Better Late Than Never: THOUGHTS ON FRANK DEFORD

During a job interview with NFL Films near the end of my senior year of college, I sat across from the man who named the Dallas Cowboys “America’s Team.” Older, quieter, and more serious than the rest of the 4-person panel conducting the session, he spoke up only occasionally, and throughout, appeared generally unmoved by any thoughts I had to offer.

During one answer about something else entirely I happened to mention Sports Illustrated, a side-door he immediately threw open.

“Who’s your favorite Sports Illustrated writer?” he asked.

It was a completely subjective question from the senior guy in the room, someone whose thinking I could not possibly have prepared for, and yet who could on the merits of any one answer determine the fate of my application.

Frank Deford, I replied.

“Mmmm,” he nodded. “Deford is the greatest writer that magazine has ever had.”

Never mind that a court of law would have dismissed it as an opinion. In these chambers, the fact that mattered was my taste and the head magistrate’s were the same. It was enough to calm my racing heart in the moment; it was what came back to me first when Films called with a job offer a week later; and it was what I thought of immediately upon hearing recently that Deford had died.

“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten,
either write something worth reading or do things worth the writing.”

Ben Franklin wrote it. Frank Deford merely embodied it — penning himself a permanent place in the history of American letters by both writing volumes worth reading and indisputably doing something worth the writing: inspiring others. They are many, I am one. Officially, since the day in 1999 when I read “The Ring Leader” and loved it with the pure, inexplicable certainty that only the best creators spark.

Despite the example of his writing and the cosmic assist he provided in that job interview, I never did make the appropriate effort to thank Frank. Not even given the opportunity a few years into my career, when he was one of my interview subjects the first day I ever directed a documentary film crew.  Be a pro, I thought.  Circuitous anecdotes in which a thesis of gratitude only might be clear to the listener, well, those are a tricky species. Better to try being a competent inquisitor than come off as a stammering ink-sniff.  So I stuck to the task at hand.

It was an air-ball with no do-over.  So let this be my penance.

Thank you, Mr. Deford.

I’m happy to say I’m still at NFL Films, the company your inspiration helped lead me to join. The week I marked my 15th work anniversary was the same week your pen went silent forever. Since then, countless lovely words have been spilled in your honor. But unless you, Frank, got out in front of the Reaper, filing the copy for a publication to be named later, I’m certain there’ll be no written tribute to you that’s quite worthy.

For its small part, my best assessment of your influence is to offer this: that whatever accolades every G.O.A.T. of Sports’ Future may ultimately compile, all their resumes will still possess the same hole: Born too late to be profiled by as great a writer as any magazine ever had.

FOR AN HOUR in New York in 2005, I conducted this interview of Frank Deford for the first long form documentary I ever worked on, “Rozelle: Building America’s Game.” On this day part of my job as director was to bring props in the event we got stuck shooting in an undesirably blank room. And so, my own typewriter, books, and portrait of my high school adorn the set behind one of my writing heroes.

ROLLING in NOLA: A Steller Story from Making a Movie in New Orleans

For the past six months I’ve had the great good fortune of working on a documentary film about a remarkable year in the life of the city of New Orleans. Here is a Steller Story photo journal behind the scenes of the production.

The film, titled “The Timeline: Rebirth in New Orleans”, tells the story of how after Hurricane Katrina, a great city, its football team the Saints, and their iconic stadium the Superdome were forced to respond to an unprecedented natural disaster.  It premieres on Wednesday, September 21 at 8pm/ET on NFL Network, and features new interviews with Saints quarterback Drew Brees, and former NFL safety and ALS advocate Steve Gleason.

SEARCHING FOR THE CHAMP: Me, We, Ali

Late last Friday night it came to my attention that I’d lost Muhammad Ali.  Not that he’d died.  I’d learned that along with the rest of the world hours earlier, a newsflash that sent me in search of an Ali drawing I’d done years before.  It was a pencil sketch comprised of two elements:  a close-up of the fighter as modeled after the photo on the cover of David Remnick’s outstanding Ali biography King of the World, combined with a speech bubble that in graphic title fashion melded the two-word poem “Me. We.”, which Ali once delivered at a Harvard graduation.

As keepsakes go, this picture lived in the same space that much stuff does:  so precious there’s no way I’d have ever thrown it out, so irrelevant to my daily life I wasn’t sure where it was, so singular that there was only a few places it could possibly be.  Yet it wasn’t there, there, or there:  not still attached to any one of the old sketch pads on my shelf ; not in a pile of old clips and copies and print-outs-of-note dating back decades ; not even unceremoniously folded and stuffed into the binding of the Remnick book.

