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In February, 2017, I began a monthly column for my home town paper, The Yuma Pioneer, wherein I attempt to discuss lessons (valuable and otherwise) I learned as a horrible six-man football player on the High Plains. I shall archive them on this page, or not, as time permits.

Feb 17 Mar 17 Apr 17 May 17 Jun 17 Jul 17
Aug 17 Sep 17 Oct 17 Nov 17 Dec 17  

Dec, 2017
Guitars, Narcissists, and Hillbilly Music

First off, thanks to everybody who heeded Tony’s recent call for letters-to-the-editor.  I love to see what people are thinking, especially those who see things differently from me. 

Second off, starting in 2018, I’m going to be writing fewer articles for the Pioneer so I can focus on my next novel.

This being the case, I’d like to return to a subject I addressed in the first column I wrote, back in February.  That one was about the differences between rural and urban living, and how I believe those differences have less to do with the people who live in those places and more to do with how those places require people to interact.

This past weekend, I was able to witness firsthand some of those differences.  Let me set the scene:  

I’ve been a wildly unsuccessful musician, mostly based in Denver, for over twenty years.  In that time, I’ve established a wildly unsuccessful recording studio, also mostly based in Denver.  Now that I spend most of my time in Yuma County, I’m hoping to re-locate my studio to this area.  With that in mind, I recently invited a Denver-based country band spend a weekend recording several songs at my house.  Since they would be the first band to come out here, and since that meant I’d have some bugs to work out during the process, I agreed to charge them the heady sum of five dollars per hour, with half of that going to a friend who would co-engineer the recording.  My only requirement was for the band to perform at the monthly music night we host at the Grassroots Community Center in Joes. 

When the band arrived on Thursday afternoon, the first thing they said was, “Half the guys won’t be able to make it to the show in Joes.” 

Okay, fine, I guess.  The rest of you can still play right? 

“Yep.” 

Good, let’s get to work.

We got to work, everything sounded splendid, and everything went terrifically.  For one night. 

Something strange happened on the second day of the session.  It became clear that the band hadn’t adequately rehearsed their songs; the phrases “thank you” and “please” evaporated from their vocabulary; and I came to suspect that these guys thought my buddy and I ought to be honored to sit on our butts for nine hours while they struggled to record four songs that should have taken them two hours to knock out.

At nine o’clock that night, they completed their final take, much to our relief.  We figured this meant they were done.  Instead, they decided to record several of their songs AGAIN, but this time with my buddy now shooting a video so they could post it online. 

Seeing no end to this, I asked them to wrap things up by ten o’clock.  They ignored me, which did not please me.

When ten o’clock rolled around, I shut off their microphones, which did not please them. 

Relations were strained for a while, but there was a minimum of swearing and we managed to keep things more or less civil. The next afternoon, I sent the whole group (I won’t be naming the band here, but feel free to call them Ego and the Session Men.  Or The Ungrateful Red) home with a fantastic recording, having fulfilled my end of our informal contract and feeling more than a little unhappy with the way things had turned out, not least because I’d missed the 6-man football championship game on their account.

That evening, I had to explain to the folks who came to Music Night why the featured band would not be in attendance.  While it was disappointing, nobody was heartbroken about it. 

As soon as soon as our local gang of stalwart kooks, The Rural Roots, began to play, my opinion of humanity, which had been at an ebb, rose again.  There are few things I enjoy more than playing music with my friends and for my friends.  We can joke around, play great or play sloppy, and the audience can tease us without mercy. Given the frustrations of the previous day, Saturday’s show was a reminder of what it means to live in a close-knit community.

While there are real and profound differences between rural America and urban America, I would argue that virtually all of those differences are a consequence of how close you live to your neighbors. (I could go on about this for days.  I will not. You are welcome.) Furthermore, I would argue that if people in the rural and urban versions of America could acknowledge that these superficial differences are the root cause of our utterly ridiculous cultural divisions (which are relentlessly exploited by various news outlets), then maybe we can stop screaming at one another for a little while.  But first we have to spend some time with one another.

That is precisely why, in lieu of payment, I had asked the Denver band to join us at our community center. They did not take that obligation seriously because they were far more concerned with putting their country music on a computer hard drive than they were with sharing it with a bunch of strangers in a country town they’d never heard of. The poor suckers really missed out.  Sure, they got themselves a record. But an evening with the gang at the Grassroots Community Center could have given them a glimpse of something far more rewarding than the mirrored finish of a CD.

But fear not.  Cultural exchanges can go in two directions. So, gang, who wants to come play a gig in Denver?

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Please do not take this as a blanket condemnation of “Denver Bands.” These guys were an unfortunate exception to the rule.  If you were among the lucky folks who got to see the Flobots play in Joes a couple of years ago, you saw the very best of what music can accomplish.


Nov, 2017
This is Not a Pipe Dream

The Kaepernick Effect, Pt. 3

Imagine somebody who's driven the same pickup for forty years.  Over those forty years, every single part of that truck has at some point become worn out or busted or dented.  The owner has dutifully replaced those parts, to the point where there is not a single molecule remaining from the original truck.  Which raises the question, if every single part of a pickup has been replaced, then is it the same pickup the owner originally purchased in 1977?

When does a thing cease to be itself?  It's a question that has stumped philosophers for at least two thousand years. (The Greeks called it Theseus's Paradox.  In their version, they used a ship rather than a pickup.)  Which, naturally, brings us back to the ongoing discussion of Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who knelt in the name of civil rights.  In recent weeks, the number of NFL players participating in pregame protests during the playing of the national anthem has ballooned from less than forty to more than a hundred.  This increase coincides directly with a speech delivered by Donald Trump in Alabama in which he stated that any player who protests during the anthem should be fired.  And then, presumably because he needed a break from all the work he was doing to get disaster aid to Puerto Rico, he sent several tweets about the subject, suggesting, among other things, that people should boycott the NFL until the protests stop.

If there's anybody whose desperation for adoration can compete with that of our president, it's a group of highly paid professional athletes and their billionaire employers.  Trump insulted them, so they showed him who was the boss by turning the sporadic protests into a movement. 

In doing so, Trump has once again taken an issue and turned it into a referendum on himself as a person.  Make no mistake, the players who have recently joined in the protests are doing so as referendum on Trump as much as they're doing it as a reaction to unjustified police shootings. Even a couple of team owners joined the protests.  Those team owners are the same people who have made sure that Colin Kaepernick doesn't have a job in the NFL (I believe the term is "blackballing".)  If those owners truly believed they were protesting in the name of civil rights, don't you think they might consider hiring Kaepernick, the very player who started all this kneeling business?  Nope, it’s got nothing to do with civil rights.  Instead, they're like the cocky kid who's been poked in the chest and who now feels compelled to prove that he ain’t no sissy. (For some particularly rich irony, do an online search for the terms: “Jerry Jones” and “hypocrisy.”)

Kaepernick began his protests to bring light to the communities that suffer from unjustified killings of innocent people.  Now they’ve become an excuse for the NFL to demonstrate solidarity in the face of an egomaniac’s tweets.

No wonder people keep asking, "What are they protesting?"  At this point, it's anybody's guess.  It’s sort of like asking if a 1977 pickup that's had all its parts replaced is still a 1977 pickup.

Meanwhile, what’s Colin Kaepernick up to? 

First, there’s a bright side to not playing football: he’s not getting concussions, and he’s not in a league that turns a blind eye to sexual assault, domestic assault, and child abuse. (There's not room here for a full list of the NFL players who, unlike Kaepernick, remain in the league in spite of some truly abhorrent behavior.) 

With his newfound free time, he pledged last fall to give a million dollars, plus any profits from jersey sales, to various charities, $100,000 per month.  As of today, he's donated $900,000 to more organizations than I could possible list here. (For the full list, go to www.kaepernick7.com.) He's helped organize a Know Your Rights Camp, whose point is to "raise awareness on higher education, self-empowerment, and instruction to properly interact with law enforcement in various scenarios."  In doing so, he's taking specific action to counter the social forces that have led to the disenfranchisement of people of color, and he's doing what he can to give them the tools to prepare themselves for the awkward scenario of being confronted by a poorly-trained police officer who might mistake walking down the street for a capital offense. 

It seems like Colin Kaepernick is still behind the wheel of his good old truck, but now he’s learned how to drive the thing. 

It’s human nature to be outraged at things that make us uncomfortable.  But remember, we have the option of seeing beyond that outrage.  To that end, we, as citizens, would do well to notice that, while our president stokes anger in order to stroke his ego, Colin Kaepernick is trying to make this a country worth standing up for.  It's up to you whose example you'll choose to follow.

Thanks for reading.


Oct, 2017
...And Whisper It in the Valley
The Kaepernick Effect, Pt. 2

 

Okie dokie, gang.  Back to the subject of Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who knelt.  As I mentioned in my last column, I going to try to climb down from my "Mountain of Truth," and I invite you to do the same, with the hope that we can meet in the "Valley of Things We All Have in Common [1]."  As you would expect, this conversation starts  with a suicidal albatross.

 

Imagine, if you will, the following nightmarish scenario: an  airplane is innocently flying above Washington DC and it just happens to strike a despondent albatross who just happens to have eaten a can of starter fluid for breakfast.  Upon being struck, the bird catches fire and then plummets like a comet 50,000 feet straight down and thru the roof of the National Archives where it smashes into the display case containing the original version of the US Constitution, which is burned to a crisp. 

 

Were this to occur, two things would happen.  One, we, as a nation would be very upset that such a valuable historical document has been lost in such a ridiculous fashion.  The other thing that would happen is...nothing.  As in, even if the physical copy of the Constitution were destroyed, its meaning would remain the law of the land.  The United States of America would still have three branches of government, the Bill of Rights would still apply, and so on.

 

In other words, while the physical copy of the Constitution is a legitimate historical treasure, its true value lies in the system of government it established, and which will persist for as long as we honor the spirit of the document. 

 

The same goes for the American flag.  Old Glory, with its  stars and stripes, is a symbol of America, but it is not literally America.  Alas, while the Constitution clearly spells out the structure of our government, the flag is far less specific.  With the flag, we are left on our own to define what it stands for.  At the very least, we can agree that the flag is:

 

A) A symbol of the concept of America.

B) Not literally America.

 

The concept of America as represented by the flag, will continue unabated no matter how the flag is represented, be it flying above the US Capitol building, hung upside down as a distress signal, silkscreened on a tee-shirt superimposed with the words I support the troops.  Sit on my lap and raise the flag pole[2], or stretched out across the length and breadth of a football field.

 

My point being, some depictions of the flag are respectful and some are disgraceful, but none of them have any direct consequence to the ability of this country to function as a democratic republic based on the rule of law. 

This is because, just as with the Constitution, the flag is a symbol of America, but it is not literally America.  This is all obvious, I know, but we need to establish common terms before we can proceed to the subject of kneeling football players.

 

Let us now discuss our national anthem.  As we all remember, The Star-Spangled Banner is a poem by Francis Scott Key, that was set to music that had been originally composed for a British men's social club[3].  Key's lyrics, which include three verses that aren't typically performed, were inspired the by the sight of the flag the morning after the bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814.

 

Just as with the Constitution and the flag itself, the functionality of the United States of America will continue unabated whether the Star-Spangled Banner is performed by Whitney Houston, Rosanne Barr, or an electronic doorbell.

 

Having said all this, I understand why people don't like to see the Constitution, the flag, or the National Anthem disrespected.  They represent American ideals, and to insult those ideals is to insult the very essence of the USA.  But, paradoxically, one essential component of the USA is that people are allowed to speak freely, and that includes the right to make dumb tee-shirts and to screech the national anthem.

 

I, for one, am sufficiently secure in my belief in the ideals of this country that I don't get offended when someone toys with one of our symbols.  Because symbols are one thing.  Ideals are a far greater thing, and those cannot be touched by fire.

 

Next week: I'll talk about the different interpretations of American "ideals" and America's "essence."  Because even those terms are vague and it's perfectly reasonable that not everyone will agree on what they mean.

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[1] Not to be confused with the "Valley of the Shadow of Death," which is a whole 'nother proposition.

[2] Yes, this exists.

[3] The club was called the Anacreontic Society and it was dedicated to "wit, harmony, and the god of wine."  Good info if you want to win a bar bet.

 

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September, 2017
Shout It From the Mountaintop
The Kaepernick Effect, Pt 1

As I mentioned last month, I’m going to spend a few words on Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who, in the name of civil rights, refused to stand for the national anthem, and the brain-ripping controversy that has followed that decision.  I had hoped to whip up a quick little piece that’d capture the various perspectives on this subject and then wrap it all up with an amusing life-lesson-learned.  As with most of the things I leap into, I was altogether too hopeful.   Quick little piece, my eye.  To get to the bottom of this one, I’d need to write roughly five hundred pages, annotated, footnoted, and illustrated with pie charts and nineteenth-century woodcuts.  Something tells me that our dear editor, Tony, would rather not give over the next three years' worth of the Yuma Pioneer so I can talk about the history of patriotism, nationalism, civil rights, and whatever else might pop into my head.  And I rather suspect that you, dear reader, would be even less inclined to endure such a thing.  On the other hand, it’d be an insult to your intelligence if I were to try and boil down my thoughts until they could fit in a single column.

What, then, shall I do?  I guess I’ll do what I always do, and write until I’ve finished, and hope you’re willing to read until the end.

Let’s begin with a recap of the Colin Kaepernick saga. 

Last year, Kaepernick, who played for the San Francisco 49ers, refused to stand for the national anthem, which is traditionally played before the beginning of an NFL game.  His explanation:  "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”  He’s talking about the numerous cell-phone videos that show black men being killed by police officers.  Specifically, he’s referencing those videos in which there is no clear indication that the dead men behaved in a manner that would warrant an instant death sentence.   

Kaepernick faced a massive backlash for his protest.  And then the backlash was faced with backlash.  With your permission, I’ll summarize those backlashes with an imaginary conversation between two imaginary people drinking coffee at an imaginary diner: 

ORVILLE: Kaepernick’s protest was an insult to the soldiers who fought to keep our country free!

WILBUR: The protest has nothing to do with soldiers!

ORVILLE: The NFL is a private business.  They have the right to tell him to stand his butt up or get the heck out!

WILBUR:  You’ve got a point there.  Except, last year, the NFL commissioner said, “Players have a platform, and it's his right to do that.”   

ORVILLE:  Tell me, smartypants, why won’t any team hire him?

WILBUR:  Good question!

ORVILLE:  He’s a coward is what he is!

WILBUR: Does a coward risk his career to call attention to issues that affect groups of people he doesn’t even know?!?

ORVILLE: His message is incoherent!  What’s he trying to accomplish?

WILBUR: He’s trying to get people to think about the value of black lives and the value of proper training for police officers!

ORVILLE: Go fly a kite!

WILBUR:  No, you go fly a kite!

And that’s more or less where we currently stand.  As always, we’re got two schools of thought, shouting at each other from mountain peaks that are so far apart, they can’t even hear one another.  Welcome to America in 2017. 

As humans, we’re all biological creatures who simply want to enjoy long, productive lives.  It’s only when we talk about abstract concepts—such as race or politics--that we start to diverge.  As those abstract concepts stack up, they can isolate us from one another, until we’re so far apart that we can’t communicate.  And so, as I continue writing about this subject, I’d like to climb down from my mountain and I’d invite you to do the same, for here at the bottom of things is where we all meet.  Hopefully, by the time I’m done, we’ll have made our mountains a little closer to one another.  With that being said, I’ll continue this next month (or maybe sooner if Tony has room) with a discussion about Old Glory, The Star Spangled Banner, and a suicidal albatross.

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August, 2017
Yes Sir, No Sir

When I was a gangly freshman on Liberty's six-man football team, I once made the mistake of calling our coach "sir."  He had told us to do some push-ups or something and I said, "Yes, sir."  To which he replied, "I like the sound of that.  Everybody shall call me 'Sir' from now on."  And so, from then on, Coach was 'Sir' and we were his obedient--if not athletic--soldiers [1]

Once we figured out how it worked, this chain of command business really wasn't so bad.  If you do what Sir says, then you don't have to bother with thinking, which only has a tendency to complicate things anyway.  What was bad was our offensive line, of which I was a member.  We couldn't block worth a lick, which played a significant role in our 0-8 record that year.

By the time I was a senior, we still couldn't block.  But then, one Saturday in 1990, I was watching a college football game and the announcers started talking about a CU player who was doing a crummy job of blocking.  As I recall, they stated that, on a running play, one must drive forward into his opponent, opening up a hole for the halfback.  (That's how I tried to block on every play.)  However, the announcers continued, on passing plays, the linemen should take a step back and focus primarily on keeping the opponent from getting around you to sack the  quarterback.  That was a revelation.  My teammates and I had been pass-blocking incorrectly all this time.  For our next game, I switched up my technique and it worked[2]

But here's the ridiculous thing, I didn't share this insight with anybody.  I vividly remember thinking, Should I tell my teammates?  Nah, that would just make me sound like a smarty-pants.  Should I tell Sir?  Nah.  It’ll make him insecure and when he’s insecure he makes people run laps. 

I was more concerned with my own status within our football culture than I was with the success of our football team.              Clearly, this was foolish on my part.  Coach Sir had failed to see a glaring flaw in our technique. I was in a position to correct that flaw.  And yet, because of a fear of upsetting the status quo, I chose to keep my mouth shut and, in doing so, I chose to let our  quarterback got sacked over and over. 

What pithy lesson did I learn from all of this?  To be honest, I'm not entirely sure, but I'll make a guess: For the good of the team, it's sometimes necessary to speak up to Sir, even if you don't think he'll take it well. 

With this in mind, you can look forward to next month's column, in which I'm going to take an unpopular view on the controversy around Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who refused to stand for the national anthem.
______________


[1] I'm definitely overstating my role in all this, but the "Sir" story is a convenient narrative tool, so let's use it.

[2] By "worked" I mean, "I was slightly less horrible."  And it goes without saying that we lost.

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June, 2017
To the Victors Go the Spoiled

We’re all aware of Vince Lombardi’s legendary quote, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." [1] Today, I shall argue that winning isn’t a thing at all. 

I like to brag that the 1990 Liberty Knights only won one football game.  This isn’t entirely true.  At the end of the season our record was 1-7.  But then someone discovered that the Woodlin Mustangs had allowed an ineligible player to participate in their victory over us earlier in the year, which meant they had to retroactively forfeit the game.  And so, due to a technicality, the Liberty Black Knights doubled our win-total.

Yippee.

Changing our final record didn’t change the fact that, in our newly-discovered victory, Woodlin had forty-fived us before the fourth quarter, it didn’t change the fact that our running back twisted his ankle and had to sit out our next game, and it didn’t change the fact that Woodlin would have beaten us even if half of their team had been on the down-list.

