Saturday, June 21, 2008


Father’s Day is but 1/365th of the year, and yet at times, it can seem so much more profound. That was certainly the case this year – for me, and for many other people throughout the nation.

My Father’s Day began in a rather self-indulgent way. I updated my website ( to add a page for my newest “child”: Moses the Heretic. If you’re not familiar with that name, then for heaven’s sake, go to the website and check it out. The page is still a work in progress, but you will hopefully find enough there to pique your curiosity about my latest writing project. The “child” will be born on August 11, 2008, or at least that is the current plan. Wish it luck; it will need it. (It’s a tough market for philosophical novels, in case you just got off the boat and didn’t know that.)

After announcing my new novel, I spent some time celebrating the person to whom the book is dedicated, Julius Spiro. Julius is now a neighbor of a man who was hoping to spend Father’s Day celebrating his franchise’s 17th NBA title, Mr. Red Auerbach. Well, Red’s team (the Boston Celtics) lost the game that evening, but they won the title a couple of days later. So even though I’m a Lakers fan, I offer my heartiest congratulations to my dad’s most famous neighbor. Red was the coach of nine championship Celtics teams and the President and GM of seven others. He truly is “Mr. Celtic.” But knowing my dad, when he did finally meet Mr. Celtic – at King David Memorial Park in Falls Church, Maryland where the two are buried – dad must have told Red that even though he’s a huge fan of baseball and loves football and boxing, he never cared much for basketball. You see, my dad is one of those people who always told you what he thought, no matter how impolitic. Of course, he did a lot more listening than talking. He never cared so much for the cut of his own jib to dominate a conversation. And he always wanted to learn – from books, from people, and from nature. Especially from nature.

I would have loved to have seen Red’s plot this Father’s Day, but I didn’t. I don’t know precisely where it is. It’s difficult to locate grave stones at King David because none of them protrude from the ground, which is perfect for my father because he never cared to stand out in life … so why start in death? Fortunately, I do know where dad’s bones are buried, and my family made our way there at around noon. It’s always so nice to be at King David and think a bit about my dad’s life. I tried to encapsulate what my dad stood for in the dedication page of Moses the Heretic. If he could read that dedication, he’d surely say something like: “Enough about me, Danny. Why are you talking about me? I’m nobody.” He was hardly that. In fact, he was enough of a “somebody” to warrant the following tribute, which shall greet all who pick up a copy of Moses this summer: “To the memory of Julius Bertram Spiro (1912-2002) – A free thinker. And the most humble man I’ve ever known.”

What is so great about that quality known as humility? Consider that my book is largely about another man – the man you know as the Biblical Moses. We all are aware of so many great feats associated with that man. And yet, according to Jewish tradition, what made Moses the greatest of Jewish prophets was one characteristic: his humility.

While we’re on the subject of humility, the next Father’s Day tale I’d like to tell involves a man whose existence was likely even more humble than my father’s. It was certainly shorter.

I don’t remember the man’s name. But I won’t soon forget the story of his life, which ended abruptly on Father’s Day. No, he was not a father. He was, however, a son. And it is the phone call to his own father that I keep thinking about. The call would have gone something like this: “I’m sorry to break this to you, sir, especially on Father’s Day. But your son was shot in the back of the head today. And he passed away.”

The father in this (true) story lived in Iowa. But the son was shot in Philadelphia. He recently moved there at the age of 22 to pursue his life’s passion: to teach at an inner-city school in a place far away from the cornfields of Iowa. As I write these words, it is difficult for me not to weep, even though I’ve never known any of these people. My only link to them is through the son’s uncle, who participates with me in an Internet Newsgroup dedicated to my beloved Minnesota Vikings. When “Minniman,” as he called himself, recounted the story, I couldn’t help but think about the utter injustices that plague our world on a regular basis. Here is this young man who dreamt of doing a small part to help out the least fortunate among us in a section of this country that all too often gives us violence, hard drugs, abortions, broken families, homelessness, hopelessness … you name it. And what is this young man’s reward for his dreams? Getting shot to death in the back of his head, no doubt by someone who didn’t know anything about him. (Apparently, he had come to Philly so recently that he probably knew virtually nobody there.)

This young man likely never realized what happened. One moment, he was walking down the street. The next moment, unconscious of what had happened, he was dead. But I’ll tell you who understood what happened: his dad, that’s who. The Father’s Day phone call he received would have made even Mephistopheles cry.

Approximately 750 miles west of Philadelphia, another man was giving a Father’s Day speech. The speaker was himself a father, and he was addressing the topic of fatherhood. Like the would-be Philadelphia teacher, the speaker is deeply concerned about doing his part to nurture inner-city America. But unlike that would-be teacher, this speaker is in a position to do a whole lot to help – more, perhaps, than any human being alive today.

