Duel Lingo

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The first thing I learned today: I can hold a 30-minute conversation with the Italian tow truck driver in whose cab I was sitting after he picked up me and our Hertz rental car to return it to the agency office in Orvieto.

The second thing I learned today: I could not keep up with the heated discussion in Italian that my wife had with the Hertz office agent about who would have to pay for the tow.

Now, I had been working doggedly at improving my Italian language skills in preparation for our three-month stay in the country. But that preparation had largely been frustrated by, first, a foot injury (un tallone infiammato) that in late May kept me a virtual prisoner of our Rome apartment (the apartment did have a magnificent view from its terrace of the dome of St. Peter’s) and, subsequent to that physical setback, the fact that my wife is completely fluent in Italian. The predictable result was that she had taken the lead in virtually every exchange with Italians. To that, add in the otherwise lovely visit of two of our English speaking friends from Germany. The result was that I could literally feel my verbal language skills deteriorating while I was actually in the country. The only Italian I seemed able to converse with was from newspapers, which became my friends in my lonely refuge, boosting my reading skills but still leaving me largely tongue-tied.

So, it was somewhat of a mixed blessing when one of our rental car’s tires flattened after we had moved on to Orvieto. The tow truck driver, a Roman who had moved to this tranquil Umbrian hill town with this family of four children for work, was eager to talk, and I was eager to talk back. We covered a lot of ground in the half-hour waiting for the rental office to open. It wasn’t alway perfect, but the words and topics flowed: my career as a journalist, his business and young family, the pros and cons of living in Italy versus living in New York, the cons of Donald Trump. My good fortune was that he spoke no English. I was forced to think and listen in Italian, to remember the right tenses in the conversation, to translate my ideas on the spot.

It had me thinking again of the American writer Jhumpa Lahiri, who has written poetically of her 20-odd-year struggle to achieve Italian language fluency in the book “In Altre Parole” (In Other Words). As an adult, you can study all you want, but the foreign language seems to break down pretty quickly in the heat of actual free-flowing conversation. It took Lahiri the better part of three years of living in Italy, with constant language study included, and her dogged avoidance of all things English language, to become relatively fluent in that beautiful tongue.

But for me, today, the awe inspiring language skills of my wife, which are not limited to Italian, took center stage. And it left me thankful that she had taken the lead. The sordid details of the local Hertz agency’s lack of proper response to the problem–which we had brought to their attention the day after we picked up the car–are better left for the eventual exchange we will have with the corporation. But the rapid fire, heated exchange between the Hertz agent and my wife over responsibility for the towing charge left me realizing exactly how far I would need to go to get my message across in Italian. There were moments when both women were talking, fortissimo, at the same time and, I guess, understanding what the other was saying. Impressive!

We eventually left the Hertz office with the towing charge issue unresolved, but with a new car, which was cleaned after we returned the dirty car I had been given as the initial replacement earlier in the morning. In departing, I did manage to thank the guy who had cleaned the new car and given me some pointers on its particulars. Then, as we drove toward the Tuscan coastline for our planned day at the beach, I was left to hear from my wife, in English and in detail, just what that argument in the office had been all about.

Roman Holiday

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Rome–Maybe it’s because we’re from New York?

It’s been another warm, sun-filled day in the Eternal City, something I’ve come to expect at almost any time of the year when I’m here. And the fruit is lusciously sweet, the vegetables fresh and firm, the meats tender and tasty, the wine delicious and, shockingly, reasonably priced.

All of this–as wonderful a treat as it is each time I encounter it–is by now completely expected.

But what has been unexpected on this visit began months ago with reports emanating from back home; specifically, news reports that Rome has become the site of a garbage armageddon, a city with an ever-greater expanse of potholes and semi-completed public works, a chaotic mess that has overwhelmed its latest government and left its population in deep despair.

The reports we had read, from no less than the authoritative New York Times, as well as other media outlets, painted a near-apocalyptic portrait of a city rapidly descending into a heap of refuse, a situation more like what you would expect to find in a failed developing nation than in a world capital. The accounts were varied and grim: of uncollected garbage piling higher and higher and fouling the air as the temperatures rose and the new government of reformers got schooled by the mob-controlled sanitation union; of nearly unpassable roads and sidewalks as infrastructure projects were neglected or halted mid-work; of sidewalks littered with cigarette butts; of traffic congestion and parking chaos that surpassed anything seen before in this car-crazed country.

