Sunday, September 16, 2007

Lost Honor

Character, it is said, is what you do when you think you won't get caught. In light of the New England Patriots' alleged electronic spying and dirty tricks against opponents such as secretly videoing opponents' signs, jamming coach-to-quarterback frequencies, planting spies in locker rooms and stealing blackboard plays, keeping a library on each defensive coordinator's playbook actions, etc., I am reminded that honor is a concept being widely ignored today and readily sacrificed in favor of winning, bottom line success, and public perception.

In sports, winning is everything. Players are evaluated, rewarded and punished based primarily on their records, not whether they beat their wives at home, take steroids and other performance enhancers, or get arrested for barroom brawls or drug possession. Coaches' jobs are almost exclusively judged on their won-lost records, regardless of their demeanor, their player relations, or their practises.

In the business sector, profit seems to be the only measure that counts as well, and corporate dirty tricks are well documented. Nothing else matters unless you get caught and bring disgrace upon your firm. And when cheating is discovered, as in the lead-laden paint on millions of toys made in China, then the bottom line suffers and high level executives, borrowing from Japanese tradional honor perceptions, commit hari-kari--but only because the scandal is revealed, not because the practise was wrong or shameful to begin with.

I wonder how much we are willing to sell out our personal honor for the new public definition of success. Maybe it's easier to live with a less-than-honorable guilt if one has a big house and a fat bank account, easier for coaches and players to live with misdeeds they got away with if it resulted in winning. And the excuse offered widely that "everyone else does this all the time" seems really empty.

Life has rules, but there will always be those who find ways to get around them in the pursuit of some goal. The real issue, to me, isn't whether people can cheat and get away with it but whether they hold their honor dear. It seems many today, sadly, do not. And when honor is sacrificed, there's not much difference from stealing or lying or any other injury to our fellow men we choose to commit to achieve our goals.

When I began teaching college around the mid-1960's, there was a lot of talk about situational ethics and moral relativism. Whether something was right or wrong, it was thought then by many, depended on who got hurt and the situation, not any absolute measure. I fear that attitude may be returning today.

My father told me when I was a boy that right was right and wrong was wrong, that things couldn't be "a little wrong" or "a little right" but were right or wrong, period. He wouldn't have had much regard for situation ethics or moral relativism. I think some "wrong" things have fewer or worse consequences than others, or may be mitigated by circumstances, but they are all equally wrong. Otherwise it would be very hard for me to believe in a God-defined good or evil, and I could only look at social consequences to define them. I happen to believe man doesn't define right and wrong. It's too bad that he is so vain that he insists on interpreting it based on his personal preferences.

No, I agree with my dad, right is right and wrong is wrong. It doesn't "depend" on anything, not whether others do the same thing or whether you can get away with it or whether no one gets hurt or lots of people may even benefit. Avoiding an act that is wrong because you know it is wrong, regardless of whether you might get away with it, is a matter of honor.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Simple Pleasures

When Barb and I married, our big Friday Night in the City was to cross the street to the bait shop, purchase a bottle of pepsi to split between us while we played a few games of pinball, then head back across the street to the trailer and call it a night. That's if we were flush with a couple of dollars between us after we paid the bills. If not, we probably couldn't splurge on more than one or two games of pinball and we'd take turns with each ball.

Although a lot has changed in the thirty-nine years since then--now we go to Disney Quest in Orlando with our sons and grandchildren for our pinball fix, where we can bang away on several dazzling-lighted, blazing-action boxes to our hearts' content, game after game for free--other than the hundred-dollar year's pass each, of course--we're still kindred souls in our love for simple, sometimes silly, usually cheap pleasures.

This morning we both had the day off so I took her to the Hess station for coffee. It happens that there's an extensive, sit-down Dunkin' Donuts in the west room, offering a full breakfast menu, but we'd never been there and it was fun. Since she'd come with me at my urging with no questions asked and fair's fair, I then followed her directions up to a different part of town and parked in a shopping center lot. She led me into a store neither of us had been in before nor had any idea what was sold.

It turned out to be quite a surprising array of sundry things, similar in some ways to a Dollar General store but with much greater variety, and pretty high prices. This was not a bargain store, though the bare-rack grab-bins and askew boxes of bric-a-brac seemed like it should have been deep-discounted. They had a lot of seconds and junk, frankly, but they had also a lot of electronics that kept my attention. Some imports, some lamps and furniture, rugs and barstools, laundry baskets and mirrors, framed prints and small appliances, paper items and eyeglasses we might have expected. But then I spotted a flute. A real, honest-to-gosh band flute ("beginner's", it said) in a hard, cushioned case, for $99. In another shelf I found the ultimate gadgeteer's delight: a mirror ("fog-proof", it claimed) for the shower, with a built-in am-fm radio with stereo speakers (about a half-inch each) and a digital clock (less than an inch across the lcd) under the oval reflector. All for $9.99. How could I resist? But I did.

I never could figure out their pricing. Any given item's cost seemed based on whether the stock boy thought it looked classy or common. So a wrought-iron grate might cost $20, but a gleaming, brass, free-standing toilet tissue valet might go for $99. Barb bought a new fry pan. Ours are getting the teflon wearing thin and starting to stick the eggs and stir-fry stuff to them. Though we walked all the aisles, we left wondering if we'd missed some unusual, hard-to-find treasure buried amongst all the motley piles and high-stacked shelves. I thought it had the feel of a garage sale.

"Well, what did you think?" Barb asked.
"Hey, that was different," I dodged. "Unique."
On the way out I learned the store wasn't unique at all but part of a national franchise. I guess lots of people must like to just shop for whatever surprises they can discover. But the point was, we had fun, did some different things for a couple of hours on a day off, and didn't spend much. We had our big spree in the city, our pepsi and pinball as it were.

We're lucky both of us seem to enjoy simple pleasures. Maybe it's our shared small-town upbringing.

Monday, September 10, 2007

I'll watch but not listen

I have trouble finding my caring or not caring balance when it comes to supporting my sports teams. So much so, in fact, that I've taken to muting the tv volume when my teams are playing badly, as if I could handle bad play watching but not listening also. Radio can be pure hell for me, but I'll just lower the volume. It seems the only way I can hang onto my sometimes tenuous grip on the real world and things that really matter to me and still follow the ups and downs of the game. As with dramas, I can follow a story with sound only much better than with visuals only. Sound is the real narrator, so my only option short of turning off the game altogether and wondering what's happening--unacceptable, if I can get the game at all--is to lower or mute the volume.

Generally I begin by watching and listening, but if things go south I turn things down. Usually this happens when my team goes on defense. I can stand to watch my team's offense not make running yards or muff passes, even get intercepted or fumble. But defensively I can't stand to see the other guys run through my team's line like butter and scamper past my flailing linemen and linebackers, blow by would-be tacklers and scamper through the last defenders, break tackles and catch passes away from futile-grasping corners and safeties. When the offense stalls, I blame poor playcalling. But when the defense crumbles, I blame the players.

Both of these things happened this weekend as I listened to my Gators rack up a big first half lead against Troy, then crumble on defense in the last half and all but quit scoring while Troy completed pass after pass, scoring every few minutes and darned near getting close to making a possible upset akin to the Appalachian State/Michigan debacle, had not time mercifully run out. I couldn't get the game on tv and was too cheap to order pay-per-view, so I suffered through the radio broadcast the final half helplessly. Next day I watched the first half's delayed telecast, but I wouldn't watch the second.

Sunday afternoon I watched my Dolphins bumble their way through the season opener and lose to the Redskins in overtime, 16-13. So much for our big hopes with a new offense-minded coach and rebuilt line. The South Florida press builds up such a great picture of the newly-minted team each spring and summer with player drafts and interviews that they sound invincible, then every fall we get our bubbles burst with lacklustre preseason losses and opening games hitting us with the reality: our team isn't bound for the Super Bowl again. Probably our team isn't even playoff caliber potential this season.

