Monday, November 20, 2006

Blimey, I'm Going Brit

I have undergone a strange transformation this year. The most obvious external manifestation is this: on Sunday afternoons this fall, I can usually be found slumped on the couch in near-somnabulence, a beverage and perhaps popcorn at my side, the TV on, tuned to a football game.

No, not that football. The original football. Soccer.

English soccer.

Somehow, I have managed to have my U.S. passport revoked, but the facts are true. Lately I have been more likely to watch an English Premier League match on a Sunday than I am to watch an NFL game. How has this abomination in the face of all that is American (this is our country, after all, as Mr. Mellencamp endlessly reminds us) come to pass?

I chalk it up to a couple of developments over the past few years. First, the unexpected. Several times in her short school career, Kelly has been given an assignment to produce a project designed to celebrate her "heritage." That is a pretty loaded concept around here, and usually results in a project-day malange of Armenian pizza, tamales, colorful Eastern and Mid-eastern dress and a broad sampling of non-Western music. These assignments forced me to confront, seemingly for the first time, what kind of mutts we are. In the time and location I grew up, European muttishness was the norm, and as a result, "cultural heritage" assignments did not exist, as they would only accentuate the differences of the relatively few minorities in our midst (although, to be fair, I grew up with quite a diverse population, with a prominent Asian faction in particular).

In our community, however, Kelly is a distinct minority, by coloring as well as heritage. As is often the case with minorities, I suppose, I began to focus on what that heritage truly is. Through her mother, Kelly relates back to the very first American settlers, including John and Pricilla Alden. As a result, she has a distant but direct English background, as well as Germanic heritage through her maternal grandmother. On my side, she has a strong and relatively recent Scotch/Irish lineage, with plent of English and some German thrown in. So, for us, heritage-wise, it is "Rule Brittania."

These ruminations came against the background of the past two World Cup soccer tournaments in 2002 and 2006. I watched quite a bit of the 2002 World Cup, which was an accomplishment in itself because the tournament was held in Korea and Japan, meaning that the games typically aired at about 4 am. This year's tournament was held in the much more convenient location of Germany. In addition to be a superb venue for the games (the parties outside the stadia looked like a tremendous amount of fun), the games came on relatively conveniently in the early morning (watch before work) and lunchtime (home for lunch).

I watched or followed most of the games this year, and found myself drawn to the English team (as well as the American team -- I'm not a complete turncoat). I found myself enjoying the spectacle and excellent play of the athletes simply as a fan of sport, similar to the enjoyment I derive from the Olympics. As I followed the commentary of other fans on sports-oriented websites, some of those in the know suggested that us newbies enjoyed this soccer, we would really enjoy the English Premier League. The sales pitch was that the teams were comprised in part of many of the same international-level players featured at the World Cup, the gameplay was even better than the World Cup due in part to more aggressive tactics and less diving, and many of the games are broadcast in the U.S. on the Fox Soccer Channel and a couple of other even more obscure channels.

Lo and behold, I discovered that our cable system does have Fox Soccer Channel (but not the NFL Network -- go figure). During the summer, the off-season for the Premiership, I watched replays of key games from the prior year, enabling me to learn some of the key players and teams. At the same time, prominent internet sportswriter Bill Simmons of ESPN had a similar revelation, and wrote a long series of articles about the Premiership as he had his readers help him pick a team to follow. The pros-and-cons of each team laid out by the true fans helped me identify the important teams and players to follow. By the team the season started, I was good and ready to give this a go. After three decades of being a sports fan, picking up an entirely new sport was a bit of a daunting task, and I felt like a bit of a Johnny-come-lately, but it couldn't be helped. I was in, for good or ill.

