Monday, April 23, 2012

Tuesday tube: celebrating the champs again

We would be remiss here if we did anything with this week's segment other than dedicate this to the 2-time national champs. Also, fair warning: There's a lot of squealing. Enjoy.

heat, history and public transportation ... or, the Boston Marathon 2012

At some point Monday afternoon — as the final groups of runners were staggering across the finish line on Boylston Street for the 2012 Boston Marathon — my wife and I were waiting to cross the street near Boston's Public Garden, next to a very tired man with a blanket wrapped round his shoulders and a woman, who for the purposes of this conversation I will surmise was either his wife or girlfriend.
"You OK?" she asked him, innocuously.
He paused.
"No. No, I'm not OK. I mean ... medically, yes, I'm OK. But I'm not OK. No. No."

And that would pretty much describe everyone I saw at or near the line that Monday. The surprisingly large group of people who ran the marathon and finished it — which included my brother, Jack, a distance runner in high school and college and usually among the top finishers at the Mercedes Marathon in Birmingham — were directed after the race to a "Family Meeting Area," roughly a half-mile from the finish line. Yes, they make people who run 26.2 miles in grueling conditions walk another half-mile to find their relatives and loved ones. Just because.
I've never served in the military, but I imagine an active battlefield hospital would look similar to the scene  in that area: people lying in the middle of the street moaning, people taking IVs, people in wheelchairs. The ones who appeared healthy were just sort of sitting there, blank looks on their faces, as someone they knew attempted to force them to eat or drink something. None of them were really interested, and who could blame them?
The weather, it should be noted, was way too hot to stage a marathon. Organizers and officials knew it, and so they advised everyone who wasn't a "serious" runner — people who were running for charity or some such — to skip Monday's race. Even Jack — a "serious" runner who qualified with his time in his first Mercedes run — dragged for the majority of the race; by the time he reached our position at the top of Heartbreak Hill between miles 20 and 21, he looked like he just wanted to ooze across the finish line and go home.
So the final time for him was a tad disappointing, as it was for just about every runner who participated in the race (at least the ones who talked to me). But there is some sort of triumph involved in simply being there, and everybody who participated knew that. The guy sitting next to me on our flight out of Boston said as much: "Turns out, I got the same medal the winner did. Although I didn't get that wreath."

A few other notes from the weekend:
• I say this every time I go to an event like this, whether it's a 5k or a marathon or a bike race, but the sub-culture of "fitness" people is a little creepy. For one thing, every participant in the marathon was easy to identify the entire weekend, not by how lost they seemed trying to figure out the trains, but by the fact that ALL of them appeared to have packed nothing but running gear for the weekend. Seriously, on Sunday we walked for a bit along the Freedom Trail ... along with about 400 other people dressed in running shorts and those weird running shirts that are somewhere between cotton and spandex. I'm not opposed to the gear itself — I wear that stuff when I exercise (very un-seriously), but c'mon. Nobody packed one shirt with a collar? Really?
Of course, you couldn't walk 3 feet without overhearing skinny people's conversations about the race itself, or running in general. A lot of it resembled hipster conversation — "Yeah, I'm not really taking this race seriously; I like running Chicago better." "Really? Have you ever run in (some really obscure race in Arkansas that nobody's ever run)? It's pretty cool. A lot tougher than this." And many of the folks who ran the race were still wearing their medals 24 hours after the race was over. Enough already, guys. We get it.
(Now would also be a good time to mention that the "official" gear for the marathon was hideous looking — it resembled badly drawn Halloween gear — and was absurdly expensive. The windbreaker they were selling everywhere ran at a cool $100. Did we buy one for my brother? Of course we did, but that's beside the point.)
• Maybe this out of school, but figuring out the logistics of the race was like searching for buried freaking treasure. You would think they would make it simple for the runners — things like, "How to get to the starting line" or "How to find the expo where you pick up your bib and your packet" would be brainless activities. They are not. In fact, we would've never found the expo, except that we blindly stumbled into someone who knew where it was (and even then, we took a wrong turn and wound up nowhere). That's not all the confusion — one dude I met at the hotel was running in the same wave as Jack and thought he didn't have to be at the starting line until 8 (they had to be there at 6:30). And there was absolutely no way to travel to the starting line, I was told, as a spectator, unless I planned to stay there all day. It was migraine inducing.
• I can't decide if the huge crowd that turns out to support the runners is a good or a bad thing. I mean, I'm sure it helps your energy levels to have people cheering for you — Jack said he stopped to kiss a Wellsley girl, just because — but at the same time, at the top of that hill, there has to be a part of you that wants to curse everyone and tell them to pound sand.
(Note: My favorite person I noted among the race personnel was a chick who positioned herself at the top of the hill, and whose job apparently was to seek out struggling runners, then run alongside them for a few minutes, muttering encouraging things. It looked a lot cooler in person than it does in print.)
• My brother Whit wanted me to note in this spot how frustrating it was to follow the race from Florida. Apparently the live feed cut off as soon as the male winner crossed the finish line. His exact words: "Punch somebody."
• One more leftover Boston story: On Sunday we took the train to the North End, in search of an Italian restaurant recommended by a friend of mine named Sam. Of course, by the time we reached the place, the line was way out the door ... and all those people had reservations. So we're trying to decide what to do next — it was already after 6, and we needed to knock off early so Jack could get back to the hotel and rest before the race the following morning — and Mom pops in at the place next door, to see what their wait time was. The owner, a scary looking dude, says the following: "You have been next door? ... Since they take business from me, I take business from him. Sit."
Dinner, of course, was excellent.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

newspaper column, on healing and hope

This week's column for the St. Clair Times was written at the end of a very long Friday, and so the words didn't make it to the page the way they probably should have. Hoping to have something longer later this week about our trip to Boston for the marathon. As always, feel free to argue here or on Twitter.

Healing comes slowly

We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair. … cast down, but not destroyed.
— 2 Corinthians 4:8-9

For some reason, every time that ESPN documentary “Roll Tide/War Eagle” comes on, I find myself getting sucked in.

I have no idea why – there’s nothing in the documentary that’s particularly groundbreaking, and the sight of that Updyke guy sort of makes me sick to my stomach.

And the ending is always the same: the skies turn gray, the storms come … and everything cowers in its wake. Nearly everyone still chokes up at the sight of that destruction – yes, even a professional meteorologist like Ashley Brand, who teared up in Moody last week.

The part that gets me in the film, though, isn’t the storm. It’s the aftermath. It’s the kids, the adults, the employees, the volunteers – they all showed up, and they all went to work.

“Sometimes you come outside in the morning with your work gloves, and there were 40 people standing in your yard that you never met,” said Sandy Harlow, a Shoal Creek Valley resident who was the beneficiary of a Habitat for Humanity project, along with four other families in the area. “They’re from Colorado, or Virginia or Texas. We’ve had people from all over the country, and people who didn’t even speak English.

“I couldn’t imagine the scope of it, not just in our community, but in other areas of Alabama – they have been overwhelmed since last April. But it’s truly a blessing to have so many people with such a good heart.”

Nearly a year later – and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the St. Clair Times’ “Reflections” special section, which will be available April 26 — things are not “normal” again. Ride around in Shoal Creek Valley or Cullman or Pleasant Grove or Tuscaloosa, and you won’t see “normal.” If such a thing ever existed in the first place.

But there is healing, even if it comes slowly. Houses are repaired, rebuilt or built anew. Problems arise, but are overcome. And now we are here, one year later.

The story didn’t end on April 27, and it doesn’t end here at the anniversary. No doubt the pain we all feel when we observe our moment of silence or have prayer time isn’t ever going to go away.

Still, what I will always remember is not the winds that came, but the folks that came after. And they’re still coming. Maybe there’s hope for this world after all.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tuesday tube: just because

A-Day is Saturday. Really, it has very little to do with anything — I just always loved this game. I bet you will, too.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Monday links: all this and Shaq, too

A baseball season that was pretty well guaranteed to be a lost one for Alabama somehow sprang to life this weekend — the Tide swept three games from a pretty good Auburn team, winning 10-6, 4-3 and 6-2. The highlight, of course, was the Saturday game.
Missing from that reel: the batter before Dugas, who gave the Tide a shot by beating out what would've been a game-ending double play, extending the game by one more at-bat. It's probably nothing in the grand scheme of things — Alabama travels to LSU this weekend — but at least the squad has some life in it. For now.

— For no reason, here's a trailer for the 2012 football season.
While we're here, let us cover the team's second scrimmage,  held — as always — where no one could see it. Based on the stats that were released for our benefit — which are probably accurate, right? — Jalston Fowler played well. Good for him. As Cecil points out, the issue with coach Saban continues to be improvement. In retrospect, the talk about the 2010 team is interesting: it seemed as though that squad coasted for much of the season and didn't have an identity ... but it did win 10 games, and the 3 losses were by a combined 17 points against other 10-win teams. The squad didn't fall apart — it just wasn't quite the '09 team.
(One other note: According to this leaked memo, we may be inching ever closer to the "plus-one" playoff format. Eventually. At this point, it's like a sign for a new restaurant that says "coming soon," only it's been there for like 6 months and no one pays attention anymore.)

— A lesser headline from late last week: the basketball team lost Tony Mitchell and Charles Hankerson for 2013. Mitchell wasn't a huge shock; Hankerson is somewhat surprising, but not a huge loss on the floor. Maybe the bigger headline is that coach Anthony Grant has been recruiting for three years and has apparently signed two busts in that time. Or that the Basketball Blog guys appear to have declared him New Gottfried. Ouch.
— Remember when Alabama's softball coach went to coach LSU for like a day? LSU was in town this weekend and lost 2 of 3, the finale of which was a one-hitter where the Tigers couldn't hit the ball out of the infield. Yeah.
It was a big sports weekend in Tuscaloosa under any circumstances. And then Shaquille O'Neal showed up for some reason.

— Bubba Watson continues the ESSEESEE dominance by winning The Masters; Auburn has a crowded backfield; and the Braves are still losing.

Friday, April 6, 2012

some Webb for Good Friday: What Is Not Love

For this Good Friday and Easter weekend, here's one of my favorite Derek Webb tunes: an offbeat song called "What Is Not Love." Lyrics are pasted beneath the video. Happy Easter, everybody.

What looks like failure is success
And what looks like poverty is riches
When what is true looks more like a knife
It looks like you're killing me
But you're saving my life

But I give myself to what looks like love
And I sell myself for what feels like love
And I pay to get what is not love
And all just because I see things upside down

What looks like weakness can do anything
And what looks like foolishness is understanding
When what is powerful has not come to fight
It looks like you're going to war
But you lay down your life

What looks like torture is a time to rejoice
What sounds like thunder is a comforting voice
When what is beautiful looks broken and crushed
And I say I don't know you
But you say it's finished
When what is beautiful looks broken and crushed
And I say I don't know you
But you say it's finished

Thursday, April 5, 2012

newspaper column, in which I air church complaints

This week's column for the St. Clair Times was designed to be about Easter. The point may have gotten lost. Oh well. Enjoy, or comment here, or on Twitter.
Easter puts a smile on every face in church

To be perfectly frank, attending a Sunday church service can be as much an exercise in frustration as it is a spiritual experience.

I never understood, growing up, why so many of the people at church seemed unhappy to be there. I mean, I understood why I was unhappy to be there — I was little, and being forced to dress up and to sit still for an hour and listen to a lot of recited words and speeches that were way over my head didn’t necessarily appeal to my childlike sense of wonder. The adults were there, presumably, by choice — although it wasn’t clear why anyone would choose to attend something that made them so apparently unhappy.

I think, now that I am in my 30s, I do understand.

The music can be frustrating. This is somewhat of an understatement. The hymns are too slow; the praise music is too fast; the worship leader won’t stop talking long enough for everyone to enjoy it.

The pastor’s sermon left something to be desired. Maybe he even brought up a politically sensitive topic from the pulpit, which frankly rubs me the wrong way.

And the children. Lord, the children. I am certain my own mother would cry if she sat near some of these spoiled, obnoxious kids and their tone-deaf parents.

So yeah, every Sunday I show up dressed reasonably well — and good grief, who dresses some of these people, anyway? — and hope just to make it through without saying something that gets me kicked out.

Maybe the problem is me. Actually, the problem is definitely me.

Because along comes Holy Week, which ends at Easter, and I realize what the entire exercise is about. The music’s better on Easter Sunday; the sun shines a little brighter; everybody behaves a little better.

Even the sermon is better. That’s probably because of the crowd – most pastors I know spend the entire year preparing for the Easter homily they’ll deliver to a room packed so full they have to bring in extra seating.

(True Easter story: One year on that Sunday, the pastor was in the midst of his sermon when the microphone started to, for lack of a better term, cut out. Attempting to restrain himself, the pastor looked toward the booth where the sound controls were and said, “C’mon guys. I’ve only been working on this all year.”)

In any case, this is one of the many reasons I’m looking forward to Easter Sunday, like I do every year. We can all go back to being mad on the Sunday after.

Or maybe we don’t have to.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Tuesday tube: revisiting that night in the Quarter

Since last night's NCAA championship game was in the Superdome — and, since the reigning champs in major men's college sports are now all SEC teams (South Carolina, Kentucky and Alabama) — revisiting the BCS title game seems appropriate, don't you think?
OK, so really all I wanted was a chance to do that again. You blame me?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Monday links: plus a little ranting

Before we get to this week's links — and before we make it to tonight's NCAA Final between Kentucky and Kansas — there is something I feel the need to discuss, just for a moment. Because it's impossible to simply enjoy college basketball for what it is, and because John Calipari's Kentucky is the shimmering symbol for all that is wrong with the current basketball climate, any number of talking heads will spend today (or spent the weekend) decrying "college basketball's one-and-done rule."
This drives me insane, for one really important reason: there is no "one-and-done rule." 
What people are referring to, they think, is a ubiquitous agreement between the NCAA and the National Basketball Association that forces every basketball prospect to sign a letter of intent to play in college for a year, before entering the professional draft. Such a thing does not exist. The NBA, during the last decade, instituted a 19-year-old age limit for draft entries. That, ladies and gentlemen, is "the one-and-done rule." There is no requirement to go to college; in fact, a number of draft entries the past few years actually spent a year after high school playing in Europe.
Furthermore, these analysts have an appallingly short memory. The whole reason the NBA instituted the age limit was to keep high-schoolers from jumping to the pros, which they were doing in droves (and were flaming out at least as often as those who became stars). In reality, the NBA higher-ups would probably prefer an age limit of 20 or 21, only there's no way the Players' Association would agree to it, so they've left the issue alone.
Look, the hypocrisy of "student athletes" is nowhere more evident than it is in college basketball. I would be a fool to argue otherwise. In an ideal world, every 18-year-old would a) fall in love with a university, play 4 years and care about representing the best interests of that university on and off the court; b) care more about education than sport, and understand that his basketball career is a limited engagement that could end at any moment. But, as I have learned many times from my mother (a public school teacher for 30 years), we don't live in an ideal world. We live in this world.
(Note: What's really missing, to me, is a partnership between the professional leagues and the NCAA, which would allow more common-sense approaches to these issues. But the NCAA, because it is so desperate to cling to the notion of "amateur athletics," won't do that as long as university presidents are in charge. Which basically means this is a large amount of wasted words on my part. You're welcome.)

— There's a developing story out of Arkansas: Bobby Petrino was involved in an apparent motorcycle accident. Hope he's OK.
— So the national champs held their first big scrimmage of the spring Saturday, and no one really knows what happened because the scrimmages are closed to the public. But, based on the stats the university released — which might be completely made up — we threw the ball a lot, and with success.
As this feature story notes, our offensive line coming back this year should be fierce. In a way, it's a lot like 2010 — a potentially great offense opposite a talented but inexperienced D. Cross your fingers.
— Less impressive: Alabama's baseball team, which was swept at Tennessee over the weekend. To put that into proper perspective, that means the squad is now 1-8 in the SEC, and the 1 win was on a walkoff home run. Not an impressive showing for Mitch Gaspard thus far, midway through his second season.
— Miscellaneous: Cecil dreams of a football Final Four; Al Muskewitz tabs Tiger as the favorite for Augusta; and UAB's new basketball coach is settling in to his new digs.