Friday, October 28, 2011

The 2011 World Series: Afterthoughts

Late in the classic film Patton starring George C. Scott, after the Second World War has ended, the following exchange occurs between General George S. Patton (Scott) and a war correspondent:

Correspondent: "General, we're told of wonder weapons the Germans were working on: Long-range rockets, push-button bombing weapons that don't need soldiers. What's your take on that?"

Patton:  "Wonder weapons? My God, I don't see the wonder in them. Killing without heroics. Nothing is glorified, nothing is reaffirmed. No heroes, no cowards, no troops. No generals. Only those that are left alive and those that are left... dead. I'm glad I won't live to see it."

St. Louis Cardinal third baseman David Freese clouts
the eleventh-inning home run that won Game Six of
the 2011 World Series for the Cardinals. Should the
Cardinals have even been there? Well...

I slept in until nearly 7:30 this morning here in Tbilisi. I had trouble getting to sleep last night, so I popped a couple of Optimal around 11:30, read in Boswell's Life of Johnson for a while, (which would put anybody down) and finally got to sleep some time after midnight. But my older sister called me from California at 7:25 a.m. (8:25 p.m. where she was) with big news: The St. Louis Cardinals had won the World Series! This after trailing the Texas Rangers three games to two earlier this week.

Well, yesterday's game was something of a miracle, which will go into the baseball history books as a never-before: The Texas Rangers, by rights, should have sent the Cardinals home to bed. St. Louis trailed five times in Game Six yesterday, but kept coming back. In fact the Cardinals forced the game into extra innings by repeatedly tying the score, and then in the top of the 11th, third-baseman David Freese made history by clouting a single shot to center field which gave St. Louis a 10-9 victory.

No team in World Series history had ever rallied to overcome, first a ninth-inning deficit (7-5) and then an extra-innings deficit (9-7) to win a World Series game.

Then last night, in Game 7, Chris Carpenter held the Rangers to two runs, both of which they scored in the first inning. The same David Freese who was the hero of Game Six hit a two-run double in the bottom of the first, and then the Cardinals went on to score four more runs later in the game, one in the bottom of the third inning, two in the fifth and one more in the seventh. Final score of the 2011 World Series: Cardinals 6, Rangers 2.

So the St. Louis Cardinals have won their 11th World Series championship, and the Texas Rangers, who have made back-to-back Series appearances, last year and this, go home disappointed again.

Why am I not more exultant? Since childhood I've been a National League partisan. I always root for the NL in the All-Star game (which they always won in my youth, and now almost never do), and usually root for the National League team in the Series, if I root at all.

And I was pulling for St. Louis this year, for reasons explained in my last blog entry. But I'm not really what you'd call a Cardinals fan; I'm merely a Cardinals partisan, and I do have some mixed feelings about all of this.

It all gets back to the complications of modern baseball, which I acknowledge to have been unavoidable. It's a more complicated world now than it was in 1945. We all had to adjust, and baseball had to adjust too. There are 30 teams in MLB now, not the 16 there were when Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg and Joe DiMaggio came home from fighting World War II.

In 1945 there was no team further south than Washington, D.C. and no team further west than St. Louis. Baseball was strictly an affair of the northeast and the midwest. And radio. And as we all know, in 1945 there were as yet no black players in MLB.

The newly-affluent America of post-1945 had to, and did, change all of that. Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey ended baseball's segregation in 1947. Young black players streamed to the major leagues, and the legendary "negro leagues" died. We all know that story, now. (The Dodgers, first out of the gate at bringing up black players, also brought up Don Newcombe, the first black pitcher ever to start a World Series game, in 1949 against the Yankees. The Yankees, by the way, did not integrate until they brought up catcher Elston Howard in 1955.)

And teams moved around, as they always had.  Franchises were added. The game expanded to accommodate an expanding America. By the turn of the 21st century there were teams in Miami, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Houston, Arlington, TX, Denver, Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland, Seattle and even Toronto.

With 30 teams now, and the greed of both the owners and players to deal with, baseball now plays in muddy waters, not the clearer waters of my childhood, when at the end of September you had two teams staring at each other: the National League Champ and the American League champ. And during the first week of October they squared off in the World Series. And we ALL paid attention, as few do now.

It's a more complicated world now. Ambiguities have overpowered clarities.

Look at this season for example.

We no longer live in a world in which the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees have a breathtaking "pennant race" as they did in 1949, with the winner going on to face the Brooklyn Dodgers. Nope. Now, with 15 or 16 teams in each league, we have a two-tiered "playoff" system which eats up more than half of October before you even get to the "World Series." Regular-season interleague play, a by-product of owner greed which I have always hated, waters this picture down still further because chances are that the two teams squaring off in the "World Series" have already faced each other four or five times during the regular season. Where did the mystery go, the mystery of "This is the NL's best and this is AL's best -- who's the best?" If they've already played each other five times during the regular season, we already know the answer to that question. The "mystery" of the World Series is gone.
The 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers exult over
their World Series win, having just vanquished
the New York Yankees in the fall classic for the first time.
This happened one week before I was born.
But I fear the "fall classic"
is not a "classic" anymore, 
and hasn't been for years.

But setting that existential question aside, the tiers of playoffs have devalued everything further. I realize that divisional play and playoffs were, and are, unavoidable. Baseball had to borrow a couple of pages from football's playbook -- there are just too many teams now. You couldn't very well leave things the way they were in '45 -- if it got to be late August, and your team was the Pittsburgh Pirates, and they were in 13th place, you would neither go to the ballpark nor tune in on TV. With all these teams now, the divisional stuff and the playoff structure were unavoidable. I acknowledge that.

But dammit, where's the mystery, where's the magic and what's affirmed, as Patton asked in the movie?

I like the Cardinals. I always have.

But they finished the season a full six games behind the division-winning Milwaukee Brewers.

Milwaukee won the NL Central, the Philadelphia Phillies the
NL East and the Arizona Diamondbacks (whom, as a San Diego Padres fan, I dearly hate because they always beat us) the NL West.

In the National League, St. Louis got the so-called "wild card," something Major League Baseball borrowed from the NCAA. The non-division-winner with the best won-lost numbers gets to go to the first tier of the playoffs. Well, okay, you need four teams to have a playoff. Three divisions, three winners, one "wild card."

In the American League, the division winners were the Yankees, the Detroit Tigers and the Texas Rangers, with the Tampa Bay Rays clinching the wild card to make a four-team playoff.

The Yankees, Tigers and Rays all got eliminated in the American League Divisional Series and subsequent Championship Series.

When the dust had settled, Texas went to the World Series. So it goes nowadays.

The Cardinals were the wild-card team in the National League, as were the Rays in the American. Like the Rays, the Cardinals did not win their division title.

