Sunday, February 26, 2012

Closet NASCAR Fan

Now that the NASCAR season is back in gear, and since most of its races occur on Sundays, I believe it fitting and proper to now make a good and full confession:  I am a closet NASCAR fan.

It all started several years ago when my wife and then five-year-old son, Ethan, stopped at the local liquor store to pick up Dad a six pack as he had been working away remodeling the kitchen.  In the parking lot was a racecar:  number 97.

My son came home thrilled to have seen a real racecar and insisted we watch the race that following weekend which, I believe, was the Pocono 500.

I had never been a racecar enthusiast.  In fact, I was what you might call your classic NASCAR basher.  What was the level of the mind of the person who finds it amusing to watch cars drive in circles for hours, I’d say.  What could possibly be the thrill of exhaust fumes, deafening noise, drunken rednecks and cheap beer, I’d wonder aloud.  What do you call an overweight, loudmouthed, couch sitting, beer swilling middle-aged man?  Why a NASCAR fan, I’d often declare. 

I remember my father sitting on the floor, leaning on the ottoman, smoking his menthol one hundreds and drinking his sixteen ouncers, watching stock car races when I was a kid.  From time to time I would try to sit there and watch with him because, perhaps subconsciously, I was attempting to connect with him, but I could never make it past a few laps.  Once in a while there was a good crash that held my attention, but, to me, all the cars looked alike and just kept going around and around and around.  Even at twelve years old, I thought that a good crash was not worth the wait.

So, my son and I tuned in to the race.  “There it is, there it is,” Ethan yelled.  There on television was number 97, the very same car he had seen and touched only days before.  I soon learned that the car was being driven by the defending champion Kurt Busch.  If you have to root for someone, it might as well be someone good.  I further learned that Busch wasn’t the most popular driver, and had a reputation of being a troublemaker, which made me like him even more.

Number 97 started off strong in the first row, but finished somewhere in the middle of a pack of forty-some cars, a ho-hum performance but oddly appealing.  I found myself being drawn into the drama of the race and, dare I say it, enjoying myself.

Soon I started turning on the races while doing small chores around the house.  Just background noise, I told my wife.  I wasn’t really watching.  A few weeks later I was sitting on the couch when she said that for background noise, I seemed pretty interested.  I told her that I would rather have been doing a thousand other things, but Ethan wanted to watch another race.  The problem, she so lovingly pointed out, was that Ethan had gone to the park with his sister nearly an hour ago.

By the end of the 2005 season, I was watching regularly, and, when she discovered the endless amount of available accessories – t-shirts, flags, barware, kitchen tools – my wife was watching, too.

Before the 2006 season began, we had to pick a driver to support.  Last season we had cheered on Kurt Busch because we had the car connection.  But since he was no longer going to be driving number 97, we had a decision to make:  Do we stay with the team or follow the driver.  In other sports players change teams all the time, but very few people will change their allegiance to the team.  Perhaps we’ll go with our favorite sponsors.  What would it be?  Candy?  Breakfast cereal?  Office supplies?  Home improvement centers?  Alcohol?

In the end we decided to choose several drivers to follow for an array of reasons.  Some we chose because they drove the same brand of car we drive.  Another because we share a last name with the driver.  Finally we chose a rookie because we thought it would be fun following someone’s career from the start.

During the first race of the following season, the famed Daytona 500, I called all my children into the living room to watch the race with their mother and me.  Among groans, complaints and an offer to do homework, I told my kids that watching NASCAR is like sitting in Circus Maximus of ancient Rome watching chariot races filled with danger and nobility and honor.  Each chariot a wonder of modern physics and engineering.  Each charioteer a fearless competitor, risking life and limb to wear the laurels of victory.

When that didn’t work I told them I’d run to the convenience store for some chips, dip and sodas.  They were in. 

It’s been that way ever since.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Metric Maleficence

Eight years ago saw the passing of an international hero.  Steve Thoburn, of Sunderland, England, died of a heart attack in March, 2004, at the age of 39. 

