Month: January 2017 (Page 1 of 2)

Playing Hooky

When we first became parents, we set some limits on ourselves that we thought would benefit our kids. These rules were based on observations of other parents, both adopting elements of parenting we admired and rejecting those we thought were inappropriate. One rule was that we would never take our kids out of school for an extended period to take a family vacation.

We violated that rule four years ago when we went to Disney. We justified that by telling ourselves M was only in second grade, C only in kindergarten, and L still in preschool: we weren’t setting them too far back. And this was a one-time trip anyway.

Well, we did it again. We spent last week in Florida, first spending two-plus days in Orlando then two-and-change near Jacksonville. This time we felt some guilt. So much so we tried to keep the trip a semi-secret at school. But more about that later.

We had some solid justification for the trip again this time. S’s dad and step-mom purchased a home south of Jacksonville late last year. They spent some time down there after closing, but officially made the move south after Christmas. We wanted to go visit them. However, S has to work the week of St. P’s spring break this year.

We decided that since our trip to Disney in the slow times of January was so successful four years ago, we would make a jaunt down to Universal Studios to do the Harry Potter thing and then go check out the in-laws’ new place. We figured it was early enough in the semester that the girls wouldn’t get too far behind in school and would have plenty of time to make up for missed assignments and tests. Plus, they all got really good grades last quarter, so we felt they could handle the catch-up process if we gave them plenty of help.

We flew to Orlando Tuesday. We stayed at the Hard Rock hotel right at Universal. The girls thought the hotel in general, and our room in specific, was really cool with all the rock memorabilia decorations. Even though we had to tell them who most of the artists that had their costumes, records, or guitars displayed were. We didn’t have park tickets that day, so we spent the afternoon at the pool. It was sunny, 75-ish, and a perfectly fine day for us Midwesterners.

Wednesday was our first of two days at the park. We got in right at 9:00 and high tailed it back to the Diagon Alley Harry Potter section. I had done a binge viewing of the movies the previous week to augment my reading of the books late last year, so I was well-steeped in the visuals of the series. I have to admit, all the Harry Potter stuff was amazing. The rides were super cool.[1] The buildings are amazing. The marketing is, of course, way over the top. But I also give them credit for really bringing the series to life. Everything that was sold in the books and movies can be purchased in the park. For a premium, of course. But that’s half the fun, right? We got C and L robes before we went – C is a Hufflepuff and L is a Gryffindor – and all three girls got the interactive wands that allow you to do various “spells” around the Potter areas. Those are kind of tricky, but once they figured out where to point them, I think they enjoyed having them over the basic wands. M got a Ravenclaw shirt because she’s too cool for a robe.

C especially loved it. She had been watching YouTube videos by people who had visited the parks for weeks. Car rides to practices and games before we left usually meant she was reciting the list of all the things you can do and see at Universal. She really was in heaven.

And it was fun to watch M loosen up, have fun, and act like a kid again. She is often way too cool or disinterested in what the rest of the family is doing. But she walked around with a big grin on her face most of the time, too.

We took the Hogwarts Express over to the other park, which held the Hogsmeade side of things. Again, so much fun. The parks weren’t overrun the two days we were there, but the Potter areas were by far the busiest sections. Just a big, fat reminder of how popular the series was and still is.

While L wasn’t down with the fast rides, M and C loved them. We did Escape From Gringotts twice, and the Forbidden Journey ride three times over our two days. And M, C, and I did the Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster ride. It’s a compact, quick roller coaster, but still not a kiddie ride. I sat alone in front of them. For the entire 30 seconds or so the ride lasts, the girls totally played to type. M screamed at the top of her lungs. Happy screams, but still high-pitched wails. And C just laughed her ass off the entire time. They weren’t quite ready to do any of the big, scary roller coasters like the Dragon Challenge or The Incredible Hulk. Not sure they ever will be, to be honest.

The other ride that was a big hit was the Jurassic Park River Adventure ride. The last drop is a doozy. It’s probably good L didn’t see how steep it was before we got her on or she would have never gone. I don’t know that she loved it, but she also had a look of "Well, that was kind of fun“ after.

As with Disney four years ago, we struck gold in terms of crowds. We rarely had to wait more than 10 minutes to ride anything. We pulled out our Express Passes a couple times, but they weren’t absolutely necessary. On several rides Thursday, after we navigated the lengthy wait corrals, we walked right up to a waiting car and strapped in.

One thing I thought was really interesting about our visit was how much Portuguese I heard. I bet a third of the people there were from Brazil. I suppose it is their summer break, and late January is a pretty lean time for Americans to visit. But it still seemed odd to hear that language be so dominant.

Wednesday night we ate in one of the restaurants in the hotel. During our meal, someone in a full-sized Homer Simpson costume made the rounds of all the tables. The girls loved it, but we also had to explain who he was, what his name was, etc. The same person returned moments later in a Bart costume and we had to do the same explanations again. We thought that was pretty funny. I wouldn’t be upset if they wanted to start watching The Simpsons, something I stopped doing in ’91 or so.