In reality, Woodlin “won” the game.  The players they put on the field trounced the players we put on the field.  In another reality, Liberty “won” the game.  The players we put on the field did not violate eligibility rules.  Even though we lost the game, we won the game, simply by not cheating, which is the equivalent of passing a test because you spelled your name right at the top of the paper.

But I don’t care about any of that, because, as I mentioned five paragraphs ago, winning isn’t a thing.

Well, obviously, that’s silly.  Without winning, how would we know for certain that the Broncos won Super Bowl 50?  How would we know who earned the most money on Jeopardy last week?  Without winning, how would we know that we live in the greatest country in the history of the world?

Hang on a minute.  How do we know that we live in the greatest country in the history of the world?  It’s not like the United States competes in an annual Greatest Country in the World Contest.  And if we did, and if we won, I’m fairly certain that someone would claim that the referees were being paid off, and therefore declare the results invalid.

I mean, I sure do like living here.  But I really don’t know a whole lot about the other 195 nations on Earth.  I hear things are pretty good in Norway; low crime, great health care, lots of fjords.  Maybe Norway’s the world’s greatest country.  Maybe it’s Canada, or Costa Rica, or some place in Africa.  Who knows?  Who cares?  I like it here.  This is where I'm from. [2]  I love our free press, free speech, and freedom of (and from) religion.  The Bill of Rights is awesome!  The constitution was a brilliant document!  I love Colorado!  I love Yuma County! 

That’s good enough for me.  My self-esteem ought not to hinge on whether I’m a citizen of the world’s greatest country, or if my football team won one or two games, or if I’ve once again failed to write a coherent column.

In fact, there are many cases I’m just as happy to lose as to win, which is why I often do things that might seem nutty to an outside observer. When I fail at something--which is often--I endeavor to examine where I went wrong, take note of where I managed to go right, and then move on just a little wiser for having taken a risk.  Or, in the case of six-man football, I was able to move on with the understanding that, no matter how many games we won in 1990, I would be wise to never touch a pigskin again.   
________________________    


[1] For the record, Lombardi appropriated the quote from a guy named Red Sanders, coach of the UCLA Bruins, who was apparently saying it as early as 1950.

[2] Speaking of which, George Bernard Shaw may have been onto something when he said, in 1893, “Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it....”

May, 2017
Letting the River Run Dry

I used to hate Arickaree School.  Really, really hate them.  In the eighties, Arickaree had an incredible run in basketball and football where they beat Liberty, like, a thousand times in a row.  Arickaree was Gargamel and we were a bunch of Smurfs[1] .  I didn't hate just the athletes, I hated the coaches, I hated the parents, I hated their school colors (green and yellow), and I hated the Yuma Pioneer for printing articles with headlines like "Osthoff Scores 112 Points on Struggling Liberty Hoopsters." [2] 

My Arickaree-hate continued even after I'd graduated high school.  When some of my friends married, had kids, and then moved close to Cope, I actually thought they were traitors for sending their kids to Arickaree.

I remember when I finally came to my senses.  I was at a Liberty School reunion and I ran into someone who'd graduated from Arickaree and I told him that I hated everyone from his school, himself included.  His reply was, "I have no idea what you're talking about."  

I spent ten minutes trying to explain why I could never befriend an Arickaree graduate.  The more I tried to explain, the more I felt like a dope.  How can you not feel like a dope when you find yourself saying things like, "I loathe you because you are associated with a school that had some good athletes in the eighties"? 

The poor guy I was talking to, he calmly walked away before I'd successfully made my point.  This was wise, because I didn't have a point to make. 

You see, I had mistaken a sports rivalry for real life, and those are two entirely different things.  A sports rivalry is an invention designed to make games more interesting.  For instance, whenever we played Arickaree, I knew we were going to lose.  Everybody knew we were going to lose.  But, because we considered them our rivals[3] , I was able to stoke the fires of indignation in my brain.  As far as I was concerned, Arickaree were dirty cheaters[4] .  I used this as extra motivation, and sometimes it translated into better performances.  Okay, fine.  That's a sports rivalry. 

But then I took the rivalry out of the context of gamesmanship and I dragged it into the real world.  When I told the gentleman at the Liberty School reunion that I hated him, I wasn't being true to my school or loyal or patriotic or anything of the sort.  I was just being angry, and for no reason whatsoever.  I wasn't for anything, I was just against Arickaree, because it felt good to hate them.  I can't think of many things that are more pathetic than hating someone just because it feels good. 
 
Still, it's fun to yell and it's fun to be angry, especially if a bunch of other people are shouting along with you.  Whole segments of society operate on that principle.  Entire careers, entire political movements, entire television networks, are based on this premise that, no matter what “we” may be doing, “they” are doing something worse, and so they deserve our contempt, and so that makes us superior to them.  Again, this is not a big deal when you're getting ready to watch a homecoming game, but it's ridiculous when placed in the context of real life.  

If you want a real-life example of anger masquerading as morality, go to a political website that you disagree with.  Read the comments below the articles.  Many of those comments are condescending, tribalistic, vitriolic nonsense.  Now go to your favorite political website and read those comments.  What's the difference?  Same anger, different cheerleaders.   

When I watch high school sports these days, I couldn't care less who wins.  Instead, I try to enjoy that fact that I can sit in the stands and see a bunch of kids toss a ball around.  I enjoy the good plays, the goofy mistakes, the odd coaching decisions, and the crunchy concession stand hamburgers.  One thing I don't want to bother with is anger, and my life is much better for it.

And, to that anonymous gentleman I confronted at the Liberty School Reunion all those years ago, I thank you for your grace in the face of my pointless hostility.  I no longer hate you, sir.  However, I am still jealous.  But that’s a subject for another column…
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[1] I'm assuming everybody on Earth knows who the Smurfs are.  If do not know who the Smurfs are, consider yourself lucky.

[2] This is not a real headline.

[3] Anybody who beats you all the time is your rival, even if that rivalry isn’t reciprocated.

[4] One example: Their basketball coach drew up this clever screen play for missed freethrows, and it tricked us every time.  That wasn't cheating, it was thinking. 

_______
Further reading:  The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.  I don't love this book as much today as I did when I was a kid, but it's still fun, and goodly chunk of the final third of the book has to do with misplaced anger.

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April, 2017
Food Fight

Today, rather than discuss 6-man football, I'll focus on the NFL, with a particular focus on referees.  As a reminder, a referee is someone who wears a black and white shirt, who exists in a land where nothing is black and white, and who is loathed because he [1] has the final say.  Let's examine the previous sentence clause by clause: 

A referee is someone who wears a black and white shirt… The striped shirt is not very fashionable.  I wouldn’t recommend wearing one to a wedding, or funeral, or any non-sports engagement.  However, the design stands out nicely in a crowd and so it works well in a ball game.

…who exists in a land where nothing is black and white… You know how, when you’re watching the Broncos and you throw popcorn at the TV because the refs didn't see the defensive back interfere with Demaryius Thomas?  Meanwhile, on the same play, a fan in Massachusetts is throwing Boston cream pies at his TV because the officials failed to flag Demaryius Thomas for interfering with the defensive back.  Two fans watching the same television broadcast, but seeing opposite things.  Clearly, at least one person is mistaken here.  So why is everybody throwing food?  Because, when it comes to judgement calls, nothing is black and white.

…and who is loathed because he has the final say.  This, to me, is the key to this discussion, because it’s not entirely true.  The referees do not have the final say.  They have a say in the final say, but I'd argue that the players have a greater say in the final say than the referees.  After all, the players are the only people in the game who can actually score the points that end up on the scoreboard, and the scoreboard is the final, final say.  
Still, the referee is a convenient, easily loathe-able punching bag.  Referees don’t have fans, they’re just supposed to be invisible while simultaneously keeping both sides honest.  It’s an endeavor that frequently fails because:

1) Referees are humans and humans make mistakes.
2) Fans are humans and humans don’t like to accept reality (Rahim Moore! Jacoby Jones!) when it doesn’t agree with the desired outcome (Superbowl!).

This is why you get people in Denver and Boston throwing food at their TVs for the same play but for opposite reasons.  Which is fine; a little cognitive dissonance within a football game isn’t going to hurt anyone.

But what happens when we disagree about the nature of real reality?  Turns out, we do the same thing: blame the referees.  In this case, the refs are the press.  If we don’t like the news, then the media must be lying.  Fortunately, we live in an age of wonder, where it's easy to find a  media outlet that'll validate our beliefs.  And once we find that outlet, we stick with it.  This is fine in the world of sports, which is entertainment.  But in the real world?  Not fine.  It shouldn’t be difficult to come to a consensus on such apolitical topics as whether or not, for instance, adding carbon emissions to the atmosphere will lead to catastrophic global climate change.  Take the measurements.  Analyze them.  Come to a conclusion.  Done. 

Instead, we’re debating the very nature of the scientific method.  The scientific method, as we all recall, is a common-sense, logical approach to problem-solving.  There's not much to debate there, and yet we can't help ourselves.  Because we pick our favorite press outlets, with their sculpted personalities who share demographically-tested talking points, and then we offer them the same unconditional love we reserve for football teams.  No matter how you approach the topic of global warming, you must admit that it's absolutely nuts to approach serious issues as if they were entertainment.

Here’s some good news.  Just as with referees, the media does not have the final say in political matters.  That belongs to us, the voters.  But there’s some really bad news: most of the popular press exists purely as profit-driven entertainment, dominated by organizations who care about ratings more than the truth.

Consequently, in order to re-establish a common reality, we owe it to ourselves to stop thinking of the media as the referees, and to instead think of ourselves as the referees.  It's up to us to decide whether we want to get all our news from the same TV programs, the same radio personalities, the same websites, and the same community of friends, or whether we're willing to challenge our preconceptions (that cornerback mugged Demaryius Thomas) by exposing ourselves to different points of view (Demaryius Thomas mugged that cornerback).  Ultimately, we may stumble upon a greater truth: we're not as right as we think we are.

This starts when we stop asking the media (press, TV, radio) to define our reality, and instead ask ourselves if what we’re seeing is real.  Otherwise, we’re just throwing food at the TV. 
_____


[1] I say, “he,” but with the understanding that women are also perfectly capable of officiating sporting events.

_____
For further reading: Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.  Written in 1985, this book explores the pernicious influence of television (and more or less predicts the even-worse influence of the internet) on how we inform ourselves.  The first few chapters are full of academic language, but once the author lays out the groundwork for his argument, it’s a breezy, if depressing read.

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March, 2017
Catching Vinegar With Flies

In 1990, the Liberty Black Knights won a total of one football game, against the Bethune Bobcats.  Given how crummy we were, the Bobcats must have been having a very bad day.  But we clobbered them (by two points) and in doing so, I learned what it's like to crush an opponent (by two points).  For once, my team got to smile as we went thru the end-of-game good-sportsmanship handshakes.

Also during that game I learned what it's like to earn an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.  That was awesome, too.  (Cue Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days.")  It was the second half and we were on defense.  Just as Bethune hiked the ball, our nose guard leapt over the center and smashed Bethune's four-foot-tall quarterback into a two-inch-tall pancake.

In my excitement, I hugged our heroic nose guard and shouted, "You're a h***ing m***********r!"  Which got me a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct.  Our coach yelled at the ref, "What's the h*** was that for?"  The ref replied, "He used the F-word."  Our coach then yelled at me, "What did you say, Hill?"  To which I, playing the role of a dumb seventeen-year-old boy (which I was), replied, "I dunno."

After the game, as my teammates and I were celebrating our victory, somebody asked me what I’d done to earn that flag.

I glanced around the locker room to make sure Coach wasn't nearby and confessed my linguistic transgression.  Everyone laughed, because it was funny [1].  And then Coach, who had been standing right behind me, said, "So you lied to me?"

I nearly leapt out of my uniform, and then I said, "Yes, sir."

Coach then shook my hand and said, "Good job." 

There are many lessons to be learned from this incident.  First: in a sport where adrenalized young men are encouraged to beat the everloving snot out of one another, it's ridiculous to expect them to speak the King's English at all times, especially when their coaches routinely employ profanity during practice, during games, and in casual conversation.  Second: When you win, you can get away with things that would otherwise earn you a couple of laps around the football field on Monday.  Third: I totally deserved that penalty.

It is the third lesson that I wish to address here.  Sure, I could argue that, "Coach cusses, so why can't I?"  But that's a terrible argument.  Just because somebody else is vulgar, that doesn't mean I should be, not when the rules of the game clearly prohibit that kind of language.  That's like saying, "Come on, Mom!  Little Johnny blew up a frog with an M-80, so why can't I?"  Or, to take a totally random example from an otherwise unrelated pre-Super Bowl interview, "There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers.  Well, you think our country is so innocent?”

Or, if you’re biblically inclined, you can consult the Book of Peter: "Do no repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing." [2]

I bring this up today because I recently got into a conversation with someone who believed in certain things that contradicted observable reality and, in my frustration, I failed to wonder, much less ask, why she might hold these strange beliefs.  Consequently, I said many, many things that would have warranted flags for unsportsmanlike conduct   After our conversation, which did not end well, I felt like a schmuck.  This was not a football game.  I did not win.  At best, I had managed to humiliate the person I was speaking to.  And if humiliating a person is the best one can hope for, one has failed miserably.  So, after a period of reflection, I tucked my tail and called her up and apologized.  To her credit, she accepted that apology.  She didn't have to do that, but I'm grateful that she did, and we've made plans to resume our conversation, and this time I intend to extend to her the proper human respect we all deserve.

And so, thanks to six-man football I'm reminded that if I, or you, or even an inexplicably successful, um, TV personality feels compelled to change minds, it's probably best not to insult the very people whose minds we're trying to change. 
________
For further reading: The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World. Written by Matthew Stewart, this is an outstanding examination of the contrasting views of two of the 17th Century's greatest philosophers.

[1] To be clear, I do not object to the use of sailor-speak.  In fact, I'm a big fan of it, as long as it's used for constructive purposes.

[2] Peter 3:9, New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd Edition

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February, 2017
Lessons From Six-Man Football

My name is Gregory Hill, and today I’m writing as a former, and really awful, six-man football player for Liberty High School. When I was a freshman, we lost all of our games   Because of this, and because I didn’t like getting my butt kicked all over the field, I skipped the next two years.  As I senior, I returned to the team, but only because I lost a bet.  (The story of that wager is funny, very long, and would impugn the dignity of several humans if I were to tell it here.)  We won one game that year.  (For the record, in the two years I didn’t play, the team was phenomenal.  You do the math.)

No matter how I felt about the sport, it did, as coaches always promise, impart some valuable life-lessons.  In this column, which I hope to write once a month, I shall divulge some of those lessons.  Today’s lesson is:

Six-Man Football is a Reasonable Approximation of the Urban-Rural divide. 

If you’ve ever looked at an electoral map, you are at least casually familiar with the Urban-Rural divide; the cities are blue and the rural areas are red.  Why is this?  One depressingly popular answer is, “It’s because those people in [insert region of your choice] are dummies.”  Or they’re elites, or they’re vulgar, or violent, or lazy, or…   

I’m of the radical opinion that people are the same from one region to the next, it’s just that different regions require us to behave in specific ways in order for us to get along within those regions.  It’s no wonder then, that when people from red areas meet people from blue areas, there’s going to be some cultural confusion.

Which brings us back to six-man football.  First, is six-man football actually football?  My broken pinkie and crummy knee would say yes.  However, if, in 1987, someone had plucked me off the 80-yard field where I played a position known as  guardtackletightendwidereceiver, and then brought me to Denver and tossed me onto a 100-yard field in the midst of a varsity eleven-man team, I would have been dead within moments.

Because, while six-man football is football, it is not eleven-man football.  You can’t play eleven-man when there aren’t even eleven boys in your entire high school.  Which is why somebody had to invent six-man football, a game similar to eleven-man, but with significant differences in the rules.

In six-man, it takes fifteen yards to get a first-down, hand-offs are illegal, quarterbacks can’t run the ball, anyone is eligible to receive a pass, and so on.  My favorite rule was the 45 Rule, aka the Slaughter Rule.  When I played it went this way: if a team got ahead by 45 points, the game was over (but you had to play the entire first half). Without the Slaughter Rule, my teams would have lost most of our games by sixty or more points, and lord knows how many more pinkies I might have broken.

The six-man rules exist primarily to prevent one person from dominating a game.  I’ve always thought about it this way: In eleven-man football, if nobody blocks, then the poor sucker with the ball is going to be chased by 11 bloodthirsty kids.  In the same scenario in six-man, you’re only gonna get chased by six kids, at least one of whom will stand 4’11” and weigh 106 pounds. 

There’s nothing unusual about a 6’7” 270lb kid in eleven-man varsity football.  In six-man, a kid of that size is so rare that, assuming he has the teeniest bit of athleticism, he’s going to dominate like a Newfoundland at a Chihuahua party.

Six-man rules (aka regulations) exist for two reasons.  One, to make sure that schools with small populations are allowed to field a team.  Two, those rules exist to make it harder for one player to completely take over.  Which is to say, the rules make it easier for the little guy to have a chance.  It’s almost as if someone said, “Kids in rural America are entitled to play a version of football that suits their limited resources.”

Let’s now return to the Urban-Rural Divide.  Because of high population-density, people in cities have to play by different rules from people in rural America.  If you live in Denver, you will probably interact with hundreds of strangers every single day; in traffic, walking down the sidewalk, waiting in line at the grocery store.

There’s an implied rule that you must get along with every one of these strangers, even if it means that you have to pretend they don’t exist.  For instance, don’t stare at people on the bus unless you want to make them very uncomfortable.  Confusingly, there are other times when you absolutely must acknowledge the existence of strangers.  If you’re driving down a busy street—or any street, frankly—use your turn signals.  Otherwise, you could potentially throw the whole system into chaos, and maybe clobber a bicyclist, which is not only rude, but painful.

Country life has its own rules and regulations, some of which are the complete opposite of city rules.  For example, in those rare situations when a stranger sits next to you in the bleachers of a six-man football game, you’re absolutely going to pay close attention.  You may even find yourself staring.  Because, compared to an urban setting, strangers are uncommon out here, and humans tend to be fascinated by uncommon things.  Or, if you’re the type of person who religiously uses his turn signal, even on a dirt road in the middle of the night on your way home from Music Night at the Grassroots Community Center, there’s a good chance your passenger will call you a nut.

You can’t just pluck someone out of Joes, Colorado and expect them to thrive in the city.  And you can’t take someone from Denver and expect them to thrive on the Great Plains.  Because humans, by necessity, behave by different rules in different places, and those different ways of interaction lead to wildly divergent ideas of privacy, courtesy, and fellowship.

Fortunately, as long as we can acknowledge these differences and respect the appropriate societal rules (either formal or implied), we can all still find a way to enjoy the game.

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