Pro Sports–Compelling Escapism

“April” according to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” “is the cruellest month”.  Fans of professional sports would likely disagree as this month marks the beginning of both the NHL and NBA playoffs, the beginning of baseball’s regular season and The Masters golf tournament.  This year may even provide the thrill of Toronto Maple Leafs’ participation in the grueling post-season marathon to capture the Stanley Cup.

Of course, Thomas Stearns Eliot was almost certainly not referring in his poem to the relative joy or pain of sports’ fanatics and their loyalties.  “The Waste Land” is a serious poem dealing with death, rebirth, spiritual paralysis, history, sex, isolation and other heavy concerns.  It is quite likely to be read and studied a hundred years from now (assuming humans survive that long), whereas the outcome of a particular sports’ game or even a league championship will generally be forgotten by most in a quarter of that time.  There are exceptions of course.  The date 1967 sticks in the minds of Leafs’ fans because of what has come (or failed to come) after that.  And yes, there are certain hockey games I remember from 1978 or 1993 (upset victories or unrealized dreams can sear the memory), but for the most part, we can concur that sports is not the equivalent of literature.  It is gripping in the moment, but much less so once the result is known.  It can unify large groups of people briefly, but rarely inspires world improvement.  Unlike literature, it is a means of occupying our minds by directing us away from the urgent problems of the moment.  Yes, some people like to “escape” by sticking their head in a book, but if it’s really literature, it will encourage a connection back to the world and human relationships.  And please don’t try to counter that sports teaches lessons too.  It does, but much more significantly for the participants than the spectators.  Sure, sports often requires teamwork, perseverance and dedication, but you can learn that from watching one game; you don’t need to follow teams for decades or risk losing that understanding.

So, why is it that so many people, many of them intelligent, responsible and sensitive souls, spend so much time following professional sports’ teams?  Is it just out of habit?  Is it a response to the insistent advertising for sports beamed at us on each and every device we use?  Is it to fill time that we don’t know how to productively use?  Or is it a special kind of escape from an impersonal and troubled society?

The more I think about it, the more sports provides a certain order that is lacking in so called ‘real life’.  Think about the intervals in a sporting event.  How long is an inning in baseball?  Three outs long.  There is something very comforting about that.  A manager may argue whether a runner was safe or out, but no manager would dream of arguing that a team deserves four outs one inning.  There are certain rules or axioms that are agreed upon by all which allow the competition to occur.  A bit like mathematics when you think about it.  In our democratic societies, we lack this axiomatic certainty.  A law only lasts until a group of politicians decide to replace it with something else.  Now it’s true that a sporting rule can change, but these are usually peripheral ones, and not the bedrock regulations that help define the sport.  For example, a two line pass in hockey was once illegal, but is now permitted; this is of a different order than proposing passing itself be banned.  And yes, sometimes the rule change can have a significant impact on the game; witness the introduction of the three point shot in basketball or the American League’s designated hitter rule.  But notice that no one is suggesting that hockey be reduced to two periods or that baseball should do away with innings and just have the first team to score five runs win.  And notice how universally upset fans get when they feel the way to determine the end of the game has been tampered with in an impure manner.  I don’t know of any diehard hockey or soccer fan that approves of the shoot out as a means of determining a winner.  Why?  Because it is not the way the game is played, but is just a fragment of the game.  Could you imagine if instead of extra innings in baseball, a pitcher threw a batter one pitch without any fielders on the diamond and he just had to hit it?  It would be a travesty.  The games have a certain logic.

In addition to the timing and ending of games, sports is also attractive because of the schedule.  We know when the season will begin and when it will end.  Many people cannot even say the same about their workday.  Sports’ fans know that no matter how horribly their team performed on one day, there will be another day where they will have a fresh opportunity.  Which explains all of the magic attributed to opening day or night of a season.  Can you think of a sport that doesn’t have a boundary?  In life, we are often looking in vain for boundaries that don’t exist.  It’s comforting in sports when they do.  Think of how frustrating it is in society when boundaries are vague or non-existent.  For example, where is the boundary on what behavior is impeachable for a sitting President?

No doubt there is a large element of escapism in the desire to follow professional sports teams.  Just as some people check “that masterpiece of total unreality, the daily stock market report” (see Ursula K. LeGuin’s excellent “Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons”) every day and that becomes their reality, others are glued to the standings of the sports leagues they follow.  Some go even further and create their own fantasy team in a fantasy league which cranks up the escapism another notch by betting on a team that exists only in the realm of statistical record keeping.

