One Year Later

A year to the day that I made my first trek to Selhurst Park, I returned there on Saturday for the FA Cup tie between Crystal Palace F.C. and Stoke City. The contrasts between Saturday, January 31, 2015, and January 30, 2016, seemed to pervade every aspect of the build-up to this match. The Crystal Palace of 2015 soared to its peak height in the club’s first flight of form under Alan Pardew, who guided the Eagles to three consecutive victories after being hired as their manager on January 2. When Stoke arrived in South London yesterday, Palace was languishing from three consecutive defeats and a goalless drought of six Premier League games that only the prolific “Own Goal” could halt (in a 1-3 loss to Spurs). Number 13 was now the No. 1 for Crystal Palace. Gray clouds, gusts of wind, and rain dampened Selhurst on my first visit; the sun shone and a gentle breeze provided a pleasant welcome for the FA Cup match.

After all those diametrically opposing circumstances, it seemed poetically appropriate that Palace defeated Stoke 1-0, the same scoreline of the league defeat that Everton inflicted on Palace a year earlier.

Thanks to the Holmesdale Fanatics and some willing assistants in the Arthur Wait, the atmosphere for the Stoke match retained the same energizing buzz that helped me fall asleep to “Alan Pardew’s Red and Blue Army” for a few days last year. The differing demographics between both matches were easy to spot, though. A combination of the reduced appeal of the FA Cup and generously slashed ticket prices for the match meant more families and plastic blue seats without a body surrounded me in the Arthur Wait yesterday than there were last year. Regardless of the eye-popping number of empty seats for the Stoke match — there were only five people seated in my row, including me — the ticket plan should be seen as a success. A lot of the parents in my neck of the Arthur Wait towed elementary school-aged children with them to the game, giving those families a relatively cheap afternoon out with a fun atmosphere that the kids could clap and scream along to. The bonus of witnessing a victory can only further entrench Palace roots in the impressionable young minds of those kids who attended the match.

And it wouldn’t be a match at Selhurst for me without a little kid behind me trying to explain it all. Instead of the little girl with a dog hat, there was a boy wearing a blue and white jacket in a group of four who did the math and told his three buddies how many minutes remained before halftime. He complained about Mark Clattenburg — like every adult, and rightfully so — for the missed opportunities for brandishing yellow cards at Stoke players.

“Go to Spec Saver!” yelled another boy in that group of four behind me. (For my American buddies, Spec Saver is an eyeglasses shop that seems to be in the same vein of LensCrafters.)

The taunting from the Arthur Wait extended to the Stoke players. A bearded 20-something man seated in front of me took to Xherdan Shaqiri “Frodo” and “Bilbo Baggins” when the diminutive midfielder set up a corner kick.

Like the Everton game, the breakthrough came in an early goal. Palace’s French international Yohan Cabaye, standing in right center midfield and just beyond the center cicle, launched a low diagonal pass to Wilfried Zaha, who was centrally located just outside the 18-yard box. Zaha split four hesitant Stoke defenders down the middle before slotting home under goalkeeper Jakob Haugaard in a one-on-one.

Three weeks’ worth of angst and frustration poured from the stands onto to the pitch in the form of euphoric roars. A Palace goal scored by a Palace player. Finally.

Even I, Mr. Composure, lost it when the ball rolled past Haugaard and into the back of the net. A freeze on goals for Palace over the past month plus the annoyance of seeing the Eagles downed 1-0 for my Selhust debut equaled me doing a fist pump and singing “Glad All Over” like the head choir kid at church.

My brain tried convincing itself to be content with finally seeing a goal in the flesh, but my body betrayed me with every jolt and jitter that followed Stoke’s near-misses in the second half. My psyche seemed ready for a total collapse when Haugaard somehow punched Fraizer Campbell’s goal-bound volley over the crossbar for a corner kick. Clattenburg also didn’t help things by forgetting that there was a home team’s worth of players to protect from the abuse inflicted by the visitors. By the end of the game, I could attribute my chattering teeth to the flurry of Stoke counterattacks in the second half than the increasingly colder temperatures settling into the ground.

After Clattenburg sealed Palace’s victory with the final whistle, it took a few moments for me to settle down; I felt more relief than joy after sitting through that match. But then “Glad All Over” began to blare for a third and final time that day and I remembered — sing and be happy.

