Saturday, October 31, 2009

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Missing the newspaper life

One of the more depressing sites I visit each day is the Braublog. Minnesota journalist David Brauer operates the blog on Brauer is an outstanding journalist and almost too good at his job. He documents the media scene in Minnesota, shining the light on newspapers every time they cut staff, or eliminate a day of publication, or freeze the pay of its employees. He writes about every troubling issue confronting newspapers. Each post reads almost like a dispatch from the Titanic.

Brauer rarely delivers good news on his blog. Yet I visit the site every day. I haven't worked in newspapers for nearly six years, but I'm as obsessed with them today as I was on my last day in The Forum's offices in Fargo.

Nearly every day I miss working in newspapers. But nearly every day I'm grateful that I'm not caught up in the current turmoil that engulfs papers of all sizes, in all cities. I've got friends at small weeklies in tiny towns and large dailies in major cities. All of them face an uncertain future.

A sportswriter friend in the troubled Gannett chain produces thousands of words each week, superb stories and insightful blogs. Gannett, and several other chains, implemented unpaid furloughs, in addition to layoffs. Every time I read another story about massive cuts in Gannett, I worry about his job and wonder if those who read his work each day understand just what they'd lose if he lost his job.

A friend, who's also my former boss and a mentor, works in Madison, Wisconsin in the features department. He's an award-winning designer, one-of-a-kind headline writer and a newspaperman through and through. The paper's corporate editors have eliminated jobs, with announcements of new cuts seemingly arriving every couple of months. We talked in the past about him giving me a heads-up if a writing job ever opened in Madison. Now I just hope his job remains safe.

One of my best friends writes for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. A decade ago it might have been a dream job, a writing position at a big-city daily. Forget cuts. Now people often talk about whether the paper will survive at all, or if it will perhaps merge with the equally troubled Star-Tribune in Minneapolis. At one time I imagined what it'd be like to have a job for one of the two big-city newspapers in Minnesota. Now I can't fathom how tough life is in those offices.

Friends and former co-workers who have spread out to Texas, Green Bay and Michigan have also been laid off within the past year.

For years The Forum in Fargo was regarded as a solid paper with a great future, perhaps even immune from the troubles confronting the industry. But in the last year they've had to eliminate numerous positions as well, further proving that no newspaper anywhere is completely safe.

Even the New York Times has suffered. A woman I worked with in Worthington reached the top of her profession when she landed a job at the most famous paper in the country. Now I wonder if she'll survive the latest round of buyouts and layoffs.

Everyone knows what the problems are, but no one has the solutions. Or knows if there even are any solutions. Circulation plummets even though more people than ever are actually reading the content of papers. But online sites can't deliver the advertising like the print edition so management cuts staff. The product suffers and circulation drops, as those who pay for the print product see fewer local stories and less in-depth reporting. And as circulation drops more, management again cuts staff. The phrase vicious cycle seems to have been invented for the situation facing newspapers. Throw in a troubled economy that affects advertisers and the problems only get worse.

Some papers now charge people to read it online. But many inside and outside the industry believe it's too late. People today expect information, stories, and basically all media to be free. They'll throw down $4 each day for a cup of coffee. But pay a buck for a newspaper? They'll balk at the idea that stories reported and written by professionals should come with a charge. It's hard to picture those people paying any amount to read a newspaper online, as they surf the web while sipping their overpriced drink.

These difficulties certainly aren't unique to newspapers. Magazines have eliminated thousands of jobs, moves that make me especially nervous these days. The book industry has suffered. So has radio.

But because of my 10-year history with newspapers, that's the industry I think about and worry about the most. I can still picture myself someday returning to newspapers. I loved working at them, loved writing for them. But I might simply be picturing a future in a world that might not even exist at some point. It's a tough concept to deal with, even for those of us not caught up in the day-to-day challenges.

I read several newspapers every day, print editions like The Daily News and New York Times, and online versions from LA, Minneapolis, Fargo, Worthington, Mankato, St. Paul, Chicago, St. Cloud and everywhere in between. And every day I read sites like the Braublog that document the problems at papers in those cities and elsewhere.

If there is a future for newspapers and in them, I'll be grateful to those who have been there during these difficult years. No one ever went into newspapers to get rich. But they did go into them to make a difference, and to make a living. They can still do the former, but if they can't do the latter, nothing else really matters.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Tall guys in sweatpants and short shorts

Former LA Lakers coach Bill Sharman is credited with being the father of the NBA shootaround. Sharman, who coached the Lakers during their record-setting 1972 season, started the practice of having the team come to the arena hours before the game, so the players could get a brief workout in, go through some plays, and take a few shots. A legendary story centers on Wilt Chamberlain refusing to attend one of the shootarounds. Sharman sent a player to Wilt's hotel room to get the big man. Wilt - who, judging by his boasts, probably wasn't alone at the time - told the messenger he goes to the arena once, and that Sharman could decide if he wanted him there for the shootaround or for the game.

So in a way we have Bill Sharman to thank for the above video. It's from the 1983 season. A behind-the-scenes look at the Lakers as they prepare for a game in Phoenix, it's simultaneously fascinating and proof that we don't always want to see behind the curtain. When you see Mark Landsberger (No. 54) wandering around in his shorts, you might be cursing Sharman for his innovation.

Highlights include a young Pat Riley, who was in his second season as head coach. He had the slicked-back hair already, but had not yet become a dictator, a role he perfected in his later years with the team and in New York and Miami. Kareem was 36 that season, but still had a beard and enough hair to come off as a 30-year-old. He was still six years from retirement.

Current Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis is there, decked out in his trademark Clark Kent glasses, which he's since replaced as a coach. At the 1:20 mark, Chick Hearn begins narrating a shooting drill. Only Chick could make a mundane drill sound sort of exciting. But a fight breaks out! One team accuses the other of cheating! Magic confronts McAdoo. Cooler heads prevail. 

About three minutes into the video, the hulking Landsberger appears to adjust himself, unaware or unconcerned about the camera. For some reason, he's the only Laker who deemed it a day worthy of sporting the short-shorts. A Minnesota native, he may have been trying to get some sun on his pale Midwestern legs. Everyone else wears sweats. Landsberger is also the player who would have been voted the guy you'd least like to see in those shorts, narrowly defeating Rambis and Kareem. On an unrelated note, Landsberger didn't return for the 1984 season. His Wikipedia page contains this tidbit:

"After an early 1980s Lakers practice in Phoenix, Arizona, Landsberger joined a group of sportswriters for lunch without changing out of his team jersey. During the meal, Landsberger spilled a chocolate shake on his uniform, leaving a long, brown streak. Since he was on a team road trip and did not have an extra road jersey available, he was forced to wear his stained clothing during the following night's nationally televised game."

So Minnesotan. This game was in Phoenix and was in the early 1980s. But he's not wearing a game jersey, so hopefully he didn't follow this video with a spilled shake.

If I'd seen this video as a kid, I'd have watched the bleary-eyed, yawning players in awe. I'd have speculated on why they were so tired. "Probably spent all night watching tape of the Suns," I'd think. "I bet Magic was shooting free throws until 4 a.m."

Now, well, I'm guessing they were up to more adult activities. Being naive had its moments.

No matter how well-prepared the Lakers were this season, it still ended in disappointment. Worthy broke his leg late in the season. In the Finals, a powerful Philadelphia team defeated the Lakers in four games. I can remember sitting in our living room after Game 4, spinning in a chair, despondent over the defeat. I cursed Moses Malone, Dr. J and Maurice Cheeks. I loathed Philly. Wished the British had sacked it way back when.

I consoled myself with thoughts that Magic, Kareem and Worthy would spend the night working on their free throws and hooks. 

Like I said, being naive had its moments.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A tour of Janesville

I've previously written that the only tourist attraction in my hometown of Janesville is the famous Doll in the Window. And this is true.

But that doesn't mean it's the only thing to see in town. Oh, no. A lake. Softball fields. A Subway sandwich shop. Peace, quiet.

Thanks to the creepy ability of Google to view anything they want and to be everywhere in our lives, even when we don't want them to be, I've been taking a tour of the old town. I miss it. So come with me.

This is on the Old Highway 14. For the longest time the highway ran right through town, ensuring lots of Dairy Queen customers and gawkers at the doll. Parents who told their kids to go play on the highway had to hope their unruly children didn't take them literally.

Janesville cops also like to hang out as drivers speed into the village, snaring them in their web and helping the town earn a reputation as a "speed trap." General rule: Any town of 3,000 people or less with at least one cop will have a reputation of being a speed trap. Fathers pass on warnings to their sons about "slowing down" as they approach these towns. And the reputation is usually richly deserved. The stereotype's true: small-town cops love pulling over speeders.