I even picked a favorite team, very organically, I think. As I watched old games, read about the players and learned the recent history of the game, I found myself following one player in particular, a midfielder whose innate abilities had been celebrated since his youth, who had signed and remained with the team he had idolized since childhood even when he had opportunities to sign for big money elsewhere, and who had almost singlehandedly lifted his team to the top in the past season. It is because Steven Gerrard is such a great player (see some of his exploits here, if you can bear to watch soccer highlights) that Liverpool became my team of choice. Truly, there are few in the world who can imagine, let alone execute, some of the long-distance diagonal passes he makes. When he's on top of his game, he is amazing to watch.

Shockingly, the first replica jersey I have ever owned is a Liverpool Reds kit.

I always thought the first, and perhaps only, jersey I would hang in my closet would be a (now vintage) Will Clark San Francisco Giants uniform top. What happened to me?

All I know at this point is that after years of watching baseball and football (American style), I am really enjoyed getting to know a new sport, a new league, new players, and the droll English TV announcers. Saturdays are now enlivened with three English games in the mornings, two of them live. It is all new to me, and thus not boring. I haven't been there, done it all. It helps that I am predisposed to enjoying soccer because I played it, and because the kids play it now.

And if you are curious about this whole thing, if you will only consent to watch one English league soccer game this year (or any year), check out the game this Saturday between Manchester United and Chelsea. It is a clash of the titans, the two top teams in the league, fielding what amount to all-star teams.

Now, if you don't mind, please turn off that American football rubbish and switch the telly over to the Prem; the Gooners and Spurs are about to take the pitch in a classic London derby (pronounced "darby," doncha know).

Friday, November 17, 2006

Dumb Criminals Make For Comedy Gold

There is nothing funny about a death threat. Nothing, that is, unless it is delivered with flood-tide levels of ineptitude and lunacy.

Former Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Sandra Day O'Connor has revealed that the members of the Court, as well as several other prominent national officials, received poisoned cookies from a Connecticut woman in 2005. A threat of that kind is serious business. Fortunately, the crack security detail assigned to the Justices acted on a hunch, performing a mass-spectrometer analysis on the baked goods just before the Court consumed them at a pleasant late-afternoon tea ...

Well, no. See, the cookies were accompanied by a note for each Justice. Not a note thanking them for their work on behalf of the nation, with a cookie as a token of appreciation. No, the notes said, "we are going to kill you. This is poisoned."

Somehow, the Justices narrowly avoided misinterpreting this mysteriously ambiguous message by eating the gifts, and had them tested instead. Each cookie apparently was infused with enough rat poison to kill the entire Court.

The mystery deepened when the authorities set out to catch the malicious chef. The notes were cunningly signed in a feigned scrawl with a false name. However, the dedicated sleuths swiftly turned up a vital clue: the letters and envelopes in which the letters were mailed contained the sender's name and address. Typewritten.

Ever the gracious host, Justice O'Connor still referred to the deadly delights as "a wonderful package of home-baked cookies."

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Making Saturdays More Simple

With all of the running around we do on Saturdays, with soccer games all over town, birthday parties even more randomly sited, and Home Depot runs slipped in when the time can be found, I think I've found something that could help us out. Mainly by substantially reducing the amount of time spent in transit:

A nice little upgrade over our current Passat, boosting the go-ness to 300 horsepower. Look, honey, it comes in a wagon!

It's a Volkswagen. How irresponsible could it be?


A Modicum of Class and Civility Returns

The decline of civility in the American culture has been extensively chronicled and bemoaned. Everything from the Beatles to hippie culture to "Saturday Night Live" to Fox to Howard Stern to Borat has been blamed for the unceasing erosion of general decorum in society over the past forty years.

Thankfully, it appears that our long national nightmare may soon be over, at least in part. In a historic reversal, the National Football League will allow its head coaches to wear suits and ties on the sidelines during games for the first time since 1993. Finally, less of this:

And more of this:

Of course, the NFL insists on protecting its lucrative clothing licensing deals, so the coaches may wear any suits they like, so long as they are made by Reebok. Look for them in the newly-opened Men's Formalwear section of your local Sports Chalet.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Soccer Updates

The kids' soccer seasons are drawing to a close. Each has one regular-season game remaining; Kelly's team will then go into the division-wide playoff tournament.

