Monday, February 22, 2010

Be Here for the Olympic Spirit

I've just returned from six wonderful days spent in Vancouver attending the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. With so much to absorb ~ the sights, the sounds, the souvenirs ~ I'm still collecting my thoughts to go with my pins and ~ yes ~ I sampled poutine (French fries smothered in brown gravy and cheese curds) and a very delicious Canadian maple custard-filled doughnut from Tim Hortons.

I will update later this week with my thoughts on the Olympic experience. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A dose of Winter Olympics fever

Hello from Vancouver, B.C. ~ soaking in some Winter Olympics for a few days. I've been in Vancouver for less than 24 hours and there's a great vibe all around the city ~ lots of Canadian pride being shown as everyone seems to be wearing a Canada hockey jersey or a scarf with a maple leaf. Lots of attention, naturally, being shown to the Canadian Olympians.

Will be taking lots of notes to share observations later in the week ~ will be attending short track speed skating later today, women's curling Thursday and the Sweden-Belarus men's hockey game on Friday.


Monday, February 15, 2010

The Thrill of Giving It Your All

The Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games are only three days old, but already there's been an abundance of exciting action to absorb ~ and knowing that there are so many stories and lasting memories that are yet to unfold.

So far, I have limited my Olympic intake primarily to the opening ceremonies. However, with figuring skating on TV tonight ~ beginning with the pairs competition ~ all bets are off. Even though, as a West Coast resident, I am unfairly subjected to waiting for NBC's prime-time coverage on a three-hour tape delay (while the east and central time zones get to see it live) and I already know the outcome from following a live results feed via the Internet in real time.

After watching the top Chinese pair Shen Xue and Zhao Hongbo skate a superior short program that would place them first among 20 teams with 76.66 points, it was soon time for an American pair whom I knew nothing about to take to the ice. And what an impression Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig made on me over the course of their 2 minute, 50 second performance which included seven required elements such as the death spiral. Nice personalities, good skating, inspiring music.

"I think they had a lot of fun with that performance," said NBC skating analyst Sandra Bezic after Evora and Ladwig made their Olympic debut Sunday night in the pair's short program, performing to the "Portugese Love Theme" from the movie Love Actually.

The reaction of the Pacific Coliseum crowd, which included Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, suggested the American couple had done well. Evora and Ladwig showed good chemistry on ice and certainly did nothing to embarrass themselves or their nation.

"I worked hard," Ladwig told NBC's Andrea Joyce afterward. "It was meant to be," added Evora. There was no crying in the Kiss and Cry area as Evora and Ladwig waited for their scores to post.

While their score of 57.86 placed them 10th overall going into Monday evening's long program finale, there is a tremendous satisfaction to be enjoyed in knowing that Evora and Ladwig performed to the best of their abilities. Years of practice produced dividends. It resulted in a cleanly-skated program ~ the thrill of knowing they gave it their all.

"Whether they win a medal or not," said NBC skating analyst and former Olympic champion Dick Button, "they skated a wonderful program and they can be proud of that."

It doesn't matter what happens in the long program ~ or whether Evora and Ladwig medal or not. They've got a Olympic memory of a lifetime from their positive achievement in their short program. A thrill for them, a thrill for the crowd, a thrill for their country.

After all, isn't this what the Olympics is all about ~ the thrill of giving it your all?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

It's Question Time ~ Ask the Blogger

In the spirit of Prime Minister's Question Time, the weekly time-honored tradition in Great Britain in which the Prime Minister is grilled and jeered by the opposition and cheered by his own party on the floor of the House of Commons about policy and current events, I thought I would take this opportunity to answer a few questions about me. You can add your own sound effects of "Hear, hear" and I trust you'll keep the cat calls to a bare minimum.

So, without further ado, here are five questions from the gallery with my five answers:

The book currently on my bedside table is: Far Flung and Well Fed: The Food Writing of R.W. Apple Jr. The late, great Johnny Apple capped a long and distinguished career with the New York Times doing what he loved best ~ writing about food and travel ~ and, in doing so, he became a noted authority on regional cuisine. This new book is a collection of his best food and travel articles. A must-read for foodies.

