Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The man who didn't recognize his wife

Thanks to an article in the August 30 New Yorker, I might have finally discovered an explanation for one of the most baffling things I've ever seen.

Oliver Sacks wrote a story for The New Yorker about his lifelong battle with prosopagnosia. Put simply, it's an inability to recognize faces. The 77-year-old Sacks is best known for his work with people suffering neurological disorders. His book Awakenings was turned into a movie with Robin Williams and Robert de Niro. In his article, Sacks writes about how his life is affected by his struggle to recognize faces, even the faces of his family and closest friends. He tells one story about attending a meeting with his assistant Kate, who had worked with him for six years. He sat down next to her and ignored her. Finally, after five minutes Kate said, "I was wondering how long it would take you to recognize me." Another time, he failed to recognize his psychiatrist, a few minutes after he'd just had a session with the doctor.

So, to the baffling scene. It happened in 2002, in the Mankato Barnes & Noble. I stood near the cafe in the rear of the store. I was about 10 feet away from a woman who looked to be in her fifties. She started falling backward and I thought she had just lost her balance. But she fell to the ground, hit a nearby table and went into convulsions. It was a scary scene, especially when you're utterly incapable of helping with the situation. The basic first aid skills I learned in seventh through 10th grade were useless that night, since there was obviously no need for a cravat bandage or a crude tourniquet. Two women who had been standing next to her crouched down to help. One held the woman's head, trying to keep it still. I told a cafe worker to call 911.

By that time a small crowd had gathered around the fallen woman. After about a minute, a middle-aged man approached and said he was a doctor. How comforting is it hearing those three words - "I'm a doctor" - during a moment like that? He started doing doctor-type things to the lady and told the other women who had been helping to look through her purse for any medications.

The convulsions continued. At one point the doctor felt her neck and announced, "She has a pulse and is breathing." This seemed a tad theatrical, but was reassuring. The woman who had been searching the victim's purse asked around, wondering if anyone had been with her before she fell. No one replied. Someone told the manager to announce the woman's name over the speaker system to see if she had a companion.

One of the helpers finally found her name and phone number in her checkbook. "It's Catherine," she said.

A second later, the doctor stopped working and loudly said, "Oh my god! It's my wife! Cathy, Cathy, Cathy! It's my wife!"

One of the women helping said, "Your wife," and everyone in the area thought the same thing: What? He had been working on the woman for about three minutes. He didn't recognize her? He kept repeating, "My wife, it's my wife." Finally an ambulance arrived. The workers loaded her onto a stretcher and took her away. Before he left, the man called his child on his cell.

"Hey, it's dad," he said. "Mom is sick, something's happened. We're at the bookstore." He then told us this had never happened before but she was on some blood-pressure medication. Obviously I felt terrible for the woman and the man, especially since it sounded like it wasn't the type of seizure that might be associated with epilepsy, which could provide an explanation for the frightening scene. But still...how did he not recognize his wife?

At the time I had some theories and I asked my friends for theirs. One speculated that the man had some mental issues and might have imposed on the scene, pretending to be a doctor and her wife. Seemed far-fetched, although maybe it would explain the dramatic announcements: I'm a doctor. She's breathing!

Another proposed a theory based on watching too many episodes of Dateline and 48 Hours Mystery. He speculated that, since the man was a doctor, he gave her medicine that made her collapse. Perhaps as part of insurance fraud or a murder plot. Then he could act concerned and say, hey, look, I tried to help. And he was so focused on helping, so involved with the work, he didn't recognize her. Seemed like a theory Jack McCoy might buy, but no one else.

My theories?

* They arrived at the store separately. If they went together, it seems even more unbelievable that he wouldn't have recognized her. She was wearing glasses, but they did come off when she fell. So, they arrive separately. Then, perhaps doctors get so involved with helping the "patient" they don't really see who it is, they just see a person in trouble. So only when he heard that her name was Catherine did it hit him that he was working on his own wife. Still seems hard to believe.

* It was a scene for a wacky prank show, or one of those 20/20 style shows where they set up unsuspecting people to see how they react in emergencies. As a social experiment. Like, will three strangers help a woman who collapses at a Barnes & Noble, or are people so concerned with their own lives they'll let her fall and convulse while reading Tom Clancy? Not my best theory.

* My most realistic scenario: They're divorced, have been for several years. He hadn't seen her in awhile. In that type of situation, once he did recognize her, he wouldn't shout, "Oh my god, my ex-wife!" You'd probably still shout, "my wife."

Still, it remained confounding. I wanted an explanation, but thought it might be in bad taste to chase after the ambulance. It's confused me for eight years.

But now, maybe there's an answer. Maybe the doctor suffered from prosopagnosia, face blindness. It seems plausible - but not as intriguing as a murder plot.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Who makes the best chocolate malts/shakes?

Last time I visited Minnesota, I tried figuring out how many Dairy Queen Blizzards my mom has consumed since the company introduced them 25 years ago. We did this as we sat at the dining room table, minutes after returning from the one-minute drive from the DQ, the third trip we took there in six days. For someone who struggles with math, especially word problems, this was no easy task. The final number, I believe, was close to 500, taking into account the number of months the Janesville DQ is open each year, the average number of trips Mom takes each week and random stops to Dairy Queens along our nation's highways. It's a lot of pecan cluster Blizzards.

But that number is nothing compared to the number of chocolate shakes I've had in my lifetime. Today, on another 90-degree day in New York, I made the short walk to McDonald's for a Medium Chocolate Shake. I finished it before I was even halfway home, slurping up the final remnants and regretting that it was gone so soon.

How many shakes have I eaten in my life? I became a true shake professional around my 11th birthday. In the summer before sixth grade, I spent much of my newspaper delivery money on Dairy Queen chocolate malts, along with their hot dogs and a bag of chips. The whole meal cost something like three bucks. Since then I've had shakes and malts in a dozen states and a hundred restaurants. I've eaten them - and wished I hadn't - in Johannesburg and Cape Town. And I've made my own. I'm not a great cook of anything that doesn't involve the phrase "times may vary depending on your microwave," but I'm an expert when it comes to the malt arts. I've been blending them since I was a kid, perfecting my secret recipe that's never been committed to paper.

So figure three shakes or malts a week since 1986. That's about 150 a year. Which would be about 3,600 shakes or malts. Maybe that number is wrong. There's a decent chance I underestimated the final tally. As I picture all of those creations lined up - they could reach the moon! - I don't know whether to be proud or sickened. Does thinking about all those malts make me want another or make me wanna lose the one I just ate?

Regardless, this is one area of food - along with sugar cereals and sodas - is where I feel confident calling myself an expert. So, who makes the best shakes and malts?

* Ruttles. This restaurant changed my life. Ruttles came to Mankato in the 1980s. Fifties decor. Old-school diner-type deal, complete with "At the Hop" by Danny and the Juniors playing on the jukebox. Baby boomers loved it and so did their starved children. Ruttles served basic burgers and fries. But the chocolate malts dominated the menu. For the first time, I discovered the metal cups that contain the excess goodness. Ruttles put its malt in the skinny glasses, then provided the customer with 10 pounds of extra malt in the metal containers. This was what life was like in the '50s? What a wondrous time that must have been! These are those American values everyone's talking about, I guess. Ruttles was the big thing in Mankato for a few years but they eventually closed. People apparently just weren't that interested in eating while listening to Bill Haley and his Comets.

* Shake Shack. These are famous in New York City. The first one opened in Madison Square Park. Just a little roadside burger and fries joint in the middle of a big park in the biggest city in the country. People stand for an hour waiting for the food. One opened a few years ago on the Upper West Side and the line often stretched around the block. Another opened in the Mets's new stadium, and, again, people stood in line for a half-hour, waiting for the food. They'd miss two innings just for a burger and shake. Then again, all they're missing is the Mets. I, too, love Shake Shack. But not for the shakes. I think they have the best burger in New York. The shakes, to my advanced tastes, are somewhat average, not deserving of the hype. I'd stand an hour in line for one of their burgers. For one of their shakes? Ten minutes.

* McDonald's. Before every road basketball game during my two years at Worthington Community College, I ate a McDonald's chocolate milkshake. My coach ridiculed this every time, saying it would weigh me down during the game. I was already slow, I didn't think the ice cream was going to negatively affect me too much. McDonald's shakes remain a favorite and they're still relatively inexpensive. They're not quite thick enough to earn the top spot. During our last trip to Cape Town, we pulled into the McDonald's drive-through and bought a pair of chocolate shakes. Neither one tasted like chocolate. They didn't taste like vanilla, either. It was some type of previously unknown flavor, a vanilla-chocolate-strawberry concoction that was as gross as it was unique. For one of the few times in my life, I failed to finish a shake. For awhile this soured me on all McDonald's shakes, but we've reconciled.

