Author Archives: jonathan
THE END IS CLEAR
All competitive sports are, well…. competitive, requiring considerable athletic talent, exceptional displays of specific skills. Still, as any fan knows, at the professional level, some plays are so elementary and routine that: 1. Only on the rarest of occasions are they misplayed, and 2. As a consequence, the outcome is usually predictable. Consider the following situations.
Hockey – The goalie has been pulled. There is an open net. An opposing player gains control of the puck, crosses the blue line and slides the puck through the goal mouth. Easy score.
Basketball – There are no guarantees, but rarely will a player miss an uncontested layup. Same is true of a dunk. With one hand or two, the player usually succeeds in slamming it through the hoop. Also, the odds of someone scoring on a shot from the outside increases measurably when that player is unguarded.
Tennis – Overheads, especially when attempted near the net, are practically “gimmies”. The better pros rarely, if ever, miss. Also, double faults happen infrequently. Of course, they have two shots at getting the serve in.
Football – Everyone knows that the extra point is virtually automatic. So much so that the NFL may decide to introduce some uncertainty into the “point after” try. Speedy backs who get past the secondary rarely are caught. Expect them to continue on into the end zone. No guarantees here, but similar to basketball, a quarterback, if unobstructed, and given time, will complete a very high percentage of his passes.
Baseball – Unless there’s a gale wind howling, infield pop-ups and lazy fly balls to the outfield will be caught almost every time. Unless it collides with a pebble, slow grounders hit right at infielders become “outs” on a regular bases. And how many times does a pitcher who runs the count to 3-0 throw a strike on the 4th pitch? Quite often.
All sporting contests will feature spectacular plays that defy expectations. Such instances are truly memorable; and a major reason why we watch games. Far more common, however, are those instances in which there are no surprises, where execution is almost automatic. The seasoned fan recognizes this, having witnessed these same plays time and again.
The current strain in relations notwithstanding, the United States and Israel have long been closely aligned, kindred spirits in many ways, the result of mutual interests, and, most unexpectedly, similar historical narratives. These alone cannot account for this strong attachment (which surely results from U.S. security interests in the Middle East and the influential voices of Jewish Americans), but they help explain the unusually close bonds that exist.
Some of these connections are easily understood (both, e.g., are democratic societies and speak the same language), but many have gone unnoticed, become clear only when we revisit the past. Such an account predates the formation of the United States and of Israel. There existed a common understanding among both peoples that their fate rested in the hands of God. To Jews the creation of their own nation in the “Holy Land” represented the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise to their ancestors, those anointed emissaries of His will on earth, as enshrined in their Holy Scripture. To Americans early migrations across the Atlantic also meant the unfolding of a Divine Plan to make the U.S. God’s Country, its citizens His “Chosen People.” Providential destiny thus serves as the ideological underpinning of both nations.
Both states emerged out of the crucible of war, each forced to defend itself against powerful adversaries. Who imagined the colonists would prevail over England, then the mightiest military power on earth or that Israel would emerge victorious, even though assailed on every side by the combined armies of neighboring nations. Success in the Revolutionary War, Americans explained, was a consequence of their hardiness and vigor, combined with toughness acquired in the struggle for survival in the New World environment. Jews explained their triumph in the War of 1948 in similar terms. They, too, had been transformed, had, after many challenging years in Palestine, become a resilient, self-confident and energetic people, fully capable of defending themselves. (Note that in both instances ousting the British paved the way toward independence.) Also observe the role that foreign assistance played. Without aid from France the American cause would have foundered. Likewise, Israel prevailed in part because U.S. citizens went there to fight, while other American Jews organized supply chains channeling much needed material and weapons to Israel. Continue reading
HAVING A GOOD DAY
Wherever you go, most service providers are likely, whatever the day, to leave you with “have a good day,” or even a “terrific” one. It’s all very nice, even uplifting, but what are the odds that they are prophetic and it’s going to happen? Most days are at best “okay” or “decent,” so wishing you a “wonderful” one is likely to be a disconnect with reality. Still, there are days that, however unspectacular and devoid of notable “highs,” are nevertheless quite satisfying. Allow me to offer a personal example.
