31 October 2015

The Wonderful, Terrible History of Cal Football Featuring 62 Years of Futility


I originally posted this on the California Golden Blogs website a few months ago.

The history of intercollegiate football at the University of California is replete with the pomp, pageantry and tradition that exemplifies college football in the United States. Cal has a particularly rich football past with many heroes and glorious football teams. But the hard truth is that, in general terms, the Golden Bears have, for over 50 years, pretty much sucked at football. True fans love them no less for this and hope springs eternal.

I am second to no one in my love of Cal football. I love the stadium, the band, the cannon, the fight songs, the card stunts, the colors and of course, Oski. I love the university and all it stands for. I am proud to bleed blue and gold.

I've been attending Cal football games since before I can remember. The first game I can recall going to was, of all things, a 22-22 tie with Duke in 1963. My love affair with Golden Bear football began when I was a mere lad during a time (one of many) when the Golden Bears were doing quite poorly on the football field. But I was hooked. It wasn't just football or college football it was Cal football that intoxicated me. Memorial Stadium was my favorite place in the world. If I went to a game and Cal lost I was forgiving and looked forward to better days ahead. I was happy just to have been there. If they won I was delirious with joy and anticipated more glory to come. In later years I took the losses a bit harder but I've learned — after far too much practice — to take defeats in stride and move on with my life. The wins I savor more and more with each passing year. I've come to realize how precious each is.

In the last half century Cal has boasted some excellent teams and great players and played in some legendary games including one that is generally acknowledged to be the greatest college football game of all time (the 1982 Big Game). In recent years Cal has featured such future NFL stars as Aaron Rogers, DeSean Jackson, Marshawn Lynch and Shane Vereen, to name but a few. But the truth of the matter is that in terms of the college football universe Cal football has been — for quite sometime now — pathetic. I do not here refer to the last few years or the last 20. The Bears have been bad for over six decades. Cal has had more than its fair share of crummy seasons and way way less than its share of great seasons.

But it didn't used to be this way. Not at all. (In discussing Cal football history I am beginning in 1915 when Cal made the permanent move back from rugby to American football.) From 1915 through 1938 The University of California was one of college football's powerhouses. In those 24 years there were 20 Bear teams that had winning records and only two with losing records, while two others finished at .500. Among those teams were Andy Smith's Wonder Teams which included five consecutive unbeaten seasons (1920-1924). Over those five years the Sturdy Golden Ones outscored their opponents 1,564 - 139.

Cal stumbled a bit in the aftermath of Smith's death following the 1925 season, but their 7-1-1 team of 1929 went to the Rose Bowl. Later under Coach Leonard "Stub" Allison the Bears hit dizzying heights again. In his first four seasons (1935-1938) the Bears were 35-7-1 featuring a 1937 squad that earned a 13-0 Rose Bowl victory over Alabama and a claim to the then mythical national championship.

The Bears did not suffer a prolonged spell of sub par seasons in football until World War II. From 1939-1946 Cal had no winning seasons and managed only one at .500. Allison's early magic wore off and his 10-year tenure was done at Cal after the 1944 campaign.* There were then three head coaches in three years but the last of the trio was Lynn Pappy Waldorf, under whom the Bears instantly returned to glory. In his first four seasons (1947-1950) Cal went 38-4-1** and appeared in three Rose Bowls where three of those losses occurred, in each case ruining unbeaten seasons.

After the last of those Rose Bowls the Bears had two more winning seasons under Waldorf, going 8-2 in 1951 and 7-3 in 1952. It is since that 1952 season that Cal football has been in college football's doldrums — at least where wins, losses and conference titles are concerned. In the next 15 years Cal had ten losing seasons, four .500 seasons and only one winning year, albeit the last Cal Rose Bowl team (1958). That last Cal squad to win an outright conference crown was preceded by three teams that won a combined six games and was followed by four teams that managed six victories between them. The 1958 squad was a true outlier in a particularly bleak period of Cal football.

From 1953 through last season Cal has had only 22 winning seasons with 32 losing seasons and seven at .500. On top of that, since 1937 Cal has managed a combined total of zero unbeaten seasons. Also, since 1952 Cal has accumulated a grand total of zero seasons with just one loss. Since that time the Bears have had only two teams go through a season with as few as two losses. One of those was the 1991 squad which suffered a regular season ending 17 point upset loss to the ‘Furd in the Big Game and the other was the 2004 team which ended its season the victims of stunning 14 point Holiday Bowl upset to Texas Tech. Thus Cal's two best teams of the last 60 years each were dealt a convincing upset beating at or near the end of their campaign.

The Bears have managed a share of the conference crown twice (1975 and 2006) but both those teams missed out on the Rose Bowl as a consequence of losses to the team with whom they shared the title.

Do you have any idea how many college teams have gone unbeaten since Cal last did? Do you have any idea how many college football teams have gone through a season with just one loss since the last time Cal did? I don't know either but anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of college football can tell you that there have been a lot. A helluva lot. Many of those teams are Cal's arch rivals (‘Furd, U$C and UCLA). Misery loves company and the best the Bears can do for company is the likes of Washington State. But even they have gone to the Rose Bowl twice in the last 16 years.

Speaking of Cal's rivals, if you are really a masochist check out the Bears' records against these three schools over the past 60 years. I didn't have the heart to do it because I know just anecdotally it is very bad versus each one. These woeful records include long losing streaks against all of them (From 1972 through 1989 against UCLA, 1959-1969 and 2004 to present against U$C and against the ‘Furd 1961-1966, 1996-2001 and from 2010 to date. The best winning streaks against each of the three has been five vs. UCLA, 1990-1994, five vs. ‘Furd, 2002-2006 and three vs. U$C, 1998-2000.) Here's how bad it is, Cal has not beaten all three in the same season since 1958, the school's last Rose Bowl year. Indeed the Golden Bears have only ever beaten all three in the same season in Rose Bowl years and in 1941 (which is a story for a different time).

Besides their three California based rivals, the Bears have a very long standing rivalry against the University of Washington and I guess it wouldn't surprise you to know that our record against them has been abysmal in the past 60 years and also includes a horrific losing streak (1977-2001) and one ongoing one that began in 2009. We've managed a five game winning streak against them from 2002-2006.