The artist whose work I would collect if I could is: Claude Monet ~ The beauty of the French impressionist's art can be found in his paintings of water lilies and his garden in Giverny is quite exquisite ~ simply beautiful ... need I say more?

An unforgettable place I've travelled to in the past year is: Except for our annual trip home to Minnesota, all of our recent travel the past year has been on the West Coast. So, my vote goes to Seattle, a city I never grow tired of returning to each Labor Day weekend with my wife for the Bumbershoot Art and Music Festival and, just as importantly, relaxation with our long-time friends there.

In my fridge you'll always find: A half-gallon carton of low-fat milk and a half-gallon carton of orange juice sans pulp, both usually purchased from Trader Joe's. I like to start each day at breakfast with a small glass of orange juice and a bowl of cereal ~ usually a mixture of oat squares with a dash of pecan praline granola with milk. The milk also comes in handy when I have a cup of French Roast coffee spiked with a bit of milk and sugar.

The last music I bought was: Via iTunes on Wednesday. I bought 15 tunes including: "Your Heart is as Black as Night" by Melody Gardot, "Town Cryer" by Elvis Costello & the Attractions, "Chuva" by Luciana Souza, "Where Did My Baby Go" by John Legend and "Variations in G Minor" by the Avishai Cohen Trio. Strung together, it's a lovely and jazzy ~ somewhat eclectic ~ five-song set to enjoy a bit of slack time.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Improbable victory for a most improbable team

"You ever wait for something for so long that the waiting becomes the something?" asked Wynton Marsalis, the esteemed jazz trumpeter and native son of New Orleans, summing up the mood of so many prior to the first Super Bowl appearance in the sometimes battered and often hapless history of the New Orleans Saints.

I've been alive for all 43 years of the Saints' NFL existence ~ rooted passionately for them for four years while I was in high school in southern Mississippi ~ and they have always held a soft spot in my sporting heart. My early personal memories of the Saints (1971-75), which coincided with the beginning of the Archie Manning years, were as lovable ~ sometimes laughable ~ losers, a kind of kinship similar to what Cubs fans everywhere share with their long-suffering team.

You always said an extra prayer in church on Sunday mornings for the Saints and hoped ~ maybe even begged ~ for a miracle to happen. Yet, more likely than not, calamity always seemed to prevail: a goal-line fumble here, an opponent's interception returned for a touchdown there. Hank Stram couldn't make winners out of the Saints, neither could Mike Ditka. Both had Super Bowl pedigrees before trying their luck coaching the Saints. It's amazing that Tom Dempsey once kicked an NFL-record 63-yard field goal to eke out a Saints victory way back in 1970. Back then, the victories were few and far between.

The Saints were, in the words of Wynton Marsalis: "Confined to a purgatory of their own making looking for the fast track to hell." That's putting it politely, but there wasn't a lot of positive spin the early days of the franchise. It didn't help, either, that the city of New Orleans, with a big assist from the state of Louisiana, went out and built the biggest fixed dome structure in the world ~ the dome roof covered 13 acres alone ~ in the very costly ($165 million), budget-overrun (original estimated cost $46 million) Louisiana Superdome. Located in the Central Business District, the Superdome opened for business in 1975 ~ only three years past the 1972 projected date thanks to political delays, construction delays and increased transportation costs caused by the 1973 oil crisis ~ after the Saints spent their early years playing in old Tulane Stadium, former home of the Sugar Bowl on the Tulane University campus. Way down yonder in New Orleans, losing always seemed to find the Saints.

Now, five years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina that left New Orleans a tattered, flooded city and forced the Saints to split their "home" games between San Antonio, Tex. and Baton Rouge, La. for a season while the Superdome underwent repairs, fast forward to Sunday evening's Super Bowl XLIV ~ a game brilliantly played by both the Saints and the Indianapolis Colts in the mild but comfortable climate of Miami.

It seemed evident something special was on the horizon for the Saints, playing in their very first Super Bowl game and coming on the heels of a satisfying victory over the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game at home two weeks earlier. Despite being down 10-0 after the first quarter, the Saints stayed close to the Colts throughout the rest of the first half and trailed by only four points at halftime.

