Saturday, December 31, 2011

last/next lap

A moment ago I was stunned by an e-mail. Still reeling a bit. And the subject is not an inappropriate one for an end of the year message.

My university sends out notices when a faculty member has passed and so I received the message that Bruce Wallin died on Thursday.

The last time I saw Bruce we were sitting around a conference table. We both were on a committee related to sports and student athletes. Bruce had been a member the year before and I was new to the committee. He apologized repeatedly at the session because he would not be able to participate since he was having hip replacement surgery. This was in September of 2010.

Our paths did not cross that regularly. I first met Bruce at and around sporting events at the school. He was always friendly and welcoming something I appreciated. I got to know him better at a retreat on Martha's Vineyard about a dozen years ago. We were roommates and found ourselves chatting about this and that when not engaged in the retreat program, nearly like college freshmen.

He was an interesting man with a varied background. He was a college basketball player at Princeton where he played during the era when Bill Bradley starred there. He was a good friend of John McEnroe the tennis great. Bruce regaled me for quite some time on Martha's Vineyard with descriptions of his stint working for the Minnesota Twins. Bruce was the guy who drove in the relief pitchers back during the era when, to speed up the games, baseball required that a car drive the players from the bull pen to the pitching mound.

I saw him once around on campus from a distance after the surgery which had, I assumed, gone well. But apparently afterwards he had become ill with cancer. The notice from the school said he died after a short fight with the disease. Probably no more than 65, and he looked a lot younger. Plus he was full of life and energy--almost no pretension. Just a good guy.

We are about to finish the lap for 2011. Every day is precious, a gift. I hope I, and those I love, can remember this as we begin another trip around the track.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Sine or circle

One of my favorite singers and song writers is the late Harry Chapin. I first heard of him when his "hit", Taxi, made it to popular radio stations in the early 1970s. I like Taxi, but it was sometime later in the 70s when I listened to some of his other songs and found him so engaging. I went to hear him play near Buffalo in 76 or 77 and he seemed so ingenuous and genuinely caring. Then, in October 1979 he came to sing at the small college I worked for at the time--SUNY Fredonia. At the end of that night he had the audience in a tizzy.

It is difficult for me to identify one song in particular that I like the most, because so many resonate with me. But if I had to pick one, and only one, I think I would have to go with Circle. The chorus goes like this.

All my life's a circle
Sunrise and sundown
The moon rolls thru the nighttime;
Till the daybreak comes around.

No straight lines make up my life;
And all my roads have bends;
There's no clear-cut beginnings;
And so far no dead-ends.

Typically, I don't think of a circle when I think of a metaphor for life. I think of a Sine curve. Sometimes you are up and sometimes you are down, and it is likely that, like the Sine curve, you will have regular ups and downs.

For those who have retained a bit of high school math, you know that the sine curve varies in terms of frequency--metaphorically how often we experience highs and lows, and the amplitude--metaphorically how high we get when we are happy and how low we get when we sink. I think it is inevitable that we will have highs and lows, the questions: Are we able to stick around long enough during the highs or are we always dipping down, seconds after we are aloft. And do we get too high or too low.

But whenever, I hear recordings of Circle, I wonder if the circle, not the Sine, is the right geometric figure as a life metaphor. A stanza in Circle goes like this.

I found you a thousand times;
I guess you've done the same;
But then we lose each other;
It's like a children's game;

As I find you here again;
A thought runs through my mind;
Our love is like a circle;
Let's go 'round one more time.

Maybe life is a sine curve, but the backbone of life--love--I think may be a circle. And if the backbone is a circle, perhaps the sense of the sine curve is just an illusion.

Monday, December 26, 2011

One of those Guys

In the summer of 1969 my brother and I worked in the post office trowing (we were trained to trow not throw) parcels into bins. We were summertime vacation replacements. One of the fellows who started with us decided to continue working at the post office after the summer was up. A year later my brother went to visit him and his report was amusing. Don, the full time worker, reminisced with my brother about the employees we had met when we first started out. Then he said, "Guess what. Now I am one of those Guys."

The Raccoon Lodge will not win the football pool this year. We were the champions last year, but after my performance this past weekend, we have no shot to finish close to the top. My brother left it to me to pick the teams this past week. Very unwise choice on his part. While I sleuthed out the contests diligently, had a plan that seemed like it made sense, and won a number of the early games--including Indianapolis upset win over Houston and Buffalo startling Tebow and the Broncos--six of my other picks were incredible losers.

I have mentioned regularly in this blog how when one bets against the spread it is like flipping a coin. In football it is like flipping a coin while walking a tightrope. So many strange things can happen. I remember years ago meeting a self-impressed basketball better in Las Vegas who told me he does not do football. He said, "Football will drive you crazy with last minute stuff."

