Friday, October 24, 2008

When opportunism meets impulsivity

All successful politicians are good opportunists. Successful politicians grasp intuitively that the currency in which they are transacting is the ability to influence. “Vote for me” they all say, not as plainly and directly as that because the transaction of influence involves methods that are both subtle and unsubtle. And to be effective as an agent of influence, a good politician will seize on any and every opportunity to accrue political power, whenever such moments arise.

Barrack Obama is a tremendous opportunist. He could not have gotten as far as he has by his age if he was not. An excellent example of his opportunism is the way he has managed to capitalize on the decline of financial markets worldwide. He has responded with plans and long-term solutions. And more importantly, no matter how his opponent has tried to distract him from this focus, Obama clearly understands that this is what Americans want to talk about right now. Not about if a surge was successful or not in Iraq. Not on whether that war should or should not have occurred. But on their bank balances and what this portends for their financial future. So, like an opportunist extraordinaire, Obama continues to communicate messages of financial delivery.

John McCain is also an excellent opportunist. In fact, he may be better at spotting opportunities for manipulation than Obama ever will be. What McCain lacks in formal education, he more than makes up for with an innate wiliness that is in some sense admirable. The old goat can see an opportunity the second it presents itself. Unfortunately, he seems to lack the corrective ability to think things through before acting on them. This is called impulsivity.

A knack for opportunism works best when it is partnered with an equal capacity for excellent judgment and an ability to assess situations well before acting on them. This seems to be what McCain lacks. And if he loses the November elections, it will at least in part be because he ends up coming across as a reckless opportunist. At a time when Americans are looking for guidance from someone they can trust – and it’s hard enough for most of them to wrap their minds around the notion of trusting a Black man with the middle name of Hussein – it is becoming increasingly apparent that trusting McCain seems to present an even more difficult challenge.

McCain’s impulsivity did not start with the selection of Sarah Palin. But it is a good example of it. An opportunity presented itself – here was a good-looking conservative governor with an attractive family. Superficially, she seemed appropriate if your only impulse was to capture the votes of the 18 million women who wanted Hilary Clinton, and if you concluded that all you apparently needed to achieve this was someone with breasts and a vagina.

And at first, the selection of Mrs. Palin attracted so much attention that McCain must have momentarily believed he had done it right. He would have to be a complete idiot to still believe this. And McCain is no idiot. In hindsight he must know that he should have vetted her more carefully, thought through his options more rationally. But when you’re an impulsive individual, such thoughts often only occur in hindsight, if at all.

The same thing occurred when McCain latched on to Joe the Mascot. When Samuel Wurzelbacher (now infamously known as “Joe the Plumber") sought to embarrass Barack Obama by accusing him of potentially raising his taxes so that he might not be able to afford to buy the plumbing company he worked for, McCain seized on the opportunity to shame his opponent. Joe the Plumber was mentioned some 20 times in the subsequent debate. Some said that it was McCain’s best performance. There’s nothing like believing that you have struck gold for inspiring an old fart to excellence.

And once again McCain found himself with egg all over his face. Turns out that Joe was apparently neither a Joe nor a plumber. And that he actually has a lien on his house for unpaid taxes.

Opportunism has been defined as a tendency to seek to make political capital out of situations. The principal aim is the garnering of additional influence or support. The opportunist does not seek to genuinely win people over to a principled position. True opportunists do not care if people genuinely understand the issues. In fact, they might prefer it if you don’t because your improved political understanding is not their goal. But sometimes opportunism backfires. Badly.

Which brings me to Ashley Todd, a young McCain supporter who alleged that a Black man had attacked her, stolen her money, and, spotting her McCain-Palin sticker, proceeded to carve the letter “B” for Barack on her face. News reports claim that McCain immediately telephoned the young woman. Here was another opportunity to show up the kinds of despicable Black people who were supporting Obama.

Except that there was a curious thing about the facial mutilation. The letter B had been written backwards, as if it had been self-inflicted with the use of a mirror. And it turns that that is precisely what occurred. Ms. Todd has since confessed her lies and will face criminal charges.