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GOOD, BUT NOT THE GREATEST — Among the items I laid hands on during the search for my “Me, We, Ali” drawing: the David Remnick book whose cover photo helped inspire the missing design ; a pencil-mimic of a Walter Iooss, Jr. portrait of Paul “Bear” Bryant ; and two Vince Lombardi holiday season sketches that never made it onto one of my annual Christmas Cards.  Maybe this will be the year St. Vince meets St. Nick? 

I had expected to locate the image without much thought or effort, but when more of the latter was needed more of the former came along.  My mind went back to an evening in the spring of 2002, the only time I stood in the same room as the Greatest of All-Time.  It was in the Joyce Athletic & Convocation Center at the University of Notre Dame during the school’s annual amateur boxing tournament, known as Bengal Bouts. Notre Dame is in South Bend, Indiana, just 25 miles from Berrien Springs, Michigan where Ali had a home.  He’d made previous appearances at Bengal Bouts,  but that didn’t take any luster from the moment: when he entered, the building buzzed like the bee whose sting Ali had so famously claimed he could replicate.

What happened next lives in my mind’s eye like a stop-action sequence of still photos.  Not because the years have made the motion fade from the memory, but because that’s how it actually felt as the moment unfolded.

First, I could see his entourage far on the other side of the floor level on which I was standing.  Next, the small group in which the Greatest was at the center was halfway around the arena.  Then suddenly, it was in front of me.  The next two instants I recall with perfect clarity:  I made blink-long eye contact with Muhammad Ali ; he noticed the female spectator beside me wearing a Notre Dame Women’s Boxing sweatshirt, and he began charmingly, playfully shadow-boxing with her.

I have no idea how well he could speak back then, or even if he had the desire to in such a crowded, fluid setting where the main objective was simply to get to his seat.  But clearly, the old Champ could still kid, still joke, still float like the butterfly he’d so often promised he would resemble — and became again right then: fluttering out of the space in front of us as instantly and magically as he’d appeared.

Being delusional, selfish perhaps, I’d always felt that my Ali experience was a unique one — the way I’d seen him appear to defy physics as he moved through physical space ; by simply walking, somehow performing the unforgettable in a way that even the witnesses of it would later describe as unbelievable.  But I was way off thinking there was anything unique about the stirring presence Ali had had that night in northern Indiana, and it took only the first few bits of reaction and reflection that followed his death to illustrate it.  So many authors used the same language as I had to describe completely different interactions with Ali, and so striking was the shared quality of the collective memory of “meeting” him, that even if you believe just a fraction of what seeped into the world simply on the day of his death, the only comparison that feels apt for the Greatest is not to another person but to a heavenly body.  Because like the Sun, Ali seems to have touched everyone on Earth.

Long after midnight the day Ali died, my Artwork Search Party of One continued.  Perhaps I was clumsy enough to leave it buried inside the frame of my boxing-centric collage that it wasn’t part of ; or alongside the Bear Bryant drawing I’d certainly done around the same time, and ultimately that night found in the basement.  No.  It must be somewhere in the inches thick, Usual Suspects-style sedimentary formation I called a bulletin board in my office at work.  Certainly, after passing the weekend, I would poke around that paper-relief sculpture on Monday morning and find my sketch faster than I could say Keyser Soze.

On Monday, no dice.

Just as he was in the ring, Ali is proving elusive rendered in pencil.  I refuse to believe the picture got tossed ; searching for it has turned up far too many other pieces of less important creative driftwood for it to be plausible that THAT of all pieces is gone.  I imagine someday it will appear suddenly and remarkably, just like Ali did both to the world at large and to the individuals who for even an instant were in his physical presence.  I am one of those lucky ones.  So even if my hand-drawing of him never surfaces, the greatest image I have of Ali will never fade.

 

 

 

Presenting: “HOLLY BOWLING – Distilling a Dream”

The following is a production of @WeaverNFLF & me.
MANY MANY thanks to all those who helped make it happen.
Special thanks to @hollyjbowling for sharing her story.  Enjoy the show!

 

CATCHING A CLOUD: A Sneak Peek at a new Phish Inspired Film

My latest project is an independent film co-produced with @WeaverNFLF
It’s a short feature coming later this week.  Here’s a sneak peek.  We hope you enjoy the show.

