Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ode to a Brave Weed

You stand proudly in the lawn, strong, brave weed.
The grass is lifeless in the August heat,
The flowers, drooping, have all gone to seed,
The parched, thirsty earth as hard as concrete.
You, brave weed, ignore the sun and drought
And somehow survive Mother Nature's wrath,
Thriving in the face of adversity.
You, weed, without a doubt,
Will stand fearlessly in the mower's path
And once chopped down, rise with alacrity.

Don't forget, brave weed, you have a name - or two.
One in Latin, of course, for the scientists,
And one for gardeners, who turn the air blue
While doing battle with their antagonists.
You, brave weed, will not cower or bow down,
Kowtow, beg, grovel or give up one inch.
You'll take their best shot, but you will not die.
You will be back, and they'll frown.
They can whack, hack or just give you a pinch.
You, brave weed, will not whimper, will not cry.

Alas, brave weed, with your million virtues,
You are unloved and the object of scorn.
You spring to life; the gardener blows a fuse,
Cursing your beauty; he'd rather see corn.
You're daring, persistent, hardworking, brave,
The very traits we're urged to cultivate.
And yet your beauty is disparaged
By every weak-willed knave
Who lives in fear that you will procreate
Wildly and not bother to get marriaged.

Monday, August 22, 2011

This Does Not Compute

Compared to a computer, I'm pretty stupid. Of course, the vast majority of humans, quite a few dogs and Cuddles the Cat are also smarter than I. This is something I can deal with. After all, I've been dealing with it all my life, so I've plenty of experience. But I don't think there is any reason for computers to get snooty, which they seem to be doing more frequently.

The computer's favorite deadly sin has always been pride. Every computer of my acquaintance has had the temerity to question my spelling. Not that that takes much temerity. My spelling is nothing to write home about, and if I did, using pen and ink, the missive would be full of misplaced letters, along with a sea of letters that don't belong there, which I make room for by leaving out a host of letters that do.

But there is no excuse for the computer's I-can-spell-it-and-you-can't-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah attitude. Still, gentleman that I am, I do my best to treat the computer with kindness and respect. When I mystify it with words like "Ashtabula," "Conneaut," and "Pymatuning," I don't get all haughty and remind it that it isn't as perfect as it thinks. No, I enhance the computer's knowledge by adding those words to its database.

The computer is never understanding, patient or kind. There I am, typing away at a brisk pace and, in my haste to transfer some brilliant idea from my brain to a Word document, I put the "i" before the "e," when it should be the other way around. A well-mannered computer would hold its tongue, or whatever, and allow the powerful intellectual surge continue unabated. But no. The impatient, impertinent, impolite computer immediately throws an ugly squiggly line beneath the word in question.

How am I supposed ignore this? I know what's going to happen. I'll press F7, and the computer will produce a box highlighting the uniquely spelled word. Below that, there is a box labeled "Suggestions," below which appear the words "No Suggestions." This is the computer saying, "You idiot. Not only did you misspell the word, you've mangled it so badly I can't even begin to guess what word you're trying to spell."

It's as if I'm in seventh grade again. "Hey, Mom, how do you spell 'empathetic'?"

"Look it up in the dictionary."

"How can I look it up if I don't know how to spell it?"

"Sound it out. It's spelled just like it sounds."

"You say that about all the words. I don't think you can spell them."

"I certainly can spell them, every last one of them."

"I know you can. You're the smartest, prettiest mom in the whole world, and you tell me to look up the words so I'll develop character and self-sufficiency. But I'm really stumped, and nobody can help me as well as you do. Please, Mom, it would mean so much to me."

And with that, in a wondrous display of empathy, Mom was at my side helping me make my way through the dictionary. You can compliment the computer from now til doomsday, but it will never reward you with empathy or help you out. All you can do is keep guessing and hope you eventually come close enough to some actual word that the computer will offer a suggestion or two.

To make matters worse, computers are now making telephone calls. I got one the other day from the computer that works for an insurance company with which I do business. The computer said, "We have some important information to share with you." Then she - the computer had a decidedly feminine voice - told me that the phone call might be taped. This had something to do with customer service. Perhaps the company is afraid she might fly off the handle and yell unkind things about me. She went on to tell me the company is also security conscience, and with that in mind she needed to ask my birth date. I told her, and she said, "I didn't understand. Please say the month, day and year of your birth." Three times we did this, with her getting snippier each time.

Why do companies insist on having computers make telephone calls when they could easily hire people in New Delhi or Mumbai to make calls for them? Sure, there would be some problems with accents and their grasp of the English language. But George W. Bush has those difficulties, and he was president for eight years. Besides, when you, the customer, lose your temper and start hurling imprecations, isn't it better when there is a real person whose day you can ruin at the other end? What good is unleashing a string of heartfelt obscenities if after each one the computer says nothing more than, "I didn't understand. Please say the month, day and year of your birth."