I do not at all fault McCain for seizing hold of these opportunities and seeking to increase his power and influence through them. That is what good opportunists do. But opportunism works best when it is combined with a preexisting ideology. You have to stand for something, and when you know clearly what you stand for, you will recognize and seize those opportunities that mesh with your preexisting principles. Like many Democrats, Barrack Obama seems to believe that it is unfair that five percent of the population has managed to profit by get-rich-quick schemes that form the crux of our current financial crisis. He did not start believing this when the crisis occurred. He has been saying it all along. The plummeting of the economy provided him the opportunity to say this more meaningfully.

When you stand for nothing, or when you’re the kind of opportunist who will jettison seemingly heart-felt principles just so you can increase your political power and influence, you may luck out periodically. But mainly you end up seeming to be grasping at straws. Combine this with a tendency to be impulsive and the world concludes that you’re a reckless, dangerous man. And they find themselves increasingly willing to take their chances with an intelligent, thoughtful Black man.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tennis round up: it's been a while, non?

I must admit that I have been distracted by all of the drama surrounding the Presidential elections. For a moment there, I completely forgot that this is supposed to be a tennis blog. At least some of the time. So in this column, I catch up with all of the tennis developments I have not commented on over the past month or so. Apologies for these delayed reactions.

Tsonga wins first title
It’s unforgivable that I did not throw a party to celebrate this. When Jo-Wilfried Tsonga lost to Novak Djokovic in four tight sets at the finals of the Australian Open, tennis commentators hailed his performance as a breakthrough. Much was subsequently expected of him. Little was delivered. Unfortunately for the Frenchman, he soon found himself once again sidelined by injury. This went on for several months.

So when he again faced Djokovic in the finals of the Thailand Open, few felt he had any chance of winning. But win he did, using his massive forehand to save three break points in the final game before closing out the victory. The score was 7-6 (4), 6-4. Tsonga had won his first career title and was paid $94,000. But he denied that getting revenge for that Aussie Open loss was ever a motivating factor. I didn’t believe him for a second.

And still she rises
When Jelena Jankovic lost to Flavia Pennetta in the second round of the Zurich Open, it was hard not to wonder if she really cared. I’m not saying that she tanked – not at all. And I also don’t mean to minimize Pannetta’s performance. Flavia has had a rough time of it recently – between the break-up with the famous boyfriend (Carlos Moya), and a series of unfortunate injuries, it’s been great to see her back looking healthy and focused. And her making it all the way to the finals of the Zurich Open confirmed that her resurgence is no fluke.

However, Jankovic must have been bone-tired. Prior to this match, she had won three tournaments in three straight weeks – in Beijing, Stuttgart, and Moscow. Ironically, she beat a resurgent Vera Zvonareva in each of these tournaments, in the last one facing her in the finals. It’s nice to see Vera back again and seeming tougher. I remember the days when all she was known for was her pitiful crying during a match.

It’s been a helluva year in women’s tennis. Henin quit at the top of her game, leaving the field wide open for all takers. Davenport tried but she remains on the fringe and few really see her as a threat. Dinara Safina stepped up and out from under her brother’s shadow; these days it is she who seems to be inspiring him to give his all to tennis instead of to the Safinettes who have long lusted after him. Serena takes a time-out – but you know she will bring her A-game to Doha. Venus should qualify, and deservedly so. But Jankovic is indisputably the #1 player in the world.

While Serena plays with Common, Venus keeps focus on tennis
When last I saw photos of Serena, she was on the beach with Common, daring to wear a white bikini after Labor Day. But while Serena played at the beach – no doubt aware that Jankovic had usurped her #1 spot and Safina had supplanted her in # 2, but seemingly unbothered by both of these developments – Venus remained focused on her tennis. In a sense, Venus has no choice really. Serena has already qualified for the year-end Sony championship event in Doha. So have Jankovic and Safina. But Venus needs every win she can get her hands on in order to qualify.

Against Flavia Pennetta in Zurich, 28-year-old Venus brought her A-game. She knew better than to underestimate Pennetta, having lost to her the last three times they played. Pennetta was clearly aiming for a fourth win but Venus denied her. The first set tiebreak was nail-bitingly close. But when Venus broke Pennetta in the opening game of the second set, and then held serve with four straight aces, I knew that there was no looking back. And was there a more Hallmark ending than when she ran into the stands to kiss her father and her dog – and was serenaded by “Simply the best” upon her return.

