5.25.2022

A Year in Essays - 5/25/2022: The Same, Sad Song

I’ve written, far too many times, about public shootings. The latest atrocity in Texas may be particularly horrific in its attack on elementary school children, but all the others have been equally tragic and distressing. The biggest problem by far is that these events are no longer shocking. They no longer have the stand-alone starkness of the past. We have had mass shootings at least six times this month alone and there is yet another week before Memorial Day.

It is so frustrating to hear our so-called leaders wringing their hands as if there was nothing to be done. “We already have laws,” they mewl, ignoring the fact that, here in Texas at least, the laws are all but ignored in the race to get guns into every hand. “We have to protect the Constitution,” they simper, as if the right to life and freedom is not enshrined in the very document that they cite to protect the right to slaughter. “I get paid so much by the NRA,” they never whine, but they don’t need to. Their behavior is self-evident.

Later this week, that bastion of Russian influence, the NRA is descending on Texas like a biblical plague. Several of our elected, sitting leaders are on the docket to attend, including Governor Abbott and Senator Cruz. Why we allow sitting officers of the state to attend private conventions is beyond me. When they were elected, they became Texas, at least in representation. All of Texas, not just their own ideals or the constituency who voted for them. They represent everyone in the state, including the 80% of people who want gun regulation.

The decision that these two feckless stooges make in the next few days will speak volumes. Will they attend, pretending that it is business as usual or will they choose, this year at least, in the face of unspeakable tragedy, to boycott? “Not this year, Wayne. It’s too soon.” Will they choose to stand with the slaughtered innocents and their families or with the instruments of their slaughter?

I know which way they will decide. Large donations and personal appearance fees will win in the end. They may even convince themselves that they will be doing some public good, putting themselves in a position to speak about the need for gun responsibility. Positioning themselves, perhaps, but not speaking out, I’m sure. A bloodthirsty mob of your most ardent supporters is not the time to ameliorate.

But can we dream about a leadership who does have the will to try something, anything to stem the tide of domestic terrorism? Because doing nothing is not working. And any dreams we have of life, liberty, or even the pursuit of happiness are rapidly turning into a nightmare of false liberty and selfish freedom.



4.24.2022

A Year in Essays - 4/24/2022: Unwritten Rules

 

A lot of talk about unwritten rules in sports lately. I have to laugh about the hypocritical purity of anyone talking about the “gentle” arts of professional sport. We are long past the time when we can pretend that pro sports are about anything but making the most money possible and the way to do that is dominance.

The latest great offence comes from the SF Giants of MLB. In a game against the Washington Nationals where the Giants entered the ninth inning trailing 1-0, they proceeded to score six runs to take a commanding lead. Their crime against the “unwritten rules?” At 6-1 up, the base runner on first dared to steal second and then to try to score on a single before being thrown out at the plate. How dare the Giants try to “run up the score” like that? The unwritten rule is that they should have… what? Stopped trying to score during a big rally? Tipped their caps with a hearty, “Well, we have ours, gentleman. No need to make you feel bad about the whole thing?” The Giants had just proven that a team can score a lot of runs in an inning and the Nationals had another at bat to go. Why would they have taken their foot off the proverbial brake?

The thing about unwritten rules is that they presuppose a kind of give-and-take that doesn’t exist anymore if it ever did. I doubt Ty Cobb would have declined to steal that base. Heck, he would have gone up spikes high even if his team were up 12-1. Look at Pete Rose, the Great Competitor, destroying catcher Ray Fosse in a meaningless All-Star Game. These players would say you play, or you don’t. There is no concept of going easy. And this was before a time when an extra stolen base or run scored may be worth millions of dollars for the player.

Sports is controlled cheating. The reason we have rules is that teams cannot be trusted to do the right thing without them. Doubt that fact? Try playing a game of pickup basketball sometime. The best sportsmanship we can expect or hope for is that at the end of the day, no matter how rough the going is, the two sides line up and shake hands. Even at the professional level, it’s just a game. Somehow, though, I don’t think the Nationals will be shaking hands with the Giants anytime soon.




