CHICAGO -- I was very young during the Blizzard of 1978. It was not my first memory of snow, but it was the first time in my life that snow had transformed the world around me into a network of tunnels, mazes and forts. I took the opportunity to ask my father what it all meant.
"Why is snow white, Papa?" I asked. I called him Papa back then.
He was shoveling the stairs. "Because when God shits on us," he said, catching his breath. "He wants to make sure that it looks like ice cream."
Snow fills children's heads with wonder, and turns adults into hideous monsters. When it gets to be too much, adults choose somewhere down south (my dad chose the island of Saint Lucia) so they can regress back into a childlike state without having to deal with cold or snow every again. That's a standard narrative of the American Northeast, I guess, a simple homespun one.
I thought about this as I trudged down a partially plowed street in Pawtucket, Rhode Island on Monday afternoon, wearing a mackinaw coat and a pair of Timberland boots. My mood was dark and black. The night before, 14 inches of snow had been dumped on the neighborhood where I keep a mailing address, and had made travel impossible for all two-wheel-drive vehicles. The only way to the supermarket was to walk.
Cut into a three-foot drift was a cavelike fort where two boys played. Their father had shoveled it out for them, most likely, just like my father did over three decades ago. There was another boy, one whom I don't know the name of because I don't spend enough time there, standing in the street among the muddy and wide truck-tire tracks. He wanted to play in the fort too, but the other two were beating him back with a barrage of icy projectiles stacked inside. I walked by and said nothing, did not intervene on behalf of the weak one.
The true story of excessive snow is not how hearts turn to ice as we get older, or a heroic shared human struggle against the elements. In Our Game, the Blizzard of 2010 has brought stories of strange and delightful travel arrangements, like the Xavier player who bused out of the storm zone with Albany, the Musketeers' next opponent, and the Robert Morris player who hitched a ride back to Pittsburgh with the Fordham Rams. These are feel-good exceptions that raise a light chuckle and perhaps offer those outside the Northeast a glimpse of how we all work together through our annual adversity. What a snowstorm really does is show how thin the layer between us and the rest of the animal kingdom is, and how cruel we can be when faced with the reality that we're all not really in this together. There are only 712 real Samaritans left, and they don't live in New England.
The Chicago-bound flight that would bring me back out on the road was scheduled to leave Providence at 6:30 am on Monday. Over Christmas, it became clear that the storm would hit Sunday night, and that it was not going to miss. The width and breadth of it, unmistakably pink and white on the radar map, made it the first true candidate as the Storm of the New Century. Every major Northeast city from Boston to Philadelphia, including the self-proclaimed capital of the world in between, was going to be hit with two feet of snow, all at the same time, on the third-heaviest travel day of the year.
The airline allowed anybody with a ticket on Monday to change it for free. I chose to beat the storm, get out before it hit, and switched to Sunday afternoon. Just as I arrived at the airport, the rest of Sunday's flights were cancelled, blinking red on the departure screen. In the terminal, determination quickly changed to raw fury. Everybody was suddenly the most important person in the world, centers of the universe colliding angrily. The stories poured out: lost work time, wives and husbands and children that people wouldn't be getting back to, and "tell me, what am I going to do now?" Nobody else cared. After an hour, the gate clerks' eyes glazed over and they became hardened and unsympathetic, their voices monotone.
As Sunday continued and the snow and wind picked up, the Northeast's travel network collapsed. As calmly as I could, I purchased a last-minute ticket from Boston to Chicago on my phone, and an hour later, just as I was figuring out how I'd take the train to Boston Logan Airport, the automatic e-mail arrived to inform me that this flight, also, was cancelled.
All told, thousands of flights were erased, leaving people stranded, hundreds at a time. As the wind howled in Pawtucket and the house lights flickered, there were reports that angry passengers had rushed the TSA security gate in Boston, and the television showed tent cities at LaGuardia and Newark and Kennedy, followed by an interview with one sample hysterical person. There wasn't enough time to interview all of them, every single person who was trying to climb over everybody else and get out.
On Tuesday, flights were restored. I called the airline to see if I could fly standby. The reply came quick and snappy. "Are you at the airport now? No? Don't bother showing up. Every flight for the rest of the day is overbooked by at least ten."
On Wednesday, the fourth day, civility had returned. The skies were clear and blue. The streets of Rhode Island were plowed down to bare asphalt, and the kids' fort on Baxter was partially melted and glistening and empty -- school was back in session. At T.F. Green Airport in Providence, the bottleneck was unclogged. The security wait line was 15 minutes long, and I probably shouldn't have arrived three hours ahead of time. There was plenty of time to drink too much Dunkin' Donuts coffee.
