My Tale of Gridiron Glory – Or – Days on the ‘Suicide Squad’

With the Super Bowl upon us, I’ve decided to share my one tale of gridiron glory – or more accurately – my one personal football story worth telling.

I played organized football for three years – eighth, ninth and tenth grade. That final year I was on my high school’s JV team. I was not a particularly good football player, the smallest guy on the team, with hands of stone (couldn’t catch.) I had done weight training all summer and drank protein shakes twice a day and managed to lose five pounds. I was second string cornerback, third string tailback, fodder during the week’s practices as we scrubs simulated next week’s opponent and got pounded into the turf by our first-string teammates.

But I was the fastest guy on the team. No question, I was fast. So I became the “gunner” on the kickoff team, what used to be referred to as the “suicide squad.” My job was to be the first guy down the field, get there as fast as I possibly could and get to the ball carrier before the blocking had a chance to form. What I really was doing was getting knocked down by the first wave of blockers so that the rest of our team could get there and tackle the runner, but Coach Pack was too polite to actually say that.

The last game of the season, we were just killing the other team. We scored a lot. And that meant we kicked off a lot. And the other team’s biggest, toughest, meanest player was on their kickoff return squad and his job was to KILL the first guy down the field. That was me. I would run down the field full tilt, get obliterated by this guy (No. 64, I can still see it.) Then I’d pick myself up and jog off the field and coach would scream, “BAUR!!! You’ve gotta get down there faster!!” Like he hadn’t seen me get pulverized, as far as he was concerned I just wasn’t running fast enough.

We scored one more time, and the other team was pretty sore about it. This was like our seventh touchdown. We weren’t trying to run up the score, their defense just wasn’t very good. So we scored, and then we kicked off. From the corner of my eye as I raced down the field, I could see 64 setting up. But my sights and my attention were on the guy catching the ball about 10 yards beyond him. This time I was going to get him and make the tackle, I told myself. As it turned out, I was wrong.

It happened at about the 20, maybe 15 yards from the other team’s sideline. No. 64 got me with everything, and he got me square. I mean, he just unloaded. I don’t know exactly what happened but it must have been pretty spectacular, because the last thing I remember was everyone on his side of the field screaming, “GREAT HIT!!!!” I heard it clear as a bell, and then nothing. I assume I was airborne for a while but I really don’t know.

The next thing I remember, I was somehow on my feet, jogging off the field towards our bench, my head spinning and my ears ringing, and coach was screaming at me, “BAUR!!! YOU’VE GOTTA GET DOWN THERE FASTER!!!!”

Thank god that closed out the scoring.

It also was my last football game, but not because I suddenly realized the idiocy of my love for the sport. I’d have played on. But the school closed (FYI, the building is now a senior citzens residential facility) and by the time I got settled into my new school, classes were in session, the team had been practicing for a month and it was too late to try out.

Probably just as well. I might have gotten myself killed. But at least I got a story out of it.

Has Anybody Here Seen my Brain?

Very strange ear worm earlier this week. I couldn’t imagine why, but when I woke up I had a few lines from the 1908 British music hall song “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?” running through my head, nonstop.

I am certain I have never heard this song in my life, not all the way through, yet there were the same three lines running over and over. (Ear worms are almost never a song you know well, or like, at least in my experience.)

Now, my dad loved to sing, and as he moved through his day he often was singing some obscure old tune, but I’m sure I never heard him sing this one. So how did it get in my head?

catch-me-if-you-can-martin-sheen-family-leonardo-dicaprioIt took several hours before I finally was able to track down the source. The movie “Catch Me If You Can,” which I’ve seen twice, the last time at least two years ago. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is visiting the home of his fiancee’s parents, and there is a scene, maybe all of 15 or 20 seconds, where DiCaprio, Amy Adams, Martin Sheen and Nancy Lenehen are sitting on the sofa, a picture of 1960s middle American domesticity. They were watching “Sing Along with Mitch,” and sure enough, memory tells me they were following the bouncing ball and singing “Has anybody here seen Kelly? K – E – double L –Y? Has anybody here seen Kelly, have you seen him smile? Sure his hair is red, his eyes are blue, and He’s Irish thru and thru. Has anybody here seen Kelly? Kelly from the Emerald Isle.”

