Friday, June 29, 2012

Summertime Blues 2012

Summertime Blues 2012

[This pitiful offering is only palatable if it’s shouted to the tune of Eddie Cochran’s 1958 classic, “There Ain’t No Cure for the Summertime Blues.”]

Most of my friends are away on vacation.
There’s nothing worth watching on any TV station.
Negative ads are polluting the news –
There ain’t no cure for the summertime blues.

Congress is stagnant; the Supreme Court’s acting reckless;
Romney is boring, and Obama’s looking feckless;
Europe is coming apart at the seams –
Whatever happened to the summertime dreams?

Wholesale slaughter is occurring in Nigeria;
Civil War is eviscerating Syria;
Peace is a phantom when the Middle East steams –
Whatever happened to the summertime dreams?

Global is scary, so what about the local?
Problems are tiny, but I can be vocal:
Whining, complaining, and voicing discontent –
I just can’t wait until summertime is spent.

In summer, I feel like a character from Kafka,
Buggy, and anxious, my patience cut in half –Ka-
-ranky, and crabby, and prone to argument –
I just can’t wait until summertime is spent.

My baseball team has settled in the cellar;
Summer movies are anything but stellar;
It’s too hot for golf, to play tennis, or to run –
Whatever happened to the summertime fun?

I wake up thirsty, feeling slow as molasses;
My ice cube maker wants to break all my glasses
Shooting out cubes as if from a gun --
Whatever happened to the summertime fun?

My flowers will shrivel or they may decide to rot, first.
There’s been a big price jump for packages of bratwurst.
Heat or humidity:  which would you choose?
There ain’t no cure for the summertime blues.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Jerry Sandusky and My Child Abuse History: Milky Ways, Duff Ball, French Films, and Victimization

Jerry Sandusky and My Child Abuse History:
Milky Ways, Duff Ball, French Films, and Victimization

Jerry Sandusky looks like my first abuser – same white hair and close-set eyes, same saggy and unthreatening face, same big lumpy body, and same institutional protection. 

[For people reading this who’re not familiar with Jerry Sandusky (surprisingly, there seem to be a few people from Thailand to Russia who occasionally stumble across this blog): yesterday, Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child abuse, stemming from his sexual advances toward and acts upon little boys.  Sandusky was both a football hero, initially as a player and then as defensive coach for Penn State, and a local philanthropist best known for the ‘Second Mile’ foundation, dedicated to helping disadvantaged area youth, mainly boys.  Evidently, he used both affiliations as bait to attract vulnerable kids into ‘relationships’ in which he could get his jollies, in ways ranging from touching and groping to downright rape.  This has been a high-profile case for the past year, maybe less because of the child abuse charges per se than because of the suspicion that big college sports’interests contributed heavily to a decades-long cover-up, somewhat along the lines of the Roman Catholic Church’s cover-up of pederast priests.  If you want to know my opinion of yesterday's verdict:  right on!]

Milky Ways.  My Sandusky-look-alike  abuser, if that’s an accurate label, was the janitor in our church.  He had a room in the basement, convenient to Sunday School classrooms.  Because it was an Episcopal Church, things such as Sunday School were rather casual:  adults mainly milled around chatting and drinking coffee after services, and most children over the age of six ditched Sunday School in favor of hanging out with friends in various church basement corners. 

Which set the stage for Herman, the janitor.  His Sunday morning routine was to ensconce himself on a metal folding chair in an out-of-sightline basement corridor, accompanied by a bag of full-sized (not the measly Halloween-sized!) Milky Ways.  He’d motion young girls over, and have them (us, me) sit on his lap and let him kiss us in order to earn a candy bar.

As best I can remember, I was eight or nine.  Sitting on Herman’s lap to get a Milky Way (after the boredom of church) seemed like a pretty good deal.  To this day, though, I recall in my very body three (literal) impressions:  rough fabric and buttons (that would be his overalls), squishiness (that would be his lap), and sloppiness (that would be his wet kisses on my cheek).  Yet I also recall the triumph of scoring a candy bar.

It seemed like a fair-enough trade-off until my wiser best friend said that she thought it was icky and wasn’t going to do it any more.  Because I had a crush on her older brother, I believed her.  Thus I too stopped visiting Herman.  But I – and for that matter, my best friend – never mentioned our Herman experiences to our parents.  I’ve learned later that Herman kept plying his quasi-ecclesiastical version of Hansel and Gretel for years.

