The late 60s were a heady time to be a pre-teen in America. My brothers were insightful sources of musical taste, and my 7th-grade friends were likewise caught up in the wonders of that era.
I specifically recall a classmate named Jeffrey Eisler singing the lyrics to a Steppenwolf song in the back seat of a team bus on the way back from a basketball game.
His voice was wonderful, and we all sat in rapt attention as his face contorted with the intensity of his singing, and the lyrics:
America where are you now?
Don’t you care about your sons and daughters?
Don’t you know we need you now
We can’t fight alone against the monster
As he concluded those lyrics, a coach of the 8th grade basketball team came trundling down the center aisle of the bus and hollered, “We lost! No more singing! You should be thinking about how to win next time!”
The bus fell silent of course. The irony of that authoritative voice thrusting itself into our midst was not lost on anyone. The coach retreated back through the darkness and we all fell back into our seats. Everything about that instance seemed to reflect the nature of America at that time. The Vietnam War. The racial strife. The death of President Kennedy and his brother Bobby. The murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet here was this coach:
“We lost! No more singing!”
But it felt like singing was the best thing we could have done then. Losing a basketball game meant nothing. We knew that already. The coach was right about only one thing: there would be other games to play.
Sure, playing games in a team sport brought us together. That’s why we were all on the bus in the first place. But coaches are mistaken if they think the games are the only things that matter to those that play them. A team is primarily a vortex of relationships. You learn from each other. Even competitors play a role in the intensity of competition. Because without interesting or challenging opponents, and the personalities that drive it, there is no reason to compete at all. It is our differences that ultimately bring us together. Old competitors become friends, and even new teammates. That happens a lot in life.
And that is the real America.
And on that team bus, with kids from different grades ignoring social structures to share the excitement of hearing our friend sing a Steppenwolf song with such clarity…it made us feel we were members of an entirely different kind of team. We were raising our collective and individual consciousness through shared experience. That was something that really seemed to matter.
Yet that moment was lost entirely on the coach who came to chew us out for ‘celebrating’ because the eighth grade team had lost. To him, winning only meant one thing. His personal gratification.
Mood of the times
I can’t say that there were a whole lot of coaches in tune with the political mood of the times. All through the 70s, things were pretty mixed up about who was right and who was wrong. But there were some who saw beyond the age-old constructs.
My track coach Trent Richards was politically involved, and campaigned for causes in which he believed. To his credit, he never argued with us singing rock songs in the showers, win or lose.
He knew well that the past could not be revised by silencing the voices of the present. He truly hated losing, but he never let that stand in the way of the relationships that were built through mutual strife.
He understood that it wasn’t worth worrying about a loss except to work harder to win the next time. Ultimately, he knew that you could not keep kids motivated for the future if you quell their spirits. So we ran with our guts, and sang our hearts out. That’s really all you can ask of anyone. Trent Richards wasn’t a perfect man by any stretch of the imagination, but at least he let us stretch ours. And that’s a form of leadership.
In many ways, that’s how I’ve felt about all the people I’ve trained and run with all these years. Many have been inspiring. Some have been conservative. Some have been liberal. Some claim to be Libertarian. In every case, I’ve learned there are no shortcuts to truth or fitness. That much is true.
Politics and religion
My training mates and I have discussed politics and religion and sex and war during all those miles together. Real engagement is what makes America truly tick. Sure, some people say you shouldn’t discuss those things. But I say they’re simply afraid to admit they don’t know really know what they’re talking about.
How many Christians do you actually know that can conduct an informed discussion about whether the bible actually contradicts evolution? They may be armed with all sorts of anecdotal evidence fed to them by the church or their favorite hard-right website, but deep down they have no idea if those supposed “facts” are right, or what the bible really says about the subject of material science at all.
Just as importantly, there are too few people who actually stop to think what the bible really says about politics and religion. How profound it is that John the Baptist and Jesus both branded the religious and political authorities of their day a “brood of vipers” and “hypocrites” for their legalistic, authoritarian ways. This important lesson in the bible is most often ignored by Christians eager to ally themselves with powerful worldly figures for the chance to “win” at life somehow. How sad. And how bitterly ironic. That brand of religion deserves to be challenged, because it is false, yet feeds so much of what passes for Christian input in politics these days.
Shallow ways and a flattened nation
People go out and vote based on the shallowest threads of political or religious fabric. It’s tragic, but that’s an America tradition of sorts. Our nation is not so much exceptional as it is shallow in its weak depth of conscience and rabid willingness to fight to the death for the right to stay that way. Hence we find Nazis and white supremacists demanding legitimacy for their viewpoints despite the fact those worldviews have been discredited and defeated in wars that cost millions of lives. It’s not just our right to shout them down, it is our obligation. And the claim that “both sides” are at fault is a sickly attempt at political gerrymandering.
That’s why, as I ran home yesterday and spotted that flattened “AMERICA” can on the road, I could not help stopping to take an image of it. On many types of social media people complain that politics and religion should not be discussed, yet that’s exactly what we should be doing. People complain about the ‘intrusion’ of politics on Facebook, and whine on Linkedin that politics has nothing to do with business. The shallowness of both claims is breathtaking. What matters more than god and country? Cats knocking things off shells on YouTube? People posting their self-aggrandizements on Linkedin?
At least Twitter is honest, for it tends to be the most political social media tool of all. That’s because politics and religion are fair game on Twitter. They are also the two factors that drive everything that happens in America. But because people are reticent to truly engage and go to the trouble of defending their viewpoints rather than spouting borrowed phrases and manufactured memes, we wind up with a flattened version of what America is truly all about. Twitter is no exception.
Why Budweiser’s America sucks
It disgusts me that a beer company had the gall to put the word AMERICA on its can in the first place. In a nation where supposed patriots are bitching about confederate statues being torn down and football players are derided for kneeling during the National Anthem in protest of ugly racial politics, hardly a word was uttered against the idea of putting a popular name for our country on a Budweiser beer can.
You want to know where we should draw the line on respect for our country? I say it starts right there. No faux patriotism on beer cans. Because what’s next, the United States of Tampons? The Declaration of Depends?
Budweiser thought it would be clever, picking up on the political mood of the time when Trump supporters were going bonkers for anything with a red, white and blue theme. Some advertising agency said sure, why not shove some liquid swill their way and see if they’ll drink it in celebration of their supposed triumph?
America, indeed. But let’s be clear: the marketing scheme has failed in one critical way. The symbol of a crumpled beer can on a dirty street absolutely describes the low measures we’ve adopted as a means to make America great again. It has accomplished the precise opposite of its intended effect.
What it will take to restore some sense of conscience is people willing to sing in the back of the bus, and stand up to the bully coach who thinks that winning means only one thing in this world.