My Favorite Football Game

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I became a New England Patriots fan about forty years ago when Steve Grogan began playing quarterback for them. They had some other good players too, but it took them a long time to get anywhere in the playoffs. Still, when I moved to New England myself, that kind of reinforced my being a fan.

It was 1985 when they made their first Super Bowl, and that was against the Chicago Bears team with the tremendous defense. New England got stomped. Their next time to the Superbowl was in the late 1990s. They didn’t get slaughtered that time, but still lost pretty badly.

Two things changed all that: the arrival of Bill Belichick and the arrival of Tom Brady. Belichick became one of the most successful coaches in the NFL. Brady became arguably the best quarterback in the game today, and one of the best all-time. I understand why a lot of people don’t like the team: they win an awful lot. But they didn’t used to, and I rooted for them before they became this good. That said, this year’s Super Bowl was possibly the best football game I’ve ever watched.

The Atlanta Falcons were a very good team this year, both offensively and defensively. They pretty much started the game hitting on all cylinders.

The game was scoreless when I began watching, but didn’t stay that way long. Brady was intercepted, and the Falcons quickly scored a touchdown. It didn’t take long for them to score a second one too. Meanwhile, their defense was putting pressure on Brady and covering the receivers well. Brady threw another interception, which was run all the way back for a touchdown. At that point I thought I’d never seen the Patriots play so badly in a big game, and began thinking about congratulating friends rooting for the Falcons. A field goal late in the first half didn’t seem to make much difference.

This was accentuated early in the second half when the Falcons scored another touchdown. At 28-3, a Patriot’s win seemed impossible. An article I read the next day said at that point the chance of their winning was less than 1 %. But at that point things began to change.

The Patriot’s defense began to be more effective, holding the Falcons scoreless the rest of the way. Julio Jones made a pretty amazing catch on the sideline, but the Falcons couldn’t take advantage.

As the Patriot’s defense became more effective, Atlanta’s defense became less. As Atlanta’s offense spent less time on the field, the defense became tired and less able to put pressure on Brady. In Denver’s win against the Patriots last year their ability to put pressure on Brady consistently all game was a key element. Atlanta began well, but couldn’t keep the pressure on. When Tom Brady isn’t being pressured he picks defenses apart.

The Patriots scored a touchdown in the third quarter, but missed the extra point. They then scored a field goal, which made the score 28-12. A win still seemed impossible.

But when the Patriots scored a touchdown and made a two-point conversion to cut the lead to 28-20, the momentum had definitely changed. I think it was on the next drive that Julian Edelman made possibly the greatest catch I’ve ever seen. Brady passed to him when he was surrounded by three defensive players. The pass bounced off his hands, but he was able to turn, grab it in the air, and keep it from hitting the ground as he fell. The Patriots scored again, made the two-point conversion again, and were tied. They couldn’t score again before the end of the game, so it became the first Super Bowl game to go to overtime.

But not for long. By this time it seemed pretty inevitable. The Patriots got the ball again and scored the winning touchdown. After a difficult start Brady completed some 43 passes for 466 yards. After falling so far behind, it would have been easy for him and the team to give up, but they never did.

Arguably, this was their most challenging Super Bowl. Every one they’ve been in since Belichick and Brady arrived has been close and competitive. But they never fell as far behind as in this one. This was their seventh appearance in the fifteen years Brady has been quarterback, and they’ve lost two of those seven, both very close games to the New York Giants. That means they’ve won five, a record for one quarterback.

Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers won the first two Super Bowls, which were part of five NFL championships, mostly before the Super Bowl began. The Packers lost only one championship under Starr, so they were arguably a better team than the Patriots. It’s an interesting discussion, though, since they were also arguably much more talented, probably equivalent to an all-star team at every position. There have been other teams comparably talented, but no others as successful.

The Patriots have been unique because they HAVEN’T had great talent at every position. They had Corey Dillon for a couple of years and have LeGarrett Blount now. Those have probably been their best running backs.

They had Randy Moss for one season ten years ago when they went undefeated in the regular season, but lost the Super Bowl. Julian Edelman is a fine one now, as is Rob Gronkowski (who was injured and couldn’t play in the Super Bowl). Otherwise, they were good but not great.

