Saturday, September 25, 2010

NBA smorgasboard

Baseball playoffs start soon. NFL's three games into the season. College football going strong.

Perfect time to look forward to the NBA. The Finals ended about 25 minutes ago and it will be nine months before the next champion is crowned, but in a little more than a month the season begins. Teams have started training camp and I've started training my vocal cords for another year of screaming during Lakers' games. In preparation, some links to the NBA's past and present.

Start with one of the most unique players to ever play in the NBA. Manute Bol was the tallest player in league history. Early in his career, Bol was a legend for what he did before ever setting foot on a basketball court. Bol grew up in Sudan and the story of how he once killed a lion with a spear followed him to the league. After his career, Bol became both a heroic figure, and then a tragic one. He established a charity that helped Sudanese refugees. He supported human rights throughout Africa. But in 2004, he was severely injured a car accident. And last June he died at the age of 47 from kidney failure and complications from Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. On the court, Bol became one of the best shot-blockers in NBA history. That made sense. Improbably, he also became one of the fans' favorite 3-point shooters in league history.

Here's Manute blocking four shots in one possession, including one by Stanley Roberts, who at the time weighed about three Manutes.

Some more Manute, including several of his 3-pointers, where he looked like Jamaal Wilkes on stilts.

For fans of acid, here's the 1967 Sports Illustrated preview issue, featuring your funky New York Knicks.

The Sixties were an odd time, especially in New York, and especially for SI designers in New York. The Knicks appeared on the cover again in 1969. Those red dots are not blood stains, they're part of the design. Their message? They convey the "fury" that marked the Eastern Conference that year.

A moment for some Lakers nostalgia. Here's SI's 1986 profile on the most famous NBA fan, Jack Nicholson. Red Auerbach's quoted in the story as saying, "I've seen a lot of fans in my day and to me, there's a difference between being an ass and being a fan. When a guy goes up and moons to the crowd, well..."

In the 1960s, people also said there was a difference between being an ass and being a coach, though that wasn't always so obvious on the Celtics bench.

Here's Wilt at 17.

Here's an older Wilt, going against a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This is one of the most famous regular season games in league history, the day the Bucks snapped the Lakers' astounding 33-game winning streak.

Kareem scored 39 points and attacked the offensive rebounds like Moses Malone, a startling sight for those who remember the Kareem of the 1980s. The skyhook? That was always there. Milwaukee won 120-104.

And finally, as the new season starts, a look back at the final night of the past season.

Still not as weird as those Sports Illustrated covers.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Death of a bookstore

The first time I went to the Barnes & Noble at 66th Street and Broadway in New York City, a mentally disturbed middle-aged man in blue jeans and a Yankees hat screamed at me in the store's cafe area. He accused me of being a gay Irishman. He said I was in for an ass-kicking. It was April of 2004 and I'd only been in the city a week or two, so the confrontation served as my introduction to that Barnes & Noble and life in New York. He sat at a nearby table, ignoring his book while yelling at me. I briefly made eye contact and immediately regretted it. Finally I picked up my bag and left the cafe. The other customers probably considered me a coward, even as they cowered away from the lunatic who now sought a new target.

In the six years since that incident, that Barnes & Noble became our most frequently visited store in the city. Over the years I've bought dozens of books from there and spent hundreds of hours wandering around the massive store. It had three stories of books, a basement full of DVDs and CDs, and a fourth floor cafe that was also home to hundreds of magazine titles and, on at least one day, a deranged reader who loved the Yanks. It will all be gone in four months.

Last month, Barnes & Noble announced it would close the store this coming January. The thing that kills million of New Yorkers - high rent - fatally wounded the store. The current lease was ending and the increased rent "made it economically impossible for us to extend the lease," said a spokeswoman. A Century 21 clothing store will take its place. Barnes & Noble itself is in trouble, as Amazon, e-books and a changing publishing world conspire to damage the behemoth chain that has, of course, also been the downfall of smaller bookstores.

Some people feel little sympathy for the company's plight, citing those closures of small, independent bookstores who may have been victims of Barnes & Noble's once-overwhelming success. Feel bad for Barnes & Noble? Might as well feel pity for the fall of the Soviet Union.

But I will mourn this store's closing, for what it means to the company's future and, more importantly, what it means for publishing.

The store at 66th Street holds special memories for me. One day in September 2005, I sprinted up the escalator to the third floor, then walked to the sports books. There in the football section, near some John Feinstein books, sat my just-released book, Keeping the Faith. There were three copies. It was, obviously, one of the coolest moments of my life. Nineteen months after sitting in the cafe while a disturbed man threatened me and I wondered what in the hell life was going to be like in New York, I bought a copy of my own book from that store.

However, nostalgia has little to do with my regrets about the store's demise. There are still numerous Barnes & Noble stores in the city - there's actually another branch just up the street, at 82nd and Broadway. The closing frightens because it's just one more sign - a four-story sign - that the book industry is going through tough times. Like newspapers, magazines, movies, and television, the book world is struggling to adapt to the difficult economy and the changing media world.

