Soccer fever! You either have it, or you don’t. And if you live in the US, you probably don’t. Having grown up in Europe, I do have it a bit—just a bit.
Now, I’m not going to try convincing you that soccer is cool and you should like it. It won’t work. I think it’s like with religions—you align with the thing you were raised with far more than you reason yourself into it. So, my ambition with this post is much more humble: I’ll present three lesser-known sports that I like and I wish were more popular. I’m not really picking hipster-cool sports you probably haven’t heard of; I mean, I technically am, but not for reasons of hipness. These are genuinely popular in my birthplace of Croatia and in most of the surrounding countries. I sincerely like them.
Like a combination of soccer, basketball, and hockey, this fast-moving, small-team, small-court sport is an endless wave of energy punctuated with spikes of truly awesome jumps and launches. Here, check out this YoutTube reel.
At its best, it’s like basketball with constant dunking and an opponent always there right in front, ready to possibly block the seemingly impossible leap. You gotta love that.
My appreciation of handball is helped by the fact that my dad, my aunt, and my brother all excelled at it. I did not—the only sport I am even remotely capable at is table tennis (which, while wonderful, doesn’t need to make this list because it’s already one of the most popular sports in the world.)
It’s not handball’s fault that I suck at running and jumping, though. Handball is a sport with another feature I’m a fan of: the ability for a small group of kids armed with little more than a ball and a flat-ish space to just get up and play.
Similar to handball—except played with your, uh, feet—this “little football”, as it is sometimes known, is another friendly, easily acquired team sport. Its scale solves a common complaint about soccer: it moves quickly, and goals come much more frequently. See here. (Yeah, those are clips from the American Major Indoor Soccer League. That exists!)
You still get soccer’s fancy footwork, clever assists, and explosive goal shots. It lets star players shine, but it also definitely relies on the whole team getting on the same wavelength. It’s the tiny, beautiful game.
From kid-friendly team sports to an individual, feat-based sport which seems almost impossible to prepare for, let alone get into casually on a sunny weekend: ski jumping, the mad endeavor that makes X Games seem quaint and over-safe. For maximum awesomeness, you’ll want to check out the sport’s highest tier, ski flying—named so because the jumpers soar over snow for more than 700 feet.
Watching ski jumping is nothing like following a long match of basketball or football with their drama and characters and arcs: it’s just one unblinkingly continuous, brief event, and it ends in either disaster or triumph (for even a non-winning jump is surely a triumph of humanity over physics). The scoring is extremely straightforward, and the international mix of characters is fun to track. It’s like Formula One without the protection of the car.
Plus, as a kid I thought the superhero-like outfits combined with the unflinching focus on the jumper’s face was just about as cool as you could get.
It also helps—like, literally helps—that all three sports are quite popular with women as well as men.
So there you have it, some sports to maybe not change the channel on—or, heck, to look up further on YouTube. Hope you like them!
Today is the fifteenth anniversary of my move from Croatia to the United States. I guess it’s time to stop using the above excuse when I mispronounce “haphazard”, forget a state capital, or get confused about how to use a drive-thru lane1.
It was maybe two years after the move that I started thinking full-time in English, a language I’d previously only used in the classroom. Oddly, English felt more comfortable in my brain than Croatian ever had. Long sentences were easier to build, idioms were deeper in meaning, and new phrases came more naturally and more frequently. I didn’t feel myself tripping over the grammar or worrying about the vocabulary as much. There always seemed to be a different way to say something if I got stuck on a word.
This is partly due to the prevalence of American culture in, well, much of the rest of the world. I grew up with American cartoons, TV shows, and movies (all beautifully subtitled instead of horribly dubbed). I listened to American music—duh. I used computers set to English.2
And it’s also partly because I was born in one country—along with its own culture, language, and values—called Yugoslavia, a hybrid glued together from disparate peoples after World War I; then it morphed, through a civil war, into another—Bosnia, the previously largely-Muslim, Ottoman-influenced Yugoslavian republic; and then the family moved mere blocks away to a third, Croatia—a predominantly Catholic, Italian-and-Prussian-influenced, “Western-style” country.
All these moves came with tweaks to the way I spoke—Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian, the three big languages of Yugoslavia, are very similar, but the minute differences were seen as absolutely crucial delineators once the warring started between the Yugoslavian republics. It’s as if Texas and California went to war, and saying “y’all” in San Diego went from folksy-cute to a potentially mortal giveaway. Look, it’s one of THEM!
And what I spoke of mattered as well. You wouldn’t want to profess your love of a (completely apolitical) Serbian band from the 1970s during the war in Croatia in the 1990s. Better to stick to Looney Tunes, My So-Called Life, and Radiohead.
Of all those post-Yugoslavian places I lived in, Croatia is the country with which I mostly associate my childhood. This despite the fact that I lived there a shorter time than in Bosnia, or in the US now. It’s because the place where you went to high school casts such a long shadow over the rest of your life, I think. Croatia was where I made all the friends I remember, all the friends who shaped my tastes and opinions and prejudices. Meanwhile, memories of kids from my early childhood were smudged by the war that transitioned me into teendom.