But unlike the Rays, the Cardinals ended up winning the World Series.

I'm not sure how I feel about this.

As I said, I like the Cardinals, and have since childhood. But I feel a bit sorry for the Rangers. They earned their berth in the Series; the Cards were merely there because they jumped on the caboose as the train was leaving the station and then got lucky in the playoffs. They were ten and a half games out of first place in August, finished the season six games back, but won the World Series.

Why do I have a problem with this? I don't know, but I do. What happened to the moral clarities of my childhood? When I was ten, the best team in the American League played the best team in the National League, and the whole thing was over in time for my birthday on October 12. There was no ambiguity there. Now the waters are all muddy, you can't see bottom, the Series doesn't end until almost Halloween, and some mediocre team that ended the season six games out in its division can walk off with the World Series trophy.

No more "pennant races;" now it's just penny-pitching and poker. Third-best (or fourth-best) can take it all. I'm not sure I like it. Where's the honor? What's affirmed? Why not do away with the regular season altogether and just proceed straight to the penny-pitching and poker? I have heard football fans, here in our eight-second-sound-bite culture, complain that the baseball season is too long anyway. NFL buffs love their season precisely because it only consists of 16 games, they're played on 16 consecutive Sundays, and the whole thing is over by January. Eat the candy bar and throw away the wrapper. Fun, fun, fun, but don't try my patience, and I don't have much, by the way. Or much attention span, anymore.

My sister even suggested shortening the season. "Look at the crowd at a World Series game," she said on the phone yesterday. "Some of them are bundled up like they're at a football game."

She means the season is too long, especially now that the multiple tiers of playoffs have pushed the World Series back from the Indian Summer of my childhood, (when games were played in the afternoon anyway) to prime-time under-the-lights evenings when the frost is on the pumpkin.

Well, Carla had an idea there, but I quickly pointed out that Moloch would not allow it. Go back to a 154-game schedule, as in the days of Babe Ruth? Not likely. Not with the Fox Network, the owners and the players all splitting $450,000,000,000,000 a thousand ways. Too much at stake there to radically change anything. To lose all that advertising revenue? No no no. And besides, the owners would jump on a shortened season as an excuse to reduce salaries, and the players would never go along with that.

So there you have it. We live in a world now where children's games are being played so that there are no winners or losers -- can't have the little tykes feeling "bad" about themselves, despite what life will teach them anyway later on. And baseball is no longer A versus B, but A, B, C and D throwing dice, with "D" only there because he had enough bonus points to get into the room.

Welcome to my watered-down world. Well, it's the only world I have. But whatever it may have in store 50 years from now -- who knows? Maybe the World Series will be decided by a lottery? I can only say with George C. Scott as George S. Patton, "I'm glad I won't live to see it."

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The World Series, Long Ago...and now, Far Away

The Texas Rangers and the St. Louis
Cardinals square off in the 2011 World Series.
 Oh, yes, baseball. Before October ends, some mention must be made of baseball.

As much as I hate to sound like an old fogey, (for which title I am coming very close to qualifying, at age 56) I miss the World Series of my childhood and youth.

My childhood and youth, roughly 1955-1975, were the days when the World Series was a big deal. I carry a residual pocketful of that big deal into my old age. Each year I do pay attention to who plays in the World Series, even if I don't watch it.

Indeed, during some years I don't watch the World Series. If neither team involved means anything to me, why bother? The 2010 Series pitted the Texas Rangers against the San Francisco Giants. San Francisco won (for the first time since 1954) and my pal Doug Parker, in Reno, NV, a rabid Giants fan, went crazy.

I ignored the whole business. Giants? Rangers? Who cared?

This year, 2011, the World Series has the Rangers (again) this time against the St. Louis Cardinals. As of this writing, the outcome is undecided. Game Six was scheduled for last night, St. Louis time. That's five O'clock in the morning where I am, in Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. I got up before dawn this morning to see the game (MLB.TV provides it on the Internet for those of us in foreign countries) only to find that it was raining in St. Louis. Game Six had been rained out.

Why before dawn? Because when it's 8 p.m. in St. Louis, it's five O'clock the next morning in Tbilisi.

I made some coffee and stayed up. I had to go to school and teach later anyway.

But as I drank my coffee I was wondering who, outside of the sovereign states of Texas and Missouri, and among natives of those two states who may have migrated elsewhere, might actually be bothering to watch.

The Series just ain't the big deal it was when we schoolchildren of the JFK era who happened to go home for lunch would get special permission to bring transistor radios back to school with us so we could follow the game during recess. (In those days, before prime-time advertising rates dictated life itself, the World Series was played in the afternoon, believe it or not.)

It's hard to believe, in today's 999-channel cable TV world, that the World Series ever riveted America's October imagination. But it did. It really did. For you old movie buffs, remember the scene in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest in which Jack Nicholson, a troublemaker in a mental hospital, kicks up a fuss about wanting to "watch the goddamn World Series?" It was once that big a deal. People would turn from their work just long enough to check the score. Teachers would sometimes let their pupils know what was going on in the game -- I remember sitting in my fourth grade classroom one afternoon and my teacher wrote on the blackboard, "Dodgers 5, Yankees 2." We cared that much.

I'm watching, from Tbilisi. I have never set foot in Texas except to change planes there on my way somewhere else, and as for Missouri, well, I've driven across it three times, once stayed two nights in Kansas City, but although I have driven through St. Louis a couple of times, I never got out of my car there.

So what do I care? I think I just explained that. We used to. And some old habits are hard to break, although there are plenty of ex-baseball fans around -- their numbers took an uptick after 1994, when the World Series was canceled for the first time in 90 years thanks to a players' strike. With some players making a gazillion dollars a year by then, many fans wondered what the players were whining about, and stopped going to the ballpark. My, how things had changed in 20 years. In 1974 the players finally got rid of the century-old "reserve clause" which had kept them in virtual serfdom to the team owners since the 19th century, with no bargaining power at all. The abolition of the reserve clause made players into "free agents" once they had played the agreed number of seasons, eligible to peddle their talents to the highest bidder.

By 1994 the players were making such ungodly amounts of money that player salaries were the only baseball-related subject some people wanted to talk about. When pitcher Kevin Brown signed a seven-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1999 for $100 million, eyeballs rolled all over America. Justifiably, I'd say.

But what else can I say? Some of us are just incorrigibles when it comes to baseball. Many of my generation are, and certainly our parents were. We grew up at the tail end of the era in which baseball was still America's Number One sport. The NFL didn't kick baseball off the Nielsen summit until the late 1960s, when Vietnam and urban unrest gave America such an insatiable appetite for eleven-on-eleven violence.

