Thursday, July 27, 2017

Transgender Voices Breaking the Silence

"The Traits of Both" by Soraida Martinez

by Jackson Wright Shultz
author of Trans/Portraits: Voices from Transgender Communities

I distinctly remember the first time I ever read an entire book without help.

Shortly after my third birthday, I sat on the edge of my parents’ bed as they bustled back and forth through the doorway connecting their bedroom to the bathroom, preparing for the day ahead. I read slowly and methodically, practically shouting the words into the bathroom to make sure my parents could hear the groundbreaking story of the freckled, red-haired boy’s trip to the park.

I had successfully blundered through several pages, but when at last I arrived at a word I didn’t recognize, I wailed for someone to come read it to me. My mom, a reading teacher, ignored my plea for help, but called mechanically from the bathroom, “Sound it out!”

With no small amount of indignation, I formed the sounds of each letter slowly with my tongue. I struggled to make sense of the noises I heard myself producing, but an ever-stubborn child, I kept at it until the disparate phonics morphed into recognizable syllables. When I finally made sense of the text, I bellowed the offending word into the bathroom and continued my recitation with newfound vigor.

Jackson Wright Shultz
I don’t remember which seemingly difficult word became the source of my triumph; I don’t remember where we were going that day (although, I know it must have been an important event because I was wearing a rather formal dress with several scratchy layers of crinoline); and I don’t remember much about the book, save for its orange and green cover. Yet, I do remember the empowerment I felt when I finished the book.

Later, as we drove to whatever event dictated that I wear such an uncomfortable dress, I peered out of the car window, calling out the words on every street sign. After twenty miles of my commentary on mile markers and speed limit signs, my elder sister implored me to stop. (I steadfastly refused.) From those road signs, to the entirety of the children’s section of the local library, I began to read everything I could find. In retrospect, I think I was searching, in vain, for the smallest indication of a character to whom I could relate.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I finally found the character I had been searching for. As I read Leslie Feinberg’s lesbian cult classic, Stone Butch Blues, I turned each page with a combination of unbridled excitement and dread. The novel details the coming of age story of Jess, a young butch lesbian who, after a lifetime of ridicule, begins taking cross-gender hormones to more closely align her physical appearance with her masculine identity. Although Jess is never specifically labeled as transgender, the trajectory she follows resonates with many transgender and nonbinary individuals.

While this was not the first transgender narrative I had encountered, it was the first story in which I found critical pieces of myself reflected. For the first time in my life, my voracious reading had led me to a protagonist with whom I could wholeheartedly identify. Like Jess, I didn’t necessarily identify strictly as a man; however, transitioning seemed like the next logical step in the progression of my own gender identity. I came out as transgender shortly after finishing Stone Butch Blues.

By virtue of navigating my body away from the gender I had been assigned at birth, I fell under the broad umbrella of “transgender” and found myself a part of a vibrant community of individuals who identified and expressed their genders in fathomless ways. The more I talked to other transgender and nonbinary individuals, the more I realized that there are so many important and recurrent gender narratives that have somehow been omitted from the current body of work on transgender issues. I set out to write Trans/Portraits to tell the stories of transgender and nonbinary people in their own words in an attempt to correct this egregious erasure.

In conducting my research for the book, I didn’t know exactly what I would find, but there were certain themes I expected to encounter—medical and workplace discrimination, familial strife, and encounters with prejudice—but there were other discoveries I hadn’t predicted. Of the many dozens of transgender and nonbinary individuals I interviewed, I was surprised to learn that nearly all of them were involved in activist endeavors.

One of the men I interviewed, pseudonym “Greg,” aptly summarized this phenomenon: “I feel that a lot of trans folk become activists, not because they necessarily want to, but because there is a certain amount of need. […] As you deal with prejudice on a daily basis, you start picking and choosing which battles are the most important to you and then you start educating the people around you. Even if they never intended for it to happen, I believe most trans people become accidental activists.”

I was also surprised to find that I was not alone in my childhood literary pursuits. “Wendy” told me, “When I was a kid, I learned to read at a really early age. I read anything and everything I could get my hands on. Even though I didn’t consciously realize it, I was desperately searching through literature to find any glimpse of other people who were like me.” Several other interviewees, including “Catherine” and “Erik,” echoed this sentiment.