Here’s what I did on a recent Saturday. I did not oversleep and thus could look forward to a full day ahead. It was a bright, sunny morning of moderate temperature – all to the good. Had a hearty breakfast that included home baked cookies that a friend had provided.
My car inspection, I’d just discovered, was overdue, so I called my garage guy who invited me to come right over. I enjoy spending time with him – a salt of the earth solid citizen. Our chat, though pleasant, was brief. The inspection, to my surprise, was over in no time.
I headed over to the dry cleaner and picked up some shirts. Then drove to the drugstore for a prescription. The gas gauge was low so I pulled in to an Exxon-Mobil station to fill up. Not that long ago a gallon cost about $4. Now it was $3.30. So by pumping 14 gallons I enjoyed a “savings” of about $10. Then it was off to CVS for a few items (on “special” that day).
Back home I checked the mail. No bills! (Not even that red light camera violation that I was expecting.) I changed into my gym shorts and on to the treadmill. Thirty minutes later I stepped off, feeling great, sweating mightily. It was my daughter and her husband’s anniversary, so a call to the florist soon sent flowers and a plant speeding their way. A package arrived at our door, a gift of fruit from friends for whom we’d recently done a favor.
It was time to get to the New York Times. Read most sections (excepting Real Estate and Style) and afterward felt exceptionally well informed. Watched a football game until my team fell hopelessly behind, then found solace in taking a pleasant walk with my wife. Called a friend and set up time for tennis on Sunday. Watched the World Series and at the same time managed to write this piece.
Was this the kind of “great” or “terrific” day so many had wished for me? Probably not, but it felt good just doing ordinary things. It was a day well spent.
CURATING YOUR LIFE
We’re often accused of being a wasteful throwaway society, continually disposing ever increasing amounts of stuff. That, of course, is true, but not so when it comes to personal belongings and memorabilia (note the extraordinary growth of storage facilities). In part that’s because almost 70% of us live in houses where basements, attics, garages serve as convenient resting spaces for collections of cartons and assorted boxes which, for years, can remain undisturbed and largely forgotten.
But there comes a time when we finally decide to address the matter, sort through it all, a job, if you’ve already attempted it, you know to be both challenging, emotionally intense, one filled with surprises, but also on occasion with sadness. There is an uneasy finality to this process. It may come as part of an overall cleanup and decluttering, or a pending sale of your home. It may result from the need for additional room, or occur in our later years when thoughts turn to a consideration of the broader contours of our lives. Wading through personal belongings and papers will likely be a melancholy journey triggering memories of times gone by and provide numerous entry points into our past.
What is worth passing on to the next generation and what is not? What would they likely retain? What is it that you wish the children and grandchildren to know and remember about you? Your legacy is here in your hands to shape as you see fit. If left to them you worry that much may simply be discarded, that a wholesale purge of your past may occur.
So after many excuses and endless delays the time finally arrives: you decide to take the plunge, to turn back the hands of time and recover those items that define the paths you’ve taken over the years. Digging in I discover my hospital birth registration, schedule of vaccinations and monthly weights, along with some primitive artwork. Also, an essay or two written in elementary school, my report cards, graduation diploma (from the sixth grade) and memory book (signed by fellow students long past recall). I see I didn’t always get the highest grades, nor was my deportment consistently acceptable. Here is a class picture. (I should have written down all the names on the back.) There are some birthday cards (kept by my mother I imagine). Sheet music when I played the piano and assorted commendations, together with projects completed in school (viz, a candle, and a tie rack). In high school I was a “big man,” captain of the tennis team. Clippings from the school newspaper recorded our triumphs and included pictures of me on the court. There is the “letter” I received for playing, along with my varsity sweater (which I wore ever so proudly).
Then there are the picture albums (the yellowing pages betraying their age). My father took these very seriously, filling one after another with family photos, carefully and completely captioning each picture (otherwise I’d have little idea as to the identity of many of those posing with me). What to do with all these weighty albums? People today don’t compile such things any more, store most of their pictures on the computer or smart phone. But they just can’t be tossed aside. If I did it would be tantamount to erasing much of my childhood. Very few people, after all, remain who can speak to those times.
