Monday, April 4, 2016

One more blog about ... Marcus Paige

There are plenty of story lines to contemplate as we await Monday night's national championship game between Villanova and Carolina. Will a title wash away part of the guilt associated with the academic scandal at THE university of the people? Can we break our title tie with Duke and sit alone in third place (UCLA 11; Kentucky 8, but only 4 not won by a racist named Adolph; Indiana and Duke also have 5 titles)? How do we feel about the prospect of Roy passing Dean?

But win or lose, tomorrow night marks the end of the Marcus Paige era. How sweet would it be if Paige went out with a title? I know Roy really wanted Hansbrough to get one as a reward for staying four years, and of course Tar Heels everywhere were happy when Jawad Williams, Melvin Scott and Jackie Manuel went out as national champs four years after enduring an 8-20 season.

Paige, along with Brice Johnson and Joel James, going out a national champion would probably top both of those, for now familiar reasons. As I've nattered on before, in blogs tens of people have read, to me Marcus Paige represents the restoration of something important, the return of the Carolina Way. To get him a championship in the wake of that scandal would be incredible and meaningful.

Of course, being an Academic All American AND making big plays is the Carolina Way. Once again, when Carolina needed him the most in this Final Four, Paige made the play of the game.

Saturday night was not a perfect game, for the Heels or Paige. Looking back at the win over Syracuse, despite shooting it pretty well I imagine you felt like I did: Carolina won without having actually played that well. We got off to a shaky start, Brice picked up two fouls in the first 10 minutes, Syracuse held it's own on the glass for the first half, and then we had some weird turnovers in the second half - 3 live ball ones by of all people Marcus Paige.

Fortunately, Marcus Paige is Marcus Paige. His touch pass to redirect Jackson's pass to Meeks for a layup was Dean-esque. Marcus' huge 3 when Syracuse had cut the lead to single digits was the dagger into the Orange's chances.

That shot was a continuation of the pattern we've seen during this run from Paige: at Duke he got the big steal, then the big defensive play that resulted in an important layup; in the ACC tournament he buried Notre Dame from behind the arc; against Virginia he scored the go-ahead basket and helped shut down Malcolm Brogdon; etcetera etcetera in the NCAA tournament.

If that pattern continues on Monday night, I imagine it won't just be ol' Roy crying. Go Heels!

A few more thoughts:

  • I love our chances. Villanova has been playing great basketball, and tomorrow night's matchup now seems obvious. But as we've seen throughout this tournament, the Heels have too many weapons. James is Exhibit A; he calmly came off the bench in the first half and sank two shots like he was tying his shoes. He's Carolina's ninth-best player. I don't think the Wildcats can stop everyone.
  • That is the key point: everyone. Carolina is getting contributions from the whole team this tournament. Kennedy Meeks had 15 and 9. If I didn't have a stat sheet I would have assumed he was our high scorer; that's how important each of baskets appeared to be. However, Justin Jackson and Johnson (where's Polk?) bested Meeks with 16 points. Joel Berry barely had to shoot but had 10 assists. And of course Marcus had 13, Theo made plays including a big three, and Britt was solid especially on defense. Everyone is contributing.  
  • I also expect to see a totally dominant Brice Johnson - it's his last game as a Tar Heel, too - versus Villanova. Not FSU dominant, but don't be surprised if he is Notre Dame dominant, somewhere in the 25 and 15 range. 


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Return to the Final Four, and Return of the Carolina Way

The great run of this year's Tar Heel squad has been exhilarating for a number of reasons.  One, it's the Tar Heels!  Two, after too long of a stretch without an ACC championship or a Final Four (since 2008 and 2009, respectively) the Heels have reasserted their place at the top of our nation's basketball pantheon.  And three, and most importantly, this team has marked the return of the Carolina Way.

The academic scandal, which has tarnished both the basketball program and more importantly THE University of the People, has practically erased that Dean Smith-built standard.  But this year's team has resurrected the Carolina Way, in many different ways.

As I've joked with friends throughout the year, you know this squad - and every squad since the scandal broke - is not taking paper classes with majors clustered in the old and notorious  African-American and African Studies department.* This is a likable team of student athletes, personified by first-team Academic All American Marcus Paige. Roy seems to really love coaching them, and the warmth between the players and coach is evident: on senior night; in the locker room celebrations; on the dais of the post-game press conferences; everywhere.

It's also an old school, Dean-like team of upper classmen.  Eleven of the players are juniors or seniors, and the roster is made up of the kind of guys Dean used to guide from perplexed freshmen into all-Americans in four years, guys like Brice Johnson** or Isaiah Hicks.

Finally, seniors rule in the Carolina Way and that is certainly true of this year's team.  Brice Johnson has been our best player all season, but Marcus Paige has been our most important one down the stretch. I can not gush enough about Paige.  As I posted in my last blog, academically alone he's been huge post scandal.

However, consider the senior leadership Paige has shown in this exhilarating run.  At Cameron, his steal, defense and lay up singlehanded stopped Duke's run in the second half, and his free throws clinched that win. In the ACC tournament championship game he did it again; his defense helped keep Malcolm Brogdon in check, he led a run that gave Carolina the lead for good in the second half, and down the stretch had another key steal against the Hoos to stymie their come back.

