Monday, January 31, 2011

Closure after 20 years

Most of us who grew up in Western New York inherited three things: a toughness to weather (and the lame, uninformed jokes about Buffalo's in particular), fandom of the Buffalo Bills and Sabres, and an inferiority complex.

I've never been as nervous as I was sitting on our family room floor on Jan. 27, 1991 watching Scott Norwood line up for the 47-yard field goal from the right hash that would decide Super Bowl XXV. If he misses the Giants would win 20-19, upsetting a team that the Vegas oddsmakers had made a 7-point favorite based on their vaunted no-huddle offense that thrashed the L.A. Raiders in the AFC Championship Game 51-3.

But if Norwood makes it, he wouldn't just be kicking the ball through the bright yellow uprights further than he ever had on grass and winning the Super Bowl for championship-starved Buffalo. He wouldn't even be kicking our region's inferiority complex in the face, he'd be stabbing it in the heart while simultaneously resurrecting a civic pride probably not seen since the turn of the 20th Century when Buffalo was a thriving city of half million people that provided life-giving sea access for the Midwest. Hell, he might even be curb-stomping the tired weather jokes.

Despite being just 15 years old and not even a lifelong WNYer (let alone an actual Buffalonian), I knew that. I knew that because every Bills fan watching knew that. It was inherited from our parents, the national pop culture, our giving the key to the city to Frank Deford because he stuck up for our weather on a national pregame show by pointing out that multiple NFL cities had colder average winter temps, our County Exec making the embarrassing choice to bet maple syrup with his counterpart rather than chicken wings, and two city slogans that used improper grammar (Talking Proud! and Buffalo, You're Looking Good).

To quote the great longtime Bills announcer Van Miller (as written in the Buff News story):

"Scott Norwood, rarely raises his voice above a whisper, he can fire the shot heard 'round the world now and win a Super Bowl with eight seconds to play ... He's made only [six of 10] outside the 40. Here we go. Lingner ready to snap it back to Reich. Eight seconds to play. Norwood takes a practice swing with the right leg. Everyone up on their feet, watching intently. Norwood reaches down and takes something off his left cleat, now does it again. Still standing up near his holder, concentrating, waiting for the snap. Here we go, the Super Bowl will ride on the right foot of Norwood. 

Waiting for the snap, Reich, arm extended, puts it down, on the way, it's long enough ... and it is no good. He missed it to the right with four seconds to play. It was long enough but it was no good. And Norwood, walking slowly and dejectedly off the field. Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal that would have won the Super Bowl for the Bills."

As Sports Illustrated's Peter King said later, "Does that paint a great picture or what?"

I have a pretty fucking great memory, but I can't remember how I reacted. I don't recall if there was yelling, screaming, punching of pillows or just shocked paralysis. I watched the game with my parents, so I know that I didn't swear. I know that I didn't cry and nothing in the room got broken save for the most important thing in there—our hearts.

My only memory of life after Super Bowl XXV is dreading getting the next issue of Sports Illustrated, which had typically been one of the highlights of my week. Apparently I let my feeling of being cheated metastisize so much that months later my mom yelled at me to "get over it, because it's just a game." I don't actually remember being bitter, but my mom wouldn't have said that if it weren't true. Joan F just doesn't roll with exaggeration.

Six months later I finally opened and read that issue of Sports Illustrated with Giants DB Mark Collins on the cover. A couple years (?) later, my father and I re-watched the VHS tape with the Super Bowl on it. The first half, which ended with the Bills up 12-10, was fine. For a fleeting instance we both felt like we might win.

At one point late in college (after the Bills had lost four Super Bowls in a row), I started to come to terms with the experience. My father and I (in that bizarro version of rationality that is mostly warped emotion but spoken without feeling in the voice) noted that what this Bills team did was as impressive as anything any other team had done (no NFL team before or since made it to four straight Super Bowls)  ... they just didn't win when it mattered the most.

