Saturday, August 31, 2013

It's That Time Of Year Again!

That it's nearly September conjures all sorts of happy thoughts to mind.  In a few days, throngs of people will gather in places as diverse as Lincoln, Eugene, Norman and Gainesville.  The air will be full of bands playing fight songs, roars of crowds and either joy or angst afterwards.  The national powerhouses will be playing an assortment of Cupcake State squads, truly reminiscent of lambs led to slaughter.  

I suppose there will be tailgating and other such rituals.  I suppose that some player from Ohio State or Georgia or Florida State will earn a half-dozen stickers to put on his helmet.  What happens if one of them fumbles away the game?  Does that person get a demerit, or does that show up as a bald spot on said helmet?

While I have not paid much attention to the polls, I do know that Alabama is favored to win it all, surprising no one.  Texas is supposed to be good; my guess is, if they underachieve again, the highest-paid coach in the game will have to ply his trade elsewhere, certainly for less lucre than he currently gets paid.  At least he won't have to wear that dreadful orange anymore.  My two favorite teams are picked to finish no higher than 3rd place in their respective conference divisions, so it may be a long Autumn for my teams, subjecting me to much ridicule from friends and colleagues.  As long as they come out on top of their arch-rivals, I can tolerate a few defeats.

It has been an active interlude since January.  Coaches have moved on to other spots, either willingly or not.  I have yet to see a picture of any one of them with a smile on his face.  Today, I learned that Urban Meyer has banned any spectators from watching his minions' practices from wearing a blue shirt, as it reminds him of Michigan.  I wonder what he's afraid of?

I recall incidents from years ago that remain stuck in my craw.  Like that high school kid from New Jersey back in the 70's.  Upon enrolling at Notre Dame and being awarded #7, changed the pronunciation of his name, so that it rhymed with Heisman.  I still resent that the only two-time winner of that award was from Ohio State.  I do know that, in one of those years, one of the runners up was the most exciting player of the day, Joe Washington (I can see the headline now: Sooner Slighted!).  Usually, the award does go to one of the very best players in the game.  As such, I have an expectation that the winner will also be a person of character.  While it is not always the case, I do think that several of the recent winners - Tim Tebow, Sam Bradford, Robert Griffin III - were young men who brought honor to the award.  They certainly did nothing to diminish it.  There are others (hey, Ricky Williams!  Can I borrow your laptop, Cam Newton?), who, well, let's just leave it at that.

I would be remiss if I did not comment on the biggest story of the week, that guy from Texas A&M; you know, the doppelganger for that banjo playing kid from Deliverance, the incumbent Heisman winner.  I must first confess my dislike for anyone known as Johnny Football.  Ted Williams was known by some as Teddy Ballgame, but, that was awarded to him after many years of adding to his Hall of Fame Credentials.  As for this scholar/athlete, I don't believe he has earned that title.

Speaking of earnings, it seems he was unaware that, by signing his name thousands of times on various pieces of memorabilia, someone would profit from it.  So, his university, which allegedly follows an honor code nearly as stringent as those at the service academies, has determined that the resulting profits from the addition of his signature to these items was inadvertent.  As punishment, he will be forced to sit out one half of their opening game, against that perennial juggernaut, Rice.  He will also be compelled to issue an apology to his teammates.

Way to go, Aggies, you really laid the smackdown on him, didn't you?

My point is not to debate the relative merits of the system of college eligibility.  I am, however, offended at the unmitigated chutzpah of the barons of A&M, to disregard so blatantly the rules of the game and common sense.  I hope they lose to one of the lowlights on their schedule, like UTEP, or Missouri.  That would be poetic justice, indeed.    

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Driver's Ed

I have had the good fortune to have lived in many cities.  I confess feeling less enchanted at encountering the myriad gridlocks in these diverse municipalities.  I do not feel enriched at spending so many hours on I-95 in Miami, slowly nudging my way towards the magical Golden Glades interchange, where the roads suddenly opened.  The worst, however, was driving to Logan Airport from the South Shore in the early 90's, while the Big Dig was in its full ditch era.  The highway went from 14 lanes to two in less than a mile.  Not a soul would give an inch to any motorist attempting to merge.  I do believe my younger daughter, who was strapped in the back seat at the time, learned certain words at a far earlier age than had been designed.

When I was a youngster, a neighbor used to drive us to school each morning.  This was perhaps the most educational time of my day, as I learned all sorts of terms to describe the behavior of other drivers.   I probably became a better operator of a vehicle myself, if for no other reason than to defend myself against these behaviors.  For example: I learned that any pickup truck sitting at an intersection ahead would slowly pull into my lane of traffic, whether that movement was safe or not.  I have followed this wise chestnut throughout my years of driving, rarely finding it wrong.

Just as there are regional linguistic quirks, there are regional driving characteristics.  I don't know that they are so pronounced as how various folks describe soft drinks (pop, soda or Coke?), but they do exist.  In Florida one encounters unmistakable third-world driving habits in Miami, the senior driver during the too-crowded season in South Florida and the lost tourists at any time of year in Orlando.  All of which make the Sunshine State not the safest place for driving.

Let's look at a couple of others in my adopted state:

Question 1: When at an intersection with stoplights, if the driver is intending to turn left, after the light turns green the driver should:

(a) Sit behind the thick white line and wait for traffic to clear.  Should the light turn red, wait for the next one.
(b) Slowly enter the intersection and wait for traffic to clear prior to making the left turn.
(c) Throw that cigarette butt out the window.