I honestly do not think I was personally scarred by my experiences with Herman.  Why I remember them at all, I believe, is the shame of feeling stupid – that my best friend detected something swampy when all I thought was that candy bars were better than coloring pictures of Jonah and the Whale.  In adult retrospect, I regret not having said something to my parents, as they no doubt would have raised hell and perhaps prevented something worse (if Herman escalated his ‘demands,’ if other little girls were more fragile) than what I and my best friend encountered.  

So – in this case I didn’t and don’t feel like a victim.  But what if Herman had been a priest, or a revered football coach, rather than a janitor?  Would I have been more willing to ‘do’ more to earn his favors, and would he have been more emboldened to ask more?

Duff Ball.  A much, much more scarring experience with child abuse revolved around my high school gym teachers.  Let me call them out by name:  Miss Pauline Gaertner and Miss Theodosia Brzezinski.  They both may now be dead, but find the Appleton High School Yearbook on line, and you’ll find them in all their sexual-sadistic glory.  They were the girls’ gym teachers for many years, and they abused ALL OF US.

And no one, as far as I know, said a word to our parents or to authorities.

Even as I write tonight, I find it hard to describe how disturbing their conduct was to me and to other adolescent girls in my high school.  They didn’t touch us (other than towel flicking and butt-patting, the latter reserved for the more athletically gifted among us – but who knows what may have happened with their favorites?).  Yet they humiliated all of us and made us ashamed of and fearful of our bodies; they made gym class something that actually produced nausea, much less every avoidance maneuver thirteen-to-eighteen-year-olds could think of, from faking menstruation to truancy. Many of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes involved showers, and the showers were the locus classicus of our gym teachers’ searing voyeurism.

They were ‘gang showers,’ and we were made to line up naked, ‘breast-to-breast’ and ‘bottom-to-bottom.’  At that age and at that time (the 60s), this alone was profoundly embarrassing.  Miss Gaertner was usually the woman on the ladder.  This was erected next to the passage from locker room to shower room, and she would look down and call out to us to get closer, so we would all touch.  She would also comment on the size of our female parts.

When we were suitably arranged, we’d have to go into the showers.  From her panopticon ladder, Miss Gaertner (or maybe it was Miss Brzezinski – in my memory they were a loathsome aggregate) would issue orders:  lift those breasts and soap; scrub between your legs; get that butt-crack clean.  These intrusive directives would be accompanied by our names, so there would be no mental asylum into which to retreat.   When the shower from hell was finished, we’d be issued a handkerchief-sized towel and . . . finally . . . released back to the locker room, where we couldn’t get clothes on fast enough.

You’d think this would be enough fun for pervy gym teachers.  You’d be wrong.

Somehow, they managed to warp gym itself into something profoundly uncomfortable.  Part of it was the way they’d address us when we were trying to do actual athletics (softball: “if you’d put more bosom on you, you could be a good catcher”;  gymnastics: “with that big behind, you’ll never do a decent cartwheel”).  Yet they also made up their own games for their own enjoyment, the most infamous of which was ‘duffball.’

I’ve asked women throughout my life if they ever, ever played duffball when they were in high school.  Answer:  What in #$%#$^$#$ is duffball?

I guess it’s my high-school gym teachers’ invention.  Basically, it’s dodgeball played on your back, with your rear ends propped up by your arms so your bottoms (and your legs) are in the air.  As you can imagine, controlling a ball in this position is pretty difficult.  That means that gym teachers have plenty of occasions to bellow “hoist that butt,”  “let me see that big rear end work,” and similar endearments, all prefaced with your name so you couldn’t sink into the protection of anonymity.  I can’t begin to describe how horrible and exposed this game made us feel.

Why I never told my parents about showers and duffball remains a mystery to me.  I was older (and maybe a bit wiser) than I was with Herman in the church basement.  But I never said anything.  Neither did my best friend, nor any other high school girlfriends with whom I’ve discussed this subsequently.  Our younger sisters were subjected to the same gym-teacher treatment, in large part because we remained silent (and the younger classes remained silent, too).  I guess we/I thought such gym class protocols were the norm – how would we have known anything else (because we didn’t ask – because our parents never discussed child abuse and sexual abusers beyond the admonition to avoid accepting rides from strangers)?

