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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Jamie’s trip to Syracuse, part one

A month ago, Jamie and I drove up to Syracuse to meet Rosemary Crossley, the author of Speechless:  Facilitating Communication for People Without Voices and one of the leading practitioners of “facilitated communication.” I mentioned this briefly on the blog at the time; in fact, I tried to bury it in an ABF Friday post about what makes a cult classic “classic.” I even tossed in an endorsement of a Tony Judt essay on the fate of Israel.  Despite all this camouflage, though, my first commenter, Peter Sattler, picked up on the reference to Crossley:

“Jamie and I are off to Syracuse to meet the author of this book and see what she says about his communication skills.”

I parsed and reparsed this sentence for irony, but sadly could find none.  I trust, however, that you are far from being taken in by the magical thinking of that thoroughly discredited technique, Facilitated Communication.  Indeed, insofar as FC is concerned, you could probably find out what Crossley has to say about Jamie’s (or anyone’s) communication skills without his being anywhere near Syracuse.

If I’ve misread or misspoke, I apologize.  May you find what you’re looking for.

A bit later, a second commenter stopped by to explain a bit more about why FC is so controversial:

The method was used with individuals who had severe-profound disabilities. Mostly the problems arose because the participants could not express any recognizable intentions and the question arose, who is choosing the letters the participant or instructor? And there was no way to figure that out!

A third commenter added this link, which lays out the case against FC quite clearly, although it unfortunately tosses in a bit about repressed memory therapy for good measure:

Facilitated Communication (FC) is a technique which allegedly allows communication by those who were previously unable to communicate by speech or signs due to autism, mental retardation, brain damage, or such diseases as cerebral palsy. The technique involves a facilitator who places her hand over that of the patient’s hand, arm or wrist, which is placed on a board or keyboard with letters, words or pictures. The patient is allegedly able to communicate through his or her hand to the hand of the facilitator which then is guided to a letter, word or picture, spelling out words or expressing complete thoughts. Through their facilitators, previously mute patients recite poems, carry on high level intellectual conversations, or simply communicate. Parents are grateful to discover that their child is not hopelessly retarded but is either normal or above normal in intelligence. FC allows their children to demonstrate their intelligence; it provides them with a vehicle heretofore denied them. But is it really their child who is communicating? Most skeptics believe that the only one doing the communication is the facilitator. The American Psychological Association has issued a position paper on FC, stating that “Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that facilitated communication is not a scientifically valid technique for individuals with autism or mental retardation” and describing FC as “a controversial and unproved communicative procedure with no scientifically demonstrated support for its efficacy.”

Jim Easter added, “you certainly do have some of us scratching our heads”; Kristina Chew, the mother of a child with autism, said, “I am curious about what you learn about FC in Syracuse. We have thought more than once about this for Charlie, despite the controversy surrounding it and autistic persons”; and finally I was warned, “Oh, Michael, no, no.  Facilitated Communication has all the characteristics of a hustle.”

So the next morning, before Jamie and I set out for our return trip, I posted the following in the comments section, way way down:

What I discovered yesterday is that he learns very quickly how to use word-recognition software, and that’s a good thing.  And yet, jre (comment 39), Jamie does not, in fact, communicate very well.  He’s quite clever, observant, and thoughtful, but his expressive delays are far more significant than any other aspect of his disability, which means (a) there’s a great deal of iceberg under the water and (b) there’s no harm trying to find out whether we can get any more of that iceberg above the water.  But Chris (comment 47) is right:  FC can stir up more fights than an Israeli invasion of Lebanon.  So I’ll blog about Jamie’s visit with Rosemary Crossley in a future post, possibly late next week.

Note that I said “possibly.”

But those of you who read this blog regularly probably have some idea of how I handle controversial things like the Middle East, the “radical” “left,” and Facilitated Communication: I wander around and think about them for a while, and I get back to them when I get back to them.  (By the bye, my weeklong series on the differences between the democratic left and the “radical” “left” has gotten a number of responses from that quarter.  You’ll recall that I criticized them for, among other things, uncritically supporting Hezbollah and the Iraqi resistance.  In a series of devastating rebuttals, they’ve affirmed their support for Hezbollah and the Iraqi resistance.  Well, that’ll show me!) But at least when it comes to politics and such things, I can draw on about thirty years of more-or-less conscious life and a good deal of reading.  With FC, by contrast, I’m kind of at sea.  So, in this first post of a two-part series, I’ll just spell out my inchoate sense of the controversy.

I share some of the skepticism about FC, for fairly obvious reasons.  The history of people with disabilities is also a history of extraordinary snake-oil “remedies” and “cures” for disability; when Jamie was little, the most pressing controversy in the world of Down syndrome concerned the nootropic drug piracetam, which was claimed to have miraculous effects on the brain functions of children with DS.  Janet and I looked over the assorted claims for piracetam and vitamin therapy and decided that though we’d have none of the piracetam, thank you, Jamie would probably do well with antioxidants, because it seems that the extra 21st chromosome leads to (among other things) an overproduction of free radicals and some messing-up (apologies for the technical term) of the body’s biochemistry on the cellular level.  We noted, for example, that Jamie loves to eat ketchup—on hot dogs, sandwiches, eggs, and by itself—and we imagined that his body liked the lycopene.  Then again, Jamie also loves blue cheese dressing, so go figure.  Anyway, multivitamins aren’t very intrusive.  But we were not going to go so far as to put any odd drugs in his body in the hope of “curing” his disability, and we’re basically leery of everything in general.  There are, indeed, all kinds of creepy people with Better Brain Institutes who claim that their patented Elixi-Lot will cure ADHD, autism, cerebral palsy, pervasive developmental delay, and scrofula.  (What’s “pervasive developmental delay,” you ask?  It basically means “we have no idea what’s going on.")

