Saturday, August 31, 2013

It's Back!

College football is back and we finally have games, rather than Manti Te'o's imaginary girlfriend, to talk about. Here are some random thoughts as this opening weekend unfolds:

The Barnburners
The Ole Miss-Vandy and Fresno State-Rutgers thrillers were a very entertaining introduction to the season, though I did not like the latter's lack of defense...Having said that, count me in as one of the few who is a fan of Kyle Flood's decision to go for broke by attempting a two-point conversion in the first overtime...Meanwhile, clear across the country, it was nice to see Jeff Scott get a bit of redemption with his game-winning run and then follow it up with a family values kind of reaction when all was said and done. To see what I mean, go here. 

Jadeveon Clowney did look that way at times in Thursday night's contest. However, part of that might have been because it was the first time a defensive lineman ever had a camera trained specifically on him at every second of a broadcast -- thus allowing the gasbags in the press corps to pontificate every time he puffed. I think media types are making too much of Clowney's conditioning, and in the end will look like fools for doing so. Anthony "Booger" McFarland (who was a dominant defensive lineman for LSU before going on to win Super Bowl rings with Tampa Bay and Indianapolis) said as much on one of my local sports radio stations yesterday, and since he actually played the game, that's good enough for me.

Upset special?
Usually it's hard to consider it much of an upset when the #8 team in the country beats the #5 team, especially when the game is in its own stadium. In fact, when you consider how significant home field advantage is in the college game, you can make a strong case that #8 should be favored to win in that situation. But given the SEC's steroidal reputation for superiority and the ACC's current reputation for football ineptitude, most people will consider it a significant upset if Clemson beats Georgia tonight.

I, however, am here to predict a Clemson victory. My reason is simple: The Bulldogs lost lots of starters from last year's defense, and it is going to be extremely difficult for all the newbies to have their first start take place on the road against an offense as experienced, talent-laden, and hungry as Clemson's.  As an SEC partisan who hails from the same metropolitan area as Georgia QB Aaron Murray, I don't want to see the Bulldogs fall to an ACC foe, but it seems like the gridiron gods have dealt Clemson the perfect hand with which to score a major, major victory at the outset of the 2013 campaign.

Watch out
As the week went by, I heard quite a few Bama fans talk eagerly and arrogantly about the game their team will be playing two weeks from today. Those fans better hope that Bama's players are not also looking ahead to that rematch with Texas A&M, because if they are, the Crimson Tide could very well lose to Virginia Tech today. The Hokies have not been the same the past few seasons as they were from the mid-1990's to mid-2000's, but they are still a strong program, they are hungry, and they have what it takes to beat anyone on any given Saturday. Fortunately for Bama fans, it is not likely that their intensely coached team will have been permitted to overlook the Hokies; but then again, college players are barely out of childhood, so you never know.

Since I just mentioned Texas A&M, I might as well get my Johnny Manziel take out of the way, and I'll start by going back a few decades to the days when Oklahoma owned the Big Eight Conference and Brian Bosworth owned the Oklahoma campus. I was never a fan of Bosworth's, but I remember being impressed when he donned a shirt during a bowl game that read National Communists Against Athletes. I did not totally agree with his sentiment at the time, but as I grew up I realized he was right.

The NCAA's recent action concerning Manziel is absurd not because of its so-called leniency, but because it happened at all. There is not a single speck of evidence -- none -- that Manziel did anything against the rules, yet the NCAA took action against him anyway for no other reason than 1) it wanted to, and 2) it perceived an excuse to do so when a single individual claimed he saw him do something. Never mind the complete lack of evidence, never mind Manziel saying he is innocent, and never mind the accuser's lack of credibility. The NCAA believes it is entitled to dictate to unpaid athletes and trembling schools just because. I say to hell with  it.

Fans of Alabama and Texas Those who are skeptical of high-profile athletes have taken the twisted view that the lack of evidence against Manziel actually is evidence against him. They darkly intone that he escaped "serious punishment" because "there's no paper trail," thus telegraphing their assumption that they just know he did it and know he was too damn smart to cover his tracks. Yet these are the same people who lambaste him for being dumb and reckless and irresponsible and alcoholic. To hell with them too.

