Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Kentucky Derby Preview: Stud or Dud?


Everyone knows stories about couples who desperately tried to get pregnant and only succeeded after they stopped trying so desperately. Maybe that's what the owners of 2002 Kentucky Derby Winner War Emblem should try with the reluctant stud. For the last few years, he's shown no interest in horsing around. Since the Derby is this Saturday, I wonder if the owner of this year's winner will get luckier with a horse who enjoys getting lucky.


Shadai Stallion Station in Hokkaido Japan bought War Emblem for $17 million. The "New York Times" estimates that his owners have lost out on about $55 million dollars in stud fees because of the horse's lack of interest in the opposite sex. Personally, I think they're judging the big guy too harshly.


The horse is nine years old, and has mated with "only" seventy mares. I don't know how many horse years equal one human year, but no matter what the formula is, seventy mates is nothing to sneeze at. Maybe he just doesn't want any more children. As far as I'm concerned, it's hard enough to worry about just two kids.


The baffling thing for the owners of the stalled stallion is that he hasn't had a date in over two years. Nothing. Zippo. Nada. And they've tried their best. They've offered him all kinds of different mares -- old ones, young ones, and horses of different colors. Maybe it's time the owners joined the 21st century and tried to find War Emblem a mate online. Surely there must be a website called H-Date in which lonely horses seek company with other, uh, naysayers. (If there isn't such a website, there probably will be by the time you finish reading this column).


The latest thing the owners are trying is keeping him separated from the other stallions. The theory is that by having him spend time exclusively with the mares instead of the stallions, War Emblem will feel more secure in his sexuality. I'm not so sure that makes sense. If you don't let a guy hang out with other guys and if you insist that he spend all his time with women, do you really think he'll feel more manly?


Guys need other guys to talk to about women. Maybe male horses need to be around other male horses to confide in, to boast, or to gossip in whatever way horses do those things. Let's face it. A stallion can't exactly nudge the mare next to him and say, "Did you see the fetlocks on that new filly?"


The horses that War Emblem sired before he stopped being in the mood have done quite well. They've won races and they've earned lots of money for their owners. Isn't that enough? Haven't we evolved to the point that a male is no longer expected to "perform" whether he feels like it or not? How many more winners, how many more millions does this horse owe his owners? If he's not in the mood, should he be expected to fake it to make them happy?


By isolating him from the other stallions, the owners may feel that they are taking the pressure off War Emblem. However, I'm sure he picks up on their anxiety and wish for him to make more little War Emblems. It's like when a couple decides that they aren't going to talk about how hard it is for them to get pregnant. They go out to dinner and say, "Let's talk about any other subject." They may say that, but they know that they're still both thinking about getting pregnant.


So I think it's time for War Emblem's owners to relax. If he wants to be a dad again, he will be. If he doesn't, he won't. War Emblem is a living, breathing, unpredictable animal, not a machine. I understand that when they paid all those millions for him, they thought he'd churn out horse after horse after horse. But there's something appropriate in the fact that they may have gambled and lost just like most people do at the racetrack.


It certainly brings up one thing for this year's owners to keep in mind: the horse that runs the fastest just might also run the fastest when being chased by a horse who has romance on its mind.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

Just Make Up Your Mind



"They have the potential to control the fate of the world. They look just like everybody else, and they live among us. Nobody knows what they are thinking or what they will do. They are the... Undecideds."

No, that's not an ad for Hollywood's latest blockbuster. It's a description of the most inexplicable demographic in American elections. Others may talk about rich voters, poor voters, white collar, blue collar, African-American, Caucasian, older or younger voters. But for me the most interesting group are those who still haven't made up their minds. And of course, my big question for them is, "What are you waiting for?"

I understand and respect people who want to get to know as much as possible about a candidate before deciding how to vote. They don't just want to vote for a Democrat or a Republican because of party affiliation, or for a liberal or a conservative because of political philosophy. They want to get to know the candidates before they make their decision. But how well do they have to get to know these people?

This campaign has been going on for two years. What is left to learn about the candidates? We know about their marriages, where they went to school, how they dress, and their views on every subject. We know more about them than the people we're going to walk to the polls with.