Michael has had fun with his Boys Under 5 team. The games are a challenge for the coaches, simply to get the boys to pay attention and remember to play. It is a solid, nuturing program, though. The three-on-three format, with active involvement of the coaches and the freedom to stop the action or substitute players at will is well-suited to the attention spans of little boys.

Kelly has had a different sort of year. After going very deep into the playoffs last year in her first year in the Under-10, this year's team has gone winless. The girls have generally kept a very positive outlook, although they have been disappointed with the losses. There have been some blowouts, but they have managed to stay in most of the games. The year started well for Kelly: she scored the first goal of the year to turn the tide in what was headed toward a disasterous beatdown, then she scored in the next two games. She began the season as one of the apparent offensive weapons, but too often she was not paired with other solid offensive players, and her productivity as a striker waned. She is a very complementary player, who sees the field well and passes intelligently but is not always very fast on the ball, which makes her ideal for midfield or defense. Her coach has started using her as one of the featured defenders and (like last year) in goal, which has yielded dividends. This past weekend, the Red Hot Sparkplugs won their first game in convincing fashion. It was obvious to me that the coach, who has been even-handed in his personnel rotations to the detriment of outright winning, put his best lineup on the field for the first quarter: his tiny but clever twin daughters as wingers, a tall, strong but somewhat awkward girl at striker, Kelly and another aggressive defender at the side backs and one of Kelly's teammates from last year as center back. I confirmed with the coach later that the fully intended to go for the jugular with that lineup, and it paid off immediately, with three goals in the first ten minutes. By the end of the game, the girls, parents and coaches were giddy with the win. It was nice to see the payoff for all the hard work over the course of the season.

The irony is that the win came against the team of Kelly's best friend, plus another girl from Kelly's team last year. Kelly had been looking forward to the game all year; I think Kelly and her friend were both a little shocked that it turned out the way it did. After the game, though, they couldn't stop kicking the ball around after they came over to the little boys' field to watch their brothers play (on the same team):

It has been a good year for Kelly, whose skills have improved dramatically. Next year, though, she will go back to being one of the little kids, one of eleven on the field at the same time. She loves the game and likes to improve, so we can't ask for more than that.

Evening Skies

For some reason, when it is 95 degrees in November, you get sunsets like this on our street:

Moonrise over the hill ... if only I'd had a tripod -- now I just have to say it's art:

Saturday, November 04, 2006

A Solution for the Geographically Impaired

Americans are notorious for their shaky-to-nonexistent grasp of basic geography (although I have some doubts as to whether a stockbroker from Melbourne would be any more adept at locating Azerbijian than your average New Yorker). Are you feeling a little skittish about your own geographical prowess? Then go here (thanks, Dad!) to try your luck at a variety of geography quizzes, which are very effective in increasing your knowledge of geography. You should probably start with the basics: the states of the U.S., then maybe the continents and oceans of the world. If you want to test your knowledge of current events or, more likely, enhance your comprehension of the daily news, try the Middle East. You will see that there are a variety of quizzes available, so if you're really up for a challenge, try something like China. You never know when you might become an analyst for The Economist and need to know these things.

Get your kids going on this! Whenever I do any American states quiz, my mind sees a puzzle I had as a kid, in which each state was a carefully shaped puzzle piece of a different color. California will always and forever be orange, and Wyoming yellow. That puzzle was one of the best learning toys I ever had, in part because the states were accurately shaped, not turned into rounded-off vague suggestions of the real thing. Being able to handle each state helped me absorb their unique shapes, so that geography quizzes about the U.S. have never been a problem for me. In this day and age, though, kids do nearly all of their learning on the computer (well, our kids do an awful lot of it there). These geography quizzes are a great way to add to that arsenal of learning tools.


A Long Time Ago, on a Prairie Far, Far Away

Halloween gave us the seldom-seen pairing of Laura Ingalls and Anakin Skywalker: