It’s hard to find language to describe the moment in which one of the most remarkable athletes of the modern era was penalized for code violations during the final match of the US Open Tennis Tournament.  The sequence of events that led to Naomi Osaka’s controversial victory revealed a great deal about the autonomy with which a chair umpire manages play in tournaments at the highest level, autonomy which allowed the decisions made by umpire Carlos Ramos to overshadow virtually all play during the tournament, certainly overshadowing Osaka’s victory and Serena Williams’ return to the finals of an US Open.

In the weeks following the Open, Ramos was vilified and congratulated, Williams was vilified and embraced, and Osaka, once again, overshadowed.  Partisan cultural responses were emphatic as the event was characterized as feminist implosion or sexist/racist injustice.  Billie Jean King, whose career is testimony to the difficulties facing female athletes, wrote in the Washington Post:

“The ceiling that women of color face on their path to leadership never felt more impenetrable than it did at the women’s U.S. Open final on Saturday. Ironic, perhaps, that the roof of Arthur Ashe Stadium was closed for the championship match. What was supposed to be a memorable moment for tennis, with Serena Williams, perhaps the greatest player of all time, facing off against Naomi Osaka, the future of our sport, turned into another example of people in positions of power abusing that power. ”

The issues for tennis, for sport and for society are profound and profoundly affected by the reality of injustice stretching centuries behind a tennis match in September, but I’m meant to be writing about sports, so I’ll approach the conversation by reminding readers that much of the idiocy in the sporting world has to do with our schizophrenic view of athletic competition.  On one hand, we believe that sports inspire virtue – dignity, humility, generosity, selflessness, resilience, courage, craft, and skill.  On the other, we have created a professional class of gladiators whose only purpose is to beat other gladiators.  Amateurs are not expected to humiliate opponents; professionals are not supposed to display personalized emotion.  Let’s call them warriors rather than gladiators for the moment, recognizing that it is only football and boxing that invite athletes to dare brain injury as the last reward for their service.

So, warriors, and warriors don’t mess around when it comes to competition.  We pay them to entertain us, and a certain amount of heated emotion often adds some spice to our enjoyment of the spectacle.  Bench clearing brawls, fistfights on the sideline , smack downs under the basket – all good fun.  OK, less fun when women are involved.  OK, not fun in those sports that are not deemed warrior sports but which pay like warrior sports.

Manny Machado throws his bat, charges  the mound, slices up Dustin Pedroia sliding into second.  He gets fined, pitchers throw at his head and knees and America’s pastime, “a game so fine it’s played on diamonds”, enjoys yet another classic summer.  Phil Mickelson stops a ball from rolling off the green and, in the words of Brett Cygalis reporting in the New York Post,:

“Phil Mickelson executed one of the most shocking breaches of the rules and etiquette in recent major-championship history, and the fallout from it is hardly over. That includes for Mickelson’s reputation as well as that of the USGA.”  The article is entitled “Phil Mickelson’s defiant defense of his shocking rule breach.”

See, slightly crazy.

Phil’s a good golfer; Serena is the greatest female tennis player in the history of the sport, and at thirty-six years old and a recent mother fighting to win every match she enters while continuing to represent female athletes, and mothers, and women, and women of color.  She is a warrior, and in the last set of a highly significant match that was not going her way, an umpire decreed that she had been cheating by being on the court when her coach made a hand signal to approach the net in playing Osaka.  Williams’ “implosion” was no more dramatic than Mickelson’s, but it was personal.  Apparently that’s an even bigger deal than throwing a ball at a batter’s face, certainly bigger than Mickelson’s shocking rule breach.

We have seen anger in sports and frustration.  I can’t think of another example, however, of the kind of confrontation we saw at Forest Hills.  The greatest athlete in her sport, a woman who had beaten the odds in becoming the greatest in her sport, refused to be called a cheat in the middle of a match in which she had not gained traction.  Serena is an emotional player and one who uses emotion to stoke her game; she had plenty of fuel before Ramos made the decision that she had been cheating  and that he needed to call her on it.  There was racquet smashing as there has been in many, many matches, but the significant difference between this moment and any other in the history of televised sport was that we saw both the human being and the champion in the same moment.

