Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Thinking Seriously about the Future of Sports


As is common knowledge to many, Major League Baseball’s season should be well underway. It is a time-honored tradition that Opening Day is scheduled close to the first of April. Now April is almost over, and still there is no National Pastime. Fans lose out. Television broadcasters lose out. Players lose out. And the list goes on. Sports is a multi-million dollar enterprise, and it has been rudely interrupted.

But this degree of disruption probably not going to stop with baseball. It will likely interrupt our real National Pastime, football. The latter replaced the former in the hearts of Americans decades ago. We live for the games, for the superstars, for the ninety-two yard kickoff returns. We live for the roaring crowds and the overpriced food and egos. Here is all that is both good and bad about humanity. And for three hours, we can imagine the majesty of a Roman chariot race.

I’m a native of Alabama. In it, college football is king. Weddings are planned around football schedules. School colors are uniforms to many. Should one’s favorite team lose, the effect feels like a punch to the gut. Unless you grew up there, or move and stay there long enough to absorb the cultural mindset, one cannot fully understand. The closest possible analogy I can describe is the political process in this country, the United States, with Democrats pitted against Republicans. Old grudges and rivalries are present in both sport and the ballot box. Games, like elections, have consequences.

I’ve long had reservations about our dependence upon sports. Instead of contemplating serious issues like economic recessions or shortages of rare minerals, the average Joe or Jane memorizes yards after contact or career strikeouts. It’s good as a form of social shorthand, but it promises no intellectual growth and development. A winning team might briefly unify a city or region of the country, but usually it deifies esoteric statistics and chest-pounding. The blue collar worker who repairs air conditioning units might not be able to tell you anything about rates of incarceration or potable water supplies for the Third World, but he’ll gladly gab with you about National Championships and his favorite pitcher.

Notice I didn’t say that sports are evil, unnecessary, or harmful. I only mean to say that they are poor placeholders for the serious winning and losing going on in our world today. And before I say that, it’s equally true that sometimes activists succumb to the same kind of black and white thinking, a mile wide and an inch deep. Life as a human is complicated, and as much as we appreciate a distraction, we have a greater purpose for our time here on Earth. Every world religion tries to enact a code of belief to speak to our own mortality and purpose, but Sports as God is a false idol of the highest degree.

It is my hope that if drastic measures are enacted for football’s 2020 season, the sterility and lack of interpersonal communication and community that make sports fun lead others in different directions never before contemplated. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not thrilled at the prospect of games played with no fans, no bands, social distancing, and the fun factor that makes sports so seductive in the first place. I don’t like thinking about a sport where home-field advantage makes no difference one way or the other.

I don’t expect the common person to start reading War and Peace, but maybe he or she might return to church or a religious gathering of his or her choice. Or bring out the bicycle that has long been collecting cobwebs in the basement. Or use weekends as an excuse to volunteer to serve food to the homeless. Or plant a vegetable garden. Or spend more time with their family. These are just a few examples.

Maybe it makes more sense to worry about being a morally upright, informed citizen than to obsess about the sprained ankles and broken bones of nineteen-year-old overgrown teenagers. Sports will never die, but for a while, we might recognize that we have lost the ability to separate essential things from non-essential things. As for what those are, exactly, I suppose that’s your decision to make. But choose wisely, friends.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Zoom Meeting for Worship (And Beyond)


Ever since the pandemic descended, we've been existing in a state of slightly confused limbo. As articles I've read have discussed in much detail, there have been good outcomes and bad outcomes of online Worship. People who are physically distanced from us, unable to be present in person, have had the opportunity to participate. In the past month or so, I've seen the way that other Quaker Meetings and Churches function, and that has been both personally interesting and deeply spiritual. But the other side of the coin is that we lose something when we cannot be physically present in a room with other people. No matter how we attempt to simulate it, it just doesn't hold up.

