Friday, January 04, 2013

New year, new approach

After returning home from a walk yesterday, Jarmila asked me, "Well, who irritated you today?"

I had to giggle, because I do complain a lot about people's behavior here in Halle. But as luck would have it, yesterday was a good day - everyone seems to be gone on holiday, so there are less people on the streets and thus less irritants.

Most of the days my irritation can be traced to people's selfish and ignorant behavior towards others: cars cutting in front of each other, in the process endangering bicyclists; bicyclists on sidewalks endangering pedestrians; pedestrians refusing to give each other space; babies spitting up on dogs; dogs shitting on the street, particularly where I wish to step.

But I've decided that it's me who is in the wrong by expecting people to behave with courtesy and deference to one another.

Don't get me wrong, that's still how I'm going to treat others. But I'm just not going to expect that sort of behavior from them. My rationale is that bad behavior will no longer surprise me, and that nice behavior will please me all the more.

We'll see how it turns out...

Friday, March 30, 2012

The shocking true story of why socialism really failed

(A portion of this article first appeared in Impressions Magazine)

The reasons behind the demise of socialism in Russia and its satellite states depend on your nationality. Many Americans think that Ronald Reagan, in pouring so much money into the arms race, simply drove the Russians into bankruptcy while attempting to keep up. For other countries, however, the reasons are more varied.

When I asked my Kazakhstani friend why she thought communism failed, she replied, “Well, the planned economy was unsustainable, for one. We couldn't get things we wanted at the stores, for example.”

A thought struck me as I slurped at my third cup of go-juice.

“What about coffee,” I asked. “Was it affordable?”

She looked at me like I was a Stalin supporter.

“No, no, no,” she replied. “Coffee was very expensive, unless it was instant. We drank tea. Maybe one cup after a meal.”

“That's it? Three cups of tea per day?”

“No more.”

Which got me to thinking: caffeine is surely mankind's favorite drug. According to the International Food Information Council Foundation, based in Washington, DC, it occurs in over 60 naturally-occurring plants and is found across the globe in products such as tea, coffee, chocolate, energy drinks, pain relievers and diet pills.

So why wasn't strong coffee available behind the Iron Curtain?

I emailed my Polish friend – a faculty member at the University of Warsaw – and asked her about it. She replied that real coffee was very rare and precious during socialism. In fact, if you ever had any left over after giving it as a special Christmas gift, it was more useful as a bribe for the store clerks than for drinking. Instead, they drank tea. Lots of tea. But after the beginning of the 1990s, she said, consumption of coffee increased dramatically.

That last point was verified during a conversation with my older East German friend. I asked him about coffee consumption during communism and he bellowed at me, “We didn't live in communism! What is that, anyways? It's better to say “so-called socialism”! The point is, some old men, they forgot the world around them and wanted to create their own playground under a cheese-box. But nobody who thought differently than them were allowed to play!”

“Uh-huh,” I nodded, wondering what the hell he meant by cheese-box. “And what about the coffee?”

“Coffee? We had only instant coffee powder – very weak – it was better to drink tea.”

Hmm, I mused. Three former Soviet satellite countries, three tea drinking countries; maybe I was onto something.

Fact: According to the UK-based food safety watchdog group Food Standards Agency, a cup of tea can contain up to a mellow 90 milligrams (mg) of caffeine, while brewed ground coffee can have up to a buzz-inducing 254 mgs. That's a big difference.

I asked my dad, a veteran coffee-drinker, about his consumption. It was mid-afternoon and he was pouring himself a cup from his thermos when I walked into his office.

“Hey dad, how many cups of coffee do you drink per day?”

Dad's wary of frontal attacks, and I could see him tense up.

“Eight or nine,” he snapped. “But it doesn't affect me! Why do you wanna know?”

“Uh, no reason…” I said, and slowly backed away before he could do any damage with the letter opener.

Being over-caffeinated is something that most Americans can readily identify with. As a nation, Americans ingest an average of roughly 3 cups of coffee or tea per day. Heck, many companies even supply the stuff for free. And for good reason – the more you drink, the more effective and energetic you'll be, right?

