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Sebastopol

Sebastopol

My little sister got hitched and I took on an insane onslaught of new experiences in a year which was already full of them.

My sister’s engagement went for awhile, so I had known there was going to be a wedding somewhere down the pipeline. But the where and when didn’t pop up until earlier this year. Now, between my schedule and current location, I never let myself fall into the mindset that getting to my sister and brother-in-law would be easy. But when my sister revealed the location during one of our online conversations, my heart dropped a little bit. It was going to be in Sebastopol, a little resort village in California. Wanting to be the well-prepared traveler, I immediately started looking up any information I could find on Sebastopol. A few pieces of key information popped up: Two hotels, both too expensive for me to stay in. And Sebastopol was some 50 miles out from San Francisco and Oakland, ruling out my usual travel routine of a nice hostel and the learn-as-you-go method of navigating the public transit. Santa Rosa was a more reasonable ten miles down the road, but there were no major travel hubs there, and the lodgings weren’t going to be any better.

At some point, I wondered what kept the two of them from having their wedding in a more convenient location, like Antarctica. Was McMurdo Station all booked up for the summer?

The problem of where I was going to stay wasn’t even the first obstacle in front of my face. The first was reserving the necessary time off from my brutal work schedule, which turned out to be much easier than expected after I told them what I was missing Prime Week for. The main problem was that I didn’t want to be returning home only to have to force myself through one of my 15-hour nighttime workdays right after my arrival. I got around that by placing the entire working week on hold, but that presented yet another problem: Doing that left very little wiggle room for me to, you know, arrive there, because it meant I would still have to work for the whole week leading up to the wedding. My options for outbound travel were left between the frying pan and the fire: Either finish up my final shift of the week and make a bum rush from work to the local terminal, or wait for the next day to arrive in the nick of time, save the day, and be the big damn hero. Given the travel times, it looked like I was going to have to drag my luggage to work. Then a chat with my brother-in-law finally spelled out the truth: My preferred method of travel was always the train, and that was too slow and unreliable in the time crunch I was facing. There was only one way to get me into Sonoma County in time for the festivities, and it entailed leaving the ground.

I’m a seasoned traveler. I’ve seen a pretty wide area of the country, and I have somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 travel miles under my belt. Not a single one of them was by air, because the prospect of air travel was pretty scary to me. You get pressure-locked inside of a giant sardine can flowing with one of the most flammable liquids ever created and suspended 30,000 feet in the sky. If evolution had the sense to create birds the size of tractor trailers, it might make a bit more sense to domesticate them, but it didn’t. One of my goals for the near future is international travel, so I always knew I would have to face my fear of flight, but that didn’t mean I would be Spartan about it. Brother-in-law said this would be just about perfect for my first real experience with air travel.

“It’s just a two-hour nonstop flight from where you are,” he said.

I finally had to concede. “I’ll have to get over it some time, so I guess now is as good a time as any. Besides, I’ve already been doing a lot of things for the first time this year,” I said.

“That’s the spirit!” said my sister.

Also, I would have to rent a car or rely on a three-hour bus route – best case scenario – and several busses being on time in order to get there. That presented yet another obstacle: Either hope I get on all the right busses and that everything arrives on time or face the California freeways without a navigator.

My first step was to secure a place to stay. I wasn’t keen on throwing a ton of money at a hotel, but my sister found some airbnb links to spots to stay right in Sebastopol. I liked what I saw, opened an account with airbnb, filled out my information… And learned that my computer and the airbnb website just don’t care for each other very much. I never got to the reservation confirmation screen, or received a confirmation email, and when I brought the issue to the attention to airbnb customer service, they said I didn’t have an itinerary to speak of. So I couldn’t make the booking on my computer, and I’m obviously not going to fill out the information they needed in the middle of the public library. Fortunately, my sister found links to a similar site called VRBO, and once again, I found a place I liked. And it was booked solid. So once again, I found another place on VRBO that I liked, and lucked out when I saw that it was not only available, but a double booking had given me a cheaper price when the people running it said they had to put me in their camping trailer rather than their cottage. They didn’t accept credit cards for the site, either, so I would have to send them a check, which they would return when I got there with the proper cash. Booking took days because I had to use snail mail, but it went smoothly. Unfortunately, I waited until the booking was confirmed before making my flight and car reservations, which left me with higher prices to pay. The flight and rental car websites both took my information without any weirdness, although I was on the phone with my sister the whole time because I didn’t want to get slapped with a charge for something I didn’t actually buy.

