Friday, April 30, 2010

I'll no longer have what he's breathing

Tomorrow is going to be one of the best trifectae since somebody got smart and combined swimming, bicycling and running into one race.

It is the first day of a weekend.
It is the first day of May.
And it is the first day of a new law in Michigan that bans smoking in restaurants, bars and just about anywhere that has a roof and a few places that don’t.

Look, I don’t want to re-start any old debates about smoking, smoking bans or individual rights. I believe Michigan is the 38th state to enact such a law, putting us, in triathlon and marathon terms, back in the section of the field where the spectators are yelling “come on, don’t give up, you can do it” – so most of this stuff has already been argued and resolved. Or not resolved. Restaurants went out of business before the first state enacted a smoking ban (going out of business is the second-most common thing restaurants do, just behind serving food). People will die from first-hand smoke, second-hand smoke and no smoke at all after the last state clears the air. From what I can tell, the biggest change is that fewer of the people suffering medical issues from second-hand smoke will be waiters and waitresses and bussers and other hospitality workers who (and we can light a match near this powder keg another day) don’t tend to have the kind of medical coverage we associate with premium pulmonary and oncological care.

So I’m not going to write about that. I’ll just mention a tiny little side benefit I see coming from this law that I haven’t heard anyone else mention.

I like local, independently owned restaurants. That doesn’t mean I hate chains -- franchise restaurants are often owned by local individuals, too. I like plenty of them just as I’ve been disappointed by a few independents. But by and large, I like the independents. I like chefs who are creative, who can concentrate a little more on the food and a little less on the corporate vigorish, who can buy whatever ingredients they like instead of using what the parent company says they’ll use. I like atmospheres that are unique. I like being surprised more than I need to know that the chicken Caesar tastes exactly the same in Lansing as it does in Grand Rapids as it does in some suburb of Phoenix.

But because of that exact corporately enforced conformity, I’m sure, most chain and franchise restaurants went smoke-free or highly smoke-segregated long before Michigan had the idea. Independents, no so much. And I’ll confess that, despite my affinity for the locals, I’ve patronized a few of them less because I didn’t care for the smoke.

Now, maybe, I’ll know what the food tastes like in a few of those places. Come to that, given what smoke does to the taste buds, so will a few of their regulars.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Why I don't write about politics

I usually agree with Winston Churchill in that our own form of government is the worst one except for all the others.

But this morning, I want to be Ukrainian.

Whether you're a devoted student of politics or regard it as just another machine to rage against, you really have to love today's news out of the Ukraine. In the photo above, distinguishable from the Stanley Cup playoffs only by the choice of uniform, marginally advanced age and dramatically lower level of press coverage, the Ukrainian parliament is discussing the ratification of a Crimean seaport. According to the Associated Press report, "eggs and smoke bombs" were also thrown along with all those punches. Eggs and smoke bombs! Meaning these lawmakers came to work expecting exactly this style of problem-solving format.

Don't worry. I'll never become one of those bloggers who write mostly about government. For one, I don't have a law degree, political experience or a terribly high IQ, not that any of that has hindered most of the other people doing it. But rather, because if I can't solve the problem, I at least don't want to contribute to it.

Which is why I'm writing about it today. Because, whatever the downside of government by food fight -- cleanup issues, waste issues, dignity issues -- at least those Ukrainian lawmakers are taking matters into their own hands. I'm not seeing any government by lobbyist proxy, any special-interest-press-releases-as-speeches, any persuasion by viral video, any -- finally getting to my point -- my-blogger-can-beat-up-your-blogger deferral of dirty work.

No one expects a pretty government, but a passive-aggressive one is a truly ugly thing to behold.

And that's why I'm now a fan of the Ukrainian parliament. They solve their problems themselves. They don't govern the 21st Century American way. They throw eggs and smoke bombs and sucker punches.

They are much, much more dignified.

Monday, April 26, 2010


Why did our parents try so hard to keep us from falling in with a bad crowd when all the serial killers are loners?

