Monday, March 9, 2015

Sticktuitiveness: Remembering my Uncle Gary

I lost my Uncle Gary yesterday afternoon.  He was a good man, and the only uncle on my paternal side, as my father has only one sister: his twin, Michelle.  It's been many years since I've seen him but as I thought about the fact that I won't get to see him again on this side of eternity, a word came to mind that epitomized how he changed my life: sticktuitiveness.

My Uncle with my Cousin Jenny, Summer 2014
We were sitting around my parents' kitchen table in Anaheim, California.  It was mid-afternoon on a July summer day.  I had just come back from a seminary I had hoped to attend but for numerous reasons I had returned home only to find out that my scholarship to the elite school I had attended prior to that summer had been given to another candidate.  Already low from the summer's failure, I had decided on homeschooling for my senior year.  My parents didn't really see an alternative and I was confident then (as I am now) in my ability to study on my own, having always been an A-student.  But at the time (1997) there wasn't really a homeschool-alternate-equivalent to a high school diploma.  There was only the GED.  And I was okay with getting one.

Uncle Gary, who was sitting at the table with my Aunt Michelle, was having none of it.  He made the case for a high school diploma, saying it was something I just needed to get done and over with and I would always have it, "in the bank" he said.  It was only one more year, after all, and even though I had never attended public school, for various reasons, it would just be that year, and then I could do what I wanted, he reasoned.  There were some more reasonable points he brought up and I couldn't really dispute them.  At one point there was a lull in the conversation and he looked me square in the eye and said, "You know what you need, Stevie?  You need some sticktuitiveness."  The word rolled off his tongue as if it were an everyday idiom, not something he had probably either a) invented on the spot or b) already possessed as a concept he believed in.  But I got it.  That discussion that afternoon removed any objections I had to attending public school and for better or worse I was a part of the Loara High School class of 1997.  That path changed my life for various reasons, not the least of which was my meeting a friend who would one day send me a job posting for my first SAT tutoring job, a career pursuit that has in large part given me the life and happiness I possess today.  Could he have seen that at the time?  No, and it didn't matter.  His nephew was going to do something incredibly stupid and there was no way he wasn't going to be heard on the matter.  I'm glad he was just being who he was.

But the first time I met Uncle Gary was in 1986, on a first visit to the United States from my place of birth, Singapore.  He was warm and welcoming, and 2 years later he and my Aunt Michelle generously welcomed our family into his home, with all my cousins.  It was quite a scene but we had an absolutely amazing time.  Something I will remember for the rest of my life, as will my sister Clare, were his "Lone Ranger" stories.  Every night, before we went to bed, Uncle Gary came into our room and told us stories of the Lone Ranger.  I never got the chance to ask him where these stories came from, or how he made them so fun and engaging, but we were spellbound every single night.  It was a ritual.  The lights were out.  We were in our bed, wide-eyed and awake, sheets up to our necks in anticipation, and he would spin yarns involving Tanto, the Lone Ranger, and his famous steed, Silver.  I wish I could tell you specifics, but I remember vivid details of bad guys, chases through the desert, and gun battles.  And he would end every night with the Lone Ranger riding off, saying, "Hiyo Silver, awaaaaayyyyyy!"  My sister and I were nowhere near sleeping.  It certainly wasn't a ritual to help us go to bed, as we were just as wide-eyed and excited at the end of the story as at the beginning.  But that wasn't the point.  The point was that he loved us and welcomed us into his home, and I'm not certain our family could have come to America at that time, in 1988, without living with relatives.  And that was another way my life would have been completely different.

And while this morning I am a world away, on another continent, living another life, I feel his loss, and I mourn him.  But I will always be grateful for how he impacted my life, in little ways, and large ones.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Scottish Referendum: my American perspective

So why was I here?  Holding this sign?  Despite not having any Scottish blood?  Because I believed in what the Scottish people were trying to do.  They were trying to govern themselves.  They were trying to ignore the collective wisdom of the world who screamed that money was the primary value by which they should judge this referendum, which would be one of the most important decisions of their lives.  As an unreconstructed American, I'm always going to favor principles and tradition over popular notions.

I've been following the referendum for over 12 months.  I pay particular attention to British politics, because unlike American politics which is completely hopeless, British politics is done on a small enough scale and in a sensible enough manner that minority opinions can not only be heard, but can sometimes hold the balance of power.  We've watched this in the rise of the Liberal Democrats and more recently, in the rise of UKIP.