Once the computer lady decided my diction was beyond hope, she said, "Using your touch-tone phone, key in the month, day and year of your birth, and then press the pound sign. For instance, if you were born on August 21, 1980, you will key in O-8-2-1-1-9-8-0." I did, and she hung up.

She called back a few minutes later. But I'm still waiting for an apology.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Going to the Doggerels

Good Dog

Little old Freda
From Alameda
Gave her Akita,
Who'd bit the cheetah,
A margarita.

Rich Whines

U.S. House Speaker, John Boehner's
Idea for tax code designers:
Just keep the rates low
For those with the dough.
The rich, you see, are such whiners.

They Report; I Deride

Neuro disorder
Brought on by FOX News.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Honey, I'm Home

"People died far more often in the towns than in the country, and so a path of emigration to urban Europe [for the Pilgrims] might well be a road to nowhere."

Nick Bunker in Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World

These days, death is almost always a-once-in-a-lifetime experience. There is the rare exception, when a person is pulled back from the beckoning light by highly trained medical professionals and a vast array of medical equipment. But even then, the patient's return to the living is dependent upon his insurance company pre-approving the resuscitation before the Pearly Gates close behind him.

In olden times, however, death for the average urbanite occurred more often than it did for his country cousin, who usually died just once. Should archeologists find a sprawling ancient city buried beneath the sand in the Middle East it could help explain how the men in the Old Testament managed to live for centuries and beget so prodigiously. Perhaps those men died many times before dying finally and used the periodic downtime to recharge their batteries of amore. Thus, when they rejoined the living, the geezers were able to resume begetting without the need for Viagra.

The Pilgrims begat with the best of them, and their offspring often numbered in the double-digits. The more famous Pilgrims settled in the sparsely populated New World, where it was one-and-done, deathwise. The effort needed to reproduce on a Biblical scale might explain the early deaths of many Pilgrims. Being frisky every night after a day of wilderness taming had to take its toll.

But for the Pilgrims' Separatist brethren, who eschewed the New World, preferring to remain in the great metropolises of England or the Netherlands, where people died more often, life was no less difficult. Frequent dieing, after all, is fraught with problems. Imagine poor George Allerton, who returned to his apartment in Leiden one morning an hour before sunrise. When he opened the bedroom door, his wife Pricilla was sorely affrighted.

"Prithee, good wife," he said soothingly, "Be not alarmed. 'Tis only I, your loving husband."

"You have been dead for but a fortnight," she said. "The last time you did die it was for a Biblical forty days, as though you were cast adrift on Noah's ship. And the time before that thou wast dead for a span of two months."

"But when one dies again and again, one knows not how long each death will last."

"Couldst thou not have sent a missive that I might knowth of your return? Do I asketh too much?"

"You know I knoweth not a word of Dutch. What doth it profitith a man to write a letter if he cannot address it in the language of the postman? Thou art such a nervous Nellie. Have thou been drinking coffee to excess?"

Priscilla tried to cast an angry stare upon her husband but was unable to look him in the eye. George, certain as always of his wife's love for him, leaned against the doorframe and smiled until he noticed something moving beneath the covers.

"Dost thou have Calvin, our faithful cur, sleeping with thee for thy protection?" George asked.

"No. I mean yea, verily. There are many shameless and dangerous people nearby, and I oft fear for my safety when thou art dead."

A surge of pride coursed through George's body, He approached the bed to give Priscilla a warm embrace. But as he spread his arms, a bearded, unkempt man emerged from beneath the covers.

"Hey, Prissy, baby," the yawning man said, "dost thou thinkth thee can get me a cup of coffee?"

For a second, George was determined to defend his wife's honor. But the man in the bed looked familiar, and when George realized who it was, he greeted him warmly.

"William. William Hawkins. I didst believe thou were dead," George said.

"In truth, I was," said William. "I was most dead until a week ago yesterday."

"But thou were two-and-twenty when thou didst die. Often the young die but once."

"You speakth the truth, George. But surely you knowth the Hawkins' family motto: 'Die early and die often.'"

"That is most true," George said. "Thy father, hath he not died a dozen times?"

"Fourteen," William said. "He doth so enjoy being dead. 'William, my boy,' he often says, 'thy mother is a most wonderful woman, but she doth nag exceedingly, and a month or two in the grave from time to time is most refreshing. If I had to live through all the years of our marriage, I would be miserable.'"

"Ah, I do feel the same way," George said.

"Excuse me," saith Pricilla.

"I hope you taketh this not personally, Pricilla, but thou art often a bothersome wench," George said.

"And thou doth snore with great fervor," William said. "I know not, George, how you are able to sleep."

"Truly, I spend many a restless night. But death, I find, is a great restorative."

