Sunday, January 31, 2021

Doubling down

I tried wearing two face masks at the same time the other day. It wasn't that bad.

I did this in response to Dr. Anthony Fauci's suggestion that wearing two face masks is only logical since the Covid-19 pandemic seems to be taking a concerning, more aggressive and perhaps a more ominous turn. New variants of the virus from England, South Africa and Brazil appear to be transmitting faster than the original, and could be deadlier.

So when I went to the grocery store the other day, I put on two cloth masks. It seems that one mask gives you 50 percent protection, two masks give you 75 percent protection, and three masks (three?) give you 90 percent protection.

Keep in mind the average annual flu shot is good for about 50 percent protection in a given year, depending on the shotee. I guess you measure this against no protection at all, the only other option there is.

So I put on the second mask. I'll take 75 percent any day, especially since my vaccine appointment isn't until March 5. Kim is too young to get an appointment, but that's a different story.

But I do wear the extra mask with qualification, however.

If I'm going to a restaurant to pick up my to-go order, or if I'm dropping by the bank for a transaction that nullifies the drive-thru for some reason, I'll wear a single mask.

I'll wear a single mask sitting around the fire pit, socially-distanced and outdoors, of course, with my bubbled friends.

But if I'm in a store for more than 10 minutes, I think I'll do the double-masking. It can't hurt. Plus, I try to remember to wash and sanitize my hands before and after each visit.

When I first put on the two masks, I wondered how my ears would handle the extra burden. But it was nothing at all. 

The first mask I put on had rather loose ear loops, but the second one has tighter elastic loops, and together, working in tandem, I feel like I'm getting pretty decent protection.

I find it somewhat odd that I'm discussing wearing two masks at once. Less than a year ago, when the pandemic came to our shores, masks were hard to come by. Remember that? At the time, even medical experts like Fauci said the preferred but difficult-to-find N95 masks should be reserved for first responders.

But all that changed quickly when it became apparent the virus was deadlier than anticipated. Empirical evidence has supported wearing masks as a way to mitigate the transmission of the virus. Empirical evidence is another way of saying common sense.

Now Kim and I own about 10 or so masks – each. We wash them regularly and have them located in strategic places, like in the kitchen, in the pockets of our coats and in our cars.

There's a humorous meme out there in Facebook world showing a photo-shopped Fauci wearing eight or nine masks at once. I think this came out almost immediately after his pronouncement that it might be wise to wear at least two masks, and I think the meme was meant to be a sarcastic SMH statement from the right, who don't want to be tread upon.

With more than 430,000 dead Americans in less than a year (it took almost four years to reach that number of dead Americans in World War II), I prefer to take the meme to heart.

So wear a mask.

And wear a mask.


Saturday, January 23, 2021

Hank Aaron

 As a long suffering Philadelphia Phillies fan, starting back in the mid-1960s when we moved down from East Hartford, CT, to Bethlehem, PA, the one opposing player I feared the most was Milwaukee's Hank Aaron.

That's saying something in a league that featured hitters like Willie Mays, or Ernie Banks, or Stan Musial or Roberto Clemente.

But it seemed to me like Aaron virtually feasted on Phillies pitchers. To this day, I think at least 700 of his 755 career home runs came against the Phillies. It sure felt that way.

The thing is, even as a teenage Phillies fanatic (even though I was neither green, pop-eyed nor had a ribbon for a tongue), I remember having the utmost respect for Aaron. I don't know where that came from, but I can take a measured guess.

Richie Ashburn, a former Phillie great himself and later the calm, dulcet-voiced radio broadcaster for the team, had nothing but good to say about Aaron, whom he played against. Ashburn somehow was able to transfer his respect for Aaron through the airwaves and to his listeners. And I was listening.

As Aaron's remarkable career progressed, it was evident that Hammerin' Hank was closing in on Babe Ruth's long-standing career home run record of 714 dingers.

So, on that April night in 1974, I sat in front of the TV, waiting for the moment when Aaron – who just turned 40 – would eclipse Ruth. It came in the fourth inning when Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Al Downing tried to sneak a fastball past Aaron, only to have Aaron deposit it over the fence in left center field.

I leaped out of my chair. I'd seen baseball history. I also saw it as something like blessed vindication for a Black man who had to endure the slurs, threats and hate mail of racial bigots who thought Ruth's record would stand forever, much less be surpassed by an African American.

I think No. 715 was a transformative moment for the game. Only 27 years earlier, Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier. And now this. I think Babe would have nodded in approval.

Aaron passed away Friday at the age of 86.

There is a somewhat curious – and perhaps humorous – sidebar to Aaron's career.

Baseball cards, especially for those of us who grew up in the 1950s and '60s, were a way for us to connect with the game and with the players.

You couldn't see the players on the radio, of course, and most televisions were still in black and white with lousy rabbit-ear reception. So baseball cards were a critical way for players to communicate with their fans.

Hank Aaron's 1956 Topps baseball card – two years after his rookie season and before he became The Hammer – is in an unusual horizontal format. It features a great profile of Aaron looking off to the side with a face full of promise and expectation. There is a purported autograph of his in the lower right-hand corner that is actually legible.

And then there's a really neat smaller action shot of a player sliding into home plate. It's supposed to be Aaron, because it is his baseball card, after all. But look closer. Why is there no team name on the uniform? And look at the player's face. Look at the bow legs. It's not Aaron. It's Willie Mays.

Beckett's, the baseball card price guide magazine, confirms this.

It makes me kinda wonder what was going on at the Topps' company. What were they thinking?  Did they not have a suitable action shot of Aaron they could use? Could any Black man stand in for him and nobody would notice?

Well, at least it was Willie Mays. The day Willie Mays was Hank Aaron.

And I found this, too. Aaron hit 76 home runs in 357 games against the Phillies. That's one homer in almost every fifth game. That's 10 percent of his career total against one team.

It takes your breath away. 

Well done, Hank. May you rest in peace.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

The Big Lie

While comfortably soaking in the tub early this morning, a parade of thoughts and images kept marching through my head about the events of the past two weeks.

I can't help it. Apparently, it's what happens when you're a writer with an abiding interest in American history.

So while the warm, soothing water wrapped around me, I was thinking about the Big Lie. The Big Lie, of course, is that the results of last November's general elections were fraudulent and because they were, Republican Donald Trump is the true president of the United States and not Democrat Joe Biden. 

That's what Trump says, anyway. But he says so without citing proof. He can't, because there is no proof. Just accusations, which are not proof.

Chris Krebs, the former United States Director of Cybersecurity (and a Republican) which oversaw the electoral process, said the elections were the most secure in American history. He said that just before Trump fired him.

Bill Barr, the embattled Attorney General of the United States (and a Republican), said there was no fraud just before he resigned.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority leader (and a Republican), said there was no fraud, even after he became minority leader after the elections.

So why was the Capitol ignominiously stormed 11 days ago by thousands of Trump supporters intent on challenging (and changing) the Congressional count of the electoral vote, as mandated by the Constitution? "Stop the steal" became a Trump-approved mantra that fueled the new-born insurrectionists and self-styled patriots as they made their own attempt to steal the election results.

It was in actuality an assault on democracy by many armed insurgents.

Then I got to thinking what is democracy? It's not something that you can touch. You can't hold it. You can only believe in it. It's an ideology that requires faith that the system is just, truthful and that it works. It's manifested by free and fair elections and a law-and-order judicial system. Otherwise, in the absence of democracy, other ideologies wait to fill the vacuum. Most likely anarchy. Or perhaps fascism. History shows us this.

As days passed, the horror of the mob revealed itself: urine and feces decorated the Capitol walls; according to the FBI, at least seven white nationalist groups were identified in breaching the halls of Congress; and, ironically, numerous Capitol police officers were assaulted – and one was killed – by the mob that celebrates Blue Lives Matter.

There's also a scary side note to this. While it's safe to say not all the Trump supporters gathered on the Ellipse that day were insurrectionists, subsequent arrests have uncovered numerous military veterans and law enforcement officers who did participate in storming the Capitol building. That's disturbing. What happened to the oath they took to defend and protect the Constitution? Was that just a formality to collect a government paycheck and pension? Or was their oath a big lie, too?

These are the people that Trump said he loves in an insincere video attempt later that day to squelch the insurrection that nearly consumed Trump's own Vice President, Mike Pence, who was presiding over the electoral count in the Senate chambers.

Something else was revealed that day: American racism.

Nearly all the domestic terrorists were white. Consequently, there were almost no real-time arrests. Even by the end of the day, there were only 69 arrests made, mostly for violating a 6 p.m. curfew. Even now, 11 days later, there are perhaps 300 charges in the books. But this contrasts to the 350 or so arrests made by mostly peaceful marchers in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations on the capital streets in a single day back on June 1.

There's your definition of white privilege. Imagine the carnage if the Capitol had been stormed by unarmed BLM?

And consider this: the racial demographics of America is about to change. The nation will be majority minority within the next 20 years, meaning Whites in this country better learn to share the power instead of controlling it. Voter suppression tactics, such as gerrymandering and reduced polling sites, has a half-life. If you have a grievance, get over it.

There's a now iconic image of a sole Capitol Police officer, Eugene Goodman, fending off rioters with a truncheon (and not a gun) in the halls of Congress, luring them away from the Senate floor. Goodman is Black. The rioters are white. And Pence, just seconds before, was in the Senate chamber.

A friend of mine noted that America was built on the backs of slave labor. Indeed, the White House, the Capitol, Monticello, Mount Vernon, even Wall Street, not to mention infrastructure in general, were built by Black people. But in a larger sense, so was the essence of what's right with this country: the 14th and 15th amendments and the civil rights movements and legislation dating from the 1960s come to mind.

My friend also suggested that it might be Black people who ultimately save our democracy.

He might be right. No lie.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Hard times

 "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is its natural manure." – Thomas Jefferson, Nov. 13, 1787, in a letter to William Stephens Smith

"A little rebellion now and then is a good thing." – Thomas Jefferson, Jan. 30, 1787, in a letter to James Madison

I bring forward these quotes from Thomas Jefferson in light of the horrifying rape and vandalism of the nation's Capitol by a fevered pro-Trump mobacracy on Wednesday, fomented to insurrection by none other than President Trump himself just moments before the assault on Congress.

The Trump supporters, apparently prepared for rebellion (and well armed, as it turned out), intentionally tried to interrupt a Constitutionally ordained procedure to certify the electoral college vote count.

In other words, a move toward anarchy.

The above quotes by Jefferson, which seem to be pointed and precise if you care to take sides with the aggressors, were written in response to Shays' Rebellion that occurred near Springfield, Mass., in 1786-87. The uprising was a result of area farmers dealing with a local debt crisis and state taxation. Many of those rebels fought in the Revolution and felt under-compensated for their efforts (including Capt. Daniel Shays, for whom the rebellion was named).

The rebellion also occurred during the drafting of the Constitution to replace the ineffective Articles of Confederation, which Madison – regarded as the Father of the Constitution – used to draw up the Second Amendment. You know, the part about a well-regulated Militia.

To this day, both of Jefferson's quotes are open to interpretation. The second quote often shows up on T-shirts among small-government believers who also like to brandish "Don't Tread on Me" flags.

The first quote is curious. The blood of "patriots & tyrants" is pitting two opposing forces – countrymen – against each other, apparently to the death. This actually foretells the Civil War. The part about manure might speak for itself. Maybe Jefferson's quote isn't what it might seem. Was he really promoting bloody rebellions every generation or so? A bit more on that in a moment.

The thing about these quotes is that Jefferson was on a diplomatic mission in France at the time, buying books and furniture and discovering recipes for ice cream. He had nothing to do with writing the Constitution, so why are his opinions even regarded here?

The French, however, loved Jefferson and saw him as an expert in revolutions, especially given that he was the author of the American Declaration of Independence, the ultimate in revolutionary documents.

The argument can be made that Jefferson was a seriously conflicted personality. While writing that all men are created equal, his slaves were building Monticello. While calling for rebellion against the monarchy, he's fleeing Charlottesville from approaching British troops. Where's the blood of the patriot?

If truth be told (a rare commodity these days, it seems), Jefferson can be regarded as an extreme liberal for his views on rebellion. He also thought the local Massachusetts government had a right to put down Shay's Rebellion.

Considering that he is so self-conflicted, did we really elect him as our third president of the United States? Sounds like he had some real split-personality issues.

Well, he did give us the Louisiana Purchase. Wait. Wasn't that socialism redefined as government expansionism?

In light of these troubled times, there's another quote to consider. It comes from Massachusetts Chief Justice William Cushing in a letter he wrote in The Hampshire Gazette in June 1787 about Shays' Rebellion:

"I fear evil minded persons, leaders of the insurgents ... (waging war) against the Commonwealth, to bring the whole government and all good people of this state, if not continent, under absolute command and subjugation to one or two ignorant, unprincipled, bankrupt, desperate individuals."

Wow. That could have been yesterday's editorial.

We live in perilous times right now. The days leading up to Joe Biden's inauguration appear to be particularly fraught, especially after last week's events. Trump supporters, emboldened after breaching the Capitol while Congress is in session, are promising more to come. Maybe even bloodshed.

When, after the Constitution was adopted in 1789, founding father Ben Franklin was supposedly asked if the nation had a republic or a monarchy.  "A republic," was his reply, "if you can keep it."

The storming of the Capitol is as close as we have come to Franklin's crossroads since the Civil War. 

Tomorrow's editorial awaits.

Friday, January 8, 2021

The desecration of American democracy

In a week filled with unbelievable images, two stood out in my mind.

I was initially appalled by seeing thousands of pro-President Trump protesters, many carrying American flags, storming the steps of the Capitol after rallying on the Ellipse Wednesday morning and subsequently vandalizing the hallowed halls of Congress.

Their purpose, I assume, was to interrupt the ceremonial certification of Joe Biden as the newly-elected President of the United States, a procedure which happens to be ordained by the Constitution. It was mob rule. Some protesters apparently were armed, as events later turned out, which can only imply more nefarious reasons behind this assault on democracy.

But the first image that struck me was one of the protesters in Statuary Hall carrying a Confederate battle flag.

A desecration of democracy...*

The Civil War occurred in 1861 to 1865, much of it just across the Potomac River in Virginia. The battle flag was originally designed for unit identification, a necessity for keeping the lines intact through the smoke and haze of battle. It was never adopted as a national flag.

The flag was virtually forgotten immediately after the war, but resurfaced with a vengeance in the mid-20th century as a way for the South to rebel against desegration.

And now the flag, which should only exist in museums if for no other reason than the Confederacy lost the war, has been co-opted as a symbol of anti-government rebellion and white nationalism, ironically protected by the government-created First Amendment right to free speech.

The protester in the picture (who eventually will be identified and prosecuted for trespass, incitement, assault and any number of other charges) is walking between portraits of former South Carolina segregationist and senator John C. Calhoun (left) and Massachusetts abolitionist Charles Sumner. There's got to be a story in there somewhere.

I thought it was an incredibly incongruous picture. The Confederate battle flag never made it to the halls of Congress during the Civil War. But it was there on Wednesday. And for what purpose?

...for what purpose?**

The second image was even more upsetting. It was a picture of a noose and gallows on Capitol Hill.

If you are familiar with the darker side of American history, you must know that the noose is primarily a Jim Crow-era abomination – and now a symbol – that should remind you that nearly 5,000 African Americans were hanged over a span of more than 50 years in the last century, afforded no due process and apparently for no other reason than the color of their skin.

Which is why this picture should give us pause. Why is there a noose on Capitol Hill? Just who is the target of this threat? How does this define our democracy?

The pro-Trump rally Wednesday was attended by almost exclusively white people (between 20,000 and 40,000 of them by FBI estimate). Why did they bring race-driven icons?

Thoughtful people watching this travesty unfold are righteously indignant, saying this is not America, this is not who we are.

I want to say that, too. But I will argue that this is exactly who we are, and what we will continue to be until we affect deeper changes in our laws and in our culture.

* Photo by Saul Loeb (Getty Images)

** Photo by Andrew Caballero (Getty Images)

Sunday, January 3, 2021

This is sports?

 Are you having as hard a time watching televised sports in the Covid era as I am?

I find myself settling in front of the television these days, fully intending to watch any live sports action that might happen to catch my attention.

But we are, after all, living in strange times. What with self-quarantines, social distancing, appalling death numbers, poisoned politics and Lord knows what else, there's not much left for us to do these days.

So I watch games on television to help keep my sanity. Or I try to, anyway. It's what I try to do for entertainment.

Oddly enough, I find myself channel-surfing in the middle of tied ball games. I walk into the kitchen when somebody's attempting a game-winning field goal with time running out. College basketball in front of empty arenas means nothing to me. I suddenly missed those annoying shouts of "Go in the hole!" or "Yudda man!" at patronless PGA events. The Masters in the fall? Not right. Better if not at all.

Or it could be that after spending more than 45 years of my life as a sports journalist, I might just be tired of sports, period. I stopped covering high school events this year because of the pandemic and because I didn't want to put my nearly 70-year-old life system in unnecessary jeopardy, or perhaps put somebody else's life system in jeopardy.

And I missed none of it.

My sports ennui – or cynicism – really started this summer, I think, when I tried to watch major league baseball. But that turned out to be a joke. The 162-game regular season was shortened to a laughable 60 games, which means every player's stats has an asterisk behind it. Also, what kind of championship test is 60 games? Potential championship teams are just barely creating momentum 60 games into a season.

On top of that, players were performing in front of cardboard cutouts of fans in otherwise empty stadiums, listening to piped in cheers over loudspeakers. I barely watched the World Series, with my interest more peripheral than actual.

That concept of cutouts, incidentally, spread to nearly every stadium sport. It got me to wondering what was the real worth of these games? I mean, athletes, like stage performers, feed off their audience. It's part of the contest. I could only wonder how motivated players really are in front of empty arenas with cardboard fans wearing blank faces. Say what you will, but to me, something's missing from the heart of all this.

 In college football, teams were qualifying for bowls with ridiculous records. Back in the old days, you needed to win six games to qualify for a bowl. But now, we saw Wake Forest (4-4) meet Wisconsin (3-3) in the Duke Mayo Bowl. Mississippi State (3-7) and Tulsa (5-3) literally slugged it out with a massive game-ending brawl in the ironically named Armed Forces Bowl. Of course they did. C'mon.

At least 20 teams elected not to go to a bowl game at all, even if they did qualify.

Teams in every level were competing with corrupted schedules and depleted rosters, if they were playing at all. I actually found myself applauding programs that opted out of playing games for fear of turning them into super spreader events, trying not to get their players and fans sick.

You know why they're doing this, of course. Money. Sure, it's always been about money. But now, in the middle of a deadly pandemic, even more so. If you understand that, it all makes sense.

And here you were worried about voter fraud. The real fraud is happening on athletic fields.

In order to entertain myself, I found myself watching reruns of movies like Bull Durham or Major League, where the action, incentive and motivation seem more real to me now than reality itself.

Today is the last day of the regular NFL season. I know what's going to happen. I'll turn on a game between contenders, settle in, watch a few minutes, doze off, wake up, channel surf to The History Channel, or The Smithsonian Channel, get informed about something I didn't know about, like aliens or Nazis, then turn back to the game to see what the score is.

And go back to sleep.