Sunday, May 31, 2009

Never is a business

I grew up spending parts of my summers on Cape Cod and going to Cape Cod Baseball League baseball games. Played by college students using wooden bats, the non-profit CCBL has been a spawning ground for major league players (in 2008, 205 major leaguers in 2008 played on the Cape at some point) for decades, which is why I read with surprise that MLB is dropping the hammer on CCBL teams for trademark issues. Really? The Harwich Mariners have been around longer than the Seattle Mariners and you're going after them for not using an MLB-approved vendor for jerseys, hats, etc.? As a result, some teams like the Orleans Cardinals (my "home team" when I was on the Cape) are no more, electing to change their names to stick with local vendors and keep their costs low.

As a marketing guy, I understand the value of a brand and the need to protect a trademark but the now-former Orleans Cardinals had been around forever. Seriously, if there was going to be a challenge or weakening of the trademark, it would have happened already. It seems clear that what this is actually about is the dollars to be gained via the MLB licensing fee, its financial agreements with vendors who saw a slice of the pie that they didn't have, and all cloaked in the legalese of trademark protection while the threat of MLB withholding $100,000 in support is used to force compliance. Good for the renamed Orleans Firebirds as they updated their their red bird logo and switched to another name. While I'll probably always think of them as the Cardinals, fans on the Cape will enjoy the same great baseball and the Firebirds and local Cape vendors will enjoy a merchandising bonanza. Play ball!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Movie Review: "UP" soars with fun and heartbreak

It's become an annual event for us -- attending opening night of a new Pixar movie at the start of the summer movie season. The event comes along with a tacit agreement that we can expect to see the film at least once more in the movie theatre before it moves on to DVD. And so it is with "UP", the latest minor gem to emerge from Pixar. I say minor gem only because "UP", while an outstanding movie for this season, isn't quite in the class of Pixar's greatest masterpieces, "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille", which may be the best animated films I've ever seen (even with due credit to the works of Hayao Miyzaki and Brad Bird's "The Iron Giant").

This isn't meant to take anything away from "UP", a film that is filled with brilliant flourishes, laugh out loud humor, sterling voice acting, and characters we enjoy spending time with. In truth, I found "UP" more emotionally affecting than any other Pixar movie I've seen. During the opening 10-12 minutes, we are introduced to budding young explorer Carl Fredrickson and the girl, Ellie, who will eventually become his wife and then wordlessly follow their lives through joy, heartbreak, and loss, a sequence that is absolutely stunning. I don't know that there was a dry eye in the house at the end of it. I know mine certainly weren't.

With the stage set , the movie really gets rolling as Carl, now a lonely, unhappy 78-year old, sets off on a journey by taking his house aloft with thousands of balloons in an effort to complete an adventure that he and Ellie had dreamt about since childhood. Once Carl and the house, together with a Wilderness Scout named Russell, arrive in South America, they encounter a brilliantly colored bird, an unexpected villian, and Dug the dog, who has a collar that vocalizes perfectly and hilariously exactly what and how we all know dogs think ("Hi there, I just met you and I love you!").

It's at this point that the movie loses a bit of the soaring grandeur that it enjoyed as Carl's house takes flight, preferring instead for an "old guy/young boy learn to appreciate each other" dynamic along with plenty of chases and physical comedy. The wonder of the opening sequences fades just a bit in the same way that the brilliant first half of "Wall-E" gave way to a bit more of a theme park ride once the setting moved into space (the lovely dancing scene excepted). Nevertheless, the jungle scenes in "UP" are still great fun.

"UP" tells a tale of dreams deferred and regained, something that might resonate more with the adults in the audience were more likely to than the children. It's clear that Pixar's writers and directors want to speak to the adults just as much as the children. In doing so, they blessedly avoid the trite, flat stories or self-referential pop culture gags that are found in so many other animated films that are churned out by other studios. While "UP" may lack the depth, the questions, and the thematic layers that made Pixar films like "The Incredibles" "Ratatouille" and to a slightly lesser extent, "Wall-E" so effective, it still touches you, making you ache every time Carl grieves for and speaks to his late wife. That doesn't make "UP" any less a movie for kids as illustrated by the screams of laughter filling the theatre from young and old alike.