Twenty years later there's still a scar on my heart. The vulnerability of the open wound has healed over, but my heart is not the same as it was before. I walk with a feeling that Buffalo's best days won't return no matter how many cool new things pop up and thrive through the cracks in the city's foundation (like the Lloyd Taco Truck and Hero Design and even hosting a TEDX event). And I walk that way despite knowing what my mom said about it being just a game is true, particularly now as Egypt faces a revolution.

Well, all that was true until today. On Sunday, The Buffalo News ran it's 20th anniversary package about Super Bowl XXV. News Senior Sports Columnist Jerry Sullivan interviewed more than two dozen former players, coaches and execs to get their memories of that fateful experience. The benefit and wisdom gained over time paired with native Rhode Islander Sullivan's ineffable "get" of Buffalo resulted in the closure I've needed.

My favorite story was "It ain't hooking," which focused specifically on players' and coaches' memories of Norwood's kick. To liberally quote from the passage that redeemed my relationship with the city ...

Hearing [Bills longsnapper Adam] Lingner and [backup QB and holder Frank] Reich anguish about the laces, you sense that, even to this day, they would like to take some of the burden off Norwood. He was crushed by the miss. Norwood has said he didn't feel he had failed, but that he had let his teammates down. He trudged off the field, his head slumped forward, then went into the losing locker room.

Norwood stood at his locker for a good hour, answering every question from wave after wave of reporters. [Special teams coach Bruce] DeHaven stood by his side the whole time. A few minutes would go by, then DeHaven would ask Norwood if he'd had enough. Norwood shook him off each time. "I think I owe it to the fans to answer some questions."

DeHaven later named a son after Norwood. "We adopted him in Colombia," said DeHaven, who is on his second tour as the Bills' special teams coach. "Tobin Scott DeHaven. Scott handled that deal with so much dignity, so much class, that day."

He spoke haltingly, the emotions surging in him again. "I, I just wanted to be able to tell Toby some day, 'This is how you should conduct yourself in life. This is a pattern in life to follow.' He'll be 14 soon. I think he understands now."

I literally ended the story, which also revealed a new detail shared by backup QB and kick holder Frank Reich about Norwood's uncharacteristic struggles during warmups, in tears. And not a single Indian don't-pollute-or-litter tear, but cheeks soaked by streams of tears.

My favorite nuggets though were in Sullivan's interview, which ran in an extended version on his blog, with fantastic Bills backup running back Kenneth Davis, which reminded me how much the people who played on that team meant to me and the city. 

I told Kenny he seemed emotional just talking about it.

"It is emotional," he said. "I never had a bad day in Buffalo. I don't care if it was practice, training camp at the college, Rich Stadium or on the road. I never had a bad day. I was excited to come to work. I was up early every day. I ... loved ... coming ... to work. It didn't matter if it was summertime or the middle of the year. It was because of the cohesiveness of the organization, the attitude. I'm talking even the people who cleaned up for us, the people who fed us lunch, the ones who cleaned up the stadium."

Davis said he never felt much separation between the team and the fans in Buffalo. He felt a kinship between a blue-collar team and a blue-collar community. He remembers how it felt on a cold Sunday on game day, seeing the smoke coming out of tailpipes in the cars, the smell of barbecue as he walked down the tunnel. He seemed ready to run out and hit someone as he spoke. By the time he was done, I was ready to run out the tunnel with him.

"To walk out there and see those fans with their beer helmets on, their wool caps, drinking their beer and the smiles on their faces. It made work better for them when we won. It was exciting to walk out and see them up there. You'd see the team on the other sideline and want to kick their butts. There was no feeling quite like it. Man, Buffalo is just a wonderful place."

The fact that men like Davis got that added the corollary to my mom's admonishment that I should "get over it, because it's just game" ... "and that what's most important about what just happened wasn't that kick or the score, but that you got to experience the unique synergy of a city, its team and the fans of both."

So thanks to Mom, Sully, Buffalo the city and the Bills and City of Buffalo fans and most of all to the execs, staff, coaches and players for the memories.

