Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I Can See the Forest

It's no revelation that we are bombarded daily with information from a myriad of sources--print, electronic, digital, cellular, gossip--and yes, I know some of that is redundant. Nevertheless, in this world of all news/information all the time, often we stumble into the theater of the absurd. As an example, did we really need to have live courtroom coverage of the battle over what to do with the expired carcass of Anna Nicole Smith? But when the news cycle is 25 hours a day, eight days a week (the Beatles were onto something well before their time), sometimes 'they' just make it up.

If we take all of that, swirl it around, then conflate it with the daily overdose of apochryphal dissemblage pouring from the Congressional sewers in the guise of paternalistic pap, it's well nigh impossible to focus. We get myopic, trying to fell the individual 'trees' that stand in the way of our rushing forth only to be strafed by even more amplified surround sound of didactic drivel. Counterintuitively we do this rather than taking the occasional hiatus to appreciate the wonder of the verdant forest through which we roam like Hansel and Gretel, trying to find our way home.

Tonight I had the privilege of attending a private reception honoring a friend of mine, Tommy O'Toole, for the decades-long effort he has poured into the game of golf. Yes, he does play the game, but by his own admission not as well as he'd like. He was, however, instrumental in the organization of the Missouri Amateur Golf Association years ago which ultimately became a springboard to the estimable position on the five-member Executive Committee of the United States Golf Association. He has traveled extensively over the years as a well-respected rules official and for other roles at U.S. Open Championships and many other USGA-sanctioned tournaments. Oh, and he's built a successful law practice 'on the side'.

Tommy sacrificed a lot for all of this, but his family always came first--always. And it wasn't always easy. His personal life suffered as did his health a few times. He had little time to devote to himself, but one thing he didn't give up, wouldn't allow it. He never lost sight of the things most important to him after family. His friends. And they are legion. In the past year, Tommy finally left his bachelor days behind and got married. He thinks he picked her. He didn't. No man ever does. We get picked. Our wives let us believe we're in control. We aren't. When Tommy took the plunge, he got a twofer--a son in the bargain, one who badly needed a dad and without any practice, Tommy slid into the role as easy as making a two-foot gimme. It's a tender scene to see them together, to see how gentle Tommy can be. Just as moving is listening to his friends talk about him, them.

I'm grateful I took time out to see the forest tonight, that I got to see Tommy with his new family, his mom and dad and so many people whose lives he's touched. He's gruff sometimes, blunt always and suffers fools madly, but I've not met anyone with a bigger heart. Tommy has been my friend sinced I moved to St. Louis, 29 years and counting. I've never kept ledgers with friends, never offered a hand with the expectation of something in return. I hope, though, that I've been as good of a friend to Tommy as he's been to me. Here's to you, TOT.

Monday, October 26, 2009


It's an emergency. I've fallen and I can't get up. No, I've not been nipping at the demon rum nor am I antediluvian, but I feel as though I'm dreaming, moving in slow motion. What is it about all of the buncombe in Washington that I don't grasp, can't reach in this nightmare? Will I awakene to a lost tribe of the citizenry that has been completely marginalized, something about which Michael Moore will fictionalize in a 'documentary'? Have we wandered so far from the 'loop' that we have not a prayer of ever rejoining? I'm unable to decipher any of the burbling babel of the 535 members of the Idiocracy. It has become white noise, no longer distinguishable from a mountain stream. I am getting drowsy again.

As I read the soporific that is the daily drumbeat of the news, I can't escape the $1.4 trillion dollar ($4 trillion; 10?) storm cloud of debt we can't pay and these Pied Pipers blithely pillage our pockets and add hundreds of billions more. Do we have to romance the stone, survive the Temple of Doom to learn the mystical secrets they know? Can the tendentious troika of Obama, Reid and Pelosi lead us on a magic carpet ride to enlightenment? Have Americans by the tens of millions been smitten by a Circean-like enchantress who has turned us into sheep? Or worse, lemmings? My head is like an IED, ready to explode at the slighted provocation. When I looked into the bathroom mirror this morning, staring back at me were the hopeless eyes of a futilitarian.

Please, will someone bring me back from the brink?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Rear View

It is inarugable that the 'Baby Boomers' have impacted American society in ways that no other generation can claim. Regrettably, some of changes we fostered were inimical to our own well-being and others simply backfired. One of our 'improvements' in particular has had far-ranging ramifications on multiple levels such as athletic, social and medical. I am sounding the alarm about a heretofore unnamed disorder that has been percolating for years like a dormant virus. We've known of it, felt it, damned it and tried multiple homeopathic remedies, but to little avail. It is a pandemic. You heard it here first. As reported recently in the Mad Magazine Journal of Bizarre Diagnoses, 'Bleacher Butt' has entered the pantheon of medical jargon if not any of the traditional medical hightowers. The hidebound community of doctors can say what it will, but I know what I know. And I, like so many other Boomers, did it to myself, a self-inflicted malady if you will.