"Doth anyone care what I think?" Pricilla asked.

"Most assuredly," George said. "But not right now. As I wended my way from the cemetery, I did notice many deer and rabbits and wild boar gamboling through the forest. Come, William, let us take our muskets and do the hunting. Pricilla can stay here and do the needed gathering."

"I'll gather dust, most likely," Pricilla groused.

William quickly got out of bed and dressed.

"Let us first hie to Joanna's Diner, where we can get a cup of decent coffee before we go to the woods," George said.

In a moment the men were gone. And Pricilla spent the day wondering what it would take to get George to covet her.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Fishing for Glory

Every once in a while, I am called on by the Intelligent Designer to assist him in keeping the grand design on track. For instance, in the summer of 1977, along with my wife and assorted in-laws, I packed up and headed for a lake near North Bay, Ontario, for a week of fishing and semi-roughing it in a cabin owned by Brian, my brother-in-law, and his family. I had been fishing just once before. One summer morning when I was seven or eight, my dad and two other neighborhood dads took six of us to an out-of-the-way spot, where we spent several hours watching bobbers float on a languid stream and never saw a fish.

Brian attempted to teach our father-in-law Bill, whose lack of experience with a rod rivaled mine, and me to fish. As students, Bill and I had trouble focusing. This was Canada, after all, and there was always a bottle of Molson's or LaBatt's within easy reach. And we did want to drink in the Canadian experience, eh. As a result, each time Brian pulled his line from the water that week there was a fish attached, while Bill and I pulled up little more than an occasional sample of aquatic plant life.

When the week was done, however, I was the one who had reeled in the biggest fish. To be honest, it wasn't much bigger than many of the fish Brian landed, and it was the only one I caught that week. But it was the biggest, and I am sure there was something bigger than myself at work that day.

I was sitting with three others in a small motorboat. My line was in the water, and my mind was somewhere else, perhaps in the gutter. "Tom, I think you've got a fish," Brian yelled, rousing me from my reverie.

I hadn't been paying attention and was momentarily unable to properly assess the situation. But some force got my hand cranking the reel. A minute later, a northern pike was beside the boat. With one nifty flick of my wrists, or maybe after several maladroit attempts at niftiness, the fish was onboard and madly flopping around. Exhausted from the epic battle, I let Brian remove the hook and put the beast out of its misery.

But why me? Why did it fall to me to land the leviathan of the week? Was it just one of those things? No. The Intelligent Designer had detected some dangerous irregularity in that fish, and in order to preserve the northern pike gene pool and to prevent any unauthorized evolution, he called upon me. And I, a novice angler, answered his call. The world is a better place because I was there when the Intelligent Designer decided that fish had to go.

To be put in that situation and to acquit myself as nobly as I did makes me humble. And I am so very, very proud - justly proud, I think, of my humility.

My Monday Morning

   Monday mornings are supposed to be blue, but the only thing blue about Monday morning this week was the sky. Paying bills is also supposed to induce the blues, and on Monday I had to attend to the financial needs of the people who attend to my blood pressure, my teeth and my eyes. I put each check in the appropriate envelope, I think. There have been times when I have mismatched the statements and the checks as I put them in the envelopes. But, c'est la vie, the envelopes were sealed and stamped, and I was on my way to the mailbox in the Edgewood Plaza parking lot.
   The trip wasn't necessary. I could have put the envelopes in our mailbox and let the mailman pick them up when he made his rounds. But I decided to take the electric wheelchair out for a spin. I might have been inspired to get out of the house by Mary, who walked by as I was writing the checks. She is older than I - well into her seventies, I would guess - walks slowly, has a pronounced limp and uses a cane. But every morning and every afternoon, weather permitting, she walks her dog. It never hurts to be reminded there's no excuse for sliding into slackerdom.
   It was a pleasant morning to be out. The sun was warm, but the breeze and low humidity combined to make the summer day more bearable than most this year. Next door, John and Sandy were sitting on their front porch. Not many people do that anymore, especially the thirty- and forty-somethings like John and Sandy. Mom and Dad used to sit out front on summer evenings; Mom on the milk box and Dad on the step. I suppose they talked about my siblings and me and gossiped about the neighbors. These days, I get the impression people gossip more about what they see on television - about the stars they'll never meet and the fictional lives of the characters the stars play.
   John said they'd gone to Erie to watch the Seawolves play over the weekend. Then we both had good things to say about the weather, and I went on my way. There was a moment of panic when I got to the Edgewood Plaza. Looking around as I made my way through the parking lot, I didn't see the mailbox and wondered if it had been removed as part of a cost-cutting scheme. But it was there, hidden behind a large truck.
   As I meandered home, I passed a mailman making his appointed rounds.
   "It's almost perfect today," he said, and I wasn't about to argue.
   Then I noticed a woman in the next block crossing the road and pushing what I thought was a stroller. I realized it wasn't when she turned and started down the other side of the street. When she got a little closer, I saw she was pushing a walker.
   "It's so nice to be able to get out, isn't it," she said.
   Yes, it sure was: the sunlight, the breeze, the birds singing, and cicadas making a racket. A man sat on his front lawn, his back against a tree, playing with his dog. Several people were cutting grass, some others were working in flowerbeds and one woman, as I passed, was sending her son back into the house to get whatever it was she forgot.
   It was a good day for a walk, even if my feet never touched the ground. And it was a good way to start the week, even if it was Monday and I had bills to pay.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

