Tuesday, April 28, 2015

First Rock

At first, we all strain to crawl. At 56, I am just beginning to reach one hand forward.

Baltimore burns with the flames of righteous unrest. Young and disenfranchised and victimized by the oppressive hegemony of money and established privilege, the hopeless hurl rocks at the sneering faces of corrupt and untouchable authority. It sickens and divides, pushing hard against our senses of right and wrong. 

For myself, such riots have ever been curiosities; phenomenon to assess; tempests to weather from the safety of distance—in every meaning of that word, distance. I have been neither threatened by their onset, nor particularly impacted by the outrageous  and unequal treatment throughout our society that ignites them. 

As one who was granted true opportunity from birth to run as fast and far as one’s legs could carry them from a healthy head start, my core emotional response to my own daily reality is closer to gratitude. Guilt is nonexistent. After all, I didn’t make this world. I just compete within its crooked rules.

One of those rules is to hold close to the system and beliefs that promise comfort to its more privileged members. Recognition of inequality is discomfiting enough, but to speak openly against it is treason. I have been inertly floating in the comfortable stasis of the protective amniotic sac that my quiet acquiescence secures.

That water has broken. And my clear eyes focus upon disquieting truths. Such as the fact that me and the balance of my generation has not only been played like willing dupes, actively perpetuating and reinforcing the architecture of our oppression, but now in the wake of reluctant recognition of our culpability, we do nothing but sit in judgment of our children we’ve left to fight battles that we had long ago surrendered.

I am responsible. And if you belong to my generation, you’re also responsible. It is our fault. All of it. And if you don’t think so, you’re even more at fault. We were granted this life to lift each other and to build upon our collective prosperity. But we did nothing but take the money and run. We didn’t learn from the lessons of those who went before. We only advanced our technology and multiplied our population to compound our mistakes and our misery.

Let’s think more about responsibility. (I champion personal responsibility, by the way.) No doubt, many behold the protesters and claim that they, like each of us, are ultimately responsible for the course of their lives, including the circumstances of oppression. I partially agree, and add that the more powerful position one is born into, the more responsibility one has for the promotion of our greater wellbeing. 

What are our common individual responsibilities? Let’s start with attributes like kindness, honesty, empathy, courage, devotion, generosity and thirst for knowledge. Let’s also acknowledge that the evils of society are entirely of our own creation. And that they are fixable. In fact, often we can identify the problem and the solution, but we’re unwilling to do the necessary things. I also realize that we are not individually responsible for the policy decisions of our government, but we cannot deny that we are collectively responsible for every bit of it—and that the collective responsibility extends to each of us in the demands that we be engaged, informed, and vigilant in discarding that which doesn’t work and progressive in developing and promoting better candidates and solutions.

As long as we have free and open elections, we have the power to change everything. For too long we have been divided and conquered. For too long I’ve played nicely within the lines. You probably have, also. It’s worked for us individually, while it’s totally fucked us as a whole. I hope this makes you feel accountable. Even more, I hope it makes you think about how you can help flip the script. 

We profess to value equality. Yet we’ve built a society that is suffering from institutionalized and growing disparity. It’s not the only challenge, but it goes to the selfish heart of our root problem. Likewise, “Every life matters" is a statement that draws consensus agreement, until it comes to requisite action. 

Those protesting in Baltimore are fighting against mighty forces. It’s a battle in a revolution that we should be waging. They cannot win without us. A victory over inequality is a triumph for all.

This is me reaching for my first rock. 

Friday, January 30, 2009

Happy Birthday A.C.!

In honor of Alexis Catherine, who is 18 today.

I think the last time I saw Lexi she was resting face down on a living room couch with one of the family pugs curled up asleep on her butt. I’ve seen that pose before. It’s somewhat incongruous with the image of the striking young woman she’s grown into seemingly in a blink. Not long ago I was giving her stuffed animals and wild bucking bronco rides. Now she’s taller than me (thanks partially to the half inch I lost compressing my knees and spine as her horsy), much prettier than me (that’s some low hanging fruit), and guessing her allowance, she’s probably out-earning me. She may even be smarter than me—although, up to now, all her attempts to get over on me have been stymied. But she is formidable. She’s got the Hosfield gift of argument. What I can’t account for is where she got such grace and poise so far beyond her years. That may be a quality of her own invention. I’ve seen her work a room of adults like a seasoned ambassador. I suspect one day she will conquer whatever part of the world she sets her sights upon. Charmingly, of course. She’s also likely to leave a trail of broken hearts, as she has always been spirited and independent. In fact, the smart money was on blue hair, black fingernails, tattoos and all-out rebellion by age thirteen. I’m glad I never made that bet, because she’s beset by no such demons. Instead, she’s the very picture of health and happiness. And as she hits this milestone of 18 years—the quasi-standard of adulthood (unless you want a drink), I’m all at once excited, and proud, and grateful, along with a little bit sad to see her growing so fast beyond my watch, heading toward adventures extraordinary. She is more than ready for this. I’m merely pretending that I am. Happy Birthday, A.C. ! (Yes, I’m calling her A.C. now. Seems like a good moniker for someone weaned on Sports Center and destined for the Warsaw School of Sports Marketing.) Even though she has yet to pay off on our Peep bet, she’s forever my favorite niece.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

