ARTICLES

 

Espresso Newspaper

November 1998

Galeire Kamzik: The Center of the Center

“So what brings you to the center of the center of such a most unstable region at such an opportune time?”

The professor of socioeconomics at Charles University of Prague, whom I had just met, had leaned over my shoulder, as I sat at the bar, to pose the question directly to my ear. Then he squeezed in between the bar stools and waited for my response.

I had been contemplating my bottled beer, a Pilsner Urquell, considered one of the best beers in the world if not the best, when the question drew me out. In the crowded little bar of Galeire Kamzik (Chamois) it is not hard to find someone willing to engage in conversation. Questions can come rapid fire and it is necessary to all ways to be metaphorically on your toes because Kamzik does not draw the usual crowd.

Galeire Kamzik is about 50 meters from Prague’s historic center–Staromestske Namesti (Old Town Square). It is a place that no one goes looking for. Tucked away at the end of the blind street Koza (Billy Goat) where the narrow, cobbled stoned street intersects with two gated corridors, which are locked by 9:00 p.m., Galeire Kamzik is all but unknown even to locals.

The only outsiders who find Kamzik are drunks, those looking to get drunk, or the occasional adventuresist tourist, the one who stick their noses into all the nooks and crannies, who upon seeing a place normally frequented only by locals isn’t afraid to step in and have a least one drink.

In the spring of 1996, I spent two months in Prague on a writing project. After a day of writing, I went into the center in search of Pivo (beer), which isn’t hard to find, considering Czechs drink more beer than any other people.

Wandering through a corridor, I heard the Rolling Stones’ song “Jumping Jack Flash.” I followed the music to Galeire Kamzik. Fifteen foot windows framed in dark wood enclose the bar. One set of windows look onto a white walled corridor, the other onto Koza. Inside are seven, small, dark wood round tables and more chairs than can ever fit around them. An L shaped bar seats eight.

The floor is of worn wood planks and in the center of the bar is a pillar that supports the neo-Gothic arches of the vaulted ceiling. On the plastered walls, yellowed from years of cigarette smoke, hang large original paintings by Czech artist. Above the entrance to the restrooms is a portrait of the Mona Lisa with horns and a joint in her hand.

It is a place lacking pretenses, where one time dissidents come to be among their peers. It is a place where the Rolling Stones’ songs, rebellious music for rebellious spirits, is played almost continuously. It is a place where early in the morning on a whim the bars owner, Joseph Mungo, will play communist work songs and all the patrons sing along, recalling every word to every song because for them it had been mandatory under the Communist regime to know these songs. So, effortlessly, they sing at the top of their voices, however, now no longer singing to remember but rather to never forget.

On many nights I am reminded that it is a place to take shelter from a storm.

Mungo–“The Rolling Stones are my life”– sang in a rock ‘n roll band during the Communist regime, gravitating toward the rebel music because it raised the ire of the government. A band that became too popular drew the attention of government officials and soon were prohibited to play. The length of suspension depended on the success of the band and ranged from six months to two years. Every musician, a Czech musician friend told me, tried to be very successful.

On any given night at Galerie Kamzik you might find the famous Czech painter Michael Rittstien or a half a dozen other well known painters and graphic artist, or Richard Nemcock, owner of the famous rock n’ roll club Bunkrs.

Here you might find magazine publishers discussing their latest issues, or the professor of Economics, whom after the Velvet Revolution was invited to Lecture at Harvard and whom eventually worked alongside Noam Chomsky.

Here the band Savle Mece (Swords and Sabers), one of the best Jazz and Blues fusion bands in Europe, whose trumpeter Miro is probably the best trumpeter in the Czech Republic, drops in after their shows to cool down. Mungo keeps a light on for them and like the great Jazz movie- they wonder in “Around Midnight” and stay sometimes until dawn, drinking slivovice, a Moravian moonshine.

Miro’s girlfriend, Barra, a well known Czech actress and host of her own political-talk-game show, “The Guillotine,” sometimes accompanies him to Kamzik. The ex-minister of finance drinks here too, as does the one time top anchorman of the communist period, the Peter Jennings of his time.

On the wall are snapshots, the kind pinned to bulletin boards of your own local bar, except when you look closely at these photos, the Kamzik patrons are shown with their arms around Mick Jagger, or are greeting the Dala Lama, or having a drink with Czech President Vaclav Havel.