My intention here has not been to send anyone spiraling into depression nor make anyone ashamed of Cal football. (On the contrary I think Bear fans should be very proud of their team.) But I always think it's best to face the truth. I taught U.S. History for over 20 years and I believed it my responsibility to relate to students the horrors of slavery and the sufferings of so many Native American tribes. I did not sugar coat or embellish, I merely tried to present the facts as objectively as possible. Here to in presenting this most abbreviated version of Cal football history I have endeavored to relate facts. I have been a student of Cal football history all my life so I knew what was coming in starting my research, but even I was struck by the dimensions of Cal's football futility.

The beauty of this recitation of horrors is how wonderful we'll all feel when this turns around, as I believe it will beginning this very season. I predict that 60 years in the future someone will be writing about the glorious records of Cal football over the preceding six decades, with statistics revealing their dominance in the conference in general and over their arch rivals in particular.

The question of why Cal has failed to scale the heights this past half century plus requires a detailed answer which I've neither the time nor expertise to explore. I do know that teams in sports of all types at all levels, professional and amateur sometimes develop a winning or a losing culture and either is hard to break. When a game is on the line teams can sometimes expect to win or expect to lose as the case may be. (This goes for individual athletes as well.) It can also happen when two teams face one another. There have been far too many times in Big Game history when a close game did not go Cal's way. Meanwhile it was only in only in the early Tedford years that one felt certain that Cal would be the team that came through in the end, this feeling was epitomized by the 2009 Big Game.

Cal has certainly had bad luck with coaches and coaching hires. Pete Elliott left one season after leading the Bears to the Rose Bowl. His successor, Marv Levy went on to be a successful NFL head coach but had four horrible seasons at Cal (1960-1963). Mike White was running a fairly successful program (1972-1977) before running afoul of Athletic Director Dave Maggard and NCAA regulations. The hiring of former star player Joe Kapp (1982-1986) proved a big mistake. Bruce Snyder (1987-1991) had Cal in successive bowl games but the then AD Bob Bockrath drove him out as part of his torching of Cal athletics. The Bears hired Keith Gilbertson (1992-1995) to replace him and his tenure was short lived. Available at the same time as Gilbertson was Steve Mariucci. After Gilbertson was sacked Mariucci was brought in but left after one season (1996) to take the 49ers head job (things would have almost certainly been much different in Cal football if Mariucci had been hired in '92 instead). In the wake of Mariucci's sudden departure came the epically bad hiring of Tom Holmoe who is the only man to coach Cal for more than four seasons (1997-2001) without posting one winning record. So the whole business of hiring and keeping head coaches has played a major role in the Bears' recent woes.

Of all the fan bases I've been associated with Cal football's is the best. We are knowledgable, passionate, and (relative to other fans) patient. The years of suffering have hardened us to defeat but not accepting of it. When glory comes we will savor it. And it will come. Sonny Dykes and company are about to break this current cycle. It has taken two difficult years but the Bears are on the verge of a major breakthrough that will bring a new era of Cal football. Not one of futility but one of glory. By Oski I know it.

*After Allison's fantastic start at Cal he never again had a winning season and only managed .500 once in his last six seasons at the helm.

**Like Allison, Waldorf roared in like a lion — or Bear — and went out like a lamb. After six straight winning seasons he had consecutive .500 teams and consecutive losing seasons. As most fans of today are no doubt aware Jeff Tedford also came on like gangbusters. With a 43-20 record in his first five seasons going to bowl games in all of those seasons save his first when Cal was on probation. In his last six years Tedford teams went 39-37 and missed going to a bowl game twice. The only Cal head coach who served for ten or more years who didn't fit the fast start slow finish trend was Andy Smith who built up for a few seasons before his Wonder Teams. But even he ended his career by slipping to 6-3. Of course he died after that and we'll never know if he would have righted the ship or continued to slide. I think most students of Smith and college football would assume the former would have happened.

27 October 2015

Not Exactly a Sentimental Journey -- Another Commute Story, Short and Sweet, Er...Sour

I'm one of those poor saps standing at the back of a long line in a urine scented subway station waiting for my train and its god awful hot in the station which emphasizes the smell as if that's necessary. And my back aches and I had a long work day and it's only Monday and I'm living the life I'd so long been happy not to. A schmuck grinding from day to day with the shoves and the pushes and the waits and the delays and the frustrations and the wrenching feeling that there is so much better out there and so why am I racing rats? How long before I can begin the phase of my life in which I spend my days sitting in cafes and walking on beaches and going everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Question mark.

On the train at long blessed last and with a seat and can start to feel human though barely then the train stops at a station and doesn’t leave. Stop thanking me for my patience of which I have none and after forever the train finally moves again.

Out of the station assaulted by cigarette smoke and obnoxious teens and aggressive panhandlers and more urine odors while my ears are assaulted by car horns and sirens and profanity and loud music blasting out of cars and where is that beach and where is that comfort of just being and not having to react and be on guard and disgusted.

And now I stand in another interminable line this in a grocery store after dodging fellow shoppers in clogged narrow aisles. And the person behind me jostles my backpack and her and her partner joke about it and offer a weak apology,
laugh some more and make idiotic comments that they pretend are funny and I want to shoot them in their flapping mouths. They have matching dyed hair and nose rings and clothes bought in a thrift store designed not to match and they keep laughing at each others stupid comments and the line is taking forever because of a faulty register and finally I’m out and on my way home and the last part of my journey is pleasant enough except for how goddamned tired I am and desperate just to sit in a chair and recline.

Which is what I do. Blessed Mary and I’m not even Catholic far from it. But I am home.

25 October 2015

A Few Observations About People and Films From the Past Three Days

Friday while sitting outside the library I saw an old man today wearing a shirt with two breast pockets. In each one he had four pens. In one pocket there was a notebook and clipped to it was a pen. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s nine pens. I always carry a pen with me but should it ever run out of ink I’d be without a writing implement. This chap has no such worries, not by a long shot. For that matter he could lend someone in need a pen and still be knee deep in ball points.