The vast majority of those in Britain ignored the referendum until a couple weeks ago, when one of the YouGov polls showed a slight lead for Yes, after No had held 20 point leads for months and months.  Westminster panicked.  It sent all of its clowns up to Scotland promising the moon.  This despite the fact that these powers were never on offer prior to the poll in question, and despite the fact that Alex Salmond had asked for "Devo Max" (the British like shortening everything.  The hashtag was #indyref and David Cameron's wife is SamCam) which was short for "Devolution Maximum" which would have been as many powers given to the Scottish Parliament as possible.  Years ago, David Cameron blocked this maneuver, and we were left with a "Yes/No" referendum (though he stupidly, in terms of strategy, allowed the independence side to have the "Yes" when he could have worded the question to be, "Should Scotland stay a part of the United Kingdom?"  The No Campaign learned early on that it's hard to run a positive campaign with the word "No.").

Three months ago I decided I had to be in Scotland for the vote, even if the polls were so far apart.  It was a day for secession, and as someone who had an "originalist" understanding of America*, it was an incredible sight to see secession in action - even just the sheer possibility of it.  I couldn't have predicted how close it would be and how much excitement I would witness - and how low I would feel - today - the day after Scotland chose "No."

Why was I a "Yes"?  Dozens of reasons.  Let me share just a few, and start with the most important one.

Small-scale Government
I believe in small government, and in the principle of subsidiarity, as outlined by Pope Leo XIII, of happy memory, in Rerum Novarum.  The principle is a sensible one: nothing should be done at a higher level which can be done at a lower level.  Small government is more accountable and can be changed more easily.

Now - it will be argued that the SNP is a social democratic party, and hence is "big government" in the way it spends and behaves.  But it is inevitable that a country that is the size of South Carolina, a state which was the intellectual home of secession in the United States, would necessarily have to be more accountable to its citizens simply because of its size.  If it wanted to act in a "big government" way, it would be because its denizens wished it to be so.

Because if it's broke, fix it
The Westminster system is absolutely corrupt and broken.  The way the UK was put together was so hodgepodge that Wales isn't even represented on the official flag of the "united" union of nations.  Scotland's possible breakaway meant that not only was the status quo found wanting, but was actually under clear and present threat.

Anyone watching the sheer panic of the normally smug suited classes of London told you everything you needed to know about what Scotland's breakaway would signify for sterling, the international standing of the country known up to that point as Great Britain, and the reality of governing what would be a rump of what was once the empire on which the sun never set.

Americans can only dream of such a referendum.  The last time they attempted to peacefully leave (convening constitutional conventions in each state, and then formally withdrawing from the union) they were invaded by "American" forces who would later craft a narrative that they were fighting for "freedom" when they were really invading another country to exploit their economic resources and because they were "morally superior."  If you ever wonder why America feels the need to invade other countries based on a God-given mission, it's because it believes the lies it told itself about the horrible, terrible South.

Because Aspiration brings out the best in all of us
You could tell who had never owned or run a business by how much they threw the word "risk" around.  We saw ridiculous white papers from places like DeutscheBank.  Yes, of course there will be risk.  There's risk in almost anything important in life.  The question was (and is, frankly) whether the risk of staying with the UK was more detrimental to Scotland's future than leaving it.  I think that in the short and medium term (because the long term is impossible to predict in anything, not just the life of nations) the answer is that Scotland would be better off alone: governing a small nation, with innovative social and business policy, backed by oil and green energy, with alliances with Europe and England as she saw fit, not as everyone crowed she would or would not obtain.

Sean Connery penned an editorial the day before the referendum in which he stated that there is "no more creative act that creating a nation."  What excitement there was!  What would happen with Trident?  Jobs?  Taxes?  A post office?  Defense?  The EU?  Yes, there were questions, and yes, there was an army of BRILLIANT Scottish people not only skilled enough to tackle these difficult (you would think them impossible, if you believed the No campaign) questions, but who had a stake in the success of such decisions, unlike Westminster politicians who are there for money and benefits, before they leave to join the private sector.

What I witnessed in the final 72 hours before the vote was like nothing I have ever seen in my life in any country leading up to an election: pure electricity.  All of Scotland was on fire - everyone was talking about it.  I talked with people in the airport and on the plane on my way to Scotland.  The customs agent who stamped my passport asked me about it.  Many friends who saw, via instagram, that I was now "on the ground" asked me how things were.   My cabbie - my host family.  The people on the street - the people in the shops.  Everyone was talking about it.  No one was angry.  Except the No people.