It’s here to the center (Kamzik) of the center that they all come to unwind. Here they come to be themselves. As Robert, the lead singer of the bars band “Get Back to the Grave” (a snip young women say to older men whose passes are unwelcome), says “Here we are all family.”

My arrival at such an “opportune time” was serendipitous, arriving one week before the national elections. The “unstable time” mentioned by the professor was in reference to the results of that election. The Civic Democratic Party (ODS), the right-wing conservative, pro-privatization party that had run the country since 1992 and President Vaclav Havel’s choice of parties had fallen on hard times.

Prime Minister and ODS party leader Vaclav Klaus, a brilliant politician but like many brilliant politicians arrogant to a fault, had led the country into an unstable economic breach. Then while struggling to right the ship a scandal, the disclosure that members of Klaus’s cabinet had access to a secret Swiss account and, moreover, were unable to explain the source of several million crowns worth of political donations, all but cost Klaus and the ODS re-election.

The people’s disgust with the economy, lowering of living standards, and the ODS lapse in ethics brought the Social-Democratic Party (CSSD), once thought moribund, back to power.

A year ago, to broach the possibility of a left-wing socialist Czech government would have brought laughter and jeers of absurdity, yet this absurdity is now a reality. Furthermore, as the Czechs try to find that comfort zone with a left-wing government, they still must contend with a lack of strong leadership because, although the CSSD did win a majority of votes, they did not win enough parliamentary seats to form a majority government, leaving the people without a leader in a economic crisis that demands strong leadership.

In the ensuing weeks, the CSSD attempted a coalition with the minority parties, the Freedom Union (US) and the ultra-conservative right-wing Christian Democratic (KDU-CSL), but they wanted nothing to do with the left-wing CSSD and its foul tempered, brow-beating leader and now Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman. Quietly in the wings former Prime Minister Klaus waited.

Klaus was finally approached by his hated arch rival Zeman about forming a government. In negotiations, which could have been nothing but arduous, Klaus secured the position of Parliament chairman. But it is a government some say will not last more than six months, an assumption that continues to lead to an unstable economy and a lack of confidence from the international financial world. Zeman himself called this compromise with Klaus and the ODS a “Suicidal Government,” a coalition no less he feels “will last the four-year term.”

The mood of Pragures, to say the least, is subdued. Uncertainty is again their companion. Although, this time it is not an oppressive regime that distorts their way but rather the unstable, fragile world of Global economics–a far greater foe.

So I gathered my thoughts then formulated my answer and told the professor of socioeconomics that what brought me here to the center (Prague) was to see for myself the affects Western cultural and Capitalism will have on a country that for fifty years lived under Fascist and Communist rule. What brought me to the center of the center was a matter of great luck.

He nodded, laughed and slapped me on the back and then wandered toward his table for another whiskey. Soon I was joined by Peter, the professor of economics and former colleague of Chomsky. In 1996 I had a long discussion with Peter on the Nature of Man; a discussion that, subsequently, helped me to frame many of my thoughts on Mankind’s’ social, economic and political problems; a discussion that lasted well into the early morning.

In short, Peter stated that man was good but that his systems, which were man made and, therefore, “artificial,” were the bane of man’s existence.

This time we had a long discussion on Raw Capitalism and the International Monetary Fund and their probable devastating affect on local cultural, a conclusion we both agreed upon. When I realized that this magical city of Prague might have its great cultural suppressed or altered by Globalization, something that Fascism and Communism had tried and failed, I looked up from my beer with a feeling of despair.

“So what do we do?” I asked, hopeful that here at the center of the center there might be an answer.

Peter stood leaning against the bar, his left hand on his hip, looking at me, contemplating my question. Gradually, his contemplative expression gave way to a smile then the smile became a grin, and then in a burst of enthusiasm he put an arm around my shoulders and squeezed.

“By then, hopefully, we’ll be dead and not have to worry about it,” Peter answered and began to laugh. I too began to laugh and soon we had drawn the attention of the patrons of Galerie Kamzik.

How to explain, although, I realize here, like everywhere, there are no answers, but now it doesn’t seem to bother me as much.


Minor League Football Newsletter

August 2007

A Line on the Field

The thing about playing sports is we never know what life lessons we’re going to take away from the game. For the most part I don’t think any of us really thought that much about what lessons we were learning. We were all just trying to get better. Occasionally, I’m sure we all had those moments when a coach tried imparting some wisdom, some life lesson to us like the word ‘assume’. How many of us have heard that one?

