Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Audacity of Optimism

This has been a year of international travel for me – 3 trips out of the US in the last 6 months.  With this latest trip, I find myself compelled to confront the inescapable observation that Americans are a bunch of complainers.  Maybe it's the flip side of our eternal optimism.  We not only want things to go right for us, we expect it.  And when everything doesn’t go perfectly, we complain about it.

I found myself falling into this rhetorical bad habit after a trip to Paris this summer.  When asked “how was it?” I was as apt to recount our kids getting food poisoning or the long wait to get into the Eiffel Tower as I was to share the countless wonderful memories of our time there.  I partly blame it on Seinfeld.  Bitching about stuff that goes wrong has become a favorite conversational tactic.  Our petty grievances have become what we feel most comfortable sharing, and what we find most interesting to hear from others.  It’s what elicits sympathy and shared understanding – “Wow, I can’t believe you had to wait 30 minutes for your massage.  That sucks!

These types of conversations break down, however, when you’re talking to someone from a country where they don’t expect things to go right.  When you’ve experienced triple-digit inflation, violent political coups, and suppression by your own government, you’re not as sympathetic about what a pain in the ass it must have been that the airline ran out of vegan meals in first class.  Frankly, it gets tiresome really fast.

No place is this cult of bitching more apparent than in politics.  On the eve of Tuesday’s mid-term elections, I’m bracing myself for a wave of pundits declaring a “sea change”, a “repudiation”, a “mandate.”  But really I think we’ve just honed the art of complaining to a sharp edge.  In the true spectrum of politics, modern Democrats and Republicans in America look virtually identical.  But you'd never know it from our rhetoric.  Our political discourse is no longer “pro” anything – it’s all just anti, anti, anti.  Anti-war, anti-abortion, anti-terrorism.  Any political wonk will tell you that going negative is the most effective way to move the poll numbers.  Just like in a one-to-one conversation, people get bored of hearing all the good, positive things you plan to do.  But tell them why the other guy is an evil asshole and they’ll start picketing in the streets.

Besides politics, sports is the other area that most demonstrates the American proclivity for complaining.  Listening to the string of callers on sports radio bitching about players, coaches, referees, etc. is practically intolerable.  Everyone expects their team to win, and, when they don’t, can’t wait to drag their fat ass off the couch and whine and moan to anyone who will listen about how their team is under-performing or getting screwed, or both.  I’ve certainly done my share of complaining on this blog, but overall I try not to just complain.  I try to be solution-oriented.  But, most of all, I try to keep it in perspective and make it humorous.  That, to me, is what makes sports fun.  It’s a game.

I think that’s why the San Francisco Giants were so compelling this season – nobody expected them to do anything.  The constant din of complaining was diminished because it was hard to find something to complain about.  First, many people couldn’t direct their complaints at anyone because they could barely name a member of the Giants roster at the start of the season.  Second, with no expectations, every win they got felt like it was already over-achieving.  And, third, they were just a likeable bunch of guys – unassuming, humble, fun-loving, respectful, self-deprecating, hard-working, accountable and accepting of their role.  In short, everything that most professional athletes are not.  As a fan, you could just sort of root for them with the unbridled optimism of a child.  If they won, you were happy.  If they lost, you didn’t have an aneurism.  And they played with a similar looseness that ultimately won them a World Series.

Maybe it’s my time abroad.  Maybe it’s the Giants victory.  Maybe it’s just this two-game winning streak.  But I’m feeling a renewed sense of optimism about the Packers.  They won a game Sunday in a style and score that I didn’t think they could do.  You can start to feel the team laying down the burden of the pre-season expectations, accepting the injuries, and gaining a sense of relief that many of the pundits had written them off.  It’s like the recalibrated expectations after the rash of injuries and two overtime losses caused the swirling cloud of complaints to die down – enabled players, coaches and fans to look at everything else this season as glass half-full.  Optimistically.

And Sunday’s game gave us a lot to be optimistic about.  The defense played lights-out.  The patchwork defensive line held up well against the second-best rushing attack in the league.  At linebacker, Brandon Chillar is healthy and got a key sack, and Desmond Bishop has really been stepping up (10 tackles Sunday and another near INT).  Our defensive secondary is playing great – Woodson and Collins are always solid, but Tramon Williams has really come into his own, and Charlie Peprah had a solid outing as well.  Plus, Harris and Bigby should be back soon.  On the offensive side, while a 237-yard, 9-point outing is nothing to brag about, they didn’t turn the ball over once and only had 3 penalties for 15 yards.  They certainly missed some big plays, and I could quibble over McCarthy’s decision to run three consecutive running plays with 4 minutes left in the game, but it turned out to be the right call – the defense held, and Tim Masthay had been punting great all day.

It was a scrappy win, but they did what they had to do to get it.  And I like the fact that a wide variety of guys on the team are stepping up to get these wins.  This is how it is in the NFL.  Any team can beat any other team.  And you need a lot of intestinal fortitude to win the close ones and bounce back from the heart-breakers.  To borrow a favorite phrase of Giants fans, watching them play was “torture.”  Their pitching-centric style of play meant a lot of one- or two-run wins, but they were all wins just the same.  And if the Packers can continue to play with that mindset, they just might surprise some people after all.

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