Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A new cell phone, but not for me

Today we spent 45 minutes in a Radio Shack on the Upper West Side, trying to upgrade Louise's cell phone. The phone stopped being useful about a year ago, but we kept it alive while barely keeping it breathing. We used duct tape to piece it together about six months ago, after it split in two. For awhile that worked. Most phone calls proceeded without issue.

Eventually people on the other end of the conversation couldn't hear us. Then we couldn't hear them. Often both parties only heard soft rustling. In the last two months, we could only talk on it while simultaneously pressing hard on the top of the phone, keeping it sealed together with the bottom half. Otherwise conversations dropped off. By the end of a 20-minute talk, my hand would be cramping and it'd take another half hour to feel right.

So it was time for a new phone. The young salesman spoke to us like a teacher helping an immigrant learn English. He spoke slowly, laughed occasionally at our perplexed faces and gently encouraged us. "That's a really good choice for a case. No, really good. Good job."

Louise is now the confused owner of an iPhone. As we sit in a restaurant, she's looking at her new toy with a furrowed brow, determined to figure out how to use it to make an actual call. She checked her email. Checked the weather report. Now, how to dial? An outsider looking at this scene would conclude that we're both 95 years old and stopped following technology about the time movies became talkies. Earlier we both held it aloft with wide-eyed wonder, the same look that graced the faces of the first people to start a fire. We need like a 12-hour, hardcore tutorial, preferably run by Steve Jobs himself. Or a fourth-grader, who would have more knowledge on the subject than us. Actually, can someone just email and tell us how to use it as a phone?

That's Louise's cell phone, which I use a couple of times a month, earning it the title "our" phone. But I still don't own a cell phone of my own and there are still no plans to get one. Maybe down the line, if some writing deals work out, it will be a necessity. In the meantime, I remain a land line guy, a dying breed. My parents only got a touch-tone home phone like 10 years ago. When we visit them, at least once during our stay I'll have to fix their TV because they've hit the TV/Cable button and can't get the channels back and are convinced they'll have to call a repairman to the house and, Jesus, think how much that's going to cost! Even these two people have had cell phones for five years.

People get a hold of me at home and I sort of like that when I'm out and about in the world I'm free. If there's an emergency, I'll hear about it soon enough. When I need to call Louise to tell her where I am, I use a pay phone, praying that I don't contract a communicable disease from touching the numbers or the phone itself. You can smell the breath of the last seven people who used the phone. Still prefer it over a cell.

I'm still not on Facebook. I can't see that changing anytime soon, despite the peer pressure. I'm not anti-technology or anti-advancement or a Kaczynski acolyte, even if my facial hair is occasionally similar. I have a personal website and a blog, so it's not like I'm allergic to self-revelation or fearful of the online world. But I still have no desire to be on Facebook, primarily because I don't think I would ever update anything on it and it would just be another thing that I regret not following through on. I already feel bad about not calling old friends or family. I feel bad about not responding to emails from old classmates. On Facebook I'd feel bad for not putting up pictures of a picnic in Central Park. And it's not like I'm avoiding it because I don't want to hear from people who I played battled ball against in third grade. For God's sake, no one's as obsessed with the past as I am and no one remembers ridiculous details or wants to talk about old times as much as I do (so, please, email me).

No Facebook, no MySpace, no Twitter, no social networking of any sort (note, I am on Twitter, or at least signed up for it. Louise started an account for me and I think it would be valuable in the future if I start publishing some things again, but right now it just sits there, vacant).

It's all part of my lifestyle that's set in about 1990. I still prefer my VCR to our DVD player. The sound of a tape rewinding is reassuring. I tape instead of TiVoing. Our music plays on a CD player I bought in the mid 1990s. We have an iPod but in three years have probably listened to it 10 times. When we listen to a shuffle, it's a a real shuffle, with the CDs noisily rearranging themselves inside the player. It's a comforting sound, the sound of the world passing us by.

Louise talks about buying a Kindle someday but I then talk her out of it and we simply purchase a dozen more books. I read numerous newspapers online but still buy three or four each day, paging through them, the ink staining my hands.

I don't fear technology. There's no phobia. I appreciate everything it does for me and the world. It's just that, in many aspects of modern life, the technology I enjoy most was created in the last century. Time to go now. Something exciting just happened. Seems like Louise just figured out how to dial a number. Next step: finding the send button.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Returning to the frightening land of newspaper website comments

I think most people always feel a touch of sympathy for sewer workers. It's a vital job that many people would never do, no matter how much it paid. Wading through all that...stuff.

I feel the same sympathy for people who monitor newspaper website comments. It's, at least according to executives, a vital job that many newspaper employees would never do, no matter how much it paid. Wading through all that...stuff. Racist rants, personal attacks, religious biases, homophobic slurs. Bad spelling.

A different type of controversy has erupted in Cleveland, at the website for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The newspaper revealed the real identity behind the person known on the site as "lawmiss." Lawmiss had posted a comment about the relative of a Plain Dealer reporter. Editors discovered that lawmiss - or is it Lawmiss, I never know with anonymous online tags - had the same email address as a prominent judge named Shirley Strickland Saffold. She has a reputation as being something of an eccentric, always a reassuring description for a judge. A decade ago she told a female defendant in a credit card fraud case to find a better man. She told her, "Men are easy. You can go sit at the bus stop, put on a short skirt, cross your legs and pick up 25. Ten of them will give you their money. It's the truth. If you don't pick up the first 10, then all you got to do is open your legs a little bit and cross them at the bottom and then they'll stop."

It sounds like she spoke from experience. But what does she tell male defendants in credit card fraud cases? Drop their pants and get a good woman?

Then, a few weeks ago she issued an arrest warrant for a Plain Dealer reporter who wrote about a psychiatric evaluation of a man suspected of being a serial killer. She wanted him to reveal his source. So now the newspaper discovers someone using her email address has been posting for awhile, including commenting on cases where Saffold served as the judge. The judge's daughter says she used the email address to post some comments and that it wasn't her mother,
The paper reports this, and a firestorm ensues.

Lots of the questions center around ethics: the newspaper's and the judge's. Privacy advocates express concern that the paper dug into the online files to find the email address and then the person behind it - or at least the family behind it. Many newspapers don't allow reporting staff any access to those records. And for the judge, the ethical questions are obvious, as it just seems...wrong, for a judge to comment about cases she's involved with. She - or the daughter - ripped defendants, juries and lawyers, all under the moniker of lawmiss. In a post ridiculing the defense attorney of a man convicted in a vehicular homicide case, lawmiss wrote, "If only he could shut his Amos and Andy style mouth. What makes him think that is [sic] he insults and acts like buffon [sic] that it will cause the judge to think and see it his way."

It is nice to see the judge living up to the spelling accomplishments of all the anonymous newspaper commenters who came before her.

I feel a bit queasy about the Plain Dealer searching for the information and writing about it. But the judge's actions seem much worse. That serial killer case where she wanted the reporter arrested? She's of course the judge on that and the man's defense attorney is the same lawyer who represented the vehicular homicide defendant, the one who was acting, according to Saffold or one of her spawn, like a "buffon." Is she going to treat that attorney fairly now, in a capital punishment case?

Of course all of this would have been avoided if the Plain Dealer and newspapers everywhere simply eliminated comments on their sites, which I've been advocating for since the first time I saw a high school basketball tournament loss blamed on "stuppid immgrants!" They're supposed to bring people to the website, which then theoretically leads to cash. Big money! If it really did this, maybe tens of thousands of journalists wouldn't have been laid off the last two years. Maybe the industry wouldn't be flailing, struggling to survive. Instead, all of those web visits do nothing for the bottom line, while also giving a forum to hateful or delusional people who ranked in the first percentile on the reading portion of the Iowa Basics.

I'm not pleading for a Utopian society where there are no hateful online comments. All I'm saying is that there are a million places to find that; why do newspapers provide another outlet? Maybe Saffold doesn't make those comments if she has to do it on a random message board. People will still read a newspaper's stories and they can still comment on them and make fun of anyone they want to and ridicule reporters and editors and the liberal media. There will be no shortage of forums and blogs. But why must papers host those comments?

It's a losing battle, of course. Though some papers have removed comments - and many others moderate them - I doubt the entire industry will alter its thinking about online comments. Just think, some of those anonymous people who hate blacks might buy a car from a dealership whose ad they saw on the web site!

Predictably, the comments below the stories about the judge and the newspaper's action are not exactly Algonquin Round Table material. They go back and forth between belittling the newspaper and the judge. Some of the comments are strange, a few make some good points that get lost in the sea of sludge, others are indecipherable, a handful hateful. Predictable stuff. And just another day of comments on newspaper websites.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The year Ralph Sampson ruined my summer

The worst day for any Laker fan - going all the way back to the time when Bud Grant averaged 2 points a game with them years before he became known as a guy with an abnormal love of cold weather - had to have been when Magic retired on November 7, 1991. It was the end of an era on the court, and many people figured it was the first act in the final phase of Magic's life, one that would surely end with his death a few years later. That didn't happen, but that day - and his famous press conference - remains the most difficult day in Lakers history.

But on the court, it's tough to figure out the most frustrating game, the most gut-wrenching defeat. The entire decade of the 1960s had numerous candidates, starting with Frank Selvy's missed shot in Game 7 of the 1962 Finals. In 1969, the aging Celtics knocked off the favored Lakers in Game 7 at The Forum. Call it the Balloon Game, which proved to be as big a hit as Balloon Boy. Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke had balloons hanging in the rafters, ready to drop once the Lakers won and vanquished their rivals. Instead, Wilt got banged up, Don Nelson caught a lucky break on an ugly jumper and Jerry West inched one step closer to madness. There's the Willis Reed game in 1970. There are Games 4 and 7 in the 1984 Finals, a series the Lakers often dominated, only to lose - again - to the Celtics.

Game Five of the 1986 Western Conference Finals wasn't quite as devastating as any of those games, but it was hell on an 11-year-old. The defending champion Lakers had won the Western Conference four straight seasons. They cruised to victory in the first game, but Houston - led by Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon - rolled to victories the next three. Game 5 was in The Forum. It was LA's last stand:

There are numerous great moments in this clip. First, there appear to be living, breathing fans sitting in The Forum. At various times many of them even stand up to cheer, an uncommon sight, even during the most dominant victories. Kareem plays like a young Lew Alcindor. A dunk over Sampson on the first play. An offensive rebound and dunk over Sampson and Hakeem. A fastbreak dunk. A fadeaway in the lane.

People criticized Kareem after this series for being dominated on the boards by the Twin Towers. But he was still extremely effective, the most reliable threat. And, of course, he was 39 years old! Yet he was still the focus of the Lakers offense; it'd be another year before Magic asserted himself more with his scoring. How good was Kareem that season? Earlier in the year, he scored 46 points against Houston. That came a month after he lit up the Rockets for 43 points. For comparison, Shaq just turned 38. Next year, can you see him averaging 23 points for the season - like Kareem did at 39 - and going for 46 and 43 in back-to-back games against Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol?

Magic himself has a classic series starting at the 1:20 mark. First a perfect pass to a cutting Cooper. Then a steal and a coast-to-coast drive.

But slowly Houston chips away on a 14-point deficit, helped by the fact the Lakers had four players on the court teamed up with a uniformed corpse - Maurice Lucas. Ol' Luke was a hell of a player for the 1977 title-winning Blazers, but at this point he was Kwame Brown with better hands. And at the 4-minute mark, Hakeem begins to toy with the Lakers, unleashing the spin moves and fadeaways that would humiliate David Robinson nine years later.

At 4:55, Dick Stockton utters a most unfortunate phrase when describing Hakeem's brilliance. "Here's a guy who's aroused," says Stockton, though the visual evidence thankfully doesn't confirm the observation.

With just a few minutes left in the game - and just past the 7:20 mark on the video - Hakeem fights Mitch Kupchak. The benches empty after the scuffle. Today this fight would lead to a dozen suspensions and a hundred columns about how the NBA is out of control and run by thugs. Back then it was a normal occurrence, even if this fight took place at an abnormal time: with the game on the line. The refs tossed both players. The Lakers lost a backup power forward with bad hair playing on one leg who retired at the end of the year. The Rockets lost the most dominant center in the league. A brilliant move by Kupchak. Yet the Lakers still couldn't put Houston away, as Sampson took over.

Finally it comes down to the last 30 seconds. After Robert Reid hit a game-tying 3-pointer in the corner, the Lakers had the ball for the final possession. At worst, it should have gone into OT. But instead of having Kareem or Magic or Worthy or Cooper shoot, the Lakers went to Byron Scott, an outstanding shooter but a guy not known for clutch plays. The young guard bricked a wide open 20-footer, setting the stage for one of the most famous shots in NBA history. With a second left, Sampson caught the inbound pass and fired in the same motion. (Lakers should have had a man guarding the inbound passer.) It's the type of shot that only a 7-foot-4 player could take and make. It bounces on the rim before falling through the net, followed by Michael Cooper falling to the court. The Rockets dance off the court and on the Lakers' grave.

Dick Stockton called it a miraculous shot. He didn't have to add that it likely aroused countless Rocket fans.

A dominant Boston team defeated Houston in six games for the NBA title. Many Celtic fans are still bitter that they didn't get to play the Lakers in 1986, since Boston would have been favored. The argument goes that somehow the Lakers knew they'd lose to Boston so maybe they didn't quite give it their all against Houston. And, they logically concluded, since the Celtics would have won, that means Bird would have two victories over Magic in the Finals, the same way Magic has two over Bird. It's the type of thinking that happens to brains exposed to too much alcohol or cigar smoke. Not to mention, if they're handing out hypothetical victories, then Magic should get one in 1982 - when the Lakers beat the Sixers in six games - since they would have also beaten the Celtics, and in 1988, when the Lakers scratched past Detroit in seven but would have surely beat Boston in fewer games. I know, it doesn't make any sense. But that's the Celtic mindset.

I didn't see the ending live. For one of the few times as a young Lakers fan, I went to bed early, too nervous to watch what might be the last game of the season. My dad told me the next day at breakfast what had happened. I detected a bit too much glee in his description of the shot. I moped through school that day. My teacher asked if it was because of the Lakers. What else would it be, the B+ on the social studies test?

Many people thought that game wasn't just the end of the season, but would be the last stand for Showtime. The Twin Towers were the future, the thinking went. The days of running up and down the court were over. In the off-season, the Lakers talked with Dallas about a trade that would have sent Worthy to the Mavs for Mark Aguirre and Roy Tarpley. It turned out to be one of the best trades the Lakers never made. Instead of going big, the Lakers rededicated themselves to running, while also handing the offense completely over to Magic. The result? Back-to-back titles the next two years, and a third trip to the finals in 1989. Houston, meanwhile, crumbled due to injuries and drug suspensions. It'd be eight years before the Rockets returned to the Finals. The common denominator, of course, was Hakeem, who was still the most dominant center in the league. But even in '94 and '95, Kareem probably could have gone for 25 against the Dream.

Injuries derailed Sampson and this shot against the Lakers was the highlight of his career. Sampson never won a title and never even made it back to the Finals. Still, if you're going to be primarily remembered for one shot, it might as well be one of the most famous shots in NBA history. Someday I'll get over it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Janesville by the numbers

Last week I filled out a census form for the first time. It took about seven minutes. The only confusing part was trying to figure out why so many people could get so worked up about such a simple exercise. Or, perhaps I'm simply naive and don't see the hidden evils behind the data the Census Bureau collects.

In 2000 I lived in an apartment above a family home, so I was probably only marked as another person living in the household. Now I'm the first name listed, an empowering, adult feeling. Now I truly feel like a citizen, and sort of patriotic. Television ads for the census have been everywhere during the NCAA tournament and it seems by now everyone should know that it's crucial everyone is counted so cities and neighborhoods can receive proper funding, among other things. The catchy songs and print ads explain the rest.

Here's the info on the 56048 zip code - which Janesville's a part of - from 2000.

The site city-data.com compiles countless bits of information on practically every city in the country. I could probably remove practically from that sentence, since any site that has reams of info on Kinbrae, Minnesota - home to approximately 21 people - must surely have every city covered. Some of the info comes from the census, but the site also lists crime stats and voting habits, information it gets from other sources.

The information is incredibly detailed. Here's Janesville's city data. In most ways it's a portrait of a typical small town, presented with raw numbers and pie graphs galore. Some of it's a little confusing. According to city-data, the towns of Elysian, St. Clair, Pemberton, Eagle Lake, Waterville and Waseca are all within 3.2 miles of Janesville, when nearly all of them are 10 or more miles away. With my math background, there's a chance I'm misinterpreting these figures, though it reads: NEAREST CITIES. Seems hard to misread that description.

I found it surprising that Janesville's tornado activity is above the state average and is 111 percent greater than the U.S. average. Growing up we certainly had a number of frightening warnings and nights spent in the basement, huddled under sturdy pool tables and shaky ping-pong tables. But they never seemed to get close to the town, thankfully, and Janesville's always escaped the devastating damage that countless neighboring towns have suffered.

Janesville skews red when it comes to politics, as Bush/Cheney won 56 percent of the vote in 2004. This information isn't surprising now that I'm an adult, but this would have blown me away as a kid growing up in a family where Republican was a four-letter word.

"Wait, someone likes Reagan?" Now I see we were probably actually a minority of the small town population. Feel like rebels.

In 2008, Janesville had 2,242 people, a 6 percent increase from the 2000 census. The town's growing but the school enrollment shrinks.

Janesville struggled with a crime spree in 2001, at least compared to every other year. There were three assaults, 11 burglaries and 55 thefts that year. There's only been one assault since, though that number seems as dubious as the old election results when Saddam was running for president and taking home 100 percent of the vote. I often assumed every crime committed inside Janesville was fueled by alcohol or inspired by a pursuit of it, but the burglaries and thefts seem like they'd take the type of planning that's foreign to the average drunk in the middle of a bender.

When it comes to religion, Janesville people love their churches, with 34 percent of the population identifying as Catholics, 31 percent Evangelical Lutheran and 20 percent Lutheran. (As a Catholic kid growing up, we'd call the Lutheran kids, including my cousin, "loony Lutherans," counter-punching taunts of fish eaters; as a kid, there's no time or place for comedic subtlety). Overall, 82 percent of people are affiliated with a religious congregation, compared to 50 percent of the overall population in the country. Again, as a kid I don't know if I even knew what the words atheist or agnostic meant, much less that there were people who called themselves those things.

