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.


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!


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!”


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.