Winning & Musing…..Volume 3.11

It’s March, so that means basketball…..

Raise your hand if you had Kentucky, Connecticut, Butler, and Virginia Commonwealth in your Final Four. Now if you raised your hand put it back down…liar. Out of over 6 million individuals who entered ESPN’s Bracket Challenge only 2…TWO out of over 6 MILLION…got it exactly right. I’m a big underdog guy, so I love seeing Butler and VCU involved at the finish line. My only regret is that they’ll be playing each other in a semifinal game, eliminating the opportunity for both to prove themselves one last time on the big stage against power conference teams.

The part of all this I am enjoying most is watching VCU prove just how wrong talking heads like ESPN’s Jay Bilas & the King of Loudmouths Dick Vitale, among others, were back on Selection Sunday when they collectively went bonkers over the Rams’ inclusion in the tournament. Now, like good company puppets, both Bilas and Vitale are using an intellectually vacant argument that VCU’s success thus far is a whole separate thing and does not mean they were in error when they said the team shouldn’t have been selected in the first place. Sorry fellas…wrong answer. I love ESPN, but they employ some of the biggest assclowns alive as prognosticators and “experts”. Try something: Take a weekday sometime (which I realize is difficult for those that work a traditional 9-5) and watch all the ESPN shows…Mike & Mike, First Take, Around the Horn, Pardon the Interruption, etc. You begin to notice a pattern. More than occasionally they all ponder the same topics with the same angle, making it obvious that there is some sort of agenda in Bristol. The powers-that-be are well aware of just how much stroke they possess in the sports world, and are not afraid to steer public sentiment in a particular direction. As far as the VCU issue goes, I would have much more respect for Dickie V., Bilas, and others if they would just say “You know what…I was wrong and I am sorry. The Rams have proven they belong.”

Staying on the college basketball court…..

I’m not a fan at all of women’s basketball (or any other women’s sports…call me sexist if you must, I’m just being honest), but I did happen to catch one of Baylor’s NCAA Tournament games and saw an interview with 6ft8 sophomore Brittney Griner. Let me just say this…that’s a MAN baby!! I think there needs to be some sort of investigation. She’s got an Adam’s apple and a deeper voice than that cracked out homeless radio announcer from the mean streets of Columbus, OH that was famous for about 5 minutes a couple months back.

A few weeks ago ESPN aired a documentary about Michigan’s famous Fab 5 that went to two straight national title games in the mid 1990’s. It was interesting enough, but controversy arose and is still simmering because of comments made by Fab 5’ers in regards to their rivals at Duke. They said they hated the Dukies and considered their black players “Uncle Toms”. Now I am about as white as they come, but I know that calling someone an Uncle Tom is fightin’ words. My question is this: Why, amongst the black community, is being educated, well-spoken, and upwardly mobile considered a negative trait?? Why is being a thug considered to be more “genuine”?? Would one rather matriculate to a highly regarded university and leave with a meaningful degree and the opportunity to make a positive impact on society, or is it somehow cooler to be an illiterate, Welfare dependent drug addict who ends up in jail leaving behind a trail of illegitimate children and broken homes?? History shows that many of the Dukies go on to semi-successful pro careers or achieve good things in other fields, while The Fab 5 were proven to be a bunch of cheaters who were way overhyped and never lived up to their supposed potential. My Dad always told me that there is a difference between two things. I will leave it up to the reader to deduce what those two things are, but suffice to say that the Dukies seem to be one thing and The Fab 5 seem to be the other, and the latter is nothing to be proud of.

Don’t look for a 2011 Baseball Preview from your humble Potentate of Profundity. I just cannot seem to get into it. Decades of being a disenfranchised Pittsburgh Pirates fan have worn me down to the point where I am devoid of any excitement or anticipation for Opening Day. I have written about it elsewhere here, but the Pirates’ ineptitude combined with a steady stream of steroid/cheating scandals and the annual foregone conclusion that there are only a handful of teams that stand a chance at post-season glory have numbed me to the magic of The National Pastime. I am honestly looking forward to The Masters and WrestleMania more than the start of the baseball season.

I am still not paying too much attention to the NFL lockout, if for no other reason than there has been no significant movement either way for a couple of weeks. I am still hopeful that all will be resolved and that the 2011 season will not be affected, but there is a little less hope than a few weeks ago. It still seems kind of silly from a fan perspective, although I am sure both the players and the owners perceive their particular beefs to be quite important.

Speaking of the NFL…..