The sordid truth is that we're all complicit in America's dirty little secret – our famed productivity isn't a result of the Yankee Work Ethic or pursuit of The American Dream – nowadays it's all about the caffeine, man!

Take a look around yourself. Who doesn't have a coffee or tea mug on their desk? Who doesn't have a cup holder filled with some caffeinated drink in their car? Who hasn't choked down that last cup of coffee after it's baked in the pot all day? Slackers, that's who!

The Finns, the world leaders in caffeine consumption, take in about 145 grams of the stuff per year – which, at about 40 mg per day, is one full cup of coffee more than Americans. Is it coincidence that Nokia, a Finnish company, is also the world's most prosperous mobile phone producer? I think not.

And what about Microsoft, the Seattle-based computer giant? Is it happenstance that Starbucks has enjoyed worldwide success during the same time that Microsoft has grown and thrived? Or can it be that the e-conomy is actually wired with caffeinated IVs?

I realize some may call my arguments as weak as the instant coffee they had to drink behind the Iron Curtain. Still others may call me a historical relativist for saying it, but I can't help thinking that today's world would be a lot different if the “so-called socialists” had kept the proletariat properly hopped up on the caffeine.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Closer and closer

She was 46, watching Saturday Night Live I guess.
Her 8-year old, my friend’s boy, found her leaning back on the couch Sunday morning, cartoon time.
Don’t know the details, but the moment haunts me.
Pledged to be there for them, and was for a time. We made a couple trips, us and the boy
before all the rest.

He was 82, on life support after a life of supporting others.
A mentor who once, fittingly I guess, called the wife and me cosmopolitan.
After carrying him home, back at the dry wake, his aid – my buddy by then – offered me a stiff one camouflaged in a coffee mug.
We cried together amidst a well-dressed crowd of the less affected.

He was 71, one-legged since the accident.
18 in the steel mills of Western Pennsylvania.
My father’s best friend I guess, the wife and I visited him in the hospital
because no one else in the family could
or would.
He was lucid then, funny even.
The sight of it, his smallness, seems all the sadder now.

And then mom, lovely sweet-natured mom.
Chemotherapied into submission, faded-before-our-eyes, couldn’t-eat-a-thing, shadow-of-herself mom.
As time dragged her along, the horrible, the unthinkable became… normal.
Welcome, even.
Only it wasn’t welcome, my mom dying wasn’t welcome.
And the rest of it, well…

Despite it all, I woke up today smiling.
The first time in... awhile.
Smiling from a dream of…
… well, I guess it doesn’t matter.
The smile is what matters.
And all the others that they keep saying will follow.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Excerpt from History of Pasadena Rugby Club; contribution by Jim Curtiss


Unfortunately, promotion to Division One came too late. Too many of the players who had brought success in recent years had moved on to other clubs or cities, cut back on their involvement with rugby, or had passed their prime as players. This was also the first year in club history that the club would be coached by anyone other than Kei Takarabe. After so many years of service, Kei left to coach at USC with fellow Pasadena Old Boy Dave Lytle, and was replaced by Karl Davis.

By the time the season started, both talent and players were in limited supply. If a less than dominant victory over the Finlanders in the preseason was not warning enough, a heavy defeat against an Eagles-laden Belmont Shore side at the Unicorns’ tournament gave warning that Pasadena was in for an ugly season. Pasadena did, at least, retain the Podena Cup in November, after which Man of the Match Alan Johnson promptly fled the country.

Pasadena did not win a single league match in 1993, losing mainly in a series of blowouts. Due to an unusually wet winter, the Belmont Shore game was moved to Wednesday night, forcing Pasadena to face OMBAC, LA Rugby Club, and Belmont Shore in an eight day span, playing six matches with roughly 20 players. The results on the field were predictable, and Pasadena was left to take pride in the fact that the club never failed to play even a B-side match and that Pasadena was the club that closed down the bar each time. Pasadena was encouraged to learn that the better Division 1 clubs were not necessarily more tactically sophisticated. More than once, Belmont Shore was heard to call out, “Get the ball to Roy Kupu!” which made Pasadena players wonder who had leaked the playbook from previous seasons.