Perhaps you know by now who I’m referring to. His name is Barack Obama, and his Father’s Day speech was delivered in a primarily-black church on the South Side of Chicago. No, not that church – not the church that white America has shamelessly demonized simply because of a few sound bites on the television. (Truly, if you took the worst moments from any mosque, church or synagogue and blasted them on television, all those “houses of God” would look sinister – every last stinking one of them.) Obama selected for his venue a church that is unknown to most of us and that symbolizes generic black America. And his central point can be found in the following words, taken from the speech:

“We know that more than half of all black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled - doubled - since we were children. We know the statistics - that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and twenty times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home, or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.”

When I look at an Obama candidacy and consider the plight of the inner-city, I see an amazing opportunity. Finally, the black men who have been abandoning in droves their responsibilities to their families, their neighborhoods, and their country may actually have an honest-to-God role model and hero in the White House. Ya’ think maybe, just maybe, the time for a President like Barack is long overdue?

Now I don’t mean to say there’s no value in old white, curmudgeons. Surely, John McCain can use his pulpit for good, for I believe that fundamentally, he is a decent man. But he’s no Obama. Obama represents hope for the hopeless. He represents youth, vitality, justice, dignity, class, peace, dialogue, intellectuality, and yes … racial equality. He can say things to the black men of America that no white man can get away with saying, and yet have to be said. And more importantly, I think he has the guts to say these things as many times as necessary. Remember – this guy chose to spend his first few years after college as a community organizer in inner-city Chicago. He actually cares about the same things that the would-be teacher cared about. What do you bet, in fact, that the Iowa farm boy turned Philadelphia martyr was a huge Obamamaniac? Any McCain fans out there want to bet against it? I didn’t think so.

Obama’s Father’s Day speech was hailed universally for what it said. The problem, though, is what it didn’t say. Right now, Barack can feel free to address with impunity all of the deficiencies of the inner-city males. And yet it takes two to tango, doesn’t it? Black men aren’t alone responsible for all of the children who grow up in Anacostia and Watts without fathers. They are being raised by women who might have considered waiting a tad before getting pregnant in the first place.

Can Barack address those women with the same sense of security that he can bring to a sermon about black men? Doubtful. Right now, the ultra-feminists who came to dominate the Clinton campaign are having a hard time adjusting to life with Barack. They still resent Barack for slaying their candidate, and they likely resent much of America for allowing this “less qualified male” to once again triumph over an even “greater” woman.

Part of me is sympathetic to their complaint. I certainly wish we would have had a Jewish President by now, and it’s even more appropriate that we soon elect a woman, particularly given the fact that women (unlike Jews or blacks) represent more than half of our electorate. Still, when push comes to shove, I believe in electing the person who appears poised to do the most for our country and world given all the circumstances. Affirmative action, in other words, never has held much of a place in my heart when it comes to electing our next President. It just so happens that this year, the person who is poised to do the most wonderful job happens to be a black man. And on Father’s Day, we saw a reason why he should be elected that happens to have to do with his blackness. Fortunately, there are a lot of other reasons that have nothing to do with his race, but deal instead with his intelligence, character, instincts, and charisma. Put all those together, and you can see that he is the most talented politician of his generation. That’s right, Hillary, he’s even more talented than your husband. (Did I mention “character”?)

So yes, Father’s Day was quite a day in Falls Church, VA, Philadelphia, PA, and Chicago, IL. But when all is said and done, I just can’t stop thinking about what happened all the way across the country. The magic wasn’t supplied by an old, dead-in-the-ground socialist sympathizer (yup, my dad was a lefty!), or a young, about to be dead-in-the-ground do-gooder, or even by the man who is mockingly referred to as “the most liberal Senator in Washington.” Nope. It was supplied by a man who might actually be a Republican. I say that because he plays a sport in which virtually all the participants are politically conservative, and he has never spoken out in favor of any progressive causes. But I don’t care. I’m still a huge fan of the guy. And after Father’s Day weekend, I can’t imagine how anyone out there can’t call themselves a fan as well.

To appreciate what Eldrick Tiger Woods accomplished last weekend, it would have helped to have been walking Torrey Pines, or at least to have seen the miracles on TV. But even a verbal recap should suffice to get the point across. Here’s this guy who hadn’t played 18 holes of golf since mid-April because he just had knee surgery. He was in palpable pain whenever he hit a drive, which isn’t surprising given that he had a double stress fracture in his left leg (to go with a tear in the ACL of his left knee). And he was playing one of the hardest golf courses in the world, at least once the USGA allowed the rough to thicken. Nevertheless, when all was said and done, if you take the entire Father’s Day weekend – which in this case stretched from Thursday to Monday -- and ask whether any other of the world’s greatest golfers broke par, the answer would be “none.” Just Tiger. That’s how hard a golf course that was.

