Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Power of Positive Thinking

I've been reading Stephen Ambrose's biography of Meriwether Lewis (of the Lewis & Clark expedition), "Undaunted Courage." The determination and resourcefulness of the men (and woman) on that expedition across the untamed North American contenent is extraordinary. It cannot be coincidence that the philosophy of the leader was relentlessly forward-looking. Lewis expressed his outlook in this way: "As I have always held it a crime to anticipate evils I will believe it a good comfortable road until I am compelled to believe differently."

We might all do well to consider the impact such positive thinking has on our endeavors. Defeatism is often mislabeled as "rationalism" or "realism." How much less might we accomplish if our first instinct upon being confronted with adversity is to bemoan our fate, crying that we just knew this would happen?

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Toad the Wet Sprocket, Live

If that title looks like it was produced by a random word generator, bear with me. It simply means that I have just secured tickets to see my second-favorite band, an opportunity I did not think I would ever get.

Toad the Wet Sprocket is one of those earnest, mellow alt-rock bands that flourished in a modest way during the late 1980s and early 1990s (see also, Gin Blossoms). The particular point of interest for me was that Toad was a Santa Barbara band, made up of kids who had gone to the local high schools just a couple years before I arrived in town. They even opened for the B52s at UCSB's Events Center in 1989, when the B52s were as hot as they would ever be. Better yet, the drummer's father was a professor of English literature at UCSB; I took two of his classes. He had a poster of Toad's breakout album, Fear, on his office door.

Pretty hip for a university professor to have a poster of an obscure indie-rock band right there in the hallowed halls of academia.

I didn't think much about it at that time, though. Finally, during my last quarter in school, the girlfriend of one of our roommates couldn't stop talking about this band and how great they were. It was not until I was out of UCSB that I purchased Fear. Of course I was hooked and instantly regretted not taking advantage of my proximity to their base of operations to see them perform at local bars and theaters (such as the Arlington, above).

Toad released two studio albums subsequent to Fear, but by 1998, they had broken up. Every once in a while, a report would surface that they had reuinited for a one-off show. They even got together for a few shows in 2002, but I never had a chance to see them. Surfing around the internet recently, as I am wont to do, I stumbled across the happy news that they have reunited again for a series of concerts through this spring and summer, all of which are at small venues. One of their few SoCal appearances will be in Orange County on a Saturday in August. As the Guinness guys say, brilliant! For a fraction of the cost of a ticket to see huge stars in the cavernous hole that is the Staples Center, we'll get to see a great band in an intimate setting, a band that I thought I would not have the chance to see live. Plus, I've never been to any rock concert in a space that didn't hold at least 12,000 people, so this should be a lot of fun. I'll try not to wear an old UCSB sweatshirt.

Incidentally, although I am now careful to specify that Toad is my second favorite band, that is not a slight. It arises from a fun time Cheryl and I shared. We participated in a Newlywed-type game with a bunch of friends not long ago, in which the guys guess how the ladies will answer certain questions about likes, dislikes, etc., and vice versa. I can say, without boasting ('cause it's simply the truth) that we crushed our competition. The only question we missed was as a result of my over-thinking it. When Cheryl was asked who I would say my favorite band was, she correctly guessed U2. When I was asked the question, I first thought U2, then over-corrected, thinking that Cheryl might try to be really clever and pick the band nobody else had heard of but she knew I liked (we had been so in tune with each other by that point, I thought anything was possible). She was right, though, and I was wrong, and we'll never miss that question again.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Go Beavers!

Congratulations are in order to Oregon State University, which became one of the more unlikely NCAA champions in recent memory by winning the college World Series yesterday. This is Oregon State's second NCAA championship, following men's cross-country in 1961.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Silly Internet Game of the Month

My gift to you, if you were looking for a way to lose some time you will never get back.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Dust Off Your Members Only Jacket

Here's the site of the year so far, for those of us for whom Rubik's Cubes, Family Ties and Wham! represented an important cultural cross-section during our formative years. I give you ... Videos of the '80s!

The size of the collection is impressive, although I must say that the U2 selection is very disappointing. It appears that each artist is represented by only one video, which hurts the big acts but is great for the one-hit-wonders. Just check out the Ks: Kate Bush ("Running Up That Hill"), Katrina and the Waves ("Walking on Sunshine" -- of course), and the immortal Kajagoogoo ("Too Shy").

Gotta go now. I want to shoot hoops in the driveway for a while before Mom calls me in for dinner.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

So Much to Watch, So Few TVs

It's 9:30 am on Saturday, and the TV schedule is just killing me. Czech Republic versus Ghana on ABC in a game that has huge ramifications for the US. Le Mans in its first 90 minutes on Speed. The US Open on NBC.