See How They Run

 Word is Team John has begun preparations for next March's Atlanta Run for Your Life 5K. That's the reason for this repeat.

Runners are among the greatest wonders in the athletic world. I wonder about them all the time. I wonder why they do what they do.

Running all day in pursuit of a ball is normal and healthy. Running all day in order to run all day seems a little perverse.

Runners brag that they do for fun what other athletes are forced to do when they upset the coach. Does the term self-flagellation ring a bell?

The runners I know, however, appear to be normal, more or less. They're hardworking, well-adjusted, pleasant, contributing members of society. How, I've long wondered, did they get that way when their idea of fun is so unlike anyone else's.

A few years ago at the state cross country meet, I searched out the Pymatuning Valley girls after the Division III race. When I found them, one of Gruskiewicz girls, I forget which one, was hunched over, exhibiting obvious signs of gastro-intestinal distress. It took a few minutes, but the discomfort passed, she stood up, turned around and smiled the biggest smile you ever saw.

It's just not normal, I tell you.

In an effort to better understand this enigma, I recently picked up What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami. As a young man, Murakami operated a bar in Tokyo. But on April 1, 1978, he went to see the Yakult Swallows play the Hiroshima Carp. In the bottom of the first, the Swallows' Dave Hilton drove the ball to left, and when he pulled at second with a double, Murakami, a beer in hand, decided to write a novel.

His first novel was well received, and after writing a couple more successful books, he gave up the bar to write full-time. The sedentary life of a writer eventually manifested itself in flab, and Murakami took up running. By the time he wrote this book, he had run in 25 marathons and several triathlons.

Some of what he says sounds familiar. He talks about joggers running "like they had robbers at their heels." That reminded me of the cross country runner from Jefferson - Amanda Carney - who said her plan was to "run like I stole something."

Some things sound very foreign. The year Hilton's double inspired Murakami to write, the Swallows won the pennant. They couldn't use their home stadium in the Japan Series, however. The team's prospects appeared so dismal at the start of season that it's home field had already been booked in the postseason for college games.

And there are reminders that runners, after all, are just people. In 1983, Murakami got an assignment from a men's magazine to run from Athens to Marathon and write about his experience. He ran the entire distance, which shocked the photographer sent by the magazine. Apparently, most of the runners who do that type of story stop running once the photographer has taken an adequate number of pictures.

Murakami also makes a lot of wise observations. He talks about runners competing primarily against themselves. Murakami calls himself a mediocre runner. "But that's not the point," he writes. "The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday."

Endurance and focus are two of his favorite themes. He writes about reaching that point in a marathon where he feels as if he can't go on. It's then that he focuses on running the next step. That's it. If he thought about the miles left to go, he'd be overwhelmed. Taking it one step at a time, he can get there.

Murakami is also concerned with age - he's in his late 50s and his times are slipping. But he isn't intimidated by the inevitable march of time.

"As long as my body allows, I'll keep on running," he writes. "Even if my time gets worse, I'll keep in putting as much effort - perhaps even more effort - toward my goal of finishing a marathon."

He also says of growing older, "... since your faults and deficiencies are well neigh infinite, you'd best figure out your good points and learn to get by with what you have."

Good things to remember when you find yourself sliding into slackerhood. Although, 179 pages later I'm still not sure why runners do what they do.

This appeared in the Star Beacon, December 9, 2009.

So Forlorn am I

If I were to don rose-colored glasses, and - in the privacy of my own home, of course - slip into Pollyanna's dress, I might be heartened when I consider last week and take solace because I did not become forlorn until Tuesday. But when I look back without the accouterments of foolish optimism, I realize growing forlorn on Tuesday is to spend the greater part of the week "desolate or dreary; unhappy or miserable, as in feeling, condition, or appearance," in the words of the Random House Dictionary.

You see, on Tuesday I saw the doctor about my eyes. But my forlornness has nothing to do with my eyes; they are, the doctor said, in pretty good shape for the shape they're in. In truth, I was forlorn before I saw the doctor. Hoping that if Nancy and I arrived early I might get out early, I was in the waiting room nearly an hour before the scheduled time. Unfortunately, while I was excessively prompt, the doctor was exceedingly late. But that has nothing to do with my forlorn state.

