Sunday, November 07, 2010

Conspiracy Theory with Tony Sutton

Edward Abbey, the late environmentalist writer, once said, "Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul." Well, the comments by Minnesota GOP party chair Tony Sutton stirred up a lot of sentiment in me, and I knew I had to write about it. I even thought of calling this essay "F*** Tony Sutton," but I figured that would be in poor taste and could jeopardize whatever chance I have of becoming a political columnist.

If you're not aware of Mr. Sutton's remarks, I suggest you check them out on MPR, although you won't get the full flavor of his venom as I did when I listened to it live and uncut. He did everything but accuse Secretary of State Mark Ritchie of serving up the Senate seat to Al Franken on a silver platter. Nick Coleman called Sutton "Tony Baloney" in his Strib column today, which I encourage everyone to read and employ as the state Republican honcho's new nickname.

My first impulse was to launch a campaign to get Mr. Sutton fired, until I realized that leaving him in his current position would probably do the GOP more harm than anything else. It's scary to think that his opinions may be common among the Republican leadership in Minnesota. In the video the two guys standing at his sides seem to agree with him; they keep nodding their heads. What's even scarier is the possibility his conspiracy theory is widely held among Minnesotans who tend to vote Republican.

Are we really that full of paranoia? Must every political setback for our side be the result of a nefarious scheme by the Other Guys, a.k.a. the Bad Guys? It's a bit difficult for me to make the argument for sanity, a la Jon Stewart, since I still believe the Supreme Court contravened Florida law in stopping the 2000 presidential recount. And I still have my doubts about Bush's 2004 "reelection."

It's not what Republicans or sanity advocates want to hear, but the situations are different. The Supreme Court included in their Bush v. Gore opinion the proviso that the decision could not be used as precedent, casting doubt on its legal validity. The hijinks in Florida, from butterfly ballots to hanging chads to Miami's rent-a-riot, turned the election from high drama to tragic farce. In 2004, Ohio experienced many similar irregularities with the strategically positioned Kenneth Blackwell, honorary co-chair of the state's Bush campaign, overseeing the election as secretary of state.

By contrast, the Franken-Coleman recount was a model of propriety. Mark Ritchie, the DFL secretary of state, presided over an even-handed, thorough process to guarantee that every legal vote was counted correctly. Many Republican-appointed judges ruled on the recount before it was unanimously endorsed by the Minnesota Supreme Court. The idea that our election bears any resemblance to the charade in Florida in 2000 or the question mark of Ohio in 2004 is absurd and insulting to the people who toiled to insure the legitimacy of our democracy.

There have been plenty of stolen elections in U.S. history. Besides what I consider to be dubious presidential elections in 2000 and 2004, there was JFK's narrow victory in 1960 that may have been assisted by LBJ's political machine in Texas and Mayor Daley's skulduggery in Chicago. But the only evidence Tony Sutton has that the Franken-Coleman election was fixed is his dissatisfaction with the outcome. Calling it a conspiracy theory would be an insult to the meticulously-constructed crackpot schemes Jesse Ventura showcases on his television program. Mr. Baloney is really just suffering from a severe case of sour grapes. Let's hope it's not contagious.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Right Isn't Totally Wrong (Just Mostly)

I know I compared the Tea Party and Glenn Beck to the Nazis the other day, but that doesn't mean I think they're genocidally wrong about everything. They're right to oppose the bailouts, although they seem to think that the bailouts were meant to give government greater control over private enterprise. Members of Congress have said they were told by (Bush's) Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson that, if they didn't vote for the first bailout immediately, the economy would collapse. I think the politicians were trying to save the economy, but they refused to attach strings to the money, due to either their faith in laissez-faire capitalism or their being so deeply tucked into the pockets of Big Business they can't see $#!+.

They should've demanded that the bailed-out financial institutions cease the risky behavior that precipitated the crisis. Instead, we're stuck with too-big-to-fail banks that are now even bigger after gobbling up a bunch of little banks that didn't get government handouts to help them through the crisis. As if that weren't enough to induce vomiting, the TBTF banks are still playing fast and loose with their money, secure in the belief that the government will bail them out the next time they go belly up.

No matter how much I loathe the idea of bailing out corporations, the economic devastation that could've resulted from doing nothing was scary enough to bring me around to George W. Bush's point of view, a monumental feat. Of course, the way the money was distributed left much to be desired. Rather than letting the companies use it to buy out the competition, the government could've paid off all those subprime mortgages. The banks then could've wiped the toxic assets off their balance sheets, and the homeowners could've kept their homes.

But the bailouts did achieve their stated goal: The economy didn't go into freefall. Unfortunately, all we got for our $42 billion (officially, the amount that hasn't been paid back) was the elitist oxymoron of a "jobless recovery." It's a recovery only for the financial industry, whose government-favored goliaths enjoyed a record-breaking rebound from the Great Recession. The rest of us have to deal with the lingering symptoms of unemployment and foreclosures, which don't seem to disturb the Wizards of Wall Street in their glass towers.

Besides redistributing wealth to the wealthy, the bailouts were misguided in another crucial way. They were predicated on the assumption that continued economic growth is good and, with correct government policy, inevitable. If our leaders knew the folly of infinite economic growth as it relates to resource depletion and environmental degradation, they would've used the bailouts to begin a managed contraction of our economy.

As it stands now, we've left Nature to manage the contraction, and, the more we rage against her limits, the more precipitous and chaotic our decline will be. It's possible that more bailouts will be passed by Congress and signed by the President as the economy lurches from crisis to crisis. But, given the extreme unpopularity of the bailouts and the emergence of a well-endowed, right-wing movement dedicated to their rejection, I doubt it. The only saving grace might be to attach meaningful strings to the money, and I don't see the free-market acolytes on the Right going for that.

