Thursday, September 30, 2010

Daylight (August, 1992 - Part III)

Hurricane Andrew tore through South Florida as a Category 5 storm during the early hours of Monday, August 24, 1992. Wind speeds exceeded 160 miles per hour.

I sat in two inches of water, in the darkness of our home closet, my back against the door, waiting for the winds to subside. To my left, my friend Joe, who had evacuated from Miami Beach, held my sleeping 20-month old son. His twin sister remained awake, to my right, resting her head on my wife’s shoulder.

The voice of the announcer on our battery-operated radio provided updates. The storm, which had been expected to make landfall around the Dade-Broward line, veered south at the last minute. The announcer stated that it had come ashore around South Miami, just north of us. This placed us smack in the eye of the storm.

The deafening noise of wind, rain and destruction continued through the night. Fear and tension kept us awake, hearing glass break and wood splinter, the sound of our car alarms barely discernable outside.

At around 7:00 A.M. the noise appeared to diminish slightly. For the first time in several hours, it was no longer overpowering. The winds seemed to be dying down.

I slowly opened the closet door and ventured into the hall. Like the closet, it was covered by two inches of water. When my daughter saw me step outside, she began crying and struggling to free herself from my wife’s grasp. Patricia held her tighter and whispered in her ear, trying to calm her down.

I could still hear the sound of the wind outside, but it was clearly not as strong. I waded through the water that blanketed my entire house toward the family room overlooking the pool. When I got there I saw that our two sliding glass doors had been smashed in. The masking tape that I had used to try to keep the glass from splintering had posed no obstacle to the wind. There was glass everywhere. Water dripped down the walls. I noticed leaves, apparently blown in from outside, on our walls, even on our ceilings.

I looked through the broken glass of our doors, and saw that the aluminum screen structure that normally covered our pool area was gone. Some of it lay inside the pool. The wooden fence around our lot’s perimeter was also gone. I could not tell where that went. The only thing that stood in our patio area was the pool fence pole that I had been unable to dislodge from the ground the previous night. Somehow, it had survived unscathed, while everything around it was blown to pieces.

The palm trees in our yard had been toppled over. Some of our neighbor’s trees still stood, but they seemed on the verge of snapping in half, pushed nearly horizontally by what were still strong, if weakening, winds.

At one point, the winds suddenly appeared to increase in intensity, and I hurried back to the closet. I told Patricia: “It’s bad.” I closed the closet door and returned to the darkness, which seemed less intense now that there was light outside.

The radio announcer warned that the lag we were experiencing was simply the eye of the storm. He told everyone to remain indoors. Our respite from the wind was only temporary, he said. The tail end of the eye, the “dirty” side of the storm, was still to come. Conditions would worsen any minute.

We sat in the closet for the next two hours, waiting for winds to again intensify. By 9:00 A.M., however, it was evident that the radio announcer was wrong. The worst was over. Later, we would learn that the National Hurricane Center, which was then situated in Coral Gables, had been hit by the storm. After it went down, it was impossible to track Andrew’s path with any degree of certainty. The storm had actually come ashore further south than had been indicated, around Homestead. This meant that our home was not in the middle of the eye, but rather on the north side of the eye wall. There would be no “dirty” side.

We emerged from the closet cautiously, ready to return at the first sound of heavy winds. We walked carefully through the house, assessing the damage. Every window on the front (east) and north side of the house was broken. The air turbines on our roof had been blown off – that was how the wind and rain had first entered our home. The shingles on our roof had also been blown away, many of them visible throughout our yard. Several of the wood boards that made up our roof had been dislodged, exposing our home to direct daylight. Our family and wedding pictures, which we had placed on the floor the night before to protect them from the wind, sat in the two inches of water that covered the floor of our entire house. Many of the pictures would not be salvaged.

I walked towards the front of the house. The previous night, I had wedged a heavy bookcase between the front doors and the foyer wall directly behind it, believing that this would help keep the doors shut. The front doors stood completely open, the heavy bookcase lay on our front lawn. The windows on both of our cars, which sat in the driveway, were nearly all smashed. That was the reason why we heard the car alarms throughout the night. As each new window broke, the alarms cried out, as if the cars themselves were screaming in terror.