So, it can. Let's consider the fate of the Raccoon Lodge.

We won Indianapolis, we won the Giants, we won the Panthers, we won the Steelers and, hah, we won the Bills--up five and we had not even finished the one o'clock games. The rest of the story is this...

Baltimore was beating up on Cleveland and had plenty to beat the 13 point spread. Then they decide to relax. Final score 20-14. Tennessee is up by 20 points to Jacksonville. Another easy winner giving up only 7.5. Tennessee decides to take an afternoon siesta and the final is 23-17 which sinks the Raccoon Lodge,

Those are nothing though. How about San Francisco giving up 2.5 and winning 19-17. And there are the Bears getting 13 points to the Packers. The final 35-21. KC is giving up 1 and loses in overtime by 3. The Patriots are giving up 9.5 and go up 27-17 in the fourth quarter which would make me a winner, but they give up a meaningless touchdown at the end to the Dolphins who can barely swim. Final 27-24.

But my favorite of the day is Arizona and Cincinnati. This made it clear that the Raccoon Lodge is out of business. I have Arizona plus 4. Arizona is getting shellacked so I figure it is a loser. But, lo, there is hope. There is hope. Arizona down 23-0 scores 16 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. And they are driving to tie the score. If they tie, the game will likely go into overtime. In overtime games are typically decided by a field goal, so with four points in my pocket it does not matter if Arizona loses by 3 or wins by 3. The Raccoon Lodge would still win. On fourth down Arizona lofts a pass to a player that is so uncovered that my maternal grandmother could catch it, and she is no longer with us. However this absolutely all alone player falls down like a toddler stumbling after learning how to walk, and the ball bounces behind him. The Arizona quarterback puts his hands to his helmet in a gesture of incredulity. He should have seen my gesture in the sports bar.

The Raccoon Lodge is dead.

I am one of those guys.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

John Brown and the religious right.

I just finished Midnight Rising, a book about John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859. Today is Christmas and also, this year, the 6th day of Hannukkah which means that many are observing and celebrating this day. As I was finishing the book I thought about how Brown's act was related to spirituality.

I wrote in an earlier blog that I have been interested in Brown since I read a speech he delivered before he was hanged. I find out in this book that my memory is mistaken. He delivered the speech in the courtroom after he was found to be guilty.

John Brown was a zealot--his mission was to free the country from an abomination, slavery. The Harpers Ferry plan was beyond foolish. It was so short sighted that the author sugggests that perhaps Brown wanted to be caught and that the action more than the ostensible desired result of the raid is what Brown thought would further the cause. On face value the plan was ridiculous--truly worthy of ridicule.

But the raid did bring to a head the conflict between the states and the issue of slavery. Years later Frederick Douglass (I just read) said that the first battle of the Civil War was not at Fort Sumter but essentially at Harpers Ferry.

Since today is the 6th day of Hannukah and also Christmas, I got to thinking as I was finishing the book about the relationship between Brown's act and being religious. In his speech at his trial, Brown talks about the Bible and identifies the hypocrisy of those who kiss the Bible before testifying and then speak on the witness stand of the legitimacy of subjugating human beings.

Being religious does not mean crossing the ts and dotting the I's. Of course, there is no shortage of maniacs who in the name of some religious cause declare it fine to kill others--but in this case, Brown's cause was incontrovertibly right. And his activities toward to the cause expedited the end of an abomination.

Below is an excerpt from Brown's (unprepared) comments after having been declared guilty.

"I have, may it please the court, a few words to say."
"In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted, the design on my part to free the slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter, when I went into Missouri and there took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to have done the same thing again, on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection."

"I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case), had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends, either father, mother, brother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class, and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment."

"This court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me, further, to "remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them." I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am yet too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done as I have always freely admitted I have done in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I submit; so let it be done!"

"Let me say one word further."

"I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances. it has been more generous than I expected. But I feel no consciousness of guilt.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Consciousness of Guilt

I am reading a book now called, Midnight Rising. It is about John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859.

John Brown has been--for thirty plus years at least--an intriguing historical character to me. About ten years ago I was driving through Lake Placid and saw a sign indicating that his home was nearby. I hadn't known that he had lived there (according to the book he spent very little time in that home, leaving his wife to fend for herself while he pursued his mission). I pulled off the road and took a tour of the farm.

We all know the song John Brown's Body that we sang as kids, and most of us know about his role in the abolitionist movement. For me, though, what made John Brown a riveting character was the speech he gave just before he was hanged. I read it about thirty years ago when I was looking for important speeches for students to read. In the speech, Brown said at one point that he "felt no consciousness of guilt." It is this excerpt that I thought to be singularly powerful, meaningful (and apparently) memorable.