Then, the game turned on the very first play of the second half with a very surprising but highly successful onside kick adroitly executed by the Saints that stunned everyone ~ the Colts, the crowd, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms (the CBS-TV broadcasters) and, certainly, Saints and Colts fans everywhere tuning in to the telecast ~ but not the Saints, themselves. On the gridiron, Payton (Saints head coach Sean Payton) was outwitting Peyton (Colts quarterback Peyton Manning).

Suddenly, the upstart Saints had captured the momentum and the rhythm of the game was all theirs. Quarterback Drew Brees led New Orleans on a fourth quarter drive by completing 8 of 8 passes that culminated in a 2-yard TD pass to Jeremy Shockley. A replay challenge of a two-point conversation following the touchdown went the Saints' way and gave them a 24-17 lead. Then, the fourth quarter interception of Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, son of the beloved former Saints Archie Manning, by Saints cornerback Tracy Porter sealed the deal and a 31-14 victory sent New Orleans fans rushing for Bourbon Street in the French Quarter and beyond ~ and gave the Who Dat Nation a cause and a reason to celebrate.

Laissez les bons temps rouler!

By the end of Super Bowl XLIV, 43 years of sorrow suddenly turned to laughter ~ and a second line strut could be felt not only in the Crescent City but around the state and around the country. Many of my Facebook friends who live in my former hometown of Ocean Springs, Miss. (about two hours east of New Orleans on the Mississippi Gulf Coast), and a few who have moved to other states, took to the popular social media website for the next several hours after the game ended, posting and sharing in the revelry and celebration of the Who Dat Nation. They posted from Mississippi and Louisiana as well as from California and Florida.

Winning a Super Bowl ~ even one that took more than four decades to achieve ~ changes everything. Now, Saints fans no longer will feel compelled to wear paper bags over their heads at the Superdome to maintain their anonymity, call their once-hapless team the Aints, or hide their black and gold team colors in public.

In the days ahead, don't be surprised if the team's idyllic insignia ~ the Fleur de Lys ~ becomes very trendy as new fans join the Who Dat Nation bandwagon. Don't worry, there's plenty of room in the second line for everyone to join in the number.

Soon, the networks will come courting with prime-time TV slots for next season on NBC's "Sunday Night Football" and ESPN's "Monday Night Football." Already, I sense fans near and far are showing an extra bounce in their steps ~ and Mardi Gras is still a week away.

As the Who Dat celebration continues today with a victory parade in downtown New Orleans with an eye towards next week's Mardi Gras, so many images and memories of New Orleans come to mind ~ some good, some great and some reflective. As a city so deservedly rich in musical culture, I am reminded of one seminal tune, sung very sweetly by the gravely-voiced jazz legend Louis Armstrong, that sums up the feelings of so many, including me: "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans."

Yes, it was an improbable victory for a most improbable team.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Take time for paradise ~ then enjoy the game

Today is Super Bowl Sunday and the culmination of the biggest day in the American sports calendar. With lots of hype in all kinds of media ~ print, broadcast, online ~ the build up to the Big Game has been hard to ignore, especially if you're a football fan. It may be freezing cold outside with three feet of new snow blanketing the Atlantic seaboard, but the weather's been ideally sunny and serene down in Miami, site of the 2010 Super Bowl game.

The Super Bowl commands a big stage with big Roman numerals ~ this year's game is Super Bowl XLIV. Quickly, can you remember who has played in the previous XLIII Super Bowl games? I lost track a long time ago. However, I'll always remember Super Bowl III in 1969, in which the young, brash and handsome Joe Namath guaranteed victory for the AFL champion New York Jets and promptly led his underdog team to a 16-7 victory over the Baltimore Colts. Parity had been gained in pro football and, soon thereafter, a merger of the NFL and the upstart AFL took place. And, as they say, the rest is sporting history.