Walk into any Barnes & Noble today and you'll be greeted by a display for the Nook, the company's entry into e-book readers. The sales folks are helpful, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. They talk about its virtues, reliability and convenience. And I have absolutely no desire to ever own one.

No matter what happens to bookstores, people will keep reading and they'll keep reading books, only they might be reading them on screens instead of on paper. Whatever keeps the industry alive, I support, though the money authors earn on e-books is nothing compared to what they now make on the real thing. Maybe that can change.

But I still want book books. I want to browse and buy, hold them, drop them, write in them and page through them. In the end it's always about the words, but for me it's also about the packaging. I read a screen all day at work and sit in front of one while writing or surfing online. Books provide me the one chance to unplug while unwinding.

And in today's world Barnes & Noble provides some of the best chances to do all of those things. Some people speculate that if the large chains eventually completely flounder, independent stores will regain their prominence. It's a romantic idea, though one that might not do much to help the publishing industry. I love independent bookstores and many still, thankfully, thrive in the city. But aside from The Strand - my true favorite store in the city, which, unfortunately, is something of a trek for us - the 66th Street Barnes & Noble has long been our book-buying paradise.

It has three levels of books. Like every Barnes & Noble store, this one possesses a unique smell, which I can't trace but was probably created in a lab devoted to soothing aromas. Company scientists mixed some old books and new coffee beans and created a perfume that each store pumps through the vents. First floor holds the new releases, which I'll always browse. Oh, Bob Woodward's got another new one. Guy's prolific. There's that new biography on Roosevelt. Michael Chabon's book of essays is finally out? Great. Glenn Beck writes novels?

The fiction's on the second floor, the classics mixing with romances and thrillers, poets mingling with hacks and essayists. I'll search for a good paperback or a classic I somehow avoided in school. The third floor's my favorite, the nonfiction. Sports, biography, history, film, TV, music, true crime, writing books, humor, everything. It's nearly impossible for me to spend time in that section without heading down the escalator clutching a book that will set us back between $11 and $25.

If Louise is with me, I'll inevitably end up in the cafe, where she will have worked on securing us a table. Unlike the stores in Minnesota, where there's always ample free space, the tables at this cafe seem to have a waiting list that's longer than the one for Green Bay Packer season tickets. The cafe workers frequently make announcements over the loudspeaker, declaring that cafe seating is for cafe customers only, and that if you do not have an overpriced coffee in your hand or a chocolate chip cookie stuffed into your face, you will either be buying one or ejected from the area. Your choice.

We'll sit there for an hour or so, reading through the books we've brought up, taking notes, sipping orange juice, avoiding the bookstore bouncers. By the time we leave, we'll have spent two or three hours on the premises. As we wind our way down and again pass through the nonfiction and fiction sections, we might stop to browse some more, entranced by the sight of all those books and the smell of all that coffee and paper. That's how we've spent dozens of nights during our six years together in New York City.

The store closes in January and we'll take our little family tradition to another store, in another part of the city. Our bookstore nights will survive, just as long as bookstores themselves stay alive.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

A day with Columbia football

Today I made my annual trek to the first home football game for Columbia University. Construction projects on the subways meant chaos for public transportation in northern Manhattan, but the Lions and their powder-blue uniforms still drew more than 4,000 people. Columbia games are one of my favorite fall activities in New York, an underrated experience in a city few associate with college football.

Columbia hosted another New York City team, the Fordham Rams. This season Columbia opens with a somewhat-bizarre schedule, with four straight home games kicking off the season.

I've seen probably a dozen Columbia games the last four or five years. They've won a couple of those but lost most. Rarely has Columbia been blown out in the games I've attended. Same story today. Columbia took a second-half lead, only to lose it as Fordham rallied to take a 16-9 lead. Then, in the dying moments, with the crowd excited and the Lions on the move, ready to march in for a tying touchdown, a fluke fumble near the goal-line ended their hopes and an opponent's kneel-down ended the game.

But back to the beginning. Norries Wilson is Columbia's head coach. In the Columbia program, though, his official title is the Patricia and Shepard Alexander Head Coach of Football. Columbia's football coach is an endowed position, just like on the tennis team and wrestling team. The Alexanders gave a "major" gift to the program in 1998, sparking the endowment. A true friend of the program. Columbia has a fetish for naming things, whether buildings or jobs. The football team plays its games at Robert K. Kraft Field at Lawrence A. Wien Stadium at the Baker Field Athletics Complex.

Wilson played his college ball at the University of Minnesota, back in the mid-1980s, when the Gophers made a few bowl games and weren't simply a punchline to jokes told by residents of the Dakotas. Wilson's coach at Minnesota was John Gutekunst, who, like all Gopher coaches of the past five decades, had a few big victories peppered in with even more ugly losses. Gutekunst has bounced around college football since leaving Minnesota, most recently serving as a defensive assistant at East Carolina. But Gutekunst reunited with Wilson this year, working as Columbia's defensive secondary coach. As of now, the defensive secondary coach is not an endowed position, but any Columbia grad with a few hundred thousand dollars to spare could probably get their name on that one.

