Monday, August 27, 2012

Neil Armstrong Dies: He and His Giant Leap Is Eternal

Article first published as Neil Armstrong Dies: He and His Giant Leap Are Eternal on Blogcritics.

When I heard Neil Armstrong died, I could not look up at the moon or even see the stars; it was a bright, sunny day, but I thought about him and the impact he had made on me and so many other kids and people. An estimated 600 million earthlings watched him take his first step on the moon, and I was one of those souls on this planet who saw it live and will never forget that moment in history.

We were away on vacation in a hotel room. I was a kid and asked my Dad to wake me up when it was going to happen. There was just a small black and white TV screwed into the top of the dresser, but it would have to do. When dad woke me up, I sat up and remember seeing a grainy image of Armstrong, hovering a bit on the ladder of the Lunar Module as he prepared to be the first human being to step onto another world. He then uttered his now iconic line, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." What a giant leap it was then as that indelible footprint in the lunar surface is there forever and remains inexorably in our minds.

In 1969 I had a fascination with space. TV shows like Star Trek and Lost in Space had stoked my imagination. I had also been a fan of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers series, and wasn't Superman the ultimate space saga, an alien who came to this world and became one of us but was oh so much more too. By the time Apollo 11 lifted off, I had every reason to be excited about it. In my young mind I believed more than anything that we would soon be zooming off to these foreign planets I imagined, with the array of aliens both good and bad to encounter.

Reality eventually catches up to all of us, and even to NASA and the whole quest for space travel. While Armstrong was a hero in every sense of the word, there seemed to be a rapid descent for the voyages to the moon, with the Apollo 13 near disaster no doubt contributing to that. Trips to the moon ended in the early 1970s, and then the Space Shuttle became the focus, with the goal to build a space station. All of these things took a long, long time, and the thought of getting to Mars or anywhere else seemed less and less likely.

Now we await what will be the next giant leap, but no one can ever underestimate the power of Armstrong's moment in history. His foot touching the dusty surface of the moon was perhaps the biggest step ever taken by a human being. It was more significant than Columbus stepping off his ship in a "new world," more meaningful than any footfall by any other explorer, because it meant to everyone watching that we were not bound to this world. We were able to find a way to leave this planet, and that statement to whoever was watching (whether it was one of the 600 million on this planet or extra-terrestials viewing it across the cosmos) was this, "We can do it, and we are going to do it again."

Great moments and great men are remembered fondly. For me 1969 was the kind of year a New York kid could only dream about. The Mets, Jets, and Knicks won championships on the earthly plane, and Neil Armstrong hit his shot heard around the world (and the galaxy?) on the moon. After that moment the moon was not just a circle in the sky, it was a tangible place, and the thought of that stiff flag on the windless terrain forevermore always sent a shiver through me. It was not just the moon anymore; it was our moon. No flag placed on foreign soil ever meant so much to so many, for Armstrong did not claim the moon for America but for the entire human race.

So many will mourn Armstrong, but his family has asked that when we look up at the moon, we should think of him and wink. That's the least any of us could do for this man, but in truth he is now free to visit the moon as often as he likes. Perhaps he will trace his own footprints, gaze at what remains of the fragile lunar module in the windless silence, and salute the still flag. He and his giant leap, a bold, brave, and unforgettable footstep, now transcend time and space for all eternity.
Photo credits:

Friday, August 24, 2012

Lance Armstrong: A Lost Action Hero

Article first published as Lance Armstrong: A Lost Action Hero on Blogcritics.

What do you call a man who overcomes cancer to become a sports icon? When I used to think about Lance Armstrong, the word "hero" always came to mind. Winning seven Tour de France titles (getting even one is an amazing accomplishment) after beating a disease that is a worse villain than most antagonists in films and literature, Lance stood for believing in the underdog, the guy who could overcome anything. He was an action hero to be sure, a guy any kid or adult could look up to for his talent and nobility.

