self-indulgent enough to start up again.

So, I just finished reading Flashman and the Dragon, the adventures of Harry Paget Flashman during the Taiping Rebellion and the Second Opium War, and I’m sort of meh about it. Having never read the Flashman stories before until Dad introduced them to me a couple of years ago, I’ve worked my way through them in publication order. Some have been more fun than others, and Flashman’s Lady helped fill in a few gaps in cricket terminology, but all in all the observation that Flashman becomes less lily-livered over time — essentially less Flashy — has played itself out. I’ve certainly enjoyed the series because I love reading about the period in general, but it’s one of those series where my enthusiasm’s waning over time because the character’s become less of a poltroon over time, and that was a huge part of its charm from the get-go.

I’m sure I’ll chug along, though. In general, I’m usually reading three or four non-baseball books at any one time. At the same time that I was finishing Flashman and the Dragon, I’ve been tearing through Showalter’s The Wars of German Unification; the title presents little surprise, but as a synthesis of contemporary scholarship featuring Showalter’s reliably crisp, mordant prose, it’s tough to beat.

I’m also wrapping up Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, an excellent story of a Papal bibliophile’s 15th century resurrection of the Roman poet Lucretius’ incomparable poem, “On the Nature of Things,” and how that helped reintroduce some key ideas of epicurean, rationalist thought to a Christian world that had desperately tried to destroy that worldview utterly.

I’m finishing Philip Blom’s The Vertigo Years, an excellent overview of how changing ideas and changing media before World War I — including the increasing tempo and social panic fueled by mass media — radically changed the way people saw civilization and the world. The vision of European civilization dancing on the volcano and being self-aware of the idea isn’t new, but Blom’s exceptional reach across subjects and issues makes this the work that people who loved Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower something far more substantial (and less transparently, diminishingly Anglophile) to sink their teeth into.

Recently finished stuff includes Martin Meredith’s The Fate of Africa (the contintent’s struggles to emerge from colonialism, bleak stuff indeed), Orlando Figes’ worthwhile new The Crimean War, which beyond being an excellent new survey with better coverage from the Russian side also provides an overdue update on the diplomatic issues associated with the Austrians’ active participation in the Balkan phase and subsequent armed neutrality.

Jonathan Steinberg’s Bismarck biography may indeed suffer from the criticism that it can be repetitive in places, but it presents a brilliant example of the virtues of psycho-history where the field might often deserve a dose of skepticism. Bismarck’s odd balancing act between reactive genius and inflexibility, hyper-activity alternating with torpor, of tortured relationships with the people around him… in short, it’s a bold attempt, executed wonderfully well, and handily replaces Crankshaw’s Bismarck bio as the work to make space on the shelf for.

More approachable for the general reader would be Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, on the intertwined destinies of President Garfield and his assassin Charles Guiteau, and the strange redemption Garfield’s death provided Chester Alan Arthur, a contemptible American apparatchik whose case of conscience — inspired by the letters of Julia Sand the invalid woman sent to him — upon assuming executive authority gave him the strength to achieve many of the reforms that Garfield sought. Millard’s intensely human, intimate portrayal of Garfield was particularly compelling, especially with an eye towards the man’s relationship with his wife and his obvious joy in being a father. Admittedly, the story moved me to tears a couple of times, because Garfield’s restless intelligence and ubiquitous good cheer (not to mention a vague physical resemblance) can’t help but remind me of my father, another widely read and inspiring parent.

Regardless of that personal wrinkle, Millard’s careful illustration of Garfield as a person you would like (and not simply vote for) heightens the sense of ultimate tragedy, that a man so compellingly admirable was just as obviously doomed, perhaps to leave no real legacy behind him. It takes Arthur’s late-career volte-face to break with the spoils system that created him to deliver civil service reform, and as entirely unsexy a subject as that sounds, it comes together as a tremendous story.

