How Far Can My Addenda Take Me?

If my last couple of posts have made you wonder whether I’m always for change and innovation, fear not. Let me tell you about

 

Some Things I Don’t Do Because They Do Not Make My Life Better

(By no means a comprehensive list.)

  1. Buy new “improved” sporting goods every year. Whether they golf, play tennis, or ride bicycles, some people seem eternally hopeful that the next new tweak of equipment will be just the thing that makes them great. I disagree. It’s my responsibility to improve my forehand or my top sprint speed. I mean, are you playing against me, or are our racquets battling it out? Are you racing me or my bike? Who gets the trophy, me or my Ben Hogan clubs? I think Olympic sailing has it right: everyone competes in identical craft, so the winner is the best sailor, not the sailor with the fastest boat. I think sporting goods manufacturers are like politicians. They need you to think they are taking care of your problems so you will continue to send them money, but if your problems ever went away, you would not need them any more. If acquiring equipment makes you happy, keep doing it. Just don’t call yourself an athlete.
  2. Carry a device that lets people contact me when I want to be alone (which is all the time). I do not want to pretend to Laugh Out Loud at pictures of overpriced restaurant hamburgers posted by “friends.” I have no need to show the world distorted close-ups of my face in front of the places I visit. These tasks were created by the devices. They did not exist before the cellular telephone. You are not making your life more efficient by quickly doing something that you did not do at all in the past. Just eat your food and let me enjoy mine.
  3. Read books that require batteries. Does this one really need an explanation? How much must you be a slave to change for its own sake to complicate reading with electronics?
  4. Make a single cup of weak coffee from a plastic pod, made from petroleum, that winds up in a landfill.
  5. Drink water out of plastic bottles, made from petroleum, that wind up in landfills. No one who does #4 or #5 can claim to be concerned about the environment.
  6. Computerize the telescopes I make. For me, the fun of stargazing comes from the tracking down of distant galaxies using my map reading skills. I enjoy the challenge of seeing objects that are on the limits of my vision. I do not want to reduce astronomy to “checking off” of some master list objects that a computer showed me. Why is that any different from looking at pictures of objects on line? How could you be sure some graphic designer did not create images of fictional galaxies and put them on line to fool you? I enjoy becoming familiar with the cosmos, getting in touch with our ancestors who knew their way around the sky. I know what I’m seeing is real.

It seems that everything in our society is about shortcuts. This makes people feel helpless and causes them to rely on people and machines that “know better.” For me, the process is always more important than the product. I wish more people approached life that way.

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Please Stay Home

Back when Al Gore had just invented the Internet (remember how he called it the “Information Superhighway” before he decided that nobody should drive cars?), pundits extolled its potential virtues constantly. In those heady days, they made pronouncements eerily reminiscent of the early stages of television: it will bring the contents of every library in the world into everyone’s home; it will give us access to museum collections the world over without leaving our homes; it will allow people to travel virtually to places they never could go. They did not foresee, but knowing Americans they could have foreseen, that the Internet would excel at two things: shopping for toys and shopping for pornography. On-line dating, of course, simply combines the two. These must have been the same prescient souls who predicted that the horseless carriage would solve the pollution crisis in cities.

 

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(“Be careful of your new high-button shoes, Chester.”)

Anyway, I heard these predictions about the Internet and thought, “This is horrible. Nobody will visit the Grand Canyon any more. They’ll just look at pictures of it on their computers.”

Almost immediately, I realized, “What am I saying? This is GREAT! Nobody will visit the Grand Canyon any more.” No more lazy slobs who just want to drive right up to a natural wonder in their air-conditioned land yachts and experience nature by riding in a tram car instead of taking a challenging hike. (Did you know that there are plans to build a cable car in the Grand Canyon?) No more people who would push you out of the way to take a picture on the way to the fast food and then toss their litter beside the trail. I’ll have the place to myself!

Of course, my Utopia did not come to pass, but I’m sure that virtual tours are saving some wear, tear, and vandalism on natural and man-made treasures around the world. This past Sunday, though, I experienced something that made me re-visit the dreams of my earlier years.

As un-American as this seems, I have absolutely no interest in football, midget, Pop Warner, high school, college, or professional (or European, for that matter).

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(Touchdown?)