Now Highway 14 bypasses Janesville. But this what the view looks like if you've come from Mankato, which is the closest "big" city to Janesville. Townsfolk drive to Mankato for the mall, Applebee's and the movies.

The white silos with blue paint that spell out Janesville are a landmark themselves, but they used to be much cooler. The old design featured a rainbow. It ended with a pot of gold on the last structure.

For decades, Highway 14 had a reputation as being an extremely dangerous road. Way too many people died on that road over the years. Whenever we heard the sirens from our house, we always wondered if there had been a bad accident on Highway 14. A police car going after a speeder is one thing. But when an ambulance followed that siren, it signaled possible tragedy.

Main Street. The Post Office sits on the end of the block to the right. Weirdly, I still remember the combination for my parents' post-office box. So if I ever need to steal any mail, I can hop on a plane, rent a car and get there before they make it uptown.

A few buildings up rests the former home of the Janesville Argus, which, like all newspapers, has seen better days. The weekly paper's offices moved to Waseca, 10 miles away. As a kid I got my picture in the paper a few times, one time when the editor found a turtle. He had me and my friend Mike pose with the lost creature. Slow news day.

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Wiste's grocery store. Best meat in southern Minnesota, and I'm not just saying that because I'm the East Coast lobbyist for the Janesville Chamber of Commerce. During the summers of 1984 and 1985, I went to Wiste's every day with my friend Brandon - we lived about a 30-second walk from the store - to buy baseball cards. I cringe when thinking about how much money we spent on cards those two years. "It's a Dave Engle card!" My parents probably cringe even more. Family friend Ron owned the store when I was a kid. In high school, I spent many hours above Wiste's, with my cousin Matt. Ron and his kids had put a weight room in that space. We lifted weights as best we could, jump-roped and competed in some of the most epic tapeball games never witnessed.

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Fury's Barbershop. Over the years, probably at least 10 people have emailed me to wonder if my dad owned Fury's Barbershop, or had memories of taking their kids to my dad's barbershop. They're very sweet letters. Except my dad didn't own it. That's Jim Fury, my dad's cousin, father to Matt. And I usually tell the writers that, unless I want to bask in some misdirected glory.

Jim - who's had the shop for more than 30 years since taking over from his late father, John - is probably the most famous Fury in the land. It owes partly to his reputation as a barber, but even more for his prominence as a comedian. A trip to the shop is only partially about getting a haircut. Mostly it's about listening to Jim's filthy jokes and stories, or his banter with barber shop supporting players who are as familiar to regulars as the cast of Cheers.

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Ah, the Dairy Queen. Two of the biggest mysteries in town each year are when will the DQ open and when will it close? If it breaks 50 degrees in March, people start getting excited. They can taste the Blizzards. They might wander out for a walk, supposedly for exercise. In reality, they'll stroll by to see if any worker waits like a bank teller in the DQ window. When a cold spell strikes in October, anxiety arrives. This time people worry that the Dairy Queen will shut down for the season.

The liquor store is next door. Blizzards and booze. Who could ask for anything more? If you're obese and an alcoholic, this is paradise.

The city park. It's a great space. I spent hundreds of hours on the basketball court, which isn't visible here but is at the back. The only problem came with a rim that was slightly higher than 10 feet, so it had the potential to throw off your shot. Also, concrete jutted out at the bottom of the hoop, causing many a basketball to strike many an unsuspecting groin. It was a lawsuit waiting to happen.

An open space to the right served as the baseball field. We could round up 14, 15 kids on a summer day for a ballgame. The legends of the park had the ability to hit a home run onto the highway. We played football in the space to the left. Again, we had no trouble calling a dozen kids to meet at the park for an afternoon of football. See that big tree to the left? During one game a player slammed his head into it while diving for a catch (he dropped it). Brandon - who was on the other team - cracked, "Way to use your head, Derek." Seemingly harmless. But the line nearly started a brawl between the two teams.

Straight ahead, just to the right of the flag, is the vault the town will open to reveal the secret to the Doll in the Window. Spoooooky.

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The town's gas station. This used to be a Cenex. When I was in ninth grade, the Cenex began stocking bizarre videos that seemingly had no place in innocent, small-town Janesville, nestled in south-central Minnesota. Not porn. But strange, creepy thrillers and horror movies that had never seen the inside of a theater. Yet somehow they'd ended up on videotape in Janesville. I went down there every week with Matt to check out the latest offerings.

How weird were they? How about Night of the Bloody Apes.

Its description:
The plot concerns a mad scientist who transplants a gorilla's heart into his dying son, saving his life but transforming him into a monstrous, ape-like creature who embarks on a rape and murder spree before being brought to justice by a luchadora (female wrestler). The plot of Night of the Bloody Apes does not concern the luchadora bringing the ape-man to justice-rather, she has a much less pronounced role.

If I remember correctly, the justice actually involved the doctor trying to replace the gorilla heart in his son with the woman wrestler's heart. (sorry for the spoiler)

Now imagine two 15-year-olds scanning videos. Christmas Vacation? A classic, but seen it. The Hunt for Red October? It'll be on HBO. An ape-like creature embarking on a killing spree, brought to justice by a luchadora? The choice was easy. Sadly, the bizarre videos began disappearing after a few years, and we were never sure why. Then again, we were never sure why they were ever there, so everything evened out. And life returned to normal in Janesville.

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That's the Catholic Church to the right. A magnificent structure, inside and out. Saw the inside of it pretty much every Sunday as a kid. We lived a block away, rendering useless any excuse I had when trying to escape services. A snowstorm could have dumped 18 inches of snow on the town, keeping the priest and Jesus from getting to the church, but the Fury clan would have been there in one of the first few pews. Always in the front.

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Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton High School. This was sort of the view we had in 11th grade when someone called in a bomb threat and we all evacuated for a brief time (pre-Columbine, bomb threats were taken about as seriously as a spitball in science class).

And that brings us to the end of this tour. According to Google Street View that's about all there is to see in Janesville, as it didn't venture much off of Highway 14, except to take a stroll down Main Street.

That's all right. There isn't a whole lot more to see - a few churches, the library, some bars where good fights happen at times, including ones involving people named Chicken Man. And most people probably see these views and think, "That's it?"

But growing up, what was there was plenty, even if a virtual tour makes it look like not much at all.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

My further descent into being an old man

Game 1 of the World Series starts Wednesday at 7:57 p.m. EST. Game 1 of the World Series will end sometime on Thursday, probably around 12:30 a.m. EST. At around 11 p.m., I'll let out a cry, "Jesus, another pitching change?" And at 11:45 p.m., I'll wonder, "Why's he worrying about that guy on first so much when he has a five-run lead? Just pitch the ball!"

FOX has actually trumpeted the fact games are scheduled to begin before 8. People complain about late starting-times? Fine, we're starting 'em earlier. Three minutes. Happy?

I don't have a problem with when games begin, just with when they end. I realize we're never returning to the days when a World Series game started at 1 p.m. We're 40, 50 years past a time when kids snuck radios into classrooms in order to listen to the early innings of a game. The World Series is played at night now and that battle is finished.

I remain a huge baseball fan and that will never change. But watching an entire playoff game has become a war of attrition, one I often lose. It's a battle between me, my television, pitchers who take 15 seconds before every pitch and step off the rubber three times an at-bat when a guy's on base, and managers who trot out to the mound so often, it appears they have contract clauses that pay them per pitching change.

Complaining about it makes me feel old, although younger people with short attention spans probably have a bigger problem with it than any old-timers. If you were raised on baseball, the maddening length of playoff games is an annoyance, but we keep watching, the memories of crisp, two-and-a-half hour games placating us. I don't know if forcing someone new to the game to watch Terry Francona jog out to the mound eight times a night is the best way to introduce the wonders of baseball.

I won't say it was better back in the day, but at least some playoff games used to be completed on the day they began. Baseball doesn't have a clock and it's one of the beauties of the game, the poets tell us. But being taunted by your clock at home isn't any fun.

"Yes, it's 10:30 p.m. The game's been going on for more than two hours. And it's only in the fourth inning. Deal with it. No, it's not a 9-6 game. It's 1-0, which makes it even more incredible that it's taken 150 minutes to play four innings."

There are numerous reasons for this, of course. The countless pitching changes. Another is the battle between pitcher and hitter, with each staring at the other, waiting, waiting, waiting...and stepping out of the box. Or off the pitching rubber. All the while, the gentle voice of Tim McCarver reminds us why the pitcher shook off his catcher seven times.

Plate discipline by most hitters ensures that they'll take one, two, three pitches per at-bat, driving up the pitch count. And when the pitch count gets too high, here comes the manger for a pitching change. And when the new pitcher arrives, he tries to get settled in and stares at the hitter, waiting, waiting, waiting...and stepping off of the rubber. You can see the cycle.

