The Year Football Became Basketball: A Rant

There is an old joke regarding soccer. They say it is a game that has 22 people run around for 90 minutes and then Germany wins.

College football in the age of the so-called definitive play-off system has rewritten the joke. The sport is one where hundreds of teams play 12 or 13 games and Alabama plays for the National Championship. I admit that most of this dominance is testimony to the awesome machine that is Crimson Tide football. I do not want to detract from their skill or their ├ęclat in any way. And during those seasons where they finish as they should, on top of their conference, winners of their championship game and ranked among the top four then by all means they deserve their place at the table.
Nor do I want to suggest that this year’s Alabama squad is not one of the very best teams in college football. Their defensive victory over Clemson was comprehensive. If they can do the same to Georgia then perhaps they deserve the National Championship. But there is no scenario where you can convince me that they deserve to be playing there.
The regular season must stand for something. But the third and fourth seeded teams are playing for the title. Conference championship must stand for something. But one of the final teams did not even make their conference championship. Why insist that the regular season be played at all, except as a money maker for the schools. Schedule eleven fluff opponents plus a couple of rivalry games to keep the fan base happy and then choose four teams by reputation to play in the play-off. No, three teams, for one of those spots is already etched in stone for the foreseeable future.
College basketball has both suffered and benefited from inclusiveness over the years. Teams are hampered or unfairly helped by position on pre-season polls. Losses are weighted differently by the reputation of the school. Who cares about a February game against a mid-pack opponent when you know your conference will get four or six teams into the dance? Who cares about a conference tournament when even a first-round upset can’t knock the front-runner out of their high seed at the NCAA? The Tournament is a separate season and has diminished the regular season to a mere speck of light.
College football is at risk of becoming college basketball when a team that does not win its conference, does not even play in its conference championship and finishes ranked outside the top four in all but the Play-off poll is playing for the National Championship. The games mean something. Rivalries mean something. Conferences mean something. I think the Play-off committee needs to look up the word “definitive.” Spoiler: the definition does not include the word Alabama.


From the Belly of the Press

I have lived through a passel of Presidential elections.  Since I first became old enough to realize that such things as issues and platforms existed, I have read the editorials and endorsements in as many newspapers as I could find.  As a hobby, I have reached back into the press morgues to find what the newspapers said about presidential candidates who were merely historical names to me.  It has been an ever-replenishing source of astonishment and amusement.

To say that this year’s election is remarkable is to engage in the broadest of understatements.  The politics on display are not in the purview of a blog like this.  But with regards to endorsements, I will observe the amazing one-sidedness – only one of the candidates is being endorsed, even where it flies in the face of tradition and normal political alignments.  

Even more striking this year’s crop of editorial stands is the number of dis-endorsements that have been published again the very lopsided numbers.   It is one thing for a hitherto conservative newspaper to endorse a Democrat.  It is quite another for the same paper to run a separate piece arguing why the so-called conservative candidate is in their eyes unacceptable.  One can argue that negative arguments are never the most effective, but when a publisher and editorial board start with the stance that one candidate is simply unqualified it makes a strong and remarkable statement.

A typical argument from the aggrieved supporters of the maligned candidate is that no one cares what the newspapers say anymore.  Newspapers are losing readership in this country at alarming rates.  Fewer people, according to polls (mostly online), are using newspapers as their primary news source.  Circulation is shrinking, as is the size of the papers themselves both in terms of page size and number.  Many local papers are closing shop, or selling to national interests while maintaining their local editorial boards.  Some have abandoned unique editorials altogether.  So, the argument goes, if no one is reading the newspapers, who cares whom they endorse?

If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around to hear it, is it Obama’s fault? (There’s that nasty politics again.)  But the real question is, does an editorial lose its authority because fewer people are reading it?  It may lose its effect.  I remember my grandmother waiting to see who the Boston Record American endorsed to decide where to cast her vote and the wild arguments between her and my New York Times devoted mother.  Now it is probable that fewer people are informing their decisions on what a publisher says to them.