A major title was in play, but for Serena, it was her character that was at stake.  Her first responses to Ramos were not confrontational; they were plainspoken and courteous.  The most influential female athlete in the world did not pout or flounce or kick dust; she told the judge that she doesn’t cheat.  He didn’t care.  We saw Serena unable to return to play until the question of character had been addressed.  It wasn’t.

Every athlete has her day; that was Osaka’s.  She played well, better than Serena had played up to that point.  Tennis fans can appreciate a hard-won victory over a favorite, but we witnessed a man in a chair taking a game from a champion.  It was ugly.  Both Williams and Osaka were humiliated.  The fans were cheated.  Later Williams was fined for her behavior and Ramos was endorsed by the USTA.  Roger Federer who was not humiliated reminded us that, “… they have their job to do and that’s what we want them to do.”





TV Dads

TV Dads

“Ward, I’m worried about the Beaver.”

That’s all it took to kick world-class TV dad Ward Cleaver into gear.

Let’s say that Beaver and his brother Wally order a baby alligator through the mail and keep it in the bathroom sink until it grows too large and is transferred to the toilet tank, an unsatisfactory home, and so is transferred again to the laundry tub in the basement, where it is discovered by the Cleaver’s  laundress (I know).  All is revealed, the mystery of stolen eggs solved, but Ward has to break it to the boys that Captain Jack (the alligator) belongs with his own kind.  The boys protest; they love Captain Jack.  Their love may be mixed with some slight entrepreneurial impulse as they have charged their friends to see the alligator, but let that pass.  In any case, it is up to Ward to have explain the facts of life as they extend to alligator adoption.

Does he slam down his fist and scream, “You put a filthy reptile in my laundry”?  No, he calmly explains that alligators grow and need to have the freedom to move as alligators should.  He goes on, “Take you fellas, for instance.  Now, some day, you’re going to grow up and go off and leave your mother and me.  You’ll get married and have a home and family of your own.”

Beaver is seven and responds, “Captain Jack’s gonna get married?”  At which point, dads I know might stumble.  Not Ward; he sets a reasonable boundary, supports the kids as they turn Captain Jack over to the local alligator ranch (I know), and surprises them with a puppy

The TV dads of my generation always knew the right thing to say and the  right way to say it.  Later on, when my own kids came along, TV dads became figures of fun, beginning with Archie Bunker, lumping along to Homer Simpson, Al Bundy, and eventually Frank Gallagher, and Frank Reynolds, dads who made Fred Flintstone seem enlightened.  My TV dads, Ward, Ozzie Nelson, Mike Brady, Danny Thomas, Andy Taylor, Dr. Alex Stone, did for me what humans in what we call the real world could not.

The shows I watched were situation comedies, and the situations which allowed comic resolution often involved kids messing up in some fashion then making that mess dramatically messier by inventing elaborate schemes to prevent parents from discovering what was clearly going to be a mess in plain sight.  One of the lessons I suppose I could have taken from the genre, that lying makes everything so, so much worse, was apparently too tough to swallow.  What did stick was an appreciation of measured, calm response to crises engineered by the unpredictable vagaries of kid brain.

We know more about the brain than we did when mine was sputtering most disturbingly; apparently, brains have differing sorts of competencies at differing ages.  I’d like to say, not better, not worse, as the vivid imagination of childhood is pretty much extinguished by the teen years in my experience, but I am aware that judgment, which is to say, good judgment, doesn’t really kick in until much later than we might expect, in my case at age fifty.  I may have been judgmentally delayed, but let that pass as well.

In any case, and the word case is appropriate because this distinction has been significant in the sentencing of teens who have committed major crimes, I am assured that the betraying brain (not a scientific term) just doesn’t have the equipment to inhibit impulses, even really unfortunate impulses.