The operator's manual in every state in which I have been licensed (10 in all) allows movement into the intersection.  If you answered (b), you get to drive, unbothered by the likes of me.  In Georgia, I have noted that most opt for (a), often with a bit of (c) for good measure.  They DO sit there.  While in the car behind the unenlightened, I have attempted waving my arms, honking or making non-obscene gestures in an attempt to get them to move on.  All to no avail; I have resigned to yelling inside my closed car.  Conclusion: local drivers perhaps have not read that particular page in the manual or they missed the question on the test.

Question 2: When approaching an intersection with flashing yellow lights, the driver should:

(a) Stop.  Sit there.  Wait for car behind to honk.
(b) Treat as a yield sign and proceed with caution.
(c) Stop, bark like a dog and throw that cigarette butt out the window.

We're not splitting atoms here, folks, merely operating a motor vehicle.  Again, (b) is the correct answer.  I have seen a combination of (a) and, for those vehicles sporting regalia from the predominant state college, (c).  I guess folks missed that question on their tests, too.

Question 3: What does the sign pictured at the top of this page indicate:

(a) Don't even think about making a U-turn here, buddy.
(b) Oncoming traffic cannot make a U-turn.
(c) Which might work even better if we had a sign that they could see so indicating that proscription.
(d) Stop, bark like a dog, throw that cigarette butt out the window and show us your jorts.

This is a trick question, as the answers are (b) and (c).  I was intrigued by this sign as I had not seen it in all my years of driving.

Bonus question: What is the Michigan Left-Turn?

When I moved to Michigan, I assumed that, as the hub of the automobile industry, I would find traffic designs and patterns that were truly state-of-the-art.  Instead, I found this arcane notion that is so ingenious that not a single other state (to my knowledge) has adopted it.  Even the locals are bemused by it.

The other thing I have noticed in driving all around this country is the variety of bumper stickers.  I discovered this one in a parking garage at DFW:

As a rule, I tend not to characterize those with whom I disagree as stupid or wrong.  Misguided, ill-informed, well-intentioned, perhaps.  But stupid?  To be fair, I should show the image that drew me to examine this sticker.

Since this character obviously did poorly on their driver's exam, perhaps we should use that as a qualification for voting in Texas.  Aren't they in the process of re-writing those rules?

And I did not even touch the topic of parking lots.  Misconnected, unconnected, illogical... I could write a book.  In the meantime, please drive carefully and with common sense, folks; while you're at it, you may want to re-read that operator's manual.  The next car honking at you by an intersection may be me.

Monday, June 17, 2013

'roid Rage

Baseball has long celebrated the charm of those who bent the rules.  In my own time, I can vividly picture Gaylord Perry going through all sorts of gyrations on the mound.  Was he doctoring the ball?  Probably.  But, it was the suspicion that he was doing so that had more impact than the act itself.  I think Billy Martin hired a bench coach once, whose claim to fame was his ability to steal signs from the opposing team.  There was the famous pine tar incident with George Brett at Yankee Stadium; in retrospect, this looks particularly silly.  There was also an occasion about 10 years ago, when umpires examined the shattered bat of Sammy Sosa, determining it contained cork.  At the time, that too was considered amusing.  But, these were all before the release of all the documentation about performance-enhancing drugs.

I do admit my naiveté; while I do understand how some players may have juiced in order to enhance their statistics, I remain stunned that two of the greatest players of their generation - Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens - would do so.  Both were certain first-ballot Hall of Fame admissions, prior to the onset of their "enhanced" seasons.  Mr. Rodriguez, somehow still with the Yankees, is in the same category.  For him, however, the punishment should be more severe.  Did he not take the stuff after all the allegations of steroid use in his sport began to come out?  The guy should be banned, his salary forfeited to charity, his name and credentials forever tarnished.

Perhaps the single most exciting play in all of baseball is the play at the plate.  Picture this in your mind: the thwack of ball striking bat, a surge in the crowd, you follow that white streak to the green expanse, where the outfielder is running to intersect.  After the fielder deftly scoops the ball, in one fluid motion, propels his body forward, plants his foot and fires a rope to the plate in an effort to nab the aggressive baserunner.  The noise of the crowd swells still more, followed by the hush, awaiting the home plate umpire's call.  With the raising of the arm, then the thumb, calling the runner out, the crowd roars its approval.  All this, occurring in mere seconds.

I attended the 1981 All-Star Game in Cleveland.  It was late, due to a work stoppage that occurred in mid-season.  We had great seats and got there in time to watch the end of batting practice.  The National League's outfielders were all standing around in right-field, when Dave Parker of the Pirates motioned the infielders to clear a path for him.  He then stood in the corner and threw a perfect strike to home plate.  Then, he did it again.  I don't recall the names anymore, but several other outfielders then took their turns, firing bullets to the plate, some on the fly, others arriving after a perfect one-hop.  It was one of the most amazing displays of pure, finely-developed talent I had ever seen in a ball park.  Every person in that stadium gaped in awe at what we had the privilege of watching.  And, none of those players were taking PED's.