Well, perhaps it does, at least indirectly. The extended stay in the waiting room gave me time to think. And what I thought about was the music that played softly in the background. It was restful, relaxing music. Inoffensive, easy-to-ignore music. It was music from the sixties: "Hang on, Sloopy," "Ob-La-De, Ob-La-Da," "Let's Hang On," and countless other songs popular when I was in high school.

They weren't gussied-up versions. They weren't the work of an arranger attempting to channel Bach or Mozart in order to transform "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" into a string quartet. Nor were they syrupy sweet instrumentals in the style of Andre Kostelanetz, Frank Chacksfield, Enoch Light or any of the others who made easy listening so difficult.

No, these were, in the words of the K-Tel commercials "the original hits by the original stars." The music my parents said grated on their nerves; the music ministers said was a sign of the apocalypse; the music politicians said proved the country was going to hell in a hand basket was now little more than white noise. And I realized as I sat there, when the music of your youth becomes elevator music, you're old. That's why I'm forlorn.

Alas, two days later, I was forlorner. Thursday was President Obama's birthday. While I never paid much attention to his age, I was aware that, for the first time in my life, the President had to respect me because I am his elder. But it wasn't until Thursday that I realized how much respect I was due. The President celebrated his fiftieth birthday on August 4, which means he's thirteen years, three month and twenty-three days my junior. But who's counting. Besides, I'm too forlorn to talk about it.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Make His Eggs Scrambled

It is a sin, no doubt, to gloat over another man's mistake. But, life without a little sin is hardly worth living. So we shall proceed.

One Saturday morning a few years ago, I was listening to Car Talk, and either Click or Clack asked, "What is the shortest measurable time span known to science?" The answer: The time between the traffic light turning green and the idiot behind you laying on his horn.

Maybe that's right, but I have my doubts. I lean toward that fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a nanosecond between the Star Beacon hitting the streets and a reader finding a mistake made by some idiot sportswriter, such as myself. Readers who point out these errors do us a favor of, course, helping us to set the record straight while reassuring us that they do read what we write before they carpet the bird cage with our words.

Suffice it to say, as soon as the game ended, the clock started ticking. The ticking grew louder as I checked the statistics I'd compiled, tracked down players and coaches for interviews and drove back to the office. Then, in roughly the time allotted to a Super Bowl halftime show - no, it wasn't that long - there was a box score to type, a story to write and three or four phone calls to answer. When it was all over, I walked to the car unconcerned that I might have gotten one or two things wrong, but scared to death that I didn't get anything right.

Those of us who crank out twenty column inches in a half-hour have it pretty hard compared to those who author books, I thought. Look at the lead time those folks have, and the publisher's staff of editors and fact-checkers who wring out all errors, both factual and grammatical. And three to five pages of acknowledgements are de rigueur these days, so the author can list all the people he badgered for information, insight and inspiration.

Writing sports for a daily newspaper, by comparison, is working without a net. So I gloated while reading The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan. In the book, Egan writes about the Dust Bowl and some of the people who were affected by it. Among them was the family of George Ehrlich. According to Egan, Ehrlich left Hamburg for America on an immigrant boat in 1890. Midway through the voyage the ship sailed into a storm and was in danger of sinking. On page 61, Egan writes, "The captain sent out an SOS and told everyone to prepare for death."

Those of you steeped in the history of the Titanic will recall that SOS was just gaining acceptance as the international distress signal when the iceberg got the best of the great ship in 1912. Ah, you say, quit being so pedantic; Egan is obviously using SOS in the generic sense so as not to bore the reader with the details of 19th-century German distress calls.

Perhaps. But according to the Web site, Guglielmo Marconi began his laboratory experiments with wireless telegraphy in 1895 and didn't receive his first patent for it until 1897. So, how did the captain of the immigrant ship send his SOS? I have this Monty Python vision of the crewmen huddled on deck chanting, "dit-dit-dit-dah-dah-dah-dit-dit-dit-dah-dah-dah-dit-dit-dit..."

No, it isn't nice to gloat. But is fun to see the egg on another face.

This appeared in the Star Beacon, February 23, 2008

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Andy and Me

How old is Andy Rooney, anyway? Doesn't it seem like he's always been old? Can you remember when Andy Rooney was young? I can't. I think he was born old.

I like to watch his colleagues on 60 Minutes. They all have that chiseled nobility of a mannequin in the window of an up-scale boutique. And their facial expressions are always perfect. As the interviewee answers their questions, the faces of the 60 Minutes correspondents register the appropriate reaction: awe, disbelief, wonder, righteous indignation, delight, curiosity, incredulity, bemusement, anger, puckishness or astonishment. I think their facial expressions are controlled by some pimply faced technician.

