Medically Proven Cure For Writer’s Block

Medically Proven Cure For Writer’s Block

Summers in Santa Barbara are or have been blissfully mild, allowing every sort of diversion or recreation.  I spent two as a Teaching Fellow at the South Coast Writing Project working with teachers who hoped to teach writing.  The Director, Sheridan Blau, brought in a host of writers, some nationally celebrated, some academic, some amateur, all of whom described the processes by which they got words on the page.  He’d build on their comments, set the class a set of assignments and wait for the inevitable throat clearing and, yes, dare I say, whining. “Why is this like opening a vein?” Sheridan inevitably barked.  The bark was delivered frequently enough that the class pitched in for a t shirt emblazoning the phrase surrounded by blood spatter.

Fetching.

So, Writer’s Block.  It’s a real thing. I’ve seen it for years and have had an occasional bout of blockage myself.  Over many, many years of reading the work that came from blocked imaginations, I devised and borrowed assignments that were intended to liberate the writer.  My colleagues may have insisted on quality; I wanted fluency. Revision is a separate and exceedingly helpful skill, but one that can only follow fluency. There has to be something to revise.  I won’t trot out every stratagem in one tip sheet, but I will explain one of the most effective and provide live footage (on paper) of a writer galloping down the path I suggest.

Borrowing from those who compose music, I’ve called this, “Writing In The Key Of And…” , by which I mean asking the writer to summon up a memory of any sort, any subject as long as there is some immediacy to it, then describe the event without using any punctuation – no capitalization,no pauses, ellipses, periods, question marks.  Nada. However, every separate thought or description has to be introduced by the word “and”. There’s some resistance at the outset, and many questions, but then the magic often happens.

There is something about a headlong rush through the describing of a moment that can bring breathless urgency to a piece.  Part of the process is that it shoves together the essential and the transitory, the observed and the imagined, self-reflection and the emotion of the moment.  I say, “Throw attentive self-editing to the winds. No room for doubt. Keep the pace. Go wherever your mind takes you. Then let’s see what you’ve got.”

My car’s battery died last week.  Not a particularly notable event. As it must to all batteries, last week death came to mine.  Here’s my Key of And:

“What the hell the car is just not working and lights are flashing and then not flashing and then nothing at all and I am supposed to be going to volunteer at the Hospice Boutique and I like volunteering and I hate being late and I hate ditching even more and I have ditched many many too many things in the course of my life and what the hell is the course of my life and is it a course as in path or is a course as in academic course and that’s exactly the sort of question that serves absolutely no purpose and the expression that comes to mind is tits on a bull and that is a vile expression and how do I get things out of my head that I do not want in my head and songs are among those things and I have a song in my head literally around the clock and I don’t know actually if I do when I sleep and I do know it’s there when I wake up and many of them are from God knows where or when and that put the song who knows where or when in my head and that’s not one I want in my head and I have to do a quick recasting of songs and I’m trying as hard as I can and come with que sera sera and that’s not much better in terms of existential panic and I do like the tune though and I can keep that on in the background and think about other things and one of those things is death and dying and that’s two things and maybe one after all and I won’t know until I know and that’s if I know and what am I doing spilling my guts here and where am I supposed to spill my guts and I wish I had a guru or master who welcomed gut spill and I actually really don’t want a guru or master foraging through my guts and I have to get out of this assignment and this will be the end.”

Cautionary note.  I am remembering how hard it is to return to a crafted sentence after having enjoyed the literary wind in my hair, and, of course, I am tempted to go off on a riff about my hair or lack thereof.  So there are some issues with fluency that will need attention. On the other hand, I am reading Anna Burns Milkman, a book that won the Mann Booker Prize and one that I find fascinating.  It’s not quite written in the key advertised above, but there are moments that come close.

