Saturday, September 27, 2008

#123 - Badminton Fever

Badminton Fever

9/27/08 (#123)

Last month during the Olympics, I watched a ridiculously broad array of sporting events, including one particular day that featured water polo, soccer, badminton, basketball and diving, a mix so diverse that it felt like a marathon episode of ESPN's Sportscenter. The game that hooked me most? Badminton.

In the past decade, my only badminton experience involved an impromptu game at our neighborhood block party, an event that featured a level of play that looked less like Olympic sport and more like a YouTube video of a Blind Flyswatters convention: Birdies lost to house gutters and splashed into courtside beverages, racquets colliding with a disconcertingly brittle tone, and a tremendous amount of hilarity that fell short of "sport", or even "pastime", and landed squarely on "screwball comedy".

Frankly, it did nothing to prepare me for the spectacle of Xie Xingfang vs Zhang Ning, the glorious and fierce women who battled in the gold medal singles match. The back-story played like a scene lifted from a Sylvester Stallone script: Zhang, the aging defending gold medalist (an archaic 33 years old) who barely secured the last available spot on this year's Chinese team, versus Xie, the 27 year old Chinese phenom who entered the Olympics as a heavy favorite for the gold. The action was intense, the crowd roaring with delight on every volley, the two competitors leaving everything on the court as Zhang came for behind for a stunning 21-18 victory in a thrilling third set. (The only disappointment of the match was that it didn't conclude with the heroic "Gonna Fly Now" soundtrack that it so richly deserved.)

These women played with a strength and grace that enthralled me. Performing with improbably precision, the shuttlecock traveled upwards of 200 miles per hour yet rarely crossed the back line, the player's reaction time boggling my mind. It was like watching a game of tennis that had been spliced into alternating portions of double-speed and slo-motion action.

Of course, I wanted to drive to Target immediately and invest in my own badminton set. Neighbors would suspect I was training Sage to be a future champion, but the truth would be darker: I'd be training her to play so that I would have someone to play with, as my wife would be as unlikely to revel in the sport as she would if I asked her to---well, actually, there is no reasonable analogy; suffice to say badminton would be my hobby, not hers. Before rushing out to make the purchase, I decided to do a little research online, where I discovered a secret world of badminton thriving beneath the traditional sports radar.

First, I went to (of course!) who assure on their home page, "Looking for a Badminton Website that has everything? Then look no further!" It's hard to argue with that claim, especially if you've never seen another badminton site: news, tutorials, videos, glossaries, player interviews, even a badminton blog. (Posts are not dated, so I am unable to gauge frequency of posts.) One of the pages even introduced me to three badminton magazines.

I shouldn't be surprised that such magazines exist, since there are ample glossy mags devoted to cats, model airplanes, camping, space travel, and a thousand other topics with dubious need for a monthly chronicle. The site kindly gave a summary of the three magazines, ensuring that a novice like me didn't foolishly subscribe to the wrong badminton publication. My favorite quotation came in the description of Badminton Asia:

"...a relatively new badminton sports and lifestyle magazine"
A badminton lifestyle magazine? My head began to fill with images: Luxurious homes with posh foyers featuring marble inlays in the shape of a shuttlecock; badminton champions lounging by lagoon-esque pools flanked by a perfectly manicured grass playing court; champagne parties at trendy restaurants where elite players laughed and celebrated their fabulousness. In short, MTV's Cribs, but with Xie Xingfang replacing Beyonce in each photo. (Sadly, investigation of the magazine led me to their website, which currently offers a preview of their Jan-Feb 2007 issue; more sadly, the preview had no pictures of Zhang Ning leaning casually on a Rolls Royce.)

Next I visited, which doesn't claim to be the only badminton retailer you'll need, but should, since they offer more gear than I ever would have imagined: Over 80 rackets ranging in price from $9.95 for the Qiangli 5328 ("ideal for backyard play and beginners ") to an astounding $239.95 for the Yonex NanoSpeed 9000 ("realizes a player's dream--high elasticity and high strength in the same frame"), as well as birdies made with actual goose feathers and cork---for those who find the nylon-and-rubber versions too synthetic. (Though the folks at warn that goose feathers are brittle and often need to be replaced several times per game.) While I love the look of the real thing, the thought of fishing goose feathers out of the Bloody Mary that I left too close to the playing field is a bit unsettling---with the plastics, a quick shake and you're good to go, with no worry of contracting some bizarre strain of avian flu. (It would be just my luck to be the first-ever badminton-related fatality.)

As I continued to search, I became overwhelmed by the topic, imagining soccer-mom-style scenarios in which my selfish desire to teach Sage to play awakened in her an unknown passion that had to be fulfilled: Waking up at 5:00am to take her to doubles practice; driving her around the Pacific Northwest to compete in badminton tourneys; investing in a collection of $200 rackets because c'mon dad, you can't use a Yonex on an outdoor court if there's a breeze, you obviously need a Joobong for that circumstance, or a Winex if there breeze is coming cross-court (duh); PETA marching outside my house because she's sponsored by Golden Vulture real-feather birdies.

But then I imagined the pride I would feel to have her featured in a badminton lifestyle magazine, her growling face on the cover with the headline "Badassminton", and inside a smiling photo of her standing in her expansive living room beneath an enormous chandelier, each bulb ensconced in its own hand-blown glass shuttlecock.

Enough. I'm off to Target.