He was met by a young African American man who was on a bike. They decided on a direction to go in and were off. I then heard an older woman on a cell phone. She was complaining to someone about a friend being unable to go to the theater with her because the friend’s husband didn’t want her to be in San Francisco after dark. The woman on the phone expressed her incredulity pointing out that the theater was only a block from the subway station and she had made the trip to the theater at night numerous times without a hint of trouble. I couldn’t help but feel for the poor lady, even though she was having a loud cell phone conversation in a public place.

Then a woman walked by wearing these ridiculous spiked heels platform shoes or maybe platform shoes with spiked heels. In any case she was a woman of average height whose footwear made her appear seven feet tall. The shoes had to be terribly uncomfortable, hard to walk on and bad for her feet. What some people do to themselves….Now bicycle helmets are a good idea, I suppose, but jesus they look ridiculous. Marilyn Monroe would look like a dweeb wearing one. It is the least flattering headgear known to man or woman. When I was a kid riding bikes none of us wore the damn things — largely because they hadn’t been invited, I reckon — but we had the good sense not to fall on our heads. Knees we would scrape but we pretty much limited physical injury to that. If there’s anything less flattering than a bike helmet I don’t want to see it.

These sightings took place while eating a sandwich before going to a movie. Unlike many people I do not bring a full course meal with me into the cinema nor do I spend a month’s wages on artery clogging movie food. There are few things worse than sitting near someone loudly smacking on pop corn or being in the vicinity of a person who has brought a grocery bag full of vittles that they have to tear through and into. Why people find it impossible to go two hours without eating is beyond me or why they can’t schedule a meal before or after a film.

The film I saw was The Experimenter and like most movies I’ve seen in theaters lately it was good. I’m careful about what I see and it is rare indeed for me to select a movie I end up not liking. That said it is also rare for me to see a movie anywhere near as good as what I have in my DVD collection. It’s hard to find a great new film but I keep trying. The Experimenter is indeed about a chap (Peter Sarsgaard) who conducts experiments. His are on human behavior and some, are famous, one in particular. My long time crush Winona Ryder played his wife. The film is based on the life of Stanley Milgram. It was a noble effort and had a nice style and gave me something to think about and as I said I liked it but that's is far as it goes and as much as I feel like writing about it.

Went to a grandnephew’s second birthday party yesterday. Lot of family there and I love each and everyone of them. I had the usual good time with them. But of course there were a lot of people there who I didn’t know or only know from seeing them at such occasions. I am disinclined to make small take with strangers. I’m happy to talk to friends, family, co-workers and former students and even acquaintances but I’m painfully shy around unfamiliar people. I realize that a lasting friendship might be formed or that I may learn something or impart some wisdom or share a laugh but it all feels such a struggle. I admire the ability that many people — like my lovely wife — have of sitting down and chatting with a stranger and quite enjoying it. I’m always afraid I’ll seem stupid or the person will prattle on and bore me to death. Nice meeting you indeed.

After the gathering the missus and I went grocery shopping then came home and watched a movie. This was another recent release just out on DVD that Netflix was kind enough to send. It's called Ex Machina. It was fine. I like the idea that a movie can explore artificial intelligence in a reasonable manner without wars between man and machine. But my goodness it tried way too hard. It was a film that was totally self conscious with references to the Bible, Greek Mythology, Robert Oppenheimer, Wittgenstein, Greek theater, Stanley Kubrick, Plato and Bluebeard. Talk about trying too hard. Filmmakers should not try to seem clever they should just be clever. Don't try to make the audience think, allow them to think. Trust us.

Today I went to the gym and ran eight miles on the treadmill. Some people get on the treadmills and watch TV. There were a pair of gents walking very very slowly while watching and discussing an NFL game. I don’t get it. Afterwards I went to the sauna but someone was hanging wet clothes in it. As a person of Finnish heritage I find this insulting. I went to the steam room and someone was doing push ups. I thought that’s what the rest of the gym was for. I guess there’s a lot I don’t know.

Despite what you may have read in the preceding paragraphs I am fan of many many members of the human race. I suppose it can be said that I’m a bit of curmudgeon. A lot of things that people do baffle and annoy and irritate me. But not very much. I just like to point it out. Not sure why. Just do.

22 October 2015

Autumn Evening 1969

There’s something utterly perfect about dusk on a cool autumn day. When the wind is soft and leaves are crinkling underfoot.

Before darkness envelops, there is time for one more pass. I have to go long, of course. The ball spirals above as I race to catch it before it hits the ground. My arms are outstretched and the ball smacks against them, bounces up, hits my chest and then cradles into my arms. I caress the ball while finishing my run as if crossing into the end zone. I pretend that the stadium is roaring in excitement in celebration of my touchdown. I hold the ball aloft.

Street lights are coming on. Houses are glowing and warm inside. Children race indoors. Mothers get out of cars and carry groceries to the front door while fumbling for keys. Fathers are met at other doors by happy children already shouting news about their day.

Winded from my last catch and, I shuffle over to my friend, Mark, who holds out my sweatshirt. The wind is picking up a little and as darkness takes over the temperature seems to have dropped ten degrees. Mark and I have been pals since first grade. We know each others dreams and personal preferences and parents and siblings and teachers and birthdays and quirky habits and goals. We have had crushes on some of the same girls. But never competed for one.

Smoke curls out of some chimneys. Everyone seems to be cooking. Dark houses look cold and empty and sad. There aren’t many. Rakes and piles of leaves are left on many front yards. TVs flicker. Windows are being closed.

We head home. Mark lives across the street from me. We talk about the weekend, about homework and of course about girls. Tanya is always a topic of discussion. We’ve known her since junior high. She’s well out of our league and no one knows that better than Tanya herself. She will sometimes flirt with guys like us in an almost cruel, teasing sort of way. But it is still irresistible. We discuss the shortness of the skirt Tanya was wearing today. Meanwhile we toss the football back and forth, even though we are just a few feet apart.

Through lighted windows with curtains open, one can see children scribbling in coloring books or yawning over math homework or glued to cartoons. Men are reading the evening paper and shouting news and questions to women in kitchens. Tables are being set. In some houses music is playing on a radio or record player. And in some houses men cook and in some couples are together in kitchens and in some cocktails are being mixed and in some food is already being served. More lights are going on.

