Sunday, August 21, 2016

Reflections on Rio




Today completes the 13th Summer Olympic games I have been privileged to witness, or at least the 13th  that I remember seeing.   I vividly recall watching live as Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the air in the Mexico City games of 1968.   Every four years thereafter, there has been one memorable moment after another.   This year, perhaps Rio’s most enduring moment was provided by Usain Bolt in a qualifying round, when he turned a 100 meter “sprint” into what appeared more like a casual jog.  He knew he was going to win the race – he seems to know he’s going to win every race – so why not put the event in cruise control, look over at a friendly competitor, and give him one of those big beautiful Jamaican smiles?  Talk about style points.

But there were other memorable visions, believe me.  

There was Chaunte Lowe, the high jumper, whose incredible display of sportsmanship was truly inspiring.  One moment, you could see Lowe consoling fellow-American Vashti Cunningham, when Cunningham was reduced to tears after an early exit from the competition.  Then, a while later, Lowe was eliminated without a medal despite the fact that if she had cleared the bar on her final jump she would have the gold.  So what did she do?  She ran over to the Spanish woman who won the event and gleefully hugged her long-time rival as if she was celebrating the victory of a family member.   It was a remarkable sight.

There was the beach volleyball team of Walsh and Ross, on the verge of elimination in the bronze medal match, until somehow they found magic in the sand and gutted their way to a medal.  Bronze was the perfect medal for that pair.   It made Walsh the single most decorated Olympic beach volleyball player of all time, while also reminding us that history will remember her not as a solo act but rather as part of the Kerri Walsh/Misty May juggernaut that together had won the three previous Olympic golds.  April Ross (who has now medaled with two different teams) is a great digger, but she’s no Misty May.   

There was Michael Phelps, grabbing medal after medal after medal, and each time making us wonder if he was setting the bar so high with his overall Olympic tally that nobody in our lifetime will ever catch him.  Phelps repeatedly told us that this would be his final Olympics.  Seriously?   I’ll believe that when I see it.   When you’ve won 23 gold medals and 28 total medals, I say that you keep trying to nab them until you’re either no longer able – or you turn 40.  I remember Ali taking a beating against Holmes, Willie Mays stinking it up for the Mets, and Michael Jordan attempting to give it a go for the Wizards.  When you’re that good – and I mean not just a championship, but arguably the best ever – you play until you can no longer compete.   You leave it all on the field.   Phelps is that good.   He’ll most likely be back, and I bet you he even crosses the 25/30 barrier.  

There was Katie Ledecky, the swimming phenom who could literally have given her competitors an 11 second head start in the 800 meter freestyle and still won the race.  The poor dear only won the 400 meter free by five seconds, but just think about how far a world class swimmer can go in five seconds.   By contrast, in winning gold medals in the 100 meter fly, Phelps has won by 0.01, 0.04 and .023 seconds, and he would have gone from silver to no-medal-at-all in that event this year if he were only .01 seconds slower.   So a margin of five seconds – let alone 11 – is a good amount, wouldn’t you say?

Katie and I share a membership in a relatively small group of people who are raised in Bethesda, Maryland and then head out to pursue our undergraduate studies at Stanford.  There can’t be more than five or ten such people every year.  Far more importantly, my sources here in B-Town tell me that she is actually a very nice person, someone who hasn’t let her swimming skills get to her head.    Here’s hoping she enjoys Stanford as much as I did and that she comes back to Tokyo in four years and duplicates her feats in Rio.

I could go on and on citing the amazing athletes and teams from Rio.   There was the American women’s basketball team, which has NEVER had any competition.  There was Mo Farah, the British long distance runner, who once again won two gold medals despite having literally been knocked to the ground in the 10,000 meter race.  There was Lilly King, who trash-talked a Russian competitor for taking PEDs and then backed up her talk with a gold medal in the pool.  And then there were the combat-sport competitors from Israel and India – two countries that rarely do well in the Olympics – who won bronze medals in judo or wrestling, thereby bringing far more joy to their countrymen then the zillionth gold could possibly bring to Olympic powerhouses like the US, Great Britain or China.  