This is not good in most instances, but was great fodder for the situation comedies I knew so well.  To be clear, even when skipping school or reading a sister’s diary, the youngsters on my screen were far more responsible and reasonable than I and my footloose cohort.  Adopting an alligator is dicey; dropping a wastebasket on fire from a window, on a teacher?  Hardly the stuff of conversation at the Cleaver household.

All of which is to say that I was impulse deformed for years and very much in need of counsel and correction.  From what I saw on TV, there was room in the world for kids who messed up.  A lot.  I didn’t make much use of the advice so kindly offered by Andy Taylor or Mike Brady, not at the time.  Much later, as a father, I found myself calling on the examples of fatherhood I had admired.  They were virtually faultless; l I still messed up, even as a dad, but there were moments of grace in which I actually listened and found words that did no harm.

A crusty curmudgeonly tv dad, Herbert Gillis, grocer father of endlessly besotted romantic Dobie Gillis may have offered the best advice of all:

“Once you bargain with the devil you are in trouble.  Oh, you can twist and squirm, but you can’t get off the hook.”

Wish I’d listened.















There’s sarcasm and then there’s ….

There’s sarcasm and then there’s ….

I would rather eat flypaper than get into it online or in the twitterverse, but my wife’s profession demands that she stay current with issues in the local community, and so, she inevitably comes up against surprisingly rabidly held differences of opinion.  A recent post in response to a well-meaning piece of advice (she reads me the good ones) uses the phrase “in a perfect world” with venom and sarcasm dripping in equal measure each time she uses the phrase, and she uses it in every sentence.  In a perfect world, the writer intimates, the suggested idea might be of value; in our world, no blinking way. With each repetition, however, the sarcasm increases in intensity, aggressively crossing a line somewhere around the fifth or sixth iteration. However obliquely crafted, this is an attack on the person offering a suggestion. It is not uncommon to find a writer in opposition to an idea, but why angry?  If angry, why sarcastic rather than directly confrontational?

Sarcasm interests me because it allows both injury and deflection: ” I never called you a drooling idiot.  I just suggested that there does not exist a universe in which your pathetic inanity might be remotely worth considering.   Have a nice day.”

Of course, there’s a lot of sarcasm out there, most of which is simply part of contemporary habits of language.  Some studies have found that sarcasm is almost a second language, occurring in about twenty percent of conversations, hardly noticed and virtually inoffensive.  “Yeah, right”, “Nice try”, “I’d love that”, and hundreds of other statements are sarcastic in that they are insincere, but so commonly used that they’ve lost most of their sting.  Most of us meet sarcasm often and early on and come to understand that while it is insincere and occasionally confusing, it’s a language we had better learn to negotiate if we want to fit in.  We use it without thinking, often as a comedic counterpoint to conversation, although even sarcasm  used to humorous intent can backfire at times: “No, you look fabulous”.  That might fly as bros shop for tee shirts, but fall flat at a fitting of a wedding dress.  In some instances, we had better mean that the person looks fabulous or keep our opinion to ourselves.

That’s all transactional sarcasm, give and take, sarcasm lite.  The darker, heavier, more bruising brand of sarcasm takes two forms.  The first, and the most confusing is intentional insincerity deployed to create emotional confusion, awkwardness, or embarrassment.  The second is the “perfect world” kind, anger passed off as humor.

To be clear, both of these more damaging forms of sarcasm are about power.  The origin of the word is with the Greek for stripping the flesh, and sarcasm used to exert power is intended to cut.  Anger thinly disguised as sarcasm is an expression of contempt, bullying to create injury.  My powers of diagnosis are fading by the minute, but the link between insecurity, defensiveness, fear, and angry sarcasm seem pretty clear.  Clumsy exertion of dominance is part of the sarcastic attack, but there’s fear at play as well; anger expressed directly takes a stand, is willing to be seen for what it is, and accepts accountability.  Angry sarcasm wears a shabby mask.

