Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Quick Note...

Just thought that I'd mention that this month of May was the first one that I ever managed to go hiking every single day. Not an easy feat (although working overnights helps in this regard). There were times when I was hiking in the pouring rain, but I was determined to hike every day this month, once it was starting to get clear that that distinction was within reach. Sometimes I went hiking with others, mostly, it was by myself. There were a couple of occasions when I saw a bear - and wrote about them. But those were the last times that I saw a bear, to date. Kind of surprising, since it seemed I might have plenty more opportunities to see them, but it has not happened since a few weeks now.

Anyway, it was a small accomplishment, and I felt proud of it, so just thought it was something to mention...

A Bad Sports Night...

Not a very good sports night for me, particularly in relation to my predictions with the Stanley Cup Finals series.

The Devils really needed to win that one, and it seemed like they had some wonderful opportunities to do so, and to finally end the undefeated road run in these playoffs by the Los Angeles Kings.The game went into overtime largely because of a goal that was, frankly, a bit of a fluke. I love the Devils, but that was one of the weirdest goals that I have ever seen, bouncing off the shoulder of a King defender, than bounding off the head of Patrick Elias, before beating Jonathan Quick.

That saved the Devils, because they essentially had not mustered so much as a single shot on goal through almost three quarters of the way through that second period. In fact, the Devils were quite thoroughly outplayed  in last night's Game One. It was great to see them get the opportunity to steal a victory, and they still had that opportunity when it went into overtime. But ultimately, the Kings were able to capitalize, and got a well-earned victory. Another one on the road, which pushes their road record in these playoffs to an incredible, perfect 9-0. Undefeated on the road, so far. If the Devils do not manage to end that perfect streak, this series will be over sooner rather than later.

It was frustrating to watch that game last night, simply because it seemed so undeniable that the Kings were, in fact, outplaying New Jersey. It was convincing, too. More than the score suggested.

It made me wonder if my pick was not from the heart, rather than from the head.

Otherwise, the Boston Celtics had a great opportunity - several of them, actually - to grab a win in Miami and head back to Boston with the series tied 1-1. They held a 15 point lead at one point, and looked in control. Even towards the end of the game, they did not give up, they kept on fighting back. Yet, the Heat came up with the answers, time and time again, to their credit.

That the Heat would be up, 2-0, at this point is not all that surprising. After all, despite my strong partiality for the Celtics, I did predict the Heat to win in five. But what was discouraging was that the Celtics really seemed to have this game. Like with the Devils series, I began to wonder if I had not given Boston too little credit, or Miami too much credit. But with that come from behind victory, it is hard to imagine Boston not being a bit discouraged. The Celtics absolutely have to hold serve on their own court, because they cannot afford to go back to Miami down 3-1.

The Spurs and Thunder will resume their series as well, with San Antonio sporting a 2-0 lead in that series, as well. That brings them to 20 consecutive victories, which is truly incredible! They have not lost since, I believe, early April. That is perfect timing, to go on a massive winning streak right at the end of regulation, and then to continue it in the playoffs! If the Spurs managed to win even one game in Oklahoma City, it is hard to imagine them not wrapping up the series shortly thereafter. This is a tough and experienced team, after all. OKC had better start to show some signs of life, and soon. They need to put it together, because San Antonio is the best team that they have had to face thus far. If they do not win the next game, in fact, then the talk will be of them avoiding the sweep, rather than of possibly winning the West and having a shot at the NBA Championship.

One other newsworthy sports event: Roger Federer surpassed Jimmy Connors with his 234th career Grand Slam victory. Just one more brick in the wall of accomplishments that solidifies him as the greatest men's tennis player ever. It's hard to imagine anyone will be able to scale that wall anytime soon, let alone break it down completely. Every time I watch this guy, even though he is now past his prime, there is a distinct feeling that I am watching the best ever at his profession. It is a privilege to have witnessed such an era of dominance. As good as Nadal and Djokovic may be, and as much as they may yet accomplish, it is hard to imagine that either of them will eclipse Federer's massive list of accomplishments and records, that seem destined to stand for a long, long time to come. But it should be noted that number 1 ranked Novak Djokovic has a chance to become only the eight man in history, and the third man in the men's circuit right now, to have achieved the career "Grand Slam", should he manage to win, and he is looking quite strong. It looks like it will be either him or Federer with a chance to beat the King of Clay, Nadal. It's hard to imagine someone else other than one of the big three winning it this year.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Memorial Day Weekend Book Review: Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnamese Veterans

I have a coworker who is a Vietnam veteran, and we have had some discussions over the years regarding the current state of the world. Often, we will compare the world as it used to be – particularly during the time of the Vietnam conflict – with the present situation as we see it today.

His lending me this particular book on that particular weekend (Memorial Day weekend, that is) was something! With all of the talk of the sacrifices that our young men and women have given in service of their country, many giving the ultimate sacrifice, it was refreshing to hear of this experience not from the well-versed lines of politicians seeking either to keep or obtain a certain desired office in this election year, but to hear the experience more directly from those who were actually there. Let us remember, after all, that many of those who make speeches and policies that went far in getting us into the present wars, or in continuing them now – Bush, Cheney, Obama, and Romney – did not actually fight in any wars themselves. President Obama was too young, but the others were conspicuous in their absence. In fact, the United States has not actually had a veteran of a war in office since Clinton took the oath in January of 1993, when George H. W. Bush left office.

There are some similarities of the present wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to Vietnam, of course. But we should not go too far with this. On some levels, the world back then seems almost quaint by way of comparison with the world as it is now. As shady as the reasons and diagnoses that politicians gave for the Vietnam War may have been – and they certainly raise some eyebrows – they were nonetheless unique to that time. We do not inhabit that world any longer, and the old notions of some Domino Effect and the threat of the spread of Communism seem perhaps preferable to the high tech but invasive world that we have now, including the often invisible but ever persistent threat of terrorism, the effects of which we often see on our television on the nightly news, or increasingly for many of us, streaming on the internet.

Yes, we have wars going on right now. Wars, in the plural, that is. It could be argued that we were fighting wars in the plural back then as well, and that without even going outside of Southeast Asia! It was all intertwined, but nonetheless, Cambodia and Laos were suspected of being involved at different times, and on differing levels. Yet, the wars that we are fighting today –despite officially being labeled under the auspiciously wide umbrella of “war on terrorism”, are nonetheless, undeniably, separate wars.

I am not going to get into the details of the merits, or the lack thereof, of those wars now, or of the Vietnam War back in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Instead, I will stick with this book of poetry, which features perhaps different aspects of the conflict than you may have been exposed to before. It was an eye opener on many levels to me, as well, and allows you to get more of a feel of the war from an insider’s perspective.

These are true, first-hand accounts of the war and, again, the people that wrote them (with one exception) were actually there! These are not pretty and polished political speeches that are just part of a grander scheme for self-promotion. One of these poems was written by a veteran who was killed weeks after writing it. These poems, these words, are the real deal, from the grunts who had to fight the war! Here, the words express the fears, the uncertainty, the fatigue with everything from the invisibility of the enemy, to the excessive heat, the relentless rains that fell, the mosquitoes, the lack of respect for the native people, the suspicion of those same native people, regret for one’s own actions, and often a lingering resentment to those back home still living comfortable lives in comfortable homes, nestled in comfortable neighborhoods, far from the reality of the horrors of the war.

