Football’s Purpose

In real life I avoid conflict and competition. Yet I have competed in many sports, and as a spectator I watch all sorts of games and matches, even boxing and mixed martial arts. Football too is a violent and brutal sport.
I’m not a football player like most of my cousins. I am a huge fan. This Saturday I spent most of the day and night flipping channels between various college games, looking for the most competitive.
I did not play football on my high school’s team. Not even the Lightweight Team, because my asthma cleared up the first month of my senior year, too late to go out for the team. Through the autumn on Friday nights I spotted for a fellow student who announced home games over the PA system. I joined the wrestling team in the winter season.
I played touch football games in the park with friends. We didn’t block very hard – mostly it was a strategic passing game of cleverly designed plays and occasional completed passes. We were our own clumsy chess pieces.
I once played an informal game of touch on the senior lawn with friends. My best friend, Steve Ruttschow, at 5’7” 160 pounds an undersized but fierce two-way player (guard and nose tackle) on our high school team, apparently could only play all-out, so he bulled through the other kids of both genders. We let him. On defense he eagerly tackled whoever carried the ball, all the way to the ground. We had no choice in that, except to end the game somewhat early.
I played in an eleven-on-eleven tackle pickup game in the summer after graduation, with no equipment. (Not even a mouthpiece or a cup.) Midgame I pursued a ball carrier downfield. An opponent threw his body into a low block. Instinctively I bumped my hands on his shoulders to prevent his forearms from taking out my knees. I went home with a sprained wrist.
I got a phone call inviting me to the next game, but I quit while I was ahead – ahead of further injury.
I did play organized football as a junior in college: flag football at the club level. The heaviest I weighed in my twenties was about 135 pounds.
I avidly followed football at all levels as a spectator. My mom was the football fan in our family. She really understood the game, commenting while we watched on TV. She rooted for the 49ers into her nineties.
My wife never understood my mom’s interest in sports. I just took it for granted. Mom played field hockey in high school in the 1930s. (Mom was a verbal disciplinarian, never spanked me or my brother; yet I remember finding my mental image of her running around a field swinging a stick a bit frightening.) I’m sure Mom’s love of sports was a factor in my becoming a fan of women’s sports.
I’m a big fan of Title IX. I welcomed passage of the law at the time as a victory for fairness. Over the decades since I felt Title IX powerfully empowered women in the workplace with lessons imparted by sports.
Competitive athletes learn personal responsibility, social responsibility (to their team, school, and community), cooperation (teamwork and mutual support), perseverance, overcoming adversity (coping with and learning from failure), and leadership.
Leadership is not just being the captain. Leadership is being a teammate: both a good leader and a good follower, sometimes at the same time, working together. Powering the pack rather than leading or trailing a flock.
My dad played and was a fan of baseball, bowling, and golf. I played catch with him a few precious times (he worked a lot). For some reason Dad always played with a first baseman’s mitt. I sort of remember one time throwing a football with him.
So I grew up without the paternal expectations James Wright references in his poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio.” I didn’t have the golden hero experience of running out of the tunnel onto a green gridiron to a small cheering crowd. My parents never saw me wrestle, so I didn’t get it there either.
Now that I think about it, I wonder why I never thought to invite them to a home meet; maybe because my teammates didn’t invite anyone either. We wrestled in obscurity at schools not known for the sport. We enjoyed the one-on-one challenge; we didn’t need an audience.
Back to football. For several decades I have watched on television as oversized young men hurl their lightly armored bodies at each other. Until I got married I watched with other men and cheered and hooted vociferously. Now I watch almost silently, as any loud sound I make upsets the women in my family. They only cheer at gymnastics meets. Although my daughter is an athlete, she is not a fan.
Watching silently has become such a habit that I don’t even cheer when I’m the only one in the house. Well, the only human anyway. The cats and the dog don’t object to any of my sounds. They make enough of their own. Come to think of it, their sounds also upset the women in my family.
Football doesn’t really do much for our pets, and it certainly doesn’t entertain my wife and daughter. Annoys them, actually. Just the sound of it. (They don’t like crowds, so a roaring crowd they really don’t like.)
For me though, it fulfills some physical, emotional need. Perhaps even a primal need. Maybe in the limbic system, that reptilian core of my brain that handles raw emotion, the most basic endocrine chemistry and physical awareness of my being.
I enjoy being part of an excited, focused, involved crowd. We sway and stomp and gasp and scream in unison, or more precisely in waves. We begin to rise up before the crest reaches us, and begin to sit down before the trough.
And no, I’m not talking about The Wave, that fan-initiated and fan-generated audience participation stunt that has as little to do with the game as a beach ball tossed onto the field that interrupts play. Neither am I talking about the physical waves of sound traveling through the air, the ground, the walkways and the seats of the stadium.
I’m talking about a metaphorical wave: a wave traveling through time rather than space, a sort of music not charted on staves with notes and measures. I’m talking about a crescendo of sound, physicality, and emotion. I’m talking about the group experience of enthusiasm, excitement, exhilaration, disappointment, dejection, relief, and elation. I’m talking about self and group encouragement, exhortation, naysaying and booing, affirmation and cheering.
Maybe it’s not so silly to identify with one team over the other, to wear its colors and chant its cheers. Maybe there is value in joining a pack and running and jumping and baying in a chorus. It helps my body, mind, and spirit come alive. It helps me be more of who I am.

