Monday, November 9, 2015

Bench: My Time As The Worst College Athlete - Part 4

Part 4 - Preseason

(Part 1 - Recruiting is here;
Part 2 - Move-in is here;
Part 3 - The First Day is here)

Preseason at Haverford was two weeks of a grimy, enjoyable routine. We pulled ourselves out of bed, bemoaned the rain, practiced, ate, slept. We were immersed in soccer, focused with an intensity that we would fail to match in our academics. We had no classes or extracurricular activities to compete for our attention, and though there were other teams on campus, our schedules kept us largely isolated, finches on Darwin's neighboring islands. 

The GIAC at night, when it transformed from an athletic center into an airconditioned footpath between academic buildings. photo from
The drills and scrimmages began to separate the wheat from the chaff: Waldo and Seal were among the freshmen distinguishing themselves, while Mugsy (renamed Ray Charles when it came out that he was colorblind) and Crabbe/Goyle were secure as backup keepers. The most visible mark of distinction was the Red Pinnie, an award handed out at the end of each day to the most dogged competitor in that day's activities. I coveted it but did little on the field to earn it, sailing passes out of bounds in mathematically impossible arcs, attempting futile tackles as more nimble-footed teammates dribbled past, and firing vicious shots that did much to clear the surrounding foliage, but little to confuse the goalies.

I ran exclusively with the backups, often conspicuously partnered with Petri, a gangly soft-spoken Rhinie who seemed, like me, to reside on the social fringes of the team. I was dismayed to group up for practice one morning and have coach Joe inform us Petri had quit, perhaps after weighing his chances at meaningful playing time against toiling in dismal mud for six hours a day. My closest competitor gone, I found myself firmly in the lowest talent stratum, and I began to feel the pressure. In writing this I looked for the quote about diamonds being formed from coal and learned, aptly, that is a myth. Pressure on coal gives you smaller coal, a somewhat less inspiring metaphor. My skills and fitness lacking, I chose to ingratiate myself instead through toadying - I brought out and returned the equipment for each practice, and spent my offtime stretching in my dorm room or wringing out my t-shirts, a continuous problem.

Each athlete was given a laundry loop for our dirty clothes, and it fell to the slowest Rhinie to make sure the bin full of loops was placed outside the locker room for retrieval. The loops were meant for athletic apparel, but with no uniforms to speak of, enforcement of that policy was left to our discretion. We gleefully piled jeans and hoodies onto our loops alongside our compression shorts rather than shell out the quarters necessary to wash them back in our dorms, ceasing only after a stern notice was slid under the door. It was a valuable service we appreciated immensely, but was hampered (apologies) by circumstance. The rain that fell for the duration of preseason was coupled with an uncommonly cool spate of weather, and our condensed practice schedule often meant pulling on the same soaked clothing we'd just discarded, as the laundry workers were unable to keep up with demand. We'd curse as we squelched back up the stairs and out onto the soggy fields, where no amount of windsprints could keep us warm.

After one especially windy, rain-swept drill, coach Joe called us over and launched into a diatribe on the finer points of tackling and 1-on-1 defense. Rain glanced off the hood of his favorite weatherproof jacket and settled into the cotton blends of our T-shirts. While it was no doubt an interesting academic exercise, the majority of the team was focused on keeping feeling in their extremities. I recalled a National Geographic special on Tibetan Monks and their ability to transcend the trials of the body through intense meditation, and, lacking any other recourse, decided to give it a go. I spread my arms to the side and pinched my thumbs and forefingers together in my best approximation of eastern religion. My attempt to will myself into warmth was interrupted by a loud throat-clearing. "What...are you doing?" Joe was staring at me. "Mind over matter," I chattered in response, and the coach led the team in a round of laughter. Back in my dorm room, I allowed myself two repetitions of "Sweet Escape" to salve my ego.

The Field House, where, when the weather was too heinous, we gratefully came to run laps. Photo from

With practice doubling as a free-range breeding ground for pneumonia, we looked forward to opportunities to stay inside. One such occasion was an orientation meeting with one of the many deans - part of Haverford's commitment to prioritize the "student" half of our identities over the "athlete" half. We filed into a lecture hall and sprawled into the back rows, pulled down in our seats by a combination of weariness and the insolent nonchalance of 18 year-olds yet untested by college, let alone real life. Even in the confines of a classroom, the teams self-segregated, placing our muddy backpacks as conversational sandbags between volleyball and cross country, field hockey and soccer. I opened my notebook and doodled to avoid my teammates' argument about Ronaldinho and Thierry Henry, names with a tenuous residence in the same boondocks of my brain as Coldplay lyrics and the "stalactite-stalagmite" mnemonic.

The dean entered. She had a warm nonthreatening manner that took on an ominous flavor as she began methodically calculating the hours in a given week and allotting them to our future commitments. We'd need to put in, she emphasized, three times the amount of studying we did in high school to maintain comparable grades. She carved out chunks for sleeping, eating, class, practice, and free time, and came away with more hours than she'd started with. "So, how are you going to make it work?" It was the type of open-ended question that lecture halls greet with roaring silence and the players gazed back stone-faced, calling her academic bluff. I looked up from copying down her equation. The dean, heedless, left the problem unresolved and launched into a list of academic resources at our disposal. I paused the meeting by asking permission to use the restroom, a high school formality I quickly abandoned after seeing the nonplussed look on professors' faces. I returned as she was wrapping up to discover my backpack had been turned inside out, the contents, straps, and zippers all on the interior. As we trundled outside, Waldo laughed and told me the process was called "egging." I smiled wanly and headed for my dorm, clutching my backpack in both arms.

This sort of freelance prank was insignificant next to the institutionalized initiation rituals concocted by the upperclassmen. First, they engineered a get-together between the Rhinies and the field hockey freshmen with the same benevolent spirit that prompts older brothers to offer their younger siblings "Hertz Donuts." They ensured it would be a good opportunity to acquaint ourselves with our fellow athletes, barely stifling their laughter. I picked out an outfit, careful to avoid mockable items, and joined the two groups congregated on the grass outside the dining center.

Like all good social interactions, the event lacked any chance for organic conversation and was tightly policed by the sophomores on hand. "Sit in a circle!" we obeyed, looking less like college students and more like overgrown campers. "State your name, your hometown, and a fun fact," they barked, proving "fun facts" are always demanded in the least fun settings. We went round, introducing ourselves to no one in particular, offering the usual fare of bland trivia reserved for occasions like this. Waldo said he had a pilot's license and had flown to six continents, eliciting murmurs of approval and interest from the field hockey players. "Really?" I asked. Waldo ignored the question.

We were then instructed to play a round of "Never Have I Ever," a game that is fun in proportion to how much the players are willing to divulge and the stakes for having done or not done a given claim. As this contest consisted of 20 stone-sober strangers and had no consequences for winning or losing, the admissions were as boring as expected. I confessed to having never blown a bubblegum bubble. We shifted uncomfortably on the wet grass. To spice things up, the next activity involved two teams passing an apple down the line using only our necks, but our sobriety and discomfort with the game led to an efficient completion. Finally, we were paired off to do a slow dance without music, in the sunlight. My partner and I tightened our lips sympathetically at one another until some shred of mercy took hold and the upperclassman ended the proceedings.

The late afternoon in the middle of the first week was circled in our calendars for an unofficial "swim test". The mundanity of the name coupled with the upperclassmen's obvious excitement tipped off most of the freshmen that not everything was on the level. Being especially naive, I caught none of the sinister overtones: I may have been willing myself into ignorance, as swimming was an area in which I felt a modicum of confidence, having spent many shivery mornings in the summer driving to the local swim club with my dad. As we gathered by the campus pool, I got in to swim a few practice laps. The juniors were dumbfounded and corrected me: "Get out of there, dumbass. It's a bellyflop competition."

