Thursday, February 25, 2010

Sochi Olympics, Here I Come

I really needed to catch a nap one day last week. When you’re a sports reporter, you often end up doing interviews and writing feature stories during the day, then you hit the road at night to cover a game. During the basketball post-season, those road trips--and days and nights--can be kind of lengthy. With a long drive and a big game to cover later on that evening, I thought a little afternoon shut-eye might be in order, so I hit the couch and flipped on the TV to search for something to sleep to. The Olympics were on cable, and the sport in play looked to be just the ticket.
“Curling,” I thought. “Anybody can sleep to that.”
But instead of dozing to the sound of a bunch of mildly overweight, Swedish-looking white guys slipping around on the ice, I was suddenly entranced by what I was seeing.
I am, after all, a mildly overweight, Swedish-looking white guy myself. Perhaps, I thought, after years of searching around for a sport to be good at, I had finally found my own Olympic niche.
I know it’s probably a lot harder than it looks, but what I’m pretty sure i saw was four guys standing around on the ice, taking turns sliding a “stone” (a 42-pound hunk of granite shaped like a tea kettle) across the ice towards a bunch of circles. According to my research, they used to just shove actual rocks across the ice back in the day, but now the stone, brooms and shoes expert players use meet certain rigid specifications. And they’re expensive, too, I bet.
The guys who weren’t actually sliding the stone kind of shuffled ahead of it, frantically sweeping (and not sweeping) with their custom-made brooms to encourage it to go faster, slower or even gently turn (curl!) into position while being constantly yelled at by the slider, who, apparently, knows what they should be doing. The two teams take turns trying to either knock the other’s stones out of the circles or block the other guys from doing it to theirs.
Members of the intergalactic Curling Association might find my understanding of their sport insultingly simple, but that’s how I saw it.
With determined thoughts turning towards the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, I conducted an honest self-appraisal of my own skills as needed for a spot on the U.S. Team:
• Standing around: excellent
• Sliding a 42-pound tea kettle on ice: unknown
• Being yelled at: world class
• Sweeping: average, but willing, especially when being yelled at
I’m further encouraged by the fact that in curling, like horseshoes and hand grenades, “close counts,” so maybe, with practice, I can make the grade at that sliding tea kettle thing, too.
I’m also motivated by the fact that, as a full-fledged member of the U.S. Olympic team, I’d be hanging out with the likes of Shaun White, Apolo Anton Ohno and, gulp, Lindsey Vonn. In fact, there might even be an endorsement deal in the offing. Maybe I could get my own high-priced, signature line of brooms or 42-pound tea kettles, er, curling stones.
So, next time you drive by my house and see me sweeping the front porch steps or just standing around, remember: I’m practicing. For the Olympics.
Let the dreams begin.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Talking about the Weather

