Coronavirus Diary: Week Four

When last week’s gradual closure of parking options limited access to my running stairs, I started biking there instead. But the inevitable occurred, and the stairs shut down completely. Now my go-to outdoor exercise is a 20-mile bike ride along the bay.

Other activities during the Coronavirus crisis include standing in line to get into Trader Joe’s and wondering why major TV networks don’t replay more classic sports. While I wandered the TV desert on Easter Sunday, Willie texted, asking if I planned to watch the H-O-R-S-E competition.

Hell, no!

He texted back wondering what had happened to me. What has happened is that I won’t settle for junk “sports.” If the games don’t matter, I’d rather work, read or write. When it’s TV time, a quick channel check occasionally turns up a classic, such as this one that aired on Showtime last night.

Even without the suspense of the original fight, the athleticism and courage still inspire. A meaningful story still unfolds. That’s why the next bit of appointment TV sports will be Sunday’s debut of “The Last Dance.”

Can’t wait!

Next post in this series: Coronavirus Diary: Anniversary

Series begins at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Coronavirus Diary: Week Three

The Coronavirus crisis is both slowly and suddenly squeezing out my sustenance. Most immediately, as seen in the sign of the times shown above, government-ordered park closures limit access to my running hill.

Even before the park closed, a motorcycle cop patrolled the bike path at the bottom of the hill to check for social distancing. Then, the parking lot shut down. Then, when too many people walked in, the nearby street parking turned into a towaway zone.

Granted, this is a first-world problem. Especially now, I appreciate my privilege. But, this being a personal diary, it’s worth noting that the gradual limitation of access to this workout — which has been my saving grace during shelter-in-place — starts to feel, at least metaphorically, like a noose tightening around my neck.

The less I can use that hill run to deepen my breath and blast my lungs to gasping each morning, the shorter and shallower my breath becomes throughout the rest of the day. Short, shallow breath is a symptom of anxiety, a natural reaction to the stress of the Coronavirus crisis, given that in week three:

– Coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S. surpassed 10,000 and the Trump Administration estimated that number would reach anywhere from 100,000 to 240,000.

– Today’s election in Wisconsin, where I spent much of my childhood and still have family and friends, carries the stench of dying democracy.

– Although unrelated to Coronavirus, Bill Withers died.

Next post in this series: Coronavirus Diary: Week Four

Series begins at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Coronavirus Diary: Opening Day

Opening Day at Wrigley Field, 1977

On most Major League Baseball Opening Days, I play hooky and watch the Cubs. But on this Opening Day, there is no game to watch and nothing to play hooky from.

Opening Day’s significance lies in the sense of hope it provides. After all, it is the one day that the Cubs are guaranteed to be tied for first place.

More broadly, in terms of hope, Opening Day symbolizes springtime, rescue and renewal from the depths of winter, reward for the faith that hope engenders. Opening Day is another expression of the metaphor contained within Easter and Passover.

On most other Opening Days, we congregate at Clark and Addison, pressed body on body, inching our way toward the gates. Then we enter to the familiar, the sound of the same program hawker forever, the smells of popcorn and beer.

As we rise, walking the steps and ramps, we catch a glimpse of the field and our hearts race. Then, emerging from the tunnel that leads to our aisle, we see a sea of green.

Each shade is different, the ancient scoreboard pale and washed out compared with the rich outfield grass and the deep forest tint of the seats. All those greens mean hope. Even the missing green, the not-yet-grown-in ivy, signals hope because we know those leaves will return soon.

Even with so much hope wrapped up in Opening Day, the loss of today’s occasion to the Coronavirus crisis is no cause for despair. Coming of age and becoming a Cubs fan in the last years of Ernie Banks’ career, I was inspired by his famous, “Let’s play two.”

Enduring some of the worst seasons in baseball history, Mr. Cub still wanting to play two was a clear call to look on the bright side. Cubs fans are optimists. Although Opening Day won’t happen today, it will someday.

Next post in this series: Wolf Pack Ninjas Campaign

Series starts at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Coronavirus Diary: New Live Sports

The last few days at my running hill at Seal Point Park, I have seen an amazing display of athleticism. After my regular 20-minute HIIT run on Sunday, stretching on the turf at the foot of the hill, I noticed a young woman balancing on one foot, her other leg stretched parallel to the ground, a perfect 90-degree angle. You can see that in most yoga classes, but while in that pose, she was doing resistance band work that surely should have toppled her.