That era was quite unapologetic about its fondness for broken bones: a TV special about football, circa 1970, was entitled Mayhem On A Sunday Afternoon. (You'll get no argument out of me. Professional football was, and is, about celebrating violence. I don't care for it.)

But I haven't answered my own question. What do I care about a Rangers-Cardinals matchup? Last year I ignored the Rangers and Giants.

Well, baseball has been around so long that it has generated history. The first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, hung out its shingle in 1869. That was a while ago. (The NFL, on the other hand, didn't really "take off" until the advent of television. TV and pro football pretty much invented each other.)

History: the St. Louis Cardinals have a long and venerable "regimental history" which, for my father's dead generation, might center around the "Gas House Gang" of the 1930s, but whose dawn, for me, was the year 1964, in which the Cards, featuring ruthless righthanded pitcher Bob Gibson and the bats of such as Dick Groat, Curt Flood and Tim McCarver, brought to an ignominious (read: glorious) end a New York Yankees dynasty that had been going on boringly, season after season, since 1949. The 1950s had belonged to the Yankees, but after their World Series loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960, the Yankees did a long fade. After the Cardinals dispatched the aging Mickey Mantle-Whitey Ford Yankees in that '64 Series, the Yankees did not even appear again in the Series for more than a decade.

By the way, here is a Stan Musial Fun Fact for all Yankee haters especially: Musial's career numbers were actually better than Mickey Mantle's. But Mantle got all the publicity because he played in (ugh) New York, where all the media were headquartered in those days. Musial played out in the hinterland, far from WOR, WNBC, Time-Life and the Herald Tribune, so he got short shrift.

Anyway, thank you, Cardinals, for what you did to the Yankees in '64. (And by the way, thanks also to the 1963 Los Angeles Dodgers, ((sorry, Doug)) who set the table for that wonderfully humiliating imperial downfall, beating the Yankees in the '63 Series four games to zip behind the overwhelming pitching of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.)

Oh, hell, while we're at it, (since Yankee fans hate being reminded), thanks also to the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, and Bill Mazeroski, who broke the Bronx' heart in a premonitory flicker of Goetterdaemmerung, jerking Series victory from the Yankees' jaws with a ninth-inning home run. It was the beginning of a most delicious end. (I read somewhere that on the way back to New York after losing that game to Mazeroski's homer, Mickey Mantle cried. You cried for New York's sins of pride, Mickey. Bless your shade, but I relish those tears.)

But in the final analysis, it was the the seasons of 1963 and '64 which were the one-two punch that rid America of the Yankees for 13 years, and I thank the teams responsible.

I'm happy to report, as well, that the Yankees' "comeback" in the late 1970s was brief -- they rapidly faded again.

They made it to the Series in 1981, a season partially devalued because it was truncated. Between June 12 and July 31 of that year the players were on strike. As a shortened season, 1981 had a question mark over it in the eyes of many baseball purists. After all, a total of 713 games were canceled by that six-week strike.

But the strike notwithstanding, the Yankees made it to the World Series in '81 only to fall to their old enemies the Dodgers, who, strike or no, had young screwball-phenomenon Fernando Valenzuela baffling hitters left and right.

The Yankees did not appear in the World Series again until 1996. For 15 consecutive seasons there were no Yankees anywhere near the World Series -- any right-thinking baseball fan's idea of bliss. Whatever you might think in retrospect of the "Yuppified" 1980s, New York baseball in that decade was all about the Mets, not the Yankees. I don't like the Mets because I don't any New York sports franchise -- they all come with the New York-based media in tow as cheerleaders. But I hate no team on earth like I hate the Yankees. For decades their sense of entitlement, rooted in spending more money than some countries, was truly nauseating. I, too, could have 156 World Series titles if I spent money on players the way the Soviet Union spent it on tanks, and that's precisely what the Yankees did for years. And they deserve the Soviet Union's fate.
Detroit lefthander Mickey Lolich helped
vanquish the St. Louis Cardinals
in the 1968 World Series. I was 13 at the time,
living in Spokane, Washington.

But getting back to my subject, which is why I would care at all about a 2011 World Series matchup between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Texas Rangers...

It was largely because of that 1964 Yankees-Cardinals Series, played on the eve of my ninth birthday, that I've had a lifelong soft spot for the Cardinals. They delivered the coup de grace to the Yankees' dynasty. God bless them.

So ... I rooted for the Cards in the '68 Series against Detroit. (They lost.) I rooted for them in the '85 Series against Kansas City. (They not only lost, they got stomped on -- that October belonged to Royals' pitcher Brett Saberhagen.)

I rooted for them again in the 2006 Series, a reprise of their contest against Denny McLain, Mickey Lolich and the unbeatable Detroit Tigers of 38 years earlier. But by 2006 Denny McLain and Mickey Lolich were long gone, as were Alan Trammel and many other legendary Tigers of yore, and the Cardinals won!

An odd little coincidence: in 1968, when the Cardinals lost the World Series to the Tigers, my family was living in Spokane, Washington. Spokane was not my home town; my father just happened to be stationed there at the time.

In 2006, when the Cardinals and Tigers faced each other in the Series again, I just happened to be living in Spokane again.

I had not lived there in more than 30 years. But my second wife Valerie and I were running a bed-and-breakfast in Spokane in 2006, a short-lived business which lasted less than a year, before Valerie hauled off and moved back to her own home town of Washington, D.C., tired of both the B&B business and me. (After nine months.)

In fact, once she had spent my inheritance from my father, throwing it away on a failing business she had already decided to abandon, my wife then headed straight for divorce court to jettison me. Having spent my inheritance, she had no further use for me either.

But on the last night of the 2006 World Series, Detroit vs. St. Louis, I took my soon-to-be ex-wife, who was a hockey fan, to a game between the Seattle Thunderbirds and the Spokane Chiefs. She watched the hockey game; I spent most of the hockey game out in the sports arena concourse following the final game of the World Series on the flat-screen monitor.

38 years later,St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina
exulted in his team's 2006 World Series victory over the Detroit
Tigers. By coincidence, I was living in Spokane,
Washington again at the time.
But talking about Texas baseball. The Rangers are such Johnny-come- latelies that I still think of them as an expansion team. They've only been around since 1971. Forty years -- that's last month in baseball time.

Now, the story of how they became the Texas Rangers is indeed steeped in baseball history -- in this case, the history of one of baseball's all-time losingest franchises.

In 1971, after two incarnations, the hapless Washington Senators, who had already left Washington once, (in 1961 they moved to Minneapolis and became the Minnesota Twins) left Washington again. For many years, our nation's capital lived under the cloud of being thought "not a baseball town." D.C. goes nuts every fall for the Redskins, but couldn't make much of the Senators, not that anyone could. In their entire existence as a franchise, the Senators won one (count 'em) one World Series, that of 1924. They had Walter "The Big Train" Johnson pitching for them, but not much else.