So how did Tiger do it, all-the-while playing on one leg and playing through a ton of pain? On Friday, he made four birdie putts of 15 feet or more in five consecutive holes. On Saturday, he finished with a six-hole stretch in which he made two eagles (holing putts of roughly 35 and 65 feet) and a chip-in birdie from the rough. On Sunday, Father’s Day, he missed the fairway on the last hole, needing a birdie to force a playoff, and yet he put himself in a position where he could do just that. “All” he needed to do was sink a 12 foot putt from a position where the grass had been frayed all day from spike marks. Naturally, he drained it. Then, finally, on Monday, he was down once again on the 18th hole of the playoff, needing a birdie to force sudden death. Not a problem – he reached the green in two, and methodically two-putted for birdie. When his merely mortal combatant bogied the next hole, and Tiger made par, the tournament was his. That would allow him to glow in the moment for a bit … before having season-ending knee surgery and rehabbing his broken leg.

Are you kidding me?

Now, I understand that we live in a society where many people say that watching golf is only slightly more interesting than watching paint dry. But folks, we’re talking about genius here. Does it really matter if we’re talking about golf, football, music, painting or philosophy? If you’ve got it in your midst, then don’t you think it’s worth your time to check it out?

None of us will have a chance to watch Tiger until at least late November, if not later. That will mean we’ll have to satiate ourselves with near-geniuses like Barack Obama. But unlike in Presidential politics, in which our nation has to wait four full years to deal with a missed opportunity, we sports fans only to have to “wait till next year.” And next year, I’ll bet that Tiger comes back roaring louder than ever. He now is close enough to Jack Nicklaus’s record that he can feel it. Or, to be more specific, he’s finally in a position that when he tees it up in Augusta next April, he’ll know that by the end of the summer, he could actually be tied with the Golden Bear in major tournaments won. Lord knows, he can take off the next two years and still be ahead of Jack’s pace. And Jack won way more majors than anyone else. That’s how great Tiger’s stats are.

Inspiration comes from many sources to those of us who are open to it. People like my father and the would-be teacher are inspiring. They teach us what it means to have character – to be compassionate, intellectual, driven to heal the world, and above all else, to shine in one’s humility. At the risk of tweaking the words of Jesus, you could sum up my father’s philosophy in a single sentence, “it is easier to go through the eye of a needle than for a big macha to enter heaven.”

Well, Barack Obama may be that rare big macha who will actually qualify. He, too, is inspiring. Mostly, he inspires hope that our nation can come together and tackle our largest public policy nightmares – perpetual war with the Islamic world, rampant poverty domestically, a broken healthcare system, and a planet that is steadily warming up to one natural disaster after another. He also inspires me to think that our so-called “meritocracy” might actually have chosen a true superstar to lead the free world … and at the same time, answered all the critics who claimed that it would never be open to a man or woman whose skin wasn’t lily white.

All those folks are inspiring. But for pure inspiration, now’s the time to think about a certain athlete. The Greeks used to talk about the character trait called thymos, which can be translated as spirit. Plato said that soldiers need to dominated by their thymos, and apparently, Tiger Woods, the son of a soldier, has thymos in spades. Even when he’s hurt, he simply wills himself to a point where he can max out on his talent, especially in situations where the chips are down. The combination of precision under pressure and the fire of a warrior is not on display very often – except when Tiger is addressing a golf ball, in which case it has become routine. To witness that is indeed inspiring, even more so when one realizes all the thought that goes into his ability to play the game of golf at the highest level.

Still, when you put things in perspective, the story of the U.S. Open this Father’s Day may not have been Tiger’s genius, but Tiger’s mistake in judgment. It wasn’t hard to see, even before Tiger teed it up on Thursday, that he had no business playing that weekend. He should have continued to rehab and protect his long-term health. Sure, he ended up winning the tournament, but he easily could have lost – if his final shot of Father’s Day had rolled one inch to its right, he would have lost.

And what would the media have said had that putt moved one inch to its right? What would the media have said had Tiger announced later in this week after having finished “T-2” in the Open, that he was going to have season-ending knee surgery and would also be rehabbing stress fractures in his leg? I suspect they’d talk a fair amount about his lapse of judgment in playing at Torrey Pines, but they’d talk even more about what a great genius he is at the game of golf, an athlete the equal of which we haven’t seen more than four or five times in the 20th century, who is so talented that he could nearly beat every golfer on the planet with only one good leg.

Yes, athletes are allowed to make an occasional mistake of judgment if they are sufficiently skilled, accomplished, and beloved for their character. My wish, now that we have a week to reflect on Father’s Day, is that we cut the same kind of slack to our nation’s greatest statesmen (and women) that I would cut to my dad or that the nation’s sports fans would cut to Tiger. The next time the GOP attack machine is able to prove that Barack Obama has made a “mistake in judgment,” just remember – that’s no mortal sin. In fact, that just goes with being mortal. I think I’ve seen enough to say that Barack Obama may be “no Tiger Woods,” but he’s damned good at what he does. And with our help, he may yet do more for the world than Tiger could ever do with one structurally sound leg, or two.

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