From page 200, randomly selected:

“ ‘It’s creepy, perverse, obstinately determined’ went on longest friend, she said, ‘It’s not as if , friend,’ she said, ‘glancing at some newspaper as this were a case of a person glancing at some newspaper, as they’re walking along to get the latest headlines or something.  It’s the way you do it- reading books, whole books, taking notes, checking footnotes, underlining passages as if you’re at some desk or something, in a little private study or something, the curtains closed, your lamp on, a cup of tea beside you, essays being penned – your discourses, your lubrications.  It’s disturbing. It’s deviant. It’s optical illusion. Not public spirited. Not self-preservation. Calls attention to itself and why – with enemies at the door, with the community under siege, with us all having to pull together – would anyone want to call attention to themselves here’.  

Why indeed?

Some readers will have arrived at this point having read both passages, and some may come away with an appreciation of fluency as an end itself.  Others, not so much. All I can offer at the end of this exercise is that no veins were opened in the making of this essay.

I’m done, and it is probably not necessary to say that the last bit in the last sentence sent me to the exculpatory note at the end of movies in which no animals, they say, have been harmed, and from there …

What’s In A Name?

What’s In A Name?

For a brief moment, before my wife snapped me back to reality, I thought it might be a great advantage to name our newly born son “Senator” or “General”, figuring most people don’t pay close attention to much beyond the name, so what the heck, why not start at the top? As I have said with regret on numerous occasions, “seemed like a good idea”, and yet, so not.

As my first thought is almost always entirely off base, cheerfully acknowledging my questionable judgement, I surrendered. Not one to let a challenge slip away, however, I have been keeping track of equally presumptuous names over the course of the last thirty years or so and now offer my observation that in the sports world, some names are strikingly more predictive than others.

The world of sports is wide and filled with wonderfully evocative names. Let’s cut to the chase (we’ll return to that name before we’re done) and begin by assuming that some of the most striking names were received rather than given. Did Mother Berra look at a squalling child and say, “That’s my little Yogi?” Probably not. Similarly, we can be assured that Rabbit Maranvill, Dizzy Dean, and Hacksaw Reynolds did not spring from the womb with the names by which they came to be known. More contrived nicknames such as Darrell “Dr. Dunkenstein” Griffith and Charlie “Piano Legs” Hickman arrive on a yearly basis, but my interest is in the actual given names that seem to predict a particular sort of career in sport, in football to be precise, and as quarterback to be particular.

Let us return to Chase, shall we, a name that demands superior athletic ability; pity the sluggard named Chase. What hope has he if not at the deep end of the athletic pool. Yes, a banker named Chase could probably skim by, but your attorney? Your masseur? Your psychic? No, Chase is an athlete’s name, and widely applicable across several sports. Baseball has a few Chases (Utley, Headley, Whitley and, in a stunning departure from the “ley” tag, Anderson and Wright), football (Daniel, Blackburn, Coffman); boxing and wrestling (Stevens, Beebe, Tatum) and auto racing (Elliott, Austin) have their share. Chase is fairly evenly distributed across several sports and, in an odd crossover, seems to be ok for Country musicians as well. Not neutral; the stakes are still high for anyone walking around as “Chase”, but there is some range of opportunity. Less obviously annointed athletes, such as the McCaffreys, Christian and Dylan, could be running backs, point guards, folk singers, or corporate executives.

You name a kid “Colt”, however, or “Troy”, or “Peyton”, or “Brett”, or “Cam”, or “Ty”, or “Kellen”, or “Carson”, or “Landry”, or “Kirk”, or “Gage”, or “Cole”, or “Shea”, or “Bryce”, or “Brock”, and the world will expect that kid to be calling a snap count in his sleep before the first day of school. These are not interior linemen; these are quarterbacks. Of course there are quarterbacks of some quality who have climbed to the top with ordinary, more pedestrian names. “Tom” has done well. “Aaron” and “Matt”, “Russell”, “Philip”, “Patrick”, all earn a hefty paycheck, but they could as easily have ended up as running backs, wide receivers, or even grunts digging their paws into the turf at the line of scrimmage.

“Shea” is not a hard-nosed brawling tackle with a penchant for grabbing runners by their nether bits. “Colt” isn’t spitting teeth while jamming his knuckles into kidneys and ribs.

