Of Football and Family

I’m anything but a diehard sports fan, but I’ve noticed over the years that certain sporting events become unforgettable when they mark key moments in my life or our collective life.  Do you remember how moving the Super Bowl was in Feb., 2002?  Our nation was still hurting after the 9/11 attacks, but here was proof that we were not going to let anyone stop us from celebrating life.

I thought of my father yesterday.  Football was one of the ways he and I connected.  Thirty years ago, he and I talked on the phone with growing excitement as the season progressed, and this new quarterback, with the unusual name of Joe Montana, led the formerly hapless 49ers to their first ever Super Bowl victory.  The best game of the season, however, was the Division Championship game. Montana won it with an 89 yard drive after the two minute warning, and a justifiably famous touchdown pass to Dwight Clark with less than a minute to play.  This wasn’t just a persona moment; it set the entire region on fire after a difficult decade.

Montana to Clark, with 59 seconds in the game, Jan, 1982

My father moved up here to be with us in 1999, after he was diagnosed with a wasting illness. Mary and I spent most of our Sunday afternoons with him during football seasons. First lunch and then the afternoon game. My father died in 2007, and we haven’t watched much football since. Until this season. Until our “formerly hapless” 49ers took off so dramatically you couldn’t help but notice and want to follow along.

Yesterday it happened again, 30 years later, almost to the day. The niners won the Division Championship game with another spectacular drive and touchdown pass, this one with only seconds left. Another on-your-feet, unforgettable moment. Hopefully, something to rouse all of northern California after a difficult decade. My father would have loved this game.

Smith to Davis, with 9 seconds in the game, Jan, 2012

I don’t go in for sentiments like, “Maybe he was looking down from heaven.” Hopefully those in the afterlife have better things to do than peer over our poor shoulders. But I do believe – and I’ve heard various spiritual teachers hint at this – that the ancestors and those who are gone can pick up our prayers and love and kind thoughts. That’s a pretty good deal. And if football is the occasion, there is nothing wrong with that.

As the poet Lu Yu put it (quoted in The Tao of Pooh):

The clouds above us join and separate,
The breeze in the courtyard leaves and returns.
Life is like that, so why not relax?
Who can stop us from celebrating?

Father’s Day Musings

About ten years ago, a woman from the U.K. told me that in a British poll, Homer Simpson had been voted “the most influential living American.”  One thing hasn’t changed much over the last decade:  men don’t get a lot of respect in the popular media.  Best case, they come off as lovable though horny goofballs like Joey and Chandler on Friends.  Worst case they are portrayed as liars and nincompoops who couldn’t survive a day without the steadying hand of a woman.  Without Carl’s Jr. bacon cheeseburgers, some guys would starve.

If you believe the marketing experts who layout the Father’s Day advertising supplements, the male imagination is limited to Docker’s shorts, socket-wrench sets, wide-screen TV’s, and golf balls.

When I was in the first grade, my bus used to stop to drop off a boy at a corner then turn uphill toward my house a mile away.  One day that boy’s father shot himself; it was clearly accidental.  He was a WWII veteran who brought home a German luger, and as he was cleaning the gun, he forgot the round in the chamber.  The details were discussed all over the schoolyard and the kitchen table at home; how the man had tried to reach the telephone before he died.  I lay awake quite a few nights with this reminder of my father’s mortality.  I think of that boy every Father’s Day and wonder what thoughts he has.  It may be that no one appreciates a father as much as those who have lost or never had one.

Father’s Day is a nice time to celebrate the expressions of men’s generosity as they have appeared in our lives.  It’s a time to celebrate every man who ever told us, “You can do it,” and made us believe we could.

Tough Love, Math, Software, and Writing

One sunday afternoon, when I was in the second grade, I learned a key life lesson because my mother got tired of hearing me whine.  I had some difficult arithmetic homework.  Plus the afternoon was gorgeous, and I could see my friends playing baseball up the hill.  My mother was trying to show me how to work the problems, but I was having none of it.  “I caan’t,” I said.  “It’s too haard.”

My mother finally had enough, and said, in her no-nonsense voice, “Sit here, and do not move, until your homework is done.”


“No buts!” I don’t want to hear another word until you’re finished.”

After a quick review of alternatives, such as rafting down the Mississippi, I realized I was trapped – nothing left to do but figure it out.  I remember how delighted I felt when I did, but I didn’t begin to understand how important that lesson would be.  How often I would be faced with similar situations, especially in the world of work – critical problems that no one else knew how to solve – and what a boon it would be to think, “Let’s take a look,” instead of, “I can’t.”

There were times when I was younger when “practice situations” arose, and I remembered and took inspiration from that day in the second grade.  I fought a similar battle to learn formal calculus proofs as a freshman in college.  Another time my van broke down in Bakersfield, and I didn’t have enough to pay someone else to fix it.

I joined the high tech world before the phrase, “cutting edge,” became a cliche – when we really were trying things that hadn’t been done before.  Through luck and interest, I spent some years doing early work in a specialty sort of software.  That made it exciting, made us kind of important, but also meant when we were stuck, we were stuck.

In the second grade, my mother forced me to learn what it meant to do my best – really do my best.  In the world of math and software, it’s rather easy to gauge.  You pretty much know when you have a solution, and the harder you work, the quicker you get there.

It’s not so clear cut in writing.  Sometimes white-knuckle effort pays off, and sometimes it’s counter-productive.  The quality of the my work does not always correlate with “feeling inspired,” and I can’t really judge it until weeks or months go by.  Sometimes it’s best to sit at the table and and hammer away, and sometimes it’s better to go outside and play.  What works one day may not work the next.

I’ve said before, I love the image Joseph Campbell gave for the way the Knights of the Round Table set out to look for the Holy Grail.  Each of them entered a trackless part of the forest, for it would have been “shameful” to follow the trail made by another.  In trying to find my own way, charging ahead is probably not the best way to proceed.  Rather, it’s time to take my time, pay attention, listen especially to the strange hunch and “crazy” idea.  Watch what happens out of the corner of my eye.  Learn to enjoy the forest and let it go, for as T.S. Eliot said, “The rest is not our business.”