Time for your weekly edition of the Defector Funbag. Got something on your mind? Email the Funbag. Drew’s off this week. Today, we’re talking about how to talk about bad things without making people upset, how many pickles a person could eat and how they would begin to know that, a blogger-sized NBA gunner who never got his due, and former Blue Jays third baseman Ed Sprague.

In a moment that often seems to be hurting for bright spots, it’s nice that no one is really checking for Malcolm Gladwell anymore. This is somehow fine even for Gladwell, who will go on giving peppy talks about making decisions, and selling books about the surprising scientific foundations of whatever the broader status quo is at the moment he’s writing, or what the battlefield depravities of Curtis LeMay can teach managers about “having a growth mindset” or whatever, even if no one really believes or understands what he’s on about. A public intellectual’s fame and residual credibility will continue to propel them forward for some distance, and at surprising speed, long after the discovery that the engine that’s supposed to be spinning those turbines is somehow just absolutely stuffed with ham.

An example of this is that, when I agreed to do this week’s Funbag, I briefly thought of Gladwell’s old and not so much discredited as retrospectively too-embarrassing-to-discuss idea that mastery in any discipline can only be obtained after 10,000 hours of proper practice. Again, this was classic Gladwell: a big, suspiciously round, objective-sounding number press-ganged into addressing the sort of question that tends to occur to certain types of businesspeople in airports. Maybe, Gladwell asks here and everywhere, it really is this simple.

Probably it’s not. There’s actually in fact no way that it is. But at the same time, that number scrolled hopefully along the little LED screen in my brain that is otherwise busy at all hours displaying different types of sandwiches and the names of relief pitchers of the early ’00s. I’ve spent some large number of hours, maybe not quite five figures but probably into the fours, reading the Funbag and addressing Funbag questions on the podcast. So maybe, I thought, I would arrive as a master, or at least fortified by how many different questions I have considered in this space over the years about having to use the bathroom under unusual or difficult circumstances.

If I didn’t know that Gladwell was bullshit before, I sure know it now. My hope is that maybe, in reading this, your own dial will roll over to 10,000, and you’ll finally understand whatever is wrong with the people that write in to the Funbag. I myself am not there yet.

So, your letters!


Can you give a quick list of some people that are universally liked?

It’s a very short list, but this does give me an opportunity to share one of the less successful Annoying Repeated Husband Bits I’d been putting through the R&D process in the apartment, which was occasioned by the (ghastly, like sincerely dispiriting and ridiculous) advertising for the new Ghostbusters movie. The premise of this bit, which I will note here was unpopular even by my usual standards, is The Guy Who Hates Paul Rudd.

So if you want to try it out yourself, the premise is that every time the ad comes on I’m like “Oh great, here’s this fucking guy again. Looking really youthful and charming, Paul” and then doing the classic “J’ing O” gesture. Or when you see him being charming in a supporting role in some decade-old comedy, you theatrically roll your eyes at something delightful he does. It might be that my execution was off, or it might be that my wife, like everyone else and also me, thinks Paul Rudd is handsome and talented and funny and seems like a good dude. But I do think that the concept of being the one person on earth who is not charmed by Paul Rudd is “good” enough to sustain an exhaustingly unfunny back-third-of-the-show sketch on Saturday Night Live, and I plan to go on believing that.


I’ll dispense with the poop stories and ask a semi-serious question instead. I’m a person who has just turned 40, and the aches and pains really started to catch up to me this week. Mentally, I’m getting exhausted by the utter collapse of rational governance in this country. How many pickles can you eat in one sitting?