(Kids, “Sing Along with Mitch” was a real thing. You can probably find hours of it on youtube, Check it out. It will amaze you the kind of inane crap your grandparents used to find entertaining. And just for the record, no, my family did not watch the show, so that’s not the source of my ear worm.)

Except those lyrics are actually wrong. (I researched it, it was on my mind.) Like so many songs, it was turned into an Irish tune but was not so originally. “Danny Boy,” for another one, was written by a British barrister, not an Irishman. “Kelly” was originally a fellow from the Isle of Man. And after the spelling of the name, the lyrics were, “Has anybody here seen Kelly? Find him if you can! He’s as bad as old Antonio, Left me on my own-ee-o. Has anybody here seen Kelly? Kelly from the Isle of Man!”

In the song, the woman singing is looking for the boyfriend she has lost during a trip to London. She goes into various pubs asking if anyone has seen Kelly. The joke – if that’s the right word – is that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Kelly was the commonest surname on the Isle of Man. Whew! That is one knee-slapper of a joke! (See my earlier remark about the inane crap people used to be entertained by.)

And I don’t really know who Antonio is, unless it’s a reference to the character from “The Merchant of Venice,” but why that would be apropos is beyond me. I really don’t care how he got in my brain. I just want him gone.

Anyway, figuring out where the song came from helped me get rid of that day’s earworm. But it still leaves me – puzzled? Troubled? How in the world did my brain grab that snippet of a tune from the black hole of my memory and decide to put it on the top priority loop of my conscious thought, blocking out or at least interfering with anything else I tried to think of that day?

The brain is a fascinating, amazing and sometimes downright scary thing.

The Power of Forgiveness – With Epilogue

Wow. That was kind of amazing. Shocking but amazing. There’s a lesson here somewhere.

Someone posted something on Facebook, there were some comments. I responded with what I thought was a witticism, maybe seven or eight words. And the next thing I know I was being attacked bitterly and personally by someone I knew 20, 25 years ago for something he thought I had said or done. “You know what you did,” etc. Except no, I had no idea. Didn’t know what he was talking about, didn’t even know he had been mad at me. I was completely blindsided.

I was shocked. This was a person who had been in our theater community and had been nursing this grudge for more than two decades – and I had no idea what it was, not the slightest recollection. Yeah, I knew the guy, but the incident that had been so important to him, so personal, if it actually happened at all, was completely unrecallable. Not only had I not thought about whatever it was, I had no IDEA what it was. In fact, I hadn’t thought about him at all in years.

Yet he had been holding onto this perceived slight all this time.

I took a step back. First, I’m going to admit that, though I have always tried to be an honorable person, a nice guy, I know that in my life and times I’ve said and done things I’m not proud of. Occasionally I’ll recall a stupid comment or a mean joke I’ve made and cringe. But I had absolutely no idea what this was about, or if it even happened at all. Actually, I still don’t.

But it was obviously important to him.

So I apologized. I didn’t think it would really do any good, but I told him that I wished whatever this was about had been brought up at the time so we could have resolved it. I didn’t know anything about it now, but if I had said or done anything that had bothered him that much for that long, I was sorry. I put him in the position where he could forgive me, even though I made it clear I had no idea what it was I was asking forgiveness for.

And – whoa! It worked. His reply was courteous, he accepted my apology, recalled the good times we had when we were both part of that community, and moved on.

I don’t have a new best bud. For one thing, the original post was about politics and we’re on VERY different sides. But at least maybe he can let go of whatever had bothered him all that time, and I’ve leaned something about the power of forgiveness. For the life of me I have no idea what if anything I was forgiven for, but that’s not the point.

