Surviving The Down Game

Every college football team, it seems, has a down game. At least once a season, good football squads seem to come out flatter than a partially deflated pigskin. When you combine the down game with weather conditions that work against the more skilled team, very good teams can lose games they are expected to win.

Today’s game between Ohio State and Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois was a down game for the Buckeyes. Ohio State seemed out of sync from the first whistle, and the conditions didn’t help matters. The weather was awful, with strong winds gusting up to 50 miles an hour and rain coming sideways, making it practically impossible for the Ohio State aerial game to get started. As a result, the game became a low-scoring, hard-hitting, one-dimensional contest with each team focused on running the ball. The conditions reminded me of another down game–one I had the misfortune of watching in person–when Michigan State upset the defending national champion Buckeyes 17-14 in brutal weather conditions to keep the Men of the Scarlet and Gray from making the playoffs and defending their title.

But, unlike that Buckeyes team, this Ohio State team found a way to surmount their down game, in ridiculous conditions, on the road, and notch a win to keep themselves undefeated. They won even though C.J. Stroud’s passing statistics were pedestrian in the buffeting wind, because the offense didn’t turn the ball over, C.J. Stroud made smart plays with his legs, the Buckeyes’ run game kept plugging, and the Buckeyes’ defense avoided any breakdowns that would have made it possible for the Wildcats to spring a huge upset.

Did Ohio State look pretty, or dominant? Nope. But they won a down game, and that’s the important thing. Now it’s time to enjoy that colossal Georgia-Tennessee matchup, with the pressure off.

The Little Big Ten

Today the Big Ten kicks off league play.  It should be a competitive conference race, because the Big Ten clearly doesn’t have any powerhouse teams this year.

The results of pre-conference play were not kind to the teams in the Old Conference.  Michigan got pulverized by Alabama and then played badly in a loss to Notre Dame.  Wisconsin lost to Oregon State and has struggled mightily against mediocre teams like Utah State and UNLV.  Pre-season favorites Michigan State and Nebraska have fallen from the ranks of the unbeaten, with the Spartans getting pounded by Notre Dame and the Cornhuskers dropping a winnable game to UCLA.  Iowa, Penn State, and Illinois already have two defeats.  Minnesota is undefeated, but hasn’t played anybody.  The best team in the conference could be Northwestern, which has knocked off Syracuse, Vanderbilt, and Boston College.

The marquee games today are Wisconsin at Nebraska and Ohio State at Michigan State.  The Badgers will be trying to get their offense back on track against a Nebraska defense that was dismal in its only game against a tough foe.  The Ohio State-Michigan State contest is intriguing because MSU handed OSU an embarrassing home loss last year, when the Spartans manhandled the Buckeye offense.  Ohio State is undefeated, but it has played mediocre football against inferior teams and hasn’t played a road game yet.  The tilt in East Lansing today will tell us a lot about whether Ohio State is competitive — and also whether Braxton Miller can weave his offensive magic against a very stout defense.

Thanks to NCAA penalties, Ohio State can’t play in a bowl game or the Big Ten conference championship game this year.  If the team wants to make something of this lost year, it needs to win games like today’s match-up.

Wildcat Wishes

Ohio State fans like me are spoiled.  We expect our sports teams to win the vast majority of their games, to routinely move on to post-season tournaments and bowl games, and to win national championships every year.

Not every school is like that.  I realized that when Richard went to Northwestern and I started following the Wildcats.  NU has long had the reputation for being the toughest school, academically, in the Big Ten and the easiest, athletically, for the other schools to trounce.  Northwestern students may have been the first to come up with the “you’ll be working for us one day” chant directed at opposing teams.

In the past 20 years, Northwestern football has stopped being a doormat and has become very tough and competitive.  And Northwestern basketball has steadily improved under the careful tutelage of their excellent coach Bill Carmody.  However, the Wildcats have never been to the NCAA Tournament.  That’s right, never.  As in, not in the history of mankind.  Zero.  Nada.  Zilch.  Goose egg.

