Archive for January, 2010

Old Guys Who Get Back Up

Monday January 24, 2010

When Brett Favre a announced his retirement after sixteen years as popular quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, most people understood.  It was time.  He made his mark.  His steady performance, rocket launcher arm, laser beam eye, lightening fast release, dead on precision and general likability had run its course.  It was a bittersweet farewell to an organization that is a legend boasting a legion of fans who are so loyal, so devoted, they will readily don a triangular facsimile of a block of yellow cheddar on their heads as a solemn sign of their allegiance.  Shameless Cheesehead dedication.

Shortly after his Packers “retirement” announcement, a press conference featured Favre in a New York Jets cap, all smiles.  He changed his mind.  Sitting out a season was too much.  But by the end of the forgettable 2008 schedule for the Jets, Brett called another press conference, and retired a second time.

Until the Vikings made a call.

This made him the butt of late night jokes.  All year, Favre’s inability to retire inspired one-liners that triggered laughter and the wagging of heads.  Even advertisers got in on the fun.

Until those Vikings started to win.  Favre’s receivers pulled off miracle routes and impossible catches.  The old magic came back, and Brett had only one more hurdle: The New Orleans Saints.  Beat them, and the aging warrior would appear in a third Super Bowl:

I hadn’t paid much attention to all this until I watched the old man (forty is the NFL’s sixty-five) spring to life a couple of Sunday afternoons late in the season.  The fire in the eyes.  The team protecting their quarterback.  Receivers zig-zagging around the defense, finding an open spot, Favre rifling the ball at the bulls-eye, right in the pocket.  Ten, fifteen, twenty yards at a crack.  The closer he came to the final minutes, the more intense and accurate the routine.

Brett Favre.  Super Bowl?  Could it be?  No way.  Way.

So I have been a Minnesota fan for the past couple of weeks.  I have spent so much of my life in Lake Wobegon that it just felt right.  Inspiration for an old guy, and plenty of it.

The New Orleans Saints have earned a reputation as the bad boys of the gridiron; like the Raiders, brute force is the name of the game.  Hit hard.  Take the calls for late hits and head butts.  It’s worth it in the end.  Trash talk follows the crushing blows.  The Saints knew that if they were to overcome the Viking threat, they would by necessity target the veteran quarterback.  Punish him.  Start to finish.

So all night long, in spite of the determination of his linemen, Favre took a pounding.  Just after release, the ball took flight like a heat-seeking missile towards its intended target and bam, a three hundred pound defenseman would hit Brett in a full body blow, like a freight train or a Mack truck, pick your metaphor.  And then from the other side.  Sometimes both.  Left and right.  Cut him in half.  Slam him to the ground.

The camera often turned to Brett’s wife Deanna and their daughter Brittany as they grimaced with each grueling hit.  Families of football players could all relate.  Back in the day, when it was our son on the football field, he was the only one I watched.  As Favre took hit after hit, it was as though these two women felt it, too.

One particular blow in the third quarter drew a flag.  A New Orleans defender got to Brett just after the throw, buried his shoulder pad into Brett’s rib cage, grabbed both thighs from behind with muscles bulging, lifted the quarterback on impact, pulled his legs out from underneath and drove him into the ground with the full force of his three hundred pound mass.  The slow motion replay from several angles made the point.  The Saint got up and stood over him like a Goliath, flexing and grunting and gloating.  Favre rolled over in agony, wind knocked out of his lungs, body crushed, and laid there for a moment.  Deanna covered her eyes.  Brittany reached for her mother.

Brett got up.

He limped over to the sideline.  The team trainer was ready.  All night, they were patching him up, re-wrapping his ankles, rubbing out his limbs.  And the old warrior got up again walked back and forth and then trotted back onto the gridiron for more.

And the passes kept on connecting.  The stats were lopsided.  Favre threw for more than three hundred yards that night.  But it wasn’t enough.  Most people will remember the errant final pass, from field goal range, picked off by New Orleans.  Brett had the win and the Super Bowl in his sights, but it disappeared in one fleeting moment in the final seconds of regulation time in the Championship game.

And in the end the old warrior with gray stubble covering his chin trotted across the field to congratulate Drew Brees.  He smiled.  He loves the game.  A class act.  A bittersweet, memorable night.

And for me, an aging warrior in my own rite, I will always remember it as the night the old guy got back up and kept on fighting all the way to the end.

