Sunday, January 31, 2010

More notes from sunny and warm Cape Town

* Tuesday is the 20th anniversary of one of the most momentous speeches of the 20th century. On February 2, 1990, in a speech to parliament, South African president F.W. de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC, announced that Nelson Mandela would be released and declared an end to apartheid. Mandela was released on February 11, after 27 years of imprisonment. Four years later, he was elected president. The newspapers are filled with stories marking both of those anniversaries, though many of the accounts express dissatisfaction with the pace of change in the country, noting continuing problems such as a high crime rate and shocking levels of poverty. Still, the key number there is 20. It's only been 20 years. Twenty years since apartheid ended and the first small steps toward democracy began. How advanced was America's democracy in 1796? The problems are real and difficult and the country is still fighting its own history. But even in 20 more years, the story of South Africa's fledgling democracy won't be finished. It's still early.

* Seeing the poverty in Cape Town can be jolting and gut-wrenching. A big story the past few days has centered on a toilet controversy in one of the townships. The government agreed to install more toilets so residents wouldn't be forced to share. They were open-air toilets, which are exactly what they sound like and as bad as you imagine. They're in the open, sometimes on the side of the road. Most residents constructed walls themselves, but others could not afford material to build a barrier, leaving the facilities and the people exposed. The government said it would be unfair to pay for material for those people, since others did not receive such aid. This is poverty.

* Over the years I've picked up a few new words from Louise and on trips to Cape Town. Lekker is a favorite (basically means something's nice). Isit (sometimes I see it spelled izit, but basically it's just putting is and it together). Just started using this one, and might try breaking it into everyday conversation back in the States as a substitute for "really." I use really too much, as a conversation filler and extender, or when I feel like I don't have anything to add. So might as well add a new line that means the same thing.

"My mom ran a marathon yesterday."


But the word I use most often isn't unique to this country, though the way it's used here is unfamiliar to Americans.

Shame. Shame as in pity, poor thing. But while we might say, "It's a shame," here it's used by itself and can be used during tragedies, humorous moments and everything in between.

"He proposed to his girlfriend using the scoreboard at Yankee Stadium. She said no, and threw a beer on his head. Then 55,000 people booed him."


Or, "All four of her kids are ugly, each one more hideous than the last."

"Shame, man."

* In eight days I've attended three or four braai's, with a couple more on the schedule. Braai's are basically barbecues, often outdoor but we just attended an indoor one. Ate ostrich at that braai. The men cook the meat, the women make the salads and everyone drinks. South Africans like their drink and are skilled in this ancient art. Their blood is made up of 50 percent alcohol. Cut 'em, drink the blood and watch your BAC rise to .21. I have a suspicion that some in-laws consider me a bit of a weakling in that department. It's an accurate assessment. I feel sort of bad, since I'm - in a way - representing America. I wouldn't want them to think that the Yanks are unable to handle their liquor, even if this one can't. Dozens of my friends could compete with the South Africans in any drinking competition they want and would be the last ones standing. Literally. And, damn it, we have alcoholics too. Meanwhile, I nurse my two or three beers like a frightened 10th grader attending his first kegger, giving off the impression that Americans can't imbibe with the big boys. What makes that comparison even more accurate is that I haven't had to fight off this much peer pressure since 10th grade.

"No, no, I've had enough."

"Really, wasn't that your third?"



If any of my in-laws are able to some day travel to the States, I'll introduce them to a few of those beer-swilling friends I mentioned. Guys who in 15 years will be waiting for a liver transplant. And then we'll sit back and mock the South Africans who can't handle their liquor like real men, like real Americans. Me? I'll still be nursing those two or three beers, with a side of soda.

* Today I was told I was "quiet, for an American." I know lots of quiet Americans. And, yes, many loud ones. What can I say, I prefer to observe. But I don't think I'm any quieter than the average American. Quiet for a New Yorker...might be more accurate.

* A stunning piece of trivia: Television came to South Africa in 1976. Not color television, not cable television. Television. The paranoid, controlling apartheid government feared the effects of the device on its citizens and that had nothing to do with the evils of reality TV. The exact date has long been a point of contention with Louise. She's forever claimed that it arrived in 1977, her birth year. A friend of Louise's visited us a few years ago and claimed it arrived in 1978, his birth year. Louise seemed to get a leg up on the debate when we purchased one of those birthday books back at an antique store in Janesville. The skinny pamphlet listed notable events of the year. One of them said television came to South Africa. In the past few days, two other South Africans have said 1975. Alas, Wikipedia says 1976. And if Wikipedia's wrong...

* I stayed up until 2 a.m. so I could follow the Lakers-Celtics game online. Lakers won on a late Kobe jumper. Life is good in Cape Town on this night, and not just because of the weather.

* Tomorrow night we're going to dinner with Louise's Portuguese relatives. Louise's late father was Portuguese, so these will be his relatives. Louise hasn't seen much of them over the years, even before she came to America. This will be my first time seeing them. Should be fun.

The Portuguese don't like to drink, right?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Don't be the retiring type

Sometime within the next two months Brett Favre will choose to either retire from the NFL or return to the Vikings in 2010. A few months after that he'll change his mind, before making his final decision in late July. Each of those decisions will spawn dozens of columns and online stories. Some will applaud the decision, others will deride the change of heart. The rest will advise old No. 4 to finally retire.

That final category is one I really hope to avoid reading.

There's nothing worse than writers or fans who demand an athlete retire. Strike that. There's nothing worse than writers or fans who demand an athlete retire at the top of their game, so they can leave the sport while our memories of their abilities remain as pure and poignant as our memories of a first kiss.

I want the opposite. If an athlete retires, fine. But if they want to cling to a career with every last bit of savvy and dwindling ability in their arsenal, even better. Athletes should only quit when it's their call or when no team wants them. If that means their skills decline 75 percent, so be it. If that means they have to switch franchises three times in their late 30s and can only be used as a DH or a pinch-hitter, great. Keep playing as long possible. The guy's a former All-star guard but is now a 12th man on an NBA team that finishes six games under .500? Great. Keep getting beat on defense and airballing those three-pointers.

And don't worry about ruining a legacy.

Protecting their legacy. That's the phrase often used when talking about legendary athletes who hang on too long or retire at a young age. Magic Johnson hurt his legacy by coming back in 1996 as a beefy power forward who clashed with younger teammates. Michael Jordan damaged his legacy by returning with the Wizards in 2001 as an overweight shooting guard with a bum knee and an oversize ego.

The most famous example of an athlete damaging his legacy is probably Willie Mays. The phrase "stumbling around like Willie Mays with the Mets" has become as heinous a sports cliche as "we're just going to take things one game at a time." If the sports world insists on dragging an athlete's failing skills out for comparison every time a player is encouraged to hang up the cleats, this phrase should at least be updated with the times. Maybe, "it's more painful than watching Emmitt Smith stumble around with the Arizona Cardinals." Emmitt. There's another one who supposedly damaged his legacy by refusing to leave the sport when it was deemed appropriate by the masses.

But are the legacies really damaged, except in the minds of 40-year-olds who apparently have the reasoning skills and emotional maturity of 4-year-olds? Take Magic and Jordan, two players who have a permanent spot on every list made when ranking the top 5 players in NBA history. Magic didn't lose his slot to Isiah Thomas or Doc Rivers simply because his final season in the NBA ended with him being suspended for bumping a ref, followed by the Lakers flaming out in the playoffs against Houston. When people reflect on Magic's career, that season is now part of the discussion. So is The Magic Hour. And? Does that one season erase everything that happened between 1980 and 1991? Certainly not. In his career biography, it's simply another chapter, albeit one filled with slow trots up the court and off-the-mark jumpers instead of fastbreaks and on-the-mark passes. But why would that concern anyone? Same thing with Jordan. Michael Leahy's book When Nothing Else Matters superbly dissects Jordan's disastrous two-year stint in Washington, where the player who could once do no wrong suffered more failures than a one-term president. Those two years are now part of his permanent record, neatly filed away in a manila folder somewhere. But do those two years damage what he accomplished between 1985 and 1998? Certainly not.

I'm glad both players returned for those respective stints, no matter how different they were to the rest of their careers. I want to watch great athletes play as long as possible and it doesn't really matter to me whether they're as powerful as ever or as weak as a YMCA Sunday night gym warrior.

And while athletes are criticized for sticking around past their expiration date, they're often applauded if they supposedly have a good sense of timing when it comes to retirement. Jim Brown, Barry Sanders. Two guys who went out while still the best at what they did. Jordan accomplished this the first time he retired from the Bulls in 1993. And he did it again the second time he retired after the 1998 season. Such a perfect ending, sealing his legacy and a sixth title with that push-off and jumper against the Jazz in Game 6 of the Finals. It was the type of ending poets could have written about for another century. Then he had to go and ruin it by signing with the Wizards. For guys like Sanders and Brown, retiring when they did was right for them. That doesn't mean it's right for any other athlete and it certainly doesn't mean their way should be the standard for every other professional.

