Wednesday, March 26, 2014

In Defense of Julius Peppers and his Supposedly Inconstant Motor

Here is a quote from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's story, by Tom Silverstein, on the Packers' signing of Julius Peppers earlier this offseason (bolding mine): 
And so Capers probably won't need to be too creative in finding ways to keep Peppers happy. But the Packers may have to find a way to keep Peppers motivated. He is a player who has been charged by some with not giving great effort on every play, but he did play an extraordinary number of snaps for the Bears and still managed to lead them in sacks most years.
JS guru Bob McGinn published an article a few days later with quotes from NFL scouts over the years, evaluating Peppers. Some highlights: "He disappeared on some plays but at least he showed up in each game. They used him well..." "He has the ability to turn it up to a level no one else has. If he takes a play off everyone is on his (expletive). The reality of it is you do not want to play that guy..." "His deal is, when he wanted to take over, it seemed like he could. But it's always been like this, rather than dominate a game. Some players that shouldn't have been able to, block him..." "He's a little off and on with his effort, as he's always been. I think it was a little worse [in 2013]".

The next day,  Tyler Dunne (also of the JS) had these things to say:

When the Green Bay Packers reconvene at 1265 Lombardi Ave., David Bakhtiari will have a question for Julius Peppers. The left tackle never understood these hot-and-cold, motor-related concerns himself. On the field, Peppers showed signs of slowing down last season. Scouts have ripped his selective effort.
It's hard to quarrel with McGinn's article, although one could argue that the scouts were influenced in part by the popular narrative I am about to describe. But Silverstein and Dunne's casual epithets--"motor-related concerns", "a player who has been charged by some with not giving great effort on every play" represent nothing less than a nearly thirteen-year smear of a journalistic narrative, a hearsay-driven, secondhand tarnishing of the man's character. And that bad journalism has perpetuated a narrative about Peppers that has stuck to him his entire career. He doesn't work hard. He takes plays off. Runs hot and cold. Questionable motor. Doesn't give great effort. The Journal Sentinel is no more to blame than half a dozen other media outfits, but they share the blame for perpetuating the following idea: Julius Peppers' talent is practically limitless, and any gap between his perceived talent and his actual production must be due to a fault in his character.

Let's go back to 2001. Peppers is a junior at the University of North Carolina, and until this season--his last in college--he was, in addition to being a star defensive end, a walk-on basketball player. At the time Tim Crothers wrote this article for Sports Illustrated, he had just given up basketball to focus full-time on football. And the ceiling for him, according to just about everyone, is limitless. "On a learning curve of zero to 10, Julius is still a five," says North Carolina coach John Bunting, who played 11 years at linebacker in the NFL. "That room for growth should be exciting to him and scary to everybody else." "Now that he's focused on football, I think he'll become a prototype for the next generation of defensive ends," says Illinois assistant coach Donnie Thompson, who coached Peppers at Chapel Hill for the last two seasons. "He's got all the ingredients to never get blocked."" Peppers will earn the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the nation's best defensive player, for his 2001 season. The awarding organization compares him to all-time great pass-rusher Lawrence Taylor. So do his coaches. This, mind you, before he ever reaches the NFL.

But buried just above those laudatory quotes is the following: "Peppers needs 12 sacks to break Greg Ellis's school career record (32.5), but he's more interested in expunging a rap that he doesn't go all out on every snap."

Expunging a rap?

He doesn't go all out?

First of all, it's crazy to think that every player gives maximum effort on every possible play. One need only turn on some TV tape or All-22 coaches' tape to understand this. But why is Peppers noticeable in this fashion? Where did the "rap" come from?

There is no evidence whatsoever in Crothers' article to back up this claim. Where did it come from? His coaches? Players? Did it come from watching Peppers' tape? Crothers doesn't say. And that's the thing. With the exception of McGinn and his scouts, no one ever bases this claim, in all its variations, on any actual evidence. It's all anecdotal. "Some have said." Hearsay. The narrative goes like this, and you saw it above: Peppers is the most freakishly talented defensive end prospect in a generation. Which generation? Doesn't matter. He can do absolutely anything. Then-Bears GM Jerry Angelo, in 2010: "[I don't] see any reason why [Peppers] can’t be the most dominant defensive lineman in the game this year. I’m looking for an MVP year out of Julius.” Panthers DE Mike Rucker, in 2006: "To be honest with you, if he keeps playing like this, I see the career sack record going down... The longer he plays, those records are just going to fall."  

