Saturday, December 31, 2011
It was a good Christmas. I have stopped comparing Christmases to previous ones and worrying about whether the current holiday celebration outstrips previous ones. The older I get, the less important that becomes, I'm just happy to still be standing upright and be able to be with my family. As it is, the holiday celebrations are constantly evolving over time as generations get older and/or pass on, while new generations make their appearance on the scene. And for me, Christmas really is mainly about the children and how excited they become in anticipation of the big day.
Now, we've reached the final day of 2011. Where did the year go? The older I get, the more time seems to fly by at supersonic speed.
Overall, it was a decent year for me personally. I have a decent job in a comfortable and friendly environment, my health is good (knock on wood), I have a new laptop that I can use to bore all of you with the minutiae of my life, and most importantly I have a loving and supportive family who put up with my foibles and faults.
Let me just conclude this brief post by wishing all two or three of my readers a wonderful and prosperous 2012.
Saturday, December 17, 2011
First of all, I'm finally coming down off my seasonal football fever. If you don't already know (or care) the Michigan State Spartans lost the Big Ten football title game to Wisconsin, so there will be no Rose Bowl trip for Sparty. Two weeks later, I'm finally over it.
Secondly, I actually read a novel written for adults (and not for children). The first time that has happened in quite some time. The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, was quite wonderful and I highly recommend it. It touches upon the fallibility of our personal memories, and the regrets we may harbor over decisions we've made throughout our lives. Truly a thought-provoking novel by one of Britain's finest writers.
A few days ago I saw the AllMusic roundup of the year's best music and, my oh my, do I feel old. I haven't heard of at least 80 percent of the musicians mentioned. I am officially an old fart.
More and more, I seem to fall back on music I liked when I was young. The last few days I've been in a Smithereens mood, and have been listening to their first three albums (Especially for You, Green Thoughts, and 11). It's always pleasant when music you liked way back when still holds up years later, and I have to say that is the case with those three albums. There's something about the Smithereens' music that is perfect for a cold and grey December--I can't quite explain it. Perhaps it's the romantic gloom-and-doom film noir aspect of Pat DiNizio's lyrics (combined with the power pop punch of the rest of the band--of course I can't really explain why "power pop punch" has any corrolation with December).
Speaking of December, we only have one more week until Christmas. I don't ask too much from the holiday, but my only requirement is that it be a white Christmas. It doesn't have to be a lot of snow, just enough to cover the ground. In recent years, it seems that this is a dicey proposition--and I can remember a few Christmases of late that have been greenish-brown (or brownish-green). Only a few days ago, temperatures in mid-Michigan were hovering around the 50 degree mark, but I'm happy to report that we're back in the 30s and we have a dusting of the white stuff on the ground. I may now safely dream of a white Christmas.
Remember earlier in this post when I said that no kids were on our computers? Well, that changed--and I am now writing this post at 11:30 at night. I'm tired and devoid of inspiration, yet I will publish this now and add to it if I get a chance tomorrow--but don't count on it.
Saturday, December 3, 2011
Quite often I feel that my life would be so much easier if I wasn't a sports nut, and didn't (quite illogically) feel that the fate of the world rested on the result of an essentially meaningless sporting event, but then I conclude that life would be so much less interesting for me if I WASN'T a sports fanatic.
Sports fandom seems anathema to intellectual pursuits. Then again, people like George Will (baseball nut), Frederick Exley (football nut), and David Halberstam (all-around sports nut) have all managed to balance the two.
Anyway, I will be back when my college football fever subsides, which depending on the result of tonight's MSU/Wisconsin tilt, could be either early next week or early January.
Monday, November 28, 2011
Most Valuable Player: Russell Wilson, Wisconsin. A case could easily be made for Wilson's backfield teammate, Montee Ball, but Wilson added a dimension to the Badger's offense that made a huge difference for them. His dual threat capabilities gave Wisconsin the most dynamic offense in the conference, if not the nation. But beyond his athletic abilities, Wilson has proven to be a great leader and teammate. Pretty darned good for a player who is essentially a one-year "free agent signee".
Best quarterback: Russell Wilson, Wisconsin. For all the reasons listed above, and his stat line is incredibly impressive, with an astonishing 28 touchdown passes and only 3 interceptions, to go along with 2692 yards through the air.
Honorable mentions: Kirk Cousins had an outstanding senior year for Michigan State, leading them to the Legends Division title. Denard Robinson improved throughout the season at Michigan and Brady Hoke eventually settled on an offensive scheme that utililized his abilities. Dan Persa of Northwestern once again demonstrated that he is one of the toughest and grittiest (not to mention elusive) quarterback in the conference.
Best running back: Montee Ball, Wisconsin. A no-brainer if there ever was one, Montee "Bowling" Ball easily led the Big Ten in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, yards per game, and averaged an astonishing 6.5 yards per carry. His 29 rushing TDs were almost double the number (16) his closest competitor (Denard Robinson) had this season.
Honorable mentions: Marcus Coker (Iowa) had a great sophomore season, Rex Burkhead (Nebraska), Silas Redd (Penn State).
Best wide receiver: Marvin McNutt, Iowa. McNutt, in his senior year, led the Big Ten in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. As a Michigan State fan who has watched this guy victimize the Spartans for three years, I won't miss him--but I wish him well at the next level.
Honorable mentions: B.J. Cunningham (Michigan State), A.J. Jenkins (Illinois), Jeremy Ebert (Northwestern). I was so close to giving this to Cunningham, but don't want to be accused of being a homer. Jenkins had a good year for the Illini, and I've always been a fan of Ebert's.
Best kicker: Brett Maher, Nebraska. Maher had a great season for the Huskers. He was perfect in PATs (42-42) and led the Big Ten in field goal percentage, making 19 of the 22 he attempted. By the way, those 22 attempts and 19 conversions were tops in the conference.
Honorable mention: Mitch Ewald (Indiana). 13 of 16 of field goal attempts and perfect on PATs (30 for 30).
Best defensive lineman: Whitney Mercilus, Illinois. I didn't really see him play this year, but I sure wish I had because this guy sounds like a beast, and arguably has the most badass name in college football. Mercillus led the conference in three different defensive categories: sacks, tackles for loss, and forced turnovers. Mercillus anchored a solid Illini defense that finished third in total defense in the Big Ten. His 13 solo sacks were easily the best in the Big Ten, far outpacing the runner-up John Simon (Ohio State) who had 7 solo tackles. Mercillus also led the conference in total sacks (solo and assisted) with 13, five better than Denicos Allen (Michigan State) who had 8 (6 solo, 2 assisted). His 9 forced fumbles outdistanced his closest competitors, Chris Borland (Wisconsin) and Sean Prater (Iowa), each of whom had 4.
Honorable mentions: Jerel Worthy (Michigan State), John Simon (Ohio State), Devon Still (Penn State)
Best linebacker: Chris Borland, Wisconsin. Borland is a tough, gritty guy who is the lynchpin of the Badgers' defense. He finished fourth in the conference in tackles, and third in tackles for loss.
Honorable mention: Lavonte David (Nebraska)
Best defensive back: Trenton Robinson, Michigan State. Robinson, a senior, is a great leader on Michigan State's conference leading defense. He tied with four other players (including teammate Isaiah Lewis) for the conference lead in interceptions.
Honorable mentions: Isaiah Lewis (Michigan State), Johnny Adams (Michigan State), Ricardo Allen (Purdue)
Best punter: Brett Maher, Nebraska. Maher led the Big Ten in punting average at 45.0. His 61-yard punt late against Penn State helped the Huskers cling to a 17-14 lead and get out of Happy Valley with a victory.
Honorable mention: Cody Webster (Purdue).
Coach of the year: Brady Hoke, Michigan. Hoke built a defense at Michigan (something Rich Rodriguez was never able to do) and performed an impressive turnaround in leading the Wolverines to a 10-2 record.