I’d never seen that before, so I watched for a while and soon could not look away, because when she released the pose, she shook and shimmied like one of those undulating tube man balloons in front of an auto dealership, but with no break in the fluidity, and then she flowed into a regimen that showed unwavering strength and precise form – board-straight push-ups on one fist or both, sometimes with a leg lifted – mixed with yoga, dance, runway model struts, stretches, splits, knees-past-her-nose karate kicks, and Cirque du Soleil-caliber contortionism.

It was sheer joy of motion embodied. Her routine seemed at once both spontaneous and choreographed. That impossibility illustrates how the bending body can bend the mind.

Today, answering my request from the prescribed six-foot distance, Lucy gave me permission to shoot video. In these Coronavirus days, this experience is the closest I get to watching live sports and provides new understanding of why that activity is so valuable.

One reason is that in much of the rest of daily life, you pretty much know what you’re going to see. Although some facets of sports are predictable, our games are set up to deliver surprises. Even if the scoreboard doesn’t deliver on that count, the individual instances of improbable reactions and responses of able bodies and minds can still shock and awe.

Another reason to value watching live sports is the admiration, the aesthetic appreciation, of feats we cannot manage but can imagine performing. Even before Sunday, I had tried every single move in Lucy’s repertoire and completed exactly none of them.

You may feel the same about painting or playing guitar or auto repair or wealth accumulation. I’ve never given any of those an earnest try. But when you know how hard it is to do the thing you’re seeing someone else do, and when you think of what must have gone into getting them there, you can’t help but have hope that whatever you put your most into will happen.

Next post in this series: Coronavirus Diary: Opening Day

Series starts at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Coronavirus Diary: Workweek One

Monday, March 16, the Bay Area counties issued their shelter-in-place order to start the next day. Unsure of the restrictions, we ran all the errands we could think of that we might not be able to run the next day. Or for the duration of the order.

Client emails arrived, revising project priorities and timing. Most essentially said, “Stand down.” I submitted an article to Saint Thomas Academy, a revised poetry curriculum to Citizen Schools on the off chance that middle-school students would return to McKinley Institute of Technology this school year, and a draft email for Fit Kids to send as an update to its community whenever the time was right.

Our local Safeway looked Soviet. Lengthy lines wound around mostly bare shelves. I took one look and left, because by then it was clear that the shelter-in-place order set for Tuesday would exempt grocery shopping. On Tuesday, the store was empty enough to quickly shop for the few necessities in stock, but it wasn’t until Thursday morning that I found a package of toilet paper, the last one left.

Fortunately, the shelter order also exempted outdoor exercise. I did my normal HIIT run on the hill at Seal Point Park every day, followed by the stretches prescribed by my clients at Ferox Yoga. This routine seemed more critical than ever to keep depression from creeping up and over me during the Coronavirus crisis.

Fighting depression won’t be easy, knowing how many people the Coronavirus afflicts and bracing for the day that number includes people I love. It will be a challenge to balance watching enough media to stay informed but not enough to be overwhelmed.  It will help when that media consumption offers posts like this from one of my Wolf Pack Ninja clients, Travis Brewer.

Next post in this series: Coronavirus Diary: New Live Sports

Series starts at Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

Coronavirus Diary: Introduction

My Adidas arrived by FedEx on Tuesday, just as the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place order took effect. Ordinarily, I would have been watching the “First Four” games of March Madness, but the tournament was canceled, supplanted by serious madness and sadness.

The new Dame 6’s — left out front without a doorbell ring, reducing risk of infection — would replace my Dame 2’s, whose four years of mileage and worn tread worsened the chronic, morbid soreness in my knees, anles and feet. Of course, this is nothing to complain about in the age of Coronavirus, but it signaled to me that, as Cardi says, “Shit is getting real!”

Every March that I can remember, the NCAA Basketball Tournament has inspired me to ball as much as possible, and that heats up even more with the start of the NBA playoffs. Whether imagining myself as Norm Van Lier, Butch Lee, Dr. J, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, or now, Damian Lillard, the fantasy fuels me.

