Setting That Solidest of Picks: Wes Unseld (1946-2020)

Basketball great Wes Unseld flew off to his great reward today at the age of 74, having endured several years of poor health before his passing. The NBA Hall of Famer was one of only two players (Wilt Chamberlain being the other) to win Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors in the same season. He spent his entire playing career (1968-1981) with the Baltimore-Capital-Washington Bullets (now the Wizards), playing more games for the team than any other player, and capping his career with the franchise’s only NBA title in 1978. Unseld then spent his entire post-playing career as an executive and coach with the Bullets, making him, more than anybody else, the life-long face and soul of the franchise.

I started following Unseld avidly in 1973. We lived in the D.C. suburbs at the time, chasing my father’s Marine Corps career up and down the East Coast. The Bullets had just moved from Baltimore to Landover, Maryland, playing their first season as the Capital Bullets before adopting Washington as their home city in name, if not geography. Unseld and Elvin “The Big E” Hayes were the heart of the Bullets’ great 1970s teams, with Hayes racking up the points and Unseld owning the paint and dishing out lightning-strike assists like nobody’s business. He was solid and strong, routinely holding taller players at bay and regularly featuring at or near the top of the league’s rebounding leader board. Formidable, for sure.

I count the experience of watching the Bullets win the 1978 title in a thrilling seven-game series against the Seattle SuperSonics as one of the most memorable moments of my personal sports fan history. It’s right up there with watching Navy beat Notre Dame for the first time in my lifetime (I was in my 40s when it happened), the Kansas City Royals winning the 1985 World Series through a nearly-laughable series of fluke calls and games, and the Washington Capitols finally getting past their nemesis Pittsburgh Penguins and winning their first (and also only) Stanley Cup a few seasons back. I can still rattle off most of the roster of the 1977-1978 Bullets without checking references, so invested was I in their activities and successes that season. We were living at Mitchel Field on Long Island at the time, so I was the only one celebrating much in my neighborhood when they won, but it still felt wonderful, and I still have great affection for the players who delivered that moment, Unseld (who won Finals MVP honors) first and foremost among them.

So I lift a virtual toast to the memory of Wes Unseld this morning and hope you’ll join me in remembering one of the greatest players of his game, an epic sporting presence who made everybody around him better than they were in his absence. It would be a much more fitting tribute if I could go out and set a hard pick on somebody in the paint today, but, you know, social distancing and suchlike as COVID-19 owns the lane right now, alas.

Don’t mess with Wes. It’s his key, and your job is just to watch for the outlet pass.

A New Trusty Steed

I didn’t mention it here at the time, since I was deeply annoyed and didn’t want to talk about it any more, but when we returned from our January trip to New Mexico, I discovered that my Felt road bike was missing from where it had been hung and locked inside our apartment building’s communal garage. I filed a police report and notified the property manager, and after reviewing security footage, they confirmed that on Christmas morning, a group of well-equipped thieves cut cables, broke locks, and made away with numerous bikes from our building and from the building next door, where our daughter and her boyfriend live.

Grrr!!! There’s a special place in hell for bike thieves, and ones who violate people’s residential spaces on a special holiday should get some extra terrible punishments inflicted upon them when they get there. Bikes, especially road bikes that get a lot of mileage put on them, are really very personal items on some plane, specially selected and configured to the rider’s body and riding style and skill. When I find one I really like, I stick with it: counting the Felt, I’ve only had five Trusty Steeds since college, with my 1984 Bianchi Reparto Corse Piaggio being the longest lived of the bunch.

I have had USAA insurance since 1982, and they did their usual fine job of quickly assessing and covering the cost of the bike and the numerous custom items that were on it when it was pilfered. There are no authorized distributors of the Felt brand around Des Moines, (I bought mine when I lived in Chicago), and I like to have bikes from lines supported by local shops, so I elected not to get another one of those. I did some online and in-store shopping and comparing, and elected to buy a Masi bike this time around from Ichi Bike in Des Moines’ East Village, which has become my go-to service shop since we moved back here. I especially wanted to support them now given the pandemic-driven business slump. I also popped for a pair of these. Grumble.

