Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Bucs and Other Dog Day Items

Our son Jake and his family live in the Bay Area. His job involves plenty of travel, frequently to Europe. He was scheduled on a flight to London, and was on the plane when flights were delayed, then canceled. It turns out this was the day of the Asiana landing crash.
Being a savvy traveler, Jake booked a flight the following day. Sitting at the top of the runway, his airliner stopped - directly opposite the remains of the Asiana wreck. His fellow passengers, unable to not look, let out a collective "Ooohh". His flight, thankfully, was completed without incident.

Every week seems to involve at least one disaster somewhere. Few, however, give you a chance to see a "replay" as clearly as last week's Spanish train derailment. A standing camera recording the rail traffic of the day clearly showed the passenger train losing control as it careened around a curve toward the camera. Outside of all those "special effects" movies, it's something you just don't see.

Speaking of train wrecks, the Republicans seem to be slowly catching on to the possibility that they could be relegated to a whining voice in the wilderness unless some changes take place. The central word of that sentence is "slowly", which means that there are plenty of intra-party scuffles taking place. What a nice change to see the GOP doing what the Democrats have long been known for - fighting among themselves. More on this in a future entry.       

In western Pennsylvania, a reference to the "Bucs" doesn't mean deer or weekly wages. It's short for "Buccaneers", which is itself a reference to the Pittsburgh Pirates. It's been, frankly, a long time since the Pirates generated much excitement. When someone uses the phrase "small market team", the Bucs are the model. That's especially a problem in baseball, where teams like the Yankees, Dodgers and Angels take in (and keep) more money than their semirural rivals.
This means that even when good players come from the minor leagues, the Pirates may not be able to keep them. Sure, you could think up other reasons for the franchise's mediocrity, but money is the biggest part. It all adds up to the brutal truth, which is that the Pirates haven't finished the season above .500 for over TWENTY years, back when future superstar Barry Bonds was both much younger and much thinner.
But it looks like this will be the year that Pirate fortunes finally turn better. Their flashy outfielder has committed to staying, and their pitching has been top notch. They are now in a virtual tie atop their division with the St. Louis Cardinals, with whom they play a series this week. These next few games could give momentum to one team or the other. Even 2nd place in the division is a good place this year. The runner-up will likely qualify for the playoffs as a "wild card".
I used to say that being a Cub fan left all your rooting options open for the postseason. That's still true, but it's become boring. If I hitch up with any team for the short run, it should be the Pirates, a team I used to dislike when they were loaded with talent. That was in the '70s.     

Monday, July 22, 2013

Two Blondes Make Big Decisions

Many people have had the experience of getting near, but not quite at, the very top of their profession. These folks often face a decision: Do I make changes that might be uncomfortable in the short term, but help me succeed later? Famous athletes face this decision knowing that the public is watching carefully, and that they will not be shy about second guessing decisions that don't pay off. It can't be an easy moment.
You may know the name Maria Sharapova. She's a Russian tennis player who spends most of her time in this country and speaks English with the barest trace of an accent. Aside from time lost when she was forced to the sidelines with a shoulder injury, Sharapova has almost always been near the top of the women's rankings. She is 6'2", is rather beautiful, looks great in high fashion outfits and is, in fact, the world's best-paid female athlete. 
But, with all that, life isn't perfect for Ms. S. The last time she beat Serena Williams was in 2004. She knows the clock is ticking on her career, though she's still in her twenties. Always a serious athlete, she's been in the kind of situation described above. She certainly wants to avoid telling children and grandchildren that she was almost #1. No thank you.
So, she hired a new coach, and not one you would think would be a natural choice. The new guy is Jimmy Conners, a famous tennis name, but someone whose playing days ended over twenty five years ago. What's more, Conners isn't the most cuddly guy you could have in your camp. Jimbo is seen as kind of prickly, and I have to think that his services don't come cheap. He's about five inches shorter than Maria, is left-handed (she isn't), and has made his post-playing home in Southern California, though he could probably find Russia on a map if forced to.  
Hey, sometimes this clash-of-styles type arrangement works out fine. Andy Murray, first Brit in 77 years to win Wimbledon, had the help of Ivan Lendl, the taciturn Czech/American who never won Wimbledon himself. I could go on, but would risk going over the "boring" line. Not gonna do that. Let's just say "Good Luck" to Maria and Jimmy. Please remember all the little people when you get to the top.