Both days we returned to the hotel for an hour or so at the pool in the heat of the afternoon. It was 75–80ish, so perfect.

Friday we rented a car and drove the 2.5 hours up to Ponte Vedra where my in-laws are now living. They’re in a brand-new place in a nice community. It had begun to cool off that day, but was still sunny and pleasant upon our arrival. We took a drive to a beach that was not too far away. It was far too chilly to get into the water, but we walked around, the girls looked for shells, and we saw a guy fishing who reeled in a stingray, which the girls thought was amazing.

Saturday was cloudy and chilly so it became a mostly family-time day. We watched E.T., which the girls had seen a few years ago, but they enjoyed even more this time since we had gone on the E.T. ride at Universal.

Sunday we had an uneventful flight home, and arrived to spitting snow and temps below 30.

Oh, there was one last highlight of the trip. As we walked to baggage claim, we heard some kind of chanting. S, seeing a group of high school or college kids in letter jackets, said, “Is that cheerleaders?” As soon as she said that, I figured out what it was. “No, those are protesters.”

We took the escalator down to the claim area and several hundred people had gathered to protest President Trump’s immigration executive order. While we waited for our bags, we explained to the girls what was going on, and how even though we as a family are not fans of Trump, we thought the biggest takeaway should be this wasn’t a protest against a person, but rather against a bad policy and for protecting the rights of innocent people. I think they kind of enjoyed all the chanting. Their first political protest!

S and I enjoyed the folks who sat by us in the Jacksonville airport, who loudly proclaimed their support of Trump in Florida, stewing next to us as they waited for their bags.

It was a very good week. I won’t say it was a desperately needed break, as the holidays aren’t that far in the past and January has been warm and rainy for the most part. But it was still good to get away. We’re used to going somewhere in late March/early April and then spring quickly arriving after. Now we have a long slog before we get to the warmer, longer days. I guess that’s my only regret of the trip: we were diligent with the sunscreen and not outside long enough to really look like we spent nearly a week in Florida. A little more of a tan would have been nice.

Between a short first week of the quarter, MLK day, and our trip, the girls have not had a five-day school week yet this year. Until this week, that is. Spoiled rotten, those girls are.

Oh yeah, about school. When we booked the trip last fall, we told the girls not to mention that we were going to Universal around school. They promised not to. In my first library shift of the new year, the librarian said to me, “So, I hear you’re going to Universal!” “Who told you that?” I asked. “Oh, L told me all about it.” Jeez.

The week before we went, I was in the library again. As I was signing out in the office, I told the ladies up there we were going to be out of town for a few days and asked if I needed to send an email in each day, or if a note at the beginning of the week was enough to excuse the girls. One of the ladies immediately blurted out, “Are you going to Disney?!?!” Not in an accusing or negative way, but like she was totally excited for us. I admitted we were going to Universal. So the word was out. At basketball practice, girls from the other St. P’s teams would harass me about wanting to go with us to Harry Potter World.

But the girls’ teachers were all great. They each got a lot of work to bring home and knock out so they wouldn’t be too far behind. Again, I think it really helps that they all get good grades and are well-behaved. And that we don’t do this often. Because we all know there are some families that do this on a fairly regular basis.

We spent the final weeks of January 2013 and 2017 in Florida, going to amusement parks. Not sure we have it in us for January 2021, when we’ll have a sophomore, an eighth grader, and a sixth grader. But you never know.

  1. Amazingly L does not like rides that go fast, are dark, or that she thinks might flip her upside down. In every other aspect she’s the most daring kid in the family, but not when it comes to rides. She was not a fan of the Escape From Gringotts ride. And I had to walk out of the Forbidden Journey ride with her because she was having a meltdown.  ↩


Sunday sucked.

Not because of the weather. For the second-straight day it was in the 60s here, although it was a more dreary day than Saturday. No complaints there.

Not because anyone in the family was sick. We are all reasonably healthy.

Not because of L’s basketball game. Although we lost by 2, it was a good game and the girls played really well.

Sunday sucked because of a text I got late in the morning from a friend back in KC with the news about Yordano Ventura.

Ventura wasn’t the first athlete to lose his life too early. Hell, he wasn’t even the only one to die on Saturday night/Sunday morning.

But he was the first who played for a team that I loved. I wasn’t Prince-died sad Sunday, but I was bummed for the rest of the day, the sadness rising a little each time I read another tribute to him from a baseball writer, by a fan, or news that his teammates were gathering with fans at Kaufman Stadium to celebrate his life.

My thoughts about Yordano? I’ll argue he was the most frustrating Royals prospect ever. There were plenty of guys who were high draft picks or minor league studs who never panned out if and when they made it the big leagues. But none of them ever had the ceiling that Yordano had while also showing the flashes of brilliance he showed.