What we're left with is the probability of a swift, chaotic collapse of the economy in the near future. The people who would be presiding over that situation range from those who think capitalism occasionally needs no-strings-attached handouts and a little regulation (Democrats) to those who think capitalism works best with no handouts and no regulation (most of the GOP and all of the Tea Party). I really don't think they have the knowledge to deal with such a contingency. Barring the ecological enlightenment of our federal government, they will keep trying to grow the economy, which will have the rather ironic effect of digging us deeper into a pit of poverty.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Weimar Days

Back in April, I saw the recording artist Ke$ha perform one of her chart-toppers on a rerun of Saturday Night Live. The spectacle resembled a musical number from Cabaret, even though she and her backup dancers were dressed and acted like robots from space. This insubstantial pop starlet appeared to be attempting some obtuse political statement with her absurdly overblown stage show featuring two U.S. flags, one draped over the mic stand and the other lining the underside of her cape.

I've fallen far behind the music scene these days, but Ke$ha seems to be a cut-rate composite of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, the Taylor Dane to their Madonna. It's astonishing to me, a child of the '80s and '90s, that a pop star of her slim caliber would try such ambitious social commentary. Of course, I wasn't around for the late '60s or early '70s, but there seem to be disturbing parallels between our era and the Weimar Republic, which produced an abundance of politically-conscious art.

Glenn Beck's rally to restore America's "honor" is Exhibit A in this theory. The Right has been thoroughly enraged by Obama's "global apology tour," his speeches overseas that expressed a teensy bit of regret over the recent conduct of U.S. foreign policy. They feel that he's dishonoring the glorious, righteous wars we've been waging in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, more than that, he's suggesting that America is capable of making mistakes when it comes to war. Such self-criticism rattles one of the pillars of their world, American exceptionalism. This is the belief that America is "the shining city on the hill" (in Reagan's words) chosen by God to spread Truth, Justice and the American Way.

They can't imagine that, as far as our foreign policy is concerned, the U.S.A. may be nothing more than the latest in a long line of empires that use war merely to aggrandize their power. The only moral distinction between us and previous empires is the lengths to which we'll go to rationalize mass murder. Our forerunners were comfortable with conquest. We must convince ourselves that our way of life is threatened before we can bomb Third World peasants with a clear conscience.

The Nazis had a similar version of German history. It denied or rationalized the crimes Germany had committed in World War I and led the Nazis to believe that the Fatherland had been betrayed and disgraced by its leaders when they accepted responsibility and punishment for starting the war. German exceptionalism convinced the Nazis they should rule the world and exterminate all non-Aryans. Of course, most American exceptionalists do not desire global dominion. But, if you claim the right to destroy a country that poses no threat to your own (like Iran), what's the difference?

The other red flag thrown up by the Beck rally was its co-opting of the civil rights movement. Beck calls himself and his Tea Party pals the true inheritors of that movement, a claim whose absurdity transcends both comedy and gobsmackery. They are the most sheltered and privileged demographic in history. It recalls the twisted logic of the Nazis insisting that Christian Germans were oppressed by Jews, a minority that had known centuries of subjugation in Europe.

I know I'm guilty of the cliche of comparing my political adversaries to the Nazis, but the similarities are too striking to ignore. And, as I'm sure we've all heard, knowing history is the best way to avoid repeating it. Of course, if you erase the unpleasant parts, you might be inclined to repeat it.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mickey hits the Big Time!

On Saturday I was interviewed by KMO for his C-Realm Podcast. The subject was my blog post, "The Doomer's Course," which was published on Energy Bulletin. You can listen to the podcast here. KMO starts by reading my essay, which takes a while, and my interview follows that. I probably should've reread my essay before the interview. I wrote it a month before and hadn't looked at it since then. If I wanna make it on the podcast circuit, "preparation" will hafta be the name of my game ;^)

Interestingly, KMO is working at The Farm Ecovillage Training Center in Summertown, TN, the same place I went in 2005 for a two-week permaculture course shortly after learning about Peak Oil and collapsing into an insomnia-fueled emotional breakdown. For me, the healing began there, so I have extremely fond memories of the place.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How LeBron's Decision Affected Me

In case you haven't heard, LeBron James had a one-hour primetime special on ESPN last week to announce what team he was gonna play for. It was entitled "The Decision" and was almost as self-absorbed and un-self-aware as it sounds. He plunged a dagger into the back of the Cleveland Cavaliers, his hometown team that had helped him achieve global superstardom during his first 7 years in the NBA, and for some reason he decided to perform this soul-reaping on national television.

But that's not what I wanna talk about. Plenty of sportswriters and fans have vented their rage on this subject, castigating LeBron for his egomania, obliviousness or maybe even vindictiveness for subjecting Cleveland fans to such a public abandonment. I'd like to talk about how LeBron's decision affected me. I've been a fan of his since he went pro straight out of high school in '03. He has always seemed like a super-nice, fun kinda guy. Now he kinda seems like a jerk. Or, at best, an idiot.

Not only did he show zero sensitivity to the feelings of Cleveland fans, he showed very little regard for the feelings of people like me, fans of his who aren't from Cleveland and don't care that much where he plays. We deserve some consideration too. Sure, I would've liked to see him stay in Cleveland and exhibit loyalty to a fanbase that has become the poster child for sports-delivered gut punches. But if he was gonna leave the Cavs, the least he could've done was pick a team with a decent jersey design that didn't already have an alpha dog. Allow me to explain.

The Miami Heat, LeBron's new team, has rather boring jerseys. The colors are dark red and white with black trim, or black and white with red trim, which is fine. But the design is sterile and unimaginative, just basic block lettering. The script is slanted in a lame attempt to add some dynamism to the look. Say what you will about the Cavs, that their owner's a jerk, that their new coach is a cast-off, that their city is where championship hopes go to die, but you could NOT say that their jerseys lacked pizazz. Whether they were wearing the white-and-navy-and-wine-and-gold home jerseys or the wine-and-gold road jerseys or the navy-and-gold alternate road jerseys, they always stepped on the court in style. Maybe the Cavs don't know how to win titles, but they certainly know how to put on the Ritz.