Whatever complaints I have about the length of games are unrelated to my feelings about instant replay in baseball. One of the arguments I've seen from people who remain against expanding instant replay is that it would make the games longer. Uh, too late. They're already four hours long, without replay. If you're okay with games taking that long, would the fact it might now take four hours and five minutes really set you off? And if the games are now the length of the Oscars, shouldn't we at least have some guarantee that the crucial calls will be correct? No one wants to play for four hours and then have the game decided on a ball down the line that lands two feet fair but is called foul, a call that might have been blown simply because the umpire was exhausted from standing from so long.

Give us more replay. This type of time commitment shouldn't ultimately be tarnished by incompetence and fear of technology.

I don't see this trend ever changing. Or, more accurately, it won't change back to shorter games. Managers aren't going to suddenly channel the spirit of Billy Martin and leave their starters in for nine innings and 178 pitches, refusing to take them out even if blood is coming out of the rotator cuff. Relax, settle in and get ready to watch Charlie Manuel and Joe Girardi lumber out to the pitcher's mound six times a game. And hitters will continue to work the count. Playoff pressure will slow the pitchers down. Throw in some lengthy commercial breaks and it's clear we're now living in a time when three hour games are the norm, and four-hour games are anything but rare.

All we can hope for is that it doesn't get much worse. Otherwise, in 15 years, we'll fondly be saying, "Remember when games ended at midnight, instead of 3 a.m.?"

Sunday, October 25, 2009

What's in a name? A lot of Fury

One night in Fargo, a long-haired young employee at a gas station looked at a check I wrote and said, "Man. Fury. That's an awesome name. I'd kill for that name. You must get all the chicks."

I smiled and nodded politely, refusing to confirm or deny. "Why, what's your name," I asked.



Anyway, I agreed with his general point. I've always loved my name, first and last. Shawn Fury. It has a great ring to it, much better than something like, say, Tom Fury. Especially with Shawn being spelled the correct way. If my name was Joe Smith, Shawn Fury is the type of name I'd take as a pseudonym when I published my first mystery thriller and didn't want longtime readers of my poetry to know I was dabbling in popular fiction.

A lot of people back home in Janesville still pronounce it "furry." Maddening. And robs the name of any cool factor. An old teacher of mine always pronounced it that way, until I wrote a note one day reminding him that it was pronounced as if it was spelled f-e-a-r-y.

Or, as Louise pronounces it - and others who speak English with more grace than we do - fury as in fur(y)ious.

Every time I see Fury - or fury - mentioned in a movie or in a headline or a book or a new product, I get a bit of a thrill out of it. It's the little things in life.

The latest comes from the Mad Max movies. The new one - which won't star Mel Gibson, Tina Turner or a Thunderdome - is likely to be called Fury Road. The plot remains unknown. But it will almost certainly involve violence, post-apocalyptic wars, heroes, midgets, dust, villains and a kick-ass chase involving cars and cycles on something called...Fury Road.

The New York Post is known for its creative headlines - "Headless Body in Topless Bar", "Ho No" (Spitzer scandal), "Stinko de Mayo" (Yankees loss on May 5). But from a selfish standpoint, the ones I enjoy most are when they throw a fury into a headline, which seems to happen two or three times a week. It's a perfect tabloid-headline word, like thug or perv. "Fury fueled by emptiness." "Britney's Fury" (accompanied by Britney Spears attacking a car with an umbrella). "Hill Hath No Fury Like a Woman Scorned." (Hillary Clinton story).

For Christmas one year my mom ordered "Fury Basketball" sweatshirts from the CBA's Fort Wayne Fury, likely setting the team's one-day record for merchandise sales. She passed them out to all the big basketball fans in the family, meaning pretty much everyone. As far as I know, no major professional sports teams have been nicknamed the Fury, but the Detroit Fury played Arena football. In classic Arena League trying-too-hard fashion, the team's logo probably produced more seizures than cheers.

If an expansion team in any major pro league ever takes the nickname, maybe the franchise will give me lifetime season tickets to all the games, in some type of ill-conceived goofy promotion.

Perhaps the most famous Fury in the culture is William Faulkner's The Sound and The Fury. Not sure how many people have actually read the classic book, but that particular phrase has worked itself into popular culture and the minds of newspaper copy editors everywhere. It's particularly handy when writing about loudmouth wide receivers who are also angry with their role in the offense.

Salman Rushdie wrote Fury. Thankfully, no Fatwa's were issued after its publication. According to an anonymous editor at Wikipedia, "this is considered to be the least known Rushdie novel." Hey, don't blame the title.

The Fury by John Farris is a famous novel that Brian de Palma turned into a movie.

There's a heavy metal band from Australia called the Fury.

The most dangerous Fury in history was the killer Plymouth Fury in the movie Christine, based on the Stephen King novel.

And everyone knows Lassie, but how many baby-boomers remember another heroic animal? Fury was a beloved stallion starring in a show of the same name from 1955-1960. Featuring Peter Graves, pre-Mission: Impossible, the show's plot usually "involved a guest star who got into mischief, was rebellious or disorderly and got into trouble because of it, and subsequently was rescued by Fury."

I never saw the show. But just from that description - and the name - I have no doubt that Fury the beloved stallion would have kicked Mr. Ed's ass.

There are Furies everywhere you look, but in its plural form, the word and name loses some of its edge. Even if Furies were mythical creatures.

Military forces understand the word's ability to intimidate. The British had something called the Hawker Fury, an aircraft and apparent partner of the Hawker Sea Fury. The U.S.'s invasion of Grenada in 1983 was called Operation Urgent Fury. They could have saved the word for a takeover of a larger country.

It's not like I picked Fury for a name, so I can't take any type of credit for it. But I still enjoy it, the way it sounds and the images the word sparks. If I was an angry person it'd be an even cooler last name. Or perhaps people would say I was just the victim of a self-fulfilling prophecy, that my inner rage and outward hostility were the fault of my last name. And I credit my parents for the Shawn portion of the name, and thank them for not going the e-a-n route.

Fury. Still sounds cool.

In fact, Louise claims she married me just for the last name. Guess the Fargo gas-station attendant was right.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Joy of microwave cooking

This weekend, I have to fend for myself when it comes to making meals. No Louise. Meaning, no home-cooked chicken with South African potatoes. No hamburgers made better than any restaurant or any backyard grill master. No steaks. No salmon. No pasta. 

No vegetables (it's not all bad).

In these situations, I'm almost like a feral child, only a literate one. If a social services worker wandered through our apartment and saw me eating three more chicken burgers on top of two from the previous night, they might haul me away, either immediately or after a brief court hearing. In my single days I ate fast-food at least once a day, and by once I mean twice. That all changed with marriage, thankfully. My taste buds and internal organs have benefited equally.

When I'm on my own now, I stick to what I know: the aforementioned chicken burgers, French fries, nuggets, cereal (can be a dinner in addition to a breakfast and snack). 

And the microwave. Louise cooks up pounds of barbecue before leaving, assuring sloppy joe's for as long as I can handle them. She'll make chili. Taco meat. She leaves me with a freezer and fridge so stocked that they'd be the envy of any Y2K survivalist nut.

All I have to do is heat the items up.

I don't pretend to be a cook. In fact, I can't even fake being a good cook. Some elementary knowledge would be required to pull off any charade. I did bake a cake for our anniversary a few years ago. It turned out surprisingly well. Haven't made one since. Figured I should retire on top.

But I know how to make certain things, items even a master chef like Louise struggles with. TV dinners, for example. There's an art to knowing just how long the Swanson's chicken meal should be in the oven. How long do you leave it in to get the brownie just right? No one wants a blown-up treat covering the potatoes. What's the exact right temperature for getting that corn to taste so delicious? And when do you take it out to assure that the two pieces of chicken - white, always white pieces with Swanson's - do somewhat resemble chicken? A person who deals with real meals their whole life struggles. A master of these foods owns perfect timing.

But the best weapon in my arsenal is the reliable, forever-present, what-was-life-like-for-bachelors-and-people-who-can't-cook-before-this-was-invented microwave. The small pizzas, two in a box, are my favored pieces, presented with a side of chips and a glass of 2009 Dr. Pepper, lightly chilled. It's a balancing act, knowing just when the cheese has melted enough but not too much. Leave it in for 2 minutes and 30 seconds and you have a perfect meal. Leave it five seconds too long and it can all be ruined. Then the only alternative for dinner is Cap'n Crunch. 

Easy Macs are anything but for those who know their way around a kitchen. But for someone with just a rudimentary understanding of cooking, Easy Macs are a reliable source of...not nutrition. Vitamins, no. I guess they are a source of food, in the strictest sense of the word. But it takes skill and experience to know just how much water to put in the plastic container. It takes a watchful eye to know when the noodles can be removed so they're perfectly prepared and not overdone.