* Every Friday during the summer, Mister Softee, the ubiquitous, unfortunately named ice cream truck, rolls into our parking lot, ready to serve the magazine masses. For the employees, it's all free - free, free! - and placates all at the end of the work week. We eagerly gather after 2 p.m., just like the neighborhood school children who hear the jingle and put down the basketball to come running. Every week I get a large chocolate shake, which is the equivalent of a McDonald's medium. They're okay. Too runny, too chocolate-y. With a shake or malt, I want to have to use a straw and a spoon. These things are like water. Delicious water, but still not an ideal shake.

* 4-H at a county fair. Summer time is county fair time in Minnesota. Pack everyone into the car, head to the county seat and walk around for three hours looking at everyone's prized pigs and cows. Maybe attend a demolition derby or an AWA event starring Nick Bockwinkle. Lose money playing games on the midway, win money playing bingo under a tent. Drink beer, eat corndogs. Repeat at each county fair you attend. The 4-H always had a booth set up at the Waseca County Fair for chocolate shakes. Farm kids make a damn good shake. The only negatives were that the cups were a bit too small for my liking, and they were usually styrofoam, which could sometimes take away from the taste.

* Dairy Queen. Still the king when it comes to establishments. Maybe it's because I now have limited access to DQ and only visit them a few times a year, depending on when we travel to Minnesota. If we only go back during the winter months, a whole year can pass without a Medium Chocolate Malt. I prefer the DQ malt over their shake. They put just the right amount in, the malt doesn't overwhelm the other ingredients. It's always just the right mixture, not too thick or too runny. You need a spoon and a straw to finish one off. Dairy Queens even have a unique smell. When we get within a few feet of the Janesville establishment, you can smell the cold ice cream. They must pump that smell out of a vat or something. God I miss Dairy Queen.

* Fury's Diner. Limited availability. Still my favorite. I started making my own malts in junior high, probably some night when my mom wasn't home and I was desperate. Some keys:

- I never use chocolate ice cream. It has to be vanilla ice cream for a chocolate malt. Chocolate ice cream is overkill, the nuances are lost in a sea of chocolate.
- I prefer Nestle powder over Hershey's syrup. Use Hershey's and it tastes too much like a candy bar. My grandma was the best cook I've ever known. Her French Toast, chocolate chip cookies, roast beef, potato salads, chicken and, well, everything else, were so good she should have been put on a stamp or something to honor her culinary greatness. But...when it comes to shakes and malts, I preferred the ones I made. That feels weird to type, blasphemous. It's like someone bragging about being a better writer than Shakespeare. Now, grandma made a great shake, and nearly every night I stayed over, she'd rise from her chair at about 8 and ask if I wanted one. I always said yes and a few minutes later she'd walk in with one of her glasses filled to the top. But grandma used Hershey's. For shakes and malts, I remain a Nestle guy. Forgive me, grandma.

Sometimes I put in some malt powder, occasionally I don't. The toughest part is figuring out how much milk to use. As I wrote, I like a shake where I have to use a straw and a spoon. I don't use measuring cups. It's all by feel, instinct. It's the only time I own the kitchen.

If I really have had more than 3,500 shakes in my life - Jesus, have I? - several hundred of them emerged from my kitchen. And as shocking as it sounds, those shakes are the best I've ever had.

Friday, August 27, 2010

When the going gets tough for the Lakers, I get going

Last night ESPN Classic interrupted its award-winning coverage of the 2003 World Series of Poker and broadcast Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals.

The game's forever remembered for Robert Horry's game-winning 3-pointer.

It's the shot that tied the series at 2-2, in a seven-game battle the Lakers finally won in overtime in the final game. If Horry's shot hadn't gone down, the Kings would have led 3-1, with two of the next three games at home. Most likely, they would have been the Western Conference champions. Ralph Nader never would have had cause to complain about the officiating in Game 6, the Lakers wouldn't have won a third straight title and the Kings likely would have defeated the Nets in the Finals. It was a pretty big shot.

What sometimes gets forgotten about that game is that the Kings led 40-20 after the first quarter. They eventually stretched the lead to 24 points. The game included one of the all-time comments by Bill Walton, which is certainly saying something. With the Kings up 50-26 - yes, 50-26 - Walton said, "One thing the Kings have to worry about is being too far ahead, too early."

A few seconds went by. Marv Albert finally said, "I've never quite heard that philosophy. Let's ask Rick Adelman if he likes the lead he has."

A stubborn Bill explained that if you get a big lead, when the opposing team makes a comeback, the home crowd gets even more excited than normal and the momentum builds even more than it would in a close game. You can sort of see what he was trying to say, but it's obviously an absurd statement, the type of comment that can only be conjured up by someone who is either under the influence of mind-altering substances or liberally used them as a younger man.

Walton added, "The great teams I've been a part of, on the road you want to be tied at half." Marv ended the conversation by saying, "Bill, can you take a break and join us in the fourth quarter," a request that went unanswered.

Of course the Lakers did come back and the crowd did get into the game and Walton probably thought it all proved the point he made two hours before Horry's game-winning shot.

That game's memorable to me for the way it ended and the way I watched it, or, to be more accurate, didn't watch it. It took place the day before Memorial Day. I watched it at my parents' house. They were gone all weekend, wandering around cemeteries in Iowa. When the Lakers fell behind by 20 in the first quarter and 24 in the second, I turned the TV off and took a walk around Janesville. I couldn't handle watching the destruction or listening to Walton and Steve Jones's description of that destruction. I didn't think it would change the Lakers luck. I don't think turning off the TV somehow affects a game 1,500 miles away. No, I did it because I didn't believe in their chances. I turned it back on a while later and they had sliced into the lead. The Lakers now only trailed by 8. I could watch again. And I was watching when Horry's shot dropped through the net.

The Lakers have won 5 titles in the last 10 years and in three of the biggest games, they've made big comebacks: Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, the Kings game and the Game 7 victory this year over the Celtics. During all three of those games, at some point I turned off the TV and went outside, disgusted by what I was watching inside. And all three times...the Lakers won.

Against Portland, I left near the end of the third quarter, a quarter that ended with the Lakers trailing by 13 points. Early in the fourth, they trailed by 15. I was working at the newspaper that night - another Sunday game - but instead of returning to work, I drove around aimlessly for about 20 minutes. Our office only had a tiny black-and-white TV and the NBC station barely came in. We didn't have the Internet yet at our computers; only one main computer had online access and it had slower service than the original Army computers that first used the Internet. I sat at my desk, reading track and field results, fuming. The Lakers had won 67 games that year and had a 3-1 lead against Portland. Now it was all falling apart faster than Bill Walton's logic. I checked the clock and figured the game was over. The announcers that day were Bob Costas, along with, again, Walton and Jones. I turned on the tiny, worthless TV, just to see the final minute and the final score. When I flicked it on, the screen remained fuzzy. But the sound was clear. And what I heard was Bob Costas saying, incredibly, improbably, remarkably, "A 20-point swing. Once down 16, they lead by 4." Wait, who, what? I could hear the Lakers crowd cheering, loudly, which would be an odd thing to do if Portland was getting ready to celebrate.

The screen came into focus in time for me to see Scottie Pippen miss a jumper with less than a minute to play. And then, on a black and white TV that made it feel like I was watching the 1962 NBA Finals instead of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, I watched Kobe hook up with Shaq on their most famous play:

Like with the Kings game two years later, I went home after work and watched - and watched again and again - the tape of the game, especially the key parts I missed after storming out in frustration and desperation.

And then there's Game 7 against the Celtics. Early in the third quarter, as the Lakers fell behind by double-digits and Kevin Garnett screamed again and Kobe missed again, I left our apartment and walked around our block, heading north on Broadway, past Twin Donut, up to Park Terrace West and back down the 100 steps that lead back to Broadway. It wasn't that I thought the game was over - which is what I thought during the Kings-Blazers game - but watching the offensive ineptitude and picturing the grim future was just too much. Of all the damn teams, why'd it again have to be the Celtics? They were supposed to be dead months earlier, but their corpse-like stars somehow reanimated themselves in time for the playoffs and were now going to add another heartbreaking chapter to the Celtics' eternal dominance over LA. I needed a walk. Needed to smell the garbage left out on the street. Needed to hear some honking horns and the passing subway. Needed to stop watching.

