Friday, February 27, 2009

Max Ivers -- maintenance man

On the right, there's my son, Max (left), with his teammate, Parker Smith (right), cleaning up the ice at the Verizon Center Tuesday night during the Caps-Flyers game, while Mike Green, the Caps' 23 year-old star defenseman, waits for the face-off. The Washington Capitals have a program that allows four youth hockey players to assist the maintenance crew that maintains the ice during breaks in play. This is just one of many programs the Caps run as part of their community service program. The kids get to sit right on the glass behind the net during the game. Of course, the best part is the fourth row seat behind the glass that the Caps give to the parent-chaperone for taking time out of his busy evening to make sure the kids arrive at the arena safely.

Now this is precisely the kind of "work" my son is willing to do. So would I, if they let me. But they wouldn't. I even asked.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


The distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate is 60 feet, six inches. An average major league pitcher who throws an average major league fastball, one clocked at somewhere between 87-90 miles an hour, can get the ball to the catcher in less than one second from the point of release. And that's regardless of whether you're pitching in Denver at Coors Field, where the speed with which thrown and battled balls travel slightly exceeds the speed-of-sound, or a cool, muggy night in Boston at Fenway Park, where the ball moves a bit more slowly, although still quite fast.

At least 153 times per game, a major league catcher catches the pitch, stands up, and throws the ball back to the pitcher. No one really thinks about this in an era of micro-analyzing pitch counts, but the catcher handles the ball more than any other player on the field. In Greg Maddux's prime, he might have thrown a 90 pitch complete game. Add seven warm tosses before each inning. At that point the pitcher and catcher are tied for most throws in the game. But the catcher makes one more throw per inning -- the traditional throw down to second base after the pitcher has thrown his last warm-up pitch. A catcher who endures a 150-65 pitch slug fest mostly likely has caught three to four different pitchers, so the number of throws the catcher makes during a game like that night is far more than anyone else. Now throw in the repetitive squatting through out the game, the occasional jog to the pitcher's mound to confer with the pitcher, running down the foul-line on ground balls hit with no one on to back up the throw . . . add 90 degree days with humidity to match (particularly if you play for a team on the Eastern Seaboard or the interior Midwest or the Southeast) and you're talking about someone who deserves to put his feet up at the end of the day or blow-off making dinner in favor of ordering out.

You know who else works really, really hard? Pre-school teachers and roofers, especially in the summertime. Men and, occasionally, the women who work in rock quarries have one tough job. I spent sometime at a rock quarry this summer, about the equivalent of two full days, loading and hauling small gravel into the pick-up truck I borrowed from a friend, and then drove back to my house, where I dumped it into a corner of my yard. From there, a friend of mine who I hadn't seen in 20 years and I took wheelbarrow loads at a time to another area of my yard that he -- who, naturally, is not Jewish -- insisted we needed to regrade. We did this about 15 times over the span of two days. About a week or so later, I made about two or three more trips to the quarry, this time with my son, who, after the first trip, told me he now "understood" why we "harrass" him so much about school.

"I don't want to end up doing this," he said, pointing to the men -- there were no women -- who spent eight or nine hours a day working in rock quarries. "It's too hard."

"You're pretty perceptive," I said. "Imagine how much more perceptive you would be if you finished at the top of your class, instead of . . ."

"I GET IT, I GET IT, I GET IT!" he said, sounding not unlike Tony Soprano towards the end of Season Six, Part 2, after he stood up, powered by peyote, and yelled from a mountain overlooking somewhere in the Southern California Valley, "I GET IT, I GET IT, I GET IT!"

I've watched the episode many, many times, and I still don't know what it was that Tony "got," since he never really came to grips with his life and the consequences it had on the people around him. But I know what it was that my son "got": he didn't want to have to grow up and work that hard. And I know why I "got" what my son "got": At his age, I didn't want to work that hard either.

And I still don't.

* * * * * * * * * *

To the extent I have ever been good at anything in my life, it hasn't been work. I like to talk -- never let it be said that I don't reveal my inner-most secrets -- and I am pretty good, I think, at communicating my ideas to other people or engaging them in conversation. Since the first time that Ms. Fountain, in the 1st grade, read one of my "stories" out loud in class, I have always enjoyed writing. It didn't hurt that Teri Merlin, who I spent the better part of my elementary school years trying to impress when I wasn't staring at her, kissed me on the ear after that class. Teri pulled me aside in the back of the classroom, near the sink where we washed our hands after our art projects -- yes, I went to school so long ago that we were permitted to learn about and actually do art, physical education, music and so on -- and told me she had a secret to tell me. Then she leaned in and kissed my ear. Wow!

"Wow!" is right, because that was about it for me with the ladies until about 6th grade, when the bottle spun on me at "Spin-the-Bottle" parties, yielding a, "Do I have to?" from the girl unlucky enough to have spun the bottle -- on me. From that point on . . . oh, hell, do I really want to go into this and risk wasting the thousands of dollars I've spent trying to come to grips with who I am?


* * * * * * * * * *

Having no real interest in work isn't the same thing as being lazy. I have always been willing to put the time into something I want to do, and, hopefully, do well. If not well, then good enough not to embarrass myself. I had no illusions from the 3rd grade forward, when I was first introduced to the "new math," that I had a future in anything requiring any sort of mathematical skill. Ditto for the hard sciences. Unless misusing Bunsen burners to light cheerleader's uniforms on fire or making stink bombs with sulfur was considered outstanding work in the public school curriculum -- and, based on my report cards, it wasn't -- I had to think about something else. I never thought about doing something solely because I could make a lot money -- no one enters this profession for that reason. Growing up, we always had what we needed and many things that we wanted, and I knew plenty of people who didn't have either, so my aspirations were fairly modest when it came time for me to think about earning my place in the world. My parents never judged anybody based on how much money they made or how they made it, provided it was fairly legal. An asshole was an asshole, and a nice person was a nice person. The whole point was to do the best you could with what you had. Where it took you was less important than how you got there.

I certainly have put a great deal of time into my academic career. I've written four books, co-edited two others and have another one in progress. I've written all sorts of short pieces, some formal and "professional," others for more general audiences and still others for people somewhere in between. I put a great deal of time into my teaching over the years, developing five different courses since coming to American University 20 years ago, and continually trying to come up with new ways to teach the material I find so interesting. This semester, I am teaching two courses I don't normally teach, one a new topics course and the other a introductory political theory course I teach about once every five years. Some of my colleagues think I'm crazy for taking on new courses. Frankly, that's a position I don't understand. Teaching is the most important thing college professors do. Wanting to do more of it and change it up now and then is pure oxygen. In fairness, teaching is so de-valued now that many professors take the attitude that it's something necessary to do so that we can do our research, which is more valued for purposes of promotion, retention and "professional reputation" than rigorous undergraduate instruction. After twenty years of teaching at the college level, I've found that most academics are looking for some research accomplishment -- a book, some professional articles, service as the treasurer in a professional association -- as their claim to fame rather than just the satisfaction of teaching and, occasionally, one hopes, inspiring someone really smart to use their talents the right way. I suppose that explains why I am considered a "below average" scholar by my university -- because I'm not pumping out a book every year or two or contributing "research" articles to journals that almost no one reads. In academia, it's not what you say; it's how often you say it.

