Tuesday, April 25, 2017

One Round In

Some thoughts on the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, now that the first round is in the books:

No Sevens?
Is it just me, or does it seem strange that none of the first round series went seven games? It seems like there are usually a couple that do... but the lack of sevens does not mean there was a lack of drama, for overtimes were aplenty, especially in the breakneck series between Washington and Toronto which saw five of its six games go to OT.


The King is Back
Two years ago, Henrik Lundqvist was his usual unflappable post-season self as he backstopped the New York Rangers to within one game of what would have been their second straight Stanley Cup Final.

But one year ago he looked horrible when the Rangers were eliminated by Pittsburgh in the first round. He surrendered 4.39 goals per game, recorded an abysmal .867 save percentage, and was pulled from the net three different times. Then he followed that up with the worst regular season of his career -- a regular season during which he turned 35, so it's obvious to see why many observers, myself included, suspected that his status as an elite goaltender had come to an abrupt halt.

But when the puck dropped to start these playoffs, the determined Swede donned his armor and wielded his sword and proved us wrong. Throughout this season's first round, Lundqvist rang up an eye-popping .947 save percentage and 1.70 GAA, and based very largely on those sinews his Rangers vanquished the Atlantic Division champion Habs, who were also backstopped by a goalie who is considered a creme de la creme generational talent.

Montreal's top five scorers, combined, only managed two goals against Lundvist for the entire six-game series. Their top scorer, Max Pacioretty, did not score at all against him.

It's good to know there is something you can count on, like snow in Tahoe and sunshine in San Diego and the swallows returning to Capistrano. The eleven days from April 12th through 22nd assured us that Henrik Lundqvist excelling when it matters most is one of those things.


Between the pipes
Defense wins championships everywhere. In hockey, goaltending wins 'em even more so. If you want to see just how important the goalie position is, look not only to Lundqvist in New York but also to the men between the pipes in St. Louis and Nashville.

Last year the big question in St. Louis was which one of the goalies in the Blues' well-performing platoon they would choose to keep. Now that they've dispatched the Minnesota Wild, it is obvious they made the right decision opting for Jake Allen over Brian Elliott. Although the Wild soundly outplayed them in the series, averaging 10 more shots per game and out-Corsi'ing them 60.11 to 39.89, the Blues prevailed in five games and never appeared to have any doubt that they would prevail. That is a direct resut of stellar goaltending.

Meanwhile, in Music City, Pekka Rinne spent the first round performing like some cyborg combination of Plante and Tretiak and Hasek all in their primes. Chicago entered the series not only a mere 22 months removed from their second Cup in three seasons, but still in their prime and sporting the best record in the Western Conference -- only to find that Rinne has suddenly become impregnable. The 34-year-old Finn did not allow a goal until Game Three, pitching shutouts in both road games and logging a supernatural .976 save percentage. He even tallied a pair of assists, thus equaling the points production of star Blackhawk forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. And just like that, the top-seeded Blackhawks were not only eliminated from the dance but swept from the dance, like a helpless puck slapped into the corner by a kick save.

I've been watching hockey for decades and do not recall a goalie having as dominant a series as Rinne just did. If he has another one like that, he will be so far ahead in the Conn Smythe conversation that he'll be lapping the field.


Bring it on
By which I mean, the about-to-commence series between the Penguins and Caps. Nothing says Eastern Conference playoffs like these two facing off -- and as everyone knows, nothing screams shrink's couch any louder than a Washington Capitals hockey club entering the second round and seeing the team in yellow and black lining up across the red line.

To be sure, Washington's playoff fragility, whether real or perceived, goes much deeper than the ground beneath Pittsburgh. For a decade now the Caps have been an elite team that is always talked about as legit Cup contenders (and often as the Cup favorite) yet they have not gotten past the second round in all that time. They were the top seed in 2010, but lost to bottom-seeded Montreal. A year later they were again the top seed, but got swept by Tampa Bay. And they dropped three consecutive Game Sevens to the Rangers.

But their playoff submission to Pittsburgh stretches even farther back. The teams have met nine times in the post-season since 1991, with the Penguins winning eight of the nine series despite having trailed in eight of them. Last year might have been the biggest mic drop, seeing as how the Caps had by far the best record in the NHL only to have the Penguins eliminate them in the second round en route to winning the Stanley Cup.

On an individual basis, Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin began their NHL careers in 2005, have never changed teams, and are considered the top two hockey players on Earth across that period of time. However, across that period Crosby has two Stanley Cup rings and two Olympic gold medals testifying to his greatness, while Ovechkin has not touched the Stanley Cup and has not won an Olympic medal of any type.

Will this be the year things change? The Caps again have the best record in the NHL, so they are again favored against the Pens and again have home ice advantage. But does that make their chances better or does it invite the kind of psychology that makes their chances worse? I can't wait to find out.


et ceteras
If Nashville makes a run to the Finals (and especially if they win the Cup once there) it should be a marketing gold mine for the NHL. The Predators are a model franchise with a fervent fan base; Carrie Underwood comes to their games because she is married to their star centerman, Mike Fisher; and the most charismatic star on this Deep South team is P.K. Subban, a black man. A marketing gift such as this would be like manna from Heaven -- so rest assured that if the gift is given, Bettman & Co. won't take advantage of it and NBC will short-sightedly sulk that Anaheim (LA!) didn't win the West.

I am experiencing cognitive dissonance. I have long thrown barbs at the Maple Leafs organization and its fans, and especially at the propaganda pawns who pretend to be objective journalists while obsequiously praising the Leafs franchise -- which hasn't won a Cup in 50 years -- as the pinnacle of the world of hockey. Nonetheless, I found myself guiltily rooting for their plucky roster of youngsters after the playoffs began, and I found myself admitting that the Leafs contending is good for the game. This goes against everything I believe, and I am slapping my head over it.

