He went to Paris

Paris 001

A few months ago, I happened upon a photo album–more like a notebook, really–from a trip I took to Paris about 15 years ago. I’ve written about it before, and it remains to this day the best place that I have visited. There are some days when I think it’s Maui instead, but if someone were to ask me where I’d like to live if money (and language barriers) were no issue, I think I’d probably say Paris.

As I was flipping through the images of the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and the other places we went–at least before our camera was stolen at Luxembourg Gardens–this image jumped out at me for some reason. It was a man who dressed in white and stood stock still, in order to resemble a statue. He was a street performer, and he was located on one of the sidewalks near Notre Dame Cathedral.

It occurred to me that this picture was taken in the pre-digital age of photography. The further we get away from that period (it ended around 2002 for me), the more we forget what it was like. In particular, the uncertainty of how photos were going to turn out is now a thing of the past. The viewfinder tells all, these days.

So what happened was some person went to pose with the human statue, but at the last minute, the statue turned to look at someone else. It worked out fine for me, but the other person’s picture was ruined, in a way they probably didn’t realize until they got their film developed.

Time marches on, and I wonder if this Parisienne statue is still working the beat somewhere in Paris. Lucky him if he is, but I rather doubt it. Unlike an actual statue, he–like the rest of us–has to move around from time to time.

The preseason polls were only half right


The BCS doesn’t release their rankings until a few weeks into the college football season, and this year’s title game is exactly why they are right to do this. Since we don’t have any preseason BCS polls to look at, let’s look at another poll, from the Associated Press, instead.

The AP preseason top 25 poll was released before a single play had been run. Their findings were pure speculation. If you want to call them educated guesses, that’s fine, but there was nothing to actually back these guesses up with.

Alabama was ranked #2 in the AP preseason poll, which means that the people who vote in the AP polls got Alabama exactly right. They are one of the two best college football teams, and are playing to decide if they’re the best team of all. Hats off to the AP for calling that part.

But the supposed experts, to use a football analogy, fumbled the ball badly with the second half of the 1 vs. 2 matchup. Notre Dame, Alabama’s opponent for the football trophy that gets awarded after the game is decided, was nowhere to be found in the preseason AP  poll. To be fair, they were the first team left off the list, and a few educated guessers saw some potential in Notre Dame this season. But most of them missed it.

A 50% guess rate, which is what the AP had in their preseason poll, isn’t so great. In fact, it’s a great argument for why there shouldn’t be any preseason polls to begin with. It gives people who eat and breathe college football something to argue about back in August, I suppose, but this year’s results show that it’s generally just a waste of time and effort.

So hats off to the BCS, which I’m generally not fond of, for having the good sense to hold off until a few games have been played before trying to rank these teams against one another.

And the AP’s preseason #1 team? This is probably too sweet for Notre Dame fans, but it was USC. To remove the Trojans from the title game picture, and replace them with the Fighting Irish instead, must feel like quite a victory already for Notre Dame’s fans. But it would pale in comparison to a win on Monday night, which is why they play these games in the first place.

A year that stood out

On my way home from work today, I filled up the tank of my Prius at a gas station out in the suburbs. The Prius is one way to cope with the gas prices, since a fill-up runs about $25 at the most. With the minivan, it’s usually a lot more than that. A bigger tank is the culprit there. But saving an extra 10 cents a gallon by filling up in the suburbs, as opposed to doing it the city, is a smaller way to cope with high gas prices. Buying gas in Chicago is an extravagance that I usually avoid at all costs (no pun intended).

The gas station was empty when I pulled in, and there were 10 pumps available to meet my petroleum needs. I chose one of the pumps in the middle (number 6, I think it was), put the car in park, and stepped outside to get it over with. Laying on the ground was a penny, and I picked it up and looked at the date. 1995 was the date on the coin, and even though I’ve written about that year before, another memory came back to me and I wanted to get it out into this space. That way, I can comfort myself with knowing that I shared a story with whatever part of the internet might care to hear it.

In 1995, Northwestern’s football team suddenly became competitive. The 1970s and 1980s were not kind on the football field, and the winless season that coincided with my last year on campus was undoubtedly a low point. But the 1995 season started with a win over Notre Dame, followed by an inexplicable choke against Miami of Ohio which could have–and would have, in any previous year–set the death spiral in motion. But 1995 was different.

Gary Barnett’s team came back and won every game they played that year. They won all of their Big Ten games, and, as was the tradition in those days, they advanced to the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. Ah, the good old days before the BCS came along and mucked everything up.

