Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Another Game

[This 2011 piece was commissioned by, and appeared in,, a site devised and managed by ESPN correspondent Paul Lukas. Hence the obsessive attention to uniforms, insignia, colors, etc.]

AT 09.00 SATURDAY MORNING I WILL BOARD A TRAIN in New York. Ninety-six minutes later, maybe, I will disembark in New Haven and walk to the Yale Bowl, where Yale and Harvard will play a football game for the 128th time. The Bowl is a 61,400-seat amphitheater built in 1913 (when it sat 70,900). It was the biggest stadium of its time, built for the giant crowds that flocked to New Haven to watch the best football in the world. It's still a beauty.

In a field near the Bowl I will rendez-vous with classmate Don Chiofaro, linebacker, captain of Harvard 1967, and – according to Calvin Hill – one of the hardest hitters of the era. The Chief will introduce me to the loyal corps of recidivists who try never to miss a Harvard-Yale game. There will be picnic fare and drinks and heavy slagging. Shameful moments of early adulthood will be trotted out as ID markers. If I may use the word without irony, it will be jolly.

That's it for socio-historic context. I've noticed that the default position for writers on Harvard-Yale games is to feed not in the rich meadow of football information but in the deep silage of cultural stereotype. "The Game" and all that. Class privilege, snobbery, fustian traditionalism, ubiquitous smarty-pants-isms, snotty halftime shows by bands dressed to signify superior distancing from State U, adorable chants along the lines of "You'll Work For Us!" et cetera.

Shoot me. Nobody in that parking lot will refer to "The Game." And plutocrats will be in disguise. New Haven tailgaters look like Ann Arbor tailgaters or Bloomington tailgaters. No one under 60 says "Hah-vud" (though the drink's on me if you do). There will be class and rank and income issues swirling 'round the Yale Bowl on Saturday, and they'd be fun to talk about, but not today.  Today we concentrate on other things that matter: uniforms, school colors, mascots.

Because Harvard and Yale – and their dapper common enemy, Princeton – were among the first American colleges to play football, the gear they were wearing in the late-19th/early-20th centuries, when football first gained a mass following, provided the template that everybody else used as their uni Square One. The basic look was vest and plus-fours in a neutral color, usually tan or gray, with some or all of the sleeves and stockings in a bold color chosen to signify the particular college. Next stop in uni evolution: school-colored jerseys, in solid or striped patterns. Then colored pants, then stripes down the pants, then colored helmets, then logos on helmets, then logos everywhere. Neither Yale nor Harvard wielded much sartorial influence after 1920. They followed trends rather than set them.

With some modest adjustments, the uniforms that Harvard and Yale will wear today are based on their garb of the mid-1960s. Harvard has lost the pants stripes, but added black outlining of numbers, a Harvard VE-RI-TAS shield on the tops of the shoulders (where they are barely glimpsed), and a block H on the sides of the helmet where TV numbers used to go. Both the Harvard helmet and the Yale helmet sport the 1960s triple-stripe motif that has proved so durable in the NFL.

If we can posit that today's H and Y looks are relatively OK, let me assure you that the old Harvard-Yale stuff is really much better. This is true for uniforms, I think, but much more dramatically in the realm of illustration and graphic design. Look no further than the chronology of Harvard program covers and Yale program covers put together by the wonderful people at Historic Football Posters. Look how great they were until Chiofaro and I got to Cambridge in 1964. Look how bad programs have become. Look at the designs of today's Harvard and Yale sports websites: uninspired, charmless. 

There are all sorts of explanations for the decline of football graphics from witty cartoons to banal photographs, from hand-lettering to dull fonts. But in the Harvard-Yale case, there's a clear line that marks when everything went to hell: the departure of the great Boston Herald illustrator Vic Johnson from his side job as an Ivy League cartoonist. Look here, here, and here. When Vic Johnson left, Harvard-Yale lost its graphic wit and flair.

To Vic Johnson we also owe the revival of a 17th Century puritan male as the cartoon symbol of Harvard football. Johnson's Ur-Yankee was a skinny tall guy, dressed in crimson, always topped off with a high hat. His lanky build, thin face, prominent teeth, and ready smile were based, Johnson said, on Leverett Saltonstall, the much-loved, much-parodied Massachusetts Governor and US Senator back when there were liberal Republicans. I miss him!