Friday, January 28, 2011

How to respond to Michelle Bachman

From a great blog post on by Paul Thornton ...

The problem is that [U.S. Rep. Michelle] Bachmann is a sought-after pundit in the first place. Much of her brand is bombast, which brings with it a less-than-wholesome treatment of the truth. Getting into a tizzy over her untrue, yet confident, utterances gives her more airtime than her intellectual heft deserves. Of course, this means the non-Fox News broadcasters would have to resist the temptation to invite her on as a commentator. No objections here.

Like many liberals and rationalists, I get frustrated when I see and hear how alarmist comments from the Tea Party and its favorite politicians and commentators generate enthusiasm from people. It's like arguing with Creationists about evolution and the age of the Earth. How does one have a reasonable discussion when the premises fundamentally conflict?

Thorton's blog post reminded me of advice I try to dispense to my students: being the cooler head in a disagreement will hardly ever hurt you. Rather than try to out-yell or out-scare or out-blame people like Glenn Beck and Bachmann, we should ignore them.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

I didn't die // the body never ceases changing

I willingly ate a floret of broccoli Sunday night and I survived. I didn't gag or even have a hard time swallowing it. Granted, I didn't like the taste but I realized that I could eat broccoli if forced and that I may not have to be so meticulously diligent when filtering it out of casserole-style mixtures.

This probably doesn't sound like much an accomplishment to most, but let me give a quick history lesson that will illuminate the significance of this post. After finishing my freshman orientation at the University of Arizona in the summer of 1993, my parents and I went to Applebee's for dinner. After basically finishing our meals, my mom, who also hates veggies, and I each had some broccoli left over that had come on the side of our entrees. We dared each other to eat a piece. My dad, if I'm remembering correctly, offered money to whomever ate one first.

We each stabbed a floret with our forks and slowly raised them toward our mouths. And about six inches away, when that pungent bitterness starts invading our nostrils my mom and I each balk.

My dad makes fun of us, yet neither of us even responds to his provocations because broccoli is a vile weed.

Now 17.5 years later, my taste buds have evolved and I hate broccoli and survived.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Holy Grail television moment

I've been digging off and on for this since the day it happened back on Sept. 12, 2000. I owned a crappy quality bootleg copy for a short time. I left my AOL dialup connected for hours to download it. And then somehow the file corrupted and turned into encoded crud. And tonight ... U2 performing "Elevation" and literally owning the world of anyone who watched this for four minutes.

U2 - Elevation (Live on SNL)
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Monday, January 17, 2011

Discovering little bits of yourself where you might not expect

One of my favorite things to do is read someone's Google chat status and respond. It's one of the reasons I don't sign up for Facebook. If I get so distracted by the emoticons, pop culture reference jokes and especially articles that my friends post sporadically, how would I ever filter "status updates"?

Well, one of my great friends posted this David Brooks story about how our brain works and our mind acquires its values and VALUES in The New Yorker and it blew me away, in large part because I'm geekily interested in neuroscience and evolutionary neurophysiology and behaviorism. But also just because I felt like I saw bits of myself on The New Yorker website.

There were so many passages that caused me to stop and think (the sign of great writing).

• Human beings are overconfidence machines. Paul J. H. Schoemaker and J. Edward Russo gave questionnaires to more than two thousand executives in order to measure how much they knew about their industries. Managers in the advertising industry gave answers that they were ninety-per-cent confident were correct. In fact, their answers were wrong sixty-one per cent of the time. People in the computer industry gave answers they thought had a ninety-five per cent chance of being right; in fact, eighty per cent of them were wrong. Ninety-nine per cent of the respondents overestimated their success.

• Research over the past thirty years makes it clear that what the inner mind really wants is connection. “It’s a Wonderful Life” was right. Joining a group that meets just once a month produces the same increase in happiness as doubling your income. According to research by Daniel Kahneman, Alan B. Krueger, and others, the daily activities most closely associated with happiness are social—having sex, socializing after work, and having dinner with friends.