I took my new Trusty Steed out for its first spin today, a 50.1 mile loop out to Dallas Center and back. I made a couple of stops for tweaky adjustments along the way, and have a couple of others that I will do before I ride again, but overall, it felt good, and rode well. Great success! There are some differences from the Felt that I need to get used to and/or change, most notably a lack of in-line brake levers and different crank and cassette gear configurations, but that’s easy enough to do, so long as the bike itself is solid and sound, which it is.

I hope to put at least 2,000 miles on Trusty Steed this cycling season, subject to move and travel constraints, so I’ll let you know when we get to the latter part of 2020 if it feels as good at the end of the season as it does at the beginning. Fingers crossed!

Trusty Steed at his first pit stop, about 27 miles out from home in Dallas Center.

Into The Woods (Again and Again)

When I was a kid, the woods were my second home. My friends and I would come home from school every day, get handed a snack, and then get thrown out of the house until dinner time, expected to entertain ourselves in ways that didn’t bother any grownups. Most days, we’d trot down the well-worn trails into the woods behind our neighborhood, where we’d climb trees, build forts, splash about in creeks, investigate the detritus dumped in the woods, and otherwise have unstructured fun beneath the untended wild canopy that’s fairly typical of most suburban communities.

Years later, when I lived near Albany, New York, I kept on exploring my local woods, eventually creating a photo essay series called “Hidden in Suburbia.” The premise behind this project was that I did regular deep dives into the woods around my community, never going more than five miles from my home, essentially recreating those childhood days of walking into the woods and being receptive to whatever I found there. Given the deep history of that part of Upstate New York, there were truly some amazing, forgotten finds back in those woods, which I was always happy to share.

Fast forward to 2019: I moved back to Des Moines, Iowa, a couple of months ago. My daughter (mostly raised in New York) and her boyfriend (a Des Moines native) live here, so it’s been wonderful to be close to them again. Last week, on one of the rare nice days we’ve had here this spring, my daughter’s boyfriend and I decided to go on a trek through the woods where he spent his own time as a kid. We had a great day, slogging across creeks, pushing through brambles, scaling post-industrial escarpments created by generations of landfill dumping, investigating all sorts of illicit detritus left in the woods, trekking across a meadow that generations have used for dirt bike riding, quietly tiptoeing away from a homeless camp we found, and just generally enjoying being in the moment, there in the woods. It was a full, rich day.

But you know what we didn’t see while we loped about in the woods? Young people, nor even any signs that they’d been there. We saw no tree forts, no stones placed to facilitate creek crossings, no cairns, nor any other evidence that these woods were routinely accessed by the kids who live around them. That seems sad to me, on some plane. Yes, I know that today’s children have opportunities for all sorts of global engagement via their televisions and phones and tablets, but still, I can’t help but think that climbing trees and damming creeks and building forts gave me more meaningful, resonant life skills than anything I’ve ever accessed on a computer, and what a loss it is if kids don’t get to have such experiences anymore.

Do you have a young person in your life? If so, here’s hoping you have some woods near your home, and that you can take them out for an unstructured adventure therein. I guarantee they will love it, and 50 years hence, they may be writing about it as I am today!

As a kid finding this in the woods, I’d have immediately been trying to figure out how to get that engine block out, and what I could build with it . . .

Buckeye State: Biked!

I’m back home in Chicago today after completing the 2018 Tour des Trees, plus three bonus days of work events and presentations in Columbus, Ohio after the cycling event wound down. This is my fourth Tour des Trees, and it was a tough one. The terrain in Northeastern Ohio is “lumpy” (as our Tour Director would say), and we climbed about 28,000 feet of mostly punchy steep little hills that didn’t often give you the reward of a nice descent when you finished them. We also had three century days in a row in the middle of the week, with the longest one being 116 miles. We had heavy rain one day, but for the most part, we actually got lucky with slightly cooler and cloudier days than the region normally produces in July and August. Most importantly, our 75 participants and 20 support team members all made it around the course safely, with no accidents or incidents of note. We’ll take that and bank it.

