In terms of fitness, how old are you?

When guys at my athletic club ask me how old I am, I tend to joke that I’m 39 in basketball years. That subtracts almost 30 years from my chronological age. I’d rather they look at what they see on the court than filter their perception through some stereotype. I’m not eager to be told, as I was at 14, that I’m good – for my age.

Now I discover, thanks to an easy-to-take online test, that I’m not terribly far off the mark. I supposedly have the fitness of the average 47-year-old male. That seems pretty good, but I’m already wondering whether I can knock off a few more years.

The concept of fitness age has been developed by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, who have studied fitness and how it relates to wellness for years, according to an Oct. 15 New York Times article.

Fitness age is determined primarily by your VO2max, which is a measure of your body’s ability to take in and utilize oxygen. VO2max indicates your current cardiovascular endurance. If your VO2max is below average for your age group, then your fitness age is older than your actual age. But if you compare well, you can actually turn back the clock to a younger fitness age. The fitness test showed I have a VO2max of 45; the average 68-year-old male registers 37.

Precise measurement of aerobic capacity requires high-tech treadmill testing, the story said. To develop an easy method for estimating VO2max, the scientists recruited almost 5,000 Norwegians between the ages of 20 and 90, measured their aerobic capacity with treadmill testing and also checked a variety of health parameters, including waist circumference, heart rate and exercise habits. They then determined that those parameters could, if plugged into an algorithm, provide a very close approximation of someone’s VO2max.

Fitness age could be a solid predictor of longevity. The results of a recent Norwegian study showed that people whose calculated VO2max was 85 percent or more below the average for their age — meaning that their fitness age was significantly above their chronological years — had an 82 percent higher risk of dying prematurely than those whose fitness age was the same as or more youthful than their actual age. According to the study’s authors, the results suggest that fitness age may predict a person’s risk of early death better than some traditional risk factors like being overweight, having high cholesterol levels or blood pressure, and smoking.

Do I believe I have the fitness of the average 47-year-old guy? Yes, I do. In the age 40-and-over basketball games at my athletic club, I do well competing against physically active guys well below my age. I can keep my self-respect in the open-age B league at my club, and I have the good sense to steer clear of the high-testosterone A league.

Measuring myself against my peak basketball years, time has taken its toll. I weigh the same as I did as a high school senior, but I seem to have lost about 2 inches in height and  added 3 inches to my waistline. My strength, speed and jumping levels have diminished considerably. Competitors at the club would be shocked to learn that I, as a 6-foot-1-inch senior, could dunk a basketball – at least in warmups.

The fitness test gives me incentive to see if I can knock off a few pounds and reduce my waistline a bit. I doubt I’ll be growing any taller in this lifetime.

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Forget strong-mayor theory — follow the money

My fair-minded self suggests that I take the high road on Measure L, the plan to enhance the powers of the mayor of Sacramento. I should focus solely on whether a strong mayor is preferable to one who is first among equals on the City Council. I should not descend into the cesspool of conspiracy theories, power grabs and money-driven political manipulation.

“This decision should not be about Mayor Johnson,” a high-minded Sacramento Bee editorial said. “Whether you love him or hate him, Measure L will be good for Sacramento.”

Passage of the measure would make our city government more nimble and more accountable, the Bee says, and we would have this infusion of good government for the remainder of Johnson’s second term and all of a potential third term before voters decide in 2020 whether to make the changes permanent.

Alas, my more skeptical side has trouble getting past the image of Kevin Johnson as a power-grabbing politician eager to curry favor with the rich at the expense of the humble taxpayers of Sacramento. I say this in light of his manipulations that bestowed  $300 million or so on the already wealthy owners of the Kings, and the eagerness that moneyed guys like developer Angelo Tsakopoulos and Sacramento Republic FC lead investor Kevin Nagle have shown in giving $100,000 apiece to the Measure L campaign.

Perhaps the high-minded Bee’s editorial writers would say the two men are selfless advocates of improving city government. My skeptical side tells me a big developer and a guy hoping to land a Major League Soccer franchise might see their donations as a way of gaining easy access to a mayor with enhanced clout.

Nagle, who is a minority owner of the Sacramento Kings, has already seen the wonders Johnson can work in subsidizing a sports team and sidestepping a public vote on the issue. Might he think a strong mayor could twist arms to get a subsidy for a soccer stadium in downtown Sacramento? Is it a coincidence that a dozen Kings investors have signed on with Republic FC, according to the Bee?

