Out Of Control

The story in the Washington Post reads (in part) as follows:

MASON, Ohio — Nick Kyrgios was fined $113,000 by the ATP for expletive-filled outbursts in which he smashed rackets, insulted a chair umpire and refused to get ready to return serve during a second-round match at the Western & Southern Open.

The tour announced the penalties Thursday, a day after Kyrgios berated chair umpire Fergus Murphy and left the court to break two rackets during a 6-7 (3), 7-6 (4), 6-2 loss to Karen Khachanov.

The ATP listed a breakdown of eight fines ranging from $3,000 to $20,000 each for violations such as unsportsmanlike conduct, verbal abuse and audible obscenity.

The tour also said it is “looking further into what happened during and immediately after the match” to determine whether additional fines or a suspension is warranted.

Kyrgios is a 24-year-old Australian who is ranked 27th this week. He is a volatile sort who repeatedly has gotten in trouble for on-court actions. He was kicked out of the Italian Open in May after throwing a chair and being suspended by the ATP in 2016 for not trying to win and insulted fans during the Shanghai Masters.

You may not have heard about this if you are not a sports fan, or if you have been preoccupied with current world events, but this is an event worth noting because it is a symptom of a deep malaise; I suspect it is not restricted to Nick Kyrgios. It is a sign of the complete freedom that many liberal-minded folks prize as the virtue worth having above all others. It is freedom without restraint. As I have noted on numerous occasions, freedom without restraint is not freedom; it is chaos. And Kyrgios’ behavior — in this instance and in numerous others — may be a sign of the times.

Without sounding like a preacher looking for work, I would remind readers that in a world that does not prize restraint but which instead applauds behavior such as that of Nick Kyrgios there is a real danger of watching the threads that hold us together tearing apart. Ours is a culture, including Australia apparently, in which parents for years now have been told by the “experts” not to restrain the young because it inhibits their potential. Never say “No!” The result is a world in which the behavior of out-or control athletes and celebrities, not to mention ordinary folks like you and me, is not only tolerated but frequently met with applause. This athlete, in particular, is immensely popular and when he plays on television it is “must see TV.” The crowds wait breathlessly for an outburst which they label “honesty” and regard as worthy of emulation. And we must, really we must, ask what’s wrong with this picture?

Nick Kyrgios is slowly becoming the rule, not the exception. He has a huge following and openly admits that he doesn’t really like tennis where he makes a small fortune showing signs of his undeniable brilliance and occasionally winning — while always being on the brink of a meltdown. He is much more interested, it would seem, in drawing attention to himself than in winning tennis matches. He is a showman in an age of entertainment when those who behave erratically are the main attraction. After all, ordinary people going about their business, no matter how successful they might be, are not much fun to watch. It’s the out-of-control athletes and public figures generally who make a stir that interest those who present television pictures to large audiences. The more erratic the behavior the more likely the audience will be large and appreciative — and buy the sponsor’s products, needless to say.

Thus we do eschew restraint as boring and prize the Nick Kyrgioses of the world (who will pay this fine with the small change out of his tennis shorts) because they make life interesting. We flavor our infatuation with the sensational by calling such behavior honest. But if we are honest we will admit it  is extreme and not worthy of respect and certainly not admiration.  It is freedom gone amuck and self-indulgence of a sort, when adopted by more and more people, that ultimately strains the thin threads that hold civilization together. Entertainment is not the most important thing. Not in the end. And honesty does not equate with outrageous behavior.

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Memories

As an old fart I spend a good deal of time reflecting on fond moments of the past– and the many regrets I have for not having done more or better than I did. But as a college professor I taught in a college and a couple of universities for 41 years and I am lucky to have had some very fine moments. I want to share a couple of them with my readers because I am at present doing whatever I can to keep my mind off you-know-what and you-know-who.