He may have missed Super Bowl XLIV, but he had Deanna and Brittany waiting.  And that’s good enough.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2010

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Songs in the Night

Monday January 18, 2010

I don’t know how many Christian missionaries there must be in Haiti.  What I do know is that in a forgotten country like that island near the Bahamas and just beyond Cuba, workers are driven by a powerful, mysterious motivation.  There are rewards that exceed the cost.  People who give their lives to this sort of service understand.  The veterans don’t talk about it much.  They just live it.

Frank and Jillian Thorp would be examples.  The Haitian Ministries for the Diocese of Norwich, Connecticut has been working in Port au Prince for nearly twenty five years.  Their goal is “to collaborate in building a new Haiti, born of suffering, courage, hope, love, compassion and justice – a new Haiti standing as a dignified member of the global community.”  Jillian served as acting director of the mission house.  Her husband, Frank, had been an intern at NBC in New York.

When the earth shook at 4:53 in the afternoon last Tuesday, Jillian stood in the office of her colleague Chuck Dietsch. A sudden roar peceeded a sharp jolt.  “What?!” she called out.  The rolling continued.  Chuck grabbed Jillian by the arm and shouted “Earthquake!” and pulled her into the doorway.  The two story building collapsed.  As the missionaries stood rigid under a beam, concrete snapping, windows shattering all with a deafening roar, both of them believed they would die.  But as the building settled into rubble, a small space remained around the wall and the crumpled doorway.  Chuck’s leg was pinned.  Jillian was free to move.  She checked around her.  No exit.  It is a confined, small dark space with little beams of light.  Now that space filled with powdery dust, choking off the supply of oxygen.  Jillian, relieved that she was not crushed, believed that the two of them would suffocate.  They covered their faces with fabric, attempting to breathe.  They heard screams for help just outside.  They prayed.  Jillian thought about her husband, Frank.  He had traveled the day before to a village a hundred miles away.

He felt a tremor out there in the hill country, and shrugged it off.  Only a few minutes later did he hear about the sudden devastation in the city.  “A rumor,” he called it then. He knew Jillian was there, potentially in harm’s way.  He jumped into the four wheel vehicle, heading home.  It would take eight long, agonizing hours to reach the mission compound.

* * * * *

Twenty-five year old Chista Breslford, a graduate student from the University of Arizona, had been in Port au Prince since the first of the year.  Along with her brother, Julian, she worked with young Haitians in an English literacy program.  Her workday came to a close as the clock approached five.  At 4:53 PM, she thought at first that a bus hit the two story building.  When someone screamed “Earthquake!” she headed for the stairs, and as she ran, the building collapsed around her, trapping her leg under a slab of broken concrete.  When they extracted her from the rubble, her leg, just below the knee, was barely attached by fleshy muscle.  She was bleeding badly.  Her rescuer was her brother, Julian.  Julian hatched a plan.

They tied a tourniquet around Christa’s nearly severed limb.  Julian scooped his sister up in his arms and ran to a friend who owned a motorcycle.  He started up the two wheel machine as Julian climbed on the back, still holding Christa.  They raced through the potholed streets of the city in ruins, through the dust and the collapsed buildings on both sides and the cries and the debris for over two miles to the United Nations mission, where Julian knew he would find help.  Later Christa said, “my leg was flopping around,” as they hit the ruts in the road.

When Frank finally arrived, workers had been digging and chipping and chopping and clawing to get to Jillian and Chuck.  In the darkness, Frank saw the opening the workers created to bring fresh air to the two trapped missionaries.  He called Jillian’s name.  She sighed at the sound of his voice.  “I love you,” he said.  They both wept.

It would take another hour.  Jillian and Chuck finally emerged from the rubble.  Jillian and Frank embraced.

* * * * *

From a Florida hospital, Christa described her journey.  The leg was gone.  Her captivating smile disarmed Matt Lauer.  She expressed gratitude to her brother, her rescuers and the medical team.  But mainly, she expressed her concern for the tens of thousands of Haitians who still wait.

As we all do.  These are devastating images.  But they are more than images.

So we pray, too.  Some of us go.  We give.

We live in a world in conflict.  Even tectonic plates are on a collision course.

Crisis brings tragedy, and inspiration.