They were revived in 1961, but nothing, not even being managed for a short time by the legendary Ted Williams, could breathe much life into the moribund baseball situation in Washington, D.C. In 1971 the Senators moved to Arlington, Texas and became The Rangers. So D.C. has given the American League two pretty good baseball franchises, it's just that they never played pretty good baseball in Washington. They had to go somewhere else to do it.

And after the "second" Senators left in '71, that was it for baseball in Washington for the next 34 years.For that period the D.C.- Baltimore corridor belonged exclusively to the Orioles and their porcine owner (read: pig) Peter Angelos.

In 2005 baseball returned to D.C. in the form of a new National League franchise, which the city and team ownership wisely agreed should NOT be called "The Senators." (Baseball aside, the public image of politicians in America has sunk so low in the past 50 years that I can't imagine anything but a street gang calling itself "The Senators" anymore.) The 2011 Washington Nationals just wrapped up their seventh season in the stadium D.C. built for them just south of Capitol Hill. (I've been there, and as a stadium it's no great shakes; surely no comparison can be made with Baltimore's lovely Camden Yards. But D.C. baseball fans have a team again, and the capital no longer has to live with the dismissive notion that it's "not a baseball town.")

By the way, baseball's departure from and return to Washington was a question of the pathetic shuffling off after the pathetic. Teams have always moved around, of course. But how Washington, D.C. got baseball back was noteworthy for its similarity to how D.C. lost baseball in the first place. Just as the pathetic Senators had packed up and left town in 1961, then left again 10 years later, D.C.'s search for a new team took it to baseball's version of the fire sale: the pathetic Montreal Expos, after struggling in their Canadian berth for three decades without winning so much as a pennant, finally decided to roll up their tents and accept Washington, D.C.'s invitation to acquire a new home and a new name. Hence, in 2005, the Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals. Sic gloria transit.

This does not mean, by the way, that Canada will not support major-league baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays are doing quite well, thank you, in fact nearly 20 years ago (that's last week in baseball time) my father and I had a wonderful time watching the Jays dispatch the Atlanta Braves in the World Series of 1992, the first Series ever to involve a team from outside the United States.

The Rangers play in Arlington, which is not far from Dallas, but too far for them to call themselves the Dallas Rangers, which is why they're called the Texas Rangers. The California Angels were called the California Angels for precisely the same reason. Initially, the Angels played at the Los Angeles colisseum and therefore called themselves the Los Angeles Angels. But after they had had a stadium built for themselves in Anaheim, they couldn't call themselves the "Los Angeles" Angels anymore.

Nobody knows where Anaheim is (unless they live there, or have been to Disneyland) so they couldn't be the Anaheim Angels: that's not good marketing.

"California Angels" was a good compromise, I thought. And it lasted for years. Why not? "California Angels." It sounds good. It sounded good for years.

But then greed got into the picture again. With the advent of interleague play, and in the greedy hope of creating a phony rivalry with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Angels were renamed The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. I am not making this up. When this marketing move went down half a dozen years ago, wise guys in my home town of San Diego claimed they could just as easily rename the Padres "The Los Angeles Padres of San Diego." Would have made just about as much sense, except the Padres and the Dodgers are both in the National League, which would preclude World Series matchup. Darn.

Hence, until someone figures out a way to sell the idea of the Rangers as "The Dallas Rangers of Arlington," they will remain The Texas Rangers. It's okay with me.

The Texas Rangers have had their share of great players. I can think of two off the top of my head: Nolan Ryan and Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod sold out to Satan, (the New York Yankees, the closest thing to Evil Incarnate that the earth currently knows.) but Ryan, possibly the greatest pitcher of his generation, liked playing in his home state of Texas and spent much of his career first with the Houston Astros and then with the Rangers. My father was not a Rangers fan, but he adored Nolan Ryan. One Father's Day we all chipped in and bought him a mounted, autographed color photograph of Ryan taken at the moment he threw his legendary 5,000th strikeout, Aug. 22nd, 1989. He was in a Rangers uniform that night. (And sweaty.) When my father died this picture reverted to me. It was destroyed in a kitchen fire in Spokane in January, 2007 which also destroyed a lot of my other baseball memorabilia.
Nolan Ryan of the Texas Rangers throws his 5000th
strikeout, Aug. 22nd, 1989.

I would like to see the Cardinals win the 2011 Series, but it's probably going to be Texas' year. As I sat down to write this, Game Six of the 2011 Series had just been rained out in St. Louis, (after I got up at 5 a.m. in Tbilisi to watch it), but the Rangers were leading the Series three games to two. Why do I think it may be Texas' year? For one thing, the Rangers came very close to taking all the marbles last year, only to give them all up to the Giants, so one could argue that they're due. (Even after a mere 40 years as a franchise -- the 2010 Giants hadn't won a Series in 55 years, and they have existed as a franchise for nearly a century: the Giants started out as the New York Gothams in 1883, moved to San Francisco in 1958.) The Rangers have never won a Series, but in 2010 they did become the first team from Texas ever to win a Series game. (The Astros played in the 2005 Series, but were swept in four games by the Chicago White Sox.)

So here I sit in Georgia, that's Georgia as in Mikhail Saakashvili, not Ted Turner. The big sports here are soccer and rugby. The school kids are always asking me who my favorite football team is, and they mean soccer. I never know what to tell them.

And right now, to be honest, I'd have trouble telling them what my favorite baseball team is. I'm just about sick and tired of the Padres. I was a fan of the Padres for years, but in recent seasons they seem more interested in saving money than in winning games. Does San Diego deserve my baseball loyalty just because I happened to grow up there? Such soul-searching questions are the stuff of early mornings these days, you know, like this morning, when I was sitting here sucking up coffee at 5:30 a.m. because the World Series had been rained out.

I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for the Cardinals, thanks to Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Willie McGee, and yes, even Mark McGwire, bless his back-to-normal body now that he's off the steroids (and by the way, working as a hitting coach for the Cardinals.) I'll always be grateful to St. Louis for the '64 Series, ashamed of them for the '85 Series, and cheering my lungs out for them when and if they ever face the hated Yankees again in October.

But if the Rangers win, I won't be heartbroken.

Better than having the Giants win. That's a SoCal thing. Everyone north of the Tehachepis hates the Dodgers, and everyone south of the Tehachepis hates the Giants. It's history: this used to be Brooklyn and Manhattan hating each other. Now it's the two ends of the San Andreas Fault hating each other. Same old hatred, relocated: Manhattan vs. Brooklyn (1895-1957); Los Angeles vs. San Francisco (1958-Present.)

The earthquake will probably settle it all.