I was going to include some of my personal favorite parts of poems here and there, but ultimately, decided against it. First of all, poems may have some great lines in them, and many of these certainly do, allowing you to enjoy their beauty, or perhaps even their harshness, or simply getting you to think. But these poems are complete works, and deserve to read as such. Also, I did not want to influence any reader, lest they perhaps someday find themselves fortunate enough to be holding a copy of this book someday (it is a little difficult to do, since this is not an easy book to get your hands on, being somewhat rare, from what I can tell). We each have our own favorites of a poetry book, and for our own reasons. Every reason is valid, for that matter, because it speaks to our own experience.

So, if you can and are so inclined, try and find a copy of this book, and read the war experience as it was felt by those who were actually there at the time, and make up your own mind. It is well worth it!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Devils and the Kings: A Stanley Cup Finals Preview

            So, the New Jersey Devils are back in the Stanley Cup Finals, for the first time in nine years. The last time that they were here, they won a tough series against a similar upstart team to this year's edition of the Los Angeles Kings. Yes, the Devils defeated the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 2003, although it took a full seven games – and that, following a tough, grueling seven game series to get past Ottawa in the Eastern Conference Finals!
            The Devils got in with a very sweet series victory against their bitter cross-river rivals, the New York Rangers. That, too, was a tough series, but the Devils did manage to win it in six, thus avoiding a dangerous game 7.
            Now, they have to face the team that no one wants to face, the red-hot and surging Los Angeles Kings. The Kings have had an up and down season. They were among the favorites going into the season, and early on, they indeed did truly look like a powerhouse team to be reckoned with.
            Something happened along the way, however, and the Los Angeles Kings slowed down, almost to a crawl. In fact, they went from being among the leaders in the West, and even in the league, overall, to almost falling short of qualifying for the playoffs altogether. Hey managed to hang on to that precious 8th seed, however, and it can be argued that no team in history has ever done as much with it as the Kings have managed to do, going from an underdog not expected to survive past the first round, to a powerhouse juggernaut of a team that is expected to steamroll their way past opponents. Now, that's saying something.
            The Los Angeles Kings used their speed to fluster each of their opponents, and in the process, became only the second team in NHL history to knock off the top three seeds in the Conference en route to the Stanley Cup Finals, and the first ever eight seed to accomplish the feat.
            But it is not just that the Kings keep on winning that is making news and grabbing attention. It is how they are winning.
            Los Angeles surprised many when they won Game 1 at Vancouver in the first round, but it seemed truly shocking when they followed that up with a Game 2 victory. When they won Game 3, the series seemed all but over, and then they dropped Game 4. Maybe Vancouver would have a chance at home in Game 5, and what looked like it would be a runaway series would suddenly be much tighter, right?
            Wrong. The Kings handled that pressure beautifully, and showed composure in hostile Vancouver, which was ready to see their beloved Canucks make another run at the Cup, that they just narrowly lost out on last postseason. They were not ready to call it quits, but the Kings forced it on them, and moved on to the second round.
            Any assumption that the series against Vancouver had perhaps somehow been a fluke went out the window in that round, when the Kings took on the St. Louis Blues and swept them aside, winning each game by at least two goals, and making short work of the highly regarded Blues. Suddenly, the Kings looked like a very scary team, and it was not a surprise that they were considered the favorites against the Phoenix Coyotes.
            Both Los Angeles and Phoenix were making their first appearance in the Western Conference Finals (the Kings had made it that far back in 1993, with the "Great One" Wayne Gretzky leading the way, but that hardly counts for the modern lineup, does it?), so the experience factor was not necessarily an edge for either team. Both teams also had high expectations going into the season, and seemed finally to be fulfilling their potential going into the series.
            However, Los Angeles looked so dominant in the series, that perhaps the questions will remain for the Coyotes. For the Kings, by contrast, there was nothing to be said, but heaps of praise towards the team.
            Going into the Stanley Cup Finals, now, the one question with some measure of legitimacy is whether or not the Los Angeles Kings got perhaps too much rest, that maybe such a long period of lull with stifle their momentum a bit. That remains to be seen, of course, but Los Angeles surely is flying high with confidence right at this moment.
            As for New Jersey, the Devils had to get past a tough series against the Florida Panthers, which they more survived then won in any sort of dominant fashion. It was very close, and the Devils truly did face the prospect of elimination.
            Yet, they got past that, and went on to steamroll past the Philadelphia Flyers in much the same way that the Flyers had crushed the Devils a couple of years back.
            It was onto the Eastern Conference Finals, a series that, frankly, I mentioned far too much in this blog (can you tell I was following it closely?). Let me not expend on it too much now, either. The Devils won, winning the last three games after falling behind two games to one.
            Both teams have good speed and strong momentum going in. Both teams also were not expected to go very far in the playoffs going in, and both have surpassed, even far surpassed, most people's expectations of them. That bodes well for this series, which really will be one of the more intriguing match ups that we will have seen.
            I will not deny that my heart is pulling for the Devils. How great would it be for Martin Brodeur to hoist the Cup one last time, and to get one more ring on his finger to add to his already unbelievable legacy. He already has more wins than any other goalie in history. More shutouts, too –both regular season and playoffs. So, the Devils can likely count on first rate goaltending.
            While it is a scary prospect to play the Los Angeles Kings, knowing what they have done to each of their opponents so far, the Devils should be brimming with confidence, as well. The Kings enjoyed a remarkable run, beating some incredible teams along the way. But they also have not faced a team with the experience that the Devils have. The Canucks made it to the Cup Finals last year, but the loss might just have gone a long way towards hurting their confidence. For the Devils, they are not haunted by past failures, having perhaps overcome and exorcised the one last ghost in their closet, or monkey off their back, by defeating the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals. If they win this, it will be another Cup, another championship, and this one will be the most unexpected of them all. But the pressure should not be overbearing, because, again, they already exceeded expectations. If anything, perhaps now the pressure is on the Kings, who seem almost unbeatable.
            So, who do I predict? Let me just say, outright, that I believe the Devils will provide the Kings with a stronger challenge in these playoffs then they have yet seen. Is that going to be enough? Time will tell. But, going into the series, it will be enough for me to defy logic and go with my heart. Devils in six. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

The NBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference Finals

             I personally love history, and that includes sports history. I route for the older teams, more often than not: those with rich traditions spanning many decades and many championships. There are exceptions, of course, such as the Lakers in basketball, the 49ers in football, and the Yankees in baseball. Perhaps even, arguably, the Rangers in hockey. But generally speaking, I like those older traditions.
            So it pleases me to no end that the Boston Celtics are, once again, in the Eastern Conference Finals, for the third time in five years. The previous two times, they won them, and moved on to the NBA Finals – one time even winning it and being crowned as champions. Both times, they faced the Lakers in the Finals, splitting a series apiece, in what is surely the greatest rivalry in NBA basketball history.
            The Lakers are out, however, courtesy of the Oklahoma City Thunder, so the Celtics don't have to worry about them. In fact, I don't think the Celtics will have to worry about the NBA Finals at all, after this next series, because the other team that qualified, the Miami Heat, are just too strong.
            Miami famously got LeBron James and Chris Bosh a couple of years ago, to add more star power for a team that already had won a championship with their star, Dwayne Wade. The Heat instantly were elevated to the status of favorites and, indeed, looked the part of it frequently since. But they have been under such intense scrutiny, that everything they do is under the microscope. They were one of the best teams in the East during the regular season for the 2010-2011 season, but people made much of their supposed weaknesses. When they began to get hot in the playoffs, people returned to being in awe of them again, as they essentially steamrolled their way to the NBA Finals, where they were favored to beat the Dallas Mavericks – the same team that they had defeated in their only previous NBA Finals appearance in 2006.
            Famously, the Heat lost that series, and it showed Miami at their worst. They lacked character, at one point showing a level of immaturity by publicly poking fun of Dirk Nowitzki, who had fallen ill, and attracting all the wrong kind of attention. But the wrong attention was also given due to their on court performance, where LeBron James, not for the first time, showed that he was not quite on the level of Michael Jordan, as he essentially seemed to fade away and be a nonfactor at precisely that point when the greatest players need to take over: in the fourth quarter. Jokes ensued, claiming that it would do no good to ask James for change for a dollar, since he had no fourth quarter (ha-ha). Eventually, the Heat were dismantled by Dallas, who exacted a measure of revenge against the Miami Heat, who were the underdogs in the 2006 NBA Finals, but managed to throw Dallas completely off their rhythm. This time, the Mavericks did the same thing to the Heat.
            That was a stinging loss, and seemed to redefine the Heat. Miami were suddenly seen as underachievers, as arrogant and immature, and lacking the strength of character and self-possession to win it all.
            It has been a long year, and Miami received a lot of criticism along the way once again, every single time that they faltered. The most recent one came in the last palyoff series, when they really struggled against the Indiana Pacers, a team that they were supposed to defeat easily. So when the Heat lost Game 2, and then got blown out in Game 3, with Dwayne Wade infamously completely losing his cool on the floor, it seemed that maybe the Miami Heat had hit a new low. Experts and non-experts alike were all predicting the end of the Heat before even the summer comes. Nobody thought that they would bounce back, including yours truly, the one writing this article right now.
            Yet, bounce back they did. Big time. Suddenly, LeBron James was playing his best basketball, following one banner game with another one. Dwayne Wade cooled off from his Game 3 implosion, and began to hit his stride, and just like that, the Miami Heat started looking like the team that everyone had feared they might be when these two guys would work together and make the most of the talents that were brought to South Beach. It also bodes well for them in these playoffs, and particularly for the next round, because it means, essentially, that they have overcome a severe test, and shown some character and fortitude in the face of adversity. They were complimenting one another on the court, and the Heat finally looked like they were playing up to their potential, for once. That, after seemingly everyone voiced their concerns regarding whether this team possessed the maturity to overcome such difficulties. By coming back from down two games to one to essentially convincingly sweep the Pacers the rest of the way, after it seemed that they were down and out, says something about this team.
            So, as much as I would love to predict a Celtics win in the Eastern Conference Finals and another trip to the NBA Finals, I simply cannot. Boston is old, and likely in way over their head against a Miami Heat team that is only now beginning to come together and gel. They surge because they are playing their best basketball, and that's scary. Miami, if they continue playing the way they have been playing, should take this series in five. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The NBA Playoffs: The Western Conference Finals

         The Western Conference Finals this year features a very intriguing match-up: the old-style and established veterans and former champion San Antonio Spurs, with such marquee names as Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Ginobli, against the young and rising Oklahoma City Thunder. Will veteran leadership win out and hold the surging Thunder, or will youth be served? Will Oklahoma City break through and reach the NBA Finals, or will the Spurs manage to keep them at bay, and relegate them to remaining with the status of the team of the future, or next year’s team? 
Both teams look good, and I mean, scary good. Oklahoma City got to the Western Conference Finals last year, as well, but they fell to the eventual NBA champion Dallas Mavericks. They rebounded from that loss to have an excellent season this year, running with the elites and generally seeming to hold the best record in the league, until San Antonio pulled it away from them right at the end, to earn the top seed. But Oklahoma City swept the Mavericks in the first round this season, exacting a sweet measure of revenge from their disappointing exit in last year’s playoffs, and they then dismantled the Lakers in five in the next round. Those are some big names to have beaten, but now, they are facing their toughest challenge yet. 
For their part, the Spurs look scary. They finished the regular season with a flurry, on a strong winning streak to clinch the top record in the league, and they hardly have been seriously challenged in the Western Conference playoffs so far, having swept the Utah Jazz in the first round, and then managing to sweep the young and surging Clippers in the second round, and should be as well rested as possible – which could very well benefit the older, veteran Spurs, and possibly even cool off the red-hot Thunder. Just as a side note, this was a strike shortened season for the NBA, and remember that the last time that happened, the Spurs were the number one seed and won the championship, making it look easy, back in 1999. It was their first ever championship, and they have added three more rings since, so perhaps history is on their side. They are going into this series at full strength. 
So, who has the advantage? Experience is definitely an advantage for the Spurs, but the Thunder went this far last year, an d have not only gained some very valuable playoff experience each of the last two post-seasons, but they have shown remarkable composure under intense pressure often times. They also are a very deadly team even when they seem dead in the water, having had numerous come from behind victories in the first two rounds of the playoffs, including Game Two against the Los Angeles Lakers, when they were down by seven and seemed destined to lose, only to have a remarkably quick turnaround to pull off a very unlikely comeback for a 2-0 series lead. They did it again in Game 4 on the road, and that proved to be, for all intents and purposes, the backbreaker for the veteran Lakers. 
Still, the Spurs are hotter and quicker than those Lakers were, who seemed to have all sorts of problems throughout the season, so you cannot say that this will be a repeat of that series, for all intents and purposes. Also, the Thunder will have to start this series on the road. That might, or might not, make a difference. 
Ultimately, this is a close call, and I will say outright, that I would not be shocked no matter who wins this series. It is a tough call. My instincts tell me that the Spurs, with home court advantage, should be able to apply enough pressure on the younger Thunder to be in solid position heading down the decisive stretch later in the series, and that the Thunder will not find the ability to so completely dominate the early part of the series, that a victory is never really in question, like they did against the Mavericks and the Lakers. It certainly seems unlikely that the Spurs would be able to completely dominate OKC like they did their first two opponents, either. This team will force the Spurs to turn it up a few notches. I am going to guess that this will be a long series, probably going back and forth. It should go at least six, and possibly will head to a decisive Game 7. My head tells me experience should prevail, and that the Spurs will eke out a narrow victory against the Thunder, but something tells me that OKC is hitting their stride at just the right time, and that they are more ready than ever before for this kind of a challenge. This one is very hard to tell, and I hesitate to make a prediction, but I will anyway: 
Oklahoma City will probably pull it off and head towards their first ever NBA Finals. Youth will be served.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Devils Beat the Hated Rangers, Win the East!!!

Indeed, it was beginning to seem eerily reminiscent of 1994. The Rangers and the Devils were in the Eastern Conference Finals, and it was a back and forth series. The Rangers won Game 1, convincingly, only to see the Devils squeak by in Game 2. The Rangers then won Game 3 in a very similar fashion to their Game 1 win, but the Devils responded, finally, with a convincing victory of their own in Game 4. Then, the Devils shocked the Rangers in a back and forth game in Game 5, and were in a situation that they had been in many years ago - up 3-2 in an Eastern Conference Finals series against the Rangers, with a chance to clinch it at home, in New Jersey, with a Gam 6 victory.