From his earliest days with the Royals, he displayed the physical skills to be one of the best pitchers in the game. His first full year in the rotation, 2014, he had an amazing stretch of starts early in the season. He capped that year by throwing seven shutout innings in game six of the World Series.

But he always countered those brilliant stretches with the maddening ones. The innings where he would get two quick outs, walk a guy on a close 3–2 count, then lose focus and give up a single followed by a 3-run home run. There were the games where he appeared to be cruising and suddenly had a 35-pitch inning that prevented him from getting through the fifth.

And then there were the blowups. The yelling at opponents for no clear reason. The yapping with first base coaches as he walked off the mound. The three-straight starts in 2015 when benches cleared because of his antics.

With Yordano every start was a thrill ride of not knowing if he would be un-hittable or a head case. Would he be solid through six-plus, or meltdown in the third and tax the bullpen.

There was always something.

The 2016 season was disappointing in a lot of ways for the Royals. To me the biggest disappointment was that Yordano seemed stuck in mediocrity. Sure, he threw the most innings of his career. But he also gave up the most hits and had the highest ERA and WHIP of his career. And he was a mess in July. Then again, the whole team was. But the Royals seemed fed up with him and publicly acknowledged they were entertaining offers for him. Was he going to be another one of those guys with a million dollar arm that could never figure it out?

In the end, the Royals stuck with him, and he improved in the final quarter of the season. He was only 25, signed to a team-friendly contract for five more seasons, and still oozed with potential. You don’t give up on guys like that.

Looking ahead to 2017, there was the hope that maybe Yordano was a year behind Danny Duffy, a guy that also took awhile to figure it out. But once Duffy did, he became one of the better pitchers in the league for a stretch of the 2016 season. With guys like Yordano, you always hoped.

Many of the tributes to Yordano have mentioned his kid-like nature. He loved to goof off. His teammates, while weary of his on-the-field blowups, seemed to still love him in the locker room, where he was everyone’s little brother. Royals fans will never forget his epic celebration in the locker room after the Royals clinched the 2016 AL pennant. “OOOOOH BABY!” was a meme on Royals Twitter for some time.

There were also mentions of how hard he worked as a player, always diligent in his workouts, his dedication to watching video, his attention to his coaches. He made great efforts to master English, and proudly began giving interviews in his second language two years ago.

I first heard Yordano’s name when he was 18 or 19, back when the Royals still sucked but their minor league system was bubbling with young talent. I kept reading about this kid in A-ball in Illinois who had an electric arm. The scouts said if he could ever harness its power, he could be a gem. They also always mentioned his size, and feared his slight build would limit him to pitching out of the bullpen in the majors.

Yordano was too big to contain. He scoffed at people who said he was too small. He just kept throwing fire.

Friday Playlist (Updated)

Everything is different today. Things that had been in place for years are suddenly changed, awkward, and troublesome. Yep, you guessed it: M got braces put on yesterday. Or at least her top brackets.

She was alternately excited and anxious. I think it’s weird that kids these days often look forward to getting braces. I guess it has to do with how you can personalize them with different colors, and how they are much less bulky than they were when our generation was growing up. I was lucky; I never had braces, so I don’t know what it’s like. But a 20-month process is now underway.

Oh, did you think I was talking about something else changing today? Hmmm…

Onto the tunes.

“Sherry” – Loose Tooth. It seems like I’ve been hearing a lot of really good, Australian indie-pop lately. This is the latest example.

“It’s Like Air” – Communions. These lads are from Denmark. They sound very Mancunian, to me, though. They don’t quite do the Oasis thing as well as DMAs, but this is a pretty solid song.

“Star Roving” – Slowdive. Oh. My. God. !!!! The first single in 22 years by one of the signature bands of the British Shoegaze era is an absolute stunner. How can you take a quarter century off and make a song this good?

“Fake Empire” – The National. I’ve been thinking of this song a lot as I mentally prepare for today’s events. Ah, those heady days of 2008, when this was the soundtrack to an amazing online ad for a skinny guy with a funny name who was running for president.

“Hot Thoughts” – Spoon. Man, the list of anticipated new albums for 2017 keeps growing. We finally get the first big wave next week. Spoon dropped their new single this week, in advance of a March LP release. As always, it’s thoroughly listenable.

“Doomsday” – Ryan Adams. New single that seems appropriate for the day.

“It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” – R.E.M. I wish I could say I felt fine.

Something Is Missing

Well, here we are in the middle of January, and once again the Kansas Jayhawks are putting together an excellent season of college basketball play. Some things just never seem to change.

Except something is different this year. No, not Bill Self’s four-guard offense he’s had to install due to a lack of quality big men. No, not that (Bitch I’m) Frank Mason III is averaging over 20 points a game, putting him on track to be only the second player of the Self era to do so.

Nope, what’s different is a rock of the program that had been around for years is gone.

Wait A Second, Where The Hell Is Perry Ellis?

Winter Sports, Vol 1

An early winter sports update, starting with L’s second year of basketball.