Meanwhile, as Tevye said in Fiddler on the Roof: TRADITION!!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

I never had a child in my life. Now I have 300

I wish I could tell you how beautiful Georgia is. So are its kids,
in every way.
We were teaching the third grade this afternoon, Medea and I (Medea's name is pronounced with the accent on the first syllable: "MAY-de-ah." This so she won't be confused with anyone from Jason and the Argonauts. )

Most of these kids are eight or nine years old. They're learning their ABCs. In English, that is. They know their Georgian ABCs perfectly.

I didn't want to imply that they're slow. They're fast. I'M the slow one. I've been in Georgia for two months. The Georgian alphabet has 33 letters, and I think I know six of them so far. The English alphabet has 26 letters, and my third-graders already know 16 of them.

Who was it who said, "I pity any adult who gets into a language-learning contest with a child?"

Anyway, put in charge for a few minutes, I was calling around for volunteers to come up to the blackboard and demonstrate how to write, respectively, capital letters and lower-case letters.

There is never any shortage of volunteers. These kids LOVE to come to the blackboard, or to stand up and recite. If I ask for a volunteer, I immediately find myself facing a sea of arms doing the local version of Ted Turner's "Tomahawk Chop." The kids cradle one elbow in the other hand and furiously make a "chopping" motion in the air. That's how schoolkids raise their hands here.

If they're REALLY excited, in addition to the Tomahawk Chop, they leap from their seats and start yelling "Mas! Mas! Mas!" I understand that's Georgian kid-shorthand for "Teacher," you know, like American kids sometimes address their teacher as "Teach." Georgian kids call their teacher "Mas."

After we had completed this exercise and moved on to the next part of the lesson, I noticed a little girl in the front row looking somewhat glum. She had the right side of her face cradled in both hands. Her name is Mari, and like so many little Georgian girls, she is pretty enough to break your heart. All you have to do is look at her and your heart is in a thousand pieces. Mari has big brown eyes, with sandy-blonde hair tied in a braid. She's eight.
Lika, Ani and Mari, three of my fifth-graders.
And Mari is part of a huge Georgian "sorority of beautiful." I keep looking at these little girls' faces and thinking, "Geez, in about ten years, young, dumb Georgian males are going to be lining up like the crowd at the post office to have their hearts broken by these girls."

I see it already, as I walk around the streets of Tbilisi. This city could easily be called Supermodel Land. Young Georgian women love tight-fitting outfits and high, spiked heels. Combine their sartorial tendencies with the long, dark hair and dark brown eyes that are prevalent here, and you have a formula for trouble. All I can say is, I'm glad I'm not 25 anymore. If I were, it would be hard to concentrate on teaching.

But getting back to my third-grade classroom, Mari did not look happy. And if she could break my heart into a thousand pieces when she was okay, imagine how many pieces into which my heart shattered when I saw that she wasn't okay?

Had I done something wrong?

I thought, "Is she sulking because I didn't call on her?"

I didn't remember if I had called on her or not.

But the way she was cradling her cheek in both hands...Did she have a toothache?

Evidently she did. Or something similar. Within moments Medea noticed Mari's distress and we both sort of descended upon the little tyke. Medea stood beside Mari's desk and spoke to her in Georgian. By now Mari had tears rolling down her cheeks.

I knelt in front of her desk. I took her shoulders in my hands. "Is she in pain? Is she sick?" I asked Medea.

"Yes. She has...toothache," Medea said.

Toothache is a place I've been, and I would wish it on nobody. (Well, maybe my second wife.) But I would never wish it on an eight year-old child.

"We have to do something," I said.

"What can we do?" Medea asked.

"I don't know! Does this school have a health office, or a nurse? We have to do something, this child is in pain!"

"I will go fetch the schoolmaster," Medea said.

"Good idea. And have the schoolmaster contact her parents. I'll ride herd on this crowd while you're gone."

Medea went out of the room. There I was, with 30 kids who speak practically no English (but plenty of Georgian, which they proceeded to do, among themselves), and one child in so much pain that she was in tears.

This is another place I've been, the place of pain unto tears when you're small, and when I was even younger than Mari, actually. I used to get horrible earaches when I was about six, and I can remember those earaches coming on me when I was in school, in the first grade.

But I grew up in California. In my childhood schools had nurse's offices where sick children could be sent until their parents could come and get them. Georgian schools don't have nurse's offices.

I continued to gently squeeze Mari's shoulders as the tears of pain trickled down her cheeks. It was the only form of encouragement I could offer. I wished desperately that I could speak Georgian. I wanted to say something of a comforting nature to this suffering little girl, to tell her that help was on the way, something. But all I could do was speak softly in English, which she didn't understand.

Still, I hoped the tone of my voice, if nothing else, communicated something.

"Do you hurt? Are you ill?" I asked her. "Don't worry, honey, your teacher has gone to fetch someone who will help you."

I know she didn't understand me, but she nodded.

Lika, one of my fifth-graders in Tbilisi, prepares to give
the Georgian version of  McDonald's a restaurant review.

 By this time the rest of the class was generating, oh, perhaps 140 decibels worth of noise. I had joked to Medea that now I knew how Beethoven felt when he stuffed his head between two cushions to protect what was left of his hearing as Napoleon was bombing Vienna in 1812.

Actually, I was only half-joking. The school in which I teach is a barnlike old Soviet building with wooden floors and high plaster ceilings. It's a sound cavity. When you have several hundred kids dashing around between classes, with the attendant screaming, laughing and playing tag that goes along with that, you'd swear that the denizens of Dante's Inferno never created such a racket.

So. I tried to "ride herd on that crowd," as I had said I would, but since I speak no Georgian and the kids understand practically no English, it was like trying to "shoe a snake," as my father used to say.

Just raising my voice wasn't going to help; these kids are used to being yelled at, and in their own language too. What good was yelling at them in English going to do?

So I wrote some words on the board to illustrate their new alphabet letters, and prayed that Medea would come back soon.

She did, presently, and brought the schoolmaster with her. The schoolmaster then led little Mari away, and I hope to God they got her quickly to a doctor or a dentist or someone who could ease her pain.

I might not learn the aftermath until next week; I'm teaching in grades one through six, and I can't keep one class straight from another. These little kids all look the same to know, like little kids.

In fact, some of the teachers look like kids to me now. Two of my co-teachers (like my landlady) are young enough to be my daughters. One of them, "Natia," told me just yesterday that I'm the same age as her mother. Thanks, kiddo.

But I do have a lot of fun here, sometimes. There is a windowsill across the hall from the "teacher's room" on the second floor, the "teacher's room" being the place where teachers go between classes to talk, debate, gossip and complain about inadequate or unavailable teaching materials, which is our biggest problem here.