Let's see. The people I really don't like. Well, there's mass murderers, pornographers, dope dealers and, ah, Dick Cheney. That's about it.
Of course, that leaves room for others to join the list. One possible candidate is one of the Cheney daughters, Liz, who announced last week that she'll be running against a GOP incumbent for the position of U.S. senator. No, she didn't notify him before the announcement, which is usually done just as a formality. When asked asked about their relationship, the poor guy, Mike Enzi, could only say "I thought we were friends." Right. And Valerie Plame Wilson didn't think she had done anything to have Cheney Sr. trash her CIA career, either. Evidently Ms. Cheney learned a thing or two while writing her father's biography: "People will forget, and perhaps even respect meanness, as long as it's done to someone else".
More than one person has noticed that replacing Enzi doesn't add a single GOP vote in the Senate, therefore Cheney (the daughter) must have something else in mind. Running for president in 2020? Using U.S. armed forces to take over the NRA? It can't be just another book on "Why I'm a Winner and You Aren't". I won't hold my breath hoping for the straight dope coming from the candidate herself.
Anyway, there's no guaranteed walk to the Senate. Cheney doesn't really live in Wyoming any more than her father. She'll surely have plenty of campaign cash, but I'm guessing most will be from non-Wyoming entities. Besides, it really doesn't require lots of cash to run in the Cowboy State. The population is spread pretty thin outside of a handful of cities. And what could she really say about Enzi, a dependable if unspectacular anti-Obama vote? Look for a cascade of generalities, many aimed at mangling the truth in order to somehow have Enzi come off as a starry-eyed New Dealer, the type that gritty Wyomingites are supposed to hate. It all adds up to this - one more good reason to NOT live there.        


Monday, July 15, 2013

Helpless - Except For My Gun

The world's top-rated male tennis player, Serbia's Novak Djokevic, has a girlfriend. Her name is Jelena Ristic, also a Serb. She has been part of Djokevic's life now for quite awhile.
My opinion of both of them has gone up the past couple of years. He, of course, has climbed past some of the greatest players ever in gaining his current status. We can't know her as well as we do him, but there are two things about her that I think are appealing.
First, she's, ah, attractive. I can still use that word, can't I? But even though she works as a model, she doesn't seem (to me, anyway) to be overstuffed, overdone, underfed or a human hanger for whatever she's wearing. She has the appeal of a healthy young woman with great teeth. You could easily think of her as the girl next door from Serbia.
The other nice thing about her is that she really roots for her guy in his matches. You won't see her sitting back looking bored while blowing on her newly done nails or scoping out other models. Her brain is right where his is - on the match taking place right now!
She's on record this week as having been a little intimidated at Wimbledon, where the hometown crowd lined up strongly for Scot Andy Murray, who ended up winning the final. I don't think the Brits were a physical threat to Djokevic, who has played plenty of matches in front of hostile crowds and didn't complain about this one. The threat was more a mental thing, I think. Even her little misinterpretation should be seen in its proper context, which is that she was worried about him. I have no problem with that, and wish them both the best.

I'm now obliged to opine on the verdict of the George Zimmerman trial. I needn't rehash the physical evidence or the versions of what happened as put forth by the prosecution and the defense. Perhaps Treyvon Martin did go out that night into the rain with the intent of arming himself with Skittles and iced tea, then finding someone he could kill using just his bare hands and a concrete sidewalk. After all, he was a teenager, and they do some pretty crazy things. Perhaps, instead of Zimmerman, the volunteer neighborhood watch guy finding Martin, it was Martin finding him, then proceeding to wrestle Zimmerman to the sidewalk even though the latter outweighed Martin by fifty pounds. Perhaps Zimmerman took as much physical pounding as he could before concluding that either he or Martin would not live through this incident, then reached for what Martin (the aggressor, remember) didn't have - a handgun. Perhaps none of Martin's blood was found on Zimmerman because it was all soaked up by Martin's shirt and hoodie or diluted in the rain. I can't know. I wasn't there.
I do know that Zimmerman ignored instructions to not go looking for someone he called "the suspect", even though there was nothing to be suspicious about that night. I know he made some comments that could have easily been interpreted as racist in nature, and that he had undergone training to know what would or wouldn't pass in Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. I know it was decided by someone that Zimmerman, the lone living witness to the whole sad thing, would not testify on his own behalf.
I thought I knew some other things, as well. Most prominent of these was the knowledge that our society had turned a corner on the relationship, if there is one, between race and crime. I thought there would be few people who would have things so clearly figured out just by seeing pictures of the two principals in the case. And I thought that, since a person, who was not the gun owner, had been killed, that surely somebody was guilty of something. Unless it was the dead teenager, I guess I was wrong. As for Mr. Z., I think we'll be seeing him at NRA rallies, though not in a speaking role. And we'll see members of the Martin family, too, at protests, though less and less as time goes on.           

Monday, July 08, 2013


Last week, I indicated that states with GOP-controlled legislatures now have (according to the Supreme Court) the authority to make some strange demands on would-be voters which could change voter turnout to help or hinder candidates. I wrote that it's clearly in the Republican's interest to try to limit voting by certain groups while throwing the doors to the polls wide open for others.
Here's some proof. In Texas, an ID is now required of anyone showing up to vote. I don't know all the ways of meeting this requirement, but two that won't work are student IDs or an ID as a disabled veteran. So, what works better? If you have a concealed weapons license, you, my friend, are good to go. Could the Lone Star State folks make it any clearer just who they want to see on Election Day?
Here's another clue, also from Texas. There's a plan to reduce the number of polling places in the Houston area. It just so happens that the poll for the "minority" side of town would serve ten times the number of voters as the poll proposed for the "whiter" side. Where would you guess the wait for voting could be much longer? I say it again. This type of election management can be described with one word - "wrong". If you insist on two words, "morally wrong".