My sister gave me a rundown of what to expect when you’re new to flying, which was helpful when the big day arrived. I arrived at the airport about two hours in advance, and learned pretty quickly that my sister had made everything sound more complicated than it actually was. The process of getting to my plane was easy:
1 – Print ticket.
2 – Hand baggage over to baggage people.
3 – Go through security.
4 – Find gate.
5 – Find food and coffee, sit down, and relax while waiting for boarding to begin.
I called my sister, per her request, once I was on the plane. Things were smooth right up until the plane reached the beginning of the runway. That was where the engine started revving up for the flight, which in turn caused my heart to rev up like Pepe Le Pew’s whenever he spies his weekly l’amour. As the plane then sped down the runway, I was glued in place by some combination of g-forces and fingernails digging into the armrest. And… The plane left the ground. THE. PLANE. LEFT. THE. GROUND. I couldn’t seem to distract myself from that, so during the flight, I kept myself occupied with my iPod and a Neil Gaiman comic book my sister and brother-in-law gave me. I also made a habit of glancing at the flight attendants; not because of the typical reasons, but because they made their careers on airplanes and likely had experienced everything a typical flight could put them through. It stood to logic that if they weren’t panicking, there was nothing to panic over.

Everyone has heard a million times that flying is safer than driving. Whoever said that had to be from California. Of course, anything would have to be safer than driving in California. Trying to stick to a set of directions I had hand-written from Google Maps, I began my drive to Sebastopol by getting on the I-880 in the wrong direction, zipping past two or three exits, and getting off to ask directions at the closest gas station. Returning to the I-880, I had a brief flashback to my first visit to St. Louis, when my friend Kevin handed me his Dad’s car keys with the instructions to take the car several miles down the road – at night, in a place I had never seen before and had been in for less than a day – to grab a handful of stage props he left in his wife’s car. I performed flawlessly, but that was a straight shot down the road for five miles. This was 50 miles of twisting and turning through express traffic and semi-rural scenery. After getting lost five times and stuck in traffic three times, I finally arrived in Sebastopol.

By the time I got to my VRBO location, the rehearsal dinner had been going for two hours at someplace called the Hopmonk Tavern, so now I had to get back in the car after a drive that already ran nearly six hours and push for another half hour, the last ten minutes of which was spent trying to find a parking spot. I think I was the last one to show up. After missing a phone call from my concerned mother just as I got there and greeting her and my sister, I put together a plate of food and dug in with gusto, as my food intake for that day so far had consisted of a breakfast bagel with coffee before my flight and a small bag of mini-pretzels courtesy of Alaska Airlines. The rest of the night was a rousing round of who-are-you. My sister had friends coming in from quite a few different places, many of whom had met me before in pasts both distant and not-so-distant. I’m horrid with names, and sometimes I can be pretty bad with faces, but I did remember everyone who said they already met me before. They had all heard right: Why yes, today WAS my first-ever airplane flight!

Wedding day started with a nice walk through downtown Sebastopol, where I looked for a nice joint to eat a decent breakfast. After finding Hole in the Wall, I took a walk for a few blocks of Main Street before returning to my VRBO place to rest up for the wedding. My hosts were excellent with giving out directions, but their sense of time seemed to be a little off. The wedding was going to be in Armstrong Woods, a state-sanctioned redwood forest just outside of a nearby little town called Guerneville. Between the way my sister talked about it and the way my hosts told me how far away it was, I figured that “nearby” was the Buffalo definition of the word: Hamburg being two towns south. I didn’t count on Guerneville being nearly an hour down the CA-116. After failed phone calls to my parents, I headed out at nearly 2 PM and arrived at Armstrong Woods just on time, but faced a three-quarter mile hike to the wedding spot. Fortunately, my new in-laws spotted me and gave me a ride into the meadow where the wedding was taking place.

My sister and I aren’t big on tradition. And weddings, well, the whole idea of a church wedding in front of a community is a relic of the ancient past, and not a good one; to me, the whole idea comes off like something a community would believe is done for it. Weddings, to me, have always been personal expressions of the couple getting married, and that’s what my sister and brother-in-law went for. Both of them love being outdoors, so being in a meadow, among the trees and animals they both love, seemed appropriate. The ceremony was simple – the Minister of the ceremony made a funny and touching speech about why the two of them are perfect for each other, they exchanged rings, said their I Do’s, and just like that, I had new family members. There was no communion, no bridesmaids, no best man, none of that silliness of someone being given away, and I think I spent more time admiring the redwoods than watching the ceremony. Even the flower girl forgot to throw the flowers.