I wandered outside, where I saw several of my neighbors walking as if in a dream. We asked each other if everyone was okay, but that was all we said. We simply walked mechanically, taking in the damage. Most of the trees in the area were down, and those that stood had been stripped entirely of leaves, appearing naked in the desolation. I looked across the street and noticed that the second floor roof of one of my neighbor’s homes, a roof he had built a few short months before, had completely caved in, succumbing to the heavy wind and rain. I was told that my neighbor and his family had not been hurt. All street signs, all fences, most of what would make our neighborhood recognizable, were gone. We appeared to be in a war zone.

We had no power and our phones were down. Later that morning, I walked a half-mile to US-1, trying to locate a working phone to call our families and let them know we were well. I found that every inch of our neighborhood was as bad or worse than our home. I found no working phones.

I returned home and spent most of the day trying to sweep water from our house. I was in a state of shock, working sluggishly and seeming not to make a dent in the damage. Joe worked alongside me. It gave us something to do and kept our minds somewhat clear of what we had experienced.

Later that day, my friend Jim, who lived north of us, in an area that had not been affected by the storm, drove down to see how we were doing. Jim indicated that many roads in our area were blocked by fallen trees and debris, and he had to drive around to find a clear path. Although he had been to our home many times, he struggled to find it, since all street signs were gone and intersections had been altered beyond recognition by the winds.

Jim helped organize our cleanup efforts, something that, in our zombie-like state, none of us could to do. He led an expedition to our backyard and directed the cleanup of debris, principally the shingles that had been blown from our roof. He would return the next day to complete the process, an experience that led Joe to comment: “I don’t ever want to see another shingle again.” Later, Jim went home, armed with our families’ telephone numbers. He promised to call them and let them know we were okay.

That evening, we ate pasta salad that Patricia had prepared the day before, but none of us was very hungry. Although we had no power, the weather proved surprisingly mild, and we did not suffer from the lack of air conditioning.

When the sun went down, so did we, finally succumbing to the exhaustion caused by the previous sleepless night and the stress brought on by fear. As I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, I tried not think about the past twenty-four hours, and wondered what the next daylight would bring.

Monday, September 27, 2010

When the Germans Bombed Pearl Harbor

Just do it.

For over twenty years, Nike’s slogan has been a call to action, invading our senses through every form of media in an attempt to inspire, motivate and, of course, sell shoes.

Our greatest motivational speeches, however, seldom reach our ears. They occur behind the closed doors of locker rooms, as coaches at every level try to spur their teams to victory through words and deeds. Occasionally, news of outrageous motivational schemes leak out, such as a college football coach’s misguided attempt to inspire by castrating a bull before the eyes of his horrified players.

Pat Riley, five-time NBA championship coach with the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat, has a well-deserved reputation for his ability to motivate. He created a second career for himself between coaching stints by traveling throughout the country making motivational speeches to large groups for big money. He also wrote a successful book on the subject, The Winner Within: A Life Plan For Team Players. Today, removed from the sidelines as president of the Heat, Riley is still occasionally called upon to rouse his players with stirring words and actions (he once sank his head in a bucket of ice water at the end of a speech). It has been said that his motivational skills were partly responsible for the Heat’s successful recruiting of LeBron James and Chris Bosh, the top free agents on the market this past off-season.

The most memorable sports films usually contain at least one instance of a coach or player inspiring a team to victory. Perhaps the most famous screen sports speech was “Win One for the Gipper,” dramatically recreated in the 1940 Ronald Reagan vehicle, Knute Rockne All American, directed by Lloyd Bacon.

One of the best motivational screen speeches occurred in a non-sports comedy, director John Landis’ 1978 classic, National Lampoon’s Animal House. Near the end of the film, after Faber College’s Dean Wormer (John Vernon) notifies members of the Delta fraternity that, after being placed on “double secret probation,” they will be expelled from the school, D-Day (Bruce McGill), Otter (Tim Matheson) and Boon (Peter Reigert), sit around their frat house, lamenting their fate. Enter Bluto (John Belushi) and the following classic scene:

D-DAY: War’s over, man. Wormer dropped the big one.

BLUTO (his voice rising before the group): Over? Did you say “over”? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!