Really happy with where and how this question ended up. The short answer is that I do not know, and the longer answer is that I, as someone who turned 40 some while ago and has been exploring the outer boundaries of Washed Behavior in the years since—we finished a jar of Tutto Calabria hot peppers a couple weeks ago, and I insisted that my wife high-five me about it—am increasingly unlikely to be in a position to put it to the test. It seems counterintuitive that, as one grows older and more secure and self-possessed, you tend to be less likely to find yourself in an Unlimited Pickle Situation than when you were younger and pickle money was much harder to come by. I had a friend who would sometimes have people over to just fry different stuff in a big pot in his shitty unventilated kitchen; the walls got sticky. I am still good friends with this person, and he has a much nicer kitchen now, but he does not do this anymore. I’m sorry if this sounds like bragging, I’m just trying to provide an example of how much more likely I was to be at a party that also somehow involved an industrial drum of half-sours 20 years ago than I am today.

But I will say from experience that I can absolutely eat five punishing deli sours one after another in a deli setting without even really noticing that I’m doing it. I imagine at some point after that—maybe 10, maybe more—my body would start sounding the Nostromo Self-Destruct Siren from Alien, but I have never really gotten close to that. Or maybe I have, this sort of thing just gets rounded up into the deli experience of having one big lunch and then just being constantly thirsty for the next four days.


Why do major news organizations keep citing “changing consumer habits” when retailers go into bankruptcy without mentioning the billions of dollars of debt that private equity owners shovel onto actually functional businesses?  

This is a good question and one that I am going to (cheekily!) answer with another question that I think frames it in a different light, and then try to answer in earnest. First here is my exhilarating question-with-a-question gambit:

(A different) Alex:

Your writing on the intersection between the current trends of society-wide capitalist glue rendering and the rise of global fascism [praise redacted]. More people need to notice this, but I seem to be surrounded by people who take a “who gives a shit have some gratitude that you don’t live in Soviet Russia” point of view. They seem HAPPY to see everything that makes life worth living liquidated because hey man, I bought shares in Blackstone way back when, you’re just jealous that you weren’t smart enough to invest in the destruction. Is it possible to make people see it? How do we talk to people in real life about it? When I try to even lightly push back on the reactionary ideas my peers have, they shut down hard and double down on building a monied bubble where they can pretend things are great. Any advice?

Not really! But I think both of these questions represent two sides of the same anxiety. Also this is one of the places where you’re really going to notice that I am doing this Funbag and not The Big Dog, because Drew would almost tell you that things for you are decently good both relatively and materially speaking, and even improving in a macro sense, and that you shouldn’t spend more time than you have to feeling bad about stuff you can’t change. And he would not be wrong to do that, really, although it is definitely not what I would describe as “my approach” to this kind of thing, or in general.

Anyway, it’s hard to know how to talk about this because it’s hard to think about it. I didn’t grow up in the most politically adventuresome household, and spent the passive indoctrination portion of childhood during the steroidal and overstated shoulder of the Reagan years. I do not remember a time when my country was not categorically incapable of and ideologically opposed to perceiving itself in the most basic way, and not totally weird and seething and insane about even trying. (These were also the years that shaped Donald Trump, who is decades older than me but probably watched even more television than I did and is also incapable of learning or changing in any way; this, or this plus Trump’s world-historic case of Famous Idiot’s Disorder, which freezes a dumb person’s worldview and personality at the moment they first become well-known, goes a long way towards explaining why this last decade in which he’s haunted the broader culture has often felt like a bloated, nasty, checked-out reboot of the ’80s.)

But while I think I was aware at a decently young age that the country was berserk and deluded, I didn’t have any sort of framework on which to hang any of that, even into college. Spending a few generations jealously and often violently holding down half of a competing global-power binary is not especially conducive to insight, unsurprisingly, but it also makes the (correct!) feeling that something is not right into something unspeakable, or at least very impolite. It’s not fun or easy to talk about these failures and betrayals and discontents now, either, but only in the gooniest partisan circles would it seem somehow disloyal. A lot of the conservative political project is currently built around trying to change that back, and to make it impossible or illegal to understand any of this.