French Films:  When I was newly sixteen and working in a bookshop, a professor at our local college hit on me.  The fact that he was in his late twenties and I had just gotten a driving learner’s permit did not raise a red flag (duhhh).  I thought that I was so smart and alluring that the scenario made perfect sense.  My best friend (she of the Herman-in-the-basement warning) tried again to open my eyes:  why would a grown professional man ask a fairly young teenager on a date?

I’d given up my crush on her brother, so I paid no attention.  The date happened (although I had enough premonition to make up some sort of alibi for my parents), and we went to a French film that was part of the summer movie series in my town.  Rapture!  Culture!  In two months, when I finally would be in college in the East, this would be what I’d do every weekend.  We spoke French to each other!  And talked about Sartre!  He served me wine!

And ended up in his house, on his couch, with him trying to rape me.  I don’t know if this was child abuse legally, because I don’t know if my being sixteen and his being twenty-nine fit under a Wisconsin child abuse statute at the time.  Whatever.  I was a child, and he was an adult.  I’m happy to report that I figured out a way to extricate myself from that situation with no serious damage to my virginity.  It was harder to ‘explain’ to my parents why I returned home with my clothes torn.  I was able to conceal the bruises.

Victimization:  Re the Sandusky case, there’s been a whole lot of commentary about victimization.  More, that ‘victims’ should be called ‘survivors’ and even heroes.  And yet more, that the Sandusky verdict will empower people who’ve endured child abuse to speak out, to forgive themselves, and ‘heal and find closure.’ 

Although I certainly hope that Jerry Sandusky’s prey are helped by yesterday’s seemingly well-deserved verdict, and according to the evidence of his manipulative depravity, I’m pleased that he’ll probably die in prison, . . . I’m a bit concerned by the inchoate media embrace of ‘victimization.’  The reason I’ve here recounted my own, not very dramatic experiences with abuse is to question whether every ‘child abuse’ event results in everlasting harm and permanent victimhood status. 

What happened (re me and my friends) with Herman the Janitor is consonant with many charges of which Sandusky was convicted.  Frankly, neither I nor any other lap-sitting, slobber-kissing Herman candy recipient has been seriously harmed.  If there’s psychic damage, it’s because we know that, even back then, we should have known better.  We made a dumb bargain, and we have lived with it.

Similarly, the French Film guy’s fairly serious attempt at rape did not make me a victim.  One:  it didn’t work out for him because I was able to thwart it.  Two:  I really feel that I was complicit in putting myself in a position to be abused.  I was not like Sandusky’s objects of affection – I had a stable home, I was a smart kid, I wasn’t more needy than any other sixteen-year-old.  I made a moronic decision, one that I knew was unwise even when I made it.  That doesn’t excuse the predatory professor (who, according to college magazines, died prematurely . . . how frigging sad . . . Je m’en fiche). But the event makes me (in my own mind, anyway) not a victim of much other than my lack of attention to my own wellbeing.

From what news coverage indicates, Sandusky’s ‘boys’ were much more vulnerable than I was.

Where vulnerability differences collapse – at least for me – is with my high school gym teachers.  Remembering those three years of anxiety, fear, and shame makes me feel as if I understand Sandusky’s victims much more than I do if I try to connect my own experiences with a basement skeez and a ‘respectable’ predator with their experiences with Jerry Sandusky.  The skeez and the predator did mess with my body, to some extent, but they didn’t mess with my spirit.  Yet the gym teachers . . . they did effect how I think of myself, my body, my sexuality, my helplessness under authority.  Even until this day.  I – and hundreds (!) of other girls – are their victims. 

Lots of useful things can come from the Sandusky case, and most have been robustly media-rehearsed.  What I’d like to add to the mix, I guess, is that ‘abuse’ is not necessarily defined only in terms of physical penetration or touching.  In some ways, overt gestures can be easier to deflect – or to endure – than systematic sexual humiliation, particularly when such humiliations/exploitations/abuses are undertaken under the aegis of a powerful institution. 

For me, my church was not a very powerful institution; it was where my family went on Sunday mornings just because that’s what ‘Leave-It-To-Beaver’ families did in those days (I can certainly understand how young people steeped in other faith traditions could have felt profoundly different).  Similarly, a single – albeit disastrous – date didn’t figure in any global concept of world and self.  In contrast, my high school was the core of my being during my mid-teen years, the very years that I, and most of my friends, were trying to understand their sexuality, their agency, and their fast-approaching adulthood. 

