Football Hegemony

IMG_2040As distractions go, sports provide a good one, perhaps preferable to Hollywood superhero movies, especially now that Hollywood seems to have run out of superheroes to make movies about. In the winter and spring, basketball and hockey provide a nice indoor reprieve. In the spring, summer, and fall, the baseball season is blissfully long. And if watching and playing baseball is as American as apple pie, then surely football is as American as a half-gallon of Chunky Monkey ice cream on top of your apple pie.

As the surveys and revenue will tell you, of the four big American sports, football leads the pack. Even with all-day Sunday, Monday night, and Thursday night football games, Americans can’t get enough, and with so much pleasure to be had, it would be a shame for other countries not to share in the glee. If only our borders were more porous, then our favored sport would have an easier time achieving its manifest destiny. Not to be deterred by barriers to its progress, the NFL has found one way to expand into new markets: put two teams on an eight-and-a-half-hour plane flight and send them to England.

And so a few weekends ago, not only the British peoples but also some early rising Americans were treated to a game between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets at Wembley stadium. What a pleasure it was to see the English on their side of the pond, not ours, dressed in NFL jerseys of teams from all over the U.S. Any Yank with a shard of patriotism should have been delighted. The British have enjoyed so many successful invasions of our country, it’s about time we repaid the favor.

With Jets thrashing Dolphins, the future of football was looking bright, but then, while trolling the Internet, I was brought down by some sad news. As I read Tom Rachman, an English sport’s watcher at Grantland, and Chris Siddell, a correspondent at Bleacher Report, I was informed that the NFL’s landing on British soil and recent NFL gridiron skirmishes may largely be staged for American tourists. The reporters remind us that the NFL has been going to Europe for a few years now, but the same number of games are usually played, and the sport doesn’t seem to be gaining much traction. Furthermore, check the stats about the state of world sports, and you’ll see that the NFL and other popular American sports, rodeo for example, are fighting a losing battle. England and the rest of the world already have an entrenched past time. And, ironically, as most people know, it’s called “football,” which my online English-to-English dictionary translates roughly as “soccer.”

Not only is this world-branded football a popular sport everywhere, but it’s already made serious inroads into the homeland. Drive around any suburb on a weekend or weekday evening, and you’ll encounter this co-ed, covert sport: boys and girls of multiple ethnicities chasing a black and white ball, running back and forth on fields once reserved for football, field hockey, and lacrosse teams. And to boot, all of this behavior is encouraged by moms and dads, parents who have come of age long past my boomer generation. In the face of such growing acceptance, it would seem that the jersey for other traditional American sports has been sewn.

I haven’t done extensive research, but many reputable soccer proponents claim that playing their game has several advantages: first and foremost, less concussions than, say, football. Soccer also doesn’t require purchasing as much equipment, so it’s “more democratic.” Along these same lines, American girls seem to be taking to the sport. Health enthusiasts also claim that the constant running may provide a better cardio workout than standing around a huddle and waiting for commercials to end, as sometimes happens during football games.

There are international socio-economic and political ramifications as well. Some suggest that as soccer-loving nations engage with one another, a kind of modern-day ping-pong diplomacy takes place. Efforts toward this goal have already occurred in other parts of the world: the Middle East, Asia, South America, and Africa. Rather than fighting wars, the hope is that these soccer-engaged nations and their city-states will become distracted by player personalities and upcoming games, tempering social and economic bickering with harmless banter about who’s team has the better striker.

With these pluses, I admit, fans of the big four traditional American sports, boosters who can’t fathom the attraction of playing a game where heads take precedence over hands, will either have to get with the program or watch a lot more ESPN Classic.

All that said, our nation should recognize that we have a choice. We can either take back our children and place their permissive soccer moms and dads in detox, driving out the invader’s influence, or we can do nothing, let world sports culture run its course and, like a disfiguring toenail fungus, take us over. What’s the answer? I think most of my fellow boomers would agree with me and hope for the former. We hate soccer. We can only watch the game on television once every four years when there’s nothing on the internet. The player action is too spread out, and the game is hard to follow. The cards are red and yellow and not red, white, and blue; players hardly ever get hurt; and with few exceptions, the U.S. men’s team gets knocked out in the early rounds.

Judging by current trends, however, we lovers of traditional American sports may all have to eat less apple pie and ice cream and watch more soccer. We’ve managed to change before. In the 1970s, we adjusted to Opie becoming Richie Cunningham. In the 1980s, we made the move to smaller cars. And in the 1990s, we endured the passing fad of bigger SUVs. Clearly, we are a people built on flexible character. Our capacity to change may be limited, but never underestimate the heart of a true champion. If we can get more creative with camera angles, find announcers who will explain the game to us, set up more hot dog and Budweiser stands in foreign stadiums, and teach the international players to speak English, we might learn to appreciate this strange and challenging game.

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When Miracles Don’t Matter

IMG_2036 (2) The Catholic Church has long struggled with its relationship with science. Is God a Clock Maker who sets everything in motion or is He a Tinkerer? Is He one who simply winds the clock and sits back on his cosmic couch to enjoy the show, or is He one who hunches over His worktable, brings out a small screwdriver when the clockworks get jammed and starts twisting?

Catholics, like me, have long championed the intervening and empathetic Tinkerer, the God who answers prayers and performs miracles, sometimes through the intervention of saints: Mother Seton guiding the way for weary seafarers, St. Bernadette leading the sick to the healing waters of Lourdes, and St. Anthony helping the forgetful and the victimized find a lost or stolen pencil. But great scientific discoveries have repeatedly run counter to this interventionist view, and the accumulated evidence suggests that nature has instituted some hard and fast rules. Not only that, but more and more, even the deviations from accepted scientific rules can be accounted for by newly revised scientific rules.

Enter Pope Francis. In the past two years, the Pontiff seems to be opening up a sea of controversy, championing the work of the Clock Maker over the Tinkerer. In 2014 at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he declared that the theories of Evolution and the Big Bang were real. With similar aplomb, he repeatedly states that God is not a magician, “with a magic wand able to do everything.” Most recently, on his trip to the U.S., he appeared both at the White House and before Congress calling for action on what many have called the hokum of climate change. All of this follows swiftly on the heels of Pope John Paul II acquitting Galileo in 1992 for theorizing that the sun, and not the earth, is the center of the universe. In truth, the speed with which recent Popes have been re-evaluating scientific learning has caused some of the faithful’s heads to spin, mine included.

All of this flurry of activity raises some serious questions about how the world’s scientists will react now that Pope Francis has given his approval to the career choices of nerds everywhere. Will scientists continue to go about their work as they should, without much fuss, or will they come at science with an increased sense of pride, even a tendency to bask in their newfound adulation? Well, if history is any guide, I think we can predict with some accuracy what will happen. “The results,” as scientists who are scientific skeptics might say, “will not be pretty.”

Undoubtedly, the Pope’s recent endorsement of science will go to the scientists’ heads. Even without Papal approval, scientists have frequently embraced celebrity status. Brazen physicist Albert Einstein was so fond of posing for the paparazzi that today, his tongue-wagging photos would embarrass even the most selfie-obsessed teenager. Later, Einstein’s disciple and fellow astrophysicist Carl Sagan not only took his mentor’s theories to television, he was also fond of inventing brainy catch phrases that later became pop culture tag lines. And more recently, Sagan’s successor, Neil DeGrasse Tyson has been doing much the same, all but abandoning a promising career in physics to popularize himself and his vests on Fox and PBS. Shifting over to biology, Jane Goodall, whose observations of monkeys once set the standard for field research, has emerged from the jungle and now hocks stuffed chimps. Even a young scientist like Mayim Bialik has compromised her talents in neuroscience to star on a laugh-tracked television sit-com.

As scientists begin to enjoy this new celebrity status, there can be only one conclusion: science will continue to lose talent to the human ego, and empirical investigation will suffer. Not wishing to share discoveries and subsequent glory with colleagues or test subjects, scientists like Russian Geocryologist Anatoli Brouchkov will undoubtedly start experimenting on themselves. Like Cold Fusionists of old, men and women of letters may even start revealing their discoveries before those discoveries have been properly vetted. Can anyone imagine what the fate of the free world would have been had Manhattan Project scientists sought celebrity before fine-tuning our nation’s most valued and innovative weaponry?

It’s true that science has produced great benefits to mankind: medicines and technologies that have proven helpful. But as a respectful warning to Our Holy Father, before we go down the road of promoting science’s status to iconic, above the reach of an intervening creator, now might be a good time to take another look at the ways in which we hold scientists accountable. At least in the U.S., to prevent scientists from getting big heads, shouldn’t our government take a closer look at how these know-it-alls gain funding?

Instead of awarding grants willy-nilly, perhaps the NIH, National Science Foundation, and Department of Agriculture should include much needed stipulations in their funding processes. For example, why not prohibit scientific experts from making too many public appearances, from advancing their nascent theories on QVC, and from searching out the attention of paparazzi, tabloids, and PBS. Let’s make sure the scientists keep their big heads and their five senses where they belong, in the laboratory. By doing so, we can not only keep scientific research above reproach, we can also keep the cameras pointed where they belong, at the actors, astrologists, self-help gurus, pop musicians, and politicians who so covet and deserve our attention.

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It’s Not “You”; It’s Me

IMG_2027I have this picture of you sitting with your laptop at a desk or maybe on the couch holding your iPhone. You’re drinking a coffee, reading over these sentences and hoping some insight about life or at least how to fix a toaster will come from the effort. You don’t mind the few minutes it takes to read this since I’m not asking for money, only time and attention. Still, I’m terrified you won’t even get to the end of this sentence.

To advance my cause for your attention, I’ve decided to rely on a common marketing trick. In my time teaching business writing to undergraduates, I read a number of reputable, if dry, business writing textbooks. Alred, Brusaw, and Oliu for example, in The Business Writer’s Companion as well as Dan and Chip Heath in Made To Stick informed me that the best way to engage an audience is to use the second person pronoun “you.”

