Saturday, July 26, 2014

50 is just a number

I have never been a big fan of numbers, nor have I been a skilled practitioner in the art of manipulating them. As a kid I, frankly, sucked at math. Math was, to me, an abstract thing.

But give me a creative endeavor, like writing, and I am at home. While I have never been one to be able to correctly label all parts of a sentence or identify what needs to go where, I have always known instinctively how to construct a sentence to reflect both fact and meaning. (That isn't a boast. There are many others who do it better than me.)

Today one of those abstract numbers is working hard to materialize out of my consciousness and stand on my shoulders. Today, I am 50. Half a century. .5c, as one of my friends put it.

I have been saying—and thinking—that 50 is just a number. No parties, I have said. No black balloons. No over-the-hill cakes. Waking up 50, I said, would be no different than waking up one day short of 50.

Meanwhile, in England, today marks the beginning of the Royal London Cup, a one-day county cricket competition. This competition is a 50-over tournament, a change from county cricket's usual 40-over format. The move to 50 overs was to bring the county game in line with international one-day cricket. The reasoning, I suppose, was that England's less-than-stellar performances in One Day Internationals could be somehow blamed on the fact that their players were not exposed to 50 overs as they moved up through the ranks into the national team.

That is blaming a number, and it is rubbish. At least that's been my take on it.

Until I woke up 50 years old. And it hit me.

50 is isn't a big deal. It really is just a number. For me, though, it is a nice, big round number on which I can perch and look back over my life so far. Take stock. Wonder how I got where I am. View the highlights (or lowlights). And that's not always all sunshine.

Looking back down the road this morning, I see my mom playing “Authors” cards with me. I see her standing at the sink, hallucinating, thinking that she is washing her face when the water isn't even running. I see her carted from our home by ambulance never to return. I hear crying at hearing of her death and being told to stop it because it isn't manly. I remember listening to all that “manly” advice and going in to 8th grade printing class at Wilson Middle School, trying t smile and keep a brave face, telling my friends what has happened. I see their disbelief at my mask of calm. I see the churning ocean of pain frothing away below.

I see my high school self, making jokes, being silly, clowning because I am too afraid of real social interaction with my classmates. Afraid of being disliked or not living up to their expectations. Afraid of rejection. I see myself gazing fondly from afar on girls and wishing I had the courage to ask them out—or even talk to them.

I see many downs and curves. But then, with the downs, there are the ups.

I see my new mom proudly holding the adoption papers that say she is officially the legal mom of a 40-year-old. I see and hear the delight of my niece and nephews as I race over and leap, fully clothed, into the swimming pool. I see myself the old Maring Grace library, where I spent many an afternoon among the quiet stacks, bathed in the dusty, slanting light from the large windows, reading titles and imagining what they are about. I see neighborhood friends like Jeff, Marlesa, Joe, Cathy, Brad, and Michael; we are racing Big Wheels and playing wiffle ball or football; riding our bikes; hanging out by the railroad tracks; sifting through used comic books at the Book Center. I see coming to grips with a new way of living and being, coming into adulthood in college, learning more from my friends Lisa, Christina, and Patti than I ever picked up in class. They taught me that women are strong and intelligent and independent and talented and should in no way defer to the male perspective. I see myself walking into WBST for the first time, scared half out of my wits, and being greeted with open arms by Rob O'Brian into what would be my world for 15 years—the world of broadcast journalism.

There are many more memories looking back down that road. Closer to me the road takes an unforeseen twist and I see myself, in my late 40s, falling in love again, rising front he ashes like a phoenix (good grief, how many writers have used that tired old thing in a birthday piece), drawn up by Karen, a creature of light and love into a new life full of adventure. I see myself becoming a dad. And I see some of the most precious memories yet. Games of Candyland, bouts of Barbies, walks in the woods, swinging and sliding at the playground; hugs and tantrums and kisses and fevers and boo-boos (plus the stuff that happens to Heidi). I see many walks with our baby dog Star Morgan.