That’s why my high school gym teachers occupy the lowest circle of Deb’s child-abuse hell, such as it is (and it’s hardly much compared, unfortunately, to others’ experience) . . . and why, in my mind, they’re the despicable link between the relatively mild abusive occurrences of my childhood and the pitiable, detestable acts Jerry Sandusky afflicted upon the objects of his ‘affections.’

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Recusal Refusal

Recusal Refusal

Before the Supreme Court issues its ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act cases (aka ObamaCare), I’d like to bring up something that’s been bothering me for months.  This troubling issue transcends partisanship, I think, although it’s certainly pertinent to concerns about the Supreme Court’s politicization. 

The first part of the issue is this:  why is Clarence Thomas sitting on this case?  Judge Thomas’s wife has been highly active with groups opposing ‘ObamaCare.’  She’s made a good deal of money (over $1.5 million dollars) from this advocacy.  This is not a secret, nor is it an unsubstantiated allegation.  It’s a matter of voluminous public record.  In any other court, Judge Thomas would not be hearing this case.

The second part of the issue:  should Elena Kagan be sitting on this case? The alleged problem here is that as U.S. Solicitor General, she helped prepare the government’s defense to the health care laws’ initial challenges.  Kagan asserts that she delegated health-care related duties to the Deputy Solicitor General expressly to avoid conflict of interest.  Her Supreme Court record indicates that she’s tried to be scrupulous about such conflicts, as she has recused herself from many other cases in which there was a possible intersection between her job as Solicitor General and her subsequent responsibilities as Supreme Court Justice.

Democratic Senators as well as various Progressive groups have called for Thomas’s recusal, while Conservative interests have called for Kagan’s recusal.  So far (although recusal is possible any time until a ruling is published), both Justices have been actively involved in the Affordable Health Care cases.

So what, exactly, is recusal, and how does it work in our legal system in general and in the Supreme Court in particular?

Recusal is removing oneself, or being removed, from ruling on a case because one’s impartiality is compromised.  In almost every federal and state court, recusal can happen in two ways. 

The first and most common is self-recusal, when judges recuse themselves (sua sponte) from cases because there are obvious conflicts of interests – such as when a judge has been a party to the case previously, or has family members involved on one side or another, or has a substantial financial interest in the outcome.  Even if judges believe they can rule impartially, they often recuse themselves to avoid the appearance of impropriety, which is what Federal Law and the Judicial Canon of Ethics demand.

The second way is recusal pursuant to a motion from the defense or the prosecution.  This means that a party to the case believes that the judge cannot be impartial and petitions the court system to remove/replace that judge. Such motions certainly are not granted easily because there’s a presumption that judges are ethical people who will recuse themselves if necessary . . . and willy-nilly requested recusals would encourage ‘judge shopping.’  Nonetheless, they are granted as circumstances warrant – through various forms of judicial review  – because there’s a legitimate need to maintain an unbiased judiciary . . . and to maintain the public trust in an unbiased judiciary.

In all courts except one, motions to recuse (if contested) can be heard on appeal by a higher court or handled by a writ of prohibition (different states and different federal courts have various means of dealing with motions for recusal).  The exception:  the Supreme Court, which has neither horizontally equal courts nor a higher court to which motions and appeals can be directed.  Further, because of the nature of the Supreme Court, no equal-level judges can be brought in as substitutes to hear a particular case, something that can be done in lower-level courts. 

So what happens when there’s a serious, ongoing recusal issue regarding a Supreme Court Justice?

Well, nothing.  It’s recusal sua sponte or no recusal at all.

Throughout the Supreme Court’s history, Justices have recused themselves for all sorts of self-defined conflicts of interests, or perceptions of such conflicts.  In the matter of the Affordable Care Act cases, neither Justice in question has recused him or herself.  Why?  My guess is that Supreme Court Justices probably have convinced themselves that they are indeed impartial, no matter what the circumstances.  Or, to be more cynical, that they believe can get away with partisan rulings . . . damn the editorial or law review torpedoes, and full speed ahead. 

Here’s what I don’t understand.  Is there no remedy from a prima facie instance of Supreme Court bias, or at least a strong presumption of partiality? 