Dan and Chip especially advise placing readers in a scenario, on a hospital gurney for example, and that this is the best way to engage them in a new product—perhaps brain or heart surgery. The Heaths suggest showing your prospective customer how they would use or benefit from the product. Then it’s more likely that the consumer will take the next step and buy what you’re selling.

What does this mean for me? Well, using Dan and Chip’s technique to my own purposes:

Imagine yourself meandering through this next paragraph and reading this blog to the end. You’ve already scanned a few sentences that you like, but you’re sure that it’s only going to get better, and you’re satisfied that reading it isn’t going to take up much more time than you usually spend folding your wallet.

As I reflect on these words and those in last week’s blog, I can’t help notice one annoying fact. You’ve probably noticed it too. That is, when I go about writing in the second person, remarking on the difficulties of folding “your” wallet or about “you” being a writer and having “your” writing rewritten, the subject matter seems to be more about me and less about you. To be honest, it’s true. All of the previous examples intended to make my points have happened to me. My experiences just seem to be the most convenient ones to draw from.

Which leads me to a sad admission, I don’t know you very well. We apparently have never attended the same parties or Boy Scout camps. Therefore, I may not have included you in this or my previous blog. I may have even annoyed you by assuming certain things. I’m sorry for the presumptiveness. I obviously need more work on understanding what interests you: fashion, music, industrial design, syrup? Let me know when I’m getting warm.

All of which means I’m going to have to do a lot more research about you than I had originally planned. Of course, you could write comments in the comment box below and tell me directly about yourself and your interests, but you shouldn’t have to work that hard. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the business world, it’s that the service provider must provide services and not ask too much of the customer.

So to find out more about what interests you, I’m committing myself to research. I’m going to find out your likes and dislikes, whether through the internet or unobtrusive surveillance. I may have to take some time off from blogging to conduct this research and round out my knowledge, but eventually, I hope to gather enough information to write competently about the subjects that interest you. Just leave it all to me.

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Professional Considerations

IMG_2023You built a laboratory and started doing what you do because you loved doing it: not because people told you you had to. Somewhere along the way, you thought, “I sure would like to get paid for this, and seeing as how I’m pretty good at it, I probably could.”

Then a miracle happened: someone did pay you, and once that first customer came along, people began calling you a professional. When this happened, you found that the customer could take your work and do almost anything they wanted with it.

On that direct mail advertisement you wrote, the customer started fussing, changing words, whole paragraphs, putting commas where he thought the commas should go, not even consulting a style guide. He wanted to make it sound more like him.

Inside the restaurant you constructed, the customer took down some walls and put up new ones. She repainted one wall without even paying attention to your overall color scheme and added a plastic pink flamingo above the entryway: this despite you both agreeing that the restaurant should have a Mid-Western theme.

And about the filet mignon you prepared, the customer told you it wasn’t cooked long enough, “So take it back and make sure it’s brown, and I mean really brown, in the middle.” Never mind that the customer ordered his stake medium.

As someone with self-respect, you couldn’t help arguing your professional expertise. “A comma doesn’t go there! The floor plan should have more open space! Steak shouldn’t have the texture of beef jerky!” But in the end, because you couldn’t afford to lose future work from the same customer, and because word-of-mouth is a powerful marketing tool, the customer had the final word.

At this point you might have thought, “I should have never given up my lab space. I should go back to doing the thing I love for myself.” Well, maybe. The smarter choice, however, is to change your definition of what it means to be a professional. Being a professional isn’t about having an infallible expertise, it’s about knowing when to let go.

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My Working Life

IMG_2021I’m always looking for opportunities to write. Over the years, I’ve had a few good ones. At one point, I wrote marketing material for a management company. I later wrote book reviews, press releases, specifications, white papers, case studies, scripts, and sections of proposals. I’ve also written articles for popular magazines and trade publications. One of the more memorable writing projects was a history of Maryland Highways. A second has been writing blog entries about the environment for a landscape architecture firm. But honestly, the best writing project is always the next one.

While writing is my passion, I’m not adverse to editing either. I’ve edited medical journals, engineering proposals, and a variety of bios, resumes, and other people’s fiction and non-fiction articles. At one point, I edited for journals with names like “Drug Metabolism & Disposition,” “Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics,” and “Cancer Research.” It wasn’t always easy reading, but I managed.

One day while looking for more opportunities to write and edit, a former professor of mine enlisted me to teach writing at Towson University. Over a six-year time span, I’ve taught Freshman Composition and Business Writing to undergraduates of all ages. I’ve also volunteered to teach writing at an elementary school. There I helped the students report school news and publish their own broadsheet.

The rewards of teaching are great, but nothing is more rewarding to me than sitting down at my keyboard and shaping a story: doing the research to get it right, getting it all to make sense, and gaining an audience. It doesn’t matter what the subject is, I believe it’s my job to make it interesting. And whatever the subject, having someone read my writing and understand it—or even take pleasure in it—is always the goal. I find the whole process not only fascinating but energizing.

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