Of course we in 2011, know that Brown's goal was more than just admirable. Can there be anything that is more of a blight on American history than the fact that once slavery was a lawful institution. Why should Brown have felt any consciousness of guilt for trying to free individuals horrifically subjugated like subhumans.

But the excerpt stuck with me not only because of how right he was to feel no consciousness of guilt for fighting against slavery. The line has stayed with me because I thought that whenever one took any action, consciousness of guilt might not be a bad meter to use when considering whether the action should be done. Will there be consciousness of guilt? If so, then don't do it.

I have not finished the book--just half way into it--but I find it interesting to read about how quirky Brown was and how impossibly unsuccessful he was in almost any business enterprise he pursued. And certainly the raid on Harpers Ferry was a wild, myopic attempt to reach his goal. The raid we now know was a bloody failure--at least in the way it was designed to be successful.

I don't plan to be hanged, but I do hope that when I face some arbiter, I can say that I feel relatively little consciousness of guilt.

Raccoon Lodge

Last year my brother and I won the annual (not for profit) football pool picking games against the spread. Those who have read the Madness of March know that I argue that essentially picking games against the spread is like picking heads or tails in a coin toss.

This year we are still in the hunt with three weeks remaining--we are about six wins behind the leader. There are 47 left to play including one that is being contested as I write. I have a good feeling about our picks for tomorrow and I add quickly that I know from nothing.

I looked at the pundits in the newspaper today, people in the business of picking games. The Raccoon Lodge (our team) is doing as well as the experts--for the simple reason that there can be no experts when picking against the spread.

All this self effacement aside, look out for the Raccoon Lodge down the stretch.

Friday, December 16, 2011

12-15/16-11; midnight

After a big meal, when I was a boy, my father would lean back in his chair and say, "You know, if everyone had a meal like this every night, there would be no more wars."

This was one of several refrains we would hear from dad--and it is not insignificant that, now, forty plus years later I can still recall many of these comments and recognize the wisdom in the messages.

Tonight I arrived at my parents' home to celebrate my dad's birthday. As is always the case, I was greeted warmly by my folks. We shmoozed for a while, ate more than needed to be consumed, and now look forward to doing something special for my dad's day tomorrow.

If everyone had a loving home to come home to every day, there would be no wars.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Rational or Irrational

Each December the New York Times publishes a list of the top ten books of the year. The list came out in today's paper and I had not only not read any of them, but had not heard of any. A couple caught my eye, but the one that has me thinking for the last few hours is called, Thinking Fast and Slow. Here is the blurb that describes the book:

We overestimate the importance of whatever it is we're thinking about. We misremember the past and misjudge what will make us happy....[the author] demonstrates that irrationality is in our bones, and we are not necessarily the worse for it.

There is something, of course, ironic about me thinking about this for the last two hours. But here are some of my musings--however irrational. Is it possible that what I am sure about represents a composite of misjudgements? If irrationality is in our "bones", and we are not necessarily the worse for it, does this means that rationality--valid logical thinking--has insidious effects?

I spend a good deal of time in my head. If I "misremember the past" and "misjudge what will make me happy" then it becomes very difficult to plan.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Box Tops

In September 1967, after the summer of love, the number one hit was a song taken from a movie called, To Sir With Love and the singer was a woman named Lulu. The song endured but shortly after it reached number 1, it was supplanted by a song by a group called the Box Tops. The song was called, The Letter, and it began with a lyric that reflected a frenzied reaction: "Give me a ticket for an airplane, aint got time for a fast train, lonely days are gone, I'm a goin' home, My baby she wrote me a letter."

The timing of the song release was likely fortuitous. Baby boomers in the millions were leaving home and going to college that September after the summer of love. The idea that a letter could be powerful enough to bring a sweetheart charging home was a comforting notion to those who had recently been separated. Of course it was likely in the realm of the real world that by the time the plane had landed, the "baby" who "wrote me a letter" might have had a second thought, making the flight's descent smooth sailing compared to the bumpy landing of the traveller.

One hears the Box Tops song now and again on Oldie stations, but I think it might have a muted impact in this next generation. By the time a sweetheart in 2011 is an hour away from a lover, there would be muliple texts, a call or two on a cell phone, and maybe a picture transmitted easily on a blackberry. "Here is me at the train station feeling blue."