I have found that if I sit on this particular windowsill just before the 1:10 p.m. classes begin, and remember to wear my Mexican cowboy hat and my aviator sunglasses, I will invariably draw a crowd.

The tenth-graders think I'm from Planet Hollywood.

They crowd around me, these 15 year-olds, giggling, being shy, introducing themselves, offering to shake hands, asking me my name...and also asking me the usual questions: "Do you like Georgia?" ("Yes, very much.") "Why?" ("Because it's a beautiful country with very nice people.") "Do you like our food?" ("Some of it, yes.") "How about our wine?" -- this last usually with a snicker.

(Well, Georgia does make some of the best wine in the world.)

But here's the one I hate being asked: "What is your favorite football team?"

When these kids say "football," of course they mean soccer. I'm not really interested in football of any kind, American football or soccer. But I hate to disappoint them, and clearly, soccer is SO popular here, (in most of the world, in fact) it's inconceivable to these kids that somebody might not be a soccer fan.

But I just can't bring myself to disappoint the 10th graders. I have to pick a team. So I usually say "Brazil."

I lived in the capital of Brazil, Brasilia, for three years, and it's the only place I ever lived where I saw people get absolutely fanatical about their soccer team.

(Having said that, when I lived in Cote d'Ivoire, after leaving Brazil, and the Ivorian soccer team beat Ghana in the All-Africa Cup tournament, then-President Felix Houphouet-Boigny gave the entire country two days off to celebrate. Not one day, two.)

But when I think of soccer, I think of Brazil's green-and-yellow flag, and of the afternoon I watched a key soccer match with my Portuguese tutor Miguel, at his apartment. The moment Brazil won that game, we could see, across the lake that forms Brasilia's center, a barrage of exploding firecrackers on the far shore that looked like a small-arms fusillade.

(Getting back to my U.S. embassy apartment that evening was dicey, because within five minutes of Brazil's victory, the main highway consisted of about 100,000 happy drunk drivers, waving Brazilian flags.)

So I say "Brazil," and of course they have to come back and yell the names of all their favorite teams, and since they all yell at the same time, I still don't know who their favorite teams are.

Let tell you about a few of my kids.

There is "Sandro," who looks like a miniature, redheaded version of Jay Leno. He has "the chin." And big brown eyes. Sandro is a treasure. He's so eager, tries very hard, always wants to come to the blackboard. He doesn't always get everything right, but Sandro is a trouper. His eagerness never flags.

There is "Nana," one of the prettiest little girls in a country that's filled with pretty little girls.

Nana wears her dark hair cropped short, the way my ex-wife used to wear hers. Nana has not brown, but black eyes, which makes her that much more lovely, and in the third-grade class where I teach with Medea, she sits in the only available space, which is not part of any of the rows. She has a row to herself.

Hence, this afternoon when we were pairing the kids off to talk to each other, ("What is your name? My name is Luka. What is your name? My name is Gio.") Nana was the 13th bowling pin. She doesn't sit right next to anybody, so she had no partner with whom to engage in this little dialogue.

"Okay, Nana, you get me," I said.

She was a bit flustered at having to "do" this dialogue with an adult instead of another kid, but I helped and we got through. "What is your name?"  "My name is Nana."  "What is your name?" "My name is Kelley."

I asked all the kids to make little name-cards for themselves and put them on their desks to assist me in learning their names.

Nana wrote her name down in colored pencils, and drew valentines all around it.

Then there's my buddy "Bacho." Bacho is a character. He's all over the place. I swear, today I saw him five times before I saw him in class. He's a blue-eyed blond kid with the usual snaggled baby teeth. He sits right down front, and let me tell you, when Bacho wants to contribute, he's about as subtle as a seven-car pileup. I was asking for volunteers to come to the board this afternoon and Bacho was all but on his knees, begging me to call on him. When I picked someone else, he looked heartbroken.

Then, shortly before the end of class, he unleashed a barrage of Georgian on Medea. I listened to this while sitting at the teachers' desk, unable to understand a word, but figuring if Medea wanted me to know what Bacho was saying, she would tell me. She finally turned to me.

More of my Tbilisi crowd. The one in the middle, wearing
a fancy Georgian costume, is Nutsi. Nutsi is a pistol.

"He is saying that his mother is in Turkey," Medea said. "And when she comes back he wants you to teach him how to ask her, in English, for something he wants her to buy for him. He described it. It is a musical instrument. I believe it's some kind of drum."

That's all the world needs: Bacho, armed with a drum.

Nutsi, one of my fifth-graders, is a pistol by anyone's definition. She's 11-going-on-15, if you get my drift. She writes left-handed, can do a mean hula hoop, and goes from deadly-serious to making silly faces in about eight nanoseconds. She wants to visit New York.

"Nino" is a drop-dead gorgeous eight year-old girl. (Yes, here in Georgia, "Nino" is a girl's name.)

I've been trying to figure out who the heck Nino reminds me of, and I just now realized. She reminds me of my cousin John's first wife, whose name was Lindsey.

Their coloring isn't the same, Lindsey and Nino (hell, Lindsey is MY age, and I'll be 56 next Wednesday!) but the high cheekbones and the big, bright eyes are identical. Lindsey, whom I have not seen in more than 30 years, was beautiful, and so is Nino.

Nino gets a little antsy now and then and has to reminded to settle down. Well, you know, she's eight. When I was eight, they couldn't get me to settle down either. (Come to think of it, when I was 50 they couldn't get me to settle down.)

This afternoon, bored, Nino started writing something in Georgian, in pencil, on the surface of her desk.

"Nino," I said. She didn't hear me.

"Nino!" I repeated. She looked at me. I used sign language. I pointed to the scribbling on the desk and waved my index finger in the international signal of "mustn't do that."

She smiled at me somewhat apologetically and duly erased her art work.

As she was doing so, I thought to myself, "If I don't stop this kid now, the next step will be graffiti. Who knows? She might become a tagger."

Then I thought about what a challenge it would be to explain to a bunch of Georgian kids what a "tagger" is.

I'm an American, a Californian to be specific, and I didn't know what a "tagger" was, myself, until about seven years ago. ("Gang member: spray-paints graffiti to mark his gang's territory.")

Nino made sure that I saw her applying the eraser to her desktop graffiti. As she did so, she caught me thinking back 45 years, to a time when I myself was so crushingly bored in my own sixth-grade classroom that I started drawing cartoons in pen on my own desk, and duly got yelled at for it by my teacher, Mrs. Hale.

Closing circles. Don't you just love closing circles?

I just love these kids.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia

These days, when I hear employees of the U.S. State Department complaining about how tough they've had it at what the foreign service calls the "hardship" posts overseas, I'd probably bust a gut laughing were it not for the fact that their presumed "sufferings" are so...well, insufferable.