No matter what I said in the above paragraph, if the Leafs ever face the Lightning in the post-season, I hope they get blown out four straight games and become a laughingstock. I hope Victor Hedman shuts down Auston Matthews, and Anton Stralman intercepts every pass Mitch Marner attempts.

Ryan Kesler versus Connor McDavid. The pesky irritant from Michigan versus the poetic icon from Ontario. This is the individual battle, the game within the games, that I most want to watch this round... Kesler's Anaheim Ducks are the veteran squad aiming to hoist the Cup before their window closes, while McDavid's Edmonton Oilers are a youthful bunch hoping to bring it back to Alberta for the first time since 1990; but it's the individual clash between these two forwards that I am most eager to watch, for you know Kesler will be sent out to badger defend against the phenom who dazzled with 70 assists and 30 goals this season.

Derick Brassard versus Mika Zibanejad. This is the individual battle I most want to watch in the East. Granted, it's not technically an individual battle because it's not like the one will be sent out to defend against the other. But they were traded for each other in the offseason, with Brassard going from New York to Ottawa and Zibanejad going from Ottawa to New York; and with the Rangers and Senators facing one another this round, it will be impossible not to compare and contrast... Ottawa wanted Brassard specifically because of his history of playoff production, and after a ho-hum regular season he made them look like geniuses by leading the team with eight points during their six-game playoff win over Boston. Meanwhile, down in the Big Apple, Zibanejad proved that he too knows how to deliver when it counts by scoring the overtime winner in Game Five and assisting on the the game-tying goal in what turned out to be the decisive Game Six.


And with that...
...I need to put down my pen stop typing. Bring on the games!


Thursday, April 20, 2017

A jackal in the field

Give President Trump credit: He knew how to instantly alter the entire trajectory of American political reporting by knocking the Jeff Sessions kerfuffle right out of the news and drawing blood from both eye sockets of the mainstream media with a single punch.

And as the days go by, it seems more and more likely that the altered trajectory will, in the end, help him and hurt his foes. 

On March 4th the sun had yet to rise over much of the USA when Trump took to Twitter and declared: "Just found out that Obama had my 'wires tapped' in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!"

It is important to note that he put quotation marks around wires and tapped, signaling that either: 1) he was not using the technical definition of wiretapping (which applies to that nineteenth century technology known as phone lines) but was instead applying those words to the present world of twenty-first century electronic surveillance; or 2) he was quoting something he read or heard from another source.

Predictably, the MSM and American Left (but I repeat myself) reacted with howls of outrage and anguish. How dare the despised President 45 accuse their beloved President 44 of such a thing without ironclad proof! How dare he believe that those who hate him would use foul means as well as fair to defeat him!

They were so blinded by emotion that they overestimated their intelligence and completely missed the quotation marks before their eyes. They lampooned Trump for talking specifically of old school wiretapping, and many of them still do, never mind that your average fifth grader could tell he was not narrowing that term to things discussed in 1970's spy novels.

And as they howled, the noise they made caused their most cherished narrative to unravel without them realizing it. Suddenly stuck in flypaper, they reminded me of a fat city rat who wanders into the country for the first time and, not having needed to watch for predators before, walks right into one's mouth because it never occurred to him that such creatures might exist.

*     *     *     *     *

Ever since Trump defeated Hillary, the MSM/Left has been trying to paint his victory as illegitimate at best, fraudulent at worst. To that end it invented a narrative that Trump and his minions colluded with "the Russians" so the latter could "hack the election" and make it appear he won when he really lost. When you think about it, that sounds tinfoil-hat crazy, especially when you consider that it is the MSM/Left that has always sucked up to Russia and mocked anyone who suggests that Russia is up to no good.

Nevertheless, it gave the narrative a veneer of plausibility -- put wind beneath its wings, if you will -- by reporting that the Justice Department and national security agencies (all part of Obama's executive branch) were "investigating" Trump associates. Those reports tantalizingly added that Trump himself had been "named" by the FBI when requesting a warrant from the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. And those reports were published prior to Trump's tweet.

Sure, they did appear in some known-to-be-biased publications, like the left wing Heatstreet and right wing Breitbart, but what made them powerful was the fact that they were trumpeted by major MSM institutions. In fact, the front page of the January 19th print edition of the New York Times carried the following headline: "Wiretapped Data Used in Inquiry of Trump Aides." (emphasis mine)

These MSM claims -- claims that parts of Trump & Co. were being investigated for "ties to Russia" -- served as protective clothing for vague insinuations that Trump and "the Russians" might have engaged in election shenanigans. It's the kind of clothing that leads people to suspect that there is truth to insinuations, and remember, the investigations that were whispered about in this case could only be done by the federal government's executive branch, which Obama headed at the time. And it strains credulity to believe that a sitting president would not be up-to-the-minute informed of an investigation happening on his watch that had major political rivals in its crosshairs.

Superficially, the reporting made it sound like the MSM/Left had a good hand to play. But in reality it was playing with an empty hand, and Trump's animal cunning (a phrase I swiped from Victor Davis Hanson) told him just how to call their bluff, so on March 4th he fired off his "wires tapped" tweet.

Jerking knees caused most members of the MSM/Left to instantly defend Obama by claiming it was outrageous for Trump to suggest that Obama (or Obama & Co.) was eavesdropping on Trump (or on Trump & Co.). They mockingly asked where Trump could have ever gotten an idea that such things occurred, but the problem for them was that their question was answered by pointing to their very own articles, so all of a sudden the canard about Trump & Co. colluding with Russia to fix the election vanished from the headlines. Like Keyser Soze at the end of The Usual Suspects, it was "gone!" -- and the reason it was gone is that they couldn't have it both ways.