How many of you waited to fall in love until you checked out everything that special person had said or done since they were born? How many of you forced your spouse to debate that rival you liked twenty times before you made your choice? When you were a kid deciding who was going to be your best friend on the playground, did you insist on seeing all the kids' tax returns?

I'm not saying that voting for the possible president is an unimportant decision. But I am saying that it seems that by this point, people should know everything they could possibly want to know about the three candidates. At the beginning of this month, nearly 4 out of 10 Democratic voters in North Carolina said they were undecided. What's left to learn about Obama and Clinton? Their favorite pizza topping?

Jenna Bush just revealed on "Larry King Live" that she's not sure who she's voting for. What do you think she's waiting for?

All right, maybe it's possible that some people have gone back and forth between Obama and Clinton because their positions on most issues are so similar. But how do you explain all the people who are deciding between McCain and one of the Democratic candidates? This time around, it is such a clear choice, the Republicans and Democrats have such different positions, that I don't know how someone could feel that it's a coin toss for them. They're almost the opposite of each other on so many issues. When the Undecideds go to dinner do they say to themselves, "I'm either going to have something really bland or the spiciest thing on the menu?" Are they torn about their vacation plans? "I'm either going to backpack in the Sahara or get a suite at the Four Seasons." Are they saying to themselves, "I don't know what to do tonight. I'm either going to watch 'American Idol' or read Proust?"

Again, those who defend the Undecideds might compliment them on their deliberation. However, when interviewed, many of the Undecideds say things like, "I don't know who I'm going to vote for. I guess I'll decide once I get into the voting booth," or "I'll see what my heart tells me on that Tuesday." In other words, many of them aren't actually going to make a particularly informed decision after all this time. They're just going with their gut, which they could've done months ago.

Maybe the Undecideds like being wooed. Maybe they like being talked about on the endless political talk shows. Or maybe they just can't make up their minds. That is their right. And they certainly make a political race interesting. I just hope I'm never behind one of them in a buffet line while they're deciding what to take for their dinner. I might starve to death.


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Monica Lewinsky, God, And The Campaign



It never occurred to me that the Monica Lewinsky Affair would be a part of this Presidential campaign, and I certainly never thought it would be brought up by Hillary Clinton. I was wrong. At the recent "Compassion Forum" at Messiah College, without using Lewinsky's name, Senator Clinton alluded to the pain she went through because of Bill's affair. In terms that must have been clear to everyone who watched, Clinton said that her faith helped her get through her very public struggle and challenge. Those who are both for and against Senator Clinton agreed that she was obviously referring to the Lewinsky affair. She certainly wasn't talking about the pain of standing in the express line at the supermarket when the guy in front of her had eleven items instead of ten. So, why would she want to make the public think of Monica Lewinsky at this time?

I may be cynical, but I think there's a very simple answer. Despite that the separation of church and state is one of our country's basic principles, in recent years the line between the two institutions has become more and more obscured. Today it seems to be a requirement that politicians are not just religious, but that they are more religious than their opponents. For whatever reason, John McCain showed the good sense to skip the "Compassion Forum," but I guess the Democratic race is too close for either of them to take a chance of letting the other one get ahead in the God-off.

By bringing up the Lewinsky mess, I think Senator Clinton was saying, "My faith is greater than Obama's. In fact, it's so great, it even helped me forgive my jerk of a husband. Try to top that, Barack."

This Presidential campaign has been riddled with religion. We've had the flap with Obama's minister. Then there have been the false rumors spread about Barack being a Muslim. Hillary Clinton has said that speaking about her Methodist upbringing publicly does not come naturally to her. She has said this publicly over and over again. I don’t think there has been so much talk of religion in a campaign since the Nixon-Kennedy race in 1960. Of course, Kennedy assured the nation that his faith wouldn't be involved with his political decisions. Today, candidates seem compelled to assure the country of the exact opposite.

Have you ever heard of Messiah College before? I haven't. How would you like to have to play them in basketball? Your team probably wouldn't have a prayer. And imagine the looks you'd get, walking around with a sweatshirt that says, "Messiah" on it. It sounds a tad bit extreme, doesn't it?

But there was no way Obama and Clinton would have missed this event. At the "forum," Senator Clinton was actually asked, "Do you think God wants you to be President?" What do you think the Founding Fathers would have thought of that question?

