August 10, 2009

Look in her eyes

When the score got to 17-0, we decided to leave. Brown University, my alma mater, was beating up on the University of Stony Brook. Not even a line of fans of all sexes, bare torsos painted S-E-A-W-O-L-V-E-S -- the Stony Brook team name -- could spur a measure of competitiveness. It was fun to see Brown score, but it was getting tedious watching SB's incompetence.

Still, it had been a spectacular show. The Brown mascots, two students dressed in bear costumes, roamed the stands for photo-ops. Kids swooned in delight. Cheerleaders in skin-tight short dresses did their peppy routines -- twirls, kicks and smiles -- to pump up the audience. Adults swooned in delight. The SB marching band staged a precision halftime show to Paul Simon tunes, though Late in the Evening might well have been Too Little, Too Late in the Evening as an oblique reference to the efforts of their struggling team. Their cheerleaders were, let it be said, nowhere near as svelte as Brown's. Then again, the Brown band was nowhere near as slick as SB's, though a deliberate scruffiness has been a long-standing Brown band tradition.

Thus did several alumni spend a sunny September afternoon in a football stadium in Providence, reliving memories of carefree campus days. Me, one of those alums, back at Brown after years.

In the States, college football is a fall tradition. Standards in the Ivy League, where Brown belongs, are pretty abysmal compared to the national powerhouses of the game, and if Brown was beating up on SB, that's a sign of SB's own standards.

Still, something about fall in New England and Ivy football has always grabbed me. Part of that is because the Ivies try to hold on to what college athletics should be about: a pursuit that's an adjunct to academics. Part is because my fellow computer science students -- bright, motivated and hard-working all -- would on a whim throw aside assignments, pile into someone's car, and spend a day driving country roads to gasp at fall foliage. I joined them often, never tiring of the orgy of pinks, yellows and oranges as the trees shed the sedate greens of summer.

It became a computer science rite, this drive. Except Saturday afternoons, when not even the foliage kept us from cheering on Brown's footballers. Or maybe we were really ogling the cheerleaders, who knows.

This time too, the stomping of SB was one stop in our September romp through the fall colours of New England. Every day on the road, more trees turned aflame. Driving along, I found myself often bereft of words, able only to extend my index finger in the direction of the latest brilliant stretch of foliage, hoping my wife would look and gasp too.

Fall memories. And wandering through Brown, others too: struggling to finish programming assignments; camaraderie in the lab as we slogged into the night; reversing onto Irving Avenue, straight into the back of another car doing the same but from the other side of the Avenue.

And of the time, too -- speaking of sports -- when I fought hard to win a game from friend Nancy, member of Brown's squash team.

Game after game, Nancy had been steamrolling me, and as I succumbed in still another, I sensed a resigned scorn in her: "Why won't this guy try harder?" Even all these years later, I remember telling myself, "Win one! Just one!" Scrambling after every shot, I did that -- I won the next game by three points. Nancy looked at me with new respect, then shifted gears. She returned to beating me, but at least it was never again as one-sided. She was never again scornful.

It was a lesson that stuck, and remains one of my favourite Brown memories. That afternoon at the Brown stadium, how I wished SB could find some of the fight that I'm still proud I dug out of nowhere, that changed the look in Nancy's eyes.

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