Maybe I should spend the morning at Best Buy. I'm sure they wouldn't mind if I pulled up in front of their bank of big screen TVs with a leather recliner, a bowl of popcorn and each TV set to a different event. This is a service they should provide in honor of Father's Day, I'm quite sure of it.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Play Beautiful

If you haven't tuned into the World Cup yet, you really should give it a try. Yes, it's soccer. Yes, you're not used to watching soccer in any form other than little kids swarming around a ball on an indifferently maintained multi-use school field. Still, if you try it just a little, you may find that you like it, and that your horizons have been broadened.

I played soccer for a number of years; it was my primary youth sport. I enjoyed it, became reasonably good at it, made the eighth grade team (and my neighbor didn't ... ha!), my kids play it. I was part of the generation of American kids that established soccer as a typical suburban youth sport. Eric Wynalda, Paul Caliguri, Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm ... those first American soccer stars are all part of my era. Soccer is a sport with which I can identify, perhaps more than any other.

That being said, I never watch soccer on TV. I don't really know the players, and don't really find MLS games to be very exciting. I think I've seen about thirty minutes of MLS coverage total over the past several years. However, the thirty minutes I chose to watch provide the key to why you should tune in to the World Cup.

The MLS game I watched was a key playoff game between the LA Galaxy and ... another team. It didn't matter who. What mattered is that the game itself was crucial for the players. This is why playoff games or series in every sport draw better TV ratings -- the games matter. Generally speaking, the loser goes home. There is something primal about that, something that touches the basic sense of competition that inhabits nearly everyone to some degree. So on a general level, games that end a competitor's season are more appealing than regular season games.

Next, the Olympics have always appealed to me, despite NBC's concerted efforts over the years to squeeze every last bit of true drama out of the Games through time delays and human interest stories. Give me some highly trained, althetically gifted young people wearing the colors of the homelands, competing against others just like them, and I'll watch whatever it is. I don't need to know their names; the purity of competition undertaken for the sake of country is sufficient.

Now we come to the World Cup. It involves soccer teams from 32 different countries, from all over the globe. That's hundreds of athletes whose names I'll never know. It is a win-or-go-home tournament, one that will not occur again for four years. It is a sport that generates great passion among the players' countrymen, who pull mightily for their teams. It involves teams of players whose common bond is not the owner signing the check, but the country of their birth (or, sometimes, upbringing). It involves the sport played at its absolute highest level. The result is competition as pure as can be found on today's sports scene. There is something to be said for that as a primary motivation to tune in, if you have any interest in sport or competition at all.

Plus, in the first round, all of the teams must play three games, so there is a steady diet of games every single day, usually three per day. Like the early rounds of football, baseball or basketball playoffs, the sheer number of matchups makes for great fun for the sports fan. The wonder of the World Cup is that, if you allow yourself to enjoy the basic competition of the endeavor, you can find yourself sweating out a 0-0 tie between presumed powerhouse Sweden and massive underdog Trinidad & Tobago, and understand exactly why the T&T players and fans exulted as if they had won the Cup (and the Swedes moped their way out of the stadium) when the match ended in a deadlock.

No, there is typically not a lot of scoring, but the threat of a score is always present, and play does not stop. In a way, the predictability of the duration of the game is comforting. Games start exactly on time, they proceed for two 45 minute halves (with a couple of extra minutes added on for injury stoppage, typically); it's all very orderly. Television coverage has been excellent: because Germany is the host, one game begins at 6 am here in the west; the next one begins at 9 am, and the last at noon. I've been able to see most of the first games before work, and the last half of the last games over lunch. This is far preferable to the last World Cup, which was held in Japan and Korea; rising at 4 am to watch Turkey take on Angola was much more difficult to justify, and much less palatable to the casual fan.

Try it out. Don't worry about watching the US team, necessarily. Watch Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands or Spain. (The jury is still out on England; they have been very dull so far.) For bonus points, keep an atlas handy so that you can help your kids find Togo or Algeria.

And the best bit of all: listening to US-based television commentators pretentiously attempt to establish their Euro-cred by identifying each country's team in the plural, as in, "Poland are attempting to defeat Germany for the first time ever." Priceless.

That Memorable Decade

Have we settled on what to call this decade yet? "Aughts" is impossibly old-fashioned, yet I haven't heard an alternative used consistently in any form of media. Even popular radio stations, masters of promotion, punt on this one:

"Coming up right after another interminable block of ads that are just like the ones you heard ten minutes ago, more of your favorite hits from the Eighties, Nineties and ... uh ... today!"

So fifteen years from now, when this decade is back in vogue among the tragically hip, how are they going to identify it? When, in that future age, you have a themed party, and everyone knows they're supposed to listen to the White Stripes, wear cargo pants and sport tatoos, what will go on the invitation?

This is very distressing. While it might not be such a bad idea to forget about this decade anyway, it at least deserves a name.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Memo to San Francisco Taxi Drivers


I am much obliged to your fanatical dedication to endangering my life whenever I visit your fair city in your singleminded determination to convey me between the airport and the courthouse. Disneyland wishes it could get this kind of bang for forty bucks.

