“The Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times”

Author and journalist Mark Leibovich writes for the New York Times and often appears on NPR and MSNBC. He usually focuses on politics and is based in Washington DC. He took time out from his usual writing about politics, some of it because of the wildly emotional 2016 Presidential election, to write about his love of professional football and the New England Patriots. The book c0vers the 2017 and 2018 seasons, and the National Football League (NFL) has moved on from some of the controversies that were prominent then. I know a lot about the NFL, having followed it since I was a child starting with the 1974 season.

Leibovich opened my eyes to the life of the owners. Much media attention is devoted to the players and coaches/general managers, so I liked the inside view of the lifestyles and dynamics of the owners. What a life they have! I would certainly try to buy a professional sports franchise if I was a billionaire. I wouldn’t devote my entire life to it, like Jerry Jones, but it would be entertaining to own a team. The NFL owners are predominantly white, Republican, old men, and it shows in the way the NFL runs its business. They treat it like a club that meets several times a year for the Super Bowl, off-season meeting, and the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Many have the trappings of wealth, including much younger beautiful girlfriends, stadium luxury suites, mega-yachts, etc. The value of professional sports teams has skyrocketed in recent years. Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson started the team with an investment of $193 million in 1993 and sold it for $2.2 billion in 2018.

Oliver, Owen and my Uncle Jack at a Philadelphia Eagles game in 2012.

I forgot how much Donald Trump talked about professional football and politicized Colin Kapernick’s protests for his own gain. Trump was also friends with some owners, especially Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Typical Trump to seize upon an incident for his own political gain. He is loathsome to me, and I am not looking forward to the 2024 elections when he will have a giant platform to spread his negativity and further divide Americans. As Douglas Murray says, Republicans look over inciting the Capital riot, Trump’s false claims of election fraud, and his immorality and corruption because he is a candidate who could win the next election. It frustrates me, but I understand the election game. Below are some other tidbits from the book I noted while reading.

  • “The NFL loves anything that evokes Rome – e.g., Roman numerals for Super Bowls, coliseums, etc.”
  • The NFL is a perfect TV sport, both in productions and ratings…only 7% of NFL fans have ever attended a game live.
  • “…tailgating is one of the truly great remnants of American unity, creativity and appetite…”
  • Leibovich described former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle “his mix of personal charm, toughness, business foresight, and political touch steered the league through a remarkable period of growth, prosperity, and turmoil in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.”
  • The NFL is a big business with current commissioner Roger Goodell aspiring to $25 billion dollars by 2027. In 2019, the league collected $15.6 billion, an all-time high. COVID brought it down to $12 billion in 2020.
  • 83% of NFL fans are white (Reuters, 2007) while 70% of the players are black.
  • Jim Harbaugh, former coach of San Francisco 49ers and current U of Michigan coach said the game is “the last bastion of hope for toughness in America in men.”
  • I liked the use of the word glib, which means insincere or shallow.

Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City

The Netherlands has been on my mind lately as my son Owen applied to some universities there. In doing some research, I found Russell Shorto’s book, Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City. I recently listened to him on NPR’s Fresh Air, promoting his latest book on the history of his family in his native Pennsylvania and an uncle who was a mobster. Shorto is a narrative historian writer, most famous for his book highlighting the Dutch origins of New York City. With this book as well, he relied on his time working at the John Adams Institute a non-profit promoting American cultural ties with Netherlands. Amsterdam has a long and fascinating history and Shorto kept me turning pages to see what would happen next.

The premise of the book is the 17th century Amsterdam is the birthplace of liberalism. Shorto’s definition of liberalism is the “centrality of the individual” which started the Enlightenment, a move from medieval to modern thinking. He argues the founding of Amsterdam is intertwined with the commitment to individual freedom and rights for everyone and a break from received wisdom from the Church and monarchy. It was not a smooth transition and those same world views are still at battle today, 500 years later. But this was the start of our modern Western society with an “ideology centered on the beliefs about equality and individual freedom.” Still today, Amsterdam is known for its tolerance of different ideas, beliefs, tastes, etc. It shows that our family is considering university study there for our children. The university system welcomes foreigners and with their three-year programs and relatively low costs, it is a viable alternative to an American higher education.