The program side of the Tour this year was truly awesome, with many great community engagement stops, visits to some of our key corporate partners, and just a really positive vibe on and off the road from everyone we interacted with. Many of my own rest stops were filled with media availabilities or presentations with our hosts and guests, so it often made for a frantic day of pushing hard for me, but it’s really all worth it when you see how much it means to folks to have us roll through and celebrate their trees with them. One of our corporate partners invited us to participate in one particularly special event, and then they produced just a lovely little film about it that really captures the spirit of the Tour, I think. It’s worth two minutes to check it out:

Our support team includes a outstanding young photographer named Coleman Camp (who’s also a killer cyclist, which is convenient!), and he’s working to get a week’s worth of amazing images up at our Flickr page. I’ll use his work for the rest of this post to shift us from “tell” to “show” mode about my own experiences, with deep thanks to everyone who supported me and the other Tour riders this year. We literally have the first discussion meeting about the 2019 Tour  (Kentucky and Tennessee) with our staff and Tour Director tomorrow, so as we already start looking forward, here’s hoping maybe you’ll think about joining us, with a full year to get ready for a life-changing adventure!

Day One, just before roll out.

At our first event, the Mayor of Gahanna read a proclamation declaring July 29 Tour des Trees Day.

Strategizing with Thom Kraak, who received the prestigious Ken Ottman Volunteer Award at closing dinner.

So! Many!! Hills!!! (I was actually pleased with my climbing, given how little of it I get to do in Chicago).

We reached Lake Erie right by the R&R Hall of Fame, then turned back into the hills . . .

We meet so many cool people on the road, and it’s a delight to talk trees with them all.

And we meet loads of cool trees, including the historic Signal Tree near Akron.

As part of our educational mission, we leave behind children’s trees books with local libraries.

The Big Check! Thanks, Davey!!

We planted a Liberty Tree at the Ohio Statehouse, as we did in Maryland last year.

The team on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse, before our last three mile ceremonial slow roll.

Celebrating our top fundraisers at the closing ceremony. Go team!! And bring on 2019!

South Side Century: Denied

Pro Tip: You can click the map to support my Tour des Trees ride!

I’m deep into training for this year’s Tour des Trees, an annual 500+ mile cycling event that raises funds and friends for the organization I lead. Marcia was attending a conference yesterday, so with a full, sunny, solo day at my disposal, I decided to get my first century ride (100+ miles) of the season done. Generally, when I want a longer ride in Chicago, I head south from our home near the Loop, and I try to stay away from the densely crowded Lake Shore trails, the “Hipster Highway” Milwaukee Avenue corridor, and/or various trail systems north of us that are popular with young couples pushing mega-strollers or pulling unpredictable little dogs along on their strings. I can log a lot of miles quickly with far fewer unplanned or unexpected stops when I ride into areas that are less apt to attract hordes of bike share tourists wobbling around taking selfies as they roll.

Of course, my approach to distance training means I log a lot of time and a lot of miles in South Chicago, which many (most?) of my Loop or North Chicago dwelling neighbors  are apt to immediately declare unsafe and unsound, given crime rates and other demographic factors there. (This same concern applies to and is voiced about West Chicago, which I also ride through if I am heading out toward my office in Naperville). That reaction frankly bothers me, a lot, and I really don’t want to be “that guy” who judges huge swaths of his home city as fundamentally bad without ever entering said parts of the city. I’m not stupid, obviously, and I understand risk calculation and have a good sense of self-awareness and self-preservation, so I keep alert to my surroundings, I don’t go into spaces or places where I could be easily isolated, and if my radar gives me a sense of “unsafe,” I move expeditiously onward, and I adapt my route the next time I’m in that neighborhood to avoid the area that made me uncomfortable. But I do that in the Loop and in Streeterville or River North too, or wherever I am. Common sense rules apply, always.

So at any rate, off I rolled yesterday, and as I have done before, I left the Lake Shore trail systems and cut west on Roosevelt north of Museum Campus and then headed south on Halsted, a quick-moving north-south arterial with good bike lanes in both directions. It was a quiet Sunday morning without much traffic, so I was able to get into and mostly through a good chunk of South Chicago pretty quickly. The map at the top of this article shows (most of) my ride for the day. Eagle eyed observers will note, though, that the green start marker (where I live) and the red finish marker (where I ended this route) are not the same place, and therein lies the heart of the day’s story.