But that does not remove the validity of the editorial statement.  In the best circumstances, editorials and endorsements are carefully thought out and explored decisions.  At a recent luncheon, the Associate Editor of the Dallas Morning News described the process in detail:  ten editorial board members wearing their board hats (not personal opinion) hash out what they want an editorial to say based on their interpretation of the stories and the prevailing sentiments of their readers and community.  It is a painstaking and thoughtful process, or it should be.  Even in those areas where an editorial is the written from the personal beliefs of a single editor, it still reflects a consideration of what that individual thinks the readers believe.  Newspapers are not blogs.  They have community investment and speak, in however flawed a manner, with a public voice.

So this year’s flock of endorsements and dis-endorsements do mean something.  They mean that on consideration of the values and the mores of the community, a trained board of writers has determined what the community believes – not the only belief to be sure, but that which reflects the consensus.  In this setting, the overwhelming support of one candidate and the disproportionate lack of support for the other are all the more striking.


Get Me to the Greek (Festival)

The Greek stones may not actually speak, but the food does.

Yesterday, we went to the 60th annual Dallas Greek Festival at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in the North part of the city.  The day was gray and gloomy, hinting at thunderstorms which never quite arrived.  But we are steadfast aficionados of Greek Festivals from many years back, so it would take more than impending rain to keep us away.

Despite the weather (or threat of it) the Fair was happy and busy.  The church is a large stately edifice with a matching parish house and a broad campus.  The friendly grounds were festooned with festival tents for the occasion which served as ticket and coupon booths, drink and dessert dispensaries and a massive and impressive food court.  The food court is the heart of all these festivals; that which attracts folks year to year even if they are Christopoulos’s or Levines .  More on the food later.

The Fair also boasted a small but thriving vendor’s area (where else would you buy your Pysanki eggs?) and cooking and music demonstrations.  To me, the church bookstore was by far the most intriguing retail spot.  We found it well stocked with incense and icons of all shapes and practical size (including a small palm sized diptych of Jesus and Mary which we added to our collection).  In addition, the shelves were lined with thought provoking books on liturgy, history, epistemology and all aspects of the life of the Greek Church.  One of the things I admire most about the Orthodox religions (including Roman Catholicism) is the desire to explore and understand their devotions. 

A crowning part of the day was a visit to the church itself.  Like many Orthodox Church buildings, Holy Trinity is shaped like a Roman basilica with a large narthex, squat and broad nave and aisles and a bold screened apse and altar crowned with a gilded dome.  The airy clerestory as well as the bright yellow paint gave the building a welcoming air which was countered by the haunting and solemn paintings of saints and priests, rendered in a Byzantine style.  These works were so strong and deft that they had a serene antiquity that belied their recent vintage.  The same sure hand was seen in the elegant and charming icons on sale in the store.

One small disappointment was the earnest choir toiling through their demonstration hymns on high in the choir loft.  It is surely no one’s fault, but an Orthodox choir without the booming grounding of deep basses is like a Kourabiedes without powdered sugar.   It is recognizable as a cookie, but not the kind it was meant to be.

Ah, and the food.  In full disclosure, I am mad for Greek food, haven’t never met a souvlaki that didn’t enrapture me.  In further candidness, I was not my usual trencherman self.  We chose lighter fare, but feasted nevertheless on spanakopita, pastitsio and salad.  The foods were fresh and genuine, down to the flair of the cumin in the noodles.   Other dishes on sale were grilled chicken, fried feta balls, the obligatory French fries, souvlaki, and crisp looking dolmanthes.  One thing missing that the festival we used to visit in Raleigh boasted was lamb kleftiko, which I love but always thought was ungainly for mass consumption.  Instead, the Dallas version featured lamb sliders with generous portions of juicy meat on small buns, probably a better approach and certain to leave fewer shank bones to clog the trash bins.

Greek families sang, Greek children danced, Greek deacons flapped about.  The outstanding feeling of this Festival was one of shared community, not just local but with all Greek Festivals everywhere.  I was transported not only to Raleigh but also to the heady days at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Brookline, MA where we were young.  For brief moments, even though we live in a strange city and we are not Greek, we were home.