The Netherlands is a fascinating country. It is basically one big river delta with three rivers (Rhine, Meuse, Scheldt) entering the sea creating a wide delta. Since 1000 AD, inhabitants of the region have had to work together to reclaim land through building dykes, canals, pumps as weapons against the water. Shorto believes the necessity to form “complex communal organizations” to reclaim the land explains the development of liberalism. It was always a great trading city as well, and the port from early on saw the Dutch people doing business with a variety of people and cultures.

I didn’t know much about the Netherlands break with Catholicism. It was a long (it became known to history as the Eighty Years’ War) and violent revolution against the Spanish Catholic rule of Charles V and his son Phillip. The George Washington figure for the Dutch is William the Orange (hence the color of the Netherlands soccer team). The chapter also explains the origins of the Calvinist Church. While I was a university student in Michigan, our liberal arts college played sports against Calvin and Hope Colleges, two higher education institutions on the west coast of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula where many Dutch Calvinist settlers migrated. Today there are towns named Holland and they are famous for their tulips.

Shorto also gives rich biographies of the many innovative thinkers the city produced throughout history. My favorite was the philosopher Spinoza who opened the minds of people to secular rule, humanism and individual rights. I loved the quote of Einstein Shorto found, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.” Spinoza was really a man way ahead of his time. “democracy is of all forms of government the most natural and most consonant with individual liberty”.

Amsterdam used to be the richest, most powerful city in the world during the height of the Dutch East Indies Company . Although they exploited countries around the world (Indonesia, South Africa), they did improve the system of global trade and the company started the world’s first stock market and for better or worse, the start of consumerism. When Descartes visiting the city during its golden age he wrote, “Where else on earth could you find, as easily as you do here, all the conveniences of life and all the curiosities you could hope to see? In what other country could you find such complete freedom, or sleep with less anxiety, or find armies at the ready to protect you, or find fewer poisonings or acts of treason or slander?” His followers were deemed radicals and dangerous, just because they were rational, clear-headed and free from superstition and dogma. The Dutch specialized also in the concept of gedogen the “look-the-other-way form of tolerance that guided Amsterdam through the religious upheaval through its history.

I forgot how many great minds the city has produced and nourished. Rembrandt, Spinoza, Erasmus, Van Gogh, etc.

In the second half of the book, he goes into how Amsterdam’s liberalism was exported and is the foundation of who we are today. He touched on some of the same topics in his most famous book, “The Island at the Center of the World“.

  • The city gets its name from a dam built on the Amstel River (Amstelredamme) in the year 1200.
  • entrepot – a port that receives goods and ships them out to; an intermediary shipment center [on-tray – poh]
  • inchoate – not fully formed; recently formed; developing [in-ko-ate]

“The End of October” Lawrence Wright

I am still diving into epidemiology (even though I cannot pronounce the word) and read Lawrence Wright’s “The End of October”. It is a novel about a world pandemic that he started writing in 2017. It is good timing for the book to come out in 2020 and it is on the New York Times Best Seller list.

Wright got a lot of things right! In the novel, the president puts the vice-president in charge, governments decree quarantines all over the globe, many people denying it is serious, etc. The source of his fictional influenza is a mystery until the very end, and for those of you who have not read the book, I will not spoil it. He named it the Kongoli Fever, which came from an HIV detention camp in Indonesia where the disease first came known to the world. The mortality rate of Kongoli is significantly higher than Covid-19, 30% which causes two major wars and a massive breakdown of society everywhere.

I absolutely loved the book because it was a thrilling story combined with lessons in public health, virology and history. You can see Wright did a lot of research and he has won prizes for his non-fiction. I want to read his books on Al Qaeda and the state of Texas. But his writing is so good, that even though you are learning a lot, it doesn’t feel like a lecture. The main character is Henry Parsons, a CDC virologist.