To have any conceivable basis for the colluding-with-Russia allegation, the accusers needed to be able to say that Trump & Co. was being monitored ("investigated") by the feds during the period that Obama & Co. was running the feds. However, to say that such monitoring ("investigating") took place would be to admit that Trump's March 4th tweet was materially accurate.

The accusers could either dump one allegation or dump the other, but could not continue to make both. Knowing this, they reflexively did what they thought would protect Obama, because that is what puppies do for their masters.

And making things even worse for them is the intertia-like way the allegations intertwine, for they are woven together in such a way that while maintaining both is impossible, dumping one of them is still likely to weaken the one that remains, perhaps to the point of annihilation.

No matter how the MSM/Left responded following Trump's tweet, it was a loss for them and a win for him. The hare was caught in the jackal's jaws and the jackal relished the taste of its blood.

*     *     *     *     *

Now things continue to worsen for the MSM/Left at a dizzying pace, due to the sheer volume of evidence indicating that Trump & Co. was monitored by Obama & Co. The MSM/Left is simply not capable of keeping it all contained or of keeping its stories straight.

And making matters worse is that the evidence of monitoring does not come with any mitigating evidence that monitoring was justified... so as their ability to credibly defend Obama & Co. withers, so too does their ability to credibly accuse Trump & Co. of being in bed with the Russkies... and thus the hare is not only bleeding, but perhaps bleeding out.

It's intriguing that Obama, who usually can't avoid talking about every topic under the sun, especially when the topic is himself, has kept his lips sealed with Krazy Glue when it comes to this story.

It's even more intriguing that the lone official statement given on Obama's behalf (by his spokesman, Kevin Lewis) did not deny that surveillance took place, nor did it even deny that old school wiretapping took place, nor did it even deny White House involvement in such things. The only thing it denied was that the White House "ordered" surveillance -- as if anyone believes Obama would be so stupid as to sign his name to such a thing on White House stationery!

Two days prior to Trump's tweet, Evelyn Farkas, who worked for Obama's Defense Department and for Hillary's presidential campaign, appeared on MSNBC talking not only about Trump associates being surveilled, but about she herself urging her contacts to "get as much information as you can" about members of Team Trump "before President Obama leaves the administration."

Farkas also admitted that intentional leaking of classified information occurred. Such leaking happens to be a felony under federal law.

Then it was reported by Bloomberg -- not a right wing outlet -- that Susan Rice requested the "unmasking" of Trump associates who were incidentally recorded by our intelligence agencies while those agencies were conducting surveillance of foreign individuals. "Unmasking" means revealing the names of Americans who were recorded while they were not being surveilled but foreigners were.

Rice was Obama's National Security Advisor, and, outside of Valerie Jarrett, his most trusted confidante. For all intents and purposes she was his right hand throughout his second term as president. The significance of her being involved in this affair is best spelled out in Andy McCarthy's recent magnum opus, which you really should read, but in essence it is this:

The White House does not do investigations and therefore should not get involved in them, for that is the job of intelligence agencies, which are collectively known as "the intelligence community"... those agencies relay information to the White House which they deem important, based on their investigations and law enforcement acumen... even within those agencies, and thus within the intelligence community as a whole, access to certain information is extremely limited and the names of "masked" individuals are chief among that limited-access information; actual unmasking of those names is rare and is supposed to happen only in very crucial situations for very necessary reasons.

To wit, if it was important or necessary to unmask members of Team Trump based on what they were surveilled doing, the intelligence agencies would have discerned that and done so -- but they did not... if surveillance revealed anything resembling a crime or breach of national security being done by members of Team Trump, the intelligence agencies would have discerned that and forwarded the cases for action to be taken -- but they did not... so when unmasking was subsequently demanded by Susan Rice, who was not part of the intelligence community but was Obama's right hand, the reason had to be political rather than in the interest of fighting crime or protecting national security.

The ability to accurately say that "investigations" related to "national security" "involved" people who were Trump "associates" or "members of" Team Trump (and to add that those people had "communications" with "the Russians") could be used as a cudgel to raise doubts about whether Team Trump is on the up and up -- especially when the accusers using that cudgel can refuse to answer questions about specifics by demurely saying they can't answer because "investigations" are "ongoing" and further details are "classified" (never mind that what they already said was also classified and that saying those things was a felony).

In other words, there is a ton of smoke suggesting very strongly that Obama & Co. was surveilling Trump & Co. and enabling juicy leaks to the media -- leaks that were grammatically true in what they stated but dramatically dishonest in what they implied.

The smoke is so thick that only the blindly partisan, dangerously naive, outright ignorant, or fully foolish could fail to suspect that it must be coming from a genuine conflagration -- and the reason we know this is that President 45 kicked the hornet's nest that is the MSM/Left, causing the hornets within to come fluttering out concussed and confused.

*     *     *     *     *

Kicked hornets. Fat city rat. Hare in a jackal's jaws. I can't stop making animal analogies when it comes to the MSM/Left's current conundrum concerning President Donald J. Trump.

Regardless of which analogy is in my mind at a given moment, the bottom line is that the MSM/Left keeps getting its tuckus kicked because of the simple fact that Trump is unlike any Republican they have ever seen -- by which I mean that he fights back (and even fights first!) and does not put up with their bullying balderdash and blustery bullshit. Unaccustomed to facing such a foe, they know not what to do and every step they take turns into a stumble.

Historically, the MSM/Left has been able to lash Republicans and play them like yo-yos merely by slandering them and threatening to slander them more. Historically, Republicans have responded to that rhetorical thuggery not by counter punching but by trying to make nice -- to which the MSM/Left has always responded not by meeting them halfway or even one percent of the way, but by lashing them with even greater ferocity and pushing them continuously backwards until they are no longer even on the field.