Honorable mentions: Mark Dantonio (Michigan State), Pat Fitzgerald (Northwestern). Dantonio proved that 2010 was no fluke by leading the Spartans to the Legends Division championship and a 10-2 regular season record. Fitzgerald continues to get the most out of the limited talent he has at Northwestern.
Saturday, November 12, 2011
This Thursday night, my wife and I went to Grand Rapids to see one of my many favorite bands, the Meat Puppets. The Pups, as they are affectionately called, were playing at a small club in G.R. called the Pyramid Scheme.
We were able to make last minute babysitting plans with my in-laws, and after a stop at the kids' Scholastic Book Fair at school, dropped them off with the understanding that, since the show started at 8:00 PM, we should be back into town by about 11:30. My in-laws were not going to watch the boys any later that 11:30--and it wouldn't have been fair to ask them to do so since the next day was a school day.
We arrived at the Pyramid Scheme a little before eight. The Pyramid Scheme is divided in half: the front half is a standard bar, while the back half is the performance area that is closed until that evening's show is ready to begin. So for a show that, according to the ticket, was supposed to begin at 8:00 PM, we sat and waited. And we sat and waited some more. Finally the door opened at around 8:30 PM and we entered and grabbed two ridiculously expensive beers.
Then we waited, and waited, and did a little more waiting.
At close to 9:00 PM the opening act, a sort of rustic cowpunk sort of band called Wildfire, took the stage. (For what it's worth, their guitarist/lead singer was a dead ringer for George Harrison as he appeared on the Abbey Road album cover, complete with jean jacket). Wildfire was on stage for maybe between a half-hour to 45 minutes. Then the second supporting act, a garage rock duo from Denmark called Black Box Revelation (with an impossibly tall and skinny guitarist) came on--and some drunken idiot sitting next to us decided to do his interpretive dance/air drum routine and acted bent out of shape when we made it clear we weren't in the same jovial mood. Anyway, it was clear to us that the Pups wouldn't hit the stage until at least 11:00. Unfortunately, we had no choice but to leave for home, without seeing the band we'd paid to see.
The only good thing that came out of the night was buying, for only 10 dollars, a Pups CD I didn't own, 1987's Mirage. But I'm still getting over not actually being able to see them live, so I am currently in no mood to listen to it.
It was a good thing we left when we did, because snow had just hit the Grand Rapids area and the giant snowflakes were making visibility a nightmare. Luckily, we managed to pick up the boys at about 11:45.
Today, I noticed that the Pyramid Scheme had posted photos from the Meat Puppets' performance. I'm so bummed out that I can't even look at them.
This is what happens when you hit middle-aged parenthood. The days of carefree small-club concert going is over, unless we can find an all-night babysitter. When we were single and/or childless, we'd have had no problem waiting around for the Meat Puppets to hit the stage, watching their entire gig, and getting home at 2:30 AM. Farewell, youthful days.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
That's why I have decided to create a second blog called "Treasures from the Spartan Attic" which will focus on my Michigan State University sports fandom, leaving Brainsplotch to focus on other aspects of life. So if you're dying to keep reading my thoughts about Spartan sports, simply google Treasures from the Spartan Attic.
Sunday, October 23, 2011
On Saturday, I returned home from a wonderful trip to Charleston, South Carolina, having tagged along with my wife Lynda, who had to go there for a fairly swank insurance conference at the Doubletree Inn and Suites in downtown Charleston. (The photo above is St. Philip's Church at 142 Church Street, taken by me with my junky old Verizon LG phone camera. This church is located only a few blocks south of the Doubletree).
We flew in from Flint on Wednesday, October 12 and arrived in Charleston in the late afternoon. My wife registered for her conference at the hotel and then attended an informal reception. I called my old grad school classmate/friend/native Charlestonian Rick R. to see if he was still interested in getting together at some point during our stay. I hadn't seen Rick since I finished Eastern Michigan University's historic preservation program in '04, but through the miracle of social media we had reconnected through Facebook and had gotten to know each other better there than we had in our time at school.
As far back as a few years ago, Rick had said that he'd love to have us come down to Charleston, and when in the spring of this year it looked like we'd definitely be coming down for Lynda's conference, Rick had said to definitely call him when we arrived. After playing text message tag for awhile, Rick and I hooked up on Thursday evening for beers at a burger/pizza/sports bar joint called the Mellow Mushroom on King Street. The next night, Rick and his wife graciously took Lynda and I out to eat at a pretty good seafood restaurant in nearby Mt. Pleasant called RB's, where I had the shrimp and grits.
The rest of my time was spent wandering around while Lynda was in her conference. On Thursday morning, I took the ferry to Fort Sumter out in Charleston Harbor. It was a lazy, relaxing trip out there. I was amazed to learn just how far the fort is from the city of Charleston. The park ranger, an extremely energetic and engaging young guy named Brent Everitt (I was impressed with his presentation and made sure to catch his name tag) went to great pains to make sure we all understood that the first shots of the Civil War were NOT fired from the Battery at Charleston, but at Fort Johnson. Charleston is about 3 1/2 miles northwest of Fort Sumter, while Fort Johnston was about one mile due west. 1860s technology prevented a shot from Charleston being possible, but apparently some tour guides in Charleston perpetuate this myth.
Another thing I always seem to notice about historic sites I visit is that they end up being far smaller than I envisioned them to be. I felt that way about the White House, Historic Jamestown, and certainly Fort Sumter. Let me tell you, I sure as heck would not have wanted to be stationed at Fort Sumter: it's a tiny and remote location and with it's lack of shade must have been oppressively hot in the summer and probably not much better in winter.
When I returned from Fort Sumter, I made my way to King Street and felt completely out-of-place among all the high-end boutiques and ultra chic and expensive clothing stores. My destination was Blue Bicycle Books, the main used book shop in Charleston. I make a point of visiting whatever local bookshops I can find whenever I'm on vacation. Blue Bicycle was fun to browse, though I found their prices a little high and didn't buy anything. The store is long and narrow with several small rooms dedicated to a particular type of book ("history room", "childrens room", etc.). Used bookshops always have their own peculiar layout and vibe, and Blue Bicycle is no exception.
Well, I don't want to bore everyone with a blow-by-blow recap of my entire stay in Charleston, but Lynda and I managed to pack in quite a bit in the short time we were there. I bought a sweetgrass wreath from a friendly weaver (of the traditional Gulla sweetgrass style) named Mildred who had her works set up outside a church on Meeting Street. Lynda and I wandered through the Battery and up East Bay south of Broad and saw the amazing houses there. Did I mention that the architecture of Charleston is nothing short of incredible? The city breathes history and tradition in a way that few other places in America even come close.
My real education in the culture and history of Charleston came from Rick, who (as I mentioned) is a native Charlestonian and has his own building contracting business. Rick is committed to historic preservation, and drove me around town on Friday and show me some of his current projects, located on the northwest side of town near The Citadel. Rick and his wife also live in this area, in a freedman's cottage that they have been restoring. Rick told me that this part of Charleston is notable for the number of freedman's cottages, which are small one-level vernacular houses that were built in the late 19th century for newly freed slaves. Check out this link for more information about freedman's cottages:
I could go on even further about Charleston, and I'm sure I'm forgetting something, but I need to cut it short. It was a wonderful adventure and I would gladly return in a heartbeat.
Saturday, October 8, 2011
The Tigers must have been reading my previous blog post, because they jumped off to an early 2-0 lead when supersub Don Kelly and valuable newcomer Delvon Young hit back-to-back home runs. And thus began the almost unbearable tension as the Tigers hung on to that lead and eventually won, 3-2. Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Joaquin Benoit, and Jose Valverde pitched wonderfully to contain the powerful Yankee hitting. Sure, the Yankees managed to threaten a few times, but the Tigers' pitching bore down to get out of these jams as they did for most of the regular season. Outside of a solo homer by Robinson Cano, and a bases loaded walk to Mark Teixeira pushing home a run, the Yankees were silent.