Since Christmas, I also knocked off the first two volumes of Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series… the first was excellent, but character development was a bit tenuous; by the end of the second, I decided that despite Lumley’s creative vision of what might be a more biologically graphic exploration of vampirism, the characters barely get stretched all the way to two dimensions, and that left me feeling a bit bored. I’d recommend them to serious vampire lovers, but that ain’t me, and I can’t really see taking on the innumerable sequels.

Speaking of poor character development, I also knocked off Ben Bova’s Leviathans of Jupiter. I shouldn’t be too cruel here, as Bova provides a nice story that develops the theme of tension between science and those human virtues that can get in the way of scientific inquiry — religion or vanity, you name it. And he does a nice job of delving into alien psychology, although the extent to which the leviathans become a bit anthropomorphic in terms of their worldview may not agree with everybody. I’ll complain about the character sketches here as well as with Lumley, but to give Bova his due, they’re better in this novel than they were in Jupiter, and I’m sufficiently curious to keep checking him out to give me the hard-science fix that Larry Niven got me hooked on as a wee beastie back in the day.

And then there’s a bunch of baseball books to talk about too, but that and the football history I’ve read I’ll save for a subsequent post or, in the case of baseball, as something to talk about on ESPN.com’s SweetSpot. Basically, it’s been a busy couple of months.

The Sharp End: After enough time, and even after a lot of care, notice how a set of knives lose their vorpal zing? I’ve been using the same knives for five years now, and they just don’t have that same “Hassan CHOP” quality that gives any fan of slicing and dicing in pursuit of the perfect meal the visceral thrill of sharp-edged execution.

Mulling this last night as I diced up odds and ends for the shrimp tacos I was whipping up, my first instinct was, “it’s time to buy a new set of knives.” My second was a blend of guilt over such conspicuous consumption mixed with wondering what ever happened to the Knife Sharpener.

Not the gadgets, electrical or less so, that you can — and I do — use to keep a blade in mettle. No, I mean the door-to-door tinker of my childhood, a man who would show up on our doorstep with a hand cart in tow one sunny afternoon, offering to sharpen every blade in the house for some agreed-upon price.

Admittedly, I haven’t had a tinker darken any doorway I’ve been associated with since the early ’80s, back in the old family homestead in Carmichael, California. He’d show up once a year, usually in the spring. He was invariably wearing a stained suede apron with pockets laden with assorted files, awls, leather-punches and the like, with his little cart laden with tools in tow. (This being California, I figure there’s no way he hauled the cart any great distance. Maybe a buddy dropped him off as he worked the neighborhood door-to-door, or maybe he parked his ride down by the park.)

Anyway, this red-faced grimy gent would knock on the door and I’d answer, and then fetch Mom. She would inquire about his rates and perhaps dicker; here, memory fails, but my Mom wasn’t one to just agree on the spot, especially with money tight. And then, a price agreed upon, we’d start hauling things out into the brick courtyard for sharpening. Everything from kitchen knives to the lawn mower, hoes, the post-hole digger, you name it, the tinker would sharpen it.

I could really use a tinker right around now, and I figure I’m a few decades too late on that wish. I’m sure that it’s a reflection of the value of goods in a discard-driven economy, that there’s some broader point to make about cheap (and cheaply made) tools, imported or not, the up-side and the down-side of big box stores. Maybe so, but right now that’s not what’s on my mind. Instead, I’m thinking about one tinker, a man I haven’t thought about once in almost three decades.

Dibs: It snowed on Friday, seemed like about seven or eight inches in total. Since I had someplace to drive on Saturday, that meant the morning’s first order of business was digging out the car. It’s an exercise in robotic labor we’re all familiar with in Chicago, and for those of us who have to use street parking, it’s led to the proud tradition of parking dibs. I’m one of those people who thinks dibs is a legitimate social construct: If I spend 40 minutes digging out the space my car’s in, including the barricade of snow plowed up between the space and the street, then marking it with a traffic cone as a bit of transient propriety seems like a reasonable payoff.

