He Smiled

Imagine being able to say that OJ Simpson once smiled at me!  Guess what? It really happened. This is the story of my “brush” with the famous.

When I transferred to the University of Southern California in the fall of 1968, I knew little about college football.  At the time, I was soon to discover, USC was an athletic powerhouse, thanks to a phenomenal bunch of handpicked athletes in a variety of sports. The Trojans dominated in football, men’s and women’s basketball and swimming.  Not only that, but their track and field teams were equally strong due to multisport athletes.

Football begins the season. Banners covered surfaces all across the campus. Rallies were held every day and when the teams weren’t at home, all ears were tuned to the radio. You either followed the sports or you were an outcast. It was that simple.

The athletes, no matter what sport or how great they were, dominated the social life of the campus. Partying to celebrate their successes was a nightly affair since some team played almost every day, whether at home or away. If they weren’t off playing or pratcicing, they strutted their stuff around campus, practically oozing greatness.

I quickly learned the “culture,” of partying. There was a booze-filled affair the night before a game, partying during the game, and another party after the game, all in celebration of a victory won or a record broken. And if you didn’t find what you were looking for at one party, all you had to do was stroll down fraternity row to find another. This was especially important if you didn’t like the booze being served or the music thundering out onto the street.

None of the better-known athletes lived in the Greek houses and few had their own apartments. Instead they had their own dorm which was shielded from the peasants by locked doors and glazed windows.  It was rumored that their meal options weren’t the standard bland food that the rest of us got: instead legend had it that they feasted on huge, juicy steaks, fresh vegetables and a cornucopia of cheeses and desserts.

When they had nothing better to do they swaggered about campus in their lettermen jackets emblazoned with every type of recognition (except for a noticeable lack of academic awards). That’s not to say they weren’t capable, but at that time, achievements on the field or court were what kept them at college, not the grades received or classes taken.

With their rippling muscles, impossibly broad shoulders, and over-confident leers dished out to fawning fans, they stood far above the crowd. And they knew it.

Periodically small groups of “stars” strolled through my dining hall, snickering at the dismal fare splattered on institutional grade plates and trays.  I imagined that they had just dined on mounds of steak cooked to perfection, served with steaming mashed potatoes and crisp fresh greens.

Equality among students did not exist and there was no pretense of leveling the playing field, because the athletes were, literally, the bread and butter of university funding.  The stronger the athletes, the more likely the university would rack up victories, which then correlated to increased donations from alumni.

If I hadn’t been awed by their very presence, I should have despised the athletes for they were the epitome of all that I was not.  My family was low income which qualified me for a rather generous “pity” scholarship from the state of California. Without that gift I would not have been at such a prestigious college as USC.  But, like the vast majority of students, I didn’t hate the arrogant athletes, but rather worshipped the ground they walked on.

One evening, in a rather unusual move for me, I got as dressed up as I could and went downstairs where a dance was being held in the cafeteria.  I am not sure what possessed me to go as I was a horrific dancer.  I was also painfully shy and so operated solo the vast majority of the time, in classes as well as while on campus.

I did have friends, academics like me, but more extreme for their heads dwelt more in the clouds than in reality.  None of them were what I considered marriageable as they were more interested in finding a spouse to complete a given responsibility than having a relationship of equals. But, like any teenager, I yearned to have a boyfriend.  The dance “called” my name, speaking to me of an opportunity to meet, greet and date and so I went.

The dining hall had been transformed, as much as possible, into a disco dance hall.  With lights down low, revolving points of light danced across the walls, creating an eerie spectacle of glowing, gyrating bodies.  It wasn’t Halloween, but the bizarre lighting gave off the same feel.

The music was ear-shattering making it impossible to do more than look at all the beautiful people.  I meandered about the perimeter of the room with a plastic smile glued to my face, hoping that just one person would nod kindly in my direction. Once my circuit was completed with no takers found, I wanted nothing more but to leave this place of loneliness among confusion.

I headed toward the door, but just as I got within sight of the doorjamb, the crowd parted as miraculously as the Red Sea.  In walked none other than OJ Simpson, flanked by two humongous football players.

OJ was an incredibly handsome man with an earthy skin tone that spoke of roots, faithfulness, integrity, and family.  His eyes sparkled and a shy smile gave a sensuous lift to his lips.  I saw no semblance of arrogance, but warmth.

Like the rest of the crowd, I stood transfixed, enjoying simply being in the presence of greatness.  This was OJ’s year, the year he earned the Heisman Trophy, broke a number of records, and was first pick in the professional football draft.  Everyone knew that he was bound for the record halls and that his name would be spoken around the world.

As the trio neared me I was shoved back into the crowd.  I didn’t mind, for I intrinsically knew that these men were well beyond my social reach.  What I didn’t expect or count on was being seen.

As O’s greatness neared me, his eyes glanced in my direction and he smiled.  Not an I-want-to-talk-to-you smile, but one that recognized me as a fellow human being.  Since the contact was short-lived, I realized that there was the possibility that the greeting wasn’t even meant for me.  I acknowledged that OJ was simply flashing his famous smile at everyone, sort of like the priest sprinkling Holy Water over the congregation in a quick pass down the aisle.

Even though I knew that the encounter meant nothing to OJ, I stood a little taller and felt a tad more important than I had before.  It was a moment that I will never forget.

More Than Just Surviving

These are trying times. Because of a coronavirus are lives have drastically changed. Workers aren’t working unless they are deemed “essential”. Roads which normally would be congested morning and evening are practically empty. Restaurants aren’t serving unless they can provide to-go meals.

