Skiing with the Aliens

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“You need to enter the 21st century and get some new equipment,” he tells me, gazing down at my obsolete straight-shaped skis. I’m enjoying a half day of skiing during a visit to my mom, and I receive this bit of unsolicited counsel from the stranger on the chairlift.

“Yeah, eventually I plan to,” I reply. “I’m sort of a working-class skier. But so far, these have worked well for me.”

“The difference between those and parabolics is like night and day. Too many black diamonds and death cookies with those, and you’re bombin’.”

“No kidding.”

“What are those, about 177? 180?”

Uh-oh, here we go again. Does he really care what centimeter length they are?? I doubt it. Instead, I think he’s pulling one of those alpha-male-skier things, advertising that he’s a veteran “powderhound” by dazzling me with ski jargon.

So I try to divert the path that “Ski Wolf” is blazing by using a little humor.

“Actually, they’re only 12s. As in 12 dollars. Thanks to Goodwill.”

“Oh.”

Ski Wolf is conspicuously silent for the rest of the lift ride.

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I’ve had similar unsolicited comments while hiking: “Man, you still shoulder an outer-frame backpack? I haven’t seen one of those in years! Do you rub sticks together for your fires?”

Also on the running trail (although there’s only so much you can say about running shoes): “Air Pegasus, huh? I don’t like the Cushlon midsole on them. I prefer Saucony’s ICS moulded pillar construction. Do you overpronate or heel strike?”

Although I’m not a bicyclist, I can imagine the esoterica involved with having two wheels and a derailleur under your body. And from my experiences with speeding bikes on the local trail, correct bicycle apparel is de rigueur. Evidently, the tighter and more colorful, the better.

You’ll probably guess where I’m going with this. These days, our disposable culture has an obsession with fashion and technology. And not just digital fashion and technology. Outdoor sports are overflowing with “techies” eager to rave about flashy new products and denigrate the old (old meaning a year ago).

I’m not a total Luddite (a person opposed to increased industrialization or new technology). I’m amazed and grateful for the medical advancements that technology has brought. I just think leisure technology – which includes sporting equipment and clothes – has gotten a little out of hand, and we may be at a point of diminishing returns. I think advertisers do a great job of convincing people they need a certain product only because it’s new, different, and features, for example, “double-suspension Kryptonium© wicking technology,” or something equally impressive-sounding.

And some people, although they may mean well, feel the urge to flaunt their knowledge and preference for the latest and greatest (and usually expensive).

Then there’s the fashion aspect. While some of the techno-talk might be ego-related, part of it, too, is the code language we’re trained to share as members in our little “clubs.” Simply put, we like to be around like-minded individuals. It gives us a feeling of security and belonging. It’s why we have churches, street gangs, genealogical societies, sports fanbases, civic, political, and military groups, fraternities and sororities. If you’re a member of one of these clubs, you quickly learn to conform by dressing/talking/behaving a certain way.robots

I’ve concluded that, although not as obvious, a similar thing holds true for the sub-cultures surrounding outdoor recreational activities.

Here’s a challenge: the next time you attend church (if you attend church), try dressing out of character. Wear faded jeans and a Black Sabbath t-shirt, for example. See how the herd reacts.

Or try this: the next time you attend a Republican function, mention how much you admire the political savvy of the Clintons. Or if a Democratic function, try dropping conservative catchphrases like “pork-barrel” and “nanny state.” Count how many sidelong glances you get.

Or if you’re on the hiking trail and see a 20-something guy with one of those fashionable bushy beards, stare at his beard awhile then ask if he’s Amish.

_______________

Now that I think of it, maybe I should’ve tried a different tack with Ski Wolf. What I should have done was massage his ego a little:

“Say, you seem quite knowledgeable about skiing. What type of parabolic skis might you recommend? I mean, you know, for those black diamond slopes?”

Then – after he rhapsodized about cambers, rockers, and Atomic Bent Chetlers – maybe we could relax by the fire while ravishing a few St. Pauli Girls and discussing the Book of Mormon.

Oh well, hindsight’s 20-20. Since it’s too late, I guess I’ll hang on to my old-fashioned skis a while longer, and just hope I don’t “bomb” on any “death cookies.”

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Politics, Cruises, Sports, Halls of Fame, and Other Dumb Things

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Last month I published my 100th article on WordPress. Since then, I’ve struggled to come up with number 101. I even mulled over sending longitudes to a permanent dry dock. But like a pressure valve in a steam engine, there needs to be release.

Should I write about the recent U.S. presidential election? I don’t think so. If I do, I’ll either be preaching to the choir, or my words will fall on ears clogged with wax. Better to wait for the pending avalanche before hurling my snowballs from the chairlift.

I could write about the recent anniversary cruise my wife and I took. We had a wonderful time, but the trip was marred by the revelation that our ship, Caribbean Princess, had, only days before, been fined a record $40 million in damages for polluting our oceans with oily waste, then trying to cover up the crime. trumpYet during the muster drill the first day, the boatswain’s mate (or whomever) had, with the temerity of a Pinocchio or Donald Trump, announced that Princess Cruise Lines is serious about environment protection.

To paraphrase Tiny Tim: God help us, everyone.

However, there were highlights to the cruise. One was meeting music engineer/producer/bandleader Alan Parsons (The Alan Parsons Project). It was following a Q and A session in one of the lounges on the 7th deck (starboard, aft). It was a relief to hear a little good music being played after all the hip-hop, electronica, and lounge lizard sounds.

The down side was that the occasion was instigated by a deal between Princess and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RnRHoF). This, friends, is a capitalist wet dream as slick as Vaseline (or oil). If you’d like to know my not-so-obsequious views about RnRHoF, please see Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Part One.i-robot

I could write about how my Cleveland Indians blew a 3-1 lead in the World Series, losing their final two games at home. Against the hapless Chicago Cubs, of all teams.