OTTER (aside to Boon): Germans?

BOON: Forget it, he’s rolling.

BLUTO: And it ain’t over now. ‘Cause when the going gets tough…

(thinks hard)

BLUTO: The tough get going! Who’s with me? Let’s go!

(runs out, alone; then returns)

BLUTO: What the **** happened to the Delta I used to know? Where’s the spirit? Where’s the guts, huh? This could be the greatest night of our lives, but you’re gonna let it be the worst. “Ooh, we’re afraid to go with you, Bluto, we might get in trouble.” Well just kiss my *** from now on! Not me! I’m not gonna take this. Wormer, he’s a dead man! Marmalard, dead! Niedermeyer…

OTTER (rising): Dead! Bluto’s right. Psychotic, but absolutely right. We gotta take these ********. Now, we could do it with conventional weapons. But that could take years and cost millions of lives. No, I think we have to go all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part.

BLUTO: We’re just the guys to do it.

D-DAY: Let’s do it.

BLUTO (shouting): Let’s do it!

What follows is the film’s classic final madcap scene of urban mayhem, where the Delta students turn a parade into total chaos before asking Dean Wormer whether he would see fit to give them just one more chance.

It has been suggested that, in attempting to motivate athletes, coaches often lose sight of the big picture. Sports are, after all, games where the act of competing should be placed above winning. This issue will continue to generate debate, as sports-crazed fans demand victory from their favorite teams.

One other scene from Animal House touches on this last issue. In that scene, Boon and Otter watch from atop a hill, golf clubs in hand, while Niedermeyer (Mark Metcalf), a bully whom the film’s closing credits tell us will later be killed by his own troops in Viet Nam, berates a group of Faber freshmen, including several Delta pledges, from atop his horse. While they watch, Boon drives golf balls in the direction of Niedermeyer, but becomes frustrated by his inaccuracy. Otter then steps up and executes perfect drives that strike Niedermeyer, knocking him off the horse and spooking the animal.

As Nidermeyer is dragged away screaming by the panicked horse, Boon and Otter have the following exchange:

BOON: I gotta work on my game.

OTTER: No, no, no, don’t think of it as work. The whole point is just to enjoy yourself.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Impact (August, 1992 - Part II)

The winds picked up at around 3:00 A.M. It was Monday, August 24, 1992, and Hurricane Andrew had made landfall in South Florida.

I was awakened by the sound of wind rustling through the trees outside my home. The TV weatherman said something that, in my half-slumber, I could not understand. My wife Patricia sat transfixed, following the storm coverage. My friend Joe, who had evacuated from Miami Beach, dozed on a nearby couch. Our 20-month old twins slept in their bedroom on the other side of the house.

When the winds became stronger, we turned off the set, grabbed flashlights, and walked to the hall on the bedroom side. I followed the advice of an earlier newscaster and hit the main switch, shutting off power throughout the house. We had been told that electrical drops and surges would occur throughout the night, and it would be safer to have power off altogether.

When the winds became stronger still, we picked up the kids and brought them with us into the hall. We sat on pillows, in the dark, ready to wait out what we suspected would be a long night.

What had begun as a barely discernable echo, the sound of rustling leaves, now reverberated throughout the house, increasing in intensity, letting up slightly, then increasing again. The noise from the thunder was deafening. The rain beat upon the roof and windows with such intensity that I wondered how the glass held up.

As the minutes passed and the noise outside grew louder, we looked nervously at each other, waiting for something, although none of us knew what. Then it came. At around 4:00 A.M., the wooden trap on the hall ceiling leading into the attic lifted with a popping sound. The roof had been compromised. The winds were in our home.

We gathered the kids and crowded into an interior closet I had cleaned out the previous day, again on the advice of a local weatherman. I had never imagined that we would actually use the closet. I had cleaned it out merely in an abundance of caution. But now there we were. The closet would be our sanctuary for the next several hours.

I had often heard the sound of a hurricane compared to that of a rushing locomotive, and believed that to be an exaggeration. I was wrong. The noise was relentless, filling every inch of the night, pressing into our heads until our ears felt on the edge of exploding. We kept expecting a letup that never came. As the hours passed, the noise intensified. The rain striking our roof brought images of an avalanche of stones dropping from above. The lapse between thunder strikes dissolved until it seemed as if one giant bolt of lightning engulfed the entire area, setting off explosion after explosion. The wind howled like a wounded animal in the throes of agony. We could literally not hear ourselves think.