Like most of the things I wonder - like the world in general, I suppose - that question is more inviting at the extremes, where it's also completely pointless. If answers even exist, they're in the middle, in that murky, gray area where it's difficult enough to locate the truth that hardly anybody ever looks there anymore.

But any crowd is, as a rule, better than no crowd. That's easy enough for me to say. I really like the various crowds I've fallen in with, while, forced to spend enough time alone, I find my own self a little too talkative. That's vented easily enough through writing and art, but I still like other people a lot.

One of the best things about other people is that the good ones introduce you to still more people, who introduce you to more, and it grows and grows. It's like Amway without the brochures. (I'm not exactly sure what I mean by that, but it just feels right, doesn't it?) And once in a while, it gets so cool that just talking about your weekend can start to feel like you're name-dropping.

Like a couple of Mondays ago. I had barely gotten my fingers warmed back up from the Golden Gate swim, and Patty and I were in another friend's car (the great friends and their kindnesses from that weekend alone could fill a ream of college-ruled notebook paper) over to Berkeley to meet Chas and three new friends. If friendship is like Amway (I knew that would be useful eventually), Chas is one of the DeVoses. He knows everybody. He's one of the world's authorities on cartoon art and especially animation, which means he knows a lot of cartoonists I haven't met in my own 2-dimensional world. And that day, Patty and I were headed to Berkeley to have dinner with Chas, Chas' partner Scott, Pete's wife Amanda, and Pete. Pete is where it sounds like I'm name-dropping, which I probably am. That's Pete Docter, who directed two of the best movies I've ever seen, that anyone has ever seen, the Pixar films "Up" and "Monsters, Inc."

How cool is that? How terrifying? Well, it was very cool, and somehow not as terrifying as it should have been. Chas didn't seem worked up, and his calm is contagious. Between that and trying to navigate Marin County and Oakland without getting lost, I was either too comfortable or distracted to sweat. Or maybe I wasn't as warm after Sunday's swim as I thought. Nerves would have been wasted anyway. I was instantly at home, almost to my disadvantage. I very nearly forgot to gush like a fanboy. I honestly don't know how much I said about how much I've learned from him and his work, his attention to detail, his passion and ear for a good story, for his characters that not only move but live, his pure enthusiasm. It didn't seem like I was having dinner with an Oscar winner and personal hero. Just a new friend.

For contrast and humility, my thoughts go back 20 years to Flint, Mich. B.B. King was in town to play a couple of shows, and I was going to the nightclub to review the concert for the Flint Journal after a quick interview with the man. Again, here I was meeting a genius and hero. I remembered to get nervous that night, and for some reason I was obsessed with how to address him. Mr. King? B.B.? Mr. B? Blues (B.B., of course, stands for Blues Boy)? He didn't put me at ease like Pete and Amanda did, nor did his bodyguards put me at ease the way Chas and Scott did, and for some reason I settled on "Mr. P-P-Ping."

To this day, I can't listen to a B.B. King song without squirming a little. And not that I would anyway, but I doubt I'll ever be able to watch "Up" or "Monsters Inc." or whatever future masterpieces Pete has in the bag without popping out in happy goosebumps.

Hard to say what Pete thought, but I sure like the way my crowd has expanded.

Thank you, Chas. Should I get nervous enough, may I call you "Mr. Whee?"

Friday, April 23, 2010

This time ...

This is the comic strip I’m giving Iian.
Iian is my swim coach, of course. He’s one of my swim coaches, anyway, my most recently added, and the one most responsible for the successful build-up to that great Alcatraz-Golden Gate weekend in San Francisco. He’s been very generous sharing what he does best, and I’ve wanted to thank him with some artifact of what I do best.

I actually drew this one specifically for him -- note the water bottle bearing the logo of his school, Auburn -- because Iian has been trying to teach me to do something I don’t do well at all. Three things, rather: the backstroke, the breaststroke and the butterfly. I’ve been saying “This time, I’ll get it right” a lot.