This March, the confluence of tourney time, my friend Willie’s invitation to join his gym’s over-55 run, and Dame’s dope drop delivered cosmic reassurance that these new shoes would carry me into the next, and probably last, phase of my basketball life. But the night of March 11, it became apparent that televised basketball was ending. Two days later, Friday the 13th, Willie’s run ran its last even before the shelter-in-place order.

In troubled times, since childhood, I turn to family and friends, basketball, and writing. Without basketball, as long as friends and family stay fine, more time and energy will go toward writing. It’s the best way for me to process the Coronavirus crisis and maybe the only way I can contribute to anyone else’s comfort.

That’s what I’ll do here most days – writing about sports or even more important personal and professional topics – at least until the return of Dame Time.

Next post in this series:

Coronavirus Diary: Weekend One

Kobe

For a long time, I was not much a fan of Kobe Bryant, who died yesterday at age 41 in a helicopter crash that also killed his daughter Gianna and seven others en route to a youth basketball tournament. Early in his NBA career, he was a wannabe Michael Jordan. He conducted an unseemly feud with Shaquille O’Neal for alpha status that helped unravel a Lakers dynasty.

Most importantly, at the end of a felony sexual assault case against him, he confessed to non-consensual sex with his accuser. There is no getting around that.

Later in his career, however, especially outside the media, in more intimate settings, I began to appreciate him. The first time was at the Lakers’ shoot-around the afternoon of Game 3 in the 2007 playoff series against the Phoenix Suns.

I attended by invitation of Lakers Head Coach Phil Jackson, a professional acquaintance back then, to interview Assistant Coach Tex Winter and raise Tex’s profile as a Hall of Fame candidate. Kobe arrived late to that shoot-around, perhaps due to receiving treatment for injury or illness.

But when he arrived, the energy in the gym changed. He watched the walk-through like a hawk. Players became much more intentional and attentive, even though Kobe was just watching. Because Kobe was watching.

That energy reminded me of attending a press conference for the presentation of one of Michael Jordan’s MVP awards. He entered from the back of the room, and the feeling in that space changed even before I saw him. By 2007, even if Kobe was not on Jordan’s level as a legend – with two more NBA titles yet to come – he was way past a wannabe.

Near the end of the team’s practice, Kobe hoisted a few jump shots. He couldn’t help himself, his love of the game ran so deep. Then Kobe swaggered out of the gym, and his teammates followed with a swagger unseen earlier. He dropped 45 on the Suns that night.

The next time I saw Kobe outside of the media was at the October 2018 Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program’s Project Play Summit. He’d retired from the NBA as an elder statesman, one of the all-time greats, known for his five championships and as many individual accolades as anyone who ever played, known for his work ethic and his fierce competitiveness.

Now, Kobe was onto using the platform of his fame to change the world for good. He’d started coaching Gianna’s team and was concerned enough with the state of youth sports to spend an afternoon with a few hundred like-minded folks.

The Summit included Kobe leading a panel discussion with four athletes ages 11-13, titled “What if Youth Designed Youth Sports?” and another session on “The Meaning of Play” with his childhood friend, Kevin Carroll, the author and former Philadelphia 76ers athletic trainer.

Kobe’s roles in these events were not ceremonial. They were hard, earnest, honest work with much more payoff for everyone else in the room than for Kobe himself. This work required Kobe to be humble and genuine, especially with the kids.

He was as prepared as he had ever been on-court and performed with the same aplomb. If you didn’t know better, you would never have thought he was any kind of celebrity, let alone one of the world’s most famous athletes, a global icon, Oscar winner, and multi-lingual budding Renaissance man.

Ferocious, competitive, mean-mugging Mamba — in this new venue — channeled all the same intensity that fueled his basketball career into an equal measure of kindness, gentleness, and playfulness. He had become a man in full and stayed that way until yesterday.

St. Thomas Academy and the Spirit of Minnesota

I love the smell of free coconut shrimp at Outback Steakhouse in the morning after the Minnesota Golden Gophers beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl. It smells like…victory.

Like crazy Colonel Kilgore, zealotry infused this historic Minnesota football season. For me that stemmed from an unusually spiritual visit with clients at Saint Thomas Academy.

My travel to the Catholic, boys, military, college-prep school was timed for the final home football game of the season. The purpose was to gather material for future alumni magazine and website stories from, among others, Coach Dan O’Brien, whom I had interviewed by phone for an oral history of the football program.

