Monday, June 28, 2010

Making soccer more palatable for Americans

It is widely known that, even with a World Cup in process, non-immigrant Americans are not as fascinated by soccer as people in most other parts of the world.

I began drafting this tongue-in-cheek, but a friend pointed out that we could try some of my ideas in US professional soccer leagues.

I claim no originality in suggesting that most sports-loving Americans become impatient when watching soccer. While they may appreciate the ball control and amazing skill at passing manifested by professional players, there simply isn't enough scoring to keep their attention. They are accustomed to professional basketball, where a score of (say) 118-115 is not uncommon. In our version of football, although it often takes a little more time for one of the teams to get on the scoreboard, a game in which the two sides combine to score on
ten occasions or more is fairly frequent.

We need more viewers of soccer games on TV,  to support our economy by yielding to the beguiling advertisements. This could be achieved if we could make some changes to increase the

I have given considerable thought to this question, and I have several "modest proposals" to speed up the scoring. Just as we have different rules in baseball's National League and American League (which allows a "designated hitter" to perform). I just suggest that we could adopt an optional program to ensure more scoring. I am not suggesting that traditional soccer rules be banned.

How to achieve this? Well, one very simple change would not cost very much, and would allow stadiums to offer traditional or "improved" soccer games. That would be simply to make the "target" more readily available. Wider goal posts and higher crossbars would soon accomplish this.

A second idea would be that when a defender accidentally kicks or heads the ball over the end line, the other side be given half a goal. If this seems too generous, I would suggest moving the point from which the attacking side kicks the ball half way in towards the goal from its traditional corner.

A minor change would grant two goals when the ball is headed into the net. Another change which could be made without additional expense would be to abolish the "yellow card". If the referee detects an infraction, the offender should immediately be given a "red card", and sent off, improving the odds for his opponents.

The simplest change of all would be to abolish the so-called "offside" rule. If a player can move quickly enough past all the offenders (except the goalkeeper), so much the better.

There have been complaints about the amount of "flopping" occurring these days: in other words, a player attempts to have a foul called on a member of the other side. I would introduce a rule that anyone detected flopping should receive a red card.

I would divide the game into four quarters, as is done in American football. In each quarter, one of the teams would have one fewer player, increasing the odds for scoring. Each team would need to do this in alternate quarters.

With these changes, soccer scores should at least become similar to those experienced in baseball. The anomaly in that sport is that when no player on one team even advances to first base, it is called a "perfect game". For the pitcher, yes; for the viewer, far from it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Farewell, Elderhostel!

The paid folk working for Elderhostel were getting worried. The average age of participants in their programs kept rising.

Commonsense should have told them that this was inevitable, for several reasons:

1. Educated middle-class Americans have been living longer, and aging more slowly. These are the people who have supported Elderhostel programs.

2. Many folk enjoy their first Elderhostel program, and then attend other sessions as they age.

3. Generally speaking, the average attender has prospered, and can afford to attend more sessions in retirement.

That is my totally non-scientific analysis. The paid staff began to be worried, and they sought to attract more folk in their 50s and 60s. How to do this? Why, hire an expensive consultant firm, of course.

What did these well-paid visionaries come up with? "We have a bad name. These people don't want to be thought of as 'elderly', so we must avoid any reference to 'elder' at all costs."

About a year ago, these brainy thinkers coined a word . When Barbara and I attended an Elderhostel program in the Monterey area last fall, the new name was revealed to us: "Exploritas". None of us liked that name, and we expressed our feelings vividly in our evaluation forms. I presume that many other otherwise happy Elderhostelers did the same thing in other parts of the country. Back to the drawing board, then.

Recently, we received a rather lame letter, indicating that a "small travel company" had sued to stop the use of "Exploritas". (The name of the other company wasn't given, but I'll bet it was "The Explorers Club", which runs small-group travel.) The letter we received explained that, although "Exploritas" had been carefully checked out by lawyers, and had been properly trademarked, the former Elderhostel management had decided to back off, although it was clearly in its rights to retain the name. They did not wish to cause any "confusion".


Having been let off the hook for a lousy choice, the management decided to come up with another name. In future, participants are to be known as "Road Scholars"...

Ugh! I gritted my teeth when I saw this, in part because it is another assault on the primary meaning of the word "scholar". Moreover, I abhor the pun. I can imagine the new team of wealthy consultants giggling when this name came up. (Yes, it's funny. You might also say that it could be just as"confusing" as the banished "Exploritas")

I am now wondering whether the other shoe will drop. Will we be hearing from Rhodes House in Oxford? Will the legions of distinguished former Rhodes Scholars rise up in arms? If the name remains, will it actually attract younger participants? Only the future will tell.

Monday, June 14, 2010


By nature, I am not a big tipper. I prefer the "service charge", which still allows one to add more if the service is outstanding.