And yet I don't feel that anything I've done is work in the sense that driving a forklift in a rock quarry, repairing roads in the dead of summer, working construction in 10 degree weather or processing insurance claims is work. For those of us lucky enough to get good academic jobs -- and for all my criticism of how universities work and the distorted priorities in higher education, I am well aware of how fortunate I am -- we are lucky to go to "work," that is, an office where the environment is civilized, where no one is watching over our shoulder, where we have substantial intellectual control over what we teach and write about, where the "crises" we confront are magnified to a degree inverse to their actual significance, where we don't have to punch a clock or negotiate for time-off to take our children to the doctor. I think a good many academics try to embellish just how hard they "work" to fit into our workaholic culture. But we shouldn't confuse time devoted to our craft with the time it takes for someone, far less lucky than, us to wake up early every single day, rush to get the kids ready, stand at a bus stop to begin an hour and a half commute, spend eight hours, minimum, doing something you can't wait to finish, taking 30 minutes to shovel down some lunch (off the clock) then waiting for the bus, taking an hour and half to get home, throw something together for dinner, get your kids cleaned up and put to bed, only to collapse and do it all over again day after day for 40 years. That's work. That's what my son understood this summer and what I learned many years ago.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap applaud Bristol Palin and the abstinence campaign led by her mother, Sarah Palin, discuss the killer chimps and review their three years of providing news and analysis from Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Remembering Louis Bellson

The passing, at 84, of Louis Bellson, one of American music's greatest drummers and for years the engine that drove the bands of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, leaves contemporary jazz without its last ambassador to the swing era of the 1930s and 1940s. Of course, Roy Haynes, at 83, is still making the musicians in his "Fountain of Youth" band reach for their second, third and fourth winds during any given performance. But Roy is a very different drummer -- and different musician -- than Louis was, a bridge from the swing era to the bop revolution, and a drummer who, in my view, was and remains jazz music's most modern practitioner of the instrument.

Louis, though, was much more than just an innovative and tasteful drummer. He was probably the first drummer in American music to earn the reputation as a "musician" and not just some sort of freak-of-nature (Buddy Rich) or player/showman (Gene Krupa). Rich and Krupa were, of course, superb musicians, as anyone who played with them will attest. Simply because you cannot write music or, in some cases, read charts doesn't mean that you don't possess the ears and sensitivity to make another person's composition as good as it can be. This is what I would call the "Ringo effect." Ringo might not have dazzled anyone with pyrotechnics and "WTF was that?" drum solos. But good luck finding one Beatles song that would have been better had some modern powerhouse athletic drummer played on songs like, "In My Life," "Rain," or "A Day in the Life." Phil Collins once said that none of the guys today would know what to do with a song like, "A Day in the Life." Just try to find a group of historic import in jazz or popular music that has made it to that level with a bad drummer.

Go ahead.

The Beatles weren't the Beatles until they stole Ringo away from Rory Storm. Charlie Watts laid it down so that Mick and Keith could prance and dance. Keith Moon, John Bonham, Bill Bruford, Phil Collins, Clyde Stubblefield, Al Jackson, Jr., Stewart Copeland, just for starters -- imagine the Who, Led Zeppelin, Yes, Genesis, James Brown, Motown and the Police with anyone else. You can't.

Of course, the notion that drummers are not musicians is quite common, and not unique to any particular genre of music. Louis was a composer, arranger and bandleader. A great source of his inspiration was the great singer, Pearl Bailey, whom he married in 1952 (they were together until Pearl passed in 1990). Louis left his gig with Duke Ellington to become his wife's musical director. And is there any better testament to one's stature as a musician than this comment from Duke Ellington:

"Not only is Louis the world's greatest drummer . . . . he is the world's greatest musician!"

Louis not only played with power, finesse and panache, he introduced the concept of double-bass drumming into American music. So, yes, when you see these metal drummers knocking back their 32nd note solos or funk drummers incorporating odd-patterns into their bass drum feel, it's not Keith Moon or Carmine Appice who should get the credit for this development. Louis first began playing a drum-kit with two bass drums in 1939, when he was 15 years old.

Above all, Louis Bellson carried the reputation as a gentleman in an industry that isn't known for many of them. Ironically, Buddy Rich, the polar opposite of Louis in personality and style, cited Louis as his favorite drummer and went to him when he needed a proven drummer and bandleader to sub for him when he was ill or recovering from surgery. Until his final days, Louis gave generous amounts of his time to promoting jazz education, reguarly visiting public schools, music colleges and other community organizations to demonstrate drum technique and talk about a life in music. Louis Bellson was a great man and a great musician, and proved, over a professional career that last for 61 years, that nice guys can finish first.

Live Zeebop this week

Live Zeebop this week (and beyond) . . .

Saturday, February 28th, Red Dog Cafe, 8301-A Grubb Rd., Silver Spring, Md. Two sets -- 9-11.30 p.m. Jazz, with some funk, in a bistro setting. Complete dinner menu, desserts, coffees, etc.
Saturday, March 14th, Maggianos, 5330 Wisconsin Ave., Friendship Heights, D.C. Three sets -- 7-10.30 p.m. Jazz, with some funk, in the front end of the restaurant.
Monday, March 30th, La Ferme, 7100 Brookville Rd., Chevy Chase, Md. Three sets -- 6.30-9.30 p.m.  Country french; soft acoustic jazz.
Zeebop is represented by Grabielismo Productions. To learn more about Zeebop, click here.
We are back in the studio next weekend to finish off the recording for our first CD.  If you are interested in obtaining a copy, please leave a comment or reply to: I will put you on our mailing list and let you know when our CD will be released to the public.
Thank you for your support.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The amazing Alex Ovechkin

Just when Alex Ovechkin has given you everything, he gives you something else. This goal against the Montreal Canadiens last night, is more insane than "The Goal" against Phoenix three years ago.

There isn't a person playing in the NHL right now that could have pulled this off other than the Great Eight.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A is not for effort

Growing up, I was fortunate to live in a neighborhood where all the guys liked sports, a great thing because that's pretty much all I wanted to do. For me, elementary school was just a place to hang out to make plans about what game we would play after school on which street, cul-de-sac or yard, not a place to learn about geography, the perfect-past tense in English or what was then called "the new math." Football season meant the Rosenberg's yard, located just a few houses down from mine, which was cut and rolled like a golf course and had no trees. Basketball season meant three-on-three games in the Pitt's driveway, which was next door to me. Baseball took us either to an open space that didn't appear to belong to any house in particular, but must have because no one every built anything on it, even as the neighborhood changed over time, or the cul-de-sac where Jeff Balser and David Galler lived, in which case we substituted a tennis ball for the baseball and modified the rules so no one could hit to right-field. After hockey came to Atlanta in 1972, we "converted" the cul-de-sac into a street hockey "rink." We spray-painted a red line down the middle, outlined goalie creases and designated the Balser's mailbox as the "penalty box" because it was made of brick.

We also made up sports of our own, such as "Killer-Ball," which involved the older brothers in the neighborhood throwing a tetherball or basketball at me and my friends while we ran from side-to-side in front of a brick wall. There was also "tackle" freeze tag, which, as the name suggests, did not involve the "it" person tagging another player. You had to tackle him or her. I have no doubt that we played other games that we should have but failed to patent. But injuries suffered in Killer-Ball no doubt have hampered my long-term memory, so this stroll down my personal Wide World of Sports memory lane will have to end here.