When I might first have been encountering this sort of thing as a kid, just kind of ambiently in the culture in the way kids do, it absolutely was not there to find. It’s not nearly as unspeakable or hard to find now, and I think it’s easier than it has ever been in my life to put a name to the disquiet that any normal person would get from looking at the current state of things—the sclerotic abstraction and corruption and reflexive sadism in government, the smug self-devouring sociopathy of corporate and financial capital; a shockingly lazy mass popular culture and an admirably resilient creative one that both seem to be shrinking and which are both besieged by the aforementioned forces of government and capital. This is not just a matter of more people having heard Bernie Sanders talk about The Millionaires And Billionaires on TV, but honestly that sort of thing goes a long way in a broader culture that still would rather not acknowledge those material realities, or admit that anything is wrong.

And virtually everyone, I imagine up to and including Blackstone shareholders who would like some better movies to watch in the future, has the sense that they are not currently getting a very good deal in this civic bargain. That sense is correct, as it happens, but it’s value-neutral—a conservative would simply metabolize it as resentment, and conclude that it is the result of some marginalized populations or other conspiring against the satisfaction that is theirs by right, and then proceed vengefully from there. That is one of our culture’s most enduring and popular stories. The “changing consumer habits”–style rhetorical elisions that let malign forces off the hook for their actions are more or less how mass culture keeps that volatile and potentially very inconvenient tide of piping-hot disquiet away from any of the circuitry that keeps the bigger thing whirring, and also how scratches its own weird itches. It sucks, and once you learn to notice it you see it everywhere.

I have for sure proven my point by now that it’s hard to talk about this kind of thing and “sound normal.” But the way I try to think and talk about it is to remember that the infuriating stuff—a fucking airplane company whose leaders seem to have just straight stopped caring whether its airplanes were safe to fly more or less as an ideological matter—is extremely real, and then to try to understand it relative to the interests and actions of the material forces that keep making it happen, instead of as part of some sweeping master narrative or the result of individual failures. It is difficult, as a reality you accept or describe, to fit the more perverse stuff happening right now—the political movement to make sure kids don’t learn too much stuff in school, for instance, or private equity’s lucrative new sideline in serial corporate murder—into the old frameworks; it’s too extreme and too stupid. But if I’m optimistic about any of this, it’s that I think a lot of people are aware that this sucks, even if they can’t admit or understand that in a more explicit way. If anything good comes of that, it’s going to require giving up trying to make what’s so luridly wrong about this moment fit between those old lines, and also to understand that none of it exists independently of anything, or everything, else.


What do you think the total number of guys they one could conceivably remember in an infinite round of remembering some guys? My parameters are that you don’t have to bring up the name yourself, but you do have to recognize the name and remember the guy. Any category of guys counts, whether its former college athlete who you remember only because they had a cool look (Arizona basketball’s Eugene Edgerson), random guys from infamous news stories (aka the Jeff Gillooly types) or A-list through Z-list celebrities (Michael to Tito Jackson). Do you think 5,000-10,000 is absurdly high? 

The issue here may be that I do not really understand how big a number 10,000 is, as established earlier. But if we expand this pool to include not just professional athletes but just people who were even briefly notable enough for their name and an attribute or two to get stuck in my head—I’d like to give a special nod to the wonderful phrase “the Jeff Gillooly types,” surely one of the rarest and most valuable scouting assessments available—I think I could get to a very high number indeed, and I imagine many other similarly afflicted people could as well. I don’t really mind this being true, although I also wouldn’t say I’m exactly proud of it.

If I could change anything about “the way my mind is,” it’s that I’d love a little more editorial say in what stays, or just a more effective delete button. It’s not the only reason I skip class reunions, but I live in fear of seeing someone I once knew and maybe even shared some significant experiences with, searching my mind for their name, and instead just getting served the neural equivalent of a borked AI search result—”it looks like you’re trying to remember the name of a person you once drank four beers with? Was it former WWOR 9 news anchor Reg Wells? Was it Fontaine Toups, the bassist from Versus? Former MLB reliever Tony Fossas?” There might well be 10,000 guys up there, but they’re not necessarily the 10,000 I’d choose, and sometimes the search-and-recall system just gives me nothing but Fossas.


