Friday, March 9, 2012

The 40 Year Old Hooker

*Warning: This post is a self-indulgent history of me and rugby.  It has nothing to do with my kids or wife or ranching.  If that's what you're here for, come back in a week or two and I'll have something terrific.  If you're jonesing for something to read, or a fan of rugby, carry on.

I still remember my last rugby game.  It was 1994 and I was a flanker for the Stanislaus Harlots, a men's club that claimed most of the Central Valley as home.  Chris Angelica and I were the only two on the team from UOP and we'd carpool once a week to Merced or Modesto or Manteca or Mazatlan -- some Hwy 99 podunk town south of Stockton -- for practice.  Aside from Chris, I had few friends on the team.  I practiced, played, and partied with this group, but it was after all a men's team.  Back then, I still felt like a kid.

In my last match, we played a side from Monterey.  Half their team got lost on the way to the pitch and I volunteered to step in as their hooker.  By the middle of the first half, I'd already pissed off my own team because I kept stealing the ball in the scrums.  At some point I kicked our hooker in the knee and nearly went to blows with our lock.   Monterey loved me.

And then it was over.  I remember driving home that day in disbelief.  I was graduating soon and knew that was probably my last rugby match.  I didn't like the thought one bit.  I didn't want to be done at 22-years old.  Nor did I want to be like the creepy 50-year old "doctor" on our Stanislaus team who snorted coke in his van before and/or during matches, then played for five minutes.  There had to be a middle ground.

But there wasn't.  I tried to join a rugby club when I taught in Japan, but I found that working at an all-girls' school didn't help shed any light on the whereabouts of a men's club.  My only male Japanese friend went to an art school; he was a worse resource than my female students.  When I came home, I heard rumors of rugby in Medford and Redding, but a two-hour drive, just for practice, didn't seem practical.

I grudgingly accepted that I was done playing rugby.  I bought a satellite and watched World Cup matches as my 20s turned into my 30s.  I got high-speed internet so I could watch rugby clips on YouTube and my 30s nearly turned into my 40s when Trevor called.

"I'm starting a rugby team here.  I heard that you used to play."  I almost thought it was a prank.  Rugby in Siskiyou County?  I never thought I'd see it.  "I'm old," I told him, "but I'll do whatever I can to help."  I dug my 20-year old Adidas Flanker boots from the ball closet and joined the team.

Of course I close my eyes before we engage.
To my amazement, a large group of young men also wanted to play and we practiced maniacally.  We had a lot of catching up to do -- only three or four guys on the team had any rugby experience.  In our first "friendly" matches, we broke the most basic of rules so flagrantly that the other teams either thought we were assholes or cheaters.  I kept coming to practice and found myself stepping into more and more drills.  I wanted to play, but I was unsure if my body could handle it.

My out was that I didn't own a mouthguard.  The one piece of protection in rugby: if I didn't have one, I could still remain on the fence about playing.  Then, during a full-contact tackling drill (in which I was participating, without a mouthguard), one of our players lost a tooth.  I went to Walmart after practice, slapped my $3 on counter for a new mouthguard, and stepped, in my mind, back onto the pitch.

It hasn't been easy.  I don't remember Sundays hurting so badly.  In college, I never broke a bone, needed stitches, or spent more than a day recuperating.  In my first match back, I broke a pinky-toe.  Next match, a rib.  This winter I had a shiner so big that I terrified my kids and have pulled the muscles in my neck (twice).  I had a concussion so bad that was asking players at the end of the match when the second half was going to start.  Currently, one leg feels shorter than the other and my forearm is yellow and swollen.

That's what an old hooker looks like
And I'm loving it.  I mistakingly mentioned to our coach that I'd hooked before, but I don't think I mentioned that it was only once or twice.  So now I'm a hooker.  Even with my limited hooking experience, I thought I knew enough about wearing the #2.  That is, until a scrum tented up in a match against Mendocino and I heard my neck pop like bubble wrap.  I spent the next week having Regina apply Tiger Balm while I looked up "How to be a hooker" online.  That Google search didn't help my game too much.

Still, I'm back.  Fatter and slower, sure, but I feel like I understand the game a little better.  I'm the old guy I used to hate playing against.  I'm the old guy who knows every dirty trick in the book without getting penalized.  I'm the old guy who pisses of indignant young flankers.  I'm the old guy in the middle of the pack, mixing it up with the big guys.  I'm the old guy who doesn't think he's an old guy.  My friends and family think I'm nuts.  I probably am; I probably always have been.  But I'm a rugby player again and it's never felt so good.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Baby Kobayashi and the Appalachian Shuffle

Mornings are quite a mixed bag around casa de Eastside.  Regina and Dylan wake up like they are on a sugar high and begin their day immediately.  Usually, around 5:45, I'm jolted from my sleep with a whisper that's loud enough to wake the neighbors.  "Can I go play with the kitties?" Dylan asks.  "Hmmpghfrrt," I reply, and off she runs.  Grady and I, on the other hand, wake a little more slowly.  We like slow ballads to ease us from our slumber and fleece blankets to cozy up with while we use all of our effort to open our eyelids.  If we aren't pestered constantly, we'll immediately go back to sleep.  But there is one sure-fire thing that'll have the little man wide-awake and hustling out of bed: bananas.

You've all seen competitive eating on ESPN (of all places).  That's what breakfast looks like around here.  Grady attacks a banana like Kobayashi attacks hot dogs, except he doesn't dunk them in water first.  He just applies constant pressure to the end of the banana while he unhinges his jaw and stuffs it in his mouth.  I'm pretty sure he doesn't chew it at all and I usually expect his poop to contain whole, undigested bananas.  Regina and I have taken to breaking them in half, just to give him a little breather between bites.  I've really, really wanted to see just how many he'll eat, but, you know, parental responsibilities and all that.

Chillin' with my Great-Godfather
When Grady's done, he wanders around the kitchen until his next course, oatmeal, cools down.  At some point, usually at the peak of his banana-high, he'll spot his shadow on the floor and it triggers an instant reaction: he starts dancing like a moonshiner after he's tasted his first batch of the season (Yes, there's a season.  Don't you watch Moonshiners?).  The dance is quite a little hillbilly stomp and is likely an interpretation of the few times he's seen his old man dance at wedding receptions or rugby socials.  It starts slow, the elbows shoot out and start swinging side to side, then his feet start a little shuffle.  Once it really gets going, his elbows swing like he's in a mosh-pit and his feet start tapping and stomping.  When it really gets wild he'll spin circles, but that's only after two bananas.

Fuzzy kittens, banana eating contests, and Solid Gold mornings aren't a bad way to start each day.  I modify it a little to suit me.  I'm content with a cup of coffee, a kiss from my wife, and hugs from my kids.  But if anyone's up for a bacon-eating contest, it's on.