Saturday, March 26, 2016

A Welcome Bit of Madness

The 2016 NCAA Men's Division I basketball pairings (NCAA/CBS), fair use, photo by J. Berta.

Greetings All:

It's that time of year, the college basketball tournament.  Commonly referred to as "March Madness," it is arguably one of the major sporting events in America.  It started last Thursday and now the field, started at 64, is down to eight.  By Sunday night, it will be cut in half, with the "Final Four" selected to play for the National Championship.

I've never followed college basketball closely.  However, this year, Iowa gave us genuine hope that this could be "our" year.  Long story short- it wasn't.  Although we made the tournament and won our first game against a tough Temple team, we ran into a buzz saw in the form of the Villanova Wildcats in the second round.  It wasn't even close.

Still, the tournament has had its moments of fun, of excitement, living up to the "Madness" name.  Case in point:   Last Friday night, The University of Northern Iowa, UNI, won a game against a highly favored team with a miracle shot.  Paul Jesperson chucked the ball at the hoop from damn-near half court, hitting the glass and bouncing into the net as the backboard turned crimson.   

I have a video link below in the credits to this amazing shot.  Madness indeed.

After Sunday's loss I pretty much tuned out basketball.  Let others revel in the "madness," and to those lucky few who had picked the "right" teams to lose in the first rounds, my hat's off to you.

For those of you who might be wondering what I mean about picking the right teams, I'll elaborate.  One aspect of this tournament that is unique from other sporting events is the seeding of the teams.  The opening photo is how the 64 teams are ranked and how they winnow each other down to the eventual champion.  The best ranking is a #1 seed, the worst, #16.  In fact, there are a few teams who have to "play in" for the chance to get into the tournament.

As you might imagine, this generates the...opportunity for folks to try their luck/skill/wild guesses to figure out who might win it all.  It is estimated that over 40 million people have filled out one or more such brackets were filled out in 2015.  I've got a link to this story and others about this uniquely American sports phenomenon below in the credits, please check them out if you'd like.  

I did not fill out a bracket this year.  I had several opportunities and decided that this was a great opportunity to practice some selective "saying NO" to non-essential things.  I was glad I did, considering how some of the "favored teams" did not make it out of the first round.  Those poor souls had their "bracket busted."  More importantly, at least for me, I found myself not spending time wondering how my "bracket" was holding up and could do other things.

Still, on Monday I was a bit sad that Iowa was out of the tournament.  I had secret hopes that maybe, just maybe we could find a way to re-capture the lighting in a bottle we had in January.  Yet I knew the chances were slim.  Slim gave way to nil before the first half of the game on Sunday was done.

I was happy for my friends who still had a team in and would likely watch at least some of the remaining games with passing interest.  I suppose I was disappointed that I no longer had a reason to follow the tournament and that it was back to the normal, the mundane.  

Then Tuesday happened.

Most of us awoke to learn that another terror attack had befallen Europe, this time Brussels.  Once again, cowards chose to kill those with no chance of fighting back.  It was a shameful and senseless act.  I can live to be 100 and never begin to understand the rationale for such evil acts.

As of this writing, BBC News reports 31 civilians have been murdered with another 60 in critical condition.  Hundreds of others have also suffered injuries, both to the body, brain and soul.  

I saw this picture on Facebook and thought it was such a fitting, beautiful, silent tribute to the resolve of the Belgium people to stand together and stand up to the purveyors of mayhem and terror. 

The Brussels Main Train Station, lit up in the colors of the Belgium flag, March 23, 2016.  Photo credit to SNCB, (Belgium public transportation) Facebook, fair use claimed, full citation below.

I doubt there are many folks in Brussels who are following our little sporting event here.  I can't blame them.

As I mentioned, I was not going to fill out a bracket this year.  Then the opportunity came to enter a a friendly competition with a few friends for the remaining 16 teams.  I decided I could use the diversion, however momentary.  Here are my picks:

My "Sweet 16" bracket, 7 of 8, not too shabby.  Photo by J. Berta

There will still be many moments of hardwood drama to come in this year's basketball tournament.  There will be last-second heroics and heart-breaking missed shots.  To whatever school cuts down the nets and hoists the championship trophy, I offer my hearty congrats.  It is an accomplishment of note, perhaps even worthy in the annals of intercollegiate immortality.

Still, let us remember that for some, this week was not about bouncing balls but exploding bombs, of screams, not cheers.  For some, for many the diversion of sports, of any entertainment is simply not possible.  It may be a long time until they are able to enjoy such carefree fun.  For now, they are too busy looking over their shoulders and clutching tightly their child's hand.

When I think about the terror attacks of Tuesday against the backdrop of this tournament, I realize just what a charmed life I lead.  While I shudder at the images on the TV, I know this is many miles away.  I am able to pull my gaze to a bracket and indulge in a trivial endeavor, knowing that winning or losing is a meaningless result.  There is comfort in such action.  Filling out a bracket is normal, it's what we're supposed to do this time of year.  

