Great X-pectations
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

A writer sits around wishing he were in San Diego covering the Super Bowl. He dreams of fish tacos at the Brigantine on Coronado Island. He holds a poorly-blended, but very strong margarita with one hand, and a sea shell to his ear with the other. An oscillating box fan whirs steadily in the window, and he paces, trying to tell himself it's just like walking on the beach.

The phone rings -- it's his editor.

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The editor says: "We're sending you to the Winter X Games in Aspen."

A silly, that'll-do smile creeps across the writer's face. The shell drops to the floor.

"We need you to do a preview thing first," the editor says. "An expectations thing. So, what do you expect to see?"

"I've never been," the writer says, turning the fan off, still smiling, and now rummaging through the dresser drawer for a warm pair of socks.

"What I know about the Winter X Games fits in a tiny little box on a very high shelf. I know Malcolm X, I know Racer X, I know X marks the spot -- Winter X is a bit of a mystery."

X Games
If you're new to this, look up. Chances are someone is hovering above you.
The editor says that's the idea. Fresh takes. New blood. A stranger-in-a-strange-land kind of thing.

"Just start with what you imagine," he says.

Fair enough, the writer thinks. I'm in a cramped, cluttered office with a view of the sanitation department across the street and the noise of the highway pouring in my window. Shouldn't be hard to let my mind wander.

So here's what I anticipate:

To begin with, everything. (Sorry, just saw "Almost Famous" for about the sixth time.)

Hard edges; the kind that look purposeful and lyrical when they're being cut, and look random and untraceable after-the-fact -- like each run literally came out of nowhere.

Gasping, or making another equally awkward, breathless sound, while some 17-year-old kid spins in the air over my head.

Hot tubs. Plural. Come to think of it, they're my imaginary X Games, so I'll go a little further and say: Hot tubs, plural, and every blessed one of them equipped with a floating wet bar.

Sunglasses on every face, regardless of the time of day or the look of the sky.

X Games
Watch our for falling skiers.
The kind of steely-eyed intensity in the faces of the competitors you see on the faces of relief pitchers and middle linebackers.

The kind of philosophical cool and laid-back goodwill for the other guy you almost never get out of relief pitchers or middle linebackers.

Missing something that happened too fast.

A cutting culture, like the one breakdancers, rappers and saxophone bad-asses thrive, or used to thrive, in. Guys pushing each other to try some new thing, to add a wrinkle. Girls saying I see you and raise you with their mouths shut and their feet flying skyward.

Being blown away by some wild, utterly impossible challenge to the laws of physics, only to turn to the hard-core fan standing next to me and have him tell me it was no big deal, it was new about two years ago and now everybody does it, and being blown away by it nevertheless.

Counting, as the young King Henry had it in Henry V, "my manhood cheap" in the face of the fearless tricks the competitors try, and pull off.

Sensing that the gap (which often seems so wide in other sports) between what men can do and women can do, is small and, in the end, just not all that interesting here.

Accidentally saying "bitchin' " or "rad," or some such arcane thing, and knowing, even before it's out of my mouth that the kids are on to me and they're planning some kind of wicked Logan's Run ceremony for me and my kind after the day's events.

Just for kicks, saying to everyone I meet, "Have you seen Bode? Is Bode here?" (I know, I know, he's the other kind of winter sport-guy. I just like saying "Bode.")

Needing to access one of the venues by snowshoe. (This one is more of a hope, really.)

A certain slightly dangerous edge coming into my wife's voice with each passing day that I am at the X Games in Aspen, Colo., while she is not. (This one has begun already, so it's more of a rapidly evolving dread than something I anticipate.)

Big crowds, and being the squarest guy in them. By a long shot.

Lookers, nothing but lookers. Everywhere you look: lookers.

A sense that snow and the soil under it aren't solids but gases, things to be slipped and glided through.

A sense that air isn't a gas, but a solid thing to be pushed off of, ridden, and banked.

The word "air" -- big air, major air, serious air, etc. -- popping up in my vocabulary with great frequency after I get back home, and a certain slightly dangerous look flaring up in my wife's eyes each time I use it (and in so doing, remind her that I was at the X Games in Aspen, Colo., and she was not).

Doing the Dew. (Do we still do the Dew? Have we done the Dew to death?)

Missing a deadline -- the hot tub felt oh so nice, and I swear I had this feeling that if I just sat there another minute, the piece would begin to crystallize in my brain; it would crystallize like no piece has ever crystallized for me before, like no piece has ever crystallized in any brain at any time throughout history.

Stuck landings that would make Keri Strugg jealous.

Grabs. (Stole this off

Rails. (This one, too.)

A nicotine-whispered conversation with a guy in an Aspen watering hole claiming to have been Evel Knievel's monkey-wrench man back in the '70s. Evel was a bad mother, he tells me, but these moto-X cats, they're in a whole other league. Badder than Evel, I say? Two words, he says: "ice landing." To more words, he says: "stoke factor."

Style. In the air, in the wardrobe, and on the tongue. I understand it's a little thing the kids and the judges like to call "overall impression."

A little funk, which is like style, only nastier and, you know, tastier.

Somebody's gonna get hurt -- somebody has to get hurt, right? -- and somebody's gonna play hurt, too, and I'm gonna make like a poor man's Jim McKay and write up a little something about the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and the human drama of athletic competition.

And one evening, just moments before sundown, I anticipate a long, eager band of light is going to land squarely on a falling snowflake. I'll have just turned my head and I'll spy it out of the corner of my eye. And the way it hovers and gleams will bring a quiet sort of piece over me, will answer a question I've carried in my soul for far, far too long now: Where do I belong, I'll ask for the umpteenth time. Here, right here, it will say.

And if this -- if any of this -- is only half-true (heck, if it has even a shred of truth in it), a writer could find it easy to forget fish tacos, the drink, the shell, the beach. And maybe the Super Bowl, too.

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.



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