When I was a kid, Muhammad Ali was a ubiquitous media figure, whether he was fighting or being interviewed or selling cologne on the television. I missed the early years of his career, and only learned about the political aspects of his fame much later. (a link to a fantastic article on Ali follows my post). As I encountered him, he was just one of the pantheon, a star of stars. Race, religion, and politics never entered into the equation any more than they did when I thought of my other childhood heroes: Willie Stargell, Mean Joe Green, and Mr. Rogers. I never realized until later just how bright Ali shined, the star among stars. Like many of my generation, we looked back on Ali with new interest long after he’d faded from public view, after he returned to the world stage at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, his trembling arm raised to light the Olympic flame, a man refusing to be bowed by age or the horribly ironic Parkinson’s that clawed at his body. I’ll never forget sitting in a restaurant near Wilson, Wyoming, drinking beer and eating pizza with friends, watching The Greatest ascend to light the torch, my eyes moist with respect and admiration. I cannot think of a person more deserving of the title, American Hero. He surely was that–as flawed as the rest of us, but possessed of a drive and determination that not only made him literally the greatest fighter of all time, but which drove him to risk everything for his beliefs, even when that meant potentially losing his career as well as his freedom. It is rare for us to see men who even come close to Ali’s stature. More is the pity.
So, my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers went out and signed pariah quarterback Michael Vick as what is likely to be a short term fill-in as a backup. Predictably, a few dim, narrow corridors in the social media maze have gone ablaze with fury fired so hot that it quickly consumed all available oxygen, which resulted in secondary hypoxia for all therein. That anti-Vick crowd, now gasping for breath, still writhes angrily on the floor, contorted in bitter and frustrated resentment.
“Vick screwed up–but I think it’s safe, if not particularly correct or popular–to say that the business with dog fighting has a certain cultural element to it–and by culture I mean, yes: poverty, latitude, and race. That isn’t an indictment of any group–different communities have their vices–poor people, and black people are inordinately represented among the poor, are more apt to be involved in dog fighting than wealthier folks–and it doesn’t hurt that the latter know better how to keep their hands appearing clean.
Dog fighting, and its associated abuses, was not taboo in Vick’s microcosm. He grew up around it, like a lot of poor city kids, and while he probably knew in the abstract that it was wrong, it didn’t really sink in until he was hip deep in trouble. (and for the love of the gods why doesn’t the NFL hire a team of “cleaners” who would find these kids and see what they hell they’re into that won’t wash now that they’re famous, then make them stop?) Ignorance–or even the fact that in much of the word dogs = calories–doesn’t exonerate him, but it does explain what he did and why, and it’s long past time to move forward from what happened because, as those before me said, he’s paid what society demanded of him. And more. He went to prison and lost millions upon millions of dollars as well as the prime years of his athletic career. We forgive a lot worse people for a lot more terrible things.
He also worked his way back and, as far as we know, has been an exemplary citizen (and yeh, I’m knocking on wood as I say it) and an admirably professional athlete. The free agent cupboard is pretty bare, especialy at quarterback, and I can’t think of a better available free agent, between his maturity and his skills. I’m glad that the Steelers are going out and taking care of business pro-actively. If Gradkowski wasn’t hurt, I’d think differently. At this point, I don’t sign Vick over Bruce–but with no viable backup (Jones is still a project and then some)–there simply isn’t anyone else out there right now, and from a purely football standpoint this is a good signing.”
Within a few minutes of posting this, one of my “real name” friends stuck up an angry change.org petition on her facebook page, that bleated “Michael Vick is a convicted felon and no-class piece of crap. He is also a terrible QB which is why he has no team. Let’s united as Steeler fans – as NFL fans – and stop him from playing on our team! Steelers fans united! Sign to keep Vick from ever wearing the coveted Steelers uniform!!”
Ugh. If there is one thing that makes me want to invite Michael Vick over to the house for a nice, “Welcome To Western Pennsylvania” meal, it is a Change.org petition.
