September 26, 2013

Manual Labor

Every year the Washington Wizards send me a minimum of one survey to gauge how I view the fan experience and how engaged I am as a season ticket holder. A long long time ago (maybe five or six years?), one of the questions was about volunteering and whether I would be willing to participate in charitable events featuring Wizards players or staff if the opportunity was afforded. In a moment of unbridled enthusiasm and with visions of me and Gilbert Arenas serving food at a community kitchen or something like that, I responded "yes". Then I pretty much forgot all about it.

Then about a month ago, there was a call for volunteers in the Wizards' weekly season ticket holder e-mail to assist in building a playground at a school in southeast Washington D.C. I remembered my reaction to the opportunity for this sort of event during the Arenas years, thought about it for a few days and then finally decided to take the plunge and sign up. I said I would do it five or six years ago; I better live up to my word now. 

Now, this is a bit of an unusual gesture for me. I generally think of myself as a fairly selfish person. When I engage in charitable activities (which I do pretty regularly), it is usually by donating money or other things I have purchased with money. I have a standard list of organizations I donate to each year and I love going toy shopping every holiday season before dumping my entire haul into a Toys For Tots bin at Toys 'R Us.

But volunteering is a different story. I gave my time for a day once to renovate a house in D.C. when the company where I worked was celebrating its 60th anniversary and I've donated other time professionally but this represents a step forward toward selflessness for me. I feel awkward just admitting my lack of sweat equity in my community. I swear I'm not a bad person. I just need some coaching is all. 

So today instead of getting up and walking a mile or so to my office for another dose of the same daily grind, I hopped on the Orange line to L'Enfant Plaza then transferred to the Green line for a quick ride over to Congress Heights Metro station on the other side of the Anacostia River. I don't usually come this way. This was definitely a different day for me.

9 a.m. No playground.
My destination this morning was the Eagle Academy Public Charter School, a charter school in the District of Columbia Public Schools system located on Wheeler Avenue SE about a quarter mile south of St. Elizabeth's Hospital. The school was founded about ten years ago with an initial enrollment around 110 students; today the school has 762 students covering pre-Kindergarten through third grade. The school seemed to have a pretty good sized campus from our initial walk around the site and there is an addition (including an indoor swimming pool) under construction adjacent to the school's main building. The one thing the Academy didn't have prior to today was a playground for the children. The nearest playground for the students was down a hill and across busy Mississippi Avenue to the south. We fixed all that today.

Before I arrived at Eagle Academy today, I imagined the construction of a playground to be a fairly simple task involving a few dedicated teams of volunteers. The initial correspondence we received after we signed up seemed contrary to my intuition. The directions we were sent earlier this week suggested there was little parking for volunteers while also pointing out about 60 available parking spaces. How many people were going to be involved in this thing? There can't possibly be more than 60 people involved, can there??? I now know that I didn't have any idea what I was in for.

Me and G Wiz on a break. Actually I was on a break. G Wiz wasn't really doing any work.
After signing in at the registration table, I received a blank name tag with a pictogram (skull and crossbones; how cool is that?) which I promptly wrote my name on and then stood around looking at all the other people on the site. And there were a lot of people. And they were all standing around doing pretty much nothing. I started to have no confidence in the ability of the organizers to utilize this many people and expected a lot of standing around for the rest of the day. The build effort actually turned out to be the exact opposite. The company organizing the build, a national non-profit organization named Kaboom!, really knew what they were doing and split all the volunteers into highly effective teams doing very specific tasks. Apparently, this was their 2,355th playground build nation-wide.

Little did we know, but the name tags we picked up at registration determined what we would do for the rest of our day on site. I soon found out the incredibly cool skull and crossbones name tags (way better than fruit or Hello Kitty or words of encouragement or horses or anything else) destined me for about six hours of shoveling and moving mulch (allegedly 160 cubic yards although I had a lot of help) from an enormous pile to the playground surface. As a volunteer assignment, I'm actually OK with this job. The last thing I want on a construction site is to be assigned a task that requires construction skills. I have difficulty knocking a nail in straight but I know for sure that I can move stuff from one location to another. I can lift and carry no problem.

Having said all that, this was a tough day. I'm not as young as I once was and I have very little experience with manual labor in my last 20 years. Call me a baby but it's really difficult to move mulch for hours on end. And I'm talking about moving it by hand. Like a shovelful at a time from the seemingly endless enormous pile on to tarps and carrying it alone or in pairs over to a very large unbuilt playground. We had a few wheelbarrows but the majority of the mulch without doubt got moved with brute manual labor. Shovel. Lift. Carry. Dump. Repeat. That was my day today.

12:30 p.m. Looking good. Finishing is going to be no problem, right?

The entire exercise was supposed to take from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. At first it seemed like we would finish a few hours ahead of time. The mulch crew (which I would estimate occupied about a third of the volunteers) was actually told to stand down for a bit to let the playground equipment folks catch up. There were only a few areas we could move our enormous pile a tarp-ful at a time to without other equipment being in place.

But later on in the day, it seemed like there was no way we would finish. Concrete finally got poured around some of the in-ground posts for the swings and slides around noon, which allowed the mulch move to proceed. But some concrete pours lagged to within a half hour of the finish time, meaning there were entire ground areas still not covered with mulch 30 minutes before the ribbon cutting. Incredibly, I guess doing this sort of thing 2,354 times before breeds some sort of success because we managed to finish everything on time. Barely, but on time.

Bradley Beal and Glen Rice, Jr. hard at work.