And of course, after Notre Dame ran off twelve straight points to take a one-point lead who answered for Carolina?  With Brice on the bench with 3 fouls and UNC down one, Paige drove left and made a tough baseline jumper to give Carolina the lead, one they would never relinquish. That basket started an overpowering Carolina scoring run, aided by a key steal by Theo Pinson but punctuated by another great play by our Academic All American. That play started with Paige out jumping and out fighting Zach August for a rebound, then saving that rebound as he was falling out of bounds. Paige got the ball to Kennedy Meeks, who Wes Unselled a pass to Pinson who promptly threw an alley-oop to Hicks for a slam dunk.

A text book Carolina Way  fast break, started by a guy who epitomizes and is resurrecting the Carolina Way.


* That department has been reorganized and is now under the College of Arts and Sciences as the Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies.
** That is literally true of Johnson, who has been named a first team All American by the AP and the Basketball Writers of America.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Cliched Tournament Preview

It may come as a surprise, but in the 4 brackets I've filled out (ESPN, Dean Loves You and Sierra Club at CBSSports and Baseball America) I have Carolina - that's North Carolina - winning the national championship each time!

What a difference a year makes. On the eve of the 2015 tournament I typed a rather negative blog about the state of college athletics and the hypocrisy of the NCAA tournament in particular.  Speaking of hypocrisy, the official bracket of the official website of the official broadcast partner of the NCAA ( actually says "Don't Bet On It!"  In keeping with that admonition, I regret to inform my employer and my brother's employer that I therefore can not pay the $5 or $10 entrance fee for the Sierra Club or BA pools. 

Of course, my negativity was in part based on the residue of a lackluster regular season for the Heels, even though they made the sweet 16 and played in the ACC tournament final, but more to the point the lingering academic scandal at the University of the People. Also a year ago Kentucky entered the tournament with another team, an undefeated one at that, loaded with rent-a-players biding their time between their senior year of high school and the NBA Rising Stars game.  It seemed that college basketball had sullied both the bad programs and even the good ones like my alma mater.

Instead of being negative on the eve of this tourney I'm more of a hypocrit.  Forget the scandal for now and the big money polluting college hoops; this year I love our team and the Heels' chances! Some of that is due to my deepening love for Marcus Paige and his epitomization of Dean's Carolina Way. But most of it is due to the recent play of Carolina. The Heels have won 7 of their last 8, and the one game they lost they avenged in the ACC tournament final. Their last 4 wins have been at Duke, two blow outs over Pitt and Notre Dame, and the tough win over the Cavaliers for the ACC championship.  That's a big-time winning streak.

The extra ingredient that has wratcheted up my enthusiasm (and thus the hypocrisy) has been the return of the trademark Carolina poise. Poise and grace under pressure, playing smart, have been central parts of the Carolina Way.  The Heels had that as recently as 2012, when Kendall Marshall looked poised to lead the Heels to another national championship until he broke his wrist in the closing seconds of our second round win over Creighton.  But this team, even with Paige, lacked that Dean-inspired, George Lynch-like poise.

Ironicly, the home loss to the devils may have triggered some growth and development from this year's team. After the Duke loss Carolina had to turn around and host number 11 Miami.  The Heels could have felt sorry for themselves and mailed it in, but instead ol' Roy helped Carolina get their heads straight and UNC blew the Canes out by 25 points.

They were poised in Durham in getting their revenge, with Brice Johnson and Joel Berry having big games - with Paige making the play of the game AND the clinching free throws.  

In the ACC tournament final Paige, Johnson and Berry again led the charge, but don't forget about Isaiah Hicks calmly making a 12 foot jumper in the lane with the shot clock winding down and the Heels clinging to a 3-point lead with less than 30 second left in the championship game.  Hicks was not intimidated by the situation. He was poised. He is a Tar Heel and plays the Carolina Way.

Anyway, add that up and I love our chances.  Go Heels!

Here is my quick look at the other 67 teams and the rest of the tournament:
  • My brackets are almost all chalk. My elite 8 is Kansas (1) v. Miami (3); Oregon vs. Oklahoma (1 & 2); Virginia vs. Michigan State (1 & 2); and of course UNC v. Xavier (2).
  • My Final Four is all ACC and Big 12. I have us beating the Wahoos in another nail-biter, Kansas beating Oklahoma, then the Heels smithing what ever demons ol' Roy has left by beating the Jayhawks.
  • Overall I think Oregon has the easiest draw while Kansas has the hardest.  Virginia may finally slay their nemesis in the Spartans. 
  • Carolina's toughest game will likely be against Kentucky, but I don't see the Wildcats having enough  to stop both our frontcourt AND our backcourt.
  • I do not predict many upsets, and most of those are mild ones: Iowa over 'Nova; Notre Dame over WV; Cal over Maryland; Cuse over Dayton, but that's about it.
  • My one exception of course is UNC-Wilmington beating the devils, and I would not be surprised if St. Joe's beats Oregon and goes to the sweet 16.
  • But remember - don't bet on it!

