Something Good To Feel Bad About

One of the beauties of sport is its ability to take our minds off of other things, big or little, from a bad war to bad hair. Last weekend, the death of Kobe Bryant had that effect. It drove other news off the front pages and brought much of the nation together to mourn for a guy who personified hard work, professional success, and the joy of family and fatherhood. 

For a few moments in time, it brought a feeling of unity back to the country.

Forgotten was war with Iran, climate change, the wealth gap, healthcare, race and other “isms”, the alienation of numerous allies, the coming election, and, yes, even the Impeachment of Donald What’s-His-Name.

Kobe Bryant’s death allowed us turn away from the politics of fear and anger toward a single, shared loss. The sadness we felt was pure, clean, untainted by the bitter, cultural divide that has split the country.  

But within hours, reality roared back to the front page. John Bolton brought a smoking gun to the Impeachment trial: his eye witness account of Trump’s attempt to coerce Ukraine’s President Zelenski into investigating Joe and Hunter Biden.  

Besides undercutting one of Trump’s key arguments, that all evidence against him was “hearsay”, it supported the obstruction charge: that his use of Executive Privilege to block subpoenas was akin to the Mafia threatening witnesses and his threats to destroy Republican politicians who didn’t defend him were equivalent to the Mafia threatening judges.

Argh, we seemed to feel! Can we please mourn in peace, at least for a day or two?

Maybe the purity of sport is only for weekends or special occasions. Sport has neat beginnings and ends, clear winners and losers. Sport heroes, although sometimes more complex than the sport itself (OK, except for Lou Gehrig or Joe Dimaggio), also offer clarity. Winning the World Series is good; cheating to do so is bad. 

Kobe Bryant’s life, even with its failures, gave us something good to feel bad about.

The form of government that spawned him (and our President), democracy, is messy, “the worst form of government …except all the others that have been tried”, as Winston Churchill famously noted.

Jill Lepore, a Harvard history professor, recently wrote a brilliant history of democracy in the US. These Truths underscores one ironic root of our democracy, the juxtaposition of Jefferson’s lofty  “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, with the fact that he and other signers also owned slaves.  

It is her contention that we have been struggling with that dichotomy ever since. 

The Constitutional Convention tried to ameliorate it with a compromise that assigned blacks 3/5ths the value of whites.  Eventually we fought a war over the issue, freeing those 3/5th Americans to do whatever they choose, like becoming basketball stars… or Presidents (well, legally).

Democracy can be messy like that. Take truth, for example.

What they call “the art” of politics is the ability to skip key facts that reveal truth, to obfuscate truth, or just change the subject and avoid truth altogether. These are legal lies. 

Legal lies are OK. Direct lies are not OK – or weren’t until recently. 

In recent decades, as the “non-art” of politics took over the country, public confidence in political leaders has dropped far below that of our sports heroes. For example, we now keep a running count of our current President’s lies (7688 as of December 2019).  

Maybe one reason for the drop in confidence is the way politicians react to dishonesty compared to how athletes and sports team owners react to it. After it was revealed that the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox stole signs from the Dodgers during the 2017 and 2018 World Series, a slew of managers and coaches were fired by the Astros and the Red Sox. Minimal discussion, maximum consequences. Why? Because the team owners want baseball fans to have faith in the integrity of the game.

Watching the Impeachment unfold is wearing on us. The depth of the rift that now divides the country is depressing. Knowing the outcome will do little to heal that rift is disheartening. 

Better to mourn the loss of a sports hero than the loss of faith in democracy.

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Two people walk into a bar…

It is Playoff Sunday. I am watching the Titans-Chiefs game with my sister. Around five pm, she decides two things: first, the two of us aren’t sufficiently animated to do justice to the game (we both want Coach Andy Reid to win as a payback for the Eagles firing him in 2012 for not winning a playoff game – the same year his son died), and second, we’re hungry. 

So we go to a restaurant where there is great food and, it turns out, plenty of very animated football fans, one in particular. 

We walk up to the bar and see two seats, but they’re not together; they are bracketing a trio of very big guys in front of a huge screen carrying the Titans – Chiefs game. 

My sister gives me a “Do something, Doofus!” look.

Being the macho guy I am, I gingerly ask the guy at the end – the smallest of the three, the one with grey hair, if they would mind moving down a seat because my sister wants to sit next to me.

Instead of growls and hisses, they smile and immediately move. We shake hands all around. The old guy’s grip is ‘Ouch!” strong. (Ok. I guess some old people need to do that.)

He has an infectious smile, “let her sit next to me. She’s way better looking.” 

I watch the game as he starts to charm my sister. (What a Bozo. No way is she going to deal with 70 year old guy).

The Chiefs score. I cheer. The old guy and his buddies cheer. 

Later, I hear the old guy telling my sister,  “90. I am 90 years old.” 

I do a double take. 

“Well preserved! That’s me!” That infectious smile again. My sister looks at me. 

“90?” I ask him.

“Yep. Divorced three times. And I have a 44 year old fiancee!” 

(Right. And I’m trying out for the Eagles next year.)

I look at his friend. He nods. “Absolutely true. I know her. She’s 44.”

“And” says the old guy, cupping his hands far in front of his chest, “well endowed! Who says 90’s too old!” 

The friend nods again. “I met Bill a few years ago. He was playing jazz piano in a nightclub. Really great”.

The old guy grabs his friend’s arm, “And Rob sings jazz. Specializes in Sinatra songs. Rob Patrick. Remember that name.” 

