Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Bitter Side of Fate

Nicholas Gerard-Larson, a senior on the 2009 Milwaukee men's soccer team, will be blogging all season long on the UWM website. Today is his 11th blog entry.


I used to think music had hit its all-time low with the boy band manias and pop diva obsessions in the nineties, but current songs on popular radio suggest that the nadir of the music industry is still to come. The conglomeration of MTV, Clear Channel radio and the entertainment leviathan, Hollywood, continues to mass produce a sound that is gaudy, unoriginal and full of self-perpetuating stereotypes. The robotically manicured voices and rigid requirements for what constitutes a proper “image” eliminate any chance of these so-called artists actually creating something aesthetically or artistically pleasing. Sadly, they are doomed to be remembered as expendable commodities within an industry that cares more about commercial success and advertising than the pursuit of ingenuity and the progress of music as an art form.

Don’t misinterpret this as a hopeless relinquishing of modern music. Every age features dismal pop sellouts bloated with fluff, money and comprised values, as well as truly profound innovators committed to musical integrity and experimental exploration. Commercial success rarely reflects the overall worth of the music’s content, although there are certainly a number of successful artists that have achieved both financial gain and laudable artistic renderings. To find good music, in any era, you need to dig below the surface. It’s also always relevant to go to the source and uncover what a current artist listened to, reinterpreted and used for inspiration.

I don’t want to overemphasize the debt owed to the past when it comes to music for fear of appearing overly nostalgic. Every praiseworthy musician endeavors in some way to disconnect from the past and create an individual, original sound. Yet, some periods of music offer a Renaissance of sorts that bring generation after generation back to the genesis of that particular sound or attitude. Modern music, even the pop stench (yes, it crosses sensory boundaries), can be connected to these strands of innovation and revival. Black jazz from the turn of the twentieth century established improvisation and unique, individualistic phrasing. Delta Blues during the Depression era, with its percussiveness, call-and-response rhythms and penetrating pathos, set the stage for rock and roll. The mythological status of this generation of blues artists is embodied in the tale of Robert Johnson meeting the devil at a crossroads somewhere in the South and agreeing to sell his soul for unrivaled guitar skill. Listen to “Ramblin’ on My Mind” and it’s hard to argue with his allegedly hellish inspiration.

The 1960’s incorporated both of these eras, relying heavily on the blues, and spawned a movement unparalleled in human history. The palpable energy of activism and conflict were reflected in the music, from folk protest ballads to psychedelic acid rock, the theme of sex, drugs, rock and roll certainly characterized that epoch. Appropriately, good modern music draws heavily from this era and a revival in hippie apparel, albeit devoid of egalitarian values, continues to demonstrate our generation’s affinity with the ‘60s culture.

The bone I have to pick with modern pop music centers on the excess of the genre, elements that have emerged at almost all stages in the development of this phenomenon. You know something is skewed when the image is more important than the sound, especially if the topic is music. It appears that rap stars care more about their cars, money and women than originality in rhyming or staying creative in their adaptations of jazz and blues beats. Stars like Hannah Montana focus their energies on television ratings and commercial brand names, not what content is being inundated into impressionable young minds. “Emo” groups, given the title for their alleged obsession with emotionalism, clearly believe that dark clothing, unintelligible screams for lyrics and destructive, mosh-pit mentalities show everyone that their feelings (and therefore their music) are worthy of artistic admiration. If you need all these suggestive elements to convey your message, it’s obvious the music is severely lacking.

Our locker room tends to frequently feature the bass vibrations of sundry rap and hip hop songs, some of which are the worst representations of reality or musical talent and others that are incredibly ingenious and effective in their lyrical pursuits. I tend to freely and openly criticize those songs that really threaten my sense of decency or musical decorum, although at time it’s best just to laugh at the outrageous sets of words these artists string together. Although I portray myself as an ardent and implacable critic with unappeasable expectations and standards, I continue to find worthy music from almost all genres and the ever-increasing size of my musical library is testament to my openness in this endeavor.

