Saturday, January 30, 2010

louie and lance

At the start of my senior year in a suburban high school there was a buzz about a kid who had just transferred in from the city. According to the word, the kid could play. He was a junior and we heard he had been the 6th man at George Washington high school. When we played pick up with the kid for the first time, he looked pretty good. Not spectacular, but he was only a junior and could shoot and move the ball fairly well. I'll change his name for this blog and call him Paul Smyth. The peculiar spelling of the name matches a peculiar spelling of his real name.

Paul Smyth and I became friendly. My girlfriend thought he was cute and so we introduced him to a friend of hers. The four of us went out a few times. I liked the guy. He told us he also had been a shortstop for his high school team. Shortstop is typically the best defensive player on a team and whatever he said he batted was impressive. I enjoyed listening to his exploits in the city, but enjoyed more than anything his tales of the adventures of his two older brothers Louie and Lance. The brothers were out at UCLA, drove volkswagens, and were generally cool guys. The kind of big brothers that it must have been a gas to have. When Paul told me that the brothers came in for Thanksgiving and how they cavorted that weekend, I was impressed with the class and his family.

Paul was a benchwarmer on the varsity as a junior, but the team was stacked with talent. In a game that eliminated the team from the Nassau County tournament, Paul came in at the end and made some very nifty steals. He would, it seemed, be a star the next year. Sometime around February of 67 Paul invited me to his home which was a mile or so away from my own. We sat in the finished playroom and cackled about this and that. His younger sister came down to say hi and then skipped back the stairs, and then his dad joined us in the room and we talked sports for a short while. I asked if Louie and Lance had played much ball in high school. When I said that it was as if the air was sucked out of the room. Paul got quiet, and his dad's shoulders sagged and the smile that had been on his face drooped away. Paul waved at me as if he didn't want to talk about Louie and Lance right then, and his dad commented that he should get going and leave us alone. Then he sadly walked up the short staircase to the living room. I asked Smyth what was up, and he just waved me away.

I couldn't get it out of my head so when I saw Paul in the school the next week I asked him what was up with Louie and Lance. Quickly he said, "They died." They'd been in an accident in their volkswagen and perished. I was aghast and he waved it away and started speaking about something else. I let it go not being able to imagine the loss involved.

During my freshman year in college I came back to the high school to watch the first game of the year. I'd not made the varsity in high school, but I was playing for the freshman team at Albany. Paul was the captain of the high school team and I was hoping to see him star. I've never seen a worse performance by a high school player. He was just terrible. Beyond nervous. I could not believe it.

I went back to college and was in the locker room before a game. The sports information director had passed around a program which listed us all and our high schools. A teammate scanned the list and shouted out to me. He didn't know I'd gone to Plainview. He asked if I knew his high school crony who'd moved to Plainview in the summer of 1966. Friend's name was Smyth. I told my teammate that I sure knew Paul Smyth. My teammate went on to talk about how the two of them had hung out together living in the same apartment building since they'd been toddlers.

I didn't know how to break it to him about Paul's brothers. Eventually, I just said somberly, "Did you hear about Louie and Lance?"

My teammate made a face and said, "Who?"

"Did you hear about Louie and Lance?"

"Who's Louie and Lance?"

"Louie and Lance. His older brothers. They perished in an automobile accident. How well can you know Smyth if you did not know about Louie and Lance?"

My teammate looked at me with a stoneface. "Paul Smyth has no brothers. He just has a sister."

"We talking about the same Paul Smyth. Smith with a Y?"

"Paul Smyth, with a Y. Yes. I grew up with him, he has no brothers."

"The guy who was sixth man for George Washington. Shortstop for the baseball team."

My teammate was incredulous and began to laugh "Sixth man on the basketball team? He was the equipment manager. He was okay but could never make that team. Shortstop on the baseball team? He was the third base coach."

I stood there half dressed in the locker room completely stunned. After a spell I began thinking through some of the Louie and Lance stories and realized there were holes in them that I had not seen before.

I think we all create illusions and may replace reality with what we would like to believe. It is extreme, of course,when you create siblings and a history that is inconsistent with reality. In the Madness of March I write about the need to identify what is real and separate it from constructions of reality that we have either composed or adopted on the basis of what we have heard or read.