Pro football in our country has come a long way since the first Super Bowl game was played at the Los Angeles Coliseum on January 15, 1967 between the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs. The game, which was televised by both CBS and NBC, didn't sell out ~ only 61,000 attended and the Coliseum could accommodate about 90,000 ~ and it was blacked out throughout most of southern California. I remember this because I was a nine year-old kid living in Tarzana, Calif., a San Fernando Valley suburb of Los Angeles, and had to wait until the following evening to watch a replay of Green Bay's lopsided 35-10 victory. It's funny to look back and realize tickets to the game were in the $6-10 range, which in 1967 dollars was a lot of money to spend for a sporting event ~ considering that box seats to a Dodgers game at Dodger Stadium sold for only $3.50 (we always sat in the less expensive $2.50 reserved seats).

Fast forward to the 2010 Super Bowl between the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts in a sold-out, modern stadium in Miami (with the corporate name of Sun Life Stadium, although it will always be Joe Robbie Stadium to me, after the Dolphins first owner) with tickets costing hundreds of dollars and up and TV adverts ~ both the good, bad and the tasteless ~ costing in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for 30 and 60-second spots. The NFL is the ruling king of American sports and, today, it's all about the money, baby!

For me, it's all about escaping before the game and taking time for appreciating other things before the Super Bowl kicks off. I have no need to listen to the CBS network talking heads for what seems like half a day before the late-afternoon kickoff. Since I'm not a big pro football fan (living in the Bay Area there's the choice of rooting for the equally-underachieving 49ers or Raiders), my Sundays leading up to Super Bowl XLIV have been most devoid of being a football couch potato.

Instead, my autumn ~ and, now, early winter ~ Sundays have been a great opportunity for doing non-sports related things like working in the yard, going on nice afternoon walks through the neighborhood ~ even going to the movies. It's my form of escapism from the gridiron and the endless replays and beer commercials that make up NFL Sundays in America.

Today, my wife and I ventured to the cinema multiplex at Bay Street in nearby Emeryville to see a late-morning screening of the Academy Award-nominated "An Education" starring Carey Mulligan, Afred Molina and Emma Thompson in a coming of age story about a 1960s suburban London teenager. I won't share any plot spoilers, but safe to say it's a wonderful screenplay that was penned by the British novelist and essayist Nick Hornby which I highly recommend seeing before the Oscars. And, yes, it was great escapism for a few hours before the kickoff of the biggest game of the year ~ the one with the hype, the costly-but-memorable adverts and the Roman numerals. And, every once in a while, an exciting finish with an improbable winner.

After all, shouldn't we take time for paradise?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Resolution: Read more books

One of my recurring New Year's resolutions is to read more books ~ mind you, not just any books. I enjoy reading food and travel memoirs, such as Calvin Trillin's Travels With Alice and Alice, Let's Eat, and I appreciate reading books about current, topical issues such as food wisdom, like In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma, both expertly written by Michael Pollan. Also, I'm trying really hard to finally read some of Nick Hornby's delightful books, like Fever Pitch.

I'm like many in today's reading climate ~ my reading habits bend toward staying current with newspapers (The San Francisco Chronicle and The New York Times) as well as periodicals like The New Yorker, Oxford American, Paste and Monocle. Also, I make time for perusing some of my favorite blogs written by my fellow Facebook friends ~ Michelle Hargrave, Amy Christine Stiner, Jessie Thompson Eustice, John Boggs and Steve Scott. Added up, there's just not enough quality time to devote to reading books.

Fortunately, 2010 is still relatively young ~ and I've always regarded reading as an admirable hobby.

On Tuesday night, while nearing the completion of a 20-minute peddle on a stationary bike at my fitness center ~ a place I seem to do some of my best reading ~ I felt a sense of gratification after I finished reading my first book of the year, The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British by Sarah Lyall, a London-based correspondent for The New York Times. Sure, it only took me 33 days into a new year ~ and it's a softcover book that's been on my nightstand since I bought it during a Labor Day weekend visit with friends in Seattle. OK, so I'm not a speed reader.

See, I'm just like many who don't need much motivation to start reading a book that's just been purchased ~ and in the interest of full disclosure, I prefer supporting independent booksellers, like Powell's City of Books in Portland, Ore. and Seattle's The Elliott Bay Book Company, where I bought The Anglo Files, instead of big chain retailers like Barnes & Noble or Borders.

