Saturday, September 12, 2009

Another Buckeye Tale

If I were a first year student at the National University of Singapore (NUS), I might be living in one of the residences, King Edward VII or Prince George's Park. The names impress me, and as an 18-year-old, that might have been enough.

When I was considering my own university studies a long time ago, I chose the only school I was really familiar with: Ohio State University (OSU).  OSU was as familiar to me as a small town Ohioan as NUS is to anyone in Singapore. However, there is one major difference. For me, a love of OSU was based not so much on my fascination with its academic laurels, which is clearly how the NUS brand resonates throughout Southeast Asia, or my desire to work in any particular school or college at OSU. My college choice was not built upon a careful study of acceptable ACT/SAT scores, scholarship options, or campus contours. No, it was made mainly thanks to the image of excellence represented by the tradition of OSU football.

At this stage in my life, having worked in university education in a variety of contexts for 30 years, and having seen the richness of higher ed and the extent to which it can impact young minds, I realize how absurd my original motives might have been. The only way I can support the parameters of my naivete is this:  OSU football is so HUGE in Ohio that for many it is the face that OSU shows off most gloriously.

This is not to denigrate the various colleges and schools within the university, both undergraduate and graduate. It's not a slight to the teaching staff and their commitment to education, or to the researchers and their world-class achievements. It is mainly a reflection of the university landscape that the media, and the university itself, opens most clearly to the world. And despite the many who may think such imagery begins up on High Street on the steps of the Law School, or at the entrance to the Ohio Union, or in the glass of the Wexner Center for the Arts, or somewhere on the Oval facing the William Oxley Thompson Library, the real deal begins on the east bank of the Olentangy River, at the corner of Cannon and Woody Hayes Drive. For there, in its 80-plus years of architectural and sporting majesty, stands Ohio Stadium, the center of our Buckeye State universe.

This stadium, more affectionately know as the Horseshoe, or just The Shoe, does not only present an image of OSU to the people of Ohio, but also to the entire nation (and I'd suggest to the world). Through its history, Ohio's coliseum has been a magnet for millions of people as they come out on autumn days of sterling sunshine or bleak chill to cheer a hundred-thousand strong in support of the university's cherished Buckeye football team. As a kid even when my family would go trailer-camping in the Hocking Hills or at Wolf Run on September and October Saturday afternoons, it was nearly a holy rite to set time aside between lunch from the kerosene stove and the evening's fire-pit dinner to listen to an OSU football game.

Though I only ever played football on the playground and not in an organized setting, as far back as I can remember, the OSU football games were watched in my home by us kids and the elders alike. More importantly, they were blimped over by zeppelins, analyzed by radio and TV show hosts, serenaded by the OSU Marching Band, and immortalized in the impassioned play of the team members themselves: heroes like quarterback Rex Kern (from Lancaster, close to my hometown) and defensive back Jack Tatum from the 1969 National Championship team, the two-time Heismann Trophy winner Archie Griffin (who attended OSU when I did), linebacking studs such as Chris Spielman and James Laurinaitis, the 2003 NCAA championship game underdogs and winning team members, and the current squad's quarterbacking hope, Terrelle Pryor.

Now the games and the stars even get skyped onto computer screens set up on living tables like my own here in Goodluck Garden, Singapore, pushing Buckeye pride into the globe's farthest corners.

Knowing such background and my allegiance to OSU football, few now might question the method of my college choice.  But there was one other factor that tipped the scales furiously over in favor of my attending OSU: My acceptance into the Stadium Scholarship Dormitory!

Yes indeed. For two wonderful seasons (my first two years of college), I resided in the dorm that from the 1930s had housed an elite group of young scholars (and fervent pre-game party-goers!) like myself. I still remember the buzz of game-day Saturdays, and how by early morning, fans would be parading the vast parking lot beneath our residential unit's floor to ceiling windows, amazed to see students like me loitering inside.

Some of those folks even became our "clients," waving around fresh 20-dollar bills to entice us to open one of the dorm's ground-level entrances.  (Yes indeed! From those entry ways, stairwells led up to three levels of hallways that would open into our living units; in the same stairwells, there were other doors that directly accessed the stadium's massive interior walkways.)

