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!




2.13.2022

A YEAR IN ESSAYS: 2/13/22 - Something Big

Another Super Bowl. I’ve seen them all, you know, some with more interest than others.

Although I can recall little about the first one in 1967 (not even called the Super Bowl then), I do remember my brother David’s incredible excitement. Somehow, he was a Green Bay fan – not sure how having been born in New York and lived part of his life in Pittsburgh. More than that, he was a huge football fan. He recognized the enormity of this event, even if the Networks and the rest of the world were unsure. To them, the AFL was just a start-up, after all. The Packers had won some enormous number of NFL championships in a row and should brush aside the upstarts. For many people, this game was little more than a curious exhibition – what the Pro Bowl is today.

Not for David, though. At the time of that first AFL-NFL match-up, we lived in New York, and he had followed with his curious avidity both the staid Giants and the upstart Jets (even then I gravitated towards the lowly Boston Patriots, probably in loyalty to my mother’s roots). He knew, knew in his heart, that the AFL was better than credited. He knew that the smart coaches that couldn’t break into the Old Boy’s Club that was the rank of NFL Head Coach were filling the younger league. He knew that the dash and flair of the AFL teams, with its goofy football and bright colors, overlay a revolution in the sport. Mostly, he knew the game would not be a lopsided folly. And it wasn’t – although Bart Starr and his Packers won handily, they had their hands full. David knew that this Super Bowl thing was going to be "something big!"

In 55 years, I have watched probably twenty Super Bowls sitting by my brother David’s side (along with my father if his beloved Steelers were playing). Many others I watched through continuous telephone conversations or at least a breathless phone call at the end (“What a game” or “What a crap game” his two favorite phrases). The last three years, of course, have been silent. I can tell you for whom David would have been rooting today. He never liked the Rams (although was a big Roman Gabriel fan). Too flash and flighty. There was something gritty about the Bengals that he always enjoyed. For him, it would have been Cincy all the way. 

But even with no rooting interest he would have been glued to the TV as he had each year, calling to me to join him and saying, “Come watch this, Keith. It’s going to be something big!”




2.09.2022

A YEAR IN ESSAYS: 2/9/2022: Olympic Ideals

In the ancient world, the Olympics were a quadrennial time of truce. States laid down their weapons to allow the athletes to come together for open if not friendly competition. That’s the myth at least.

Now during two separate Olympic cycles the bully leader of Russia has waged war on neighboring Ukraine, in one case riding the surge of Nationalistic pride from hosting (Sochi 2014) and this year banking on the distraction of the spotlight on a more powerful enemy who may have be in accord with Russian ambitions. Such naked aggression would seem to be against everything that the Olympic movement stands for.

Except we haven’t had an Olympics free of rabid nationalistic fervor in, well, forever. For every feelgood story of a Russian and an American forming a lifelong friendship, there is another of blood in the water polo pool. And even if athletes are becoming citizens of the world, playing more for their sponsors than for their countries, the fans and observers are ever obsessed with owning the national rival, of using the competition as a surrogate for war.

There is nothing wrong with patriotic pride. I enjoy the images of a brilliant athlete basking in the glory of their national anthem with gold strung around their victorious neck. Does it make me proud to be American? I guess so, if only with the vicarious pleasure that I watch any sporting event. If a team or individual for which I am rooting wins, I enjoy their moment. But I cannot see how the brilliance of an American Olympian is any reflection either on me or on our society.

Neither then are the athletes the carriers of a nation’s glory. They are engaging, beautiful individuals who had the fortune of being born in one country (or in some cases to citizens of a country). They do not of necessity embody the beliefs or the politics or the foibles of their nation. We call out for them to support this or that which aligns with our own beliefs, but those are our beliefs, not even our country’s, and they may have their own.

In a world where everything is politicized beyond reason, can’t we set aside the jingoism and simply enjoy the pageantry of glorious competition? It was a beautiful myth in the ancient world. It is a beautiful myth now.





