Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I have writer's block

Not really. But like its owner, the blog is on vacation until 2011, when it will return with more tales about New York, Janesville, book publishing, newspapers and Lakers games from 26 years ago that no one cares about. Happy New Year to all. Even Celtics fans.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The continuing adventures of InDesign's spellcheck

A few weeks ago at work, we had an updated version of InDesign installed on our computers. I briefly worried that the most fascinating aspect of our InDesign - the crazed, angry, prophetic, cruel, sympathetic, sophomoric, harsh, unforgiving, all-knowing spellcheck - would have been altered in the new version. Would it still offer up Satan as a correction for Ashton? Would psychobiology still be a suggested change for Scooby-Doo? Or would InDesign go legit and normalize, blending in with all the other boring spellchecks in the world?

No worries. Some more examples of InDesign spellcheck's peculiar outlook on the world:

Salma (as in Hayek): Slimy, salami
Katy (as in Perry): Kooky, kitty
Volkswagen: Folksinger - Surely many unkempt hippie folksingers drove Volkswagens back in the day. But how does InDesign know this?

Lorenzo (as in Lamas): Low-rent, reruns - A bit harsh. Then again, if I turned on Lifetime at 3 in the morning some time and discovered an old episode of Falcon Crest, those would probably be two of the first words out of my mouth.

Mischa: Mescal, miscue
Ziering: Swearing, syringe
Cibrian: Aspiring, Siberian
Danielle: Dunghill, dingle
Beyonce: Bouncy, bones - When the singing superstar invariably becomes scary-skinny at some point in her career, those two words will appear in a review of her concerts.

Lautner: Latent, Latino - I think this was one of the primary concerns of the controversial Arizona immigration law from a few months ago. Undocumented workers, anchor babies, illegal aliens, latent Latinos.

Disick: Disco, dashiki.
Fallon: Fallen, felon - Only if the late-night gig really goes bad.

Speaking of the late-night television wars, InDesign suggests horny, auburn, uterine, ovarian, and ob-gyn for O'Brien. InDesign is not shy when it comes to mattes of the human anatomy.

Baskett: Back-seat, basked, bisect - Not sure why InDesign hyphenates backseat, but it is the perfect way to describe Hank Baskett's spot in his marriage to former Playboy playmate and current disgruntled Minnesota resident Kendra Wilkinson.

InDesign expert David Blatner noted that he couldn't get his settings to duplicate our results. I'm a bit disappointed in that, since everyone should get to enjoy InDesign spellcheck's perversions and sly sense of humor. But I also like that we possess an apparently unique spellcheck, one that has seemingly gone rogue and no longer cares what writers and editors think. It will continue offering nonsensical suggestions for common words and proper nouns. Yes, our computers got an upgrade but InDesign spellcheck stayed the same.

Thank God.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Music that makes you want to tackle someone

As a kid thinking about a career as an adult, I figured I'd either start at quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys - this was when Danny White proved inferior when following in Roger Staubach's footsteps - or play shooting guard for the Lakers. If either of those goals failed, I planned on a career at NFL Films. When we first got ESPN, it seemed half of the network's programming consisted of shows courtesy of NFL Films, whether it was Steve Sabol relaxing in a chair and introducing a Super Bowl film about the battle between the Niners and Dolphins, or a Follies program that was complete with the voice of Elmer Fudd (the NFL took itself a lot less seriously back then).

Every so often you saw into the NFL Films building, where row after row of canisters filled the rooms. Imagine watching NFL highlights all day long. That's the existence I dreamed about.

The music of NFL Films was a major reason the shows appealed to me and millions of other football fans. Composer Sam Spence put together many of the famous NFL Films songs and the sounds became synonymous with the images, from the Steel Curtain's dominance to Lombardi's fury. Even today, hearing an old-school NF Films song - you usually only hear them today when they're used ironically in commercials that are selling fashionable pants or comfortable shoes - makes me want to run out on the street with a Nerf football and play two-on-two passing games against friends.

A YouTube poster who probably also grew up dreaming about serving as Steve Sabol's assistant compiled dozens of famous NFL Films song. They're all here. Some classics, starting with "The Classic Battle." I picture the Cowboys digging in at the goal-line in Lambeau, moments before Bart Starr's game-winning sneak.

For lovers of the trombone and video of John Riggins gaining 5 yards a pop behind the Redkins' hogs, here's "Roundup."

"Salute to Courage." Perhaps you think it'd be a song composed for a feature on World War II veterans, or the embassy hostages in Iran. Instead it's something to use while watching shots of Terry Bradshaw throw bombs to Lynn Swann.