When I returned the Lakers still trailed but now it was under 10 and they had some momentum. I watched the rest of the game and saw the end of another classic Lakers comeback.

So next year, sometime in June, when the Lakers trail the Heat by 13 in the third quarter of Game 7, you can probably bet that I won't be throwing anything at the TV. Instead I'll be walking around upper Manhattan, swearing at the Lakers and praying to the basketball gods. And based on past experiences, I'll be a happy man by the end of the night.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A lot of NBA zeroes have worn double zero

SI.com compiled one of those lists that's designed to start debate. They name the best players in NFL history to to wear each uniform number.

One of the most star-packed entries is No. 12. SI understandably gives the nod to Tom Brady. Runners-up include Terry Bradshaw, Joe Namath, Roger Staubach, Bob Griese, Doug Williams and Randall Cunningham.

I don't think NFL jersey numbers are quite as iconic as NBA ones. Everyone knows the great ones in NBA history: Magic's No. 32, Wilt's No. 13, Kareem's No. 33, and, of course, Jordan's No. 23. Most fans try to forget Jordan's No. 45. At Basketball Reference, you can look up every player who's worn every number.

As I looked at the Reference list, the most interesting thing to me was finding some of the worst players to wear each number. Which jersey number would - if it could talk, or at least object in some manner - complain about the guys who sported their number while laboring on the court? A stroll through the list.

0: Eric Montross, Benoit Benjamin, Soumaila Samake. Poor Soumaila. Guy stood seven-feet tall but only weighed 230 pounds. He played for the Lakers during the 2002-03 season. Despite having a physique that might best be described as Manute-like, Soumaila got suspended five games for steroid use. Samake actually started a game for the Lakers that year, a season that started with Shaq sitting out the early games after having surgery. Remarkably, Soumaila wasn't even the worst Samake(i) on the Lakers that year. That would have been Samaki Walker, who, unfortunately, did not get suspended for steroids and managed to start 39 games.

00: Yeesh. Robert Parish wore the number with pride and distinction. Outside of The Chief? A lot of tall guys, not much talent. Evan Eschmeyer, Eric Montross, Greg Ostertag, Benoit Benjamin, and William Bedford. Were some of these guys assigned those numbers or did they willingly say they wanted double-zero? Did having the number and being called a nothing - or, in this case, a double-nothing - hurt their self-esteem or did they choose it because they had low self-esteem to begin with?

And how about Montross wearing 0 and 00? Thankfully no one allowed him to wear 000.

1: Mugsy Bogues and Manute Bol both wore No. 1 during the 1995 season. Billy Donovan enjoyed an outstanding college career as a player and created a mini-dynasty at Florida as a coach, but as a pro he did nothing in his one season with the Knicks, where he played for his mentor, Rick Pitino. Also wearing No. 1, my least-favorite Laker ever: Smush Parker.

2: Another good number for underachieving - and, in some cases, rotund - centers: Joe Barry Carroll, Eddy Curry, Oliver Miller. Minnesota high school legend Khalid El-Amin wore No. 2 in his lone season in the NBA, when he played for the Bulls in 2001.

The Fifties were an odd time in the league, at least as far as number distribution. Guys wore 03, 07 and 09 (alas, there are no 007's in league history, not even Walter Bond). Jack McMahon, Sam Ranzino and Pep "Peppy" Saul all wore 03 and all played for Rochester at various times. Another Rochester Royal - Paul Noel - wore 07. And 09? Bobby Wanzer, in 1951, also for...the Rochester Royals.

Go way up on the list, to the very top. Four guys have worn No. 99, most famously George Mikan. Only one player ever wore No. 98: Chet Aubuchon of the Detroit Falcons, who played in the then-Basketball Association of America. The Detroit Falcons were to high numbers what the Royals were to low ones. In addition to Aubuchon - who scored 64 points in 1947 while shooting a ridiculous 25 percent from the floor - the Falcons had Ariel Maughan with 99. Maughan made his teammate Chet look like Artis Gilmore when it comes to shooting percentage. In '47, he made 24 percent of his shots. But he wasn't shy. Maughan threw up - and that does seem to be the proper phrasing here - 929 shots that year. He made 224. For his career, which lasted five brick-laying seasons, he made 28 percent of his shots.

There's only been one 89: Clyde Lovellete for the Lakers in 1954. Speaking of those early Lakers, Bud Grant - who, unfortunately became best-known for the number four in his Vikings coaching career - wore 14 and 20 during the 1950 season, which also ended with the Lakers winning the title.

Want a bad-luck number? No. 51. It's a number devoid of Hall of Famers or even decent starters. Michael Doleac might be the best player to ever wear the number, and that's not a sentence anyone should ever type. Him or Ken Bannister, who only wore it for three years and those three years were with the Clippers so there's some question if they even counted in league records.

No. 53 has a good mix of bad centers and decent ones. Decent: Artis Gilmore, Mark Eaton, Darryl Dawkins. Not decent: Stanley Roberts, Joe Klein, Jerome James and Mark Olberding, another Minnesota schoolboy legend who's greatest claim to fame post-college is as a punchline, as, for about 27 years, Sid Hartman seemed to believe the Gophers would have been a lot better if only Olberding were still around.

Kwame Brown wore 54 during his frustrating years with the Lakers. Kwame missed twice that many dunks with the Lakers and dropped three times as many passes. Kwame's now with Charlotte, signed by Michael Jordan, the man who originally drafted him No. 1 in 2001 and then, according to many stories, destroyed Kwame mentally while the big guy's hands physically ruined his chances at success in the league. What's the equivalent of Jordan again going after Kwame, and Kwame agreeing to again play for Jordan? It's a mini-version of the Billy Martin-George Steinbrenner fiascoes.

Only 37 guys wore the previously ridiculed No. 51, but 106 wore No. 50. And 74 wore 52. Perhaps guys have realized that any number whose best player is Michael Doleac is a jersey to be avoided. Only one guy ever wore No. 48. Walt Gilmore.

The forties are sort of a death zone for decent players. Only two players wore No. 49. Forty-six only had four and Bo Outlaw's been the best. No. 47 had five, but two of them were Jerry Lucas and Andrei Kirilenko. Fulda favorite Arvid Kramer wore No. 41. If Arvid had worn 51, he might have been the third-best guy to ever have that number.

No one likes the nines. Only three at No. 39, two at 49, no one at No. 59, and, thankfully, no one at No. 69.

Twenty-four players wore No. 29, but it's an unimpressive list. Paul Silas is far and away the best to wear it. Second best? You might have to give it to Pervis Ellison, who had a similar career to fellow top draft pick Kwame Brown, only Never Nervous never had the chance to be cursed at by Michael Jordan. No. 26 is a strangely bad number. Forty-one players have had it, with the well-traveled Hedo Turkoglu being the best. After that? Uh, Kyle Korver, anyone? Former Timberwolves cult legend James "Hollywood" Robinson also wore 26. He's the third-best guy with No. 26. Not a good number.

Finally, 191 players have worn No. 23. If LeBron had his way, of course, no one would wear it again, in honor of the career Michael Jordan enjoyed before becoming a failed executive. People wondered what LeBron was thinking with The Decision. His Retire 23 decree should have let people know LeBron might not have possessed the best judgment when it comes to bold proclamations. This year LeBron will wear No. 6. What, he can't wear Jordan's number but he's okay wearing the same number as Togo Palazzi?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The time New York City beat me up, took my car and $700

Thursday night we attended a reading downtown. We left at 6:30 but didn't arrive until 8, thanks to a series of delays caused by the dreaded transportation phrase "an earlier incident." It was another hour on the way back. Three stops from home, on the A train, a man in his twenties stumbled into our car. He sported a bushy red beard and a green shirt. I mistakenly thought he was blind. As the doors opened, his eyes also remained opened but he didn't step on. Instead he felt around for the door before staggering inside. He sat about three feet away from us. When I said the guy was blind, Louise responded, "What? He's drunk. Didn't you see the puke on his shirt?" Since the vomit apparently matched his shirt color, I had not.

