Saturday, July 31, 2010

Happy birthday, Harry Potter! You're 30!

Today, July 31st, is Harry Potter's fictional birthday. Based on a timeline of the births and deaths of characters in J.K. Rowling's famous series about the British wizard, Harry Potter was born on today's date in 1980.
Hard as it is to believe, Harry would be 30 today if he were a living, breathing, flesh and blood wizard.
One of the bane's of working as a college professor is that my time for leisurely reading is limited during the school year. I love reading fiction, but I don't have time for it except for the four weeks between semesters during the Christmas holidays and the time I don't have to teach during the summer months. Just this past week, I finally finished reading the seventh and last Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It seemed important to read it before the first of the last two Potter movies come out later this year. (So much action is crammed into the book's 759 pages that two films were needed to complete the story arc).
Like all the others in the series, it was a page turner. And that is no small achievement in an era when reading books for pleasure seemed to be a hopeless anachonism of a bygone era. Rowling made hundreds of millions of dollars and gave a significant amount of it away in philanthropic gestures. She is one of the most adored best selling authors who ever lived. When her legacy as a writer is finally decided, if the books are merely regarded as adolescent pablum that helped to promote reading among a generation TV viewers, that will still be signficant.
I will let the literary critics parse the meaning to Rowling's novels to the culture at large. Maybe they will have a better sense of whether the Potter series of books will be read many years into the future. If I were a betting man, I would say no. The fanciful, magical universe of wizards and their potions and spells and other-worldly concerns will seem dated one day. We likely won't read Rowling's version of England in the same the way we look for clues into the Victorian era psyches of Londoners in Dickens.
Nevertheless, reading them was a sincere pleasure. They were rare in the sense they captivated both children and their parents and gave millions of families all over the world something to talk about around the dinner table. An entire generation of young men and women (two of them are my own children) identify themselves as the "Harry Potter generation" and I suspect the Potter novels will stand as a shared cultural reference point for the span of their lives.
It is hard to argue that their most essential message -- that good will eventually triumph over evil; that love is life's most enduring lesson -- isn't one worth promoting or adopting.
So, Happy Birthday, Harry Potter! Enjoy the day, wherever you are! You only turn 30 once!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A National Provocation at the Lincoln Memorial

One month from today, one of the most offensive and egregious public relations stunts ever foisted upon the American people will take place on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck conduct their "Restoring Honor Rally".

What makes this particular Tea Party rally so offensive is that Palin and Beck are purposefully stirring up simmering racial hatred by holding their despicable charade on the 47th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. King's speech, as most American school children are still taught in history classes, was one of the nation's highwater marks, a call for racial equality and social reform.

King's speech, which was witnessed by more than 200,000 people on the National Mall, historically has been regarded as the pinnacle of the civil rights movement, which eventually ended the segregation of public schools in the South and established voting rights for people of color. Along side of Lincoln's own "Gettysburg Address", it stands as one of the most stirring and important rhetorical moments in the history of the nation.

U.S. Representative John Lewis (D.-Ga.) also spoke that day at the Lincoln Memorial as president of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Later recalling King's most famous moment, he said: "Dr. King had the power, the ability, and the capacity to transform those steps on the Lincoln Memorial into a monumental area that will forever be recognized. By speaking the way he did, he educated, he inspired, he informed not just the people there, but people throughout America and unborn generations."

Beck and Palin's appropriation of August 28th to hold their rally is no accident. Both of them know this date resonates for people of color and for Democrats, who enjoy a heavy advantage in their voter ranks among people of color. They know race will play a huge factor in the 2010 mid-term elections. They know this will cause glee and play to the vile sentiments of their most conservative supporters, who still bristle at the election of the nation's first African-American president.

While Rupert Murdoch's Fox News castigates the NAACP as "racists" and smear Shirley Sherrod with lies and fabrications, Beck and Palin are doing all they can to play the racism card before the November elections.

