Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Olympic Dilemma: Turn Off the Picture or Turn Off the Sound?

The Olympic Dilemma:
 Turn Off the Picture or Turn Off the Sound?

I’ve looked forward to the Olympics throughout this long, hot summer.  Now that they’re here, I find myself caught in a hellish sports-fan quandary:  do I listen and not watch, or watch and not listen?  I can’t do both because, even if I put my hands over my eyes or ears to keep my brains from falling out, my head would explode from the sensory assault.  And I don’t mean that in a good way.

Option One – Turn Off the Picture
The reason to do this is obvious.  This year’s Olympics are inconceivably, overwhelmingly ugly.  Eyeball-searingly, painfully ugly.

And I mean real pain, the visual equivalent of the unpleasant neural spasm a mouthful of frozen piña colada can cause, shooting from the throat up behind the nose and lodging between the eyes, in the meantime paralyzing the lungs.  Have you noticed the color palette, for example (how could you not)?  Right now, I’m (not)watching/(not)listening to a beach volleyball match (absolutely great TV spectator sport, usually – you can see everything that happens, and the rules are not arcane).  The color scheme is Shell Gas Station Yellow and a menacingly toxic purple . . . two colors that shouldn’t exist in isolation and that produce a nuclear reaction of awfulness when they’re combined.  Owww.

The regular volleyball palette isn’t any better, although it attacks your stomach instead of your skull.  The interior court is an indescribable color – kind of a pinkish liver hue suffused with yellowish bile.  It is surrounded by an aggressively acid aqua, and bordered by a wall that can only be characterized as the color of congealed blood.

Then there is the gymnastics venue, festooned with Pepto-Bismol pink.  Or the Field Hockey venue, where athletes play on a ‘field’ of what looks like cyanide-laced, not-so-royal blue Astroturf.  Even one of the soccer stadiums has a wall of purple and pink that has a frightening, headache-inducing strobe effect.  [There are reports that internet sites showing the logo morphing from ‘official’ color to ‘official’ color had to be shut down, as they triggered seizures.]  Such visual atrocities make the basketball venue – astringent pink and purple plus black and white – seem tasteful, in a Jerseylicious sort of way.

The ubiquitous graphics are just as bad.  Primum inter pares is the Olympic logo.  Evidently, it is an abstraction of the year 2012.  Could have fooled me!  I thought it was a poorly designed tangram that no one could figure out how to assemble, particularly because it’s often blown apart to form a deconstructed aureole around the hideous typography of  ‘London 2012.’ 

It’s interesting, and sad, that in these graphic displays the Olympic rings have been drained of color, reduced to bone-white ciphers.  Obviously, the familiar happy interlock of primary colors has no place in the London Olympics.  We should have been warned by the opening ceremonies, an exercise in darkness.  Costumes were dark.  Props were dark.  Stands were dark (the LED lighting made them look uninhabited).  The theme was dark (and weirdly inappropriate:  Industrial Capitalism – The Musical!).  The only good thing about this gloomy spectacle was that it made moments of brightness (the forged Olympic rings, the torch lighting, the fireworks, the national costumes from Cameroon) even brighter.

While we’re revisiting the opening ceremonies, let’s commemorate the ugliness of this Olympic’s visual props.  Papier maché smokestacks rising from the ground like sooty, sullen meerkats?  A Glastonbury Tor resembling a melting pistachio slurpy?  A maze of children’s hospital beds, always a not-so-uplifting image, no matter the (somewhat discordant) intention to celebrate national healthcare?  A stadium floor that looks like giant Pick-Up Stix (instead of the map of London it was meant to invoke)?

And the bad visual props didn’t end with the (seemingly endless) opening ceremonies.  This morning, I watched an equestrian jumping contest (part of the bizarre ‘Eventing’ competition) in which middle-aged horses and riders hurdled over twelve gates within a minute, every knocked-down rail resulting in a deduction.  The gates were fashioned as miniature ‘cultural’ landmarks (miniature Stonehenge, miniature Tower Bridge, etc. etc.) . . . the effect being that the horses were playing a British-themed round of miniature golf in a strikingly tacky theme park.

[Note to all present and future British designers and artists:  NEVER employ miniature Stonehenges unless you want everyone and her dotty aunt to reference This Is Spinal Tap immediately.]