On the other hand, I am skeptical of some of the FC skeptics as well.  They often speak in the name of Science, and yet when you examine the Science on which they rely, it often turns out to be the Science of education or the Science of psychology.  (When I capitalize Science in this way, you’re supposed to hear it shouted in the stentorian voice from Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science,” and you’re supposed to think of people using the authority of Science as a cover for an array of decidedly non-scientific or soft-scientific claims.  Astrophysics, for example, is a science.  So are biochemistry and paleontology.  Economics and psychology are something else altogether, and when we mere mortals try to point out how much they rely on ordinary human interpretation, we are sometimes told that we should not question Science.) Yes, the American Psychological Association has a position paper on FC, and they’re agin’ it.  Noted.  But I also note that the fields of psychology and psychiatry have a long history of trying to medicalize nonmedical conditions, and their track record with regard to theories of brain function is rather spotty.  For example, on balance, FC seems to me far less controversial or harmful than lobotomy or electroshock therapy—just to pick two very widespread practices embraced by the advocates of Science in the fairly recent past.  So the very fervor with which FC is denounced, in some quarters, sets off my spider sense.  When I run into FC debates I always feel like I’ve blundered into the wrong room—as if I’ve wandered into a seminar full of psychiatrists while wearing an “I heart Thomas Szasz” button on my lapel, or as if I’ve wandered into a seminar full of anti-psychiatrists while wearing a “Thomas Szasz is a fraud” button.  (I have never done either.  I don’t know what to make of Thomas Szasz.  So don’t even go there, unless you want to bear out my “wrong room” theory.)

All of which is to say that I went to Syracuse with an open mind.  I don’t think Rosemary Crossley and Chris Borthwick are falsifying their compelling accounts of the people with whom they’ve worked; I think Doug Biklen’s work is for real; I do think that much of the nondisabled world is far too quick to write off the communicative capacities of people with neurophysical or intellectual disabilities, and that this can have tragic consequences, particularly when we’re dealing with people who have suffered traumatic brain injury; and yet I didn’t expect that Jamie would produce the Gettysburg Address after an hour with Rosemary, either.  I merely wanted to see what he’d do with facilitation, and whether it would be worth it to buy him some word-recognition software to help him communicate via keyboard. 

I put up my blog post at 1 am that Friday morning, then got a bit of sleep before striking out at 8:30 for what I thought would be four hours’ drive to Syracuse.  Our appointment with Rosemary was scheduled for 1:30.  That drive turned out to be at once epic and comic: in Pennsylvania we were stuck behind construction vehicles.  In southern New York we were diverted onto tiny two-lane roads, and then treated to the mess of rubble and wire and traffic cones that is route 17.  Abandoning 17 for 13 through Ithaca, we waited along with a few dozen other cars while a maintenance truck repainted the white line on the shoulder.  Then we waited behind a municipal bus all the way to Dryden.  Then in Cortland, as we tried to hook up with Interstate 81, we found ourselves, I swear to Ba’al, behind the weaving Malibu from Repo Man, and even as we made our way up the onramp at last, we were stopped by not one, but two cars slowing down and pulling off to the side of the ramp.  By that point it was 1 pm, and we were 30 miles from Syracuse.

We showed up at 1:33.  Don’t ask how.

Two other peripheral things about our trip: I had booked a discount room via Priceline at the Marx Hotel and Conference Center, even though I was not convinced that the hotel would be sufficiently dialectical.  Imagine my surprise, then, when it turned out that the Marx Hotel was the very same hotel at which my Greater New York City Ice Hockey League All-Stars had stayed in 1972, when we played in the statewide tournament and lost in the finals to Clinton, 3-2.  Talk about the lattice of coincidence!  And it was the very same hotel in which I’d stayed two years later with another hockey team after the statewide tournament, even though the tournament that year was way up in the frozen tundra of Potsdam (which I’ll be visiting this November!).  But on the way back along I-90, our team bus had hit an icy patch in a blizzard, and we crashed into the median strip ten miles east of Syracuse.  We were being blown all over the road, and our crafty driver managed to avoid going right off an overpass and plunging into a stream; instead he swung back and crashed us, relatively safely, into the grass of the strip.  But one of the parents broke an arm nonetheless, and a couple of kids were bruised and cut.  We made local news in Syracuse, and they put us up at . . . the Marx Hotel, which was a Holiday Inn at the time.

Now, how did I remember that this was the same hotel?  Well, I have a pretty good memory, as you might have gathered by now.  But more important, this hotel is a 16-sided thing twenty stories high.  Can you imagine how a bunch of prepubescent hockey players behaved in a hotel with circular corridors and endless possibilities for chases on the stairs?  Let’s just say you’d remember it too.

Anyway, they’ve redone the hotel completely in the intervening 30 years, and renamed it after Karl Marx.  The appointments are very nice, and the Grundrisse Breakfast Special can’t be beat.  I recommend the place to anyone traveling in the area and looking for an alternative to the string of German Idealist “Geistesgeschichte” hotels that dot upstate New York.

Peripheral thing number two: that night Jamie and I went to the mall to see Monster House.  Reasonably entertaining for the first half, particularly if you (like me) lived across from a Monster House when you were a kid.  (Perhaps I’ll write about that one of these days, too.) But then it turns out that the Monster House is a Monster House because it’s got the spirit of a real monster in it—the former Fat Lady from a freak show, a vicious and bitter woman who was accidentally buried in the foundation by her husband, and whose evil spirit now wreaks its revenge on neighborhood kids who. . . .

