Friday, September 14, 2018

Serena: The Greatest Athlete...and a Human Being

I don’t generally go for “Best of All Time” titles.

I think it’s pointless to argue that a particular leader, author, architect, book, singer, president, movie, or anything else was the greatest of its kind for all time. There are just so many factors and differences to weigh and to consider when comparing this brightest star to all others. In the realm of sports you have to consider: the level of competition and the training, nutrition and equipment that is/was available. Even social conditions and cultural expectations play a role. Like, how do we compare a modern “professional” athlete, with trainers and sports psychologists and nutritionists to an amateur from the past who not only had none of that, but who was expected to treat the sport as a hobby, received no pay, and had to get on with establishing a career and a family.
But despite this, I’m going to proclaim that Serena Williams is the absolute greatest athlete – male or female – of ALL TIME. I do so not because it’s scientific fact or anything that I would try to prove, but because I’m so in awe of her talent, her determination and her level of accomplishment. I won’t lay out a pile of irrefutable evidence. Agree or disagree, you have your own champions and biases and stats to cite, I’m sure. I’ll just throw out the single accomplishment (well, eight really; at least two that I consider most staggering:
This is the fact that she won, in succession, the 4 highest level championships in tennis – something only ever accomplished by a small handful of men or women. Then, 14 years later, she did it again! To win even one major championship requires victory in 7 matches, and generally at least a couple of those will be against other top-10 players. And the 4 championships are on different surfaces, on different continents, in different seasons.  And there can be no doubt that tennis is among the most grueling of sports, demanding an extremely high level of fitness and of mental toughness. So the fact that she accomplished this Grand Slam at age 21, then again at age 33, when almost the entire field she dominated the first time around was well into retirement, and some of her competition barely half her age, is, to me, almost beyond belief.

Last week, I watched her lose her latest quest for a major championship – it would have been number 24. And she lost the last time I watched her as well – a couple of months ago at Wimbledon. But my admiration is not diminished by these loses. All champions lose, and lose badly.

Nor am I turned against her by her behavior during the recent U.S. Open. Her frustration and some punishing rulings by the judge got the best of her, and she experienced a near melt down while being trounced by her 20 year old opponent, Naomi Osaka. Yes, I was unhappy, sad, disappointed about several aspects of that altercation. But I don’t see how being a superstar insulates a person against surges of anger or frustration, or from spontaneous self-expression, especially when under such pressure. Serena is human, gloriously so. Given her rage and disappointment, she handled herself well enough, even composing herself enough to comfort, console and express pride and admiration for her opponent. The thing I feel worst about is that all the drama and controversy took the focus and the spirit of celebration from Osaka, who deserved it.

But the other thing I was left feeling after that amazing match was an appreciation that yet another young, powerful and supremely talented brown-skinned girl has ascended to the upper echelons of women’s tennis, along with last year’s winner, Sloane Stevens, just as the Serena and her sister Venus are beginning an inevitable descent. As a brown person myself, I can’t but feel satisfaction in this manifestation of diversity in this still almost entirely white sport. I like it even a bit more that Osaka is both Japanese and Haitian, diversifying the diversity, so to speak.

So, Go Ahead On, Serena. Keep on being yourself, and being the Best Ever!

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Walls Tumbling Down

We are entering a remarkable time in American History. The Reign of Incompetence is about to end! A threshold has been reached. Americans are beginning to really come to terms with the consequences of electing a shallow, immature, self-obsessed narcissist to the most important and powerful position on Earth.

A revolution of sorts is taking place. Members of the innermost center of government are actively organized against the agenda and efforts of Donald Trump. And they are doing so, fully recognizing that this man is doing harm to the country.

This on the heels of Bob Woodward's book, of Cohen's explicit guilty plea, the continuing Mueller investigation. Have enough of us woken up?

Of course, so much of Trump's fervent base is tied to him because of his commitments to a right wing court, the repeal of Roe v Wade, support for guns and for coal and for de-regulation. They will never again have a champion like him. And they won't give him up. Trump and these will cling to their power. Would they accept Pence? Would the rest of us? Regardless of that, some of them must simply be able to separate the politics from this pitiful, limited adolescent they are serving and adoring.

