Thursday Night Ice; Friday Night Lights

My portrait of Pulitzer Prize winner Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights

I got calls all day Thursday from people wondering whether Bissinger’s public lecture would be cancelled.

“Why would it be?” I asked.

This is Texas, where the threat of an inch of snow in February is enough to shut down the Interstate and cancel school.

“What if it snows?”

“It’s not going to snow.”

“What if it does? What if the conference center closes?”

“It’s a hotel,” I said. “Hotels never close.”

This much I knew. My father had managed the Austin North Hilton and Towers while I was in high school. I worked there as a banquet waiter and a room service attendant. When three tornadoes had touched down nearby, killing the power, I had answered phone calls in the pitch dark kitchen, explaining to hotel guests that I’d be happy to complete their room service order as soon as the power was back.

What about beer? You don’t need electricity to bring me a beer, do you?

The elevators are out. You’re on the ninth floor.

What if I meet you half way?

Another time there was an ice storm and many hotel employees had called in, saying they were afraid to drive to work. “I’ll pick you up,” Dad had said. I rode with him as he made the rounds early that morning, rolling slowly but confidently through the suburbs, shuttling bellboys and concierges and waiters and housemen and security guards, all of them downhearted that their snow day had been denied.

Despite the weather this week, the AT&T Executive Hotel and Conference Center at UT remained open, and about 75 people clustered in the center of the 300-seat amphitheater to hear Buzz give his talk on “Friday Night Lights and Beyond: The Critical State of Sports Today.”

His 1990 book Friday Night Lights had been called a cautionary tale by some reviewers. Maybe some people had been stirred by that warning, Buzz said, but it’s been forgotten. Things are worse today.

Using the new $60 million high school stadium in Allen as a timely example, he railed against a culture dominated by sports. He thumped the podium metronomically as he opined on the exploitation of student athletes, the astronomical salaries of college coaches, and the budget deficit in Texas which will cause cuts in education and social services even while funding for athletics expands.

“Don’t for a minute believe that it pays for itself,” he said. “It does not.”

It’s true. Taxpayers have volunteered millions for new stadiums in cities and towns throughout the country, with promises of new jobs and increased revenue. Those promises almost always fall short.

On stage, Bissinger assumed the mantle of provocateur, speaking courageously to what he presumed, I think, would be a hostile audience. He challenged the culture of Longhorn boosterism. Delivered elsewhere on campus, this speech might have been controversial, but the audience Thursday night consisted mainly of Plan II Honors students and Liberal Arts faculty, who were seemingly in agreement that sports had too much emphasis at UT.

After the talk, I attended a small dinner party for Buzz where I was one of the only people in the room without a Pulitzer Prize. Glenn Frankel, David Oshinsky, Michael Stoff and their spouses traded stories with Bissinger about autism, plagiarism, polio, Glenn Beck, the Ku Klux Klan, TV dramas, segregated university housing, e-publishing, academia and the future of journalism. But the conversation reliably circled back to sports—football, baseball, basketball, wrestling, tennis, golf, squash.

I tried, a bit nervously, to insert myself into the conversation. “Well—” I would say. “I—”

I wasn’t the youngest person in the room. Tim Taliaferro was there, too, about my age. Tim knows a lot about sports, though, and he had plenty to contribute to the conversation.

I only have three stories about sports. I had previously related my experience of getting pepper-sprayed at a soccer match to some of the same dinner guests (at a different dinner, a year before). There was also the story about my dad, who had been mentioned once in Sports Illustrated for losing a wrestling match that ended his high school’s unprecedented winning streak. I didn’t feel like sharing that episode, so this night I told my only other sports story, about how I had worked with Jason Cohn for Reuters in Pittsburgh for exactly one night, photographing the Pirates.

With the exception of Jason, who is kind and encouraging, the Pittsburgh sports photographers were the worst people I had ever encountered. They were nasty, intentionally elbowing and bumping each other to spoil shots. They hated the players, the fans and the officials. They hated each other and they hated themselves. One of them threw a temper tantrum when he couldn’t find the batteries he thought he’d packed. I offered him some of my own double-As, but he refused to accept them. I left the batteries on an empty seat. A few minutes later I saw the same photographer (from the Post Gazette or the Tribune or AP — I can’t remember which) popping my Duracells into his Pocket Wizard without even acknowledging me. The photographers criticized my camera (a $2500 Fuji DSLR), my age (24), my inexperience (two years working full time for the Department of Photography at NYU). They criticized my lens for being too small (200 mm) and my CF cards for being too big (1GB). I confided in Jason that I had no desire to come back.

“And your photos?” Betsyellen asked. “How were they?”

“The photos were fine,” I said. “The photos were good.”

“You weren’t tough enough,” Glenn said, teasing me in a friendly way.

“You know what?” I said. “That’s fine.”

The faculty club politely shooed us out at nearly one in the morning.

Indeed, there was a light dusting of frost on the sidewalks and the grass outside. “Slippery,” Michael said. “I hope we have a snow day tomorrow. Otherwise I’ve got to teach first thing in the morning.”

Driving home, the roads were mostly empty. Every few miles there was a car inexplicably wrecked in a ditch where no hazard but panicked braking had caused a forty-foot skid off the road. Distant sirens throbbed and intensified, until suddenly the blue and red urgency of an ambulance flashed past me on the highway. The few other drivers were creeping along at twenty miles an hour with blinkers telegraphing their cautious uncertainty.

I was confident in my 4×4—amused and annoyed by the snow-timid Texans. I was born in Alaska. I had lived in Utah and New York and Pennsylvania. I had driven through blizzards. I had driven through the Razorback Mountains in the dead of winter, through frozen Raton Pass, over the Rockies. My father was from blustery Buffalo and had taught me how to pump the brakes and how to turn into a skid. My father had taught me not to be daunted by nasty weather. Tough it out. Life goes on despite the weather.

Rehearsing the eulogy for Dad’s funeral in Denver, I had read aloud for my uncle Alan, asking for advice. I wanted to practice, because it was hard to speak those significant words — those few lines that were expected to sum up a life — without getting choked up. It was hard even to look Alan in the face, because if he saw how difficult it was for me to say anything at all, pity would well up in his eyes and I’d be overcome. Instead of looking at him I looked out the window at the snow-covered roads and the barren trees.

“Take as much time as you need,” Alan said. “They’ll wait for you. It’s important for them to hear you say something. Some kind of context. They’ll wait to hear it.”

“This line, I said. I’m not sure about it: ‘He taught me how to tie a necktie, how to take pictures, how to grow vegetables and how to drive.'”

“It’s a good line,” Alan said. “It’s intimate. It lets them see your dad in a way that nobody else knew him.”

“I just don’t want it to be a laugh line,” I said. “I don’t want it to strike anybody as something funny,” I said.

“Why would it?”

“About him teaching me how to drive,” I said. “Because, you know—that’s how he died. In a wreck.”

Alan did laugh then, just a chuckle. “I think it’s okay,” he said. “They’re not going to make that connection.”


2 Responses to “Thursday Night Ice; Friday Night Lights”

  1. February 6, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    That is some serious jewelry he’s got on. Also: fond memories of driving icy mountain highways with you, to and from skiing, and entering a skid just as an 18-wheeler pulled up next to us.

  2. February 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    I still get bitter about being denied a weather day for a hurricane and for “Texas Snow” when it seems like everyone else gets the week off. But then I remember actually driving in real snow in Utah in my little Camry.

    That is a lot of serious jewelry – this coming from a girl.

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