The big Wimbledon tournament wrapped up yesterday. I can't say just why, but those tough Polish names were pretty prominent throughout. If you already knew "Radwanska", you had to get to know "Lisicki" and "Janowitz". The winners turned out to be Murray, a Scot, and Bartoli, a French woman  with an Italian-sounding name. American names (if there is such a thing) mostly disappeared by the fourth round, the exception being the Bryan brothers, who won the men's doubles again.

And I'm still playing, despite no longer being young for even the Supreme Court. In fact, I played six days last week. Some of the other players are getting older, too. One frequent opponent gets handicapped parking -  and we played singles! The results? Ah, don't ask. For what it's worth, I usually kill him in doubles depending, of course, on who we have for partners. It's still great to have  a hand in a sport usually dominated by younger people. The day I'm forced to take up walking in the Mall as a "sport" will be a sad one.       

Monday, July 01, 2013

Nasty Stuff to Come

The people who run the Wimbledon tennis tournament are thought of as stuffy old Brits who are determined to take all the fun out of playing. That reputation, I have to say, is a bit unfair, because they have made changes over the years, and aren't opposed to making more improvements.
Still, they can be tough on players who try to stretch the rules, even if it's just a little. Roger Federer, for instance, submitted his Nike ensemble to the tournament's apparel enforcers, and, "whites only" rule and all, received the needed approval. He won his first match, but the bigshots noticed something they didn't like. Federer (who has won the tournament five times) was wearing white shoes with ORANGE soles! This wouldn't do, Federer was told. Fair enough. Sadly, The Fed lost his next match, his earliest loss at this event since our youngest was a teenager. To his credit, he didn't try to blame the Shoe Police for his downfall.

The Supreme Court announced some big decisions last week. Explaining them all in depth would break the "just the short answer" standard which is the sometime hallmark of this blog, so I'll only talk about one of them and attempt to keep it short.  
In 1965, a full one hundred years after the end of the Civil War, it was pretty evident that some states clustered in the Deep South were still in no hurry to allow their African American citizens to do what most folks take for granted - vote for candidates of their choice. The federal government intervened to take the side of the disenfranchised by adopting, under the leadership of LBJ, the Voting Rights Act. This banned certain practices altogether and, just as importantly, gave authority to the federal government to throw out any voting eligibility changes that would make voting harder in certain states. These benighted places were also, to no one's surprise, located mainly in Dixie.
The law proved a huge success, helping to turn black voting from under 5% in some areas to comparable to white voting rates. But what made it succeed? Was it simply a change of heart among the sons and grandsons of Klansmen, or was the threat of federal review too onerous to try to change the system just to get a political advantage (presumably to the conservative whites who now make up the heart of the Republican Party)? The question was a bit like trying to decide why we like strawberry shakes. Is it the ice cream, the strawberries, or the loads of sugar in both?
In the interest of brevity, here's what happened. The law had been reviewed and renewed before, but the Supreme Court warned that evidence of institutional racism from the 1950s and 1960s would at some point become useless for keeping the federal "hammer" in the law today. This time around, Chief Justice Roberts and his four conservative colleagues decided that that day has arrived, and that Congress would have to hammer out any new criteria to justify the feds coming down on a state or locality, regardless of its history. Until it does so, the federal hammer on these states is simply gone, though the law continues in this reduced status. The Court is, in effect, saying "I think these heah good ole' boys have had enough a' them bureaucrats sniffin' 'round theah bidness. We'll just leave 'em alone to make they own rules for awhile, unless Congress comes up with sumpin'"
Back a couple of months before the last election, I brought up the question whether either side had done anything either so morally wrong or morally superior to justify voting a certain way. My reply to my own question then was - yes - that the attempts by the Republican Party to control elections by pretending to be crusading against "voter fraud" was not only wrong, but disingenuous. This was simply cover for trying to tilt the playing field by changing the rules. I noted then that I couldn't think of a single GOP candidate or official who was willing to admit this truth.
I believe it's all still true, and that the ruling will result in GOP-leaning legislatures everywhere finding new and clever tactics to shut the doors to the polls on certain voters while throwing them wide open to others. For the time being, "voter fraud" will be the phony bogeyman, then they will think of some other cover when that one grows old.
And I have proof. The day of the Court decision announcement last week, several southern states announced that new voter ID requirements previously voted in but not enacted pending federal approval, would now be considered IN FORCE. Oh, and Congress? Last week they couldn't get the farm bill passed, so they are not likely to agree on anything that might affect their own employment.