Some people grill hot dogs. Others use the dirty-water technique. I've always nuked 'em. People say they don't want to know what's actually in the hot dogs? I say I don't want to know how much radiation I've consumed over the years with my hot dogs. But with our beast - a red machine affectionately called Lola - you have to know when to hit the stop button. Otherwise an exploded hot dog makes a mess of the insides. Then you see what's inside a hot dog, even if you still won't know what it is.

For a snack I might throw in some microwavable popcorn. Louise has attempted to microwave popcorn on four or five occasions. Not one of those bags survived. The smell of burnt kernels permeates the apartment every time she makes another attempt, choking us. We toss the blackened popcorn into a plastic bag. The charred remains sit there, taunting Louise and her real cooking skills. I've got it down to a science, listening for the famous few seconds before pops, which indicates it's time to pull the bag out. Throw on some butter and it's just like movie popcorn.

I'm going to miss Louise's cooking the next few days, but I'll survive without having to invade McDonald's more than two times. But if the microwave ever dies? If the microwave ever dies?

No, it's a future too terrible to contemplate.

Commenting confusion

A couple of people have said they've been unable to comment, as it kicks them off before it's posted. I blame google. However, there's a chance it has something to do with me screwing something up. I have no idea. I've switched the format a little bit to see if that helps. There's no longer word verification - so at least I'll get comments like ATTENTION! I'M AN AFRICAN KING. PLEASE SEND MONEY. 

Also, they'll now appear in a little popup window instead of below. We'll see if this makes any difference. If anyone's having troubles still, email me at, so I can blame google some more. 

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Torn Achilles? Walk it off. Then retire

For the second straight week of pickup basketball at a neighborhood school, I jammed a finger. 

It's a fun league so far. A good group of guys, easygoing. No known psychotics who fly off the handle if a body foul isn't called. The league goes through May, by which time I should be able to run up and down the court more than five times in a row without struggling to breathe.

I do wonder if the jammed fingers are a harbinger for something bigger, something more painful. In 25 years of playing basketball, I can't remember ever hurting my finger to the point where it ached for more than a minute. I've been lucky in that way, as it's an easy thing to happen. I've also never suffered a sprained ankle, so I've been a bit blessed by the injury gods. And the bruised fingers - caused once by catching a pass and another time by deflecting a pass while on defense (that should teach me to be careful on that end) - don't seem like classic "old man injuries." Jammed fingers can happen to any player of any level, at any time. Unless my instincts are dulling to a point where I'm unable to get my hands up in time, which would be too depressing to contemplate.  

But what if they are the first signs that my body is no longer immune from the injuries that always afflict players, especially ones who have slid by 30 and have 40 on the horizon?

Here are the most common over-the-hill ailments I'm hoping to avoid over the next seven months:

* Ruptured Achilles. One of the most dreaded injuries in all of sports. It's happened to world-class athletes like Dominique Wilkins and Dan Marino, but I usually hear about it when it's a 40ish guy playing in a Monday night YMCA league. His wife told him to take it easy. He ignored the warnings. What does she know? She was always holding him back, anyway.

The bald head facing him in the mirror told him he had aged, but the ability to still knock down a 15-foot jumper told him he could still compete. Then, while on a fastbreak - while filling the lane like a short, small, pale, slow, nongoggled, unathletic James Worthy - there's a snap and a scream. His buddies might even call an ambulance, or just load him into the back of a minivan, his carcass sharing space with a child's car seat. The injury is bad enough for a pro athlete with time on his side, along with access to world-class medical facilities and team doctors. They can focus on the rehab. What about the factory worker or the banker? Surgery's probable. Rehab...maybe. Probably not. More likely, he'll just limp along for the rest of his life.

A good friend of mine literally nearly died after an Achilles injury. He developed life-threatening blood clots while recovering from the injury. Emergency surgery saved his life. Where'd he hurt it? Church league. Not even God has mercy on old basketball players tempting fate.

* Torn hamstring. When an athlete on TV suffers this injury, the somber announcer will often say "he went down as if he got shot." For the adult pickup basketball league player who suffers this tragedy, they'll wish they had been shot. Or that someone will put them out of their misery. Oldies try to prevent this injury by stretching in the moments before their games. Half-hearted leg lifts and touching the toes will not erase the effects of years of inactivity. When this one happens, the sweat-drenched cager will leave the floor immediately and signal for a new player to step in. The grimace tells the story, as does the hand on the back of the leg, as if that's the only thing holding the muscle in place.

His fellow players know his night is done. They also realize they're one wrong step away from a similar fate. Fortunately, you can return from this injury. Unfortunately, the return will be marked by a giant wrap around the hamstring, something a medic puts on a wound on the battlefield. The guy will never run the same. Each time he feels a twinge back there, he'll let up, waiting for the snap.

* Bad knees. Not necessarily a torn ACL, which happens to countless players each year. For the adult pickup player, this is more about the years of wear. Maybe it's an old college injury that always hurts when it rains. Or when it's too sunny. Maybe it's a clicking in the knee, undiagnosed for fear that the doctor might tell the gunner to sit out the season. To enable his career to continue, the guy sports the type of knee brace last seen in the mid-80s. It's black. Starting at the hip and running to the shin, the brace appears to weigh 25 pounds and probably takes him 25 minutes to strap on. The only place to find it is in a medical supply store that specializes in throwback equipment. Advances in technology have led to the creation of lighter, sleeker braces that do just as good a job as the bulky old ones. No matter. The older player doesn't trust something that can't be seen on a knee from 100 yards away. If the player can withstand the pain, this shouldn't hurt the pickup career too much, as quickness has already been lost over the years.

* Sore back/disc injury. Could happen at anytime, though I'm picturing a slightly overweight forward "jumping" for a rebound and landing with a shout and a "god damn it." In between games, the player sprawls out on his stomach or on his back, not knowing if that's actually helping or not. But that's how Larry Bird spent the final years of his career, and if it's good enough for the Legend, it's good enough for a legend-in-his-own-mind. Once home, he'll collapse on the couch or recliner, vowing to never do that again. A few days later, when the back's loosened up and the guy mowed the lawn without any pain, he'll forget about the previous week's nightmare. But he'll remember the first time he tries to set a screen the following week.

* Deflated ego. Common. Happens when the 3-pointers don't fall with any regularity and the four-foot bank shots bound off the backboard as if they were thrown by an Olympic shot putter. Also occurs when a younger, in-shape opponent blows past the guy on the defensive end. The ol' guy is forced to stick out his foot and trip the youngster. He'll say "My bad," but he doesn't really mean it and he doesn't even really know what the phrase means. His teammates cringe while the young guy shakes it off as he chalks it up to senility and desperation. There's no cure for this one; it's as devastating as an Achilles tear.  

The only way to prevent all of these is retirement. But that's not realistic for those who love the game. Really, there's only one injury that will force a true basketball player to hang it up for good:

* Heart attack, fatal.

Tip your wheelchair attendant, please

As I wandered through Terminal 4 at JFK Airport yesterday after seeing my parents off, I watched a young worker slowly walk toward a gate while pushing an unoccupied wheelchair. The guy looked glum.

Part of me wanted to give him two bucks, followed by a pat on the back. Not out of pity, but because I know whoever he was going to help probably wouldn't give him a thing.

Twelve years ago I spent about three weeks as a wheelchair attendant at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. This came a few months after a short stint as a failed telemarketer. My frustrations rose throughout the summer as my bank account dropped. Three interviews with newspapers led to nothing, not even the one at a weekly paper led by a bored, bearded editor who spent our entire time together hitting putts into a plastic cup on his carpet. To be fair, he yanked each one left and appeared to have the yips, so he needed the work. Johnny Miller would have crucified him for his set-up. We talked about my strengths and weaknesses, and why his putting stroke bedeviled him.

Another job interview, this one at a small daily paper, also led to rejection, owing mostly to my lack of Photoshop experience. That was particularly devastating because the job came with "great benefits," along with an annual salary of $15,000.

In desperation one Sunday, I scanned the classifieds of the Star Tribune, looking under w for writers and e for editors. Nothing exciting, but what's this one? "Do you like adventure?" Who doesn't? "Are you trustworthy?" As much as the next guy.

The ad was for a company that trained airport security workers. This was pre-9/11, meaning no Homeland Security. They also had openings for other gigs, including wheelchair attendants, whatever that wording meant. I lined up an interview. A few days later I sat in a conference room near the Mall of America with a grouchy middle-aged woman. She assumed I was there to interview for the security positions, the folks who man the X-ray machines.

"No, I'm actually here for the wheelchair attendant job."

That might have been the first time those words had been spoken in that room to that woman, as she appeared confused.

"But why?"

Several reasons.

