Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Olympics, cargo shorts and other former stars

The Olympics aren’t the crowd-gathering, world-unifying spectacle they once were. In our whiz-bang, attention-splintered culture, the 17-day event is too long-winded, too story-driven, too much longer than a YouTube clip.

The Olympics are now kind of like, hmm ...

Let's call them the cargo shorts of the sports world. Still easy to find. Still offering some value. Just not really in fashion.

But it’s been years since I’ve worried about trying to be cool, so I’m comfortable admitting that I enjoy the Olympics. I’m also comfortable in cargo shorts because, despite the fashion trends, my personal trends still require carrying stuff around.

* * *

The Olympics aren’t what they used to be, but that’s partly because there used to be very limited television options. Back during the Summer Games of 1984 in Los Angeles, the first Olympics I remember watching, the quest for gold was the clear entertainment leader.

My parents had finally broken down and signed up for cable TV, which for years they considered as evil as the Soviet Union. But cable didn’t offer a lot back then. There were lots of reruns and lots of really bad MTV videos, and HBO showed the same stuff over and over, which is why I’m still troubled by the movie "Poltergeist" and can sing the theme to "Fraggle Rock." (That's also troubling, especially to my kids).

The 1984 Olympics were amazing. The United States dominated, in part because 14 Eastern Bloc countries, including the Russians, boycotted the Games. It was the Olympics of Carl Lewis and Mary Lou Retton, as well as a bunch of American swimmers who won almost every event and led me to nearly concuss myself while attempting flip turns in our backyard pool.

We were all watching back then. But that’s not the case now with DVRs to time-shift everything, plus all manner of online diversions/distractions/time-wasters. The Olympics are stars of a bygone era, like VCRs, Palm Pilots and Pok√©mon games that didn’t include getting bitten by a snake in a field while searching for Aerodactyl.

But this year's Olympics, coming to us from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, are still worth some time investment. It starts with the opening ceremony and the parade of nations. That’s a celebration that includes dancing, singing and discovering countries such as Nauru. If you don’t know where Nauru is located, here’s a hint:

It’s near Banaba Island in Kiribati. Hope that helps.

First-week Olympic highlights include swimming, which features superbly conditioned athletes who spend hours pushing their bodies in the pool and shaving their bodies at home. It’s a great sport because it’s a huge part of our history. Humans have been swimming for thousands of years, and cave paintings from the Stone Age seem to show swimming – or a water aerobics class led by a group of bison.

There’s also gymnastics, which is one of the most popular sports of the Olympics. Strength, flexibility, agility, first-rate health insurance – a gymnast needs all that. Gymnasts might be the most amazing athletes of the Games if you don't count the Olympians who ride the equestrian horses, because that looks exhausting.

The second week of the Games brings us track and field, which is another truly classic Olympic sport, with "classic Olympic sport" defined as a sport that most people only pay attention to every four years. That’s sad, really, because track and field shows the tremendous capacity for human athletic achievement. I’ll exclude race walking from that statement because it disqualifies anyone who breaks into a jog. It’s like a swimming event that prohibits using both your arms.

There are many more events, and they're in the kinds of sports you don’t see often, such as archery, fencing, judo, cycling, kayaking and the form of gymnastics where they flip a ribbon around. Trampolining is even a sport, and you can bet that it will be bouncing into the television schedule.

After all, NBC’s family of networks will offer 6,755 hours of programming. The Games will be shown on NBC, CNBC, MSNBC, USA Network, Bravo and ... well, you get the point. There will be a lot of channels and a lot of choices. A lot of McDonald's commercials, too, because Mickey D's is a longstanding sponsor of the Olympics and, as most people know, few things fuel elite athletic performances like a McRib and fries.

I know the Olympics can sometimes drag on a bit, but the Games still offer some fantastic TV. The Winter Olympics two years ago, for example, allowed us to see the first U.S. woman to win a medal in the luge and Bob Costas try to broadcast while suffering from pink eye. Both dramatic moments.