Approximately 20% of our generation remained childless, so a full one-fifth will never have to battle the iniquitous, almost stygian affliction of Bleacher Butt. They are the ones who are likely supporting insurance reform as they don't face the misery for many of the rest of us who face long-term debilitation on our rear face, the one with the permanent vertical smile. The appellation of the diagnosis is an apt one and few terms can be more descriptive of a malady. It is a most disagreeable one. Clearly the disorder does not affect all Boomers equally which is ironic because we spent a good part of our youth shouting for 'equality'. But (no pun intended) no, we now stare into the maw of that which we wrought.

I have four children, the oldest 23 and the youngest 18. I married a Catholic girl and she took her procreative obligations seriously to counterbalance my apostacy I presume. I digress. While I'm unable to pinpoint the exact date, my recollection is that I attended my first youth soccer game in the Autumn of 1991. Of course, being the new generation of parents that we were and riding in on the heels of our 'liberation', all the ideas, the answers were ours. We thought organized sports were great for the very young. We found out too late that we were badly mistaken. We kept our children from backyard pick-up games where each became a famous player if only for an afternoon. We were determined to make certain each child had 'self esteem' so we declared every game a tie and bestowed a medal or trophy on each child at season's end--just for showing up. No self-esteem was built by that as the kids were smarter than we were. They figured out early that the tokens had no value. My kids have hundreds of worthless trinkets. Parenthetically, I wonder what happens when these kids become adults, begin a career and expect a reward for arriving on time. In any event, we created the monster and it stomps through our time like Godzilla through Tokyo.

I estimate that I have sat on my hind quarters through more than 1,200 soccer, basketball, T-ball, baseball, softball, team handball, dodgeball, field hockey, lacrosse and hockey games; I've gotten a sore neck at tennis matches, fought boredom at cross country courses, sat through four-hour track meets watching a child compete for a total of less than five minutes; I've refereed flashlight tag and capture the flag; I've even celebrated at games of Red Rover and cheered at three-legged races. The sum of that my friends begat a lot of sitting. And not in a plush luxury box. Not in a nice theater seat. Not in the high-priced area. No. I've sat on bleachers in grade-school gyms so hot the concession stand served hot dogs without cooking them. I've planted my buns near sidelines on days so cold that the aluminum bleachers stuck to me like ice on a wet tongue. Only once was I fooled by the gentle contours of the modern fiberglas bleachers and only until I planted the buttosky. I've breathed a tribe's quota of stale air smelling of dark gym bags. There were days where a child swam through a monsoon in a game of water polo which was supposed to be a soccer game. Perhaps that's how water polo was invented. I've parked my fan-fan in snow storms during which some kids stopped and threw snowballs. There were a few times--far too few--where we were blessed by what can only be described as divine intervention: Lightning. Oh, for those days when the officials called a game because the crackle of electric current spidered through the sky. The kids never heard cheering like they experienced when a game was called. It must have exploded their self-esteem to new heights.

And all the while we assumed that kids understood everything we did about the games we coached, the rules, terminology and not hitting. My favorite was at a T-ball game with a group of first-graders. The coach, one of the kids' dad of course, was a little harried trying to herd the bevy of boys and yelled, "Who's on deck?' whereupon one of his players said, with a bit of a superior smirk on his face, "On deck? Coach, we're ballplayers, not sailors." Art Linkletter was far ahead of his time.

The years rolled by like flotsam and jetsam down the Mississippi. With hubris born of generational success, we irrationally clung to the belief that immortality awaited us. Some still do. They are mistake. We got older. So did the bleachers. Wood, aluminum, fiberglas--it didn't matter. They were all hard. Like a block of ice hard; like a steel bat hard; like the glare of a woman scorned hard. I mean they were unforgiving. It didn't matter whether I sat leaning back with legs extended over two rows or hunched over with elbows on knees. Leaning one way or another helped until the disfavored cheek was benumbed, torpid. I had a heightened sense of the point at which gangrene began to rear its horrific head, so I'd simply shift to the other side sending it back to its dark recess. By the end of an event, I couldn't walk normally, so I shuffled. So did the other parents. It could have been a new dance. Sometimes my buttocks had hot flashes as the blood returned to the capillaries with a vengeance. I found it interesting after games watching the parents nonchalantly kneading the rear flesh in an attempt to de-anesthetize the hump.

Age and gravity have now taken their course. I wasn't blessed with much of a butt, so I always had less to work with, but now I have reached the point of 'saggy bottom'. I'm one of those guys with baggy pants that look like bloomers because I have no booty to stretch the seams. All things considered though, my bum has served me well. It never went on 'injured reserve', never missed the call to arms, I mean buttocks. Only 223 days remain till my youngest graduates from high school. Soccer season is winding to a close, but basketball bounces into view less than a week later. When the last shot swishes, we take a short break for Spring to spring and then on to track and field. At the end of that road will be a history, 18 years of taking a seat to watch our kids romp and play, compete and learn about 'team'. Mostly, not always, I suffered the pain in silence, the backside silently screaming. I was and am willing to suffer the indignity for the opportunity to see unbridled joy for just a while.