We sat inside the closet, in near darkness, the only light coming from our flashlights. We heard the sound of glass breaking, wooden boards shifting, and car alarms outside the house. The sound of our battery-operated radio was barely discernable. There was fear in the newscaster’s voice.

At some point we felt water seep into the closet. It came from above and below, pouring down the walls from the ceiling, and steadily drifting in from outside, like a heavy fog emerging from under the closet doors. Our son had no inkling of what we were experiencing. Joe held him, while he splashed playfully about until he eventually drifted into sleep. Our daughter was a different story. She could sense something was wrong and refused to set foot on the wet floor. She clung to my wife and screamed uncontrollably. We held her and dampened her face lightly to help her calm down.

I sat with my back against the closet door, subconsciously pressing against it to protect us from the ravages outside. At one point I looked at Patricia, who held our daughter close to her. The look in Patricia’s eyes mirrored my own. As atmospheric pressure took its toll on my ears and my heart palpitated against my chest, I felt fear and regret that we had not evacuated. We had made a decision to stay for lack of other alternatives, yet I now feared that the decision would be costly for all of us, especially our children. They had no say in whether we stayed on fled. They trusted us completely, and I felt we had betrayed that trust.

Patricia looked at me and silently mouthed the words: “I’m really scared.” I was too. And as the hours passed, and the storm intensified, I wondered whether we would ever safely emerge from the closet.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Looking Back

One of the finest movies about college football featured four short Jewish men from Manhattan’s upper east side.

In 1932, riding a wave of Vaudeville popularity, the Marx Brothers (Groucho, Chico, Harpo and the oft forgotten Zeppo) starred in Horse Feathers, their fourth feature film. Directed by Norman Z. McLeod, whose career would span more than three decades, and who would later direct such screen classics as Topper (1937) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), the film lampooned university life, higher education and the collegiate gridiron.

Horse Feathers features the slapstick and irreverent humor found in the Marx Brothers’ first three films, including Monkey Business (1931), also directed by McLeod. That humor would define the brothers’ cinematic career and make them Hollywood immortals. The most striking aspect of the film, however, is its relevance to today’s college game.

Although the film is nearly eighty years old, it deals with issues fresh as today’s sports headlines. Groucho plays Quincy Adams Wagstaff, the new president of Huxley College, preparing for its big game against its rival, Darwin College (the names given the universities exemplify the level of sophistication often found in the brothers’ humor; Thomas Henry Huxley was a defender of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution). In an early scene, Quincy’s son Frank (Zeppo), a student at Huxley, convinces his father to recruit professional players for the game:

FRANK: Dad, this college has had a new president every year since 1888.


FRANK: And that’s the year we won our last football game. Now, I like education as much as the next fellow –

QUINCY: Well, move over and I’ll talk to the next fellow.

FRANK: But a college needs something else besides education. And what this college needs is a good football team, and you can’t have a good football team unless you have good players.

QUINCY: My boy… I think you’ve got something there, and I’ll wait outside until you clean it up. I know it’s dangerous, but I’m going to ask you one more question. Where do you get good football players?

FRANK: Well, in a speakeasy down…

QUINCY: Are you suggesting that I, the president of Huxley College go into a speakeasy without even giving me the address?

The reference to speakeasies is telling of the time. This was, after all, the era of prohibition. Armed with the establishment’s address, Quincy heads to the speakeasy, resulting in the famous “Swordfish” password scene, and the following exchange between Quincy and Baravelli (Chico), an “iceman” who delivers ice and bootleg liquor and who, together with Pinky (Harpo), also an iceman and part-time dog catcher, is inadvertently recruited to play for Huxley:

BARAVELLI: Well, first we want a football.

QUINCY: Well, I don’t know if we’ve got a football, but if I can find one, would you be interested? I don’t want a hasty answer, just sleep on it.

BARAVELLI: I no think I can sleep on a football.

QUINCY: Well, let’s get down to business. I’m looking for two football players who always hang around here.

