Saturday, January 31, 2009

High Holy Day

Normally, the Super Bowl -- or High Holy Day as it is known to my father, sister, and me -- is cause for celebration but frankly, I can't get myself worked up for it this year.

First, I really don't care about either of these teams though in a sense of morbid curiosity, I do wonder if Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger can match his miserable 9-for-21 performance in Super Bowl XL. The Steelers have never been of interest to me (seriously, can you get worked up about a team with a mascot called "Steely McBeam") while the Cardinals were chewed up, spit out, and turned into mulch by the Patriots this season so I've already seen them lose. Do I really care enough to see it happen again? Nope, not really. And yes, I know the Cardinals made the playoffs and the Patriots didn't but I doesn't mean I have to respect them in the morning.

Of course, you might say that the game is secondary to the spectacle. Some great commercials aired during the Super Bowl but in this economic climate, do we really have any interest in companies that spend $3.5 million for a 30-second TV commercial? Personally, the best Super Bowl ad this year is probably one that won't air -- a sexy commercial by PETA that was rejected by NBC, which I'm sure was PETA's aim the whole time given the tremendous Internet buzz and viral coverage they've received and all for far less than $3.5 million. Even the musical acts don't engender much interest. U2 was great in 2002 but I don't feel compelled to watch Springsteen hawk his new album with a greatest hits set during halftime tomorrow night.

So in the end, I don't really care much about Super Bowl XLIII but it is High Holy Day after all, regardless of who is playing so I'll see you all at kickoff.

Captain Tek behind the plate

Only 12 days until spring training gets underway! Not that I particularly care about spring training games but it just means that spring and baseball season aren't too far away. And to the relief of many Red Sox fans (this one included), it looks like Jason Varitek will be the primary catcher for the Red Sox in 2009 (though on the Red Sox's terms, not those expected by the odious Scott Boras). Now we hope that he works with the pitchers as well as he always has and bounces back at the plate just a bit.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A speck in the middle of nowhere overrun by rabbits

As I sat in a colleague's office today, I realized that my head was right next to a giant map of the world. As I turned to look at it, my eyes were almost precisely level with a speck of land that I'd never noticed before, out in the middle of nowhere midway between Australia, New Zealand, and Antarctica. "Macquarie Island" read the tiny label.

For some reason, I (a lover of travel writing ever since I read Tim Cahill's "Jaguars Ripped My Flesh" in college) immediately became fascinated with this tiny island. Who discovered it? Is it inhabited? Can you go there? What is it like? What lives there?

It's so remote and so unnoticeable that it appealed to me like a real-life Spidermonkey Island -- the only way you'd ever find it to go there is to spin a globe, close your eyes, and blindly stab with a pencil to choose your destination. Even better, Macquarie Island is supposed to be the jumping off point for the phantom Emerald Island, which was rumored to exist to the south and appeared on maps as late as 1987! An island in the middle of nowhere and linked to a phantom island that fascinated travellers for more than 150 years...how can you not find that intriguing, to say the least?

Macquarie Island...inside the bulleye and all by itself (screen shot courtesy Google Earth)

I won't go into all of the details about this minscule speck of land (only 21 miles long by 3 miles wide) because they're all here. Still, there are some cool facts worth repeating:
  • Apparently this is the only place Royal Penguins breed.
  • The island was the site of one of the strongest earthquakes ever measured (8.1 on the Richter Scale) but it was somewhat anticlimactic as the 22 scientists apparently slept through it.
  • Apparently the island is overrun with rabbits, released by sealers in the 1870s to breed for food. Well, rabbits being rabbits, they bred like rabbits and began to overrun the island.
  • So just how do rabbits manage to wipe out birds nests and penguin colonies? By eating all of the grass on bluffs overlooking those areas, resulting in landslides. Macquarie Island is apparently populated by Satan's bunnies.
  • Cats were released to control the rabbits but then the cats began breed like rabbits and overrun the seabirds so the 2,500 cats were culled leading to, you guessed it, a population explosion of rabbits again.
Apparently you can go to Macquarie Island. If you want to stay on the island, you'd better be a scientist because only members of the scientific expedition can live in the buildings. If you're just in the neighborhood and drop in for a visit, plan to sleep on your boat and make sure to get a permit from the Tasmanian Parks & Wildlife Service. God, wouldn't that suck...you sail all that way and can't land because you didn't get a permit? Or just go with an Antarctic tour group. I think I'm going to add this trip to my bucket list, one of those things you just need to do before you kick the bucket.

In the meantime, if anyone knows someone working on Macquarie Island and who has Internet access, I'd greatly appreciate it if you'd ask them to visit this blog. Now that would be a great place marker to show up on the visitor map for the blog. Actually, I'm wondering if Macquarie Island is even on that map! It might just be off the bottom edge of the world.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Preparing for the Feline Betrayal

Out of a sense of concern for us, trapped as we are with three cats, a good friend sent along this warning so that my wife and I might prepare to defend ourselves from the furry assassins who prowl our home, hack up hairballs, and sleep across our feet.

Conveniently, there's also a quiz to help us determine our threat level.

It doesn't look good here at Casa de Watson...

Is your cat plotting to kill you?

Quick thoughts as pitchers and catchers prepare...

Red Sox pitchers and catchers report to Ft. Myers for the start of spring training in just a few weeks. With snow still on the ground and more forecast for tonight and tomorrow morning, the thought of baseball getting underway soon adds a bit of warmth to the air and a hint of sunshine and green leaves. With that pleasant thought rattling around like a grounder into Fenway's right field corner, here are a few thoughts as baseball season approaches.