International viewers have been spared, in large part, one of the most visually and conceptually ugly props ever conceived:  the 2012 Olympic mascots.  Because we’ve been shielded from these monstrosities, here they are:

They represent drops of molten steel.  (Cute!  Put them on the rainbow-stickered shelf next to Hello Kitty Dolls and My Little Ponies!)  Their names are Wenlock and Mandeville.  (I could explain the names, just as I could explain the character that Kenneth Branaugh was playing in the opening ceremonies, but that’s why God made Wikipedia.)  Whoever thought that stupidly unappealing-looking, slimmed-down cyclopian Michelin man industrial spores would be a brilliant marketing idea probably created the animation series starring the mascots (“Out of a Rainbow,” “Adventures on a Rainbow,” etc.) you can buy if you’re really dedicated to burying the noble tradition of beautifully illustrated children’s books.  Barring that, you could purchase Wenlock and Mandeville stuffed toys or children’s apparel, all made just for you in Chinese sweatshops anchoring the global merchandising village.

Enough.  I hope I’ve put forth a good case for turning off the picture and just listening to the Olympics.

Option Two -- Turn Off the Sound

You can see, or hear, where this is going.  If (as an Olympics fan) you turn off the picture, you’re left with the sound.  Which means, inescapably, the commentators.

Since I’m writing from the United States, my opinions necessarily are based on coverage by ‘the networks of NBC’ (NBC, MSNBC, NBCSports, CNBC, Bravo).  The good thing:  you can see almost every event, somewhere, on TV (there’s also complete streaming video, but I’m such a Luddite – not to mention vision-impaired – that I prefer to watch sports on a reasonably sized TV screen).  The small bad thing:  you don’t know what’s on every channel at every hour of the day, so you spend lots of time clicking among channels.  Easy solution – follow what the network did during March Madness and have a discreet display showing what’s playing everywhere at the top or bottom of each channel’s broadcast. 

The big bad thing:  the commentary.  This is when one wishes, passionately, for major ear-wax build-up.  Most of the commentary, so far, has veered between two-bubbles-short of level and TV-screen-punching obnoxiousness.

Within my own small circle of Facebook friends, there’s been amusing criticism of Olympic commentary.  I’m sure if I bothered to cruise the internet on this subject, there’d be a ton more.  It’s like shooting fish (or white-water kayaks) in a barrel. 

So I don’t really need to write about all the commentators, and comments, that propel us toward the remote control’s mute button.  About Rowdy Gaines’ squeals and Bob Costas’s Napoleonic pretentiousness.  About the commentators who can’t resist jokes involving Chinese athletes’ names (Hu and Shu in the canoe!!).  About the commentators whose knowledge of geography, on a good day, may equal the average citizen’s abysmal ignorance of the subject.  About all the swimming commentators’ Michael Phelps fixation . . . and their clumsiness in moving the scripted ‘conversation’ (see ‘The Cliché Jar’ blog) from ‘will Michael Phelps win the most medals ever’ to ‘what’s wrong with Michael Phelps’ (and their clueless rudeness in trying to do so).

So which is it?  Picture off, or sound off?

I truly enjoy the Olympics, despite the visual and aural assaults on aesthetics, logic, and general intelligence.  Therefore, I’d like to end this rumination with a salute to a REALLY GOOD commentator . . . so good, in fact, that it tips the balance to ‘picture off’ (or even easier, picture ignored most of the time, sound on).  That would be:  Teddy Atlas.

You might have missed him.  He’s the boxing ‘color’ commentator, and has been so for umpteen Olympics.  This past weekend, boxing preliminaries were broadcast on CNBC (where most viewers might not think to look).  Anyway . . .

The reason Teddy Atlas is so good is that he’s both entertaining and informative.  On the one hand (the entertaining jab), he’s the Yogi Berra of boxing.  Example:  “He’s faster in legs.  Longer in arms.  Higher in height.”  Another example:  “He looks like two things to me. More developed, more experienced, more confident, more stronger.  That’s more than two.  Maybe too much for Ghasemi [the opponent].”

On the other hand (the informative punch), his gnomic utterances usually contain helpful quidbits about the sport.  For example:  “You can always catch the shorter fighter.  Before he gets to where he needs to be.”  Or: “He’s in the Olympic version of the prevent defense.”  And sometimes, an initially baffling statement leads to insightful analysis.  During one bout, Teddy Atlas remarked about a fighter: “There’s another advantage: shorter arms.  Like that other advantage, longer arms.“   Before I could register an internal ‘say what,’ he explained what he meant – basically, that a fighter can turn anything to his advantage, given ability and good coaching.  If you’re shorter, you whack away inside; if you’re taller, you work from the outside. 