In the dark night, with no power, no generators, only darkness under the Caribbean stars, reporters hear haunting voices from refugee camps where jittery crowds distance themselves for the night from crumpled structures that still move in the aftershocks.  It is singing.  It is praise.  It is a plaintiff cry.  Directed heavenward.  The Haitians in their grief and fear find solace in the voices, in the harmonies, in the rhythms that have sustained them through generations of hardship.

And the hardened reporters, equipped with satellite dishes and lighting systems and digital wizardry, plenty to eat and drink, who share this dark night far away from home, are moved.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009

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Monday, January 11, 2010

You may wonder why Google stock is so expensive ($598.58/share as of last Friday; compare YAHOO at $16.59/share).  Ken Auletta’s new book Googled: The End of the World as We Know It, gives us a clue.  A major clue.

This year, it is expected that Google’s gross advertising revenues will exceed twenty billion dollars.  In our world of bank bailouts and auto-industry turmoil, that number may not get your attention.  What is stunning is this: Google’s income from advertising sales is more than the total take of the television networks prime time revenues, that’s CBS, NBC, ABC, combined. Now that Google owns YouTube, Eric Schmidt, Google’s enthusiastic CEO, tells the author that Google is scheduled to be the first one hundred billion dollar media company in history.

No wonder NBC execs are all shook up.  It’s much more than Jay Leno and Conan O’Brian and the losing battle to keep up with CBS crime shows.  NBC is in frantic pursuit of more of that television market share.  But that share is dwindling rapidly.  Advertising dollars are drying up.  More and more of us are looking somewhere else for entertainment and information.

Like you, I access Google multiple times a day.  I research and write.  And now I have Google in my pocket.  In fact, I don’t even need to type in the text for my search.  I speak it.  (There’s an app for that.)  It’s free.  Well, apparently not.  Come to think of it, someone is paying.

Television shows are free, too, right?  Well, not really.  Advertisers shell out.  But thanks to my digital recorder, I routinely fast forward through the commercials.  I’ve become a commercial illiterate.  I hear some of them are pretty good, but I wouldn’t know.

All this helps me understand why the traditional media is facing such unprecedented upheaval.  Newspapers, book publishers, print magazines are in retreat mode; right along with the major television networks.  For a long time, we believed that the big three networks were too powerful.  Then it was Microsoft.  Now it is Google.

I’m certainly not qualified to call myself a futurist, but I’ll give it a try anyway as we begin a new decade.  I like to think the whole trend gives rise to a new sort of democratization.

The affable Charles Osgood, sporting his bowtie, suggests on CBS Sunday Morning that we Americans have come this far because of our creativity.  We are irrepressible.  It stems from our egalitarian notions about freedom.  We demand progress.  We reward innovation.  We celebrate new solutions.  We promote the entrepreneur who finds new products and services that meet needs.

So we have access to the tools of creativity that make us less dependent on the old institutions that once controlled the process.  It was once well beyond our reach.  Not anymore.  To use a new cliché, we are empowered.

So today, on this Monday morning, let’s dream big.  There are open doors all around us.

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2010

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Up In The Air

Monday, January 4, 2010

When Walter Kirn released his novel to mediocre reviews, it was September 5, 2001.   Six days later, the whole world changed.

His book makes air travel a metaphor for modern life.  It is a bona fide subculture, whose members know themselves and each other, but rarely by name.  If we are not card-carrying members ourselves, we all know someone who is.  These high altitude, high speed jet-setters live in a world of anonymity, detached and unfettered, except for their loyalty to aircrews and private lounges, reserved for those who have accumulated enough of airline currency to gain entrance and revel in the perks of warm baked cookies, overstuffed seating, free WiFi and drinks, all compliments of hard earned frequent flier miles.  The book’s protagonist, Ryan Bingham, calls bonus miles “private property in its purest form.”  They are non-taxable.  Inflation-proof.  An intriguing badge of success; a peculiar brand of conspicuous consumption.  The Holy Grail for the seasoned road warrior.

“Where do you live?” a fellow first-class passenger asks Bingham.

“Here.”  Bingham answers with a nod and a grin from his upgraded wide seat paid for by miles.  He’s not joking.