Like in most neighborhoods, some of us were better at some sports than others. My best sports were baseball and street hockey. Football belonged to Jeff Balser, and he later became a good street hockey player because he could just overpower people. Jeff Brickman was so good at tennis no one would play him. The best all-around athlete was probably Kenny Froug, who was big, strong and incredibly well-coordinated. A close second was Howard Rabinowich, who didn't have Kenny's size, but was strong as hell and had great reflexes. Kenny was the best basketball player of us all; Howard probably the best all-around baseball player and, along with me, one of the two best street hockey players. We were pretty intense rivals, so intense that the only fight I have ever gotten into in my life came against Howard during a street hockey game. He burned me all afternoon and I just started mouthing off against him. After warning me to shut up, I jumped him when he wasn't looking. Howard turned around and hit me, and that was that. Now that I think about it, it wasn't much of a fight. Thinking about it even more, I am grateful that Howard didn't kill me.

No matter how hard I tried, though, I just couldn't play basketball very well. I used to shoot baskets in the Pitt's driveway for hours -- and sometimes I even hit the rim. Sometimes on weekends my friends and I would sneak into our nearby high school so we could play full court basketball on a wood floor. No one ever picked me first.

Or second.

Or third.

Or . . . or . . . or.

"Who wants Ivers?" someone would plead so we could get the game going.

"How come you're so good at baseball and running but you suck at basketball?" another mystified friend would wonder -- out loud.

"What the hell is this? This is bullshit!! Why didn't you tell me you sucked?" another, less familiar "friend" would scream after realizing that taking me fairly high in the team-picking ritual because I had a reputation as a good baseball and street hockey player was a huge mistake. The assumption, of course, is that because I was good at a couple of sports I should, by default, be good at them all.

But I wasn't. Especially basketball. Even football, a sport I have absolutely no interest in and have not watched since my senior year in college, when a "fan" in back of me at the Missouri-Oklahoma game was so moved by the Mizzou's suprise victory that he threw up on me (chili dogs and what smelled like Jack Daniels and Coke), then stepped on and over me to rush the field so he could tear down the goal posts, I played respectably. By neighborhood standards, I had fairly decent speed and could catch a pass. Even all these years later, I still relish my great achievement in 8th grade football -- breaking Alan Harris's collarbone during a tackling drill. Had I not started running cross-country, a fall sport, I might have continued to play football.

Or at least that's what I tell people. The truth is more complicated: my first high school had perhaps the worst football team of any high school ever, and I needed a respectable excuse to avoid getting killed. My second high school was a football powerhouse, and I had about as much of a chance to see so much as a single snap during a game, even if we had been winning 377 to 0 against my former high school. So, yes, that's how bad I really was. Who wants to take risk on a 377 point lead against the worst high school football team ever with 11 seconds to go?

And that's where the first part of this story, a very long precursor to the short second part of this story, ends.

* * * * * * * * * *

Now he's the short middle part. I practiced my dribbling, shooting and rebounding all summer and fall in anticipation of trying out for the 8th grade basketball team. Balser, Howard and Kenny Froug were locks. Brickman sucked and had no chance. Caryn Mandel, who was as good as any of us in the neighborhood at whatever sport she took up, was probably the most talented athlete of us all; thankfully, she couldn't embarrass us macho men because she was safely stashed away on the girls teams.

The new coach actually found me in the hallways about a month into school and said that he "looked forward" to seeing me on the team.

"Word is you're a good athlete," I remember him telling me. "Looking forward to it."

Obviously not, since, about two months later he cut me from the 8th grade boys' team, which, if memory serves me correctly, didn't win a game that year. But he offered me quite a consolation prize: team manager, which would, in his words, "allow" me to practice with the team and stand under the basket and pass the ball back to him after his post-practice ritual -- 100 free throws.

Still, I didn't get any better.

"Ivers," he said to me. "I like you. I do. But this is not your game. Do yourself a favor and concentrate on your other sports."

"All right. Free throw time. Here we go . . ."

1 . . . 23 . . . 48 . . . 63 . . . 98, 99 and finally, 100. After I gathered up his 100th free throw and placed the ball back in the rack, I walked down to the locker room, gathered my stuff, which, of course, did not include any school books, and walked home. No one else knew it at the time, but that marked my retirement from organized basketball. I did not ask for nor did I receive a golf cart, vacation to the Caymans, a retired jersey or the answers to that week's geometry quiz. As hard as I tried to play basketball, I just didn't have any aptitude for the game. So long, then.

* * * * * * * * * *

Maybe I made a mistake walking away from a game I never played. Maybe I should have taken my cues from the contemporary college students interviewed in a telling, although not surprising, New York Times article this morning on why students think they deserve As or Bs not based on how well they fared on graded projects in any given course, but because they went to class, or tried hard or simply "need" the grade for some other objective. The article is based on a recently released study by a team of University of California professors on the rise of the "entitlement" mentality among college undergraduates. Here's one student's view of things:

"I think putting in a lot of effort should merit a high grade. What else is there really than the effort that you put in? If you put in all the effort you have and get a C, what is the point? If someone goes to every class and reads every chapter in the book and does everything the teacher asks of them and more, then they should be getting an A like their effort deserves. If your maximum effort can only be average in a teacher’s mind, then something is wrong."
As shocking as this statement might be to someone who graduated from college ten years ago or more, it is an absolutely accurate reflection of how many -- and I would go so far as to say most -- undergraduates view the grading process.

"I'm here -- usually -- and that should count for something. I bought the books -- most of them -- and that should count for something. I didn't sleep the whole time and only pocket-texted for the first and last parts of class -- and maybe some in the middle and beginning-middle and middle-end parts -- and that should count for something."
All right, so I made that paragraph up. But after reading the comment above it, did you think, at least for a few seconds, that it was another student quoted in the article?

"You need to understand that not everyone cares about this stuff as much as you do. We need our grades to go to law school or get a job, and it isn't fair that you expect us to know as much as you do. You are playing with our futures so you should base our grades on our lives not yours."
Now that quote I didn't make up. That was a comment from the "narrative" evaluation component of the student surveys on "teaching effectiveness" last semester -- from the "Honors" class I taught.

The "entitlement mentality" is something I've written extensively about in this space. Youth sports, college admissions, access to wealth, perfect skin, cars that don't breakdown, law school admissions, morally compromised sex partners . . . all these are expectations rather than goals for a good number of people who live in privilege, come from it or believe their education entitles them to certain careers, stuff, grades, money or social status. They see no reason why they can't have what they want because they want it. Just last week I wrote a piece called, "Competition," which, in essence, tried to argue that there is a huge difference between learning how to work the system to your advantage and genuine competition that tests our skills. Reading the Times story made me think I might be on to something. Advantages, whether we're born into them or acquire them through luck or hardwork, accrue over time like compound interest. They never really go away unless we let them. In many ways, the entitlement mentality is a by-product of our false perception that ours is a meritocratic society, and that we can be anything we want. The truth is a much more complex matter. And while the truth will set you free, it sometimes comes at a considerable cost to our self-esteem, as well as our understanding of how the world really works.

