The Big Ten Tightens Up

This year’s Big Ten has got to be the most entertaining basketball conference in years — and, perhaps, the best conference as well.

Over the past few days, the top three teams in the conference — Indiana, Michigan State, and Michigan — all have lost.  Ohio State’s victory over Michigan State on Sunday wasn’t that much of an upset, but Minnesota’s win over top-ranked Indiana last night was a real surprise, and Penn State’s victory tonight over Michigan, in a game in which Michigan frittered away a double-digit lead, is an absolute shocker.  Before that game, Penn State hadn’t won a conference game all year.  As a result of the upsets, Indiana leads the conference race with three losses, Michigan State and steady Wisconsin are right behind with four losses, and Ohio State and stumbling Michigan are one game farther back.

College basketball is a lot of fun because the players are kids, the students watching the game are into it, and emotion can play a significant role.  When a conference has have a bunch of very good teams, some good teams, and some teams that can rise to the occasion when their home court advantage comes into play, you get lots of surprises and unexpectedly close games.  The last few games of the conference regular season over the next week and a half are likely to be a free-for-all.  If a team like Ohio State wants to stay in contention, it had better be ready to play every game against every opponent — starting tomorrow night, when it travels to Evanston to play Northwestern.

After the regular season finally ends, we’ll have the Big Ten Tournament.  There’s a reason why this year’s tournament is the first one ever to be sold out:  it should be a very good show.

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Air Out Of The Balloon

The story about the crash of a hot air balloon near Luxor, Egypt — an incident that killed 19 people and seriously injured several others — is one of those odd, faraway stories that nevertheless hits home for me.

I’ve never been in a hot air balloon, nor have I ever been to Luxor, where the fabulous Valley of the Kings is located.  But, I could very easily see myself visiting Egyptian antiquities and being tempted to take a balloon ride that would allow me to get a bird’s-eye view of all of the sites.  Such tourist options — like the opportunity to go parasailing in the Caribbean, or go skydiving, or engage in similar kinds of novel vacation activities — are so commonplace that we tend to assume that they are extraordinarily safe.  But, of course, things can go wrong, and if they go wrong when you are in an unsupported balloon a hundred yards in the air the consequences are more likely to be devastating than if they go wrong when your feet are on the ground.

The Luxor balloon was close to landing when a rope got wrapped around a fuel tube and severed it, causing a fire.  The fire produced heat that rose into the balloon, causing it to shoot up into the air.  Some passengers jumped out; others remained helplessly on board as the balloon rocketed skyward, the gas canister exploded, and the balloon then plummeted to the ground.

Ever since I went snowmobiling without knowing what I was doing, and realized that I could easily kill or seriously hurt myself as a result, I’ve been very stodgy and boring about such activities.  There is risk in everything we do, of course, but some risks have to be assumed, whereas others are only optional.    I’m sure that, if I were one of the unlucky tourists on that ill-fated Luxor ride, as the doomed balloon was falling downward I would be thinking:  “Why in the hell did I ever decide to do this?”

Chuck E. Cheese’s No More

00019816Richard gave Kish and me a great Christmas present this past year.  He collected lots of our old photos, which otherwise were gathering dust in the basement, and had them scanned and put into electronic photo albums that we can access with the touch of a button.

It’s been hilarious looking back through the photos, remembering moments when the boys were little — and also recalling things that we’ve tried to put out of our minds, like kid birthday parties at places like Chuck E. Cheese’s.  I used to dread those parties, with hyped-up kids shrieking, the smell of cheese and cake and sugary drinks, and the overwhelming sensory effect of brightly colored decors and clanging games and costumed characters.  This picture of one of Russell’s parties, with his friends and cousins when they were little tykes, brought it all back.

I’m happy to say that it’s been more than a decade since I set foot in a Chuck E. Cheese’s.  I could easily go another decade, too.