An ugly picture, and one that had my wife and I bracing for a less-than-ideal stay.

One week into our month-long visit, we have not been able to confirm those dire accounts. In fact, as we have traveled around various parts of the city–starting with our own rental apartment that is not in the tourist mecca of il centro–the reality of everything from the garbage piles in public places, to the condition of the sidewalks and streets , to the flow of traffic, to the state of public transportation has, if anything, compared favorably with what we experience on a daily basis back home (save for the cigarette butts, everywhere and a sign that the country has yet to kick that disgusting habit).

We’ve talked to locals, and they’ve complained about the state of affairs in Rome, something I have heard for as long as I’ve come here and history has shown is just about as old as the Roman Empire. When pressed gently, they will acknowledge that it may be clean where they are and where we’ve been, but that it “depends on the neighborhood.” Exactly which neighborhoods those are we still haven’t learned.

And while I have no doubt there are neighborhoods where the neglect matches the complaints, it’s apparent that the conditions in many areas of this town are way better than what news accounts or resident complaints claim it is.

Which brings me back to our hometown, New York. We live in an area of Manhattan that is a major destinations for tourists, both domestic and international, who are seeking a bit of what Old New York must have been like. Yet I could very easily write a report about the sorry state of cleanliness and garbage collection all around us.

I could use almost any morning as an example, with me stepping out of our building’s front door, turning right to go buy our daily bread. What do I see?  A tsunami of pizza boxes, paper plates, flying napkins, beverage bottles–whole and shattered–and other detritus that has overwhelmed the few meager public waste baskets provided by the city. I could cite repeated complaints with the city government we and our neighbors have made, the result of which has been zero improvement in collection and a not-so-subtle suggestion that we remedy the situation ourselves (as in giving us green garbage bags) rather than improving the Sanitation Department’s pickup schedule and/or fining delinquent businesses, like the oh-so-popular (with tourists) pizza shop, that are the font of the mess.

Our street in Manhattan has recently been repaved and it’s nice, save for the one corner a block away that the city has never quite figured out how to grade in order to prevent the lake that appears every time the rain is more than a sprinkle. Rome’s streets, by contrast, have been pretty good to ride on and cross over. We haven’t encountered the infamous Manhattan streets that threaten imminent injury to both pedestrian ankles and car axles.

And the regularly maligned Roman driver? Let’s just say that in New York City we would never, ever, under any circumstance day or night walk onto a marked crossway when there was even a single car in motion and approaching us for fear of being flattened by it and its thoughtless pilot. In Rome, what we have experienced without exception are drivers, whether they be in cars or the ubiquitous motor bike, who stop in both directions to let pedestrians cross. Way lower stress.

The Metropolitana–Rome’s version of the New York City subway–is nothing like the rail network in New York. The Apple’s system moves millions of people a day, every day, along what would be, untangled, hundreds of miles of track. But the Rome trains, contrary to popular legend (and an undeniable history of labor strife that can shut it down at a moment’s notice), seems to run smoothly, with frequent arrivals, electronic billboards announcing train locations, and clean cars. Anyone who has auditioned as a sardine or sweltered on a platform on the New York’s system would quickly recognize the differences.

Yes, Rome is a much smaller city than New York. Yet the point here isn’t that Rome is “better” than New York. Rather, it is that the recent (and not so recent) reporting by American journalists strikes me as shoddy work built on easy stereotyping. They, and their editors, should know better.

Then again, as I’ve already noted, maybe conditions in Rome don’t seem so bad to us because we’re from New York…

Be It Ever So Humbled…

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I have been spending (ok, wasting) an inordinate amount of time since the US presidential election on social media reading about, commenting on, passing along and, mostly, being aghast and anxiety-riven by the baring of raw, biased and often woefully uninformed views of many of my fellow citizens exposed one tweet and one post at a time.