My college years are also represented, and includes the freshman cap I was obliged to wear, grade transcripts, one or two term papers (not nearly as embarrassing as I imagined they’d be), ticket stubs to football games, and my first year college bill (about $2000 if you can imagine that). Also, my varsity “letter” sweater (squash) and quite a few letters I wrote home from school, which my father saved (“Everybody was fine,” “Courses going well,” along with weather reports!). My laminated diploma lay in the box along with the graduation day program.
That was just one carton! There were others but there’s no point in continuing to catalog their contents. Suffice it to say, a superficial survey revealed that they contained the predictable, tokens of an active life, and yes many photo albums devoted mostly to pictures taken on our various vacation trips.
Remember, just as I was rummaging through my extensive “holdings” my wife was similarly engaged, plunging into her own abundant collections.
So, to date, what has been accomplished? An inescapable task, long delayed, had at last gotten underway. Years traversed; memories rekindled. Life has left a well-marked trail for us to review and consider. But this critical undertaking is far from completed. Duplicates have been discarded, minor stuff tossed aside, especially that which has degraded, is no longer salvageable. But many of the hard decisions, having been deferred, still lie ahead. What, after all is “worth” retaining? What do you wish others to see and value? Snap judgments are not in order here. It will require further examination, careful evaluation. I’ve not, however, scheduled Round Two.
GOING TO EXTREMES
Extremists receive considerable attention these days, the fringe frequently overshadowing the middle. Isis, which proclaims the restoration of the Caliphate while gobbling up large swaths of territory certainly does. Same with climate change deniers who reject overwhelming evidence that human activity is producing unsustainable global warming. Proponents of economic austerity receive a respectable hearing as they argue that recovery and growth can only be achieved by draconian budget and deficit reductions. Strong Libertarians who insist upon a sharply reduced role for government are highly visible as are extreme anti-government elements who’ve labelled the National government, the “enemy”. Pro gun activists are widely quoted in opposition to most every government regulation of weapons and in favor of arming nearly all citizens. Anti-abortion zealots have a platform from which to urge conferring “personhood” upon fetuses and banning nearly all abortions.
While the views of Americans tend on most issues to cluster in the middle, extremists often capture the headlines, their beliefs accepted as legitimate entries into the public conversation. The media is partially responsible for this. It thrives on controversy and thus welcomes strident voices that challenge majority opinion. For example, when most all climate scientists believe global warming represents a real threat, many question why media discussions often include climate change skeptics. When a standoff occurred between a Nevada rancher and federal officials over grazing rights, reporters rushed to the scene and remained there in order to record the threatening actions of his armed anti-government backers..
Extremists are easily identified, can be classified with relative ease. Moreover, their messages often are simple – “no gun regulation”, “no abortion“, “end the debt”. Those occupying the center of public discussions ordinarily assume positions more nuanced more amenable to compromise. And extremists are anything, if not bold – establish the Caliphate – government is the enemy – the embryo is a person – guns for all. And uncompromising. Strong gun advocates are prepared to challenge any and all efforts to restrict firearms possession. Isis will execute anyone who does not adhere to their articles of faith.
While the general public rejects extremists and their messaging, still there may be a grudging and unspoken respect for these groups. After all, in an era of political apathy and widespread passivity these people have defied the existing order, have spoken out, often stridently, and taken a stand , rejected compromise. Because many of the issues are complex and not easily resolved, simple solutions, already noted, are welcome. While many confess to powerlessness, the activism, dedication and organizational skills of extremists can seem impressive.
But the middle must hold. Men and women of good will, relying on solid information, speaking out with confidence and clarity, people who acknowledge the diversity of interests in play and are willing to accept less than perfect legislation must lead the conversation and determine the outcome.
Every country expects its historians to construct a national narrative casting it in a light most favorable A nationalistic, patriotic story is needed, it is believed, to instill unity, loyalty and pride and to provide a credible historical basis for the prevailing structures of authority.