Along with the solid storytelling, "UP" adds to Pixar's bag of animation tricks. The sight and sound of the thousands of balloons rising, bumping against each other, squeaking as they rub, is stunning as is the depth and detail in the animation of Kevin, the mysterious , iridescent bird discovered in South America. The attention to detail is amazing, whether it's the faint stubble that Carl begins to grow to the worn creases in his leather shoes in contrast to the grain of the wooden floorboards. Pixar is so clearly head and shoulders above competing animation studios in terms of story and craft that it's almost unfair. It's this combination that allows "UP" to soar.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What would Gutenberg say?

When we were searching for a house to buy a number of years ago, I was struck by how many homes we visited that were devoid of books. We'd walk from room to room and the only books on display, if any, were exactly that -- displays. Coffee table books designed to instill a sense of taste and refinement, a few works of "literature" artfully propped on a shelf here and there, perhaps a glossy travel book to impart a world traveler's panache to a common split ranch dwelling, but never shelves of books lovingly read and speaking of journeys of the mind or the laughter of children.

Of course, realtors point to books as one of the things that "must go" when preparing to sell a house. "Remove the clutter" they say. "Let people see the walls." But walking around those houses, I never really believed that they'd been full of books to begin with, and that was just so utterly foreign to me. Books give our home character. Well, books and the interior walls that look like they were painted for a kindergarten class, all primary colors and welcoming hues. If we ever want to sell this house, we'll have to start preparing months in advance to have enough time to pack up the books and paint every wall a realtor-friendly off-white.

I grew up around books as did my wife. Trips to the bookstore were and still are a wonderful experience. I love the feeling of walking out of the store or the library with a new book in hand just aching to be read. Our home is full of books. Every room has bookshelves -- classic fiction, art books, poetry, and travel writing in the living room; cookbooks and the "to be read" shelves in the kitchen; chick lit and my history books in the guest room; stacks of mysteries in the bedroom; and sci-fi and fantasy filling a wall in our home office/entertainment room. The children of Gutenberg and his movable type bring us no end of entertainment and fascination.

Our basement is full of boxes of books that we've read and don't have room for or read and don't need to keep but haven't gotten around to donating. At a yard sale two years ago, we sold a number of books and I took the rest to the local library for its fundraising drive. I asked for a donation form (tax deduction, you know) and the librarian didn't quite know what to say when she inquired as to the number of books I was dropping off and I replied "350".

I treat my books like children. When I'm done reading a new book, it looks pristine, no creases on the spine, no dog-eared pages. It's not that I'm anal about it. It's an unconscious thing -- I simply treat my books with care and love and want them to last. It's only when I start to nod off late at night and the book falls to the floor that I occasionally inflict a ding or two.

I almost always have two or three books going at once...the heavy hardback from the library that's ideal for reading at the kitchen table, one fun paperback that can slide into a pocket in my briefcase, perhaps another by my bedside table. I revel in the feel of pages turning and the progression from page 1 to whatever the end brings.

The drawback is that I read too fast. I want to find out what happens. I lose myself in my books and zoom through them. When "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" was delivered into my hands I tore through its 760-page length between breakfast and mid-afternoon. Of course the joy of the story was then followed by hours of sitting around itching to talk to someone else who'd also finished it. At that rate, the library became a financial necessity -- I can't possibly afford to buy enough new books to keep up with my reading habits. Even so, I can't imagine living without my books.

And that's why I'm so surprised that I enjoy my new Kindle as much as I do. A generous gift from my parents and siblings for my 40th birthday (albeit delivered with belated birthday pomp 5 weeks after the fact due to my grandmother's death), the electronic book reader offers an appealing blend of gadgetry and literature. However, even with that in mind, I still was unsure about it. How would it feel to read a book with no pages? Could I stand to read page after page on screen? Sure, I read tons of stuff on my computer for work and entertainment but not novels. Could I lose myself in a Kindle book as easily and as completely as I could in a bound collection of printed pages?