She is playing in the pre-CYO league run at her future high school by the girls coach there. I’m coaching her team again this year. This time around I have eight girls – four second graders, four first graders – all from St. P’s. In fact, of the four teams in the league, three are from St. P’s.

I had two of the second graders last year, and both have improved quite a bit. They are hitting some shots and can handle the ball a lot better. My new second grader is our tallest player,[1] is a good defender, and understands how to turn and shoot. L is probably our best all-around player, although she is way too cocky and tends to start giggling when guarding people she knows.

Three of my first graders get lost on defense constantly. A pair of them are twins, and in both of our games I’ve called them the wrong name at least once while trying to tell them to stay with their girl. Another first grader, bless her heart, looks scared to death 90% of the time. Each time I check her out of the game and ask who she was guarding, she gets a look of pure panic on her face. The fourth first grader is a lot like L: she’s fast, can shoot, goes after the ball after shots, and plays decent D. When those two are on the court together, we get a lot of fast-break opportunities.

Through two games, we are averaging 25 points per game. Which, based on last year’s scores, is just about right.

Ah, but the real story is how we got to that average.

Week one we scored six points. Week two we scored 44.

I know, right?

A lot went into that variance. Week one we played what I think is the best team in the league. They somehow ended up with the best athlete in the league and the most height. They just dominated us on the boards. And my girls could not hit a shot to save their lives. We caught the rim and the backboard over-and-over and nothing would drop. There were also a lot of week one jitters in there. We were awful matching up on defense and gave up too many open looks. Still, we only gave up 28 points.[2] I knew if we could learn to rebound and get some shots to drop we’d be fine.

This past week’s game was a lot better. We jumped out to a 12–6 lead. Then I got us lost in some bad defensive matchups without seeing them and we were on the wrong end of a 20–2 run to end the half. At halftime I told our girls it was my fault we lost our lead. I promised to keep them in good defensive matchups if they would just keep rebounding and working to get good shots.

So we promptly ripped off a 10–0 run to start the second half.

Coaching, man. Coaching.

There was also no defense in the second half. It was like the Louisville-Houston game in the 1983 Final Four: just up-and-down basketball for 20 minutes. On offense we kept beating the other team down the court and even made the occasional pass to an open teammate across the lane.

We had a 4–6 point lead for most of the last ten minutes. We got to the last minute and had a four-point lead. L got a defensive rebound and took off. She was 10 feet ahead of any defenders. I’ve been working with her on controlling her speed when no one is in front of her. She tends to go 1000 miles and hour and then fire the ball off the backboard, giving it no chance to go in. She had done better at jump-stopping and hitting short jumpers all day. So, naturally, this time she pulled up from 10 feet, threw the ball in the general direction of the rim, and hit nothing.

The other team went down, worked for a shot, and cut the lead to 2 with 10 seconds left. They called a time out to kill the clock, but were out of time outs. It’s a 1st/2nd grade league so the refs just had us inbound the ball. I should have called a timeout myself and told the girls to get the ball up the court and don’t stop, no matter what. Instead our girl with the ball dribbled right into a swarm of players, froze, lost possession, and the other team took off toward their hoop as the clock counted down.

If there was video of me in this sequence, you would see me screaming, at the top of my lungs, “STOP HER!!!!” Their player had a wide open lane with a chance to tie the game, while my girls chased and looked at each other, unsure what to do.

Fortunately, the shortest girl in the league had the ball. This girl looks like she’s four. She collected herself, tossed up a shot just before the buzzer sounded, and barely got it six feet off the ground. I went over and collapsed against the wall for a moment.

Our girls were happy that we won and I was immensely relieved.

This coming week we play a team that I think is a pretty even matchup for us. We practiced last night and they seemed to be understanding the idea of not chasing the ball and staying between your girl and the basket on defense. Then we scrimmaged and half of them were standing on the wrong side of the ball.

M and C are both playing volleyball. They’ve been practicing for a couple weeks and start games next week. M is playing for two coaches she’s had before, and they’re starting to have them run actual offense. I haven’t seen them practice, but I think M is going to be one of the setters. She really enjoys playing.

I’m helping coach C’s team, which is kind of a funny story. Her coach is a mom I know a little bit. She doesn’t have a daughter in 4th grade, but coached last year as well, so I figured she just liked coaching and this was part of her time/treasure/talent contribution. When I told her I’d be happy to help as my schedule allowed, I thought about mentioning how I used to play a lot of rec volleyball and even won a 4-on–4 league one year! I’m glad I left that out, because when she sent out her introductory email to the entire team, she mentioned how she played D1 volleyball. I looked her up and she’s still third all time in assists at her alma mater. Yeah, my little 4-on–4 championship experience will really come in handy!

C’s team is funny to watch. This is their first year playing, and most of the eight girls are big goofballs. Like most fourth graders, they struggle at returning and passing. But we have a few decent servers so hopefully we are decent.