That phone call with the former University of Minnesota assistant coach resonated. He’s old school, so we spoke of Vikings legend Dave Osborn and some of the Gophers we knew in common going back to my time at “the U” as sports editor of the Minnesota Daily. We also touched on the story of his son, Casey, who plays for the Gophers even as he fights cancer.

But before meeting O’Brien, there was other business and pleasure to pursue during this homecoming. First was a fantastic walleye dinner at Hazelwood with my friend Mary Hickey, who provided a primer in Catholicism during our childhood in a way that feeds my work with Saint Thomas Academy.

Life doesn’t get more Minnesota than a meal of the local lake delicacy and conversation spiced with Mary’s soulful, rooted values. That talk left me even more prepared for the next morning to finally set foot on the gorgeous grounds of the Academy.

Deborah Edwards — my direct client, and herself a former Gopher Sports marketer — had a full day of interviews and campus touring planned. Walking the halls of this institution, albeit in newer buildings on a different site than its 1885 founding, a sense of history and honor pervaded. You could see how kids would want to live out the Cadet Creed.

That also reflected in the “formation” ceremony, which the Cadets run with precision, formality and fun. They report their news, make announcements, present colors, pledge allegiance, accept competitive honors, receive the daily Senior Speech required of all graduating students, and exhibit the spirit expected on a Football Friday.

Interviews with Norma Gutierrez and Casey Erickson for a website feature article and with several young men for these Meet Our Students profiles led me to understand what distinguishes Saint Thomas Academy from so many other schools. The boys make their own beds and lie in them.

Even within the constraints of both the Catholic church and military hierarchy, many aspects of the Academy’s curriculum and social structure are very much of, by and for the students. Whatever else they learn, and that’s a lot, they learn how to make decisions and live with them.

Impressed by the History Room, with its century’s worth of medals and badges, the Innovation Center, with its student-built electric vehicles, the pool, the gym, the ceramics studio, the chapel, and most of all the people, I still welcomed the end of the school day. I wanted to roam the Academy’s acres in solitude and soak in more of its spirit, including a trail that contained the Stations of the Cross and led down to Rogers Lake.

Soon the sun set. The air chilled. The wind picked up. It started snowing sideways. It was a perfect night for football in Minnesota.

Mercifully, Deborah had arranged for a seat in the press box. That added yet another layer to my sense of homecoming and made the Cadets’ 40-3 defeat of Hill-Murray School even more enjoyable.

On my Lyft ride to campus Saturday morning to meet with Coach O’Brien, the driver’s chatter turned to football. Hearing of my years at the U, he asked if I knew Darrell Thompson, who still holds most of the major Gopher rushing records. Assured I’d interviewed Darrell several times back in the ’80s, the driver unspooled a string of his own memories about what a great guy Darrell was and still is and how they used to do non-profit work together to benefit youth in Minnesota.

That driver put me in the way-back machine, which may have been the best place for me, because the chat with Coach O’Brien (not to be revealed until the next article comes out), was even more old-school than the first. We concentrated on quality of character, covering every throwback value imaginable. Given that he was not quite two years removed from coaching for the Gophers, I came away confident that they would do what they did yesterday.

The rest of that day and night, I was walking on air, from hiking Minnehaha Falls to visiting David and Lori Fhima (a past partner in crime around the 1980s Gophers football scene) at their restaurant. It was October-in-Minnesota brisk outside, just as invigorating in the present as it was in the past.

New England

New England is a tease. Hopeful leaf-peepers on the opposite coast — watching webcams and reading reports to help schedule the right flights — learn that a long-lingering New England summer delays the fall colors, and a too-early cold and wind strips the trees bare before we can get there.

Sometimes, the not knowing spices travel just right. You can plan perfectly for the Vatican or Taj Mahal, less so for a natural religious experience like the agony and the ecstasy of a New England autumn.

This fall, our schedule was set by Val’s conference attendance in Boston and the travel plans of our friends, Winky and Peter. As to leaf-peeping, in keeping with the stiff-upper-lip Calvinism that has ruled the region for four hundred years, we might get nothing and like it.

A surer thing was our first pilgrimage to Fenway Park. On the afternoon of a night game against the San Francisco Giants, Val finished her conference while I lunched with my childhood friend, Ross Bresler, at Summer Shack. We feasted on oysters and lobster roll, the first in a binge of which no Calvinist would approve.

