Tuesday, February 26, 2008

El Hefe Hangs It Up

I saw a cartoon from an editorial page last week that got me thinking. On the left side was a huge heap of football players, all with numbers in the 30's and 40's. On the right side was a frail-looking bearded man about to gently place a football over the goal line. I looked again, and noticed that the old man was, in fact, Fidel Castro, and the players were the US presidents of his time, from Eisenhower to George W. Bush, each wearing his presidential number.
How did he get by all those tacklers? How indeed. That's what we are left to wonder. Considering all the national leaders our military and assisting CIA spooks have put on the skids since the late 50's, it is nothing short of astonishing that Castro survives to hand over the government to brother Raul and...retire, I guess, though it's hard to imagine him taking up woodworking or becoming an aging golfer.
We can't kid ourselves that Fidel was some kind of closet good guy. He knew that making omlets takes lots of broken eggs, and the early years of his rule featured plenty of executions at the end of very short trials. He let a few people leave Cuba over the years, but it was always on his terms. The country is today hopelessly stuck in a Cold War time warp of crumbling Stalinist inefficiency, long surpassed by its neighbors in terms of livability.
Then again, Castro really wasn't much like Stalin. Cuban children get to go to school, and there is medical care available, though far more accessible (in Communist tradition) to party members. El Hefe (which I think is Spanish for "fuhrer") went around in fatigues and liked to keep up revolutionary appearances, but he also loved baseball and seemed interested in everything happening in the US, too. I recall his offer to the mother of a Cuban expatriot player to come watch the World Series at his house - the only home in Cuba where it could be seen. It's details like that that they don't teach you in Dictator School.
We dearly wanted him out, at first because of his connections to the old Soviet Union, then later just out of habit or because of our undying love for all things Cuban which we could not buy with him still in office. Our plots to grease his pathway into the ocean all failed, some by luck, others by poor design. Love him or hate him, the Cubans themselves haven't thought much about coup plots since the 60's, even though Miami still seems to be full of aging hotheads who can't have a good day if Castro has had one. Hating Castro there isn't just a cottage industry. It's a way of life that even pops up in the middle of presidential campaigns, like the Elian Gonzales flap in 2000. On the island, they just try to keep their old 1950's Buicks and Cadillacs going down the road.
Our oldest son did missionary work in what had been East Germany just a few years before. The people there retained a cynical, untrusting view of life based on the workover that Communism had dealt them. I really don't know if the Cubans will one day feel that way, too. After all, they aren't Germans. But they aren't Americans, either, and they could choose to retain the simple life they have had longer than we expect. I wish them a sweet and peaceful transition out of Communism some day, perhaps after the manner of the Czechs. But it will happen sooner or later, and without El Hefe around to watch, and comment.

Monday, February 18, 2008

My Day as an Old Guy

Did you notice something about last week's Republican happenings? Just a week or so after losing, Mitt Romney, a strong second, endorsed John McCain as though they were old pals after all. Given that there seemed to be some animosity between the two, it leaves you wondering if there's a Party rule that says Republicans must do it this way. Heaven forbid Mitt should ever be accused of breaking rules.

Though I can feel it creeping into my life, I am trying hard not to be "old". I like to think I can spot geezers not only from their appearance, but from their list of preferences, complaints, and even their favorite athletes. The wife and I have permission to note it whenever we say things that even hint of something our elders might blurt out.
So I hesitated when a good older friend, Mac, asked if I could supply the tenor (high) notes for his barbershop quartet performing around town on Valentine's Day in order to generate some funds for the chorus from which the quartet is taken. I went along because I lacked a good excuse to avoid it, and started learning the songs that were already second nature to the other three, Mac and two Dons, all in their (gulp) seventies.
Others will have to judge our level of performance, but musically, barbershop harmony is risky. It is never accompanied, and carries the risk of breaking down completely if one part is off. I like to think we achieved ...competence.
The big day arrived. I put on a borrowed outfit. Pink shirt, red bow tie, garters worn on the sleeves and a vest embroidered in a silver and blue pattern. We must have looked like a gay 1920's hit squad. I tried not to make eye contact until we began singing.
We hopped out of Mac's Lincoln in some odd places. The hospital (twice), a floral shop, two newspaper offices (yes, our picture got in), a care center or two, a handful of private homes and even a class of first graders and a barbershop(!). I think we were least expected at the local welfare office, a place where security is a high priority. Who knows what the waitress at the Chinese restaurant where we stopped for lunch thought of us. All "customers" got two songs, and a few heard three. Mac fearlessly fronted for us, introducing us as "The Banana Bunch - Music with A Peel!" I was told we had a profitable day.
It's true what they say about being old - it's no place for sissies. One of the Dons revealed that he had begun giving himself insulin shots a year ago, and that he has crossed the thousand shot milestone. The other Don is also diabetic, but Mac, now 78, has survived five separate cancer surgeries, the last one earlier this month! It makes me ashamed that I have ever griped about a little gout, or about my days of more than one tennis match in a day being gone.
There are worse things than getting old, though most of my observations are still, gratefully, second hand. As I write, I'm skipping the chorus practice to which I've been invited now many times. I think my musical ambition now is to sing as part of a Temptations tribute group. Good luck with that. But in the meantime I can say we helped a few people be a little happier and even brought a tear or two using whatever talent remains. But I'm not yet ready for a steady dose of "Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie".

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

GOP to Mitt: Thanks, but.....