In short, it's a welcome bit of madness.

Be well my friends,


Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Mirror of a Half-Century Ago

Senator Kennedy in Indianapolis, 1968.  Photo credit, Wikipedia, fair use claimed, full cite below.

Greetings All:

Last Friday night, things got rough in Chicago.  A certain candidate for a certain Federal office called off a campaign event.  It was probably for the best, as tensions had risen to an untenable level.  Even with the event cancelled, there was still violence.  Last Saturday night in Kansas City things were less violent.  However, whenever the police deploy pepper spray, it's a sign that things aren't exactly calm.

I watched some of Saturday night's rally with a mixture of profound disappointment and a sense of gallows' humor.  Here was an example of our democracy in action, or perhaps "acting out" is a more precise phrase.

This election year has gotten particularly vicious.  It makes me long for the days of Bill Clinton's sex life plastered all over The Star and other check-out line tabloids.  I have to shake my head at just how dysfunctional things are right now.  If Tuesday night's primary results (March 15th) are an indication of what the future holds, it's going to get worse before it gets better.

I don't watch a lot of TV, but last Saturday night I watched CNN's series on the 1960s.  This episode featured the year of my birth, 1968.  It reminded me that we Americans have a long (and certainly not proud) tradition of mixing violence with our politics.  Certainly not to the extent of certain third world nations where losing an election can be a death sentence.  

Still, go back a generation (wow, am I that old, I guess I am) to '68 and you'll see that Chicago was the setting for another violent clash.  It was the Democratic National Convention.  While there was tension, even physical altercations in in the hall, that was nothing compared to what was going on in the streets.  

There, police brawled with protesters and reporters.  I've got a link to the story below in the sources.  As the TV cameras rolled, Americans were engaged in the pitched street battles of 1920s Germany.  As arrests were made the chant of, "The whole world is watching!" mixed with the whine of police sirens and the burning stench of tear gas.  It was ugly.  

The Democratic Convention was the third act in that year's tragedy.  The previous act was two months before with the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy.  The opening act was yet another killing, that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  That crime occurred in April.

Robert Kennedy, then campaigning for president, was in Indianapolis.  It was there that he gave, at least to me, one of the greatest speeches of the 20th Century.  I have a link to it here:

To me, this This thing I admire about Kennedy's speech that sad April night is that he viewed the crowd as fellow citizens, as peers.  Peers not in the sense of wealth or influence or power or privilege.  No, instead, peers in a more genuine form of measurement:  shared grief.  

He crystallized this when he quoted Aeschylus, a ancient Greek poet.  It is both hauntingly beautiful and heartbreaking:

"Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God."

As I look back on the sad and tragic events of '68, basically a half-century ago, I can't help but think it is a mirror of today's event.  A mirror, after all, gives an imperfect image of what one is viewing.  The reflection is close, yet not perfect.

We live in a time of strive, without question.  There is a LOT of anger out there and unfortunately, I do not see a cooling off period anytime soon.  Yet we're Americans.  We find a way to get through our times of struggle and come out on the other side better, stronger.

Perhaps things are not as bad now as we think they are.  Then again, perhaps we haven't learned a damn thing in the last half-century.  I like to believe the former.  In support thereof, I turn to Mr. Tim Ferriss and his praise of the Stoic philosopher, Seneca.

Ferriss is a fan of the Stoic movement and has just released an audio book, The Tao of Seneca.  I have in in my library and plan on listening to it soon.

One of the letters of Seneca Ferriss profiles is #13, "On Groundless Fears."  Here is a portion of the letter, right below the image of the man himself:

Inspired sculpture of Seneca, 17th Century, artist unknown, photo credit, Jean-Pol GRANDMONT, sharing authorized, obtained from Wikipedia, full citation listed in the credits.

"There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality. I am not speaking with you in the Stoic strain but in my milder style. For it is our Stoic fashion to speak of all those things, which provoke cries and groans, as unimportant and beneath notice; but you and I must drop such great-sounding words, although, heaven knows, they are true enough.

What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come. Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow."

I wonder if people back in 1968 had the some concerns and fears we have today.  I'm guessing they did.  The parallels are too many to ignore:  A lengthy, unpopular war; political and racial unrest; economic uncertainty; and the list goes on.  Yet I choose to be an optimist and believe that we, as Americans, will get thru this current sad state of affairs.  We will do it not by focusing on the differences between us, but that which binds us close.  When Kennedy spoke to the crowd in Indy that April night, he did so not so much as a politician, but as a fellow mourner.  His own loss rendered unto him a legitimacy to cross racial and class divides.