Huge problems are that Trump has consistently peddled his messages against the media, against the left, the courts, against any entity that resists him. And so many have bought in to the conspiracies about all the powers arrayed for the sole purpose of unfairly bringing him down.

A wild time. I haven't read the Times editorial yet. Apparently it calls for activity from the people. I want to be, need to be, more involved in this. It's such a crucial time. And there is so much complacency, cynicism, rejection of personal responsibility. I must choose to be active in this. Speaking out. Raising my voice more regularly will be the start.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Trump: America's Anti-Hero

Trump is demeaning and weakening America. He is undermining our country’s strongest values and institutions, in pursuit of ego trophies and personal victories. And the ugliest part of America, the entitled, spoiled, narrow-minded, self-centered and arrogant part of us has hailed him as its champion.

Trump is like the  action movie “Good Guy” who – in order to save his sweetheart – drives furiously through rush hour traffic, unconcerned about the trail of destruction in his wake. He’s the defiant rogue who breaks every law and thumbs his nose at every convention, because he knows best and cares least. He mows down dozens, or hundreds, of baddies; the body count doesn’t matter when measured against his precious. He wins the day, his model-gorgeous girlfriend, and the adulation of the masses. And he gets off without so much as a scratch or a traffic ticket.

Trump is like the bully we want to turn to when we’ve lost every logical argument and flip of the coin and just want to punch the other guy in the mouth. Trump is every irreverent anti-hero Hollywood has ever dreamt up, who kicks ass and asks questions later, or more likely, not at all. Because, forget the reasons and calculations of the snobs and the nerds, who look down on us, who don’t fear our God and love our truth. We know when we’re right! And anybody who tries to tell us different deserves a punch in the mouth too!

This is what’s happening to America. The self-righteous rage against the ‘other’ that reached a new level of simple-minded virulence when Obama came to power – no, it was not new; it’s as American as apple pie – found its focus and its symbol and its hero in a disrespectful, insecure, tell-it-like-it-isn’t egomaniac who unashamedly roars that he’s smarter than anyone else, more important than anyone else, and who puts his version of “winning” above all else.

I’ve never been so afraid for America as I am now. Because America, still a young nation in historical terms, is behaving like the brash adolescent it put in charge, big on brawn, short on wisdom and maturity, who wants what it wants and doesn’t have the patience to introspect, to see its own responsibility for its plight, and simply wants to attack anyone who has what it wants and knock down anyone who stands in the way of getting it.

Trump is undermining all of America’s international alliances, and dismantling the diplomatic service, and he doesn’t seem to care, or to even be aware of the potential long term consequences. He’s steadily working to undermine whatever faith Americans have left in its courts and investigative agencies, because they challenge his power and judgement. He isn’t concerned about how this erosion of trust could cripple the nation’s ability to reform and improve itself for decades to come. And he has been so relentless in his attack upon the media, and upon expertise and scientific judgement of all kinds, that he’s damaging the very ability of governments to act based on knowledge, and the ability of voters to choose based on fact.

The Republican party – which used to proclaim itself the party of values and standards – has been so beaten down by Trump's base that otherwise intelligent leaders have been reduced to Yes men and women, afraid to peep out of turn. Those who two years ago seemed determined to uphold some standards of character, professionalism and integrity have given up the fight. The very few who continue occasionally to call out Trump and his policies have announced their retirement, admitting their defeat. So Trump’s lies and distortions, his bullying, his over-reaching egotism and his chaotic style of governing, have all become the new normal.

I’m not a defender of the status quo. I want change too. By and large, I side with the progressives. To my view, and drastically oversimplifying it, the fundamental difference between them and the conservatives is that they choose a course based more on love and inclusion as opposed to fear and exclusion. It’s a matter of the kind of society we want to live in. But I am fearful of Trump, and of his base, and of the narrowing of the mind and the clogging of the heart that their brand of politics has brought us.

Anti-Heroes can be fun in the Cineplex. Not so much in the White House.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Me TOO ?

I’ve never been so glad that I’m not famous, or successful in any popular way. If I was, I think I’d be living in dread, waiting for my life to collapse around me. Because the evolving definition of sexual misconduct has expanded to the point of including behavior that was considered acceptable and normal not so long ago. And it now encompasses much of my own past behavior. And the climate of the time makes little allowance for defenses or explanations or for bygone standards.

I’m guilty of what is widely being termed sexual harassment, and in some cases sexual assault. I’ve touched women, looked at women, made comments to women in ways that are not unlike acts described in charges leveled against famous and once powerful men, and that have played a role in bringing them down.

I can see how some of my actions may have hurt and offended, and in some instances, though not most, I was aware of the potential of hurting or offending at the time. I’ve done a few things that I will not attempt to excuse. And I’ll think it’ll be understood that I have no intention of detailing them here. But I am guilty, I've been wrong, and I am ashamed. I’ve made a few personal apologies over the years and wish that I could make a few more. Certainly, the recent focus and furor about sexual misconduct has made me more aware of instances in my life for which apologies would be appropriate. It’s a time of what used to be referred to in the sixties as consciousness raising. And my consciousness is being raised.

But at the same time, I declare my innocence. Because intent matters. And social norms matter. Whether right or wrong, they play a part in shaping our behavior and who we are. And because sexual courtship is a very complex matter. It takes many years for individuals to learn and understand, to mature in this area. It takes even longer for cultures and societies to do the same.

I’m not making the argument that because something was once considered the norm, that it was acceptable, and that therefore past behavior should not be judged.

But I do feel that many of the accusations surfacing lately amount to over-reaching and take no reasonable account of the realities of human nature and sexual interactions. And that’s what I want to explore. Going there makes me uncomfortable, but one of the things I’m suggesting is greater ownership of one’s discomfort. I think that the situations I’m about to describe are shared widely, and that discussing them may contribute to a collective shift forward. We shall see.

Let me get specific: I have very often ‘touched’ women I found attractive, when I wasn’t sure whether or not they were attracted to me. I’ve prolonged a handshake, or taken the other’s hand in both of mine, and maybe caressed it. I’ve touched arms and shoulders, sometimes rubbing or massaging a bit. I’ve put an arm around a waist or shoulder. Even placed my hand on a leg or hip. And I've gone in for unannounced kisses.

These actions have usually been part of a flirtation, a way of exploring a possibility of intimacy. They’ve happened in the context of making a judgement about another’s interest, and about another’s boundaries. And my judgements haven’t always been good. Generally, I’ve tried to act with some finesse. So, for example, I don’t touch only women, and when I touch women, not only those I am sexually attracted to. My skill and level of confidence in the sexual pursuit game has never been very high. I’ve never been known for my boldness. So my touching has mostly been discrete (or so I thought – maybe it would be considered sneaky or creepy today) It was meant to be similar enough to non-sexual touches to not seem aggressive, but different enough to communicate my interest.

Very often, I’m glad to say, it was easy to tell if my interest was reciprocated. The touches were returned, I got a warm smile, the woman stayed close or moved closer if she was interested. If she wasn’t, she’d move away, maybe frown. That would be the end of it. But I know that these days, it might not be the end at all. It might be the beginning of a sexual assault charge, the start of a reputation as a sexual predator.

Sometimes, it was really difficult to tell what the reaction was. Maybe there was no clear reaction at all. What then? Sometimes, my physical closeness would make a woman nervous, uncomfortable. But that was a good sign. That usually meant some level of interest, I thought. If a woman didn’t get a little nervous around you, she wasn’t attracted. Today, alarm bells would go off. I’d retreat immediately, might even apologize. But in an earlier time, I might well have kept it up, slowly escalating the contact. Because through my teens, early adulthood and full adulthood (I’m a senior now), as I practiced and developed my sexual pursuit skills, that’s what I learned. That’s what worked. That’s what got desired results.

