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Monday, March 30, 2009

Superheroes ... and golf (?)

Watchmen, Spiderman, Obama. Batman Returns. So does Tiger Woods.
The relationship of sports to pop culture has been a subject of so much sappy rhetoric that it has become a tired overstated subject. Sports heroes are our equivalent of the heroes of ancient myths. Annointed by the gods, they seem to be living superheroes, possessing physical and mental powers that surpass mere mortals. We watch their games as reality shows, live dramas anticipating a stirring climax - victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. "Larger-than-life" fits these heroic figures far more than mere entertainment celebrities. Not mere stars, they are superstars.

Rarely, a sports hero surpasses the precinct of his or her specialty and enters the realm of social symbolism when we sense an even greater meaning. In America, when a person of color or a woman becomes a hero, it is remarkable. We have had several examples: Jim Thorpe, Jack Johnson, Jesse Owens, Babe Zaharious, Jackie Robinson, Ali, Bille Jean King, Michael Jordan.

Tiger Woods may be the greatest of them all.

Wait, a golfer? Are you serious? Golf is not a sport, it is an activity popular with old men like me who can’t bowl. Golf doesn’t demand the athleticism of boxing, football, basketball or even tennis.

Generally true, but let me state the case before you scoff.

(1) Woods is a physical specimen, acknowledged by Jordan, Gretsky, and other friends as one who could have played any other sport at a high level. He brought fitness, strength, awesome power to his sport.

(2) The spacing between Woods and his merely mortal competitors is enormous. Like Babe Ruth, who hit more home runs than any team, Woods sets marks that none can approach. He often wins by wide margins. The U.S. Open by 15, the Masters by 12, the British Open by 8. He wins over 29% of the time (in a sport where the next greatest in history, Jack Nicklaus, won 12%).

(3) His life story is the stuff of legend. Here is the way the L.A. Times once related it.
"Eldrick ‘Tiger’ Woods was born Dec. 30, 1975 in Cypress and showed an interest in golf when he was 6 months old in his crib, watching (his father) Earl hit golf balls into a net and imitating his swing. The precocious Tiger appeared on the ‘Mike Douglas Show’ at 2, hitting putts with Bob Hope. At 3, Woods shot 48 over nine holes. He played his first pro event at 16, the Nissan L. A. Open ... Woods was 20 when he turned pro in September 1996, after the most heralded amateur career since Nicklaus. He is a three-time winner of the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship, from 1991 to 1993. No one else has won more than once.
"At 18, he became the youngest winner of the U. S. Amateur when he triumphed in 1994. Woods won again in 1995 and in 1996 ... where his victory made him the only player to win three consecutive U.S. Amateur titles. Woods turned pro the next day, leaving an amateur legacy rivaling that of Bobby Jones. No one equaled Woods’ record of 18 consecutive match play victories or his winning percentage of .909. His 6 consecutive years of winning a USGA championship are second to Jones’ eight...."

(4) Woods is not just a person of color. He is a person of all colors. He jokingly labeled himself a "Cau-Bl-In-Asian," mother Cambodian, father and African American with native American ancestry.

Golf has been the last bastion of white supremacy in sports and the Masters, in Augusta, Georgia has been the castle keep. Woods’ victory in 1997 ended the whites only aura at the stately club, and Woods’ has since won three more times.

You see, The Masters was created by and symbolized by Bobby Jones, the ultimate symbol of Southern White gentleman amateur ideals. He retired in 1930 after winning what the newspapers later called "The Grand Slam" (his legend created by the great Southern sports writer, Grantland Rice) the four most prestigious tournaments of the time: the British Open, British Amateur, U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur.

Being a product of the 1920's, the Golden Age of 20th century sports, Jones was a hero to the masses rivaling Ruth, Grange, or the Georgian Cobb (an ungentlemanly Southerner). He was given a tickertape parade down Broadway like Lindbergh and Pershing when he returned from Britain. He then promptly retired from competitive golf in favor of a career in law, business and quiet celebrity. He never turned pro and solidified his status as role model for gentlemen. By 1934, he had built his course in Atlanta as an elite vacation place for wealthy sportsman of the northeast for the mild deep southern winters and spring. The course and tournament mystique was established for all time in the minds and hearts of the southern boys who dominated the sport.

In the 30's and 40's the heros of golf were mostly poor white boys who grew up around courses as caddies, and yearned for the status the sport provided. Texans particularly dominated: Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and others. In the 1950's, Arnold Palmer appeared to create a new legend and expand the symbolic nature of the sport. Palmer was son of a Pennsylvania greenskeeper, he was White, but he had the look and manner not of a Southern gentleman but of a Pittsburgh miner. He was a working class looking guy who looked and fought like Rocky Marciano. His emergence coincided with television coverage of the sport and his charging style inspired a popularity of the sport among the hoi polloi it had never known before.