More often than not, elected Republicans cowered in the face of the thuggery, with the result being that Democrats won almost all of the big battles even when Republicans were in the majority. This GOP tendency to run scared and play the role of surrender whore routinely alienated and enraged its base, yet the GOP kept doing it.

The MSM/Left grew accustomed to being the trafficking pimp for the simple reason that Republicans grew accustomed to being its trafficked bitches... until now, that is, for things changed on November 8, 2016.

Donald Trump may be a New York billionaire and his namesake tower may be on Fifth Avenue, but he does not hail from the prim and proper set normally associated with New York wealth. He hails not from Manhattan but from Queens, a borough known more for working class feistiness than for cocktail parties, and this truth is reflected in the way he fights fire with fire when battle lines are drawn and left wing bellicosity is in the air.

This plays extremely well in flyover country, and the South, and in blue collar regions of states that swing (Florida) and of states that were recently thought to be reliably blue (Pennsylvania). This is why Trump knocked down the Democrats' "blue wall" by winning Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa; and why he came astonishingly close to winning Minnesota, which happens to be the only one of these fifty United States that Reagan never won.

And, mon ami, this is why the MSM/Left finds itself in such a quandary. Seemingly oblivious to the fact that the rules have changed, it keeps trying to run plays from its outdated playbook that was written with the old rules in mind. Therefore it keeps getting burned, and every time it gets burned, Trump's support: 1) strengthens among his base that has supported him from the beginning; 2) strengthens among those who were skeptical from the beginning, but who opted to take a gamble by voting for him when push came to shove; and 3) expands among those who did not vote for him but did opt to keep an open mind after he took office.

With each passing day (as detailed in Andy McCarthy's more recent magnum opus) more information comes out to make it abundantly clear that Obama & Co. was surveilling not only Trump & Co. but also other political opponents... and that it was surveilling them not because it had actual reason to suspect them of committing crimes or compromising national security, but because it wanted to score political points in the way noted above, or because it wanted to know what they were planning to do so it could head them off... and with this information coming to light, the MSM/Left's ability to credibly claim that Obama & Co. did not spy on Trump & Co. continues to evaporate.

With each passing day, actual events make it more and more clear that Trump and Putin are not bosom buddies at all. Our UN Ambassador that Trump appointed, Nikki Haley, has been tough on Russia ever since she took office. Reportedly, the military strikes Trump authorized (ordered?) in Syria and Afghanistan rankled the Kremlin so much that our relationship with Russia is, 90 days into Trump's presidency, more adversarial than it's been in decades.

So, should the MSM/Left revive its recent claim that Trump & Co. is dangerous because it's in cahoots with Russia, or should it suddenly start claiming that Trump & Co. is dangerous because it's antagonistic to Russia? To claim the former is to claim something so hard to believe that the MSM/Left would seem to be populated by fools, but to claim the latter is to admit that the MSM/Left was either breathtakingly wrong or breathtakingly dishonest about things it previously said.

Again, no matter what the MSM/Left chooses to claim, it is a loss for them and a win for Trump. Again the hare is caught in the jackal's jaws, and again, the jackal relishes the taste of its blood.

The hare in Aesop's fable got cocky and thought it could sleep on the job, with the result being that a tortoise passed him while he slept. The hare in America's politics of 2017 should be even more embarrassed than Aesop's, for while it too got cocky and is paying a price as a result, it is paying that price despite not having stopped running.

Initially, today's hare did not know that a jackal might be lurking in the field. Now it does, yet it keeps getting bloodied by the jackal because it turns out that speed alone is not enough to elude such a predator. And it still has not identified, much less cultivated, any other talent that might help it in this contest.

And a jackal is not a tortoise, and this particular jackal never sleeps.

Pity the hare.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

242 years ago today

The hours from tonight through tomorrow morning mark the 241st anniversary of Paul Revere’s “midnight ride” and the battles that ensued. It is one of the most significant anniversaries in American history -- perhaps the most significant, because it can be argued that if not for the events that took place on April 18th and 19th, 1775, the United States might never have come to be.

Tensions between colonists and the royal rulers from the other side of the Atlantic were running high in those days. Though this was true in all of the colonies that would become our first 13 states, it was especially true in Massachusetts, where the monarchy had effectively shut Boston off from the world by blockading its port and quartering large numbers of soldiers within the city.

It was believed that government forces (officially called "Regulars" and derisively called "redcoats") would invade the colony en masse, so residents in surrounding towns had been stockpiling munitions to defend themselves. The redcoats targeted Lexington and Concord, the former because revolutionaries John Hancock and Samuel Adams were thought to be there, and the latter because it hosted the Provincial Congress and was rumored to have a huge stash of munitions the government wanted to confiscate.

When redcoat forces were detected sneaking from Boston under cover of darkness on April 18th, Paul Revere and William Dawes mounted their horses and galloped into the countryside to warn their fellow citizens. Revere departed from Charlestown, across the Charles River from Boston proper, while Dawes left directly from the city. Revere’s route was the shortest to Lexington and Concord, and thus he was the first to warn their occupants of what was coming.

The next morning, Lexington’s village green was the site of the first skirmish between government forces and the citizen militia known as minutemen. The latter took the worst of it, with eight dead and ten wounded compared to just a single wounded redcoat.

The redcoats then marched on to their primary goal of Concord. After arriving and crossing the North Bridge, nearly half of them went about securing the bridge while the rest searched for weapons. When wooden cannon mounts were found, they were set afire and before long the flames engulfed a church.

