Throwback Thursday: Where My Swimming Career Began

My introduction to swimming pools began a long time ago in Reading, PA. My brother and sister and I grew up in a row home with a very small backyard, but it was big enough to accommodate an inflatable pool. My Nana, who lived just a few houses down the street from us, also had a blow-up pool. We eventually graduated to the real thing, as the East Reading Swimming Association featured an outdoor pool that was only a few blocks from our house. Neighborhood kids loved it, even though it was an odd size for racing (33-1/3 yards instead of 25 or 50 yards/meters). The faded color of these Kodak snaps shows how long ago they were taken.

L to R: Me, my mom (with her beehive hairdo), my younger sister Ronni, and my older brother Bobby. (Presumably that’s my dad’s finger on the far right.) Bob and I are preparing our containers to squirt our sister.
Me going solo in the inflatable pool at my Nana’s house. Apparently, we had a cookout that day. And, apparently, I was up to something sinister, as indicated by my tongue sticking out.
My first time off the 1-meter diving board at the East Reading pool. The following year I tackled the 3-meter board behind me.

Throwback Thursday: A Good Day at the Pool

Athletes know “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” as Jim McKay put it, and usually there’s more defeat than victory over the course of one’s career. So, here’s a page of thrill from my high school scrapbook. Manheim always gave us fits in the pool (as did Wilson, Governor Mifflin, and Hempfield), but I remember one special meet where we all came together and swam well as a team against the Blue Streaks.

What made this particular meet gratifying was that some of us swam events outside our speciality, which helped us patch together a surprise victory over our division rivals. Additional wins over the other contenders catapulted the Red Knights to a league championship that year, with many of us qualifying for states. It was a good season of hard work and personal bests.

In the “agony” department, I’ve already posted about breaking my arm at a the end of a 50-yard sprint in college. I could also post about various false starts, disqualifications, and losses over the years, along with that time I broke my toe during a swim meet at Lasalle, or got a black-and-blue eye during a water polo game at Lower Moreland. But we’ll just go with the thrill of victory today. This clipping from the Reading Eagle newspaper tells the story.

Throwback Thursday: My First Concert with ‘The Piano Man’

The very first concert I ever attended was Billy Joel at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. I don’t remember the exact year, but it was probably somewhere between his albums The Stranger and Glass Houses. A bunch of us Reading High swimmers drove together in an old beater and had a blast. The Spectrum is no longer there, but Joel is still going strong—at least on the concert circuit. (He hasn’t produced a studio album in over 20 years.) I have trouble picking a favorite song because the repertoire is so vast. 

Beautiful ballads include “She’s Got a Way,” “This Is the Time,” and “C’était Toi (You Were the One),” which I adored, in part because I was learning French when it came out. “Just the Way You Are” was always popular, but it’s a bit too lounge-lizardy for my taste. “Honesty” is lovely, and “She’s Always a Woman to Me” is hauntingly tender, even if somewhat wretched in verbo. “She’s Right on Time,” on the other hand, is evocative and hopeful.

Up-tempo favorites include “Uptown Girl,” “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” and “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me.” There’s plenty of crudeness across his collection (e.g., “Only the Good Die Young,” “Captain Jack,” etc.), but there’s much raw talent, energy, and passion, too. In many ways, his work is the musical embodiment of the human story—broken, beautiful, and always looking for the right chord. 

Joel is best known for his songs “Piano Man” and “The Entertainer,” which is fitting because that’s exactly what he is—a piano man and an entertainer. In fact, I’ve always found his piano instrumental “Root Beer Rag” to be one his most entertaining pieces, though it never received the accolades it should have.

Enjoy a few Billy Joel songs, which always throw me back to the soundtrack of my earlier life.

Root Beer Rag

Not bad compared to the studio version:

She’s Got a Way

Piano Man

Image Credits: vulture.com; steinway.com.