Excuse me? Can I ask just who the hell thought that was a good story idea?

Oh, you want to know how the FC session went.  Stay tuned til tomorrow!

Posted by Michael on 08/23 at 09:55 AM
Jamie • (40) Comments • (0) TrackbacksPermalink

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Monkey business

Hey kids!  There’s a really interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the U.S. Department of Education!  Unfortunately, because the Chronicle is subscriber-only, you can’t get to it from this humble blog.  But thanks to the wonders of “copy/ paste,” I can excerpt part of it for you!  Of course, you know what happens when I excerpt news articles— sometimes I embellish ‘em a little below the asterisks.  But that’s OK, kids, because it makes learning fun!

So, without further ado:

Educators Question Absence of Evolution From List of Majors Eligible for New Grants

By Sam Kean

Like a gap in the fossil record, evolutionary biology is missing from a list of majors that the U.S. Department of Education has deemed eligible for a new federal grant program designed to reward students majoring in engineering, mathematics, science, or certain foreign languages.

That absence apparently indicates that students in the evolutionary sciences do not qualify for the grants, and some observers are wondering whether the omission was deliberate.

The question arises at a time when evolution has become a political hot potato at all levels of education. While the theory of evolution has overwhelming support from scientists, some conservative Christian groups argue for alternative explanations of the origins of life, including “intelligent design,” which holds that an intelligent agent guided the creation of life.

Even President Bush has weighed in, advocating teaching “both sides of the debate.”

The awards in question—known as Smart Grants, for the National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent program—were created by Congress this year, with strong support from the president. The grants are worth up to $4,000 and are awarded in addition to Pell grants.

Recipients must be college juniors or seniors enrolled in one of the technical fields of study that the Department of Education has deemed eligible for funds. Many different topics, as varied as astronomy and Arabic, qualify.

But evolutionary biology is absent.

The department has an index of classification numbers—referred to as “CIP codes,” for the Classification of Instructional Programs—for all academic areas of instruction.

Under that classification scheme, there is a heading for “Ecology, Evolution, Systematics and Population Biology,” under which 10 biological fields are defined. For instance, ecology is 26.1301, and evolutionary biology is 26.1303.

But on a list that defines majors eligible for the grants, issued by the department in May, one of those 10 is missing. On that list, the classification numbers rise in order from 26.1301 to 26.1309—with the exception of a blank line where 26.1303, or evolutionary biology, would fall.

***

A spokesman for Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings insisted that the Smart Grants had never included a 26.1303 classification number for evolutionary biology.  “26.1302, Marine Biology and Biological Oceanography, has always been followed by 26.1304, Aquatic Biology/Limnology, and we have recently revised all our past publications to reflect this,” said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity.  “Evolutionary biology is a speculative field, a ‘theory,’ not a scientific area of study, and the federal grant structure has always acknowledged this fact.”

Intelligent Design advocate Phillip Johnson hailed the news.  “People who believe in the secular religion of ‘evolutionism’ don’t need Smart Grants. They think they’re so bright, they can apply to one of those godless-humanist foundations for ‘Bright Grants’ if they really want to indoctrinate high school students into their little cult.”

In related news, the Department of Education announced that Daniel Dennett had been added to the department’s List of Unpersons, joining Stephen Jay Gould, P. Z. Myers, and Clarence Darrow.  The List of Unpersons, like Classification 26.1303, does not exist, according to high-level sources within the department.

This story will be modified in the future to meet evolving U.S. Department of Education standards.

Tomorrow, we’ll have another post about Science!

Posted by Michael on 08/22 at 01:31 PM
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Monday, August 21, 2006

A Tiger tale

Seven years ago I went to the final round of the PGA Championship at Medinah, on the outskirts of Chicago.  It was the first (and still the only) time I went to a major golf tournament, and for that I have to thank historian Jeffrey Herf, who sold me the $60 ticket he’d originally bought for his wife after it became clear that she would rather stick really, really sharp needles in her eyes than attend a golf tournament.  Jeffrey persuaded me to start playing golf again in 1997 after a six-year post-Jamie layoff; I wasn’t very good, as you might imagine, but Jeffrey convinced me to toss away my $100 set of used clubs and get what he called “modern” clubs.  Eventually, I got my game down into the mid-80s, where it’s stayed ever since, and after a couple of years of golf-buddiedom, Jeffrey and I went to the PGA to watch Tiger Woods win the second major of his career.  Yesterday, of course, Tiger won his twelfth.  At this rate, he may well surpass Jack Nicklaus’s career record of eighteen by the time he’s 35, which, for you non-golf fans out there, would be a little like hitting your 756th home run with eight or ten good years left in your career.

There’s been a good deal of reminiscin’ about that tournament in the sports press this week, not only because Tiger was returning to Medinah (and an area where he’s also won himself a bunch of Western Opens), but also because Sergio Garcia was in the hunt again.  Sergio, you’ll recall (if you follow these things), lost to Tiger in 1999 by one stroke; he was all of 19 at the time, and his stunning performance on the back nine led many people to believe that he would be Tiger’s primary rival for years to come.  This week, by contrast, the commentariat was reflecting on how Sergio’s game hasn’t gotten any better as he’s hit his mid-20s, and how his putting has become scary-erratic.

But that’s not what I’m blogging about today!  You can read all that in the sports press.  I’m blogging about My Adventure at Medinah, which is full of the human drama of sports spectatorship and ludicrously half-assed mixups between friends.