These tactics of mine got a full range of responses, from a woman becoming my lover, to her telling me that she wasn’t interested, with a bunch of reactions between the two, including: let’s just be friends, you’re nice…but, I’m flattered…but, you’re cute…but, I have a boyfriend…but, and – I don’t know. To my ears today, all of these reactions sound like ‘NO’. But what they used to sound like is “I don’t know; I’m not sure.” And what my experience through my thirties taught me was to keep on trying.

So sometimes I would keep on trying. And sometimes that led to a consensual, sexual interaction. Some of those women later told me that they’d wanted and/or expected sex from the start, but hadn’t wanted to show it. Because the way they’d been raised, the last thing a woman wanted was to be perceived as easy, or as eager for sex. At other times, my trying got me to a clear ‘No’, occasionally with surprise or annoyance that I had kept trying. I was guilty some of those times. Of being pushy and insensitive. But I don’t think anyone would have considered it sexual assault or sexual harassment, as they might now.

There were a few instances, upon ceasing a flirtation, when a woman later asked me why I’d given up, or told me that more assertiveness had been expected. Once, when I was giving a back massage in my bedroom – one that had been offered and accepted – I tried to turn my date over to kiss her, and she resisted. I stopped and things went no further. But when she left, she asked me why I hadn’t forced her. That time, it was me that was surprised.

The truth is that the lines between acceptable and unacceptable sexual conduct aren’t always sharp and clear, and they change under the influence of culture and over time. They can change in the middle of a date. Different men and women react to behaviors in very different ways. And getting signals wrong or confused in the social/sexual realm is a very common thing, as are embarrassment, uncertainty and discomfort. In face, a large part of what dating involves is sorting all of this out, one-on-one. Another reality is that, among all the things that sex is, it is also a game and a pursuit. This doesn’t mean that any or all behaviors are exempt from judgement. But it does mean that the presence of uncomfortable feelings doesn’t automatically mean that someone has been victimized.

I know enough about sexual aggression and abuse, from my professional as well as my personal life, to recognize that these are very serious problems. I can understand why lines defining the acceptable are being redrawn more clearly and less liberally. The “Me Too” movement is a very good thing. Education about dating and sexuality is very important. These things need to be talked about, especially with teenagers and young adults.

But it’s really troubling that we seem to be at a point where lives are turned upside down and careers ruined on the basis of people being made uncomfortable by comments and clumsy or assertive flirtations, by sexual jokes and innuendos, where no coercion has been involved and no force applied. It’s even more troubling if, at the time of an incident, the ‘victim’ accepted it, joked about it, actively participated in it, or made no effort to criticize it or escape it. I understand that there are very legitimate reasons why victims sometimes respond in these ways. This doesn’t mean that the offending comment or behavior wasn’t wrong. But if a victim can be excused for not recognizing or reacting when they’ve been wronged, isn’t there a reasonable possibility that the offender didn’t recognize it either? There are degrees to the errors we make, and degrees of guilt. It’s important that there be degrees to how actions are judged and to the consequences they generate, as well.

I’m glad that sexual abuses are being taken more seriously, that victims are being supported, and criminals prosecuted. But I hope this isn’t at the cost of due process. Alleged victims are just as capable of lying and exaggerating as anyone else. Intention does matter. And it isn’t ‘blaming victims’ to point out that the way people respond to and communicate with others in social and intimate situations matters. It matters a lot.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Black Panther Revisited

I finally saw Black Panther tonight and it had me on a critical roller-coaster between loving it and being angry at it.

It was majestic.
But, it was about a make believe Kingdom full of super people with super powers and resources and a super moral culture.

It was beautiful.
But it was so politically tame.

It extolled so many beautiful features of real Black cultures.      
While it implied rejection of so much of what the actual Black Panther Party and other Black radical groups of the 60’s rightfully advocated and organized toward.