I pulled myself out as the upperclassmen stood shaking their heads, and noticed that the other teams on campus had all been invited to witness it. The Rhinies set up chairs for the juniors and seniors and then congregated by the diving board. In a manner similar to our first night on campus, we were instructed one by one to mount the diving board, introduce ourselves, give a pickup line, and do a bellyflop. The women present were both spectators and recipients of our ungainly propositions, which were likely far less ingratiating than the consequent pain we inflicted on ourselves by landing torso-first in a chilly pool. The Rhinies were judged on their flops and the winners advanced to a semi-final round. I was eliminated straight away for muttering a line I'd heard on a radio station ("Baby, I wish I was you, so I could have sex with me") and tipping over into the water. I regretted the loss more than I should have.The proceedings culminated with one of the semi-finalists agreeing to do a third bellyflop naked. He sprinted from the changing room to the pool, covering himself with his hands as he ran. As with all hazing activities, the justification for this kind of buffoonery dissolves under the lightest objective scrutiny. It was done because it had been done before, and with the promise of being able to inflict it on others in the future. Within the context of preseason, no one thought to question it.

The most blatant example of this herd mentality was the underwear song and dance, an ordeal exactly as mature as its name: we were to acquire a set of women's underwear and perform a song and dance while wearing them on top of our clothes. This was the kind of sophomoric endeavor that feels harmless in the moment but is embarrassing as soon as it appears in the rear-view mirror: like many of the freshman traditions, it was abolished before I even graduated. It was done to make the Rhinies feel uncomfortable and unwelcome - admirable goals in their own right - but none of the men involved gave any thought to how uncomfortable it likely made the women, many of whom were new to campus themselves. We Rhinies felt awkward, but none of us had to endure sexually aggressive requests from strangers with horrible mustaches. As hapless Division 3 athletes, we were walking proof that male entitlement needs nothing in the way of success or prestige to flourish. It also stands as proof of our herd-mind stupidity that, after passing the draft of this piece to my fianceĆ© to read, she asked why we didn't simply venture out to a Target and just buy women's underwear. I blinked, and realized nothing had prevented that beyond our assumption that bothering women was part of the process.

I asked my high school acquaintance on the women's soccer team, but she demurred more politely than I deserved. Though it would have been noble to refuse to comply with this ordeal, I was blinded by a need for acceptance and assimilation. As the day of the "show" drew near, my high school friend found a teammate of hers who seemed bemused rather than repulsed by the concept. The friend accepted and gave me the items, then quit the team and returned home before I could return them. I stashed the garments in my locker until she returned for the start of classes, after which I ventured timidly onto her hall to give them back.

We gathered by one of the senior dorms after practice, adorned in various sports bras and the underwear to which our female classmates felt least attached. Each freshman was allowed to sing a song of their choice, though Charmander was instructed to give a rendition of the Pokemon theme song. The Rhinies stepped up and delivered their offerings - Pokemon, Britney Spears' "Lucky," a Fergie tune. Many of the freshman correctly guessed at the positive reception they'd receive for delivering a breathy pop hit. The upperclassmen hooted their appreciation as we pranced around and batted our eyes. Again, our insulated fraternal atmosphere kept us from seeing the inherent bigotry in comedy that boiled down to "guys acting like girls!!!" 

I was last up, and, swallowing the absurd pre-show jitters that accompanied this stupid performance, I launched into a reworked version of "Gaston" from Beauty and the Beast, with the lyrics changed to compliment one of the juniors. I had labored over the rhymes in my notebook and belted them with as much gusto as I could muster. I got loud, raucous cheers from the team, and felt a thrill of success. As we headed to dinner, the senior captain took me aside. "Hey man," he looked stern. "just wanted to say, some of those lyrics were a little homophobic. Cut that shit out." I nodded, and unhooked my borrowed bra.

Dorm Olympics, one of the many fun Customs Week activities the fall athletes could glimpse between gassers. Photo from
Our first weekend was a source of excitement, as it meant both that we'd reached the halfway point of preseason, and that we'd be getting a break from our rigorous practice schedule. The captains organized a trip to a movie theater for Friday night to see Superbad, but I begged off. My high school girlfriend was visiting before heading off to her college and I couldn't imagine bringing her along with 20 other rowdy jocks. The visit turned out to be a breakup, which we both agreed was a bummer but a good decision. We broke up that night, then parted ways in the morning, after which I rendezvoused with the team at a nearby iHop. To my surprise, they were understanding. I dug into my pancakes and listened to them quote the movie at each other - though I didn't see it for months, I osmosed the references and employed them as though I'd been along on the trip. 

Though my antisocial tendencies had held a strong sway over me in the first week, I grew tired of sitting in my room reading my only book (a collection of short non-fiction, my least favorite genre) and pacing around until the next practice. I began to venture out and join teammates in down time. I played some video games and swallowed all my preemptive trash talk as my characters were sent sailing off screen. I spent some time in the library, using the computers to send missives back home to my family and high school friends. We played beer pong with dixie cups of water and gatorade.

During a rare afternoon off, I found myself in a common room in Barclay, the oldest and nicest of the freshmen dorms, along with Ginny Weasley, Crabbe-and-Goyle (the team was rigorous about using his full nickname, often with a dramatic pause in the middle), and a sophomore. In accordance with our strict pecking order, the sophomore chose the movie. He picked Beer League, an execrable, plotless mess starring a Howard Stern hanger-on. We pleaded with the sophomore to turn it off, but he refused even to deny the movie's quality, let alone pick a different option. As we sat watching C-list comedians crack fart jokes, a female cross-country runner walked in. As socially illiterate idiot bros, we refused to let her exist as a fellow person and instead thrust our hormonal attention at her like competing bazaar merchants. We introduced ourselves as, onscreen behind us, a fat guy pretended a wiffle ball bat was his dick. The runner took the verbal jockeying in stride, and apparently saw past the boorishness with one of us - she and Ginny Weasley are currently engaged.

As preseason drew toward a close, the energy began ramping up. Other freshman arrived and what little free time we had was given over to Haverford's Quaker-flavored orientation activities, which dealt mostly with sitting silently until someone authoritative said we could talk. Our team shifted its focus to our upcoming conference matches. The previous season had finished with a dismal 2-14-1 record and 1-7-1 in conference, and the older guys saw the upcoming fall as a fresh slate. We played an exhibition match against Wesley College and lost, 1-2. It wasn't discouraging: we figured it was just a chance to knock the rust off. I did not play, but did my best to contribute by hollering praise and vague suggestions: "Let's hustle, boys!" "Nice clear!"

The end of preseason also meant it was time for roster cuts. This was the moment that had racked me with anxiety from the moment I had stepped on campus. Petri's departure had left our squad at 21 players, and I felt my best odds lay with coach Joe deciding that was an acceptable number. He had individual meetings with each of us and I stepped back into his office, recalling our first encounter. He stared at me, his fingers laced on the desk. "Mickey," he rasped. "How did you feel about your preseason?" This sort of reversal was one of Joe's favorite tactics: the most charitable view would suggest he enjoyed giving his players a chance to speak, but to me it felt suspiciously like my mother allowing me to decide if I was too sick for school, a decision which invariably landed me on the bus, fearful of a trap. I considered my options and aimed for cautious optimism. "Well, I thought I got better as it went along, but I know I have a lot of work to do if I want to see playing time." Joe nodded. I thought it prudent to plead my case further. but was not sure what else to add, leading me to conclude "so...yeah." Joe nodded again. A moment passed in which my brain scrabbled frantically against the inside of my head.