A stray dog approaches and we regard it warily. It stops and sniffs in our direction then hurries along. There is a rustling in some bushes and we speculate whether it is a mouse. A police car speeds past with its siren blaring. We stop to watch it fade in the distance and then discuss what time we'll leave for the football game Saturday. A school chum speeds by on a bike and offers a salty salutation. His name is Schuyler and he’s always been a precocious cusser. We are neither of us averse to employing profanity, but aren’t yet comfortable with it proliferating our speech.

Cars drive anxiously as if everyone driving is desperate to be somewhere else. There is a desperation to finally be at home or the store or whatever assignation one is heading to. This is not the hour for leisurely drives. But people drive carefully too. There is an urgency to safety as night takes over the city.

We are still a few blocks from home and I feel a longing to be in the house. Though several years into my teens there is still the child in me, one who is afraid of being out after dark on a weeknight when it is getting cold and others are at home. I felt left out not being in my house. Were I not with Mark I’d run home, but there is comfort to be taken in being with and old friend -- anyway I wouldn’t want to betray my fear. Stopping for a red light we speculate about what our mothers are preparing for dinner. Hunger is starting to gnaw at our bellies.

Many families are watching the national news broadcasts on their TVs. There are images of war from far away where Americans are dying. There are images too from this country where many are protesting that war. Some watch the news in silence. Others comment or discuss or argue with the voices on TV. The president is shown, he looks particularly grim. There are commercials and many sing or hum along with jingles.

Mark reaches his house first. He flips the football to me one last time and we part. There are no cars coming so I dash across the street then walk the last few yards to my front door. Before I can produce my house key I am surprised by my brother opening the door. He has made a surprise visit from college. My dad asks gruffly why I’m so late but he clearly isn’t upset with me, there's affection in his voice as he calls me "sonny boy." My mom says “hidee ho.” I sat down on my favorite spot on the sofa. I finally drop the football.

18 October 2015

Can You Believe This, I Finally Watched The Wire

I have gotten a lot of emails, texts, letters and telegrams of thanksgiving recently because of the paucity of posts on this blog. Readers from far and wide have expressed their gratitude that they've been forced to suffer less of the tedium associated with reading the nonsense I post here in cyberspace. I just want to send out a blanket "you're welcome!" to everyone. I'd also liked to let everyone know who deserves credit for keeping me from putting pen to paper, or more precisely finger to keyboard. All glory goes to The Wire (2002-2008) a  TV show that I have watched compulsively for almost two months. I was averaging watching an episode a day until this past week when I went -- you should excuse the expression -- buck ass wild, culminating with viewing the final three episodes today. In answer to your query: yes, I liked it. Hell, I loved it and rank it with The Sopranos and Breaking Bad as the best TV dramas I've ever watched.

I know your next question too: What took me? The show ended its run seven and half years ago. It's not like there was no one suggesting the show to me. Many people whose opinions I respect insisted I give it a whirl. And in fact I was reasonably sure that I would like it. But one has only so much time. I was late to the party with Breaking Bad and didn't start Orange is the New Black until its second season (I'm right on top of Fargo, folks, watched it from the beginning). I've got other things to do, you know. Specifically there are a lot of movies that I need to watch or re-watch and oh yeah work and family, blah, blah, blah. I was finally inspired to take the plunge with The Wire when the missus and I watched the six-part mini-series Show Me a Hero which aired on HBO last August. I thought the show was fantastic and wondered what else creator David Simon had done. When I found that he was the man behind The Wire I was in.

Nothing on TV has ever made me more intrigued by police work as The Wire. Nothing has seemed to more accurately portray the life of modern day inner city gangsters. Nothing has ever shown with more realism the travails of working in an inner city middle school. Nothing has ever depicted the realities of the politics. Nothing has ever made me regret more my idiotic decision to leave newspaper reporting. And very few shows are as well written and have such compelling yet realistic and well defined characters.

There was roughly 60 hours of The Wire and there was barely a few seconds worth that rang at all false where the story went even slightly in an unnatural or overly convenient direction. The show seemed damn near a documentary. If you've seen The Wire you don't need me to recite some of the more compelling characters. But I will anyway. Dominic West as James McNulty was as close to a main character as the show had. He was neither hero nor anti-hero. He was a brilliant cop whose methods put him at odds at one time or another with virtually anyone he worked under or with -- and himself. In the hands of lesser writers the tortures he suffered from inner demons would have fell into melodrama, but The Wire did not create cardboard cutout characters who had cliched experiences. Characters were allowed to breath and feel their way through the story and meet whatever fates were natural to their lives.

Cops seemed like real cops. Gangsters were not just bad guys they were people living the lives they chose and often honoring a particular code but always within the harsh realities of potential death or imprisonment. But yes, what they did was often bad, even awful. Teachers, students, administrators and situations at the middle school (a bit like the one I taught in and exactly like the ones I subbed in) were so natural and real that I practically suffered PTSD watching the episodes in which they were featured. I could not believe that the vice principal and the principal were actors and not actual administrators. The students must have been re-enacting their own lives to be so true to that reality. So many of the students reminded me of ones or types I had as students that it was downright eerie.

The politics, with all its sleaze and deal making and all its affect and manipulation made me despair even more than I already do that much of anything can come from our elected bodies except by accident. The politics, of course, reached right into the police department where cops seemed more pawns than anything else. No one was spared. Sure the gangsters were selling narcotics and killing one another at an alarming rate, but the police could be vicious, duplicitous and cruel. The politicians all seemed to be primarily concerned with furthering their own careers or lining their pockets at whatever the moral cost. And at the newspaper one reporter was fabricating quotes, incidents and characters to jump from his pond to a bigger one, never mind editorial integrity. The Wire was a show not so much about what people are but what they become when trapped in a corrupt system. We all struggle to survive, to make sense of our lives and use whatever it takes to prosper. The soul can get twisted but we can also find love and faith and humanity and reason and enlightenment. We also can make a difference. Usually not a big one but by doing what's in front of us to the best of our abilities we can progress. There are a lot of scenes in The Wire in which people are talking, planning, scheming but also sharing and reflecting and wondering. In other words, living.