Yet, in the end ... it reasoned its way into advocacy of the very community-building philosophy of those same radical groups

I came away from it mostly content. I don’t feel the point in raging against a positive, family adventure film that advocates non-violence and sharing. But I’ll at least wag my proverbial finger at the soft politics of the film.
It beautifully fulfills / exemplifies a complaint that was heard frequently during this week’s commemoration of the half century that has passed since the assassination of Dr. King while he organized to redress economic imbalances. The complaints were about how much King’s image has been sanitized. He’s been turned into a saint, and turned from a man who unflinchingly challenged America’s racism, hypocrisy, war-mongering and engines of economic oppression.

This film directly rejects Black militancy, the kind that arose out of unvented rage and put lives on the line to literally fight a defensive war against murderous police aggression. All of the Wakandan villains in this film are virtual Black Panthers in the mold of Huey Newton, whose poster we see in the film, adorning the apartment of Killmonger’s father.
The protagonist – the cartoon-birthed Black Panther, leader of the fictitious nation – ultimately comes around to agreeing that the villains are right, in principle. Resources and sacrifices ought to go toward aiding the oppressed elsewhere in overcoming their oppressors. But this doesn’t stop the villains from being villains. Because they have been embittered by anger, moved too far toward “by any means necessary”, have grown too comfortable with violence. They have become the proverbial 'angry, black man', Now, they can only become noble in death.

As Dr. King became more noble in death. Then, the angry Black minister, putting life and limb on the line, to force his oppressors out of their comfortable, cozy evil, was buried, and Saint Dr. Martin Luther King was born, smiling down on his native America, which he so dearly loved.
Black Panther’s villains die also, but the resurrected T’Challa endures. In real life, the Black Panthers were virtually exterminated. One by one they died in police and FBI raids. And though, to some degree, the sanitizing of Dr. King’s posthumous stature was in part because he had been less threatening than the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, some of that stature came from the fact that he was dead. No longer a threat. In the film, we become able to respect and empathize with Killmonger only as he dies.

In the end, I like the film. Great seeing all those badass sisters up on the screen. And the cultural artifacts, and the ancestor rituals. I wonder how those viewers raised in Africa took in all the accents. They rang fine in my unschooled ear, and I enjoyed the acting, especially Bozeman’s. He brought a earnestness and humility to the role that kept the superhero human. As entertainment goes, this film was dazzling on a visual design level, and the action sequences were clear enough for my old eyes to keep up with what was going on.
But ya know? I think it’s about time I pulled out Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” for a fresh viewing.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A Resilience in the Fabric of Life