Sometimes retirement concerns focus on health, specifically in boxing and football. No one wants to see damaged or injured players become more damaged by refusing to retire. One more punch or one more sack and concussion apparently weigh heavy on the minds of those who chronicle the games. But even with these I'm a bit reluctant to ever say someone should stop. In the end, what knowledge do I have about a situation that the player and his doctors and team don't have? Does my ability to Google the effects of concussions provide an insight that's otherwise missing? Former Senator Bill Frist once took some much-deserved criticism for diagnosing Terri Schiavo by watching a video. He was actually at least a doctor, if an overly ambitious and politicized one. It was ridiculous for him to offer up a medical opinion on someone he'd never checked and never knew. So I'd also feel slightly foolish demanding that an athlete retire, simply because my medical opinion is it'd be his best option for maintaining his good health.

This phenomenon seems unique to sports. Is anyone upset that Spielberg didn't retire after Schindler's List, when he was at the top of his game? Shouldn't Sully have grounded himself after landing in the Hudson, instead of returning to the air a few months later? He has as much chance of topping that performance as Jordan did of besting his shot against the Jazz. Yet obviously no one cares. J.D. Salinger died Wednesday. He hadn't published anything since 1965 and The Catcher in The Rye came out in 1951. Was the world better off because he sealed his literary legacy by refusing to publish second-rate material the past 45 years? Certainly his detachment from public life added layers of intrigue to his life, but millions would have been content to watch him damage his reputation as a writer, if that would have meant being able to read a few more novels or short stories from a legendary author.

At the same time, there are some occupations where people should quit before their skills suffer. Like, say, brain surgeons.

But sports are what fascinate. Fans and writers feel a connection that's unique to athletes. We demand that players love their sport and the competition, but express surprise when they're unwilling and unable to give up the only thing they've known for 20 years. We act disappointed that they linger on the bench and on our screens, as if anyone should be expected to say goodbye to millions of dollars and millions of cheers simply because it'd be convenient for our own psyches. Hang on until someone says it's time to go.

An athlete should retire when they believe it's time to be done, and not a moment sooner. No one has the right to tell them when to quit. It's always their choice, no matter how many great memories they've provided in the past and no matter how few memories they provide in their twilight years.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Savor your high-speed Internet. Savor your dial-up

I'm typing this from my brother-in-law's Cape Town house on his computer, using his high-speed Internet connection. Anthony is as tech-savvy as Steve Jobs's assistant. He gets every new gadget, is aware of every new toy and picks apart and puts together computers.

Yet even he is held prisoner by Internet speeds that would make 1994 web users wince and whine. For those of you in the States who are at work and complain when a web site takes two seconds to load instead of one, and wonder what in the hell is wrong with your IT department, please, just today, suffer quietly. For those typing away on a bedroom computer who express disgust that your home Internet connection is so much slower than the one at work, and that it takes five seconds for a YouTube video to load instead of two, please, just today, say nothing more. For those of you listening to your dial-up connection - that noise many of us haven't heard in probably five years - who are stuck dealing with dial-up speeds, please don't complain today. And for those of you stuck playing the Oregon Trail who wish your parents would get up to speed with technology that was at least relevant in the 1990s, please, just today, keep shooting the buffalo and dying of dysentery in silence. All of you, appreciate what you have.

And appreciate what South Africans experience every day they dial in or connect to the low-speed Internet service. Each web page I click on takes nearly two minutes to load, no matter how few graphics litter the page. Loading, loading, loading, loading. That mantra lingers on the screen, tormenting and teasing. In the time it takes for a web page to finally appear, someone could use the time reading two pages of a novel, or typing two pages of their own as-yet-unpublished Great American Novel. The system teaches patience and persistence. As I tried paying our cable bill online, I waited five minutes for the log-in screen to appear. Conspiracy theorists might suspect Time Warner itself of causing the delay, hoping my frustration would make me give up, leading to a small but painful late charge. But I won the clash, remembering similar Internet battles of the past. Like the time in 1996 when I waited four minutes for ESPN's home page to appear so I could see if Shaq finally signed with the Lakers.

In Firefox I opened three windows at once, so I had a trio of pages refusing to open. At Louise's parents's house, the connection's a bit faster - the pages will load within a minute - but there's a catch: They purchased a set amount of units. When those expired, we were done for the week and have to wait until the first of the month for it to reset. The units aren't based on time. In fact, no one really knows exactly what they're based on, other than pages with videos or complicated graphics will drain more units, so avoid those pages. And if there's one thing web designers in 2010 do to help out with this problem, it's limit graphics and videos on their pages...

But all of this actually helps us disconnect from the rest of the world a bit, which is something we actually appreciate on this trip. I'm already a veteran proponent of limiting my exposure to technology, though it's not like I advocate it with a Kaczynski-like fervor or anything. I don't have a cell phone an iPod or a Facebook page, and I sometimes enjoy simply being isolated from the constant barrage of media that confronts everyone. So with our Internet options somewhat limited on this trip, we're able to focus on enjoying the scenery and the experiences and the new foods and Louise's family and the beach. Leisure time is spent with a book instead of online. I've already finished four books and could probably finish a fifth if I spent an hour surfing the Internet, waiting for the pages to load. On the other hand, this is 2010. And as a spoiled American, I can now firmly state that high-speed Internet isn't just a privilege, it should be a basic right for all people.

Some other Cape Town notes.

My limited exposure to online media has not meant a decline in my consumption of traditional media, specifically newspapers. And Cape Town remains a dream world for lovers of real ink and two-column headlines. I buy the Cape Times every day. Holding it feels like I'm clutching an archaic object. Most U.S. papers long ago switched to a narrower product, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars by using less paper. The Times remains as big and broad as ever, forcing a person to stretch their arms wide when it's finally unfurled.

The Times also ignores a decade's worth of consultants who have preached shorter stories for an audience with shortened attention spans.

No jumps! 10-inch stories! That's what papers have been told for years, though I'm not sure how these ideas have helped newspapers with relevancy or circulation. I mean, the ideas sound right; in today's world, who wants to read a 30-inch story on a city council meeting or a 100-inch human interest story? I don't know. But judging by the number of layoffs, bankruptcies and closings that have haunted the industry, no one wants to read short stories either. So maybe try writing stories with some meat?

Anyway, the Times does just that. On the op-ed page, one of the columns must have been 50 inches; it took up a quarter of a page and had nary a pull quote or graphic. I read the whole thing, but I don't know how many others did. Regardless, I was glad to see that there are still papers who let writers write. Too bad few of those papers are located in North America.

In addition to the Times, Cape Town's home to countless tabloids, siblings to the New York Post and Daily News. Here's where readers find the more tawdry tales of the city, complete with pun-laden headlines and outrage that's usually real but occasionally feigned - the type of thing tabloids have specialized in for more than a century. In one of them, the first inside page is home to a nude woman, who's just standing there, being nude. Smiling. Perhaps pouting. Promoting nothing but her assets, her body probably does little to raise circulation, though it might provide a lift to the male half of the paper's audience.

A unique feature in Cape Town - unique in that I haven't seen it in the U.S., though it might be more prevalent overseas - is that the papers promote themselves on signs throughout the city. So as we drive around, oversize front pages from every tabloid are attached to signs, announcing the day's major stories. Today I saw one that read, "DOG POUNDED TO DEATH." Grotesque, surely a horrific story. Made me want to buy the paper. Another announced the resignation of South Africa's cricket coach. Another read, "HOW TIGER WAS TRAPPED!" That one made me want to stop the car right there and find the nearest newsstand. Was the paper talking about an actual orange beast that got trapped in the wild or on a city block, or was it about Tiger Woods being ensnared in a new scandal?

For anyone who ever makes a trip to Cape Town, be sure to buy as many of the papers as possible. They're entertaining and informative. More importantly, you'll need something to do while surfing the net.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

About that Vikings game

So I guess this post needs to be amended to allow room for a new contender. Having not seen the Vikings game, only read the recap an hour or two after it finished, I'm not sure if this one has a label yet. The Pick? The Big Queasy? The 12th Man? So, with the pain still fresh, where's this one rank? Probably near the top, I'm guessing, as looking at the stats it looked like the Vikings controlled the game, except for the killer turnovers. Although maybe it's for the best that the Vikings didn't get a chance to kick a winning field goal on that last drive. The ghost of Gary Anderson would have probably pushed Longwell's kick wide left. Yuck.

Oh, and in the other game I didn't see, Kobe missed a jumper at the buzzer as the Lakers lost.

EDIT: At least one Vikings fan says this isn't the worst.