©2008 wpreagan

Saturday, September 13, 2008

#122 - Hair Today

Hair Today

9/13/08 (#122)

In North Portland, the paths of the various public buses overlap, including the #4 and the #44. They eventually service different sections of the fifth quadrant* but travel through similar neighborhoods for the early parts of their journey, allowing some residents to take either bus. I was riding the #44 last week when we pulled into the Rose Quarter Transit Center, a hub for bus and train transfers, and as we pulled up alongside a large group of African-American high school boys, one of them looked in the window and remarked, "Damn, it's all white people. Let's wait for the next one." And wait they did---our bus pulled away without picking up a single rider. (It's worth noting that I do see a broader racial mix on the #4, as I often take that one too---unlike that young man, I take whatever bus will get me home soonest.)

The decision of those boys stuck with me. It didn't feel like a "racial incident" (as the news would call it), as we all tend to gravitate to people who look like us: I'm a blue-collar man at heart, and if I had to choose to eat lunch with a table full of folks in three piece suits and a table full of folks in work shirts with embroidered names, I'd opt for the latter---I have nothing against suits (heck, I ear a tie to work every day), but my experience has been that the salt of the earth tend to be more welcoming and open. Is that any less (or more) of a judgment than what that rider said that day? I don't know, and frankly, I don't care. What stuck with me was the frankness of his statement: There was no lie told to disguise the truth, just a blunt exclamation of why he wanted to wait for the next bus.

Courtesy of the 2008 political race, America has supposedly been talking about race this year, still wrestling with an uncomfortable history and the enduring impact of that history. Yet most discussions offer theoreticals and hypotheticals in a language that seeks not to offend.

The blame for this non-discussion could be blamed on the censorship known as political correctness, which allows a racist to adjust his vocabulary to mask his motivations, but political correctness has done nothing to tighten our tongues on many matters: Most people have no compunction with mercilessly lambasting those who espouse a different political vision, making grand statements of damnation with no regard to sensitivity. (Just listen to a conservative talk about Liberals---if you substitutes "white" for conservative and "black" for liberal (or vice versa), and it would qualify as hate speech.) Race remains the proverbial elephant in the room, the topic most of us identify as a significant issue in America yet few of us (including me) will discuss with the passion we display for politics. Is it because ideologies tend to have unifying characteristics while people of a particular skin color can collectively possess a diverse array of opinions, and thus a blanket statement about liberals is simply more accurate than a blanket statement about Latinos? Is it that subscription to an ideology is a decision while our skin color is involuntary, and it's impolite to talk about something over which we have no control?

I think the discussion of skin color in America could learn a lot from the the discussion of hair color in America.

The discussion of hair color, you ask? Unsure where to find the forum that is hosting such a conversation? I'll end the suspense---there is no discussion of hair color in America. As a rule, nobody cares what color your hair is.

This puzzles me---have you noticed the incredible follicular diversity that exists in our country, with every camp daily flaunting their differences with casual nonchalance? Blond, black, brunette red---and those are just the catch-all adjectives. Within the category of blonde, there are strawberry blonds, golden blonds, platinum blonds, dirty blonds, honey blonds and more, and every other color has similar subcategories to further define the nest of threads on our respective heads.

Yet somehow, we all manage to live in peace. No one complains about certain jobs being primarily filled by redheads; there are no events downtown that attract disproportionate and disconcerting numbers of blonds; when you're looking for an apartment, no one points at a map and says confidentially, "Just so you know, there's a large brunette population in that neighborhood"; no brunettes accuse other brunettes of "acting redhead"; I've never heard a teenager assess the riders of a bus and say, "Yikes, look at all the black hair---let's wait for the next bus."

Yet hair color is just another genetically predetermined pigmentation, a chromosomal coincidence that has no impact on our intellectual and emotional abilities. Hair color is an irrelevance because we have, collectively, made it an irrelevance.
With the exception of blond jokes (which are usually inaccurate---and blond self-esteem gets balanced out with the perception that blonds have more fun), we don't pass judgment on hair color. Sure, we all have our preferences, but no one at the office goes to their boss and says, "It's just really hard working with people with chestnut brown hair. I mean, I'm not saying their any different than we are---some of my friends are chestnut browns---but when you get a bunch of them together, it's like they're talking a different language." No brown-haired man wonders if their wife was having an affair just because their baby has born blond.

I was blond as a child, and my hair gradually grew darker, and I'm convinced it has grown darker with each passing decade, a crayoned self-portrait once requiring tan, then raw umber, then brown, until now, burnt umber peppered with flecks of silver and white. No one has ever called attention to this fact, never accused me of "acting brunette". My hair color is a non-issue.

Perhaps we don't judge hair color be because we do not have to accept out hair's birth color. Hair dyes allow us to slip incognito into another sect, so brunettes can become black-haired and blonds can become redheads and the casual observer is generally unaware. Imagine if we had that much flexibility with our skin tones, greeting a long-lost friend on the street and saying, "Wow, you've gotten so much more caucasion---last time I saw you, you were more like a mocha, now you're a vanilla latte. It looks good with that outfit."

I don't have answers, just questions: Why do we make assumptions about people based on one inherited trait yet disregard the impact of another? Why is skin-color something we are uncomfortable discussing, yet hair-color is something that doesn't warrant discussion?

I can't figure it out. Maybe because I was born blond?

* The Fifth Quadrant is an increasingly common sobriquet for North that amuses me for its embrace of the annoying disregard our section receives in the city---for instance, the Willamette Week continues to categorize its eating sections as NW, SW, SE, and N/NE, despite N/NE comprising nearly 40% of the city real estate.

©2008 wpreagan