And my high school memories are fading now as well. I’ve met so many lovely people since 1999; they’re displacing the old friends. Only so much room in the li’l brainbox. I try to keep in mind that this happens, to some extent, to every high-school graduate. People move away, start jobs, start families. Friends become Facebook updates.
Most adults have a home to go back to for the holidays, etc. My immediate family all moved to Florida when I did, so trips back home are now to the “new” home.3 And as for my life in Bosnia, I literally can’t go back to that house. It is now occupied by another family, relocated there by the “other guys’” army when they invaded our hometown. We escaped to the Croatian town across the river and stayed there for years, practically able to look back on the family house we had fled in the middle of the night, unable to visit it. And when the war finally wrapped up and it became safe and legal to cross the border and walk the old streets again, it was still emotionally unsafe. So I never went back.
But I’ve been in the United States for fifteen years now, and it feels more like home than any other place. The US of A has been inviting and welcoming to me. I’d worried about fitting in—I have always worried this my whole life, and I always will—and was pleasantly surprised to find the people here patient and eager to help a newcomer. This is largely luck, likely; had I been of slightly darker skin, or slightly more visible religious beliefs, or of less middle-class-mainstream needs, things may have turned out differently. That sucks. But this is home now, and the cracks and holes in my home are mine to fix.
In four years, I will have technically been American more than I’ll have been anything else. It has already felt that way for a long while.
* * *
1 For the first ten or so years here, I’d avoided the drive-thru lane because I—don’t laugh—didn’t know how it worked. I felt silly driving up and asking, ok, what happens now? At some point in my mid-20s, a switch flipped and I’m now generally more eager than anything to ask precisely that: hey, I’ve never done this before, how does it work?
2 It still freaks me out today to see an operating system in Croatian. I have no idea what half the words mean, because they were all hastily invented in the late 90s to catch up to decades of American terminology.
Are you starting a tech podcast? Are you still looking for that perfect title that speaks directly to your core audience of programmers, tech writers, and fanboi? Do you think it’s funny when words mean, like, one thing, but also another thing? Here are some possible titles—and show ideas—that’ll rock the roof of the exclusive club of software development:
- Auto Layout — You’ve always wondered how your favorite developers organize their car’s dashboard and glove compartment. Wonder no more!
- Hide Others — Tips and tricks for turning your social anxiety into antisocial productivity
- Profile Without Building — Fascinating conversations with people who haven’t actually shipped much software
- Master-Detail — A podcast for those unafraid to show their computer who’s the boss by insisting on having all the minutiae of their desktop set up just so.
- Code Signing — Code is art. Artists sign their work. What part don’t you understand?
- Discard All Changes — Casual chat about the good old days of programming, back when it was just a man and his machine. Yes, a MAN.
- Simulate Memory Warning — Everyone ages, even coders. In this podcast we ask some seasoned pros: are you afraid of getting old and dying some day?
- Special Characters — Interviews with self-described “development divas”
- Human Interface Guidelines — How to talk to other people in an insightful and entertaining way
Continuing my 2013 breakdown, here are the movies I liked last year:
- Tucker, Francis Ford Coppola, 1988
Chances are you’ve never heard of The Tucker automobile, and chances also are you’ve never heard of this Coppolla/Lucas film. It’s a lovely, friendly, beautiful little piece of golden-age cinema. Effortlessly watchable stuff.
- Threads, Mick Jackson, 1984
1984 was a singularly mind-blowing year for cinema, mostly due to the number of popcorn action flicks Hollywood put together. The British speculative pseudo-documentary Threads is the polar opposite of all that: an absolutely terrifying, mortifying, depressing, unbearably sad speculative account of how a nuclear apocalypse might unfold. While Hollywood’s post-apocalyptic fictions usually choose to show the Wild West that follows the disaster, Jackson focuses on the immediate cost, the social tragedy. If you thought The Road was dark, Threads makes it looks like Harry Potter (I mean the first film). If you can stomach it, it’s masterfully done. Unforgettable. Watch the full film on YouTube.
- The Emperor’s New Groove, Mark Dindal, 2000
I know—you’ve seen this. But I hadn’t, and for anyone else who hasn’t yet: seriously, it’s good stuff. The Chuck Jonesiest thing Disney ever dared release.
- Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles, 1967
By some accounts, the director’s own favorite. He takes all the appearances of John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s plays and weaves them into a single narrative with the usual ingredients of Welles’ genius: stunning cinematography, previously unseen effects, larger-than-life theatrical performances, grand themes of pride, betrayal, and purpose in life. A must for fans of Shakespeare or Welles. [Hard to find]
- In A World…, Lake Bell, 2013
A thoroughly modern comedy with a “voice” all its own (har har). Can’t wait to see what Lake Bell does next.
- Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven, 1997
I was so into this when it came out, and then I spent fifteen years thinking I was an idiot for liking what everyone else told me was a cheap, trash/pulp sci-fi flick. Dummies—this is one of the cleverest, most confident, most daring movies of the 1990s.