Is there even one level-headed, morally outraged Republican who will call this rally what it is: a disgraceful attempt to bait African Americans into a civil disturbance and start a race war?

If Jim Gerlach wants to win the hearts and minds of moderate Chester County Republicans and registered Democrats who are unhappy with the direction the nation is going, now would be a good time to call out Palin and Beck. Would he lose support among the most conservative members who support him? If he's smart, he would say: "Good riddance."

Now, more than ever, his party needs a fresh new voice. The race baiters are running the show.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Hail to the Byrd Man

For the last few years, watching the Major League All-Star game has been about as much fun as pulling your fingernails out.

Those of us who pull for the Phillies knew the game had much more importance than this mid-summer love-fest ought to have. In 2003, major league baseball decided (in an effort to beef up TV ratings of the game, which had been declining) to "make the game more meaningful" and decreed that the winner of the annual game between the American and National league stars would determine who had home field advantage in the World Series.

The National League had not won this game since 1996, when it was played in Veterans Stadium. (The game in 2002 ended in a 7-7 tie). That means since the game was artificially given more "meaning" by Major League Baseball, no National League team has had the advantageof hosting four games of the World Series. Until last night.

If you think that doesn't matter, think again. The Phillies managed to win the 2008 World Series by taking care of business in five games. The last three were at home. (That fifth game, you will recall, became a game for the ages when it was suspended after 5 innings with the score tied at 2-2 because of a torrential downpown that left the field under a blanket of rainwater.)

The Phillies -- heck, the entire region -- had to wait two long days before the last four innings were played. The Phillies played those final four innings with a dramatic sense of urgency. Not because no local team had won a championship in 25 years. Because they didn't want to return to Tampa for games 6 and 7. Tampa had "won" the right to host those critical games because the AL team had defeated the NL at the All-Star game.

And then there is the way last season ended. Who among us thinks the outcome of the 2009 World Series against the Yankees might have ended differently if the Phils had played the first two games at home and then had critical game six at Citizen's Bank Park? The National League lost last year's All-Star game 4-3, with Phillies' manager Charlie Manuel at the helm. That loss came back to haunt Manuel in October.

If you caught the end of the game last night, you already know the Phillies owe one of their former players a huge pat on the back. Marlon Byrd, now an outfielder for the Chicago Cubs and having his best season ever, came up huge. After getting behind in the count, 0-2 to pitcher Joe Thornton, Byrd patiently worked a critical walk to load the bases with two outs in the 7th inning and his team down, 1-0. He barely beat a throw home to score the game's final run (a huge insurance run) when Atlanta's catcher, Brian McCann, cleared the bases with a rope down the line.

But Byrd saved his best work for the bottom of the ninth with the NL nursing a 3-1 lead. With one out and Boston's sluggish slugger David "Big Papi" Ortiz leading off first base, Byrd saved the game. He hustled in from right field on a flair that dropped in front of him off the bat of John Buck and threw a strike to second base to force Ortiz for the second out. A routine fly to right field on the very next pitch ended the contest and -- after a drought of 15 years -- the National League finally had won an All-Star game.

Byrd's heriocs could have huge ramifications for the Phillies if they can get healthy and go on a second half run -- as has been their habit for the last three seasons.

If the World Series comes down to a seventh game and the Phillies are hosting that critical game just a few days before Halloween, we'll all be lifting toasts to Marlon Byrd. Maybe then some of us hard core baseball fans will stop complaining about baseball's decidsion to make the mid-summer classic "more meaningful."

I, for one, would love to see a game seven played this year at the Bank. But I also wish MLB would go back to letting the leagues take turns having the home field advantage. It's more fair that way. Home field advantage is much too big a prize to hang on the result of an All-star game that is essentially just an exhibition game.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Perils of Co-ed Softball

After more than 20 years away from the softball diamond, I joined the union's team at school this summer, organized by one of my colleagues in the English Department.

