When I visited Cuba in 1991, people asked, “Vecsey, why doesn’t your government end the blockade and let some business in here?”
I replied, “Sure, el bloqueo is dumb, but think about it: what if American business did come to Cuba …Have you ever heard of a man named Trump?”
This was my worst example of a rapacious developer who would put up gaudy, expensive hotels along the waterfront and destroy the feel of the old city.
The Cubans nodded no. They were living 30-plus years in the past. Baseball fans were still asking about DiMaggio and Williams and Jackie Robinson.
I had to explain to them there was a New York guy named Trump who built casinos and was known for his playboy ways – sounded like the bad old days, when Americans used Cuba for their pleasure.
I told them: “He’ll bulldoze the Malecón” --the seaside promenade where young people congregate -- “and put up crappy-looking buildings and all the people living downtown will be back in the sugar fields.”
Cubans did not have much in 1991 -- one egg a week, very little meat, and no basic goods like shampoo, which was sold in dollar stores, for tourists. A well-placed friend had a couple of doctors in her family; they brought home used soap from the hospital and she boiled it down for personal use – “like my grandmother used to do,” she said.
That was life under Fidel, life under Communism – “The God That Failed,” from the 1949 confessional by six writers.
By 1991, if you wanted to talk about the government in Cuba, you lowered your voice and never mentioned Castro’s name. A furtive stroking of an imaginary beard conjured up the image.
While we were there for the Pan-American Games, the Soviet Union started to come down. I sat with some new friends in a bar and watched state television. My friends knew that Castro had rejected Gorbachev, the reformer; they shook their heads in fear and disdain. Within days, Russian oil tankers and Russian specialists steamed out of the harbor.
In the past two years, the Cuban people have seen a reasonable American President named Obama start to open lines between the two neighbors.
Now Fidel is dead -- and thousands are celebrating on Calle Ocho in Miami – and that builder of casinos that I used as the vulgar example of American business will now preside over that giant country just across the water.
At this holiday of homecoming and giving thanks, I want to thank the Obamas for giving all people the image of a wholesome and functional American family.
Through all of it, they have been an example for positive, enlightened living. I am always touched that Marian Shields Robinson, the mother of Michelle Obama, lives with them, is part of so many activities.
I have a friend in the White House press corps who sometimes travels with the President. He once told me there is an Obama rule, when possible: home by suppertime. Excursions to American cities are often planned with a mid-afternoon getaway, so the President can be at the table to ask, "So, how was your day?" That may have changed as the girls grew older, but his priority for family life was a factor for years.
I will miss having a President who can imitate Al Green, sing "Amazing Grace," and preside over his last medal ceremony with such eloquence and knowledge -- about athletes, about scientists, about pioneers.
Michelle Obama has been a passionate advocate for education, for women's rights, for exercise and healthy eating. And she always has her husband's back, as an equal. I look forward to her next acts, and those of their children. I hope they enjoy this Thanksgiving,
Tin soldiers and Nixon's comin'.
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drummin'.
Four dead in Ohio.
----“Four Dead in Ohio,” Neil Young 1970.
Old people need to give perspective to young people who are worried.
I’m 77. When I was four and five, my father brought home the papers with frightening photos of bombing and invasions, bodies washing up on beaches. We really did not know how World War Two was going to end.
In 1945, my mom learned her two Irish-Belgian cousins had died in Bergen-Belsen after being imprisoned by the Nazis for resistance. We began to hear what had happened to Jews and others labelled as outsiders.
When I was in grade school, there was a “police action” in Korea. Life Magazine ran frightening pictures of our soldiers patrolling icy mountains. The Soviets developed the atomic bomb. I had the attic room in my family house and I lay awake at night figuring if the Russians bombed Queens, I’d be the first to get it.
My mother, a loyal Catholic talked with scorn about a priest on the radio named Father Coughlin, who had made stuff up about President Roosevelt -- who actually did help make America great again. You could look it up.