**************

Jason Varitek is a classy guy and a Red Sox player that everyone can love. Yes, he suffered through a miserable offensive season last year but some slack must be cut as he went through a breakup with his wife during the season. Plus his lack of offensive output is counterbalanced by the fact that he has to be considered one of the best, if not the best, game callers in the major leagues. Do you really think he caught four no-hitters in his career just because he was lucky? Add to that his leadership on and off the field and he's earned that team captain's "C" on his jersey. All of this makes it so unfortunate that he has Scott Boras as his agent and, as a result of Boras' advice, is in the contract pickle he's in.

Varitek turned down arbitration that would have resulted in a $10 million 1-year deal based on Boras' belief he could score a freakish deal like Jorge Posada's 4-year, $52 million payout from the Yankees. Now, Varitek is getting no offers from any other teams (they'd have to give up a first round draft pick because Tek had been offered arbitration). Now the Red Sox have extended an offer of a 1-year $5 million deal with an additional option year and only giving him until Saturday to make a decision, leaving him with few options. It doesn't help that the Red Sox probably have a general sense of loathing for the agent after the Manny Ramirez fiasco and Mark Teixiera negotiations, which makes the idea of making the agent look like a fool gratifying. Unfortunately, it's hurting Tek while not doing much to hurt Boras' wallet.

**************

And on the topic of the Yankees, Red Sox fans and others around the country are just salivating at the thought of the circus that will surround Yankees spring training courtesy of their former skipper Joe Torre and his well-timed revenge...er...book, "Yankee Years." It couldn't get any better -- the Yankee brass humiliate him with a miserly 1-year contract and no show of faith or support, he leaves for LA, the Yankees miss the playoffs, and he leads the Dodgers into the post-season. Now, to cap it off, Torre is holding one of those "Spy vs Spy" bombs and is getting ready to roll it into the Pinstripes's clubhouse. Really, it couldn't happen to a nicer team.


**************

John Updike passed away today after a battle with lung cancer.

I was introduced to him through his brilliant 1960 New Yorker essay "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu," his recollection of Ted William's career within the confines of his final game at Fenway Park. It was this essay along with a few others that sparked and solidified my lifelong love of baseball writing. I encourage you to read it. It's a wonderful piece bookended by two immortal lines:

Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark.

and

Gods do not answer letters.

RIP Mr. Updike. I hope The Splendid Splinter tips his cap to you when you see him.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Where's Waldo for Adults

Do you feel like you missed some details of President Obama's Inauguration? Well, photographer David Bergman has a solution for you: his 1,474 megapixel panoramic photograph of Barack Obama giving his Inaugural address.

This image (or series of images stitched together) is amazing not simply for the sheer breadth of the image but also for the tremendous level of detail available. It's like Where's Waldo for adults but instead of looking for a goofy guy in a red and white cap, you can look for all sorts of other thing. For example...can you find Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas napping?

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Movie Review: The Wrestler...is that an old Rocky Balboa in spandex?

After seeing "The Wrestler" last night, I left the theatre feeling rather bruised and battered myself.

I saw it with 5 other people, all of whom thought it was excellent. My reaction? Appreciation for the effort, queasy stomach at some of the gore (close your eyes and plug your ears if you don't want a close-up lesson on the finer points of how to use a staple gun...), and an overall sense of been there, done that.

After thinking about it, "The Wrestler" is what "Rocky Balboa" might have been had Stallone wanted to turn the Balboa story into a tragedy -- aging fighter, past his prime, wounded and failing, seeking final time in the spotlight after driving people away. Actually, I think that was the plot of the execrable "Rocky V", a movie so bad that Stallone himself decided to ignore it when he made the final Balboa film. Combine those two, add some long bleached locks, shiny green spandex, and overt steroid use, and you're on your way to the main plot points of "The Wrestler".

For me, "The Wrestler" is not a great film though I know some people feel it was robbed by a lack of a Best Picture nomination in the Oscars. The plot follows largely predictable lines and I found few if any surprises as I watched it. The story follows professional wrestler "Randy the Ram" (Mickey Rourke) 20 years after his championship bout in Madison Square Garden. Living in a trailer and driving a broken-down Dodge Ram van, he is now reduced to performing at independent American Legion Hall bouts and appearing sparsely attended autograph sessions when not hauling boxes at the local supermarket. Following a heart attack suffered after a particularly brutal bout, Randy reaches out to a daughter he'd largely abandoned and tries to connect to Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) a stripper, all in an effort to avoid that sense of being alone. In the end, he eventually faces a choice -- build connections and something lasting outside the ring or return to the cheers, adulation, respect, and potentially death within the ring.

Rourke certainly embodies The Ram -- his bashed face looks like the hunk of broken-down meat he describes himself as when talking to his daughter. His performance is heart-wrenching at times as you see him grasping for respect with his failing body and wounded heart. He also physically fills the role and clearly spent time working with actual professional wrestlers in preparation.

I've never been a huge fan of Mickey Rourke -- I was too young to be invested in "Diner" and while "Angel Heart" is a truly frightening and smart film, it wasn't entirely due to his performance but rather the story itself. As a result, I don't have much invested in the "comeback" storyline that has enraptured many people. Here he gives a compelling performance and certainly sacrifices his body to do it. Do I think it's necessarily the best performance by an actor this year? No, not really but it's certainly impressive.

While scenes with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood, playing the part with a bit too much pout and sulk for me) feel overwrought with a few clunking, clich├ęd lines, Rourke and the movie really do shine on several occasions. When Randy picks up some extra hours at the supermarket by working the deli counter, his natural performer's instinct emerges and you see this hulk of a man connecting with the suburbanites asking for the potato salad and a half-pound of honey-baked ham. You can understand how this man manages to engage his audience and it's clear why, when he's performing, he's popular. 