"The Final Quest." Break this one out before showing the Super Bowl teams slowly running out for pregame introductions, perhaps the Cowboys before the 1993 Super Bowl or the Giants before their destruction of the Broncos in 1987. If used by NFL Films, it has to be used while showing the winning team. Because music this inspirational is not built for losers. Sorry, Bills.

"West Side Rumble." With a name like that and a song like this, it had to be used during a film about rivals, a game between two teams that hated each other. Maybe during the Steelers-Raiders game that ended with Franco's Immaculate Reception. Or a good Redskins-Cowboys game during the George Allen era in Washington.

The names are as entertaining as the song. Here's "The Pony Soldiers," and it sounds like something that Eastwood would have used in one of his Westerns. I think this would best be used with a Joe Montana film, perhaps during the drive that ended with The Catch. I picture him dissecting a defense as the music begins, before it ends with a flourish and a fist pump.

The Raiders were so tough, and notorious, in the '60s and '70s that NFL Films gave them their own song, "Autumn Wind." Spence wrote the song, while Sabol himself wrote a poem about the franchise. Vikings fans can listen to this while picturing Old Man Willie racing down the sidelines with an interception return in the Super Bowl.

"Up She Rises." Another one where I don't know whether to avenge the sinking of the Maine or sit back and watch Bob Griese lead the Dolphins to an unbeaten season. All of these are famous NFL Films songs, but the part in this one that kicks in at around 40 seconds is among the most well-known sections.

I no longer think I'll grow up to quarterback the Cowboys and I don't think I'll make it as shooting guard for the Lakers. I also don't want to work for NFL Films, as I'm sure the technology would only confuse me, and I'm much more comfortable with words than pictures. Still, I could listen to their songs all day.The only thing missing from these? A little John Facenda:

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The worst - and, possibly, most depressing - bank robbery in history

Janesville makes the news!

This is one of those stories that I might usually say can only happen in a small town. But that's not exactly true. Desperation is a universal thing.

On Wednesday, my dad came upon the most excitement in Janesville since the Hay Daze parade in June. Sirens everywhere. Cops all around. TV crews on hand. It turned out to be the end of a bank robbery in nearby Elysian. The perps supposedly robbed the bank in Elysian and made the short drive to Janesville, where authorities quickly apprehended them. What made it strange initially was the pairing: an "older woman" and a young guy. What was their relationship? Harold and Maude? Grandma and grandson? Who was the leader, who was the lackey?

KEYC offered video but not many explanations. An expert in news ethics might take issue with Channel 12's initial report: A bank might have been robbed, though no one's really saying, two people were arrested shortly after, though who knows if they're suspects in the bank robbery. Something happened. That we do know.

Well, it turned out the young guy was innocent, an unwitting, befuddled pawn in an elderly woman's desperate attempt to pay her rent. The woman, 70-year-old Sandra Bathke, is a tenant in the building owned by the young man's mom. Bathke told the man, Luke Weimert, that she could get the money for her late rent - she had received an eviction notice - if he could just drive her to the bank. Who passes up a chance to be nice to an elderly person in the middle of a brutal winter? So Weimert drove her to the Elysian bank in a Jaguar and waited in the car. Bathke allegedly went inside, told a teller she had a gun - she didn't, but did have a hammer, authorities said - walked back to the car and rode off with Weimert. They made small talk on the drive. The ice- and snow-filled roads are bad outside of Janesville so they took it slow, perhaps the first evidence that Weimert didn't know what he'd been dragged into. A getaway driver usually possesses a heavier foot.

When they arrived back in Janesville, authorities swarmed the car, much to Weimert's shock. Bathke's comment when the police appeared?

"Oh, no."

Such a grandmotherly thing to say. Police determined that the 26-year-old Weimert didn't know anything about the robbery. He was just doing a good deed, it being the holiday season and all. Bathke will face charges. Weimert's mom says she wishes she could sell the building. Bad tenants who make too much noise or don't pay the rent on time are one thing. Tenants who snare your son in a felony that catches the attention of the FBI are another.

It's a pretty sad tale. Bathke didn't have any previous bank robberies on her resume. She was a woman with no money, and, she apparently thought, nothing to lose. It wasn't a well-thought out plan. No weapon, no disguise. The thought probably came to her in an instant. All she needed was a driver. Who hasn't thought at some point, huh, I wonder if I could rob a bank, like the guys in Heat? Bathke followed through. Picture your grandma in dire financial straits. You'd want to help in some way, whether giving her the money or taking her to the bank where she can retrieve some cash. Maybe you'll get some homemade chocolate-chip cookies and hot cocoa as a reward. That's all poor Weimert did, yet he still ended up in handcuffs on TV. It didn't end well for anyone, though Weimert will have plenty of stories to tell his own grandkids someday.