Of course, this recollection of my day wouldn't belong in this blog without some sort of tangible Wizards connection. Late in the day, we did get some help from Wizards players Bradley Beal and Glen Rice, Jr. After breaking a serious sweat twice and feeling like my knees wouldn't stand moving mulch much longer, those two finally showed up at about 2:30 p.m. They were enlisted to put together something resembling some basketball hoops and put in place the Wizards logo on the playground but other than that didn't engage in much heavy lifting. And I'm totally cool with all that. It was a boost for me that they showed up and the last thing I need is Bradley Beal hurting himself moving a part of our enormous pile of mulch two days before training camp begins.

As I write this post, I know I'm going to be sore tomorrow. I know the sleep that I am craving right now is going to cause me some sort of pain in the morning. And I'm OK with that. The stories that the school's principal told us just before the ribbon cutting about some of the kids crying because they couldn't use the playground right away and the fact that these students no longer have to cross a busy road to play makes me feel like my day was spent well. Better in fact than sitting at my desk at work making sure everyone did what they were supposed to do. I guess being a little bit selfless once in a while isn't that bad for me. I'm not saying I'm running out next week and doing this again, but I think today was worth it.

3:45 p.m. Playground installed. Time to go home.

September 8, 2013

20 Jan Veselys

Last fall, I invested in my first box of basketball cards, something that was supposed to be a quick lark and a way of pretending to be serious about this blog. A month later, I followed that up with two more boxes of different types of cards and suddenly found myself a couple of hundred dollars poorer with a ton of cards with basketball player images on my hands. Not knowing what else to do with these things, I posted my thoughts on the overly optimistic descriptions on the backs of the cards last December as a way to distract myself from the Wizards' miserable start to the 2012-13 season.

After my December basketball cards post and knowing I am a recovering collector who sometimes relapses, I had a conversation with my friend Mike that went something like this:

   Mike: So you are collecting basketball cards now?
   Me: No, I just bought some.
   Mike: So you are collecting basketball cards.
   Me: No, honestly, I'm not. I just bought a few. Really.

Well, ten months or so after my first purchase, I think Mike's right and I can say I have a pretty good collection of basketball cards focused of course on the Washington Wizards.

When I was a kid growing up in England, I collected football cards. And I'm talking real football (translation: soccer), not the NFL. Just about every kid in England is obsessed with football and so pretty much everyone collected football cards. We saved our allowances to buy these wax sealed packs of cards with a brittle stick of pink gum inside hoping we would get one or two Liverpool players (back then it seemed like every kid was a Liverpool fan) or something worth trading so we could get some cards that we really wanted from another kid.

When my family moved to the United States in 1979, I continued to collect cards but this time it was baseball, football (NFL football this time) and hockey cards. No basketball for me at that time. No interest at all, ironically. These cards came with the same brittle pink gum in the wax sealed packages as my cards in England but instead of collecting one series of cards, I now had to divide my allowance a quarter at a time among three seasons, carefully rationing out my precious savings so I could cover all three sports reasonably well. I continued to collect cards for a few years until I lost interest and moved on to other pursuits (probably Dungeons and Dragons and other role playing games) before buying some football cards in college when I was absolutely maniacal about all things New York Jets.

That was about 25 years ago and I hadn't given collecting cards much thought since then. But a couple of years ago, Panini America, the same company that made the football cards I collected as a kid in England, bought the rights to manufacture cards for the NBA and I followed them on Twitter about 15 months ago. From there it was all downhill and I can honestly say I am no longer in recovery. I've definitely relapsed.

This year, Panini America will release 26 different basketball card sets and until they announced the impending release of their second to last issue Flawless series, which retails for $1,250 per ten card pack, I made sure I bought at least one (OK, more than one) of each card set featuring a Wizards player. We can stop for a second if you want; the previous sentence does not contain a typo in the numbers. $1,250 is the correct price for ten 3" by 4" pieces of cardboard. Admittedly, this card set features actual diamond and emerald embedded cards but come on, some people have way too much disposable income on their hands. We have definitely come a long way from me buying baseball, football and hockey cards for 25 cents a pack.

I always thought of collecting sports cards as something that kids did, but the prices in the previous paragraph and some of the secondary market prices of these cards is astounding. And the amount of variations and unique numbered cards makes it even pricier. When I was writing this post I did a quick search on ebay and found a Damian Lillard National Treasures Rookie Platinum 1/1 card with a current tally of 42 bids and a price of $2,100. And the bidding wasn't even closed. Are you kidding me???

OK, so some of these cards are pretty cool and they are going to make or have made high quality and extremely portable items for autographing (much more on that other collection later, I am sure). Over the past ten months, I have acquired thin cards, thick cards, cards with pieces of jersey in them, cards made out of acetate or leather or wood, die cut cards, autographed cards, cards with prismatic qualities, foil embedded cards and other sorts of cards that I never would have imagined would ever exist when I was buying their predecessors for a quarter a pack at Franklin Pharmacy in Glastonbury, CT. And it seems at every turn that I have Jan Vesely versions of these cards, whom I desperately want to succeed this coming year to provide some stability in the frontcourt off the bench. Just tying things back there.

So what's the point? I have no idea. I've spent an insane amount of money on these things (not $1,250; not even close) and I think I have fulfilled my yen for this year. I will never pledge to buy one of each series of cards ever again. But I think I'll continue to buy on a budget and I am genuinely intrigued and love the graphic quality of some of these things. I really believe there is real design in some series that is very appealing. I think the first 2013-14 sets start coming out in late October. Until then and appropriately enough since EuroBasket is in full swing right now, enjoy a portion of my collection of Jan Vesely cards. Trust me, these things will be worth a fortune when Ves breaks out and takes the league by storm. Everyone will be saying Blake Griffin is the American Jan Vesely. That's all I have on this one.