The show succeeded  because all facets of the production worked. But I will remember the performers. Particular raves have to go to Wendell Pierce as homicide detective Bunk Moreland, Andre Royo as the addict Bubbles, Michel Kenneth Williams as Omar Little the gay stick up artist of dealers, Wood Harris as gang boss Avon Barksdale, Clark Johnson as the City Editor and Aidan Gillen as the mayor.
But while those were among the highlights this was truly an ensemble cast of amazing characters. Amazing because they were so damn believable. I don't think I've ever believed a TV as much as this one. I felt as though life was being revealed to me and I was understanding and thus better appreciating the world I live in. When art does that its fucking awesome (excuse the expression).

There's probably something else out there in TV world that I missed the first time or am currently missing that I would love. But for the love of god I don't want to know about right now, I've got things to do.

A shoutout to my esteemed oldest nephew who was one of the people who urged me to watch The Wire.

12 October 2015

Brushes with Fame

Selena Gomez
Theresa was a playmate of my two daughters when they were all in the five to nine year old range. Later she was a student of mine. One I particularly liked. Theresa was a B student who worked hard for her grades. She was socially active and popular among fellow students and teachers alike. She was a regular foil for my good natured jibes in class and took it all in good humor. It was impossible not to like Theresa.

I last saw her when she was a couple of years or so out of high school. She’d grown into a lovely young woman, intelligent and self assured. She was a few months away from moving to Beverly Hills where she was being set up in a chic hairdressing salon by a friend. Theresa was excited about the opportunity and I was happy for her. That was probably about six or seven years ago. I never heard a word about her again until last weekend. I was chatting with my daughters about this and that when we got onto some of the bigger young stars in entertainment. It was then that they mentioned Theresa.

Since I last saw her Theresa had become a personal assistant for Kim Kardashian and subsequently became best friends with and executive assistant for Selena Gomez. She hobnobs with the stars all over the world. At my daughters’ prompting I looked at her Instagram account, or I should say accounts as she has several. There she was on beaches, in mansions, in Paris in Italy often posed with Selena Gomez and others of the nouveau jet set. I was — you should excuse the expression — blown away. What a life.

I resumed the conversation with my offspring and my oldest pointed out that being friends with a celebrity might not be all peaches and cream. Can you truly have an equal relationship if one person is rich and famous? I imagine you can if your friendship precedes the fame and riches part but otherwise?

Celebrities can be capricious and distrustful. They are known to drop friends and employees on a whim. You might always be in danger of being excluded just for making the wrong comment. The temptation could thus be to become a sycophant. Would you always be worried about staying in the good graces of your famous friend? And would you be completely trusted? Celebrities can (not without justification) become paranoid. You might be considered the source of an ugly rumor. You might be perceived as in it for the parities, the trips, the proximity to other stars and not out of true friendship. And imagine the fall if you are “dropped.” You are inside the walled kingdom of celebrity. You are part of it all. If you have no claim to fame in your own right you could quickly be outside looking in like the rest of us.

Having known people who’ve gone on to fame and others who are related to or acquainted with the famous, it is clear that one thing fame affords you is the opportunity to meet other famous people, even in causal circumstances. You’re in the same club. I have three former students who went on to all work for Saturday Night Live together. When I last talked with them they spoke of meeting such heroes as Paul McCartney, Steve Martin and Chris Rock. The three are still in the entertainment business and one of them, Andy Samberg, has his own TV show and recently hosted the Emmys.  They are securely within the gated community of the famous.

I suppose many of us would like access to that community. Either by gaining fame for our own deeds or befriending someone within. There are certain celebrities I’d like to meet and chat with but its unrealistic to expect I ever will. I have known and currently know many people who are not at all famous but are probably infinitely more interesting than 90% of celebrities who walk the Earth.

Most people have some connection to a famous person. Sometimes they are related, are old friends or neighbors or former co-workers or classmates. I had Kevin Kline’s niece and nephew as students. I worked for a principal who is Tom Hanks’ step sister. I worked with someone who tutored Robin Williams’ daughter in his home and met the man. Everyone has touch with fame stories. Delroy Lindo works out at the same gym that I do. Technically I’ve showered with him.

Celebrities are special because….everyone knows them. That’s often it. Kim Kardashian is a classic example of a person who is famous for being famous. But many people will be thrilled (secretly or overtly) to meet her or know someone who knows her. Other celebrities are richly talented people who have given us hours of entertainment. Their acting or comedy or writing or music has meant something to us. Seeing someone in the flesh that you’ve only ever seen on film would be exciting. When I was 16 I went to Finland for the first time and met my grandmother, a woman I’d been hearing about all my life. Seeing her was like seeing a page from history come alive. It was one of the great thrills of my life. I think its the same feeling as meeting a favorite star.

I have friend who is somewhat famous in Italy and is very likely to achieve wider fame as a film director. I’m excited at the prospect but more because he is an artistic genius and his fame will mean that his work has been widely recognized. Knowing him as I do I can say with great certainty that he has no interest in celebrity. It would just be something that came along with success in his particular field.

Anyway I started out by talking about Theresa and I hope she is as happy as she looks on Instagram. I also hope it lasts. Maybe she’ll be a good friend to Selena Gomez (and keep her away from Justin Bieber) for many years. I also hope she is able to derive pleasure from her own endeavors. It would ultimately be an empty feeling to derive happiness solely from who you knew and not what you did. Knowing Theresa as I do I’m sure she’ll sort it out and everything will work out.

11 October 2015

The Middle School Math Teacher -- A Day in the Life

Ernest Birnbaum looked over the heads of his 8th grade math class to the very back of the room. There was a poster there that said: "If You Miss School You Miss Out." It featured happy, smiling, sparkling clean students. What a loud of crap, he thought. Nothing in particular was “crap” about the poster to Birnbaum, just the whole thing, the whole damn thing. He only had the poster up to fill space, it had been one of the posters the school made available to teachers just before Fall classes started back in August and he’d thought at the time: what the hell, I gotta put something back there. Most of the rest of the classroom walls were covered with Math related pictures or posters like the times tables and of course with student work. That killed him. The administration wanted student work on the walls. They wanted it changed every few weeks and they wanted work from a broad cross section of the students. It was supposed to help student self esteem to see their work on the wall. Hell, barely a handful of his students ever looked at the goddamned walls. Plus it was a helluva strain to find adequate enough work to put up from a lot of these losers. But you can’t fight city hall, Birnbaum thought, or school administrations. He knew they could make a teacher’s life hell if he didn’t play ball. Seen it happen too. Constant evaluations, bad letters in their personnel file, forced onto committees. It was better to go along with some of the silly shit they asked teachers to do. Like putting student work on walls.