I'm not sure if I'm willing to split with $40 for a replica LeBron Heat jersey, even though he'll be wearing No. 6 as a tribute to one of my favorite players, Julius "Dr. J" Erving. (Bill Simmons,'s "The Sports Guy" and my favorite sportswriter, will surely have a field day with that choice, since he's already tagged LeBron as another Dr. J, i.e., an outlandishly gifted athlete who would belong in the game's pantheon if not for his lack of a killer instinct. Simmons may also find it significant that LeBron hasn't mentioned the other legendary player to wear No. 6, Bill Russell, winner of a record 11 NBA titles, a ruthless competitor and firmly ensconced in the pantheon.) It'd be nice to see the Heat wear their retro jerseys, the style they sported at the dawn of the franchise, back in those myth-wreathed days of '88. I'm sure they'll be churning out all kinds of throwback jerseys for the Tropical Trio of LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to wear and for us to buy. I seem to recall the Heat donning the uniforms of the ABA's 38-years-defunct Miami Floridians not so long ago. Those may be coming out of storage as we speak.

As for the "alpha dog" argument, it feels almost like nit-picking. You see, we sports fans want our heroes to be deeply committed to winning, to the exclusion of nearly everything else in life. LeBron has shown an interest in winning by his choice, choosing to join forces with Dwyane Wade, at worst the third-best player in the NBA, and Chris Bosh, one of the league's best post players. But they have formed such a talented core that it seems like cheating for them to play on the same team. Anything less than a championship would be a disappointment, if not an outright embarrassment.

Also, we want LeBron to be the Man on whatever team he joins. As I've heard someone remark on ESPN, Jordan wouldn't have wanted to play with D-Wade; he would've wanted to beat him. And Jordan is the gold standard for competitiveness. He may've been a gambling addict who cheated on his wife and punched his teammates, but nobody fought harder to win. That's the ideal to which all NBA stars aspire, no matter how destructive the personal consequences may be. LeBron's desire to play with his All-Star friends undermines his basketball stature, even in my eyes. He should want to win but on his own terms on a team that automatically defers to him in crunch time.

It's too bad we've lionized these qualities in our sports heroes: obsessive competitiveness and anti-social individualism. Perhaps LeBron "Bron-Bron" or "King" James, Dwyane "D-Wade" or "Flash" Wade and Chris "I Could Really Use A Nickname That's Better Than CB4" or "The Texas Toothpick" Bosh will teach us all a thing or two about teamwork and friendship. I suppose if they rattled off 8 straight championships, that might be cool. But I think LeBron has forfeited his chance to supplant Jordan as the Greatest Basketball Player of All Time, which sucks because I really wanted him to be the Chosen One and, as we've all learned from the sacred parchments of countless cultures and endless viewings of The Matrix on cable, when the time comes, the Chosen One must stand alone.


(Author's Note: Last night I read an abridged version of this essay in the Word Ninjas open mic at Kieran's. It went over quite well.)

There comes a time in every hirsute man's life when he must choose between two unpleasant options: either continue on his hairy way and invite unflattering comparisons to Big Foot and Robin Williams or declare endless war against his follicles in a desperate bid to join that elite group of men one constantly sees in ads for cologne and deodorant. For the most part I have yielded the field to my androgens (the male hormones associated with body hair). My eyebrows and the nape of my neck are generally only trimmed when I get a haircut. I shave every other day (all the way down to the collar), but that's a common practice among men hairy and not. Only once have I waged an all-out assault on this scourge, the prosecution of which took me to a place I'd never been before.

It was a chill wind that blew through November in that Year of Our Lord 2006. On my way down Hennepin Ave, across from the YWCA, I would pass a salon that advertised waxing services. Eventually, I overcame my fear of the unknown and made an appointment to get my back waxed. (Yes, I really am that hairy.) The salon was empty on that particular weeknight except for the man who would be servicing me. He was very friendly and chatty and led me to the basement, where there was a room with a table covered in sheets that looked very hygienic and white.

I removed my shirt and lay on the table on my stomach. In my memory there was a stereo in the corner playing soporific, Enya-style music, but that could've been a later addition by my unconscious, since every other room I've been in like that has had a stereo in the corner playing soporific, Enya-style music. When I said I went to a place I'd never been before, I was referring to the pain. Never before had I voluntarily subjected myself to the physical pain that this amiable, gregarious, smaller-than-me man was inflicting on my back. Do you remember that scene in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" when Steve Carell has his chest waxed? I now know for a fact that, if he was truly getting waxed, he did not need any motivation for that scene.

Luckily for me, I have a higher pain threshold than Steve Carell's character had in that movie. Very little sound escaped my mouth as he worked me over, and I was confident enough in my tolerance to flip over and let him do my chest. This pushed my stoic facade even closer to the breaking point, for the pain of a back wax turned out to be a mere warmup to the Guantanamo-esque torture of a chest wax. I soldiered on, though, leaving only a small patch of hair in the middle of my chest to mark my masculinity and maintain consciousness.

During the treatment, my waxer regaled me with stories of his other clients, mainly women who had no qualms about exposing themselves to him while he waxed their nether regions. One voluptuous black woman stripped to reveal a pubic area that the waxer said resembled a shar pei. My guess is these women felt comfortable with him because he set off their gay-dar as strongly as he did mine. As if to confirm my suspicion, he told me about his idea for a holiday show called "Gay Nativity." It was such a brilliant (and potentially lucrative) concept that I found myself wishing I'd thought of it first.

After we were through, my waxer explained that I would have to scrub the waxed areas thoroughly with a loofah when I showered so as to avoid getting in-grown hairs. This was news to me and made me wonder if the whole thing would be more trouble than it was worth. A few minutes of blinding pain is one thing, but spending extra time in the shower to use a loofah was something else entirely, especially since I did almost all my showering at the Y. I found it ironic that this attempt to make myself more attractive to women was making me feel uncomfortably effeminate.

When I put my shirt back on, the difference was visceral. The skin felt almost like a mannequin, hard and smooth. Upon returning to my apartment, I showed off my smoothness to one of my roommates. He was politely bemused by my appearance and perhaps slightly discomfited that I had seen fit to share this personal, physical secret with him. Duane and I were good friends, but we were also heterosexual men who didn't normally confide in each other so intimately. Our relationship was defined by Vikings vs. Packers, not waxing vs. shaving.