Positioned on Punkatasset Hill some 300 yards from the bridge, Concord’s minutemen had been joined by minutemen from neighboring towns, giving them a numerical advantage the redcoats did not anticipate. When they saw the rising smoke, they believed their homes were being destroyed and responded by advancing.

Seeing them approach in such numbers, the redcoats retreated back across the bridge. A shot soon rang out, though no one knows who fired it, and within minutes a full-blown battle had transpired in which half of the officers from the government troops were wounded. Disoriented, they fled back toward Boston and along the way fell under fire from minutemen who had arrived from elsewhere and were hiding behind fences and walls. By the time they made it back to the city, they had sustained more than 200 casualties.

It was an indisputable defeat for the world’s most powerful military, delivered by ordinary people seeking simply to defend themselves against oppression. The example set by those people ignited the fuse of the American Revolution in such a way that it would not be extinguished.

But as with all mass "remembrances" of things that happened long ago, some of the things people assume to be true are not. In the case of Paul Revere's ride, the inaccuracies cut both ways and are of differing levels of importance.

Generations upon generations of American schoolchildren have been told that Revere warned farmers and villagers that "the British are coming!" Those schoolchildren have grown up and passed along that telling to their own kids. In reality, however, what Revere said that night was "the Regulars are coming out." That quote is from his own subsequent account, and from accounts of those he warned. It would never have occurred to him to say "the British are coming!" because he himself was British and so was everyone else in the 13 colonies.

For Revere to have warned people that "the British are coming" would be like me telling my neighbors that state troopers are entering the neighborhood by saying "the Floridians are coming." It would not have made sense. But by keeping the "British are coming" narrative alive for so long, and casually saying that the subsequent Revolutionary War was against "the British," we citizens of the United States have unwittingly distorted something important about our nation's genesis. Specifically, we have abetted a myth which holds that the idea of individual human beings having rights upon which government may not infringe was born on these shores, in the brains of our Founding Fathers. In reality, that idea -- which I fervently believe and which I do indeed "hold to be self-evident" -- was born not in American colonies of the 1700's but in southern England of the 1200's.

A full 558 years before the Boston Tea Party, 560 before Paul Revere's ride, and 561 before the Declaration of Independence, the outline of individual rights that would later serve as the basis for the United States was laid out in the Magna Carta, in the year 1215. Because human nature is human nature and political power abhors a vacuum, the British government infringed on those rights as the centuries passed, but the Magna Carta did not disappear from the British public conscience. In the 1500's an upsurge of interest in that document was kindled; and in the 1600's, Enlightenment philosophers such as John Locke argued in favor of the freedom that was enshrined in it.

When our Founding Fathers pushed back against the monarchy of the 1700's, they did not do so with the belief that they were sailing uncharted philosophical waters. They did so because they believed, accurately, that their rights as British citizens had been violated by a British government that was acting counter to British ideals. They considered themselves the true Britons and the rulers from London the false Britons. The notion of a separate American identity decoupled from any British identity probably never entered their minds, yet a separate identity is what came to be. Most Americans living today wrongly believe that a separate identity was part of the plan.

I am not sure exactly how to build the bridge between the inaccuracy I just noted and the one I am about to note, so I won't even attempt to build it. However, the inaccuracy is worth noting and there may be no better time to do it than when talking about Paul Revere's ride, so here I go -- and it is related to, of all things, race.

I am a history buff who grew up in a house where history was frequently discussed, and I always did good in school, always taking advanced classes, so it says something bad about American schools that I never heard of Crispus Attucks or Peter Salem until I was grown. Rather than learn their names when I studied AP American History, I learned them by reading the text of a speech that was given by Duke Ellington in 1941, in which he passionately made the case that black Americans are historically loyal to and historically integral to the United States.

Opining that "although numerically but ten percent of the mammoth chorus that today, with an eye overseas, sings 'America' with fervor and thanksgiving, I say our ten percent is the very heart of the chorus," Ellington mentioned that "America is reminded of the feats of Crispus Attucks, Peter Salem, black armies in the Revolution..." Realizing that those names had been mentioned with the assumption that listeners knew them (in the era of Jim Crow, no less) got me to researching, and I learned things that most Americans would have a hard time believing.

Crispus Attucks was born a slave, circa 1723 in the vicinity of Framingham, Massachusetts, which tells you that slavery was not just a Southern thing. Attucks was the son of a black man and Natick Indian woman, and at some point in his adult life became either a free man or a runaway slave who was not seriously pursued. What is known for sure is that he became a productive rope-maker, seaman, and goods-trader who was known and respected on the Boston docks.

On March 2, 1770, five years before Paul Revere's ride, a fight erupted between redcoats and Boston rope-makers. Three nights later, the dispute escalated when five Bostonians were killed by redcoats in an event that came to be known as the Boston Massacre. Many historians consider the massacre to be the first violent act that started history's train chugging toward the Revolutionary War, and because Attucks was the first colonist to die in the massacre, he -- a biracial man born a slave, hailing from the only two races that have experienced systemic legal racism in America -- is considered by many to be the first fatality of the American Revolution. Today you can visit his final resting place in Beantown's third-oldest cemetery.

Meanwhile, Peter Salem was also born a slave in the vicinity of Framingham. His original slave master, Jeremiah Belknap, at some point sold him to Lawson Buckminster. In 1775, when Salem was believed to be 25 years old, Buckminster granted him freedom and he enlisted in the Continental Army to combat the redcoats.

Salem was literally involved in Paul Revere's ride because he fought as a minuteman during the skirmish in Concord. One week later he enlisted with the 5th Massachusetts Regiment and went on to fight at the famous Battles of Bunker Hill, Saratoga, and Stony Point.