To be fair, there’s a lot about our world that encourages escapism.  The growing gap between the rich and poor, environmental devastation, nuclear weaponry, xenophobia, political instability, and, for lack of a better phrase, human nature are all part of our grim reality.  Perhaps we can be forgiven for getting caught up in whether the Leafs make the playoffs, who will be the next batter to hit .400 and who will be named the NBA’s MVP.  As long as we realize sports is a distraction, then it has its uses and can enrich our lives.  At some point though, we also need to engage in the kind of pursuits that inspire us to reflect on ourselves and to improve our world.

Four Days in Florida

Ah Florida, home away from home of sun worshippers.  It’s a huge state, but is probably identified in the popular imagination with a select few iconic images.  I’ve just returned from four days on the Gulf side- St. Petersburg to be exact-and realized that Florida not only reveals itself to you, it reveals quite a bit about where you come from too. Everyone you meet down there seems to be a Florida veteran; I never heard a single visitor say “Wow, this is my first time here and it’s quite a place”.  Instead, they will tell you why they prefer the Gulf side to the Atlantic side, or why it’s better drive down the I-75 than the I-95 or why the Phillies’ stadium in Clearwater is so superior to the Jay’s digs in Dunedin, or why Honeymoon Island State Park is a better place to swim than St. Pete’s Beach.  It’s almost as if everyone learned the hard way and having perfected holidaying, wants to gift you with the benefit of their knowledge.  I will say this about Florida: people in the service industry know how much tourism means.  With one very minor exception, every individual I encountered in a hotel, restaurant, or store was friendly, helpful and attentive.  Of course, I expected certain features that you just don’t find in Canada: gun shops that look and advertise like convenience stores, expressways that seem to suddenly terminate and become roads; highway ramps that loom over residential and retail areas; beer and wine prominently on sale in grocery stores, drug stores and dollar stores, and traffic lights that are so slow you need to keep an extra can of gas handy in your vehicle.  Some elements are surprising.  Billboards advertising vasectomies in huge block letters, bail bonds so in demand that they are trumpeted on bus benches, huge highway billboards luring you to a particular emergency room and providing the average wait time!  I guess it’s all just a little more open down in Florida—want to sue somebody? want a particular operation? want help keeping out of jail? It’s all on public display and usually billboard size since everyone seems to be in their cars better than half the day.  I also came across something that was new to me, though it might not be to Florida—cafes that don’t have mens’ or womens’ rooms, but rather just restrooms that can be locked and used by either sex and by the full spectrum of genders.  Perhaps this is a way for smaller eateries to anticipate coming legislation—their two restrooms can be accessed by all!  I also don’t remember Florida being such a craft beer capital.  Any self-respecting diner offers at least ten craft beers and most have closer to twenty.  I also stumbled upon a beer that I’ve never heard of before, but is apparently a well-established Pennsylvania lager called Yeungling.  My Blue Jays’ ticket stub entitled me to a free domestic beer at a local establishment; the choice was Bud Light or Yeungling.  That kind of dictated my preference as any choice between Bud Light and something else is invariably going to result in the something else (curdled milk might make the call tougher).  The Yeungling draft was really enjoyable; so much so, that I went to order it a couple of days later, whereby I learned that it is pronounced by locals as “Yingling”.  In four days, I didn’t have a bad meal in the Sunshine State.  I attribute this fact in part because I made a point of asking locals where to eat.  Their recommendations never let me down.  Once, on St. Pete’s Beach, I referred to Yelp, and it directed me to a Deli called Barracuda that was only 250 metres away.  The food was delicious, the price was right and the service was phenomenal.  I also had a great experience at the Salvador Dali museum in St. Petersburg.  I had been there over thirty years ago when it was housed in a much smaller space; its current home is a geodesic wonder.  Our tour guide, Diana, only showed us about five paintings, but was so informative that it took the better part of an hour.  Not a single person opted out of the tour; in fact, it grew to a rather unwieldy size because Diana was able to connect Dali’s fascinating life to the paintings.  As a bonus, the museum also had an excellent Frida Kahlo exhibit on display. You feel a bit better about lounging by the pool or walking on the beach if you can sandwich in a little learning about cultural icons along the way.