A few random observations of the game:
Yankees' manager Joe Girardi may have been overthinking his constant pitching changes. I don't think this helped his team.
The Yankees are essentially a collection of superstars (some of whom, particularly in the case of Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter, are aging and overpayed), the Tigers are a TEAM. This team concept is best exemplified in the way Don Kelly played. A-Rod probably makes more in one week than Kelly makes in a year, yet Kelly had a much better series and his first inning homer (quickly followed by Young's homer) set the tone for the entire game.
This matchup reminded me of the 2004 NBA Finals between the Pistons and the Lakers. The unheralded Pistons beat the Lakers' collection of superstars.
The energy and excitement in Michigan for this team, and for the resurgent Detroit Lions, is palpable. You can feel it in the air. It's amazing the way that a successful sports team can capture the imagination of a divergent group of people. It may not solve all the problems we have in Michigan, but it will at least take our minds off it a little while...and also let the rest of the nation know that there is still life here in the Rust Belt.
Well, I'm getting booted off the computer. Maybe I'll have a chance to finish these thoughts later.
Thursday, October 6, 2011
Today, I heard for the first time his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford. It is quite stirring and a great way for even us regular mortals to try and live our lives. Check it out if you are so inclined:
Doug Fister takes the mound against the Yankees in the Bronx. After his lackluster appearance in the rain-delayed first game of this American League divisional series, I fully expect the tall lanky one to pitch a good game. After pitching in Yankee Stadium last week, he should have the butterflies out of his system now.
The key for the Tigers is this: Get the bats going early and often and hope that Fister pitches the way he did down the stretch in the regular season. Detroit has to somehow get guys like Avila, Peralta, and Jackson going, and hope that the big guns like Cabrera, Martinez, and Young can keep it going--and get it done before the eighth inning because if the Yankees bullpen gets involved, it'll be lights out for the good guys from Detroit.
I still give the edge to the Evil Empire tonight, but am definitely not counting out the Tigers.
So in conclusion, let me just say:
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
More from me later (I hope--we'll see if I can make it back on the computer tonight!).
Tuesday, October 4, 2011
For the first time in eons (okay, maybe not eons, but it sure feels that way) both the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Lions are good at the same time. The Tigers will attempt to eliminate the Evil Empire (i.e. the New York Yankees) tonight and advance to play the Texas Rangers for the American League championship. And for the first time in 31 years, the Detroit Lions are undefeated at 4-0 with their stunning win over the NFL's evil empire, the Dallas Cowboys.
To top things off, on Saturday all the major college football teams in the state of Michigan won their respective games. For those keeping score, that's Michigan State, Michigan, Central Michigan, Western Michigan, and Eastern Michigan.
I'm usually guardedly optimistic about my favorite teams' chances, even in the best of times, so I'm trying not to get too geeked about the Tigers or Lions, but both teams are looking great right now. The Tigers will have Rick Porcello on the mound tonight. He's been inconsistent this season, but I sure hope he can pitch his best game of the year this evening--and maybe the Tigers' bats will cut loose against the Yankees' A.J. Burnett, who has been a disappointment all season for the Bronx Bombers.
The toughest part about this game, at least on a personal level, is that the starting time is 8:37 PM. (Don't ask me how Major League Baseball comes up with these weird game times). It's just too late! I stayed up until the end of last night's Tigers/Yankees game, which did not conclude until about 12:30 AM. Of course, after the Tigers' anxiety-enducing 5-4 win, I was so wired that I didn't feel like going to bed right away and watched a half-hour of the postgame commentary. I didn't finally get under the sheets until 1:00 AM, and believe me, I paid for it this morning when I had to get up at 6:00 to get out the door for work.
The worst part of these late game times is that Major League Baseball has made it quite clear that they aren't concerned about the future of the game: i.e., the kids who will hopefully grow up to become baseball fans. At least the Rangers/Rays game started at 2:00(ish) this afternoon, and the Cardinals/Phillies game started at 5:00(ish). Kids who are interested will at least be able to see those games, but if there for all the young Tiger or Yankee fans out there, forget it. Unless those kids have lenient parents, there is no way they can stay up to see the entire game tonight.
I'm heading towards my diatribe against Major League Baseball, and all the ways that it is mismanaged by Commissioner Bud Selig, but I'll save that for another time.
Well, it appears my writing time is being interrupted by that thing called "life", so I may or may not come back to complete my thoughts here.
Go Tigers! Go Lions! Go Spartans!
Saturday, October 1, 2011
I have a feeling that this is going to be "one of those years". By that I mean...a disappointment. I just have little confidence in this MSU football team this season. The offensive line has been weak thus far, and Kirk Cousins' confidence has looked shaky. And anyone with any knowledge of MSU's gridiron history over the last 45 years knows that the Spartans have a tough time stringing together two good years in a row. However, I hope that the MSU football team proves me wrong.
(I'm also trying really hard to get beyond having this blog merely as a sports blog. I'm still entertaining the thought of creating a separate "sports only" blog, and leaving this for other--more important--aspects of life).
I may be able to change the Spartans' football fortunes by watching this Saturday's Ohio State game in my "Magic Basement". The magic basement, as I have begun to call it, is where I have witnessed several sports miracles in the last four years. Now on the surface there is nothing that appears remotely magical about my semi-finished basement. By all outward appearances it is ugly, somewhat dank, and rather unkempt. A good 75 % of it is dominated by my two boys' playthings. On either end of the basement are the cats' litter boxes, so the basement frequently has the subtle scent of cat pee or poo--lovely eh? The basement, however, is the main repository of Mark's Sports Archive and Museum, and also features our old Sharp TV (with cable) and an old leather sofa. It is on this old television, in this dank underground dwelling, that I witnessed MSU's come-from-behind win over Penn State in '07, the '08 Michigan win, the '10 comeback win over Northwestern, along with several memorable Spartan NCAA tournament basketball wins. In all fairness, I also saw the MSU losses to Michigan in '07 and the end of the last-second loss to Iowa in '09, so maybe the basement isn't so magical after all. I like to remember the good games, though, and remain convinced that fairy dust has been sprinkled in the basement.
Maybe in a future post, I'll present some photos of the Magic Basement. I'm sure after my dazzling description of its beauty and charm, you are dying to see it.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
I didn't begin drinking coffee until I was in college at Michigan State, and back then it was only for the caffeine and not for any real enjoyment. At the time, I had no taste in coffee, and I thought that the powdered flavored crap was actually rather fancy and classy. I can still remember late nights boiling water in an electric water pot and mixing in that dreadful caffeinated powder.
My most intense memory of drinking coffee in college took place in March 1989: Winter term finals week. That term, I took a political science class that dealt with the American electoral process. Among the required reading was a book called Change and Continuity in the 1984 Elections. Our professor warned us that about 80 percent of our final exam would come from that book. Now had I actually read the book? Why, of course not! Mr. Procrastinator here had spent far too much valuable time doing God knows what (probably watching The Young and the Restless and drinking my preferred beverage of that era, beer). The night before my final exam, I knew I had to read that entire book before the exam. The only way to do it was to "pull an all-nighter" and the only way I was going to be able to do this was to drink copious amounts of black coffee.
I found myself a table in the Shaw Hall cafeteria, which was always open all night as a study hall, and took advantage of the free residence hall coffee that was offered during finals week. I have no idea how many cups of coffee I drank during that all-nighter, but I would venture to guess I was guzzling anywhere between 16-24 ounces of java per hour, from about 9:00 PM until 6:00 AM...and guess what, I read that entire book, which was probably about 250 pages in length. Not only did I read it, but I absorbed it like a sponge. My overcharged, caffeine-saturated brain devoured that book like it was the most fascinating tome ever written by humankind.