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Resembling Pat Morita

Living in Los Angeles I naturally know and have known a lot of people in the media creation or entertainment industry, just like I know people who build spacecraft (at NASA’s and Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and people involved in other local industries. Just like people in Cincinnati know folks at P&G and people in Duluth know folks at 3M.

For years I ran a service business; half my clients were in show business. Our friends include video and sound editors, musicians, prop masters, directors, actors, documentarians, animators, makeup artists, and writers. Our dogs play together; our children go to school together.

So like most everyone else in this town I have personal stories and those of friends. Some stories are laudatory and a few are scandalous, but most are normal, mundane. We’re all just people, after all.

These stories stay in close circles, if they circulate at all. The charitable do good works altruistically, and the vile do not need help pumping notoriety.

Even cops and surgeons say most of their work is boring. There is more drama in an hour of TV than a career, they say. Most of it just doesn’t happen, or over such a long time that it’s the telling that’s dramatic.

I won’t tweet celebrity sightings either, like bumping shopping carts with a leading lady or seeing a teen idol buying holiday decorations with her mom. They are just people doing normal human stuff.

I do enjoy stories about people doing what they’re good at, inside looks behind the scenes, like “The Making of” special features on DVD. So here’s an ongoing story of mine.

In 1984 The Karate Kid hit theaters, and it was a mega hit. The first movie in what became the Karate Kid franchise. Mr. Miyagi’s stunts were performed by Fumio Demura. I noticed this line in the credits because around 1977 I had been taking noontime classes at Demura Sensei’s karate dojo in Santa Ana, just for the exercise. I was a sales manager at that time, so I worked mornings and afternoons and then into the evenings. The noon break worked for me.

I was happy that Fumio Demura got the work on the film. I was even more happy that Pat Morita played a starring role and was nominated for an Oscar: “Best Actor in a Supporting Role.”

Must have been in 1979 I got to spend some time with Pat Morita backstage before the premiere of Hito Hata: Raise the Banner, an independent Visual Communications film. Mako played the protagonist while Pat and other veteran Asian actors played supporting roles.

I was one of many unpaid volunteers on that production; I had saved some money from sales and factory work and didn’t need a paying gig at that point. Just for fun, at the suggestion of friends in Little Tokyo, I crewed on different location shoots over a few days. I was a gaffer for an exterior night shoot. I did stuff for an interior scene upstairs above the Far East Café: I covered the windows – lighting again – and I think I held a microphone boom. I hauled some materials in an antique (1930s I guess) flatbed truck with tall wooden slat sides. We festooned the truck with palm fronds, and I drove the truck in the parade scene that simulated Nisei Week circa 1930s through summer 1941.

