Saturday, October 30, 2010

Jagged Edge: Entertaining movie about the world's worst newspaper editor

Police just arrested your handsome local newspaper editor for a double-murder. The DA says the editor - call him Jack - brutally killed his housekeeper, then stabbed his wife to death after tying her up in their own bed. He gave himself a bump on the head to make it look like the work of an intruder, although the injury didn't even cause a concussion. He did it for the money. The wife came from a rich family and the husband - Jack - inherits it all, including the Hearst-like media empire started by her beloved grandfather.

A few months later, the editor is a free man, out on $500,000 bail. In his spare time, he prepares his defense, woos his divorced, mother-of-two attorney, rides white horses while waxing poetically about their beauty and vulnerability, and vomits out sound bites to the local news hounds, all of whom still treat him like Ben Bradlee.

And he continues to serve as editor of the newspaper. And dictates coverage about the DA who's prosecuting him. He lords over editorial meetings, in a massive conference room with a large window that overlooks the printing presses.

That's the plot of Jagged Edge, which I just watched on Netflix. I've seen the Jeff Bridges-Glenn Close movie numerous times. It's a classic thriller, penned by Basic Instinct sreenwriter Joe Eszterhas. In the end (spoiler), Jeff Bridges' character - the passionate, dashing, yet murderous, editor - is found innocent. He has sex with his attorney, talks some more about horses, then tries to kill his lawyer when she discovers he's actually guilty. It's got great twists and solid performances - Bridges, Close, Peter Coyote as the slimy DA, and Robert Loggia, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of an investigator who was surely described in the screenplay as "grizzled."

But even though I worked in newspapers for a decade and wanted to be a reporter 10 years before I ever stepped foot in a newsroom I never realized just how preposterous the movie was, especially when it came to portraying a newspaper editor. To recap: Jack Forrester is the editor of a large paper in San Francisco. He's accused of two murders, including his wife, who also happens to be the top executive at the same paper, a woman whose family has operated the paper for decades.

Yet early in the movie, there's a scene where Jack sits in a meeting while an editor talks about a profile the paper will do about the DA, who happens to be running for Senate while also prosecuting Forrester for the murders. The man is still at work. He implores his beleaguered, yet loyal staff to remain objective.

It makes sense that Forrester's a lying, thieving, manipulative murderer who happens to be an editor. Before he became the most famous screenwriter in the world, Eszterhas was a newspaper reporter in Cleveland and then a writer for Rolling Stone magazine. Surely somewhere down the line an editor cut one of Joe's stories down from 3,000 words to 1,000 and Eszterhas vowed to get back at the know-nothing, red-pencil-toting son of a bitch. Maybe one of his old editors sort of looked like Jeff Bridges, or at least like Beau. Whatever the case, Eszterhas turned a newspaper editor into an ultimate villain, a remorseless killing machine with a love of bondage and jagged knives.

It was just a movie. And a good one. But did Forrester stay on staff during the murder trial? No one in upper management, none of his friends, none of his golfing buddies at the club, pulled him aside at the soda machine and said maybe it'd be a good time to take a leave of absence, "you know, until this thing about you slitting your housekeeper's throat and disemboweling your wife at your beach house blows over. We don't want to give our critics too much ammunition." And how did the reporters talk to him about their stories? "Jack, I think you, uh, sliced too much from the heart of the story."

Jack mans the head chair at editorial meetings, dictating city council coverage and weekend features about teachers who volunteer at homeless shelters. Then, during lunch, he retires to play racquetball with his lawyer as they debate a strategy that will keep him out of prison. It'd have been like OJ serving as an analyst on Monday Night Football in the fall of 1994.

A real-life newspaper equivalent? The New York Times editor marries a Sulzberger daughter and is charged with her murder (and kills the housekeeper). The Manhattan DA vows the editor will fry, though not literally in New York state. But the editor stays on, running point during the middle of election season. And no one has an issue with this. This movie makes Fletch look like a realistic portrayal of newspaper life.

I do have one other plot question, but, unfortunately, I have no real-life expertise in this matter. The movie ends with Glenn Close finding the typewriter Bridges used to send her mysterious and creepy notes throughout the trial. This convinces her he's guilty. She storms off, goes back home, cleans up, calls Bridges, tells him she found the typewriter and waits in bed for him to break in to the house. He does, she shoots him and that's it. But what was his motivation for killing her? Didn't double-jeopardy apply? He was acquitted. There was no fraud in the trial, no one bribed a judge or anything, which could be an exception to double-jeopardy, if my readings at Wikipedia Law School are accurate. And the typewriter didn't even necessarily prove he was the murderer. He could have just told her, "Great, you've got the typewriter I used to send creepy notes, what are you going to do?" The DA could not have put him back on trial, right?

Was he worried about losing his girlfriend? He thought he might bump into his attorney at some city functions and be embarrassed by the fact she knows he did what everyone thought he did but no one could prove?

It makes no sense. I think this was one final shot Ezsterhas delivered to his former industry. The famed screenwriter didn't just turn his editor into a heartless sociopath.

He also made him really dumb.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Lakers get their rings

"It will be a unique ceremony, with a format meant to reflect the deeper bonds that go into being back-to-back NBA champions. After Lakers coach Phil Jackson receives his championship ring, he will take the Staples Center public-address microphone and do a brief, self-scripted introduction of the first Lakers player. Each player will come forward to receive his ring - and then perform his own individual introduction for the next player."

So that's how the Lakers will get their rings tonight when they open the season against Houston. This could be entertaining, or a disaster, or disastrously entertaining. You know the wedding ceremonies where bride and groom pen their own vows and they're filled with bad, possibly plagiarized poetry, romantic cliches and inside jokes? That's going to be the Lakers tonight.

Who will Jackson introduce first? Kobe Bryant seems like the obvious choice, but last year the team introduced him last, the honor that usually goes to a team's star. So maybe Jackson introduces veteran point guard Derek Fisher first and it eventually concludes with Pau Gasol speaking Spanish and bringing Bryant out to receive the ring. Last year the Lakers had legends from the team's past on-hand to give the current players their jewelry. It all seems a bit complicated tonight, with a lot of room for error. After the game, depending on the result, editors at websites and newspapers can use the occasion to break out ring headlines.

"Lakers ring in new year with big victory"
"New season has familiar ring"

If Houston wins, the ring headlines still work:
"Rockets run rings around Lakers"

The Lakers have occasionally struggled on ring night. In the 1982-83 home opener, the Lakers lost 132-117 to Golden State. Three years later, before the start of the 1986 season, lowly Cleveland crushed the Lakers 129-111 in the home opener. The Lakers also lost their home opener in the 2000-01 season and at the start of the 2002-03 season.

During the Showtime era, the Lakers had the perfect master of ceremonies: Chick Hearn. Chick lorded over the ceremonies when the Lakers received their rings for the 1987 championship. On this night, LA edged Seattle 113-109, the first game in a season that ended with the Lakers becoming the first repeat champions in the NBA since the 1969 Celtics.

David Stern was of course in attendance, looking like a 12-year-old nerd who just came from a meeting of the physics club. Chick provides the introductions. "A man who has improved as much as anyone in the NBA this year...Mike Smrek."