The steroid era has cheated baseball's fans of the purity of its game.  I know there have been rascals throughout baseball's history.  Most fans can recite the litany of scandalous players and behaviors, from Ruth's hangovers, the Black Sox scandal to the exposes published by Jim Bouton to corked bats and stolen signs and a few scoundrels who scuffed the balls, it is a history rich in colorful characters.  Somehow, those transgressions appear more innocent.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the decade that spawned the line "greed is good" also gave rise to steroid use.  Mostly, can I ever watch that play at the plate again, with the same sense of wonder?  Or will I instead wonder if that player's performance has somehow been "enhanced".

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Rambling Wretch

There was a spate of stories last month about the selflessness of such luminaries as Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.  Both took one for their respective teams, by electing to take less salary next year to free up more "cap space" for their teams to invest in additional players.  I had every intent of writing some juxtaposition of their salaries (and others) with the average annual earnings of teachers, fire fighters and police officers.  I thought that too easy a target.

Or, I could go on for a few paragraphs about the NFL draft.  In Atlanta, the local cognoscenti of the airwaves have been devoting  - for weeks - many hours of time debating whether the hometown Falcons should trade up or down from their position at #30.  Gag them all now, please.

I could also ramble about the refusal of the US Senate to allow a modest proposal to register those who purchase firearms to come to a vote.  Note the phrasing: I did not say the Senate voted it down, for they did not.  Due to their arcane rules, a bill that has the support of 54 of its members is not considered a majority.  This logic escapes me.

No, instead, I prefer to discuss baseball.

After the recent horrors that took place in Boston, each of the major sports currently in season did tributes to the citizens of the city where the attack occurred.  None, however, seemed quite so eloquent as what took place in the various ball yards across the land.  I'm pretty certain that on Tuesday, April 16, every single stadium played Sweet Caroline at some point during the game.  I also heard that Neil Diamond showed up at Fenway the following weekend and asked if he could perform it live.  No image, however, had quite the impact as this one:

Yes, that is the facade of Yankee Stadium.  If the second-most-intense rivalry in all of sports (an opinion, if you please) can put all that history aside to send such a message of support, well, perhaps even the US Senate could count 54 votes as a majority, or some such.

No sport has quite the healing power of baseball.  I vividly recall the image of then-President Bush throwing out the first pitch of the World Series game played at Yankee Stadium shortly after 9/11.  To my jaded, biased mind, it remains a searing image of the power of the sport.

It's not surprising, when one considers it.  Whenever I watch the Top 10 plays on SportsCenter, the highlights from all the sports portrayed are dunks, touchdown catches, goals in those sports with nets or a car crash.  Only one - baseball - consistently shows defensive gems.  To me, that says more about the elegance of the game than any home run.

I can do without curtain calls and those inexplicable races that most stadia seem to have nowadays (sausages and Presidents come immediately to mind).  I still believe that mascots are a blight on the game.  I will save my vitriol for the DH and interleague play for another time.  Still, baseball remains a game rich in personalities and history.  Stories are passed down from parent to child through generations.  Here is one I have told my own children:

I was working in Operations in a hotel about 10 years ago.  The Atlanta Braves were staying there, in town to play the locals.  Prior to their checkout, all the managers on duty were summoned to the lobby, primarily to keep autograph seekers at bay.  Nearly every one of their games were broadcast on TBS, so the players were well-known and easily recognized.  Gary Sheffield walked by, seemingly oblivious to it all, and entered a Mercedes.  Larry (still known as Chipper) Jones came out, presenting us with our only challenge, as a woman approached him while pulling a bat out of a plastic bag.  If memory serves correctly, she was seeking his signature on the bat, instead of using it as a weapon for some offense unknown to us all.

After all the players had boarded the team bus, Hank Aaron strolled through the lobby.  Not a soul recognized him.  I could not help but to blurt out "It has been our honor to have you as our guest, Mr. Aaron".  He thanked me and walked on.  Immediately behind him was one of the team's broadcasters, Don Sutton.  He remarked to me about how infrequently Hammerin' Hank was recognized by the fans in hotels when they were on the road.

Hank Aaron, one of the greatest ever to play the game, who suffered indignities unknown to us mere mortals as he approached the storied home run mark set by Babe Ruth some 40 years before.  He even received death threats.  Through it all, he presented the image of a stoic professional, a gentleman.  I like to think that I was expressing gratitude for the many hours of pleasure I derived from watching him play the game.  I was thankful for the stories my father had told me when I was a child, of his massive wrists and unheard-of arm strength.  I appreciated his immense talent, the respect he had for the game, the fact that, to this day, he is still one of the greatest ambassadors the sport has ever seen.

Thank you, Mr. Aaron.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Road Trip, Day Three

Our plans for the last day of our journey were pretty straightforward: visit Shiloh National Battlefield Park, then meander our way Southeast, so that Amanda could say she had set foot in every state of the Confederacy (explanation: she had lived in NC & FL; visited SC, VA & LA; KY was a border state and never officially seceded).  After a brief stop for breakfast at Chick-Fil-A and Starbucks, we set out in the rain for Shiloh, which was about an hour away.  

We took a state highway through Northwest Mississippi, which we found surprisingly hilly, covered with dogwoods and, most surprising of all, countless houses with white columns.  There were the inevitable looked-like-plantation homes, with four columns.  There were ranch-style homes, with three columns.  There were even mobile manufactured homes with columns.  We were both hollering out "look at that one and this one", occasionally interrupted with a "who lives there, the Pope?"