As an Auburn graduate, I seem to remember the NCAA targeting another high-profile QB a few years back, also based on uncorroborated statements made by shadowy people with no evidence to back them up...I seem to remember the fine school for which that QB played standing up to the NCAA and demanding that it show its cards, which forced it to admit that it had no cards...I seem to remember that school and QB eventually being proved innocent, and the national media barely mentioning that finding when it was reached a year later...I seem to remember that QB winning the Heisman and then leading his team to the national championship...The analogy between Manziel/A&M and Cam Newton/Auburn is not precise, but there are striking similarities. I'm just sayin'...

Who can beat the SEC?
Technically speaking, lots of teams. I'm not sure who the SEC's worst team is, but I'm pretty sure they couldn't beat the best teams from the Pac 12, Big 12, or Big Ten. And the last time I checked, Florida got its clock cleaned by Louisville just this January, and my own alma matter got its clock cleaned by Clemson to open last season.

Still, there is no doubt that the SEC is the best conference in the land, and I have a hard time picturing whoever emerges as its champion turning around and losing the national championship game. In my opinion the conference has five teams that are all legitimate contenders for the national championship: Alabama, Florida, Texas A&M, South Carolina, and Georgia, in roughly that order. As much as I hate to say it (seeing as how I am surrounded by insufferably cocky Gator fans who can't find Gainesville on a map because they didn't freaking go to school there!) I think Florida has a particularly good chance of bringing home the crystal trophy because their defense is stout and nobody is talking about them.

If I had to pick one non-SEC team most likely to defeat an SEC squad in the championship game, I would pick Stanford. Don't ask me to tell you why, because my opinion here is based mostly on gut instinct, but I would like to mention that Stanford has a strong defense and plays the kind of hard-nosed, no-nonsense football that is necessary to beat the best in the land.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Not Right

Somewhere in his book Blue Like Jazz, Christian author Donald Miller offers his opinion about Hell. Rather than a place of endless fire, he envisions it as a state of utter isolation, one in which a person's soul is cut off from everyone else's and left to float through eternity by itself.

Miller likens Hell to the existence of a spacewalking astronaut whose tether breaks and leaves him helplessly drifting off into space. The astronaut watches Earth grow smaller and smaller as he slowly recedes from it. He realizes he will never again speak to his loved ones or to anyone else. He realizes he will continue to exist without ever again experiencing human contact. As time passes his hair grows long and his beard grows full, filling his helmet and eventually blocking his view so that he can not even see the stars. He longs to lose consciousness and never wake up -- yet he knows no such blessing will ever come, and is aware at every moment that his lonely drifting will never end.

If I had money to wager on whether the actual Hell resembles the vision of Miller or the vision of all those amateur sketch artists, I would bet on the former. And lately I have had the feeling that American prisons are imposing a similar state on many individuals who deserve better.

When most people hear the word "criminal" they think of someone who has violated an unquestionable part of the code of human conduct. They think of someone who has murdered, raped, or beaten. However, there are vast numbers of people wasting away in our jails and prisons who have committed no such acts. Though many of them have committed acts that are against the law, we should remember Dickens's admonition that "the law is an ass" and Churchill's warning that "if you make 10,000 regulations you destroy all respect for law."

What does the preceding paragraph have to do with Donald Miller's take on Hell? Simple: Hillsborough County, Florida (where Tampa is located) recently announced that inmates in its penal system will no longer be able to receive any mail besides postcards. The wrongheadedness of this policy seems so obvious that I find myself wondering why I should have to explain that it's wrong. Then I remember that we (myself very much included) have been conditioned to believe "against the law" is the same as "bad," even though that's not always the case.

Numerous are the instances of punishments not fitting the crimes for which they are meted out. So too are examples of things being declared crimes that shouldn't be. Dealing with all of them might require a whole new blog unto itself, but for the purposes of this post, suffice it to say that when marijuana advocates claim that people are put behind bars for years at a time simply for having pot in their possession, they are not making it up.

If you want another example, consider that in one of the two U.S. states I looked up, if an 18-year-old boy has fully consensual sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend, he could be put away for 20 years as a statutory rapist -- a sentence equal to 37 percent of his remaining life expectancy. All for doing something that teenagers have been doing for eons, and in spite of the fact that he could be a high school senior and his consenting girlfriend a high school junior, with less than 13 months between their birth dates.

