Saturday, February 21, 2015

Persist, Adapt, Repeat

My name is Dave O'Gorman and I am trying to finish a novel. And the problem with that idea is that I am not particularly smart. For more than two decades of on-again / off-again writing and on-again / off-again adulthood I've put up a serviceable front as someone with something going on above the neck, but the truth of the matter is that I've been largely faking it the whole time. Some would tell you otherwise, but I'm actually not a terrifically bright guy.

This is not false modesty. I am not smart enough to have taken the undergraduate math classes I would have needed to excel in a graduate-level economics program, and I'm not smart enough to have realized that shortfall before trying a second time. I'm not smart enough to see a half-full glass when the totality of the world's progress all seems pointed in such an unhealthful direction, and I'm not smart enough to avoid alienating people by crabbing about it on Facebook. I'm not smart enough to learn my lesson about trying on ideas with friends who'd rather not be monopolized by the uncooked pasta salads oozing from my brain, and I'm not smart enough not to brood when they get tired enough of listening to me, to call me on my bullshit.

What I just may be smart enough to do, is persist.

True, this persistence has often manifested as a dogged, unsavory, almost Nixonian dedication to silencing some critic or doubter or imagined slight -- but this doesn't change the fact that in the half-dozen venues I've decided are important to me, I've proven almost without exception that I can calm the screeching sleet-storm inside my head sufficiently to leg out my agenda. The only big thing I've really ever quit on is my Ph.D. in economics, and that was after I'd passed the written preliminaries. So, okay, no: I can't keep my gigantic mouth shut; I can't wake up tomorrow and not be mostly self-focused and vain and cranky. But if I've proven anything it's that I can grit my teeth and finish something if I want it bad enough. (Badly is an adverb.) It's a meager form of emotional intelligence -- hell maybe it's the most meager form of emotional intelligence -- but it is something I can do. And until very recently it would have been enough to get me the rest of what I want. I can persist. It's not nothing. It's just not everything, either.


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Friday, February 13, 2015

A Liberal Economist Remembers Tom Landry (...Again.)

In the run-up to last week’s Superbowl my Facebook feed was just like yours: Positively vibrating with un-contained buzz for a sporting event about which I neither could, nor plan to, care any less. I haven't been interested in the Superbowl for years, except perhaps as a source of lament for the ever lower stoops it represents at the riverside of American popular culture. Last year at the same time I had to be told by one of my students who was playing.

As an unashamed progressive, aspiring artisan, *and* professional economics teacher, the two-week hypestorm of the Superbowl can be a gauntlet of spirit-crushing alienation—the yours-truly equivalent of all the scary desolation that befalls other single people around Christmas. To stave the blues I even make an annual ritual of tossing-off the same joke to my college classes, in which I lament that the conference alignments have permanently prevented Detroit from ever facing New Orleans in the ultimate contest. …And every year I have to explain all over again why there should be any irony whatsoever in the mental image of a nationally enthralled audience, rapt before the telecast of a contest between “Saints” and “Lions.” Pretty generally the kids still don’t get it. Point being, I may actually be the only person among my first, second, or even third circles of real-life friends who is officially all out of fucks to give about the Superbowl and its smorgasbord of unsavory capitulation to the engines of kleptocracy.

Not that there's been much of anywhere to hide: For fourteen straight days in January my Facebook feed was a veritable who’s who of people I’m supposed to look up to, preening in anticipation of an evening of diabetic sloth and Orwellian prostration in patronage of two corporate monoliths trying to ruin each others’ employees’ lives with leg sweeps and armored headgear. Somehow it felt even worse this year, though this of course could be more about me, than it. But mixed in with the usual dreck about which team was better positioned for the game, which commercials were going to be the best and worst, and how the halftime show was expected to come off (remind me again who Katy Perry is?), there were some noteworthy flourishes of genuine interest--and two of these items ultimately came together in my consciousness in such a way as to merit a sugar-free thought or two of my own.

The first was a quiz making its way around Facebook about which NFL team a person should support. Perhaps you’ve seen it: After the usual handful of benign questions and a few seconds of thoughtful machination, the website hosting the quiz purports to tell you which NFL franchise is best suited to your personality and temperament. With many better things to do, I took the quiz and was told I would make a very good Patriots fan. Go figure.

My immediate reaction to the thing when it popped up in my feed was to comment on precisely this flaw: Sports affiliations in general, and NFL allegiances in particular, are highly durable to one’s otherwise evolving tastes and values. To tell someone he ought to be a Patriots fan after an eight-question quiz is less like telling him he should try Pepsi and more like telling him he’d be happier as a Rosicrucian. Cute, maybe, but it ain’t gonna happen. Like our political values, we form our NFL connections early and with a great deal of nostalgia-tinged influence from our local environments, typically while we are still children. And because the choice of team we support has no real consequence for us or anyone else, it is in consequence all but indestructible once it sets: a slab-on-grade foundation, if not of who we are then of who we were when we came into it. Impervious to changes of geography, parental influences, broadcast rights or lists of fellow supporters, however unpalatable the company. Our sports allegiances in this world are as inviolate as our lifelong distaste for the man down the street who threw rocks at us for cutting across his lawn on our bicycles.

Now hold that thought while I explain that the other blip above the din of Seattle-Boston hate week was a reprint of Sarah Vowell’s improbably touching memorial to Tom Landry, who passed away in February of 2000. 


You probably know that Landry was for over a generation the steely-eyed, granite-impassive head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. What you may not know is that he was what we would now call a Christian-Conservative Republican, or that, at the time, so was I. For Ms Vowell to have eulogized him in such a touching way was at once both the perfect complement to my early reactions about the quiz, and a bittersweet moment of regret for an earlier time in all our lives, regardless of one's favorite team. 

For me the default NFL-football allegiance was, has always been, and more-or-less remains, with the Dallas Cowboys. I’m not a million miles from ashamed to admit that lately but it’s still true. And it is precisely that combination of the youthful certitude with which I imbued my initial choice, and the changes that have happened since—to me, to the Dallas Cowboys, to the country we both used to love—which have made Ms Vowell’s remembrance of the passing of their former head coach Tom Landry so difficult for me. Not for what it says about him, or me, or even her, but for what it says about us.

In January of 1978 I had just turned eight years old and my mother and I were living in a dreary apartment in Wappingers Falls, New York. I remember the big day as just the sort of cold and rainy winter Sunday that often besets the Mid-Hudson Valley for weeks and sometimes months on end. All afternoon a blustery drizzle had fallen over the vanishing snow drifts outside our window and speckled them in a pepper-crust of dirt. With all my friends inside for the evening and no appetite for a solo assault on the weather, I decided more or less by default to join Mom on the couch for this thing they called the Superbowl. I had never seen an NFL football game before. And I was hooked. Permanently, or so I thought at the time. Indeed hooked before I had any real notion of what was going on. To say I was changed by the moment is the sort of understatement people usually reserve for car crashes.

The precedent for such na├»ve zealotry had come three and a half years before, with my bitter disappointment over President Nixon’s resignation, and later with the eventual outcome of 1976 Presidential election. At age four I had known very few things, but I knew I was a Republican. I knew in the very broadest terms what this meant but the connections to my own daily life and potential livelihood were as distant as the nearest quasar and there was precious little appetite among the available adult influences to try to set me straight. 

The idea that I could have been a Republican was just fine with my Democratic-leaning Mother, who thought it was cute that her precocious and ever-nattering young son should bother to have a political identity of any kind. She’d been aggressively over-handled as a young child herself and come whatever consequences she was damned and determined that the legacy of her constriction would be a fierce independence in her progeny. (She succeeded.) 


Meanwhile my by-then-estranged father was far too busy ignoring me for our seven yearly ski trips at the far end of the Taconic State Parkway, to notice. Had he received the news of my politics he would have validated them--but this would have called for a level of interest sufficient to register me as anything beyond a consumer of lift-tickets, and this requirement placed such potential simpatico firmly beyond our collective reach. Which is another thing that never really changed—if also a topic for another column. Point being, I was as staunch a Republican as a person can possibly be at an age when he can’t be relied upon to pedal a bicycle without supervision. 

There wasn’t really much of a choice about this, either. In the mid-1970s nobody reeled from the abrupt disappearance of Richard Nixon as I did. His presence on the television had peppered my earliest childhood with just the sort of butch-gravel voice and haughty command most young boys can easily find at the other end of their family’s living room. To me he was the ultimate man’s man: Listening to him speak was an exercise in the receiving of dulcet toddies—as if Santa Claus had been cast in the role of a 747 pilot, narrating the surely-smooth landing to us over a crackly P/A. Walter Cronkite had painted a terrifying world against the eyeballs of a four year-old watching the evening news unsupervised in 1974, and the main force in my life that had made it less so, was Richard Nixon. How bad could things possibly be, when I could count on the thick tongue and stern visage of the CIC as he spelled out to me why it was so important to continue bombing Cambodia? To me Nixon hadn’t been a Republican, or even a politician of any kind. He’d been, simply, The President. The only one we’d ever had in my lifetime and, presumably, the only one we ever would have, either. And then he’d resigned. And I—knowing positively nothing of which I spoke—had blamed the Democrats in Congress.

The grown-up realization that I wasn’t alone in this misapprehension lessens the shame of its remembrance, if only a little. After all, by this time a series of full body blows had landed on both me and my country with an almost eerie verisimilitude: On the very day that the North Vietnamese captured the Saigon Independence Palace, indeed at the very moment that Sandy Gall was narrating the tank breakthrough at the iron fence, it was explained to me what a marital separation meant, and that soon I would have to move and change schools and learn how to live with one parent at a time. Surely all of this had to be someone’s fault, and the obvious choice was the political movement that had reduced our trusty and benevolent jumbo jet-pilot to a whimpering wreck on national TV the previous summer. In my teens and twenties I would write three separate term-research papers about Watergate—one each in high school, college, and graduate school—and to re-read them now is to witness a fractious and painful transformation from the certitude of Executive Privilege to the necessity of the Rule of Law.

I remember very little about Nixon’s successor other than the tears I cried when he, too, was taken from us—albeit via more conventional means. In the summer of what should have been our national zenith of jingoistic masturbation over the bicentennial, an unknown and almost preternaturally inexperienced smarty-farty had galvanized the cynical Washington press corps around a message of sweeping change, and bullied his way to the Democratic nomination by making shrewd use of the caucuses to compensate for less stellar results in the primaries. Tenaciously opposed in Congress and lacking even the most basic agenda for his tenure, he had quickly retreated into rudderless platitudes, unforced gaffes and mealy mouthed equivocation. (Stop me when any of this starts to sound familiar.)

True, no one yet knew what an Ayatollah was, but still I may have been the only seven year-old ever to be threatened with removal from a U.S. classroom over the hand-back of the Panama Canal. It was only the new President’s first summer at the head of our affairs, but clearly this guy and his ilk had to go. Later that same season I’d started looking into the matter in earnest, and by late autumn I knew the country’s future could stand no better chance than with the tall and straight-talking career administrator and former chair of the RNC, one George Herbert Walker Bush, whom I supported steadfastly in favor of his Hollywood-flack opponent for the Republican nomination (a man whose name escapes me just at the moment). Eventually I would cry on the third night of the 1980 Republican convention, too—if not over the eventual outcome until much, much later.

All of which brings us back to the moment I sat down on that couch in Wappingers Falls to view the spectacle of two NFL franchises slamming away at each other for the most coveted of prizes: SuperBowl XII, in January of 1978, Dallas vs. Denver. I had at this point already chosen George H W Bush for 1980, and I had never seen football before. I didn’t even know the rules. If this much doesn’t tell a person everything he needs to know about my childhood, nothing will.

On game-night itself it was the pageantry struck me first. The New Orleans Superdome was in its gawky infancy and it’s hard to remember what a glittering spectacle of cocky commercial gravitas it was, given what has happened there since. When the two teams were introduced they took the field between flanking plumes of color-coordinated smoke and confetti which erupted from canisters that looked like nothing so much as mortar tubes. The National Anthem was sung by Phyllis Kelly and even before she started there were American flags everywhere. Everywhere. The halftime show was called “From Paris to Paris, Texas” and was performed by the Apache Belles—a majorette corps from the two-year college in Tyler, Texas. The play-by-play commentators were Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshire. A thirty-second commercial spot on the CBS telecast cost $162,000. The Cowboys were favored by six.

Now, if you’re eight and you’ve never seen a football game before, and you’re me, the first thing you have to do—even before you work out what a quarterback is or how to keep the score—is decide which team will be yours. And you have to do so with the death-grip passion of a summons to jihad. Good news, that, because for an eight year-old me still smarting over Watergate and the apparent theft of our ’76 freedom-fest by a spineless peanut farming wimp, this was the easiest decision I’d encountered. Possibly ever.

Nobody had to tell me that the Cowboys were “America’s Team,” or that their hometown would soon rise to prominence as the Martha’s Vineyard of the Republican Party. No one had to tell me that Dallas had a higher payroll or even that they were favored. All of this was at once inescapable and irrelevant: Dallas would win because they walked like they deserved it. They would hold the field because they took it expecting to. They would prevail because right-minded decent folk who polish their act and cross their T’s and don’t try to squeeze by on corner-cutting guile, were the ones who were always rewarded in our society and always deserved to be. The Cowboy team was more poised, more fit, way better looking, and far more polished in their execution.

And so it came to be, at least then and there. The 27-10 final score was if anything under-representative of Big D’s total dominance. The factious and nerve-crippled Broncos would eventually commit eight (!!!) turnovers, and even a doe-eyed little kid who didn’t quite know what was happening could have essentially called it from the opening kickoff, and felt good about it. After all, what could have been more just? If you trusted in the basic elegance of markets and the fundamental correctness of their outcomes, you knew to pick the Cowboys in Superbowl XII before Randy White had barreled through the line to force the first bad snap. People won because they did their homework and had their shit together. Might didn’t make right; it flowed from it.

This is what being a Republican used to be about.

This is why, when those of us of a certain age think of Tom Landry, we can’t help transport ourselves back to a time—yes, I’ll say a more innocent time—when the Jack Kemp’s and Tom Kean’s and Bob Dole’s of the world could smile a hale greeting for you and shake your hand until it hurt and look you straight in the eye and tell you they saw things differently. And if you disagreed you didn’t hate them for it because they’d given you no reason to. They knew in their hearts they were right, just as you knew in your heart that they were not, and neither of you was pandering for the TV-soundbite or the disingenuous red meat to fan his base. No one was winning after having cast the other guy as a cartoon character. You disagreed, but you did it in good faith. Both of you. A person could say this about Republicans once, an increasingly long time ago.

And of all the people you could say this about, you could perhaps say it first about Tom Landry: a Christian Conservative before it was fashionable to capitalize either of those two words, and a Republican the way most of us breathe oxygen, but never with the faintest hint of antagonism for those who would come at things from a different perspective. In sport, as in politics, there was always much to hate about the larger group, but personally I never heard anyone say they hated Tom Landry the man. They hated his team. They hated that he won. But these are not the same thing. No matter how you felt about his record or his politics, you didn’t hate him personally. So, okay, never mind the current crop of politicians for a moment; can you say the same about any Republican-leaning athlete of the modern era? Can you say it about Curt Schilling? About Lynn Swann? About Tim Tebow? …Really?

This is what happens to us when we spend too much time on Facebook, of course: Eventually we find two little blips, backed more or less against each other in our feed, and the combination sparks some otherwise improbable thought which completely commandeers our day. In this much, at least, I am not alone. And so it is that the tragedy of loss I feel over Sarah Vowell’s memorial isn’t just a typically nostalgic reverie for the innocence of youth; it is a nostalgic reverie for the country we all used to share. I don’t just mourn for the loss of Landry, or for the loss of the youth I enjoyed when he and I were in our primes; I mourn an entire era when the sharing of our national discourse meant good-faith disagreement and mutual commitment to proportionate governance. And I mourn it because it’s just as gone as he is.

You of course know where the story goes from that rain-swept evening in 1978—not just for the Cowboys, and the nation, but for me as well—even if you don’t know me personally. As the giddy Republican resurrection of 1980 petered out and a once promising vanguard of the moderate wing lost his bearings under the cult of his boss’ outsized persona, a cabal of increasingly nervous Texas businessmen banded together in suburban Dallas to give rise first to Lee Atwater, and then to Jerry Jones, and eventually to a progressive liberalism in the bosom of your present author, in retaliation for the other two developments.

The sadness I feel, in other words, isn’t for the realization that I have changed: It’s for the realization that, really, I haven’t; it’s the country that’s changed. The country, and the Republican Party, and the poisoned well of social discourse which they’ve wrought to consolidate their ugly grip on power. With the reprint of Landry’s eulogy, I can again remember not just a legacy of championship-level excellence, not just a corresponding chapter from our own lost innocence, and not just one of those grainy historical contexts which always manages to seem greater in our memories than any of them ever really were. I can remember a time—not that long ago, really—when an NFL football coach could be an avowed Christian, an avowed Republican, and almost universally respected for the class, and dignity, and above-all the good faith with which he hurled himself at everything he did. I remember Tom Landry once again, fifteen years later, as the Republican You Could Disagree With, and Not Hate.

He’ll be missed.

Dave O’Gorman
“The Key Grip”
Gainesville, Florida  

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