"OK. Well, I'm not going to put you on the team just yet," he said, and I tried to keep the disappointment from flooding my face. "But, I don't want you to quit. I'm going to keep you on as a 'practice squad' player, and maybe if you improve, we'll give you a jersey." This revelation meant the simultaneous rush of shame and pride that only arises in specific scenarios, like beating a young child at video games, or parallel-parking flawlessly in front of an adult book store. I thanked Joe and left, shaky but exultant. In retrospect, the decision feels arbitrary and bizarre. I was alone on this "practice squad," and, considering how much playing time I earned once I did receive a jersey, the distinction was practically a formality. The delay also meant I did not get a picture for the website, or my name in the following year's brochure. But in the moment, all I knew was that I did not have to hand in my laundry loop. I plunked down next to my teammates in the dining center and savored the term. Teammates. I smiled to myself, catching the attention of one of the juniors.

"Stop smiling, Rhinie bitch."

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Bench: My Time As The Worst College Athlete - Part 3

Part 3 - The First Day

(you can read Part 1 - Recruiting here, and Part 2 - Move-in here)

Pictured: Haverford's Dining Center, where students from all walks of life eat and  wax philosophic on what constitutes a hookup. Picture taken from

Homer spoke lovingly of dawn and "her rose-red fingers," though, we must assume, the blind man was orating based on someone else's good authority. I am not a morning person, but I agree in part with his assessment. It is a singular feeling to smell the dew and let the chilly air slough the drowsiness from your skin. One feels privy to secrets the world has denied its sleepier denizens. And rising before the sun does feels as though one has won a small cosmic race. Being awake in the early morning is invigorating. Becoming awake, if you'll pardon the ontological hair-splitting, sucks major ass.

Freshly re-named and nervous for the first practice, I slept fitfully on an unfamiliar mattress under unfamiliar sheets. I kept my windows open to combat the late summer heat, but letting in fresh air also admitted the continuous buzz of cicadas. I bolted out of bed in a frantic daze, certain I had overslept, to discover I was up ten minutes before I had meant to be - there is no more effective alarm clock than human pessimism. I shambled from my dorm room into one of the labyrinthine stairwells. With no internal campus map, I chose an exit at random and left Gummere, clutching my keycard and soccer bag. Dawn's rose-red fingers jabbed me in the eyeballs, Three-Stooges style. I'd left the wrong way and circled around the building toward the athletic center, grateful that I was the sole witness to this mistake.

I entered the locker room to find only one teammate, a junior. He nodded at me and we changed into our soccer clothes in silence. In later years, the program would standardize our practice outfits, but as of fall 2007, we were left to our own devices. I wore a tight shirt since the first practice of the day was just the 2-mile fitness test, thereby putting more thought into drag coefficients that morning than I had into my workout regimen over the summer. The rest of the team trickled in, and when we had all donned our apparel, the captains led us out to the field where Joe and Don were waiting. The former was short and surly, the latter tall and wide-eyed: the two might have made a fine vaudeville duo. Coach Joe instructed the captains to warm up for 11 minutes, and we set off jogging around the campus. This warmup time limit seemed to be a private game between them. Joe would give us a duration and read our time back to us each time we returned, but we were never punished for tardiness or cutting it short. It was an vague benchmark to which Joe paid inordinate attention.

During the jog, we paused to circle up and stretch. In these intermissions, the upperclassmen explained the other Rhinie obligations: first, the captains solicited jokes. I jumped, excited that my weekends scrolling through websites with names like had provided an unexpected benefit. I stepped into the middle and delivered one of my favorites, about an Irishman and a bar and ordering three drinks. The boos echoed off the trees, shattering the serene quiet of the pinetum. One or two other freshman tried their hands to similar effect. The real joke, it seemed, was to watch the freshmen try.

We were also informed of "Superbar," a lurid tradition dating back to a short-lived Wendy's promotional offering of the same name. It was used as a verb and noun for "the first Rhinie to score on the field and the first Rhinie to score off it." Each morning we were quizzed about our non-soccer exploits, despite a practice schedule that left little room for anything beyond stretching, showering, and sleeping. In the past, the freshmen who achieved "Superbar" in either capacity were taken to Wendy's as a reward; now it was simply a euphemism.

The circle allowed me to get a better count of the team. In addition to the ten freshmen blinking sleep out of their eyes, the team consisted of four sophomores, seven juniors, and a single senior. The shortage in this last category, I learned later, was not coincidence. The senior captain had been the lone holdout among the players in his class, who had attempted to oust Joe as head coach the previous years. As is the case with most 6-signature petitions, the effort was unsuccessful, and the rebellious faction left the team in disgust. This kind of pyrrhic defeat could be seen as a distressing omen for the overall team mentality, but to me, it meant a couple fewer sharks in the tank. 

We returned to the field ("11:32," called Joe) and prepared for the 2-mile run: eight loops around the track encircling Walton Field. I steeled myself: in my best attempts I hadn't come close to the 12-minute cutoff, and was banking on adrenaline to make up the extra time. We crowded to the front and inside of the lanes, upperclassmen ordering freshmen to the back. One junior fumbled with his iPod as Joe counted down, cursing its battery life. "Wait," he cried to no avail - Joe may even have sped up. As our coach growled "Go" the junior heaved the iPod off the track in desperation and hustled to catch the departing crowd. I remember seeing the headphones trailing behind in full extension, a tiny white comet.

There are, I'm sure, numerous strategies runners employ to ward off the monotony and strain of their endeavors. Mine was to swear with each exhalation, my plodding accompanied by a rhythmic stream of quiet obscenities. The joking and ribbing from the warmup jog had dissipated as each man (boy? youth?) focused on his own progress. I threw myself across the finish line and heard my time called out - over the 12 minute cutoff. I allowed myself a few more panted curses. I figured they put this run first for the same reason DMVs start driving tests with parallel parking - to weed out the unfit as quickly as possible. But as I looked around, I noticed only around half the team had finished and was staggering around, hands on their hips like a flock of exhausted chickens. As the rest of the players finished, coach Don had us state our times so he could write them down, and I was elated to learn that only two members of the team had beaten the requisite mark. Such a show of unathletic solidarity was heartening: surely they couldn't cut all of us? Joe muttered some words of disapproval and disappointment and we trudged off toward the dining center, unaffected. I felt cautious optimism - these were not Olympic champions noisily hocking loogies next to me. I could hang.

The team ate a quick breakfast, where everything the freshmen put on their plates was subject to skepticism - "eggs? That'll make you puke." "Orange juice? You're gonna boot, Rhinie." I headed back to my dorm and realized that, while I had brought an iPod to campus, I had nothing with which to charge it. In retrospect, the smart move would have been to ask any one of my teammates, but at the time it did not even present itself as a possibility. Instead, I forced myself to ration my music intake, treating myself to a play of "Sweet Escape" once every few practices. I listened while stretching, then ran back to the locker room for the second training session of the day. At this point a light drizzle had picked up, and would continue in varying intensity for the next two weeks. A strict reprimand had been taped to the locker room doors about tracking in mud, and the time spent miserably thwacking our cleats against the ground further cut into our breaks between practices.

The second practice was much less encouraging than the first. Now that actual soccer skills were being called upon, I found the gap between myself and the other players widening. These were players who knew not only the names of exotic feints and tricks, but how to perform them. My instruction in such matters amounted to a brief lesson given me by a friend of the family, when I was 6, in the front hall of our house: he told me to kick the ball with the side of my foot rather than the toe, and that was it. To borrow the proud, unenlightened vocabulary of American football, I could most charitably be called a "blue-collar" soccer player, or, least charitably, "bad." We ran passing, dribbling, and trapping drills: these last were conducted by Don, and involved impossible combinations unseen in regulation play. "All right!" he barked, consulting a weathered clipboard. "You're gonna trap it with your chest, to your thigh, back to your chest, then head it back to your partner!" Balls rolled off in a dozen directions, pursued by frustrated Rhinies. "Ok! Go head, thigh, chest, other thigh, and then play it back with your foot - go!" We improvised and hoped Don wouldn't notice, stalling until his whistle mercy-killed the activity. At the end of these practices, we'd scour the surrounding foliage for miskicked balls until the tally matched what we'd lugged to the field. There was no reward for finding one, but in the manner of adolescent boys, it became a fierce competition.