He has freakish talent, they say. But it's always coupled to that malignant 'if'. It's the exact same thing people are saying today about Jadaveon Clowney, a potential No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft: he has all the physical ability in the world, but what about his work ethic? That's former Panthers GM Marty Hurney comparing Clowney to Peppers:
"What frustrates people sometimes is you don't necessarily see it play in and play out, but it's very rare to find players of that ability that can make game-changing plays like he can... What is being said about Clowney was being said exactly about Julius Peppers... The question was, does Julius Peppers play with the motor, does he have the energy?"
Here are a few other examples of this narrative.

Sports Illustrated, 2006: "There'll be no excuses from defensive end Julius Peppers this year, not with Maake Kemoeatu, the free agent from Baltimore, next to him. Peppers is so gifted an athlete that it's an upset when he doesn't lead the league in sacks--but he hasn't done it yet."

ESPN, 2009: Peppers, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2002 draft, is a freakish athlete who is Carolina's career sacks leader. But Peppers has also been criticized for inconsistent play -- he had a career-high 14½ sacks this past season, but a career-low 2½ the year before that.

Chicago Tribune, 2010: [Ex-Panthers coach John] Fox dispelled the notion that the Bears' new defensive end takes a lot of plays off. He said effort was not a problem for Peppers. "He trains and works hard," Fox said.

Most damning of all, Ross Tucker of Sports Illustrated in 2010: "Julius Peppers' work ethic may scare teams come NFL free agency".

He could have been a once-in-a-generation dominator, a first ballot Hall of Famer who we'd talk about for years to come. Now, such an end appears unlikely. His career has been marked by good seasons and bad seasons, big games and games where he was nowhere to be found. That's because Peppers is so gifted, he has gotten away with taking off more than his share of plays. He's not the only player who takes plays off. Far from it. Plenty of oversized defensive tackles do so to compensate for their lack of conditioning and the physical exertion that it takes to play the position. Some defensive linemen do so as a ploy, attempting to lull offensive linemen into complacency so they can beat them when it matters most. Wide receivers more or less do the same thing against cornerbacks; Randy Moss is a prime example of a skill guy who picks his spots. But Peppers takes plays off simply because he can get away with it.
That's the narrative. That he's so freaking talented--big, strong, huge arms, everything--but he is also lazy. He has never lived up to his potential. Note, as in most of the examples above, the lack of evidence. ESPN cites his 2.5-sack year in 2007*, but in his other six seasons at the time the article was written, he'd averaged over ten sacks per year. But everybody who covers Peppers, whether or not they have a casus belli, seems to bring the 'lazy' narrative up. And if most of them aren't as virulent as Tucker, those articles still acknowledge it in passing, the way Silverstein did, the way Crothers did, as something known by all that scarcely merits discussion to confirm its truth.

And yet everyone who actually works with Peppers says that's crap.

Here's David Bakhtiari from Dunne's article:

Through his two games against the defensive end — and all that Packers-Bears footage he studied — Peppers was a brawler... "I don't know what gets into him," Bakhtiari said, "but every time he plays us, he's getting after it. I want to ask him, 'What is it about going against the Green Bay Packers that you just bring it all the time?' I didn't get the chance to see him being hot and cold. He was steaming hot when he played us."
In that 2006 USA Today story, his Panthers teammates "gush so much about his greatness — and his agility, his flexibility, his work ethic, his energy — that the effusive praise almost seems cloying." Fox defended him in that 2010 article above, saying that 'effort was not a problem' and that "He trains and works hard". Former Panthers and current Packers DL coach Mike Trgovac told ESPN Wisconsin this, two years ago:
There have been times during Peppers’ career when his effort level has been questioned, but Trgovac insisted that Peppers was never lazy during his time coaching him. “Everybody said that about Julius, and the more we researched it, the more it wasn't true,” Trgovac said. “You've got to be careful sometimes. Sometimes somebody will give a guy a label and it'll get spread around like it did with Julius, and it wasn't true. Julius works his ass off and has been a great player. So you have to be careful. Sometimes a bad rumor gets started about a kid and it just keeps going and multiplying. So you have to make the decision for yourself.”
Israel Idonije, Bears teammate, had this to say: "Just watch him; watch the guy practice,” Idonije said. “He gives everything, and works hard from the beginning of practice until the end. And he’s not just doing his own thing. He’s doing what the coaches have asked."
Perhaps the most telling quotes came from an anonymous coach (one would imagine this is Trgovac again), from ESPN Chicago in 2010.
Now that he’s accomplished the change, Peppers wants to finally silence the critics. One NFL coach who worked with Peppers in Carolina, held the same beliefs about a perceived lack of effort from the defensive end.