My political science final exam was early the next morning (7:30? 8:00? I can't remember the exact time anymore). The bad part was that by the time the final started, my caffeine buzz was wearing off and I was feeling myself get very tired. I was fighting to keep my eyes open, and at one point in the final felt myself falling asleep at my desk. I must have made some strange noise because a girl looked over at me with a look equal parts concern and horror. Thankfully, I managed to stay awake through the entire final and I'll be damned if that professor didn't tell us the exact truth. At least 80 percent of that final exam was taken from Change and Continuity in the 1984 Elections.
It was with a tremendous feeling of relief that I stumbled back to Shaw Hall from my poli sci final. It was my last final of the term, and I had only to wait for my mom to come and pick me up from school and take me home to Caro for spring break. Unfortunately, by this point I was beginning to experience the onset of one of the most awful headaches I've ever had from lack of sleep and far too much caffeine.
Now one might think that this headache would turn me off to coffee. Actually, I felt as though coffee had helped to save my ass, and that's when I decided that coffee was a pretty damned good thing. I ended up with a 4.0 on my final exam (in the MSU grading system, equivalent to an A) and received a 3.5 in the class.
It wasn't until I worked at Schuler Books in the 1990s that I developed any real taste for fine coffee, and over the years I've become a genuine coffee snob. I absolutely refuse to drink the dreck that is our office coffee at work, and generally stop at Biggby or Starbucks while on my way to work each and every morning. (I don't like the way my homebrewed coffee tasted in travel mugs, so I'd rather buy it at a coffee shop). My preferred drinks of choice these days are Americanos and red eyes. An Americano is two or more shots of espresso combined with hot water (or cold water if one prefers it iced). Red eyes are two or more shots of espresso combined with coffee. During the summer, I ONLY drink iced coffee. Beginning around the second week of September, I switch over to hot coffee. It's amazing (and a little unsettling) to me how quickly I decided that it's time to switch from iced to hot coffee in the Fall, and from hot to iced coffee in the late Spring.
My wife is also a huge coffee drinker and a coffee snob on par with myself. I joke that we are enablers and co-dependent, because we constantly suggest trips to Biggby to get coffee. It doesn't help that we are always filling up our frequency cards, and that Biggby sends us coffee junkies email coupons that we naturally feel compelled to use. Did I mention that we have a Biggby Coffee that is within 5 minutes walking distance from our house?
Well, that's my coffee addiction story. I suppose that there are far worse vices one could have, so I'll be quite content to stick with coffee.
Saturday, September 24, 2011
Friday night I watched the first MSU football game while putting together the foosball table my eldest son received for his birthday. (Above is a picture of yours truly, Captain Cueball, and the son taking a break during a heated foosball battle). This continues a longstanding tradition of mine of watching the first weekend of the college football season whilst assembling a birthday present--since my son's birthday is on September 2. For the rest of my life, the beginning of football and my son's birthday will be inextricably linked.
That's not a bad thing, since this is my favorite time of the year. I love the end of summer and the beginning of fall. The overlap of football and baseball seasons is also wonderful, and especially this year with the promise of my team, the Detroit Tigers, making the postseason.
I can recall how much I hated the Labor Day weekend when I was a kid. For me, Labor Day only meant that the next day I'd have to go to school. I remember the butterflies in the pit of my stomach, full of anxiety over the impending school year. Of course, by the time I got to college, when Labor Day arrived I was practically dying to go back to school.
But thinking back to those grade school/high school days, and since America seems to have such a disdain for labor these days, perhaps we should simply change the name of the holiday to School Anxiety Day.
I'd like to say that ten years later the world seems better, but it doesn't. We have fought a war in Iraq under false pretenses, and who knows how or when the U.S. will ever get out of Afghanistan. All of the international goodwill our country received in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 has essentially disappeared. Meanwhile, our economy is in ruins and partisan bickering is as bad as I can ever remember it. And you wonder why I talk about sports so much in this blog? I need some escapism.
Also yesterday, in news that is quite a bit more important than R.E.M.'s breakup, Troy Davis was executed in Georgia. I have to admit that I had no idea who he was until recently, when the controversy over his murder conviction and impending execution became front page news. After reading about this case, it seems quite obvious that there was extreme doubt concerning his guilt--in fact it seems like a complete miscarriage of justice. I have heard of way too many examples of people who have been given the death penalty when there was flimsy or questionable evidence regarding their guilt. Two prominent examples that come to mind immediately are the West Memphis Three and Randall Adams (whose case was presented in the outstanding documentary, The Thin Blue Line). Thankfully, the West Memphis Three and Randall Adams were spared. In any case, one life lost to the death penalty because of a faulty conviction is one life too many. The death penalty needs to be abolished.
And now for something completely different. I'm astounded that my post featuring Ron Swanson's speech (from Parks and Recreation) has garnered 950 views, based on Blogger's statistics. I'm sure those people were then disappointed to see how boring the rest of my blog is!
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
I wrote in a Facebook post that I haven't had this much fun watching baseball since 1984 (although the Tigers' charge to the division title in 1987 was fun, as was their improbable American League pennant win in '06).
This team doesn't quit. Today's win over Chicago was a perfect case in point. Down the entire game, they calmly tied it up in the ninth on Ryan Raburn's solo homer and Alex Avila's clutch 2-run blast. When the Sox threatened in the bottom of the ninth with the mercury-quick Juan Pierre dancing off third base with only one out, naturally these magical Tigers got A.J. Pierzynski to ground into an inning ending double play. Not even Ramon Santiago momentarily bobbling Pierzynski's hot grounder was enough to prevent the Tigers pulling off another Houdini escape act. Pierzynski, in sheer frustration, punished his batting helmet with a few angry kicks--which seemed to encapsulate the entire disappointing Chicago White Sox season.
Okay, at this moment I need to point out that, officially, the Tigers have neither clinched the AL Central nor clinched a playoff spot, though with the "magic number" currently at 4(ish), it would take divine intervention for either the Sox or Indians to overtake them, and with the way the Tigers are crushing everyone in their wake, and the fashion in which the Sox and Indians are fading, let's face it folks, it ain't gonna happen. The Tigers are going to win the AL Central, probably in the next day or so.
So how are the Tigers doing it? Obviously they have lots of great star players--and plenty of role players who are contributing. Justin Verlander is going to win the AL Cy Young Award with the incredible season he's having, Miguel Cabrera is his usual excellent self, and others like Alex Avila, Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta, and (the injured and out for the rest of the season) Brennan Boesch all have had great years at the plate. Ramon Santiago has established himself as the man at second base, and though he still strikes out too much, Austin Jackson is one of the best defensive centerfielders in the game.
At this point, I'd like to tip my hat to the overly criticized GM Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland. Yes, Dombrowski has made some questionable to bad moves in the past, but this year he gets all A's for the masterful deals he made. Picking up Wilson Betemit, Delmon Young, and Doug Fister--genius moves. Leyland has been taking heat all season, mainly from certain local sports talk hosts who shall remain nameless. Funny how this criticism has waned in the last few weeks. It's true that some of Leyland's managerial decisions are head scratchers (i.e. not starting Verlander in the pivotal August series against Cleveland--Tigers swept the Indians so it didn't matter, and sitting certain star players at seemingly odd times). Leyland deserves credit for wisely preserving his players to make this incredible September push, and the role players have enough gametime experience to allow them to make major contributions down the stretch.
Friday, September 2, 2011
Okay, here's an even more brief overview of what I was going to write. Fall is upon us and its time for college football and baseball pennant races. I remain glass is half empty regarding the chances of the MSU Spartan football team, the Detroit Lions, and the Detroit Tigers.
Post script: Could I have possibly been any more WRONG about the Tigers. Wow, what a finish to the regular season! And the Detroit Lions--they are off to a great start in the regular season and may yet make a believer out of me. As for the MSU Spartan football team--the jury is still out.