How did we get to this point? Certainly, President Bush deserves some of the credit. Too many times, he has characterized the war in Iraq as a holy war. According to him, we represent all that is "Good," and we are fighting "Evil." The President seems unaware of the irony that these are the same words that those we are fighting have used to characterize themselves and their fight.

Both Democratic candidates represent themselves as agents of change. Apparently, this change doesn't apply when it comes to religion in politics. Skipping the Compassion Forum or telling reporters throughout the campaign that their religious beliefs are none of anybody's business would've been ways to demonstrate their sincerity about change.

Maybe the candidates have rationalized it as just one more thing they have to do to win – like kissing babies, bowling, or eating Philly cheesesteaks. But wanting to win so badly is no excuse for ignoring one of the most sacred, oops! I mean, important principles of our democracy.

Senator Clinton's desire to win is so great that she now exploits what was probably the most humiliating event in her life. And it's a shame, because it was an event that she handled with so much dignity at the time. But dignity walked out of this campaign months ago. Now it's all about winning. And I'd say that Clinton wants to win so badly that it shouldn't shock any of us if someday soon we see a commercial for Hillary that ends with, "This is Monica Lewinsky, and I have approved this ad."


Friday, April 11, 2008

New No-Fly Zone: Everywhere


The good news is that I managed to be on one of the last of the American Airlines MD-80's this past Tuesday right before the airline grounded all those planes. The bad news is that I managed to be on one of the last of the American Airlines MD-80s this past Tuesday right before the airline grounded all those planes. By that, I don't mean to say that I was unlucky because I might have been in some danger. I mean I was unlucky because I was on a plane.


That's a comment on the sorry state of air travel these days: I barely reacted to the fact that the plane might not have been properly wired. My major relief was that I had landed almost on time, that my luggage arrived, and that it will be a while before I have to fly again. I'm not singling out one airline or one type of aircraft. Over the last few years, air travel for most of us has gotten more and more miserable.


That's the real airline mess today. It's not just the American Airlines thing. It's how airlines have deteriorated in recent years. Remember the days when flying was fun? Or reasonably comfortable? Or at least tolerable? Those days are history. They are of a bygone era -- like three dollar-a- gallon gasoline, or nurses' hats.


The airlines put you in a bad mood right when you walk onto the plane. I know I didn't buy a first class ticket. They don't have to rub it in. But they do. They force us to walk through first class before we get to our seats. So we have to see people seated comfortably, having drinks from real glass glasses on our way to the torture chamber known as the "coach cabin." When you check into a hotel, they don't force you to see the penthouse suite with a spectacular view before you go to your little room near the ice machine. If the airlines cared about the feelings of the majority of people who fly, they could let us use one of the other entrances to the plane, or at least board the first class passengers after coach.


The cliché is that they pack us in like sardines on a plane. That's an insult to sardines. A sardine isn't getting elbowed all the way to Cleveland by the fish sitting next to him. The airline seat must have been developed by a descendant of the Marquis de Sade. It's like sitting in a child's car seat -- without little toys to play with.


The air-conditioning on a plane has two settings: Off and Antarctica. And if the plane is delayed taking off or getting to the gate and you're just sitting there, why do they have to turn off the air-conditioning? I guarantee you the air-conditioning is on in the cockpit.


Hardly a day goes by that we don't read about some airline going bankrupt or being forced to lay off more employees. One thing you know for sure, they're not in bad financial shape because of all that they spend on customer service. It's almost impossible to get a real person on an airline's phone, and humans don't show up to help people at the gate until a few minutes before takeoff.


The whole passenger-airline relationship is very unfair. If you're one minute late for your plane, they won't let you on. But the plane can be four hours late, and all you get is a shrug.


"USA Today" reported recently that airlines' performance was near a 20-year low. And that was before this recent mess that stranded or "inconvenienced" an estimate 250,000 passengers – so far. Flights are routinely overbooked, bags are lost, and planes are delayed. And delayed. People now spend so much time in airports that pharmacies and walk-in clinics are opening at airports across the country. The industry probably figures that things would become too crowded if they also opened walk-in law offices.