  1. Which isn’t saying much. My team is small.  ↩
  2. Actually 26. One of my first graders hit a sweet, 10-foot jumper. Alas, it was in the other team’s basket.  ↩

Playoff Sunday

A nice, long weekend was exactly what we needed just four days after the girls went back to school. That was an intense four days!

I kid. I’m fully supportive of the MLK Day holiday. It just feels oddly timed after our late holiday break. And our girls are going to miss a few days of school next week[1] so January is going to be a very quick month. Academically at least.

We packed some stuff into our long weekend. There was a volleyball practice and a basketball game. I’ll share more about the hoops in a different post. M had a friend over on Sunday to hang out, eat dinner with us, and then sleep over. It was one of those random get togethers where M actually got invited to go to her friend’s house, but since we were headed to basketball, we offered to take her. Then we offered to take her to dinner. And then, when we sat down for dinner, they looked at us with bright eyes and asked, “Can we have a sleepover?!?!” All the rules go out the window on three-day weekends!

Saturday night we watched our nearly three-month old nephew so his parents could enjoy a night out and then a night of uninterrupted sleep. Little R isn’t known for his sleeping prowess quite yet. He was born four weeks early and has been fighting some reflux issues, so he’s been sleeping a solid 2.5–3 hours at a stretch. As happy as I was to give his parents a night out, I’m not going to lie and say I was looking forward to getting up every couple hours. Especially since I’m not in practice with that. But the night went well. The biggest problem was that I couldn’t go back to sleep for close to an hour after both of his middle-of-the-night feeds. Maddening!

Ah, but the biggest highlight of the weekend was some tremendous professional American football on Sunday. I did not get to see every minute of the two games, but I saw all the best minutes.

Before we get to the games, I need to address a point some of you may have thought of: what are my feelings about the Dallas Cowboys? After all, they were my first favorite sports team ever. I was a fan from 1977-ish up to the mid–2000s. That’s when there was the perfect combination of me getting sick of Jerry Jones’ seemingly being more concerned with expanding the Brand than improving the team, and my living in the city where Peyton Manning was hitting his prime. Would I jump back on the Cowboys bandwagon now that they’re good again?


I loathe the Cowboys. While I can enjoy watching this year’s team play from a purely aesthetic point of view, I have not wanted them to win any of their games I have watched. So I was firmly in Green Bay’s camp on Sunday. Quite the switch from the early 90s when I was rooting for the Aikmans against the Favres.

So to the game. I saw all of the first quarter. Although I picked the Cowboys to win this game, I wondered if the more experienced Packers might not come out hot while the Cowboys might feel some nerves after the week off. I didn’t expect the Packers to jump all over Dallas early like that, though. In a game that will become an integral part of his Hall of Fame resume, Aaron Rodgers was just brilliant in the first quarter.

We left for dinner and I missed the next two-plus quarters of the game. I kept checking the score, though, and saw Dallas slowly work their way back into the game. By the time I was home and in front of the TV again, it was late in the fourth quarter and the game was tied. I made it just in time for one of the more brilliant closing sequences in recent NFL playoff history. Ultimately the game was about Rodgers and Mason Crosby. Crosby’s two – well three – field goals in the closing sequence were obviously the difference. But Rodgers somehow hanging onto the ball when he was sacked on the Packers’ final drive was unbelievable. It defied logic and physics. And then, seconds later, his brilliant rollout and pass to Jared Cook was an all-time great play.

For a neutral to mostly neutral fan, that was a fantastic game.

Then onto Kansas City for the nightcap. Ya’ll know I don’t like the Chiefs, but I’m not a Steelers fan, either. So I just kind of sat back and watched it. And figured it would turn out pretty much the way it did. Because even though I’m not a Chiefs fan, I’ve watched them flame out in the most maddening way possible in January many, many times. I expected that the game would be close into the closing seconds and some kind of soul-crushing play would give Pittsburgh the win. Not sure I expected that soul-crushing play to be a holding call on a two-point conversion attempt, but the Chiefs are always finding new and interesting ways to torture their fans. The game reminded me a lot of the Colts-Ravens game back in 2007, when the Colts couldn’t get in the end zone but kicked five field goals to win. That was the Colts’ Super Bowl title team – that beat New England in the AFC title game – so maybe that means something for Pittsburgh. Then again, the Colts got to play at home while the Steelers go to Foxborough. Good luck with that.

One funny thing about the Chiefs-Steelers game was that M’s friend who was sleeping over comes from a Steelers family. So I told her that while I was from Kansas City, I was not rooting for the Chiefs. That got the girls asking questions.

“Why don’t you like the Chiefs? That’s weird.”
“Because they stunk when I moved to Kansas City and I was already a Cowboys fan.”
“Are your friends Chiefs fans?”
“Yes, most of them are.”
“Do you know anyone who is at the game?”
“Don’t you want the Chiefs to win so they’re happy?”
“Well, I don’t want the Chiefs to win, but if they do win I’ll be happy that my friends are happy.”
“If the Chiefs lose will you tease your friends about it?”
“No, that wouldn’t be nice.”