• People generally overestimate how distinct their own lives are, so the commonalities seemed to them a series of miracles. The coincidences gave their relationship an aura of destiny.

Those are three of my favorite points, but the passage that inspired me comes toward the end when someone explains the river of knowledge. "I believe we inherit a great river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources. The information that comes from deep in the evolutionary past we call genetics. The information passed along from hundreds of years ago we call culture. The information passed along from decades ago we call family, and the information offered months ago we call education. ..."

The quote continues and the additional explanation and context is illuminating.

Perhaps this is just me finding joy in an article that comes from experts who seem to be validating the choices I've made and who reinforce my spending hours trying to get my students to see beyond the SAT-over-preparation to impress the "right" colleges for the hopes of a lucrative and successful career. But I don't think so.

The most important lesson I feel like I've learned as an adult it to become comfortable with who I am and to be smart enough to recognize that I am not entirely sure of who that is anyway. And I dig that this article aligns with my values of enjoying people more than anything else.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

An argument for copy-editing and/or drinking

Found this on yesterday in a story about a lavish fundraiser for GOP members of Congress.

[Freshman U.S. Rep, R-Ca, Jeff] Denham and his sponsors certainly went all out — despite the tone of austerity that incoming Speaker John Boehner is trying to set for his new GOP majority. Jim Beam, Dewers scotch, Johnny Walker Red Label and Souza tequila were readying to be served to VIP patrons at a tended bar. ...

Unfortunately for Politico and writer Jake Sherman, if Denham in fact had DewErs scotch and SOuza tequila served maybe it was a cheap affair, because those don't exist. I am going to guess that he meant Dewar's and Sauza.

I am only 10 percent laughing about this. The only humor is that the mistake was made about common alcohol, something most reporters don't make mistakes about. 

The 90 percent of this that was scary is that Politico is usually an excellent website staffed by lots of talented people who used to grace the pages of fine daily newspapers. To mess up something so easy cuts to the heart of journalistic credibility (if they can't get that stuff right, how/why should the public trust us to get the more complicated and nuanced stuff right?).


It feels good to be blogging again.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A professional's thoughts about language and the killings in Arizona

The fantastic Roy Peter Clark at the Poynter Institute writes an amazing column about how we refer to/discuss/write about Jared Lee Loughner.

My fave section and what I tried clumsily to say in my post yesterday ...

The six dead in Tucson were not killed in traffic accidents but at the hands of another human being. The loss, the grief, the agony of those left behind remain as real whether we call Loughner an assassin, a domestic terrorist, a fanatic, a mass murderer or – the informal consensus – a “nut job,” a dismissive, self-deluding designation used by Americans (including me) who prefer to ignore the real consequences of mental illness.


The misuse of words, journalists know, is the fuel for propaganda, scapegoating, misinformation and hate. Try to think of a single hot-button issue in the American culture wars that has not been waged as a war of words, in which combatants battle to gain the upper hand by being first to name the issue.

Think of “death panels” to describe medical advice given near the end of life.

It’s the death tax vs. the millionaire’s tax; pro-choice vs. pro-life; illegal alien vs. undocumented worker; refugee vs. evacuee; prisoner of war vs. enemy combatant.


And here's someone else who said what I was feeling better than me ...

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Arizona Shootings Reaction
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

Monday, January 10, 2011

The media and "mental illness": Too quick to judge

I really liked this piece by clinical psychologist Vaughan Bell about how the term "mental illness" is too quickly assigned as a reason for violence of the scale that happened in Tucson Saturday morning when six were killed and 14 others injured when a man tried to kill U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Here are some great points in Bell's piece:

The mere mention of "mental illness" is explanation enough. This presumed link between psychiatric disorders and violence has become so entrenched in the public consciousness that the entire weight of the medical evidence is unable to shift it. Severe mental illness, on its own, is not an explanation for violence, but don't expect to hear that from the media in the coming weeks.

