Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Travelin' Notes

As nice as home is, sometimes you're obliged to pack up and drive or fly to where other family members reside, and such was the case last week when we used one son's home near Oakland as the jumping-off place to Phoenix, Chicago and finally, Iowa, where we bunked at our oldest daughter Laura's place. If a person is watching and listening, you can learn some interesting things along the way. Here are a few, arranged without regard to importance.

Laura herself has become an impressive person, laying aside, as we must, the religious differences between us. Making it an issue would be too painful for everyone, but, that aside, she has acquired the best skills required for a self-employed single mom. Her schedule would buckle the knees of some people, but she has adapted to get her three young daughters onto the side of getting things done happily, on time and with mutual respect. Good for her. The holiday weekend featured two guys identified as former boyfriends, along with the chance to see her nearby ex-husband on friendly terms.

Chris, the ex-husband just mentioned, has now served the military in both Iraq and Afghanistan, though not in combat roles. Upon return, he works part-time at a job he held about ten years ago. Since then, he has obtained both a BS degree and officer status. His wages have gone from $13 an hour to $8.50. His garage is now a gym designed for strength/fitness classes for the few, the proud, etc.

A friend of our fourth daughter, Marla, is a Romney guy who describes this year's pre-primary presidential race as being like "speed dating", in which everyone gets five minutes or so to impress the GOP faithful, who are not obliged to line up behind anyone as yet. I don't know if that's a good way to pick a nominee, but I can't disagree with the analogy.

Everyone describes flying these days in negative terms. We had a flight cancelled on the return trip, which wasn't fun, but our fellow passengers were generally patient, the babies were somehow pacified, and the people watching was fun. I especially enjoyed the cultural clash of a string of orthodox rabbis passing through the airport in Salt Lake City. Do you think they ever compliment each others' hats? Maybe not.

The extended family now owns cars with nameplates from Japan (more than one company), Sweden and Italy. Then there's our aging but still serviceable Buick. So what if it's closing in on 200,000 miles? Leather seats, baby.

Our son-in-law to be, David is, I'm told, a fairly conservative guy. Maybe that's not strange for a science/physics teacher, but, regardless, he did a good job of biting his lip while I pontificated about some of the things you read about here. I never did as well around Mona's family, I admit.

We had a little tour of what I called "ancient Muscatine", the little city where I was born. It was mostly a matter of showing spots where something, for instance, a movie theater, had been. The same trip generated a list of things I had offered as fatherly advice. Some of them had held up pretty well, while others made me cringe. We stopped at the cemetery where three family members are buried, including Grandpa and Grandma. All three graves are within earshot of the high school football field, built after I graduated.

Marla lives with Laura for now, because Laura has the room. But the daily commute isn't fun, and Marla's considering possibilities closer to her job at the hospital in Cedar Rapids. Her sisters and mother strongly counseled against living among poor people. I felt obliged to remind her that most of her years growing up were when, in fact, we lived in an older, not too elegant neighborhood, and that poor folks could be just as good neighbors as rich ones.

Cedar Rapids, where we live for so many years, has moved past the flood destruction phase to the rebuild stage with some enthusiasm. Still, there are neighborhoods that have simply disappeared. It's sad to see nothing but grass and trees for several blocks where homes, albeit older ones, once stood. I'm not sure where the people went, but the census shows a tiny growth in the city's population in the last ten years in spite of the flood.

Late November in Iowa isn't showtime. The fields are harvested, the trees are bare, and there doesn't seem to be anything in place to slow the wind. The temperature wasn't piercingly cold, but about the only thing that could keep many folks outside voluntarily would be pursuing a particularly delicious game bird or animal. No wonder wrestling, always held indoors, is such a big deal there.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Can Liberals be Patriots?

Before tackling this week's title question, I ask another, totally unrelated. If you were in the top ten of your profession in the whole world, should you be famous, or at the very least well-paid for your expertise or skills? I ask because our oldest son Zack is traveling to Italy next month to determine in competition the world's best Ferrari mechanic, with ten competitors from dealerships all over the world, I guess. I'm not sure how he got the nod as one of the top ten, but of course we wish him the best. He's been there before, but this time he gets to take Brooke, his wife. As I've said in wonder many times, I don't know where his abilities come from, but I have no doubt they are NOT from me. Good luck to him. We hope he is compensated according to his abilities, which is no more than fair.