From New York to Cape Town: a journal


* Took a Super Shuttle to the airport, scheduled pickup at 5:30 a.m. Have used Super Shuttle several times and have placed numerous visiting friends on the distinct blue vans to ferry them to the airport. Always been on time. Efficient. This time the driver didn't show up until 6 a.m. and had the look of a guy on the run from a sheriff's department. He heaved my bags into the back, then demanded to know how to find Park Terrace East. The drivers usually have great knowledge of the streets and onboard maps. This guy had the latter, but the knowledge was lacking. I directed him a block over and we picked up his final passenger, who let him know he was 45 minutes late for her pickup. So I guess I shouldn't have complained. But he did get me to the airport in plenty of time, keeping Super Shuttle's record of efficiency intact.

* Watched a 10-year-old boy with a pot haircut and a few missing teeth entertain his dad and older brother by walking the wrong way on the flat escalators in the terminal. This was high comedy for all three.

"I'm moonwalking!" the stupid child announced to his enthralled audience of pop and brother, who had the enthusiasm of the French after Lindy's landing. Finally a worker told the future hoodlum to stop. He sulked, slowly carried backward by the escalator. Thank you, JFK employee.

* Scored a seat in the emergency exit row. For a person stuck in economy class, this is as close to first class as you can get without actually breaking through to the other side of that foreboding blue curtain. All the room in the world and no one sat next to me, giving me leg freedom for 18 hours. In exchange, the flight crew simply needed to know that I could handle the door and help with passengers in the "unlikely" event of a water landing or some other crisis. I'm sure I could. But even if the worst happened and I proved I wasn't up to the task, my failure as an emergency exit row patron would be the least of anyone's worries. On the incident report, it probably wouldn't be listed until about page 485.

* South African Airways planes show entertaining safety videos, featuring a cartoon character with an enlarged head who suffers a series of indignities in the film, from being hit by falling luggage from the overhead bin to struggling with his life jacket after that unlikely water landing actually happened. Much more enlightening than the standard instructions flight crews provide.

* I didn't hear a single screaming child on the entire flight from New York to Johannesburg, breaking my string of sitting next to devil babies on about 10 consecutive flights. I did see babies onboard, but their parents either drugged them beforehand or they simply handled international flights better than their bottle-sucking brethren.

* Each seat has a TV screen and the choice of movies or programs. Watched District 9, The Informant and Wall Street. Trivia tidbit: When Louise was growing up in South Africa, she watched Wall Street and told herself that one day she'd move to New York City. She actually walked outside her home, looked up at the stars and thought, "That's the same sky that's over New York. Someday I'm going to be in New York and I'm going to be under that same sky and I'll remember this moment and realize my dreams came true." This is real (she could be a strange and ambitious child). The movie, the deals, the excitement, Charlie Sheen, it all enthralled her. I've seen the journal entries. That was in the early 90s. About eight years later she came to America and has been in the big city for a decade. Meaning, Louise might be one of the seven people who are happy that Wall Street 2 is filming and will be released this year.

* Trip was uneventful, as was the connection from Johannesburg to Cape Town. One oddity - at least for Americans visiting - is that at the Johannesburg airport, passengers take a bus from the gate, onto the tarmac and to the plane. They walk off the bus and then up outside steps to the inside of the plane. Feel like the president boarding Air Force One.

* Greeted at the airport by Louise, her brother, his wife, and their cute 18-month-old daughter. Weather: 75, sunny, no humidity. This I can handle for the next two weeks.

Alas, I will not be able to stay up for the two NFL title games, so will go to sleep now not knowing if the Brett Favre Experiment leads to a Super Bowl berth or yet more disappointment for the Vikings. I'm predicting victory for Minnesota. And if that ultimately proves wrong, I blame jet lag.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Being a fan from afar

During last night's Cavs-Lakers game, I spent the fourth quarter stationed in front of my computer, instead of the TV. After taking an early 11-point lead, the Lakers squandered the advantage and entered the final period trailing by two. That meant it was time to follow along on CBS Sports's website. This cowardly retreat happens often, much more than it should. I tape every Lakers game and usually watch them live.

But the main reason I tape - and, yes, it still is videotape, EP mode, not DVR - is that I can stop watching live whenever LA's errors, missed shots, blown defensive assignments and turnovers get to be too much. The live gamecast online, which gives play-by-play and instant stats, keeps me informed. On CBS, they also have "glogs," - game logs where I get to read the only writing in the world that makes the comments found on youtube and newspaper websites look like Michael Chabon. It's much easier reading text about a loss than it is watching it happen. This way I also avoid hearing the announcers brag about players I don't like and denigrate ones I do. While I might agree with the assessments, it still feels like insults. Only I'm allowed to question Lamar Odom's commitment to the game and Pau Gasol's performance in the clutch.

And if the Lakers do still manage to win, I can simply go back and watch the tape. If they lose? Tape over that game, erasing it from history and my mind.

This isn't done out of any superstition. Many fans think they somehow control the action. If they watch the game while wearing a lucky shirt that hasn't been washed since freshman year in college, they think the team plays better. Or maybe the team plays better when they don't watch so the fan always records the game. Or maybe the team played better until they started watching so they turn it off, on the off-chance that alters the momentum. The players on the court apparently will sense that George finally turned the damned TV off and that sparks a 10-point rally.

So goes the theory. Ridiculous, certainly. No, I don't avoid watching out of superstition, just frustration. Maybe that's even more pathetic than the superstitious. They do what they do because they believe it works. I do what I do because I don't believe in the team's chances.

But for the next two weeks, I'll be following the Lakers and all sports from a faraway land, without the benefit of television or a convenient time zone. For two weeks I'll be in Cape Town, seven hours ahead of New York City. On TV I'll watch cricket and perhaps rugby and soccer with the in-laws, but no NBA. I'll do the best I can, again following online, this time out of necessity. During our stay three years ago, there were nights when I logged in at 5:30 in the morning for a 10:30 p.m. start for the Lakers. This year, the Lakers will be on a lengthy East Coast road trip, beginning their games at 2 or three in the morning in Cape Town. Even for someone raised on tales of Elgin and Jerry and Magic, staying awake for all of those games would require a level of dedication and an amount of sleep deprivation I can no longer handle.

Instead, for most of the trip I'll go to bed each night not knowing the result, waiting until the morning to discover their fate. In some ways it will be like the 1980s, when I had to wait for the morning paper to see the scores. And about 60 times a year, it took two days for those scores to show up in the sports section's scoreboard, as I was forever tormented by the (late) that appeared next to the Lakers results.

And while it's just regular season basketball I'll miss, the NFL playoffs will also conclude with me nearly 10,000 miles away from the States. As the Jets battle the Colts and the Vikings search for their fifth Super Bowl appearance, I'll have been in Cape Town for a few hours and will be hunting for the nearest bed after a day-long journey. And on Super Bowl Sunday I'll be on a plane, heading home. I'll read or watch some movies, oblivious to any and all games. Time stops on a plane for the passengers, even if the world doesn't. When we land at JFK at 8 in the morning the Monday following the biggest game of them all, I'll search for a paper and the score.

I can't wait for the trip. Even without access to the Lakers and college basketball and the NFL playoffs, I don't think I'll miss the televised games much at all. Less stress, knowing I don't have to watch small failures that upset me to a disproportionate degree. Visits with family and trips to the beach will fill the time. It will be a Lakers detox.

Except on January 31. Lakers at Celtics. The Celtics. The hated Celtics.

That's one game I wouldn't miss for the world, no matter where in the world I'm watching.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

It's 10 p.m. Do you know where your fear mongers are?

Even with a blog I remain a traditionalist when it comes to media. I read three hard-copy newspapers a day, and sometimes a fourth if I can find a Newsday. I'm up to about a dozen magazine subscriptions now. I read books that remain in their proper form, not on a Kindle or any other E-reader. And I buy those books at a bookstore, avoiding Amazon except for perhaps one purchase a year. Someday all of those things might go away, but if that day does ever arrive I hope I'm long gone as well.

And, finally, I still like capping off the night with local newscasts, those 30-minute recaps of the day's news, weather and sports, with some cuddly features about abandoned three-legged cats thrown in to break the monotony and some hearts. All of it brought to the world by folks sporting impeccable hair and marvelous teeth. In today's world, where the idea of a traditional news cycle is seemingly as outdated as an afternoon newspaper and where stories come and go as quickly as a page refreshes, the late local newscast has suffered in ratings and relevance, just like its old-school media brethren. But I still tune in nearly every night. Get the big news right at the top. The anchors greet us with smiles, before turning serious and saying, "Those stories coming up. But first on 4 at 11..."

Whether it's a national story or a local tragedy, the top story is recapped in about three minutes, usually with a reporter on-site somberly pointing to a building where a fire or grisly slaying took place. Sometimes we get team coverage, where each reporter gives one minute of information that still leaves huge gaps in a story. They give me the basics, and that's what I need, not three hours of arguing between a pair of think-tank nitwits on the cable news channels.