**MONDAY UPDATE** I heard Darren Aronofsky interviewed today and the scene in the supermarket was a) largely ad libbed and b) featured actual customers doing their shopping with no idea that it was Mickey Rourke behind the counter. Kudos to Mr. Rourke then for improvising the single funniest line of the movie after an older woman asks him for two big chicken breasts.**

His interaction with the other wrestlers backstage before and after bouts is also fascinating. Up front they make it clear that this is entertainment, not sport, as they discuss the politics of who wins and who loses and the recognition that you have to earn your way from the role of villain (the heel) to the hero (a face). The Ram is clearly a face. Not only that, he's a man who has earned the respect of these other gargantuan, steroid-enhanced men, all of whom call him "sir" and clearly defer to him, whether it's through his private changing area or their clear adulation before and after at being in the same ring with him. Of course, once they are in the ring, they beat the crap out of each other until the script says it's time for Randy to win. You might not think of professional wrestling as a sport (I certainly don't) but these scenes make you appreciate the athleticism and abuse these men put themselves through in the name of entertainment while presenting enough squirm-inducing scenes to make you want to put down your popcorn. (Did I mention the barbed wire?)

While Rourke is, understandably, the focus of the film, Marisa Tomei holds her own, showing a different side of herself, and stealing a few scenes away from him in her Oscar-nominated performance as Cassidy. A stripper with a 9-year son and a hope for something better, Cassidy is very much like Randy, her customer at the club. Now in her 40s, she is edging toward the old and washed up side of her profession and knows that she doesn't have much time left. Unlike Randy, however, there's no reservoir of prior greatness and respect left to feed upon. Instead, with her son as her foundation, you might argue that she is actually far better prepared for the future than Randy as well as a source of salvation for him depending on his final choices. Unfortunately, she isn't given as much to do here as you might hope given the quality of her performance.

In the end, "The Wrestler" is a watchable film that pries open the dissolving life of a man who has been beaten down but still retains some pride in what he does. Rourke and Tomei don't hold anything back and help make what could have been a pedestrian "aging lion who refuses to quit" story into something a bit more compelling if not altogether original or surprising.

For pet owners

For anyone who has had to say goodbye to a beloved pet, you'll understand where Bill Simmons, The Sports Guy, is coming from in his latest column.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Itzhak Milli and Yo-Yo Vanilli

Did you see where it was revealed that the performance by Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Anthony McGill, and Gabriela Montero was actually pre-recorded? Apparently there were concerns about the frigid temperatures and the potential for broken strings or out of tune instruments so they performed the piece a day or two before and it was that recording that was heard by those in attendance as well as those of us watching at home or in our offices. For the same reason, Perlman and Ma didn't use their multi-million dollar violin and cello -- freezing temps aren't good for 300 year old instruments.

I understand why they did it but frankly, just once I want to know that what I'm seeing on TV is actually real. Like the marching footsteps in the sky and the cute little girl singing during the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics...

Blagojevich...master of hyperbole and martyr for the people

Illinois' Governor Rod "Look at the Muskrat on My Head" Blagojevich is setting a new standard for shamelessness:

Illinois' embattled but defiant governor turned to the history books to describe the emotional strain on him and his family, comparing his arrest last month to Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.

"Dec. 9 to my family, to us, to me, is what Pearl Harbor Day was to the United States," Gov. Rod Blagojevich told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday. "It was a complete surprise, completely unexpected. And just like the United States prevailed in that, we'll prevail in this." -- as told to the Associated Press

And better still? He's doing it all for the people...

The governor, along with his lawyers, say the trial rules are unfair because they bar him from calling witnesses who are likely to be called in any criminal trial later.

"I'm not going to be a party to that process," he said. "That would be a violation of my oath of office. That, to me, would be an impeachable offense."

He said his decision came from what he called a "bigger principle," which he said includes due process and the right to call witnesses.

"In some respects it's an honor to fall on principle on behalf of the people," he said.

Blagojevich, wearing a black leather jacket and gripping a blue legal folder, also accused legislators of "a rush to judgment," saying they wanted him gone so they could pass tax legislation.

"The reason they're doing this is because they can't wait to get rid of me so they can raise taxes on the people of Illinois," he said. "This is as much about a tax increases as it is about anything else." -- as told to the Associated Press

The next thing we'll see is Muskrat Man re-enacting the final "drawn and quartered/freedom" scene from Braveheart in front of Wrigley Field.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

OSCAR!!!

Our friend Dick Jenkins, star of "The Visitor" was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Actor category! Congratulations, Dick!!

So it's official now?

The minor bungling of the presidential oath on Tuesday led to President Obama taking the oath again on Wednesday night to ensure that it was said correctly, as spelled out in the Constitution. I guess it makes sense. Otherwise, how much time would it have taken before www.heisntreallypresidentbecausetheoathgotscrewedup.com showed up on the rounds of conspiracy sites?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Finding the time

I met Lisa Flaxman when I was very young. Her brother, David, and I were in the same Cub Scout pack and our moms became close friends when they served as den mothers. Lisa was four years older and I didn't know her all that well because we only hung out when our families got together or I slept over at David's.

The last time I saw her I was 8th grade and we went to see her in a production of "Guys and Dolls" at her high school. Lisa had a fantastic singing voice and eventually went on to perform professionally. I think she was playing Miss Adelaide in that particular show. I remember her coming down into the audience during one song and sitting in her alternately embarrassed and proud father's lap like an actual chanteuse, crooning into a microphone. It's strange what sticks in your head after 25 years.