There were a few bright spots during this season. One was the arrival of long-time player, club servant, and President Jim Ciampa. Another was the friendship that developed between Karl Davis and Belmont Shore’s Gary Patterson, which led to Gary’s eventual involvement with Pasadena. And in September of 1992, Chip Kelly launched the club’s first Golf Tournament, which has been a major source of revenue for the club ever since.

Obviously the only choice after that season was to accept relegation back to Division 2. However, Pasadena continued to lose some of the better players from the club, as Tim Ahern finally decided that Santa Barbara was closer to his Ventura County home and Vince Wilson was recruited by LA. Many other new players moved on just as quickly as they arrived. One such player, Jim Curtiss, gives his account of the season:

I was walking through a Pasadena street fair when I came upon a tent staffed by a bunch of scruffy, hungover-looking forwards tossing around rugby balls. Their maroon and white quarter-panel shirts had seen better days and what seemed to be their coach – Takarabe – was wearing a set of heavy-duty ear protectors like the ones they have at gun ranges. Uh… okay…

Being new to California, I was looking to get involved in something, and since I had played rugby at Slippery Rock University this was the perfect outlet. Or so I thought. Anyway, I gave them my address – they said they’d send me an information package – and I went about my day.

When I arrived home a few hours later, the promised packet was already there, with a note from Takarabe: “Jim, training Tuesday and Thursday. Be there or we knock on your door 3 a.m.”


I had spent the summer in Whittier as a counselor at a slim-down camp for rich kids, so was in shape and weighed far less than when I played during college. At Slippery Rock, I played prop and later winger after I had gotten some legs. But at Pasadena I was in new territory because I was slim enough to be a back (my goodness what a fun game it is outside of the pack! Prancing around until you maybe touch the ball…).

Trainings were tough, though. Coach Karl pushed us hard and had a running narrative: the only way we were going to be competitive in Division I was to be in great shape. First time I ever puked from running so much. The training paid off, though - the team was in good shape going into the season. But if I remember correctly one of our forwards was lazy as hell (surprise there) and came to practice only sporadically. This definitely hurt us later on.

First three games of the season, I think we played Finlanders, Pomona, and another team from nearby, and we handled them pretty easily. None of the games were blowouts, but we had three solid wins under our belts before our Division I games commenced, and I was feeling very good about our team. Our scrum-half Ed Dahms was a good leader and overall, it seemed like we were a solid team with good prospects.

During college rugby I had played against some pretty big-name schools, and though we lost more than we won, we always gave them a game. I guess this is why I wasn’t concerned about playing Div. I teams – I had already played Div. I schools and didn’t think it could be all that different.

And then came the first match. I don’t know the team’s name we played against, but it was one of these four: LA Rugby Club, Belmont Shore, OMBAC, or Santa Monica. Anyway, they gave us an awful welcome to Div. I. The men were gigantic, fast and strong, had terrific stamina, and possessed a deep knowledge of the game. They really put it to us – I think the score was 42-3 or something like this. In every case we didn’t score a try and pretty much limped off the field.

The rest of the season was essentially the same – we lost every week by scores like 51-0, 49-3, 63-6. Guys were getting hurt – after one particularly violent tackle against Belmont Shore I got up and ran the wrong way for about 20 meters before realizing where I was; concussion. Anyway, we were simply overmatched, and the physical/psychological toll was steep, because who likes to show up for a planned mugging every weekend? Guys stopped coming to practice, less people showed up for games, and it snowballed into a very, very challenging situation.

Indeed, I myself dropped out of California (and rugby) later in the season – money ran out, my job sucked, I was getting beat to hell every weekend on the pitch – where’s the fun in that? So the rest of the season I can’t really comment on, but I am absolutely sure that the team breathed a collective sigh of relief when that season ended.

I suppose it’s necessary for a person or an organization to push their boundaries to discover their respective limits, and in my case, the youthful arrogance I possessed – that I could play with anybody – was definitely refuted. It was probably also a useful learning experience for the Pasadena Rugby Club; though we possessed a lot of quality players who trained hard and were well-coached, that year we were simply out of our league.