About 15 minutes in our favorite weather personality appears, moments after that same meteorologist teased us with a 15-second forecast that ends with, "But I'll have all the details on that killer storm in 15 minutes." The weather guy gives us the story of what happened and what the next five days hold. I love the competing Doppler technology on each channel. I savor the cheesy banter between news and weather, especially when the anchors inexplicably blame the weatherman for rain or snow, as if the well-manicured, smartly dressed hairpiece summons storms with the fury of an ancient god. And the meteorologists sometimes apologize! Yes, they say they're sorry if they mess up a forecast and someone gets stuck without an umbrella. But they often apologize for the actual weather. The rain. Or snow. Or hail. Or lack of sun. In the end, as ridiculous as it is, at least someone's held accountable.

Then it's off to sports, where we get the news and scores in a couple of minutes. Perhaps with some interviews in the locker room. The sports guy is usually brought in by the anchor who seems to be pleading for some good news.

"Len, the Yankees, tough one tonight, huh?"

Highlights of the home team, maybe some out-state scores of local interest. Again, the basics and all I need at that time of night. The late-night SportsCenter will provide the other highlights and cringe-worthy catchphrases.

At the end of the broadcast they'll wrap it up with a touching tale about a crippled child up for adoption or a wacky story about a pet python, followed by a reminder to watch Letterman or Conan or...Leno.

Print people like to poke fun at TV folk, deriding them as nothing more than solid teleprompter readers with oversize egos whose knowledge of makeup exceeds their knowledge of basic reporting skills. In some cases it's certainly true, real-life Kent Brockmans and Ron Burgundys brought into our lives by HD technology. But I've seen enough print people appear with wide eyes and cracking voices that sound like a 13-year-old boy to know that it's a fairly tough job that the best make look easy.

Are there negatives about the local newscasts? Yes. The worst things, without question, are the over-the-top fright stories that anchors present as some type of breaking news, reports designed simply to alarm, never really inform. And much to the chagrin of the stations, I can honestly say I've never learned a single thing from the terrifying features, nor been frightened. Although I'm admittedly probably not the target audience, which would seem to be hypochondriacs suffering from agoraphobia who also have kids at public schools.

"Could your corn on the cob holders kill you?"
"Is your taxi driver a terrorist in a sleeper cell? What his accent can reveal, next at 11."
"What's lurking inside your toilet? You'll be surprised what our I-team investigation discovered."
"The Eight-Fingered Killer wreaked havoc on CSI: New York tonight. Could one of your neighbors be raising a potential serial killer? That and more, but first, how about that stormy weather? Bill?"
"Erasers. The hidden danger your child's school isn't telling you about."
"Tonight, the first in a three-part story. Is your toenail clipper slowly poisoning you?"

These types of stories usually appear even more often during sweeps week, when the stations are selling what souls they have left for ratings.

But nothing can top the frightening opening to the New York Fox 5 10 p.m. telecast.

It's 10 p.m., do you know where your children are? The phrase has been a part of newscast lore for decades. What an odd question. Actually it's more of a challenge than an inquiry. Hey, fat-ass lazy parent stuffing your face with beer and Ring Dings: Do you know where your children are? Do ya?

It even has a creepy stream of faces belonging to ghost children floating at the top of the screen, the souls of kids whose parents apparently didn't have an adequate answer to the pressing question of the night.

Who is this intro targeting? And what age are these theoretically endangered children? 5? Teenagers? Say you're a parent of a 14-year-old. You've raised a kid with a B average who's respected by adults and has lots of friends. He aspires to getting into college and getting a girlfriend, though not in that order. This parent would most likely know where Johhny is at 10 p.m. They don't need the deep-voiced reminder. Or say you're a bad parent. You let your 12-year-old drink beer and don't care when he skips school. Is this ad causing that parent to rethink their decisions? Will they drop the joint and think, "My god. Where is my child? They said they were going to TP old man Wilson's house, but do I really know if he was telling the truth? What if they were breaking into the school to vandalize it?"

Who is this ad helping? Who? Someone with a 6-year-old, who has perhaps lost track of the youngster? Did that person forget that little Jenny fell down a well and now needs help, aid that will come once Channel 5 presents the heartbreaking story?

That's why I think the ad is actually a subtle way to guilt parents. The ad is actually saying, "It's 10 p.m. You know where your children are. But so do we. And do you think you're doing a good job with this kid by letting them go to a PG-13 movie? On a school night? How do you know they're not sneaking into that R-rated movie that shows tits? Remember when you promised to be a better parent to your kid than your mom was to you? It's not working. It's now 10:01 p.m. You know where your children are. Are you going to track them down?"

And what about people without kids? Is Channel 5 simply saying goodbye to that demographic? Or again is it a type of subliminal message, suggesting that if you don't have your children, you're really not worthy to watch this broadcast and maybe you should just settle for the 11 p.m. news on Channel 7?

I want to be moderately informed by my newscast, not tormented or terrorized. Give me the news, forecast and sports. Keep some of the fluff, but leave the fear behind.

Here, finally, is a rather disturbing collection of celebrities asking the question. From role model Darryl Strawberry to Medicine Woman.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

In case of emergency, don't pull the emergency brake

The New York Times published a story detailing the confusion facing subway riders who might be tempted to pull the emergency brake during a fire or a heart attack or a grisly stabbing in front of a car-full of passengers.

Whatever riders do, no matter how gripped by panic and no matter how dire the situation on the subway is, they should remember to never pull that emergency brake. That's the lesson to take from the signs and the MTA itself.

Reporter Michael M. Grynbaum writes, "So what emergency, exactly, does this emergency brake refer to? The explanation, transit officials say, is simple. If someone gets caught between the train's closing doors, or between subway cars, and is about to be dragged to an unenviable fate, pull the cord. The train will stop, possibly saving a life. But in case of fire, crime or a sick passenger - in fact, any other situation that could fairly be described as an emergency - the cord should be left alone. Stopping the train between stations will make it harder for help to arrive."

The issue popped up again in November after a man stabbed a fellow passenger to death while the train was in transit. A passenger yanked the cord, stopping the train but also trapping everyone in the same car as the killer. Fortunately, the man didn't harm anyone else and police eventually arrested him. Some officials later criticized the man who pulled brake, apparently disappointed that he did not read the invisible fine print on the signs, which says people should ignore every instinct they have after watching someone get killed and should not pull the cord.

Last week I sat on a stalled train for 20 minutes. When we finally moved, the nearly unrecognizable voice on the intercom said a train ahead of us caused the delay "due to a passenger pulling the emergency brake." Pity and disappointment laced the conductor's voice, as if he couldn't believe another rider fell for the old pull the emergency brake in the event of an emergency trick. Hopefully whoever yanked the cord read the story in today's Times.

It's just another in a line of neverending confusing situations straphangers confront every time they step through the sliding silver doors. For instance, should you ever actually hold onto the railings with a bare hand? I do it all the time. Scientists who study germs and bacteria say no. And to prove the point they'd take a swab from the 1 train handrail and put it under a microscope, blowing the germs up 500 times their normal size in the same way 20/20 does when the show wants to terrify people into seeing how many mites, ticks and bugs live in eyebrows and pillows. Louise never grabs them without covering, much like she's never touched snow with a bare hand. When we get home, she heads straight to the sink for the most thorough hand-washing this side of an operating room.

Anecdotal evidence supports her phobia. A few years ago we took a late-night uptown train home. The car was half-full. Across from us, a young lady in her 20s sat upright while she cradled a young man sprawled out on the seats, his head nestled onto her lap in prime nursing position. As she lovingly caressed his brown hair, the gentleman shook his head gently, trying to forget the pain of life and the night of binge drinking. He looked ill, victimized by a sad inability to handle his liquor. He possessed the glazed eyes of the severely intoxicated or the recently punched. We watched with bemusement, arrogantly sober. We watched right up until the moment he sat up and vomited onto the orange seats on the opposite side, about four seats down from where we sat.

Remarkably his caring companion acted as if she had fully expected this. She patted him on the back, encouraging the final bits of food and drink out, oblivious to the fact her lover threw up onto a seat, and not into a toilet. At the next stop we jumped out and walked to the next car, leaving the terrible twosome behind. Certainly no one - hopefully - entered and sat on the vomit. But when someone cleaned up it was probably with a paper towel or a napkin or a newspaper. And 15 minutes later, another passenger surely put their bare hand on that seat, completely unaware of the horror visited upon that subway car.

I've personally seen every bodily fluid and function deposited somewhere on a subway, with the exception of the one used to make future subway riders. And I have no doubt that's been done, too.


Don't pull the emergency cord in an emergency, and don't touch anything with an ungloved hand. Also, try not to make eye contact. Read a book. Look up at the signs that quote famous philosophers and writers and scientists, and learn something. Contemplate what organisms are living on the floor. Watch day-old snot trickle down the railing. But don't sit there and stare. This isn't so much because you might incite someone who's just looking for a reason to confront a passive, frightened rider. It's more a plea from the other side, because there's nothing more disconcerting than sitting there as someone locks their eyes on you, burrowing into your soul. Is it a crazy person, preparing to yell? Someone who's attracted to you? And why are they now smirking while looking at your face?