Monday, March 7, 2016

In Praise of Marcus Paige

I love Marcus Paige: as a student; an athlete; and above all as a Tar Heel. In many respects his senior season has been a disappointment.  Actually, let me correct myself - his shooting in his senior season has been a disappointment.  But as a Tar Heel?  Nope, he's excelled.

For the third year in a row Paige was named an academic All-American. After two years of being second team Paige was named a first-team academic All-American his senior season.  Being named an academic All-American is always a big deal (just ask Tyler Zeller) but obviously Paige's status as a three-time honoree is magnified in the wake of the academic scandal at the "University of the People."  He is an old school, Carolina Way, Dean-worthy Tar Heel: a smart, conscientious, articulate student who also happens to hold the Carolina record for most three-pointers made. 

He also happened to win the Duke game for the Heels, a game that smited the right-wing devils, avenged the heartbreaker in Chapel Hill - and a win that gave Carolina the regular season title* and the top seed in the ACC tournament. 

Now, most Tar Heel fans may think I'm referring to Paige's clinching free throws in the final 30 seconds. But just like in a baseball game, where the biggest outs are often made in the 7th or 8th inning yet the closer who pitches the 9th gets the save, Paige saved Carolina around the 11:30 mark of the second half.

To reset the scene, one I've watched three or four times since the game ended on Saturday night: Duke had tied the game at 49 behind the three-point shooting of Luke Kennard and Gray'son of Nixon/Reddick/Battier' Allen.  The crowd was going nuts, so much so that even ol' Roy called a time out.  

One can assume the Heels were still a little rattled since we immediately turned it over with who else, Allen, stealing a terrible pass from Pinson.** It looked like a sure fast break basket for the devils and a 51-49 first-of-the-game lead for Duke.

But that's when a Tar Heel stepped up. Not giving up on the play Paige hustled back and poked the ball away from Allen. Pinson picked it up, got it ahead to Jackson who missed the layup but a hustling Theo tipped it in for a 51-49 CAROLINA lead.

On the next possession Duke went to Allen but Paige fought over the high screen, disrupted the shot and son of Nixon missed. In fact, son of Reddick missed so bad he flopped and tried to sell a foul on Paige. Of course, that (along with tripping others) is wicked-bad karma AND means that you are on the floor whining instead of getting back on D. That allowed Marcus to streak down court unmolested to receive a great outlet pass from Jackson for a lay up.  

His steal and his defense caused a 6-point swing. Instead of the devils taking a momentum-shifting two-point lead, thanks to Paige the Heels were up by four. Duke never tied or led the rest of the way.  

Fittingly, the player who saved the Duke game for us and restored our faith in the Carolina Way hit the free throws that iced a very satisfying win. In a season where many UNC fans and alums longed for a poised Tar Heel like George Lynch or David Noel to appear, one did in Cameron. One who has also made us proud in the class room.  

One more reason to love Marcus Paige. Tar Heel.

* Of course, any ACC old head knows that there technically isn't a regular season title.  The champion is crowned at the ACC tournament.
** Paige and especially Brice Johnson and Joel Berry had great games versus Duke, but our unsung hero was Pinson. He made numerous plays and filled out the stat sheet with 6 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal and 2 huge free throws with 30 seconds left. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

If you like it, we invented it: Star Wars edition

If you like it, we invented it. You often hear Greeks say that about our contributions to civilization. Actually, I may be the only person who says that. But you get the larger point; Greeks have contributed more than their fair share to the development of western civilization and values.  

Well, get ready for us* to take credit for Star Wars.  

In the run up to 'The Force Awakens' we recently watched 'Return of the Jedi.' My cynical memory of that film revolved around the Ewoks. But upon further review that movie may be the best of the three, with Luke finally harnessing the power of the Force and understanding what it means to be a Jedi, that good must fight evil. Luke gets so deep into the power of the Force that he becomes convinced that it can still redeem his father. 

And of course we see Darth Vader salvaging his humanity, his love for his son, to save Luke's life. He thus becomes born again as Anekin Skywalker before he dies, the ultimate return of the Jedi.

In 'ROTJ' Luke's training leads him back to Yoda, the Greek philosopher of the Star Wars series. George Lucas loved the ancient Greeks, and it shows. You may recall in 'The Empire Strikes Back' Yoda breaks it down for the young Skywalker: For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is...Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. 

You could call that quote Greek Philosophy Version 3.0.  

Version 1.0 is classical Greece. Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, etc. were the first folks on the planet to firmly believe that humans were good, possessors of a divine spark that makes humans human, makes them luminous beings. The spark that makes that possible is of course love, and the understanding that love is the most important force at our disposal.  

The ancient Greeks believed humans could become like gods - the opposite of crude matter - and their art, politics, culture were driven by that belief. That's why Greek culture is still relevant today.

Plato summed up classical Greek optimism in humanity when he stated: "To prefer evil to good is not human nature."  It took Darth Vader seeing his son get repeatedly zapped by the Emperor to finally figure that out but at least he got there.