To segue---I've been working with an indie comedian from the UK named Diane Spencer. Her occupation as a stand-up comedian has ground to a halt as her very job has been shuttered, rendered non-essential. (Though I would argue that humor is extremely essential in these strange times.) All of her in-person gigs were canceled when Britain, like the rest of the world, went on lock-down. Now the two of us have been brainstorming about ways to put on functional, satisfying, and funny comedy shows over the internet. And it's proven to be a great challenge. All of the strategies she has used in times past to turn all the gears require close contact with other people. The experience has thoroughly frustrated her, and people like her who thrive when the white-hot spotlight is on her. I think that's less of a challenge for us as Friends, since we tend to be more on the introverted spectrum.

But going forward, the idea of personal space and our status as social creatures is going to be challenged. And in all sorts of ways: sporting events, movie theaters, patriotic displays, and many others. Part of being human is in human company, as overwhelming as that can be, particularly for people like me who have diagnosed anxiety disorders. I love the company of all of you on Sunday mornings, though I find myself completely oversaturated in three hours' time. As I write and compile the week's Queries, I decompress from what I have just experienced.

So I pose--there's got to be some reason why viruses, pandemics, coronaviruses---why all of these things exist. We can call them evil forces. We can assign them to works of Satan. We can divorce them completely from religious motives and reduce them to scientific theories, but we must find ways to be together in safe ways, in spite of what has the potential to be deadly. I am hoping that, even if it has to be staggered, that we'll have the ability to open up again. Those with particularly glum looks at life have solemnly noted that we will never be the same. And I think that's true, to an extent, but maybe not as drastically as some may fear.

Certainly our economy will not be the same. Certainly our politics will not be the same. I'm reminded of the very beginning days of Quakerism, when it was still very much against the law. Those who met in secret gatherings called conventicles risked jail time, fines, and occasionally even execution. And the same was true of the early Christians. And yet, they very much thrived when the bans on them were lifted. I hope the same is true not just with the Religious Society of Friends but with all people, when we can safely resurface. So, stir-crazy as I am, I am trying to be as inventive as I can, when I've been faced with some of the most difficult challenges ever asked of me in the course of my entire life. And likely yours as well.

I conclude.

You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this: but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God? —George Fox

In the Light,


Thursday, April 16, 2020

A Healthcare System Broken in Unforeseen Ways

We know about the most extreme examples. We know, in broad strokes, what COVID-19 is doing to our medical system and how our providers are facing extreme challenges. But within massive problems like the kind that make the news are the prosaic stories of everyday Americans. They reveal the routine challenges medical professionals and patients both are now facing. The coronavirus is revealing much about deficiencies in the system, not just financially or in, say, food supply. This pandemic has revealed severe shortfalls in doctor education on the matter of new medical and technological advances, causing disruptive gaps in coverage for everyone.

Specifically, the speciality to which I refer in this essay is that of psychiatrists and psychiatry. Both were already experiencing disturbing shortages prior to the pandemic, but now the whole field is stressed to the gills. And, to be perfectly honest, part of it is purely their fault, purely of their own doing. Many older doctors resisted learning about tele-health for years and as a result have proven to their patients a special kind of incompetence. The same sort of ineptitude is present in their staffs as well, who cannot adequately guide doctors to meet with those who need care, who might otherwise risk their lives if they make a journey into public.

But I also see tele-medicine done flawlessly correct. It’s possible to get it right. I’m right on the cusp of Generation X and the Millennials, and so is my psychologist. We’ve grown up with the technology. She understands the technology well and I’ve had no problems whatsoever connecting remotely with her. She sends out timely e-mails reminding me to log in properly and we get to work. You might say we’re a good patient/provider team. This is in great contrast to my previous psychiatrist, who was so much of a Luddite that he refused to use a computer at all. He literally wrote out every patient note by hand and vowed he would never change his ways.