I saw a Palace goal. I saw a clean sheet. I saw the club’s young stallion bag the win. I saw a French international demonstrate his class in a 45 minute cameo. I saw the club’s captain come into the second half and bring back memories of those good old days, breaking up attacks and even kicking off a late counterattack of his own as he charged through the center of the pitch with like a bull before letting the young stallion take the reins to set up an excruciating miss for the striker with the hairstyle of a horse.

All those things I saw confirmed one thing for me, a truth I shouldn’t have doubted: the magic of the FA Cup is still alive.

Halfway (Plus One) There

There’s good news: a lot of what I wrote in a season preview for your 2015-16 Crystal Palace F.C. has been wrong. I may actually have a future as a sports columnist after all.

After predicting that Palace would ease into a boring midtable finish, the Eagles have instead spent the entire season inside the top half of table, jostling the likes of Manchester United and Tottenham in a congested field for a spot in Europe next season. This unexpected chase can be credited largely to a back four — despite some glaring errors by Scott Dann versus Sunderland and Damien Delaney against Chelsea — and a new number one in Wayne Hennessey that have become a bulwark against most Premier League attacks. (I know: Yohan Cabaye, James McArthur, and even Wilfried Zaha get an assist there for how often they track back.) With only 19 goals conceded up to this point in the season, only Spurs, United, and Arsenal have a better record than Palace in preventing goals.

Taking command of the net after injuries to Julian Speroni and Alex McCarthy, Hennessey has finally had the breakthrough expected out of him when Tony Pulis brought him in from Wolves. After all that time he patiently trained and waited in the bench for his turn, you’d have the heart of a cat not to be happy that the Welsh international seized the opportunity. The wins against Liverpool, Southampton, and Southampton (FA Cup) in particular highlight how much he’s elevated the importance of his presence in the team.

But for a club whose mascot is a bird of prey, the attacking record is pretty tame — the club’s 23 goals this season put them in 11th in the league. In a way, the Palace attack is better represented by a road runner than an eagle, with Yannick Bolasie and Zaha leaving defenders with burns as the wingers blaze by them… and then that’s it. They run and run until there’s nowhere else to go, then attempt to send the ball to an attacker in front of the net. With no consistent help from anyone who can capitalize on the threat, the ball just usually ends up somewhere that’s not in the back of the net, or we see the process repeated with Pape Souare or Joel Ward surging ahead to recover the straying ball.

I guess this is a good time to bring up the most embarrassing part of the season preview. My belief in goals from the striker-by-committee has turned out to be a pipe dream. While the strikers, most notably Connor Wickham, have played the part of setting up goals for the other outfielders, the number of goals all Palace strikers is stuck at one.

A Wickham penalty. In the third week of December.

Meanwhile, the man whom I entrusted to “[lead] the pack with somewhere between 10 and 13 goals,” Chelsea’s own Patrick Bamford, located the Get Out of Jail Free card in his loan deal and returned to West London halfway into a season-long study down south. I’ll go run a couple of laps around the track in the cold for putting that out in the public.

So what do I want out of Palace for the next 18 games? Much of the same, to be honest. Palace can’t lose games if they don’t concede goals. Management has usually been spot on with tactics and selection and an injury epidemic of Bournemouth proportions has stayed away from Croydon so far. The club continue to win without a proven striker (again).

Yet, that striker would be nice. While the club have marginally improved in scoring from open play — heck, even Bolasie scored from open play at Selhurst against Newcastle, quenching the thirst of a couple of specific goalscoring droughts with one kick — the addition of a striker who can, you know, find ways to score regardless of the circumstances should add to that improvement.

Those guys seem to be rare, though, so if there’s a way to take a bit of the physicality of Wickham, the eye for goal that Gayle owns, and moxie of Murray and blend that into a player who is eligible to join during the January window, please let Steve Parish know.

It would also be a pleasant surprise if Jonny “Joniesta” Williams joins Hennessey in making the breakthrough to first team contributor. It’s hard to believe the kid is only 22 after a lifetime with Palace and a number of unfortunate injuries, but if the upgraded physio team can repair Marouane Chamakh to near-full recovery, I’m expecting them to achieve the same with the younger Welsh midfielder. Just imagine a healthy Williams absorbing some of the tricks that Cabaye has up his sleeve and then putting them in play a couple years from now. That potential apprenticeship sounds mouthwatering.