That was more or less the exact scenario in 1994, which was the last time the Rangers had reached the Stanley Cup Finals, which they would also go on to win (barely!), to end the 54 year title drought. Before all of that, though, the Rangers were facing elimination in Game 6, when Mar Messier made a famous guarantee - the most famous New York sports guarantee since Joe Namath made good on his guarantee that the upstart New York Jets of the AFL would shock the world and beat the mighty Baltimore Colts of the heavily favored NFL. Messier promised that the Rangers would win, and bring a decisive Game 7 to the more comfortable confine of Madison Square Garden, where the Rangers would feel right at home. 

But the Rangers were behind 2-0, and the Devils seemed on the cusp of the cup, when Messier suddenly made good on his promise. The Rangers caught fire, under the leadership of their determined veteran captain, as he engineered an amazing comeback, scoring a hat trick en route to a 4-2, come from behind victory. They would outlast the Devils in overtime in the decisive Game 7, and, of course, would go on to win the Stanley Cup.

So, with the Devils once again up 3-2 in the series against the Rangers, and leading 2-0 at home in the second period at home in New Jersey in a potentially decisive Game 6. And there came the Rangers, suddenly tightening up on defense, and suddenly catching fire on offense, coming from behind to tie it up. It was looking all too familiar to the 1994 series, and Rangers fans were swooning. When New York scored the tying goal, there was a stunned silence at the Rock (the Prudential Center). History seemed to be repeating itself.

But Martin Brodeur pulled himself together, toughened up in the third period, making key saves to keep the Devils in the game, and regulation time expired. It was a nerve wracking break between the end of regulation and the start of overtime. 

It did not take too long once overtime started. New Jersey was applying very strong pressure, and Lundqvist and the Rangers defense was withering, in chaos. The puck got loose, and Adam Henrique's instincts were right on the mark, as he raced for the free puck and buried the wide open net in front of him, finally clinching the Eastern Conference Championship for the Devils, and getting the monkey of the memories of 1994 off their back. The Rangers, of all teams, were the hurdle that the Devils needed to get past to reach their fifth Stanley Cup Finals in franchise history. The team that, arguably, had kept the New Jersey Devils in their shadow were themselves overshadowed by the Devils amazing and stellar play, and now, the Devils will aim to hold up the Stanley Cup for their fourth ever.

Let's celebrate the hard fought series and well earned victory right now, and think about the mighty Los Angeles Kings later. Yes, they remain undefeated on the road, which is an amazing accomplishment, and they are on the verge of surpassing the Devils own road mark back in 1995 Stanley Cup playoffs, which was the first time the Devils hoisted the cup. 

The New Jersey Devils are, once again, the Eastern Conference Champions, and beat the hated New York Rangers to do it! They earned a shot at the biggest prize in the NHl, by virtue of qualifying for the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 2003, and it should be a great series. But for now, let them enjoy this, get a bit of rest, before they focus on the Los Angles Kings. Let's congratulate your Eastern Conference Champions: the New Jersey Devils!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Living in the City

Recently, the topic of the fatigue of living in the city, as opposed to more rural, even country setting, was brought up to me.

I must say, that perhaps my opinions may seem a little biased, having never really lived in a city, any major city, so far in my life. There are undeniable advantages to doing so, such as easy and quick public transportation (hopefully), great nightlife and plenty of things to do in general, access to rich cultural, historical, and scientific institutions like museums, universities and colleges, attractive events like concerts and sports, and the excitement and energy that a city usually brings in general. Plus, there is a better chance of being able to walk somewhere in the middle of some sleepless night and finding someplace that is open, if you are so inclined to buy something, or to sit down to a cup of coffee and kill some time. 

To be sure, however, there are distinct disadvantages, as well. Cities tend to be breeding grounds for rudeness, for decadence, for the accumulation of weird, and not necessarily good or wholesome things. The larger the city, and often times, the more expensive living there is. New York City, San Fransisco, Los Angeles, all are on the list of the most expensive places in the world, on average, to live. I recently heard that Seattle is rapidly moving up on that list, as well. You will surely notice that they are all major American cities, and they join other huge and famous cities around the world, such as Beijing and Hong Kong. The most expensive European city might surprise you: it is Moscow. Imagine how rapidly things changed there, where two decades and change ago, it was still the capital of a Communist country. They went the complete opposite direction, and Moscow is now the most expensive city in all of Europe - and that's saying something!

I personally do not believe that human beings were made to live together in such numbers and in such proximity. Often, cities suffer from overcrowded conditions, and this tends to be exacerbated the larger the city is. I have already mentioned the cost of living as generally being higher, but 

In the end, your personal living standard, and your health, really depend on the lifestyle you choose for yourself. You are not guaranteed a better quality of life necessarily simply because you choose either to live in an urban area, or you choose not to. The city tends to force people to walk more, which keeps levels of obesity down. That said, the number of high risk of pollution days tends to be significantly higher than outside of the city. There are always exceptions, but generally speaking, these are some of the advantages and disadvantages to living in cities, or living outside of them.

But you can enjoy healthy living and much walking outside of the city as well, including the suburbs. If you are committed to a certain lifestyle, most likely, being in the city, or in a quieter place, is not going to prevent you from living that style of life. 

Suburbs are supposed to bring the best of both worlds together. Theoretically, they mix the convenience and convenient access to cities, while allowing residents to enjoy the relative quietness of a more rural setting - although the noise pollution and overcrowding factors are growing quite rapidly there, too. Also, there is a reason that suburbs tend to be seen as places with broad lawns and narrow minds. There is some measure of truth to that, of course. 

Yes, personally, I have spent most of my life living in suburbs, and think that these reputation, like almost all stereotypes, can often be overblown. Ultimately, things, and people, can best be judged on a case by case basis. You can be the person you want to be, and live the relative lifestyle that you want to live, or at least pursue, wherever you live. Most of us are not so disciplined that we actually succeed in this, but that really is up to us.

The city offers excitement, but almost everyone that I have met that has lived a long time in cities also needs a break from it, every once in a while. Often times, they cannot wait to move out of the city, and leave the noise and congestion far behind them. That is telling to me, and why personally, it would see that the major city might be a very nice place to visit and to do and see things, but I don't think I'd want to live there. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Rental Movie Review: The Tourist