There will be more dramatic moments from Rio, and probably some confusion as people try to find which channels are broadcasting which events. So plan ahead and make a list of anything you want to see.

That list should fit nicely in any one of six convenient cargo-short pockets.

Twitter: @wixonhumor

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Kid fundraisers: Striking out one door at a time

The people in my neighborhood are generally the friendly sort, but you won’t get that vibe when you approach their homes. There might be a welcome mat out front, and possibly some cute wooden cutouts and whimsical garden decorations, but then you’ll meet the bouncer at the door.

“No soliciting.”

Sometimes it’s a homemade sign; sometimes it looks professional. A few are really bold, with that big, screaming red slash that we’re used to seeing on no-smoking signs. Many of them include the word “please,” adding some politeness to the message that we don’t want to hear about a free roof inspection, or a TV/phone/Internet bundle, or an unbeatable price for pest control.

Pest control? But Mr. Salesman, you are the pest. Ha-ha … zinger!
Yeah, well it’s not so funny when you become the pest. And last month, I became that pest as I sold mulch door-to-door with my 10-year-old son, Cooper.

* * *

So how did it go?

Cooper was raising money for his baseball team, so I’ll use a hardball analogy and say that we struck out. We struck out a lot, and we struck out spectacularly. It was like we didn’t even know where the ball was, or we weren’t standing near the plate, or we were blindfolded and swinging at Cole Hamels’ fastballs with a pool noodle.

Actually, it was Cooper who had to feel the rejection. He was the one at the door, with a clipboard in hand and wearing his team shirt and baseball hat, giving the spiel about types of mulch and manure and saying “um” over and over. Then he would turn to leave and walk to where I was waiting on the sidewalk, out of view.

 “He said no.”

Hey, at least the guy opened the door. Back to the baseball analogy, I think that counts as a foul tip. Or at least taking a good swing at a pitch.

Our success rate, probably better described as our failure rate, was expected. Even people who don’t have “no soliciting signs” are a tough sell on the mean streets of door-to-door commerce. And it’s not like Cooper was seeking donations to help end world hunger or buy mosquito nets for Africa. His first-world problem didn’t deserve a second thought, especially when it seems everyone is raising money for something. (Go check out the GoFundMe website and you’ll see funding requests for things such as tattoos, birthday parties and tattoos for birthday parties.)

* * *

Still, I wanted Cooper to give it a shot. I figured he should at least feel like he was putting in some effort to support his favorite hobby. I know that’s why I had to go knock on doors when I was a kid, and even if I omit the old-man part about walking through two feet of snow and uphill both ways, I had it worse than my kids.

I had to sell stuff for my sports teams and for school.

Hello, my name is Matt and, um, I’m selling delicious cheese and, um, sausages …

I did not do well. If my school's funding were dependent on my ability to sell summer sausage and Wisconsin cheddar logs, all the students would have to share a pencil.

Cooper at least had a legitimate product to sell. My basketball league’s annual fundraiser was this ridiculous Hoop-A-Thon that required me to seek pledges for every free throw I made in some span of time. It even had some suggested minimum donation, as if I were performing some service that required payment. I don't remember what that amount was, but I remember everything about the Hoop-A-Thon was awkward.

After I shot the free throws, I returned to the houses to collect the money, and smartly, half of my neighbors didn’t open the door a second time. I’m not sure who came up with the idea of the Hoop-A-Thon, but it wasn’t the kids who were knocking on doors and hearing people say, “No, don’t answer it! Everyone shut up and he’ll think nobody is here!”

* * *
So anyway, back to the great mulch sale of 2016. It's now over, and we didn't get completely shut out. A few friends and neighbors bought some bags, and then Cooper and I spent several hours on a Saturday delivering mulch. Like all of the kids, he loved it.
He didn't see it as work, but I still think it gave him some sense of accomplishment and of contributing when he delivered the bags. So, yeah, it was worth the time.
Maybe not a home run, but at least a solid single.

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