Thursday, December 27, 2007

Tis the football season

n week 16 of the NFL season, I finally saw my first Browns game of the year. And I have now seen enough.

Knowing that Cleveland could secure a playoff spot with a win over the lowly Bengals, Mrs. VFR and I made a trip to a local gin mill to see the game. We arrived in the middle of the second quarter -- as it turns out, just in time to witness a sloppy implosion.

Here's the sequence of the first few place we saw:
  • As we sit down in a booth, Anderson is intercepted going across the middle of the field. On The Nati's next play, Palmer hits Houshmanzadeh on a fade in the end zone. Cincinnati 13, Cleveland 0.
  • Right after the ensuing kickoff, Anderson rears back to throw and intercepted across the middle of the field. The Nati returns it for a touchdown. Cincinnati 20, Cleveland 0.
My mere presence caused a karma catastrophe. If it wasn't for the Blue Moon just placed in front of me, I think we would have got up and left.

In the second half, Anderson threw two more interceptions, including one in the end zone that ended a Cleveland scoring threat. On the final drive, poor clock management and a horseshit penalty contributed more to what one disgruntled former N.J. Turnpike toll collector might term, in a raspy, whispered tone "disaster."

As it happens so often with the Browns, the outcome was decided on the last play. Anderson sent a stray bullet through the end zone toward, inexplicably, no one in particular as time expired. Cincinnati 19, Cleveland 14.

In short, it was Cleveland Browns football. Always good enough to torture me to the very end. Never good enough to win the ones that matter.

Glad to see nothing changed in my 14-game absence.

There a couple of factors, incidentally, that led to this drought.
  • With college football occupying my Saturdays in a six-day work week during the fall, Sundays became the default day to do everything else.
  • I've grown tired of dropping cash at a gin mill to watch the Browns lose and come home smelling like an ash tray. And we only get the Lions at home on TV.
You would think my inability to glean NFL knowledge from anything more than ESPN highlights would hurt the performance of my fantasy football teams, but you'd be wrong. On the contrary, while the Browns have faltered down the stretch, I've gotten great satisfaction from my two fantasy squads, Chester Copperpot and Augustus Gloop.

Before discussing these teams, I hereby acknowledge my awareness of the fact that someday anthropologists will study our geeky fascination with this game and enjoy much laughter at the seriousness with which we take the drafts and seasons.

Duly noted. Guilty as charged. Onto the teams.

Chester Copperpot (11-3) ran away with the regular-season crown in a 12-team league, finishing with the best record and a league-high 1,572 points.

Chet's success can be attributed to impeccable drafting. While I picked up Frank Gore in round one and Edgerrin James in round two, they were mere bit players on a team that also featured third-round pick Tom Brady and fourth-rounder Adrian Peterson, who I stole ahead of W.A. Wilson in a brilliant draft-day maneuver.

Sadly, Brady and Peterson both picked Week 15 to have their worst games of the season -- the start of the postseason in the Not Quite Senile league, leading to an upset. Without its two stalwarts, top-ranked Copperpots sunk faster than the Lusitania, a premature end to a fantastic season.

Luckily, the news was much better with team Augustus Gloop, whose unlikely rise can be measured only in Rocky- and Rudy-like terms.

I started the season with incredibly high hopes for this team. With Larry Johnson and Edgerrin James in the backfield, resurgent Drew Brees at quarterback and Antonio Gates serving as the man-among-tight ends, I thought this team ranked among the top three in a 10-team league.

This was true; it just took a little faith and a lot of time to realize it.

Gloop kicked off the season with a thrilling win over John Oates' Mustache by the narrowest of margins, 91.29 to 91.04.

It was the last win Gloop would see for a long time.

The team lost its next six games, eked out a win and lost two more. Three weeks remained in the regular season and Augustus held a 2-8 record. The playoffs remained a possibility in mathematics only.

Then No. 1 pick Larry Johnson was lost with a season-ending injury.

Rock bottom had been reached.

I had to place untested Earnest Graham, a free-agent pickup, into a tattered lineup that counted Shaun McDonald, Donald Driver and Dwayne Bowe among its starters. (Driver and Bowe combined for one touchdown over the season's final 10 games).

Gloop rattled off two wins over middle-of-the-pack squads to improve to 4-8 entering the regular season's final week, but still sat in ninth place -- with a contest against No. 1-ranked Breukelen Skramble ahead.

Cue the Bill Conti and Jerry Goldsmith tunes.

With everything on the line, Gloop pulled out the improbable 100.71 to 97.49 victory over Goliath. At 5-8, Gloop also scored 15 more points over the course of the season than Longmont refugee M. Kelly to win the tiebreak and secure the eighth and final playoff spot.

The reward for this remarkable run? Another matchup against top-ranked Skramble.

This time in the playoffs. No. 1 vs. No. 8. Could Gloop do it two weeks in a row?

Brees shed some more of his season-long slump. Graham punched in two touchdowns. The Minnesota defense vexed San Francisco. And the Pacific Northwest saw its craziest 1 versus 8 postseason matchup since Dikembe Mutombo surprised the Sonics. Gloop beat Skramble for the second week in a row, this time 126.47 to 112.29, in a playoff masterpiece.

From there, Gloop gathered steam.

The same Brady collapse that dogged Chester Copperpot helped here. Tom Terrific caused The Duke Boys to collapse in the 8-4 matchup one week later, 117.88 to 110.28, and Gloop earned a golden ticket to the championship game.

On Sunday, Augustus faced the league's second-ranked team in the championship game. Team Gloop won, 62.76 to 49.79.

It was complete.

A lineup filled with castaways patched together a run unparalleled in sports history.

It just goes to show you that with a little determination and perseverance, even a fat kid can accomplish his dreams.


Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Post Office Traumatic Stress Disorder

Around Christmas, the mall has always been the most grotesque symbol of a holiday gone awry.

Endless lines of standstill traffic snake through parking lots. Parents employ guerilla tactics to seize the last Tickle Me Elmo. The plague known as Black Friday infects otherwise normal people.

But now, I believe there is a worse fate at this time of year.

For all its warts, the mall is, in a sense, a destination. If done properly, negatives can be mitigated and the trip can even be fun.

In college, my roommate and I would make an annual trip to King of Prussia, Pa. to do Christmas shopping for our respective families. It was a good chance to get away, even for a day, and I believe we did this mostly after finals on a weekday.

No such pleasantries can be written about a trip to the post office, a necessary intermediary on the gifting road. There, the worst aspects of the Christmas rat race are on display.

Let's take a look at the typical post office holiday experience:

Much like the mall, the first step in the post-office visit is the unsuccessful attempt to find parking. Unlike the mall, where hope hides down every aisle, the local post office usually has a finite number of spaces. With once cursory glance it is easy to tell they are all occupied.

So the only real option is to join a conga line of cars filled with clench-teethed drivers playing musical chairs in the parking lot.

And once a spot is finally secured, the prize is a spot standing in a long line next to the driver you just cursed out in the parking lot.

The next annoyance: Extortion.

I repeatedly overheard the same sell-job from the cashier to each customer ahead of me. "Would you like to upgrade to priority postage?"

In case you haven't been the the post office for a while, here's an example of how their chicanery works: The clerk tells you it will cost $7 for standard shipping for a package, but that for "only" $8.10, you can send it priority mail.

If this was a private enterprise, I'd be OK with the up-sell. You pay a higher rate for a higher level of service. But the post office is a governmental agency that shouldn't be in the business of so blatantly ripping off the public.

And by up-selling, the post office is tacitly saying that it has the capability of delivering packages at a faster rate, but it is purposely inefficient when it comes to standard-rate mail. A government agency stating that it is doing a poor job on purpose.

I have long suspected that DMV workers secretly revel in doing a bad job, but at least they don't ingrain it in their departmental policies.

Up-selling drives me bonkers.

A quick tangent on two other post-office matters that also anger me:
  • The years-ago endorsement deal with suspected doper Lance Armstrong. Why does the post office need to spend millions of dollars on a celebrity spokesperson, especially a humorless ass of one? What's next, Doug Swingley racing the Iditarod, sponsored by Social Security? Our government doesn't need to advertise government services.
  • During a snowstorm in Colorado a few years ago, the state post office said that delivery would be halted for four days. Through rain, sleet or snow, my ass!
I digress.

This up-selling con game becomes worse at the holidays, because the cashiers attempt to lay on the mother of all guilt trips if you decline. They tempt: "Don't you want this to be there by Christmas morning?" They threaten: "I can't guarantee this will be there by Christmas morning if you don't go priority."

For all of the faults of the post office, it is the miserable disposition of my fellow linemates that makes the post office journey a truly dreary experience.

They're in a hurry. They're talking on their cell phones. They're exasperated that they can't carry 12 boxes at one time or incredulous that they can't cut me in line, because they "just have to buy stamps."

No one is more miserable than the dark-haired, middle-aged woman about three people behind me in line yesterday who bumped into an old acquaintance and droned on with a shameless, ear-splitting ode to her daughters, Natalie and Veronica.

Everyone within earshot of this shrew grew tired of Natalie and Veronica stories, especially the acquaintance, who clearly had hoped to never run into this woman again. And who can blame her? Not me.

Not after hearing "Natalie and Veronica had a hard time adjusting to their soccer team after we returned from Australia. ... Natalie and Veronica are going to love their new boarding school in Switzerland." Scoffing at a question from the acquaintance, "Renting our house here would be too much trouble. Natalie and Veronica could never bare to have someone else living in their rooms. (Followed by indignant laughter)."

Then there was a story about the tyranny of Natalie being relegated to the JV swimming team.

Remember the old woman who hung herself after listening to Ted Striker in Airplane? If this woman told one more Natalie and Veronica story, it was going to be fucking Jonestown in the post office.

"Natalie and Veronica ..."

"Oh shit, pass the Kool-Aid!"

I made it to the front of the line in about 45 minutes today, at which time I bought four boxes in which to mail gifts. Four cardboard boxes. They were 15x10x8. They cost me $13.96. They probably cost the post office $0.02 to produce in China.

If the post office was a private enterprise, I'd say they had found a wonderful business model and attempted to buy stock before it went public. But again, the post office is a government department, and I don't think the government should act as such a shameless profiteer.

Nonetheless, I took this ass-raping in stride. My time here was served, and I gleefully headed for the exit.

I don't want to sound insufferable here. The truth is that I LIKE Christmas.

But the holiday has a nasty way of beating people down, especially at the post office. There shouldn't have to be a frantic build-up that starts immediately after Halloween and continues for two months.

Therefore, I propose the following solutions to simplify Christmas:
  1. Attempting to buy gifts throughout the year. I think we all find ourselves in situations where we stumble across some piece of merchandise and say, "Oh, Person X would like that." Now, I will purchase that and hold for the holidays, rather than wait to mid-December and frantically search for a gift.
  2. In partnership with No. 1, I resolve to mail these gifts before December to avoid POTSD.
And then there is this scenario:
  1. Rather than buying everyone gifts, I have been toying with the suggestion of simply donating the gift money to the charity of the intended recipient's choice. I can think of a few worthy charities that deserve my money and attention.*
Maybe this would help to negate some of my cynicism. Maybe it would reinstate the giving portion of the holiday while extracting the crass commercialism. Maybe it would simplify Christmas craziness.

It's just a thought. And maybe it's all a ploy to help me avoid long lines at the post office.

* This, of course, does not mean I dislike receiving gifts. Quite the contrary, I have quite the list of suggestions on my Amazon wish list for anyone interested. And I would definitely miss the unwrappings should my second suggestion about ever come to fruition.

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