Saturday, April 5, 2014
A couple of weeks ago, I received a Ron LeFlore Montreal Expos jersey in the mail. I'd ordered it on the spur of the moment a week earlier, but had long been considering the move.
Why Ron LeFlore? Good question. LeFlore played for the Detroit Tigers in the second half of the 1970s, when I was a kid. He made the All-Star team in 1976. In 1980, LeFlore was traded to the Montreal Expos (Ron Lafleur!) in exchange for pitcher Dan Schatzeder. Altogether, he played nine years in the major leagues.
The Tigers signed LeFlore out of a maximum security prison in Jackson, Michigan, in 1973. When he was still in his early twenties, LeFlore was sentenced to 5-15 years in prison for armed robbery. Playing on the prison baseball team, LeFlore came to the attention of an acquaintance of Tiger manager Billy Martin (yes the Billy Martin, he managed the Tigers, too), Jimmy Karalla, who also happened to be serving time in Jackson Prison. Martin invited LeFlore in for a tryout, and he made the team. In 1978, CBS made a movie about Ron Leflore called One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story.
Over the past year, this movie has been on my mind. Well, not exactly. It's been more like flashes. And just one scene--the time in the movie when LeFlore performs a seemingly endless series of clapping push-ups. The scene is in the promo above, and if I remember correctly the push-ups came as part of a "Ron LeFlore is getting it together!" montage leading up to his big break with the Tigers.
Probably a thousand times I've thought of those push-ups, semi-ironically but also semi-seriously. Not that I've been doing push-ups or anything. Instead, I've been writing a book. It's been the most humbling, even humiliating process I've ever been through in my life. Incredible.
I don't want to go into details now, but hopefully there will be some more stuff to put up about this in the not-too-distant future. Anyway, I am now at a point in the process where I've got a bit more free time--or at least I no longer feel like it requires a major international crisis to get me to write stuff here. Now all I have to do is organize my tenure file...so I guess I actually don't have as much free time as I thought. But at least I can take a few moments to mention a few things every now and then, whereas up until this week every single moment seemed like part of a zero-sum game. Every minute I was at the gym, the ski hill, the bar or in the Bordlerlands felt like a minute away from the book. Since the book is kind of tied to my ability to retain my job, it took up a lot of my attention.
So there I was, writing the book all last summer, last semester, winter break, spring semester, spring break. Obviously, I had a huge amount of material to start with (which I think probably makes things more difficult, from a writing-a-book standpoint), but the current form of the book only took shape a little more than a year ago. In the end, I've tried to produce something fun and interesting that also sends a message. We'll see what happens--I don't want to jinx things by saying more--but I'm excited about it and will hopefully be in a position to write about it more concretely later.
Other things have been going on here as well. I sent off what I had to send off on Monday night, and then got up Tuesday morning at 5 am to join Montana's local pre-Today Show news hour. I was supposed to appear as part of the publicity for a talk that I would be giving later in the week on Crimea (more on that later).
I showed up at the studio at 6 am with a colleague whom I'd offered breakfast at the Fabulous Nova in exchange for a lift (I was in no mood to bike it at that hour). I had gone to bed at two o'clock in the morning, absolutely filled with adrenaline after having sent off a manuscript that was the product of years of work. I felt completely burnt out, tired, haggard, distracted. The building that the studio was in, which I was visiting for the first time, was completely dark. There were no cars in the parking lot.
We knocked on the door. No answer. There was a sign that instructed visitors to call a certain number if no one answered the door. It was an office phone, and went to voicemail. I called the number on the email of the studio person I'd been corresponding with, it went to voicemail. I sent her an email, asking what was going on.
A surge of panic ran through my gut. Was I at the wrong studio? My Department Chair had set this up, announcing it at a meeting the week before. Was I, in my moment of glory, going to submarine my future in the department by flaking out? This was live television, and I was supposed to be on in twenty minutes. What were they going to do if I couldn't get there in time? Would they pull out an empty chair, Clint Eastwood-style, quizzing me on Crimea in my absence?
Even if I couldn't go on, I was sure they'd find someone good to take my place.
The phone buzzed. My contact told me that she was in Missoula. Apparently, that's where the show is actually shot. Another wave of panic: had they expected me to come to Missoula?
No, it turns out I had done nothing wrong. I was at the right place. Someone from the studio was supposed to be there to set up my link with Missoula. I was given the choice of appearing by telephone at the regularly scheduled time, or doing the whole thing the next day. To be honest, I wanted to be on TV: I opted for the latter.