Intentional insincerity is harder to deal with.  This is trap-door sarcasm.  A person you think of as reasonably decent asks what you think about the food served at a party.  You answer sincerely, but are met with, “You didn’t think I actually meant I wanted to know, did you?  That’s funny.”  Trap door.  The bottom falls out.  You are made to feel stupid, or hypersensitive, or conceited, or thoughtless in responding to what you thought was an honest question or statement.  There’s no room to respond without playing into the trap.  This is condescension, manipulation, contempt, and cruelty hiding as a joke.

In a perfect world, to borrow a phrase, we say what we mean and mean what we say, and even in this imperfect world, it’s never too late to do better.  Language re-training in our house started when our kids were small.  We saw how the ordinary sarcastic joshing,  teasing, what was essentially sarcasm lite presented by friends, grandparents, strangers who meant no harm, confused and injured our children.  Yes, the occasional sarcastic comment slips out, but not often, and not to manipulate or dominate.  For example, I am baselessly accused of snoring when I drop off while watching television.  I jolt awake and ask, “was I snoring?”  I think you can guess what comes back.

Never too late to do better, family.




Trying to read harder

Trying to read harder

Relax.  There’s nothing in this piece about testicles or their removal.

You’re welcome or I’m sorry,  whatever.

I had been looking for a particular sort of book cover to illustrate my reading assignment over the past few weeks, one that presents a book with a cover I find objectionable; this one pretty much fits the bill.  To be honest, I haven’t actually read the Whitman Tell-A-Tale, but I get the jist, as it were.  To return to the reading assignments, I’m not terribly far along in meeting Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge; I’ve just finished White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi, the fourth Oyeyemi novel I’ve read in the last year and one that met the category, “a book with a cover you hate.”  Since finishing the book, I’ve found that the more recent editions (2014) present the cover I dislike, whereas, the earlier edition (2009) actually has a pretty snappy cover.  In any case, given the disparity between Oyeyemi covers, I thought I’d entice the casual reader with the portrait of an pre-operational puppy, pretty much a sure thing in the cover trade.

Why read harder?  It all starts with my eldest son, a better person than I from the start and a much more disciplined reader.  He reads the big books, Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest for example, and sticks with them.  I think he’s actually read these two more than once.  To further establish his moral superiority, he refuses to drop a book one started, no matter how onerous the reading of the book may be.  He’s waded through books that caused him real pain, and yet persists.

I’m a less patient, less disciplined, less ambitious reader.  I’ll bounce from novel to novel, dropping those that seem tedious or just not quite right for the reading mood I’m in.  I’ll circle back from time to time to give a book a second chance, recognizing that the moon and stars may line up differently the second time around.  With some goading I did finish Infinite Jest and found myself quite taken with the novel in the end.  Gravity’s Rainbow is on a shelf somewhere.  Maybe someday.

So, my eldest is taking on the Book Riot Challenge, determined to attack every category by reading only female authors.  This is the guy who decided he needed to read a nineteenth century novel by a female author, deflecting cautionary advice and picking Middlemarch and finishing it, so I’m a relatively lazy piece of flotsam by comparison.  Thus, the challenge to prod me into some sort of direction.

We started in the middle of the year and have only five months to sock away the entire list, but even if I come up short, I will have read more deliberately than I have in a long while.  I began with a slight evasion, re-reading Henry V and Loves’ Labors’ Lost, both plays  I’m working with at the Shakespeare Festival.  All of Shakespeare’s work was published posthumously, which is kind of a weasel choice, but I’ve only got five months so I’m going to grab shortcuts where I can.  I’ll double up a few as well when one novel meets more than one criterion.  Five months and I still have my ordinary undisciplined reading to do as well.

The toughest nut to crack, I knew, would be in reading an assigned book that I hated or never finished.  The list was not all that long even though I majored in Medieval and Early European History.  I actually enjoyed The Nibelungenlied and The Song of Roland.  Enough to finish in any case.  No, the novel to be picked up again after all these years was The Scarlet Letter.

