Thursday, February 14, 2008

Trips and Sickness

It's been awhile since I last posted, and you can blame it on a trip and sickness.

I'll mention the sickness first, since it's the freshest thing on my mind. I've been reeling from a nasty sore throat and general lethargy over the last couple of days. I felt so bad when I woke up this morning that I canceled my class. My throat felt raw, hot and dry. It probably looks like a desert and feels like it's being pricked with cacti. My body aches, as if I'm the Tin Man and need some lubrication to the joints. I just feel pretty crappy all in all.

Unfortunately, my wife is feeling worse. She's got the same sore throat, only worse, because it's rendered her nearly hoarse. She's also got nagging headaches, something I haven't had to worry about. Poor thing.

Michelle was the first to come down with the symptoms. She began complaining Tuesday last week of a sore throat. She missed work on Wednesday, then went in on Thursday. We left for Texas that afternoon.

Ah, Texas. Balm for the sick. I forget how much I miss this place until each time I return for a visit. My dad and stepmom live in the Hill Country west of Austin, a land of rolling hills and long vistas. The trees are scrubby – a mix of cedar, mesquite and oak, the soil is pockmarked like a teenager's face and the terrain has a yellowish tint from all the exposed limestone. Doesn't sound too flattering, but it's quite lovely. It's wide open spaces, just like the country song. Peaceful. Tranquil. At my parents' place, you can sit on the back deck and drink in the quiet. Leaves rustle in the breeze. Birds chirp. And that's about it. You can be alone in your thoughts. Michelle remarked that it would be a perfect celebrity rehab center.

We saw lots of turkey vultures. These are graceful birds, elegantly gliding on the currents, their long, black wings fully extended to capture all that the wind has to offer. They fly in a relaxed way, hardly flapping but tilting their bodies ever so to set their direction. They reminded me of noiseless B52s, lumbering along high in the sky.

Up close, these birds aren't as pretty. I wouldn't call them ugly, but many folks wouldn't share my view. They have loose, flappy skin on their faces, like a turkey, beady eyes and a long, curved beak. They are big birds, and around those parts, you saw them everywhere, circling, circling, waiting for animals to die or looking for those already dead, a carcass on which to feast. Some Texans have jokingly said they should be the state bird.

When we weren't enjoying the vultures or the view, we got a whole lot of rest and simply stuffed ourselves with Texas grub. Enchiladas one night, baked by my stepmom. Beef brisket the next. Nachos and chicken-fried steak another night. We clearly were not paying attention to our fruits and vegetables. After four days, the gorging ended, and we returned to Rhode Island, greeted by brisk winds and bitter cold. So much for those 70-degree days.

Now that we were back to our frenetic lives, the sickness that had gone into hiding reappeared in Michelle. Her sore throat had returned, and with intensity. And of course I was next to get it. And that brings me to now.

Can you pass another tissue?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Super Shock

It's two days since the Super Bowl, and it's fair to say New England remains in a state of super shock.

As I wrote a few days ago, I took a trip to central Massachusetts to watch the game with a friend and former media partner in Rhode Island. Central Massachusetts is a beautiful region -- rolling hills and small tracts of farmland cut by the Connecticut River, a wide-brimmed body of water that has long since set the geological tone of this area. My friend Av and his family live in an old farmhouse within spitting range of the river. He says the Connecticut is a major bird migratory route, and they've seen a whole assortment of birds: falcons, hawks, cardinals, juncos, tufted titmouses and more. I'm quite jealous. The Connecticut and Av's country homestead are magnets for all sorts of visitors, far more than we could dream in our patch of land in the heart of our town.

There were still several inches of snow on the ground when I arrived on Sunday afternoon, and the lake across the road from their home had ice thick enough to walk on. By contrast, there is no snow in Rhode Island, and the lakes still haven't gotten enough ice cover to be safe to walk on or fish. You miss those things, because that's how February should be. Cold, with snow and thick ice on lakes. Fronts with powerful names like Alberta Clipper and Nor'easter. Instead, we have rain and temperatures in the 50s. Too spring like for my tastes.

So, I went to visit Av to catch up and to watch the big game. I took the bus to Amherst, a vibrant town pulsing with faculty and students. This area is known as academic central. Everywhere you turn, in every town in this area, over every litle ridge and in every narrow valley is a college of some sort. University of Massachusetts-Amherst, flagship campus of the state school system. Mount Holyoke College. Amherst College. Hampshire College. Smith College. I'm sure there are more. The NPR affiliate is called Five College Radio, reflecting the identity of the area and likely its core listeners. Education and a not-so-faint whiff of entitlement reside here. I wonder where the workers live.