The great irony of the Olympics is that it is typically enjoyed by people with flabby bodies who are loafing on their couches, while the performances are given by sculpted bodies who are often achieving  personal bests (if not setting records for their species).  What’s more, as the Olympics drag on, the flabby-bodied fans continue to stay up late, thereby making themselves more and more lethargic each day.   And yet, when they turn on their televisions, the athletes are every bit as freakishly perfect-looking as they were the previous day.  We tire; they shine.  And strangely enough, we enjoy it.

And so we should.  Witnessing human excellence in any endeavor – whether it’s swimming, running, painting, or acting – is a privilege.  You don’t have to be Chaunte Lowe to realize that it is our ability to appreciate excellence in our fellow human beings that truly demonstrates our character, far more than our ability to exalt in our own accomplishments.   What’s great about the Olympics is that you don’t have to be a “sports fan” to love them – you don’t have to read the sports pages every day, listen to sports radio, know all the player’s stats, etc.  You just have to show up one fortnight every four years, remember what country you come from, and you can root with as much vim and vigor as anyone else – that is, everyone except for Chaunte Lowe.  She obviously gets the gold medal when it comes to rooting for other people; if you can go crazy when your rival wins at your expense, you deserve the gold at something.

Think back one month.  All that we heard about was how awful these summer games would be.  It was as if our athletes would be performing in a hell-hole.  Big name golfers pulled out of the tournament, citing health concerns, and they weren’t even the ones who would have to swim or sail in the cesspools known as Rio’s waterways.      I’m not here to tell you that these Olympics have been pulled off without a glitch.  But to all the Chicken Littles out there, let me remind you that once again, a city hosted an Olympics and the results were a marvel to watch.   Just like anything else, negativism needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

In less than an hour, many of us will witness what I call the Greatest Moment in Sport.  It’s the point where the first Marathon runner enters the Olympic Stadium.   Imagine being that person.  You have ripped your body apart for 26 grueling miles and, as a result, you are at your most emotionally sensitive state, for all of your body’s defenses have long departed.  For some time you have recognized that you are poised to emerge victorious in the race that you’ve been pointing towards for years, and yet you experience these feelings all alone – for you have been pounding the pavement all by your lonesome stride after stride on the streets of the city.  Finally, you enter the stadium.  And then, within just a few seconds, you hear a roar of affirmation that must truly be deafening.  It has to be the most remarkable roar that any athlete can experience – tens of thousands of people marveling entirely at what you have accomplished, and will continue to accomplish, as adrenaline takes your exhausted body around a track while the roar continues, and perhaps even spikes, as your fellow competitors begin to enter the arena.

There must be nothing like winning the Marathon in the Olympics.  In my experience, the closest analogue would probably be the emotions of late-afternoon on Yom Kippur.  After depriving yourself of food and drink for 24 hours, your emotional sensitivities are at their maximum.  It is a great joy to place yourself in that state, and then join with a congregation of voices in praising God for the gift of life and cutting yourself slack for being human-all-too-human.

The Olympics are indeed an odd time to talk about people being human-all-too-human, because we keep hearing about the athletes as if they are super human.  Frankly, Ryan Lochte did us a favor this fortnight in reminding us that, deep down, world class athletes are no different than anyone else.  In fact, in some respects, they can be less virtuous and less attractive than the typical couch potato.

Pick a skill, any skill – someone has to be the best in the world at it.  That applies to arts, crafts and sports.  And while it doesn’t make the top athletes more virtuous people than the rest of us, it does mean that they have something notable to offer us.  Every four years, I plan on reveling in those accomplishments. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Time to Take the Hill




Just because Hillary Clinton is paranoid about right-wingers doesn’t mean they’re not out to get her. And just because Donald Trump is the media’s loudest critic doesn’t mean it isn’t biased.  That center-left bias was on display again this week, when the New York Times scooped the world on a possible Clinton pay-to-play scandal and yet buried its story on page 10.   