This year, though, the Wildcats have a chance to get off the schneid.  Entering the Big Ten Tournament, they stand at 18-12 overall, and 8-10 in the Big Ten.  They have two great scorers, in John Shurna and Drew Crawford, a pretty good point guard in Dave Sobolewski, and a number of role players that Coach Carmody has molded into a good team.  They shoot the three, run a Princeton-style offense that can burn teams with back cuts, and can stick around and pull games out at the end.  If they could somehow win a few games in the Big Ten Tournament, they might actually earn that first invitation to the NCAA Tournament.

I’m rooting for them to do so.  So please, Webner House readers — won’t you also root for the Wildcats this weekend?  It’s high time for them to partake of some March Madness, Northwestern style.

A Fine (Regular Season) Finale

Today the Big Ten regular season basketball season comes to an end.  Many consider the Big Ten to be the toughest conference, top to bottom, in the country, and the competitiveness of the teams has made for a wild and entertaining ride.

Many people will focus on the game at East Lansing, where Ohio State seeks revenge for the Spartans’ win last month.  The Buckeyes’ dreadful showing in that contest triggered several inconsistent performances that have tested Ohio State’s mettle and raised questions about its NCAA Tournament hopes.  A win against a top 10 team, coached by legendary Tom Izzo, in a brutal venue — and on Michigan State’s senior day, to boot — would answer those questions.  Ohio State will need to shoot a lot better and rebound a lot better if they hope to do so.

If Michigan State wins today, the Spartans win the conference outright.  An Ohio State win means at least a two-way tie, and the Buckeyes and Spartans could be joined by Michigan if the Wolverines avoid stubbing their toe at Penn State.

The Wolverines are one of several Big Ten teams that must be pleased with their regular season performance.  The Wolverines have shown grit and won several close games.  Wisconsin overcame a bad start and has played well down the stretch. Purdue and Indiana, who are playing today in one of the sport’s great rivalry games, both have beaten low expectations, played tough, and will end up with winning records in the conference.  And Northwestern – scrappy, always-on-the-brink Northwestern — beat Iowa yesterday and hope to win a game or two in the Big Ten Tournament and make it to the Big Dance for the first time.

The stories aren’t so pretty at the bottom of the conference.  Minnesota’s season has been crippled by injuries, but Illinois has experienced an outright collapse that probably will result in the ouster of coach Bruce Weber.  The Illini are baffling because they have one of the best big men in the conference in Meyers Leonard and a great scorer in Brandon Paul, but they play poor defense and lack the leadership and chemistry needed to win consistently.  Nebraska’s coach, too, is likely on the chopping block; the Cornhuskers look to be far away from being competitive in the conference.  And Penn State, which has a new coach this year, always seems to be rebuilding, but never quite getting to the top.

I’m a traditionalist.  I think the Big Ten regular season title means a lot more than does winning the Big Ten Tournament, because success in the regular season requires winning at hostile venues and consistently displaying the teamwork and character that is essential to success on the road.  If the Buckeyes can win at the Breslin Center today, they will have truly earned some bragging rights.

Down To The Wire

The Ohio State Buckeyes are struggling, no doubt about it — but they aren’t out of the Big Ten race yet.

We’ve been saying all season that the Big Ten is balanced, and the regular season has proven that to be true.  The top team, Michigan State, already has four losses after getting drilled by Indiana last night, Ohio State and Michigan have five, and Wisconsin has six.  If The Buckeyes can win their last two games, against Northwestern and Michigan State, they would finish tied for first place.

That’s a big “if” right now.  The Buckeyes have lost two out of three at home and three of their last five.  In Sunday’s grim loss to Wisconsin, Ohio State had silly turnovers and couldn’t hit free throws, allowing the Badgers to stay in the game and pull out a last-second win.  The team seemed disorganized and undisciplined at crunch time.  These aren’t the kinds of qualities you want to see as tournament time arrives.  If a team can’t figure out to gut out close games, their season is likely to come to an early end.

Tonight’s game against Northwestern will be a good test.  The Wildcats are fighting for a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time, and a win over Ohio State would bring that dream a lot closer.  Northwestern already has beaten Michigan State this season, and behind their senior and scoring machine John Shurna they are fully capable of hanging another loss on the Buckeyes.  If Ohio State hopes to win this game, key players like Jared Sullinger, Aaron Craft, and William Buford need to step up and provide leadership at key moments, the team needs to play defense and rebound, and the players need to play smart basketball — which includes making their shots at the charity stripe.  It’s time for this Buckeye team to pull together and start playing like a contender.