So, I dug out the car, and then I subsequently drove off with said traffic cone deployed; the honor code of dibs has been duly satisfied. So imagine my outrage when I drove back a few hours later, and what’s in “my” space? Some corporate-monikered Ford F-150 I’ve never really seen in the neighborhood before, which has piled indignity on top of inconvenience by squashing my little cone, trampling my “right” literally as well as figuratively.

I exclaim my outrage with the usual noisy, blue assortment of colorful metaphors and copulative impossibilities, drawing the attention of my building’s designated nosy neighbor. She’s one of a number of characters in the building (myself not excepted), a retired woman who taught me how to pop door locks with a credit card a few years back when I’d managed to lock myself out of my home. (Not that I now live in suspicion, but I dead-bolt with newfound zeal as a result.) Anyway, she popped open a window and helpfully informed me that the offending vehicle was the property of her new neighbors, who had only just bought one of the building’s unsold units.

Thanking her for this tidbit, I retrieved my traffic cone, popped back into the Astra, and found an unclaimed spot around the block. Still wearing my glad rags from the Equality Illinois event I’d co-hosted, I went straight to the offending party’s door and knocked. A nice young couple, perhaps celebrating their first night under their new home’s roof, answered the door. They will probably enjoy some measure of permanent amusement over the spectacle of myself first querulously (but cleanly) inquiring if they understood Chicago’s tradition of parking dibs — they did not. Refugees from the suburbs! Sacre bleu!

Well, leave it to this self-appointing avenging angel of pedantry to crisply explain the social convention with the warning that I wouldn’t be the last neighbor instantly angrified by their transgressions if they didn’t get with the program and honor the dibs demon. It’s one way to make a first impression.

Random Culinary Discovery of the Week: Earth & Vine’s Mandarin Pumpkin Marmalade. Insanely tasty on toast, and good with almond butter to boot. I was suspicious about how the citrus and the earthier squashy virtues of pumpkin would mix, but Mom & Dad gave me a jar for Xmas, and having finally popped it open, I’m glad that they did.

Random Store Sighting: Maya Essence on Lincoln. So let me get this right, it’s 2012, and these guys aren’t having a “going out of business” sale? Not even to demonstrate a sense of humor? As if we didn’t already know that was a bunch of nonsense.

Tomorrow, we’ll delve into Tim Tebow’s celebrity and the tensions any of us might feel between enjoying football for its own sake over people gauche enough to invite politics into your pastimes — not necessarily Mr. Tebow alone.

I meant to get to that subject today, but Charley — my partner — and I both had the day off, so we enjoyed one another’s company before tackling the latest project brought on by one small accident last summer. Wait, did I say small? How about a Spanish ulcer of an accident, one that has cost us hundreds of dollars, involved at least four murders, and has left us at the mercy of two lower life forms whose sole ambition is to eat, poop, and then eat anything else they forget to get to the first time around?

I’m speaking of Wanda and Cosmo, our scaly masters, who happen to now be planted in their latest palatial tank, smack-dab in the middle of the living room. For today’s big task was to trundle down to Old Town Aquarium here in Chicago, pick out a couple of plants and a big craggy rock and a bag of special mixed gravel substrate to decorate the new 29-gallon tank we’d be moving our two unkillable fish into. Because we love them, the unblinking little monsters, or at least we tell ourselves that we do as we fulfill the obligations of unhappy chance and icthian care-giving.

How did we get here in less than seven months?

It’s July 24, 2011. It has been a gorgeous, hot Sunday, and Charley and I spent it biking along the lake, down to the Lincoln Park Zoo and back from our home in Rogers Park. There, we’d seen the giraffe gambol and the tiger roar, but the lion needn’t sleep tonight, because he was busily power-napping.