Much to my wallet's dismay and Amazon's delight, the answer is "yeah, it's pretty close." Sure it's different clicking a button to turn a page and a bit disconcerting to not see page numbers but instead the percentage of the book you've read but the text is pleasantly crisp and print-like. After a quick download, I cruised through the new Kathy Reichs mystery in roughly the same amount of time I would have expected if the 460-some odd pages of the dead-tree version had been in my hands instead. I was able to focus on the words and not be distracted by the vehicle by which the words were presented to me. After a lengthy stretch of reading, my hand still cramped but this time from the weight of the Kindle rather than the awkward position of holding a paperback open in one hand. In all honesty, I am also thrilled at the prospect of not having to stuff multiple books into my bags the next time I hit the road on a business trip or vacation. Best of all, the clicking of the Next Page/Previous Page buttons is quiet enough that it doesn't disturb my wife when she dozes off as I continue to read.

Gadget fun and convenience aside, the Kindle will never completely replace my beloved print books, in part because Kindle books aren't cheap and there's no lending library for e-books (yet). A new book by one of our favorite mystery writers is due to be delivered Island Books, my favorite independent bookseller, in the next day or two and I'm allowing myself the luxury of splurging on the hardcover edition. It's a rare author for whom I'll do that but no electronic book reader will ever match the pleasure of walking into the store, greeting Judy and Molly and the rest of the staff and then the thrill of cracking open that brand-new novel and delving into its pages once I get home. Plus, the book will be a bit more tolerant when I fall asleep and it tumbles from my hand to the floor. Of course, a library of Kindle books will be easier to hide if we ever decide to sell the house.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Movie Review: Night at the Museum's non-stop action! Please, can we have a minute to breathe?

While the original "Night at the Museum" (NATM) will never be compared with "Casablanca" when it comes to discussing great cinema, the Ben Stiller flick about the exhibits in the Natural History Museum coming to life was an entertaining popcorn flick that showed sparks of wit and whimsy, not too mention a nice plug for getting kids to a museum. With that in mind, when we were in dire need of a fun movie on Friday night, we decided that "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" was worth a chance (plus we had AAA discount tickets so we avoided paying full freight and "Terminator Salvation" didn't have quite the humor quotient we sought).

My feelings about it as we left? Meh.

***Minor Spoiler Alert***

Set several years after the first movie, one-time night guard Larry Daly (Ben Stiller) is now a successful infomercial product inventor who doesn't spend much time with his son (NATM #1's focus was on Larry finding the job he was meant to do and reconnecting with his son). The exhibits at the Natural History Museum in New York are being packed up and shipped to the National Archives at the Smithsonian to make way for whiz-bang holographic, interactive exhibits. However, the magic Egyptian tablet that brings the exhibits to life at night is shipped along by mistake thereby releasing all sorts of chaos in Washington, leaving Larry to get to Washington and put everything right in the space of one night. (With me so far?)

By moving the action to the Smithsonian and Washington DC, the scope of the "inanimate objects coming to life" concept is far broader as Larry and the tablet move from the original Smithsonian building and the archives to one of the art galleries to the Air and Space Museum. Rockets and planes roar about the screen; sculptures, paintings, and photos come to life; and a whole new cast of characters emerges to take center stage while many of the familiar friends from the first NATM are resigned to bit players here.

Some of these efforts work. Seeing Rodin's The Thinker as a dope with a Brooklyn accent and a thing for the ladies ("Boom Boom Fiya powah!") is worth a laugh. Watching Stiller grab the pitchfork from Grant Wood's American Gothic to use in self-defense brought a chuckle and a Jeff Koons Balloon Dog bounding around the screen was a great gag. Of course, the sixth grader in me could appreciate Owen Wilson's tiny Jedediah crowing "This cowboy just got to second base" after being stowed in Larry's shirt pocket prior to Larry getting a kiss and hug. Other jokes fall dreadfully flat...seriously, the "General Custer is a vapid, vain idiot" joke was dead on arrival as were the three cupids (more correctly "putti") with the faces and voices of the Jonas Brothers singing "More than a Woman".

