Monday, December 24, 2007

More Than Sports

To be honest, I cannot call myself a Christmas guy. Still, if you're writing on Christmas Eve, it's OK to lean a little more toward inspiration than on other days. The following are TV (!) programs from which I have taken some inspiration. Yes, they are connected to sports, but, please, stay with me here. Next week I promise to teach everyone how a presidential caucus works.
Pro golfers are normally not very expressive people. They concentrate, take their big paydays and smile a little when holding the giant check, and that's about it. It's funny how that all changes when an event comes around that involves NO money, the Ryder Cup. All of a sudden it's OUR TEAM vs. THEIRS, the best of the USA vs. Europe in a match play format that puts all those blase' millionaires into a lather trying to make or break par. The pressure is enormous. When it finally ends, there's leaping and hugging that rivals the NFL. Quite often there's a pond which serves as a celebration site for one team while the other one slinks away fighting back tears.
There's another TV golf event that makes even viewers sweat. It's the broadcast of PGA Qualifying School at which local pros or ex-college hotshots line up to get the ticket to golf's big money show, the PGA tournaments. A stroke here and there means the difference between a six or seven figure income doing what these guys do best, or spending another year teaching the local country club brats how to keep it on the fairway while trying to decide about graduate school. The pressure? No problem - it's just the rest of your LIFE!!
The 10-12 year-olds who make up the stars of The Little League World Series have made the show a hit for years. They're not quite adolescents, thank God, but these little guys can PLAY, no doubt due to endless hours of coaching and drilling back home. The dads can admire their skills while moms just think of how cute they still are. The combination is irresistable. You see emotions, too, as we are reminded that sometimes there IS crying in baseball.
Do you know what a triathlon is? Swimming, cycling and running ALL in the same race. Want to up the ante? Put sharks in the water, make the bikes go 100 miles over a shadeless lava field during the heat of midday and make the runners go a FULL marathon, over 26 miles. That describes the "Ironman" Triathlon held each year in Hawaii.
You'd be amazed to see who shows up to compete. Grandfathers in their 70's who found they liked running after being told to lose weight, 90-pound ex-nuns, cancer survivors, people running on prosthetic legs, as well as people who do triathlons for a living. The TV folks know how to put all this together, which isn't easy considering there is almost no "action" other than people starting, going and stopping. Winning on this show is almost irrelevant. FINISHING is the great goal, and even a jaded cynic is in tears by the time it's over. We can't quite feel the athletes' pain, but just watching them at the end really is inspiring even WITHOUT the music the network adds just to make sure we get the point. I get it.
There are other programs aimed at this type of audience, the not-quite sports fan. Women's gymnastics is, to me, pretty creepy when you see how small these never-grew-up elfin girls really are. They leave the floor and get a hug from a gigantic person who's actually average- sized. Their voices sound like what comes out of dolls when you pull the little rings. But they are tough, since all of them have had various stunts end in broken bones. Lots of people like figure skating, which is both athletic and beautiful, but hard to judge objectively. I got hooked into watching one of the so-called "reality shows", "Biggest Loser" which isn't exactly sports, but does involve competition, lots of sweating, and hopeless looking obese people transforming themselves before our eyes. I was won over when I heard one contestant, a slobbish-looking guy the size of three cheerleaders, a former wrestler for Iowa State (no mean feat) say simply that he had once been a "pretty good athlete". Your body and your own self-image - THAT deserves the name "reality."

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Ten Questions

I hope some of you recall the entry here a couple of months ago ("Gotcha") which examined the Bush habit of issuing signing statements which often seemed to conflict with legislation passed by Congress. Even I was amazed, however, to learn that Mr. Bush has now used this tactic about 1100 times, which is almost double the number of times it had been used by all former presidents - combined. I expect we have not heard the last of this.

It's past mid-December. The Iowa Presidential caucuses are just 16 days off. The heat, grit and mud will fly nonstop until next November. Naturally, you already knew this. If you'd like a try at punditry, however, you could tackle any or all of the following questions, all of which will be answered before the next Inauguration Day. Me? I can't answer them yet, either, but at least I know they are out there.
1. Can voters put Bill Clinton out of their minds when trying to judge Sen. Hillary Clinton? That's a tall order, for sure. Old Bubba casts a big shadow both for good and evil. Some people resent her for putting up with Bill, though the Constitution is evidently silent on the matter. What makes it hard to know is that it has never happened before. I'd sure want to have him around on Election Day, but as president, Mrs. C. might ewant to send him around the world - via the Poles.
2. Any room on the ticket for unfortunate losers from little states? Take your pick - Dodd (CT), Biden (DE), Richardson (NM), or Huckabee (AR)? All men with qualifications, but paddling in small rafts.
3. Does star power generate votes? Trying to get famous folks in the picture frame is a long American tradition, but this time it ain't Wayne Newton or Lee Greenwood. We're talking Oprah, who goes WAY beyond famous. How much does this help Obama?
4. Could outside events change the odds? Answer: sure, but no one knows what those will be, nor how one sided they might appear.
5. Will the Federal Election Commission have the muscle and desire to deal with all parties fully and fairly? Election fraud has not gone away as a possibility, and the doors are always open to a million little tricks.
6. What are the chances of Rudy Giuliani blowing up in a quasi-public way in "crazed boss" fahion? I'm surprised it hasn't happened already. Most of us have had a crazy boss, and most of us would prefer to NOT vote for one.
7. If Giuliani becomes the nominee, does that reinforce Pat Robertson as a GOP kingmaker? OR would it mark the end of the Christian Right a a major party influence?
8. How big is the "silent redneck" vote? Racism is no longer fashionable, but no one should think it has died. When certain folks are all alone in the voting booth, will it make a comeback?
9. Could the Iraq "surge" carry long enough to make a political difference? That's an awfully long time to go without an up tick in violence.
10. Will youthful voters show up to promote change - or to oppose it? As a group, they are pretty unpredictable, although you would think they would be good Democrats until their tax bills grow.
11. Bonus question. I'm a value-added kind of guy. Will any of the nomination losers continue their candidacy as an independent? Ron Paul, darling of the internet right, seems to be the most likely here, but guessing it is pretty tough.
Not everyone is ready to dive deeply into this stuff a full ten months before Election Day, I realize. But the public's chance to help point the nation's path is coming up soon. I just can't lay off this stuff, and you all should jump at the chance to be the first to have the inside political scoop in your neighborhood, right? Right?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Good News is Bad

