Tuesday, December 25, 2007

My Christmas message: We can do better!

I enjoy writing a column, almost published weekly, for The Community News in Aledo, Texas, west of Fort Worth. This week that publication is becoming The Community (Good) News because there’s not enough of it to be read, seen or heard in the media these days. It’s not really the fault of the news-deliverers; it is more of a function of the society that still ogles at car wrecks on the side of the road and want to hear every juicy details of any Hollywood star’s personal problems.
If the public would insist, through its choices of music, books, films and publications, to accentuate the positive instead of morbidly dwelling on people’s shortcomings and tragedies, there WOULD be more good news to be read, seen and heard.
Parker County has its shares of good news to spread among the masses. And I would like to add a couple of words for the future: We can do better! As a collective known as the human race, we can do better! Much, much better, in fact!
People in east Parker County read too many stories of tragedy over the last 12 months – children dying too young for going too fast on roadways or being innocent victims when adults could no longer cope with everyday lives. The most graphic involved a woman, with a low-paying, mind-numbing job, stuck in poverty, living in near-squalid conditions, unable to escape an abusive relationship, who took the lives of her adolescent children before committing suicide – all out of complete desperation without anyone to help her.
In almost every case, including this one, it was probably preventable if someone had decided to help – to prevent – to avoid. Had someone come forward to help, to have pointed that person in the proper direction, taken a hand and led them to the proper agency, those would have been stories never told because that misery would not have occurred.
I was reading last Sunday’s Points section in the Dallas Morning News, and some of the facts published struck like a Maxwell’s Silver Hammer (bang! bang! on my head!). Each page made me realize how much people can treat other people much better in order to product a more peaceful co-existence within mankind.
I was stunned to learn that Texas ranked first among all states in the number of teenage pregnancies and next-to-last in the number of working poor families (emphasis on the word “working”). Texas is also third lowest in the county for its expenditures on public welfare programs per capita ($808). A full 40 percent of those in poverty are under the age of 18 – meaning children who have NO control over their environment.
One out of every four children in Texas are born into poverty and, as a state, we are third-highest in the country (behind Mississippi and New Mexico) for the number of people who go hungry, or live in fear of starvation, every single day!
If education is the answer, why is the Texas high school drop out rate at 34 percent? Why does it ranked second to last for its verbal SAT scores and only 46th for math scores? Why has the average spending per public school student slid from 25th in the nation in 1999 to 41st?
Why does Texas rank first among all states in terms of uninsured population at 24.6 percent? Why do we allow this? Surely, we can do better!
The section continues about the state’s prison population, the makeup of the youth sent to the wasteland known as the Texas Youth Commission and which county is considered totally toxic to be am American resident (answer: Jefferson). Each cold, hard fact just screams at you to begin to fulfill my four word statement: We can do better!
How? That’s a more complicated question. It is going to require more compassion and initiative from a cross-section of society. It will mean more interaction from service organizations, churches, social outreach agencies, civic groups, school classrooms and, more importantly, normal day-to-day living human beings. It will mean people of means might have to share a little wealth with those not as fortunate, or gifted, or blessed with such worldly possessions – and do so without denigrating those being assisted.
It means if you see someone in obvious need, in obvious inner pain (that a pill or a shot of penicillin cannot cure), you must try to do something to help them. Show them where to go to ask for help. Show them HOW to ask for help. Tell them if it perfectly acceptable to seek help in order not to do harm to others. Oh yes, it means that help has to be available, through consistent charitable efforts or governmental support. After all, isn’t the job of government to “protect” all the people – not just the richer ones?
Tell someone close to you that he or she can do better for their children or for their relatives. If it is a co-worker, tell them they can, and should, ask for help to kick addictions, to face personal challenges, to avoid splintering their lives into the kind of Humpty-Dumpty pieces that cannot be put back together again.
Motivate yourself in whatever manner you find acceptable – from “What Would Jesus Do?” to “If for the grace of God, go I” to “Do onto others as you have them do onto you.” Or you can simply tell yourself, “It just the right damn thing to do.” That YOU can do better in order for others to do better.
Yes, we can do better and that IS the good news I share today. We should do better; we can do better; we must do better.
For their sake … and ours.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The beginning of steroids in sports