Due to a set of circumstances I’d rather not discuss again, I had to find a new psychiatrist very much at the spur of the moment. This doctor seems like a competent man in his field, but his technological skills are, shall we say, lacking. He could have easily called me on the phone, but he insisted using tele-health instead, a skill he clearly does not understand. It is my understanding that his persistence is an insurance matter. He wants to get paid. Tele-health is covered by insurance while a good old fashioned phone call is not. But I’ve gotten conflicting information, too.

This is just one set of circumstances where we are behind the curve, not flattening it. I fear for infected people who may be reached too late, of course, but the problem goes much deeper. It angers me that some medical providers believed that their own education never needed to be continual. The mentally ill may not be dying, but they are suffering more than they did before we all went on lock-down. When psychiatric beds are being taken away from psych wards to treat coronavirus patience, very sick, emotionally unwell individual have one less option towards treatment available to him or her. Couple this with co-morbid factors like drug addiction and we see a perfect storm brewing in our midst.

But in the meantime, let’s take this as our opportunity to shore up the gaps. I’m sick and tired of seeing supposedly sensible people play kick the can. We needed all of this years ago. If it takes another month of quarantine to put in place the hard lessons we should have already taken to heart and memorized, so be it. It’s a maddening quality of humanity that people only do what is right when they have no other option but to act in everyone’s best interest. Informed patients deserve informed doctors.    

Monday, April 13, 2020

When Being Prepared Becomes Being Paranoid

I live with two parents who are transitioning from older to elderly. The coronavirus has sent them into an extreme panic, the likes of which I have never seen in them before. A month ago, when this all began, my mother’s fears grew so intense that she took my car keys against my will. They had been resting on a desk in my bedroom until that moment. Now I can’t go anywhere.

All attempts to extract where she has hidden them have fallen on deaf ears. My equally paranoid father backs her up. It’s two against one.

This post is written as a plea for us to keep our heads about us. Unlike some, I do believe that coronavirus is a very real and potentially deadly pandemic. But let me use my own life as an example. Suppose one or both of my parents has a medical emergency. Without my car keys, I couldn’t take them anywhere they needed to be. I hope they would tell me. Frankly, they have interpreted “stay at home” as “be afraid to go outside for any reason, even if it’s for thirty seconds.” And that is just silly.

This pandemic has opened ancient fault lines. They associate it with years of being warned against nuclear war. But just as duck and cover was wishful thinking, so is barricading oneself against an invisible enemy and letting one’s imagination run wild. I’ve followed the guidelines and have plenty of hand sanitizer and disposable latex medical gloves at my disposal. I wash my hands a minimum of ten times a day. My parents prefer to scrutinize every grocery store purchase and item left in a mailbox with obsessive precision, so I leave that responsibility to them.

I am vigilant, but I refuse to be afraid. Without going into too many details, my life has not been easy. But adversity has a way of shoring up your defenses. I may not be seventy years old, but I recognize that the threat applies to me, also. Coronavirus has killed people who are almost forty years old, like me. We can’t let a pandemic immobilize us or reactivate the fears of worst case scenario. In some ways, this situation we’re collectively experiencing reminds me of Rod Serling and the original Twilight Zone episodes. It’s not difficult to transpose fear of the Soviets with fears of coronavirus.

The longer we are in quarantine, we notice that new problems, new issues, and new challenges face us. We grow bored with our collective mindset of last week, or the week before that. We long for the resumption of the status quo. And that in itself can be dangerous, as we know that idle hands are the Devil’s workshop. People don’t like change, and certainly nothing this severe. I’ve felt much greater compassion for people since this all started, as I have always been a voice in the wilderness clamoring for change. Now, in a very large sense, I don’t want change. I don’t want a revolution.

The French Enlightenment thinker Montesquieu put it this way.

