Friday, January 18, 2013

Nobody Asked Me, But...

Special Mythed It By That Much Edition
 We've got a nexus of disillusionment to examine this week in the form of two stories out of sport that rocked America.
The question, of course, has to be asked: why?
In one case, it's pretty obvious. Lance Armstrong won seven Tour de France championships in a row. The greatest single athletic endeavour in the history of the planet, meaning he was the greatest athlete who ever lived.
If you believe the myth, of course. I've delved at great length into that myth here, so there's no point in reiterating it.
The other case involves the private embarassment of a college athlete thrust into a spotlight partly of his own making. Manti Te'o was a linebacker for the Notre Dame University football team, and was arguably the best player on that team (the parenthetical question has to be asked, "Were PEDs involved?")
He was runner-up in the voting for the Heismann Trophy, emblematic of the best college football player of the year. He led ND to an undefeated season and a shot at the national title. This alone would have been enough to make him a topic of national dialogue (again, why? But that's a meta-issue for now)
But the compelling aspect of Te'o's mythology is that he lost both his grandmother and his girlfriend on the same day, coming into this season. It was inspiring, the difficulties that he played through, the emotional strain, the dedication he showed.
Except at least half the story was not true. Oh, it might have been true enough, from the perspective of Te'o. After all, if you believe the stories (and personally I do), Te'o was hoodwinked -- "catfished", as the kids call it -- he was hillbilly handfished into a relationship with a girl he'd never met, but was the creation of an alleged "friend". Never existed.
So her death was less of an actual event and more an inevitable twist in the romance.
He believed her mythology, in other words. Just as we believe so many mythologies around us. Which brings us to Armstrong.
Last night, part one of his interview with Oprah Winfrey was aired. In it, he exposed his fraudulence. He was forthright about it when he limited himself to yes or no answers, I give him that much credit.
But in watching it, I realized two things.
First, he hasn't really thought through precisely what he's done (or he refuses to think it through, take your pick.) I don't think the magnitude of his scam has been made plain to him. Perhaps Oprah delves into that in part 2.
He admits he's hurt people around him, and that let his fans down as he pursued the very myth he created for the world. I think that's when mythology becomes the most dangerous. You know the old expression, "never believe your own press."
But here's what I think will be his ultimate self-revelation and he made need a therapist to get there: by creating this fantastic myth surrounding his cancer, his recovery and triumphs, Armstrong inspired millions. A week didn't go buy over the past few years when I wouldn't get an email from Armstrong, documenting the work of his LiveStrong foundation, replete with testimonials from cancer survivors -- and can we now believe all of those? -- thanking Lance for his inspiring story, which pushed them to take control of their cancer and beat it.
I fell into that trap too. I bought a bike and started riding in anticipation of his return to cycling. If he could do it at forty, I could do it at 40-something, right? The man was an animal. I, merely a beast. Perhaps I could become the oldest man to ride the Tour?
OK, probably not by a factor of 99.9999 to .0001 (that .0001 was to account for an act of God that demolished every cyclist better than I), but in setting a high bar for myself, it guaranteed that I'd accomplish more than merely saying "I'm overweight, out of shape, and need an adrenaline fix."
I'm a better man for the myth, but as I suspect many cancer survivors like me are saying, it was all built on sand and fog and the tide is coming in.
That's the aftermath of the myth and its exposure that Lance will have to deal with in some way if he truly wants to rehabilitate himself.
His appearance on Oprah's show so far has been about rehabbing his image, which speaks to me that his ego is still out of control. He was at times over the top obeisant, admitting at one point that the interview was only the second time in his life he felt he had no control over anything (unless he meant the whole revelation of his doping, which would be an evolution in his thinking, to be sure.) The first time was when he developed testicular cancer which had metastasized to his brain and lungs.
I'd like to see him rehabilitate himself, which means he should go into hiding and really contemplate what he's done, then come back and give back to the community, his fans and to the cancer community, too. Once he's humbled by the damage he's wrought, then I think America will forgive and forget.
After all, it would just be another mythology we can cling to: bad guy makes good.
What is it about America that we need our myths, whether they be good or bad? Guns protect us, but they do jsut the opposite, making the nation a more dangerous place. The past was better, except by nearly any measure at all, it was not. We're a nation of rugged individuals, yet we claim to also be a nation who cares about our neighbors, and both, BOTH, are patently untrue.
Similarly, why do we even talk about Manti Te'o? Yes, he's a great football player, but he clearly has some deep character flaws. He's human, not superhuman, but he's about to be lavished with both enormous sums of money (he's turning pro) and enormous heaps of ridicule and contempt. Why do we care so much that we would do either of those things?
His mythology, both self-created and a construct of some cruel forces around him, including his university (do you know no one bothered to send flowers to the girlfriend?) makes him out to be a bigger figure than he should be in a just and fair society.
Similarly with Armstrong: I swallowed his myth whole, despite the nagging suspicion that a guy who barely survives cancer ought not to be able to win one, much less seven, of the hardest athletic events ever devised by man. So I have to reflect on my own need for a mythology to hang onto.
So should you. We all have them.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Denial Nondenials

Here's a pretty interesting twist on the long-standing policy of governments everywhere to deny stories without denying them: confirming a story by denying it:

The State Department is publicly discounting claims made by its own diplomats about a chemical weapons attack in Syria.

