Sunday, October 23, 2016

Teddy, Truman, Cubs & Indians

            All right, enough about this year’s presidential election. It’s getting too stressful, and we’ve all surely made up our minds by now. It’s time to focus on two other election years, and on two previous presidents.
            Let’s talk about Teddy and Truman. Let’s discuss 1908 and 1948.
            Here’s why: On Tuesday night in Cleveland, this year’s World Series will begin, and the two teams playing will be the two who have gone the longest since winning their last titles. The Cleveland Indians have not won a championship since ‘48, when the first Baby Boomers were in diapers and World War II had just ended. And the Chicago Cubs have not claimed a title since ’08, when the first Model T was coming off the assembly line and one of our Mount Rushmore presidents was deciding not to run for re-election.
            The Indians and Cubs have endured some of the most depressing strings of losing seasons in professional sports history in the many decades since they last held a title trophy aloft. Their fans have continued showing up, though, holding out hope every April and cheering them on through excruciating September and October collapses.
            But here they are, and it’s clear that one of them will end their losing streak over the next 10 days. And as they engage in this year’s Fall Classic, the Cubs and Indians will bring back memories of the men who occupied the Oval Office when these teams last stood atop the baseball world.
            Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman both started as vice presidents, and both stepped in after the elected president died in office less than a year into a four-year term. Roosevelt’s focus on taming corrupt robber barons and using executive powers to enhance programs such as conservation made him an American hero, leading to his re-election in 1904. In ’08, Teddy decided against running again, and promoted his friend and cabinet member William Howard Taft, who was elected a month after the Cubs won their second consecutive World Series. 
             As for Truman, he took office in a tumultuous time, and found a way to help steer the U.S. through the end of World War II and into the United Nations. After almost four years, it seemed that the American people were going to vote against Truman for re-election and favor Republican Thomas Dewey. In fact, the Chicago Daily Tribune even printed a headline reading “Dewey Defeats Truman.” But this time, the news media and pollsters really did get it wrong, and Truman was re-elected to another four-year term. A month later, the Indians claimed their second title.
            History has painted Teddy and Truman as two of the 20th century’s strongest American presidents, and they are widely respected for their determination and frank talk. As I review some of their most famous quotes in the fabulous collection found on, I see words that inspire on multiple levels. First of all, as with any great line, they can inspire an individual in need of hope. Secondly, they provide much-needed perspective for a nation searching for its next leader. And finally, they give long-suffering baseball teams – and fans – words to live by. Let’s give a listen.

-          “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” 
-          “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” 
-          “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” 
-          “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” 

-          “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” 
-          “The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.”
-           “We must have strong minds, ready to accept facts as they are.” 
-          “Believe and you’re halfway there.”

The World Series games will be played this week, and one group of fans will cry tears of joy. The election will be held on Nov. 8, and we the people will select a new leader. After that, life will go on for us all. Whether the signs on our lawns or the jerseys on our backs reflect the winner, we will have our own victories to pursue. Circumstances will arise in which we’ll need to decide whether we want to step “in the arena,” and whether we are ready to “believe” – in ourselves, in a cause, or in that which we can anticipate but can’t yet see.
            I guess what Teddy and Truman were really trying to tell us is that if you can sense a reason to hope, and you can feel the courage of your convictions, then you need to go for it. “The only man who never makes mistakes,” Teddy once said, “is the man who never does anything.” These former leaders would tell us to make sure we take the initiative, and don’t let the words and actions of others guide our own self-direction.
           Go Cubs go, for sure. Go Indians, absolutely. I’m with her, of course. But more importantly, go Warren. Go all of us. We can get through this together. As another American president once said, yes we can.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Locker-Room Talk

            I have been working out regularly for some 30 years now, and I’m proud to say that even in my mid-40s I still get a good five or six workouts in each week. I say this not to brag about my fitness, but to bring up the point that in these three decades of working out, I’ve heard quite a bit of “locker-room talk.”
            Today, for instance, I popped into the gym for a morning swim before getting some work done on a school holiday. I heard a couple of men discussing which professions get Columbus Day off, as it was clear that there were more people in the gym today. I also heard two men talking about getting their flu shots, with one asking the other if he’d be getting a pneumonia shot as well.
            When I’m quickly changing or showering in the locker room, I typically overhear certain types of conversations. There are always the sports discussions – banter about the Yankees, Knicks, Giants, Jets, and pretty much every football team you could name. There are also the lifestyle talks – about food, vacations, movies or music. Occasionally, I also hear talk among friends about issues of the day – politics or income or race, sometimes in classic debate style, and always respectful. Sometimes there might even be some talk about marriage or dating. But that talk is often more about personality, interpersonal dynamics, and getting along with your partner – not so much about physical features.
The most common type of talk I overhear is the basic “Howya doin’?” banter. I hear men who’ve known each other for years catching up, and asking how things are going. As they get older, men are aware of time passing and like to check in on their friends’ health, especially if they haven’t seen each other in awhile.
So there are assorted types of conversations that go on in a gym. But in my 30 years of working out, there’s one thing I have never, ever heard in the locker room - even in four years playing high school baseball and four more years working out on a college campus. Never have I heard a man talking about how cool it is to walk up to a woman and grab her genitals. Never have I heard men talking about how much they want to just walk up to women and kiss them without consent. Never have I heard such disrespect for women.
I don’t know how we’ve arrived at a point where a man who does talk like this is (a) running for president and (b) dismissing it as “locker-room talk.” As a father of two girls, I don’t really even want to think about this issue much more. I just want to say that I go to locker rooms as part of my life routines, and I don’t hear people talk this way. So there must be a better label for the candidate’s words. To use his own vernacular, let’s start with “disaster.” And then let’s make sure he remains a troubling, loud-mouthed civilian on Nov. 8.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Master of Stories

            Most of the time, life’s moments seem to pass by in fast-forward. We find ourselves standing at the counter at 10 p.m., making the kids’ lunches and wondering where another day has gone. The list of things to do and places to be is ever-growing, and the social media overload vies for any free time we might have.
            In short, 21st-century society is desperately lacking in downtime – in a chance to reclaim ourselves and reconnect with life beyond that to-do list. Perhaps that’s why, despite the BuzzFeeds and Snapchats and Twitters, many Americans have been reaching for podcasts and longform journalism in recent years. It’s as though they are saying, “Enough is enough,” and crying out for the power of deliberate storytelling.
            We all have known people in our family, friend group, school or workplace who knew how to tell a story. We have sat down and listened to these people share details and narratives that painted pictures in our minds. For my brother and me, our grandparents were the key storytellers in our early lives. Our dad’s mom told us about her Norwegian mother and Icelandic father immigrating to America and adjusting to this new world. Our mom’s mother regaled us with tales of her brother, who could light up a room, yet had passed away before we were born.
            Our dad’s father died when we were young, but not before he had told us all about his favorite baseball player as a child, Zack Wheat of the Brooklyn Dodgers. And our mother’s dad, who lived until we were in our 30s, filled our lives (and tape recorders) with tales of his brothers and sisters, minor-league baseball career, marriage to our grandmother and battles with alcoholism. He was our personal podcast before there were any, giving us stories we could file away and download when life called for it – stories that were by turns gritty, nostalgic and at times hilarious.
            Our grandparents, and their generation, are almost all gone now. But not completely. Sunday, an 88-year-old California man bid goodbye to his job as baseball’s premiere storyteller. His name is Vin Scully, and he called Dodgers ballgames for 67 years, from 1950 all the way to this past weekend. His longevity is unparalleled in baseball, but Scully’s gift was much more than sheer perseverance. He was the best storyteller in a sport flush with them, and he could make even a passing baseball fan feel enraptured in tales about players’ lives, American history and the unique quirks of baseball.
            There were a number of years in which Scully called World Series games for NBC, and many of us heard him add stamps of literary brilliance to dramatic October moments. For those who lived in Brooklyn and then Los Angeles, Scully’s voice was part of the soundtrack to spring and summer, guiding them through three score and seven years of Dodgers: from Jackie Robinson to Sandy Koufax to Maury Wills to Steve Garvey to Fernando Valenzuela to Mike Piazza to Clayton Kershaw to Corey Seager. And for those who used streaming or cable services to subscribe to every Major League Baseball broadcast, Scully’s voice could still be heard across the nation as he called Dodgers home games by himself in the broadcast booth.
            I listened to Scully’s final broadcast on Sunday, as he told stories of great Dodgers-Giants rivalries of old, while calling a game in which the San Francisco Giants defeated the Dodgers to earn a playoff berth. Scully had grown up rooting for the Giants, then spent more than three-quarters of his life working for the Dodgers. It was a perfect sendoff for the great broadcaster, and he signed off in class modest style, telling his listeners that he always needed them much more than they needed him.
            He also departed by paraphrasing a quote from Dr. Seuss, telling us not to be sad that it’s over, but rather to “smile because it happened.” With these words, Scully was connecting his career with the essence of storytelling. We do tell stories so that we can smile about the things that have happened, and this in turn helps assuage the losses we experience, as well as the relentless passage of time. These stories give us moments we can’t forget, and which we will pass along to those younger than us. Be it a grandparent, a teacher, a good friend or even a broadcaster, storytellers give us the chance to press pause on life, and savor what is richest and most beautiful about this time we get on Earth.
            Vin Scully is still very much alive, and he will keep sharing stories with his children, grandkids and great-grandchildren. He might even pop into a broadcast booth now and then. But wherever he goes, he will leave us all much richer for the time he spent with us, turning a nine-inning ballgame into the fabric of life.