As Days Go By

And no matter what the progress 
Or what may yet be proved
The simple facts of life are such
They cannot be removed. -As Days Go By

We’ve covered a lot of ground here at the Conquest. From alcoholism to child rearing, the ennui of returning home from an eye-opening trip to crushing systemic poverty in South Africa. We’ve talked about Vietnamese cooking and the death of loved ones, Argentinian wines, and Bobby Knight.

My first post while traveling was an essay about the classic movie Casablanca. In it, the protagonist Rick, flies off the handlebars as his piano man Sam plays a song that he hates. That song, As Time Goes By, is the basis for this particular essay.

Last night, I watched an emaciated Bill Clinton take the stage on behalf of his wife at the Democratic National Convention. (This is not meant to be a political essay at all. I’m well aware that there is no such thing as a civil debate in politics at the moment, and I don’t intend to engender a digital screaming match.)

As the nearly 70-year-old Clinton shuffled across the stage, I was shocked at his appearance. This was not the youthful governor running in 1992, this was an old man with a shock of white hair and only the faintest echoes of his famed charisma. The first part of his speech showed none of that charisma, but as he gained speed in his 40+ minutes, he finally found a little bit of that uniquely Clintonian charm and I found myself wishing for another time.

I have spent much of the past week in the hospital with my 96-year-old great grandmother, who is recovering from emergency gallbladder surgery. At 96, there are very few positive outcomes that result from invasive surgery, but she is recovering nicely, if a little out of sorts mentally, a condition that in her 96 years she has never had to struggle with. As I sat with her, trying to keep her entertained (a tough exercise for a woman who is legally blind and struggles with hearing) she seemed to retreat from the present, but talked with outstanding lucidity about her trips around the world with my grandfather and others. She walked about visiting Russia in the 70s, Spain during the reign of Franco, Thailand before it was at all Westernized, and the 35 other countries that she visited during her prodigious traveling career.

Watching a woman who has meant so much to me near the end of her life made me wish, as is I suppose only natural, for the 70-year-old woman I grew up with, the one who was planning the next trip, and going every morning to the pool at her condo complex. The one whose role as a matriarch in both her biological family as well as her family by marriage was never questioned. Sitting there beside her as she struggled to draw breath, as she confused me for my father, I would have given anything to have her back in the health to which she held so tightly to for over 9 decades.

Watching Bill Clinton on that stage, I wished for the same thing. I wished that America could rewind the past 3 decades, to the fall of our modern-Carthage, the Soviet Empire. Unfortunately, like so many other great nations before us, we fell victim to our own success and our own press clippings.

Having made ourselves the center of a unipolar world order, we squandered both our financial resources and our moral authority through an endless series of gaffes and infighting. After the tragic “Black Hawk Down” incident, we punted our role as the arbiter of justice in the face of a few lost American lives. A decade in a half into our “War on Terror” we have managed to make the world a less stable place through both our own hubris and a series of half-hearted “fixes.”

We lost our enemy without, and we created the enemy within. No longer was it us against the injustices of the world, it was us against them. And “they” lived next door.

We lost our conscience through a series of shortsighted political “wins.” In economics, both micro and macro, the uses of capital are either investment or consumption. Instead of investing the dividends of peace, we consumed them, one bureaucratic boondoggle after another. Our ruling class, so like the political class of Rome, fell to fighting amongst each other for the ears and votes of the citizenry, with no vision at all for a better tomorrow.

Reaction has taken the place of intellectual rigor in our political process. Anyone who thinks that issues such as civil rights, economics, and geopolitics can be distilled into 140 characters is certifiably insane in my own opinion. The age of constant mass media has created a citizenry more akin to Pavlov’s dog than the reasoned discussion of our forbearers. We have been trained in the age of instant reaction, to look not at the core of an incident or issue, but only the responses that it engenders. Vision is a large unchanging horizon; reaction, merely motion.

As my great-grandfather Ivan, a hardscrabble Depression era farmer who bought the first rubber tire wagon in Madison County, Indiana once told me, “The best thing about the good old days is that they are gone.” Coming from a man who grew up planting from a two-row horse driven corn planter to seeing the massive diesel planters and combines of the 21st century, he was correct.