However for every shiny nugget of wisdom a coach tried to impart upon us it was merely one rock in the river of lessons learned from playing the game. Among those lessons were to prepare, prepare, prepare, do your best, learn from your mistakes, and never, never quit. All lessons we submerged ourselves in.

All of these lessons shaped us, built our character, also, some of those lessons gave us moments when something clicked and the game got easier because of something we were shown and were able, at some point, to incorporate into our game. Maybe it was a technique or a mental aspect of the game. But how many of us can remember a moment when a lesson learned became a brick in the foundation of your life philosophy, the technique/philosophy becoming a way of living our lives? When that happens, then you’re moving into a different realm.

I suspect there are those who know exactly what I am writing about. The lesson that infused us, became us, became part of our DNA. A lesson we’ve never had to think about again because it’s like breathing. And, although, many know of what I write, I believe there are more unaware that, possibly, a philosophy of life lies dormant within them. To those I suggest taking a moment and listen to the words passed down. Don’t be surprised if a correlation between the life being lived and a lesson learned were found.

For me it was during a pass blocking drill when my offensive line coach Charlie Cowan drew a line on the field with the heel of shoe.

I had signed my LA Thunderbolt contract in the summer of 1980 in the Century City high rise office of Bruce Allen the General Manager and head coach of the newly minted team that was to play its games at the Rose Bowl. The World Football League had folded five years prior and no one had heard of the USFL. Steve Young, Hershel Walker were freshmen at BYU and Georgia respectively, and Donald Trump just another developer in New York.

When I think back to that time I can’t for the life of me recall wondering what league I was going to play in. The NFL draft had come and gone, free agents signed (my roommate had signed with the Denver Broncos), and it looked for me to be a long summer until I heard about the tryout at the Rose Bowl. As best that I can recall I had just gone to an open tryout and told I had been chosen.

It was at the tryout that I met the Los Angeles Rams great offensive lineman Charlie Cowan. I knew a lot about him, had several of his Topps football cards and having grown up in a Los Angeles I had watched him play on Television many times. He retired in 1975. He was listed at 6’4, 270lbs and played his entire career from 1961-1975, with the Rams. He played in 206 games missing only four games in fifteen years, and was selected to the Pro Bowl four consecutive years beginning in 1969.

Now he would be my offensive line coach and to say I was excited would be a gross understatement.

But let me return to the high rise office and Bruce Allen. He was of course the son of coaching great George Allen, who had taken the Rams to several championship games and who went on to coach the “Over the Hill Gang” Washington Redskins to the Super Bowl. Allen had a penchant for trading for veterans and had a disdain for rookies. Somewhat like Lakers’ basketball coach Phil Jackson’s philosophy. Allen, the elder, would one day be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

I was escorted by a beautiful young secretary with long legs and shiny black pumps and we passed through a large carpeted reception area with large doors that the secretary opened and then closed behind me as I entered. The office was immense with large windows with a view of Century City and its high rise office towers. Bruce sat behind a large desk that dwarfed him. He was small of stature to begin with and now sitting behind the desk it looked like an optical allusion. Standing beside him was his lawyer.

I sat down in a comfortable armed leather chair. My contract negations were to begin.

Mr. Allen stated being that I had no experience and was not of a ‘skilled’ position (not a whole lot of love for offensive linemen in those days) he was willing to give me $12,500. I said I was hoping for $32,500, the minimum pay in the NFL. He looked at his lawyer and then back to me. He said that there was only one player on the team that was going to make the maximum of $30,000, which was the quarterback. The quarterback I had read about it in the papers and had seen at the tryouts was the one- time Buffalo Bill’s Don May. May had been one of the first black quarterbacks in the NFL. I had his football card too.

“Ok”. I said, “Where do I sign?”

Practices were held at the Rose Bowl. We started with basic shirts and shorts. Everyone was issued a gray t-shirts with the LA Thunderbolts across the chest in dark blue lettering. The shorts were dark blue.

Those first few days we worked on loosening up, and fitness; stretching and wind sprints. This was followed by breaking into units and working on our individual skills. Then we would come together with our counterparts and finally a few reps as complete units offense and defense and, finally, full units against each other.