Pirate Talk

It be Speak Like a Pirate Day, me buckos.  Arrrh.  Grab yer hornpipe and cut yer jib for smooth sailing.

I wonder why we assume that pirates ever sounded like that, speaking with a horrible cockney brogue broken with guttural growls.  In our imaginations, even pirates on Dutch or Spanish or French ships sound like they were just Shanghai’d in Stepney.

Our most enduring image of pirates comes from the book and the various movie versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.  The cut of the pirate suit, the filthy bandanna across the brow, the garish rings in both ears leap out at us from that quintessential story.  But if you read the dialogue, there is nary a “shiver me timbers” or a “belay that” to be found.  Stevenson, a Scotsman who traveled throughout the world, might have heard the flat southern accents and the colorful expressions of English seamen on his travels, but he chose not to garble their talk into Piratese.

It was the movie makers that filled in the sounds, just as they brought all aspects of American imagination to life.  In the classic 1934 Hollywood version of the story, the director needed an instant representation of how far into the dregs the brigands had sunk.  So although most of the backup actors were American, they can be heard growling in an unlikely mix of Irish and West London accents, some barely intelligible as human speech.  Even the great Wallace Beery, the classic embodiment of Long John Silver was born in Missouri.  His booming bass and the outlandish seadog utterances were meant to project low-born and criminal.  Because of the power of his portrayal, they became the essence of how pirates are meant to act and sound.

Of interest, other contemporary buccaneer movies, like The Sea Hawk (1940) or Captain Blood (1935), have the British freebooters speak in cultured tones.  Even the least noble of them has a rude poetic quality.  Of course these were British actors and were cast as the heroes of the show.  It was the French or Spanish brigands who do the grunting and the swearing.

So what would a real crew of pirates have sounded like?  It would have depended on factors such as who owned the ship, where was the crew recruited, what seas did it ply?  There would be a range of worldliness from callow rural runaways to the unlucky sons of richer families joining to escape debt or by misadventure.  There would be a wide range of accents and dialects, and even languages, since most pirate crews were not recruited along national lines.  There were probably pirates who sounded very much like you.

But where is the adventure in that?  On a fine made-up holiday like today, feel free to drink some grog, toss your tricorn and clay pipe in the air, play the pipes and dance a jig, feed a few crackers to Polly and praise a many of “me hearties” as you can.  The image is too fixed in our imagination to change now.  And if it makes you feel freebooting and swashbuckling, than a fine wind in your sail, lad. 



Empathy For The Devil?

It is Election Season and the pundits are out in force trying to out-erudite each other.  Here come all the arcane words like ‘hegemony’, ‘demagogue’, ‘tatterdemalion’ (okay, I lied about the last one but I love it so much).  The most commonly used and misused word in this cascade of verbiage is ‘empathy’.  People understand that empathy is something good, but they don’t use the proper context for a very complex concept.

For most people, empathy is a fancier way to say compassion.  An empathic (or the more correct ‘empathetic’) person in their eyes is one who is moved by the suffering of others and therefore acts on their behalf.  They could use the word ‘compassionate’ or ‘sympathetic’, but the word ‘empathy’ has a gravitas, a sense of being a higher order of feeling.   And it is just that, but not within the confines of the pundits’ usage.

The sense of sharing someone’s sorrow is sympathy.  Sympathy is the innate understanding of the tribulations of another through self-experience.  You can be sympathetic to a heart stricken lover because you have had a heartbreak yourself.  You can understand the pain of a broken arm because you once broke your ankle.  Sympathy is selfish and self-focused; the recognition of the responses of another only through what you have felt. 

Compassion is a more generalized and weaker term, the description of an emotion.  You feel sorry for suffering individuals because you can sense that they are suffering.  It is the sorry state they are in that moves you and not an understanding of the cause or effect of that state.  Compassion, though a kindly feeling at base, can border on pity and even condescension. 

Empathy is far more difficult to attain.  It allows you to understand a state of being without having experienced it yourself.  In empathy, you don’t need to have broken your arm or have even felt the same level of pain to recognize that the pain is enormous and requires treatment.  You don’t need to have gone hungry yourself to recognize that poverty and its resultant starvation are woeful conditions.