I sat on the Columbia side, in the general vicinity of a man in his fifties who devoured two dozen Reese's Peanut Butter Cups during the game. It's an unconventional diet, though one I admire. What made it strange(r) was that he wore blue rubber gloves the entire game, as if he were prepping for heart surgery just down the road at Columbia-Presbyterian. Staying with the surgery angle, he opened each wrapper with a razor, which he used to slice through the orange wrapping, before unfurling the chocolate from the brown container. It made me wonder if the cups had a horrible flaw. Had they been caked in asbestos, doused with mercury? He didn't cheer for Columbia or Fordham. He sat passively, except when he aggressively dissected his treats.

Probably an old engineering major.

A large group of enthusiastic Fordham students followed their football team to Manhattan. They certainly outperformed their counterparts. At one point the Fordham students erupted into a chant of "Harvard Rejects," a creative - if factually dubious - taunt.

Neither offense did much for most of the game. Columbia finally cobbled together a scoring drive early in the second half, only to have Fordham block the extra point - of course. Fordham kicked a pair of field goals to tie it at 9-9, then took the lead late in the fourth. Trailing 16-9, Columbia drove down the field with an efficiency previously unseen in these parts. The Lions made it to Fordham's 4-yard-line. First-and-goal. A minute to go. This is when the crowd stood. The Columbia students finally cheered, ignoring the Fordham bullies. We were all ready for overtime.

Then the center fired the snap back to the quarterback - who stood in the shotgun - when the QB wasn't expecting it. The ball hit off his hands, somewhat comically bounced into the air and then fell to the ground, where a Fordham defender fell on it, clinching the victory. An exasperated Patricia and Shepard Alexander Head Coach of Football Norries Wilson shook his head. He'd seen this play before, and the ending never seems to change.

As I left the stadium, two guys in front of me lamented another Columbia loss.

"Same as always," one said. "How many times have we seen that?"

A lot. With five more home games left on the schedule, they'll probably see it a few more times. And so will I.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Twins, the 1987 World Series and the Berenguer Boogie

The Minnesota Twins will win the AL Central. In the first round of the playoffs they'll face either Tampa or the Yankees. They might beat the Rays in the first round and then lose to the Yankees in the ALCS. Or they'll play the Yankees in the first round and lose there, once again doomed by a heartbreaking rally or a terrible call or some other misfortune that always seems to happen when baseball's peasants face the game's royalty.

But maybe this year will finally be different. Maybe this is the year when the Twins don't blow a ninth-inning lead in Yankee Stadium. Joe Nathan is sidelined, after all. Maybe this is the year a Rally Monkey doesn't infuriate Twins fans. Maybe this is the year homefield advantage doesn't disappear in Game 1, leading to an embarrassing sweep. It's been a decade of regular-season success for the Twins, and a decade of postseason frustration. Since taking a 1-0 lead over the Angels in the 2002 ALCS, the Twins are 2-16 in the playoffs. Maybe this year is different. 

It could all come together for the Twins and their fans, like it did in 1991. Most baseball fans remember the 1991 World Series, which people routinely call one of the best ever and would have already been immortalized on film or in a book if it had involved Boston or New York.

That was the team's second World Series title in five seasons. But to many Twins fans - including me - the 1987 title remains the most memorable. It was the first and came out of nowhere. While the 1991 Twins did famously go from last to first, they at least had a world championship in their recent past. The 1987 Twins only had failure and, at best, mediocrity. They won 71 games in 1986, 77 in 1985, 81 in 1984, and 70 in 1983.

While the 1991 Twins played in one of the best World Series ever, the 1987 Twins are often named one of the worst teams to ever win a World Series. They finished 85-77, which included a horrific 29-52 road record. Fortunately, the team dominated at home, finishing 56-25 in the Metrodome, which would soon be re-christened the Thunderdome. Despite having fewer wins than both Detroit and St. Louis, the Twins possessed homefield advantage in the ALCS and World Series. They went 6-0 at home in the postseason.

The 1987 Twins had a roster filled with larger personalities and bigger guts. Kent Hrbek, Kirby Puckett, Tom Brunansky, Bert Blyleven, Frank Viola. My memories of the 1987 season include watching Joe Niekro toss out an emery board after umpires confronted him over a doctored baseball and Hrbek's "TCF" grand slam in Game 6 of the World Series. Before Game 7, I joined my friend Brandon in our basement, where we pelted a Whitey Herzog's baseball card with darts. By the end, there was nothing left of the White Rat's face. Homer Hankies made their first appearance, as did the decibel-readers that chronicled the ear-splitting nose inside the Dome.

That Twins team had it all and won it all. Same as in 1991. But the 1987 team had something no Twins team has had since: The Berenguer Boogie.   

Berenguer was a revelation in 1987. He went 8-1 in the regular season, then starred in the ALCS against Detroit. He gave up one run in six innings, pitching in four of the five game. Even better - from Twins fans' perspective - he taunted hitters with an over-the-top celebration that included arm-pumping and glove-hitting. With his fastballs, strikeouts and antics, he became a mustached Minnesota folk hero, a Panamanian Paul Bunyan. He became El Gasolino or, if you prefer, SeƱor Smoke, a possibly politically incorrect nickname embraced by all. His behavior was so unlike Minnesotans. We're meek, nice, passive-aggressive. Berenguer was arrogant, a little mean and simply aggressive.