Around mile 28, as I was heading back north and east after riding the Major Taylor Trail out to Whistler Woods and beyond, I hit a sharp pavement cut near the intersection of Vincennes and 103rd with my weigh squarely on my rear bike wheel, which immediately popped (likely a spoke pinch) and went flat. No worries, though, I am a well-prepared cyclist and I had both a spare tube and a patch kit with me, since I know that flats happen when you do a lot of city riding on rough pavement. I pulled over under a nice street tree in a grassy area across the street from Holy Zion Missionary Baptist Church, changed my tire, hydrated a bit, and rolled on.

I really like riding and exploring the weird industrial areas around the far southeast of Chicago, and on into northwestern Indiana. There are some gorgeous bodies of water, lots of parks, fishing, pleasant outdoors vistas abounding, though they are often located cheek-to-jowl with factories, or heavy loading facilities, or landfills, or huge high-speed highway systems. I spent a good chunk of the day yesterday in that area, then headed back up along the shoreline toward home. I purposefully rolled into and along the beaches of Calumet Park, Rainbow Beach Park, and the South Shore Nature Sanctuary, and it was just great to bask in the beautiful day there and people watch, as there were tons of folks out enjoying the weather. Calumet Park’s visitors were mostly Hispanic, Rainbow Beach’s were mostly black, and I liked being there with them all, and didn’t feel the least bit out of place as I cruised through and said “howdy” to other riders or folks on the trail, all of whom were just as friendly to me.

Around mile 80, I was pushing north on the Lake Shore Trail, and an annoying chilly headwind off the Lake was blowing in my face, so I decided to cut back across the city to Halsted again, and then take that back north toward home, doing whatever zig-zags I needed to do to push my mileage total over 100. I cut through Hyde Park and Washington Park, and cruised on West 51st under the large conglomeration of rail tracks west of the Dan Ryan Expressway. Just before I emerged into daylight again, though, I hit a pile of glass that was hidden in the shadows, and my back tire went flat again.

More of an annoyance this time than the first time, since it meant I had to patch, rather than just replacing, the tube. So I rolled up close to the intersection of Halsted and 51st, popped off the back tire, pulled the tube out and pumped it up, and heard/saw several punctures, larger than a simple patch would handle, never mind the slivers of glass that I could feel inside the actual tire, without needle-nose pliers to tweeze them out.

So phooey, there I was at Mile 86, and I figured the riding day was done. I turned off my bike computer, saved my ride (hence the different stop/start points in the map), went into the Citgo Station on the corner of 51st and Halsted, got some chips and a soda, chit-chatted with the folks hanging outside of the station, and called to get a cab home that could handle my bike.

All good. No worries. Everything’s still social and sociable, I’m still feeling fine about the multi-culti glory of Chicago and meeting folks where they are, as they are.

The cab dispatcher took my name and location and said she would post the pickup, and that a driver would call my cell phone when they accepted the fare. Still no problems; there was a bus shelter on the corner so I sat down in the shade and waited for my phone to ring. Which it didn’t. So I called the dispatcher again after 20 minutes or so, and she said she was on it, and a driver would call me soon, honest.

As I write this article 24 hours later, I still have not received that call from a driver.

Soooooo . . . cabs don’t readily go deep into the South Side. I guess I knew that. But, hey, I’m a regular Chicago CTA commuter, never afraid to get on a bus, so I decided I’d just catch the Number 8 line up Halsted to somewhere in the West Loop where cabs would be more common, then snag a ride home. I looked at my phone at 3:45 and it told me a bus going my way should be there at my stop at 3:48. Perfect!

Except . . . not. There was no sign of a bus until about 4:10, when I saw one rolling up from the South. I got up so I could quickly get my bike into the transporter rack, except the bus just rolled right past me: “Not in Service” the message board above the driver said.

Hmmm. That’s weird. Was there a service disruption? Weekend hours? Broken bus?  I figured I’d wait for the next scheduled one (30 minutes later) and see what happened.

A few minutes later, though, a large black car pulled up in front of me and the driver rolled down his window. “Oh, cool, the cab’s here,” I thought.

But then the driver stuck his out and said “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said. “I’ve got a flat bike tire, and I can’t get a cab, so I’m just waiting to catch a bus.”