The one solution I can think of to all of these problems is for Congress to pass a law insisting that all airline CEOs fly on their airline's longest flight in coach class once a week. After a few weeks, they're bound to either make some changes or leave the airline business. I'd be happy to accept either outcome.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Final Final Four Report: What A Game!


Something told them they weren't in Kansas anymore, but the Jayhawks felt right at home at the end of the NCAA basketball Championship Game Monday night. They beat Memphis 75-68 in overtime as Elvis had left the building at the end of regulation. That's when "Super Mario" Chalmers of Kansas tied the game at 63-63. It was like a heavyweight championship fight, with both fighters getting off the canvas over and over again. Memphis was prepared to play two halves of basketball, but Kansas played until the game was over. They call the tournament, "The Big Dance," but there's only room for one team to waltz down victory lane. And that's the last sports cliché I'll use to describe this amazing game. It's just a shame that one team had to lose. Oops! Couldn't resist.

The game was one of the most exciting in NCAA championship history. Two "Number One" teams played fantastic basketball to prove which one of them was really Number One. There's a "rule" among members of the press covering a sporting event which states, "No cheering in the press box." What this means is that writers are supposed to be impartial, professional observers who don't show any emotion during a game. Well, that rule went out the window somewhere in the second half. It was impossible not to be excited by the game. There were six lead changes in the second half alone, and I lost track of how many times the game was tied.

It seemed like the Memphis Tigers were about to defeat the Kansas Jayhawks when Chalmers hit a game-tying three point shot with only 2.1 seconds left in regulation. From then on, through the overtime period, it looked like Memphis was in shock. They never recovered. There was no look of determination on their faces, only one of worry.

Throughout the season, free throws had been a problem for Memphis, and they missed four out of five in the last minute and fifteen seconds. That's the kind of thing that drives coaches – and fans – crazy. But as I said here the other day, the college game is played by kids, and kids make mistakes.

However, those last few minutes shouldn't be the only thing that people remember about how Memphis played. I'll remember the junior guard whose name sounds like a fancy Englishman: Chris Douglas-Roberts. He made shots from seemingly impossible angles, his long arms extending like a real Stretch Armstrong. Freshman guard Derrick Rose was outstanding. If he had had a first half like his second, Memphis would be the champs now instead of Kansas.

Kansas has, perhaps, the most storied tradition of basketball in the country. Its first basketball coach was James Naismith who invented the game of basketball. Some of the original rules seem quaint these days, but the game is slow to change its regulations. In fact, at lunch the other day, I overheard a couple of coaches declaring that it was about time the NCAA got rid of its "antiquated" rule against players chewing tobacco during a game. Yes, that's actually still a rule. Personally, I think it's a good rule and see no reason to get rid of it. Besides, just as a matter of practicality, where are the teams going to find stores that sell spittoons?

Monday night, basketball royalty was not only on the court, but in the stands as well. The legendary Bill Russell was in attendance, and this game was worthy of his presence. Earlier in the day, the Basketball Hall of Fame announced that, among others, Adrian Dantley, Pat Riley, Cathy Rush, Patrick Ewing, and Hakeem Olajuwon will be inducted into the Hall this year. They were all at the game, too. Another inductee is basketball announcer, Dick Vitale, the man who put "hype" in hyperbole. Strangely enough, Vitale got a bigger ovation at the game than any of those players or coaches. And he's an announcer. Just think how wild the crowd would have gone if they had introduced a columnist.



Sunday, April 6, 2008

NCAA FINAL FOUR UPDATE: They're Just Kids



I was a witness to the middle of the country defeating the two coasts yesterday (Saturday). It was the day of the NCAA Final Four basketball semifinals here in San Antonio. The four Number One teams from the four regions of the country played in the two games. In other words, two teams had to win, and two teams had to lose. Memphis beat UCLA, and Kansas beat the University of North Carolina. The games weren't exactly upsets, but in each one, the schools with the stylish, refined traditions lost to the faster, stronger competitors.


So, Kansas and Memphis will face each other in the championship game Monday night. Both teams are speedy, confident, and they even wear the same colors -- red and blue. It should be a great game, but you never know. Before the semifinals, the "experts" predicted very close games. UCLA lost 78-63, and North Carolina lost 84-66.