Or how my Cleveland Browns have lowered the bar for patheticism (is that a word?). They’re currently 0-14 and are aiming, once again, for that top draft pick. And maybe the record books.

But getting back to the marriage between the Princess and the RnRHoF: I could write about the argument I had with one of the guests at our cruise dinner table. He had the gumption to suggest the band Styx was more deserving of RnRHoF recognition than Jethro Tull. Sacré bleu, monsieur!  He’s a doctor, so you’d think he’d be smarter than that.

But, I guess even smart people can have their dumb moments. At least, when it comes to music, voting, selecting vacations, or whatever.

Go Browns… (yes, bloggers can be dumb, too).

Note: header illustration is courtesy of and copyright Tim Shields, 2002

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We Glorious Bastards

blue delinquent

We turn into our neighborhood and make a right onto our street.  On the left side of the street is a large black Chevy.

“What’s that on the driver’s window?” I ask my wife.  “It’s too big for a bird dropping.”

Even before we pull into our garage, she’s already visited the Wethersfield Neighborhood page on Facebook.  The hot Facebook conversation concerns the Masked Egg Marauders who struck on Saturday night.  Seems while we were out of town, a bunch of juveniles decided to decorate all the cars on driveways and streets with smashed eggs.

I laughed.

“What’s so funny?” she said.  “I think it’s just terrible.  If I did something like that, and my father found out, I’d be grounded for six weeks.”

I kept silent.  Although she knows a smattering of my criminal past, she doesn’t know the half of it (unless she reads this).

***

When I was a boy, we didn’t have cable television, video games, internet or I-Phones.  If we wanted to have fun, we made it up ourselves.  We played neighborhood sports, had water balloon and dirt clod fights, played with G.I. Joe dolls, built go-carts, or ran naked in the woods imitating Tarzan.  Boys being boys, though, we occasionally ventured to The Dark Side.

I remember my first brush with delinquency.  It occurred one winter day while walking home from grammar school.  We lived in back of a high school, and some of the teenagers liked to rev their hot rods down our street after the afternoon bell rang.  One day, tired of throwing snowballs at trees, I decided to try a moving object.

Akermitlthough no Luis Tiant (he pitched for the Cleveland Indians in the mid-1960s), my first throw smashed into the side of this one high schooler’s car.  I was also no Lou Brock (he was a great baserunner for the St. Louis Cardinals), because the teen caught me before I ever reached the shelter of the woods.
I think my fear melted his anger, because he let me off with a warning (and I remember him grinning when he let go of my jacket).  Although coming dangerously close to being pummeled, I received such an adrenaline rush from this snowball incident, it was a matter of time before my criminal behavior escalated.  The stage was set.

In 1968, we moved from Ohio to a suburb of Detroit, Michigan.  Downtown Detroit had just undergone a series of civil rights riots.  We kids in the ‘burbs had our own version of rioting, called Devil’s Night, which occurred annually the night before Halloween.  Before I get to the infamous “Night of the Parks House,” however, allow me to touch on a couple other crimes:

Rubber Band Lunacy: It was much later when I took up the game of golf, but at 10 years old, I possessed intimate knowledge of the interiors of golf balls.  Some golf balls, just inside the hard outer shell, had yards and yards of thin rubber band wrapped around a hard, core rubber ball.  When unraveled, this rubber band had enough length to be stretched across a street and tied around two trees.  The band was virtually invisible… until you were right on top of it.golfball

Long story short, a lot of car brakes were slammed on Westbourne Drive during the summer of ’68.  This stunt lasted until, one day, a motorcycle came along.  Tucked inside my hiding place in the juniper bushes, I watched in horror as a leather-clad member of the local Heaven’s Devils gang “lay down” his bike after confronting my rubber band barrier, which he probably mistook to be a long, thin wire.  To this day, I don’t know if he saw me pop out from the bushes and skedaddle 15 blocks until I collapsed from exhaustion, since I never looked behind.  But this incident ended my rubber band period.  Instead, I shifted to less risky delinquency…

Bloody Bicycles: One day, at the end of a long session of “What do you wanna do?”  “I don’t know, what do you wanna do?,” Bill, Dan and I hatched a plan that involved our kid brothers.  We took their bicycles and placed them on their sides alongside the curb, their wheels skewed at different angles.  Then we positioned our brothers on the pavement near the bikes.  We used Heinz ketchup to resemble blood.

I think it was the fifth or sixth car before one finally stopped.  She was an elderly lady who got out and frantically inquired “Are you hurt??  Are you alright??”  It was probably the smell of ketchup, or maybe my brother Steve’s bad acting that assured her, yes, Steve was alright.  Although enjoyable, this foray into Hollywood lacked the despicable element that we so craved.  On Devil’s Night, 1968, however, we received our Master’s degrees in delinquency…ketchup

Night of the Parks House: Wally Parks and his wife had no children.  They were about 40 years old and lived in a ranch house directly across from ours.  I remember that Mrs. Parks had blonde hair, usually tied in a bun.  Wally was tall and athletic-looking, and according to my friend Bill, had a propensity for alcohol.  Very nice people, but very private.  And once in a while, they argued.  Loudly.  Bill, Dan and I used to sneak up to their bushes and listen to them fight.  One time, Wally angrily flew out the front door with his tie flapping, and he hopped in his car and zoomed down the street.  “Probably headed to the bar,” said Bill.

It wasn’t my idea to target their house.  But one day, after my monthly allergy shot, I rang Dan’s doorbell, and he led me down to his basement.  Bill was there.  They were cutting up piles of old newspaper, and they were totally absorbed in the task.

“What are you guys doing?” I asked.

“We’re making confetti,” said Bill, as he clipped away.  “We’re gonna get Parks’s house on Devil’s Night.”