I decided to finish the job on my own and shave off my pubes. At the time, it seemed like the way to go in order to even out my body hair coverage (except, of course, for my still-bushy arms and legs). In case any other man is struck by the same fancy, let me be perfectly clear: There is nothing easy about shaving one's testicles. Films such as those in the "American Pie" franchise have done us a grave disservice in discounting the dangers inherent in such activities. Only a fool would attempt it without the proper training. That I am still living today to impart this advice is testament only to the grace of God.

Having survived that ordeal, I embarked on a lifestyle of near-hairlessness. It was remarkably similar to my former, hairy lifestyle, differing only in the degree of my self-consciousness while nude in the YWCA men's locker room. Even in my former life I had been quite self-conscious in that setting. Now I was even more self-conscious. I wondered what the other men thought of me as I traipsed about with my smooth torso and nearly-smooth crotch. Perhaps they thought I'd landed a small, but crucial role in a locally-produced porno, just the sort of artistic initiative one would expect from a member of the Uptown Y-Dub. More likely they were thinking the same thing I was: "Don't make eye contact. Don't make eye contact. Don't make eye contact."

Other than that, my life didn't change at all. After a month or two of scrubbing with a loofah at the Y, I was back to my hairy old self and feeling rather silly about the whole experiment. It hadn't given me the confidence to talk to any attractive women, nor had it gotten me any modeling work in the cologne and deodorant advertising industry (or the porn industry for that matter). I learned that, just because you're hairless, it doesn't mean you're smooth.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Doomer's Curse

The Deepwater Horizon disaster has triggered a strong emotional response. Gulf Coasters are grieving for their lost way of life and expressing outrage over BP and the government's response to the crisis. People from across the country and the world have demonstrated their empathy though protests, directing most of their frustration at BP. Even the President of the United States said in a televised interview that he was looking for an ass to kick.

I share in the pain and anger brought on by this tragedy. But I can't deny that it also summoned another feeling: self-satisfaction. The Doomer in me is cheered by this confirmation of the oil industry's reckless greed. He is delighted that millions of people will be shaken out of their torpor by the only thing apparently able to wake them up: an abrupt end to their livelihood. The Doomer says catastrophe is necessary to effect the societal changes required to deal with Peak Oil and Climate Change.

However, I know the Doomer is wrong. Crisis can bring out the best in people, but it can also bring out the worst. When people are in shock, they don't often make the best decisions. Extreme emotions tend to cloud one's judgment. The Doomer also forgets that it's a slippery slope from hoping for disaster to abetting it. He may get so caught up in following the news of collapse from around the world that he neglects (intentionally or not) to do anything to prevent or even mitigate the repercussions of that collapse. He may not even feel responsible for taking preemptive action, since he believes calamity is a prerequisite for reform. Of course, this theory only applies to the supposedly oblivious residents of distant states and countries. He would surely be singing a different tune if the same fate had befallen him.

The Doomer is motivated by much more than a perverse sense of altruism. He mainly desires to see everyone brought down to his level. His fondest wish is for everyone to be as emotionally crippled as he is, and, if they could also be paralyzed fiscally, that would be great too. The argument for the necessity of disaster is merely an excuse for his vindictive fantasies. This is the Doomer's Curse: to wallow in despair, to sneer at the happiness of others, to revel in schadenfreude and to believe that he has humanity's best interests at heart. The Doomer honestly thinks that a universal depression (in the emotional sense) would lay the foundation for a better world, but this belief is rooted in his own selfishness, not in a rational socioeconomic analysis.

The Doomer wants this world to end, because in this world he is a failure. He has failed to achieve his goals personally and/or professionally, but he lacks the maturity to take responsibility for his failure. He blames the rules of this world for his defeat, to the point of judging this world irredeemably corrupt. This belief makes a virtue of his failure, for only the corrupt could succeed in such a world. His moral integrity precludes his success in this den of iniquity. With a better perspective, he could see that it's not the world's corruption that condemns him to failure, but rather his failure that leads him to condemn the world. Therefore, instead of taking steps to improve his chances of success, he throws up his hands, picks up the remote (or the mouse) and eagerly awaits the end of the world that (he believes) is dead set against him.

The Doomer confuses his personal collapse with the "inevitable" collapse of society. ("Inevitable" is the keystone of the Doomer vocabulary and, as such, should be avoided whenever possible.) He suffers from a severe case of tunnel vision. Like a horse with blinders on, he can only see what's immediately in front of him. Anything indicating that other people's experience contradicts his world-view is dismissed as false or a lie propagated by the corrupt elite. He doesn't want his dogma tested, because then it might be refuted, and the emotional consequences of that would be too much to bear. He would have to accept that he has failed due to his lack of merit and not by his refusal to make some moral compromise.

As I mentioned before, the Doomer I refer to is not a personality type. He is an aspect of my personality and, it seems, the personalities of many people. (How else do you explain the enduring popularity of apocalyptic cults, auto racing or Goth music?) I'm attempting self-analysis in the hope that it will resonate with others. Therefore, when I call the Doomer a loser willing to blame anyone but himself, I'm talking about myself. All the characteristics I enumerated are ones that I've personified many times in the five years since I learned about Peak Oil and even before then. My hope is that being honest about my Doomerism will help me overcome these tendencies and help others recognize the same tendencies in themselves.

My other motivation for writing this essay is to point out that our emotional condition goes a long way toward determining our vision of the future. Someone wrote that Peak Oil is like a Rorschach test. People use it to project their wishes onto the future. For instance, those who pray for the death of industrial capitalism are likely to view Peak Oil as the catalyst for just such an event. In this mindset Peak Oil functions as a Messiah, able to deliver the faithful from whatever evil plagues them. But we must remember that the future doesn't take requests. Unless we can make common cause with millions of like-minded individuals, we aren't likely to get the change we want, with or without Peak Oil. And, even if we do succeed, we'll probably have to work within resource limits far more restrictive than we're used to.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Champions of My Heart

We've come to the end of another long NBA postseason and, once again, I find myself emotionally bereft. Well, maybe not bereft, but certainly disappointed. I managed to attach myself to the losing side for the final three rounds of the playoffs, and in the Finals the team I was rooting for lost for the sixth straight year. There hasn't been an NBA champion I was honestly happy for since the '04 Pistons. (I should've been happy for the '08 Celtics, but, due to cowardly extenuating circumstances, I was not. For an explanation, refer to my post from June 2008, "I Won't Let the Celtics Hurt Me Again.")