Another obvious difference between quarterbacks and the rest of the universe, I am shallow enough to admit, is that quarterbacks with a few notable exceptions, are handsome. Other positions have a claim on good looks as well; J.J. Watt is a god, Clay Matthews does Thor, Reggie Bush looks great on the field and off, but … most of the shakiest of Division I or II quarterbacks and almost any NFL quarterback is posterchild material.

Let’s just do the not-Tom Brady – not Aaron Rogers – not Russell Wilson quarterback sweep and see what turns up.

Mat Leinart? Come on! Jesse Palmer? Whoah! Case Keenum? Teddy Bridgewater? Nick Mullens? Ryan Tannehill? Drew Lock? Brett Hundley? Matt Barkley? Chase Daniel? A.J. McCarron? Blake Bortels?

I was on a roll there, and then … alright, there are some goofy looking quarterbacks as well. I have to admit that after watching this season’s Hard Knocks, Mike Glennon’s improbably long neck remains an uncomfortable memory. Similarly, Ryan Fitzgerald’s beard is off-putting; just too much. Josh Rosen deserves a better deal that he’s had with the Dolphins, but, ok, maybe not a poster. There’s something about Trevor Siemian’s eyes. Too close together? Moving in opposite directions? On the Trevor track, Trevor Lawrence? Am I the only one to see an Afghan hound?

Look, I’m a balding short guy with no chiselled features and a decidedly uninspiring midsection; I have no room to cavil. At least, and perhaps this is the weakest of defences, I am not matriculating down the field as a Chip, Chase, or Colt.

That would be a lot to live up to, and I suspect my wife’s excellent instinct has saved our children considerable grief. Good thing I can’t name my grandkids.

Grandma’s Mike Drop

Grandma’s Mike Drop

My son recently returned from a happy reunion with good friends. They’d gathered to celebrate the marriage of a college pal whose family threw themselves into celebration with great abandon. Families are tricky under any circumstance and downright dangerous when the spirits rise. A relatively jolly round of toasting had warmed the room when the groom’s grandmother grabbed the microphone and annonced:

“The time has come for me to rank the grandchildren.”

The plug was pulled, the amp cooled, and most of the audience was spared grandma’s itemized assessment of an entire generation. She went on at length, with brio, but without amplification. One or two tender shoots may have been bruised, but most of her spawn were spared.

Awkward? Certainly. Worst ever? Probably not.

Toasts are almost guaranteed to bring acute embarassment and lingering regret. The Best Man stands and raises a glass to the groom and a former girl friend, the Father of the Bride describes her toilet training, a friend tries to make a profound connection between favorite food (hot dog) and husband to be -“He’ll be the hot dog you swallow now.”

Cringeworthy.

Fear of public speaking is endemic, and a spur-of-the-moment toasting raises the stakes for anyone not comfortable ad-libbing in front of a crowd. On the other hand, some of the most carefully prepared toasts can miss the mark every bit as grotesquely.

“60% of marriages end in divorce, and in the rest you get to live happliy until death.” Glasses raised. “”Here’s hoping you die.”

I’m old enough to have heard my share of mangled speeches welcoming new employees to the team, one of which went south immediately and sank more emphatically with every effort to recover some slight vestige of dignity. The speaker, a man of about sixty-five, hoped to introduce a new employee who had been a childhood friend of his daughter.

“Here’s Leslie” would have sufficed, but, no, the impulse to get personal could not be squelshed.

“I remember when Leslie used to come over to our house, a cute kid with braces and a pony tail. She was more developed than Emily who was jealous of her figure…”

This aside was intended to prepare the audience for an appreciation of Leslie’s mature judgement and precocious ability as a manager, but slid sideways from the start.

“Boys were crazy about Leslie, surrounded her in droves, but she managed to beat them off without hurting their feelings.”

He must have been aware of the sudden shocked silence in the room. He reddened and tried to recover.

“I mean with a stick or club.”

Nice try.

“Not hurt them, you know. She’s always had a great touch …”

By this time, Leslie had left the room, his wife and daughter were seething, and the event was permanently scarred.