Chick Hearn: legendary announcer, broadcasting pioneer, star of Fletch, and blatant liar, at least with that one statement. To be fair, Smrek - who, while proving that you shouldn't always use rings as a barometer of greatness, has two more rings than John Stockton, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing - did improve. He upped his average from 2.2 points per game in 1987 to 2.8 in 1988.

Byron Scott gets his ring and Michael Cooper collects his, as does the "hardest working" player - and future beleaguered coach - Kurt Rambis. Kareem ends it with a short speech thanking the late-arriving fans. Like everything in sports, the ceremony from 1987 was shorter and simpler than today's theatrics. The lights even stayed on at The Forum for most of the ceremony. It's probably for the best that the players didn't have to introduce each other back then. What could Mychal Thompson have said when introducing, say, Smrek?

"No one gets up from his seat quicker during 20-second timeouts than this guy. And the screens this guy sets in practice."

The season starts tonight and so do my screams. Louise will cower in the bedroom, wondering "Why don't you ever say anything encouraging to them on the TV? Why do you only criticize?"

I'll be calm tonight. I'll take in Phil Jackson's speech and Ron Artest's gesture of appreciation toward his shrink. It's my favorite time of the sports year, the start of basketball season. It's a new season, and as long as this one ends just like the past one, I'll have no reason to throw anything at the television. And I can't wait for the bad poetry.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Bananas in the vending machine. An overweight nation weeps

I visit the vending machine at work twice a day. Each afternoon at 2, I buy a Dr. Pepper and Doritos to go with my lunch. Later, around 4 or 5, I'll wander back down for my daily snack, sometimes Oreos, occasionally some Skittles, perhaps a Snickers.

Never, in all my trips to the vending machines, have I gazed at the overpriced offerings and thought, "God, I wish we had some bananas in there."

Yet many people apparently do wish that.

"The big push for vending machines to sell healthier snacks has overlooked something: It isn't easy for a machine to deliver an unbruised banana. The Wittern Group Inc... .say they are tackling this problem with a new machine specifically designed to dispense whole bananas and fresh-cut fruits and vegetables."

That's according to this Wall Street Journal article. I have nothing against healthy food offerings, though my body - which is made up of 70 percent water and 30 percent grease - might reject a healthy afternoon snack. A banana at 4 might send me into convulsions, or induce vomiting. People should certainly have the option. My fear is that someday vending machines will consist only of healthy food. You'll have to get candy on the black market. Imagine: Nice yellow bananas, crunchy red apples, grapes, pears, peaches. One day, broccoli.

I plead with the vending machine powers and our lawmakers: Don't take away our beloved treats in the name of saving us from our own sugary desires. Our vending machines at work give so much, and in return only ask for 75 cents. Or 80 cents. Occasionally 90 cents. Still, they ask for so little.

A few years ago a new soda machine appeared in our cafeteria, a contraption that came from the demented mind of a bored, four-eyed NASA scientist who had long ago tired of designing plausible scenarios for a manned mission to Mars. Instead of simply dropping the product, a mechanical arm deliberately, slowly, agonizingly makes a series of motions, rising, hovering and grabbing the can or bottle before returning it into a slot that then pushes outward. It's like a Rube Goldberg project designed by stoned grad students, a food-focused version of that damned carnival claw millions of kids have used in a futile effort to grab a toy. Inevitably it breaks down, depriving the entire building of caffeine. People curse, some cry, a few kick. There are too many moving parts. Of course it falters. I also believe the creators purposely designed the machine to pause a few crucial seconds before coughing up change. A person puts a dollar in, waits 15 seconds for the soda, then quickly walks away. The machine, meanwhile, pauses briefly before depositing the change. Many a worker never realizes they're leaving nickels, quarters and dimes behind. Some people will call after the unfortunate soul, warning them. Other times, the next person in line simply pockets the money, figuring they're breaking even for previous times when they themselves forgot the change. This is the peak of vending technology, a machine that pits worker against worker?

For a few years we had access to an ice-cream machine, an ice-cream machine that invariably didn't have any of the products it claimed to possess. Ice cream sandwich? Try another selection, please. Chipwich? Another selection, please. When it did have the advertised offerings, the ice cream sandwiches were so hard you had to put them in the microwave for up to a minute. An ice-cream sandwich shouldn't require hitting the "baked potato" option on a nuclear device. It was probably for the best that the machine just disappeared one day. Few noticed, none mourned.

The candy machine remains, still blissfully free of bananas and apples. It's still always an adventure. I don't know that I've ever bought a Twix from a vending machine that wasn't half-melted, the chocolate clinging to the wrapper. For a time, our machine didn't offer Snickers or Crunch bars or Kit-Kats or Hershey's or anything that a normal, candy-bar-eating American would recognize. There were granola-type bars, and bars with weird packaging and strange names. Things that hippies might eat.

Thankfully the real things returned. The machine usually has Starburst, a personal favorite. Sometimes it contains Skittles, my all-time favorite. But a note for vending machine owners: If you're going to give us Skittles, we need access to the real thing, the red bag. Put the blue tropical bag in. But the red bag better be one slot over. Unfortunately, all of our Skittles are stacked in one aisle, so sometimes you'll get a red bag but the next one behind it is blue or orange. It'd be like offering a soda machine that only served Diet Coke. I trust the sales department has better access to the numbers, but I don't know that I've ever seen anyone eating Tropical Skittles. The most sickening moment comes when you're stuck behind someone who gets that last red bag. They give you an aw-shucks look, but inside they feel no pity.

As I wrote, every day I buy Doritos that I pair with my sandwich. They're 60 cents. Not a terrible price. Of course, the bag is actually only half-full - or is it half-empty? - with the orange treats, but at this point I think people expect that from their vending machine chips. I'm actually happy when they're half-full. For a time our machine hosted some type of potato chip that had about six chips per bag, as if the government had declared a chip emergency and rationing was in place. Is this a health-related thing? Do manufacturers save us from our own slobbish ways?

Fill the damn bags to the top with chips. Give us a machine that drops a can of soda in less than five seconds. Don't tease us with tropical Skittles. And if you're going to put fruit in the machines to save us, at least keep in all of the treats that will one day kill us.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Captain Skyhawk, Faxanadau and Baseball Simulator 1.000

An average person spends three years of their life at stoplights. A third of their life is spent sleeping. I think. Or maybe it's six months at stoplights and three years in the bathroom. Those are some of the numbers you often see when people inform us just how much of our lives are spent doing nothing.

I wish a researcher could figure out how much time I spent in my parents' basement. Five years? Six? God, seven? But they weren't wasted years and I don't regret any of the time down there, unless the radon finally gets to me. Everything happened in the basement. It's where I became a self-proclaimed ping-pong god, a title I cling to on every trip home. I improved my fielding skills by spending hours throwing a worn-down tennis ball against the yellow cement wall. I hit the same tennis ball off the same wall with a racquet to improve my forehand. I played basketball with a big ol' Nerf hoop and didn't really improve any skills, except for learning how to dunk on a five-foot hoop. It's where I watched semi-dirty movies with my buddies on Showtime, a poor man's Cinemax. I watched the Twins win Game 7 of the 1987 World Series down there, while ignoring an Industrial Arts school project. I watched countless Lakers games, including Game 4 of the 1985 Finals when Dennis Johnson hit a game-winning jumper at the buzzer and I had to listen to my dad's taunts. I got my revenge two days later. I often ate down there and occasionally slept down there. I played Strato baseball for 576 hours down there.