Throwback Thursday: Those Miserable Training Trips

As members of the WVU swim team, we would sacrifice our Christmas vacation to go on a 2-week training trip someplace on the globe that was warm and sunny. During my years in college, that included St. Croix (U.S. Virgin Islands) and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Those trips were like “boot camps for swimmers,” with every day featuring triple sessions. The first session was an early morning swim practice lasting two hours. The second involved weight training, calisthenics, plyometrics, and/or runs on the beach for about 90 minutes. The third was an evening swim practice lasting two more hours. 

On Christmas Day they lightened up on us, mandating just one two-hour practice in the morning; then they gave us the rest of the day off. (Thanks for that.) I remember how dreadful and depressing it was to have to practice on Christmas morning!

Below are some snaps from the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Center. Once a week all the teams who had gathered to train swarmed the pool for what they called “Fifty 50s.” It was only a 2500m parctice, but the lanes were crowded, and there wasn’t much time between sprints. Finding a place to dive safely was a challenge. The whole thing was exhausting and annoying, even for this sprinter.

Between sessions we hit the beach or went out on the town, and after the 14 days of agony, we enjoyed a trip to Disney World. The rest of the time we ate or slept.

The dreaded Fifty 50s practice session. That’s me under the red arrow looking for a safe place to dive for the next interval.
C’est moi in the lower left getting ready for another workout. I have no idea why I’m smirking.
The International Hall of Fame Aquatic Center in Fort Lauderdale, a place of memories and miseries for NCAA Division-1 athletes.

Throwback Thursday: My Earliest Pictures

My apologies for the fading, but these photos go all the way back. They are, in fact, the first pictures ever taken of me as a newly minted Valentino. I’m not aware of any photos that were taken prior to #1 and #2 below.

1. This picture is the first day in my new home. I was thirteen months old at the time, and fresh out of foster care. The blond curls have since given way to brown waves.

2. Jumping on the bed is a skill every little boy should master. Apparently I’m not too upset here that my new parents were acquiring photographic evidence of my crime. Maybe I’m accusing them of fake news.

3. Eight months later I had my first Christmas in the Valentino home. I adored my Nana (mom’s mom), who lived just four houses down the street from us. That allowed for many visits and lots of love shared between us.

4. I’m shown here with my older brother, Bob, who passed away far too young in 2004. Note the aluminum Christmas tree and color wheel in the background that I’ve written about recently on TNL. I seem more eager to open gifts than my brother.

The Broken Mug I Refuse to Get Rid Of

Like many other people, I have a morning routine that includes coffee. Two cups at least. And most of the time, I drink Eight O’clock Dark Italian Roast with one cream and one Splenda. (Take my man card if you must, but that’s how I like it.) I drink other kinds from time to time, but the darker roasts and Columbian roasts are my favorites.

Often when I have my first cup, I think about and pray for the person who gave me the mug I’m using that morning. I have quite a collection, and as I drag myself to the place where I do my devotions, I pray God’s blessings over that person.

One of my all-time favorites is a light blue ceramic mug featuring a bleary-eyed Mickey Mouse on the front, and a printed message on the back, which says, “Some mornings are ROUGH!” 

Mickey is right. Some mornings are rough, but coffee makes them tolerable. In any event, I treasure this mug because my son got it for me during his first-ever Christmas away from home. He was in college, and he did an internship at Disney World one year during the holiday break. That was emotionally challenging for us—not to have our son home for Christmas. 

We got to Skype with him that year, and for that we were grateful, but it wasn’t the same as having him here with us. (One cannot hug pixels on an iPad.) When he returned from Florida, the Mickey mug was one of the gifts he gave me for Christmas. So, it’s special to me because it’s connected to a precious memory—an expression of a son’s love for his father. 

Unfortunately, the handle broke off a few years ago. No one knows exactly how or why it happened, and it was quite upsetting when it did. “Not the Mickey mug!” I still have it today, and it looks like this:

My special mug without its handle. It’s now defective—less than what it had been when I first received it. But I still treasure it. It’s still special to me and always will be. The mug is broken but loved.