Coach Cowan as I recall was a quiet man. He observed from a distance only stepping in to say a few words before stepping back, and always it seemed out of view of his offensive linemen. It was in one of these moments when he gave me the advice that would help to no end, turning on the light above my head, making it all click for me.

It was during a team passing drill. I was playing right tackle and was having trouble staying in front of the defensive end, He was quick and strong and came at me juking and jiving, bobbing his head and flaying his arms. It was taking all my quickness, strength and skills not to get beat. I think Charlie saw that. He came over to me in the huddle and looking down at me.

“Son you’re thinking too much.”

Then he eyeballed the line of scrimmage, walked over and stood about four yards straight back from my position on the line and with the heel of his coaching shoe made a line about a yard long parallel to the line of scrimmage.

“When you drop back to here, if your defensive end is inside you take him inside, stuff him and if he is outside then you go after him and ride him outside.”

After that it got real easy for me like riding a bike, like breathing.

Not long afterwards the team folded and Cowan went to work for Pro Players West as an agent. I don’t know how it came about, whether he saw potential in me and asked to represent me or if I went to him. Either way he became my agent.

I remember sitting across from him at his office and telling him if I could only get into camp and put on a helmet I could show people what I could. Of course that’s what a thousand guys were saying, what a thousands guys believed. You had to believe that, you had to believe in yourself that way or you wouldn’t be there; you wouldn’t be putting all on the line and sacrificing friends, loved ones and your future if you didn’t believe.

Having representation helped, it got me into free agent tryouts and when there was an open tryout there was some notoriety by the coaching staff – Cowan must see something in him. But after running your forties and drills etc…a lot like the combines these days some five hundred plus participants would be narrowed down over a few days from a dozen to in some cases just three.

One tryout I made it down to seven and they took three. Another time I was in the final three and we were all offense linemen, and I believed I had outplayed them. Guys who had stayed around to see who would make it were coming over to me and slapping me on the back and congratulating me on the contract I was about to sign.

The last drill had been one on one pass blocking drills. They couldn’t get past me. Not only were they not getting past me I was stuffing them, stopping them in their tracks. They were startled. I had them on their heels. They had never seen someone I think pass block so aggressively. What I had learned from Charlie Cowan had paid dividends.

I stood on the sidelines getting a drink of water when the offensive line coach for the Oklahoma Outlaws came walking over to me scratching his head with the grimace on his face and I knew the look I knew what was coming. I could only smile.

“How old are you? He asked

“I’m twenty-five.”

“Yeah, see those guys are only twenty-two and we think that by the time they’re your age they will know what you know.”

“Sure I understand.”

Those two guys were just out of college both were six feet five inches one had been drafted in the sixth round by the Dallas cowboys. I was three years out of college and was six feet one and a half inches they had more upside, more potential. Sure, I understood, but one thing I knew they would never be was a better pass blocker than me, because I had learned from one of the best and he had passed on his philosophy to me.

I shook the coach’s hand and walked away. I don’t know if those guys ever made it. I hope they did. A few months later I was invited to try out with the Oakland Invaders and that didn’t work out either. After that I called it quits. No regrets. I did all I could do. Sometimes the breaks don’t go your way. That’s something we’ve all learned playing the games we’ve played. If you’re open to it, sports can be a tool for learning some of life’s great lessons.

The last tryout with the Invaders Dennis Ralston was the coach. When he was letting a few of go, he called us together and gave a speech. Although, I can’t recall it word for word it went something like this:

“You guys have come from all over the country to put your talents on the line against the best. You had to overcome the many fears you had about yourselves in order to walk on to this field. You had to believe in yourself and your abilities. Not many people can do that not many people ever give themselves that chance. Football is as you all know a numbers game. There just aren’t enough spots on the team for all of you. But if you take that belief in yourself that brought you here and take that into the business world you will succeed. I guarantee that you will succeed. Thank you men and I wish the best of luck to all of you.”

Life IS the big game. Keep that in perspective. We can do what ever we want or at least try and there is no such thing as failure only lessons in life, for life.

What I learned from Charlie is that, as an offensive lineman, I had been in the mindset of playing defense, passive in regards to protecting the quarterback, reacting instead of acting. Charlie returned my mindset to the offensive position and empowered me to affect the outcome of the engagement; at a certain point (the imaginary line on the field) I became the aggressor, I went on the offensive.

And so I learned, as I had in the passing drill, that if I really wanted to affect the outcome of my life I had to go get it.

 

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