My first job right out of Northwestern University was at the University of Rhode Island where I taught for two years. My advisor at Northwestern had helped me get the job because in those days mentors sought to find good jobs for their students as it reflected well on them. I made less money teaching as an Instructor for nine months than I did during the remaining three months as a tennis pro at a private club outside of Chicago! More to the point, as a member of a 7 man department (there were no women in those days) I was being forced into a niche that made me feel cramped. So when I saw a chance to take a position in a new small college in Iowa where I could spread my wings, begin a new program and, more importantly, teach the Great Books I had fallen in love with in college, I grabbed it. It also paid well enough that I was able to quit the job as a tennis pro and teach the Summer term instead, which I did with delight. Tennis has always been one of my great loves, but teaching philosophy and what they called “The Humanities” was what I was cut out for.

After a couple of years it was apparent that the small college was not going to survive so I took a job at a brand new state college in Marshall, Minnesota. I was able to establish a philosophy department and lead a required Freshman course called “Ideas In Flux” where, I thought, I could continue to teach the great Books. Not so. The dean thought the books too sophisticated for the Freshmen at that college (not true) and he insisted that the reading list be watered down. I was in no position to do much more than complain. But I started an Honors Program for the brighter students and found my refuge there teaching (wait for it) the Great Books. We had a required Senior Seminar that focused on those books and I was able to have my students read some of them in my Humanities courses and in my course on Philosophy In Literature as well. I had some terrific students. Some of them have remained life-long friends. But what about those moments I mentioned?

In one of the Senior Seminars I came in a bit late and found the students already discussing the day’s reading! In another case I was able to ask a few questions and then simply make an occasional remark as the discussion was lively and involved all or most of the students. Those were some of the best classes I ever taught, and they were always the classes I most looked forward to teaching. I said little and the students really got into it. That’s the way they learn best! My role: provoke thought and guide discussion.

But I complained one day in class that the new college had very few traditions. At Northwestern we applauded the professor at the end of the term and even at the private school where I taught before going to Northwestern the boys led a cheer for the “master” at the end of the term. At this new college on the Prairie students simply left the class after it was over and that was it. The following day in class the entire class showed up dressed to the nines (one student even borrowing a suit for the purpose) with champaign and glasses in hand! I was struck dumb! We drank the champaign and had a good laugh and I still remember that day as if it were yesterday. (It bears mentioning that two of the instigators of that event were campus leaders in an effort to cut down the growing use of liquor on campus!)

One of the greatest moments came after my retirement when one of my former students, who is now a close personal friend and also teaches at the university, convinced the university to name the honors lounge at the university after me. The event was largely ignored by the university community, but the generosity and consideration of that former student is unsurpassed in my experience. How does one say “thanks”?

One last item: I was asked to coach the fledgling women’s tennis team when a new Conference was formed a few years after my arrival. And, given my love of the game I threw myself into it heart and soul. I did that for nearly fifteen years, along with chairing a department, teaching a full load of classes, and writing book reviews, articles, and a few books of my own. Even though the busy schedule took we away from my family — which is at the top of the list of those regrets I mentioned above — I loved it and still have a great many fond memories of the remarkable students and athletes who came to that small college on the Great Plains to play tennis and get a good education.  It is fun to hear from them from time to time and see what remarkable people they have turned out to be.

 

 

 

Serena’s Meltdown

Whether or not you follow women’s tennis, and I dare say most do not, the recent women’s final at the U.S. Open made a loud enough noise to be heard by anyone who wasn’t even listening. The winner was a young 20 year-old Japanese woman by the name of Naomi Osaka who beat possibly the best woman in tennis in the person of Serena Williams. But the match was marred by an outburst by Serena Williams that received all the attention while the deserving Osaka was largely ignored.