Friday, July 29, 2011
So what's been going on since May, you ask? Well, on June 26 I saw U2 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing. The concert was originally scheduled for May 2010, but the band was forced to postpone the show due to Bono severely injuring his back. (Yeah, all that "saving the world" stuff takes a physical toll). Anyway, U2 were amazing, brilliant, fantastic. I saw them back in April '87 at the Pontiac Silverdome and it was the most mesmerizing concert experience I'd ever had. I thought there was no way it could ever be topped, but I think U2 actually were better this time around. And I can't say I was excessively geeked for the show beforehand.
Out of a sense of duty, I've bought every U2 studio album since Under a Blood Red Sky (and, of course, when I first got into U2 in the mid-'80s, backtracked to pick up Boy, October, and War) but was underwhelmed by their latest offering No Line on the Horizon. As the concert drew nearer, I was happy to being seeing them, but not necessarily expecting an amazing experience.
Well...it WAS an amazing experience.
Was it just a tad huge and over-the-top? Of course.
Did the guys in the band appear to be the size of ants from our nosebleed seats? Naturally! (Though the wraparound 360 megascreen was helpful in actually seeing what was happening on stage).
Did the concert thoroughly kick ass? Hell yeah!
From the opening salvo of Achtung Baby tunes, to astronaut Mark (Mr. Gabby Giffords) Kelly's big screen introduction of "Beautiful Day" (wherein he quoted David Bowie's "Space Oddity": "Tell my wife I miss her very, very much"), and Bono marveling at the beauty of Michigan and MSU's campus ("Edge wants to buy a cottage on Lake Michigan"--which elicited huge applause from the crowd), it was an electrifying and deeply emotional evening.
Since the U2 show, I've been listening to them fairly regularly since. I picked up one of their compilations that I didn't already own, The Best of 1990-2000, and have been catching up on some of their more obscure tunes that I hadn't heard before, like the wonderful "Electrical Storm", "Miss Sarajevo", and "Lady with the Spinning Head". (I love the bonus disc with the b-sides, many of which are brilliant, particularly the remixes).
To top things off, I scored a big collection of mint condition Joshua Tree/Rattle and Hum 12" singles from the library "Book Burrow". Not that I really needed them, mind you. But nice to add to the collection.
Other than that, the summer has been defined by the heat and humidity, and we've had more than our share of that so far. I'm definitely not a hot weather aficionado, and find myself yearning for the mild temperatures of autumn.
Thursday, May 26, 2011
Six years ago, I wrote a book, through Arcadia Publishing's Images of America series, entitled The Portland Area 1868-1939. It’s a photographic history of Portland, Michigan. (Amazingly, it is still in print and available where all fine books are sold). I’m not mentioning this to toot my own horn (well, maybe just a little), but merely to set the scene for what’s to follow here.
In my research, I came across a huge cast of characters that shaped Portland’s history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, (and lots of information that never made it into the book). None of these characters were more interesting or enigmatic than a local baseball star named Don "Pedro" Pratt. Through the whole process of writing the book, his existence proved to be shadowy and fascinating: a guy who flitted in and out of the picture with a legend that reminds me of the blues singer Robert Johnson.
Before I go any further, I should explain that in the 19th century and into the early part of the 20th century, local baseball teams were a big deal. You have to remember that we’re talking about the days before television, before radio, and a time when such entertainment devices as gramophones and telephones either hadn’t yet been invented or, if already invented and on the market, were considered luxury items, much too expensive for the common person. The main sources of entertainment were the local opera house (later replaced by moving pictures)--and weekend baseball games. Portland, along with many other small Michigan communities, had its own team that, on warm summer Sundays, drew hundreds of fans to Goodwin Park to watch the action. These games were not relaxed and leisurely either, they were highly competitive, no-holds-barred battles for community pride.
Now back to our subject. Pedro Pratt was an African-American in a community with an extremely small, but unusually visible and noteworthy African-American presence, which I discovered was rarely mentioned in any previous history written about Portland. In my research, I found only one photo of Pratt (located in the Portland Area Historical Society’s collection), and it appears in the book. It’s a school photograph from the late 1880s or early 1890s that, coincidentally, also features a young Clarence Budington Kelland, who went on to become a famous novelist and short-story writer, but whose works are now almost completely forgotten.
The photo itself features only boys, and they are all dressed in matching costumes, as if for some sort of musical or dramatic performance. While most of the other boys are posed either lounging languidly on the floor or, in the case of the older and taller boys, standing in back with arms crossed or leaning affectionately on each other, Pedro is kneeling by himself bolt upright, his serious young face, under a halo of dark curly hair, staring directly at the camera. Pedro is sitting amongst his classmates, yet seems completely separate from them. Am I reading too much into a photograph? Possibly… but I definitely believe there could be some truth to Pedro’s “otherness” and perhaps some alienation from his fellow, lighter-skinned, classmates.
As near as I can tell, and I don’t yet have conclusive proof, Pedro Pratt was the son of Angeline Pratt. In the 1900 Federal Census, Angeline wass listed as a 43-year-old single mother, and earned her living as a laundress. She had four sons: 21-year-old Walter (whom I suspect may be Pedro), Don (age 16--he may also be Pedro—but probably too young), Theodore (13), and Lawrence (10). I’m fairly certain she also had a daughter named Maud who may have married and moved out of the house by 1900. (If all of this seems a little sketchy, that’s because it is. One of my future projects is to really dig in deep to the Pratt family and solve these mysteries).
Update: I am now almost 100 percent positive that Pedro Pratt's given name was, indeed, Don. He was born in 1884 and sometime after his baseball career was over, moved to Lansing, Michigan. He married and worked mainly as a carpenter. I'm still looking for that elusive obituary. I also question whether--if Don was in fact "Pedro"--the youngster in the photo is not actually Don's older brother Walter. By the way, Walter Pratt was also a baseball player. Here's where my doubt comes from: I know that Clarence Budington Kelland was born in 1881. The Pratt in the photo looks, to my eyes, older than Kelland. Walter Pratt was three years older than Kelland while Don Pratt was three years younger.
So why should anyone care about Pedro Pratt? What is so interesting about him? Why am I obsessed? It’s because the guy was a tremendous local baseball talent, and was the only dark face on otherwise all-white teams in the first two decades of the twentieth century. This was the era when the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” was in full force, barring blacks from playing baseball alongside whites, and several decades before Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color barrier in 1947. It’s possible that semi-pro ball and a few minor leagues were a bit more lenient about the policy, but even so, this was a time of segregation and racism, so it’s still remarkable that Pedro Pratt was allowed to play at all. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Pratt was an exceptional talent—at least at the local level.
In the course of my research for the Portland book, I only found a few photos of Portland baseball teams--none of which included Pratt. The Portland City Hall, however, had an oversized reproduction of a Portland baseball team photo (one of those old-fashioned kinds with individual portraits of the players arranged in a group), and that did feature Pratt. It was on loan from someone in the community, and I can’t remember why I didn’t try to contact this person to scan the original (maybe too frazzled at that point to bother). Anyway, with the amount of research I had to conduct in such a brief period of time, I couldn’t focus too much on Portland baseball. I delved into only a few seasons, but what I found was good stuff--and I’ve got a serious itch to dig deeper soon.
I looked at the 1910, 1911, 1912, and 1913 baseball seasons of the Portland city team (because the photos I found for the book were taken in those respective years)—not in any great detail, since as I said I didn’t have a lot of time to spend on them—but enough for some good stories. When I resume my research of Pratt’s baseball career, I’ll have to go back a bit more because Pedro began playing organized ball as early as approximately 1904.
The 1910 season began with manager Chester Divine lamenting his team’s lack of pitching depth, though Portland opened up its slate with a 10-1 victory over the REO squad. The May 24th Portland Observer announced that Divine “had the dragnet out” for Pratt and had located “the Colored Wonder” playing “star ball” [I’m still not sure what “star ball” was] in Indiana. Pratt agreed to come north to play for Portland and made his season debut against the Oldsmobiles on May 29, a game Portland lost 4-2. The season got better for Pratt, because he had three consecutive shutout pitching performances and Portland finished with a season record of (approximately) 13-5. (This final record is based on the game results that I was able to conclusively document. The Portland Observer wasn't exactly the Sporting News when it came to accurate or complete statistics).