I'd also like to apologize to any Faith Lutheran parishioners who attended services at the church next to our house between 1983 and 1993. The building's vacant now, though it might still bear the scars of my athletic pursuits. I spent hundreds of hours throwing rubbers balls and tennis balls off the side of the church as I practiced fielding grounders or pitching. Eventually I started hitting tennis balls off of it, as our yard was a perfect setting for my Wimbledon fantasies. Usually I did this when the church was empty. Usually. There were also times when I'd compete against my dad in H-O-R-S-E or 1-on-1 at the neighbor's basketball hoop, games that often ended with primal screams and an occasional curse. Again, my apologies to the church members, though in fairness, they were highly competitive games. Any property damage to the rear of the church is not listed on city-data.

The town has 2.5 people per household, the exact same average as the state of Minnesota. That's Janesville - a normal, average, typical small town.

Of course, that's just what the numbers say. It's not always normal and not always average. After all, what other town has a doll that haunts the town? (Note: The doll and the dead: girl/boy/woman/man it represents are not included in census information.

Monday, March 22, 2010

For people sick of eight-hour pregames...the 1983 NBA Finals

At some point in the near future, the Super Bowl pregame show will begin at noon on Saturday and run for 18 straight hours until the Sunday kickoff. A maniacal Terry Bradshaw will strangle Jimmy Johnson at the 13-hour mark, while Michael Strahan chuckles softly. They'll run features on every player in the game, including a heart-warming piece on the kicker, who was inspired to "boot the football" by a second-grade teacher who gave him a Super Toe on the final day of class. There will be live musical performances from anyone who's ever made it to the final 12 on American Idol, and right before kickoff, a very special coin flip will take place with a descendant of George Washington throwing a quarter into the air.

No matter the sport, today's pregame shows seem to last as long as the actual games, as dozens of talking heads clog the studio, laughing and yelling at each other while debating the eternal questions of the day, such as, who will the Yankees use as their sixth-inning reliever? Who, damn it?! Who!

Pregame shows weren't always like this. In 1983, CBS Sports decided - at least for the opening game of the NBA Finals - to ditch the pregame show completely. One of the legends of the 1980s is that Magic and Larry helped save the NBA. The league was in such trouble that CBS aired Game 6 of the 1980 finals - Magic's legendary 42-point performance - on tape delay. The NBA couldn't even put its product on live TV. That all changed in the 1980s as the NBA became the most popular sports league in the country.

But in 1983 it didn't quite rule the airwaves. Below is the introduction to Game 1. The series pitted the 65-win 76ers - who are now considered one of the best teams in NBA history - against the defending champion Lakers. This was the third meeting in four years between the teams. The series had superstars everywhere - Magic, Dr. J, Kareem, Moses Malone. The game starts with CBS's famous intro - the first year they used it - and Brent Musburger setting the stage with his superb narration.

But then it goes immediately to the game action as Musburger says, "The dream series is underway..." Underway? Yes, CBS joins Game 1 of a dream series with 7:37 left in the first quarter. Philly leads 10-8. Not only did CBS miss the first 18 points of the game, but it missed a collision between Norm Nixon and Andrew Toney. Nixon separated his shoulder on the play, and on a team already ravaged by injuries, it was a crucial blow. He played the rest of the game, but ultimately missed the final game.

According to a comment on youtube (always reliable), the game was played in the afternoon and CBS aired a golf tournament that went long, cutting into the beginning of the game. A golf tourney. The game was on May 22. That weekend, the PGA held something called the Georgia-Pacific Atlanta Golf Classic, which Calvin Peete won. Not a major, not even a sort-of major like The Players Championship. Instead viewers missed the first five minutes of the NBA Finals because of a golf tournament sponsored by a world leader in toilet paper.

I remember watching Game 4 of this series - Philly swept the Lakers - so I'm sure I watched the first game. I imagine my rage building as a 7-year-old, nervously waiting for the start of the finals. Instead, I was forced to watch Chip Beck and Jim Colbert battle Peete for the top prize and $72,000.

Magic and Larry saved the NBA, but not before CBS ruined the beginning of the 1983 finals.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The problem with upsets

If a number 16 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament ever beat a top seed in the opening round, it'd be the biggest upset in the tourney's history. If all four 16 seeds somehow defeated all of the top seeds in the first round, it might be the most exciting weekend in tourney history.

And if all four 16 seeds somehow made it all the way to the Final Four, it'd be the worst Final Four in tournament history. It's the only problem I have with underdogs pulling off shocking victories over favorites early in the tournament. At some point down the line, in the final rounds, I'd rather watch the best teams, because they're more enjoyable to watch, they're more athletic, they're deeper, they're just...better.

As much as I enjoyed watching Northern Iowa's victory over Kansas on Saturday, I don't think I'd really enjoy a Final Four that included Northern Iowa, Cornell, Murray State and Old Dominion. The games and atmosphere would be about as exciting as a December game aired at 11 p.m. on ESPNU. One or two upsets are exciting, but have the same underdog knock off three favorites and it begins to feel like they're a formerly charming party guest who doesn't know it's time to leave. This rarely happens, but when it does the results can be ugly. In 1979, in perhaps the most famous Final Four ever, Penn - Penn! - joined DePaul, Larry Bird's Indiana State team and Magic Johnson's Michigan State Spartans in Salt Lake City. Penn reached the Final Four by knocking off traditional powers North Carolina and St. John's. In the semifinals, Michigan State jumped out to a 32-6 lead and won 101-67. The moment finally caught up with the Quakers and everyone watching on TV suffered.

I love seeing the traditional powers occasionally knocked off, but I also like seeing them there in the end. I'm a basketball elitist (does that make me sound too much like Billy Packer? Please say no), except when I'm watching a thrilling opening-round game between a two seed and a 15 seed and I'm pulling for the no-names. There needs to be a good mixture of the great and the improbable, although, in the case of both Northern Iowa and Cornell, there's always the possibility that they are great and simply needed a showcase.

I guess I want the best of both worlds - the upsets and the best to meet the best in the end - and this year we just might get it. Cornell's been one of the most impressive teams through the first two rounds, but in the next game they face the team that has been the most impressive: Kentucky. It's an Ivy League school against one of the most decorated programs in NCAA history, a perfect matchup for a Sweet 16 game. Throughout it, I'm sure I'll be pulling for Cornell to continue their streak of upsets. But ultimately, when the Final Four rolls around, I'd miss not being able to watch John Wall play one more time, this time on the game's biggest stage. So confusing.

In the end, of course, my fear of an all-underdog Final Four is irrational. For every George Mason there are a dozen North Carolinas and Connnecticuts. Even this year, when it seems preordained that an unknown team will crash the final party, we'll probably get a Final Four of Duke, Kentucky, Syracuse and perhaps Ohio State. All familiar teams with rosters that are littered with all-Americans, led by coaches who qualify for sainthood, at least according to Dick Vitale. Not a feisty upstart in the bunch. But maybe Northern Iowa can break through and excite farmers everywhere. I'd love to see them in Indianapolis on that final weekend - as long as they're not joined by any other underdogs.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

My life at McDonald's

McDonald's received another dose of great publicity this week when a Colorado woman revealed that a Happy Meal she left out for a year maintained the same shape and look for 12 months. It didn't age and, though she didn't try this, probably tasted the same as it did the day she walked it out of her local restaurant.

It brought up the normal criticisms of McDonald's and its preservatives, as people everywhere wondered what fries and a burger do to your body if they don't decompose when left out in the open (to me that's a good sign; maybe the ingredients preserve livers, kidneys and stomachs as well as they preserve dollar burgers). It could be a hoax but it seems believable, despite some obvious flaws in her methodology.

I read this news and shrugged, the same reaction to every documentary, book and article I read about the horrors of McDonald's. No doubt all of these - from the movie Super Size Me to the book Fast Food Nation - are full of startling truths and disgusting anecdotes. But like a smoker who knows that the Surgeon General isn't lying, I continue to enjoy everything that's offered under the Golden Arches (it is a bit different than smoking, since very few people have gotten sick from secondhand grease).

Yesterday I told some friends that the more negative news I read about McDonald's, the more I crave its food. It's not a rebellious move, simply conditioning. When I hear the word McDonald's - even if it's used in a sentence that includes words like "higher rates of cancer" or "clogged arteries" or "diabetes" - my brain pictures the crispy McNuggets, or even soggy ones. I remember the unique smell that emanates from any McDonald's. God I love that smell - I wish it could be bottled and put into cologne form.

My love for McDonald's started in childhood, sustained by weekend trips to my grandparents'. We'd leave on Friday after my parents got off of work and always stop to eat in Mankato. Sometimes it was at Hardee's, but often it was McDonald's. As a kid I ordered a simple cheeseburger and small fries. Eventually the order grew along with my body and the order turned into a quarter-pounder and medium fries, before ultimately giving way to a double quarter-pounder, large fries and, just occasionally, a nine-piece Nugget. I'd wash it down with a large drink and a chocolate shake, counting on my genes to keep me from spilling outside my jeans.

McDonald's asks for so little - maybe six bucks - and gives so much in return, including an increased risk of dropping dead while shooting hoops with a grandchild at the age of 57.