I very seriously pondered doing my own mock draft and I suppose there is an outside shot I still may, but it seems unlikely. I’ll say this though, it feels like there is too much analysis and scrutiny of potential picks. It seems fairly simple to me…can a guy play football or not?? Does he fit your particular system and/or fill a major need?? In the space of a month Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, a proven monster, has gone from a potential #1 overall choice to being surpassed by a couple of guys just at his own position. Conversely QB Cam Newton has gone from a major question mark to very much in the conversation for being the #1 overall. And these guys haven’t played a game since early January!! For pete’s sake what has changed so dramatically?? Maybe nothing has changed and too many people are getting paid far too much money to spend way too much time picking apart something that isn’t really that complicated. As far as that top pick goes, the Carolina Panthers are crazy if they don’t trade it, and even crazier if they take a QB since they just drafted one last year (Jimmy Clausen from Notre Dame). I’m not a Notre Dame fan at all, and the history of Irish quarterbacks has been pretty suspect over the past couple of decades (Brady Quinn, Ron Powlus, Rick Mirer), but Clausen should be given more than just one year to prove his worth. The only potential out I see is if Carolina trades Clausen to a team with a veteran QB, allowing him to learn for a year or two without the pressure of being The Man, while Newton or Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert end up with a Panthers team that also scores an extra draft pick or two in the trade.

Let The Madness Begin

Happy days are here again. March Madness is the pinnacle of the college basketball season, packing the punch of a whole year’s worth of excitement into just a few days. It also provides one the rare opportunity to venture out on a limb and either look like a genius or a complete buffoon. It doesn’t even matter if there is money involved, although that’s always a nice bonus. Years ago at a former place of employment I was one of a group of about a half dozen guys that would gamble small stakes on everything from pro football to Triple Crown horse racing, but the crown jewel of our year was The Madness. The money involved was so miniscule it was an afterthought. It was more about pride and bragging rights, proving oneself to be knowledgeable amongst peers. I did not have that outlet for several years, but now, thanks to the various bracket challenges on sites like ESPN and Yahoo, I’m back in the game. And since I am filling out a bracket anyway I decided I’d share my deep well of basketball acumen (or slightly arrogant poppycock) here at The Manofesto. To my knowledge there is no way to insert a filled out bracket into this blog so it’s a low tech effort. I have faith that my readers can adjust.

Before I dive in allow me to share a bit about my methods and some things I have learned over many years of doing this:

    • I do not analyze, study, and stress out about my brackets. I print it out, go down through, and fill it out on the fly. My picks are based on what I know as an average fan and on my vibes. My choices have no basis in scientific investigation of any facts or figures.

    • Will there be upsets?? Yes. But don’t go crazy. The first round has 32 games. Out of those there might be a half dozen upsets. The 5/12, 6/11, & 7/10 games are where to look for upsets. #1 seeds never…ever…lose in the first round, and #2 seeds very rarely lose. Atleast one #12 beats a #5 each year…I don’t know why. 8/9 games are pretty much dead even, so a #9 beating a #8 isn’t really an upset.

    • After the first round it’s a free for all, although that 11, 12, 13, or 14 that got thru one game is unlikely to make it much further. Still though, there always seems to be atleast one. The trick is picking the right one.

    • I am usually a sucker for the underdog, but in all honesty power conference teams will beat a small conference team the overwhelming majority of the time. I put major weight on being battle tested. A team that won 25 games during the regular season but did it against mostly weak competition is like blood in the water for a team from a power conference that might have won only 19 or 20 games and rode the bubble into the tournament.

    • I take into consideration where the games are taking place. If a team is playing close to home and has a bunch of fans in the stands that is important. But it’s not that important, so I consider it yet don’t nuts about it.

So, without further adieu, let’s take a look at each region:

East

This is a killer region. Lots of folks seem to be expecting George Mason to upset Villanova, but I am taking the Big East, battle tested ‘Nova over the small conference team. Sorry Patriot fans…it’s not 2006 anymore. I’m also taking #11 Marquette over #6 Xavier. I am a lifelong fan of the WV Mountaineers, who made it all the way to the Final Four last season, defeating Kentucky (who was darn near an NBA quality team) along the way. Unfortunately that will not happen this time, and I think the Wildcats get their revenge in Round 2. I like Syracuse to defeat Ohio State in the regional final and make it to The Final Four.

West

I have #9 Tennessee taking down #8 Michigan, although that’s not really an upset. #12 Memphis over #5 Arizona fulfills that annual tradition. I also picked #11 Missouri to beat #6 Cincinnati and #10 Penn St. to beat #7 Temple. I also took Penn St., who barely made it into the tournament, to beat #2 San Diego St. in the 2nd round. I just don’t think San Diego St. has played anyone other than BYU, while Penn St. faced Big 10 competition all season. I have #1 Duke facing off against #3 Connecticut in the regional final, with Coach K taking the Blue Devils to yet another Final Four.

Southwest

I have Richmond pulling off another 5/12 upset here by defeating fifth seeded Vanderbilt. I also have #10 Florida St. beating #7 Texas A&M. That’s it for the first round upsets in this region. I have #6 Georgetown beating #3 Purdue and #2 Notre Dame to make it to the regional final, where they ultimately fall to Kansas, the second and final #1 seed I have in The Final Four.