So as the sun goes down we make our way back to our own neighborhood. Rogers Park is Chicago’s furthest-north neighborhood, as far north as you can go and still be in Chicago without abruptly finding yourself among the blue hairs and snooterati of Evanston. We drop in on the Clark Street Festival on our way home, to check out the various wares, and see if there’s some trinket to satisfy our reptilian hind-brain with the transient thrill of an impulse buy.

Amid the thickets of bandanas, sunglass display cases, and churro stands, we happen across a booth with dozens of small bowls of tiny goldfish on a platform set back from the front table. For a buck you get five ping-pong balls; every ball you put into one of the small-mouthed bowls wins you the goldfish within.

Charley worked in a pet shop back in the day, and has brought up our owning fish someday; she can’t help herself. And how can I say no? If she makes a shot, wham, we’re fish owners, it must be destiny. Besides, the fish are barely more than an inch long, and probably won’t last a week. What’s the harm?

Charley misses her five shots, her face falls, and that’s that, we can go. But we don’t go, because the idiot Charley consents to live with decides to do something gallant and pony up another buck and try her own luck. After all, what’s the harm? I’m a worse shooter than Chris Dudley from the free-throw line shot up with a double-dose of Thorazine, so I can’t possibly get myself into any trouble. Can I?

I can. I do. I made a shot, my third. Not even quickly bricking the next two could undo the damage. And just like that, Wanda was introduced into our lives. Because really, what else were we going to name her?

From the outset, Wanda proved to be a logistical pain in the ass, because we now had to pedal home carrying a fish in a plastic bag, and we had to pick up fish food on the way. I fill up one of the old glass pitchers I’d stolen from the Falcon Inn on 53rd Street 25 years earlier — fraternity prank, kleptomania, watching House of Games too many times, blame what you will, I’m not proud — and deposit this pinky-length slender slip of orange and gold within. I stare, fascinated as Wanda explores the full expanse of her pitcher. It seems like an entirely reasonable MacGyver solution to our unexpected domestic development.

Charley fidgets, and breaks the news to the fish novice: “We’ll have to get a tank.” “Um… OK.”

No problem. It’s a little fish, we’ll get her a little tank. How bad could this be? Well, there’s the tank, and the rocks for the bottom of the tank, and the filter… still, it’s a happy accident, this was meant to be, we’re a happy couple, we can raise a happy fish… so why not?

A month later, and Wanda’s bigger, growing like a sequin-spangled cancer cell with an appetite. She’s engaging in her way, if voraciousness can be considered a defining personality trait. Charmed, we decide to buy a bigger tank, moving up to 10 gallons.

We also decide to get another goldfish to give her company, and trundle down to PetSmart on a recruiting mission.  Instead of another Comet, I pick a likely-seeming candidate: a white-and-red Sarasa who seems a bit hyper-active. Inspired by “Fairly Odd Parents,” we decide it’s a him and call him Cosmo. We also get a Pleco to suck muck unobtrusively; reaching for my Lovecraft-inspired youth, I name him Dagon. We also pick a snail, and name him as well.

Yes, we named the snail. We name him Cecil. Whatever doubtful chance there was that he’d learn it, let alone do feats of gastropodal charm for our entertainment, were nipped off as neatly as his face within his first night in the tank. Wanda had delighted in knocking him around like a soccer ball from the moment he was introduced into “her” tank; while that might not stand up in court, it always seemed likely to me that her taste for rough trade went from horse-play to mollusc murder in short order. We simply removed the body and did not ask questions.

Perhaps understandably intimidated, Dagon quietly died within a week. My theory is that it had to be of fright; watching your new roommate bite the face off one of your other new roommates would have to be considered disconcerting at the very least. Worse yet, Wanda and Cosmo seem thick as thieves, and they both seem to grow visibly every day; perhaps Dagon anticipated that his days were numbered by however many it would take for Wanda & Cosmo’s mouths to grow big enough to fit him within their unfriendly confines. Duly concerned, he politely declined to participate in that rush to his own consumption.