Wednesday morning, I again got up at 5 am. This time, I'd borrowed a car from a different colleague. I got to the studio on time at 6, and felt a little fresher than I had the day before. Things were looking good.
I got to the studio--lights were on, a guy was at the door waiting for me when I arrived. He apologized for my experience the day before, sat me down in the little studio desk, gave me some water, gave me a mic. It looked like this was actually going to happen.
'Okay,' I was told, 'there's no video. It's going to be audio only.' The problem was, the sound on my earphone was way down, and I couldn't hear the anchor's voice. I did, however, hear some murmuring, and waved the studio guy over, pointing to the volume and making a 'raise it' gesture with my other hand. He overcompensated a bit in his haste, blasting my ear before turning it down a bit. We were on.
I was feeling pretty discombobulated. It wasn't just the audio. It's hard speaking in sound bites. I'd told myself again and again to keep things simple and short, but in academia we're trained to do just the opposite. It's not a medium that I have any experience with in the US (although I was interviewed on several occasions when I lived in Turkey in the 1990s, when my interlocutors were pleased to listen to babble about anything I wanted as an Exotic Foreigner Who Spoke Turkish. Now the situation was different, they just wanted me to talk for four minutes, and they wanted to talk polities. The first question was: Crimea invasion, good or bad?
The most bizarre moment of the interview came towards the end when Vladimir Putin's voice suddenly broke into the live transmission. Instead of hearing the pleasant voice of my Montana Today host, I was getting a full dose of autocracy and power politics right up my earpiece. In addition to the other indignities I'd suffered, why was Vladimir Putin shouting at me?
It turned out that the video crew in Missoula had been putting up maps and graphics in absence of a visual feed from Bozeman. At one point they showed a video of Putin speaking about the annexation, but hadn't turned the sound down. Viewers couldn't hear Putin, but I could. While I was gamely trying to answer questions in a somewhat coherent manner, all I could hear was Putin speaking over me. For all I knew, the Russian president was demanding Montana's immediate surrender.
It reminded me of an incident from the bad old days of the Cold War, when the Soviets took over the SCTV satellite beaming to Melonville and the Tri-City Area. They interrupted Johnny LaRue's production of 'Julius Caesar' with 'Today is Moscow' and other Soviet programming, remember?
After some deep consideration of the matter I decided to refrain from linking to the NBC interview here. All the same, I'm glad I did it. Everyone was nice and it was an interesting experience. The interview may not have gone off perfectly, but hey, that's show biz!
Anyway, the Big Talk was on Thursday. My department chair had done a good job of publicizing the event. The NBC appearance, despite killing my nascent television career, nevertheless helped get out word. So did publicity coming through the the university, the local paper, and elsewhere.
This was the gig: Franke Wilmer, a professor in political science at MSU, and I each spoke for about twenty minutes, then answered questions for another forty minutes or so at a public meeting at the Emerson Center for the Arts and Culture in Bozeman. The venue is close to downtown, but not too far a walk from the university, so the idea was to get a lot of people from town and MSU.
The night was a great success. We had probably 90 seats or so set up, and the crowd was standing-room only by the time Franke and I started. There was a big, enthusiastic audience of both Bozeman folks and university types. Lots of students, but also many faculty--including a lot of my colleagues and other friends, which I really appreciated. The provost and associate provosts were there, as was the dean of my college, which I also thought was a cool sign of support.
This wasn't a rally or anything. The point was to provide contexts, background and information. Franke works in International Relations, and spoke mostly about the things that happen when tensions escalate into violence. I talked about the Crimean Tatars, made a comparison between the mini-republic of Crimea and the possibilities and dangers awaiting eastern Ukraine, and pointed out that Ukraine and Georgia have been literally ripped apart by US-Russian competition that has taken place mainly in the territories that once were under Russian influence. In other words, I made a few of the points that loyal JMB readers are probably already familiar with.
So now I'm relaxing, and doing some physical and mental housecleaning. I've got a study/back bedroom that is filled with books and papers that need sorting, and I'd love to re-organize my bookshelves. I've been listening to Tiger games, the mellifluous voice of Dan Dickerson broadcasting the team's inevitable march towards autumnal glory. For now, the birds are singing and the sun is shining. At least until the next snow hits.