¡Ay caramba!
Nadal's loss to the Frenchman, Gilles Simon, in front of the Hugo Boss supermodel ballgirls in Madrid, ended up being one of the best tennis matches I have ever seen. For everyone who disparaged Federer for losing to Simon in three tight sets of the opening round of the Rogers Open (Canada), it’s time to sit up and take notice. That was no fluke. Gilles Simon is a serious contender. He faced Nadal in front of the latter's home crowd and he did not flinch. Not after losing the first set, not after taking the third set to a tie-break, and not even after he found himself facing a 6-6 score in the tie-break. Simon calmly proceeded to win the next two points and the match. It was Nadal who seemed tense. More than anything else, Simon focused on breaking down Nadal’s lefty backhand. He pummeled it and pummeled it, and managed to make Nadal look defensive. Honestly, Nadal started hitting some of the kind of silly poking shots that you only see among club players of a certain (advanced) age. I feel badly that Nadal lost, but I can’t help but be thrilled for Simon. He deserved it.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Like rats fleeing a sinking ship

My aesthetician is a German woman. She has all of the newfangled technologies but prefers to use old-fashioned methods of skin cleansing – her fingers, a sterile needle, a steamer, washcloths. I like going there and sometimes even fall asleep as her heavily-accented English washes over me as she explains what she is about to do.

Getting a facial has become a luxury I can really no longer afford. But this being a long weekend, and having gotten so caught up in work that I did not make any plans, I decided to treat myself from tip to toe. I rationalized that the money I would have spent in a frenzy of weekend activity, I could simply spend on myself.

I started off with my hairdresser. Normally her salon is crowded with women seeking the expertise of her Dominican fingers. Yesterday the salon was com
pletely empty. I walked in and went straight to the shampoo chair. I had my choice of attendants – they were all available. On a typical Saturday, I could easily spend three hours just getting a shampoo and blow dry. Yesterday, I was out in an hour.

Before I left, I asked the salon owner what the matter was, although I knew that it had everything to do with the poor state of the economy. She responded that it was like that some days and that the day before she had had so many customers that she didn’t know what to do with them. I respected her right not to show me her fears. But while flat-ironing my hair she took a telephone call and switched to talking in Spanish. I gathered that she was planning a trip back to the Dominican Republic to see about starting a small hairdressing business there.

Next up was a pedicure. I decided to try a salon I had never used before, one that was conveniently located on the way from the hairdressers'. I have never in my life been so happily greeted by so many Vietnamese attendants. The empty salon offered me my choice of magazine, chair, and nail color. I wa
s once again the only customer. The salon advertised $5. off the spa pedicure. I took it. Honestly, it was the best pedicure I have ever had. The attendant was undistracted; there was no need to hustle me out of the massage chair to accommodate the next customer. I tried to ask her view of the empty salon but her English was just not good enough for meaningful communication. But of course I had my own answers. The economic backslash is in full swing.

I closed out the day getting a facial. The aesthetician greeted me warmly. Normally I have to call a good month ahead to get an appointment with her. Yesterday I called in the morning and got an appointment that same afternoon. As she lathered my face with cleansers, I commented on the surprising ease with which I had gotten an appointment. She opened up about how bad things were for her and how she has barely made any money in the past three months. She then revealed that if things got worse, she would just pack up and move back to Germany.

“How long have you lived in the States?” I asked incredulously.

“Thirty years!” she replied. “But I go back for holidays every year. My parents are still there. And to be honest I have always banked there. I prefer to save my money in Germany where it’s too far for me to spend it!” I
laughed along with her, but I could feel a knot of displeasure growing inside me.

Look, I get that attitudes like my hairdresser’s and my aesthetician’s are largely the legacy of a history in the United States of official policies of hostility towards minorities and immigrants. And I include those who came here voluntarily, those who were forced to do so in chains and shackles, and those who actually predated colonialization but found themselves herded like cattle onto reservations where they could be more easily marginalized. The 1790 Naturalization Act was explicitly designed to refuse citizenship to “non-whites”, which then included immigrants from Ireland, Germany, Italy and France. Other racist policies have included the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1924 National Origins Act, and the 1924 Immigration Act, all of which were aimed at restricting entry to the US by people categorized as “non-white”.

