Thursday, January 29, 2015

Non-Chemical Dependence

For a time yesterday, I did not know whether I was going to be able to write a post this morning. After dinner last night, I had a half-hour to myself before I needed to leave the house, and was cruising the Internet, when I lost the connection. It has happened before at times, but usually the interruption lasts for a minute or so, so initially I was not concerned. But it didn't come back up for a few minutes, so I called Time-Warner, which normally is one of the world's worst outfits for customer service. There was no interruption in the area, and in a short time, I actually got a live human being that actually tried to be helpful (even if her Chinese accent was so thick it was difficult to understand her). But in the course of a half-hour, and various fiddling with the router box, it didn't come back up, and I left the house at six convinced that I was going to have to go to the local T-W store and replace the modem this morning.
Except when I returned home at nine, the connectivity was back up like nothing had ever happened, and it came up without incident this morning, too. The science of wireless is beyond me, but I've sure come to take it for granted. The Internet, I long ago realized, occupies the place in my own life that television occupies in the lives of most people; I can be found in front of the computer screen at home for at least two and sometimes (on weekends) as many as seven hours a day--and that's separate from the four to six hours on average a day I am on the computer, either online or not, at my job. I don't usually view myself as a techno-nerd, but the reality is that I am chained to this 12-inch screen just as surely as the people that I hold in contempt that are chained to their wide-screen idiot boxes. It is true that the online experience is much more interactive than the passivity of watching television--but the state of dependence is the same. I feel absolutely lost when, for some reason, I am not able to get Internet access.
As it turned out, Aldo was at the meeting last night; his vocation is IT tech for a government agency. I mentioned what was happening at home to him, and he mentioned that Roadrunner (Time-Warner's Internet service) has been squirrelly for several weeks now, and he made one of those joking-but-not comments about North Korea/United States cyber conflict that made me pause. The recent Sony hack and retaliatory disruption of Korean cyber capacity was only a few weeks ago, and these are the sort of things that almost never just naturally die down. I have also long felt and known that a truly effective terrorist organization would not target buildings or airplanes; in this day and age, knocking out Internet and other cyber technology would be absolutely crippling. There have been novels and movies about the damage that could potentially be done by EMPs, and the danger is absolutely real, I have been assured by virtually everyone I know that works with computers.
And on a more basic level, our society is totally electrified, too; as dependent as we are on the Net, the Net needs electricity to run. I've mentioned before how alien and frightening it is to be without power, and mine has never been interrupted for more than a few hours. I've also, in the nearly eight years I've been living here, never been without Internet capacity for more than a few hours, either. And it is really disconcerting and strange when either goes down. I imagine that I could adjust if necessary, but I'd rather not be this dependent for daily existence as I know it on anything this much out of my control and knowledge. And especially given the details of my own personal journey, I really am not comfortable with the knowledge that I am as addicted to the ability to be online as I ever was to any mood-changing, mind-altering substance back in the day. I wouldn't necessarily characterize that dependence as "unmanageable." But there is a nagging sense in the back of my mind that it isn't a good thing to be so dependent on anything.
If there is solace to it, it is realizing that just about everyone else shares this particular addiction. And kicking this particular habit is not only not practical, but difficult to see any benefit to. I'm actually more concerned that there doesn't seem to be any great commitment on the part of those that govern us to making sure that our grid and the Net stay available and functioning. Maybe it's there and it's not publicized, and I was actually encouraged when our government reacted swiftly and decisively against North Korea in the recent hacking imbroglio. But I also got the sense that the Koreans were both rather inept in their hack and certainly an easy target to retaliate against. I'm not sure we have the capacity or the will to maintain our cyber integrity against the varsity squad of bad guys, Whoever they might actually be.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Book Review: JOHN QUINCY ADAMS

Most people vaguely know the name John Quincy Adams as a former President, or perhaps as the guy that argued in front of the Supreme Court in the movie Amistad. Adams is not generally regarded as one of the major figures in American history, but few if any people in history contributed as much to this nation as he did, (one thing I had no idea he had done was ensure, over bitter opposition at the time, and more or less by himself, that the huge monetary bequest that the national government received from a European merchant was used for its intended purpose, and that's why we have the Smithsonian Institution) and his relative historical anonymity is manifestly unjust.
He was not anonymous in his lifetime; he was deeply respected by many, and absolutely reviled by others. Adams was the first, the most significant, and the most influential national political figure to call slavery what it was--a tumor on the national soul, a moral evil incompatible with the values that America was founded upon, and a disgrace that needed to be at the least contained and eventually eliminated. And he was--and is--one of the most eloquent writers and orators America has ever produced, and his devastating effectiveness exposing the rank hypocrisy and arrogance of the pro-slavery forces in the House of Representatives led to the Southern-controlled body trying, ineffectually, to prevent the discussion of slavery in the House. Adams kept finding novel and effective measures to avoid the gag rule for over a decade, until the order was finally done away with shortly before his death.