A left turn at Corinth took us up the road traveled 151 years ago by Albert Sidney Johnston and his rebels, when they surprised US Grant and his army at Pittsburg Landing.  We found our way to the visitor's center in a drenching rain.  The ranger who greeted us mentioned that they had a new video which was about to start.  When I added how suitable it was that we were visiting in the rain, I don't think he picked up on it right away (Johnston's advance was delayed by rain; the reinforcement of Union troops after the first day of battle was hidden from the Rebels by another downpour).  Then, I got a knowing smile, as if to say, okay, Civil War geek, I get it.  

The new video was excellent.  It gave a detailed picture of the battle and the major players (pun unintentional) within it.  Afterwards, we grabbed our guidebook and set out to view the battlefield.  Miraculously, it had stopped raining.  There were about 20 stops on the tour, each marking something of significance that had taken place on that spot during the two-day battle.  Amanda expertly navigated through each.   Among the more moving spots was early in the tour: a monument to those who fought - and died - with the Indiana militia.  

"Fame holds them dear, and with immortal pen / Inscribes their names on the enduring rock."
We also saw a restored Shiloh Church, which sits in the center of all the various areas of the battlefield.  At the end, we saw Pittsburg Landing.  The Tennessee River is visually stunning: steep, heavily wooded banks surround this wide, rushing river.  We had learned that Grant moved his army down this river from Fort Donelson, chartering nearly every steamboat in the state to do so, as it took less than a fifth of the time it would to move the army overland.  

Throughout it all, we felt this quiet, as if to mark the place that witnessed so many thousands of casualties.  Oddly enough, the name "Shiloh" means peace.  From April 1862 on, it has marked one of the bloodiest days in our history.  For those who lived through the era, it shifted public opinion to an understanding that this war to right ancient wrongs would be long and costly.  Just as we got back in the car after that last stop, it started to rain again.  Our time was up, so we headed on.

We knew we would eventually hit an Interstate in Northern Alabama.  In the interim, we followed a highway that roughly paralleled the Tennessee River, which remained beautiful each time we crossed it.  Crossing back into Mississippi (we looked at that one and at this one), we found more columns.  In the hamlet of Iuka, we stumbled upon a Sonic.  Since this was yet another restaurant that Amanda cannot find in New York City (dining capital of the world, indeed!), we stopped.  Most lasting impression: the bathroom had a sweep log on the back of the door that did not have an entry past February 13 (it was March 18); I am confident that no broom or mop (neither dust nor johnny) had touched its space since that time. I later learned, after consulting my copies of the Shelby Foote bible of the Civil War, that Iuka was the site of an engagement some time after Shiloh.  We remain convinced this skirmish took place on the precise spot that Sonic now occupies.  

Soon, we were in Alabama.  I had told Amanda prior to the trip that we should not sport Gator regalia, as we were traversing rival SEC territory.  I also said she should not mention that she is Jewish or lived in New York, as I had visions of an old episode of Andy Griffith, in which he jails the city slicker portrayed by Danny Thomas.  Sorry, more insignificant knowledge there.

Again, we drove through beautiful, mountainous terrain, still mostly following the path of that big ass river.  Noteworthy: we passed near Muscle Shoals, where the Allman Brothers Band started a frenzy of Southern rock and roll in the early 70's.  We were also near the Shoals Golf Club, the northernmost end of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, something I need to experience at another time.  I'm certain that course - among others - will break my heart.  

Finally, Birmingham and civilization, I think.  I missed the winding country highways and breathtaking vistas we had experienced all day.  We did see probably the ugliest shantytown I have ever witnessed outside of a third world country.  While the rain had splashed us intermittently since leaving Shiloh, we were smacked with it northeast of Birmingham.  There was thunder, lightning, heavy winds and all sorts of stuff flying through the air, including boxes, cans, bottles, bags and a pair of trousers.  Yes, we did wonder what happened to the rest of him.  I've driven through a fair number of storms, mostly in our Florida days, but this one capped them all.  

We were relieved to slosh our way into Georgia, finally arriving at my home, where we were met by daughter Julia and her husband Dave, who got to unload the car.  Afterwards, we all went out for barbecue, which seemed fitting enough. 

In retrospect, it was a wonderful trip, comprising over 2000 miles of driving.  We saw all sorts of funny things, such as the Stairs Store in Texas, or the business in Arkansas that advertised "Country Store, Fried Chicken, Showers".  (I'm puzzled, as I cannot make the link between the three).  We saw the very worst of American Civilization at Graceland and the very best the South has to offer at the Clinton Library (I have rarely met a person more perfectly suited for her position than the greeter there; she made every single person feel welcome.).  There was scenery of mind-numbing boredom (I-20 in Louisiana), spots of great historical significance (Vicksburg and Shiloh, to name two), roads of incomparable grandeur (US 72 in MS and AL) and another spot that will hopefully become a footnote to history (that strip of big box retail hell near the DFW airport).  We crossed a great river (Mississippi), a disappointment (Red), along with a pair that we crossed several times (Arkansas and Tennessee).  We were surprised by the landscape in South Central Oklahoma, hidden from it in Arkansas and dazzled by the road we drove on our final morning.  We had burritos, sweet tea, fried chicken and burgers, none of which surpassed the pure culinary delights at the home of our hosts in Tulsa.  