The cliché “it’s a nice place, but I wouldn’t want to live there” probably works for me when I think about Florida.  Great beaches, excellent restaurants, palm trees, arcing dolphins, those cute gulls, outdoor patios and Blue Jays’ baseball can keep my interest for a week or so.  After that, I fear the land of the car, the billboard, and the know it all veteran traveller would get a bit oppressive.

The Headline Should be Environmental Devastation

Since Donald Trump’s inauguration in January, he has almost ceaselessly been making headlines.  Whether it’s about crowd size, his daughter’s clothing line, light switches, travel bans, Oval Office couches, wire taps, microwave cameras or Snoop Dog, reporters seem ready and poised to jump on virtually anything Trump tweets or his comically inept sycophants, Spicer and Conway, say.  The problem with this steady stream of absurdity is that we are missing the big picture.  And yes, even the travel ban, as egregious and mean-spirited as it is, is not as important in the long run as the deregulation that Trump is undertaking with regards to environmental protection.

It is easy to get caught up in outrageous accusations, alternative facts and well publicized executive orders.  The bottom line though is that we only have one planet, and the damage that can be done to our air, water and land in the space of a few years can take generations to undo.  Yes, it makes me sick to my stomach to hear Trump try to defend his anti-Muslim travel ban by trumpeting the need to protect Americans, while at the same time rolling back Obama era regulations which made it tougher to purchase hand guns.  Yes, in the coming years, thousands may well die as a result of the loosening of gun laws and tens of thousands may be discriminated against and denied entry into America.  But that’s small potatoes compared to the devastation that will result from the poisoning of the planet.  The worst aspect of it is that it will not only affect our generation, but hundreds of millions, perhaps billions not yet born.  It is one thing to mess up the present world because of greed, vanity and myopia, but quite another thing to condemn the future.  There is simply no defense; we know what the most qualified scientists have been saying for decades.  To deny it or suggest that it is inconclusive is the most selfish and greedy act in human history, a saga which has seen no shortage of greed and selfishness.

It was inspirational in January when women marched on Washington to protest against the vicious, xenophobic and deceitful executive branch of the United States.  But where were the people in the streets when Trump appointed Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency?  If we cared about the planet, we should have brought cities to a standstill in the wake of this outrage.  Pruitt is on record as denying that human activity is the key factor in climate change.  He has a long history of fighting against environmental regulation and defending the actions of negligent companies.  This is the man that Trump has appointed to safeguard the planet.  Unless you live on a space station, that should be enough to enrage you.  Earth is our home.  We may be used to calling the four walls we live in home, but that’s just a temporary structure.  And the planet is not just our home, but home to the 8.7 million species that inhabit Earth.  And yes, the cynical and pragmatic thinkers out there will tell you that regardless of who is heading up the EPA, the hundreds of millions in ‘dark money’ spent by the ultra-rich will effectively neuter any serious regulations the EPA proposes in any event.  But this is still important.  It’s important because we have no Lorax to speak for the trees.  Scientists who speak out live in fear of being attacked by powerful lobby groups (see Michael Mann among others).  It’s important because as long as there was someone who really believed in the mandate of the EPA at its head, then bright young people may be inspired to work for the EPA and defend the planet.  How can the 17,000 employees of the EPA feel any motivation now?  How can they possess any confidence that their testing, their studies, their recommendations will produce anything of substance?

Selfishness only flourishes if there is a lot of it.  Yes, the business leaders and politicians who have turned a blind eye to the poisoning of the planet have a special place in the pantheon of greed, but what have most of us done about it, myself included?  We’re so busy with the here and now that we have not thought about the horrible “intergenerational tyranny” we are imposing upon our descendants.  Don’t fool yourself.  When future generations think of us, they won’t remember our art ,our philosophy or our technological innovation.  They will know us simply as killers who doomed them; people who had the knowledge and means to sustain the world, but chose not to because they were too busy taking selfies, counting their money and relieving their stress.

If you don’t want that to be your legacy, stand up for the planet.

How America Works

For several months after Donald Trump was elected president, there was, amid the gnashing of teeth of a considerable portion of the media, a concerted focus on how this could have happened.  The shock and confusion seemed genuine.  Perhaps it was.  The essayists and columnists could have saved themselves weeks of harrowing introspection by simply reading a book released in January of 2016.  In fact, if they were pressed for time, they could have read a single chapter of the book and the answers they were seeking would have become apparent.

The book is Jane Mayer’s incredible Dark Money:  The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right and the chapter in question is number 8 entitled “The Fossils” which focuses on the fuel industry’s war on climate change and on science itself.