Still, it's a beautiful area, rich in history, intellect and nature. I feel enlivened when I visit, comfortable in the small-town atmosphere and its slower gear. It suits me well. Perhaps one day I will come for more than a visit.

Well, I won't dwell on the game here. My students have done that already. Their ears fall deaf when I tell them that sports is entertainment and not to take it too seriously. Then again, I can't blame them; I took sports way too seriously when I was their age, and my emotions marched in step with my teams' performances. Silly way to live, really.

Some of the adults at Rafters apparently haven't gotten the memo. They were heavily invested in the game. When Av and I took seats at the bar, a brawny, white-haired man still stuck in his glory days snarled at us, thinking we were Giants fans. We told him we weren't, and he was mollified. Back to the car bombs with his buddy, a shaved head plug of a man proudly wearing a silver Patriots jersey with Brady's name stitched on the back. I wonder how much of the game they remember. They were with an Asian lady also wearing a Patriots jersey and who had donned those black stickers under her eyes that athletes wear to cut down on glare. I thought she had done this all in good fun until the game began. She was a raving lunatic of fan, hopping up and down when the Patriots did something well and sulking when they didn't. Then there was the guy who pounded the table with all his might exhorting the Patriots defense, and the other guy doing his best to open a chasm in the floor with his stomping. I watched with amusement, these grownups going batty over the game. Meanwhile, I was pounding on the bar, yelling "Defense!" until my throat hurt, and I was panting between plays.

Guess I cared more than I thought. Or would have cared to admit.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Super Craze

It's the day before the Super Bowl, and our nook of New England is in a super frenzy.

People are walking around decked in their New England Patriots gear. They're wearing Patriots winter jackets, Patriots sweatshirts, Patriots ball caps. Pickups drive by with Patriots bumper stickers. A local bar has a huge blowup figure of a Patriots offensive lineman straddling one of its entrances. I saw a woman this morning in the post office with a Patriots Santa hat. A diner has a poster in the front window that reads "G-Men + Pats Wow!" Across the street, a pizza and bakery was alerting customers to beat the rush with a handmade placard that says, "Order your Super Bowl Pizza's Now!" I guess punctuation can be sacrificed during such times.

Our town even painted the center stripe on the main street red, white and blue – the Patriots colors. Then again, that's left over from the Fourth of July parade, but, hey, it works, right?

While people are excited, it doesn't feel the same as when the Patriots played in their first Super Bowl (of the current streak) in 2002. I remember that one vividly. I had been living in Rhode Island just a year and knew only a handful of people. None of them were really sports fans, so come Super Bowl, I walked from my apartment to a bar in downtown Providence to watch the game. I was nervous I would be able to get a seat for the game, so I arrived at a place called Blake's a couple of hours early. There were maybe five people there. As the game drew closer, though, more began arriving. Even better, many of them had come alone, and soon enough our corner of the bar became one happy, celebratory group of strangers who were looking for an evening of camaraderie, with the underdog Patriots providing the kindling. We cheered each defensive stand, each time Tedy Bruschi stuck it to one of the Rams receivers. We erupted when Adam Vinatieri nailed the game-winning field goal, hopping around the bar and hugging each other. We fired up the jukebox and danced the night away. It was a spontaneously combustible night of joy with strangers who I never saw again and with whom I could never recreate the same electricity.

It was a night to remember.

This year, I don't feel the raw, "Can you believe it?" buzz that I felt in 2002. I get the sense that fans feel more entitled; they expect the Patriots to win, to cap their perfect season and to earn their fourth Super Bowl in seven years. I even would imagine that some may turn off their televisions and turn it in for the night if the score gets out of hand. I can't blame them. The uniqueness appears to be gone. Perhaps that's to be expected from such a run of success.

I'm not going to Blake's this time. It just wouldn't be the same, and besides I can no longer walk there. Instead, I'm hopping a bus to Amherst to watch the game with a good friend of mine. We'll cheer lustily for the Patriots, but that sense of romance with the first Super Bowl run won't be there. There won't be that same sense of awe and wonderment.

Some things simply can't be recreated. That's why those moments are so special, and, I guess, that's why we remember them. If they happened regularly, they wouldn't be so special.

Not every Super Bowl has to be super.

But I sure hope the Patriots win.