We all understand that the drop-off in the quality of intercollegiate sports imagery was a general phenomenon, not limited by any means to the Ivies. It's just that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton produced the first batch of beautiful athletic graphics in this country, and I would argue that through the 1950s they stayed among the best. You don't have to be in thrall to snooty early-20th Century Anglo-Saxon notions of superiority and refinement to argue that football graphics were best when serious fans had to consider Yale and Harvard the same way that serious fans today have to consider LSU and Ohio State. A debatable proposition, to be sure, but debatable propositions R us.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


THE NUMBER OF AMERICAN NEWBORNS with hyphenated surnames is in decline. Oddly enough, the Census Bureau hasn't kept count: their computer records automatically change Smith-Jones into Smithjones. But judging from the reports of birth registrars around the country and lots of first-person narratives, it appears that surname hyphenization peaked in the late 1980s / early 1990s.

As a general but not ironclad rule, hyphenizer parents were either college-educated pro-feminist couples or single/divorced mothers who wanted their kids to have their name as well as the name of their absent fathers. The overall number of people who fit in those two categories has continued to increase relative to the general population, but the number of new hyphenated baby surnames is sharply down. Among the reasons given: record-keeping confusions; the problem of exponential surname growth as hyphenated persons sire children with other hyphenated persons; a general tendency for a new generation of feminists to distinguish itself from the pioneer cohort of the 1970s.

As a recidivist procreator, I have a personal angle on the hyphen craze. In 1977, when my first wife was pregnant with our first child, we had to decide on a last name. My wife thought hyphenization made sense. I didn't like the hyphen for a number of reasons. It was, historically, an anglophile affectation (Simon Babbington-Smythe, Basil Fornsby-Trotwood), and I always tried to be conspicuously Irish. The potential for awkward complications in second and third generations was pretty obvious. And, in general, the custom of hyphenating the surnames of offspring to advertise a family's commitment to equality was too identified with a social and political class to which I belonged but with whom I didn't want to identify. So my wife and I made a deal. We agreed to follow what we thought would be a growing trend: give a baby boy his father's surname and a baby girl her mother's. Hence Benjamin Nugent, born 1977, and Annie Baker, born 1981. The growing trend turned out to be nothing of the kind, of course, and so when NugeFam 2.0 was launched in 1999, all the kids, both sexes, got dad's moniker. No big deal. And you have to admit that Annie Baker is a great name.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Wolves of The Angels

AMONG ROCK-N-ROLL FANS you can always pick a cheap fight over the essentially stupid question of the Greatest Band Still Going. Still going is key: nobody dead or retired, and nobody who plays oldies-only shows in big hockey arenas. Essentially stupid is important too, since it denotes the inapplicability of any universal criterion and, hence, the impossibility of being right or wrong. That's part of the attraction of aimless opinionizing. What's better than an argument with no verdict?

The greatest band still going (GBSG) in North America is Los Lobos. [Here's a picture of them, with guest Carlos Santana, playing at the recent Mariachi Festival in San Jose.] I love Los Lobos because they are an American guitar band that really rocks, that knows how to blast ahead in that locomotive energy of rockabilly and early r&b ("I Got Loaded"). I also love Los Lobos because they are a great traditional Mexican band ("La Guacamaya"), a great East LA band ("La Pistola y El Corazón"), and a super covers band ("What's Goin' On," "Shoot Out The Lights"). If your favorite America is a mixed-up, draw-on-all-traditions ongoing audition, and if you haven't played Los Lobos since Colossal Head, I recommend some Continuing Ed listening.

Free MP3s on request.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


I WAS BORN IN DUBLIN, and remain an Irish citizen. My parents were Irish-Americans who lived in Ireland for a few years while my engineer father built a factory that converted the gypsum deposits of County Cavan into sheetrock. The combination of all-Irish ancestors and this anomaly of birthplace has always prompted me to think of myself as a little more attached to my Irishness than most white Americans are attached to their whatever-ness. I'm almost Jewish in this regard.

There have been three big news stories from Ireland over the course of the past ten years: 1) the Celtic Tiger of spectacular economic growth; 2) reports documenting decades of molestations and beatings visited upon thousands of Irish boys and girls by Catholic priests and nuns into whose care the children had been remanded; and 3) death of the Celtic Tiger. Number Two – the disgrace of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland – may be the most lingeringly important.

The frequency and duration of the abuses of so many Irish clergy lifts the scandal to a shattering level. Shame – not guilt – has always been the stereotype Irish reaction to sin and failure. We know about shame. But now we are compelled to recognize the causal connections between sentiments of shame and acts of shameful behavior. It's as if the Irish soul has been indicted.

My mother loved Ireland, and returned frequently. She was enchanted by the religiosity and casual poetry of the place. My father disliked Ireland and never went back. He thought the whole country was a mean-spirited, begrudging, pietistic village. I inherited both views. Today's Ireland is a less bitter, more tolerant, better educated, and (not coincidentally) richer country than the Ireland of the workhouses and orphanages. A better place in eight of ten ways. Which is fortunate, for now the Irish need all the resources they can muster: they must own a grave evil long tolerated.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Favorite Job

MY PAL D.J. AND I have been toiling over new URL homes for some old hard-copy articles and papers. We're trying to forge links for that "Writing Sampler" list over on the right-hand column of this page. I have had to pry open many old boxes. Some of the contents have not aged well, aesthetically speaking. Some are painful.

Most of those old pieces, both bad and less bad, were fun to write. Maybe not "fun," exactly, but certainly enjoyable. And nothing was more enjoyable than producing the 200+ daily columns and the unsigned copy of the old Liberty Tree website (RIP, 1998). All the intellectual property of Liberty Tree was bequeathed to Grist, an altogether excellent (and solvent) venture of Chip Giller and his colleagues. Grist beats Liberty Tree seventeen ways to Monday, but Liberty Tree holds up OK, I think, as an innovative experiment in the crystal-radio days of the early Internet. And, man, was it fun.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Heart of Seal

CANADA'S GOVERNOR-GENERAL stirred the media pot last week. Michaelle Jean, the snazziest politician since John Kennedy, was photographed skinning a fresh-killed seal and then eating a slice of its heart. It was a big story up North. The European Union Parliament had just banned the import of sealskin – by a huge margin – because of the alleged cruelty in the manner in which seals are dispatched. This kind of thing drives the Inuit people crazy. They are fighting to save what they can of a great hunter culture, and squeamishness posing as compassion seems a calculated affront.

So when Governor-General Jean appeared two days later at a high school gym in Iqaluit, Nunavut, the crowd roared. She could do no wrong. I say this as an eyewitness (even though Gretchen Dykstra has warned me not to let this blog become a travel journal). The day after the speech in the gym, our tiny group of Inuitophiles joined a hunting party that, yep, killed and sliced open a young seal. And we sure had to swallow some seal heart.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Great Russia

FOR MOST OF THE MID-1980s, I obsessed about, talked to, worked with, and visited Russians. Hard to summarize a complex people in buzzwords, but we might try rich, convoluted, grandiloquent, ruminative, proud, creative, and dipsomaniacal. Working with and among them was wonderful. I was managing the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and one of the Co-Presidents was (and had to be) a Soviet doctor. I never met a real Marxist in Moscow, but I also never met a Russian who didn't cherish Russia and Russia-ness.

Americans have little sympathy for history's losers in general and for loser Russia in particular. The fall of the Soviet Union; the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the expansion of NATO; the collapse of the Russian economy; the rise of lawlessness and gangsterism; the decline in population and life expectancy; the general loss of face – these experiences wounded the famous Russian soul. Russians may hate this or that regime, despise this or that circumstance, but they are consoled by the saga of national greatness. Think of the French after 1871: defeated; amputated; bent on revanche and the re-assertion of the natural glory of the Nation. Russia today is not so different.