The Saturday games sucked, so no need to discuss them.

Now we’re down to Green Bay and Atlanta, Pittsburgh and New England. I think the home teams are the better all-around squads. Plus, it’s tough to pick against New England at home in January.[2] But the two road teams have that magical feeling that makes this time of year fun.

  1. More on that later.  ↩
  2. Watch the ball pressure, Tomlin!  ↩

Friday Playlist

“Emotions and Math” – Margaret Glaspy. I really enjoyed Glaspy’s album this song serves as the title track for. But I lost it in the haze of the end of last year. I was reminded of this track, and then the album, when my brother in music Erick$ included this song in a playlist of his favorite songs of last year. I love the swagger that Glaspy sings with.

“Dog Years” – Maggie Rogers. A viral phenom thanks to Pharrell, Ms. Rogers is a delightful mix of singer-songwriter indie pop, folk, and modern R&B. This is a really, really good song.

“Distant Shore” – Karen Elson. The first song off Jack White’s ex-wife’s upcoming album is a beautiful little tune that harkens back to a young Dolly Parton. The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney helped Elson out on a couple tracks, which I’m sure will thrill Mr. White.

“Weight of Love” – The Black Keys. Speaking of the Keys, one of the big music news notes of December was that the band finally put all their music onto streaming services. They had always had selected songs available, but if you tried to listen to one of their albums in full, you were greeted with mostly “Track Unavailable” messages. Listen, I’m firmly in the White Stripes side of the Stripes vs. Keys feud. But I also recognize that while the Keys music may not be as artistically great as most of the Stripes output, many of their songs are good to listen to.

“Ladies First” – Queen Latifah featuring Monie Love. This phrase jumped into my head as this week’s playlist came together. So a perfect excuse to share this video.

Reader’s Notebook

First two books of the new year.

The Association of Small Bombs – Karan Mahajan
This is a complicated, if very good, novel. Beginning with a fictional terrorist bomb that explodes in a Delhi market in 1996, it follows the explosion’s effects on those it touched. That includes the men responsible for the attack, the parents of young brothers who died in the blast, their friend who survived and his family, and how the ripples of the attack eventually changed modern Indian society.

It’s about more than just the direct lines you can draw from the blast through the next decade, though. Mahajan pulls in the traditional divisions of India and adds them to the mix. The boys who die are Hindu. Their friend who lives is Muslim. While the families had been friendly for some time, the religious difference between them eventually becomes an issue. And Mansoor, the surviving boy, is slowly pulled from being a secular Muslim into the more religious world, where he contemplates taking action against the state. In Mansoor, we get a brief exploration into why Muslims who come from well-to-do families can be seduced into becoming terrorists.

This novel is very Indian. Mahajan throws in lots of Indian terms – from all regions, religions, and dialects – but does not offer the immediate translation we often get in novels. That can be distracting, as you either set the book aside to do a quick look-up of the term, or plow through using your assumed definition. And while not exhaustive, he does dive into the broad divisions in India, whether North vs South, Rural vs. City, Rich vs Poor, English speakers vs. Native Language speakers, India vs. Pakistan, or Hindu vs. Muslim vs. Christian. I think it helps to have a little knowledge of India’s history when you jump into this. Not that I have much, but I had enough to have a basic idea of the country’s structure and divisions.

The Association of Small Bombs was on many Best Of lists for 2016. It tackles tough issues, offers characters who are interesting and have depth, and is quite well written.

Mr. Mercedes – Stephen King.
Oh to be Stephen King. He is the Prince of the popular novel, cranking out a seemingly endless stream of books.[1] He claimed he would retire when he finally finished The Dark Tower series. By my count he’s now published at least 12 new novels since then. Along with numerous short stories, comics, screenplays, and essays. So much for slowing down.

I was ready to give up on him. I read a couple of those early, post-Dark Tower books and didn’t really like them. I began ignoring his output. That is until 11/22/63 came out. It was so, so good and a reminder of what a great storyteller he is. Still, I didn’t plan on jumping back into his work.

That is until a combination of factors made me reconsider. Last year’s End of Watch got terrific reviews and ended up on a lot of Best Of lists. My brother in books, Dave V., added his praise for it. And I read a couple books last year that were clearly influenced by King: his son Joe Hill’s The Firefighter and Drew Magary’s The Hike. So I decided to go back a couple years and pick up the trilogy that End of Watch concludes.

I give Mr. Mercedes a solid B. It’s not one of King’s best novels, but it’s still very fun to read. It’s a solid story, full of creepy characters, graphic descriptions of violence and decay, pop culture references, and a fight between good and evil. As with most of his books, it sucked me in and kept me turning pages quickly. I wondered if this book, had he written it 20–30 years ago, might not be 650 pages long instead of just over 400. I appreciate his restraint. The most important aspect of the book is that it is the jumping off point for two more. I’m excited to see where he takes the characters who I expect repeat in the next two volumes.