One of the colonists' main achievements at Bunker Hill was the killing of British Major John Pitcairn as the battle unfolded. It is known that Salem was one of the soldiers who shot Pitcairn, and generally believed that his shot was the first to strike him. Salem's role was publicly acknowledged as far back as 1786, when a famous painting by John Trumbull depicted him holding a musket as Pitcairn fell. In 1968, that portion of the painting (excluding the image of Pitcairn on the ground) was reproduced as this U.S. postage stamp.

After the war Salem built a cabin near Leicester, Massachusetts, where he lived most of his remaining days subsisting as a gardener and cane-weaver. He was reportedly well-liked by the townspeople and enjoyed regaling children by telling them stories of the war. Upon his death in 1816, he was laid to rest at the Old Burying Ground in his birth town of Framingham. In 1882 Framingham established an annual Peter Salem Day, and the town still observes his birthday each October 1st.

None of which is to deny that slavery was America's Original Sin, or that racial inequality in non-slave areas was American's Original Sin Part 1(b). These historical facts do, however, show that the racial jumble which existed at America's founding was not as cut-and-dry as most people assume. They show that the Revolution was supported by more people than just the rich and "lily white." These things need to be understood and taught in order for future generations to have a true, balanced understanding (and appreciation) of how America got to where it is.

The train of history does not follow an inevitable track. It changes direction over and over again based on the actions and inactions of men and women. If a bunch of ticked-off English property owners had not precipitated the drafting of the Magna Carta in 1215... if later encroachments by the British monarchy had not incited people to hold the Magna Carta dear to their hearts... if the likes of John Locke had not later written clearly about the ideals of liberty that were at its heart... if, later still, Adam Smith had not written about how those ideals apply to economics and lead to mutually beneficial free trade... if the Founding Fathers had not read the likes of Locke and Smith, and not sought to re-assert individual rights against the monarchy's despotic aims... if Crispus Attucks, by being murdered along with four other Bostonians in 1770, had not helped make commoners feel antipathy to the crown... if Paul Revere had not chosen to warn colonists with his midnight ride, so that the colonists could prevent the British Regulars from stealing their arms... if Peter Salem had not been at Bunker Hill to shoot Major Pitcairn and deprive the British military of one of its most creative leaders... if America's early abolitionists were not able to point to heroic actions by the likes of Peter Salem, in order to give some of their uncertain countrymen pause and thereby keep their movement alive... well, who knows what would have happened? Those are a lot of ifs, and every one of them was an important link in a very long chain that eventually led to freedom expanding its reach and slavery being abolished in North America.

Today is a day for reflection on our shared past, and a time for figuring out how we can learn from that past to decide what course we should take in today's extremely dangerous world. We must take pains to ensure that our national memory first gets strengthened, and that it then gets preserved, if we have any hope of being confident and self-assured as we face the future.
  

Friday, April 14, 2017

Musings on Easter Weekend

There's an old saw that asks, "If you were arrested and put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"

I'm honest enough to admit that the answer would be "No" when it comes to me, but that does not make me an atheist or agnostic. I believe in God not on faith alone but also on evidence (though that's a whole other blog post) and my mind and heart always rev up when Holy Week comes around.

The notion that the universe was created by God (or "a higher power," if you won't say the G word because you're afraid of what the cool people might think) makes intellectual sense and is easy to accept. The story of Jesus as handed down over two millennia? Not so much.

The story of Jesus involves a virgin giving birth to a human baby who is simultaneously human and God, and who later makes a splash around the age of 12 then disappears for 18 years, then reappears as a grown bachelor who preaches radical sermons for three years during which he runs afoul of the Jewish religious establishment and Roman police state, resulting in him being executed atop a hill and his corpse being placed in a cave, only to come back to life three days later and then walk around preaching for another 40 days before rising from the ground and ascending through the clouds to a place he assured everyone was a kingdom.

That does not seem like a tough thing to believe -- it is a tough, perhaps impossible, thing to believe. Yet hundreds of millions believe it all the same, and they are not fools. They are doctors, lawyers, scientists, philosophers, astronauts, and captains of industry, and they know whereof they speak.

Ronald Reagan summed it up best back in 1978, when he was an ex-governor with a radio show who had not yet been elected president. In a letter to a minister who had expressed doubts about the divinity of Jesus, Reagan wrote: A young man whose father is a carpenter grows up working in his father's shop. One day he puts down his tools and walks out of his father's shop. He starts preaching on street corners and in the nearby countryside, walking from place to place, preaching all the while, even though he is not an ordained minister. He never gets farther than an area perhaps 100 miles wide at the most. He does this for three years. Then he is arrested, tried and convicted. There is no court of appeal, so he is executed at age 33 along with two common thieves. Those in charge of his execution roll dice to see who gets his clothing -- the only possessions he has. His family cannot afford a burial place for him so he is interred in a borrowed tomb. End of story? No, this uneducated, property-less young man has, for 2,000 years, had a greater effect on the world than all the rulers, kings, emperors; all the conquerors, generals and admirals, all the scholars, scientists and philosophers who have ever lived -- all of them put together. How do we explain that -- unless He really was what He said He was?

When I was in eighth grade we read Greek mythology in the English Language Arts class taught by Mrs. Ravas, and I noticed how tales of the Trojans and Odysseus and his return to Ithaca were not unlike biblical stories of the Philistines and of Jews returning to Zion from their Babylonian exile. But I also noticed a significant difference, for nobody in 1984-85 was praying to Zeus or testifying that Poseidon rescued them when they got caught in rip currents.

Whereas the Greek gods played dice with people, Jesus, the manifestation of the Hebrew God, sought to deliver them from evil. Belief in Zeus drove people to fear the wrath of his thunderbolts, while belief in the Hebrew God drove them to care for the downtrodden.