Osaka won the first set of a best-of-three final easily, 6-2. Serena has lost the first set in tournaments often and usually she is able to come back. In this case it is my humble opinion that she would not have done so. But we’ll never know because of the meltdown. At the start of the second set she was warned by an overly zealous umpire about receiving coaching — which is a problem in tennis on both the men’s and women’s side. It is commonplace for the coaches sitting in the gallery to use hand signals to help their charges win their matches. But it is a rule that coaching is not to be allowed. Williams was warned and she approached the chair and, filled with righteous indignation, insisted that she would never cheat to win, that she was not being coached. As it turned out, she was being signaled by her coach but it appears she was playing no attention to him whatever. In any event, she soon hit a backhand into the net and threw her racket at the court and broke it. She was given a second warning for “racket abuse,” also a rule. The second warning resulted in a point for her opponent in the next game. As the players changed ends and sat for a breather she opened up against the umpire and began her well publicized “meltdown.” She charged the umpire with theft and demanded an apology (for what it is not clear). He then penalized her a third time for abusing the umpire and this time it cost her a game. The score at the change-over was 4-3 in Osaka’s favor. With the penalty it was now 5-3.

Serena managed to “keep it together” for the next game and won. But then Osaka, keeping her poise and playing the sort of tennis that had made her the far better player to that point, won the match the next time she served. She won the match 6-2, 6-4 while Serena continued to simmer. The crowd booed loudly, as their American countrywoman — in their eyes — was being cheated out of a victory that would have tied her with the famous Margaret Court for the most wins in women’s tennis.

Much has been said and written about the event, though very little of what has been said and written had anything to do with the match itself. Mostly people wanted to jump in with charges of “sexism” against the umpire (which is possible, as his overly zealous calls were a bit unusual, though he has a reputation for being a hard-liner when it comes to the rules and has ruled against the men as well as the women. But he was a bit over the edge in this match. “Sexist” is somewhat questionable, but he certainly was overly zealous). Most of what has been written and said, as noted, was about Serena and this is sad because Naomi Osaka played a superb match. She was quicker, stronger, more tenacious than her 37 year-old opponent. One must wonder if the latter’s outbursts and eventual meltdown were not more about her losing a match to a younger, more athletic player than it was about an umpire who was too eager to apply the rules of tennis.

It’s time for a disclaimer, I suppose. I am no fan of Serena Williams. I think she wins by intimidation: she is bigger and stronger than most of her opponents though she lacks certain fundamental skills that she is able to disguise with her power and strength (such as poor footwork). But she is a proven winner and the crowd was solidly behind her and the hype was extraordinary and perhaps a bit of a distraction, something that may have had her a bit on edge to start with. But she has shown in the past a tendency to lose her temper when behind in a tennis match, twice berating line-judges when she was losing her matches.

But in the end, it was Osaka’s day and she was lost in the kerfuffle, even brought to tears. And this is too bad as she is one of the best women tennis players I have seen play the game (and I coached women’s tennis for nearly twenty years). She is quick, agile, has a powerful serve (every bit as powerful as Serena’s). She was the real winner in every way. Serena was gracious in defeat at the awards ceremony, urging the crowd to stop with their boos and catcalls. But Osaka was the real winner though in the end very few thought it worth mentioning. Such has American sports and entertainment become. We want car crashes, fights, sparks, and loud noise; not superbly played sports events.

A Better Place

The Tennis Channel recently aired a tribute to Arthur Ashe, one of my heroes and a truly remarkable athlete and human being. It reminded me not only of the man himself and the trials and tribulations he faced with exceptional courage and dignity throughout his life and especially toward the end when he was diagnosed with AIDS. He had contracted the virus during the second of his two bypass surgeries. One wondered how this athlete in top condition and thin as a rail could have a heart condition, but knowing that the hospital where he had the surgery introduced the AIDS virus into the man’s blood during one of the transfusions was even more difficult to imagine.

He had to deal with the looks and snickers that all black men had to face growing up in the South while playing what many regarded an effete sport at posh country clubs; but what he faced during those final years was even more demanding and showed more than anything else what character means and how little we see of it these days. How much we miss not only Arthur Ashe but people like Arthur Ashe: people of character and people who have dedicated their lives not only to their craft but to making the world a better place.