Riding the subway's a daily adventure, if not a sanitary one. Once a month I complain about the rising cost of the fare, but for nearly six years I haven't had to make a car payment or pay for a gallon of gas. The efficiency and savings come with tradeoffs. There are no quick weekend getaways on the road. A commute that takes 15 minutes in a car can take up to an hour on the fickle trains. In the summer the tunnels take on a desert climate, but with worse humidity. My car was always pretty dirty, but at least I knew where all that filth came from, unlike on the subway. And if all that wasn't enough, they now tell us the only time a rider is allowed to pull the emergency cord on a train is when there's really no emergency at all.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Norman Dale's antics would not be allowed in the NBA

Everyone remembers Norman Dale's Hickory High debut. Hoping to instill the type of military discipline that made him a success wherever he went, Dale insisted on four passes before a shot. The directive led to a stagnant first-half offense, upsetting the locals and his players. In the second half, an annoyed Rade ignores his coach, firing away right after crossing midcourt. The tactic slices into the lead, but enrages Dale. Having learned that punching a player is not the best way to deal with insubordination, Dale benches Rade. Near the end of the game, with Hickory out of it, a Hickory player fouls out. Rade starts to enter the game. Dale tells him to sit down. He tells him again. Then Dale says perhaps the most famous line from the best sports movie ever:

His team was on the floor. It stunned the crowd, delighted a visibly intoxicated Dennis Hopper (and his character, Shooter), and even embarrassed the opposing team - note the guy on the free-throw box who shakes his head in pity after the decision. Hey, pal, worry about your own team. Columnists and bloggers surely ripped Dale the next day, perhaps calling for his head or at least a thorough examination of it.

Friday night during the Golden State-Milwaukee game, we saw more proof that Dale coached in the right era. His form of discipline and motivation would not have a home in today's game. Golden State started the game with just eight players, due to numerous injuries. One player got hurt during the game. Then three more fouled out, the last being Stephen Curry with just four seconds left in the game. At this point Don Nelson could have quoted Norman Dale and earned the love and respect of hoops fans and movie aficionados everywhere. Instead the NBA rulebook ruined the moment. NBA Rule 3 (Section 1) states that a team must have five players on the court. "If a player in the game receives his sixth personal foul and all substitutes have already been disqualified, said player shall remain in the game and shall be charged with a personal and team foul. A technical foul also shall be assessed against his team. All subsequent personal fouls, including offensive fouls, shall be treated similarly."

NBA ref Joey Crawford - who's been around so long he might have ejected Norman Dale at some point in his career - said he'd never seen the rule come into play prior to Friday night. It didn't affect the outcome, as the Bucks won 113-104. And Golden State would have only played with four guys for four seconds. But it still would have been entertaining.

One year, Minnesota high school basketball actually implemented a rule where a player who fouled out could remain in the game, but the team received a technical for every subsequent foul. I think the rule only lasted a year. Jeff Van Gundy has often advocated eliminating the disqualification of a player with six fouls. The argument is that no other sport punishes player infractions by forcing them to leave the game. Who wants to watch the best players sit? One idea has been to have penalties beginning after five fouls. Not that the idea will ever come to your local NBA arena.

Having said all this, there is a slight chance that perhaps, just maybe, Dale's radical stubbornness might be allowed in the NBA. The rule addresses what happens when a player fouls out. But I didn't see anything online talking about what would happen if a coach simply wanted to send a message. What if Phil Jackson had tired of Kobe launching threes in a comeback attempt against the Cavs? After five players foul out, Kobe jogs to the check-in, only to be told by Phil to sit down. What happens? In other words, does Rule 3 (Section 1A) force a coach to put five guys out there, even if he only wants to play four? I don't know. Probably not. The league wouldn't want some beleaguered coach in full meltdown mode running two players out onto the court in an attempt to embarrass the league and his team (Kurt Rambis might be very close to such an on-court breakdown).

No, we'll never see a Norman Dale in the NBA. That's good in some ways, as his unimaginative offense would make the Knicks of the 1990s look like Paul Westhead's Loyola Marymount teams. Ol' Norman belonged in high school or college. Those were his teams, no matter how many guys were on the floor.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Now, and forever, I'm still a Pepper

In an effort to drum up more interest in its recently launched Dr Pepper Cherry, Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc. has bought advertising time during Super Bowl XLIV. The purchase marks the first time in the company's 125-year history that Dr Pepper will advertise during the National Football League championship, which will be broadcast by CBS Corp. on Feb. 7.

Look at that, my little over-caffeinated baby's all grown up. On Super Bowl Sunday, I'll be crammed into a small seat on a large plane flying over the Atlantic. By kickoff we'll be about halfway through our torturous 22-hour flight. My legs will be numb, along with my sense of time and space. I'll be thinking about underwear bombers and worrying about Louise's worries that I'm developing blood clots in my long legs from sitting down for too long.

And I'll be missing the first paid ad in the Super Bowl from Dr Pepper, a drink I consume by the gallons on a yearly basis, a drink I consider to be the king of all sodas. Ahead of the so-smooth Mountain Dew. Ahead of Pepsi. Even ahead of the former heavyweight champ, Coke. Pepsi created headlines a few weeks ago by announcing it wouldn't advertise during the big game. Seems like a perfect time for the Doctor to start its quest for world domination.

I don't drink coffee, I have wine once a year, champagne maybe once every two years. When out with friends once or twice a month I'll enjoy a few beers. While I also drink plenty of milk and juice, soda is my beverage of choice. Water sustains life, but Dr Pepper makes life worth living. On an average day, I'll drink two or three cans of Dr Pepper a day at work and about a liter at home. I savor each drink and the mysterious taste. Part of me realizes I can't keep this pace up forever, though I'll give my best shot. Even now, at 34, it does affect me in ways it never did before. Some nights when I'm struggling to fall asleep, I'll blame the restlessness on anxiety or a mid-afternoon nap, until I remember the two glasses of Dr Pepper I drank at 11:30. Is caffeine finally taking a toll?

To this day my mom can drink coffee at 11 p.m and be asleep by 11:05, as if a doctor just gave her an IV filled with 10 ounces of liquefied Ambien. Medical journals should study her. I usually react in a similar way, but if it's starting to keep me awake at this age, there's no way I'll maintain her pace when I'm 60.

The truth is I don't really discriminate much when it comes to soda, which I called pop the first 28 years of my life. Each soda has its time and place, depending on the setting, the container and the available refrigeration. Dr Pepper's my favorite canned soda on an everyday basis in the office and the best in 2-liter form. But on a day when temperatures reach triple digits and the sun's broken through the planet's ozone defenses and I'm ignoring the advice of the medical community by shunning water, a cold can of Coke refreshes like nothing else. Don't know why, just know it's the truth. Early in the morning, when people are waking up with their freshly brewed coffee, I'm eating my morning donut and drinking a can of...Pepsi. It's the one time I get Pepsi from a can. Certainly it's psychological at this point, a conditioned response that's nearly impossible to break. Again, I don't know why the taste of Pepsi goes best with a white-glazed doughnut, but it does. Come 1 p.m. and lunch - and maybe again one more time around 4:30 - it'll be back to Dr Pepper.

For a long time at work, the company in charge of our vending machines taunted me, putting Dr Pepper some weeks but forgetting it others. Couldn't that company's pencil-pushers see the raw numbers, which must have shown how quickly Dr Pepper sold out whenever they stocked it? Finally one early morning, I cornered the worker. As he filled it with Coke and Diet Coke and Sprite, I implored him to always put Dr Pepper in.

"So many people here like it," I said, not knowing if that was just a lie or a dream. Something clicked, because today the slot holding the sacred red can is always full.

If I can only get a 20-ounce bottle of soda, I'll go with a Coke. Most Dr Pepper bottles I see are shaped differently, slightly stubbier. They always seem to be lukewarm.

Speaking of warm, most people have an aversion to ever drinking warm soda. I'm unafraid, though it's certainly not the ideal. But if there's nothing else available, Mountain Dew is the best soda to drink in that state. A cold Mountain Dew really isn't much more refreshing than a warm one, which is probably more an insult than a compliment. Yet in another form - in a glass with ice - I prefer Dew to all the rest, even the beloved Pepper.

With all of this, it must always be the real thing, the one that's bad for the nervous system, digestion, everything. The one that causes twitches because it's so loaded with caffeine. Never a cherry off-shoot, nothing with the word Free or Zero in the name. Diet? It's a four-letter word. I've never finished a complete can of diet soda, no matter how many times people push a brand, whispering how it's so much like the real thing I won't even notice. Those campaigns never work. Dr Pepper even makes that ridiculous claim part of its marketing plan, adding the words "Nothing diet about it," to the cans. But after my first sip I knew Diet Dr Pepper was like all the rest, a pale - if healthy - imitation of the original.

