Monday, May 27, 2013

These People Need to Be Stopped.

Coaching is a tough gig, no doubt about it.

Whether you're a coach whose biggest challenge is preventing one four-year-old from sustaining irreparable damage to his still-hardening cranial soft spot, resulting from poking his little conk into the arc of another four-year-old's roundhouse t-ball swing, or Vince Freaking Lombardi calling the quarterback sneak on fourth down and goal in weather so frigid your QB can't feel his tongue...

...yeah, not an easy way to spend an afternoon.

Motivating adults is difficult enough. Motivating kids is far more daunting. And motivating kids to endure pain, to sacrifice of themselves in pursuit of an abstract greater good—well, you've probably got more favorable odds at getting your cat to take advantage of those Tic Tacs you left next to his bowl of Fancy Feast.

It's why a good coach occupies such rarefied air, equipping his or her charges with a tool belt that gets scratched and frayed, but lasts a lifetime.

And it's why a bad coach can etch a tattoo that fades, yet lingers forever.

Back in December, Rutgers University men's basketball coach Mike Rice was fined $75,000 and suspended three games after video surfaced showing him berating his players. The abuse was verbal—on several occasions he was shown calling players "faggots"—but it was also physical. In numerous clips, he was recorded jerking his players around by their jerseys and firing basketballs at their heads, feet and shoulders.

The video didn't reach public airspace until April, at which time the national outcry reached such a plateau that Rice was fired along with Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti.

It was a dirty house that needed some cleaning, but wouldn't you know it, the dust bunnies are already back. On May 15, hired as the new AD was a woman named Julie Hermann. Her credentials are impressive; she was formerly the senior associate athletic director at Louisville and has now become only the third female to lead the athletic program at a major university.

Prior to that she served as head women's volleyball coach at the University of Tennessee, and that's where she allegedly accumulated so many skeletons that she had to buy a new place with a walk-in closet.

In a letter submitted by all fifteen team members in 1996 and obtained by the New Jersey Star Ledger, the volleyball players said Hermann called them "whores, alcoholics and learning disabled."

Hmm...whores, alcoholics, learning disabled? Wow, I'm thinking her subsequent two words probably weren't group and hug.

Their accounts depict a coach who thought nothing of demeaning them, who would ridicule and laugh at them over their weight and their performances, sometimes forcing players to do a hundred sideline pushups during games, who punished them after losses by making them wear their workout clothes inside out in public or not allowing them to shower or eat, and who pitted them against one another, cutting down particular players with the whole team watching.

In addition, the school settled a 1997 lawsuit brought by a former assistant who Hermann had fired for becoming pregnant. Nice. Always a bonus to have a co-worker with family planning skills.

And all this in the wake of another abusive coach whose athletic director tried to bury the whole moldy enchilada.

The true heroes in these situations are the whistleblowers. Student-athletes risk everything when they expose the individuals who brought them into the program—loss of scholarship, disbelief, ostracism—and they stand in defiance of the very structure to which they've dedicated themselves.

Questioning authority isn't part of the deal. At the expense of recounting another story of past glory, I nonetheless feel slightly haunted by an abusive incident I witnessed back in 1979. As my teammates and I assembled in the locker room during halftime of a high school football game, the head coach entered, completely enraged at a player for making a costly error.

We sat on benches, surrounding him as he ranted. The coach slowly approached the offending player, purple veins bulging from his crimson forehead. He grabbed the player by his shoulder pads and shook him, slamming his head hard against a locker.

The echo of bone against metal was deafening, but even more unbearable was the profound humiliation visited upon a seventeen-year-old boy by a full grown man. My teammate cried so quietly, yet his emotions projected a toxic cloud of rage and shame.

To this day, I regret not having stood up for my friend at that pivotal moment, a moment when no teenage error warrants the wrath and violence of a power-wielding mentor and educator. Consequences be damned.

Sports are riddled with stories of "great" coaches who've straddled the line separating motivation from abuse: Woody Hayes, Mike Leach, Bobby Knight and all the other proponents of the tough love school of discipline, toughness and usually a robust deprivation of both kindness and Gatorade.

But I'd like to think we're a little smarter now. It doesn't work and it needs to stop. Julie Hermann cannot be allowed to inflict any more damage.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Give Us a Chance. We're Just Like You.

We've got a high school senior in our midst, and lately, she's been dishing up dollops of household angst. 

She's been getting all deep on us, harshing our mellows with her sentimentality and nostalgic yearning. 

All this, and her mom and I just want to party.

It's a time most of us remember vividly—that last chapter of traditional schooling when all that's left is a million flicks of the wrist launching a million mortarboards and nearly gauging out the cataract-clouded eyes of a million Great Aunt Carolines.

Yeah, our kid has really been reflecting recently, feeling little daggers of regret for not having soaked it all in just a bit more, that growing realization that things will never be the same. 

