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Urban Studies

Teach a man to fish, and pretty soon he’ll want to learn how to climb mountains, swing a bat, paddle a kayak, and tee off like Tiger Woods. at least, that’s what happened when we dispatched our intrepid reporter to test his athletic abilities—and all within the city limits.

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Hang Time: Climbing instructor Ivan Green at Chelsea Piers. "Climbing's not a wuss sport," he says.  

I started off with rock climbing . . .
“It’s like being a kid, climbing a tree,” says Ivan Green. I am following Ivan with profound trepidation through the Chelsea Piers Sports Center, bound for the rock-climbing wall. The sheer, vertical 60-foot-high-by-200-foot-wide color-spattered slab of fiberglass and plastic is hard to miss—it’s conveniently located next to the Sports Medicine Center. Marching toward it, we pass some basketball courts and an indoor track, and I find myself thinking wistfully: Running, basketball . . . such satisfying sports. So . . . horizontal.

We bump into a few of Ivan’s colleagues.

“He’s gonna use ropes?” one asks, glancing at me.

“Nah,” replies the other. “He signed the waiver.”

Climbing humor.

Ivan, a compact, wiry climber with thirteen years’ experience, gets me a pair of purple, sticky-soled climbing shoes and then buckles and ties me into a harness. He attaches the other end of the rope to a harness around his own waist, having passed it through carabiners that run up to the ceiling and act as a pulley. “Don’t pull yourself up—it’s like climbing a ladder,” he says. “Relax, try to stay on your toes, and try to stay away from the wall. I’m your best friend in the world right now.”

This first time, I’m allowed to use any of the colored holds and any part of the modulated surface of the wall itself. It’s shocking to look down after barely half a minute and see how high up I am.

“Keep moving!” yells my new best friend, belaying some twenty feet below.

I make it all the way up—about 45 feet in this section of the wall—without much trouble. Now I have to get down.

“Let go.” Ivan’s voice comes from far below.

“Completely? My arms?”

“Just let go.”

For some reason—not wanting to spend the night up there?—I let go. Ivan holds the rope taut and I dangle in midair. Then, following his instructions, I place my arms on the harness knot in front of me, position my legs perpendicular to the wall, and “walk” down backwards.

For my second climb, I use only yellow holds: smaller, harder to grasp, farther apart. Halfway up, I’m struggling. My leg and arm muscles feel shot as I strain for holds that are increasingly out of reach. Ivan urges me on. To keep my hands dry, I revisit a pouch of chalk attached to my waist. But a few feet from the top, I know I’m doomed. After a desperate upward lunge, I “fall.”

“Chill for a minute,” Ivan calls up, pulling down hard. I hang suspended, disappointed but relieved to be at rest, albeit at the end of a rope some five stories above the floor. A few more futile attempts at the elusive upper yellows and I’m given permission to use one felicitously placed red hold, and that makes the difference. I hit the top, and scoot down in reverse.

“Spaghetti arms,” observes Ivan. “You’re not gonna be able to move tomorrow. But you were pretty focused on what you were doing. You were probably not up there thinking about your accountant.”

Correct: It was my orthopedist I was thinking about.

“Once you’ve gotten this,” continues Ivan, “you can take it to the next level and go outside.” And that’s what I do: I go outside and, still looking for yellow, establish a foothold in the taxi-stand line.

Kayaking

The repetition seems to be paying off a little bit: Swiveling my torso, I whip and twist my paddle and (more or less) execute the rapid-fire series of strokes—forward, forward sweep, backward sweep, draw, stop—that Eric Stiller is calling out to the six of us. We throw ourselves into the sequence, our eyes fixed on the expanse of Hudson stretching before us. Now Eric and his assistant, Susan Moebus, call for a break. We rise stiffly to our feet. “It all makes more sense when you’re on the water,” one of my classmates says.