For one, becoming a security guy almost felt like a career, something you go into because you have an aptitude for it and enjoy the challenges. Or maybe your old man was an X-ray guy at LAX for 25 years and you're just trying to live up to his memory. Forty years from now, would I still be at the airport as a security guard, the only difference being I'm now a manager and watch surveillance video in a hidden room instead of an X-ray machine?

I assumed there were hours of training involved. I hoped there were hours of training involved. Would I feel guilty about leaving such a job after a week if I got a newspaper job? As a wheelchair pusher - attendant - I'd feel no loyalty to the job or the airport, free to flee.

More importantly, it was too much damn responsibility. They spend eight hours a day annoying people, get little credit for successes and all the blame for any failure. A failure that could have catastrophic consequences. No security background. No special insight into the minds of terrorists. No desire to be confrontational, which must be a requirement for the times a security worker spots a toy gun or a toothbrush missing its bristles.

Now I'd be expected to be the first and last line of defense for millions of travelers?

I didn't tell her those reasons, as I didn't want her to think of me as unpatriotic or wimpy.

"Personal reasons," I said, vaguely, ridiculously.

A day later I had the job, no need for extensive training. Got arms, two legs and a back? You can push the wheelchairs. Thank god I had my private school degree in my pocket. Who knows where I would have been at that time without it. I might have been the guy cleaning the wheelchairs, instead of pushing them.

The job paid $5.15 an hour, minimum wage, if not a livable one. But, it also came with tips. The theory was that people would be so grateful for helping their elderly parent or stricken child that they'd practically throw dollar bills at the attendants.

Each day I woke up before 5 in the morning. In the darkness, I'd step into the uniform provided by the company, a white-shirt-black-pants ensemble that just screamed "Attention air travelers, pilots and flight attendants. Disrespect me. Be rude to me. Yell at me when your flight's late. Scream at me when you miss your connection. If spitting on me, just try and not hit the uniform."

The only thing missing from the outfit was a Kick Me sign taped to the back of the shirt. My self-esteem received no favors from my roommate cousin, who had me pose for a picture, the better to forever capture the look.

A shuttle bus took me from the airport parking lot to the wheelchair headquarters, where my supervisor Roy waited each day. Roy must have been in his 60s, and had been running wheelchair operations around those parts for several decades. He ruled the day shift, barking out orders over walkie talkies in a raspy voice damaged by cigarettes and incompetent employees. Roy dictated who went where. He took a liking to me, the grizzled vet and the fresh-faced rookie. We were like a cliche, just waiting for a movie to be written about us.

The wheelchair attendants were free to wander when not on a call. I preferred sitting in the international departures area, particularly where many flights to Japan went out of, as there were very few flights a day, meaning very few people at the gate. Settling into my seat, I'd sometimes nap for 15 minutes. I'd dream of a sportswriting job that might pay 7 dollars an hour. Or I'd ponder my financial future. Student loans would start coming due in a few months. How long will I be paying them off at $5.15 an hour? 50 years? 100? If I'd been any good at math I wouldn't have gotten a communications degree and I wouldn't have been sitting in an airport protectively watching "my" wheelchair and waiting for Roy to send me out for duty.

The walkie-talkie crackled every 30 minutes or so. Some people needed lifts onto the plane, others coming off. If the person needed to board, they received priority and we took them on first. Coming off, they came out last. Most of the calls were for elderly people. Gingerly they sat down, grateful for the assistance. We took them to the plane, then they walked to their seat. But many obviously could not walk. For paralyzed travelers, we transferred them from the wheelchair to a skinny aisle chair, then two of us would carry that down the airplane aisle and to their seat. It required strength, teamwork, patience, empathy, understanding. Just the qualities you expect to find in workers making $5.15 an hour. And think of the people in those situations. Everyone hates air travel. The planes, the lack of legroom, the airports, the schedules, the hassles. Now imagine dealing with all that while in a wheelchair.

Most other airport employees expressed gratitude when we showed up, but some treated us like a piece of gum stuck to a wheelchair tire. Gate agents with attitude are such pleasant people. Flight attendant always gave a tight smile when we appeared, ready to take their final passenger away. The longer it took us to remove the traveler, the longer the flight attendants had to wait before leaving the airport.

By the end of each shift the sweat had soaked through my shirt. It smelled like a hockey locker room.

Fatigued, I could take pride in the fact my eight-hour shift had brought in about $40.

Oh, yeah, and tips. The tips. No one enters the wheelchair attendant profession for the money or the glory. We didn't expect a lot in tips. We weren't strippers or waitresses. But a buck here, two dollars there, could have added up over the course of a day. And if people tip the workers who bring them their plates of food, why wouldn't they give a little to the people who physically move them on and off a plane?

The best tip I got was $5. Often it was nothing. The tips seemed to be reserved for the workers in the carts who drove people around the airport. Those guys and gals rolled in the money and the accolades, beeping their horns throughout the day. They owned the walkways with the arrogance of a semi driver on a two-lane road. People in the wheelchairs and their travel companions always shelled out their gratitude, but rarely a gratuity. They understandably had bigger concerns.

I even got nudged out of TV exposure. On one of the flights into Minneapolis, the passenger we helped off the plane was a child who was going to visit the Mall of America through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. A local crew from KARE-11 was on hand to film his arrival, where he'd be greeted by various people associated with the mall and the charity. The heart-warming tale brought out the best in everyone. I pushed his chair through the walkway and emerged at the gate, greeted by cheers and camera lights. For a few seconds I basked in the secondhand glory. That night I turned on the television, waiting for my moment in the spotlight. I'd even told my parents to tune in.

"Tape it!"

But it was not to be. They edited out the arrival. The piece began seconds after I had respectfully slid out of the camera's view.

Now there was no visual record that I was there as a wheelchair attendant. Not sure why that upset me.

After a week, and then two, I started wondering if I actually was starting a career at the airport. What was the career arc for a wheelchair attendant? Should I set my sights on Roy's job?

During my third week in the hated uniform, I spent one of my breaks talking with a shoeshine stand operator. When he heard I had graduated from college three months earlier, he asked, "What in the hell are you doing here? Go find a job you love that you want to do."

I resolved to do just that, but luck took care of my troubles. My old boss at the Worthington paper, where I worked during college, called. A sports reporter had left. They needed someone immediately. After my next shift, I told Roy I was done. The only thing I really succeeded at that summer was quitting jobs with no notice.

My time with the security company wasn't over. When I returned the uniform, the same grouchy woman told me it had to be dry-cleaned, that failure to do so was against the law and they would prosecute.

"And if I flee the state?" I asked.

"We will track you down." Her sense of righteousness overwhelmed any sense of humor.

I believed her. I took the uniform in for a cleaning, the bad memories erased with the lingering sweat stains.

My career in newspapers started a few days later. But whenever I'm in an airport I make a point to spot one wheelchair attendant. They're doing good work, for, I'm assuming, minimum wage or slightly above (I haven't read many stories about wheelchair attendant unions striking for larger wages). I won't say they're the hidden heroes, but they are hidden, overshadowed by the high-profile cart drivers. If you ever need their services, give them a few bucks. They'll enjoy it more than if you just give them thanks.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Favorite sports story ever

Tonight ESPN played its third documentary in its ongoing 30 for 30 series. The network, which has a greater need to celebrate its own birthday than anyone outside of a 5-year-old child, brought in 30 filmmakers to make 30 films, all of which are based on events that happened during ESPN's history, which began in 1979.

The latest offering was Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? While the director, Mike Tollin, doesn't name anyone in the film's title, the 60-minute movie presents a clear answer to that question: Donald Trump.

A younger, just-as-cocky Trump owned the New Jersey Generals, who were led by maybe the best player in all of pro football at the time, Herschel Walker. Yes, it was a different time.

The future reality star led the league to change to a fall schedule instead of the spring and that was perhaps the key reason the USFL failed after just three seasons. The movie includes a brief but entertaining interview with Trump, who expresses his disagreement with Tollin's theory by storming off after a few sarcastic comments.

The movie brought to mind my favorite piece of sports journalism. When people talk about the most famous magazine stories, the same sports pieces are often mentioned time and again, and they are indeed classics. Gay Talese on Joe DiMaggio. Tom Wolfe on Junior Johnson. Frank Deford on Bob Sullivan, the "toughest coach there ever was." Gary Smith on...well, anything by Gary Smith, including his stories on the Crows' devotion to basketball, and an old Yankees prospect with a tragic past named John Malangone.

But as great as all of those stories are, they're not my favorite. That title goes to Jeff Macgregor's "Let Us Now Raze Famous Men," a 2006 Sports Illustrated story that focuses on the Friar's Club Roast of Don King. But it's the other Don - Trump. Although, he's not really a Don or Donnie, is he? - who's on the receiving end of many of Macgregor's brilliant jabs. Trump served as the roastmaster for the event.