It's so tempting to extract the "when I was a boy" arrow from my quiver, but any anecdotal wisdom would surely careen off her still-teenage deflector shields. Plus, I can't really reach my quiver anymore, so I'm thinking it may finally be time to sign up for Pilates.

So, rather than inserting my gin-blossomed face into her grill and delivering a forceful lecture on my ability to relate to her senior sorrow, I'm going to jot it down in passive, twelve-point Arial. 

What better way to explain the mindset of youth than through popular music? Throughout the past sixty years, the pop charts have chronicled the pulse of our youth, and I'd like to demonstrate how things haven't really changed much. I've decided to sample the tops song names from my dad's graduation year (1951), mine (1981) and my daughter's (2013). You decide.

All included songs about hands:

In 1951, Nelson Eddy and Jo Stafford hit number 22, singing "With These Hands," 1981's number 19 tune was "Slow Hand" by the Pointer Sisters. And 2013 featured Akon at number 30 with "Hold My Hand."

Apparently, kids have always appreciated hands. I know I did, especially during that long, boring summer of 1978.

Commentaries on societal taboo and scandal :

In 1951, Vaughn Monroe reached number 76 with "On Top of Old Smokey," a song of forbidden love at remote Michigan logging camp. 1981's "Whip It," as performed by Devo, climbed to number 98, and in 2013, one man's sociopathic manipulation of his Irish Wolfhound is revealed in David Guetta's "Sexy Bitch," at number 31.

Crying songs:

Johnnie Ray hit the stratosphere with 1951's number 3 song, "Cry." In 1981, Don McLean reached number 40, with "Crying," and Flo Rida hit number 93 in 2013 with "I Cry." 

Wow, what a bunch of babies. Sorry, I should keep it positive.

Tunes promoting safe sex:

In 1951, Del Wood became one of the first artists to provide us with a road map of proper condom placement, singing the year's number 60 song, "Down Yonder," 1981's number 34 title, "Living Inside Myself" by Gino Vanelli,  points out the simplest way to avoid STDs and unwanted pregnancies. And BoB featuring Bruno Mars, currently at number 28, extols the virtues of condom use, with "Nothing On You." 

After reviewing these themes, I've got to tell you, I'm pretty impressed with the voices of America's youth over the past sixty years. I'd expected to find a predominance of gratuitous sexual themes, but I'm pleasantly surprised at the consistency of socially conscious subject matter. Hopefully, this exercise will help prove to our kids that we really do know what they're going through since we were there once ourselves.

Now, if Taylor Swift would just go away for a while.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Crap. Does This Mean I'm an Old Man?

Today, I'm asking for your assistance.

You, the loyal reader, the benevolent soul who has kindly carved out a smidge of his or her busy docket to read my anemic diatribes.

You, the compassionate peruser, who has chosen to ingest my drivel while sitting on the porcelain perch after finally growing weary of studying the contents of every Tylenol PM and Kleenex box within reach.

Yeah, you.

I need you to help me decide whether my recent behavior is the direct result of aging, or merely a by product of a changing familial dynamic.

For as long I can remember, I've been  driving my thirteen-year-old daughter to school every Friday morning, stopping on the way to hook her up with a breakfast of questionable integrity. While, for many school years, her meal of choice was an Assiago cheese bagel and chocolate milk, she's now elevated her tastes to more processed fare. 

That's why we now stop at 7-Eleven instead of Safeway.

This morning, I looked over at her as she eased herself into the Hyundai. Carefully avoiding any oil puddles or gum wads on the convenience store's well-trodden asphalt, she gingerly clutched her meal of choice—a protein bar with a side of hot chocolate with a side of mini marshmallows.

Engulfed within the car's dull interior, she sparkled. Her hair fell in loose ringlets over a white sweater, a sky blue tank top peaking out to closely match her glittery blue TOMS flats and compliment her indigo skinny jeans. As I merged the dirty sedan onto West Seattle's main drag, she looked over at me, betraying lines of sparkly something-or-other across her eyelids. 

She was freaking impeccable.

She sipped her cocoa. "I forgot to brush my teeth today."

"How can you forget to brush your teeth? That's a basic morning thing," I said.

"Okay, just kidding. I decided not to brush my teeth."

"Gross. Why?"

"Because my toothpaste has a slight orange taste and I didn't want it to interfere with the hot chocolate or the mint of the protein bar."

"Interfere?" I asked. "Doesn't the flavor wear off after a few minutes? Now your going to school with a nasty mouth."

"I don't care."

I believed her.

"Aren't you worried that someone will notice?"


Again, I believed her.

"Okay, I'm just curious, though," I said. "How can you spend forty-five minutes and be so meticulous with your outfit and hair and everything, but not practice basic hygiene?"