If that makes the strip highly relevant, so does the fact that the damn thing ran a month ago and Iian still doesn’t have it. I have a tendency to fall behind sometimes, and not just when I’m trying to keep up with competent backstrokers. I’m behind now.

I take a perverse pride in that one of the questions I get most is “How do you do it all?” Perverse, because the answer is not nearly as flattering as the question. It’s all too often the time-management equivalent of deficit spending, and like deficit spending, it works great until it doesn’t. You ride along in the red zone, even acquiring a certain amount of comfort there, until Powie! Something piles on and you realize you have no reserves and frankly your investors have started to figure you out.

Maybe that’s a dangerous allegory. While it’s accurate enough, I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that I’ve been foreclosed on, developed a bankrupting medical issue or picked a war halfway around the world. I just did a lot of traveling in March to push the book and while I’m at it film a couple more segments for the lifetime highlight reel. My finances are fine. I’m short on time, sleep, fitness and, as you probably noticed again Wednesday, blog entries.

So let’s do what I always seem to do, and turn this into an athletic allegory. A bike racing one this time. In bicycle racing, the draft is everything. When you ride behind others and let them push the air out of the way for you, the ride gets 20 to 50 percent easier. So when you lose that draft – fall “off the back,” as the term goes – it’s bad news. What you learn, and try to apply to the rest of your life, is that no matter how hard it is to keep up, it’s a whole lot easier than trying to catch up. Often it’s complicated by the fact that if you wouldn’t be in the position of having to catch up if you’d had the suds to keep up in the first place.

But you don’t always fall off the back because you’re too knackered to hold the pace. Sometimes you have a crash or a mechanical or a pee or you have to help a more important (or more desperate) teammate. Racers deal with that stuff and catch up all the time, and there are few better feelings than tucking back into that slipstream after riding yourself cross-eyed to get there.

I think I’m just about back on. One more gut-busting surge, and maybe my worries will go from “can I catch up?” back to “please don’t anybody attack off the front for a few minutes.”

I will catch up. Iian will get his original. E-mails will be returned. Blogs will return to their MWF schedule. I’ll heal up and plot and resume a real training plan before I’ve squandered away my winter base. Patty will remember what the whites of my eyes look like. The dog will get walked more. And I’ll spend a little time on my backstroke.

And this time, I’ll get it right.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Pulitzer Prize surprise

One last Alcatraz swim reference, and then I’ll let it drop for a while: It built on one of my favorite allegories (pronounced “cliché”). I’m fond of telling people, or writing in their copies of Trizophrenia, Roadie or any given Frazz book (every so often I have to stop and remember what this blog was created to promote) that:

Life is better when you’re in over your head.

It’s not just a clever slogan, it’s something I truly believe. No challenge, no growth. But if you do enough swims in big enough open water, you will run into a most apropos corollary:

It’s not the 300 feet below that gets you; it’s all that sudden swirly stuff on the surface.

Sorry I missed Friday’s entry. It’s been a swirly spring.

Amid the figurative waves was a particularly refreshing trio of Pulitzer Prize winners. Two of my heroes won; two very good friends won (same two, as it happens); and a guy sort of like me, by which I mean a very tiny bit like me and only then if I really stretch the comparison, won.

Gene Weingarten won his second Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. That only puts him about a dozen Pulitzers behind how many he should have in the bag, but the nature of awards being what it is, this will do. I was a fan of Gene before I met him; I learned of him the same way most people probably did, through his humor columns in the Washington Post. I still contend that with any given piece he can be the funniest man in print. But the irony of comedy is that you can’t sustain funny unless you’re also really good at serious, and Gene is as good a reporter as he is a smart-ass. He won his prize for a story on a subject only a tiny share of writers could handle, let alone write about. Read it at your peril. “Feature” writing is not necessarily synonymous with “light.” Bravo, Gene. You continue to inspire and awe me.