            *Rental Movie Review: The Tourist
            This was an action/adventure/spy movie with a sense of humor, at times making fun of such stories that become popular books that are almost inevitably interpreted into the big screen.
            You might think that with that idea, and with Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp to boot, this movie might pull it off and be very good, and at least entertaining. Yet, something is missing, it seems.
While this movie did have it's moments, it seemed, for the most part, a bit slow. There was humor in it at times, and there was adventure as well, at other times. Sometimes, both at the same time.
However, the storyline really just seems to take too long to get along, and the fact that the movie makes fun of the clichéd nature of these movies makes it all the more glaring that this movie itself seems to use every cliché in the book. You can say it is risqué, and it would appear to have some validity. Yet, this ultimately is a spy movie, and as such, it is in fact rather predictable.
Johnny Depp's character is named Frank Tupelo, a math teacher trying to enjoy a vacation in Europe. He seems a quiet, unassuming man, who tries his best when a very attractive woman, Elise Clifton-Ward, played by Jolie, picks him to essentially distract the secret team that is relentlessly following her, in order to try and find their most wanted man – her former lover.
What ensues is a wild chase and classic misdirection, with Elise managing to get the space that she requires by utilizing Frank as a distraction. Frank finds himself suddenly in the middle of a very tough situation, being pursued by unknown, armed men with bad intentions, and suddenly finding himself being mistaken for a wanted man.
This movie, predictably, goes full circle as well, although I do not want to give away the ending, just in case you, the reader, should find yourself watching this movie. I don't want to play spoiler, and maybe you will get more out of this movie than I did. It just seemed to formulaic. Even when they were trying to be witty and make fun of clichés, it never fully succeeded in making fun of the genre like, say, the Scream movies made fun of their genre.
Again, Jolie and Depp do a good job with their acting, and usually, they are enough to at least salvage their roles. Yet, this movie was not really convincing enough to allow me to escape. So what I saw on the screen in front of me was not a story unfolding, but a movie that had seemed curiously appealing but seemed to slow to pick up speed and never really took flight. Thus, it was hard not to see Angelina Jolie the movie star, rather than whoever it was that she was supposed to be playing. Ditto with Johnny Depp, who's character seemed difficult enough to ascertain to begin with. He did the most with what was available, but this movie just really did not work too well. It was not nearly as exciting, as sexy, as vibrant, and just downright fun, as one might assume a movie like this should, or at least could, be.
The scenery was wonderful. It all takes place in Europe, and in that regard, it has some wonderful shots in truly beautiful locales, particularly in Venice, where the bulk of it takes place.
I do not mean to say that this was a horrible movie that should be avoided at all costs. Again, it had it's moments. Still, it is much slower than I expected it to be, which seemed unfortunate. It was a relatively short movie, but it somehow felt much longer to me. Overall, this one just was not a winner.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Toxicity of Our Lives

So, the other day, I wrote a post about the toxicity of our lives, and what we surround ourselves with. I think this is true, generally speaking, although will admit I do not have all the facts to back up this theory. I am not, after all, a scientist. But it does seem like we take far too many risks with what we unthinkingly allow, without much reflection. It also puzzles me that many people strongly question things that should not really matter (such as, say, differences in race or religious beliefs, or sexual preferences or practices of total strangers), while they allow certain clear excesses and wrongs to go unchecked (such as massive and unchecked pollution and the poisoning of our land, air, and water, or the illegal and immoral wars we seem to constantly engage in, or the massive levels of corruption that everybody knows about and complains about, but which remain largely accepted "realities" of our times, or the robbing of the vulnerable – which includes the bulk of us – by huge moneyed interests, which amounts to what has sometimes been described as a kind of Robin Hood in Reverse").
            For the most part, I argued that it seems amazing to me that so many things that are questionable, at best, and seem downright damaging in am massive way at worst, are not only allowed to continue, but which are justified, rather than viewed as clear evils and excesses that deserve our attention, as well as our efforts to eradicate them from society. What I mean by that is that what really seems poisoned in our society would not merely be restricted to literal poisons in our air or water or land, or even in our foods and medicines, but in our spirit, in our mentality, and ultimately, in our actions. In fact, it is the internal poisoning of our brain that allows all of those other poisons to take root. So long as we listen to people who seem intent on claiming that taking more poison to build up our individual and collective resistance, rather than on eliminating that which is making us sick, we will continue to suffer from these abuses and fall ill – individually and collectively. And there is no one else to blame but ourselves – individually and collectively.
            It all starts with ourselves, and with our mind. Like physical exercise, we need to exercise our brains, quite literally. When we do not, we find an intellectual and moral malaise setting in, and yet the vast majority of people seem to ignore this, not realizing that they are doing so at their own peril!
            In effect, they are disarming themselves of the sharpest and most effective weapon at their disposal, and giving in to their endless desires and petty wants instead. If this world is ever going to change for the better, than that is what we need to start doing – exercising our minds, and being as mindful about getting in shape mentally, as we seem to focus on it physically, buying the latest intense workout sessions that are advertised on late night infomercials "for a limited time only" and which is pushed on us by massive advertising campaigns, to the point that some people are willing to have risky and expensive surgery or to starve themselves, or otherwise to engage in risky behavior, in order to physically look good. It's not just diet, of course. I was mentioning poisoning ourselves. Did you know that when you dye your hair a dark color, you increase the chances of acquiring cancer? You may look more like you want to, and perhaps it is even an effective way of hiding away the gray hairs, but at what cost? Seems like a modern day equivalent of a Trojan Horse, no?
            Once we begin to focus on what we should be focusing on – if, indeed, we ever do that –than maybe we can begin to more seriously effect the kind of change in the world that we want to see, and which makes this world a better place. Until then, things will continue to get worse, not better.
            Things will eventually change. Of that, I have no doubt. The question is, will we make the changes while we have the luxury of doing so, or will we stubbornly refuse and take it so far, that we allow the inevitable crash and loss of control, as the imbalance rights itself, forcing our hand and wresting control away from us. Sometimes, it is hard not to feel a romantic attachment to such a notion, or not to think of the thoughts of humanity more or less destroying itself as one not so much appalling as much as it is appealing, if it proves unable or unwilling to change its clearly destructive, and even evil, ways. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Devils and Rangers: Shades of the 1994 Series

As promised, the series between the Devils and the Rangers is a wild one, filled with intensity and some obvious bad blood. It is filled with fights, with rough hits (even Martin Brodeur was shoved in the last game), and quite a few penalty minutes. Even the coaches seem intent on ridiculing each other in press conferences and getting in one another's face during the actual game.
            Yes, it's already one of the most heated rivalries in the sport, and now, it is producing one of the most heated playoff series in recent memory.  Remember earlier this season, when three fights broke out simultaneously less than three seconds after the puck was dropped to start the game? So, we knew this was going to be heated.
            The Devils enjoyed their first convincing victory of the series last night, jumping out to an early 1-0 lead, and then getting some cushion with a second goal in the 1st period. They never looked back, playing stingy defense, bolstered by the legendary goaltending of Martin Brodeur, as they held the Rangers to no goals going into the final period. They got a third goal as well, before than Rangers finally managed to produce a goal of their own. But this game was never really in doubt, as the Devils took it comfortably, 4-1.
            The Rangers had a pair of convincing wins, at least on paper. They won both Game 1 and Game 3 in eerily similar fashion, with the Devils outplaying them early on, but failing to actually score. Those games remained scoreless until the third period, when the Rangers finally broke through after a long and tense scoreless game to take the lead, and in both games, they followed that up quickly with another goal to provide a bit more comfort zone, and went on to win, 3-0, fr both games.
            In the meantime, the Devils, who really have been outplaying the Rangers throughout the series in everything but the scoreboard, had barely eked out a 3-2 victory in Game 2, which has been a notoriously a bad game in each series that the New York Rangers have participated in throughout these playoffs, having lost all three Game 2's in all three series thus far.
            Still, going into last night's game, there was a feeling that the Devils had not yet broken through, and played up to their potential. Maybe they had outplayed the Rangers through the series to this point, but they did not have the actual results to show for it, down 2 games to 1, and having been outscored 8 goals to 3.
            So, they were overdue for a convincing win, and finally got it, making Henrik Lundqvist look mortal, for once. The Rangers were clearly outclassed, outmuscled, and outhustled throughout the night, and this time, it finally showed on the most important element of the game: the scoreboard.
            Now, it is a three game series. Game 5 will be at Madison Square Garden, and Game 6 will be at the Prudential Center. If need be, Game 7, the deciding game, will be played at Madison Square Garden. Given that the Rangers have literally never lost a Game 7 that they hosted at Madison Square Garden (that includes the legendary series between these two teams way back in 1994, when the Rangers last won the Stanley Cup, before the Devils ever had won it), that could actually be the deciding factor. Yet, this has the feel of a seven game series.
            One way or the other, it has been a very entertaining, and intense, series. Exactly what you want to see in playoff hockey. It should also prove to be memorable, to boot, and it should be interesting to see the handshakes after this one is all over.
            As for my prediction? Well, yes, I predicted the Devils to win, and I will stick with that. No reason that I can see to change that now. Not sure whether it will take six or seven games, but it seems the Devils are still the team that is dictating the tempo thus far, and that should decide this one. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

I wonder....

Why do some of these blogs come up green, which has a more pleasing and natural tone, while others (like the last two posts) come up white, like a Microsoft Word document? Just wondering. it seems strange to me, but I don't really know how to fix it.

Movie Rental Review: The Gray

I had seen the previews for this movie, and knew that it would be a movie that I would want to watch.
            But having missed it in the theaters, next up came the DVD, and the opportunity was there recently.
            Most everyone that I spoke to about the movie that had seen it seemed to say the same thing: that it was depressing. So, I knew not to expect an uplifting and lighthearted comedy, obviously. Of course, anyone who saw the previews kind of got the sense that it would be a tense movie, presumably.
            It starts off with narration by Liam Neeson in his character, Ottway. He is talking about how he ended up in northern Alaska, on some kind of work camp just before everyone is sent South, to go home for the winter, presumably.
            Ottway is a man on the edge. We learn that he has lost everything, including hope. We do not know how exactly he got where he is, in the remotest corner of Alaska, but we know he is a deeply unhappy and troubled man. Also, he seems solitary, although that might be more what he is going through.
            He struggles with his demon, as he is about to go back to a life that he obviously was trying to escape by coming up to remote Alaska. So we can understand his trepidation as he boards the plane back to that life, and his sense of fatigue, his desire to escape, amidst the loud rowdiness of the roughnecks on board. We also catch our first real glimpse of what troubles him, as he gets involuntary flashbacks of some ex-lover, who we find out has left him.
            Of course, anyone who has seen the previews also knows that the plane crashes, and that Ottway is one of just a few survivors. Most have been killed in the crash, or very quickly thereafter. The survivors are stunned, but they try to make sense of what happened, and collect their bearings. One of them finds a homing beeper, and it seems that perhaps there is a chance that they will be discovered.
            When wolves unexpectedly show up, and start to threaten the men, then it becomes all about survival. It seems Ottway is the leader of the men, although not in an uncontested manner. There is one man in particularly who remains cynical throughout, and challenges everything – until he himself becomes the target of a wolf attack, and the reality of the situation comes bearing down on him.
            Ultimately, the men try to make their way by heading southwards, and hoping to find some traces of civilization, some kind of escape, before fate turns against them. The entire time, they are hounded and stalked by aggressive and very hostile wolves, that threaten to kill them at any moment.
            One by one, the men succumb, one way or the other. They are taken out, and the numbers keep thinning. Ottway tries to develop strategies to continue fighting, to continue moving. They begin to find traces of hope and progress, but it seems for each promising sign, there is some major setback or other waiting around the corner, and the numbers grow incredibly thin before long. Sometimes, the difference between survival and death are mere inches. Yet, one by one they fall, until eventually, this film reaches it's climax, right at the end.
            Of course, I am not going to give what happens away. After all, this is a review of rental movies, which means that you, the reader, are free to go and rent it yourself. As far as survival movies go, this one is pretty intense, although there are others that I still prefer, such as The Edge, with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, in which some other survivors of an airplane crash in the remote mountains of the far north are also forced to try and survive while hunted relentlessly by a huge and menacing Klondike bear. Also, Castaway with Tom Hanks was a very good movie, more or less in the vane of Robinson Crusoe, where the survivor of yet another airplane crash (do you notice a theme here?) has to find a means to survive on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean, completely alone and learning to survive entirely his own power. One of the major pluses about Castaway is that it features some incredible acting by Hanks, who was still at his peak during this movie. Really, who else could make you get emotional about a man losing a volleyball?
            This movie is not quite as good, although it might be more realistic than those other movies, because, simply stated, most do not survive until the end of the movie. After all, there is a good reason why this movie has a reputation for being depressing. It is well earned, at that!
            That said, it is a good movie, and makes you think. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Our Toxic Lifestyles

          We see the rates of diseases going up and up, but somehow, in this age of information and with the ability to communicate information at record speed, this kind of news does not make the rounds as much as perhaps it should.
            The question is why, then. Why are the cancer rates shooting up? Some time ago, cancer (which has always been a problem that human beings are susceptible) affected a lot of people, but the numbers these days are just staggering. At a time when people are growing more health conscious and increasingly aware and careful, it seems especially important that we not only acknowledge this, but try to understand it on some deeper level, because it means that something is terribly wrong.
            We are aware of the dangers, of course. This is a society that is built around fear. It's how it works, how things sell and are advertised. We fear everything, and so we disinfect everything.
Don't believe me?
When was the last time you ate a piece of fruit without first washing it? The last time you got a cut or something without cleansing it with some chemicals or other? When was the last time you got really sick and visited a doctor and did not take some sort of medication that was prescribed for it?
Yes, we do these things, and I am certainly not saying that this is necessarily wrong, mind you. In fact, I do these things as well, personally. Of course, because we know the risks. We wash those apples before we eat them, because of the pesticides. It's not big secret, everyone knows that. When you get a cut, you wipe it with something, especially alcohol, in order to disinfect it, of course. The doctor prescribes certain medicines for you, and you take them, because they are the experts, and this medicine offers the best that our modern science has to offer to fight what ails you.
All that is very true. However, perhaps that is also only one side of the story, and perhaps, just maybe, there is something that we are not seeing in all of this.
Lately, I have noticed that a lot of people are starting to grow increasingly skeptical in regards to vaccines, particularly those that the youngest among us are basically required to have in order to get into school, and be regular members of society. But do we really know what is in those vaccines, and what quantity our children are taking them in. There is really no room for doubt, right? After all, taking these shots is mandatory, which means everyone, without exception, has to get them. So, we just go ahead, and trust the doctors and experts with this one size fits all vaccine, this medicine. How do we know that some people do not have some allergic reactions to it, that perhaps, in fact, this stuff might just be bad for you.
I am not saying that the conspiracy theorists are right. All I am saying is that there concerns may have some validity to them.
Of course, there are so many things that we do which seems potentially damaging, that it truly is mind-boggling. About the only thing more mind-boggling, in fact, is that we do not give these things more serious thought. We have such a collective level of skepticism towards so many things, these days, that when we see it absent, it kind of makes you wonder (like the absence of scrutiny towards some politicians, who seem to get away with murder, sometimes quite literally).
We surround ourselves with unknowns, and we just kind of come to accept it. Many of our homes are in plain sight of some horrific looking power plants and such, and sometimes perhaps a nuclear facility that is nearby (like Indian Point, to illustrate a specific example). We traverse highways every day, and breathe in those fumes. Perhaps every now and then, we see construction crews doing roadwork, and we smell the tar from a road being paved. It is unpleasant to breathe and, in fact, it si recommended that we do not breathe that stuff in. But what about those guys who work on that stuff, day in and day out? For that matter, what about those people that work in such power plants, or perhaps laboratories with experimental things that are detrimental to people's health. I'm not just talking about well-paid scientists in here. I used to work at a place in New York State that had bright yellow caution signs that warned anyone of childbearing years to stay out of certain rooms. Should I admit to trying to veer as far away from those rooms as possible, although I was required to pass by some in certain hallways? Should I admit that I would kind of cover my mid-section with my hands, and pass through as quickly as possible?
Why do we put ourselves through this? Why accept this as part of our reality?
In advertising campaigns, everyone is always beautiful and perfect, and their homes are perfectly spotless, always clean. So we try and buy things and do things that will help make our lives a bit more like that. People starve themselves to lose weight, many women apply all sorts of cleansers and formulas to fight wrinkles and signs of aging, to keep their skin looking perfectly soft and smooth, to look pretty. Maybe they try some new weight loss pills, and perhaps they will not have any side effects. Or, maybe they have.
This whole issue with side effects is the point, I think. We tend to ignore them, by and large, so long as the results we are looking for seem to be achieved. Doctors prescribe something to someone, and maybe it will take care of whatever it was that ailed them. But if there are side effects? Well, there are more pills to offset the side effects, and perhaps even some pills to offset the side effects of these new pills. So on and so forth, and it can be a vicious cycle. Much like the lives we have set up for ourselves. We find temporary solutions, often amounting to little more than distractions, than pleasant diversions, or escapism, to offset some much deeper ills, never wondering if the medicine we are taking might be the problem itself, rather than the solution. We just keep drinking the Kool Aid, in our unexamined lives.
So, we have built a world that affords us all sorts of comforts and privileges, and we can live an illusion. But we never stop to think if some of it might actually be quite toxic to us. I've mentioned the fumes from the cars, and the fumes that we breathe from factories and power plants. But what about the stuff that some of those factories make, and end up on the shelves of stores, until we purchase them with our hard earned money, and they end up on our shelves at homes. Those polishes, to wipe the furniture, or the chemicals we use to clean the toilets and bathtubs, the stuff we use to keep the carpet clean and smelling fresh. Perhaps you use various air-freshners in order to make you home smell nice and piney fresh. The fertilizers that we apply, sometimes too richly, to get that lush, green lawn. Do we really know what chemicals these things consist of, and the effects on the human body that they have, over the short and long term?
Hell, these days, even our financial practices are toxic to us. Yet, hardly anyone seems to give pause, and think about it.
I am including myself in this, all too often. I am only beginning to really wake up to all of this myself, the last few years.
So, am I saying I have unlocked the secrets to why cancer rates seem to shoot up all of the time? I remember hearing that 1 in 3 Americans will get cancer at some point in their lives (varying degrees of it, surely, and not all as serious as the most toxic cases). More recently, I heard that this raised up to 2 out of 3. Which figure is more accurate? I don't know. Again, I'm not an expert.
However, it just seems to me that we can do worse than to actually tear ourselves away from Facebook or YouTube clips, or from watching reality shows where people are competing against one another in singing or in trying to pick up the eligible bachelor, and simply take a look at these lives that we have resigned ourselves to. It is puzzling that we have not, collectively, given this toxic lifestyle of our ours more serious thought and scrutiny, and at least as much attention and concern as too many of us give when we pick up that phone and place a vote for our favorite contestant on the latest big thing reality show. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Cool Early Morning Hike at Kincaid

Today was slated to be a busy day, with a full day at work, as well as a birthday party that I am supposed to take my son to for one of his classmates.

That said, it was important for me to make a point of going for a hike, and since I was up and about already early on, the decision was made to go for a short hike, before the responsiblities of the day would have to be met.

My first stop was to the usual, Silas Condict. I obviously know the trail, and can do it within an hour, and figured it would be the most logical choice - until I saw that the gate blocked the way. Not sure why they keep it closed so late (it was almost 8am by that point, and this was not the first time such an instance happened), but once I saw that was not going to happen, it seemed logical to drive the five or ten minutes down to Kicaid, and get my relatively early morning hike in there.

This is supposed to be a beautiful day, where the temperatures are climbing up and up, and it is supposed to reach in the eighties later on. Summer is definitely on it's way, now.

Before the hike even started, I heard the sound of a rooster by a nearby home, presumably with a farm (although I can not say for sure, since I have not yet actually seen it. But it was a very pleasant start to the morning hike.

This morning was cool and refreshing. Sunny, but not overpowering or blinding, and the woods obviously offered shade and even further respite from a sun that was growing more powerful with each moment. It was considerably cooler still in the woods, and that just felt very refreshing. It was one of those early morning hikes where you feel chilly initially, and tempted to wear more clothing to stay warm. But fortunately, I resisted. It does not take long for your body temperature to rise while hiking, and the morning grew warmer and warmer as the hike went on. The cool morning felt very nice, and my mostly bare arms were pleasantly chilly.

The woods here are not very steep, and so they do not really offer the most amazing vantage points for scenic overlooks. Yet, it is very pleasant to feel completely surrounded by the woods, and for whatever reason, it reminded me of the movie Avatar. Not sure why, but it did. The lush and healthy feel of the imaginary world of woods and wilderness in that movie represent what we once had in our own world, and little pathes of woods like these are diminishing over time. Yet, when you find yourself submerged in the woods, and for once, having to worry about possible concerns like bears, it's a very different change of pace and scenery from the drudgery of modern existence. This was also the first time that I personally went to Kincaid on my own, without anyone else.

Unfortunately, it had to be a shorter hike than would have been desirable, since there was only a narrow window before my busy day was slated to start. Still, it's hard to imagine a better way to start a very pleasant morning, at least. As I walked back to the little parking lot off of Kinnelon Road, I heard the sound from the rooster that had kicked off the hike in the first place. It's crowing gradually grew louder, clearer, and more pronounced the closer I got to the end of the hike. It was a great way to start the hike, as well as a great way to end it!

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Red Headed Stranger Comes to the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, NJ

So, I saw a Willie Nelson Concert tonight! It was a gift, actually. My brother's early Father's Day present to me, and tonight was the night!
            There was an unexpected delay in meeting my brother, and since I was already in the area, it was a good opportunity to spend some down time in the down town, which I had not done in quite some time. So, I went to the bookstore, the Montclair Book Center, and perused the shelves there. I have been trying to wean myself from getting more books, since this can be an expensive habit, as well as one that takes up too much space at home. That said, I will still buy books from authors that I really enjoy, and that was the case yesterday, as I found a very nice copy of John Irving's new book, "In One Person" - which you can expect to see a review of on this blog some time in the future. Sure, I could have gotten it online for cheaper, most likely. But I want to support local businesses whenever possible, and places like that, which have some charm, need to stay afloat. There really is only one way that they will, and that is by having paying customers, and so I made the purchase.
            By the time my brother and I finally met up, we really did not have enough time to sit and eat anywhere. We might have, but the one place I tried, the little French pastry shop "Le Petit Parisien", closes up shop rather ridiculously early. Typically French, it closed at an annoying hour, while all around, there were patrons at restaurants dining in crowded outdoor cafes, enjoying their meals and drinks and the beautiful weather. Yes, it is a Thursday evening, but when you have the opportunity to bring in more business and take advantage of the potential for customers, why wouldn't you take advantage of that? But when I went to the door, the guy mentioned that he was closing up shop. It was the only food shop in the area that I noticed which was closed. Literally, all the others were open. After all, it was 7:30pm, so why not? He had a customer willing to pay in me, but I was turned away. When we finally ate (after the show), the money went to another (competing) dining establishment, although I gladly would have given that money to the owner of the French shop. Not smart business practices, if you ask me.
            It is not a long drive, and although the traffic can be annoying in the Montclair downtown area, and the parking usually winds up being a source of stress for one and all, the town itself has a very pleasant ambience. Can't remember the last time I went there and did not enjoy being there. Montclair is a college town, and has a lot of character and appeal, filled as it is with coffee shops and restaurants, antique stores and a very cool used book store (with newly extended late hours, to boot!). There is a movie theater that plays off the beaten path kind of movies, including B-movies and foreign films that you will not generally find playing at a local theater. Finally, there is the Wellmont Theater.
            The Red Headed Stranger came to the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, New Jersey. The theater itself is a beautiful place to see a concert, with great looking décor and awesome acoustics! Such a cool place to see a concert, with easy and convenient access (it's better than having to go to the city). 
            Before Willie and the band took the stage, Robert Ellis took the stage, and he was actually very good! I am not usually much of a country fan, admittedly (with Willie Nelson being a notable exception), but these guys were really strong, and had a certain intensity and soul to them that made their set very enjoyable, for me as well as for almost everyone else in the audience, which seemed quite receptive throughout the show, adding to the feel!
            Willie Nelson took the stage, and a gigantic Texas flag was unfurled to serve as a backdrop. He played up tempo all night long, and did his typical standards and hits. Some of the material that he played included The City of New Orleans, Whiskey River, I Never Cared for You (a song with beautiful, poetic lyrics), a cover of Hey Good Looking by Ernest Tubb, Me and Bobby McGee cover originally done by Janis Joplin. He played one song called Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, which my brother mention seemed to more or less encapsulate his whole philosophy in general. It was a funny and enjoyable song that I had not been familiar with prior to this evening.
            This was only the second time that I had ever seen Willie Nelson in concert. The first time was about a year and a half ago, in Milwaukee, for the annual Farm Aid concert, that included him and Neil Young, Dave Matthews, and John Mellencamp. Those are the four standard acts every year, because they are the ones that have the most at stake and, thus carry the banner, of Farm Aid. Some of the other guests included Norah Jones and Jason Mraz. It was a great show overall, and I enjoyed the outdoors Farmer's Market kind of set up that they had, as well.
            The show last night was, of course, just Willie, but that was more than enough! He was a great act that stands on his own, and it was a very pleasant way to spend a Thursday evening!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book Review: Digital Fortress by Dan Brown

This is not exactly a new book, but since I just finished it yesterday, I figured it was well worth reviewing, right?
Also, this was the last Dan Brown book that I had not yet read. Fittingly, it was definitely done in the same style that any fan of Dan Brown will know very well.
Two of the main characters are a couple, named Susan and David. David is a professor of strong repute at a prestigious university, while Susan is a very competent and capable member of the NSA team, a top-notch government program of high tech computer analysis, specifically breaking codes. To help them along, they have at their disposal the secret TRANSLTR supercomputer, which has yet to be stumped by any code.
But for the first time, it has run into a problem, and everything suddenly seems to be going wrong. Susan’s boss, Commander Strathmore, has learned that one of the NSA’s former employees, and now a rival, has come up with an algorithm that the rotates, and so the pass code is constantly changing. It is, in other words, an unbreakable code, and for the first time in it’s history, the TRANSLTR supercomputer is stumped. Moreover, it seems to be running into all sorts of problems, and it does not take long for this to attract attention.
Unbeknownst to Susan, Commander Strathmore calls up David, Susan’s boyfriend, and requests his help. He sends him to Seville , Spain , to retrieve a key link that should provide the pass code. It seems like it should be an open and shut kind of thing, but then it would not be a Dan Brown novel, right? David, who is a professor much more used to classrooms and libraries than he is to code breaking and engaging in high risk spy games, soon finds himself in over his head, and the pace of the book just keeps going up and up, of course. He soon finds himself having to survive the best attempts of a professional assassin hell bent on eliminating him.
In the meantime, back in Washington, TRANSLTR’s futile attempts to break the unbreakable code has finally attracted attention, including some code breaker computer geeks, and that of none other than the Director of Operations for NSA, who cuts his trip to South America short, in order to see what is going on with TRANSLTR at the NSA headquarters.
What is uncovered, perhaps predictably, is a tale of lies and deceit that keeps the story going until, ultimately, it reaches it’s climax. TRANSLTR is clearly having problems, and the attempts of concerned parties to intervene and save the computer before it possibly can destroy itself proves, ultimately, fatal to a few people. In typical Dan Brown fashion, when we find out the betrayals and counter betrayals, the secrecy and high stakes chess match strategies underneath everything, it proves all to be for surprisingly human reasons and human errors made.
Dan Brown has often been criticized for his works. Many people feel he is arrogant, and indeed, a case can be made to make him seem so. This was a man who famously claimed that everything in his breakout book, the DaVinci Code, was absolutely true (not everything in the book is). But I remember seeing a clip of an interview that he did, where he was questioned about it, and he just said that his books are meant to be fun, and that readers should just come along for the ride, and have fun.
So far, all of the books that he has written have been fun indeed, and I will also admit that they have been educational for me, as well. It was enjoyable to learn about the Sacred Feminine concept as the actual legend of the Holy Grail on the Da Vinci Code, learning about the persecution and goals of the Illuminati throughout history, as well as the modern science of anti-matter in Angels & Demons, as well as to learn more about the Masons in The Lost Symbol. Deception Point was a page turned and strong thriller, also.
Indeed, his works have been highly scrutinized and exposed for their historical inaccuracies by the world of specialized academia, and they are not wrong to point these things out. Still, Dan Brown has managed to package much information that is revealing to John Q. Public, and does so in a format that is exciting and conducive to wide appeal. For that, I applaud his effort and success at writing, having thoroughly enjoyed his books to this point (is that wrong to say?). As he suggested in that interview some years ago, these are not scholarly works meant to be entirely accurate in every conceivable way, but rather to enlighten the reader on subject matters usually relegated to those privileged few who dwell upon such matters up high in their ivory towers overlooking the lush gardens of academia. The main ideas and histories come across well enough, and strongly enhance and even accelerate the story-telling. You never know about the intellectual elites, but I, for one, am along for the ride!