Only in Janesville. Or any other place where a desperate person performs a desperate act.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The evil sports teams that ruled '80s teen movies

This past weekend I rented Better Off Dead, one of my Top 10 favorite movies and a classic teen film from the 1980s.

"I want my two dollars!"
"Two brothers. One speaks no English, the other learned English from watching The Wide World of Sports. So you tell me, which is better: speaking no English at all, or speaking Howard Cosell?"

"I know it's bacon. What have you done to it?"
"You said you didn't like all the grease from fried bacon, so I boiled it."

And on and on and on. The movie didn't find much success at the box office when it came out in 1985, but it developed a cult following shortly after. I can remember watching it on cable in the late '80s and then spending an entire summer quoting the lines with my friend Brandon. The movie is beloved by pretty much everyone, except, it seems, the star, John Cusack. According to director Steve Holland, Cusack hated the movie when it came out and accused Holland of ruining his career. Far from it.

But there is one scene that bothers me. It's set in the school cafeteria, as Lane deals with a heartbreaking breakup from his girlfriend, Beth, who dumped him for the evil ski captain, the perfectly named Roy Stalin. To get over Beth, Lane attempts to pick up another hot girl from school. He fails miserably and in the process, gets beaten up by the basketball team. What bothers me? The basketball players are wearing their uniforms in the cafeteria, during school hours!

Here's the clip with the basketball team. The cagers make their cafeteria appearance about halfway through the clip. They actually carry basketballs with them to lunch, which I don't think even Pistol Pete did when he was a kid. The ogres don't speak, instead choosing to communicate through a series of grunts and groans that are apparently understood by all. If the guys can't talk to each other at the lunch table, how are they going to call out screens on the court? I bet they were weak on the defensive end.

The object of Lane's affections, Chris, dates "the whole basketball team." Not just one guy, but the whole team. And who knows if dates should also be in air quotes when referring to her relationship with the starting five.

I played high school basketball. Not once did I run around school in our blue or gray uniform and I certainly didn't sit down for a lunch while wearing high tops and shorts.

There are also several people skating around the cafeteria, including Chris the cheerleader. Anyone ever roller-skate through a school cafeteria while carrying a tray filled with pizza burgers and butter sandwiches. Has anyone ever seen this? I certainly didn't. Then again, I did go home for lunch each day starting in the sixth grade, so there's a chance I missed the skating-and-basketball-jersey-wearing underworld at Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton.

Like the no-name team in Better Off Dead, we wore the short shorts, although most of us had the smarts to sport bicycle pants underneath the uniform. The school didn't keep the short shorts much longer. The standard longer bottoms came to JWP in 1996 and the team made the first state tournament appearance in school history that season. Coincidence?

Better off Dead wasn't the only teen classic from the '80s that portrayed high school athletes as evil warriors hell-bent on destroying any nerd in sight. In Can't Buy Me Love, it's the baseball team. And, once again, we see the team at its most evil during lunch. Not only are they dressed and ready for a game of pepper, but someone on the team actually brought a bat with them, which Ronald uses in a fit of range when he defends his buddy against the star pitcher. So the school district was not only okay with the baseball team ruining the jerseys by wearing them for eight hours, but also had no issue with students carrying wooden weapons around class all day.

Again, I played baseball. Not once did I run around the school in spikes and stirrups. What possible reason would the baseball team - or basketball team in Better off Dead - have for wearing their unis during school hours? Did the school not have adequate locker rooms? Were the players shy and dressed at home? What did the student-athletes do during phy ed class, change into phy ed clothes and then back into the baseball or basketball uniform? Did the baseball coach also wear his uni during the day? Did he teach math while adjusting himself and giving signs? Did the baseball guys wear cups? And why the baseball and basketball teams? Sure, there are some jerks who play those sports and some bullies, but are there that many tough guys who intimidate other students? To fulfill the stereotype, shouldn't it have been the football team or wrestling team running roughshod through the cafeterias? They could have sacked a geek or slammed a dweeb, all while wearing shoulder pads or singlets.

Which uniform is more impractical? Which ones look more ridiculous? I think it's the basketball outfit for both. Walking around with the basketball shorts, there's a chance that someone could come along and depants a player, although if the team rules the school with an iron fist - like it does in Better off Dead - certainly no one would dare take that chance. Even today, when players would actually be wearing shorts that completely cover their genitals, they'd have to be self-conscious while wandering around the halls in their basketball uniform.

At most schools, players or their girlfriends will often wear their football jerseys around school, usually on gameday. But they don't have football pants on and, unless it's for some type of dangerous medical condition, no one's sitting in science class while wearing a helmet and facemask.

No one is scared of basketball players. And they're even less intimidated by baseball players. Then again, the main bad guy in Better off Dead is a skiing star so, compared to him, maybe the basketball players are tough guys.