* * * * * * * * * *

Dribble, dribble, dribble. Free throw after free throw after free throw. Suicide sprints by myself. Challenging myself to H-O-R-S-E games in the Pitt's driveway and not quitting until I had made all my shots. Converse Hi-Tops, then Adidas Superstar sneakers . . . spent what money I had in hopes that the shoes would make the difference. Nothing helped. In the end, I got cut from my 8th grade basketball team. Perhaps I should have made the team and not suffered through the indignity of serving, against my will, as the manager. But it didn't work out that way. Sometimes hard work, determination and a dream, however noble, are not enough. By the time a student enters college, that lesson should already have been learned. If not, this is as good a place as any to start.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap are confused about the "Octoplet Mom," and a bit hurt that they weren't asked to help make all those babies.

And then there is the matter of the "Wall Street crooks" taking all their big bonuses.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The magic helmet

If you have ever participated in organized youth sports as a coach, team manager or player, you know that there is never a shortage of psychotic, maniacal "adults" who simply cannot grasp that sports for kids should be about, well, sports for kids.

No, no, no . . .

and no.

No, not for these lunatics, who somehow cannot distinguish between the importance of seven, nine, 10, 13 or even 16 year-olds playing a game because they're seven, nine, 10, 13 or even 16 and enjoy it. Or love it. Or live for it . . .

and, oh, I don't know, the decision of the Pakistani government to reach an "accord" with the Taliban. Or the 45 million Americans without health insurance. Or the "Oh, come on" attitude of the permanent political-media establishment in Washington at the suggestion of any sort of investigation into the Bush administration's flouting of the law or President Obama's still-standing decision to limit lobbyist influence in his administration.

Who needs caffeine at 6.55 a.m. on a Sunday morning in a freezing cold ice rink -- or, better yet, a freezing cold outdoor ice rink in January or February -- when you can have the pleasure of watching some angry father, usually two or three lifetimes removed from any sort of proper physical conditioning, bang the glass when his son skates by, imploring him to "SKATE, SKATE, SKATE!!!!!" Of course, there is the argument that perhaps the nine year-old needs to be reminded that since he is wearing skates, he probably should skate. On the other hand, let's just assume that most nine-year olds can figure that much out. Picture this: the nine year-old who can't figure out that he is supposed to skate with his skates on is standing just outside the window of his dad's office, screaming at him to "WRITE, WRITE, WRITE," or a few feet away from the sawhorse at his dad's construction worksite, standing on a ladder so he can meet him at eye level, yelling at him to "HAMMER! HAMMER! HAMMER!" or he will pull him off the site and dock his pay -- right in front of his co-workers just so he learns a lesson.

Stories like this abound . . . the mother who threatens to pull her son from the team because the coach is playing him at the "wrong" position and thus costing him a chance to play in high school or college.

At 12.

The mother who always "volunteers" to keep score during the game so that she can award her son goals and assists he didn't have, all the better to improve his "standing" among the "league's statistical leaders."

At 11.

The father-coach so angered by a bad line change on his team of House Squirts that, without looking, he slams the bench door so hard that he breaks a player's hand . . . his own son's.

At 9.

The father-coach who "retains counsel" so he can sue the league or, at minimum, file a complaint with USA Hockey over the "tie-breakers" used to determine the playoff seeding of the House Mite end-of-season championship tournament.

At 7 and 8.

The mother-team manager who insists that a referee is calling penalties against "her" team and her son specifically because the referees think the other mom-manager is hot.

At 14.

And on and on it goes. And goes and goes and goes . . . .

But no story I can tell can capture the plaintive needs of children to be left alone to play a game they love than a current video making the rounds called, "The Magic Helmet." A nine-year Canadian boy tells a story of what happens to him at the rink when he puts on his "magic helmet." Here's the sad part: the parents to whom he's speaking -- not the ones in his basement making the video -- will watch, shake their heads and say, "You know, that reminds me of so-and-so on that team 'we' played two weeks ago," without realizing that the boy is talking to them.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Live Zeebop

Live Zeebop update . . .

February 16th, 6.30-9.30 p.m., La Ferme, Chevy Chase, Maryland. Three sets of straight-ahead jazz in a relaxed country French restaurant. Monday night is jazz night, so you can enjoy the music with just a drink, coffee and/or dessert.

February 20th, 7-10 p.m. Clare and Don's, Falls Church, Virginia. Three sets of straight ahead jazz with special guest Pablo Grabiel. Relaxed, casual atmosphere.

February 28th, 9-11.30 p.m., Red Dog Cafe, Silver Spring, Maryland. Two sets of straight-ahead jazz. Bistro environment -- great food, full bar, coffees and desserts.

March 14th, 7-10.30 p.m. Maggianos, Friendship Heights, D.C. Three sets of straight ahead jazz, served with a slice of funk.

We are heading into the recording studio this weekend to begin putting down tracks for our forthcoming CD, tentatively titled, "In the Moment."

Hope to see you out soon. And thanks for your support.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Is the Holocaust just a theory?

For Catholic Bishop Richard Williamson, it appears that evolution, gravity and human reproduction are not the only dimensions of the physical and material world unexplained by the laws of science or historical evidence. Add the Holocaust to that list.

Pope Benedict XVI's decision to "rescind" the ex-communication of Williamson, who, as a member of the breakaway fringe group, Society of St. Pius X, has said for years that the Holocaust never happened (and who just recently refused an invitation from the German magazine, Der Spiegel, to visit Auschwitz) has undermined much of the progress that the Church has made in the last 25 years in reaching out to Jews around the world. Benedict's decision to rescind Williamson's ex-communication is part of his effort to bring Catholics back into the fold. The best comment I've read on this bizzare development comes from E. J. Dionne, who, from the vantage point of a "liberal Catholic," has called on the Church to take a hard stance on Williamson and continue the Church's commitment, begun under Pope John Paul II's, to expunge anti-Semitism from its teachings. Dionne's comments are informed, sincere and deeply-felt, and it cannot be easy to criticize an institution that has always been important to Catholics like Dionne.

On the other hand, this entire episode is infuriating for no other reason that it seems to allow some wiggle room for Williamson, Benedict, the Church and others -- not Dionne -- to "work through" the issue, to talk about the complexities of reconciling religion, sin, consecreation . . . whatever . . . with an "opinion" that is absolutely and without qualification wrong, wrong and wrong. Religion is entitled to no more deference on Holocaust than some nut from the secular world -- think David Irving. Or David Duke, for that matter.

Underneath this story is another one. For you "content analysts" out there who study communication or how the media covers stories and who gets the attention and who doesn't, put together a quick little project on the amount of newspaper space devoted to the A-Rod "revelations" and the amount of space given to the Williamson story. Pick five major newspapers. I'll make it easy by not asking you to analyze web coverage of this story.

I'm guessing that the ratio will be about 20:1 in column inches. And that's a conservative estimate.

Unless Williamson used steroids or did some late-night bong hits with his fellow bishops. Then it would be news.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


A-Fraud, A-R*d, A-Steroid, Nim-Rod . . .