A dream is a living thing.  It doesn’t stay still or remain the same.  It changes shapes, changes directions, looks different at different stages.  It’s not always possible to say where a dream originates, or to predict where it’s headed next.  But in the end, the best dreams are vibrant, singular, and unforgettable, much like the best music.  Especially like the best jams.

More than a dozen years ago, it was Phish jams that inspired Holly Bowling’s still on-going dream – which in its earliest stage, resembled a concert she feared she’d never be able to attend.  When the group returned from hiatus, Holly’s dream took on the shape of a ticket to her first show; then time off work; then the chance to follow the band.

Over and over, the classically trained pianist-turned Phish lover touched what seemed like the ceiling of her musical dream, only to have it rise and expand again, becoming something bigger and more dynamic.  This was a cloud – a natural, inimitable thing.  At first Holly admired it, then she chased it.  Then after witnessing an iconic Phish performance in July 2013, she decided to try and catch it.

Once more her dream transformed, this time taking on the shape of sheet music that captured the more than thirty minutes of musical magic and light that had become instantly known as “The Tahoe Tweezer.”  Holly put it on paper, then the cloud moved again, suddenly appearing as the vision of a crowd-funded album of her jam-scriptions, the first real recording of her life.  In the summer of 2015, Holly held the CD and vinyl prints of that very album, which she appropriately titled “Distillation of a Dream.”

“Distillation” might have been a destination for some aspiring artists.  But for Holly it was merely another milestone, along with the night that recording artist Marco Benevento unexpectedly invited her on stage to perform with him, or the afternoon Holly played a Steinway in Golden Gate Park – her sound filling the same famous hills on which her jamming fore-fathers, the Grateful Dead, first played a half century earlier.  Holly fittingly joined their history in the same month that the Dead said, “Fare, thee well,” and it was a great moment.  Then, the dream expanded again.

Its next shape was an opportunity three thousand miles from Holly’s San Francisco home: a Philadelphia venue that she dreamed her piano playing could fill with patrons.  Just like Phish in their early years, Holly took on the risk of renting a room and the burden of selling tickets, all in the hopes that her self-propelled dream would continue to grow.  Whether it moved  directly or via detour, how the song might end, or what famous faces would appear in her Philly show crowd, Holly wouldn’t know until long after the lights went down at that first ever East Coast gig.  The next turn in her journey, like that in a jam, was not something anyone could fully forecast back then, and it remains that way today.  She’s still writing the roadmap, transcribing the sound, distilling the dream as it spontaneously woos, wheezes, and breathes.

New Look at a Classic: “I HEART NY”

New to me are these regional spins on the iconic I HEART NY logo.  I saw them for the first time just recently, alongside even more takes in which the red image between the I and NY represented other aspects of the Empire State.

Though they obviously don’t use the words BUFFALO

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or SARATOGA,

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to my mind these two renditions can’t help but explicitly represent those cities, and as such, they had me dreaming of an “explicitly” Albany version that would feature the profile of the Capital City’s most iconic building, The Egg.

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Apologies to the New York State Tourism Bureau if this was already present somewhere on the very billboard where I saw the official buffalo and horse images above. And if it wasn’t: get cracking on production of the “I Egg NY” merch! FOOTNOTE to THE EGG: I can’t put a number on how many times I saw this building in my life before the day I stood before it on assignment to direct a short film about a football player from Albany. That day, for the first time ever to me, The Egg looked like a football:  virtually the top of the Lombardi Trophy itself, tipped slightly and blown up a lot.

In all that I-Hearting I came across this fabulous story of the original logo, the remarkable designer who created it, and the interesting life that both man and art have led.  Definitely worth a read and/or listen, via the podcast 99% Invisible.

STROLLING THE $1 MILLION STAIRCASE: A Steller Story from Albany, NY

Due to the boundaries of conventional photography, it’s necessary to see the Grand Canyon in person if you want to have any real sense of it.  Even then, the limitations of the human eyeball and depth perception make it challenging to compute what exactly it is that’s before you.  The scale. The structure.  The origin story.  They combine to form something like nothing else, and so by definition, laying eyes on it is a moment for which you cannot be prepared.  Even as you’re looking at the Canyon, it’s hard to know where to direct your eyes first, next, or last.  The result can be a sort of dizzying rush of astonishment and adrenaline.