Today, racism is no longer an official component of US immigration policy. But in practice, US officials continue to persecute illegal immigrants from some countries while looking the other way for others. And the granting of a visa can be facilitated by the size of one’s bank account.

One outcome of such racist policies is that when times are hard in the US, and when this country needs the minds of its best thinkers and the skills of its best workers, we are faced with the phenomenon of some folks clamoring to get out. They’re like rats fleeing a sinking ship.

The truth is that despite its many racist policies, a whole lot of people found life in the US to be preferable to what existed in their countries of origin. But now that times are tough and seem on the verge of becoming tougher, many are plotting their escape. I find this both unseemly and unfair. If the US was a good enough country for you to live in when times were good, then it should be good enough during times of recession. In fact, you should be willing to do your part to help re-build it. To flee just because you have a passport allowing you to do so is a statement that you were just using this country conveniently and really never wanted to belong here. You forfeit the right to complain therefore if the door is slammed on your way out.

(cartoon remains copyrighted to Mike Lukovich of the Atlanta Journal;

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Weight of Our Dreams

I’ve been listening to Robin Thicke’s latest CD (titled “Something Else”). It’s the soulful follow-up to his “Evolution”. Every song is excellent, but his “Dreamworld” is hauntingly beautiful and touches me in a space that is at the same time hopeful but scary. It’s the space in which dreams are born and hope is truly the thing with feathers. Thicke (photo below from his website) croons…

I would tell Van Gogh that he was loved, there's no need to cry
I would say Marvin Gaye your father didn't want you to die
There would be no black or white, the world would just treat my wife right
We could walk down in Mississippi and no one would look at us twice

That's my dreamworld, that's my dreamworld
It's more than a dream

My dreamworld, that's my dreamworld

And I wanna live in the dream

I sometimes find it very hard to remain focused on my own dreams and wishes. I find that I am always aware of the surrounding realities that limit them. I strive and pursue like few others, but I am never surprised when reality reaches up and slaps me in the face, reminding me that not everything is under my singular control. That there are factors over which I have no control and which, in this country, will always influence how far I can go and how much I will achieve.

It’s so much easier then to deposit our dreams and hopes in others. Let them carry out our wishes. Let us feel the pride in their achievement, knowing that it came at tremendous cost and that they had the strength to fulfill it.

But some people crumble under the weight of other people’s dreams. This has long been my view of the Williams’ sisters. They became the repository of dreams and hopes in a way that James Blake never had to and Donald Young never will. And when they lose, there seems to be an extra layer of painfulness that is simply not there for say a Patty Schnyder or an Elena Dementieva.

After having worked so hard to become the #1 player in the world, Serena Williams elected to disappear after the US Open, leaving the field wide open for anyone named Jelena Jankovic who wanted to overtake her. Serena returned at the Porsche Grand Prix this week but seemed unusually vulnerable. She won the first set against China’s Na Li. In fact, she made Na Li swallow a bagel. And then she squandered it by losing the next two sets – and tumbled heavily from her #1 berth.

Then last night I watched Venus lose to Jelena Jonkovic, who is once again the #1 player in the world. Anyone could have predicted Venus’ loss last night – Jankovic is playing that well. In fact, I truly believe that if Serena had lost the second set in the finals of the US Open, Jankovic would have won the trophy. Jankovic is oozing a level of self-confidence that is remarkable to watch. Always able to hold on to her laughter at the tensest of moments, she has the remarkable ability to shrug off losing a first set and then act as if the match actually just got started.

But unlike her countryman Novak Djokovic, Jankovic does not seem to be carrying the burden of Serbian dreams. Sure she has her vocal supporters, but it is Ana Ivanovic and Novak Djokovic who seemed to be the anointed ones who were expected to deliver. Jankovic was always the less attractive also-ran, the retriever that I and many like me dismissed as nothing but. Unlike Jankovic, Venus and Serena Williams have never been freed from having to carry the burden of expectation, the weight of the dreams of Black folk.

I find it remarkable that Barack Obama has written two books in which the words “dream” and “hope” feature prominently in the titles. This suggests to me that he totally gets it. And that he actually may not mind carrying people's hopes and dreams.