I could multiply the examples of Teddy Atlas’s short-sentence, long-information comments (just one more:  “He never sits down on his punches.  His feet are always moving.  That’s why he doesn’t get leverage.“  Teddy’s point is that fancy footwork can be counter-productive if you’re either slow or extremely strong). 

Compare Teddy Atlas (who fought professionally and ‘interned’ as a trainer under Cus D’Amato) to, say, Tim Doggett (a former Olympian who now ‘commentates’ on his sport, gymnastics, and is less annoying than many other expert former-star commentators).  Both men certainly are well qualified to deliver expert analysis (unlike general talkers like Matt Lauer or Meredith Viera).  But Doggett says things like “Wow – that was wonderful” or “Big Mistake!” in relation to a pommel horse routine without describing what was good or bad (most viewers think of ‘good’ as sticking the landing and ‘bad’ as falling off the apparatus . . . Doggett is referring to some handwork intricacy that he doesn’t explain).  In contrast, Teddy says something that captures your attention, then makes it make sense – and adds to your understanding of tactics and strategies.

Well, this has turned into a blog in praise of Teddy Atlas!  So be it.  With what to me is the general ugliness and dopiness of the 2012 Olympics broadcasts, I’m happy to single out a non-competitor who is contributing positively to the virtual Olympic experience.

Teddy redeems audio!  Which also ratifies how I, and probably most people, ‘watch’ the Olympics.  It’s on, and we kind of pay attention and kind of do our work and kind of conduct our daily lives.  The audio is what cues us to put down the files or the dust cloth and actually look at what should be the Olympic focus:  athletic competition and accomplishment.  All I can say, in conclusion, is that this year’s visual packaging and commentary, for the most part, make looking and listening less pleasant than such an exhilarating athletic spectacle should be. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Dark Night

Dark Night

In the aftermath of the movie theater massacre last Friday in Aurora, Colorado, gun control issues predictably reenter public consciousness.  The result will probably be just as predictable.  If state and national response to this mass shooting follows the pattern set by responses to other mass-shooting tragedies (fairly recently, Tucson, Virginia Tech, Ft. Hood), nothing whatsoever will change.

It’s a fact that the United States Constitution contains the Second Amendment, which the Supreme Court has interpreted quite capaciously within the past few years (striking down some cities’ attempts to regulate the sale of firearms, for instance; see D.C. v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago).  It’s also a fact, from a strict constructionist standpoint, that the founding fathers could not have intended private citizens to enjoy untrammeled rights to automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines, as those technological ‘advances’ had not yet been made.  Nevertheless, it’s an additional fact that guns are part of this country’s mythological self-representation, the lethal reification of rugged individualism. 

Most advocates of gun control therefore realize that the United States will never ban guns altogether.  Moreover, the political power of the National Rifle Association has guaranteed that elected representatives – no matter what their individual beliefs about unfettered gun ownership, no matter what horrendous gun-enabled incidents occur – will shy away from proposing or supporting any legislation directed at regulating guns or ammunition.  Twenty years ago, gun laws tended to be a partisan issue; today, no party is willing to take on the gun lobby.

The reason is money.  The NRA presents itself as a citizen’s advocacy organization, but it has become a lobbying group primarily for gun and ammunition manufacturers.  U.S. companies make most of the world’s guns and bullets, and they sell them throughout the world.  It is a huge and highly lucrative industry. 

At the same time, individual paid NRA membership – among hunters and recreational shooters, for example –  has been decreasing (after a long post-9/11 rise) and there’s evidence that the organization inflates membership claims in order to exert maximum pressure on state and national legislators.

Hunters know that an AK-47 is not helpful in shooting a deer (it’s neither sporting nor useful if one wants to enjoy some venison).  Hobbyists know that rapid-fire weapons do not measure one’s skill on a range or a skeet-shooting context.  People who sincerely believe they need a gun for self-protection know that a conventional pistol or shotgun will suffice. 

So who benefits from non-existent gun control laws?  Weapons manufacturers.  And, arguably, criminals. 

But not so fast.  There’s a seemingly legitimate scholarly debate about whether tougher gun laws actually result in a decrease in crime.  One problem about the reliability of this debate is that funding for solid research about the gun/crime nexus has been reduced to almost nothing (thanks in large part to NRA efforts).  Another problem is situational: when a headline-grabbing incident such as the Aurora shootings happens, people are quick to focus on the putative psychopathology of the perpetrator and to meander into the shadowlands of profiling and predicting behavior. 

