Monday, January 15, 2007

After a blizzard but before the plows come

I spent the last eight days on Vieques, a small island (21 miles long and 3 miles wide) off the coast of Puerto Rico. I was away from home long enough to forget which direction to turn my torso to reach the wall-mounted toilet paper roll of my home shitter.

Until recently, 60% of Vieques was owned by the U.S. military, which used it as testing grounds for bombs, missiles, and other weapons. When, in 1999, a Vieques native named David Sanes was killed by a bomb dropped by a military jet (it fell 1½ miles away from its designated target) during bombing exercises, the residents of Vieques suddenly had considerably more leverage in their battle to kick the U.S. military off the island. The Navy finally left Vieques in 2003 and the lands previously owned by the Navy were turned into an ecological preserve.

In a few years, I’m guessing that the 40% of the island that isn't ecologically preserved will experience the effects of land speculation, over-development, and resort-ism (if that be a word), but in its current state, the recently-opened-to-the-public beaches are beautiful and unpopulated. I found it oddly pleasing to be on pristine beaches without anyone else around; it was like skiing down the middle of a Manhattan street after a blizzard but before the plows come.

Of course Vieques does have its share of problems: unemployment is around the 50% mark. 70% of its inhabitants live below the poverty line. When you rent a car, you are instructed to leave the car empty, unlocked, the windows rolled down, and the glove compartment open to prevent smash-and-grab theft. These statistics are easy to forget when swimming in the Mosquito Bay at night, a bioluminescent bay whose water particles glow like millions of miniature fireflies anytime the water is disturbed. As you swim, you can pick out the neon-yellow glowing outline of darting fish and shrimp.

Apropos of nothing, my sister, who is working for the Foreign Service in Equatorial Guinea, has started taking a French class on the side. Here is an excerpt from one of her e-mails:

"Back in French class, too, and this time the teacher is excellent. The professor is Guinean, as is most of the class. We work off of photocopies of what I can guess is an Alliance Francaise book. Anyway, this past week we have been working on verbs and nouns having to do with food. When asked to name fruit the class came up with mango, papaya and banana. There were pictures of apples and pears in the workbook and most of the class didn't know what they were. The professor explained that they are exotic fruit from Europe."

Makes me wonder if the exotic fruit of David Beckham will translate to the U.S. The knee-jerk reaction of the ESPeNis-types is to say anything that will create a Beckham backlash. End, tangent.

While on Vieques, I was without television and internet, and so all I know about Florida’s defeat of OSU is from what I’ve read online in the twenty hours since I’ve been home. What strikes me and my Rip Van Winkle perspective most is the rise of a new category of sport athlete: the Booed by his Own Ornery Fans athlete. My definition of the BOOF phenomena is as follows: an over-hyped player, who, though playing a high level, is not playing like an superstar, and the player’s fans, unsatisfied by his lack of perfection, boo him. The only way to shed the BOOF label is to do something that only a superstar can do. This usually means winning a championship.

Consider Florida quarterback Chris Leak, who was the top-ranked prep player coming into college. When he didn’t win four Heisman trophies, Gator fans grew impatient and wanted him benched for backup QB Tim Tebow. When, six days after the fact, I found how the Gators had won, I was sad to have missed Chris Leak calmly removing himself from the BOOF category by leading his team to a National Championship. BOOF removals of this magnitude only happen once every few years.

Another potential BOOF-label shedder, former-Gator-and-current-Bear-quarterback Rex Grossman, was booed by his own ornery fans as he warmed up for his first playoff game start—this after leading his team to a 13-3 record. He went out and played well in a close playoff win. The Bears play their next playoff game at home against the Saints. I wonder if Bears fans will boo him during next week’s pre-game warm-ups. Probably. Once applied, it usually takes winning it all to shed a BOOF label.

Alex Rodriquez is a BOOFer. Can you think of others?

Incidentally, I thought LeBron James, when he was coming into the NBA, was a strong BOOF candidate. He was so incredibly hyped that I had a hard time figuring out how he’d satisfy his fans. I thought he’d score 14 points a game on 37% shooting (sort of like Adam Morrison is doing now). Which would have been excellent stats for a 19-year-old in the NBA. But anyway, he went 21, 5.5, 6 and shot 42% and amazingly managed to duck BOOFdom. I'm hoping Barack Obama pulls a LeBron in '08.

Anyway, I find myself strangely compelled by these BOOFers; they are a collection of odd ducks, and they are somehow more human-seeming than other athletes. Current BOOFers are like a 1999 Vieques: They are being bombed like crazy by critics, but as long as they continue to fight for their cause, they might one day experience a pristine moment of athletic achievement.

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