Here I’ll retain my obligation of describing our team’s soccer-related events, although I warn you, it was not a very pleasant week for UWM. On Tuesday we traveled south to engage in a border battle with Northern Illinois University at DeKalb. The victor would win the spoils of the John LeWang Trophy, a prize that hasn’t been in our possession my entire tenure here. If I continue the battle analogy further it will unfortunately result in a summary of the game as a “total annihilation,” so I’ll dispense from that comparison to maintain some semblance of dignity for our team.

We started the game fairly well, stringing together a number of passes and attacking the NIU net with speed and audacity. After about the first twenty minutes we appeared to get frustrated and impatient and allowed ourselves to fall listlessly into laziness in the defensive third. We gave up two goals to poor defensive marking on corners and free kicks, leaving us 2-0 down at halftime. Despite the excitement and resolve apparent as we entered the second half, we quickly dug ourselves deeper into an ever-expanding hole when NIU was given a penalty kick within the first two minutes of the whistle, making the score 3-0. We seemed to indifferently confront the next forty-five minutes, watching despairingly as the hole we occupied expanded into a subterranean chasm of five goals against. Thankfully, (Peter) Sanger netted an excellently placed free kick to give us a very small bit of encouragement, and the game ended 5-1. Unsurprisingly, the bus ride home was void of anything resembling a cheerful disposition.

We worked hard in the practices following our dismal effort at NIU, resolving to make up that loss with a strong showing against Valparaiso on Saturday. The weather proved unexpectedly mild and at game time a beautiful autumn night awaited the pending action of an exciting conference match. The first half saw both sides trading several penetrating attacks, although we maintained more possession than our opposition. Neither side could capitalize on their chances and at halftime we entered the locker room tied 0-0. We started the second half better than almost any I’ve experienced this year, achieving numerous chances on the opposing net, while maintaining a tight defensive structure that impeded all early Valparaiso attacks. The Valpo goalie truly outdid himself in stopping several point-blank blasts from our forwards and midfielders. Despite the overwhelming number of strong attacking opportunities, we were unable to finish. A fateful bit of misfortune in our box resulted in an own goal and the game ended in a 1-0 loss. It was a bitter end to a fairly depressing week. However, there’s no time to dwell on this recent string of losses. We travel north to Green Bay on Friday for our final conference game, giving this match incomparable gravity for the emerging playoff picture.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Stressful Times Call for Stressful Measures

Nicholas Gerard-Larson, a senior on the 2009 Milwaukee men's soccer team, will be blogging all season long on the UWM website. Today is his 10th blog entry.


We’re about halfway through the semester and the tell-tale signs of overwork, stress and fatigue are becoming increasingly apparent. It’s at this stage that everyone generally realizes how much work needs to be completed in the next eight to nine weeks when classes end. In my case, it’s grasping the daunting task of researching and writing three major history papers, one of which needs to be at least twenty-five pages. In addition to the increasing demands of the academic realm I work three jobs on campus, spend two to three hours a day at practice and still manage to roughly throw together a few random comments, ideas, and observations for this blog.

Don’t ask me how it all gets done. My drug of choice, coffee, offers a valuable hand in completing this veritable fury of tasks. It’s a testament to the volume I consume when I no longer shake after drinking a pot of French Roast in the morning. I can’t imagine this lifestyle is very healthy, so I’m looking forward to the day I won’t need such a caffeine boost just to operate normally. However, that day increasingly looks far out of sight. The nine to five workforce looms ever closer on my horizon, gnashing its teeth in preparation for yet another victim. But let’s face it, that’s the trajectory for most of us and griping about it won’t change anything.

Not that I’m opposed to working hard or being successful in the economic world that confronts us, although the magnitude and gravity of this system certainly humbles even my self-assured, hubristic ego. Factors like increasing conglomeration, intensified job competition and exported businesses and industries abroad continue to rattle my sense of hope and optimism for the future, and all of these fears inauspiciously loom larger as I (and everyone around me for that matter) get closer to plunging directly into a system with such stark inadequacies. I apologize for appearing so pessimistic. This is not the time or the place to elaborate upon all the grossly pressing economic problems manifesting themselves in our country, let alone those facing the world at large. Yet, it helps to discuss these things. Simply by engendering debate, regardless of whether it’s politically or economically palatable with your views, aids everyone’s understanding of particular issues, and maybe that, more than anything, can help place my general outlook in a far more optimistic light.

