Thursday, December 28, 2006
I will continue to keep writing cover letters until I have latched on somewhere, but it won’t be pleasant. I’ve always been more comfortable writing about other people than I am about myself. While I have my introspective moments, I’m a lot more interested in the people in my life than I am in myself. Every day I make it a point to tell my wife and my kids how lucky I am that they are in my life, even if I’m temporarily frustrated or irritated with their behavior. The people in your life and the experiences you share with them are what give life meaning, not the material possessions you happen to acquire as you pass through your limited earthly leasehold. At this late date my wife and I have not acquired a cell phone, or an iPod, or a wireless internet connection, or digital cable television. We don’t have a television in every room. We don’t drive fancy cars. Our kids have plenty of toys, but with the exception of my son’s Game Boy, the toys aren’t especially high tech. But we haven’t really missed these things.
What has mattered this year, and will matter next year and every year thereafter, are the opportunities and experiences we have as a family. I’ll remember the image of Ben standing on the pitcher’s mound, with a facial expression simultaneously exhibiting glee and terror, as he faced other kids wielding baseball bats for the first time. I’ll remember the image of Maria, contorting her face into a mask of determination, letting out a high-pitched yelp as she smacked the baseball from the tee using a bright red metallic baseball bat. I’ll remember the smiles of the kids as they clambered up the model grain elevator at the Minnesota History Center, or gazing in wonder at the enormous, room sized geometric paintings displayed at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts. I’ll remember the uncontrolled giggles at the breakfast table as Ben and Maria attempted to recreate the repartee of Groucho Marx and Margaret Dumont that they had seen the night before. And I’ll remember the beatific smile of my wonderful wife as she watched our children cavort.
Our current circumstances are temporary. Things will get better. But while it would be easy to see our circumstances as straitened because of our current financial worries, it would be wrong. I remain optimistic precisely because 2006 has been, in its own way, a very good year.
James Brown is a Rosetta Stone for popular culture. His impact, although often unstated, is simply enormous. I have seen it argued that Brown was a more important figure than Presley in understanding the history of rock and roll, and of popular music in the second half of the 20th Century. I think the argument is compelling. From the initial success of his conventional, but remarkable, initial hit “Please, Please, Please” back in 1956, through his string of classics in the 1960s, Brown’s sense of rhythm and his amazing showmanship were used, mimicked and consistently recycled to this day. Brown had a rough-edged singing voice; he was not a smoothie like Nat Cole or Sam Cooke or even Chuck Berry. While he could carry a tune, his raspy, throaty voice was itself a rhythm instrument, often substituting grunts, shouts or chants for words. Every aspiring singer since has probably uttered a resounding “Huh!” or “Good God!” at least once or twice. But it was as a bandleader and arranger that Brown really changed everything. As he famously shouted, he liked to “give the drummer some.” He understood how the beat moved the music and he was a genius at devising rhythm tracks and horn arrangements that could move you. He found incredible players and used them in his various bands, including such giants as bassist Bootsy Collins and horn man Maceo Parker, to name just two. And once James Brown hit the stage, you’d understand why he could accurately claim to be “the hardest working man in show business.” No one could dance and sing like James Brown. His stamina was unbelievable. It is impossible to imagine the glories of 70s R&B, the excesses of the disco era, and the 25+ year phenomenon known as hip hop, without coming to terms with James Brown. His beats, his dance moves and his vision were integral to all of them. Today you see Brown’s influence every time the elderly Mick Jagger mounts the stage, some 40 years after he first watched Brown in admiration from the wings during the T.A.M.I Show. Like many musicians, Brown had a troubled past and he had a tendency to run afoul of the law throughout his life. But if you ask anyone from George Clinton through Prince to Chuck D and Diddy (or whatever the heck he goes by these days), they’ll all tell you the same thing – James Brown made a lot of what they did possible. James Brown is, in many ways, why American music sounds the way it does today.