Events are spurred on by the appearance of evil Kamunrah, older brother of Akmunrah, the good pharoah from NATM whose tablet not only brings the exhibits to life but can also release an army from the underworld. Hank Azaria chews the scenery and channels Boris Karloff for all he's worth as Kamunrah while Amy Adams is along for the ride as Amelia Earhart, fast-talking woman of action and awkward love interest for Stiller's Larry.

The fun of the original NATM came from sharing Larry's amazement as the museum's denizens came to life and how how he came to be accepted by them and his son. This time around, Larry isn't a schlub who has never succeeded...he's a success with plenty of money, attitude, and no sense of surprise at what's going on around him.

As a result, the movie feels like nothing so much as an amusement park ride, simply zipping along from one action set piece to another with no time to take a breath or actually develop much in the way of a plot or characters. Whole ideas are dropped -- Larry's son appears only briefly to set up that idea that Larry is letting his success take him away from his son but there's no reconciliation at the end. Repeated mentions of a meeting with a major big box store sound like nothing so much as a product placement for that particular chain because nothing ever happens with it. A young security guard with attitude of his own shows up to face off against Larry but then is never seen again, despite the fact that he would have been the perfect protege for Larry as well as serving as the face of surprise that Larry no longer has.

By the time the movie devolves into a massive fight between Kamunrah's forces and exhibits from the Smithsonian and Natural History museums, you've been hammered with so many effects and set pieces you're exhausted. You're left to wonder what the filmmakers could have accomplished if they'd taken some ideas, like sending Larry and Amelia into Eisenstaedt's "The Kiss at Times Square" a bit farther. The idea that stepping into the photo brings you not just to that single pair of people and what the photo shows but the entire scope of activity and life that must have been going on at that moment in Time Square is wonderful. Sure, there's a gag during the final credits the spins off this idea but it has the feeling of a throwaway, a clever little idea that was kicked around the screenwriters' table but, like the movie and some of the exhibits that come to life, was never really fleshed out this time around.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Therapeutic dirt

My mother has been a gardener for as long as I can remember. As as a little kid, I would visit her at the greenhouse and nursery where she worked. I'd play in the yard and wonder at the fascination she showed for crawling around moving plants, adding plants, weeding. I never understood it. Somehow, her passion never rubbed off.

Then I became a homeowner.

Suddenly, with a combination of photosynthetic blah and leafy yuck facing us every time we pulled into the driveway, learning to garden became something of a necessity. The front lawn, which was more moss than grass, was rototilled under and we anxiously waited for the new grass seed to do its thing. Then we yanked the old, bland, and not terribly healthy shrubs and laid out a new bed with a nice selection of plants that theoretically would grow into something a bit more appealing. We also went ahead and created several new beds in the backyard to anchor our shed and to add character to an otherwise bland fenced-in rectangle with grass.

The first attempt at gardening...our new lawn in the early stages of sprouting and a new front bed circa 2006

Two years ago, I was itching to do something else and kept tossing ideas at my wife about new beds in the front yard. She thought we should just do something small in back but I pushed. Finally she asked "why is this so important to you" and I replied "Because it's therapeutic."

And it was. Something interesting happened in our first round of gardening...I realized that not only did I like gardening but that it actually was therapeutic. I could set aside everything that was causing stress and instead dig and plant and haul huge amounts of mulch and emerge sore and tired and dirty but far more relaxed. Part of it was the instant gratification that comes with seeing the fruits of your labors at the end of the day. On the other hand, if you look at the photo above, there's not a whole lot to be immediately gratified about. That comes later.

Like this weekend...

We recently realized that the little tiny plants that we put in the ground three years before had become so large that they'd not only completely outgrown the initial front garden but were also fighting for space and overwhelming each other. Plus, the plantings in the back yard were looking good but disconnected, small islands of hydrangeas and clematis but nothing tying them all together.

Cue the power tools and dump truck!

Saturday broke bright and early with  a large pile of hemlock mulch being deposited in our driveway. After a family gathering at lunchtime (belated 40th birthday get-together, postponed due to my grandmother's death), we went shopping and loaded up the car with plants, soil, and peat moss, the tools of the trade. 