  1. I suppose the difference is that King publishes everything he creates. We all know about the mythical vault on Prince’s estate that is filled with music the public has never heard.  ↩

Late But Great

The girls did just fine. There was some grumpiness, but nothing unusual. The kitchen did seem quiet, as I was pouring bowls of cereal and warming toaster waffles for the first time without Christmas music since November. I need to find some good morning music. I think the quiet kitchen puts everyone on edge.

The morning was a little tougher for me. Not because I was sad that the holiday was over, or because I was dreading my eye doc visit.[1] Nope, it was a tough morning because I was up well past midnight watching the damn CFP championship game.

I’m not mad, though. That was one hell of a game. Especially the last 6:00 of game time. Which took, what, 54 minutes of real time to play? I mean, seriously. Do we have to have 157 replay reviews, 25 minutes of pregame ceremonies after 8:00 Eastern, and then the super-long halftime?

Then again, one of my most vivid college sports memories of my youth is my mom forcing me to go to bed before the 1984 Orange Bowl ended. However, she kept the TV on, and I was allowed to keep my bedroom door cracked, so I was listening when Miami foiled the Nebraska two-point conversion attempt. So I guess kids have been missing the end of the college football season for decades. The new system continues to tradition of the bowl system!

Anyway, my old man complaining out of the way, I really enjoyed the game. I’ve always disliked both schools. Why? I honestly have no idea. I had a contrarian streak in me when I was little, and I remember hating Alabama, Penn State, Ohio State, and USC from my earliest days of watching sports. I always rooted for Nebraska or Oklahoma from the Big 8, or upstart Miami to win back in the early 80s. I think my dislike of Clemson comes from them beating Nebraska in the 1981 Orange Bowl. Ironically, I can’t see myself rooting for Nebraska against either of these teams today.

Anyway anyway…I’ve come to respect and admire Alabama’s constant excellence. That’s damn hard to do. Harder, I think, than what Duke or Kentucky do in college basketball recruiting. Those schools can scoop up a handful of the top 20 high school players each year and always be competitive. Nick Saban has to replace 20–25 players every year. And every single year he not only gets the #1 or #2 recruiting class, but he keeps his team ranked in the top five all season. It’s an amazing feat.

Clemson, I still don’t consider much. I’m not a huge fan of their coach’s persona, but there’s no doubt he can recruit and coach. I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, I should have been pulling for them. But, honestly, I didn’t care. I was just hoping for an entertaining game.

Hopes rewarded!

We got unstoppable Alabama early. They looked absolutely ferocious on defense, and two fantastic touchdown runs by Bo Scarbrough made me worry about a blowout early. But Clemson settled down, clawed back into it, and even when they trailed deep into the second half, it felt like they were the more comfortable team. If they could keep their players healthy. Man, Alabama was laying some serious wood on defense. They seemed as intent on harming Clemson players as tackling them.

Those last three drives of the game will go down in legend. Clemson’s wonderful drive to take their first lead of the game. Alabama’s stone cold, predictable return volley, featuring a couple excellent play calls and a run by Jalen Hurts that would rank up with Vince Young’s national title winning scamper had it held up. But then Watson calmly gets the Tigers down the field, avoiding the rush, making big throws, and being rewarded with some tremendous catches.

The game-winning play was gutsy as hell, too. If they don’t complete that pass, or if Watson has to scramble around and toss the ball away, the game is over. There was a part of me that was shocked Clemson didn’t just take the three points with 6 seconds left and happily go to overtime with the momentum. But that’s how you should win a title against Alabama: with a legendary play that was fueled on pure guts and absolute confidence. I imagine Hunter Renfrow already had no trouble with the ladies. That dude will never sleep alone the rest of his life unless he wants to.

There was controversy. Pick plays get called like three times a year, so there was no way they were getting called in the fourth quarter of a national title game. That said, tackling a defender and forcing him into a teammate is a little extreme. If I was an Alabama fan, I’d be pissed. But that’s the way the game is called today, so I wasn’t too worked up about it as a neutral.

I imagine there’s a lot of grousing in Alabama about the Tide’s offense, and how swapping offensive coordinators in the past week affected them. Did it cost them the game? I would lean toward no – Hurts has a long way to go to be a really good passing QB, and losing Scarbrough in the second half had a huge effect on what they could do – but I also don’t know that Lane Kiffin wouldn’t have called a more effective game.

I don’t feel too sorry for Alabama fans. They’ll likely be back in the playoff next year. And the year after. And for as long as Saban wants to keep coaching them. I think the pure joy felt by Clemson fans far outweighs the disappointment in Alabama.

So a great World Series. A great CFP National Title Game. No pressure on the Super Bowl to live up to that standard.

  1. No new glasses this year! Sadly, though, it looks like this will be my final year avoiding bifocals.  ↩

NFL Playoff Picks

I wouldn’t be half-assing it correctly if I failed to offer up some half-assed NFL playoff predictions. But, first, a few words about the Colts.