"Brushing teeth isn't basic hygiene, Dad."

She argues with everything my wife and I say. Seriously, everything. My newly–minted teenage daughter has even debated the year my wife was born—with my wife. 

We finally just decided to nod our heads, say "Hmmm" and allow her egregious misstatements to evaporate into the ozone like a rusty can of old Aquanet. Not worth it.

And that leads to the question about my own behavior. With all the pregnant silences that have resulted from my kid's cockamamie outbursts, I've been trying to fill in the gaps. The problem is, I sound like a crusty old man. I'll bring up the weather, or the traffic, or how those cherry tomatoes we ate last night were closer to plums than cherries and I think I slept weird on my neck because its really stiff.

Not only have I been boring my family silly with idle idioms and mundane musings, I've been boring myself. Is this as good as it's going to get? Should I just resign myself, when in the presence of my family, to discuss nothing more interesting than the kid I saw littering at the bus stop or how or how expensive Scott's Turf Builder is?

Maybe it's time to buy a Corvette…

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Real Mother's Day.

You probably already know this, but most holidays aren't celebrated on the days they actually happened, even a lot of famous birthdays.

Martin Luther King and Abe Lincoln are each honored on Mondays, yet King was born on a Tuesday,  while Lincoln emancipated his spindly self from the womb on a Sunday. Honest.

Of course, we're not really sure of the day or date that Mary, without the benefit of an epidural or even some ice chips, bore J.C. back in the year zero. Rumor has it that, while rapt in the throes of excruciating labor, she glared contemptuously at Joseph and screamed out her son's name. After the dust had settled, Mary reportedly stated that she wasn't cursing her mate, but simply rewarding all in attendance with a sneak preview of her new infant's nome de plume.

That's what I heard, anyway.

And I guess that's my point today. While I'm on the subject of childbirth, I would submit that the historically accurate Mother's Day is any date on which a mom initially becomes a mother.

Follow my theory? That first day of motherhood, whether a woman has given birth or secured her new bundle in some other fashion—that's the real Mother's Day. Today is an honorary figurehead, like t-ball trophies or Prince Harry.

I'd like to relate a father's perspective to my wife's original Mom's Day, on April 23, 1995. Not expecting our little angel for three more weeks, we ventured up to Semiahmoo, a resort near the Canadian border, for one last hurrah before our lives changed forever.

After a relaxing day basking in the warmth of an unseasonable spring day, we enjoyed a nice dinner and retreated to our room. I dozed on the bed, sedated in the fuzzy blanket of the two Red Hooks I'd consumed during the evening.

Sometime later, I think it was around 10:30, my wife's throttling clutch jarred me from my slumber. "I think my water broke. Tim, can you hear me? I think my water broke."

"Nah," I lamely said. "The baby isn't due for three weeks. Go to sleep."

"You're not listening. I'm calling the doctor."

Before I could rise and walk to the mirror to re-adjust my ponytail, she was on the phone (the land line; cell phones were around then, but we didn't feel like renting a trailer to haul ours up with us). Our obstetrician wasn't on call that Saturday night, and the doctor on call advised us to hang tight and come in the next morning.

She hung up. "No way," she said. "We're going tonight."

I wasn't about to argue. We'd both learned that after the amniotic sack ruptures, the risk of infection increases. And while we didn't understand why we'd been told to wait, especially two hours from our hospital in Seattle, within ten minutes, the two of us were speeding down Interstate Five, rushing toward our new lives at eighty miles per hour.

Remembering the Flintstones episode where Pebbles is born, I secretly hoped to be pulled over with the ultimate excuse and given a police escort. Didn't happen, but boy did I enjoy finding out what our new Kia sedan was made of.

We arrived at Swedish Hospital around midnight, my wife's mood gradually waning in reverse proportion to her intensifying contractions. By the time we'd settled into a room and she'd been hooked up to all the stuff, she was hurting a lot, but her labor hadn't yet progressed enough for the summoning of Dr. Feelgood.

While armed with a cursory knowledge of what to expect, my attempts at helping her breathe rang hollow and even offensive, so I shut the hell up, quietly praying for the magic spinal blocking cart to roll in.

I dozed off and immediately felt a jolt to my sternum. It was the second time she'd awakened me that night, but this time, knuckles were involved.

"You will not be fall asleep," she said, replacing her business hand back atop her belly.

"Gotcha." I sat up and stared straight ahead.

At length, the anesthesiologist arrived. I'd never witnessed my wife so elated to see a man, including me, and I was fairly stoked as well. Soon, we were actually chatting in the gradually lightening room, and as dawn approached, pushing time had finally arrived.

Lights were rolled out of closets. Nurses gathered. When the doctor walked into the room, it reminded me of Elvis finally strutting onto the stage after his band had worked the crowd into a lather for a few minutes. Showtime.

She pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed, to no avail. It wasn't working because the baby's head was slightly tilted, the doctor said. He tried the vacuum cup device to straighten her little noggin and suck her on out.


"Forceps," I heard him finally say.

"Shit," I thought. "They're pulling my girl out with something that looks like it's used for peeling chicken breasts from the Weber. Oh, well, I suppose he knows what he's doing."

The doctor locked the instrument in place and pulled while she pushed. Our baby's wet little body oozed out and for the first time, I looked at her. "Hi, Zoe," I said. I focused on my new daughter while the nurse cleaned her up and placed her on my wife's chest.

But something was wrong. My wife's face blanched as the monitor glowed with the descending digits of her blood pressure. Before I knew it, more gowned people had entered the room and I listened to the words "stat" bandied about. They wheeled her out following a hasty explanation of what needed to be done.

My baby was whisked to the nursery and I stood alone in the room which had only minutes before been a beehive of joy and activity. What had happened?

I began sobbing.

A nurse entered and patted my back, escorting me to the waiting area while uttering words of encouragement and optimism. I watched a meaningless basketball game in a meaningless room, so much hanging in the balance.

Finally, the doctor approached. My wife was just fine. Congratulations. Tears of gratitude streamed down my face, covering the dried salt stains of despair from minutes before.

It was a Mother's Day, and boy, was it a Father's Day, too.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Thanks for Watching Vietnam, the Sequel.

I'd like to preface my comments with the following statement: Every half-baked opinion I'm permitted to regurgitate in this forum is the direct result of a lot of suffering endured by a lot of people who don't happen to be me.

Or politicians.

The "The Baby Boomer" generation consists of anyone born between 1946 and 1964. Since I blew onto the scene in 1962, I consider myself still a part of that parade, but more like the guy in the clown suit who trails the whole procession with a scoop shovel. 

These folks are supposed to be the offspring of returning World War II veterans. The only way my ten-year-old dad could have taken part in the ass whoopin' would have been by protecting his parents' victory garden from fascist tyranny with the business end of his Daisy Red Ryder. 

Jokes aside, World War II was a national effort. Here's a small sampling of goods rationed for stateside citizens during that era: gasoline, rubber, sugar, processed foods and…you won't believe this one…coffee! The homefront received but a smidge of God's steamy rich nectar between 1942 and 1945. Talk about a bunch of cranky riveters.

The decade following the Big One ushered in a sparkling period of prosperity and consumer excess. Even the president himself capitalized on the nearly unlimited supply of pants fabric:

America discovered a new mission—life, liberty and the pursuit of—stuff. We fell in love with stuff and lots of it. In fact, we accumulated so much stuff that we bought bigger houses out in the suburbs to hold all of it. Stuff made us comfortable, stuff made us happy, and by God, we'd earned it. 

We felt a little bad about sending all those Japanese Americans out to the desert, but you know, even supermodels need to go number two sometimes.

Then the Sixties rolled around and a little donnybrook flared up in southeast Asia. But this time, we weren't asked to give up any stuff to support the war effort, since it really wasn't a war, just a misunderstanding. 

With the savagery of Korea still fresh in our memories, we tried our damnedest to secure student deferments for our best and brightest (please see Dick Cheney with hair and original heart). You know, leave that skirmish to the people who displayed a willingness to participate through an inability to pay for college. As a result, West Virginia led America in poverty patriotism, experiencing 84.1 deaths in Vietnam per hundred thousand males living in the state. 

47,359 soldiers were killed in "hostile actions." Another 10,797 died from other causes—disease, accident, suicide. And thanks to our new television technology and a few daft-yet-courageous war correspondents, the true carnage caused by a guerrilla war—the booby traps, punji stakes, land mines—piped its cinematic splendor into our living rooms as we ate our tater tot casserole from floral patterned TV trays.

It didn’t take long for America to spill into the streets and demand an end to such a futile, yet bloody fiasco. Nevertheless, the war raged for a decade until the final Americans were airlifted from an overrun embassy thirty-eight years ago today, on May 7, 1975.

Why the history lesson? I'm sure you're thinking, "Who is this guy, some frustrated left-wing professor wannabe?" Well, yes, but there's another reason. 

It's even worse now. 

The United States and a smattering of its NATO allies have been bogged down in Afghanistan since October 7, 2001, a twisted new American record. Ghosts of Vietnam litter the landscape—the improvised explosive devices, the indigenous enemy that can melt into the civilian landscape at will—and the ambiguous mission. 

And the real tragedy is that most of us don't even think about it. Unless we have a "dog" in this battle—a friend or family member—we live our lives sprawled on the creamy memory foam of ignorant bliss. 

No draft? No problem.

Did you know that fourteen coalition forces have already died this month in Afghanistan? Why aren't we more outraged? 

I'll tell you why. Because we've got our stuff.