One time, I even brought a girl down.

And starting in 1990, I spent countless hours in the basement playing video games on my Nintendo, usually in the company of my cousin Matt, next door neighbor Brandon and friend Mike. The basement was my home and over the years it became their home away from home. They came for my mom's Sloppy Joes, but stayed for the cable and video games.

I no longer play video games. I've purchased a couple of PlayStations the last 10 years but I stopped playing about a week after getting them and I eventually tossed them out. I'm not any good at them and they're too complicated for a brain raised on Nintendo. But I'll always have the 8-bit NES memories.

So pop open the game console, grab a cartridge, blow the dust off of it, insert it and hit power. Then hit power again. And now hit the console, no on the right side, because if you hit it there the game eventually starts working. Gently. All right, smack it a little harder, on the left side this time. Use your palm. Curse at it. Okay, maybe try hitting it on the top. Here, put this crusty sock on top of the game, it stabilizes everything. Perfect. Now, hit power again and go back in time, to the days of thin storylines and shaky graphics.

The cause of more fights between our small, sad group than any other subject. Baseball Simulator 1.000 wasn't the most famous Nintendo baseball game. That's probably RBI. But it was the best.

Many people who played it insisted on using the "Ultra" teams, which turned the mild-mannered video game guys into behemoths who were capable of hitting 700-foot homers or throwing 200-mile-an-hour fastballs. Or they could pause a ball in mid-pitch. The Ultra abilities became the video game equivalent of Balco's The Clear. Weaklings became Supermen. Supermen became gods. These abilities were ridiculous and we never used them. Really, if you're trying to determine who's the best video game baseball player, why sully things with the "tremor hit," which caused an earthquake on the field when the ball hit the ground.

So we kept it simple. Creating the teams often proved to be more entertaining than actually playing the games. The game allowed you to name your players, but you only had four letters to work with. So someone named Richard might be Rchd, Rich, Rchr, or maybe just Dick. Kirby Puckett became Puck, or perhaps Krby. We put more thought into our teams' creations than we did our homework from accounting class. I employed a team of JWP teachers called, simply, The Educators. Matt invented the team called People and filled the roster with, well, people. Like Norm from Cheers. We had teams of rock stars - Mick at the plate and Clapton (probably called Clap) on the mound - and one of my greatest creations, The Animators: Bugs Bunny, Wile, Elmer, etc.

Keggers, farmhouse parties, barn parties, girlfriends...we avoided almost all of that, as we pursued the perfect video game baseball team.

Matt came the closest. He called them the Guidos - named after the moniker Matt went by in Spanish class - and they wore green uniforms. If the Celtics didn't convince me that green was the devil's favorite color, then surely the Guidos did. He took the names provided by the computer. The names have haunted me for two decades: Eric, Carl, Ian, Dan. Matt scratched thousands of numbers down in a small notebook until he came up with the perfect formula for his team. The damn notepads looked like something John Nash used. As you edited the rosters, you gave each player specific numbers: Homers, speed, etc. It was all a guessing game, except for Matt and the Guidos. He's had the same lineup for 20 years. We played 5-game seasons, 30-game seasons and 120-game seasons. Didn't matter how long the season lasted, he almost always prevailed. He wasn't gracious in defeat and certainly wasn't humble in victory.

The stadiums were always part of the game's greatness. They had a stadium in space - the players somehow managed to play in their regular uniforms and also avoided floating off toward Pluto and other non-planets - and one along a harbor. They had a well-maintained grass stadium and a boring dome.

Here's a couple of guys playing the game. Unfortunately, they're in Ultra mode. But you get to see some of the frustrations that any player can identify with. The guy with the blue team makes numerous fielding mistakes and at one time the controller messes up, or so he says. I believe him, because I know how it felt to hit the down button to throw home, only to watch in horror as my supposedly fundamentally-sound third baseman fired to first instead. They play in space, which is always cool, and one guy hits a homer near Skylab.

An incredibly frustrating adventure game. When we finally triumphed over this game, there wasn't even any joy. There's one section in the game when a player has to keep going back and forth to get enough gold to buy the proper goods and weapons. Matt would come over to the basement before basketball practice and we'd spend 90 minutes accumulating gold. Factory work along an assembly line provides more mental stimulation. But we trudged along, repeating our mantras - in the game, not in the basement - and fighting evil. Matt tried recently playing this game again but quit in frustration. If we'd done the same 20 years ago, both of us might have had more dates.

Only Faxanadau groupies should watch this entire video. The music alone is enough to drive a man to madness.

Pretend to be Maverick. Go into a flat spin and pretend to be Goose. Captain Skyhawk didn't have much going for it. Players controlled a fighter jet and fought an alien invasion while flying past pyramids and palm trees. You dropped bombs and bullets, while avoiding mountains and tracer fire. Occasionally the game put you into a dogfight. That's it, that's the game. I enjoyed this game much more than Matt, whose apparent lack of hand-eye coordination would have kept him out of the Air Force and certainly kept him out of the Captain Skyhawk Hall of Fame. The guy reviewing Captain Skyhawk in this video is entertaining, probably more entertaining than the game itself.

Total Recall was a confusing, if occasionally entertaining movie, which centered around a pre-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger going to Mars to help out some mutants while fighting a pre-Basic Instinct Sharon Stone. The video game Total Recall proved even more confounding and not at all entertaining. There are impossible scenes in the game, places where your player has no hope advancing. We'd spend hours in the basement, debating how to get past a section where Arnold fights a woman and then attempts to avoid a gun-toting maniac. We eventually gave up and went back to playing Simulator. This guy does not like the game. Warning: vulgar language.

Enjoyable game, even if it was another one Matt dominated. You only had four players: Lee Trevino (or, as he's called on the game, Super Mex), the redundantly named Big Jumbo, Miracle Chosuke and Pretty Amy. Super. Pretty. Miracle. Big Jumbo. Huh. Double entendres and double bogeys ruled. Big Jumbo was a precursor to John Daly, minus the alcohol and ex-wives. Matt took Jumbo and routinely won our head-to-head battles, as I preferred Miracle Chosuke, who was apparently named ironically. You played in the U.S. or Japan. Not much variety there (and how many tournaments do you see from Japan?). On the tee: Pretty Amy.

And there you go, some Nintendo in the early 1990s.Of course, that's just a small sampling. There's P.O.W, Bomberman, Mega-Man, Mario, Hoops, Racket Attack and countless more. And where's Tecmo? Tecmo football is too big to share a post with other games. That will have to be by itself one day, in a 25,000-word post. And then you'll read about Lawrence Taylor's dominance, Steve Grogan's greatness and wretchedness and why Bo Jackson is not the best offensive player on the game.

