National Post
Diamond Dave still hot tonight
National Post, 2007

I once broadsided a Toronto Transit Commission bus and drove away, hoping the driver wouldn't notice. But that wasn’t the most foolish thing I did in high school. I also invited Van Halen front-man David Lee Roth to my graduation formal.

I spent an afternoon writing a letter, rather than an essay, on the British North America Act of 1867. I wrote the words, "Dear Mr. Roth" with visions of spandex dancing in my head. I imagined us emerging from a black stretch limousine -- me in a fashionable polyester dress, him in the same pink satin shirt and the white tights he sported in the poster on my bedroom door. I saw us walking past my stunned classmates and the adult chaperones, his long rock star hair blowing in wind apparently generated by a giant fan tucked behind the coat check.

I sent the letter to an address printed on the back of a Van Halen album cover, but never heard back. I ended up going to the formal with my friend Dave Kaiser, who wore a rented tuxedo and picked me up in his rust-coloured Datsun.

I didn't tell anyone about the letter. I buried the truth, and moved on. I didn't think about the invitation until 1996, when Roth, who had embarked on a solo career 11 years before, rejoined his former band mates at an awards show. I read that his ego was too big for the stage, and I cringed.

How could I have fantasized about this man? I dismissed my one-time obsession as youthful folly. I had dreamt about a rock star, just as my brother had worn eyeliner and a friend had gone to a school dance with a pair of Ping-Pong balls taped to the crotch of his corduroy pants.

I heard about Roth occasionally over the next decade. Three years ago, a friend sent me a link to a New York Post story. It said "Roth [had] stopped 'runnin' with the devil' to do God's work – riding ambulances in gritty neighbourhoods throughout New York City to become a paramedic."

Earlier this year, Roth announced he was rejoining Van Halen. I bought a ticket for the Toronto show – not because the song Panama rocks my world, but because it once did.

I filed into the Air Canada Centre with some friends on Sunday night, not sure what to expect. Soon, the lights dimmed and Eddie Van Halen appeared onstage. Looking weathered but fit, he tore through the opening chords of You Really Got Me, bringing the crowd to its feet

Seconds later, David Lee Roth appeared at the top of a sloped, S-shaped walkway I studied him with the seriousness of a woman sizing up her first love at a high school reunion.

He was still tall and lean, but his hair was short. He wore black leather pants and a black button-down shirt. There was no trace of spandex.

Roth stood there for a moment, drinking in the adulation, then began his descent. He didn't bound down the walkway to join Eddie. He sauntered as though he was Dean Martin joining Sammy Davis Jr. onstage at the Sands Hotel.

He was definitely not Diamond Dave of the past. But he wasn't half-bad.

An hour into the show, the band launched into Dance the Night Away, one of their biggest hits. Roth darted across the stage holding a large felt hat similar to the one donned by the Cat in the Hat. He swivelled his hips and placed the hat on his crotch. Sneering, he removed his hands. The hat remained in place, indicating that a Velcro strip had been sewn on his pants -- or that Roth was really happy to see us.

Twenty years ago, that move would have sent a jolt of lust through my body. Now, not so much. Still, I thought while watching him mugging for the cameras in the front row, he seems to have retained a sense of fun.

Roth belted out several more songs in his legendary rasp, throwing in some trademark karate moves for good measure. The kicks weren't as high as they once were but still, I admitted, not bad for a man in his fifties.

Midway through Pretty Woman, a cover of the famous Roy Orbison song, Roth unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a toned, muscular torso. Hell, I thought, that wouldn’t be bad for a man in his twenties.

Finally, the band launched into Panama, the song that was climbing the charts when I penned my ill-fated letter. Roth soon got to the lines that are spoken rather than sung in the original track. "Yeah, we're runnin' a little bit hot tonight," he said, starting the familiar lines. "It's stifling," he added, taking a lyrical detour. "A lot like my last two relationships."

The crowd roared, and I considered his past. David, I thought, you have been dating the wrong women. What you need is someone more like me. Someone, in fact, who is me.