What an apt metaphor for people made in the image of God. After all, how much more valuable is a person than a mug! We’re spiritually broken but still loved by God. 

I won’t ever get rid of my Mickey mug, even though it’s defective. Likewise, God won’t get rid of us—even if we’re broken in some way. We’re the reason Christmas happened in the first place.

So, drink up. And thank God for his caffeinated grace.

Thank you, Lord, for your steadfast, committed love toward us, even though we’re flawed and fallen human beings. You don’t get rid of us even when we’re broken. Help me to be patient and gracious toward others who are likewise broken. Amen.

Holiday Thoughts on the Pain and Privilege of Fatherhood

“Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1, KJV)


After the birth of my son, Andrew, I understood a little better why God wanted to be a Father. The same thought washed over me after the birth of my daughter two years later. (Her first act on the planet was to pee on the doctor. After I got his bill, I was glad she did.) I embarrassed both my kids last week with some incriminating kiddie pics. They took it well.

Tonight is movie night with Andrew. Last night was daddy-daughter date night with Bethany. We had a blast together, and we were texting today about what a wonderful time we had. I love lavishing them both with affection, encouragement, and good times. They even let me theologize once in a while. They’re the ones God gave me to care for, and it’s a joy for me to do so, not a burden.

The opera fudge bomb Bethany and I got last night at Trattoria Fratelli. My head is still buzzing today.

Yes, there were a few rough spots during the teen years, but I can honestly say today, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 1:4). My kids’ interests, personalities, and love languages couldn’t be more different, but the delight they bring me is the same.

Additionally, my son-in-law Micah is no less a son to me than Andrew. He’s an incredible young man, too, and an answer to prayer. He’s been grafted into our hearts as well as into our family. When the kids have a joy, I have a joy. When the kids have a hurt, I have a hurt.

That’s why I’ve been grieving from a distance the death of Tim Challies’ son, Nick. Tim is an uber-blogger whom I read regularly, and I’ve shed some tears for the tragedy that has recently befallen his family. His young son passed away unexpectedly while attending my alma matter, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

I’ve never met Tim, but he serves the church well with his daily aggregations and reflections. I’m grateful to the Lord for him and his ministry. He has recently born witness to the power of God’s sustaining grace during this time, but oh what hard road for him to walk as a father. His persevering faith testifies to the reality of God. Many others have walked a similar path, but every step is agonizing. God the Father walked this path, too.

In a previous post, I wrote about “Three Songs to Sing When Christmas Comes in a Minor Key.” Another song to add could be Charles Wesley’s “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” probably the “meatiest” carol we have, theologically speaking, and it includes these hopeful lines:

Born to raise the sons of earth.
Born to give them second birth.

Next December, Lord willing, I’ll write about how my mother passed away in the hospital while we were singing her favorite Christmas carol, “O Holy Night.” All her equipment flatlined just as we were singing, “O hear the angel voices.” And then she did—she heard the angel voices in her new heavenly home. 

But we’ve had enough heaviness this year, so I’ll save that story for some other time. For now, let’s just settle into the reality of the Father’s love for us—fully revealed in Jesus Christ, the one who was:

Born that man no more may die.

The Father loves us a whole lot more than I love my own kids. And that’s a lot.

The family room tree is finally complete.

Image Credit: shutterstock.com.

Throwback Thursday: The Water Polo Kid

I once told a student that most high schools don’t offer water polo as a sport because it’s too hard to get the horses out of the pool. When she said, “Really?” I replied, “Yes, and did you know the word ‘gullible’ isn’t in the dictionary?” She wasn’t too happy with me.