1.25.2022

A YEAR IN ESSAYS: 1/25/22: Why Meat Loaf Matters

 A huge loss recently was the singer Meat Loaf. His music was entwined with my adolescence. He was the soundtrack and the aspiration of my younger self.

The album Bat Out of Hell came out in 1977, an explosive debut for the rising star. I don’t know how many of the songs became big hits, but some of them seemed to be playing everywhere. The biggest hit, “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” was the song of that summer, a summer when I had just begun to drive and was just aware of the power of songs on the radio. The cut is driving and frenetic, barely a moment of release in its churning base-driven frenzy. In Boston, the radios had substituted out local announcer, Dick Stockton, for the famous spoken part by Phil Rizzuto so the song had a local charm. And, oh yes, I was “barely seventeen” at the time. Meat Loaf was singing about me. He was singing to me. And even if I could only dream about being in a situation like the doomed protagonist in his epic song, I felt the passion and the heat every time the song played or each of the thousands of times I listened to it on the LP.

The album and the singer stayed with me as I grew up. In college I discovered Rocky Horror Picture Show and Meat Loaf’s soulful, murderous Eddie was a powerful and haunting presence (whatever did happen to Saturday night?). His later music was elegant and emotional. I noticed his touch as a producer in songs I loved like Bonny Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” or Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All.” But it was the powerful virtuosity of his first songs that stayed with me.


His voice was a gauge by which I measured mine. In 1978-79, I was just coming to terms with possessing an expanding tenor voice, singing both classical and jazz in college. Intensely proud of my upper range, I wanted to be great. Meat Loaf’s voice was the reach just beyond my grasp, particularly on the ballad “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.”  I sang through the song an untold number of times, sometimes with the record, sometimes on my own, in showers, common rooms, bedrooms, archways, hallways. I must have been a real pest. It was the high notes I was aiming for, those magnificent soaring lines that Meat Loaf made so effortless and for me were a hash of squeal and falsetto. I never got there back then and, with time, tucked the song away into my file of memory.

The other day when Meat Loaf died, “Two Out of Three” popped into my head at once. With the miracle of Amazon Echo, Alexa was playing the song for me almost before I had asked her to. I was singing along, every word etched in the deep recess of my long-term memory. Sailing through chorus and verse, the mature tenor me stayed with Meat Loaf high note for high note. Then the bridge, at the stratospheric line about the “Coup de Ville hiding at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box,” miraculous to see, I was still in the game. But Meat Loaf had another register and the song transposes even higher, “never be able/ to give you something/ something that I just haven’t got.” Beaten again and at last. Well played, Meat Loaf. Again and finally, well played.

Ah well. What’s a heaven for?

 


1.20.2022

A YEAR IN ESSAYS: 1/20/22 - Is Time Money?

The adage goes, “Time is Money.” As with many an old saw, this is one of my most pet of peeves.

I don’t dispute that time is valuable. It is a non-renewable resource, the only one that all humans have in their personal possession. Time is also an unknowable and unmeasurable asset. None of us can speak with certainty about Time except in the broadest of platitudes and generalizations. “There are only twenty-four hours in a day,” we say. “There are seven days in a week,” we remind ourselves. Even these are arbitrary. There are twenty-four hours in a day only because we have decided to measure time from sunrise to sunrise and because we have chosen to split into the odd increment. Even then, it is an uneven balance, changing as the year (another arbitrary designation) rolls along so that some days will have slightly more or slightly less time in their documented hours. The week is even more profligate. There is nothing special about seven days. A Sunday need not be distinct from a Tuesday or a Friday.

What is most at dispute is the concept of value. We make the tacit assumption that life (and therefore time) has value and in felicitous circumstances I hope it does. We can choose to appreciate the beauty of our time, of each breath, of each whisper of breeze on our cheek, of each delicate color of sunset. But that is a choice. For some bleak souls, time is a curse – loneliness, illness, pain, the whole litany of things that are also part of the human state. I guess it is safer to say time is precious, although even that is a value judgement. Perhaps, the truest and blandest statement is that time is finite.