The Cardinals hammered Berenguer in the World Series. He finished with an ERA of 10.38 in his three appearances, surrendering 10 hits in only 4.1 innings. Didn't matter. His ALCS performance and his personality guaranteed his popularity in Minnesota.

And there was the Berenguer Boogie. Look at that video again. Who is the creative team behind the video? They're jammed into a conference room, brainstorming ideas like they're political operatives plotting a video about a rival candidate that will claim the man fathered a child with an illegal immigrant. They have $25,000 to work with. Fueled by copious amounts of Diet Pepsi and World Series fever, they toss out their dreams for the Boogie.

The intensity: "We're going to kick in six Minnesota Twins leaning in and shouting...something."
The musical genius: "Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duhduh...Senor Smoke."
The sex factor: "Sequined leotards."

Then the finished product. A cameo by Matt Blair, a former linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings whose connection to the 1987 Twins was...well, nothing. The set looks like something leftover from "Thriller," except instead of zombies we have girls with big hair in leotards and Twins in trench coats and blue jeans. And the guy in charge of the smoke machine possessed an overeager trigger finger.

Some of the lyrics prove confusing. "It was the spring of '87 and baseball couldn't know, this was the year of destiny for a team down from the snow." Aren't they a Northern team?

Minnesota shared a connection with the 1987 team that wasn't quite there other years, even during the 1991 title or the success of the past 10 seasons. They were a goofy team that played in a goofier stadium. And they were the first pro team in the state to break through with a title, after four heartbreaks with the Vikings and a World Series defeat. 

When the Twins finished off Detroit in Game 5 of the ALCS, they returned to Minneapolis for a welcome home. Organizers expected a few hundred people to show up. Instead, when the Twins pulled into the Metrodome, 60,000 fans with nothing better to do greeted them. Doug Grow recalls that night here. Berenguer played a starring role in the impromptu celebration, sporting a Berenguer Boogie trench coat, fedora and briefcase. 

This Twins team will have a better record than the 1987 squad. They're fun to watch. Maybe they'll duplicate the success and bring home a title. Or at least win a game in the ALDS. But no matter what happens, they won't be as fun - on the field or off. They have Blyleven in the booth but not on the mound. There's no Kirby or Herbie. No Bruno or The G-Man. There's no Berenguer and certainly no Berenguer Boogie.

But maybe there will be The Thome Two-Step.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Yahoo!'s homepage: The mundane and terrifying

Because I use Yahoo! for my email, I visit the homepage throughout the day. Yahoo! always presents the normal news headlines in the middle of the page. War in Afghanistan, landslides in South America, election predictions. The basics. But above those, always with a picture, is a story that rarely has anything to do with current news.

Yahoo! loves the wacky and the frightening. They're the online equivalents of the local TV newscasts, which seek to either terrorize viewers into being worried about everything inside their homes and out - "Could your toothbrush give you cancer?" - or delight with stories about dogs who can dial a phone or a 2-year-old boy who is an accomplished ventriloquist.

Over the last week, here some of the headlines featured on Yahoo!'s homepage.

The weird:
Cat plays Duck Hunt
I'm not a cat guy. And Duck Hunt was one of my least-favorite video games growing up, owing, mostly, to my own poor ability as a sportsman and marksman. So this video simply makes me uncomfortable. It's also, in the end, just a cat being a cat. They're often dumb and jump at ridiculous things. Deserving of a place front and center on one of the Internet's most popular websites?

Puppy saves boy from bees.
As I said, newscasts love stories like this. Ugly hero dog saves cute child. And, in fact, that's where this one comes from, a TV newscast; Yahoo! loved it so much it threw it on its homepage, delighting puppy owners, parents, children and bee-haters everywhere.

The You're Sort of Dumb So Here's How The World Really Works:
Ten things you don't know about flirting.
In-depth reporting like this keeps me coming back. No, I don't need these skills any longer, but maybe I can find some helpful tips I can pass on to single friends. Did you know, according to this story, "A full 62 percent of drivers have flirted with someone in a different vehicle while on the go, and 31 percent of those flirtations, it turns out, resulted in a date."

No data was provided on how many of those dates ended with awkward intercourse all parties involved regretted the following morning.

Secrets Your Car Dealer Won't Tell You.
Car salesmen must love stories like this. They're already the subject of cliched punchlines for any jokes involving unsavory business practices and they're usually as respected as tobacco executives. Now, here are the secrets they won't tell you.

The truth about men's pants sizes
Is that 36-inch waist really 36 inches? Are you actually fatter than you thought? ABC News investigates.

Things plumbers won't tell you.

There are so many people not telling us what they should be telling us. Car salesman, pants salesmen. God damn plumbers. One of my favorites on the list is that many people who say they're plumbers aren't. They're just handymen, or guys with ill-fitting jeans (because they bought the wrong size of pants) who know their way around a sink. So this isn't necessarily completely about what plumbers won't tell you. It's also about what liars won't tell you.

