Take Me Out to the Bar Game

“The Dodgers suck!”

He’s all the way across the room, and he says it in a voice loud enough to quiet O’Tooles for a moment. This is a Chicago sports bar. It is Game One of the National League Championship Series. The Los Angeles Dodgers are in the middle of teaching the defending champion Chicago Cubs a lesson in humility. The bar – indeed, the whole city – is wound so tight the air thrums as you walk.

And I am a die-hard Dodger fan with just enough IPA in me to stop caring who knows it.

“The Dodgers SUCK,” he repeats. This time he’s louder, and he is supported by a broken chorus of interjections expressing everything from full-throated support to mild “chill out dude” disapproval.

This is one of those moments when I ask myself what the right thing would be to do. As a guy. As a dude. I think about the thin veneer of civilization. I tell myself that sports is an opiate, and that I have been manipulated into this by a cynical media establishment that thrives on stoking sports rivalries.

And I don’t care. This guy hasn’t just insulted a bunch of grown men throwing a ball at each other. He has transgressed against something both more personal and far larger.

I think about the games I watched growing up. The time we went with Dr. Bing, our baseball coach, sitting so close that my heroes came to life in front of me.

I think about the times my dad took me to watch the guys play, and what it meant for he and I to listen to the post-game show as we drove the old VW van home down Sunset late at night.

I think about the giddy joy of the 1981 World Series, when we showed the most powerful Yankees squad in five decades that grit and determination beats glitz and polish when it counts.

I think about fifty years of admiring a team that prided itself on being the anti-Yankees, the Boys from Brooklyn, Dem Bums.

I think about Sandy Koufax, who refused to pitch in a critical World Series game because it landed on Yom Kippur, and in so doing showed the world what it meant to be a Jew.

I think about Jackie Robinson, who with the backing of Dodger management silently suffered innumerable hurts as he forged the path for African-Americans into the major leagues, and in so doing showed the world what it meant to be a man.

I think about Ray Campanella, upside down in his car on a Harlem Street after hitting black ice on a winter night, his back broken, his career over, then spending the rest of his life working in the Dodger front office and showing the world that there was no such thing as “handicapped.”

And I turn to look at the gone-to-seed neck-bearded fuck whose alcoholic partisanship has turned him into a drooling, knuckle-dragging neanderthal.

I think, “‘The Dodgers suck?’ You miserable, illegitimate, Epsilon-minus thick-skulled cretin!”

And I realize that I am about a pubic-hair’s width away from getting into my first bar fight, alone, deep in enemy territory. And I wonder if Blue Shield will cover my heartfelt yet doomed defense of our team, or whether the adjuster will boil the whole thing down to idiocy and refuse to pay on the grounds that the cause of my broken bones, lost teeth, and contusions were the direct result of an uninsured pre-existing condition.

This is the last place I want to be, but the testosterone and adrenaline are pouring into my system, and I start to get up.

The waitress is smarter than all of us. She comes over, looks me in the eye, smiles, and sets down another pint of IPA.

“I didn’t order that!”

“On the house,” she says. “And I’ve got some fresh tater tots on the way.”

I look over at Neckbeard. The bartender just put an order of hot wings in front of him and the boys. I’m betting these were free, too.

I look back at the waitress. She smiles.

“Enjoy the game,” she says. “And welcome to Chicago.”

Free beer and tots?

Manhood satisfied, I sit down again, the anger gone, replaced with a sympathetic good will toward old Neckbeard.

The Dodgers don’t suck, I tell myself. But for the moment, I am happy to let them prove it themselves.

The tots arrive, the Dodgers are winning, and I am left alone to contemplate the madness we – I – have yet to outgrow.

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Ah, Q

I have at last finished my extended binge of all seven seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The series has aged remarkably well, to the credit of its cast, its crew, and the legion of scribes who ensured an upward trajectory of plot-lines and issues that lasted almost to the very end.

The watch-through gave me a chance to understand and appreciate aspects of the show that I had missed during my spottier watching in the past. One of those aspects was Q, the near-omnipotent being who regularly showed up to toy with the Enterprise crew on the pretext that it was his way of testing the value of humanity as a race.

My revelation: Q was Loki, the trickster of his race, and the Q Continuum a reinterpretation of the Asgard of Norse myth.

Armed with that thought, I went back and re-watched the episodes with Q, including the series pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint.” Q came across as less and much more sympathetic. In the end, Q is a tragic figure, neither of his world nor ours, and doomed to testing the boundaries between the two.

And yet, there was something profoundly sad about how Q was developed as a character.