In fact, guys dressed up in baseball uniforms are always weaklings, even when they're gang members. In The Warriors, the main gang gets chased by a group of thugs called the Baseball Furies. Awesome name (wonder if they have a T-shirt?). Better uniforms.

But what happens? The Furies get their asses kicked, disgracing the family name. The lesson? Baseball teams - whether wearing face paint and running through New York City or when when crammed into ill-fitting uniforms while seated at lunch tables - don't exactly instill fear when cast as the villain. But at least they're not wearing short-shorts.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Minnesota in December - Lovely

It's always exciting when Minnesota makes the national news for a snowstorm. This weekend's blizzard caught the attention of the major networks even before the Metrodome collapsed, which worked out perfectly for all involved, since it not only gave new stadium proponents an argument, but also created the best metaphor for a franchise's season in the history of the NFL.

New York City really hasn't seen any snow at all yet, aside from a flurry, but it will certainly arrive soon enough, most likely the day I'm flying back to Minnesota in a few weeks. I certainly don't miss Minnesota winters. It's not just the snow and it's not just the cold - it's when the snow and the cold combine forces to create misery and hermits. As an indoorsman who never went ice fishing, skiing or snowmobile riding - winter is basketball season, for watching, if not playing outdoors - I never enjoyed the activities that keep many Minnesotans sane from November through April.

In New York, snowstorms don't affect me because I never drive in them. That was always the worst part of storms in Minnesota, knowing that life and the games do go on (unless there's a roof collapse). In a regular storm you still have to drive. And, occasionally, even when no travel is recommended, you find yourself on the road, squinting and gripping, cursing and praying.

A few memorable storm moments:
* When I worked in Worthington, my friend John learned of a prime position outside of town for sledding. We planned a late-night excursion, fueled primarily by a love of sledding, but perhaps by some liquids. John drove us in his red jeep. The sledding was fine. Unfortunately, John's jeep didn't make the trip back to Worthington, at least not with him behind the wheel.

Somehow, after parking on the side of the road, he moved the wrong direction and got stuck, then compounded the problem by attempting to power out of the snow, causing even more damage to the beloved red vehicle. We were now stranded on a cold winter night. Fortunately, we had thought ahead and brought a cell phone from the newspaper office and called a co-worker t0 retrieve us. I'm not sure what we would have done without the phone. Cannibalism? By hour three that might have been the best option and then it would have been one-on-one combat, winner take all. John's a great cook. If he would have prevailed, he probably could have prepared a delightful meal out of my frozen limbs. But I was more athletic, so might have had an edge in the actual fight. Thankfully it didn't come to that, although the winner might have had a hell of a book deal out of the situation.

* My friend Mike didn't have a car at St. John's, which was fine. He didn't really need one. But one night in 1996, he visited his girlfriend on the St. Ben's campus, a few miles from Collegeville. A bad snowstorm hit the area that night. Also that evening, my roommate hosted a small party in our tiny dorm room.

Late in the night, Mike called and asked me to fetch him. The school had shut down the buses between campuses. His girlfriend served as an RA and was not allowed to have boys stay overnight. Mike now had to flee, in the same conditions Miss Beadle sent the children home in during the tragic Little House episode. He called me, asking - again - for my chauffeur services. Anxious to leave the dreadful party, I climbed into my faithful Beretta and made the short drive to St. Ben's. The snow-covered roads proved challenging, yet my dedication to friends knew no limits. I collected Mike and we slowly headed out of town. As I told Mike about the festivities in my dorm, I approached a stop sign. Unfortunately, despite my best intentions, I didn't stop. I blame Chevy's engineers. The Beretta slowly - slowly meaning about 2 miles per hour - slid past the stop sign and into the intersection. We hit another car in a collision that proved more pathetic than dangerous.

After the collision, I told Mike I had a beer or two back in the dorm room. Thinking quickly - almost as if he'd done this before, or at least seen it on an episode of Law & Order - Mike volunteered to say that he was driving. What a guy! What a friend! But I couldn't let a friend take the fall, even if it was his fault that he didn't have a car and even if it was his fault that he missed the last bus. I didn't think the beer would be an issue for whatever law enforcement member happened upon the sad little scene. The driver of the other car had a bad night. As a tow truck approached, he told us that the same truck had just pulled them out of a ditch. Which made me think: Okay, I'm at fault, I slid through the sign. But this guy just went into the ditch and now couldn't avoid a car going two miles an hour. Where are his winter driving skills?