Ashe was the man to build bridges — not walls — between folks who differed in skin color and their basic beliefs about what it means to be human and what it means to be successful. He  attacked such evils as apartheid in South Africa the same way he attacked a short ball on the tennis court. He once refused to play a tournament in South Africa if blacks were not only allowed to attend, but allowed to sit anywhere they wanted. You may recall that at the time blacks in Johannesburg were allowed in town during the day but were forced to leave at day’s end and not be found in town at night. As bad as racism is today, and it is still bad, it was even worse when Ashe fought against it. But if it is even a bit better today, it is because of the efforts of people like Arthur Ashe — and his friend Nelson Mandela.

We hear talk about “heroes” these days — I even heard it bandied about recently while watching one of my favorite situation comedies featuring a man who sought to be a hero to his kids by showing his willingness to sacrifice his favorite sports package on television to help his family pay some bills. We struggle to understand what the word means because we find it so difficult these days to find examples we can hold up to our children. We wonder if those who fight for their country or who play games for large amounts of money could possibly be the ones, but we don’t stop to ask ourselves just what heroism involves.

It is sad that we need to search high and low these days to try to find a person of one gender or the other, of one color or another, of one religious belief or another, who is deserving of the label “hero.” The word denotes a person who is dedicated to making the world a better place in whatever way he or she can, knowing that responsibilities come before rights, the common good before the demands of the individual. It doesn’t mean simply standing up for what one believes unless what one believes really matters. It does not demand a grand show or widespread applause; it only demands that a person be willing to do the right thing no matter how difficult that may prove to be. The remarkable thing about Arthur Ashe is that he was that man and his life stood as a tribute to the fact that it is possible to live in this crazy world and be true to oneself and true to those things that really matter.

In the end I applaud the Tennis Channel for broadcasting a tribute to the man who won over so many hearts and who walked among us always concerned that he do the right thing and who knew that his successes on the tennis courts (which were many) were so much less important than reaching out to people who were determined to war against one another in one way or another; who know only how to fling mud at others — or, worse yet, fire guns in their direction.

P.B.F.

The initials in my title stand for the words: “Post-Birdie-F%$kup. They are words taught to me by a friend I play golf with and they describe a pattern one finds in a great many sports —  not just golf. But in golf they describe the tendency of players to score a birdie and then, on the next hole, to get a triple boogie. “Can’t stand success,” they say. It happens a great deal. In tennis, for example, I noted that many of the people I played with (never me, of course) double-faulted after an ace. Great shot then PGGFFFFGH.

The saying goes: “Pride goeth before destruction; a haughty spirit before a fall.” This is usually shortened to “Pride Goeth Before a Fall,” which is a lazy way of saying the same thing. But whether we are talking about pride or a haughty spirit, we are referring to the tendency which has been around for a great many years apparently, to blow a lead, choke in a crisis, get a big head, get cocky after a good shot. Take your pick.

One of the aspects of this phenomenon is the tendency of highly rated players — say a top seed in a tennis tournament — to choke under the pressure (the air is thin at the top). When I coached tennis and used to take my players to the National Tournament in the Spring after the regular season I realized (years later) that the players I managed to get seeded never did well. The ones who did well, including three All-Americns, were always unseeded. They “flew beneath the radar.” If I had noticed it early on I would never have allowed my players to get the seed in the first place. It put undue pressure on them and they felt it and had difficulty making their bodies obey they commands of their minds. In a word, they choked. As all athletes know, it is easier to play when behind than when ahead — or favored to win.

Arthur Ashe once said that all athletes choke. The great ones learn how to play well even under the pressure. This is what separates the great athletes in every sport from the average to good ones: they handle the pressure better. This would include people like Tiger Woods in his prime, Jack Nicklaus, Chris Evert in her prime, Rod Laver, Roger Federer, and teams such as  the Chicago Bulls with Michael Jordan, the 1950s Yankees, the current Golden State Warriors, and other teams and players noted for their winning ways — regardless of the pressure. No P.B.F. for them, though even the great ones have problems at times.

As an example of this is Dustin Johnson the golfer was recently named the #1 player in the P.G.A.  In a recent W.G.C. match-play tournament he built a large 5-hole lead in the final match and then saw it whither away and had to hold on to squeak out a win by one hole. Even the great ones feel the pressure.