It’s not that I’ve been taken by surprise. I’ve been prepared for this (here, I’ve posted as far back as March 2016 on the topic). Nevertheless, the utter recklessness that has first installed, and now supports, Donald J. Trump as president is jaw-dropping. I feel as if Duck Dynasty Nation has decided to ride shotgun in a car-jacked vehicle with Trump at the wheel, and it’s hurtling into a direct head-on collision with the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, I, my family, friends, neighbors and a tremendous number (really huge number) of other Americans have found ourselves trapped in the back seat of that car, and there don’t seem to be enough seat belts to go around.

Yes, we have marched, and will march again. Yes, we have donated to groups vowing to fight the delusional rush toward self-harm. Yet, something inside my own head keeps saying that the American electorate needs to learn a lesson, and that it won’t come from any quick aborting of Trump and the radical Republican agenda.

I do not wish to be either cynical or cold-hearted about the harm that will come to many innocent people from the vindictive and bullying efforts aimed at all the “others” among us and beyond. But, exactly what long-term lesson will be learned by Americans from some sort of deus ex machina conclusion to the current situation? An outcome like an impeachment, trial and conviction would only serve to keep the Trump fans still enraged and embittered (they are still sore, even as the winners). They will remain trapped in the grip of forces like fundamentalist/nativist theology, lazy consumerism and a self-defeating distrust and complacency of learning.

What they need is an outcome that hits them, their co-congregationists and communities, something that lays bare for them the falseness of their prophets. They need to rediscover a world that is not all “us against them,” one where engagement and compromise with others is the norm of civil society, not grudges and retaliation.

Sad to say, that won’t come without pain for many innocents beyond that group. I am not, repeat not, hoping for any development as catastrophic as what the people of Germany and Japan experienced from their flings with nationalistic imperialism. Even though they emerged from those horrors as exemplary global citizens, it is a price too high to wish upon any group.

What’s needed is for those communities and states that have drunk the Republican Party’s anti-government Kool-Aid for decades to discover how quickly things turn bad for them and not just the anonymous other when that despised bureaucracy is taken away. It looks as though health care will be the first point of their encounter with reality, and that’s already been well documented. Another likely near-term candidate is the American food market, where the lust for immigrant expulsions, if fulfilled, would almost assuredly lead to massive labor shortages on the farm and rapidly escalating food prices.

And, of course, there will be the long-running debacle of Trump-mandated trade protectionism and trade wars. Sure, some manufacturing may come back, but at the much heavier price of lost markets overseas and unavoidable manufacturing automation by the manufacturers who do relocate here.

That doesn’t even begin to factor in the long-term implications of totally redrawn political alliances globally, with America’s influence, prosperity and national security that has come with it evaporating before our eyes.

This means that I and those I know will not be immune to the negative effects. Yet there is no escaping such an outcome if a lesson to last generations is to be learned. And it’s not a matter of not wanting an presidential administration to be successful. Rather, it’s the eyes-open realization that its reckless and authoritarian policies, demeanor and ideology can never lead to success as defined by a democratic society. After all, be it ever so humbled, there will still be no place like home.

 

The Five Clauses

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We found ourselves on Wednesday afternoon in the heart of Tokyo just as the results of Election Day in the U.S. were reaching their inevitable outcome. Wandering through the forest like setting in the gardens of the beautiful Meiji Shrine in stunned silence, my wife and I tried to compose ourselves to the new, angry political landscape that awaits us back home.

We eventually made our way out of that perfectly manicured park, with its winding dirt paths under giant trees, past a fish-filled pond and around a submerged well, with its stepping stones hovering dry just inches above clear running water.

A quarter-mile or so down a widened path sat the shrine itself, built in the early 20th Century by the government to honor what’s known as the Meiji Restoration, an epochal time of political revolution that changed Japan.

Now, I’m no historian of Japan or that period, but the happenstance of being at that particular place on such an epochal date back home (we had voted by absentee ballot), really hit home.

Japanese society in 1868, much like America this year, was facing fundamental changes to its place in the world. Much as a plurality of my fellow citizens opted for on November 8, it chose a political revolution that upended the old order, one that eventually led to a militaristic nationalism that ended in disaster.