There wasn’t any more tradition at the reception than there was at the wedding. The bride and groom didn’t give their own table any prominence above the others. They stood up and greeted the audience, but that was it. Again, there was nothing there to make the party any more complicated than it had to be: Garter removal, first dance, first pieces of cake – hell, cake itself – honorary toast, and bouquet toss – there was no bouquet either – were axed, and everyone let their hair down, socialized, and enjoyed themselves. I ended up hitting it off pretty well with my new in-laws, especially the husband of one of the sisters, because he was an avid soccer fan. A lot of us took turns swinging on a large rope suspended in a tree for no particular reason. When the party was over, it still didn’t seem late enough, so the group of us that was left walked back to the Hopmonk Tavern for drink, music, and more general merriment. There was a reggae/ska band called Pacific Soundrise playing, and it was here that I discovered that having a sister who was the bride could mean all access. No one paid anything to get into the show, and several of us stood up, listened to the music, and kept on dancing the night away. A few people noticed my outfit and wondered why I looked like such a professional.

The next day brought the final event of the wedding weekend: Brunch! Taking place at a park, it was another stripped-down event. I talked to more people and walked around. A few of us went on a short walk on one of the paths. I was invited to see a couple of other places, but I got lost pretty early on and my phone is crap for reading directions by text message. So I spent the day with my parents in downtown Sebastopol again, looking at musical instruments – including a $10,000 custom guitar whose maker let me play it briefly and an enormous bongo drum that stood up to my chest – and books. Afterward, we met my sister and brother-in-law for dinner before visiting the house where my new in-laws were staying, watching the scenery, watching baseball, and playing endless games of corn hole – you know, getting to know each other better.

That was it for the weekend. I raced back to Oakland the next day to get my rental car in and ended up catching my flight just in time, while my parents headed back to Buffalo and my sister and brother-in-law went to Hawaii. It had been one hell of a weekend.

Welcome to the family, everyone.

51 Things You’ll Never Hear a Buffalo Resident Say

51 Things You’ll Never Hear a Buffalo Resident Say

In March of last year, Time Out Chicago published a list of particular sentences and thoughts which people who had lived in Chicago for awhile could use to identify you as not being from Chicago. People loved the damn thing, and I dropped into a few other city blogs to check if other places followed suit. New Orleans did, and Portland tried, although no one ever published a full list for that city. Now, its been about a year and a half since Time Out Chicago published it, and after giving it some thought, I’ve decided its time for a Buffalo booster to punch up a list of 51. True to Buffalo’s form, though, no one here seems to have found out about Time Out Chicago’s idea. Buffalo is, of course, always three decades behind the times and current trends, so although it took me a years and a half to create my own list in response, I’m actually well ahead of the curve in Buffalo time. Note that if you’re stupid enough to say some of these things in public here – like number six – the people in this city are legally obligated to kill you.

1 – “Buffalo wings.”

2 – “Let’s be honest: The Bills never stood a chance against the Giants in that Super Bowl anyway.”

3 – “Main Place Mall is obviously the best hangout spot. There’s always a lot to see there.”

4 – “Don’t worry about having beer if you get snowed in. Tea is a fine substitute.”

5 – “Why go all the way to Mighty Taco? Taco Bell is closer. It’s just as good.”

6 – “I’m glad Buffalo Wild Wings is in the area. They know how it’s done!”

7 – “Why go to Canada to drink underage? You can buy a perfectly good fake ID here.”

8 – “The NFTA is working exactly like it’s supposed to. It’s doing a great job.”

9 – “I got caught in a traffic jam on the skyway during rush hour.”

10 – “Dolphins are mammals, not fish!”

11 – “Buffalo ’66 needs a sequel.”

12 – “Call the ballpark by its proper name: Coca-Cola Field.”

13 – “Nobody gives a crap about Irish lineage!”

14 – “I’m sensing an impending boom in heavy industry.”

15 – “I just don’t understand the logic of carving a chunk of butter into a lamb shape.”

16 – “Look, I don’t know my neighbors, so I don’t see why I should dig them out of five feet of snow just because.”

17 – “The Convention Center really adds to the aesthetic of the city.”

18 – “UB’s North Campus is easy to get to. You just can’t miss it.”

19 – “Tim Horton may be a hockey legend, but his donuts suck.”

20 – “I would prefer the pleasant natural smells of a typical city downtown area to the Cheerio smell infesting our downtown.”

21 – “All those one-way streets make navigation downtown a snap!”

22 – “Albany really sticks its neck out for us. We’re lucky to have them.”

23 – “Why does everyone like Rob Ray so much? He was a thug who never did anything for the community!”

24 – “Not having salt potatoes for the Fourth of July barbeque isn’t the end of the world.”

25 – “Ani DiFranco? That name doesn’t ring any bells.”

26 – “Who could possibly go running in this snow?”

27 – “The people in University Heights are so quiet and well-mannered.”

28 – “Summer here is gross. An average high of 80 degrees? Way too high.”

29 – “The view from the American side is just as good.”

30 – “I wish we had more New York City-style pizza joints. They do the best pizza downstate.”

