1980: A New Setting

I’ve gotten a little behind in my reliving the year 1980, so will try to catch up a little bit here.

In September, I went away to college. Yes, I had done this before—to Missouri University in 1977—but Mizzou was sort of the expected thing to do, and I knew a lot of people there. I had fun during my five semesters in Columbia, but ultimately Mizzou turned out to be just too big for me. I left halfway through my third year and looked for someplace smaller.

I found North Central College in Naperville, Ill. At about 2,000 students, NCC was about 1/10th the size of Mizzou. I didn’t know a soul there when I moved in, but oddly, I don’t remember that fact bothering me at all; instead, I think I welcomed the chance to make a new start.

A big part of my new college experience was going to be swimming. After being on swim teams from 4th grade through high school, I “retired” after my senior year, because there was no way I was going to make the Mizzou squad. But with the change to the smaller, Division III school, swimming was front-and-center again. I was welcomed onto the team, and immediately had a group of people to hang out with. I also offered up my services to the Chronicle, the NCC student newspaper, and they put me to work right away writing articles. So almost immediately, I was immersed in activities that were beyond my reach at Mizzou.

It was a good fall. I was getting to know a few people and was pretty much enjoying the college experience. I rode the BN commuter train into Chicago for a couple of concerts—Jethro Tull at the Rosemont, and the Police at the Aragon Ballroom. I was reading a lot of Hunter Thompson. And every afternoon, there were two hours of very intense swimming workouts; I was getting into the best shape of my life.

*****

In 1976, I had turned 17, still too young to vote in that year’s election. 1980 would be my first chance to vote for a president. Unfortunately, 1980 was also the year that President Jimmy Carter pulled the United States out of the Moscow Olympics to protest the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. Now, I’ve always loved politics, but I’ve also always loved the Olympics. That spring, I wrote a letter to Time Magazine  registering my protest over the Olympics boycott. “President Carter has lost my vote…” the letter began. I think it’s the only time I’ve ever written a letter to the editor, certainly the only one to a national publication. They didn’t publish it, but I’d made a commitment. And that fall, when it came time to send for an absentee ballot and fill it out, I cast my vote for the independent, John Anderson. I knew full well that my vote would result in the lesser of the major-party candidates being elected, but I wanted to make sure that President Carter got the message.

(Somehow, though, he never got back to me to apologize about the Olympics thing; and he seems to think that the economy was the reason he lost the election.)

I had a class on election night. It finished up about 8:30. I rushed back to my room to start watching the election returns come in. But as soon as I walked in the door, my roommate gave me the news: Carter was already conceding. At North Central, at that time, if you were 21 you were allowed to have alcohol in your room. I’m guessing I had some that night, because I have no memory of the rest of the night. That election, my first presidential vote, was the only time I’ve ever cast a ballot for a third-party candidate, and I can’t imagine I’ll ever do it again.

*****

The North Central swim teams had a tradition of going to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for a team training trip each winter. The school’s first trimester ends just before Thanksgiving, and the Florida trip is the following week. I took the Amtrak home from Chicago, and then on Sunday, November 30—thirty years ago today!—I took my first plane trip: St. Louis to Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale. Coming in for the landing, I also got my first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean, or any ocean for that matter. That night, a few of us would run across the road and dive into the water,  swim in the crashing waves, figure out how to body surf. My baptism, as it were, at 21 years old.

Speaking Of The Rolling Stones…

A friend of a friend posted this on Facebook, and I just had to pass it along.

At various times, I have tried listing my All-Time-Top-Five-Favorite-Songs (try it sometime; it’s a lot harder than you think), and I usually come up with two Rolling Stones songs—Sympathy for the Devil and Gimme Shelter—in that list, even though I wouldn’t necessarily say that the Stones are one of my top-five favorite bands. Strange, innit?

Anyway, the link leads to a multiple-track “deconstruction” of  the studio recording of Gimme Shelter. Enjoy.

http://www.dangerousminds.net/comments/deconstructing_gimme_shelter_listen/

Boycott The Bowls!