Which brings us to my peeve. “Time is Money” implies that money is the equivalent of value or even that the finite nature imparts a monetary value. But money and its pursuit are the most arbitrary of goals. The implication that any moment spent not in accumulation is wasted is both erroneous and insulting. The statement makes Money the defining factor for all of endeavor, not what we do with the money nor what pleasure it may provide.

I would argue that Time is not Money, but the reverse. Money is Time; time to enjoy the fleeting moments of beauty and humanity that our finite and precious moments offer us.

 


1.18.2022

A YEAR IN ESSAYS: 1/18/22 - Against Radical Education Reform

 Yesterday, I bit off more than I could chew. I tried to write an essay about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth anniversary and got weighed down in awkward description. My anger got the better of me in a way that Dr. King would not have accepted. There is too much to respond to and too much need to speak out.

Today, I’ll try to clarify my writing in discussing the radicalization of attacks on educational freedom. Contrary to the conservative argument, educational freedom is not achieved by banning teachings or books. How could outlawing thoughts be any form of freedom? Rather, it is in allowing open thought and discussion to foster, even when those avenues may not be comfortable or glorious.

There are a few facts that are glossed over by the proponents of strict governmental control on teaching. The first is that education is not a comfortable experience. By definition, it is a step into the unknown and that may make a student leery. But facing the unknown and learning to accommodate one’s expanding knowledge is an integral part of growing. I was exceedingly uncomfortable learning calculus. It made me feel foolish to struggle through many of the mathematical ideas and to get low grades. But I would never have expected or wanted my parents to try to ban it from the school curriculum.

Another fact is that Critical Race Theory is NOT being taught in grade school curricula. It is true that History and Social Studies are now being taught through a broader framework than the “Glory of Our National Heritage,” but that should not shame or discomfort anyone who is interested in learning more than a superficial truth. What IS being taught in a graduated fashion is the formation of critical thinking skills pertaining to American and World history – context, nuance, perspective. Parents should welcome this since it will make their children better prepared for the subtleties of real life beyond the safe harbors of the schoolroom and home.

Finally, there is no scenario where the umbrage of a single parent or even a group of them should influence the curriculum for all children. A parent or even a collective organization must not have control over what is offered in education to all students. I guarantee that what I want my child taught is not the same as what you want your child taught. There already is a mechanism to control the interaction between curriculum and student. It is called parental involvement. If a child is uncomfortable with a facet of learning, it is the parent’s place to discuss it with them, not the school’s or other parents’ responsibility to compensate.



1.16.2022

A YEAR IN ESSAYS: 1/16/22 - The State of the Game

For a Patriots fan, the season crashed to an end yesterday in a dismal drubbing by arch-rival Buffalo. I have no problem with the Bills being is ascendency for a while. I have always liked them as a team, lamenting their four straight Super Bowls with no victories, one of the saddest records in professional sports if only because of the dire disappointment that each sequential loss caused.

This was a season overall that failed to capture my attention in a grand way. I still think this and last seasons (not just for the Pats) should have huge asterisks next to them because of COVID and the odd ebb and flow of teams and players. The Tennessee Titans were (are) the number one seed in the AFC – that should tell you everything you need to know about the year past.

After so many years of not just relevance but predominance by my team, it is disconcerting to have them as after-thoughts. Rebuilding was inevitable. Even if TB12 had stayed with the Pats, they were still going through vast changes in personnel, in coaching, even in philosophy. Brady’s last year with the team was a disappointment all around, especially after three Super Bowls appearances in four years before that. Despite how things look, Brady will not last forever and eventually the team would have been faced with the need to work in a new Quarterback, whether that be Mac Jones (who I think still has the potential to be very good or great if he listens to Belichek and Saban and not to his press) or someone else. The Pats were not terrible this year, except in the first and the last few games but they were so ordinary that the whole season felt like it was mired in doldrums from the start. In many ways, this was worse than the horrific Billy Sullivan days. At least those teams had a horror show comedy vibe about them. These Patriots teased with brilliance (they might have won two or three more games with a little football luck and better officiating) but more often they just, well, were. They just filled up one side of the field with little expectation of the great or the horrible. And that’s a side of our team that we have not seen in ages, perhaps never in its magnificent and checkered history.