BARAVELLI: We always hang around here, but we don’t –

QUINCY: Well, that’s all I want to know. I’m Professor Wagstaff of Huxley College.

BARAVELLI: That means nothing to me.

QUINCY: Well, it doesn’t mean anything to me either.

The elevation of sport above education, the improper recruiting of players, the use of ineligible athletes at the college level – these are issues very much present in today’s college game. Indeed, some of these very issues recently led the University of Southern California to forfeit a national championship, and its marquee player, Reggie Bush, to relinquish his Heisman trophy.

Horse Feathers is justifiably listed by the American Film Institute as one of the top 100 comedies of the twentieth century. It contains numerous hilarious and memorable scenes, including the film’s climax, considered one of the best football related scenes in movie history, where the four brothers win the game by carrying the ball into the end zone in a horse-drawn garbage wagon driven like a chariot.

Yet it is sobering to realize that the subject of the film’s humor indicates how little we, as a society, have learned over the past eight decades. It makes us wonder whether our great-grandchildren will be dealing with the same issues in another eighty years, when the memories of our time will seem as distant as the world depicted in grainy black and white footage of four comedic geniuses at the height of their career.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Prelude (August, 1992 - Part I)

After seven years in South Florida I had yet to see a major storm. The area had not endured a significant hurricane in half a century. Residents became cocky and overconfident. Homes were less than protected; few had shutters, ours did not. Our community experienced feelings of invincibility, if not hubris. Like the residents of New Orleans immediately before Katrina, South Floridians were confident that no major hurricanes would ever come our way and, even if one did, we could certainly withstand it.

Then came Andrew.

The storm hit early on a Monday morning. The week before, I had been vacationing with my wife Patricia and 20-month old twins at Sanibel Island, on the west coast of Florida. I had glanced at the papers periodically, but focused mostly on the sports pages and some headlines. I recall seeing mention of a storm in the Atlantic, but did not pay close attention.

On Saturday morning, we drove back to Miami. The town appeared normal and there was little talk of hurricanes. That night Patricia and I met some friends for dinner on Miami Beach, leaving the kids with a sitter. During the evening, there was some discussion of the storm, and I decided to get up early the next morning to buy some supplies, just in case.

I woke before seven the next day and drove to our local supermarket, where I found lines extending the length of the store. The shelves were empty. People were buying everything in sight, and leaving only those items that no one wanted. The word was out: Andrew was coming.

I grabbed a few things that I would otherwise never have touched and stepped in line with everyone else. I used my super-vision to spot a six-pack of evaporated milk cans on top of a cooler in a corner of the store (the only such cans there) and grabbed them. I suspected that they would come in handy for the kids in the event that we lost power. I was ecstatic with my purchase, and to this day am amazed that I was able to spot the cans.

I returned home to find Patricia frozen in front of the TV. The screen displayed a map of the Caribbean, with a large, red circular symbol for Andrew sitting just off the coast of Florida. Some quotes from the weatherman:

“This is the big one.”

“Secure your loved ones.”

“There will be casualties.”

I heard the announcer say that the storm would hit overnight. I also heard something about clearing out an interior closet in which to hide as a last resort.

Patricia said: “They are evacuating hundreds of thousands of people.” Our home was on the very edge of the evacuation zone. However, because the principal fear was flooding, and our home sits fairly high above sea level (at least when compared with other South Florida homes) we decided to stay, principally because we really did not know where to go. Andrew was predicted to make landfall around the Dade-Broward line, well north of us, and we were concerned that, by driving north, we would be driving into the storm.

So we stayed. I cleared out an interior closet and invited my friend Joe to stay at our home for the night. Joe lived on Miami Beach, which was next to the water and being evacuated.

Patricia and I spent the afternoon moving items from the tops of dressers to the floor. Our principal fear was that strong winds would sneak into the house and knock over some of the items. We felt that everything would be safer on the floor. We also put masking tape on windows and sliding glass doors, having been told that, if these cracked, the tape would hold the glass together.

I struggled with what to do with the exterior of the house. We had a screened-in pool surrounded by a wooden fence. Around the pool we had installed a safety fence, a necessity for South Florida residents with small children. I tried to remove the pool fence but had trouble with one of the posts. No matter how hard I pulled, the post would not budge from the ground. Eventually, I gave up, wrapped the length of pool fence around the post, tied it with rope, and hoped for the best.