Learning that there were others out there searching for the faintest glimmers of themselves in the literature crystallized my desire to find and archive stories that broke the narrow mold of how transgender identities are usually conceptualized. My intent was to tell stories, like mine, that were not often expressed in transgender literature.

It was critical to me that this project provide a platform for voices that, even within transgender spaces, are often left out of the conversation. As “Bella” pointed out, transgender history has often been whitewashed, and the stories of trans people have frequently been left out of the conversation. “Our voices have been silenced long enough,” she told me, “It’s about damned time that somebody let us tell our truths.”

Ultimately, writing Trans/Portraits was a labor of love. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to connect with so many remarkable trans and nonbinary individuals and that I was able to provide a platform that allowed each of them to share their incredible stories. Although I began writing this book with mild uncertainty about what I would find, the positivity and diversity I encountered in collecting these stories allowed me to finish this project with hope that others who are still searching for their truths might find themselves amongst these pages.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Brenda Biondo Featured at the San Diego Museum of Art

By UPNE Staff

Brenda Biondo’s book Once Upon a Playgroundone of our inaugural ForeEdge titles!—has recently been featured at the San Diego Museum of Art, along with some of her many amazing works of figural photography:

For more information about the artist and author, click here—and here is more information on the museum show.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

JFK at 100

What would John F. Kennedy have done? As the United States seemingly lurches from one polarizing domestic or foreign crisis to another, it’s curiously tempting to look at the historical example of our 35th president, whose centennial we celebrate on May 29th, 2017. 

Kennedy was first and foremost a pragmatist, a point he underscored when, on being asked about his ambitions in high office, he answered simply: “I hope to be effective.” The Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter once informed “young Jack”, as he called him, that as the nation’s chief executive his job was to “direct funds, goods, and people to concerns that relate to the human welfare.” Kennedy’s desk diary of his time in office often reveals a preoccupation with rather more narrowly defined tasks. He was supremely good at seeing the “big picture” of a particular issue, and often showed a refreshing (and distinctly non-partisan) breadth of thought not always conspicuous in his modern successors. In January 1962, at the height of a potentially cataclysmic showdown with the Soviet Union over access rights to Berlin, Kennedy summoned the city’s military governor General Lucius Clay to discuss the crisis. Years later, Clay recalled that the president had made one or two “eminently sensible” suggestions about the issue at hand, before going on to seek his advice on another matter. 
“Kennedy was seeking to impose price and wage restraints on the US steel industry at that time,” Clay recalled. “He knew that I had been the head of a firm that was a large user of steel, and I remember he asked me whom he could get in touch with in the area, off the record, and talk quietly to” - another example of what the hard-headed general admiringly called the president’s “intuitive skill in finding problem-solving resources that others might have overlooked.”
The irony, perhaps, is that while Kennedy remains a potent symbol of modernity and progressivism, both in terms of his political philosophy and his notably laissez-fair personal morals, he was in some ways a traditional figure who embraced many of the institutions that had served to unite a disparate people for 200 years. To enumerate them would make today’s more sensitive liberal soul wince, so here goes: the Church; the flag; the rule of law; the US military; and perhaps above all the exercise of self-discipline in our fundamental social contract with one another – “the right to enjoy life to the full up to the moment when it detracts from your neighbor’s right to do so”, as he once put it to his British friend, and fellow centrist politician, Hugh Fraser.
Of course, one can take the view that Kennedy’s natural or acquired gift for compromise, particularly when it came to foreign affairs, displayed a far-sighted grasp of statesmanship; or that it was all a cynical piece of political pandering designed to make him attractive to both sides in a debate. In either case, it seems fair to say that Kennedy’s realism effectively checked and balanced his belief that it was important for the United States to constantly assert itself in the struggle to stem the tide of world communism. On the campaign trail, he was a consistently reasonable and benign commander-in-chief who assured his audiences that he would never commit young Americans to battle without the most compelling need to do so. In the War Room, he remained open to the counsel of his military chiefs that bombing the likes of Cuba back to the Stone Age was an eminently viable option.
Kennedy with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan
“Any other course of action will be almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich,” the bluff, cigar-chewing air force chief Curtis LeMay told the president at a White House meeting to discuss the growing Cuban missile crisis on October 19, 1962. “I think that a blockade, and political talk, would be considered by a lot of our friends and neutrals as a pretty weak response to this,” he added. When LeMay when on to inform the president that “You’re in a pretty bad fix at the present time”, Kennedy responded merely: “Well, you’re in there with me.”
It may not be insignificant that John Kennedy spent several of his most impressionable student years in and around London, just as the British political establishment argued over the correct response to take to Nazi Germany’s growing territorial ambitions. He was even present in the visitors’ gallery of the House of Commons to witness the climactic declaration of war on September 3, 1939. It might be a stretch to say that Kennedy’s whole later attitude to dictatorial figures such as Nikita Khrushchev followed on from his experience of the Europe of the 1930s. But there’s no doubt that he took with him into office a fundamental set of principles that he summarized this way in his 1940 undergraduate thesis-tuned-bestseller Why England Slept:

“Democracy may be a great system of government to live under, but its weaknesses are great … We must realize that democracy is a luxury. We may be able to afford it due to our particular position, but we must be continually aware of the lesson we have learned from our study of England and Germany’s armament history from 1937-1939. We have seen that a democracy cannot successfully compete with a dictatorship on even terms. Our foreign policy therefore, should be directed to taking advantage of certain economic and strategic advantages that we now possess, and making sure that we never reach a position of having to compete with a dictator on their home grounds—that is both starting on an even basis—or the dictatorship will win.”

Christopher Sandford is the author of Union Jack: JFK's Special Relationship with Great Britain

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Joyce Mitchell & Her Inmates With Benefits

The Spring 2015 escape by two worst-of-the-worst prisoners from the Clinton Correctional Facility (CCF) in Dannemora, N.Y., resulted in the largest manhunt in New York State history and the biggest domestic news story of the year. For three weeks America held its collective breath, as the narrative unfolded to its inevitable, violent conclusion. But even after it did, even after the players were no longer in motion, the tale retained its journalistic legs, largely because of its many angles:
—the brutal and depraved crimes that Richard Matt and David Sweat committed to be caged in a maximum security prison to begin with,
—the complacency and arrogance within the prison that allowed the escapees to gather key intelligence,
—the complementary skills of the prisoners, how they became a two-headed escape monster accomplishing an extraordinary feat,
—tales of the frightened public, who went without sleep, and when they did nod off it was with a shotgun ’cross their laps,
—tales of the 1,200 manhunters, the stalwart members of law enforcement, who scoured the harshest of wilderness for weeks on end in relentlessly inclement weather, praying they would catch the men before innocents were hurt,
—the budget cuts by the State of New York that impacted the case, and
Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell, the sad sack of a woman who allowed herself to be used by the escapees, giving them the tools they would need to cut their way out of the beast’s belly, in exchange for flirtation, fantasy, and a modicum of tawdry prison sex.
Guess which facet of the story became the focus of Lifetime’s TV movie?  No surprise. It was Tillie, star of the show, with her Walter Mitty fantasy life and muttonhead excuses. The mother of three was called “Shawskank” on the front page of the New York Post. Her anemic attempts to explain her unexplainable behavior were meant to be damage control, but brought only the wrath of the public.
            So here comes the TV movie, New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell, written and directed by Stephen Tolkin, which debuted on April 23 in the crucial Sunday prime-time slot. 
The movie gets a lot of things right. We briefly see Matt and Sweat’s brutality, and we feel the relaxed relationship between CCF’s prisoners and corrections officers that blurs their adversarial roles. The tunneling out and escape itself are presented in detail and with surprising accuracy.
It’s made clear that Mitchell’s carnal misadventures with Matt and Sweat were perfectly in character. Life for her was a daytime serial, from her young and restless schooldays to “As the Cell Block Turns” in adulthood. Her husband Lyle (Daniel Roebeck), a painfully dull but affable chatterbox, was the lover-on-the-side that broke up Joyce’s first marriage.
The manhunt and the effect of the escape on the Adirondack area are all but missing in the movie, leaving lots of room for clothes-on sex scenes featuring a lonely and bored fifty-something woman getting hot and bothered over sweet-talking dirtbags. The backroom intimacy portrayed is more than cringe-worthy. It’s crawl-out-of-your-skin worthy. But that’s prison sex in a nutshell, I’m guessing. 
Nobody asked me, but I gave New York Prison Break two and a half stars. It’s corny and melodramatic, but has a so-bad-it’s-good appeal—and I liked the movie better than I thought I would. Myk Watford as Matt and Joe Anderson as Sweat capture the superficial charm of these sociopaths, and Penelope Ann Miller gives Tillie an animation that may lack realism but improves watchability.
But I know one fellow certain to give New York Prison Break: The Seduction of Joyce Mitchell a rave review, two urgent thumbs up: New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo. He has to be ecstatic that the Lifetime movie never once touches upon one key factor that made the escape possible. Because of Albany’s penny-wise pound-foolish budget cuts, the superintendents of New York State prisons were not allowed to lockdown their facilities without an okay from an Albany beancounter. Days before the Clinton escape, a gang fight erupted on the prison grounds and the CCF superintendent wanted to declare a lockdown—but Albany said no. Too expensive. The lockdown would have resulted in a thorough search of every cell in the facility, exposing the fact that Sweat and Matt were singing the Credence song: DOO DOO DOO Lookin’ Out My Backdoor about their own self-made rear exits, back doors that would, within the week, lead them to an impressive but temporary freedom.