Younger people reading about these games or watching videos of them and hearing guys like me talk about them must get the same feelings I get when I hear Baby Boomers reminiscing about watching test patterns on the first TVs. These games have almost nothing to do with today's selections, which is one reason I'm completely incapable of playing anything that was made after 1995. I'm getting old and my reflexes have dulled. I'm stuck in the past. I need simple graphics and simpler storylines. I need Simulator. Or a life.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Michael Jordan was at least a Top 5 guard

Michael Jordan earned some headlines last week when a USA Today story quoted him as saying, "It's less physical and the rules have changed, obviously. Based on these rules, if I had to play with my style of play, I'm pretty sure I would have fouled out or I would have been at the free throw line pretty often and I could have scored 100 points."

It's absurd to think Michael Jordan could score 100 points in an NBA game today. Then again, he is 47 years old.*

* This punchline has changed over the years, but, depending on the sport and the person's respective age at the time of the joke, has been used to praise the talents of: Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Harmon Killebrew, Willie Mays, Julius Erving, Elgin Baylor, Joe DiMaggio, Nolan Ryan, Jerry West, Walter Payton, Joe Montana, John McEnroe, Rod Laver, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Johnny Bench, Bob Gibson, Oscar Robertson, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and any other player who averaged 20 points at least 20 years ago or hit 40 homers 40 years ago.

Jordan also said, when talking about Kobe Bryant's place in the NBA history books, "He is always going to be within the conversations of some of the greatest players who've played by the time he is finished. Where does he rank among those, if you are talking about positions? If you are talking about guards, I would say he has got to be in the Top 10."

Jordan took some heat from certain vocal segments of Lakers Land for the Kobe comment, as people interpret the line - probably rightfully so - to be a bit of a tweak. Many people put Kobe among the top 10 players of all-time, while Jordan's saying you've "got to" make him a top 10 guard, as if he's fighting for the No. 9 spot on that list with Mitch Richmond while still trailing Reggie Miller and Nate Archibald. Still, it's a pretty harmless comment. Besides, how much credit does anyone want to give the talent judgments of the man who drafted Kwame Brown with the first pick in the draft and Adam Morrison with the third?

Back to the 100 points thing. It's the type of claim retired players occasionally like to say and fans love to trumpet and there's no harm in the bragging or defending of it, primarily because it's impossible to prove or disprove. There are many reasons to think Jordan's finally fallen victim to 25 years of hype. For example, the most he scored in a game was 69 points and that came in overtime. Would rule changes and tighter calls on hand-checks provide him with 31 more points? Seems doubtful.

Bryant has proven superior to Jordan in at least one way: his offensive explosions are even more unbelievable than Jordan's. While Jordan still sports a superior resume - especially when it comes to, say, playoff scoring - Bryant's ability to put up a lot of points in a short amount of time is unmatched - by Jordan or anyone else, including Wilt.

Here's Kobe scoring 42 points in the first half against Jordan's Wizards, including 40 in the first 19-and-a-half minutes.

A year earlier, Bryant scored 56 points through three quarters against Memphis and sat out the fourth. Against Seattle in 2003, Bryant made an NBA record 12 3-pointers in a game, including 9 in a row. In the 2006 season, he scored 62 points through three quarters against Dallas and sat out the fourth (he led the Mavericks 62-61 at the time). And, most famously, he scored 81 points against Toronto, including 55 in the second half. They're the type of numbers no perimeter players in league history can match.

And as dominant as Bryant's been in those games, and as explosive as he can be, and with as many free throws he gets thanks to tighter rules...he still came up 19 points of 100. Now maybe against the Mavs he could have scored 85 if he'd played the fourth. Maybe, perhaps, if Phil Jackson let him fire away and the Mavericks didn't triple-team him on every possession, he might have scored 90. But still...that would have been 10 short.

Michael Jordan scoring 100? Probably not. But many people agree with him - or at least with the sentiment that Jordan would dominate even more today than he did in the 1990s - because it's always fun to downplay the accomplishments of the current players or the current state of the game and talk about how tougher things were in the past, when men set bone-crushing screens and defenders manhandled dribblers. The only thing missing from Jordan's line is, "Back in my day..."

Still, it's hard to fault Jordan for still being confident in his abilities. Athletes need that cockiness to thrive at any level. Just think how much you need to be considered the best who's ever played. Why would that self-confidence disappear as the weight goes up and the vertical goes down?

For the most part I enjoy grouchy older athletes. As annoying as it can be listening to people talk about how things were always better in the past, it's just as bad listening to people talk about how yesterday's stars couldn't compete in today's game. Let the old guys complain a bit, let them relive the glory days.

My favorite example of this was Jim Brown. Sports Illustrated put him on the cover in 1983, when he was 47 years old.

In the story, instead of talking about what he would have done if he played in the NFL in 1983 as a 24-year-old, he talked about what he could do as a 47-year-old. Franco Harris threatened Brown's career rushing record at the time and Brown didn't like that Franco occasionally ran out of bounds instead of taking a hit. "I have more important things to worry about. I may not come back, but I will if people don't admit to the fraud that's being perpetrated." Don't you make me come back, Brown seemed to say. Sadly, this did not happen, though Al Davis recently heard about Brown's old plan and briefly considered signing the 74-year-old to a one-year deal.

Jordan and Brown, two of the best athletes in American history. They earned the right to talk about how much better they were than athletes in the past and the present. And it's not just legends or even pros who sometimes feel the need to build up past accomplishments when watching games today. Last time I watched the JWP boys basketball team play, I thought, Man, I could score 25 a game playing with these longer halves and with this team and against these opponents.

That's absurd, of course. I could never do that in today's game. Then again, I am 35 years old.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Fear of fire

Two nights ago, I sat in our apartment and listened as fire trucks roared past our window, heading south on Broadway. The sirens started a little after 9:30 and didn't stop for a half-hour.

Like everywhere else in the city, sirens on Broadway in upper Manhattan are not rare occurrences. Sometimes they're like a background orchestra to a day in the life of Inwood.

A few years ago a pair of men broke into the apartment of a building resident. They roughed him up as they searched for money in the apartment. A few minutes into their break-in, they heard sirens roaring up Broadway. The hoodlums figured someone in the building had called the police, apparently not realizing that the sound of a fire truck driving up the street was likely just a routine call and not the police swarming the building. The men scrambled down the fire escape but police soon apprehended them. The lesson: Just because you hear sirens, it doesn't necessarily mean anything's wrong. Could be a false alarm, could be something serious, could be a police car, could be an ambulance.

So we rarely react to any siren. But when those sirens last for 30 minutes, we notice. I checked out Twitter and saw Inwood residents talking about a fire near 204th Street. They used exclamation points and OMG, so it must have been serious. Sounded like a big one.

It was. A vacant storefront burned. It took 106 firefighters three hours to contain the blaze. A couple of them suffered injuries. I wandered down near the fire a little after 10 p.m. A block from my house, the smell of smoke overwhelmed everything. A cloud of smoke drifted over the neighborhood. As I got closer, several people walked with their faces buried in shirt sleeves or their hands. The firefighters and police officers blocked off the area so I stood with the other gawkers a few blocks from the scene. At one point it seemed like a little block party. Weird scene. A pair of girls in short skirts and high heels escaped their dates and took pictures in front of firetrucks and with a group of five firefighters. A large group of people hung out in front of a deli, watching the action, talking Yankees. I saw my fill and saw that it wasn't an apocalyptic blaze, despite the number of trucks that went racing by our apartment.