So what do we learn from this — those of us who aren’t involved in athletics at the higher levels? We learn that it is best to remain silent and fight the tendency to get smug when things go well for fear that it “will come back to bite us.” A president, for example, who is convinced that his personal prestige and bullying tactics are sufficient to move a bill through Congress may discover that his smug attitude is the very thing that turns those very Congressmen against him and he may lose the fight. P.B.F.

Beware the bug that comes back to bite you. Beware of P.B.F. It can strike anywhere and at any time!

Lydia Ko

 Lydia Ko (Thanks to Wikipedia)

Lydia Ko
(Thanks to Wikipedia)

You have probably never heard of her even though she’s the best golfer in the world, male or female; yet we never hear about her exploits.  In fact, as we are told,

On 2 February 2015, [Lydia] became the youngest player of either gender to ever be ranked No. 1 in professional golf by both the Official World Golf Ranking and the Rolex World Golf Ranking at age 17 years, 9 months and 9 days, eclipsing Tiger Woods who was 21 years, 5 months and 15 days when he became men’s world number one in 1997 and Jiyai Shin who was 22 years and 5 days when she became women’s world number one in 2010.

And yet, again, despite the fact that she has won more times than Tiger Woods did at her age you have probably never heard of her. She seldom gets attention on the large stage of ESPN while every time Tiger Woods stubs his toe it gets headlines. When Charlie Rymer — a former PGA golfer and now a commentator on the Golf Channel — was asked why Lydia wasn’t better known, he hemmed and hawed (as is his habit) and totally failed to answer the question — which is simple: she is a woman. Moreover, she is not American. No matter how gifted she is, and she is regarded by those in the know as the most gifted golfer currently playing the game, she will be widely ignored, not only for the reasons given, but also because she isn’t brash enough. She doesn’t howl  like a wolf and pump her fist when she sinks a putt — as Tiger used to do — or pout when she has a bad day. She lifts her chin and walks to the next tee box and prepares to play. She is a delight, but she doesn’t “sell” to an American audience that wants its athletes to emote loudly and graphically and, if possible, show their vulnerability.

There are a number of factors involved in what might be called the “Ko phenomenon.” I have mentioned the obvious, but there is also the distinct possibility that race plays a part. After all, Ko is a New Zealander of Korean extraction who doesn’t look like the girl next door. And she plays a woman’s game. Even the Golf Channel, which is devoted solely to golf, broadcasts very few hours of women’s golf in a day. It is usually after the main PGA event of the day and is usually cut off for (wait for it) REPLAYS of the men’s event during the prime viewing hours. The major networks seldom bother with any but the major events, which are few in number.  As I said, ESPN seldom even mentions her name and even Sports Illustrated tends to bury her achievements deep in its pages, usually as an afterthought — if they bother to mention her at all.

As one who coached both men’s and women’s tennis for years, I can attest to the bias that exists in this country against women’s sports. In some cases, such as basketball for example, there is a marked difference in ability between the men who play for pay and the women who imitate them as much as possible both in apparel and type of play. Perhaps because of the different skill levels the audience for women’s basketball is meager at best and the women’s professional league struggles to keep its financial head above water. But in tennis and golf, the athletic gap is not that great. Though they don’t hit the ball as hard or as far, women play an exciting brand of both tennis and golf and while women’s tennis at the highest levels gets some semblance of the respect it deserves — and even gets equal pay in the main events —  women’s golf, where the players are exciting to watch and every bit as good as the men, is largely ignored. And, like the women’s soccer team, their remuneration is something of a joke when compared with that of the men.

When one seeks for causes of this phenomenon one comes up with the types of reasons I have given above. But, in the end, the habit of the media to ignore athletes like Lydia Ko may be the reason so few have heard of her. That is to say, the entertainment industry hasn’t yet figured out how to market young women who play a game at the highest level but who seem happy and well-adjusted (they smile, can you imagine?) and not given to histrionics. The entertainment industry wants sensational, viewer-grabbing moments, preferably with tears and perhaps even violence, if possible. Golf generally fails, though the men have found a way to make it more interesting by looking more intense (they seldom smile) and waiving their fists at every opportunity. Not the women. And that seems to be the heart of the problem.