I received regular updates from my mother and from Lisa's mom about what was going on with Lisa and the rest of her family over the years. She went to Brown and then got a law degree from Georgetown. She married and had three children. Then, she focused on music, both performing as well as launching and nurturing a music program for kids in Maryland and the District of Columbia in an effort to provide an early music education for her son and other children. She learned that her youngest sister had breast cancer and as a result, was tested herself, learning that she too had the disease. She fought it and wrote a book of poetry inspired by the experience.

I found out today that she died.

The cancer came back. She began suffering headaches and the doctors discovered that she was afflicted with a brain tumor. And then she was gone at age 43, surrounded by her husband and children and parents, drifting off to sleep and not waking up last Wednesday.

I knew her only fleetingly and yet I grieve. I grieve for her children and her husband who are experiencing a loss I could never imagine and whose time with Lisa was far, far too brief. I grieve for her siblings and her parents who were so proud of her. I grieve for her friends and all those she touched. I grieve for a world that needs more people like her, a person who worked so hard to enrich the lives of others whether by sharing her experiences with others, by communicating her love of music to children, by bringing arts programs for other cancer patients, or by performing to entertain and bring joy to friends and strangers alike.

I feel a bit odd writing this, like I shouldn't because I haven't seen her in 25 years and didn't know her all that well, as if I'm making this all about me when I have no right. I guess, in a way, I am, spurred on by what I've learned about her in the last day. A loss, even if it touches you only peripherally, leads to a certain amount of introspection, I think.

I suppose that, as I reach the cusp of 40, after my uncle's wife lost her battle with lung cancer, as I see my sister's two lovely children and the joy they bring, as I see friends and relatives growing just a bit older, as I realize that I've spent almost a quarter of my life with my wife and am amazed and frightened at how quickly it has gone, and as I look back to just a year ago as I sat holding my father's hand in the emergency room while he suffered a stroke, I take the concept of mortality a bit more seriously than I did when I was younger.

I see what I've accomplished but also what I still hope to do. I regret that I allowed people I cared about to move out of my life and want to reach out to them as well as to new friends. And I value the time and experiences we have so much more.

I read Lisa's obituary and a heartwrenching remembrance from a friend of hers. I listened as my mother read to me the words that Lisa's mom spoke at the memorial service and I see how full Lisa's life was -- with her children, her husband, her school and her non-profit organization, and her efforts to enrich other people's lives. In reading about her book and her music education program, I stumbled across Lisa's blog on a health site. There aren't many entries but the ones that are there are powerful, honest, and so full of joy in things we take for granted -- watching her child sleep, getting a hair cut. I'm sorry I didn't know the person who wrote these words better:

"Now, when I hear people say, "I wish I could stop time, " I know exactly what they mean, but I know they are wrong. They don't know that when time slows down and seems to stop, we are not living life, we are waiting to live. That's the thing about having cancer: you have to find way to live while going through the treatments. Whether that means writing every day, taking a walk around the block, calling someone or just simply getting out of bed and looking out the window, you can't wait. Time is all we have." -- from Lisa's blog entry, "The River of Time"

So to Lisa's friends and family, I want to say how sorry I am for your loss. I hope that you find the strength to move through this difficult time together.

And to those of you who took the time to read this, please take the time to make sure that you or the ones you love are screened regularly for breast cancer. Don't take a chance and don't lose any more time.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Like the neighbor who wouldn't leave

Did you ever have one of those parties where the final set of guests just won't leave? They hang out on your couch telling you about Marge's great bargains at the flea market or George's recent surgery to finally remove his eleventh toe and all the while you're struggling not to fall asleep in what's left of the ranch dip. And then, when they finally leave, you have to stand there in the doorway waving at them, a broad smile on your face, saying "Thanks for coming" and "We'll have to do it again soon" and all the while you're really thinking, "Dear God, can't they move any faster? If their car doesn't start all, I'll push them to the top of the hill to give them a rolling start but please dear lord, make them leave."

I think that might have been what was going through the minds of the Obamas and the Bidens as they escorted former (yay!) President Frat Boy to a waiting helicopter following the inauguration:

Nerves

Just a super-quick midday note as I finish my lunch...

My favorite part of Barack Obama's inauguration: When he lost track of the words during his oath of office, almost freezing for a moment, like it suddenly hit him exactly what he had achieved and exactly what was ahead of him. It's nice to see that he's human and prone to nerves like the rest of us.

****TUESDAY EVENING UPDATE****

Sigh...I just found out that the moment I found so appealing didn't really happen, at least not like I thought. It turns out that Chief Justice John Roberts was the one experiencing an attack of nerves and as a result, bungled his lines. Obama simply waited for him to realize and correct himself. Oh well. I still like him.

Monday, January 19, 2009

On the eve of history

Inauguration Day is tomorrow. I remember on Election Night an exchange with my sister about it feeling like Christmas Eve and how we just hoped that Santa brought us the gifts we asked for. Tomorrow that big ol' 10-speed bike shows up in Washington DC and gets sworn in and I'm just left wondering...

How can Barack Obama, how can any person, possibly come even within shouting distance of the expectations so many have placed on him?

Of course, the current (and soon to be former) resident of the White House has lowered the standard for even merely adequate performance to the point where a stoned orangutang on a tricycle would clear that particular bar. And yes, Obama's management of the transition and his initial appointments to key positions seem to range from the solid to the extremely good thus far. There are four more years to go though.