31 – “The Albright-Knox doesn’t have anything interesting.”

32 – “All those Wrights and Sullivans need to be razed for more modern steel buildings.”

33 – “The Skylon is perfect for a first date.”

34 – “The Taste of Buffalo is just a low-budget version of the Taste of Chicago.”

35 – “Coffee? Starbucks, of course!”

36 – “I’m glad Niagara Falls axed the Festival of Lights.”

37 – “The city’s 4 AM Closing Time is absurd and needs to be cut back a couple of hours.”

38 – “What’s a weck?”

39 – “No, I don’t think my relatives would be interested in seeing The Falls.”

40 – “You know, it wouldn’t kill anyone to hold the annual pond hockey tournament at an indoor rink for once.”

41 – “William McKinley had it coming.”

42 – “$700 for a single-bedroom apartment is a steal. If you get that price, jump on it.”

43 – “Tim Russert and Wolf Blitzer? Overrated. Now The Buffalo News – there’s a shining beacon of great journalism!”

44 – “Three words when it comes to grocery shopping: Anywhere but Wegman’s.”

45 – “I wish Buffalo was more like New York City.”

46 – “The 1999 Stanley Cup Final was a long time ago and Brett Hull scored a good goal. Get over it!”

47 – “Another parking lot downtown would really improve the view.”

48 – “Don’t worry about potholes. They don’t exist here.”

49 – “Why would you move to North Carolina?”

50 – “I don’t see why this city thinks it’s so tough.”

51 – “I’m still waiting for Brian Higgins to run for President.”

Surrendering My Most Identifiable Hobby

Surrendering My Most Identifiable Hobby

It’s an odd experience. One week of university is now behind me and my head feels like someone set off a shrapnel bomb on the inside. I’m still not exactly settled back into a routine physically. Mentally, my psyche is doing backflips.

I wasn’t exactly prepared for the onslaught of new information that I’m going to receive in order to become an expert in my field. Since I want to do this right, though, I’m prepared to make a couple of hobbyist sacrifices to make things easier on myself. The first that has to go is Lit Bases, my blog on baseball literature. Now, in the greater sense, this blog isn’t really going anywhere at all – it will stay up for everyone to read. But my actual writings for the site won’t be coming in once a month like before. My readings on the subject just can’t be done at the rate I used to do them because there’s a real dearth of interesting material in this city. Even if that wasn’t the case, I just can’t afford to spend hours at a time poring over each and every review I write for Lit Bases.

That’s one thing, but in mulling over my options, it became apparent that it might not be enough. Then a very radical idea hit me: Why don’t I stop following video games?

(Stop laughing, Rob.)

If you know me, you now know the insane level of dedication with which I’m attacking my newest adventure. Nicholas Croston, giving up video games? Calling this a gun-to-the-head level of sacrifice doesn’t quite do it justice. For this to happen, it would take someone using the National Guard to tie me down Hannibal Lecter-style after I had already taken his gun and beat him to a bloody pulp. Upon hearing this idea, me ten years ago rips your head off and beats the rest of you to death with the dangling spine (heyo, Mortal Kombat shout out). Me now is willing to hear out the idea, and the more I thought about it, the more sense it made.

I can’t think of a hobby I developed when I was young which was so useful to me then and became so outdated now. Back then, they were my escape from a harsh outside world which hated me even when I tried to conform to it. Now, I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin. When was young, gaming was a bonding activity between me and other friends. Video games are still able to do that for me, but trouble comes in because I’m an adult, and my friends are adults, and we can rarely get enough time to hang out in the same place at the same time. Even on the increasingly rare occasions that happens now, we tend to meet in locations where video games aren’t available, or in situations which don’t allow for hours of playtime. If THAT happens, the idea of video game bonding has been irreparably damaged from what it was in the 90’s. There’s no junk food and Mountain Dew involved anymore, because we’re mature adults who want to stay healthy. Bonding over video games isn’t practical for the grown-ups unless it’s through an online game – a thought which is blasphemous to anyone raised in the 16-bit Era.

I’ve developed hobbies over the last decade which have managed to supplant video games, too. First and foremost, there’s writing, something I honestly believe I can make a living doing in some way or another. There’s also bicycling and photography, and all three of those things are largely portable, so I can do them around other people. To play video games, I have to stay in one place. I watch movies and sports a lot, which are two of life’s great small pleasures that are enhanced by company without anyone fighting over a controller. Besides, I’ve long been watching games evolve into something unrecognizable. Today’s games are beasts compared to what I was playing as a kid. Now, I’m not complaining about the evolution of the medium, but growing up has meant being very slow and resilient to being sucked into today’s behemoths. I’ve become something all kids swear they’ll never become: A victim of generational disconnect. Gaming made me realize for all time that I’m now out of the loop, possibly for good.