Ladies and Gentlemen

Tennis has always been a large part of my life and while I cannot play any more I watch as much as I can on the television and especially look forward to Wimbledon (“The Championships”) every year at this time. Having played on grass only once in my life and thinking at the time I had died and gone to Heaven,  I watch with dismay as the back-court area turns to dirt and the beautiful grass gradually disappears; I recall another era when the path between the baseline and the service line became worn down with players serving and volleying, chasing every serve quickly to the next. But no more. With the new equipment, it has become fairly easy to pass someone going to the net, so the vast majority of players stay on the baseline and hit the ball as hard as they can — often with good effect — and make the grass disappear.

I also watch with dismay players such as the young Australian I watched recently (who will not be named) with pierced ears and artfully shaven head who prowled the court with a permanent scowl — while he wasn’t “tanking” the entire third set — and was cheered on by his entourage (I suppose) all dressed in yellow shirts with “AUS” printed on them. They, too, looked like something the cat dragged out from under the sofa. The players all wear white, as required, but that’s the only remnant of the “old days” when ladies and gentlemen seldom, if ever, resorted to histrionics and who played the game for a trophy and not for millions of dollars. (Uh oh, I hear some say. Here he goes again. And yes, here I go again.)

I have blogged about the demise of manners before and I will not go back there except to expand on something I wrote a couple of years ago about this sad phenomenon — sad because manners are all about being mindful of the other, and it has become abundantly clear that the other has dropped off the radar of increasing numbers of folks in the Western world — perhaps because there are so damn many of us. Anyway, here’s the clip (with additions):

As humans emerged from the “dark ages” they began to show greater interest in their behavior toward others. It began with courtly behavior and the recognition of our “betters.” But it expanded in important ways as we learned to control our emotions. It was an essential element in what Norbert Elias called “the civilizing process.” In 1530, for example, we find Erasmus admonishing folks to be “reasonable, courteous and respectful in word or gesture.” One of my favorites was his insistence that “it is impolite to greet anyone who is urinating or defecating . . . A well-bred person should always avoid exposing without necessity those parts to which nature has attached modesty.” These concerns were coupled with admonitions not to be like “the rustics who have not been to court or lived among refined and honorable people, [and who] relieve themselves without shame or reserve in front of ladies….”

These quaint recommendations strike us as funny, but, again, they are directed toward the goal of “civilizing” human beings, making them suitable for a life among others. As Elias would have it, manners were born as humans living together became increasingly aware that their own behavior must take into account the feelings of others,  restraining oneself “out of consideration for the embarrassment of others.” Ortega y Gasset once said “civilization is above all else the will to live in common,” which captures the same thought.

In and of themselves a lack of courtesy and poor manners are trifles. But as signs of something deeper they must give us pause. I simply point out that when I speak about “manners” and “courtesy” as signs of a civilized person, I do not refer to the superficial behavior, the pretense, the bowing and scraping, the obsequiousness that hides a rotting soul. These are mere formalities and they do not necessarily imply the recognition of one person by another. Rather, I speak about a deeper sense on the part of each person that others matter, a sense of the other that leads readily to true virtue, to the practice of what has been called “the Golden rule.” Being polite is just the beginning of doing the right thing by another who deserves respect and at times sympathy.