Pictured: Haverford's Weight Room. Not pictured: me, trying futilely to remember the difference between "strength position" and power position." Picture taken from Performance Plus Camps webpage.

Our third commitment of the day was a weightlifting orientation. If the reader is noting the multitude of obligations, the reader is not alone. Through competing interests between the strength coach, Cory, and the soccer coaches, our preseason days often contained three practices and a lifting session. I spent the entirety of that fall massaging my hamstrings and hobbling between academic buildings. Cory was a new addition to Haverford's athletic staff. He was young and cheerfully no-nonsense about his work. He was no aged trainer living vicariously through his charges, and could be found working out in his down time with weight that caused the squat rack to rattle impressively. His credentials were impressive - he came to our college from a position with an NFL team - our team was not. We wobbled our way through the orientation, shooting each other incredulous looks at Cory's fixation on our "abdominal brace," which felt for all the world like a fancy term for flexing our abs. Cory distributed workout plans and one or two players bemoaned the lack of bicep exercises. Cory shook his head in disgust and walked back into his office.

The final practice of the day was given over largely to a scrimmage. Guys limped up and down the field, listlessly playing the ball to the closest teammate to avoid expending any unnecessary energy. A 0-0 tie left no one happy and we flopped down in a cooldown circle. Upperclassmen tossed chunks of cleat dirt at Rhinies, but without any force or malice. A few tried to wheedle their way onto the trainer's golf cart to ride back to the locker rooms, but were rebuffed. Dinner was reserved - some upperclassmen told the freshmen to add them on Facebook, while others told us they would never accept our friend requests. I made a soggy walk back to Gummere, where a few other freshmen were housed on different halls, but I was too tired and too socially anxious to make small talk. Back into the unfamiliar bed, under the unfamiliar sheets. Having exhausted my quota of iPod plays, I opted instead for sleep. Dusk, with his fingers probably in some shade of grey, wandered over the horizon, but I wasn't awake to meet him.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Bench: My Time As The Worst College Athlete - Part 2

Part 2 - Move-In

(you can read Part 1 - Recruiting here

[NB: though I'd love to include pictures of this year in each installment, precious few such photos exist of me, or the team in general. Whether this speaks to my unpopularity or the futility of the season is up for debate. Regardless, I have attempted to fill in the gaps with generic photos of Haverford's picturesque campus.]

Walton Field. The grandstand's capacity is listed at 1,000,
a preposterously unsafe number that was thankfully circumvented by moribund attendance.
Photo comes from Haverford Athletics website.
Every day of the summer between high school and college was identical: campers screamed up and down the hall outside my makeshift camp office, counselors tried to corral them into their activities, and I sat on a chair designed for a third grader and refreshed my browser. This was in 2007, before Google had fully wrapped its benevolent tentacles around the internet, so Haverford used an archaic client called Squirrelmail. A username and login instructions had arrived in the mail that spring and by the end of the summer, my monitor had the dull gray and red color scheme burned onto its screen. It was clunky but exhilarating, since any new email meant tidings from college. My excitement at having access to college email before setting foot on campus provides a neat, photo-negative comparison to the present day, where I'm constantly annoyed that Haverford has my contact information long after I've departed. In particular, the soccer team had already begun communicating. The coach sent out information about preseason practices, and the captains sent out reminders to keep up our conditioning. The tone of these emails was dry and diplomatic: with the administration cc'ed, the players corresponded with all the gravitas teenagers can muster to the written word. Notices often began with "Gentlemen," and ended with "Best," formalities that, I would learn, belied the personalities sending them. Nevertheless, I hung on tenterhooks for each new message, desperate to glean some insight into the upcoming fall.

My friend Scott paid a lot of visits to my office after dropping his campers at the gym to throw things at each other. He'd gone to my high school and was a rising senior at Haverford. He was unfailingly positive about the place, with none of the cynicism lodged in many upperclassmen, who wander through an academic Xanadu full of friends and opportunities and loudly declare it to be bullshit. When I told him I was attending his college, he transformed into a font of tidbits and advice about campus life. He told me which professors taught the easy courses and which thought A's and F's should be distributed in equal proportions and with equal alacrity. A housing survey arrived, and Scott offered pointers on how to answer it so I'd be placed in a good dorm. Barclay, he said, was the nicest option for freshmen. The apartments were a good second choice. "You don't want to end up in Gummere," he warned. "It's awful." Later, he looked over my shoulder as I opened my housing assignment. "it's fine," he said, putting a consoling hand on my shoulder. "Gummere's fine."

He also passed along his knowledge of the soccer team. Without faces to refer to, I retained the information only as a series of general affirmations. They were all, in Scott's opinion, good guys. This was comforting in the abstract, but in a more concrete sense, they were competition. Whether the coach had said how many men he intended to keep on the roster, or I had extrapolated from the size of my high school team, I counted the addresses on our group email chain and did the math in my head. Where some might dream of starting or being named captain, I calculated the minimum number of players I'd need to surpass and clung to that number like campers did to our necks during free swim.

As incentive to keep us in shape, the captains began soliciting and compiling logs of our workouts, which they posted each week. I took meticulous notes of my exercise and sent them in, only to discover that everyone else's summaries read like water-cooler pleasantries. "Ran on mon wed fri," and "lifted and ran this week" buttressed my wall of text: "Monday, shoulder press 10 reps at 75 lbs., 10 reps at 80 lbs...." In the following weeks, I was more guarded but no less competitive. I stacked up my exercise next to my future teammates' descriptions, wondering if I was doing enough. Coach Joe announced that we'd each need to run 2 miles under 12 minutes in order to be considered for the team. With neither a workout guide nor common sense, I eschewed running and playing soccer in favor of upper-body weightlifting, perhaps hoping to flex my way around the track when the time came.

As camp wound down, I began pulling my dorm room necessities together. This was not difficult; I avoided decoration for most of my life, perhaps out of some fear of being mocked for it. Thus, my packing amounted to stuffing the contents of my dresser into a large duffel bag, and tossing a few amenities into a preposterously heavy metal crate. We ordered a laptop through the school's catalog, but a back-order meant it arrived at my parents' house in late October. It may interest the reader to learn Dell is no longer a publicly-traded company. I mowed the lawn and walked the dog and listened to Gwen Stefani on my iPod. My friends and I held the manic, funerary parties typical of high school graduates; we knew deep down fall would stretch us apart like an old sweater, the threads unbroken but loose. If anyone had tried that metaphor on us at the time, however, we would have taken turns making fart noises until they left the room.

On August 19th, my mom, dad, and I piled into our Corolla and, to use another my dad's favorite phrases, "shoved off." I chose what I figured to be my least embarrassing outfit. The novelty T-shirts I wore throughout high school remained stowed in my duffel or back in my closet in Baltimore. Instead, I opted for my one polo shirt, cargo shorts (least embarrassing), and black sneakers. The ride up was pleasant and contemplative, spanning highways that I'd come to regard fondly over the next four years.