But have we built him up so much, assigned so many of our hopes to him, that there is no way he could do anything but fail to meet them? Every aspect of the presidency that is about to begin is hyper-realized – CNN/Microsoft are collaborating on a project entitled "The Moment" in which they are asking people attending the inauguration to attempt to document what they believe will be the most detailed experience of a single moment ever: Barack Obama taking the oath of office. An interesting project but that title -- The Moment -- comes weighted with such grandeur, such solemnity, that it just verges on the absurd and like so many pop culture events, will probably be interesting but in no way meet the expectations and the hype.

I fervently hope that the same will not be said of President Obama. So much is riding on his shoulders. If ever we needed someone to meet and exceed expectations, it's right now.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A sweeping and often searing summation

The Economist magazine, which endorsed George W. Bush in 2000, continues its tradition of outstanding political analysis in its current issue with a broad-reaching and excellent assessment of the Bush Presidency and the legacy the 43rd President leaves us.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Don't let the door hit you...

First a bit of humor...

I read earlier today that President Bush was going to be joined at his farewell address by real American heroes. I couldn't figure out if they meant teachers and firemen or his collection of G.I. Joe action figures.

If his departure goes on any longer, Bush will end up going on the road with The Eagles for another farewell tour.

BA-dum-bum! Thank you, thank you. I'll be here all week. Remember to try the waitress and tip your veal!


And then on to the serious stuff...

When Richard Nixon died, I remember my father being outraged at the accolades being heaped upon him given his actions as president. I wonder if many of us will end up feeling the same way at some point in the future about George W. Bush? Henrik Hertzberg sums it up all rather well in this week's New Yorker:

The President-elect’s performance can’t fully explain the public’s welcoming view of him. Part of it, surely, reflects an eagerness to be rid of the incumbent. A gangly Illinois politician whom “the base” would today label a RINO—a Republican in Name Only—once pointed out that you can fool some of the people all of the time. We now know how many “some” is: twenty-seven per cent. That’s the proportion of Americans who, according to CNN, cling to the belief that George W. Bush has done a good job. The wonder is that this number is still in the double digits, given his comprehensively disastrous record. During the eight years of the second President Bush, the unemployment rate went from 4.2 per cent to 7.2 per cent and climbing; consumer confidence dropped to an all-time low; a budget surplus of two hundred billion dollars became a deficit of that plus a trillion; more than a million families fell into poverty; the ranks of those without health insurance rose by six million; and the fruits of the nation’s economic growth went almost entirely to the rich, while family incomes in the middle and below declined. What role the Bush Administration’s downgrading of terrorism as a foreign-policy priority played in the success of the 9/11 attacks cannot be known, but there is no doubting its responsibility for the launching and mismanagement of the unprovoked war in Iraq, with all its attendant suffering; for allowing the justified war in Afghanistan to slide to the edge of defeat; and for the vertiginous worldwide decline of America’s influence, prestige, power, and moral standing.

The televised “legacy interviews” that Bush has granted have been notable for the interviewee’s shruggings-off of responsibility for what he has wrought, abroad and at home. He’s sorry about the inartfulness of “dead or alive” and “bring ’em on” and “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED,” but not about the war or its conduct. And in a discussion of the economic catastrophe he is about to bequeath to his successor, there is this exchange, with ABC’s Charles Gibson:

GIBSON: Do you feel in any way responsible for what’s happening?

BUSH: You know, I’ve been the President during this period of time. But I think when the history of this period is written people will realize a lot of the decisions that were made on Wall Street took place over, you know, a decade or so before I arrived as President, during I arrived as President. I’m sorry it’s happening, of course. Obviously, I don’t like the idea of people losing jobs or being worried about their 401(k)s.

A nice epitaph for “compassionate conservatism”—feckless to the end. And the end, at long last, is nigh.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Mom, can I go play at Adolf's house?

From the Lehigh Valley Times:

UPDATE: Toddler called Adolf Hitler, sisters not removed from home because of Nazi names

A New Jersey Department of Youth and Family Services spokeswoman says that the agency would not remove children from a home because of their names.

DYFS made the statement today after The Express-Times reported Tuesday that the state had taken Adolf Hitler Campbell, 3, and his younger sisters, JoyceLynn Aryan Nation and Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie, from their parent's Holland Township, Hunterdon County home.

.....

The children's parents, Heath and Deborah Campbell, attracted national media attention last month when they complained after a supermarket bakery refused to put their son's full name on a birthday cake.

This story creeps me out on soooo many levels, I can't even begin to list them.

PS -- just a bit of neo-Nazi trivia for you...the initials H H in little Jeannie's name are apparently code for Heil Hitler, often also represented by the number 88 in neo-Nazi lore, as H is the eighth letter of the alphabet.

What goes up must come down

You've probably seen movies or news footage of people celebrating by shooting their guns in the air. And if you're like me, you've probably wondered, "So what the hell happens to the bullets?"

Well, now we have our answer...

Monday, January 12, 2009

Sex humor for NPR listeners

The writers for "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me" proved yet again that they are at the top of their game with topical humor and current events as they poked fun at the U.S. porn industry, led by Larry Flynt and the creator of "Girls Gone Wild", for seeking a $5 billion financial bailout from Congress, noting that to help U.S. citizens understand the financial crisis, the money could be used to fund educational films like:
  • "Bear Naked Stearns"
  • "The AIG-spot"
  • "The Stimulus Package"
Plus, host Peter Sagal pointed out that with the bailout package, members of Congress would all receive premium memberships at any porn site they would like.

Conveniently, President-elect Obama is pushing for increased investment in broadband Internet access across the United States so it would be a synergistic arrangement really because, after all, who want to watch Internet porn using a dial-up connection?

Hall of Famer

Congratulations to Jim Rice, Boston's great outfielder of the 70s and 80s and one of the most feared hitters of his day, for his election today to the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was a long time coming (this was his 15th and final year of eligibility) and many people felt he should have been in the HOF long ago but it must feel sweet as hell to final get the call to be immortalized as one of the game's greats.