As man made things go, the $1 Million Staircase — located in the New York State Capitol Building in Albany, NY — sent my head into similar spaces.  Capturing a photograph that could successfully illustrate both the massiveness and nuance of the Stairs seemed impossible.  In an effort to instead take a series of mental snapshots, every neck contortion and eye swivel I could muster felt insufficient.  There was simply too much to the space, also referred to in Capitol parlance as The Great Western Staircase, to feel like I’d seen or digested it all.  To try and add it up as I walked it was to be transported into a real-life composite of MC Escher artwork, someplace at once concrete and impossible.

The Staircase is a singular sight with a remarkable story ; for someone interested in art, architecture, or history, it’s an absolute must-see.  And believe it or not, the tour is free ; not a bad deal for a look at something priceless that may just leave you speechless.

For a sneak peek and more on how the $1 Million Staircase came to be, read my Steller Story on it by clicking the photo below.

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To see The $1 Million Staircase inside the historic New York State Capitol Building via @StellerStories, click on the image above.

GOLD, FRANKINCENSE, AND MICHAEL McDONALD*

A Wise Man travelled
From Orient-are
Upon his arrival
He stopped in a bar.

On the stool beside him
Sat a Young Fool,
Short on knowledge of life,
If an expert in school.

The Fool talked a lot
Once their chat began,
He told the Wise Man
Of His “Full Proof Life Plan.”

“It may not be that easy,”
the smiling Wise Man said,
“Just do your best.
And you’ll have no cause to dread.”

“Of course I won’t, man!
This Plan is the best.
Feel free to borrow it.
Go ahead, be my guest!”

They went back and forth
And soon it was clear
To the Wise Man that this
Debate could go on years.

And that was a bummer
That no matter how wise
He was he couldn’t open
This poor Young Fool’s eyes.

But then in the course
Of tuning him out
The Wise Man detected
Some sweet music about.

The harmony keys
At first drew him in
Then he heard the lyrics
And they made him grin.

Their message was timely
And an inspiration
To a man full of wisdom
But not beyond frustration:

“What a Fool believes
a Wise Man has no power
to reason away.”
It made sweetness from sour.

This genius musician
His magical words.
The wisest thing, maybe,
The Wise Man had ever heard.

The song lifted his mood,
Made him feel alright.
From then on he didn’t care
If the Fool babbled all night.

No more was there pressure
To change his silly views.
“What this Fool believes,” he thought,
“That’s on him. Not you.

You’re a Wise Man with no
More power to reason
With this Fool than you have
To alter the seasons.”

This lesson from an
Invisible pop star
Was one he took home
That night from the bar:

What a Fool believes?
Not your problem, don’t fret.
There’s no reasoning with him.
At least, there’s never been yet.

*Both McDonald and Kenny Loggins have the songwriting credit on the Doobie Brothers classic linked above that inspired this story.  The assist goes to Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior, Kings though not Doobies.  

A SON-OF-ALBANY STORY, CO-STARRING MY DAD

PROLOGUE – Following is a behind-the-scenes account of my recent short film on a fellow Son of Albany, Charles Leigh.  He made history as the first player known to sign an NFL contract directly out of high school, before becoming part of the Miami Dolphins Dynasty of the 1970s.  This summer I had the privilege of telling his story for NFL Films Presents.

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LOGUE – Below is the second part of the written story originally published on the NFL Films blog, “They Call it Pro Football.”  To see the piece there, where it includes a slideshow of production photos and a link to a Charles Leigh highlight video consisting of footage discovered during the making of the film, click here.

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EPILOGUE – During our July, 2015 shoot in my hometown, I brought my Dad to work.  Actually, I needed him to drive me to locations, so it’s probably more accurate to say that he brought me to work.  Either way, it all felt somewhat prophetic come fall when I learned the Leigh feature, previewed in the Albany Times-Union, would premiere as part of an episode titled “Fathers and Sons”.

 

TWO LETTERS, MAN, TO LETTERMAN

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Dear Dave –

I’m writing because there’s been a mix-up, which I know now, because of Al Pacino’s “Danny Collins.”

One night, 14ish years ago in Fremantle, Western Australia, I penned a letter to the editors of my college newspaper, advocating you be the keynote speaker at our commencement ceremony, slated to take place roughly one year later.  This was no reckless Hail Mary, Dave, the dorkiness of the language notwithstanding (and it is dorky, see below).  I gave them more than ample time to run background checks on you, to build a riser for the horn section, to accommodate whatever eclectic Canadian nutritional needs Paul might have.  Yet, inexplicably, I never heard back.