Then there’s Gerald Ford, our nation’s only unelected president, who died last night at the age of 93. I think the key to understanding President Ford is to understand the role that dignity played in his life. Ford was, above all else, a very dignified man. When an embattled Richard Nixon plucked Ford from the House of Representatives in 1973 to replace Spiro Agnew, it became clear that this man would be a crucial figure in our nation’s history. Nixon had a variety of options available to him, but in picking Ford he found a comforting, establishment figure who had earned the respect and trust of nearly everyone in Washington. It’s easy to forget, more than 30 years on, the nastiness that accompanied our politics in that era. The lingering bitterness in the aftermath of Vietnam and the inconclusive political dénouement of the 1960s meant that, for many citizens, there was a lot of uncertainty. Ford was a solid figure, a moderate Republican who was civil, decent and respected. In short, he was dignified in a way that the brilliant, villainous Nixon could never be. Most Americans were tired of the high drama of the Nixon administration and the ongoing civics seminar that was going on in Washington as Nixon inevitably lost his grip on the office. Ford wasn’t like that; he looked an acted like a President. He was the right man for the times.
But the irony was how his personal dignity worked against him while in office. Ford became a figure of ridicule because of a few clumsy moments and became the butt of jokes because he fell down the stairs, bumped his head, struck a wild golf shot or two. Chevy Chase owes his career to Ford, to name just one example. For some, Ford’s stolid, solid persona became yet another pasteboard mask, easily shattered with all cameras trained on him. It’s also easy to forget that Ford encountered two would-be assassins during his brief tenure. Ford survived the attacks, but he could not survive the challenge of Jimmy Carter, an ambitious former governor of Georgia who narrowly defeated Ford in the 1976 election.
Ford’s greatest controversy was his pardon of Nixon late in 1974. I was a kid at the time, but as the years have progressed it has been pretty obvious that Ford made the right decision. Nixon was in ill health after he left office and was actually near death for a time. As it turned out, by pardoning Nixon Ford likely saved his life. Nixon used his post-presidential years well, writing a variety of magisterial works that have been a valuable addition to the country’s understanding of statecraft. While there was a great desire for vengeance for Nixon among some of the more animated partisans of the American left, it’s difficult to see what criminal trials would have accomplished. Besides which, Ford had a lot of other things to deal with in that momentous era.
There has been a tendency among some ex-presidents to remain in the fray after they left office. Carter and Bill Clinton have been ferocious partisans since they left office. Ford was always available to help, but he did not seek the spotlight. There’s great debate about which approach is better; in many ways, Carter has been a significantly more consequential figure (for good and ill) as an ex-president than he was as a president. Bill Clinton has made a career, and a huge fortune, giving high-dollar speeches to non-threatening (i.e, limousine liberal) audiences. George H.W. Bush has generally followed Ford’s approach and has largely stayed in the shadows. Because Ford and GWHB have reacted this way, the commentariat has tended to look at both of their respective presidencies in a more favorable way. Now that Ford has left the stage, look for his legacy to grow in luster.
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
When I was growing up, it often seemed like the larger world didn’t have a lot of effect on Appleton. While there have always been people of wit and sophistication in Appleton, it was a typically Midwestern town, more prosperous than many because its major industry, paper making, is essentially recession proof. It was a comforting place to grow up, but I always was quite eager to get out of there as soon as I could. Like many sons of a small town, I saw a big ol’ world out there and I was eager to swim in a bigger pond.
When you enter the city limits of Appleton, the sign tells you that over 72,000 people live there now. That number is deceptive, though – Appleton and the surrounding towns that comprise the Fox Cities are now home to over a half million people. As you swing around the highways on the outskirts of town, the signage of nearly every major retailer is easy to spot. The main streets are filled with small businesses, office parks and sturdy manufacturing plants. The well-kept houses, once confined to small lots in an area about four miles square, now spread out far into Outagamie, Calumet and Winnebago Counties. New highways criss-cross the area, and old highways now have new names. Places that were corn fields less than five years ago are now covered with development of all sorts.