Brochures love to say the campus is "nestled" in whatever borough or city, but Haverford just sort of sits on the main drag of a Pennsylvania township with the same name. The street's businesses - coffee house, clothing store, brunch place - simply drop off where the boundaries of the college start. The campus itself is beautiful and serene, with no through-ways for non-college traffic. We pulled into the entryway past a guard booth manned only by a leaning stop sign. In four years, I never saw anyone occupy the booth, or even a change in the sign's position. We eased over precipitous speed bumps, and the alarm clock and lamp in my crate jostled loudly on each landing. 

Gummere Hall, my freshman year dorm. I also spent sophomore and junior year here, completing an achievement known at Haverford as a "bad decision." Photo by Jack English.

We parked and I retrieved my key and ID card from a woman in the lobby of the athletic center, who pointed me towards my dorm. Gummere stands in defiant opposition to the otherwise stately architecture of the campus. Built in the 70's, it consists of three 3-story sections, each set at slightly different heights, so that traveling between them involves ascending or descending half a flight of stairs. There are exits on either side and little to distinguish the 9 hallways. A popular campus rumor intimated that it was constructed to be riotproof, but the truth is far more mundane: Haverford simply lacked the funds to level the ground during construction, so it was built on the natural incline of the terrain.

I deposited my belongings in a trapezoidal room and my mom helped make my bed, a last mom gesture that I deeply appreciated. We returned to the athletic center, where the soccer team's introductory meeting was meant to take place, and stood awkwardly for a moment. I hugged them both goodbye, but seeing other student-athletes milling about, I detached quicker than normal. As they departed, I looked around. My neuroses, seeing me unattended, jumped in to point out how much more relaxed and at home everyone else seemed. I sat on a bench and watched a few upperclassman reunite, kicking a ball back and forth. One boy, tall and imposing, was going around introducing himself. His handshake was confident: I was surprised and disheartened to learn he was a freshman as well.

After a few minutes, we were herded into a conference room that the women's soccer team had just vacated. I passed a freshman who had come from my high school and saw her laughing with her new teammates. We filed in and the upperclassmen instructed the "Rhinies" to sit in the back. "Rhinies" was the derisive term for freshmen, a word perfect in its phonetic capacity to carry bile. The upperclassmen and Coach Joe used it with relish, and, in the tradition of all fraternal hierarchies, the freshmen endured, knowing we'd be flinging it at younger teammates soon enough. Coach Joe ran through the expectations of the team and the preseason schedule before introducing other members of the staff: Don, the assistant coach, who spoke nervously unless talking about our rival school, Swarthmore; Curt and Melissa, the medical trainers; Cory, the strength and conditioning coach, who was a new addition to the staff; and Wendy, the school's athletic director. The presentation was rife with strange abbreviations that form the secondary language of college campuses - GIAC, INSC, CPs. I took notes until I saw no one else was, then, not wanting to abandon my attentive appearance, contented myself by staring toward the front of the room as intently as I could. My resting expression is best described as "serial killer at sentencing hearing," so my laser focus amidst a sea of glazed eyes must have unnerved the presenters.

Coach Joe adjourned the meeting with a reminder to be out on the practice field by 7:30 - "if you're on time, you're late," was one of his favorite mantras - and left us to the upperclassmen's devices. The captains announced it was time for an extra, unscheduled meeting, and marched us down to the apartments. The Rhinies passed a nervous unspoken energy between ourselves. We understood the significance of leaving administrative supervision, if not the particulars. One upperclassman, a junior, laughed like Spongebob as we trooped down a wooded path that formed the campus' only connection with the Haverford College Apartments ("HCAs," I'd write down in my notebook later).

The freshmen were left outside the building as the upperclassmen went upstairs to "prepare," a verb infinitely more ominous when the preparations are a mystery. I counted 10 boys regarding one another in silence - a recruiting class that nearly outnumbered the other three years combined. This realization was a relief - surely other freshmen would be easier to beat out for spots than upperclassmen? "Which club did you say you played for again?" one guy asked another, cutting through my newfound optimism like piss through fresh snow.

The older guys began calling us inside, three at a time. I couldn't discern any method to their selections, but this did nothing to calm my imagination as I found myself left with the last group. A sophomore poked his head out and we remaining Rhinies bunched inside the sweltering apartment where the rest of the team sat waiting: Haverford does not air condition its dorms, and even the most spacious of its living rooms does not fit 22 athletes comfortably. The sophomores, juniors, and seniors were arrayed in chairs, while the freshmen found room on the floor.

The captains called out a name, and one of my companions raised his hand. He was made to stand on a footrest in the middle of the room, and the visual effect was that of a sweaty bro tribunal, a post-pubescent Lord of the Flies. The upperclassmen began to pepper the Rhinie with questions, chiding him for any physical tics: "don't cross your arms!" one yelled. "Don't look at the ceiling while you're thinking," another instructed. They asked for his full name, whether he had a "hometown honey," for her full name, for his favorite pickup line. I studied the questions and rehearsed my answers, determined to avoid the mistakes my predecessor was making. When the new recruit had been sufficiently cross-examined, the captains asked for nickname suggestions. A different freshman offered a possibility and was upbraided for his audacity - this was a privilege reserved for the veterans. An agreeable name was put forth and the captains echoed it, completing the process: "Mugsy!" Mugsy was allowed to step down and join the other Rhinies.

"John McCauley," called the captains, and I stepped forward and up. I always vacillate between using my legal name and my nickname when introducing myself, and saw no reason to draw criticism by correcting the captain. I stood with my hands stiff at my sides to keep from fidgeting - "relax!" demanded a junior. I gave my name, my high school girlfriend's name, my academic interests, my extracurricular interests. A dozen other pieces of trivia were presented and received without comment. Something felt amiss. The veterans were having trouble coming up with a nickname. They asked me if I already had one ("Mickey, but everyone calls me that, even my parents") and dismissed it. There was silence.

One of the captains noticed my attire. "Pull those up all the way, Rhinie," he barked, and I cursed myself for not wearing pants. I bent down and tugged my white calf socks up as high as they would go. Amid the laughter, a sophomore shouted that I looked like "that basketball player, the real awkward one!" "Keith Van Horn!" another agreed, and with that, the matter was settled. I was Keith Van Horn.

When all 10 Rhinies had completed the questioning, we did a roll call. The names revealed the character of the upperclassmen: jocks, yes, but with an unusual affinity for nerdier elements of society. Among the newly-christened freshmen were Charmander, Waldo, Ginny Weasely (a red-head), Crabbe and Goyle (one person), and Petri (named after a pterodactyl from a children's movie franchise). Steven Seagal was named for a physical resemblance. Sharkus was given the same nickname as a recent alumnus of the team. Mugsy, Seal, and Keith Van Horn rounded out the class. The upperclassmen told us their names and what their freshmen nicknames had been, with past monikers like "Missile Tits" serving to show how benevolently we had been treated. 

The captains then explained the rhinie preseason rules. There would be a mustache contest, so we were forbidden from shaving above the upper lip and commanded to shave below it. We would have a swimming test. There would be a song-and-dance performance in which we'd be required to wear women's underwear over our clothes. This last task doubled as a chance to brush up on our social skills, as those who had not brought their own women's underwear in anticipation would need to borrow it from one of the female athletes on campus. The younger captain, a junior, concluded this list by reminding the Rhinies that this was all voluntary, and that Haverford was not in the business of hazing. As we made our way back into the dusk to return to our dorms, he issued one last instruction - we were not to damage the team's reputation with any bad behavior. After all, he said, the soccer team "was sort of the nice guys on campus. Now go to bed, Rhinie bitches."

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Water Conservation Tips Issued Directly To Me

Los Angeles Department of Water and Power
Consumer Outreach Division
3020 Murtaugh Street
Los Angeles, CA 90912

Dear citizen,

As the drought continues, water conservation becomes more and more important. It is only through the diligence and forbearance of people such as yourself that we may persevere. Therefore, with the aid of rigorous government surveillance, we have provided a list of easy water-saving tips tailored specifically to your daily behavior. We hope you find them instructive.