When we don't separate illusions from reality, the blow is considerable when these unrelated entities collide. I am not sure if Paul Smyth ever became aware of the difference between his life and what he had constructed as his life. Years later I bumped into him at the high school track. His year as a high school player had been a bust when the creation he had established about himself and reality had collided on the court. Nevertheless he told me that he was now averaging double digits for some obscure college I'd never heard of.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

hedons and dolors

When I was a junior in college I took a course called Ethics. It was, for the most part, a very dry class. The instructor was well meaning but his classes consisted mostly of him posing a question to the class that was uninspiring. Then the number (dwindling weekly) who attended a particular session would squirm musing more about why we had decided to attend that day than about the specific inquiry.

However, despite this there was something about the class for which I will forever be grateful.

To satisfy the requirements we had to write three opinion papers. One asked us to compare the wisdom of two philosophers, John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant. If these thinkers had been discussed during a class session I must have been dwelling about something else at the time. So, as the deadline approached for the paper, I hauled out the textbook and read about Mill's Utilitarianism and Kant's Categorical Imperative.

I was aghast. I could not believe that Utilitarianism was a philosophy of ethics that had earned any traction.

Utilitarianism is often called the Greatest Happiness Principle. It means essentially that things are ethical or right in proportion to the extent they tend to promote happiness, and wrong if they tend to produce unhappiness or pain. The Categorical Imperative appears to be antithetical. It argues that behaviors are right because they inherently are right, and wrong because they inherently are wrong, and it does not matter if something that is right does not cause pleasure.

I saw no merit to Utilitarianism. My 20 year old self was outraged by the idea. The only good news was that my revulsion made the writing of the paper relatively easy and made the course more interesting than it had been previously.

Since that time I find myself attracted to lectures and debates and some articles that discuss utilitarianism. Proponents (still around despite my 1970 five page rant) attempt to quantify pleasure and pain by counting hedons and dolors. A hedon is a unit of pleasure. A dolor a unit of pain. So to determine if something is right, count up the hedons, count up the dolors, if the hedons outweigh the dolors an action is right.

At one debate I attended I was fascinated listening to two philosophers contentiously argue that there were more dolors than hedons in a particular case therefore rendering a decision unethical. One fellow in particular was really piling up the dolors because he couldn't seem to convince anyone that he was correct. What struck me as odd about this debate and any other attempt at quantifying was the subjectivity in determining what constitutes a hedon or a dolor.

Dolors and hedons. Can we really quantify these in a given situation and then count up the results? A coach has to determine whether to tweak the academic credentials of star players in order to make them eligible. A recruiter has to decide whether to embellish the qualities of the school in order to woo outstanding athletes to the school. Can you count up the collective hedons for playing the disqualified players or signing the deceived athletes, and compare that to the dolors accrued by lying to authorities and young people, and perhaps sullying the reputation of your program.

These are relatively easy examples. The actions are unethical. There are many more dolors, long term and short term for lying to the players and authorities. Yet, there are other instances that are not as clear.

I am not as adamant as I was at 20 about the Greatest Happiness Principle versus the Categorical Imperative. I do think we need to respect hedons and dolors. We have to be careful not to manufacture dolors for others, or accrue hedons at the expense of others. Maybe if we could carefully count hedons and dolors, and genuinely respected how our actions and communications, created dolors and hedons, we would find little that separates Utilitarianism from the Categorical Imperative.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

the hell we don't know

At halftime of yesterday's Jets-Bengals game I decided to conduct what I loosely refer to as research. I went to the shopper's cafe, the establishment I attended now and then on Sundays during football season to watch the games and the assembled who watch them. I thought the clientele yesterday would be different from the Sunday crew and I was correct. No sighting of the Tampa Bay zealout, the Detroit Lion fanatic or the table of diehard Cleveland Brown fans. It was somehow symbolic that the Cincinnati Bengal husband and wife team-- who would come each week in their Bengal jerseys--also was not in the restaurant. This was symbolic because anyone who watched the Jets Bengals game yesterday knows that the entire Cincinnati Bengal team did not show up for the game yesterday.

Despite the absence of the Sunday regulars, the Shopper's Cafe was busy last night. There was a table or two open in the restaurant section but no vacant chair by the bar. I waited a stretch behind the seated spectators and noticed that in the corner a man seated one seat from the wall got up and stumbled away from his perch. I moved to take his seat when he left and asked the neighbor to the right if the other fellow was indeed gone. "He is gone alright" muttered the fellow. I did not know what to make of that, and more significantly was concerned that this perch did not afford me a good view of any of the several televisions mounted on the wall. So, when another chair became available three seats to my left I grabbed it and was staring straight ahead at a screen.