For a long time the United States conformed to this tradition of celebrating the past. American history as presented in our standard textbooks whether in high school or college offered an upbeat story about the glorious American Experiment that emphasized the growth of freedom and the spread of Democracy, the expansion out West, the rise of industry, the emergence of an enterprising urban middle class, the advance of universal education and the rise to prominence of the U.S. on the world stage. Authors supported the idea of “American Exceptionalism”, suggesting that our society was distinctive, even superior to those established elsewhere.
But the landscape began to change. Particular events may help explain what happened. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy caused some to ask whether we had long been a violent society. Our involvement in Vietnam and our support of dictatorships overseas led to questions about the motives behind American actions abroad. The Civil Rights movement prompted many Americans to revisit the tortured history of our race relations while the widespread protests against the war in Vietnam brought to light our experience with popular political movements. In sum, contemporary events were encouraging a more thorough and searching investigation of our past.
Meanwhile, many professional historians began to alter their approach. They insisted that instead of writing history from the perspective of those in authority (“top down”) who possessed the power, influence and social standing , it was time to reverse course and tell the stories of those occupying the lower rungs of society. It became known as history “from the bottom up.” It was a challenge to produce such a narrative because many of the protagonists were “inarticulate”, rarely left extensive written documents, but it presented a vast new field for exploration. After all, toward the bottom of the social heap were immigrants, slum dwellers, workers, farmers, African Americans, Native Americans and lots of women and children. Moreover, the standard triumphalist history usually did not apply, for here were people struggling, often exploited, frequently discriminated against and denied the “American Dream”.
This approach was presented most forcefully and persuasively in Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United states (1980)”. He began by challenging the hero worship surrounding Christopher Columbus (who, he wrote, was responsible for “conquest, slavery and death”) and kept up this unorthodox, unflattering assessment of America’s past throughout his work. Most professional historians attacked him for his “tortured reasoning” and for producing a “deranged fairy tale” and an”absolutely atrocious agit-prop”. But students at both the high school and college levels were enthusiastic as were legions of adult readers. Zinn had violated existing taboos and included a cast of characters rarely if ever recognized in such works and also punctured the notion of American benevolence and exceptionalism. And “People’s History” became a runaway best seller with sales that continue to increase and whose influence easily exceeded that of any other textbook in American History.
As a consequence American history has become a keenly contested battleground. Conservatives have fought back on many a school board and curriculum committee across the country. They have insisted that the approach taken by Zinn and others be kept out of the classroom. Students ought not, in their view be exposed to a one-sided, distorted “radical” tale of grievance and conflict, an account that promotes skepticism of established authority, casts doubt about our adherence to America’s professed values, and views capitalism at times as a destructive, inhumane system. History, they insist, is best employed to promote loyalty and patriotism, to encourage unity, not fragmentation, to support those who govern and not cater to mindless “nay-sayers” who seek to tear down, not build up.
So, who is right? Those who sugarcoat our history, or writers who’ve brought to light the less savory aspects of our past. The answer, of course, is to let the chips fall where they may. America’s story is grand enough, unique and successful enough to stand on its own. We have achieved much and have long been a magnet for people across the world. Along the way, however, there has been destruction, exploitation, political corruption, failure and the deliberate exclusion of substantial segments of the population. So, is the glass half empty or half full? If you’re thirsty, half full is unacceptable. If not, the water level is no problem.
Dare we utter an unkind word about the countryside? Long celebrated as an oasis of tranquility, beauty and simplicity, why cast a critical eye in that direction? How does one question lush meadows, inviting shady woods, bubbling brooks, fields of haystacks, stately barns, cows grazing lazily along rolling hills? Add to that, spectacularly adorned butterflies, the aroma of freshly cut grass, birds chirping happily, puffy cumulus clouds, sparkling night skies, roadside flowers of bewildering variety and the inevitable swinging screen door. Such are the bucolic delights that adorn many a calendar page and folk art canvass. Concentrated in our cities and in our increasingly congested suburbs, the country represents a welcome get away – simpler and wholesome, more natural and beautiful.