I know, it’s hard not to talk about it.
I was desultorily scraping away at my sidewalk the other day when a friend (who, by the way, was pulling his granddaughter to preschool on a sled) stopped to say, “I know you like this stuff, but haven’t you had about enough?”
It’s true. I like winter. It’s also true that I’ve had about enough.
Most people are happy enough to see a white Christmas, and January is still winter in just about everyone’s book. Come February, though, and we start thinking Spring. So we anxiously look to the weatherman and the Groundhog in hopes of an early one. But this year, mid-February has passed with virtually no sign of a new season, although the warmth of the sun grows stronger with each passing day.
But we’re not the only ones wishing for a quick climatic change.
Last Friday, 49 of the 50 United States reported at least a dusting of snow. Hawaii, not surprisingly, was the holdout, even on 13,800-foot Mauna Kea, where snow sometimes does appear, but otherwise, it was white stuff from Alabama to Wyoming. This country-wide snowy phenomenon would seem to be a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. But apparently, nobody knows for sure.
According to a news source I read, the federal office that collects weather statistics doesn't keep track of that number and can't say whether it has ever happened. The office can't even say whether 49 out of 50 has ever taken place before.
This winter stuff is big news, for sure, and has even created a ripple of phone calls and emails among my family members, who are spread throughout the U.S.
In his column last Friday, SC associate editor Mike Berry touched on some of the theories and fallacies surrounding the concept of global warming and the weird weather that’s been taking place. I suspect part of the answer--and blame--lies with my brother, who I’ve been blaming ever since I was old enough to call my mom for help. He and my sister-in-law moved to Texas to be near a daughter and escape the winters in their home state of Michigan. In doing so, they apparently dragged winter along with them, thus manipulating and reversing a natural global warming/cooling cycle that has been in place since the first time sunlight touched water.
It’s no big surprise that son Colin is experiencing another big winter. He and his family live near Fargo, North Dakota, where, I believe, the season was invented. At this telling, they are in a normal state: bundled up and hunkering down as they await the annual thaw that occurs sometime around the Fourth of July, just in time for the annual Big Mosquito Festival. Winter in Fargo is so pervasive that, when we visited just before Christmas, the locals were all excited because the temperature got up to 20 degrees, a halcyon event that saw droves of coatless, hatless, last-minute shoppers streaming through mall parking lots as they enjoyed the balmy break.
My daughter-in-law from North Carolina called Friday night, all excited, because they had actual, measurable snow for the first time.  A native coastal Carolinian, she's never seen anything more than a dusting and, of course, it was all new to my grandsons, too. Saturday morning brought snowmen and "snow cream," a mixture of snow and condensed milk that is, I assume, only eaten by people who don’t own dogs.
By, Sunday night, though, she was wondering when it would all go away, That’s a hope that I’m sure is shared by son Patrick, who moved down there to get away from Illinois winters in the first place.  That sounds about right. Two days of snowballs and fun, then, back to spring on the beach, which is truly the normal NC order of things.
Funny thing is, though, while we think we’ve got too much of the white stuff, others wish they had a little more. Like the Winter Olympics, where warm weather, rain and fog have played havoc with events and scheduling, leaving competitors and organizers to pray for their share of the weather we’ve been receiving down here. There’s an old saying that goes like this: “Be careful what you pray for, because you just might get it.”
I checked online this morning (Tuesday) to see if the weather had caused any more problems, and wasn't surprised to hear that it had. Sure enough, the super combined event in men’s alpine skiing had been delayed, maybe for a couple of days.
The reason?
Too much snow.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Notes from the Bat Cave

It started out as a blood-curdling scream in the pre-dawn darkness.
I was, like most sensible folks, still asleep after a late-night basketball game the evening before. But the sudden scream from my partner in crime woke me up in a hurry.
Me: “What’s wrong?”
She: “There’s a bat in our bedroom!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (Note: there are not enough exclamation points available in this space to adequately denote the urgency of this statement.)
She had been heading into the bathroom off our bedroom when she noticed what looked to be one of my black socks lying on the floor. Luckily, she did not stop to pick it up or kick it towards the laundry room, or this might be a story with a different, unhappier ending, because as she stepped over the sock it revealed itself not as a carelessly discarded piece of laundry, but as a full-fledged flying rodent.
Actually, bats aren’t rodents at all, but, instead, the only mammal capable of true flight. They just look like ugly little rats with wings. And that’s enough to make them absolutely abhorrent to approximately 99.9999999% of the population, including you-know-who. While I’m not totally terrified of the hairy little critters, I confess that my interest is limited to a distant viewing of them as they snag mosquitoes in the summer sky. Actually, I don’t know anyone personally who cares to get up close and personal with the creatures called Chiroptera, but I’m betting they are the same guys who spent prom night happily dissecting a frog on their moms’ kitchen tables.
But, by the time I was fully awake and ready for battle, the unwelcome visitor had taken flight and disappeared.
In our bedroom.
She dressed for school crouched over with a bath towel on her head, while I was unusually cautious while digging through my sock drawer. With a car in the shop, we were traveling together that morning, so there was no time to conduct the immediate, thorough search that the situation deserved, but I promised I would try to find and remove the elusive object of my spouse’s dread before she returned home that evening. As I had a game to cover and would be gone that night, I had to caution her:
Me: “What if I don’t find him while you’re gone?”
She: “I’m not going upstairs again until you do.”
Thoughts of coming home that night to find my beloved huddling downstairs on the kitchen floor with a dish towel on her head drove me to get right at it when I returned home later that morning.
There are a lot of tools for us professional bat-getters to choose from. A tennis racket is effective, but cruel, as very few bats survive a forehand smash. A laundry basket is a good, humane choice, but is unwieldy and provides little guarantee that a captured bat will stay that way. I finally decided on the renowned broom/towel combo, which is, I believe, the favored method of many bat-fanciers. I used the broom to poke around on top of the ceiling fan, behind the radiator and under the bed.
Suddenly, the phone rang in the small, low-ceilinged sitting room next to our bedroom. It was an old friend, looking for some thoughts on a spiritual matter. I was flattered to be asked, and we settled into what turned out to be a lengthy chat.
And of course, that was a clear signal to batty-boy that it was time to emerge from his hiding place and stretch his wings a bit.
I’m here to tell you that it’s a bit difficult to focus on much of anything while being dive-bombed by a mini-Dracula. I didn’t dare open the door to escape the room for fear that he would get loose into the high-ceilinged hallway and the rest of the house. I didn’t want to interrupt my friend, either.
“Hey, Bob, could you (zoom) stop talking about your (zoom) immortal soul for a minute? There’s a bat in here that’s (zoom) trying to part my (zoom) hair.”
It just didn’t seem like the kind of thing a real spiritual advisor would say.
So, instead, I sat on the floor, listened, replied as best I could...and ducked.
We finished the conversation a few minutes later, and it was a simple matter to toss the towel portion of the broom/towel combo and gently end the air show. I used the broom to shove the towel-wrapped flyer out the door that leads onto a small upstairs porch, where I gave him his freedom.
End of story, except for a lingering thought:
I couldn’t help wondering if my little friend might of been there to provide me a vivid, not-so-subtle commentary on my true ability to offer advice of a spiritual nature. I mean, he really was flying around like a bat out of hell.
“Naw,” I thought. “It was just a coincidence.”
But you gotta wonder.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Season of Hope