Mayer’s research is jaw dropping.  She patiently builds her case that a group of extremely wealthy individuals were able to transform public opinion and paralyze political will through a covert and expensive attack that sowed doubt on climate change by hiring non-expert scientists and passing them off as experts, engaging in vicious personal attacks, leaking e-mails and quoting them out of context, running inflammatory television advertising, exaggerating the cost of solutions and lying about the reasons for taking action, slandering and threatening politicians leaning towards supporting environmental regulation, creating the impression that a grass roots anti-regulation movement existed and producing reams of supposedly scientific papers that called climate change into question.  Is it any wonder Obama’s two terms seemed to disappoint when any legislation that could impact the profits of the extremely wealthy was met with a similar barrage of resistance?

The United States is an oligarchy.  It is run not by elected officials, but by the extremely wealthy who have learned that they don’t need to run for office, because they effectively can control what will be in the legislation passed by those in office.  Once you come to terms with this, it answers a lot of questions.  If you think I’m overstating this, read Dark Money and see if you still feel that way.

In Praise of Thomas Frank

I would hazard a guess that the average person on the street would register a blank gaze if asked who Thomas Frank is.  The odd baseball fan might think about a legendary designated hitter nicknamed “The Big Hurt”, but that was Frank Thomas.  No, Thomas Frank is not a baseball player; he is a writer.  And a fine one at that.  Frank is a columnist for Harper’s Magazine and the author of several books on culture, business and politics.  I first encountered Frank when I was teaching media and came across his book The Conquest of Cool:  Business, Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism.  The book convincingly explains how quickly businesses hijacked rebellion in order to sell more of everything from soda pop to cars.  I remember how saddened I was at Frank’s thorough documenting of the manner by which advertisers were so easily able to redefine ‘cool’ as something you purchase rather than a set of values or a way of relating to others.  And yes, in our post Mad Men society, that might be considered an obvious observation, but in 1997 when the book came out, the methods of advertising did not hold quite as central a place in pop culture as they do today.  I’ve been coming across Frank’s name again just recently.  I’m in the midst of reading Jane Mayer’s Dark Money:  The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.  It is another meticulously researched book that makes me sad.  (I know, you’re thinking: ‘Stop reading books that make you sad’, but sometimes that’s the price of being informed).  Mayers refers to Frank’s 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas?:  How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.  Though I haven’t read the book yet, the subject matter couldn’t possibly be more timely.  It apparently focuses on how populist conservatives have managed to win voters in the heartland of America by emphasizing divisive social issues and distracting voters from the devastation wrought by decades of deregulation.  Mayers has a special interest in Kansas because Wichita is home to Charles and David Koch, the billionaire libertarians who have evaded taxes by making charitable contributions to establish and maintain think tanks which are thinly disguised attempts to sway the academic and political conversation on the role of government (aka lobby for deregulation and increase Koch profits).  Frank’s latest book takes aim at the Democrats rather than the Republicans.  It is entitled Listen, Liberal:  Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? and was released last year.  I haven’t read this one either, but hope to soon.  Frank’s thesis here is that the Democrats have turned their backs on the working class and on unions, and have tied their wagon to the professional class, a move which makes them susceptible to claims that they are elitist.  Frank’s latest concern is that the resistance which has arisen in response to Trump’s appalling executive orders will be co-opted by opportunists with much less noble goals in mind. Throughout his writing, Frank seems to possess a deep understanding of misdirection and how authentic and well-meaning social impulses can be subverted by fortune hunters.  If you’re interested not just in where we are and how we got here, but where we might be headed, you might want to give Frank a look.

Why is Our Sense of Wonder Reserved for Outer Space?

It is genuinely inspiring to see scientists so excited to have discovered seven Earth like planets in the “relatively” close by Aquarian constellation.  The dwarf star around which these exoplanets orbit is some 39 light years from Earth, and when you consider our Milky Way Galaxy alone stretches for hundreds of thousands of light years, you can forgive scientists for considering them to be ‘right around the corner’.  Of course, ‘right around the corner’ in the vastness of space is approximately 229 trillion miles away.  If we were somehow to put a human in the fastest spaceship we currently have, it would take about 817,000 years to reach these exoplanets.