I was so disgusted from the first batted down passes and three-and-out possessions that I turned the volume off. I could still watch the inept lack of a running game, the collapsing inept offensive line, the butterfingered receivers the press had touted so highly all summer drop pass after pass, but I couldn't bear to listen as well. The announcers are so deflating to my tribal ego with their derisive but deserved comments, (which I notice are subject to instant revision the moment things change on the field, so they always look like fortunetellers) that they echo my own dark thoughts too closely. I don't need their excited confirmations that my team sucks. I can see it all too plainly for myself.

Clearly the sports fan in me is demented. I just hope the dementia hasn't spread to the rest of my mindset, but I have decided it's just something I have to work on each fall. I can't just give up on being a football fan and trying to care about my teams' fortunes altogether and not watch the games on tv or live when I have the chance, or listen on the internet radio (which is far superior, by the way, than broadcast radio--thanks, Barb!) That would be giving away a major chunk of my autumn recreation and entertainment! Come fall, I look forward to the college and pro games very eagerly. But I have to work on being able to stand the disappointments if I hope to savor the victories.

I think what I have to remember is that no matter what the play and what the outcomes, these are games, not reality, and in the end it makes no difference at all who wins or loses. As fans we watch an artificial, surrogate contest we have created to mirror the real-life struggles we all face, but it's just a game after all. We have to stop short of believing that somehow we win or we lose. We don't do either; our teams do. Similarly, when a great season shapes up and a particular city's Mighty Marauders or certain university's Fighting Woodchucks win a national championship and its citizens or students celebrate their victory and the community posts highway signs with pride for being the "home of the champions," it does not mean that that college or that community is somehow better in any way from their vanquished opponent's city or university, or that their supporters should be envied and admired more than the losing supporters. None of the above had anything to do with it, other than hoot and holler, and there's no glory in any of it, really.

Sports are just organized, artificial contests we set up to challenge our wits and test our mettle and cleverness against each other, war games which we have invented and nurtured to try to sharpen how we should deal with real struggles that do matter in our actual lives. Ideally they should teach us how we should best approach our own tasks and confront our obstacles, deal with gains and adversities, handle our own victories and defeats as we move toward our actual goals.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

President Who

What is that saying about it being better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt? That seems apt as the political season picks up steam and candidates attempt, or are forced, to speak their minds on every issue under the sun, more or less spontaneously. The debates and unrehearsed interviews interest me more by far than the planned speeches we hear later on, which are meticulously crafted by wily folks to bump up the polls. Candidates find themselves often speaking off the cuff, and that's when, to me, they are apt to let slip what they really think, under pressure of the moment.

So who looks good to me so far? Probably on the Democratic side, surprisingly, Hillary Clinton. I like the way she has come across as much more levelheaded, knowledgable, and sensible in fielding questions and dodging bullets than most of her male counterparts, and I find it refreshing that she isn't easily flustered or phony, not given to empty platitudes or sure-to-please slogans. She has stood by her record unapologetically and refused to resort to cosmetic backpedaling, even when it has cost her in the polls. I think she's head and shoulders better prepared for the office than the others, in experience, temperament, and character. And she has, again surprising to me, the ability to recognize her own foibles and even poke fun at them with us. That's something John F. Kennedy had, and we called it grace. Best of all, I think she understands the complexity of issues and people and sees the world realistically. I disagree with her basic liberal positions often, but respect her reasons to hold them. On the minus side, I don't believe she is the best public speaker running. She often comes across as strident and too full of herself, whining this and that at too high and pompous a timbre. Ted Kennedy couldn't avoid the same problem when he tried to run and couldn't avoid the solemn vapors when he got going good, and pretty soon here came the vibrato and tremulous thunders no one wanted. Hillary should learn from her husband's masterful soft delivery. The content carries its own weight, if it's good. It only gets weakened by getting louder and begins to sound like hysteria, the last thing she needs.

Barack O'Bama has been the most impressive candidate in convention speeches and as a spokesmen for liberal causes. He doesn't quite have the lyric poetry of a Jesse Jackson or the clever wit of an Al Sharpton, but he can be a stemwinder nonetheless. Where he breaks down is in his one-on-one interviews and unrehearsed question and answer sessions, because unfortunately he doesn't have good answers, and he's not yet knowledgeable enough or sure enough of his convictions to supply them. Further, I think his vision is somewhat limited to social issues he understands from his experience, and he doesn't understand enough of foreign policy or economics to be an effective President. He is, however, shrewd and astute as a fundraiser and effective organizer. I don't yet sense whether he's a good judge of human nature, but if he is, he could be an effective arm-twister in the mold of Lyndon Johnson in moving legislation forward as a vice-president.