Their defense was pretty good all season. One way of measuring that is that they won three of the four games Brady didn’t play in, using two quarterbacks with relatively little experience. The two played well, but so did the defense. That’s why it was surprising they gave up twenty-one points in the Super Bowl. I have to give Atlanta a lot of credit there, but they weren’t able to keep the pressure on, which is at least partly a tribute to New England. Bill Belichick is a master of making adjustments, and he made them throughout this game.

It almost seemed inevitable when New England scored early in overtime to win the game. The momentum had completely shifted, and Atlanta’s defense, good as they were all season, just couldn’t stop the Patriots offense.

This sixteen year run has been pretty amazing, though not as amazing, perhaps, as the Packers run during the 1960s. One difference has been the Patriots sustaining excellence over a longer period of time. After the 1967 Super Bowl many of the Packers veterans retired (at the same time Vince Lombardi left to coach the Washington Redskins), and they weren’t very good again until the 1990s. In the case of the Patriots, the continuity is been mainly Belichick and Brady. Others have come and gone, but they’ve stayed at the top of the AFC East, and usually at or near the top of the NFL.

To say that no one saw that coming is an understatement. Hardly anyone knew anything about Brady when he was drafted. Belichick had been head coach in Cleveland, with little to show for it. He was named head coach of the New York Jets, succeeding Bill Parcells, but changed his mind after one day, and took the Patriots job. He had one losing season, then went to the Super Bowl the next year, which was when Brady became the starting quarterback. They followed that up with two more Super Bowls in the next three years, winning each one of them. They’ve been near or at the top just about every season since.

It’s not that I want New England to win every year. I grew up loving pro sports teams from Cleveland, Ohio, and would love to see the Browns get somewhere in the NFL. I was thrilled last year when the Cavaliers won the NBA title and the Indians went to the World Series.

But Brady can’t play forever, and Belichick can’t coach forever. I expect New England will fall back to mediocrity eventually, as every team does. But I’ve enjoyed this run, and especially this last game.

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An Interesting Time

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We live in a fractured nation, and some of us hardly even know it because we’ve imposed a de facto segregation  on ourselves, and often hear few opinions we disagree with, except on TV.

But there is disagreement, and it’s virulent. Conservatives think conservatism is the natural way to be, and think liberals are hypocritical and malicious. Liberals feel the same way about conservatives. Neither lives up to their best ideals; both feel the other wants to impose their views on a whole range of issues. Not just abortion, but in religion, schools, etc. Part of the problem is economic: an expanding economy and good pay makes up for a multitude of sins, but a lot has to do with cherished beliefs too. A Dominionist Christian is quoted as saying other denominations should have their religious liberties taken away. This is extreme, but isn’t different from past Christian attitudes. It’s contrary to the vision our Founding Fathers had, though.

The Founding Fathers weren’t, in many cases, conventionally religious. They amended the Constitution to include religious liberty because of the still remembered (by some) religious wars of the 17th century. One way to avoid these was to allow every religion to practice, but none to impose its views on any other. The monotheistic religions tend to produce fanatics, and fanatics like to impose their own beliefs. Perhaps we periodically need to be reminded how well that works.

Daryl Davis attended Howard University intending to become a spy or a diplomat. He became a musician instead. He also acquired an unusual hobby: he began talking to members of the Ku Klux Klan.

This may have begun accidentally. He talked to someone after a performance who appreciated how he played piano. That person was a Klan member, and maybe other contacts followed from that one. Davis’s attitude towards him and other Klan members wasn’t accidental, though. He said his question was, How can you hate me when you don’t even know me? It turned out not many could. All many of them wanted was to be listened to. After he listened to them, many began feeling different, and got out of the Klan. Those leaving no longer had any use for their robes, and gave them to him. In the PBS program about him he estimates he has twenty-five or six such robes.

That part is inspiring. He has justified his faith that people can change. What is sad is when he talks to three activists in Baltimore who don’t believe white supremacists CAN change. I couldn’t really blame them: nothing in their experience leads them to believe that, and they feel Davis is a traitor.

They’re not the only people who feel others are traitors, or are angry for other reasons. According to Sidney Blumenthal, our 45th president has always pined for the love of New York City, which has resolutely withheld it from him. This may account for the resentment he displays, and also for his ability to engage the resentment of others, which enabled him to win his campaign. It’s possible we will suffer because New York City didn’t love Donald Trump enough, but many people feel unloved. Christianity told us to love one another, but didn’t teach us how to do that. Consequently, we have done a miserable job of it.