Michael Benson is the author of ESCAPE FROM DANNEMORA: Richard Matt, David Sweat, and the Great Adirondack Manhunt (ForeEdge), as well as Why the Grateful Dead Matter (ForeEdge) and The Devil at Genesee Junction (Rowman & Littlefield).

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Richard Matt and David Sweat: Two-Headed Escape Monster

It was the perfect story: the Great Escape. On June 6, 2015, Richard Matt, a torture killer, and David Sweat, a cop killer, worst-of-the-worst prisoners in the Clinton Correctional Facility—the maximum security prison in Dannemora N.Y.—climbed, crawled, and slithered through a twenty-minute claustrophobic labyrinth of corridors and tunnels until they emerged into freedom through a manhole a block and a half outside the forbidding CCF wall. Now they were killers on the loose. Dangerous understated the matter. They were deadly and desperate.  And that was just the beginning. The story that unfolded had adventure, psychology, sex, depravity and brutality. It was the biggest story of 2015.

As you probably have heard, the pair were helped in their escape by a woman named Joyce Mitchell, a married civilian employee of the prison enjoying an inappropriate relationship with both prisoners, and a corrections officer, who owed the prisoners a few favors and inadvertently helped them escape.

The escapees were expecting Mitchell to show up with a getaway car but she was a no-show so they ducked into the woods, where they led up to 1,200 law enforcement officers on a three-week manhunt, the most expensive in New York State history. The hunt didn’t end well for either of the escapees, but you probably knew that as well.

Here’s something you might not know: It is doubtful that any two other prisoners could have pulled this off. It is unlikely that any other pair could have come up with a workable plan to get out of CCF, much less execute that plan.

When it was decided that, sure, what the heck, Matt and Sweat could live in adjacent cells in CCF’s ill-conceived “Honor Block”, the powers that be at the institution forgot a rule learned the hard way by Adolf Hitler during World War II.

Hitler’s bright idea, like many of his ideas, served not just to alleviate a problem but to prove a point, that point usually involving Aryan superiority. He decided to gather together all allied officers who were prisoners of war and had been caught planning or attempting escape, and put them in one “inescapable prison”, the formidable fortress known as Colditz.

Colditz was a castle prison atop a cliff overlooking the Rive Mulde and the town of Colditz, near Leipzig, Germany. What Hitler did accomplish by putting the escape-savvy officers all in one place, was create a think tank, an escape super-team, and before the war was over sixteen officers did successfully make it out.