While most people probably never heard of Thoburn, his stand against a system forced upon millions of people in both the UK and here in America echoes many people’s beliefs. 

In 2001, Thoburn was prosecuted for selling fruits and vegetables in pounds and ounces when the European Union requires produce to be sold in metric units.

Fortunately, Thoburn’s spirit of aversion to the metric system carries on.

While standing in line for nearly twenty minutes while some guy in front of me was buying enough lottery tickets for the entire eastern seaboard, I contemplated my purchase.

Why was I buying a two-liter bottle of soda?  Why not a quart of milk or, for that matter, a half gallon of ice cream or a pound of American cheese?  Why not just a thirty or so once bottle of soda?  Why two liters?  What ever happened to the metric system anyway?

While we are only one of three countries in the world that measures out its highways in kilometers, it seems we still have miles to go.  Even though my car has a 1.3liter engine to cruise those highways, I still fill it with gallons of gas and keep my 13-inch tires filled with air at 32 pounds per square inch.

The metric system was first made compulsory in France in 1801.  It was first authorized for use here in the US in 1866 by an act of Congress, though the debate over our utilization of the metric system has been raging for nearly 200 years.

Back when I was in elementary school we were told that by the year 2000 everyone would be using the metric system exclusively.  The US Metric Conversion Act that was signed on December 23, 1975 declaring a national policy to encourage the voluntary use of the metric system prompted this metric exuberance. So, to prepare us for the measurable future, we were drilled in conversion:  inches to centimeters, pounds to grams, quarts to liters.  What made it even tougher was that even our parents couldn't help us with the homework because, much like kids and technology today, we knew more about the system than our parents. 

Some parents flat out refused to take the metric system seriously because they considered it un-American. 

Imagine a new-fangled Committee for Un-American Activities:  (In a smoky room with flashbulbs snapping all about):

Panel:  Is it true, sir, that on April 15, 2000, you asked for .45 kilograms of German bologna?  German bologna?  And you actually pronounced it bologna with the short “a” sound at the end and not baloney with the long “e”? 

Witness:  I respectfully exercise my constitutional right and not answer that question on the grounds that everybody will look at me funny, like I was French or something. 

Learning the metric system was always a problem because nothing else outside of school measured up in the same way.  Conversion to the metric system was not going to be so easy.

In September of 1999, even National Aeronautics Space Administration ran into its own little conversion problem. 

The Mars Climate Orbiter, valued at $125 million, was lost, tossed into the abyss of space or crashed and burned in the Martian atmosphere, when engineers failed to make a conversion between the metric system and the US system units (pounds, inches, feet, et. al.).  "I can only say," one of the project scientists said, "it served the United States right for not converting to the metric system decades ago."  Served us right?  Economically, politically, financially and militarily the strong-arm of the world and they're going to get us on weights and measures?

Why is it that illegal drug dealers work so successfully with grams and kilos as well as pounds and ounces, easily converting constantly between the two systems, but it's a challenge for a rocket scientist?

It is time for the world to realize that our system of measurement is indefatigable because it is quintessentially American.  It's no accident that the United States is one of the only countries in the world not totally committed to adopting the metric system.  Rugged defiance of global influence and shrewd isolationism are representative of the American spirit.  What else than good ol' American determination can fathom (6 feet) measurements like the rod (16.5 feet) or the pole (5.5 yards) or the peck (2 gallons) or the pace (2.5 feet) or the gill (half a cup) or the hogshead (63 gallons)?

America will keep her measures just as she pleases.  She will not bend to the torrents of international pressures.  Her scales of justice will tip left and right with ounces and pounds; her quantities of milk and honey will flow in pints, quarts and gallons; her rulers will hold its inches to a foot.  And remember what Thomas Jefferson said:  People get the rulers they deserve.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Valentine's Day Fear

Like many rationally thinking men, I am absolutely terrified of Valentine’s Day, this year more than most.  My reasons are many, and while I could go as far back as to third grade and the Hong Kong Phooey Valentine incident, for brevity I’ll start a little later.