Libraries aren’t open. We can’t go to the gym, theater or conferences. Families can’t see each other and teachers can’t provide one-to-one assistance to their students. Baseball and basketball aren’t happening.

Many parks are closed and those that are open have closed parking lots and imposed restrictions limiting how many people can gather in a given place at the same time.

How do you survive in these changed circumstances?

Technology has become the lifeline for most of us. Virtual meetings, family visits, classrooms, even yoga studios allow us to interact with others. Of course there’s the phone, but it can’t take the place of seeing a loved one’s face or interacting with cherished friends.

Because we are curious about when life can return to normal we feast on the news. We find ourselves spending too much time online, reading reports and studying statistics hoping to see the light at the end.

There are days when circumstances seem to be changing. We smile more, laugh more, feel lighter and brighter and happier overall. Then we hear of a new outbreak and we sink back into that dark hole.

We forget that there are things we can still do. If we have yards, we can go outside. Live in an apartment building? Go up on the roof. We can don masks and walk around the block, making sure to maintain social distancing when we encounter others.

We can still barbeque and sit on balconies or decks if we have them. We can listen to music and read good books. We can watch documentaries on television and play board games with those in our homes.

If we’re crafty, we can make something. Paint, knit, crochet, sew, build. Cut, fold, stamp.

If we have the physical ability we can tackle home-cleaning tasks that we’ve put off for years. The stuff in the garage might not be needed anymore. The garden that we’ve neglected now needs plants that can provide food as well as beauty. Clean windows, showers and tubs. Polish the wood floor and wipe down blinds.

When we’re feeling sad we can do something uplifting. Bake cookies to nourish, sew masks to give away, connect via email, phone or internet.

We have to change our mindset. Instead of dwelling on what we can’t do, think of all the blessings we’ve been given. Instead of moping about, rejoice in another day of life. Instead of carrying sorrow on our shoulders, find reasons to rejoice.

Things may not be wonderful right now, but an end will come. When it does, let’s not look back on these times with regret for what we didn’t do, but instead on all the things we did.

That’s the attitude needed to survive. We can do this. We can choose to walk alone or we can use what tools we have to pull others into our circle. We are children of survivors. We are survivors.

 

The Times are Changing

Every year the flu sweeps across the country and sickens thousands. Kills many more. Yet we seldom panic when the word “flu” is used. Why? Because it is commonplace. It’s expected. It’s understood.

We know that it brings runny noses, coughs, chills, fevers. We expect to suffer for a week or more. It will leave us weak, but we recover. We don’t want to eat, but that’s for a relatively short period of time.

Our neighbors and coworkers and relatives get it, suffer, then most of them get well. Only rarely does someone we know die from the flu, and those that do tend to have compromised immune systems.

So what’s new about this coronavirus? For one thing, it’s taken researches a while to try to isolate what caused it. We don’t like mystery. We like scientific explanations. We like logic.

Mystery illnesses remind us of science fiction movies where plagues sweep across the world killing millions. That makes us uncomfortable because there’s a touch of reality in there, a touch of possibility that causes us to squirm.

Americans are accustomed to catching the flu then returning to normal life. While we are home suffering, everyone else is working, traveling, shopping. We wrap up in heavy blankets and sip broth while the rest of the family gobbles down pizza, hamburgers, spaghetti.

While we’re home unable to work, work goes on, leaving us behind. We worry that the boss will discover that we are not needed. That hurts our egos as we like to believe that we are indispensable.

Across the United States, as the virus sickens more and more of us, governors and mayors are enacting rules that restrict our movement. We don’t like that. We believe in our freedoms and those are being eroded on a daily basis.

We are in love with our cars. Yes, we can still drive about, but where can we go? Not to the movies or the theater as they are closed. We can’t dine in a nice restaurant where we chitchat with friends, for they are closed as well. We can drive up to a fast food window and order take out, but we aren’t permitted to share the meal with outsiders.

Our churches are closed, so we cannot worship in the usual way. Some churches have created streamed services, but that’s not the same environment. The pomp is gone. The music is gone. The partaking of communion is also gone. Our community is broken into tiny parts.

We cannot stroll through a mall or go for a hike with friends. Even our doctors don’t want to see us, opting for phone calls instead of in-person visits.

All the things that we are used to doing, that we accept as our rights, are shuttered.

The scary part is that we don’t know for how long. Two weeks? Three? Maybe even four? No one knows for sure. This uncertainty is new.

The flu might close a school for a deep cleaning that lasts a day, but all schools are closed for at least three weeks. Education, a right that we highly value, has ground to a halt.

No public transportation is operating, so we cannot go into the city or ride across the bay. We are truly stuck.

This curtailing of our freedoms is frightening. People are hoarding food and medicine. They are even filling bottle after bottle with water, thinking that our supply is going to be cut off? Who knows.

We are told to use sanitizer but you can’t find it anywhere. We are told to stay out of stores, but what if you need food? Because of the hoarders it’s hard to find fresh food, and when you do, the prices have risen to unacceptable rates.

We are told to keep six feet of separation between us, but at the grocery store, people stand shoulder-to-shoulder.

I hope and pray that this passes quickly and that not too many sicken and die.

Let’s muscle through this together. Let’s comply, as much as possible, for the betterment of all. Perhaps if we stay home, the end will come soon.

Meanwhile, we can sing the old song about how the times are changing.