This was the second devastating fire of the week in the neighborhood. Earlier, fire destroyed a bodega and cafe. I hate those stories. People lose businesses they've spent years building, and families lose homes they've been in for generations. One apartment building goes up in flames and hundreds of people suffer. And those, of course, aren't even the most tragic outcomes.

Fire. It's about the only thing I fear in the city, aside from the ever-present possibility that there exists - somewhere in the city's subway system but perhaps in basement buildings - a creature that's unique to New York, a type of half-rat, half-cockroach, which is simply waiting for the right time to show itself off to the cowering masses. Nuclear war won't kill it, and neither will glue traps.

I'm not scared of the possibility of terrorist attacks in the city and I've never felt in danger on the city streets, no matter the time of day. But fire. That sometimes gives me pause, or plays tricks on my mind at 2 in the morning. Specifically, fear of an accidental - or not - fire in our apartment building. Even more specifically, fear of some bored 8-year-old kid who finds Mom's cigarettes and lighter and decides it'd be fun to light the couch on fire one day after school. Or I picture a guy who lives on one of the lower floors falling asleep one night with a beer on his ample gut, forgetting that he left a Swanson's chicken TV dinner - white meat - in the oven and it's ready to go up in flames, along with the whole building. When you live in a large apartment building with a hundred neighbors, you have to sort of trust that everyone's been taught proper fire safety and I'm not talking about stop, drop and roll. As I sit and watch Law & Order reruns, I contemplate what I'd grab if we had to scramble down our aging, does-it-really-support-adults fire escape. Louise's jewelry. Some pictures, perhaps. Lakers tapes, of course.

A few months ago, the smell of burning wood invaded our apartment. I figured it came from outside. Why wouldn't it? But it was about 9 at night and there's always that nagging thought, what if it is coming from floor five? Louise wandered out from the bedroom and ordered an investigation. I walked down to the lobby. No flames. It floated in from outside. Perhaps an abandoned storefront. Maybe some bored kids.

Realistically I know there is probably nothing to worry about. Maybe I should be worried more about being mugged on the way home from work. But it's that idea that everything you own can disappear in a flash. The idea that you can go to bed one night and never wake up, all because Jay Leno lulled someone to sleep on their couch while a lit cigarette dropped from their fingers and onto the carpet.

Louise arrived home a short time ago and said she picked up some batteries.

"The smoke alarm needed one, remember?" she said.

Ah, yes, that's right, it did. As I said, some people in the building could use some fire education reminders.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Catcher in the Rye banned? Check. Merriam-Webster? Check?

Banned Books Week took place a few weeks ago. It started in 1982 and is a "national celebration of the freedom to read." When I think of the phrase "banned book" the first image that comes to mind is the mom ranting and raving at a PTA meeting in a small Iowa town during Field of Dreams.

"And I say smut and filth like this has no place in our schools."

"The so-called novels of Terence Man endorse promiscuity, godlessness, the mongrelization of the races and disrespect to high-ranking officers of the United States Army."

That scene fits the stereotype many people have of passionate book banners. Middle-aged moms in small Midwestern towns who attack any book that discusses sex or drugs. And there are plenty of real-life middle-aged moms in Midwestern towns who do just that, year after year, complaining about The Catcher in the Rye, Harry Potter, and Judy Blume books.

But as this map shows, people want to restrict books on the East Coast and West, in the Midwest and the South. It's not a regional thing and it's not a small town thing. In a time when people lament how difficult it is to get a child to read anything that's longer than a text message, it seems a bit odd that there are still thousands of people who make it their mission to restrict the types of books available to kids in their school libraries.

Shouldn't a parent have the right to decide what their child reads? Shouldn't they be able to restrict what their innocent, wide-eyed, never-says-a-swear-word-and-doesn't-know-what-witches-are child reads? Sure. But it becomes a First Amendment issue when those same people try to decide what other people's children are allowed to read. When these people petition school boards to remove certain books, that's when they cross the line. Or, as the American Library Association notes in a newsletter, people "must not call on governmental or public agencies to prevent others from reading or seeing that material." Often times, challenges fail, but even those have a long-term effect, as a school board or library may hesitate in the future before buying a book, out of fear someone will one day accuse them of promoting cocaine use, treason and, worst of all, masturbation.

What kind of material are we talking about? A list of some of the most-challenged titles from 2009:
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
To Kill a Mockingbird
Catcher in the Rye
And Tango Makes Three

Yes, 60 years after publication, Catcher in the Rye still draws attacks. "Sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, not suitable for age group." And those three things are supposed to frighten people away from it?

The ALA releases a newsletter and bibliography detailing the stories behind many challenges. For example, in West Bend, Wisconsin - which had several controversies from fragile, overly concerned citizens - a group challenged Baby Be-Bop. The reason? Four men "belonging to the Christian Civil Liberties Union sought $30,000 apiece for emotional distress they suffered from the West Bend, Wis. Community Memorial Library for displaying a copy of the book. The claim states, 'specific words used in the book are derogatory and slanderous to all males' and 'the words can permeate violence and put one's life in possible jeopardy, adults and children alike.'"

The challenge failed, by a 9-0 vote. No word on whether the men recovered from the slanderous terms.

Book challenges cross political and racial lines. They can come from any group, from any state. And when they restrict any viewpoint, they damage their community. Again: If someone wants to keep little Johnny from reading about atheists who don't believe in the power of Christ's blood or vampires who crave blood a bit too much, that's their choice. I'd almost always disagree, but the parent has the right. What they can't do is crawl through a library's shelves searching for titles that personally offend them, just so the book can be removed or put in a brown paper bag.

How crazy can people get? In Menifee, California, a parent complained about Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Why? A child "came across the term oral sex. Officials said the district is forming a committee to consider a permanent classroom ban of the dictionary." The kid surely just stumbled upon the phrase, while looking up the definition of oracle or orality. An idea? Instead of sprinting to the school district, talk to the kid. Or, do what parents have been doing for hundreds of years and don't talk to the kid. But take responsibility. Don't blame the dictionary for doing what dictionaries do. And don't blame the school board and library for doing what libraries do.

People have challenged books for decades and will never stop. Fortunately, there are people who will never stop fighting for books.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Gilligan and the Globetrotters

A few months ago I wrote about basketball on television. Fake basketball. The type played by the Fresh Prince, the guys from Porky's, and the gang from One Tree Hill.

Somehow I missed Gilligan.

Long before the Lost crew became lost, then found, then returned, then finally disappeared from the airwaves, the passengers aboard the doomed S.S. Minnow became stranded on an uncharted island. If it's been awhile since you've watched tapes from your Gilligan's library - do you file yours chronologically or thematically? - the poor souls eventually escaped the island, only to return in made-for-TV specials that did little but damage the Gilligan brand.

One of those shows was called, basically enough, The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island.

The plot: The island's now a resort. A corporate raider wants to take over the island (yes, Gilligan's Island foreshadowed our current times, when businessmen are routinely portrayed as villains). The Globetrotters land on the island. They play a basketball game against a team the corporate guy has assembled. A team of robots called The New Invincibles. Those are the basics and, really, has anyone ever done an advanced breakdown of a Gilligan's plot?