Making the evening even stranger, his girlfriend - a passenger in the car - emerged, looked at Mike and told him she danced with him at a "barn dance" freshman year. She seemed like a lovely gal, but Mike gave the impression that she wasn't the type of girl you'd want to remember dancing with. They chatted, I spoke with the boyfriend, the police came, took their report, didn't even care about the condition of either driver and we went back to campus, where I spent the night listening to my roommate vomit while I contemplated how to tell my parents about the accident. God damn snowstorm. The story has a happy ending. The accident didn't cause my insurance to go up. And, perhaps of a bit more significance, Mike married that girl - Jodi, the one he visited that night at St. Ben's, not the girl in the other car - and they now have four kids. Mike also has his own car.

* Freshman year at Worthington Community College. The men's basketball team hosts powerful Minneapolis Community College in a key January game. A blizzard shuts everything down, the town and the interstate. Minneapolis ends up stranded in town for days. But the game goes on. We played in front of, perhaps, 10 fans. We won the game on a miracle shot at the buzzer, as our blonde, gangly 6-9 center hit a 15-foot jumper on the baseline while falling out of bounds. This is one of three sporting events of mine that my parents missed between 1982 and 1995. Still haven't forgiven them.

* A year later, I worked part-time at the Worthington Daily Globe. During the high school basketball playoffs, I traveled to Windom, about 30 minutes away, to cover a game. I drove over with my college coach, Mike Augustine. Terrible storm again. The games probably should have been canceled. On the way home, we stopped at a Hardee's for some drive-through ham 'n' cheese sandwiches. Again in my trusty Beretta, I pulled out onto Highway 60, which was four lanes for a few miles outside of Windom. I couldn't see anything but snow, while Augie consumed his meal next to me, completely oblivious to the road conditions. I wasn't completely sure I was on the right side of the road. Christ, could I have been going the wrong way on the four-lane? Thankfully, they put up big signs - like this one - that say WRONG WAY! I saw it and, after making sure there were no other cars coming - there weren't, since there were very few people dumb enough to be on the road that night - I turned around and had us in the correct lane.

* Three years ago we visited my parents in winter. February, I believe. One weekend, I decided to ride along with my dad from Janesville to Marshall, to watch my nephew's basketball game. Bad storms that day. Of course. Louise begged us not to go. She thought like a normal, rational person: There's a snowstorm, why would you drive two hours to watch a basketball game? We thought like Minnesotans: Why would we let a few flakes and a bit of wind keep us from watching a basketball game? Only a South African raised in the sun would consider these conditions dangerous. We headed out and discovered that the roads were worse than anticipated. Phone calls to my sister in Marshall proved unhelpful. Weather's great, she'd say. Roads are fine. Meanwhile, we couldn't see the road or any cars in front of us. Yet we plowed forward, thinking, maybe, just maybe, the South African knew what she was talking about. Eventually, after driving for a few hours at about 30 miles per hour, in conditions not fit for humans or vehicles, we turned around. This was a bad one. With my dad driving, I had to roll down the window to look out so I could tell him how close we were to the ditch. But we made it. We pulled into the garage and walked back into the house. My mom sat at the dining room table, happy to see us. Louise? She had taken to bed, convinced she was now a widow. She was overjoyed to see us, yet unhappy that we ignored her advice. But again, what's a South African know about driving in the snow?

* At the end of 1993, my cousin Matt had tickets to a Timberwolves game. I had to come from Worthington and would meet him and a couple of other friends in Janesville. From there, we'd drive to the Cities, first stopping Burnsville to pick up a girl Matt had been courting for months. The plan went into disarray when I went into the ditch with the Beretta just outside of Mountain Lake, more than an hour from Janesville. No cell phone then, of course. I managed to make a call from the office of the tow truck folks. My car was fine but I arrived in Janesville about two hours later than scheduled, putting a dent in Matt's love life and our plans to watch the whole Timberwolves game. Matt cursed me out the entire ride up to Minneapolis. I cursed him out as we drove aimlessly around Burnsville, searching for the house where the girl of his dreams lived.

"How can you not have directions to her house?"
"How could you go into the ditch?"
"Even if I hadn't gone in the ditch, we'd still be driving around looking for her house."

We finally found it and her. Impressing her even more, we made her drive into Minneapolis, since none of us had much experience driving in the big city. Certainly a low point for our collected masculinity. She proved a good sport and drove us to the Target Center, where we arrived late in the second quarter of the Timberwolves-Rockets game. I'd like to say this story had a happy ending, too. But the Timberwolves lost the game. And, eventually, though I'm sure it had nothing to do with our late arrival or our demand that she taxi us around the Twin Cities, the girl told Matt it might be better if they would just be friends.

He probably still blames my driving. I blame the snow.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The aging athlete

Larry Bird turned 54 on Tuesday. Magic Johnson is 51. Michael Jordan? Forty-seven. Like Bird, Joe Montana is 54. Kent Hrbek turned 50 last May. I always remember Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's age because it's the same as my dad: 63.