Then there are the off-the-pitch investments. America’s Josh Harris providing the cash influx needed to renovate Selhurst Park and improve other aspects of the infrastructure, with Parish still running day-to-day operations, is such a big win in the investment frenzy taking over the Premier League. That investment in infrastructure needs to translate in extending Alan Pardew’s contract with Palace, complete with a higher compensation package demanded if anyone wants to poach him for manager. As talented as the players and manager are, it still feels a little like Palace is greater than the sum of its parts. The last time I felt that way, Dougie Freedman, another club legend as a player, got scooped up by the albatross that is Bolton in the middle of a Championship title race. I’d hate to see the special run Palace are on right now get interrupted rudely by an outside influence.

For now, optimism reigns again after another FA Cup victory over Southampton. Enjoy the 18 remaining league games and the FA Cup run and appreciate the contributions of every player and staffer. If all somehow goes swimmingly well, we might end up packing a plane and taking a trip to the continent this fall to celebrate the club’s achievements this season.

P.K. and Throwback Thursday: Tampa 2013

If you haven’t seen the video of P.K. Subban’s Winter Wonderland for sick children at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, watch it first. The joy of giving in those six minutes will set the tone for how the rest of your Christmas weekend should play out. I won’t begrudge you for forgetting to return here after watching that video.

If you’ve returned here after that valuable six minutes: hello!

Subban is one of the best things to happen to hockey on and off the ice. The NHL recognized the Canadiens defenseman as the best in his position in 2013 by awarding him the Norris Trophy; Subban’s charitable contributions have ranged from a “modest” (for lack of a better word) $22,000 CAD to the largest donation ever made by a Canadian athlete:  $10 million CAD to the Montreal Children’s Hospital Foundation. Despite the accolades on the ice and the example set off the ice, Subban had his share of detractors among pundits and fans for shallow reasons. Charlie Gillis wrote an excellent piece in Maclean’s last year on the weak criticisms hoisted upon Subban in the wake of the latter’s monster 8 year/$72 million deal to become the face of the Canadiens.

Before all of that came to a head, I saw Carey Price and Subban lead the Canadiens to a 2-1 shootout victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning at former Tampa Bay Times Forum (now Amalie Arena) on December 28, 2013. A domino effect of watching Subban’s Winter Wonderland; discovering I never wrote about this December 28, 2013, hockey game here; and the coincidence that the Canadiens will play the Lightning at Amalie on December 28, 2015, got reminiscing (as much as I could) about the 2013 game.

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I arrived at the Forum about two hours before faceoff and was forced to hang around at the fan zone for an hour before the gates opened. A cover band played the typical arena rock soundtrack, including “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “Sweet Home Alabama” as fans played cornhole for radio station-branded prizes, ate and drank at the beer garden, or took pictures with the Lightning Girls. I was looking to meet up with Dory, a friend of mine who covered the Lightning for a radio station at the time, but traffic put her in a bind and she had to head straight to the press box upon arrival.

Because of the higher winter temperatures and humidity in Florida compared to the rest of the country, the inside of the arena was freezing to keep the ice in good shape. (I should have learned my lesson in Los Angeles.) The free towel the Lightning gave away didn’t offer much help in the warmth department.

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The Forum has the best of both worlds in the presentation department: an old school organ that the Bolts used for a lot of the pre-game and commercial break music and a new school massive jumbotron that’s probably only topped by the Jerryworld TV in Dallas. Oh, and there are the two  Tesla coils.

Above each net is a massive Tesla coil that hangs from the ceiling of the arena. Before the game and after every Lightning goal, the circuits in the Tesla coils are activated to produce the searing — in terms of noise and brightness — discharge of electricity that makes the coils popular with anyone who appreciates science. The coils are in my top five of coolest features in any sports arena I’ve visited, but because the Lightning only scored one goal the entire game, I only got to see the coils discharge twice. I swear, my luck…

…This theme of crappy luck continued when the row I was seated in won coupons for a free pizza. While I love pizza, especially when it’s free, there were two problems: I had to go through the embarrassment of feigning excitement for the marketing team’s presentation for the giant videoscreen (Dory got a good laugh out of watching it and then tweeting about it) and I don’t live in Tampa to be able to actually redeem the coupon for the pizza. I wound up giving my coupon to the folks next to me.