Southeast

I’m taking Old Dominion to defeat last year’s tournament darling and National Title runner-up Butler, but remember…a 9 over an 8 isn’t truly an upset. The only real upset I’m picking here is #10 Michigan St. over #7 UCLA, and even that wouldn’t exactly shock anyone. However, in the second round things get interesting. Pitt a #1 seed?? Okay. But they’ll still choke as usual, and I’m predicting it will be against Old Dominion. #5 Kansas State over #4 Wisconsin is a mild upset. #10 Michigan St. does it again by beating #2 Florida, and #6 St. John’s…battle tested…will take down #3 BYU. In the regional final I have Kansas State vs. St. John’s, with the Red Storm making it to The Final Four.

The Final Four

Syracuse vs. Duke, with the Orange shocking everyone (except me) and quite possibly sending Dick Vitale crawling into a corner in the fetal position.

Kansas vs. St. John’s, with Rock Chalk Jayhawk emphasizing the “chalk”.

Syracuse vs. Kansas in the National Championship, with Kansas proving what many have suspected all along, that they are the best team in the land.

American Idol: Separating The Contenders From The Pretenders

My friend The Owl and I created our own secret society in college called The FUC Club. I may expand on the particulars some other time, but suffice to say that the moniker stands for Fat, Ugly, & Crippled and is built around the basic idea that the world caters to The Pretty People. It is undeniable that…assuming all other factors are as equal as possible…a hottie will beat out an unattractive, overweight, or disabled/disfigured person the vast majority of the time, whether it be in the job market, in the romance department, or just general popularity amongst friends & neighbors. That’s life. This truth is especially prominent in the entertainment industry. Now I know one could come up with a fairly decent list of relatively unattractive individuals who have somehow achieved some level of fame & fortune, and that’s fine…there are exceptions to every rule, but the rule is the rule for a reason.

What I have decided to do is apply this logic to American Idol and give the masses a look ahead at what to expect on the show in the coming weeks. The great thing about this is, there is precedence. Idol is in its 10th season and has produced nine previous winners and a few non-winners that managed to not be forgotten within 10 minutes:


Kelly Clarkson – The original American Idol, crowned at the conclusion of the first season in 2002. Regardless of whether or not Kelly is your particular cup o’ tea she has had a nice career. She’s had a couple of platinum albums, won a couple of Grammys & various other awards, and has received a fair amount of play on the radio over the years. She’s also young & tasty (if you like the brooding, not-quite-goth Joan Jett wannabe vibe).


Ruben Studdard – Ahhh, The Velvet Teddy Bear. He sounds like Luther Vandross but looks like Fat Albert. I think I have more records on my iTunes playlist that Ruben ever sold. Do I believe there is a racial issue here?? No, not at all. I think the bigger problem is that Ruben doesn’t have “the look”. He’s just not the type of hunk that impressionable 13 year old girls…the kind that have made Twilight a worldwide phenomenon…swoon over. I am certainly not advocating the validity of the tastes of junior high schoolers, but they do seem to wield a lot of power in the marketplace.


Fantasia Barrino – Hands down the worst Idol of them all. She looks like a crack ho and has a stripper name. Her music career was DOA and she ended up doing a reality show. Coincidentally her actual life is like a bad reality show too…dating married men, drug overdoses, foreclosure, etc. Here’s the bottom line – everyone loves a good “they dragged themselves out of poverty and achieved something” story…on 60 Minutes. But other than that most Americans find that stuff depressing and just want to be entertained, preferably by someone they can fantasize about while making love to their spouse.


Carrie Underwood – I’m far too lazy to compare numbers and such, but I am calling Underwood the most successful Idol of them all, with respectful apologies to Clarkson fans. A blonde bombshell with a girl-next-door persona is the prototype American Idol contestant. It helps that she can sing, and it’s even better that she decided her niche was in country music where there seems to be more longevity and fan loyalty. She’s won Grammys, American Music Awards, Peoples’ Choice Awards, and just about everything available from the country community, including Entertainer of the Year. Carrie Underwood might be one of the biggest reasons American Idol is still on the air, because she embodies the potential mega-success that every contestant craves.


Taylor Hicks – Is a 30 year old with grey hair and a voice reminiscent of Joe Cocker cool?? Maybe to some, but not enough. I think he’s in a touring company of Grease these days, playing Teen Angel (made famous by Frankie Avalon in the movie). Does that entail doing anything more than singing one song and being on stage for 5 minutes?? At any rate, his music career is non-existent and I have no idea how this guy ever won the competition, seeing as how he beat out atleast 2 or 3 people who have proven to be more successful. Again, like Studdard, he just doesn’t have much commercial appeal to the target demographic. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying it is what it is.