It doesn't bother me that the sports heroes and villains of my youth are growing older and simply getting old. They're allowed to age, gracefully or otherwise. They can lose their hair, gain a gut, become a recluse or shill nonstop on late-night infomercials. Seeing them pass through middle-age and eventually into Social Security doesn't make me feel old.

No, I only feel old when I compare my current age to where those sports stars were at a similar spot in life. In other words, Larry at 54 doesn't make me contemplate my own gray hairs or leave me yearning for youth. But when I remember that Larry Bird at 35 was in the final season of his career and was plodding along upcourt with bad legs and a worse back, averaging 20 points a game, well, that's when I feel slightly over the hill. By the time Magic was 35, he'd been retired for three years, had made one comeback - which failed - and served a disastrous stint as head coach, yet he was still a year away from a second on-court comeback.

At 35 Michael Jordan was on his last legs in the final days of the Chicago dynasty, willing the Bulls past Indiana in the Eastern Conference semifinals and then draining the famous shot in Game 6 of the Finals. He'd lost his leaping ability but remained the best player in the game, despite losing some of the athleticism that allowed him to dominate earlier in his career. He developed an old man's game by that time.

Kent Hrbek retired at 34. Troy Aikman was also done at 34. By the time both guys reached 35, one was permanently lodged in an ice fishing house and the other in a broadcasting booth.

When I was a kid, 35 in sports was old. And since sports was my life, 35 was old in real life, too. Thirty-five meant your best days were behind you. It meant you'd lost a step, maybe even two. Or maybe you'd completely lost it and had the common sense to retire. Or maybe you didn't have that sense and your team released you, sending you away with a two-paragraph press release that thanked you for your time and effort with the club.

Now I'm 35. And although I'm not a pro athlete, I still follow them and mark the passage of time through their seasons. And I still play some basketball, trying the best I can to maintain a decent 3-point shot from outside and a turnaround jumper inside. At times on Wednesday nights, as I run up a short court with guys who are, for the most part, older than me, I think, "Yeah, I'm still young. I still have it. I could average 35 a game if I played high school ball now. Thirty if the coach wanted to take it easy on the opposition." But the reality is I've lost a step, probably two, maybe even three. I never had a lot of quickness but when I drive to the basket now, it seems to take an eternity and I can feel myself getting impatient even as I slowly make my way to the hoop. Hurry up! Come on, get those legs moving. I never had great endurance, but now it only takes about five minutes for me to feel the type of lung-burning that normally only happens to people if they're being accompanied by a sherpa.

The day after games, I often develop a cough that makes a pack-a-day smoker say, "Buddy, you gotta cut back on the cigs." Blisters that are about five inches long form on the bottom of both feet, my shins ache and my head throbs. And even though I've never even had a sprained ankle in all my days playing basketball, I now find myself occasionally wondering, "Is this the night when the Achilles' snaps?" Because, you know, that's what happens to 35-year-old men.

Yes, as a kid, 35 seemed old for an athlete, any athlete. Why? Because it is.

No, I don't have any problem with sports legends aging. Just wish I could still play like a 25-year-old.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The problem with marrying a foreign gal

At 10:40 this morning, Louise's flight took off for South Africa. Check-in went smoothly. So did the security line. And the pat-down was, as always, thorough. For Louise, too. Onboard she'll eat surprisingly decent food while crammed into a small seat at the rear of the aircraft. With any luck, this flight won't include a vomit-spewing neighbor, like her last trip across the ocean. And if it does, perhaps the flight crew will at least clean it before the smell overwhelms every man, woman and child within 25 feet.

I can track the flight online and watch a crudely rendered plane as it goes over a blue screen for hours and hours and hours. She'll arrive tomorrow, after nearly 24 hours of travel. She'll remain there for several weeks, basking in the African sun while I eat frozen pizzas and bowls of beef stew she made before her departure, meals she prepared with the discipline of a survivalist stocking up on canned goods in the underground shelter.

Getting married to a foreigner has had its benefits. For instance, Louise always brings back exotic spices that liven up every meal, especially dishes involving potatoes. Then there's the accent. And thanks to her I've enjoyed some world travels, twice venturing to Cape Town, one of the most beautiful cities in the word in one of the most fascinating countries in the world. Without her, I'd still consider a 1999 trip to Tijuana to be the highlight of my international travel experience. Being around her opens my eyes to other cultures and lands. I get to see America through someone else's eyes, someone who came to this country with no money but a lot of courage. I get to teach her about American history, the good and the bad, while she teaches me about South African history - the bad and the good. Marrying a foreigner: I recommend it to everyone, and not just those involved in green card scams.