So many McDonald's, so many memories:

There's one in Lakeville off of I35 that we always went to after trips to the metropolis, especially after Twins or Timberwolves games. Nothing perks up a depressed person who's just watched Brad Lohaus or Rich Becker like the aroma of McDonald's fries. If we didn't stop at this one, it was still another hour to Janesville and an hour of waiting for food. The food didn't taste any different, of course, but its location moves it to the top spot, despite the fact the bathrooms occasionally looked like they hadn't been cleaned since Ray Kroc was alive. The arches called us from the interstate and I'd start salivating the second we took the exit and then turned left for McDonald's.

The only time I've ever ordered a Big Mac was during the brief time I worked at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport as a wheelchair attendant. For whatever reason, during my brief time in that position, I always bought a Big Mac during my short lunch break. I'd order one every day - a value meal was an hour's pay - and find a seat at an unoccupied gate. Occasionally a passenger would stare at me, as if offended by the idea airport peons take breaks. Perhaps I was subconsciously punishing myself for being unable to land a newspaper job out of college and I didn't think I deserved the old reliables: quarter-pounders and chicken sandwiches. When I got hired at a newspaper and quit the airport, I also quit Big Macs and haven't had one since. There's something psychological at work here, though I don't want to know what it is.

Even after six years, I still don't quite trust New York City McDonald's. There seems to be something different about the taste compared to the ones back in Minnesota. Maybe I'm influenced too much by the hairnets worn by workers, something I'd never seen until moving out East. In theory this should be reassuring, but it makes me wonder: what follicle catastrophe happened that necessitated the move? How many hairs have to fall into shakes before a mid-level manager sends out a memo demanding hairnet use? And if the hairnets have stopped that problem, what other ones are lurking, waiting to be discovered by a hidden camera and an investigative reporter looking for a big scoop?

One of my go-to places on the Upper West Side also commits the cardinal sin of refusing to put ketchup dispensers out in the open. They don't even have a box filled with the insulting ketchup packets. Instead you have to ask the cashier for some. The workers dole them out with brutal efficiency, as if they're docked 10 bucks from their paycheck for every one package they distribute. Ketchup wasn't rationed like this during the world wars, why start now? Two packets are not enough for a medium order of fries and three aren't enough for a large.

Sidebar. Here's Letterman manning the drive-thru at McDonald's.

How deflating is it to watch a worker grab an order of fries that have been sitting under those harsh lights for five minutes? No, please, no. I can see that the fresh ones will be done in the fryer in 30 seconds. Please, wait. The limp fries land on the tray with a thud and the meal's off to a bad start even before you've taken the first bite. Everything usually evens out and the next trip will include the hot, crisp fries that have become so famous.

I say this without pride or exaggeration. During my sophomore year of college, I ate at McDonald's every day, with the possible exception of maybe 10 days. That's nine months and about 270 days. So figure about 300 meals, since I'd often hit it for lunch and dinner and rarely - just rarely - breakfast. None of the five people in our house cooked, so we single-handedly kept the Worthington franchise alive for nine months. During basketball that season, we'd often eat there before and after games. Our coach warned us not to eat milkshakes before games, as they would weigh us down while running up the court. I often ignored this plea, one reason my feet never seemed to move the way I wanted them to on defense.

Before I moved to New York and got married, I ate at McDonald's probably four times a week. It wasn't like the college days, but wasn't much better. But then I discovered the beauty of home-cooked meals. Now I eat there a few times a month. About six months ago, Louise noticed I always got headaches after eating at McDonald's, either the same night or the following morning. She immediately diagnosed the problem with a certain amount of glee: too much sodium from McDonald's, along with not enough water. I scoffed at the idea. I'd been eating McDonald's for most of my 34 years and had never suffered a side effect, although as Louise points out, I have been suffering from headaches most of my life (I saw no correlation). Eventually I could no longer ignore the evidence. Now I make sure to drink plenty of water before a trip to McDonald's. I have to prepare my body before ingesting their food, which is humbling and vaguely humiliating.

But I still go there. If documentaries, best-selling books and bizarre experiments don't eliminate my love of McDonald's, a few headaches won't either.

My love of McDonald's will last forever, just like their food.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

I paid someone $50 to write this post - AND LOVED THE RESULT!

Our company seeks experienced writers to complete college and university level essays, research papers, book reports and business plans. The job can be done from home or other remote location. The orders are completed and sent over the Internet. ...Most of our part-time writers receive from $500 to $1,500 per month. Our full-time writers receive about $1,500-$2,500 per month.

Interested? Apply here. I like to think that at one point in my life I was probably one of the top research paper writers - artists - in the university system. I liked the research and loved the writing. Just as importantly, research papers meant no math problems, no formulas or proofs. No science experiments conducted with burners and goggles, no interpreting the results. When people in the mid-1990s wrote about Americans falling behind the rest of the civilized world in math and science proficiency, they could have published a picture of my face as I stared at the board in my trigonometry class, confusion and fear mixing with an occasional tear.

But papers, I could write papers. No matter the topic, from the Exxon Valdez catastrophe to Pat Buchanan's speech at the 1992 Republican convention, I could write 5,000 words and come out the other side with an A and a written compliment from the professor. I loved classes that had few exams, unless those tests involved writing essays for the final.

My skills peaked during my senior year at St. John's, when nearly every class I took required research papers instead of exams. The summer before that final year at SJU, I bought a word processor, the type of machine a collector might pay a buck for at a garage sale today, something to show the kids: "Look at what people used to write on!" In my last two semesters of college, I sat in front of that word processor for hundreds of hours, fueled by Dr Pepper and Zevon, typing away on projects that seemed to take hundreds of hours to print.

I often saved the writing for the two nights before the project was due, bringing together the mountain of information I'd found during my research and spinning it into a coherent paper. Thankfully, I even found a math class that allowed me to utilize these skills. After flaming out my first two years in trigonometry and calculus - an academic adviser provided horrifically wrong information about math requirements - I discovered Math Theory at St. John's. We solved a few problems here and there. Mostly we wrote essays about great mathematicians and the problems that vexed them for hundreds of years. I didn't understand their arguments or how they came up with their solutions, but I could write a biography about them or summarize their struggles.

All that bragging aside, I would return to the world of airport wheelchair attendants before I'd become a writer who types up term papers or book reports for college kids desperate for a 10-page submission on the effects of Brown v. Board of Education. Ghostwriting a book for a former Major League Baseball player who was once a heroin addict would be one thing; doing that same thing for a freshman who is too lazy to research or too incompetent to write is completely different.

Yet obviously the countless companies that offer up these services have a big pool of talent at their disposal. Especially in today's publishing world, many writers will take what they can get, even if the credit for the 12-page paper about the Battle of the Bulge will go to a business major who spent Friday night slipping roofies to co-eds.

Premiumwriting.com, which posted the ad above, makes sure that the work of its writers is not plagiarized, so students can safely assume that the paper that's not their own hasn't been stolen from an unknown third party. The company does have its morals, after all. In fact, the company announced on December 16 of this past year, "Our engineers have upgraded the anti-plagiarism engine used to check completed projects. From now on all written assignments will be tested by the world's most respected anti-plagiarism resource." Again, it's all about the ethics. Plagiarism is not allowed, but please hurry up with that five-page essay on Anne Frank's diary, we need to get it emailed to the college kid by Wednesday.

Obviously, having to work for this company would be a blow to the self-esteem for many writers, though that's probably cushioned by the money that helps pay the rent and buy groceries. But how about the engineers who have put their education and genius to work coming up with an anti-plagiarism "engine." It's a noble mission, except for the fact a company that sells term papers and book reports to college kids for fees is using the creation. It's like a scientist who worked on a nuclear power plant turning around and helping a terrorist construct a nuke.

Here's a site that rates some of the top term paper-writing websites out there, so that the customer can do the proper research before hiring someone to write a paper. Seems like a lot of work to do for someone who's searching for a way out of research.

Capitalism lives on the site, but irony has died. In a note to students, using the type of wording you might normally read on a website warning about email scams and Nigerian princes, the site states, "If a site is charging more or less than the prices that are mentioned here then BEWARE as you are being cheated."

You can't con a conman, and you can't cheat a cheater.

Other warnings: "Learn about things that can lead you to unimaginable and disastrous results."

Disastrous, sure. Unimaginable? Is it that hard to imagine what might happen if a professor discovered a student bought a book report online? This lack of imagination might be part of the original problem for the students.

The site also says, "Never underestimate your teacher (They have various tricks for checking authenticity of the research done.)"

Those tricky teachers and their conniving ways of recognizing work that's been stolen.

The site ranks the top three places for students to buy papers. In higher education, it's the third most-prestigious ranking, coming in just ahead of U.S. News and World Report's Best College Rankings, but still behind Playboy's Top Party Schools for 2009. A man who may or may not be named James writes, "Top term papers guide sure is a life saver. Thanks to your editors, I am always able to get the paper that I am looking for. You are doing a great job." It sounds like a statement written by a robot or an ad representative. No word on whether James wrote the sentence himself or paid $10 for a pre-written testimonial.

So who grabbed the top spot in Top Term Paper Sites' annual rankings? Perfect Term Papers.

In the introduction, the site welcomes the lazy and intoxicated: "As if a job and social life are not enough to drive you insane while you try to pass college! Add to this the burden of term papers, which are sometimes designed to make you tear your hair out in frustration."