There are so many things one could write down, looking back over 50 years. But I have thought enough about that. What I want to do now is think about here. Now. Not even the future. The present. Because that is where we are. Heidi is starting Kindergarten and becoming more dramatic every day. I am a couple of months into a new role with my employer of 15 years, Draper. My dad is in a nursing home. There are repairs to make on the house. I have a kids' book out and need to finish up the sequel. There's a lot going on. At a time of life when most people are saying goodbye to their kids, my life is seemingly just getting started. So, while it is interesting to look back and take stock, what I really need to do is hang in there, gather my strength, be open to changing from the way I've always thought or believed, and keep going—up.

So, I guess for me, 50 is a big deal after all.

Fifty is also a big number for England. They believe it is the number that will help bring them success in international one day cricket. But, hopefully they will use this competition as a time to take stock, see the real twists and turns and ups and downs that have brought them here to this moment. They will see some of the real issues—I won't get into them now—and decide that now is the time to chart a new way forward. Hang in there, gather strength, be open to changing from the way they've always thought or believed, and keep going—up.

My wife gave me a birthday card that said she hopes to be right here with me for the next 50 years.

Let's go, sweetie!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The times they are a-changing

The England cricket team seems to be in the midst of a vain search for itself at the moment. Things are changing and, being a team made up of people who grasp onto control like an owl grasps a mouse, it has not gone well, because change really can’t be controlled—no matter how much we like to think it can.

Just a couple of years ago, England cricket was on top of the world, with a number one ranking, top 10 batsmen and bowlers, and a seemingly unending pipeline of talented replacements ready to fill in when necessary.

Then something hit England like a 150 kph cricket ball. No, it wasn’t Mitchell Johnson. It was time. Although time was riding on Johnson’s shoulders with each run up in the last Ashes series, he was only the messenger.

With time, cricketers age. The heat takes a toll it once did not. The eyes dim. The muscles react a tad less quickly. Thinking grows foggy after long periods of play. Mins are easily distracted. Meanwhile, other cricketers—other teams—are aging into their prime. Where there was once weakness new strength is developed. And it seemed to happen overnight.

My little girl is changing so much and so fast that it is dizzying. She went from a size 8 to a size 11 shoe in a couple of months. Just a couple of months ago she was a five-year-old dancer to old movie musicals, a Barbie and Candyland expert unparalleled, and the little girl who still held my hand in the parking lot every time. She would step gingerly into the swimming pool, and hang onto a teacher or the edge. We could sit together at the library and color for long stretches. Now she’s nearly six, hardly ever watches old movies, prefers playing running games like “Where’s My Chicken,” and, instead of reaching for my hand in the parking lot, accepts mine when offered. She no longer likes to be read to at bedtime. We usually don't color any more at the library. She jumps into the deep end of the swimming pool—with relish.

The problem is that she is in an in-between pale. She has advanced in many ways beyond the things she knows, but cannot yet quite do the things she wants to be ready for. And England finds itself in a similar place, I believe. An in-between place.

Things change. We cannot control that. What we can control is our reaction to that change. Perhaps Alistair Cook could release his clutching and increasingly brittle grip long enough to realize he might need a break from Test cricket to get himself back in order, and that there is no shame in that. The shame would be to continue on as he is and ruining his career. Perhaps the England selectors and management could recognize that they are suffering from what we in the States call “too many chiefs and not enough Indians.” It’s crude, but what it means is that there are too many people in charge, trying to stay in charge because they think that’s what is needed, trying to control too many small things and harming good players in the process.

As my own daughter changes, I cannot control how she changes. I can influence. But I cannot control. I can control my own reaction, and, like the England team, that is not always a success. As her personality develops, and she acts more and more like me, that can lead to frustrations and arguments because if there’s one thing none of us likes to see reflected back at us it is a true image of how we really are.