But whereas our current state of political revolt has been fueled by fear of the world and calls to shut ourselves off from it, the Meiji period at least began with no small degree of optimism about what needed to be done.

That difference is embedded in the very foundations of both periods. While the U.S. is now engulfed in a period of anger, distrust and vocal calls for reprisals, the Japanese began their march toward the future with what is known as the Charter Oath, and I think they are worth sharing now. In the words of the emperor who promulgated them:

“By this oath, we set up as our aim the establishment of the national weal on a broad basis and the framing of a constitution and laws.

Deliberative assemblies shall be widely established and all matters decided by open discussion.
All classes, high and low, shall be united in vigorously carrying out the administration of affairs of state.
The common people, no less than the civil and military officials, shall all be allowed to pursue their own calling so that there may be no discontent.
Evil customs of the past shall be broken off and everything based upon the just laws of Nature.
Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundation of imperial rule.”

Only a few days ago, those would have seemed quaint. Now, their optimistic simplicity can seem like guideposts calling for interpretation into our language and circumstances.

Rope-A-Dope

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What happened?

Monday night’s US presidential debate was billed by the press as the political equivalent of the legendary Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier brawls that transfixed global audiences in the 1970s, whether you were a boxing fan or not.

So, what happened? Hillary Clinton, the smooth Ali of this contest, showed up. But who was the gym rat she fought? Rather than assume the role of Joe Frazier, a tough brawler and ferocious counter puncher, Donald Trump looked and acted like someone who, having bluffed his way into the main event, now found himself fighting way outside his class, completely lost and running for his life.

But the debate stage proved as constricting as a boxing ring, and Trump soon found nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Facing a barrage of perfectly aimed and timed body blows from Clinton, he was the dope in Ali’s famous rope-a-dope tactic. Flailing wildly, and barely landing a glancing blow, Trump argued with the ref (aka debate moderator Lester Holt), swung wildly from his heels, and was left mentally exhausted and absorbing fact-based jabs from Clinton for nearly the debate’s entire 90 minutes.

Then, in the last minutes of the debate, Clinton landed her haymaker–Trump’s foul verbal abuse and debasement of a Latin American beauty pageant contestant–right to the jaw. Figuratively standing over her pummeled opponent, Clinton told us that that young woman has now grown up, become an American citizen, and was going to vote in the election. She didn’t need to say who the woman would vote for.

A dazed Trump could only stammer a rambling “not nice” in response. The fight was stopped. TKO Hillary Clinton. Let’s hope the press retires that Ali-Frazier analogy. Maybe Ali-Liston next time?

Open Letter to The President (Hold for Release)

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Dear President Trump,

Now that the American electorate has spoken in all its wisdom, both friends (i.e. Vladimir Putin) and enemies (i.e. Angela Merkel) alike now know that we are on the path you have laid out in gigantic letters of shining gold toward an “America First” century.

And, by now, you must be busy making good on your pledge to purge our beloved Fatherland of all subversive elements, foreign or domestic.

Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about how hard it is going to be for us average Americans (although easy for you, given your great talents, intellect and success) to get used to a society purged of Mexicans, assorted other Latinos, and Muslims. After all, they have been woven into the fabric of our society for as long as any of us alive can remember.

So, I’ve been thinking that perhaps what is needed is a bridge to help my fellow Americans get from the inclusiveness of our past to the exclusivity of our future.

That bridge? Food!

More specifically, you might consider as a first cleansing step the immediate closure of any and all ethnic restaurants in America (eat-in, take-out, whatever) from the compromised groups. Cutting out Americans’ access to tacos or tortillas (criminals), hummus or falafel (terrorists), General Tso chicken or Pad Thai (job stealers), while perhaps at first viewed as a painful and overtly vindictive withdrawal process, could eventually erase a key point of contact between the collective Joe Sixpack and the rest of the world. A potential side benefit could be a rapid expansion of low paying jobs at American food chains (let’s not forget your promise on jobs).

This could also cut off a potentially vital means of daily sustenance for the untold hordes of rapists, murderers and terrorists you have so repeatedly cited as the cause of all that ails us. You could sell it as a national security issue!