Who can the website help? If a student identifies with any of these problems, Perfect Term Papers - which brags that it does provides simply perfect term papers (in case it wasn't obvious before) - is there to help:

"How difficult is it to begin writing term paper/research paper when an evening out is equally important. How difficult is it to turn in research paper tomorrow morning when you might drop-dead the next minute due to exhaustion."*

* Should a student trust a site that has a glaring typo in its warnings? A research paper, it should read. A research paper. Plus, drop-dead wouldn't need a hyphen. My application for Perfect Term Papers is now sailing through cyberspace.

Perhaps owing to the difficult economic times confronting the country, Perfect Term Papers has revised its rates for March 2010. If you need a paper the next morning, it's going to be $34.95 per page, while it's only $7.95 per page if you need it a week from now.

According to Top Term Paper sites, Perfect Term Papers gets approximately 18,000 hits a day and scores a perfect 10 in customer rating. In addition, they have no instances of plagiarism. Perhaps their engineers have also built the perfect anti-plagiarism engine. Every paper is custom-written. That's the type of personal touch that so many people say is missing in today's cutthroat business world.

Perfect Term Papers provides a sample of its work, a short paper on Quintilian, who is "known as one of the gigantic of rhetoric and is measured by some to be the foremost educational reformer." The entire sample is so bizarrely written that it made me briefly wonder if the entire website wasn't a parody ("gigantic of rhetoric?"). The site uses as its sample piece a research paper that is so poorly written that an average high school freshman would demand his money back. Another line from the paper: "But from the start, Quintilian demonstrates that he is concerned with young children, although he expects to attain them through their teachers, tutors, and parents." I'm not sure what that line means, though it sounds less like a description of a famous reformer and more like a plot for a movie about human trafficking.

"His present work is a twelve-volume behemoth not the kind of text with which one student of rhetoric can without problems settle down."

"Yet, in this fraction of the work the illustration are so pertinent and the style so distinguished and yet sweet that the contemporary reader, whose preliminary interest in rhetoric is of requisite faint, is carried along with much less exhaustion than is essential to master most part of the rhetorical writings of Aristotle and Cicero (McCall, 1989)."

Whoa. Again, perhaps this is an elaborate joke from the leaders of Perfect Term Papers, an example of the type of humor they might use when writing a paper for a kid doing research on the famous satirists of the 20th century. Who talks like that, and, more importantly, who writes like that? If a student submitted a paper with those sentences, even the teachers who aren't tricky might become suspicious. And this is the sample the site put up for the public to see. They looked through some of the papers written by the veteran team and said, "There, that one on Quintilian that Jonathan wrote a while back. That was good stuff. Let's put that as our sample to draw students in. Most of them will be drunk when they email us so they'll read it through blurry eyes and won't notice the haphazard sentence structure and missing punctuation." Which ones did they reject as samples?

And this is the No. 1 term paper site on the web, an indictment of the industry and the Internet. If you're going to build an unethical business, at least be good at it. I think Madoff said that.

Delightfully, a disgruntled cheat filed a ripoff report about Perfect Term Papers (she was apparently unaware of the perfect customer rating doled out by Top Term Papers). As I wrote, irony is dead in the world of purchased term papers.

I see something of an opening here. Maybe I can get a part-time business going, butt in on the competition. It's been nearly 13 years since I wrote a research paper, but I think it would all come back to me. Get myself a team of writers and some disgruntled engineers and I could be competing with the big boys. My rates will be fair. The work will be good, but not too good (no need to alarm tricky teachers). All I have to do is shred my last bit of dignity and lose all of my self-esteem. I'll start doing drugs, of course. Somewhere out there is a college student who procrastinated too long or drank too much. They should be able to hand in a paper they're proud of, even if they're unaware of who wrote it or what's even in it.

Watch out, Perfect Term Papers, there's a new kid on the block. Or, as Perfect Term Papers might write it, There's a behemoth not the kind of website with which one student of history can without difficulty settle down. Yet, in this business of the work the words are so pertinent and the style so distinguished and so sweet that the contemporary reader or requisite faint will seek to buy the papers that are rhetorically like the writings of Aristotle and Socrates.

Am I hired?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Taxicab confessions

Time: 4:35 a.m.
Location: Taxi cab, upper Manhattan, near the George Washington Bridge.

"You like that neighborhood you live in? You like the city life?"


"I grew up there, you know. Quarter century ago. Moved out when the crime got bad. You going to stay there forever?"

"I don't know. Might move someday, who knows."

"Well, if you're looking for answers, did you know the bible is the only book that has accurately predicted every event that's happened in human history?"

And that's how the normal chit-chat between driver and passenger, the kind that's occurred countless times in any city that has adequate taxi service, turned into a literary defense of the bible and a plea for me to look at life through a different, more saved perspective. Accurately predicted every event...now, did this mean Leviticus hinted at whether we should look for a two-bedroom apartment in the city or consider suburban options?

He talked and drove while I listened for 10 minutes. This is the first time I had this driver, though he's the second one I've had who apparently toils away late at night driving over the George Washington Bridge while waiting for the apocalypse. Must have a lot of time to think about the big issues at that time of night, the fares only coming every few hours while the doomsday dreams pop up every few minutes.

One of my other drivers entertains me with bedroom stories that would be called over the top by an editor of Penthouse Forum and now I've heard about life on the holier, more celibate side. We were close to the office and I still hadn't quite figured out how our polite but ultimately meaningless conversation about life in Inwood and Washington Heights turned into an examination of David, Solomon and Revelations. He kept talking about pestilence and earthquakes and how it's all been foretold (but did the Bible really warn about H1N1?) . I didn't agree with his conclusions, though I never had the opportunity to say that. But I admired his devotion to his studies and beliefs, no matter how much I might question his ultimate arguments.

After filling out my receipt, the kind gentleman thanked me for my time and my ear. He handed me a pamphlet that "provided some more answers" to questions I hadn't even thought to ask.

At 4:30 in the morning I'll listen to any conversation, primarily because I'm half-asleep while engaging with the driver. Again, though, as I wrote before, it's a bit disconcerting listening to someone talk about the end of the world and the apocalypse while they're in control of a vehicle traveling 60 miles an hour over a large, dirty body of water. If my guy was really eager to meet his maker and escape this land of pestilence, there wouldn't be much I could do about it if he took us into the Hudson, aside from hoping his pile of brochures and leaflets could be transformed into some type of rudimentary flotation device.

I do wonder how he would have reacted if I'd interrupted to tell him I was Jewish or a Scientologist. My guess is his lecture would have continued, with a sidebar about the dangers of worshiping Tom Cruise thrown in with the talk of locusts. It didn't really matter if he had a receptive audience, only that he had one. It's lonely on the road at 4:30 in the morning for this driver. Any listener is a good one, especially for someone who thinks the end of everything is closer than anyone thinks.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Sixty-four thoughts on the NCAA tournament (give or take 45 thoughts)

I've never called in sick during the first week of the NCAA basketball tournament. Of course, I've actually never been sick during that time but that never stops millions of workers from calling their bosses and taking the day off with a bad cold. The first week of the tournament, specifically the first two days, are among the best two days of the sports year, as afternoon upsets give way to evening nail-biters while Greg Gumbel orchestrates all the action from the CBS studio in New York. An office pool can be destroyed in a matter of hours, as a two seed picked to go to the Final Four falls flat against an unknown school with the words Middle and State somewhere in its name.

The Final Four is often a letdown after the first two weekends of action, though there have certainly been dozens of classic games on that final Saturday and Monday.

Here are some random tidbits and memories about previous tournaments, in no particular order.

1. Actually, this one's sort of in order as it's the first NCAA title game I can actually remember watching. North Carolina vs. Georgetown in the 1982 finals. I watched it while sitting at our kitchen counter eating ice cream, though I'm assuming I didn't eat ice cream for the entire two-hour affair. This game is remembered mostly for how it started and how it finished. Freshman Patrick Ewing was called for goaltending on five early North Carolina baskets, as coach John Thompson had told the youngster to make a statement to a Tar Heels roster that included Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins. Ewing took this to mean any round object near the basket should be swatted away, no matter how easy of a call it would be for the officials. It was sort of bizarre, as if Ewing had never been told the rules of the game.

The game ended with Georgetown guard Fred Smith inexplicably throwing the ball away to James Worthy after Jordan's jumper gave the Tar Heels a one-point lead. I wanted Carolina to win - at the time, my 6-year-old blood was apparently bleeding blue - but I remember feeling horrible for poor Smith, a good guard with a common name who committed an unbelievable turnover.

The quality of this video is what you'd expect from a game that was recorded on a VCR in 1982, but Smith's gaffe can clearly be seen through all the fuzziness.

2. Austin Carr still holds the record for most points in an NCAA game, with a remarkable 61 against Ohio in 1970. In fact, Carr has three of the five best scoring games in tournament history, a Wilt-like achievement.

3. Carr might not have that record if Pete Maravich had ever played in an NCAA tournament game. Instead, the Pistol toiled away on an average LSU team and played in a time when admission to the tournament was tougher than a ticket to the Masters. Today a Maravich-led LSU team would be one of the most-watched teams in the nation, even if they did hover around the .500 mark. And since the floppy-haired hoops genius scored more than 50 points 28 times in his career, it's very possible he would have set a scoring mark that even Carr wouldn't have been able to touch.