Just before we were to drive from Champaign to the Chicago suburbs, Jeffrey informed me that he was going to catch a flight from O’Hare on Monday morning, and that therefore we should take two cars to Medinah.  “Um, OK,” I said, thinking only of our planet’s fragile environment.  A few hours later, as Jeffrey passed me on a lonely stretch of I-57 even though we’d agreed that he would follow me, I realized that there was another problem with the two-car system, namely, I had no way of letting him know that I wanted to pull over at the next rest stop.  I put on my turning signal, flashed my headlights at him, and stuck my arm out the window to make heavy-handed “I am going that way” gestures . . . all to no avail.  I pulled off the road, and Jeffrey hummed along the highway, oblivious.

Very well, I thought.  I’ll just meet up with him in the tournament parking lot.  Surely he’ll wait there for me, before boarding one of the shuttle buses that take people from the parking area to the golf course.

Nope.  There was no Jeffrey in the parking lot.  I waited for a while, then hopped on a bus, thinking that maybe, just maybe, he was waiting for me at the tournament entrance.

No luck there either.  Again, I waited 15-20 minutes, then decided to go in.  On one hand, I knew that by doing so I was running the risk that I would not see Jeffrey again that day: if you think it’s hard finding a friend in a 60,000-seat sports stadium, imagine how much harder it is at a 100,000-spectator PGA championship over 150 acres of land.  On the other hand, we had talked about the possibility of splitting up during the day, because we both wanted to wander among different groups: he wanted to check in on Nick Price, his favorite golfer of the moment, and I wanted to stop by and see Hale Irwin, who had opened with 70-69—at the ripe old age of 54.  (He’d faded with a 78 on Saturday to go one over, but still, I thought, attention must be paid.  After all, he’d won his third U.S. Open on this very course nine years earlier.) So, rather than waste any more time waiting for my errant friend, I entered the course, bought myself a mess of sunscreen (I would be outside for nine hours in the August heat), and began to watch some golf.

Now, at this point you need to know two things.  One: I had no cell phone.  (That much should be obvious already.) Two: there is nothing like golf in the world of sports-spectatorship.  Some people follow a couple of groups all day long; some people camp out at their favorite green and sit all day in one place.  The advantage of doing the latter, of course, is that you might wind up with a good vantage point on the tournament’s Most Dramatic Moments, especially if you’re perched around the 16th, 17th, or 18th green.  The disadvantage, besides sitting on your butt all day, is that you don’t see anything but your little corner of the course all day.  But then, that’s true of the wanderers as well: golf is the only sport in which the spectators miss 98 percent of the action.  At the same time, it can be a bizarrely intimate form of spectatorship, as well.  For example:  because Irwin was no longer among the leaders, he teed off (along with Scott Hoch) around 11 a.m. and had a small gallery, mostly people like me curious to see whether he would bounce back; since he was twelve strokes behind Tiger, nobody thought he’d make a serious run at the contenders.  By the time Irwin reached the 13th green at +3, the Irwin-Hoch gallery could be counted in the single digits, and it had gotten to the point at which individual departures were painfully noticeable.  In fact, the person standing next to me as I left the tiny group happened to be Irwin’s wife Sally.  “Gotta check out the rest of the bunch,” I said as I headed off to join Nick Price’s gallery.  “Please tell Hale hello from his fan club.” “Why, thank you,” Mrs. Irwin said pleasantly.  “I certainly will.”

When I found Price, putting on number 8, he was already three under for the day, nine under for the tournament.  Now, at this point you need to know a third thing.  The 1999 PGA was eerily like this year’s in one crucial respect: Tiger was tied for the lead going into the final round (-14 this year, -11 then), and his playing partner on Sunday wasn’t given much of a chance to win.  That player, in ‘99, was Mike Weir, whose appearance in the final twosome was considered a bit of a fluke and who promptly lived down to expectations by shooting an 80.  So, odd as it may sound, people scrambled around the course for about two or three hours trying to find someone who would challenge Tiger for the championship. Garcia got some press before tee time, but, as I’ll point out in a moment, he actually wasn’t a factor until the final hour of the day.  Early on, it looked like Nick Price would be the guy to step up: at -9 he was only two behind Woods, and back then, remember, Tiger didn’t have himself a fearsome 12-for-12 streak of winning majors when leading or tied on Sunday.  As things turned out, only three players broke 70 that Sunday, and Tiger himself shot par 72.  So -3 after seven holes looked pretty damn good.  And, I thought, I might even run into Jeffrey Herf.

No luck on the Herf front; Price’s gallery was way too big.  But as I trailed along over the next few holes, a funny thing happened: Price’s game quickly went south.  No sooner did I arrive in his retinue than he put up a couple of bogeys, and poof, just like that, by the time he got to the 12th tee he was out of the running.  Tiger, by the way, has never adequately thanked me for cooling off Mr. Price (who eventually finished fifth, four shots back) at that crucial point in the tournament.

I wandered back to the 11th green, where Garcia was on the fringe, having gotten there with a miraculous shot from deep, deep, deep in the woods off the left side of the fairway.  You and I would have needed four shots and a surveying team to get out of Sergio’s trouble on that hole, but here he was just 40 feet from the cup.  An older woman standing next to me, unable to see over the three-deep crowd, asked me what Sergio was hitting.  “He’s taking a wedge,” I said, incredulously.  “From just off the green.” “That’s weird,” she replied.  Even weirder was Sergio’s demeanor once he struck the ball: he began dancing around the fringe, absolutely sure the ball was headed in.  It stopped on the lip—but I was impressed by this cocky teenaged SOB who obviously thought that he could birdie a hole from anywhere, so I stuck around for the next hour just to see what he could do.