I first heard about Barack Obama from a 70-year-old white woman, a California psychologist who started peppering my inbox with news about him starting some two years ago. I now know many other women like her, white women who volunteered to make calls and help raise funds for his campaign. Barack Obama has become the repository of hope for people of all colors who dare to dream of a racially unified USA.

But I can’t help but worry about the utter mess he seems about to inherit. You know the details. I don’t have to tell you. In fact, I explained before that this is precisely why I did not want him to win. And while I do appreciate the timing of George Bush’s implosion – which I assume was supposed to occur after Obama had assumed power so that he and the Democrats could carry the full weight of blame – there is a great deal about this that is unfortunate.

It is unfortunate that Barack Obama may have the difficult task of telling the American people that we have actually been living in a dreamworld. The party is clearly over. The business of living on a hypothetical economy is no longer working. It’s time to face the reality that the rest of the world either hates or mocks us, that poverty in this country comes in all shades and hues, and that the only way forward is through unity. That is my dream.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Sex addict…or the effects of Californication?

I read recently that the actor David Duchovny has checked himself into rehab for the treatment of a sex addiction. I must admit that I had a good belly laugh with that one.

I have never met a sex addict. I have however met a slew of men who claimed the disease of sex addiction after being busted for infidelity. I’ve also met many wives who clung desperately to the belief that the reason for their husband’s habitual failure to keep his dick in his pants was an addiction to sex beyond his control.

I have no idea if this is what Mr. Duchovny’s wife believes. I have never met her and I have not seen any interviews in which she expressed an opinion on her husband’s supposed addiction. I also actually like them both as actors and I wish them well in their attempts to reconstitute their marriage. But if Mr. Duchovny does indeed have a sex addiction, I would be fascinated to read the scholarly monographs on this diagnosis.

Psychologists have long disagreed over whether 'sex addiction' is a legitimate disorder. 1970’s clinicians influenced the inclusion of sex addiction in the 1980 version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III). But by 1994, sex addiction had been dropped from the DSM, as researchers argued persuasively that only substances, not behavior, could be addictive. The issue however remains unresolved.

Ever since homosexuality was first included and then removed from the DSM systems, psychological researchers have remained wary of pathologizing human sexual behavior. And this for good reason – it is very difficult to tease out concerns about morality when discussing the topic of sex. In the current version of the DSM, sexual disorders are classified in three categories: sexual dysfunctions, paraphilias, and gender identity disorder.

Sexual dysfunctions represent impairment in normal sexual functioning, such as the inability to achieve an erection, reach orgasm, or experience pain-free intercourse (e.g., vaginismus), in the absence of a medical basis, and with a level of distress that hinders the person's everyday functioning.

One problem with this category of ‘dysfunction’ is that the manual does not indicate how long a problem should endure before it crosses over into dysfunction. Nor does it clarify why level of associated distress is even relevant to diagnosis.

Paraphilias involve sexual feelings or acts involving non-human partners (e.g., fetishism), non-consensual human partners (e.g., pedophilia), or sexual practices that involve suffering by one or both partners (e.g., sadism).

But how can you classify a behavior as a disorder when most of its sufferers are not in the least distressed by their actions? Most individuals with paraphilias do not voluntarily seek psychological help but tend often to be mandated into doing so after getting into legal trouble. I read recently about a man who inserted his penis into the hole in a park bench. Chances are he would have continued to engage in this activity had his member not gotten stuck, requiring rescue by paramedics.

Finally, the category of gender identity disorder includes those individuals commonly referred to as transsexuals, who express a persistent desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex. Think Isis on the most recent version of ANTM.

Which all brings me back to Mr. Duchovny and his alleged sex addiction. The notion of addiction implies an inability to control behavior, a tendency to continue engaging in the behavior in spite of negative consequences, and a compulsion to spend inordinate amounts in pursuit of the activity. Think gambling. Or Amy Winehouse.

I find it beyond ironic that Mr. Duchovny is the star of a ribald and sexy series called Californication. He plays the protagonist, an irresponsible, constantly horny guy named Hank. I can’t help but wonder how he handled the weekly temptation of pretending to have sex with one beautiful woman after another on camera. I wonder also if his problem might be less sex addiction and more (mere) occupational hazard.