30 Second Essay: Wisdom

A failure to redeem.

The warm glow of Indian summer is gone. The sun is but a faint yellow circle upon a slate gray horizon that hangs a low, heavy ceiling over the fading hillside colors of northwestern Oregon. Fall salmon are surging up the coastal rivers in their indefatigable quest to spread their epic life-force across their natal waters.

Chasing them with a fly rod is an annual ritual for me. The fortuitous conflux of perfectly drifted fly pattern and aggressive salmon explode into chaotic battles that test every fiber of tackle and resolve. Pulling with all my might on a stout nine-weight rod against these silver torpedoes gives me a bedrock appreciation of what it means to never give up.

Hip-deep in chilly current, wading-shoe cleats bracing for purchase against the shifting and slippery river rock, fighting for every reel-turn of fly line, I feel connected to something ancient and authentic. At the same time it rejuvenates me, it breaks me down into my base elements to reveal fundamental truths about myself, my mortality, and my natural place in the universe.

Life, death, struggle, the beginning and the end; it's all here. And it's beautiful.

I'd like to be fishing today. But the rain that has pushed the rivers out of shape has made the day better fit for tying flies rather than fishing with them. Since I passed my fortieth winter I have grown to enjoy my hours at the tying bench as much as time on the water. It offers a different sort of contemplation. Putting hook in vise and dressing it with colored thread, fur, and feathers, whether to approximate one of the time-tested patterns of the masters, or to break away from tradition to create something of totally original symmetry, I find it hard not to think about the fish it will catch in the new seasons to come on my favorite waters.

My lifetime collection of tying materials fills a rainbow stack of clear boxes. Much of the best quality stuff came from my father, who first taught me to tie flies. But the stuff I'm using to tie my salmon patterns today came from my father's late best friend, George. Like my father, George grew up in Akron, graduated from an Ivy League college, then migrated to the Pacific Northwest, where he enjoyed fly fishing on many of the region's most famous salmon and steelhead rivers.
As I admire the fine French tinsel, flawless English hooks, and premium hackles that I cherry-picked from the remnants my father collected from George's estate, it is obvious that George had a passion for the sport and a keen appreciation for beauty and quality. I can't imagine that these things wouldn't have given him great satisfaction.

Which stands in direct contradiction to the sobering truth: George secretly drank himself to death and was fairly miserable. I don't know why.

It's been several years since George's ashes were spread over his favorite Washington stream. Yet still I look at his old stuff and wonder how something that gave him so much pleasure could not redeem him? It is a mystery because fly-fishing is intrinsically optimistic. It is hopeful and life affirming.

I miss George, his crooked smile and sardonic wit. I think of him often as I tie salmon patterns with his old materials, and retrace his steps along streams such as the Kalama, where I also marvel at the life force of salmon.

And continue to wonder and fail to reconcile how it couldn't sustain him.

Wrestling expelled from UO's new cool club.

(On July 13, 2007, the University of Oregon's new athletic director, Pat Kilkenny announced that the UO wrestling program would be eliminated after the end of the 2008 season. The following is a column in protest of that decision, written in March of 2008.)

Years ago, wrestling was my life. I chased the Olympic dream. Along the
way I played other sports, too. Baseball was a close second in my heart. But wrestling built me up in ways beyond that which any other sport did. While the hardship dwarfed the glory, I can’t imagine how greatly my personal development would have been diminished by the absence of wrestling.

Strange, that a sport that does so much for an individual is so often challenged to justify its existence. No one ever questioned my participation in soccer, baseball, track, gymnastics or cross country, but the one sport that surpassed all others, wrestling, sometimes even invited ridicule. As someone predisposed to celebrate all sports and basically cheer all similarly ambitious human endeavors that produce such good, it never occurred to me that I should scorn activities that were different from my own interests.