The slog was notable at the outset, but as I clambered through Hawthorne’s dark romanticism and randomly digressive style, I found myself warming to him as an author even as I anticipated the heaviness of narrative at the novel’s end.  It’s considered one of the truly great and thoroughly American American novels, and the characterisation of Hester Prynne is more psychologically complex than I had expected, so I am pleased to have spent some time in Hawthorne’s company.  I am not sure I’d like to spend a moment more with Hester’s feral daughter Pearl and Hester’s demon-husband Chillingworth, although each in her/his distance from the norm in any age would have made for a stirring tale of active witchcraft and satanic possession.  Ah, well.

I’ve read The  Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan, a terrifying account of how the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway began a process by which lampreys, alewives, zebra mussels, and a host of other non-native life forms have transformed the lakes entirely.  It’s a cautionary tale and one I won’t spoil by ham-handedly describing what Egan presents with such clarity.  That was my book about Nature, so on with the parade.

My book of Social Science was every bit as disturbing, perhaps signifying that the current  graceless epoch is simply a continuation of bad behavior that arrived with the first colonists.  Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann describes the murder of at least twenty members of the Osage Nation who held title to oil-rich land that Texas robber barons felt should be theirs.  Twenty is a conservative guess; there may have been hundreds of murders.  It is hard to know that genocide was still a matter of fact in the 1920’s (as were lynchings, of course), but important to put names to those who carried out genocide for profit.

I’ll be cleansing the palate by turning to my celebrity memoir, Wishful Drinking, by Carrie Fisher.  I’ve got a slew of books associated with recovery from a slew of addictions, so the response to Fisher will likely appear in the wider context of recovery literature (Infinite Jest, Girl in Pieces, etc).

Meanwhile, nineteen books left.

Tick, Tock.  Here’s the list:

  1. A book published posthumously
  2. A book of true crime
  3. A classic of genre fiction (i.e. mystery, sci fi/fantasy, romance)
  4. A comic written and drawn by the same person
  5. A book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, or South Africa)
  6. A book about nature
  7. A western
  8. A comic written or drawn by a person of color
  9. A book of colonial or postcolonial literature
  10. A romance novel by or about a person of color
  11. A children’s classic published before 1980
  12. A celebrity memoir
  13. An Oprah Book Club selection
  14. A book of social science
  15. A one-sitting book
  16. The first book in a new-to-you YA or middle grade series
  17. A sci fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author
  18. A comic that isn’t published by Marvel, DC, or Image
  19. A book of genre fiction in translation
  20. A book with a cover you hate
  21. A mystery by a person of color or LGBTQ+ author
  22. An essay anthology
  23. A book with a female protagonist over the age of 60
  24. An assigned book you hated (or never finished)

Checking Out

Checking Out

A friend of mine is dying.  The news came in the morning’s mail, not surprising, but still terrible.  A fair number of friends are already gone.  Others are fighting hard and some are easing on.  It’s not the only subject of conversation, but it comes up a great deal more frequently than it did even a year or two ago.

This is not entirely unexpected.  Apparently we who make up the first bulge in the population that began booming in the late 1940’s have reached what manufacturers like to call the expiration date, although I prefer to think of myself as perhaps Best Used By 2018, still reasonably safe to have around if properly refrigerated.

All the same, my existential warning system has kicked in, the relentless ticking countdown has moved from background to foreground, and time’s winged chariot has begun hurrying more insistently near.  All of which is to say that I think about checking out a good deal more that I once did, and with a good deal more sticky emotional bounce around.  The bouncing is actually profound as I am intermittently at ease with the operation of the universe in whatever fashion it operates and  determined to place an ego-bound headlock on that universe.  I’d use the phrase, “death grip”, but that’s actually… you know… a contradiction of terms in this case.

