Friday, November 20, 2009

Gym Class Hero

The physical education program in the Hamden Public school system was a series of peaks and valleys. The popularity of each activity rested on how much the activity made you sweat while participating. The less you sweat, the less likely it was to affect your appearance for your next class. Since so much of high school was based on looks, everyone tended to enjoy 6 weeks of badminton was followed by another 6 weeks of volleyball. Both of those were indoors and did not involve an arduous amount of moving around. The most popular was ice skating. Since our town’s public rink was on school property, the high school had access to it during the day. The awfulness of walking up all the football stadium steps to get there was canceled out by the fact that nobody had to get changed.

The worst activities included when the teachers gave into the cultural phenomenon that was Tae-Bo. I don’t care what popularity circle you are in, those videos made you a sweaty mess, and everyone in your next class could tell. Other less popular units included weight training, basketball and swimming. Our school had just gone through an extensive renovation period where we had a brand new swimming pool, and they were going to get their moneys worth.

I hated swimming, mostly because when I was younger I was terrified to go under water. I had always been in the lower groups until during one family trip to Texas I finally went tried it. Of course, that lead to a nasty case of Swimmer’s Ear, but that’s another story.

By the time high school started, I was an okay swimmer, not great, but I wasn’t going to die from drowning or fear. When I walked out to the pool area, the teacher came right over to me. I had missed the placement test because of Jewish holidays. There were two levels: advanced or beginner. Since both were already occupying the pool, I wasn’t tested; she just asked me which I would be more suited for.

I watched the advance class swim lap after full length lap and saw the beginner class flailing around in the shallow end, barely able to walk, playing with a beach ball. Some occasionally went underwater, but most didn’t.

What decision would you have made?

For the next four weeks I was back to my childhood swimming level. I gingerly entered the pool, playing up my former fears and feigned excitement over any minor advancement. I thought this was the best play I could have made – gym was never easier. Of course, when I told my mom, she chewed me out for taking the easy road. My argument of “high school swimming doesn’t matter” was countered with “first this, then what?” We had reached the stand off of gym class apathy against mother’s guilt. I decided not to bring it up until we switched sports. When that happened, I promised my mom I would give 100% effort during badminton.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Smoke if You Got 'em

or How I Got Asthma for Two Years

I was always a healthy kid growing up, so it came as a little bit of a surprise when I developed an asthma related cough in my middle school years. It appeared out of nowhere, but with two parents in the medical field, it was treated to the fullest extent.

The effects came and went – occasionally in gym class or while playing flag football after school I would need to catch my breath or begin coughing. There was no time that the symptoms were tested more than on the bus rides to and from school. You see, there were two kids named Mike and Kevin sat in the back and smoked cigarettes. This was a completely unbelievable occurrence for me. We all had the same health class where they clearly identified the dangers of smoking, yet these two guys lit up every afternoon.

The dilemma was that the back half of the bus was reserved for the 8th graders, but that’s also where the smokers sat. I couldn’t move up and sit with the 7th graders after waiting a whole year to earn the right to those seats. I stubbornly stood my ground and rode the bus a few seats in front of the clouded last row.

A week passed and I reached my breaking point. I went to the bus driver to have her ask them to stop. She was a skinny woman with a large auburn hairstyle that has passed its prime during the Reagan era. If you looked at her face it was hard to tell if she was 40 or 65, which was reason enough to not look at her at all. I remember emphasizing that I had asthma to gain some sympathy, even putting on a bit of a show with some forced coughs. It did not phase the driver one bit.

At the next stop light she looked at me and said "I smoked when I was their age, and I turned out okay."

"You're a bus driver," I told her with the elitist innocence that could have only been delivered by a privileged child.

She shot me a scowl the likes I had never seen and told me to sit down. How could she not see that this act of young rebellion, smoking, could send them directly down the same path as her, the path that lead to driving a bus? As much as I did not care for the two smokers I didn’t wish the life of a public school bus driver on them.

I was a lot of things, but not a tattle tale. Apparently this didn’t bode true for several of my fellow bus mates, all of whom had mentioned it to their parents when they arrived home that night. These parents called other parents and the phone tree grew to include my mother, who asked why I didn't say anything about it. The next day we had a new bus driver. I guess she wasn't doing so well for herself any longer.

In a related side note, my asthma and any signs of it went away shortly after I got to high school. The unused inhalers collected dust in my bathroom cabinet while I was able to get by without using them. We used to joke about the urban legends of the school being built on a lead field because the land was cheaper, but the in 2001 the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry released an assessment on the school's neighborhood. It featured such lines as “The area is associated with landfills that were located in the area from the late 1800s through the 1950s,” and “Residents should avoid digging or other activities that disturb soils beneath the ground surface in the neighborhood.” In short, my old middle school was built on top of a landfill and when gym class was on the field outside, we were not too far above a century and a half of buried landfill waste. The same waste which contained samples of lead, mercury and arsenic, to name a few, only inches beneath the surface. When the report went public, the community demanded change, and a new middle school opened on the other side of town in 2006.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Muddy with a Buddy

In the spring of 2007, my co-worker Ernest told me about a race called Muddy Buddy. The race consisted of two partners alternating between running and biking for a six mile course which was divided into five legs. At the end of each leg there was an obstacle and at the very end of the race was a very long mud pit that you had to crawl through.

It sounded fun, so we signed up as a team, complete with a terribly obscure name from Futurama – “Team Scooty Puff Jr”. It didn’t seem like a very hard task, plus with several months to prepare, it would be okay. As the days and weeks ticked by, there was very little training, unless you count riding the bike five blocks to my friend Parker’s house to drink beers.

The time flew by and suddenly, the event was a few days away. I packed my roommates bike on to the back of my car, picked up Ernest and we drove out to San Dimas. There was a huge turnout, some in fancy costumes and everyone ready to go.

Upon seeing the course, it was evident to us that somewhere along the registration process, we must have missed the part about needing a mountain bike. The course was full of off-road paths, steep hills, tree roots, and sand. We were going to try and tackle these obstacles with a thin tired city bike. We decided that I would do the bike first and Ernest would begin on foot. This would give me three biking legs, since I was the weaker of the two of us at running.

The race began and all the heavy duty bikers took the lead. I lagged behind a bit and tried to get a rhythm going. The first downhill portion took us on to a beach, through the actual water and back up an even steeper hill. The water was deep enough to make my socks wet, putting me in a pretty foul mood at the time. I parked the bike and tackled the first obstacle - three balance beams – and began on foot. A little while after I began chugging along, Ernest passed by me on the bike and took the lead into the second obstacle – the cargo nets. After the third obstacle – the wall climb – I began running what seemed to be the smoothest and most downhill portion of the course. It was just then when Ernest zoomed by on the pavement, barely even peddling on the bike. After beating the tall, inflatable slide there was one leg left. This was the most ridiculous leg – weaving in and out of trees, steep tight turns while going downhill and a crowded path at that. I ended up running the steepest hill while carrying the bike.

I threw the bike into the parking area and found Ernest. There was one piece left and we were prepared to conquer the famous Mud Pit. In order to make sure you were deep inside the mud, there was a net hanging over the entire thing and you had to get down to crawl through it. I was down to my chin and Ernest was up to his neck, covered in mud.

It felt great succeeding in this task, despite the lack of practical preparation. We both ended up throwing out our shoes and socks into the overflowing garbage can that was already filled by people who had the same idea. There was a small series of tents set up where people were handing out things like free socks and granola bars. After grabbing our samples and hosing off in a crowded outdoor area, we got back in the car and headed out for the spoils of war – pizza and beer.