Of all the forms of mass media, video games are easily the one that requires the most amount of effort to pull out the reward. Movies and music require little time during the day, so it’s easy to run through several a day, or one several times. Video games need to be played over periods of at least days. Sometimes they take months. Now one might point out that so do books, but books don’t require a giant learning curve or exact cursor precision in order to advance. They don’t frustrate because of something the computer did to spite you personally.

Now, in a larger sense, this doesn’t mean I’m going to quit playing video games. What it does mean is that my game intake is about to drop, and I won’t be buying nearly as many games as I used to. I won’t be scouring websites for the latest news on Square-Enix’s newest apocalyptic RPG the way I used to in the past. I won’t be bitching about the next move by Electronic Arts which will cause the death of video games as we know them. My game reviewing – which is what awakened the online world to my writing – isn’t nearly as frequent as it used to be. There won’t be any more randomly buying games in the hopes that I’ve uncovered some hidden gem. Gaming is expensive, after all, and I want to know that what I’m getting is quality. When I was writing for Netjak, I thought nothing of renting or buying games I knew probably wouldn’t be any good just to see what they were really like. Also, time to let go of the Youtube walkthroughs and speed runs. I’ll still buy rare games and play them, but I’m not going to lose my head over some hard to get titles. If you find Secret of Monkey Island for the Playstation 2, let me know. I don’t care about Sonic the Hedgehog, even if it’s a full return to two dimensions.

If I’m being honest with myself, I know that video games haven’t been my primary hobby for years – I have several friends now who think of me as either Nick the Writer and/or Nick the Cyclist before Nick the Gamer. Even Rob encourages me to keep writing. The likelihood of my buying a console in the upcoming console generation is becoming less and less, partly because the games are too big for their own good and partly because I don’t want to fight through endless feature menus with everything else they’ll have. So this is it. Let me know if there’s a rare game and I might be interested. If there’s not, well, this chapter of my life will be closing.

A Brief Goodbye to a Family Pet

A Brief Goodbye to a Family Pet

Cadenzaan improvised or written-out ornamental passage played or sung by a soloist or soloists, usually in a free rhythmic style, and often allowing for virtuosic display.

No extended post about this because, frankly, I don’t really want to be writing it.

It was around 19 years ago that my folks brought home a young calico kitten that couldn’t have been more than eight weeks old. My sister and I had wanted a kitten because we wanted a companion we could keep for awhile. We found a term in one of my sister’s musical dictionaries, Cadenza, which we attached to her because it sounded nifty. The day mom and dad brought her home, Cadenza managed to get herself trapped in their bedroom. And, well, let’s just say a tone was set.

Cadenza became a flying, furry little hellion who slid on the wood floors until she slammed into the walls, attacked every loose item lying around, and always managed to get into places she didn’t belong. On several occasions, she climbed up the awning we had on our balcony and got onto the roof just outside our attic windows – we frequently had to go upstairs and pull her in from the attic. She always seemed to have enough spare energy to run faster than the Mountain Dew-drinking cheetahs from the old Mountain Dew commercials. If there was so much as a pencil on the floor, she would attack it. She attacked phone cords and other forms of wiring and tried to get on the mantle more than once.

While Cadenza managed to get quite fat, she never did fully shed her kitten-sized body. She was a small cat, and that made it even more difficult to keep her out of the places she wasn’t supposed to go. She once tried to climb the Christmas Tree. Yeah, she epitomized the idea of curiosity killing the cat, but she never seemed satisfied. Our minds all boggled wondering how such a small cat could keep getting into such big trouble.

Despite her hellraising, Cadenza may have been the world’s only extrovert cat. If there was one thing she loved more than an insignificant little knickknack to obliterate, it was attention from her humans. Cadenza was a real lap cat who could plunk herself down on someone for literally hours. Her loud purring won her the affectionate nickname Purrball, and she wanted attention which she wasn’t getting, she would find a way to get it. She loved crawling up your lap and onto your chest and rubbing her face against ours if she was receiving insignificant time in our personal spotlights. Later, she resorted to tapping people with her paw. Cadenza was the cat who was able to befriend our dog, an 80-pound behemoth of white hair. If we had guests, Cadenza would be the first one to welcome them into the house. As far as she was concerned, anyone who tapped her on the head once established a permanent bond with her.

Beating herself up resulted in Cadenza developing terrible arthritis late in her life. Her vision and hearing slowly wore out, and she eventually took to prowling the hallway yowling periodically. Also, her small body began thinning out – she looked skeletal, and the family became afraid of picking her up for fear of hurting her. She wasn’t the leaping furball she was in her youth, but her spirit certainly never diminished. Even though it would take her multiple tries to jump up to the couch to sit with us – and alternate from person to person until it got annoying – she still did it. If there wasn’t enough food in her bowl, she would still walk around in the kitchen while everyone else was there, dodging our feet.