Getting back to the new "mail" policy in Hillsborough County jails, imagine, if you will, that you find yourself imprisoned for a victimless act that most people assume would not result in imprisonment. And when you arrive in your new "residence" you find that not only is your freedom gone, but your ability to have any true and meaningful contact with your loved ones has also been taken -- for that is what Hillsborough's policy effectively does.

A postcard does not offer enough space for anything but the most cursory of information to be passed. Its space is not enough for a wife to express her love for her husband, or a husband to express how much he misses his wife, or children to brighten their father's or mother's day with a colorful drawing of a wished-for picnic in a field of flowers. By disrupting this leavening flow of human communication, the mail restriction does unnecessary damage not only to inmates but also to their families. It deprives them of the small but crucial bright spots that can do so much to sustain hope in the darkest of times. In a situation where people are already being punished, the new policy serves only to punish them more while doing nothing to increase their chances of being well-adjusted and productive when incarceration ends.

Perhaps we should not look at one county's penal system as being representative of the others throughout America. But we probably should, because if Hillsborough is imposing a postcard-only policy on mail, it is certainly not the only jurisdiction doing so, and others are sure to follow.

Face-to-face visits have already been eliminated from most jails and prisons. Technically, inmates are allowed to make phone calls to their family members, but only if their family members are able to afford the specific phone accounts and per-call fees that are required for those calls to go through.

In theory, American justice is about redemption in addition to punishment; but in practice, redemption often gets the finger from those in charge of prisons. The natural tendency of those who choose to go into prison work is not to look for the best in people, but to look for the worst; they are controllers, not counselors. This is not automatically bad because those traits are useful when dealing with bad people -- but like I said, many incarcerated people are not bad, and when jailhouse rules capriciously push aside respect for their humanity, it is not something we should tolerate if we are truly a society that values justice, human worth, and ultimately freedom.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Times to cherish

Kids. No matter how crazy they drive us, it's the happy moments we remember. The ones they mark with infectious laughs and beaming smiles and uninhibited hugs.

Considering that the past year has been very trying in many ways, I feel extremely blessed that last weekend brought many of those moments. We started it off by visiting the Glazer Children's Museum in downtown Tampa, where Sarah went climbing in this two-story contraption:

Parker busted some moves on the dance floor, though he seemed less interested in dancing than he did in pressing the buttons to change the song selection. Nonetheless, he managed to do some breakin' and showed some fine moves for a two-year-old:

We spent Sunday on the opposite shore of Tampa Bay, in downtown St. Petersburg, where Parker took in his first professional baseball game and we enjoyed our seats by the right field foul pole:

Sarah whooped it up as well. It wasn't her first time at a game, but it was her first time attending one in which the Rays prevailed. And I swear that Erika didn't spend the whole day fiddling with her phone:

Though it's kind of sad Parker won't remember any of this when he grows up, at least he will always be able to say that the first time he sat in the stands at a Rays game, they defeated the Toronto Blue Jays on Jose Lobaton's walk-off homer in the bottom of the tenth.

An interesting fact about the game is that all three runs came on solo homers. A less interesting fact is that we did something I normally frown upon: skip out before it was over. By the time the ninth inning got underway, it was way past Parker's nap time and he was, to put it charitably, the cause of much commotion in the stands. Figuring it was only going to get worse and there was no telling how many innings it would take to wrap things up, we bolted for the exits -- and to everyone's good fortune, our little man's day was made when we encountered his favorite mascot, DJ Kitty, on our way out. Sarah, awesome big sister that she is, picked him up to provide a closer view:

Probably the cutest thing about the weekend was the way Parker pronounced Sunday's big event by separating the name of the sport into two words, then accenting the first and rapidly spitting out the second: "base ball game!" It was a good time for us all, and in closing, below is a shot of him standing in Erika's lap and doing his best to block her view. But what else should you expect from a boy so young?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

V-J Day

68 years ago today, the bloodiest war in human history came to an end when Japan accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. The announcement of Japan's surrender set off celebraions around the globe, including the one in Times Square during which this iconic picture was taken.

After six years, during which more than 60 million people from 27 different countries were killed, World War II was finally over. In the United States, August 15th came to be known as V-J Day, for Victory in Japan Day, since our European enemies had surrendered three months earlier.

Despite the fact that America was brought into the war when it was bombed by Japan, and despite the fact that atomic weapons were used to hasten the war's end, and despite enormous cultural differences, the two countries became strong and lasting friends whose alliance is now one of the most dependable on earth.