***

(End of Part One.  If you want to find out what happened on Devil’s Night, please check back in a couple weeks.  And like my blogging buddy Neil says, if you like what you read here, don’t be shy about clicking “Like” or “Follow”)

Tennis and the Roger Federer Effect

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We wind through the parking lot while glancing at license plates. There are cars from all over the eastern U.S. and Canada. This year’s crowd appears unusually large. It’s a polyglot of young and old, white, black, Asian, Indian. We hear a few European languages. There are even some women wearing burqas. Not exactly a baseball or NASCAR crowd. Lynn and I feel lucky to live just a few miles from this popular tournament.

Each year in August, we attend the first day of the Western and Southern Open, an ATP tennis tournament located northeast of Cincinnati, Ohio. It’s the last major tournament before the U.S. Open in New York, and a lot of pros use it as a “tune-up” for that Grand Slam event. This first day is qualifying day: unseeded players compete for a chance to gain a first-round spot in the tournament. We like opening day because the tickets aren’t pricey, it’s an all-day pass, and one can see some frenetic matches between the lower-ranked players.

Also, we get to rub shoulders with the top seeds, many of whom emerge to hit the practice courts.

We step inside the main gate and head toward the neon marquee displaying today’s scheduled matches and practice sessions. A few names we recognize: Benjamin Becker (no relation to Boris), whom we saw in a tough qualifier last year; Urszula Radwanska, younger sister of former No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska; grass-court specialist Nicolas Mahut… but our eyes light up when we see who will be practicing on Court 8 at 3 p.m.: Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka.

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Stan Wawrinka

We must find a spot for this one. Federer could be the greatest ever. He has won a record 17 Grand Slam events. He held the World No. 1 spot for an astounding 302 weeks. Now, at age 34 (geriatric, for tennis), he’s ranked No. 2. He recently reached the finals of Wimbledon, where he lost a close match to No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic. When Federer does finally retire, tennis may never see his like again.

Federer’s also fun to watch. He glides around the court like a low-flying raptor, and his serve and ground strokes are as smooth as butter. He never gets rattled, barely perspires, and his game has no weakness. Off-court, he’s just as smooth. He’s a devoted husband and father, has an easy smile, and speaks seven languages. So far, he’s avoided celebrity “foot-in-mouth disease.” Everyone loves him, including the players he regularly trounces. If there’s such a thing as a “perfect” athlete, it’s Federer.

Swiss countryman Stan Wawrinka is no tennis slouch, either. Wawrinka’s steadily risen through the ranks. He’s currently World No. 5, and he won the French Open just last spring (he’s also tied to a recent controversy involving foot-in-mouth player Nick Kyrgios, which I won’t go into).

If we’re lucky, maybe we’ll overhear some tennis tips from former No. 1 Stefan Edberg, who now coaches Federer (and who has a sportsmanship award named after him, that Federer’s won 10 of the last 11 years). Lynn and I are in agreement: the practice session at 3 p.m. on Court 8 will be the highlight of the day.

But first on the agenda is the Becker match. It’s a quickie. Becker loses to a 17-year-old German kid, who could be a dominant force in years to come. Next, we swing by Court 8 to watch Serbian Jelena Jankovic, a former World No. 1. Lynn likes her distinctive facial features. I like other things about her.

Then it’s over to the food garden for some expensive cuisine and irritating music. As the clock approaches 2:30, we head back to Court 8 for the Federer practice.

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Brand Federer on display

The crowd is queuing up. We stand for about 20 minutes, until two chairs suddenly become available. I’m an inveterate people-watcher, so while we’re waiting, I scan the crowd. The first thing I notice are the hats. Baseball caps with a serif-laden “RF” on the front. It’s Roger’s personal brand, courtesy of his biggest sponsor, Nike.

A chunky African-American woman in front of me dons one of these caps. She’s sandwiched between a few other “RF” caps. The woman next to her has a button of the Swiss flag pinned on her purse. The word “Roger” is printed on the white cross. Then I see a skinny man wearing, not only an “RF” cap, but a faded “RF” t-shirt as well. He seems to be jockeying for a prime viewing spot. Then he sees the chunky woman and moves toward her.

The two of them begin talking. The man has a sort of New Jersey accent. I lean forward in my chair to catch some of the conversation.

“Where are you staying?” Jersey guy asks, with a large grin.

fed fanAt the Comfort Inn,” the woman responds.

“I’m at the (something),” says smiling Jersey guy.

The woman says something that I can’t hear. Smiling Jersey guy responds with “You just never know!”

By this point, all sitting and standing positions have been taken. I allow a boy and girl to sneak in front of me. They have difficulty seeing over the railing, so I offer my chair for them to stand on. They look at me suspiciously, but hop up on the chairs anyway.

“Be careful, guys,” says Lynn. “Those chairs can wobble.” But they stay on the chair.

Then I see a movement behind the outer fence on the opposite side of the court. It’s a golf cart. There’s a low drone from the crowd. The drone builds. There are oohs, aahs, then loud clapping. A group of autograph seekers behind the fence begins chanting “Fed-er-ER! Fed-er-ER! Fed-er-ER!”

A volunteer wearing blue and yellow Western and Southern garb swings the gate open. Federer and Wawrinka emerge onto the court. They’re accompanied by two guys, probably trainers or coaches. No Edberg.stan_fed

The chunky woman is craning her neck. Smiling Jersey guy offers one more “You just never know!” then moves closer to the court. He squeezes into the viewing fence line, next to several kids holding yellow and pink, autograph-laden tennis balls the size of basketballs.

Federer is wearing a turquoise shirt and his trademark Nike headband. He’s at the far end of the court. Wawrinka is nearer to us. Neither has yet cracked a smile. They begin exchanging baseline shots. Some of the shots fly beyond the baseline, but they return everything. They remind me of boxers repetitively jabbing an overhead punching bag. Business as usual.

A couple of Federer’s shots skid off the top of the net. Wawrinka swings wildly at them. Now they’re both smiling.