I just have a bad habit of not finishing books that I've started. However, each time I picked up The Anglo Files I really enjoyed it ~ it's part anthropological field study, part memoir about an American reporter from New York (Lyall) who becomes transplanted in the U.K., meets and falls in love with a Brit who becomes her husband. Lyall writes about old, odd and peculiar British customs and attitudes in a very humourous tone.

For instance, she writes about the weather: "Even though Britons pretend otherwise, the weather has a huge influence on the national mood. Because so many days start bright and quickly turn gloomy, early-morning enthusiasm turns to late-morning glumness ... and writers from Shakespeare to Daphne du Maurier have written obsessively about the weather as instigator and mirror of their characters' moods. ...

"I think one of the reasons Britons lack Americans' perky enthusiasm is lack of light. The moodiness makes for lovely landscape paintings, but the sun's failure to rise all the way in the sky brings on a natural melancholy. At its best the sun is large and cold, like the dying sun of an old dying planet in a science fiction story. The sky might be blue, but it is always pale blue. In the winter, darkness follows lunch."

Often, The Anglo Files was my reading companion at my fitness center and I read it occasionally during BART commutes between Oakland and San Francisco. Sometimes, I tried to read a page or two at bedtime while laying in bed ~ although that's never a guarantee for reading a lot of pages before inevitably dozing off to sleep. Finally, the read pages added up to read chapters and, finally, a finished book ~ and it was an enjoyable read. Makes me yearn for getting back to London for another visit ~ but that's another story.

So, with one book down and who knows how many more to be read, what's next up on my 2010 reading list? Well, I think it's time for another foodie memoir that also involves travel, so I'm going to start Far Flung and Well Fed: The Food Writing of R.W. Apple Jr. A longtime reporter and correspondent for The New York Times, Apple made an art form out of writing about the culinary delights of regional cuisine throughout the U.S. I know it'll be a pleasurable read ~ and one I hope to savor from start to finish.

I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

My songs eclectic ~ the playlist

I am a devoted listener of the music program "Morning Becomes Eclectic" which airs weekdays from 9 a.m. -noon (PT) on KCRW-FM, the NPR affiliate in Santa Monica, Calif. and via the Internet on Also, I keep an ear pressed to "Eclectic 24" ~'s companion to "MBE" ~ which is the station's 24-hour music channel that blends the collective tastes of all of the KCRW DJs into one single voice. I have the Internet to thank for what commercial radio doesn't choose to provide ~ eclectic, cutting-edge music.

My gratitude goes out to Jason Bentley, the host of "Morning Becomes Eclectic" and his predecessor, Nic Harcourt, for helping shape my current indy pop/indy rock/world music "eclectic" taste which has evolved over the past couple of years. I've always been fairly open-minded ~ always appreciative of certain kinds of pop and rock as well as jazz, alternative and reggae (for those who remember me as a college DJ). And, occasionally, I enjoy listening to classical piano concertos while relaxing at home. Hey, I'm a believer that life goes better with music.

Now, thanks to iTunes, I have been amassed an ever-growing playlist of over 500 songs that I heard through regular listening of "Morning Becomes Eclectic" and "Eclectic 24" ~ songs in the key of life. Thanks to "MBE", I've become tuned to the sounds of Vampire Weekend, Koop, Sigur Ros, Neko Case, Calexico, Pink Martini, Tina Dico and the Swell Season, among many ~ all who produce a brand of very enjoyable, melodic and hip music that's not only easy on the ear, but also none of it very likely to find its way onto commercial radio anytime soon. Too bad for commercial radio ~ great for and public radio listeners.