Though belief in the Greek gods long ago went extinct, belief in the Hebrew God spread from tiny Judea and went all the way around the world eons before the invention of anything resembling mass media.

In a religious sense, Holy Week, the period from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday, conveys more vivid images and more acute feelings than any other time of year. It, more than any other succint period of time, links the ancient past to the modern present and makes the former not only obviously relevant, but close enough to touch.

In your mind's eye, picture Jesus entering Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. He was a common man riding a donkey, not an aristocrat riding a horse, yet people exulted his arrival and spread palm fronds in front of him. Hence, Palm Sunday.

Flip to a nighttime several days later and envision the same Jesus praying by moonlight in the Garden of Gethsemane, anguished over the death He knows is at hand. Flip immediately forward on that same night, to the moment when Judas betrays Him in exchange for thirty pieces of silver, identifying Him to the Roman soldiers who place Him under arrest.

Skip forward to the following day, when He appears before Pontius Pilate for trial. Suddenly, many of the people who had praised Him when He entered the city are now calling for Him to be executed by crucifixion, one of the most brutal means of death ever devised by the minds of our "civilized" species.

Given a choice between freeing Jesus or freeing the rioter Barabbus, the mob chooses Barabbus. Pilate confirms Jesus's death sentence after symbolically washing his own hands and declaring that Jesus's fate is the will of the people, not of him personally.

Move forward from there, probably just one day forward, and you see the final stages of what has come to be known as The Passion. You see Jesus forced to walk through the city streets while crowds jeer, carrying the heavy cross to which he is soon to be nailed.

He carries that cross to Golgotha, where it gets laid on the ground and He gets tied to it. Then, nails get hammered through his wrists and feet and the cross is erected with him hanging upon it in what would appear the most helpless and pathetic of positions.

Two other crosses, one on each side of His, are also erected, holding common thieves whose names will quickly be forgotten in the mists of time.

Jesus's mother, Mary, is present for the crucifixion and watches in agony. So too does the enigmatic Mary Magdalene.

But it is likely that none of His disciples were present, for of the four gospels, only one (John) mentions the presence of a disciple and it gives no name. The Gospel of Luke says some of them watched from a distance, but it too gives not a single name. Meanwhile, the gospels of Matthew and Mark make no mention whatsoever of disciples even viewing the crucifixion.

Death by crucifixion came slow and torturously, and usually resulted not from bleeding per se, but from suffocation as the lungs and heart stopped working due to the purge of blood.

At 3:00 in the afternoon, Jesus died and an earthquake rent the area around Jerusalem, tearing in half the veil which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of Solomon's temple. Death by suffocation while bleeding on a cross would seem to be a defeat -- but the Bible describes it as a victory, and the tearing of the veil represents the ultimate message of Jesus's ministry; namely, that every single person may communicate directly with God rather than being separated from Him and being forced to use rabbis as intermediaries. Hence, Good Friday.

The crucifixion was long but took place all on one day, though we don't know if it was a Friday... Then there was a second day, which in our current observation of Holy Week is a Saturday... Then there was a third day, which in our current observation is Easter Sunday. This is of course the day that Jesus was resurrected, when He rose from the dead and exited the tomb borrowed from Joseph of Arimathea, when His divinity was made undeniable to those who were witnesses.

Side note: If you think that dyeing Easter eggs is a modern secularization of the holiday and is meant to separate children from its real meaning, you are incorrect. The giving of eggs to celebrate Easter originated early in the Christian era, in that expanse of land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers that was then known as Mesopotamia and where you will now find the nations of Iraq and Kuwait. In those early days the eggs were stained with whatever red coloring was available, in memory of the blood shed by Jesus on the cross.

But back to my main point: Holy Week, with its climax on Easter Sunday, is the most goosebump-rippling week on the calendar.

I am the grandson of a preacher man, and Granddaddy gave marathon sermons at sprint speeds, the kind of which Lyle Lovett apparently has some knowledgeGranddaddy was a white man who grew up in Jim Crow North Carolina, but I think he had a bit of black preacher in him and I always wanted to see him and Sherman Hemsley get down together.

Baptists are thought of as stuffy prudes who oppose premarital sex because it might lead to dancing, but Granddaddy was a Baptist and there was freewheeling singin' and dancin' and pulpit-smashin' in the church whenever he hit his groove -- which, unfortunately for those of us who wanted to eat lunch, was every Sunday starting at 11:00 a.m. with the possibility that it might continue past 1:00 p.m.

Where was I? Oh yeah, right. The Holy Week that climaxes with Easter is the most vivid and palpable of all Christian observances.

Granddaddy did vivid and palpable, but he also knew when to suppress his personality and let somebody else hold the baton, and one of my clearest early church memories is from an Easter sunrise service at which he stepped aside.

I think it was so far back that Jimmy Carter was president and I had yet to reach double digits. The sermon was delivered outdoors by George Walters, who then went by Brother George, and it was delivered with a blast of fervent optimism that I still think about every year when Easter draws near.

I have no idea what Brother George said -- remember, I was in single digits -- but I remember the glint in his eye and certainty in his voice like it was yesterday. I still remember exactly how the early sunlight looked over the oaks in Oldsmar, Florida, and how it shined off the sweat on his forehead and how he smiled as he ministered.

Today I am 46 years old, and struggling internally over whether I know how to raise my daughter who is in puberty and my son who likes to manipulate... yet I still remember the feel of that sunrise sermon like it was yesterday, and I would not remember it if it was not divinely inspired.

Though I don't recall the words of that sermon, I do recall its authenticity and the gut knowledge which powered it, the gut knowledge which communicated that God is real and Easter is His biggest, most artful tap on our shoulders -- the tap which lets us know He is here in the now, not far away in the yesterday.

