A Very Phallic Christmas

It’s that time again when men and women who shouldn’t be on ladders, climb up on wobbly legs- sometimes of climber and ladder- and get themselves into positions even the Kama Sutra wouldn’t recommend, simply to decorate their home for Christmas.

Some advice to those climbers this year: think about the finished product before you start. Are you looking to do a swirl of lights, or something more random? Either way, take into consideration the shape of whatever it is you’re covering.

There was a nice neighbor who decorated a tall bush that sat between two shorter round shrubs. I’m sure he had the best intentions, and probably thought he’d created a masterpiece of twinkly lights… until the neighborhood Christmas party.

The Christmas party was a big affair held in a professionally decorated and catered neighborhood home. People would come in all proper and nicely dressed, and some would leave a little less proper.

Alex and I were talking to a very merry couple- okay, they were drunk- when the nice neighbor who’d created the masterpiece happened to interrupt. The drunk couple hadn’t met the guy, so they asked him where he lived in the neighborhood, which was kind of a thing people did. When they got a lock on his house, the husband of the drunk couple said, “oh yeah, the house with the big penis out front!”

The nice neighbor raised an eyebrow like, “huh?” Then he started to chuckle. “Excuse me,” he said as he turned to leave, “but I think I have some Christmas lights to unplug.”

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The Great Chili Controversy

Now that fall has fallen, Alex is making more savory fare like chili. Now Alex’s chili is not one of those “drop a can of this and a can of that in with some hamburger meat” kind of deals. No, her chili is like a flavor expedition.

The expedition starts days in advance with a head of garlic smoked over hickory, raw white beans soaked overnight and then strained a few times to lessen the starch content, good quality meat, a homemade sauce…. You get the gist.

When we first moved to the neighborhood we entered her in the neighborhood chili cook-off. It was more to meet people than to compete… or so we told ourselves. By the end of the thing, we were sure the event was rigged, after Alex only tied for 1’st. “We need to add more heat,” we agreed, “I mean, the judges were firemen after all!” Like there was some kind of correlation between firemen and hot food.

So the next year, we brought the heat. The only problem was there was now a firewoman, and she was a vegetarian, so she would only try the sauce and beans. When she took a spoonful of ours, she got more beans than anything else, and the rest, shall we say, was history. We didn’t even make the top two. We swore off any more of these competitions.

And it’s a good thing we did: We found out later that a guy had won a few years after us with a chili he’d bought from Wendy’s and threw in a Crockpot to make it look like he’d sweated over it.

Hey, if that’s what you’re used to, you might find that better than homemade, but I’ll take Alex’s homemade any day over anything that comes from a restaurant.

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Thanksgiving Explosions

Now that Thanksgiving is here, I’m thinking I shouldn’t have cleaned our microwave because there is bound to be an explosion in there before, during or after the holiday. Not that Alex cooks in the microwave. She just melts butter or reheats things in it.

She’s the best cook I know, but she refuses to learn the nuances of a microwave. Like how coffee gets bitter if you don’t do it on a low setting for a couple of minutes. Or how butter will explode.

“Set the power button to 3 or 4,” I’ll tell her as she puts a frozen stick of butter in to melt down to add to an incredible sauce or some such thing. But instead she’ll hit the Easy Minute button, which might as well be called the Messy Minute button.

Like clockwork, I’ll hear a low thud and a pop and I’ll rush across the kitchen like I’m trying to save a life. I’m actually just trying to save my life another 20-minute microwave cleaning session.

But hey, for the goodness that comes out of Alex’s kitchen, I will gladly clean the inside of a microwave.

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An Athlete’s Rituals

I walked into the Tampa Bay Lightning locker room and saw Marty St. Louis put a blowtorch to his carbon stick blade, step on it a little bit, and then dunk the blade into a bucket of icy water.

When I was a kid we would do this same type of thing with our wood sticks by putting them over a gas flame from my mom’s stove, and stepping on them to curve the blade as much as humanly possible. My mom came home one day just as the blade I was holding over the flame caught fire. I ran into the bathroom and dunked the thing in the toilet.

“Hey Marty, the new curve must not have been what you were looking for?” “Some are good, some are slightly off,” he replied. He didn’t seem to mind the work he was doing with the blowtorch. Sometimes these little things became rituals; part of a player’s routine. But for me, it would look better if he didn’t have to do this to half the Easton sticks he received.