Sympathy is easy and common although sadly not universal.  Most people are likely to feel bad for someone in pain having experienced pain themselves.  There are some who will not of course.  But even the feeling of anger at a person who is complaining of suffering is a form of sympathy.  You were strong enough to survive.  Why aren’t they?  You have overlaid your response to a known situation onto a stranger, even if your reaction is not a kindly one.

Empathy is difficult and rare.  It requires the abstraction of a state to the point where you can understand not only the condition but the responses of the people involved.  Again there is no implication of compassion in the term.  What you do with your understanding is strictly up to you.
Where the punditry most falls apart is in the ascription of empathy to a candidate or another figure in the public world.  A candidate may be said to be too removed from daily lives of constituents, so that person cannot have empathy towards them.  In fact, that person could only have ‘empathy’.  

Sympathy is impossible without the shared experience.  But an intelligent and thoughtful statesperson might know enough about the human condition to understand that issues of daily life for a person of a different status.  FDR did just that in attempting to reverse the Great Depression.  He was never on a breadline in his life, but his understanding of society allowed him to realize that the want of food was a dreadful thing.  In his case, his empathy moved him to compassion and he implemented a number of New Deal initiatives.

Literature is rife with episodes where a character has to live the life of those in need to understand and act on their behalf.  Ben Hur must experience slavery in order to rise up and lead the slaves to the emancipation of Christianity.  Scrooge has to witness the biting poverty of most of England and recognize his own aloneness in order to save Tiny Tim.  Joel McCrea as Sullivan in Preston Sturges’ classic movie “Sullivan’s Travels” must pretend to be out of work and destitute in order to realize what the films his audience wants to see. In each case, the character’s sympathy is released by sharing the downtrodden state of his beneficiaries.

As in life, it is rarer to find the character who acts from reasoned understanding without needing to suffer the actual scars.  John Galt, for all the flaws of the book Atlas Shrugged, is an empathetic character (perhaps the strong desire of Ayn Rand to associate her character with Jesus, the original empath).  With far less self-conscious depth, both The Scarlet Pimpernel and Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities are empathetic.  Why are you doing this?  It is the right thing to do.  “It is far, far better thing…”


A Modern Olympian Ode: To Michael Phelps

Yesterday, August 11, Michael Phelps, the greatest swimmer ever won his thirteenth individual gold medal.  In so doing, he broke the record of the greatest of ancient Olympians, Leonidas of Rhodes, stuck for 1600 plus years at twelve.  Arguments can be made as to whose achievement was more overreaching - travel, training, diet, lifestyle and level of competition are all so different.  But even the most ardent of purists would have to recognize that the modern swimmer's feats are unparalleled.

Absent for the modern athlete is a bard or poet such as Homer or Pindar to memorialize the achievement.  It has been a long time since any new Olympian victory odes were completed.

In poor substitution, and with vast apologies to Pindar and any other ancient Greek whom I might offend, I present this effort.  The complex meters of Pindar's odes were beyond me, so I fell back on dactylic hexameter, fitting I think for the extraordinarily epic nature of Michael Phelps's accomplishments.

Olympic Hymn #1

Glory, unquenchable son of Poseidon!  Your epos sings forward through
age and the passage of countless Olympiads.  Timeless, yet measured in
intricate seconds and fractions of moments.  Ephemeral.  Frozen and
captured in images, sweet preservation of youth’s endless power.  Yet
aging before us, through photograph trickery - ever compared with the
specter of earlier triumphs, of golden medallions engraved with
lost cities – Athens. Beijing. England’s capital. Now with a tropical
paradise.  Pool edge to podium, change is untraceable.  Victory
stands in identical prominence, heedless of year or location.

