24 November 2022

Much For Me to be Thankful For

The author with the Stanfurd Axe

This Thanksgiving I am thankful for my lovely, darling, wonderful, perfect wife.

I am thankful for my daughters, not to mention extremely proud.

I am thankful for my nieces and nephews and their beautiful families.

I am thankful for friends

I am thankful that Cal has the Stanfurd Axe.

I am thankful that Arsenal are top of the premier league.

I am thankful for John Oliver, Seth Meyers, Chris Rock, Ricky Gervais, Jim Jeffries, Bill Hader, Kristen Wiig and so many other entertainers who make me laugh and think -- occasionally at the same time.

I am thankful for great living directors like Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers, P.T. Anderson, Kelly Reichardt, Lynne Ramsey, Wes Anderson, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, Olivier Assayas and Aki Kaurismäki.

I'm also thankful for great directors of the past such as Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock, Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, Preston Sturges, Federico Fellini, Andrei Tarkovsky, Akira Kurosawa, Howard Hawks, Louis Malle, Michelangelo Antonioni and Stanley Kubrick.

I'm grateful for those movie theaters that have stayed open and for streaming services especially the Criterion Channel.

I'm thankful for music.

I'm thankful for my health and the doctors who have done so much to keep me running.

I'm thankful to all the people who make sure we have goods and services.

I'm thankful to those politicians that actually look out for those in need.

I'm thankful for social workers and teachers (like my daughters).

I'm thankful for books, bookstores, authors, publishers.

I'm thankful for my late father and for all my ancestors.

I'm thankful for anyone who stumbles upon this blog and has a quick read.


20 November 2022

Good Prevails Over Evil, Cal Wins 125th Big Game

Photo of the post game scene by author

Yesterday afternoon I along with thousands of other Cal football fans suffered through three dismal quarters of football as we watched our Golden Bears fall behind their hated Stanfurd rivals, 17-6. It was a mistake-filled performance rife with dropped passes, bad throws, stupid penalties and missed tackles. We feared the worst. But a football game has four quarters and it was in the 4th fifteen minutes that the slumbering Bear awoke and scored three consecutive touchdowns to wrest victory from the jaws of defeat. Totally unexpected joy and bedlam ensured. Hugs with strangers, high-fives aplenty and rushing of the field were all on tap.

What pure unadulterated joy! After celebrating on the field I levitated home. Cal had kept the Stanfurd Axe. Nothing like it.

It was my 44th Big Game and while it won't rank among the best I've seen it will be among the most exciting, unexpected and satisfying. Go Bears!

16 November 2022

It was College Football's Most Improbable Finish and I was There

"The most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heartrending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football. California has won the Big Game” — Cal radio announcer Joe Starkey.

It was November 20, 1982 in Berkeley, California, the most famous finish ever to a college football game.

I was there.

Not, mind you, in the stadium, but perched above it on what has long been called Tightwad Hill where there is no admission charge.

I’d never seen anything like it nor have I ever since. No one else has either.

Cal was playing their arch rivals, Stanfurd, with possession of the Stanfurd Axe at stake. It was one of college football’s longest and bitterest rivalries (the 125th edition will be played this Saturday). It was a see-saw affair before a capacity crowd and -- has been pointed out ad nauseam over the years -- it was a helluva game even minus the incredible finish.

The Cardinal had taken the lead on a field goal with four seconds left after an improbable drive in which their star quarterback, John Elway, completed a fourth and seventeen pass.

It seemed a certainty that the field goal had provided the victory. Some Cal fans left.

As has always been my want I hung in there, disconsolate but hoping for a miracle. Little did I expect how bizarre a miracle it would be. I imagined a conventional kick off return for a touchdown or quickly getting out of bounds to leave time for one last heave into the end zone.

I’d gone to the game alone having only recently moved back to Berkeley and at the time not having any friends around who wished to join me sitting on a hill to watch a football game. Within the next year I’d have friendships with a cadre of Cal football fans as I’ve continued to to over the intervening forty years. My love of Cal football dated back to my earliest days having started going to games as a toddler and falling in love with everything associated with football Saturdays in beautiful Strawberry Canyon. The band, the colors, the mascot (Oski), the cheering section, the victory cannon were all magical to me. By 1982 I'd already seen Cal win three times on the last play of the game. Compared to what I was about to witness, it had all been pretty routine stuff. Along with love comes hate and I had plenty for the entitled rich kids from down the road.