Best of all was the treat to spend this time with Amanda.  She's nearly 25; I know it is unlikely I will have another opportunity to spend three solid days with this person whom I have always found fascinating.  From the playlists, to navigating, to sharing my interests and introducing me to more of hers, I had a marvelous traveling companion.  She never complained about any of my obscure historical references, bad jokes or middling-age grumblings.  I'm not sure she will agree; after all, she is my daughter.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Road Trip, Day Two

Travels with Amanda:

Our intent was to visit the Prairie Tallgrass Preserve, outside Pawhuska, before we left Oklahoma.  I have been intrigued by it, since first learning of it some time ago.  After viewing a recent documentary on the Dust Bowl, I was more determined to see the prairie as God had intended it.  Plus, Amanda might get to see a real live buffalo (which, for some reason, are now referred to as bison?), in the flesh.  The weather, however, did not cooperate.  It was foggy and misty, with a temperature in the low 40's.  We decided not to heed the advice of my home state's most noted native son, Will Rogers, who was quoted as saying "If you don't like the weather in Oklahoma, wait a minute."  We headed East.  All was not lost, however, as we did have a Plan B.

We endured a wet ride throughout Eastern Oklahoma and into Arkansas.  There wasn't much traffic, so that was not the problem.  I have made this drive before, and recalled the spectacular scenery of the Ozarks, a topography that my largely Florida-raised daughter has not seen often.  We were foiled in this endeavor, as it rained all the way to Little Rock.  I might add: we did cross the Arkansas River at least three more times that day.  On each occurrence, it did actually have water - lots of it - flowing.  So, I guess my mother was just looking in the wrong place for that.  

Plan B was to visit the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock.  Since we're both history nerds, this seemed a good place to appeal to our natures.  Besides, Amanda had been a child in the era that would be exhibited in this museum, so I knew that the information presented would be a novelty to her.  

I confess: I had not been into Little Rock before.  Our tour took us down this charming hipster-like area adjacent to the river (yes, that one again).  We did wonder why there was no one in the streets, since it was St. Patrick's Day.  Maybe bars are closed on Sundays?  Never mind.  The Clinton Library occupies this spectacular point on the banks of the river and is fronted by a beautifully restored brick building, which now houses a School of Public Policy, named after, you guessed it.  The Library itself exhibited each year of his Presidency separately.  I was fascinated; I remembered most of the political stuff and much of the world events.  We chatted about many of them.  The building was airy and open, offering views of the various galleries and a park leading to the river.  I'm glad we stopped; it broke up the day and gave us the opportunity to talk about all sorts of interesting people, events and times.  I have now seen three such libraries: this, in addition to Kennedy's and Ford's.  The fact that I live in the same city as another one (Carter's), that I have yet to visit, makes me feel a tad chagrined.  

The land between Little Rock and Memphis, while not as flat as that stretch I hit two days before in Louisiana, is not all that interesting.  I have been to Memphis for work often.  It hardly ranks among my favored cities.  In fact, were it not for its proximity to our plans for the next day, I would have gladly driven around the place.  

For Amanda, the Big Thrill was to cross the Mississippi, something she had only done in a plane.  Yes, that is one big river.  For me, I am fascinated by this river every time I see it.  I think of Jefferson's Purchase, Mark Twain, all the times I have read about Huck & Jim, Gateway to the West, commerce, how vital it was for both sides in the Civil War, massive floods and some mediocre Tom Cruise movie, in which the climactic scene was filled on a bridge leading to one of its islands.  I cannot possibly do it justice.    

So, we got off the road, followed our maps, only to encounter a big ass detour (say that any way you like), until we arrived at our destination:

Graceland was closed.  We arrived at this spot after visiting hours.  You can scarcely imagine our disappointment.  (Forgive me for being facetious; I have been to Monticello, Biltmore and Mount Vernon and long to see Sagamore Hill and Hyde Park.  I would not spend a nickel to go to Graceland).  Next door, I was stunned to find this hotel.  In front, there was a strip mall with about eight stores, each selling memorabilia in honor of whatshisname.  The only words that came to mind were ones attributed to H.L. Mencken, long ago: "No one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people".  For Amanda, transplanted Southern sorority girl, hipster New Yorker, school teacher, this must have been the greatest cultural shock of her life. 

I am unkind.  I know many regard Elvis as the greatest artist of all time.  By the time I was aware of him, he was a bad actor in worse movies who cranked out an occasional 45rpm recording from these films that, inexplicably, sold millions.  Maybe I was too young to get it, but, I just never got it.  My apologies to those who do.  

We found our hotel, anchoring a mall in the wild suburbs of Collierville.  I had promised to take Amanda to a Grisanti's, which was a restaurant we frequented in the early 90's when we lived in Raleigh (kids ate free on Tuesday nights).  It was a sad day when they closed, since I lost the free meals and they lost a fun night out.  She was excited!  She texted her sister to tell her where we were going!  Oh, and they're closed on Sundays.  Since shopping malls are surrounded by a plethora of chain restaurants, we did not go hungry.  We just made an early night of it.  The next day was the one we had both been anticipating.  

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Road Trip, Day One

The preparations were complete; it was now time to commence our epic Road Trip.  Upon arriving at DFW, Amanda announced that everything was bigger in Texas, except for the sign indicating the location of the baggage claim where I was waiting for her.

Once we finally got into the car, Amanda had arranged playlists, apparently one for each day of our journey.  The first song was a ditty I know as "Big D, little A, double L, A S".  I confess, I thought this a tune from some obscure Republic Pictures oater from the 40's.  Instead, it was written for a musical in the 50's, but did not attain popularity until performed as a duet by Carol Burnett and Julie Andrews on television in 1961.  Now that, boys and girls, is insignificant knowledge. 