Lynn and I watch for about 10 minutes, then leave to watch the Mahut qualifier. This match is on a stadium court nearby. As we’re walking, I glance at the top of the stadium. Maybe a hundred people are gathered on the top row. Brightly colored flags of various nations fly above them. The observers look like passengers standing along the railing of a departing ship. None of them are watching the Mahut match. They’ve all turned to see Federer and Wawrinka exchange practice shots.

genius at workLike the Becker match, Mahut’s is a quickie. He wins in straight sets. The match is just under two hours. We still have time to see Federer and Wawrinka finish up their practice session.

We cross the walkway. The crowd has grown even larger. Lynn has claustrophobia, so she hangs back. I manage to squeeze up the ramp toward the viewing fence. I can barely make out the players. Their shirts are now wet from perspiration. It’s one of the few times I’ve seen Federer sweat. Cincinnati humidity.

Soon, they finish their practice and stride toward the opposite gate, near the golf cart that will whisk them to the locker room. They sit in their chairs, towel off their faces, and gaze across the empty court. They gulp some liquids. Then they stand up and slowly walk toward the viewing fence, toward the fans. The crowd erupts. The blue-and-yellow-clad volunteers smile benignly.

Federer begins at one end of the viewing fence, and Wawrinka at the other. In strategic but genial fashion, they sign their names at whatever is thrust toward them. Then Federer smiles and raises his hand. The crowd erupts again. Wawrinka’s cue. He stops signing, and both walk side-by-side toward the waiting golf cart. The volunteers adopt positions between the players and the crowd, hands behind their backs, military-like.

Many of the kids run down the ramp, fuzzy basketballs clutched tightly to their chests. They scoot down the walkway, hoping to skirt around the practice court and intercept the two pros before the golf cart departs. Two middle-aged men rush out with them. One of them is cradling a book with colored photos of Federer.

I look for smiling Jersey guy, but can’t find him in the mass of people. Maybe he found a new spot, at the outer fence, near the golf cart.  Did he snag an autograph?

You just never know.

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My Lonely Boycott of Sports

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DISCLAIMER: This editorial isn’t intended to disparage those who like sports.  Sports encourage physical well-being and can build character in young people.  The criticisms here are directed at those who make money from big-name sports as entertainment.  Not the fans.  But if you’re sensitive to my opinions, leave a comment, and I’ll dig out my old boxing gloves.

***

John Lennon, in his song “Working Class Hero,” rails against nebulous power elites for keeping the rest of us “doped with religion and sex and TV.”  He could have also included “sports.”

Until recently I was a fairly big sports fan.  I liked athletic competition (and still do).  I admired the skill required to pinpoint a receiver forty yards downfield, or smack a 95 mph fastball over the fence, or nail a jump shot over outstretched arms at the buzzer.  When my boy was small, I enjoyed attending trading card conventions with him, and watching our favorite teams on TV.  I bought the merchandise (hats, jerseys, flags… you name it).  I was a cheerful little sports consumer.

But over time I became more jaded.  Some might say “Well, you shouldn’t have picked Cleveland teams.”  Or “For heaven’s sake, why did you choose Penn State over Ohio State??”  Honestly though, picking losing pro teams and a shattered college team isn’t why, on weekend afternoons, I now go to the art museum or prune my azaleas.

These are the reasons:

1. Stupid TV commercials.  They’re dumb everywhere these days, but they’re especially dumb during sports broadcasts.  Maybe because advertisers know that most sports viewers are men, and men are dumber than women.  floSo if it’s not “The all-new this” or “The all-new that” (usually referring to a car or TV sitcom… these things are never “half-new”), it’s a pig squealing “Wheeee!!” from a car window, or a talking gecko, or Flo, or Peyton “I’ll sell anything!” Manning, or some other redundant image trying to dig into my wallet.

2. The Super Bowl.  This orgy of capitalism might be a good excuse for a party in dreary February, but the action on the field is only incidental to the media frenzy and swirling commercialism.  Every piece of this bombastic event is sold to the highest bidder: pre-game show, trophy presentation, televised replays, touchdowns, field goals, and, of course, the atrocious halftime extravaganzas.  beerIt’s gotten so bad, even some advertisers are complaining about the gluttony.  And the alcohol and junk food emphasis should require a public health warning.  My wife looks forward to the “funniest Super Bowl commercial.”  I look forward to the day when Western civilization is no longer in decline.

3. League of Denial.  The National Football League recently settled out of court with ex-NFL players, who sued the league for ignoring the seriousness of concussive injuries.  As detailed in the book LEAGUE OF DENIAL: THE NFL, CONCUSSIONS AND THE BATTLE FOR TRUTH, the NFL went as far as hiring its own dubious “experts” to debunk the reality of serious brain trauma caused by repetitive head impact.mike webster  With the settlement, Commissioner Roger Goodell and company are betting their troubles will disappear.  But unless all helmet contact is outlawed, and the league actually gets serious about fines and suspensions, there will be more Mike Websters and Junior Seaus.  In the meantime, the NFL hopes fans suffer collective amnesia on this subject, and asks… “Are you ready for some FOOTBALL?!!”

4. Steroid use.  All I can say about this is that baseball records and statistics used to have meaning.steroids3

5. Ex-jocks in the broadcast booth.  This is a disease that’s spreading rapidly.  Who would have thought I’d yearn for Howard Cosell?  Howard would be crestfallen at the surfeit of grammatically bemused rhetoricians today (and he’d use those exact words).  What’s worse than bad English are the endless clichés like “He’s a class act.”  The underlying meaning of “He’s a class act” is that the individual mentioned is an exception, so his peers must therefore be without class.  So the “class act” is the football player who doesn’t thump his chest after a tackle, or gyrate in the end zone after a touchdown.jocks  Maybe it’s the baseball player who graciously agrees to forego a raise in his multi-million-dollar contract to stay with the same team.  Perhaps it’s the team owner who at the last minute decides – with feigned humility – to keep his asset (sports team) in the same city.  Or any coach or athlete who flaunts his Christian faith.  According to ex-jocks-in-the-broadcast-booth, these are all examples of “class acts.”