In the matter of Justice Thomas (which, in my opinion, is by far the most blatant example of conflict of interest in the Affordable Care cases . . . indeed, a textbook case of conflict of interest), all sorts of ex parte pressures have been brought to bear.  Democratic Senators sent a letter to the Supreme Court asking for his recusal; over 100,000 people signed a petition (and demonstrated in front of the Court) also asking for his recusal.  Clarence Thomas would not be moved, and – obviously – neither the Chief Justice nor his (and Thomas’s) ideological allies pressured Justice Thomas to bow out from this aggregate of cases. 

In the matter of Justice Kagan (which, in my opinion, is a much less obvious example of conflict of interest), the ex parte pressure extended to a formal motion to the Supreme Court for her recusal, a motion that was easy for Chief Justice John Roberts to turn down, both on the grounds that it doesn’t really have standing in law and that to grant it might open the floodgates to petitions for the recusal of Federalist Society brethren like Justice Thomas. 

Indeed, the Chief Justice wrote in his year-end report (2011) that "I have complete confidence in the capability of my colleagues to determine when recusal is warranted.”

That sounds nice.  But it ignores both the possibility that on occasion Justices may be blinded to (or seduced by) their own biases, or be so convinced of their own integrity that they lose sight of how their self-regard can effect public perception of the Supreme Court.  This is not a minor matter:  public trust in the Supreme Court – in its ability to transcend partisan politics – is at an all-time low. Congress’s reputation is already in the toilet; opinions of the Presidency as an office, not just as a function of a particular office-holder, are perilously polarized.  If opinion about the third branch of government keeps sinking as well, where are we as a nation?

Unless the ultimate decision about the Affordable Care Act cases is made by a big majority (7-2?  8 -1?), its perceived legitimacy will be questioned in large part because of the failure of Justice Thomas to recuse himself, and in lesser part because of the failure of Justice Kagan to recuse herself.  Even more, the issue will be sucked back into the vortex of partisan politics, as if there had been no Supreme Court decision at all . . . or perhaps more precisely, because the Supreme Court decision will be regarded as yet another unhappy exercise in partisan politics. 

To conclude: at present, there seems to be no remedy against Supreme Court Justices who refuse to recuse themselves in the face of obvious conflicts of interest.  If there’s not, there should be.  At the least, a petition for recusal could be heard by the other eight members of the court, who’d have to rule (in a majority) for recusal.  This would preserve the ‘supremacy’ of the Supreme Court in the country’s judicial hierarchy.  It would also give some hope that justice can be balanced when it’s pretty apparent that a rough beast of bias is slouching toward the scales.

Selected References:

Joan Biscupic, “ Chief Justice Defends Supreme Court’s recusal policy,” USA Today, 12/31/11.

Jennifer Haberkorn, “Supreme Court says no to debate over Elena Kagan health care role,” Politico, 1/23/12.

“Justice Thomas Defends Wife’s Lobbying Work as Dems Call for Health Law Recusal,”, 2/28/11.

“List of orders and filings related to the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care laws”.

Puja Patel, “Obama Care Recusal,” Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy, 1/10/12.

Caprice L. Roberts, “The Fox guarding the Henhouse?  Recusal and the Procedural Void in the Court of Last Resort.”  Rutgers Law Review 57, 2004.

Mike Sacks, “Clarence Thomas Petitioned by 100,000 Progressives to Recuse Himself From Health Care Cases,” The Huffington Post, 2/17/12.

Jeffrey Toobin, “Partners:  Will Clarence and Virginia Thomas succeed in killing Obama’s health care plan?”  The New Yorker.  8/29/1.

[Unrelated legal note:  Roger Clemens was found not guilty of perjury yesterday (June 18, 2012).  The charges involved lying to Congress about taking performance-enhancing drugs, something Clemens has never been convicted of.  Enough, already, with wasting public money on Congressional inquiries like this . . . and weird, Catch-22 ensuing charges, the pursuit of which also wastes public money. ]

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Father's Day: Triple Crowns, U.S. Opens, and Other Sports

Father’s Day: Triple Crowns, U.S. Opens, and Other Summer Sports

Let me define ‘summer.’  For me, as a life-long academic, summer begins around May 1, when second term ends and – in North Carolina at least – when the weather is consistently balmy and often downright hot.  Summer ends in mid-August, when school (and football!) begins again.  So I’m talking roughly May through August.