As she had left NYC quite early in the morning, our first quest was to find food for our famished own selves.  We both noticed how darned flat it was, as we sped by an interminable amount of retail boxes (mostly) large and small, until we found our grail: Freebirds, in Las Colinas.  I have had burritos in all sorts of places; this topped them all.  Thanks to Emily B, via Julia, for the tip!  (Funny thing about this restaurant: I could not remember the name of it.  I kept wanting to call it Sweet Home Alabama, or some such).  After stuffing ourselves, I determined that Amanda simply had to experience In N Out Burger, if for no other reason than to see it.  We found one less than a mile away, where we got one milkshake.  This was the second felicitous use of Google maps on this journey.  Other highlights from day one:

Shortly after beginning the trek North, I quickly dispelled the notion that I had to speak like a Texan.  We decided we would find sights of interest along the way.  One cannot spend much time in Texas without noticing the amount of water towers along the way.  Our favorite was in Lewisville, which proclaimed it the home of the Fighting Farmers, state champs in 1993 and 1996.  I could not help but wonder how many coaches have been fired since that last feat, for not winning a championship for 17 years.

I scarcely noticed the Red River, as it was not much more than a stream.  Such a stark contrast to all those John Wayne movies, where our heroes encountered all sorts of peril in driving their cattle across this raging river.  In lieu of our traditional border crossing commentary, we sang a chorus of the state song. 

There are probably more casinos in Oklahoma than in any state, save Nevada.  Whenever I see one of these, I am reminded of the unholy alliance of those who bestowed these monstrosities on us all: Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed, Grover Norquist and Tom DeLay.  Why only one of those scoundrels ended up in jail is beyond me.  These were all set up as ways for Native American tribes to make money, which they do, albeit not nearly as much as the aforementioned crooks and the companies that run these palaces.  They were also set up to fund education in the various states (most of which reside in the old Bible Belt; I guess the good Lord hath no qualms about gamblin'), many of which now contend with Mississippi for the state with the lowest SAT scores.  I reckon that has not worked out as promised either.   

Favorite billboard: Robinson's Ham, plus Real Good Beef Jerky.  We both thought this immensely amusing.  Our hosts that evening explained that Robinson's Ham is quite the delicacy.  I have since found their website, which is so appealing as to lead one to consider a mail order purchase.  I am chagrined we did not stop.  

Favorite sites: there were actually two.  South Central Oklahoma is full of rolling hills and spectacular vistas.  The first wonder was a roadside vantage point, where we looked upon what looked to be a field full of straight rows of rocks.  The historic marker explained that mountains once stood here; these rocks were all that remained of those days from several millennia in the past.  Just beyond that was Turner Falls, billed as the largest falls in the state.  Huge sandstone boulders formed small mountains, capped by these pretty cool falls.  I had no idea such a sight existed in the state where I grew up.  

My poor daughter.  I subjected her to one tale after another, about how certain rocks are indigenous to the state, how the state was settled in 1889, how it got its nickname, how we were on the path of the Chisholm Trail and on and on, ad infinitum.  She bore it well.  Crossing the mighty Arkansas River into Tulsa begat another series of stories.  My mother used to tell us to look at this river, just to see if there was any water in it, which became one of those family in-jokes.  I recall as a child being stunned to see rivers in the East that actually did have copious amounts of water; the Hudson and Susquehanna being the two that immediately come to mind.

We spent a delightful evening at the home of Rick & Kathy.  I first met Rick when we were a year old; our parents became good friends and he and I have remained so since that time.  They are as close to family as one can be without the blood ties.  Over the past several years, they were exceptionally kind to my mother, as her age advanced and her health declined.  We ate a meal there that rivaled any restaurant and enjoyed the warmth only found in great homes.  The next morning brought another round of wonderful food and company.  

We loaded up the car and headed out again.  I have been to Tulsa many times since moving away after high school, with visits becoming more frequent as my Mother's health declined.  I do not know when - or if - I will next be making the trip.  As we headed out of town, we drove by my parents' last home.  It was their dream house, the one they bought when all their children had finished college and they finally had money to spend on themselves.  Their plan was to have a big yard with a pool, so their grandchildren would have something to do when they came to visit.  Which they did.  I have many happy memories of that place, as does Amanda, who visited several times as a child.  

Stay tuned for Chapter 3.   

Saturday, March 23, 2013


To shorten a long story: I wanted to pick up some items that had belonged to my mother in Tulsa.  The easiest way to do so was in a car.  The planning began: 
  • Ideal dates: check
  • Rent small SUV: check
  • Determine length of time necessary: check
  • Get time off from work: check.
  • Invite traveling companion, aka younger daughter Amanda: check
  • Finalize details: check
We determined that the easiest place to meet up with Amanda (who lives in New York) was Dallas. That way, she could see a whole lot more of Oklahoma than just Tulsa.  So, I picked up the rental and drove to Dallas in one day.  Sights and impressions along the way:

I noted 6 Starbucks on the road from Atlanta to Dallas, if one does not count Birmingham and its immediate environs.  No, I did not stop at any of them.  

The highway widens near Talledega, Alabama, where I believe the natives indulge in some ritual around waiting for cars to crash into each other.  The highway then quickly narrows.  I understand this to be about priorities.