Once again, we were dealing with the slightest difference that was frankly within our factory’s plus-minus for passing QC. And this was our pro factory in Mexico, where attention to detail was paramount to success. We’d already made a couple different molds for him, and these molds weren’t cheap or easy to make.

Each custom blade pattern, like Marty’s, required a steel or aluminum mold. Each mold was worth a couple thousand dollars in materials alone. With the instability of the Mexican society and economy, there were some instances of workers throwing these molds over the factory fence on their lunch break to sell for their material worth.

When I visited our Mexican factory, I went to lunch with the factory boss. He told me about the family that owned the restaurant we were eating at and how they’d been taken for ransom. “Anyone with money out here has to watch their back,” he said, “people disappear all the time.”

So it wasn’t a surprise when Marty St. Louis turned down our offer to come visit the factory to see how we made his sticks. We figured it would give him a better appreciation of the process. “I’m not going to Mexico,” he said, “I do not want to get killed.”

He had a point. What’s a little stick ritual, as opposed to getting killed?

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Whiplash

I’d been getting regular weekend calls from a number marked “private.” Before this job, I wouldn’t pick up anonymous calls, but now I did, since 9 out of 10 times it was one of my pro hockey players needing something: “I need a bigger toe-curve;” “I need more flex;” “I need new golf clubs;” “I need a flat screen TV for my vacation home…” Yeah, I was the guy they called for all that, and more.

But these calls were legit. Martin St. Louis was still having stick issues, and he was one of my most important players. He felt like his sticks were too stiff, but he didn’t want to go down a flex.

The stiffness of a stick correlates to a number, for example a 90 flex is more stiff than an 85. What most players don’t know is that there can be slight differences between one 90 flex and another 90 flex, even within the same batch of sticks. This is due to manufacturing tolerances. Meaning, if a stick is within a 5-point tolerance of a 90, then it’s called a 90, even if it’s really closer to an 85.

For pro sticks, Easton didn’t even print the flex on the shaft, like you’d see in a store. The reason was they didn’t want a competing company to grab a famous player’s stick and simply have all the specs spelled out for them to copy. So Easton came up with a letter/number combo that only the reps like myself were supposed to know how to decipher.

All that said, we were in a bind with Marty, because he was asking for something that couldn’t be delivered… or shall I say, could, but with too much wasted materials and manpower- even for a player of his caliber. What he was asking for was basically to make our manufacturing tolerances tighter than a Brodeur five-hole (that’s hockey-speak for the spot between a goalie’s legs, and Brodeur rarely let one slip through the five-hole).

We decided to just give Marty a lower flex stick without telling him, just to see how he liked it, since the numbers weren’t on the sticks anyway. Well, you know the way a small lie can whiplash into a bigger problem?

Marty started asking about the letter/number combos on his sticks, and started comparing his old ones to the new ones. Before you knew it, I was scrambling to come up with an answer that made sense. Finally, I decided that just coming clean was the best solution.

We agreed that Easton would deliver sticks in the lower third of his usual flex to make him happy… but there was still this little thing with his curve that he wanted to fix, and maybe I could get his kids some Easton stuff…

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If The Stick Ain’t Broke

Steel blades cut through ice. Carbon boot fibers groaned. Sticks tic-tac-toed pucks before firing with the accuracy of army snipers. These were the sounds from my “office,” which on this day was the Tampa Bay Lightning home rink.

I watched as one of my pro players Marty St. Louis went through drills. He was one of the most agile players in the league. He could stop on a dime, and turn on a Bluenose (that’s the racing schooner on the back of a Canadian dime, eh). I saw him take a shot and hoped that this time we got his sticks just the way he liked them.

My first big task as a pro hockey rep with Easton was to try to get Marty to change the color of his sticks. Sounds easy, right? Well you try telling a guy who’s in the top tier of all-time points to change even an undergarment, much less his sticks.

Easton hockey didn’t do commercials or print ads, they spent their money trying to get the pros to use their product. Every time a pro hockey player with an Easton stick scored a goal and raised that stick in the air, it was a “free” commercial or print ad. It helped when the stick being raised was one currently for sale at your local store.

Marty had been using a stick that we stopped selling about 5 years prior: besides the old model graphics, it was a canary yellow color that no one else in the pros was using. Our pro plant in Mexico had to order this color just for him.