An Interesting Epilogue

As I said, the whole thing was rather shocking to me, so I sent out some emails over the weekend to old friends from the theater. Did anyone know why this person (name withheld) thought I had “smeared” him all those years ago. Most replies were, “Good to hear from you, when are you coming back? No, I have no idea what that could be about.”

And then last night I got the answer. A person wrote back and said, “YOU didn’t ‘smear’ him. I DID, if by ‘smear’ you mean reporting him to the board and getting his keys to the theater taken away.” Apparently there had been an issue, this person reported it to the board (not the play reading committee,) and after consideration the board decided there was enough reason to act on it. The email concluded, “You’re a better person than I am. I wouldn’t have apologized. I’d have told him to fuck off.”

I agreed not to share that person’s identity, and as far as I’m concerned that ends it. I feel better about myself – and a little relieved that I’m not suffering some kind of massive memory failure. I’m not going to bother recontacting the person in question because this is over. There’s nothing to be gained by revisiting that particular part of the past.

I was and am struck by how letting the guy forgive me for something it turned out I didn’t do seemed to take all the bitterness out of the guy, at least for that moment and that  issue. I’m good with that.

Another Classy Morning

Just spent another invigorating morning with Tori’s sixth-grade ELA students. I honestly think I get more out of it than they do.

I started by telling them what author James Scott Bell had to say about story. Sometimes writers fall in love with their characters. They don’t want them to have any dark spots, any flaws. They don’t want anything bad to happen to them. And that’s boring. As somebody or other said, “No one is going to go to a movie about ‘Another perfect day in the village of happy people.'” Story, Bell tells us, is taking some characters and getting them stuck in a tree with hungry wolves circling below them Then you throw rocks at the characters. Then you set the tree on fire. Then you let them figure out how to get out of the tree.

In our story, the one I am reading to them a couple of chapters at a time, we just got the characters up the tree, I told the kids. Now we’re starting to throw rocks at them, and pretty soon the tree will be on fire.

As I read the next two chapters, I could see them react when something I’d set up earlier suddenly “paid off,” To me that meant they were getting it, not just the narrative of the story, but the technique.

But the real fun part came after I was done reading the two chapters. Tori had them get out paper and write for 10 minutes. They were supposed to write dialogue with the characters from the story. What might happen next? What are they going to do?

It wasn’t about them guessing what I have in mind, wasn’t about them “getingt it right.” I kept telling them, “This isn’t a test. It’s the first draft, it doesn’t have to be great or even good. It just has to be done.” It was just about them writing for 10 minutes and exploring what THEY would do, and usinng the conventions. They struggled a bit at first, but suddenly you could almost read by the light of all the bulbs going off over their heads. At the 10-minute mark, many of them were eager to read what they’d done, and others we coaxed. It wasn’t bad at all. And I played on my bad hearing. Made them read out, they got stronger as they went along.

And a couple of them DID get what I plan to happen next. Not the way it’s going to happen, of course, but the general idea.

Towards the end one girl asked me the classic – “Where do you get ideas and how do you put them together for a story?” (Apprently she’s hooked on the writing thing!) I went to the back shelf and pulled a couple of books from the class library.

“Where did Judy Blume get the idea for this one? Where did Dav Pilkey get the idea for “Captain Underpants?” Just an idea, a thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if … ? That’s really all it takes to start. J.K. Rowling wondered, ‘What if a boy who thought he was normal went to wizard school?’ Just ideas. ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if?’ ‘You know what really scares me?’ ‘What if a middle school student ran for president?’ What interests you? Your ideas are just as good as theirs. Even as good as J.K. Rowling’s. That’s where ideas come from. You just have to learn how to take that ‘what if,’ and then the next one and the next one until you have a story.”