One successful effort was led by Lieutenant Commander William Stephens. With socks covering their shoes, Stephens and three others crawled through windows, slithered over roofs, scaled down a wall using knotted sheets and fled to Switzerland disguised as French workmen, getting past checkpoints with forged documents including a leave pass with swastika stamp in the name of an actual French electrician employed by the Germans, and a service pass with photo and stamps.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Stephens’ escape plan was the involvement of the prison band, which would deviate from the score they played to signal the escapees regarding the sentries location. One musical variation meant the sentries were both at the center of the grounds, another signaled they were at opposite ends of the courtyard.

It was the ability of those allied officers to put their heads together that enabled Stephens and others to find freedom. In a smaller sense, that was what happened when Matt and Sweat were allowed to live in adjacent cells. As it turned out, the pair had complimentary skills and were able to pull off a feat that may have been beyond each of them working alone.

Richard Matt was a ladies man and a schmoozer. He could get women to do his bidding with his sex appeal and simultaneously get chummy with other men using his good-ol’-boy, one-of-the-fellas manner.
David Sweat was a three-dimensional thinker, a solver of puzzles, a planner who could read a blueprint upside-down from across the rooms. It would be his job to figure out how to get out. Matt would recruit any help they might need to pull off their plan.

Together they created a two-headed escape machine.

Couple this with the time-honored culture of arrogance and complacency among the corrections officers and civilian employees at CCF, none of whom complied with the rules for the simple reason that they believed escape to be impossible, and a practically impossible escape was suddenly not just possible, but real.

During the wee hours of that Spring morning, Matt and Sweat were able to exit their cells through back doors they had cut for themselves, descend a ladder to the sub-sub basement, chisel through a wall, enter a heating pipe and crawl through it under the prison’s main wall, exit the pipe, and ascend stairs to their manhole exit. It was an astounding accomplishment, one that could have been thwarted in a myriad of ways, but more certainly if CCF had taken a lesson from Hitler’s mistake, and kept the two bright boys as far apart as possible.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

“Hot Hands, Draft Hype & DiMaggio’s Streak: Debunking America’s Favorite Sports Myths”

By Cory Franklin

If you grew up as a sports fan and gravitated toward others of common disposition, then at some point you found yourself on the playground, in your living room or college dorm, and engrossed in discussions and quite possibly arguments about your sports heroes, their accomplishments, and their teams. Should you fit this profile, then Sheldon Hirsch’s new book Hot Hands,Draft Hype & DiMaggio’s Streak: Debunking America’s Favorite Sports Myths
is required reading.

The author provides fascinating and typically unconventional takes on some of the most heated debates in baseball, football, and basketball, while occasionally tossing in intriguing digressions. The book is meticulously researched, and the author’s background as a physician well acquainted with two of sports most important facets—its science and its statistics—makes this an essential part of any sports library.     
The first, and most impressive, portion of the book deals with baseball, which is obviously the author’s first love. He begins provocatively, with an essay diminishing Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941, an accomplishment many observers believe to be the most impressive single season record in baseball history.                                            

Without resorting to revisionist history, Hirsch’s criticism centers on the insight that the consecutive aspect of the streak was a statistical idiosyncrasy that did not benefit the Yankees, and that others have performed as well or better in their sports in similar situations. This is certainly a contrarian viewpoint, and has merit.  He counters the opinion of others, including the respected Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who also wrote about sports as an avocation. Gould waxed eloquent on DiMaggio’s streak, calling it, “the finest of legitimate legends because it embodies the essence of the battle that truly defines our lives.” Hirsch graciously acknowledges Gould, but nevertheless dismisses this panegyric as “schmaltz.”  If only Gould had not died prematurely, a roundtable debate on the DiMaggio hitting streak between the two would surely have been something to attend.                                   
The book moves into other baseball trigger areas –whether today’s players are better than those of the past, how we should evaluate players who used performance-enhancing drugs, and the ne plus ultra of all Baby Boomer baseball debates, “who was better Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays?” No spoilers here; suffice to say Hirsch’s is a nuanced take on this unresolvable argument.                                                              
While this and some of his other baseball subjects are obviously geared toward a Baby Boomer audience, he does not shortchange younger fans. Included are sections on contemporary debates such as who deserved the 2012 and 2013 Most Valuable Player Awards— the superb all-around player Mike Trout, or the great hitter but one-dimensional player Miguel Cabrera (Cabrera won both times). Along the way, Hirsch examines pitchers’ arm injuries and the over-application of the pitch count today. It is hard to fault his assertion that the Washington Nationals ill-fated decision several years ago to withhold Stephen Strasberg from the playoffs based on his projected pitch counts was, in Hirsch’s words, “absurd.”                                                           