Version 2.0 is St. Paul and the Hellenistic Greeks (including Hellenized Jews like the former Saul of Tarsus) who founded and canonized Christianity. St. Paul often referred to Christians as 'children of light.' AKA luminous creatures.

If Version 1.0 gave us the wisdom of love, Version 2.0 gave us divine wisdom (Αγία Σοφία). It's a deeper, spiritual wisdom fostered by the belief that Christ's love is stronger then death, and that that love can conquer anything and anyone. And as a corollary to Version 1.0, Version 2.0 taught us that just as God could become human (it happens each year on December 25th) humans can become like God through the divine wisdom of Christ. 

Which finally brings us to Version 3.0, the Force and it's belief that goodness can defeat the darkside. Yoda counsels Luke: "
You will know... when you are calm, at peace, passive. A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, NEVER for attack"** and: "Yes, a Jedi's strength flows from the Force. But beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will."

In 'Return of the Jedi' Luke successfully challenges the final part of that quote. He uses the love between a father and son, and the divine love of the Force*** to save the devil himself, Darth Vader, from the Dark Side.

Anyway, that's my Hellenic-tinged view of the philosophy of Star Wars. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Christ, St. Paul, Yoda, Luke Skywalker all agree - we are luminous creatures.

And remember, if you end up loving 'The Force Awakens' we invented it!

* Ok, once again not us but me. But if you agree then I speak on behalf of ALL of Hellenism.  If you disagree, I'm just a Greek-American Tar Heel enviro in DC with a blog.

** This little quote is fascinating in that it restates the modern Christian belief that defensive wars are okay even though one of the commandments says 'Thou shall not kill.'
*** One final Hellenic-Star Wars link. The Greek word for light is φως, fos phonetically.  It's pretty easy to get from Fos to Force.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

How the Antetokounmpo Family Became Greek

In honor of tonight's game - Evan and I are going - that pits Giannis Antetokounmpo and his Milwaukee Bucks against out hometown Wizards, I thought I would share my version of how the Antetokounmpo family ended up in Greece. Both Giannis and his brother Thanasis were born in Greece to Nigerian parents.

Mr. Antetokounmpo (after he comes home after a long day of work): Nigeria is a train wreck. No matter how hard I work our lives are still way too difficult. I can't imagine starting a family here either, under these difficult conditions.

Mrs. Antetokounmpo: Tell me about it, it's even harder for a woman!  But what can we do? I'd like to move the Europe, Canada or the United States, but I worry that our long last name is too hard to pronounce and will make it impossible to find meaningful employment, let alone fill out a job application!

Mr. Antetokounmpo:  Tell you what. I'll go to the library tomorrow and Google 'countries where citizens have very long last names.'  We can talk about it again tomorrow night.  Now let's listen to some King Sunny Ade while we eat dinner.


Mrs. Antetokounmpo: How'd it go at the library?

Mr. Antetokounmpo: Eureka! We're moving to Greece!

Mrs. Antetokounmpo: Greece? But we don't smoke, smell like garlic, dance in a circle OR bathe in olive oil!

Mr. Antetokounmpo: True, but the first name that came up on Google was Mr. Papaconstantinopoulou. Pack your bags!

Feeling it, but not feeling it (yet)

The start of the college basketball season, more to the point the Carolina basketball season, was a silver lining to a weekend dominated by barbarism.  But even then, the lingering effects of the academic scandal has tempered that Carolina blue escape. 

I Tivoed Friday's opening game versus Temple, and watched it after our eleventh grade pot luck with a mix of interest and disinterest. Typing that sentence was unimaginable just a few years ago. But I have to admit I wasn't that excited even though this team could win Carolina's sixth national championship and Roy's third.   

Carolina's descent to the level of just any other school with a big time sports program, as opposed to the school that did things the right way, is part of the issue. I also find it harder and harder to ignore the general tawdriness and outright hypocrisy of college sports.  There is little to no justification for big time colleges and universities supporting minor league football and basketball leagues.

But if you read Ross Douthat's Sunday column in The New York Times you start to realize that perhaps the entire college system, not just athletics, is corrupt. Colleges seem to have lost their sense of higher purpose. In that regard the shift from teaching to research mirrors the shift from amateurism to big money sports programming (played by athletes who do not get paid, let alone collect workers compensation or other benefits).  

And that makes it hard, at least harder, to be a fan.