Walking that meal off on Commonwealth Ave., Ross gave me the neighborhood download and listed his favorite Fenway haunts. I took in the art history class he teaches at Berklee College of Music and later met Val, Winky and Peter to hit the streets for a different kind of “cultchah” on the walk to Fenway.

The pre-game bar scene, especially Lansdowne Pub, heightened my decades-in-the-making anticipation. But nothing could have prepared me for the heart-skip upon entering the ballpark and then the bucket list first glimpse of the “Monstah.”

My physical reaction to the emotion of the moment shocked me. It took an hour to fully regain my breath. Head-swiveling and eye-scanning all the sights from our seats about twenty rows up from the Pesky Pole, I wondered whether it was the world’s most famous foul pole and suddenly realized its twin, struck by Carlton Fisk’s twelfth-inning homerun in game six of the 1975 World Series, might be even more famous.

What are the odds, I considered, of the two most famous foul poles standing in the same park? I both feared and embraced these mental meanderings. I worried about devoting brainspace to such minutiae and still congratulated myself on completing the pilgrimage that allowed for this foul pole epiphany.

That reverie ended at the start of a pre-game ceremonial handshake between Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski and his grandfather, Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski. The sky purpled over that famous Green Monster of a leftfield wall that shadowed Yaz’s career.

The next major sensation amid so many — Italian sausage scents, “R”s-beome-“Ah”s in the local dialect, the spinal twist needed in a hard narrow wooden seat for the forty-five-degree view of home plate — was the clang of Steven Vogt’s homerun off the Pesky Pole. In fifty years of watching baseball, I’d never heard anything like it. It never occurred to me that a foul pole would clang. Whatever sound Pudge Fisk’s homerun off the leftfield foul pole might have made in 1975 was drowned out by the crowd roar.

And it was again in 2019 when the outfield video board played a Chevrolet ad showing a montage of Fisk highlights set to Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock.” Whatever else happens at Fenway, they honor their history.

And their tradition.

Pondering tradition, I asked Peter what he’d missed most about New England in the decades since he’d left. “The stoicism,” he answered with all the elan of Calvin Coolidge. Then the Giants’ bats got hot and the night got cold, and we shivered stoically through a five-run Giants’ ninth and a quiet last three outs for the Sox.

The next day, Winky and Peter left for their country house in Norwich, Vermont. Val and I started toward Portland, Maine, stopping in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to eat at Surf, on the recommendation of a Bay Area colleague, who had waited tables there. The view was spectacular.

So was the lobster roll, washed down by a bottle of Lord Hobo Brewing Co. Boomsauce, which tasted as irresistible as its name. That lobster roll, though. The bread was so soft and buttery with just the right give, and the meat so fresh and sweet and juicy, that Val showed discomfort at my deep sighs and closed eyes. It was a “When Harry Met Sally” scene, but I was not faking.

In Portland that night, my high school friend, Daphne, took us to Duckfat, where you can guess what I ordered. Then we hit Blyth and Burrows, where we had a little downstairs speakeasy room to ourselves. We talked baseball and journalism and how both could help solve the world’s problems, just as we had since our teens, and we laughed a lot of the same laughs as we had then, plus some new ones until the night faded and so did we.

Daphne toured us around the Portland waterfront the next day, explaining its history and socio-economics, and leading us into mom-and-pop shops.

We stopped at The Porthole for a lunch of you know.

After the rest of Daphne’s tour of Portland, Val and I left for Norwich. We took the straight rural backroads route across New Hampshire, over the river and through the woods, which were just starting to turn red and yellow. Dusk brought us to Winky and Peter’s farmhouse, which was built in 1792 and was somehow historically significant in the westward migration of the Mormons.

For each of the next three syrup-slow days, we enjoyed home-cooked meals and cozy hardwood smoke smells around the fireplace. We stared at the trees in their yard and beyond and thought we could see them changing by the hour. On long walks through the hillsides, we glimpsed flurries of color here and there.

One afternoon, Peter and I golfed at a Donald Ross-designed nine-hole gem called Carter Country Club, which charged a near-criminal ten dollars for the privilege. The trees lining the fairways whispered autumn glory.

Too soon, it was time to fly back across the country. On our hurried interstate drive back to Boston, we saw this last little promise.

According to the webcams, we missed the peak by three weeks. Tantalized, we will return.