The story's long. Very long. But if anyone can carve out some time to read it, they should. And for those who don't really like sports, don't worry, it's only broadly about sports.

Some of the better lines:

Don King's "been named in more lawsuits than you've had hot meals."

"He is the ruthless clown, the number-racket genius, the self-mocking jailhouse cribber of misremembered Shakespeare, the inexhaustible transcendentalist negotiator misquoting Thoreau in search of inner peace and another 7 percent of the gate. And brush up on your Bible, because even Satan uses Scripture when it suits him."

"Excepting certain tinhorn heads of state with large standing armies, Trump is the only person in the last quarter-century to publicly rival King's matchless ego or to equal his self-loving zeal."

"Trump scowls that well-known scowl, all gunfighter squint and powdered jowls, a dour look that must have bought him all kinds of street cred with the other kids at military school."

"Later, still working, always working, King will talk with Holyfield. And that too-old fighter and that ageless promoter, sitting bent in the lamplight, far from the others, will whisper, heads drawn close, about a deal you can only pray never gets made."

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Heidi Game Part 2

On November 17, 1968, the famous Heidi Game took place between the Jets and Raiders, when their AFL clash was interrupted before its conclusion by NBC's airing of the movie Heidi. The network broke into the game with 65 seconds left and the Jets leading 32-29. Oakland rallied for a 43-32 victory, and the game - and the outrage that followed from fans who were unable to see the dramatic ending - changed the way networks cover sports. That change was networks finally understood that sports rule America and TV and we don't care if 60 Minutes has to start at midnight, do not interrupt the late football games.

The game was such a fiasco that its Wikipedia page contains about 5,500 words. There are some one-term U.S. presidents - or at least some treasury secretaries - who don't have that many words devoted to them.

I wasn't alive for that game. Fortunately, CBS recreated the experience today.

The Vikings and Ravens played at 1 p.m. on the East Coast. I taped the game as I was with my parents at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for most of the afternoon. When we returned, I set the tape to the beginning. We settled in, avoiding the Internet and the late games so the outcome remained a mystery. Such an old-school feeling; it felt like 1990 all over again.

Vikings struck first. Then again. The game looked like a rout as I fast-forwarded through inane commercials, punts, kickoff returns and at least some of Dan Dierdorf's weighty pontifications, the best of which came after two failed running plays near the goal-line for the Vikings.

"If the offensive linemen could vote, they would vote for another running play, I'm telling you." If true, we should begin to immediately disenfranchise the hogs. Strip them of their right to vote, whether it's for a city council race or a play in the Red Zone. Dierdorf - a former lineman who knows how the big guys up front think, and that's the problem - wanted the Vikings to give the guys who had just failed twice another chance. Fortunately they didn't and Favre threw a touchdown pass on the next play.

Even into the fourth quarter the outcome seemed certain. Then the Vikings defense began its collapse and Baltimore scored with ease on three straight possessions. Shockingly, the Ravens now led. The Metrodome hadn't been that quiet in, well, a week. Fans were probably wondering, what was worse: the Vikings defense or Nick Punto's baserunning?

I was tempted to turn to one of the late games to see what the outcome was, but we'd already gone this far. Favre led them down for another score - another field goal - and we went into commercial with the Vikings leading 33-31 with less than two minutes remaining.

Seconds before that field goal, some of the late games started showing up on the CBS scroll at the bottom of the screen. A thought occurred.

"You know, the Jets are the late game on CBS. They might have cut away from this game if it ran late. We might not see the end of it."

My parents didn't even have time to process the information.

Thirty seconds after I said that, CBS broke away from the game. Instead of an adorable little Swiss girl appearing on the screen, it was a car commercial. My prediction had come true. Seconds later, the Jets and Bills game started their fiasco of a game as I sat with my parents, staring in stunned silence at our television. I fast-forwarded through the soothing voice of Dick Enberg and read the scores on the scroll. Finally the Vikings-Ravens game appeared.

Minnesota 33, Baltimore 31. :02.

Two seconds left. If the game stopped at two seconds, that probably meant the Ravens were going to try a field goal.

Good lord, the Vikings had again allowed Baltimore to march down the field? All we could do was speculate. I could already picture Joe Flacco sprinting up to the line to spike the ball as Dierdorf brags about poise and unflappability and the voting records of left guards. Oblivious to what was going on, we sat at the mercy of whatever underpaid office drone CBS placed in charge of updating its scroll.

We waited for the scores to cycle through again. Steelers-Browns. Redskins-Chiefs...Giants-Saints.

Minnesota 33, Baltimore 31. Final.

Final. They somehow held on.

A minute later, Dick Enberg sent it back to JB in the studio for the highlight and, indeed, the Ravens missed a field goal.

Here's what we didn't see live or on tape but did see as a highlight of a taped event, three hours after it actually happened.

The ending didn't lack for drama, even if it was one of the strangest endings any of us had seen. Or, in this case, not seen. It somehow added even more excitement.

The most frustrating experience I had with following a game without access to a television came about ten years ago. Stuck in my car on a long road trip, I picked up ESPN Radio's NFL show, where the hosts throw the games to various correspondents around the league. Or they introduce a score with bold, end-of-the-world announcements like, "Ladies and gentlemen. You will not believe what happened in the Browns-Chiefs game just moments ago."

What? What? Someone completed a pass? Eric Mangini smiled? The middle linebacker tackled a drunk streaker?

That announcement's usually followed by the reporter at the game saying, "Tim, Cleveland kicks a 24-yard field goal and leads 3-0 with 10:25 remaining in the first quarter. Back to you."


But on this day, I was trying to find the Cowboys score as they played the Eagles. Dallas led all the way. Then the hosts updated the game in the fourth quarter by saying Philadelphia had managed to cut into the lead and it was now a one-possession game.

I drove for 10 more miles with no more updates. The hosts bantered back and forth in that grating way that only talk-radio hosts can do, refusing to give their listeners what they really wanted.

"Whoa!" one suddenly said.

"I don't believe it," added the other.



What in the hell? Were they watching the Hindenburg go down? Or had something happened in the Cowboys game?

"What a game in Philly. The Eagles...the Eagles"


The host took us to Philly. The local reporter breathlessly provided an update over the screaming crowd in the background. The Eagles rallied from 10 points down in the fourth quarter and defeated the hated Cowboys.

Bad news somehow gets worse depending on the way it's delivered. If I have to watch a favorite team lose in the comfort of my own home, where couch cushions, pillows and non-fluffy items can be thrown whenever I see fit, I can deal with it a bit better. Having to listen to Edward Murrow wannabes breathlessly spit out the results while studio hosts crack wise about their co-host's lack of dieting skills makes the entire experience about a hundred times more frustrating.

I turned the station in disgust. If I had a cell phone on me I would have called Delilah and asked for a special song to make everything right, something about loss and love or recovery.

There was no such ultimate frustration tonight. Technology lost, but the Vikings won.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Archery in our classrooms

Back in school - specifically, in grades 7-10 - I dreaded the end of basketball season. Being a basketball junkie, most of the reasons related to the sport and the disappointment that came with any season that ended with our team not making it to the state tournament.

But beyond that, the end of basketball season meant the beginning of archery.

Tonight I got into a brief argument with Louise and my parents about whether archery has any place in physical education classes. My stance is firm: No. They saw why it made sense, with Louise going as far as making the somewhat dubious claim that, "It stretches and strengthens the chest muscles, with that pulling action, so it's definitely good for a physical education class." Even her amateurish pantomime of said action did nothing to convince me. Typing strengthens the fingers. Doesn't mean it should be part of phy ed.

However, my arguments and beliefs actually have little to do with any concerns about education value. The scars from the humiliation I endured in the archery portion of our phy ed classes linger, each memory of those days piercing me like...well, hell, an arrow.

When the basketball season at Janesville ended each season, the archery targets came out, ready to be abused by dozens of teenagers eager to release some pent-up frustration. The targets remained dormant during basketball season, so the week after both the boys and girls teams had been eliminated, the large targets appeared from the caves where they'd been kept, along with the bows and arrows.

Most kids rejoiced. This was a highlight of gym class. Many of the students hunted. To them, stringing a bow and firing an arrow across the gym was second-nature, as easy as running a lap around the basketball court. As they eyed the target, they could picture a deer in their sights. The boys - and girls - in class all effortlessly struck the mark, often drilling bullseye after bullseye, or, in the case of the phy ed class, balloon after balloon they placed on the targets.

I didn't hunt. I didn't fish. That wasn't the norm for kids from Minnesota, but I never thought I was missing out on anything. However, that meant that I had no experience with the equipment. I went in blind. And dumb.