Perhaps I haven’t articulated myself well enough, but I’ve wasted enough time on such mundane and trivial subjects, so it’s back to the workings of our team. Our four game unbeaten streak continues to keep morale high, despite the depressing effects of overcast skies and cold rain. Many of our recent practices have focused on attacking patterns, which involve long sessions of hammering home positional particulars and individual expectations in building the attack. Although at times these drills tend to become a bit formulaic and uncreative, they succeed in establishing a rigid framework for our offensive mindset.

Our only game of the week involved a short trip south to downtown Chicago. University of Illinois at Chicago’s field is situated right below the monolithic, black Sears Tower (recently renamed the Willis Tower). It provides a fitting backdrop for a soccer match, making the game feel more emphatic and exciting. Their pitch is short, fast-running grass and is excellently maintained, even for our game’s position towards the end of the season. UIC generally has a rowdy, slightly obnoxious crowd yelling every number of obscenities behind the opposing team’s goal and our game on Saturday was no exception. I’ll neglect to repeat most of the insulting swill pelted at (John) Shakon from behind his net.

The last few years saw UIC ascend to one of the top teams in both the Horizon League and the country, with the Flames reaching the NCAA Tournament for the last three seasons. They tend to recruit a fair amount of foreign players and are generally a very strong possession team. Although this year’s squad definitely lacks some of the brilliance of previous seasons, they kept possession for long periods and were moderately successful at penetrating our final third. Defensively, we played very well and limited the number of strong opportunities UIC had directly on goal. Although we gave up a large amount of corner kicks and set pieces, almost every chance was easily turned away from our net.

On the offensive side of things we developed some exciting patterns that led to great attempts on goal. Two such chances in the second half came close to giving us the lead. (Matthew) Bewley fired a close range blast after getting free from UIC’s defensive backline, but it was parried away by their goalie. The UIC keeper came up big a few minutes later when a low, driven cross was sent into the box. A UIC defender tried to clear the ball, only to redirect it towards his own goal. We agonizingly watched as the goalie made an excellent, last-minute reaction to touch the ball over the net and keep the score level. In the closing seconds of regular time a UIC corner kick finally succeeded, putting the home team up 1-0 with twenty-nine seconds remaining. We couldn’t capitalize in those last moments and found ourselves suffering a bitter, one-goal loss. We had played fairly well, but in conference games scoring becomes rare, emphatic and absolutely cutthroat. The result leaves us at 2-2-2 in the Horizon League with two games remaining. Strong results in those matches can give us home field advantage for the first round of the conference tournament, something that has eluded our team for the last two seasons.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

We Heat Up as the Weather Cools Down

Nicholas Gerard-Larson, a senior on the 2009 Milwaukee men's soccer team, will be blogging all season long on the UWM website. Today is his ninth blog entry.


This week has been windier than almost any I can recollect. I’m talking about some serious gales, not the usual wimpy 20 miles-per-hour headwinds. Serious gusts whip up loose debris and fallen leaves, never in one consistent effort, but instead in vast desultory efforts of momentous natural power. As I biked back to my house one night I was nearly committed airborne by the whirling twisters emerging around me. I started humming the Wicked Witch of the West’s song in mock tribute to the Wizard of Oz, hoping to avoid a falling house and a descending pack of flying monkeys. I could almost hear the wind whisper, “I’ll get you my pretty and your little dog too.” Needless to say, I made it home without any red slippers.