One of Pedro Pratt’s best individual all-around performances occurred the following season. In May 1911, Pratt and Portland beat the Oldsmobile squad 15-3. Pedro was outstanding as both a pitcher and hitter in that game. He struck out seven batters and did damage with his bat, going 4 for 5, scoring 3 runs.
In a June 1911 practice session, Pratt accidentally lost control of his bat and it hit Chester Divine in the head. Though Divine was not seriously injured, it did end his baseball career. It appears that there were no hard feelings between Divine and Pratt over the incident.
On July 13, 1912, Pratt pitched a one-hit shutout. More amazingly, he actually pitched three consecutive shutouts that year (repeating his feat of 1910), and an incredible 30 scoreless innings between July and August of that season.
In 1913, the curve balling (and occasionally spit balling) Pratt threw an opening day shutout against Pewamo. Later in the season, Pedro struck out an astounding 13 batters in 5 innings en route to a 13-4 thumping of Lowell.
After this, Pratt’s live is a mystery. I didn’t delve any further into his baseball career, and I still have no idea what became of him. (See updates above and below). I have found no obituaries, and no record of where he is buried. He remains largely a mystery to me, but his ghostly presence re-enters my consciousness from time to time and is especially present right now. If I can find the time this summer, and maintain my current level of ambition, I may yet solve the mystery of Pedro Pratt.
Update: Just today, the "Portland, Michigan: Hometown History" Facebook page published a photograph of one of the Portland baseball teams that featured Pedro Pratt as its star pitcher. Here is this team photo. I sure wish I'd been able to publish it in my Portland book.
Saturday, May 14, 2011
That's the case with a book called Cardboard Gods by Josh Wilker, which is an offshoot and extension of his wonderful website of the same name, cardboardgods.net. Wilker posts images of old baseball cards (ca. 1974-1981) from his childhood collection and uses them as a springboard for deeper, and quite often hilarious, meditations on his own childhood and life. He's an excellent writer, and has an extraordinary eye and ear for nuance and detail. What could be painful-to-read naval-gazing in less skillful hands comes off as humorous and moving portraits of a 40-something guy trying to make sense of his life, past and present.
Wilker is about my age--from what I gather in the book I'd guess he was born in 1968 (same year as yours truly)--and grew up with a hippyish, back-to-the-land mother (and her equally bohemian boyfriend) in a rather rednecky area of rural Vermont. As a nerd and outcast in the community, he took refuge in baseball and his collection of "cardboard gods" and, when his older brother chose to ignore his presence, entertained himself with Strat-o-Matic baseball and other imaginary games. I was struck by the parallels between my life and Wilker's. Though my parents weren't hippies like Wilker's, I too moved to a rural small town and felt like I was, if not an outcast, a definite oddball who would never fit in. Like Wilker, I took refuge in baseball cards, comic books, and my own imaginary baseball and football teams.
Despite my lack of success on the field, my love for baseball never waned, and I also continued collecting baseball cards.
Friday, April 29, 2011
The funniest speech I’ve heard in quite awhile. Ron Swanson’s "Visions of Nature" art show grand opening speech from Parks and Recreation. Worth quoting in its entirety:
"Ok, everyone, shut up and look at me. Welcome to Visions of Nature. This room has several paintings in it. Some are big and some are small. People did them and they are here now. I believe that after this is over they will be hung in government buildings. Why the government is involved in an art show is beyond me. I also think it's pointless for a human to paint scenes of nature when they could just go outside and stand in it. Anyway, please do not misinterpret the fact that I am talking right now as genuine interest in art and attempt to discuss it with me further. End of speech."
Sunday, April 10, 2011
It was a ridiculously warm day in mid-Michigan today, with temperatures reaching the 80s. I, however, spent the afternoon working at the library, though I was able to take a walk this evening. Our house is just down the street from a Biggby Coffee shop (though my wife and I insist on referring to them as "Beaners'", their old name that was deemed politically incorrect a few years ago--I had no idea it was a derogatory name for Mexicans), and got some iced coffees (and a couple of sweet iced drinks for the kids--who of course decided that they didn't like them and didn't finish them. Ugh!).
Our 1997 Volvo 850 (232,000 miles on it), which was on life-support and about to die, was finally laid to rest in automotive heaven yesterday. We traded it in for $300 and bought a 2007 Chevy Uplander minivan. We finally have two nice rides in the garage at the same time--but more debt. Ain't that the American Way, though?
Back to coffee for a moment. I've decided that I'm addicted to Tim Horton's regular plain old coffee brew, and since there is a Tim Horton's not far from the South Lansing library, I stop there quite often. Just today, I learned of an urban legend that claims Tim Horton's coffee literally addictive because it contains nicotine. Tests were done debunking this rumor. Whatever they do to the coffee (I know that they brew it fresh every 20 minutes) it works for me and I love the stuff.
The new biography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X: a Life of Reinvention, had not one, but two NPR programs devoted to it last week (Talk of the Nation and On Point, if you're interested). The author, Manning Marable, spent 20 years researching the book (which apparently is full of new information and revelations about Malcolm) but unfortunately died a few days before the book's publication. I ordered the book from Amazon (I rarely order books from Amazon, but  I really want to read this book,  I know I won't be able to read it in the three weeks alotted by the library,  want to add the book to my collection and  couldn't pass up the $16.00 price Amazon offered).
Right now, I'm reading a book called Hellhound on His Trail, about the manhunt for James Earl Ray. I'd been intrigued by the book since it was published (a year ago? Two years ago? Can't remember). So far, so good. I rarely find much time to read anything buy juvenile literature these days, so it may take me a month to get through it.
Well, that's about all I have for now. I'll try and not be a stranger--but I'm not making any promises.
Saturday, March 26, 2011
Back in 1986, I never would have thought that 25 years later I'd be talking about a new R.E.M. album. But the "boys" (who are all now AARP-eligible) just released their 15th studio album, Collapse into Now.
With every album that R.E.M. have released since Bill Berry left back in 1997, the inevitable questions are variatons of the following: "Are they any good anymore?" , "Should they just give it up?", or "Does the new album have any redeeming quality whatsoever?" (Of course, there are plenty of hipsters out there who insist the band sold out after their debut album Murmur, but that's another story).
Count me in as someone who’s happy these guys are still around and making music, and YES, the new album, Collapse into Now is good. Maybe not great, but a solid effort that may be the band's best release since at least 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi.
Now, back to the issue of whether R.E.M. is still relevent. I often hear people say, "I used to like them, but they just aren't the same anymore" or "I haven't liked anything since [name-any-R.E.M.-album-released-in-the-1980s]." These folks are entitled to their opinions, though I don't happen to agree with them. (I, for one, haven't been interested in anything Sonic Youth has done since 1992, but I'm sure there are plenty out there who think Rather Ripped or The Eternal are incredible and that I'm missing out on 19 years of great music).
I'm not going to argue that R.E.M.'s post-Berry output is as good as the pre-Berry stuff, but with the exception of the putrid, fetid turd that was Around the Sun, they've come out with some consistently decent material that hasn't tarnished their name. I agree that the mystique the band cultivated in the '80s is gone (which was inevitable), and I lament the end of the the impressionistic, and sometimes downright indecipherable, lyrics that Stipe penned in those days. I do agree with the R.E.M. critics who believe Stipe has become excessively didactic in his recent songs.
Yes, R.E.M. have changed, but so have we as fans. They aren't the same band they were then, in fact they may not even be the same people they were then (growing older will do that to you), but I'm not the same (relatively) innocent 18 year-old I was when I discovered the band 25 years ago. Back in the '80s, the guys in R.E.M., still in their twenties, were in decidedly pre-millionaire status. They were schlepping from town to town in a van (and probably by about '85 had graduated to a bus) playing relatively small venues. (Peter Buck has gleefully gone on at length about some the early gigs where they played in some podunk town in front of about five disinterested drunks). Most of their fans (including yours truly) were about the same age or younger, with the wide-eyed wonder that comes with youth. That exciting, youthful empty slate tends to slowly disappears with age.