Barry Bonds once thought he stood alone as the most talented and reviled player in major league baseball over the past 25 years. Not since Ty Cobb had any professional baseball player heeded the late 15th and early 16th century Italian philosopher Nicolo Machiavelli's advice that it is better to be feared than loved. Then along came Alex Rodriguez, who, after beginning his career as baseball's perfect P.R. dream in 1996 as a teenage wunderkind with the Seattle Mariners, began working his way towards the Surly Slugger after he left Seattle for the Texas Rangers and a ten-year contract worth $250 million. In 2004, Rodriguez packed his Louis Vutton bags for the Big Apple, taking up residence in Yankee Stadium, or the House that Ruth Built with little more than hot dogs and a whole lotta beer. By October, A-Rod finally caught Bonds, distinguishing himself for the ages in Game 1 of that year's ALCS after he attempted to slap the ball out of Boston Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo's glove while running out a ground ball. Not content with such a superlative display of sportsmanship, Nim-Rod continued his campaign to surpass Bonds by telling anyone with a microphone or a reporter's notebook that he had too much respect for his body, a body that he had come to admire more than anyone else other than perhaps Madonna, to use "banned substances" to gain a competitive edge.

"Don't need it," sneered A-Steroid. "My body is my Temple, and my Temple is closed to all worshippers but me . . . and maybe the occasional Toronto stripper and Madonna. And Derek Jeter. But Derek doesn't want to worship me, although I wish he would. So I'm going to tell everyone that he's not my BFF anymore, unless he wants to meet me under the tree on the playground to tell me that he really does want to wear my warm-up jacket out on the town."

* * * * * * * * * *

So now comes Alex Rodriguez to join . . . are you ready for this? . . . Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa as the current and former place-holders of baseball's most coveted records who will not, barring some sort of strange miracle, receive an invitation to Cooperstown for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Put another way, imagine the Hockey Hall of Fame without Wayne Gretsky, Mario Lemeiux, Mark Messier, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe and Patrick Roy. Imagine 20 years from now that Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby or Patrick Kane are ignored from consideration because of illegal drug use or betting on their own sport while they were playing it. Imagine the Basketball Hall of Fame without Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Kobe Bryant or Shaq. Imagine the Golf Hall of Fame without Tiger Woods, the most dominant athlete in any sport ever. Or Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones, Tom Watson or Arnold Palmer. Or Seve Ballesteros or Nick Faldo.

Or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without The Beatles.

Pete Rose, the all-time major league leader in hits, will not enter the Hall because of his gambling escapades. Roger Clemens, who won 354 games, more than any other active pitcher born after 1940, and seven Cy Young awards in his career, two more than any other pitcher in the game's history, will not enter the Hall because of what appears to be his use of steroids while an active player and his decision to lie about it. Ditto Mark McGwire, eighth on baseball's all-time home run list, who broke the single-season record for homers in 1998 and held that record until Bonds, another probable steroid user, broke it in 2001. Ditto Sammy Sosa, who holds the record for most seasons with 60 or more home runs. Then, of course, there is Bonds, the winner of six MVP awards, including four in a row from 2001-2004, the years in which Bonds is suspected of using steroids. No other player in MLB history has won six MVP awards, and no one has ever won four in a row. And that's not even getting to the career home run record, a chase that was too painful for me, as someone who grew up idolizing Hank Aaron, to watch. Bud Selig, the commissioner of MLB who presided -- and continues to preside -- over this mess, thought it was too painful to watch, too. Remember the clips of him pacing around the luxury suites of the various stadiums where Bonds was eligible to hit 755 and 756, hands in his pockets, unsure of what to say? Remember his non-responsiveness to the questions he was getting about how MLB planned to "honor" Bonds after the broke Aaron's record? Don't feel sorry for Selig, whose family's relationship to Aaron dates back to their mutual days in Milwaukee over 40 years ago. Selig knew full well what was going on in the locker rooms of the sport over which he presided. That alone should have been grounds for his firing years ago. And if Selig didn't know what was going on, that's more than enough reason to fire him for incompetence. No wonder the recently exiled former president George W. Bush was frequently mentioned as a possible commissioner of MLB -- only CVS and the Maryland DMV require a greater degree of incompetence from its job applicants and current employees.

A-R*d screwed up. That's not really open to debate. Conceding that point, there is something almost comical about the overblown reaction of the sports media who are pointing their fingers at a man that the very same people held out as the "real" Incredible Hulk, a superhuman athlete who, despite his cloying personality and propensity to choke in the clutch, would break every hitting record that baseball cherishes deeply and break them cleanly. Now, we have to read about the "stunning" revelation that A-Fraud lied to the public to cover-up his use of what are now called PEDs, or performance enhancing drugs. He lied, lied and lied some more. Hell, thought, Nim-Rod, everyone else is doing it . . . why not me? 

And why not? MLB didn't care. The players' union didn't care and still really doesn't. The cozy relationship between the big sports media and the jocks they follow around like smitten high school nerds thrilled to get an invitation to the cool-kid parties ensured that nothing would be investigated too seriously.  If steroids were being served by the swimming pool out back no reporter wanted to be "that person," the one who called the cops because things were out of control. Wouldn't be cool.  Better yet, there's probably a better than even chance than one well-known reporter or two has used a PED to help them get through a rough work week or calm down after the lights go out. Anyone surprised by Syringe-Rod's fall from grace needs to remember that no one should have ever put him there in the first place. Alex Rodriguez is a professional baseball player, not a Nobel prize-winning scientist, not Rosa Parks, not John Lewis, not Rachel Carson, not Thomas Edison, not Abraham Lincoln, not F.D.R. and not Dwight Eisenhower. Alex Rodriguez is not someone who risked his life or career to call attention to bad government behavior. Suppose the Material Boy had worked in the Bush administration and used PEDs to help falsify information to "justify" the Iraq invasion? Or compromised the identity of a CIA agent? Or buried an FDA report on whether approved drugs really did what they claimed? Or lied about the death of an American soldier from "friendly fire," say, former NFL star Pat Tillman? Do you think the Sports Shouters of the world would be abusing their vocal chords over whether A-Steroid was a worse liar than, oh, Dick Cheney?

Over at ESPN, the always interesting baseball writer Jayson Stark penned an article yesterday that carried the headline, "A-Rod Has Destroyed Game's History." How did Dim-Rod do that? By taking anabolic steroids for three years beginning eight years ago? Are you kidding me? Amnesia-Rod doesn't even make my Top Ten list of baseball's all-time worst citizens.

Jayson Stark and every other outraged citizen/commentator holding forth on the GNC*Rod story needs to dust off their old copy of Ball Four, Jim Bouton's great book published in 1971 documenting his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots, a team that lasted one season, and his time with the Houston Astros and New York Yankees. And horror of horrors, innocent readers learned that professional ballplayers drank heavily, cheated on their wives, who, in turn, were often cheating on them, played drunk, took amphetamines to cope with the rigors of a 162-game season, were racists, misogynists and often less than fully informed citizens in our nation's great democracy. Bouton didn't do anything other than reveal a world as it really existed. America does public relations and image-making better than any country in the world. The trouble begins when we start to believe a world built upon fantasy, not reality.

Perhaps I'm putting my geekiness on full display by noting that the timing of the A-Rod story coincides with Charles Darwin's 200th birthday. A-Rod didn't ruin baseball or baseball history, and he didn't take the game's last strand of innocence with him. His rise to baseball fame and fortune coincided with MLB's embrace of anabolic steroids as a "performance enhancer," just as athletes had used all sorts of drugs to "enhance" their performance in previous years. As baseball evolved, Rodriguez evolved along with it. So much, then, for "intelligent design."

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap explore the early corruption of the Obama administration and defend Christian Bale from his detractors.

Dunlap also discloses his picks for his own administration, should that day come.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

News that Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been diagnosed with early-stage pancreatic cancer and undergone surgery at New York's Sloan-Kettering Hospital to treat this particularly aggressive and difficult form of the disease is not how anyone who has admired her career -- and even those with have disagreed with her on the issues -- would want to see it end. Since Thurgood Marshall retired from the Supreme Court in 1991, Ginsburg, chosen in 1993 to replace John F. Kennedy-appointee Byron White, has been the only justice to serve on the high bench who can claim to have represented Americans who felt shunned and excluded by the political system. Of the four justices described as the Court's "liberals," -- the others are John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Stephen Breyer -- Ginsburg is the only one whose pre-judicial career was devoted to advocacy on behalf of what political scientists and legal academics call "outgroups," or people who found themselves discriminated against as a matter of policy and had little or no recourse through the political system to right the wrongs to which they had been subjected. From the Court's conservative wing, a grouping much more conservative than the liberals are liberal -- bear with me, please --only Chief Justice John Roberts has had any extensive experience as an advocate. And his client-base was not exactly drawn from those on the margins of our nation's political, legal and social mainstream -- quite the opposite, in fact.

Justice Ginsburg has been cancer before, in 1999, when she was treated for colon cancer and, true to her fighting spirit, didn't miss a day of oral argument. Ginsburg has said she intends to return to the bench when the Court takes up oral argument again on Monday, February 23rd. Let's hope she's right. Ginsburg's presence on the Court is not just about a reliable vote on behalf of is more accurately described as the Court's status quo ante wing, or justices whose primary goal has been to preserve, where possible, the law on civil rights, liberties and, more recently, presidential power and federalism from efforts by the conservative justices to reshape, at minimum, and, where possible, to dismantle key precedent in those areas. The nation's second female justice is also the only link to a moment in time where bright and talented young lawyers viewed the law as a means to bring the marginalized into the mainstream of American life. Compare that to now, when just as many bright and talented young lawyers with a different political bent are crashing the judicial system at all levels to protect the racially, religiously and economically privileged.

I have never subscribed to the conventional view that Ruth Ginsburg is the "feminist equivalent" of Thurgood Marshall. That comparison is unfair to both parties. No matter how difficult life was for women seeking to enter politics, the workforce or education on the same terms as men, their plight did not compare to the African-American condition in pre-1960s America. Whatever they couldn't do, women -- and white women at that -- could, for starters, still vote, attend public schools, sit anywhere they wanted in public accommodations and go to the court. They weren't found hanging from trees for daring to express their opinions or disproportionately punished in the nation's criminal justice system because of their gender. Marshall and Ginsburg are linked by their common experiences as liberal public interest advocates. Attempting to elevate one at the expense of the other diminishes both their legacies.

This much is true, though. Ruth Ginsburg may be the last Supreme Court justice to spend the formative years of her career on the advocate's side of the podium. Sure, the current justices are all smart and accomplished individuals. But, without exception, their careers have taken the familiar path of the high-status Washington lawyer-turned justice -- a pre-judicial life spent in think tanks or government agencies debating legal abstractions with very little understanding how a life mind-numbing, intellectually deceptive panel discussions and ultimately self-satisfying exchanges about "the law" actually affect real people. If you think it's ridiculous, as I do, to pay much attention to what soft-money funded economists from the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute or Brookings Institution "think" is best for unemployed workers who will never return to their jobs -- and health care plans -- from dying industries, then extend that analogy to judges who have never had a door slammed in their face or endured the ugliness of private and public discrimination. President Barack Obama might well be tested sooner than he expected on what kind of nominee he thinks best suits the contemporary Court. My unsolicited advice to our new president is this: remember Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s admonition that the "life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience." Obama will not trivialize Ginsburg's career the way that President Bush I did Thurgood Marhsall's by appointing the equivalent of Clarence Thomas to succeed her. In law, like in everything else, experience matters -- especially the kind that connects to people as they really live, not just jurists, professors and think-tankers believe they should.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Free Michael Phelps

Oh, come on, now . . .

So the great swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated athlete in Olympic history, was photographed "using" marijuana at a college party somewhere near the University of South Carolina campus last November. So the British tabloid, News of the World, published this "astonishing" picture -- the paper's description, not mine -- just a few days ago, and wondered if this meant the "end" for Phelps's "career," a career, that as far as I can tell, is swimming in competitive meets that generally do not offer prize money. So Phelps might lose upwards of a $100 million in endorsement contracts, paid to him by companies that sell cereal, phone service, swim suits, credit cards and banking services.

So what?

Horror of horrors . . . Michael Phelps, all of 23 years old, "using" marijuana! Get him off the cover of Sports Illustrated . . . now! No more Wheaties for you, Mr. Phelps, because you are not the type of "image" that Kellogg's, the corporate foods giant, wants to present to the public. And how will the young swimmers who idolize Phelps ever figure out whether to apply for a Mastercard, VISA or American Express card without his Olympian guidance? Then there is the huge, huge question facing all children about to take their first plunge into a pull this summer or the competitive high school swimmer who wakes up at 5 a.m. to get in that practice time before school starts, and then do it all over again that afternoon -- what kind of bathing suit to wear now that Phelps has sullied the Speedo brand.

From a purely personal and selfish perspective, if Michael Phelps's fall from grace means that fewer fat Israeli men will show up at the JCC pool this summer in their bikini-bottom Speedos, one good -- actually, great thing -- will have come from all this.

Only somewhat more seriously has been watching the reaction of the moralists in the conventional news media, whether from the world of sports or general punditry, light into Phelps as if he's just blown up the Empire State Building or taken a Catholic school women's field hockey team hostage to make them his sex slaves. The Kelloggs executives who don't want Phelps hurting their company's image? Let's search their browser histories and audit their corporate servers to see who's been surfing porn sites, shopping on-line, emailing funny and not-so-funny forwards, planning Evites and doing any number of things not in their job descriptions. Perhaps some are even regaling each other over lunch with drinks -- during the workday -- about their business trip escapades. You know, the "drinking" heroics, the 100 mile rule, the in-room porn bill they've figured out how to hide from the accountants. And you also know damn well that not one of them would turn down the chance to smoke a joint if only they knew how to get one.

And the journalists who wax one about Michael Phelps's obligation as a role model? Are these the same ones who think that Barry Bonds should be in the Hall of Fame? Has anyone else noticed that on the same day the Phelps photograph went public a Mt. Everest worth of documents was unsealed describing the alleged drug use of Barry Bonds throught the latter, allegedly steroid-driven part of his career? Remember Wade Boggs, the great hitter who played for the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees during the 1980s and 1990s, and was often mentioned in the same breath as Ty Cobb and Ted Williams as possessing the greatest eye ever at the plate? Do you also remember Margo Adams, his "road wife" for many of those years? Yep, yep, yep . . . the makers of "Big Love" didn't have to explore the Mormon community for their series. They could have simply followed Boggs around for 1o or 15 years.

Or Roger Clemens.

Or Ray Charles.

Or Magic Johnson.

Or Louis Armstrong.

Or Duke Ellington.

Or Paul McCartney.

Or Dizzy Gillespie.

Or who-the-hell-knows how many other professional athletes, entertainers, artists and other road warriors who, by the very nature of what they do, attract the interest of men and women who don't feel terribly bound by the ethics of marriage?

Sanctimonious fist-pounding on morality by people who have all fallen off the ethical and legal wagon at some point -- and I put myself in that category of imperfect people, hence my reluctance to offer the same sort of sanctimonious judgment on the Michael Phelps of the world -- ranks right up there in credibility with politicians who decide that another politician's behavior is corrupt, unethical or hypocritical. Listening to their ill-informed rants and reading their holier-than-thou criticism of Michael Phelps or Barack Obama or Al Gore or any other public figure or official who has admitted to smoking marijuana would be comical if the consequences for pot smokers weren't so serious. Anyone, it seems, who has ever smoked pot or still does here and there isn't a "social" smoker "responsibly" enjoying a therapeutic weed, like the Scotch drinker or brandy drinker. He isn't relaxing with friends, like wine drinkers, whose cultivation of social status through snobbery is inverse to the egalitarian nature of marijuana use. She isn't just "freshening up" a Sunday brunch like the hostess with the mostess who unveils a Bon Appetit-approved sparkling beverage or Vodka-infused fruit drink. He or she is a "pothead" or "bongmeister" or "stoner" or something else just as categorically irresponsible. So that makes every man or woman who unwinds with a couple of drinks at the end of a workday an "alcoholic," right? Or every group of guys gathering for a Saturday afternoon of football armed with suitcases of beer a bunch of drunks? Or a person who needs to "blow off some steam" by going out to "pound down" some shots? Is that person a "beer" or "Jack Daniels" user?

Get it?

Michael Phelps was certainly stupid for putting himself in a position, as a businessman, to be photographed doing something that is illegal, just as the falling-by-the-dozen Masters of the Universe are stupid for continuing to spend boatloads of cash on luxuries for themselves as their companies continue to beg for and accept taxpayer funds to keep them afloat. He was stupid like the Detroit auto executives were stupid for flying in on private jets to ask Congress for money to rescue their companies from their stupid, short-sighted and selfish decision-making. He was stupid like any employee of a company that has a drug-testing policy would be to use illegal drugs or drugs obtained illegally (someone else's Xanax, Vicodin, Adderall, etc.).

Dumber than all that, though, is our nation's continuing idiotic, counter-productive and hypocritical prohibition of a drug that is so widely used that it's more common to find someone who has never used it than someone who has. Thankfully, the camera phone wasn't around twenty or thirty years ago when those of us near a certain age were far less discreet when we decided to protest the nation's oppressive drug laws through civil -- and always enjoyable -- disobedience. One piece of advice, Mr. Phelps -- save what's left of your money for your own house. Ownership has its advantages.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


How, if you live in a city like Washington, where everyone believes, usually with a great deal of sincerity and commensurate lack of modesty, they're smarter than everyone else, can anyone be smarter than anyone else?

Think about this for a minute. If I believe I'm smarter than you are, and you believe you're smarter than I am, is there anyway for us to know which one of us is really smarter? Should we take one of these weird I.Q. tests that I see from time to time on the Internet, the ones that ask,"Are you smarter than Sarah Palin?" Then you see a tag line revealing that Sarah Palin has an I.Q. of 110. Part of me says, "Hell, yeah, bring it on! Smarter than Sarah Palin? Please . . ."

The other part of me says, "Historically, I don't do well on standardized tests. I don't want to botch a reading comprehension test on rock formation, or blow the math section because I can't figure how many triangles are inside of the triangle that's inside another triangle. And I don't want to deal with the 'Elephant is to traffic cone as blender is to dental floss' questions because I never understood their point and, consequently, usually got them wrong. If Sarah Palin can figure out why dental floss is to a blender as an elephant is to a traffic cone, she deserves all the shout-outs she's so good at giving to others.

This might come as a surprise to people who know me, although it won't to people who really know me well, but I don't really care if I'm smarter than Sarah Palin, Tracy Morgan, the Executive Director of the Mensa Society, Larry Summers or Britney Spears.

Wait a minute. Maybe I do care about being smarter than Britney Spears.

I don't really care if the person next to me thinks he's smarter than I am. Nor do I care what that person earns in any given year, how many times he can buy and sell me or whether he ran a faster 10K or marathon than I did when I actually trained to run a certain distance in a certain amount of time. I don't care whether a student thinks I'm a better or worse professor than the professor she has before or after my class. Nor do I care if a colleague publishes more articles or books than me in a given year or period of time. I'm way, way past the point where I watch a fellow musician play and think to myself, "I'm better than he is," and I'm so far beyond the point of thinking than I'm better than anyone in what passes for my continuing amateur sports career -- running, the gym, biking, hockey . . . and my golf game is so bad that my greens fees are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. And, as for baseball? I was once pretty good at that sport, good enough that I won't play it anymore because it will remind me that (1) I'm old and (2) that I'm old and (3) that I'm old.

But it's not that I don't care about being good, whatever that means, at my chosen profession, hobbies, interests, sidelines, passions or whatever you choose to call them. I suppose I long ago accepted my station in life -- no Nobel Prize, no Pulitzer, no Cabinet appointment -- that not "finishing first" in anything or "knowing" that I'm better than someone else or being recognized as the "best" at something bothers me. Just a few weeks ago, I received an email from our Dean's office asking me, along with every other faculty member, to send along individual awards that we've received in our time here or accomplishments that we believe highlight our career, as our office is preparing a celebratory time-line of 75 years of the School of Public Affairs. I thought about this for a minute, and then realized that, about to complete my 20th year of teaching, that I have never received an individual award from the university or my school. My greatest accomplishment, I suppose, came in academic year 2005-06, when I taught the five highest evaluated courses in SPA and was ranked, for purposes of merit review, in the second quintile of all professors in the school. For the first time ever in my career at American, I did inquire how that could be, thinking I might get a mea culpa of some sorts. But no, no, no . . . after an explanation that included some sort of bizarre algebraic formulation, I learned that my "ranking" was fair and accurate. Not only that, I should be honored that my colleagues respected me so highly as a teacher to judge me as someone "above average."

The consequence -- intended or unintended -- of determining "merit" based on artificial, often wildly inaccurate assessments and categories of what "merit" means is that it puts people, in this case, professors, in competition with one another over something that, by the very definition of the profession, doesn't lend itself to competition. I don't view my colleagues as competitors. They all have their own ways of doing things, and so comparing one with the other is like comparing wines, musicians, onion rings or anything else that is subjective. What you enjoy and value, how much you're willing to pay for that experience and how it might affect any future decisions you make on where to go to school, what you study once you get there and so on are by-products of that choice. A professor's style will have everything to do with how students "rate" their experience, and that rating may not have anything to do with how good (or not) a professor actually is. Ease or difficulty, coolness or uncoolness, subject matter and exam choices all go into a student's perception of "quality teaching," as my university calls it. But the critiera that earn a professor a designation of excellence or, in my case, mediocrity (I am, according to my university's most recent evaluation of my teaching, an "average" instructor) also lead many professional academics to view their colleagues as competitors. Unlike our students, not all of us can make As or even Bs as professors. We get sorted out on a bell curve so that our raises are consistent with our performance. The assumption behind merit pay is that it forces individuals to "compete" harder to earn more money and greater professional status. But what happens when, for people like me, I don't see my colleagues as competitors in the classroom?

