unPHILtered – Phil Ponce's Blog

The Toll of the Game

Chicago Bears vs New England Patriots @ Soldier Field (12/12/2010)

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/seancooley/5256677218 (CC: BY-NC)

As you may know, a lot of attention is now being paid to head injuries among football players.  And rightfully so.  As more is learned about concussions, it’s becoming clear that the consequences of these injuries can be profound, even if they don’t manifest themselves right away.

Chicago Tonight viewers know that on Monday nights during the NFL season we have what we call our “Bears Alumni Club” where we invite a former Bears player to analyze the previous day’s game.   Hosting this segment has been a real revelation.  Most former players still look plenty tough and intimidating.  Even the guys who are in their sixties look like they could still do some damage on the field.

But another thing I’ve noticed is how many former players actually have a hard time walking.  Even some men who are only in their forties walk with limps, stiffness or a noticeable gait–like old men.  The wear and tear of playing professional football has been compared to being in a car crash on a weekly basis, so it’s no wonder.

Two different former Bears told me off-camera that–given the risk of long-term physical and mental damage–a growing number of former players are not letting their own sons play football at all.  Makes sense to me.  Why should the injuries of the father be passed on to the son?    And I’ve got to admit that this new scrutiny of the health risk has taken just a little bit of the pleasure out of watching football.

Yeah, yeah, I know.  Players can be lavishly compensated and are doing what they want.  But there’s a part of me that wonders if the entertainment value really outweighs the potential damage another human being is doing to himself just to give the rest of the world something to watch on a cold winter afternoon.

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Those Lovely Fake Trees

Pink Christmas Tree Picture

Image via http://www.flickr.com/photos/gwen/4183581723 (CC: BY-NC-ND)

I have a soft spot for certain artificial Christmas trees.  Big time.

When I was a kid, there was a new housing development in town a couple of miles from the gritty neighborhood we lived in.  I got to know some kids from the development in school and I would occasionally go to their homes.  They were the first brand-new houses I had ever been in;  I thought the homes palacial and the neighborhood elite and out of reach.

At Christmastime, many, if not most, of these homes had artificial trees, not the kind that looked real, but aluminum or white-flocked ones.   Some were illuminated from below by a light that would change colors and make the trees look magical.  The ones that were white-flocked often had identical ornaments.  I remember one flocked tree that had neatly spaced matching round red orbs against a field of white.  Often the base was surrounded by a bed of so-called “angel hair”–spun glass that could actually hurt your hands.

To my junior high school eyes, these trees were the height of Christmas elegance and taste.  So clean, uncluttered, so modern.  Those homes–and those trees–became symbols of a better life, one that was prosperous and presentable.  They were symbols I downloaded and carried with me for some time.

There is something about this time of year that can make you feel like a kid, so my thoughts go back to those fake trees of old.  True, they gave no scent of pine or gentleness to the touch, but they dazzled me anyway.  I still love ’em.

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Oh, Christmas Tree

Chrismas tree with lights

Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/TBoard (CC BY)

I was at Home Depot this morning and scrutinized the artificial pre-lighted Christmas trees for sale.  I eyed them somewhat wistfully because they seem so sensible and easy.  We have never had an artificial tree.  Ever.  My spouse will not allow it;  she would sooner buy a ready-made pie crust (and believe me, in our family that would never happen).

Not only has the Real Christmas Tree tradition been long-standing and inviolate in our home, but in recent years it has been greatly improved.  How?  By keeping me away from setting it up.

Frankly, the unholiest hour of the year used to be the hour it would take me to help get the tree straight in its stand.  The string of invectives coming out of my mouth was longer than any string of lights on the market.  In my defense, I have never been handy and my fumbling around with the saw, screwdriver, and pliers we need for our old-fashioned stand always revealed my ineptness and shot my blood pressure through the roof.

So some years back, my family wisely banned me from having anything to do with setting the tree right.  My job now is to buy it, bring it home, and then recycle it after the holidays.   No fine-motor skills needed for that.  Perfect for someone who would have flopped working in Santa’s workshop (although I’m a huge fan of his work).  Being fired from Christmas tree duty turned out to have been one of the best Christmas presents ever.  Thanks, Santa!

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A Tip of the Hat

This is the 101st blog I’ve written since I started this exercise back in February.  And I almost did something incredibly dumb: writing another blog on the same topic.  I was having a bowl of cereal this morning and glanced at Sunday’s New York Times, which is still sitting on the kitchen table, largely unread.  And I was feeling guilty–again–for not having finished reading it yet.  There’s a kernel for a blog, I thought, but then I double-checked.  Yup, I’d written about the same thing back in April.

It’s another reason I have so much respect for newspaper columnists who write on original topics several times a week.  The columns are sometimes brilliant, usually just plain excellent, and, on very rare occasions, only so-so.

But I marvel at what it takes to come up with so many original ideas and to have the writing chops to execute them.  What I write is NOT a column, it’s a blog.  And, for the most part, I think readers’ expectations for a newspaper column are still higher than they are for most blogs; so, too, is the accompanying pressure on a newspaper columnist to regularly crank out something cogent and compelling.

Sure, it’s an honor and an accomplishment for a respected newspaper to give someone prime real estate on their pages.  It must be heady to have the Trib or Sun-Times feature your picture and byline.  But status and stress go together.  And, even if you’re an innately talented writer, what a challenge it is to be smart and original week in and week out.  It ain’t easy, kids.  Another reason not to try it at home.  I tip my hat to those dedicated columnists who make it look so easy!

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Did You Call?

Tyneham - old telephone

Tyneham - old telephone (Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/barryslemmings/183306577/, CC:BY-NC-ND)

I don’t know anyone under 30 who has a home phone; their reliance on cell phones is complete.  We do have a vestigial home phone — and voice mail.   Problem is, we hardly check it.  The people closest to us have our cell phone numbers so we seldom feel the need.

But we recently got burned.  And our ears are still red from shame.  After not doing it for at least a week, I checked the voice mail the day after Thanksgiving and found:

  • Notification of the death of a distant relative
  • A thank-you message for some food we’d dropped off to a neighbor
  • An invitation to lunch
  • A heartfelt invitation to Thanksgiving dinner

Yikes!  My face flushed with shame.  We quickly tried to play catch-up, with the requisite return calls, apologies, mea culpas, etc.  And we promptly changed the greeting.  It used to be:  “Hi, we can’t take your call right now, but please leave a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can.”

That was completely inaccurate–obviously.  Here’s the new one:  “Hi, you’ve reached the voice mail on our house line.  You’re welcome to leave a message, but we seldom think to check this line.  If your call’s important or time-sensitive, please try to reach us another way, too—just in case.  Thanks!”

Notice I don’t leave a cell phone number–I’m reluctant to give that out too freely.  As for reaching us “another way”?  I’d love to get a singing telegram sometime.  Also, carrier pigeons might have a certain charm.  And I’m completely open to receiving a smoke signal.  Your call.

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