It was my first Big Game since 1976, a heartbreaking loss (the one two years prior had been even worse) and I was excited for the noise and pageantry that was to ensue and desperate for the Golden Bears to win. I was sitting (more like hunching) next to a Naval officer who’d attended Cal. He was stationed in the Far East but was currently on leave. He was an amiable chap and we got on well as we watched the game.

He joined me in silence after the game had seemingly been lost. Our mutual misery forming a company as it tends to do.

When Stanfurd kicked off I was practically praying that a Cal player would either hop quickly out of bounds or run through the enemy lines into the end zone. The kick off bounced into the arms of Cal's Kevin Moen (whose identity was unknown to me at the time). I saw that he had nowhere to go -- so did he. Moen lateraled the ball and it was evident that it was all or nothing on one play and that play would require more laterals.

Richard Rogers received the first lateral, as pursuers closed in on him he lateraled the ball to Dwight Garner who was quickly enveloped by enemy tacklers. At this point my head dropped, I was sure it was it was over.  Many others, including Stanfurd players, and —significantly as it turned out — their band — thought so too. But Garner shoveled the ball back to Rogers before the whistle blew. I pause here to note that many a Stanfurdite claim to this day that Garner’s knee touched the ground and the play should have been dead at that point. However there is no clear conclusive evidence that Garner’s knee hit the turf and much more importantly, no whistle was blown. One is taught in sports to play to the whistle. A lesson clearly lost on attendees of snobbish private universities. 

In any case the play continued with Rogers running into enemy territory. I heard the crowd react and lifted my head having missed a lateral (something I am here admitting for the first time). What the hell was going on? We still had the ball, were still running forward and not only had additional Stanfurd players entered the field, but their band was scattered from the end zone out past the twenty yard line. What madness is this? The game continues?

I’d never seen intruders on a football game while the ball was in play. Who had?

I watched as Mariet Ford — who’d received the ball from Rogers — lateraled to the man who started it all, Kevin Moen. He had a full head of steam and was running through the band toward the end zone like a bull in a china shop. 

Could this really be happening? I wondered. I was suddenly elated believing that the impossible was about to happen.

Moen scored.

Didn’t he?

I mean, he was in the end zone, a ref — I thought — had signaled touchdown. The cannon which goes off after every Cal score, boomed. This was a touchdown. Right? I was deliriously happy and deeply concerned at the same time. After all there was the not so small matter of penalty flags littering the field and the bizarre nature of the scoring play.

The refs huddled with players trying to surround them and plead their cases. 

Surely this can’t be taken away from us. But then again, isn’t all too good to be true? My companion and I exchanged a look but said nothing. The wait seemed interminable. Hope faded.

But then….bedlam. The refs signaled touchdown. I leapt into the arms of my new found friend. “That’s what happens when you have members of the national championship rugby team playing,” he exclaimed happily.

I parted company with him, ran down the hill and into the stadium joining the throngs descending onto the field. I’d never known this feeling before. It was not mere last-second sports victory it was an actual, real life miracle. Something that defied easy description or explanation. It was surreal. 

That it happened against our hated rivals made it all the sweeter. I cavorted about the field with others donned in blue gold. At one point I found myself in the vicinity of the Stanfurd band, already recognized as goats for their early entry onto the field and their interference with the game. A young man in red who was as angry a lad as I’ve ever encountered, growled at me to “stay away from our band.” I was in too good a mood to engage and so skipped merrily away.

I don’t know how long I stayed on the field, maybe half an hour, probably more like forty-five minutes. Then it was time to celebrate in the one way I knew at the time, by getting smashed. I repaired to a bar called Kip's and drank myself silly, then headed for another bar called Bishop G’ for more libations. Everyone was my friend, especially fellow revelers. 

I remember someone helping me off the bus when I finally made my way home. 