With half the rest of the world starving, your average U.S. government employee think he's being given a hard way to go if he can't watch the NFL or Dancing With The Stars.

You see, I used to be a State Department employee. A State Department employee's idea of  "hardship" is "There's no Hormel chili here." If a foreign service officer or embassy employee gets sent to some spot on the globe where he or she can't play golf or run down to the corner market for a six-pack of good old American Budweiser, they think they should be entitled to "twenty-percent differential."

That's 20 % above your base salary, just for being in such an awful place. Do the math: if I'm making $80,000 a year and they send me to Khartoum, I automatically get $100,000 while I'm there.

Plus free housing, and free housing like you never saw. The rule of thumb when I was in the State Department was, "the crummier the post, the better the housing." In some place like Abu Dhabi, for example, you might not be able to get Hormel chili, (unless the embassy commissary happens to have it, and never underestimate the embassy commissary; I have seen embassy commissaries as well-stocked as any 7-Eleven), but you're going to be living in a 2,000 square-foot split-level mansion suitable for the Sultan of Araby, furnished with the best local rugs and the finest furniture that Ethan Allen (which had a government contract for years) can fix you up with. Hardship. Yeah.

I don't care whether you're talking about Paris, Capetown or Ouagadougou. State Department employees live in the lap of luxury.

Case in point: at the moment my ex-wife Chris and I are both in Tbilisi. She is here as contract worker for the U.S. embassy. I'm here as an English teacher. I don't represent the U.S. government in any capacity. Not anymore.

I live in a dismal one-room former Soviet dump, in a decaying slum building with dark, crumbling stairwells, miles from the city center.

My "garret," as I call it when attempting to console myself with reminders that the "bohemian" lifestyle was something I always wanted to try anyway, is about 30 square meters in size. It's so small I have to go outside to change my mind, as Daffy Duck once said.

I have a tiny kitchen, a tiny bathroom with a loose, plastic toilet seat and a tiny bathtub with no shower curtain. I have a tiny atelier with a rickety armoire, and a tiny living area which is mostly filled up with two beds. (I asked my landlady--who is 22, by the way -- to take the bigger of the two beds out, which would have given me an extra 20 square feet of space, but she refused.) I do have a washing machine, but nobody in my building has a dryer. We dry our clothes by hanging them on clotheslines outside our windows. It's like living in the world of Henry Roth's Call It Sleep if you remember that novel, which you probably don't. Nobody reads novels anymore, especially classic ones. But honestly, this place does give one the feel of living on the Lower East Side, circa 1915.

My ex-wife, meanwhile, is living at the U.S. embassy's expense (I pay RENT for my dump) in a luxurious two-story apartment right near Rustaveli Avenue in the best part of the city, and every morning she gets picked up and chauffered to the embassy, where, as temporary purchasing officer, she's in charge of ordering things like Ethan Allen furniture, stainless-steel refrigerators and jacuzzi bathtubs for foreign service officers' homes here at this "hardship" post.

And she's complaining, folks. She thinks she has it tough. She can't wait until she gets out of here in December. I'm going to be here until next June, and in this old Soviet dump in the extreme suburbs, not in some two-story uptown lap of luxury with a chauffeur to take me to work every day. What the hell is she whining about?

But I can tell you that U.S. government employees are spoiled like that all over the world. Everywhere. I know. I lived that life myself.  When Chris and I lived in the west African nation of Cote d'Ivoire 20 years ago, we had a four-bedroom house with a seven-foot wall around it, a yard and garden and 24-hour guard service. All provided by the embassy, and gloriously rent-free. We also had a big generator in our backyard. If the power went out in the middle of the night, all I had to do was wake up my night guard, who was usually sleeping on his prayer rug outside the back door, and have him go turn on the generator.

A few years after our marriage broke up, when she had become a direct-hire employee of the State Department herself, Chris got posted in Brunei. (You might not know where that is, but it is the richest country in the world. Oil. Look it up.)

In Bandar Seri Begawan, the capital of Brunei, Chris lived in what she herself described as "a palace." And she was alone. No family. (She has a son, but he just turned 49.) So Chris was living like Queen Latifah, and the U.S. taxpayers were picking up the tab for the whole luxurious ride.

If you're a taxpayer, you do pick up that tab. For all overseas employees: State, CIA, the military, you name it. They all live very well, and you pay for it. If any U.S. government employee ever whines to you about how "tough" his life was during those two years he was in Khartoum, ask him about (a) his house, and (b) his servant. He was probably living in a house about the size of your average Wal-Mart, and all foreign service people have maids or house stewards.

Okay, they have to pay for their maids, but it isn't much. When Chris and I lived in Brazil, I paid our maid $110 a month. And she was happy to get it.

Now this is "hardship." Here I am at the Tbilisi zoo,
trying to make a phone call on a derelict Soviet-era
public phone which is now nothing but a gutted
receptacle for trash. Everyone in Georgia has a
cellphone now. And just as in America, they drive you
nuts with them.

That was the State Department world. Overpaid, underworked and coddled to death. All of them, and once upon a time, me.

Welcome to the real world. I am now living the way most of the world lives. That is, miserably.

But there are compensations. I discovered one just the other evening.

The electricity is always going out here in Varketili, the district of Tbilisi in which I live. It usually goes out in the daytime, but after the first few outages, I knew it was only a matter of time before a power failure messed up my evening. I went to the bazaar at Didube, a few stops up the Metro line, and bought a flashlight just against this possibility.

It's a good thing I did, because last Thursday we had TWO power outages here in Varketili. They're an inconvenience when you're teaching a class of children and suddenly you can't use the CD player for language lessons. But when they impinge on your private life, they're more than inconvenience. They're a nuisance.

Georgia's president, Mikhail Saakashvili, at whose
more-or-less invitation I came here to teach English
To Georgian children. Saakashvili joined us briefly
at a wine-country field trip last weekend.
I knew this was going to happen, and last Thursday, sure as anything, it did. They got the power back on around midafternoon. Well and good. But at 8 p.m. as I was standing in the kitchen cooking supper, GA-WANGA, I was standing in the dark. Boom. Lights out.

I stayed on the computer for a few minutes, but it was running on battery power, and in any case when we lose electricity here I lose the Internet, so I had to power down. Okay, I had my little flashlight, and that was a good thing, but be honest with me: when was the last time you stood in YOUR kitchen with a frying pan in one hand and a flashlight in the other, cooking in the dark?

Let me tell you, when I was with the State Department that never happened. All I had to do was open the back door and nudge Mahmoud, and within minutes that generator would be cranking away.

Not anymore. Turn on the battery-operated radio, pass the flashlight...and wait.

But I was in for a nice surprise. While I was standing here cooking in the dark, there came a knocking at my door. Marley's ghost, I guessed. Oh, well. Let the sorry so-and-so in...