So where from here? Root for the usual suspects, I guess. Brady is still in play, so hope for an eighth SB win? Wish for Mahomes to regain his freebooting, swashbuckling form? Or perhaps side with a Cinderella? I have no resentment to the Bills as I’ve mentioned before and would not hate to see them win it all. How about those unlikely Titans or the Bengals?

There are teams whom I wholeheartedly will root against. The Cowboys of course – no pandemic or likeable quarterback (go, Dak!) can change that. The Packers have lost all semblance of sympathy in my eyes due to the arrogant boorishness of Rodgers. And despite upbringing and family ties, I still can’t bring myself to rally around the Steelers while Big Ben is behind center.

All of this (except of course the Cowboys) is subject to change.  If I can get the energy and excitement to even care about the playoffs. As I said at the beginning, the season is over. Who cares about the rest?

 

 

1.12.2022

A YEAR IN ESSAYS: 1/12/22 - Dental Wars

 I am in a continuous battle with my teeth.

When I was young, there was a Mankin legend that my teeth were soft because my mother used Erythromycin during pregnancy. Or perhaps it was her smoking. But I will take full responsibility. Most certainly, it was my affinity for Twinkies and sugary cereal that led to the myriad of fillings that I carried around through childhood. Add a hockey injury that took out my front tooth in 9th grade and I had a mouth that was more resin and amalgam it seems than native enamel.

As we have all learned, yesterday’s brilliant innovation is often tomorrow’s headache. Some of the resins and amalgams, not to mention the “Space Age” plastics that my former dentists used had a functional life that was far shorter (thank the lord) than mine. Dr. Brill and Dr. Berman paved the way for plenty of work for dentists to come, whether through well-meaning progress, poor technique, or outright malevolence I will never know.

I don’t mind the work, to be honest. Dental treatment has never held any terror for me, even on the day I discovered that I could bite the inside of my cheek without pain the first time I had Novocain, proceeding unsupervised to tear it to shreds. Maybe it is my Puritan upbringing that tells me I deserve the pain. Maybe it is that the work is actually rather fascinating. Regardless, it is not the procedures themselves that I resent. It is the wasted time. The parade of hours spent captive to HGTV while the dentist or hygienist scrapes and drills.  Or maybe it is the unrelenting nature of the issue. It never rains but it pours. I will complete one major treatment when the dentist will say, “Hello, what’s this?” and find a new crown to replace or new cracking in a hitherto innocent molar.

No end in sight, but I guess it beats the alternative. I remember being with my aged father in Chicago for his last ever AAOS meeting. I had found a hideaway on the busy exhibit floor for us to rest and had scouted out a Diet Coke and a gorgeous chocolate chip cookie for him, his two favorite foods. He bit into the baked good, made a small face, then reached into his mouth and pulled out a tooth, unbroken but unmoored. He shrugged, wrapped it in his napkin, and returned to his snack. What was one less tooth at his time of life especially compared with the joy of a chocolate chip cookie?



1.10.2022

A YEAR IN ESSAYS: 1/10/22 - There's Something About Betty


A nation often mourns the death of a beloved figure. I was in Ottawa on the day that the Friendly Giant died. He was the star of a CBC children’s show for forty or so years. His passing was so important that Canada observed a National Day of Mourning.

There were many icons who passed this year, some more revered than others, but all of note. Yet none of them struck the national consciousness quite like Betty White. Her death prompted front page stories on all major newspapers and even was the headline banner in some. She was eulogized and tributed throughout all media, both traditional and social, and by generations ranging from contemporary (she was almost 100 at her death) to GenZ or whatever the youngest crop of influencers is terming themselves now.

Which leads to the important question: Why did Betty White command such attention? She was a well-known television star, a celebrity host when such a thing was dignified, and an acknowledged spreader of sunshine. But others answer all those callings and do not generate a fraction of the outpouring. What was it about this particular actress engendered this much adoration?