But please, that pedal on the right? It's not an on-off switch. Don't use it like one. Caress it; squeeze it; tease it -- pick whichever semi-naughty verb you want, but please, please don't just tromp on it over and over. Your special talent makes me long for anti-nausea drugs while traveling in a perfectly straight line.

And be sure to add a cover page to your TPS reports.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Movie Mini-Review: Match Point

Do you like suspense movies? Okay. Do you like movies about amoral people? If so, you might find “Match Point” to your liking. Woody Allen directed this movie, but except for one fleeting bit of dialog about a couple with overlapping neuroses, you would never know it. Well, that amoral thing comes to mind, but that hardly distinguishes Mr. Allen from many his colleagues.

Set in London, “Match Point” is one part Hitchcock and one part “Talented Mr. Ripley,” with a dash of “Fatal Attraction” thrown in. The lead character is played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who is apparently an honors student at Joaquin Phoenix’s school of blank slate acting. He is a social climber with a sketchy, undefined past and no prospects for the future other than whatever may be most beneficial to himself. He, as does the film, meditates on the nature of luck as the driving force in the universe, as barren a worldview as one could imagine. He finds himself in the company of a very well-to-do family that carries on a baronial 18th-century lifestyle in the modern day. They are kind, and slightly silly in the way that comes from existing in a completely different class than the rest of society. They are also utterly ignorant (whether willful or not, the film does not explore) of the struggles, temptations and venality of life lived by ordinary people, two of which have entered their circle.

A convention of western literature is that the narrator of a story, whether an omniscient voice or that of a character, will be reliable. Skilled writers that manipulate this convention can create stirring, memorable works, such as Faulkner in “The Sound and the Fury,” or Chris Nolan with his film “Memento.” Another less firm convention is that lead characters will ultimately be liked or admired by the audience. Opposition to this model has long been a staple of writers and moviemakers, so much so that the “antihero” is a modern convention in and of itself. The legends of James Dean and Marlon Brando were built upon the antihero motif, and even many of Humphrey Bogart’s roles could be considered early examples of the type.

Match Point chooses to go a postmodern route by modifying the antihero archetype. The lead character exhibit the dangerousness and whiff of scandal required of the model, but he lacks the positive qualities and experiences that would ordinarily redeem the “-hero” from the “anti-” aspect of his nature. What the moviegoer is left with is a man who does bad things for bad reasons, without a glimmer of goodness in his soul. That his actions affect a vain, daft family on hand, and a selfish, unsuccessful fellow climber on the other fail to bathe him in redemptive waters. Ultimately, this is a film about a person who is revealed to be increasingly unlikable as the story unfolds.

That being said, the film delivers on the suspense, with the requisite number of twists and turns. The moral dilemma posed by the lead character, as unpleasant as it may be, is a defining feature of the movie. The performances are uniformly skilled (except perhaps for Mr. Rhys Myers; his face betrays little in the way of nuance outside of the obvious emotional scenes). Scarlett Johansson, with her jarring American sensuality all of smolder and smoke, provides a compelling counterpoint to the bored-stiff upper lip of the other characters. Woody Allen keeps his tics to a minimum (except for the maddeningly invasive mother character, who plays to every stereotype of a Jewish mother in spite of her Range-Rover-and-tea raiments). In all, this is an intriguing film, if ultimately deeply frustrating.

It is said the rich are not like you and me. If “Match Point” is any guide, be very glad of that.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

That Little Gnome Apparently Runs Travelocity

I am a proud early adopter of many new advances in technology, and particularly the internet. Used BBS services on a terminal at home (2400 baud -- ooh, speedy) in 1984. Got an e-mail account (UNIX system -- ooh, techie) in 1988. Joined AOL (just, eew) in 1993. Bought a computer over the internet in 1998, and a whole car in 2001. In each case, I was the usually the first among everyone I knew to do such things.

Another practice I adopted early on was searching for and purchasing airline tickets over the internet. I joined Travelocity eons ago, and for a time, it was unique, and quite useful.

Of late, however, I've become deeply disillusioned with Travelocity. Last year, when I was trying to coordinate the travel schedules of four people flying to New Orleans from four different cities, I was thwarted repeatedly from purchasing my own ticket through the site. After endless screens to pick departure date, arrival date, flights, seats and payment information, Travelocity would refuse to process the order, claiming some sort of internal error. After multiple, fruitless attempts to complete the lengthy transaction, I ended up losing out on a flight I wanted because of it.

As I attempted this week to make arrangements for a simple, one-person trip to Oregon, the same error cropped up. Call and wait on hold to speak to a customer service representative? Uh, no. I switched over to the airline's own site and made the arrangements in a matter of minutes, for less money.

Competition is a vicious thing, Travelocity. Guess what? We made our Florida reservations through the airline, and our Bahamas reservations Orbitz ... or Expedia ... well, whatever it was, it wasn't Travelocity.

Go back to the lawn, gnome.