For the retail market, Easton changed their sticks every year: names, colors, graphics, engineering. For the pros, they preferred them to be up-to-date, but would often put new colors and graphics on an old model stick for guys that refused to try a new model.

I couldn’t talk Marty into the blue or red options we had that year, even though the blue was a good match with his team colors, so I went for a graphic change. At least the stick will look like a newer model on the outside, I thought. “But same yellow, yeah?” asked Marty. “Same yellow,” I promised as I wondered what curse words my plant manager would offer for this bit of news.

Upon receipt, Marty noticed a part of the new graphic, just a few inches in length, that was looking up at him from the top side of the new sticks. He said it might be a problem but he’d try them anyway. He was a good sport- so much so that I think he won the Lady Bing Trophy more than once.

The Lady Bing is not, as it may sound, a trophy for the best cross-dressing Bing Crosby impersonator. No, this is a trophy for the player with the most sportsmanlike conduct throughout the season. Not an easy thing to accomplish, keeping your cool, when you’ve got sticks, and shoulders, and sometimes fists coming at you. Especially for someone like Marty, who was one of the shortest guys in the league, and probably took more elbows than shoulders.

He came off the ice frustrated. The new graphic was too much of a distraction for him, and now he felt like the flex was off, and the curve needed to be bigger…. I could hear the curse words from my plant manager all the way in Mexico.

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The Shadow of the Bear (a seasonal repost)

High up in the hills of North Carolina there lives a bear. This bear only comes out for about two weeks, twice a year, and Alex and I were fortunate enough to see it’s shadow.

It was a glorious fall day in Highlands, NC. We woke up to leaves of orange, red, yellow and green. The cold in the air from the evening prior was just starting to warm. Wisps of steam floated off the water of a small lake east of town. We drove up a dirt and gravel road to a place called Sunset Rock. It wasn’t sunset so we had the place to ourselves. We looked out over all of Highlands and beyond. No bears here, which was a good thing.

A rusty old bridge over the Chattooga river was our next destination. We followed Horse Cove Road out of Highlands to yet another dirt and gravel mountain road. About a mile in, there were signs that said “Road Not Maintained by County” and “Hazardous Roads Ahead.” We own an SUV with 4-wheel-drive, but we had, for some dumb reason, taken our comfy sedan on this trip (probably because of the comfy part). But Alex was far from comfortable at this point and uttered some concern: “Uh, you think this is safe?” she asked. “We’ll find out,” I answered, hoping I’d be wise enough to know when the terrain was impassible for a sedan. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, this road was only wide enough for one car, but a two-way road.

We spent the next four miles going around potholes, praying a car would not come the other direction, and gasping at the drop-offs that alternated on either side of us. Of course, Alex had to get a picture. So we stopped in the middle of the road, she got out, and I rolled down the window to listen for any sign of danger… like the sound of a banjo, or worse yet dueling banjos. After all, we were in Deliverance country (the movie with Burt Reynolds).

Finally, we descended onto an actual paved road, though still only wide enough for one car. The bridge appeared soon after, and we pulled into a tiny turnout. We hiked down one side of the bridge to get a better view and take some pictures. The water was clear and there were rocks underneath that had been worn into smooth shapes by the fast-running current. Giant boulders were scattered around like a giant himself had left his toys out. I thought I heard the faint twang of a banjo floating in the wind, but it was probably my imagination.

We made our way out and into the small town of Cashiers, NC. We found a place with a lake and mountain view and took a canoe ride on the water that reflected the fall trees. The brush near the shore at one point was so thick you couldn’t see through it. As I maneuvered the canoe near the brush so Alex could take a photo of the beauty surrounding us, we heard some rustling in the woods. Alex almost dropped her camera in the water. Then voices… only hikers, no bears.

On the way back to Highlands, we looked at the time. It was 5:00pm. Legend had it, that the bear would appear between 5:30 and 6pm in late October for a few short weeks. We were a little earlier than late October, but we thought “what the hell.” We found the spot and waited. Around 5:35 a small black dot appeared in the distance. At 5:45 it was a big black blob. By 6pm a fully formed black bear appeared in the distance. We were witnessing the shadow of the bear! A truly unique phenomenon where sun meets mountain and casts a gigantic shadow across black bear country, in the perfect form of a black bear.