Saturday marked my 22nd year on earth and I feel it’s appropriate to share a few trivial insights. Ironically, Brett Favre turned 40 on the same day. Looking back, that makes him 18 the day I gasped my first breath. I wonder how he celebrated becoming an adult the very day I emerged into this chaotic universe. Some superficial research brings up an interesting story. Favre gained the starting position at Southern Mississippi in mid-September of 1987, as a 17-year-old freshman. He had assumed he’d be redshirting and the night before the game got excessively drunk. Despite vomiting as he ran out onto the field Favre led his team to a come-from-behind victory over Tulane, securing his position. A few weeks later on October 10th, his 18th birthday and my beginning, Favre lost handily to number four Florida State. All this information was taken out of an article by Gary D’Amato called “Life of the Party,” and can be accessed on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website.

It was an exciting day for sports, back in 1987, as the Minnesota Twins played their third game in the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers. They lost the game on the 10th, but won the rest of their games to advance and eventually win the World Series. I’m told that my father and other family members occasionally peeked out of the delivery room to check the score, something my mother would hold against them for years to come.

Saturday also featured our only game of the week with us hosting the Loyola Ramblers at home. The temperature had been dropping consistently throughout the week and at game time the thermometer hovered around a cool forty degrees. Most of our players sported long sleeve under armor shirts and gloves to combat the cold. As a native Minnesotan from Duluth, a port on Lake Superior several hours south of Thunder Bay, Canada, I’ve been unusually trained in cold weather tactics, so the conditions on Saturday seemed subjectively frivolous. The only real concern around this time of year, when the air turns cool and dry, is the impact it has on one’s breathing. Extensive exposure to the late fall and early winter air, especially for the first time during that particular season, brings chest aches and rattling, painful coughs. This generally goes away after training a few times in these conditions and the gradual drop of temperature during the week succeeded in tempering most of these traditional weather-induced ailments.

We started the game with intensity and excitement, gaining a couple of very strong chances in the first ten to fifteen minutes. We were rewarded for our hard work around the twenty-minute mark when (Andrew) Wiedebach slipped a shot by the Loyola goalie to put us up 1-0. We maintained good pressure for most of the half, excluding the last ten minutes, where we allowed a Loyola free kick to be re-directed into our goal, leveling the game at 1-1.

At half time I noticed that my knees had stiffened far more drastically than normal. Rejecting the urge to blame this on my recently achieved milestone in age, I concluded that the cold weather had in fact made its mark on my body. In such temperatures it is imperative to bundle up whenever one is idle and then properly warm-up the body again before resuming athletic activity. Appropriately, I indulged in these practices before the start of the second half and felt confident my body would hold up for another forty-five minutes.

We resurged at the onset of the second half, pushing hard to gain the go-ahead goal that had been equalized in the first. The situation arose in a little over five minutes into the half as (Cody) Banks flicked a header into the net to put us in the driver’s seat once again. Despite several harrowing moments in our defensive third we kept the lead and achieved our second straight conference victory. We aptly celebrated with the traditional team anthems in the showers. A full entourage of family members greeted me after the game and helped me finish off an excellent birthday with a succulent dinner of filet mignon at the Mason Street Grill.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Overtime Antics

Nicholas Gerard-Larson, a senior on the 2009 Milwaukee men's soccer team, will be blogging all season long on the UWM website. Today is his eighth blog entry.


We experienced another downpour at practice on Thursday night. A veritable gale accompanied the constant onslaught of heavy rain particles, succeeding in keeping visibility to a minimum. Under these conditions it only takes a short training session to turn the grass on Engelmann into a sloppy, pockmarked battlefield, reminiscent of the fields in the movie Braveheart. I could easily make some broad comparison between athletic competition and warfare, but I think such an association is specious at best.

I acknowledge that sport certainly requires a great degree of discipline and rigor. At times I feel more like a repressed private at boot camp than a sovereign, freethinking individual. Yet soccer, more than most other sports, necessitates creativity, autonomy, and mutability. The game only stops for a limited number of situations, making most strict, drawing-board plays of X’s and O’s impossible to implement. Outside of set pieces like corners and free kicks, the coach has a fairly restricted role in explicitly “calling” for a particular play, since the focal point of action, namely where the ball moves, is almost entirely transitory. Good players must inherently understand this mobility of the game and be able to adequately think, react and respond to unique and changing situations, without the help of timeouts and the complimentary coaching specifics of other sports.