Thirty seconds after he sat down, the man added to his shirt's decorations by vomiting on the floor and his clothes. Fellow riders scrambled away while we waited for the next stop so we could switch cars. The guy didn't react, other than to wipe his mouth with the soiled shirt. Surely this was a low point in his life, or perhaps not. Might have just been a typical Thursday night in Washington Heights for him. He changed seats but not his behavior. He puked again, further debasing himself, New York, the MTA, guys with beards, the Irish (presumably), and humanity itself. We changed cars but saw him get off at Dyckman Street. He staggered toward the exit, looking very much like Joe Frazier in the final seconds of his bout against George Foreman.

Several times throughout the night - whether we were stuck on the train going nowhere or stuck on the train watching the green-shirted demon lose his intestines - I wished we had a car. How much easier life would be without having to deal with the subway delays and the pukers. During the work week, I often have the same thought, usually when I walk into our apartment at 7:15, ending my hour-long commute that takes about 15 minutes in a car. God I wish we had a car, I'll think.

But then I remember my first night in the city after I moved here in 2004. I remember my car being towed and the $715 it took to rescue it. I remember the three months I had my car here and the fact the only times I drove it was to move it from one side of the street to the other. Then I realize that being caught up in endless subway delays and being trapped with violently ill drunks is one type of hell, but not the worst kind.

When I moved out here in 2004, I drove with Louise from Minnesota to New York in my 1998 Chevy Cavalier. We pulled into the city on a Sunday, about 10 p.m. It was the end of our three-day trip. We'd seen Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and points in between. All I had to do now was find a parking space. Forty-five minutes later, I was still searching. Louise patiently explained that this was normal, especially on a weekend night. Finally a spot opened up. A small slot, but plenty of room for someone with my incomparable, Minnesota-trained parallel parking skills. Unfortunately, I overrated both my parking abilities and the size of the spot, because I eventually realized there was no way I could fit in without bumping the car in front of me.

"Go ahead and bump it," Louise said. "It's what New Yorkers do."

"They do?"


So I did. I gently nudged an SUV (Damn gas guzzler, serves it right!), moving it maybe six inches, just enough room to let me slide in. When I stepped out of the car, I realized a woman with a rottweiler - or some other type of dog that has been trained to eat men - watched the entire spectacle from the steps of her brownstone. When I walked past she shook her head, probably wondering what in the hell the city had come to. Or maybe she recognized me for what I was: a newcomer, a wannabe. An inexperienced, hapless, overmatched Midwesterner who would have already been robbed of his dignity and belongings if I didn't have Louise watching over me.

Tuesday morning I woke up at 8, grabbed a donut and walked the three blocks to my car. I turned the corner on Manhattan Avenue and saw...nothing. The same small spot that existed before I crammed my Cavalier into it two nights earlier again sat unoccupied. Two possibilities: It'd been stolen or, most likely, it'd been towed.

I was a ticket fugitive, but until that moment I guess I always thought I'd get away with my sins. A year earlier I racked up four tickets during a summer trip to the city, but I didn't pay any of them. I figured I could pay them if I ever moved to New York. But I thought I'd have a grace period, a few weeks to fix the situation. The city obviously had other ideas. Panicked, I sprinted back to the apartment, called Louise, blubbered incoherently, listened to her do the same, watched the final moments of The Pretender on TNT and waited for her to figure out what had happened. She said she'd look at a website that would show if it'd been stolen - by the city. And indeed, New York had taken my car.

Total cost of the unpaid tickets and tow job: $715. Payable only in cash.

Louise gave me the instructions to the place holding my car hostage. Some dump in Brooklyn. I'd never been to Brooklyn. Didn't really know anything about it other than it had a bridge named after it and the inhabitants still loved a baseball team that hadn't played there in 50 years. But I set out for Brooklyn - without my dignity but with the cash. When I emerged from the subway, I only had to walk a few blocks to my destination. Unfortunately, this wasn't a one-step exercise. Instead it was like some type of perverse treasure hunt. I paid the fee here. The car? That's in another area To get there, I would learn, all you have to do is follow the incomprehensible directions provided by a guy who looked like a former Navy SEAL.

It was a small office, run by the SEAL, a middle-aged secretary and an elderly woman with a harsh hairdo and kind face. I gave the woman my license and registration.

"This isn't your registration," said the old woman, who, until that point, had sort of reminded me of my grandmother.

"Well, the registration's in the car. Here's my license. Can I just pay the fine, please?"
"Is it valid?" (What, the license or my existence?)
"Is it valid?"
"I'm sorry. Is what valid?"
"Your registration."
"Yes. But I don't have that with me. Can I just pay the fine?"

By that time the woman no longer reminded me of grandma. Perhaps my kindly grandmother would have acted like this after a lifetime in New York, enjoying these little power plays, toying with the emotions of the beaten-down, ticket-evading masses. I doubt it. There was something sinister in this woman that had been there since birth. A lifetime spent in this cramped office certainly didn't help her disposition, but she'd enjoyed busting balls long before she ever stepped foot into these suffocating, poorly decorated confines.

As we conducted our updated "Who's on First" gag, the secretary screamed at a person on the phone, telling them that it was "CASH ONLY! How many times do you have to hear that to understand it?" Finally the head guy told the elderly woman to run my license to see if it was "valid." It was and I paid the parking fees. But I still needed to claim my car.

"The vehicles are kept elsewhere," he told me.

The man gave me directions, which seemed designed to provide the minimum amount of help with the maximum amount of confusion. I eventually asked a cop, who was fighting street crime and the war on terror while yawning and checking out the assets of passing females, how to find the B61 bus. He pointed the way and a few minutes later I settled in for what I figured would be a short ride to my car. My precious, blue, beloved Cavalier. I hope no one hurt you, baby.

I waited patiently for Coffey Street. By the 45-minute mark I started to worry. The guy made it sound like a short trip, not a tour around greater Brooklyn. I finally asked the driver if my stop was coming soon. The soft, pitying chuckle gave me fair warning about the coming answer. But still, I needed to hear the words.

"Son, that's the other direction. You're going the wrong way."

At this point in my New York City life, I didn't quite understand the public transportation system. It hadn't dawned on me to ask the policeman which way I wanted to go on the bus. In retrospect, that seems like information he could have volunteered. Instead, I hopped on the first one I saw. The driver told me to get off and walk a block over to the correct bus. When I finally found myself on the proper one, I asked the driver how long it'd be to my stop. Fifty minutes, he estimated. Fifty plus 45. Ninety-five minutes. That's how long I spent on the New York City bus that day, searching for the lot that held my car. Now going the correct direction, I settled in and listened to my fellow passengers. A young rapper regaled the bus with tales of hookers and heroin. A middle-aged woman with a large bosom and bigger voice provided a running historical commentary on every third building we drove by. "That used to be a hospital before they shut it down. That's where they tore down the grocery store."

When we reached my stop, I wandered off in a daze, beaten down by the parking tickets and the bus's fumes. The tour guide walked off with me. Sensing my confusion, she grabbed my arm. She asked if everything was okay. I told her I didn't know where to find Coffey Street. She told me to walk a few blocks and I'd see it.

The lot finally came into sight. Turns out it was a father-son operation. Junior manned the desk. He was about five inches short of six-feet and six pounds shy of 300. He wore a smirk, as if he'd just convinced a customer to pay $500 for a $29 oil change. I claimed my car and paid the rest of the fine. He retrieved the Cavalier while I asked his proud father how to get back to Manhattan. He pulled out some directions that looked like they'd been written by a child, for a child.

A native New Yorker - or anyone who'd spent more than, say, four hours in Brooklyn - would have surely crossed over a bridge and into Manhattan in a few moments. A guy spending his first day in New York? A frazzled, defeated guy? Two hours. I'd see the skyline and head in that direction, only to get discombobulated and realize I was now driving away from the skyline. Three times I stopped to ask for directions, but the helpers only confirmed my suspicions that ninety-eight percent of any city's population is utterly incapable of providing even the most elementary directions. Even if they've lived there for two decades, they won't be able to articulate how to get to Point A to Point B.

I found my salvation in McDonald's. The old gal had always provided comfort in the form of her chicken-like McNuggets. Now she provided me with a way home. The 10-year-old in a hairnet behind the counter gave clear, easy-to-understand directions. A short time later, I drove over the Manhattan Bridge and into downtown Manhattan. Now all I had to do was drive 104 blocks in rush-hour traffic. I nearly killed a pedestrian, a well-groomed businessman who responded by slapping the hood with his rolled-up Wall Street Journal. I wanted to roll down the window and apologize, maybe offer to shine his shoes. I was vulnerable. In that 50-minute drive through hell, I transformed from a meek Midwesterner into a New York driver. At first I let people in and waited for the hand to acknowledge my good deed. Then I'd patiently wait for someone to let me into whatever lane I needed. After being honked at a half-dozen times and never once being allowed into a lane - not even by some farmer with Iowa plates who really should know better - I simply started veering into traffic without looking, depending on the below-average reflexes of my fellow drivers to keep me from getting into an accident.