“Oh my god,” golf fans have said when I get to this part of the story.  “You mean you were there for that legendary shot, Sergio’s insane 6-iron on 16, the one he hit from behind the tree, blind, uphill, onto the green?”

“Not exactly,” I reply.  “By the time Sergio got to 16 the gallery was huge, and I didn’t see him hit that one.  I was, however, about four feet from him for his insane 2-iron on fifteen, the one he hit from under a tree.”

Sergio had birdied 14, and by now it was clear (as Weir had fallen from -11 to six, five, four, three under) that he would be Tiger’s only challenger late in the day.  And weirdly, a Tiger Backlash had already formed on Medinah’s rolling hills.  Over that last hour, Tiger was booed a couple of times, and on the frightful 17th hole someone actually shouted at him in the middle of his downswing.  It was kind of ugly, actually.  The Sergio Surge, by contrast, was altogether innocent: where Tiger was walking the course with his steely, impassive demeanor, young Sergio was prancing all over the place and having a great old time.  Within minutes, it seemed, the gallery had swung Sergio’s way, and the kid knew it.

The only reason I had such an extraordinary angle on Garcia at 15, though, was that he had followed his birdie with a terrible drive that wound up hitting a tree and landing about 220 yards from the green—over 100 yards short of the landing strip for most drives on what was (and is) the course’s shortest par 4.  Nobody expects to see a professional hit a drive 175 yards, so nobody was standing in the area, and I just happened to be walking by the tree (on my way up to the 15th green) when Sergio’s ball hit the thing.  Lucky me!  Sergio and his caddie camped out almost within arm’s reach.  To my amazement, despite the fact that Garcia didn’t even have room for a full swing, he pulled out the long iron and started sizing up his approach to the green.  “This kid’s crazy,” I thought.  “He’s down by one stroke with four holes to play, and he’s looking at this shot as if it were a routine 8-iron from 150.  He’s gonna wind up taking a seven.”

I was wrong about that.  Sergio coolly took a three-quarters swing and somehow laced the ball to the back of the green.

I was stupefied.  “Gutsy shot, kid,” I muttered, and because Garcia was only a couple of feet from the gallery ropes, he heard me—and, as he handed over his iron, shot me a sly look that said, “Gutsy shots are my specialty, old man.” He wound up with a bogey nonetheless: because of his lousy lie, he couldn’t put any backspin on the ball, and it rolled into the rough behind the green; he eventually chipped out and just missed a six-footer for par, putting him two back. 

The gallery, though, was just buzzing madly.  Everyone around me was talking about how this kid was managing to make a run at Tiger while hitting most of his approaches from the leafy shade of the trees, and at one point someone said that Garcia’s style reminded him of another young Spanish player, Seve Ballesteros, who, twenty years earlier, had won the British Open and the Masters in his early 20s in grand, swashbuckling-scrambling style.  “Well, no wonder,” said one fan.  “Seve was his teacher.” “No shit,” said another.  “That explains a lot.” “Yeah,” I chimed in, “can you imagine what those golf lessons must’ve been like? ‘Now, Sergio, you want to avoid these “fairways.” Only timid players shoot from there.  You want to hit the ball where no one can see it, then sneak up onto the green when they’re not looking.’

The drama peaked at the par-3 17th, when Sergio closed to within one and, upon holing out, looked back at Tiger waiting on the elevated tee, where a couple thousand people and I had clustered.  It was a Significant Glance, putting Tiger on notice, and Tiger responded with a Significant Par that iced the tournament.  And just after Tiger teed off and began walking down to the green, I heard my name being called.  It was Jeffrey Herf! 

One of the other curious things about golf spectatorship is that everyone gets compressed, accordion-like, into the last few holes at the end of the day.  But somehow, Jeffrey had seen me, and immediately we each claimed that we’d been looking for the other all day.  I had the upper hand, however, because I’d been with the Hale Irwin gallery for two hours, and I knew Jeffrey had never checked in with Irwin.  He tried to claim otherwise, but I wasn’t having any of it.  “Bullshit,” I suggested.  “By the time I left Irwin’s group it was Sally and me and Scott Hoch’s parents.  You would’ve seen me.” Off to my right, someone laughed.  “I can vouch for that,” the stranger said.  “I was actually standing with Scott Hoch’s parents, and you”—pointing at Jeff—“definitely weren’t there.”

The story gets more involved, though.  Ten minutes after I’d pulled off the highway to empty my throbbing bladder that morning, Jeffrey had finally managed to realize that I was no longer behind him, and had doubled back on I-57 looking for me.  Eventually he made his way to the tournament, but along the way he got the bright idea that he should stop and call Janet and tell her that I was lost.  Poor Janet, stricken, watched the entire damn tournament looking vainly for evidence that I was in the crowd, as opposed, say, to lying gasping in a ditch in the soy fields of northern Illinois.  Jeffrey, curiously, didn’t tell me that he’d called Janet.  We caught up on the events of the day, but he left out that one, for reasons known only to him.  I learned about Janet’s plight only when I arrived back in Champaign at 11 that night, whereupon she rushed to the door crying, “YOU’RE ALIVE!”

And after she established that to her satisfaction, she cursed Jeffrey Herf for days, because he’d made her watch the goddamn PGA championship on TV.  “You didn’t see me on 15, when I was standing right next to Garcia?” I asked.  “I couldn’t even see Garcia,” she replied.  “He was completely under a tree.”