For two hours, we haven’t been sea kayaking so much as lawn kayaking: We’re on a patch of grass between the West Side Highway and the river near 23rd Street. Earlier in the morning, inside Manhattan Kayak’s small dockside office, Eric had begun our weekend Paddle Basics I class by describing the Hudson as “a lively and interesting body of water,” and had gone on to explain why, lingering lovingly on the potential challenges and hazards: winds, currents, submerged debris, old maritime piling fields, dilapidated piers, and, of course, all manner of boat traffic, from jet-skis to cruise ships, including some 1,700 daily ferry trips. So a little yard work before the second half of the lesson—two hours on the water—makes sense.

Carrying our paddles, we move out to the dock, where Eric and Susan distribute life jackets and also “spray skirts,” rather like short, waterproof hoop dresses.

“Are they wearing them high or low this season?” I ask.

"All great players have a great grip," the instructor says. "All good players have a good grip." I look at my own grip and silently complete his line of thought.

Eric looks at me. “Just below the ribcage.”

Susan gets into her kayak and paddles out into a protected area between piers to wait for us. Eric shows us how to get into the single-person sea kayaks. Inside, you can extend your legs, knees bent slightly. The ends of the spray skirt fit around the edges of the opening, sealing your lower half inside. I climb into my kayak, a red one I dub the Pequod, and am instantly happy.

On the water, it does make more sense. We dart around for a while, practicing those strokes and trying not to shift our weight to the left or right—kayaks are sensitive that way. Eric reminds me to work from the torso and to lean forward more. Pointing downriver—against the current—we duck into a protected area between Chelsea Piers and the Frying Pan dock and, crisscrossing, drill some more. Eventually, the eight of us move out, single-file, into the river and head south for a quarter-mile or so.

We are not alone out there: Sharing the Hudson with us are Circle Line boats, yachts, sailboats, tugs, barges, and various other vessels. Most are at a safe remove—it’s a wide river—but every so often, there’s a swell. “Keep paddling normally,” Eric calls out. “The kayak will deal with it.”

And it does. The water isn’t exactly crystalline, but I find that shooting the Pequod across its surface is exhilarating. Bobbing for a moment—goddamned jet-skis—I turn my head and spot the Statue of Liberty, the Verrazano Bridge, the George Washington Bridge, the Empire State Building, and, most spectacularly, the outdoor bar on the Frying Pan dock, where I intend to have a cold beer the minute I slip out of this spray skirt.

Golf

I never really got golf. It always struck me as maddeningly muted and restrained, except for the clothes, which were—tragically—anything but. Alan Clack, a soft-spoken pro (in khakis), leads me out at once to the net-enclosed driving range at the Golf Academy at Chelsea Piers, which extends 200 yards into the Hudson. The game of golf, Alan tells me, is mostly putting, but today we’re going to concentrate on full swings.

“You generally make a good golf swing the first time,” he says. “But you generally miss the ball. And your friends laugh. So your next swing is to make contact, and you do. And your friends applaud. But it’s not your natural swing; it’s a bad swing. And that’s where we get started.”

He displays a selection of irons, wedges, drivers, and woods, and speaks eloquently of “trailing edges” and “loft.” Even if I don’t follow it all, I understand the appeal of gear, so I’m interested. But then we get to the different grips, and my heart sinks: Oh, right, this requires practice. I’d been enjoying golfing—as long as it consisted of leaning debonairly on a seven-iron and feeling the breeze off the river.

“All great players have a great grip. All good players have a good grip.” I look at my own grip and silently complete Alan’s line of thought. “I’ve been playing the game for 42 years,” he continues, “and I still work on my grip.” We work on mine, the “standard two-knuckle.”

Next comes the swing. “Most beginners feel it’s an arm swing,” he says. “It really isn’t.” It comes—is there anything in sports that doesn’t?—from the torso. Alan has me plant my feet, align my shoulders, lock my knees, bend from the hip. I try it a few times. I’m a self-conscious collection of independently moving parts—not particularly fluid. But I’m ready.

I miss completely, although Alan likes the swing all right. I manage the second time to knock the ball sideways a few feet off the tee. A new ball automatically pops into place, as if pushed up by some unseen, subterranean caddy. The third shot I smash, and pretty much every one thereafter. My best half-dozen drives travel an acceptable 80 to 100 yards.