It may seem a digression at this point to admit that I have an unfortunate inclination to actually read the information people give me about themselves in sporting the t-shirts that they wear, but one hit home the other day and provides a neat transition from wallowing to wondering.

I live in what my children call a “blue hair” town, a town more crowded with retired folks of my generation than most.  One of my generational cohorts, a not particularly well-preserved representative of the tribe, lounged comfortably in a coffee shop wearing a declaration that may be shared by others of my ilk — “I Intend To Live Forever —  So Far, So Good”

Really?  How good?

Well, although the present is always tough to evaluate, it’s clear that we live in troubled and troubling times; humankind taken as a whole appears to be less kind and unfortunately more human, and trusted institutions seem less trustworthy.  At least, that’s the way it seems to me from what I know is a very insulated and privileged point of view.  I suspect that for most of the world daily life has had more to do with struggling to find security than with anxiously observing the loss of treasured beliefs. and practices. I  have been moderately aware that the chunk of history – the speck of history – that I have lived in has known troubles, but for the most part, I have lived in cheerful oblivion decade after decade; fate plunked me down on a continent that has not seen invasion, plague, and pestilence, and in a relatively small and absolutely insulated corner of that continent.  It all looked very Mickey Mouse Club, American Bandstand, and Yankee baseball to me.  Yes, I saw the horror of war in Vietnam, and yes, I saw the legacy of slavery and racial violence in the United States, but from a distance and with an unshaped conviction that the sweep of progress would inevitably correct inequity, poverty, and the few unfortunate remaining flaws in a nation conceived in liberty and justice, in a nation destined to shine its light on the rest of the world; I believed this good nation would correct itself naturally as reasonability overcame self-interest.

Ignorance was comfort if not bliss, and I regret having plonked along so blithely unaware of the hardships of others and, more notably, feel foolish for believing that civility, tolerance, the celebration of progress and inclusion was inevitable and universally admired.  Having seen behind the curtain in a nation I no longer recognize, I’m also in danger of feeling simultaneously responsible and entirely overwhelmed.

I’m stuck.

I don’t know everything, never have, and that’s been ok as long as I felt certain that enough bright people knew enough and enough generous people gave enough, and enough brave people did enough to keep the world from skidding into chaos.  I trusted science and the rule of law, which in hindsight was an abdication of my own responsibility for environmental crisis and the perpetuation of a discriminatory system of justice.  And now …?

I didn’t intend to give up the reins; I look around and, with the exception of the usual cast of imbedded plutocrats still mucking around, impossibly young people are bright enough, and generous enough, and brave enough to try to pull the tattered fabric back together.  I don’t quote Satchel Paige very often, but his question rings through the decades:  “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?”

Old enough to know I’m old enough.

I have always been moved by the last scene in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, a play that has fallen out of favor but which speaks to the human condition in a way that resonates with my own experience in the world.  It’s a play that breaks the fourth wall and operates without props or scenery.   The various characters have contended with the things we contend with and have celebrated the things we celebrate.  At a funeral, the living stand and speak; the dead sit  in rows facing the audience.  They observe the living and respond with pleasant objectivity to all they see.  What strikes me is that in this moment a group finds itself made up of whoever happened to die within the same era.  They may not have had much in common along the way, but end up in the same place.

I’ve thought of this process as similar to my experience in the supermarket.  I walk through the door, others are there or enter later, and at some point, we all stand in the check-out line.  Let’s assume I’m in the express line (15 items or less) with a loaf of bread and a can of soup.  The person in front of me has piled the conveyor belt high with produce, soda cans,  slabs of bacon, candy bars, deodorant –  obviously waaaaay more than 15 items.  Life as it is.  What to do?

Higher life forms than myself have suggested that choosing not to object or express annoyance is acceptance; not noticing is serenity.

Life is happening all around me; I’m delighted with much of it and on the verge of despair with much of it.  I summon my inner Frank Costanza and shout, “Serenity now!”, but the reality is that I’m in the check-out line, however fervently I wish to be somewhere on Aisle 12 looking at hamburger buns.  My job today, I think, is to look around and actually see the people around me.  They may be in my line; they may still be cruising the school supplies.  No matter.  I’m pretty sure we are all in this together.