A perfect way to end a perfect day…. Well almost. As we headed back to Highlands, Alex said: “this day went so well, I think we should buy a lottery ticket.” She must have been reading the real estate brochures we had picked up in town, because we’d have to win the lottery to buy a nice house with a view here… and I’d have to trade my guitar for a banjo.

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Mixed Nuts, Swingers and Acapulco Facelifts

We hadn’t been in our Atlanta neighborhood long when we heard rumor of a couple who liked to swing- and not on the community playground swing set.

Now, coming from LA we didn’t pass judgement. After all, LA is the land of mixed nuts… but not in a bad way, you know, like the Premium ones with everything from peanuts to pistachios and pecans?

Well out there in the land of mixed nuts, we had lived across the street from a lady who used to be an “entertainer” at a place called The Classic Cat. This was early burlesque-type stuff, which I assume was pretty risqué back in the day.

She would invite us to parties with all her old Classic Cat friends: a little man from Acapulco who used to dance with her, who’s stage-name was “Mr. Perpetual Motion”; a bunch of people who looked alike since they’d all gotten facelifts from the same Acapulco doctor (probably a cousin of Mr. Perpetual Motion’s); and a lady who married her dog- you heard me, she married her dog- and she had pictures from the ceremony to prove it.

So the Atlanta swingers were not that big of a deal to us, but boy did they get a lot of airtime in the casual conversations of our new suburban Atlanta neighborhood. It always seemed to start with “have you heard…” or “have you met…” Well, we hadn’t met, but that was about to change: they were hosting a neighborhood party.

It was probably the best turnout for a neighborhood party ever. I think people were expecting to discover some kind of sex dungeon or something, but it was pretty much like any other house on the street with nice and neat conservative décor. Though, I would surmise that the folks at this party had never had a stage-name (and if they did, it was definitely not as provocative as Mr. Perpetual Motion), if they’d been to Acapulco, it wasn’t for facelifts, and many were on their second or third marriages… to other humans, albeit with age differences that could have been in dog years.

My wife Alex has a knack for getting people to open up, so I wasn’t surprised when she told me later about sitting down with the lady of the house (no pun intended). It was getting late and the lady and Alex were discussing how to politely shut down your own party. The lady said she wasn’t any good at it, and would normally just let it go until it met its own end, but she’d had an experience that she didn’t want to relive.

She quietly pointed to the drunkest man in the room, “see that man there? One night we had a small group over and after we thought everyone had left, my husband went to sleep. I stayed up to clean a little and I found that man in the whirlpool in his underwear. Of course, I had to take him home, but we couldn’t find his clothes. So I got him into my brand new car and brought him home.” “What did his wife say?” “Well, she’s not here at this party, so I can imagine it didn’t go over well.”

After Alex told me the story about the man she now referred to as “soggy underpants”, I felt bad for the lady. I mean, maybe they were just an innocent couple who liked to throw parties, and one guy in his soggy underpants later, they were labeled swingers.

Well, they could always move to LA where they would be just another normal peanut among the various mixed nuts.

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The Screaming E

Easton was a family-started and family-run business until the patriarch Jim Easton got too old to run the place like he wanted. This happened about three years into my dream job and Easton was sold to a private equity group: notorious bean-counters, who care nothing about the integrity, personality, history or vibe of a place.

The first real sign of trouble was the call I got from my good friend and Easton Hockey President, Ned Goldsmith, who told me he was moving on. “Fired?” I asked incredulously. I mean, this guy had taken the company into the stratosphere with his carbon sticks. “Transitioning,” Ned said, in his best C-suite verbiage. “How about us reps?” I asked him, expecting the worst. “You’re probably the last thing on their mind for the moment,” he replied.

And he was right… about the ‘for the moment part’ anyway. A few months later my boss, our sales manager, was let go. Then the bean-counters introduced a new logo that they thought would redefine Easton for a younger generation- they called it the Screaming E. It was an E that had been torn apart (kind of like what they were doing to the company itself). I was officially nervous.

Meanwhile, the Atlanta news media started rumbling about a disagreement between the multiple owners of my home team, the Atlanta Thrashers. This group also owned the struggling Atlanta Hawks basketball team and the arena that both teams played in. The ownership group was called The Atlanta Spirit, but the only spirit they had was for themselves and their respective lawyers, not for Atlanta.

