On Turning 26, Declining and Being Cool With It

Today, I turn 26. I’m now closer to 30 than 20. My hair is rapidly starting to gray. A hangover seems to last days. I’m waking up at 5 a.m. to workout. That said, I don’t mind getting older. “Older” is still pretty young.

Isn’t lamenting your age with each birthday just the normal thing to do? My friends — mostly twenty-somethings — take every chance they can to marvel at how quick their years have added up. I cosign. Five years ago, I wrote about my plans for my 21st birthday in the college newspaper. The headline I went with: Turning 21 Means Turning Old and Boring. I guess the only difference is I’ve grown to embrace old and boring, even though I’ve felt old and boring for years now.

Friends are getting married. Friends are having kids. Friends are having 10-year high school reunions. Sitcoms are mostly about people my age. I don’t understand MTV anymore. I live for coffee. I exercise for health, not appearance. I get to sleep before the 10 o’clock news. If these facts and behaviors are an indicator of things to come, I’ll probably be whittling Christmas ornaments and whistling Taps as a hobby come age 30. I’ve been an old man since I was 5, watching Bob Vila’s Home Again for hours on end.

Despite all this time spent (wasted?) on bemoaning getting older, the fact is I still feel really, really young. And I am. Each time you reach an age-based milestone, be it 16, 18, 21, 25, etc., you never feel as old as you thought you would. And what does “getting old” even mean? From a young age, I assumed getting older meant figuring things out. I thought I’d know more by now. The exciting thing is I don’t know everything. But, I have learned some things:

I know I’m inspired by people, not places. (Sorry, Portland.) I know what it’s like to work a full-time, salaried job … and hate it. I know what it’s like to miss home, then move home, then understand how home is as much my identity as, well, my rapidly graying hair. I know what it’s like to be broke — really broke — and then slowly dig yourself out. I know what it is to love someone, to have them love you back, to have that love tested, and to have 100 percent faith in that love.

Happy birthday, indeed. Yesterday, I opened my gifts a day early — real grown-up, huh? — and received a fleece blanket, coffee, Burt’s Bees lip balm, a Starbucks gift card, two seasons of Mad Men, compression shorts, a coffee grinder and a potato masher. Each of these items were on my birthday list. It’s funny when you reach an age where your needs and wants are the exact same things. I was disappointed when I realized I left a AAA membership off my list.

How will I celebrate the big 2-6? A Saturday in La Crosse, Wisc. for Oktoberfest with my closest buds, then a Sunday recovery session at home watching the Vikings and Mad Men.

I’m getting good at getting older.

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When Wii Were Young

Our Nintendo Wii must’ve sat idle for five months before the other day when I downloaded Super Mario World. I’ve knocked the Wii for requiring so much physical exertion, but the fact I can tap into a database of hundreds of video games from previous Nintendo systems makes it something of a time machine.

I mean, right now, somewhere in your community, there’s adults playing dodgeball. Somewhere, a father is telling his son about his little league glory days while a mother is telling her daughter that Justin Bieber’s got nothing on a young David Cassidy. It’s no secret we hold tight to our childhood convictions even decades after we should’ve grown out of them.

I don’t like to use the word “nostalgia,” because it seems to belittle and bemoan a very practical want for the simple joys we had as kids. Let me just say my latest foray into Super Mario World has been just as delightful as the first go-round, but sadly, just as hard. I’ve been stuck in the Forest of Illusion for a week now. (The irony is not lost on me.)

Video games were an important part of my childhood. I grew up in a neighborhood where I was the youngest boy. Most of the other boys were at least two or three years older. It’s a miracle I ever stuck with sports after all those backyard games of 5-on-1 softball and tackle football games where I thought I might dislocate my face. These memories explain why I was better at defense in softball and played offensive line in varsity football.

It was video games that leveled the playing field on Gibson Avenue. My lack of size and strength didn’t matter holding that Super Nintendo controller, so when it came time to play Street Fighter II, that’s where I got my revenge.