R.E.M. are middle-aged millionaires who now live miles apart from each other. For all intents and purposes, they no longer exist as a "band", more as a "project" that reconvenes every three years or so to record a new album.
As a fan since my late teens, I feel this weird sense of obligation to buy every new album they release, despite the diminishing returns. I'm happy to report that Collapse into Now maintains the modest upswing that began with Accelerate, but even so, after a few listenings it's hard not to get a sense that they're going through the motions. They seem to feel the same sense of obligation to record a new album that I have to buy whatever they put out there.
If you haven't guessed it already, I'm a little ambivalent about this new album.
Overall, Collapse into Now is a solid album, and proof that the band can still play well and write catchy tunes when the inspiration strikes them, but the sense of adventure that existed on previous albums is largely gone. I don't know whether that's a product of being bored middle-aged millionaires just going through the motions, or a band--still smarting a bit over the disaster of Around the Sun--playing it a little safe and recording an "R.E.M.-sounding album" with songs that make sonic references to various points in their career, but don't venture too much beyond that.
I initially thought that I'd write a blow-by-blow track analysis of this album, but I'm not going to bother. I've slaved over this stupid post for too long and by the time I finally publish it, there really won't be any point.
I guess I'll just finish by saying that Collapse into Now is the best we can reasonably expect from R.E.M. in the year 2011, and we just need to live with it.
Sunday, March 20, 2011
Not too long after digging out BOTW, I learned of a soon-to-be-released 40th anniversary edition of the album, containing the remastered music (actually, probably just a repackaged version of the 2001 remaster) plus a bonus DVD with S&G's infamous and very obscure 1969 television special, Songs for America , AND a brand-new "making of the album" documentary, The Harmony Game, featuring new interviews with Paul, Artie, Roy Halee (plus some of the surviving musicians who played on BOTW, famed Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine and bassist extraordinaire Joe Osborn. I knew right away that I would have to snag it--and I did. At $18.01 (including tax) it was worth every penny. Oh year, in my newly rediscovered Simon & Garfunkel frenzy, I finally picked up the 2001 CD remaster of Sounds of Silence, and the soon-to-be-deleted Warner remasters of Paul Simon's solo albums Hearts and Bones and Graceland.
As I mentioned, I first became interested in Simon & Garfunkel at age 13, back in 1981(or early '82), when I saw their reunion "Concert in Central Park" on HBO. I fell in love with their music right away, and was mesmerized by Art Garfunkel's halo of reddish-blonde frizzy hair. I'd love to be really cool and say that Led Zeppelin or The Kinks were the first 1960s/1970s era group with which I became obsessed, but I have to admit it was Simon & Garfunkel, the two relatively clean-cut folkies from Queens. I don't know how many times I re-watched "Concert in Central Park", but it had to have been close to a half-dozen viewings. My parents had two S&G albums, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, & Thyme and Bridge Over Troubled Water. I distinctly remember listening to those records alone on the old Motorola console stereo. I was alternately haunted and mesmerized by such tunes as "The Boxer", "7 O'clock News/Silent Night", "For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her", and "Scarborough Fair/Canticle" (to name just a few from those two great albums). When The Concert in Central Park album was released in February 1982, I made a beeline to Camelot Music, in Saginaw's Fashion Square Mall to buy my copy of the album. (Thankfully, I didn't have to wait four days to hitchhike from Saginaw, my parents drove me home). It was a double-album, so it was quite a financial investment for a 13 year-old. My mom insisted that we already possessed a couple Simon & Garfunkel albums that already contained many of the songs from the concert, so purchasing the Central Park album was unnecessary. I wasn't having any of that, though--I simply had to have that album.
I remember bringing that album home and immediately playing it on my crappy little record player in my bedroom, pouring over the lyrics in the booklet and gazing at the various photos of S&G, from different periods of their partnership--from the squeeky clean "Tom and Jerry" days of the late '50s to an awkward mid-'70s photo of the two standing uncomfortably side-by-side in front of Paul Simon's boyhood home in Queens. (I haven't listened to my copy of The Concert in Central Park in many years. The last time I heard the album was when someone played it several years ago at Schuler Books & Music, and it seemed a little bit limp to me).
Lately, I've grown to truly appreciate how incredibly well-crafted their albums were. Paul Simon may not have been particularly prolific as a songwriter (and, in fact, may have set the record for writing the most songs that make reference to writer's block) but what he did create was almost always good-to-great). "The Harmony Game" (making of Bridge Over Troubled Water) documentary sheds considerable light on what master craftsman Simon, Garfunkel, and producer Roy Halee were in the studio. First of all, they worked with excellent studio musicians throughout their career--(one thing I've noticed while revisiting the S&G catalog is how impeccable the musicianship is throughout)--but this reached a pinnacle on BOTW. From Larry Knechtel's brilliant piano playing on the title song, to Joe Osborn's amazing, melodic bass work on "The Only Living Boy in New York" (a sound created by an 8-string bass), and Fred Carter, Jr's acoustic finger-picking on "The Boxer", the playing on this album is amazing, yet understated.
Simon, Garfunkel, and Halee's use of innovative recording techniques rivals that of The Beatles and George Martin. For example, the "aah-aah-aah, here I am" vocals of "The Only Living Boy in New York" were achieved--if I'm remembering this correctly--by having Paul and Art sing in a cathedral, then multitracking their voices. The effect is otherworldly and incredibly moving.
I've always read, from various critics over the years, that S&G were “safe” and/or “square.” I realize that with their oxford shirts, sweaters, and short (for the time) haircuts, (not to mention their gentle music), this assessment may be somewhat justified, but I see S&G as about the most quietly subversive group/band of the ‘60s. They made anti-war sentiments and a questioning of America's direction, during a time of war and unrest, more palatable to the establishment—i.e. the middle American moms and dads of the young hippies who were gathering at Monterey, Woodstock, and Altamont. Perhaps in a small way, Simon & Garfunkel's decency, intelligence, and accessible music helped to bridge some of the generation gap. They did it in a way that more overtly rebellious musicians like The Doors, Bob Dylan, or the Rolling Stones never could. S&G were literally "bridges over troubled water" during a difficult time in America.
Thus ends one of the most disappointing MSU basketball seasons in many years. I can tell you that most MSU fans don't quite know how to take it. We've gotten just a wee bit spoiled around here and aren't accustomed to disappointment.
We're certainly not used to losing to our archrivals in Ann Arbor not just once, but TWICE, in the same season. (I'm still hurting over that). We're not used to wondering if our team will even make the NCAA tournament, and there were many nervous days late in the season where it appeared that the Spartans might be NIT-bound.
We as fans have to be realistic. We've had it really good for a long time and a less-than-stellar season was inevitable at some point. Lots of other schools would be thrilled to have the season we had in 2010-2011. (Northwestern, I'm looking at you).
So it's time for us to lick our wounds and look forward to (hopefully) better times in 2011-2012.
Monday, March 14, 2011
It’s been a disappointing year for our hoops team: after starting the season ranked as high as #2 in the nation, the Spartans limped to a 9-9 Big Ten record (17-13 overall), while enduring every conceivable bad thing that could have happened to them along the way. I suppose the harbinger of bad tidings came in the off-season when Chris Allen was kicked off the team. Then, early in the conference season, Korie Lucious was removed from the squad.
Other difficulties hampered the Spartans. Already thin after losing Allen and Lucious, Delvon Roe continued to fight through pain and injuries, Kalin Lucas slowly recovered from last year’s Achilles injury and only recently has played with the explosiveness of his first three seasons. The bigs never quite developed: Derrick Nix had disciplinary issues but has looked better as of late, Adrian Payne more often than not looked like a little lost out there, as did Garrick Sherman. Draymond Green sometimes looked like he was trying to do too much and his game suffered with inconsistency.