John Edwards seems stronger right now than O'Bama to me, and better experienced for having run in '04. He's an effective speaker and champion of social liberalism, and labor especially should love him. He seems so passionately anti-big business, however, that I don't think he's electable in critical borderline states. His mission is to fight for fairness, for justice, and a break for the little guy, and he does that very well. But I don't think he has the gravitas or understanding to be a world leader. I like his refreshing honesty, keen sense of irony and quick wit though, and I'd like to know more about his positions on economic and world issues before I make up my mind about him.

Chris Dodd, Dennis Kucinic, and other democratic contenders are worth further attention as the debates heat up, all practised and experienced politicians, each with some impressive strengths but not front-runners at this point. However, I am reminded of what happened to the Kerry campaign early on, when he as a dark horse seemed on the point of collapse then won big in later primaries and pulled it out, almost taking the general election. It could happen again for one of these candidates, but it would take the right external events occuring that played to their strengths to give them a catapulting issue.

On the Republican side, I like Rudy Guiliani best right now. He might not get husband- or father-of-the-year honors or the Firemen's Hero award, but in terms of what a President needs, I think he's probably the best bet. He's a proven leader and pragmatic politician, not so full of himself that he's blinded to needs and realities, self-deprecating enough and even-tempered enough to run a steady ship of state despite criticism. I'm a little disappointed Michael Bloomberg is sitting this one out, though. I think he has an even better presidential character and judgement than Rudy.

I find John McCain to be the most honest and realistic candidate running, sticking by his convictions and statements regardless of popularity or unpopularity with any constituency and polls be damned, and most capable of understanding the complexities of the world and a brilliant student of human nature. Unfortunately, he is also the most thin-skinned and volatile, and perhaps the least politically effective candidate running in either party, I'm afraid. He isn't a good administrator, can't manage even his campaign finances, and is prone to self-destructive candor and offhand gaffes and attacks that can destroy his support from independents, conservatives, and liberals alike, his only hope of nomination as he seeks to build a center coalition. I would miss him, but I think he'll do a fast fade after disappointing early primaries this time around.

Mitt Romney is a candidate I'll have to learn more about before I'll be ready to pass judgement. I like some of the things he's said but wonder if he has thick enough, or slick enough, skin to stay compatible with the press or the critics, or would he become another Nixon, battling the fifth estate to the death--his. And I wonder if he has the political skills to build consensus for his vision, and for that matter, wonder what exactly his vision is. I see him right now as kind of a John Edwards of the G.O.P.--likely as a vice presidential pick but not having the character or convictions to garner the trust needed from enough segments of society to win the nomination or general election.

Fred Thompson entering the race this week, I think, will be interesting. I don't know a lot about his views and don't watch Law and Order, but I believe he is viewed as a Reagan Republican here to save the day. He will be embraced like no other candidate by the right wing conservatives, but I think their influence in the '08 race will be far less than it was in either of the past two elections. Silent majorities are silent for a reason: they prefer to remain in the background unless they perceive the country going to the dogs in a fit of hedonistic liberalism. I think even the most staunchly conservative of voters are prepared to shift more to the center this time around, after the scandals of corporate executive misdeeds, massive financial bailouts, badly bungled adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and several cycles of big oil profiteering at public expense. There is after all such a thing as excess, be it to the right or to the left, and we've all seen what can happen when it things tilt too far either way. Though I'm open to being convinced otherwise, I'm afraid Thompson's simply running at the wrong time of history.

What I look forward to most in the upcoming debates is revealing the candidate with the best grip on present realities as well as the best vision for the future. If I perceive that he (or she) has the character, skill, and experience to lead effectively as well, I'll certainly vote for that person regardless of party or gender. After all, despite my conservative leanings, I'm still a registered Independent.