Puzzling, I know.

Instead of you, the school played it safe and booked the president of Mexico, then when he fell through, got lucky by nabbing the late great Tim Russert, who brought the house down.  Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that a great white whale of a chance had been allowed to escape without so much as a chase.

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THROWBACK CRAZY – Al Pacino himself sneaks up on Dave, then proceeds to read the numbers during the list of the “Top Ten Reasons Why Max is So Mad” (5-14-15), less than a week before the final Late Show.

By way of serendipity a few months back, I came across a copy of my letter to the editors, in the very same week that I read a story on “Collins”, Pacino’s new film.  It was about an aging rock star thrust into a cyclone of regretful introspection when it’s brought to his attention that as a young artist in the 1970s, he was the intended recipient of a fan letter from John Lennon.  The letter, advising Pacino’s character to stay true to himself and his art, had never arrived.  Finding out about it years later, the musician wonders how his life and work might have been different – less kitschy-pop, perhaps — had he gotten the message from Lennon.  Well, imagine.  It all hit me.

I’m no Beatle, but what if the editors had somehow lost my letter?  Or, what if they’d gotten it, but it then got lost in translation to the commencement poo-bahs?  What other rational explanation could there possibly be, Dave?  The president of Mexico!

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REVERSAL OF FORTUNE: Dave, pictured here on 5-1-15, announcing to the world, “Hi, I’m Dave. And by the way, I’ve dropped my price for commencement addresses.”

There’s no way to measure how many lives may have been impacted had fate not interfered with you speaking at graduation.  But now, so many Mays later, an alignment of the stars between you and the class of 2002 is no longer out of reach.  For starters, there’s the forthcoming flexibility in your day planner.  Then, the abundance of tailgate parties, round-ups, and reunion events our class convenes on an annual basis.  And finally, the fortuitous development that, as you pointed out in the monologue just two weeks ago, you’re dropping your speaking rate.  That means you and our alumni board can probably work something out.  What great news!  It’s like we accidentally made a sound investment that has appreciated into a great treasure.  Or at the very least, found an unopened sleeve of Thin Mints buried in the back of the freezer.

Briefly before I continue, since it’s looking unlikely I’ll get to say it from the sofa seat on your show, allow me to join the chorus of your recent guests in thanking you for all the yuks over all these years.  Many performers are best described as entertainers ; but the rare few, simply as entertaining – so seemingly effortless is their ability to captivate an audience that it never comes off as an act.  That’s the good stuff, Dave, and you’ve got it — same as that naturally funny guy or girl who we all knew down the hall in the dorm.

I was only a teenager when Johnny signed off, and though I’d never really watched him, I knew his departure was a big deal.  So I decided I’d stay up and seize the final opportunity there would ever be to catch Carson.  And boy, do I remember that night: how I fell asleep long before Doc struck up the band and woke up the next morning consoling myself that at least I’d always have Dana Carvey’s impersonations to fall back on.  All good.

This week it’ll be different.  If I were to nod off, I’ll still wake up with my Late Show t-shirt and memories to spare: of watching, of attending a taping, of once seeing Biff in line at The Vatican (my wife doubts the authenticity of this ; a multi-layered blasphemy on her part, in my opinion). And even having all that, next Thursday morning there’ll be little consolation knowing the curtain has dropped for the final time at the Ed Sullivan Theater, onto the same stage where John Lennon once played.  His fictional letter in Pacino’s movie was inspired by a real one the Walrus wrote to a real musician who really never received it.  It happens, the mail gets lost.  Dreams get deferred. Raisins in the sun stand up and dance to Marvin Gaye music.  Crazy, zany, bonkers stuff can go down, Dave. You know it. You believe it. You proved it.  So see you at the next reunion.  Hoo-wah.

Thanks again for all the laughs.

Your pal,
Paul A. Camarata
Univ. of Notre Dame, Class of 2002

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WHAT’S A WRITING DORK TO DO? – Easy. Write. In this case, a plea to Notre Dame to issue Dave a blue and gold mortar board and an invite to speak at graduation. Comment from neither the Holy Cross Priests nor lay Board of Trustees who govern the University has yet to find me. #keepthefaith

24 YEARS AGO TONIGHT, or, How A Super Bowl Changed My Life

The highlight of my life as a sports spectator came 24 years ago tonight, right about this time.  It was January 27, 1991, and my favorite team had just won the Super Bowl.  Yes, other favorite teams of mine had won championships during my lifetime – among them the ’88 Fighting Irish and the iconic ’86 Mets.  But from their seasons I had retained only hazy memories, the first light of fandom having just barely drawn open my eyes.  The timing of this team though, the 1990 New York Giants, was different.