I’ve made more than my own share of bungled announcements, almost all of which were delivered in earnest and all of which backfired even as I spoke. Intending to thank the chair of the school’s prom committee, a school mother named Hickey Bitsy. I’m pretty sure I called her “Titsie”. I’m still blushing. Later, also in school setting, I tried to call returning students to a higher purpose: “Don’t hold back. Let a Math teacher share his fascination with Math with you, let an English teacher carry you into books that can change your life, let a language teacher French you …”

Just shoot me.

Actually, looking back on a career and life filed with things I most profoundly wish I hadn’t said, ranking grandkids seems relatively benign. I am determined to keep my feet out of my mouth, but I may need a designated interrupter on hand at all times to prevent me from digging yet another trench from which there is no escape.

Love Anyway

Love Anyway

Charlie’s cat died last week.  All systems failed, and Charlie had to make the tough decision in the vet’s office, holding the cat as the end came.  Charlie lives alone, now. He talks about coming home to an empty apartment and feeling as if the light has been sucked from the universe.  It was an elderly cat, frail and disabled, and yet, of course, when the time came, Charlie was undone.

I drove a large and elderly dog from Massachusetts to Alabama.  We stopped only to let him wobble from the car, sniff some grass, do his stuff, and when he looked up expectantly, I picked him up and set him on his favorite blanket in the back seat.  I was determined to get him to our new home; I couldn’t let him die on the road. Hopper was an All American dog, probably German shepherd mixed with border collie, rangy and distinguished by a spattering of spots which made him look like a miniature Holstein with a lolling tongue.  I fell in love with him while courting my wife; they were a bonded pair, but they let me and my son into the pack. Over the years, I came to love all of them more profoundly, even as I knew that Hopper’s time would likely come well before mine.

He lived large, bounding beyond the pathetic boundaries we set, occasionally doing his own courting until we finally had him neutered.  His roaming decreased and he settled into life with his enlarged family. In the last few years he began to have seizures, scary, but not debilitating.  We came to recognize the signs and protected him as best we could, putting his blanket and pillows under his head, holding him. I held him in my arms too at the end, when a kind veterinarian came to our home, allowing Hopper to stay in his own bed.  That was more than twenty-five years ago, and I still remember the feel of the good dog nestled against my chest

We’ve loved other dogs: a goofy German shepherd, an Australian shepherd with a sweet face and a fondness for cake, a border collie who could run like a typhoon but who as a therapy dog happily settled into the embrace of kids with terminal illnesses.  For several years we had a pack of four, matriarch Jinx, oddly humorous Satch, somewhat needy Rogue, and the then newest pup, Banner, all border collies. They started out in California, but moved with us to Southern Oregon, where they quickly found active games in the meadow behind our new home.  

Satch is in Massachusetts, a dorm dog working with our daughter in a boarding school.  He spends the summer here, but loves shambling amid kids away from home, leaning in, allowing them to sink their hands into his deep soft coat.  Rogue and Banner are good company for each other, although Rogue has been hard on her little body, running hard for a lifetime, and is now stiff and often aching. Recently we’ve seen her fall and faint when running hard; we have learned that she is dealing with cardiomyopathy, an enlarged heart. 

We almost lost Jinx, deaf and almost blind, who wandered from home on the coldest night of the year, becoming trapped in a frozen pool overnight.  She was in a coma when we found her. We wrapped her in layers of blankets and held her in a small room filled with space heaters. She was entirely immobile and unresponsive.  When my son arrived, he asked if she was going to make it. Hearing his voice, she lifted her head.

She lived for another year.  Once again, I held a dog I loved in my arms as she died.

Time has passed.  I still grieve and miss Jinx every day.  

We can’t replace Jinx, or Hopper, or Maus, or Fax, or Blitz.  I’ll be devastated when we lose Rogue; there will be no replacing her.  And so, you might ask, why is a new puppy chewing on something that looks like my slipper as I write?  

Why, knowing what’s coming, do I love the next dog, and the next? 