“When we were evaluating before we got him, I thought that too. Then one of our coaches gave me tape from the [2002] combine,” the coach said. “He said watch this one first; then watch Julius. I watched the first guy, he’s straining through this drill, grunting, making all kinds of faces. Right after that, Peppers comes up and goes through the same drill [the coach imitates an effortless run]. Smooth. You look at your watch, and Peppers just smoked the time [of the player in the first drill]. He just makes it look so easy sometimes it looks like he’s not trying.”
Peppers laughed at the story, before agreeing and adding his spin.
“You know, I think sometimes certain players – and I don’t name names – but certain players have a certain haircut, they have certain sack celebrations. They draw a lot of attention to themselves. That stuff can make it seem like you’re playing hard when really, you’re playing [about the same] as everybody else,” Peppers said. “You’re just bringing that extra attention to yourself. Just because I go about it mild mannered and I don’t do all of that stuff, maybe that’s something to talk about, too. If you hear [the criticism] from a coach that’s a different story. But I have yet to hear that from a coach. People who say it and watch the game don’t really understand my responsibilities on certain plays. If my play is not to run and chase the ball, if my play is to stay backside, then I’ve got to stay backside. I’ve got to be disciplined. I can’t run across the field and chase stuff that’s not mine. I can’t help that stuff comes easy sometimes; easier than somebody else. So I deal with it and hopefully, after this year, people won’t say that anymore.”
Update: The Packers' Mike Daniels, after going through OTAs with Peppers, had this to say on 6/30: 
"Julius is 34 years old, and he outruns everybody in practice. I guess what I learned from him is that you have to bring it every day because he’s a guy who definitely does. At 34, playing defensive end, flying around faster than some defensive backs, linebackers, receivers, running backs --- everybody. I definitely learn from that.”


If somebody wants to go over the All-22 tape or the TV tape of Peppers and show me where he's loafing, where he's taking plays off, and actually prove this label, than I will shut up. I might even go back over the tape I have of him (all Packers-Bears games), when I have time, and do it myself. But until somebody does... until anybody, including the sportswriters--and these are mostly national publications, or regional publications that are relatively unfamiliar with Peppers, bringing this up, I'd like to note--until anybody backs this up with actual analysis rather than hearsay, I will stick to the interpretation of events that I have laid out for you: that lazy reporting and a popular, never-dispelled perception of Peppers as unfathomably talented, yet never having reached his potential, are responsible for his label as a lazy player. Not his actual effort level, not his production (he averages 9.875 sacks and 3.25 forced fumbles per season over his career), but the narrative. 

I think the narrative about him derives from a perception that the number of sacks collected equals pass-rushing ability; an underestimation of opposing teams' efforts to double-team, avoid and otherwise neutralize Peppers; a fascination with his athletic ability and a corresponding overestimation of it; the crazy idea that players should go 100% hard on every play; his high draft position; the pre-draft and throughout-his-career huge expectations for him; the tendency of reporters to retransmit a popular perception whether grounded or not; and the general ineptitude and shallow knowledge displayed by national-level sportswriters who have to sum up a particular player in a couple of sentences. Let's remember that he was being compared to Lawrence Taylor before he ever entered the NFL, expected to be the greatest player in a generation. He has instead been a very, very good player for a lot of years, and there's not a bit of shame in that.

*It's worth pointing out here that great pass-rushers can miss out on sacks through no fault of their own. Clay Matthews had six in 2011 because the other rushers on his team left or regressed, causing his own numbers to drop from 2010. Because Matthews has a reputation for giving great effort, however, no pundit or writer that I heard cited Matthews' desire as a reason for the decline.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The People at the City Club of Cleveland are Absolutely Crazy

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a wildly over- reasonably priced luncheon at the City Club of Cleveland to hear Professor Ahmed Ragab, of the Harvard School of Divinity, speak about the modern relationship between the disciplines of science and religious studies. He spoke for about 45 minutes, he was very engaging (I'll get to most of what he said in a minute), and basically gave the message that the two fields need to be working together to solve real-world problems. It was a good talk, it was an interesting talk, and then the Q & A session began and people went shithouse crazy.

The first guy to speak was at my table, and I don't remember the exact wording of what he said, but it was something like "So, given the Communist Fascist wars against religion that have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people in the past century, how does that square with your cooperation thesis, Professor?", followed it with "There are numerous scientists that doubt Darwinism, it's not fact," (around 29 minutes in) and then sat down.