On Valentine’s Day, 1979, I decided to write Candy a poem.

I was in high school and had developed a deep crush on Candy.  She was somewhat plain looking, tall, thin build, short brown hair, thick glasses.  I remember how I loved her long slender fingers.  I don’t know why I liked them, I just did. 

Her parents owned a small arts and crafts store down the street from where I grew up.  Many evenings, as she sat behind the counter in the mostly empty store, we’d sit and talk about many profound and meaningful subjects.  We spent much time together, talking, laughing, enjoying each other’s company.  And while I saw her as the love of my life, she saw me more as a little brother.  You see, she was a senior, while I was nothing but a lowly freshman.

So, on Valentine’s Day, I decided to write Candy a poem that would put it all out there.  I opened an emotional vein and bled such anguished adolescent sentiment that it couldn’t fail. 

I stood next to her watching as she read, studying her face for any reaction.  At first she looked confused and maybe just a little concerned, but then a huge smile grew across her face.  She looked at me straight in the eye and said, “This is really good.”  She looked at the poem and then back at me.  “Do you think I could use it to give to my boyfriend?”

I eventually recovered from the devastation of that episode, but it has served as a touchstone for Valentine’s Day ever since.

Avoidance has been my coping mechanism of choice when it came to Valentine’s Day.  It worked pretty well for a number of years, too.  The holiday’s winter placement made the flu a perfect out.  An annual bout of bronchitis kept me safe in solitude every 14th of February. 

It wasn’t until I started dating Cheri, the girl who would end up being my wife, when I was roped in to – did I begin to celebrate the day.  But it was not without a lot of trepidation and a little tragedy.

Valentine’s Day had fallen on a Friday when Cheri was a sophomore at Temple University and I was living down at the Jersey shore.  When I got off work at four in the afternoon, I stopped at a florist and spent what little money I had on a dozen roses.  I planned to stop home, take a shower, and then head up to Philadelphia.

Just before I pulled in my driveway, it started to lightly snow.  I gently lay the roses in the trunk and went in.  Less than a half hour later, I stepped out of the shower and peered out the window at blizzard conditions.  Mother Nature had given me the perfect out when I finally didn’t need one.

Much to Cheri’s chagrin, I called to postpone our Valentine’s date.  Being a guy and an economizer of every step, I decided to keep the roses in the trunk.  I figured the florist stores them in a cooler, what harm could it do.

The next day, late in the afternoon when the main roads were clear, I drove up to Philadelphia.  I told her how sorry I was that we had missed our first Valentine’s Day together, but, if she would come out to the car with me, I was sure all would be forgiven.

I led her outside and proudly opened the trunk.  There we stared at a dozen roses fit for Morticia Addams.  They were practically black, wilted, and generally pathetic.  Apparently a cooler at a florist is not the same as a subfreezing trunk.  I would have told her to forget about the roses, that I was taking her to a romantic restaurant in the city, but I had spent most of my money on the now dilapidated flowers.  The best I could offer was some ice cream from the convenience store and maybe some M&Ms to sprinkle on top.

Fortunately, I have improved somewhat when it comes to Valentine’s Day.  For instance, I no longer buy super sized boxes of chocolates when just that morning my wife was complaining that her jeans felt a little tight.  I double check to make sure I actually sign the card I give her.  I also make sure to read the words closely before randomly underlining some to give them emphasis.  There is no good answer for why you underlined the word “but.”

This year, Valentine’s Day falls on a Tuesday, and I am just a little concerned.  Going out the weekend before is too early to really count and the weekend after is too late.  Sure, you can say that the date is in lieu of Valentine’s Day, but that will still leave an expectation of something on the actual day.  That means we guys must either go out on a Tuesday night – which no working person would wish on his worst enemy – or risk certain emotional annihilation. 

The whole situation makes me feel a little feverish.  Maybe I’ll luck out and it’ll be the flu.