The answer is simply because I can’t imagine not loving dogs.  My daughter has correctly identified my dilemma as I walk down the street and encounter a schnauzer, or a Boston terrier, or a dog of no particular pedigree with a large block head and bright eyes.  

“Must pat dog”.  

Which turns out to be a very good thing as my wife is even more devoted to a dog-rich life.  The newest dog, Gem, a four-month-old border collie, black and white, strikingly similar to Jinx as a pup, is adventurous and affectionate, less needy than one of her packmates, a very nice addition to the family.  She spends much of her day with or near us, often lounging in a very large, tall pen in what was once a family room. The house is full of dog fur. We no longer vacuum as fur clogs the machine, but sweep daily, guiding growing balls of fluff into heaps that can be scooped up and tossed out.  Days are ordered around care and feeding, and we don’t take vacations far from home.  

I’ll outlive some dogs, and some will outlive me.  There’s pain and loss and regret, but love as I know it is about signing on without reservation, even when the stakes are high.  I miss the good dogs we’ve lost but can’t imagine missing out on one day with them.

I know how Charlie feels in his empty apartment; he plans to visit the shelter this week to see which cat needs to be his next cat.  He’ll love that cat too, anyway.

The big questions remain unanswered; we can’t know who will be the next to go. In the meantime, there are dogs to be scruffled and cats to be pampered, and that sounds good enough to me.

Time To Order THE TOSU Sweatshirt

Time To Order THE TOSU Sweatshirt

Bitter Buckeyes are reeling.  

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has denied Ohio State University’s petition to trademark the word “The” as in, “The Ohio State University” (pronounced Thee Ohio State University) , contending that the word” the” is critical to much of the university’s merchandising all sorts of athletic gear and commemorative souvenirs.  Unwary shoppers, the Patent Office was told, could mistake a sweatshirt from Ohio University or Miami University of Ohio for the genuine and more celebrated Ohio State brand, which does cast some shade on Buckeye Nation as one might assume that a fan knows the difference between teams even if their names contain many similar letters.  Michigan/Michigan State, Colorado/Colorado State … not a lot of their fans out there proudly flying the wrong flag.

 There are some interesting questions raised by the university’s claim to ownership, however, and those conversations may bring us to a higher plane of linguistic sensitivity.  And, it should be noted, there may be opportunities to suggest that although there may be method in Ohio State’s application, yet there is madness in’t. So, let’s press on.

We’ll get terribly confused in trying to speak about the not-yet-trademarked word and the word we have been tossing around for centuries, primarily because t-h-e  means different things to differing people. Henceforth, in order to avoid confusion, the word as used by the university will be emboldened (THE) to identify its distance from its more commonly used, and apparently, commonly owned cousin, the functional word.

The is a good word, a darned good word.  We use it all the time, hardly noticing its graceful utility, just tossing it around as if we owned it.   Maybe we’ve taken it for granted, assumed it would always be there when we needed it. Without it, we seem impetuous, imperious, reductive.  Declaration of Independence. Gettysburg Address. 

The (see?) evolution of Ohio State’s fixation on the word, its determination to achieve exclusive ownership of the word THE,  begins with its position in the state’s birth order.  Ohio University in Athens was founded in 1804. The two landmark liberal arts colleges in the State of Ohio, Kenyon and Oberlin, were founded in 1824 and 1833 respectively.  THE Ohio State University was founded in 1870 as Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College, taking the name The Ohio State University in 1870 when then Governor Rutheford B. Hayes, a graduate of Kenyon, authorized the development of a comprehensive university.

THE University of Michigan, founded in 1817, THE University of Virginia, founded in 1819, and THE University of Pennsylvania, founded in 1740, might have jumped into the fray, were the fray not an exercise in absurdity.  Virginia is secure enough to hang around without assuring its celebrants that it is the University of Virginia even though THE College of William and Mary, equally funded by the Commonwealth of Virginia  is conspicuously older, founded in 1693. In tribute to THE Ohio State University’s initiative, THE University of Michigan has offered to trademark the word OF.