Then came Sunday with sporadic rain as my step-father and I split time wrestling a bucking rototiller as it chewed up a large section of the lawn we'd so lovingly restored, expanding the original bed and connecting it to a triangular bed we added two years ago. Once that was done, we experienced the anti-joy of getting rid of the clumps of grass that remained before hauling the rototiller into the backyard to chew out a new bed by one fence and tear up the sod between the established beds. This was followed by an afternoon of digging up the crowded, well-established plants and spreading them out in front, augmented by some of the new plants purchased the day before and other plants moved from elsewhere in the yard.

The end result of Sunday's efforts? A new, unified bed in front with the original residents and new plants given some elbow room and a matched set of aching muscles that left my wife and I both sore as hell from all the bending, digging, and hauling.

Front Gardens Mark II -- bigger and deeper, giving room for the hostas and shrubs that were so tiny not too long ago

Ahhhh mulch...what would we do without you? Attractive, kills weeds, and gives me a reason to use my wheelbarrow.

Memorial Day morning hobbled onto the stage way too early and with a bit too much stiffness in these 40-year old joints. Still, there was stuff to do out front and the whole stretch of new back beds to deal. So we settled down to another 10 hours of gardening in the sun, alternately playing the 1980s rock playlist on the iPod and listening to the Red Sox hold on for a win against the Twins. By early evening, the new bed with my anniversary gift from my wife (3 dwarf scotch brooms with stunning crimson blooms) was in place, the old beds were connected, the  last of the new plants were in and the last of our 3 cubic yards of mulch had been spread. Once again, I was sore as hell.

But you know what? I felt great. Strangers on their way to the bike path stopped and complimented our efforts. The original owner of our house, whom we'd never met, came by to say how much he loved what we were doing. I'd dug out grass plugs, planted new plants, shoveled mulch into and out of a wheelbarrow, endured a sunburn on the back of my neck, and I hadn't felt so relaxed in weeks.

It was exhausting and I know I'll be suffering tomorrow (despite extensive stretching, I'm aching just sitting here on Monday evening typing) but it was completely worth it. Every time I leave for work or come from an exhausting day, every time I sit out on the deck in back, every time friends or family come to visit, our efforts -- two and half days of planning and planting -- will be on display for all to see and I'll be able to point to these gardens and say "Yeah, we did that."

It took some time but it does seem that my mother's passion of gardening did indeed rub off and I'm happier for it.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Cats: An Explanation

Even if you're not a cat owner, you'll find much to appreciate in the humor of "An Engineer's Guide to Cats."

And I heartily recommend the sequel, "An Engineer's Guide to Cat Yodeling (with Cat Polka)".

Friday, May 22, 2009

Consider the fork

Next time you sit down for a meal that doesn't involve your fingers and something wrapped in paper or cardboard, consider the fork you'll most likely be using to bring the food to your mouth. It seems like such a simple, obvious thing, like the wheel or fire.

In truth, it's not quite so simple as Chad Ward of the excellent blog, An Edge in the Kitchen, points out in a new article he authored for the similarly excellent Leite's Culinaria blog. You'll never look at a fork in quite the same way again.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Late Night

I'm not a huge fan of late night talk shows but I'll occasionally catch Letterman or Conan O'Brien if I'm up and thinking about it. I, like virtually everyone else of course, loved watching Johnny Carson but he was in a class by himself. Carson made it look easy.

That's why I found this weekend's New York Times Magazine article about Conan O'Brien, his assumption of the "Tonight Show" mantle and the look at what goes into a successful late night show so fascinating. It's an entertaining look at how he is making the transition, how he got into the late night gig, what it takes to survive in the late night world, and the interplay of the politics and personalities between Carson, Leno, Letterman, etc., since Johnny's retirement. It's definitely a worthwhile read.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Movie Review: "Star Trek"... Boldly going and doing it very well

As an avowed Star Trek fan since I started watching the original series in syndication in the early 70s (I went to my first and only Trek convention at the Hartford Civic Center when I was 7 or 8), I'll admit that I went into the new movie "Star Trek" with equal parts excited anticipation and dread.