Often (as was true this past weekend) tentative conclusions resemble warmed-over gruel:  you usually can’t tell who will turn homicidal, mass murderers will find a way (bombs, chemical attacks, poisonous snakes, whatever) to attempt to make their desires/fantasies/compulsions/sheer evil happen.  Ergo, new gun control measures would not have stopped Aurora, or Tucson, or whatever hideous event is in the news at the moment.  Family members, co-workers, fellow students, Facebook friends should be more vigilant.  Etc., etc.

For sake of argument, let’s grant that all this is true and sufficient.  Is there a reason other than the dark night risen of this past weekend, and corollary occurrences, to reconsider gun and ammunition control in the United States?

There certainly is. 

Gun suicide.  Nearly 60 % of all suicides in the United States are committed by gun; outside of accidents, gun suicide is one of the top causes of death among teenagers and military veterans, significantly outweighing numbers from homicide.  There’s absolutely no question that having a gun in the home enables ‘successful’ suicide – the percentages of suicide attempts by, say, pills or hanging that result in death are substantially lower than the percentages of suicide attempts by gun that result in death. 

It’s true that most gun suicides are not accomplished with AK-47s.  A single well-placed shot from a conventional weapon will suffice.

So what sorts of legislation might address some of these problems?

Let’s take suicide-by-gun first.  If there were nationwide licensing standards, potential gun purchasers could be required to complete a gun-ownership safety course that would include safe storage of weapons in the home.  Parents of young children install safety locks in cabinets containing toxic cleansers or prescription drugs, for instance; shouldn’t the same level of awareness be directed towards guns and ammunition?  The old shoe-box on the closet shelf solution certainly is not sufficient with older children, who may also know combinations to gun safes and lock boxes (or could simply break into them).

‘Advanced weapons storage’ would be particularly useful in the case of teen gun-suicides.  Teenagers who attempt suicide are not always (probably not usually) chronically mentally ill.  Instead, they can be in the throes of volatile emotions, emotions that can and do change pretty quickly.  If a suicide attempt is unsuccessful, often there’s no second try.  Situations change, a ‘cry for help’ is heeded, young people mature.  But if that despondent, impulsive teenager has easy access to a gun, there’s usually no chance for help or healing.  The first try is deadly.

Secondarily, more background checks (and corollary waiting periods for gun ownership) about criminal and mental records could help keep guns of all sorts out of the possession of people (teens, parents of teens, and adults in general) who might have tendencies to be irresponsible or deadly with guns.   It could also be argued that having a reasonable limit on guns owned (who needs more than two hunting rifles or self-protection handguns?) might be helpful, as a few guns are easier to secure in the home than is an arsenal of firearms. Also, multiple purchases drive the ‘secondary gun market,’ which is the source of many guns used in criminal activities.

Ah – abridgment of Second Amendment rights!  Well, what about the constitutionally guaranteed rights against unreasonable search and seizure in the Fourth Amendment?  Why do we submit to taking off our shoes and having our hair gel confiscated at airports?  Terrorism is a good reason . . . but the number of U.S. citizens who die by gun-suicide and by domestic gun violence each year far exceeds those killed in 9/11, much less the number killed in this country by overseas-motivated terrorism in years subsequent (just about zero).  In other words, why should the United States take measures that may be constitutionally shaky to protect its people from ‘alien’ terrorism while refusing to take some commonsense measures to protect people from home-grown death-by-gun? 

Going back to the Aurora killings – wouldn’t the death and injury toll have been less if it had been illegal to purchase automatic weapons (in other words, reinstitute the Brady Bill) and, perhaps, if coordinated tracking of internet ammunition purchases had been in effect (raising red flags if a single civilian bought 6,000 rounds of ammunition within a short time period)?

Theologically, ‘the dark night of the soul’ is a crisis of faith when a believer wrestles painfully with disbelief in what had been a religiously or culturally dictated given in order to come to a more sanctified understanding of what’s right and moral.  It may be time for the United States as a nation to wrestle with its own dark night of the soul regarding the putatively sacrosanct nature of unregulated gun ownership.

The victims of gun violence deserve no less.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Job-Creating Emperors' New Clothes

Job–Creating Emperors’ New Clothes

A couple of days ago, the Congress had a rare bipartisan hissy fit.  The object of outrage:  the U.S. Olympic Team’s uniforms, conceived by the well-known American fashion designer Ralph Lauren but manufactured in (oh, the horror!) China. Members of Congress tripped over their Italian-made shoes in order to grab the microphone and denounce the country’s Olympic committee for its unpatriotic sartorial decision.  Senate Leader Harry Reid, for example, demanded that all the uniforms be burned, then replaced by Made-in-U.S.A. tracksuits and singlets.

