Maybe I first realized it while watching Jerry and the Cowboys strutting arm-in-arm like the Rockettes. Or it could have been when I noticed that all the late-night comics had morphed into policy wonks. Perhaps it was when I noticed every showbiz awards show had devolved into a political meeting with nearly all the subtlety and nuance of a nominating convention. Or it might have been when I heard that NFL teams were holding pre-game meetings to determine how they were going to conduct themselves as they faced the flag that draped my father’s coffin. Or maybe it was while listening to one tsunami of sanctimony after another from ESPN’s sages as they strained to talk about something other than Xs and Os.
I guess I don’t know exactly when it was, but I recently realized that I’m being driven away from contemporary American culture.
And the farther I get from it, the more I notice a peculiar thing: It’s not much of a culture. Name a great, active American novelist, composer, playwright, poet, or artist who can move the cultural needle? Let me save you the trouble; there aren’t any. It’s even been a long time since there’s been an American movie touched by timeless greatness. Why is the culture in such a crummy state? Maybe it’s because unquestioned groupthink and a rigid orthodoxy do not make for great art; they make for inane entertainment and oppressive propaganda. And that’s pretty much what we’ve got.
My estrangement from the culture has not been easy; I really miss the NFL. I grew up watching it every Sunday afternoon with my father. Until the day he died, it was the one thing we could talk about when we couldn’t talk about anything else. In his heartbreaking last years, whenever I wanted to cheer him up, I’d reminisce about the heroics of the Houston Oilers, especially Earl Campbell. Even as Alzheimer’s tightened its pitiless grip on him, he’d still smile every time I mentioned The Tyler Rose.
Because I stopped watching the NFL several weeks ago, I was forced to look around for another kind of light entertainment to wile away lazy Sunday afternoons. While channel surfing, I saw a stadium full of British soccer hooligans serenading their team with a sappy Broadway show tune: You’ll Never Walk Alone. It was the Liverpool Football Club of the English Premier League. Intrigued, I studied up on them and found that they’ve been around since 1892 and were just the right combination of success and futility for me. I started recording their games and watching them on Sunday afternoons.
I don’t know much about soccer yet, but I like it. There are no huddles, so the action is continuous and spontaneous. I could do without the players collapsing like they’ve been poleaxed whenever an opponent breathes on them. And the action is sometimes hard to follow and often seems to descend into pointless chaos. But then suddenly, like a clap of thunder on a cloudless day, there’s a flash of unimaginable collaborative brilliance and out of the chaos the ball somehow lasers just past the goalie and into the onion bag. And then I find myself cheering and fist pumping just like I used to when Dak and Dez would connect for a TD.
But best of all, at the end of the game, many of the players and coaches walk to the center of the field and applaud their home fans in sincere appreciation for supporting them in good times and in bad and from one generation to the next. Try to imagine NFL players and coaches showing that kind of appreciation and respect for their generations of loyal fans. Don’t bother; it’s never gonna happen.
Maybe that says it all.


Why I Hate Alzheimer’s


He was a tall, good looking seller of printing supplies with a killer smile, a joyful laugh, and a quick, self deprecating wit. He grew up on the unforgiving streets of NYC, served honorably in World War II, married my mother, and raised the four of us. He lived a long, happy life with the exception of one dark cloud that dogged him: He had no mechanical ability whatsoever.

Our possessed garage door opener was a frequent recipient of his inept ministrations. I’d often see him standing on a rickety wooden chair puzzling over its latest malfunction, multicolored wires dangling down around his head, the tip of a table knife (he didn’t believe in screwdrivers) being ground into a Celtic cross as he tried to loosen a factory tightened screw. He’d always get it to work, for a while, but his faith in the power of shoelaces to hold metal objects in proper alignment and the inevitable loose and “extra” wires created the impression of a large, inverted New Years party favor presiding over the garage.

We moved from New York to Houston in 1973 when I was 13. My father took us to Lake Livingston to show us the wonders of the greater metropolitan area. We rented a very small boat with an outboard motor to tour the lake. My younger brother and I sat on either side of the motor as dad tried to start it. For some reason, the starter rope was very hard to pull. We could see that dad sensed there was something wrong with the motor and would have loved to attempt a quick repair, but, having no table knives aboard, he grabbed the rope with both hands and gave it a mighty heave. My brother and I watched dad fly overhead and pinwheel into the water as our boat shot out from under him: He’d started the motor in gear.

One Christmas Day my parents were visiting, and my wife gave me an electric drill. My father, who’d never held one before, hefted it wonderingly and held it up to the light at various angles. He asked me if I had any projects we could try it out on. His eyes lit up when I told him the latch on the fence was broken, and I’d recently bought a new one to replace it.

They were long screws that would have to be driven deep into the fence post, a two hour, three table knife, miserable job if ever there was one. My father held the screw in place with one hand and fitted the phillips head drill bit into the screw head with the other. He pulled the trigger and an instant later took a step back in mute bewilderment. From the expression on his face, you’d have thought he’d made the screw disappear. He turned to me, his eyes still wide, and said, “So that’s how they build all those big buildings and bridges.”

A few years later, the inevitable slide began to take its toll. He wound up in an Alzheimer’s facility. The first time I visited him there, he didn’t know who I was, but he knew I was someone he cared about very much. He wept and said over and over again, “It’s so sad.” I was basically in shock when I left and wound up in a Houston mall walking in a zombie-like stupor. Eventually, a kind security guard checked on me and led me to a fast food place where I sat for a long time thinking about how sad it was.

He died in April 2004. People had told me that his long illness would make his death easier on the family. It might have been easier, but it was nowhere near easy. I was in bad shape at the funeral mass.

Afterward, as his hearse was pulling out into lunch hour traffic on Bellaire Boulevard, it crashed to a stop when the driver cut the curb and the right rear tire fell into a large rut. It was such a sad sight that not even Houstonians could bring themselves to honk their horns as the hearse blocked the right lane of traffic.

Several of us grabbed the bumper and, with the driver gunning the engine, futilely tried to lift and push it out of the hole. Others ran to get large chunks of concrete from a nearby construction site to put under the tire, but that didn’t work either. Finally, someone driving by in a large pickup truck stopped, hooked up a tow chain to the hearse and pulled it free. As I watched it drive off, I whispered to myself,” My God, how he would have loved this.” And then, I swear, I heard him laugh for the last time. That is, until we meet again.