No, it was my neighbors from here in the slums. That is to say, the particular slum I live in. They were going around passing out candles to anyone who might need them. They were tiny candles, icon candles. Georgia is a predominantly Orthodox Christian country, and in any Orthodox home or church, tiny candles are almost always available for burning in front of icons.

My neighbors gave me a handful of these little candles.

I damn near wept. Nothing like that would ever happen in the United States, where in such a business as a power outage, it's strictly Every Jerk For Himself. These people are accustomed to such things, and they are not only prepared for them, but prepared to help their neighbors as well.

So all those stories I heard before I came over here, about Georgian hospitality, were true after all.

You know, I once laughed at that naive communist idiot John Reed, whose goopy, credulous paean to the Glorious Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Ten Days That Shook The World, included such brainless Rousseauistic pablum as "The poor love each other so!" (Well, such gunk got him the honor of being the only American buried at the Kremlin, a tribute to the power of true belief, I guess.) Jean-Jacques Reed: "The poor love each other so!"

Yeah, right. The poor are no better than the rest of us. (What am I talking about? I'M poor!) But they're also no worse. (Present company excepted.)

And a little thing like that, going around handing out candles to your neighbors during a power outage, was so unlike anything I'm used to from good old Protestant, feather-thy-own-nest America, that I was not only taken aback, but made a point of telling the story to my fourth-graders the next day. Hey, Georgia is a poor country with little to boast about aside from its countryside, its history, its dances, its music and poetry, and yes, its excellent wine.

And its people. I figured if I could tell these kids about how wonderful their people are...well, that's something, anyway. Good PR, right? I mean, these fourth-graders are tomorrow's adults. And if they don't learn English, or French or German or some other "mainstream" language, they're going to be stuck here. Because Georgia is the only place in the world where Georgian is spoken, and Georgia is about the size of South Carolina, and Georgia is poor. There isn't much opportunity here. Georgia is trying to align itself with Europe in the hope of creating a more prosperous future.

Language is the key to Georgia's future. Its current government understands that, and wants the L2 future to be English, not Russian, the latter being part of the Soviet legacy (aside from buildings like the one I live in) that still lingers here, and from which Georgia wants to distance itself.

L1: Georgian, surely, yes, and always. Georgian is an ancient language, much older than either English or Russian. But to the younger generation of Georgians, the Russian language is indeed part of the Soviet legacy; the Russians are not too terribly popular here, and nobody in Georgia under a certain age wants to speak Russian anymore. They don't want to learn it, and since the Soviets are no longer here to make them learn it, they don't.

Cab drivers still speak Russian, which helps me because I speak a little Russian but no Georgian, but by and large, Georgians under 30 don't speak a word of Russian. The young lady from whom I'm renting this apartment speaks only Georgian. No Russian at all. Her boyfriend speaks a little English, so that's how we communicate, she and I. He interprets as best he can.

Georgian is a lovely language, as lovely as it is ancient, as beautiful to look at as it is to listen to. But it's only spoken by four million people on the entire planet, and they all live here, in this lovely little country in the Caucasus, which its breathtaking mountains and valleys, its matchless vistas...and its poverty. The kids here had better start learning...some second language.

The present government of Georgia, under President Mikhail Saakashvili, wants Georgia's L2 to be English, not Russian, and as much as I love the Russian language myself, I'm here to help with that. And I think it's a good idea. Until the Chinese manage to establish their global empire, English is going to be the international language of business and technology. So I'm here to "spread" English, I, and hundreds of other teachers from The U.S., Britain, Canada and other parts of the world where English is spoken. Just as my ex-wife is here to help the U.S. embassy buy...who knows? Dom Perignon for the commissary? Gold-leaf toilet paper and wide-screen TVs for embassy bathrooms? (Not that I'm bitter or anything.)

My neighbors brought me candles, and I'm doing what I can to help their children learn to speak English. My co-teachers in Georgian school, for the most part, are great, and the kids are fantastic. I love these kids. They're so eager to learn. Most of them are astonishingly well-behaved to those of us accustomed to witnessing the crimes and misdemeanors of America's spoiled brats. And do they make us feel welcome! Just the other day I was standing in the hallway waiting for my 2:10 fourth-grade class to start. (My co-teacher for this class, Medea, is a treasure.) Anyway, I was wearing my Mexican-style straw hat and my "aviator" sunglasses. Within moments I had a crowd of tenth-graders pressing in around me. A CROWD of them. Boys and girls both. They all wanted to shake my hand, learn my name and tell me their names. They recognized me as a foreigner and that made me a novelty. They treated me like a celebrity. The last time students treated me like a celebrity was when I read Green Eggs and Ham to two classrooms full of second-gradeers at my old alma mater, Castle Park Elementary School in Chula Vista, California, about seven years ago. But those kids had been told that I was a newspaper reporter, so they thought I was a celebrity. To thse Georgian kids, I was just "the guy in the funny hat and sunglasses," but that was enough to practically make them ask for my autograph.

I really can't remember the last time I attracted an admiring crowd by simply wearing a straw hat and shades.

Are you starting to understand why I love these kids? Yeah, of course. It's because they make me feel that they love me. It's high time someone did.

 I want to meet more of them. And teach them. God, is teaching fun, or what?

Oh, yeah. Before I forget. Those very same neighbors who brought me candles on Thursday knocked on my door again Saturday night.

This time they brought me a big bowlful of grapes.

Well, by coincidence, it just so happened that I, and my ex-wife Chris too, had been on an excursion that very day to the Georgian wine country about an hour or so outside of Tbilisi, and as part of that excursion we had all gone into the vineyard to pick grapes for the production of some of Georgia's famous wine.

Jump on in and pick some grapes. We watched them make
wine out of this stuff. Then we drank some of it.
By the way, President Saakashvili dropped in on us (literally) during this vineyard tour.

He came flying in by helicopter, accompanied by a cadre of secret service guys, then worked the crowd as politicians do (I've met two American presidents and am familiar with this) and had his picture taken with every pretty girl in sight. That let me out.

Well, at least now I know what Mr. Saakashvili looks like. (I don't watch TV or read the papers.) I understand Saakashvili speaks excellent English. Maybe the next time I see him, we can chat for a few seconds. I'd like to recite for him the poem I recently wrote about riding on a bus through the Georgian countryside. In so many ways Georgia reminds me of my native California.

But getting back to the subject of grapes, like everyone else, I nibbled while I picked, and by the time my neighbors brought me a bowl of grapes that night, I had already eaten maybe two pounds of grapes at the vineyard and didn't want any more.

But, as Scott Glenn said to Ed Harris in the 1983 film The Right Stuff, "I appreciate it. I truly do."