My parents talked with contempt about a senator from Wisconsin named Joseph McCarthy who held up foolscap with “evidence” about thousands of alleged American Communists and a politician from California named Richard Nixon who slandered opponents.
When I was in high school, the Supreme Court passed Brown v. Board of Education. Black children began attending school with white children in the South. Whites spat and cursed and threatened.
When I was just out of college, there was a showdown with Soviet ships carrying atomic missiles toward Cuba. For several days that fall, the world held still as President Kennedy talked the Soviets into turning the ships around.
My first vote for president was for the peace candidate -- Lyndon Johnson -- who promptly escalated the war in Vietnam. Today, a friend who fought in Vietnam goes back to West Point every Memorial Day to honor 25 classmates who died after – after -- Johnson and his defense secretary Robert Strange McNamara had what my friend calls “their little epiphany” that the war was not quite working.
In the spring of 1963, in the Mets’ clubhouse in Pittsburgh, Maury Allen and I chatted with Jesse Gonder and Alvin Jackson, both African-American, about the March on Washington, which we had all watched in our hotel rooms that day. Maybe the country was getting somewhere.
On Nov. 22, I was playing touch football when JFK was killed. I was driving north through Georgia (with a black friend) when Martin Luther King was killed in 1968. I was with the Mets when they refused to play during the funeral for Robert F. Kennedy, the senator from New York.
Those were times when it felt the center would not hold. I was on a trip with the Yankees in 1970 after the U.S. invaded Cambodia, same spring the National Guard massacred four young people at Kent State University. For a few days, my knees did not work when they played the pre-game National Anthem. Today, I think this is called Kaepernick’s Syndrome.
In 2001, I was about to head downtown when the planes were flown into the World Trade Center. In 2003, I was covering a basketball tournament, feeling a terrible ache in my stomach because President George W. Bush was really going to war in Iraq with the help of senators like Hillary Clinton from my state. More recently I watched as the McConnells and Boehners and Cantors and Ryans smirked in defiance of a black President.
You see a lot if you are blessed to live a long time in this wonderful country. I would tell that to children who are scared of the current vile get-him-out-of-here mood
(But. Have I ever seen the mix of ignorance and rage and bigotry and lack of impulse control that I see in this new man, empowered by Americans? That is a different question.)
It was a blessing that Tuesday’s USA-Costa Rica English broadcast vanished onto a channel not on my cable package.
At least that gave me a chance to brush up on my modest Spanish via NBC Universo, bless its heart.
The Yanks were visibly awful to the eye, 4-0 to Costa Rica, as Juergen Klinsmann’s regime began to teeter. But I did manage to process a few observations by the broadcasters, speaking quite clearly.
“Treinta dos minutos,” one said while the game was still scoreless after 32 minutes.
"Donde está Jermaine Jones? Donde está Michael Bradley? Y no aparecen.”
He was inquiring about the two veteran midfielders, allegedly the engine that coordinates defense into offense. “And they don’t appear.”
Minutes later, one of them noted that the American team “no tiene alma” – does not have soul. The English word might be “heart” or “grit” but the point was the same. The lads were dragging. No leadership. No vision. No will.
This team misses the fiery presence of Clint Dempsey, recovering from a heart ailment.
Then it got worse as the defense fell apart late in the first half. I’ll spare the details.
The Spanish broadcaster repeated the “no tiene alma” observation in the second half. This was not regional gloating, the kind of home-turf gamesmanship familiar during the quadrennial qualifying round. The broadcast was quite professional, including a nice pre-game package on the Latino roots of many fervent American fans.
The match was played in a modern national stadium, built in 2011 (with Chinese help). I covered the loss in 1997 in the nasty little Saprissa stadium, where fans easily lobbed nuts, bolts, baggies filled with urine and invective at the American keeper and defenders. No, the current setting is, if anything, too distant for good camera work. But nothing could hide the rot in the American program.