“I think I should give you a lift out of here right now,” the driver said. “This is not a place where you should be standing for very long. I’m not sure if anyone would target you exactly, but I can tell you that bad things happen on this corner. It’s not a good place for you to stand and wait. Will you accept my ride?”

I realized by this point that I was speaking to an under-cover or off-duty Chicago Police Officer. Since I was planning to meet Marcia for an evening reception and had something of a hard time deadline, I accepted the Officer’s invite in the interest of moving on, tossed my bike in the trunk of his unmarked patrol car, and rolled north with him. He was considerate and somewhat apologetic as we chatted, noting that I looked so obviously out of place in that bus shelter that he knew something was awry, and also noting that he has responded to numerous “incidents” at that corner over the years. Since he presumed I wasn’t choosing to be there, he thought he should offer to help me move on. That’s all. No biggie. Glad to be of service.

He gave me a lift as far as the Halsted Orange Line Stop, where I could catch the El train into the Loop. I thanked him, sincerely, and pushed my bike toward the train station — upon the door of which was a big sign saying “Due to high volume Chicago Pride Day traffic, bikes are not permitted on our trains today. We apologize for any inconvenience.”

Goddammit!

Okay, next plan: I know that cyclists are friendly, helpful folks, as a breed. Whenever I see a bike on the side of the road, I always call out to see if the rider needs help, or a tool, or whatever. It’s just what you do. So I walked back to Halsted and turned North, clacking and clattering along in my bike cleats, hoping some cyclist might take pity upon me as I walked next to the bike lane.

Within five minutes, one did: a guy named Ray, who told me there was a bike shop south on Halsted (behind me now) that was open until 5:00, and that he had just come from there. It was about 4:40 now, so I thanked him and said I didn’t think I could make it there in time and that I’d just keep schlepping on toward home. So he rolled north away from me — but then rolled back a couple of minutes later and said a Southbound bus was coming, and he would ride up and tell it to hold at its next stop for a minute if I could quickly walk my bike up there to meet it.

And Ray did that. And the bus driver waited for me. And I told the bus driver where I was going and he actually made an interim stop so I could get into Blue City Cycles with about five minutes to spare before closing time. And they pulled the glass bits out of my tire, got me a new tube, and had me rolling again within about ten minutes.

I had to start a new ride on my bike computer, though, since I’d closed the old one out. I logged six more miles, bringing my total biked for the day to 92, having lost at least eight miles of measurable road time to bus and squad car rides. Dangit dangit dangit!! That’s like planning a marathon and quitting at mile 25. Doesn’t have the same bragging rights appeal or self-satisfaction elements, at all. Grrr.

Oh well. When it was done, I had a lovely evening with Marcia (it was our 29th wedding anniversary yesterday, which we had celebrated the night before at the sublime Topolombampo) and saw some good friends from Albany who were in town for the conference Marcia was attending. But as I went to bed last night and rode my bus and train to work this morning, I found myself reflecting on four takeaway points about my Denied Century Day:

1. It reminds me how nice and important it is that the Tour des Trees is a supported event; the riding days go quicker when you have friends on the road with you, and our Tour Director, Paul Wood of Black Bear Adventures has a great team behind him, so that in the case of a small incident like mine, or God forbid a bigger one, support is never far away on the route, with multiple vehicles and multiple teams ready to respond to riders when needed, never mind the great snack and lunch stops along the way.

2. It really hammered home for me one of the great social inequity issues in our City in terms of how difficult it is for folks in the South Side to depend on public transit or use cabs to get around, with the corollary factor that this makes it even harder for them to get good jobs outside of their immediate neighborhoods, no matter how much they want them, or how hard they work to secure them. We so take for granted our ubiquitous cabs, buses, trains and other instantly available forms of transit in the “nice” parts of the city. Not everyone in Chicago is that fortunate, though, and that’s both a shame and a structural failure of planning, economics and imagination, in terms of serving all of the city’s citizens, no matter where they live. We all deserve that, right?