Below are some of my take-aways from the book:

  • “Disease was more powerful than armies. Disease was more arbitrary than terrorism. Disease was crueler than human imagination.” I agree with that and it is illogical to spend more money on fighting terrorism and boosting our military than we put into public health.
  • espalier – a fruit tree trained to grow flat against a wall
  • Researchers found there are 100 billion viruses in a single liter of seawater. The total number of viruses on earth is estimated to be 100 million times more than stars in the universe.
  • 8% of the human genome includes genes from ancient infections.
  • kvetch – Yiddish for a complainer
  • Influenza A is more virulent than Influenza B. Tamiflu is a drug that is effective against Influenza A because it inhibits an enzyme that helps produce more virus.
  • The 1918 Spanish Flu infected 500 million people worldwide and killed as many as 20% of people infected. It was an H1N1 hemorrhagic flu that turned lungs into a “bloody froth”.
  • “Typically, with a pandemic, you have 2 or 3 big waves of contagion before it settles down and becomes the normal flu you get every year.”
  • I want to know more about Albert Schweitzer, the French doctor that fought disease in West Africa. His fundamental principle of morality was “good means maintaining, assisting and enhancing life, and that to destroy, to harm or to hinder life is evil.”
  • anodyne – inoffensive
  • One major reason pools are chlorinated is that polio, an RNA virus like influenza, spread through fecal matter.
  • vaccination comes from the Latin “vacca” meaning cow which is a reference to milk maids who were immune to smallpox because they were exposed to cowpox. This was discovered by English doctor Edward Jenner in 1796.

Latest Reading: Before the Fall

It was an eerie coincidence that last night I finished Noah Hawley’s suspense novel “Before the Fall”. This morning I learned of NBA legend Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash. The novel centers around a private plane crash between Martha’s Vineyard and New York. On board the plane was the CEO of a fictional Fox News and his family and friends. The only survivors are a struggling artist and the 4-year old son.

After describing the crash and amazing survival story, the novel gives the back story of the 11 people on board. The story works toward the results of the investigation of the crash. Hawley is an author but more famous as a writer for television, including being a showrunner for the series Fargo and Legion. The book has a cinematic quality to it and I read where it is turning into a movie. Contemplating the cause of the crash assisted me falling asleep.

My takeaway from the novel is the idea of great wealth. Having more money than one can spend in a lifetime brings luxury and comfort, with no material worries. However, it does not bring true happiness and the most important things, such as family relationships (husband-wife, father-daughter, etc.), health, purpose are not enhanced with great wealth. In fact, running a fictional Fox News takes the father away from the family. His wife is a former school teacher 20 years younger than him. I think there is a sweet spot for wealth; to be comfortably upper middle class.

I recommend the book, it is a page-turner and Hawley gives lots of details about psychology, motivations, childhoods, about each of the characters that give depth to the action thriller.

Kobe Bryant, age 41, died in a private helicopter crash along with his daughter and friends. He was on his way to a basketball game. His immense wealth (and bad luck) was the cause of his death as he could afford to fly to the game instead of driving like most people do in metro Los Angeles.

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the Worlds Greatest Nuclear Disaster (Latest Reading)

Over the holiday break I finished Adam Higginbotham’s book on the Chernobyl accident of 1986. Higginbotham is a journalist who writes for prestigious publications such as the Telegraph, New York Times, etc. The book made the New York Times Top 10 Books of 2019 list. His writing is clear and he puts suspense into every chapter and so it was a difficult book to put down. I am now watching HBO’s Chernobyl series to compliment my understanding the accident.

I have been generally pro-nuclear energy, despite this accident, the Fukushima accident in Japan (where I lived for five years) and starting my teaching career in Nevada, where the US federal government was trying to put a nuclear waste storage facility under Yucca Mountain. I am fascinated with nuclear energy and always try to read about or visit nuclear energy plants when the opportunity arises. I like that it is a source of energy that does not contribute to global warming and is so far, the biggest alternative to traditional fossil fuels.