With her starving and in obvious pain, it was finally time for her to be removed from the world. She led a very full, comfortable, and by any account happy life with all but her first eight weeks in our company. And for that, my family and I felt a bit more complete. We’ve always been cat people, and Cadenza was the one cat we owned who lived almost her entire life with us. Or at least the one cat who spent her whole life with us in my lifetime.

Awesome Amputees: A Tribute to My Favorite Deformed Athletes

Not many people realize this, but I’ve been inspired by amputated and disabled athletes since the second I learned that the terms “amputated athlete” and “disabled athlete” weren’t necessarily oxymorons. I was fortunate enough to be raised by parents who would be damned had they let me grow up believing myself to be any kind of invalid, and one of the ways my father kept letting me know that my deformed arm wasn’t a crutch was to point out professional athletes with worse defects than me sticking their middle fingers at those who kept telling them they couldn’t. Or at least swearing at them; not all of them had middle fingers. But physically deformed athletes have long been a source of fascination to me because the way they overcame their deformities is always unique. I’ve found a number of ways to cope with my arm during strenuous physical activities, but it’s still a source of frustration for certain things I do. When I ride my bicycle, I can’t steer properly because my right arm is so much shorter than my left arm. I can’t do anything about it, and I’m just stuck facing the reality that my right arm is only there for leverage. When I ride one-handed, my left arm is always the one that gets left on the handlebars; riding no-handed is out of the question. When I do pushups and yoga, I have to prop my right arm up under a foam block or a book.

Although I look pretty unkindly at the Olympics, I of course did develop a certain instinct to cheer for Oscar Pistorius, a sprinter from South Africa. His nicknames probably tell you everything about why I like the guy so much. The first is Blade Runner, which I like because it’s short, punchy, and also the name of one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made. But the second is the more obvious of the two: The Fastest Man on No Legs. Pistorius became a double amputee when he was only eleven months old, and received his first pair of prosthetic legs at 17 months. Now that he’s won the affections of the rest of the world simply by qualifying for the Olympics, it’s list time! This time, I’m writing about athletes who competed and excelled at sports, thus showing off a complete mastery of their bodies the norms only wish they had.

Oscar Pistorius
Runner
We might as well start with the obvious guy everyone is thinking about right now. When he was born, he had fibular hemimelia – congenital absence of the fibula – in both legs, so he had to be amputated before he was even a year old. His prosthetic legs mean a bunch of scientists had to reassure several groups of prissy sports committees that no, prosthetic legs are NOT an unfair advantage. Pistorius holds a 45.44 time in the 400-meter dash, to compare to Michael Johnson’s all-time Olympic record of 43-49. I’m sure those numbers would appear even more impressive to me if I knew anything about track and field.

My favorite part of the Oscar Pistorius story, though, is the fact that he actually took up running in 2004 as a way to rehabilitate a knee he shattered while playing rugby. For those who don’t know, rugby is about the closest thing the planet has to fully legalized murder right now. He also played tennis, wrestling, and water polo.

Garrincha
Soccer Player
Garrincha is the popular name of the great Brazilian soccer player Manuel Francisco dos Santos. He’s regarded by a lot of people as the greatest dribbler in football history, a skill which he had developed by age 18 to such an extent that at his first training session, he was able to dribble the ball literally right between the legs of Nilton Santos, a key Brazilian defender in three World Cups. After getting embarrassed by Garrincha, Santos basically told his superiors, “Sign this guy.” He did most of his damage with Brazil’s club Botafogo, and bounced around through other Brazilian clubs once that gig was over. It wasn’t as if the rich European clubs didn’t try to scoop him up, being the world’s greatest dribbler and all; he attracted considerable attention from some of the biggest guns across the pond – most notably the Italian club Juventus, but also Real Madrid, AC Milan, and Inter Milan. For the record, Real Madrid is the greatest club soccer team in the world, better than even Manchester United. The other three are the most dominant teams of Serie A, Italy’s top league and one which is competitively right on par with the Spanish La Liga and English Premier League.

Garrincha saved his most impressive performances for the World Cup in 1958 and 1962. The 1962 World Cup saw him emerging as Brazil’s best player, and he was the most outstanding player of the tournament. During performances against Chile and England, he scored four goals. It’s pretty impressive no matter what, but when you’re doing this good despite being born with a deformed spine, a right leg which is bent inwards, and a left leg six centimeters shorter than the right and bent outwards and playing on the same team as freaking Pele, you’re making one hell of a statement. Garrincha came to be known as Anjo de Pernas Tortas (Angel with Bent Legs) and Alegria de Povo (Joy of the People) and today, the home team locker room in Rio de Janeiro’s Estadia de Maracana bears his name.