For what it’s worth, that was a Historic Turning Point for the young Mr. Woods.  He’d won the 1997 Masters in his first appearance as a pro, blowing away the field by a record twelve-stroke margin, but hadn’t won another major since, and people were beginning to wonder if he was, in fact, All That.  He proceeded to finish fifth in the 2000 Masters and then complete a Tiger Slam over the next four majors, adding another Masters and U.S. Open in 2002 and decisively showing that he was All That and More.  Now he’s well on his way to establishing himself as the Greatest Golfer Ever of All Recorded Time Ever, though if he hits another “dry spell” of five or six majors without a win we’ll probably be treated to another chorus of “what’s wrong with Tiger’s swing?” in the sports press.  And then he’ll win another bunch of majors, and people will go back to wondering if he can be beaten by mere mortals.

You know, there are some remarkable sports records that won’t be broken.  No one’s going to come close to Cy Young’s 511 career wins, and Sam Crawford’s 309 triples are probably safe, too.  But Jack’s 18 majors are goin’ down, possibly within the next five years.  I don’t care if you don’t care about golf.  We’re seeing an amazing work in progress, and I’m glad I caught a little bit of the beginning of it.

UPDATE, August 23:  Jeffrey Herf writes in to say:

Michael, what a memory. Let me say to your regular blog readers who may know me as a historian and author that I really am a good guy. Honest. I don’t always make my friend’s wives anxious about their whereabouts. Honest. Really. Actually if my memory serves me right, Michael and I did try to use a pay phone to call Janet but the lines were so long we gave up. Ours was one of life’s many comedy of errors possible in the era before cell phones.

Yes, attending a golf tounament for most spectators means missing lots of the action but for those of you who’ve never stood in the back of a tee box and watched most any member of the PGA tour hit a drive 280 to 320 yards on the fly as it seemingly gets lost in the distance, or hit an iron shot from 220 yards in and less close to the pin, let me tell you it’s quite something to see.

But back to Michael and the comedy of errors. You see I tried, really I did, first to find Michael off Interstate 57. Then I waited for him at the entrance to Medinah. Then I tried to find him following Hale Irwin and hey, how am I supposed to know what Mrs. Irwin looks like. As for Michael, well he must have been using some kind of camouflage. I looked everywhere for him but between wanting to yell “Go Nick” at Nick Price and catching a glimpse of Tiger Woods I could not find Michael. Where or where could Michael have gone? He was somewhere among the 70,000 to 80,000 people on a couple hundred acres of one of the longest golf courses in the world. He finally did show up somewhere around the 17th or 18th hole.

Truth be told, Michael and I had a blast each in our own way. One thing sticks in my mind.

Tiger Woods stood on the 17th tee, a par three of about 190 yards over a deep ravine. I was about 15 feet from him as he got ready to hit. About 10 feet to my right I hear some guy yell “a hundred bucks says you slice.” It was loud enough so I heard it clearly and I was sure Woods did as well. If so, he didn’t let on or give one of those now famous Tiger stares. I couldn’t believe my ears and, not wanting to use profanity or street language there, blurted out “shame on you” in the direction of the jerk of a “fan.” I didn’t yell so I’m sure Woods didn’t hear me. He hit the ball right over the flagstick to the back fringe of the green, chipped on and then sunk a 10 foot putt. In the television video of that PGA, you can see Woods with the big arm and fist pump when he sunk that pressure putt. Sergio Garcia was just one stroke back.

Tiger Woods has not had to endure the hatred and discrimination that Charles Sifford did. Sifford was the first African-American to play on the PGA tour in a game that had been almost exclusively all white and a symbol of wealth and conservatism. But I wondered how many other times some jerk on the golf course made comments like that. Woods was a sensation then, when he was only twenty-three, but he was not yet the master of the game he has become. On the 17th tee at Medinah it was clear Tiger Woods had nerves of steel and the kind of focus only very great athletes and the finest professionals in every profession have. In recent years, of course, no one would dare make such a comment to Tiger Woods, not in Chicago or anywhere else. The gallery waiting around that 17th tee heard that stupid remark and they saw that shot fly straight over the flag. Enough said, as they say.

As readers of this blog know, Michael Berube is a man of many words, and for that matter so am I. So you’ll be glad to know we two sophisticated intellectuals got right to the point with Tiger. We saw him walking away from the 18th green after he won the tournament and as only two PhD’s can we yelled as loud as we could, “right on, Tiger” and “way to go Tiger” and maybe even a ham-fisted “congratulations” or two.

For all of you eggheads out there reading this: if you like to spend time by yourself, if you have lots of discipline, a strong ego, relish success and can bounce back from failure, possess some athletic ability and eye-hand coordination and are willing to exercise and do stretches (this is VERY IMPORTANT) to protect your lower back, then golf is a wonderful game. Yes, it can be a bit expensive but there are lots of fine public access courses and it is no longer a game only for the wealthy. I can think of no other athletic activity that is more suitable for intellectuals and scholars than golf and in which the integration of mind and body is more important.

Medinah in 1999 was a lot of fun for both of us. And I hope Janet has forgiven me.

Jeff’s right, I completely forgot about the pay phones!  And he really is a good guy who scoured I-57 for my missing car—and invited me to join him at Medinah in the first place.  Janet forgave you years ago, Jeffrey—well, two years ago to be precise, but who’s counting?  And while it’s true that we yelled “right on, Tiger” and “way to go Tiger,” we were careful to historicize his performance first.  Always historicize, you know!