Right now the students in his fourth period class were taking a test. A lot of pencils doing a lot of scratching but also a lot of students staring sadly at their papers with no clue what to do. It was October and so Birnbaum, like a lot of teachers, had already figured out who his A and F students were. The truth was that most of his students were in either extreme. Actually it only took a couple of weeks -- if that -- to know who would excel and would flounder. Birmbaum wondered what the point was of putting in all this effort when it was already written in stone which kids would be going on to college and successful careers and which were headed toward drugs, or prison or menial work or a violent death. How many students in this damn school were ever "saved" from an unhappy fate? Damn few.

Birmbaum stifled a yawn. Was there ever a point in my life when everything was perfect? It was a question that had been perplexing Birnbaum lately. He wasn’t as healthy as he was when he started teaching 21 years ago, not by a long shot. There was the the expanding belly for one thing. The doctor had been telling him to lose weight for years now but Birnbaum could never find the time or the motivation or the energy. Plus he was not about to give up his morning sweet or his post lunch  dessert. Plus it wasn't like Lena — that was his wife — was slim and trim anymore. They’d had their kids (two of them, Chuck and Diane, 20 and 18 respectively) and the days of regular sex were well in the past. Hell he and the wife were lucky to have a roll in the hay three or four times a year. So anyway Birnbaum knew he was no athlete anymore (two years of variety wrestling and a year of track in high school) but he was wiser. So there was that. Him and Lena were getting along just fine, the days of squabbles over money were long past and they’d settled into a comfortable routine. But now that home life was good and the finances were in order and the kids were in college, he was liking work less and less. Or put another way, disliking it more and more. Birnbaum literally shook his head at the thought that he had another three, maybe four, maybe even five years, before he could comfortably retire. It was at the point that he noted Shaneequah dozing at her desk. That would not do, not a bit.

Birnbaum first tried looming above her and clearing his throat. But she was out like a mackerel. Putting his hand on her shoulder and giving it a shake was out of the question. Not after the hassle Simpkins had gone through last year for touching a student in just such a manner. So Birnbaum addressed the girl: “Shaneequah, you will have to wake up,” he said firmly.” Where oh where did parents come up with these names? Birnbaum sometimes had trouble pronouncing them and spelling them could be an adventure too. Of course it was mostly African American students who were given the strange monikers. This was not something Birnbaum would openly discuss. He never spoke of racial issues — at all — and when they came up during staff meetings or teacher workshops he kept his trap shut. Birnbaum had his opinions about Black students and he kept them very tightly stored and sealed and locked and they were so inaccessible he barely knew them himself.

Eventally Shaneequah stirred and rubbed her eyes and held her pencil. But before returning to whatever she could do of her quiz she looked up at the still present Birnbaum and said “whatchyou want?” in a most unpleasant voice. Birnbaum knew to avoid a row with angry African American students whenever possible so he merely resumed his position at the front of the room.

The truth of the matter was that Birnbaum didn’t much care for about 90% of his students. Since his own kids had passed middle school age he’d become less tolerant of immature behavior which was pretty much all you ever got out of a middle schooler. Sure, some were wise beyond their years but most of those were in Advanced Algebra and that punk Blasingame was teaching that class. It chapped Birnbaum’s hide that they gave that plum assignment to some fresh faced kid just out of college — probably because he had an M.A. Birmbaum had asked to teach the advanced kids but he might as well have asked a super model on a date. The administration played favorites and Birmbaum was not a favorite.

Birnbaum thought about moving up to the high school but he knew teaching math there was far more demanding and he didn’t know the territory like he did here at Nellie Bly Middle. For all its faults — and there were many — Bly had been his professional home for over two decades. He’d been through four principals and seven vice principals and seen dozens of teachers come and go. All the while Birnbaum had been showing up rain or shine almost never taking a sick day. He always eked by on his bi-yearly evaluations. Forever satisfactory always improvements suggested. Birnbaum knew better than anyone that he was the least spectacular and dullest teacher in the school but he’d avoided any disciplinary actions, stayed out of union squabbles and had never been subject to any serious charges. Keeping a low profile was the ticket to survival, he always said.

Ten minutes left. Thank god this test was going to chew up all the class time. Birmbaum had planned an activity for after the test but clearly not enough students would be finished so he could use that activity tomorrow and that meant he had less planning to do during his prep period. He'd be able to get half his grading done before the end of the school day and by sticking around an hour or so would be completely finished before heading home. A blessed night without a second of work to do. Birmbaum smiled at the thought. Then: "Ewww, Mr. Birmbaum, Lester farted!" exclaimed Tyrone Davis." That's all it took for all hell to break loose. Lester shouted his innocence while other students laughed or expressed their disgust and a few others shouted for quiet.

Just what I didn't need, Birmbaum thought. Can an entire class period never go smoothly? He ordered silence using his deep, loud authority voice. There were scatted giggles and mutterings but the cacophony died down and students were back to work. By rights Birmbaum should issue Tyrone a detention but under the new administration teachers had to hold their own detentions and make parent contact. Tyrone's outburst simply wasn't worth the trouble. Besides, he'd called Tyrone's parents once before and all his mother did was curse and say she'd "whoop his ass."

Two minutes before the bell, Birmbaum gave final instructions about putting the test in the period four basket and checking the homework on the board and straightening desks and policing their area. It was pretty much the same thing he said at the end of every class, every day of every school year. He knew it by heart and bellowed it automatically. Still many students failed to turn their work in or put it in the wrong place and many "forgot" to write down the homework and desks were left askew with litter all over the floor. It was all very frustrating, so Birmbaum tried not to think about it. There was a lot that Birmbaum tried very hard not to think about. Mostly he was successful. Contentment was all Birmbaum wanted out of life and avoiding thinking about certain things was -- to his way of thinking -- a sure path to contentment.