Of course, this ban would still leave us with foreign foods like pizza and sushi, assuming Italy and Japan are not subsequently compromised.

Once the restaurants are shuttered,  the next target could be supermarkets, grocery stores, bodegas and any other supplier who might think of subverting our new history by reminding Americans of what has been surgically excised from our consciousness: Guacamole dip? stripped from the shelves! Pita chips? let them eat potato chips instead!

In closing, I apologize for a communication that has gone beyond 140 characters. But if you have stayed with me until this point, and think this idea has any merit, please give me an advance notice, so that in the spirit of past prohibitions, I can at least stock my pantry and freezer with as many of these illicit items as possible until your impeachment and trial process has run its course, and I can again openly enjoy the fruits of our fellow cultures.

Sarcastically Yours,

Rocks In My Head

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Sisyphus, that lucky bastard.

While he was condemned by the gods for his transgressions to endlessly roll the same big rock up a hill from the bottom each and every day, at least it was a big rock. And, getting it to the top must have seemed to him–and the Greeks who were told the story–to be significant enough to justify the eternal, albeit fruitless, effort.

As for me, I have been condemned to the opposite, although ultimately as futile, effort as that avaricious old king. The rocks in my path are not big; in fact, they’re not much of rock at all. Instead, they are countless thousands of itty-bitty crushed stones that a snow plow pushed onto the lawn the one time this winter when there was enough snow to plow.

Why that happened is another story involving a friend of my daughter’s who, I am certain, will never be invited to Plato’s Lyceum. But what was done was done, leaving us with a partially gouged driveway, scattered stones and a decision on repairs.

And I was all for making the necessary repairs, which includes a few truckloads of top soil for the driveway, and some new crushed stone for an area that’s given us 25 years of cover. But my wife had an additional idea.

You are correct: we are raking and picking up every possible little crushed stone, sifting each bucket load multiple times to let the wind separate the stones from the dried grass, and then transporting said cleansed rocks back to the garage area, where they are again strewn about, mere eyedropper doses in an ocean of crushed stone.

Now this process of raking, sifting and redepositing happens every year, although to a far lesser degree than the current effort. And, truth be told, it is my wife (who must get immense pleasure out of this) who takes charge and obsessively works at it day-after-day to exhaustion.

But this year’s effort seems particularly Sisyphean to me. I can understand the raking part, since we could move the little stones onto the driveway, where they’d be buried under a ton of soil. But to get on our hands and knees picking up each and every little rock we can find so that it can be returned to the front of our garage? That is taking obsession to a new level.

I’ve gotten a break in this drudgery, as we’re taking a little trip to visit Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia estate in springtime, something we’d talked of doing for ages. While we’re there, I should be able to forget about the crazed task that awaits us after we’re back home. Perhaps my train of thought will shift while at Monticello, to slavery.

 

 

 

Writing On The Wall

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I’ve been edging toward the completion of a medium-sized painting I’ve been nibbling at since late last year, and finally doing so with increased satisfaction at the interplay between the colors–mostly neutral–and the shifting and overlapping verticals and diagonals that make up the formal arrangement.

Taking a break for lunch and then a stroll, I wandered into a local art gallery that was showing the work of the late painter Jake Berthot.

There, I discovered that Berthot, who moved to upstate New York nearly 25 years ago from his life in Manhattan, had written on his studio wall a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson. And Emerson’s words resonate far beyond the narrow confines of painting, and are worth sharing with the wider world:

“We may climb into the thin and cold realm of pure geometry and lifeless science, or sink into that of sensation. Between these extremes is the equator of life, of thought, or spirit, or poetry–a narrow belt.” 

A Most Uncivil War

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What a spectacle! There has probably been nothing like it in the American Republic since the antebellum era in the 1850s. The pent-up fears, hatreds and bigotries–across racial, ethnic and gender lines–have been bared and are approaching a tipping point that leaves even a jaundiced reporter’s eye such as mine amazed and uncertain as to the outcome.

The old political and social order seems to be splitting at the seams, and what would replace it seems equally fraught.