And thanks for the plug for the grand old game of golf.  I haven’t played very much this year—just four or five rounds—but did manage my third eagle (lifetime) by draining a long chip on a short par 5 last month.  The real treat was that my foursome consisted of Jamie, Nick, and Janet.

Posted by Michael on 08/21 at 12:16 PM
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Friday, August 18, 2006

ABF Friday:  Now Hear This edition!

In the course of 28 hours in the family car (12 hours to St. Louis each way, plus stops), one thinks all kinds of thoughts, mostly about music.  For the most part, we alternate between the music of the parents and the music of the children, though (as you may have gathered by now) these categories overlap considerably, because Janet wants to hear Blur and I want to hear Franz Ferdinand and Jamie’s listening to the Beatles and Nick is playing Joy Division’s Closer for me in the Indiana darkness because he insists that it’s at once “really good” and “unlistenable for more than fifteen minutes at a stretch.” He pointed out that Stephen Morris’s drumming on the record really isn’t bad, which is true, though I still don’t forgive Morris for mucking up a perfectly fine song like “Transmission” with all manner of truculent nonsense, from his busy-busy sixteenth notes to his inexplicable refusal to accent “dance, dance, dance” with triplets on the snare.  And that led to a discussion of how the DIY-“anybody can play” aesthetic of the era obscured the fact that most of the drummers of the day were pretty damn fine musicians.  John Maher of the Buzzcocks and Clem Burke of Blondie were notorious overplayers, sure, but when they keep themselves in check and play tastefully and inventively (Maher on “Ever Fallen in Love,” say, or Burke for all but the last few seconds of “11:59"), they are wondrous to hear.  Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols, D. J. Bonebrake of X, and of course Pete Thomas of the Attractions . . . these guys could play, people.  The outliers, of course, are Chris Franz of the Talking Heads and Topper Headon of the Clash.  The Bérubé jury was hung over whether Stewart Copeland, by far the Class of 79’s most attentive and accomplished student of reggae, really counted as part of this group, and our verdict on the Pretenders’ Martin Chambers was “competent but uninteresting.” Except for “Precious,” “Tattooed Love Boys,” and “The Wait,” where he plays fast and pretty clean.

But that’s not what we’re here to talk about today!  We’re here to talk about Opening and Closing Statements.

The first song on This Year’s Model is “No Action.” (This by way of explanation for you iPod kids out there.) From the first verse, it is clear that Mr. Costello has taken the work of his debut album to the Next Level, and the agent of clarity is Pete Thomas Himself, whose startling drumming announces that we are in for something brittle and nervy and frantic and unpredictable.  The album closes, of course, with one of the most stunning one-two punches in all of rocnrol, “Lipstick Vogue” and “Radio Radio.” Let me tell you kids, back in ‘78 we would listen to that record again and again, and it would leave us drained and gasping every single time.  And yes, the songwriting is first-rate, but the drumming is something well beyond that, something of a higher order of being altogether.

OK, now switch gears for a moment, and put on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Different sound, different feel, different everything . . . but that opening song is also, quite clearly, an Opening Statement, issued not so much by that party chatter or that sweet horn as by the brilliant and eccentric backing vocals with which Mr. Gaye provides himself throughout the song.  Those vocals, from the subtle layers of oohs/ aahs to the doubling of the lyrics by that second voice in the second verse, constitute the chorus that make it clear not only that Marvin Gaye is no longer too busy thinkin’ ‘bout his baby and ain’t got time for nothin’ else, but also that the social conscience on display is, somehow, not Gaye’s alone.  (Meanwhile, the wonderful, almost floating bass line assures us, particularly in that cascading run at the end of the first verse, that we will stay in the groove in the midst of all our troubles.) The Closing Statement consists of “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” which somehow combines a cry against Vietnam and trigger-happy policin’ with a complaint about the singer’s unfortunate tax situation.  Not as electric as “Radio Radio,” perhaps, but as a “message” song it’s held up quite well, more for its ominous feel than for its specific lyrical content.

So here’s today’s Arbitrary But Fun exercise: what are some of the most effective opening and closing statements in the popular music canon? 

Three qualifications to this question.  One, no Beatles allowed.  The Beatles were, among other things, exceptionally conscious of the opening/ closing dynamic, and before anyone cites that Pepper record at me, I hasten to point out that their very first album, opening with “I Saw Her Standing There” and closing with “Twist and Shout,” is just as invested in the opening/ closing effect as is their more “mature” work, right through McCartney’s savvy decision not to end their recording career with “The End.” Two, while avoiding the Beatles, one might also consider opening statements that are too self-conscious as opening statements, like Mr. McManus’s “I just don’t know where to begin” on Armed Forces and his followup self-conscious commentary on his alter-ego-consciousness in King of America’s “Brilliant Mistake.” And three, you could take note of the opposite strategy, the one preferred in the 1990s by, among others, Archers of Loaf (opening Vee Vee not with “Harnessed in Slums” but with the throwaway “Step into the Light”) and Liz Phair (opening Whip-Smart not with “Supernova” but with the droning “Chopsticks”): making an opening statement by not making an opening statement

And now, if someone would be so kind as to take me to the bridge.

Posted by Michael on 08/18 at 09:38 AM
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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Standard practice

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Now that The Weekly Standard has broken new very old ground by portraying a black politician as a chauffeur, what will the prominent neoconservative magazine do for an encore?

(a) Vernon Jordan as Hillary’s pimp!  Vernon Jordan as Hillary’s pimp!  Come on come on come on!  Kristol has wanted to do this one since ‘98 . . . but now’s even better!!!  Right now!  Make it happen!!!