First, just to note. I'm not a golfer, but I have to respect the skills that golfers apply to their game. The pressure a PGA golf pro deals with every day is off the charts. For that reason alone, they are worthy of respect.
Then there's Tiger Woods. Nike's favorite guy has now been a PGA tour player for 11 years. He has been awarded Player of the Year honors 9 times during that period! I guess it's fair to say he has found his appropriate profession. He golfs so well that he has earned the right to NOT have a favorite candidate for president. Don't think he hasn't been approached by both sides.

Now, for some good news. The NIE (that's National Intelligence Estimate), the consortium of sixteen separate intelligence agencies in our government, have with "high confidence" concluded that the main country now in the Bush crosshairs, Iran, isn't quite the threat (and don't we hear that word MUCH more than we used to?) that we had thought. In fact, they evidently discontinued research into nuclear weapons - four years ago. So even if they decided TODAY to resume research, it would take a good long time to become anything close to a serious threat (in the WMD sense) to us or Israel. Maybe we should put up a cheer between periods at NHL games. Maybe we should be dancing in the streets.
Maybe we should hold off. The president, that guy who's so tough on children's health care, has greeted this news by saying that our policy toward Iran will not change. In October he was ranting about "World War Three", and now he's sticking with our Iran plan: threaten, sanction, make demands, even provoke an incident with our carrier groups which just happen to be poking around the Persian Gulf looking for trouble.
Evidently anything short of some kind of signing ceremony on a battleship means we cannot relax, cannot trust anyone (even ourselves), and cannot regard any country with lots of guys named "Ahmed" as anything other than a potential site of the NEXT "Shock and Awe".
Isn't there ANY time we should consider taking the side of reconciliation? Those old tactics don't even work on third rate countries who get out of line - Cuba, Sudan, Myanmar. Shaking our nukes at Iran will just unite them in opposition to us, even though their current government is unpopular. This is, remember, a nation with a very long history, triple the size and population of Iraq. Sure, we could destroy them, but that would then require destruction of others, and we just can't kill them ALL. If we tried, the world's remaining nations would certainly turn to others for moral leadership.
I don't recall any time during this interminable Bush administration in which ANYONE, let alone the president, ever said "we're sorry". Could it be that painful? We have enough gizmos and spooksats to have a pretty good idea what's going on in Iran. We could bring home the carrier groups. We could call it "God's Will". Who knows? Maybe the Persians would give us another chance before writing off the US as an implacable for. Maybe some weary sailors would reconsider flipping their votes to the "D" lever next year at election time. "Home for the Super Bowl?" Sounds like a winner.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Farewell to the G.G.

A few months ago I noted in this space that the next megaproduction from the Ken Burns folks was on its way to a PBS channel near you. It arrived, titled simply "The War". With the aid of some reruns I think I've seen it all now. I hope you followed my advice and did likewise. Of course some of the footage was bloody, as you would expect. The folks at home were nicely represented, and some of the vets possessed some amazing storytelling skills (along with good editing, of course) that helped us see things the way they once had in that great conflict.
Lately some things have happened that make me think it's now time to say a collective goodbye to the WW II vets. First, their children, the Baby Boomers, have started to collect Social Security checks. Then there's the simple math that reminds us that a vet who was 25 years old on VJ day in 1945 would now be 87. Of course, there's the odd 14 year-old Marine who will be with us for a long time yet, but the vets of that war are passing on right on schedule. "Grandpa" from my wife's side, helped a few pilots stay alive guiding them into an air base in Nigeria, but he's now been gone awhile. My dad, who spent some of the war in a dynamite factory, has been gone 11 years.
And Paul Tibbetts passed away recently. Mr. Tibbetts was moderately famous for having been the pilot of the B-29 named for his mother, the Enola Gay, which dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. No doubt his piloting skills got him the assignment, but the fact that he was a straight-arrow type who was unlikely to bring any bad P.R. to the military had to be considered. He and his crew were trained on a "need to know" basis, and so went on their mission as near-innocents. Part of the assignment involved trying to record the damage done by the bomb, which was made easier by the good weather over the target that day. No one on the flight could have predicted exactly what they would see, but the sight itself didn't prevent them from doing their duty.
Tibbetts' life after the war couldn't be completely lived in obscurity, but he was never a source for anything that seemed controversial. He consistently said that the A-bomb mission never cost him any sleep. He became something of a role model for all the vets by simply going ahead with his life without seeking any special status or award, at least from the war itself. He was 92 when he passed away last month.
It was Tom Brokaw who wrote the book which designated the generation which grew up in the Great Depression and won WW II as the Greatest Generation. Did they have their problems? Absolutely. They smoked and drank too much, and their kids grew up to confuse them almost as completely as the Fog of War itself. Maybe it's silly to designate one generation as the "Greatest", but they deserve our thanks and respect for having gone through some horrific times, and overcome problems we hope to never see again.