On Tuesday, Foreign Policy detailed a secret and previously unknown cable from the U.S. consulate in Istanbul which came to the explosive conclusion that Syrian government forces dropped a hallucinogen known as "Agent 15″ on rebels in the town of Homs on December 23.

But less than a day later, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland has denied the report, saying that the Foreign Policy story "did not accurately convey the anecdotal information that we had received from a third party regarding an alleged incident in Syria in December."

"At the time we looked into the allegations that were made and the information that we had received, and we found no credible evidence to corroborate or to confirm that chemical weapons were used," she added. That's a major deal, because the international community has repeatedly told the Assad Regime in Syria that the use of chemical weapons is beyond unacceptable. The White House issued a statement along similar lines.

Let's dig a little deeper into this story and click on that "dropped a hallucinogen" link...

The Syrian military used an exotic chemical weapon on rebels during an attack in the city of Homs, some U.S. diplomats now believe.

That conclusion — first reported by Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin and laid out in a secret cable from the U.S. consul general in Istanbul — contradicts preliminary estimates made by American officials in the hours after the December 23 strike. But after interviews with Syrian activists, doctors, and defectors, American diplomats in Turkey have apparently rendered a different verdict. It's important to note, however, that this was the conclusion of a single consulate within the State Department, and there is still wide disagreement within the U.S. government over whether the Homs attack should be characterized as a chemical weapons incident.

"We can't definitely say 100 percent, but Syrian contacts made a compelling case that Agent 15 was used in Homs on Dec. 23," an unnamed U.S. official tells Rogin.

Said "compelling case" was made by a contractor who monitors rebel communications and discovered some YouTube videos.

What has been confirmed is that Syria used some sort of tactical weapon on its own citizens on December 23, and said weapon consisted of a "riot control agent."

In other words, it could be tear gas, it could just be smoke, or it could be Agent 15, which is employed in such a fashion and is roughly as dangerous as tear gas, in that with normal use, it's an irritant; in concentrated doses, it can be fatal.

CNN investigated the story and uncovered that doctors who treated those rebels employed atropine, which would actually enhance the effects of a hallucinogen. Those who were closest to the weapons strikes had more severe reactions to the agent than those farther away.

Atropine is used to treat sarin gas exposure. Hence, a denial nondenial.


Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Broad Strokes

I don't forsee this passing in toto, but it's a good place to start to shape a new policy, one that fits a nation catching up with the 21st century:
President Barack Obama will propose an assault weapons ban and better background checks for gun buyers on Wednesday as part of a package of proposals to curb gun violence one month after the Newtown school massacre.

The proposals will include executive and legislative measures, with the latter sure to face an uphill battle in Congress, where appetite for renewing an assault weapons ban is low.

By the by, as a side note, a masterful stroke including children at the press conference. We're already seeing rumbles from the right about grandstanding...from the usual suspects, of course. But it will inoculate the President from really harsh criticisms about the proposals, since you'd basically be calling schoolchildren liars.
Of course, that wouldn't stop the zagnuts from doing precisely that.
The more and more I read and talk to conservatives, the more convinced I am that they see a handwriting on the wall that's telling them time's up, and they're fighting tooth and nail to hold onto an illusory past where they actually mattered. Even Ed Meese thinks he's still relevant, even tho his old dead boss would probably side with President Obama on this issue because, you know, he was shot.
We've treated them like our kid brother who tagged along on a guy's night out long enough. Time to put them to bed and get on with things.
The assault weapons ban will be a tough sell in the House, of course. Here's where "We, the People" come in. We have to get on the horn to our legislators. The NRA, the Gun Owners of America, and all the other crackpot rightwing jackboots will have their troops lined up, ready to threaten and intimidate their lawmakers. We have to make it clear that the 4 million (yea, right) members of the NRA are shouted down by the whispers of the other 326 million of us.
Make your kids write. Make your cat write (I know mine is already drafting a letter). This is important. We spoke up when the first bailout package was proposed in the Bush administration and beat that back. We can beat this crowd, too. They don't have nearly the influence banks did.
From what I've read and heard, the bill as proposed is a good one, if incomplete. But it's hella better than letting terrorists run our nation.

BREAKING: Michele Bachmann Had "Unnatural Relations" With Her Couch...Wait...What?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


I'm in a quandry.
See, I like Lance Armstrong. I admire his accomplishments (wait for it) and his charity work in keeping a spotlight focused on cancer has been even more admirable.
But it's all been built on a house of cards, and I'm a little angry about that.
Let's get the climax of the Armstrong story out of the way so I can focus on the real issue as I see it: No matter what, Lance Armstrong won seven Tour De France titles, the most grueling athletic competition in the world. A man (or woman, as they do race a woman's race too) rides for three full weeks with precisely two days off, circumnavigating an entire nation and then some, covering roughly the distance from New York to Salt Lake City.
Steroids don't help all that much in the grand scheme of things, but even a half a percent boost is enough to propel you a lot further faster over 21 race days.
Armstrong beat at least six riders who themselves were found guilty of doping contemporaneously to these Tours. That the UCI (the governing body ofr professional cycling) and Tour de France officials have not seen fit to award any of the forfeit jerseys speaks to me that they have doubts about even the seventh.
He beat cheaters at their own game. Indeed, he cheated better than they did since he was never caught but they all were. In fact, the one race he actually lost, his "unretirement' in 2009, saw him place behind two other riders who themselves have either been proven or accused of doping.
In short, I can hold the notion in my head that Armstrong is a great athlete and that on any level playing field, he wins seven titles.
Also, I can hold the notion that he's a shit of a person. After all, this is a man who abandoned his wife and kids, shacked up with Sheryl Crowe and then dumped her just after she revealed her breast cancer (ironic, right?) By all accounts, he's a pretty mean motherfucker and a terrible teammate, as has been documented in the thousands of pages of testimony the USADA has released from former teammates who talk of being bullied and extorted into silence about doping.
That Lance Armstrong is willing to fess up now and come clean is about one thing, and one thing only: Lance Armstrong. His ego got way ahead of his common sense. After all, he wasn't born an "Armstrong." This is a guy who has a very...I'll be polite...healthy self-image. Confessing to the High Priestess of Confessional Television is one of the first steps in rehabbing a shattered and shabby image.
To what ends? Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh...that's the right question!
Let's talk about the underlying issue here: money.
Steroids in sports. Ponzi schemes. Subprime lending. What two things do they all have in common?
Blatant illegality and money.
Armstrong's entire cycling legend focuses on his accomplishments on the bike, but its the rewards he got off the bike that speak louder.
Armstrong took a sport that was barely a blip on most Americans' radar and turned it into a phenomenon, through a combination of compelling story (cancer survivor comes back to LiveStronger) and accomplishment. Either would have had little impact on driving the sport of bicycling in the country (can you even name the last American before Armstrong to win the Tour? HINT: He was the first and won it three times in some of the most exciting Tours ever staged.)
The combination of the two would rocket cycling into the nation's psyche. Suddenly, the Tour went from something for geeks, with fifteen minutes of summary coverage on ABC's Wide World Of Sports, to live coverage of actual stages. Cycling became a sport one could regularly find on cable.
In tandem with this, Armstrong formed a national dialogue on cancer and healthcare through his LiveStrong Foundation. Those ubiquitous yellow wristbands started showing up everywhere. I still wear mine proudly as a cancer survivor. I can still be proud of Lance for that work.
In return, Armstrong was lionized around the world (mostly...remember, he's still a prick.) In an age when superheroes stopped existing, Armstrong towered above us all, like the Colossus of Rhodes. Those of us who biked reverted to our childhood tropes of playing in the pros, and we'd ride against or alongside Lance in our imaginations. He drove us farther, higher, faster, stronger.
In return, the Armstrong brand -- LiveStrong -- became a commodity. Clothing, equipment, the websites, endorsement deals abounded, and Lance raked it in. Maybe he was not as greedy as Madoff, but he made a nice living.
Fame, fortune, titles, beautiful women...I've actually "spoken" to Lance (online, a brief discussion when he was making his comeback) and you could sense his giddiness at it all. When you're ego is being fed well, you can't help but be happy.
See, here's the thing: there's a flipside to all this acquisitive behavior. You end up destroying people and lives. For instance, Armstrong sued a British tabloid for a story they published about his then-alleged doping, and won a substantial judgement. The reporter who wrote that suffered professional consequences that no amount of rehabbing by Armstrong will restore.
Frankie Andreu, a former teammate of Armstrong, and his wife Betty have been pariahs in the cycling community for years for suggesting that Andreu knew Lance doped.
Life can be a zero sum game if you play it badly. What you win, be it money or power or fame or fortune, comes out of someone else's pocket. It's rarely a collaborative, cooperative triumph.
Armstrong will have to do much more than publicly confess his sins against cycling, against the cycling community, and against the American people and people of the world who followed him, if he wants to even begin to restore balance to the world, if he truly wants redemption.
For instance, he can name names. Armstrong was the greatest athlete of his generation, in any sport, but he's still small potatoes on the totem pole of sport. There's officials and owners and promoters, the people who made real money off his exploits, and turned a blind eye or even encouraged his cheating.
He can volunteer to help form new doping guidelines and protocols that will catch other people cheating. To this day, Lance has still not ever tested positive for PEDs. How he got around those tests is important knowledge for the governing body of all sports to have. With the kind of money teams and sponsors throw into sports...I'll get to that in a minute...they can easily stay ahead of the doping cops.
And he can talk frankly about the pressures we put on athletes to cheat. He can talk about how sport is so glamourized worldwide, that games played by children have mutated into competitions where sums of money the size of the GDP of a small nation are at stake, that there is a clear "win at any cost" mentality.
And how we can mitigate this. Like politics, so long as their is big money to be made, there is big money to be spent trying to get an edge.
And maybe in the course of that discussion, you and I can look at ourselves and realize we are the problem. And we have it within ourselves to fix it, and easily.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Fostering Understanding