Since the release of the Mitchell Report, sports fans are pretending to themselves that this is a scandal with parentage in the early 1990s, as if steroids in baseball, and sports overall, appeared overnight. Drugs, of one kind or another, in various forms from amphetamines to pain-killers to old-fashioned alcohol, have been part of the athletic fabrics for decades.
In 1970, former Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton exposed the underbelly of baseball and its rampant pill-popping in his landmark book, “Ball Four.” The baseball establishment, led by then-Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, labeled Bouton as a heretic and a liar. Today, we might view Bouton’s revelations of drug use, players cheating on their wives and the overt drunkenness of superstar Mickey Mantle as “the good old days.”
However, the problems of steroid usage in baseball and other sports can be traced back to one event and a complete different sport. The year was 1976, the sport was Olympic swimming and the place was Montreal, Canada. What resulted from that competition forever changed the landscape and the methods used to achieve victory.
A small history lesson: prior to those Olympic Games, swimming supremacy has generally contested between two nations – the United States and Australia. And specifically, most of the U.S. swimmers came from Southern California, where the warm weather and long-standing aquatic tradition, allowed hopefuls to begin training at very young ages.
Many of them lived most of their lives in pools and trained for many, many hours each week. It was the training that got them into the upper echelon of American swimming, not any physical superiority. The greatest American swimmer ever, Mark Spitz, was not that physically imposing, less than 6-foot tall and around 160 pounds. But he had the perfect swimmer’s body – long arms, long legs and an elastic, sinewy build. His pectoral muscles were as flat as could be as to offer no resistance while gliding through the water.
In many cases, the contestants resembles their environments – tall, tanned, surfer boys with bleached blonde “Moondoggy” hair and girls, also bronzed, blonde and more mature-looking “Gidgets” – and, yes, you knew they were all California girls, like the song desired.
In the early 1970s, word filtered through the swimming community of world records being shattered by large differentials, from Eastern bloc countries. It became much of the talk around the pool and lockerroom area during such important national competitions as the NCAA men’s indoor, and AAU Indoor and Outdoor championships.
However, the United States was confident in its lineup, especially, the women’s roster, for the Montreal Games. The Americans were led by California sprinter Shirley Babashoff, a striking honey blonde from Whittier, who won the world title in the 200 and 400 meter freestyle. “Babs” was a gold medalist four years earlier in Munich in the 400-meter sprint relay, helping to defeat the East German women, making their initial mark in Olympic competition.
The East German women, including a 13-year-old girl from Bitterfeld named Kornelia Ender, did not take home a gold medal that year. The sports federation officials back home would be determined not to be shut out the next time around.
So in Montreal, something radical happened. Instead of the team and competitors seen at Munich, or even in the World Championships one year earlier, the East German contingent that took to the starting blocks were different – drastically, shockingly and, more important, intimidating.
When Babashoff went to compete in the 200-meter freestyle, next to her was Ender, now 17, and completely transformed physically. She has huge muscles, more like any man, and spoke in an extremely husky voice, more like any man. And many of the East German girls had noticeable hair growth on their face, arms, legs and underarms, more like any man.
Babashoff, at that time, a fairly happy-go-lucky girl, was stunned at what she saw. Ender wasn’t just bigger; she dwarfed the world champion and in the water was no match for any other competitor. Ender proceeded to win four gold medals (a first for women in swimming) and set individual or world records in each event – obliterating the former standards.
Babashoff could only muster second places in all her events until the last race of the competition – the 400-meter sprint relay. Only through sheer will did she out-touch Ender in the final strokes to earn her only gold medal of the meet.
Her lack of success was not due to poor pool performance or times. Her silver medal clocking in the 400-meter freestyle (losing to Ender) was faster than the winning time posted by another American swimming legend, Don Schollander, at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.
When the carnage was completed, Babashoff began to voice her suspicions loudly and publicly about possible cheating by the East Germans. She was vilified by many in the international swim community, earning the nickname, “Surly Shirley.” She never again was a major factor in the sport, but was inducted in the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1982.
Only later, was she proven correct when it was revealed that the East Germans had, indeed, used performance enhancing drugs to win all those gold medals. East German doctors were regularly injecting athletes like Ender with newly-developed steroids to advance physical development and super-size performance. In a sport like swimming, power COULD overwhelm form, an din 1976, it did.
Sadly, the epilogue for Shirley Babashoff is inglorious. She became a single mother and wound up as a mail carrier for the U.S. Post Office in Orange County, Calif., home to some of the most successful Olympic training programs in her sport – swimming.
And what has been done about this obvious injustice? Nothing! The International Olympic Committee, that hypocritical “watchdog” over amateur athletics, has never stripped the East German swimmers of their ill-gotten medals. American sprinter Marion Jones was recently shorn of her medals, similar to the old-fashioned Army method of “branding” a disgraced soldier – tearing off epilates one at a time and breaking the man’s sabre.
But what became of all those chemists and doctors who were developing those drugs? What do you think happened to them? Most likely, they were gobbled up by pharmaceutical firms, including the German-based Bayer (with its own dubious history), and went to work on developing … steroids.
Remember, our nation’s initial atomic research program only advances upon the defection of the original nuclear engineers, refugees in the 1930s from Nazi Germany. Without the Werner von Brauns of the world, the U.S. would have been years behind in its program development.
So here we are today with the state of baseball, and other sports, at the mercy of medical and technological advances. The Tour de France has been rendered almost totally illegitimate by its drug scandals, track and field cannot hold a major event without drug scandals and everyone is questioning records and performances from the past two decades in baseball.
And to think, it all began in a swimming pool.