When I was a kid and would play baseball with friends, we'd all pretend that we were members of the Red Sox and that those players were striding up to the plate with us or making a great play in the field. There was Yaz, Dewey Evans, Freddie Lynn, and Carlton Fisk in the field along with Bruce Hurst, Oil Can, and Roger Clemens (before he turned into a steroid-inflated, egomaniacal, teenage country singer-dating freakazoid), and the scariest of them all was Jim Rice.

In the 6 or 7 years of his prime, no one wanted to be facing him when he came to the plate. I remember watching him on TV clubbing home runs and being absolutely mezmerized. While a number of players have moved beyond him in the record books, especially in recent year, his accomplishments actually shine a bit brighter as his three seasons as home run champ, two seasons as the RBI leader, four 200+ hit seasons, and seven seasons with a better than .300 batting average were all accomplished well before the statistic (and head)-inflating steroid era.

Given a choice, I'd pick Jim Ed Rice over Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, or Barry Bonds any day of the week and twice on Sundays. Congratulations, Jim! Can't wait to see the Red Sox' new Hall of Famer in a few months on the NESN post-game show!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Teamwork and Little Toy Blocks

When I was a kid, LEGO blocks were colorful and, well, blocky -- ideal for building houses or forts or vehicles that my friends and I would ram into each other to see what parts flew off in a pre-adolescent demolition derby. What I saw yesterday as I served as a judge at the Rhode Island FIRST LEGO League Robotics Tournament made my LEGO vehicles look like stone knives and bearskins (it's rule -- I can't write about geeky stuff without at least one Star Trek reference).

For those of you not familiar with the FIRST LEGO League, it's a global robotics program for kids 9-14 designed to stimulate interest in science, math, discovery, and technology (more info here).

Every year teams are given a challenge relating to real-world issues (this year's theme: Climate Connections). While adults serve as team coaches, it's up to the kids to research and propose a solution to a real-world problem facing their community related to the theme, present their research and solutions, and build an autonomous robot out of LEGOs, three motors, and a "brainbox" to carry out a challenging sequence of tasks also related to the theme. Some of the activities required of the robots this year included:
  • moving a series of blocks to one area to represent building levees in low-lying coastal areas and then triggering a "storm" by activating another LEGO construction that sent a black wheel rolling toward the levees to see if they can survive the storm
  • raising a house to lift it above flood level, opening the windows, and shutting off a light
  • move a bicycle from one area to another to illustrate the value of using a bike rather than driving
  • move an "ice core drilling machine" to the Arctic research station and then extract and deliver an ice core, and much more
All of these activities took place on a 4 ft by 6 ft table using nothing but LEGOs and in the span of just 2 and a half minutes. Watching the different approaches taken to meet these challenges, seeing these kids as they cheered on their robots and then plugged the robots into their computers so they could refine the programming so it could handle the tasks more effectively in the next round was amazing. I overheard one person remark "it's like the Geek Olympics".



While the motors and brainboxes took these constructions far beyond anything I built as a kid, at the heart of anything built with these blocks is the imagination of the kids using them and the fun they have doing it. That fun is also on display in the 5-minute presentation each team was required to give during the tournament.

The presentation, given to a panel of judges, had to address an issue in the kids' community related to climate, identify other communities that face similar issues, propose a solution, and then share their findings. That's where I came in, serving as the presentation judge initially for 11 of the 40+ teams and then, later, gathering with the other 11 judges (each of whom focused on quality of research, how innovative the solution was, or the overall presentation) to decide what teams would be called back and then how we ranked them overall.

Despite having to arrive at the campus of Roger Williams University at 7AM (and anyone who knows me knows that getting me anywhere at 7AM on a Saturday usually requires an Act of God), I enjoyed myself immensely. The day absolutely flew by with first round judging beginning at 7:45 and then additional judging continuing into the afternoon. Through the course of the day, I saw amazing examples of that creativity, not just with how kids used the LEGO blocks but how they worked together to meet a range of challenges.

As you might expect, the presentations ranged from the weak (several kids reading haltingly from an essay with a single piece of posterboard) to the great (fully realized skits with props, costumes, and detailed scripts that had been memorized by all participants). But still, these kids put themselves out there facing multiple judging panels and they all deserve a round of applause.

The research also varied from the expected (use more hybrid cars, switch to compact flourescent light bulbs, and rely on wind farms) to the innovative (cultivating a species of saltmarsh grass -- spartina alterniflora -- and then transplanting it to the marsh and coastal areas to rebuild habitats and reduce erosion). And when it came to sharing, you had to give props to the kids from here in Bristol who researched the increased threat from ticks spurred on by rising temperatures and higher humidity and then co-hosted a local radio show (sponsored by a local pest company) to answer callers questions about protecting themselves from ticks and Lyme Disease, were featured in the local paper, and lobbied the State Legislature for more funding to research and address the problem (plus one student was dressed as a giant tick so it was all good).

I was lucky enough to be one of the initial judges for the eventual winners of the Champion's Award, the team that scores the highest overall in every aspect of the competition. The "No School Foster-Glocester" team was simply outstanding, with a presentation that combined:
  • really intriguing research -- new environmentally friendly and more affordable approaches to dealing with roads in areas that are getting more snow
  • humor -- anyone from Rhode Island just had to laugh at their evocation of local radio and TV legend "Salty Brine"
  • reaching out to folks in Armenia -- same climate and weather conditions as Rhode Island apparently...you learn something new every day
  • courtesy -- as the students entered the room, they went to every judge, said hello, shook hands, introduced themselves by name, and in some cases, thanked the judges for taking the time on a Saturday to participate
  • effective sharing -- they're on the docket for an upcoming town council meeting among other thing, and
  • an effective use of props and costumes -- the t-shirts with tire marks and the 1960s era kitchen aprons were a nice touch as was the giant Rubik's Cube that they assembled to create a 3-D summary of the challenge, their solution, the benefits, and the face of Salty Brine himself
"No School Foster-Glocester" is now headed to the international competition where they will be up against 80 teams from 24 countries. Congratulations, kids. You deserve it!