Mark Fiore won for editorial cartooning. Mark, I believe, was the first editorial cartoonist I met as a peer, which is to say after I jumped into the game. I bumped into him at the Chattanooga airport when I arrived there for my first Association of American Editorial Cartoonists convention and we shared a cab to the hotel. He was instantly likeable, and his portfolio was instantly recognizable as showing far more talent than someone I’d never heard of ought to have. He was self-syndicated, not on anybody’s staff, which seemed wrong, but that gave him the chance to go in new directions like Flash animation, and look where it got him: To the Pulitzer he deserved in the first place. Bravo, Mark.

And Paul Harding won the Fiction award for his debut novel “Tinkers.” I don’t know Paul Harding from Warren Harding, and I haven’t read “Tinkers” (though seriously get the impression I ought to), but he’s kind of the counter to Weingarten and Fiore in that his Pulitzer was right on time instead of years overdue. And he was published by Bellevue Literary Press and its 2-person staff. No hype, no marketing surge, just talent. That’s the sort of thing that gives the rest of us writers delusions of hope. And delusions of hope are essential in this business.

I could use some delusions of hope right now. Because Trizophrenia got beat out – by the slimmest of margins, no doubt – in the Nonfiction category by The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy. I knew I should have been more delicate with the passage about the farting professor on the mountaintop.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Oscar speech edition

Now that I'm home where I can actually do something about all the work I've got in arrears, let's get just enough of a blog entry out there to stay on schedule -- and to wrap up a few very important thank-yous. And in no particular order, since I'm too deeply grateful in all cases to prioritize.

Thanks to Dr. Robert Norris at MSU Sports Medicine for giving me the caution and the confidence to do this swim. Because of him I didn't have to wonder why my shoulder hurt, and even more importantly, I didn't have to wonder as much about the odds and consequences of any given decision. Obviously I swam. And the shoulder held up. No sharp pains, and not even any aches until very mild aching after the Golden Gate swim, and that could have been anything. If anything beat me up, it was the travel to and from San Francisco. Airplanes. Now, those are punishing.

Speaking of airplanes, thanks to Debbie and everyone at for covering my air and other travel expenses. Without their help, I couldn't have done this without breaking my promise not to take tempting book-promotion trips unless I could do it without losing money. I shall thank them by telling you all to shop there and by gushing about how wonderful they are, which is easy since I gush and recommend them all the time anyway.

Speaking of gushing, thanks to J.C. Dill, event photographer and new friend as of Saturday morning on the Hyde Street Pier, for shooting and posting some fantastic photos (you can find more here or in the first comment at the bottom of my "Calm and cool" blog post). If the air travel beat me up more than the waves, J.C.'s pictures gave me more goosebumps than the water temperature.

Speaking of those photos, nice shot of Rich and me. And thanks to my coaches, Rich and Iian Mull, who I believe finally turned me into a swimmer. Not that they were the only coaches who did it, just the prime ones. Thanks also for terrific guidance from Matt Gianodis, Jessie Byelich, Bill Copland, Tom Garmyn, Alec Mull, Lew Kidder, Jim Richardson and whatever glaring omission I'm undoubtedly committing.

Speaking of turning people into swimmers, thanks to Joe Zemaitis and his crew from SwimFAST, who made this swim possible not only for me -- only coincidentally and happily for me, really -- but for every kid who got to do it, who will do it and who's inspired by the kids who did do it. This is a life-changing swim for an adult. Can you imagine what it does for a kid?

Speaking of making this possible, thanks to Bob Roper and all the volunteers from the South End Rowing Club, the Dolphin Club, Team Neptune and lots of elsewheres, for making the swim possible and safe. And in particular to South End member Kathie Hewko, for the instant friendship and subsequent tour of the South End clubhouse. If I didn't have enough reasons to want to live in San Francisco, now I have one more. If I lived there, I'd sign up in a skipped heartbeat.