4. Not to sound too much like a G-rated Bobby Knight, but I still think conference tournaments are often a ridiculous idea, specifically in the smaller conferences. It seems absurd that a team from a conference known only to gamblers can go through a regular season with two or three league losses, then find itself out of the NCAA tournament simply because it struggled at the free throw line on a random Thursday afternoon in early March. Then again, I have no idea what a solution would be, as the conference tourneys give every team in the country a realistic hope of making the tournament, even after they've struggled or blown opportunities for four months. It gives everyone something to shoot for, and those small conference tourneys often provide the most dramatic moments, before the victor becomes fodder for a traditional program (usually). In other words, let's keep it the way it is, while allowing complaints about the unfairness of it all.

5. ESPN used to make the coolest 30-minute recaps of each season's Final Four. They'd usually play them at like 4 in the afternoon, so I'd always watch them after school. I especially loved the ones from the 1970s and early '80s, as the grainy videos always seemed to feature more shots of cheerleaders than game action. The 1983 video was one of the most entertaining, especially the semifinal between Louisville and Houston. That game became an instant classic long before ESPN monopolized that phrase. Both teams racked up dunk after dunk, though many of the plays that caused people to watch in wonder back then wouldn't even raise an eyebrow in today's game. In particular, there was one play - perhaps by Clyde Drexler - that had the narrator saying something like, "This spectacular, high-flying, powerful, rim-ripping, double-clutch dunk stunned the crowd." I guess. Then, before the actual Final Four, ESPN would run a marathon of these shows, the same way they used to run those 30-minute Super Bowl videos for an entire day before the big game. Now we get marathon sessions of analysts screaming at each other. I'm not going to call that a positive development.

6. Fifteen of the best buzzer-beaters in tournament history. I'd quibble with the top one; I think Christian Laettner's shot against Kentucky has to be No. 1. Lorenzo Charles's putback dunk in 1983 did give N.C. State the title, but Laettner's was tougher, his team trailed at the time while Charles's was tied and it capped what's generally regarded as the best game in tournament history.

7. Speaking of that Laettner game...I watched that with a group of high school friends in a small, smelly room at the Friendly Host, an inappropriately named motel just off of the interstate in Lakeville, Minnesota. We had the room that weekend for the state boys basketball tournament. On Saturday night, we tuned in for the Kentucky-Duke game and sat enthralled for more than two hours as Kentucky took the defending national champions to the limit. We yelled obscenities and one member of our party even rooted for Duke. The rest of us disliked Duke long before it became fashionable. When Laettner hit his shot, the room erupted in screams and cheers, as even those who cheered against Duke couldn't help but unleash a yell that was full of appreciation and horror. Moments later, a bitter, bored clerk who probably failed a police entrance exam at some point and savored any power she had, knocked on our door. She told us there had been complaints about the noise. She was going to kick us out if it continued. It wasn't going to continue, unless Laettner, I don't know, strangled Coach K at the postgame press conference. Surely we were loud and surely if I was next door to a group of teens who cheered loudly for two hours, I, as a 34-year-old, would probably complain. But it was also the best college game in basketball history, so as a clerk you have to use a little judgment. For years afterward, whenever our group drove past the Friendly Host, members of the traveling party raised their middle fingers in salute to the joint, an immature, yet expected response.

8. Everyone remembers Laettner's shot and everyone remembers that Duke eventually won their second straight national title that season. But a lot of people forget just how bad Laettner was in the final two games of his career, the semifinal victory over Indiana and the title victory over the Fab Five. It seemed like he never quite recovered from the shot against Kentucky; he peaked as a player with that game and that shot. Against Kentucky he didn't miss all night - 10 for 10 from the field, 10 for 10 from the line and 1 for 1 in foot stomps to the opposition. But he struggled against Indiana and Michigan, though Duke's overwhelming talent made up for it. Still, those two performances in Minneapolis set the stage nicely for Laettner's disappointing career in Minnesota. Fans should have seen those games as a warning, instead of an aberration.

9. Here's a Sports Illustrated article following the 1992 Final Four, where a scout says he would seriously consider drafting Laettner over the consensus No. 1 pick in that year's NBA draft: a large man named Shaq. In fact, 12 of the 14 people polled said they'd take Laettner over Alonzo Mourning with the No. 2 pick. Ouch.

One scout loved "whatever it is inside Laettner that makes him such a winner. He's made the big shots and the big plays year after year." At least until the Final Four and his entire NBA career.

10. UNLV's Mark Wade holds the record for most assists in a tourney game, with 18 against Indiana in the 1987 semifinals. UNLV still lost.

11. Shaq holds the record for most blocks in a game, with 11 in 1992 against BYU. One pro scout watched this game and immediately said, "We gotta take Laettner over this kid."

12. While I cheered against Georgetown in that 1982 final, I was fully in their corner by the time the 1985 title game rolled around. Georgetown was a budding dynasty and was attempting to become the first team to repeat as champs since Wooden's UCLA teams. Maybe this is when I first started cheering for overwhelming favorites instead of underdogs, which I still do fairly often today (this says something about my personality, though I'm not sure what). I loved the Georgetown press. I liked the intimidation and Thompson's towel. And I loved the T-shirt Ewing wore underneath his jersey. But Villanova pulled off the improbable victory that year, stunning Ewing in the final game of his fabled career. I didn't watch the end. Instead I went to bed with like 10 seconds left because I didn't want to watch Villanova celebrate. When it came to sports, I could be an odd child.

13. The 1997 Minnesota Gophers are still fondly remembered in the state, even if the season doesn't officially exist in the record books, thanks to the academic scandal that erupted a few years later. That Bobby Jackson-led team made it to the Final Four and it was a great ride all year. But the team I enjoyed even more was the 1990 club, led by Willie Burton and Melvin Newbern. Clem Haskins had taken over a Gophers program that was ripped apart by scandal, the same way he'd leave it. He turned the program around - before turning it upside down a decade later - and led the team to the NCAA tourney in 1989. The following year the Gophers made it all the way to the Elite Eight, where they lost to George Tech in the final seconds. In the Sweet Sixteen, the Gophers defeated heavily favored Syracuse, a team featuring Derrick Coleman and Billy Owens. I can still picture Kevin Lynch's failed jumper from the corner in the two-point loss to Tech. Damn it, why didn't Burton get it?

15. Dean Smith's second championship, in 1993, was again sealed by an amazing gaffe from an opponent. Chris Webber's timeout followed Fred Smith's errant pass. The timeout - or non-timeout - helped everyone forget about one of the worst non-calls in tournament history. Trailing by 2, Michigan regained possession in the closing seconds off of a North Carolina missed free throw. Webber grabbed the rebound and went to pass. Instead, a Tar Heel defender jumped in the way so Webber held on, only he took a giant step and dragged his pivot foot before finally dribbling up the court and into the corner, where he turned to call the timeout that didn't exist. But really, how did the officials miss that traveling?

16. Four years earlier, Michigan benefited from another bad call, though this one led to a national title for the Wolverines. Michigan coach Steve Fisher took over at the end of the year from Bill Frieder, who was sent packing by Bo Schembechler after Frieder took a job at Arizona State. Fischer led Glen Rice and the Wolverines to the finals against Seton Hall, where they won in overtime. Robinson drives to the lane with Michigan trailing by a point. Someone breathes on him and the ref calls a foul with 3 seconds remaining. How? Have a sense of the situation, ref. He was as blind to the moment as that Friendly Host clerk. Not to mention, it looks like Robinson wasn't even touched, so it's not even a matter of asking the ref to swallow his whistle. This would have been a terrible call three seconds into the game as well. Go to the 1:55 mark of this video: Terrible call.

17. I've never said the word bracketology, and I never will. I'm a free speech purist, but I wouldn't be completely against the idea of a constitutional amendment banning the word, along with its cousin: bracketologist.

18. I've never won a tournament office pool. In fact, I've rarely finished in the top five. Women who know nothing about basketball routinely beat me by utilizing a picking system that focuses on the colors of the school uniforms. Children under the age of 10 routinely best me by simply picking the higher seed every game or going with the team with a cooler-sounding mascot. Some years I only do a dozen picks better than a dead guy. My picks are terrible.

So...I've got Kentucky beating Kansas in the finals.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Worst homecoming dance in high school history

Tuesday afternoon, a friend of ours gave us tickets to a small live music session at famed Webster Hall in New York. The band Company of Thieves gave a performance for about 30 to 40 people, playing about five songs for local radio station WXRP. We sat on a leather couch near the small stage and thoroughly enjoyed the performance, which lasted about 45 minutes. It was a cool New York City experience.

Here's one of the songs the band played.

And here's one of their live performances.

I haven't been to many live concerts. In college there was Big Head Todd and the Monsters, when they were still, well, big. And there have been others, but I don't have nearly enough concert experience to speak about the best live bands or the best live performances I've seen. The pool's too limited.

But I do still remember the worst live music performance I ever saw: the 1989 homecoming dance at Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton High School. It was in the fall and the setting was the elementary gym in Janesville, long-known as the "little gym." The band's name has been lost to the history books and the files of the school's administrators. That was the first year the students of Janesville and Waldorf-Pemberton came together in a school consolidation that's lasted 20 years, despite many troubles and financial headaches along the way. The football team got off to a great start that year, bringing the towns together and helping with the early, awkward stages of consolidation. It helped smooth the process, as kids from all of the towns involved learned that, hey, we do actually have a lot in common with these rural students who also come from farms and towns with fewer than 2,000 people. And we thought we'd be so different!