When the Rose Bowl came around, Northwestern stood at 10-1 and was #3 in the national rankings. They were ahead in the fourth quarter of that game, too, and I had visions, if not of a national championship, then at least of a #2 finish in the polls. But it was not to be, since USC beat the Wildcats and they fell back in the final polls as a result. What a ride it was, though.

The leader of that team, Pat Fitzgerald, missed playing the Rose Bowl because he broke his leg in an earlier game. But he’s now the head coach of the football team at his alma mater and mine. I’ve often wondered if he’s thought about replicating that season as a coach. I suppose it would only be a surprise if he hadn’t thought about it.

The football team stands at 5-1 for the 2012 season, with some big games coming up in the weeks ahead. Hopefully they’ll finish well, and maybe even win a bowl game because the 1995 team, as good as it was, started a rather long bowl losing streak. Going to a bowl game doesn’t get old, but losing in the bowl game is getting a bit tiring.

Everything started to change in college football seventeen years ago, and the memory of that year still brings a smile to my face. May it be replaced by an even bigger smile in the years to come.

The year that the world changed

There have been a couple of times where I have found a penny on the sidewalk, picked it up, and used the date on that penny as a jumping off point for a post in this space. And so it was today, as I was visiting Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History. I hadn’t been there in many years, since the group of high schoolers that I taught throughout their four years graduated in that facility back in 2000. It was a turning point in their lives, and in mine as well, since I had decided to leave teaching and go try something else. So it was a graduation ceremony for me, as well.

Back in 2000, my older daughter was still a baby, and my younger daughter hadn’t yet been born. So going back to the DuSable Museum today with my wife and two daughters–none of whom had been there before–was a special experience for me. And as I was leaving, I saw a penny on the sidewalk. I picked it up, looked at the date, and saw a year that seems like another world ago.

It’s probably fair to say that every year brings some change in a person’s life. I’m not sure which year I learned how to read (probably 1973 or so), but my world was never again the same after that. So to single out any year as a pivotal moment, above any other year before or after it, isn’t the best way to use this space. But, having said all of this, I feel like something did change back in 1995, the year that was stamped on the penny I found on the sidewalk.

In that year, my long-suffering alma mater, Northwestern University, shocked the sporting world by going on a Rose Bowl run that’s still being talked about. The team started out the year by beating Notre Dame, and since the two schools haven’t played since, I still get to claim bragging rights on that front. But they lost the second game of the season, to Miami of Ohio, in stunning fashion, and it wasn’t until they beat Michigan in the “Big House” that the season really took flight. And I remember that game, and that weekend, well.

A friend of mine and my wife’s from college was living in Atlanta at the time, and over the Columbus Day weekend, we flew down there to visit him. We watched the Michigan-Northwestern game on ESPN, and after the game was over we went to a Braves’ playoff game at the old Fulton County Stadium. I could look up the Braves’ opponent that night if it mattered, but just going to a baseball game in October was a new experience for me.

I wore my Northwestern hat to the game that night, and heard some complimentary things from people who had watched the game that afternoon. Michigan was the team that everybody not affiliated with the school loved to hate, and apparently that feeling extended to Atlanta, too. But a football game in the afternoon, and a playoff baseball game at night, made it a special sports day for me.

But what happened after the game was even more lasting. Our Atlanta friend took us to his office, where he showed us this new thing called America Online. I hadn’t seen it before, but it was fascinating, and I’m pretty sure that my wife and I signed up for it shortly afterward. We had dial-up at the time (who didn’t back in 1995?), but being able to get on the computer and interact with others was a revolutionary thing back then. The cheesy AOL ad above was really what it was like for me, and probably for millions of others, as well.

Almost seventeen years have gone by since then, and today I can’t remember how long it’s been since I had AOL. But it was my gateway into the online world, and for that reason I’ll always remember that trip to Atlanta back in 1995.

Unbelievably stupid

If I had never driven through Indiana towards points east, I would probably be unaware that there even is a College Football Hall of Fame. But it does not surprise me at all that it can be found in South Bend, Indiana, since it is the the home of Notre Dame, Knute Rockne, the Four Horsemen, Touchdown Jesus, and all of that. Where else could such a place exist? (They’re moving it to Atlanta in two years’ time, but that’s beside the point here).

The story I came across today, four days after the fact, is that somebody over the weekend stole a sprinkler fitting from the Hall of Fame’s grounds. It was made of brass, which makes it worth something more than an everyday piece of metal. For what it’s worth, the downspout was stolen off the side of my house a few years back for that very reason.

The theft of this piece of brass set off a chain of events where water flowed back into the pipe, and the result was two inches of water in the basement, where many irreplaceable items were stored and presumably destroyed. When water meets paper, the paper always loses. And that goes for drywall, too.