Yes, I was hoping that the series could be reinvigorated after running on fumes for the Voyager and Enterprise TV shows and the execrable final film, "Star Trek: Nemesis". On the other hand, The Original Series (hereafter referred to as TOS) is a cultural touchstone and together with the original three Star Wars films, succeeded in completely hooking me on sci-fi. For all its camp, the obviously styrofoam rocks, and green skinned babes, TOS was fun TV. Yes, it sometimes had "deep" meaning hidden in it as did the fantastic first sequel series, The Next Generation, but when it came down to it, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForest Kelley, and the rest of the cast just were entertaining as hell. Sure, they got paunchy and probably should have hung it up a bit earlier than they did in the feature films but you could always go back to TOS and refresh your memory about why you wanted to watch them in the first place.

And so I sat down to watch "Star Trek" wondering what J.J. Abrams and his new cast were going to do to those characters beloved by millions everywhere. Could they reboot the series the the fashion that has become so popular (see "Casino Royale" and "Batman Begins" for two successful examples) without butchering what we loved so much? Would new actors be able to inhabit the original roles without becoming a cheesy impersonation?

Thankfully, the answer is a resounding YES. After seeing the film twice, I can say categorically that it's a fun ride that does the characters justice while also giving Abrams and Paramount an opportunity to pursue new adventures and all without denying the existence or overwriting TOS and the existing Star Trek canon. It's action-packed, laugh out loud funny in some places, and shows far more energy than any Trek film since the finest in the series, Star Trek: First Contact.

Much has been made about how this is the story of the first voyage with Kirk, Spock, McCoy, and the rest of the crew. That's true in a sense. Yes, we see them forming their team on the Enterprise but everything is different. An event involving the future James T. Kirk's father, George, and a Romulan named Nero takes place on the day of Kirk's birth that creates an alternate timeline (gotta love those time travel "go back in time and change things" plot devices). In this new timeline, all the characters we know still come together but through very different routes and with different stories than we were to understand from TOS and the subsequent films. Trust me...if you watch the film, it will make sense, at least as much sense as any Trek film involving time travel can make.

Unlike TOS and the films, Kirk is almost second fiddle to Spock in this film. Yes, he's a primary character but Zachary Quinto's Spock is the emotional core this time around. He doesn't imitate Leonard Nimoy but makes Spock his own while staying true to the character Nimoy inhabited for 40 years and still inhabits in this film (see prior note about time travel!). Together, he and Chris Pine as Kirk play well off each other and hint at the rapport we expect from Kirk and Spock in the future. Kirk's backstory strikes me as a bit too cliche "rebel without a cause makes good by breaking the rules and winning respect" but Pine carries the role with bravado and the sexy smirk that was always lurking somewhere on young Shatner's face. The rest of the cast is similarly well suited to their roles with the exception of Winona Ryder. Why someone thought she'd be a good person to play Spock's mother beats me but she has limited screen time so it's a minor quibble.

Similarly, the Enterprise has been subtly remade on the exterior (close enough to the original but with a few slick variations) and like Starfleet by way of the Apple Store on the interior. Well, not the engine room which by and large reminded me of a water pumping station with mazes of pipes and boilers, not at all the high-tech look we've come to expect. The ship isn't quite as much of a character as in TOS and the movies but the characters don't actually spend much time on the ship so it's understandable, if lamentable because this new Enterprise feels far more lively and robust than in past incarnations.

All in all, "Star Trek" is a great deal of fun and stays true in spirit to TOS while not taking itself or the Trek universe too seriously.

And for trivia buffs...

While Star Trek offers a story that keeps you moving along, a suitably high action-to-talking quota, andgenerally impressive special effects, it also throws in plenty for fanboys like me in the way of references to Trek episodes and movies of the past as well as references to other classic sci-fi. Among the ones I noticed are:
  • a water-logged torture chamber on the Romulan Ship that's right out of the Yoyodyne Propulsion Labs in Buckaroo Banzai
  • space battle cinematography that's a direct lift from the camera work in the new Battlestar Galactica
  • Spock quoting Sherlock Holmes, something he did in Star Trek VI
  • the tribble in Scotty's outpost (though I did hear one comment that it was actually Shatner's hairpiece pretending to be a tribble since Shatner himself wasn't in the film)
  • a requisite number of Red Shirts get killed
  • Kirk meets up with Scotty on the planet Delta Vega, which played a prominent role in the second Trek pilot with William Shatner
  • Scotty refers to Admiral Archer and his beagle, a clear reference to Captain Jonathan Archer from the series "Enterprise" who owned a beagle named Porthos
  • Nero employs a bug similar to that used by Khan in Star Trek II to get the information he needs
  • and for the really arcane...Kirk is eating an apple when he "beats" the Kobayashi Maru test in the new film. In Star Trek II, Kirk is eating an apple when he explains how he beat the test.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Manny being stupid and leaving us wondering