The Trek universe, at its best, it has been a compelling forum for exploring the larger questions that face humanity. Those questions are rarely resolved, but they don’t need to be – it is in the probing of those questions that we learn about ourselves.

Where no Trek has gone, though, is in an exploration of the unresolvable quandary of whether a higher power exists. The Trek universe has either studiously avoided the debate, or it has engaged in long-winded  plot lines that dismiss the question as a matter of myth, superstition, or the naive misunderstanding of a more evolved being by a less evolved race. We can agree to disagree on many things, Trek tells us, but religious believers are suckers and simpletons.

This has never been enough to warn me away from the Trek universe, because despite this failing I continue to find the ouvre provocative and compelling.

I continue to hope that some wise squire of the Roddenberry legacy will give writers the permission to leave the question of G-d open and on the table. But I will not hold my breath: I know my fellow Trekkers too well, and for them the vastness of the Final Frontier is all the G-d most of them will ever need.

 

Bonfire of the Narcissists

While it is disheartening to watch the hollowing-out of the Great American Journalism machine, especially in these dog days following the passing of an innovator like Tom Wolfe, there are moments when I must wonder aloud whether some of the culling might be for the greater good.

A few moments ago a colleague forwarded to me (and about a dozen others) a notice that GQ was laying off a clutch of editors. On the surface, sad and evocative of much hand-wringing.

Pardon me if I do not join in.

For these were the editors (some of them, anyway) who in the April 19 issue of GQ let loose an anti-intellectual tirade against the Great Books (21 of them actually), suggesting that because these books were, you know, old or boring, they weren’t worth the time and effort of reading, and that there were 20 other hipper, more recent books that should be read instead.

I am all for inclusion, but I take the viewpoint that the answer to adding diversity to one’s erudition is to lengthen the list of the works to be read with other authors of merit, not arbitrarily cull the canon of the stuff that requires effort or that posits ideas one finds objectionable.

In a day and age of hypertext and short attention spans, I believe it lies with those placed in a position to influence the tastes and habits of our nation to make as loud a case for the consumption of intellectual fibre as they do for the ingestion of the dietary kind. I believe a failure to do so is pandering at best, and at worst a betrayal of the greater cause of belles lettres. As our list of periodicals shrinks, any indication that the remaining scribes will be those who fight for intellectual rigor is heartening to me.

Fragment of Fiction: Galaxy Upside Down

Her anger rent the air in our booth like a shockwave, pushing me back into my seat, strangling me. Then, in a moment, the fury abated and it was pain and not evil burning behind her irises.

“Don’t judge him too harshly,” I told her. “He’s just another insecure young guy sucked into a business where fucking over kin for a couple of points is a rite of passage. Hollywood is like the Borg, he’s been assimilated, willingly, throwing himself into it, and trying to extract him will either kill him or make him wish he was dead.”

I paused. That was about as close to profound as I get.

And I waited, trying to remember what I just said, watching her.

She seemed to quiet. She took a deep, sobbing breath, let it out slowly like Lemaze. And smiled at me.

“Still mad,” I asked?

“Every fucking cell of me,” she said, smile widening.

“Good,” I said. “Because we are going to fucking kill him, that shit-demon he works for, and that gutter slut they’re casting as lead.”

From the story “Galaxy Upside Down” by David Wolf

Sparks

My sixteen year-old, ever curious about music and especially my strange tastes in it, wandered into my lair when “Angst in my Pants” was playing and asked me to describe the 80’s dance band Sparks.

“Cross Cheap Trick with Laurel and Hardy,” I told him, “and drop them into the San Fernando Valley in 1979.”

He grinned.

Lord love the kid, he gets it.

Hitler’s Bug

Long before VW’s emissions scandal, the Beetle stood out as a Nazi symbol

Source: Volkswagen’s Dark Past | History Net: Where History Comes Alive – World & US History Online | From the World’s Largest History Magazine Publisher

There is no shortage of companies extant today that trace their lineage into an Axis past. Most of Japan’s major zaibatsu made it through the MacArthur era, albeit modernized in ownership and management. Fiat made fighter planes for Mussolini yet remains Italy’s most blue-chip industrial enterprise. And Krupp, the most infamous of the “merchants of death,” exists today as part of European heavy industry giant Thyssen-Krupp.

Volkswagen is arguably the most visible of these Fascio-capitalist legacies.

I have spent my career working with companies and their reputations, and I have come to understand that history is not destiny: success is rarely permanent, failures need not be fatal, and a founder’s foibles can be expunged. But a company’s skeletons, however well closeted, are brutally difficult to bury because heritage becomes woven into culture in ways that are often variable and unpredictable.