The Kaplan Fund is active in the circumpolar Arctic these days, and since more than half of the Arctic Ocean coastline is Russian, one can't pretend to a comprehensive regional strategy without counting with Russia, Russians, and their never-absent sense of history. I'm psyched!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Rural Life in the Forties

IT'S HARD TO RESIST THE ALLURE OF COLOR in imagery that you've always associated with a black-and-white world. The photograph illustrating our last post (on World War One) is an example. There's a treasure trove of the same ready to be mined at the indispensable Shorpy site. There you can find easily-downloadable, beautiful color photographs – commissioned by the US Rural Security Administration – of rural people and landscapes of 1940 and 1941. There's cheerfulness and worry, community and loneliness, plenty and want. Thanks to the unexpected color, the subjects of the photos jump off the page and sufficiently grab our attention so that we're compelled to look at them outside the frame – albeit the magnificent frame – of Dorothea Lange and the gray shades of the Dust Bowl. It was life they were living back then, and they were full-blooded participants, in living color.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Yearning and Grasses

I MISS THE PRAIRIES SOMETHING AWFUL. When the unpleasantness in the equity markets hit the Kaplan Fund a couple of years ago, we had to curb spending on grants. One of the casualties was the grasslands program, an effort to protect prairies along the US/Canada and US/Mexico borders. Most of them ranchlands, all of them west of the 100th meridian. The Kaplan trustees were good enough to bid goodbye with some big farewell grants, and they're doing good work these days in ocean conservation. But still. I am sufficiently spoiled to regard it as a hardship that nobody wants to pay me money to plunk down in the foothills of the Mustang Mountains in Cochise County, Arizona.

Some balm arrived recently in the form of photographs from Matilda Essig of Elgin, Arizona. A wonderful, unusual portfolio. Essig takes extremely close-up photos of individual prairie grass plants. We're not used to seeing them so big, of course, but we're also not accustomed to seeing the individual components of the whole, all those scores of species that inhabit a square yard of prairie surface. Essig's isolation of the micro-splendor of the plant makes the macro-splendor of the grassland ever more wondrous and consoling.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Bovine Love

YOU LOVE 'EM OR YOU DON'T, I guess, and I love cows and calves and heifers and steers and oxen and sometimes even bulls. Let us count the ways: those big brown eyes; the gigantic tongue; the moo; the placidity/stupidity thing; and, most of all, the enormous, attractive bulk. And they taste good!

But everyone knows that cattle are an ecological bummer. Most of the beef sold at supermarkets comes from giant cow penitentiaries where the animals eat antibioticized grain and relieve themselves into a conveyor system that ends up in a fearsome "waste lagoon." Whatever you calculate – the carbon costs of moving the cattle to and from the facility and growing and fertilizing and transporting the grain they eat; the costs of polluting local water supplies; the costs to the animal's well-being – it's a grim story.

Can you raise and eat beef cattle without degrading the environment or locking up the animal? Yes, pretty much. Cattle and landscapes can actually help each other. After all, they co-evolved. The great grasslands of North America were grazed by scores of millions of hoofed herbivores for thousands of years. Nothing much bad happens when you turn a cow out to pasture so long as the cow-per-acre ratio doesn't exceed the carrying capacity of the pasture.

One problem – a problem that can be ameliorated but not abolished – is that bovines are flatulent, and their winds release significant amounts of methane, and methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Depending on breed and diet, some cattle emit less methane than others, but it's always a factor. Researchers somewhere must be working on the calculations by which a landowner can compare the atmospheric damage occasioned by driving to the mall and buying a chicken bred in a confinement facility in Arkansas and then operating a big Toro mower to keep the grasses down versus the damage occasioned by grazing a cow in that field. Just tell me where to find them.

Leviticus Baseball

I HATE THE VERY IDEA OF BASEBALL PLAYOFFS, but they are upon us, and I will watch. Reluctantly. Baseball playoffs – and interleague play, for that matter – constitute a violation of divine precept.

In the late afternoon of the sixth day, God devised the rules of baseball, and then – in an instant! – created the system of two rival leagues, each league with its own set of teams. Each team in each league plays 154 games, none of them with clubs from the other league. The team with the most wins in the American League then plays the team with the most wins in the National League in a contest named the World Series. No playoffs. Since the contestants in the World Series have not played each other before, God knew, there would be an element of mystery and an atmosphere of tingling expectation leading up to the first pitch. The team that first wins four games is champion of the world. Period.

Atmospherics figure prominently in the celestial design. World Series games are to played in east-central North America during the last week of September and the first week of October, in somewhat reliably glorious weather. Games occur in daytime. Among the chosen – the citizens of the United States – half the population must follow the action pitch-by-pitch. Most of them must stand around radio sets or by lean through windows into the rooms of people wealthy enough to have gained access to the new technology of tele-vision. Nothing – nothing – matters so much as the fate of their team.