A moment later in stumbled the man who had initially vacated my former spot. He got to the stool and before seating leaned over and politely made a request to the dimunitive woman who was tending to that portion of the bar. He asked for a royal crown and soda. "Uh uh" she said. "Sorry, no more for you. I think you have had enough." "No more?" he said. "Uh, uh no more time to go home." "Okay" he said politely and sat down on the barstool.

I turned and got a decent look at the fellow. He looked like trouble and troubled. He just sat there on the stool staring holes through the head of myself and other patrons. When the bartender again asked him to leave he said he would, but just stayed there. I glanced at him again. He stared back. I looked to my left and the patron on that side of me was also gazing at the squatter. My new neighbor chuckled and said what I was thinking, "This is the kind of guy who comes back in an hour with a shotgun." He really did have that kind of untethered maniacal look. Finally, the fellow stumbled out once again. I heard another bartender mutter, "thank God, he's gone."

This morning I was up early and decided to take a drive to a bakery I know that opens early in nearby Brookline. This bakery, Kupels, reminds me of the places that seemed to anchor nearly every street in my six block radius when I grew up as a kid in Brooklyn. Sweet rolls, bobka, bagels, and some half pieces of something or the other on the counter for sampling. The smell itself is delicious and heady. So, I drove to Kupels and hit every light on Commonwealth Avenue until I got to my destination. There, I snared a bag of bagels and a poppy seeded danish and hamentashen. The fellow in front of me completed his purchase and then paid for his order. The attendant said, "Have a good day." His polite response. "It will be a good day if the Patriots win." She gave him an "I can not relate" look and walked away. The exchange made me smile. That's how I often feel. I said "go Patriots" to him when we were both in the street and then hustled into my car, because I knew this guy would regale me for twenty minutes in ten degree weather if I gave him an opportunity to talk about the game.

I took my hamentashen to a nearby Starbucks still smiling thinking of the fellow whose day would be made if the Patriots were to win later this Sunday. There, at Starbucks, I waited for my "tall" coffee for which I needed a loan and which was, in fact, the smallest size that was offered. While I waited I heard an angry exchange at a nearby table. It was an otherwise quiet and sleepy morning so this bickering was out of place. I turned to see what the combatants were fighting about and noticed that there were no combatants. There was just a fifty year old woman with a paperback book open who was furiously deriding somebody who was not present. A bag of who knows what was on her table, a coffee cup by its side, and there she was berating nobody at all while keeping her paperback open. Having had it with the absent other, she slammed the table--very loudly--barked one last criticism, and to the relief of others in Starbucks, picked herself up and stormed to the exit.

So, now it is a little after 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning. For much of what is called Patriot Nation, today is a big game. If the Patriots prevail there will be joy. If they lose there will be gloom and fans will, literally, hang their heads and feel depressed. Two people I encountered in the last 24 hours should feel such depression. When most of us consider our trials, we have no idea, I think, of the hell that has brought a lot of other people to the edges of normalcy and maybe sanity.

Friday, January 8, 2010

time's winged chariot

"But at my back I always hear
Time's wing├Ęd chariot hurrying near,
And yonder all before us lie
Vast deserts of eternity."--Andrew Marvel

This excerpt from "To his Coy Mistress" has stayed with me ever since I first read it as an assigned poem in Mrs. Brodkin's 11th grade English class. It was a relatively risque selection for a high school reader and we fellows were abuzz with what we thought the poem might be about. One fledgling lothario made a big production of writing the poem out, folding up the paper, and putting it in his shirt pocket. To me, what was seductive about the poem seemed to be more about the vast deserts of eternity part than anything else. This probably was a function of the fact that in 11th grade I was rarely in a position to consider utilizing Marvel's verse for desired ends. But still, what resonated was the message about time's winged chariot and that we did not have unlimited "world enough and time"

I received a note yesterday from a friend who was the point guard for the JV team on which I toiled as an adolescent, hoping for fame and attention from the teenage womenfolk who would come cheering for us at games. Annually my friend, John, and another high school mate, Gary, go to the US OPEN in New York and renew our friendship. John, however, has taken a post in Australia for the last few years and our exchanges now have become mostly electronic. I sent him a happy new year note a few days ago and I received the following in return. "Hey Zeke, Yes, all is well downunder. Where did this decade go? Time flies when you are old and running out of time!"

