Monthly Archives: May 2013

Jim Valvano, Forever Relevant

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Life should mean something. Every life. Beyond tiny personal circles, most don’t, at least not in the everlasting sense. For a few anointed souls, like Jim Valvano, fate decides otherwise.

In the two days leading up to the 1983 title game, college basketball coach Valvano’s team was universally pitied by the sports media. Houston’s talent-packed Cougars wouldn’t just beat the NC State Wolfpack, they’d humiliate them in front of fifty million viewers. Didn’t happen. NC State won on a last-second shot and reminded us that every now and again little David gets to hoist Goliath’s severed head.

But triumphant underdog isn’t Valvano’s legacy.  It was a basketball game, for godsake. That one, though, was preamble, a setup. The explosive celebrity earned from that single game provided a platform for this telegenic, New York wise-cracker. Even after his days at NC State ended in 1990, Valvano thrived in the public eye. Speaking engagements and color commentating for ESPN filled his time and wallet. Life as good as it could get.

In June, 1992, Valvano awoke with pain in his groin. The following April, bone cancer killed him at forty-seven. Dead, but never gone. He left something huge for all of us. Here’s the link to his short speech at the Espy awards on March 3, 1993 ( Some of you may have seen a snippet of it, but watch and listen to the whole twelve minutes. Admire and love this dying man, a stranger you know you’d treasure as a friend. Be awed by his grace and humor, by his message of hope, and strength, and acceptance. Imagine yourself being able to carry off such a gallant, cheerful, dry-eyed farewell. To my fellow writers: how challenging would it be to create such pathos through the printed word? I couldn’t.

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Willful Stupidity

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Stupid is a stinging word, but sometimes you just have to call a spade a shovel.

I’m a simple man. (Don’t waste a shot here. They’ll be better opportunities aplenty.) Being simple, I see life as a stream of consequences after decisions, and I think people know when they’ve  made a bad one. Not afterward, when the excrement hits the blades, but at the exact moment they decide. Everything that follows is rationalization and a hunt for blame.

I write novels now, but short fiction is where I broke in. Some years ago I read a story I wish I’d written. It’s about an Indian tribe that reveres their elderly. During one ferocious winter, the tribe is already teetering on starvation when the old chief takes sick. High fever, vomiting blood, nasty stuff. In his delirium, he pleads for buffalo meat. They keep serving him, even though he throws up after each bowlful. Every puked meal nudges the survivors closer to mass death, but they fulfill his demand until the food is gone, at which point the chief dies. Like all good short fiction, the reader is left to contemplate the tribe’s fate.

What’s this got to do with anything? It’s a great portrayal of willful stupidity disguised as compassion. I see a modern version of this Indian story playing out daily. It’s called deficit spending. America is participating in willful stupidity on an epic scale. Deficit spending is such a well-lit path to catastrophe, the only possible explanation is collective, willful stupidity. No, it’s worse. It’s sanctimonious gluttony. Elected officials, wrapped in Compassion flags, cling to power by stuffing the wealth of future generations down the gullets of those who could get by without it – not quite as well, but well enough.

Think back, and not far back. Exactly when was it that dead bodies littered the streets because we had no national health insurance? What family earning $58,000/yr. starved without food stamps (excuse me, Electronic Benefit Transfers)? What great leap forward resulted from free cell phones (which our government buys from a Mexican company owned by Carlos Slim, the richest man on earth)? How did we conduct two wars, yet cut taxes? If voters would only ask these questions before (and after) agreeing to steal from the unborn, willful stupidity might lose its stranglehold on economic policy.

There is a solution. Not a pleasant one, but a real one. Halt new spending, same as any rational person does during lean times. Continuing with this fantasy, once the tourniquet is in place, retrace all recently enacted spending and eliminate it. Cut out everything until outflows match revenues. According to Bill Clinton, that would be 1998-ish. Fifteen years might be clouding my memory, but I don’t recall 1998 being all that horrible.

Would this create hard times in the short run? Absolutely. Phantom money printed by the Fed has funded a lot of jobs for a lot of years now. Extracting that cash from the economy, even slowly, will impact our standard of living. But remember, we’ve already borrowed and consumed seventeen trillion of “wealth” created by a printing press, so, like the Fed’s dollars, our standard of living has been fake for quite some time. Look, we’re going to have to live on what we produce at some point. Do it now. Drinking more to postpone the hangover only guarantees a worse hangover. Unfortunately, that one I’m sure about.

Ah, but enough doom-saying, citizens. Take heart. While “fake” can’t survive forever, most of us are safe, for now. No elected official  – nor Fed Chairman – would dare invite a recession/depression on their watch, so none of what I propose will happen. Still, each sunrise inches the reckoning closer. A terrible day is coming when desperate people are going to discover the Greediest Generation has eaten the seed corn, and willful stupidity can no longer keep the wolf from the door.

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