The fact that we are becoming increasingly uncivilized, that we care less about others or about living with others — except, perhaps, for those few who are in our narrow field of vision — is a sign of what I have called “inverted consciousness.” Let me explain. Consciousness, as Edmund Husserl reminds us, is always intentional — it has an object; gradually over the years our consciousness has turned upon itself and the subject itself has become the object. In plain words, “it’s now all about me.” The other has disappeared, for all practical purposes, and so one can behave boorishly on a tennis court, chant and cheer loudly when the opponent commits an error, and forget all about court etiquette, or, indeed, etiquette of any sort. This, of course, is a reaction to past behaviors which a Victorian age, wrapped in mere formalities, stressed to absurd lengths and which we have tossed on the rubbish heap along with the all-important sense of the other as worthy of respect. This in the name of “letting it all hang out.”  Next I suppose we can expect to see our neighbor urinating on the road or in his front yard. No, wait: I have already seen that! But I didn’t greet him while he was in the act. As Erasmus reminds us, it would have been impolite.

Spring Has Sprung

It appears that Spring has finally come to the Upper Midwest. It has been a long Winter with snow on the ground since last December, snow which is still here and there on the North side of the groves and hedge rows. And while snow is in recent forecasts [!], we know it will be wet and will not stay around for very long. The temperatures are finally on the move upwards and the sounds and smells of another Spring are in the air.

Smells like starter-fuel for charcoal cookers, exhaust from lawnmowers and (speaking of sounds) motorcycles. Ah yes! The sounds of Spring, like the barking dogs tied outside by distracted owners who want to share the delights of dog-ownership with the folks in the block, or the cars the kids drive with their window open wide and the radio turned all the way up, destroying both tranquility and ear drums. I saw one the other day that had a sign in the back window: “If the music’s to loud, your to old.” Aside from the very loose usage of the word “music” this is assuredly an indictment of our education system if there ever was one! I guess I’m to old. In any event, the sights are almost as delightful, with fifth wheels and trailers returned to the lawns  and driveways from wherever they have been hibernating over the Winter, and large people walking around in shorts and tank tops with their all-too abundant flesh threatening to escape with every step, proving once again that some people are oblivious. It’s worthy of note in this regard that Minnesotans of all sizes and descriptions go by the calendar when it comes to choosing appropriate attire: if it’s April they will wear the shorts and tank tops even if the temperatures are around freezing! But Spring is on its way — finally — and while Emerson is supposed to have said that Spring is the saddest time of the year there is a great deal to delight in.

Brown-headed Thrush

Brown-headed Thrush

There are  the sounds of balls striking bats, golf clubs, and tennis rackets and the smells of new-mowed grass and blooming flowers. And for those of us who have been suffering from cabin fever for the past months, these sounds make up for the unpleasantness of loud radios, gassy smells, and excessive flesh mentioned above. And the ponds and rivers that were dry last Summer are full and flowing — at least at present. Add to these sights and sounds the melodies of the returning birds and the stunning colors they bring with them as the males preen and strut in their attempts to attract the most eligible mates. It’s not only the young men and women whose thoughts turn to love in the Spring: all of animal nature seems to be tuned into the Spring vibrations. It’s been a long Winter, but at last Spring has sprung in the Northern Plains.  We can’t all live in the tropics (Ecuador, for example), and not all Minnesotans are “snow birds” who head South for the Winter, so when the good weather returns those of us who have stuck it out over the Winter delight in the return of Spring and take the bad along with the immense good. As one of my favorite Gordon Bok songs says: “the world is always turning toward the morning,” and hope Springs eternal.

Learning From Great Books

I admit I am one of these odd people who thinks we can learn a great deal not only from history but also from great literature. There are many, of course, who would deny that there is any such thing as “great” literature — just literature that some like and others do not. But I would argue that great literature is recognizable because it provides us with insights into the human condition in a way that makes us marvel at the power of words.  I agree with Robert Persig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he said that “quality” is one of those things no one can define, but everyone recognizes it when they see it.

For example, all sports fans recognize the great athlete. They are rare and stand out above the others. We may not know what it is that sets them apart, but they jump out at us. We might quibble about who was the greatest tennis player, football player, or basketball player. And the current series on ESPN that seeks to single out the “greatest athlete ever,” comparing such athletes as Roger Federer and Bo Jackson,  is bogus. But those who know the sport know who the great ones were. Great literature is like that. It stands out and commands our attention. But if we don’t know anything about the sport involved, we cannot separate out the great players. Similarly, if we are not well read we cannot recognize the great books, those that exhibit exceptional writing and insight into the human condition.