And even though it starts at 7AM, I expect I'll be volunteering to judge again at the Rhode Island Tournament next year.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Of course, it could be worse Pt. 2

So what if Governor Rod "Show Me the Money" Blogojevich nominated Roland Burris and revealed Senator Harry Reid (aka he of the "the Senate will not seat anyone Blagojevich chooses to fill Illinois' vacant Senate post" declaration) to be all talk and no spine? It could be worse. He could have nominated a Republican if he really wanted to give the Senate the middle finger salute.

114-1

Who was the one person in the Illinois House of Representatives who didn't vote to impeach Governor Rod Blagojevich? After all the news coverage and the stories of what this bozo did, is there any doubt that he should be placed on trial by the State Senate to consider removing him from office?

This is like the few baseball writers who didn't vote for Cal Ripken or Nolan Ryan to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Do they know something we don't? Do they do it just to avoid being classified as "just one of the pack" or succumbing to peer pressure? Or are they just those people who believe no one should ever be a unanimous pick for anything?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

And tonight at the Critic Choice Awards...hey, wait! Wasn't that guy at my wedding?

In 1985, I went to the movies with some fellow camp counselors to see a new western, Silverado. Halfway through the movie, I dropped my popcorn and shouted, "Hey, I know him!" as local actor and friend of the family Richard Jenkins appeared ever so briefly as Kelly, corrupt saloon manager and recipient of a bullet from the barrel of Brian Dennehy's gun.

Tonight, we sat and cheered him on as he was lauded on the Critics Choice Awards as one of America's finest character actors and a best actor nominee (for his heartwrenching performance in "The Visitor" -- review coming soon after I watch it for the third or fourth time) alongside Brad Pitt, Clint Eastwood, Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke, and Frank Langella.

It was definitely an odd experience to see a guy I've known since I was 9 or 10, who I grew up watching act here in Providence at Trinity Rep and TV in shows like "Miami Vice" and "Spenser: For Hire" and "Six Feet Under" along with a succession of ever-more prominent film roles, and who attended my wedding sitting there at a table in Hollywood alongside his wife, Sharon, wondering if his name was going to be called.

Congratulations, Dick! All of us here in Rhode Island are thrilled for and proud of you and keeping our fingers crossed both for your nomination in the Spirit Awards as well as hoping to see your name among the nominees for an Oscar!

Badda-bing...now stay out of the neighbor's yard!

When we lived in Providence, my family bought our first house on the East Side, in a relatively quiet, older neighborhood with trees and nice, modest homes. What my parents might not have realized when they bought the house was that diagonally across the street from us, in a small brick house with a black wrought iron fence, lived Raymond Patriarca, the Don of the New England Mafia. He was getting on in years at the time but he lived there for at least a little while before retiring, moving in with his second wife elsewhere in the city, handing the family business off to his son, and finally passing away from a heart attack in 1984.

I don't remember if I ever saw them but I remember my folks and people in the neighborhood talking about the large men in suits who always stood outside his front door and had candy for the kids who rode by on their bikes or played ball in the street. Plus, it was like the one crime-free neighborhood in Providence during the late 70s and early 80s, which were not exactly Providence's Golden Years by any stretch. My mother, who knew the realtor, was able to go into the house when it went on the market and she described the large, heavy front door and the apparently bulletproof windows. Plus, the house was built of brick so no drive-by gunfire was going to touch the old man.

I thought about this tonight for the first time in a long while when I read this article about the apparent fate of John Favara, a 51-year old furniture warehouse worker in Queens who had the misfortune to a) live near the late John Gotti, the "Teflon Don" and head of the Gambino Crime Family and b) accidently strike and kill Gotti's 12-year old son when the boy swerved his bicycle in front of Favara's car. I can't imagine what it would be like to lose a child like that. I expect that I would probably go mad from grief but according to new court documents, Gotti found an outlet for his sense of lose...ordering Favara shot and then dissolved in a barrel of acid to hide the evidence. Eeeeewwwww!

At least when we lived nearby, Raymond's son, Ray Junior, was already older than my folks and with those bulletproof windows, we never had to worry about pissing off the old man with a baseball hit into his living room!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Say it ain't so, Joe!

Jow the Plumber is hitting the road. Please, if there is a God, maybe he'll just decide to stay there and save us the agony of hearing about him ever again.

Another reason to love Maine

Maine has become one of our favorite places. And now there's another great reason to spend time there!

Name that tune...and what does it mean?

I inadvertently stumbled across a really cool website today: http://www.songfacts.com/

While searching for some information about singer/songwriter Marc Cohn, this site popped up with all sorts of tidbits about the fantastic song, "Walking in Memphis." This is a perfect site for those of us who often love to listen to music but don't often delve deep into the lyrics (books, news, and movies, ye; lyrics, not always so much). For example, it took a me a few years to realize that a CD a former girlfriend gave me was by a evangelical Christian though not too terribly overt about it (the fact that she was Pentecostal Baptist and was worried if I was saved or not should have been a tipoff). For me, I just liked the music and wasn't paying much attention to the words. Not that it would have stopped me from listening to it but it would have explained the many odd looks I have received from friends and relatives who heard me -- a devout non-churchgoer -- play it.