6. NCAA hypocrisy.  College sports were once a refuge from the corruptness of the professionals.  That was yesterday.  Today, college football and basketball are swimming in money.  So it’s ok for the NCAA to stuff its athletes into Final Four TV ads, while simultaneously penalizing a college coach (the late Rick Majerus) for buying a player a meal after the player’s dad died.  Or as sportswriter Frank Deford puts it, “peddling sanctimonious claptrap about how it really cares about academics” when its real concern is revenue.  More recently, there’s the controversy over the NCAA’s spider web of lawsuits with video gaming company EA Sports and Collegiate Licensing Company, after uniting with them to profiteer from student-athletes’ likenesses.ncaa  The NCAA also violated its own rules by sanctioning Penn State University without conducting an investigation (the Freeh report was outside of the NCAA), and for disallowing appeal.  What happened in Happy Valley was tragic beyond belief.  But it seems to me the NCAA can just make and break rules whenever it sees fit (and when it can get away with it).

***

I’ve talked to others who agree with me on the above.  And a few have also taken the bold step of boycotting.  Problem is, everything seems to suddenly be forgiven and forgotten when your favorite team wins four games in a row (I wouldn’t know about this, though).

But lest you think I spend all my time watching “Antiques Roadshow” reruns, I haven’t completely sworn off televised sports.  I’ll probably tune in the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day.  And I love watching tennis.  I also find televised golf very relaxing (despite having to endure hearing Tiger Woods’s name every two minutes – even when he’s not in the tournament).  I may even start following ice hockey or soccer.  There may be few authentic class acts sprinkled in those sports.  But I first need to examine the commercials, and find out how many ex-jocks are in the broadcast booth.

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A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – The Little White Dog

Long Falls

On Day 2 I encountered my first wild animal.  But first…

Dustin and I soon came to a beautiful waterfall called Long Creek Falls.  Four young guys had made this their own water playground, frolicking in the pool below and on the cliff above.  The water looked so inviting, after a hot, sweaty hike, but we had a lot of mileage ahead, so we moved on.  But I was able to rest my left shoulder, which was starting to get a little sore.

Eventually we came to a blue-blazed path (blue rectangles indicate AT side paths, while white rectangles, painted on trees or boulders every hundred yards or so, indicate the official AT).  The path led to our first shelter.  These are three-sided wooden structures that provide a sleeping platform and protection from inclement weather.  They’re located about a half-day’s hike apart, usually near a spring or stream, and they have overhead cables for “bear bags” (hikers are urged to put their food and waste in sturdy bags and tie them overhead at night, at least ten feet high and four feet from the nearest tree).

Here at Hawk Mountain Shelter we met three guys on a Labor Day weekend hike: Steve, his son Travis, and their friend Joe.  I talked with Travis and found out he played trumpet for his high school marching band in Gwinnett County, Georgia.  He reminded me of my son, Nick, at that age.  I also saw the blonde woman I’d met near Springer Mountain.  Her name was Sanna, and she and her husband lived in Ft. Benning, Georgia (her hometown was beautiful Lake Tahoe, California).  I asked her if she was the infamous “Rainbow Slug,” but she laughed and said she wasn’t much for trail aliases (Dustin and I had dropped ours, too).

We all had a nice respite at the shelter, and shared some trail mix and candy bars.  Sanna then decided to join Dustin and me for the remainder of the day.

Sometime in the early afternoon we got drenched when a thundershower struck while climbing Sassafras Mountain.  Rain has always plagued me when I camp.  It’s even more irksome on a distance hike, because it’s so difficult to dry your belongings when they’re stuffed all day inside a backpack.  My pack was an outdated outer frame model, at least 35 years old.  Maybe this is why everything inside got wet.  Cotton clothing is another problem.  I should’ve bought some good wool socks, because my white athletic socks became increasingly dirty and smelly, and never completely dried out the entire hike.

At the bottom of Sassafras Mountain, at Cooper Gap, we had a nice surprise: several plastic jugs of fresh water sitting in the shade.  I then remembered that Ron said he was going to put water out along the trail.  These small acts of kindness are referred to as “trail magic,” and those responsible are called “trail angels.”  Trail magic seems to happen randomly, but usually when it’s needed most.  We were pretty thirsty after Sassafras Mountain, and getting low on water, so the timing was perfect.  Great guy, that Ron.

By the end of the day Dustin figured out we’d covered 15 miles.  Tack on another mile for my backtracking from the forest road near Springer, and 16 total miles was pretty impressive – although I remember Ron saying to expect only seven or eight miles after the first day.We overnighted at Gooch Mountain Shelter, meeting up with Steve, Travis and Joe, as well as a few other hikers.  The shelter itself was full, probably due to Labor Day Weekend, so Dustin and I pitched our tents about 50 yards away.  He got a good fire going, where we attempted to dry out our shoes and socks, but all I managed to do was singe the end of one of my sneakers.

Dustin needed a bandana (a very valuable piece of clothing on the trail), so I gave him an extra one I had.  In return, he let me sample some of his homemade wine.  Wow!  Best vino I ever tasted.  There is nothing like a shot of cherry-blackberry wine after a long day of hiking.

I slept pretty soundly that night, which I attributed to my insomnia on the grubby Greyhound bus.  But a couple things happened overnight.  One was another rain shower, which drenched my backpack and all the clothing I’d hung out to dry.  Another was a chorus of noises in the darkness.  Bears?  Raccoons?  Wild boars?  Nope.  I’d read about them, and now I encountered them: AT shelters come fully equipped with extended families of mice.  And some of these vermin venture into the woods, where they know they’ll find bags filled with yummy food.  One of them chewed a hole in my bear bag (which doubled as my sleeping bag holder) and partially consumed one of my Nutri-Grain bars.  If the rain hadn’t interrupted his feast, it could’ve been much worse.  Not sure, but I think poor Joe lost even more food than me.  Though you wouldn’t guess it, because he always had a smile on his face.