Two years later, I obviously don’t remember much of the game action. The game was a little sluggish early on because it was the first game for both teams out of the NHL Christmas break, but Canadiens goalie Price and Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop still put in a good shift despite the limited action. Commercial breaks (outside of the one where I won a pizza I couldn’t eat) featured ThunderBug, the Lightning mascot, clowning fans in Canadiens jerseys or the Lightning Girls giving away prizes the Tampa fans in their blue, white, or black sweaters. I don’t know what Lightning fans have against Subban — other than being the rising star of the opposition, I suppose — but every time Subban touched the puck or carried it out of his zone, the Tampa fans booed him.

Oh well, Subban got the last laugh with the win.

Before I left the Forum, I walked a lap around the concourse and ran into college classmates who recognized my face and knew I was a fellow Gators, but had no idea what my name was. I gave them a small smirk and cheeky “hey” when I walked by them, then went out to look for my rental car.

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When the Students are the Professors

My last Saturday (December 12) in New York for 2015 had it all: the celebration of a Crystal Palace win with friends at the pub, the odd juxtaposition of Christmas decorations on storefronts with the 60 degree Fahrenheit environment when walking around the city, Greek food in Astoria, and lucking into a free ticket for a winter recital for the students of the Juilliard School Dance Division.

Wait, what am I, some scrub engineer alum of a public university, doing at the prestigious Juilliard?

It all started with a trip to Queens to meet my friend Scott and his girlfriend Elyse for an early dinner. An employee at the Juilliard who plays on Scott’s rec softball team left the couple a pair of tickets to some dance performance at the Juilliard that night, but because Elyse was scheduled to work, she couldn’t stay for dinner or make it to the show. After mulling it over dinner at the patio of Taverna Kyclades — the crisp weather was more apt for a night out in the city in October instead of December — Scott and I decided I would make an acceptable second guest to the Juilliard show.

And that’s how we ended up rushing from Queens to the West Side of Manhattan, through the will call line at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater box office and into the orchestra section of the theater. Surrounded by men in suits and women in dresses and leggings, I depreciated the value of everyone’s seats by arriving in a Crystal Palace hoodie. We arrived so close to the 7:30 start time that I only had time to remove the hoodie; the lights dimmed before we could crack open the program and read what the heck lay ahead.

A woman’s voice filled the silence that accompanied the dimming of the house lights. Welcome to New Dances, the voice said, a show where each class of dance students enrolled at the Juilliard performs an original piece dreamt up by a professional choreographer. When the voice finished, the musicians sitting in the orchestra pit began playing and the curtain rose to reveal 24 freshmen dance students — split 50/50 between men and women — in purple, orange, and red sleeveless shirts and John Stockton shorts.

What transpired over the 20 minute performance of “Strange Garden”… I had no idea.

I didn’t know if the technique demonstrated by each dancer was outstanding or what kind of story the choreography was trying to convey. I just saw flashes of purple, orange, and red gracefully crossing paths with each other on stage. However, I could take a team sports perspective into this, though, and glean some parallels between dancers and athletes. First: I’m envious at how ripped the dancers are. (But not enough to give up weekly trips to Moe’s to consume a volcano of chips erupting with queso, ground beef, black beans, rice, and pico that flows from the top of the stack to the basket below.)

Most impressive, though, was the NFL-caliber timing and spatial awareness each dancer possessed. Like a well-drilled offensive unit in football, the dancers on stage took the choreographed 20 minute routine and memorized it like a playbook. The students hit their spots on the stage without any markers left on the floor as visual aids or intruding on their fellow dancers’ spaces, with the timing of their movements synchronized with both the other dancers on stage and the quarterbacking musicians in the orchestra pit. The music was generally slow paced, but the dancers handled the spurts of speed in the music like pros.

In short: they worked as a team and succeeded as a team, although most dancers looked like they had a job that had no bearing on their neighbor.

After a 10 minute pause, a woman sat down at the piano in the pit and a man took a seat behind her. She played another slow tune as the curtain rose to reveal 24 sophomores in cream pants and shirts that resembled karate uniforms. I figured I knew how long this performance of “Return to Patience” would last, because the pianist had four pages of sheet music spread from left to right, each page filled top to bottom with intelligible notes from my perch.

Six or so minutes passed in the performance and the man behind the pianist leaned over and stretched his arm past her shoulder. He pulled back that first set of four pages, but she continued playing anyway.