Surely this will catch up with me, perhaps sooner than I'd like. Severe stomach pains will lead to a visit to the clinic. When asked by the doctor how much soda I consume in a day, I'll start off by saying "a couple of cans," before he eventually pulls out the ugly truth. The doc will hold up an illustration showing what the inside of my stomach looks like now, and what it will look like in 10 years if the corrosion continues. Like Roy Hobbs, my stomach could explode if I continue.

Maybe then I'll make the switch.

There's only been one time in my life when I felt close to overdosing on soda. During a six-week trip to Cape Town in 2007, I drank nothing but Coke. Louise's mom stocked up after being told it was my favorite. Rumors of a Coke shortage in the country also led to the hoarding. She filled the fridge with cans. Boxes of Coke spilled out of closets. No Dr Pepper, no Pepsi to offset the increasing bitter taste of Coke. I became a Coke fiend and just wanted to stop. Ever since then I've been somewhat reluctant to buy Coke in bulk. I was like the kid who gets caught smoking by his dad and is then forced to finish off an entire carton to learn a lesson. I did learn that there is a thing as too much Coke.

But there can never be too much Dr Pepper. I'll be saying that on my deathbed, even if the drink puts me there.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The greatest Vikings torment: Stram, Armen and Drew, Nelson or Gary?

With the Vikings prepared to host the Cowboys this week, there have been several stories written about the playoff history between the two teams.

Before their win over Philadelphia last week, the Cowboys' last playoff victory was against the Vikings, during the 1996 season. Troy and Emmitt and Irvin were still around for the Cowboys. Barry Switzer roamed the sidelines. The Vikings trounced them a few years later behind Jeff George and Randy Moss. But the game everyone still remembers came in 1975, also in a Divisional game. That game goes by several aliases. Sometimes called the Hail Mary game, sometimes called the Drew Pearson game, I prefer to think of it as the Armen Terzian game. No matter the name, the pain remains for Vikings fans. I was only six months old, but my family's screams from that day must have left an impression, as the details from the game are as vivid as they would have been if I'd sat in Met Stadium, tossing a beer bottle at Armen Terzian's head.

But was that the most infuriating moment in team history, which is perhaps a bit different than the most heartbreaking? Vikings fans, your thoughts?

The other nominees:

* I say infuriating because one of the possibilities didn't really involve a last-second heartbreak, just three hours of ineptitude. Super Bowl IV. The Vikings, favored by 13 points against the Kansas City Chiefs, came into the game with one of the strongest teams in franchise history. They had a 12-2 record, led the league in points scored and allowed the fewest points in the league. They lost the first and last games of the season, but won 12 in a row in between. Because Super Bowl III lives on in football history, thanks to Joe Namath's guarantee and the Jets upset over the Colts, the Chiefs' dominance the following year sometimes gets lost, but it was just as shocking as the previous year's game. People thought the AFL's win in 1969 was a fluke or a passing fad. Kansas City showed it wasn't, controlling the game throughout, winning 23-7.

But that was only the beginning of the misery. For fans, the true horror came later, with the NFL Films production of the game. For the first time, a coach wore a wire. The coach was the chatty Hank Stram. Forty years later, Stram's words and that voice - that voice - still play on a loop in the nightmares of Minnesotans.

When talking about legendary Vikings defensive end Jim Marshall, the cocky Stram said "it looks like he's in a Chinese fire drill." Politically incorrect, but also accurate. He laughed as the Chiefs ran the "65 toss power trap. What'd I tell ya boys? 65 toss power trap!" He complimented the officials. He criticized them. Perhaps most famously, he bizarrely implored, "Keep matriculating the ball down the field, boys!" At various times he cackled maniacally, like someone performing a parody of a movie madman. Today, reality TV has taught us that otherwise normal people will debase themselves and play to the camera if there's one within 100 feet. Stram might have been the first sports figure who couldn't resist the allure of the camera, or the microphone. Some of his lines almost sounded scripted. Picture Steve Sabol feeding Stram suggestions through an earpiece, helping him find just the right words to infuriate thousands. And now his words live on in the archives of NFL Films, and the damaged psyches of Vikings fans.

Listen, and watch here, Vikings fans.

* Another Super Bowl, another rout. In fact, the final Super Bowl debacle for the Vikings, who had also lost to Miami and Pittsburgh. In 1977, the Raiders did the honors, trouncing the Vikings 32-14. Again, not much in the way of heartbreak in this one. But thanks again to NFL Films, one moment from that game stands out above all others. No, not Jack Tatum's vicious hit on Sammy White, which decimated the Vikings receiver. The image that lives is Willie Brown's interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Go to the 5:25 mark.

Old Man Willie. The close-up on Brown as he sprints down the field after picking off Tarkenton. The slow-motion. The giddy Raiders announcer, narrating the destruction as he escorts Old Man Willie to the end zone. That shot of Brown became the image that would play on NFL Films recaps for decades to come, the final piece on the soundtrack documenting the Vikings' Super Bowl misery.

* The Vikings plodded along for the next decade, with the only real excitement coming with the hiring of tough guy Les Steckel, followed by his subsequent firing and the return of Bud Grant for one season. But in 1987 a talented team led by Wade Wilson, Keith Millard and Chris Doleman surged at the end of a strike-shortened season. They crushed New Orleans and San Francisco in the playoffs, meeting Washington in the NFC title game. The Redskins dismantled the Broncos in the Super Bowl, but the Vikings played them right to the end.

And in the end it came down to one play, 56 seconds left, fourth down.

It's become known locally as The Drop, since it appeared that Darrin Nelson dropped a potential game-tying pass. But it was a hell of a tough catch and the defender was right there. And not only was a defender there, superstar receiver Anthony Carter loitered nearby, clogging up the area. Still, that game lives on in Vikings infamy, partly because it had been a decade since the Vikings had been that good and also because it would be another decade before they returned to the NFC title game. Those years of futility, both before and after the non-drop, simply added to the misery, since it was the one chance the team had to advance to the Super Bowl, where they could have gone for an unprecedented fifth loss. In between came a handful of arrests, the Herschel trade, Burnsie's departure, a new Sheriff in town and a bunch of first-round exits from the playoffs.

* About that game a decade after the 1987 title loss. There's not much need to recite the details from that NFC title game in January of 1999. Between shots of liquor to drown the pain, all Vikings fans can probably recite the key plays from that day off the top of their Viking-horn-adorned heads. From Denny's call for a kneel down to Morten Andersen's game-winning field goal. But one play stands out above - or would it be below? - all the rest. Gary Anderson's missed field. It stands out because it would have all but clinched the game, giving the Vikings a 10-point lead. Fans remember it because after the miss a feeling of dread invaded the stadium and households throughout the state, as it felt like something had been lost, even if the game hadn't yet been surrendered. But mostly it stands out because it was the first and only blemish on an otherwise perfect season, adding a new layer to the agony. Anderson and his ridiculous helmet made every field goal and extra point that year, until the time when he couldn't afford to miss.

A 38-yarder, one he could have normally made with his left foot. I could not find a single video of that kick anywhere online. Such is the power of the NFL's copyright lawyers, and, perhaps, the reach of former owner Red McCombs, who was certain he was going to hee-haw all the way to the Super Bowl that year. Red's ownership ended without a Super Bowl appearance or a new stadium. Anderson's kick would have ensured the former, and perhaps helped bring about the latter.

There is this: A video-game re-enactment, with the audio from Summerall and Madden. The weirdest thing about the video is that the person who took the time to set the stage and to post it, screwed up the most important detail. Instead of booting a 38-yard field goal, the guy has Anderson trying for an 80-yard field goal. No wonder the kid from South Africa missed.

So which was the most infuriating? Probably Anderson's kick, and that loss following the 15-1 season. Pearson's (alleged) push-off in the 1975 game still enrages diehards, but at least that was a play made by the opposition. Also, a win there would have only put Minnesota in the NFC title game. Anderson's kick meant the Super Bowl, where they would have faced the Broncos. All season the Vikings felt like a team of destiny, right up until the moment they fulfilled the franchise's destiny.

This amusing piece, a parody of the NBA Where Amazing Happens commercials, sums up much of the Vikings' tortured existence. The biggest question for Vikings fans is, will a new chapter be added to their book of torment this week?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

They're still hoping for a Titanic sequel

James Cameron's Avatar is now the second-highest grossing movie in history, behind his other megahit, Titanic. Many people expect it to eventually eclipse Leo, Kate and the tragic boat. I haven't seen Avatar so I can't ruin the ending for anyone.

And nearly everyone who saw Titanic during its long run in theaters surely knew the ending going in. Perhaps the only movie with a less-surprising conclusion was The Passion of The Christ. Even with that knowledge, Titanic still emotionally devastated millions of people, though much of the sadness was over DiCaprio's on-screen death and not so much the memory of the 1,500 real people who died. But how upsetting would the movie's ending had been if you didn't know the story, if you'd never heard of the Titanic? In America and elsewhere, the story's so well-known that the word Titanic now means much more than just a ship that sank. It's become a metaphor, used to describe everything from a failed energy company to a coach who refuses to resign and "goes down with the ship," like the Titanic's doomed captain.