Sometimes, I imagine what it would be like to earn my current paycheck as a kid in grade school, with no bills or reasons to save. I would blow the money on Super Nintendo games, baseball cards, Lemonheads, Garth Brooks cassette tapes, the latest pair of Air Jordans, a Schwinn to replace my lame-ass Huffy. I’d take my family to Valentino’s all-you-can-eat Italian buffett. I’d buy batting gloves for little league baseball, but also for my Super Nintendo, so my chunky little hands wouldn’t slip off the controller after hours of gaming.

Instead, it’s rent, my car lease and car insurance. It’s cable and Internet, my cell phone bill and US Bank for that $40K they loaned me for college. It’s groceries and toiletries. Now and then, it’s a meal out or a movie or a T-shirt.

It was just eight dollars to download Super Mario World on my Nintendo Wii, and I can honestly say it’s one of the most fulfilling purchases I’ve made in awhile. (Second only to the driving range balls I’ve purchased to see my girlfriend experiment with golf.)

As we get older, there’s this movement toward more dignified activity as what should find fulfilling as an adult. I’m not interested in seeing plays or spending $100 on dinner or hiking. Nonsense. I’m a big nerd and I always will be. (I mean, I blog, after all.) Playing Super Mario World isn’t just enjoyable because it triggers pleasant memories from my childhood. Hopping on Yoshi and stomping on Koopas and Goombas is just as fun now as it was back in 1993.

I spent plenty of Friday nights at home a a kid, cooped up in my upstair bedroom, plowing through the latest Super Nintendo game I was renting. Sixteen years later, as grey hairs are starting to multiply and 60 Minutes has become a highlight of my week,  I plan on spending my Friday night with a mouth full of Lemonheads, sipping Diet Mountain Dew while in hot pursuit of Bowser.

On Skipping Spring Break

Yeah, college students pay good money for this. Never me, though. Too claustrophobic.

I’ve got just a few younger friends and acquaintances on Facebook, but they do a great job of squashing the little nostalgia I have for college. Most of them are on spring break now, which is an experience I passed on each of my six years in school.

I’m not much of a group person and as someone who’s admittedly stingy, I could never justify spending a grand in pursuit of a seven-day booze bender on some crowded beach in a cliche spring break destination where I might come away with nothing more than a sunburn, an illegitimate child and a squandered future in politics. Call me materialistic, but if I’m spending a grand, I want more than blurry memories.

That’s not so for everyone. I knew plenty of guys who seemingly went to college just for the chance to go on spring break. The first five months of their school year were spent in preparation-mode by working out, tanning and recruiting others to come with to Cancun or Mazatlan or wherever. The several months after spring break were spent retelling the same old stories which invariably involved a) tequila b) some girl from Florida or c) almost being arrested. I think most of those guys are still in college, 25-year-old juniors.

I don’t like tanning or dancing or wearing white sunglasses or even hanging out with more than a few friends at once. Spring break would’ve been my personal hell. My girlfriend and I did go to Tampa Bay for spring break in 2008. We went with another couple and stayed in a hotel we could only afford because my uncle was a manager. It was the least spring break spring break you could ask for and I would still rather refer to it as a vacation. Wide-open beach, classy hotel, no sign of a wet t-shirt contest or cameramen documenting the charades — that was a good spring break.

Now, if you sense some bitterness in my tone, you’re dead right. Whenever I see pictures or hear stories, I roll my eyes, but a part of me thinks I might have missed out on something. I’m not saying I wish I would’ve participated in the typical spring break shenanigans, but it could’ve been fun to bear witness. I’m a writer, after all. Five days in Cabo San Lucas could’ve meant a lifetime of material.

At the very least, I believe in the idea of spring break. College is an absolute grind and few people deserve a good weeklong vacation like the overburdened college student. College students are broke, no matter how many jobs they hold, so taking any opportunity to fund a week of the good life seems like a moral victory to me, even if it means pulling some extra financial aid money. Thanks, government.

This might be my job talking — I coach college students — but I would say let spring break be a motivator for long-term success. Bust your tail in school so you can someday land the job that will allow you to take real vacations to destinations a little less…horny. Vacations that look less like date-rape conventions and more like a relaxing getaway.