At lunch time Birmbaum sat alone at his desk. Other teachers congregated in the teacher's lounge or left their door open and allowed students to "hang out" together in their rooms. No way did Birmbaum want to chat with other teachers. It was usually people either exchanging trivialities about their lives or bitching about students. Birmbaum tried his hardest not to think about errant students during his lunch break so listening to others complain was out. As for letting students in his room well he saw enough of them during class time and couldn't imagine spending a second more than he was required to in the presence of the little bastards.

Today it was a baloney sandwich, carrots, chips, some leftover chicken and an apple. All followed by a hostess ding dong. Birmbaum scanned the newspaper while he ate and when he finished the last crumb of the ding dong, he took on the jumble and the sudoku.

The rest of Birnbaum's day pretty much went to form. No major incidents. No administrators busting his chops. No phone messages from parents. He wrapped up the work day perfunctorily grading all the tests he'd assigned that day. All these years as a teacher had made him a master at quickly and efficiently grading a stack of papers. Nothing to it. An hour and a half after the last student left, his workday was done and he could squeeze into his Toyota Camry and head home. Some days, like this one, the job seemed easy peasy. The math teacher would drive the 30 minutes to his house, greet his wife, chat for a few minutes, then turn on the TV and relax with a beer. Not bad.

Birmbaum dozed off in front of Judge Judy, a show he both hated and watched compulsively. Lena was making a casserole. Their dog Max was scratching at the kitchen door. The phone was ringing. The UPS man was at the door. It started to rain. Birmbaum woke up with a start confused about what time it was, what day it was, where he was. Lena asked him to get the door. On the way he grabbed Max who had started barking. The UPS man needed a signature. The rain was starting to get heavy. Lena dropped a pan and cursed. Birmbaum switched the TV to the news. He reached for his beer can but knocked it over spilling beer on the carpet. Now he cursed. It was 6:47 PM and Bimbaum was feeling stressed. He wished he were teaching.



09 October 2015

Happy Happy Joy Joy Another Commute Story

My bus was much more crowded than this one.
There were 900 people on my bus and temperatures within said bus surpassed 120 degrees. I was jostled and bumped on an average of every 2.5 seconds. The bus came to sudden stops on a dozen occasions sending patrons sprawling across the bus with many suffering disabling injuries. The bus was slowed by heavy traffic to such an extent that the 15 minute ride took three hours. Upon arriving at my stop I fell prostate to the ground and swore undying allegiance to all gods of all religions provided they spare me from any such torment in the future.

Then I walked to the subway station.

The Sahara Desert during a heat wave is cool in comparison to the bowels of San Francisco's subway stations. And this on a day of average temperatures. Upon entering the station ones olfactory sense is immediately assaulted by the smell of human urine. Commuters look as if they have just completed the Bataan Death March. My train was delayed. Then the train ahead of it sat in the station. And sat. And sat. Curses abounded. The weak fell. To many, life seemed to have lost all meaning. Despair was palpable. Finally my train arrived. Given how my commute had thus far gone I was fully expecting the trans bay tunnel to be consumed by a fire ball.  It would't have been as hot as the bus or the subway station.

I arrived in downtown Berkeley and was again familiarized with the odor of human piss. I also saw the human detritus of the city who foul the city streets with horrific smells, obscene sounds and unsightly appearances. The litter and filth that fill the streets provide a perfect accompaniment to these colorful characters. Downtown Berkeley also often boasts obscenity screaming high school students who have a willful disregard for the sensibilities of fellow citizens. Kids!

I arrived at home to discover that the DVD I'd purchased from Criterion (bless their souls) during their 50% off flash sale had not been left at my door because the USPS decided it was not a "secure area." Remarkably they have previously left me packages without requiring an armed guard to watch it until I returned home. On this occasion they decided to be total jerks. I will wait another day.

Finally my wife returned home and all suddenly seemed well in the world. She makes all the rest of the crap I deal with worth it. Maybe someday I'll mention it to her.

Never can tell.

02 October 2015

Losing Nicole, How a Horrible Defeat Reformed Me

It was always some guy named Julian. Some skinny fucker with penetrating eyes and a soft voice, superficially cool and friendly, a pseudo intellectual, hip but not showy. God I hated those bastards but I was forever losing girls to them. They'd seem deep and honest and the shit they'd say sounded profound -- but not if you thought about it. They were soft, more likely to be musicians than athletes. They'd nod a lot when a girls talked as if they understood and cared about every word she said. Assholes.

All they really wanted was to get laid, which they managed with clockwork frequency and usually with someone I liked or even loved. I could never believe it when the girl I was interested in would pick one of these phonies. No way this guy was any great shakes in the sack. Best case scenario he was "a sensitive lover.” But back when I was dating there always seemed to be a Julian around. Lurking.

Of course any woman who would fall for one of these jerks was not anyone I cared to spend anymore time with anyway. I was better off with the Julians of the world separating the wheat from the chaff for me. At least that’s what I reasoned until I fell flat on my ass in love with Nicole.

Nicole was tall, slender and beautiful with these amazing eyes that made me weak in the knees. I couldn’t get enough of her. In addition to fashion model looks, Nicole was also very bright, politically astute and well read. Best of all Nicole was a lot of fun, she had a sense of humor to match my own. As a lover she had no equal to anyone I’d been with to that point. That point was when I was 24 years old and a journalist working on an alternative weekly and selling stories to magazines on the side. I’d even published some short stories. I felt like I was on top of the world. No one needed to tell me I was handsome, I’d heard it enough times already. I had a way with the ladies, charm, wit and I knew hot to have fun. But I could never maintain a relationship. Women I dated either ran off with some Julian or I got bored and moved on. But Nicole was someone I could never get bored with. I knew that from the start.

We met in a clothing store. I was looking at shirts and saw this gorgeous women who’d been in a class of mine in college a couple of years before. I boldly struck up a conversation and then asked her advice on a couple of shirts. From there we went for coffee together and the next weekend we were on a date and the weekend after that we became lovers. My friends were used to seeing me with a different woman every few weeks and with very pretty ones at that. But when I kept showing up at local watering holes and soirees with Nicole, I was the envy of the males in my circle. I already had an overly inflated ego, what with my early professional success, now I thought I was the almighty greatest most desirable blessed human in the history of the world. Truly the world revolved around me.