Adams served nearly twenty years in the House after he was President, a mark of the esteem he was held in by his home district near Boston. He was not a political animal, surprisingly; he was that rarity in politics then and now, someone driven by moral concerns intellectually and a sense of service and duty. Adams teetered on the edge of financial solvency for the length of his sixty-year career of government service; he certainly was not in politics to enrich himself, and no touch of scandal ever attached to any of his affairs. The one charge that readers may remember from distant history classes was one supporters of Andrew Jackson made while Adams was President--that he had made a "corrupt bargain" with Henry Clay in the horsetrading in the deadlocked election of 1824 that put Adams in the White House and Clay in the office of Secretary of State. Available evidence suggests that there was no real quid pro quid involved; for the first two years of Adams' Presidency, even Jackson didn't raise the issue. It was only as the next election approached that the charge was made, incessantly, and it had the desired effect; Jackson won in 1828.
Adams was posted as ambassador to Russia, the Netherlands, and Great Britain in the first twenty years of his career, served a term in the Senate during the Jefferson administration, as Secretary of State himself under James Monroe, and was elected President in 1824 in the only election in our history to be decided, post Twelfth Amendment, in the House of Representatives (Jackson was the first candidate to win the most popular votes without winning the office, although he did not win a majority in the 1824 election). He established his reputation early and decisively as putting justice, morality, and merit above partisan politics--a tendency that got himself kicked out of his first political party, the Federalists. And as mentioned, Adams was the most prominent anti-slavery political figure of the era between the Compromises of 1820 and 1850, and stated countless times in that era that it was going to take a war to end slavery. Adams was a huge influence on the two men that eventually undertook that war. Lincoln's political views in Congress were almost identical to Adams', and his moral lights similar as President;  William Seward was an admitted disciple of Adams.
And one thing that was absolutely striking when reading this book needs to be said. Adams' career encompassed the first seventy years of the nation's history; although he was too young to fight in the Revolution, he obviously had a front-row seat, given who his father was, and by the time the Constitution was adopted, he already was serving in diplomatic posts abroad. And Adams, much like his father, was aghast and fought against the hypocrisy of Southern politicians and the ridiculous pretensions of Southern "culture" for the remainder of his life. Lying, paper-thin skin, spouting bullshit as truth, and stacking the deck in their favor were essential to politics as practiced in that era, and indeed are remarkably and disgustingly familiar to those living through this era. Read through any significant Southern politician's speeches or body of work of the era, with the occasional partial exception (depending on the subject) of James Madison, James Monroe, and Henry Clay, and you will find a hypocrite of the first degree, someone who willingly spouted bullshit as truth, that tried to shut down dissenting opinions by any means possible, that used any means at their disposal to hold other human beings in subjugation and bondage, all the while loudly declaiming their own moral superiority to any and all that opposed them. It is sickeningly similar to the rhetoric, views, and practices of today's Southern-dominated Republican party, and the end result is the same--wealth concentrated in a small upper tier, disregard for the well-being of the vast majority of the population, and the entire edifice constructed upon a web of bullshit and religious dogma that directly contradicts actual Christian belief.
And most revealingly, Adams accumulated many enemies over the course of his life, but also in many cases earned their respect and reciprocated it; to take one example, he clashed with John Calhoun for nearly forty years on virtually every subject imaginable, but Calhoun was a pallbearer at his funeral. There were only two men that earned his lifelong enmity and that he castigated to the end of his life as not only personal hypocrites, but as political leaders that did the country real harm. Those two, not coincidentally, are revered by many of the spiritual heirs of the slaveholder hypocrites of Adams' times: Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Jefferson was a treacherous, devious little shit of a man who was proven wrong about nearly every deeply held view he had--he supported revolutionary France, viewed America's future as an agrarian country, would not countenance taxes for infrastructure or even rudimentary defense, and was a hypocrite even by modern Republican standards. The nation is very lucky that Jefferson's Presidency coincided with Napoleon's peak of power across the pond, or our eventual destiny as the most powerful nation on earth almost certainly would not have happened.
And Jackson? Jackson was an ignorant, small-minded, frankly venomous turd of a human being whose prejudices and and unsupported opinions served as the basis of policy. Jackson, truth be known, was an absolute disaster as President in his economic policy, did more than anyone else in our history to make the federal government a haven for corruption and partisan politics, and was unabashedly contemptuous of the value of education and knowledge in public life. He was the archetype, minus the amiable manner, of the other great fraud of American politics, Ronald Reagan--and like Reagan, his appeal to those that don't want to think or acknowledge reality remains huge and unshaken. The nation paid a huge price for Jackson' ignorance and intractability, and the nation really didn't get out from under his mistakes until Wilson became President, seventy-five years after Jackson left office. And Reagan has only been gone for a third of that time, and it will take probably that long before the damage is undone. Except, unfortunately, we probably, with climate change and a smaller world, don't have that long to get our shit together.
Anyway, that's straying a bit from the biography of Adams I am reviewing. This narrative drags in places, but Fred Kaplan's book is well worth reading.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Snow Apocalypse--Oops!

Well, apparently civilization as we know it did not come to an end yesterday on the East Coast. The 1 to 3 feet of snow predicted for places like Philadelphia, New York, and Boston has, as of 5 AM this morning, not materialized for most of that area. Eastern Long Island is still going to get nearly two feet, and some of New England, but New York City, southern New York, and points further south  are only likely to get about a foot--not insignificant, but not paralyzing, either.