Jordin Sparks – Let’s give Sparks an incomplete. The youngest Idol when she won at age 17, she is still only 21 years old. She has sold her fair share of records, but to be honest her type of teeny bopper R&B-pop isn’t what I typically listen to, so maybe she’s more successful than I realize. Still, I’d be willing to bet that if a survey were to be taken asking people to name famous Idol alums the name Jordin Sparks wouldn’t roll off the tongues of most (even though it is a catchy name). Why?? I personally think she’s rather attractive…but…does she fit the typical mold of “hot”?? Probably not. She’s a little chunky, and probably still a little too…..girlish. But, as mentioned, the jury is still out. Give her a couple years to lose a few pounds and sex up her image and the American public will eat it up. Sad but true.

David Cook, Kris Allen, & Lee DeWyze  –

I think it may be a little too soon to thoroughly analyze the last three Idols. However, I will say one thing. My concern about all of them would be that they don’t stand out. None really fit into my original hypothesis, as they aren’t overweight, deformed, or empirically hideous in any way. However, decent looking 20-s0mething white guys who sing cookie cutter pop music are a dime-a-dozen and easily get lost in the shuffle. Taylor Hicks and Ruben Studdard may not fit the societal standard of beautiful but atleast they are distinctive and one can pick them out of the crowd.


Justin Guarini – The first ever runner-up, which for years has made him the butt of jokes. I didn’t start watching American Idol until the finale of that first season, but I have heard more than a few folks say throughout the years that Guarini was better than Clarkson and should have won. I became a believer a couple summers ago when he performed at a local festival in my hometown and I was quite unexpectedly very entertained. This dude can sing. And he stands out in the crowd with that geri-curled hair that makes him distinctive without having to be weird. I think Justin Guarini could have been a tremendous success, but for whatever reason he just hasn’t reached that level of fame & fortune. And if it hasn’t happened by now it is unlikely it ever will. I am tempted to blame that God awful movie he made with Clarkson, but it didn’t seem to have any significant impact on her fate. Maybe, despite non-existent record sales or commercial prosperity, the fact that we even still remember the guy that finished 2nd nine years ago is positive.


Clay Aiken – Let’s face it…Clay should have beaten Ruben. And for awhile it didn’t matter that he finished second. As a matter of fact, Justin Guarini, for a period of about 3 years, had to be wondering “What the hell did I do wrong that this dude did right??” Aiken has been much more of a success than Studdard and established the precedent that one need not win American Idol to ride the wave to stardom. And despite the fact that his 15 minutes are seemingly up, he has to be counted as one of the top success stories from the show. As far as how he fits into my theorem…well, he’s a flaming homosexual, so the traditional rules don’t necessarily apply, but women love gay men, especially if they can sing, and the only gay men that most straight men really respect are the ones who can sing, so Clay Aiken’s popularity makes sense.


Jennifer Hudson – Can you believe she finished 7th on Idol?? Hudson is a conundrum. In a way she has outshone them all, even the 9 winners. Because (with all due respect to Charlie Sheen), if your name is preceded by “Academy Award winner” you win. However, her success has come outside of the musical arena. She, like new American Idol judge Jennifer Lopez, is more of an actress than a singer now. Hudson also is the obvious exception to my rule. Despite the fact that she has shed a bunch of pounds, is now super delicious, and shills for Weight Watchers, the bottom line is that her success came when she was overweight and not that pretty. Major props.


Katharine McPhee – Kat McPhee is quite possibly the tastiest morsel to grace an Idol stage other than Carrie Underwood. That should spell s-u-c-c-e-s-s, but has it?? She absolutely, undoubtedly, without question should have beaten Taylor Hicks. How in the name of all that is right & holy could this vision of loveliness be defeated by Jay Leno’s stunt double?? But despite her hotness McPhee has yet to become an established star. She’s released a couple of albums, dabbled in acting, and kept her toe in the shallow end of the fame pool. Like so many other Idol alums fans of the show know who she is and have kept tabs on her, but that doesn’t mean a connection has been established with the masses.


Chris Daughtry – Daughtry is right up there with Underwood, Clarkson, and Hudson on the Mount Rushmore of American Idol. Amazingly, not only did he also lose out to Taylor Hicks (and of course Katherine McPhee), but he was eliminated before Eliot Yamin. Really?? Eschewing an opportunity to become the new frontman for rock band Fuel, he instead formed his own band and they’ve had tremendous success. Does Daughtry (the band) cover any new ground not already done better by the likes of Bon Jovi, Creed, Soundgarden, 3 Doors Down, or Nickelback, among others?? Probably not, but they are a fairly enjoyable listening experience. And let’s give the man credit…he found the perfect platform to separate himself from the crowd. I’m a guy and therefore not a good judge, but I assume that most females would say Chris Daughtry is an attractive gentleman, so therefore he proves the theory.