The debacles began in seventh grade and continued through sophomore year. Improvement should have come through osmosis or repetition, but it never did. The mental block was as imposing as the physical ones.

During those days of archery, I finally understood what some of my classmates felt every other week of the school year, when phy ed class was a living nightmare, an hour to dread. Humiliation was assured. The only question was in what form would it be and who would be the instigator? Maybe it'd be the star wrestler drilling them in the head with a rubber ball during dodge ball. Maybe it'd be the class bully hammering them into the boards - aka bleachers - during floor hockey.

But during archery, even those kids thrived. They transformed from nerd to William Tell, with a touch of Robin Hood, their bottomless pit of fear and despair replaced by endless confidence and even arrogance.

Every other week of the year I savored gym class. Ping pong, dodge ball, basketball, wiffle ball or kickball. Loved them all. Archery leveled the playing field, and my self-esteem.

During the classes, we'd walk into the gym and perform in our regular clothes, no need to change into gym outfits (and this is a sport?). We went off in groups. The first ones to fire had to string the bows, as learning this skill was a necessary part of the class and surely something that would benefit us later in life as well, no matter how inane it seemed at the time. Just like algebra.

My plan involved lingering outside the gym until the other students picked up the bows. That way I didn't have to string. Sometimes that failed. On those occasions I fumbled around with the weapon, haplessly trying to pull the string into the proper notch. My arms twisted and an onlooker would have had only a vague idea about what I was trying to accomplish. Years later I'd endure similar frustration while trying to put on a tie or change a tire.

The teacher didn't let anyone fire until all were ready. Children who can barely walk and can't talk can string a bow. For many Minnesotans, it's practically instinctual. I could not.

This meant all eyes turned to me, standing there entangled in the poorly constructed bow, as if I had introduced weapons into a game of Twister. Finally the teacher would take pity. With a shake of the head, he would walk over and do it for me. As he fiddled with the apparatus, he probably wondered how low of a grade he could give for this quarter, and what in the hell had happened to my manliness?

When "Fury" was finally ready, the teacher told everyone to fire away. And how they fired. The sound of an arrow releasing and whistling across the gym before finding its target really is a cool sound. Pfffit. My bow didn't make that sound. In fact, the only sound emanating from my bow and arrow came when the arrow hit the floor, followed by a low-decibel curse word. Every time I pulled back to fire, the arrow became dislodged. It either dangled pathetically in the front while I held onto the back end, or dropped to the floor like an oversized pencil falling in class. Anyone who saw it snickered.

"God, this bow sucks," I'd say. "Anyone else get a defective bow? How old are these things? They could at least give us some decent equipment. Jesus."

No one else had a faulty bow.

I'd pick it up, recalibrate, and relaunch.

To the ground the arrow went. By this time the marksmen in the class were finishing up the last of their five arrows, while I still struggled to fire my first one. When I saw that no one was watching, I'd sometimes take to throwing the arrows down to the other end.

I threw the arrows down to the other end.

It sounds absurd, because it was. I wasn't proud of it then and I'm even less proud of it now. But at that moment I had no pride, or shame.

Occasionally one of my arrows did escape from its prison. Instead of taking a direct line to the target, though, the arrow veered frighteningly off course, like a botched North Korean missile falling into the sea. Fortunately no one got hurt. I watched in awe as the arrow flew 20, 30, 40 feet into the air and toward the windows on the other side of the gym. If I had been an ancient English warrior firing my arrows at an enemy standing 150 feet away - perhaps with an arrow that's in flames - my shot would have been perfect. In a phy ed class, in jeans and a sweatshirt, with a target 30 feet away, it was simply a disaster that managed to avoid turning into a tragedy. I sometimes feared becoming the first person to shoot an arrow horizontally and into a classmate, or downward and into my foot. Surely the teacher and other school officials would have removed me after such an incident. That removal would have been the only positive thing to come out of all my days in archery.

If my cousin and best friend Matt was standing by me, I could sometimes talk him into grabbing a handful of arrows for his own use. He was happy to do this. He hunted. He knew how to string a bow, load it, aim, and fire.

We shot the entire hour, well-trained archers ready for the hunt or the Sheriff of Nottingham. And for 60 minutes I kept missing. In four years I probably hit the target four times.

The torment I endured in archery beginning in seventh grade actually had roots in sixth grade. That year I participated in a spelling bee, a natural fit for me and an event I anticipated with great excitement. My tournament ended just a few rounds in.

The word that tripped me up? Not chiaroscurist, or demarche, or prospicienc.

Instead they got me with archery. Or, as I spelled it, archerey. It was an unforgivable misspelling, as embarrassing to me as it probably was to my mom and dad in attendance. It's the type of word the judge gives to a kid he's trying to help ease through to the next round, as if he's throwing the competition for the student. Instead I added an extra e before the y, followed by cries of why?

That should have been my most humiliating encounter with archery, the word or the activity. It wasn't, and for that I have no one to blame but myself, a dubious curriculum and a basketball team that never quite made it to state during my school years.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Starbucks Stalin buff

After 90 minutes in Union Square and an hour stay in the Strand bookstore today, I went with my visiting parents to a nearby Starbucks.

The place was packed at 3:30 in the afternoon, as people still apparently aren't over this Starbucks fad. I eventually found a small, round table near the back, just below an exit, and we settled in for what would likely be a half-hour stay or so, a chance to recuperate from a long day on our feet. My dad mentioned that in Strand he'd seen a couple of interesting books on Stalin. We talked a bit about the dictator and his dirty deeds. The conversation sparked a memory of a superb novel I recently read called Child 44.

Set in Stalin's Russia, the book centers on an officer pursuing a serial killer, despite the best efforts of the government to cover up the fact there is someone killing children. It's a great read, if extremely depressing, and shines a light on that time and that place, even if it's not a history book.

As the conversation ended, a man standing on the walkway above us said, "I couldn't help but overhear your conversation about Stalin. I've got a great book for you to read."

Great. A friendly New Yorker, offering book advice. He'll give us the name, then return to his coffee. He started talking again.

Ten minutes later, I was searching for a way for us to escape. The only words I'd said the entire time since he began talking were, "Uh, huh. Wow. Yeah" and, "I know." After a minute or two it became obvious that the guy - middle-aged, glasses, Yankees cap - was a bit off. He was extremely nice, but gave off the vibe that he might have previously spent some time on a corner or a subway loudly talking about God and conspiracy theories. Now he talked slowly, and deliberately, sometimes struggling to find the right word.

We never did get the book title that started his side of the conversation. But that didn't matter. Whatever troubles he has operating smoothly in society, the man had brains. And he was a man who had obviously read a lot of books. And he had passion for his subject.

He took us through much of Stalin's history, as my parents sipped their coffees and politely offered their ears for his lecture. Stalin killed Lenin, this guy believes, most likely with a mushroom that's readily available in Russia. Stalin probably used a pharmacist ally of his, and even though countless people said it wasn't murder, it probably was. Stalin surrounded himself with people who were willing to kill anyone, whether it was citizens of any age or his own advisers. These people would kill without thought or mercy, and it's amazing Stalin had that type of power over people.

The guy was a buff. Of Soviet history. Of Stalin. And Lenin. Of medicine. He had fascinating information, even if the delivery dulled the effect.

Being that there were two-and-a-half Minnesotans sitting at the table, no one had the gumption to interrupt the dissertation. If we had let him, he'd probably still be talking, and by this time - nearly 1:30 in the morning - he'd be into Gobachev's reign and glasnost. By 6 a.m., maybe he would have gotten to Putin.

Eventually I put my sweatshirt on, hoping he might take it as a hint that we were getting ready to leave. His ensuing comments on the way Stalin used concentration camps indicated he didn't pick up on the sign. Finally I said to my parents, "We should probably get going," and we started to leave. I thanked him for the information and he went one way as we left another.

Out on the street, a tough-looking guy who appeared to be homeless, yelled out, "Hey, Freddy!" Freddy stood a few foot in front of us. It was our guide through the dark years of Stalin's ruthless reign. Freddy's face lit up as he greeted his friend.

I don't know what Freddy and the other guy talk about during their long days in Manhattan. For all I know they do talk about politics and the past. Maybe his friend is as captive an audience as we were. But if they don't talk about those things, and instead focus perhaps on their neverending struggles, I'm glad we were there to listen to him today.

Imagine being a street smart and book smart person, a guy who's probably read thousands of books. Your mind is filled with knowledge and perspectives on some of the most important events in the world's history. But the only people you get to spend a lot of time with aren't interested in your theories about Lenin's death. And even if they are, they might get sick after the 100th telling of the same story delivered in the same monotone voice. There's no outlet for your knowledge.