Michael Bradley, arguably the most consistent force in the South Africa World Cup in 2010, has deteriorated into a responsible captain who cannot track on defense or start anything on offense.
Bradley is paired with Jermaine Jones, a hard man out of Germany, now old and injured, whose intimidation does not work anymore.
Where have you gone, Claudio Reyna?
The back line is worse. John Brooks gets off message upon aggression. (Soccer America graded him a 1; don't know that I've ever seen that before.) Omar Gonzalez seems narcoleptic, should have been dropped after 2014. Timmy Chandler once looked like the right back of the future; nothing like that ever happened.
The offense, such as it is? Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore, up front, with Christian Pulisic given license to roam – were collectively “neutralizados.” Neutralized.
Pulisic, just turned 18, may be a wunderkind for Dortmund, surrounded by 10 Bundesliga stalwarts, but on this squad he is not ready for the creative role Klinsmann has assigned him.
This venture into the challenging Hexagonal was always going to be rough, with Mexico at home and Costa Rica on the road to start. Klinsmann somehow made it worse with a bizarre three-player back line against Mexico and his players could not adjust.
I’ve ranted long enough. The non-sneering tone of the Spanish broadcasters confirmed this was a disaster in any language. The Hex will not resume for four months. The good news is that Jones and Chandler will be suspended for the next game because of two yellow cards.
I’m not sure there is anything to be done with Klinsmann at this point, but this team needs overhauling, by somebody.
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PS: My friend Ridge Mahoney writes that it's time for Klinsmann to go. Your thoughts?
(Thursday: I can put one foot after the other, partially because of thoughtful columns by Nicholas Kristof and Gail Collins, and also because of the poem from Altenir Silva, writer friend from Rio:
“I want to dedicate this poem written by the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade (October 31, 1902 – August 17, 1987). Here in Brazil, we always read it, when we are looking for better days. Best – Altenir.”)
What Now, José?
By Carlos Drummond de Andrade
The party’s over,
the lights are off,
the crowd’s gone,
the night’s gone cold,
what now, José?
what now, you?
You without a name,
who mocks the others,
you who write poetry
who love, protest?
what now, José?
You have no wife,
you have no speech
you have no affection,
you can’t drink,
you can’t smoke,
you can’t even spit,
the night’s gone cold,
the day didn’t come,
the tram didn’t come,
laughter didn’t come
utopia didn’t come
and everything ended
and everything fled
and everything rotted
what now, José?
What now, José?
Your sweet words,
your instance of fever,
your feasting and fasting,
your gold mine,
your glass suit,
your hate – what now?
Key in hand
you want to open the door,
but no door exists;
you want to die in the sea,
but the sea has dried;
you want to go to Minas
but Minas is no longer there.
José, what now?
If you screamed,
if you moaned,
if you played
a Viennese waltz,
if you slept,
if you tired,
if you died…
But you don’t die,
you’re stubborn, José!
Alone in the dark
like a wild animal,
without a naked wall
to lean against,
without a black horse
that flees galloping,
you march, José!
José, where to?
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(Wednesday: All right, Joey Nichols is elected. I have nothing coherent to say as of Wednesday but may bounce back soon. Meantime, all comments, suggestions, verbal hugs, second-guesses or flat-out told-you-sos are welcome in Comments. I'm turning on classical music. GV.)
Monday: I have never watched any reality show, intentionally, but one time I accidentally clicked on somebody named Simon, who was cruelly dissecting a guest.
“What a horrible person,” I thought, pushing the clicker. “Who would let him into their house?”
Of course, I never watched Trump on his show because almost everybody in New York knew him as a dolt and a poseur, a punch line. He was Joey Nichols to our collective Alvy Singer.
Say it together: “What an asshole.” We knew.
Now it turns out that a significant chunk of the country does not know, cannot process information about Trump’s business dealings, is not offended by his ugly boasting about sexual misconduct.
The country, founded by patriots and enlightened leaders, has been dumbed down by the reality-show persona.
At the same time, people stopped reading newspapers. They cannot tell the difference between news-gatherers and the comedians on the tube. Grown people repeat stuff that has been proven false.
Go into a school sometime and talk about issues on the front page (or web site) of the Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian. Blank looks. Trump is putting journalists in pens and mocking them.
As he rolled over the cardboard Maginot Line of Republican challengers, Trump unleashed a barrage of incomplete sentences, incomplete thoughts, utter untruths, in the sing-song voice of an undeveloped human being.
In a sing-song voice. Trust me, I’m telling you, in a sing-song voice.
I have developed earworm, the condition when some piece of music is repeated so often that it bores its way into the eardrum, and stays there, repeating itself.
It keeps repeating itself, believe me, in a sing-song voice.
Other people are reporting earworm from this endless election. In the last catatonic days, I have been flopping in front of the tube like a beached whale, hoping that Steve Kornacki and Joy Reid on MSNBC, or maybe John King on CNN, will point at the state that confirms it is almost over.
I’ve heard this condition described as “a great national nightmare” or a “societal nervous breakdown.”
On Sunday evening, I made a break for it. I went upstairs and put chamber music on the CD player and read a new book I discovered in the library: “The Face of Britain: A History of the Nation Through Its Portraits” by Simon Schama – great stuff about Winston Churchill and Henry VIII and John and Yoko and the artists who tried to represent them.
For a few hours, the earworm went away.
(Note to readers: Please check out the lovely comment from Neil about his beloved grandmother, whose life spanned two epic eras in Cubs' history. In Comments below:)
* * *
As soon as I saw the costumes on the web, I knew the Cubs would be loose going to Cleveland, needing to win twice.
Still, how much is loose worth?
By Wednesday night I was questioning manager Joe Maddon’s tropism to yank his starting pitcher. Normal.
After the Cubs won on Sunday, to stay alive in the World Series, Maddon told his players to enjoy Halloween back home in Chicagoland. Never mind a workout in Cleveland on the travel day. Munch candy corn rather than clubhouse food.
Maddon was cool when he managed Tampa Bay, an educated mixture of geek and free spirit. (See the 2008 article by Alan Schwarz:)
Maddon was also cool managing the team with the long void in its dossier. He didn’t need to exhibit football-coach control over his players. Play. Then play.
This doesn’t imply anything negative about Tito Francona, the Cleveland manager. He’s good, too. But the Cubs needed to win two on the road, and Maddon showed proper insouciance by telling his players to take Monday off with loved ones, before boarding a flight to Cleveland – action-hero regalia optional.
The photos on the web tell the story:
The Cubs won Tuesday as Addison Russell, most recently seen as a lime-green Ninja Turtle, drove in six runs, tying the World Series record.
On Wednesday, Maddon properly had all hands in the bullpen as Kyle Hendricks pitched into the fifth inning. Hendricks, known as The Professor, is smart and unflappable and had thrown only 63 pitches when Maddon got him with a 5-1 lead. The Fox crew questioned Maddon’s short-twitch strategy, even for a seventh game, and so did I.
The questioning wasn’t so much about Jon Lester’s serious imperfections in throwing to bases as it was about using another very good starter that early, ultimately forcing Aroldis Chapman to go multiple innings, again.
Turned out, Chapman was as spent as anybody could have feared. His face said he knew he didn’t have it. Then it rained, after nine innings.
During the 17-minute delay, the player showing the most yips – Jason Heyward, in his first year with the Cubs, in a year-long slump, swinging at 57-foot pitches -- had the inner strength to call a clubhouse meeting, to remind the players how far they had come.
Then the Cubs held on for an 8-7 victory in 10 innings, past midnight. One grand old baseball city celebrated and another mourned.
Maddon had treated the players like grown men. Of course, so did Francona. Now the Cubs can wear any action-hero outfit they want for the parades and parties that may last all winter.
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Here's another article by Alan Schwarz about Joe Maddon from the Tampa Bay days:
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David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.