We must not idealize the past, but strive for a future which marries progress and tradition. The 1950s are looked at as the pinnacle of the “American Dream.” This interpretation does not account for the fact that America’s economic prosperity was brought on by the enduring reality that we were the only major industrialized nation which had not seen our factories, fields, and citizens blown to bits in the Second World War. America had to be at work because we were the only nation able to do so.

We must not fall victim to the digital reactions of today, but recommit ourselves to actual vision of the individuals that we want to be, and the country that we want to live in. Looking at the two major candidates, I don’t want to live in the visions that either one espouses. Trump with his dystopian “law and order” themes, seeking to promote safety at a cost of liberty and the high-minded ideals of our founders. Hilary’s platform is a continuation of a corrupt and failing status quo.

I don’t want to be shackled to an unrealistic view of the past. I want to see a country that says sacrifice is necessary to achieve goals worth accomplishing. I want to see a country that says community, those neighbors who we live, work and play with, must be our primary focus if we are to tackle the issues of the day such as violence, poor public education, and a continuous erosion of economic opportunity.

The virtues taught across cultures, from Aesop to Confucius, Christ to Buddha, the gods of Rome to the philosophies of the enlightenment are as real as the nose on my face. Doing the right thing is not situational, nor is it constantly achievable, but the principles of hard work, humility, respect for fellow man are universal. It is only our intentional pursuit of those simple yet difficult principles that will ever produce the prosperity so often pined for.

Just as championship teams sometimes come back flat in the season following their triumph, so too has America. Without a unifying enemy without, we chose to fight one another over issues so comical as transgender bathroom rights while we have young men and women dying every day from violence and drugs in communities that have lost the ability to articulate and pursue a vision for a better tomorrow.

This is unacceptable. Full stop.

If we are to, in the words of Donald Trump, “Make America Great Again” it will be achieved by commitment to a goal, and that goal MUST be of a higher order than a political win. Game theory tells us that the optimal short term decision can eliminate the chance of an overall win. Like the little kid who plays checkers and tries valiantly to not lose any pieces, only to find himself in a dreaded double jump situation the next turn, we must look with a longer view than November if we are to truly achieve victory. The victories available are nearly countless, from reform of a student loan situation which effectively creates debt serfs, to an education system so obsessed with objective testing that we have lost the ability to impart in our students the ability to “think” about problems with options not marked A-D, to the distrust of communities towards the men and women asked to keep the peace. There is so much WINNING to be done, should we find it within ourselves to define a win as something greater than a snarky tweet.

Thinking about “As Time Goes By” I am brought back to the opening lines of that song:

This day and age we’re living in 
Gives cause for apprehension
With speed and new invention
And things like fourth dimension

These words are as true today as when Sam sang them back in 1942.

There is no need to be apprehensive about the future, so long as we collectively decide what that future should look like.

Here’s to starting a conversation that won’t end after 140 characters.

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The General and Mary Jane

At the small Catholic school I attended from Grades 2-8, we had the same three teachers for grades 5-8. Year in and year out, Mrs. Fish taught English, Mrs. Kern taught Social Studies and Religion, and Mrs. McGill taught Science and Math. Mrs. Kern punched her ticket to heaven twice dealing with me for four years in subjects that I wanted to constantly argue. According to a radical catechist who ended up getting thrown out of the room by Mrs. Kern, I punched my ticket to Hell at least once.)  Mrs. Fish, more than any other person in my life, made me the writer I am today, and deserves a gold star for patience at least. Mrs. McGill took enough stitches out of my ass that she got hers over four years, but I still learned plenty.

Mrs. Fish was a slightly reformed 55-year-old hippie by time she was asked to teach me. She’d grown up barefoot on a small farm in Iowa with an alcoholic father, and became a hippie in response.  On her road in life, she became a phenomenal writing teacher as well as a devout Catholic. I remember vividly for some reason, that she went on a tear about ouija boards once, and how we should always stay away from such tools of the devil. I’d never heard of an ouija board before and immediately jumped onto our 28.8k dialup when I got home to figure out what she was talking about. Speaking to the dead sounded fun, but a 15 dollar piece of cardboard seemed like a questionable method of doing this at best.

After getting back from Seattle on July 4, I was still wired for west coast time, and I couldn’t sleep. I wandered over to my bookcase and found Season on the Brink, a famous book by John Feinstein about the 1985/86 IU men’s basketball team. Actually, it was a book all about Bobby Knight, told through the lens of one season in the locker room. In local Bedford lore, this was the book that put Damon Bailey into the national spotlight as an eighth-grade guard at Shawswick.