The Loudon Wainwright III song “Daughter” has been going through my mind recently, and is in my earphones as I write this.

“That’s my daughter in the water,” he writes. “I lost every time I fought her. I lost every time.” I feel his pain.

But the thing is, I’m not losing an argument to my daughter, nor is he. We are losing an argument with change. She’s going to grow up. She’s going to change. I just have to be there for her whatever that means.

The same thing goes for England players and management. You can’t argue with change. You just have to be there in the middle of it. Instead of fighting it, work with it to your own betterment. Take some time to adjust your game and approach to the changing cricket landscape around you, and the changing physical and emotional landscape within.

Even when things change, my bet is you’ll still love the game.

Even when things change, I’ll still love my daughter.

That’s my daughter in the water. … Who’d have ever thought?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

A Thorny Issue

In my day-to-day life, I work as an External Communications Specialist for a manufacturer. My employer is in several markets and industries, and chief among them is the AV world. In this blog, and most of my other writing, I really try to keep my work world separate from my personal stuff like cricket, dad-hood, and life in general.
But there has been an issue rearing its head over the past few years in the AV industry that has had me thinking. The issue is about so-called “booth babes,” and it has been a hot topic of discussion in the AV world following the InfoComm trade show in July.
Booth babes are young women—typically scantily-clad—who are employed by exhibitors in trade shows to try and entice people—men, obviously—into their booths, or, at least, to get people to have their badges scanned by the exhibitor to be added to a mailing list.
Others, including my boss, have discussed this within the context of industry forums and blogs, and I want to tread carefully here and say my thoughts do not represent those of my employer. But I wanted to address the issue because it concerns me as a human being—not as a man, as a human being.
Here’s the issue, in a nutshell: Most of the time these booth models have no product knowledge and are simply there to flash some skin and lure male attendees into the booth. If those attendees need some real knowledge about a product, they are probably out of luck. There have been many voices decrying the practice, and some who say they refuse to visit companies who use this tactic in a trade show environment that is full of professionals simply trying to get information on new products. Many people—especially some women who make up a growing demographic in the AV industry—feel uncomfortable being approached in this way, and see it as unprofessional at the least and insulting at the worst. Many women have said they feel it is proof that they are not accepted as equals in the industry, and that the only accepted role for them is as “eye-candy” rather than trusted and equal colleagues. There have been some calling for InfoComm to take steps to discourage such behavior—without getting too much into the business of telling companies how they can go about their business.
There has also been the inevitable backlash from people who say there’s nothing wrong with the practice. Arguments range from “this is my job” and “it’s just having some fun” to the old chestnut that it’s about people trying to put their Victoriana/Puritan values onto others.One of my AV friends has also pointed out that by talking about the practice we are giving these companies the attention they want (a valid argument, which is why I’m not mentioning any company names here). There have also been accusations that any men who find issue with this practice are trying to serve as protectors of women’s virtues, which is just as bad as exploiting women’s sexuality for personal/financial gain.
These all might be somewhat valid points for some. But my own interest in this has nothing to do with those things. I oppose the use of “booth babes” for several reasons, but not because I think women in the AV industry need protecting by me, a male (they don’t—one of the first things I learned in college from my women friends was that they did not need defending or protecting and this lesson has been hammered home by my own five-year-old daughter); nor is it a question of wanting to put Victorian/Puritan/conservative values on others (I am, as friends and family will attribute, about as lefty a liberal as you can find in the Midwestern United States). I don’t oppose booth babes because I don’t like women in revealing outfits, or because I don’t want women (or men) to enjoy the freedom to wear whatever they want whenever they want, or do whatever job they want while doing it, or because I have something against sex and sexuality (I don’t-I’m a big fan).
I oppose this “booth babes” thing because, just as many women in the AV industry (and in life in general), I as a male resent being reduced to a stereotype. We see so much of this tripe in day-to-day life: women are conniving and smart but weak so must use their sexual wiles to manipulate the desired outcome from the lunkhead men who think with their willies. Those stereotypes are wrong on both counts (at least I hope so!). I oppose it because I don’t need a carnival barker to try and trick me into coming into the tent to view the three-headed monkey who speaks three languages. I also oppose it because, even though people say it isn’t exploitive of women, I don’t see any scantily-clad muscular men populating booths to try and attract the increasing number of women in the AV industry. I also oppose it as a marketer, because it is such a cop-out to go with the “sex sells” approach.
It all adds up to this, for me: By using sex to “sell” in this manner, what we as a society are actually saying is that your sex and sexuality don’t belong to you; it belongs to someone else—whoever has the most money or power or fewest scruples to use it. And it isn’t the models’ fault for wearing scanty clothing or looking a certain way. It is our fault because we are commoditizing it. So, since sex and sexuality are now separated from the person, then that person is simply the holder of the commodity we want—and her existence as a person is not so important. She is only a delivery system.
We are dehumanizing her.
And now we are walking down the road to misogyny. And we have many current political examples of where that leads.
That may sound over the top, but it is why I oppose “booth babes.”
And in deference to an AV friend who rightly points out that by talking about it too much we may be helping to spread the word about the practice, I will now stop typing.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Cricket the Arcane

