Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Sports

Last night two bad things happened:  the Ohio State Buckeyes went down to defeat in the NCAA Tournament, and during the game Mr. Sports emerged.

The Buckeyes’ loss wasn’t unexpected; they’d gotten whipped by Gonzaga earlier in the season and were the underdog.  Ohio State gamely fought back from a 15-point deficit at the start of the game to briefly take the lead in the second half, but ultimately Gonzaga pulled away.  It was a good game, but also one where, from the standpoint of Ohio State fans at least, it seemed like every rolled-out layup and rattling in three-pointer and missed-shot carom just favored the Bulldogs.   Sometimes that happens in sports.

1281989935452That’s where Mr. Sports came in.  That’s the name I’ve given to the harsh, foul-mouthed, angry personality that sometimes takes over during TV sports broadcasts when one of my favorite teams is playing in a big game.  Mr. Sports wants his teams to win so badly that any adversity or bad break causes him to surge to the forefront and launch into vicious tirades about referees, opposing players, the fates, or even the opposing coach’s wife or Mom and Dad celebrating an impending win.  And, because college basketball is a game where so many bounces or debatable foul calls can happen, it’s prime territory for Mr. Sports.

Last night Mr. Sports was pretty bad.  Kish and I had decided to watch the game together, but after Ohio State fell far behind and was struggling to catch up, one of Mr. Sports’ loud and profane outbursts caused Russell’s dog Betty to leap off the couch, and Kish decided to retreat upstairs in disgust.  Mr. Sports then watched the rest of the game by himself, fulminating about the unjust fates.  After the game ended I went back upstairs, feeling sheepish and stupid about my loss of control in front of my disappointed wife and the two dogs.  Recently I’ve gotten better about keeping Mr. Sports under wraps — combining age, presumed maturity, and avoidance strategies like just not watching much college basketball this year — but sometimes the power of Mr. Sports is simply too strong.

The Atlantic recently carried an interesting article about the positives and negatives of being a sports fan, and concluded that the benefits outweigh the negatives.  And I know from personal experience how thrilling it is when one of your teams wins it all.  But it is embarrassing when Mr. Sports thunders out from my id and starts raging at the TV, and it makes me feel bad to disappoint my baffled wife, who just can’t understand how sports can cause such a fundamental change in behavior in the blink of an eye.

I’m 60 years old, and I’ve still got some growing up to do.


The Wha? Of The Schwa

I was rolling along pretty well in school.  I had mastered the ability to sleep on a towel at nap time, and I colored inside the lines.  I had learned how to read, knew the alphabet (and the alphabet song), and got the connection between printed words and verbal speech.  I also understood the concept, at least, of counting and math.

And then, at some point, the schwa came along, and I kind of lost the golden thread.

schwaDoes anyone here remember the schwa — the inverted e that purportedly signified some kind of sound and that was supposed to help kids with reading, or pronunciation . . . or something?  More importantly, does anyone here remember being helped — as opposed to being completely flummoxed — by learning about the schwa?  Even now, the definition of the schwa comes across as the same needlessly confusing morass that it was when it was first introduced in grade school.  Merriam-Webster defines it as “an unstressed mid-central vowel (such as the usual sound of the first and last vowels of the English word America)” and “the symbol ə used for the schwa sound and less widely for a similarly articulated stressed vowel (as in cut).”  

There, does that help?

The schwa didn’t exist when I started school and first learned to read.  At that time, the emphasis was on recognizing different words, learning how to pronounce them, and then memorizing them.  It worked perfectly well, and you could feel your working vocabulary growing.  It wasn’t a big deal that letters could be pronounced in different ways, depending on the word — that was just another part of what you had to learn, the same way you had to learn the name of your town, the name of your school, or the name of your teacher.  You accepted the different pronunciations because that’s the way that language apparently worked.  It was just something else to memorize.

The schwa didn’t help, it only muddled things.  It wasn’t a letter of the alphabet, and it didn’t appear in the Weekly Reader or any of those compelling books about Dick, Jane, and Spot.  So why in the world was the teacher trying to get baffled students to understand the schwa?  Why couldn’t we just go back to learning more actual words, the way they were actually spelled?  I decided to ignore the stupid schwa and just learn more words, and it seemed to work out okay.

Interestingly, when our kids went to school, they didn’t seem to hear about the schwa at all.  It appears that, after years of battering perplexed students with it, it was consigned onto the educational scrap heap, along Esperanto and other failed concepts.  If the schwa is gone from American education, I’m glad.