3. The day made me more committed, not less, to riding smartly in the South Side. People were good to me. They were kind and pleasant. Nice things happened. I was not afraid. I had some enjoyable conversations and saw some interesting community sites, as I almost always do. I understand and appreciate the police officer stopping to check on me, though I know some folks might take umbrage with his actions or even my acceptance of his ride offer. But I think that our exchange was less indicative of any nefarious underlying racism, and more indicative of the fact that if other riders from “my” part of the city weren’t afraid of riding where I ride, then I wouldn’t have looked so obviously out of place to an officer who works that neighborhood on a daily basis. I hope that some day the area around the Citgo station on 52st and Halsted features more folks who look like me, or look different in different ways, on bikes, on foot, in cabs, whatever. We’ve got all sorts here in Chicago. The more we regularly interact comfortably together in all of our neighborhoods, the better off we’ll all be.

4. And finally, okay, I will carry multiple bike tubes with me from now on. In decades of riding, I’ve never needed more than one (plus the patch kit) in a single riding day, but now that those odds have finally broken against me, I’ll suck it up and add another one to my kit each day before I ride.

So, all in all, a good day with a good ending and some good lessons learned and some good things to think about.

But, dammmmmmmmnnnn . . . . 92 miles!!! CENTURY DENIED!!!! So close, and yet, no credit, son. Pack it up and try again. Do not pass go. Game over. You lose.

Oh well. I will likely ride three century days on the Tour des Trees itself this year, so if I don’t get any in before then, I’ll have no shortage of them once we make it to Ohio!

Spitfires, Ducks and Cups: Catching Up

1: SPITFIRES.

Marcia and I got back to Chicago (me) and Des Moines (she) yesterday after a great nine-day trip in England. We did the Battle of Britain Tour with Back-Roads Touring Company, who also guided our 2016 tour to Tuscany. On both trips, we were the sole Americans in the groups, which were otherwise composed of Australians and New Zealanders. We enjoyed that facet of the trip very much.

We saw lots of planes (World War II and Cold War era, primarily), had the chance to fly in a 1936 Dragon Rapide, and also got to see a pair of Supermarine Spitfires (the sexiest plane of the war, if not the most effective) take to the air. Also saw ships, tanks, bombs, submarines, cars, memorials, monuments, code-breaking equipment, museums and so on, while having the chance to amble and ramble about London, Cambridge, Woodhall Spa, Lincoln, Winchester and Portsmouth. Among many highlights, I think Marcia and I would both agree that a private dinner in the Squadron Mess used by the legendary No. 617 “Dambusters” RAF Squadron in their wartime barracks in Petwood Hall was a most unique and rewarding experience. Over 40% of the young men who participated in the famous Dambusters raid against German hydro-power facilities died along the way, and those numbers were not atypical among the aviation units of the day. It was good to spend time where they did, and to remember their amazing stories.

One powerful theme that reoccurred throughout the trip was hearing from folks about their family connections to World War II  and its aftermath in Central, Southern and Eastern England. One of many examples: a bearded, long-haired older gentleman named Mike at Thorpe Camp near Woodhall Spa, who has given of his time, talents and resources for over 30 years to preserve a bunch of old buildings that the Royal Air Force had abandoned to first squatters and then council housing after the War. Why did he see them as being worth so much work, and so much care? We asked Mike what fueled his passion for the project, and he said he still sleeps in the bedroom where he was born near the Camp, and that the other men and women who lived (and died) in and around Thorpe Camp “did not want forgetting.” He was committed to saving the buildings that housed and fed them and their families, and telling those community stories in the exhibition space he and his fellows created, keeping the global story local, as it were.

We met folks like Mike every place we visited: older women volunteering in replica NAAFI canteens because they did so as girls; a distinguished older retired Avro Vulcan engineer who (as a volunteer) wore a crisp suit and perfect tie to walk us around a collection of V bombers, sharing their quirks and secrets; an enthusiastic docent at the new Bomber Command Memorial in Lincoln who noted how often she cried as family members came to find the names of their loved ones and share their stories, etc. It seemed like everyone we met was touched somehow by the war and service to it, via family members or direct personal contact as veterans or survivors of the bombing of England during the Battle of Britain. We do not really get a sense of that magnitude from our side of the pond. We also saw that there are active efforts around the country to increase the remembrance as the last of the soldiers, sailors and flyers of the era are going on to their collective great rewards. That’s a good thing, and I am glad to have that perspective from this visit.