Can I just go on the record as being sick and tired of the "Steroids Era" in baseball? I love baseball and am just fed up with the fact that we can't enjoy the game anymore without some jackass getting caught with a needle in his butt, a piss-poor excuse (my cousin made me do it; my doctor said it was OK) at the ready, and fans ready to accept these poor misguided souls back with cheers and applause. Why? These people cheated. Why on earth would they be cheered on and welcomed back with open arms?

Manny Ramirez is just the latest to get caught. "Manny being Manny" turned out to be "Manny with a syringe in his fanny."

What's worse is that the memories you have of the game get tarnished as memorable and joyous events are revealed to have been brought to you by some chemical concoction. Did I really believe that the Red Sox had somehow avoided the scourge of steroids? No, of course not. Still, it's almost painful that because of Manny and his female fertility drug, the validity of the greatest sports moment in my lifetime -- the Red Sox finally dispatching the Yankees and going on to win the World Series in 2004 (sorry but I didn't see the hockey game at Lake Placid in 1980) -- is now being called into question. Sports Guy Bill Simmons recently offered a great look at how it feels to have those doubts raised as well as how we might have just been ignoring the obvious. I feel his pain.

In a way, perhaps ignorance is bliss. You can just watch the game without doubts or cynicism. On the other hand, you can keep your cynicism and play baseball on the Wii. Just enter the cheat code "triplecrown" to boost your hitting by 50%. It's too bad someone at the game developer didn't have a more wicked sense of humor and choose "steroids" as the cheat code.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Is this really the Scouting ideal?

I was a Cub Scout and Boy Scout when I was younger. I attended and worked at Yawgoog Scout Reservation, marched in parades, wore the uniform, earned the rank of Eagle and was elected to the Order of the Arrow, served as senior patrol leader, camped in the winter, and did all the things Scouts were supposed to do. I was proud of my time in the Scouts and while I personally can't support them now due to what I believe are discriminatory policies coming out of the national office, I do believe that the Scouts can offer something very positive to young men. The Scouting ideals -- service to community, duty, personal responsibility, lifelong learning, compassion for others, appreciation and care for the natural world -- are all worthwhile lessons.

That's why, when people made comments about the Scouts being a paramilitary organization, I just scoffed. Hell, I spent my summers working as a lifeguard, teaching sailing, or driving the powerboat out of the Ashaway Aquatics Center (aka "The Yawgoog Yacht Club") to rescue tipped-over canoes and the occasional crash-landing hot air balloon. Sure, we wore khaki uniforms with badges and there was a rifle range at camp but just as many kids went to the craft center or the nature lodge and more of my friends went on to be doctors, teachers, and diplomats than military personnel.

I think that's why I found this article and the accompanying photos in today's New York Times -- Scouts Train to Fight Terrorists, and More -- so profoundly disturbing.

I knew that the Explorers, a co-ed "learning for life" spinoff of the Boy Scouts, taught kids about different types of jobs but I'm baffled about a program that teaches children as young as 14 this:

Ten minutes into arrant mayhem in this town near the Mexican border, and the gunman, a disgruntled Iraq war veteran, has already taken out two people, one slumped in his desk, the other covered in blood on the floor.

The responding officers — eight teenage boys and girls, the youngest 14 — face tripwire, a thin cloud of poisonous gas and loud shots — BAM! BAM! — fired from behind a flimsy wall. They move quickly, pellet guns drawn and masks affixed.