My gluteous maximus won't miss the courts and fields. I won't know what to do.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Prescient Penmen

Are we doomed to repeat the past because we've forgotten it? It is highly possible if not probable that we are en route. Was it forecasted by long-dead clairvoyants from decades ago? Perhaps.

Much has been made of late about the parallels between the current devolution of the American system as the same were acutely drawn in the brilliant Ayn Rand novel Atlas Shrugged. Ms. Rand began the lengthy tome in the early 1950's and it took nearly a decade to finish. I read it while in my '20's and picked it up again a few years ago. It startled me when I re-read it though at the time I was blissfully ignorant of our out-of-control economic bobsled run. As the economy cascaded into a canyon even grander than the Grand, commentators of all stripes dissected Rand's message as a metaphor of America today and how we fell so far to this still-precarious perch. Sales of Atlas Shrugged have skyrocketed and many are echoing the 'doomsayer' denouement as set out therein. It is obvious from the conclusion penned by Ms. Rand, at least to me, that she was being somewhat allegorical. But only somewhat.

Are there others from the roots of American literature that could be touted as predicters of the future? I suggest a reading of You Can't Go Home Again, the tour de force by Thomas Wolfe, published in 1934, partially as a chronicle of American excess leading to the Great Depression. He described the populace in the far reaches of this land who read and heard about the Stock Market crash who wondered if they would be affected or if life would proceed apace. Much like the pap that an olio of economists peddle to us every day, in the early 1930's the same nonsense was being ballyhooed early on. Bromides like "the fundamentals of the economy are sound" were then touted as gospel by serious looking men with furrowed brows. Sound familiar? The only difference is that today the creased brows are commonly found on women as well. Either way, can we swallow 'fundamentally sound'? Even after the timeline for the 'recovery' keeps getting pushed further into the future? Hell, I'm not even sure any more what the 'fundamentals' are. Moreover, the definition of 'sound' seems to change daily.

Wolfe was right when he wrote his book and if alive today he would be making the rounds of all the Sunday morning political mosh pits as well as pilgrimages to Oprah and David Letterman. He would be lampooned on Saturday Night Live. But he was right: We can't go home again. 'Home' doesn't look the same, isn't quite so, well, homey as it was in 2007. We know that it feels different, but we can't quite put our fingers on it yet. There is a chill in the air and it's not from October.

We are not starving (yet) as we're being spoon fed 'change' spiced with a sweet 'optimism' so it's yummy. By the time we are billeted at the 'home' that sits in the subdivision of this new reality, it will look like a mansion, but will be more akin to a small pied-a-terre. Many won't even remember 'before'. And we never saw it coming. It came in fits and starts, in bits and pieces, stealthily, cunningly as we kept gorging ourselves in this land of plenty. Had we bothered to look into a mirror, really look, we might have done something to stop the madness. The primary blame lies at our feet. Not in Washington or with the big banks or 'big business' (though they certainly share), but with us. We were happy to take all that was 'given' as a birthright, to use a huge wad of our cash to engage in riotous living, then we wasted the rest. It was a mirage, a chimerical vision like being in Las Vegas. We bought in, doubled our bets because we wanted to believe it, wanted the bacchanalia to go on and on.

In a chillingly accurate description of the climate in the 1930's, Wolfe wrote, "America had come to the end of something, and to the beginning of something else. But no one knew what that something else would be, and out of the change and the uncertainty and the wrongness of the leaders grew fear and desperation, and before long hunger stalked the streets."

Compelling wouldn't you say? While lately there have been only droplets of civil unrest, I sense a growing alarm even among the illuminati and clearly we see daily images reflecting the desperation of the jobless millions. And more bad news is coming. A commercial real estate meltdown. Hundreds of bank failures. An unemployment rate going ever higher and still not reflective of the real statistics. I acknowledge that other economic signals are mixed, at least as far as we're told, and I fervently hope I am 180 degrees wrong about Wolfe and Rand being ahead of their respective times. It is difficult to be optimistic, however, when one sees and hears the despair of so many. And all of this comes on the heels of promises from Washington that the 'stimulus' would create (or save, however that's calculated) 3.5 million jobs? What are these people to do during a 'jobless recovery', during this beginning of 'something else'?

Despite his depiction of American life in his time, Thomas Wolfe appeared optimistic even in 1934. He wrote further, "Through it all there was only one certainty, though no one saw it yet. America was still America, and whatever new thing came of it would be American." He was right, of course, and after the machinations of FDR and his merry band of Robin Hoodians followed by WWII, American once again became the land of plenty, building bigger, better and more. Lessons along the way were taught, but not learned. So now we have landed here. But where is 'here'?

We've come to the end of something and the beginnig of what? We are on the threshold of where exactly? We have parachuted into someplace. Oz? At least it had a real wizard.

I don't know Toto, but I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.