That is a direct result of the respectful and helping way America dealt with Japan after the war ended. One of the reasons we are unique in world history is that as conflicts conclude, we always seek to befriend our antagonists and to better their lot as well as our own. That fact needs to be burned into the hearts and minds of those who believe America is always the aggessor.

In my younger days, V-J Day was noted on calendars. Today it is not. This is not how it should be.

The Greatest Generation is rapidly passing to the other side of eternity's veil. Before its members are gone, may the rest of us thank them for the freedom they transmitted to us. And may we resolve that their sacrifice shall never be forgotten, and that it shall not have been made in vain.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Musical notes

Where the sidewalk ends?
My July 20th post made passing reference to that old song "Cover of the Rolling Stone." When I looked up the lyrics to make sure I remembered them right, I learned that it was written by Shel Silverstein, who of course is better known as an author of children's poems than as a composer of radio classics.

Because one of my favorite bars in Key West has a picture of Silverstein sharing its modest stage with Jimmy Buffet, I already had an inkling that he was musically inclined, but I did not realize how noteworthy an imprint he left on the American songbook before he died. It turns out it was Silverstein who penned "Boy Named Sue," the humorous ditty we all associate with Johnny Cash. He also wrote "25 Minutes To Go" -- an uptempo but exceedingly dark tune that Cash performed in his famous live recording at Folsom Prison. Other songs written by Silvertsein include "In the Hills of Shiloh," which has been recorded by several artists, most notably Judy Collins; and "Queen of the Silver Dollar," which Emmylou Harris fans instantly recognize from her albums Pieces of the Sky and Songs of the West

It seems to me that Shel Silverstein was a bigger force on the music scene than he was on the book scene. Who'da thunk?

The same day I made my Shel Silverstein discovery, I found myself on one of those Internet tangents -- the kind where you are reading something and click on a barely related link, then see another link that grabs your attention so you click on it, and eventually you wind up somewhere you never would have expected when you first logged on.

In this case, I wound up reading the Wikipedia entry about "Black Dog," the aggressively rhythmic rocker by Led Zeppelin that opens their fourth album. It's the song on which Robert Plant howls: "Hey hey, mama, said the way you move/Gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove/Ah ah, child, way you shake that thing/Gonna make you burn, gonna make you sting." Wikipedia actually states -- I swear I'm not making this up -- that these lyrics "are about desperate desire for a woman's love and the happiness it provides."

I like music as much as the next guy, but it often seems like people who spend their lives writing about music have a tendency to become not only superfluous, but laughably so. Please tell me you agree that the above passage proves that to be true.

An odd thing happened recently. After not hearing the song "Wildfire" in probably 15 years, I heard it on back to back days. I knew the title character was a horse who died, but apparently I never before paid close attention, for on the first of those back to back days it dawned on me that the song's narrator is voicing a premonition of his own death.

When I had the good fortune to hear it again the following day, I paid close attention from start to finish, and realized that both Wildfire and his nameless female rider are ghosts. Though I always knew the song told the tale of them dying, somehow I had never before caught on that it alludes to them coming to carry away the narrator in his present time. In my mind, this song has transformed from sad to haunting. From here on I will get goosebumps whenever I hear its line about "a hoot owl howling by my window now for six nights in a row."

Which brings me to... of my pet peeves; namely, the tendency of many people to have no idea what a song is about because they listen only to the chorus. Though I myself was guilty of this when it comes to "Wildfire," I still find public ignorance about the subject matter of certain songs to be truly astounding.

People think "Every Breath You Take" is a love song, but in reality it is an anthem for stalkers and envy-riddled men everywhere. It actually says "Every vow you break/every smile you fake/every claim you stake/I'll be watching you."

Many people think "Born in the U.S.A" is All-American optimism, but in reality it's the exact opposite: "You end up like a dog that's been beat too much/Till you spend half your life just covering up...Down in the shadow of the penitentiary/Out by the gas fires of the refinery/I'm ten years burning down the road/Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go."

And, while people crank up the volume when U2's "Pride (in the Name of Love)" starts playing, a surprisingly small number of them know it's about Martin Luther King -- even though the lyrics leave a trail of clues that a blind mouse should be able to discern: "Early morning, April Four/A shot rings out in the Memphis sky/'Free at last,' they took your life..."

I'll stop myself before I start preaching. Otherwise I might start sounding laughably superfluous myself!