Superbowl Hostage Crisis

I have a problem with being a poor sport. This extend both to sports that I actually play and to spectator sports. The Superbowl this past Sunday was certainly no exception— in fact, it was pretty much the opposite of an exception. I watched it at my place with one friend who complained that I alternated between bouts of ‘passive aggressive’ (his formulation) gloom and insufferable smugness, and left during halftime. Before he left, I tried pointing out that my behavior couldn’t really be described as ‘passive aggressive’, since that would mean that it was somehow aimed at him, to get a rise or inflict suffering— and the truth is that I was far too grimly preoccupied by the game to give a damn about him. His response: ‘Well, I guess when it comes to passive aggression,  it’s all in the eye of the beholder’— which makes some sense, I have to admit.

This left me with one guest for the second half, which was probably one too many. Somehow, I’d always assumed that sports would mean less and less to me as I got older, but in fact, the exact opposite has happened— the weekend leading up to the Superbowl, I had two different dreams about the Patriots losing. This lucky soul who got to watch the game with me was a guy— a perfectly kind guy, really— whom I’d only met for five minutes the day before, but extended a invitation to join him once I ascertained that (a) despite being from New York, he wasn’t a partisan Giants fan and (b) he had no other plans and was planning to watch the game by himself at a bar otherwise.

Fast forward two-and-a-half hours and it’s 4am and I’m slumped on the sofa like I’ve been shot, reeling from a catastrophic last-minute loss, reeking of alcohol and bitterness. My guest is standing nervously by the door, trying to make bland, soothing conversational offerings. Gradually, it becomes apparent that the SBahn back to his place doesn’t leave for another 40 minutes. Swallowing hard, I’m able to resist my impulse to kick him out of my house (just out of raw, malign scapegoating— not like he’d done anything wrong) and halfway pull myself together to make acceptable conversation (we both lived in Prague, our wives are friends, our kids may end of at the same kindergarten) until he’s able to make his escape.

Incredibly, this is the second year I’ve wound up in this predicament. Last year, I watched the disheartening end of the 2010-11 Patriots season in a sports bar in Prague, where I noticed my neighbor sitting behind me and make a desperate attempt to sneak out without him after the terrible end. Once he foiled my escape and made it apparent that we would be taking the late night tram home together, I tried to shake him by announcing that I ‘actually really just feel like making the trip home on foot’ … at which point, he declared that he too felt like doing walking home. So, this was even worse: same grizzly requirement of prolonged small talk, but this was outdoors and in the cold in January at 3 or 4am.

Image: from the Onion, of course.


I’d forgotten that, the day after playing squash, if you haven’t played in a long while, you will wake up the next day with acute soreness in both palms and in both butt cheeks. It’s as though you were at a vigorous spanking party the night before where you were both ‘top’ and ‘bottom’.

I’m trying to imagine anatomical pairs that would be harder to account for in terms of waking up with pain: tip of nose / both big toes (possible explanations: self-kicking; nicked at extremities by passing subway car), etc.

It’s a good thing that short term memory serves up a memory of playing squash…

(Being in the sterile white box… wondering if this would be a fun atmosphere in which to take drugs… would it be conducive to mime-like shenanigans, or would the anti-spectic environment become discouraging? …. and should we replicate our high school rules where each player has to hold their racquet up, look at the tip and spin around for 30 seconds until stumblingly dizzy before each serve, or just play it straight?)

… or I would be be as disoriented to explain my previous day’s activities as the Saddam Hussein lookalike who evaded capture by a mafia porn ring.

The Julius Peppers Challenge

Who’s got the coolest-sounding name in America? Why, NFL standout defensive end Julius Peppers, that’s who. I was having a rare football interlude last night and Peppers was involved, causing my name envy to be suddenly rekindled.

In 2004, Peppers starred for the Carolina Panthers, who were playing my beloved New England Patriots in Superbowl XXXVIII. I let it be known then that if the Panthers somehow prevailed (they didn’t), I would legally change my name to Julius Peppers as an homage. Now I’m willing to revive that offer for Peppers’ 2010 Bears. Who’s with me?