Jack Nicklaus’ arrival as a pro after a storied amateur career to challenge and eventually surpass Palmer and all others over a 20 year stretch, dominated the imagination with a consistency of excellence that most believed would never be matched. He won 18 major championships, including the Masters 6 times in 3 decades.

Woods’ success has taken the sport to a new level of popularity. T.V. ratings for his appearances challenge pro basketball. His marketing clout equals the phenomenon of Michael Jordan. Spurred to new heights of effort by Woods’ example, all the other pro golfers have raised their own games. Conditioning and intensity is now a year round grind. The athleticism which was always lacking in the game is now demanded as is consistent concentration. Because of Woods, the money available to all is now staggering: millions in purses, endorsements, and perks are now standard. Golfers are no longer considered by other athletes and viewers as soft bellied, laid back country clubbers.

(5) Woods has an unparalleled flair for drama.
As an entertainment, sports events surpass scripted dramas for tension and surprise. The last second shot, the buzzer beater, the walk-off homer with two out in the bottom of the ninth, the hail Mary bomb with no time on the clock are moments that children dream of, that Hollywood tries to emulate, that provides shock and awe when seen live and real.

As I’ve written, Woods’ power to separate himself from others by huge numbers is one part of his legend. Another is his unbelievable ability to will himself to win at the last moment again and again. Putting is golf’s equivalent of the free throw. It is something that is not too hard to do until the pressure is on. When thousands are watching, when millions of dollars and the hopes of others are pending, it becomes easy to choke.

This week Woods won a golf tournament with a 15 foot putt on the 72nd hole as darkness descended. He had won the same tournament last year on the same hole with an even longer shot. In the U.S. Open, he sunk one to get into a playoff. He has been doing that same thing since he was a child.

Last year in the U.S. Open, we watched him for five days playing on a leg that had two tibial fractures and a shredded knee ligament. Time after time, he winced in agony as he swung his driver at 120 m.p.h. Limping off the tee, he staggered to the next shot, and the next, for 91 holes until he won and went into surgery to repair his leg.

For 8 months he rested. He is almost a billionaire. Now almost 34, he has 2 children, interests apart from playing the game, his place secure, nothing to prove.

What he proved this weekend is that he epitomizes values that sport in its purest ideal promises but rarely approaches. He is a professional, but defines it not by the money he earns, or the fame it provides. He competes with his peers and finds the thrill of living by winning. More than that, he challenges himself to excel, to continuously test himself, to surpass what he has done before.

Comparison with Barack Obama is not a stretch.

I am not afraid to be corny and overly exultant. We are living in remarkable era when we need heroes.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Girls are different

Bijou and Karen were determined to raise their sons by gender neutral non-sexist anti-misogynist socialization. Their clinical experiment soon proved discouraging. Bijou returned from mommy and me sessions nonplussed.
Given a teacup and saucer, the girls played like grownups. The boys played frisbee. Given toy trucks, the girls rolled them on an imaginary road; the boys smashed them together. She concluded: the girls use the tools for the intended purpose; the boys made weapons.
A generation later, Elizabeth Bea calls me to discuss her day. She talks about friends, her new clothes, her clothes.
I ask about her booboo from a fall.
"It’s better. It hurt but then it didn’t anymore and I looked at it in the mirror and it’s still red and my butt is big and ..."
"It’s still red ..."
"No, what did you say after that?"
Michele butts in: "She’s been saying that her butt is big. I don’t know where she got that from."
"I wonder that you wonder."
"She’s only four and a half! It starts so young."

Girls are different....

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Parole Or Pay

A few months ago, I received a phone call from the mother of one of my former clients. He had been convicted of aiding in a second degree murder and was serving a potential life sentence but now was eligible for a parole hearing. The mom wanted my help. She sent me a packet of documents of her son’s behavior while in prison which convinced me that he had done everything he could to earn his release.

The public still thinks that the justice system is a revolving door that is too lenient. The truth is that for thirty years, the California prison population has exploded because of harsh sentencing laws and the plitically motivated policies of governors pandering to the tough on crime climate of the times. On one end of the spectrum are the disproportionate sentences for non-violent crimes, like drug possession and street sales. The three strikes law is another example, resulting in life sentences or petty crimes committed by repeat offenders.