In something of a lesser miracle I awoke the next morning just before 9:00 AM when a local station broadcast highlights of Cal football. VCRs were in their infancy at the time and I didn’t have one, there was no internet or You Tube so I was reliant on watching programs like this live. How I savored it.

And how I still savor that day. After the game Cal head coach Joe Kapp said that the finish was an example of the fact that “the will not quit and the Bear will not die.” Amen.

But the game has meant more to me than an improbable finish and a thrilling win. It was how extraordinary an event it was. Utterly unprecedented and impossible to replicate. Since then other teams have tried to lateral their way to victory as a game ended. Some have even been successful. But there was not since been an instance when they did it through a maze of confused band members. 

It’s something of a badge of honor to have been there, but I’ve made a point not to boast about my presence there that day. This was a special occasion that has taken on deep meaning for me in ways that I can’t begin to describe. How often does one ever see the surreal, the impossible the unimaginable? How often is it a transformative moment that carries such joy? 

It was profound in a way that sports rarely are. It was spiritual. It was…here I am looking for words. They just won’t do.

07 November 2022

I Wistfully Remember the Freedom of Childhood in the "Good Ole Days"

I remember taking long meandering walks as a child fully exploring the neighborhoods near my house. Children don’t do this anymore. It’s considered far too dangerous to have children out of the sight of adults. Kids today are under constant supervision. Their time is structured and replete with organized activities. There’s soccer practice, violin lessons, judo, ballet, after school care, swim class, organized sports and play dates.

We didn’t have play dates when I was a kid, we were our own social secretaries. We also had time to ourselves. Time to think and let our imaginations run free — which we did. We organized our own recreations even putting together baseball games with a dozen or so kids. It helped that we weren’t shackled by video games and computers. We talked to each other — in person. 

True, we spent far too much time in front of the TV but we were all watching the same programs at the same time and discussed the shows the next day.We didn't have to wait for Tommy to watch a show. You either saw it when it aired or not at all. There were no recordings, no tapes, no DVDs. You had to watch a show that night or wait for months for re-runs. 

Saturdays we’d go to the movies without an adult taking us let alone sitting with us. Matinees were fifty cents — thirty-five at the Oaks. There were double features that followed news reels, travelogues, and best of all, cartoons. Imagine cartoons in color (everyone still had black and white TV sets) on a big screen! 

We also spent a lot of time riding our bicycles. No one wore a helmet and the very notion would have seemed silly. Play structures, then called jungle gyms, were, in comparison to what you have today, death traps. The padding underneath was hardly more than what you’d get with a carpet. 

There were bullies. One harassed me. I wouldn’t have dreamed of involving an adult. I took care of him myself. Other kids weren’t as brave or strong.

My friends included Jews, African-Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos. I never gave their ethnicity, religion or national heritage a thought. (Once I was playing with a Japanese-American friend in my backyard. We decided to play army — as kids often did in those days. I said something like, “let’s fight the Japs.” I immediately recognized what I’d done and said, “oh, sorry.” He said it was okay and we fought the Germans instead.)

Those days were not idyllic. Cultural sensitivity was not something anyone gave any consideration to. LGBTQ kids were deep in the closet and the very idea of idea of same sex relationships or questioning gender identity seemed like science fiction — if we’d thought of them at all. It was a terribly sexist society and we all conformed to gender norms. Besides, girls were yucky. There was a wonderful freedom to being a kid that I don’t think I fully appreciated at the time. I made the fifteen-minute walk to school myself. If it rained I got a lift. I also left school at lunch everyday to walk to my grandmother’s for lunch. She lived but a block away from my elementary school. There I dined with her golden retriever, Sisu. He got a good portion of my meal. I was a Cub Scout for a few years. It was pretty low key and didn't entail a lot besides den meetings, baseball games and various excursions. Most of my friends were cub scouts too so it was mostly an extension of our usually hijinks only with a few adults around getting in the way.

My junior high was a few blocks from our house so I went home for lunch. I didn’t eat lunch at school until I was in high school. I never took a bus to school either. I walked everywhere. It’s a habit that I still maintain. I love long walks. 

