Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Flying Over the Fair

I would be confident in saying that not many of you have been to a county fair in a long time, if, indeed, you're aware that such things still exist. Around here they've been at it for over a hundred years, and it's still a pretty big draw. They still even have horse races, along with the other things we associate with this event.
I took my little CASA kid to see what was going on. He did his job, which was to get all my money spent on his behalf. I would object, but don't know precisely what he has and what satisfies his appetite. Besides that, I just can't stay mad at him, so, adios, dinero.
We saw one thing that you don't get a glimpse of every day - the human cannonball. His deal with the fair was amazingly simple. Blow yourself out of the cannon smack in the middle of the fairgrounds, no special arena or admission, no elaborate landing net, several times a day. I guess they paid him a flat fee for the whole ten days the fair runs.
The cannon looked a little like a great artillery piece, set up on the back of a large truck. I couldn't tell what materials the barrel was made from, but it looked considerably lighter than the actual multi-mile giant guns of WW I and II. The guy wore a helmet, but no great flowing capes or feather-covered costumery. He even offerred to answer question before launch, with one exception. He wouldn't give out secrets about the "gun" itself, lest it lead to a glut of cut-rate
As launch time came, he rode the top end of the barrel to a position almost vertical, then disappeared inside. About a minute later we heard a huge "bang" (but no smoke, making me doubt that gunpowder was involved), after which he came flying out the top of the gun.
There was something familiar about his mid-air posture. In an instant I realized he was mimicking the techniques used by skijumpers: body bent forward, head up, with hands at his sides making small adjustments that helped guide him to the landing net, which was only about 60 feet from the cannon and seemed to be about 25 feet square. His head rotated slowly underneath his body to make it more likely to land with his upper and lower back sharing the shock with the net, which was ordinary cargo-holding ropes. He was careful to keep his hands pressed to his sides as he bounced twice in the net, then stood and saluted the crowd of about 100 as they applauded him. A very interesting ten seconds.
They say the capitalist credo goes something like this: find a need and fill it. I have no idea what the guy earns for doing this kind of stunt, but he evidently requires little or no full-time help as he crisscrosses the nation wowing the crowds. I suppose his work deals quite a bit with tiny matters pertaining to safety: checking parts, measuring the wind, etc. I wonder what his first conversation with a banker was like? "I'd like to give you the first chance to see my plan to 'launch' my career as the Human Cannonball. Danger? Oh, very little really. You see, what we do is......."

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Time to Watch

Remember a few weeks ago when I made a nasty prediction about the U.S. Supreme Court? Actually, they have made a good ruling or two in the meantime. That was not the case, however, last month. The Court decided against 32,000 or so plaintiffs still trying to collect damages from Exxon Mobile for losses from the "Exxon Valdez" oil spill in Alaska almost twenty years ago. The Court decided that Exxon Mobile has suffered enough (even though they haven't actually PAID anyone as originally ordered) and proceeded to cut the $5 billion fine by a whopping 90%! And no, this does not mean that the victims will be paid soon, because the company is also refusing to pay interest, no doubt until all the plaintiffs have died of old age.

Who, you might ask, was this Russian fellow Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died last week? The short answer is that he was the novelist who helped the world understand the breadth and depth of the Stalinist terror that put perhaps millions of innocents in prisoner slave labor camps all over Siberia following WW II. Let's hope we don't get to the point anytime soon when we're asking: Who's Stalin? or even: What's a novel?

I have a suggestion you are free to ignore, but shouldn't. That advice is to watch the Olympic Games to be broadcast by NBC from Beijijng, China which begin this weekend. Of course, you may be thinking: "Eeeuuuwwww. The Olympics. Too many drugs, too much nationalism and too much commercialization." You are correct about all three, but the Games STILL deserve to be watched because you just won't see better-trained, higher-skilled or more thouroughly-prepared human specimens on the planet.
Sure, you watch the Major Leagues to get the best baseball, the NBA for basketball and the World Cup for soccer. The same people who play pro tennis week to week are doing itagain in Beijing, and hardcore pigskin fans don't need to be told that the Olympis don't have American football. So why not skip skip them AND the sometimes boring shows that open and close the Games?
Amazing, surprising and dramatic things happen at the Games from Day One: wrestlers, volleyball players, boxers, fencers, rowers, gymnasts and my personal favorite, track and field athletes, all know that this really IS the moment to leave it all on the field/mat/ring/track. And yes, they know it isn't too likely that they will earn a medal, but this is one place where no one sneers when someone says "I'm just happy to be here to compete for my country." Nothing wrong with that, as long as you don't mind a few commercials and the odd flunked drug test. I think of it as reflecting the world to us as it is - complex, competitive, sometimes unfair, but giving everyone a chance to be seen at their BEST. You have my permission to skip the rhythmic gymnastics and the synchronized swimming since it's just natural to be suspicious of sports that include makeup. Just remember - this moment, whatever it is, is SOMEBODY's dream.