Change.org petitions are one of several reasons that I have stopped identifying myself as a liberal, which strictly speaking I never was, at least not by definition. Libertine, but not liberal. As I’ve said before, my politics skew to the old school Bull Moose progressivism–populist, anti-corporate, strong domestic policy, etc–and the namby pamby sensitivity that accompanies “liberalism” as it is colloquially regarded, respulses me. These petitions are little more than vehicles for us to feel good about ourselves with the least possible effort–look, ma, I clicked against that guy who did that thing! I clicked hard, too! I was really ticked off! I made a difference! Yay me!
We’ve become too weak, too fragile in our sensitivities, and it the case of Mr. Vick, we’re grossly hypocritical. He killed dogs. It’s a terrible thing. I love dogs. I love my 40 pound dog who sits on my lap and lets me hold her like she’s an infant. I prefer her company to that of all but a very few humans. Vick’s actions disgusted me, but how much do we ask of one man–at what point do we forgive? We work tirelessly to rehabilitate other criminals–we cheer them when they transcend their missteps, however vile, but because Mike Vick is famous he must be forever marked. If he was a stringy haired punk from the corner who’d done his time, cleared his parole, and got himself a new job, we’d point to him as gleaming beacon of hope for the success of justice system. But he’s a black dude who runs fast, and gets to be on TV, so he’ll never pay enough. Would we resent him if he got a job at Dairy Queen? No, because the schadenfreude would be washing over us so thick and warm we’d tremble in orgiastic delight.
I can be an asshole sometimes. (“Sometimes?” My wife calls from the other room) I know it. I don’t want to smell your cigarette smoke, for example, and if I catch you stopping on your morning walk to let your dog shit in my yard you sure as hell better have a plastic bag in your hand. I’ll try to be funny about it, at first, but things irk me–and it’s getting worse.
I used to be a pretty laid back guy. I’ve only been in a few fights in my life because I’ve been not only easy going, but bigger than most people I meet. And size matters, in bars, except when it doesn’t.
When I was younger, I noticed (how could I not?) a trend: when out and about, late at night, little guys would get a drunk on and pick me out of the crowd. It happened half a dozen times over several years, especially in the west. Tiny Cowboys, for some reason they found difficult to articulate, wanted to kick my ass.
I’d be minding my own business, feel a poke in the rib, and find some miniature “dude” in a pearl-snap shirt and ridiculous hat, swaying on his western bootheels and muttering “ya ain’t swo fuckin’ big ya ain’t I’wo kicks ywo ass muth-fucka.” I distinctly remember the first time it happened, in a place called Spirits of The West in Jackson, Wyoming.
Aside: (Hey, Slim–remember that night: Shep fell of his bar stool and all those guys patted him on the back and bought him beers, even though he was wearing his manskirt?)
Normally, these guys stay in the background, in small groups, stony-faced and silent, nursing Coors Lites, obsessively clean-cut–they don’t just shave their beards, but the top layer of skin, it seems, favoring the requisite big hats and pressed, probably starched, dark blue jeans. They don’t speak to each other. They don’t look at each other, until one of them reaches a certain level of inebriation (a challenge, drinking that lite beer) in which they’re compelled to complicate my evening.
It was a difficult situation. I didn’t want to fight because. 1). Fights hurt, win or lose. 2.) I might lose, and be embarrassed–who wants to be bested by a pint-sized pony boy? 3.) I might win, and still lose face as the 260 (then) pound guy who beat up a munchkin in a cute hat. 4) I just wanted to drink beer and talk to pseudo-hippie chicks and gawk dreamily at that bartender (with the Buddy Holly glasses and converse all-stars–if you were in JH in the early 90s you know who I mean). By necessity, I developed a strategy that served me well for the next few years in Wyoming, in Oregon, even back in Pittsburgh–I’d look past the mighty mite slobbering on my flannel shirt and lock eyes imploringly–but with utter (feigned) confidence–with his buddies, who every time looked awfully uncertain about the whole thing. “Is this really how you want things to do down?”
In retrospect, I don’t quite believe that I summoned the wisdom to adopt that approach, because it worked. Each time, the friends intervened and hustled the guy away. Six times in about 4 years, this happened.
I worry that it might not be so pretty now. It seems the older I get, the less indulgent I’ve become, and the quicker to anger. It’s a little disconcerting. My friend Perry once said to me, after confiding the joy he took in being arrested for brawling in Alaska, “Chuck, there comes a time in a man’s life–it happened to me in my 40’s–when he just wants to kick some ass.” Perry, a PhD., had walked away from a career as a psychologist to work as a professional fishing guide, and on the scale of cowboys he leaned heavily to the side of Willie Nelson, rather than John Wayne.
It was not until the past few years that I felt anger so sudden and blinding that I trembled and stumbled over my words–dealing with a corporate client who refused to pay a debt, for example, I could barely express myself on the phone. The aforementioned cigarette smoking–in line at the movies? C’mon man. The woman who stops to let her dog squat in my front yard. I won’t even talk about road rage. It is the inconsideration that gets to me most. I legitimately worry that I’m going to snap. This young lady knows what I’m talking about:
Last year, at a big swim meet, I came the closest to full-scale meltdown. We were surrounded by parents from Sunbury, PA (no need not to call them out, they’re the worst parents I’ve encountered on the swimming circuit) who sat down after we did–Sunbury is a huge team, with lots of resources, and lots of nose in the air attitude. At least a dozen of them, in matching t-shirts, were compulsively filming events with iPads–you’ve seen this maneuver, I bet, (look above) in which the idiot holds their techno-toy just above forehead level, to capture the images over the heads of the people sitting in front of them, while blithely blocking the view of the folks sitting behind them. It is one of the ultimate demonstrations of communal indifference and disregard, and a supreme demonstration of self-absorption.
I held my tongue, leaning the the right and the left when I could. Oh, I muttered a few, over-loud snarky comments to my wife, but I ignored the impulse to reach out in front of me and push the devices down in front of their owner’s own eyes. Then, I hear my wife, “Oh, shit.” She lifts her purse from the floor and it’s dripping something my nose quickly tells me is coffee–but not just coffee, we later discover, but thick, sticky Starbucks cappuccino. We both sort of stand and squat to look under the bleachers.
“Sit down, would you?” The guy behind us commands. No please, no smile.
I feel bad, for just a moment, until I see the Starbucks cup on it’s side, between his feet, and the trail of sugary goo. “Is that yours?” I ask.
He shrugs, and tilts his shoulder to look around me, so I stand to my full height–there’s no looking around me without taking a short stroll. “Is…that…yours?”
“What do you want me to do about it?” Oh, the derision in his eyes–all he’s thinking about is his view.
The red curtain drops over my eyes. I can hear my pulse.
“How about you apologize, then clean up your fucking mess….”
There was a moment when I could see him consider the gauntlet, and then he backed down. His wife found some napkins in her purse and he cleaned up around his feet. My wife, holding my right wrist, pulled me back down to the bleachers and I didn’t turn around again. Later on, left to reflect, I was confused. I’ve always avoided fights, but I realized that I was aching for him to give me an excuse. I wanted badly to hit the guy, to feel his nose break, to smell his blood and break that smirk against my knuckles. Over a $50 suede handbag that we actually were able to clean. Where does that come from?
I think about that asshole who shot a guy at point blank range in Florida theater for texting during the previews and one thing comes to mind: I will never carry a weapon in public, nor should anyone else, although in the end it’s just another test of our resolve and our adherence to our professed values. Do some aggressive people, like those lilliputian rodeo wannabes, carry that through their lives every day, just one emotional trigger away from a catastrophe? Is this hormonal–something to do with my age. I don’t have any answers, but the questions are interesting.