The first sign I saw for Philadelphia, Mississippi brought three names immediately to mind: Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman (in that order).  I wonder what they say about those three and that era in the local public schools.  Even better, what do they say in charter schools?

When my children were small and we took road trips, we made a game out of crossing state lines.  I would inform them that one was coming up.  They would lean forward from their back seats as we approached a border.  As soon as we hit the state line, they would say, quickly, "two states at once".  They have continued this tradition through the years, now sending these updates to each other (and to me) via text messages.  I added a wrinkle to this, by sending simple texts with the state nickname to the two of them, as I crossed each border.  "Magnolia" elicited a question from Julia.  Then, Pelican, finally, Lone Star.  

A brief stop in Vicksburg reinforced why it played such a crucial role in the Civil War.  A beautiful, rolling landscape led to bluffs that commanded a view of the passing Mississippi.  Grant tried everything he could, from every different direction, to seize that spot, finally settling on a siege that led to a surrender.  That it happened at precisely the same time as Gettysburg makes that battle's finale even more striking.

Gallup, New Mexico has long topped my list of the Ugliest City I Have Ever Seen.  In fairness, I have not been there for over 30 years, so things may have changed.  In that interim, I have been to countless others, including Flint, Detroit and Toledo.  The newest contender for this dubious achievement: Monroe, LA. In fact, I would wager that Louisiana, at least the parts I drove through, is about the most uninteresting stretch of 200 miles I have ever driven.

First mile marker on I-20 in East Texas: 635, which was approximately how many I had driven already that day.  That is a big ass state (readers, say those three words aloud; now, say them again, this time, place the emphasis on the middle word.  How much does that alter your intent?).  Shortly thereafter, I saw a rusting oil pump.  Yes, I am in Texas.

Best roadside sight: picnic area with tables under wooden structures that resembled oil derricks.  I regret that this was on the other side of the highway, so I could not photograph this.

Interstate 20 in Texas is vastly superior to its counterpart in the three states immediately to its East (LA, MS, AL).  I do not believe this is due to the profound executive skills of the two most recent governors of Texas.  I suppose it more likely that politicos in the Lone Star State are just smarter about their corruption by making their fortunes while making good roads.  I do not know, however, if this is by intent or not.

Only in Dallas could they build this entirely new town and call it Legacy.  Large campuses for such corporate behemoths as HP and Intuit are surrounded by pricey townhouses, cool-looking apartments and a retail strip with the inevitable national outlets (Jamba Juice, Chipotle), some boutique-like restaurants, high-end fashion shops, at least two day spas and Urban Outfitters.  Oh, yes, there was a Starbucks, plus the largest Potbelly I have seen.  Crowning touch: on the principal street (oddly enough, called Legacy) of this area, loudspeakers were blaring that loud, repetitive thumping that is played in the lobbies of Renaissance Hotels.  This was at 6:00 am.  The only thing missing from this new tradition was a BMW dealership/repair/detail shop.  That would truly be iconic.

In N Out Burger.  Divine.

President George Bush Turnpike.  It does not indicate it is named after Bush I or Shrub.  If its the latter, I wonder if the costs of construction were never defined, simply put on the proverbial credit cards of the citizens.  That is only fitting for one who told us that the cost for liberating Iraq would be less than $75 billion.  Actual costs: over $2 trillion thus far, not to mention the additional $1 trillion in interest payments for the funds borrowed to pay for it, since no taxes were raised to finance that little adventure.  I'm sure glad that mission was accomplished.  

I did stay at a lovely, freshly reinvented Courtyard in Plano.  Wonderful product, extremely friendly, engaging people and a convenient location (well, at least to In N Out and Starbucks, to name but two).  Then, it was time to meet Amanda at DFW, which is, in no uncertain terms, a big ASS airport.  Stay tuned for chapter two, The Road Trip. 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Royals Are in First Place!

A friend wrote this week: "Pitchers and catchers report. Nothing sounds better than that!"

February is the most optimistic month of the year. Valentine's Day does occur, which is the day to indulge in guilt-free chocolate with loved ones. It's also the month that the Super Bowl ends, so the airwaves are free of that clutter for at least six months. And, of course, batteries report. Every team is in first place and the Yankees are in last. Somehow, all seems right with the world.

Before we confine the recent orgy of advertising, hype and blather to the dustbin of history, a few musings:

While the Ravens' run to the title was a compelling story, there were a few details I could not quite get past. All their players wore a patch for their late owner on their jerseys, thus celebrating the life of the person who moved the team to their city. I am old enough to remember that post-midnight escapade when moving vans spirited the beloved Colts from their home city to Indianapolis. Baltimoreans were crushed at the loss of their home team, so much so that they did the same to another city (Cleveland) a decade later. Sorry, two wrongs do not make a right.

For my second notion, allow me to paraphrase Stephen Colbert: Ray Lewis now has as many Super Bowl rings as indictments for murder. I never liked him as a player, feeling particularly appalled at the events that surrounded his last appearance at a Super Bowl. I was surprised to hear the spate of adulatory comments from all the media about the end of his glorious career, with little mention of that dark chapter from years ago. They did spend a great deal of time remarking on his faith. I do find his conversion convenient. But then, I have never liked the outbursts where athletes thank their lord and savior for their victory; the logical conclusion to such a statement is that the losing team must surely be allied with the devil.