Tom Dempsey
American Football Player
Dempsey was a journeyman placekicker in the National Football League who bounced around five teams in a career which lasted from 1969 to 1979. His longest stint was with the Philadelphia Eagles, and it only lasted from 1971 to 1974. But it was with his first team, the New Orleans Saints, that he made his imprint on the league. He made the Pro Bowl in 1969, his rookie year. In 1970, he followed that up with a game-winning field goal kick against the Detroit Lions that flew for an ungodly 63 yards. That was a record. And considering the only two kickers who ever even equalled it are Jason Elam (Denver, 1998) and Sebastian Janikowski (Oakland, 2011), the two greatest kickers in the history of the league, it’s a fairly significant record.

Dempsey was born without fingers on his right hand or toes on his right foot, and unlike most kickers, he began kicks by running straight up to the ball as opposed to the angled soccer style. When he was asked if the special kicking shoe he wore gave him an unfair advantage, Dempsey replied “Unfair eh? How ’bout you try kickin’ a 63-yard field goal to win it with two seconds left an’ yer wearin’ a square shoe, oh, yeah and no toes either.” ESPN Sport Science eventually ran an analysis of the kick and concluded that the modified shoe gave him no advantage, and that the smaller surface area of it actually increased the margin of error. Gee, ya think?

Jim Abbott
Baseball Player
Upon getting up one morning way back in 1993, my father told me that a pitcher named Jim Abbott had thrown a no-hitter the previous night. It was only in time that I came to fully appreciate that feat; my being a baseball fan was still seven years down the road, and Abbott was born with nothing but a stump for use as a right hand. He played by resting his glove on his right arm while throwing the pitch, then quickly jamming his left hand into the glove so he could field. If he had to field, he would again hold his glove between his right arm and chest, yank his left hand out, grab the ball, and throw it. Abbott was a natural athlete, and even though opponents tried constantly to exploit his birth defect by bunting at him, it’s a testament to his athleticism that bunting at him never worked. Batting was never an issue, since he was a pitcher who spent all but his final year in the American League. In his last year – spent with the Milwaukee Brewers – he went a total of two for 21, both of which came off Jon Lieber. Abbott’s career batting average is .095. But he did manage to triple off Rick Reuschel in a 1991 spring training game, and his old Yankees teammate Mariano Rivera claims to have seen Abbott hit homers during batting practice.

I’m not a fan of the asterisk or the abridged statistic. But all things considered, Abbott’s career record of 87-108 and career ERA of 4.25 are actually better than they appear from the outside. By any other standard, those are respectable statistics anyway, and no matter what, he’ll always have that no-hitter.

Mordecai Brown
Baseball Player
Brown’s nickname, Three Finger, was a little bit misleading. It should have actually been something more akin to Four and a Half Finger. His defect was the result of his playing an unwitting game of tag with a farm feed chopper, and that severed his index finger and damaged the nerves in one of the others so much that it was useless. Later, while his hand was still healing from that accident, he fell and broke several fingers in the same hand, and they never reset properly. While this may have sucked for Three Finger, it sucked even more for those burdened with the task of facing him in the batter’s box. The way he gripped a baseball resulted in an unusual amount of spin, making his fastball and change-up deceptive as hell and his curve one of the nastiest weapons in the history of the sport. When Ty Cobb is calling anyone’s curve the most devastating pitch he ever faced, what chance does any batter have against him?

Brown’s statistics and accomplishments reflect Cobb’s feelings: In a 13-year career which went from 1903 to 1916, Three Finger went 239-130, struck out 1375 batters, and picked up a career ERA of 2.06. And no, that last one is not a typo. He was with the Chicago Cubs from 1904 to 1912, where he won at least 20 games a season from 1906 to 1911, led the league in saves from 1908 to 1911, and pitched the Cubs to four Pennants and their two most recent World Series titles.

Bethany Hamilton
Surfer
Bethany Hamilton began surfing at a young age. By 2002, she already had a couple of big accomplishments under her belt. The next year, as she lay on her board during a lull in the waves, a tiger shark mistook her dangling left arm for its dinner. But someone who has been surfing her whole life naturally wouldn’t let her favorite sport go that easily, and Hamilton was back on the board less than a month after the accident. She initially used a custom board which was longer, thicker, and easier to paddle with, but is now back to using traditional competitive short boards.