The cause of the accident at Chernobyl was the Soviet government. They did things as cheap as possible and had an unquestioning bureaucratic structure that did not promote a culture of excellence. I felt sorry for the plant workers having to deal with the flimsy and antique equipment and control systems. I am surprised more accidents didn’t happen in the ex-Soviet Union. Doing things on the cheap, especially when it comes to something as large and deadly as a nuclear reactor, is not a good idea.

The book and the HBO series vividly portray the invisible power of radiation. The tragic and horrible consequences of high dosages of radiation on humans and the environment are shocking. It is odd the delay in the effects of radiation and it would be more helpful to avoid it if one could see the deadly rays emitted by radioactive substances.

The delays in evacuation and stopping the exposed core are due to the Soviet system. There seemed to be a lot of fear, resignation and no challenging of authority. I see some of that living here in Uzbekistan, an ex-Soviet republic. It will take a long time for these countries to move past the effects of living under the Soviet system for such a long time. I read recently where with the help of Russia, Uzbekistan will be building a nuclear energy plant in the Navoi region (between Samarkand and Bukhara). I hope they have learned from the mistakes of Chernobyl.

Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan

I finished reading Joanna Lillis’s book, “Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan”. It is an excellent introduction to the country with a bit of history, a section on the government and stories about individual Kazakhs. Her writing style is engaging and she definitely knows the country well.

It makes me want to visit our neighboring country soon. I didn’t realize that Kazakhstan was so large, almost the same size as Argentina. Like Uzbekistan, it was a former Soviet Republic, but sharing such a long border with Russia, it is more influenced by it. When independence came in the early 90s, Kazakhs were a minority. This has changed over the nearly 30 years as a country. Joanna really knows the country well and there are a lot of perspectives in the book. I loved the story about the villagers living near an old uranium mine. It is unfortunate that the world knows Kazakhstan more for the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen than anything else.

Lillis is now a sanctioned journalist in Uzbekistan and I’ll be following her reporting. I highly recommend the book for those interested in Central Asia.

Tim O’Brien “The Things They Carried”

I read O’Brien’s book (The Things They Carried – 1990) of fictional short stories on the Vietnam War because my son Owen’s grade 11 IB English class will be reading it this year. The book is commonly read in high school English classes and is one of the preeminent books of the Vietnam War. I watched the classic Vietnam War movies like Platoon and Apocalypse Now and visited Ho Chi Minh City in June of 2017. I started watching Ken Burn and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War PBS series. (I should watch the entire series.) Tim O’Brien fought in Vietnam and the stories are based on his experiences and what he heard from fellow soldiers. The details of the stories ring true.

O’Brien’s prose flows easily and many of the stories have memorable lines. The short stories make it a good book to read before bed, one does not need to keep track of complex plot lines. He is a bit older than me, but grew up in small town Minnesota and I can relate to his perspective. The title comes from the first story, a description of the physical and emotional things soldiers carry in their backpacks while on patrol.

The book reinforced many of the themes of war literature. Humans are rarely put in life and death situations and this danger forms close bonds between soldiers. Many of the soldiers are just kids, 18 and 19 years old and the differences between small town America and the rainforests of Vietnam are huge. Just the shock of travelling outside the American midwest and placed in south east Asia would be shocking enough, but add a war and I can see why veterans struggle with PTSD. Another theme is the indifference of the “folks back home” felt by returning veterans. The story of Norman Bowker’s drive around the lake while remembering the death of his friend in a mortar attack really emphasized how returning veterans must feel. Sadly, this continues today with soldiers coming back from Iran and Afghanistan.

I also liked the story “On the Rainy River”. The story is set in the summer after the author is drafted and learns he is heading to Vietnam. He wavers between escaping to Canada or reporting to basic training. O’Brien feels he is a coward by not fleeing and living up to the expectations of his family and friends in his small town. Oh, the value of age and perspective. I am curious to see what class discussions and assignments Owen brings home his in English class.