I guess this is all good for them, good for them to see the process, to get excited and to practice writing and to learn the conventions of how to write dialogue. But in all honesty, I think I get much more out of it than they do. Their excitement is contagious and I’ll be coasting on it for another week. And there were one or two little things they wrote that I very well might steal. (I mean, be “inspired” by, of course.)

So back to work, got two chapters to write before next Thursday.

Dorothy, Heywood, the Babe and My Brain

I recently learned that Dorothy Parker did not say, “This is not a book for lightly tossing aside. It should be thrown with great force.” Turns out it was coined by one-time L.A. Times sports editor Sid Ziff. All this time I was certain it was Parker.

I know, what possible difference does it make? None, really. It’s still a great quote. But now I have to figure out what IS my favorite Dorothy Parker quote. No small task.

And this is how my brain works. I had started because I wanted to confirm the exact wording of the quote. I hate it when someone quotes something and I know they’ve got the words wrong, even if just slightly. It’s jarring, and I didn’t want to do the same thing. So I looked it up in several places and discovered to my chagrin that she didn’t say it, Ziff did. This led me to a precis of Sid Ziff’s life – interesting guy, he became sports editor of the L.A. Express at the age of 19 – then to Dorothy Parker and finally to a website – one of many – dedicated to the celebrated wits of the Algonquin Round Table.

From there I was drawn to a review of a play about Dorothy Parker being staged in Los Angeles (too late, it closed last week) and thence to a collection of some of the less-known members of the Round Table.

That’s where I found this short essay by Heywood Broun. It has several laugh-out-loud moments and it’s amusing all the way through. Reminds me of of the tone of Wolcott Gibbs, James Thurber. E.B. White and others of that era.

Broun is comparing Ruth and Roth – that is, Babe Ruth and Filibert Roth, a professor of forestry at the University of Michigan. Don’t ask, just read the story here. It contains this great line:

“Just what difference does it make if Mr. Roth errs in his timber physics? It merely means that a certain number of students leave Michigan knowing a little less than they should – and nobody expects anything else from students.”

I loved the essay. Also, in my poking around, I was relieved to discover that Dorothy Parker’s most famous line is both genuine and well documented. During a word game, she was challenged to use the word “horticulture” in a sentence and came up with this: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”

A gem.

The Moment I Tossed the Book

I can tell you the exact moment I stopped reading The Bourne Sanction by Eric Van Lustbader. It was when I read this passage.

“It’s amazing,” Moira said.
Bourne looked up from the file he’d snatched from Veronica Hart. “What’s amazing?”
“You sitting here with me in this opulent corporate jet.” … (description of what she’s wearing … “Weren’t you supposed to be on your way to Moscow tonight?

I closed the book. I checked to make sure the power bill I’d been using as a bookmark was removed. Then I walked the book across the room and put it in the garbage can.

Where it belonged. Because DAMN.

Robert Ludlum’s been dead for 17 and his memory deserves better than this. I’ve read the first two of his Bourne books and enjoyed them. They were pretty good. Having been written in the 1960s, they’re nothing like the movies. Nothing. Really no similarity at all. But they were competently written and pretty good page turners. I enjoyed the movies even more.

Ludlum wrote three Bourne novels and a bunch of others stuff, and died in 2001. His literary estate has hired this guy to write more Bourne novels (Sanction was written in 2008.) He’s written 11 of them, because there’s money to be made and who cares about the reputation of a dead author. The books sell and might get made into movies. More money for everyone.

Eric van Lustbader is a hack. I know he’s written more than 40 books, he’s terribly successful and I’m a schlub with one title to my name and plans for more. But this was crap, and it was crap enough to ensure I won’t bother reading another of his yarns. The story was cliched and the writing is just horrid. Terrible. That quote above is the worst I came across in the first 225 pages, but it’s not atypical. It’s standard low-context dialogue that’s supposed to convey setting or back story without going to the trouble of writing it well. Instead, he has people say things no one would ever say to advance the story. I would be embarrassed to have written the “dialogue” above. If the jet is opulent, SHOW the opulence. Don’t have one of your characters actually call it an “opulent corporate jet.” That’s a sentence no one ever said. Ever.