The terrifying:
These are Yahoo!'s favorites. These aren't even the typical fear-mongering headlines, which would usually focus on terrorists, pedophiles or terrorist pedophiles. These are everyday things, items people take for granted. But Yahoo! wants you to know that these things could kill you, or at least cause a lot of internal damage. Hypochondriacs or cowards shouldn't use Yahoo! email. Go to Gmail. Because if you read Yahoo!'s homepage on a consistent basis, you'll be waiting for death on every step or after every drink from a milk carton. Each time you log in or out of your mail, you'll be confronted with large headlines like...

10 Hidden Hazards in your home.
This article warns, "Be extra careful when sweeping out piles of mice poop. Deer mice droppings can transmit the deadly disease known as Hantavirus, which is breathed in along with all that stirred up dust. To avoid exposure to Hantavirus, wear latex gloves and a HEPA face mask, and wet down the floor before cleaning."

Hantavirus. Can be deadly, certainly. But extremely rare. According to this story, since the virus was first identified in the United States in 1993, there have been 534 cases. In California, there were 40 cases, a third of which resulted in death. Horrible. But is it really something homeowners should be worried about? Of all the things that can kill you in your home or on your commute or during a walk around the park, where does Hantavirus rank? In this article, it's No. 3 on hidden hazards. In real life? There are probably 3,000 other things to worry about.

Car booster seats to avoid.
This is certainly vital information and helpful. Better than warning about rare diseases you might catch from a rodent. But still, the headline plays on fear and that's why Yahoo! liked it.

Is that plastic container safe?
Not safe for the environment. Safe for your skin, lungs and heart. Safe for your eyes and liver. Safe for your soul. That plastic container - that one, the one you're holding now as you eat leftover spaghetti out of it because you're too lazy to get a new plate - could be killing you.

Stop using the microwave with your plastic. It will kill you. Stop using the plastic container multiple times. Throw them out. Otherwise, it will kill you. For God's sake, wash the plastic container by hand. Dishwashers bring out more deadly chemicals. Which will kill you. Don't freeze the plastic container. Because when you reheat them, those deadly chemicals again come out. And will kill you.

And here's the sixth point made in this article:
"Don't panic. Cutting down on exposure to potentially harmful chemicals in plastics can benefit your health. But as Dr. Halden reminds us, 'Many things in your life pose a much higher risk than exposure to plastics, such as smoking, poor diet and even driving a car.'"

In other words, ignore everything we just told you.

Don't panic. That's the last piece of advice, after five items warning about how plastic and its chemicals will leap out of seemingly harmless containers to take your life. Dr. Halden's right, of course. Don't panic. Why worry about plastic when there's so much more out there that can hurt you - lying plumbers, poor-fitting pants and Hantavirus. Those are the things to worry about.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

When life doesn't make sense

Whenever I get an email and the subject line only features the name of a friend, co-worker or family member, I always hesitate a second before opening it. There's obviously news about this person. Certainly there's a chance it's positive or uplifting, but my experience is that something bad has happened. Someone lost a job. Someone was involved in a car accident. Someone's father or spouse died.

So it went yesterday when my friend Dean sent an email with news about a former co-worker of ours from our days in Fargo. The subject line was "Vandro," and the subject was our good friend Terry Vandrovec.

Terry is a sports reporter for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. He covers South Dakota State University. He's a superb, award-winning writer and those are only two of many adjectives that could be used to describe his skills. He's also a fine reporter and a prodigious worker. He churns out blogs, video reports, features and game stories on a seemingly nonstop basis. He's always been that way, even when he was at the Fargo Forum and working full-time while also attending Concordia College full-time. But as great as he is at his job, he's an even better guy. Smart, passionate, giving, with his only obvious flaw being an allegiance to the Packers.

On September 3, Terry's wife, Jessica, a teacher, gave birth to twin girls. Breley and Kailey. Jessica was only 24 weeks pregnant. Two days later, Breley died.

Through his grief, Terry wrote Breley's obituary, calling it the most important story he would ever write. He also wrote about his daughter on his newspaper blog, saying, "She managed to hold off on being born for four days, buying crucial development time for her sister and protecting her from the outside world." It's impossible to read either of Terry's stories without having a knot the size of a fist develop in your stomach.

It's type of event no one prepares for. To think about the possibility beforehand is morbid, perverse. A baby's death is an impossibility, right up until the moment it happens. Even then, it remains impossible to comprehend.

My parents lost a baby girl a few years before my birth. The little girl died and my mom very nearly did. Back then, parents whose babies died barely had time to mourn them, though they'd remember them forever. The Catholic Church didn't do much to help, teaching that babies who died without being baptized went into limbo, a belief the church only recently began to reconsider. Parents destroyed by grief in the present received no comfort from their religion about eternity.

My grandfathers buried the little girl in a small cemetery in southwestern Minnesota, her casket sharing space in the grave with my dad's infant sister, who died shortly after birth. There's a marking for my aunt, but not my sister, something we've talked about rectifying for several years now. But when we visit the cemetery - where numerous family members are buried - the little girl is always remembered, her place in everyone's hearts as secure as those who lived long lives.