Heading into the playoffs, my team was the Cleveland Cavaliers, as it was the year before, led by my favorite player, the charismatic (and messianic) LeBron James. For the second straight season the Cavs had the best regular-season record in the league, and for the second straight season they crapped out in crunch time.

This year their comeuppance was delivered by the crafty, often-decrepit Boston Celtics, although the difference in their second-round matchup was an up-and-comer, Boston's point guard Rajon Rondo. The Celtics administered a devastating lesson on the finer points of the game, schooling the younger, more athletic Cavs with poised, heady play. It was another reminder that, as Don Mashak once said, "Age and Guile do not always beat Youth, enthusiasm and Idealism, but that is the way to bet." Of course, this begs the question, "Who the %$@# is Don Mashak?"

Once LeBron and the Cavaliers had exited stage right (in an inglorious and ignominious fashion, I might add), my loyalties drifted to the Orlando Magic in the hope that they could dispatch these rough, crude Celtics post-haste. Sadly, the Magic proved just as helpless to Boston's wiles as the Cavs had been. The Celtics made Orlando look amateurish and stage-struck as they conducted a basketball clinic against another youthful, spry opponent.

Matched up against the Lakers in the Finals, I had little choice but to pledge my allegiance to the Celtics. In '08 my rooting interests had become so confused that I'd found myself (shockingly) pulling for the Lakers against the Celtics, despite a pro-Celtic, anti-Laker bias bred in childhood by my father. I wasn't able to throw my support fully behind the Celtics until Game 4, when Glen "Big Baby" Davis and Nate Robinson, two Boston bench players, provided the decisive lift to even the series at 2 games apiece. After making a key basket while drawing a foul, the 6'9", 289-lb Davis let out a barbaric yawp (along with some drool) as the 5'9" Robinson jumped onto his back. (It should be noted that the listed heights and weights of professional athletes are not always accurate. Davis and Robinson are a few inches shorter, and Davis a few pounds heavier, than they would have us believe.) Their unbridled enthusiasm and uninhibited revelry won me over.

By the time the NBA Finals had reached Game 7 (for only the third time in the last 22 years), I had pitched my tent firmly in the Celtics camp and thus effectively ruined Boston's chances for their 18th championship. The final game was a gritty, defensive struggle with all the effort (if not all the skill) one would hope to see in the season's ultimate showdown. Los Angeles came out on top, and I was left to pick up the pieces once more.

The questions I have to ask myself now are: "Why does it mean so much to me? Why do I put myself through this?" The mystery of fan-dom has confounded scholars since time immemorial. If I may add my two cents, I would guess that I'm eager to place my happiness in arbitrary hands, because I have little faith in my ability to bring myself happiness. Also, rooting for the home team is a shortcut to a sense of community sorely lacking in our society these days. Finally, and most crucially I think, sport provides a stage for mythic storylines to be played out: Good vs. Evil, Celtics vs. Lakers, Anybody vs. Duke. Although, just as in real life, there's no guarantee the Hero will defeat the Villain, which makes the contest all the more interesting. Doesn't everyone need a Champion to ride into battle on their behalf, whether it's Richard the Lionheart trying to wrest the Holy Land from Saladin or LeBron James dunking on Kobe Bryant's head?

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Best Name in Baseball

I've found the best name in baseball: Lastings Milledge. He's the Pittsburgh Pirates' leftfielder. How does one come by such a name in this day and age? His bio on offers no clues. He's from Bradenton, FL, as many professional athletes seem to be. He played in the Little League World Series in '97. And that's about it. No mention of any Amish background. Not a word about being named after some Gilded Age robber baron ancestor. The only thing Wikipedia has to add is that he has his own cheering section called "The Milledge People." I can only hope they dress in Edwardian fashions and pepper the opposing players with such jibes as "You have the uncouth bearing of a Knickerbocker!" or "Your mother is so rotund she requires a hogshead of figgy pudding in order that her appetite might be sated!"

Monday, June 07, 2010

The Slipper Didn't Fit

This is my attempt at literary therapy to get over the men's college basketball championship game. Even though it happened 2 months ago, I've struggled to process my feelings verbally. It was a crushing defeat, for me, for Butler, for underdogs everywhere, for anyone who ever felt they weren't good enough, for the American farmer struggling to make ends meet, for scruffy orphans of the Natty Gann variety and, most of all, for the universal human sense of justice.

The day after the game I went to the health club and shot hoops for an hour, trying to reverse the outcome. But no amount of swished jumpers or sweet reverse dunks on the 8-foot basket could change the score, even if they did bring me some peace. Duke's crime against nature hadn't diminished my game, just my soul, along with the souls of every other person on earth who believes that dreams really do come true.

I thought of recording my own rendition of "One Shining Moment" and setting it to a montage of Duke's most painful defeats. There would be the No. 1-ranked Dukies losing in the championship game to Louisville in '86, a heavily-favored Duke team losing to UConn in '99 and, the coup de grace, Duke getting shellacked by UNLV in '90. The last game remains the Duke Hater's finest hour. It still holds the record for biggest blowout in a championship game (3o points). UNLV's run'n'gun style combined with the elevation at Denver and Bobby Hurley's flu (which resulted in him losing his lunch at halftime) made for a fabulous evening for the Duke Hater in all of us.

There's a sports journalism convention of featuring the champion in stories about the championship game and rightly so. But to me it often seems like more of a favor to the champs than the readers. The champs' stories aren't always the most compelling, especially when it comes to the Final Four. It may be the impulse to cozy up to the powerful, a trait that infects every segment of journalism. Or it may be our culture's worship of winners and the Social Darwinism encapsulated in the popular phrase "survival of the fittest" (a telling deviation from Darwin's original "survival of the fit"). Yes, all hail Mighty Duke, Slayer of Hope, Destroyer of Dreams!