The L.A.D.W.P.

1. When attempting to remove a hair from the shower wall, consider using a piece of toilet paper, rather than 28 errant handfuls of water.

2. Drinking from a wide-mouth water bottle? Avoid cocking your head back confidently and losing most of the water down your shirt.

3. Washing your hands for longer than 45 seconds provides no additional hygienic benefit, no matter how gross that squishy banana felt.

4. While showering, time equals water! Consider eliminating one or two of the less popular tracks rather than rapping the entirety of the Beastie Boys' seminal 1986 album, License to Ill.

5. Though hiding in the handicap stall may provide more privacy and solitude during social outings, using the urinal is more environmentally friendly.

6. Do not use the kitchen faucet as a percussive backbeat to your rendition of "Hot in Here."

7. Try to remember when you've put a pot on to boil rather than playing iPhone games in the other room for 40 minutes, as this wastes a lot of water through evaporation (this tip also found in your individualized Household Safety Reminders).

8. It saves both time and water to retrieve a stray pinto bean from the sink by hand, and not by chasing it  with the spray nozzle for 4 minutes.

9. Refrain from running the faucet over your freshly-clipped fingernails: while the water saved is minimal, we simply consider this to be an extremely creepy habit.

10. Lastly, while coming up with ideas for humor pieces, remember that you can save some brainstorming for after the shower.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Pickup Lines For Bullies

Did it hurt? When you wouldn't stop hitting yourself?

Are your legs tired? Well they will be once I chase you around the playground and rub your face in some woodchips.

Those books look nice on you. I bet they'd look better on the floor, bitch.

Hey kid, was your father a baker? Because my dad's in the Marines and he'll beat the hell out of your lame baker dad

If I told you you had a great body, I'd be lying. Haha ugly ass nerd.

I lost my phone number, can I borrow yours? And while I'm at it, fork over the lunch money, homeboy.

you must be from Tennessee, because that's a stupid accent you moron.

You know, Hershey's makes millions of kisses every day...Yeah, I bet you knew that because you eat them all. You eat a million chocolates every day and you're fat because of it.

If I could rearrange the alphabet, I'd put "U" inside "L" "O" "C" "K" "E" and "R"

Hey is that a mirror in your pocket? Make with the mirror punk. I want that pocket mirror you got.

Let me see your shirt tag. Yup, just as I suspected. You were made in the Loser Idiot Factory.

Is your dad a thief? I bet he is and your whole family is poor and he's in jail for a million years

Do you know how much a polar bear weighs? Not as much as your fat mom

Wow. Someone better tell God he's missing an angel. But I'll send him a new one, when I kill you. I'm gonna kill you fool.

I wish my foot was a derivative, so I could lay it tangent to the curve of your ass cheeks. Thanks for helping me with calc II by the way.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Bench: My Time As The Worst College Athlete - Part 1

Part 1 - Recruiting


The word hung in the air like a bad fart, and the three of us considered its implications. My dad, dressed in a lawyer's approximation of casual attire, pursed his lips: "no" ran contrary to his line of questioning. Beside him, I saw "no" as a conversational offramp and veered toward it, twitching my feet in anticipation of our goodbyes. Though it would be a rare occurrence in the future, the coach seemed to agree with me. This meeting had caught him off-guard. The school's athletic department boasted an open-door policy, but the implicit purpose was to encourage communication between current athletes and staff; it was therefore a surprise to see the offer so cheerfully taken up by an alumni and his prospective student son, now plunked in side-by-side chairs. "No" was the coach's best bet at curtailing this intrusion.

Said intrusion had been a surprise to me, as well. Knowing both my interest in soccer and aversion to even the hint of impositions, my dad had taken charge. We'd finished our tour of the college and it was at his suggestion that we revisited the athletic center. Pushing through the sleek glass doors, he asked the administrative assistant to point us toward the soccer coach's office. I trailed behind him, mortified in the faint way introverts are around more gregarious family members. From the little I knew, recruiting was handled the other way - the school reaching out to the athlete. By traipsing in and presenting myself unannounced, we were upsetting the natural order. We entered the room and introduced ourselves to Joe, the coach- I called him "sir" both as a formality and to avoid tripping over his last name, which I've omitted for a modicum of anonymity.

Joe was startled, but his long tenure in chatting with prospects allowed him to clamber back into courtesy. He recounted the highlights of the team's history - the first intercollegiate soccer program in the country, the fastest to 700 wins, a perennial Division III contender for stretches in the 60's and 70's. I took in the office. There were photos and scarves mounted on a bookshelf behind me, but the room as a whole felt sterile and clinical. Joe did little to ease that feeling. He had a gravelly, dour voice that, as I would learn, stayed static for the entirety of his emotional spectrum, unless he was angry, in which case it increased noticeably in volume. He recited the facts like an encyclopedia entry. My dad recalled his own experience as a fencer for Haverford, hoping to spark some cordiality, but to no avail. Joe accepted his anecdote like a kid opening an elderly aunt's Christmas present: his disinterest strained mightily at the thin membrane of social etiquette.

Not wanting to waste time on collegiality, Coach Joe handed over a pamphlet and asked me about my experience. This was what I was dreading. My high school was no powerhouse: it was a tiny, ultra-progressive place that has produced more successful cartoonists than professional athletes. Team cuts would have been greeted with aggrieved PTA meetings and an editorial in the student paper. This was a school that had once put up a sign advertising prestigious colleges its alumni had gone on to attend, only to take it down following an uproar from the student body, who worried that those who had enrolled in less-illustrious universities would feel left out. My coaches had grimaced but were powerless to stop me from running out on practice for an a cappella concert or play rehearsal.

It was a very small pond in which I had grown, and yet I was no big fish. I had clawed my way onto varsity for my junior and senior years, heedless of the coach's advice that I would see more time on JV. I was never a starter, and was relegated to backing up a more talented sophomore. My career stat line consisted of two goals and a handful of wayward shots. Our team had lost on penalty kicks in the playoffs my senior year, and the team's disappointment was cut with excitement at how far we had advanced. This was in the "B" conference (between "A" and "C") of small private schools, so our competition was not headed for Division I programs, either. I was a middle-of-the-pack player in a middle-of-the-pack program in a middle-of-the-pack conference in a middle-of-the-pack state. Beyond that, I had no club soccer experience. I had participated in a rec league organized by the neighborhood dads, but at that age I was equally interested in the end-of-season doughnut party.

When asked which position I played, I faltered; unlike youth baseball and its right field, soccer lacks a quarantine position for unskilled players, so I had been shuffled around by coaches desperate to mitigate the damage caused by an excitable stringbean with minimal coordination. I said that I played midfield, but without conviction. The more I talked, the more I realized the futility of this weird bid for a spot on a college team. Joe was unsure how to respond - it was bad enough to be confronted in his office by a hopeful prospect, let alone one with such a singularly meager resume. Scrolling through the college website today, I notice they've implemented a recruiting questionnaire. I don't want to take credit for that, but it may be to ward off cases like myself. My dad, sensing trouble, interceded. As he saw it, I could spend my first years on the JV squad before possibly making a run at varsity. Haverford still had a JV team, right?


Haverford did not field a junior varsity soccer team. Joe acknowledged that yes, they had offered one in the 70's, my dad's era, but the demand on practice space and a waning crop of interested players made it an impossibility. Since my potential college soccer career hinged on the existence of a lower-talent roster in which I could hone my skills, "no" seemed to neatly squash my chances of becoming Division III Rudy.


I gave the bland smile of the defeated and we traded pleasantries. We left the air-conditioned athletic center and stood blinking in the sun. My dad groused about coach Joe's taciturn refusal and I excused myself to poke around the bookstore. I wandered around black and red apparel and thought about my impending graduation. We had a two hour drive back home where I could offer noncommittal answers to questions about what I liked and disliked during our tour. I exited without purchasing anything and met back up with my dad, who looked excited.

"Brother Mick," he said. It remains his preferred nickname for me. "I ran into that coach. He says it's fine if you want to come to tryouts. I don't know why he was acting so cagey before."

It is only in writing this now that I wonder whether this run-in had occurred back in the coach's office, or if my dad had hectored him on my behalf. In the moment, I didn't care. I was in. I'd like to think I hugged my dad or pumped my fist, but given my age and Irish sensibilities, I probably said "oh cool" and left it at that. Inside, I roiled. I had a shot.

My freshman year, I played college soccer. It was a rush of surreal, intoxicating frustration. Despite a wonderful undergraduate experience and a wealth of fulfilling extracurriculars and academic pursuits, it is my abortive soccer career on which I am hopelessly fixated. Certain smells invariably carry me back to the practice field, or the trainer's room, or the apartment basements that hosted team parties. Maybe it is the unresolved competitiveness, or the addictive surge of being part of a team - especially one with no incentive beyond pure enjoyment. Whatever the cause, I hope to exorcise some of that restlessness by sharing my experience.

This is not a story about overcoming odds or ascending the depth chart or scoring a game-winning goal and disappearing in a pile of cheering teammates. As I would learn later, my chance to tryout arose only because the team was in a historical nadir. I spent four years associated with Haverford's Men's Soccer Team in various capacities and totaled two minutes of meaningful play. I left no legacy, inspired no one with my tenacity, nor did I help to right the ship. I was a body in a uniform, and later, out of one. My only qualm with calling myself "the worst college athlete" stems from feeling unworthy of any superlative. My time playing soccer was, by any metric, a resounding failure. I loved it.

Friday, August 7, 2015

I'd Like To Bring You My Side Of The Story

Thank you all for coming. I understand there are a lot of rumors and outlying questions about the video that surfaced last night. We live in a time of questionable journalistic procedures, where it is more important to be "first" than to be "right." Yes, I am the man who slips and falls on dog doo in the parking lot, and yes, that mishap was caught on CCTV. But the footage, taken at face value, presents a skewed version of events, and I intend to address the misconceptions it creates. It is my hope that a holistic view of this incident will chasten the commentariat for their premature assessments.

1. The footage appears to show me slipping in the dog doo and lying helplessly for several minutes. It has, however, been heavily edited. In fact, I made numerous attempts to get back up, and was thwarted each time by the same pile of dog doo.

2. There is a theory circulating that my encounter with the dog doo results in my pants falling down. This is incorrect, and confuses cause and effect. In reality, my pants had descended to my ankles several seconds beforehand, and my efforts to correct this diminished my capacity to both see and avoid the dog doo. I take full responsibility for my clothing blunder: I had undone my belt in anticipation of the ice cream cone I was holding and intended to eat. This segues neatly into my next point.

3. To those speculating, allow me to confirm: yes, I was carrying a quadruple-scoop Rocky Road ice cream cone in my right hand, and 18 individually wrapped rolls of toilet paper in my left arm. It is no secret that the mall I exited contains both a Baskin Robbins and a CVS, nor that I believe in rewarding myself upon successful completion of an errand. Some may ask why I eschewed the single 18-pack in favor of 18 separate rolls. The answer to that is simple as well: I do not believe in the "unit price."

4. Ordinarily I would not entertain curiosity about my underwear. However, as it was exposed on camera, I am loath to let the unfounded assertions continue to mount. The text on that pair of novelty boxers DOES NOT READ: "Tennis Players Have More Balls", "Mount Dookie and the Yellow River", "Tell Your Girlfriend Hello From Me and Also From My Penis", or "I [heart] Peter Frampton." The boxers simply say "Danger!! Fart Factory Meltdown Imminent."

5. To the jokesters and talk show hosts who have delighted in the so-called "irony" of me carrying toilet paper in an event dealing largely with feces - that's not what irony is. Additionally, dogs do not use toilet paper, so I fail to see any humorous connection.

6. While the footage is silent, many viewers hypothesized that I began crying. In actuality I was weeping about something entirely unrelated, such as orphans.

7. Finally, I would like to dispel the rumor that, directly following my dog doo accident, I staggered back into the Baskin Robbins to order a second quadruple-scoop cone of Rocky Road. This is patently false: I ordered cookie dough, as my earlier purchase had exhausted the branch's supply of Rocky Road.

I trust that my explanations have assuaged the doubts of the general public. I have been tested by this ordeal, and emerged stronger. I will carry forward, more cognizant, but not more fearful of piles of dog doo. And contrary to the pundits' belief, I am confident this error will not affect my chances of re-election in the slightest. Thank you, and God bless you.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Loo Review: Bertucci's, The Stores at 2000 Penn

A tour of the White House left my fiancee, her brother, and me peckish. Flush with reverence for the our country's rich historical tapestry, we adjourned the keystone of American democracy and sought out its mortar: mid-range italian-American cuisine. We arrived at a nearby Bertucci's that had no doubt catered to a range of illustrious public servants, despite the humble accommodations and . free-spirited maintenance standards. Oh, to be one of the many flies on the wall. The endless salad and soup (what a country!) took their inevitable toll and in due time I hefted myself up, groaning to match the chair, and ambled toward the bathroom.

The amiable, light-filled atrium in which we were seated gave way to a sinister, deserted hallway: the change in aesthetic was the first omen that the experience of the digestive consequent was not to match its pleasant antecedent. This was a corridor suited more for gurneys or the slow, shambling undead than those afflicted only with full bladders. It stood in stark contrast to the restaurant, to say nothing of the White House's grandeur. The clink of grubby plates echoed dimly behind me, and, discomfited, I scurried into the men's room.

Upon entering, I was struck immediately by the bizarre geography. The two stalls were not adjacent and instead flanked the sinks, while the urinals sat on the opposite wall. The dispenser for toilet seat covers was found in the small anteroom, rather than in the stall. A hand dryer perched above a trashcan meant to hold paper towels that were nowhere to be found. A slippery floor sign lay capsized by the door. It was as though some divine creator had gathered all the ingredients necessary for a bathroom and sneezed them into place. I chose the stall to the right, obeying a primal instinct to put the greatest distance possible between a door and my bare ass.

The room gave off an eerie, unsettling air. An indeterminate item of black clothing hung from the coat hook in the stall - I refrained from further inspection. The primary light fixtures crowded close to the corners of the wall, while individual bulbs nested sporadically in the middle of the ceiling. Here, an excess of space felt less opulent and more ominous, as though one could shrink into nothingness, their diminishing screams for help drowned out by waitresses setting down infinite bowls of minestrone.

The lavatory achieved brief redemption in its wash-up station. The mirror was expansive and clean, and the counter made of a cheap but appreciated imitation of green marble. The sink had manual faucets and soap dispensers. I side with the architects who allow their patrons a modicum of agency, and this sink gave power back to the people. I ran my hands under the stream,  reflecting on the multitude of greased palms that must have done the same, and held them impatiently under a dryer that wheezed lukewarm impotence. Stepping out of the oppressive gloom of the lavatory and back into the light of day, I felt an imperceptible burden lift from my shoulders. The waitress had brought more rolls.

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 toilet paper rolls

Friday, May 29, 2015

Loo Review: Amtrak train 187, Quiet Car

Locomotion, which once staked a fair claim in building our country, is now a mode of transportation reduced largely to novelty. Lacking the efficacy of the airplane or the agency of the automobile, trains chug along, carrying an ever-dwindling number of passengers, their horns a cry of nostalgia for the halcyon days of America's nascency.

Anyways, I crapped in an Amtrak bathroom.

What trains lack in speed or competitive pricing models, they make up for in their relatively expansive commodes. Each is accorded the space of a standard handicap stall, a preposterously  indulgent allocation of real estate. Every train car offers two restrooms, a far more generous per capita ratio than that offered by the rapacious fucks of the airline industry, who would, but for the negative PR, happily march passengers through a trash compactor and have flight attendants stack the resultant flesh cubes in the holding bay of the plane. Though the extra room is of little practical value, the psychological effect is heartening. Here, it seems to suggest, is a place one can stretch one's legs, or pace while mulling conundrums philosophical. 

The space is well-lit without feeling clinical. Though a faint uric odor persists, it does not overwhelm the senses. The many identical bathrooms remove the urgency that normally accompanies the use of a public lavatory: taking one's time does not violate the social contract nor force one's co-travelers to crowd, wincing and irate, outside the door. Bashful eye contact with the next partaker is also, mercifully, spared. The lock is a firm, forceful mechanism that leaves no doubt as to the security of the space. The amenities are built tastefully into the walls, marrying form and function in a decidedly pragmatic union. And the train itself provides ample cover noise. It is an oasis, a panacea to the ills of grimy rest stops and Lilliputian comforts of airplane bathrooms.

Alas, the bathroom is not without flaws - it falls victim to the shortcomings inevitable in the attempt to mobilize plumbing. The toilet is dry, which results in the fruits of one's labor lying balefully uncovered. In drastic circumstances, looking at one's effluvia feels akin to gazing back at the wreck of Gommorah. Thankfully, the lid comes clanging down of its own accord, and the flusher is immediate. Also, while trains are not subject to immense turbulence, when one is at one's most vulnerable, a little can go a long way.

Nevertheless, in a world increasingly beset by profit margins and apathy, the bathroom in the quiet car of Amtrak train 187 provides welcome relief. As America plunges heedlessly toward the future, trains, and their bathrooms, are content to remain stationed in the charm and comfort of the past.

Grade: 4 out of 5 toilet paper rolls

Friday, May 8, 2015

It's Not About Cheating

The Wells Report, 243 exhaustive pages of investigation into infinitesimal air pressure changes, dropped today. The aim was to uncover whether the Patriots intentionally deflated footballs and whether Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were complicit in doing so. The report amounts to a novel-sized shaggy dog story, concluding in a supremely unsatisfying "probably," but really, the findings are immaterial. Any verdict that did not canonize Tom Brady and Bill Belichick as Roman Catholic saints would have generated the same result: waves of histrionic moralizing from sports columnists defending The Integrity Of The Game, breaking on the usual bulwark of hair-splitting rebuttals and persecution complexes from Patriots' fans.

Better writers have already skewered the lunacy of devoting millions of dollars to what could reasonably be considered the smallest of the league's problems. And the general arguments - "Everybody does it;" "a history of cheating" - are being marshaled with a weary sort of resignation. This is the song-and-dance routine dragged out every time accusations of rule-breaking are levied against the Patriots. New England fans lament being targeted disproportionately for infractions that are practiced league-wide, and even the most strident critics can admit this is probably true. But the underlying cause for these witch hunts is not "jealousy," nor a nation-wide effort to discredit New England's accomplishments. There is no conspiracy to explain why the Patriots perennially find themselves under the microscope. It's much simpler than that.

It's because the Patriots are assholes.

Bill Belichick is not a man given to sentiment. His almost-perfect 2007 season featured Brady and Randy Moss routinely running up the score, attempting fourth-down conversions and throwing the ball late in the fourth quarter against hapless opponents. He is openly contemptuous of the media, with none of Marshawn Lynch's on-field highlights to compensate for his disdain. Even his players, who vouch for his off-camera personality, understand that they are only commodities of depreciating value in his eyes. In a league where every coach is scrapping furiously for the smallest advantages, Belichick's reputation for being calculating and obsessed with winning is not easily come by. His ruthlessness and graceless does not endear him to former players, journalists, or the teams he embarrasses on the field.

Similarly, the NFL's rulebook is a Gordian knot of subarticles and clauses, and its ambiguity is blood in the water to Belichick. He lives for grey areas, and no other coach is half so adept at exploiting the shortcomings and intricacies of the rules. He orchestrated a masterful strategy of jamming the Greatest Show on Turf and Peyton Manning's Colts at the line of scrimmage.  He included a healthy Tom Brady on the league-mandated weekly injury report for three years straight, though the quarterback played 127 straight games in that span. (In one of karma's more capricious fits of malice, Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the very next game after his removal from the list). In the most recent playoffs, he took advantage of Baltimore's inexperienced cornerbacks by running complicated schemes where receivers lined up as offensive linemen, and vice-versa. None of these practices were illegal, but all three resulted in rule changes to rub out the practice in the future. In a league where other coaches race to adapt to the rulebook, it often seems like the rulebook is racing to adapt to Belichick. In this, he is thumbing his nose at the shield, exposing its foibles and flaws in full view of a televised audience. He may be right to do so, but it stands to reason that this gamesmanship would draw the ire of a commissioner desperate to preserve the appearance of competence.

Though he is the avatar for the Patriots' condescending attitude toward the rest of the league, Belichick is by no means the only culprit. Owner Robert Kraft, a man beloved exclusively by his circle of lackeys and the average Joes who schlep out weekly to Foxboro, saw fit to weigh in on domestic violence following Ray Rice's suspension. His stern condemnation was somewhat undermined by both his employment of a murderer, and his cheerful fraternization with well-documented abusers. Tom Brady, beneficiary of one controversial rule and namesake to another, has become the poster-child for the type of tacit advantages accorded to high-profile quarterbacks. Even Gronk, innocuous and playful, carries a miasma of frat-boy privilege.

But for all this, the Patriots still might weather these controversies without so much fanfare. Where they truly blunder is in their defense of their actions. Simply by denying the claims made against them, the Patriots invite extra scrutiny. Yes, it is true that all teams cheat. The Patriots are exceptional in their futile attempts to protect their reputation. Kraft & co. cling to "The Patriot Way," a risible, extinct code of conduct that somehow distinguishes the Patriots from the common brutes shuffling through the rest of the league. In order to prop up this mythical standard, it is not enough that transgressions are endured - they must be exculpated. This too brings attention to the Patriot's door - a preacher's misdeeds are far more interesting than a drunk's.  If they chose merely to accept or ignore the accusations, they would fade into obscurity. As evidence, one needs look no further than the Superbowl, in which the Patriots "probably" committed a second, much more palpable infraction that received much less attention.

Julian Edelman, hero of the game, likely endured a concussion following a brutal hit from Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. Though it came to light that he was eventually cleared (by a sideline concussion test regarded as a farce), he did not leave the field to be examined until after the offense had scored a touchdown (a series in which he was instrumental). Surely Edelman, who should have been removed immediately for testing, provided a larger advantage for the Patriots than a slightly flabby football. Yet Edelman and Belichick defused any larger controversy by remaining staunchly mum on the subject. As is usual, a rule was changed, but the media remained silent.

By trampling over teams, discarding players at the first whiff of decline, snubbing the media, scoffing in the face of the league, and foolishly proclaiming their innocence, the Patriots have left themselves without allies. And as long as they continue to run roughshod over their detractors, their detractors will continue to take savage, vindictive pleasure in finding fault with the Patriots' accomplishments. Yes, every team cheats. But not every team is a dick about it.

P.S. Sorry about not using images but I don't want to do it without properly attributing them and I don't know how to do that.