Home Cooking For The Buckeyes

Ohio State blitzed Illinois yesterday and avoided having an actual losing streak for the first time in years.  Playing in front of a friendly home crowd, the Buckeyes shot lights out in the first half and gave their reserves plenty of playing time in the second half.  They ended up beating Illinois 83-67, in a game that really wasn’t as close as the final score.

For Ohio State fans, there was joy in seeing the Buckeyes shoot the ball well.  As Uncle Mack has (gleefully) pointed out in his last few basketball-related posts, Ohio State has thrown up its share of bricks in the losses to Michigan State and Michigan.  Against Illinois — which, admittedly, is not one of the toughest defensive teams in the Big Ten — the Buckeyes shot 65 percent from the field and better than 50 percent from beyond the three-point arc.  Getting some fast-break baskets and dunks certainly helped.

I’m convinced that there are two keys to how well the Buckeyes do for the rest of the year:  William Buford and Aaron Craft.  When Buford plays within the offense and shoots the ball reasonably well, Ohio State becomes a more multi-dimensional offensive team that is much harder to guard.  Craft, on the other hand, is the engine that makes the team run.  When he gets steals and forces turnovers, and particularly when he takes the ball down the lane and either dishes or shoots, he converts Ohio State from a very good team into a real contender.

The Buckeyes finish the season with a home game against gritty Wisconsin, a visit to Evanston to play Northwestern, and then the rematch against Michigan State.  We’ll find out soon enough whether the Buckeyes’ home cooking against Illinois was the start of a good-shooting trend, or just the result of playing an overmatched opponent that is wrestling with all kinds of demons.

The Big Ten Free-For-All

This afternoon Ohio State hosts Indiana at the Schott.  Even though the season is young, it’s being viewed as a must-win game for the Buckeyes — but then again, just about every game in the Big Ten this year may be of the must-win variety.

This year appears to be the most balanced Big Ten in years.  Only five games in, every team has lost at least one game.  Northwestern’s huge upset win yesterday over unbeaten Michigan State proved, again, that no game can be taken for granted.  As of today, Michigan State and Illinois stand at 4-1, four teams, including the Buckeyes, have two losses, and three teams have three losses.

That’s why Ohio State’s game today against Indiana is seen as a must-win contest.  The Buckeyes lost to Indiana in a foul-plagued, turnover-heavy game at Assembly Hall, so they need to win today to even the season series.  Ohio State also lost at Illinois when Illinois’ Brandon Paul had one of those magical games where he simply could not miss.  If the Buckeyes want to stay within range of Illinois and Michigan State, they need to put today’s game in the win column.  We’ll be looking for our senior, William Buford, to lead the way.

As an Ohio State fan, I want the Buckeyes to win every game by 30 points.  As a sports fan, however, I’m enjoying an unpredictable Big Ten season where many talented teams get the chance to beat up on each other.

Roll Out The Roundball

Tonight Big Ten basketball teams begin playing their conference schedules.  Wisconsin takes on Nebraska, and Illinois plays Minnesota.  Ohio State kicks off its Big Ten season tomorrow against Northwestern.

It should be a very interesting Big Ten season.  By far the most surprising team so far has been Indiana.  The Hoosiers, who were woeful the past few years, are undefeated and have a last-second win over mighty Kentucky under their belts.  Many people thought Indiana was a year away, but perhaps coach Tom Crean and the young Hoosiers have other ideas. We’ll get a good sense of the Hoosiers’ real strength soon enough — they open at Michigan State and then welcome the Buckeyes to Assembly Hall in what should be a barn burner.

I haven’t seen all of the Big Ten teams play yet, but the conference appears to be strong and deep.  Ohio State likely would be the favorite if Jared Sullinger were 100 percent, but he has been hobbled by injuries and his status throws the conference race up for grabs.  Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Purdue are always tough.  Minnesota has been a surprise — although they really haven’t played much of a schedule — Michigan has lots of talent, and Illinois and Northwestern have gotten off to good starts.  Northwestern, in particular, is a challenge to play because they run a back-cut offensive scheme that other teams don’t see very often.