We never talked much about her. Only in the last few years, with Louise - who extracts information out of people with the skill of a criminal investigator or a priest in the confessional - joining our family, have I heard my parents talk about it in more detail, revisiting those painful days and all the years since. When listening to them now, the memories they own seem to be as clear as they were when she died four decades ago.

Growing up, I didn't think a lot about the sister I never knew. I had my one older sister. As I got older, I did begin - perhaps inevitably - thinking more about her. What would she have looked like? What would they have named her? Would she have teamed up with my older sister Lisa and picked on me? Would she have been like everyone else in our family and played sports, or unlike everyone and been good in math? Would she have kids now?

They're the questions that can never be answered but will always be asked. But I think about her like a brother thinks about her. A brother who never saw her or celebrated her impending birth and mourned her devastating death. Only a parent who loses a child can really completely understand that grief. My parents, ultimately, bear that grief together.

Just like Terry and Jessica.

Babies die. Two words that should never be connected. Doctors provide the how, but not even the gods can provide the why.

None of it's fair and none of it makes sense and bad things happen to good people and worse things happen to great people. Yet life somehow, impossibly, goes on. Parents somehow, impossibly, go on. Life marches on even though friends and family and parents never forget the one who died.

Breley's sister Kailey remains in the hospital. Terry and Jessica - and their oldest daughter, Mya - wait at home for her to join them. Kailey will grow up in a world without her twin sister, though she'll be surrounded by memories of her and by those who will tell her all about her birth and Breley's birth, and Breley's death.

Life will go on. But that doesn't mean it will ever make any sense.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Janesville on YouTube

The charms of Janesville aren't easy to capture in a three-minute video. Affordable housing, peace, quiet, good parks, haunted houses. Not the highlights of many highly rated YouTube videos. But Janesville does have a presence online, albeit a subdued one. I've already written about the most exciting videos: the doll in the window and Hay Daze.

Beyond those videos, the offerings are...a bit lacking.

We've got trains.

Trains terrify my mom, owing to being in a car that got drilled by one when she was a kid. She's probably cringing watching this. Even today, when she sees - or hears - one approaching, she shivers. This guy, meanwhile, is a train fanatic. My parents' house is about a block-and-a-half to the left of the tracks in this video. We hear every train that comes through. For decades, the train was one part of an orchestra that included the cars rolling through town on Highway 14. Today the highway bypasses Janesville, slicing the daily traffic. But the trains still thunder by.

Same guy, different train. The poster, a train enthusiast who chases trains from town to town, like a posse on the heels of a Wild West gunman, put up this video of a welded rail train.

Speaking of trains, the Canadian Pacific Holiday train stopped in town. Santa sang a song. This wasn't exactly like seeing the Beatles on tour in 1965, but the band was definitely better than the one we had at homecoming in 9th grade. I'm trying to figure out where they held this. Any answers, Janesvillinians?

There's more to do in Janesville than just watch trains and kids have more options than simply re-creating Stand by Me by attempting to outrun the trains. You can also watch fires. A few years ago, the local volunteer fire department - whose members make some of the best burgers and onion rings in southern Minnesota, at the annual Hay Daze event - set the old stockyards building on fire in order to get some practice. The wind didn't cooperate completely and a house across the street had some of its siding melted.

And here's the most confusing Janesville video.

The description: 2009 Sexy Swimsuit Model Snowmobile Calendar. Zenwaiter visits the swimsuit snowmobile calendar shoot near Janesville Minnesota. Dani is a fabulous sexy girl swimsuit model, and this is the hottest snowmobile video clip I have ever made, all 20 seconds. I guess snowmobilers love sexy women! To contact Dani for modeling work, contact Travis at Double Xtreme Snowmobile Calendar in Janesville, Minn. Tell him Zenwaiter sent ya!

Here's the site for Double Extreme. According to the contact page, it is based out of Janesville. At least, that's where the P.O. box is located. I've never heard of it, but I'm also not a big snowmobile guy - so I'm not up to date on snowmobile calendars, hot or otherwise - and I also haven't lived in town for 15 years. I do wonder if this particular video was shot outside of Janesville. After some digging - in the interest of professionalism - I found some more pictures from the shoot. One caption says the pictures with the lovely - and talented - Dani were taken near Faribault, Minnesota, which is not really near Janesville. This video has more than 224,000 views. The stockyard burning video has a little over a thousand views. Babes trump blazes, when it comes to Janesville videos.

Traveling train bands. Racy snowmobile photo shoots. It's like a hidden world inside the small world of everyday Janesville life. What else am I missing? What else has changed since I grew up in the town of 2,000 people? Are there pagan rituals every Saturday night?

I went to YouTube seeking some insight into Janesville. But now all I have is more questions. Still, this does help explain my dad's sudden interest in snowmobile calendars.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Finding God in a Jersey taxi

"Shawn, is there some powerful event in your life you always wanted to see, but never did, and now you no longer have the chance to see it? It's gone forever? Anything like that?"