Monday, December 10, 2007

I’m FORD tough

Author's Note: The following column appeared in the Dec. 6, 2007, edition of the Dallas Morning News' Collin County Opinions.
As Collin County remains one of Texas’ fastest growing suburban counties (and in America), so does the level of its diversity. Neighborhoods are now populated by people of Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, Eastern European and Latin American descent – a veritable United Nations.
And then there are people who represent minorities like me. FORDs. Fat. Old. Rumpled. Democrats.
In the land of Lexus, Jaguar, Mercedes and Hummers, it is the BMW (your imagination can complete the anagram but bigoted materialistic whites MIGHT apply) that is all too often seen and heard. And too the dismay of the FORD, the BMW also rules politically; they’re just called Republicans.
Being a FORD is a family affair for me. My father was pretty much a FORD man until the day he died – the older he got, the more partisan he remained. He grew up with FDR and stood by those principles far more than anything he heard in the years afterwards. I went voluntarily into that realm; no one, including my Dad, had to coerce me.
So what makes a FORD run? We don’t like paying taxes anymore than others, especially when they surface in the new age form of road tolls – an increasingly popular mechanism amongst the ruling party in Austin to snatch money from its citizens without truth in labeling. When “See the USA in your Chevrolet” was popular, it meant driving the open roads – free from cost other than related to the vehicle. Hey, Buzz Murdock and Tod Stiles drove their Corvette on “Route 66” for nothing.
FORDs want to save the environment, but many among us care less about what’s being recycled and more about the brown stuff we call breathable air. After all, when it rains, my truck should not have more dirt ON it than before the showers began.
Mostly, a FORD cares about who made this nation strong and vibrant – the men and women who built things – from skyscrapers to bridges to the tools that created them. American workers are more responsible for the economic success and growth of this nation, following World War II (our golden jubilee apparently), than, frankly, corporate management. Sadly, too many worker bee positions have been sacrificed overseas for profits’ sake, while not enough suits-and-ties have seen the same fate. You see, workers tend now to be FORDS like me and suits tend to be BMWs.
When I was a pup, American-made meant something; for top-grade quality. Of course, I come from a time when my refrigerator was made in Amana, Iowa, my Zenith television came from Chicago, my Emerson radio was built on Long Island and the phone was made by Western Electric – an American company. My baseball glove was an American Wilson model, my shoes came from Brockton, Massachusetts and my baseball bats had “Louisville, Kentucky” stamped on each piece of wood. The cars we drove were ONLY made in Detroit because we supported the home team.
Our homes stood for American products, even if it cost a bit more than the cheaper brands. You did get what you paid for; the purchase of anything USA kept the economy strong. Wages from buying our products circulated through families, neighborhoods and businesses – to buy more American goods and hire more American workers – the ones who actually stood on that factory line.
Too many BMWs have turned the word “union,” into something dirty, unpleasant and vilified. But those same BMWs scream the loudest when all these foreign-made products, which have flooded the market because of the low, low cost-per-unit price, have begun to make Britney, Buffy and Carter (and others) sick as dogs.
Gee, that really didn’t happen when American workers made those same items, did it?
In this land of BMWs, the honk from this old FORD just can’t be heard. The local BMW drivers run everything from the courthouse to the outhouse, where many of us find our current lot in life.
I have always believed that no man needs to own a Rolex or any other expensive watch in order to tell time. A Bulova or Timex does the same thing at a fraction of the cost. After all, isn’t that the “function” of a watch?
Same holds true for being a FORD. My beliefs will get me to where I want to go; no need to own and maintain an expensive, overpriced philosophy. And when the others in this area realize that a FORD works as well, or better, than any BMW, things might get changed for the better.
Until then, I remain FORD tough. And gruff.