Perhaps the brightest surprises, in a season sadly lacking in bright surprises, were Keith Appling becoming a lockdown defender and walk-on Mike Kebler making the most of his significant increase in playing time.
Through all of this I’ve felt like a bad fan this season. A fair weather fan, if you will. This team just isn't fun to watch, so I've selectively chosen which games to watch this year. I missed the bulk of both Michigan losses, as well as the regular season blowout losses to Purdue, the Ohio State loss, and several others.
I felt quite guilty about my sporadic fandom this season until I talked to my wife's sister's husband. He's a former MSU athlete (track and field) as well as a season ticket holder for basketball and football. He admitted to "giving up" on the season and echoed my feeling that this year's basketball team was brutal to watch. I didn't feel so bad after hearing this admission.
So why were the Spartans difficult to watch? Let me count the ways: With the exception of Kalin Lucas, they struggled mightily to score; due to lack of depth, they were unable to push the ball up the court as in years past, and they seemed to struggle with fundamentals (lazy passing leading to turnovers and constantly biting on pump fakes, leading to ridiculous fouls).
I attended four games in person this season, and amazingly they were all victories for the Spartans. The come-from-behind win over the stinkin' Wisconsin Badgers was probably the most exciting game I've ever seen in person (so I suppose this team wasn't THAT brutal to watch).
So now the Spartans find themselves in their 14th consecutive NCAA tournament, and I'll be darned if I have a clue what to expect from them. If they lost in the first round, I wouldn't be surprised and if they made a little run I wouldn't be overly shocked (though a little surprised). Nobody, not even Coach K, is a better floor general in March than Tom Izzo--so anything is possible. Stay tuned, Spartan fans.
Saturday, February 12, 2011
Sunday, February 6, 2011
These are things I occasionally mulled over in my quest to track down Bob Seger's out-of-print 1969-1974 back catalog. Was the sheer rarity of these albums making me value them more than they deserved? Was I simply becoming nostalgic for a time (the early seventies) and a place (Detroit) that perhaps didn't warrant such a warm and fuzzy backward glance?
Full disclosure first. I don't want to create the impression that I've always been a Bob Seger fan--quite the contrary. I remember hearing his music back in the '70s, but the stuff I liked then was the Grease and Saturday Night Fever soundtracks, along with the disco and pop tunes I heard on the radio. I certainly didn't care about some growling, bearded dude--Seger--who looked like the auto mechanic at our local repair shop. (However I must say, living in 1970s Detroit, Seger was practically in the drinking water. I have vivid memories of my dad sauntering through the house belting out-of-tune versions of "Katmandu." It is this memory, plus other memories of Seger on the radio in the seventies, that made me nostalgic).
By the mid-eighties, I was fashioning myself as a hipster wannabe and listening to college rock and choice older artists like The Velvet Underground, The Doors, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones. I recall that my sophomore year college roommate, Paul D., was a big Seger fan, but I found Seger to be hopelessly uncool. It really wasn't until the last decade or so that I came around to appreciating how good this guy was between the mid-'60s until the late '70s.
Okay, digression over. I know you're dying to find out the answers to these existential quandaries regarding the value of these old Seger albums and whether they hold up to closer scrutiny.
In the last few weeks, I've finally struck gold in my "SegerQuest". My old acquaintance from Schuler Books & Music days, Mike V. (who is one of the biggest music fans I know and managed the Schuler music section in the early aughts when people still bought CDs) posted three Seger albums, via SoundCloud, on my Facebook page. (I'd only been pestering Mike, off and on for over a year, to hook me up with some old Seger). The albums were Ramblin' Gamblin' Man (which I already had on vinyl but wanted to convert to a digital format), Mongrel, and Back in '72.
After eagerly downloading them to iTunes, I burned all three albums to CD-R. Although I love being able to digitize music, my preferred listening method is still compact disc since I can easily pop a disc into my living room stereo (yes, I still have one of those), the CD player/radio in the kitchen, my CD Walkman (yeah, still have one of those dinosuar contraptions) or the CD player in our Kia Soul. (Our ancient '97 Volvo station wagon is too primitive to handle CD-Rs). I was able to burn Ramblin' Gamblin' Man and Mongrel onto one (killer) disc.
To top things off, I found an original vinyl copy of Seger's 1974 album, Seven, at the only record store in the Lansing area that's worth a damn, Flat Black & Circular (better known in these parts as FBC). (This reminds me that I'd like to, at some time in the future, write a blog post in which I lament the death of the record store--as if that hasn't already been done to death).
So by now, after I've digressed even more, I'm sure you're begging for the conclusions I've come to after listening to these albums. I've been meaning to do a blow-by-blow analysis of each of these old Seger releases, but not surprisingly never seem to have time or enough energy to do so. Let me then be succinct and say that they are, for the most part, excellent.
I'll start off with the Bob Seger System's 1969 debut album: as I've already mentioned, I've had Ramblin' Gamblin' Man on vinyl for several years, so it wasn't really a revelation. It's clear that Seger was still trying to find his voice on this, his debut album, and it's a little all over the place. The record is mainly bashing, propulsive Detroit rock (the title tune, "Tales of Lucy Blue", "Ivory", "2+2=?") with a little self-conscious psychedelic pop sprinkled in ("Gone", "Love Needs to Be Loved"). Seger was trying perhaps a little too hard to be everything to everybody, so the psych pop is a bit half-hearted and hasn't aged particularly well, but still it's fascinating to hear Seger performing a style of music he essentially abandoned after this album.
Mongrel (1970), on the other hand, is a true revelation. Sounding like a more brutal, savage version of Creedence, the System's third record (after the sophomore failure of Noah) flat-out rocks like a beast. Seger's voice is a hoarse howl throughout most of it, and the band just cooks. One of the few quiet moments is "Big River," which sounds like a rough draft of 1976's "Night Moves". In any case, Against the Wind, this surely ain't. It's a shame that Seger and the rest of the powers-that-be don't re-release this gem. Those who only know Seger as an MOR balladeer would be shocked.
By the time of 1973's Back in '72, Seger was beginning to refine his craft. This may be his most well-rounded record. It starts off with what has to be the definitive cover of the Allman Brothers Band's "Midnight Rider". Seger's version is considerably more soulful and rollicking than the Allman's somber rendition. The other highlights from this album are "Turn the Page" (one of the best songs written about the day-to-day drudgery of the traveling musician) and the brilliant, Stonesy "Back in '72" which contains one of my favorite lines (one that only people from Michigan could understand) "...but we got homesick for Lincoln Park...(imagine)". "Back in '72" is another road song, but rollicking and playful in contrast to the somber "Turn the Page."
I picked up Seger's '74 album, Seven, on vinyl at FBC. Seven is a straight-ahead rock 'n' roll album (and probably the ultimate Seger "party album"--I envision this record played at any number of Midwest "booze and pot" parties in the '70s) and features the Chuck Berry-styled "Get Out of Denver" and the bluesy, tongue-in-cheek "U.M.C. (Upper Middle Class)". The album cover is an abstract painting of rolling dice, and Seger was clearly "gambling" to finally have a hit record, but inexplicably, the album never even reached the top 200 of the Billboard charts. Although Seger made a few more decent records after this one (Beautiful Loser, Night Moves, Live Bullet, and Stranger in Town), I will always contend that when Seven failed, Seger finally had enough and played it somewhat safe thereafter. From Beautiful Loser on, his music became more professional and polished, sacrificing a great deal of the manic energy that made his earlier records so brilliant.
Well, I went into a little more detail about those records than I anticipated. Suffice it to say I'm having a wonderful time listening to these old albums, and am still hopeful that Bob will give them the re-release that they so richly deserve...and yes, the brilliance of these records has matched my level of nostalgia.