“Good! Excellent!”

Hey, this isn’t so hard.

It’s time to take me down a peg, so we repair to an indoor studio where a video of my swing is put up on a computer screen for slow-motion, stop-action scrutiny. “You almost got that club traveling right down the target line there,” Alan says encouragingly, drawing a line along my herky-jerky figure to illustrate. “You’ve got a little bit of hip rotation. Shoulders nice and square. Hmmm, here you’re fighting not to put all your weight on that left side.”

Unfortunately, one way to deconstruct your swing is to show how it differs from someone else’s. So we go to the split-screen. I’m the guy flailing around on the left, and the one on the right is Tiger Woods. The comparison is brutal. And as I stare in grim fascination at the two comically unsynchronized figures, I see that it’s much worse than I realized: Tiger’s even got better clothes.

Fly-fishing

I’m standing in a clearing in Madison Square Park, waving around a seven-weight rod and flicking a hookless line 30 or 40 feet this way and that. Pigeons and squirrels, already baffled by a nearby public art installation, scatter in dismay. Under the watchful eye of the encouragingly named Jon Fisher, an easygoing man who runs the Urban Angler shop on East 25th, I am “false-casting”—alternating back-casts and front-casts till the feel is right and I’ve gauged my distance and I’m ready to make my “presentation cast.” Right hand gripping the cork handle, I’m letting out more and more line with my left.

“Throw your fly where you hope the fish is,” says Jon. “If I think there’s a fish by that tree over there, I’ll do a couple of false casts and then put my line in the water.”

Sensing a fish out by that very tree, I make my presentation cast. The lure hits the dirt as an indignant pigeon hustles out of the way.

“Good, excellent, you’re a natural!” says Jon.

The next morning at 4:30 a.m., we’re driving out to Far Rockaway to meet Captain John McMurray. Jon has brought the gear—a selection of flies, lines, and rods. (Earlier, a quick look around Urban Angler, with its displays of tidy, lovingly made equipment, confirmed what I’d always suspected: Fly-fishing is essentially sea golf.) The bearded, wild-haired captain runs his sleek 21-foot SeaCraft into the Jamaica Bay salt marsh and beyond several times a week on fishing expeditions (he calls his outfit One More Cast). By 5:30, we’re pulling away from the dock. It’s dark, there’s a half-moon, and we’re enjoying the coolness while it lasts. We make straight for the shore of the wildlife refuge, not far from the JFK runways.

Jon sets me up with a rod, and I commence false-casting like a fiend (“More velocity, more snap,” he coaches), while John steers the boat toward “boils” of fish that remain invisible to me. The sun is now a red ball floating up from the horizon. We peer into the dawn. There are some splendid shorebirds, but any fish remain submerged in the foot and a half of water: Only the no-see-ums and green flies are biting. Planes take off; the sky is lightening; Manhattan is visible in the hazy distance. At around 7, having determined that the fish are “spooked,” we head off for Breezy Point, at the mouth of Jamaica Bay.

As we charge around Rockaway Inlet, the fish are practically jumping onboard and filleting themselves. I’m standing in the prow and manage to get my line into a seething section of water without hooking myself or my guides. It’s hard not to catch something here, and I do: a small bluefish, which we admire for a few seconds and throw back.

It’s great being out on the water. The Coney Island Wonder Wheel and parachute jump are off to our right; Rockaway, with a few early-morning beach-walkers and surf-casters, is at our left. John gets a report of some bonito—small tuna—running off Jones Beach, so we make a U-turn around Rockaway Point and are suddenly out in the Atlantic, bouncing east along the coast at full speed. We reach Point Lookout and Jones Beach in about half an hour. The sound of the surf is a revelation when John cuts the engine.

