Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Kickoff Time

College football finally returns this week, and in the coming month campuses will come alive all over the land. From Baton Rouge to Boulder and Clemson to Corvallis and Morgantown to Madison, alumni will return in their RV’s and the aroma of beer and beef will waft through their tailgate parties.

There is nothing on earth like college football. Because a single loss can take you out of the running for the national title and maybe even your conference title, college football has the most important regular season in all of American sports.

It is the only sport in which you can win every game but one, yet the whole year is remembered in a bad light because the one loss came against your archrival. Likewise, it is the only sport in which a season-ending win against your archrival can turn an otherwise bad year into one worth celebrating.

In different corners of America, longtime rivals play for chintzy but endearing objects: Minnesota and Michigan for the Little Brown Jug, Purdue and Indiana for the Old Oaken Bucket, Tennessee and Kentucky for the Beer Barrel.

Alumni from different schools argue that not only does their alma matter have the best football team on any given Saturday, but that every aspect of their alma matter is better than every aspect of every other school in America.

It is obvious that Auburn’s “War Eagle” is the greatest fight song ever played. Yet Michigan grads will tell you that no song is as stirring as “The Victors.”

It is obvious that the sweeping angles of Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium make it the best place on earth to watch a football game. Yet Arizona State grads will tell you there’s no better place than the upper deck of Sun Devil Stadium at sundown, from which you can watch a game and see the desert turn to fire at the same time.

And it is obvious that Auburn-Alabama is the most heated rivalry in the world. Yet, inexplicably, some will say that title belongs to Michigan-Ohio State or Texas-Oklahoma or Army-Navy.

Meanwhile, Tennessee grads claim that the greatest pre-game tradition in America is the procession of their Vol Navy, when alumni arrive by boats on the Tennessee River.

And Wisconsin grads claim that the greatest post-game tradition is their Fifth Quarter, when the band stays in the stadium to play and the fans stay in the stadium to party, regardless of who won.

As someone who was born and raised in the Tampa Bay area, I watch Bucs games while feeling my stomach boil with intensity, but I have little interest in spending hours of my life watching other professional games. On the other hand, as someone who graduated from Auburn, I watch Auburn games while feeling heart-stopping anxiety – and I also watch any other college game that’s on TV when Auburn is not. I will stay up into the wee hours of the morning to see Boise State vs. Hawaii and enjoy every minute of it.

College football fans do things like that. And they wonder about all kinds of topics that relate to the sport but not to their school, such as: Will Bobby Bowden or Joe Paterno end the year with more career victories? Will Ohio State make it to the national championship game yet again, only to get embarrassed yet again? Will Notre Dame continue its downward spiral that enables millions of Americans to revel in schadenfreude?

No other sport can match college football’s blend of pageantry, passion, and season-long drama. So cue the marching bands, let the cheerleaders adorn our televisions, and let us all argue about who’s number one. I am ready.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Thoughts on the Olympics

Random observations as the Beijing Olympics come to an end:

Bottom line, it’s great to see the U.S. atop the medal count.

I don’t remember the British being anywhere near this successful in the past. They finished fourth in the standings, ahead of perennial powers Australia and Germany.

The superiority of the Jamaican sprinters was the most dazzling spectacle of these games (sorry, Michael Phelps).

Though the U.S. once ruled the sprinting world, Caribbeans have been dethroning us for two decades and the dethroning is now complete. Even the great Canadians from the late 1980’s to mid 1990’s, who had lots of success against the U.S., were born in the Caribbean.

It may make us angry that the Chinese appear to be cheating when it comes to how old their female gymnasts are, but let’s face it: That is a large part of what makes the Olympics so energizing. Without all those years of East German steroid controversies and figure skating judging controversies – not to mention the scandalous way the 1972 basketball gold was stolen from the U.S. – we would not care about (or pay attention to) the Olympics as much as we do.

The U.S. women dominate basketball even more than the U.S. men used to.