Alas, this is not a story with a happy ending. As in most tragedies, the central hero has a flaw, one that subsumes all his courage, ability, and accomplishments. Achilles had his heel; Hamlet his procrastination, but Lance had something else entirely: he had a desire to win and put everything else beneath that in order to succeed. His decision to stop fighting the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency brings to an end the myth; Armstrong is stripped of his seven titles, he loses his Olympic medal, and is banned for life from participating as an athlete or owner (he's currently part owner of the Radio Shack cycling team).

Travis Tygart, chief executive officer of the USADA, said, "It is a sad day for all of us who love sport and our athletic heroes." Let's credit Tygart with hitting the nail on the head. People everywhere are rightly hanging there heads, and this devastating but inevitable outcome is like seeing Hamlet dead on the floor at the end of the play, knowing how great he was and could have been if not for the tragic flaw that brought him to his end.

This has been a hard year in sports. We can list the names: Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno, Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon, and now Armstrong. All the asterisks, all the stripped titles, all the lost medals and public disgrace aside, there is absolutely no redemption to be had here. All sports lovers and the legitimate players suffer under the shadow of what these people have done. Now, each time there is a phenomenal accomplishment, such as the amazing Ye Shiwen, the Chinese swimmer accused of cheating at this year's Olympics, there will always be doubts. Did he? Did she? This casts a dark cloud over all sports now and for a long time to come.

Why is hit so hard for us to accept that there are no heroes anymore? It is an essential thing in our psyche to want our heroes to be bigger than life. The greatest heroes in literature and film, think Ivanhoe or Sinbad or even Rambo and Harry Callahan, make us want them to succeed because they defy all odds, rise above the rest of us somehow, and defeat the forces of evil. But now the hero seems to become lost, even Batman and Spider Man have morphed into dark versions of themselves, unable to be heroic as they once were, because the world has changed and the game along with it. It is harder to tell the protagonist from the antagonist and, sometimes, we are not sure who is who anymore.

Lance Armstrong was once the greatest of stories in sports. He fought hard against an ugly opponent, fought just as hard against the terrain in France and won it all. We were there with him, routing for the American who conquered the impossibly difficult French course again and again. To make us admire him even more, he created a charity, Livestrong, to help those with cancer, and that was a wonderful thing and raised millions of dollars. Now it's all gone: the honor, the glory, and the legend.  Lance Armstrong has given up the fight against the USADA, and we all feel defeated because he is a lost action hero.

In the film Die Hard the evil terrorist Hans Gruber tells trapped New York cop John McClane that this time Grace Kelly doesn't walk off into the sunset with John Wayne. McClane corrects him and tells him "Gary Cooper," but maybe Gruber was on to something happening to American culture. Of course, in the end McClane wins in the movie, but this is no film. This is real life and the hero doesn't walk off into the sunset; Armstrong slinks off stage defeated and destroyed.

It has been a hard year in American sports. Simon and Garfunkel once sang, "Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?" The problem is not just that Joltin' Joe has gone away, but so have those of his ilk whom we could admire, and there is no one to replace them. Sadly, I do not know when we can regain our confidence in sports figures or if we ever will.  And, as Armstrong finally accepts his fate (and perhaps the legal action that will follow him), we can only hang our heads in shame because of him and the other American sports figures who cheated or have done wrong. We have fallen so very far into a dark abyss, and we are left to wonder when we will ever see the light again.

Photo Credits:; Ye

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Remembering Scott McKenzie and His 1960s Anthem for Peace

Article first published as Remembering Scott McKenzie and His 1960s Anthem for Peace on Blogcritics.

When I heard Scott McKenzie had passed away at 73, I could immediately hear his famous song in my head. "San Francisco" is one of those tunes that locks into your memory card, and there is no way not to remember a time and place associated with it.

Some probably would call Scott a one-hit wonder, and he did not write the song; John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas did. Still, as could be said to be the case with many great songs, the man who sang it made it his own and very famous. "San Francisco" became the national anthem of the Summer of Love, a microcosm of the magical time of 1967 when perhaps anything seemed possible.