Of course, that’s one of the great things about college basketball — coaches can play different schemes and use different looks that can catch opponents off-guard and allow for upsets.  This year’s Big Ten conference race should be competitive, and entertaining.  Let’s get it started!


Embarrassment In Evanston

Northwestern University is dealing with an embarrassing story that is, I think, symptomatic of some deeper problems with higher education in America.

The story has to do with a popular class called Human Sexuality that is taught by a psychology professor.  The class often offers optional after-class events, such as presentations by panels of convicted sex offenders, question and answer sessions with “swingers,” and similar programming.  Last week, however, the optional after-class event featured a naked, non-student woman being repeatedly sexually stimulated by a provocatively named sex toy.  Moreover, the man who presented the demonstration says Northwestern will pay him between $300 and $500 for the performance.

Not surprisingly, once the story leaked there was an uproar.  Equally predictably, the professor defended the presentation as being educational about sexual diversity.  The professor says his students are open-minded about such things, and added in a statement that students find “the events to be quite valuable, typically, because engaging real people in conversation provides useful examples and extensions of concepts students learn about in traditional academic ways.”

I am sick to death of absurd activity being defended in the name of “academic freedom” and “intellectual curiosity.”  Is a university professor really unable to appreciate that having a university pay someone to present a naked woman being stimulated by a sex toy is offensive and inconsistent with an institution of higher learning?  Does the professor really not understand that such a demonstration is better suited to an X-rated theater or a Dutch sex show?  Is it too much to expect that people might actually have a sense of propriety about something so outlandish?  This is the kind of story that makes American colleges seem like an increasingly ribald joke, obsessed with pandering to the hedonistic and prurient interests of students who are more interested in having a good time than actually becoming educated.

The Big Ten Basketball Meat Grinder

A lot of people have been saying that the Big Ten is the strongest basketball conference in the country this year, and it is beginning to look like they might be right.  Five games into the conference schedule (six for Minnesota, Northwestern, and Penn State), it looks like the Big Ten has a number of very good teams, lots of wonderful players, and a conference race that is and will continue to be up for grabs.  This is a conference where anything can happen on any given night of rugged Big Ten play.

The Buckeyes sit atop the standings at 5-0, a record that includes three invaluable road wins.  Ohio State has not been blowing its opponents out of the gym, however.  In its last four games Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan, and Penn State have taken the Buckeyes down to the wire, and we can expect more of the same as opponents develop ways to defend against Ohio State’s inside-outside game.  Saturday’s game against Penn State was a good example.  The Buckeyes pulled out to a ten-point lead, Penn State went to a zone that took Ohio State out of its game, and it took some last-second heroics from Jared Sullinger to ensure the victory.  It is clear that Penn State — which has been one of the surprises of the conference this year, having already upset Michigan State and Illinois — has a very good, well-coached team, led by senior guard Talor Battle and other experienced players.  They will give other teams fits.

Right behind the Buckeyes, at 4-1, are Michigan State and Purdue.  Michigan State has not been overwhelming — it needed overtime to win its last two home games, against Wisconsin and Northwestern — but it has found a way to win, and the Spartans always seem to be in the thick of the conference race under their great coach, Tom Izzo.  Purdue may have the best one-two combination in the conference in splendid senior center JaJuan Johnson and senior guard E’Twaun Moore and won its first four conference games handily before losing at Minnesota.  The always-tough Wisconsin Badgers, with their deliberate offense, and athletic Illinois are 3-2, the surprising Nittany Lions and the huge Minnesota Golden Gophers are 3-3, and spunky Northwestern stands at 2-4.  Indiana and Michigan, at 1-4, and Iowa, still winless, round out the conference — but don’t think they aren’t putting up a fight.  Michigan and Iowa both played well in their home games against the Buckeyes and gave Ohio State all it could handle.

This may be the best and deepest the Big Ten has ever been in basketball — and that is saying something.  The upcoming games where the top teams try to knock each other off, in the kind of bruising battles you expect in the Big Ten, should be epic.