Clapping and stomping my feet, urging the band to come out for an encore, I had visions of me and David Lee Roth at my office Christmas party. I imagined us emerging from a black stretch limousine…

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Hot to trot with SWAT
National Post, 2003

I wouldn't let them shoot me, not at first.

Having been slapped with enough speeding tickets to wallpaper the outfield fence at SkyDome, I get heart palpitations at the mere sight of a police vehicle. And there were dozens of them in the parking lot of the Emergency Task Force station the day I showed up to do a shift with one of Toronto's six SWAT teams.

By the time Sergeant Tim Crone came out to greet me -- attired in blue jumpsuit and black combat boots, with a semi-automatic pistol tucked inside his leg holster -- I was in a cold sweat. He introduced me to the seven of nine men on the team who were on duty that day (one was on a training course, another had a day off). All were big and buff, not surprising considering each spends an hour a shift in the gym.

The Special Weapons and Tactics force, established in 1965, answered more than 500 calls last year, everything from hostage-takings to armed suicide attempts. Crone's team recently answered 10 calls over a six-day period, including one involving an emotionally disturbed man who took a swing at Crone with a nail-studded baseball bat. Crone shot him with a Taser.

Which was at least partly why Crone suggested it might be interesting for me to experience being shot with a stun gun -- Tasers being one of the most useful weapons the SWAT team has. Another team member, Tom Urbaniak, offered to be shot with me. I declined, and when I saw the look on his face, it dawned on me that he had known I would, that he figured I was a wimp with a pen and notepad. That's when I knew I had to prove him wrong.

We made our way to the gym, where the other team members interrupted their workouts and gathered around the mat where the SWAT member and the Post journalist kneeled and linked arms. Had I been a violent offender, Crone would have pulled the trigger, and wires with hooks would have shot out and fastened to my clothes.

But I was nothing if not docile. He fastened two clips to my clothing, one to the gallant Urbaniak. Then he stepped back and raised the stun gun -- at which point I came to my senses, changed my mind and ...

... Crone pulled the trigger, an electrical charge travelled through the wires and right through my central nervous system. I was on the mat in an instant, helpless as a baby seal on an ice cap. It reminded me of how, when I was a toddler, I had pressed my lips against an electrical socket -- but this jolt was much more intense. Beside me, Urbaniak looked similarly out of sorts.

A few moments later, the fog lifted, and I noted that my fellow SWAT team members were smiling at me. I had joined an elite club of law-abiding citizens who had been Tasered.

Soon after, we hit the road in several marked vehicles. I joined Crone in a "gun truck," a Suburban nicknamed the "war wagon" because it's loaded with weapons, ballistic shields and breaching equipment with such endearing names as the Two-Man Ram and the Hooligan Bar.

We assembled at a former priests' residence, now boarded up, near Victoria Park and Lawrence, where the teams conduct "entry" drills. On this day, a five-man entry team was practicing "stealth entry" -- each wearing a helmet, a ballistic vest, a load-bearing vest (equipped with a Taser and "distraction devices" such as a stun grenade) and a gun harness (each of which held either a submachine gun, a shotgun or an assault rifle).

I was told to remain outside.

"No problem," I replied. "I'll secure the perimeter."

Crone raised an eyebrow.

Once the drill began, I went in the building and watched the men go through their paces, weapons pointed in different directions. George Fotopoulos, another SWAT team member, stopped the drill periodically to critique them. It was over in 20 minutes: They had apprehended a violent crack addict -- actually, a rookie team member.

When the men emerged, sweaty and tired, they were accosted by a dozen children, circling the team on bicycles and skateboards.

"Did you shoot someone?" a girl asked hopefully. "Is anyone dead?" another demanded.

One brave boy leaned forward and touched a helmet on the floor of a van: "Sweet!"

Tim Daley, one of the team members, explained that encounters with children weren't unusual, "especially now, with the S.W.A.T. movie being so hot."

The team got into their vehicles and drove off, preparing to patrol the streets for the rest of the shift, as they do on every shift when they're not responding to emergency calls.

The Toronto police these days regard traffic as a high priority, which means the team spends more time enforcing traffic laws and less time training between calls. "If we don't spend more time training, something is going to go wrong," Urbaniak told me. "Someone is going to get hurt."