Sanna got an early start in the morning, and Dustin and I pulled out just ahead of Joe, Steve, and Travis.  I felt pretty strong, at first.  Occasionally we passed day hikers, easy to identify due to their light packs.  Some had their dogs with them.  I was wearing an old marathon t-shirt, and a few folks asked me which was harder, marathons or AT hiking.  I replied “Well, it’s hard to compare, they each use different muscles.”  By the end of my hike I had a more definitive answer.

I soon noticed, though, that I was falling slightly behind Dustin.  Maybe 30 years does make a difference?  The last thing I wanted was for him to feel like some old guy was holding him back.  My biggest problem at that point was my left shoulder.  But I discovered it helped if I shifted the pack weight to my right one.  Also, reaching back with my left hand and pulling up on the frame eased the load a little.  You find little things to help you when you’re distance hiking.

If anyone lost a Jack Russell terrier, he's near the north face of Big Cedar Mountain, Georgia

If anyone lost a Jack Russell terrier, he’s near the north face of Big Cedar Mountain, Georgia

Somewhere near Woody Gap we encountered our first “wild” animal.  He was on a mountainside and staring a hole in us as we passed: a little white terrier.  I noticed a line of trail mix on the path, probably due to a leak in some hiker’s pack, and I guess this little guy was waiting for us to move on so he could continue licking up M&Ms.  Dustin and I both loved dogs, and we felt a little sorry for him way out here by himself.  But I guess it’s better than being tied up all day in a smog-draped city.  Whether he lived nearby, or was abandoned by a thoughtless owner, we never found out.

In the afternoon, while taking in the view on Ramrock Mountain, we saw Joe whisk by, grinning and swinging his walking poles.  I couldn’t understand him.  He looked like he was on a casual, mid-morning stroll across the hills of Tuscany!  I related more to Steve, who came by next.  He was suffering from awful blistering, as was I at that point.  His son Travis pulled up the rear.  At Woody Gap, we found out they had completed their hike and were shuttling home (Joe continued onward, and is probably still whistling along as I write this).  Before saying goodbye, Steve gave us some of his leftover food, as well as much-needed bandages and moleskin for my blisters, one of which had broken. I thanked him heartily, and told Travis good luck with his trumpet playing.

Just before climbing Big Cedar Mountain, we saw more trail magic: somebody had placed several candy bars on a large rock.  This carbo-load helped get us to our campsite at Woods Hole Shelter, giving us a daily total of 13 miles.  A slight dip, but I was still on target for NC, and the mileage was much better than Ron had predicted.

On the path to the shelter we met two new people: a real extroverted guy from Savannah named Thad, and his wife (whose name I never got, unfortunately).  Then at the shelter were two people from the previous night: a young woman from Orlando named Traci, and her friend, who had a foreign accent and a name that sounded like “Bouillon.”  This was a name just begging for a trail alias (unless Bouillon was already his alias).  Thad eventually tagged him “Gold Bond” due to some problems Bouillon was having with skin chafing!

I took a refreshing sponge bath in a cold mountain stream and boiled some Ramen noodles, then joined the others at the shelter as the sun was setting.  And hoping I wouldn’t get burdened with the alias “Ramen Noodle.”

Unlike Thad, I’m a little shy and awkward in social settings.  But I pushed myself to socialize.  I’m glad I did, because I discovered Thad grew up in dinky Mt. Gilead, Ohio, just a few miles from my hometown of Mansfield!  We commiserated over our hapless Cleveland Browns for a while, and I offered him an extra cigar I had (he declined – probably a good idea, since I discovered the tobacco was pretty cheap).

Next morning fared a little better: no rain, and no mice.  But I spent about a half hour swabbing and bandaging my blisters (wet cotton socks!), one of which was now an open sore.  Dustin and I were the last to vacate the shelter.  I felt a slight foreboding.  With this sore on my right heel, would I make it to Franklin, NC in time, or would Ron’s mileage prediction come true??

Continued…

A Week in the Woods: My Appalachian Trail 101 – Through the Looking-Glass

Big Cedar Mtn2

When I was about 15, my family went on a camping trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.  Our campsite was near where the Appalachian Trail climbed a mountain called The Priest.  We had some time, so my brothers and I attempted to climb it.  They were younger and became tired, but I managed to get to the top, where I was rewarded with a spectacular view.

While admiring the vista, I glimpsed a tall figure moving slowly along the path behind me.  It was a lanky man with a full beard, ponytail, and a huge pack on his back.  An Appalachian Trail distance hiker.  I watched him disappear from view as he slowly started to descend the mountain.

I never forgot the sight of him, and I swore that I would one day return to the AT to hike it myself.  It took 40 years, but a few weeks ago I finally did it.

***

The Appalachian Trail is a 2,100-mile footpath through the rugged Appalachian Mountains of the eastern U.S., stretching from Georgia to Maine.  It was conceived in the 1920s by a bookish forest official named Benton MacKaye, who envisioned a series of hostels and wilderness workshops connected by a path.  A young Washington lawyer named Myron H. Avery, more pragmatic than MacKaye, advanced MacKaye’s idea without the hostels and workshops.  Today the trail is a monument to public activism and wilderness protection.  Though the route is continually changing, the terminus points now remain fixed at Mt. Katahdin in northern Maine, and Springer Mountain in northern Georgia.

There are different types of AT hikers: day hikers, overnighters, section and thru-hikers.  Thru-hikers are a breed apart.  They attempt to do the full 2,100 miles at once, which takes a lot of planning and about 4-6 months actual hiking.  Supposedly less than one-fourth of thru-hikers who start ever finish.

A thru-hike was not for me.  I decided to do a northbound (NOBO) section hike of Georgia.  Though most thru-hikers are NOBO, some begin in Maine and hike south (SOBO).  I would be hiking in early September, so it was possible I’d encounter at least one of these intrepid SOBOs.