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BILLY D.IVIDENDS

Billy’s a Rule Guy
but a happy guy, too,
That’s why “Have fun doing it”
is his Rule #1.

And since, “The more the merrier”
is Billy’s #2,
he made Rule #3:
“Invest in mutual fun.”

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FABILLOUS – The real “Billy D.” surrounded by two strong-arm members of his film crew that “he blithely called his goons”, once wore this custom made helmet-camera into a mosh pit to capture the special intimacy of a Slayer concert as it had never been captured before. Not once in the dozen years that I knew him did he respond to the question, “How you doing, Billy?” any other way than with a smile and a single word: “Fabulous.” The world lost a little sunshine this week when Billy left us, but to those who knew him, his image – let alone the images he captured – will never fade away. Here’s a video tribute to Billy Driber: NFL Films Legend, a New York Times profile of him, and the story of his part in the rock’n’roll history of America’s Football Movie Makers. (Photo: Richard Owens)

MY DEREK JETER SIGNATURE MOMENT

With no other knowledge of Derek Jeter at your disposal than the soundtrack of his farewell tour, you could easily discern that this man the whole world seems to be feting has done something right.  “The Right Way,” in fact, may be the most frequently used phrase to describe Jeter, the Yankee captain who yesterday in Boston played the final game of his Major League career.  It was a moment to which he arrived after a summer of having standards like My Way, Respect, and the theme from The Natural all played with complete sincerity in his honor, often in stadiums where he habitually led the dashing of hometown hopes and dreams.

Sounds as singular as Aretha Franklin, as classic as Frank Sinatra, and as stirring as the crack of Roy Hobbs’ ‘Wonder Boy’ make it easy to recognize “The Right Way” when you hear it.  But what does it look like?  Could you tell it if walked up and shook your hand?

In the summer of 2010 I interviewed Derek Jeter for NFL Films.  By that point in my career I had directed crews on interviews and film shoots with Super Bowl winning players and coaches, famous writers, musicians, photographers, even a swimsuit cover model.  During the course of the commute, arrival, and set-up in an auxiliary locker room at Yankee Stadium, it struck me that our crew on this day seemed to grow quieter than usual.  We were all accustomed to working around football players ; many of our camera operators are on a first name basis with the NFL’s biggest stars.  But none of us had spent much time in the baseball world, let alone met The Yankee Captain.

When he entered the locker room, each member of our four person crew shot up, and from our spots on the set began to wave hello.  Before we could finish, Jeter had made his way around the room, shook each person’s hand, and introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Derek.”  Such a start told me this would be a painless experience ; what made it memorable, though, was how the whole thing ended.

We’d come to talk to Jeter about his views on what made Tom Brady one of the NFL’s all-time greatest players.  When the conversation was over, with the commitment he’d made to us fulfilled, Jeter did something I’ve never seen another superstar do: he stood up, walked around the room to where each of our crew members was standing, shook all our hands a second time, and thanked us for coming.

In my professional life perhaps no smaller an act has made a bigger impression on me than Number 2’s distribution of two hand shakes-plus two greetings-times four people that afternoon.  If we’re the only crew he ever did that for (which I doubt) then I applaud his approaching an atypical audience – the football people – with a fresh perspective ; if we’re one in the long line of crews he greeted that way, than I marvel at his diligence – especially in such an advanced stage of his iconic career — in treating newcomers to his house with courtesy and respect.  Or rather, in treating us the right way.

Over time, doing the right thing the right way yields far more than it costs.  For proof of that, look no further than the record of the last summer Derek Jeter played baseball.  Some people did the job as well as he did, a few people even did it better.  But the right way is the reason that perhaps no one in history exited the game as Jeter did.  Through a promenade of praise piled higher than the famous facade at Yankee Stadium, to which he responded as he had after all the big hits and post-season heroics: by humbly tipping a cap to all those whose hearts he’d filled with song.