Adam Lambert – I honestly didn’t pay much attention during season 8 of American Idol. I guess I just needed a break. But I paid enough attention to know that everyone…e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e…thought for weeks that it was a foregone conclusion that Adam Lambert would win. However, Lambert is the exception to a completely different rule than The Pretty People Theorem. Remember how I said America embraced Clay Aiken because women love gay men and straight men appreciate gay men who can sing?? Well, that all goes out the window when the person in question is an absolute weirdo. Despite the fact that Lambert didn’t “come out” or really let his freak flag fly until long after American Idol had wrapped, people aren’t stupid. If I’d actually watched much that season I could speak more eloquently on the subject, but there had to be some reason why America chose nondescript milquetoast Kris Allen over someone with far superior vocal talent, and if I may oversimplify just a wee bit, it boils down to little things like if you’re a man trying to win a popularity contest don’t wear eyeliner. Ozzy and Alice Cooper may have gotten away with it, but they weren’t trying to win American Idol.


Okay, so now that we’ve gone back in time and looked at what works and what doesn’t work, let’s take a peek into the ol’ crystal ball and see if we can narrow down the contenders from the pretenders amongst the baker’s dozen remaining in contention for the 2011 Idol crown. Keep in mind that it’s a given that all these individuals can sing, so talent isn’t a factor as much as likeability, charisma, and whatever else seems to make one person more popular than another.


Casey Abrams – Casey is the Taylor Hicks of this season. With his full beard and pudginess he sort of reminds me of John C. Reilly circa 2000 in The Perfect Storm, and maybe a little like Seth Rogen. He’s just the sort of underdog that might develop a following and end up in the top 3 or 4.


Naima Adedapo – This is Fantasia Barrino 2.0. She’s got a name no one will be able to remember or pronounce, and a…shall we say “exotic” look. Enjoy the ride while it lasts sweetie.


Lauren Alaina – The minute this girl came on screen she was my pick to win it all. She’s got the blonde hair, blue eyed All American girl vibe just like Carrie Underwood. If Simon were still around he’d undoubtedly say she is very “commercial” or “marketable”, and make no mistake…that’s what the powers-that-be are really seeking. The producers of Idol almost certainly hate when fans pull crap like voting for Eliot Yamin over Chris Daughtry or Sanjaya Malakar instead of…well…anybody. My concern about Lauren is that she is only 16 years old, which I think is far too young to be thrust into the spotlight. But I don’t make the rules. As it stands, if Lauren Alaina doesn’t atleast make it to the Top 3 I’ll be shocked.


James Durbin – Here is an opportunity for America to make up for Daughtry finishing 4th five years ago. This dude is like Daughtry mixed with a bit of Adam Lambert, which I mean as a compliment. I love the fact that he’s not your typical metrosexual pantywaist. He’s a rebellious rocker that is still palatable to the masses, and he is obviously having fun. My money is on him being there as the finish line comes into view.


Ashthon Jones – Is she a Beyonce wannabe?? Sure looks like it to me. What I am wondering is this – while I may not find such a ripoff appealing, am I alone in that opinion or will the populace lap it up?? Also, will she develop her own individuality going forward?? Will she be given time to do that?? My guess is that she’ll buy herself 3 or 4 weeks as long as her performances are decent, but she’s not a legitimate threat to win.


Stefano Langone – There were about 3 guys in the Top 24 that all looked the same…dark hair, vaguely Mediterranean, nice smiles. I couldn’t really tell them apart. Luckily for Stefano he’s the last one standing. I’m guessing the ladies will fawn all over him, and he may last a few weeks, but he’s not going to win.


Jacob Lusk – Does anyone remember George Huff from the 3rd season of Idol?? Jacob really reminds me of George. He just seems like a genuinely nice guy who is sincerely thrilled to have made it this far. Unfortunately I think he will be amongst the early exits.


Scotty McCreery – Has anyone called Randy Travis and told him we’ve located his love child?? I like Scotty. He’s just a good ol’ country boy. The thing is, at some point in the next few weeks he’s going to be asked to do something out of his comfort zone, like sing a disco tune or something by an 80’s hair band, and that is when I think he’ll falter. His niche is just too narrow to actually go that far at this stage of the competition.


Paul McDonald – Now here is the very definition of standing out from the crowd. This is my pick for this year’s Clay Aiken, meaning he won’t win but it won’t matter. He’s got a future in the music business. The oldest contestant left, he’s still just 26 years old. I cannot put my finger on who his voice reminds me of. Maybe some Rod Stewart with a little James Taylor mixed in?? He doesn’t sound like Michael McDonald but he does look like him a bit, and the two are similar in that when you are listening to Michael McDonald you KNOW who you are listening to, and the same can be said for Paul. Anyway, I’ll be disappointed if he isn’t among the last 3 or 4 competitors.