I know – our good mayor in August said he didn’t have an appetite to provide tax dollars to build a soccer stadium and the Bee chimed in with a similar view because of the city’s heavy commitment to the new Kings arena.

But imagine this scenario: Republic FC, pumped up by its new Kings investors, is awarded an MLS franchise. The team says it needs the city’s help for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and insists the city will reap thousands of new jobs and a building boom at the old downtown railyard. Does anyone think the mayor and the newspaper would resist this siren song, or really want to?

Measure L isn’t about  theories of city government structure; it’s about the real world of local politics. Follow the money and see who benefits.

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Why getting the story right is important

“You guys are about to write a story that says the former attorney general, the highest-ranking law enforcement officer in this country, is a crook! Just be sure you’re right.”

That’s the stern warning Ben Bradlee, executive editor of the Washington Post, gives reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the film “All the President’s Men.” It conveys the high-stakes risk the newspaper is running in going after President Nixon and his staff during the Watergate investigation. It also underscores the bedrock principle of good journalism: Get the story right.

The 1976 film inspired a generation of budding journalists to scrutinize the actions of powerful politicians and secretive government agencies. In turn, this challenged newspaper editors, of whom there were plenty in this golden era, to be hyper-vigilant about nailing down the accuracy of risky stories. From the lead to the last graph, journalists were expected to get the story right or hold it until it was fit to print. Their credibility, as well as the newpaper’s, was at stake.

Having spent decades in this newspaper culture, I’m not an advocate of journalistic “truthiness” – that squishy pastiche of fact, rumor, gossip and innuendo. You know you’re in the twilight zone of “truthiness” when a movie or television show touts its tale as “based on true story” or “ripped from the headlines.”

Such is the case with the new film “Kill the Messenger.” The film depicts the late San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb as a dogged investigator who dared to link Nicaraguan drug dealers to the CIA-backed contra rebels fighting the left-leaning Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Webb, in his explosive three-part 1996 series titled “Dark Alliance,” takes his conspiracy theory further by linking a major Los Angeles cocaine dealer to drug cartels in Latin America.

Politicians exploited Webb’s story by twisting it into an accusation that the CIA  had fueled the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles and other major U.S. cities in a calculated effort to addict large segments of the black population.

Webb’s story drew fire, much of it from competing news organizations. Unfortunately for Webb, his critics found a lot of holes in his account. In 1997, the executive editor of the Mercury News saw fit to cast doubt on the accuracy of the series in a letter to readers. Webb’s career went downhill from there. He committed suicide in 2004 in Carmichael at age 49.

In the hands of the filmmakers, Webb is courageous loner who dared to investigate dangerous truths and paid a heavy penalty. Instead of getting support from other journalists, he was cut down by them out of jealousy or cowardice.    

Director Michael Cuesta told the Sacramento Bee: “A lot of the things he uncovered are true and real. (But) you can never indict the CIA. It is impossible. I think what’s really an injustice is how these newspapers attacked him the way they did.”

Actor Jeremy Renner, who plays Webb in the film, told the New York Times: “There were flaws in his writing and flaws in his life. But that doesn’t mean he was wrong, and it certainly doesn’t mean he deserved what he got.”

The unraveling of Webb’s life is a sad story, but good journalism is a tough, demanding business. You nail down the story so rats don’t escape through holes, and you protect yourself with the armor of complete accuracy.

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Finding Janis Joplin at the post office

janisI went to the post office yesterday afternoon to get some Forever stamps. I had been putting off the chore because I get irritable as soon as I approach a post office. This is a conditioned response to years of postal clerks moving in slow motion and invoking nitpicking rules regarding the kind of tape required to send a package through the U.S. mail.

One customer was at the counter. A girl about 4 stood behind her. Things were going slowly at the counter. Each time I thought the woman had wrapped up her business, she brought up something else. My eyes darted around the room looking for a mental escape. In my peripheral vision, I saw that a small person was staring at me. I looked away. I don’t like to engage with strange children. But the kid wouldn’t let up.

Finally, I looked down. The girl stared straight at me and made a silly face. When I didn’t respond in kind, she pulled the edges of her mouth as far as they would go. I mimicked her. She pulled up an eyelid. I pulled mine down. She frowned. I wiggled my nose. I thought that earn a laugh and end the game. The kid just stared at me before blowing out her cheeks. She was a competitor. I grimaced and declared a draw by looking away.

By this time, a second clerk had ambled over to the counter. He was a paunchy guy who looked in his 50s. I said I wanted some Forever stamps. He produced a sheet of Christmas stamps and ones with a geometric pattern. I asked if he had any others.