Would someone be likely to bolt off the train if he received a text saying, "I miss you to bits" twenty five minutes after the last embrace? Maybe so, but I think there is a power to a posted letter that carries the weight of some time away. Would you rather get a birthday card that is handwritten, or a text wishing you a great day? Maybe soon the distinction between the two forms of communication will be blurred, but somehow I doubt that the lyric, "My baby, she wrote me an e-mail" would compel someone to hop on an airplane.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

BCS without the C

It is time for my annual rant against the Bowl Championship Series.

In all of sport, and this counts wrestling, there is nothing so silly and patently false as the BCS. This year, the wisdom of who knows who, has determined that the University of Alabama should play LSU for the championship. Previously this year LSU defeated Alabama in a game that was a cure for insomnia. The final, 9-6, was less exciting than watching your neighbor walk the dog.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that there are several teams with only one loss to someone other than LSU, and several teams that are exciting, can score touchdowns, and have deserved the opportunity to compete for a championship, the oligarchy that runs college football has decreed this ridickalus game.

Let's consider Oklahoma State. They lost one game. They lost the game on the day after they discovered that the coach of the women's basketball team had been killed in a plane crash. They lost, I believe, in overtime after mourning all day. Well, hell, they don't deserve to play.

How about Boise State. They lost one game because a kicker missed a field goal. That is the only game they lost. They are exciting have lost only one game in each of the last two years. They are playing in what might as well be called the Toilet Bowl.

College football postseason is nothing more than a series of exhibition contests. Since two teams have been decreed the best teams, what difference does it make when others play. Can there be anything that is more like a soccer "friendly" than the Independence Weedeater Bowl.

In Division IAA, II, and III there are tournaments taking place currently. It is much more exciting and genuine, as far as I am concerned, to see whether University of Wisconsin Whitewater will defeat Mount Union in Division 3, than to see how the hoo hah University of Wisconsin/Madison division 1 team will win in the silly Rose Bowl.

When I was a kid I would watch wrestling with Bruno Sammartino, Gorgeous George, Haystacks Calhoun, Jumbo, and assorted other "wrestlers". My father would tell me that it was all phony. He was right. But no more phony than whoever is called the national champion in college football this year.

Friday, December 2, 2011

this is going to hurt

When I was nine or ten I got hit in the mouth by a baseball bat. It was an inadvertent strike. My friend Gregory and I were playing on a grassy area near our apartment building. As I recall we were near one of the several signs in the neighborhood that read, "No ballplaying of any kind." Scofflaws in training, I guess, though in the neighborhood it seemed that we were not alone. I recall that a number of years later I played football on a lawn and we, without really thinking much about it, used a similar forbidding sign as the touchdown goal marker.

I cannot remember now how exactly Gregory hit me in the mouth with the bat. It was certainly inadvertent. We might have been picking up the bats after our game and he accidentally swung a bat around or it could have been during a game when I was catching and caught the back of the bat as he finished his swing. It doesn't matter. I just knew I had been hit. I can't even remember now much bleeding if any. But I did not think it would go away.

My folks took me to the doctor who, and who knows if my memory is playing tricks on me now, always seemed to be there no matter when we showed up. I actually had two doctors like this. My pediatrician was a woman named Dr. Lipsett, and the family doctor was named Shapiro. I can vaguely remember Dr. Lipsett, but I can see Dr. Shapiro as if he was sitting on the nearby chair here where, currently, my cat Pumpkin now seems to be extraordinarily comfortable.

Dr. Shapiro was a heavy guy with a double chin who seemed jovial nearly every time I was there. We might have to wait a stretch to see him, but whenever we got to the doctors, eventually, he would see me.

So, Dr. Shapiro takes a look at my kisser and shakes his head a couple of times. Then he takes out something from his arsenal and tells me he is going to put it on the area where I'd been clocked. Then he tells me something that he rarely had told me previously, "This" he said "is going to hurt".

Well, I dont remember thinking much of this warning. I had been to doctors before and before a shot had been told that something was going to hurt. But often this warning came with a laugh as if to indicate that it was a right of passage and I would be fine. This time there was none of that. Nevertheless, I was not particularly concerned. He put the stuff on me.

It hurt like hell. I can remember it to this day. He was not bluffing. Whatever it was, when it connected with my bruised mouth I hit the roof. Eventually, of course both the pain and any vestiges of Gregory's bat left, but the pain was pretty good. I wrote in these blogs about a toothache I had recently that was off the charts painful. This was not in that category, but certainly it is memorable.

The thing is that throughout my life when something ominous was about to happen I have tended to downplay the pain that was upcoming. Emotional or physical. I figure something is going to hurt some and often am way off the mark in terms of the sum of the some. How bad can it be is a good attitude to take, but it is worth recognizing that sometimes the depths of pain can be beyond the capacity to conceptualize until we experience it.