NCAA Division 1 Football is only sports league that holds its meaningless exhibition games at the end of the season, rather than the beginning of the season.

Check ’em out: there are 34 college bowl games, beginning with the “New Mexico Bowl” on December 18, right on through the “Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl” on January 9 … and that’s not counting the so-called “BCS National Championship Game” on January 10.

The latter, of course, is a national championship in name only. It will not feature two teams who have had to fight through a playoff process to reach the title game; instead, they will be teams who have been selected through an arbitrary process involving computer rankings and votes from so-called experts, for whom one criterion will no doubt be teams that will produce a large television audience.

More importantly, these two teams will have been IDLE for five or six weeks before the game, rather than playing a series of elimination games building up to a final matchup, the way it’s done in every other league on the planet. Think about it: this is supposedly the most important game of the year, but the teams will have seen no competitive action for more than a month beforehand. During this five or six weeks, the rest of us are supposedly being distracted by farces such as the “Pinstripe Bowl” or the (I kid you not) “Beef O’Brady’s Bowl.” I can’t wait to see the pride on the faces of the players who win that one, walking off the field with their gleaming Beef O’Brady’s trophy to take back to their school’s awards cabinet.

Thirty-five games means 70 teams will be playing “post-season” football this year. Are there 70 post-season-worthy teams in Division 1? A few years ago the NCAA instituted a laughable rule that teams can’t be invited to bowl games unless they win six games during their regular season. Honestly, it would be hard to set that bar any lower. So we now have the spectacle of truly mediocre teams hoping to get their sixth win so they can be “bowl-eligible” and maybe, with a 6-5 record, get an invitation to the “Humanitarian Bowl.”

Forgive us, NCAA, if we don’t watch this dreck.

Actually, the only way this system ever gets changed is if we DON’T watch it. And I don’t mean turning off the “Hawaii Bowl” so we can spend some time with our families on Christmas Eve. That’s an easy call, just as skipping 95 percent of these crappy matchups will be. But we as a sports-fan nation need to go all the way and turn our backs on January 10 when the Anointed Two face off in the so-called championship game. This game is no more meaningful than the other 34 games; it will not produce a true national champion.

I say ignore ’em all. Let that January 10 game have a ratings share of zero. Then maybe the NCAA will wise up and hold a real national championship.

Lyrics In Exile

One of my favorite lines from a music review comes from way back in 1977, after Linda Ronstadt released the Simple Dreams album. About her version of the Rolling Stones’ song Tumbling Dice, the reviewer wrote something to the effect that “the lyrics meant so much more when when we couldn’t understand them.”

I’ve thought about that line a bit lately, as Exile On Main Street, the Stones’ album where Tumbling Dice appeared, has been in pretty much constant play in my car for the last few weeks. (Oh, and if you’re wondering, it has been at least three decades since I last gave Simple Dreams a spin.)

The lyrics throughout Exile on Main Street are for the most part unintelligible, even more so than on most Rolling Stones albums. But for me, they gain more and more meaning every time I listen to the disc. It is by far the most deeply felt album they put out, but that comes through more in the music than in the words, such as they are. It is impossible to listen to Let It Loose, for example, and be unchanged by the experience. But I’ll bet I couldn’t tell you half the lyrics to that song … let alone what it’s “about.”

I’m more or less a word guy. I spend a lot of my life either writing, reading or editing. But oddly enough, song lyrics generally aren’t that important to me. I don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure them out, and even if they are printed in the album notes or somewhere, it’s rare that I’ll actually go and read them. If there’s a song I like, it’s almost always because of the music, not the words.

So in general, I’d have to agree with that reviewer from three-plus decades ago; sometimes it’s just best to leave well enough alone.

