Letter: Pingpong and politics with Will Shortz

Graphic by Lori Deaton

Will Shortz is the crossword puzzle editor of The New York Times, Puzzlemaster for NPR, and has a Wikipedia entry long enough to warrant serious consideration. To a good portion of Buncombe, he is probably unknown; to the other segment of Asheville, his name triggers instant recognition. For example, my wife, an interpreter for DSS whose first language is not English, is addicted to his NYT crossword puzzles as a means of expanding her mastery of English.

Shortz is also a table-tennis fanatic, having played matches for 1,000 consecutive days and having played at 300 clubs around the world. He owns the Westchester Table Tennis Center, arguably one of the largest in the country (although never as reputably congenial as our local club, the Asheville Table Tennis Club). It figures, since table tennis is called “moving chess,” with players having to solve tactical puzzles at the limit of human reaction time.

Following my welcome to the ATTC, his [recent] visit started with my innocently asking one of our members what, in view of the evidence, was the reason for his continuing support for Mr. Trump. (At 82 years old, I am allowed to break convention and address politics, religion, sex and money). Dr. X, a well-educated medical doctor, immediately went into an emotional explanation of the social and economic policy differences between Republicans and Democrats.

Nearby was Mr. Y, an equally fervent anti-Trumper, whose Prius (naturally) bears major signs with words such as “impeach,” “moron,” etc., and whose predecessors include Alfred Dreyfus of the late 19th-century Dreyfus Affair (with all that that history implies and applies to today’s politics). The altercation was heated with arguments stroked across our playing table like pingpong balls; Shortz was open-mouthed, and I was chuckling with curmudgeon glee.

Dr. X’s central argument was that he had worked hard for his wealth, and Democratic social policies were not going diminish that effort with handouts to indigents. Mr. Y’s contrary position was founded on humanitarian and progressive arguments that are familiar to all of us.

Listening to the two of them, I silently reflected on how a central issue was not being addressed: the function of luck in forming our bias on social and economic issues. The biological fact is clear that being lucky in belonging to a favorable genetic pool, of growing up in the “right” neighborhood, of having a lighter skin color, of one’s parents’ social and economic position, and other factors —luck plays a major role in our attitudes and policy decisions. Not being graciously aware and respectful of destiny’s dice roll does not help resolve today’s political, social, racial, religious, sexual and economic problems. If I had been born with the IQ or economic/educational level of many of my wife’s clients, there would be few who would bet on my overcoming those disadvantages to emerge much beyond survival.

That altercation among friends, however, was a lesson for today’s political landscape. The ATTC players include doctors and nurses, Mandarin teachers and Chinese university professors, retirees and students, hair stylists and Arabian breeders, entrepreneurs and executives. A more diverse sport would be hard to find. Asheville and the surrounding county are equally diverse, ranging from the Billy Graham Training Center to Indivisible Asheville and with a local mixture of every skin color, sexual preference, economic standing, religious faith and political position only mischievous gods could design in their bored, leisured moments.

In witness to this heated moment, Shortz and I discussed how, despite pressures by both parties to demonize the other and thereby create a dangerous chasm of silence, it was imperative that, at every level, (1) we marginalize those who would divide and silence us and (2) begin a dialogue across the chasm that will find common ground for solutions to social and economic issues.

Shortz was giving a lecture … in Hendersonville that night, and I left him with the thought on how Asheville, with its diversity, is a window into the Southern heartbeat that pumps energy into this country. Its problems, its confrontations, its opposing policies and views are just a mirror for our times.

— Richard Unanue


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