Lest a wary Buckeye dither over other attributes claimed by the university, be assured that applications for trademark protection of the names URBAN MEYER and WOODY HAYES are also under consideration.  The resources of a gigantic enterprise such as THE Ohio State University demands specialized sets of skill, so it should come as no surprise that the Urban Meyer registration was handled by Ohio State’s Director of Trademark and Licensing Services, Rick Van Brimmer.  Van Brimmer is not simply keeping an eye on names and articles; he’s currently working on trademarking The Oval, The Shoe, and OSU.  Already trademarked are Brutus Buckeye, Script Ohio, Gold Pants, and Block O, the Buckeye Stripe, the helmet leaf, and their home and away uniforms, 

The OSU issue is a bit tricky in that Oklahoma State University and Oregon State University suggest that their claim on the initials is as legitimate as Ohio State’s.  At the moment, the trademark is licensed on a state by state, i.e. regional, basis. The greater complication, an innocent observer might note, is that by registering THE, Ohio’s state university should actually be represented as TOSU.  Please call Van Brimmer at home to raise that point.

Trademarking and licensing belong in the nether reaches of marketing and finance, areas not commonly discussed in polite society.  TOSU is not alone in having grasped the importance of keeping a stranglehold on an asset that might become commercially viable.  Verizon holds a trademark on the scent they pump into their retail stores. “Flowery Musk Scent” sets the Verizon experience apart from others and must be protected.  Tiffany Blue is a protected color, as is T-Mobile Magenta, Barbie Pink, and Wiffleball Bat Yellow.  

As Kurt Vonnegut, a Midwesterner with an eye for the absurd might have said in encountering the trademark that UPS holds on its shade of brown, “So it goes.”

And the prize for Inconceivable Arrogance goes to …

And the prize for Inconceivable Arrogance goes to …

Ah, Autumn!  Leaves are falling, footballs are sailing, and the mascots no longer smell like mothballs.  Bright college years with pleasures rife, the shortest, gladdest years of life – what better Saturday afternoon than sitting in the stands amid the pomp and pageantry of Division I football?  The band is pumping out the fight songs; the cheerfolk are tumbling and screaming. A rumble as the first players burst from the tunnel, then a roar as they stampede, more than a hundred superbly conditioned young men, moving as one, a blur of helmeted color.

Sweet, Jesus.  All’s right with the world!

Except that this is Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  It’s 92 degrees in the shade at 3 PM as the Aggies of New Mexico State scurry to the sideline, rushing like a man pulled from a brothel into church, aware at a cellular level that they don’t belong and will soon face the wrath of an unforgiving God.  Their mascot, Pistol Pete, twirls a pair of unloaded six guns in front of the four or five New Mexico Tech rooters.  

Pistol Pete is one of the few mascots drawn from the pages of history.  Frank Boardman “PIstol Pete” Eaton, born in Hartford, Connecticut, was a scout, indian fighter, and cowboy, famous for his skill as a gunman and for his relentless pursuit of the men who killed his father.  Eaton’s ability to kill people was much admired, and over the course of several decades, his mustached likeness was trotted out as the embodiment of all things admired in the Old West. Think of a young(er) Tom Selleck.  In any case, students at what was then known as Oklahoma A and M, now Oklahoma State, petitioned the administration for a change of mascot, aware that their claim to be the Princeton of the Prairie hardly entitled them to joint custody of the tiger as a mascot.  As the former New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in Las Cruces, New Mexico took its place in Division I football, it too had need of an inspirational figurehead, adopting Pistol Pete as their own.

Except that he wasn’t.  At the outset, in the 1950’s, NMSU paid Oklahoma State a royalty of ten dollars a year for the logo and mascot.  Times changed, conversation between the two institutions of higher learning grew testy, and in 2005, New Mexico State folded, changing the mascot’s name to “Lasso Larry”, arming him with a coiled rope.  Outraged students asked, “Who brings a lasso to a gunfight?”, a not unreasonable question if athletic competition is seen as war, and Pistol Pete returned to the sidelines, prompting OSU to sue NMSU.  