But Andy always looks like a cadaver that has been granted the gifts of speech and crankiness. And what about those eye brows? They remind me of wooly bears on Rogaine.

But, you know what really bothers me? The less young I become, the more I sound like Andy Rooney. Where does all this cantankerousness come from? I've been eating a lot of broccoli. Maybe broccoli brings out the inner curmudgeon. I think it does.

The thing that angers me most is sports on television. Watching football these days makes me long for Curt Gowdy, Paul Christman and the old American Football League.

Does it bother you that announcers in the 21st Century are never silent? It bothers me. I think Churchill would say something like, "Never have so few prattled so much about so little." I think these guys are paid by the word.

I don't like it when they insist on telling me the last play was, or the upcoming play will be, a key play. How many key plays can you have in a game? A number in the low single digits seems right. Or am I just being cranky?

And how did these guys get to know so much about momentum? Are they the high priests of the divine force that guides the progress of our sporting events? I think they must be. The announcers always know when momentum has switched sides. That process must be similar to the President moving from one side of the stadium to the other at halftime of the Army-Navy game. Does the President still go to the Army-Navy game? I don't know.

And another thing, I can hardly see the game through the maze of graphics. And you know what really irks me? The information in those graphics is all the stuff the announcers used to tell you. Now, they don't have time because they're yammering about momentum, or potentially big plays, or having dinner with this player or that player, or hyping the new series that will have its premiere right after the game and is guaranteed to appeal to those with the IQ and attention span of an amoeba.

Then there are all those lines they superimpose on the field. What are they for? The yellow one, the one that indicates where the first-down marker is, is OK, I think. Don't you? But I really wonder about the blue line. It marks the line of scrimmage. I never had any trouble finding the line of scrimmage. It's where the football is and where the linemen get down, stare at their opponents and chide them about halitosis. The players might swear a blue streak, but I don't think I need a blue streak to help me locate the line of scrimmage.

You know what else bothers me? The arrow that indicates which direction the team with the ball is supposed to be going. Do you have trouble divining which end zone a team is defending and which end zone it is attempting to reach? I don't think I do. Maybe the arrow is there to help the players who partied into the wee hours of Sunday morning. Bobby Layne used to do that a lot, but he never needed an arrow to help him find the correct end zone.

And one more thing. I don't think a little gray hair and an excess of bile makes a guy an Andy Rooney. Do you?

This appeared in the Star Beacon, October 10, 2007.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

For the Love of the Game

One day last June, there was an item in the Star Beacon about the Torch Run for the Ohio Special Olympics.

The annual Torch Run begins at the Ohio-Pennsylvania border and takes about four hours to reach the Ashtabula-Lake County line. From there, the torch wends its way to Columbus for the start of the Summer Games.

That same day, there was an article on the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette web site concerning the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Among other things, the commission found that spending on athletics at 97 public colleges in the 120-member Football Bowl Subdivision (the old Division 1-A) increased by an average of 38 percent between 2005 and 2008, while spending on academic programs grew by 20.5 percent. The commission also cited an analysis by USA Today that found that only seven of the schools had made money on intercollegiate athletics in each of the last five years.

Most college coaches are not rich, of course, and most college athletes are looking for little more than a chance to compete while getting an education. Their goal isn’t to get drafted by a professional team; their goals are to get a degree and then a job.

Coming upon the two stories in quick succession, however, made it hard to ignore the differences between big-time college athletics and the Special Olympics. And they brought to mind a wonderful passage about the Special Olympics in Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird.

The book is subtitled, “Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” and to illustrate one of her points, Lamott writes of being at a Special Olympics event and watching a girl on crutches take what seemed to be “four hours” to finish a 25-yard race. It was noon, it was hot and Lamott wanted to go get something to eat. But when the girl finally finished the race, “you could see that she was absolutely stoked.” Lamott wrote, “It was about the beauty of sheer effort.”

The Special Olympics isn’t about world records, TV deals or free agency. It is about giving people a chance to compete. For most of us, the opportunities to compete – on the sandlots, in the gym, on the golf course, at the bowling alley or in the backyard – are always there. A lot of us ignore them and watch TV instead, but we could get in the game if we wished.

People with developmental disabilities have fewer opportunities, but they are so very appreciative of the ones they have. I know this from working at Ash/Craft, where the Special Olympians come to work the day after a game or meet anxious to discuss their experiences. Losses bother them, of course, but it is obvious most them would rather play and lose than not play at all.

If there were no big-time college athletics, the great athletes would still play the game, even if it were for Walt’s Diner and Body Shop. And the professional scouts would still find them, even the athletes playing in Paducah, Punxsutawney and Pierpont.