And speaking of basketball, the U.S. men would regain their dominance if they simply got back to playing as a team and rediscovered how to shoot from the outside. Compared to 2004, they’ve already made significant progress on the first issue, so hopefully they’ll start making progress on the second.

I have mixed emotions about the dismal performance of U.S. boxers in these games. Since the modern Olympics began 112 years ago, the U.S. has won more boxing medals (109) than any other country, and our list of gold medalists includes such luminaries as Cassius Clay, Joe Frazier, Leon Spinks and Sugar Ray Leonard. But this year the U.S. managed just one bronze, and there’s no denying that American boxing has been declining for years while countries such as Cuba have been on the rise. This seems to support two theories that are closely related: 1) that disadvantaged populations tend to produce the best boxers, and 2) that America’s best athletes no longer go into boxing because they have better opportunities available to them. If either of those is true, it says something good about present-day America, even if we don’t like seeing our guys absent from the medal stand.

Lastly, whenever someone says politics have no place in the Olympics because the Olympics are all about sports, I shake my head at their naivety. The Olympics have always been more about politics than sports. This is true even of the Olympic torch relay, which was invented by the Nazis as a way to depict Aryan dynamism. Olympic medal counts have always been tabulated by nation, with the flags of only the medaling countries being raised during the medals ceremonies - and with the only national anthem played during each ceremony being that of the gold medal winner.

And on the same topic, do you notice how the only Olympic rivalries that remain in long-term memory are between athletes whose nations are rivals? The Miracle On Ice is remembered not because the U.S. hockey team beat Finland for the gold, but because the juggernaut they beat en route to the gold medal game was the U.S.S.R. Had that juggernaut been Sweden, America's gold would have been just as incredible but nowhere near as legendary.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Red Bear Rising

My previous post was in memory of a writer who made his mark on history by openly opposing Soviet Communism at the height of its power. In the 10 days since I wrote it, Russia has invaded Georgia, then pretended to agree to EU-brokered cease-fires, then immediately ignored those cease-fires by continuing its invasion and advancing its forces deeper into Georgia, bombing cities and killing civilians as it goes. {Update: Since I started writing this post, another agreement has been signed.}

Russia’s naked aggression has clear aims: To raise a middle finger to the world, to strike fear in the hearts of its neighbors who have grown increasingly free over the last 15 years, and to test whether anyone has the will to respond to it with anything besides empty talk. Make no mistake: This is being done to trumpet Russia’s reemergence as a superpower, one that is able and willing to subjugate other nations. The Soviet heart still beats – only its name has changed.

As Robert Kagan put it in the Washington Post: “The details of who did what to precipitate Russia’s war against Georgia are not very important. Do you recall the precise details of the Sudeten Crisis that led to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia? Of course not, because that morally ambiguous dispute is rightly remembered as a minor part of a much bigger drama.”

Many of us have long thought that Vladimir Putin is an enemy of freedom and that his vision for Russia is no different than the old Soviet dictators’ vision for the U.S.S.R. After all, he was in the KGB before ascending to Russia’s presidency, and the KGB is not the kind of organization anyone ever leaves – at least not while they are alive.

And it is Putin who in 2005 stated: “First and foremost it is worth acknowledging that the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. As for the Russian people, it has become a genuine tragedy.” Try telling that to the ghosts of the 65 million people who were murdered by the Soviet Union for daring to question its authority.

And it is Putin who, after coming to power, erased the press freedoms which had been gained in Russia after the Soviet Union dissolved.

And it is Putin’s regime that is widely believed to have poisoned Ukraine’s pro-Western presidential candidate Viktor Yuschenko in 2004, when he was running against the pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych.

And it is Putin who has engaged in friendly dealings with Saddam’s Iraq and Ahmadinejad’s Iran, supporting each of them against us.

And it is Putin who has actively opposed us building a missile defense system to protect both us and Russia’s neighbors.

And it is Putin who has sought to meddle in the affairs of Poland and the Czech Republic (countries now free but once under the thumb of the U.S.S.R.) when they ponder assisting us in building that missile defense system.