Unpredictability is one of the most exciting things about college sports in general, and basketball in particular. The games are played by "kids," predominantly teenagers. They make mistakes. They're emotional. They do things that defy logic.


The fact that the games are played by people so young makes the enormous emotional involvement of the adults who watch them all the more interesting. So many people tie their moods, their ups, their downs, to what a bunch of kids do with a ball. Otherwise normal adults cry when "their" team loses. Or they hug and kiss perfect strangers when they win.


More than 500,000 people attended tournament games this year. 43,719 fans showed up for the semifinal games on Saturday. Millions of people spend hours at work trying to predict who'll win the NCAA tournament games. In fact, surveys estimate that the amount of money that American businesses lose to lost productivity because of the games is in the billions of dollars. And countless more dollars are wagered on the outcome of these games. It's crazy. Every parent knows that the behavior of a teenager is unpredictable. Why do sports fans forget about this?


The emotional involvement of fans and alumni with their schools' athletic teams is unique. You rarely hear about two guys in a bar who got into a fight, arguing about whose college has a better biology program. When someone from your college or university wins a Nobel Prize, you may feel proud, but I doubt that you go out into the streets, looking for a party to celebrate.


Despite the elevated status that sports fans give to college athletes, the fans are not above booing and cursing players. Sometimes they can be incredibly cruel. They wouldn't yell at kids like that in any other situation. It wouldn't hurt for someone to remind them that these are kids that they are verbally abusing. They're somebody's neighbors, somebody's children.


I remember going into the Duke locker room one year after they lost their game by one point. Reporters were asking questions of disappointed athletes who were undressing or had a towel wrapped around themselves. Then I heard a sound coming from the shower. It was the sound of one of the players crying. I never went into a losing locker room again.


One of the most amusing things when you're at a game is that every fan seems to consider himself or herself an expert. They don't just applaud when their team scores or boo when the other team does. They call out specific instructions. "Don't dribble so much," "Slow it down," "Double-team him," are among the instructions that fans feel that the players could not do without. This, of course, makes absolutely no sense. If these players are so great that fans tie their emotional state to them, why do they assume that the players need their advice?


I don't think that if they witnessed a top surgeon from their university doing his work, they'd call out, "No, no, no. Make that cut two inches to the left." Would they shout to a mathematician, "Cube root, not square root, you jerk?" Or would they yell,"proton, not neutron" to the best physicist from their school?


So, these overly hyped, well attended games are unpredictable and the reverence with which so many people regard them is completely illogical. And that's what makes them so much fun, and that's why I'll be there Monday night.




Brother, Can You Spare A Grand?



The latest development coming out of the current financial crisis is that individuals – regular people like you and me – are becoming banks. It's called Peer to Peer Lending. The idea is that the lender's money can earn more interest than if it were in a bank, and the borrower can borrow at a lower rate than if he or she went to a traditional lending institution. When I first heard about it, I knew right away it wasn't for me. I don't want to be a bank. For one thing, where would I get ten tellers to stand around talking while only one teller's window's open?


This kind of lending is becoming big business. Those who tout it say that it's a process in which "everybody wins." As if that's not a large enough red flag, the companies who run these things -- and who take a cut for themselves -- do it on the internet. The borrower and lender never meet, they just communicate online. I don't want to get my finances involved in a system that has the same rules as a porn chat room.


The websites try to create the atmosphere of a community, a club. Prospective lenders don't just consider the financial condition of the would-be borrower. They can use any criteria they want. According to those who have been studying these places, the lender will often decide which person to lend his money to based on that person's interests and hobbies. I don't know much about economics, but I'm not going to fork over my money to somebody just because he collects clocks.


Borrowers don't need to put up any collateral. They're often people who couldn't qualify for a loan elsewhere. One Peer to Peer company only requires that the borrower be a United States resident with a credit score of at least 520, a bank account, and a Social Security number. They don't even have to own a wallet.


So this system allows people whose credit isn't great to borrow money from people who set their own interest rates and make up the rules as far as who qualifies for a loan. Isn't that how we got into this financial mess in the first place?


But even if this thing didn't look like it was a disaster waiting to happen, I still wouldn't want to become a bank. There are too many decisions. Would I have to hire a guard? Should I validate parking? Should I close early on Halloween?