“There’s not much,” he said, rummaging through a drawer. He put a sheet on the counter.

As soon as I saw the stamp, I felt a lump in my throat. There was Janis Joplin, with round pink sunglasses and a terrific smile. She was the heartbreak kid who could flash the greatest smile in the world. Back in the late ‘60s, this rebel from Port Arthur, Texas, cut to the heart with her bluesy-rock raspy voice. She was the “queen of psychedelic rock” and a fragile flower. She seemed the embodiment of Bob Dylan’s line from his song “Just Like a Woman”

She takes just like a woman, yes she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes she does
And she aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl.

To me, Janis Joplin was an inspiring figure who had thrown off the shackles of her conservative Texas upbringing and cut a new figure of womanhood in a society that wasn’t quite ready for her. Her death at age 27 of a heroin overdose in 1970 marked the end of the ‘60s as surely as the deadly concert at Altamont, the killings at Kent State and the doomed war in Vietnam.

 What in god’s name was Janis doing on a Forever postal stamp? Wasn’t that for long dead establishment types? Janis was the heart of the counterculture, the soul of the ‘60s rebellion. She didn’t live long enough to sell out. She sang hard and died young. It seems like yesterday.

 The aging baby boomer clerk was indifferent to the stamp. Was he so uncool that he didn’t know who she was, what she had meant to a generation? Later, at my athletic club, I ran into my pal Ken, who is about my age, and mentioned the stamp. “My wife was from Port Arthur,” he said.

 Thank god. I didn’t have to explain anything. He knew the story, the biographical details, the shared history.

 At the desk, I asked the young woman if she knew who Janis Joplin was. Her guess was about 40 years off.  “I’m sorry,” she said.

 “No problem,” I said.  “No reason you should.”

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Going back to the park isn’t going home


Instead of having a bone-crunching pole going straight up behind the backboard, the new baskets at Breininger Park are user friendly.

“The Long Way Home” is a song on Rosanne Cash’s new album titled “The River and the Thread,” which explores her Southern musical roots. She referred to the song with wry humor at a concert Friday in Folsom. The daughter of country icon Johnny Cash and his first wife, Vivian Liberto, has detoured widely in her career from the music that made her father famous. This one-time country girl has been living in New York City for years.

The song title struck a chord with me, given that I’ve just returned from a trip to New York, one in which I revisited my family home in Queens and the nearby playground that was home away from home. I didn’t stay long. I felt uncomfortably disconnected from both places, which I had last seen about 15 years ago.

The old house on the corner, which in my mind is covered in red-brick shingles, has been painted a grayish-white, and a 6-foot-high fence blocks off what had been my father’s extensive rose garden. I didn’t recognize the house when I drove past it and only got my bearings when I parked in front of Braddock Park, now named Breininger Park.

Right off, I noticed that the basketball courts had been relocated close to the single-wall handball courts. What had been an asphalt softball and stickball field was now just an undulating expanse of asphalt. The green benches that had divided the field from the courts, benches on which generations of teenagers had learned the real facts of life, had been taken out.

 The soul of the park I knew was gone, as was Leo’s candy store across Braddock Avenue.  Cigar-smoking Leo dispensed world-weary cynicism along with chocolate egg creams and sent me down to the supermarket to buy cartons of cigarettes. He made a minuscule profit by selling individual packs. He was in that store from early morning to dark.

Close to Leo’s boarded-up candy store was a storefront sign announcing that an Indian restaurant would be opening soon. The Irish and Italians of yesterday have made way for more Indians and blacks. But the feel of the neighborhood seems familiar. The single-family homes with small front lawns are kept up. The streets, under a canopy of trees, are clean. Our Lady of Lourdes grammar school and church still serve the neighborhood.

I didn’t feel any nostalgia, any sense of continuity in being back where I had come from. Instead, I felt cut off from my past. Too much had changed.  I had felt far more comfortable watching a short documentary called “The Braddock Boys.” It brings together a bunch of the guys who had made the park their home in the 1950s. For the most part, these were the “big guys” of my youth, the guys I looked up to and who had taken a friendly interest in my development as an athlete. I could relate to their stories. I shared their sense of community. I understood the values of these athletic, street-smart guys.

Rosanne Cash describes her new album, which draws from country, blues, gospel and rock, as a way of connecting her own story to the musical history of the South, which also deeply influenced the music of her father. “This is part of the geography, both emotional and physical,” she said.

Braddock Park is certainly part of my geography, but these days it seems like a place growing ever more distant and harder to find.


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