Until a week ago, I had spent the last two months far away from the homeland, and I was only periodically in touch with the daily unfolding chaos in the Republican presidential race. It seemed not only far away to me, but also a partisan and pedestrian matter on the periphery of reality–something that would be cleared up by the time I returned home.

I should have known better. Yes, it was obvious even from afar that the cynical politics of division that has been played by the Republican  Party for decades had amply fertalized the ground that was now sprouting the current insane crop of presidential contenders. But there surely would be certain boundaries of sanity that limited and channeled the hysteria, right?

Wrong! As I looked today at the image of a woman supporter of Donald Trump giving the Nazi salute (her post-facto explanation totally unconvincing), I realized just how much deranged hatred has underpinned the Republican Party’s political strategy. That that strategy, which not so long ago seemed carefully calibrated, has now overwhelmed the party itself is of little consolation.  The Republicans have cynically played the Jacobins’ game for decades by deftly using the coded language of division and bigotry (that Nazi salute clearly was not “politically correct,” was it?), and they now are trying to deal with the result, their very own Robspierre (or two).

The alarmed reaction from the political left (and apparently even the center-right) of the American political spectrum has been mounting as fears of a catasrophic electoral result have risen. And the very real battle lines between those who are America’s collateral damage of globalization (that would be mostly undereducated white males still living in an hallucinatory and lost past) and the rest of the society that experiences the world as it really exists has been clearly drawn.

It seems like a last stand for the bigots and those who mistakenly assume that their skin color, gender  and place of birth amount to an irrevocable gift; but we’re about to find out how many of them are actually out there.

Whatever the outcome, this is a breathtaking moment in American history, and potentially a revolutionary one.

The Super-Stupor Bowl

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The Super Bowl this year was pretty super–a tight battle until nearly the end, an early and controversial ruling on the field that was somehow confirmed after a challenge and video review, the underdog Denver Broncos, with their ancient field general piecing together some points and, mostly, a fierce defensive contest won by the Broncos, who forced the Carolina Panthers into key turnovers to emerge as the surprise winners.

It was a fitting game for the event’s 50th anniversary, and one of the infrequent instances when the game actually has lived up to the name.

And here, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, it was also a stupor bowl. Unlike parties in the United States, the game party here began at about 5:30 a.m. Monday morning, before dawn. In a bar. With the beer taps flowing and the mixed drinks swirling.

For a mere $16 U.S. it was an open bar from opening hour, and the crowd of mostly American tourists (there were some Brits and Aussies; they didn’t seem to have the slightest understanding or interest in the game, but clearly viewed a Super Bowl party as a perfectly good excuse for a sunrise drink or three) had a collective thirst that easily matched the intesity of the on-field action.

By the end of the first quarter, the volume in the bar had risen to a shout, and it only got louder as the game went on. Drinks piled upon drinks at the table, and by the end of the second quarter, attention to the game had slipped considerably. The always hyped half time show looked liked it must have sounded good, especially Beyonce and her leggy dancers, but the boozed up crowd drowned out any hope I had of hearing the show.

By the third quarter, a few of the young New York City finance industry guys at my table were sagging like beleagured defensive linemen under a relentless offensive ground attack. One, a pretty tall guy who was in front of me, went from sitting upright at the start of the game to taking little naps with his head against the chair in front of him. Maybe it was just the early hour. More likely, however, it was the multiple beers, screwdrivers and vodkas on ice downed at an hour before he’d normally be expected to even show up for work on his trading desk.

By late fourth-quarter, those of us who had behaved got to see the final humbling of the Panthers and their dynamic quarterback, Cam Newton. For the others, it was a time to stare at the undrunk ansenal of booze they’d built up by last call, half of it untouched as the reality of early morning inebriation began to take its toll. The bar did rouse itself–drunkards included–to pump out at the end of the game a brief, bizarre chant of “USA, USA!” Why, I’m still not sure.

I’ve long called the NFL’s title game the Stupor Bowl because so often they’re one-sided, non-contests. Today, however, it was a Super-Stupor Bowl, with both the game and the bar crowd pretty entertaining. I left it sober, headed for a cafe and a post-game cappuchino.