Right on cue, that week's Sports Illustrated delivered its paean to the champions, Duke, with only a brief, cursory salute to Butler, the vanquished underdog whose story is about a million times more interesting, even in defeat. I think the real reason SI didn't focus on Butler is because it would've pissed off Duke. Mike Krzyzewski (Duke's legendary "Coach K") might never give SI an interview again or let them interview anyone else associated with the program. Or maybe they focus on the champions because they've always done it that way and they can't even imagine doing it any other way. I have a rather low opinion of mainstream journalists.

Is my despair at Butler's loss a symptom of my collaboration in the dominant narrative, the belief that the victor is always the hero of the story? After all, what does it matter that Butler came up two points short of the national championship when their performance was so inspired and inspiring? The point is not that they lost but that they played beautifully and would've been deserving champions had they won. The loss shouldn't diminish their achievement. After two months, I think I'm ready to start believing that.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

River of Sadness

I just can't seem to let the sadness go. If I let it run through me it might pass more quickly and with less pain. But I'm afraid to feel it completely. At the same time, I think the only time we feel pain is when we resist emotion. The pain is the turbulence caused by blocking the emotion instead of just feeling it and letting it flow through you. (I feel like I read that in a book Megan lent me. It doesn't feel like my personal revelation.) Of course, thinking something and feeling something are very different things. My understanding of this concept still resides more in the head than the heart.

P.S. That's why I went with the dopey title. My head said it was lame, but my heart wanted it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

My Brush With Greatness

In the spirit of the season (March Madness), I thought I would recount the story of my encounter with one of the greatest college basketball coaches of our time, Rick Pitino. Travel with me now back to the year 1992. Right Said Fred was too sexy for their shirt and apparently anything else, the first President Bush barfed in the Japanese prime minister's lap and I was a paranoid, persecuted 8th grader.

The spectacle of the Final Four arrived in the Twin Cities for the first time that year. (The men's NCAA Division I college basketball championship had been played here once before, in 1951, but it wasn't nearly the spectacle back then.) As a college basketball-crazed adolescent, I was beside myself with glee. My dad took me out of school early on Friday to watch the teams' public practices at the Metrodome. That was the biggest thrill of the weekend. The practices were free and there was no assigned seating, so we kept moving down until we were within maybe 50 yards of the court. That might not seem very close, but, for a basketball event of that magnitude in a football stadium, it's like sitting courtside.

Michigan practiced before we got anywhere near the court, although seeing my favorite team, the fabled Fab Five, from a distance still gave me a chill. The confirmation that these superhumans were real, and I was in the same building as they, was exciting and disorienting. I enjoyed the practices most, because it was the first time I'd been in a Final Four venue and it was an exhibition. The competition in the games is what drives the sport, but basketball's aesthetic sets it apart. In the practices we could see the camaraderie of the teams as they joked around. Although the highlight was the layup line, when the players could show off their dunking prowess. What other sport puts such a high premium on style points that will never be counted?

On Saturday morning my dad took me to a high school where the NCAA was conducting a basketball clinic for kids. I signed up and got some freebies for my trouble, including a cool poster commemorating the centennial of basketball's birth. (Dr. James Naismith, a Canadian, invented the sport at the Springfield, Mass. YMCA to keep his young charges entertained during the winter of 1891-1892.) We were divided into groups of 5-10 kids, each one overseen by a Golden Gopher men's or women's basketball player. Mine was led by Randy Carter, an elite recruit who'd been hobbled by knee injuries. He was pretty quiet and reserved, not what I'd call a "people person."

There were quite a few coaches who ran us through basic drills, including Tony Barone of Texas A&M and Joe Harrington of Colorado. Not exactly top-flight programs, but they were still in D-1, and major conferences at that, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt. We all assembled in the bleachers when they brought out the big-name coach to talk. Exactly one week earlier, Rick Pitino had lost what was already being called the greatest college basketball game ever played. He resurrected the once-mighty Kentucky program and brought them to the brink of that year's Final Four. Only a miracle had denied them the opportunity and kept alive Duke's drive to repeat as national champions. With 2.1 seconds left in overtime, Grant Hill threw a three-quarter-court-length pass to Christian Laettner, who faked left, turned right and hit a jumper from the free-throw line as time expired.

I admired Coach Pitino for showing up to the clinic after what must've been a crushing defeat, even a week later. The content of his speech escaped my memory a long time ago. All I remember is lining up with maybe two dozen other kids to run through a drill with the coach. It was extremely basic. At the top of the key, behind the three-point line, each kid would fake right, take a dribble left and shoot. My first time up the shot seemed to fall about 2 feet short. Performing under pressure was not one of the strengths of my game.

My second time up Coach Pitino stopped me and tried to clarify the drill. Apparently, I was doing it wrong. Unfortunately, his clarification didn't sink in. If he had tried to explain to me how to open a door at that moment, I would've been trapped forever in whatever room I found myself in. I was so hypnotized by his aura nothing he said would've gotten through. So I did the drill exactly the same way I'd done it a few seconds earlier. I looked at him to see if I'd executed the maneuver to his satisfaction. He just shook his head while a faint smile drifted across his face. As I took my place at the back of the line, I consoled myself with the knowledge that I'd improved slightly on the first attempt. My shot had only fallen about 1 foot short this time.

People talk about how meeting their hero changed the course of their life. The hero said something to them that cleared the chaos in their mind and unlocked their true potential. They don't talk about when they met their hero and, instead of changing the course of their life, the hero merely confirmed what they had always suspected about themselves, namely, that they have no idea what the %#@$ they're doing. I hope that, with this story, I've done my part to correct that imbalance.

Epilogue: Michigan won their semifinal later that Saturday, as did Duke. On Monday, however, Duke put a 20-point hurt on the Fab Five to capture their second straight national championship, becoming the first school in 19 years to repeat. It would be another 15 years before another school, Florida, won back-to-back titles. To put it another way, I watched in person as my favorite college basketball team of all time got blown out by my least favorite college basketball team of all time in a game that cemented the latter's place in my favorite sport's pantheon. To put it yet another way, it was the best of times, it was the blurst of times.