Finally, at 7:10 p.m. seven hours after I had walked onto the subway for a simple ride to Brooklyn and back, I double-parked in front of our apartment. I sprinted inside, used the bathroom, hugged Louise and ingested some Coke - the capital C version.

My ordeal was nearly over. Now I all I had to do was find a place to park.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Internet commenters deliver best medical advice

I get several headaches a month, sometimes several a week. Who knows what causes them. McDonald's Nuggets, not getting caffeine before noon, not eating by 1, not having red meat by 6, not drinking enough water, drinking too much alcohol, staying up too late on Thursdays, waking up at all on Sundays. But they are not debilitating. They aren't even as severe as the ones my dad and sister suffer from on a near-daily basis. And most importantly, they're not migraines.

Vikings receiver Percy Harvin is the latest in a long line of famous athletes who have endured those devastating attacks. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar famously suffered from them. Scottie Pippen experienced one at the worst possible time: the day the Bulls played the Pistons in Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals. The Bulls lost, and some people lost a bit of respect for Pippen, wondering if somehow the migraine meant he had cracked under the pressure of a Game 7.

Harvin collapsed at practice Thursday, a frightening scene no matter what, perhaps made worse by the fact he plays for the Vikings, a franchise still haunted by the death of Korey Stringer nine years ago. Harvin returned to Vikings practice Friday. He visited his teammates and pronounced himself fine. But who knows what his future holds. Harvin has seen doctors for a decade, trying to find a solution. He's been to the best, including physicians at Mayo.

But apparently Harvin just hasn't been looking in the right places. The answers to his migraines won't be found in hospitals or clinics and the solutions won't be delivered by doctors or researchers. Instead, he needs to hit the Internet. And it's not about going on WebMD to make a self-diagnosis. No need for that, not when Internet M.D.'s around the country - many of whom graduated with their degrees from Vikings University - can offer their own solutions.

"The treatment I suggested would not require extensive time off. He could see relief with the first treatment or two. He will need a few days to rest, because after he sleeps better than he has in years the first night, the next day he will feel like he has a ton of bricks on his shoulders. This is because of the correction that has been made to his upper cervical area. This subsides in a day or so. Then, if needed, an additional treatment or two in the first week, then a maintenance plan is set up, if needed. In reality, he will be raring to go after he sees how well he feels afterwards."

That's "Mel Allen"
on the Vikings fan website dailynorseman.com. Mel also recommends "google three words - 'migraine atlas orthogonality' Percy, if you read this, you owe it to yourself to do so. To be blunt, doctors will not recommend this. Take care."

And, "He has suffered from them for more than half his life. They started for a reason. An injury, a trauma, who knows? How many more conventional doctors can he see? Drugs will only mask symptoms, not address the cause!!! I know it sounds simple, too good to be true, etc., etc. A simple battery of Xrays, which cost me about $75, can determine if his atlas is misaligned and if he has verterbral subluxation." Throughout the threads, Mel gets increasingly agitated when people question his beliefs and medical proclamations.

So who do you listen to? Mayo or Mel? If you can't believe the medical opinions of anonymous Internet posters who are named after Hall of Fame broadcasters famous for T.W.I.B. Notes and the phrase "How about that," then who can you trust?

Doctors make mistakes. They misdiagnose people. Occasionally alternative therapies work. But in the history of medicine, has there ever been a celebrity - whether it's an athlete, a movie star or a reality TV slug - who's been reading online and come across a post that makes them think, "Wait a minute, that guy's on to something?" Has there ever been a doctor who retired for the evening after a 12-hour shift, started reading his favorite football message board and came across a medical opinion that made him think, "Jesus Christ. That's it. Why didn't my team at Columbia think of this?"

Mel Allen isn't alone in pleading for an athlete to listen to his interesting ideas on health and wellness. During the NBA season I spend an unfortunate amount of time on Lakers message boards. Whenever a player suffers an injury - whether it's a sprained ankle or a bruised shoulder - an online doctor appears with advice. And these people are never actually doctors. That'd at least be a bit more plausible, if someone with a medical degree would offer up opinions on an injury or give insight into the normal recovery time for an affliction. That can be valuable. No, these are accountants and college students and copy editors and garbage men offering cutting-edge advice to millionaire athletes with decent health insurance plans who have access to the best medical minds in the country, if not the world.

But these posters beg the players to READ THIS MESSAGE or pray that the athlete's agent or mistress will stumble upon the post and alert the guy. These posts fall into two main categories:

* The guy who suffered the same injury offers advice. Kobe Bryant injured his finger - again - early last season. Debate raged about whether he should get surgery and sit out a few months or simply play with pain. Inevitably, a weekend baller who routinely kicks ass at the Y on Thursday nights contributed a post about how he broke his finger two years ago. He didn't get surgery and regretted it ever since. And if Kobe doesn't get the surgery, he'll regret it, too. Or maybe he did get the surgery but something didn't go right and Kobe should never get surgery, since you can never be sure whether you're getting the surgeon who graduated at the bottom of the class. Either way, this person knows what's best for Kobe and how it will affect his jumper, because "since I broke my finger, my jump shot has been flat and inconsistent. Please, Kobe. Listen to me!"

* The guy whose brother/son/brother-in-law suffered the same injury and offers advice. Andrew Bynum injured his knee - again - last season. A relative sprained his knee four years ago and went through surgery that didn't really work. A year later, the same relative traveled to Texas for a surgery and regained his 23-inch vertical leap. "Andrew, if your (sic) reading this, send me a message so I can tell you about this Texas doctor. Please!"

This happens everywhere, in every league, to every team. A running back suffers a pulled hamstring that lingers for four weeks and the team becomes inundated with letters offering therapy ideas. It happens for small injuries and, as Vikings fans prove, for potentially life-altering afflictions. Certainly the intended audience for these online missives never actually read - or follow - the advice offered by Internet physicians. Whatever happens with Percy Harvin, it won't have anything to do with the ideas thrown around by the Internet's finest medical minds.

What's the psychology involved here? What makes fans think a stranger they'll never meet will read about their medical malady online and realize the solution they've been searching for is out there, if only they'll listen to an Internet poster, the same one who thinks Joe Mauer should be benched, Phil Jackson is overrated, proper spelling is unnecessary, man never actually landed on the moon and the Earth is 2,000 years old? Yes, these are the people who can cut through the fog and properly diagnose a torn ligament or a severe brain injury.

What's the psychology? Let me break out the DSM IV and I'll offer up an online diagnosis of the mental illness these fans are suffering. Please listen to me! I know what I'm talking about! I can help!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The annual St. John's/John Gagliardi propaganda post

In about three weeks the St. John's University - Minnesota version - football team starts its season. Each Saturday during the football season, I sit in front of our computer, listening to the online radio broadcast. With the obvious exception of Lakers games and the occasional Twins debacle, it's the only time I spend really getting worked up over a sports team.

St. John's is one of the most successful Division III programs in history, but certainly not the most successful. Mount Union, for instance, has won an astounding 10 national titles since 1993. Yet there's no doubt the Johnnies receive the most publicity of any Division III program. In fact, the team probably gets more publicity and recognition than any other small-college program, regardless of sport. Stories about the team appear in the Washington Post, New York Times, LA Times, ESPN.com, and on the Today show and NFL Films. The St. Cloud Times provides the type of coverage some Division I schools don't get, while the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minneapolis Star-Tribune have all done countless features on the program. Sports Illustrated writer Austin Murphy wrote a book about the team - The Sweet Season - and has written several other stories about the program for the magazine.

The reason for all that publicity? John Gagliardi.

When the Johnnies open the season at home against Northwestern on September 4, the 83-year-old Gagliardi will stand on the sidelines, probably in a baseball cap and white shirt. The 2010 season will be Gagliardi's 62nd season as a college head coach, his 58th at St. John's. His coaching career started in Montana in 1949. One of my favorite Gagliardi tidbits is that he was never an assistant coach, at any level. He took over as coach of his high school team when the previous coach went off to war. Gagliardi was 16. After that, he took over at Carroll. But in all those years, he's never had to answer to a superior. He could make up his rules as he went along.