Thia Megia – Is she pretty?? Yes. Does she stand out from the crowd?? Not really. She might be the first elimination.


Haley Reinhart – This is my sleeper pick. She’s VERY pretty, and I think she’ll grow on people and begin to stand out more and more if given the opportunity. It sounds silly to say, but more than just about anyone I think the length of her “journey” will depend heavily on her performances week to week. She’s not gonna have a built in fan club of sychophants who’ll vote for her no matter how much she messes up, but if she rocks the house time after time folks will begin to take notice. Don’t be surprised if Haley is still standing amongst the final group of 3 or 4. You heard it here first.


Karen Rodriguez – Will the Latino vote keep her safe?? For how long?? Personally I have found her rather forgettable thus far, which is why I don’t think she’ll last all that long.


Pia Toscano – The judges dig Pia, I can tell. She does have a star quality about her. However, unlike Lauren Alaina or Haley Reinhart, who both come across as wholesome and family friendly, Pia reminds me of the villainous tramp on your favorite soapy drama, the one who goes around stealing husbands and letting her bitch flag fly proudly. Guys LOVE that kind of gal, but women are threatened by it, which is where I think Pia will fail. If she can soften her image, and if either Alaina or Reinhart exit earlier than I expect, then maybe Pia can sneak into that top 3 or 4. Regardless, she looks like a winner who may stick around in the public consciousness one way or another long after her Idol days are over.


So 2 months from now, as this season of American Idol hits the home stretch, I think the front runners will be Lauren Alaina & James Durbin, with Paul McDonald, Haley Rinehart, and possibly Casey Abrams & Pia Toscano still in the hunt.

My Lenten Sacrifice – 2011

A year ago I wrote about my search for a genuine spiritual experience instead of the superficial, hypocritical, half-hearted religiosity so common in 21st Century America. This wasn’t…isn’t…meant as a criticism of any particular group or individual, for I have been known to be as guilty as anyone of being a “7th Day Christian”, meaning one who only plays at being a Christian for a couple of hours each Sunday morning. Am I doing better?? I think so, but I am always striving to do more…..to be more. I certainly don’t lack in good influences, including my great friend The Owl, my buddy Don (whose blog, Citizen Don, is linked on this page), and several folks with whom I attend church. As part of this progress last year I decided to take Lent seriously, and the results were pretty good.

To review…for the heathens among you and those in Mingo County…Lent is the traditional time of preparation beginning on Ash Wednesday and culminating in Holy Week, which of course is the remembrance of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Typically Lent lasts 40 days, similar to the forty days Jesus spent in the desert resisting the temptations of Satan (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13), the forty days & nights Moses spent on Mount Sinai receiving The Ten Commandments from God (Exodus 19:1-25), the forty years the Jewish nation spent wandering in the desert, and the forty days & nights rains fell upon the Earth while Noah and his animals were holed up in The Ark (Genesis Chapters 6-9). 40 is a very important number in The Bible, and is used by God to represent a period of testing or judgment.

Traditionally Christians sacrifice, or give up, something during Lent. I used to make light of this tradition, cracking jokes about giving up various frivolities or things that I didn’t really utilize anyway, but Lent is about conversion, turning our lives more completely over to Christ and cleansing our life of sin. Our goal should not be just to refrain from something meaningless during Lent but to take a major step toward ridding our lives of sin forever. Conversion means leaving behind our old ways and embracing new life in Christ. Galatians 2:20 says “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me”. That verse has haunted me for years not just because I wonder how many people’s old lives have truly been crucified so that Christ now lives in them, but more pointedly I ask myself if I have truly become that new creation God wants me to be. Maybe the fact that I even ask myself the question speaks volumes about how short I fall on a daily basis. At any rate, I decided in 2010 to take my Lenten sacrifice more seriously, and I am doing the same this year.

Last year I decided to give up Facebook during Lent. On the surface that may seem like a meaningless, frivolous sacrifice, but in reality it was very difficult. Facebook is how I stay in touch with all sorts of friends & family, and to be honest I’d much rather spend a rainy day reading a book and mindlessly perusing Facebook than watching almost anything on television. I missed staying in touch with folks during that forty day period, and it truly was very hard, but I did it and was very happy. I read more, prayed and studied The Word much more, and even got some tidying up done around The Bachelor Palace. However, I will not be giving up Facebook again. Been there, done that afterall. It’s time for a new challenge.