I have lived in a major metropolitan area for most of my adult life now. Jill and I are raising our family in the comfortable suburbs of the Twin Cities. I love where I live and am happy we are here, but when I go back home it becomes increasingly clear that the big ol’ world I sought is now available in the town I left some 25 years ago.
Friday, December 22, 2006
- First, the progress of the rookie coaches. When the season began, there was considerable skepticism concerning the hiring of Mike McCarthy to be the new coach in Green Bay. Brad Childress, the Viking head coach, was supposed to have interviewed in Green Bay but the Vikings essentially made him a hostage until he signed with them. It's funny how things work out. On paper, it appeared that the Pack, with inferior talent and a publicly diffident icon at the helm of the team, looked like a tough place to be, especially given the expectations that Packer Backers now have. The Vikings were a 9-7 team last year and were showing signs of improvement under Mike Tice, the rambunctious New Yorker who was run out of town in favor of Childress. Now, the Vikes are 6-9, with the worst offense in the history of the franchise. Meanwhile, the young and modestly talented Packers are 7-8 and still have an outside chance of making the playoffs. I publicly questioned the hiring of McCarthy in this space. Looks like I was wrong and I am delighted to be wrong. Advantage, Mike McCarthy.
- Second, defensive struggles can be fascinating. Since I live in Minnesota, I see a lot of the Purple Helmeted Love Warriors and it has been a treat to watch their defense this year. The two behemoths in the middle of the defensive line, Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, are exceptionally talented players. In Antoine Winfield, they have one of the most fearless football players I have ever seen. Even their linebackers, who were viewed with great suspicion prior to the season, have performed beautifully most of the season. The reason the Packers only scored 9 points last night is that it was damned difficult to move the ball on the Viking defense.
- Third, there's a good open question regarding the other side of the ball. The Packers defense began the year looking absolutely horrible and have had some really bad games against teams like the Patriots and the Jets. But the defense played magnificently against the Vikes, holding them to only 104 total yards and an astonishing 3 first downs. You can make a good argument that the Packers defense has improved a heck of a lot over the course of the season. Aaron Kampman in particular has made himself into a star and it is clear that A. J. Hawk is going to be very good, maybe even Jack Ham good. But you'd also have to look at how terrible the Vikings offense is. Tarvaris Jackson looks like he has some talent, but he was on an incredibly short leash last night. The days when the Vikings would throw the bomb are long gone now. Their receiving corps has been dismal all season and showed almost nothing against the aggressive Packer defensive backs. Troy Williamson is clearly a bust and the Vikings seem to have no idea what to do with the rest of their wideouts. Marcus Robinson has been a very productive player at times in his career, but he was a spectator yesterday.
Conclusions? I'd say this. The Packers are coming along in their rebuilding. The Vikings didn't think they were rebuilding, but they are now. And it's going to be interesting if they can hold that defense together long enough for the offense to catch up. Some of the key players are getting pretty old. All told, I'd rather be a Packer fan than a Viking fan right now. Luckily, I am.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
First, Ben’s mighty Team 4 squad (henceforth known as the Red Scourges) played much better on Saturday, losing to hated rival Team 3 (henceforth known as Purple Haze) by a score of 54-32. Ben did not score in the game but played very good defense, grabbed a few rebounds and had at least two assists that I counted. He also managed to foul a Purple Haze player without causing a bench-clearing brawl (more on that in a moment). More importantly, our mighty Scourges did not fold under full court pressure. You can see that the kids learned something from the fearsome thrashing they took from Team 2 (henceforth known as Yellow Rain) last week. The team is now off for the holidays and will retake the court on January 6 against Team 5 (henceforth known as the St. Anthony B Team).