Democratic and aristocratic states are not in their own nature free. Political liberty is to be found only in moderate governments; and even in these it is not always found. It is there only when there is no abuse of power. But constant experience shows us that every man who has power is inclined to abuse it; he goes until he finds limits. Is it not strange, though true, to say that virtue itself has need of limits?.
Sage advice, from centuries ago. The impulse I pick up from other people at this is not to picket, but rather it is for the constancy of routine. Part of this is because it’s not safe for any mass action to take place out in the open. How do you start the Revolution over the Internet? We are all currently in a state of extreme disequilibrium, our energy and focus headed in every direction imaginable. I wonder what lessons we’ll receive in the end. We may not fully understand these changes until everything’s said and done and we return to whatever state of normality that remains.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Book review: Apropos of Nothing

In Woody Allen’s new controversial autobiography, largely an engaging, chatty account of days gone by eventually morphs into a lengthy tell-all before springing back into place. Woody Allen wants the reader to know his side of the story to such a degree that he interrupts the narrative two-thirds of the way to plead his case. The effect is jarring, and quickly denigrates to a series of he said/she said body blows between himself and ex-wife Mia Farrow. As has been reported extensively already, Allen knows that Mia Farrow’s reaction to his decision to engage sexually with one of her former adopted daughters was appropriate. She had every right, Allen narrates, to her own private feelings of betrayal, even if (and this becomes very notable later on) nothing else is.

Allen’s decision to become sexually involved with and then marry a woman so much younger than himself is certainly unorthodox, Allen’s side of the story reveals why others have come to his defense over the years. It’s not cut and tried #metoo, like Harvey Weinstein or Louis C.K. Allen has not been loudly denounced by the people who have formed his world, mostly an uncomprehending public. He is simply a maker of bad choices, both in his movies and in his personal life.

In a pre-pandemic world, we’d be discussing this battle royal in much greater detail, but for now let me say that, contrary to the way I assumed I’d feel prior to reading this book, I find myself feeling sorry for Allen. Previous articles on this subject I have read resort to lazy journalism and sensationalism. Part of that is a result of the fact that the Allen/Farrow spat is a complicated one and written all in one rush, as though its author wanted to say his or her piece as quickly as possible and then quickly move on to something else. Harsh critics have jumped on isolated passages of the book to prove Allen is a misogynistic creep, but more discerning readers can see the humanity that shines through.

As an objective reviewer, I’m going to resist the temptation to wade into #metoo and say merely that Allen is an eccentric, not a pedophile. An exhaustive amount of litigation and attorney’s fees, as evidenced by Allen’s side of the story, have shown that much. I recognize that we live in a time now where men in positions of power are being rightly toppled for their sexual indiscretions, Allen simply doesn’t fit the bill. If you don’t believe me, read it yourself. You’ll find your patience tried severely for at least fifty pages as the author accounts the full blow-by-blow between two incompatible partners.

I do find him guilty of one major discretion, one of which there are many antecedents. He has consistently sought relationship partners who have severe mental health issues. This is especially true with Allen’s second wife, Louise Lasser, (of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman fame), whose manic depression doomed a promising marriage. The two have remained friends. Allen usually stays on good terms with his ex’s.

It is clear Allen would much rather talk about his films and share a few anecdotes here and there. He is not a natural nonfiction writer, not a storyteller certainly, but fans have a few shreds of personal reflection to hold their attention. A few things surprise: Allen’s neurotic New York schtick is only partially true. He is not nearly, as he put it in one of his movies, “the balding virile type.” He’s was a competent baseball player who never took school seriously, belying his stature as a supreme intellectual on par with the greats. Allen is smart and resourceful, but credits work ethic and fame to prevent him from ending up a complete unknown.

Apropos of Nothing
is somewhere between nostalgia and mea culpa, and the transition between the two is not a smooth one. Allen is, however, honest about his talents and especially his flaws when it comes to being a director and an actor. One might even call it humility. At 84, he’s still a starstruck movie buff, and it’s that part of him that he would like you to know most. That and perhaps the writer of a few notable wise-cracks and clever statements. He knows his time left on Earth is short, but seems to have accepted that fact long ago. He knows he will never fully repair his reputation, but such is life in the public eye.