I'm all for youth programs that teach kids skills, that give them something to do after school, but have we become such a paranoid and defensive culture following 9/11 that we need to teach children who aren't even able to drive to shoot people, to subdue suspects, how to respond to a sniper attack, and to rescue hostages? Do we need to be recruiting them like this? One of the Border Patrol agents quoted in the article candidly states, "Our end goal is to create more agents."

I realize that the Explorers aren't the Boy Scouts but this approach, this goal, and this training all strike me as a rather frightening turn. So much for just spending a weekend earning your woodworking merit badge.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

He has a career in standup if the White House gig doesn't work out

At the annual White House Correspondents Association Dinner last night, President Obama had some fun at the expense of Republicans, his staff, Joe Biden, and himself. I know someone else writes his jokes but the man knows how to deliver, including his final statements about the value of a vibrant press.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Slightly sore after walking in the dark

24 hours after it started, I'm home from participating in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life and recovered/awake enough to write about.

First, I want to thank everyone who made a donation to support my walk -- I surpassed my personal goal of raising $500 and our company team, the KVH Cancer Crusaders, raised more than $1,500 along with donations of materials for Hope Lodge in Boston. Congratulations also to everyone on the team (especially our awesome team captain Nicole Chevrette) who took time from home and their families to set up tents, walk more than 50 miles through the night, and then pack everything up amidst a pretty steady and moderately heavy rain this morning.

The KVH Cancer Crusaders, 2009 Edition

While I wasn't sure what to expect, it turned out to be a pretty special event. Kicking off with a celebration of survivors, including my mother, the field at Gaudet Middle School in Middletown, RI, was packed with people. Almost our entire family was there and together, we all shared a lap for survivors and their caregivers before beginning the long task of walking through the night.

Mom and her granddaughter Lorelei looked great as they came on to the track at the start of the Opening Ceremonies

Mom and the rest of the family circles the track together in a celebration of Survivors and their Caregivers

Lighting our way were more than 1,200 Cancer Society "luminaria", each decorated in memory of a loved one lost or in support of someone currently fighting or recovering from cancer. There wasn't a dry eye in the house when the stadium lights were turned off and a bagpiper slowly circled the track playing "Amazing Grace" and followed by all of the participants.

Watched by an-almost full moon, 1,200 luminaria stood vigil through the night and guided the steps of Relay walkers

Ensuring that there was always a member of the team walking, we were able to take breaks, catch brief naps here and there, grab a bite to eat, or just chat quietly amidst the tent city (well, tent village might be more accurate) established by the participating teams.

The Relay for Life "tent city" as seen from the bleachers at 2:30 AM

When the rain came, first just as a light sprinkle at 1:30 AM and then as heavier rain at 4 AM, the walkers were undeterred. None of us got much sleep -- by the time we returned home this morning, I was operating on about 90 minutes of light napping -- we were all moderately sore, and the rain made us all squelch like sponges as we bundled up soaking tents and hauled gear to our cars, but it all felt worthwhile.

In the grand scheme of things, the amount of money we raised is a drop in the bucket compared to the funds directed to cancer research and treatment but the real value for us came in the solidarity and sense of community engendered by the experience. The look on my mother's face as we stood alongside the track clapping and cheering for her and the other cancer survivors made it absolutely worth the effort, the lack of sleep, and the sore feet.

My stepfather John, accompanied by my colleague Angela, finishes his 60th lap and 15th mile at 3:10 AM

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The inexorable movement continues

Two thumbs up to the legislators and the Governor of Maine who moved quickly this week to legalize same-sex marriage in the state. After he signed the bill into law, the Governor issued an impressive statement explaining how he, a Catholic and prior opponent to same-sex marriage, came to change his mind and support this legislation as well as reaffirming the separation of Church and State.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

I guess beauty is more than skin deep

The scandals surrounding Miss California continues. Apparently she's been a bit...ummm...enhanced. Personally, my favorite revelation is that women who are somewhat less endowed use chicken cutlets to add a bit of oomph to the swimsuit competition.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Rashomon with pirates, not bandits

Richard Spilman's excellent Old Salt Blog offers a great look at dueling views of how exactly an Italian cruise liner managed to avoid Somali pirates recently as well as variations in security measures and costs for these and other vessels.