It all came to a screeching halt when I discovered a talent for playing soccer and was on a team, then another and was eventually playing year around. Inevitably I discovered girls, that changed everything. But nothing kept me from my long wanderings around the city.

I walked thirty-five minutes to a movie yesterday. I suppose most people don’t walk half as much as I do. I can think what I want. Turn down any street I fancy. Cut through a particular neighborhood. Just like when I was a kid.

01 November 2022

Dizzy Grows Up

“If you had the choice would you live for five extra years but you had to be blind. Otherwise your health was perfect. Would you take five more years alive if you were blind?”

“Jesus, Dizzy where do you come up with this shit? I mean, seriously, man, who would ever face such an option?

“I’m just asking if you’d do it if you had the choice.”

“I honestly don’t know, if it ever comes up I’ll be sure to tell you then.”

That was Dizzy, always presenting weird scenarios, strange what-ifs, and bizarre hypotheticals.

Dizzy finally added: “I think I’d take the five years for sure. I mean they’d be a bonus on top of the life you’d lived. So what if you couldn’t see, you could still enjoy music and sex and — ”

“Whatever Diz.”

Of course Dizzy wasn’t his real name. He was born Terrance Burdette but had earned his nickname in the first grade because he liked to spin in circles until he became dizzy. The moniker fit.

Dizzy hung out with me (I’m Carl Swanson), Buster Collins, Lloyd  Walinsky and Mikey D’Antonio. We’d all been friends since kindergarten. Other than Dizzy we were pretty good students and played sports and came from nice families. But Dizzy, poor guy, he struggled in school and was a total loss at sports. Worst of all his home life was the shits. His father was a lush who couldn’t hold down a job and his mother suffered from clinical depression, he had an older brother who was in and out of jail and a younger sister who was about as bad a student as Dizzy but without any friends to speak of.

We felt sorry for Dizzy. He was part of the gang and we were all equals but I suppose its fair to say that Dizzy didn’t get the same level of respect as the rest of us. I mean, he was such a goofball so how could he? Frankly he could be a pain in the ass at times. He couldn’t keep up with a lot of our conversations, especially when we talked about school work. Whenever we’d discuss school or politics or sports he’d usually be totally silent for awhile then interrupt us with some obnoxious comment. But when we got together after school, on weekends and during the Summer, Dizzy was always with us and none of us complained, we were family.

By high school one of our main topics of conversation was girls. Here was another topic Dizzy had nothing to say about. We’d be talking about who we thought was cute and who we thought might like us and Dizzy would come up with one of this ridiculous questions.

“If you had to kill a celebrity which one would you off?”

“Seriously, Dizzy? Who would ever have to kill a celebrity?

“Well, no one would actually would, I guess, but just supposin’ you had to, who would it be?”

“Nope, not gonna answer it, Diz.”

“Me neither.”

“Buster, how about you?”

“I don’t know Diz, can I get back to ya on it?”

That’s how it went.

Eventually we started dating and sometimes a group of us would get together with our dates for a movie or to hang out. Dizzy always seemed to find out what was up and tag along. He was too shy to talk to girls and besides most of his clothes were second hand and often dirty and Dizzy seldom seemed to shower. His hair was always askew. Cleaned up he wouldn’t have looked so bad but it was hard to imagine a girl being attracted to someone who was so immature, not to mention slovenly. When we were with our dates, Dizzy mostly kept quiet and if he did talk it was to one of guys and never to the girls.

Lloyd, Buster, Mikey and I all graduated high school near the top of the class. Buster got a football scholarship to the state university, Lloyd was accepted to an Ivy League school and Mikey and I both got partial scholarships to small liberal arts colleges. It was an exciting and sad time at the end of the Summer as we each got ready to go off to our respective schools. Dizzy had had to take a couple of Summer School courses just to get his diploma, we were all amazed that he passed. Not surprisingly, Dizzy was saddest of all as we left one by one for college. Three of us went out of state, Buster’s school was the closest but he was still 200 miles from our hometown, Blakesburg.