If you’re not familiar with the Times’ pay-to-play story, don’t worry about it.  Thanks to both Trump and the media, you don’t have to think about Hillary Clinton until her inauguration.   We really have just one Presidential candidate on the ballot this year, and America is prepared to vote for any qualified candidate who opposes him.  Constitutionally qualified, that is.  Whoever you are, if you’re 35, a 14-year resident of the U.S., and a natural born citizen, you’d probably be the favorite in this upcoming election.   By November, you see, Donald Trump will have alienated well over half of the electorate, and you’d probably be smart enough to spend the campaign season at a national park in Utah or the Florida Keys, rather than kissing babies in Youngstown.  Why go out of your way to campaign when your opponent apparently doesn’t want the job?

I hear a lot of Democrats talk about how “nervous” they are that Trump will win.   My suggestion is that they do something more productive and worry about their blood pressure.  (Then, at least, their worries might come true.)  I just came back from my second trip to the Midwest this summer.  Most of the people I spoke to were white, and many were Republicans.  Still, Trump’s popularity among this group is dismal, and a number of the Republicans I spoke to plan on voting for his Democratic opponent, even if they have to hold their nose while doing it.  

If I spoke to a Democrat, I’d hear about what a dangerous idiot Trump is, and how Hillary should be a decent President.  If I spoke to a Republican, I might hear some complaints about Hillary, but that would soon be followed by a “this is when he crossed the line for me” anecdote about Trump.  Whether these labels are true or not, in politics perception is reality, and “insanity” trumps “dishonesty” when it comes to choosing who to vote against.   

To be sure, the people I spent time with in Indiana and Wisconsin were college educated, and that’s why I wasn’t seeing too many Trump supporters.  In truth, I do know college-educated Trump supporters – died-in-the-wool Republicans all -- but they are outliers.  Hillary should take that demographic by a comfortable margin.  She should also take the non-college-educated African-American and Hispanic- American communities.  And I suspect she’ll do OK with white women who lack a college degree.  It’s only the non-college-educated white males who will go big for Trump, and that’s just not large enough a group to win the general election.  In short, the Fat Lady may not yet be singing, but if you turn on the news any morning and listen to the craziness Trump said the day before, you can see her warming up.

So yes, I’ll go out on the limb in saying with extreme confidence that for the sixth out of seven Presidential elections, the Democratic candidate will get the most votes, and for the fifth out of seven, that candidate will win the White House.  This victory will carry with it great significance not only for the executive branch of the government, but also the judicial branch.  In those two respects, you really can’t overestimate its importance.

Why then do I keep shaking my head about the third branch?  I’m referring to the so-called “people’s” branch, the one with the sole power to make laws.   Notably, the Washington Post op-ed page took a break from its customary all-Trump bashing-all-the-time philosophy to include a piece by James Downie entitled “A missed chance to take back the House.”   Downie argues that, with a likely train wreck on the top of the ticket for the GOP, the Democrats were given a golden opportunity to contest a large number of House seats, but in many races they haven’t bothered to put legitimate contenders on the ballot.  So now they face what is likely to be a significant House majority in the next Congress as well as midterm elections in 2018, in which the turnover is invariably lower, thereby favoring Republicans.    How then can Democrats possibly implement a progressive agenda?  

A GOP-controlled House is alone capable of continuing the gridlock that has plagued our government for years.  And it may continue to get plenty of help from the Senate.  I’m not going to predict that the GOP will hold on to its Senate majority in 2016, but I will repeat Downie’s admonition that in 2018, only eight Republican Senators will face re-election as compared to 23 Democrats.  Moreover, in such swing states as Ohio and Florida, the incumbent GOP Senators are currently ahead in the polls, even though Trump himself is trailing.  I suspect that part of the reason is that the Republican donors have decided to put all their eggs in the Capitol Hill basket and are already writing off the White House.  So while the Democrats are still fighting tooth and nail to ensure that Trump is demonized and Hillary prevails in all the swing states, Rob Portman and Marco Rubio are maintaining their leads in crucial Senate races.   

Perhaps some Democratic supporters have so given up on Congress as an institution that they’ve stopped caring so much about who holds the majority on the Hill.  Perhaps these Democrats would be more than satisfied with a progressive President and a progressive judiciary; that way, they figure, at least our basic protections will be preserved and we won’t get involved in any more Iraq Wars.  But allow me to remind my sheepish friends that global warming is worsening by the day, the distribution of wealth is gradually reaching Dickensian proportions, and a new generation of children is poised to enter adulthood with crippling debt.   These problems won’t get addressed without proactivity from Capitol Hill.   And no number of inaugural balls or progressive Supreme Court opinions will alter that fact.  