“Yeah. Bill backs me up sometimes. When I’m lucky.” 

Bill puts on a serious face, “I’ve been married three times. 7 kids. I hate them all”. A quick wink.

We laugh. My sister asks to see his license. He shows it to her. She looks at it in silence then shows it to me. It says he was born in 1929.

Now Bill is laughing like a kid. And I’m starting to believe the 44 year old fiancee story. 

He gives us his card. “William Y. Marcus, MD.” (He’s a doctor, too!?)

I look at the back of the card: “former surgeon, former gymnast, former jazz pianist, present bon vivant.”

I decide to steal that line someday.

The Chiefs win the game and we all cheer.  I talk to Rob. He looks about 35 to me. He tells me about working as an agent for ATF for 20 years and retiring a few years ago. He’s 58. 

(58! Do these guys take youth pills?)

The 49ers-Packers game starts. It’s a hard choice, because I like Aaron Rogers, but I go with San Francisco.

The third person is Rob’s son. He looks 26 years. And is!  

As the game goes on Bill Marcus, MD offers some nuggets:

“Most surgeons won’t admit it, but we make mistakes. I used to feel really guilty when I screwed up. But one day, I thought to myself, ‘I did my best. I’m not perfect’. After that I felt better.”

And, “It’s all about living well. Too many people try to outdo everyone else. That’s not living.”

And my favorite, “Remarrying is hope over experience.”

The 49ers win, setting me up for a really difficult two weeks trying to decide whom to root for in the Super Bowl.

Rob gives us a couple of his CD’s.

As we leave the bar, for a moment the cynic in each of us wonders about this 90 year old. Is he really 90? Is his fiancee really 44? Did he really go from surgeon to gymnast to jazz pianist to…?

“Who cares?”, we realize. “It’s hope over experience.”

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What’s A Little Assassination In The Big Picture?

WWII was really cool for the US. We helped rid the planet of some very bad actors.  We were heroes.

We won, not because we were smarter than the Nazis or Japanese; they were both very smart. Nor did we win because we had better weapons – at least until the end, when we had the A-Bomb. The Germans had better tanks, army, planes, (they were the first to use a jet in battle, for example), at least in the beginning. The Japanese soldiers had a better Navy and more highly trained troops in the beginning.

Most historians and military experts agree that we won WWII primarily because of our industry; we may not have had better weapons, but we produced more of them, and more of them, and more of them…

There was another factor, too: allies. We fought with allies like England, much of Europe, China, and others. We were key, but the allies – together – won the war.  

One other factor: leadership. The US took two years to get into the war. Why? Because, we’d done our bit to help Europe in WWI and twenty-one years later, in 1939, the country simply didn’t want to do it again. Franklin Roosevelt knew better than to impulsively pushing a war the population didn’t support. Instead he spent two years readying the country psychologically and industrially for a war he knew was inevitable. And when it arrived at Pearl Harbor in 1941, while not completely ready, we were a lot better prepared than we had been in 1939. That’s good leadership.

WWII is pretty much the last time this country got into a war it really needed to fight. I say “pretty much” because you can argue the Korea War wasn’t a “war”; it was a “police action”, but very necessary to save South Korea. The Viet Nam War was actually defined by Congress as a “military engagement”, one step below “war”. You can argue that it, too, was necessary, but would probably lose. 

Those are just two of many military actions over the last 75 years – some necessary, most not, in which much time and treasure – human and financial – has been spent trying to recreate the glory war of WWII.

The most recent was a few days ago, when Trump ordered the assassination of another country’s general. 

It’s important to note, General Qassim Suleimaniwasn’t part of some religious cult, like Bin Laden or al-Baghdadi. He was a general of a sovereign nation.  Assassinating a leader of a sovereign nation is considered an act of war by most countries, including – and especially – Iran. We’re now at war with Iran. 

Keeping in mind it’s a different time, let’s compare this new war to just these few aspects of the glory war.

Industry: Roosevelt had spent two years preparing our industry for war. Our current industrial capability, already far below China’s, has been shrinking for the last year. 

Allies: China is not an ally. Britain still is, but France and the rest of Europe aren’t the fans they once were. The Middle East… I can’t think of a single fan there, except possibly Saudi Arabia, but then, we’ve sort of let their assassination of a US reporter slide, so they kind of owe us. Iraq would like us out, but still needs our military, so they just burn our flags. I guess Canada would stick by us against Iran, maybe. Mexico? A weaker “maybe”. The ally pool has also shrunk.

Leadership: 13000 lies and counting by Trump. Even his fans admit he and the truth aren’t exactly bedroom buddies, something his extra curricular bedroom buddies can loudly attest to.  I wonder if anyone is counting the insults he’s aimed at our allies. In terms of preparing the country for war, he doesn’t do fireside chats so much as set fires with his twitter chit-chat. The country is as divided now as it was in Civil War times. Trump is not Roosevelt.

War: Trump justified the assassination by telling the world it was a “targeted killing” as opposed to an “assassination”. Why? Because a loophole in US law allows a “targeted killing”, but not an “assassination”.   

Bottom line: no matter what words he uses, Iran considers it an act of war, and Trump cannot turn that around with one of his fantasy-land denials.

So, with few loyal allies left, a country trillions in debt from 19 years of existing war, a shrinking industrial base, and a population sick of war and constant political conflict, what’s a little assassination in the big picture?

Stupid.

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