That night, after Joe arrived, we put the kids to bed in their room. Patricia, Joe and I then settled in front of the TV in the family room to watch updates on the storm. There was nothing else on. At around midnight, perhaps exhausted from the excitement and activity of the day, I dozed off. I remember hearing the sound of the TV even after I fell asleep. I do not remember dreaming.

Three hours later, Andrew hit.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Weakening Storm

They were built for speed to counter the bulk of others. From 1983 to 1991, the University of Miami Hurricanes were a football dynasty. During that stretch, the team won four national championships under three different coaches, revolutionizing the sport by moving away from the plodding ground game of such traditional powerhouses as Oklahoma and Nebraska to a dynamic passing attack akin to what was displayed at the professional level.

The team’s rise to prominence and dominance surprised many. Before Howard Schnellenberger was hired as coach prior to the 1979 season, there was no college football tradition in South Florida. Sports headlines in Miami were dominated by Don Shula’s NFL Dolphins, who won back-to-back Superbowls in the early 1970’s, including an unprecedented undefeated 1972 season which culminated in a 14-7 victory over the Washington Redskins in Superbowl VII. The Hurricanes, with a history of football futility, garnered nary a thought, and were consistently overshadowed by their mid-state rivals, the University of Florida Gators.

That is why the team’s 31-30 victory over the heavily favored and number one ranked Nebraska Conrhuskers in the 1984 Orange Bowl was so surprising. That victory earned the Hurricanes their first national championship and opened the door to a decade of domination by a team that would be emulated for the next quarter century.

The Hurricanes’ success caught up with them in the 1990’s. Other programs copied their blueprint and built squads that relied on speed rather than size. It may be said that the most successful college team of the past decade, the University of Southern California Trojans of the mid 2000’s, was a mirror image of the 1980’s Hurricanes, displaying quickness and depth at skill positions and relentlessly attacking through the air. With the recent revelation of improprieties by USC (some of the team’s most prominent players were apparently paid to play, in contravention of NCAA rules), additional comparisons may be made to a Hurricanes team that was universally reviled for harboring what was perceived as a thuggish atmosphere. The “outlaw” nature of the Hurricanes’ glory years is compellingly captured by the ESPN film “The U,” which recently became available on DVD. That “outlaw” atmosphere led Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly to suggest that the university should disband its football program in the midst of the team’s success.

While the Hurricanes’ discipline during their championship runs of the 1980’s may be questioned, what the team produced on the field could not. For eight years they were the most compelling and entertaining college football team in the country, routinely traveling to other schools and dominating opposing teams on their home turfs. That all changed during the 1990’s, when aggressive recruiting by others, coupled with NCAA sanctions imposed on the university, culminated in a decade of lethargic and unsuccessful play. During the latter part of the decade, the successful recruiting of coach Butch Davis (who left for the NFL after the 2000 season) and his assistants led to the resurgence of the program, and one additional championship in 2002 under first-year head coach Larry Coker. The Hurricanes followed their championship season with an undefeated 2002 regular campaign, before falling to the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl (the BCS national championship game) in overtime after a questionable late penalty favored the Buckeyes.

After their brief return to national prominence, the Hurricanes sank into a decade of mediocrity and unfulfilled promise. While each year promises to bring a resurgence of the program, the team has repeatedly fallen short in big games. The most recent example of the Hurricanes’ inability to thrive in the spotlight came this past weekend, again against Ohio State, now the number two ranked team in the country. The week leading up to the nationally televised affair was replete with South Florida news stories about the squad’s chance at redemption, a curious approach since none of the players participated in the 2003 bowl game with the questionable outcome.

Miami marched into Ohio State on a mission. By defeating the Buckeyes, the Hurricanes would signal to the world that they were back, ready to return the championship tradition to Coral Gables. What followed, however, was a display of ineptitude by the Hurricanes, who were intercepted four times on the way to a 36-24 defeat.