Professor Ragab did what good professors do, which is to pretend that the crazy questions** people ask are not crazy at all, and gave some kind of charitable answer that let the guy down as nicely as possible. Fine. Done. Next question. It was my boss, actually, who asked a rather more lucid question.*** The next guy was fine, and the guy after him was okay, and we made it through most of the rest of the session without incident (except for this poor old guy who asked, in essence, 'So, what did you talk about?'. It was okay though because Prof. Ragab turned his answer, through some magic, into a plug of some real-world applications of his ideas that he'd done). I was getting a sense of how this club worked from the fact that the guy with the microphone for the questioners didn't let them actually hold it--he held it for them himself, presumably so he could yank it away in the event of too much crazy. But everything was going juuust fiiine.

And then came the last guy. 

He was sitting right next to me, and we'd chatted some through the first course, but not all that much. He was in his silver-hair years, Jewish I think, and said he'd come to find out how X and Y religions could coexist (too bad for him, that subject was not addressed). The guy held up the microphone, my neighbor leaned forward, and said "Given your background in science and religion," blah blah something about evolution, "If aliens exist, what do you think they will look like?" (54 minutes into the above link. Try it. It's magical.)

This is a true occurrence. It happened next to me. In life. Prof. Ragab, again, pretended like the guy's question did not evince something warped in the head, and the Q & A session ended. As we were packing up, I told my neighbor "You do realize that that's a question for a hypothetical future xenobiologist, not a science/religion professor, right?" He responded with something like "Well, I'm an engineer, and based on my engineering studies I think I know that the human form is optimal and I know what extraterrestrials will look like," in response to which I had a small stroke and headed for the door.

I told these stories to three different people at my workplace, all of whom are over 40 and native, reasonably well-connected Clevelanders, and all of them said basically "Yup, that was a normal day at the City Club."

Never. Again.

(Oh, yeah, I promised to tell you about his thesis. That was fascinating. His entire theory was based on getting rid of theories. His proposals were 1) to study science and religion in the lives of ordinary people, and how the two interact and commingle with the rest of a person's life and can't be just separated out academically, and 2) that science and religion scholars should use their disciplines to help inform and reform things like end-of-life care that both have a perspective on. Which is cool. But in calling for scholars to read sci-rel relations in the minutiae of peoples' lives, he's basically saying that life is too complex to be modeled by these abstract academic theories that we have now... which is true... but theories are a necessary tool in the social sciences to generalize large masses of personal experience into things we can work with in order to draw conclusions about society. Take that away and academics have to get into the policy underbrush and start working with people, which I wouldn't mind, I guess. The implications were very interesting to me.)

*Also, first reaction: "If you think Communism and Fascism are the same ideology, your question is probably going to be worthless."

**I don't think this is worthy of its own blog post, but I have believed this for years: When teachers say 'there are no stupid questions', what they mean is that the impulse to ask a question is never a bad one. It means the questioner wants to learn something. You want to encourage people to seek knowledge, you want to encourage people to take risks and challenge their own beliefs, and you want somebody to ask the questions that everybody might be thinking so you can enlighten a bunch of people at once. That is all fine. But there are absolutely stupid or banal or ideologically-motivated-to-destructive-ends or reveals-that-the-listener-was-asleep questions, and this was one of them.

***Yes, if my boss had said something boneheaded there's no way I would tell you (in public), but hers was cogent. When you put it into the context of the Club it was downright stupendous.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Katzenjammer's Le Pop is Awesome

I love Le Pop. The debut album of Norwegian band Katzenjammer, Le Pop is up there in my personal favorites with Ayreon's The Human Equation, Kansas's Point of Know Return and Rush's A Farewell to Kings. It is brilliant, creative, insouciant and crazy. The title track, after ten seconds of loud, attacking piano and drums, features this opening line: "Feeling like a lollipop forgot in Pyongyang!/Dancing to the voodoo beats, oom bam bah!" The singer name-checks Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, pauses to yell "no means no, no means no!" and later screams "Kickin' at the motherfuckers one by one!" This all takes place over loud, energetic, jarring, carnival music that sounds like it was made to be the someone's last burst of energy in a long race.