For six months Nicole and I spent virtually every night together. We never discussed the future. I assumed that we would move in together at some point and surely would eventually get married. Of course we were both also focussed on our careers. Nicole had just started working as a counselor and had notions of going into psychiatry. I was looking to move up from the alternative press into a full time magazine gig or a job with a daily newspaper. Meanwhile I’d started work on what I anticipated being the first of many successful novels.

But everything fell apart one night at a party my friend Keith was having for his 25th birthday. Keith was as popular among our group as I was but probably a lot better liked because he was a genuinely nice guy who, unlike me, wasn’t in love with himself. It was no surprise that the turnout for the party was huge. I knew most of the people there, but there also relatives and a few scattered friends and workmates of Keith’s I’d never met. One of them was a Julian type named, Brian.

I spotted him as soon as I walked in, sitting on the sofa chatting up some girl. I pegged him right off as one of those phony baloneys. He was being oh so casual and calm and yet all knowing and wise. I probably grimaced at the sight of him. I definitely grimaced an hour or so later when I saw him talking to Nicole. We’d of course split up for a bit to mingle. I wasn’t hitting on or so much as flirting with any women but it looked for all the world like Nicole was interested in this Brian guy. “You’re being paranoid,” I told myself. But when I noticed them still locked in conversation about 15 minutes later I decided to butt in. I walked over and gave Nicole a peck on the cheek and asked her if she was enjoying herself. In response she introduced me to Brian and told me stuff about him that was supposed to impress me -- I guess -- I sure don’t remember what it was. He gave a weak ass handshake and a forced toothless smile then looked straight at Nicole like I wasn’t there and continued talking to her. Nicole put a hand on my shoulder for just a second as she turned her attention back to this dickhead. I went over to where the drinks were and mixed myself a stiff one. And then another. After a few minutes I reasoned that there was nothing for me to be upset about that Nicole and I were solid and she probably just found a topic of mutual interest with this douche bag.  They'd be finished talking soon. Hell, maybe they already were. Then the music started.

A room was cleared and people started dancing. Much to my surprise and dismay Nicole was out there dancing with this Brian guy. He was a terrible dancer. Barely moving at all but looking deeply into Nicole's eyes. I thought: Okay so they're having a dance. What harm could that possibly be? Still I stood there feeling empty inside as I watched. When the first song ended Nicole and Brian started to walk away from the dance area, but as soon as the next song began they wheeled around and were dancing again. Now I was pissed. She was showing me up in front of friends. My best friends. I couldn't just stand there passively, I had to act. So I made my way to where they were dancing and cut in. Brian was cool about it and stepped back but Nicole...Nicole, Nicole said: "I'm dancing with Brian right now." She said it coldly too and gave me an angry look like I'd never seen from her before. It was a punch in the gut. I slinked away feeling, for the first time in my life, abject and total humiliation. No one has ever felt sorrier for themselves. I went and mixed myself a few more drinks. Tall and strong. What else could I do? I got -- least I thought I did -- sympathetic looks from friends.

That night I drank myself into a stupor. I recall sitting around talking with Keith and others but I remember little else. Well there is one thing I remember, I remember it still as clearly as if it were in a movie I've seen a dozen times. Nicole and Brian left the party together. I rushed to the door. Nicole saw me and ignored me. She didn't even say goodbye.

I woke up the next morning with an epic hangover. It felt like my head had been pounded all night with a sledgehammer. But worse was than the hangover was the memory of Nicole ditching me. The very thought seemed to radiate from my sphincter to my brain and made me feel emasculated. I was through with her. Period. She'd crossed a line that was impossible to come back from. I spent the next few days waiting for her to call -- I sure as hell wasn't going to reach out to her -- so I could tell her off. However she tried to excuse her behavior wasn't going to be good enough for me, not by a long shot. But she didn't call. And in those few days I became obsessed with my jealousy, my anger, my sense of betrayal. How I hated her. How I wanted to be with her again. I was never so upset with anyone and at the same time I never wanted so badly to make love to someone. The conflicting feelings were driving me to distraction.

It was over a week later that she called. "How are you?" she asked cheerily as if everything was perfectly normal. All the rage in me surged forward and disappeared. I couldn't muster a hint of my anger. Instead in a pouty voice I assured her that I was fine and asked how she was. Nicole said she was "great" and told me how well her work was going. All the time I pictured her sitting there in bed, probably naked and with Brian having just left. Finally she got to the point: "We've got tickets to the symphony next weekend. We still on?"

Now I knew the meaning of the word dumbstruck. Over a week after her leaving a party with another man she calls and asks if we're still going to the goddamned symphony together. "Nicole, you left a party with another guy. I was standing there like an idiot. I haven't heard from you in a week after we were practically inseparable for six months. Now, now you're asking if we're going to the symphony."

I'd given it to her right between the eyes. I couldn't wait for an apology and some half baked excuse and a promise to make it up to me and an earnestly expressed wish to become inseparable yet again. That's not what I got.

"We have no commitment that I'm aware of. I met a guy I liked and wanted to spend some time with him. I won't apologize for that. I'm a very independent girl, you should have known that about me. I want us to still be close, hang out and be lovers and all that, but I'm not ready to be tied down. And ya know, you could have called me."

The wind was completely taken out of me. My first impulse was to scream bloody murder at her, my second was to invite her over for a night of sexual gymnastics. Instead I meekly said, "I do not want to go to the symphony with you, or for that matter see you again. I'll send the tickets to you. Good bye." And I hung up.

In the aftermath of my affair with Nicole I shied away from relationships. I was celibate for a few months. My professional life was unaffected and I did soon get a job on a national magazine. But I no longer thought of myself as invincible. It's one thing to lose an ordinary girl to a Julian, but to see Nicole saunter off with this guy left me feeling wrung out and emotionally weak. The emotional beating I took was actually a necessary comeuppance for years of arrogant behavior.  I was a changed man one who actually had a dose of humility

I only slowly got back into dating. About a year later I met Karen who I've been with ever since. I've never even seen her look at another guy. We're married now and will soon welcome our first child. I only recently saw Nicole again. She was in a bookstore with a man. I said a cordial hello and she gave me a quick hug. Nicole then introduced me to the guy she was with. "This is my boyfriend, Julian." No kidding, that was his name.