The team’s inability to seize the day brought to mind a prior defeat suffered during its decade of success. In 1986, the Hurricanes were clearly the best team in the country, featuring a star-studded cast of NFL-bound players, including Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde. The team headed into the 1987 Fiesta Bowl against Joe Paterno’s Penn State squad a heavy favorite, undefeated and ranked number one in the country. The players displayed their bravado by wearing fatigues on the flight to Arizona, an act that was severely criticized for reasons that, to this day, escape me.

I was in Cancun, on my honeymoon, on the day of the game. This was back in the days before satellite television came to prominence, and access to American sports in Mexico was limited. Nevertheless, the game was carried on a network feed picked up by our hotel, and I was able to witness what transpired.

The Hurricanes dominated, outgaining Penn State 445 yards to 162. They attained 22 first downs to the Nittany Lions’ 8. Yet, as with their recent game against Ohio State, turnovers proved costly. The Hurricanes turned the ball over seven times and, after Testaverde’s fifth interception settled into the arms of a Penn State defender, the Nittany Lions held the national championship trophy, winning 14-10.

The Hurricanes rebounded from that crushing defeat by going undefeated during the 1987 season and winning the 1988 Orange Bowl, and the national championship, over an overmatched Oklahoma squad. It may therefore be said that the Hurricanes’ failure in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl was just a temporary glitch on the team’s road to success. It remains to be seen whether the same may be said of this weekend’s collapse.

Friday, September 10, 2010

On Death and Comedy

It is classic Hollywood folklore. On his deathbed, afflicted with pneumonia after suffering a stroke, the actor Edmund Gwenn overheard a friend comment that it was hard to die. His reputed response: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

The accuracy of Gwenn’s alleged final words is often disputed. Similar phrases have been attributed to Edmund Kean, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Still, the fact that the statement has been repeated over centuries and across oceans indicates that there is truth behind the sentiment.

Comedy is indeed difficult, perhaps because there is such a fine line between humor and pathos. Our best comics are not jokesters, but storytellers who inject laughter into autobiographical tales of struggle and pain, leaving the audience with the uneasy sense that they are laughing when they should not, like the child afflicted with uncontrollable giggles at church.

Richard Pryor was perhaps the best example of someone who drew humor from hardship. His standup routine delved into his formative years, growing up in his grandmother’s brothel, where his mother worked as a prostitute. He spoke openly of his drug abuse and health issues, including a heart attack suffered in his thirties (likely the result of cocaine use), a freebasing incident that led to burns on more than half his body, and the multiple sclerosis that would eventually kill him at the age of sixty five. He has been described by many as the finest comic of the twentieth century.

Robert Schimmel, who died Friday at the age of sixty of injuries suffered last month in a car crash, was not as universally recognized or praised as Pryor. Yet similarities can be drawn between the two. Like Pryor, Schimmel focused his stories on painful life events, like the death of his three-year-old son and his battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. I became aware of Schimmel when I heard part of his routine dealing with the diagnosis and treatment of his disease. He was unabashed and self-deprecating in recanting what was clearly a painful experience, inserting crude and often perverse humor to accentuate points or relieve tension.

Like Pryor, Schimmel was profane, appearing frequently on The Howard Stern Show, but receiving infrequent invitations from programs on network television. Also like Pryor, Schimmel battled personal demons. He was arrested in 2009 after an alleged confrontation with his second wife, who filed for divorce soon after.

Schimmel’s act has been described as raunchy and sexually explicit, and indeed it was. His stories were not for the faint of heart or the easily offended. Yet, above all else, Schimmel’s stories were exceedingly honest, which is largely what made him one of the top American comics of the past twenty years.

Monday, September 6, 2010

More Odd Callings

The Diagram Prize is awarded annually by The Bookseller, a British trade magazine, to the book with the oddest title. In 2009, six titles were nominated, and the following did not win:

What Kind of Bean Is This Chihuahua?, Tara Jansen-Meyer and Swapan Depnath.

Collectible Spoons Of The 3rd Reich, James A. Yannes.

Afterthoughts Of A Worm Hunter, D. W. T. Crompton.

Governing Lethal Behavior In Autonomous Robots, Ronald C. Arkin.

The Changing World Of Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Ellen Scherl MD and Marla Dubinsky MD.