I recently came upon a passage in E.M. Forster’s The Longest Journey that helps me  make my case. Forster is a poet in the true sense of that term: he creates with words. His creations happen to take the form of novels. This novel is one of those books that tells a story, but which also makes us stop and think. In that novel we find the following passage:

“the city [Salisbury] has strayed out of her own plain, climbed up her slopes, and tumbled over them in ugly cataracts of brick. The cataracts are still short, and doubtless they meet or create some commercial need. But instead of looking towards the cathedral, as all the city should, they look outwards at a pagan entrenchment, as the city should not. They neglect the poise of the earth, and the sentiments she has decreed. They are the modern spirit.”

The stunner, of course, is in the final sentence. I’ve been to Salisbury and have seen precisely what Forster points out. He is pointing to the human tendency — which has grown stronger since he wrote his novels — to put itself in opposition to the earth, to ignore its “sentiments,” and demand that it satisfy human cravings.

Farmers sit in their twelve-wheel tractors polluting the air and ripping into the soil in the Fall of the year to expose the dark topsoil to the eroding Winter winds; miners tear apart the earth and leave it exposed as they look beneath its surface for spoils that will make them rich; deforestation in tropical regions leaves the earth bare and parched and unable to provide future growth; we take precious oil from deep beneath the earth and burn it up in our gas-guzzling automobiles and trucks; we topple trees and cover the exposed earth with concrete parking lots and malls so we can shop for goods we don’t really need; and so it goes. In so many ways we do, indeed, “neglect the poise of the earth.” If we ever knew what stewardship meant, we have forgotten it in our haste to beat the world into submission to our will, to meet our endless demands for creature comforts, and continue to meet the demands of growing human populations.

Forster’s passing remark strikes chords and makes us pause and reflect. That is a mark of great writing.

Going For Olympic Gold

In its wisdom, the International Olympic Committee recently decided to drop wrestling from its “core sports” group. Wrestling will now have to vie with seven other sports for a single spot on the 2020 Olympics — and the betting is wrestling will not make it in. And the even safer bet is it’s all about money. So what else is new?

Wrestling, which goes back  to the first “modern” Olympics in 1896 in Athens — and almost certainly dates back to the games played by warring city-states in ancient Greece –will be replaced by (wait for it) GOLF! That’s right, the game that requires grace, quickness, agility, and strength will be replaced by a game for middle-aged Republicans. I exaggerate, of course: one of the professional golfers who is eligible to compete for this country in the Olympics is a Democrat — or so we are told. But it is also true that some of those who will compete will have problems lining up their putts because of the large gut that obtrudes. Is it just me, or does this whole thing seem almost sacrilegious?

In any event, this is clearly a sign of the times when money trumps tradition and long-time wrestling coach Vic Stanley, who commented on the recent decision, is surely correct in saying that the Committee is simply “following the money.” It’s a trend that started when the I.O.C. decided to drop altogether the distinction between amateur and professional — admitting, sadly, that it was a distinction without a difference as so many countries were paying the athletes and keeping them apart from the ordinary athletes in the lap of luxury. It was the same problems the tennis world had many years ago when they dropped the distinction and “opened” tennis to all players. It seems the “amateurs” like Roy Emerson were making more money than the professionals — under the table, of course.

So Pandora’s box was opened and we now have professional athletes making millions of dollars playing games year-round who compete for an Olympic medal — and a bit of money under the table as well. Nothing comes for free and jingoism is the rule of the day: how many medals do we have, Pop? Do we have the most, huh? There are very few nooks left where we can find the true amateur: the athlete who plays for the pure love of sport. Professionalism has filtered down even into the ranks of the children in Little League and Pop Warner football where parents hassle their kids over losses and corporate sponsors stand by with a check book looking for the latest talent. The answer is not to play with no score and no winners or losers (that’s downright dishonest and the kids know it) but to simply keep the money out of it. Sadly, I suspect, that ship has sailed.