VW is a fascinating case study, a legacy of National Socialism that has been over the past seventy years alternately beloved and reviled outside of Germany. It would be hard to argue that the company has risen above its past.

What will forever plague the firm – and others like it – is the degree to which the ideology that birthed lies dormant within the company’s cultural fabric. One would hope that, like Ford, VW can remain cleansed of the ugliness in its past even as the past echoes through modern Europe. But the burden of assuring as much remains an obligation of the firm’s leadership.

Adopted Californians: The Navy’s Smartest Man

The Quiet Warrior: A Biography of Admiral Raymond A. Spruance
Thomas B. Buell
Naval Institute Press
January 1987
518 pages

“There are two kinds of people in this world,” a Chinese executive told me once. “The kind of people who speak for themselves, and the kind who let their deeds speak for them.”

This insight not only compelled me to look at my own life (which one am I?), it also forced me to re-evaluate my heroes. Who among my pantheon was a doer, and who did some good things but was really exceptional at tooting his own horn (or paying others to toot if for them?) What does it say about an individual who crafts his or her life after one type or the other? And what does it say about nations that make heroes of narcissists?

Old “Electric Brain

Picture of from http://www.history.navy.mil/ph...
Admiral Raymond Spruance (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Admiral Ernest J. King, the Chief of Naval Operations in World War II, thought Raymond Spruance was the single most intelligent U.S. naval commander in the war. Given the competition – Nimitz, Turner, Halsey, McCain, Leahy, and King himself – this was high praise. Yet Spruance today is largely unknown outside of the relatively small circle of mariners, historians, and history buffs. Why?

Thomas Buell, himself a naval officer, offers an answer with his definitive portrait Spruance, the enigmatic commander who made the critical decisions at Midway and led the US Navy-Marine Corps team in their legendary drive across the Central Pacific. Throughout his life, his subordinates and superiors all came in turn came to rely on his quiet intellect, his preternatural calm under fire, and his ability to size up a situation and act with deliberation, neither vacillating like Ghormley nor impetuous like Halsey.

Working from a relatively small number of sources on Spruance, Buell gives us no great insights that will change the way we think of war, but it will change the way we think of warriors, their flacks, and their biographers. Buell paints a credibly human picture of Spruance, and rather than inflate him to larger-than-life size, offers us the spartan, taciturn, stone-faced career officer whose deeds remain greater than the man himself. It would have been easy for the author to write a panegyric, but you can almost hear the ghost of Spruance whispering over his shoulder, telling Buell not to go down that path. While ably defending Spruance against criticism of his actions at Midway (later proven to be correct), Buell uses the same historiographical care to excoriate the admiral’s actions during his tenure as Ambassador to the Philippines.

The Smartest Man in the Navy

Buell also points out more sublime examples of Spruance’s leadership that resonate today. Spruance led his fleet with a staff that was a fraction of the size of Halsey’s, demonstrating an economy that the brass-bloated navy of today has forgotten: he was early to recognize and defend geniuses like Kelly Turner and Carl Moore against the capricious politics of the Navy; he was a battleship officer who never learned to fly, yet absorbed so much about carrier aviation that he became one of the country’s ablest commanders of airpower; he oversaw the reinvention of naval logistics, a factor the Japanese navy recognized as the keystone to the US victory in the Pacific; and he grasped early that American bases in postwar Asia would be an irritant that would lead to further conflict.

And then there was that intellect: rebelling against the provincial, trade-school approach the navy had taken to professional education, he spent the last years of his career turning the Naval War College into an outstanding graduate school with unparalleled programs in strategy, national security, and world affairs. While nothing he did will surpass his feats as a commander, in terms of its importance to the nation, to sea power, and to global security his two years as President of the College are unmatched.

Buell also offers us an illustration as to why, seven decades after the end of the conflict, we are still unearthing truths that compel us to reevaluate how we understand the war, history, power, and leadership. As we do, we are finding that many of the lessons our fathers learned from their victories are wrong, and many of the right lessons have been forgotten. The time has come for a reappraisal of that conflict: as we watch the rise of a new set of world powers, now more than ever we need to understand why World War II was won (or lost), and we need to find the people who were really responsible, not just the heroes and villains our fathers’ textbooks served to us. Raymond Spruance offers us a timeless model of leadership in crisis. We would be wrong if we did not go looking for more.

N.B.: Ray Spruance spent his final years living in California, and passed away in Monterey in 1969.