Seena Fazel is an Oxford University psychiatrist who has led the most extensive scientific studies to date of the links between violence and two of the most serious psychiatric diagnoses—schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, either of which can lead to delusions, hallucinations, or some other loss of contact with reality. ... they can say with confidence that psychiatric diagnoses tell us next to nothing about someone's propensity or motive for violence.

A 2009 analysis of nearly 20,000 individuals concluded that increased risk of violence was associated with drug and alcohol problems, regardless of whether the person had schizophrenia. ... In other words, it's likely that some of the people in your local bar are at greater risk of committing murder than your average person with mental illness.

I think that the reporters and the commentariat default to "mental illness" or "disturbed" or other variations and cease digging deeper or fail to contextualize more completely (particularly the TV commentariat) for several reasons:

1. We want answers quickly. And since the vast majority of us could not comprehend how/why someone does this our individual and collective failure to understand a possible motive means that the assailant was "crazy."

2. Not only do we want answers, but we also want to assign responsibility/blame. And to satisfy the always-hungry-news-cycle, it's usually ascribed as blame.

3. The over-abundance of commentators leads to an unwinnable contest to outscoop and differentiate a network's or website's coverage. Sadly, while Twitter was an awesome resource for maintaining up-t0-the-second coverage, it has opened more windows into the haphazardness of newsgathering (see NPR's early reports that Giffords had died).

So ultimately, it's easy just to say that the shooter was "crazy," even before a single thing is known about the shooter, because that's at least a starting point for your editor/producer and your audience.

I'll admit, too, that when I was a reporter and I had to cover a high school who murdered his mother, I automatically thought that the kid was "crazy" to do something like that. And that's not to say he wasn't disturbed, just that I wasn't thinking clinically, but rather pop-psychologically. And the really sad thing is that my completely unclinical and un-medically substantiated pop-psych diagnosis only helped to further stigmatize the idea of mental illness in a broader sense. I was that "what's easiest to use" media member.

I know Ron Artest got made fun of after on Twitter for thanking his psychiatrist after winning the NBA title with the Lakers last year, but his willingness to acknowledge receiving treatment was a big moment. And his subsequent raffling of his championship ring to raise money for teens who need emotional therapy is one of the most under-appreciated stories of the last year in my eyes.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

A Small Act

Simply inspired tonight.

Thanks to M, I went to a free screening of the documentary A Small Act, tonight at the Hammer Museum in Westwood. This film by Jennifer Arnold, which premiered on HBO last summer and packed them in at Sundance among other film festivals last year and that I'd embarrassingly never heard of, is about a woman living in Sweden who many years ago sponsored an African child so he could attend school in Kenya.

Every month Hilde Back sent about $15 to make sure that Chris Mburu could remain in school, which isn't free. Thanks to Hilde's generosity he goes to university and then Harvard Law School and is now a human rights lawyer with the United Nations based in Switzerland but travels the world.

And if that isn't enough a compelling enough tale, Hilde is a Holocaust survivor who emigrated to Sweden as a little girl, without her parents because they weren't allowed into Sweden. She was never wealthy, but just someone who thought that helping others was important.

Now in addition to his work with the UN, Chris has set up a foundation in Kenya to help students similar to him so that they can attend school. This might be the coolest example of paying it forward EVER. My favorite idea expressed in the movie was spoken by Chris's sister, who is also doing human rights work at the UN thanks to a mirrored path toward education. Essentially she said that despite how enormous and intractable a problem seems, one can never help too little.

After the screening Arnold, along with Producer Jeffrey Soros and Producer/Director of Photography Patti Lee participated in a brief Q&A and reported that thanks to the movie, the program has expanded from helping 10 students in one section of the country to between 200-300 this year. And smartly, they are patiently trying to increase the reach so as not to expand beyond their infrastructural capacity, Arnold said.

I wish I took advantage of more of these opportunities. Los Angeles abounds with them and thus I have a slightly late New Year's resolution. I am passing on the vague "read and exercise more" resolution which always fails despite it's total non-specificity. I am replacing it with attend a screening/book reading/freeorcheap speech/museum talk at least every other month. If I can't make that happen then I don't even deserve to live here.