- Mind Game, Masaaki Yuasa, 2004
Truly impossible to describe except as a bathos-filled existential daydream, Mind Game may be the most joyously, goofily, wildly, maddeningly, beautifully cinematic film I’ve seen in years. It contains seemingly everything. [Hard to find]
- Mud, Jeff Nichols, 2013
Jeff Nichols and Matthew McConaughey both continue their ascents into the upper echelons of American independent cinema. A lovable heartland tale.
- Lazer Ghosts 2: Return to Laser Cove, Steven Kostanski, 2008
A schlocky trailer for a nonexisting movie, made to illustrate that you don’t always need more than a few minutes of the viewer’s attention to fully engross and entertain them—a sentiment I can very much get behind. Watch it on YouTube.
- Homicide, David Mamet, 1991
Mamet’s movies are often flawed in similar ways: hyper stylized, oddly dialogued, needlessly overplotted. This one is a lot like that, too, but it’s worth seeing for its truly unpredictable story.
- Black Narcissus, Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1947
Visually, perhaps the most stunning movie I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t hurt that everything else about it is skillfully handled, too. Powell & Pressburger made movies unlike anyone else’s, and this is a particularly good one.
- Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón, 2013
- Five Minutes Mr. Welles, Vincent D’Onofrio, 2008
Vincent d’Onofrio directed this short film to redeem himself for what he thought was a poor job of playing Orson Welles in Burton’s Ed Wood. It’s a cute bit of insider theater, tightly written and edited. Recommended for all Welles fans. Watch it on YouTube.
I need to get better at making the time to check out more movies. I like movies! If you really care to see what I’m watching, follow me on Letterboxd, maybe.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m pretty slow to catch up to new releases, so no one really wants to read about my favorite anything that came out last year. Instead, I’ll tell you about my favorite books I read last year, regardless of when they were first published. Here we go:
- A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson, 2003
You think you know all there is to know about these Western-science anecdotes, but Bryson manages to find interesting details and insights on nearly every subject, and he writes with a dry, likable wit that should draw you in from the first page.
Sam & Max: Surfin’ the Highway, Steve Purcell, 1988
You surely know the game, but did you know that the original comic book is even better—chock-filled with zany, corny, screwball comedy that feels less frustrating and more lovable on the page than it does in its interactive form.
- Sign Game, Justin Green, 1995
A charming comic that’s part history of signpainting, part how-to tutorial, and part amusing little inside-baseball chronicle.
- The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth, 1967
While Barth clearly wrote this postmodern take on the 18th-century farce-novel as a tour-de-force exercise in jamming into a book literally anything and everything he could possibly think of, he didn’t forget to make each page fun to read.
- How to Do Things With Videogames, Ian Bogost, 2011
With every short little essay in this book, I gained a new insight into videogames.
- Tenth of December, George Saunders, 2013
You may have read in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker that this is good, but did you know that it’s actually good?
- REAL Ultimate Power: The Official Ninja Book, Trey Hamburger, 2004
Of course you’re going to like this because it’s completely sweet and awesome!! What are you, a stupid baby idiot?
- What’s Bred in the Bone, Robertson Davies, 1986
Just straight-up excellent literature, from an author you’ll soon wonder why everyone hasn’t heard and heard of over and over again. (It’s part 2 of a trilogy, but don’t worry—it works on its own.)
- Templar, Jordan Mechner, 2013
This doesn’t reinvent the medium of comics, but it’s efficient, effective, good old-fashioned entertainment.
- A Hell of a Woman, Jim Thompson, 1954
This pulp study of a deranged mind at first reads like a twelve-year old’s violent fantasy, but stick with it—it’s something quite different.
- The Society of Mind, Marvin Minsky, 1988
Ranging in topic and complexity from casual anecdotes and folk reasoning to dense, neologism-laden academic work, Minsky’s one-essay-per-page AI masterwork feels like a text whose aphoristic tone and broad scope will reward each return to it, saying more than it seems to say at first.
- The Stench of Honolulu, Jack Handey, 2013
If you wondered how Jack Handey might handle the transition from the one-liners of Deep Thoughts to the long form of a novel, the answer is that he doesn’t even try. At a time when the dominant forms of comedy are situational, character-based, or just “awkward”, it’s good to see someone writing plain old punchlines.
Overall, I read 56 books this year. I aimed for 80, but a few long, slow books threw me off. My page count is ~16,000, or some 43 pages per day. (How do I know all this? Goodreads, natch!) Next year, I may well read far fewer books as I plan to write more.
I hope you find some new favorites of your own in the list above. Read on, my friends, read on.
You were kind of thrust into the position of poster child for a current spate of white chefs cooking Asian cuisine. Why do you think this became such a hot button topic for people?
I don’t know, really. Probably lots of reasons. I notice though that there’s not a lot of criticism of American chefs cooking Italian or Spanish food despite what their ethnic background is (Irish guy making some of the best Italian food in the city, anyone?)
You were more recently involved in a bit of an imbroglio about the fact that you charge for rice. Is this indicative of New York’s perception of Asian cuisine overall, that it should automatically come with free rice, or is this a larger, nationwide expectation?
It’s a larger issue than just rice. We seem to think that Asian food should be cheap and plentiful no matter what effort or ingredients go into it or what rent or wage is paid to produce it.