No particular losses were mentioned, and I can only imagine what sort of artifacts and records must have been kept there. But that’s why the basement of my house–which was a Prohibition speakeasy and could be a really nice place–contains nothing of any value. Not only do thieves always come in through the basement widows, but water gets inside on a regular basis when it rains. It wasn’t rain in this case, but waterlogged drywall can’t really tell the difference, either.

The fool who committed this theft may have a hand in several other thefts in the South Bend area. It certainly stands to reason that if you know what you’re looking for, stealing one of these things isn’t terribly difficult. In the wake of these thefts, most likely, the insurance pays what they pay, the property owner pays the deductible, and everybody moves on as quickly as they can. But this is not so when irreplaceable artifacts are concerned.  Those are just gone forever.

Times are bad, but there has to be an honest way that  somebody can make the $5 that they would get by selling this piece for scrap. And whoever caused this will probably never be found, unless there is some surveillance camera or an eyewitness comes forward. There likely won’t be any closure in this sense, either, because the piece will probably be sold (if it hasn’t been already), and the perpetrators are moving on to locating the next thing they can steal. But several pieces of history are gone, and nothing can be done to bring them back.

Nobody died in this event, and I’m not suggesting that there aren’t more important things to get worked up over.  In Chicago earlier this year, a church deacon was pushed down a flight of stairs and killed when someone stole her iPhone. The thief in that case was caught, and will probably go away for a long time to eat and be sheltered on the taxpayers’ dime. But that won’t bring the deacon back, no more than fines or imprisonment will restore the materials lost in the Hall of Fame last weekend.

My point is simply that petty crimes like this can have major consequences, and we all have to bear the costs, either directly or indirectly. Human nature can be a real bummer sometimes.

Why college football is better than the NFL

I watched the Michigan/Notre Dame football game last night at a friend’s house, and I didn’t think it could possibly live up to the hype that preceded it. And boy, was I ever wrong! It was a roller coaster in the fourth quarter, the likes of which I can’t recall ever seeing before. Nothing the NFL has to offer, from today’s opening games until the Super Bowl next year, is going to top that.

Football itself did not originate with the NFL, but with elite colleges like Harvard and Yale. And it’s not hard to see why, either. The idea that a team is made up of students from the same school is where the sport first took root, and it grew and flourished for decades until one of college football’s greatest players, “Red” Grange, bucked tradition and began playing football for a living. So you could say that colleges had a jump of at least four decades or more on the pros, where football is concerned.

I watched last night’s game in Ann Arbor, with its announced crowd of almost 115,000 in the “‘Big House,” and wondered whether the NFL could ever attract a crowd of that size for a single game. I can’t imagine that many fans in one place without parking nightmares, fights breaking out, and all kinds of issues coming up. And I also can’t imagine any team in the NFL shelling out the kind of money it would take to build a stadium so large. It just wouldn’t happen.

So does the size of a crowd determine the relative merits of a sport? Of course not. But it does suggest that the fan base for a college spots team is different from that of a pro sports team. Students, obviously, make up a sizeable chunk of a college team’s fan base, along with the school’s alumi and, in the case of a large state school like Oklahoma or Nebraska, just about anyone who lives in that state, if they choose to identify with that school and its sports teams.

But the NFL is different. For starters, fans are generally those who live in or around the city where the team play its home games, but not always. The Dallas Cowboys wouldn’t really be able to call themselves “America’s Team” if all of their fans were from Dallas. It’s also quite possible that Peyton Manning’s legions of fans don’t all live in or near Indianapolis, but are willing to cheer for whatever team he happens to be the quarterback for.

But the biggest difference, that I can see, is that the players themselves have to know that their chances of playing professionally after college aren’t very good. For every guy like Michigan’s Denard Robinson, there are hundreds of other guys who know that, come next season, their football careers will be over. But they play anyway, risking long-term damage to their bodies, because they love the game and probably can’t remember a time when they didn’t play football.

There’s some talk of paying players in college athletics, so that they can share in the money they bring to their schools. But this won’t happen, since it would drastically change the landscape of sports as we know it. In the NFL, at least, players can’t go pro until four years after they finish high school. (We have none other than Red Grange to thank for that rule.) So where else are they going to go, if they love the sport and/or see it as their ticket out of wherever they came from? They may as well keep on playing the game until they can go pro, if that’s their intention.

There’s only two weeks of college games in the books, and one week of the NFL, but I can tell you that my interest in the college games is already peaking. There may not be another thrilling game like the one in Ann Arbor last night, but I’m willing to keep looking for one, all season long.