In Mary Renault’s novel about ancient Greece, The Last of the Wine, one character quotes Socrates as saying, “Be what you wish to seem.” This expresses much of the exasperation various groups in America feel about each other: not necessarily their views, but that they don’t behave according to those views. Shaming opponents for believing differently doesn’t change their minds, it causes resentment.

It’s not hard to understand why many people oppose abortion. At least until they know someone who wants to get one because of, for example, rape or incest.

Homosexuality is a similarly hot-button issue. Sexuality is a difficult issue for almost everyone, and the idea of not only having sex outside of marriage but with one’s own gender seems alien to most. Some can be persuaded that it’s not so evil when they know someone who is gay, but not all can. Some parents reject their children when they discover they have AIDS. They seem to believe their children have chosen a life of evil, but aren’t objective enough to ask why they would choose an orientation that so many people detest. When asked that question, they take it very personally, as an attack on their faith, as in some ways it is. Faith in the literal truth of the Bible is a kind of anchor for many who find any analysis of its text to be personally threatening. That’s much of the quarrel of a certain kind of conservative with liberals: liberals make them think unwanted thoughts. That some of these thoughts may embody the sort of compassion Jesus Christ taught doesn’t improve matters. We all prefer the religion that confirms our preexisting beliefs.

When such a resentment is present, it’s not hard to play on it and encourage hatred of others. How did Daryl Davis persuade white supremacists that their views were mistaken? He didn’t judge them. He listened to them and, he says, they persuaded themselves.

Not all will be persuaded, though. The 45th president may or may not emulate Hitler in every way, but there’s a family resemblance in their resentment. Hitler’s father abused him. The president’s father may not have, but the president does seem to feel unloved. Whether it’s New York City he feels rejected by, or whether the rejection comes from elsewhere, it seems likely many of us are going to be punished for it because many others share the feeling. Liberals are an enemy many can agree on, so liberals will be punished. Ordinary people may find that as liberals get punished, so do they, and regret their vote, but by then it will be too late.

Perhaps less justly, Muslims and Hispanics will be punished too. They too seem alien to a lot of people, so are easy to stereotype. It’s not hard for people who don’t know any Muslims to believe they all are terrorists. That few of the Muslims in this country are, that few are likely to get here, and that we have terrorists of our own seems harder to process, especially if one sympathizes in some respects with the white terrorists. Fear of immigrants is easy to take advantage of. The mechanism seems to be that many fear new immigrants will do to us what our ancestors did to Native Americans and imported black slaves. We all know we haven’t treated minorities well, which gives us good reason to fear them. Because of our fears, we mistreat them again, which won’t resolve our difficulties.

Anger can be a potent fuel, but it doesn’t help us harmonize with our neighbors. Unfortunately, the time seems ripe for a holy war. War certainly releases tensions, though it would be nice if we could release them in a more productive fashion. But that’s a matter of individual decision. Perhaps enough individuals will find a better way to behave than they are being encouraged to. This is an interesting time, in the Chinese sense.

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring

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I remember Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, though I never read the book. Her thesis that pollution was damaging the natural world always seemed plausible to me, not something that I could disagree with.

That book turned out to be a watershed event: it was only after its publication that laws to protect the environment began to be passed, an issue which continues to be important today in many more ways than Carson enumerated then.

The book had been inspired by the scientists at chemical companies like Monsanto who declared war on insects like mosquitoes and fire ants. They didn’t want to just control, but to eradicate them, and massive amounts of DDT were their weapon of choice. Carson saw the problems with this kind of strategy.

One was that, while the poison killed vast numbers of insects, some that had some resistance survived, and their offspring replaced those killed, and were no longer controllable by DDT, exactly like the misuse of antibiotics creates strains of resistant bacteria. To eradicate resistant insects or bacteria means an ever escalating arms race to find new insecticides or antibiotics.

In the case of insecticides, there were immediate problems. DDT didn’t kill just insects, but other organisms too. Worms were loaded with the poison, and gave it to the robins fed by their parents. They might be poisoned outright or acquire defective immune systems, making their survival more precarious. Earth and water were poisoned too, and the poison became more concentrated as it made its way up the food chain

The problem was also parallel to atomic energy. It became clear, at least by the time the hydrogen bomb was first tested in 1952 that the real danger of atomic weapons wasn’t the explosions, extreme as these were, but the radioactive fallout they generated, which has the potential to destroy much or all life on earth. Unfortunately, it’s not just the bombs that are dangerous, as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima have demonstrated. Radioactive waste is toxic, and for a very long time. The last I heard, the Japanese had been unable to stop leakage of it from Fukushima. Who knows how far the pollution will travel, and how serious the damage will be?