And life never gets better until sex.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Wrestle Like a Japanese

IF YOUR OBJECTIVE IS TO SAVE FISH, the government of Japan presents big problems. Norway, Iceland, and China set no picnics, but the Japanese are especially notable for the financial value of their worldwide catch, the importance of seafood to both diet and national sense of self, and their determination to carry on.

The Japanese are adept at an international version of Tammany Hall politics (from which my family springs). Last year, for example, Japanese diplomats at a UN conference on endangered species campaigned successfully against any trade bans on endangered tuna varieties, the leading example of which is the Bluefin Tuna, high king of sushi. The Japanese performed like seasoned ward heelers: travel subsidies so that delegates from developing countries could attend the conference; generous cocktail receptions; even a big fish barbecue (sheesh!) the evening before the key vote. They have been similarly busy at regional and sectoral meetings, upsetting environmentalist plans to offer multi-million dollar payments to Pacific Island nations in exchange for their declaring national waters off-limits to non-national fishing operations. The Japanese just outbid the enviros. They'll give five million a year to not let us fish? We'll give you ten million.

The fish business – catching, importing, distributing, preparing, eating – matters more to the Japanese economy than to any other (although Taiwan and Spain aren't far behind). Japan's Fisheries Ministry is well-funded and influential, at home and abroad. And most of the Japanese people seem to regard fishing as a deep, defining characteristic of their archipelago culture. They can easily translate an anti-whaling campaign as an insult to their worth.

But unless the Japanese government decides to make some kind of meaningful deal on the international regulation of fish stocks and fishing grounds, we're all in big trouble. Hence the question on the mind of many an occidental enviro these days: How can outsiders help change Japanese public opinion and Japanese public policy without – to put it delicately – pissing them off big-time?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

We Stand on Guard for Thee

RABID NORTH AMERICAN CHAUVINISM is not a popular political posture these days, what with all the anxiety about Mexicans, but I am so guilty of it. What an excellent continent!

First, let's talk about this big place as it compares to the world's other big places in terms of natural endowments. Just run down the list of North America first-place finishes for the continent versus continent Superlatives of Nature Awards.

World's Greatest Grassland: Great Plains, Saskatchewan to Chihuahua.
World Greatest Coast: California.
World's Greatest Erosion: Grand Canyon.
World's Greatest Rainforest (Cool-Weather Category): British Columbia.
World's Greatest Climate: Mexico City.
World's Greatest Harbor: New York.
[And we pick up silver and bronze in Mountains, Rivers, Deserts, and Coral Reefs.]

The same chest-puffing applies to our social arrangements. Any American knows that we live in the greatest country on earth, but as great as we are, you have to admit that the neighbors couldn't be nicer. Mexico and Canada! It's hard to imagine two less threatening abutters. Here's a thought experiment. Imagine what US history would have been like if our neighbors had been Afghanistan and Germany. I mean, shut up.

I've already written about my family's incurable fever for Mexico and mejicanismo, but the opening of hockey season prompts a few nosegays for the True North.

Canadians: peaceable; democratic; educated; multi-ethnic; creative (frequently); funny (very frequently); and intelligently dressed for dismal weather. Terrific flag, national health service, Alice Munro, Neil Young. And they beat us in the War of 1812 but are too nice to harp on it!

But seriously... Think about Canada's unusual – and instructive – ability to tackle the inherent difficulties of a multinational federation. No nation has better handled a serious, sustained secessionist movement advocated by a significant-sized national minority. The emergence of an autonomous but not-quite-independent Quebec is a great achievement. Patience, compromise, no shooting. There were ups and downs, and angers and resentments, and there remains not a little active dislike. But in the end, anglophone Canada and francophone Canada accommodated each other and co-exist pretty well. Compare to Russia, China, Turkey. Yugoslavia.

Pierre Trudeau, pictured here in his salad days, was aiming for something kindred but more grand. He stood for a Canada where speakers of either language would feel at home anywhere in the country, where Ottawa would be as French as it is English. But above all, he stood for a unitary Canada with a strong national government. That hasn't happened, not the unitary part, at least. But Trudeau's legacy of bilingualism and cosmopolitanism has served Canada well, providing the basis for the imperfect but attractive country we know today. Imperfect country but perfect neighbor.