But not everyone knows the story or is familiar with the myths or can recite the legends. Several of those people were Louise and her teenage friends, who saw the movie in Cape Town, unaware of the back story or the tragedy. The giddy girls watched in fascination as Jack sneaked onto the ship. They squealed as he charmed Rose. They mocked her cunning fiance. They wept in joy when Jack and Rose made love in a car.

Then came intermission, a real intermission where the crowd takes a break, heads to the bathroom and the concession stand and reflects on what they've seen, and speculates on what's to come. Louise and her innocent friends gathered in the bathroom, chattering nonstop about how the movie might end. How would Jack and Rose escape her mother and future husband? Where would they settle? Would they have kids? And isn't it so romantic and beautiful the way they found each other on that magnificent ship? They generally agreed that the movie up to that point was perfection, perhaps the most romantic film any of them had seen.

With intermission over and the theater lights dimming, the girls settled back into their seats. A few minutes into the second act, the Titanic struck the most famous iceberg in maritime history. Unsettled but still enjoying the show - "Ooh, they'll have to get off the ship now" - the girls continued watching in fascination. Of course the happy portion of the movie was long gone and the rest of the movie was devoted to death, the destruction of the ship and...Billy Zane running after Jack and Rose with a gun (the movie was not 100 percent historically accurate).

By the time Rose drifted off to sleep while Jack's lifeless body floated next to her, Louise and her friends had collectively broken down, sobbing and bawling and whimpering. They didn't understand how a film could be so cruel, not knowing the real story was just as devastating.

On the car ride home, Louise and her friend had to pull over to the side of the road. The shock and disarray left them unable to drive. Comforting each other, their cries lasted several more minutes. That was nearly 13 years ago. The wounds they suffered haven't healed. Today, whenever TBS or TNT breaks out an "All Titanic" weekend, Louise refuses to be in the room if the television happens to linger on the movie for a few minutes.

When Louise tells this story, people are often incredulous, unable to believe that her group of friends didn't know the true story behind the movie. "Everyone's" heard of the Titanic, but maybe just everyone in America, not necessarily the rest of the world. We'd probably have the same reaction - perhaps with less hysterics - if we went to a movie based on an event few have ever heard of, even if everyone in another part of the world is well aware of the story. How many people have heard of the Dona Paz, a Philippine ferry that sank in 1987, killing more than 4,300 people? Imagine going into a movie not knowing the history of the doomed vessel. The first 90 minutes of the movie are devoted to romance and derring-do on the ferry. Look, it's a love story for the ages. By the end, after thousands have died, the reaction in the theater would probably be similar to the reaction in the Cape Town theater after people watched Titanic.

Louise is now in Cape Town. I'll join her in a week and a half. We've talked about seeing Avatar there. Maybe even in the same theater that played Titanic all those years ago. I don't know how Avatar ends, whether it's tragic, uplifting or deflating. But no matter how it concludes, Louise will be all right. Because if watching Titanic without knowing how it ended didn't crush her, nothing in James Cameron's make-believe world will be a problem.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Inwood: A hidden gem in the Bronx, make that Manhattan

Some time ago, I took a late-night taxi home from work and gave the address to my middle-aged New Jersey driver.

"Up in the Bronx, right?" he asked while turning on the meter.

"No, it's Manhattan. Inwood."

"Nah, nah, that's the Bronx, not Manhattan."

"I've lived there five years. It's Manhattan. We're a few blocks from a bridge that goes into the Bronx."

At this point he smirked. He shook his bald head slowly side to side, the motion of an arrogant philosophy professor who's now tired of arguing with a freshman student. What could I say to convince him? Perhaps the judicial system's stringent rules could do the job.

"I got called for jury duty in Manhattan. You can't be on a Manhattan jury if you live in the Bronx."

That finally swayed him, but he didn't accept the argument for good until we drove past a pizza joint that's four blocks from our apartment. "My friend owns that place," he said. "Hey, this is Manhattan."

Yes, Inwood is in Manhattan, even if many people who live anywhere south on the island don't really believe it. The neighborhood stretches from Dyckman Street to the south up to the Harlem River on the north and east, and the Hudson on the west. The skyline's not elevated here, but the subway is. Not many tourists visit the neighborhood, unless they're lost. But it's as much a part of Manhattan as the West Village or the Upper East Side.

Inwood is known for its parks, among them Inwood Hill Park. The park, which has the largest remaining forest land in Manhattan, has great views of the Henry Hudson Bridge, softball fields, tennis courts and basketball courts.

And it has this guy.

A year ago this older gentleman walked in front of us as we sat in the park. Moments after stripping down, he climbed the tree with the agility and fearlessness of a 10-year-old going up a newly constructed treehouse. For the next hour, he basked in the sun and the stares. He didn't go hungry, devouring a bag of food that included a healthy balance of meats and oats. Eventually people stopped staring and he blended into the background, just another part of the park and the city.

Here's Liffy's, an old Irish bar on Broadway near 213th Street that's often filled with drunks both old and new. There's a karaoke night that packs the house, but usually it's not crowded. The bartenders are friendly and easygoing, as are most of the regulars. They sometimes allow cigarettes inside. If you want to sit and silently drink by yourself, you can. But not always. A Chuck Klosterman acolyte accosted me for a half hour one night, regaling me with tidbits and insight from each of his books, even after I told her I too had read them all. I finally escaped a few moments after she began detailing what she'd do to him and herself if Klosterman "walked through that door right now." Book groupies are a rare species, but just as fascinating as their sport and rock 'n' roll counterparts.

Inwood has been home to a few famous people. Future sky-hooker Kareem-Abdul Jabbar grew up on Dyckman Street. Basketball Diaries author Jim Carroll lived here. So did Houdini's wife (we take what we can get). A few years ago I saw Colin Farrell emerge out of the Irish Eyes bar, where he was filming a scene for Pride and Glory.

These are the famous steps at 215th Street, which connect Broadway to the residential streets to the west. In recent years residents have complained about the safety of the steps, often using words like dilapidated, outdated and decaying, when not simply calling them dangerous. Following the first snowstorm of the year three weeks ago, I walked south on Broadway. A hunched-over lady in her 70s stood in the middle of the sidewalk, motionless, as if she was posing for a portrait. As I approached, she asked if I could help her navigate the 10 feet in front of her, rendered dangerous by the snow and ice.

Holding her arm, I helped her cross the obstacle. Now on dry land, I asked her if she was okay.

"Maybe just a few more feet, if you don't mind."

We slowly made our way up the street, until we were standing in front of these steps. Looking around, I wondered where she had come from, and where she was headed.

"Are you okay now?" I asked again.

Giving a sheepish smile she probably first broke out 60 years ago while wooing the boys, she glanced up at the steps and shrugged her shoulders. "I could use some help up the steps."

She'd manipulated me, physically and emotionally. Seducing me with her feminine wiles and elderly vulnerability, she'd walked me to the brink of the steps while I remained oblivious to her plan. She didn't want me to help her get over a short patch of snow; it was to get me to help her up the 100 steps. We walked up the first flight, with me holding her left arm while she grabbed the railing. Each step was labored, and as tentative as a toddler going down the basement steps. Two flights up, again on dry land, she assured me she could make it up the rest of the way, telling me she does it every day.

"And I live on my own."

I felt a little guilty leaving her, even if the original walk of 10 feet had turned into a 10-minute excursion. But I was also grateful, because who knows how many more blocks she had to go once she reached the top of the picturesque but decaying steps.

For three years, the old Twin Donut store at 218th Street and Broadway remained closed. A blight on the eyes and the neighborhood, its future was always murky. One day someone would see construction workers inside. Then two months would pass with no activity. It looked like a great place for squatters, but few could picture it turning into an actual restaurant again. It was like the haunted house of Inwood, home to outrageous rumors and speculation but no sugar or coffee.

But did reopen, proving critics and donut lovers wrong. Clean, bright, inexpensive and open 24 hours, Twin Donut's become a fairly popular hangout.

A branch of New York-Presbyterian - the recently renamed Allen Hospital - sits just blocks from us at 220th Street and Broadway.

It's always been reassuring having a hospital this close, although that confidence was dented a bit last summer, when we made our first visit to the facility. Louise cut her foot on some glass so we made our way north. About five hours later, she saw a doctor. By that time I'd left with my nephew, who was visiting from Minnesota. We were there at the height of the H1N1 panic. Folks of all ages littered the emergency room, coughing, sneezing and wheezing into their blue surgical masks, waiting for a doctor or death. It didn't concern me much, but the two germophobes I was with didn't enjoy the experience much. But we'll certainly go there again if need be, especially since it gets Mariano Rivera's seal of approval.