Epilogue II: I was also at the '93 Final Four. Chris Webber's timeout probably condemned me to a life of melancholy.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Other End of the Gun

(Author's Note: This is a short story about a future scenario I've been meaning to explore.)

Joe found a spot on the lawn and parked. He and Carrie got out. She was carrying "their" gift. His only contribution was the money to buy it. He didn't even know what it was. She'd told him, but his memory couldn't hold onto anything since he got back home.

They went around back to where the chairs and tent were set up. Joe hadn't wanted to come, but Carrie insisted it would be good for him. All their friends were there; that's why he hated it. He couldn't stand to be around anyone from his old life, from the time before his deployment. They didn't understand what he'd seen or what he'd done. They couldn't understand, which meant they could never forgive him, not that he could ever bring himself to ask for their forgiveness.

Carrie set the gift down on a table under the tent and went off to talk with some of her friends. Joe headed straight for the bar, hoping to drink his way through the joyous occasion. Just two yards short of his goal, his old pal Mark intervened.

"How's it goin', man?" Mark inquired jovially. "I haven't seen you since you got back."

"OK," Joe mumbled. He couldn't hide his irritation at being denied the sweet oblivion of booze.

"Can you believe Carl and Lisa are finally tyin' the knot? I never thought she'd get him to settle down."

"No." Joe was perceptibly shaking now. "Excuse me." He brushed past Mark and asked for a whiskey double. Mixers were a thing of the past for him, an old comfort that no longer comforted. Now he needed the truth of that straight whiskey burning down his throat. He couldn't stand anything sweet or soft anymore; it just seemed like a lie.

Joe stood off by himself, often looking over his shoulder to make sure no one was outside his range of sight. He didn't like being out in the open like this, surrounded by people. They weren't strangers, but they might as well have been. He did everything he could not to think about Iraq, about the suicide bomber at his checkpoint, about his friend who died that day, halfway across the world for a mission Joe didn't believe in.

He'd never questioned the mission before, but when Scott was blown to Kingdom Come the mission didn't make sense anymore. The Iraqis had a democracy. It wasn't perfect, but neither was ours. The country was fairly peaceful; they'd withdrawn from the cities a decade ago with no serious problems. All the American troops were stationed at remote bases, just trying to "keep a lid on" the region, as the folks in Washington liked to say.

That's why Joe didn't see the problem when the Iraqi government said they didn't need the U.S. military presence anymore. He was overjoyed at the thought of leaving. But the American politicians thought it was "dangerous" and "unwise" to leave Iraq completely, especially after they'd been forced out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iraq took its case to the U.N., where the sanction for the U.S. occupation was cancelled. Of course, the U.N. was no more able to end the Iraq War than they were to prevent it, so Iraq appealed to a more powerful body: OPEC. They weren't able to pass a full oil embargo of the U.S., but enough members went along with the idea that the American economy went from paraplegic to quad.

With its tail tucked firmly between its legs, the U.S. military abandoned Iraq, although not without a parting shot. The huge bases (and embassy) it had constructed during the occupation were demolished. Unfortunately, as in Af-Pak, some hardware was left behind. This knowledge of U.S. weaponry wiped out much of the American advantage in military technology. Combined with the economic depression at home, it pushed the world's last superpower back onto its own continent. There had even been a few attacks on "the homeland" using U.S. equipment, prompting the usual disproportionate retaliations against the revolutionary government in Mexico, which was only occasionally responsible for the attacks.

It's funny how much you learn about things you never cared about before when you're best friend dies. After Scott's death, Joe had gone online and read everything he could about why they were still in Iraq. What he found out was almost as jarring as losing Scott. They weren't fighting for truth, justice and the American Way. They were killing (mostly) innocent people for oil. Instead of setting him free, the truth had driven him deeper into a pit where no light could reach. Even at the wedding of two of his friends on a beautiful summer day he was alone in a dungeon. The joy of the people around him only made it worse. They were oblivious to the real world, the one he'd lived in and his best friend had died in. He hated them for being ignorant and selfish and happy.

"They're about to start," Carrie interrupted his rage. They took two seats at the back right. Joe always needed the option of a quick escape in case the anxiety got to him. The audience quieted down so the music could begin, but, just before the organist started in, a strange, distant noise pre-empted the ceremony. The hairs on the back of Joe's neck stood on end. He knew that sound. It was a UAV, a drone plane.

He leapt to his feet. "Everybody needs to take cover! Get inside NOW!"

"Joe, it's all right." Carrie stood up and tried to reassure him. "You're not in Iraq anymore. You're safe."

"No, Carrie, it's not all right! That's a drone! We've got about five seconds before it spots us!"

But Joe's estimate turned out to be optimistic. As he turned and saw the drone approaching, the missile had already been fired. There was only enough time for one last thought:

"My sins have followed me home."


Ahmed confirmed the strike visually and leaned back in his chair with a sigh. Bombing people on the other side of the world was never easy, no matter how many times he'd done it. The rest of his shift was basic reconnaissance, no more unpleasant surprises to his relief. At 5 pm he took off the headset and logged out of the computer.

"Have a good one," Samir said as he took over Ahmed's workstation for the evening shift, arranging his coffee mug, sandwich and portfolio in their usual places in front of the monitor.

"You too," Ahmed replied. He got his coat and briefcase out of his locker and headed for the parking lot. The guard at the door nodded as Ahmed left the building. The sun was setting through the barbed wire. Ahmed showed the man at the gate his pass on his way out, and then he was outside the fence again, back in the land of the innocent.

"How was work?" Karimah asked from the kitchen when he came in.

"It was fine." There'd be time for coming clean later, after the kids had gone to bed.

"Good. Tell Jazmin and Salim to come in. Dinner's almost ready."

Ahmed opened the back door and saw his children playing soccer with the neighbor kids. They were still young enough to play co-ed without being embarrassed. He wanted to keep them this safe forever. These were the moments he thought of when he struggled with the morality of his job. This was what gave him the strength to continue.