The five days of Homecoming Week were always the most important of the year, as the school crowned royalty, devised wacky dress-up days that inevitably involved togas and constructed complicated floats that cruised down the bustling Main Street of Janesville on the Friday afternoon of the game. It was a big deal, complete with powder puff football and a pep rally.

I was a ninth-grader that first year and I think the football team lost the homecoming game in 1989, which always slightly dampers the rest of the night. Like always, the game was followed by the homecoming dance, a chance for horny teenagers to dance to the sounds of Def Leppard and Poison. Later, many of the kids would search for a kegger or a sibling to buy them beer, unless they acquired their goods even before the dance.

For a guy who preferred observing instead of dancing, the event often proved torturous. There was the occasional slow dance with a girl, but I avoided the fast songs, owing to a humiliating night in seventh grade when I actually did break out all my dance moves and watched as every girl watching broke down in laughter, when they weren't begging me to stop, just stop. Describe the moves? I don't know, ask the poor souls who watched it. I guess it probably looked like someone who's just been Tasered by a police officer, only with less grace. Emotionally scarred, I was content to sit in the stands and make fun of others who actually had guts and decent dance steps. If I liked a girl, perhaps I could talk her into dancing with me after the DJ "slowed things down" and threw on "Every Rose Has Its Thorn." Hands on her hips, I'd shuffle with stiff legs in a short circle while Bret Michaels or another long-haired crooner poured out his soul. I'd say something hinting at my true feelings. She might respond with a smile and I was ensured of another dance - perhaps to "Take My Breath Away" - or else she might lean in and whisper the dreaded words, "That's sweet."

That's how nearly every high school dance I ever attended went, including the homecoming dances. The school hired a DJ from a "sound and lights" production company in Mankato and he'd play songs for a few hours while a fancy laser show distracted us and provided the visual setting.

But for homecoming in 1989, the school forgot about hiring a DJ. Instead it went with a live band. All right, cool. Could be a neat experience, something different, having a live band instead of a DJ playing the same songs by the same artists.

Unfortunately, the band we got for our homecoming was a combination of Judas Priest, Quiet Riot, AC/DC, and Anthrax, only louder and without any talent. Each member of the band looked like the kind of guy who dropped out of school in ninth grade and was now happy to triumphantly return to musically indoctrinate young minds into the ways of Satan. They all probably still lived lived with Mom, but they likely wrote songs about killing their parents. If none of them had ever served time, it was only because of lenient plea deals. Instead of an experienced DJ mixing up the slow songs with the fast ones - while delivering entertaining commentary, complete with obligatory shoutouts to the football team - we had four screamers, playing music that damaged ears and minds. Death metal had come to JWP.

Hardly anyone danced. Everyone sat in the stands in horror, entranced by the unkempt youngsters who had commandeered the little gym's stage. My god, the administrators must have thought, in previous years elementary school children entertained their parents from that same stage with stirring renditions of "Jingle Bells." Now we had a quartet engaged in primal scream therapy.

After awhile I sort of felt bad for the guys. Despite our prejudices, they were probably all nice guys just trying to make a little extra beer money for the weekend. It wasn't their fault someone in the school administration had made the most disastrous musical decision since Decca rejected the Beatles.

There was no slow dancing on this night. Only thrashing. A couple of students who worshiped at the altar of Pantera did congregate near the stage. Over the deafening sound, one could be heard screaming, "YOU GUYS FUCKING RUUUUUULE!" It was a minority opinion.

The band eventually finished their performance for the night. The dance mercifully died as the stunned students shuffled out into the night, ready to resume their search for easy alcohol and easier hook-ups. If the football game hadn't depressed them, the music surely did.

The school held several dances throughout the year, not just during homecoming. For the next one, our reliable, boring DJ with good teeth and nice hair made his return, as did Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" and Journey's "Faithfully." All was again right with the world.

No one really spoke about that homecoming dance again, though they surely remembered it in their nightmares.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Midwestern confusion on the George Washington Bridge

Early Tuesday morning I took my weekly Jersey cab home from work. The last few years I've become a regular rider to the regular late-night drivers. I've become friends with a couple of them, our relationships limited to the 15- to 20-minute rides, though the conversations veer off in a thousand different directions. There's been a lot of Brett Favre talk with the most devoted Favre fan outside of Deanna and there's been talk of adult-oriented parties with another regular driver.

The last two weeks I've had a new guy, who mostly keeps to himself, except when he's mildly chastising another driver. Last night we got stuck behind a car meandering onto the George Washington Bridge. The female driver - transporting three passengers - kept switching lanes before approaching the toll. She apparently couldn't decide whether she was supposed to go to the E-Z Pass or the cash-only booth. My driver finally honked his horn. The woman frantically looked around for the perpetrator, while continuing to seek the proper lane. Eventually she eased into the cash lane and they were on their way. That doesn't mean they found the right destination on the other side of the G.W.

Despite my eagerness to get home, I couldn't get angry with the other car's driver, no matter how much she irritated my own driver, a man I was relying on to maintain an even emotional keel. Eight years ago - actually, eight years and a month ago - I was in a similar situation as the lady with Ohio plates: helplessly trying to figure out the George Washington Bridge.

I first moved to New York City in February 2002, though my initial stay only lasted about two weeks longer than an Olympic Games. My oldest friends Matt and Brandon came with me, all of us crammed into my Cavalier with the boxes I took from Minnesota to New York. There was an overnight stay in Cleveland that ended with me suffering from alcohol-induced sickness. For the first few miles out of Cleveland, I sat in the car with a bag hanging on the door handle, an in-vehicle vomit bag Matt and Brandon devised. But from Cleveland we drove straight through to the big city.

I was at the wheel as we approached New York and my new home. It sounds sort of symbolic but was simply a matter of our driving rotation. We saw the skyline without having any real idea about our location. For years, every road trip we took followed the motto "we'll eventually get to the right place." As mantras go, it was idiotic. We hadn't consulted any kind of city map as our journey neared its destination, so the giant bridge looming ahead could have been the Brooklyn Bridge for all we knew, although the dozens of signs eventually gave away the answer.

Upper level or lower? Huh? Different signs screamed orders, directing drivers to get in a far right lane or this lane only if paying cash.

At one point I cut across about four lanes of traffic in a slow-speed version of a move usually seen on videos with words like "World's Wildest Police Chases" in the title. People honked and raised their fingers in salute to my Midwestern driving skills. Someone watching from above would have thought the blue 1998 Cavalier knew where it wanted to get, otherwise why make such a dangerous maneuver? But I didn't; I simply felt like it's always better to be on the right-hand side. It was late on a Sunday night but the bridge was still packed, or at least it seemed like it to a trio of small-town rubes.

We paid the toll and drove across the bridge. Matt and Brandon admired the view while I wondered aloud if anyone had any idea about what to do next. The views were so good no one really had an answer, so I just kept in the same lane, going the same speed.

I don't know when we first realized we weren't in Manhattan. Probably when we could see the world's most recognizable skyline and realized a body of water still separated us from it. We drove around for an hour, then 90 minutes. We went the wrong way down one-way streets and the right way down bad streets. To this day, even after six years of residency in the city, I couldn't tell anyone exactly where we were or recreate the trip, which surely had us hitting every borough with the exception of Staten Island. Somehow we ended up entering Manhattan from the east side, in midtown. And we didn't realize that until the overwhelming lights enveloped the car. Even three lost out-of-towners understood that this was Times Square. We spent the next 10 minutes debating how we'd arrived at the exact spot we'd wanted to get to all along, albeit nearly two hours later.

After a few trips up and down Times Square - where we encountered more horns and upraised fingers - we drove past a hole-in-the-wall Holiday Inn in midtown. I pulled into a parking garage, which would eventually cost about 500 dollars for the time my car spent there. The Holiday Inn had an opening. When we walked into our room, the door knocked against the bed. It was the smallest hotel room I'd ever seen. It looked like something Mr. Bean would use in a sketch. All that space for only $200 a night. We didn't know if that was a bargain or a rip-off, though we had our suspicions.

My life in New York had started, although it was only the first chapter and would only last a month.

Today I take the George Washington Bridge in the morning and the evening and I recognize every sign and every exit. It's practically as familiar to me as old Highway 14 in southern Minnesota. Eight years ago the G.W. was a bridge to nowhere, but we eventually found our destination. And, for the first time, I found the city I'd one day call home.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Watching Matt Barnes, thinking of M.L. Carr

During Sunday's Lakers-Magic game, Orlando's Matt Barnes tangled with Kobe Bryant throughout the game in a series of confrontations, one of which resulted in technicals against both players. It's the type of thing Kobe often gets involved with, whether it's Raja Bell in the 2006 playoffs or with Ruben Patterson years before that. His standard move in these moments is to raise both arms, the universal signal for, "I did nothing wrong here. This madman is trying to hit me but I'm not reacting. Look, don't believe me, I'll even raise both arms to show I'm not brandishing a weapon." Perhaps it is Kobe that instigates these things...

But Barnes was particularly infuriating during yesterday's game, disrupting my peaceful Sunday and forcing me to throw pillows and a small blanket across our living room. Some of his antics would have impressed Bill Laimbeer, or, even worse, shamed him. The highlight of the Barnes-Bryant matchup comes just after the two-minute mark of the above video. Barnes takes the ball out of bounds with Kobe guarding him. Instead of looking for a teammate, Barnes first fakes a pass right at Kobe's face, a move usually seen on the playground in a game involving a pair of 13-year-olds who both like the same girl. To his credit, Kobe didn't even budge, meaning he didn't really think Barnes would rocket a ball of his head or he's blind in one eye. It was a ridiculous move and, from my unbiased perspective, should have resulted in a technical. Call it violating the spirit of Naismith's game, or something.