The hyperbolic outrage is misplaced in many ways. 

First, it should have been directed at the clothing design itself, no matter where the final products were sewn.  The opening ceremony costumes (I use the word deliberately) are extravagantly horrible.  American athletes will look like preppy versions of French metrosexual mariners, complete with foolish berets and way-too-short blazers.  Even the logos are wrong, from a breast-beating patriot’s perspective; the Polo emblem is larger than the flag/U.S. Olympic emblem, and the logo positioning (as far as I can tell from photographs) is such than if athletes put their hands over their hearts during the national anthem or to salute the flag, all that remains visible will be the Ralph Lauren brand image. 

Second, the Congress has no runner in this marathon.  The U.S. Olympic team gets zero federal funding, as opposed to most other countries’ Olympic teams, which are subsidized in whole or in part by national governments.  Therefore, the U.S. Olympic Committee must seek sponsorship and is hostage, pretty much, to whatever sponsors make themselves and their goods available.  In the matter of clothing, the Ralph Lauren organization offered its services and its apparel:  good deal for the U.S. Olympics (free clothes) and good deal for Ralph Lauren (excellent marketing opportunity).  For years, Ralph Lauren has outsourced its manufacturing, as have almost all other U.S. clothing brands.  (Same thing goes for Nike, who supplies ‘Hyperdunk’ basketball shoes manufactured in China).  According to ABC news, only 2% of the clothing sold in the United States is made in this country.  There’s no indication (that I can find) that the Olympic Committee made any proactive effort to secure sponsorship from the few American companies that actually make clothes in the United States (it has now promised to do so in the future).

(Reality check for U.S. citizens:  take off all your clothes, right now, and look at their ‘made in’ labels.  [It’s an extremely hot summer, so we don’t have tons of clothes on, but even still . . .]  Me, this moment:  Skirt:  India.  Top:  China.  Underwear:  Mexico.  Shoes:  Indonesia.  I even rifled through a pile of un-ironed clothing to see where things were made; out of about 30 items [who wants to iron when the temperature is 104 degrees Fahrenheit?  Give me a break!], only one was labeled ‘Made in America’ – a souvenir T-shirt from Booth Bay Harbor, Maine.)

Third, this isn’t the first year that U.S. Olympic apparel has not been manufactured in the United States.  As early as Mitt Romney’s Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002, the team uniforms were made in Canada.  So why the uproar now?  Could posturing in an election year – and the fact that job outsourcing is a buzz issue in a down economy – possibly play any part?  

The real issue, it seems to me, is the atrophying of many U.S. manufacturing sectors – in this case, textiles and clothing.  North Carolina (the state I live in) used to be a leader in these industries; now, almost all its textile mills and clothing factories are closed.  It’s a fact of global life that even a ‘right-to-work’ state like mine cannot compete in industries that rely on relatively unskilled labor forces.  For years, North Carolina – to its credit, I think – has tried to replace traditional industries like textiles with more cutting edge industries that require better trained workers, industries like electronic communications, pharmaceuticals, and finance.  Other states have attempted similar transitions.  Yet here and on a national level we’ve seen increasing cuts in educational funding, which make it harder and harder to prepare potential employees to meet the demands of the current and future job environments.  In other words, extreme ‘austerity measures’ hamstring ‘job creators.’

That’s why the U.S. Congress’s hold-our-breath-until-we-turn-blue demonstrations about ‘American-made Olympic clothing’ are not only pathetically absurd but also craven.  It is the way of capitalism that some industries rise in certain places, and others fall, as everything from technology to geopolitics changes.  (I will avoid talking here about how textile politics have driven huge mercantile/colonialist enterprises, such as the slave trade and Indian independence movements, although I reserve the right to revisit this subject.)  Yet when hugely influential parts of a national government refuse to address measures that stimulate economic growth in areas that make sense to do so, one wants to tear one’s Chinese-made clothing into shreds and run screaming, naked, into the streets. 

Or to vote for candidates who have sensible and informed ideas about the country’s economic growth in the 21st century, and what government can and should do to support it. 