But there are dissenting views that suggest that close up the country is not without blemish or menace. Approach those contented cows, and you discover that each is a magnet for clouds of bothersome flies. Only by continually flicking their tails are they able to gain temporary respite. Exit the screen door and be prepared to defend yourself against an array of aggressive insects; best not to offend or provoke a passing bee, wasp or hornet. Bathe yourself in repellent if you need to, but don’t expect to escape the inevitable bites and persistent itching compliments of opportunistic mosquitoes.
Take a walk along a delightful country path, but don’t imagine you are alone since you may soon be attacked by squadrons of bugs. Most disconcerting are the gnats and flies which, seemingly possessed, target your eyes and ears. Swatting them aside is fruitless. Impossible to discourage, they are relentless. Should you at this point decide upon a swim, other assailants await. You may soon be defending yourself against ferocious horseflies which circle overhead menacingly before landing to deliver a bite decidedly sharp and painful. Submerging brings but a brief reprieve. Resurface and you’re once again targeted.
Finally, consider the fact that the country presents best in the late spring, summer and early fall. At other times, especially in winter, its attractions diminish and it becomes noticeably drab, uninviting and fallow. Fallen trees are exposed, as are myriads of decaying leaves. Fields are bare, birds migrate, animals retreat and rural folk keep mostly to themselves.
No one reading this will, as a consequence, forsake the countryside. But they’d best be on their guard and recognize that an honest reckoning should include its annoyances, along with its enduring delights.
Fans and students of baseball are ever eager to explain what they most enjoy about the game. Some point to tension-packed pitching duels or explosive slugfests; others savor exquisitely choreographed double plays, perfectly executed squeeze bunts or simply the leisurely passage of sun-drenched afternoon games. There’s much to choose from. Yet few, if any, are likely to mention, though they are certainly not unaware of just how visually riveting the game can be. Ironically these moments are best experienced while watching a game on a television screen (which is immediately reinforced by continuous replays), especially when cameras capture close-up action with an intimacy stadium spectators rarely experience.
While almost any play can result in a compelling stop action visual, there’s an abundance of readily recognizable favorites. Observe the picture taken from center field of the scene at home plate just as a ball is delivered. Featured here is a partially erect hitter, awaiting the pitch, a faceless catcher in squatting position, his outstretched mitt a target for the pitcher and an umpire also obscured by face mask, leaning as far forward as he dares in order to pass judgment on the incoming delivery. Frozen for an instant, this sculpture-like arrangement stands perhaps as the sport’s most iconic image.
The ball may then be struck and sent sailing toward the bleachers, prompting the outfielder to race to where he hopes it will descend. But before it carries over the wall, he leaps, glove fully extended, in an effort to prevent a home run. This thrilling instant, when ball and fielder arrive simultaneously, produces one of baseball’s classic snapshots.
Collisions, not central features of the game, nevertheless consistently supply us with memorable game portraits. We can expect one when a base runner heading home prepares to maul the catcher, dislodge the ball and grab for the plate. This results in an eye-catching image of baseball at its most physically confrontational. Quite different are the furious exchanges that erupt between managers and umpires which, though highly stylized, appear headed toward a violent conclusion. The scene opens with the manager storming out of the dugout and rushing toward the offending umpire. Heated discussion quickly escalates into a fierce shouting match. Such scenes offer us a dramatic close-up of the two combatants, heads but inches apart, screaming directly at each other, a picture of verbal fireworks no other sport can match.
Finally, we note how changes in the way baseball is played have yielded striking game action pictures. Outfielders have become more athletic than ever. Watch as they race toward the ball, then, in full stride, leave their feet and in flight parallel to the turf, make the catch and eventually skid to a stop. Such spectacular maneuvers have been captured and shown repeatedly for TV viewers. As so has the recently perfected technique that many shortstops employ on a ball hit deep into the hole. Snaring it, and with their backs to first base, they leap high into the air, twist their bodies and at the same time snap a throw to first base. It doesn’t always arrive on time, but capturing baseball’s most balletic moves have assured its standing as a visual staple of the game.