So far, the best news is that I have not been injured. I've been lucky. (It helped that I never had to chase a ball down in the outfield and only rarely had to run hard on the base paths).

During the course of the season, as you might expect with a team as old as ours, a host of injuries cropped up: hamstring pulls, broken toes, aching backs, sore shoulders, ankle sprains, even migraine headaches and gastro-intestinal pains. (Food poisoning? One too many pre-game hotdogs at the Wawa? Your guess is as good as mine!)

Medical tape and knee wraps weren't nearly enough to keep us on the field. We were candidates for a MASH unit. Somehow, we managed to recruit enough new players to the team to compete in most of our games and complete all 14 of them.

The next best news is that the team I play for, the APSCUF Rams, ended our season with an 8-6 record, good enough to sneak into the Chester County Co-Ed Softball League's divisional playoffs.

You wanna talk about long-in-the-tooth long-shots playing above their collective heads? Jamie Moyer's got nothing on us. I will be 59 next month and I am not the oldest head on the team. Dr. Frank Fry, the chairman of the kinesiology department (who is in far better shape than I am), is our oldest player at 60.

Our starting pitchers, Dr. Kevin Flynn (professor of accounting) and Dr. Tom Legg (professor of history), are both in their early 50s. (I sure hope none of them are ticked off at me for putting such personal info "out there, on the internet.") A slew of other players are between 45 and 50. I am hazarding a guess here, but if you asked me to put a number on the average age of our team at the start of the season, I would say 45.

How we ever managed to win 8 games against teams whose players who are in their 20s and 30s is beyond me.

We lost our first game to Downingtown Middle School, 20-0. (Actually, it was the faculty of DMS we played that evening, but we were so inept it likely would not have mattered much if it was 6th graders who took the field against us.)

The class of the league's Western division is a team called Kicking Puppies. We were so offended by their team name we threatened to call PETA. They rolled over the other teams in our division like a tank, collectively out-scoring their opponents by more than 160 runs. That's a whupping of an average of 12 runs a game. (Surely it's no coincidence this total happens to coincide with the number of runs needed to end a game early when the "mercy rule" kicks in).

They finished the season at 13-1 and the only team that managed to defeat them all summer was ours. Don't ask me how. We did it with smoke and mirrors and stellar defense (for one evening anyway) that belied our real abilities. I think we got lucky that night. Or maybe they were just missing their best sluggers? That could be, too.

We squeaked into the playoffs last week with an improbable last-inning win against The Square Bar (unabashed plug here: The Square Bar is our favorite West Chester post-game watering hole, and not just because it's convenient to all four of the fields we use. Any summer night you go there, you'll likely find at least two dozen soaking wet, sweaty softballers downing post-game brews and chatting as amicably about their errors as their heroics).

Both teams needed to win the game to become one of the four divisional playoff teams. Flynn, our best pitcher, had a summer class to teach that night and couldn't play. Legg started but got pounded in the first inning. By the end of the second, the Rams were down 8-0. We clawed back (or maybe "hoofed back" is the anatomically correct word given the species of our team name) to tie the score in the fifth, 10-10.

The Square Bar posted four unearned runs in the top of the 6th and our hopes for the playoffs looked bleak. With two outs in the bottom of the 7th, they finally came to rest on the slender shoulders of 40-something Dr. Cheryl Wanko, professor of English. Somehow, her ground ball up the middle of the infield eluded the pitcher, shortstop and second baseman and the two men on base both scored to tied the game. Two batters later, Tom Legg nursed a dramatic walk and Wanko trotted home with the winning run.

It was the second "walk off walk" of our campaign.

Don't toss out that roll of medical tape just yet! Bring on those Kicking Puppies! The playoffs start next Sunday evening, July 11th.

With any luck, maybe we can avoid the dreaded mercy rule! (Either that or we call in PETA and wage a wicked protest!)

Go Rams!