And it is Putin’s regime that claimed vast stretches of the Arctic Ocean’s seafloor – and thus the massive oil reserves beneath that seafloor – belong to Russia despite being in international waters.

President Bush’s erstwhile comment that he looked Putin in the eye and found him trustworthy has always been baffling, as have all the gaseous remarks about Russia being some sort of friend. I have always gotten the exact opposite impression from Putin’s beady eyes, and this clip from last year shows I have not been alone.

For centuries, the Russian state has been something to fear. No matter what form of government has been in power, its rulers have used brute force to advance imperial aims and to make other countries’ business their own. There is no reason to expect the Russian state to be any different today, especially when so much of Europe has become dependent on its oil.

And speaking of oil, did I mention that Georgia – which sits in the oil-rich Caspian region, sandwiched uncomfortably between Russia and Iran – has been counted on by Western nations to be an important conduit for oil in the coming years? Do you not think that fact was taken into consideration by Russia's rulers as they targeted Georgia for invasion?

Despite having a small military, Georgia has sent troops to Iraq and steadfastly supported us there. We owe them a true defense of their freedom and sovereignty.

The immediate question is: Will we honor our moral obligation?

The ultimate question is: What will be the implications of our actions - or, God forbid, of our inaction?

Recent reports suggest that Israel is ready to take on the beast of Iran. We should encourage them to do so carte blanche, and we should stop ignoring the dark clouds that have been swirling for far too long over Russia. The two theatres may even be related, since there is reason to suspect that Russia and Iran are acting in concert. President Bush has been resolute in the Middle East, but it could turn out that his legacy will be determined by how he responds to Russia in the waning days of his presidency.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, R.I.P.

This past weekend, one of the greatest literary figures of modern times passed away at the age of 89.

In 1918, one year after the Bolshevik Revolution ushered in the Communist Era, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in the Russian town of Kislovodsk. His father was killed in a hunting accident before he was born, and his grandparents’ property was seized by the Communists and turned into a government-run farm by the time he turned 12.

Near the end of World War II, Solzhenitsyn was arrested for criticizing Soviet war conduct in a private letter written to a friend. After being beaten and interrogated, he was sentenced, in his absence, to 8 years of imprisonment in Siberian labor camps. During those years he became fiercely opposed to Communism, and in the years following his release he began to spend his nights writing a novel – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – that depicted life as a Soviet political prisoner.

Because of his criticism, Solzhenitsyn was stripped of his citizenship and deported to West Germany. He eventually moved to the United States, settling in Vermont in 1976 and remaining there for 18 years, during which his books achieved their greatest international renown. Many of them had been secretly written in the U.S.S.R. without being published there. His most famous, The Gulag Archipelago, gave a name to the U.S.S.R.'s labor camp system and finally made its evils well-known throughout the West.

Despite being a strident anti-Communist who lived in America for so long and praised the fact that in America “you can be free,” Solzhenitsyn was Russian to the core in all things cultural. He harbored deep love for his native land and its people, while his loathing was reserved for the Soviet government which sought to cage the human spirit. After the U.S.S.R. collapsed, he returned to Russia in 1994 and observed how decades of Communist rule had ravaged Russia’s national soul and infused it with a sense of hopelessness. Devoutly religious, he spoke out against the spiritual emptiness brought on by the fact that religion was outlawed during all those years of Communism.

And though Solzhenitsyn was constantly on the offensive against Communism, he did not shy from criticizing Western society as well. His religious faith led him to denounce the moral vacuum that results when people focus on the material rather than the spiritual, as he saw happening in the West.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn will be buried tomorrow in Moscow. Here are some of the things he had to say in his remarkable life:

It is characteristic that Communism is so devoid of arguments that it has none to advance against its opponents…It lacks arguments and hence there is the club, the concentration camp, the insane asylum…Communism has never concealed the fact that it rejects all absolute concepts of morality, it scoffs at any consideration of “good” and “evil” as indisputable categories…Communism is anti-humanity.

…humanity is separated from the animal world by thought and speech and they should naturally be free. If they are fettered, we go back to being animals.