I have a vivid memory of Giants rightfielder Candido Maldonado whipping a ball as hard as he could straight into the ground, literally two feet in front of him, trying to throw a guy out at second. It’s a a memory so vivid, that I’m afraid to try to look up video evidence that it happened. My question, I suppose, is did we lose something really beautiful and human with internet video archives?

I also have some memory of this, and of Maldonado as a squinting guy on a baseball card, which given the years of Maldonado’s playing career—I assume that everyone reading this knows that’s 1981–1995—means that we are both definitely old enough to be thinking about this sort of thing. My answer is that we gained more than we lost, although the extent to which we’re losing what we’d previously gained through the rot/desecration of the way online stuff is indexed and found adds another layer of obfuscating wistfulness to the question. Here as elsewhere, I find that the passage of time and the attendant sense of loss makes it hard to tell what you’re even feeling all those feelings about.

I was always charmed by the idea of the internet as the place where every stupid thing in the world could be found, and have been kind of aghast at that admittedly very goofy and untenable utopia’s ongoing erosion. Once you’ve known how much is out there—once you have, literally and figuratively, seen the GIF of Raul Ibanez firing a righteous lawn dart into the turf in Seattle, or helplessly zooming by a ball rolling into the corner thanks to one of the worst and strangest angles imaginable—you both remember it and feel its deterioration that much more acutely. I don’t know if the memory of this sort of thing was sweeter before there was proof or disproof so readily at hand, but as a general rule I think it’s a good idea to hold onto it, in case you need it someday.



How have flannel shirts changed in the (presumably) 20+ years you’ve been wearing them? Materials, patterns, designs, quality, and fit; or who wears it, and what it sends to signify.

Every now and then at Goodwill, I stumble upon a flannel shirt from another age. The ones made in the last couple decades you already know about, even if you aren’t a member of The Flannel Community. It may not be true at the highest levels, which are not really where I shop, but there’s a sense in which every article of new clothing is not just deteriorating in quality but deteriorating in something like the same way—more haphazardly crafted, flimsier to the touch, reliant on janky stretch fabrics to the point that even mid-market shirts somehow feel like petroleum products. The older shirts that arrive at Goodwill from over and across the decades are not necessarily better or more my style for having once been worn to a Mudhoney show on the My Brother The Cow tour, but they are different—often nubbly and pilling, generally heavier and brusquely uncomfortable and sometimes startlingly wide. I am not a snob about this stuff, or anyway not knowledgeable enough to be a very effective one, but the difference is easy to spot. The old stuff seems to have been built with different goals in mind, or just a different timetable.

Most of what I wear is newish stuff that I get secondhand, and even there the quality is variable—look at how well the patterns line up on a J. Crew shirt from 15 years ago, say, or just feel how that shirt feels, and then compare it to one of more recent vintage, and it’s hard to miss that something has changed for the worse. (You may not be surprised to learn that it was private equity ownership, although they’re apparently righting the ship somewhat after bankruptcy. I won’t know until the new stuff hits secondhand stores.) If the older stuff is not necessarily my style—I assume that Kim Thayil once mentioned that he liked bright yellows and garish patterns and the whole industry chased that for a while—I am always glad to see it, and delighted whenever there’s some overlap between the dorky understated colors I favor and that bygone craft. I am writing all this “Like A Rock” shit as if I were not also someone who recently found an enormous t-shirt commemorating the Kansas football team’s trip to the 2008 FedEx Orange Bowl that I’d bought years ago and went “oooh” like a delighted schoolchild, but I am absolutely also that person.


Who are some of the athletes who you most wish had reached the potential you imagined for them? Bonus points for players that really only you thought were going to be good. As an example, 22-year-old me was convinced that Geovany Soto was the second coming of Mike Piazza. I even made up my own personal nickname for him: “The Cutlass.” He probably decided not to be a superstar just to avoid that nickname. But what could have been!