This morning - 4:30 in the morning, to be exact - I again rode in the backseat of the driver I get once a month, a devout Jehovah Witness who has told me half a dozen times that the answers I'm seeking are available in some literature he has with him. Do I want to take a look?

He's persistent, with the voice of a seasoned hypnotist. He sounds like someone you'd find behind a radio mic on an overnight talk show, not behind a wheel. After taking his literature the first time - in an attempt to escape the car - I've declined every other time. I never agree or disagree with him, offering up only an occasional mumble or, "Yeah, that's something." A month ago he veered from asking about the egg sandwich I bought at a local diner into talk about the Garden of Eden and the evils of processed food and how that all relates to the soul and our hunger to be filled with God's word. It was like being driven around by a born again Morgan Spurlock. In the end, it always comes down to the end: End Times. This is it. We're in the middle of it. And am I ready? Perfect conversation for 4:30 in the morning.

Today we rode in silence for five minutes. Finally, as we approached the George Washington Bridge, he asked the question about the hypothetical powerful event I wish I had seen.

I thought about it. While also thinking about what he'd want to hear, something that could allow him to launch into his sales pitch.

The space shuttle. I always thought it'd be cool to watch a space shuttle launch. Plus, I thought this would give him a decent opening, what with the inevitable talk about the heavens. It was a perfect setup, a great assist. I was part John Stockton, part heathen.

"Interesting," he replied. "Such power. Imagine that power, the raw power of watching that, the fire and the rockets, sending it into space. It must be an awesome experience."


"And now imagine that every day in your life, the power of Jesus Christ can come over you, wave after wave, just like watching that shuttle launch."

Tougher to imagine but okay.

From there it turned into the normal talk. Like always, by the time we crossed the GW, he was well into tales of the impending apocalypse. There will be the righteous and the wrong and I'd better figure out whose side I'm on. Right now, it pains him to say, it doesn't look good for me.

"It's really all there. If you look at the last 80, 90 years, you can see that there's been so much suffering, the signs are all there that we are nearing the end."

That's one argument - among others - I don't really see, though I don't voice that opinion, not while he's still behind the wheel, holding both our fates in his hands. The 20th century saw horrific wars and the new one hasn't started off all that great. But were the 1800s a time of total peace and love? How about the 1700s? No war or famine or greed during those times. You have to stretch to make an argument that the world today is somehow worse than it ever has been. Does he really believe that? Is he that pessimistic about the end of the world? Or, to be more accurate, is he really that optimistic about the end of the world?

"Something to think about," I said as we pulled into my building. I have a feeling he's going to ultimately be disappointed. Five hundred years from now, there will probably be some driver telling his passenger that they're in the end times and he'd better repent before it's too late.

"Shawn, did you get a chance to take a look at that literature I gave you before?"


"Well, thank you for listening and enjoy your day."

I did. And the sun will also rise tomorrow. And the next day. Much to my driver's regret.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Late to The Sopranos

Saturday, perfect weather in New York. Last weekend before summer's unofficial end. And for most of the day I've been inside our bedroom, watching four episodes from the fifth season of The Sopranos.

I never had HBO when The Sopranos originally aired from 1999 through the what-the-hell-happened finale in 2007. I can still remember being at the paper in Worthington, reading the AP review of the show when it premiered. Obviously the review praised the breakthrough show, though at the time no one knew it'd go on to become a cultural phenomenon. The show's popularity meant it was impossible to avoid knowing about the characters and the storylines, especially during the final seasons. I knew the broad strokes: Tony's manipulative mother, his shrink, his uncle, Big Pussy's betrayal and demise, the head in the bowling bag. But I didn't really know the details or the thousands of small moments that led up to the big moments everyone talked about. I didn't appreciate how perfect James Gandolfini is as an actor in the starring role and never understood the unique qualities that made Tony Soprano the perfect TV character.

Over the years I caught a few episodes during trips to my parents' or the heavily edited versions on A&E. But seeing a random episode in the third second season and then another in the final season doesn't exactly do the show justice. Now that I've watched the majority of the episodes, I can say, ah, that's what all the excitement was about. It's like when I send clips of old Showtime highlights to a Lakers fan who says they were too young to remember Magic and the boys. Hearing about it is nothing compared to seeing it.

Starting in June and thanks to Netflix, I've been going through each season of The Sopranos. It probably took until the third episode - but, more likely, the first - before I became obsessed with the show. Each season has four DVDs and with our Netflix we get three at a time, meaning I could never watch all of the shows in one sitting. Throw in Louise's movies - I can't completely hijack our account just because of this new obsession - and it was torture waiting for those final discs. I needed to know what happened, damn it. I needed to know what happened on shows that aired, in some cases, more than 10 years ago. In the first seasons of the show, the Trade Towers are visible in the show's famous opening. The real world and the TV world have changed in countless ways since those early episodes, yet when I'm inside our air-conditioned bedroom watching them, I've been transported back a decade.

No one's more passionate - or overbearing - than the person who just discovered something everyone else has known about for a long time. So when talking about The Sopranos with friends, co-workers or family, I work to keep from transforming into Chris-Farley-interviewing-Paul-McCartney, lest I come off like a newly saved evangelical who pounds people over the head with tales about the cross.