He has a career record of 471-126-11 and he has the most victories in college football history. When a guy started coaching only four years after World War II ended, the career numbers eventually stop making any sense. But if Gagliardi lost 344 consecutive games, he'd still have a winning record.

Gagliardi's famous for his record number of victories and his coaching methods.

It's all about the word no. No tackling in practice. No whistles at practice. No wind sprints or laps. No one calls Gagliardi Coach, they simply call him John. No blocking sleds or tackling dummies. No calisthenics. No goals, just expectations. No hazing. No long practices - they usually last 90 minutes, but are often even shorter. He's the most famous advocate of the word no since Nancy Reagan.

The most famous of Gagliardi's no's is probably the no tackling one. Anyone who ever played football has been crushed during a practice, whether at the highest levels or as a 98-pound seventh-grader who somehow gets locked into a tackling drill with the 185-pound linebacker who was held back a grade and sports a full beard. It's a big part of what makes football practices miserable. But if you've listened to coaches for the past century, it's also what makes football players tough. Makes them men. Beat the hell out of each other in practice and it will carry over into the game. Or something. Except the Johnnies don't tackle in practice.

The rationale is simple, which is perhaps the problem for other people. We've been inundated with the idea that football is the closest thing we have to war outside of Afghanistan. It's supposed to be so incredibly complex that only coaches who spend 18 hours a day in the office and can't name the President of the United States can understand the intricacies.

The Johnnies don't tackle because, in Gagliardi's words, they "work on getting to the ball carrier so that we can make the tackle." Another reason? It cuts down on injuries. It all seems simple, right?

The St. John's coaches assume that by the time a guy gets to them, he knows how to tackle. It's a matter of putting them in the right position to make the play. And every year, St. John's has one of the best - if not the best - defenses in Division III. They don't always lead the country in fewest points or yards allowed, but their dominance has come against the best teams, on the biggest stage. Since 1995, Mount Union - those 10-time NCAA champs - has been held to 10 or fewer points in two games. Both came against St. John's. Mount Union defeated St. John's 10-7 in the 2000 title game. And in 2003, St. John's snapped Mount Union's record 55-game winning streak with a 24-6 victory, the first and only time since 1989 the Purple Raiders scored fewer than 10 points in a game.

Just think how good the Johnnies' defense would be if they tackled in practice.

Former all-pro linebacker Chris Spielman served as the ESPN analyst for that 2003 title game. As a player, Spielman was the ultimate tough guy, both at Ohio State and in the pros. Throughout the game, he kept talking about how he couldn't have played in a system that didn't allow tackling in practice. He said he needed that to be a great player. But he didn't. He had been taught that he needed it, but it wasn't a requirement. He expressed skepticism early in the game about St. John's and Gagliardi's methods. As the game wore on and the Johnnies' defense continued to torment Mount Union while almost never missing a tackle, he finally started to see that their ways do work.

I graduated from St. John's in 1997 but didn't play football. However, I did take Gagliardi's Theory of Football class, one of the most entertaining courses I had in college. Gagliardi spent much of the time doing magic tricks and setting up some of his players with the females in the class, but there was also some occasional football talk. Gagliardi's easygoing and friendly. He's famous for his jokes, though at functions he often breaks out the old reliable ones: He never thinks about retiring but he does think about suicide after every loss. He's only going to coach for one or two more...decades. Hearing him speak at a conference is like going to see The Rolling Stones. Yeah, it's nice to occasionally hear the new stuff, but you're there to hear "Satisfaction" and "Sympathy for the Devil."

On a couple of occasions I bumped into him at the campus post office. One time, when he found out I was from Janesville, we spent about 20 minutes talking about one of his old players who was from my hometown, along with several others who hailed from nearby towns. We talked more about the towns themselves than football.

Gagliardi has proven that his style works perfectly at the Division III level. There's always been discussion about whether Gagliardi's methods would work at a higher level. Could a big college use his ideas and succeed? Could an NFL coach win without running tackling drills in practice? Many people say no. Gagliardi himself doesn't care. One of his most-used quotes is they're not trying to get converts.

But I actually think his style might work even better at a higher level. It seems like the more talented the players, the better the system would work. St. John's gets high-level Division III players, so they don't have to spend time on ridiculous drills. Things like the bear crawl. They run plays in practice. Over and over. They teach the defenders how to get into position. At a higher level, where the athletes are superior, they'd obviously already know how to tackle. So what good does it do to beat each other up in practice all week?

As the NFL season progresses, you often read about coaches cutting back the tackling in practice as they try to preserve the players. It apparently doesn't occur to any of them to do that for the entire season. If NFL coaches are so concerned about being physical - and announcers share this concern, to the point that the word "outphysical" has actually become an accepted term - why don't they insist on tackling throughout the season? Why let up at all? Or do they just feel the need to be physical a few times a week early in the year, because that's the way Halas did it and, god damn it, that's the way we're going to do it? That's part of Gagliardi's methods. Why do you have to do what's always been done?

Offensively, St. John's runs a small number of plays. They practice the ones they are good at over and over. Over the last 20 years, St. John's has possessed an explosive offense, though the offense has struggled a bit the last couple of seasons. But in 1993, for example, St. John's averaged 61 points per game.

"When it comes down to it, we're trying to be good at a certain number of plays, and we're not afraid to run the same play over and over and over again. You've got to be careful trying to run 60 different plays in a game and being pretty good at most of them, as opposed to being great at this core group of plays."

That quote didn't come from Gagliardi. Peyton Manning said it in an interview with Dan Patrick last year, but he might have stolen it from one of Gagliardi's interviews. I don't understand why other "systems" work, but Gagliardi's wouldn't, when his makes more sense than just about any of them. Why can screamers and coaches who have their players drill each other in practice succeed but someone who operates in an opposite manner wouldn't have a chance?

Former Alabama coach Mike DuBose had a successful four-year stint at Millsaps in Division III. He was a former SEC coach of the year. But Millsaps wasn't St. John's when it comes to D3 success. His style worked at a lower level and he had previously shown it works at the highest level in all of college ball. Again, why wouldn't Gagliardi's methods - which have helped the Johnnies dominate at the D3 level since the time when John F. Kennedy was a senator - work? Countless coaches have moved up from the lower-levels and been successful in numerous sports - Bo Ryan at Wisconsin being one. I don't know if a 45-year-old Gagliardi would have found success at Nebraska, but it's impossible to say he wouldn't have had a chance. It's a brutal game, but it doesn't have to be taught in a brutal manner.

Ultimately that speculation doesn't matter. Gagliardi's career is about what he's done, not about what might have been. I still want a movie made about his career someday. Maybe combining The Sweet Season with the 2003 championship year - it's Hollywood, they can mix and match seasons.

There is always talk about who might someday replace Gagliardi. Mike Grant's name is always thrown out as a possibility. Mike - son of Bud - played for Gagliardi and was on the 1976 team. Grant is the most successful big-school high school coach in Minnesota. He's used many of Gagliardi's methods to turn Eden Prairie into a dynasty. He'd seem like a natural fit. Except he's getting, well, a bit old. He's in his fifties and by the time Gagliardi's done, might be close to 60. Who knows if he'd have any desire to take over. John's son Jim, the longtime offensive coordinator, is another possible candidate, as are veteran defensive coaches Jerry Haugen and Gary Fasching.

Whoever they hire will probably be successful. St. John's has many built-in advantages - built up over 58 years - that should help the new coach continue the winning ways. But it won't be the same as it's been with Gagliardi. It's not just about the winning, it's about how he's won. There's no replacing the coach who preaches the value of no. Thankfully - and remarkably - the school, players and fans won't have to worry about that for another one or two...decades.

Gagliardi links:
St. Cloud Times story on start of 2010 season
ESPN Page 2 story from 2003
2009 New York Times story
1998 LA Times story on Gagliardi
Austin Murphy article on "The Natural Bowl"
Sports Illustrated story after Gagliardi's 400th victory
Sports Illustrated story after Gagliardi broke Eddie Robinson's record
1992 Sports Illustrated feature - Gagliardi appeared on the cover of the issue
Athletic Business article

Sunday, August 15, 2010

How I spent my (1984) summer vacation

I turned 9 years old in June 1984. I'm sure my parents gave me Cowboys clothes and Lakers gear, probably a baseball glove, a basketball, and I think that might have been the year I got an aluminum bat with red lettering on it that might still take up space in a closet. That summer I spent dozens of hours shooting at the too-high hoop in the city park and played countless hours of pickup football and baseball at that same park. I spent the last two months of the summer mourning the Lakers' seven-game loss to the Celtics, devastated in that way only a 9-year-old could be. In other words, I was convinced that loss was the worst thing that had ever happened to me in my life and would be the worst thing to ever happen to me. Obviously that was a misguided reaction, a complete and irrational overreaction. I never would have felt that way if I'd known Ralph Sampson's shot was only two years away.