MR. NOVEMBER COMES TO PHILADELPHIA: Derek Jeter bats against the Phillies in Game 4 of the 2009 World Series ; Philadelphia, PA - Nov. 1, 2009 (Photo: PaC)

MR. NOVEMBER COMES TO PHILADELPHIA: Derek Jeter bats against the Phillies in Game 4 of the 2009 World Series, Philadelphia, PA – Nov. 1, 2009.  That night members of the hometown crowd seated near me attempted to distract The Yankee Captain by chanting the name of his lady friend: “MIN-KA KEL-LY!”  Jeter didn’t seem to mind. (Photo: PaC)

 

GIVING A SMILE

About once every hour since yesterday afternoon, the following has hijacked my inner monologue:

“Goooooooooood morning Vietnaaaam! Hey, this is not a test, this is rock and roll!  Time to rock it from the Delta to the DMZ.  Is it me or does that sound like an Elvis Presley movie?  Viva Danang…Ohhh, vee-vahhh Danang…Danang me, Danang me, you’re gonna have to get a rope and haaang me! Hey it’s a little too early for bein’ that loud. Hey, too late.  It’s oh-six-hundred hours.  What’s the oh stand for?  Oh-my-god it’s early.  Speaking of early …” 

That’s as much as I can recite on my own, some twenty-six years after I first heard them: Airman Adrian Cronauer’s introductory remarks on Radio Saigon.  If the transcript above is not a verbatim match to the original, I’m sure it’s damn close.  My certainty is not a comment on the prowess of my memory but on the power of the performer who indelibly marked it.  If the ability to give others something that makes them smile is what it means to have greatness, then Airman Cronauer — like his cousins Euphegenia Doubtfire, Red Sox fanatic Sean Maguire, and the part time Denver Broncos cheerleader pictured below — had it from here to Hanoi to Moscow on the Hudson.

ORK PRETTY: Robin Williams performing as a Denver Broncos cheerleader in 1980, via History in Pics.

ORK PRETTY: Robin Williams performing as a Denver Broncos cheerleader in 1980, via @HistoryInPics

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FOURTH OF MEMORIES

Fireworks and chocolate ice cream don’t look alike, don’t sound alike.  My best guess is they don’t taste the same.  But for the way they both possess the ability to delight even on those rare occasions that they’re underwhelming, these smile-inspiring fraternal twins of summer simply must be made of some of the same stuff.

Among all the stunning pyrotechnic displays made in the American skies each 4th of July, there is none better than the show over the waters of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. Give it a look some time, especially if you can do so from a boat anchored in the Chesapeake.  For the full effect, pack your own Stars and Stripes to help set a mood like the one pictured below.

OL' GLORY and the OLD LINE STATE - Fourth of July fireworks over Chesapeake Bay, as seen from the middle of Chesapeake Bay. (Photo: PaC)

OL’ GLORY in the OL’ LINE STATE – Fourth of July fireworks over Chesapeake Bay, as seen from the middle of Chesapeake Bay. (Photo: PaC)

America’s Birthday, 2014 is now in the rear view, but here’s the best flag-centric reading this weekend had to offer:  a story from The Atlantic on The O.S.S.B, aka, The Original Star Spangled Banner, and via FastCompanyDesign, an illustrated biography of the American flag.

HAPPY THOUGHTS

Pharrell Williams is Happy.  Need proof?  No problem.  Listen anywhere music is being played right now and before long you’ll hear the Man with the Smokey Bear hat declaring his joy.  But how he got that way — how anyone does, really — is more difficult to discern.  Maybe following the McFerrin Postulate, refusing to worry.  Or the Richards Principle, filling a need for love.  Perhaps for you, an annual celebration or a hot pistol does the trick.

Certainly, different folks need different guitar strokes to reach their own happy place.  Music is funny that way, one tune evoking distinct notes  in every ear.  Be they upbeat or quirky or somehow humorous, lots of songs make me smile, but none in the same way as one by Warren Zevon.  Not the one about the hair-raising manster, but about Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.

That’s the title of a unique piano-driven rock song story that I heard for the first time during Zevon’s final appearance on The Late Show.  Before then, Werewolves of London was all I knew of the man.  Not even a lick of Lawyers, Guns, and Money.  But after that night, during which Zevon spoke candidly with his old pal Letterman about the terminal lung cancer that would take the musician’s life within six months, Roland has remained in my brain as an auditory monument to happiness, because it reminds me of how Warren answered this question from Letterman:

DAVE:  From your perspective now, do you know something about life and death that maybe I don’t know?  The original question and answer is at the 3:18 mark of this clip.