(b) Special double issue!  Dem a loot dem a shoot dem a wail: Katrina’s “Victims,” One Year Later

(c) Star-studded guest columns by Dinesh D’Souza and David Horowitz about how liberals and other race merchants are the real racists in today’s America!

(d) Extra special jointly-published issue with The New Republic on how liberal bloggers are destroying civility!

(e) Hold the phone.  Hold.  The.  Phone.  Michael, did I hear you say “The Weekly Standard” and “neoconservative”?  Because you know that “neoconservative” is a code word for “Jewish.” Are you suggesting that those people have some “influence” over “American politics”?  Should we be getting you a copy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion for your birthday?  Because we think this entire question is objectively anti-Semitic.  Now.  What were you asking again?

Posted by Michael on 08/17 at 05:29 PM
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Horowitz Center announces name change

LOS ANGELES— Just six weeks after David Horowitz’s Center for the Study of Popular Culture almost made local news by changing its name to the David Horowitz Freedom Center, the organization has announced that yet another name change is in the works.

“The David Horowitz Freedom Center turned out to be a little bit unfortunate,” admitted Board of Directors Chair Jess Morgan.  “For one thing, it suggested to our donors that David had been incarcerated and that we were setting up a foundation to ‘free’ him.  You know, like ‘free Mumia’ or ‘free Bobby Seale.’ That came as something of a surprise to our supporters.”

But that wasn’t the only difficulty with the new Horowitz Center, Morgan reported.  “The other problem was that everybody and her brother is attaching their name to ‘freedom’ these days,” Morgan said.  “If it’s perpetual global war you want, you call yourself a ‘freedom center,’ if it’s the Jews and minorities you’re after, you call yourself a ‘liberty lobby.’ It turns out that even Sheikh Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has a ‘freedom center’ set up somewhere in Beirut.  So the Horowitz Freedom Center wasn’t nearly as salient or as distinctive as we thought it would be.”

In early July, the Horowitz Center sent out a press release that touted Horowitz’s many accomplishments, noting that

David Horowitz, an important American writer and thinker since the 1960s, has been called “the Left’s most brilliant and articulate nemesis.” He is the author of several books, most recently The Professors, which describes the corruption of American universities by political ideologues. He founded the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in 1988 with the intention of establishing a conservative presence in Hollywood and showing how popular culture had become a political battleground. Under his leadership during the next 18 years, the Center attracted 70,000 contributing supporters and established programs such as:

* The Wednesday Morning Club, a lunch forum that provides a platform in the entertainment and media industry for conservative speakers and ideas [not to be confused with the Tuesday Night Music Club];

* Restoration Weekend, an annual event which has featured national leaders of the conservative movement [not to be confused with the American Renaissance Conference];

* The Individual Rights Foundation, an organization that litigates high-profile conservative and libertarian public interest cases [not to be confused with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education];

* Students for Academic Freedom, a national coalition of student organizations with chapters on 160 campuses, whose goal is to end the political abuse of the university and restore its academic integrity [not to be confused with Students for a Democratic Society];

* FrontPage Magazine, the Center’s online journal, features “news of the war at home and abroad.” FPM receives 1.5 million visitors and 620,000 unique visitors a month (with 65 million hits) and is linked to more than 2,000 other websites [not to be confused with the Front Magazine Network]; and

* DiscoverTheNetworks.com, launched in 2005, is the largest publicly accessible database, defining the chief groups and individuals of the Left and their organizational interlocks. DTN has had more than 8 million visitors in its first 18 months of operation [not, not, not to be confused with Discover the Nutwork].

“This is a truly impressive array of activities,” said Morgan, “especially if you don’t know what ‘hits’ and ‘links’ are.  We think ‘Freedom Center’ doesn’t really do it justice.  Here, in just one office with David’s legendarily small staff, you get boatload upon boatload of primo-quality wingnuttery at a discount rate.

“Accordingly, we have decided to rename our enterprise The David Horowitz Savings Center.”

Morgan pointed out that The David Horowitz Savings Center combines the madcap fun of Townhall.com, the wacky unpredictability of Tech Central Station, and the glassy-eyed fanaticism of the Club for Growth—all while offering copies of David Horowitz’s books at astonishingly low, low prices.

“We offer David’s new book, The Shadow Party: How George Soros, Hillary Clinton, and Sixties Radicals Seized Control of the Democratic Party and Turned it into the Pot-Smoking, Free-Loving, Private-Property-Abolishing Phenomenon We Know and Hate Today at a forty percent discount,” said Morgan.  “We offer David’s previous book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America and How They Seized Control of George Soros, Katie Couric, and Ned Lamont at a thirty percent discount. We’re also offering autographed copies for only $50 and personalized copies for $100.  We’re practically giving away The End of Time for twelve bucks—fifty percent off, just for you, very special. Hating Whitey and Other Progressive Causes is nine dollars. Why Are We in Iraq is $2.05.  These two books we will personally deliver to your house!”

Morgan could not confirm rumors that an extremely rare, “almost error-free” edition of The Professors would be auctioned off to pay for the redesign of the David Horowitz Freedom Savings Center.  “An almost error-free edition of that book would be a real hen’s tooth,” Morgan acknowledged, “and probably almost as valuable, on the open market, as a first edition of Blake’s Songs of Innocence.  I cannot confirm or deny the existence of such an edition at this time.  But hey, listen, while I’ve got you here—if you would be so kind as to take this box of spare copies of Unholy Alliance: How a Radical Son Left His Illusions about the Destructive Generation at the End of Time off my hands, I’d really appreciate it.”

Posted by Michael on 08/17 at 09:12 AM
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