Well, now I have a resource at hand so watch out...I'm now armed with more trivia about Memphis than anyone really ought to have.

PS - For those X-Philes out there, "Walking in Memphis" is the song sung by Cher (but played by an impersonator) at the conclusion of the brilliant Season 5 episode, "Post-Modern Prometheus". Now I knew that without having to go to songfacts.com!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Movie Review: Yes Man...just say "maybe"

Question: When do you know a movie star is beginning to feel like he or she is fading a bit, slipping from the limelight?

Answer: When they start making movies highlighting what made them successful 10, 20, or even 30 years before.

We've seen evidence of this syndrome recently. "Rambo", "Rocky Balboa", and "Live Free or Die Hard", anyone? I think the only thing keeping Arnold Schwarzenegger from making "Predator 3" to reinvigorate his action hero cred is a $41 billion deficit in California.

Now we have Jim Carrey's "Yes Man," an amusing trifle that might have been funnier 10 or 12 years ago before the seemingly plastic funnyman began showing his age. Carrey plays Carl Allen, a loan officer at a bank who has shown no zest for life since his wife left him three years before because, well, he showed no zest for life. Now, his days are filled with saying "no" -- no to loans, no to the seemingly kindly elderly neighbor in need of company, no to his friends when asked to go out or participate in wedding preparations, etc. Into Carl's life comes (briefly) an old friend who drags Carl to a self-empowerment seminar focused on saying "yes" to life.

As happens in these movies, the comic conceit is that Carl takes it too far, becoming convinced that he has to say yes to anything and everything (don't worry, I'm not about to give away anything that isn't in the trailers) -- PersianWifeFinder.com, guitar and Korean language lessons, getting up close and personal with that kindly old woman, attending Harry Potter and "300" costume parties given by his goofy boss, riding on scooters with Zooey Deschanel who is here playing her patented "quirky cute girl", etc. -- all of which lead to a series of amusing encounters that reinvigorate Carl's life and his view of the world.

To do so, however, Carrey goes back to many of the same tricks that he relied on in staples like the Ace Ventura movies, "Dumb and Dumber", "Liar Liar", and even the more recent Bruce Almighty. The one change is that "Yes Man" is a perfectly respectable romantic comedy...definitely more so than Bruce Almighty where Jennifer Aniston's role is largely defined by her sexual "manipulation" by the Almighty Bruce. The result is that "Yes Man" is a movie with amusing gags, Zooey Deschanel singing (always a treat -- listen to the "She & Him: Volume One" CD if you don't believe me), a few minor surprises, and some worthwhile chemistry between Carrey and Deschanel.

Driving home after the movie, there were very few scenes that stood out or were even relatively memorable. Instead, it was ephemeral, a mildly satisfying "yeah, it was entertaining, wasn't it" sort of feeling. Would I recommend it if you're looking for some light, unchallenging entertainment? Yes, I guess.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

De-Christmasing

Well, the holiday vacation is officially over and we return to work tomorrow.

Actually, my wife worked a few half and three-quarter days leading up to the New Year but she's in non-profit development and had to make sure that last-minute donations were registered and handed off to the financial folks in time for people to get the credit on their 2008 taxes. (Here's a a little tip for those of you worried about your last-minute donations made by check...if your check was dated December 31st or earlier, you should still get the credit for that year, even if the charity doesn't cash it until the new year; no such luck with credit cards...those have to be processed no later than December 31st).

Anyhow, after a week and a half of vacation (staying up late reading and writing, visiting family, trying to sleep in late but failing miserably because our cats still expect to be fed at the normal time, etc.), we're now faced with the reality of returning to our offices full time. Talk about culture shock. My normal attire for the last 11 days has been jeans, t-shirt, and a fleece top. Now it's back to office casual, which in truth isn't so bad but it's not t-shirts and jeans.

The weirdest part of the end of the holiday break is the de-Christmasing of the house. The knick-knacks that were pulled out three weeks before get put away, the holiday CDs are returned to the shelf, and most dramatically, the tree goes away.

In just over an hour, all our hard work stringing lights and hanging ornaments is undone with ornaments back in boxes or wrapped in tissue paper, lights removed and coiled more carefully this year to avoid the frustration so often endured around December 12th or 15th, and the tree itself taken outside for pickup and composting. Of course, a little bit of the tree will be with us for a while...despite our best efforts and repeated vacuuming, I can guarantee that needles from the tree will be showing up from time to time in our living room for the next two months at least.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

RIP Senator Claiborne Pell

We lost one of the good guys today. Rhode Island's Senator Claiborne Pell, largely out of the public eye following his retirement from the Senate in 1996 due to Parkinson's Disease, passed away shortly after midnight today.

While local radio hosts enjoyed mocking his odd speaking style and failing memory over the last few years, the almost 55 million Americans who received government aid to go to college since 1972 should be thanking Senator Pell tonight for his pioneering work to create the Basic Education Opportunity Grant Program, now better known as Pell Grants. He helped write the charter for the U.N., wrote the legislation creating the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, served in the Coast Guard (starting as a ship's cook despite his wealthy and aristocratic background and eventually retiring as a Captain), and was a fixture in Rhode Island for my entire life. Along with the late Senator John Chafee, Pell illustrated how government could and should work to help better the lives of all Americans through opportunity and education.

Sadly, there seem to have been too few politicians like Pell and Chafee recently. Hopefully, that might change in the next few years.

Rest in peace, Senator.

Out with the old, thankfully

Happy New Year!

I think I speak for many people when I say I hope 2009 is a damn sight better than 2008.