WTF?!?! How on earth do you bring back the GM and head coach who have produced an uninspired, incomplete team that misses the playoffs in the weakest division in football and is somehow ruining what should be the next great NFL superstar in the process? Bringing them back last year was shocking enough. But again, for next season? Freaking ridiculous.

I can’t think of a single valid reason to bring Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano back. Grigson’s personnel moves have failed time-and-again. Is he really the guy you trust to clean up his own mess? Especially when he publicly bitches about a contract that the Colts had to give Andrew Luck if they wanted to keep him? It’s not like the Colts are the first team who have had to give a quarterback a massive contract. Other teams have managed to build winners despite that huge chunk of change invested in their QB.

Pagano remains popular in the locker room. But the Colts consistently look unprepared early in games. That’s all on the head coach. And the defense stinks, which is supposed to be his area of expertise.

The clock is ticking on Andrew Luck’s career. At this point in his Colts career, Peyton Manning had Marvin Harrison, Edgerrin James (after starting with Marshall Faulk), and Reggie Wayne, plus an amazing offensive line. Luck has T.Y. Hilton and…well, an old, game Frank Gore who is forced to run behind a terrible offensive line that can’t block for him or keep the pass rush off Luck. It’s frankly amazing that Gore managed to crank out 1000 yards this year. Grigson has shown no signs of being able to build on either side of the ball. Pagano is hamstrung by the GM’s deficiencies, but has a bunch of his own.

Clean house, start over with competent management, and stop wasting Luck’s prime.

Whew. Now for the playoffs. I laughed when I looked at the matchups this morning. I had no idea Miami made the playoffs! That’s how tuned out I am to the NFL because of fall soccer and the Colts’ sucking. I get a little less interested each year, and it’s hard to regain that interest. I’m fine turning on a random game for a half or or so, then moving on to other things.

Still, I gotsta make some picks. So here goes. (BTW, here are my preseason picks. I picked six playoff teams! That’s good, right?!?!)


Wild Card

Oakland at Houston. Ken Stabler vs. Dan Pastorini, right? I heard there is a quarterback issue in this game. Are they turning it into an old-timers game, complete with raising the deceased Stabler from his grave? I’ll pick Oakland just because the AFC South is terrible and Houston gets no credit for winning the division.
Miami at Pittsburgh. Man, it’s like 1978 on the AFC side! Not only did Miami make the playoffs, but they won 10 games!?!? Holy shit! Pittsburgh is going to wax them, though.

Divisional Round

Pittsburgh at Kansas City. I’m genetically inclined to never take the Chiefs seriously. That was reinforced by all those great, 1990s Chiefs teams that lost to inferior teams, at home, in the playoffs. And by their annual face plant against the Colts in the years I’ve lived in Indy. And, as a doubter, it’s hard for me to get onboard with a team that seems to win in flukey ways quite often. On the other hand, although I’m not a Chiefs fan, I am well steeped in the magic that may be currently residing under the concrete of the Truman Sports Complex. Could they be feasting on what fueled the Royals in 2014 and 2015? Chiefs.
Oakland at New England. I really, really hope it snows for this game! And there’s a controversial call that involved replay and obscure rule interpretations late in the game. Patriots,

AFC Championship

Kansas City at New England. Come on. New England.


Wild Card

Detroit at Seattle. I might have pulled the trigger on a Detroit upset pick a few weeks ago. But not now. Seattle.
New York at Green Bay. From my limited attention paid, this seems a common selection for an “upset” pick. Upset obviously in quotes because the Giants won more games than the Packers, they were just stuck in the wrong division. But I’m an Aaron Rogers loyalist, and will stick with him here. Green Bay.

Divisional Round

Seattle at Atlanta. This one seems cruel. Atlanta had a quietly spectacular year, and their reward is having to face Seattle after a week off. I know the Seahawks haven’t been quite the same team this year. But I think the Falcons collars are going to be awfully tight and Seattle wins a close one.
Green Bay at Dallas. And what to make of the Cowboys? Do you really go from mediocre to elite by plugging in a couple rookies and staying relatively healthy? That’s not supposed to happen. You’re supposed to have a transition year in there. While I question the Cowboys, I can’t pick against them here; the Football Gods will be on their side after the Dez Bryant game two years ago. Dallas.

NFC Championship

Seattle at Dallas. Can the Seattle defense contain the Cowboys offense? Can the Seattle offense score enough to win? All the questions are on the Seattle side. Dallas.


ESPN is going to freaking meltdown in one, massive TV-gasm if we actually have a Patriots-Cowboys Super Bowl. The two most popular/most hated franchises in the game taking over all sports media for two weeks! Seriously, at least one ESPN exec will have a heart attack if this matchup gets locked in three weeks from now.
Can I really pick the Cowboys, who haven’t been this deep in the playoffs in 20 years, against the team that has owned January for 15 years? Nope, can’t do it. New England 23, Dallas 21.


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