My First Joke

When did you first hear, and “get,” a joke, and what was it?  Having a sense of humor in the modern world is so essential, and understanding what jokes are, and what “funny” means, is a crucial component of developing that important part of human character — but for many of us remembering how you learned about jokes and getting a laugh out of them is something that is lost in the mists of time.

img_5819Humor seems to be an innate characteristic of human beings.  Little kids laugh at lots of things, like tumbling puppies, and pratfalls, and playing peek-a-boo, and the sheer joy of being alive, but verbal humor is a pretty big step up from visual humor.  It’s the difference between watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon and laughing because Bugs has tied the unwitting Elmer Fudd’s shotgun into a bow and when Elmer tries to fire it the shotgun blows up in his face, and later understanding and smiling at the humor in Bugs’ wisecracks.

I’m pretty sure that the first joke I ever heard was of the “knock-knock” variety.  That’s not surprising when you think about it, because “knock-knock” jokes are about as simple as a joke can get, with their standard set-up and uniform cadence and silly plays on words.  They are the kindergarten level of humor, where you get to play with clay, and color things, and take a nap after drinking a juice box — but kindergarten is still a crucial first step on the educational ladder.  And I’m pretty sure that I remember what the joke was:

Knock, knock.

Who’s there?


Dwayne who?

Dwayne the bathtub, I’m dwowning!

I’m also confident that whoever told me the joke — maybe it was UJ, maybe it was an older neighborhood kid, maybe it was an older relative — patiently explained the joke to me so I would understand, and then asked:  “Get it?”  And, after thinking about it, I realized that I did “get” it.  It wasn’t fall-down funny or anything, but it was clever in its own elementary way, and saying the word “dwowning” sounded pretty funny, too.  And I’m pretty sure that I tried that joke out on some other little kid, because learning how to tell a joke is almost as important as “getting” a joke in the first place.

Thanks to that “knock-knock,” a doorway opened, and I went through to be introduced to a world of one-liner jokes about screwing in lightbulbs and horses walking into bars and men getting no respect, and observational humor and satire and farce and anecdotal humor and situational comedy and everything else that makes us chuckle.  That little joke ended up meaning a lot.

Watching The Launch

When I was a kid back in the ’60s, we used to be trooped into the school auditorium at Rankin Elementary School in Akron, Ohio to watch every launch of every rocket that was taking an American astronaut into space.  Between the countdowns, and the holds, and the cryptic communications of “launch control,” and the possibility of a disaster, and Walter Cronkite urging “go, baby, go!,” rocket launches were almost unbearably exciting.  And when NASA started launched the enormous Saturn V rockets that were used to propel the Apollo missions to the Moon, which were among the loudest devices ever made by humanity, the spectacle became even more intense.

So I watched the video of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket yesterday, beginning with the rocket on the familiar Cape Canaveral/Cape Kennedy launchpad, heard the countdown, saw the smoke and the flames and the rocket pushing slowly and inexorably against the titanic forces of gravity to slip the surly bonds of Earth and go soaring into space, and it brought those memories all back, and produced the same kind of tingle and hairs-standing-on-end feeling that I got in those long ago days in the school auditorium.

I’m glad the launch was a success and that SpaceX was able to successfully land two of the side boosters back on Earth, although the main booster was not successfully retrieved.  It’s a huge achievement and step forward for a company that is one of the leaders of the movement toward getting us back into space.  And I’m glad that, thanks to the efforts of the Falcon Heavy thrusters, Elon Musk’s Tesla roadster and a “Starman” wearing a SpaceX uniform have been successfully thrown out past Mars, where they will orbit around the Sun forever.

But mostly, I’m just glad that I got to see a huge rocket launch again.  Deep down, I’d still love to be an astronaut.

Analyzing “Cooties”

The other day the Jersey Girl and I were driving to lunch in her car when I noticed a folded paper object on the dashboard.  Made by one of her kids, it was something you might remember from childhood.  You insert your thumbs and index fingers into slots, open and close them based on the colors or numbers or other indicators written on the outside, and then lift up one of the interior folds to deliver a secret message found underneath — at least one of which typically made reference to “cooties.”

cootie-catcher-3d_0“Hey, you’ve got a cootie catcher!” I remarked.  The JG looked puzzled, shrugged, and responded, “I don’t think that’s what they call it.”