And of course, the drumbeats of a witch hunt are already being sounded regarding the dire forecasts, the states of emergency declared, the preemptive canceling of events and schools, etc. And it is all so misguided. The National Weather Service was very clear in its forecasts that the actual amount of snow was going to depend on some factors it simply was not able to be totally sure of--mostly, where the two storm systems that were going to merge to create a blizzard were actually going to come together. And it isn't as if two feet were predicted and an inch fell; there's been a rather large snowfall throughout the warning area. You can't really blame the weather services for this one.
As usual, it's the media hype that needs to be examined and taken to task. I've been seeing this phenomenon for years now, and I honestly do not know which is the largest factor in what is undeniably a Chicken Little syndrome that inevitably comes into play. But there are several of them:
1) The tendency of media outlets to make anything as sensational as possible, to get you to tune in.
2) The dumbing-down of the audience over the last few decades; not to be cruel, but the general public is less intelligent than it was three decades ago.
3) Related to two, the audience has become inured to the television age; there has to be a hook, a story line that may or may not be related to reality, to get people to pay attention to begin with, and it has to be a simple and quick to get the message to stick--and DANGER! is one tried-and-true method.
4) I am sure corporate America has their hand in here somewhere; the proper, red-white-and-blue response to dire warnings of civilization coming to a standstill is to allow yourself to be gouged at your local retail outlet so that you can live in your basement for a week without having to go outside and shit in the snow, or having to slaughter your pets in order to survive.
5) Our right wing nutjobs will tell you that the tree hugger, global-warming crowd intentionally exaggerates weather events that are part and parcel of "normal" climate patterns in order to advance their agenda. And--I can't believe I am writing this--to a certain degree, I think they have a point. Not that I am a climate change doubter, but I have noticed a tendency to link weather events to climate change even if the connection is tenuous at best.
6) Our general cultural amnesia. The population of this country has increased by 50% in the last 40 years, and all youngish people tend to think that everything that happens to them is happening for the first time. From about 1988 to about 2008, there were many more mild winters than not, and for those people that grew up in that era, a mild winter is the touchstone, the reference point of memory. For those of us whose cognitive memory dates back to, say, 1968-88, like mine, the snow storms of the last 5-7 years aren't a big deal because that's what it did most winters when we were kids. But to an entire generation that didn't live with twelve-inch snowfalls two or three times every winter, having to deal with it for three years in a row is a Big Deal. Since that's the age group that mass media caters to--snow becomes SNOW! virtually every time.
7) Media is a factor in one other sense. When something huge does happen--like the 3-6 feet that fell around Buffalo in November--the entire world not only hears about it, but sees it, and not only on the six-thirty news, but all over the Internet, all day every day. When I was in middle and high school, when there were reports of two feet of snow in, say, Denver, we would read about it much more than we would see it. That's not the case anymore. And people being what they are, they tend to associate the worst-case visual images embedded in the recesses of their mind with their own potential situations, and act accordingly.
Well, anyway, the Eastern seaboard does have its hands full today--but thankfully, it should not be anything overly dire or dangerous. And ultimately, it's better to be overly prepared than not prepared enough. So the carping about sensationalism and overhyping can stop before it starts.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Men Are Pigs, Chapter 64

One of the less deleterious effects of the Internet-dominated society has been the rise of an entire generation of males whose ideas about relationships, indeed women in general, have been shaped and warped by the widespread availability of pornography. I first began to notice this about a decade ago, dealing with the some of the teens I encountered in the course of my job. Since then, the problem has certainly not abated; the teens of that time are now in their mid-to-late twenties, and the upcoming generations are exhibiting similarly disturbing mores and values. What has changed is that I am finding that the attitudes of those teen boys that I was becoming concerned with at that time are actually pretty common across all segments of male society. There are plenty of men in my own age group that exhibit rather predatory behavior and view women primarily as objects for their own sexual edification.
This has been driven home to me rather forcefully in the last couple of weeks. Just before Christmas, an attractive young woman I've known casually (not carnally) for a few years told me that since she ended the relationship she was in after Thanksgiving, in circumstances involving allegations of domestic violence, she been relentlessly pursued by men from eighteen to fifty, often crudely, to the point where she did not want to attend meetings of either fellowship she attends any longer and was even somewhat apprehensive about returning to her institution of higher learning this month. My own daughter had a stalker in the fall--a kid three years older than her at the high school that apparently believes that because he is interested in her, she is obligated to return the interest because she is not currently dating anyone (an intervention with relatives of the youth was required before the harassment ceased, at least for the time being). My ex told me, the day after our relationship came to a close, that at least a half-dozen men inquired of her availability and/or willingness to have casual sex within 24 hours. Another woman that has recently gotten out of a relationship told me that she cannot go a day without getting propositioned by a guy or receiving texts, often graphically sexually explicit, wanting to gauge her interest in getting with them. And a fourth woman that I know, whose significant other just died unexpectedly after a four-year relationship, told me that she, too, has been inundated with expressions of interest from men that want to get with her--some of them very good friends of the recently and suddenly deceased.