Katzenjammer is like that. They're capable of immense energy and crowd-rocking songs, like "To the Sea", "Le Pop", the rollicking, head-bobbing "Demon Kitty Rag", "Hey Ho On the Devil's Back", the twangy "Ain't No Thang" (a Norwegian folk band playing American country music? Sure, why not) and the softer "Play, My Darling, Play". The band plays 15-20 instruments between them and switches up between songs frequently, so no two tracks sound exactly the same. But they also have the freedom to do softer, less peppy songs, like the wonderfully disturbing "Tea with Cinnamon", "Virginia Clemm" or the amazing "Wading In Deeper".

The genius of Katzenjammer, for me, lies in the stories they tell. The songs are almost invariably wonderful and completely unique; "To the Sea" sounds nothing like "Play, My Darling, Play", which sounds nothing like "Demon Kitty Rag". Some songs sound like the band stepped right out of a carnival, some out of a funeral; they have pianos, accordions, acoustic guitar and what sounds for all the world like a pipe organ on "Tea With Cinnamon". And the music is almost invariably good. I don't like "Virginia Clemm" much, and "Mother Superior" gets a bit too heavy and grating at times, but when you're trying lots of new things, there's no shame in a miss or two. 

But while the music is excellent on its own, it's the stories that make Katzenjammer unique. (Most of them are sad, disturbing or evil, so obviously I'm going to love them.) Take "Tea with Cinnamon". Conducted in a light, deceptively airy tone, the song brings to mind some kind of sunlit English parlor, but one where something is subtly, terribly wrong. "Wake again, to tea with cinnamon, some honey on a spoon, it is almost noon", murmurs the singer, before saying "Walking down the stairs to shed my morning tears". The song only gets more unnerving. Something has gone terribly wrong in this person's life, something that's left her alone and unwell; later in the song, she (brilliantly) says "I am very sane". "It's so beautiful," she sighs in the closing lines, "but it's not real." What isn't? The sunlit parlor feeling? What happened to this person? It's stupendously captivating to me.

Not all of the songs tell stories like that, but the ones that do... man. "Wading in Deeper" is stunningly dark, about a woman who copes with tragedy by walking deeper and deeper into a river, almost a funeral chorus kind of song. "Hey Ho On the Devil's Back" is kind of a classic European folk story, about a woman accepting a ride from the Devil and paying for it. "Play, My Darling, Play", well, I have no idea what it's about, but it's a wonderful song. And then there's "To the Sea", my favorite in the whole album.

"To the Sea" is the ultimate dive-bar song. You can imagine some waterfront crowd around 1 AM, laughing and talking to each other, a haze of cigarette smoke in the air and an unknown band playing on a creaky stage. Perhaps the crowd was losing interest and Katzenjammer wanted to wake them up, because the first three piano chords come in like a battering ram. Wham! Bam! Slam! Glissando! And we're off! Some sloppy-drunk sailor spits out his beer, people turn around towards the stage, conversations die out and the singer strides out to center stage, wearing elbow-length velvet gloves and a Victorian petticoat. The music, once again, is rollicking. It's a very short song, not even two and a half minutes, but there's time for a whole world of emotion. It's sung by a woman who's lost her husband at sea, and she's not a weeping widow, she's angry! It's hard to describe the impact of her words, tightly delivered and bitterly fast. And so evocative! 

"The wind is a-whippin' through the open doors,
Speaking of the sea and the rolling' waves
Maybe there's a ship at the bottom now
Or struggling on the surface with a cry for help
Wish I could forget and let the years go by
Wish I could escape from my dreams of you!"
I mean, come on! Later on, "I was standing on the shore as the sky grew dark/With a hand on a Bible and a hand on my heart." Later still: "Because all I have left is the voice of the wind, blowing through the doors of our house". That's ridiculously evocative. And it's delivered so quickly, and so full of fire. 

That's Katzenjammer: brilliantly crazy, able to tell wonderful stories, outlandishly talented. Their second album, A Kiss Before You Go, is to me a bit less exciting than their spinning-off-in-all-directions debut; it's calmer, a bit tamer, full of slightly blander pop songs like "Rock, Paper, Scissors", "I Will Dance (When I Walk Away)" and "Cocktails and Ruby Slippers". The frenetic energy is a bit less, although the talent and creativity are still there. I would tentatively recommend that one, but full-throatedly recommend Le Pop. It's one of the most creatively inspired records I've ever heard.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Cadillac Desert is Lush but Overgrown

Somewhere around the 400th page of Cadillac Desert, the late Marc Reisner's brilliantly sarcastic, extensively researched, unapologetically biased, frequently horrifying extended tirade about the use and abuse of the West's water resources, I realized that everyone in the entire book was an asshole. Except Jimmy Carter. And even he was an asshole by accident.