Of course, living in the stadium had numerous other bennies: 1) if we didn't have tickets, we could enter games for free anyway, as long as we were willing to scrounge for a seat ; 2) if we did have tickets, we could get in early, beating the crowds; 3) if we wanted to impress back-home friends, we could arrange pre-game parties in our dorm rooms, then lead the entire group into the stadium at game time; 4) we could access the stadium at any time, morning, noon or night, taking pleasure in the city's biggest sports arena as our private backyard playground, from the field itself to more romantic environs high up in C Deck. And that I did, on numerous occasions.

In fact, I remember that once during my last year as an undergrad, long after I had moved out of the dorm, I took a prospective girlfriend to the stadium late at night, entered by the main dorm door, then using dorm contacts, got quick approval and slipped into the stadium's bowels. From there I led the young lady out into the seats and up to the top of one of the coliseum's four main flagpole-bearing columns. There she and I sat until just before dawn, chatting, drinking a bottle of wine and surveying the shifting horizon. I even remember one of the topics from our heart-to-heart that night, travel, and I can recall saying that I wanted to explore the world, which might have seemed like just another naive thought at the time. Yet how grandly accessible the world looked from that vantage point!

Though I never played football "officially" at OSU, though I never felt the electricity of emerging from the tunnel on game day with my teammates into the wild screams of 105,000 well-wishers, I did live my own OSU dream, I took that golden educational opportunity to learn and expand my horizons, growing immeasurably in the process, developing other sets of goals to pursue.

Where I am today is very much an offshoot of that original seed idea, or a branch from the tree, if you will; and I am still a Buckeye, through and through.

And tomorrow, at 8am Sunday the 13th in Singapore, 8pm Saturday the 12th Columbus time, I'll skype one of my siblings in central Ohio,  and in family-bonding mode, we'll watch the #7 nationally ranked Buckeyes as they tackle the #3 Trojans of the University of Southern California in another classic match up.

Like a schoolboy, I can't wait!

[Addendum: The OSU team lost Saturday night's passionately fought battle, 18-15. But win or lose, the Buckeye nation supports OSU, its student athletes and their lofty dreams.]

*I'd like to thank my cousin, Bev Elder Sturm, another OSU grad, former OSU Marching Band member and Buckeye fanatic, for the use of her photos. This one's for you, Bev!

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Road Home

I'm a romantic at heart. That's why when tonight I watched the 1999 Chinese film The Road Home, starring Zhang Ziyi as country girl Zhao Di, a teenager who experiences love at first sight with the first-ever primary-school teacher to work in her village, I get so emotionally involved in the story that I believe yet again that something such as unflinching love is possible. My daughter Billie, a 14-year-old who seems wise beyond her years in this situation, cynically questions that, then tells me that the innocence of 18-year-old Zhao Di would be impossible in today's world.

"18-year-olds now plan to lose their virginity," she says, surprising me. "But this girl looks so cute following him all around. Nowadays she'd be considered a stalker."

In the movie, Zhao Di isn't thinking sex, but stalking she does. Since first seeing Luo Yusheng, the handsome young man, during the building of the one-room schoolhouse, she shadows him everywhere, such as when he is walking his young students through the fields; she's happy to have a chance to cook a meal for him (done in rotation as a village obligation); and she's captivated hearing his voice reading aloud to his pupils. Her love has a high price though when Teacher Luo is suddenly ordered back to the city. She suffers torment not knowing if he will ever return, and her mother remarks that he's left and taken the girl's heart with him.

But all turns out well. We see the love story both past and present, young Zhao Di's early saga framed by a narrative 40 years in the future. It's in this bigger picture that we meet the story-teller, the adult son of Zhao Di and Luo Yusheng, come home to his father's funeral. It's in this context that the mature love is posited, with Zhao Di insisting that her husband's cortege be done in the traditional way, even in the winter, with his coffin carried for miles and miles from the county morgue back to the village home where their love had blossomed and endured.

This is a film of few words yet deep pure emotion and stunning rural vistas --- a must view for anyone who longs for the ways things might have been.