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Literature transmits incontrovertible condensed experience…from generation to generation. In this way literature becomes the living memory of a nation.

I have spent all my life under a Communist regime, and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale but the legal one is also less than worthy of man. A society based on the letter of the law and never reaching higher fails to take advantage of the full range of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relationships, this creates an atmosphere of spiritual mediocrity that paralyzes man’s noblest impulses.

…truth eludes us if we do not concentrate with total attention on its pursuit. And even while it eludes us, the illusion still lingers of knowing it and leads to many misunderstandings. Also, truth is seldom pleasant; it is almost invariably bitter.

Violence finds its only refuge in falsehood, falsehood its only support in violence.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Wine World's Best Buy

Though I can not detect eight different flavors within one sip of Cabernet, I do have a good wine palate, and I was skeptical a couple years ago when I read that a new vintner was attempting to create quality products at Boone’s Farm prices. However, those products are now on store shelves and I am happy to report that the goal has been met.

Each bottle produced by Oak Leaf Vineyards retails for $2.97, and is available – prepare to gag, wine snobs of the world – exclusively at Wal-Mart. That second fact is something you would never guess from the taste (their wines have won awards at two highly regarded competitions this year, namely the Florida State Fair International Wine Competition and the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition) or from the label (which depicts an oak tree progressing through the seasons).

I know from personal behavior that it’s hard to like wine without developing at least a bit of snobbery, but trust me, if you have any wine snobbery inside of you, it’s time to open your mind or else both your taste buds and your wallet will be missing out. After trying four of Oak Leaf’s offerings, here are my takes.

Cabernet Sauvignon: This was my favorite. It had a peppery taste which provided that classic Cab spiciness, yet its fruit flavors were more noticeable than with most Cabs. Also, it felt smoother on the tongue than most – there were discernible tannins, yet my mouth did not dry up and pucker. This wine is an ideal match for steak, so if you’re looking to craft a really memorable evening at home, go here on my sister-in-law’s blog and you will find the perfect entrĂ©e to pair it with.

Pinot Grigio/Chardonnay: For me, this is what white wine is all about, so you might want to know that I’m a red wine guy who opts for whites only when I’m dining on nice seafood or sitting outside on balmy days that put me in the mood for something light and chilled. Naturally, the Pinot tempered the Chard’s oak while the Chard kept the finished product from being overly sweet, but that’s far from the whole story. This wine had a crisper texture than most true Chardonnays I’ve consumed, and as far as flavors are concerned, it tasted of citrus with apple underneath. Just right for sipping beside the pool. If you care to know, the blend is 51% Pinot, 49% Chard.

Chardonnay: Tasting like a mixture of a little pear with a lot of vanilla, this had less oak than the majority of Chardonnays out there. The only drawback – and it was so minor I hesitate to even bring it up – was that its texture started out silkier than I prefer in a white. But this was only slightly so, and when I reopened the bottle the next night, the silkiness had moved to my favorite level: noticeable-but-not-distracting. Plus, the wine was just as fresh and flavorful on the second night as on the first one.

Merlot: I give a definite thumbs-up to the first three wines, but not to this one. Its fruit flavors were there, but sat several rows behind its acidity, which simply is not the way a Merlot is supposed to be. It did taste better the second night, but the drawback remained and I see no reason to buy it when the others meet such higher standards.

It’s easy to sum up Oak Leaf Vineyards. The first point is that its wines (other than the Merlot) will not let you down when it comes to enjoyable, everyday drinking. The deal-clincher, is that it sells for a great deal less than many more recognizable wines. If you want something that is dependable, tasty and affordable, why purchase Woodbridge when Oak Leaf is better, not to mention when you can bring home three bottles of Oak Leaf for the same amount of cash as one Woodbridge?

PS: Oak Leaf also makes a White Zinfandel, but I did not try it for the simple reason that I can not stand White Zinfandel.

PPS: If you’re still hesitant, maybe you will feel better knowing that Oak Leaf’s winemaker, Mario Pulido, has received good marks in the past for his work with Gallo and Turning Leaf.