Friday, January 14, 2011


Unexpected pleasures are the best, which is why I was delighted soon after tuning in to the NFL game between the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals a couple of Sundays ago. Among the pre-game shots was one of Jim Tomsula, the ‘Niners’ interim head coach, entering the stadium, grinning broadly at and shaking hands or swapping high-fives with just about everyone within reach on his way to the field.

On the greensward, the gaiety continued. The rotund, mustached Tomsula, the team’s defensive-line coach before being elevated to replace Mike Singletary for the last week of the regular season, ranged his bench area, hugging players and functionaries.

Even the commencement of hostilities didn’t cool Tomsula’s enjoyment of the occasion; once foot met ball he seemed as much a cheerleader as a coach, taking obvious delight in his team’s good plays. These turned out to be many as the once-uptight ‘Niners, 5-10 in wins and losses going in, turned in their best performance of the season and emerged with a 38-7 victory. When it was over they gave their coach a Gatorade bath, putting a happy ending on an otherwise unhappy year.

I was happy, too, even though my new-home-city team came out the loser. When, I asked myself, had I seen an NFL coach exude so much genuine good feeling before or during a game? That others shared my view was evident the day after the contest, when I tapped into the NinersNation fan website and found that, in a poll on whether or not to make Tomsula the team’s permanent head coach, yeas outnumbered nays 668 to 90.

That wasn’t going to happen, of course; Tomsula’s credentials and repute were too modest for such an august appointment. Having at least the requisite half a brain, he must have thought so himself or he wouldn’t have behaved the way he did. “Sober as a judge” used to be the common expression of grim probity, but, these days, “sober as an NFL coach” is more apt.

Fact is, a judge-like stance doesn’t do justice to the overwhelming sense of self-importance with which the NFL and its minions regard themselves and their activities. To them, brain surgery is penny-ante poker compared with their, um, game. A few seasons back, when the league was legislating against players’ on-field celebrations, some sportswriters dubbed the NFL the No Fun League. The label still holds even though the players seem to have won the above-mentioned tussle.

The NFL, after all, is the outfit that puts Roman numerals after the editions of its annual title contests, as though the appellation “world’s championship” isn’t grandiose enough. It’s the one that, years ago, sponsored a high-school essay contest on its role in American history, as if it had one.

And it’s the gang that pioneered and champions the practice of reviewing via video replay the decisions of its field officials, putting microscopic analysis to such things as ball spots in the name of fairness and the American Way. It’s like it thinks the republic would crumble if a first down were awarded improperly.

The on-field avatars of the Imperial NFL are its coaches, and a more sour-pussed bunch is hard to find. With few exceptions, such as the Seattle Seahawks’ Pete Carroll and the New York Jets’ Rex Ryan, both of whom occasionally show some animation, the football mentors have the collective personality of a boiled turnip, or worse.

Coaches are the most imitative of sorts, and the guy they currently are imitating is Bill Belichick, the chief honcho of the New England Patriots. He’s been hailed as a genius since his team won three Super Bowls during the past decade (in 2001, ’03 and ’04), but he wasn’t so smart when he bombed out after five mostly losing seasons (1991-95) running the less-talented Cleveland Browns.

In 1999 the curt, unsmiling Belichick made history by serving the shortest tenure of any NFL head coach—one day with the Jets, for which he’d been an assistant—before bailing for Boston. His gracious resignation note there exemplified his notion of communications. “I resign as HC of the NYJ,” he wrote (honest).

Belichick roams the sidelines dressed like a construction worker on the job. Not only is he’s the model of coachly paranoia when he covers his mouth with his play chart when mumbling into his head-set, he’s also a partial cause of it. A few seasons ago he was fined $500,000 when one of his assistants was caught taping an opponent’s defensive hand signals for future decoding and use. It’s been alleged that he’s miked his defensive linemen’s shoulder pads to record other teams’ audibles, but that’s never been proved.

Belichick has a 63% victory rate in the league (177 wins-104 losses), proving again that jerks can succeed in his business, but he’s looking up at Tomsula, whose 1-0 head-coaching mark works out to 100%. I find that a pleasant fact.