After some brief contemplation regarding the 2011 Lenten Sacrifice, the answer became clear fairly quickly. I am 38 years old and if I’m being perfectly frank, probably not nearly as healthy as I should be. Genetics are against me, as obesity and diabetes are present on both sides of my family. I am a paraplegic due to a birth defect called spina bifida, which means I use a wheelchair and don’t get a lot of exercise. Environmental forces don’t help either, since I live in one of the nation’s most economically challenged states & don’t exactly have a large bank account myself, and studies linking poor eating habits to lower incomes are easily found. However, putting all those factors aside, I am the one who goes through a drive thru or has greasy, carb-o-licious food delivered to my home atleast 3 or 4 times per week. I am the one who invades the snack cabinet at work every night and eats 2 or three candy bars. I am the one who lost thirty pounds just 5 short years ago (albeit while locked up in a “skilled” nursing facility) and gained it all back. So legitimate reasons/excuses be damned, I am the one who needs to take the initiative to regain the proper perspective on my health and well being.

A confluence of events has lead to this moment, and I can see God’s hand at work. First, as mentioned, I lost 30 pounds in 2006. The odd thing is, I was literally laying in bed for those 6 months. Was the food at The Home atrocious?? Absolutely. I wouldn’t feed that crap to my worst enemy. But my Dad and my crazy perverted Cousin Robert both visited daily and brought me food, whether it was leftover homemade lasagna, 

Dad

Cousin Robert

fried chicken from the grocery store deli, or a cheeseburger from Wendy’s. So I didn’t starve, but still I lost the weight. And despite everything I’d been through emotionally and physically I felt about as healthy as I’d been in years…and I liked it. Secondly, in January of this year, within a couple weeks of each other, both of my best buddies…Greg & The Owl…both landed in the hospital with previously undiagnosed diabetes. They are both alive only by the unfathomable grace of God, and I am so very thankful. But for two people whom I consider like brothers to become that ill…with the same disease, both in the general age range as me, and with similar body types…well, it was eye opening. And if I am truly being honest with myself both of them are far more physically active than I, so that likely makes me even more susceptible to a corresponding fate. And finally, there has just been a general malaise that has befallen me in the past several months. I’ve always been lazy, but my energy level isn’t where it needs to be. I’m older, but I’m certainly not old. I find it more difficult to do things I once did with ease, like transferring in & out of my wheelchair or even getting dressed. More & more I look for easier, streamlined ways to do something…or even not do it at all if there is physical exertion required and it can somehow be avoided. I find myself needing not just a quick catnap but a deep snooze after eating pasta or other carbohydrate heavy foods. Never one for vanity I am increasingly uncomfortable with my heaviness. It’s time to make some changes, and Lent seems like the perfect opportunity.

What I have decided to do is give up both fast food and chocolate. That might seem superfluous to some, but I can assure you it is a large chunk of my diet. I frequent Wendy’s, Hardees, and Burger King so much I could drive to any of them in my sleep. I have Domino’s, Papa John’s, and a couple local places (Dagwood’s and Smitty’s) delivered so often their delivery guys might score spots as groomsmen in my future wedding. If I ever make it to Hershey, PA I think they may award me the key to the city. That all stops for the next 40 days beginning Ash Wednesday. Does that mean I will NEVER eat fast food or chocolate again?? Never say never. But I do plan on using the time to develop healthier eating habits and detox from all the bad stuff I know I have been putting in my body for years. I trust in God to show me the right path, and it will be up to me to follow it over the long haul. Rome was not built in a day, and I find it highly unlikely I will ever be considered buff & sexy, but I’ll settle for a little lighter, more energetic, and comfortable with my choices.

In Defense of The Constitution

My Dad has always told me “you may not get your way but you can get your say”. It’s wisdom along the same lines as “well, the worst they can do is say no” and closely related to “an opinion is like an @$$^*!#…everyone has one”.

 

In fact, The Constitution of the United States guarantees that everyone can “have their say”, express their opinion, etc. It’s called The First Amendment. However, like other parts of The Constitution, there are folks in 21st Century America that want to cherry pick the parts they like and discard the ones with which they do not agree (much like how The Bible is treated). There is a not insignificant minority of people who would like to see guns banned, even though The Second Amendment guarantees our right to keep and bear arms. Christians have stood by and watched as God has been pushed aside in the most asinine of ways over the course of the past few decades, with the PC crowd citing The Establishment Clause of The First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”), while conveniently forgetting the second half of that sentence that says “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof “. All manner of controversial issues…taxation, same sex marriage, abortion, capital punishment, affirmative action, etc…are, at their core, a tug of war wherein The Constitution is used and misused, bent, twisted, and shaped to fit whatever argument is being made by any particular side.

 

The question becomes, is The Constitution really that difficult to understand?? I don’t think it is.

 

There have been two things in recent weeks that have grabbed my attention in relation to The First Amendment, and more specifically, peoples’ understandable but troubling disregard for it. But before I dive into those issues in particular let me refresh the collective memory of the masses by spelling out exactly what The First Amendment says. The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” There is a lot of good stuff in there ladies and gentlemen. I already mentioned how Freedom of Religion has become Freedom from Religion, especially if that religion is Christianity. But my focus now turns to the Freedom of Speech.