As with any artist, Zevon generally gives the sense that great happiness springs from doing whatever it is you love. But in this moment he explicitly suggests, I think, it’s even more important to love whatever it is you’re doing – no matter how mundane it may seem.  Put another way, keep a song in your heart, but also, enjoy every sandwich.  Beneath my own funny hats, like the song of Roland Warren played that night at Dave’s request, that sounds happy.

 

 

MALLING IT IN

Remember Jake and Elwood literally driving through their local shopping mall, delighted that it now housed a Pier One?  Or Wyatt and Gary finally achieving a moment of teenage cool, only to have it destroyed by a red Icee raining down on their heads?  And who can forget the epic opening title sequence to Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High?   Yes boys and girls, there once was a time when the big screen simply reflected what the world firmly believed:  that if something was happening, it was happening at your local mall.

A generation ago, these one-stop Shangri-las of food courts, multiplexes, anchor stores, and fake plants were still sprouting up all across America, promising to be a new kind of lifestyle altering cultural-commerical crossroads, equal parts vast Persian marketplace and great Parisian salon.  And if you think that’s hyperbole, gettaloadathis:

The feature attraction in that video opened exactly thirty years ago.  I can attest that today it’s still alive and kicking, unlike some of the spots in this photo collection of abandoned shopping malls recently published on FastCoexist.com — images that provide a great sense of what a One Day Sale would look like if it was held at the End of Days.  Clearly not every utopian indoor shopping concept blossomed into a world famous attraction like the Mall of America, where legions still flock to ride one of the planet’s few roller coasters covered by skylights rather than sky.

For the rest of the malls in America, the up and down ride through our hearts continues.  And while you can continue to expect long lines at the nearby mall when Kris Kringle or Peter Cottontail are in the house, history has shown that developing an over-dependence on the Christmas and Easter crowds can transform a spirited community house into a temple of fund raisers.  Even those magnets once fit for the silver screen eventually lose their drawing power.  And when they do, sometimes all that’s left is plenty of good parking.

A giant Legoman dwarfs visitors to the Mall of America in October, 2013.  (Photo: PaC)

A giant Legoman dwarfs visitors to the Mall of America in October, 2013. (Photo: PaC)

THE BRIEFS HAVE IT

In the Great Big Bucket of Tips for Better Writing, perhaps no advice occupies more space than that stuffed under the heading of “Brevity.”  Take your pick: Shakespeare, Pascal, Emerson, Twain, Strunk & White.  They’ve all rung in on the value of staying succinct.

The most memorable thoughts on this topic I ever received with my own ears came from award winning sports and film writer Ray Didinger.  Quoting one of his former editors in the newspaper business, Ray advised, “Keep it light, keep it tight, keep it bright, and get it right.”  Simple, concise, and comprehensive, the suggestion has remained with me — even when my work has not reflected it.

Though 140-character limits and the spread of text-ese continue to truncate our communication, when they surface, new good words on the topic of keeping it brief will always be worth a look. Here’s some from Danny Heitman in this week’s New York Times Opinionator.  Enjoy.

 

Mark Twain - shown here in Bermuda Bronze - is one of several authors credited with saying in some way, "I'm sorry for sending such a long letter, but I didn't have time to write a short one."  Click above on Ol' Samuel L. Statue for a history of that famous Short Thought. (Photo: PaC)

Mark Twain – shown here in Bermuda Bronze – is one of several authors credited with saying, “If I’d had more time I would have written a shorter letter.”  Click above on Ol’ Samuel L. Statue for a history of the line, including the position that Twain did not in fact author that famous Short Thought. (Photo: PaC)

 

HAROLD RAMIS MADE COMEDY LOOK EASY

If after co-writing and directing Caddyshack, Harold Ramis had donned a hair shirt, moved to the desert, and never cracked wise again, he could still be considered a monumental contributor to comedic cinema.  Of course even without trying, Ramis would probably end up churning some chuckles out of an ascetic life.  The man was plain funny, his films quoted almost as much as Scripture, and certainly for much greater laughs.  Given how much Ramis’s lines are dropped seamlessly into everyday conversation, it’s impossible to imagine any film writer who has achieved greater immortality through his work.  As the world celebrates Ramis this week, here’s a standout piece I’ve seen circulated, a 2006 interview full of insight, rumination, and of course, humor. Three cheers, for the late, great Harold Ramis.

HAROLD RAMIS (1944-2014), here as Russell Ziskey in "Stripes".

HAROLD RAMIS (1944-2014), here as Russell Ziskey in “Stripes”