Hacking around? Trying to snow me?

Hacking around?  Trying to snow me?

You can try to paint an entire generation with the same brush, but we who call ourselves Boom Zero, those born between 1945 and 1950, have relatively little in common with Boom Lite, people born in the 1960’s, after I had started high school.  I’m pretty sure they didn’t spend hours listening to the Lone Ranger on the radio, didn’t buy savings stamps in school, didn’t wear coonskin hats, didn’t have to “duck and cover” in the classroom, didn’t play games like “Rich Uncle” or “Mystery Date”.

I’m sure their lives have been rich and full, but when it comes right down to it, we don’t really speak the same language.  They probably wouldn’t say they had it “made in the shade”, and I never felt even remotely comfortable using the word “groovy”.  Did their parents worry that their children would become “greasers”, “JDs” (Juvenile Delinquents), “hoods”?  Did they use Vapo Rub to make sure their DA (Duck’s Ass) stayed firm in high winds?  Did they use Vapo Rub?  If they were on the road to perdition, did they use a “church key” to open a Blatz, a Rheingold, A Piels, a Schlitz, a Ballantine, a Carling Old Style?  Did they go to “sock hops”?  Did they think Shelly Fabares and Paul Peterson were just dreamy?

We think not.

All of this comes to mind as my daughter, still horse-crazy after all these years, will be spending the afternoon doing what she likes best, riding a bunch of different horses to make sure they are exercised and generally pampered.  This job, if in her case it is a job, is called hacking.  Hacking is also used to mean something like pleasure riding, a perfectly acceptable, even gentlemanly, occupation.  In my earlier days however, at home and at school, hacking around meant acting without purpose, larking about, essentially goofing off.  Hacking around with friends was virtually all we had to do in a town that had an intellectually ambitious bookstore but no pizza place, movie theater, or Dairy Queen.  So, that was good hacking, but the term was used with different impact by my teachers who described lackadaisical, attitude impaired clowns in the classroom as  hackers. We hackers, we happy few, formed a band of brothers we thought forever branded by the term, and yet, the disapprobation appears to have disappeared almost entirely.

And then.

Say, one was committed to a life of academic lassitude, happily hacking around in mindless schoolboy distraction.  What to do when called to account?  How to survive the slings and arrows tossed by cranky teachers and coaches?  One, and you know who that one most certainly was not, might hang one’s head, vow to do better, and buckle down from time to time , just to stay out of the line of fire.  Or, counting on invention and charm, one could attempt to spin a tale so compelling that the admiring teacher was simply swept away, forgetting to drop the well deserved hammer.  A much less taxing enterprise.

We called that artful distraction a “snow job”, by which we meant that somehow the combined weight of charm and tangentially possible although certainly dubious information might bury the listener as if he had wandered into an Alpine avalanche.  We also used the term “snow” to indicate a semi-reputable con job, such as convincing a sucker friend to buy the car we knew to be near its sad end by touting features that had nothing to do with its performance.  “You’ll never see a car with a tint job like this baby again.”

The avalanche metaphor was also appropriate to the more genteel use of the word “snow” to indicate headlong, helpless, relatively sudden, and probably impermanent infatuation.  My recollection is that we were first snowed somewhere in the late middle school years and remained capable of being snowed into our college years, or at least, into my college years.  Being snowed was a more intense form of infatuation, more mature than puppy love and less creepy than obsessed.  I suppose there were instances in which someone who had experienced being snowed could become love-sick, but the first stage carried no whiff of pathology.  Being snowed was great with no real expectation of sustained relationship.

Have a crush on?  No, crushes were cultivated like courtly love, emotional but in the abstract.  Smitten?  Closer, but being snowed did include the sensation of being swept away.  It doesn’t matter now; that phrase too has been swept away.