As each season begins, fans prepare to get behind their favorites and, at the same time, look forward to those treasured visual highlights that engage their imaginations and affirm their affection for the game.
Upon meeting someone, how often do people begin with, “What’s new?” (a phrase unapologetically American given our pre-occupation with what is current, fashionable or “the next big thing”.) Not intended is an in-depth inquiry, it represents standard verbal boilerplate that precedes more substantive conversation. In fact, few people actually address this question and instead simply respond with “same old same old.”
My problem is that in such instances I’m often too literal minded. In response to “What’s new? “, I somehow feel obligated to reply as if it were a serious query. And I have but a split second in which to react. How many of you could meet such a challenge? But I usually try, summoning whatever I can from my memory bank – family matters, friends, vacation, travel, illness, movies. Somewhere there must be something worth mentioning. If one of my daughters has just given birth, that’s fine. If I’ve recently returned from a trip – easy enough. Even a pronouncement such as “the world’s coming to an end” can suffice.
People often seem surprised that I actually attempt to answer what they regard as nothing more than a throwaway line. And having expected the conversation to move on they may not have even paid attention.
So I’m seriously considering a change of strategy, opting for the easy way out. “How you feeling?” – “Fine.” “What’s up?” – “Not much.”
DRIVING AND DRINKING IN THE GAME
For numerous members of the male species there are few more undiluted delights than driving along and listening to a ballgame on the car radio. Better by far than tuning in at home there encountering the inevitable distractions likely to diminish the pleasure, mostly in the form of pointed reminders about more productive tasks awaiting your attention. Listening in a car carries few such burdens and entails far less guilt. After all just by driving, you’re being productive. And positioned in the driver’s seat you’re also entitled, by custom and proximity, to your own programming preferences.
What is it that makes taking in a game on a car radio so thoroughly pleasurable? Surely it must have something to do with being able to concentrate and devote your full attention to the play-by-play. At home that is not always possible. There to deflect guilt you’re likely, during the course of a game, to squeeze in an occasional chore or two, like clearing the dishes, straightening up or disposing of the garbage. In the car no such evidence of domestic responsibility need be displayed. Nor are you obligated to pay much attention to or converse with anyone — your principal task is to concentrate on the road. But with driving largely automatic you’re essentially left free to soak up and revel in descriptions of the game and imaginatively enter onto the field of play and into the action.
But let’s not ignore certain problems. Who has not suffered through the intermittent interference in reception that disrupts accounts of the game? Drive through a tunnel and expect the sound virtually to disappear. Approach a stretch of overhead power lines and brace yourself for a barrage of headache-inducing static. These interruptions, if brief, may be tolerable, if prolonged can represent hateful intrusions. And expect, as countless drivers have confirmed, the sound to fracture or fail during crucial moments of a game.
Driving, you must also remember, may take you some distance from your original point of departure. And, as is well understood, radio signals will vary in strength and clarity as you tool along an ever-changing and irregular landscape. Expect therefore the sound to fade in and out and occasionally disappear. It may even, toward the end of a lengthy trip, be replaced entirely by signals from a neighboring station on the radio dial. Sad indeed is the sight of a driver attempting to decipher the occasional and barely intelligible garble of what was once clearly audible play-by-play coverage as the car passes totally out of station range. (Prompting some sport fans especially when driving alone or with other male companions to pull off the road in order to hear a critical portion of the contest before the signal totally disappears.)
Finally, and at times regrettably, the trip ends. But what of the game? If still in progress and the outcome in doubt the problem becomes one of transition, (after, that is, remaining in the car as long as possible before exiting — including sending passengers ahead with the assurance you will soon catch up with them.) The challenge is how to get from the car to your destination and quickly locate a radio or TV there so as to keep abreast of developments, most especially the outcome. But as this discussion is about cars, we need not pursue the matter beyond this point. Be assured, though, such folks will not lose sight of their priorities and will somehow see to it that they miss out on very little of the action.