Glory, impossible national treasure, whose exploits rewrite every
Olympic history.  Lists you’ve rescripted of champion’s banners and
futile nemeses, lurking and snatching a victory, finally,
only to fade back among the broad registers of all the vanquished.
Glory, great flag bearer, larger than life, and reminder that swimming and
other sports not wreathed in helmets and uniforms still can be meaningful;
capture attention and imagination, if only quadrenially.
Every four years your face rises, grinning and tragic, from depths of the
green natatorium.  Wingspan, as broad as the oars of a trireme,
beats first the torso then conquers the water with ruthless endeavor.  E-
longated fingers trip electric sensors as watchful as Argus, then
clench in victorious power to splash on the overcome waters.
Every four years you leap from the height of the starting block, pushing your
intricate muscles beneath the smooth battleground, surfacing buoyantly,
hardly a splash made, yet farther than each of your flound’ring opponents,
gaining momentum in uncanny fashion despite the exhaustion of
moving through glistening pressures not meant to be mastered by humans.

Glory, indominant son of the waters whose Olympic legend is
safely entrusted to history and the persistence of myth.
       Keith Mankin, 2016


World Building 101, with Lindsay Buroker

I am writing and revising two high fantasy novels.  They are set in the same location in sequence but as the second progresses I have added new locations and new characters to push the story forward.  Already, I am stumbling over consistency in my geography, my topology and the political layout of the map of my imagined realm.  Inventing a world is not easy.

Lindsay Buroker, who is my favorite fantasy and science fiction author, seems to create worlds for the fun of it.  I have traveled with her through three of them so far (and looking forward to more). Each one is full and rich as well as consistent and distinct, peopled with characters who are as distinct as their environments.  I could not imagine Amaranthe from The Emporer’s Edge series   strolling down the capital of Iskandia any more than I could see Ridge Zirkander from Dragon’s Blade flying over the skies of the Empire.  Ms. Buroker is a generous author.  Not only are her city- and countryscapes richly described and rendered, but every character is fleshed out with a full and complex personality.  Each is given a full share of humanity, complete with strengths and many weaknesses.  As such, I would recognize Maldynado or Cas or any of her creations if I met them in real life.

Recently with uncharacteristic daring on my part, I contacted Ms. Buroker to see if she would be willing to share some of her experience in writing fantasy novels.  After my initial (and obligatory) gushing, she agreed to answer a few brief questions.  There are dozens more I could and should have asked and I hope for an opportunity someday, but for now please enjoy her responses:


Q:  When you are working in a series, do you meticulously plan the world that your characters inhabit or do you discover it along with them as the plots unfold?
LB:  Oh, I’m not meticulous at all. About anything in life. ;) I do try to plot out the basics of a series and have an idea how things will end before I get started, but I find that new ideas crop up along the way, so I like to leave room to explore them.
Since I tend to do a lot of world-building as I go, I’ve started writing the first two or three books in a series before going back to edit and publish them. This gives me more time to discover the world and add some depth. I did this with the series I launched with my pen name last year, and it worked well, so I’m doing it again right now with a science fiction adventure series that I plan to launch this summer. 

Q:  How do you maintain the distinct voices of your characters?
LB:  This is a challenge as I write more and more books. I’m up to 30 full-length novels now and I don’t know how many novellas and short stories. From series to series, I think my heroines will often have a lot of me in them and perhaps be a little similar in that regard, but I try to give all of my characters distinct backgrounds and quirks that make them feel a little different from each other. 

Q:  In addition to very strong female characters, your books always include well-developed male characters as well.  Do you find any difficulty in writing the opposite gender and any tips for doing so?
LB:  Thanks! I think there’s always some guessing and a bit of the unknown when it comes to writing the other sex. I tried listening to the audiobook version of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus once, but mostly I just remember what it was like being in the army. I was the only woman in my platoon for a while, so I was inundated with the guy humor and the guy perspective on life. That scene where Maldynado pees his name in the snow? That happened on a field exercise. :D (The guy had a shorter name, so it wasn’t quite so impressive of a feat.)
For tips? I would just say eavesdrop on some all-male conversations. And the same goes for male authors: listen to some all-female conversations. We often edit ourselves when the other gender is present. You get the genuine stuff when they don’t know you’re listening! 

(Lindsay Buroker’s books are available at bookstores and online.  For more information and excerpts, I recommend her blog at www.lindsayburoker.com).