Saturday, February 27, 2010

More Rushmores?

I was born into a world where Mount Rushmore has always existed. I have never been to Mount Rushmore, and I don't feel that my life would be unfulfilled if I die without ever seeing Mount Rushmore in person. I guess you could say that I have always taken Mount Rushmore for granite.

But lately (in part because my baby boy reminds me of a Mount Rushmore face when he cries) I've been thinking more about this national monument, and I've come to a conclusion: Mount Rushmore is mind-blowingly unbelievable. And I'm not talking about the engineering feat (though I'm dutifully impressed by the work that went into it). What blows my mind is the fact that the concept was ever accepted in the first place. Let's say that Doane Robinson's mother and father never met. Since he is the guy that came up with the idea for the presidential carvings in 1923, that means that the project never would have been proposed. It's actually pretty easy to imagine a United States of America circa 2010 in which presidential carvings don't exist on Mount Rushmore. There would be less of a tourist economy in South Dakota and the run time of Superman II would be about five seconds shorter, but overall, the world would look pretty much the same as it does now. Now imagine, in such a world, someone coming forward with the idea of carving giant sized heads of presidents into mountain rock in South Dakota. They would be laughed at, to the extent they would be acknowledged at all.

And if you think that scenario is unlikely, imagine a world where the Statue of Liberty doesn't exist, and try to picture a French official in 2010 attempting to persuade his government to build a giant-sized statue of a female holding up a torch, in order to give it to the United States as a token of goodwill. And even if it were built, would the U.S.A. even accept such a white elephant?

It's not that America doesn't want to commemorate anything anymore--quite the opposite. Many sports stadiums have statues that honor legendary players, there are countless plaques around this country denoting historically significant events, and mass media continues to pay homage to the past. Even large-scale monuments still have the potential to be built (though it is interesting to note the lack of alacrity regarding 9/11 memorials).

But I think what has changed over time is our willingness to memorialize, celebrate, and venerate abstractions. Statues are geographically tethered to locations where the honoree is most associated. Memorials mark specific events. But abstract concepts like leadership, liberty, and exploration are less likely to be reified. There are a couple reasons why this might be so. One theory would be that postmodern suspicion of ideology would restrict enthusiasm for such projects. But on the other end of the political spectrum, one could make the case that a political climate suspicious of government spending would also limit possibilities (as monuments of a certain scale almost necessarily require public funding).

Yet I wonder if the conditions that would favor monument construction aren't coming back into play. Analysts are telling us that our younger generations are less cynical than their predecessors. Our economy needs jobs, and just as Mount Rushmore was a depression-era public works project, a series of new monuments could put lots of people back in business. The popularity of American Idol and reality TV indicates that a national contest for ideas and proposals could become a phenomenon. And can you imagine the ratings success of a show called: Extreme Makeover: National Edition? Finally, I've got to think that the fact that monuments like Rushmore and the Statue of Liberty already exist helps to soften potential opposition. Perhaps all we need is a Doane Robinson.

Friday, February 19, 2010

What He Should Have Said

I know what you want from me today. You want me to break down and cry. You want me to offer a string of apologies and mea culpas. At the end of the day, I think most of you want the old status quo back. Deep down, you really want to root for me again. You want Tiger Woods to re-emerge from this bigger and better than ever, the larger than life hero and role model that you have come to know and love.

Well, let me tell you this. You will not be getting what you want today. But hopefully, you will get what you need.

I am not here to apologize. You do not need an apology. I have already taken steps to apologize to those that actually need one. But I do think you need an explanation. You need to know how somebody who seemingly had so much came to be so ungrateful for his gifts and his blessings, and you need to know how someone so revered by others came to behave so contemptibly.

After weeks of soul-searching, I think I have come to a conclusion. Somewhere along the line, my life became a lie. My existence became inauthentic. My name and my face have been used to sell video games, and that is not a bad metaphor for how I viewed this world. Everything became a game to me. Just as in a video game where the reset button can be pushed at any time, I felt that none of my actions would result in lasting consequences. I became convinced of my own greatness, my own legend. I bought into my own mythology.

The events of the past few months have taught me that I am not some kind of Nietzschean superman. Though I will forever regret that I have hurt those closest to me, I will be forever glad that I have learned these lessons. From this day forward, I intend to apply what I have learned. From this day forward, I want my existence to be authentic. You might ask, "What does that mean?"

That means is that as of today, February 19, 2010, Tiger Woods is no more. From this day forward, I wish to be known by my birth name, Eldrick Woods. I also want you to know that never again will I appear in an advertisement, and my name and likeness will never again be used to sell a product. Though I wish nothing but the best for friends I have made through the years, I will no longer be "hanging out" with anyone the media would consider a celebrity. And no longer will I be wearing red shirts on Sundays. I will now be wearing white. These are just some of the changes that I intend to pursue, all in the name of repudiating this "Tiger" persona that grew out of control, and now needs to be put down. Let me assure you that this is not to say that I intend to be any less competitive on the golf course. Indeed, I believe that my rejection of these extraneous factors, and my subsequent ability to embrace what really matters in life, will enable me to be more committed to the sport that I love.