I’m not an economist, nor do I play one on the internet.  But it seems head-smackingly obvious that ‘job creators’ should not be simplistically equated with ‘rich people.  (The 2000 – 2008 economic record makes the falsity of this equation, and its trickle-down underpinnings, absolutely clear.)  ‘Job creators’ are in large part those willing to put resources into ‘growing’ (gag – I hate that ersatz verb) a workforce trained for the jobs of today and tomorrow . . . and creating incentives (NOT limited to tax cuts and laissez-faire freedom from any regulation whatsoever) to restructure or completely re-envision job environments that depend on these sorts of workers.

 As concerned citizens, even if we are not entrepreneurs in the classic sense, we – by our votes and by our political efforts – can all be job creators, no matter where our clothes were made.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

In Partial Defense of Jet Skis

In Partial Defense of Jet Skis

Hey, I’m first in line when it comes to criticizing Mitt Romney if something criticism-worthy surfaces.  Which it does quite often.  But I must admit that the past week’s criticism of his July 4th holiday pastimes seems somewhat silly.

The critical target has been Governor Romney’s appearance on a jet ski at his New Hampshire vacation home.  Oddly, most criticism has come from Republicans, who evidently fear that photos of Romneys on jet skis call up photos of John Kerry on a wind-sail apparatus, which would connote flip-flopping elitism, which would reinforce the (whoa, who knew?) idea that Mitt Romney is extremely rich. 

Democrats have focused less on the jet ski per se than on the ‘family compound,’ another signifier of 1%-ism, from which the jet ski expedition was launched.

Apparently, no politicos of either party like the jet ski at family compound photo op.

I beg to differ.

For anyone who has lived in the Great Lakes region of the United States, jet skis are not elitist.  They’re like snowmobiles for summer.  Like NASCAR on the water, complete with lots of annoying noise and excessive fuel consumption.   Jet skis are an upper-middle-class toy, coveted by many middle-class- and lower-middle-class people.  [New jet skis cost between $15,000 and $20,000; by the by, a wind-surfing package costs between $1500 and $2000.  That’s an order-of-magnitude elitist difference!]

Similarly, having a house at the lake is not necessarily elitist.  It’s what almost everyone I grew up with (in Wisconsin) either had or wanted to have (except for my fairly impecunious Chicago-area transplant family; my dad couldn’t figure out how to bait a hook or start an outboard, and didn’t care, and my mom would rather have stayed at a hotel, if we could have afforded it).  Such a summer dwelling wasn’t called a ‘family compound.’  It was just a house or cabin or, often, shack within a two-hour drive of one’s primary residence, and almost always it fronted water (the upper Midwest is full of lakes and rivers).

In other words, having a vacation house – and maybe jet skis – is middle-class aspiration, not simply elitist privilege.  Certainly, Governor Romney’s summer residence and vacation play equipment are significantly more deluxe than most.  But since they’re just a bigger and better version of what many people have and a whole lot of people hope to have, trying to sell them (or fear them) as material signifiers of arrogant fat-cat-ism probably won’t work.

Conversely, one thing that Romney campaign handlers may have wanted to accomplish with these photo ops – a positive collective memory flash of the Kennedy family cavorting at Hyannisport – is a no-go from the get-go.  The Kennedy clan was boisterous and uninhibited (for good and ill); they drank a lot and launched themselves into touch football and welcomed tons of friends to join the fun.  The Romney family thinks that driving nails into wooden boards is a knee-slapping good time; there seem to be no close friends invited into the nuclear family vacationing circle. 

The Romneys at Lake Winnipesaukee more closely resemble the Bushes at Kennebunkport, yet the many years of Bush presidencies and vice presidencies have allowed average voters the illusion of familiarity with that particular patrician vacation lifestyle.  Further, Kennebunkport is identified with the elder President Bush (the younger President Bush had his Texas ranch, which never looked like a fun place in the least, unless you were into whacking away at dusty overgrowth in 110 degree heat), and George H.W. Bush’s post-presidential reputation has done nothing but grow positively over the years.  Lacking the covering penumbra of respectful admiration, Romney vacationing in New Hampshire reads only as a very rich man enjoying the fruits of his business acumen in the company of his family.  Kind of voter-neutral, I suspect.

But how different it would have been – and, if the partisan gods are good, will be once the Summer Olympics begin – if the Romneys-at-leisure focus had been on the sport that seems to claim the heart of Candidate Romney’s ‘secret [??] weapon,’ his wife Ann.  That would be the supremely Euro-elitist, very expensive, and (to most jet-skiing or hoops-shooting Americans) ridiculous sport of ‘dressage.’  Or, as those not clued into European nobility’s tradition of having horses execute mincingly precise movements in order to show agility and obedience, “horse ballet.”