Her confusion was understandable, though, as water polo is largely unknown, despite the fact that it’s an Olympic sport. I can tell you firsthand, it’s exhausting. Players are constantly in motion, and you’re not allowed to touch the bottom of the pool, even if it’s shallow enough to do so. Fatigue sets in quickly. That’s why substitutions are made throughout the game, much like the line changes in hockey.

It’s a brutal sport, too. A lot happens under the water that the refs never see. That’s why you’re required to wear two swim suits and trim your nails for inspection before every match. It can get rough out there. I once took a shot during a co-ed league game and broke a girl’s nose doing it.

That’s not happening in the picture below. I’m only in 7th grade there and hadn’t hit my growth spurt yet. I wasn’t able to break anything with those arms, let alone somebody’s nose! Water polo was a great run-up to the swim season, so it helped keep us in shape. 

A Holly Jolly Family Night

The family gathered last night to celebrate the birthday girl, and also to decorate the family Christmas tree in the newly renovated living room. (We don’t even have curtains yet!) This is the tree that gets the homemade ornaments and various other decorations that represent our interests or were given to us over the years, each bearing some special significance to us. I then fell asleep during the movie. Ooops! Too much grub at Longhorn’s, I guess! Hopefully, the “Hallmark” tree in the family room will be finished later this weekend.

The “family ornaments” Christmas tree.
First fire in the new fireplace.
An ornament I made in elementary school.
Placed on the bottom branch because the Phillies are usually at the bottom of the standings.
The goggles look more like sunglasses. And I’m breathing to the left, which my coach wouldn’t like.
An ornament made for me by a cousin who lives in Connecticut.

Image Credit: istockphoto.com.

One Less Hole in My Head

Tooth #5, which has been M.I.A. since I cracked it last spring in Oxford, has finally been replaced. The journey has taken a lot longer than normal because of the virus. Despite all the delays, my dentist has done a great job with the repair work. He’s been a real pro, and I appreciate his many efforts on my behalf.

Things feel a little snug inside my mouth right now, like when I first got my retainer in the fifth grade, but I’m told that that’s normal and won’t last long. I even have a hint of a lisp right now, which I’m assured will go away in a few days, too. Supposedly it’s a short adjustment period for a procedure like this.

One thing I didn’t know about dental implants is that the “filler” used to impact the stem is made from cadaver bone. One technician told me it can come from people all over the world, and that I might have someone from Australia or Finland or Spain inside my mouth right now. I asked her if that could change my accent. 

Actually, this procedure has led to dozens of jokes along the way, and we’ve all gotten a few laughs out of them.

Implants involve threaded screws, so there’s the whole “screws loose” line.

The crown is made of zirconia, so there’s the whole “fake diamond in my head” routine.

Lately I’ve been singing “All I Want for Christmas” along with Alvin and the Chipmunks, which refers to missing teeth.

And then, of course, there’s the “I got implants” riff. (That was even funnier back when I had tubes put in my ears. Those are made of silicone.) 

But my favorite was the hole-in-the-head bit. I’m glad that today I finally have one less in my own.

Image Credit: omegadentists.com; centurydental.ca.

Alvin! Alvin! Alvin!

We put up the remaining Christmas trees tonight, cheered on by the holiday music of Alvin and the Chipmunks, another family tradition from my childhood. The group comprises three anthropomorphic rodents named Alvin, Simon, and Theodore, courtesy of David Seville. It’s all very silly but part of my past, so it brought some smiles.

Two trees are now completely decorated—the green one in my mother-in-law’s addition (a.k.a., the Granny Flat) and the aluminum tree in our bedroom, described in a previous post. The two remaining trees—one in the living room and one in the family room—will be completed later this week, along with the rest of the inside and outside decorations.

Undecorated Christmas tree in the living room, with room on the mantle and bookshelves for seasonal decorations. It was nice of the chairs to share their space.
Undecorated Christmas tree in the family room. It was nice of these chairs to share their space, too. (Sorry about the glare. Better lighted pictures coming soon.)

So, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas—truly the most wonderful time of the year. And to top it off, Alvin has now given way to Britney Spears’ “My Only Wish (This Year)” on the Music Choice Channel in the background. After choking back tears all morning during worship, it’s nice to end the day with a bit of lightheartedness. Besides, tomorrow is dissertation day, on top of a whole lot of grading as the semester winds down.

Christmas candle flower arrangement in the family room.

Image Credit: famouscelebirites.fandom.com.

Getting Our Gleam On

Here in the Valentino home, we usually put up three Christmas trees every year. The first one goes in the the family room, and it has a formal look. It’s a 7.5-ft. green tree with white steady lights, red and gold ball ornaments, pine/pinecone/berry decorations, and a string of gold beads. When finished, it looks like something that might win a bronze medal in a Better Homes & Gardens magazine contest.

The second one goes in the the living room, and it has a homey look. It’s a 7-ft. green tree with multi-colored blinking lights, garland, and a variety of ornaments. Many are homemade or were hand-crafted by the kids, but all have some sort of special significance to the family. This tree is always cute and charming, but it probably wouldn’t make it into anybody’s magazine.

The third one goes in our bedroom, and it has a space-age look. It’s a 6-foot aluminum tree with a glittery gold rotating base, a rotating color wheel with four lenses, and a slew of vintage Shiny-Brite ornaments from the mid 20th century. In one sense, it’s a bit gaudy, but in another sense, it’s personally magical because it represents my entire childhood in a single decoration. Yes, this is the Christmas tree my parents had when I was growing up in Reading, Pennsylvania. If it ever made its way into a magazine, it would probably be one published by NASA.

Evergleam aluminum Christmas trees, which were originally produced in Manitowoc, Wisconson, were all the rage beginning in the early 1960s and beyond. Today, they’re seeing a rise in popularity. There’s even an aluminum tree exhibit at the Wisconsin Historical Museum. They’re also hot on eBay every year with certain models selling for well over $1,000.

The Evergleam Christmas tree display at the Wisconsin Historical Museum.
Museum display showing our model. We still have this exact box to store our branches.

This year we put up our aluminum tree right after Thanksgiving dinner as “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” was playing in the background. We removed the curtains and placed it in the corner of the bedroom so people outside could see it from two different directions. (The other two tress will go up in the coming week or so. More pictures forthcoming.)

Everything in our setup is original except the color wheel and approximately one third of the vintage ornaments. We had to replace those items because of normal wear-and-tear, along with the fragility that comes with age. But all are exact replicas. I was especially determined to match the color wheel because it fascinated me when I was a boy. I found an exact duplicate on eBay about ten years ago, and I refused to be outbid for it.

The Valentino Evergleam in all its glory.
The magical rotating base.

I haven’t been able to find an exact match for the rotating base yet. Hopefully, that won’t be necessary, as mine still works fairly well, but it’s quite old, and I keep waiting for it to conk out. I’m not sure how much longer it can last. The tree trunk is also a bit rickety, and it lists a few degrees off plumb whenever it wants to. The silver paper wrapping around the trunk is also peeling off at places.

The family always lets me place the first ornament, which we call the “Bethlehem ball.” It’s a white glitter/aqua-blue scene of the Magi following the star to go see Jesus, painted onto a shiny silver surface. It was my brother’s favorite. He died in 2004, so we hang it in his memory, as well as my parents’. We store it in a special container during the year so it preserves well.

The Bethlehem ball, a family favorite that gets stored separately in a special container.

Christmas, of course, is the commemoration of God coming to earth 2,000 years ago in the person of Jesus Christ. God sent his one and only Son—the very best he had to give—in order to redeem us and make us his own. That’s how valuable we are to him. He, too, refused to be outbid.

Image Credits: wuwm.com; pixhome.blogspot.com.