I know that the statements that I have made here today will be analyzed, dissected, evaluated, interpreted, and scrutinized by the 24-hour news cycle. I know that some commentators will question the authenticity of my quest for authenticity. I know that some people will mock my commitment; I know that some people will say that I am taking all of this too far. But I know that many of you will see both the truth and the necessity in what I say. Thank you for listening, and I'll see you on the course this summer.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

On Becoming a Daddy

This past Thursday, in a hospital room marked 227, my life changed. In becoming a father, I experienced many sublime thoughts and emotions. One thought, though, could be categorized as much more ridiculous than sublime: I drew an association between the room number of my son's birth, and an identically-named NBC sitcom of the mid to late 1980s. Even more ridiculous: I am fairly certain that I never watched anything more than the opening credits of this particular sitcom. But part of growing up with limited entertainment options (three TV networks, no world wide web, no facebook, and for awhile no means to watch any movies on-demand) meant that one was hyper-aware of all the entertainment options that did exist, even if they were not availed of.

This is a world that my son will never experience. And it speaks to one of the things I have been contemplating for awhile now: the concept of "generation gap." While I would not want him to have to replicate the same exact childhood that I had, I would like him to have some awareness of what his old man experienced, or more generally, I want him to know that the world wasn't always the way that he will experience it. I want him to know that when I was a kid there was an entity called The Soviet Union that preoccupied the thoughts of even the children of America. But I also want him to know the more frivolous things-- that cartoons were a luxury for Saturday mornings, or that the cartoons his dad watched were interrupted every two minutes for public service announcements.

Ironically, technology, which is blamed for exacerbating generation gaps, might play a role in shrinking them. I'm not sure if my parents had favorite cartoons when they were growing up, but it was a moot point, because there was no way for me to see them. However, thanks to cheap DVD sets, my boy will be able to watch "The Superfriends." And if by any chance the topic of the number of his birth room ever comes up, a quick check of youtube will enlighten him as to the aesthetics of the 1980s sitcom theme song.

But for all of these accessible artifacts, there is still no guarantee that he will really know what his daddy was thinking about or experiencing at any given time, prior to or even after his birth. I would say that I didn't really start caring about what was going on in the outside world (defined as caring about what sports teams were good and which ones were bad) until I was about eight. If that is the case for my son, he won't have any real cultural awareness until 2018 (which seems unfathomably distant right now, even though 2002 doesn't seem that long ago).

So what can I do to help him retroactively meet his daddy? Well, I suppose he could read this blog. This was the farthest thing from my mind when I started writing it about five years ago. And though at some incomprehensible far away date he might sit down and wince at some of the entries, I am excited about the possibility that through them, I might be able to shrink the inevitable cultural and experiential gulf that will grow between us.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Rings and Things

Twenty-four hours from now, an NFL champion will be crowned--figuratively speaking, of course. Rather than a literal coronation ceremony (which actually might be kind of cool, come to think of it), winning players will have to settle for the right to fondle a trophy. Due to contract incentives, some of them might even see a direct fiduciary reward for their efforts. But most tangibly, they will be awarded a ring in a few months time. The championship ring has become an important cultural symbol. Announcers speak of athletes' burning desire to "get a ring," and viewers know that this is not a commentary on a players' overwhelming urge to find a worthwhile spouse. The significance of the championship ring (or in some individual sports, the championship belt) is completely understandable. Much like graduates would historically require a sheepskin diploma, the need is present for something concrete to represent the magnitude of the achievement.

From my understanding, athletes aren't the only ones who receive these rings. Coaches and even front-office employees are also entitled to their just deserts. This does seem fair to me; players aren't the only ones who invest in a franchise's success. But come to think of it, if "investment" is the criteria that is used to determine rewards, I would have to think that another group of people need to be considered-- fans. Even setting aside the notion that fans do directly and indirectly contribute to team success (from financial contributions to the very real phenomenon of "home field advantage"), the sheer continuity that fans lend to franchises should count for something. Players, coaches, uniform colors, stadiums, owners, broadcasters, and corporate sponsors are always in a state of flux. But as long as a franchise stays anchored geographically, there is a fanbase that remains constant. You will never have a quarterback attached to a team for 70 years, but it is entirely possible that a fan would remain loyal to a franchise for that amount of time. And to return to the concept of "investment," we should not underestimate the time and emotional energy that a fan exerts.

So how can such a fan be rewarded? It is obviously unrealistic for a franchise to purchase hundreds of thousands of championship rings. In actuality, it is unrealistic to burden any franchise not only with the task of purchasing any kind of reward, but also with the task of determining the criteria for what type of fan is most deserving of an award (certainly, the bandwagon jumpers shouldn't be entitled to anything, but how can we know who falls into that category?)

Of course, fans could take the initiative to reward themselves. I actually remember an advertisement back in early 1997 for a "fan championship ring" to celebrate the Packers' Super Bowl triumph. But I never saw one of these rings in real life, so I doubt this idea had or has much traction. What I have seen evidence of in real life, however, is officially licensed championship apparel. I myself have owned a few Wisconsin Badger Rose Bowl shirts and Green Bay Packer championship sweatshirts. The problem with apparel, though, is that it has a relatively short shelf life. Even if the fabric of a shirt stays together, it seems kind of lame to be wearing a shirt celebrating a five-year-old championship.

But then again, one of the defining characteristics of fandom is the cyclical nature of one's team's fortunes. No matter how great or how terrible a game or a season, the next game or season is right around the corner. So in the final analysis, though players may be entitled to a permanent symbol of achievement, the fan reward must needs be more fleeting. So to review the criteria I have established: it has to be significant, it needs to be tangible, but it needs to be ephemeral. And this is why I shaved my facial hair on the night of January 25, 1998, and why, should I ever grow facial hair again, it will be my way of asserting that by virtue of my status as a fan of a championship team, I have earned the right.