Be as 20 or 21 or 22 as you can be, but when you get back, please try to reimmerse yourself into civilization in the least obnoxious way possible. Be considerate of all of us jealous college grads.

Back to Basic

My girlfriend and I added yet another luxury to our apartment over the weekend — cable.

Previously, we’d been getting by on basic cable, which is really no cable at all. Just the four of five local networks and a smattering of public access channels, which seem to cover any local church service, every municipal meeting and, sometimes, algebra.

No, really, there’s a channel that constantly has some clown working through algebra equations on a chalkboard.

So yeah, we needed cable. Or so I thought, anyway. My girlfriend’s been awfully busy working 40 hours per week and taking classes nearby. She’s at it seven days per week, so I’m left altruistically planning my days alone with a book, thoughtfully cooked meals, maybe some NPR. What happens is I end up yearning for cable when the networks are playing all infomercials or I already know the algebra equations.

I’ve been back on the cable now for two days and I’ve had enough. Too many reality television shows that couldn’t be further from reality. Too many sports channels showing obscure sporting events (college lacrosse?), too many 24-hour news networks diluting two hours of legitimate news and too many reminders why we, as a society, are done.

I watched MTV for a little over 10 minutes. The Real World was on. I couldn’t tell where the kids are living this season, but in that 10-minute span, I realized:

  1. I’m officially too old to be cast on The Real World. That left an empty feeling.
  2. The Real World used to be more like a fish bowl or a sociological experiment that blended gender, race, religion, class, sexual orientation and every other characteristic that makes us different. I think the first four seasons were crucial to my formative years, where I was underexposed to people different than myself coming from South Dakota.
  3. Wouldn’t it be great if, midseason, the cast got word their digs had been foreclosed? Welcome to the real world, fools.

Cable is a time suck. If my math is correct, I spend just about three hours awake and unoccupied during the weekdays. I can’t say watching cable brings me a sense of fulfillment. The reality is there’s so much to do in Portland, and I haven’t seen the half of it.

A co-worker the other day alluded to an observation his 30-something sister made: When you get out of college and settled into your first full-time job, you spend several years just working for the weekend, but then wasting the weekend by going to bed early and spending all your time on the couch. You’re exhausted. However, a little later on in your 20s, as friends are becoming husbands and wives and parents, you take initiative and start owning your weekends. You’re off to the bars, off on vacations, out doing stuff.

I’m 25 and I’ve got a lot of time to do stuff. I want to try hiking or camping. I want to give the local golf courses a hack. I could use some culture, too. Catch more plays, see more concerts. Try food I never knew existed from restaurants I’ve never heard of. It’s become more apparent in the last 72 hours I’m a homebody, a man of routine, and that’s something I desperately want to shake.

So, I’m canceling cable this week. Goodbye, 60 channels of excess. I won’t be your prisoner no mo’. Back to basic, which I hope offers very, very little so I can somehow push myself off this loveseat and in the direction of something, oh, I don’t know, not on TV?

This Might Get Me Hurt

Beth and I this past New Year's Eve.

This being St. Valentine’s Day, I feel entitled to blog about my relationship with this girl I like. I’ve referred to Beth in many prior posts as “my girlfriend.” We’ve been together for about two years and four months now, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that she’s generally repulsed by over-the-top romantics. That’s not my intent here, but for those of who celebrate today as Singles Awareness Day, the following may make you nauseous. The same goes for you, Beth. I’m sorry, but I had to:

Beth and I went to Minnesota State University, Mankato, a school of about 15,000 students on a rather compact campus. The first time I saw her was in a photo in our student newspaper, The Reporter, where I was editor-in-chief. The story was something pertaining to freshmen. I was a junior. We printed dozens of photos of students each issue, but this girl with the big eyes, dimple and easy smile caught my attention.