That is a different actress playing Ginger. And the Howells now have a son, even though during the run of the show they were childless. Perhaps they adopted someone during their time off the island. David Ruprecht - who later became famous to shut-ins and bargain-lovers worldwide as the handsome and overly energetic host of Supermarket Sweep - played the son.

To the game. Accustomed to beating up on the Washington Generals, the Globetrotters struggled early against The New Invincibles, who dominate action with their advanced strategy and great length. It seems like the Invincibles would be weak against the running game, but the Trotters make the mistake of trying to attack too much in the halfcourt.

The Lakers' legendary announcer Chick Hearn broadcast the game. Chick actually had a decent film career. Much better than Johnny Most's, anyway. Chick appeared in everything from Hardcastle and McCormick to Matlock. Most famously, he appeared with Chevy Chase in Fletch - 6-5, with an afro, 6-9. In real life, Chick dominated the airwaves during Lakers game. His analysts - Pat Riley was once one - rarely had a chance to say much beyond "That's right, Chick." His bearded analyst for the Globetrotters-Invincibles game doesn't even get to say that.

For those who always dreamed of seeing Mary Ann and Ginger in cheerleader's outfits, this show is for you. And for those who always feared seeing Mrs. Howell in a cheerleader's outfit, this show is not for you.

Remarkably, given that the special effects budget for this episode was probably in the mid-three figures, the court looks halfway decent, much different than the average TV show basketball court, which is often about 20 feet long and five feet wide. It's got a nice hoop, glass backboard, solid net. I'm sure the tropical heat and wind gusts affected everyone's game, but the professor and the grounds crew did the best they could.

The Globetrotters trail at halftime 95-3. Read it again. 95-3.

The professor eventually figures out the Trotters have to use their tricks and chicanery to confuse the robots. They've learned every possible basketball play in existence so are prepared for any offense, except a wacky one that may or may not involve throwing a bucket of water on a referee. The Globetrotters go on a 96-3 run to take their first lead of the game, 99-98. Martin Landau - or someone who stole Martin Landau's identity and look and agreed to appear in the film as the leader of the New Invincibles - apparently didn't believe in calling timeouts to stem the other team's momentum. I'd like to think even Phil Jackson would burn through his 20-second timeouts if an opponent outscored the Lakers by 93 points in less than two quarters.

Eventually, several Globetrotter players foul out, forcing Gilligan and the Skipper to enter the game. A pair of free throws give the Invincibles a lead in the closing seconds. As the clock ticks down on the game and the show, Gilligan finds himself standing with the ball, scared, shocked, frozen. It's a familiar plot, the worst player on the court saving the game in the final seconds. It was also used in the Porky's movies when Pee Wee won a state title by throwing in a shot backward. Later, Hoosiers used a similar twist with Ollie, minus the robots and backward shot. Here, a pair of Globetrotters pick up Gilligan and fire him through the net for the winning basket. It counts, even though it seems likely this would be considered offensive goaltending. If a player can't touch the ball while it's on the rim, can he really fall through the rim for a field goal? Perhaps the teams played under international rules.

The lesson? Never bet against the Globetrotters, no matter the deficit. Also? TV has come a long way since 1981.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Yankees, Twins. You know how this ends

So odd. The Twins have transformed from being perhaps the most dominant home team in baseball postseason history to one of the worst the game's ever seen. In 1987 and 1991 the Twins went 11-1 in the Metrodome during the postseason, including 8-0 in the World Series. People waved Homer Hankies in celebration, but now use them to wipe away the tears from their distraught child's face. After tonight's game, the Twins have now lost an absurd 10 games in a row at home, eight in the Dome and two at Target Field. The old Met Stadium is spinning in its mall grave.

Inside and outside, under a teflon roof and natural skies, against Angels, Athletics and Yankees, in close games and routs, the Twins have lost in every possible manner. They've lost with Pierzynski behind the plate and with Mauer, with Santana on the mound and Pavano. A battalion of relief pitchers have squandered leads and a horde of hitters have left men in scoring position. They've had injured pitchers - Liriano in 2006 - and injured hitters: Morneau last season and this year. Ron Gardenhire remains the one constant. Poor Gardy. At this point it might be a good idea if he just decides before each game to get tossed in the sixth or seventh inning, because nothing good ever happens after that. They're a hell of a playoff team for five innings. If they played Little League, the Twins would be the Chinese Taipei of Major League Baseball.

At this point, my friends in New York take pity on the Twins. No one hates the Twins. What's the point? If they could, these Yankee fans would pin purple "I tried" ribbons on the chests of Twins players and give them a kindly pat on the head while telling them how they "play the game the right way." They'd follow it with a gentle kick to the ass before breaking out into a "Red Sox suck" chant.

Last night I didn't get home until 10 p.m. When I turned on the TV, I was a bit surprised to see the Twins leading 3-0 as the top of the sixth inning began. About an hour later it'd all gone horribly wrong. By the end of tonight's fiasco, I began to wonder if the Twins might be in another new park - say, in 2030, when Target Field is obsolete and the team needs a dome stadium - before they ever win another home playoff game.

It's even possible the impossible has happened: Twins fans might be just as pessimistic and fatalistic about their team's playoff hopes as Vikings fans.

Every Viking fan expects tragedy to strike in the playoffs. Anyone who had a shred of optimism finally learned after last season's NFC title game that to love the purple is to love pain. You could call it masochistic, but no one loves this pain, the torment that comes with Hank Stram's taunts, Larry Csonka's facemask, Old Man Willie's run, Drew Pearson's pushoff, Darrin Nelson's drop, 41-0, Gary Anderson's miss, taking a knee, and 12 men on the field. These moments leave scars. If Randy Moss ignites the team and they storm into the playoffs with a 12-4 record, fans will again go crazy for their favorite helmeted warriors. Yet nearly all of them will look toward the playoffs thinking, What in the hell will go wrong this year? Will it be a Favre interception or a Peterson fumble? Will it be a key holding call or a defensive pass interference? Will Childress screw up or a referee?

Twins fans have reached that point. Perhaps some talked themselves into dreaming of a Twins victory in four games.

"Well, the Yanks' pitching after Sabathia is a bit shaky. And Jeter's struggled all year. And Christ, Lance Berkman? He's done nothing."

But even if they thought those things, they probably didn't verbalize the feelings, for fear that a wiser friend would remind them that the Twins never beat the Yankees in a series and, now, it appears, can never even beat them in a single game. No, now Twins fans watch these games waiting for disaster, in the field or at the plate. Or, as happened tonight, behind the plate. The details change but the story remains the same.

Now the Twins come to New York. Like last year, I'll probably again hear my neighbor cheer as the Yankees end Minnesota's season. Maybe they'll drill Brian Duensing in the first inning or maybe they'll rally against Matt Capps in the ninth.

But perhaps the Twins can pull off the improbable, if not the impossible. Win two in Yankee Stadium. Make the Yankees and their Jeter-jersey-wearing fans think of their own bad memories: the 2004 ALCS. Even this series back at 2. Yeah. It could happen. All they have to do then is win a home playoff game.


Sunday, October 3, 2010

Tommies beat Johnnies. How God? Why God? Is there a God?

So here are 10,000 - or so - words on St. John's football. My apologies in advance. Read it in shifts, if need be. Print it out, take it on a cross-country plane trip. Laminate it, give it as a Christmas gift.

A pair of college football games in Minnesota on Saturday were decided by a point. In one, Northwestern beat Minnesota 29-28 in Big Ten action.

Then there was the game people cared about. In Collegeville, St. Thomas defeated St. John's 27-26 in overtime in front of 16,421 people, which set a Division III attendance record. The previous record came in 2003, when 13,107 freezing souls watched the Johnnies edge Bethel for the MIAC title, a victory that gave John Gagliardi a record-setting 409 victories.

It's the first time since 1997 the Tommies beat the Johnnies - and only the second time since 1992 - and when you read that result, nothing makes sense in the world, even if many people expected a St. Thomas victory. St. Thomas defeated St. John's in football. Typing it twice still doesn't make it seem real. I wrote last year about the rivalry between the schools. It's a bitter rivalry, or at least as bitter as a rivalry can get when it's between a pair of schools that have more similarities than differences, schools that are separated by an hour, are both Catholic institutions, attract students from the same small towns and big cities, and send graduates into the same work force to labor for the same companies.

For much of the game the Johnnies appeared to again be the better team, even though St. Thomas came in ranked higher for the first time in a few decades. Unfortunately for the thousands of people dressed in red, SJU failed to take advantage of several St. Thomas turnovers in the first half. With a little more than 3 minutes left in the game, St. Thomas tied it at 20-20, only to miss the extra point. The Johnnies marched down in the closing minutes before a late interception ruined a chance at victory in regulation. After the Tommies started OT with a touchdown and PAT to take a 27-20 lead, the Johnnies scored on a fourth down play. But just as people prepared for a second overtime, the game ended as St. John's missed the extra point and a few thousand people dressed in purple rudely stormed the field to celebrate.

Those are the basic facts. All that's missing are the hundred plays and dozens of what-ifs that swirl around any game that comes down to one play. Johnnie fans feel the Tommies got a bit lucky, and Tommie fans say, even if that's so, it only makes up for the fact the Johnnies needed a bit of luck and a controversial call to win the past two seasons.

Tommie fans rightfully celebrated their victory because it gives them the edge in the race for the conference title and it came against the hated Johnnies and, perhaps best of all, it came on St John's home field, the mecca of Division III football. Beyond that, though, there's been a feeling hanging over the game that perhaps there's a power shift in the MIAC taking place. Maybe the Tommies, who dominate in several sports, have finally - under their outstanding third-year head coach Glenn Caruso - found the formula that will end the Johnnies' control of the league. Many people thought the Tommies would handily defeat the Johnnies today. That didn't happen. Doesn't make it any easier for the St. John's players, coaches or fans - the last time St. John's had a moral victory, Johnny "Blood" McNally stood on the sidelines as coach - but it does show the teams are all-but even this season.

And no matter what Tommie graduates tell themselves during the late-night shift at McDonald's or St. Thomas students tell themselves during drunken parties where they read Vince Flynn passages to each other (cheap jokes are all the losing side's fans have after games like this. Sad, I know.), one game - one season - does not indicate a seismic shift. In 10 years, if the Tommies have won seven conference titles in that span and routinely defeat the Johnnies and also make it to the national semifinals a few times, perhaps people can look back at October 2, 2010 and say, there, that was the day everything changed in the MIAC.

But one day doesn't trump 58 years.

That's how long Gagliardi's coached at St. Johns, after spending four seasons at Carroll. Fifty-eight seasons. During that time with the Johnnies, he's gone 450-122-10. He's basically lost about two games a season. In other words, if history's any indicator, the Johnnies are done losing this year. Yet even if that is the case, some SJU fans will consider the season to be something of a disappointment. That's what happens when you build something up over seven decades of action.

One-hundred-twenty-two losses. Today felt unique because it came against the Tommies, but under Gagliardi, most defeats are heartbreaking, gut-wrenching affairs that leave fans lamenting one missed kick or one fumble. So to ease the pain of Saturday's loss, here's a look at those 122 defeats. Perhaps looking at the past will provide a guide to the future, while presenting comfort for the present.

* Gagliardi's had five unbeaten seasons at St. John's. Thirteen times he's only lost once.

* The last time Gagliardi had a losing record? 1967.

* This was the first time St. Thomas won in Collegeville since 1986, when the Tommies won 56-21. They followed that up with victories over the Johnnies in 1987, 1990 and 1992. That, too, signaled a changing of the guard in the MIAC. The Tommies were taking over the league. The Johnnies - and Gagliardi's - reign over the league had come to an end. And then the Johnnies went on to win 16 of 17 in the series. So a one-point defeat somehow doesn't sound like a mythical, magical impossible-to-define-but-we'll-know-it-when-we-see-it-and-there's-no-stopping-the-Tommies-and-their-millions-and-large-enrollment-and-charismatic-coach changing of the guard. Or put it this way: Imagine St. Thomas now winning every game against St. John's until 2023. Finally, that year the Johnnies break through and win by a point. In overtime, on a missed extra point. Would that mean there was a changing of the guard?

* To save space (too late), let's take a look at the losses since 1989, which sort of signaled the start of the modern Johnnie dynasty. Counting Saturday's game, since 1989 St. John's is 216-39-3. Of those 39 defeats, 15 were by more than 10 points. Two of those double-digit defeats were against Mount Union, two more against Whitewater, the overwhelming Division III forces of the past two decades.

So here are the toughest defeats the Johnnies and Gagliardi have suffered since '89, when the Johnnies went 11-1 and lost to Dayton 28-0 in the national semifinals. Many have been in what-the-hell-happened fashion, the kind of games that probably leave Gagliardi wondering what he did to make God angry, while Johnnie opponents wait impatiently for the football gods to finally even the score. The Johnnies rarely get blown out. They've won countless times in seemingly miracle fashion, but the memorable losses stand out because they are so rare.

- 19-7 loss to Dayton in 1991 semifinals. The Johnnies dominated that entire year, putting together one of their more overwhelming seasons. Their closest game was a 35-25 victory over Hamline. No one else came within 10 points. They beat Carleton 56-7, Macalester 56-0, St. Olaf 67-19 and in the playoffs decimated Coe so badly that everyone in Iowa, including Hayden Fry, felt it, winning 75-2. But then came the semifinals. The Johnnies committed an astounding 1o turnovers - 10! - but still only lost by 12 points. If they commit five turnovers, they probably win by two scores. In addition, star running back Jay Conzemius played injured.

- A superior Johnnies team lost to St. Thomas 15-12 in 1992, a game that ultimately kept the Johnnies out of the playoffs. Carleton improbably earned the playoff berth that year as they shared the conference title with SJU, despite the fact the Johnnies beat them 70-7.

- St. John's went 11-2 in 1994. One loss came on Homecoming against Hamline, as the Pipers won 27-26 (there's that score again), as a failed two-point conversion attempt in the closing seconds cost the Johnnies. That game started the sterling career of quarterback Kurt Ramler, who was just a sophomore that season. In the semifinals, St. John's lost 19-16 at home against Albion, a game famous for a horrific noncall. Albion's winning TD came when a receiver caught a pass that clearly bounced off the ground before the receiver scooped it up. Albion went on to defeat Washington & Jefferson 38-15 to win the national title. It's impossible and dangerous to compare scores. But what the hell. If the Johnnies had won that game and faced Washington & Jefferson in the Stagg Bowl....they'd have won the national championship. Johnnie fans are still very bitter over that defeat.