Throwback Thursday: Is That Really Me? (Part 4)

All are invited to have a chuckle at my expense (for the fourth week in a row). This shot is from my sophomore year at West Virginia University. At a meet in Ohio at the end of the season, I swam 51 yards in a 50-yard race. Actually, I lunged at the wall as we always do to finish off a sprint, and I hyperextended my right arm. The timers had to pull me out of the water because I couldn’t get out myself. It was a little bit of embarrassment on top of a whole lot of pain. 

Fortunately, we were close to the Cleveland Clinic, which had a top-tier sports health center for which they were well known. They casted me up quickly, gave me some good pain meds, and minimized any damage to the ulnar nerve. My arm was numb, and I was out of commission for a few weeks. So much for swimming not being a contact sport.

Getting Things Done: Some of My Favorite Tools

All writers, researchers, educators, bloggers, and podcasters need to have good tools for the digital journey. (The “J” in my INTJ combo means that I really need to have some good tools in my belt—especially those of the organizing variety!) I’m exceedingly grateful that I do have a collection of wonderful resources to help me get things done. Below is a list some of my favorites.

The newest addition is an electronic adjustable standing desk for my home office. I love its flexibility and durability. Here’s a picture of it before I tucked the wires.

My only irritation with the setup is a literal irritation in my eyeballs. The amount of time I spend on Zoom these days (because of COVID-19) makes my eyes tired and bleary by the end of the day. So far, no headaches, but I do need to consult with my eye doctor about possible solutions. Can you tell I’ve “had it” here in this Zoom capture at my work office?

I need to stop wincing. It makes me look like I have wrinkles. 🙂 Anyway, here’s the list. Asterisks indicate my favorite productivity sites and apps. Feedly gets two asterisks because it’s beyond awesome. (No, they didn’t pay me to say that!)

Hardware

  • Apple MacBook Pro 16” (2019)
  • Apple MacBook Pro 15” (2015)
  • Apple Thunderbolt Display 27”
  • Apple Extended Bluetooth Keyboard
  • iPad Pro (2018) with Detachable Keyboard
  • HP OfficeJet 8740 Printer, Scanner, Copier, Fax
  • iPhone 7

Home Workstation

  • L-Shaped Ikea Desk Area
  • Electronic Adjustable Standing Desk
  • Lume Light Cubes
  • Sony Bluetooth Headphones

Office Workstation

  • Large Desk & Credenza
  • Personal Library Shelves
  • Brother HL-3070CW Laser Printer
  • Internet-Wifi Hub

Software Suites

  • MS Office (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, OneNote, 365)
  • Apple (Mail, Calendar, Contacts, Notes, Reminders, Messages, FaceTime, iCloud)

Software

  • Safari (Browser)
  • Chrome (Backup Browser)
  • Start.me (Start Page and Bookmark Library) *
  • Feedly (RSS Feed Reading and Tagging) * *
  • WordPress (Personal Website and Blogging) *
  • Pocket (Webpage Storage and Tagging) *
  • WavePad (Audio Editing)
  • Moneydance (Personal Finances)
  • Logos Bibe Software (Biblical-Theological Studies) *
  • Canvas (Educational Learning Platform)
  • Zoom (Teleconferencing)

Streaming

  • Netflix
  • Amazon Prime
  • Roku

Music, Radio, Podcasts

  • iTunes 
  • Spotify
  • iHeart Radio
  • Downcast
  • YouTube

Health & Fitness

  • FitBit Versa 2

What are some of your favorite tools? 

After the dissertation, the plan is to renovate the basement and turn it into a sizable home library, research center, and podcast studio.

Image Credit: challies.com.

Throwback Thursday: Is That Really Me? (Part 3)

All are invited to have a chuckle at my expense (for the third week in a row). This is my freshman year as a Reading High Red Knight, making me 14 or 15 years old at the time. Notice I’m breathing to the left in the top picture. In the bottom picture I’m just catching my breath after the race. I’m loving those twig-size arms. And the bug-eyed goggles. 🙂