Now, THIS is an elitist sport.  Or pastime, or hobby, or money-suck.   Even its name is French (“dressage” roughly means ‘training’ in English).  In contrast to dressage, John Kerry’s wind-surfing – which really isn’t expensive but is not practiced by many Americans – looks like a down-and-dirty-demotic game of kick-the-can.  Dressage horses can cost a quarter of a million dollars, and exhibiting on the international circuit costs about $200,000 a year.  Ann Romney’s dressage horse, Rafalca, has qualified for the upcoming Olympics, so we can be sure to have beaucoup coverage of daintily prancing horses acting as if they’ve been injected with the souls of topiaried dog-show poodles, with top-hatted riders maneuvering their mounts in total silence.

To make matters worse, in 2010 Governor Romney claimed Rafalca as a $77,000 tax deduction.  Over the years, the Romneys have owned at least eight dressage horses, purchases stimulated by riding’s therapeutic value to Ann Romney, who has multiple sclerosis.  It’s probably true that riding horses (along with many other physical activities) is good for people suffering from MS;  it’s probably not true that such a benefit accrues only to riding costly dressage horses.  Further, when Mitt Romney was Governor of Massachusetts, he vetoed a modest MS matching funds bill ($162,368).  The tax-deductible value of his wife’s Olympic-qualified dressage horse is half of this.  So let’s see how this could be spun:  wife with MS = two dressage horses; everyone else in Massachusetts with MS = 0 dressage horses.  Actually, since Mrs. Romney owns a one-third interest in Rafalca, the horse would be worth well over $200,000, which is more than the entire Massachusetts MS bill. 

To be fair, dressage is Ann Romney’s passion, and her husband supports it.  It’s not clear that Governor Romney particularly likes any sports.  Stepping into the 2002 Utah Winter Olympics was more a matter of problem solving, resume building, and helping a predominantly Mormon state salvage its business reputation than of being passionate about ice hockey or the biathlon.  Moments of candor during the past Republican Primary suggest that what Mitt Romney likes about sports (or ‘sport’) is hobnobbing with owners of sports teams. 

And then we have President Obama.  It’s obvious that he’s an unabashed basketball fan who enjoys pick-up hoops probably above all other choses sportif.  He’s an unrepentant Chicago White Sox fan.  He’s also become a recreational golfer, like many Presidents before him (there must be something about strolling around chemically enhanced greens that brings a feeling of geopolitical peace).  President Obama doesn’t pretend to engage in every sport – he’s got his favorites, and he lets us know what they are (bowling, as we all remember from the calamitous series of gutterballs in 2008, not being one of them).  But he strikes most people – even those who disagree with him politically – as being an authentic sports fan and an enthusiastic participant in those sports he’s good at, or that he simply likes.

So we can relate to President Obama’s sports bona fides.  And to his wife’s (albeit grudgingly, for those of us not always engaged in active lifestyles that are good for us), she of mean double-dutch and callisthenic abilities plus general healthy athleticism, all of which costs almost zero money to pursue.  And to his daughters’, who enjoy soccer and basketball, like so many other American children do.

It’s probably odd that one criterion U.S. citizens employ when selecting a president is attitude toward/participation in sports.  To me, this is less disconcerting than litmus tests about participation in this or that organized religion, because sports fandom is a capacious form of secular bonding . . .  and it doesn’t much matter what sport it is as long as it’s a sport that a whole lot of voters like, or watch, or participate in.  The ‘who do you want to have a beer with’ question morphs into a ‘who do you want to play X sport with/watch X sport with’ question.

With golf versus jet skis, I think President Obama and Governor Romney score a tie.  With basketball versus dressage?   Slam dunk!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Cliche Jar

The Cliché Jar

MSNBC has a new show at 3p.m. weekdays.  The Cycle features a panel of four youngish commentistas who veer between fairly intelligent observations and self-congratulatory cleverness.  It’s not a bad program, and it elevated itself today with a prop that’s long overdue in cable news land:  the cliché jar.

Based on the ubiquitous tip jar, the cliché jar sits on a political talk show host’s or hosts’ desk.  When anyone on set utters a designated cliché, he or she dumps a dollar in the jar.  The Cyclists came up with a preliminary list of tax- or is it penalty- or maybe fine- or fee-worthy phrases, including ‘spiking the football’ (for premature and/or unseemly celebration). 