It’s time for the Democrats to take a cue from the GOP donors and re-direct our attention a bit.  Every House race and Senate race matters.   That’s where we need to focus.  Trust me, you don’t have to worry about Hillary.  Trump has made sure of that. 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Are You Ready for Some Politics?




This will be the last weekend at home for me until mid-August.  That means there will be no more blogs for a few weeks.  It also means that I won’t be able to write a timely blog about the two Presidential Conventions; I won’t be able to put them side by side and provide the kind of would-be “objective” analysis worthy of the moniker Empathic Rationalist.  So my choice is clear:  I can either analyze the Republican Convention and let the Democrats do their thing without offering commentary, or I can punt on the Four Days in Cleveland and talk about something else entirely – like, oh I don’t know, the fact that the Olympic Games are about to be played in a filthy city without a suitable infrastructure.

I gave it a few seconds thought, and here’s the verdict:  given that we’re smack in the middle of an incredibly pivotal fortnight of politics, I cannot avoid that topic.  But what I won’t do is lend my voice to the chorus of liberals who are addicted to incessant GOP bashing.  I’m sorry, but for the better part of the last year, I’ve been listening to center-left pundits and reading center-left Op/Ed writers sound off against Trump and his “base” to a degree that far exceeds what any other politician and voter block have been subjected to in my lifetime.   For the first time in my life, I’ve started to appreciate what my conservative friends have been saying about the “liberal media.” What more can be said in that regard that hasn’t already been said?  Even in this blog I’ve spoken about why it makes sense to vote for Hillary Clinton in November. To be clear, I saw nothing in Cleveland that even for a second caused me to waiver in that assessment.   But why would I want to pile on Trump and his base yet again, when that’s all that anyone in New York and Washington DC has been doing since the moment Trump descended the escalator and proclaimed his war against illegal-immigrant rapists? 

Perhaps it would be more novel, more appropriate, for a Democrat like me to say something positive about the GOP Convention.   How’s this – I was impressed with all four of the Trump children who were given a speaking role.   I listened live to the speeches delivered by Tiffany, Eric, Donald Jr. and Ivanka, and each one did well.  Ivanka in particular shined as someone who came across as intelligent, charismatic, and most importantly for my taste, somewhat progressive.  I wouldn’t exactly use that term for the Trump sons, but they came across as likeable nonetheless.   I’ve learned not to evaluate a person’s likeability by the extent to which their political views comport with my own. 

So yes, give Donald Sr. credit for raising accomplished children, rather than spoiled rich kids whose sense of entitlement has overwhelmed their work ethic.  There are surely plenty of those types lounging around country clubs and resort hotels; they just don’t happen to be named Trump. 

I would also give Trump credit for giving Cruz the microphone and allowing him to create what truly was one of the most dramatic moments I’ve ever seen on television.   Cruz essentially filibustered for 15 or 20 minutes, worked his rhetoric up to a crescendo, and then, just at the point where he seemed poised to endorse Trump and raise the roof, he turned the tables and essentially told his rival where to stick it.   And then he stood there, smiling, with boos raining on him from hither and yon, satisfied that he had finally vindicated the honor of his father, his wife, and last but not least, himself.  (I bet those “Lyin Ted” comments hurt most of all.)  Trump had to know that Cruz was capable of pulling this stunt, and yet he let it happen.   Such is the mentality of a natural showman who believes that all publicity is good, positive or not.  As a consumer of political theater, I was entertained as Hell.

Then again, as an observer of political history, I do have to ask the Donald one question: couldn’t you have asked the Comic Actor from Texas to speak on Tuesday night so that he wouldn’t upstage your Vice Presidential nominee?   Pence actually gave a very good speech, one that included the best line of the Convention (that Hillary is really running for the title of “Secretary of the Status Quo”), but because Cruz was allowed to speak on Wednesday night, nobody other than political geeks like me remember a word that Pence said.   He deserved better.