For ten minutes at least, Freddy had a new audience. But he gave as much as he got out of it. He did have an encyclopedic knowledge of a subject that does interest me. He taught me some tidbits I'd never heard before. Like all good teachers, he inspired. Back home tonight, I looked up some information on Stalin and Russia.

There are countless Freddy's throughout the country. But New York is probably one of the few places where he can bring a little Stalin to a Starbucks and deliver his lines to people who are willing to listen, if not as eager by the end of the discussion.

Wherever Freddy is tonight, I hope he has a captive audience. Even if it's just for 10 minutes.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

When Catholic schools pretend to not like each other

This Saturday, my alma mater, St. John's, faces St. Thomas in a key football game that will likely decide the MIAC title. More importantly, it's a renewal of the Tommies-Johnnies rivalry, which has been playing out on the football field since 1901.

Students of both schools use the game as a prime chance to mock the other institution. St. Thomas students love wearing crude T-shirts that often reference the fact St. John's is an all-male school, and if it's only guys there at the secluded university in the middle of Minnesota, and there aren't any girls around, then, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, the students at St. John's are...well, you know. Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge. No one ever accused St. Thomas grads of having the comic subtlety of Steven Wright.

To counteract those barbs, St. John's students sometimes sport shirts that politely question the beauty of St. Thomas's female students, while also predicting fine futures for Tommie grads that will likely include tours of duty behind the counter at various fast-food franchises.

On the field, St. John's almost always wins. The Johnnies are unbeaten against St. Thomas since 1997, and St. John's is a perennial national contender, led by John Gagliardi, college football's all-time leader in victories. Most years, St. Thomas is nothing but a purple punching bag, more prop than competitor.

Tommies hate Johnnies and Johnnies hate Tommies. Oh, we hate those swell Tommies. Generation after generation of graduates learn those lessons, and they're nearly as important as anything their professors teach in business class or a chemistry lab.

Ultimately it's all pretty harmless, although there are those who really do get worked up if a child chooses to go to a different school than the parent. But, like most rivalries, especially in college, it's all fairly ludicrous. Rationally, it hardly makes sense for there to be any disdain, as the schools are the same in countless ways.

They're both Catholic institutions, but both schools have many students from other faiths. Both have stringent Catholics and those who can already be called "lapsed." St. Thomas is named after St. Thomas Aquinas, while freshmen at St. John's live in Tommy Hall, also named after the favorite theologian of Catholics everywhere. There, as first-year students, they're indoctrinated into why even God agrees it's all right to hate St. Thomas - the school, not the man. Maybe that was part of my problem. As a transfer student from a community college, I never got the early propaganda and only built up a dislike over two years.

Average class size? 21 at St. Thomas, 22 at St. John's (score one for the Tommies). The student/faculty ratio at St. John's is 12:1, compared to 15:1 at St. Thomas (score one for the Johnnies).

Many who attend St. John's seriously considered St. Thomas, and vice versa. For many, including myself, it's the location of each that helps seal their decision. St. John's is located in Collegeville in central Minnesota, situated in peaceful surroundings, with woods and water providing picture-perfect moments.

St. John's seemingly exists in its own world, about 70 miles from the Twin Cities. St. Thomas, meanwhile, calls St. Paul home, perfect for students who prefer their college life in a real city, giving them the types of opportunities unavailable to the St. John's kids going to school in the country. The odd thing about many St. John's people who denigrate the city existence of St. Thomas is that many come from the Twin Cities, while those who ridicule the isolation of St. John's now that they're Tommies are veterans of the rural life.

And St. Thomas - the largest private university in Minnesota - has nearly 11,000 students in its undergraduate and graduate programs while St. John's has an enrollment of 4,000. That's the enrollment with its sister school, the College of St. Benedict. While St. John's is, indeed, still an all-male school, in many ways that's in name only. They're partner schools. Men and women share classes, libraries, campuses, and carnal relations.

St. Thomas and St. John's have much in common, siblings nearly themselves, right down to the nicknames of each. Add an extra consonant and "ies" to the end of the name and slap it on the uniforms. Disliking one just because you go to the other seems almost like an act of self-loathing. But then, it's like that with so many rivalries. Harvard-Yale. Michigan-Ohio State. Army-Navy. The similarities of the schools and student bodies dwarf any perceived differences.

St. John's hating St. Thomas is like America considering Canada to be its biggest rival and most dangerous threat.

What's a real rivalry? With real reasons for hatred? How about the India-Pakistan cricket battles? Here you have two nations who threaten each other with nuclear destruction. When the athletes meet - Hindus vs. Muslims - it's for a bit more than bragging rights.

"The phrase sporting event can't begin to contain the religious extremism, unforgiven deeds and rabid jingoism that swirl around each India-Pakistan cricket match; the game is haunted by battle dead, and the air is charged with the ongoing dispute between the two countries over control of Kashmir."

Yeah, but do the fans wear T-shirts with witty sexual innuendo?

So, rationally it doesn't make sense for St. John's and St. Thomas to be such rivals. Where's the enmity come from, and why?

But this is sports and specifically football and rational thought doesn't have much to do with it. I see the purple of St. Thomas and my stomach churns, even if in high school I did contemplate what life would be like on the St. Paul campus. I listen to a St. Thomas graduate and I hear an arrogance that seems unique to Tommies. I see their T-shirts and read their insults about St. John's and pity the thinking that passes for creativity at St. Thomas.

If St. Thomas actually does what it never does and beats St. John's this Saturday it will ruin part of my day, in a way a loss to any other team wouldn't.

It's illogical, nonsensical.

In the end, that doesn't matter. It's the Tommies, and they're not Johnnies, even if they are alike in so many ways. It's the Johnnie-Tommie game, with the winner being the favorite for the conference.

A rational rivalry, no. But what fun would that be?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sounds of the city

We live on Broadway, although our apartment sits in the back of the building and that shields us from much of the noise on the bustling street below.

Still, as of 11:30 tonight, this is what I've heard outside in the last couple of hours:

*In the top of the seventh of the Twins-Yankees game, I thought it was safe to get up from the couch and hit the fridge. Kate Hudson's paramour had just predictably drilled a game-tying homer and 49-year-old Jorge Posada was coming to the plate. As I closed the refrigerator, I heard four loud claps and a scream, a whoop actually, from our next-door neighbor. Very nice guy, great family man. He works at Yankee Stadium. Avid fan. Indoctrinates his small, pliable children into the Yankee State. In the elevator they're always wearing Yankee hats and Yankee jerseys and Yankee socks. If this guy's clapping, and screaming this loudly, and if his boys are also yelling at a softer but more annoying decibel, something bad has just happened to the Twins. And it can't just be a replay of A-Rod's blast. But what could have happened just during the trip to get a drink?

I hurry back to the TV in time to see the replay of Posada's opposite-field home run. Two and a half innings remain in the game, but it's over. I know it, and the full house in the Metrodome for the final Twins game realizes it too, even if, as Minnesotans, they're too nice to say it out loud. The celebration next door starts about an hour later. Those damn kids should be in bed.

*We listen to the continued cries of a woman from a nearby building. Off and on for the last day, she's been yelling, "This is not the life I wanted! This is not the life I wanted!" Best guess is that she's an emotionally disturbed person who is apparently living with another troubled soul, because her anguished cries are answered with a man yelling, "And this isn't the life I wanted!" Back and forth they go, each repeating the same mantra. We hear it through our open window in the living room. I'm somewhat surprised their neighbors haven't called the authorities, unless they're just used to the tormented shouts. Knowing nothing about her circumstances, it's still sad to hear her struggling like that. It's not the life she wanted, and you wonder just what kind of life it is.

*Every few minutes a 1 train rolls to the 215th Street stop, headed south or to the Bronx. Our previous apartment overlooked Broadway so we did hear everything, from the cars below to the trains above. We're both used to them at this point and it actually seems stranger when there aren't any trains and we only hear the cars rolling by. Around midnight each night - but sometimes earlier like tonight - one of the trains comes through at about a mile an hour, slowly rumbling through the stop. Not sure if it's one of the garbage trains or what, because I don't think it's carrying any people. Visitors definitely notice that one, and in a few days, when my mom and dad are visiting, I'm anticipating there might be a few complaints as it awkwardly and loudly meanders through northern Manhattan.

*Three separate car alarms have gone off. I'm assuming no vehicles have been stolen or even been in any danger of being stolen. Anything can set them off. If the car's parked under the elevated tracks, a passing train can lead to the incessant blaring. If someone honks their horn, a nearby car might light up and start its sound show, to the annoyance of everyone on the block. It'll go for 30 seconds or so, sometimes longer. It's noise pollution, but there's nothing anyone can do to stop it. Maybe they could throw bricks at the car, but that would just start it all up again and the vicious cycle continues. The only good thing about the car alarms is that I don't have to visit hell because I already know what it sounds like there: