Thursday, October 20, 2005

#85 - Of Sports and Stuff

Note: This is my annual birthday essay. It's a couple of days late, but better late than never. I've done this -- largely for myself -- every year since early adulthood. I can't help myself. It's a little like Congress. Every two years they feel a compulsion to run for office, believing they've done something constructive during their last term. Likewise I like to feel that I've done something of note during the year since my last birthday. Since that's not the case, I get to ruminate on just about any topic I choose. Why I chose this particular one, heaven only knows.

I'm not certain if it was the migraine with which I awoke this morning, or the effects of a hot shower on a fevered brain, but I got to thinking about hockey. Specifically professional hockey. You know: the sport we did without for an entire year. You don't remember that? That's funny... neither does anyone else I know.

Anyway, I never got hockey. Being a lifelong southern Cal boy, I've never really gotten any winter sport. What's the point? Here in the desert (hint to those wishing they lived in California: anywhere south of, say, Sacramento is desert. Just thought you should know) we have to artifically freeze everything, including our snow. Really. Our local mountains don't get real snow until about February, which means that if they want any business during ski season, they need to make their own. With hockey (and, by extension, ice skating related sports) we have to freeze entire swimming pools' worth of water, then run over it with something that sounds like Italian food run amok, then play a sport that only Canada could have dreamt up. It was either the Canucks, or one of our perpetually brain-frozen states like Minnesota or Michigan.

In fact, hockey was probably invented when some Canadians (or Minnesotans, or Michiganians) got wasted in a saloon and decided to have a bar fight outside on the frozen parking lot. Parking lots up there stay frozen pretty much from September through about July, so it's not like they can play baseball or anything. I mean, look at the Twins, for Pete's sake. Anyway, I imagine they were having a grand old time until the saloon's owner got mad and threw one of his overcooked hamburger patties at one of the brawlers, who managed a wonderful slap shot with a pool cue and knocked the burger cleanly into the net of some guy who was ice fishing in a ditch next to the parking lot. The brawling crowd stopped long enough to congratulate the shooter by knocking a few teeth out of his head, then resumed their fight. I believe that pretty much encapsulates the entire sport.

People in the northern climes can enjoy these winter sports by virtue of the fact that they never get sick during the winter. They don't pass winter colds around because every time they sneeze the germs simply freeze in mid-air and fall to the ground. There they (the germs) (also, at times, the people) lie dormant until the first spring thaw in late June. "Do not travel to Minnesota in late June" should be stamped on every tourist brochure. Every cold germ in the state suddenly springs to life and resumes travelling to its destination, which is precisely where you will be standing at that moment; overwhelmed by an attack of every cold germ generated during the previous winter. That's why their ball teams never win games during the summer months. The players are too busy fighting off everyone's winter colds. This also explains Garrison Keillor.

So I'm no fan of hockey. Then again, I'm not a fan of any professional organized sport these days. For one thing, none of these sports really resembles the ones with which I grew up during the 60's and 70's. As a kid, I remember being a die-hard, dedicated fan of the Dodgers. The Angels (then called the "California" Angels) were pretty much a non-entity and, besides, the Dodgers had Vin Scully. In those days a kid could join a team's fan club, send in a dollar or two, and get a packet of neat (cheap, but neat) stuff like a team photo, tacky felt team pennant, and a copy of the team's schedule for that year. You could go to a game with your Dad for a very reasonable price, listen to your Dad swear at all the drivers in the parking lot, and get some cheesy souvenir at the game that you could take home and brag to your friends about for the next six months. I did that exactly once as a boy. I've never forgotten it. I also played a fair amount of sandlot ball in those days, and I got pretty good. I could pitch fairly accurately, although I didn't exactly strike fear into batters' hearts. I was small and wiry, and had pretty good bursts of speed, so I was a better than average base runner. I also made sure to play with guys that a were a year or two younger than myself so I would look better by comparison. Hey, I was no fool.

Of course, in those days professional athletes weren't known by their contract terms. Players tended to be more dedicated to their teams than they were to their vanity clauses, and it was easier to root for the home team and memorize their roster. These days the game is more about salary caps and corporate profit than it is about the game itself. Sportsmanship always takes a back seat to annual salary negotiations, and endorsements are far more important than team loyalty. Also, it was much easier to turn an athlete into a "role model" when you had no clue that he was so tanked up on steroids that his autopsy would reveal gigantic muscles and very little brain.

Maybe this just reflects my age. At 47, I've come to realize that my own accomplishments in this life will never make front page news. This is fine, since I have no desire to be featured in a "Programmer Arrest of the Day" story on the local news anytime soon. Truthfully, at my age I'm glad to be as healthy as I am. I still have at least as many teeth in my head as I have fingers on my hands, and my eyes are still functional even if I do need "progressive" lenses now. Of course, this also means that I spend copious amounts of time trying to get my head into just the right position so I can still read things like this essay without getting major cricks in my neck. My knees are starting to get into that "personal barometer" phase of life where I can tell a storm is coming without ever looking at weather reports on the internet. Athletic achievement for me is climbing the six flights of stairs to my office in the morning (I'm good for one climb every two or three days) instead of taking the elevator. On those rare occasions where I actually have to run (or even trot) for short distances, I now require a full three days to recover, assuming I haven't torn any minor ligaments. A good workout for me involves climbing a stepstool to find out if my wireless gateway is still working properly.

Pathetic? Perhaps. But here's what I can also do: I can, with very little effort, comfort my daughter when she tells me that she saw a scary light in her dark bedroom. I can magically make snacks appear when the kids are dying of hunger, precisely at the moment I was about to tell them to brush their teeth for the night. I can push a vacuum cleaner around with the best of them, and prepare three-course meals in a single skillet for dinner. (My meatloaf's to die for.) I can take a customer's vague and nebulous requirements and produce a web-based tool that wasn't probably what they were expecting but works better than they hoped for. I can help someone find information about an ancestor that they never knew before and help them connect with their past a little better. I know exactly when to say just the right thing to help my wife know that she is the single most important person in my life now and in the eternities to come.

I'd like to see your average steroid-enhanced-egomaniacal-multi-millionaire-whining athlete do that.

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