What I find even more mystifying is that the leadership within the UO Athletic Department and the university—educators, folks that one would imagine would be more cognizant of the greater educational value of wrestling--are so seemingly benighted.

While some profess that the world would be a better place if everyone's character were forged in the hot crucible of amateur wrestling, the broader view is that all athletics exist to create stronger, more well-rounded individuals--you know, the classical triumvirate of mind, body and spirit. Yet the undeniable thing that I find most compelling about athletic endeavor is, for lack of a better term, what I call the realization of the impossible. Beyond PRs and breakthroughs there are
even greater rare moments of magnificent transcendence that surpass all hope or expectation, as if you're suddenly defying your own personal gravity. You push beyond perceived limits and experience an enhanced awareness of your own potential, and you come out almost bulletproof.
These were the real victories. It’s why we played the games.

I wonder if Pat Kilkenny or David Frohnmayer believe this? They seem more concerned with erecting sports palaces than they do about molding the character of the athletes who play within.

Kilkenny treats college athletics like a business. I say it’s not a business. Businesses exist primarily to generate profit. College athletics exist to enrich the experience of the student athletes and produce better citizens.

I have less faith these days in the business model. It brings us Enron, WorldCom, and Bear Stearns.

I recently read excerpts from a 40-year-old speech made by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wherein he puts gross national product into perspective. He observed: “It counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for police to fight the riots in our cities.” Kennedy continues that GNP, “does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of theireducation, or the joy of their play…It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages,” and measures “neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country.” Kennedy concludes: “It measures everything in short except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud to be Americans.”

Kilkenny’s ledger counts wrestling as a sum loss. It doesn’t measure the value of countless dreams of small-town kids throughout Oregon whose best chance for college is a wrestling scholarship; or how they might further their educations and develop their unique talents, then return to their communities to bolster the fabric of our state. Or even the many who don’t get to college, but who hold onto a wrestling dream that gets them through high school. What is the value of the dream itself? How do you measure the impact of such dedicated athletes--whose desire burns so intensely—to inspire their fellow classmates? All Kilkenny sees is a sport that will never make money. He seemingly makes no accounting for its growing popularity, its unique opportunity, its grounding in the values that built our state, the better citizens it creates, its real and symbolic importance, or the fact that it epitomizes the very essence of what college athletics are all about, and what the UO used to stand for.

Wrestling gave us people like Teddy Roosevelt, James Cagney, John Irving, Gen. George Patton, Ken Kesey and Abraham Lincoln.

I chose wrestling because it gave me a better forum to test my creative cunning and express the full measure of my heart. Kilkenny chose to cut wrestling because he and Renee Baumgartner think it’s unfashionable. They don’t want wrestling in their new cool club they’re seeking to cultivate.

So why should anyone care that wrestling is going away? Forget the fact that it's still a very important sport in our state; or that it's the fastest growing boys prep sport in America; or one with a wealth of local talent that the UO should be able to parley into great success on a national level; or that its very unnecessary demise jeopardizes many other wrestling programs in the West; or the many thousands of wrestlers whose opportunities and worlds close in; or the shameful reality that the UO has the creative and financial wherewithal to easily do so much better than this.

But this is about more than wrestling. This is about values, and drawing a line in the sand. Too many things are being sacrificed. Kilkenny and gang regard this as a cold business decision. What's most alarming is that it seemingly never occurred to them that it should be anything else.

Oregon wrestling coach, Chuck Kearney, said he asked Kilkenny if he thought the UO had any responsibility to the athletic interests of the youth of our state. Kilkenny allegedly replied: “We’re self funded; we can do what we want.”

Is it any wonder the wrestling community is so outraged? They fully comprehend the magnitude of the prospective loss; they see it as symbolic of a greater degeneration; a confounding embrace of style over substance. They understand that Kilkenny’s initial justifications for dropping wrestling—lack of funding, lack of facility and Title IX compliance issues—were specious arguments masking a greater antipathy for wrestling that they pretend does not exist. It’s so much easier to sell the killing of dreams, the stifling of opportunity and the elimination of a cherished program by placing the blame on hard economic realities, and not on their hard hearts. But if the UO’s leadership cannot see the good that wrestling promotes, or how perfectly it meshes with the educational mission of the university, someone should ask them what it is that they do stand for?

So, once again: Why should anyone care about the ushering out of wrestling?

It's not the one thing; it's the tide.