 

Freedom of Speech” is admittedly rather vague terminology, but essentially it means that we all have the right to say anything about anyone, even if it is critical or negative, so long as it isn’t slanderous, obscene, or may insight violence. And even those exceptions are so narrowly defined that a lot of things may be offensive but still within the realm of legality. That very restricted piece of no man’s land…offensive vs. unconstitutional…is the battleground that brings about this particular diatribe.

 

The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled on a case involving the Westboro Baptist Church. This is a church in Topeka, Kansas that has gained a certain amount of infamous notoriety in the last couple of decades for traveling around the country to protest at funerals and other gatherings, expressing very clearly their anti-homosexuality beliefs. Basically they hate everyone, including every other religion and all Christian denominations and churches except their own, and believe that President Obama is The Anti-Christ and Pope Benedict XVI is The False Prophet. Obviously they have not been informed that Oprah is The Anti-Christ. Anyway, I think it is safe to assume that an overwhelming majority of Americans from every corner of the sociopolitical spectrum and all religiosities would likely find the activities of this “church” appalling. I don’t feel like I’m stepping too far out on a limb by saying that there might be more unanimity on this than just about any other topic, including the relative merits of Justin Bieber’s career or the entertainment value of Vin Diesel films. The Court ruled in favor of Westboro, saying that their protests are protected free speech. Not surprisingly this is a tough pill to swallow for many, but it gets to the heart of the matter. The Constitution protects (almost) ALL speech…not just the stuff with which we agree.

 

Another situation is more local. A few weeks ago here in northcentral West Virginia a young U.S. Marshal was shot and killed by a suspect on whom he was trying to serve a warrant. I did not know the young man, but we apparently had a lot of friends in common. The overwhelming sadness of the tragedy cast a pall over this area for days. The outpouring of love and respect for the fallen hero and his family was amazing. However, there are always a few dissenters. One of the local TV stations had an article on their website about the shooting, and the vast majority of the comments after the article were supportive, sympathetic, and respectful. Unfortunately a few weren’t, and not only called into question the tactics of law enforcement in general and this deceased officer in particular, but were downright repugnant and insulting on a variety of levels. The whole thread got really ugly, and was made worse by the response of those who were, undoubtedly in good faith, coming to the defense of the officer, his family, and the police as a whole. Was there good reason to be upset and even disgusted?? Absolutely. But there were demands, both on the station’s website and its Facebook page, to delete the comments. Someone even blamed one of the news personalities who hadn’t done anything wrong and by all accounts is a genuinely good guy. A tragic story was made worse by idiotic fools who seemed to be getting their jollies by stirring the pot and making inflammatory statements, but it wasn’t helped by well intentioned yet misguided individuals seeking to spit on The Constitution and suppress free speech.

 

The theme song for an old 80’s sitcom said “you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have The Facts of Life”. That is a good summary of freedom, justice, The Constitution, our government, and our nation. Is it all perfect?? No. With gun ownership comes the unfortunate result that sometimes people are going to get shot. Democracy doesn’t mean that we will always agree with everything our elected leaders do. Sometimes an innocent person will be sent to prison and the guilty will go free. We take the good with the bad because most of the time things go right and in comparison with every other nation in the world America has far and away the very best system available. The opening words of The Constitution say “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Notice that one of the goals is not to form a perfect union but a more perfect union. The Founding Fathers knew that nothing is perfect, but that there is nothing wrong with striving for perfection. We cannot have freedom a la carte, picking & choosing what we like and what we do not. Freedom of Speech means that sometimes we might not agree with what is being said, but we must find some way of dealing with it besides trying to squash the freedom itself. It would be great if everyone was polite, courteous, and appropriate, but it is an irrefutable fact that there are a lot of people who are either stupid, mean, or both. And sometimes two people are just going to disagree about something, whether the issue is big or small, with neither individual necessarily being right, wrong, or evil in any way. In America even the folks who are wrong and not very nice about it have the right to be wrong and not very nice. We must be extremely cautious not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

 

I wish groups like the Westboro Baptist Church didn’t exist, and that everyone who decides to express their opinion would do so in a manner that was respectful and gracious, but that just isn’t realistic. Utopia, Paradise, Eden, or whatever you might refer to it as went out the window the second Eve was beguiled by Satan and nibbled on The Forbidden Fruit. So we must deal with the world the best way we know how. The Founding Fathers…although not perfect men themselves…established freedom & liberty as the bedrock of these United States, and it works better than anything else out there. We should never stop seeking a more perfect union, but we also need to stop being so cavalier toward the level of excellence we have already achieved.