The best discussion in the book is about the statistical revolution that has completely transformed baseball in the past two decades. A baseball game is a series of thousands of events and decisions, and the advent of the computer and high-tech video systems has made it possible to catalogue, compile, and evaluate those events. This has generated constantly evolving statistics and new ways of analyzing players and strategy. Administrative power in the upper strata of baseball has changed hands from grizzled old-line baseball veterans to Ivy League analysts, economists, and “quants.” Most baseball front offices are now filled with people who never played professionally.                             

Hirsch uses his experience with statistics to explain to the everyday fan some of the most commonly used new terms. Unlike many of today’s journalists, he is neither a total skeptic nor a doctrinaire believer; he neatly lays out the strengths and weaknesses of such arcane concepts as WAR, UZR, and DIPS.                

Coincidentally, medicine faces a not dissimilar revolution with its attempts to measure performance. As a physician, Hirsch is undoubtedly aware that just as a baseball player is more than a statistic, so is a patient. The ultimate purpose of statistics is to describe reality, but while they may be able to provide a good approximation, their description will necessarily be incomplete. As the saying goes, “the map is not the territory,” and Hirsch explains why this pertains to statistics and baseball. For the casual reader looking for an initial section to catch his or her attention, I must recommend the section on baseball analytics.                                        
The book moves into basketball, and Hirsch’s knowledge of the sport is no less impressive, even if his topics are not quite as focused. There is less attention to historical debates—surprisingly no Russell/Chamberlain colloquy, the basketball equivalent to Mantle/Mays. Instead, he examines, among other things, various strategies (e.g. three-point shooting) and the popular topic of whether the “hot-hand”— the streak shooter—actually exists.                                                                         

The hot-hand has been examined in depth by many in and out of the sports realm, most notably by the late mathematical psychologist Amos Tversky and his Nobel-winning colleague, Daniel Kahneman. Their conclusion, and the conclusion of most others, is that the hot-hand does not exist, and is simply an imagined phenomenon. I have never been totally convinced that this is true, not because the hot-hand is so obvious, rather because it may be subtle and hard to confirm. It is so ingrained in the thinking of virtually everyone who has played the game that one must discard the notion that it does not exist with caution; ignore local knowledge at your peril. With additional explanation, Hirsch adopts this cautious stance.  

One basketball debate that Hirsch comes down strongly on concerns the “one and done rule.” He is a firm believer that young basketball players should have the option to turn pro at any time and any impediments, legal or social, to letting them do so are unwarranted and unfair. This is another unresolvable debate, with evidence supporting both sides.       

Hirsch details the careers of a couple of controversial superstars, LeBron James and Wilt Chamberlain. There is little middle ground on either of these two players; each is either a hero or villain, overrated or wrongly maligned, depending on whom you talk to. Hirsch presents a balanced and intelligent assessment of both, coming down on the side, rightly so, that both were in the pantheon of the greatest to ever play. His mention of Steph Curry in the same vein as Oscar Robertson and Michael Jordan, however, might be a little gratuitous, a point he concedes, albeit reluctantly.              

In a fascinating (but brief) digression in the basketball section, Hirsch discusses Ernie Vandeweghe, a college All-American, an NBA player with the Knicks in the 1950’s, a physician, and the father and grandfather of eight stars with world-class ability in six different sports. Most amazingly, Vandeweghe attended medical school at the same time he played in the NBA. The physician Hirsch is duly impressed, as am I (although Hirsch neglects to mention in addition to everything else, Vandeweghe also married a Miss America!). Among all the debates in the book, there is no debate that Ernie Vandeweghe was one of the most amazing individuals in sports—something that few before Hirsch have acknowledged.                        

The final section on football is unfortunately shorter, although it includes an excellent piece on head trauma in the NFL and the difficulty in making the diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. I hope that Dr. Hirsch revisits this subject in his future writings because his insight is extremely valuable.    