Summer is an odd ‘season’ for an omnivorous U.S. sports fan like me.  As opposed to fall/winter, when it’s all football all the time, or winter/spring, when it’s college basketball, bay-bee . . . summer is baseball and an assortment of other athletic viewing possibilities.  Unfortunately, if one is a patrilineal Chicago Cubs fan, baseball enthusiasm soon slides into the dispirited present and unrealistic future dreams of ‘maybe next year.’  This is such a predictable (over a century!) pattern that I’ve resisted purchasing a cable baseball package that would allow me to wax nostalgic about Wrigley Field but, ultimately, to subject myself to many inept, disappointing games. 

Over the years, I’ve fed my baseball jones by attending Durham Bulls games (great fun, it it’s under 100 degrees at game time) and trying occasionally to root for more competitive teams like the Phillies (my nephew is a Phillies Phanatic, who’s paid to whip up the home crowd by throwing treats into the stands and yelling loudly) or (this year) the Nats (many family member live in the D.C. area) . . . but it’s just not the same as having your life-long favorite team in contention for most of the season.  Thus, my attention has been drawn to alternate sports.

They begin with the Triple Crown.  I’ve often wondered why non-‘horse people’ watch the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont:  who cares about querulous mega-rich geriatric owners, arrogant dope-injecting trainers, and – for that matter – animals so inbred that they’re likely to break an ankle if they stumble over a four-leaf clover?  If you don’t count circling State Fair ponies, I’ve been on a horse only once in my life, and my mandatory girlhood infatuation with horses lasted less than two weeks (an older next-door neighbor had a collection of plastic horses that I admired and wanted to emulate, until the tiny plastic specimen I’d purchased with carefully hoarded allowance money was deemed beneath contempt).  Neither am I carried away by the beauty/nobility/whatever of horses – I mean, the gastronomically feted French eat horses, don’t they?  So what’s so special? 

Nonetheless, I fanatically watch all Triple Crown races – the Derby because it’s a lovely tradition among local friends to view and bet on together, the Preakness and Belmont (with or without viewing companions, depending on who’s in town) because I’ve convinced myself that I NEED to see these races.  What’s odd is that I’ve really enjoyed attending actual horse races, mainly because I like to bet – and there are few ‘sporting’ experiences more relaxing, enjoyable, and inexpensive than, say, spending an afternoon at a park like Santa Anita.  But watching the Belmont as I did this year . . . by myself, strangely disappointed that “I’ll Have Another” would not have a chance to win it all . . . has nothing to do with the pleasure of being at the track or wagering with friends. 

I’m not sure what causes my Triple Crown compulsion.  Some of it, no doubt, is the excitement of mano-a-mano (or equus-a-equus) races . . . I love to watch many Track and Field events as well, because the results are so unequivocal.   The fastest wins!  Done!  Hurray Usain Bolt!  Another aspect, I think, may be the spectatorial/fan generosity of the United States to all sorts of sports.  As a heterogenic society, and a technologically advanced one with a wide and hungry media presence, we have many sports traditions that once would have been culturally circumscribed but now are available to anyone with basic cable.  In the wee hours of the morning, it’s fun to follow camel races from Dubai and Strongest Man contests from Scandinavian countries.  If such contests were broadcast in prime weekend time, I might find them as necessary to watch as are the Triple Crown races.  Or . . . the golf majors.

Although the Masters’ Championship is the first golf major, it’s played in spring among the azaleas and gynophobia of the Augusta National Country Club.  The U.S. Open Golf Championship is the first summer (in my definition) golf major, and I always look forward to watching it.  Why?  Few would deny that professional golfers are among the most boring, self-involved people imaginable.  I mean, have you listened to the interviews after a major golf event?  They make you ashamed that you watched the event in the first place.

I could argue that I’ve actually played (quite badly) a fair amount of golf in my life, so I watch golf in a different way than I watch hockey (which I haven’t played, although I’ve certainly ice-skated . . . but the reason I don’t watch hockey on TV is that I can’t ever see the puck; I’ve loved attending live hockey games).  Theoretically, I can understand golfers’ decisions and feel in muscle memory the difference between a straight, solid shot and a monumental flub.  I could also argue that watching major golf tournaments is something I enjoyed doing with my father, after a series of strokes stopped him from playing the game he’d excelled in from childhood, a game that he’d taught me to play.