Saturday, January 1, 2011


A new year is beginning but it’s hard to find many big-picture things to smile about. The U.S. economy sputters in a Catch 22: joblessness won’t improve until people loosen their purse strings, but that won’t happen until they’re convinced their jobs and incomes are secure. Who can blame them?

We remain stuck in unwinnable wars in irredeemable places. “Beliefs” trump science. Shortsightedness is regarded as a virtue; no politician dares to look past the next election, no CEO past the next fiscal quarter.

Thus, we are forced to seek personal solace, finding small pleasures to distract from larger concerns. Fortunately, these are abundant. Here are 10 of mine, in no particular order:

HI-DEFINITION TV. Wife Susie and I bought ours (a Sony) almost three years ago, but I’m still dazzled by its sharpness and clarity. It’s not just a technical improvement, it’s a whole new medium! It’s especially good for sports; the argument for watching games at home instead of in person never has been stronger.

GOOD MARINARA SAUCE. It used to be scarce, even in Italian restaurants, but it’s everywhere now. I give much of the credit to the Food Network, my favorite daytime-TV outlet, which I think has lifted cuisine generally in this land. It used to be said that anyone who could read could cook, but now literacy isn’t required.

TRANSITION LENSES. They turn regular glasses into sunglasses and back again with no effort on the part of the wearer. No need to shlep sunglasses or leave them around to be lost or broken. As the ads say, they protect eyes from harmful UV rays, and look cool to boot. Why doesn’t everyone wear them?

AMAZON.COM. Through it you can get just about any book ever written, often at a bargain price, and delivered to your home. Yes, Kindle, et al, eventually will make books obsolete, but I’m betting I’ll be obsolete before they are. One caution: never pay up for quick delivery. Amazon will pocket your money and deliver when it pleases.

NEW YORK TIMES CROSSWORD PUZZLES. You might recall I devoted much of a previous blog to their excellence, but I feel an encore is needed. I work the Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday ones. They’re testing but doable and, almost invariably, clever. Will Shortz, their editor, is a great man. He should get a Nobel Prize for contributing to human betterment.

NETFLIX. Another new-age marvel whose postal delivery of movie and TV-show DVDs is all but seamless. No runs to the video store, no late fees, and customer reps who are based in the U.S. and whose native language is the same as mine. Claiming to offer some 100,000 titles (OK, the number is disputed), it almost always has the movies I want, and you can take it with you on vacation.

TOYOTAS. Susie and I have owned or leased six of them in the last 13 years, and none has seen the inside of a repair shop except for tire problems or brake jobs. They’re dead solid reliable and have a lot of juice besides. I thought the flap over their supposed unintended accelerations early last year was a classic case of mass hysteria. After a couple weeks of leading the national news, such complaints stopped, cold. No recall eliminates 100% of any problem

ROBERT CARO— The biographer of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson is a marvelous historian, one who never fails to captivate with a writing style that turns a mountain of painstakingly gained detail into a cohesive and griping narrative. Three volumes of his four-part series on Johnson have been published: “The Path to Power” (1982); “Means of Ascent” (1990); and “Master of the Senate” (2002). If you haven’t read them, you should. The fourth, “The Presidency,” isn’t due out until next year, but I will spend this one happily anticipating it. Caro is 75 years old and I wish him good health.

HBO DRAMAS—“The Sopranos” was the best thing on TV, ever (“Lonesome Dove” was second-best), and while the network’s recent original offerings have fallen short of that lofty standard they’re still better than anything else around. I never missed an episode of the war drama “The Pacific” or “Treme,” the one about post-Katrina New Orleans, last year. Ditto the just-concluded “Boardwalk Empire,” despite wondering what delicate-looking Steve Buscemi was doing playing a rough-tough political boss. I’m glad to see that “Big Love” is coming back for another go-round. Even though that series gets progressively nuttier I find hilarious the premise of an ordinary guy humping to keep up with three pretty wives. I especially like the blond one, Nicki.

THE McDOWELL SONORAN PRESERVE. It’s across the street from where I live and from the nearest trailhead I can walk for 15 or 20 minutes and enter a world of desert serenity that’s as different as it can be from the hubbub of the city around it. It’s free, and I can poke around for as long as I wish. You might not live in Scottsdale, AZ, and be able to go there, but I bet there’s somewhere like it reasonably near you.