Part of her draw was the sunniness of her persona, which by all accounts was genuine and not just on-camera. She radiated optimism and happiness without ever seeming callow or naïve. She could exchange quips (or even frank insults as her late work in the underrated “HOT in Cleveland” demonstrates) without losing the welcome affection. She may cross swords with you, but there are no grudges, only respect and love.

She was also very typically American: in looks, in cadence, in movement. In her we saw the girl-next-door growing into the favorite aunt or great-aunt. She was wise without being condescending. For decades Americans have wanted to be advised but not talked down to, and no one seemed to have a better voice for that than our Betty.

But maybe the reason she resonates so much is that her death has been a punchline for so long. There have been any number of Betty White Is Dead hoaxes throughout the internet, staunchly countered immediately by her loyal fandom. Even this time, I could not respond to the initial report until I had seen it confirmed in other sources. For years, we have been fascinated by her age and experience. We learned that she is older than sliced bread, than the NFL, than any number of institutions that we hold as foundational. Thus, she became a bell weather of the country – the clock by which all experience is measured.


1.08.2022

A YEAR IN ESSAYS: 1/8/22 - I Don't Fry

 

I enjoy cooking. I’m not a recipe type of cook. I get an idea in my head, summon the vision before me, and then armed with some basic culinary skills (I do know how to make a roux) and a cabinet full of spices, I produce the meal. Most often it works out with only the occasional misadventure. There are few meals that get hidden by the dreaded napkin as the cereal box gets pulled from the shelf. Some are admittedly works in progress. I have produced plates that were too monochrome; too yellow or too gray – easy fixes for the next time. I have mistaken chili powder for cinnamon and made some of the most interesting matzoh brie we’ve ever had. I have overdone the pepper, the sugar, the salt, the heat in my tinkering. But the overall ratio is good. About 80% of my experiments are ‘keepers’ with only a small few chalked up to experience.

So last night, when I tackled a fried cheese spinach salad with Mediterranean spices, I figured the worst that could happen was a high calorie novelty that didn’t make the grade. The noise and the excitement that accompanied the meal were an unwonted surprise.


 

Let me set the record straight. I do not deep fry. I have never willingly slid a morsel of food into a scalding oil bath. Nor do I have experience with a shallow fry except for one successful batch of latkes many years ago. My frying experience is limited to sautéing or stir frying, or the occasional pan-fried steaks or chicken paillards.

But I know how to follow directions, as follows: The cheese was cut. The egg wash applied. The inch or so of vegetable oil was seething in its deep pan. In went the cheese pieces to a satisfying sizzle. I covered the pan with a screen to prevent spatter, all best practice. But when I lifted the screen mid-cook to turn the morsels, a large drop of hot grease leapt out onto my left foot. The cheese bits decided to glom together, hindering the turning process. Here am I hopping on my unsinged leg, trying to separate or at least flip a chain of ever crisping curds. I manage the flip and slip the screen back over the pan at which point grease on the screen ignites. A portion of the screen melts as acrid smoke rises. Smoke alarms awaken with their noisy bombastulating.

For what its worth, the final cooked cheese was quite tasty, those pieces that didn’t have mesh melted on top of them. The smoke alarms are comfortingly effective. The small spot of burn on my foot turned out insignificant. And we found out that the new puppy is remarkably chill in a crisis.

The fried cheese, and in fact my deep oil frying, have been relegated to the back shelf forever. I give the recipe two stars: tasty but not worth the pandemonium.