And by that I don't mean violence in the streets.  I mean just the scowls from the older people, who came out in droves for the No campaign, who saw my Yes stickers and assumed I was some uppity youngster who wanted to steal their pensions and was voting Yes because I had been watching Braveheart on repeat for the last 7 days.  The No people were nowhere to be found.  They quietly went about their business and did as Scots have for the 300 years since the Act of Union in 1707: kept their head down, worked, and were happy to live their lives and let someone else take on the burden of governing.  The No people didn't talk with the thousands and thousands of unpaid Yes volunteers who were smiling and engaged in the days leading up to the election.  I talked with many of them - and they were from all walks of life - ignoring the lies of the No campaign and believing in themselves as humans and as Scots.

The "play it safe" crowd won.  And they will get nothing from Westminster.  The ones who truly believe they will either a) know nothing about how the Union is run and what blowback is coming from Wales and England because of devolution or b) they ACTUALLY believe the lies of Tories and their fellow-traveler politicians who couldn't be bothered to come to this beautiful country until the final weeks of a 2-year campaign, when it looked as if their entire world was at risk.  The play it safe crowd have nothing to rue.  They don't want change, and they won't get it.  I shook my head as I heard Alistair Darling un-ironically say that a "vote for no was a vote for change."  It wasn't.

Indeed, today I commiserated with the heartbroken Yes voters who had, in millions, come out for independence.  The media will paint this as the "inevitable conclusion" but the BBC operated as a unionist shill throughout this campaign, and the real question ahead is what will the young and hopeful and bright and happy Scots I met in these last days do next?  The most powerful possible instrument was taken from them by their own countrymen.  And that's a hard thing to carry and accept.

But they will.  And they shall.  Because Scotland is and always will be, a great nation.

***

*prior to 1861 it was everywhere accepted as a fact/reality in America that the States had pre-existed the federal government, and indeed, had created the federal government as a creature to administer foreign policy, to coin money, and to plan for the national defense.  It was an invention of the States, and ostensibly, subject to them.  Post 1865 and the Lincolnian Revolution, America became (and is, alas, to the present day) a unitary state with borders separating different parts of the country, a Frankenstein that threatens not only the local villagers (the states who now can do little without federal approval) but the whole world (America is at once the stabilizing policeman and the destabilizing bully).

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Lost in Translation...or maybe not.

I was at the head of the table, but out of the conversation.  It was in rapid Castilian Spanish, but I was picking a lot of it up, on about a 5-second delay.  I was keeping up enough to know that the conversation had now turned to the crisis in the Ukraine.  My host, who perhaps interpreted my mask of studied ambivalence (mixed with a bit of tiredness) as simply a lack of an opening for me to contribute, asked brightly, "Do you know what they are talking about?"  "Yes."  I blinked and added, "You know, I find more and more, in my old age, that I care less about world events outside of the country I am in."

(This was true.  It was my second day and I had been asking about the strength of Pajoy's center-right government and about the even louder noises about independence coming from Catalonia.  The editorial pages in El Paìs had been full of commentary on these matters.)

My host heard me, laughed, and translated for the elderly ladies who seemed interested in what the foreigner had to say.  As I saw their faces register slight surprise I realized just how stupid I must have sounded.  I wasn't sure how to rectify it, so I just chalked it up to a "loss in translation."  But was it?

Late that afternoon as I was attempting, somewhat successfully, to cut my own slices of heaven, from that culinary delight known as Iberian jamón, I asked my host about it.  She laughed.  "I must have sounded so stupid!" I exclaimed.  "But listen, I can't take it back.  I really don't care."

I get my news, as does most of my generation, from the social networks.  Facebook knows and has the news, from dozens of sources, before people start to chat about it.  I've spoken before of my dislike for listed articles, despite my profession which sometimes requires such work of me, but the summit (or perhaps the nadir) of this phenomenon was reached in articles like "Five things you need to know about the Ukrainian Crisis."  In rebuttal, here are my own five things I learned from that week:

1)  Most people, including most of my very educated friends, know next to nothing about Eastern Europe.
2)  Despite the fact that countries like Italy and Germany only came into existence after the War Between the States, people think of countries and borders as fixed and immovable when the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall have shown us that they are clearly anything but.
3)  There are still people, who despite the total disasters that were Iraq and Afghanistan, still think that the role of the US is to play world policeman.
4)  Whatever happens in the Ukraine will not affect my daily life one iota, unless I live in Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, or Moldova (which I don't).
5)  The very fact that you are trying to "educate yourself" about "events" like the Ukranian crisis shows that you've bought into the bread and circuses of the 24 news media, which thrive on blood such as was so plentifully provided in this sitzkreig.

We spend the vast majority of our lives living under local laws.  But none of those local issues are particularly charismatic.  In the United States it might be a school bond here or a water board election there.  A sales tax increase.  None of these are exciting, but they are issues where you can make the biggest difference.

I lamented at the time of the 2010 Haiti disaster that it was ill-advised to donate to disaster relief.  Many articles at that time and more recently agreed.  Such an "indifference" stems from my desire to be effective in my daily life by focusing on what matters.  Before "informing" yourself so that you can have an "opinion" on the latest "crisis" based in a country you might not be able to find on a map, why don't you turn your attention to the things that affect you - and more importantly, that you can make a difference in.  If the whole world had that attitude, we might well see our countries regenerate.

Focus on what matters and what you can affect.  Ignore - or at least filter - everything else.  It's baggage you don't need and can't help with, and which ultimately doesn't matter.  They say you can't change the world, but if you focus on the morality of your everyday life, however mundane it might be, you just might.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Reflections on the USMNT in Brazil


I'm a soccer fanatic now, but I haven't always been one.  Unique circumstances this summer allowed me to take my obsession to new heights as I watched almost all of the matches that were on offer for this World Cup.  It didn't hurt that this tournament has been full of emotion, comebacks, and heart. These are qualities that all people, not just Americans, love in sport.

I was following two teams at the start of the tournament: my native USA and my current home, France. But I'm not French and I was never going to live and die with Les Bleus as I would with Les Americains.  And as I "died" on the night of the 2-1 loss to Belgium, I ignored any immediate reflections of the media and instead jotted down my own thoughts after a couple days of pondering the matter.  What follows are the reflections of a realistic American fan of the beautiful game.

It's about the culture

The USA is an enormous country.  We have a large number of people playing soccer at every level across the country.  But it's a sport that gets lost among other national passions.  We aren't the only country with this problem.  Australians love Aussie Rules football (footy), rugby, and cricket.  Soccer is low in the pecking order.  But at least they often qualify to go to the World Cup.  India, that populous but cricket-mad country, has only qualified once (and they did so by default).  Need I mention Japan or America's northern neighbor, obsessed with baseball and hockey, respectively?

The countries that America played in this year's tournament are, unlike the countries mentioned above, obsessed with soccer.  This also means that they don't have the odd obstacles in place that Americans have - in particular the pay-to-play system at the youth level and the college system (we did a podcast on the latter some time ago which featured Matt Doyle from MLSSoccer.com).  These are endemic challenges and don't look like they will go away anytime soon.

People aren't just obsessed with playing soccer in those countries, they are obsessed with watching it, and it was fun, as an American, to watch the whole country care, if only fleetingly, about "our" game.

I am certain that this month some Americans are attending their first ever MLS, NASL, USLPRO, whatever, games.  That's great.  Some of us have always enjoyed soccer - others need a good introduction.  But fans, old and new, who are near the sport these days, when it's never been more popular or growing in our country, might mistake the passion and commitment from the fans as something that will translate into big results for our national team.  But we can't will a better culture. We have to create it.  Build it.  And culture - not just the soccer variety - takes time and patience. Americans aren't a patient sort.  We want it, and want it now, with a smile, if you don't mind.  At times, this has worked to our advantage.

On the 25th of May 1961, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech to a Joint Session of Congress in which he pledged to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.  He would articulate his reasons again the following year, in September 1962 at Rice University (emphasis mine):
"Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Millions were inspired, and that culture produced the finest science environment the world has yet seen, particularly regarding space exploration.  It was a journey, surely, of ten thousand steps.  But that step on the moon began with this step of leadership that the President provided.

Our current USMNT coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, told us going into this tournament that we had no chance to win.  Some bleated their unhappiness at his sentiments, others chided, saying he was simply being "realistic."   Yet, can we truly say President Kennedy was being "realistic" when he said we were going to the moon?  No!  He had no idea how we would do it, what major changes would have to happen within the core of infrastructure of engineering and science in our country.  He uttered an inspiring challenge.  Inspired Americans accepted that challenge.  Is soccer nearly as important as exploring the heavens?  Probably not.  But the example of leadership to great goals through great vision is instructive.  The best, truest goals are never vague ("we are committed to getting better") but always specific ("we will win a World Cup by X date.").

Thanks Germany

If we want to be honest with ourselves, the Germans are the only reason America even made it out of the group stage.  Three crucial goals: the winner in the Ghana game, the momentum starter in the Portugal game, and the lone goal in the Belgium game were scored by John Anthony Brooks, Jermaine Jones, and Julian Green, respectively.  All Germans with American nationality who declared for the US rather than maybe never making the unbelievably deep and strong Die Nationalmannschaft.  Brooks and Green were surprise pulls due in large part to US Soccer's Technical Director - and current head coach - Jurgen Klinsmann - who is also, unsurprisingly with a name like that, German.  This doesn't bother me.

I was back in the States for July 4th, by chance, and I heard people say we were "founded" by England.  This is untrue on a number of levels.  America developed due to colonization efforts by the French, Spanish, English, and Dutch.  Oh, and there was a Native population here too.  Plenty of Germans found their way here in time.  Oddly enough, the reason Brooks and Green were born in Germany is our horribly outdated and irrelevant foreign policy (a topic for an entirely different piece) which is based around supporting America's biggest manufactured export: weapons and the conflicts to use them in.  But hey, if we can harvest some American fruit in Germany as a testament to all the Germans who have made America their new home, I say that's the beginning of a fair trade.

But, all joking aside, I do want to say that Brooks and Green (and Jones) and Aron Johansson (an Icelandic citizen we pried out of their system) all benefitted from the youth development culture in those countries.  If you accept globalization as a reality, you as an American won't get upset about this.  How many hundreds of thousands of foreign students enter American universities and graduate, only then to take those degrees back to their countries to build their lives?  Those countries, however successful they might be in other areas, have in a way, outsourced their higher education responsibilities to America. I think it's fair enough, for now, to outsource our youth development to countries like Deutschland.  It certainly worked in the cases mentioned above!

#FireKlinsmann

That hasthag occurred after the Belgium game.  It at once showed American impatience and stated valid frustration.  Is the United States one of the top 8 teams in the world?  No way.  But getting a quarterfinal berth would have meant exactly that.  We don't have the players, the tactics, the culture, or the belief to do so.  Yet.

There were a few podcasts that captured the mood of fans and believers well.  March to the Match had one of them.

The players

Arjen Robben.  Vincent Kompany.  Yaya Toure.  Tomas Muller.  Franck Ribery.  Eden Hazard.  Oh, and yeah, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.  Those names strike wonder and fear into the hearts of their opponents.  America has ZERO such players, if we are honest with ourselves.  But teams who win championships in football have a minimum of 3-4 world-class players.  America has none.  Clint Dempsey changed teams (in a disgraceful way, I might add) in the Premier League ostensibly to play Champions League football (why he picked Spurs in order to achieve that goal I'll never understand) but then didn't progress there and ended up coming back to the biggest payday of his life back stateside. Jozy Altidore didn't impress in the BPL either.  And Michael Bradley, hope and pride of the USMNT, wasn't even a consistent starter at AS Roma before coming back stateside for an enormous paycheck.  I don't begrudge these men for taking the money, and more, it's got to be great to be an American playing in front of Americans.  But we don't have world-class players.  We have, at best, great players.  For now.

That's what it feels like

Being a USMNT fan at the World Cup is probably what everyone else feels like watching the Olympics.  We dominate so, so much.  And Americans expect to dominate.  We don't expect to ever stop dominating, ever.  Others who watch us must feel an admixture of admiration and despair at ever hoping to compete at our level.  Americans taste that feeling every four years when watching a World Cup.  I know I did this summer.

The Belief

Americans get a lot of flack.  Living in Europe has put a lot of that into stark contrast for me. Americans get a lot of things wrong.  But we also do a lot of things really well, too.  And one thing I know about Americans is that if someone - anyone - put a goal in front of us - and we were inspired by that goal - and we worked towards that - let's say - a World Cup Final in 20 years - with landmarks at each cycle - we might just do it.  And failure would get us so much farther that we have progressed in the modern era.  But whining, having angst, and complaining?  Leave that to the European (read: English) football fans. They invented it.  Let's start being "realistic" by dreaming and being unrealistic first.  It's the only way the finest of goals are ever achieved.  Until that time, I won't let the big picture issues of the USMNT stop me from yelling and screaming in pure joy or slinking in sad astonishment, through all the ups and downs of our campaigns.  Because I'm a realistic US fan.  Who wishes, just once, that we weren't realistic.  So we would reach for the stars.