This wasn’t my first movie shoot. Summer of 1975 I took a graduate seminar at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, and afterward I worked in The City and got involved in some community groups in San Francisco’s Japantown, known as J-Town. A TV movie production offered to donate money to community organizations for volunteer extras.

That’s why in the midday heat (in August or September I guess) hundreds of us stood around in winter overcoats and hats at a rural unused Sheriff’s Station in Livermore, southeast of Oakland in the foothills of the San Joaquin Valley. Looked like stables and barns, so must have been left over from days of deputies on horseback.

We waited several hours for the call “Action!” at which we ran around the corner of a ramshackle building across a rough dirt area, raising a huge cloud of dust. For the second and third takes we returned to our waiting area and waited for the dust cloud to subside in the still air.

Such is the excitement of filming on location.

The film was processed to make it all look like the nighttime, when the actual event happened in the internment camp, but we did all the trudging and running and standing during the day. In the movie you see the actors on a platform and only the tops of all us extras running by. Can’t see us like you can the extras in Braveheart or Gettysburg or Glory. So at least we didn’t have to deal with makeup.

Tedious as it was, I’m proud of doing all that. We made a little money for community groups that did good work. We also helped make the riot scene in Farewell to Manzanar, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s adaptation of her memoir by the same name.

Back – or forward – to 1979. I spent about a half hour strolling around the empty Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, mostly backstage, with Pat Morita. We had arrived early, waiting for the premiere to get set up. A very nice guy, down to earth and open-hearted. In conversation he had a way of surprising me and the guys who joined us as showtime approached. Every other thing he said was a hilarious one-liner on whatever topic had come up, delivered totally deadpan. He cracked us up.

Pat had started out as a standup comic. Tough profession. Tough row to hoe for a Japanese American in the first few decades after a war between America and Japan.

I find that great comics make great actors. Red Buttons won the 1958 academy award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in Sayonara. Pat Morita was nominated in the same category in 1984 for The Karate Kid.

Robin Williams won in the same category for Good Will Hunting in 1997, although we could say Williams was an actor first, having studied theatre at Julliard before performing his comedy act in clubs and getting his first big role on Mork and Mindy. Other comics to go on to success in film or television include Danny Kaye, Red Foxx, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Jonathan Winters, Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, and many Second City and SNL alumni like John Candy and Tina Fey. Even when they are doing comedy they can pull at our heartstrings.

Not all good actors make good comics. However, I think any great actor can do comedy (if willing). I loved Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon and The Freshman, Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia, Peter O’Toole in My Favorite Year. How about Robert De Niro in Meet the Parents?

I remember watching Pat do standup on The Hollywood Palace TV variety show in the mid-sixties. My family watched a lot of TV, and we watched The Hollywood Palace every Saturday night. In Pat I loved seeing one of the few faces that looked like my family.

I should have also known Pat as Arnold on Happy Days, but I didn’t watch TV in the mid-seventies.

In the Eighties and Nineties I started getting less of strangers approaching me with the What-Are-You line and started getting more of the You-Look-Like-That-Guy line.

These folks meant I looked like Mr. Miyagi the character or Pat Morita the actor. Which I didn’t really; I only got that from people unfamiliar with Asians. Drove my wife crazy, but I didn’t mind unless I got it three days in a row.

As Pat’s performances recede farther into entertainment history I don’t get that approach much. Probably helps that now even people who never met an Asian can tell the difference between John Cho and Masi Oka, or Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.

I got a new one recently. A lady said I look like “that physicist.” She meant Michio Kaku, the physicist who explains string theory in a way that helps non-physicists almost understand ten dimensions and the multiverse.

This resemblance I can actually kind of see. Plus I think it’s pretty cool that I remind someone of an eminent scientist. I think it’s great just that this person knows about Dr. Kaku, so when I remind her of a great scientist, I’m fine with that.

Nisei Drawl

The other night I was looking on Netflix for something I could watch and help me fall asleep.

Now this strategy has a flaw. If I find something fun enough to watch I might wake up as I watch it, even want to wake up so I can keep watching it. On the other hand, if I find a film or TV show or other video relaxing enough to fall asleep to, it might simply be boring, so I get annoyed. If I get annoyed I’ll either: 1) stop the dang thing and browse for something else to watch, or 2) I’ll get a little angry.

If I browse, I’ll probably wake up. ‘Cause I get to thinking. If I just mindlessly browse, I might go to sleep while I’m tapping my laptop’s scratch pad. But I’ll probably start thinking about all these thousands of videos, weighing pros and cons, bringing out the movie critic in me – we all got that, don’t we, an internal movie critic? – and I will surely be thinking once I get to picking apart a movie. Especially before I’ve even seen it.

If I go from annoyed to angry, as in “Why am I watching this crap,” I’ll definitely wake up. Nothing wakes me up as much as anger. Anger is our natural drive to take action for survival. Boredom is a slow, lingering death, so anger shakes our body and mind awake and gets us moving.

But then again, maybe this is just me. Maybe I’m the only human who lives like a shark. Even when I sit still, I have to keep my mind moving. If my mind becomes still, it dies.

Now, I must admit that when I actually keep still and my mind does die, I feel pretty good. No thought, a sense of oneness and wonder and connectedness, a feeling of belonging in this existence. Very occasionally I have felt this in meditation. More often I have felt this in sports: running or sparring or throwing or catching or swinging, my body moving and my mind flowing with it, feeling still in the movement. Or star gazing. Or sitting on a rock watching waves roll into tidepools and feeling and hearing the crash and roar of sound waves rolling over and through me.

Most of the time my busy, buzzing, gasa-gasa mind – Zen practitioners call it the monkey mind because it climbs and jumps and swings through the trees, often just to come back to the same perch – runs around in figurative circles, spiraling out of control. When I try to control my mind, it skitters away in another direction like my dog Coal avoiding medication.

Even now I’m doing it. I was talking about watching Netflix. See?

Actually Netflix’s offerings are really great; I only get bored when I watch one of the relatively few genres I don’t like. Some stuff is just not my cup of tea, so I gotta browse.

So I browse and I wake up anyway.

Okay, so I run across a video called “Henry Cho: What’s That Clickin’ Noise?” from a live performance in Knoxville. I gotta check this out.

Henry Cho explains himself right away. He’s Korean. He grew up in Knoxville. He’s got a lot of intriguing and amusing stories, telling them to his hometown audience. They laugh. I laugh.

Part of my amusement is my personal context. I grew up attending every new school that opened in our town. I went from an established all white elementary school to a new all black school. Did the same sequence in junior high before graduating from an integrated high school. One of my favorite songs, The Only Chinaman In Great Falls Montana Blues, expresses well my feelings as a child, teenager, and into adulthood.

I met the songwriter, Charlie Chin, back in my early Los Angeles days. Charlie is a great stage and studio musician, probably best known for his banjo work with Buffalo Springfield. I feel privileged to have seen Charlie perform an acoustic guitar set of his solo album that included The Only Chinaman In Great Falls Montana Blues. I wish I still had the vinyl all these years later. (Or did I get it on cassette tape?)

Back to Henry Cho on Netflix. I wake up. I mean, I never fell asleep, but I was on my way. Now I’m alert.

I get up and type these words because I am thinking about Henry Cho’s left hand.

Cho mimes writing with his left hand as he talks about writing down what he hears his wife’s family say over Thanksgiving dinner. He’s too busy to eat; he’s writing down this great comedy material.

Cho mimes writing in the air with his left hand, holding his microphone in his right hand.

Henry Cho is left-handed.

Yes, I notice. This is a fascinating subject for me. Because I grew up thinking I was right-handed. Wrote right-handed; still do. Ate right-handed; now I usually eat continental style: cutting with a knife in my right hand, lifting forked food in my left hand. I played tennis right-handed and had a horribly weak forehand; I switched to playing left-handed and gained a decent forehand and a much better serve.

Henry Cho mimes writing with his left hand again and I remember a parent coach on the city ball diamond across from the JACL Hall in Monterey – that’s the Japanese American Citizens League, a Nisei organization – coming up to me when I decide to try hitting left-handed. This is the first time I think of experimenting.

So this coach walks over to me at the plate and says, “Are you left-handed?” I say, “No,” because I hardly know what being left-handed is. He says, “Get over on this side of the plate.” So much for that experiment. Years later I discover that I am much better – or at least not as pathetic – a batter as a lefty.

What’s the point? Why do I remember this parent coach talking about batting? Well yeah, I told you why, but here’s the other connection. This is the importance or relevance tonight.

That coach talked a bit like Henry Cho and his East Tennessee accent. I think about this. The more I think, the more I remember. All my aunts and uncles talk like that coach. So did my mom and dad. Not really a drawl, but kind of.

They all speak Japanese, cause that’s what they spoke at home to their parents, my Giichan and Baachan on both sides of my family. (Except for my youngest aunts on both sides, who grew up like me, English-only.) They all speak English, ‘cause that’s what they spoke at school and to each other. But they don’t speak with a Japanese accent. It is something else.

I come up with a theory about the way my parents’ generation spoke English. They worked their family farms in the Great Depression up to the Internment. They worked the land next to Okies escaping the Dust Bowl of the Plains States and Mexicanos escaping the even poorer jobs on Mexican farms. I think that’s why they sound like a cross between my Okie friend Jim Adams and my college roommate Juan Mora. That’s who they spoke English to, the other farm kids in Carmel Valley and San Luis Obispo. Other Nisei did the same in Salinas and Watsonville and Reedley, all over the West.

Mom cooked for Spanish and Italian families in Monterey before WWII. I think that’s where she got a lot of Spanish and Italian words.

On top of all this, Mom sprinkled Spanish words liberally into her conversations with my brother and me. Beans were always frijoles. Tamago was egg. I learned in college that tamago is the Japanese word for egg. Growing up I thought it was a Spanish word.

When Jim Adams showed me his rabbit sandwiches at lunch in sixth grade, I picked up a little of his Okie drawl, and maybe some of his Cherokee speech rhythm. Growing up in the largest black community between Hunters Point and Watts I also heard a different drawl and a rhythm from deeper in the South. In bull sessions with Juan Mora I assimilated his rhythm from the mountains of central Mexico, though I’ve never been near there.

So I learned early on to mirror the sounds and the rhythms of speech in many communities. I still have vestiges of Santa Barbara speak that most people think of as Valspeak or surfer lingo. I can break out a French or Japanese or German accent when needed. (Didn’t retain the vocab, unfortunately.) I’m not thrown off by English accented with sounds and syntax of Vietnamese, or Swahili, or Navajo.

Well okay, I admit Swahili syntax is same as Mandarin or English, so that’s plenty easy. You get the point, though. Chicano English and Ebonics are pretty easy. Just don’t expect me to understand if you start speaking Pidgin, Brah.

See, there I go again, running off on a tangent stage right. Let’s come back here.

So I can relate to the rhythm of Henry Cho’s Eastern Tennessee dialect. To my ear it’s more down to earth than Atlanta’s urban Georgia accent.

Mind you, the closest I’ve been is Northern Virginia. But once upon a time I did work in a sandwich shop in Ghiradelli Square in San Francisco. (I lasted about two weeks, one pay period.) The most vivid memory I have of that service stint (other than working an industrial dish washer all day for the second week) was a busload of teenagers from Atlanta. Each of the girls said, “May I have a SPRAHT?” To this day I still know how to order a Sprite if I’m ever in the Peach State.

If the person next to you comes back from a bathroom break and wonders where I got my Southern accent and you don’t want to tell the long story, just tell them what I used to say. My granddad was a farm boy from southern Honshu.