4.09.2022

A Year in Essays - 4/9/22: Cricket Calls

Let’s talk some cricket – four words I never thought I’d say. Cricket is my new fascination, having discovered a channel on my cable package that shows the sport (or commentary about it) 24 hours a day.

In point of fact, my fascination goes back much further. In 1978, freshly scrubbed and graduated from high school, I traveled to Scotland and England with my brother for the only boys out vacation of our lives (not strictly true, we had a short jaunt to Pittsburgh for a baseball game much later). It was June, so the British weather was spotty at best. There were a few pleasant days – our jaunt to Cambridge was sunny and bright, but for the most part we faced the bracing English (and Scottish) mist for much of our time abroad. For museum and bookstore folks like David and me, it was no big deal. Contrary to the old song, in foggy London town, the British Museum had not lost its charm. But on one foul day, it was too rainy even for that esteemed institution, so we stayed in our hotel room, munching pork pies and drinking orange squash. English television was (and remains) a mystery, and the only remotely captivating event I could find was a cricket Test Match – the English national side against someone (I don’t remember whom). England were batting and seemed, to my limited knowledge to be doing well. I settled down as David read and dozed, intent on learning the rules of this mysterious game.

I knew cricket existed because I had British and Indian friends, and I was obsessed with the Avengers (the British spy show, not the Marvel superheroes) and other British TV. But all I knew before was the shape of the bat and the ball and a rough idea of the layout of the field. It was no easy task to piece together the language and the rules of a game jumping midway into a broadcast meant for aficionados. What is an inning? What is an over? Why do the batters (‘batsmen’) run sometimes and not others? Why are some hits worth six points and some four? Why does the bowler (I got that term quickly) change out every few balls – six, as it turns out? Why does he sometimes raise his hands in triumph when nothing appears to have happened? I did fairly well in the four or so hours spent on that gloomy day. It helped that I had a hero to catch my eye – legendary all-rounder Ian Botham was just rounding into form and that day he hit for over 100 runs before looping a ball in the air and being caught out. By now, I had lost interest, David was restless, and the rain had abated enough for us to go outside in search of entertainment.

That was the last I had thought of the sport except for occasional exposures (the T20 World Cup Cricket was being played on Eurosport when we cruised to Austria and Hungary not long ago, so I caught a few short-form matches). Now suddenly, Cricket is a daily presence. My original interpretations of the rules were actually quite good (for a neophyte) and I’ve honed a lot more of the information. I can speak intelligently about batmen’s production rates, about extras and ‘no-balls’, about bowlers’ efficiency. I can even tell you a bit about strategy, although I’ve yet to learn the fielding positions. Those come next.

But every time I see the batsmen set in his (or her – I love the women’s game!) crease and the bowler makes his run-up, I think back to that gloomy hotel room, rain pouring outside, a small television crackling, Ian Botham swaggering, and my brother fussing in the background.



3.26.2022

A Year in Essays - 3/26/2022: The Four Way Test

This morning, I attended, as representative of the District, the Rotary Four Way Test Speech Competition for all-Plano high schools. I was allowed to give a brief welcome and introduction to the small crowd of speakers, welcoming to the status of “Rotary Alumni,” and then listen to the first handful of their speeches.

First off, let me say how impressive they all were. Although I think I could have given a savvy speech in High School, I know most of my comperes could not. Most of current comperes could not do as well as the bright young things did on display today. So, congratulations to all involved.

There were problems with the inherent set-up of the competition. By dividing the kids into small groups which rotated to the three judges (strictly speaking it was the judges who did the rotation), no student got to hear more than the three or four other speakers in their panel. This diminished the inclusivity that is inherent in both Rotary and the Four Way Test (“Is it fair/beneficial for ALL concerned?”). Also, allowing each student to present three times gives a different function to the competition. It should be a “give it your best shot” process, rather than a “learn as you go one.” By having the panel of judges listen to each of the speakers in turn, it would have allowed the event to seem more of an occasion. Held in an auditorium or a big enough classroom, it could have featured an audience, which would have improved much of the quality. These are quibbles.

The most curious thing that I saw is that the interpretations of the Four Way Test were pointed in the wrong direction. Whether this was due to an error in the instructions or perhaps a misinterpretation of the Test itself, all of the speakers I heard used the Test to evaluate outside things. One looked at social media, one at verbal abuse, one at the fall in empathy, and one even used it to evaluate the Russian invasion of Ukraine. All of the speeches did a good job of touches on the tenets of the Test, and it is no surprise that none of the four circumstances passed the process.

But that’s not what the Four Way Test is for. The preamble to the four question instructs that it be used to evaluate “the things WE think, say, and do.” Not what THEY do, nor what YOU do. What WE do. It is an inward facing test. The one who came closest to it was the girl who talked about verbal harassment. She essentially summated her talk with the idea that before you tease, you should ask yourself the Four Way Test. She was still judging others’ behavior but at least had incorporated the Test as preview rather than a review.

The talks were interesting, savvy, surprisingly sophisticated, and well-performed. But there was no difference between this competition and the opening salvos of a Debate event. I somehow feel that the Four Way Test should be taught as so much more.



 

 

3.07.2022

A Year in Essays - 3/7/22: Comic Culture

I found a picture of one of the bookcases in the now gone Comics Room at my parents’ house on Dean Road. The shelves are crowded with eighteen surprisingly neat piles of our treasured books, most with covers torn or corners lost, all pored over, memorized, and loved. The picture is of the DC side, given over to Superman, Batman, Flash etc. Not out of any lack of love, there are fewer titles represented than the Marvel bookcase across the room. So, this side also has my own personal Harvey collection – Sad Sack, Richie Rich, Little Dot, etc., books sporadically purchased in my younger days but read as frequently and loved just as greatly.

We never subscribed to comics that I remember. Every book on those shelves was hunted down for purchase, a labor of loyalty. Newsstands, five and dime stores, novelty stores, every new location we could find was interrogated for the welcome sight of a turning rack or a shelf of the magazines, standing primly in overlapping piles. In our early years, there was no such thing as a comics store, but the books were popular so the racks were ubiquitous, even if the selection from store to store may have been idiosyncratic. It often took us three or four stores to make sure we had the latest in all the titles we collected. But that was part of the thrill – a joy that all three of us siblings could agree on and share. A pursuit that even our frivolity averse parents did not mind. It was reading, after all, and they respected the written (and drawn) word above all things.

The books on the shelf have a bell curve of our interest and participation (like the giant box of baseball cards that I rescued from my parents’ house). There is a trickle from the early to mid 60s, followed by a flood from the turn of the decade, the height of the Silver Age. The vast majority of our books are from 1967 – 1972. In ’72, when we moved to Boston and created the legendary Comics Room, our interest was starting to wane, or perhaps it was our devotion to shared endeavor. Allison was in college. David had distanced a bit to fit in with his new classmates. Although we were given fair freedom to explore our new city, there were distance and convenience constraints that meant that we could no longer hunt out store after store. And perhaps the age of the comic book was starting to end. Our family still habituated bookstores and some, like the wonderful Paperback Booksmith in Coolidge Corner (still one of the best indy bookstores in the world) had a limited but satisfying selection, but the displays were harder to find.

Issues started to be missed. Titles were let go. The collections that we already had were still revered and read with frequency (in 2018 when I closed down the Dean Rd. house there were still piles of comics in each of our rooms), but the act of collecting had become less enthralling. Although I was able to keep some of my favorite titles going through high school, often by making semi-illicit sorties to a bookstore offering comics on “sinful” Charles Street (paying one of my classmates a dollar a time to accompany me), the bell was tolling. The last of our regular comic book purchases occurred in 1977 or 78.