Second, the college basketball season is off to a rollicking start. We’re seeing some very exciting Division I basketball this season, including excellent performances from my beloved Badgers and my equally beloved Marquette Warriors. I know, they changed their name to Golden Weasels or something like that about a decade ago, but they will always be the Warriors to me. The Badgers had an impressive home victory over Pittsburgh over the weekend and Alando Tucker & co. now have two pretty impressive Big East scalps on the wall. Meanwhile, Marquette has played very well and is the only team to defeat Duke thus far. You have to love Division I basketball. We can only hope that someday we can see Division I basketball here in Minnesota.
Third, since just about every pundit on the planet has weighed in on the Knicks-Nuggets brawl from last weekend, why not add my two cents? I think that the NBA does have an image problem because of things like this, but I think there’s a larger concern that transcends the NBA, which is the boneheaded machismo that surrounds the concept of “respect,” or more importantly, “disrespect.” Too often we see people resort to violence at the slightest perception of an insult, or a “dis.” The Knicks are a terrible team and it was obvious that Isiah Thomas, the NBA great who is incredibly miscast as coach/majordomo of the New Yorkers, ordered a hard foul because of a perceived slight. Thomas is now pushing 50; it’s long past time that he grow up.
Friday, December 15, 2006
But of course one can oppose Israel without being an Anti-Semite, right? Maybe. But I doubt it. We have seen many horrible things happen in the previous century. Horrible things are happening now. And you can hear the sounds of knives being sharpened.
Never again may have a shelf life. And it could be soon. Unless we start to pay attention.
Thursday, December 14, 2006
- I continue to say that I'm going to write less about politics, even as I continue to wade into the cesspool. The good news is that 2007 is an "off year," so there may be less to say. I hope so. But don't count on it.
- I hope to write more about music in 2007. I don't have a lot to say about the current music scene, since I don't have the patience to sort out Jay-Z from Diddy from Fast Ball from Smash Mouth from Big Fat Something featuring Ludacris and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. But I love music and I can wax nostalgic like the coot I am about past glories. Expect more of that in 2007.
- I also enjoy chornicling the kids' athletic exploits in this space. Expect to see more of that in 2007.
- Finally, I want to do more writing about the arts, literature and the like. Some of my favorite posts have been ones where I've tried to do something weird, like linking the death of Kirby Puckett to the poetry of William Butler Yeats. I still don't know why I did that, but it worked. Don't be surprised to see more ricochets of that sort in the coming year.
Thanks to all of you who read and comment on this blog. I'm glad to have the opportunity to write and appreciate your praise and brickbats.
Monday, December 11, 2006
- The Detroit Lions are still chicken soup. It is amazing how a trip to Detroit can cure your ills if you are a National Football League team. The Lions, once an employer of the legendary running back Artose Pinner, allowed ol Artose (pronounced ar-TOOZ) to run wild over Ford Field for well over 100 yards and three touchdowns as the Purple Helmeted Love Warriors won 30-20. Pinner has played in the league three years without doing much other than having the coolest first name since former 70s era Saints Bivian Lee and D'Artagnan Martin. Good for him, though - I didn't catch what Chris Berman called him but I'm hoping it was Artose-Latrec Pinner. That's my humble suggestion.
- The Pack wasn't on here in Twinstown so I didn't get to see it, but Brett Favre is now an amazing 11-1 against the 49ers after leading the Packers to a 30-19 win. Favre's only loss (in the 1998 playoffs) still should have an asterisk, as Jerry Rice had clearly fumbled the ball on the drive prior to Steve Young's game-winner to Terrell Owens. Under the current rules, the Packers would have won that one. But no worries - the Pack has played very well on the road this year, with a 4-3 record. Now, if they can only figure out what the heck is wrong with them at Lambeau, they may have something. Luckily, the Lions are coming to Green Bay this week. Mmmm, chicken soup.