Soccer is not a game of numbers. It is not a game of statistics. This probably demonstrates, at least in part, why the U.S. has taken so long to warm up to the game. The sport lacks baseball’s litany of pitching and batting stats and differs greatly from basketball’s obsession with fouls and triple-digit scores. One number is often enough to capture the essence of a game, and this realm of subtlety, clearly foreign to many Americans, has only recently gained a small foothold on the other four major sports in the country.

Promisingly, this year ESPN has picked up games from arguably the top two leagues in the world, the English Premier League and the Spanish top division, La Liga, making first-class soccer far more accessible to American audiences. In past years ESPN has broadcast Champions League, World Cup qualifying and U.S. National Team games, but the arrival of consistent weekend broadcasts of these prestigious leagues promises to provide an even more comprehensive picture of Europe’s dominance on the worldwide club level. Most of our players acknowledge the continued development of the American counterpart, Major League Soccer, yet we pay far more attention to the European leagues, simply because the quality and excitement is unparalleled.

As our season progresses I may make incidental references to European games, both to illustrate our team’s enthusiasm for high level soccer and to chauvinistically promote my squad, Arsenal. Don’t expect an unbiased discussion when the Gunners are involved. Despite some significant injuries and two dropped decisions against the top teams, Arsenal remains on the upper end of the Premier League table and has maintained their style of exciting attacking soccer and beautifully scripted possession.

The autumn air was cold as we warmed up for our first home feature of the weekend on Friday night. Following our routine set of drills we headed into the locker room to change into our jerseys and run through any final idiosyncratic preparations. As I ran back onto the field when my name was announced for the starting lineup I felt the cold sweat under my jersey evaporate from being exposed to the chilled night. This temporary shiver was quickly replaced by the warmth and satisfaction of kinetic activity as we started the first half. Our opponents, Cleveland State, traditionally occupied the lower dregs of the Horizon League almost every season. However, in the past two years they’ve drastically improved their program and are now considered one of the better squads of the conference. With a team of thirteen seniors they certainly played with a high level of experience and consistency for the entire game.

The pivotal moment of the game came a short time after the twenty-minute mark when (Zach) Funk got free on a breakaway and was taken down deliberately by the Cleveland State keeper. The goalie was rightfully shown red and Cleveland played down a man the rest of the game. Unfortunately, their newly substituted back-up keeper saved the penalty kick and regrettably set a precedent for the rest of the match. We created an absolute flurry of attacking chances while staying very strong on the defensive end, yet none of our efforts led to a goal. (Cody) Banks hit the post with a wonderfully placed header in the first part of overtime for arguably our best chance on goal. In the closing seconds of the second overtime period Cleveland’s goalie came off his line and swatted a ball out that bounced directly towards my feet. I attempted to chip the overstretched keeper and his backpedaling defenders only to watch my shot bounce off the crossbar, denying our last hope for a final go-ahead goal. Despite having an extra player for the majority of the game we were unable to capitalize on our advantage and settled for the 0-0 tie. It was an improvement from many of our past games, even though we certainly should have emerged with a victory.

The second fixture of the weekend featured Detroit Mercy and felt oddly similar to the Cleveland State game. Although we didn’t harbor a man advantage it felt like we exhibited the higher level of stability and possession that comes with playing 11 on 10. Detroit lacked the organization of Cleveland State and their backline was fairly slow and unpredictable. We gained numerous chances from playing balls to the corners and through progressions up the sidelines that led to crosses. Unluckily, we found ourselves tied 0-0 at the end of regulation, prompting our third straight overtime battle. Only minutes into the first overtime period however, our luck changed. (Matthew) Bewley struck a shot off of a cleared corner kick that wove through the scrum of players in the six-yard box and bounced directly off the post onto the happy and willing foot of Ross Van Osdol. He didn’t miss from that range. We enthusiastically tackled the goal scorer in celebration of our sudden death victory. Perhaps our luck, if such an elusive and arbitrary entity can be blamed for misfortunes, is finally changing.