Later that evening, when he and Karimah were getting ready for bed, Ahmed told her what had happened. He explained the situation and the intelligence, without going into specifics of course. He admitted they didn't know if it was a meeting of rogue U.S. soldiers or a garden party or a wedding or what. All they knew was at least one of the people there had been stationed in Iraq for a couple years, and his online postings indicated mental instability. Like always, she got that look on her face that killed him. It was as if the life had drained out of her, and her soul had been replaced by a motherboard.

"Well, you did what you thought was right." She turned away from him and got her nightgown out of the dresser.

"Please, Karimah. Don't do this to me. If you think I'm a murderer, there's no way I'm gonna be able to live with myself."

Her shoulders fell, and she seemed to shrink. When she turned around her face was red and her eyes wet.

"I don't know what to think. We called them murderers when they did it to us. How is it any different now?"

"We never invaded their country! We never killed hundreds of thousands of their people!"

"But how is this supposed to make us safer? They've left our countries. Why don't we leave them alone?"

"They still have thousands of nuclear weapons, Karimah. They could incinerate us with the push of a button. They need to know we can strike at them even in their precious 'homeland.' It's a deterrent."

"I don't see how poking an angry giant is a deterrent. You're just giving them an excuse to incinerate us. If you'd just let them be they'd forget about us and focus on the Mexicans. They're the only ones the Americans really hate anymore."

"I know," Ahmed admitted, collapsing on the bed. "It doesn't always make sense to me either. But if our leaders managed to kick the U.S. out of the Middle East, then I have to believe they're right about this too."

Karimah lay down next to him and rubbed his chest. "I wish I had your faith in generals and politicians."

Ahmed laughed. "I'm just hoping they're better than the American generals and politicians. It's not a very high standard."

"True." She kissed him on the cheek and set her head on his shoulder.

It wasn't enough to cure his insomnia forever, but it would get him through that night.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Confessions of a Doomer

A month ago I visited my friend Sadie in Cincinnati. During a chat in her apartment, I confessed to a morbid fascination with the possible collapse of society. She laughed and, in a tone of gentle sarcasm, said she'd noticed my enchantment with that subject. I wasn't sure how subtle I'd been with my pessimism. Apparently, not that subtle.

But I'm not ashamed to be a "Doomer" (one who believes society will be forced to radically re-simplify through a painful process of collapse). When I first learned about Peak Oil 5 years ago, it was very difficult being a Doomer. I was petrified by the potential for social breakdown and extremely reluctant to share my concerns with people outside my circle of friends. Of course, at that point I was convinced we were headed for a Mad Max-style future, and my discussion was framed in terms of absolute certainty, the sign of an insecure cultist. Now I talk about it in terms of probability, allowing for the possibility of a safe future, even though my worries remain. That's a result of my emotional stabilization and has nothing to do with the feasibility of the Peak Oil theory. If anything, my belief in the theory has been strengthened by the events of the last 5 years.

I'll concede that my personal struggles predisposed me to Doomerism. If I were a rich, happily-married screenwriter living in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills, I probably wouldn't care a tinker's cuss for Peak Oil. (Shout-out to Frank McCourt!) But I'm a 32-year-old temp living with my parents, so I'm far more receptive to apocalyptic theories. At the same time, I don't think my beliefs are any less valid than those of my successful, parallel-universe doppelganger. Just because I'm more likely to look on the dark side doesn't mean I'm more likely to be wrong. It just depends what era you're living in. Here in the U.S. of A. we've had Happy Days for almost 65 years in a row. Sure, there have been some bumps in the road, but overall our material comforts have been good and getting better (nearly) all the time. Therefore, people who look on the bright side have generally been right for the last 65 years. Now I think we've entered an epoch when the Doomers will be right most of the time.

Again, I must come clean and admit that I'm looking forward to collapse. (I'm using "collapse" in the anthropological sense, meaning only a re-simplification of society, without the catastrophic connotation the term has accumulated.) The process would be difficult, the resulting turmoil and loss of life could be horrific, but the alternative, in my opinion, would be worse. The status quo has devastated the biosphere and impoverished perhaps a billion or more people. Some would say those people were even poorer before, but whatever creature comforts the global capitalist system has given them have been more than negated by the social, emotional, spiritual and (usually) physical dislocation it has forced on them. I realize these are broad generalizations. I make them because I feel that dislocation and despoilment in myself, and I think our way of life is the cause of it.

Re-simplifying our society could improve our lives tremendously. Instead of spiritual alienation, we could again feel connected to the land, the wildlife and the seasons (and there might not be so much Seasonal Affective Disorder). Instead of social isolation, we could again live in community with our neighbors. Instead of competition, we could provide for ourselves by working cooperatively. This is the Sunny Side of Collapse. It may be (ironically) Utopian, but I think the disintegration of capitalism would strip us of many of our paranoid, competitive tendencies. This may be what truly isolates we Doomers, the fact that inside every one of us is a Utopian. We reject society as it is, yet still believe we'll embrace a society forged in the crucible of apocalypse. We're funny that way. (Shout-out to John Astin!)

Now the time has come for my final confession: The sooner collapse happens, the better off we'll be. That's right. Not only am I pro-apocalypse, I'm rather impatient for the end of the world to begin. It's simple, really. Since the System (a.k.a. the economy, or the method by which we keep ourselves alive) is destroying the natural environment (a.k.a. our habitat, or the only planet that can support our kind) and our spirit (a.k.a. the soul, or the thing that makes life worth living), it only makes sense that the sooner the System collapses, the better off we'll all be. The longer the economy hums (or coughs) along, the longer we continue with business-as-usual. Whether we go along to get along or because we honestly believe in the benevolence of the System, we're all just lemmings headed for the cliff unless we diverge from the mainstream.

Also, it's hard to convince people we're in the early stages of collapse when things are still pretty good. Unemployment is around 10% (officially), and foreclosures are spreading like kudzu, but most Americans can still afford to feed, clothe and house themselves. Only when we have trouble meeting our basic needs will we begin to seriously question and fundamentally reform our society. And I believe, passionately, that we need to begin this process ASAP, while there are still enough fossil fuels, water and other natural resources to support 6.8 billion people. So my message is this: Don't wait until the $#!+ hits the fan, because by then it could be too late.