Nonetheless, I'll offer up a few more hoops notes:
  • One other reason I may have felt a little disinterested is that Carolina's best student-athlete, Marcus Paige, was hurt.  I still enjoyed watching, but maybe I would have felt more invested if the player I know goes to class, loves learning and is a Dean-worthy kid wasn't in street clothes.
  • That said, this is a tantalizing team that I imagine I WILL get invested in.  One reason is they are talented and deep. Even without Paige the Heels' back court has played especially well in our first two games.  Joel Berry II looks self assured and savvy running the offense, and more aggressive with his shot; Nate Britt seems to be a legit 3-point shooter and has always been a heady point guard; and Theo Pinson has been Alvin Robertson*-like in displaying a complete floor game - so far.  
  • And our front court will be almost unmatched. Kennedy Meeks has lost more weight and could be this season's Sean May.  Against Temple he had 3 blocks!  Brice Johnson will continue to be a double-double machine and could get even better if he continues to mature.  Isaiah Hicks may be the best back up power forward in the ACC; do not be surprised when he carries this team a few games or halves this season, and Joel James is a great back up five (and also a good student).  
  • Justin Jackson, who was impressive down the stretch last season to salvage an up and down freshman year, has been the only player to underwhelm - but it's only been two games.  
Finally, the silver lining to this scandal HAS to be that all the players are taking and attending real classes.  How embarrassing to have to say that as a Tar Heel.  But the fact that they are once again real students will make rooting for them doable.  I assume I will come around.  GO HEELS!

* Alvin Robertson is one of only 4 players in the history of the NBA, and the only non-center, to log a quadruple double.  Can you name the three centers who have done so?   

Monday, October 5, 2015

Nats, MLB Post Mortem on Manuel Transmissions

A day after the taping of the triumphant return of Manuel Transmissions the Nationals fire Matt Williams. You're welcome Nats fans! Let's hope our genius GM can finish the deal and fire Papelbon, too.

We cover the Nats and make predictions here, at Manuel Transmissions

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Curse of Calvin Coolidge

Not much to say about our hometown Nats. Despite the heroics of Bryce Harper our disappointing hometown team was undone, in my opinion by: 1. a severely underperforming starting pitching staff; with 2. some help from genius Mike Rizzo.

1.  Our starters were supposed to be the Nationals' strength. But outside of Scherzer's first half, Strasburg's second, and Zimmermann all season they have stunk; Gio has been Gio, too many walks, and Fister completely lost it.  So for most of the season we had the equivalent of 2 reliable starters, not 5.  That's on the players.

Number 2 is on Rizzo (Matt Williams too) for the way he constructed then deconstructed the bullpen. Coming out of spring training we were too dependent on guys like Treinen and Barrett. In my opinion Rizzo made things worse by adding Papelbon and shifting folks' rolls. The lack of confidence in Storen ruined his season, and certainly didn't help the team. Hind sight is 20/20, but it can't be a coincidence that since adding Papelbon the bullpen has gone from iffy to horrendous.

Of course, the injuries to Craig Stammen and Denard Span were two killers. No one, not Treinen nor Roark, could replace the steady Stammen. And our record with Span is that of a World Series-bound team.  Without him we're a team 7 games back of the Mets with 20+ games to go.
But I think everyone is avoiding THE real reason the Nats have under performed - the literal elephant in the stadium - and that's the lack of bipartisanism in the Presidents Race! 

The addition of a reformist Republican like Taft didn't hurt the Nationals last season but Coolidge is THE Curse of Lez Nationals! 

Not only was he a terrible and tone-deaf President, one not worthy of a giant puppet head and tiny-in-proportion-T-rex arms, he makes the President's race as unbalanced (FOUR Rs, 0 Ds) as the Texas State Legislature.

The obvious win-win - and win a World Series - solution is to subtract Coolidge (and not for Harding) and replace him with inarguably one of the 3 greatest Presidents of all time, Franklin Roosevelt.

The first win: not only is he a Democrat that would make the race bi-partisan, he's a Democrat who successfully fought polio, the Depression, Tojo and Hitler. Think he couldn't help the Nats fight off the Mets and Barves?

The second win: he would be in a wheelchair, thus reminding us that even folks with disabilities can race and win. Who knows, seeing a guy with polio compete in a wheelchair could even toughen up guys like Strasburg, Werth, Zimmerman, etc.

Come on Nats! End the Curse of Coolidge! Give us a Democrat!  Give us a racing Roosevelt and Happy Days Are Here Again!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

My Lengthy Greek Post Script

A week ago tonight, Ariadne and I were in Constantinople and visited Ayia Sophia Cathedral. Of course, this morning I attended church in St. Sophia Cathedral in Washington. Two Sundays in a row at an Ayia Sophia is pretty good.

Church this morning was nice, but the reminder of the other Ayia Sophia made me wish I was still on vacation. As did the folks at coffee hour who asked me to reflect on our trip, especially on being in Greece during the crisis.

As you recall from previous blog posts, even amidst the crisis Greece was fantastic. I continue to wonder if that sentiment is me being myopic, or a manifestation of the Greek spirit?  It's likely both, but more so the later. As one fellow Bank of Pireas queue member said in Kyparissia, 'to be Greek is to put up with hardship and challenges; we've done it before and we'll do it now.'  Despite 25 percent unemployment and 50 percent for young people, closed banks, billions in debts and acrimonious relationships with countries they are literally bound to and allied with, Greeks and Greece endure but also hopefully thrive.

Thrive is the key word. Greece and their partners came to a deal as we were leaving Athens, and a week later the Parliament approved it despite some violent protests in Syntagma Square (according to the Greek press that was a mild violent protest in comparison to others, and there were no major injuries). The protests weren't that significant actually. What is significant is that the Parliament approved an austerity package that just a week earlier had been rejected by the 62 percent of Greek voters.