That suit settled  (NMSU can only sell 3000 articles featuring the cowboy and the royalty is to be paid in perpetuity), It’s September 7th in Tuscaloosa, the temperature is rising, and Alabama’s Crimson Tide sweeps onto the field accompanied by their mascot, Big Al, a rumpled but enthusiastic grey elephant.  ‘’Bama’s team numbers something above one hundred and five players, eighty five of whom are on scholarship. Of that number, twenty seven of the newest players, recent recruits, arrived as four or five star recruits, giving Big Al something to cheer about and placing Alabama at the top of the 2019 recruiting classes.  NMSU’s class is made of two and three star recruits, placing them at spot number one hundred and twenty in the recruiting sweepstakes.  

Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium is named after a former president of the university, Denny, and a former coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant.  The stadium is the seventh largest stadium in the world, welcoming almost one hundred and two thousand loyal ‘Bama Boosters to its seats.  Naturally, the scramble for seats is ongoing, and students line up for their season passes, plunking down one hundred and thirty five dollars for the season, a bargain to be sure.  Individual game prices vary. The NMSU student ticket price is twenty dollars if purchased separately; tickets to the LSU game go for one hundred and twenty. A season pass now looks like a heck of a bargain.  Good times in Tuscaloosa!

Except that the temperature is rising, humidity is woolen, classes don’t begin for another two weeks,and the Tide has pasted sixty two points on New Mexico State, the designated early season punching bag. Apparently believing they have some agency in their lives, students stick with it through the first half and retreat to cooler options in the second half, leaving a bare patch in the stadium’s flanks.

Sensible, you say.  Understandable.

In an age of outsized egos, however, such defection is taken personally, and no ego puffs with more satisfaction than that belonging to Alabama’s exceptionally talented and successful football coach.  Nick Saban makes seven point nine million dollars a year with a four hundred thousand dollar escalator clause. He is an exceptionally good coach in a state that venerates college football.  His wish is the State’s command. He has complained about Alabama’s students with clear contempt.

“Everybody wants to be a part of the team,” he said. “Everybody wants to be No. 1, but everybody don’t want to do what the beast does. Everybody wants to be the beast but they don’t want to do what the beast do.

“So everybody’s got to make a sacrifice. You want to be the lion? Everybody got to do something. Everybody wants to be No. 1. If I asked that whole student section, do you want to be No. 1? Nobody would hold their hand up and say I want to be No. 4. They would all say No. 1. But are they willing to do everything to be No. 1? That’s another question. You can ask them that. I don’t know the answer.”

Alabama’s answer is to create a “Loyalty Program” which offers students advantaged access to the highly prized post-season games.  Go to a game, pick up one hundred points. Stay through the fourth quarter? Two hundred and fifty more points. And how are the ticket czars able to keep track of who is where doing what?  Simple. ‘Bama’s tracking students’ cell phones. The app was developed by FanMaker and is used at forty other colleges in order to reward fans by giving them t shirts and other team gear. They go to a game, they get a reward.  Alabama’s Grand Poobah is not satisfied with attendance; he wants LOYALTY.  

The introduction of Big Brother creepiness to Alabama football is not entirely surprising given that some pundits refer to the university as “Sabanistan”; Nick Saban has become he who must be obeyed in a state delighted by his casual arrogance.  Without making the obvious comparison with other monstrous egos demanding loyalty, it is worth remembering that the entire conversation takes place within the walls of a university. President Denny was lucky to hold his office before Bear Bryant became the face and voice of the university; it’s unlikely that Alabama’s current president, Stuart R. Bell, will find his name emblazoned on a stadium’s gate. Lucky and loyal ticket holders do line up in front of a nine foot statue of Nick Saban.

Roll Tide!

For Worse

For Worse

The latest in ESN’s remarkable documentary series, 30 for 30, “Dennis Rodman: For Better of Worse”, presents a not-unfamiliar profile of an elite athlete looking back at a chaotic life with a mixture of regret and confusion. Rodman’s story is similar in some ways to those told by others who arrived at great celebrity from circumstances that were more than daunting. An absent father, a critical mother, successful older siblings – painful but not uncommon. In many circumstances, we can also anticipate the sorts of difficulties the highly prized athlete would face: adulation, a free pass during school and college years, protection from consequence, betrayal by those who profited from his success.