I don’t care for the week-long buildup for a single game. I don’t care for the pre-game, halftime, and post-game analyses by retired players who need to feel relevant. I don’t care for the endless personnel changes punctuated by short bursts of violent game action. I don’t care for the legions of fans who believe they know better than coaches and general managers, and play in “fantasy leagues” in order to feel smug. But, most of all, I don’t care for something that would consume my entire Sunday sitting inside in front of a screen, dragging on late into the night while I desperately searched for a way to prolong the onset of the new week.

I can say this because I am a recovering football watcher. I have been clean for twenty-seven years now (I went off to college before it was a Club Med, and so I had no television for four years). I just take it one weekend at a time. But I cannot help but look back on my life from age 8 to age 18 and think of how many beautiful Fall days I’ll never get back because I was afraid to miss a single play of a televised football game.

Last Sunday was beautiful here.

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It was the first weekend of Autumn, 70 degrees, gently breezy, dry, and sunny.

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I just had to spend the day outside. You don’t see colors or breathe air like that every day.

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Knowing winter would be here all too soon, I headed out for a bike ride. I felt free and easy, like I was flying, but I was not going any faster than usual. I could not put my finger on why it felt so good until I approached a green light

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that STAYED GREEN while I approached and crossed under. No cars waiting to pull out from the side streets. In fact, there was hardly a car on the road.

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Now, I’m not a cyclist who is afraid of traffic. I’ve ridden in cities from coast to coast, and I’ve never hesitated to  make any move I’ve needed to, like getting in the left lane to make a left turn. In general, car drivers are much better about following traffic laws than cyclists. I just make sure to signal my intentions so motorists know what I’m doing and I follow the same regulations they do. I figure that I won’t give them any reason to be angry at me, such as running red lights or impeding their progress unnecessarily, and everyone will be happy. I hardly ever have confrontations with cars.

And yet, there is a certain tension that comes from concentrating on your line, while avoiding road hazards, when you hear a vehicle approaching from behind. After three or four hours, the mental tiredness of this constant awareness adds a significant amount to your exhaustion. But last Sunday I felt none of that because I had the roads pretty much to myself! And I owe it all to the NFL. Most everyone was sitting inside in front of television sets watching the games, giving me an exhilarating, yet thoroughly relaxing ride. I did not lament that so many people were missing out on a wonderful day. My long-forgotten Utopia had finally arrived.

I don’t watch football, but I’m glad you do.

Here’s Another Way to Think About It

The performance of some of the riders in this year’s Tour de France means it’s time once again for the discussion of performance-enhancing drugs.

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In stage 10 on July 14th, last year’s winner, Vincenzo Nibali, lost a great deal of time on the type of mountain stage he dominated last year. “I’m not the same Vincenzo Nibali as last year,” he himself admitted. His team, Astana, have not helped the situation. Cycling’s governing body, the UCI, considered revoking Astana’s racing license after five riders (but not Nibali) were caught doping. Their manager, Alexander Vinokourov, was suspended during his cycling career for improper blood transfusions. Clearly, this raises the question of whether Nibali won last year’s Tour “cleanly.” It would be hardly surprising if we learned that Nibali is avoiding whatever he took last year because of the increased scrutiny of his team. [Update: while I sit writing this, news just broke that Vinokourov has told Nibali to look for a new team next year because of his disappointing performance. Is that the aroma of hypocrisy?]

This year’s current leader, Chris Froome, who is climbing like Nibali did last year, uses an inhaler to treat asthma during races. We all know that there is no possibility he would ever use this to gain an advantage over his opponents when it wasn’t medically necessary. (That level of sarcasm causes physical pain.) Indeed, most everyone remembers the recent high-profile disqualifications of Alberto Contador, Floyd Landis, Lance Armstrong, and the entire Festina team in 1998. Top riders’ use of substances to perform better is inextricably linked to the history of the sport: Pedro Delgado in the ’80s, Eddy Merckx in the ’70s, Tom Simpson in the ’60s, Charly Gaul in the ’50s, Fausto Coppi in the ’40s, and the Pelissier brothers in the ’20s. (That’s a fascinating story. Read about it here.) In fact, I’m surprised when anyone acts surprised each time a new case rears its head.