At the time war raged in Vietnam, but Scott sings, "Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair" as a reminder of how to go to San Francisco. He also promises that "it will be a love-in there." In 2012 with war still raging in Afghanistan and reports of American forces dying seemingly everyday, the need for meeting "some gentle people" anywhere appears to be more pressing than ever before. No offense to Carly Rae Jepsen, but this summer's anthem "Call Me Maybe" doesn't come anywhere close to having the possible long range effect on the culture and the times as did Scott's humble tune.

All you need to do is watch this brief video of Scott singing this song at the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967, and you will be aware of the all encompassing way in which the song captures the era. As you enjoy the video and see quick glimpses of passed on rock royalty (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Mama Cass) you grasp the significance of the song, gaining a realization of the hopes and dreams of everyone in the 1960s who wanted peace and love instead of war and hate.

As too frequently happens, we do not appreciate people until after they are gone. Such is the case with Scott McKenzie. When I listen to this song I think of not only the hazy, lazy days of that summer when I was a kid, but a time when I was innocent enough to believe that words could change the world, that flowers in your hair could temper the beasts of war, and that guns would be silenced when everyone understood the futility of violence.

Many years have passed since that Summer of Love in 1967, but Scott McKenzie's "San Francisco" remains and its resonance can shake you up, if only you listen and accept its message. Rest in peace, Scott; it seems a given that wherever you are now the people have flowers in their hair.

Photo Credit:

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Melky Cabrera: The Needle and the Damage Done

Article first published as Melky Cabrera: The Needle and the Damage Done on Blogcritics.
In Neil Young's great old song "The Needle and the Damage Done," he sang the line "every junkie's like a setting sun." That was written about heroin addiction, but the words can be applied to baseball players who thought they would have an edge by using steroids, human growth hormone, or synthetic testosterone. Pick your poison because it doesn't matter. The junkie keeps using because he's hooked on the high; the sports players keep doing it for the thrill of being better than everyone else. Neither thinks about the damage done until it is too late.

San Francisco Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera is the latest in a long line of baseball players who thought he could get around the rules. You know the names, the guys whose bodies and heads swelled like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. The guys who put up numbers that were ridiculous, but who were given a free ride because Major League Baseball liked the feel good image of the Sultans of Shots banging home run. Guys like Sosa, McGwire, and Bonds put fannies in the seats, and more people watched games and the cash registers kept ringing all over America. Good for everyone, right? What damage are we talking about?

The answer is that there are rules and those rules are in place and must be followed, but the problem here is that Cabrera may have taken it to beyond the level of just enhancing his stats. He may have created a website for a sports cream that does not exist, but it could have been an elaborate attempt on his part to obfuscate the truth about his testing positive for elevated testosterone. If that is the case, because Cabrera tested positive for an illegal substance, we will have a federal investigation that MLB is actually supporting. Gone are the days of burying heads in the sand and denial of reality.

Cabrera may have duped himself into thinking that what happened with Ryan Braun could happen for him. It seems that commissioner Bud Selig and his people learned a great deal from dropping the ball with Braun, and that means it is time for someone to pay the piper, and Cabrera's luck seems to just about have run out.

Baseball doesn't have a choice but to take a hard stance on this because the damage done has already been noted. We can talk about asterisks all we want in the record books; perhaps we can even think about some kind of altering of records and awards in light of what happened at Penn State, but the damage has been done to the game and to the fans, especially the young ones who look up to these guys. They have shamed a great sport and caused pain and it seems we have to face the inevitable litigation that will ensue.

So we have to ask the question: why did Cabrera do it? Look at his numbers and you will see part of the answer, but it is still puzzling that any baseball player would take the risk. Is being MVP of the All-Star game or a possible batting title worth a fifty day suspension followed by possible jail time? What about jeopardizing your team's chances for the playoffs? Most importantly, what about expulsion from the game? Not to mention the long term physical problems associated with using these drugs.

Right now baseball is doing it by the book. There are rules and Melky is accused of breaking them. It seems that they are going to make an example of him, and that should make all the other players even thinking about using have second thoughts. It's about time MLB took the air out of the Stay Puft guys, and it looks like the Players Association is going to have to support it because they really have no other choice.

Cabrera's fate is going to be painful, but he has no one else to blame but himself. The needle and the damage done indeed!
Photo Credits: Melky; Stay