As this weekend unfurls we should open our hearts, appreciate our loved ones, observe the beauty of the world around us, and let ourselves smile.

We tend to worry about life in this broken world, but we shouldn't, because the worry causes us to ignore our blessings.


Monday, April 10, 2017

The Time Is Here

The most wonderful time of the sporting year is upon us, by which I mean the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin Wednesday night.

And it is still the most wonderful time of the sporting year even though my Tampa Bay Lightning finished just outside the money this time around, getting eliminated on the season's final day despite winning that night and finishing on a prolonged hot streak.

Anyway, here are some thoughts before the faceoffs commence:


The Return
One year ago everyone was talking about all seven Canadian franchises missing the playoffs, and north of the border they were gnashing their teeth. Some wondered in hushed (and not so hushed) tones what that might mean. But most of us knew it meant nothing, and predictably, the Canadian drought has now vanished as quickly as it appeared, for that is what mirages do.

This time around, five of Canada's seven franchises are in the postseason and three of them -- Edmonton, Calgary, and Toronto -- are led by so many young stars that it's not crazy to ask if we are approaching a time when it will become rare for a U.S. franchise to hoist the Cup.

Out West, the Oilers and Flames are back in the postseason and champing at the bit. In Edmonton, second-year centerman Connor McDavid led the league in assists (70) and points (100) and many people believe he has already surpassed Sidney Crosby to become the league's biggest star. In Calgary, Johnny Gaudreau lit it up through the second half of the season as he and Sean Monahan regained their claim to being the best 1-2 punch playing on a single line anywhere in the world. With mojo like this, the Battle of Alberta is back on and it looks like it will remain on for a long time.

But of course, what has given the Toronto Disinformation Ministry Canadian media its biggest hard-on since the 2002 Olympics is the Maple Leafs' return to the postseason after having hit what appeared to be rock bottom just 12 to 24 months ago -- and they did it with rookie phenom Auston Matthews finishing tied for second in the NHL in goals (40) while fellow rookie Mitch Marner set the franchise rookie record for assists (42).

In terms of winning it all, the present will probably belong to an American franchise, and I have solid reasons to believe that the Lightning have what it takes to drink from the silver chalice at some point over the next few years... but be that as it may, the future looks extremely bright above the 49th parallel, and I do expect to see a couple franchises from up there make good runs this postseason.


The Exit
While postseason prospects are looking up throughout Canada, they are extinguished for the first time in more than a quarter century on the U.S. side of the Detroit River. The Red Wings had appeared in every postseason since 1991 -- the longest streak in all professional sports on this continent -- until their 4-1 loss to Carolina on March 28th eliminated them from this year's dance.

I would be lying if I said I'm weeping over this turn of events. The Lightning have faced the Wings (and defeated them!) in two consecutive postseasons, so I've acquired a distaste for them, especially when it comes to cheap goon Justin Abdelkader and headhunter Niklas Kronwall. But a big part of me will miss seeing Al Sobotka pick up octopi thrown on the ice, and I must admit it's a shame that Joe Louis Arena won't play host to any playoff hockey in its final year.

It is also a shame that the Wings won't play any playoff games in the year that marks the 20th anniversary of the first Cup in their modern dynasty.

On second thought, I will kind of miss seeing those punks. It'll seem strange without them.


Who to root for
Pittsburgh. My respect for the Penguins, and for the city and its hockey history, was already spelled out in this post last June. Crosby's place in history is already cemented, but a third Cup would make the cement even deeper and he deserves very deep cement. Plus, I would like to see Phil Kessel get his named engraved again and this time walk away with the Conn Smythe.

NY Rangers. I understand why so many people can't stomach the thought of Manhattan's blue bloods winning it all, but I have two words for you: Henrik Lundqvist. He is the best netminder of his generation, the best ever from the great hockey nation of Sweden, and a genuine class act. He deserves a championship and at 35 his days are numbered.

Minnesota. The North Star State has the richest and longest hockey tradition of any state in this country (sorry Massachusetts) so its denizens should be able to experience a Cup win before they die. Plus, I like how the Wild's logo incorporates a North Woods motif inside a silhouette of a bear's head. It's cool!

Calgary. Actually, it's good to cheer for either of the Alberta teams, Edmonton or Calgary. They are both "small markets" and thus underdogs and thus cheering for them is the All-American thing to do even though they're not American franchises. After all, this is hockey, which is Canada's game, and it's not the Olympics.

But while it's good to cheer for either, I have a softer spot for the Flames than I do for the Oilers. Don't ask me why because I can't rationalize it. It seems like I  should consider them a bit of a rival since they're who the Bolts beat for the Cup in 2004, but instead they're one of those teams I generally root for and despise them only when they go against my own.


Who not to root for
Toronto. I can't, just can't, because their media machine is insufferable and their fans act stuck-up and entitled despite the fact that their God's-gift-to-hockey franchise hasn't won the Cup in 50 years. (Though I wouldn't mind them having a little success just to see if those fans will finally stop sneering at Americans, seeing as how Matthews is from Arizona and Jake Gardiner from Minnesota and Brian Boyle from Massachusetts.)

Montreal. Watching them lose is just too fun. And who could possibly want to hear Ole, Ole, Ole played past the first round? Not I.

Boston. They already won one in 2011 and that's enough for this generation of Bruins fans. Now, I must admit that I pulled for the Bruins in 2011 and for the Patriots over the Falcons in this year's Super Bowl, but nobody wants to watch another Boston team win another world title after all the success they've experienced for the last 16 years.

Washington. Just because.

Philadelphia. The Flyers aren't even in the playoffs, but I'm putting them on this list just the same. Hatin' on Philly Fan ain't ever unjustified.


And with that...
I will sign off for now. Tune in over the next two months and enjoy the best that sports have to offer!