Unpopular is one thing. If they were solutions with a proven track record in a country like Greece, and that will help Greece thrive, who cares if they are unpopular? The problem is austerity never works, at least if your goal is economic growth. The simple summary is in the U.S., President Obama and Democratic Congresses rejected austerity, increased spending and the U.S. economy grew and unemployment is now down to 5.3 percent. Europe led by Germany did the opposite and the entire continent's economy (save Deutschland and the U.K., where they DON'T use the euro) is stagnant at best with very high unemployment rates in most eurozone member countries.

But they did bail out the German and French banks who lent Greece the money.  So at least the Germans and the banks are happy!

Unfortunately, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and theh Greek Parliament had to agree to the latest austerity deal put forth by Europe. They needed the money to open their banks and thus allow their citizens to have at least some level of financial certainty.

Another factor behind the ratification of the deal is that Greeks want to stay in the eurozone, for a number of reasons. Politically, Greeks believe in a united Europe. Economically, they hope that one day soon Europe (not just China or Russia) will start investing in the Hellenic state and spur actual growth. Finally, and egotistically, it bothers Greeks that their nation, a sophisticated, modern (far from perfect) democratic state that gave the world the word for and concept of Europe would not be in the eurozone while lessor countries like Bulgaria, Latvia or Romania would.

Though austerity is terrible with a track record of being terrible, some of the reforms foisted on Greece are necessary. Trimming the size of the Greek government bureaucracy is overdue; the cronyism in hiring, and the corruption that comes along with it, has to end. Increasing the retirement age to 65 makes sense (though the deal with Europe increases it to 67), and privatizing some enterprises and increasing competition does, too.

Of course, though I'm not an expert I have two ideas of my own. If you go to Greece you'll notice two things during your stay.  One, everyone is friendly and seems to get along great with everyone - their neighbors, strangers, tourists, etc.  Filotimo, the Greek love of honor, is alive and well. Two, there is wifi all over Greece.  Ask Ariadne; the wifi situation in Greece is remarkably good (except in our χωριό: that's one reason to go to Spilia of course).

I believe those two strengths could be used to help Greece.

If I could have my dream job right now, it would be to raise a few million dollars and help advance or deepen civil society in Greece. The filotimo is there; I think Greeks would want to work with their fellow Greeks. But civil society, do it yourself/punk rock, citizens groups -  everything from Habitat for Humanity to the Sierra Club to the Junior League to Alcoholics Anonymous - are not as strong as they could be or need to be in a democracy.  Too often Greeks only look to their political parties for any kind of civic activity, which of course feeds into the cronyism and corruption. Again, the filotimo is there. Greece just needs more citizens groups to help fully utilize all that love of honor.

I could be completely wrong about civil society - though I know they do not have a Sierra Club that organizes hikes, happy hours, and grassroots lobby days in the capital. But I know for a fact that one thing Greece needs is more cash registers.  That's where wifi comes in.

Here in the U.S., where the hipster start-up economy is everywhere, iPad's and iPhone's often act as cash registers.  When I go to a food truck or the coffee shop near my office I use a debit card to pay, a tattooed cashier swipes it on their iPhone or iPad with a little attachment, and they email me the receipt.

Ah, the receipt.  It includes your order plus that magic wand, your sales tax. Greeks, both individuals and businesses, are notorious for not paying their taxes. And the Greek state is broke as a result of too many obligations and not enough tax revenue.

In at least a third of the shops and restaurants we patronized in Greece they did not have a cash register. Instead, merchants or waiters made change in old fashioned lock boxes, envelopes, fanny packs, or in apron pockets.  And those stores did not give out receipts.

Since there is so much wifi in Greece, why don't Greek banks emulate our start ups/hipsters and give each of their commercial customers an iPad? That way every business in Greece will have an on-line cash register. Greek citizens already pay many of their bills via ATMs and kiosks so the card culture exists. Greek banks can complete the deal by making sure that every citizen in the motherland has a debit or ATM card or better yet a credit card. A majority of Greeks sstill do not have credit cards.

It was shocking to see how many businesses in Greece appear to be off the grid and not tied electronically to their bank via a cash register. I have no idea if any of these off-line business pay any taxes but the safe money is they are paying way less of what they owe, if they pay taxes at all.  Making sure each business is online with a cash register that takes ATM or credit cards, linked to a bank, should increase tax revenue significantly thus helping the Greek state pay it debts and fulfill it's financial obligations and responsibilities.

Best of all, both of these ideas should be doable thanks to a very educated and motivated Greek populace.  More than 36 percent of Greeks have a college degrees, a higher percentage than here in the U.S.  Greeks are educated but they need opportunities to use those smarts.  A robust civil society and entrepreneurialism, aided by a electronically linked iPad cash register, should help.

Thanks for reading this lengthy post.  Let me know, particularly if you are in Greece, if any of this makes sense! Τα λεμε!

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Report from ground zero: Athens

Our second to the last destination on our jaunt through the motherland* is Athens. For centuries, this city was the center of the universe and if you have been following the crisis, it is again!  At least it has been to the press.