Both arguments are true, as far as they go.  But they’re counteracted by tennis.  I’ve played tennis badly (about as frequently as I’ve played golf badly), and my father also taught me tennis (he was a canny if not extravagantly gifted tennis player, able to psych out opponents more often than not).  But I don’t enjoy watching the major tennis tournaments.  I used to try to be interested, and it was easier when, for example, the Williams sisters were fresh and awesome.  (Let’s face it – men’s tennis is often a dull wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am first-serve-fest.) 

I’ve omitted comment about the NHL and the NBA playoffs, which also happen in summer.  Reason:  they shouldn’t happen in summer.  Hockey is a winter game (like curling, ice fishing, and dog-sled racing).  Basketball – at least in Northern Wisconsin, where I was raised – is also a winter game (the seasonal rotation, starting with Autumn, was football/basketball/baseball /swimming). 

So, as I finish writing this, I’m also watching the penultimate day of the U.S. Open.  Tiger Woods went into today (June 16, 2012) tied for the lead.  He’s now behind, although not irreparably so.  I’m glad he’s back in the mix, because as a person driven to watch major golf tournaments, I think they’re more interesting when Tiger’s in contention – even though his public persona seems to be getting increasingly unlikeable (did you see his stunningly ungracious answer to a question about the 17-year-old amateur who’s doing exceedingly well?).  I don’t know for whom I’m pulling . . . yet I know I’ll be watching tomorrow.

If you’ve read this far, you might reasonably be asking yourself if these ramblings have a point.  I’m asking the same thing!  When I started, my point was to be that U.S. sports fandom is more various than almost any other country’s because we’re exposed to so many different sports . . . and (although I didn’t really get to this) that our love of any and all sports has to do with a certain idea of ‘American’ individualism and ‘bootstrapper-ism.’  We can put ourselves in the tennis shoes, riding boots, or golf cleats of almost any athlete and imagine great things.  (Even soccer:  although I’d advocate two balls, a double-sized net, and Quidditch brooms, give me the FIFA championships and I’m there, even at 3:00a.m., Ecuador v. Cameroon).  We love to watch all sorts of athletic contests because, on some level, we’re able to believe that there, but for the crabby coaching demands of God, go I.  Such gratifying fantasies have little to do with whether we’ve ever played, much less seriously trained for, a particular game.

But as I’ve written this woefully meandering blog, I realize that at some level it’s about something else.  It’s about my father, and how much I owe to him, and how much I miss him.  My dad was a bright and charismatic man . . . and a very good amateur athlete in many sports.  He had no sons, but he tried to teach his daughters the sports that he loved – at a time way before Title 9 made it cool to do so.  When my sister and I did not turn out to be athletically talented, he didn’t stop encouraging us to enjoy sports of various kinds . . . and later, to enjoy watching and commenting on televised sports, to believe that sports could be an enriching part of life, no matter whether participation is actual or virtual. 

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.  Thank you for making sports a gratifying part of my life, even if I’m basically an abysmal athlete.  Without your example and guidance, I’d never have done some things I actually could do ‘athletically,’ such as help coach Little League basketball and baseball teams.  And thank you, and Mom, for supporting your daughters’ wide-ranging interests and ambitions . . . support that included being grammar police, allowing us free range to everything we could access and imagine, and encouraging spirited debates about subjects ranging from politics to . . . sports.

Resquiat in pacem, et in spem Catulis victoria, Richard Masduraud Baker, 1922 – 2000.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Coulda Been a Contender?

Coulda Been a Contender?

Two things caught my attention today.  First, according to a poll of unknown accuracy, George W. Bush remains the most unpopular living U.S. President -- which isn’t a huge surprise (a lot of people don’t remember anything about Jimmy Carter or, probably, about George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton’s popularity remains high, as does his visibility).  Second, ex-Governor Jeb Bush admitted that this year was “probably his time” to have run for President.  It’s easy to link these two items into a flaccid cause-and-effect relationship:  Jeb didn’t run for the Republican nomination because George W. is so disliked that another Bush Commander-in-Chief would have been unthinkable.

Maybe so.  From 1980 to 2008 – with the exception of Clinton’s last term – a Bush has run for President or Vice President.  These dynastic politics resulted in eight years’ worth of a Bush as VP and twelve years’ worth of a Bush as President of the United States, numbers that put the John and John Quincy Adams to shame.  One can understand the not-to-run calculation:  when the traveling circus that was the Republican nominating season began, President Obama appeared harder to beat than he does now.  If the President did win a second term, the race might be more attractive in 2016, when there would be no incumbent.  Further, there’d be more time for the foetor around the last Bush Presidency to dissipate, and Jeb would be only 63 years old (younger than Mitt Romney is now). 