According to her Wikipedia page, her best year was 2002, but her major achievements, like Brown’s up there, all happened after her accident. She’s a top-five regular in a lot of international competitions, and a couple of movies have been made about her. I have a friend who shares Hamilton’s name and is currently threatening to dress up as her for Halloween one of these days. (It would actually work. Both are blondes, and both are good Christians, and both work in uncommon fields: Hamilton as an athlete and Hamilton, my friend, as a professional singer. Sadly, though, my friend has all her limbs.)

Home Sweet Home, Wherever it is

Schlafly’s Tap Room was a pleasant little sports bar in downtown Saint Louis which, in lieu of the usual generic national brand, was serving the locally brewed delicacy: Schlafly beer, it’s own namesake. It appeared a bit funny to me that they would be doing that in Saint Louis, home of the Anheuser-Busch corporation, makers of Budweiser. It goes without saying that Schlafly was superior to its big-time competition, and so Christi and me sampled several different flavors before settling on Dry Hopped APA. We had arrived at the tail end of a Blues game, and I was a little bit disappointed that I missed the team at the top of the NHL standings. Still, Schlafly’s Tap Room was the first bar I’ve been to where I could hear myself think and where I wasn’t constantly fighting the crowd. The crowd was small, but Christi said it was very large compared to the last time she was there.

Our conversation took us from sampling beers with a man from South Africa to family business to what our concept of home was. That last one was of particular interest to Christi, a Chicago native who spent two years in Nashville before moving back to Chicago and ultimately moving to Saint Louis with Kevin. She wondered what my concept of home is, since I consider my adopted city of Chicago every bit a home as Buffalo, even though I spent only half a decade there as opposed to the 25 years I’ve now lived in The Nickel City. My answer was a short and concise one: To me, home was where I went though my greatest developments as a human being. Christi understood, and said that in that sense, she didn’t develop very much during her time in Nashville.

Most of my closest relationships still remain in Buffalo, and so Buffalo will always be my home. But my years in Buffalo also included my nightmarish experience in junior high school, something that stuck with me to such an extent that for years afterward, I still chased off and avoided a lot of potentially close, far-reaching friendships. It forced me into seclusion. In Chicago, I had no choice but to force myself into the functioning world. While my friends today know I can be very awkward at times, they’re still my friends, and many of them would be amazed to know I was once a lot worse. My distrust of humanity still shows up every now and then, but for the most part my assimilation into the rest of the working world was very successful. I have my years in Chicago to thank for that, and so I still consider Chicago a home.

The Move

Been awhile since I’ve written, but hey, the family moved.

The move was basically down to another apartment in our quad, but it was nonetheless stressful. It demanded all the physical strength I have, because through most of it we were all walking back and forth between the old and new place, taking a few boxes each time with us. We moved the small things first in boxes, and we used a small cart. You don’t really know how many of those little things you own until you have to repetitively walk back and forth taking them with you.

Not only that, but the new place, despite having more rooms, is noticeably smaller, so we don’t have quite as much room for storage as we’d like. Moving all the stuff we have in the garage was a real treat, and I mean that in the most sarcastic way possible. We had to improvise storage placement in the garage, which is a lot smaller than the old one so you can imagine what a joy that is. There is at least one very large chair which we’re going to have to ditch completely.

Despite these flaws, however, the new place trumps the old place for one simple reason: The last place didn’t have any separate rooms where family members could go to escape each other. The new place has enough rooms for all four members of the primary family, so I can write or watch my movies or play my video games in peace.

The day of the move was pretty rough and stressful, and more than once I found myself taking a swig of whiskey to cool off. The day climaxed with the family completely draining the fish tank and dragging it down the stairs, in an act my mother promised would never have to be repeated again. Between, we had more large items than it looked like; the movers, who drove up in a small trailer, had to make two trips. Even then, we still hadn’t hauled everything, and the fish tank episode commenced. We somehow managed to wrestle the fish tank over on the cart, and the whole experience was extremely nerve-wracking because I fear we were going to break it the whole time.

We had no time or room to get any food, so we ate our lunch and dinner both in restaurants. I didn’t worry about my health that day, though, because the lifting and moving kept any potential weight gain to a minimum.

The move was hardest of all on our cats, Cadenza and Chaucer. They both had to be locked inside bathrooms. Cadenza, our 17-year-old cat whom the family adopted when she was just an eight-month-old excitable kitten, knew the family well enough to be aware that we weren’t going to try to hurt her or leave her. But she was still thrown into a state of shocked confusion when she was finally let out of the bathroom and walked into a brave new world with the furniture all missing. Chaucer, who is a lot younger and doesn’t know the family nearly as well, simply hid behind the shower curtain. He would slink backward with an absolutely terrified look in his eyes whenever someone reached for him. It took a long time for us to coax him out. But now that we’re at the new place, he seems to have adjusted faster than Cadenza.