For most of us, though, it’s not whether we win or lose or get to the next level. The important thing is that we have a chance to play the game, and that’s what Special Olympics provides for people with developmental disabilities.

This appeared in the Star Beacon, June 21, 2010.

Legendary Thoughts

For a few years now, I've been hanging out with bicyclers, and from time to time I tag along with them.

Sometimes I even go along for the ride, or at least a small fraction of it. A few times this summer when Nancy's bicycling group started at Geneva State Park, I was there with my little chariot and managed to do four miles on the park's bike trail in the time it took the men and women on bikes to complete a 25- or 30-mile tour of western Ashtabula and eastern Lake counties.

On a bike trail, both the Western Reserve Greenway Trail and the trail at Geneva State Park, you don't have to go far to get away from it all. Except for the birds singing, the wind rustling the leaves and the occasional distant car, the world is quiet. Who'd have thought a strip of asphalt through the woods could be so pleasant?

And it can be rewarding. In August, Nancy and I participated in a poker run on the Greenway Trail sponsored by the Jefferson Rotary. It came as no surprise to me that I wound up with a handful of nothing. In fact, my hand was so full of nothing that I won the prize for the low hand. Yes, I was the biggest loser, but a loser with a few bucks to show for it.

A few weeks ago, Nancy took part in the Dam Ride, a two-day event on the Youghiogheny River Trail, part of a longer trail that makes it possible to bicycle from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. Nancy rode about 126 miles over two days. I rode along the trail, which was once the right-of-way of the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad, for about five miles. It was wonderfully peaceful - the woods, the river, the birds - with only the rumbling of an occasional train on the opposite side of the river to remind me that I was still a long way from the middle of nowhere.

I started thinking about all this for reasons that have nothing to do with bicycling. One cool morning last week, I pulled out a long-sleeved T-shirt from the 2002 Lake Erie Cross Country Club Challenge and Kiwanis Cross Country Club Challenge, which was, until a few years ago, an annual rite of fall for those foolishly hearty runners brave enough to challenge the course known as "The Legend" at Geneva State Park.

The course, laid out a by Bob Dulak, when he was the Kent State-Ashtabula cross country coach, and his team several decades ago, had a back-to-nature quality about it. And there was a certain resemblance to a famous Thanksgiving song, except The Legend was into the river and through the woods. And Dulak somehow always managed to schedule the race for a cold, cloudy, blustery fall morning, often with some occasional flurries to add a seasonal touch.

On the bike trail at Geneva State Park there is a bridge across Cowles Creek. It's where the runners in the cross-country challenge - who ranged in age from college students to old-enough-to-know-better - already exhausted and covered with mud, jumped in and walked, waded or swam through the frigid water. Once on the other side, they ran around in the area where the Lodge is now before jumping back into the creek on their way to the finish. And each time this summer as I went across that bridge on a warm, sunny evening when the creek looked inviting, I thought of those runners on cold, windy, overcast mornings when it didn't.

Had it survived, the race on The Legend would be coming up in a few weeks. When I would talk to the runners after the race, they all insisted, as they stood wrapped in a their blankets and shivering, that it was fun. I don't know about that, but it certainly was a lot fun to watch.

I miss it.

This appeared in the Star Beacon, September 22, 2010.

Regrets, I Have a Few

On a weekend not long ago, Bethany, my daughter, bagged a coyote and her man.

The gentleman who proposed often goes by Colt, his middle name. The mind swims with comments about horsing around and a possible resemblance to parts of the equine anatomy.

But Colt did a stint in Iraq as a recon sniper, which makes me think in this case a little discretion wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Besides, I’m more interested in the girl who shot the coyote. Ten years ago, I would have laughed at the notion of Bethany tromping around the woods, clad in camouflage and toting a gun, or wading into a stream with a fishing rod in hand. But, when she finds time to send an email, there is excitement and exuberance in every word she writes about her adventures in the outdoors.

I’m not sure how I feel about guns and hunting. Guns scare me, and thinking about the morality of hunting confuses me. Killing animals doesn’t seem quite right, but we humans have been doing it ever since we came down from the trees and learned to wield a club. The protein from meat enlarged our brains, helping to make us what we are today: bipeds with swelled heads.

But, from what I can tell, Bethany is a responsible outdoorswoman and has no interest in simply littering the wilderness with carcasses. More importantly, she has found something she can throw herself into and pursue with ardor and zeal.

From the time Russell, my son, first picked up a pencil he has been drawing. Every time we went grocery shopping at the old Edward’s in Saybrook, we had to get Russ a tablet, because the one we got him the time before was full. Always, in the back of his mind, there was the notion of becoming a cartoonist. When he was going to Harbor, his drawings appeared on the Star Beacon's Gap Page, and in college he contributed to the Daily Kent Stater.