- The Johnnies won their first 11 games in 1996. In the second round of the playoffs, they led Wisconsin-Lacrosse 23-8 at halftime, but squandered the lead, losing 37-30.

- In 1998, the Johnnies again went unbeaten in the regular season, only to lose in heartbreaking fashion 10-7 to Eau Claire, in another game marked by controversial calls and a goal-line fumble by SJU late in the game, when they were on the verge of winning.

- Pacific-Lutheran beat the Johnnies in the quarterfinals in 1999, 19-9. One of those games the Johnnies have lost by 10 points since 1989. But that one deserves an asterisk. In the fourth quarter, St. John's led 9-6 and was driving for a potential clinching score. Instead, Pacific Lutheran forced a fumble, and scored a pair of touchdowns to end the Johnnies' season, a year immortalized in Austin Murphy's The Sweet Season. Pacific Lutheran won the national title that year.

- Mount Union edged the Johnnies 10-7 in the 2000 title game, as the Johnnies' defense stopped the powerful Raiders offense until the final minutes. Unfortunately, the offense only got one drive going and a field goal in the final five seconds won it.

- 2002. National Semifinals. Texas. St. John's falls behind Trinity 34-13 at halftime. The Johnnies stage a remarkable rally and tie it at 34-34, only to lose it late in the fourth quarter, 41-34. Many members of that team were on the roster the next season, when St. John's went unbeaten and won the national title.

That's a sampling. There are others: In 2004, for instance, in somewhat of a rebuilding season, St. John's lost three games by a total of five points. And now throw Saturday's game onto that list of most heartbreaking defeats. It's a game people will talk about for years, even if St. John's fans, players and coaches would like nothing more than to forget it within the week.

Saturday belonged to the Tommies. But the Johnnies have suffered devastating defeats before. They've lost to key rivals, even if it's rarely been to their biggest one. But one loss does not a changing of the guard make. Not when there are 57 years of history that say, in the end, the Johnnies and Gagliardi will always recover and quickly find themselves back atop the MIAC standings.

Now pass the Johnnie Bread and some wine, please.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Coughing with Michael Chabon

The New Yorker Festival opened Friday, the annual three-day bonanza where famous authors, writers, directors, actors and editors sit on stages in front of large audiences and discuss their craft in theaters across the city. I'd never gone before. Usually I'd see an ad in the New Yorker touting the event, but I'd see it a week or two after tickets went on sale, which is what happens when the magazines pile up on a table in the living room. Finally this year I saw the ad in time. Two minutes after tickets went on sale, I bought a pair of them.

Sunday I'm attending a conversation between New Yorker editor David Remnick and writer Ian Frazier. Two of the best in nonfiction.

But on Friday I saw one of my writing idols, Michael Chabon. The author of Wonder Boys, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, numerous other novels and a couple of nonfiction collections appeared onstage with fellow author Zadie Smith, another writer who can not be introduced at an event without the moderator throwing the word "acclaimed" before her name.

Smith read a nonfiction piece, a story about her father, a World War II veteran who didn't want to be known as a hero or brave, even though he was both.

Chabon followed. Instead of reciting passages from one of his famous books, he read a work in progress, a treat for those in the audience, many of whom have surely consumed all of his published words. The piece focused on a home birth. To describe it beyond that would be impossible, except to say all of Chabon's skills - from the descriptions to the humor to the incomparable word play - were on display.

About three-quarters of a way through Chabon's reading, I suddenly, inexplicably, horrifyingly, embarrassingly, choked. I wasn't drinking or eating. I didn't have any gum in my mouth. But somehow I found myself blurting out a cough, followed quickly by another and the feeling in my chest and throat let me know this would be a long coughing spell, which quickly devolved into a coughing fit. I left my seat almost immediately and retreated to the rear of the theater. It felt like a piece of popcorn had lodged in my throat, but the last time I ate popcorn was at a movie three weeks ago. If it was popcorn, I had more problems than a cough.

I coughed several more times in the back of the theater before finally going out the door to compose myself. Thankfully, another attendee took attention away from my mysterious medical issue. As I walked to the rear of the theater, I watched three people drag a young man who had fainted. They pulled him out into the waiting area, sat him in a chair and stayed with him until he recovered. Could have been the heat. Or maybe it was Chabon's graphic description of a bloody vagina that made the poor guy woozy. As brilliant as Chabon's writing is, a bloody vagina is still a bloody vagina. And, actually, because of Chabon's skills, the mental images are even clearer. I'm sure the guy blamed the heat.

My coughing stopped and I returned to my sixth-row seat for the question and answer session. One woman asked how the writers feel about fiction compared to nonfiction. Smith finds nonfiction easier to write, Chabon's the opposite. Another woman said she'd come all the way from Berkeley to see Chabon. It quickly became obvious - from her body language, longing in her voice and reluctance to leave the microphone, even after Chabon answered her question - that I didn't have to worry about being accused of being the attendee who would most likely stalk Chabon. If the moderator hadn't pointed to another person who had a question, the lady might still be standing there.

Like many in the audience, she was impressed by Chabon's ability to write about childbirth and wondered if there'd be an equivalent event that men go through. "Whaling," he said.

I walked to one of the two microphones and asked my question. I've spoken with other writers about Chabon's famous use of similes and metaphors. No one uses them like Chabon. They pop off the page, one after another, sometimes three or four in a paragraph. On a journalism board, during a discussion of similes, a few writers debated whether you should use a simile if it takes more than a few minutes to think of it. In other words, if you have to slave over it for too long, it's probably not any good. I asked Chabon what's it like for him. He conjures up phrases that no one else would think of, but after you've read them, it becomes impossible to imagine the person or event being described in any other way. He writes sentences I've memorized by heart, lines that should be required reading in all English classes and recited even before schoolchildren say the Pledge of Allegiance each morning. In his review for The Yiddish Policemen's Union in New York Magazine, Sam Anderson listed some of Chabon's best lines:

The detective's ex-wife "accepts a compliment as if it's a can of soda that she suspects him of having shaken." In a crowded apartment, two babies are "stashed away on the balcony like disused skis." Rain is "tossed in vandalistic handfuls at the windshield."

Similes! I was talking to Michael Chabon about similes. This is like asking Magic Johnson about the art of the half-court bounce pass. It's like asking Warren Buffett about investments. It's like...well, some other simile.

His answer? They're easy for him. When writing fiction, he might occasionally struggle with plotting the story or other big-picture situations. But those unique phrases that liven up every page of his books are practically effortless. I don't know for sure whether he believes a simile is worthless if you have to spend more than a minute thinking of it, but that's only because he's probably never done it himself.

The event lasted a little over an hour. On my walk back to the subway, I strolled in front of the poor guy who passed out at the event, as he asked his female companion what exactly happened. Nothing much. He fainted and had to be hauled out of a theater in front of a few hundred people while ushers and security looked at him with a mixture of pity and anxiety.

And he missed hearing the best writer of his generation read his work and discuss his craft.