This was the second NHL franchise in this city. The first was a failed experiment in southern hockey that drew okay crowds, but more for the fights than the hockey, especially when the team missed multiple playoffs. The irony was that Atlanta GM Cliff Fletcher was left in charge of the club when they moved to Calgary and won a Stanley Cup there some 10 years later with the Calgary Flames.

The Thrashers weren’t the only team in trouble at that time. One of my other teams, the Florida Panthers, were drawing abysmal crowds and rumored to be on the block. And the Phoenix Coyotes were reluctantly being run by the NHL after the club had gone bankrupt.

One night, after the Thrashers left and my job was officially over, I had a dream. In that dream, the Phoenix Coyotes were brought to Atlanta and renamed the Atlanta Phoenix! Rising from the ashes of the Flames. Harkening back to the rebuilding of the city after it was torched in the Civil War.

If I only knew a few billionaires, maybe I could have persuaded one of them. Hey Bruno Mars, you there yet?!

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The Brother of a Legend

The pro teams I called on had a practice rink and game rink. The Panther’s practice rink looked like any old ice rink on the surface. I walked in through the front and was greeted by a surly teenage kid. I told him I was with Easton and he perked up. He led me across the rubber flooring, past the snack bar and skate rental counter, past a dingy, cracked sheet of ice with a handful of tiny figure skaters putting more cracks in it with their toe-picks, past their mom’s huddled nearby, and past a velvet rope to a totally separate sheet of crystal-clear ice (okay, maybe the rope was chain link, but still– a world apart).

I entered a modern facility with a huge exercise room, fancy locker room, hot-tubs, offices, even a boardroom. The ice was flat and cold, as it should be, but not as it always is in your average local rinks. Besides the toe-picks, a local rink I once played at had a dip behind one of the goals. It was so bad, you felt like you were skating uphill when you came around the net with the puck. They found out later there was a natural spring under that rink.

The Panthers practice rink was so cold, any natural spring would’ve frozen under there– I was seeing my breath as I talked to some of the guys before they went on the ice. About midway through practice I went outside to warm up and the bright Florida sun just about blinded me. I reached for my sunglasses, but they were so foggy from the temperature change they were useless. A guy approached me and said hello. I squinted as I shook his hand. “Hey, I’m Chelly,” the guy said. “Kirk,” I said back, still not used to the nickname thing. “You the Easton rep?” he said, looking at the logo on my jacket. “I am,” I answered. “I would love to get a gig like yours,” he said. “I’m doing some training with the young guys at camp here, but it’s just part-time.” Still without sunglasses, my eyes were barely adjusted to the light. “You look kind of familiar,” I said. “I’m Chris Chelios’ brother.”

Chris Chelios was a US hockey legend. A guy who got cut from Junior B teams in Canada, but never gave up, and eventually played for Stanley Cups and Olympic Medals. Trouble seemed to follow him a little off the ice, but he was one of those rare tough-guy goal-scorers. And he was still a current player then, in his mid-40’s. I was a bit confused as to why his brother wasn’t doing my job already. I mean, brother of a legend, ex-hockey player himself, what more could you want? But as I said, this job was harder to get statistically than making the NHL, and even with his pedigree, Chelios’ brother didn’t make the NHL.

So I told him to send me his resume. He went and grabbed one from his car—a paper resume that almost looked like it was typed on an old typewriter. This was circa 2009: I wasn’t real sure what I was supposed to do with the piece of paper he handed me, but I thanked him and told him I’d keep an eye out as I browsed over it.

“I see you’ve got a lot of coaching on here… and you played for Penticton? I hear that’s rough?” I commented. He laughed, “I got between a guy and his girlfriend out there once at a bar. I hit the floor so fast, I’m still not sure if it was him or her that hit me.” Even though he’d never made it to the pros, Chelios’ brother fit the modest tough-guy mold that is prevalent in the NHL.

Every NHL team has a couple of tough guys on the roster. They keep the opposing teams honest and always looking over their shoulders. These guys are thought of as average players, but are usually better than they themselves even think. They start to believe the myth that they can’t score, that they have hands of stone, that they’re not smart players…. But at one time in their youthful glory, most of these guys were scoring goals and doing more than playing the enforcer. I hoped for Chelios’ brother that he would find some of that youthful glory again in some form or another.

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