The Cutlass! It is the very rare catcher who could deserve a nickname that hardcore, although I guess if it refers to like an Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera it could refer to a number of Mets catchers I’ve watched. To dozens, actually.

I’ve tricked myself into some goofy players over the years, usually because I saw them do one cool thing and just extrapolated recklessly from there, secure in the belief that there was no way that Thomas Robinson, who had just dunked with two hands, in traffic, could not continue to do that in the NBA for at least 12 seasons. But the answer I always come back to on this question is Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who had a pretty good pro career—so, in retrospect, did Geovany Soto—but was also very clearly like two decades ahead of his time, and stuck playing in a NBA that was not really ready to let him be the type of player that I think he could have been.

This isn’t about his personal idiosyncracies or politics or religion, although the NBA was not remotely ready for any of that either where Abdul-Rauf was concerned. It’s more that, at the most elemental level, the game had not yet expanded to include the possibility of a player with his kind of shooting range or offensive approach. It’s not a perfect transposition—Abdul-Rauf was objectively Blogger-Sized, which would’ve been a challenge in any era—but I remember even at the time feeling like he was pushing at the limits of what the sport was prepared to permit. Watch his 51-point game from 1995 and you can see both what he could do, which was zoom around at peak speed with or without the ball and shoot from anywhere, and also what he was mostly asked or permitted to do, which is dump off entry passes to Antonio McDyess.

It’s enough to make you want to give him a tragicomic nickname.


As a Blue Jays fan, I always get excited when I see them pop up on Immaculate Grid. It’s like my own little challenge of how deeply I remember my favourite team. For example, not many people remember Ed Sprague the third baseman, and even fewer will remember that he started as a backup catcher to the immortal Pat Borders. 

Do you get the same thrill when you see the Mets logo pop up on a day’s puzzle?

I left that spelling of “favourite” in there out of respect, both to Patrick and to Ed Sprague, and I guess also to Pat Borders. This is a delightful question, and not just because I most emphatically do get that same thrill. I have gotten the sense that most people who picked up the Immaculate Grid habit have either moved on to something else or just realized that it is uncouth to bring up having played Mark Eichhorn for a 0.7 rarity score in pleasant company. I have never stopped doing the Grid, although I no longer assume that anyone else is doing it, and I only bring up Mark Eichhorn in emergencies.

And so I go on, happily plowing through three or four different attempted solutions per day, like an athlete training for an event that not only will never appear in the Olympics, but is considered weird and uncool by the world at large. I have known people who do stuff like this in real life, who worked their asses off and pay their own way to, for instance, regional ballroom dancing championships, and I was always impressed that they were willing to do all this despite it not being something that codes as cool. Now that I am someone doing a discreet little fist pump when I get credit from my computer for remembering that Lance Johnson once got 227 hits in a season with the Mets, I maybe admire it less, but feel more kindly towards those people than I did before.

But I bring this up not just to celebrate “One Dog”—that was Lance Johnson’s nickname, and I already celebrate him every day—or even just myself, but because I have found that there are kind of a jarring number of teams that I feel this excitement about. I don’t how or why any of these teams made their way so deeply and so stubbornly into my memory, but while I probably have the best recall of the maximum number of janky Mets, I also have a lot of early-aughts Royals kicking around in there somehow, and more ’80s Blue Jays than I can justify, and inexplicably complete sets of 1990’s Baltimore Orioles dudes. A lot of this is just remembering baseball cards, but even given all the (manifest, public) defects I’ve got going on it doesn’t make any kind of sense for me to remember this much about Mike Devereaux and the teams he played for. It’s not the sort of thing I’d ordinarily be comfortable talking about, but if this is not a safe space for it, I don’t know that one exists. At the very least, I can’t see anyone’s face as they read these sentences, and that’s a mercy.


How do you pronounce the word “Panera”? This seems like a good place to address this vexing Issue.

Unfortunately we are out of time for today.

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