But there's a downside. I'm forever grateful that Louise is now my family. But I'll always regret that our two families - the Fury clan of Minnesota and the Farias of Cape Town - are strangers to each other. My folks met Louise's mom at our wedding but none of the other family members on either side have ever mingled. Her brothers have never met my sister, her father-in-law has never met my dad. Louise gets to see my family once or twice a year, but I only get to see hers once every two years. If either of us disliked our in-laws, this might not be a bad thing. Unfortunately - er, fortunately - we do like our in-laws. We love them. If I had a brother, I couldn't imagine having any more fun with him than I do with Louise's brothers, Anthony and Daniel. In many ways they're complete opposites, but when it came to welcoming me into their family, they were exactly alike. They taught me about cricket, and rugby and showed me that I'm incapable of keeping up with them on the golf course or in a pub. Yet it's been a year since I visited them and will be another 15 months before I see them again. My liver is grateful, but I'm not.

My nephews and niece love when Louise visits with her magical nanny bag and she loves visiting Minnesota, even though she doesn't really function too well if the temperature there isn't between 66 and 68 degrees. She can sit for hours at the dining room table, talking with my mom about anything and everything. Yet it's been seven months since she was in Minnesota and might be six more before she returns.

We're our own family now. Shawn and Louise. But it's still tough knowing our respective families only know each other through old pictures and new anecdotes. Marrying a foreigner means that, for several weeks each year, I have to return to the life of a bachelor while the person I cherish more than any other in the world spends time with the family that misses her more than words can describe. Marrying a foreigner means spending the holidays apart, as she celebrates Christmas half a world away and welcomes the new year six hours earlier. I'm happy she gets to spend this time with her mom, stepdad, siblings, nieces, grandma and aunts and uncles. And I'm happy that I'll get to spend Christmas with my parents, sister, niece, nephews and aunts and uncles. But it's always difficult when being with our families means being apart from each other.

Marrying a foreigner has its benefits. It's just a bit more difficult to appreciate them when she's in her native land and I'm in mine.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Browsing the bookstore

Fought the crowds today and wandered through our favorite Barnes & Noble in the city, the one on the Upper West Side that's shutting down in just a few weeks, to be replaced by a clothing store. Because there's a distinct lack of quality clothing stores in New York City.

Some observations.

* One book in particular caught my eye in the new releases section. Fury: A Memoir, by Koren Zailckas. The book, from the author of Smashed, has earned rave reviews. But apparently no one is concerned that the book ruins any chance I'd ever have of using my name in a future memoir. Salman Rushdie used Fury for the name of a novel and Faulkner had it as part of one of his most famous works. Those classic works are different, those are fiction. This is a memoir. I think the word Fury should have been saved for someone with that name who was penning their autobiography, or, at the least, it should have been reserved for someone writing a biography of a person named Fury. Now what can I name my memoir that could possibly sound as cool as Fury? Zailckas: A Memoir by Shawn Fury doesn't quite have the same ring.

* It's not a new book but is one I hadn't seen before. Washed Up: The Curious Journeys of Flotsam and Jetsam. Another entry in the seemingly never-ending list of books that are a detailed history of something you'd never think needed a detailed history. Like books on salt, cod, toilets and menstrual cycles, this one looks fairly fascinating, as author Skye Moody attempts to figure out where everything that washes up on shores comes from. We're only a few years away from the story of Floss, and how it changed the world.

* The Best American writing books are always popular gifts. Each year I buy the sports one and usually pick up the crime, science and essay titles as well, along with the non-required reading entry. They're great anthologies and for writers, something to strive for. The sports one this year was, as usual, superb. Buy the book for all the stories, but I'll give a link to one of the best. It's Mike Sager's profile of Todd Marinovich, which ran in Esquire in April 2009. For the longest time Marinovich was the poster boy for everything that could go wrong for a kid under the direction of a sports-crazed parent. I can remember watching a special on Marinovich when he was maybe a junior in high school. Even then the stories of his father, Marv, were legendary. Todd was raised from birth to be a quarterback and, in many ways, his dad's plan worked. Todd played at USC and in the NFL. Of course, it ultimately didn't work out, unless Marv's plan also involved turning his son into an often-jailed addict who squandered his physical talents because of the emotional problems caused, in large part, by his upbringing. Sager's story catches up with both Marinovich men. The only problem is, instead of seeing it as a warning about what not to do, many parents might read the story and regard it as a how-to guide. "Sure, the kid did some heroin, but he got a Division I scholarship!"

* Speaking of dads who might not have done the best job of preparing their prodigies for life in the real world, I saw this book: His Father's Son. Earl and Tiger Woods. It's by Tom Callahan, who knew the late Earl Woods very well. He details Tiger's upbringing and also writes about Earl's, um, issues with women. The issue being he liked them a lot, especially ones who weren't his wife. This, as you may have read, also became an issue in Tiger's life.