As is often the case, John was on target with his concise message. When we played on the JV we were a decent tandem he and I. I was not a bad scorer and he was a good distributor. However, the third member of our three guard offense was clearly the star. If I scored ten, Phil had twenty. Of all we aspiring basketball heroes, Phil was the only one of us to start for a college varsity team down the road. Huge hands, great shot. John was a better ball handler, and I was decent driving to the basket, but when in doubt give the ball to Phil and he would, as banners on our high school gym would attest, "Phil de basket". Neither John nor I would make our varsity teams, both being cut on the last day by a very well intentioned and considerate coach. But Phil did and started on an extremely talented high school team. It was disheartening to hear at a recent high school rendezvous that Phil had passed suddenly from a heart attack.

I haven't told John this yet, but his note about the passing of time, reminded me that I need to let him know. And also reminded me of how "marvel" ous and valuable is time's winged chariot.

bogus at best

I came home after my regular Thursday doubles match and watched the second half of the meaningless football game called the BCS championship game.

It is unfortunate that the NCAA has decided to anoint the two teams who will compete for a championship. In basketball, baseball, hockey, division 2 and 3 football the championship contestants are determined by an elimination tournament. Because of these elimination tournaments, the teams who eventually play in the final contest have earned the right to compete for the prize.

Last night's game was a dud. I wondered throughout the second half if Boise State (a team who finished the season undefeated) could have beaten the two combatants on the field. Boise State takes risks and has beaten some outstanding teams over the years with creative offensive plays. Their game against Oklahoma several years back has been referred to by pundits as the greatest college football game ever played. Last night, Texas played unimaginatively after their starting quarterback was hurt. Alabama played not to lose in the second half. It was dull and outside of the states of Texas and Alabama I don't know how many people could have cared.

Yesterday the Northeastern basketball Huskies defeated George Mason University in the Colonial league. Today, the women hockey players at Northeastern will compete against the University of New Hampshire in the temporary outdoor rink erected in Fenway Park. Both last night's basketball game and today's hockey contest have more meaning than the bogus championship matchup of two teams last night that looked like they could be defeated by a team that did not get a chance to compete in the contest.

Friday, January 1, 2010

happy new year--kol hakavod

A few days ago a high school friend who is now a "facebook friend" sent me a note. He wanted to know what my father's first name "is/was". I responded with the name and told Ira that both my father and mother were, fortunately, very much with us. Ira's response was "kol hakavod to both of your parents."

I'd no idea what kol hakavod meant, though I could get it--I thought--from context. But I wanted to make sure before I responded. I went to the internet and saw kol hakavod all over the place, but mostly it was in the context of person A saying to person B, "Kol hakavod". Again, I had a sense, but especially since I knew that Ira's dad had blown the shofar at the temple I infrequently attended as a kid, I didn't want to respond without knowing for sure what the phrase meant. I wrote to my friend Barry who, displaying his good natured wisenheimer humor, forwarded me the website-- Hebrew for Dummies. There I found the meaning of kol hakavod. It means, as one might expect, something akin to "congratulations".

So, I wrote back to Ira. The note went something like this:

"thanks for your message. My parents deserve kol hakavod more for the ethical way they've conducted their lives than their longevity. And" I continued, "I'm embarrassed to confess that I did not know what kol hakavod meant. I had to scurry around to find the definition before I responded.".

Ira's riposte,

"No need to be embarrassed for not knowing what Kol Hakavod means. You should be embarrassed only if you did not know what "ethical" meant."

The Cider House Rules is one of my favorite novels. It has stuck with me since the mid 80s when I read it and felt then that if the book did not deal with such a controversial subject (abortion) it should and would be on the reading lists of all high schools. In the novel, itinerant workers stay in a cider house during their time picking apples for a family in Maine. On the walls of their temporary home--the cider house--is a list of rules about how to behave inside the cider house.

The workers pay no attention to the rules and laugh at them. They claim that they did not make them and therefore these rules are irrelevant. The workers claim that they have to live by their own set of rules. Implicitly they contend that their successes and failures as humans are dependent on how they adhere to the moral compass that they have designed, rendering the cider house rules at best a set of suggestions--and at worst disorienting.

Today is New Year's Day. Time for resolutions. work out more, eat less, be more productive with one's time, are often at the top of the lists of those who make them. For me, the key on any day, new year's day or any other, is to live within the confines of my conscience. Not always successful, but to the extent that I can separate the cider house rules from the real ones, and adhere to the real ones, I know the meaning of ethical and deserve a kol hakavod.