Russ never stopped drawing, but after graduating from Kent he made only a few desultory efforts to market his work. Then the light went on. In the last two years, he has drawn in the neighborhood of 500 cartoons and submitted them to various magazines. He has sold 10.

Undaunted by a two-percent success rate, he continues to draw and submit. Some day, perhaps he’ll hit it big, become rich and be able to support his old man in the style to which I hope to become accustomed. Then again, maybe he won’t. But, he’s doing what he enjoys doing and pursuing that elusive dream.

One evening in late May or early June 2006, I sat at the kitchen table reading A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson’s account of his effort to walk the length of the Appalachian Trail. Bryson is a marvelous writer, and it wasn’t long before he had me thinking about walking a portion of the trail. Then I remembered: I’d be hard pressed to walk around the block.

In the years since I found out I have Multiple Sclerosis, I’ve looked up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, down from Pike’s Peak and across the Grand Canyon. I’m a very fortunate man, indeed. But that night at the kitchen table in the house on Myrtle Avenue where the kids grew up, I realized my biggest regrets weren’t the things I did but shouldn’t have done. What I regretted most were the things I wanted to do, the things I could have done but didn’t.

As I follow the exploits of Russ and Bethany and see them get after it, as they say, or when I think about the joy some of the athletes I covered brought to high school sports, I like to think that when they reach this more contemplative stage of life they will have fewer regrets than I do.

I would like that very much.

This first appeared in the Star Beacon, February 26, 2010.

The Good Fortune of a Good Read

There is nothing like a dame, especially when she is Dame Fortune and she is smiling on you. In these weeks of all LeBron all the time and controversial calls on the baseball diamond and soccer pitch, the good Dame has led me to a couple books that put professional sports in a less glaring, less celebrity-filled light; books less about money and fame and more about people trying to do well in sometimes difficult circumstances.

In 2005, Max Weber wrote a story about the Jim Evans Academy of Professional Umpiring for the New York Times. A year later, he signed up for the Evans Academy's entire five-week course, and after completing it, he spent a great deal of time over the next couple years in the company of umpires from the low minors to the Major Leagues. As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires, is the book that came out of that experience.

The umpires, it turns out, are human. And the trip from umpiring school to the Major Leagues is a difficult trek on a rough road, with the umpires doing most of the driving. Until they reach Triple A, umpires have to drive from city to city.

A few finally make it to the Major Leagues, where umpires are the forgotten men on the field until they make a mistake - either real or perceived. It isn't an easy job, and all the critics have the advantage of instant replay.

In the end, though, many of the players and managers Weber talked to seem to respect the umpires and the job they do. Which might go a long way toward explaining the results of the ESPN Magazine poll of 100 players, in which Jim Joyce, whose wrong call ended Tiger pitcher Armando Galarraga's bid for a perfect game against the Indians on June 2, was voted the best umpire in the Major Leagues.

The other book I've been reading is Last Team Standing, in which Michael Algeo tells the story of the 1943 merger of the Philadelphia Eagles and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The problem was manpower: players were enlisting or getting drafted.

NFL teams filled their rosters with those who had been classified 4F by the Selective Service and those exempt from military service by virtue of being fathers. By 1943, however, the physical requirements for military service were being relaxed, and the Selective Service was preparing to begin drafting fathers. The Father Draft caused quite a hubbub at the time; 81 percent of the respondents in one poll favored drafting single women rather than fathers.

The Cleveland Rams had suspended operations for the 1943 season, and without the merger, the Steelers, who had just six players under contract, would probably have to suspend operations, too. The NFL owners approved the joint operation with the Eagles, and the Steagles were born.

The life of a professional football player during World War II was much like anyone else's. The Steagles operated from Philadelphia, and most of the players were under contract to the Eagles. All of them worked in defense plants, and the players who worked in the Philadelphia area practiced in the evenings.

Eddie Doyle, a tackle, worked at the Westinghouse plant in East Pittsburgh. After work on the day before a game, Doyle would get on a train to wherever the Steagles were playing that week. On Sunday evening, he'd get on a train going the other direction, get off at East Pittsburgh in the morning and walk to work.

But it wasn't all hard work and hard-nosed football. Greasy Neal and Walt Kiesling, the Steagles' co-coaches, both stayed at the Hotel Philadelphian during the team's training camp. One morning when an intra-squad scrimmage was scheduled, neither Neal nor Kiesling got a wake-up call. The players spent the morning doing not much until the coaches arrived around 11 a.m.

Sports is a lot more fun when it's about people instead of celebrities. Besides, Pug Manders and Bruiser Kinard were on the roster of the 1943 Brooklyn Dodgers football team. Where have all the Pugs and Bruisers gone?

This originally appeared in the Star Beacon, June 29, 2010

To Bed, Perchance to Sleep

According to an article on the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's website, a person with MS is up to three times more likely to exper...