I have been asking some of my friends—my non-cricketing, American friends—to ask me their questions about cricket. Any question. Whatever they would really like to know about the sport. I was looking to come up with some new content for the blog, and figured the best way to come up with relevant topics would be to ask people what they want to read and learn about.

I entered this exercise with two main assumptions. Number one was that I would not get many responses. I also assumed I would get questions on playing the sport, such as, “how is it played?” or “why do they stand around like that,” or perhaps even “why don’t they wear gloves?”

I was correct in the first assumption. I had three or four responses in all to my question, and one of those responses was a story from a friend about how, during a visit to the UK a couple, someone had spent 10 trying to explain cricket to him, and that it was 10 minutes of his life he’d never get back.

That story of the lost 10 minutes, although not a question, is the response I wanted to tackle first, because it underlines a prejudice in the United States, among people who don’t follow cricket, that the sport is boring, arcane, and too complicated to figure out—especially when we have action-packed, two-fisted, no-brains-needed sports like basketball, baseball, and American football. And that is where they are wrong. They are wrong because not only is cricket easier to figure out than they think, but also because those other, more traditionally recognized “American” sports can be just as complicated.

When my friend relayed this story, my first response was I wouldn’t need 10 minutes. I could explain it in a few seconds. And here’s what I said:

“There are two set of "stumps", one on each end. The bowler is trying to hit them and get the batter out. The batter is trying to stop that from happening, and in addition runs back and forth to score runs when s/he hits the ball. There you go! Simple! But the more questions you ask, the more complicated it gets. Just like football or baseball or soccer.”

That last line resonated with my friend, who officiates high school sports in Indiana, because he was at that precise moment reading through the Indiana High School Athletic Association football rulebook as an off-season refresher. He understands the concept that, on the surface, there is a simplicity which allows spectators to begin enjoying many sports, but also an underlying complexity that takes more time and knowledge to navigate. And being able to navigate that complex undercurrent takes some time. Not just in cricket, but in other sports, as well.

Take football as an example. On the face of it, the sport involves two teams trying to move a ball from one end of the field to the other. They can pass it or run it. Simple. But then you start getting into things like downs, who stands where, who can be downfield when, where you can throw the ball, offside, and all the other intricacies that give the sport the nuance that fans have come to appreciate. Then you get into rules differences between the levels of play. High school, college, NFL, Arena, Canadian: all of these levels and leagues have different rules, just as in cricket, where you have different formats to deal with.

So, the next time someone says “cricket is too complicated,” tell them the truth. It’s no more complicated than any other sport. It’s simply a question of the depth of their enjoyment.

Just start watching; the nuances will come, as they do with any sport.