He races us from one spot to another, following the terns and gulls. “They move really fast; they’re little torpedoes,” says Jon of the bonito. Finally, I cast quickly enough to hook something, and over the next few minutes partake in a ritual as thrilling as it is clichéd: The rod bends completely down, a virtual hairpin; the fish takes off, and I let the line out; the fish pauses, and I reel in furiously. This is repeated several times, and then I land it, to my companions’ glee.

“Nice-size bonito!”

“Great work!”

It’s a shiny, fork-tailed, blue-and-green-striped, 26-inch beauty. I had intended to throw it back, but a strange and wholly unfamiliar sensation rises within me: the city boy reborn as hunter-gatherer.

Hunter-gatherer. The very idea cracks me up, although the bonito, which probably senses it has just morphed into a tuna dinner, does not join in the merriment. That night, my girlfriend prepares it in the kitchen while I re-create my heroic sea hunt in a series of primitive drawings on her living-room wall. It’s delicious.


Bat Man: Todd Smith, an instructor at the Baseball Center NYC, shows how its done.  

Baseball

Maybe I’m still smarting, decades later, from a vertiginous 625-point drop in batting average between my first and second Little League seasons. Or maybe I know it would just be fun to swing at some pitches. In any event, I find myself at the Baseball Center NYC (formerly Frozen Ropes) one day taking an hour of private batting instruction from a young guy named Todd Smith. My own Little Leaguer, having completed a more successful second season than his dad’s, is in tow.

“A lot of ideas about hitting have changed over the last 20 or 30 years,” says Todd, who played high-school and college ball. “There’s a biomechanical reason for everything we do.”

I take a half-dozen practice swings and look over hopefully.

“Your lower-body stance is not bad,” he says. “But what we’re really going to work on is weight transfer—the shift—and your hands.” I have, he says, a “typical level swing,” but that’s not what hitters are doing anymore.

Todd tells me to stand, feet parallel, where my bat can cover the entire plate. “Bend your knees to the point where you’re comfortable,” he says. “How does it feel? Loose, relaxed? Good—that’s your stance.” Stance is the first of three steps. Next comes load—shifting the weight back—and I have to remember here to keep my bat high because up there is where step three (swing) will begin. Again, as with so many athletic maneuvers, the baseball swing has little to do with limbs and everything to do with torso.

“You want to go straight down and then up,” says Todd. “You a Yankee fan?” My son, watching intently nearby, really perks up. “You ever watched Derek Jeter warming up in the on-deck circle? It looks like he’s chopping wood.” What Jeter is doing, he says, is reminding himself to start his swing down, before straightening it out and following through with an upswing. So I get my hands up high and try it; it makes sense.

I proceed to swinging at actual balls: first T-ball, then soft-toss pitches. Stance, load, swing: It feels like I’m earning my turn against the automatic pitcher. While Todd programs “Iron Mike,” I ask him about some of the really crazy stances one sees in the big leagues. “But watch them,” he replies. “Right before they swing they’re almost all in the identical spot that we’re trying to get you in. Once you’re in that spot, then you can add anything that makes you more comfortable, or helps your timing.”

I put on a helmet and the fun begins. It takes me a minute to find my rhythm, but soon I’m making consistent (if sometimes glancing) contact. I don’t even care that these pitches are moving at only 45 to 50 miles per hour—in the majors, they’d be half-speed, juicy lobs, right down the middle, earmarked for walloping.

“Good. Explode!” shouts Todd. “Extend through the ball!”

My son, agitating for a turn, takes my place. “My homework for you would be, maybe 50 times a day use a broomstick or a bat and swing,” he says. “Get the feeling that the first thing that moves is these hips.” Smack! from the batting cage. Smack!

“There you go!” Todd calls to him, looking over.

Once, Todd continues, he couldn’t figure out why a kid—who seemed to have every part working just right—kept missing: “He looked great. I thought, What is going on? Finally, I noticed: A split-second before he swings, he’s closing his eyes. Every time.”

Interesting. I want to ask whether squeezing one’s eyes shut might conceivably account for a drop in batting average of—say—625 points, but I’m too busy enjoying the little kid in the cage, smiling and taking his cuts.


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