In Christianity, there is the Holy Trinity. In the very religious town of Bedford, there is the Holy Quadrarchy, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and Damon Bailey. His 1990 state championship game still stands as the most people to ever watch a high school basketball game. His 3,134 career points still stand as the one untouchable record in Indiana high school basketball. Every day of my high school career, I walked past the shrine to Damon nestled between the two gyms at BNL.  As much as I would’ve given to be a great basketball player, I’ve often sympathized for Damon. No one should be asked to be a god at the age of 13. In my interactions with him, he deserves much praise for dealing with it with poise and grace.

Bobby Knight was a tyrant in the Roman sense of the word. His word was absolute law in Bloomington, and in that respect, he had no equal. A line in the book makes reference to this, when speaking about the Athletic Director at IU (nominally Knight’s boss) and how grateful he was that Bobby allowed him to keep his job for as long as he did.

Coach Knight was coming off a disappointing season, dramatically capped with his infamous chair toss during Purdue’s Steve Reid’s free throws. Feinstein somehow finagled unparalleled access to Knight in his element, the basketball court, and talked at length about the complex man that had so much success on the hardwood.

As I opened that book and read voraciously, I started thinking about the date. Two years ago, as I was sitting in Koh Lanta between Muay Thai sessions, I got an email from Dad saying to call home. I did, and the first words out of his mouth were, Mary Jane died last night.

Mary Jane was my great-aunt equivalent, wife of Uncle Bill, who may or may not be living a second life in Buenos Aires. Skinny as a rail with a voice that would cut through galvanized tin, she was my paternal grandmother’s best friend since grade school. The Moormans were Purdue people through and through, but Mary Jane was a Bobby Knight disciple to the max. I was looked at as an apostate growing up in the hometown of Damon being a Purdue fan, and it hardened my heart greatly towards IU. It was really the only method of survival.

Mary Jane and my grandmother were the quintessential “Hoosiers” in the sense that they lived and breathed college basketball. I don’t know if Meemaw’s husband Dr. Fred was what brought her over to the rabidity of Indiana’s state religion, but by time I could remember, she could talk about the deficiencies of a 2-3 Zone or the magic of a motion offense with any of them. Mary Jane would actually take her phone off the hook during IU games. Her family was far enough away that there was nothing she could do about an impending death that couldn’t be dealt with AFTER IU was finished.

As I read through Season on the Brink, I found myself laughing out loud about Bobby’s tactics. Today, Bobby would’ve been locked up for his near constant mind games (or verbal abuse) of his players. He believed in doing things the right way, and he graduated something like 95% of his players while at IU. His temper was matched only by his acts of kindness, and Feinstein has many examples of Bobby reaching out to the less fortunate and giving them VIP treatment at IU games. This was the Indiana equivalent of Thor inviting you to an all access tour of Valhalla.

Bobby believed in loyalty over all else, those who were loyal to him or the IU basketball program were given the opportunity to ask anything of the General. Those perceived as disloyal however, were treated as enemies to be crushed at all costs. Former players who made cameos in the book talked about how they did absolutely nothing right for 4 years playing for Bobby, but were immediately elevated to sainthood upon graduation.

Reading the book, I found myself wondering if this was Mary Jane, calling back from the hereafter, letting me know that she was still thinking about me. To pick up that particular book on a shelf with hundreds on the second anniversary of her death seemed like more than coincidence to me. Given my disbelief in the ouija board, I felt like I had finally found how the dead speak to us. It isn’t the shaky hands of those looking to engage with the occult, it is the echos of lives lived and how we find them every day.

In the words of JK Rowling through her incomparable character Albus Dumbledore: “You think the dead we loved truly ever leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly in times of great trouble?”

Pulling that book off of the shelf at a time when I needed discipline and vision more than anything else, I find her words to be true. Thank you Mary Jane, for leading me to that bookcase for exactly what I needed.

If I can give one piece of advice to my readers, remember those who came before you, and live your lives as a testament to their example.

Mary Jane Kay was just another one of the fine examples I was given in this life, and I’ll never watch a Purdue/IU game without envisioning her shrieking at the television with her “Dammit IU” doll getting tossed on the floor after a poor play.

Few things can bring a smile to my face when Purdue is losing, but at least I’ll always have that.