Saturday, December 16, 2006

PLAYING OUR GAME During the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, I was a member of a youth "travel" soccer team: A team elected, by what authority I'm not sure, to represent the local community in games against teams from other towns.

Somewhere around 1988, it was decided that our town's team would switch to a new league. And whatever the reasons for the change, the upshot was that our talented but middling squad became, in the new context, a league powerhouse--cobbling together long winning streaks and taking one title after another.

Naturally, our team soon grew cocky and undisciplined: Attendance at weekly practices became unreliable; pre-game warm-ups were truncated out of existence; and late arrivals for away games were not uncommon.

It rarely mattered--we continued to wind up at the top of the standings season after season.

But every now and then, we'd find ourselves outplayed by a mediocre team having a great day. Or we'd give up a fluke goal in the opening minutes and the opposing side would respond with solid, 11-man defense.

During half time at these rare games, a ritual took hold: The squad would huddle around our well-meaning but ineffectual coach, who would favor us with a pep talk.

It was an odd speech that he'd make, and I soon came to view it as vaguely irritating. But it took several iterations for me to figure out what I found grating. Then, one day, it dawned on me: He wasn't saying anything.

Our coach was speaking, of course--sometimes at great length.

But there was never any substance. No talk of adjusting our offense, repositioning players or rotating in bench subs more regularly. Instead, we were told to try harder; to stop making errors; to want it more.

The speech always crescendoed toward the same punchy, vapid declaration:

"Stop playing their game," our coach would say. "Get them to play our game."

Concise and structurally balanced, it was the kind of slogan that manages to sound profound even though it's utterly vacuous.

But those words have stuck with me through the years. And, watching the news out of Iraq these last few weeks, they've been seeping back into my thoughts with increasing frequency.

Because we're saddled with a President who sounds, when discussing Iraq, very much like my old coach. At a deadly serious moment, we're stuck with a man in charge who's fundamentally uninterested in doing the difficult, often boring work of coming to understand the sticky predicament in which he finds himself--let alone asking the hard questions that must be confronted on the way to solving complex problems.

Let alone describing the contours of those problems to the American people.

It's a scandal and a tragedy. And before it gets better, it's going to get worse.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.