10 songs I have been listening to on my iPod this week:
1. "Tel que tu es" by Charlotte Gainsbourg from 5:55.
2. "Sing Sang Sung" by AIR from Love 2.
3. "Two by Two" by Animal Kingdom from Signs and Wonders.
4. "And Now We Sing" (featuring Holly Brook) by Duncan Sheik from Whisper House.
5. "Swim Until You Can't See Land" by Frightened Rabbit from Swim Until You Can't See Land.
6. "Boa Sorte (Good Luck)" by Vanessa Da Mata and Ben Harper from Hotel Costes, Vol. 11.
7. "White Sky" by Vampire Weekend from Contra.
8. "Alone" by The Morning After Girls from Alone.
9. "You and I" by Wilco from Wilco (The Album).
10. "Debra" by Beck from Midnite Vultures.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Federer: A champion and a gentleman

OK, I'll admit it ~ I'm an unabashed Roger Federer fan and have been for a long time. In 2008, I had a brush with greatness moment when I got to see Rog hit on a practice court while attending the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Fla. during a family vacation. So, what's not to like about a champion and a gentleman who exudes talent, confidence and a warm, friendly personality?

On a summer Sunday night down under in Melbourne, Federer won his 16th career Grand Slam tennis championship as he won the Australian Open men's singles title for the fourth time in his career. Federer's convincing 6-3, 6-4, 7-6 (13-11) victory over Andy Murray added to his record for men's Grand Slam singles titles and served to solidify his place in in the tennis history books. It happened while I slept, Melbourne being 19 hours ahead of the U.S. west coast.

Even adulation has it's limits.

Yet, I woke at 6 a.m. PST to hear good news of Federer's victory as reported on NPR's "Weekend Edition Sunday," then, happily watched a taped replay of ESPN's coverage over breakfast a few hours later.

And I enjoyed every moment of it.

You see, Federer brings out the best in his opponents ~ and he raises the level of their games, too.

The third set tie-break, alone, showed why Federer, at 28, is an all-court master tennis craftsman ~ he overcame five set points by the younger Murray, 22, and, finally, won 13-11 on his third championship point.

Throughout the match, the always-motivated Federer excelled in all facets of his game ~ the first serve, the powerful forehand, the pinpoint one-handed backhand, the court speed, the deft touch, the mental toughness. He is a thinking-man's player and an independent one, too, who does not have a full-time coach like most other players on the tour.

By the end of Sunday's championship final, after more than two and one-half hours of emotion-filled tennis from both players, Federer seemed as fit as he was at the beginning of the match. And, his court mastery brought Murray to tears like Rafa Nadal did to him a year ago when Federer lost the 2009 final in a five-set thriller.

"I'm over the moon winning this thing" Federer said during the on-court trophy presentation after his victory. "I've played some of the best tennis of my life over the last two weeks."

In the final week alone, Federer, a native of Basel, Switzerland, beat the Australian Lleyton Hewitt in the Round of 16, the Russian Nikolay Davydenko in the quarterfinals and the Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semifinals before facing the Scot Murray, whom he defeated in the finals of the 2008 U.S. Open.

Some day, Murray will win a Grand Slam ~ even if, as Federer quipped after his semifinal victory in an on-court interview with former great Jim Courier: "I know he'd like to win the first for British tennis in, what is it, like 150,000 years?" It drew laughter. Federer sure knows how to work a 15,000-seat arena crowd. "The poor guy has to go through those moments over and over again," he added.

You, see, not since British tennis great Fred Perry did 74 years ago has a player from the U.K. won a Grand Slam men's singles title. Like everyone since Perry, Murray came up just a little short against Federer, whom he enjoyed a 6-4 lifetime record before Sunday.

"I can cry like Roger," Murray said on the awards platform after the match, his voice choking with each word. "It's a shame I can't play like him."

Everyone loves a worthy champion and Federer currently reigns supreme on all tennis surfaces ~ hard court, clay and grass. However, what I like best about Federer is this: He exudes other noble qualities often lacking in today's sporting arena, namely good sportsmanship, whether in victory or defeat. On Sunday night, Rog was all smiles, but he also graciously congratulated Murray as well as the Australian fans.

Finally, what's not to like about the maturing Federer winning his first Grand Slam since becoming a father of twin girls last summer? His wife, Mirka, and his unassuming parents were in the the Friend's Box to appreciate Federer's latest achievement. Nice folks, those Federers.

"You know, I really want to try to enjoy, you know, my end to my career," Federer spoke to the crowd "because I've reached already so many goals I thought were never possible."

Spoken like a worthy champion and a wonderful gentleman.