*****

A very personal postscript: in December of 1977, I came home for winter break after my first semester of college. My brother Jim came home as well, from wherever he was living at that time. We had a cheap old stereo, but little music to speak of. Our other brother, Phil, who was by then living in an apartment, let Jim pick out a few albums for us to listen to during the break. Exile on Main Street was one of them, but they also included such other classics as Who’s Next, Songs in the Key of Life, the Allman Brothers at Fillmore East, Tom Scott & the L.A. Express, and a few others. I was vaguely familiar with some of them, but most of what I had been listening to in those days was stuff like Boston, REO Speedwagon, the aforementioned Linda Rondstadt, etc. That handful of music courtesy of my two older brothers brought about a lifetime change in my listening habits. Each of those albums would be included on any list I would make of the greatest records of all time.  I latched onto Who’s Next, of course, and it instantly became my favorite album … and still is. I’m certain I didn’t care for Exile on Main Street that much at the time; it’s not a record that allows itself to be discovered easily. But over time, the music becomes more and more  a part of you, no matter what the words may say.

Marathon Dreams (Continued)

So I’ve run two half-marathons this fall. Add ’em up, and that equals … a marathon! So I should be satisfied, right?

Actually, yes, I am pretty happy. The Lewis & Clark Half Marathon on October 3 was my first road half-marathon in several years, and it was also something of a learning experience. Long story short, I was overdressed, having underestimated my ability to cope with the first real dip in temperatures this fall. There’s that, and a bevy of other excuses I won’t bore you with here. I rolled into the finish in just under one hour and 44 minutes, a little slower than I’d hoped, going in. Still, it was under eight minutes a mile, and hey, it was an over-50 PR for me, so there was something to celebrate.

Five weeks later, November 7, was the St. Louis Track Club’s annual half-marathon. I’d run this one three or four times in the past, and it’s a fun course — starting in Clayton, running east on Forsyth to Forest Park, winding around in the park a bit, and then heading back the same way to the finish back in Clayton. There are some significant hills, particularly in Clayton and near the halfway point. But hills are what make races interesting.

This time, I told myself there would be no excuses. I trained well in the five weeks between races, got lots of sleep the last week, and paid close attention to nutrition and hydration in the last couple of days. Race day brought a beautiful morning, and even though the temperature was about the same as the day of Lewis & Clark, this time I ditched the running pants and just run in shorts, which felt much better.

At the start, I had two goals: to beat my time from Lewis & Clark, and — less likely, but still a goal — to go under 1:40. As I wrote here previously, 1:40 has some significance. For my ancient age group, a half-marathon under 1:40 is good enough to qualify for entry into the New York City Marathon (the 2010 version of which, coincidentally, was being run the same day).

As the race unfolded, I made the decision not to look at my watch for splits and pace cues. I figured I was just going to run as fast as I felt I could anyway, and I didn’t need to know what the splits were. Don’t get me wrong; I still reveled in the mile markers, each one bringing me closer to the finish, but I wasn’t going to say to myself, “that was just a 7:45, I need to go faster in the next mile.” This was kind of a new experience for me, because I’m usually pretty anal about my splits in races (with my GPS watch, all of that data is automatically stored for later download anyway, so I knew I’d still have it for later obsessing over analyzing.) At about Mile 10, though, I did glance at the watch, and found that I was, in fact, keeping up a pretty good pace. At 10.1 miles, I was at about 1:14, which I was thinking was faster than the pace I needed for my 1:40. There ensued, for at least the next mile, a series of calculations wherein I tried to figure out if I needed to pick up the pace. After running 10 miles, my brain was skipping a few cylinders at this point, and I was literally thinking things like, “OK, three miles to go, 1:40 minus 1:15 is 35 minutes, and I can easily go a 10-minute pace for three miles. Wait! 1:40 minus 1:15 is 25 minutes! Or is it? And what about that extra tenth of a mile at the end? Can I finish in 25 minutes?” Even while I was running, I knew how silly this all was, but it actually did keep my mind occupied during that long slog up Forsyth from Forest Park. I don’t think I ever did really figure it out, but it didn’t matter anyway, because I couldn’t have picked up the pace much more even if I wanted to.