As you may recall from previous posts, we did not really notice the impacts of the crisis in Thessaloniki, Crete, Messinia or Nafplion.  I assumed we would in Athens, Greece's largest city full of pensioners and protesters.

Only we haven't.

Even in Athens the tourist bubble is still intact: cash comes out of the ATMs; most places take credit cards; the streets are filled with tourists; the beautiful (that's the word for it) Athens Metro is clean and orderly and normal. Additionally, during a walking trip into a residential neighborhood near our hotel I found the mini mart full of food, a larger market also fully stocked, and a vegetable stand bursting with produce.  Even the graffiti, which mars large parts of Thessaloniki, is relatively mild here.

Granted, neighborhoods outside of downtown probably aren't in as good a shape, and there are many store fronts whose only sign is 'ενοικίαση' - for rent - but in general Athens seems to be in decent to good shape.

There definitely seems to be a disconnect between the press and the facts on the ground.  For instance, the day after we saw a report on the BBC on the dire shape of the Monastiraki flea market we went there, and found it full of opens stores, merchandise, and tourists. Later that night we saw the BBC reporter on the square behind the Acropolis Museum but resisted the urge to ask about his coverage.

Or maybe I am simply too ensconced in my tourist bubble but the Athens and Athenians we have interacted with has ranged from awesome to normal.  I hope that our experience here is less me being insensitive to folks who are suffering and more that H Ελλάδα ποτέ δεν πεθαίνει! Greece will never die!

I'll wrap up this post with a quote from Chuck D: don't believe the hype, and come to Greece if you can!**  Τα λεμε! - Αthan

* Of course, we wrap up our trip outside of the motherland courtesy of a 20-hour layover in Constantinople. But since my dad's family is from Anatolia it counts.
** The second part of that quote was NOT from Chuck D.  I believe that was Flava Flave.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Notes from Nafplio

As Ariadne and I head into the home stretch of our 15 trip through Greece we are starting to see some of the impacts of the crisis. You may recall that in our tourist bubble things have been great - but things were also pretty good when we ventured  outside of that bubble.  During our visit to my mom's home region of Messinia - which is not a tourist destination by any stretch though it has some great sites and beaches - we found ATMs full of euros and stores and shops full of food.

Here in Nafplio, an incredibly charming coastal town that like Crete should be on every itinerary if you visit our motherland, two merchants asked me to pay with cash instead of credit cards.  Both offered discounts for paying with euros, and both said Greek banks are starting to warn store owners they may run out of money if a deal is not struck soon.  The American banks behind my credit and ATM cards will reimburse the Greek banks instantaneously according these store owners; Greek banks will not do the same to local merchants out of fear.

We head to Athens in 24 hours so may see more signs of the crisis soon.  But for now, other than two merchants asking for script, Greece continues to function and be the greatest of destinations.

Να' τα πουμε! - Athan

Monday, July 6, 2015

Greece on the morning after

I'll try to post some photos, etc. this afternoon, but in the meantime I want to give folks a quick update on Greece on the morning after the big vote - more than 60 percent - against the bailout offer.  We have spent the last 2 plus days in Messinia, my mom's home region and more importantly not a tourist area so outside the bubble we have been in since landing in Greece last week.

  1. the banks have money, with no restrictions on withdrawals from foreign accounts.  I was able to take money out without any issues - other then the guilt that unlike a local Greek a Greek-American tourist can take out more than 60 euros.
  2. The guy in line behind me said 'to be Greek is to deal with difficulty/challenges; we've done it before and now we'll do it again.'
  3. The stores have plenty of food; the Ola Mini Market is living up to it's name in Greek: they have everything from snacks to eggs to batteries.
  4. The Greek people continue to be resolute. There is lots of anger but not much self pity.
That's it for now, but look for future posts where I hope to explore two ideas: the conflict in Greece between Φιλότιμο, the Greek love of honor, and their selfish, every man for himself behavior; and one simple solution for Greece's economy - iPads and cash registers.

 Να' τα ποθμε! - Athan

Monday, June 29, 2015

First full day in Greece; last day in the Euro?

We had a pretty great day in Thessaoloniki today: touring the White Tour; visiting the Museum of Byzantine Culture; walking all over Ano Toumpa looking for my dad's old house; eating the largest squid I've ever seen (on a plate or otherwise) on the waterfront for dinner; taking in an outdoor concert by Thansis Papaconstantinou at the Forest Theater atop the city.  And watching people NOT freak out about the banks being closed today and potentially Greece running out of money tomorrow (Tuesday, June 30th).

I don't know if it's resignation or stoicism or determination or fatalism - or a combination of all four - but no one we talked to seemed that worried about the banks or what may happen if Greece defaults.  As some of you know, I hate speculating. Well, I guess that's a Greek thing since no one in Thessaoloniki wanted to speculate.  Everyone we spoke with - the waitress at breakfast, the front desk, a cab driver, a waitress at dinner, the woman who exchanged my dollars at Western Union, the folks who tried to help find my dad's house, the street vendor who sold me a giant cookie - all said, 'we'll see what happens' or 'I don't know.'  No one cried or cursed or showed any emotion. The singer Papconstantinou opened his show by saying 'we should have never joined the Euro, and now we're going to leave the Euro' to a mixed response from the crowd of  1,500 people.