This Week In Sports

1) I can never pass up a good defenestration story: it seems that an NFL player was hanging out with his girlfriend, a 19-year old cheerleader for his team, when things went somewhat awry.  Given that she was only 19, it’s not all that surprising that the two of them were in the TV room of her parents’ house — but what is surprising is that one of her jilted admirers broke into the house with a plastic bag over his head and started chasing them around the room and pistol-whipping them, yelling things like, “I can’t believe you’re with that guy” and even some witty action-movie repartee.  The NFL player escaped out the second-story window, suffering minor bruises, while the girl ran downstairs, got a gun, and exchanged fire with the intruder!  Fortunately, neither of them had very good aim.

Here’s a link to the full story, with some other details such as that the intruder also took a few swipes at the family dog, and that the team in question — the Jacksonville Jaguars — refuses to admit or deny whether the girl is actually their cheerleader (although she plainly is, or at least was).  As always, you can count on Florida to provide the weirdest stories.

2) For those who don’t know him already, Chad Ochocinco is a very talented NFL wide receiver.  He is also extremely outspoken, may have a personality disorder, and is famous for getting fined for his over-the-top celebrations after scoring a touchdown.  His name used to be Chad Johnson, but he went by the name “Ochocinco” because his jersey number is 85 (I know, I know, that’s not even how you say 85 in Spanish), and when the NFL wouldn’t let him put “Ochocinco” on his jersey , he legally changed his last name to Ochocinco!  That is dedication.

Anyhow, Chad appears in this edition of “This Week in Sports” because of an unfortunate mishap with a new line of cereal he is promoting for charity called, natch, “Ochocincos.”  Take it away,

“Charity-minded callers are getting intercepted by a sex phone line because of a misprint on Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco‘s namesake cereal boxes.  The phone number is supposed to connect callers to Feed the Children, which benefits from sales of ‘Ochocinco’s.’ But because the box has the wrong toll-free prefix, they get a seductive-sounding woman who makes risque suggestions and then asks for a credit card number.”

The lucky sleaze merchant whose earnings just went up ten-fold had better make a big donation to Feed the Children.

3)  Finally — yet another Tour De France winner tests positive for a banned substance, leading to the inevitable question, “What is the point of a sporting event if the winner cheats every single year?”  This year’s cheater gets style points for his creative explanation: the “false” positive was due to some contaminated meat that he ate.

Let the (Fake) Games Begin!

Although I have never really gotten into a lot of the “traditional male” crap like cars and guns, I have been a committed sports fan for as long as I can remember.  And although I abandoned my home city of Boston a decade and a half ago, and in most respects hold very little (if any) allegiance to its provincial, bean-eating ways, I have continued to support its professional sports teams even as I’ve walked in the shadow of the valley of the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Lakers in my more recent homes of NYC and LA.  So I tend to view the beginning of the various sports’ seasons with excitement — it’s my opportunity to plunge, once again, into an oversimplified world of Right and Wrong, where many of the complexities and moral ambiguities of the real world melt away once my chosen gladiators step inside the lines of their field/court, and where acts of individual and team heroism and glory can be reasonably expected on a somewhat regular basis.  There’s a wonderful Seamus Heaney poem called “Markings” that describes, far more articulately, what I’m getting at: how the protagonist children marked out the field with four jackets, picked the teams, “and crossed the line the called names drew between us.”

Today marks the beginning of the National Football League season, so I sat down with my morning coffee and “aimed my browser” straight for some of the standard sports sites like to revel in the collective excitement over the start of the season.  But I ran into a disturbing problem, one that has been haunting me more and more of late: all anybody wants to write or talk about is their “fantasy leagues” — that is, an entirely distinct “game” in which people “draft” their own professional players from a mix of different teams, and then compete against other such fake “teams” based on the individual statistics compiled by the players they’ve drafted.  The appeal, I suppose, is that the person gets to be his own (and lets not even bother to pretend that more than 1% of these people are women) “general manager” by “drafting” these players, and then trading them with his “fellow general managers.”  But the whole thing has always really bummed me out.  Partly I think it’s the way that, by reducing the games to the individual statistics of individual players, it ignores the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” aspect that often means the difference between victory and defeat, and which makes sports so particularly interesting to me.  But beyond that, it seems like the craziest folly to take these overblown spectacles that are themselves utterly divorced from the real world and its problems, and then derive from that something called “fantasy.”  The games themselves are already fantasy!  Isn’t it enough to be a fan of your team, and watch people who have actually made careers of this (whether as players, coaches, or team-builders) try to overcome your collective rivals?  Is it really necessary to create an extra layer of fakeness out of that in order to feel “in control”?

Return of the Cobra

Having dismissively sworn off yoga in the past, I’ve recently gone crawling back and started taking classes again. The reasons for my about-face: first, the 30 now 35 pound bowling ball problem (discussed here); second, an increasing incidence of disconcerting observations along the lines of ‘Why does my back hurt if I’m not slumped over in a chair?’ and ‘Did I really just tweak my neck while drinking a beer?’ My resistance to yoga has always come mainly from the whole as your lungs gently massage your internal organs, imagine that you are a tiny ant drowning in a giant pond thing– I think the person in the world whom I would be most comfortable taking lessons from would be a high-ranking Chinese party member: somebody who would busily just bark orders and not create this whole parallel new-agey narrative. But, desperate times call for desperate measures.

I will say that yoga classes in Prague are more tolerable to me so far than those in SF for the same reason that differentiates everything here from there: there are less people doing it. You don’t get the same MASSIVELY overcrowded classes that transpire in the Mission where you can’t stretch out your arms without sticking them up somebody’s nose. Also, I’m excited to have an excuse for falling asleep in public once I spread the news that I’m back into yoga these days– ‘Ha ha, no: I was just meditating there for a moment’. But I still have already run into the same essential problem that undermines my yoga practice each time I take it up again: I’m simply not very interested in attaining stillness-of-mind. It’s much more my goal to be entertained. Even when I was supposed to be achieving a calm mental state in this afternoon’s class, I found myself mentally composing this blog post instead.

(Photo: rarely-seen yoga position The Purple Monkey Dishwasher, performed with the aid of a special Indian two-wheel velocipede.)

The Horka Cup

Last weekend, I journeyed to a little village, Horka, where a friend of mine has a cottage. For the second year now, the village organized an annual soccer tournament, affectionately called The Horka Cup. On Saturday, I went out to play goal keeper for Team Foreigner, made up of myself and English friends of mine (including the guy who has the cottage).

I arrived in late morning on one of these little Mr. Rogers-like country trains they have in Czech, which was even more ramshackle and filled with smelly fatsos than usual:

Note that Horka is officially called Horka II, to differentiate it from another Horka which is right near by. This is a treacherous aspect of Czech villages– they often tend to repeat the same names over again and over again. At my wedding, my headstrong friend jumped in his car, set his GPS to the name of the village where the wedding was taking place and zoomed off several hours in the wrong direction to a town with the identical name on the other side of the country. With my best man’s suit in the trunk of his car. Anyway, I digress…

Our competition for the event was Team Village Lie-Abouts, composed of random Horka guys, and Team Of Cops From Neighboring Zruč, who dazzled all with their smart striped uniforms:

I have a feeling it was probably a good day to go on a crime spree in Zruč.

From an anthropological point of view, every genus of Czech village male was on display, including Big Mustache Man and Fearsome Mullet Man. The latter was particularly impressive in this instance– a vast, billowing specimen whom we nicknamed The Horka Maradona. Or just The Horkadona, for short:

Despite the blazing heat and a scarcity of players (this is why there are no good pictures of the action– everyone was either pressed into service or slumped over in exhaustion on the sideline), we managed to beat the team of local village guys before falling to the Zruč cops in the de facto final. Here’s our captain accepting a tiny little plastic cup in honor of our second-place finish:

Once it became known that there was an American playing goal, this became a source of great amusement to all of the Czech guys there who referred to me as ‘The American!’ for the rest of the day. I think it was funny to them in a sort of Cool Runnings way, like ‘Look at those silly Jamaicans trying to ride a bobsled.’ I didn’t embarrass myself too much, though, and was asked to join in a casual scrimmage after the official matches, which meant another 90 min or so of standing in the blasting afternoon sun.

Anyway, once the games were over and the awards were handed out, the afternoon ended in the way that all things end in Czech villages:

Fittingly, the Horkadona manned the grill, and produced some excellent sausages:

Attacking and Defending

In the past few months I’ve delved into three new hobbies/fascinations: boxing (as a participant), chess (same), and soccer (as a spectator). Boxing is just totally new for me – I never really paid any attention to it, and I didn’t watch even the biggest and most famous matches (probably because you had to pay money to see them even on TV). But in recent months I’ve actually started to learn how to box, taking 2-3 lessons a week. I am probably about 1% of the way to being a capable boxer, but even the little I’ve learned has started to seep into my perception of the rest of my life/the world – I am constantly analogizing various circumstances with the “attack/defend” dynamic of boxing – a dynamic that exists in many other sports, but not with the directness of boxing, where you are either punching somebody, or trying to fend off punches, or both.

That's Dan keeping his cool on the left.

Then, a few months later, my father, who is a chess enthusiast, convinced me to play online with him, and now I’ve returned to chess after a literally 25-year break (indeed, the last time I played with any consistency was with Dan himself, during recess in third grade – I have very happy memories of these sessions, which probably says all that needs to be said about our social functionality in those days). And although I obviously knew the rules of chess as a child, it’s become very clear that I never knew, and still don’t know, the first thing about actual strategy (beyond the most basic tactical considerations). There is something really delightful about that steep learning curve phase of learning about something when everything seems new and confusing, and only slowly do the, ahem, pieces start to fit together. (Pawn structure? Control the center of the board? Material?! Tempo?!?!) And, of course, that same “attack/defend” dynamic momentum is present here, too, although in a far subtler and less obvious guise than in boxing – my problem so far is that whereas I can make reasonable decisions about how to defend against attack, and occasionally can turn the tables on my (thus far, always superior) opponents, I never know what to do with the “tempo” once I’ve regained it, and I quickly squander it.

Finally, there is the spectacle of the World Cup, which was just finishing when I started writing this post, which says about all that needs to be said about my blog posting lately. I also played soccer as a child, but I was always one of the worst players on the very worst teams in my youth soccer league, and it has tended to remind me of the sorts of experiences Dan and I were trying to avoid when we huddled around the chess board at recess. And, as with boxing, I’ve never paid the slightest attention to it as a spectator sport. This time around, I got drawn in enough to get up at ungodly hours to catch some of the games from the West Coast of the U.S. And although I really enjoyed the athleticism, teamwork, etc. of the play itself, I particularly loved being confronted with the intense level of mythology and history that accompanied each game, as the announcers spoke of matches in the 1950s as if they happened last week, and associated certain styles of play with certain teams/regions. And again, I’ve had a steep learning curve of picking up on the strategic and tactical considerations that affect the momentum of each game.

It is starting to seem like all of life is just a series of circumstances where the question is whether to press the advantage, or retreat and defend.

Paul the Octopus, and the like

Nice World Cup final. My only regret is that when Iniesta scored and the Spanish team began celebrating, the producers didn’t cut to a split-screen view of Paul the Octopus being deliriously mobbed by other octopii in recognition of his prefect record of prognostication. (Above: artist’s conception of what this might have looked like, using a still from the Japanese TV series Gimmie Gimmie Octopus.)

In other news: my wife and kid are out of town this week on another mom-and-little-tyke retreat, giving me a chance to recover from the vicious case of Dad Back ™ I contracted during the previous family-filled weekend that involved picking my kid up roughly 200 times. As of Friday evening, I was moving around like a mummy, to the point that my visiting older relatives were raptly warning me about oncoming disk problems and writing down URLs of recommended back pain therapy tip sites. Fast-forward to today, and – presto – it’s all better. (Although I’m still probably in for a world of disk problems).

For those of you without kids, I liken the situation to this: imagine that you’re going about your normal business at home, making coffee, doing Sudoku puzzles, whatever… and virtually every minute, a 30-pound bowling ball is rolling across the floor and its your job to make sure that the bowling ball doesn’t crash into anything. And so you’re constantly grabbing the bowling ball in awkward positions while also handling coffee filters and lucky Soduku pencils or whatever. Also, you have to imagine that the bowling ball is conveniently greased up and often tries to wriggle out of your grasp, and you start to get the picture.

I would tell you more, but I just back from the dentist where I received a mammoth shot of novocaine that’s starting to creep up into my brain and numb various frontal lobes. I feel like the writer in this great recent piece by Oliver Sacks who suffered a stroke and suddenly lost all ability to read but bizarrely retained the ability to write fluently. He just couldn’t read anything he wrote… weird.

Designated 'Roid Guy

Everyone knows that Major League Baseball has hosed itself with its mismanagement of the steroid problem. Purists can no longer innocently compare players from different eras when the late ’90s and early ’00s were conspicuously full of wily middle infielders who suddenly showed up with 50 extra pounds of muscle, a plague of tics and 40-home-run power. Idealistic fans feel betrayed for having emotionally invested themselves in the doings of cheaters. What’s worse — but rarely discussed — is that the few fans who aren’t offended by what happened during the steroid era are bored by what’s happening now that the game’s been cleaned up. In Bill Simmons’ recent mailbag column on,  a reader named Mark from Baltimore sums it up perfectly:

So I was at an O’s versus Yanks game the other day and an Orioles rep was going around asking fans questions, and one of them asked me what I thought the O’s needed to do to improve this year. I said, “They need to get Miguel Tejada back on the steroids so he can blast 40 home runs like the good old days.” They did not think that was funny.

Baseball– let’s face it– is a fairly boring game, and (health issues aside) it’s clearly more entertaining to have guys doing steroids, blasting home runs, donning togas and lying to congress than not doing these things, especially if your team stinks.

My solution to this is to bring steroids back into the game, rather than trying futilely to sweep them under the rug as MLB has been pathetically attempting for the past few years. But you have to bring it back in a controlled way. So, each team should be allowed to have ONE guy do steroids. It’s the evolutionary descendant of the Designated Hitter– we already have the DH, now we’ll add the DRG (Designated ‘Roid Guy). This way the comical/enraged foibles of the steroid user will be reintroduced to the game, but in a contained way such that the culture of ‘roiding wouldn’t overrun the sport again.

As a bonus, imagine the strategic wrinkles that the DRG would add to the game. If you’re the Red Sox front office, for example, do you tag David Ortiz as your DRG (the obvious choice– hopefully, he suddenly recovers his 04-07 power)… or, do you take a chance on Adrian Beltre, who put up one of the most obviously steroid-inflated stat lines in 2004 (.629 SLG, 48 HR all in Dodger Stadium in what JUST HAPPENED to be a walk year before hitting free agency)? Moreover, let’s assume MLB screws up the implementation of the new rule and adds it to just one league and not the other, like they did with the DH. Suddenly, you’d have teams furiously ‘roiding up a guy and then de-‘roiding him in preparation for interleague play and the World Series. Finally, there would be the comedy of inept GMs making dumb choices and squandering the DRG rule. I can just imagine the Pittsburgh GM using the DRG tag on somebody like the diminutive David Eckstein and being all surprised when it doesn’t work.