Obviously I now wish I had watched from the outset, but I also have it better than those who were there from the beginning. Instead of waiting a week for a new episode, I watch four in one sitting. Instead of waiting years for a new season, I wait days. While many of the twists have surprised me, others came as no shock. Because the show was impossible to avoid for eight years, I knew about many of the arrests, splits, betrayals and killings. Those who watched the show unfold week after week, year after year, benefited from not knowing. They got caught up in the suspense and each new episode brought new laughs or fresh horrors.

I'm to blame for part of it. Since I started watching through Netflix, I haven't been able to stop myself from reading some of the season recaps online. There's a youtube clip that shows every killing in the show's history. I watched it while I was in the middle of season two and I told myself to stop the video once it stretched into season three, but...I couldn't. So many of the killings from seasons three and four came as no surprise to me. I did manage to stop watching before any other seasons were ruined. I'm grateful for the technology that allows me to enjoy a party three years after everyone else left it, but I hate the technology - and my own weakness - for ruining the experience of being surprised.

I'm in the fifth season. Tony's cousin Tony Blundetto, played brilliantly, of course, by Steve Buscemi, has just given up on going straight and is ready to do some work for a New York family. But I already know his story ends on a rural porch, on the wrong end of Tony's shotgun. I have insulated myself from what happens in the final season, save for the diner finale. I hope that lasts.

Fortunately, the show was about so much more than shocking twists or cliffhangers. It was about more than brutal killings. And all those other moments are the ones I've been able to now enjoy, 11 years after the premiere and three years after the finale. I'm like everyone else now, marveling at Gandolfini's brilliance, laughing at Paulie's lines, tired of AJ's whining.

The poker games, Tony drinking juice from the fridge, Paulie and Christopher's adventure in the woods, Tony's mistresses, Jackie Jr.'s death, the backroom at the Bada Bing, the talks in the basement, Adriana's death, Carmela's flirtations with the priest, Tony and Meadow searching for colleges - and rats. And on and on. All the scenes in all the shows.

Fans who were always there have moved on, of course. Like some of those fans, I cling to the hope that there might someday be a long-shot Sopranos movie, while simultaneously worrying about whether it'd be any good or even possible, considering the carnage that takes out so many key characters.

So all I can do is enjoy these remaining episodes and relive the ones I've seen. I think I have 24 left. The show's ending soon for me, the same way it was ending for everyone else in the summer of 2007. I'll mourn alone, knowing there's going to be no more Tony. Like nearly everyone who enjoyed the show - whether every Sunday on HBO or during the week on DVD - I just wish there were 10 more seasons.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Hail Mary and the Vikings

The Vikings start the season a week from Thursday and it begins where everything ended so horribly in January: New Orleans. That loss in the NFC title game was simply the latest chapter in a heartbreaking book that's become a serialized novel. The story will apparently never conclude and none of the chapters will end in happiness.

There have been highlights of course, games that didn't end with tears and conspiracy theories. It's just that those games take place in the regular season.

Here's perhaps the most famous play in Vikings history, at least for games they won. It came in December 1980 at Met Stadium, and clinched the division title for the Vikings. The Vikings trailed the Browns 23-22 when Tommy Kramer hooked up with Michael Jordan's future spokesman, Ahmad Rashad, for a 47-yard touchdown as time expired. Kramer finished with 456 yards passing on the day. One play earlier, the Vikings had reached the Cleveland 47 thanks to a hook and lateral play between Joe Senser and Teddy Brown. Rashad's catch is one of the coolest Hail Mary completions in football history. He's practically an afterthought on the play, right up until he reaches out and makes the one-handed grab.

The playoffs that year? A 31-16 loss to Philadelphia. Of course.

It's a testament to the tortured history of the franchise that the Vikings could be involved in one of the most famous Hail Mary finishes in league history, but it's not even the most memorable one in team history.

That, of course, came in the 1975 NFC playoffs against the Cowboys, when Roger Staubach connected with Drew Pearson on the play that continues to enrage Vikings fans 35 years later. Actually, it's not just Pearson's winning catch. Two players earlier, Staubach and Pearson came through on a fourth-and-17 play, as Pearson made a catch on the sidelines that, according to Purple fans, should have been ruled incomplete. Here's the whole mess. Pay special attention to the security guard on the Vikings sideline. After Pearson falls to the ground after his fourth down catch, this keeper of the peace throws a little kick at the Cowboys receiver. Maybe the guy knew what was coming.

Even today, there are probably some Viking fans who watch this and throw a beer bottle across the living room, in a homage to the moron who drilled Armen Terzian in the head with one following the game.

Many people expect the Saints to hammer the Vikings in the opening week. Maybe. But there's a decent chance the Vikings will go in there, Favre will look like he's 25 years old, the defense will dominate and Adrian Peterson will manage to run over defenders while holding onto the ball. Regular season games have never been a problem for the Vikings. True debacles come in the playoffs. The countdown to January begins. And the ghosts of Stram, Pearson, Nelson, Anderson and 12 men on the field will be along for the ride, just waiting for the newest chapter to be written.