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On the first descent into Midway Airport from the east, as the airplane bursts through the cloud layer, down below are miles and miles of Indiana. In the summer and fall, it's a lopsided chessboard of different hues. It's non-chromatic now, a series of white sugar squares bounded by thin black roads. The outer reaches of Chicagoland always come up so fast in the window, spiral cul-de-sacs and managed tree groves.
And then the city's south side reveals itself, rows of houses packed between streets, golden arches and boxy strip malls, and then moving cars and tiny walking figures. Midway is, essentially, a neighborhood airport, and coming in so close is always so unsettling and uncomfortable, distant abstracts so suddenly becoming clearly-defined humanity, so much, too much. All those edges of stories, tens of thousands of names and lives and jobs and reasons. In that moment of recognition, I am a small thing among small things, humble before God.
Hitting the runway was a jolt back into the self. Once again, it was just me and the ones I love, and that strange layer that separates Us and Them. And so it was for the others. The moment that Southwest flight 1066 touched down on the runway, the passengers each began clapping, and the applause filled the cabin.
We are a day late in returning to you, thanks to this blizzard business, and the snow has affected other things as well. For one, the printing and mailing schedule of our holiday surprise for Season 7 Members has been compromised, and so folks will be getting them a tad late. Because it's hardly going to be the "holidays" anymore when most are received, we might as well ruin the surprise as well.
The former holiday surprise is roughly 8.5 inches by 11, and printed on a thick and durable half-laminated card. On one side is a 12-month wall calendar that features our beloved mascot Bally in 12 different month-specific poses.
On the other side is something that you won't need until March. It's your very own As-You-Go Bracket, printed with a matte finish for easy pen markings. In keeping with Mid-Majority tradition, it is specifically designed not to be filled out in advance. When something good happens at the NCAA Tournament, write in big letters. When something bad happens, don't.
So if you're a Season 7 Member, look for that in the mail. If you're not, there's still time to join! In addition to this great keepsake item, you also get a copy of One Beautiful Season, a one-year Basketball State subscription, a Bally Club card and a t-shirt. It's a pretty good deal, and you're helping us travel too. Also, as I totally forgot to even hint at or suggest over the past month, S7 memberships make great gifts. Just use the "Special instructions" form on checkout.
Speaking of the t-shirts, we're finishing up the shirt design (all the star maps laid out on top of each other) and will get those out later this month, so this really is the gift that keeps on giving all season long.
Game! Of! The! Night!
Wofford vs. Cornell Richmond, VA (Neutral Court) 5:00 EST
The last time we saw the invisible G!O!T!N! camera crew, they were wandering around the streets of Las Vegas, and a few of them had lost their pants in bad blackjack bets. Well, since they're all 1099-ers without benefits, they pretty much have to take every job we give them anyway... but they're not really in any position to say no now. Off to Richmond, Virginia, for the consolation game in VCU's holiday tournament.
And as we transition into 2011, it turns out that we have two teams with serious 2010 reputations in this game. Wofford came within a few possessions of scoring one for the SoCon this March in their close call with Wisconsin. This year, they're the odds-on favorite to go back for another chance. While a 5-7 record (and yesterday's nine-point loss against the home team) might indicate that this might be a tough road, the Terriers have really scheduled tough. Before the VCU game, every single one of their six losses had been to a Red Line opponent. And in parentheses, Mike Young's squad has beaten UNCG and Elon to put forth an early 2-0 league record. Noah Dahlman, the 6-foot-6 Wofford senior star, is averaging 18.6 ppg and shooting 53 percent, and the rest of the Southern Conference will probably end up feeling his wrath for the next two months.
Cornell is in this game thanks to a 68-66 loss at the hands of New Hampshire on Wednesday. It was the Big Red's eighth straight loss, ninth overall (against two wins). The Sweet Sixteen qualifiers from a year ago lost pretty much all their scoring over the summer off their magical sparklepony team of a year ago. Bill Courtney, an optimistic chap off the Virginia Tech bench, took over after Steve Donahue left for Boston College (an RLU victim last night, BTW). Holdover guard Chris Wrobleski, who missed the first few games after a couple of freak injuries in the offseason, is back now and is leading the team with 13.4 ppg -- but has been putting up 4-for-13's like last night, and is shooting 32 percent on the year. While Cornell won't go winless in the Ivy (and I hope that didn't just jinx them), it's time for some of the newer members to step up and start digging out a new foundation for future greatness.