Thursday, March 25, 2010

Don't forget the free stuff

I’m pretty excited about the trip we’ll be taking next week to see son Patrick and his family in North Carolina. Of course, there’s the joyful anticipation of seeing kids and grandkids, including the youngest, John Patrick Sloan, who Paddy recently referred to as “Sir Edmund Hillary,” which would, I imagine, mean he’s started climbing everything in sight, as his dad did at a similar age.
Plus, it’s a great time of year to head for the southeast, as the off-and-on winter/spring weather we’ve experienced here will, no doubt, be transformed into a true spring scene, complete with green, rolling hills, warmed-up beachfronts, budding blossoms and a whole host of twitterpated beasts, birds and bees.
But there’s another reason I like long drives through out-of-town territory:
The free stuff.
You know the stuff I mean. It’s the wild collection of pamphlets, brochures, maps and other touristy flotsam that can be found in virtually every gas station, restaurant, welcome center and wide spot in the road between here and there, no matter where here or there are located. While I’m always quick to grab a free state highway map, it’s the more exotic offerings that really catch my eye, a habit that clutters both our car and our lives.
Of course, I don’t actually read much of the stuff I’ve collected. Nobody does. But there’s something about the word ‘free’ that really trips my trigger, plus it makes me feel good to know that some optimistic folks are still out there reaching for their share of the American Dream via attractions like the GIANT SKINNY INDIAN in Kingsport, Tennessee or the late, lamented SHOE TREE in Shaniko, Oregon. And who knows? We’ve got to stop once in awhile, anyway, so it might just as well be under the shade of a shoe tree.
We have a “new” (to us) car, and its interior is still in the pristine condition that existed when we bought it. And while I might think that means more room for free stuff, the other passenger is less enthusiastic about my packrat ways.
She: “Do you really need that brochure about the World’s Largest Statue of a Muskrat?”
Me: “I just want to look at it. I’ve always liked Muskrats.”
She’s right, I know, because, after every trip, I glumly sort through the piles of free stuff I’ve gathered, wondering why in the world I wanted it in the first place. Somewhere, in the background of my mind, I can hear the sound of chainsaws and printing presses, revving up to cut more trees and spread more ink, just so I can regretfully toss my treasures at the end of each journey.
But not this time.
You see, some good friends of ours will be traveling through the Carolinas in a few weeks. They’ve never been there before, so they’ve asked, yes, asked, me to bring back some information on the area. So, while I’ll be sure to return with some useful items, like area maps, and beach and shopping info, who could blame me if I also include valuable reference material concerning Croatan’s SELF-KICKING MACHINE or THE WORLD’S LARGEST CHEST OF DRAWERS in High Point?
It’s the least I can do.
And so, dear friends, when you hear a loud thump on your porch late one night after we get back home, don’t worry. It’s not home invaders or even Santa Claus.
It’s just me.
And the free stuff.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Life Without Lenses

Those of you reading this column in the newspaper may notice something new. My picture, which has, heretofore featured me peering through my trusty bifocals has been replaced with a new shot. It’s not sheer vanity on my part, as I’ve never really liked any photo taken of me. Rather, it’s an attempt at accuracy, because I am, in fact, now de-spectacled, instead of bespectacled.
It all started when I sat on my glasses, transforming them into a twisted, broken pile that stoutly resisted my attempts at repair with duct tape, bailing wire and super glue.
Glasses have been a part of my life for some time now. I wore them off and on as a kid and into young adulthood, alway resisting full-time wear until it became apparent that the choice was to see or not to see, period. No huge deal until I started covering sports for the Star Courier and discovered the joys of photography in the rain while wearing glasses. But I had no choice, so I suffered through rainy football nights and misty baseball and track meet afternoons, all the while wishing something could be done to relieve me of my rain-spotted specs. My glasses had become less effective, too, especially at night and in any kind of inclement weather. The reflection from oncoming lights, especially when combined with rain or snow, made nighttime driving risky business for me and (sorry about that) anyone else sharing the road with me. I knew that there were surgical procedures to be tried out there, but also knew my insurance, which generally only covers diseases beginning with the letters u and x, and then only on alternating Ukrainian holidays, was unlikely to kick in for some elective eye treatment.
But then I remembered that my friend Kate, who is a registered nurse and, therefore, part of my vast legion of unpaid healthcare providers, had mentioned that my symptoms sounded a lot like I might have cataracts, a condition that is at least partially covered through some miraculous loophole. I quickly went to see Kewanee Ophthalmologist Dr. Napawan, a fine physician who, apparently, interrupted a budding career as a standup comic to go to medical school. Anyone who has visited his office will likely concur that the good doctor and his office manager/straight-woman Barb, make you feel welcome and optimistic regarding the outcome of their ministrations.
So I did it. I probably wouldn’t pick cataract removal and lens implantation over, say, a Caribbean cruise, but the bright lights and eyelid clamps were easily bearable thanks to a potent sedative cocktail that made wrestling bears, sky diving, or going over Niagara Falls in a barrel seem well within the bounds of reasonable activity.
After a brief recovery period for each eye, my vision began to improve. It’s not 20/20, but I can see better than I did before, and I’m not wearing glasses. The most noticeable improvement is at night, where I am no longer wondering what part of the ditch I’m in when I meet another car. The exception is reading and other close-up work, which still requires “cheaters,” but I buy them for a buck a pair, which allows me to leave them in virtually every room of our house for when I need them. At that price, I’m even considering dropping them off in some of the other places I go, too, or even distributing them to places I might visit, just in case.
But while the vision I use for much of my everyday life is improved, I still suffer from a sight-related condition that seems to strike men of any age. While I can see television, sporting events, high-calorie food items and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition just fine, I continue to struggle to view things like the spot on my tie, the clothes I left on the floor, the coffee cup I forgot on the counter last November, the color of my wife’s shoes and anything in the refrigerator that doesn’t fall out when I open the door. But it’s not my fault. As my spouse tells me, it’s a guy-thing that’s been going on since the earliest man failed to notice he was tracking in on the cave floor. It’s called, according to her, Male Pattern Blindness...and it’s a malady with no known cure.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Here's to the Heroes