- I saw the second half of the Wisconsin-Marquette basketball team and was impressed with both teams. Marquette has some impressive talent on their team, especially their 3-guard attack. It wasn't enough to stop Alando Tucker, who is an amazing player/scorer. His game is very different from Adrian Dantley, but I keep thinking of Dantley when I watch Tucker play. He just knows how to score. I haven't seen Ohio State yet, but it's difficult to imagine that too many other teams in the Big Ten will be able to beat the Badgers this year. And I wouldn't give up on MU, either -- guard-oriented teams often do especially well in the NCAA tournament, and the Warriors will be there. Oops, can't call them that. Old habits die hard....
- So the rumors keep flying that some combination of Allen Iverson and/or Bob Knight are coming to town to rescue us from our basketball torpor. I hope not, especially AI. Word is that the Woofies would have to give up Randy Foye as part of the deal. That would be a big mistake. If they can ship out Mike James, Troy Hudson and Rashard McCants, do it. But Foye is going to be a very good player in this league and you want to see him do that here. As for Knight, well, let's just say that his act wore thin a long time ago. The Gophs need to do something, but that's not it.
But what can we learn from losing 70-6? More than a few things, I think.
First, there are times in life where you are going to lose, no matter what you do. We knew as coaches that our team, which features a few kids who have never played organized basketball before (and based on the evidence, still haven’t despite our modest coaching efforts), had no shot. For some reason, the grandees who run the program didn’t consider the wisdom of balancing the teams. Our inexperienced 5th graders were playing a team that was filled with experienced, talented 6th graders. The result was unsurprising. Ben is one of the more experienced kids on our team. He is not a big kid, though – about 4-8 and less than 80 pounds. He knew what was coming but he didn’t have the physical skills to deal with bigger, faster, more aggressive kids. And some of our kids are less physically equipped than Ben.
Second, you can learn from adversity if you are willing to. Our opponents, for whatever reason, did not decide to show our kids any mercy. They sat in a half court trap defense and whenever our kids tried to cross the half court line, simply trapped our kids, overpowered our slightly built guards, stole the ball and drove in for a usually uncontested layup. It happened over and over. We tried the usual coaching techniques – spreading the floor, having different kids bring the ball up, keeping someone back, but none of it seemed to matter. But we’ll be able to use what happened to help the kids understand what happened in the next practice.
Third, you can learn sportsmanship. The coaches of the other team are high school kids and I think that’s why they didn’t call off the dogs. They have not learned from Shakespeare that the quality of mercy is not stern. In fact, the most obvious literary comparison would be “Lord of the Flies.” But the kids on Team 2 knew what had happened and they did not celebrate their win. They sensed that what happened was not a happy event. That gives me a lot of hope, because kids can be cruel. These kids were not cruel. They were simply very good.
And our kids can get better. As the game went on, we started to see a little more fight in a number of kids. Even when you are getting beaten badly, we do tend to “play up” to the level of competition. And after a while the kids did. Ben fought hard, got some rebounds and even forced a few turnovers. As a parent, I’m less concerned with the results than I am with the effort. Ben gave a great effort on Saturday.
Meanwhile, we’ll practice on Thursday and the kids will play again on Saturday. My guess is that they will play much better.
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
As I think about today's release from the Iraq Study Group and the well-trumpeted recommendations contained therein, my mind goes back to those now mostly-forgotten early 80s pronuciamentos. Both were unwelcome, unworkable and ultimately petulant. In some respects, so is the report from the Iraq Study Group.
I'm not sure what good talking to the Iranians and/or the Syrians will do. Words typically do not impress governments that rule by force; they respond much better to action. I can't remember a time in recent history where diplomacy made a difference in the behavior of a country ruled by despots. Yet the recommendations continue to come - we need to talk to them. We need to understand their needs. We need to be open to dialogue.
Hell's bells, people. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad considers you an infidel. There's no room to negotiate on this stuff. The only thing you can negotiate with this man is the terms of your surrender. And the terms will be his terms.
Entrepreneurs take note - the market for burqas should be pretty good. Now is the time to switch to textiles....