I keep hearing these incredible numbers associated with the Bush administration. You thought 935 recorded lies prior to the Iraq invasion was impressive? How about over ONE MILLION missing e-mails from White House accounts (not the R.N.C. ones that were set up in violation of another law) that are supposed to be part of the public record from the 2002 to 2005 period. The White House at first said it was trying to recover the missing missives, but NOW says that they don't have to provide them at all. Think Mr. Cheney's old telephone lineman skills could be put to work here, or have they already been utilized?

It's time to close the books on Mitt Romney's campaign. The Super Tuesday results went badly, and last Thursday he "suspended" his campaign, meaning that he retains the delegates already committed, and can try to find money to repay himself the $40 million or so that came out of his kids' inheritance and went into signs, party favors and attack ads.
That's a lot of money to burn without some kind of return, though the good news is that there is still about $150 million or so left. The Romneys won't be applying for food stamps anytime soon. I don't begrudge him - it was his money to spend how he wanted. You could even make the case that candidates SHOULD put their own money on the line when running for office. But that's for another time.
As for the campaign itself, you could see it many different ways. Mitt outlasted a fistful of other GOP white guy presidential wannabes, and 2nd (maybe 3rd) in a field of nine is certainly respectable. No one caught him doing or saying anything scandalous, though he didn't hesitate to "go negative" on his competitors early and often on local media. He kept to all the standard conservative positions, but had been on the other side on some of the same issues running in liberal Massachusetts in previous races.
In fact, while some unsuccessful campaigns (Perot, Lugar, Forbes) get some credit for having exposed certain issues, I don't think in six months that anyone will be able to say just what it was that Romney was FOR, except winning. He kept getting caught in meaningless "fibs", such as the "varmint gun" he didn't actually own, "seeing" his father (the onetime Michigan governor) march with Martin Luther King, even though Mitt was in France at the time, and the never-quite-explained turn to the Pro-life side. Because he had this aura of being virtuous, these things stuck to Mitt the way they wouldn't have stuck to a Reagan or Clinton.
The Mormon faithful really wanted the Mittster as president, believing that all you need is to be right (or "righteous") to succeed as president. He got 90% of the Latter Day Saint Republican vote in Utah, where they love him far more than in the Bay State. They will tell you now, as they grab your lapels) that Mitt should be the running mate, or start a 3rd party or at LEAST be Secretary of the Treasury.
The job he wants (if you can call it a "job") is that of heir apparent for 2012 - the next guy off the bench assuming McCain doesn't overcome all the personal and party baggage he's obliged to lug this year. For now, all Mitt can do is gracefully accept the GOP sentiment of "Thanks, but no thanks", and hope that all the CHANGE promised by Democrats implodes on itself, giving him another chance in four more years.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Bye Bye, Bobby

Super Tuesday came and went, with results and analysis up to our necks. Did anyone notice that when it came down to crunch time and the two chief Republican competitors got ready to call each other the worst things they could think of, the epithet that came most easily was - "liberal"? To McCain and Romney, it was worse than calling someone a "traitor", a "fool", a "liar" (though Romney came close on that one) , or any other name that might get the fists flying on the playground. "Liberal" used to be a perfectly fine word - now it's as tainted as "socialist". Too bad. I hope it makes a comeback.

If anyone cares whether I, a sometime critic of the NFL, watched the Super Bowl Sunday night, the answer is a qualified "yes". I watched the fourth quarter with the sound off on the TV so as to preserve, perhaps in vain, a peaceful Sunday home atmosphere. Pretty good game.

Winters in the Midwest can be long, cold and dreary. Sometimes the correct answer to "What should I do?" is to sit down and watch Big Ten basketball. The games are frequently pretty intense, and the crowds are always big and noisy. The coaches also play a role in the broadcasts. It's the role of the half-crazy monomaniac so accustomed to getting his way in the world that almost anything can set him off on a rage Captain Ahab could admire. The most flamboyant of these coaches was Indiana's Bobby Knight, loved in the Hoosier State and despised almost everywhere else between Ohio and Iowa.
Coach Knight up and quit in the middle of the season this week, turning his Texas Tech team over to son Pat without any warning to the people in nominal authority over him. He's 67, has coached 902 wins in his 42 years as head coach, and has all the money he needs, so you could hardly blame him for deciding to hand up the whistle.
But what a spectacle the guy put on. I don't know what was more amazing - his in-your-face style with referees which seemed to guarantee at least his share of close calls when they mattered most, or the way he had of abusing his own players in front of thousands of people and the TV audience. He kicked things, he threw things, including a chair which went to the other side of the court, and he expressed nothing but contempt for the press whose job it is to cover the games. In return, the sports guys were not always kind to Knight. They loved to portray Bobby as the kind who could dish out abuse but couldn't take even halfhearted supervision. He once walked away from a hunting accident rather than talk to police. There's a warrant out for his arrest should he ever return to Puerto Rico. He once screamed at the lowly Northwestern coach because he didn't like a verbal taunt from the local crowd, as if it were all in under the poor coach's control.
But the guy had a baffling "good" side, as well. His programs were never found in violation of the NCAA's many rules governing student athletes, his players graduated at a higher rate than those of his competitors, and he was always active in charity events and efforts to help retired coaches. One year at Texas Tech (Indiana finally fired him after one too many temper tantrums) he actually gave back his salary because he didn't feel he had earned it.
Bobby Knight is probably through coaching, but that won't keep lots of "sad sack" programs from contacting him in the spring, when the annual firing/hiring takes place. The TV guys will miss him in the way that NASCAR fans miss it when a race features no spectacular collisions. I doubt I'll miss him at all, but at least I can say I saw him on TV at his best and worst.