Baseball has also faced its share of performance-enhancing drug scandals. Steroid use has tainted the achievements of Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Barry Bonds, and Mark McGwire, to name a few. In addition, amphetamine use has historically been common in order to help players gain an energy boost to deal with a long, hot season. This was responsible for the widespread cocaine use among major leaguers in the ’70s and ’80s. (Interestingly, Luca Paolini exited this year’s Tour de France after he tested positive for cocaine. Everything old is new again?)

It seems that we all love to see “cheaters” get what’s coming to them. Fans applaud when Major League Baseball puts an asterisk next to Barry Bonds’ career and single-season home run records. Fans hold up signs saying that Babe Ruth set his records while consuming nothing more than beer and hot dogs, forgetting (or never knowing because they fell asleep in U. S. History class) that beer was ILLEGAL for most of Ruth’s career.

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Fans hope Lance Armstrong loses his sponsorship after winning seven tainted Tours de France. Fans hope Alex Rodriguez never makes the Hall of Fame.

Did you catch what was the same in all of those instances? These sentiments come from fans of sport. Who has not, at one time or another, dreamed of PLAYING a sport for a living? Who does not like to imagine that what our sporting heroes do in the competitive arena is not really that different from what we do, and we all could have been there except for my broken collarbone in 1990 or my parents’ lack of support for anything competitive in my youth? (Wow. My therapist would have a field day with that one.) The unethical things athletes do in order to excel spoil this fantasy for us.

Almost everyone forgets that competing at a sport is a professional athlete’s job. It’s how he pays the bills, feeds the family, and keeps up on the mortgage payments. I’ll bet that when a pro athlete talks about his job over dinner at home, it sounds remarkably similar to when we do it: “I can’t believe my boss [coach]. Do you know what he made me do? File all of the paperwork while his secretary was on vacation [bunt to move the runner over/carry water bottles for the other riders]! Why doesn’t he appreciate me?”

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“But wait,” you say, “they make so much more money than I do that it’s not the same thing!” Oh, but it is. Why did you file the paperwork when you did not want to? Because you knew that there was a job seeker out there who would willingly do the filing, and  for less money than you make. So, clearly, a person who is trying to preserve his job from the intense competition out there will do whatever it takes to keep an edge. Fausto Coppi hit the nail on the head when he stated (in 1949) that a cyclist had to take amphetamines to remain competitive. If the taking of performance-enhancing drugs is rampant, an athlete must do so, just to level the playing field. Regardless of their rate of compensation, if an athlete does not perform, he will be replaced, just like you  (or Nibali).

Still not convinced? In essence, what is a professional athlete? First, he is an entertainer. He only makes more money than you do because you pay to see him do his job. If he doesn’t do what you want to see (go fast, hit far, break records), you’ll stop paying, and he’ll be replaced by someone who does what you want, even with the help of performance-enhancing drugs. Second, he is an advertiser. Companies pay athletes good money to wear logos and endorse products.

(My favorite cycling endorsement this year is a caffeinated shampoo!)

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Will you still be willing to buy the product if the athlete flies out all the time, or finishes at the back of the peloton? No. The sponsors want athletes to do well, regardless of what it takes. It seems the only ones who care about “pure competition,” who are upholding some mythical standard of sports performance, are the customers, and they are the reason athletes “cheat.”

What if we had these expectations for other professionals in our lives? Be honest. Would you ever say: “Well, the vegetables got to my supermarket in time for my week’s grocery shopping, but that’s tainted by the fact that the tractor trailer driver broke speed limits to get here. I won’t buy them?”

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You want the vegetables.

Would you ever say: “My realtor found me my dream house, and she got in touch with me so quickly that I beat out all of the other bidders, but she should not have used her mobile phone while driving. I’ll pass on the house?”

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You’ll take the house.

Would you ever say: “That actress only looks good because she took an illegal and dangerous weight-loss drug. I’m boycotting her movie and pin-up pictures?”

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You’ll do whatever it is you do while watching that movie and looking at those pictures.

Would you ever say: “I’m going to give back all of the money my stock broker made me, because he used some inside information when conducting my trades?”

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You’ll open a Swiss bank account.

So, am I saying that it’s all right that athletes cheat? No way. I hate when anybody breaks rules, including the truck driver, realtor, actress, and stock broker.

I just want you to remember that when professional athletes dope, It’s our fault.