What, no concept of “cooties” in American childhood anymore?  No more mindless running around, laughing and trying to dodge and avoid the kid who had “cooties” and, with a simple tag, could pass them on to you?  No discussions among young boys about girls having “cooties”?  No generalized lack of understanding of what “cooties” were supposed to be, or why they had that name, but just a fervent belief that you didn’t want to have them, whatever the heck they were?  Is “cooties” one of those stupid but fun childhood things that has hit the cutting room floor in the modern, ultra-sensitive, PC world?

Then I stumbled across an article that sought to bring some real analysis to bear on the “cooties” issue.  The Smithsonian applied scientific rigor to the concept of “cooties,” and take a careful look at a key question:  if “cooties” were real, what actual disease would they be?  After looking at the key attributes of “cooties” — being instant communicable through physical contact, common, and highly contagious, but with no outward signs of debilitating disease — and eliminating candidates like pinkeye, plague, and leprosy, The Smithsonian concluded that meningitis came closest.

And notably, The Smithsonian also concluded that the concept of “cooties” among children has some value, because it gives kids “a decent, albeit rudimentary, approximation for how disease functions” and allows them “to learn about infectious disease in a semi-sanitary, innocuous manner.”  So, “cooties” is a good thing?  There’s a first time for everything.

That Good Samaritan Feeling

It snowed quite a bit Monday, going well into the night.  Tuesday morning I got up and instead of taking my early morning walk, I went out to shovel my front steps and sidewalk.

I was out shoveling at about 6 a.m., in the quiet darkness, when a young woman approached.  It probably took some nerve on her part to approach a total stranger on a dark, bitterly cold morning, but she obviously was desperate.  “Excuse me, sir!” she said.  “My car is stuck.  Would you mind coming down and shoveling me out?”

good-samaritanI looked down the street and saw that her car, which was one of those ultra-light compact cars that are about the worst snow vehicles in the world, was turned sideways and was well and truly stuck in the snow piles.  “No problem,” I said.  “When the weather is like this, we’ve all got to stick together.”  So I went down with my shovel, let loose my inner Dad, put her behind the wheel, and shoveled and pushed and rocked the car back and forth and instructed her on cutting the wheels this way and that — not too sharp! — until we finally got her too-light car out of the snow banks and onto the ruts of the street so she could head on her way.

“Thank you soooo much!” she said several times before she puttered away in her little car, and I think she really meant it.  I then went back to my shoveling.

Growing up in Akron, Ohio, I learned that you help people out when they get stuck in the snow.  One time when UJ and I were little kids we went to an Akron Zips basketball game with Grandma and Grandpa Neal, a blizzard hit during the game, and we came out to an Oldsmobile that was covered in snow and buried in a drift.  A bunch of men who also had come to the game came over to help us, and eventually they pushed and pulled and rocked us out to the point where we could get to the street.  Their selfless act of kindness and decency made a big impression on a little kid.

Ever since that happened, I’ll gladly lend a hand to help anybody trapped by the snow.  I know that the Good Samaritan acted for wholly altruistic reasons, and when it comes to the winter weather I do too — but I always like the “Good Samaritan” feeling I get when I do it, too.  That young woman’s heartfelt thanks made my Tuesday a little bit better.

My Inner Grandma

Yesterday Kish and I were talking about health, and before I knew it I used the phrase “fit as a fiddle.”  As soon as I said it, I realized that it’s a phrase that no American has probably used for the last 20 years,

That’s what happens when my Inner Grandma surges to the fore.

grandma-21“Inner Grandma” refers to the vast repository of sayings that immediately come to mind about the small realities of everyday life, like weather, and eating, and getting up in the morning, and how you’re feeling today.  All of the sayings were chiseled deeply into the synapses of my cerebral cortex as a result of spending huge chunks of my formative years with my mother and my two grandmothers, all of whom used some of the same core sayings.  I probably heard them hundreds of times as a callow youth, and was proud of myself the first time I used them correctly and participated in a conversation with Mom or Grandma Webner or Grandma Neal.  Now those sayings bubble up, involuntarily, whenever those everyday moments arise, even though the sayings themselves have long since lost their currency — and don’t even particularly make sense, come to think of it.

“Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.”

“It’s raining cats and dogs.”

“I’m in the pink.”

“You’ve got an appetite like a truck driver.”

“Good morning, Merry Sunshine!”

“He’s happy as a clam.”

And that’s just scratching the surface.  I guess it shows how much of our thinking is shaped by our childhoods, and how we remain the product of our upbringing long decades after our childhoods have ended.  Mom and my grandmothers will always be with me.