A Big Ten Bowl Day

Today five Big Ten teams play in bowl games.  The big game will be Wisconsin versus TCU in the Rose Bowl, but other Big Ten teams also will have a chance to strut their stuff on the national stage.  Northwestern matches up against Texas Tech, Michigan State plays Alabama, Michigan will break its bowl drought against Mississippi State, and Penn State and Florida will square off.  I’ll be rooting for all of those Big Ten teams — even Michigan.

In recent years Big Ten fans have paid careful attention to the conference’s bowl record.  They feel like the Big Ten is disrespected on the national level, particularly in comparison to the SEC.  (I regret to say that Ohio State is responsible for a lot of this perception.  The Buckeyes are one of the Big Ten’s flagship programs, and they have never beaten an SEC team in a bowl game.  That record unfortunately includes two national championship game losses.)  Bowl games are supposed to be fun, but for the Big Ten they are serious business, and not just because they produce significant revenue for the member schools.  Big Ten fans want everyone to recognize what they believe to be true — that the Big Ten is the best conference in the country, with the biggest stadiums, the richest traditions, the greatest rivalries, and the most dedicated fans.  If you want to exercise such bragging rights, however, you have to earn them on the field.

This year the Big Ten has gotten off to a good start in bowl season.  It is 2-0, with Illinois and Iowa both posting bowl wins.  Today will tell the tale, however, particularly since three of the bowl games match up the Big Ten and the SEC.  Each of the games, moreover, poses intriguing questions and matchups.  How will Northwestern perform without their fine quarterback, Dan Persa, and will it be able to win its first bowl game since the Truman Administration?  Can Michigan State put a signature win over the defending national champions as a capstone on a break-through season that has seen the Spartans win 11 games?  How will Michigan’s Denard Robinson fare against the Bulldogs, and can the beleaguered Michigan defense keep the Wolverines in the game?  And which Penn State and Florida teams will show up for the Outback Bowl?

To me, the most interesting game will be Wisconsin versus TCU in the Grandaddy of them all.  I haven’t had a chance to see much of the Horned Frogs and their top-ranked defense, and there are lingering questions about the toughness of TCU’s schedule and the Mountain West Conference.  TCU will have a chance to answer those questions when its faces Wisconsin’s power running game.  If Wisconsin wins convincingly, on the other hand, it will quiet complaints about the BCS system by members of non-BCS conferences.

Too Wet or Too Hot?

Kish, Russell and I have made it home safely after the Northwestern graduation festivities; Richard will be home in a day or two as he enjoys the last few moments of college life.  The long drive gave us the opportunity for some additional reflection on the weekend, and two additional points seem worth making.

After Friday’s rain-soaked ceremony, Kish and I were surprised and a bit critical of the Administration’s decision to have graduation outdoors, despite the threatening weather advancing from the west.  After we attended Saturday’s Weinberg School graduation in the Welsh-Ryan Fieldhouse, however, we have a much better appreciation for the context of the Administration’s decision.   Even with only the Weinberg School graduates and their guests in attendance, the Fieldhouse was ludicrously hot on Saturday morning, with almost no air circulation save for that caused by furious (and largely ineffective) fanning of graduation programs.  It is impossible to imagine how hot it would have been if the Friday night graduation ceremony for the entire university had been moved indoors and every seat was filled with panting parents and grandparents.  Confronted with that unattractive option, the decision to go ahead and have the ceremony outdoors and hope that the weather would cooperate seems much more reasonable.

I also think attending a college graduation makes the other “graduation” ceremonies we have attended seem silly.  Our kids, like many other schoolchildren, went through “graduations” after fourth grade and eighth grade.  At the time, and even more in retrospect, the lower school and middle school “graduations” seem like foolish contrivances that cheapen the real meaning of graduation.  Perhaps those ceremonies are an outgrowth of the same suffocating, overly protective parental attitudes that require every kid who participates in an organized sport to receive a trophy, no matter how poorly they performed.  The significance of trophies have been sacrificed on the altar of general “self-esteem,” and so to an extent has the significance of graduation ceremonies.  Graduation from college is “graduation” in the literal sense — the student receives an academic degree — and also in the sense of the Latin root of the word, gradus, which means a step.  Regardless of what the graduate may go on to do, he or she has taken an irrevocable step forward into adulthood and a career.  College graduation is truly a momentous occasion, and I hope Richard and his classmates recognize its significance.  (Of course, when I graduated I didn’t.)