Monday, December 04, 2006
- First, we'll discuss the mighty Team 4 of the Irondale Basketball Association in-house 5-6 grade program. That would be my son's squad, which now stands at 0-4 following a 40-32 loss to mighty Team 1. The kids played better on Saturday and Ben got on the board, making a free throw. It's fun to watch the kids play, although they continue to struggle. I think we'll see them win at least one game this season, but they need more experience. They are getting it the hard way now. But hope springs eternal.
- Meanwhile, there's an even more desperate team in the Twin Cities, the not-so-mighty Minnesota Golden Gophers, who have lost to the likes of Marist, Montana and (gulp) Winona State so far this year. These accumulated outrages were enough to cost Dan Monson his job. Monson has been trying to clean the Augean stables for seven years following the academic scandal that chased Clem Haskins out of town. Monson ran a clean program, but he could not effectively recruit the talent necessary to compete in the Big Ten, which has become an even tougher league than it used to be. Jim Molinari, Monson's top assistant, gets to coach the Gophs for the remainder of the season. Molinari was successful at the mid-major level, leading competitive squads at both Northern Illinois and Bradley, but he doesn't have a lot to work with, and he won't get much time either. You can win at Minnesota, but it's going to take better institutional support and someone who can recruit well to do it. I'm not sure Molinari is that guy.
- Steve Aschburner's Sunday feature in the Star Tribune made note of an interesting phenomenon - the Kevin Garnett sympathy meme. Apparently it's a horrible shame that Kevin Garnett, who has soldiered on for the Timberwolves since 1995, is now in danger of going throughout his career without having a chance to win a championship. This is silly, of course - Garnett has been fabulously well compensated for his labors and while he is probably one of the 50 best players in the history of the NBA, he has not been able to exert enough leadership to get his squads to the top. I appreciate KG and have enjoyed watching him, but I don't think there's any reason to feel sorry for him.
Friday, December 01, 2006
Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper): “So, what kind of beer do you like, neighbor?”
Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle Mac Lachlan): “Heineken.”
Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper): “Heineken? #@)% that @(%! Pabst Blue Ribbon!”
When I think about the recommendations that are leaking out from James Baker’s latest blue ribbon commission concerning what to do next in Iraq, I can’t help but think of the above exchange. While I’m not sure that taking the profane advice of the sexually psychopathic character that Dennis Hopper plays in this movie is the right idea, I do admire the plain speaking involved. One of the central conceits currently on display in official Washington is that, because the Iraq War continues to be a slog, the current occupant of the White House needs to call in his father’s old pals to set a new course. Lately any number of old hands has weighed in, including James Baker, Bush family consigliore and majordomo; Lee Hamilton, the face of “moderate Democrats”; and even Henry Kissinger, apostle of Realpolitik and architect of the disastrous foreign policy of the 1970s. They’ve all been in meetings, dusting off the position papers and cranking up their think tanks and armies of acolytes. And now comes the Big Idea. Are you ready?
Talk to Syria and Iran.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Just a few questions, before we adopt this bold new strategy:
Does talking to Syria and Iran confer legitimacy on the governments they have?
Absent a threat, what leverage do we have with either country?
If we talk to Syria and Iran, why don’t we talk to Al-Qaida?
The James Bakers and Henry Kissingers of the world put great faith in talking, because that is what they do. Butter churn manufacturers were quite certain of the efficacy of their products as well. Somehow, talking doesn’t seem to do much.
That’s why I am calling on the valiant readership of this blog to join me on the Pabst Blue Ribbon Commission. I am currently soliciting ideas for What We Do Now, in Iraq and elsewhere. I figure that any recommendations we come up with will be at least as good as what the Fabulous Baker Boys have come up with. And if you want to use lively Anglo-Saxon words like Frank Booth, I’ll even let that slide. But if you bring in a tank full of laughing gas, you’re outta here. And stay away from Isabella Rossellini, okay? The floor is open.