I didn't spend much time indoors, even though that was the momentous year when cable arrived in Janesville. I spent most of my time with my neighbor and best boyhood friend Brandon.

When we did stay indoors, we spent most of our time poring over that year's Topps baseball cards. We bought a new pack nearly every day at Wiste's grocery store. Now is probably the time apologize to the dent that put in my parents' coin jar those three months.

My folks worked during the day and my sister and her friends seemed to have little interest in hanging out with boys six years their junior, so we had the run of the house. But even with the introduction of cable - Australian Rules Football!, Midnight Madness on HBO! - a pair of records provided the majority of our in-house entertainment. Records. Round things. Used with a player and a needle. You've read obituaries on them. They looked like this.

Our family's record player still sat in the living room that year, already all-but-irrelevant, though not yet officially retired. The collection included the standard classics: Beatles, Neil Diamond, Fat Elvis. But that summer we listened to Cheech & Chong's "Sister Mary Elephant" and "Mr. Jaws" by Dickie Goodman about 275 times. Each. To us, those two records represented the peak of comedic genius. Nothing topped them. And nothing every would. At that supposedly innocent age, we didn't get what Cheech & Chong were really about. I can only imagine how much we'd enjoy listening to the record today if we happened to be using their favorite product.

Wikipedia's synopsis of "Sister Mary Elephant" is 406 words long. That's about how many words make up the entire skit. This proves a couple of things: that Wikipedia entry needs a new editor, and it's impossible to describe the skit in a humorous way. So I won't try. Here's the skit (try to ignore the strange Japanese animation that accompanies the YouTube video. Try, but fail.)

I know. Seems like being high is a requirement for actually laughing at it. I did still smile and chuckle when listening to it for the first time in probably 20 years. I still love the voices and the "I gotta go to the can, man" line and "Young man, give me that knife...Thank you," and everything else. But this is not a record I'd now listen to 15 times a day. I'm not rolling around on the floor, demanding that Brandon replay it. But in 1984, to a 9-year-old and 10-year-old in little Janesville, Minnesota, who spent their time biking around town and playing about four different sports a day, only to retire to the Fury family living room to trade a Don Mattingly card for a Cal Ripken, this record provided the soundtrack to our glorious summer.

That same year we discovered "Mr. Jaws."

To me, this one aged better, even if the songs used in the parody haven't. This still cracks me up, especially "Big boys don't cry, big boys don't cry." To us, picking between "Sister Mary Elephant" and "Mr. Jaws" was like choosing between Lennon and McCartney. Some days we thought "Mr. Jaws" the superior record. Other times it was "Sister Mary Elephant" - "Did you hear that guy ask to go to the can?!!" We always played the records back-to-back-to-back-to-back, until we'd walk back outside to the mean streets of Janesville.

I'm sure at some point during the summer of 1984 I uttered the words "I'm bored." But I'm also certain that state never lasted long. Not when we had "Sister Mary Elephant" and "Jaws" at our disposal.

But one question still remains, 26 years later: what in the hell were my parents doing with a Cheech & Chong record?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

You are what you were as a first-grader. Act accordingly

Bad news for anyone older than 7.

Think back to first grade. Remember sitting passively in your desk as the bully who was held back a grade grabbed your hair and yanked while the teacher did nothing? You're probably sitting passively in your cubicle today - 20, 30, 40 years later - as the office moron bullies you into finishing a project he was supposed to complete two days ago.

Remember how shy you were in first grade when the new girl in school tried talking to you? Remember how she looked at you when you couldn't put two words together? Even then she knew you were something of a loser. She probably pegged you as a paste-eater. You're probably something of a shut-in today, afraid to meet new people. When a woman does talk to you while you guys stand in line at the grocery store, she's immediately turned off by your awkwardness. She assumes you still live in a dark basement in your parents' house and spend your time reading books about serial killers.

A new study came out that seems to show "personality traits observed in children as young as first graders are a strong predictor of adult behavior." The study's author, Christopher Nave, said, "This speaks to the importance of understanding personality because it does follow us wherever we go across time and contexts." And surely young Christopher was a blast to hang out with as a first-grader.

Many people ridicule these types of studies - "THIS IS WHAT OUR MONEY IS SPENT ON?? GODDAMN GOVERNMENT!" - but I love them. I also, for the most part, believe the findings. To be fair, this study - from the 1960s - studied children in Hawaii. Maybe the results would be different on the mainland, with kids who receive less sun.

It's odd reading some of the Yahoo! comments. Not any stranger than most Internet comments, except the posters are lacking in irony even more than normal. They ridicule the study and make bizarre political analogies while using racist language and bad spelling. They say there's no way the findings could be true, then add with pride that they've never been afraid to speak their mind, even as a kid, and that their temper always got them into trouble with teachers who didn't like to hear the truth. In other words, remember the jerk who tried beating up on the kid from Cambodia in first grade and always struggled to spell any word that had more than two letters? He's probably ranting today about Mexicans while posting poorly worded missives on message boards.

I remember a fair amount of things from first grade. Books we read, filmstrips we watched, field trips we took. I remember one of the kids slamming a door so hard it broke the glass in the window. He was always in trouble in first grade; shortly after I graduated from college, I read a story about him getting arrested for beating someone up. Probably broke a glass door during the brawl.

Back then my teacher and classmates thought I was pretty quiet but fairly witty. I loved reading. I loved basketball. I wanted my teacher to like me. Not much has changed. In first grade I longed for a girl named Leah who had moved away after Kindergarten. That's changed. I stopped thinking about her in 10th grade, 11th at the latest.

I liked making my friends laugh back then but didn't want to be the center of attention. Or, I didn't want to be the acknowledged center of attention. It's the same thing today. I'd rather throw in a comment at the end of someone's long-winded story than tell an amusing anecdote that takes five minutes.

I loathed the idea of getting in trouble with an authority figure, but always wanted to entertain my friends.

One day the whole class sat on the floor, listening to the teacher read us a story. I kept whispering wisecracks to two of my friends, Willie and Travis. Only they could hear me. I provided running commentary on the story and the teacher's reading performance; I was a 6-year-old precursor to Mystery Science Theater 3000. And god, was I funny! Or at least that's what I thought. Fortunately, so did my friends, who kept chuckling throughout the story. Finally the teacher stopped reading. She looked up and found the offenders. She chastised my friends. She disciplined them with the type of punishment that's probably not allowed these days, unless the teacher is eager to be the defendant in a lawsuit.

Travis and Willie had to sit underneath desks for an extended period. Odd. It was like putting them in a cage without bars. Like a pair of mob rats eager to sell out their boss, both Willie and Travis told the teacher I made the comments that made them laugh that made them interrupt her reading. I dreaded sitting under one of those desks. They looked so miserable, defeated. And they just took the punishment. Mrs. Matuska called me to her desk. Unsmiling, she asked me if the accusations were true. Had I made them laugh?

"No," I said.

"I didn't think so," she replied.

I was the good kid.

A few years ago I went to church back in Janesville with my parents. Louise came with. As we stood there, next to my forever-faithful folks and the other good Catholics of St. Ann's, I tried making comments that would make Louise giggle. I wanted to hear her snort while the priest recited Eucharistic Prayer Number...Three. I sort of succeeded, but not entirely. In a perfect world, I suppose the priest would have stopped the ceremony. In front of everyone, he would have told her to sit in the confessional to recite 100 Our Father's. He would have asked me if I made her laugh. And I would have said...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Roving gangs of hooligans are not stalking Janesville. But the Doll still hangs

"An e-mail circulating through the area recently claims that there are gang initiations going on, specifically south of Janesville, that involve a car seat containing a doll. The e-mail goes on to say the gang then waits for a woman to stop and check on the baby, and they then attack her. It makes for a frightening story, if it actually happened." -Waseca County News

I spent a week in Janesville and didn't realize I was in the middle of a war zone, the type of thing Sean Penn and Robert Duvall confronted in Colors. God, I even drove alone a few times. Apparently, an email went around a few months ago claiming gangs - yes, gangs in Janesville - were initiating their new members by preying on female drivers who happened to have the misfortune of driving through town all alone. People - females, in particular, especially those who possess a ticking biological clock - are prone to pull over if they see an abandoned child, leaving them vulnerable to these type of stunts, which seem to spring more from the minds of screenwriters than hoods.