 



1.06.2022

A YEAR IN ESSAYS - 1/6/22: Me, the Networker

 In my old medical practice, I had no concept of what Networking was. Granted, I was never the kind of specialist who sat back in his office and waited for the patients to come. Rather, I was in the field, meeting the front-line doctors, teaching and learning from them at the same time. Similarly, I would spend time with the therapists, teachers, coaches and other first observers of childhood injury or disability. I wanted to be a part of the village that was raising the child; one of the components of a child-centric system. I guess I was networking all the time

My plunge into Networking (capital N) came from a desire to plug in after I had retired from clinical practice and moved cities, starting a second act career. I had no firm vision what that second act was, but I knew that to get to it I would need to meet people in the community. Also, the people in the networking gave me companionship in a city where I knew no one. So, I donned a suit and tie (a formality long since abandoned) and attended my first Network lunch uncertain as to what I would find. And the rest is history.

What did I find? By and large, my experience has been rich and interesting. I have found a range of professionals from thought-bursting entrepreneurs to down-level marketers. I have found pundits and sales folk. I have found people who have been in the business since the days of Noah and people whose ears still gleam from their mother’s first grooming. My networking partners have been glib, tongue-tied, eloquent, wholesome, ribald, funny, deadpan – the dictionary will run out of adjectives before I’m done describing them. But each and every one has had a story and innate integrity as to why they were there and what goals they carried.

I was surprised by how active Networking is. When starting, I kind of thought we would each stand up, say a few words about ourselves, sit down and pretend to listen and then collect business cards and referrals. The business cards turned out to be fact. When I first started, I had huge piles of the things, uncertain as to how to organize or stow them and what to do with them after the initial salvo. I still collect the occasional card, but now it is only for the people I know I will contact immediately. I don’t keep cards for rainy days, because inevitably on that rainy day, even if I found the card, I would not remember the gist of the intro or why that person had interested me in the first place.

The reality of Networking is that the ’30 second’ is the least involved part of a given session. Sure, I enjoy performing my little spiel. I like to change things up weekly, try to find a new topic or a new spin for each presentation. But even with that, at the meeting, the 30 second is a mere drip of time. The critical part of networking is turning my mind to envisioning how my interests and ideas mesh with each other member who stands to give their 30 second. I firmly believe that the contact point in networking is seldom the point of sale. It is not the product. It is the overlap of culture, philosophy, history, and interest that forges a synergy. To find those things, you must listen as loudly as you can, hear the nuance of the story, the context and subtext behind the flashy tagline. Networking is like people watching. You watch and hear the members go by and you make up a tale about each one. The difference is that at some point it is right to step in and become a part of the continuing story.

 

1.05.2022

A YEAR IN ESSAYS - 1/5/22 - Go, You Grenfell!

This morning I read a story about a sports team that arose almost literally from the ashes. Grenfell Athletic is a soccer squad based in London made up of survivors and community members affected by the horrific fire at Grenfell Towers in 2017. Almost immediately, from the sheer weight of the tragedy, members of the community sought to band together in a healing way. Football (as is the correct term) is a uniting force, even if that unity is directed into anger against another squad. The amateur/ semi-pro Sunday side was formed and has found both growth and athletic success. A truly memorable story.

Which gives us pause to think about the oddly outsized weight given to sports in western society. During the early stages of the pandemic, despite the fear and uncertainty of pestilence, one of the major concerns was “Will sport survive?” The English Premier League took some heat for returning to the pitch after nine or so months to finish the abandoned season (’19-’20) in front of empty houses. The NHL encapsulated their playoff teams into two bubbles (one in the US and one in Canada) to award the Stanley Cup. In that case, not only did they not allow fans, but the teams were forced to live in seclusion for the entire length of the ordeal (in the finalist’s case for more than two months) leading to who knows what scars. But people responded, watching the games in all their eerie silence. Was it a normalizing salve or just a novelty in the disinfectant envelope in which everyone was secluded?

Sports are important. No, rewrite that. Recreation is important. There has to be something that shifts the human mind from its working drudgery or its lonesome self-reflection. Something that gives, what, joy? A surcease of boredom? A moment of outward facing relief? Maybe the effect is in recreation’s ability to recharge the functional parts of the brain and spirit. I have often equated watching a game with waking sleep, not in terms of REM, but in terms of stopping the mind from churning. But there is also the fellowship aspect of sport. In the case of the EPL or the NBA or the NHL, even though we were not in the bubble with the teams, we at least were sharing the moment unconsciously with each player and each fan. And for the teams themselves, they are sharing the panoply of emotions – grief, relief, guilt, healing, despair, optimism – with each run out on the pitch and each ball kicked. 

Go GAFC!

              

1.04.2022

A YEAR IN ESSAYS - 1/4/22 - Announcements




               A couple of days ago, I went on Facebook to announce my essay adventure. Although my announcement will be overlooked by many, and may come off as arrogant bragging to a few, I think it was a bold gesture. I’m not boasting about writing an essay a day. I’m committing to it, in the easiest way I know how, with all of its accountability. Most likely none of my FB friends will come asking, “Hey, where’s that essay you promised?” But they might. The task is not my secret anymore. It’s out and about.

              One of the things I intend to do this year (intention vs resolution – is there an essay in that?) is refine my coaching message. I am a firm believer that the best way to achieve a goal is to start it, get into its rhythm, be drawn into the routine of the effort. My son, Cameron calls it “not breaking the chain.” Once a certain number of links are forged and a length of chain emerges, it is easier in your mind to envision continuing to build it than to break it.

              But goals are nebulous things. “I want to write a book about…” is much different than “I want to write THIS book.” The clearer the vision of the goal is, the more real the target seems.  It’s why I have heeded the advice of always preparing a cover for my NANOWRIMO novel before I start writing. The cover gives the novel permanence, or at least a potential archetypal place in my life. I am not creating from whole cloth so much as filling that space.

              In many ways, that was the effect of my Facebook announcement. Even if there is no real expectation among my friends that they will see an essay a day, there is the potential expectation now. I have given myself an audience and a deadline. Now, I just need to fill in the ellipsis in between.             


1.03.2022

A YEAR IN ESSAYS - 1/3/22 - 366 Poems

               For 2021, I collected a poem each day, writing a short commentary discussing why I chose it, why it was important to me, what the beauty or significance of the work was. At first, the choosing was easy, but the commentary hard. My early entries were things like, “I once sang this text” or “I studied this in school.” Later, the choosing was more difficult, but I was in the groove with the poesy, finding language and meaning, discussing meter and rhyme (or lack thereof), channeling my high school self. Remember when we could all parse a poem?

              There were some surprises in the selection. The poet most chosen (at seven days) was … <drumroll> … Emily Dickinson. I recalled her work or stumbled on her work or was moved to include her work more times than any other poet, leading me to revisit all of her poems. Other citations inspired me to read or reread the collected work of Langston Hughes, e.e. cummings, the essential Rumi, Edgar Lee Masters’ haunting Spoon River Anthology, and collections by poets I had never encountered before, like Paige Lewis or Sheryl St Germain. I reexamined Elizabeth Browning, never a favorite and found her to be more influential (with three entries) than her husband Robert (with two). New authors were an eye-opening inspiration. I had never regarded Hilda Doolittle’s work with any great esteem before now, and I ‘discovered’ wonderful works by Cynthia Zarin, Li Po, and Denise Levertov, to name but of few. I found beautiful poetry by Queen Elizabeth I and added it to a collection that included six works by her bard Shakespeare, two by the enigmatic Kit Marlowe, three by the ever-dependable Ben Jonson, one by her near-contemporary Petrarch, and even one by her father Henry VIII.

              Of no surprise was my inclusion of six poems by Yeats, always a favorite, and the same number by Dylan Thomas, whose “Fern Hill” was seminal in my literary development. Five works by cummings made the list, and a similar number by TS Eliot, whose language gave me so much commentary to work with, and Robert Frost, whose subtle kindness worked its way through his crusty Yankee-ness. Six poems came from the Bible, that magnificent anthology, and six from Longfellow of all people, not because of his skill but because of his omnipresence in how we teach American lit. I was pleased to find a way to sneak in Comden and Green, Sammy Kahn (twice!) and two of my favorite lyrics from Paul Simon but I could not bring myself to find space for the so-called rock laureate Bob Dylan or for either Lennon or McCartney.