In fact, now that I think of it, I’ve read the word opulent hundreds of times over my life but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone SAY it. It’s impossible to believe a character who says something like that.

I can’t tell if it’s the author’s laziness, or if he really thinks that’s good writing. But it’s not. Oh, gods, it’s not.

Meanwhile, I’m chugging along finishing my new book which I hope to have done by mid-October. Then we’ll see if I’m any better.

Preaching the Power of Real Music

Litle Steven and the Disciples of Soul

When the show starts with a blistering version of “Sweet Soul Music” and just keeps getting better, that’s a good show. And that was only part of it.

We were at the House of Blues on Wednesday for Little Steven van Zandt and the Disciples of Soul, and the “teacher appreciation tour.” And Tori is a teacher. So she had the chance to sign up for the event as “professional development.” Usually that means a day listening to a speaker talk about diversity in the classroom, or new reading theories, or discipline or common core. All important topics, I’m sure. But none of them can hold a candle (or a Bic lighter) to Wednesday’s program, which included a two-hour concert. And because she’s a teacher, it was free and she could invite a “plus one.” That was me. (Our son Max, a music major at UNO, was the plus one of one of Tori’s colleagues. Thank you, Ruth.)

SvZ talks to teachersIt was a program by a group called Teach Rock. Check them out at teachrock.org. They’ve got a ton of resources – music and video – and lesson plans and hints for how to use them in the classroom. Not just so kids learn about the history of rock ‘n’ roll – not that that isn’t important. Do you realize there are kids today who have no idea who Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly were, or even Elvis!!?!

But this goes WAY beyond that. There’s material on how to use rock and pop music to teach English, social studies, even math and science.

And Steven van Zandt is a big supporter of the program. The event started with a three-song set by van Zandt and his band – 15 musicians total. It was – Wow! Then he talked to the hundred or so teachers gathered on folding chairs on the floor of the House of Blues, calling them “the most underappreciated and underpaid” workers in America – true that – and also apologizing for the hell he gave his teachers in high school. Then they took a “class photo” – van Zandt is front and center, of course, you can see Tori and Max in the back row, left of center, making peace signs.

Teach Rock class picture

The program itself took about an hour, and I don’t think anyone would have minded if it had gone twice as long. This group – Teachrock.org – has put a lot of thought in how to use popular music to engage kids who might otherwise not give a damn about school. Tori got a ton of inspiration and ideas that she can’t wait to bring to her classroom next school year.

Then they cleared the chair from the floor and opened the doors – people had been lining up outside for three hours. Yeah, some people had to pay to see the show, Imagine that!

And then – well, like I said, they opened with a blistering “Sweet Soul Music” – that hot horn opening, Do ya like good music (Yeah yeah) That sweet soul music (Yeah yeah) – and when the song was done I turned to Tori and said, “If we had to leave right now, I’d be okay with that.” It was that good.

SvZAnd it kept getting better. Van Zandt wasn’t just performing – he was preaching, singing the gospel of “real, live music.” Not computerized, no autotune or drum machines. Two percussionists pounding the skins and the horn section blowing their souls through hunks of hot metal. That kind of real music.

It was a great show. “Down and Out in New York City,” “Soulfire,” “Forever,” “Princess of Little Italy,” some Temptations and lots more – two hours of great, hot, real music.

And Tori got credit for professional development. And a lot of great ideas for using in her classroom next year. And a T-shirt!

If you’re a teacher or student, check out teachrock.org. You can register and have access to a ton of resource and ideas and maybe learn a thing or two that will liven your classroom next year and engage your students in a way they haven’t been before.

Tori and SvZ