Barnes has played for seven teams in seven years and if he can scratch out a 30-year career he'll hit every city in the league. He's a tough defender, a decent shooter and is one of those guys who everyone hates when they're on the opposition but loves - or at least grudgingly accepts - when they're on the home team. To cap off his day, Barnes hit a key 3-pointer that put the Magic up six late in the game. Then, after the Lakers had narrowed it to two in the final seconds, he played tough defense on Kobe's final shot, which went off the rim to preserve Orlando's victory. Barnes celebrated by shooting his arm up, index finger extended, though thousands of other fingers from Lakers fans were probably rising at the exact same moment.

Every time I watch a player like Barnes torment the Lakers, I can't help but flashback to former Celtic instigator M.L. Carr, the most hated opponent of them all. Carr was a pretty good player early in his career, but by the time the mid-1980s rolled around and the Lakers-Celtics rivalry picked up where the 1960s left off, he was an aging guard with little on-court value. But he remained an integral part of Boston's chemistry, setting the stage for legions of towel-waving reserves who followed. Carr's towel followed in the smoky path of Red Auerbach's victory cigars two decades earlier, enraging fans and delighting Boston fans. Carr whipped the towel around above his head with more passion than anyone clutching a Homer Hanky inside the Metrodome during the 1987 World Series. He fired up his teammates and the Boston crowd, and was never afraid to take his tired act on the road.

As a 10-year-old decked out in head-to-toe Lakers gear, I couldn't help but loathe him. Looking back, Carr's performance art pieces on the sidelines at The Forum and the Boston Garden actually only add to the lore of the old rivalry. Back then, it seemed like the two teams really did hate each other. And Carr's white towel represented everything I hated about Boston. Sure, Ainge's whining, McHale's awkward movements and Bird's brilliance bothered me, but Carr symbolized the arrogance, despite the fact he usually only left the bench if the true stars played well enough to put the game out of reach.

On the 1985 video Return to Glory, which chronicles that season's playoffs, Carr talks about his role on the team, explaining that as an older player he could sit and pout about his reduced playing time, or try to do what he could to help the team win, which meant firing them up. It's a rational, unselfish comment. But at the time nothing he said could have lessened my dislike for him and his linens.

The 1984 Finals proved to be Carr's greatest moment as an antagonist. The Lakers choked away a pair of games that year. They possessed superior talent, but the Celtics outfought them, bullied them and relied on horrendous mental mistakes by James Worthy and Magic to win the series in seven grueling games. During Game 4, after Worthy missed a key free throw, another maddening Celtic - Cedric Maxwell - walked across the lane with his hands around his neck, letting everyone know that Worthy had choked.

But Carr stole the show and, eventually, the key game of the series. For once, his biggest contribution didn't come while standing on the sideline in his warmup pants. In overtime of Game 4 - one of those two games the Lakers choked away - the Lakers trailed by three in the closing seconds and had the ball. Carr stepped in front of a pass and went down for the game-clinching dunk.

Watch that dunk again. After he puts it through, Carr nearly runs over the ref (technical?). He then throws his arms to the sky with the over-the-top glee of a scrub who just scored his only points of his varsity career by hitting a half-courter at the buzzer on Parents' Night. A few games later, the Lakers tossed Carr around a bit and he said it was "all-out war," a war the Celtics won in Game 7.

A decade later, Carr took over as Boston's general manager and led the team to the abyss. He eventually became coach. In his second and final year on the bench, Boston won only 15 games and he was replaced by Rick Pitino, who wasn't much better. It warmed Laker hearts to watch a former enemy play a big role in the downfall of the franchise, a struggle that didn't really end until Ainge and McHale colluded in 2007 to give Boston Kevin Garnett, leading to another title.

Today, Carr works with an organization called WARM2Kids, which "provides social, emotional, and educational support for today's youth." He's also the founder of two charities and is by all accounts an outstanding community leader and upstanding citizen, the type of person people should look up to and admire.

Which is why I'll continue to remember him as a player. I don't need those memories tainted by the reality of Carr's good deeds.

In 10 years maybe Matt Barnes will be on the sidelines, leading the Magic or Cavs to a 15-win season. I'd be happy for him. Still, when it comes to being an annoying and infuriating opponent, Barnes can't - to borrow a crude phrase - carry M.L. Carr's jock.

Or his towel.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


Twice this week I told people about dreams I had where they played a central role. One was my cousin, the other a co-worker. Nothing strange or overly creepy, just a standard basketball game that had a lot of bizarre occurrences and a drug deal involving mistaken identity and undercover police officers. Standard stuff.

Whenever I do this - and it's not a daily thing, or even weekly or monthly - I usually feel the need to preface it with, "Now, not to freak you out but..."

On the other hand, I usually feel a bit honored when someone tells me I appeared in one of their dreams. Hey, I made an impression! I seeped into their subconscious. Someone in this world is thinking about me, even if they are envisioning me being the cruel manager of an underwhelming produce section in a small grocery store, as one dreamer recently revealed to me.

I wish there was a way to chart how often you pop up in the dreams of others. It could boost self-esteem, or give an early heads-up that you're the target of a stalker. Like a Google Dream Alert, complete with movie-style ratings so everyone's aware of the potential content. For all I know Google is actually already testing something like this and will soon reveal it to a cheering world eager to give up even more privacy.

I've met numerous members of that strange breed of people who claim they never remember any of their dreams. I don't know whether to pity these dreamless souls or envy them. Think of the excitement they miss. On the positive side they never experience nightmares, or at least none that they're aware of. But they also never get to experience the thrill of flying. They don't know what it's like to be shot at and to be able to stop the bullet with nothing more than a thought. Or do those things only happen in my dreams?

I have the same rotation of dreams and there's not much room for variety, like a classic rock station that will break out "Stairway to Heaven" and "Satisfaction" a few times a week.

I've previously written about my final high school basketball game and I still dream about it and still lose every time. A while back we actually won in the dream and I thought that might be the end of it. But it reappeared a short time later, again with us losing, so I guess that one will continue as long as the actual waking memory remains. Mostly it's about themes that consistently crop up. Several times a week I'll have a dream where my shoes don't fit, always too small, never too big. Significance? Meaning? Interpretation? Hell if I know, although I'm assuming it dates back to a college basketball game where I played with a pair of shoes that were two sizes too small, owing to the fact I forgot my own shoes on a broken-down team van.

Or the shoes fit but they're both for my left foot and I never get the right one in time for the start of the basketball game.

Often my legs don't work in my dreams. Other times I jump up for something and suddenly find myself in mid-flight, soaring over the towering homes of Janesville's elite. It's sort of scary up there. Seemingly everyone, no matter their age or education level, has dreams that center on classroom failure, a near-universal fear. An old standby is walking into a class for a final and then realizing you haven't been to class the whole semester or forgot to study for the test. Depending on a person's psychology and past, they might also be naked. It's up to the individual to decide if that's a nightmarish development or no big deal.

My school dreams always center on math, primarily because it was the one class that tortured me from eighth grade through college. If I'd known how my shortcomings in algebra would torment my dreams two decades later, perhaps I would have tried harder. Or at least never even thought about signing up for college calculus. What was I thinking? My subconscious would like to know.

In the past few years a new sports one has joined the party: tennis. Despite not playing for eight or nine years, I'll be out on the court, always serving. Unfortunately, in the dream I'm rarely hitting the serve. Instead I toss the ball up, swing and miss. Time and time again, while my opponent grows bored and I panic. Again, the hidden meaning to this eludes me. It's been so long since I played tennis, I've actually started to wonder if this actually happened to me the last time I was on the court. Maybe my brain isn't simply creating this as a metaphor; perhaps I'm remembering an on-court trauma. I don't think so. Maybe someone who played against me in the past can remember if I foolishly missed on 10 straight serves during one of our matches. The saddest thing about this dream is that I possessed a damn good serve, a little Boris Beckerish. Now I've been reduced to an on-court joke.

Work dreams are fairly common. And as they have been since I entered the publishing world years ago, most of them center around missed deadlines.

"Where's that story," my nightmare co-worker will ask, or they'll say, "That page has to be done in 2 minutes," and only then do I realize I haven't even started.

It's time like those when I feel fortunate that I'm able to occasionally know when I'm dreaming, while still in the middle of a dream. It's called a lucid dream. For me it usually only occurs during nightmares. In the middle of it, I will realize that it's only a dream and I can actually tell myself to wake up. Sometimes I scream it in the dream, sometimes only whisper. There are countless theories on why this happens. Some people who are in therapy because of their nightmares are actually trained to do this, with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, I rarely experience this while in the middle of a good dream. In other words, I can't tell myself, "Stay sleeping, enjoy." Scientists, I implore you: figure out a way to make this happen.

Of course all dreams are fleeting, the specific details forgotten within a day or two. But those themes will eventually return. They always do. I'll fail a math class, lose my shoes, miss a serve and sometimes fly. Only the cast of characters will be different. And if someone I know makes an appearance, I might let them know. So return the favor. I won't be freaked out, and I might even be honored.