              The enterprise inspired me to write poetry of my own, and I rather arrogantly include two of them, along with one from my son that is a daily inspiration. Perhaps the best effect was the impetus to collect my entire library of poetry books in one place, from the beaten and much loved paperbound Palgreave’s Golden Treasury that I inherited from my brother to my newest treasure, The Norton Anthology. The books barely squeeze into a large shelf only if one is in circulation at all times, and if I excuse Home and Virgil, my classical and neo-classical friends, and the five-volume Heine that I mysteriously found in my father’s library. 

              It was a glorious year, steeped in the poetic art. I hope that I continue to find solace and inspiration in that realm.



1.02.2022

A YEAR IN ESSAYS: 1/2/22 - I Have a Cold

 

              I have a cold. Which reminds of the elegant Esquire essay, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” written by Gay Talese in 1966, when magazines like Esquire mattered. It explores several days in the life of the aging icon, as he faced his declining years and a TV special that purported to reveal his mob connections (what a shock!). But it is really a study of self-doubt and recrimination. It should be mandatory reading for any writer – or anyone for that matter, but who does mandatory reading anymore?

              In 1966, Sinatra was still at or near the height of his powers. He had not yet recorded “My Way” or “That’s Life” and still sold albums as regularly as any artist, despite the onrush of the ever-threatening young folks, such as the Beatles, the Turtles, etc. Within a few years, Sinatra would cover the Beatles’ hit “Something”, regrettably in my mind. But he was no longer the Chairman of the Board. Or perhaps it was safest to say, there was no longer a Board for him to be Chairman of.  Various scandals, jealousies, personal foibles had created cracks in the Rat Pack. Or maybe a huge swath of America had grown tired of watching privileged morally challenged men cavort in drunken nightclubs. We look back now at such times with deep nostalgia (“Those were the days”) but when they were the days, there was little to celebrate about them except by an aging and increasingly reactionary crowd. Sinatra understood that, or at least with his defenses down and feeling under the weather, he gave into the weight of his advancing irrelevance.

              The profile made him seem almost human. Sinatra hated it.



 

A YEAR IN ESSAYS - 1/1/22

             So, this year, my New Year's challenge is to write a brief essay every day.

            Last time I journaled (in handwriting and at bedtime – not the best time to try to remember to write) I set some rules. Or perhaps it was the time before: Any subject or genre goes; short story, poetry, essay, description of a menu – it doesn’t matter much. There’s no one here but me and you, dear reader. I will not tolerate wallowing or whining. There has been far too much of that at times in my life. And I will not accept perseveration. I will try for good writing whenever possible, by a broad definition of ‘good’. Perhaps there will be entries I choose to share on this, my semi-forgotten blog but I will not be ashamed to write things I don’t want to share either. 

            Where am I coming from? 2021 was not a great year, although not as bad as 2020 or even 2019 with its long string of personal losses. COVID was still very much in play, but for much of the year, vaccines had made life a bit on the normal side. I had stepped into two Board roles that I have enjoyed and been very proud of. My family was well, and late in the year, we got Lydia, our new puppy. The Holidays were joyful for a welcome change, and we were able to achieve some of the festivity that I have longed for since Auld Lang Syne. I wrote my 11th NANOWRIMO novel, this one a time-hopping farce, Wodehouse meets Doctor Who. We built the kitchen of my dreams. On the worry side, I started this year with a COVID scare (all clear).

            Was I strong in 2021? I think so. I helped no fewer than four or maybe five networking groups weather the storm of shutdown. I learned that my voice is listened to, sometimes too much. And that I have both coaching and leadership skills. Will I be strong in 2022? I don’t know. It takes a lot, doesn’t it?

            Resolutions? Not really. Mostly positive goals: This essay log; tackle my first creative non-fiction; a few bad habits that need to be addressed; but mostly keep the ship pointing forward and watch the scenery float by with a mindful eye. It is a time in my life to begin savoring. 

             Happy New Year!