Such reasoning no doubt made a lot of sense a year ago. 

Evidently, it makes less sense now.

Jeb Bush’s tone of regret this morning was palpable.  Not only may he have missed his “window of opportunity,” as he so unoriginally put it; even if he’d opened that window, the winds of Tea-Party anti-establishmentarianism and far-right litmus tests might have blown him over.  He admitted that he’s not sure he “would have been a successful candidate, either.” 

After all, for a Republican these days, Jeb is relatively progressive on the issue of immigration, a stance that ensures xenophobic dip-stick opposition from his own party.  He has committed the cardinal heresy of praising President Obama for certain initiatives, especially in education.  And he’s burdened by a brother who’s as demonized by conservative Republicans as he is by progressive Democrats.

One almost feels sorry for the man – not only for his obvious sense of missed or star-crossed opportunity but also for his apparent belief that not becoming President makes him, in some important ways, a failure. 

How many normal people would think that?  We’re not talking about losing an election – on whatever level, that would indeed be a failure, and one that would be hard to take.  But Jeb Bush has not run for President, so he did not fail in that endeavor.  The sense of defeat he projected today was more existential.  What came across was that he thinks he failed his own destiny.

This might be the heaviest burden of the Bush patronym.  Jeb’s own family always called him the ‘smart’ one and thought he would be President before, or instead of, George W.  (How galling this must have been to Jeb’s older brother is barely conceivable; how it might have influenced some Presidential decisions [war in Iraq, anyone?] is a matter of painful speculation.)  Jeb’s tenure as Florida’s Governor was an overall success.  Jeb talks like an educated citizen, eschewing the ersatz hick-shtick embraced by his older brother (even though it was George W. who went to Yale and Jeb who went to the University of Texas . . . reverse elitism to the max), and he even speaks unembarrassing Spanish.  He’s largely unscathed by the savings & loan and oil influence scandals that have plagued other members of his family; there’s some tarnish about his relationship with Lehman Brothers, but nothing that’s been elevated to indictable status.  He hasn’t been tagged in a sex scandal, and he hasn’t built houses with car elevators. 

What more could Jeb Bush have done to pave his Presidential road?  A road already asphalted by generations of Bush political and corporate (mainly oil) connections?

Evidently nothing. 

What’s odd is that Jeb’s appearance on CBS This Morning was so naked, without really being confessional.  Not only did he make his own disappointment clear.  That very disappointment also indicated that he doesn’t think much of this year’s actual nominee, an impression buttressed by Jeb’s clear assertion that he would not under any circumstances be Mitt Romney’s Vice President. 

As anyone who’s read my blogs knows, I’m a life-long (if somewhat phlegmatic, and I hope not completely doctrinaire) Democrat.  In a partisan way, I’m glad Jeb Bush is not the Republican nominee for President:  he’s a much more skilled politician than is Mitt Romney, and he would probably have wider appeal in the upcoming general election.  In a non-partisan way, I’m somewhat sad.  Jeb Bush probably would have made a decent president:  conservative, yes, but pragmatic and experienced in the ways of governance, which also means that he wouldn’t consider ‘government’ as the ipso facto enemy.  The very privilege that comes with the Bush legacy might have made Jeb relatively impervious to Tea-Party demands. 

Well, it’s not going to happen, at least not this year.  And as a supporter of Barack Obama, I’m relieved that it’s not.  Even so, maybe Jeb Bush could have been a contender.  But unlike Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, not being a contender does not make him a bum. 

[Note #1:  In my blogs, I’ve mostly referred to political figures by their honorifics, as my own small protest against the current incivility of current political discourse.  The fact that I’m talking about  multiple Bushes dictated the use of first names.  No disrespect is intended.

Note #2:  For a week, I’ve been trying to find something to write about the Wisconsin recall election.  Mission:  ABORTED.  I have no insights whatsoever, and certainly nothing original to say.  I do have a general feeling of disappointment, and increased feelings of outrage and dismay about the Citizens United decision.  But such feelings are hardly novel, so (for now) I retreat into blog-silence on the subject.]