Undaunted, we replace Dagon with another bigger, prettier, leopard-spotted Pleco. I name him Drogon, figuring that George R.R. Martin might be a luckier basis for a name — “Game of Thrones” is on HBO and providing joy, where Lovecraft’s never gotten much of a fair shake, at least not since “Cast a Deadly Spell,” one of Fred Ward’s last shots at being the lead in anything.

Sure enough, Drogon seems cut out for this sort of turf battle. He’s downright aggressive, rising from the bottom to buzz Wanda and make a bid for top-tank goodies rather than just settle for the algae tablets in the mire are supposed to be his regular diet.

For reasons I’ve yet to understand, nobody seems to pick fights with Cosmo; he’s inquisitive and mobile where Wanda’s a lurker, exploring every inch of the tank, racing to the top to be fed, yet excitedly hiding at the first sign of danger. Perhaps choosing a life as the pretty sidekick of the tank’s resident badass is a survival strategy Mother Nature respects.

By October, Drogon’s gone a bit haggard. Someone’s been nipping at his fins, and Wanda and Cosmo are now both almost five inches long, while Drogon’s slower growth seems to have doomed his bids for dominance. Finally, Charley wakes me one morning with the bad news — he’s gone. It was Wanda’s world, and only Cosmo is allowed to play in it.

Rather than take a third spin on the Wheel of Doomed Plecostomi, we decide to see if perhaps we can fill our bottom-feeder niche by selecting a new, larger snail. Perhaps one big enough to be able to fend for himself, and not get knocked around and eaten in Wanda’s cruel game of “playmate or food.”

So we trundle back to PetSmart and buy the biggest snail we can find, and with the naivete of those not condemned to live in Wanda’s world, we name him too: Hercules. He’s a big, strapping snail, we figure he’s got this.  However, we hedge our bets in naming this latest addition to the Deadly Bowl, and let him know so: “If you get your face eaten off, you’re not Hercules, you’re Otis.”

With that sort of pep talk to inspire him, we dropped the latest draftee into the tank. Ten minutes later, he was still Hercules; overjoyed, we happily set about making our own dinner. Twenty minutes later, we came back to find that he was, indeed, Otis, and we were fishing out his chewed-over remains. Have you ever seen two adults yelling at a fish, asking why she just had to eat the latest snail’s face off inside of his first hour in the tank?

So we gave up on snails, or Plecos, or anything. We watched Wanda uproot each and every plant after eating off each and every one of their leaves. And now, as she and Cosmo near six inches in length, we felt obligated to get these confederates in crime a larger tank.

I know what you’re thinking — this story only ends after Wanda’s attacked the dog or asked for an allowance or starts a band but then eats the drummer. And maybe that’s how it’s going to go. But with the reliable optimism born of research, we’re learning about species of fish who might survive in the face of Wanda’s appetite for mass consumption, and this latest tank’s set up to provide lots of hidey-holes for our next group of draftees.

But I’m still wondering how a single sawbuck and the first and last shot I’ll ever make could ever bring me to this predicament.

 

 

 

Onward, upward, and hello

Well, you have to start these things somewhere, so why not with an oblique reference to Flash Gordon tacked onto delusions of grandeur?

As a kid, I loved that movie much more than made any proper sense, to the point that, 31 years ago when it was in the theaters, my best friend Steven and I sat through it three times in a row. How could you turn away? Max von Sydow was rocking the cape as Ming the Merciless, the special effects were self-consciously avant-cheesy, and with a soundtrack by Queen, it was science-fiction rock opera at its finest.

With the two of us hopped up on soda pop in the days long before anyone in the neighborhood had a VCR, it seemed like a worthwhile way to blow a Saturday, and it wasn’t like the slack policing of indifferent teen ushers was going to show us the door. It was an unlimited number of shows for the price of one, and that sort of got me to thinking about this project.