It worked out that I would see this girl from the photo on campus all the time, going to and from classes. I was a hermit most of that year, holed up in the newspaper office, but I still made it to basketball games where I would see her all dressed up, making social rounds the whole game, never quite finding a seat. I would always give whoever I was with the nudge, point her out, say “That’s the one I’ve been telling you about.” (I told a lot of people about Beth.)

The first time we officially met was February 2, 2007. Beth was out for her friend Katie’s 21st birthday party. We ran into each other at one of the local bars. I’d had enough alcohol to man up and introduce myself, but before I could, Katie intercepted me, explained it was her 21st b-day, said she loved what I wrote and insisted I buy her a birthday shot. I obliged, and just after that, I met Beth. Briefly. We may have shaken hands. We did pose for a photo:

(Left to right) Katie, alongside myself and Beth on the night we first met.

This wasn’t where our story began, I guess, but rather our Facebook friendship which would later on prove vital.

In the meantime, if I saw Beth around campus or at the bars, I kept it cool, casual. I was a bouncer at South Street Saloon shortly thereafter, so we would speak briefly as I sat on my stool while checking IDs. We were still strangers, you could say.

Nothing really happened between us for months until I was going home to Sioux Falls in October for no apparent reason. When I got home, I found Beth had sent me a message on Facebook. She was going to Sioux Falls, too, for the weekend. The message included her phone number and an invitation to call if I’d planned on going out. Even if I hadn’t planned on going out, now I had a reason.

I don’t remember calling her, but I know I did. We set up a time and place to meet. I know that little.

We chose Rookie’s, a new sports bar in town, and I went with my college roommate, Dan. He was the perfect wingman because he’d heard me ramble on ad nauseum for a few years about this girl he just had to see. I had taken down a half bottle of Hpnotiq before going out, just to kill the nerves. Beth showed up at Rookie’s about an hour after I did. She was with a big group of people sitting at a corner booth. I remember coming over with a round of shots, giving myself the in to interrupt this table of stranger who probably knew me as “the guy who likes Beth.”

They were right.

We didn’t really talk much at Rookie’s and we were actually split up at different bars most of the night. But after closing time, we met back at her friend’s house. Her friends had retired for the night (not by choice), but Beth and I chose to sit outside on the front steps. She’d put Joss Stone on the stereo and I remember being impressed by this. I sipped the rest of my Hpnotiq and she drank cans of Busch Light. We just talked. For hours. And I think we both knew we liked each other, but we needed to learn more. I can’t tell you a lick of what we actually talked about. I was too busy falling in love.

We wrapped our conversation about around 6 a.m., as the sun started to creep up. There was no grand farewell or anything like that. But it worked out we would text or talk or hang out every day thereafter and we’ve been doing the same ever since. We talked for a good four hours, but I knew Beth was everything I hoped she was within the first few minutes.

So, my apologies to those of you who now have to Google “how to clean vomit from keyboard.” It’s St. Valentine’s Day, so I had to write about my girlfriend. No, I wanted to write about my girlfriend. And since there’s nothing left to lose at this point, I want you to know I love you because you still love me even though I blog.

Today is What Sports Are All About

I’ve been on pins and needles all week, avoiding any undue trash talk regarding my beloved Minnesota Vikings. Commence eye-roll if you could care less about the NFL, but this Conference Championship weekend — arguably the best week of the football season.

Why not the Super Bowl? Because of the circus and theatrics that surround it. It’s the only sporting event where viewers are excited to see commercials. There’s classic, but safe rock performances at halftime — this year, The Who. Whichever network broadcasts the Super Bowl takes every opportunity to plug their shows. (“The Colts’ third-down is brought to you by N.C.I.S., the No. 1 show on television!”) The Super Bowl is the most hyperbolic event in the world. Am I the only one who finds it silly that 2 BILLION people worldwide watch it?

The Vikings fan experience was epitomized by a grueling loss in the 1998 NFC Championship game.