I made it into the hills of Clayton … which turned out to be not as severe as I had imagined in my pre-race planning. I was actually feeling pretty decent now, knowing there was just a mile or so to go. The last half-mile of the race was a big sweeping curve around toward Clayton High School, followed by a sharp  left turn and a downhill sprint to the finish line. I knew by now that I was going to make it under 1:40, but I was surprised to see the finish-line clock still ticking through the 1:35s when it came into view. I had a little bit of sprint left in me, and I pushed across the line and stopped my watch; it read 1:36:00.

So I beat my goal, in spades. It wasn’t the fastest half-marathon I’ve ever run, but I did smoke my time from Lewis & Clark, and beat the New York Marathon qualifying time by four minutes. And now I have a decision to make: do I go ahead and aim for NYC? Or do I set aside my marathon dreams and instead focus on shorter races? Fortunately I have a few weeks to think about this; I won’t be able to register for New York until the beginning of the year.

For the rest of 2010, I just have one more race scheduled, the Pere Marquette Trail Endurance Run on December 11. The 2009 version of that race was one of my worst outings ever, so I’m looking forward to redeeming myself this time around. After that I’ll scale it back for a couple of weeks, and plan on kicking up the training again at the beginning of 2011.

Due Date

Setting up for a tracking shot.

We visited Santa Fe, N.M. in October 2009, a rare fall vacation and our first trip to the Southwest. We were shopping in the Plaza when we saw crews setting up for some kind of filming; the first activity we saw was some guys carefully building some rails for a dolly. Being from St. Louis, where almost nothing gets filmed (with one notable recent exception), the whole process was fascinating for me. As the preparations continued, I was able to chat with one of the extras — he informed me that they were filming a movie titled Due Date, with Robert Downey Jr. Sounds like some kind of romantic comedy, but cool just the same, I thought.

In between shoots outside the "Coffee Beanery."

As the afternoon wore on, the preparations intensified, seemingly centered around a restaurant on a street just off the Plaza. There was a strange, mud-covered SUV that drove by a couple of times; after a while, we realized that it was part of the movie. Finally, it was time to shoot the scene. After hours of preparation, it turned out what they were shooting was Downey and his sidekick driving around a corner, parking the truck and walking into the restaurant. As I remember, they  shot the whole scene first a few times, and then broke it down into segments: driving (this is what the dolly shot was for), turning the corner and parking; and getting out and walking in together, the latter with exaggerated gesticulations on both of their parts. There was an amazing amount of equipment and personnel used just to create this relatively small piece of action. The restaurant, for example, was actually some kind of burrito place, I think, but for the movie, it was converted into the “Coffee Beanery.”

Cropped view of Galifianakis and Downey.

I was standing off at a safe distance, but I could still see pretty well what was going on. A crew member was telling the crowd not to take pictures — it would somehow be a violation of intellectual property. I still managed to grab a few photos between shoots during the course of the afternoon.

Last week the finished movie was released. Saturday night we went to see it. I was looking forward to it; although that day in Santa Fe, I didn’t know who Zach Galifianakis — the sidekick —  was, we later saw the movie The Hangover and loved it. And Due Date was from the same director, so it promised to be pretty funny–and NOT a romantic comedy.

Well, it was something of a disappointment. There were undeniably some funny scenes in it, but on the whole it was rather disjointed and a little contrived. Not a waste of money, but certainly not up to the standard of The Hangover. And most disappointing of all, the scene we saw them put a whole afternoon’s worth of effort into was nowhere to be seen in the movie. Without giving anything away, we had heard that the scene was actually supposed to be in Scottsdale, Ariz., but in the movie, Downey and Galifianakis completely bypassed Scottsdale, without a mention. “Our” scene apparently landed on the cutting room floor. Oh well, I guess we can wait for the Director’s Cut.