There’s idle nostalgia at play here, obviously, and fun with words, but there’s also the recognition that language shapes experience as much as experience shapes language.  Kidspeak, slang, lingo, reveals something about the time in which it appears.  We were, I was, trying to differentiate our experience from those of the generation holding sway.  They had their words; we had ours.  There were a lot of us, seventy-six million born between 1946 and 1964, so our voices and our sensibilities probably lasted longer than those of previous generations.  And yet, we’d be appalled to hear the creaky phrases we used so happily a half century ago.  Yeah, and no one ever really said “groovy” with a straight face.







What Are We Celebrating?

What Are We Celebrating?

… today, I’m celebrating tumbling kids and guys with chain saws, and a small town that turns out to cheer those who bring hope.

I’m heading to the 4th of July parade in town.  It’s a wonderful jumble of marching Cub Scouts, amateur hula dancers, the 4H club, people dressed as butterflies chanting “Migration is beautiful”, yoga teachers, Shakespearean actors, softball teams, militant vegans, kazoo bands, mimes, and a host of other specialized and important enthusiasms.

It’s small town, and earnest, and kindly, and hopeful.  I love it.

But I’m also aware of how mitigated my fondness for the 4th has been by events and attitudes in the last two years.  I’m wearing red and white shorts and a blue shirt, have flags out at home, but I’m aware that the flag, like the anthem, has been weaponized, turned into a partisan body slam.

Patriotism has been hijacked by partisan politics for a very long time, but it is only recently that I pause before looking for my flag to wonder in flying it, do I put myself among those who think football players are “sons of bitches” for bringing attention to the shooting of young black men, do I put myself among those who think Muslims are dangerous, who think that people seeking refuge are criminals to be confined and separated from their children.

So, I stand in a shaded street in Ashland, Oregon, under two unfurled flags, captivated by the kids showing off their tumbling, and the guys on the fuel coop float waving chainsaws used to provide free wood in the winter to warm those who need help, and the guy dressed as a recycling bin, and the Booming Broadway Dancers, Baby Boomer Women striking Broadway poses with jazz hands as they march, and the dogs dressed as Uncle Sam, and the employees of the free clinic tossing toothbrushes to the crowd, and the bagpipers marching crisply as the temperature soars, and the several hundred music teachers in town to attend a workshop at SOU who sit on three separate floats playing perfectly, and Oregon’s Senator, Ron Wyden, greeting children perched on the sidewalk, and marching bumble bees representing Ashland, “Bee City”.

Rumor has had it that a great marching band and drumline has been practicing in South Ashland for a few days, so my son and I walk to the area from which the parade begins.  The Vanguard Drum and Bugle Corps from Santa Clara, California have assembled at the end of the parade, waiting for the space to add a marching band, a drumline, drill team and flag tossers to the mix.  A single drum sounds clearly, and in an instant the entire group is marching, bugles and tubas sounding out the Star Spangled Banner, the Washington Post March, El Capitan as the drums roll, rifles fly, flags twirl.  At the end of the set, the band marches silently as the drums continue, playing a complex, and wonderfully funky, contrapuntal march, thirty drums of differing sizes and tones playing so smoothly that it seems a single drum is carrying the tune.

We walk back to the heart of town alongside the band, catching something extraordinary as they repeat their performance.  I stop at one point and realize I have goose bumps on my arms and legs.  For a moment I have my America back.  I am proud of the conviction and purpose the marchers brought to the day, I am moved by the statements endorsing peace and respect.

I completely understand the intention of the woman walking by us with a large sign asking, “What are you celebrating?”  I get it.  But today, I’m celebrating tumbling kids and guys with chain saws, and a small town that turns out to cheer those who bring hope.

I won’t go to the concert tonight or to the fireworks display; I am content to remember a 4th of July on a human scale.  I’ll make sure the dogs don’t get rattled by the neighbor’s small burst of firecrackers, and remember that we’ve come through tough times before.