What sets Rodman’s story apart is his invention of himself at about the midpoint in his career, an artifice of significant oddity, seemingly emerging at the end of Rodman’s glory years with the Detroit Pistons.

As presented in the documentary, until the age of twenty-one, Rodman was noteworthy only for being a nonentity. In this case the word actually means what it is intended to mean; Rodman moved through his small world as though he did not exist. His sisters had successful athletic careers; his mother raised a family and held expectations of her children. He appears an afterthought in photographs, a 5’8 skinny kid who would steal watches from an airport in order to buy friendship. Even his incarceration was pallid; he spent time in an airport lockup. Then, in less than a year, he grew to 6’8 and picked up basketball. With virtually no experience in the sport, he displayed a genius for rebounding, attracting the attention of NAIA Southeast Oklahoma where he became an All American drafted with the 27th pick by the Detroit Pistons.

During those years, Rodman befriended Byrne Rich, a twelve year old boy who had killed a friend in a shooting accident. The traumatized boy was sent to basketball camp in the hope that he might begin to recover in the company of boys his own age. Instead, he bonded with Rodman, a gigantic man-child, as tentative and damaged as he was. Rodman moved in with the Oklahoma family, and was treated with great kindness, sleeping in the same room as his friend. Pat Rich cooked his favorite meals, did his laundry, and held him to the standards of behavior she set for her two sons. Rodman was absorbed into the Rich family. The elements of this part of the story are complicated. Rodman is a huge black man living with a white family in southeastern Oklahoma, sharing a room with a twelve-year-old boy. Complicated enough, but with what will become a persistent theme, Rodman travels into the next chapter without attachment to or memory of his time with the Riches. He expresses gratitude to the Riches in his ghost-written autobiography, Bad As I Want To Be, but has had no contact with or concern for them in the decades that followed.

Rodman still had a conspicuous shift in personality ahead, but an immediate point of comparison at this point is with Wilt Chamberlain, an equally gigantic African American who spent several summers as a bellboy at Kutsher’s Country Club, a Jewish resort in the Catskills. An earlier 30 for 30, “Wilt Chamberlain: Borscht Belt Bellhop” includes remarkable footage of high school junior Chamberlain toting suitcases in his bellhops uniform. His presence in the Catskills is enough to fuel a documentarian’s imagination but the more compelling part of the story has to do with the friendship formed between Chamberlain and Milton and Helen Kutsher

“We thought of Wilt as an extended member of our family,” Helen Kutsher tells Cherry in the book. “I used to kid him, ‘You’re like my fourth child. He always stayed in touch, and we’d talk during the year. He never really left us.”

Chamberlain and the Kutshers sustained this unlikely friendship throughout their lives. Rodman walked away from the Rushes and never looked back.

The athlete who left Southeastern Oklahoma is described as an innocent. In Detroit he enjoys arcade games, frolics with his new teammates, appears stunningly immature; he bonds with Chuck Daley, Piston coach and surrogate father, and weeps with embarrassment when praised as Defensive Player of the Year.

Childlike. An untutored rebounding savant.

In later years, as drugs, alcohol, non-stop hedonistic excesses take their toll, Rodman seems frantic, exhausted, `and oddly vulnerable. He’s credited with bringing flamboyance to the NBA, and his costumes, piercings, tattoos, and hair styles were certainly outside the conventions of professional basketball in his era, but, the trappings are merely trappings. Rodman isn’t there; he’s in disguise. He takes space and makes noise, but he remains determinedly absent from his own life.

There are a few moments of tentative authenticity when the contemporary Rodman is interviewed, some tears, expression of some regrets, particularly in recognizing his absence from his children’s lives, in which the sixty-eight year old alcoholic and addict appears to approach something like a sense of self, but those moments are fleeting. It’s not that Rodman is hiding; in the end we understand that there is no Dennis Rodman behind the curtain.