Crone and I headed off to a falafel restaurant. On our way, we came across a van parked in front of an Indian restaurant, just a metre away from a No Standing sign. The law-flouting civilian emerged from the restaurant to discover a policeman dressed for urban warfare issuing a parking ticket. After a short conversation, Crone returned to the war wagon, having let the malefactor go with a warning. He hadn't even pulled the Glock 9mm out of his leg holster as a gentle reminder not to park illegally.

At the restaurant, Crone ordered three falafels, two for him and one for me. I demanded a second one -- with hot sauce. I was becoming more macho by the minute.

Later, we patrolled the Yonge-St. Clair area, then headed back to the station, monitoring the police radio for calls. It had been a quiet shift. As we pulled into the station parking lot, I heard Crone on the radio talking to the other team members, who were meeting after work. Ah, some much-deserved leisure time. I envisioned kicking back with the boys.

But it was not to be. Crone politely waited for me to get out of the war wagon and urged me to call if I had follow-up questions. Then he drove off and left me on my own, to mingle with the civilians.

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Dear Anna, titillate if you will, but don’t let it go to your head
National Post, 2001

You are irresistible, Anna. Hotter than Georgia asphalt.

Even those of us who cringe at the mention of your name -- and are routinely dismissed as envious -- admit that your toned, tanned limbs and long blond ponytail render men helpless.

But envy aside, you should not let the fuss go to your head. It is nothing new as I discovered researching my new book on women in sports.

There has been an erotic undercurrent in women's sports for as long as women have been sweating and breathing heavily.

Thousands of years before you appeared on the cover of a magazine dressed in white mini shorts and a clingy tube top, men were swooning over females from Sparta, a militaristic city state that required women to be as physically fit as men.

While Athenian women were tending to their homes, Spartan women were competing in athletic contests to demonstrate their fitness to bear future warriors. Their well-toned arms and legs attracted a lot of attention. So much so, an indignant Athenian dramatist condemned their "great display of naked limbs."

Euripides' protests were brushed aside. Athletic females were still titillating men in the Middle Ages, when impoverished Englishwomen ran races, competing for smocks or pieces of cloth.

Participants were encouraged to wear minimal clothing for the sake of male spectators, who grabbed or tripped them as they ran past.

These women had it rough, but not compared to prostitutes throughout Europe who were all but mauled by male spectators while competing in races for cash prizes.

Anna, you are not entitled to complain about the trials and tribulations of being an athletic nymphet. You have nothing on the poor and sexually disreputable Englishwomen who stripped to the waist and pounded each other senseless for the amusement of male spectators in the 1700s. At least you don't have to compete naked. (Imagine the sunburn!)

Sure, you have a small army of publicists and bodyguards to keep lustful men at bay. But you are not the first female athlete to need protection from the elements. Men were forbidden to watch the first women's intercollegiate basketball game between the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford in 1896, lest they became aroused and lunged at the competitors. (The players were dressed provocatively, in bloomers and thick black stockings.)

For the same reason, men were prevented from watching women's swimming races in Germany. Organizers softened up a few years later and allowed the lascivious beasts to attend -- as long as they sat at least 30 yards from the contestants. The standard women's swimsuit had enough material to supply a small textile mill, but was deemed unbearably provocative. American swimmer Ethelda Bleibtrey was reminded of that when she was thrown in the clink for exposing her legs at a beach in 1919. (She recovered from the trauma and won gold at the Olympics the following year.)

Anna, don't complain about your mother keeping tabs on your extracurricular activities. The virtue of female athletes has always been in jeopardy.

When women took up cycling in the late 1800s, arbiters of decency sounded alarm bells. The bicycle seat was thought to stimulate a woman's genitals, putting her at risk of becoming sexually promiscuous. Manufacturers rode to the rescue and introduced a wide-saddled, high-handlebarred bike.

The new model prevented women from racing as the design was far from aerodynamic, but it allowed female cyclists to remain virtuous. Did women miss their old bikes?

Anna, if only you knew.

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