Below is a list and brief description of some of the award’s most recent winners, including the victorious 2009 title (the reigning champion):

1998 Developments In Dairy Cow Breeding: New Opportunities To Widen The Use Of Straw, Gareth Williams. Description: For the man who has everything.

1999 Weeds In A Changing World: British Crop Protection Council Symposium Proceedings No. 64, Charles H. Stirton. Description: Winner was selected after another title, Male Genetalia Of Butterflies Of The Balkan Peninsula, With A Checklist, was rejected as deliberately odd.

2001 Butterworths Corporate Manslaughter Service, Gerard Forlin. Description: Corporate liability for manslaughter.

2002 Living With Crazy Buttocks, Kaz Cooke. Description: Essays on contemporary culture.

2003 The Big Book Of Lesbian Horse Stories, Alisa Surkis and Monica Nolan. Description: I am not sure where to go with this one.

2004 Bombproof Your Horse, Rick Pelicano and Lauren Tjaden. Description: Guide to instilling confidence in horses.

2005 People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves To Unsuspecting Bystanders And What To Do About It, Gary Leon Hill. Description: Non-fiction sequel to The Sixth Sense.

2006 The Stray Shopping Carts Of Eastern North America: A Guide To Field Identification, Julian Montague. Description: An alternative to bird watching.

2008 The 2009-2014 World Outlook For 60-Milligram Containers Of Fromage Frais, Philip M. Baker. Description: A must for every kitchen.

2009 Crocheting Adventures With Hyperbolic Planes, Daina Taimina. Description: Math and crocheting – the perfect combination.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Night Moves

He would never pose nude for the cover of Rolling Stone.

I recently read Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), and found its titular character far removed from the romantic figure that today’s vampire has become. Stoker’s creation is a true monster: vicious, bloody and permeated with the stench of decay. Unlike vampires in the popular HBO series True Blood, who can be seen this month on magazine covers wearing nothing but sharp smiles, there is nothing attractive about Stoker’s walking dead. Stoker’s portrayal is consistent with the image of vampires at the time. They were mythical creatures to be feared, not revered.

The image of vampires in popular culture began to change in 1931, when the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi was cast to play Dracula in director Tod Browning’s adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Clad in a dark suit and oozing charm through heavily accented English, Lugosi added an element of romance to the image of the Count. Later portrayals of Dracula by such actors as Christopher Lee (in several films throughout the 1960’s) and Frank Langella (in director John Badham’s Dracula, 1979) further heightened the sense of eroticism that became associated with the character. Only much later, in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film of the same title starring Gary Oldman, was an attempt made to revisit the image of the vampire in Stoker’s work. That attempt was apparently short-lived, as the vampires of such films as the popular Twilight series today offer more charm than harm.

While many books have been written in recent years about vampires, who consistently dominate best sellers lists, two novels in particular stand out for their portrayal of Dracula as the ruthless and timeless king of the undead.

Dan Simmons’ Children of the Night (1992) offers a different take on vampirism, portraying it as a genetic condition that could hold the cure for AIDS and cancer in present-day Romania. Vlad Dracula, however, who lingers in the background and has survived for centuries by feeding on the misery of others, is more interested in perpetuating his power than eradicating diseases. What follows is an engaging tale by a very talented author whose work consistently transcends genres.

More recently, Elizabeth Kostova’s best-selling debut novel, The Historian (2005), retells the legend of Vlad the Impaler by turning to his roots as Vlad III Drakyula, Prince of Wallachia, and his resistance against the expansion of the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century. It was during that period that Vlad committed the atrocities that earned him his nickname and led to speculation of his thirst for blood and indestructability. Kostova seizes upon the myth surrounding the mysterious Drakyula and creates a suspenseful, literary novel that is at times plodding, but is overall intriguing and illuminating.

The final episode of the third season of HBO’s True Blood is scheduled to air Sunday, September 12. The critically acclaimed and popular series will undoubtedly return some time in 2011 for its fourth season. I suspect we will see much of the same: humor, sex and violence wrapped in an entertaining tale. What we will not see, however, is the vampire created by Bram Stoker, whose work has endured for more than a century and is likely to be remembered long after the vampires of today have dissolved into the dust and bone fragments that await even those who are deemed immortal.