This link will take you to an on-line newspaper report on the NU graduation.  I’m sure that Northwestern officials appreciate that the story includes some comments from parents on the cost of a Northwestern education.

A Memorable Graduation

Richard received his diploma from Northwestern University last night, and it was a memorable evening for many reasons.  He got the job done in four years, got very good grades from a school where academic performance still means something, and contributed to the school community through his work as a radio DJ and as a columnist for the campus newspaper.  It is important to reflect on such accomplishments when graduation day comes — it is one of the reasons that the day exists.

In the future, when our family remembers the day, I think we will recall three things in particular.  First, Wynton Marsalis made a valiant attempt to provide a meaningful address to the graduates, despite looming threatening weather conditions that required the entire ceremony to be abbreviated, and I think he succeeded.  His gave the first page and last page of his prepared remarks, and still managed to deliver thoughts that were positive and well-suited to the occasion — and punctuated by a sweet little bit of trumpet work. 

Second, we didn’t manage to escape the rain and storms that rolled through Evanston all day.  The school administration made the call to have the ceremony outside at the football field, and as soon as the last speaker sat down the skies opened.  We all got soaked waiting for the shuttle buses to return us to the downtown area.  This article says the rainfall set a record for the day, and I am not surprised.  You know it was a real gullywasher when there is so much rain they have to close beaches.

Finally, we ended the night with an exceptionally good meal at Va Penzione, a restaurant we have been hearing about, and trying to dine at, for four years.  It was worth the wait.  The food was excellent, the wine was superb, and the company and conversation were wonderful.  Although we had been soaked to the skin at variouis points during the day (and will forever curse the bus driver who bypassed our shuttle bus line as we waited in monsoon-like conditions) it will be a day that Kish and I always will remember with pride.

Congratulations, Richard!


Me ripping a toilet out of the wall of a house we helped tear down in the Everglades

Me ripping a toilet out of the wall of a house we helped tear down in the Everglades

Carrying the toilet out of the house

Carrying the toilet out of the house

About to dislodge the window frame with a crowbar. Once I accidentally hit the glass and had to go outside to collect all the pieces

About to dislodge the window frame with a crowbar. Once I accidentally hit the glass and had to go outside to collect all the pieces

Here’s my long-awaited second post about the ASB trip I took last spring break.

The day after we destroyed the house, we got up early again, as usual. One of the worst parts about the trip was using the bathroom in the church we stayed in. Only the girls bathroom had showers, three of them. The bathroom floor flooded whenever we used them, so after a day the tile floor was a mess of fallen hairs, wet towels, and loose clothing. The showers were so small a guy my size couldn’t turn his body around without hitting the walls. The dividers between the showers were so short that when the guys used them they could see each other’s heads. The conversations the guys had in the showers became one of the running jokes in the trip. I didn’t participate in the conversations though – everyone on the trip took their showers at night, but I can’t stand that, so I got up ten minutes earlier than everyone else to shower in the morning.

We drove an hour to get to our site. It’s too bad we had to stay an hour away from where we worked. We debated a few times whether or not the trip had a net positive environment impact, considering all the driving we did.

Here we are in front of the trees we trimmed

Here we are in front of the trees we trimmed

Jeray put us to work trimming some palm trees growing outside a museum in the national park. I took a lopper and cut down branches that were too low or went out too far. Some of the girls took the cut branches and put them in piles. Then a ranger brought a pickup truck and we threw the branches into the back. It got full fast, so I climbed on top and compressed the pile of branches by stepping on them. It was fun.

The next day we finally got to do what we came to do – real environmental work. We drove to the ocean, where we got onto a boat that took us to a little island. The floor of the island was comprised of crushed sea shells in many places. Jeray told us the island was once inhabited by natives, then by a wealthy family who built a house there, the stone foundations of which were still standing near where we docked. We walked through some wilderness to a barren area. It was very hot every day we were there (I forget if it was two or three days). There was little breeze at the center of the island, and the white sea shell fragments seemed to reflect heat. We made sure to drink a lot of water.