I attended a program last week honoring veterans for their service to our country. Veterans SHOULD be honored, and the nation's promises to them should be kept. The program included music, presentations and a speech or two. You could have found similar events all over the country.
These events are not overtly political, but I can't help noticing certain things. No one questions the rightness of our various military ventures, their monetary or human cost, nor the decisions which led up to the battles themselves. There's always the mention of "protecting our liberties", as though war was simply the only choice, and there was no doubt that the liberties would otherwise have been lost, no matter how large or small the enemy forces were.
I suppose the average person, if posed this week's title question would probably answer "Yes". But if I hear someone described as a "patriot", I start to fear the worst. My antennae go up as I try to determine where this person stands, especially on certain current issues. Do all patriots want to launch another preemptive attack, this one on Iran? Do they all favor our use of the latest euphemism for "torture"? Are they all ready to defer to what generals, who are always said to be "on the ground", want to do? Must a patriot be blind to war's effects on families, on the mental health of the vets themselves, or to how wars change our nation's standing with the countries who are supposed to be our allies?
And the patriot thing isn't limited to foreign affairs, nor even to things of any real importance. Today I received in the mail one of those letters, always written in short, breathless paragraphs, warning about the coming evil. This time it was the possibility of deleting "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. Nothing about the poor, the homeless, the unemployed, the ill or the suffering. Is this group collecting money? Absolutely. What, after all, could possibly be worse than such a change? Haven't we all known people who became devout Christians by repeating the words "under God" as a religious sacrament?
Do all patriots have to welcome government involvement in preventing (and prosecuting) abortion? What must a patriot feel about things like flag abuse, declared by courts to be legal, however objectionable? Must patriots favor reducing those eligible to vote if they don't have the proper ID? Must they all favor tax cuts for the rich, private health insurance only, and government restriction of risque video or reading material?
Sure, it's easy to express love for my country, and want it to succeed, but must other countries fail if they don't strictly adhere to the US model? Must I oppose left-of-center protest as UNpatriotic, and urge unity even if it means one more class warfare victory for those who've already been the winners for so long? When I read scriptures talking about the rampant sins of the last days, is there nothing good from these times worth retaining?
I keep thinking about these things. Like Jesus, I may not be enough of a nationalist to be considered a patriot. And if it means endorsing social injustice and never-ending war, then it may be I just don't make the grade.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Smokin' Joe

There's something to write about every week, and that applies this week, too. I could try to tackle the Herman Cain thing, which seems to be quickly becoming a matter of he said - they said. The man denies (today, anyway) even knowing yesterday's accuser. Anyway, I wasn't there, and things in this matter are subject to daily change.
That last also applies to the Penn State scandal, in which colleagues have had to choose between protecting children or a fellow coach. And no, I don't know if or how this affects the dwindling career of the university's 85 year-old coach.
But I was around during the rise and decline of the sports world's dead athlete of the week, former boxing heavyweight champion "Smokin' Joe" Frazier, who just passed away from cancer. He was in his sixties.
We don't think much about boxing now. The greed of the promoters and managers finally became too much to ignore. The average American would now be hard pressed to name more than one or two active boxers. But it wasn't always this way. Boxing and horse racing were the nation's most popular sports coming into the 20th century.
It wasn't uncommon to have championship fights, or even non-title bouts on TV during the 1950's into the 70's. Every person in those days knew the name of the heavyweight champion, if not the other weights. This was Frazier's time.
Of course, you cannot talk about "Smokin' Joe" without filling in the picture with the biggest boxing name of all - Muhammed Ali. Ali's outsized personality was such a change from the old model of boxers (especially black boxers) who spoke in short, simple sentences that he constantly hogged the spotlight. Some of his competitors didn't seem to mind this so much. Others, like Frazier, resented the flamboyant Ali, at least in public, feeling he was entitled to but not getting his fair share of adulation. He would always refer to Ali as "Clay", the original surname of Cassius Clay.
Frazier became champion during the time Ali was banned from the sport because of his resistance to the military draft. When the Supreme Court reversed that, unanimously, I might add, the Ali camp scheduled several fights intended to prepare him to re-take the title from Frazier. The first title fight between the two took place in March of 1971 in New York's Madison Square Garden. It went the distance, but Frazier kept the title by scoring a knockdown in the final (15th) round. It was an instant classic.
There were two more Ali-Frazier fights, one a rematch in New York, the other one held in the Phillipines, the fight we remember as the "Thrilla in Manilla". Ali won both, the last one when Frazier's eyes became so puffed up that he could no longer see. Both fighters spent the night in local hospitals following that one.
Frazier wasn't a particularly big man. He was just under six feet tall, nor was he have a long reach or blinding speed. What he did have was the ability to keep moving forward, moving his head and throwing punches in a way that made you think he would gladly give up three or four jabs to score one himself. The man was fearless, unsurpassed at taking punishment.
His life wasn't marred by scandal. He helped his own son in his boxing career, which came up well short of the father's. As far as I know he never ran out of money, nor was he forced to glad- hand at casinos or sign his name thousands of times to pay the bills. The folks of his native Philadelphia never stopped honoring him, even using him as a kind of role model since Ali was considered unique and therefore inimitable.
The movie about the important stuff in his life has already been made. Too bad that it was made by Spike Lee about the life of Ali. There won't be a movie about Smokin' Joe, any more than there will be one about Roberto Duran, Sonny Liston or Larry Holmes. Still, as we say goodbye, we honor his contribution to his sport.