I also read that the unfortunate blackout proved that the American populace will stare at a television set for at least a half hour with absolutely nothing on.

February is also the month when college basketball is in its purest form, full of teams jousting for consideration for the postseason. We also get to see ordinary teams knock off heavily-favored ones, which happens with more frequency in this than in any other sport. Now, if we could just put an end to that annual pledge drive for alumni contributions known as the conference tournament, I would feel even better about the sport.

Enough of that; on to happier thoughts.

February 15 is the date when pitchers and catchers begin their official workouts. The news is full of reports of who has changed teams, how some are recovering from off-season surgeries and last season's injuries, expected reporting dates for others and team-by-team breakdowns on Sports Center. Years ago, this was the time of year when my subscription to the Sporting News kicked in. There was a page on each team, followed by a heading of clever alliteration: Mets Musings, Royals Rambles, Nats Notes and so on throughout the Bigs.

When I was a youngster, I used to listen to my hometown Tulsa Oilers (AA, Texas League) on the radio. They were a farm team of the Cardinals, so I also used to dial in my AM radio to their broadcasts. I followed the rise of some to the Big Club and the rehab stints in the minors of others. The Cards were my team. Imagine my excitement when my father announced that we would drive to St. Louis for a couple of games one summer. We saw the Giants in one game and the Dodgers in another. I remember Sportsman's Park as being old and full of people dressed in red. I also recall my father telling me about Stan the Man, that I could, someday, tell my own children that I had seen the immortal Stan Musial in his prime. He had the most unusual batting stance, one that was never duplicated; I don't know that it was ever even imitated. I also don't recall if we ate at Musial's Restaurant in St. Louis, but I did have an autographed picture of him, which I assume that I got at his restaurant.

Mr. Musial recently passed away. To the end, he was regarded as a man who thoroughly enjoyed life. He apparently regarded each day he spent in the uniform of his beloved Cardinals as a gift, one he enjoyed for over 20 years. He was also considered one of the toughest outs in the game. The story was retold after his death, in which the manager of the Dodgers once asked his pitcher, Preacher Roe, how he intended to get Musial out that day. Roe is alleged to have responded: I'll throw him four wide ones, then hope to pick him off first base.

No other sport contributes such colorful tales to our language. Baseball is full of them. Isn't it grand to hear them once again? February is the most optimistic month of the year. And, the Royals are in first place.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

It's Time

I made frequent trips to Oklahoma the past few years to visit my mother; on many of them, I accompanied her to a doctor's office. At the entrance to each building that housed medical practitioners, the decal pictured above was displayed. As I had never seen such a thing in my life, I was compelled to ask to ask once inside: is there a possibility that one would bring weapons into a medical practice? If so, why? No one ever answered me.

It seems that Oklahoma is a state that allows one to conceal and to carry one's firearms. I think one can even carry one into a place that sells liquor, as long as the sale of liquor is not that establishment's primary business. What could possibly go wrong if one combines liquor sales with loaded weapons? I have an image of an irate guest in a Chili's responding to rude service or unacceptable food.

We have had this discussion many times over the years. In every situation, one side states that we need to do something to curb the random violence in which innocents are slaughtered by an armed madman. The other side states that they will accept no regulation on the sale and distribution of any kind of weapon or ammunition. The latter position was eloquently stated by Charlton Heston when he bellowed that you would have to pry his gun from his cold, dead hands before he would give it to you.

I do not say this as a way of laying the foundation for some argument of equivalence.

I have deliberately avoided following much of the news about the shootings that occurred last month in Connecticut. That this took place is something that should be so horrible as to be beyond our comprehension. Yet, it was not an isolated event, merely the latest in a string of obscene mass homicides.

One of the facts I have retained is that each of the victims in that school was shot multiple times, almost all in the head. Another is that the gunman was armed with weapons equipped with ammunition magazines that enabled the firing of dozens of bullets within seconds.

I don't own a gun; in fact, it is unlikely that I will ever own one. I do not, however, think that my preference on gun ownership should apply to all citizens. If people enjoy hunting or target shooting or collecting firearms, then they should be allowed to do so. The NRA and their defenders in Congress and on their cable channel scream loudly about their Constitutional rights, citing a vaguely-worded sentence in the 2nd Amendment as their rationale.

The First Amendment is less equivocal, going so far as to state that Congress shall make no law (emphasis added) infringing freedom of speech, religion, assembly or press. Have we not made some boundaries around these specific prohibitions? Justice Holmes famously wrote that freedom of speech does not give one the right to yell fire in a crowded theater. Libel laws exist to protect citizens from lies printed for the purpose of defamation. Groups can assemble peacefully, but not to sacrifice live animals. Can we not permit similar limits on the sale, regulation or possession of firearms? Is there not some common ground between no regulation and confiscation of all guns?

Let's call these arms and ammunition used by these murderers what they are: weapons of mass destruction, for they are designed to do but two things: to kill lots of people and to do so quickly. We should not allow assault and automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines to be in the hands of anyone but those who are trained in their safe and proper use, such as members of the military and law enforcement officers. Civilization will not end if we get these instruments off the streets; it may, in fact, become more tame.

I read a quote this past week; unfortunately, I cannot recall where I saw it. It said something to the effect that we need guns so that we can resist our government when it becomes a tyranny. That government becomes a tyranny when it tries to take our guns away. Joseph Heller would be so pleased. Maybe it's time we injected some common sense into this dialogue.