Other positives?  How’s this – I thought Laura Ingraham gave an excellent speech.  Her job was to whip up the base and create energy in the room early in the evening, and she did that job very well.  And Melania?  She spoke well and endearingly.  And assuming that she wasn’t the one who contributed the plagiarized paragraphs, I wouldn’t hold the scandal against her at all.   She never said that she was a speechwriter.  She doesn’t even come across as wanting to be a public figure.   Personally, I feel bad for her that those two plagiarized paragraphs ended up in her speech.  I truly wish that hadn’t happened.

As for the speech given by Donald Trump Sr., I don’t have a lot of nice things to say about it, so I won’t say much about it.  But I will add this – I didn’t hear anything in that speech that makes me want to compare him to Hitler or Mussolini, which is an important point to make since so many others seem to want to talk about a Trump Presidency as Hitler’s Second Term.  That meme is about as exaggerated as Trump’s doom-and-gloom assessments of our nation.   Trump’s campaign surely is flawed enough that liberals shouldn’t have to resort to hyperbole in order to criticize it.

So there you have it – a few words about a Convention that so many of my fellow Democrats wouldn’t deem worthy of their time to watch.  I’m not ashamed to say that it was a fun spectacle.   When I looked at the people in that Hall, I didn’t see lunatics, I just saw Americans – people who, like me, are not happy with the way things are going in this country and are searching for an alternative (albeit one that is different than the alternative I would have chosen).   Yes, I was offended by the “Lock Her Up” chants, but do you know what?  So, apparently, was Trump – in the middle of his speech, he reacted to those chants by gesturing that the chanters should knock it off, because the goal was not to imprison Hillary but merely to defeat her.   It was a nice moment, the kind that doesn’t fit with the “Fuhrer” narrative that the Washington Post, New York Times, and MSNBC have been peddling for many months.

Next week in Philadelphia, we are bound to see a Convention that is infinitely slicker and more traditional than the last one.  Next week in Philadelphia, we are bound to see a Convention that is also treated more favorably by the pundits.  The narrative is predictable – “Now THIS is a political convention.  Last week’s was just a circus.”  Surely, we will witness a methodical effort to build up to quite a crescendo, but unlike Cruz’s speech where the crescendo built to an epic “F U,” this time it will build to an epic celebration.  We can expect a sustained, joyous tribute to a woman who has been hailed as the “most qualified person ever to run for the Presidency” and who is almost universally expected to finally “break the glass ceiling” that has lasted for 240 years of American history. 

Here’s the rub, though.   Eight years ago we saw an incredibly “successful” Democratic convention by any measure.  It led to the election of another pioneer – the first African-American President in U.S. history.   And now, we’re likely looking at the likelihood that for the sixth time in seven elections, the Democratic candidate will get more votes than the Republican.   I will vote for that candidate.  But when all the glad handing has subsided, and all the smiles are gone, and it’s time for the Democratic Party to actually govern, it will be faced with a grim realization.   Actually, it will be faced with several grim realizations.  
  • We have a massive climate change problem that is likely ultimately to kill millions upon millions of people in some of the warmer, poorer nations of the world;
  • We are facing economic inequalities in our nation that exceed anything we’ve seen in our lifetime;
  • We have a generation of adults who for the first time in US history expect their children to be poorer than they are;
  •  We in the West are finally reaching the point Israel reached decades ago where terrorist attacks are becoming commonplace; and
  • Despite having fought a Civil War that supposedly gave us a unified national consciousness, we are now splitting apart at the seams, beset by the kind of polarization that has led the members of my political party to refer to the region that supports the other political party as “Jesus Land.”  And no, that’s not a compliment.
The Hope and Change that bloggers like me called for eight years ago hasn’t exactly solved all of our problems, now has it?  So Hillary Clinton had better not be running this year for the Secretary of the Status Quo.  If she does, she may indeed win the election this year and again in 2020, but that would not be a cause for celebration, glass ceilings or not.   