Basketball season--for our local squads, at least--has pretty much rolled (bounced?) to an end. It’s been a long year in some ways, and I suppose it’s over a little too quickly in others. We saw both teams and individuals from our coverage area do some impressive things this season, with conference-leading performances, impressive post-season runs and all-conference and all-state accolades still rolling in.
It’s hard to call a kid a hero, though, despite the successes they’ve gathered. It’s not that they don’t sometimes do heroic things, but just that they’ve got so much more to accomplish in their lives. But, for those of us who travel night after night and day after day to watch them, it’s hard not to simply say, “wow,” once in awhile, no matter what sport is being played.
But, it’s also important to remember that it’s not just the high-scoring heroes that deserve our praise. For every kid who makes the sports-page headlines, there are so many others who work just as hard to make it all happen. I’m talking about the bench-sitters, the role-players and all the others who do what they do for the love of a team, a school and a sport. The kids who show up and stick it out all season long; who play their biggest games in practice so that their team can succeed. The kids whose only moments to shine in front of parents, friends, fans and strangers might be a couple of minutes of playing time at the end of a game that’s already decided.
I’ve never talked to a coach or a star player who hasn’t admired the effort, passion and heart those less-noticed performers put forth. They know, as we all should, that those kids are the real heroes, without a doubt.

• Speaking of heroes, two hometown basketball players have made it to state-level competition in the COUNTRY Financial Three-Point Showdown. For those of you who haven’t seen the shootout in action in regional and sectional games, it’s the ultimate high-pressure shooting situation, so kudos go to Galva’s Brady Landis and Ridgewood’s Brian Norberg.

•Speaking of sports, we’re in that challenging time of year when track, baseball and softball teams are simply dying for a little warm, dry weather.
Sportswriters, too.
I know I’ve got a stubborn streak that makes me resist wearing a parka and gloves to witness a spring sport, even if that’s the only sensible way to go. So, instead, I sneak layers upon layers in an effort to stay warm, while trying to look like I’m dressed for the first tee at Pebble Beach or a lazy, barefoot walk down a Carolina seashore.
Hope springs eternal.

•Speaking of Carolina, we’re looking forward to visits with both of our sons and families. First, Colin and clan will make a spring-break trek to Galva from the great plains of Fargo, looking, I’m sure, for a balmy break from their second season in that frigid outpost. Then, my co-pilot and I will drive the 1,000+ miles to North Carolina for a week-before-Easter visit with son Patrick and his family. We haven’t decided whether we’ll take the northern route, which travels through Indiana and Ohio and into West Virginia before crossing the mountains near Mount Airy (hometown of Andy Griffith and inspiration for the TV-town of Mayberry) or via the majestic Cumberland Gap; or the southern track, which crosses the Great Smoky Mountains near Knoxville into Asheville. I’m sorta leaning towards the latter, as early spring is a time when the rolling hills of Kentucky and Tennessee burst forth with a soft-green promise of the sweet growth and renewal that’s surely on its way this time of year.
While anytime is a good time to go see grandchildren, we’re hoping for a warm reception from the weatherman that will allow some time walking the beach and exploring the lighthouse-laden Carolina coast. I’m also hoping to see Patrick in action in his first year as a softball coach. He’s in his fourth year of teaching and coaching, but has always headed up boys’ sports, like football, basketball and baseball, until now. It’s a strong program, with a varsity team that was ranked No. 1 in the state coming into the season. I just hope Paddy, who was a 4-year starter on the mound for Knox College, has, by now, figured out a couple of essential differences in the pitching part of the girls’ game:
They throw hard.
They throw underhand.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Going around, coming around

