Thursday, November 27, 2014

Evolution, On The Fly

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

I don’t watch network television.  I couldn’t name the most popular shows, much less their broadcast network.  The last episode of “Survivor” that I watched was the finale…of season one.  The next time I watch “Dancing With The Stars”, “The Voice” or “American Idol” will be the first time.

This unintended phenomenon started in the early 2000s, about the time “Taps” played for sitcoms and reality T.V. went viral.  The reason for my network television divorce is, as of yet, undiagnosed.  My wife gets a hoot out of it; her dismissive chuckles scream “weirdo.”  It confounds and frustrates my daughter; I sense a growing concern that her decidedly un-cool father will inevitably cause horrific social embarrassment.  Am I wrong to proudly anticipate that moment?

What I do enjoy watching (besides sports, of course) are shows such as “American Pickers”, “American Restoration” and “Down East Dickering” on The History Channel and “Deadliest Catch” and “Moonshiners” on Discovery Channel.  Why?  Well, I like antiques, resurrecting battered classics, bartering, fishing and homemade adult beverages.  I guess one could interpret it as an ode to my Southern Maryland roots.        

There’s something else about these programs, though, something more appealing than just an alignment with my interests.  They have an element of unpredictable chaos that the cast always overcomes.  The pickers sometimes stumble on dud leads and have to wing it.  The dickerers live week-to-week and creatively manufacture value and cash out of little to nothing.  The guys on American Restoration fix old, dilapidated stuff…enough said.  The “Deadliest Catch’s” crabbers manage unpredictable weather and finicky crustaceans.  And the moonshiners produce product in homemade stills deep in the Appalachian Mountains while evading the law.  Nothing is neat or as it should be - but they all make it work. They expect the unexpected, adapt and press forward.

I love that about those shows – the human resolve.  Which is to say I love the New England Patriots. 

Wait.  What?  I hate the Patriots: smug Tom Brady with his rings and model wife and Bill Belichick with his awful hoodie and curt, mumbling press conferences.  What’s to like?  How about this: in my lifetime, no team has handled adversity, change and chaos as well as the Pats. 

We are now 14 years into the Brady-Belichick era.  From 2001-2013, the Patriots won at least 10 games 12 times, made the playoffs 11 times, appeared in five Super Bowls, advanced to eight AFC Championship Games and won three championships.  Considering the sport, the era (salary cap) and the mercurial nature of modern athletes, that might be the greatest run by any professional sports team - ever. 

The Patriots have maintained their excellence despite “Spygate”, Aaron Hernandez’s murder charges, the loss of coaches like Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, and Bill O’Brien and the various injuries (back, arm and knee) of all-world TE Rob Gronkowski.  They jettisoned stars such as Lawyer Milloy, Brandon Meriweather, Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Logan Mankins without identifiable impact and survived the failed acquisitions of Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth.  They even plugged in Matt Cassell for an injured Brady in 2008 and won 11 games.  The Patriots seem impervious to the NFL’s intense variability, an unstoppable winning machine.

Professional sports haven’t seen a run like this since the 49ers of the 80s and 90s.  How are the peerless Patriots doing it, year after year, challenge after challenge?  They are extremely adaptable and absolutely refuse to make excuses.  Over the years the Patriots have won with a run-based approach (the early years), a pass-happy offense (with Moss), a tight end dominated attack (with Gronkowski and Hernandez) and a hybrid of all of the above (this year). Forget evolving year-to-year, they evolve week-to-week.  It’s simply amazing.  When they’ve faced the inevitable blip, there’s been an organizational refusal – from top to bottom – to complain, blame or make excuses.  That’s the way to handle adversity, in football and in life. So I suppose I do love the Patriots…or at least their modus operandi - and so should you.  But that doesn’t mean we have to root for them.  Deal?

Patience, Worn Thin

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger might be fans of vinyl records, or at least sworn adversaries of the compact disc (CD). With that introduction…

The CD dealt a serious blow to human civilization.  An overstatement?  Probably. Completely false?  Absolutely not.  Its sin?  The CD, that sleek invention from the depths of the place where dark souls are said to reside, made real-time music surfing possible and, in the process, forever disfigured how we listen to music. 

Prior to the disc, music resided on cassettes, 8-tracks and vinyl records, formats that forced more a deliberate, patient listen. If you wanted to jump around to hit songs, you could, but it involved toggling between four often disjointed programs (8-tracks), an inexact fast-forward or rewind (cassettes) or getting up off the couch and manipulating the needle (records). 

The “consequence”, as I’ll sarcastically call it, was that the listener tended to experience the entire album.  What a concept!  Recognizing the inconvenience of pre-CD media, hit songs were often placed at the beginning of a side, prime territory for a quick find or replay; I appreciated artists that didn’t follow the marketer’s script, the ones that slotted their singles in awkward places, thereby ensuring total album consumption and creating an opportunity to discover hidden gems.  I’m tipping my cap to Kix, the Maryland-based band, who placed the song The Itch at the end of side one of their debut album and the Rolling Stones for tucking Tumbling Dice at the end of the first Exile on Main Street record. 