Like Bernie Sanders said – it is time that we set our sights high.  Even if we don’t reach our goals, at least we might make some significant progress.  Stated differently, it is no longer acceptable to tolerate the mess we’re in, and it’s certainly not acceptable to sugarcoat it and celebrate.  Though it remains possible to exaggerate the extent of those problems, as was demonstrated on Thursday night, the choice shouldn’t be between bad and worse.  It should be between the status quo and better.  For the Democrats, merely concentrating on winning elections has been the status quo.  I’m still waiting for something better.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

It's Time to be Proactive about Our Health




The United States Government has a CEO (the President), a CFO (the Secretary of Treasury), a chief diplomat (the Secretary of State), and a chief war officer (the Secretary of Defense).  It also has a chief health officer – a person who is responsible for speaking out on issues involving public health.   And we call this person the Surgeon General.  

Isn’t that crazy?  If you don’t see why, do me a favor and head out tomorrow morning to the nearest IHOP or Bob’s Big Boy.  Look at the patrons, and watch what they eat.   You’ll see heaping helpings of bacon, sausage, French toast, pancakes, waffles, and lots of butter and syrup.    God knows we need more syrup.   Many of the people who are eating this food are already obese; many others are on the way to that state.   Sadly, that won’t stop them from coming back for lunch and ordering pie.   This is no laughing matter.  Rather, it’s a formula for high blood pressure, crazy-high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, you name it.   And yes, eventually they’ll need some surgery.   But when you think about the people who’re living on that obesity-friendly “Americana Diet,” do you really say, “Hey, what they need is a good surgeon?”

Perhaps what we should do is tell the Surgeon General to go back to the private sector and enjoy his or her massive salary in peace.  What we need instead from the Government is a Nutritionist General -- someone who appreciates the absurdity of living in a culture where tobacco is treated like the herb from Hell, while at the same time half of the country is loading up on refined and processed sugars.   Please tell me what makes Marlboros so evil, if Whoppers, Big Gulps, and Elephant Ears can be not-so-guilty pleasures?

I suppose that some people are lucky.  They come from families where you can eat as much crap as you want and your health doesn’t deteriorate.  But they’re the exception, now aren’t they?  For the most part, when people go on the Americana Diet, they pay the price and so do their loved ones, not to mention their fellow taxpayers.   Tragically, though, while they slowly began to develop the habit of eating unhealthy foods and quantities, they may not have received much push back from society.   Just ask Don Draper – “Things go better with Coke.”   And one of those things is a Big Mac (“Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame-seed bun.”)  I didn’t even have to look up those words; I’ve heard the damned commercials so many times that I have them memorized.  

I’ve been thinking about this topic lately because I had a physical exam recently and my blood pressure was up a bit, but my doctor didn’t say a thing about nutrition.   Mind you, I’m not faulting him.  In our society, it’s just not a doctor’s job to emphasize nutrition – or, for that matter, to put people on better exercise regimens.  The role of the doctors is to dispense medicine or perform surgery.  If you want something else for your health, you’re expected to seek it out for yourself.  

Here’s the rub, though.   It has become accepted wisdom that responsible adults should go to their doctor every year and get a physical.   In fact, once you reach a certain age, you’re also supposed to get periodic medical checks-ups to get specific procedures like mammograms or colonoscopies.  
But nobody is telling us that we should go to a nutritionist.  Ever.    When it comes to diet, we’re totally on our own.   And that’s what keeps IHOP, McDonalds, and Arby’s in business.

There are all sorts of reasons why people need to eat responsibly.  For one thing, the beef industry is indisputably one of the largest contributors to climate change.   We can give up the consumption of cows and cow products without harming our own personal health, and just think about what an amazingly positive contribution that would make to the health of our planet.   But let’s leave the societal benefits of sane diets aside.   Focus on yourself as an individual.  Would you like more energy?   Lower blood pressure and blood sugar?   Healthier joints?   A longer life?  Then why turn over all of your health needs to a surgeon or a drug dispenser, even if it’s someone who has a degree from medical school?

Honestly, I am so incredibly thankful for modern medicine and the hard-working people who practice in that profession.  But as helpful as it is to have an inspired Surgeon General, what we need even more is someone who can wake up all the IHOP patrons and motivate them to google “nutritionist” on their computer.    Take it from someone who has been thinking a lot about nutrition and diets lately – and who started a new diet 11 days ago – it’s actually fun to watch what you eat.   I assure you that as much as the Americana Dieters enjoy their doughnuts, I enjoy stepping on the bathroom scale even more.