There was a second set of sheet music, also four pages spread from left to right, each page filled top to bottom with intelligible notes from my perch. The pianist carried her slow, somber tune into a third and final set of four pages of sheet music, while the dancers on stage performed stoically. Like the freshmen piece preceding it, the sophomore performance used the slow music to emphasize that they’ve mastered techniques and timing with their classmates to the (informed portions of the) audience.

After an intermission, the junior and senior classes revamped the tone of New Dances. Instead of live music from the pit, they performed against pre-recorded, fast music. The shifts in beat increased; the difficulty level shot up. The junior and senior classes already learned the techniques to execute a move; this was their chance to bend the rules of dance into mere guidelines to create a fresh, fast-paced, and fluid show.

The juniors came out in purple, red, and yellow t-shirts and shorts and performed “Vivo Rota,” a medley of what appeared to be modern dances. Everyone on the stage eventually paired up to dance the story of one couple where the woman lost her sight. I think. Either way, there was a section in the choreography where 22 of the performers just walked on stage and applauded the two soloists dancing in center stage. Toward the end of the piece, while the others took to dancing front and center on stage, she walked around the perimeter of the stage with her eyes closed, guided by her partner to the front left corner until the lights shut off on them to end the performance.

The senior class had the most creative liberty, arriving on a darkened stage in black tanks or sports bras and performing to electronic music that would fit any of the designer clothing stores on Fifth Avenue or in Soho. Their performance of “non sequitur paramour” was a party of a performance: the dimly lit stage, the sporty clothing on the dancers, and upbeat music conveyed images of a nightclub. The choreography even gave off the impression that it was all free style; the solos pitted individual dancers side-by-side against each another. Everything about this was slick.

At the end of the show, the junior, sophomore, and freshman classes — in their street clothes — joined the senior class for one final bow on stage. It was a bit inspiring to have all 96 Juilliard School of Dance students share the stage at the end, like I was seeing the living lineage of a powerful dynasty. I still don’t know the nuances that separate a great dance performance from a merely good one, but I can appreciate that those kids just made me a little more cultured than I was when I rushed into the theater.

Improv 101

After years of merely being a consumer of improv at Upright Citizens Brigade, I flipped the script on myself and took an introductory-level improv class. The classroom was neither a theater nor a comedy club.

It was a conference room at the local library.

I made my way to the Darien Library on Wednesday, where The Engaging Educator’s Lawrese Brown taught the 1.5-hour intro to improv to a fluctuating group of 16 (if I counted correctly). The demographics of this group covered the spectrum, ranging from a couple middle schoolers to a man in his 80s. Some were there for public speaking tips; others, to learn some formal improv techniques.

Our first exercise was to Pass the Clap. The group formed a circle and one-by-one, each person would turn to his or her neighbor to the left and clap simultaneously with that neighbor, before the neighbor did the same with the person on his or her left. By the third try, we developed a rhythm with our neighbors, the exchange sped up, and the clap went from the beginning to the end of the circle as quickly as a toppling set of dominos.

But we were only working in one dimension in Pass the Clap. The group circle second activity, Zip Zap Zop, combined the cue of a physical action with speech, extending our brains to now work on two planes simultaneously. The person who started the game would point at someone else in the circle and say “zip.” The person who got pointed at would then point at someone else and say “zap,” the next person would find someone else to point at and say “zop,” and the cycle repeats until an error is committed. Most of the errors stemmed from forgetting which Z word to say, which called to mind the second-most important lesson in improv — listen! A good chunk of the battle to overcoming the stage jitters is just paying attention to your teammates.

We learned the most important rule to improv in a brief activity where we paired up and conversed in disagreement and then in agreement. Obviously, the chatter came to screeching halts during the disagreement portion of the conversation, but flowed like an inviscid fluid when we kept began each reply with those two special words: “Yes, and…”

(Apologies for the stupid physics simile above. I’m self-serving.)

That’s it: listening to your partner(s) and taking a “Yes, and…” approach when responding to what your partner provided. Tina Fey said as much in her book Bossypants, so you know it’s true.

We put everything together when we got in line and wrote a cascading 16-part story, where each individual contributed a physical action to accompany his or her sentence to the story—on top of performing all the actions and reciting all the sentences that preceded his or her turn. The person at the front of the line had it easy: she set the tone by starting our story with “I was walking to the Metropolitan Museum of Art…” That’s it: nine words and walking in a straight line, which everyone knew how to do because we were all above the age of 18 months old.

I took my turn just before the halfway mark of the story. By then, I had to recite “I was walking to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I saw a dog, tried to pet it, but the dog barked and ran away. I ran after it and fell and…” and add on to it. With no prior formal training in acting, I walked in a straight line as I began repeating the words provided by the folks who went before me, bent down with hands out for the imaginary dog, recoiled with my hands up after the imaginary dog barked in silence, pointed afar when the dog ran away, jogged after it, then took a spill — well, more like a kneel — then added my two cents.

“…and saw stars,” I said, as I looked up at the ceiling with my hands open.
The story eventually went somewhere along the lines of “I was walking to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I saw a dog, tried to pet it, but the dog barked and ran away. I ran after it, fell down, and saw stars. The dog stopped, I approached it, and then the dog pooped by me.”

Toward the end of the class, the group broke up into pairs and performed improvised scenes of three lines that established the relationship between the two characters and the setting of the scene. Even in a tiny class with no pressure, it was tough getting through those three lines while covering the criteria. You’re listening to your partner, trying to get the ears and brain coordinated enough so that the brain can attempt to work at the processor speed of a new laptop and conjure up something that adds to the story and can be spoken without hiccups.

And that was only for three lines. The pros at Upright Citizens Brigade can do all this seamlessly for 45 minutes at a time.

With that in mind, I have a greater appreciation and respect for the improvisers of UCB and other troupes; I thought my levels of respect for them were at the highest already when I walked away from each show. But participating in the class reinforced that I do like the improv aspects of listening attentively and “Yes, and…” in another part of life: the simple conversation with another person. The skillset sounds useful for reporting, but since I forsook that path, I’ll use it to see how much people can talk about themselves before they realize what I’m doing and ask me to spill the beans about myself.

They can take their time recounting their autobiography without any worries. I’m listening.

Alpaca Alpaca Alpaca

 

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As part of a family outing before my sister returned to college to finish off the rest of her fall semester, I ended up at the Oakbrook Center, an outdoor mall in the west suburbs of Chicago. I know: walking around an outdoor mall in the Midwest on a chilly November day is smart.

Within the mall was a German-American Christmas-themed marketplace called Christkindlmarket Oakbrook. The Christkindlmarket has 21 vendors from all over the world, with some just minutes away (like Lemont, Illinois’s My Donut Lady, purveyors of apple cider doughnuts and apple cider) to those needing 10+ hours of flying to reach (like Germany’s Sweet Castle, whose wares, as the name indicates, encompassed every German candy and pastry imaginable). All of the booths came in the shape of a wood home from a tiny medieval German village, complete with a snow-capped roof.

The name of the vendor that stood adjacent to the Sweet Castle booth caught my attention: Winterbourne Alpaca.

Alpaca, as in the llama-looking inhabitants of Peru. They’re adorable. Their name is fun to say and type. Read the words following the colon out loud: Alpaca punch. (I laughed.) I had no idea alpaca hair was used in clothing and in toys. Alpaca scarves and shawls of all colors in the spectrum adorned the walls of the Winterbourne Alpaca booth. Stuffed bears and horses — this alpaca hair is pretty versatile — stood alongside alpaca winter hats and baskets of packaged alpaca dress socks on the table of the booth.

The alpaca socks became the bait. The person in the turquoise sweater running the booth reeled me in. She bore a resemblance to Gemma Arterton, so of course that was enough of a clincher to inquire about (alpaca!) socks.

Now, there was also a practical purpose to all of this. I use dress socks I picked up from Men’s Wearhouse, but to slow down their wear and tear, I also use three pairs of dress socks from Walgreens because they were under $10. While these cheap Walgreens socks are good for the summer, they’re thin enough to be useless in the cold winter and they don’t retain the most pleasant of scents after a long day of sitting at a desk in front of a computer for an eight hour workday that can be broken up into hourly segments of 50 minutes of sitting and 10 minutes of walking and stretching in a futile attempt to slow down the accelerated death of the body from sitting at a desk in front of a computer.

(Apologies to all of my English teachers for the deliberate run-on sentence above.)