There's another reason why I don't want to get involved in this thing. What happens if the person I lend the money to can't pay it back? I don't have the right kind of personality to chase people for money. I don't want to be seen as the cruel, impersonal bank that's not allowing a mom and dad to buy a birthday gift for their kid. I don't want to see their noses pressed against my computer Windows as they beg for a little more time.


In this digital age, some people feel very close to those they "meet" on the internet. I think that's one of the biggest problems of Peer to Peer "communities." If you're wise, the only circumstance in which you lend money to a friend is if you don't ever expect to be paid back. Otherwise, bad feelings, lost money, and recriminations are bound to follow – even if you have common interests and a "really good feeling" about the other person.


Let's face it. With the exception of governments, banks are probably universally hated more than any other institution. They're seen as heartless, unfair, and as really hard places to find the bathroom. Why would people want to take over those negative feelings? I say we stick with tradition. If we have to hate, let's keep hating the banks instead of each other.



Saturday, April 5, 2008

Friday Night Fever



Everybody who is even remotely interested in sports knows that this is the weekend for the NCAA college basketball Final Four. This year, UCLA, North Carolina, Memphis, and Kansas compete in San Antonio, Texas. The two semi-final games are on Saturday and the championship game is Monday night. As I sit in my hotel room Friday night in San Antonio, I have one major question: why can't the games start tonight? I'm ready.

I didn't go to any of the four schools in the Final Four. In fact, neither of my alma maters -- Cal or Northwestern - has been in any of the five Final Fours that I've attended. Realistically, their meeting in a championship game anytime soon is about as likely as the Obamas inviting the Clintons over for dinner. So what makes me want to travel on crowded flights to stay in noisy hotels all to watch some games I could see better on TV at home?

It's the same reason that perfectly sane adults -- doctors, lawyers, truck drivers, waitresses, and people from every other walk of life -- dress in ridiculous outfits and scream for a few hours, and then go back to their regular lives. We do it to escape. We do it to get away from the real world. We do it to take a break from thinking about work, personal problems, or the war.

Sports have been criticized for being too commercial, too ready to coddle egomaniacal athletes, and too full of drugs. Amateur sports are seen as a sham in which the college or Olympic participant is not really an amateur. I can't argue with any of these criticisms. Sports are all of these things. But they are something else, too -- they are really fun to watch. And as the war continues with no end in sight, and as the dollar will soon buy a quarter of a gallon of gasoline, it seems like a pretty good time for fun.

The excitement of attending this year's Final Four started on the flight to San Antonio. The plane was filled with partisan people making the pilgrimage. When we landed, we were inundated with signs and friendly faces, all welcoming us to "San Antonio, Home of the 2008 NCAA Final Four." We were serenaded at the baggage carousel by a mariachi band. You see, it's not just the Alamodome that will house excitement this weekend. All of San Antonio seems exhilarated.

The sound of people talking and laughing was incredibly loud on the streets of San Antonio Friday night. The entire downtown area was hosting a party. And this was before the games had even started. What would it be like after some fans really had something to celebrate?

Historically, sports have often provided a much-needed respite from cruel reality. I remember reading stories about the Civil War in which some soldiers from the North and South took a break from fighting to play baseball with each other. Similarly, the Philippine army and insurgents recently held a seven-hour truce so they could watch local hero Manny Pacquiao fight for the super featherweight title. Unfortunately, in these kinds of cases, after the sporting events were over, the participants went back to trying to kill each other. So as far as I'm concerned, our society doesn't suffer from too much sport, but not enough.

It never bothers me when a President welcomes athletes to the White House or calls to congratulate a team that has won a championship. It's fine with me if politicians are big sports fans. Others may ask, "Don't our leaders have better things to do?" My answer is, "Not necessarily." The more hours that those in power spend dealing with sports means there are fewer hours that they have to mess up some foreign or domestic policy.

If George Bush's psyche had pushed him to compete with his father as an athlete rather than as a statesman, how much different might the world be today?

Perhaps that's too serious of a question to ponder just now. This weekend is a time for taking a break, watching the games, and having fun. It's more appropriate to ponder whether all those UCLA fans who color their faces blue will be able to remove that paint before they return to work next week. After Monday night, we can go back to solving the problems of the world.


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