It’s been a couple of weeks of long drives home. With back-to-back girls and boys post-season basketball filling the calendar, the members of the Star Courier’s two-person sports staff have needed to stretch ourselves kind of thin in order to cover as much basketball action as possible. As the “non-editor” member of the staff, it’s meant the longest drives have generally fallen to me. That’s only fair, because editor Mike Landis often has needed to both cover a game, take pictures and write a story, and also get back to the paper in time to put it all together into the sports pages you pour over the next morning. For both of us, though, it’s meant a series of “on-the-fly” stories and pictures that need to get to the Star Courier as quickly as possible. For me, especially with a crazy-early weeknight deadline, it has meant finding a WiFi hot spot or some other internet connection, so I can transmit stories and pictures via email, a not-often-easy task in some of the smaller burgs I’ve traveled to. But while I’ve been pretty lucky at finding a source and electronically filing my stuff, there’s always a bit of angst regarding another portion of the information waiting to be received at the paper.
The stats.
For many sports fans, the statistics that go into the box scores on page 2 are what it’s all about. In a couple of cases, that’s all taken care of, with stat-king Jerry Salisbury providing the info on Kewanee boys basketball and, in football, the Star Courier’s Rocky Stufflebeam keeping track of the Titans. But for much of the rest of the time, we’re at the mercy of the athletic directors and coaches of the teams we cover, who forward the contents of the official scorebook our way via fax or email. That’s sometimes tougher than it sounds, for a variety of reasons. And for me, it’s a prime example of that old saying: “What goes around, comes around.”
You see, once upon a time, I was the guy who handled--and submitted--the stats.
It was the winter of my sophomore year in high school. I had blown out my knee in football that season and was still hobbling around--on and off crutches--as I waited to see if it would get better. I didn’t know it then, but the injury, despite surgery and extensive rehab, would never allow me to play contact sports again. But at the time, I was just looking for something to do while I waited. I was used to being busy with football, wrestling and baseball, so I guess I looked a little lost.
The varsity basketball coach, who was one of my football coaches, too, took some kind of pity on me and made me an offer.
“How’d you like to keep stats for us?” he asked.
It sounded better than using the time to catch up on my algebra, so I became a member of the support staff for the Galva High School basketball team.
There are a lot of back-stories that go along with that experience, of course. Chief among them is my memory of the time the head manager, the late Jon Johnson, and I missed the bus home because we were “looking for towels” (manager-speak for talking to cheerleaders when we were supposed to be getting the equipment packed up.) You can only imagine the reaction by the coach and our parents when that misdeed was discovered, but those stories will have to wait for another time.
It was what happened after the first home game that revealed the truest nature of what I had gotten myself into. I gave the scorebook to the head coach. After a quick look, he handed it back, along with a lengthy, scribbled list of names and phone numbers.
“Here,” he said. “Call these guys.”
“These guys” were the area newspapers and TV and radio stations that were anxiously awaiting the results of our game. For the latter, it was just a matter of rattling off the final score and maybe the high-point men. But for the newspapers, it meant the arduous job of reading off the full box score, over and over again, to the likes of the Davenport Times-Democrat, the Peoria Journal Star, and, yes, even the Kewanee Star Courier. Remember, there were no fax machines in those days, and email was years and years away, so it was just me...and those guys.
After a few games, I kind of got to know some of them, and, I guess, they got to know me, too. Thinking, only part-correctly, that I was paying close attention to the games, they started asking for more details. I still remember one close contest, which involved a dramatic, fourth-quarter comeback, that found me rapidly recounting the exciting details to one newspaper after another. A few days later, I received the fruits of my labor: a check from one of the papers for the princely sum of six dollars.
I was, finally, a paid member of the working press.
I felt I deserved it, too, because while I was frantically rushing through my list of calls, something vitally important was going on right outside the door of the coaches’ office where I was trapped with my duties. The “sock hop,” which was the name for the no-shoes-allowed-on-the-gym-floor, after-game dance, was going on without me. Between calls, I would anxiously peek out the door to see who was dancing with whom. By the time I heard the strains of “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling,” by the Righteous Brothers, which was usually the last song of the evening, I knew I was doomed to another cold, lonely walk home while all the cute girls were happily being ferried home by upperclassmen who possessed a couple of things I lacked--cars and personalities.
I really discovered writing as a potential job in college. But instead of journalism, I spent most of my working life as an advertising agency copywriter and creative director, a career that was interrupted when I started messing around with cancer a few years ago.
So here I am again, watching games and making last-minute contact with a newspaper. I really do enjoy what I’m doing now, and I even try to pay attention to the games most of the time. So it’s true, that, for me, what goes around truly has come around again.
There are some long hours and late nights this time of year, but there’s some good news, too:
You see, nowadays, the cutest girl of all is waiting for me, right at home.