We run into the same problem in assessing our "scholarly productivity." Personally, I find the idea that we can, first, determine that scholarly productivity will be measured by what gets published in any particular calendar year and that, second, all that matters is how often you publish whatever this "scholarship" might be rather than what it actually says absolutely ludicrous. But I have been in more than one conversation or meeting where I hear my colleagues rave about how so-and-so is "just churning it out" or "publishing like a fiend" or published this many articles in this journal and that many articles in another journal, with little or no discussion about the "churned out" stuff is actually telling us about . . . well, anything. Again, for me, I don't really care how many articles or books any of my colleagues are publishing because it has no impact on my own professional life. Okay, it does -- sort of -- in the sense that I will be ranked again for "merit pay" (I'm a worse scholar than teacher -- "below average" in the most recent assessment). As far as how I view myself, though, none of what a colleague, whether here or at some other university, does affects me.

Last night, in my weekly "adult" hockey game -- the word "adult" as applied to men and sometimes women over the age of 21 who play organized hockey has about as much relationship to how we believe adults should behave (relative to children, I suppose) as "adult" as applied to film in the world of contemporary cinema. Think of it this way: Meryl Streep is movie star; Jenna Jameson is an "adult" movie star. There is a difference . . . -- I turned to a teammate on the bench and said, "What the hell is wrong with this guy?" referring to an opposing player who was pushing and punching one of our defensemen in front of our net after the whistle for reasons that, other than basic immaturity, weren't clear to me.

"Because some of us are competitive!!!" my friend said, "unlike you, who doesn't care!!!"

"This is not competition," I said to my friend, who actually is my friend, as opposed to merely a hockey-related acquaintance. "This is an exhibition. Who are we competing against? Guys between 35 and 65 who are only good relative to others? None of us is good."

"Some of us really like to win, so we care!" said my friend, who I might demote to hockey-related acquaintance if he doesn't stop telling me I suck, which I know but nonetheless don't want to acknowledge.

Ah, so there it was . . . the real meaning of what "competition" means to people who claim to enjoy competition. It's not competition at all, but rather . . .

Competitive advantage.

I think that most people who consider themselves competitive don't realize that what they're after is competitive advantage. Wanting to win, even by rigging the system, is not the same as wanting to compete. From the mother who volunteers to serve as a room parent, hockey team manager or PTA president, or the father who coaches 10 year-olds or agrees to serve as youth league "commissioner" or organizes a fund-raiser for the high school soccer team, the motives, I've discovered, are less than pure. Sure, I've met people who take on any or all of these above roles for the right reasons. But I've encountered more who "get involved" in order to work the system, to derive some advantage for themselves or their child.

"I'm a room parent, so you'll remember that little Caitlin would really like Mr. Diener next year for math. She's really competitive and wants to learn!"

"I'll quit as team manager unless you make Matthew the captain. It's important for him to have a C on his jersey because he's so competitive."

"My son doesn't like losing . . . he's very competitive, you see . . . and you're not competitive enough as a coach, so we're going to ask the league if we can switch teams."

"We think Paul can be competitive for a position that's opening up because he's published four articles in the Journal of Irrelevant Findings, giving him a really solid record."

"The reason I favor campaign finance reform is that I believe elections should be competitive."

In not one of the above scenarios, which I've experienced either first hand or from a very close distance, do any of the protagonists really want to compete on the fairest terms possible. They all want to grease the system to favor a certain set of interests, usually their own. Parents spend thousands of dollars on SAT tutors and courses not so their children can compete equally with other similarly situated students; they spend the money to put their children at an advantage. The same is true for coaching, personal training, tutorials and so on. An entire industry exists, largely born out of the last 25 years, that promises advantages for athletes and students through better coaching and teaching. But that assumption ignores another considered reality. Many students and athletes begin with advantages born to them -- genetics, birth order in the calendar year or developmental maturity -- that cannot be overcome with coaching. One thing I've noticed after years of coaching youth sports is that the best players on any given team are generally the oldest. The two best players on my baseball team are the two oldest, and they are the most athletically developed. Yes, they began with a certain degree of natural talent. But that natural talent elevated them above their teammates born in the same year, but in the later months. Malcolm Gladwell makes this point much more clearly in his book, Outliers. It might seem a stretch to the untrained or willfully ignorant eye, who either believe or want to believe that competitive outcomes are the result of a meritocratic system that is carefully constructed to separate the best from the rest. The reality is they're not. Too much limits what we believe is the open field of competition for us to conclude, however modestly or smugly, that hardwork and determination are what vault some to the top, leave others in the middle and everyone else scrambling for whatever is left.

So, yes, Tom Daschle can collect millions and millions of dollars in consulting and board of directors fees for his "expertise" and "insight" on health care-related matters. And you can believe that if you believe that a group of health-care specialists is going to gain anything from listening to a former senator give a speech, for anywhere between $10,000 to $35,000, suggesting that the current approach to health care can and should be improved. Tom Daschle doesn't get hired because he knows something that you don't; he gets hired because he knows someone that you don't. Forget the tax question and phony outrage that goes along with the phony shock that a former senator and well-connected lobbyist isn't playing by the rules that bind those of us a few notches down on the socio-economic ladder. Forget the revolving door between government and the Washington lobbying industry that permits the Tom Daschles of the world to sell their influence to the highest bidders. Handing a local official an envelope of cash to steer a construction project to a certain company and union is a bribe. Handing Tom Daschle a check to communicate his expertise is also a bribe, but one taken through a third party. But because our political system has chosen to define one transaction as bribery and the other as protected constitutional speech, we believe -- well, not me, but many, many others -- that a genuine principled distinction exists between the two. All that distinguishes the two transactions are the people with the power to define them differently -- to create, if you will, different levels of competitive advantage. A firm with the resources to hire Tom Daschle begins and ends with advantages that less privileged citizens or smaller firms will never have. And that's exactly the way that our competitive class wants it.

* * * * * * * * * *

In the end, the only competition we have is ourselves. Once I came to that realization, that what matters most to me is whether I feel that I have given by best effort to achieve an objective that I want to accomplish, I stopped caring about where I finished in the meritocratic order -- precisely because there is no such thing. So I'll never win an award for my teaching or literary or musical contributions. But I have drawer full of letters and cards from students that date back as long as I've been doing this that I wouldn't trade for a wall full of awards and certificates. In three months the band that I formed two years ago will release a CD -- a real, professionally recorded CD -- that will be available on iTunes. One of my books has vaulted into the lower 400,000s on Amazon's best seller list. The kids on my hockey team are having a great season even though we've only won one game. A majority of family, as of this moment, is not threatening to run away from home or demanding that I sleep outside. But the truth is that, no matter how much better anyone else is than me a person, teacher, musician, writer, coach, parent or husband, the most demanding competitor I know is me. Once the day comes that I've satisifed my own sense of what I can or should accomplish, I'll ride off into the sunset or take up kickboxing. Since I don't anticipate that day arriving anytime in the near future, I'll just keep competing against myself and see where the ride takes me.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Tom Tomorrow here

Click here to see the new Tom Tomorrow cartoon.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Red State Update

Jackie and Dunlap review Obama's first week in office, discuss the consequences of the Postal Service's decision to cut back on its deliveries, how newspapers can be useful props and the snobiness of the Oscar nomination process.