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The Courage of the Early Morning is the name of the biography of World War I flying ace Billy Bishop that was written by his son. It refers to the characteristics needed to get up in the dark and cold and risk your life after too little sleep. It’s also a phrase that I like to apply to going out for a morning run in the damp and darkness of fall and winter.

Admittedly, I am not facing planes that are waiting with machine guns to knock me down, although in the dark, cars and half-awake drivers aren’t a bad substitute sometimes. Still, I like to think there’s the same sense of going against the inclinations of comfort in order to do something difficult. And, if I’m honest, there’s also a sense of perverse satisfaction in believing that I’m the sort of person who wouldn’t make a completely hedonistic choice.

This bit of self-dramatization (because that’s what it is) dates back to my days of playing soccer and rugby when I was growing up. When going to practice or play and hearing someone voice a variation of “Sooner you than me,” I used to like to think that I was tough enough not to let bad weather discourage me. Of course, in reality, I had all the toughness of boiled spinach, but adolescents do need some shred of self-assurance to cling to. And, rather than admit myself a hypocrite, after the first tackle that left me sliding through the mud, I soon found myself taking a grim satisfaction in my ability to adapt to a condition that others still shied away from. It was a good way to score, too, because those who weren’t muddy themselves would often avoid me as someone who was slightly crazed.

Something of that same insanity persists in me to this day. When I leave the warmth of the bed and stumble outside into the wet and cold of autumn, I reflect that hundreds of people around me wouldn’t consider doing what I am, and then I don’t feel so miserable. Except on the coldest days of the year, the satisfaction lingers enough for me to fall into a rhythm and to warm myself with the exertion, so that the misery I’ve walled away disappears.

I suppose that something of the same train of thought drives people who take up dangerous sports or take chances. By comparision, my courage of the early morning is a very minor strain of the attitude at best. But middle-age, I find, needs its illusions as much as adolescence, and if it gets me out the door each morning, this is one to which I’ll cling.

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Years ago, when an interviewer visited science-fiction writer Philip José Farmer in Peoria, Illinois, he saw a band marching down the main street. It wasn’t a holiday, so he asked Farmer what was happening, and received a shrug in reply. “They do things like that in Peoria,” Farmer said simply. That’s how I feel in the middle of the hysteria about the Stanley Cup playoffs. Seeing every tenth car sporting a Canucks flag or finding the stores deserted because everyone is clustered around a TV set, I can only shrug in amiable incomprehension.

Exercise has always been a part of my daily routine. Considering that I spend ten or more hours a day in front of the computer, it has to be. I’ve run since I was eight, and more recently I’ve taken up walking, swimming, and using exercise machines. And when I was growing up, I played rugby and soccer and skied. So I understand the appeal of playing sports. In fact, I’m thoroughly addicted to my daily adrenalin rush. But what I don’t understand is the obsession with watching sports.

True, if I’ve played a sport, I have an abstract appreciation for a display of skill and tactics. But that appreciation lasts about five minutes before I get bored and look around for better amusement. Usually, I don’t have far to look, even if it’s just watching the crowd.

I know: every red-blooded man is supposed to have an overwhelming interest in sports. Fortunately for my mental health, I’ve never cared much about living up to stereotypes.

Besides, even by the standards of macho, how does watching sports qualify? Playing sports is a chance to display traditional male virtues like strength, endurance, and competitiveness – all of which I can appreciate, especially the first two, which I like to imagine that I possess to a degree. But watching? That has always seemed a strangely passive activity to qualify for machismo.

Nor does watching sports have much to do with any sense of identity. Professional sports teams and players rarely have any ties to the city where they’re based, and will re-locate whenever convenient. The Olympics evoke patriotism, but, considering that other world championships are virtually ignored and national athletes are largely ignored at other times, that patriotism seems tepid to me.

A clue to the appeal of watching sports may be their history. In the middle ages, tournaments were popular, but largely among the nobility. For long stretches of history, even the idea of watching sports hardly seems to exist except at the level of a local fair, where it was a special treat. It isn’t until the industrial revolution led to an enlarged middle-class that watching sports became widespread. The last time it had become so popular was in the comfortable urban environments of Rome and Byzantium, where the sports of choice were gladiator matches and chariot races.

Increasing urbanization, I think, is the key. When you spend your time wondering if you’re going to get your crop in before the first frost, or about whether Napoleon’s troops are going to use your back yard as a battlefield, you have all the excitement you need in your life.

But, once a majority of people are living a relatively comfortable life that is sheltered from basic concerns, it’s a different story. You’re still hardwired for crisis, so you need some ersatz excitement.

In modern times, this need has been met by any number of outlets: consumerism, celebrity-watching, or mass reactions to national disasters like the September 11th attacks, the ongoing crises in Afghanistan or Iraq, or watching sports.

What all these outlets have in common is they come with a prepackaged set of responses, so you can participate vicariously in them with a minimal effort and a lack of intrusion into your real emotional life. Has a teenager crashed his car? Then everyone knows to use the nearest telephone pole as a shrine for flowers, plush toys, and notes.

Is your local hockey team in the playoffs? Then start huddling around the TV and screaming and honking if the team wins. It’s all very satisfying, and the next day you can go back to the rest of your life feeling refreshed because you’ve momentarily filled your need for excitement.

Maybe I have no need for this synthetic excitement because I get my kick from having endorphins coursing through my body. Or maybe I have too many real challenges and crises to need pretend ones. Possibly, too, I have an adventurous world view, so that I find reasons for excitement in daily life. Not that I begrudge anyone else their ersatz excitement — I just don’t feel the need for it myself.

All I know for sure is that watching sports leaves me cold. When the playoffs start, I find myself keeping quiet, and detouring around TV sets in public. And if I can’t completely evade talk about sports, I find that a poker-faced question like, “Oh, does Vancouver have a hockey team?” usually creates a fan-free zone around me. If the alternative is solitude, that’s still preferable to watching something so boring that I want to chew off both legs to escape.

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