An ad for the Inwood Chamber of Commerce might include the line "All your favorite 99 Cent stores in one neighborhood." One of the best of them just reopened at 207th Street after a devastating fire damaged the building. Louise mourned then, but celebrated its return. Another staple of the Inwood business scene is the banner. Seemingly every new restaurant or shop or hardware store or cafe or deli opens under a parade of celebratory pennants and banners, the kind that usually trumpet great financing deals on new and used cars.

Inwood's home to the Dyckman Court, a perfect spot for hoops fanatics, whether they're players or fans. It's not as famous as Rucker Park, but it's a great spot for playground basketball. Two years ago I went there with my parents on a Friday night for some league games. Fans packed the stands on both sides, as cool of an environment for basketball as anything at the Division I level. Also that night, some guy sitting next to us offered my mom some marijuana. She politely declined.

This shot, from, is a shot of Inwood's own Kareem, and was believed to be taken at the Dyckman Court in 1969, when the Captain was at the height of his powers. He'd probably still be a decent player at a Friday night game under the lights.

See, Inwood does have it all. Decent rent prices, basketball legends, parks and access to a pair of subway lines. And to the surprise of many, it has a Manhattan zip code.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The history site with a vague understanding of historical events

Does it seem like 12 years ago already that Mo Vaughn pleaded not guilty to drunk driving charges? I thought it was only eight or nine years ago - 10 at the most - but, no, it was 12.

That's according to the always intriguing website, which lists famous sports events that occurred on every day of the year, although the site does not appear to adhere to a strict definition of the word famous.

Here are some other events for January 9:
1942- Joe Louise KOs Buddy Baer in 1 for heavyweight boxing title.
1953- Bevo Francis, Rio Grande College, scores 116 points in basketball game.
1962- NFL prohibits grabbing of facemasks.
1984- Braves pitcher Pascual Perez is arrested for cocaine possession.
1990 - Jim Palmer and Joe Morgan elected to Baseball Hall of Fame.

The entire list for that day is an odd collection of misfits, a dozen events awkwardly grouped together and forced to mingle. So two of the best in Major League Baseball History, Morgan and Palmer, share the stage with Pascual Perez's arrest for cocaine possession, giving further credence to the idea that possesses a moralistic side that enjoys shining the spotlight on all who stray outside the law. Get caught druggin' or drinkin' and drivin' and you will be immortalized on Today in Sports History.

At the same time the site ignores events that actually were, well, historic. On January 9, 1972, the Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Los Angeles Lakers, ending the Lakers' record 33-game winning streak. That mark remains one of the most famous in NBA history, but wasn't quite impressive enough to merit inclusion on todayinsport, although the site does note that in 1987, "Sir Rudolph Bing (of NY Met Opera) marries Lady Carroll Douglass." And who doesn't remember that pairing?

The idea that Today in Sports History possesses a schoolmarmish side is further bolstered by the fact it neglects to note the antics of Randy Moss five years ago on a cold day in Green Bay. Moss's "disgusting act" isn't mentioned on the site. While Perez and Vaughn's run-ins with the law earn them a note, I think Moss got a pass because he didn't really receive any punishment, something Today in Sports History can't abide. The site doesn't want to give attention to the bad apples, unless they've earned an official punishment that perhaps involves the phrase two-to-five. Yes, Joe Buck and other pundits condemned Moss - and they in turn suffered the condemnation of many who were sick of the over-the-top condemnations announcers engage in - but he escaped justice. And therefore, escaped the not-quite-all-seeing eye of

Reading the site, a fan might get the idea that January 10 was one of the least-inconsequential days in sports history, as an event like "NFL Pro Bowl: N Conf beats A Conf 27-7" in 1953 makes the grade (the site doesn't always have the patience to type out entire words), as does Petra Schneider's inspiring world-record performance in the 1500-meter freestyle in 1982.

Again, though, there was an event that day in 1982 that some might argue should have been mentioned ahead of Schneider's swim, even if everyone in Dallas wishes the game had been whitewashed from the books.

On January 10, 1982, Dwight Clark made a catch that is so famous it became known simply as The Catch, and no one's ever confused it with any other grab. Not only did the play send San Francisco to the Super Bowl, it set the stage for the birth of a 49ers dynasty that would last for nearly 15 years, while also beginning the long decline of the Cowboys. But to the strict gatekeepers of, you have to do more than that, preferably something involving narcotics or a rule change.

I'd speculate that Today in Sports has a bias against the NFL, but that's hard to do when it lists the results of a Pro Bowl, the one game that always manages to make preseason football look like a life-or-death struggle.

That's not to say the site doesn't offer some fascinating tidbits that no one but the original participants would ever remember. For instance, on January 11, 1954, everyone's favorite commie-hater, J. Edgar Hoover, declined a six-figure offer to become president of International Boxing Club. Ric Flair won the NWA heavyweight title on January 11, 1991. That makes the site. Whooooooooooooo. The sites loves rule changes, Pro Bowls, swimmers and sinners.

But figure skating remains its true obsession. Dick Button might very well ghostwrite for the site, which appears obsessed with the results of every figure skating competition throughout time, events many sports fans only think about every four years. But the site will always make note of the accomplishments of Dorothy Hamill, Brian Boitano or Michelle Kwan. Today in Sports History is no doubt gearing up the database for the results from the upcoming Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

It's Today in Sports History, although if the site was being completely accurate with its title, it'd throw quotation marks around the words sports and history.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Another stroll through the depressing freelance writing landscape

This LA Times article describes the bleak present and darker future facing freelance writers.

"What's sailing away, a decade into the 21st century, is the common conception that writing is a profession - or at least a skilled craft that should come not only with psychic rewards, but with something resembling a living wage."

So it's time for another tour of some of the opportunities out there for writers. Not sure if any of these are as soul-crushing as writing about napkins, but they're close.


In today's media world, where speed rules above all else, punctuation is a casualty. Periods, commas, semicolons, parentheses - superfluous, pointless. Not even the Internet's favorite piece of punctuation - the lovable, enduring exclamation point - can find a place in today's sentences.

The job description:

Okay look at simple I have plenty of clients who will pay top dollar to have a Wikipedia article about themselves or their business on the Wikipedia website however it must be approved before they pay which means you must be an expert at getting articles approved because if it's not I don't get paid which means you don't get paid you will be paid between 200 to 500 per approved article but again they don't pay a dime until article is approved and viewable on the Wikipedia website. I had a guy before but now my computer crashed a month ago and I lost all my contacts including the guy who I used to use we make thousands of dollars together so I hope we can have the same thing happen

Makes me wonder why the employer even bothered with that lone period near the end of the longest run-on sentence this side of an early Tom Wolfe feature in Esquire. What made him put that one there, but nowhere else? The fourth finger on his right hand apparently accidentally moved south from the home keys. It begins with the in-your-face "Okay look" but ends in almost an endearing fashion, as he really hopes to be able to make thousands of dollars together, just like happened with the previous desperate person who won the right to be a Wikipedia ghostwriter.

I applaud anyone who takes this job, and it actually seems like a decent business idea, although it sounds like the type of writing that might be called propaganda in another time. But think of the poor writer who has to work for this person. Years of schooling and experience put to use composing a Wikipedia profile detailing the exaggerated accomplishments of a CEO in charge of a small candy company nestled in southern Alabama. The writer submits the piece and waits. Someone who writes 132 words with a single period judges the work.

A writer's self-esteem can be shattered as fast as it takes a spouse to say, "I like it, but I'm not sure that part works." Now they might hear from this employer, "Listen, love the profile, but the writing style needs some work. My apologies." Strike that. The rejection letter would read, "Listen love the profile but the writing style needs some work my apologies"

Receiving a rejection from The New Yorker's Shouts & Murmurs section is one thing. Being rejected by James Joyce's bastard grandchild is altogether different. For those freelance writers still debating whether alcoholism is the best way to deal with the current job climate, this should let them know that, yes, it is.

They're looking for writers who "can consistently produce articles. We would like to have a minimum of 3 articles a day. The articles will be 400-450 words. Each article will pay $1.40 with occasional bonuses for good work and consistency."

Pay is on a per-article basis. A buck forty. A standard rate for articles is a dollar per word. Bigger places pay more, 2, 3 dollars per word. An offer of fifty cents a word used to be seen as a lowball offer. Now you're getting $1.40 for a 450-word piece, writing about a vague subject that's basically inconsequential, as long as the text is "consistent." Consistent to what?

Ads like this and countless others ask for and demand professionalism from writers or journalists while rubbing their faces in wages that are more disgraceful than disrespectful. It's always been like that, of course, even though it's more noticeable in today's media environment. Writers hone their skills through years of dedication and experience, but they're often paid a salary a panhandler would find insulting. Bobby Knight once said, "All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things." It's a view that should be expected from a man who hated the media nearly every day of his adult life, right up until the point he became a part of it. But it's now apparent that many others - especially those offering jobs to writers - have a similar view of a writer's worth and knowledge.

I'd say these employers will get what they pay for, but that's probably not true. They'll get work that is much more professional than they deserve, simply because for too many writers today, $1.40 is somehow still better than nothing.