As a writer, you want to write, you love to write, and on some very basic level, you need to write. I don’t know about you, but that certainly goes for me. If you’re an actively social animal with a hungrily omnivorous curiosity, as I fancy myself to be, then you might understand an instinct to jabber in whatever medium’s available. Raised as I was as a Kahrl at a table full of equally noisy, opinionated, and engaging Kahrls, I figure that this is my lot. For make no mistake, this isn’t about you, it’s about me.

This is because Kahrls jabber, at tremendous length and no little skill, on subjects great but more frequently small. We relish the opportunity to bore the most obdurate dullard to dust on some subject that fleet-footed bystanders might sensibly flee, usually chortling over our delicious good fortune to have cornered one of the poor bastards before we try to bust his bean with utterly useless knowledge generally not worth knowing. Once our prey is immobilized with an aperitif or the harmless-seeming introductory bon mot, we promptly disgorge some stupefying tidbit sure to pulverize their capacity for interest in any further conversation, should they get a word in edgewise within the first half-hour.

Curious about the habits of Malinois bitches when they’re peckish on cold days? What about Denmark’s plucky participation in efforts to suppress the Barbary pirates before Lord Nelson Copenhagen’d their wee fleet (with a Britannic mercilessness we gladly emulate in conversation)? Or, worst of all, perhaps you’ll learn about a favorite utility infielder from the American League West in 1984; it was Bill Almon, naturally, and shame on you for picking Larry Milbourne — whatever were you thinking?

If Lovecraft always warned us against the secrets man was not meant to know, leave it to a Kahrl to ambush you with secrets nobody wants to know. With rather less frequency, we’re actually engaging on subjects people find interesting, which gets us invited to dinner, which we enjoy. It’s all an act, which is why repeat invitations are unsurprisingly infrequent.

However, armed as I am with a storehouse of unnecessary knowledge about King Zog’s domestic policies, Portuguese seafood recipes using ingredients nobody can find, or the most disturbing themes found in Weimar art, you can be sure that I’m ready to inflict myself on a hapless household near you.

So, my conversational cup runneth over, and in my selfishness, I’d like to spill just a bit of it on you. As a matter of the arrangements I operate under with my employer at ESPN.com and with my former company, Baseball Prospectus, I get to write sporadically for the former (almost entirely about baseball) and perhaps never again for the latter. That’s no cause for pity; ESPN takes very good care of me, while BP could only afford to offer me a lint sandwich, all the better to pay its other contributors.

Thus afforded a slack tension between profit and penury, between venues and opportunity, to write because I love it and, perhaps, more properly, have to write. So here I’m more than happy to follow my instincts and jabber away to my own delight. I’ve figured it was high time to create a space to talk about whatever I please on any subject save one: the one I’m paid to write on, the one that keeps the lights on and the mortgage paid and the Malinois in bowls of blood and biscuits. So if you want to talk about baseball, this isn’t the space for it; I write about baseball for ESPN.com, and I keep it conventional there.

Although firing up this blog finds me un-free from talking about the subject you know me best for, it nevertheless affords me a creative opportunity I’d long given up. Whatever gonzo inclinations I strutted at Baseball Prospectus during its earliest, wildest days were necessarily muted in its plodding and ultimately successful quest for respectability. Here, I’ll be more than happy to exercise those old, silly sinews clacking the keyboard to jabber about the other, lesser sports that populate the entertainment dial. I’ll also review the books I’m reading, regale you with tales of tedium related to my fascination with the 19th century or the USFL, share thoughts about the latest Rammstein album, upload the non-sensory aspects of domestic culinary success, and probably talk more about my pets, partner, and politics than might be wise.

So, there’s no time like the present. If you’re as willing as I to get hopped up on these things that I find entertaining, here’s hoping you’ll sit next to me for the show, at least the first time through.

Christina Kahrl
January 11, 2012