Here's hoping you had a happy Marmot Day on Tuesday .
Marmot Day?
For those of you who are less interested in low-value trivia, a marmot is an oversized furry rodent belonging to the same family as the groundhog. In fact, according to some scientific sources, a groundhog is a marmot.
Our friends in Alaska, who have made any number of interesting choices over the past few years, have decided that marmots, not groundhogs, are to be recognized on February second. So, I guess, instead of Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil, the citizens of our 49th state will now look towards a critter with a name like Nome Norm, Alakanuk Al or some-such moniker for their winter/spring prognostications. Kinda makes me want to contact my congressman to urge national holiday status for “Wiley Park Willy,” the 67-pound, 3-toed ground squirrel who lives in a hole under the Civil War statue across from my house and has successfully predicted Galva’s Fourth of July weather every year since 1954.
But I digress.
The real point of a midwinter holiday like like Groundhog Day (or, uh, Marmot Day) is hope, because, after the cold, dark months of December and January, our thoughts turn to spring and the hope that warm, sunny days will be just around the corner.
Like many secular holidays, Groundhog Day has its roots in the traditions of the this case “Candlemas,” an old, traditional name for The Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple and, also, a day when priests blessed candles to be used through the year. Lyrics to an old English song said:
"If Candlemas be fair and bright / Come, Winter, have another flight / If Candlemas brings clouds and rain / Go Winter, and not come again."
Our beloved groundhog/marmot predicts more winter if he sees his shadow (“fair and bright”) and the end of winter if he doesn’t (“clouds and rain”), so the connection is clear.
It’s clearer still when you consider the ramifications of Jesus’ day at the temple, when he was “officially” presented to God and the rest of the world. It is seen by many Christians as an eternal moment of hope, when the devout old priest Simeon looked upon the baby and recognized a savior who would bring new light to the world. By anticipating spring, we also anticipate the miracle of Easter and the full dawning of that light.
I know it’s a stretch to count on a rodent by any name to deliver the long-range forecast. As Bill Murray said skeptically in the movie “Groundhog Day,”
“They pull the little rat out. They talk to him. The rat talks back and then they tell us what's gonna happen.”
I know, too, that some may feel that this column is not the place for me to sermonize on matters of my own faith or to convince you to believe in what I believe.
But it is what I believe, all the same.
But no matter where or how your faith lies, there is a belief we all can share:
Spring will come, whether it’s today or six weeks from now. And with it will come another sweet season of light, warmth, renewal...and hope.
And that’s a start.