With the exception of occasional lone gunmen or community spokesmen who stand up to protest the building of an unnecessary or poorly located dam, all of Reisner's characters are, well, assholes. Commissioners of the federal Bureau of Reclamation who authorize huge numbers of lousy water projects; city fathers of Los Angeles who steal a river right out of the Owens Valley; Army Corps of Engineers engineers who battle with the Bureau for the right to construct dams in specific sites. Reisner's goal was nothing less than to write a complete history of all water development west of the Great Plains, of the federal and state agencies who did it, of the rivers and the groundwater they used, and of the spread of civilization made possible by water development, and of everything everybody did wrong in the process. He does this... kind of.

Here are the good parts. Reisner was an incredible, and hilarious, writer, at his best when his tongue was sharpest. The introduction and the first two chapters were absolute stunners. In vivid, excoriating language, Reisner takes us through the ineffiencies of federal subsidies (why are we subsidizing farmers over here not to grow things, and why are we subsidizing water so that farmers over here can grow the same things?), the history of American frontier expeditions through the west (brilliantly captivating) and the story of how L.A. stole the Owens River (insane and shocking, a human tragedy). It's impossible not to be hooked, and it's impossible not to be outraged at the injustices that have, according to Reisner, been perpetuated in the borderline holy cause of making the desert bloom.

This is a great book, in that sense. But if you're going to read it, I recommend doing so over a couple of months. Keep an atlas nearby that shows all the major rivers of the West, and their dams, if possible (my edition's maps are completely inadequate for the level of detail he provides). Read a chapter, walk away for a week, read another chapter. Keep a log, for perspective's sake, where you can pin down Reisner's fluid terminology. A hundred million acre-feet of water sounds like a lot. Is it? Is that a big river, a small river, Colorado's average water consumption? What about money? Is $3 million a lot for flood control? Can you buy a good dam for $500 million? How much more does a 1960s dam cost than a 1930s dam, and why?

There is a reason for all these precautions. Cadillac Desert, brilliant and mayhem-raising though it be, reads like the manifesto of an angry man that it is. It rambles, and it doesn't provide much-needed context, and the tone really doesn't change throughout the book. I said "sort of" above, because Reisner's history of water development is not a complete one. He wanders from state to state, project to project, treaty to treaty, agency to agency, federal to state, dam to dam, without really unifying all of these pieces into a theme beyond, as I said, "everyone is an asshole" or "they're doing it all wrong". He doesn't tell the story of water development in the West so much as he tells a lot of different, smaller tales that all have to do with one central topic. It's more of a short-story collection than it is a polished polemic.

That's the rambling problem, and above it is the context problem. Reisner simply doesn't say a lot about how big a deal each individual project or state effort is, in terms of water; you have to keep track of that yourself. (It's tempting to assume--this was something like a ten-year project--that by the end he knew it all himself well enough not to need a key, and believed the same of his readers.) But the biggest problem here is that everyone is an asshole and everything is going horribly wrong! Reisner is merciless, attacking his enemies' characters right along with the projects they championed, and for him, everyone is the same and every project is bad. There are few stories about things done right, or the benefits that water projects gave. There are few pauses for reflection, summaries (and if it wasn't clear, this is a pretty complex topic) for the reader, recapitulations or places where Reisner points out a theme. It's story and anecdote after story and anecdote, and while they're all well-written, you get numb to it after a while.

If Cadillac Desert were a college essay, it would largely be missing the last two or three paragraphs where you sum up everything you've found and tell the reader what it all means. We're all going to die of thirst or poison our fields with mineral runoff or run out of groundwater or go thoroughly bankrupt or I don't even know what. Every chapter is its own grim prophecy. And maybe they're all true! Maybe this book is absolutely the clarion call we need, but that isn't my point. My point is that by the four hundredth page of reading about how everything is going to shit, it ceases to sink in. You get to the latest disaster-in-waiting and go "Huh." instead of "AAAUGH!" because you've already gone "AAAUGH!" a dozen times already, today! That's why I suggest long breaks between chapters, pauses for contemplation that the book does not contain.

I should caution here that all of this is not a reason not to buy the book. It is very much worth buying, I don't regret reading it, I think it's fascinating and well-written, and some condensed and less one-sided version should probably be in textbooks about the settlement of the West. Or about how domestic politics works (apparently water is king in Congress. Who knew). Although a taxing read, it's well worth your time. For best results, follow the steps above: take it slow, take notes, look things up and get a map.