After a nervous goodbye to my wife, I hopped a Greyhound from Cincinnati to Dalton, Georgia, where I met up with my shuttle driver, Ron Brown.  Ron’s an ex-park ranger and native of New Hampshire who now lives in Ellijay, Georgia, near the Springer Mtn. trailhead.  He makes his living shuttling people like me to and from various points on the trail.

I loaded my backpack in the back of Ron’s Toyota Rav4, and we set off in early morning darkness.  During the drive, he told me about some interesting people he’s shuttled, such as the guy who insisted on carrying his heavy, cast iron skillet.  Also, the obese man who managed only one or two miles per day at the start, but made it all the way to Mt. Katahdin.

“I know he finished because he sent me a photo.  I barely recognized him, he’d lost so much weight.  But it was him.  He was holding up the pants he had when he started, and you could’ve fit three of him inside.”

Ron had all sorts of helpful gadgets in his car, including a charger for my cell phone, and a GPS voice that groaned “Things are getting very strange” as we plunged deeper into the forest.

Ron dropped me off at a forest service road parking lot, 0.9 miles north of the trailhead.  I unloaded my pack, he filled my canister with camping fuel, and we shook hands goodbye.

On the hike south, I found a slightly bowed, chest-high tree branch.  I adopted it as my walking stick, and christened it after a childhood camping buddy.  I also passed a few hikers, the first being a blonde woman who said she was doing a short section to Neels Gap (wherever that was).  I arrived shortly at a large rocky clearing shrouded in fog: the top of Springer Mountain.

plaque

Appalachian Trail bronze plaque from 1933

This was it.  I’d dreamed about this place.  Sure enough, to the right was the 1933 bronze plaque showing a hiker with a hat and backpack.  On the left was a large boulder with a more recent plaque.  Inside the boulder was a metal drawer, which I opened.  I found a slightly damp notebook that contained brief entries of those who’d reached this spot.  I wrote a short blurb about my hiking inspiration and signed it with a trail alias.  Trail aliases are colorful names that hikers make up, or which are bestowed upon them.  I really liked the name that followed the entry directly above mine: “Rainbow Slug.”

Unfortunately, Springer Mountain was so foggy that I couldn’t take a photo of the view.  But at least it wasn’t raining… yet.

Man, it felt good to start hiking.  Just one foot in front of the other, get into a good rhythm, take in the mountain scenery.  I had nine days to reach my destination of Franklin, North Carolina, where I was to meet my wife and daughter, and I calculated I needed to do about 13 miles per day.  Easy.  Heck, my marathon training runs are longer and only last a few hours.  Of course – as I soon found out – hiking on rocks and roots for ten hours, up and down mountains, with 35 pounds on your back is a lot different than running a couple hours on a flat, paved bicycle path with nothing at your back except breeze.

I crossed the gravel parking lot where Ron had dropped me off, and saw a few other hikers unloading their gear.  After a couple hours, feeling pretty good, I started singing an old Neil Young tune.  I’d only done a few verses when (as always happens) I noticed someone close behind me, and felt slightly embarrassed.  Should I let him catch up, or keep walking?  What the heck, might as well be sociable.  I walked a little slower, then turned around.  It was a young guy with long hair.

“Thought I heard someone behind me,” I said.  “How far you headed?”

“I’m hiking to Neels Gap.” (Must be a popular spot, I thought).

“My name’s Pete.”

“I’m Dustin.”

“Hey, I like that name!”

Dustin was a 24-year-old from Augusta, Georgia.  Like me, hiking the AT was a dream of his.  His parents had dropped him off at Amicalola Falls, a park 8.8 miles south of Springer.  I later found out that Dustin enjoyed hunting, flounder fishing, and he made the best cherry-blackberry wine this side of Napa Valley.  He also had a girl back home who was pressuring him to get married!

We hit it off, hiked at about the same pace, so we ended up hiking together the next several days.

Continued…

Near Winding Stair Gap_1

Tennis, Anyone? Or, Why U.S. Men Can’t Win the French Open

french4

The 2013 French Open began this past weekend in Paris.  The tournament is one of pro tennis’s four Grand Slam events, the others being Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, and the Australian Open.  

The French Open is the biggest clay court tournament in the world.  When tennis fans think of this tournament, the first image that comes to mind is the red clay surface at Roland-Garros Stadium.  This surface can be unforgiving for even the best tennis players.  The clay is actually crushed brick that has an outer layer of loose particles, which causes a lot of slipping and sliding.  Because of this, and because of the tennis ball bouncing abnormally high, the tournament is not suited for serve-and-volley players.  To win the French, you have to be exceptionally fit and be able to persevere through long rallies.    

Since the Open era began in 1968, American male tennis players have had a very difficult time winning the French.  While U.S. women have taken the title 13 times (seven times by Chris Evert), only three American men have won it: Michael Chang, Jim Courier (twice), and Andre Agassi.  Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and Pete Sampras never won it.  And of these three, only McEnroe reached the finals.  Since 1999, when Agassi defeated Andrei Medvedev in five sets, no American male has won it.

agassi

Why is the French Open so troublesome to American male tennis pros?

Well, to be honest, America has only had a few top-tier male tennis players since Sampras and Agassi, whose heyday was the ‘80s and ‘90s.  Since then, America’s highest ranked player has been Andy Roddick.  But Roddick held the No. 1 spot for only a few months, and won only one Grand Slam event his entire career: the 2003 U.S. Open.  What helped him there was his powerful first serve.  But on the clay courts of Stade Roland-Garros, forget it.

Another reason is that clay court surfaces are far less common in the states than “hard court” surfaces.  Most of the clay courts are green or maroon “Har-Tru” clay, made of crushed basalt, but which are harder and faster than red clay.  Only one men’s ATP tournament in the U.S. is held on any type of clay: the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships in Houston.