When I reached the Winterbourne Alpaca booth, I asked if the alpaca socks would really keep the feet warm. She had the pitch ready: the socks provide great insulation. She said many people from the other booths in last year’s Christkindlmarket the socks to keep their feet warm while they stood outside all day. She gave a pair of the alpaca socks to her father for Christmas last year, and he loved the socks so much that when he found out she’d be returning to Chicago with Winterbourne Alpaca this winter, he asked her if the socks would also be making the trip with her.

It turns out she didn’t make the trip from Canada. Apparently she drives from Pennsylvania to Chicago every weekend for the Christkindlmarket, which got me curious about how profitable it is to drive at least six hours one-way every week for a month for four days of work in the suburbs. Then she added on that her family lives here and that she has friends who let her crash at their places, so it all made more sense to me.

I picked up a pair of the dress socks and asked how much they were.

She gave me a nice even number. The alpaca socks could be mine for the grand total of $28.

Welp.

I expected something in the $10-$15 range. But because she humored me for five minutes, it would feel wrong to say “Eh, thanks, but no thanks” because of the price. Besides, the socks are made from alpaca — the novelty of the material remained appealing.

Scenarios like this are why the term “disposable income” exists and dispose of income I did for one pair of black alpaca dress socks.

After the purchase was made official, she told me to come back after I used the socks and tell her that she was right, that the socks would keep me warm in the cold and remain comfy to wear, and then to buy another pair from her.

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Although I liked how soft and light the socks felt, I remained skeptical about how they could keep me warm. So I put the pair to the test on November 30th, when I had 12 hours of travel booked for getting me from Chicago back to Connecticut. The socks would be put through sitting in cars and planes and walking outside and inside airport terminals.

Her hype was real.

Despite the hours I walked and sat, the alpaca socks kept the feet cozy and comfy. When I sat, the alpaca socks didn’t sweat on me, even though Mom turned the heat up in the car and the tight foot space on the airplanes. When I walked through the terminals at O’Hare and Detroit, the socks heated up as I zipped between other travelers. The longer I walked, the warmer the socks felt. The socks felt like they warmed up in a way that’s akin to the SOCCKET, where the motion of the rolling ball is converted to a charge.

I don’t ever want to spend $28 on another pair of dress socks, but I will admit to her that she was right next time I’m in Oak Brook. For now, I alpaca these socks away — I’m so bad at puns — and whip them out for the frigid days of January and February, when New York and Boston are the worst to walk through.

The Pride Roars Into Boston

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Like an NHL playoff game, Boston and New York conduct a handshake line at the end of the game

The schedule for the National Hockey League’s Boston Bruins didn’t say so, but there was professional hockey in play at Beantown on Sunday. As expected, the home team wore black and yellow. As expected, the away team — from New York — donned red, white, and blue. Each team featured at least three players with international experience. It just so happened that all of the on-ice personnel, including the referees, were women.

Boston, welcome to a new chapter in your hockey legacy.

(Yes, this chapter has no checking and trapezoid, but who needs them when you have nameplates on the bottom of the jerseys?)

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The Sunday afternoon National Women’s Hockey League contest between the Boston Pride and New York Riveters at Harvard Bright-Landry Center checked off a variety of firsts. The NWHL, which launched its inaugural season in October, is the first professional women’s hockey league in America to pay its players. Five days before the game, the NWHL and New England Sports Network announced that NESN would televise the Pride’s nine regular season home games — the first broadcast deal struck for the fledgling league. The Sunday match-up marked the Pride’s first ever home game. The final buzzer marked the Riveters’ first ever away win, a 3-2 triumph over a besieging Pride.

Just 1:11 into the game, Brooke Ammerman opened the scoring and gave the Riveters the early 1-0 lead. The Riveters stunned the Pride a minute later when New York forced a defensive zone turnover, giving Madison Parker a breakaway that she took advantage of to put the Riveters up 2-0.

The Pride finally came to life in a power play midway through the first period, when co-captain/US Olympian Hilary Knight jammed the puck past Riveters goalie Nana Fujimoto to make it a 2-1 game. In a nod to its NHL counterpart, the goal horn for the Pride was identical to the horn that blares when the Bruins score in TD Garden. So the celebratory song that follows the horn should be Zombie Nation’s “Kernkraft 400,” right?

“doo doo doooo doo…”

Oh, hey there, “Chelsea Dagger!” When did the Blackhawks move into Cambridge? (Don’t worry. The audio guys restored “Kernkraft 400” when Boston tallied its second of the game.)