* Today Michael Lewis is probably best known for his books Moneyball and The Blind Side. But before he became one of the top nonfiction writers in the country, he worked for Salomon Brothers. He had a brief career there but it led to his first book, Liar's Poker, which I finally bought today. Lewis made a lot of money with Salomon and he's made a lot of money as a writer, thanks to his best-selling books and magazine work. How valued were Lewis's contributions? When the short-lived Portfolio magazine started, a rumor circulated that Lewis made $12 a word for his 4,000-word-plus features. This in a business where a dollar a word is considered to be a pretty good deal. Many people dismissed the rumor and Lewis eventually left for Vanity Fair, where's probably pulling in less than $12 a word but quite a bit more than a buck a word.

Still, I'm sure he'll be grateful for the $2 I added to his next royalty statement.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The time I almost played on the same court as Magic

For the next issue of the Saint John's alumni magazine - which is undoubtedly the best alumni magazine for any school called Saint John's, no matter what the New York City propagandists would have you believe - I have a story on some Johnnie grads who work in pro sports. One of the people profiled is Bryant Pfeiffer, who is the VP of Club Services for Major League Soccer and a 1994 SJU grad.

When Pfeiffer was still in school, he helped organize the first Johnnie-Tommie 3-on-3 basketball tournament, an event that continues to this day. Saint John's and the school's hated, despised, loathed, pitied rival, St. Thomas, each hold a 3-on-3 basketball tournament in the spring. The winning team from the Johnnies' tournament later faces off against the victor from the Tommies' tournament on the Target Center floor, following a Timberwolves games. It's a very cool event, as regular folks get to play on the same court where, just moments earlier, the Timberwolves squandered a late lead.

In 1996, I played in the tourney with teammates from my championship-winning intramural squad. We had a solid lineup, which included a guard who could hit with ease from 25 feet, a tenacious point guard, a small forward who was a star high jumper in high school and possessed a wicked baseline jumper, and a dominating center who moonlighted as an All-American defensive end on the Saint John's football team. We made it all the way to the finals. Along the way we defeated some Johnnie grads - the tournament wasn't limited to current students - and some other quality teams. One victory from Target Center. Our run ended there. We lost in the finals and if I remember correctly, I think I blamed some shoddy reffing for the defeat.

Still, we had tickets to the Timberwolves game a few weeks later and they happened to be playing the Lakers. I've mentioned this game before, as it was one of only two times I saw Magic Johnson play live - the other was during an exhibition game in 1984 - and it was one of his last good games. Magic had 11 assists in the game. He'd only play one more game where he had more - a playoff game against Houston, in a game the Lakers lost, in a series that ended his career, this time for good. Two days after this Lakers victory over the Wolves, Magic bumped a ref, perhaps the most startling move of his career that didn't involve his talk show. So I saw him dish out 11 assists. All of those assists he piled up in his career and I was able to see the one of the final games where he showed why he was the best point guard ever.

After the game, all of the people from Saint John's and St. Thomas sat courtside as the Johnnie champion faced the Tommie champion in a 3-on-3 showdown. I don't remember who won that contest, and my bitterness over our loss in the finals kept me from fully supporting the SJU representative. That doesn't mean I cheered for the Tommies' squad. No, I probably just sat there passively, like a celebrity at the front row of a Lakers game attending his first basketball game. I was surely the biggest Magic fan there that night (if someone else was there who can say they cried the night the Lakers lost the 1983 title, my apologies for my hyperbole). It should have been me out on the court, taking up space on the same court where, moments earlier, Magic put on a show. I would have thrown some no-look passes, taken some set-shots and added a junior, junior hook. Alas.

Finally someone put some video from that game on YouTube. The Wolves-Lakers game, not the 3-on-3 one.

This was quite a Timberwolves squad. Garnett was a rookie, all arms and legs but already playing with the intensity he trademarked before losing his sanity when he joined the Celtics and became a caricature. Gugliotta, JR Rider and Spud Webb joined The Kid.

The best Magic passes come at 3:40, 4:05, 8:20, and 11:05 (even though Eddie Jones blows the layup). Still, this certainly wasn't the same Magic I grew up watching. His weight was up, his quickness down. Yet he still controlled the game, though this time from the post instead of on the break.

That's the only year I played in the Johnnie-Tommie tournament. Maybe we can get our old squad back together someday. I'm fairly certain we could handle many of the teams we'd face. None of us really had any quickness to lose, so age shouldn't affect that. Our big guy can control the middle, our leaper probably can't even touch the net now but should still be able to hit a baseline shot and I can keep casting away on 3s while playing token defense. Still, it wouldn't be the same. In 1996, I would have played on the same court as Magic. In 2010? I'd share a court with Darko.