On the boat

On the boat

Our job on the island was to remove an invasive species, the Agave plant. Actually, there were native Agave plants on the islands that were distinguishable because they had ridges on the edges of their leaves. Let me tell you, there are few non-poisonous plants you want to stay away from more than Agave plants. There are painful spikes at the tip of each leaf that hurt like hell if you ran into them, which you inevitably did. Actually I’m not sure whether they should be called leaves. They were more parts of a cactus: firm, with a watery inside. Their firmness made the spikes hurt even more. It was important to cover as much skin as possible, and we all wore sunglasses so our eyes wouldn’t be poked.

Some people spent the entire day going ahead of the group and cutting off all the spikes was loppers, and the rest of us would tear the plants out of the ground. The roots often went deep and were tangled with other roots, making this difficult. When we finally uprooted the plant, we either threw it into a big pile, rested it on a branch, or threw it onto an area of ground that was so salty there was no threat of the plant taking root there and growing again.

Prying one of the plants out of the ground

Prying one of the plants out of the ground

You can see the chopped-off tips

You can see the chopped-off tips

On the last day on the island, another girl on the trip and I walked around with a woman who was working for the park. She had just graduated from college and was eager to be around people her own age, because usually she worked alone. She had a plastic canister of some sort of plant killing solution on her back, and our job was to clear the way so she could spray it on the center of an invasive tree species. Her backpack started leaking and the toxic orange liquid got all over her shirt.

At the end of the last day, all the guys got together to work on the biggest Agave plant we could find. It looked like something out of Land of the Lost. It had grown to the height of a tall tree, with the center branch turning into a trunk about six inches thick. We rocked it back and forth until it finally fell. Jeray told us it was already dead, but we were proud anyway.

With the epic agave plant, striking a famous pose

With the epic agave plant, striking a famous pose

We only worked three hours or so a day, due to our long drive, the heat, and frankly the lack of much work to be done. The work could be hard sometimes, but it was fun. Honestly, it seemed more like a vacation than a service trip for me, and I think most students treat ASB that way.

Observing the alligators

Observing the alligators

Most nights, we drove to an area of the park with a boardwalk that allowed us to view alligators and other species common to the everglades. We got pretty close to the alligators. We must have seen dozens, but they almost never moved, even blinked. One girl shone a flashlight into the open eye of one of them at night for at least a few minutes, and it did nothing. Seeing one actually glide through the water was rare, and I never saw one walk on land. There was a dead alligator in the water that turned a disgusting white and smelled horrible. Perhaps the most exciting alligator moment happened when another alligator came up and bit the body.

At the end of the week, we packed our possessions into the vans and started the drive back. There was a little dispute over what to do with the half-day or so we had for recreation. About half of us, including me, wanted to lounge around on the beach in Miami. The others were obsessed with seeing a manatee and wanted to go to the manatee park. We took a vote, and the beach option won.

On the beach in Miami

On the beach in Miami

We ate lunch at a bar in Miami with a surly Australian waitress, then we spent some time at the beach. The people who wanted to see the manatee were making it clear they weren’t enjoying themselves, sitting on benches near the entrance of the beach and watching us lay there. Finally, the site leader who led the manatee faction pressured us into leaving the beach to see the manatees, and we did. We drove an hour or so to a manatee park, but there were no manatees to be seen. We left and drove north.

I don’t remember where we slept that night. The next day, we drove through a big storm in Georgia. We ate at a Waffle House because one of the guys on the trip was curious what it was like. I think I was the only one who had been to a Waffle House before. Since Waffle House is predominantly a southern chain, and Columbus has Waffle Houses, they joked that this made Columbus part of the south.

At the Royal Inn we stayed at the last night

At the Royal Inn we stayed at the last night

We were so eager to get home that we ignored ASB rules and drove through the night, arriving in Evanston around one or two in the morning. We slept on the floor of the apartment of one of the site leaders. When we woke up the next morning, there was snow on the ground.