What Carson was trying to combat was the optimism of scientists employed by chemical companies who believed that chemicals were the solution to all problems. DDT was the main insecticide of the 1950s, and thanks to Carson it was eventually banned. But DDT was only a small example of the problem of technology.

Technology can do amazing and wonderful things. It can also generate new problems for every solution it achieves. Technology can be, and often is, poisonous. But it’s also extremely convenient in many ways. How many of us want to live a more natural lifestyle? A life without central heating, inside toilets and electricity could be most inconvenient.

Native Americans always had great respect for nature. They also tolerated heat, cold, and other rigors of mostly outdoor living. Few of us are used to that kind of life or wish to adopt it.

And Carson’s book enraged chemical companies, who did everything they could to discredit her. They didn’t succeed. She was able to demonstrate that they had been reckless in their use of DDT and other chemicals, her book became a best-seller, and generated a movement that passed laws to protect the environment.

DDT has been far from the only environmental problem, though. We now know, for instance, that human activity (like driving cars, for example, or burning coal) has saturated the atmosphere with too much carbon dioxide (among other chemicals), causing global temperatures to rise. Consequences of that are unlikely to be good.

We also know that hydraulic fracturing pollutes huge amounts of water, and that injecting the waste back into the ground causes earthquakes. And that insecticides are making bees an endangered species.

All of the above makes US an endangered species. Without bees, it becomes more difficult to pollinate our crops. Global warming seems to produce more extreme weather and higher sea-levels–at least. It may produce droughts and eventually deserts too. Polluted air, earth, and water, endanger us, and all the other plant and animal species that live with us.

Many of us, especially in the technologically developed countries, live intellectually and emotionally in a kind of parallel universe where nature is found in parks and makes a pretty spectacle. We rarely realize that we are part of nature, and depend on the interaction of all its species to make our own lives possible.

Wars are going to be a strong possibility in the next decades, partly because climate change will make some areas unlivable, and partly because natural resources are being used up at an unsustainable rate. The USA, with 5-7% of the world’s population uses a disproportionate percentage of its resources. That can’t continue without readjustment, maybe drastic and chaotic.

But the real danger may be much more subtle. Pollution increasingly poisons the entire environment, and corporations who consider they have no responsibility except to shareholders continue to behave in environmentally reckless ways. Fracking is by no means the only bad idea (though convenient in the short-run). Oil spills have been increasing, since our demand for energy doesn’t decrease. Hard rock mines may be even more environmentally dangerous than oil. And many people prefer to believe that all these problems are merely lies by a conspiracy to tell them what to do.

Unfortunately, some people HAVE to be told what to do. Large corporations have proven they’re not interested in self-government, which means they need to be regulated by public servants, which they resent, and often successfully subvert. Liberty for them is the license to profit without regard for anyone else. If capitalism (to say nothing of the human race) is to survive, its attitude must change. Of course it is unwilling to go gently into that good night.

Carson realized she wouldn’t live long as she was finishing the book. She had had several lumps removed from her breast at various times, and then a radical mastectomy. Her doctor told her he had gotten all the cancer, but lied. The cancer had metastasized. She underwent radiation treatments which made her able to finish the book, but the cancer metastasized further, and she died little more than a year after the book was published. Not before she was able to defend it from critics in the chemical industry who wanted to keep selling insecticides at the same rate they had been. The NPR documentary made it clear that Carson had no problem with the responsible use of insecticides, but did have with using them in huge volumes.

It’s also clear that in the last fifty-plus years industries have been using similar tactics to be able to continue unwise practices. Cigarette manufacturers maintained that smoking wasn’t dangerous, but eventually had to stop denying. There are still climate change deniers who object that scientists predictions aren’t always accurate–true enough, because the world climate system is very large, but not because human activity isn’t affecting climate. A lot of lobbying has gone into preventing effective action to slow the changes down.

The documentary points out that Carson was one of the first to tell people (after the modern age had forgotten) how nature includes the human race and everything else, and that damaging other organisms (plants or animals) eventually damages us too. A lot of people have been inspired by her to try to make positive change in our collective behavior, with some success, but not yet enough. I’m afraid catastrophe(s) will have to be our teacher.