And although it sounds silly, Americans really struggle with the French language.  Because of our proximity to Mexico, Central and South America, Spanish is the most popular foreign language in the states.  Americans can “Excusé moi” and “Merci beaucoup,” but beyond that, most have a difficult time.  The language barrier at the annual French Open can’t be downplayed.

It would be nice if tennis could be as popular in the U.S. as during its Golden Age in the 1970s.  For baby boomer Yanks like me, who can forget those exciting Battle-of-the-Sexes matches between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs?  Or the coolness and grace of Chris Evert and Arthur Ashe?  Or the explosive play (and cocky behavior) of Jimmy “The Brat” Connors?  How about the launching of World Team Tennis, assisted by Elton John’s tribute song to his favorite team, “Philadelphia Freedom”?  Does anyone remember the late, great Vitas Gerulaitas??

There are probably a dozen reasons why the U.S. lags behind Europe in tennis.  But I started talking only about the French Open, so I won’t digress.  I just have a few suggestions for improving our prospects at Stade Roland-Garros: 

First, go back to wooden rackets and deemphasize the serve-and-volley style of play.  Second, destroy all the hard courts and replace them with bright red clay (they’re prettier, anyway).  Third, mandate that students learn conversational French.  And last: find out what Rafael Nadal eats for breakfast and make it required fare at all our junior tennis camps.

Vive l’Amérique!!

2013 Boston Marathon

marathon

At this stage they don’t know who is responsible.  Some are pointing to anti-U.S. fundamentalists, and some suggest domestic terrorists.  A suspect believed to be a foreign national who was carrying a mysterious backpack was implicated.  But the fact that the bombings took place in Boston on Patriots Day, and on the day Americans’ taxes are due, has some people blaming U.S. right-wing extremists.  There’s just not enough evidence yet, so it could be none of the above.

The Boston Marathon brings citizens together from across the globe in a non-competitive athletic pursuit (“non-competitive” in the sense that the runners are testing themselves more than trying to outdo their opponents).  Even though world-class runners are involved, the 26.2 is special because it’s open to everyone.  You don’t have to be exceptionally skilled or selected to an elite team, as in most other sports.  You just need to be reasonably healthy and put in the work.  The Boston Marathon is the oldest and most prestigious race, and extremely popular worldwide, so qualifying times are needed to limit the field.  For those who reach the starting line – never mind finish line – it is a special moment.

I did the race back in 1999.  Truthfully, it wasn’t one of my favorite marathons.  Thousands of us were corralled in a large field in nearby Hopkinton for several hours before the start, and the long wait was frustrating.  After the gun went off, I was hoping to run a certain time, but I surrendered this idea when I realized my pace was compromised by the huge pack.  Although the crowd support was phenomenal, the mass of spectators and narrow streets created a claustrophobic sensation.  Forget infamous Heartbreak Hill; I felt like peanut butter smeared between two slices of bread the whole race!  My finish time is still a personal best.  But I couldn’t wait to grab my banana and bagel and get over to Walden Pond.

But maybe I missed the point.  The Boston Marathon, and in fact all distance races, are about feeling good about yourself, celebrating your health and life, and making contact with others: runners, volunteers, spectators…being human together in a community.  The runners all have separate stories, and live in vastly different places and under different circumstances, but we all have a similar, small achievement to be proud of.  The barriers are broken down.  The university kid from Ukraine is on equal terms with the fruit stand clerk from Brooklyn.  It’s  a democracy.   In the “corral,” I met a guy from Germany who shared his background with me.  And I shared mine with him.  I didn’t see him after the race, but I later saw his name in the results brochure and circled it.  He may have done the same with me.

The finish on Boylston Street was extraordinary.  Here, the road widened out.  On either side were hundreds of spectators and family members, seemingly ten feet deep.  The cheering was tremendous.  I knew my wife was there somewhere, but didn’t know the exact spot.  She saw me and took a couple pictures of an exhausted old man (at least that’s how I looked when I later saw the photos).  She’d also made the acquaintance of a couple from Holland, who were there to cheer on their loved one.  I remember stopping to stretch my calves about a hundred yards from the finish line.  I wasn’t pooping out, just wanted to stretch.  But these two big guys came up from behind, lifted me up under my arms, and literally carried me to the finish.  I tried to tell them “It’s ok fellas, I just want to stretch,” but they didn’t hear me due to the eruption from the spectators, who were affected by the scene.

I’ll never understand how humans can be so hateful as to want to take innocent lives.

90-Year-Old Marathon Man

Last weekend I ran the Marshall University Marathon in Huntington, West Virginia.  Competing in marathons is a fun hobby that I’ve been doing for years.  Running distances makes me feel good about myself, mentally and physically, and I also enjoy traveling and meeting interesting people.

In Huntington I was lucky enough to hear a talk by Mike Fremont of Cincinnati, Ohio.  Believe it or not, Mike is 90 years old and is still running marathons! (to put this into perspective for those who may not know, a full running “marathon” is 26.2 miles, or 42.2 kilometers).  Mike started running to deal with stress and depression after being widowed with three kids when he was 35.  Then when he was 69 he contracted colon and rectal cancer.  Facing a death sentence, he switched to an all-plant diet.  His cancer eventually disappeared and hasn’t returned.  And he hasn’t had a cold in 10 years (he takes no vitamin or mineral supplements).  Though long-retired, Mike does a lot of volunteering, including starting a foundation to clean Ohio’s rivers.

Last August Mike set a world record in the half-marathon.  At Huntington, he finished the full marathon in approximately 6 hours and 30 minutes, setting an American record (really, how many other 90-year-old marathoners are there?!).  Congratulations Mike!

Mike attributes his longevity and athleticism to his vegan diet.  There’s nothing wrong with golf or fishing or bridge.  But Mike defies the idea that retirement means low or no-aerobic activities.  He’s fit, mentally sharp, and happy.  He’s a pretty inspiring guy.  I don’t know if I’ll ever get to vegan stage.  But after meeting Mike Fremont, I’ll be eating even more bean soup and leaf spinach!