I love what Jodie Foster did last night at the Golden Globes. It was a magnificently snarky yet polite way of telling people to fuck off. The juice quote, as far as I'm concerned:
But now I’m told, apparently, that every celebrity is expected to honor the details of their private life with a press conference, a fragrance and a prime-time reality show. You know, you guys might be surprised, but I am not Honey Boo Boo Child. No, I’m sorry, that’s just not me. It never was and it never will be.
The irony? Everyone is fixated on "Did she or didn't she?," as in "just come out of the closet on national television, when her point was "I already came out decades ago and apart from that, it's none of your business."
Which is a far more interesting revelation for a celebrity to make.
Here's the thing: unless you've been living under a rock for roughly thirty years, then you know that Jodie Foster is a lesbian. Hell, she'd openly been in a domestic partnership for twenty years and has two sons with her ex-partner.
Which is why all the "Well, we all know what she was talking about" bullshit is so ludicrous. Why do we demand confessionals from people?
Here's how this probably transpired: Jodie Foster was approached by some LGBT activists and asked to publicly declare her homosexuality. She refused, and given Jodie Foster's dignity, refused politely.
That ought to be the end of it, because she's never once taken a stand that could be remotely construed as anything "anti-gay," and her entire career has been about pioneering new ground.
That she's pioneered new ground for women is obvious. She is outwardly one. That she's pioneered new ground for lesbians, too, should be obvious if you've been paying attention at all.
Have we in America become so dumbed down that we need to be beaten over the head with stuff? Apparently.
And it's beautiful that she took a swipe at American culture in the same breath. The fascination we have with peering into other people's lives in nauseating. There are issues, real issues, confronting us, issues that don't involve some fat spoiled brat who gets pampered and idolated.
Sorry, Snooki, for calling you fat. And then there's Honey Boo Boo, a child, a child, who will fall out of favor and fade into obscurity until her ego demands nursing. Then she'll either pose nude for whatever magazine needs a bump in subscriptions, or go on a meth-fueled rampage at a gas station. (cf Britney Spears)
The logical extension of this fascination with focusing on anythingbutourownpatheticexistences finds us at Twitter and Facebook, where we can learn more about people we know that we'd ever dare to even consider back in the pre-Internet days.
Look, I think it's cute that I have friends on Facebook and Twitter who are so wrapped up in themselves and their self-images that they think I care what they had for breakfast, or who they're dating or flirting with. It's mostly harmless and while there are rarely any deep insights into the human condition to be had in one fell swoop, reading them can lend clues to the answers we seek from society, like "Am I alone in this?" or "What should I have for lunch?"
In a way, blogging serves a similar purpose: in the grand scheme of things, why are you reading what I have to say on something, anything? I'm a human being, no more or less gifted than you are. I maybe a little more intelligent, or a bit more facile with words, but at the end of the day, I can't build a bookshelf or cook a gourmet meal, or bang out a 120 page movie script.
I have unique insights, and maybe I make you think a little, and that's a good thing, don't get me wrong, but I don't have anymore answers than you do. If I did, I'd be running the damned place.
Which, come to think of it, is a pretty appealing fantasy...but I digress.
Jodie Foster's a lesbian. She doesn't have to come out and say it anymore than you have to come out and admit that you slept with that dirty skanky person back in college because you got drunk, or that you secretly DVR soap operas, or maybe have a little too much wine with dinner.
She's human. You're human. We're all human and we're all entitled to have precisely as much as we allow to be known about us by other people.
And THAT was Foster's point.