And then there were the artists who buried great songs in inauspicious places, little rewards of sorts for dedicated listeners. “Rocket Queen”, the last song on Appetite for Destruction by Guns N’ Roses is incredible.  Prince put the fabulously raunchy “Darling Nikki” last on side one of Purple Rain.  Bob Dylan’s ended his iconic Highway 61 Revisited album with the absolutely amazing “Desolation Row”.  

If the CD didn’t completely kill such album experiences, the MP3 and digital media seem certain to choke out its last breaths of life.  The single rules now: three minutes of overproduced, hyper-marketed sound from computers and bedazzled pop stars that can be downloaded for instant satisfaction and played until it promotes nausea.  Who has the patience to spin a record?

The aforementioned Rodgers, age 30, isn’t old enough to remember cassettes, but he has cracked back on society’s impatience.  In response to early-season criticism, Rodgers, one of the coolest and best quarterbacks in the NFL, spelled out a five-letter retort to irritated Packers fans: R-E-L-A-X.  The Packers have done just fine since.  The agitation isn’t confined to the land of cheese.  A few weeks ago, New England and Pittsburgh were struggling.  Brady and Roethlisberger, despite their five Super Bowl titles, allegedly couldn’t play anymore.  Patriots coach Bill Belichick had lost his hoodie-fueled brilliance; Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was on the hot seat.  Well, since the gripes reached a crescendo, no team has been hotter than the Patriots and Roethlisberger tossed six touchdown passes in consecutive games.  Premature panic?  You think?

The death of the album and quick criticism of the NFL’s best quarterbacks is bothersome, but its root cause – pervasive impatience and an intolerance of any frustration or discomfort – has significant reach.  We have to have it all – hit songs or wins on Sunday – right now.  The grass elsewhere is assumed to be greener the minute the blades under our feet discolor.  The bird in the hand, despite its accomplishments, is obsessively critiqued while the unknown two in the bush are romanticized.  Shortcomings and bad moments create labels that cannot be removed.  No one – not even Super Bowl winning quarterbacks – are permitted the latitude to fail, to grow and to overcome.  To heck with the process, the journey, evolution or the opportunity to reveal something – a character trait, a team quality or a great song – that’s not immediately apparent. 

Consider that in the context of a marriage, a job, friendships, parenthood, personal finance…anything.  Warning: it may take awhile to digest completely.  My suggestion: dust off the turntable and set the mood with a spinning record.

Fundamentals: A Father’s Validation

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

I have officially become my parents.  I laugh at my own futile arguments against the obvious.  I don’t know when the transformation happened specifically, but it’s indisputable – fait accompli. 

I was warned that this unsettling change would happen.  Unconvinced, I fought it - passionately.  But then my own kids started navigating their world, one quite different from the one of my childhood, became instant experts (apparently) on all things life presents and emboldened to argue against the often inconvenient and mostly unsolicited advice of their gray-bearded, clueless father.

Regardless of topic – homework, extracurricular activities, Ebola, ISIS, unplugging from the electronics or the social dynamics of middle school – our discussions don’t always go so well…for anyone involved (again, similar to “debates” with my parents).  When I am challenged (or ignored completely), my temperature rises, my words become more direct and I usually blurt something completely unproductive like, “this is not a democracy.”  I doubt my kids even understand what a democracy is at this point.  But it makes me feel better, so... 

I try not to preach.  Honestly, I do.  What I have is wisdom; I don’t portend to have perfect answers for their unique situations.  I recognize that my antiquated childhood experiences and Gen-X worldview don’t always produce sound advice today.  Of course how could I forget my limitations when two pint-sized critics and their whopping two decades of combined earthly experience are constantly questioning my theories?  But here’s an odd twist.  I’d be willing to bet a six-pack of fine Maryland craft beer (high stakes for me) that if you wrapped either of my kids in Wonder Woman’s truth lasso, they’d begrudgingly spill this fact: dad is usually right.

Why am I usually on-point?  Is it because I’m some oracle of life experiences or all-seeing eye affixed atop the parental mountaintop?  Hardly.  I’m usually right, and my parents were usually right (ouch that hurt), and their parents were usually right for a very simple reason.  And the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind; for those seeking less abstract, anti-Dylan proof, grab a chair in the sports world’s classroom.

I’m betting even the most casual sports fans noticed that the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals made improbable runs to the World Series and that (this is really going to hurt) the left-for-dead Dallas Cowboys, their leaky defense, embattled quarterback and kooky owner are firmly in the playoff conversation.  How did they all do it?  The Giants rode the golden left arm of pitching ace Madison Bumgarner and the Royals leaned on a nasty bullpen full of guys throwing 100 MPH and capable of making a baseball move like a wiffle ball.  And the Cowboys?  The Cowboys, behind a young, talented offensive line and RB DeMarco Murray, are running the football like it’s 1975. 

Pitching and running the ball: as much as sports have changed, these fundamental tenets of success in baseball and football, respectively, have not.  The same applies to the fundamentals of parenting and life.  The basics are timeless: that’s why my parents were almost always right and that’s why I’m usually right.  I am a father, validated by sports.   

What are those enduring, trans-generational lessons, the pitching and running game of parenthood?  Well, here are a few.  Work hard.  Be reliable and trustworthy.  Respect authority but don’t be afraid to question it.  Care – about yourself and others.  Brush your teeth.  Bring a positive, can-do attitude to every situation and challenge.  Understand that a broken heart is often an unfortunate part of ultimately finding lasting love.  Live below your means.  Candy is not a food group (except on Halloween night).  Chores and adversity build character.  Video games are fine – in moderation.  Learn when to speak your mind and when to bite your tongue.  And yes, you have to eat your vegetables. 

Oh, and just in case your kids point out your failure to always live by your own guidelines, I’ll offer one last salvo my father used on me…and one I’m now using on my kids: do as I say, not as I do (or did).  It’s the parental escape clause.

Moral Victories, Beer & Complacency

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Warning: melodrama lies ahead. Your favorite bleacher-dweller is feeling sorry for himself.  Empathy is expected, and darn near assumed, from understanding readers and fellow local sports fans.

As I rehash last week’s offerings from the sports gods on a fall-chilled evening in Southern Maryland, I’m left to conclude that this is a divine test of our devotion.  Salvation must lie ahead.  Let’s break this mess down by beltway, starting with the 495ers.

The Nationals, after running up the best record in the National League, promptly dropped three of four games and the series to the San Francisco Giants. There goes the season, D.C. baseball fans. At least the neighborhood's still intact.  In some sick attempt to deliver a tonic, actually featured a recently uncovered video of the 1924 World Series. Guess who won that one? That’s right – the Nats!  Am I supposed to feel better? So much for 2014…but at least we have the memories (or grainy silent video) of ’24!

The pain would roll on. The ‘Skins lost to Seattle on Monday Night Football, the Capitals dropped their opener to Montreal and Wizards guard Bradley Beal broke his wrist in a preseason game. He’ll miss 6-8 weeks. Oh…and four Wizards players were suspended for the first regular season game after a pre-season skirmish with the Bulls. Somewhere LeBron is snickering.

Ready for the 695ers? Fresh off a dominating American League Division Series win, the Orioles promptly lost the first two games of the League Championship Series (LCS) to the Royals - at home.  But there’s still hope, hon - or is there?  As I was hammering out this piece, ESPN’s Buster Olney sent out the following tweet: “ELIAS: No team has ever won a best-of-seven LCS after dropping the first two games at home.” Alrighty then. Thanks, Buster.  Apparently solace can only found at the bottom of several Natty Bohs.

Speaking of Bohs, my wife tempered my anguish by reminding me that October is beer month. Yes it is…yes it is indeed.  So there’s that my fellow D.C and Baltimore sports fans, and “that” – beer – is a significant elixir.  Perhaps Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Wolff was on to something when he titled his book, “It’s Not Who Won Or Lost The Game – It’s How You Sold The Beer.”

But wait, before getting well with your favorite combination of water, malt, hops and yeast, there’s more gloom.  After that aforementioned Monday night loss to Seattle, the Sons of Washington were apparently clowning around in the locker room, almost as if they had won the game.  The ‘Skins apparently were thrilled with the moral victory – losing by only 10 - achieved against the Super Bowl champions.  The behavior inspired a scathing piece by Jason Reid of The Washington Post and considerable debate nationwide regarding appropriate behavior for losing teams. 

Like many, I initially fumed at the thought of a jovial professional locker room after a loss.  But time has offered a different perspective, if not an explanation or justification.  I think that most people, regardless of profession, have an inclination toward complacency.  Fatigue, routine and resignation can be its fuel.  We expect athletes to be as emotionally invested as we are as fans, but the grind and mounting losses can sometimes get the best of even the most competitive.  In September, every player is fired up.  By mid-October, and with a season slipping away, a casual shrug replaces anger after losses and a passionate game is reduced to a routine occupation.

Here’s something else I think: consistently successful teams and organizations possess an elite, almost super-human energy source.  Some people – and I’ve been fortunate to rub shoulders with a few – aren’t infected with the complacency gene.  Michael Jordan, Jerry Rice, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady are of this stock.  Seattle’s Russell Wilson is too.  They are competitors without an off switch.  Early arrivals and late exits are the daily norm.  They are the conscience and the standard.  They raise the performance ceiling of colleagues and are an antidote for complacency.  Organizations that lack such people accept mediocrity; teams that lack such leadership celebrate moral victories.