Perhaps when my kids look back at this year, they will draw comparisons to their own time.  If they do, I hope it will be for the good things, and not the bad, they are experiencing.  I hope that is the case.  That would be a much more pleasant image to view than the one reflecting back at us now.

Be well my friends, 


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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Death & Taxes

My friend Dave's golf ball his family graciously shared with me.  Photo by J. Berta.

Greetings All:

Early March is known for several things, at least to me.  One is the arrival of spring, or at least the end of winter.  Today the temperature flirted with 70 degrees and it was truly wonderful.  Another is the college basketball tournaments.  As an Iowa Hawkeye fan, my hopes for this year are clearly limited.  Still, whether they win one game or a bunch, I'll be cheering for them.

Then there is tax day.  Ah, taxes.  There is perhaps no other word that can inspire feelings of negative emotion than taxes.  Since the first time copper coins were collected, taxes is a subject chalk full of emotion.  This year, we get a three-day reprieve.  It is not the normal April 15th.  Instead, it is April 18th.

Even with the extra three days, we're behind schedule.  I just dropped in the mail some docs to our CPA in Jersey and there is more to come.  Every year, I pledge to be more organized.  Every year, I fail miserably.

There is the old saying, "The only two inevitable things in life are death and taxes."  I think there is some (a lot) of truth to that.  More on that in a moment.

I think it is worth  a brief tip of the hat to the role opposition to taxes played in the founding of our nation.  Our Founders were not opposed to taxes, just not having a say in how those funds were spent.

Most of us have heard the cry, "Taxation without representation!"  Otis was an early leader in the colonial opposition to taxation of the colonies without a voice in Parliament.  This movement became known as the, "No taxation without representation," cry.  One of the early leaders of this movement was James Otis, Jr.  Here's a photo of his statue.

From Wikipedia, "Bronze sculpture of James Otis, Jr stands in front of the Barnstable County Courthouse." Public domain and fair use claimed, full citation below in the credits. 

I saw a cartoon where death (an image of a skeleton wearing a black hooded robe and carrying scythe) and an IRS agent are waiting outside a hospital room.  The IRS agent says to death, "Mind if I go first?"

That leads me into the other subject of this post, death.

I received a text early Saturday morning from a dear friend about the passing of a mutual friend of ours.  He died tragically and far too soon.  I was so struck with the fitting and genuine tribute my friend paid.  Although I had not seen the Departed for over decade, it stung to know he had died on the wrong side of 50.  Still, my grief is nothing compared to my friend.  I shudder at thinking how I would react if I had been the one sending the text.

On Sunday, we learned of the passing of Nancy Reagan.   Mrs. Reagan, like almost all public figures, had her fans and her critics.  I wish to highlight a few things about her I did not know.  For example, I did not know that in 2002 she was awarded The Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work with our POW & Veterans' community, her efforts on behalf of foster grandparents and her anti-drug use campaign.  This award is the highest civilian award our government presents to civilians.  

While this is impressive, I also wanted to share a more human side of her.   Alex Hitz wrote for Town and Country yesterday.  Here are his thoughts:

"That was the Nancy I knew—she loved politics, she loved to gab on the telephone, she stayed current on gossip, and let's face it, did not suffer fools gladly. Then again, why should she?"

Why should she, indeed?

I remember seeing President Reagan's funeral.  I recall the way that Mrs. Reagan, normally an entirely private person shared her grief, that profound, genuine grief, with all of us, the day of her husband's burial.  It was both beautiful and painful to watch.

Mrs. Reagan's final farewell to her husband.  Public domain, full citation posted in the credits.

I am glad this photo is in the public domain so I can share it.  I believe it sums up love at its purest form.  It shows that no matter how "great" or powerful one person may become, at the end of their days, they pass on, like the rest of us.

That brings me back to the opening photo.  Two weeks ago, I attended a wake for an attorney I liked and respected.  As mentioned above, he was taken too soon.  At the funeral home, the family had placed a box of golf balls.  Tacked to the box was a message urging those of us who golf (or in my case, own clubs) to take a ball if we ever shared a round of golf with the departed.  Although it had been a couple of decades since I had done so, I gratefully took this ball.   The opening photo is that golf ball.  I will display it in a place of honor in my home office.  Some might say it is total coincidence that a golf ball balances perfectly on a beer bottle.  Others might say it was by design.  I suppose we will never know.

Here's what I do know.  Life is short, so life accordingly.  Have fun, but give back.  Take time to smell the roses, yet realize your roses will take some time to grow, to bloom, to give back.  In other words, love large, yet get up and go to work in the morning.

Yes, there are two constants in life- death and taxes.  While we live, we pay taxes.  When we die, we stop.  I am trying to find a cleaver way to conclude this post and have nothing.  Perhaps it is enough to say that it is better to be alive and have to pay taxes than to be dead and not.  And to that end, I'll get back to uploading docs to my CPA.

Be well my friends,