We all exchanged letters with updates on how we were adjusting to college life. Dizzy had promised to write but none of us heard a peep from him, not even in response to the letters we wrote him. I didn’t give him too much thought because I was off on what seemed a big adventure. I loved college classes, meeting new people and being on my own. I got drunk and later smoked marijuana, both firsts in my life. The biggest first I experienced was when I lost my virginity. I also met an openly gay person for the first time as well as a Muslim and — at a seminar — a Holocaust survivor. The world had opened up in ways I hadn’t imagined. Blakesburg is a decent-sized town but is comprised almost entirely of white Christians.

Despite the eye-opening adventures I was having, one of the highlights of the year was going home for Christmas vacation. I’d never been away from the family for more than a week of Summer camp before and I was excited to see my folks and my sisters and of course my good friends — including Dizzy.

We all met on a Friday a few days before Christmas at Johnny’s, our favorite burger joint. Lloyd, Buster, Mikey D’Antonio all looked different but the same. It was hard not to all be talking at once, sharing stories of our university experiences and reflections on how Blakesburg looked after being away for three months. After awhile we noticed that Dizzy hadn’t shown up. We’d all written to him about when we’d be getting in and that we’d be meeting at Johnny’s. I even called his house and left a message with his sister who said that Dizzy was at work.

“Did she say where Diz is working?” Buster asked.

“I didn’t think to ask,” I replied.

We’d been in Johnny’s for nearly an hour when Dizzy walked in although at first we didn’t recognize him. He was wearing a nice buttoned down shirt, pressed trousers, loafers and a corduroy jacket. His hair was parted and neatly combed.

“Hi fellas!” Dizzy exclaimed. He just stood there beaming as if really proud of himself. Spontaneously we got up and raced over to Dizzy and took turns pumping his hand and patting him on the back and telling him how great he looked and how glad we were to see him.

“I’m working man now, gents,” he told us when we all finally sat down.

“I got a job at Roy Ettinger’s filling station pumping gas, wiping windshields and changing oil. Turns out I got what Roy says is a ‘natural aptitude for fixing cars.’ Fellas, I’m going to be a mechanic.”

I think I speak for my other pals when I say that I couldn’t have been prouder of Dizzy. He’d found a calling and an honorable one that would provide a steady income. And in just three and half months he’d cleaned himself up and for once looked his age.

“No more goofy talk from me either. Heck I don’t even watch cartoons no more. I’ve even started checking out books from the library. But l want to hear from you fellas.”

With that we regaled Dizzy with stories from college. Buster had the most to tell what with him being on a college football team. Lloyd talked about being part of campus protests against the war in Vietnam and Mikey D’Antonio spoke about having a steady girlfriend already. Diz listened intently, never interrupting. He seemed particularly interested in my stories about smoking marijuana and meeting — as he put it — a queer.

I couldn’t get over Dizzy’s transformation. It wasn’t just his appearance but the way he acted. As we spoke, our old friend listened intently and interrupted only to ask questions — and not goofy ones either.

We saw Dizzy a few more times during our vacation and I for one had trouble getting over the amazing transformation he had undergone in just three months time. Finally I asked him,” Dizzy you’re such a changed man, how’d you do it?”

“It was the day after you fellas left. I was alone and feeling blue. I knew I needed to make some changes in my life and the first one I thought of was to get steady work. I lucked into the filling station job and then it turned out I was a natural with cars. I realized I wasn’t a kid anymore and should stop acting and looking like one. Actually you guys were my inspiration. I always envied you and wanted to be more like you. I’m not cut out for college but I can still learn and improve myself and make a good living. I just finally grew up, is all, and you three pals were my models”

I almost cried. Instead I gave Dizzy a hug, something that wasn’t done among males in Blakesburg in those days. Over the years I kept in touch with all my old pals but the one I came to enjoy seeing the most was Dizzy. Whenever I come into town to see my folks I visit Diz who is today married and has a couple of sons. He’s no great intellectual but knows his current events and has strong well-reasoned opinions on a lot of topics.

Last time I saw Dizzy we were chatting about this and that when he asked: “If you had to choose one current political figure to shoot and one to be roommates with, who would you choose for each?”

I was stunned for a second but then Dizzy smiled broadly. “I’m just kidding, Carl, just kidding.”