But barely 30 seconds later, Meghan Fardelmann took the wind out of most the crowd when she put the Riveters up 3-1. The row of Riveters fans behind me, die-hard fans of New York captain Ashley Johnston, were the only ones partying at that point.

After conceding the third goal, though, Boston took control of the game. The by-product of the no checking rule means the players have more opportunity to show off their speed, stickhandling skills, puck pickpocketing ability, and agility — skating seems to take on an escalated importance without that component of physicality. The Pride had it all on display as they pinned New York back in its own zone through the rest of the period. Boston would not get its reward until about a minute into the second period, when Amanda Pelkey converted another Pride power play to make it 3-2.

With the way Boston played after pulling within a goal of New York, it seemed inevitable that the Pride would tie it.

It never happened.

Boston’s potential tying goal with 4:47 left in the second period was overruled after Jordan Smelker was judged to have kicked the puck into the net. From that point on until the end of the game, regardless of whether play was 5v5 or they were on the power play, Boston outskated and outhustled New York to handcuff the Riveters in their own zone. The wall that was Fujimoto preserved the Riveters’ lead, though, through reflex saves, great positioning, and exceptional agility. Riveters Row behind me went through an unbearable number of emotional roller coasters between the great looks on net that Boston had and the variety of saves Fujimoto achieved to deny the Pride.

With 1:23 and one last “Let’s Go Pride!” led by youth hockey players in attendance, the Pride pulled the goalie for an attacking zone faceoff. As Riveters coach Chad Wiseman shouted to his team the remaining time on the clock, the flurry of pucks still couldn’t get past Fujimoto.

Just last week, the Riveters defeated the Pride 3-2 for New York’s first ever NWHL win on the back of Fujimoto’s 42 saves. On Sunday, Fujimoto stopped 41 shots — New York took only 14 shots — to claim another 3-2 win over Boston.

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The game was about so much more than the result, though.

The crowd contained the expected group of men and women wearing jerseys; the pleasant surprise was seeing the majority of men in the jerseys sporting NWHL team sweaters. The crowd also included seven girls youth hockey teams, all of them wearing their jerseys to the game. Five of the seven teams I counted got to step on the rink and high five each player on the Pride during the team introductions. The daughter of Pride coach Bobby Jay, herself a youth hockey player, had the honor of performing the ceremonial puck drop with Knight and Johnston. These girls are learning that the boys aren’t the only ones who have the opportunity to grow up and become a pro.

Also in the stands were boys in Bruins shirts and other hockey apparel in tow with their parents and sisters. These boys are learning that talent and skill transcends gender. They’ll be well-equipped sports fans when they reach adulthood.

The commissioner of the NWHL, Dani Rylan, was also present for the historic game. The former college hockey player-turned-coffee shop owner first conceived the idea after the women’s hockey Gold Medal match in the 2014 Olympics, which makes the birth of the league in 2015 all the more remarkable. As Rylan told Shape in an October interview:

“Watching that caliber of hockey and realizing that there wasn’t an opportunity like this for my friends, it seemed like a no-brainer,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it didn’t exist already.”

Although she is the commissioner and General Manager of the Riveters — surprises like this are why you buy and read a gameday program — Rylan watched the game like a candidate on the campaign trail: she eschewed the press box and roamed the stands while watching the game, chatting up anyone who recognized her and Riveters fans who made the trip up I-95. Before the match, I got to say “Hey, Commissioner” as she entered the arena; she also asked Riveter Row to pose for a picture and told an elderly man wearing a red Riveters cap that she liked his hat.

After the match, the tight-knit sense of community in the world of pro women’s hockey became apparent. Pride fans lined up around the concourse for a post-match autograph session; the tables were about level with the center dot, but the line in the concourse curved past one of the goal lines. Riveters fans spoke to each other and then to the coaches and players who made their way up to the concourse for some postgame mingling. The folks in Riveters Row behind me had their trip made when they snagged a good five minutes with their hero, Ashley Johnston.

Meanwhile, I approached Commissioner/GM Rylan (finally got all of her titles right the second time around after we formally introduced ourselves to each other) to congratulate her on the great product we just watched. Talent and tension make for exciting games and New York surviving the Boston barrage on Sunday checked off both boxes. The only thing that could make the product better is more people gradually catching on and embracing the NWHL as it grows into a sustainable league that hopefully spans the rest of the country and parts of Canada.