When Kirn’s 2001 book became the basis of a new hit movie in 2009, some updating was required.  The main character, Bingham, kept his original job.  His “core competency” as a “transition specialist” (that is to say he is a hired gun who fires people) remains the same.  But in a post 9-11 world, air travel has been transformed by high volume, intrusive security measures.  The pre-board screenings were a minor part of the story in the book, but became a high profile focal point in the movie.  The economy jittered at the turn of the century, but the fiscal earthquake hit only recently.  Downsizing was a profit making strategy for corporate mergers and takeovers then.  Now, downsizing is a global tsunami.  Kirn’s Ryan Bingham was a nuisance then.  Now, he is everyone’s nightmare.  The part was made for George Clooney – the amiable Dr. Doom.

Up In The Air is a film for our times.  Our mobility has wrenched us away from meaningful, human connectedness.  The corporation’s promise of long-term security has gone bust.  The glamour of air travel has been reduced to mass transit.  A new digital generation views the Internet as a global cure-all.  Casual encounters as common as movies on demand.

Two women invade Bingham’s over-managed world.  Alex is as detached as he; just as cynical, self-absorbed and quick-witted.  She is a match to Ryan’s untethered, nomad existence.  The other, Natalie, fresh out of graduate school, tackles corporate challenges as though she is competing in the boardroom, doing whatever it takes to avoid getting fired by Donald Trump.  But she is all brains and no know-how.  An “A” student with no experience.  Equipped with rapid-fire charm and a thorough business plan, she convinces Ryan’s boss to go digital – meeting with clients via videoconference feed rather than in person.  This will save the company millions in airfare, hotels, car rentals and per-diems.  The call centers can originate anywhere.  This paradigm shift, of course, threatens to render Ryan’s obsession to accumulate mileage points, not to mention those five star hotels and fine restaurants, an exercise in futility.

Ryan surprises himself by inviting Alex to join him for his sister’s wedding in Northern Wisconsin (not far from where I married Carolyn).  Alex surprises him by accepting.  Ryan’s family is hilariously dysfunctional; but it is family.  The entire pre-wedding scene is the complete antithesis of the life Ryan leads.  It is Lake Woebegone all over again.  Uncharacteristically, Ryan and Alex are irresistibly drawn in; you can’t buy this with frequent flier miles.

To everyone’s shock and dismay, the groom gets last minute “cold feet.”  Hours before the scheduled nuptials, Ryan is recruited to convince the groom to go ahead and marry his sister as planned.  At first, he declines.  Ryan has little regard for marriage as an institution.  He offers every excuse in the book.  But because he the most skilled negotiator in town, and because he just cannot resist the challenge, he reluctantly sits down with the young groom, Jim, for a pre-marital counseling session.  Man to man.

“You know, I was just thinking,” Jim says.  Fidgeting.  Staring at the floor.

“Yeah.  Tell me,” says Ryan.

“Well… first you’re born.  No one asks your permission.  Ya sit in a boring classroom all those years.  And then you think you are an adult.  You get a job.  You get married.  You get a house payment and a car payment.  You go to work in the morning.  You come home at night.  Then there are kids.  Then they grow up, and they do the same thing you did.  And then you get old.  You get sick.  They put you in a senior center.  And then you die.”  Jim pauses, tux and no tie, collar open, and keeps his gaze on the floor.

“Yeah?”  Ryan asks.

“So what’s the point?”  Jim wants to know.

Ryan stares out the window.  They sit on small chairs in a Lutheran Sunday School class room.  Ryan is the king of the comeback.  But this one seems to stump him.

“Jim,” Ryan finally speaks.  “There is no point.”

Their eyes finally meet.

“Marry the girl,” Ryan advises.

He does.

It is a turning point for Jim.  But for Ryan, too.  Up until now, there was no point.  But it’s this moment of warmth and family and commitment and relationship that is a tipping point for the calculating Ryan Bingham.  Maybe there is a point after all.

I won’t spoil the rest.

But as we begin another year, we are all up in the air.  Our high altitude, high speed, obsessive soaring in an endless rainbow chase is behind us now.  Our hot pursuit of frequent flier miles has left us empty handed.  If you have sat across the table, as I have, from the man wielding the axe, you’ll connect with those scenes played by real life folks who have lost their jobs.  It is painful.  Disorienting.  But it is not an end.  It is a beginning.

So, when Ryan flatly states to his soon-to-be brother-in-law Jim, “there is no point,” he is mistaken.

Now that we are back on the ground again, with a New Year ahead, what we have left is a Wisconsin wedding.  And with that, who needs bonus miles?

Copyright Kenneth E Kemp

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