Speaking of heartbeats, thanks to my wife, Patty, for putting up with and even encouraging yet another crazy and exhausting -- and I don't mean exhausting for me -- segment for the lifetime highlight reel.

Speaking of crazy and exhausting, thanks to Kathryn and Brian, and Rich and Leslie, and Ruth and Dean and Bryan and Randi and Allison and Megan and Shannon and even more relatives, for driving -- and driving Patty and me -- way out of their way to provide so much friendship and support of all varieties, and to Jim and Kristan for all that plus their house and shower and gaseous dog. Life is so good. Holy smokes, this brief note is looking like an over-long Oscar speech.

So finally, speaking of Oscars, thanks to Chas and Scott and Pete and Amanda, one of whom actually HAS thanked people, Oscar in hand, for a wonderful and mind-boggling yet somehow non-intimidating dinner. Which is another blog entry waiting to happen. But now, we all need to get back to other work.

And speaking of we-all, thank you guys for all the support, encouragement and advice. I owe you.

Monday, April 12, 2010


You find the moment in the strangest places, and hardly ever where you’re looking for it.

As the Alcatraz and Golden Gate swim weekend rotates to its new position behind me, it makes the transformation that everything makes, from a series of moments to a collection of moments. I’m now free to view those moments in any order or priority I want. I like to set the viewer on random, but once in a while a single moment will rise to the top, not because it’s a better moment, but maybe because it sums up all the others so well.

The swims were epic, which is the word we adventure dorks like to use for “miserable at the time but awesome once everything turns out OK.” The Saturday swim from Alcatraz had us jumping off a seriously tilted boat (the spectators on the upper deck needed to see the action on the port side, after all) into a flotilla of the Dolphin Club's escort kayaks and Zodiacs (it looked like an Earth-friendly D-day) and surprisingly warm (56 degrees; these things are relative) and pretty choppy water. The real challenge was that the flood tide (the tide flowing into the bay, from our right to our left) was stronger than expected. The big concern was supposed to be the ebb tide (left to right, following the flood), because it was stronger than usual from the snowmelt and had the potential to push us past the entrance to the harbor and seaward. So the plan was to cheat to the left, and the result was a free ride way, way to the left. So we swam a little farther than planned – swim times were about 50% longer than last year’s. But out of 80-some swimmers, only one reached shore aboard a boat instead of their own power.

The after-swim wrap-up was one of the most impressive parts of the weekend. Did I mention that this swim was a function of, and fundraiser for, SwimFAST? This was all about the Foundation for Aquatic Safety and Training, which teaches kids to swim and therefore prevent drowning deaths. It’s a part of a youth swim program in Phoenix called Swim Neptune. So most of the swimmers were kids. A few adults, like me, were along for the thrill, challenge and adventure as well, and the South End Rowing Club provided a near 1-to-1 ratio of escort swimmers for the kids. There’s something about wrapping up a swim like that, then waiting to receive your finisher’s plaque and t-shirt until after the kids get theirs. And I do mean kids. The first wave was kids under 10 years old. Five years ago at the same age, each would have been the youngest in history to do that. There were nine of them.

Sunday’s swim across the Golden Gate almost didn’t happen. The bad weather had turned downright snotty, and the swim was almost canceled. We took the boat to the south tower of the Golden Gate Bridge while Bay swimming legend Bob Roper and other experts from the South End Rowing Club watched conditions. When they saw a brief window of opportunity, we lined up and dove in. Go … go … go … it was like airborne infantrymen leaving a plane (back to D-day!), with waves roaring as loudly as the propellers on any DC-3. It was an intimidating start to an intimidating swim. I’d estimate the chop at four to five feet, and from any direction. Sometimes your catch and pull would catch and pull nothing but air. Sometimes your recovery arm would never break the surface. It was scary. It was hard work. It was splendid. Somehow approaching the boat bouncing in the waves off Lime Rock was a bit of disappointment as much as it was a relief. Well, eventually a relief. The climb aboard was even a little epic.

There were myriad moments within those moments. But The Moment, the moment that summed them all up, took place in the hotel elevator. I had showered and warmed up, we'd packed up and we were headed out. We shared the elevator with a couple of sailors who, judging by the graphics on their jackets, had been part of the regatta we steamed past on our way home from the swim.

I asked one of them, “You’re round-the-world sailors?”

He replied, “Workin’ on it, mate.”

I said, “Whoa. You guys impress the hell out of me.” Because they do.

He deflected that as best he could, and when the doors opened and I headed out with the luggage, I heard Patty behind me telling him, “This from a guy who swam across the Golden Gate a couple of hours ago.”

“This morning?”

“This morning.”


Blimey, indeed. That’s exactly the kind of weekend it was. The kind of life this is. Blimey.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Calm and cool

San Francisco is an exciting place to be in general, but it's even more appealing when you can get a good, clear look at Alcatraz. Which, it turns out, you can, straight out the window of our hotel room. No haze. Perfect angle. The island looks so close as to seem fake.

I'm sure the distance will seem a little more real tomorrow morning when we all jump off the boat and into the water off the east shore of the island at around 9:40. The bay is calm and cool tonight and should remain so for tomorrow's swim. When I say calm, yes, I am remembering tides and currents. And when I say cool, I'm remembering that that, too, is relative. It's 56 degrees. I've swam in colder.

I'm calm and cool, too. The trip out here went well until we arrived in Oakland, and then friends picked us up and things turned terrific. Dinner was wonderful, and I made it to the pre-swim briefing in time to hear about the calm and cool nature of the bay, and now I'm calm and cool, too.

My shoulder feels good. Indeed, today's traveling gave me cause to think that the injury might not even be the result of swimming too much or too carelessly, but just as likely the result of schlepping big bags of heavy clothing and books over previous weeks. I'll swim well. Patty gets to watch. My coach Rich came down from Arcata to watch, and my cousin and her family are up from Los Angeles. All that is unbelievably flattering and appreciated; let's even say touching.

And now another morning for the lifetime highlight reel is just a sleep and a breakfast away.


Thursday, April 8, 2010

Nature, red in tooth and crawl

Nature's first green is gold, Robert Frost said. April is the cruelest month, T.S. Eliot said. Give it up. You're not going to get two poets to agree with each other, nor did anybody at all get along particularly well with Frost. And why agree, anyway? In a chaotic world, you're more accurate with less accord. This past Tuesday couldn't have been more disparate, couldn't have been more spring, couldn't have been more cruel.

I was stuck indoors chasing deadlines, but it was easy to see the trees and the sky taunting me. The first buds were unraveling into leaves smoldering with that pale yellow glow that makes it so easy to see the gold Frost saw. So peaceful, so promising. The tornado sirens started blowing just before noon. The hail followed shortly after, and the rain and wind still haven't quit.

Spring promises - defines - birth and regeneration, but it teaches us that renewal is a violent affair. You can only be born if you didn't exist; you can't be reborn without dying a little.

In my efforts to remake myself into a competent swimmer, my right shoulder died on me a little. Rotator cuff issues, it seemed, not at all uncommon with swimmers. Serious rest was the plan. Ride the storm out. This weekend's Alcatraz and Golden Gate swims provided either a time frame or a deadline, however you want to see it. I saw it as something getting closer and closer, and too soon for a complete, spontaneous cure. Michigan State University Sports Medicine - and I cannot say enough good things about this practice - made time to see me. Dr. Norris asked questions, moved parts and felt contours, then sent me off to the MRI lab for high-technology confirmation that his classic training and skills and instincts were dead-on accurate. The picture:

I have some damaged muscles and tendons and a little swelling and a bunch of fluid where it doesn't belong, probably from overreaching on my stroke and crunching tissues together more than I ought. Not a terribly big deal. I have a torn biceps tendon where the tear goes in such a direction that it is of no consequence whatever, other than to be a fun landmark on the MRI image. And I have a torn labrum. That's not so good. The labrum is the layer of cartilage that lines the dish part of the shoulder's rather loose-fitting ball and socket. It's not supposed to tear, and it takes a while to heal when it does. It usually needs some outside help. But my labrum is more ground up than lacerated. And where you can easily abuse a cut into a bigger cut, when you grind up hamburger you just make more hamburger. If I swim Alcatraz Saturday, the worst-case scenario is more likely to affect my short-term dignity than my long-term health. I'm more likely to hurt too much to finish the swim than I am to do anything to change the course of my recovery. Pain don't hurt.

The plan: Rest time was over. I was to go to the pool yesterday afternoon and swim about a thousand at Alcatraz pace and see what happened. If I was headed for a bad outcome, better to have it where I could quietly climb out of the water without jeopardizing anybody else's epic.

The test run was even better than pain-free. I torqued my shoulder doing something that had nothing to do with swimming freestyle and it hurt like hell, and I still swam fine.

I'm going to Alcatraz. It will be golden and it will be cruel. Nature, red in tooth and crawl. I'll be reborn. I'll enter the water an enthusiastic dork with a compromised joint and still more fitness than skill. I will emerge as an enthusiastic dork with all that and a five-dollar bill, in search of a tourist kiosk where I can buy one of those goofy "Alcatraz Swim Team" hats. And if it hurts to reach up and put it on, well, it's not like I left Dr. Norris without scheduling a follow-up.

Monday, April 5, 2010

A bike racer, a basketball team and a cartoonist walk into the media ...

This past weekend was a nice contrast in sporting events. Saturday, Michigan State University lost to Butler in the NCAA semifinals. Sunday, Fabian Cancellara won the Tour of Flanders. The former is a basketball tournament; the latter is probably my favorite bicycle race. The bicycle had to be searched for if you wanted to follow it, and I did. The basketball you had to work to avoid, and I did.

I'm not a sports snob. I'm not above following Michigan State basketball. I enjoy it, in fact. But I don't have what it takes to watch it on television, or, in our non-television household, online in real time. Since I don't follow basketball closely enough to enjoy the nuances, and because I get a little offended by breathless commentators and showboating players telling me what to be impressed by like I'm watching some kind of sit-com laugh track on steroids and Red Bull, the game itself is kind of boring - one basket starts to look like another when there's a hundred or so per game - unless I identify with one of the teams, and when I do that I get way too stressed out. So it's not that I'm above watching basketball. On the contrary, it's more like I'm not up to it.

I didn't follow the Tour of Flanders live, either - I was in Detroit being interviewed on WXYZ TV's Action News, which, apologies for not flagging anyone sooner in my overloaded state, and then I went for a long run around Royal Oak, Huntington Woods and Berkley, simply because I could. But I sure did check it out when I got home and was delighted to see that Fabian Cancellara had won, and in classic Cancellara form, by surviving a punishing pace over the hills and cobbles until everybody - him included - was beaten to a pulp, and then pulling away from the very best and daring them to keep up and now I'm starting to sound like one of those breathless commentators who annoy me.

I don't know Cancellara, but he seems likeable enough, he races with style, he's stronger than hell, and when he wins he wins in a fashion that somehow just seems honest. People choose favorite pro athletes for far sillier reasons, so I buy into the fan ethic enough to follow Cancellara.

I imagine things for a living, but I'm not so sure I can imagine what it's like to be that good. Nobody wins every race, but Cancellara has shown an ability to eventually win the ones he wants to. He's won three world championships, Olympic gold, Paris-Roubaix, Milan-San Remo, the Tour of (his native) Switzerland, a bunch of Tour de France stages and more. He really wanted Flanders, I'm told, and now he's won that. Now, when sports is serious business, it is tortuous and tiered. Every level you rise, it only gets tougher. Being elite doesn't mean you get beat any less, it just means you have to travel farther for the privilege. So when I see someone that good, that successful, so strong that the quest is not to win a race, or even a classic, but to win one of the few classics you haven't won yet, now, that grabs my attention.

And truth be told, when MSU's basketball team has a season like this one, that grabs my attention for the same reasons. All I have to do is avoid it being thrust at me long enough to search it out myself.

A very important side note
While I don't know Fabian Cancellara or anybody on the Spartan basketball team per se, I do know their team doctor, Jeff Kovan. He's my sports doctor, too, and he is the Fabian Cancellara of physicians. That alone makes me identify closely with the team. And probably why, when I do watch them play, I identify with them enough to ponder aneurysm. Since Jeff has been a little busy these past few weeks, one of his colleagues was kind and professional enough to fit me in and look at my shoulder before Saturday's Alcatraz swim weekend. I'm confident I'll get the go-ahead to swim without worry, but now I'm still a little nervous about a whole 'nother MSU outcome of sorts. Go Green.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Loose screws

Technically and astronomically, spring began with the equinox. Here in Michigan, that doesn't mean much in practical terms. Nor do the 80-degree temperatures yesterday and, we're promised, today. That can, and will, relapse overnight. Buds on trees are a better sign, and flowers popping up are an even better one. Our yard is starting to bloom with white things, then purple things, and just this morning yellow things. I can't wait for the tulips to come up, because I know what those are called. But in perhaps the most telling sign, I took the screws out of my running shoes.

We in the ice-storm belt know to keep one pair of running shoes reserved with sheet-metal screws in the soles. Those are the screws with the raised hex heads, and they'll carry you across an icy or unplowed road as well as anything. But I'm feeling cocky that, while we may or may not have seen our last ice- or snowstorm, the aftermath won't last long enough to feel forced to run in it. Besides, swimming is the focus anyway, with Alcatraz coming up.

Speaking of Alcatraz
A week to go! I'm feeling fit and confident, and even ready for the temperatures (meaning my wetsuit fits, and I've dug out the biggest open-water, forehead-covering goggles I own, but I've also swum in those temps before). But I need to take care of two details for you guys in the blogeteria. First, I need to plug the sponsors who are getting me there. Team F.A.S.T. is covering my entry fees, and is helping with my travel expenses. I'm still Midwestern enough to feel a little nervous playing the pitchman, but in the case of TriSports, it's easy because I've been a loyal, vocally happy customer since long before they offered to help out with this trip. I'm a big fan of shopping locally, but I also know that there's sometimes stuff that even the best local shop can't carry, and that a huge amount of localities don't have multi-sports shops. Online shops cover that very nicely, and I've not found a nicer, more professional one than TriSports. Secondly …

Shoulder update
Let the record show I got smart and made an appointment with Michigan State University Sports Medicine. I'll see them Wednesday. Let the record also state that upon further review I don't feel like I was that dumb about it after all. It hasn't even been two weeks since the initial pop, and a wait-and-see-while-you-rest-it approach is, short of severe trauma, generally a good start. I haven't made it worse in the meantime; if I find out that swimming next weekend is going to wreck my season or result in my getting embarrassingly fished out of the bay (and if it's one, it'll probably be the other as well), knowing it a week sooner wouldn't have canceled the cancellation. And if I find out I'm good to go, or good to go with a good Kinesio tape job or something, then the timing is perfect. I'll keep you all posted.

Never pick on NASCAR
Finally, you'd think I'd learn not to use NASCAR jokes or allegories. Jimmy Doom sets me straight in that I couldn't have been more wrong in the whole Last-Supper-portions blog when I claimed most of the "National" Stock Car Auto Racers do not, in fact, come from the same two counties in South Carolina. This wasn't nearly as big a revelation as the news that Jimmy knows about stock car racing. Jimmy's a great friend and I thought I knew him well, but I didn't know that about him. The knockers on the Rumple Minze girls, yes. NASCAR, well, you never know. And for the record, La Professora provided me with the far better analogy I should have used, that the "World" Series of baseball field teams from suspiciously fewer countries than any given other sport's World Cup.