I can’t remember other clichés they pegged, mainly because as soon as the cliché jar was announced, I started thinking of the words and phrases I’d add to the list of sloppy verbal seconds.  Such as:

--‘Play into the narrative’ to mean ‘reinforce the stereotype.’  Or just ‘narrative’ to mean ‘story’ or ‘argument’ or ‘general perception.’

--‘Conversation’ to mean ‘argument’ or ‘debate’ or ‘discussion.’

--‘Optics’ to mean the way something looks – this word began as a fairly precise noun but has now morphed into a jargony weasel term that can mean ‘narrative’ and ‘conversation.’

--‘Draw a bright line between’ to mean attempting to make a distinction yet failing to do so (as in today:  ‘Romney drew a bright line between tax and penalty.’)

--‘Laser focus’ to mean ‘desperation.’

--‘Dead heat’ to mean ‘close.’

--‘Candidates are human’ to mean ‘one particular candidate totally blew it.’

--.‘Polls are only a snapshot in time’ to mean ‘polls don’t mean much yet’ (but we do or commission them anyway because it makes our program/network look scientific and unbiased, and pollsters need to make money, too).

If one wanted to expand the cliché jar’s maw, one could add Oprah-type programs and the phrases/words that make our ears fall off.  Such as:

--‘An emotional roller coaster’ to mean ‘emotional’ or ‘difficult.’

--‘Closure’ to mean either something unobtainable (no longer feeling bad about a very bad thing) or reaching some sort of terminal plateau in a ‘grieving process.’

--‘Grieving Process’ to mean mourning, feeling horribly unhappy about the death of someone you loved or admired, a kick in the gut or in the soul that does not sort itself out into pre-ordained stages.

--‘Healing’ to mean getting through another day, or reaching ‘closure’ (see above).

--‘Confront’ to mean ‘acknowledge’ or ‘try to understand’ (and never to mean ‘confront’)

--‘Hero’ to mean anyone who’s ever served in the military (or in public safety jobs), no matter what his or her record might be, and anyone who’s publically self-identified as gay, or as recipient of anything that conceivably can be classified as abuse, or just someone who talks about something on a talk show.

If we really wanted to have fun with cliché jars, we would plop them down on our own work desks.  Back in the day, I could have inflated my IRA if I’d had such a jar during faculty meetings . . . or during editing of young scholars’ manuscripts . . . or certainly during scholarly conferences (if there were some way to get presenters to ante up).  These days, business- and techno-jargon create many moneymaking opportunities.  I invite you to network with your team-builders and dive deep so you can make a maximum cliché jar list, complete with optimum outcomes and social media integrations.  (Kaching, kaching, kaching, kaching, kaching, kaching!)

The genius and challenge of a job- or area-specific cliché jar are to identify actual clichés, as distinguished from slogans, branding strategies, talking points, or discipline-specific terminology. 

As I was writing the above teeny paragraph, I was thinking about the problems of identifying clichés when one’s talking or writing about sports (since almost all writing/talking about sports is a muscular exercise in cliché-stringing).  And the Golf Channel was on (well, it didn’t turn itself on – I was checking in to see how Tiger was doing).  And for some reason all the hush-mouthed commentators were talking about ‘giving back.’

 Uh, golf?  Giving back?  Two nouns/noun phrases that don’t go together in any conceivable grammatical construction?

A few golfers have founded or are active in charities, but the golfertators this evening didn’t seem to be referring to rarified altruism.  Instead, ‘giving back’ seems to mean ‘playing well’ or ‘attending a tournament’ or ‘granting a self-involved interview.’ 

If the cliché jar were perched on the 19th-hole bar . . . windfall!

Seriously, though (kaching! – another crisp dollar deposited in a blog-stylistic cliché jar), the idea of a cliché jar could help just about all of us who ever use words in our jobs.  If we work with other people, a cliché jar could be a way to sharpen our team’s (kaching!) communicatory effectiveness (clunk!. . . not a cliché, but an idea for another jar, the an-euphonious locution jar).  Proceeds could be used to sponsor a starving third-world child or to pay for the first round at TGIF.  If we mainly write in isolation, the cliché jar could up our awareness (kaching! clunk!) of tepid, flaccid writing.  And, no doubt soon, pay for a bottle of bourbon.

Add the spoils from the an-euphonious locution jar, and we could sponsor not only one starving child but instead an entire country’s nutrition efficacy efforts (kaching! clunk!).  That’s called thinking outside the box (kaching!) in order to facilitate better outcomes (kaching! clunk!) for everyone.