One thing that does seem clear is that folks want to stay in the Eurozone and judging by news we heard on the radio and the protest in Athens most Greek voters will vote 'NO' in Sunday's referendum on the bailout package proposed by the European Union.

So today appeared pretty normal, at least for a tourist with American dollars in reserve, a way to exchange them, and credit cards. But it seemed normal for Thessalonians, too.  We'll see tomorrow, or Wednesday if Greece defaults.

Here are a few other MacedoNotes:
  • The employees at Thomas Cook at the airport and the Western Union on Aristotle Square both said foreigners exchanging dollars for euros will not have any problems getting money. We haven't had any problems using a credit card or debit card, but I have to try  t use an ATM (with the banks closed they were not working today). They are supposed to distributor  money from foreign accounts so that's something to test tomorrow.
  • As I tweeted earlier, I must smell like garlic, olive oil nd cigarettes because no one here thinks we're tourists. Everyone speaks to us in Greek and we are two for two in being offered only Greek-language menus at restaurants. One guy even walked over to me to start complaining about the EU as we both were investigating if we had found a working ATM hidden near the Museum of Byzantine Culture.
  • That museum is fantastic by the way as is the White Tower, which offers great views and has a nice museum of Thessaloniki tucked into the rooms off the spiral staircase to the top.
  • We haven't seen that many homeless people, but we had an accordion player come up to us at dinner and have seen at least 30 people wearing teeshirts featuring the word Brooklyn.
  • As we wandered up and down the street looking for my dad's house in Ano Toumpa (which mean above Toumpa, and Ariadne can testify that is it above; we had a steep walk) four of the nicest and most down to earth and generous residents came out to help us (I'll post their photos, and others, on Facebook soon). Those folks deserve better from Greece's political class and the EU. Europe seems more interested in punishing average people than in making their lives better. I hope that tomorrow our anti-austerity President will call Angela Merkel and urge her to be as generous and humble to Greece as those residents of Ano Toumpa were to us.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Witnessing History

As Ariadne and I prepare for our trip to Greece, this weekend provides an interesting hinge moment for both my two nations.  The short and accurate take on things is America continues to get better, towards a more perfect union, while things in Greece are somehow actually getting worse.

And that phrase from the Constitution is a succinct reminder why America is America and Greece is Greece.

The legalization of gay rights in all 50 states, a lightening bolt of civil rights from the Supreme Court, is another example of what makes America America: citizens organizing and striving for their rights in a democracy, and believing they can win because of our democratic institutions.  They did, and they won at the highest court in the land.

Greeks, on the other hand, have neither the belief that their democracy works nor that their institutions are just or that they can win.  There was hope that PM Alexis Tsipras would be a little different but he seems to lack political skills and has completely overplayed his 'hand.' As soon as he took office he started to negotiate via blustery press releases and press conferences. Instead of saying, 'look, I know we messed up but the big question is what does Europe do with Greece now'  Tsipras has done the opposite for 4 months. That attitude seems to have played into the hands of Eurozone hardliners in Germany who obviously have no sympathy for the Syriza government.

But Europe should have sympathy for the Greek people.  But they don't.

I imagine the only solution is for President Obama or Treasury Secretary Lew to call German PM Angela Merkel and say "Cut Greece some slack. Your banks have been reimbursed and there is no reason to be putative. After all, Germany should remember what happens when you rob a nation of it's dignity and ruin it's politics. Bottom line: the US does not want a NATO ally being driven out of the Eurozone and into the arms of rogue like Putin or China."

Hopefully that will happen. And in turn Greek voters will demand institutions that serve the public good and the Greek political class will show some patriotism, pay their taxes and stop stashing their money in Switzerland (like Nazis, climate change-loving sheiks and other ne'er do wells).

And Ari and I will have a front row seat. We will be in Thessaoloniki on June 30, the day Greece may default, and in my mom's hometown village on July 5, the day Tsipras wants a referendum on the Eurozone deal.

I'll try to blog as often as possible, looking back at a country that continues to strive to be more perfect while typing from hotels in a nation just trying to survive.

A few more notes:

  • I'll never understand the opposition to gay rights or gay anything.  Until it's mandatory gay marriage, what is there to get fired up about? The small-minded opponents of gay rights often say that that community is outside the mainstream, but that's exactly the opposite.  In my lifetime gays have only asked for mainstream American rights: join the Boy Scouts; openly serve in the Armed Forces; get married.  Who are these weirdos?
  • As I blogged before, Greece needs to be more like America. Instead of looking towards Russia or China what Tsipras should really do, if Greece is forced to leave the Eurozone and into a Grexit with drachmas, is ask for a TPP-style trade pact with the US.  It could be a play at regional stability in the shaky, ISIS-haunted eastern Mediterranean that links the economies of Greece, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and other countries that are democracies. Greek olive oil could completely dominate the US market! I'm not an economist but seems like a good idea, right?