And the behaviors are, unfortunately, not only limited to predatory attempted conquests and explicit, crude expressions of sexual interest. I happened to be with one of these women yesterday for part of the day; we have been friendly for a couple of years, without being involved with each other, and she respects my clean time and my parenting and trusts me not to be predatory. She had an errand to do, and my daughter wanted to go to the Mall, and we ended up taking her with us because she doesn't drive, and we offered her the chance to spend some time with us in the afternoon at our house, an offer she accepted. And while she was here, the guy that she had been with for nearly two years that recently broke up with her and immediately got with another woman, began texting her and calling her wanting to return some of her belongings to her domicile. The guy's texts became increasingly abusive and nasty when she didn't respond immediately, and his calls more frequent; when she finally answered one, to tell him she wasn't home, he switched tacks and immediately began badgering her about where she was and who she was with.
For two hours. Without let-up. And I repeat, he had broken up with her a few weeks ago, and is already involved with another woman.
This is about nothing other than power and control. And power and control is the linchpin, the calling card, of an abusive relationship. This woman has always been emotionally fragile, and is even more of a wreck now; that she has not relapsed or had a complete emotional breakdown in the last few weeks is nothing short of miraculous. And I am aware that it takes two to make a situation unhealthy, and that we are all responsible for our own choices; after witnessing this for a few minutes, I urged her to make it clear to him that if he continued to blow up her phone, she would file a complaint with the police for harassment. Of course, she did no such thing, and felt eventually compelled to trade texts and barbs and insults with him, something I found almost as repellent, in its own sad way.
But only almost, and only to a degree. I am not perfect when it comes to relationships; I have gotten in a few I should not have, and my motives aren't always free of selfishness. But I can say without blanching and with total honesty that I do not engage in behavior like that, ever. I can also say that I would never hit on a woman whose man just died three weeks ago while she was administering CPR to him. I would never crudely express interest in a woman that is still sporting visible evidence of an assault from the way her last relationship ended.  I see and hear that a large number of men have no such scruples or sense of common decency, and think to myself, "How shallow and self-absorbed do you have to be to go there? How much of an asshole do you have to be to do this to people that are going through serious emotional and physical pain, merely so you can  attempt to bust a nut? How sick do you have to be to try to control someone you broke up with?"
And there are many women out there whose lives have been one long succession of relationships like this. Obviously, the roots of why they end up in these tangled and unhealthy situations run deep, much deeper than I know (or want to know, in all likelihood). And women do bear the responsibility of changing their own patterns and their own internal workings so that they are not condemned to repeat these patterns over and over again. But that sure as hell does not excuse the behavior of some men that I've been witnessing. I like female companionship as much as any other man, and all things considered, I would prefer to be in a relationship than not. But not if I have to stoop to the level of preying on someone in the throes of emotional devastation, or if I have to be so controlling, and be so insecure in my own ability to retain affection, that the object of that reciprocal affection has to be under closer supervision than my own children ever were and are.
This is not an issue limited to certain segments of society. Near as I can tell, it is found in more or less equal proportion across socio-economic status, race and ethnicity, drinkers and non-drinkers, drug users and non-drug users, atheists and religious, and any other division one cares to make. It is part and parcel of a  culture of total narcissism sitting atop a layer of cultural immersion in the objectification of women as possessions, not as partners or even as people. And it disgusts me to no end. And it isn't even a product of dissolute cultural influence, either; this is one area where the supposed "morally upright" are as bad as the spiritually bankrupt, as they use supposed canonical Scripture to justify misogyny, whether it be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Jewish "divine revelation."  I can't do a whole lot about the world at large, but I don't have to engage in the behavior myself, and I can ensure that no daughter of mine is so emotionally insecure that this sort of arrangement will be acceptable to her. As far as I know, I've done the first for a long, long time and the second appears to have been instilled.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Notes From The Sports Desk, Late January 2015

And we're off:
1) The scandal of the day in the NATIONAL...FOOTBALL...LEAGUE is the supposed "Deflategate" (as an aside, can we please stop using "-gate" as a suffix for every occurrence of suspected malfeasance? I've been dealing with this for forty years now, and it's old, real old. And hardly, in this case, worthy of the assignation). Apparently, footballs that were used in a game played in a near-monsoon and that the temperature dropped about seven degrees between the time the balls were checked and the end of the game lost some air pressure. And because of this, there is a substantial portion of the football fan base that wants heads to roll, that want the results of a 45-7 game thrown out, and want Tom Brady and/or Bill Belicheck suspended/tossed out of the league/arrested/executed (depending on who you're talking to).
Grow up.
Even in a worst-case scenario, what are you realistically going to do besides fine the team? Even if it was deliberate, do we know who actually did the deflating? No. Do we know if someone ordered it done? No. Did it make a bit of difference in the outcome of the game? Hell no. And in other sports, suspected or actual violations of this nature don't lead to calls for teams to lose victories. Did any baseball team whose players used cork bats forfeit games, or whose pitchers threw spitballs? No. If one rim is looser than the other in a basketball game, does one team have to forfeit? No. If a warm puck is slipped onto the ice during an opposing team's power play and the chicanery is found out, does the game end? No.
I get that people don't like the Patriots, or Brady, or Belicheck, and they have been caught bending and breaking some rules before. But there is a natural tendency, in sports and in life, to dislike those that work harder at succeeding than we do. And to my mind, this is as clear a case of this tendency as there is. The Patriots have beaten the Colts four times in four years--and have never scored less than 42 points or won by less than three touchdowns. The frigging ball being underinflated didn't cause a 38-point loss. And if you're worried about karma and all that...well, I have two words for you.