As always, we snapped lots of pics. Click on the image of the Dambusters’ Mess at Petwood Hall below to see them all:

2: DUCKS.

Well, “Duck,” more precisely. Or “Tree,” more relevantly. Here’s a feature column from our new format newsletter at work. . .

My father was a career Marine Corps officer back in the days when “unaccompanied tours” (i.e. family members not included) were more the norm than the exception, often for long periods of time. During those times when he was overseas, my mother and I often lived with my grandparents in Ridgeland, South Carolina, in a small cinder block house that my grandfather had built himself. There were lots of cats and dogs around my grandparents’ house, along with an ill-tempered duck named Twiggy who lived on the roof and dive-bombed visitors, and an amazing (to me) tree, right smack in front of the door to the house.

It was a classic Low Country longleaf pine, and it was older than the house; I have pictures of my grandfather and uncle during its construction, and you can see that they tried to preserve as many of the existing trees on the lot as they could, even that one that crowded the front door stoop. And if that wasn’t inconvenient enough, my grandmother later planted wisteria around the tree, and its vines grew huge and thick, completely surrounding the bole of the pine – which is why I loved that tree so much as a little kid, because I could just pop out the front door, stumble over the root-buckled stairs, and use that knotted network of vines to climb to a favorite perch, high enough that I could even see Twiggy on the roof! Perfect!

I claimed that as my very favorite tree for much of my childhood and beyond. Of course, I know now that all the decisions my grandparents made about it were wrong – though they made them with good intentions, hoping for shade, pretty wisteria flowers, curb appeal, etc. The last time I was down that way, I drove by the old house and, not surprisingly, that tree and its choking vines were long, long gone. I suspect removal was an expensive and complicated job, given how knitted into the house that tree must have been when it finally wore out its welcome.

We all teach and preach “right tree, right place” when planting, but I suspect many of us might make the same sorts of mistakes my grandparents did when it comes to building around and in established urban forests, because at heart, we love our trees, and we want to save them all. This is why we seek to cover the full life cycle of trees in our cities when we award our wide spectrum of research grants, recognizing that with rigorous science behind us, we can make better decisions about what goes in, and what comes out, and when, and why.

dickdel1

My Great Great Uncle Dickie and my Grandfather Delmas building the house mentioned in the story above.

3: CUPS.

Well, again, I suppose the singular would have been more apt, since I am discussing the Stanley Cup here . . . which my much beloved and long-suffering Washington Capitals won while we were in England. Huttah!

I’ve been following the Caps since elementary school days in Northern Virginia when they played their first season, and it should come as no surprise if you know them, me, and/or this blog that Caps Fandom has been, well, complicated throughout the years. As I noted more than once here on the blog, they are really the team that I love to hate, or hate to love, more than any other. They have been truly maddening, year after year, losing series after taking 3-0 or 3-1 leads, capturing individual honors by the score while the team wallows in mediocrity in aggregate, doing well in the playoffs when they barely squeak in as #8 seeds, and tanking when they roll in strong with the #1 conference ranking.

The Pittsburgh Penguins (who came into the season as the defending Cup champs) have been a particular nemesis for the Capitals, so it was exciting to see them come back from being down against Columbus, then gutting out a win over the Pens (finally!), then blowing a lead, but recovering from it against Tampa Bay, then surviving a rocky first game loss to move into dominant mode, dispatching the expansion Vegas Golden Knights in five games.

I haven’t wanted to jinx them here along the way by writing about all the games I’ve watched and fingernails I’ve gnawed while doing so, and on some plane, it was probably a good thing that I wasn’t able to watch the final games, since that might have been completely unnerving for me . . . but, at bottom line, they got it done, and that ends their long, hard reputation as not-so-loveable losers. I’m pleased and proud to have supported them so long, through so much, and happy as I can be for the them as a team, especially Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Bäckström, who have 24 years between them with the Caps, including a lot of sad, bad, and disappointing finishes that they were blamed for, mostly unjustly.

I think there’s dynasty potential here, now that they’ve exorcised their demons. Plus it will be nice to wear my “Rock the Red” t-shirt, and not have it seen as an ironic statement anymore . . .

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Good job, guys . . .