So, it’s not like we will be holidaying or relocating to Trappist b-h in our lifetimes; nor will our grandchildren’s generation likely be making the trip.   Still, scientists view this discovery as significant because given the fact that dwarf stars (stars much smaller and cooler than our sun) are so common in space, the chances are that there are many exoplanets with the potential to reside in the habitable zone and, therefore, contain liquid water and perhaps support life as we Earthlings conceive it.  Another romantic possibility arising from this discovery is that because the planets are so close to one another, it would be possible to be on one planet and see other planets with the naked eye.  Of course space experts were quick to point out that because these planets appear to be tidally locked (one side of the planet is always facing the star), living on the planets would not be easy.  The side facing the star would be unbearably hot and the other side would be stupendously cold.  It might depend on whether the atmosphere could dissipate the heat enough for life forms to tolerate it.  But again, this is neither here nor light years there for scientists.  They are agog about what this discovery could lead to about our knowledge of life and the universe.

All this did get me thinking about something.  Why are humans generally so fascinated (or in some cases perhaps, terrified) with the possibility of alien contact?  Surely, most of us are not naïve enough to think that contact will result in the solution to all of our problems.  Even if aliens somehow had the technology to eradicate poverty, disease and war, human nature would still find something to complain about, to exclude one another over and to kill each other for.  What about the other scenario:  us enriching them?  Certainly, only the most myopic of us would think that we could somehow bequeath our knowledge to another species and not irreparably damage them.  Look at what technology has done to indigenous peoples across our Earth.  Do we dare export to other planets?  Perhaps it is just comforting to know that we are not alone.  We might wreck this planet for humans, but take some solace from the idea that humans are not the sole intelligent life in the universe; that somewhere out there, beings exist who have not poisoned their world and are actually progressing in a sustainable manner.  Maybe it is just our attraction to the unknown; it keeps pushing us further afield.  I do think some of us have a built in desire to know what is out there.  For some, it could be the kind of lofty goal that has the power to unite the fractious clans of Earth.  Communicating with alien life might be a grand enough vision to overcome personal legacy and tribal loyalty.

A part of me is sad too thinking that there are regions of this planet with customs and knowledge that many of us will never get to see or never make an effort to know.  Perhaps on a universal scale, this is provincial thinking, but I think maybe the different types of knowledge available on Earth are a necessary preparation before we embark on the kind of contact celebrated in science fiction movies.  Imagine if we could treat distant people on Earth and unfamiliar customs on our own planet with the wonder and humility many of us reserve for an imagined contact with beings from another planet.  I’m not calling for a halt to funding space research; far from it.  We need all the awe and imagination space exploration can provide.  Wouldn’t it be nice though if we could see the “aliens” here on Earth with that filter of wonder we reserve for stars blinking in the night sky?

Companies Should Sponsor a Plain Uniform

I was extremely saddened to learn that the Boston Celtics have struck a sponsorship deal with General Electric.  Starting next season, the Celtics time honoured jerseys will now include a circular GE symbol.  And so it begins.  True, maybe the NBA itself is to blame for allowing this.  And yes, the Celtics were not the first team to grab at the cash.  That distinction hangs on the shoulders of the Philadelphia 76ers and the Sacremento Kings.  But with the exception of Dr. J’s tenure with the 76ers, neither of those teams signifies much in the way of NBA history.  The Celtics, on the other hand, are the team of Bill Russel, Bob Cousey, Red Auerbach, Dave Cowens and Larry Bird.  They are the Montreal Candiens of basketball.  For them to sully their shamrock jerseys for some cash cheapens the great history and aura of the team.  Within a year or two, this will be standard procedure in the NBA.  And don’t kid yourself that the sponsors will for long tolerate their logo on a tiny space or obscure part of the jersey.  Before long, basketball and hockey teams could have the team’s logo supplanted by their sponsors, as is the norm in soccer.  If greed leads to more greed, look for hockey and basketball uniforms to look more like the walking billboard that race car drivers wear.  Yes, professional sports are a business and yes money talks, but couldn’t they just allow fans the illusion that certain things are sacred?  And yes, I know athletes are paid to wear and prominently display everything from shoes to hats to wristbands, but the jersey is something else isn’t it?

Here’s what I suggest.  If a company really wants to impress fans, they should pay a team to keep their jersey pure.  They can serve notice of this in the arena and on billboards as such.  Imagine the post-modern triumph of walking into a bus shelter and being greeted by “Brought to you by Costco:  the Toronto Maple Leafs jersey, advertising free.”  That’s a sponsorship I could respect!