I’ve been on a mission to reclaim my body.
Over the last several years I’ve allowed myself a lifestyle of physical ease. I let my gym membership lapse. I all but forgot the 108 movements of Yang style Tai Chi that I’d learned and practiced over a period of years. I indulged in regular desert binges, put on some pounds, and even flirted with type 2 diabetes.
My only semi-regular physical exertion came during the warm months when I regularly used my hybrid, 18-speed bike for getting around. That was good for occasional sweats and keeping the muscles relatively loose. But every now and then I’d find myself sprinting for half a block to catch a bus. Painfully staggering is more accurate because propelling my 260 lb. mass into motion was a challenge that my poorly maintained biological systems just weren’t ready for. Invariably, having made the bus or not, I’d be a wheezing, dripping mess for at least ten minutes, before my heart would stop its hammering, and my lungs slow their straining.
Finally, two months ago, I joined a gym again, and two or three times every week I’ve been enjoying strenuous, hour-long work-outs. Yes, enjoying. More than in the past. I generally take to the treadmill or elliptical device for a good 20-30 minutes and spend the rest of the time on the weight machines. I work myself to a point of moderate exhaustion, shower, and leave the gym feeling the drain and the challenge of it through my entire body. It feels good.
To me, the wonderful part of it, and the part I’ve come to expect because I’ve been through this cycle so many times through my life, is the gradual but pretty quick return to decent fitness. After my first workout, I was basically done for the day. My entire body throbbed or ached, I had no desire or energy to do anything but lay in front of the tv. I felt so weak. The next day I was sore and stiff and couldn’t have made it halfway through another workout if I’d wanted to. But the day after that I was ready, and so it began.
Just these few weeks later, I have my body back. My workout is far more strenuous than when I started and I push myself harder. My heart, muscles and lungs undergo a lot more stress and I come even closer to a point of exhaustion. But as tired as I get, I no longer feel weakened after a workout. Instead, I feel energized. The tiredness only lasts awhile, and two or three hours later, I feel as though I could do it all over again.
It’s no surprise. It was a surprise the first time I allowed myself to come down from a period of high fitness, after high school where I’d been on the varsity football and track teams. I was shocked both at how unfit I’d allowed myself to become, and at how quickly I regained that fitness when I committed to working out again. This may be a surprise to someone who has never lost then regained fitness, but it won’t be to anyone who has. It’s all about the resilience. Not my resilience, or the resilience of any group of special people. The resilience, I’ve come to believe, is just a characteristic of the fabric or life.
I believe that because I see it everywhere. It struck me in a big way when got my first youth service job, working with serious offenders in a detention facility. My clients were 16-18 year olds who’d been convicted of robberies and assaults, even rape and murder. They were mostly what you’d call thugs, gangbangers, even sociopaths. But I soon saw, because it was impossible not to see, that underneath the hardened exteriors, they were also just kids. They laughed and played just like kids, like younger kids. And they had the same sensitivities and the sense of wonder as other, younger kids. It amazed me, but it doesn’t any longer. It’s that natural resilience again, that seems to exist in everything that has life.
Have you ever watched a swatted fly struggle to hold on to its life? Or a fish that’s been pulled from a lake? Howabout watching a lawn in springtime come back from months under the packed ice and snow of a brutal winter? A baby fighting to stand again and again, after falling over and over? Are they all the same? I guess probably not. But they are all examples of that ability to charge back at defeat, loss, setbacks, pain…to reclaim, retain or regain something.
Image result for seedling cement
It’s like that old saying about never forgetting how to ride a bicycle, except that it applies to everything. A forgotten language? It will come back. Ability to play an instrument? It will come back too. Not in an instant or overnight necessarily. But surprisingly fast. It seems not to be a matter of character, or some special talent. It seems to be a feature of life itself. We are resilient. We have the ability to come back, to recover, to become again as we once were.  I think that we tend to deny this understanding because of the qualifier “as much”. Because, of course I’m not as fit as when I was captain of my high school track team. And no, I don’t remember as well as I once did. And no, Michael Jordan will never again do what he once did on a basketball court. But this way of seeing and not seeing, or accepting or denying, has to do with our obsession with perfection, with superlatives, with what we think of as ‘the best’.  But doesn’t that all miss the point?
Truth is, so long as we have life, we have life. So long as we exist, we can create. And whatever we retain in our hearts, and continue to desire and will, we can bring into being in our worlds. It’s one of those things that age is teaching me.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Pause That Kills

I recently realized that I pause before everything that I do. When I have a notion to do something – get out of bed in the morning, speak to a stranger, begin a difficult task, indulge in a guilty pleasure, give aide that’s been requested, push back against an unreasonable demand – I almost always pause a moment to consider.

This was possibly a very powerful insight, because I understood immediately that there are so many things I’d like to do that never get done because of this pause. But it’s only potentially powerful because much depends on what I will do with it.

Pausing is often a very good thing. It can and has kept me from doing irrational, impulsive things. But the truth of it is that pausing mostly keeps me from things I ought to do. It gives me time to consider risks, to count possible costs. It allows me to be ‘reasonable’, which the coaches at Landmark Education were always quick to point out generally means ‘ordinary and safe’.

Pausing keeps me from exposure, maybe from embarrassment and shame, from being overextended. But it also keeps me from putting myself on the line, from pushing myself when I really need to, from just going for it. Pausing has generated so, so much procrastination and delay, so much avoidance.

I need to do away with this always, automatic pausing. I know that there are lots of times I have not paused, sometimes to the extent of surprising myself. I’ll have to consciously try and remember more of those times, because my sense is that they usually led to something very good.

I had another insight many years ago, which ties directly into this one: that most of my life’s regrets are not about ill-advised things I did, but about the things I did not do.