When I lived in Britain, I generally conformed to the practice of tipping 10% of the bill, somewhat rounded up. Nowadays, I conform to the usual American practice, in which 15% is the standard (or at least it used to be: there is some "creeping inflation" pushing the level up to 20%, which I tend to resist.)

On a recent evening, I came to pay the bill for a party of twelve at a family dinner. The menu clearly stated that a gratuity of 18% would be added to all bills for parties of 6 or more. (I understand why restaurants do this, but that doesn't mean that I like the practice) To my surprise, when the bill arrived, no such charge had been made. I didn't have a portable calculator in my pocket, and so I multiplied the total shown on the bill by 18%, and wrote in that amount as the gratuity. I smiled at myself: Why did I do that? I could have simply asked the waiter to add the 18%. Again, with the amount of the tip left blank, why didn't I just add a tip of 15% or thereabouts? Truthfully, the service had been slow and spotty, although quite "professional".

In earlier years, I used to become quite irked when expected to include the tax before computing the tip. What did the governor's impost have to do with the service we had received? Going back several generations, I am half English and half Scottish, and the stereotype of Caledonian frugality has occasionally been justly applied to me, although I have mellowed on this with the passage of time.

On one occasion, about thirty years ago, I gave a substantial tip in advance of the meal, with the promise of more to come at the end. Barbara and I were entertaining a friend who had an exaggerated idea of his own fame as a painter. I coached the waiter to pretend to recognize the man, and to flatter him almost to the point of the artist's realization that he was being "set up". Perhaps the waiter was an actor "resting" between engagements, because he engaged in this jest magnificently. Barbara and I sat giggling to ourselves, and the man never caught on. I don't consider myself a vengeful person, but this was my payback time, since our friend had told Barbara that I was "irascible". That adjective has been featured in Barbara's comments whenever I speak wrathfully--and she certainly has a point!

Monday, June 7, 2010


We have a primary election here in California today, and we have already completed our mail-in ballots. It reminds me of how simple elections are in the UK. There are local elections, normally every year, largely for members of local councils. National parliamentary elections occur when they are called, and this must take place at least once every five years. Then there are by-elections, caused when a Member of Parliament (MP) dies, is raised to the peerage, or "applies for the Chiltern Hundreds", technically an office of profit under the Crown, which requires leaving Parliament, but actually a fiction allowing for departure without resigning - an action forbidden under the law. (There is an alternative "office of profit", the Manor of Northstead, although I have not heard of anyone taking that route in recent years.)

The British system seems sensible and attractive, by contrast to our system, in which wealthy persons can virtually "buy" public offices. Meg Whitman, the billionaire former eBay CEO, is reported to have spent some $81 million to date, in her quest for the governorship of California. (You might wonder why anyone would want to try to govern our unruly state, but it is believed that Ms. Whitman hopes that her election will enable her to be selected as running mate for Mitt Romney, who is expected to run again for the Presidency in 2012.)

We trumpet our "initiative process" as being very democratic. There are two problems with this process, which allows a vote to enact a law which can only be overturned by another "vote of the people". However, those who propose an initiative can usually find plenty of money in support, from "special interests" and anyone else who thinks they would profit from it. I don't believe I have ever heard of enough money being raised to modify these "initiatives" by a subsequent vote. Often I have found myself voting in favor of an initiative, based on my view of the preponderance of the arguments in favor, but where i have felt that some part of the initiative is misguided.

The late Democratic politician and Speaker of the Assembly, Jess Unruh, aptly remarked that "money is the mother's milk of politics". How true! I suppose that I should be pleased that millions of dollars are being spent on television, radio and print advertising on these "initiatives"; it is, after all, helping us in our slow recovery from our economic downturn. On the other hand, "there must be a better way" for making these decisions.

Since I came to this country some fifty-three years ago, and chose to become an American citizen (while retaining my British citizenship) as soon as feasible, perhaps I should refrain from any criticism of our political system.

I need to mention one more aspect of political life. We are constantly being bombarded on our landline by pitches from candidates and those supporting initiatives. We seldom watch commercial TV these days, so we are spared most of the flurry of political adds, although I can't escape them on the classical music radio station I visit most mornings.

I would prefer the British system, in which a representative of each contending party would ring a doorbell, and ask me how I planned to vote. This form of canvassing enables political workers to try to ensure that their supporters actually go to the polls. I can remember from my time in England that I and my colleagues would give laggards rides to the polls, as time was running out for them to cast their votes. Once the voting in the UK is over, the British leave it to the politicians to make decisions. That system works pretty well in a country which still maintains a free press and other media.

I guess that, instead of griping about our U.S. system, I should give thanks that I don't live in one of the many countries where the right to vote is either a sham or non-existent.