The picture that I found includes so much more than its collection of fractals and pixels. Every pile on the shelf is familiar to me. Every torn cover or ruined corner. I can still hear the voices of the characters (“Groan, I should have known,” or “The gloves are off!”). I can still feel the electric thrill of grabbing a pile of comics to bring down to the table for one of our rare-treat reading meals. Or the dozy comfort of taking some of our printed friends down on a dreary, rainy day and basking in the familiar warmth of their company.




 

 

2.25.2022

A Year in Essays: 2/25/22 - Cruel War

There is an unsettled disquiet about a war, even in another part of the world, even not fully involving us. We know it is there in the images of people hiding in dugout spaces, perched with guns in the snow on ruined walls. We feel it reverberating in the blare of 100-point headlines in the newspapers, the clarions of disaster. Our heads ring with the echo of global prayers from the stricken and the allied alike.

Do the invaders pray as well? Possibly they are praying for clarity and maybe forgiveness. They are attacking those who are of the same blood lines, the same stock, shared names and faces and in some cases language. The attackers cannot tell themselves from their victims without their uniforms.

Here, thousands of miles from the lines, we create our own furore in political barbs and economic whining. We have the luxury to be upset about a temporary rise in the cost of our gas or a temporary drop in the worth of our portfolios. Our sons and daughters may some day be brought into the morass; it has happened too many times before in our history. But for now, they are others’ children who are at risk, so we are confident in taking sides or giving our opinions from partial knowledge or ignorance.

But don’t be fooled. War in one place is hardship everywhere, whether through economic doubt or ecological catastrophe. Whether through refugees or the need for humanitarian aid. Whether through empathy or struggle. This war is shouting headline infamous, but all war is global. The seething disquiet tell us so.




2.22.2022

A Year in Essays: 2/22/22 - Happy Twos-Day

Today the world went collectively gaga over an accident of the calendar. On “Twos-day,” 2/22/22, the true superstitious underpinnings of our society were on full display. People got married in droves (“two-by-two” I guess), celebrated the births of auspicious children, and watched the clock in breathless fascination for 10:22 PM and 22 seconds (2222:22 by military time). Some even dug up old episodes of the benign sitcom “Room 222” to watch as a special occasion.

As calendar milestones go, Twos-day was fairly benign. No one to my knowledge thought the world was going to end, at least no more so than this crazy time already would have us believe. There were no cult watches or mass suicides as there were when the Mayan calendar supposedly ended (did those people panic in late December every year?) and no travel shutdowns for doomsday like at Y2K. There was no attempt to form a ritual linkage of all human arms as on the date of the Harmonic (dubbed by the less generous the “Moronic”) Convergence. All in good fun was this most recent of serendipitous palindrome days. But Twos-day does point to an innate superstition that even in modern society we cannot fully shake.

In the midst of Twos-day I went to the grocery store, stepping out with my bundles to encounter a woman in the midst of a sneezing fit. Two or three sneezes in, I was close enough to her to murmur, “Bless you.” She smiled her thanks and then sneezed again into the crook of her arm. Imagine approaching a total stranger at any other time and saying those words. In most places, you can’t even greet folks with a simple, “Good morning” without being rewarded with a suspicious xenophobic glare. But a sneeze gives all of us the right, the expectation even, to make an intensely personal wish. So ingrained is the habit (which is what superstition is) that we forget the meaning of the gesture. Granted, if I said to that woman, “Congratulations on expelling the evil demons in your head” I might have been treated to a far colder response.

I think it is important to look for the magical in such a mundane and muddied world as we live. Although a date like 2/22/22 is inevitable, it is nice to think that on one day at least there could be a release from the typical constraints of shopworn lives. Even if the release is only a bit of dark humor like the cartoon I saw of robots celebrating 2/22/2222 on a desolate landscape saying, “How the humans would have loved this!” Or a feeling that your wedding, your child, your birthday, or some other routine part of your life is somehow special because of the date on the calendar.

I can’t wait until 3/3/33!