This is probably me trying to minimize the majesty of the Super Bowl, because it would mean everything today if my Vikings somehow defeated the New Orleans Saints to advance. That’s a fickle matter in itself, because there’s every reason in the world to pull for New Orleans. Minnesota has never endured a tragedy on the scale of Hurricane Katrina. (No, the Jesse Ventura’s gubernatorial tenure doesn’t compare.) All week, the national media has made it apparent the Saints are not only favored to win, but they deserve to win. I understand sentimentality runs high, but neither win nor loss will help rebuild New Orleans’ 8th Ward. It may be a morale-booster, but football is football is football. New Orleans will be OK.

And you know what? If the Vikings lose, I’ll be OK, too. This is just sports, just pure entertainment. As a sports fan, you must revel in the inconsequentiality of it all. Vikings football, to me, is a tradition. I was raised a fan and spent every Sunday growing up glued to the TV, eating my dad’s chili, cheering on the Purple and Gold with my family. I interviewed and wrote about several Vikings as a college journalist and with the Mankato (MN) Free Press. I even worked for the Vikings’ sales & marketing team one summer, which meant living in the dorms with the Vikings during training camp. (I’ve stood between Pat Williams and Bryant McKinnie going through a lunch line. This was my closest brush with death.)

I have a sordid history with the Vikings. I sat in our family sports bar when I was 14 and watched the Vikings choke against the Atlanta Falcons in the 1998 NFC Championship game. I was absolutely demoralized again two years later during the NFC Championship game when they were throttled 41-0 by the New York Giants. The heartbreak experienced when the team you love loses is similar to what you go through the first time you’re ever dumped: You wonder why you ever cared and you wonder how you could ever care again.

It’s 2010 now. A decade has gone by since I’ve felt this feeling of hope, of anxiety, of boyishness. I’ve been giddily sipping my coffee all morning, listening to KFAN on my iPhone, reading up on all the latest news surrounding the game. A win today only ensures a chance at winning the Super Bowl. I can’t tell you, exactly, what it would mean to actually win the Super Bowl. I can’t think that far ahead.

This is the day you would want to introduce a skeptic to professional sports. If you consider how much of their lives have been devoted to football, you will better appreciate the raw emotion that comes with winning a conference title game and earning a Super Bowl bid. The players, too, are feeling hopeful, anxious and boyish as they take the field today for a chance to play out their dreams. On a very basic, human level, today, you get to understand why sports are good.

Not important, by any means, but good.

UPDATED at 7:58 p.m.

Saints 31, Vikings 28 (OT)

I hate sports.

Nostalgia in Niketown

As we speak, I’m prowling eBayhoping to find a pair of the most obnoxious shoes I’ve ever owned. They are the Nike Presto Fazes, made popular in the early 2000s as part of Nike’s foray into flamboyant running shoes that looked like aquasocks made of Nerf. I cannot find a pair with the same monochromatic Leopard print mine had, but even more disheartening, they’ve become something of a collector’s items for sneakerphiles. (That’s a real term. I didn’t invent it.)

At $180, I could order a pair of the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever owned. What baffles me is back in 2001, I bought’em from the bargain bin for about $40. I was a junior in high school with a horrible taste in athletic shoes. I never intended to wear them for sport or style. They were my to-and-from-football-practice shoes. With no shoe laces and ultrasoft cushioning, I wore them like slippers. Needless to say, they smelled like 16-year-old boy in no time. They would not sell for $180 on eBay if I still owned them.

Oh, did I mention the ad campaign for the Prestos was positively awesome and ridiculous?

For sneakerphiles – sorry – shoe fanatics, Portland is a tough place to live. It’s the birthplace of Nike, after all. With Nike headquarters in nearby Beaverton, this is the first place you’ll see the latest Nike shoes, but also where you’re most likely to see re-releases and limited editions.There’s also hipsters in the mix who will juxtapose their otherwise dingy, aged wardrobe with a pair of fluorescent Nike running shoes whenever possible.

This is a shoe town. I’m a shoe person. And unfortunately, all I can think about is the awesome shoes I owned a decade ago, because apparently I was really fashion forward and never understood that at 25, I would yearn for my old shoes again.

Am I alone on this one? Am I the only who misses a pair of shoes you’d pay top dollar to own again? Let’s hear your story.