Apparently, though, Janesville, Minnesota, was not the only town with that fortunate name to suffer this unfortunate fate. WREX out of Rockford, Illinois, reported the same story. According to the station, gangs were hitting unsuspecting people in Janesville, Wisconsin. Only, unlike the good folks at the Waseca County News, WREX took the story as gospel, frightening viewers in that special way only TV news stations can - "TONIGHT ON 11. HAVE YOU USED TOILET PAPER RECENTLY? YOU MAY BE EXPOSING YOURSELF TO TUBERCULOSIS OR IDENTITY THEFT." Apparently you can't completely blame the station; the Janesville (Wisconsin) police department, the station reported, "says the emails are true."

"I'm not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work there, Lou."

It's not true. It's an urban legend. Or, in the case of Janesville, Minnesota, a rural legend. Snopes has thoroughly discredited the myth, and anyone who ever forwards a frightening chain email that warns of killer gangs, dangerous hyenas, or United Nations plots should be required by law to visit Snopes to check on the story before ever hitting the send button. If you send these emails - or know a family member who does - bookmark the site immediately. Take a crash course in how to navigate it. Learn to look for key clues in those scary, forwarded missives. Teenagers aren't lobbing Molotov cocktails at cars as they sit at red lights. Hotel room keycards aren't encoded with your social security number. There's no drug made from raw sewage.

The best part of the WREX story is the picture they ran online. It's a muscular man with a gigantic tattoo staining his back. He sports a shaved head. He's apparently behind bars, but ready to be released. This man could be the one who puts the babyseat on the road. Or maybe he's the one who attacks the unsuspecting, helpful driver. They probably took a screen grab from one of those Locked Up shows that MSNBC airs for 44 hours over the weekend. Either way, he's bad news. "BUT YOU'LL ONLY FIND OUT HOW BAD ON CHANNEL 13 AT 10 P.M.! But first, the weather."

Back to the hometown. I'm glad the paper and the police department both picked apart the story. You'd think common sense would win out, but what chance does common sense have against the Internet? Janesville does have crime. In the 1980s there were even a pair of grisly murders. Drunk cowards beat up their wives and kids steal things. People bounce bad checks and brawls can still break out at the bars. But gangs? There are groups of kids who ride their bikes or drive their parents' cars around town and might intimidate freshmen or bully some kids in the halls. These kids have been around for decades. Some of them mature and become successful businessmen. Some of them stay in town and grow up to be adult barflies. Those aren't gangs.

I can't see how wannabe toughs in the town would start up a gang in Janesville. The news would be all over Fury's Barbershop the second two people got together in a basement to form a group. By the time the crew got around to writing a mission statement and purchasing brass knuckles or drawing temporary tattoos on each other's necks, the Sheriff's Department would be breaking down the walls. I suppose the story could have been that gangs from a big city targeted Janesville. Still, seems unlikely. What are the odds that a gang travels down to little ol' Janesville for the diabolical plot? Where are they staying each night as they retire after a long day of work?

Maybe people believed it because there are still people in the area who are convinced evil does exist in the town, in the form of a doll in an old house along old Highway 14.

I wrote about the Doll in the Window before. I finally took a few pictures of the doll and the home - which is a lob wedge away from my parents' house - during my week-long stay. Lived there 22 years and have visited countless times since but I don't think I had ever before actually taken my own photos of the mysterious figure that looms over the highway and the town. I'll get emails from people asking about it, and the doll remains the main thing Minnesotans remember when they hear you're from Janesville (to be fair, that isn't a long list, so we're grateful for at least having one major landmark). Again, no one was murdered in the attic. A little girl didn't hang herself there. It's a little weird and creepy simply because all dolls are a little weird and creepy and if you perch it above a highway people will speculate. But I've walked past it two thousand times in my life and never got the chills. The owner of the house is old now, but remains one of the nicest people you'd ever meet. And, if you live long enough - to 2176, to be exact - you'll find out what it all means, when Janesville opens a time capsule.

That's only 166 years away. Maybe things will still be the same in Janesville. The Dairy Queen will still draw in drivers and the doll will watch over travelers and residents alike. And, no matter what you read in your email, the town will still be relatively safe, at least from evil gangs who use infants to prey on Good Samaritans. But just to be safe, stay away from Janesville, Wisconsin.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

YouTube reveals that Magic Johnson could pass

The pass between the legs of a Houston Rockets player. The no-look, over-the-head pass to James Worthy against Golden State and a shaggy-haired Chris Mullin in the Forum. The behind-the-back pass to Byron Scott for a dunk against Phoenix. The fake right, bring it up, pass left pass in Golden State. As a scholar in the advanced studies of Magic Johnson, I've become overly familiar with all of those plays.

In fact, here's a compilation of the Top Ten Magic passes, at least according to NBA TV. I have some quibbles with the list, but it still might be one of my favorite videos. My favorites are the bounce passes, like the ones to Worthy - No. 5 and No. 4 on the list - at the minute mark and at 1:12.

For years, on highlight shows and videos, we watched Magic's mastery, but eventually you see the same clips over and over. They're still as fun to watch the 500th time as they were the first, but by the thousandth viewing, you do start to crave something new. I partly blame this on NBA Entertainment, which has always lagged far behind NFL Films when it comes to preserving past films. Thanks to YouTube, some long-lost clips of Magic's brilliance are now available, finally. It's like the lost Honeymooners episodes. Some new works of art, many of which I haven't seen since the night they first appeared two or three decades ago.

This was Game 3 of the 1982 Finals, a game the Lakers won by 21 points in a series they won in six games. Like many of Magic's best passes, this one came on a break. Magic and Michael Cooper star in this one. But the balding, hulking man who outlets it to Magic - and sort of outlets it badly, which forces Magic to perform his perfect improvisation - is Minnesota native Mark Landsberger. He wasn't exactly Wes Unseld on the outlet, but without the contribution from the former Mounds View star, this play would have never happened.

I think this was Game 1 of the 1991 Western Conference Semifinals, against the Warriors. Note Rick Barry's bored color commentary. No wonder he feuded with his kids. Probably never praised them either.

"Yep, there it is, nice no-look pass by Brent Barry. Great. Crowd's excited. There you go. Too bad he can't make 90 percent of his free throws like someone I know."

This was a 1991 regular season game against the Bulls, a preview of the NBA Finals. Magic actually didn't finish this game - he got knocked out with a concussion and Tony Smith came on to play a key role in the Lakers victory. Because of Byron Scott's injury in the Finals, Smith played a key role in that series as well. Except his ineptness was a key to helping the Bulls win in five games.

There are countless other plays like this, but right now many of them are buried in the actual games and not pulled out as individual videos. A poster named tjhunt76 might have the greatest collection of classic NBA games on YouTube. He has full videos from hundreds of games from the 1980s and '90s. And inside many of those are routine plays from Magic Johnson. Routine plays that would have been magical from anyone else.

And now the video of the greatest turnover in Magic's career. Game 6, 1991 Western Conference Finals. The Lakers led the series against Portland 3-1, before the heavily favored Blazers won in Portland in Game 5. In Game 6, Worthy sprained his ankle. The Lakers blew a big first-half lead. With LA leading by one, Portland had the ball with 12 seconds left. Terry Porter takes a jumper, misses it and the ball falls to Magic...

Notice something wrong with the play? Inexplicably, the clock froze at 2.2 seconds, as the scoreboard operator anticipated a foul being called on Portland after Magic grabbed the ball. That left .1 second left. Yeah, it would have taken a miracle for Portland to tip in a length-of-the court pass, but I remember cursing the operator while watching this game. Fortunately, nothing happened and Magic and the Lakers ran off the court to face the Bulls in the Finals. And then Tony Smith reappeared in my life again.

The play perfectly summarized Magic's brilliance. Instead of waiting to be fouled, he got rid of the ball and ended Portland's hopes. Even if he had made two free throws, the Blazers could have tied with a 3. Instead, they walked off in disappointment.

NBC replayed Magic's turnover at the 2:20 mark. You can see him notice the clock malfunction when he points at it on the other end of the court. But when he raises his arm and leaps, he knows victory is all but assured. That shot of Magic became one of the iconic videos of his career. It proved that Magic almost always made the perfect pass, even when there was no one there to catch it.