David Tyree. If there is something to the Patriots' actually cheating, then karma will take care of it. And if karma doesn't, the world will not end. The Raiders of the Madden/Flores era were straight-up thugs, and have three Super Bowl trophies. The Steel Curtain has an inordinate number of the players on those teams dead now--because most of the team was seriously abusing steroids, painkillers, and amphetamines. Do we want to take away those teams' trophies?
I don't like Bill Belicheck as a person; I think he is needlessly condescending toward the media, and needlessly Machiavellian with his own players. But his anger yesterday, I felt, was thoroughly justified. I, too, would seriously resent having to devote a significant portion of my time and effort during the run-up to the Super Bowl to nonsense like this. And even though he didn't say it, his meaning was clear: people need to shut up about bullshit. If you don't like the Patriots, and are tired of seeing them in the Super Bowl, then build a better team and play a better game when you play them. End of story.
2) Staying with the NFL, I see my Bills have a new coach. I actually have secretly liked Rex Ryan for the entire time he was the coach of the Jets. I have no doubt that he is an improvement over the series of lame-ass coaches the Bills have employed since Marv Levy retired (the list of Bills coaches over the last twenty years is even more depressing than the list of quarterbacks the team has used). But I'm not sure that Ryan was the best coach for this team at this point in time. Ryan had all sorts of problems identifying competent quarterbacks in New York--which is the main problem in Buffalo right now. The Ryan defense in New York was effective--but the Bills already have an excellent defense, and more importantly the personnel they have is not a great fit with Ryan's preferred schemes. It can work--but it's also easy to see a way that it might not.
And I am worried about two things in particular. One is less of a factor than it used to be. Very, very few coaches in NFL history have been as or more successful at the their second or third jobs than they were in their first stop. A small minority are good wherever they go--coaches like Don Shula, Bill Parcells (although he only won Super Bowls with the Giants, his first job), Marty Schottenheimer, Mike Holmgren, etc, But more are like Mike Ditka or Wade Phillips or Dom Capers--markedly less successful in their encore performance. Only a few were better at their second stop than at their first. Only three come to mind, actually: Levy, Mike Shanahan, and Tom Coughlin (although Coughlin was quite successful at Jacksonville, he's won two Super Bowls with the Giants).
One of the most memorable second-stop flameouts was Ryan's father Buddy, who was an abject disaster when he coached the Cardinals in the mid-90's. And there is a lot of Buddy in Rex--the boasting, the defense-first philosophy, the conservatism on offense. Rex is not as obnoxious as his father was, but it is easy to see possible obstacles to success, and if Ryan starts making wholesale changes on a defense that was quite good before he got there, I will be seriously concerned. And there's really no way to tell if that is going to happen until the draft and free agent period.
But there is actual hope in Buffalo these days. There still is a gigantic hole under center, but realistically, this team is not good enough to contend for a Super Bowl anyway, at least not yet. But ending the playoff drought is Goal One here, and Ryan is at least capable of getting them to that level in the next year. The departed coach, Doug Marrone, was, not to split hairs, an idiot; the team won nine games in spite of him, not because of him. Ryan's clock management isn't great, either, but in the other aspects of coaching that Marrone had problems with--the locker room, fourth-down management, reining in undisciplined players on the field, delegating authority to assistants--Ryan's record is pretty good.
And the chances for the playoffs actually look pretty good. It's hard to see any of the other teams that contended for the wild-card getting demonstrably better in the next year. The Bills are unlikely to go 4-0 against the NFC in 2015 (they beat both the Packers and the Lions this year, amazingly) but conversely, they should do better than 1-5 against the non-divisional AFC slate next year.
3) Moving to the NHL, the Rangers enter the All-Star break on fire, winning 16 of their last 19 games and, along with the nearly-as-hot Capitals, ending any possible playoff drama in the Metropolitan division. There is a definite wind of serious change in the air in the eastern half of the NHL. The Rangers did make the Cup finals last year, and were in the semi-finals three seasons ago, and so their success this year isn't a fluke. They certainly appear capable of being a contender for the division title and a deep run in the playoffs again; their weak spots are only relative to other teams' strengths, not actual holes in the lineup. And the best indicator of success in any team sport, goal (or point or run, in other sports) differential, sees the Rangers as one of the best in the league.
What I am finding more fascinating about the way the season is playing out is that the mighty just may well be falling. The Penguins, dominant in the regular season for nearly a decade now, are clearly in eclipse. They are a couple of points ahead of the Rangers in second place right now, but the Rangers have two games in hand, and the Rangers have already won the season series between them rather handily. And something is very evidently wrong in Pittsburgh; Crosby and Malkin are still, well, Crosby and Malkin, but the supporting talent is either old or not very good, especially on the blue line. After a hot start, the team has been mediocre for two months, and a slide to fourth place is all but inevitable--unthinkable just a month ago.
And I am loving it. I don't quite hate the Penguins as much as I do the Flyers, but it's close (try as I might, the Islanders have been down for so long that, even with their resurgence this year--they are on top of the division and quite possibly will stay there; all those years of top draft picks have suddenly come together, and they sure look like they have staying power--I can't summon up the hate I felt as a young man for the Potvin/Smith/Tonelli teams). Sidney Crosby is a whiny little puke, a poor excuse for the face of the sport as the best player in the game, and the rest of the team is also sneaky-dirty with a undeserved sense of entitlement. And even more than the slide of the team, I am really enjoying the discomfiture of certain members of the media. Scott Burnside, the main hockey writer/personality of ESPN's website, is a paid employee of the Penguins (well, probably not, but it's sure hard to tell), and it's been very amusing to see his world crumble in print over the last year or so; when the Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead to the Rangers last spring, it crushed the air of him for months, and he has been seriously quiet and dull since about Thanksgiving in his columns and reports. The NBC broadcast team has adjusted to the Penguins' descent quite well (Mike Milbury, a disaster as a coach and not the most congenial personality on the air, does have some strong points and entertainment value in the booth--and one is his transparent and total contempt for Crosby's conduct; he has been positively gleeful the last few times the Penguins have been on national broadcasts, reveling in their misfortune). With the Flyers being terrible, too, this year--well, it's shaping up to be a pleasant spring for hockey fans.  It is unlikely that the Penguins will fall all the way out of the playoffs--the other division has a clear division between the top four and the bottom four teams, too, although not quite as clear as the Metro's; Florida and Toronto haven't lost touch with the playoff spots, but they are, after all, Florida and Toronto, and counting on them to catch up isn't really feasible. But the Penguins are much more likely to end up playing Tampa or Montreal in the first round and exiting in four or five games than any other team in the conference.
4) Lastly this morning--the Daytona 500 is still a few week away, but NASCAR is in the news this week with the announcement that this season will be the last full-time season for Jeff Gordon. I love Gordon, and I really wish it wasn't so, but he's been doing this for a long time, his place in the annals of history is secure, and last year's Chase fiasco, in which he was pretty much screwed out of a shot at the Sprint Cup, is undoubtedly the best chance he is going to get at an elusive fifth championship. I've written in this space about Gordon a few times, and like the the cross-sport superstar doppelganger he is most similar to, Wayne Gretzky, he is going to go out while still one of the best in his sport.
Just not as good as he once was, and for him, with physical maladies creeping up and a family to raise, the competitive fire isn't quite as hot as it was. And for him, that's enough to hang it up. I think the one thing that he wanted to settle in his mind was answered last year--after playing second fiddle in his own garage to Jimmie Johnson for a decade, he dusted Johnson last year, proving to himself that he was still capable of being the best if he was willing to put the effort in on a week-in, week-out basis. At 43, he doesn't want to do that regularly, but it was his own assurance that he still has it, that if he really wanted it, he could still do this at a level no one else can reach. And regardless of who actually has been winning trophies in the last few years, Gordon is still the best, when looking at the length of his career and sheer consistency of excellence, on the track now, and with the exception of Johnson, no one else currently active is even in his area code, much less zip code. He had 92 career wins, and only two other drivers (Johnson and Tony Stewart) have even half that total. Only Johnson and Stewart have won more than one championship, among active drivers, too. His place is secure, and if anyone deserves a farewell tour, Gordon does.
It would too much to ask for a championship sendoff. But it's not out of the realm of possibility, either, which will make the NASCAR season very interesting to follow this year.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Same Black Line

I attended, as is my usual practice, the candlelight meeting last night, and pretty much everything that can displayed in a meeting was displayed last night--tears, pathos, attention-seeking behavior, arrogance, self-righteousness, honest sharing, messages of hope, practical recovery experience. It was a round-robin meeting, a format that I think lends itself to that sort of variety of views and experiences (and one I wish more meetings would adopt around here), and as it happened, it never got around to me, which was fine with me. I'm at a point in my own recovery where I really do not feel like I need to talk at every meeting I am at; even when there are major issues going on, I've become comfortable enough with this way of life that I can keep it manageable (and if it isn't manageable, it's because I'm not applying what I know with enough diligence). And one reason that I know that I am in a good place and that my spiritual condition is reasonably fit is that I can get something worthwhile out of what almost everyone that does talk has to share. It's a good place to be in, and it is one I am grateful to be in, because there have been many times in the past (and I am sure that they will return at some point in the future, too, temporarily) when I have not been feeling as comfortable or serene or confident in my recovery and the process of same.
And it gave me pause for reflection, because virtually everyone that was troubled last night gave voice to something that I have experienced. I know what it is like to have problems with family when in early recovery. I know what it is like to have resentment directed at me for expressing opinions. I know what it is like to have to make hard decisions regarding people close to you that simply refuse to put it down. I know the helplessness one feels when someone that was once in the same place as you seemingly is doomed to never get it. I know the pink clouds of early recovery, the storm clouds of seemingly intractable personal problems. I know what it is like to feel frustrated by the callous, casual self-centeredness we often show to one another--and the defensive, not-entirely-inaccurate reaction of "look who's talking!" when someone calls attention to it. And in a nutshell, that's the entire purpose of being in recovery--we do know what we go through, and outsiders that do not suffer from addiction do not. If we can't cut each other a break for dealing with what we deal with--then we're all in trouble.
Some of the sniping that was heard in muttered tones during the meeting, and out loud in the general milling-about after the meeting, was kind of ironic because many people made a big deal of a rather large group outing that took place earlier in the week after a large meeting. From time to time, people engage in "good old days" noise, when they bemoan the state of the fellowship today by comparing it to the late 90's when a dozen people used to descend on diners after meetings and hang out far into the night. And I get where they're coming from, because at times I was one of those hanging out far into the night--but I also recognize it's a different world than it was in 1999. My kids aren't in foster care or unavailable to me anymore; I have a job that I have to go to in the morning; I am paying my own bills; I'm not underweight anymore and would really rather not stuff myself full of greasy diner food or half a pizza; many of today's newcomers are a decade younger than I was when I was a newcomer and part of a totally different cultural context; and many newcomers today are parts of programs with curfews. It's nice when the stars align right and one of those massive group outings can take place--but to expect that they can be a regular occurrence is asking a lot of most of us old-timers, especially since few of us have large amounts of disposable income to pay for several people to eat out.
But there is also another factor at work here, too. For those of us that came aboard two decades or so ago, there was no prior generation to look to. Of the people that actually had valuable recovery experience to share when I was new, I think the most clean time any of them had was seven years. It was a fellowship that wasn't necessarily filled with young people, but rather it was a young fellowship. And those that are in on the ground floor of something, those that actually build it from scratch, are always nostalgic for the experience as time inevitably passes. In a way, it's parallel to our experiences as addicts--in the beginning, before the consequences, before the grind, before the problems, using was fun and exciting and fresh and unpredictable and seemed like an unmitigated positive, and even the hairy escapes and less-savory experiences were taken as part of the "fun" rather than as problems. In a less self-destructive context, it is similar to the experience most of us have had with being the first ones of our peer groups to discover a band or television show that goes on to become a huge deal. When I was in high school, my small circle was into bands like Talking Heads, Billy Idol, and Blondie a long time before they became popular--and every one of us eventually felt somewhat resentful that, all of a sudden, these bubbleheaded cheerleader types and blow-dried cement heads were telling us what a great and cool song Psycho Killer was. I remember watching Hill Street Blues, Friends, and Big Bang Theory well before everyone in the world was--and honestly, rather than feeling like "Wow, it's great that everyone now is watching these outstanding shows," I usually felt like "there shouldn't be any room on the bandwagon for these clowns." The same phenomenon happens with sports teams and players, too; who the hell heard of Odell Beckham, Jr., in October besides Giant fans?
And this supposed lack of unity--at least as exemplified by the rarity of these occasions of breaking bread together--is an example of the same phenomenon. And some of it, truthfully, is a reluctance to let the fellowship organically grow. When the fellowship was smaller and younger, let's face it--those of us that were part of it then were part of something exciting and new, and it was anything but routine, and the future possibilities seemed limitless. And at least some of the noise heard regularly from people in my peer group is not about the lack of unity so much as it is a yearning for the return of those days when it seemed like all options were open and anything was possible. And for those in my generation, it also is a way to try to regain a sense of prominence and role. We have journeyed from newcomer to old-timer over the course of years, and it is human nature to relinquish control reluctantly in anything that significantly matters to us. But the fact is that the fellowship is much larger than it was sixteen years ago, and much younger--and the future of the fellowship belongs to those numerous younger people, and not to us.
It is hard to come to grips with the idea of our own mortality, or the idea that a more inclusive and broad base necessarily decreases the degree of our own role. It doesn't necessarily diminish our importance, but it's hard not to feel like that at times. As I have spent most of this post detailing, this is not something that is limited to a recovery fellowship--on the contrary, it is a universal human experience, in all walks of life. And maybe that's why we resist it so much--an addict in recovery has to come to grips with and take steps to change the feeling of "terminal uniqueness," of understanding and acting on the realization that we are not so damn different than everyone else. We fight this battle in the fellowship on other fronts, too--one reason that the Area Service Committee has had trouble maintaining relevance in recent years is that too damn many of us have been part of it for too damn long, and there is a major reluctance, whatever rhetoric escapes our mouths, to let new people take on significant roles among my generation. It's not all one thing or the other; many people undertake their service positions out of a genuine desire to be helpful and useful. But there is also some sense of "this is too important to leave in the hands of people that don't know what I know about this." And in my own case, it definitely leads to my judging the motivations and effectiveness of those with less experience much more harshly, if left to my own devices, than I should.
It has taken a conscious and active effort on my part to resist that impulse. I've been able to make great strides in this area in the last few years, and in particular since about this time last year. And my world hasn't ended, and the fellowship hasn't fallen apart, and there hasn't been this massive tarnishing or wilting of any desire to recover among those with less experience. It may seem like sometimes that people "are getting driven out of the rooms" or that predatory behavior is at an all-time high or that there's a lot more dissension than there once was. But there really isn't; proportionally, it really isn't any different than it was many years ago. There's just a lot more of us now than there were then. And for every outsize ago, every attention-seeking hostage taker, for every emotional train wreck that I at times want to take for evidence that it's all going to shit--well, all I need to do is talk to my own contemporaries and have them remind me of what I was like circa 2000.
This post has been percolating in my mind for a few weeks now, independently of the noise in the fellowship about unity, since I heard 6th Avenue Heartache for the first time in at least a dozen years around the turn of the year. "The same black line that was drawn on you was drawn on me." Indeed. The growth process for each of us as individuals, and as a fellowship as a whole, is similar--the rates are different, the particulars are different. But the actual process is largely the same. And it would be (and is, when I allow myself to indulge in the behavior and thought) an injustice, and a damning indictment of the shallowness of my own recovery, if I were to deny those in younger generations in the rooms the same chance to grow and find their way as I was afforded. I had black lines drawn on me--and I didn't like it one bit. And although I can't control others drawing lines on us--I can put my own marker away. Even if I disagree with what I hear, or don't like what I see from some people--it's five minutes out of my life in a meeting to hear them out, or I don't have to get all up in what they are doing out of the rooms. And the hope is that by demonstrating what is possible if we keep working at it, the changes will come. It may well be that the larger cultural context will end transforming Narcotics Anonymous into something I'm not entirely comfortable with-- but if there is one thing I cannot afford to be, it is complacent. And stepping outside my comfort zone has never, in the long run, turned out to be a bad thing.
We are, as I keep saying and reminding myself, all in this together.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Tarnished Silver

The big news across the country yesterday was that the Speaker of the New York Assembly, Sheldon Silver, was arrested and charged with corruption on an awesome scale, accused of taking four million dollars in kickbacks and bribes having to do with real estate and medical research funding. Silver, of course, claims he will be "vindicated." But for the rest of us that live in the state, it is a sad confirmation of what we have long known: that even in a nation where the political process is as broken and sleazy as this one, New York's state government is outstanding only in its level of corruption.
We speak from experience in my area; our state Senator, who is the second-most powerful Senator in the entire state, is also under indictment for corruption and misuse of office. [Insert standard disclaimer about "innocent until proven guilty here]...yeah, right. The cesspool that is Albany and the houses of the legislature has been an open secret for at least forty years. Even before yesterday's revelations, something like fifteen members of the legislature have been indicted or convicted of crimes in the last five years. I can remember my father telling me that certain state politicos had to be "taken care of" in his youth, when he was working for my uncle's construction company in the late fifties and early sixties in New York City. The Senate Majority Leader for many years, Joseph Bruno, had to resign in disgrace after his own arrest years ago. The fiasco regarding party control of the Senate a few years ago had "payoff" written all over it. And on an on it goes, and I could write all morning about examples of past chicanery and rumors of present.
But suffice it to say that this government apparatus is rotten, probably beyond redemption. The Spoiled Little Bastard came to office four years ago vowing to do something to clean up the mess--but it is noteworthy that the two highest profile cases, of our Senator and now Silver, have been arrested as the result of federal investigations and face federal charges. Indeed, there have been low-volume but consistent allegations that SLB himself is not above influence-peddling and payoffs; while that remains to be answered definitively, there sure does seem to be a lack of initiative in pursuing political wrongdoing by the state's Justice Department--the bailiwick, it is fair to point out, of Cuomo himself prior to his becoming governor. Cuomo has been able to shepherd much of his own agenda through the Legislature as Governor, and I am becoming more certain as time passes that a big reason why is that he has knowledge of much nefarious activity among legislators gleaned from his time as Attorney General--and essentially is trading inaction for legislative support among some of the more vulnerable and/or guilty parties.
But Silver is the biggest fish yet that has gone belly-up. Even the Bruno scandal doesn't compare, and it was telling that yesterday, the Legislature shut down,  which is unprecedented on the day after the governor's budget speech. And with the seventy-day period of horse trading that precedes actual adoption of the budget lying directly ahead, and given Silver's historic role in shaping that budget and budget priorities--well, this is going to be interesting.
And likely not to rebound to the general public's benefit, it must be said. What all these charges and disclosures point up is that there is so much under the surface regarding any political body; the public interest, and matters benefiting those of us that actually vote these people into office, are at best a very low priority on these people's radar. There is money and influence that is not visible that is greasing the gears and setting policies and determining what gets acted on and funded. And it's hardly limited to the New York state government; the United States Congress is the creature of Corporate America, and even the local county and city governments have behind-the-scenes influences that are behind the scenes because they are not going to stand up to scrutiny in a public light. To some degree, I suppose this is inevitable.
But not to the degree we see in Albany. I'm not sure what can be done about it. Our senator keeps getting two thirds or more of the votes every two years, including this past election while he was under indictment; my own Assemblywoman ran unopposed last year and the previous election, as well. Everyone, it seems, deplores the corruption--and then votes for the same people anyway. I've never been a proponent of term limits, but I am beginning to think there's no reason not to try them; it just might help, if there were new people at the top of the legislative food chain every four or six years.
And short of that, the only way that true change is going to come about is a bloodletting, perhaps even a literal one. No one really wants to see that, but on the other hand, at some point, the abuse of power and diversion of public money and the rank hypocrisy are going to reach a tipping point. There is already dangerously high levels of partisanship and anger among the body politic, and this latest episode sure isn't going to dampen passions. Especially while the Speaker blithely carries on as if it was no big deal.
And chances are, he's right. A trial is far in the future, and he can maintain his grip on power for a good while longer. As I said, our Senator just won reelection handily while under indictment, and I have no doubt that Silver will be sent back to Albany, and would be even if he was convicted. And isn't that a sad commentary on state and indeed all American politics.