While personal disagreement is not generally the domain of the critic, if I had to take issue with any of his ideas, it is the rule changes he proposes in football. Hirsch advises downplaying kicking by eliminating extra points and decreasing the relative value of field goals (by awarding touchdowns with seven points). My bias is that kicking is an essential element of the game, and a skilled kicker in a pressure situation adds considerably to the excitement of the game.                                         

Likewise, he criticizes the “catch/no catch” rule pertaining to receivers, but again, I disagree. Currently, a receiver must hold onto the ball and then make a “football move” to qualify as a catch. Hirsch dislikes the “football move” aspect and would like to do away with it. But I believe that putting greater onus on the receiver to hold the ball longer helps referees make difficult distinctions between dropped balls and catches with subsequent fumbles. However you believe, his discussion of football rule changes makes for interesting reading.                                                                  
The book ends with the author’s profile of the legendary Muhammad Ali. Ali was inarguably one of the most important sports figures of the 20th Century, and after his death most descriptions of his life took on a hagiographic tone. The fact remains that Ali was a controversial figure and not always the saint he is portrayed as, especially in his dealings with his nemesis, Joe Frazier. The Ali epilogue might seem slightly out of place, but it is nonetheless accurate and a necessary historical counterbalance to some of the idealized portraits of the inarguably great boxer.
There are several unstated but important themes in this book. The most significant is the inevitable tension between individual and team performance. Any book that analyzes athletes in team sports must consider the conflict there. This book is no different, and Hirsch does his best to balance it. Did DiMaggio’s consecutive hitting streak really help his team? Should Russell Westbrook play more team-oriented basketball? Do high school players who move to the NBA learn to play team basketball? Ultimately, some fans prefer going to a game and watching an individual performance, others a competitive game. Are you happy if Michael Jordan scores 60 points but the Bulls lose or would you rather see a game go into overtime with no one player standing out? Hirsch acknowledges and respects that sports in general have become more competitive, but one gets the sense that deep in his heart he yearns for the dazzling individual performance.                                 

There is also the matter of prediction. Fans read, watch, and argue wanting to know who will win an upcoming game (gambling playing no small part in this). Hirsch understands and explains why, at its most elemental level, successful prediction is impossible with any degree of certainty, a fact borne out by two singular events that occurred after his book went to press. It’s too bad we could not get his take on the Cubs winning the 2016 World Series after being down three games to one, and the Patriots coming from 25 points down to win the 2016 Super Bowl. I await reading about these anomalies in his next book. He is certain to have a unique perspective.              

I also hope that in his next book he comments on how some of the topics he has discussed subsequently unfolded. For example, his observations on Phil Jackson not realizing success with the Knicks look prescient right now, for exactly the reasons he states. The jury is still out on Allonzo Trier, the fabulous young basketball player he describes who devoted his youth to playing the game. Trier has had some unanticipated troubles in his time at the University of Arizona, and his future is still anybody’s guess. Finally, Hirsch might have a different take today on Cubs manager Joe Madden’s “quirky tinkering” given some of the bizarre decisions Madden made in the 2016 Playoffs and World Series that nearly spelled disaster.                      

In short, Hot Hands, Draft Hype & DiMaggio’sStreak: Debunking America’s Favorite Sports Myths is a wonderful, well-written book that you can pick up and start reading on almost any page. And, as a bonus for the erudite sports fan, Hirsch quotes, among others and to good use, Tversky and Kahneman, Tom Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut, A.E. Housman, Robert Browning, and Alexander Pope. Who imagined, for example, a link between Vonnegut and LeBron James?

Hirsch’s book is meant to enlighten and entertain rather than simply settle barroom sports debates. However, in that respect you will be smarter after reading it and certainly better prepared for those debates when and if they arise.  Whether on your night table, your coffee table, or your bookshelf, keep this great book handy for reading and reference.

Cory Franklin is an Editorial Board contributor to the Chicago Tribune and the author of Chicago Flashbulbs and Cook County ICU: 30 Years of Unforgettable Patients and Odd Cases

Reblogged from with the permission of the author