On the other end are the life sentences imposed for violent crimes for which the law prescribes a possibility of future parole. Governors regularly appoint members of the parole board who are disinclined toward parole. Guidelines for release have been stiffened, reducing the emphasis on rehabilitation and focusing on the evil of the crime itself.

In recent years, however, the pendulum has begun to swing the other way. Abused women serving life sentences for second degree (non-premeditated) murder were the first beneficiaries of the new attitude. In some instances, the parole board recognized the mitigating fact of the newly recognized "battered women syndrome" as mitigation. When the governor overturned his own board’s recommendation in favor of parole, the political winds blasted him. He dropped his objections. The law was changed, requiring consideration of the defense in parole consideration.
The second seismic event was the rumbling caused by DNA evidence that led the public to doubt the infallibility of the system. Recently, the appellate courts have begun to act. Appeals of denial of parole have criticized denials based solely on the facts of the crime. The standard should be whether the inmate currently poses a threat to society. Appellate oversight of the parole system which has been lacking for many years is an encouraging sign.

But now there is likely to be a backlash. The Oakland police officers were killed by a parolee. The Biography Channel has a new series called Parole Board which tells the horror stories about criminals seeking release. There is no doubt that the high rate of recidivism is a strong argument against parole. But the response is not necessarily continued warehousing. If the emphasis of imprisonment was on rehabilitation rather than mere punishment, lives could be redeemed, recidivism reduced, and crime rates managed.

The biggest problem is that reform of the prison / parole process would demand a commitment greater than the Wall Street bailout or Afghanistan nation building. I am less than sanguine about the chances.

In response to the plea from my client’s mother, I sent a lengthy letter to the parole board:
"... At the time of his arrest in this matter, Mr. P was eighteen (18) years of age, with no prior criminal history either as a juvenile or adult. My impression of him at the time I was appointed by the court was that he was an immature young man who became involved in the crimes charged through a misguided sense of loyalty to friends, but that he was not, as so many of my clients have been, irretrievably committed to a gang or habitual criminal life style.
"His culpability in the crimes was based on aiding his friend in the mistaken belief that to do so would be in his friend’s defense. He thus foolishly provided his friend with a knife and, with others, accompanied him to a confrontation with people who he was led to believe had wronged and injured his friend. The jury’s verdict confirmed the fact that P, himself, was not personally armed with a weapon during the encounter, and that his culpability was in fact as an aider-abettor, having provided a weapon which he should have known might be used to kill another.
"After Mr. P’s sentence to prison, I kept in touch with his mother, who continued to apprise me of her son’s progress toward rehabilitation. She has provided me with documentation of his strenuous and sincere efforts to change his life and to prepare himself for a future date when he might be freed from prison.
"I have been impressed that Mr. P has taken every opportunity while incarcerated to prepare himself for life as a responsible citizen. He has pursued an education, participated in vocational training programs to insure his employability, and perhaps most importantly, has taken every opportunity to achieve psychological understanding that will insure that he will be a mature and lawful member of society upon his release. The extent of the documentation of his actions convinces me that his efforts at rehabilitation constitute much more than a mere paying of "lip service" to the concept of rehabilitation, but in fact represents proof that he sincerely and diligently used his "time" productively in a serious effort to change his life.
"I believe that during his incarceration in every institution to which he has been placed, he has achieved a flawless disciplinary record, cooperating with staff in every respect, and avoiding associations with any troublesome groups or individuals. The comments of staff supervisors who closely monitored his behavior at each institution testifies to his continuing commitment to that goal.
"All of these considerations support a strong sense of confidence that Mr. P would not, if released on parole, pose a threat to society. It is clear that he is not the same impulsive, immature young man he was at the time of committing the offenses that resulted in his incarceration. He has shown a willingness and ability to conform to the rules of society, no matter how difficult his circumstances, and to keep his focus on leading a productive and useful life.
"I believe that he has matured, is remorseful about his involvement in the offenses and the harm that his actions caused. He has accepted his punishment for those actions without resentment, and made every effort to make up for his errors.
"If ever there was an appropriate subject for parole, I believe that Mr. P has shown that he has earned that trust."

A couple of days ago, his mother called. P was denied parole, apparently on the rationale that he hadn’t expressed enough remorse for his crime. He can re-apply in five years.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Hall of Famers

The Studio City driving range is a Valley landmark. On Whitsett just north of Ventura Blvd., it is a place where Hollywood types sometimes hang to smash golf balls off mats and share stories about crooked agents and unsold scripts.
Dennis Quaid, Sylvester Stallone, Jon Lovitz and Christian Slater have taken lessons from the pros there and some old timers whose faces pop up in commercials or old films can be seen on the putting green. Don Cornelius, the longtime host of "Soul Train", is a regular.
Those guys are usually left alone by the rest of the duffers who are there to pound golf balls. Celebrities are usually treated the way we treat grieving acquaintances, a quick gesture of recognition (just so they don’t feel forgotten) followed by averting eyes and giving plenty of space.
There is some solace in noticing that most of these famous and successful stars are lousy golfers, and I can usually outdrive them.
Then there are some visitors who inspire something more than curiosity. Pete Sampras recently took a series of lessons from one of the pros there, Ron Del Bario. Sampras was pretty serious about his golf after retiring from a tennis career that left him as one of the all time greats. He brought his own cameraman to record every lesson and said he was practicing hours every day. He sweated out his golf lessons, and you could see what made him a superior athlete. It was impressive.
But I was not still not in awe until a few years ago, when Ernie Banks frequented the range, visiting an old friend from Chicago. I had seen him play in Ebbetts Field when the Cubs visited the Dodgers in 1956. Along with Musial, Kiner, Spahn, Roberts, and the other stars of that era, Banks had been a superhero. He hit 512 career home runs when it meant something, and has ever since been called "Mister Cub".
At the range fifty years later, I was able to have several long talks with Mr. Banks.

Now in his 70's, he was an elderly African American man, friendly and approachable. Not until you looked closely at his forearms and wrists could you see the athlete he was and always will be. Now thick in the waist and waddling on arthritic pins, he swung his golf club gingerly, though the competitive fire was evident when he hit a good one.
I told him about seeing him when I was a kid, realizing that he has heard that story a million times. He was more interested in his work with ghetto kids in Chicago and getting his projects going.

Today at the range I ran into another sports legend of my youth. Jim Brown was the best football player of his era and possibly of all time. He is considered one of the best athletes of the second half of the 20th Century. When I was in high school, rooting for the NY Giants of Sam Huff and company, the Cleveland Browns were their rivals. Brown regularly gained over a hundred yards a game rushing and more than a thousand yards a season (when a season was 12 games, not 16 as now). Although he was the focus of every defense he played against, he averaged 5 yards a carry for nine years. At 6'2" 230, with speed and power, most experts think he would have been a great player in any era.

He quit playing at the top, at age 30, and became an actor, in "The Dirty Dozen" and other films, and was active in the Civil Rights Movement, marching with Dr. King, speaking out with other African American sports stars like Bill Russell, Ali, Kareem-Jabbar. He was known as confrontational, sometimes militant and troubled (as when he was accused of domestic violence acts - throwing a lady friend from a balcony, for instance).

At the range, Brown could barely walk. He was stooped, barely recognizable. I found out that he’s recently had hip replacement surgery, which didn’t surprise me. Brown had over 2300 carries in 9 years, and was targeted by guys like Dick Butkus and Huff for special treatment. Brown’s trademark move was to rise very slowly after a tackle and walk back to the huddle as if he could barely make it. Taking the next handoff, he shot through the line with the same speed and power as always.
I asked him about it today. He explained gruffly but patiently - having told it many times - that he did that so the other team would never know whether he was really hurt by a tackle. I joked that his injuries may have come from lacrosse. Brown chuckled at that. He was an all-American in lacrosse and football at Syracuse, remembered there as the best college lacrosse player ever. He also lettered in basketball.

He said, "No, my troubles come from being 73."

He swung his golf club stiff-legged, but still managed to move the ball out there using only his upper body. He hit two buckets of balls, placing each one on the tee with a device that didn’t require bending down. When he hit a good shot, he smiled. When I hit a good one, he sometimes said, "That sounded good".
He shared his opinion of modern players. "The difference is preparation. You can’t do it in a nightclub." About Tiger Woods? "He may have lost it when he got hurt. This young kid, McElroy is 19 and he looks good." Someone mentioned Anthony Kim, a young pro who used to attract crowds at the Studio City range when he was the best ball striker there at 8 years old.
I suggested that maybe Tiger got interested in other things during his 8 month layoff - he has a second child, all the money in the world, and his father wanted him to change the world. Brown laughed at that. "Earl got pushed aside by the corporate suits and it became about making money, that’s all." I asked about his foundation. Brown didn’t conceal his bitterness. "His foundation? He expects to change life in the ghetto by teaching golf?"

I knew that Brown had spent many years speaking out about gangs and black poverty and had his own foundation. It crossed my mind that disappointment and ego were involved in his opinions.
When I left, he was still hitting balls. I wished him well. He said, "See ya."

On the way out, Samuel L. Jackson strolled in, carrying his golf bag, a serious look on his face, maybe seeking "the path of the righteous man" who can hit a golf ball out to the fence.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Top 100 worries: revised

We used to play a game of listing our top 100 worries. In the beginning, this was reassuring, because by the time we got to number 30 or so, asteroid collisions, locust invasions, and other concerns filled out our lists.
In 1980, we had a child, pushing asteroids down to the high 90's. That was almost 29 years ago. The child is now an independent man. This has reduced the number of my worries, but has not eliminated them. I’ve found it to be true that a parent eventually loses all control over the outcome of a child’s life, but never loses the sense of high anxiety about it.
My anxiety level has fluctuated wildly since he moved to Portland to attend Reed College and majored in Art history. This, I feared, might not lead to the secure (read prosperous) life I wished for him. When, after graduation, he stayed in Portland, formed an Indie Pop band with high school chums, worked as a waiter in a dessert shop, and spent seemingly huge chunks of energy on his laptop computer making and disseminating music, creating art, blogging, and other activities that didn’t fit my definition of "productive" (that is, producing income), my worry list occasionally expanded beyond 100.

As he explains, his interest in creating and disseminating his music led him to create websites which required that he learn and master computing languages, particularly "Rails" on which he has lectured at several conferences. This interest led him to try his hand at physical computing, writing programs that make bells ring and mixes drinks (at last, something useful).
Now, something has happened that has alleviated many of my worries. Greg was recently accepted into the NYU ITP a two year post graduate program focusing on interactive telecommunications.
Turns out there is an entire area of study on the cutting edge that synthesizes many of Greg’s interests. His apparently meandering journey seems to have found a guidepost.

I see now that whether this will lead to "security" as defined by my paper chase generation is very much beside the point. Peace of mind is far more likely through allowing one’s interests to lead wherever they lead. The artificial clocks that ticked so urgently to my generation have been abandoned. While my own winds down, with midnight approaching, I can at least check off items from my list.

Now I have to find new worries to fill out the top 100. Wait, Greg will be in New York for two years ... uh, where’s my list?

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Tales from The Great Depression

My father graduated from high school in 1930, possibly the worst year of the century to enter the work force. In fact, he had planned to go to college, but as the oldest of six children he was expected to find work. He found it in the garment industry as his father had.
My mother’s family was poorer. She left high school to work in a slipper factory, earning $8 a week, of which she gave $6 to her mother.
Her mother and aunt had run a succession of basement Rumanian restaurants. This is not to be confused with a string of restaurants - these were tiny establishments which were abandoned when business failed to make the rents. The first month was usually provided free of rent when Papa Hymie agreed to paint the places himself.

They were married in August, 1934. My father was 22, my mother 18. They must have liked each other in those early days. My brother was born in June, 1935.

My mother claimed that those were happy days. "We didn’t have any money, but it was okay because neither did anyone else."

Jobs were hard to find among their group of friends who were always hunting for work. One was Benny Solinsky (phoenetic spelling). According to my mother, Benny would have been a terrific stand up comic, but for one problem, a tantalizing stutter.

One day Bennie returned from one of his many job searches, slouching with disgust. My mother asked Benny what was wrong.
Benny said, "I-I w-went for a j-job."
"What job?" my mother asked.
"An a–a-announcer at a-a r-radio station."
"Dont tell me. They didn’t hire you."
"N-no, b-b-b-because I’m J-J-J-Jewish."
My mother explained the WPA with this story .

She told me that when my brother was an infant, she used to wheel his baby carriage the couple of blocks from our apartment (on 35th Street near Surf Avenue) to the boardwalk in Coney Island. She’d sit on one of the benches, knitting, rocking the carriage and watching the WPA workers on the beach.

A dump truck parked on the beach next to the work gang, a crew of many men with shovels who filled the truck with sand. The truck then took the tons of sand to the next beach (about a block away) while the workmen followed on foot. The sand was dumped and the men smoothed it out.

After a week, the men marched to the beach where the sand had been dumped, filled the truck with the same sand and returned it to the first beach.

My mother accompanied her telling of the story with giggles, appreciating the irony of the make work government program. She was not one to oppose government waste. She understood and accepted the goal of the New Deal to put people to work, even if the work was silly work.

In fact, the particular project she witnessed was useful. The redistribution of the sand on the beach accompanied the renovation and expansion of the rock breakwaters that divided the beaches. The project was needed to prevent erosion and preserve the beaches for recreation. It was the sandbox of my childhood.