Friday, November 30, 2012

A Productive Day...

Yesterday was indeed a productive day.

True, most of us usually manage to accomplish some things during the course of a typical day.

But today was a more productive day than most, and I think I'm well within my rights to feel good about myself right now.

Today, I wrote fairly well earlier, more or less to my liking, adding some to yesterday's blog, and doing work on some other blogs, and even some writing outside of the blogs. That was something good, but in itself, it is not unique.

However, I also read quite a bit today, and since I seem to be having a kind of drought as of late. So, on that front, there was success.

I forced myself to beat out my own laziness, and go for a rather tough hike in slippery conditions through the snowy woods before the sun went down. It proved to be a race towards the end, but I pushed myself to do what normally is an hour's hike with just over an hour of daylight to go, and managed to get it done in less than ideal circumstances.

Cleaning - something that I do not always have the energy and proper spirit for. But I did on this day, and that even includes my car, which did not need serious cleaning, yet I did some, anyway!

The big thing was to put up the Christmas tree that my son was asking about. I did not do it last year, mostly because I was going through some issues and feeling depressed at around this time last year, admittedly. But there was a lingering sense of guilt over having allowed that to get the best of me, and not having mustered the energy, or the will, to put the tree up for the benefit of my child. This time around, however, I was determined not to let that particular history repeat itself. I was originally targeting just after Thanksgiving, but that unfortunately did not happen. Monday was too busy, which left today, because next week is just going to be a chaotic week (yes, I know it in advance). That's a lot of pressure, but I didn't buckle. The tree does not look beautiful, yet my son was very excited to see me working on it.  There was clear joy and happy energy in his eyes and voice, and I felt very pleased

So, I got to see him, as well as spend some time with my family, enjoying a nice dinner there.

All that, and I even remembered to get my son the Hess truck, knowing how those things seem to be very hard to come by in the days before Christmas, for whatever the reason.

Not everyday do I get to feel like I accomplished a lot, and I am old enough to know to appreciate those days when there is sufficient reason to feel so. A nice day, all in all!

Outside of my own life, this was a night for American football, both in the pros, and in college.

Rutgers had a chance to capture their first ever Big East title, as they hosted Louisville. They raced out to a 14-3 lead, which they held at the half, and then seemed to score a touchdown that really would have put their boot on the throat of the Cardinals.

Unfortunately, however, there was a flag on the play, and it was called back. Who knows what would have happened had that been good? But as it were, Louisville came back with a strong touchdown drive, to close within four points. Then, a turnover by Rutgers gave Louisville another chance, and the result was yet another touchdown. Rutgers managed to tie it up in the fourth with a field goal, but the Cardinals managed to get into field goal position themselves very late in the fourth quarter, with very little time left, inside the two minute warning. Rutgers drove and seemed to have a chance, but after miscommunication between the quarterback and the receiver, the result was an interception that ended the drive, and Rutgers hopes along with it, and iced the game for Louisville, who now qualified for the BCS.

Rutgers, who have been in the Big East since it was first created (the only team that can claim that, for that matter), will have one more chance to win the division, although this really had been a golden opportunity for them. They will now head towards another bowl game, but this one meaning significantly less. Rutgers will get a share of the Big East title, and most likely are headed to the Russell Athletic Bowl in Orlando. The Cardinals, in the meantime, are heading to a much more prestigious and famous bowl, either the Orange Bowl or the Sugar Bowl. A missed opportunity for Rutgers, for sure.

Otherwise, in the NFL, after a boring Monday Night Football game between two of the worst teams in the league (the visiting Panthers managed to defeat the hosting Philadelphia Eagles in a lackluster affair that meant nothing), Thursday Night Football was between two very capable teams that were also bitter division rivals, as well as among the most successful franchises in the league in the last few years, and the stakes were very high.

The New Orleans Saints visited the Atlanta Falcons, and were hoping to follow up on their victory over Atlanta just a few weeks ago, when they handed the Falcons their first (and so far only) loss of the season. They had climbed back to .500 after a surprising 0-4 start that threatened their season, but after a bad defeat at home against the 49ers, the Saints were hoping to get back on the winning track.In the meantime, the Falcons were hoping to be able to wrap things up within the division, and take one step closer to home field advantage, and that's exactly what they did.

Atlanta was effective on offense and defense, ending Drew Brees's record streak of consecutive games with a touchdown pass at 54, and grabbing 5 interceptions. They raced out to a 17-0 lead, and held on to win, 23-13.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

"It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas"

"It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas"

At least it is here in New Jersey, after a snowstorm that made a lot of news. It was not actually all that much snow, or anything. Just enough, really, to lay a comfortable coat of snow on the grounds, and slow down traffic a bit.

I know it's not yet December, and we're still almost a month away still from the start of winter officially, with the Winter solstice. Still, there is that feel in the air now. It is, after all, past Thanksgiving, and those shopping "holidays" that follow that. I tend to avoid those, but I just remembered that I need to stop at the Hess station in order to pick up the Hess truck for my son, which has kind of become a holiday tradition of sorts. He has apparently already been asking for it. 

Also, the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center was lit up last night. I must be getting old, because I remember when it was a big thing just for it to get lit up on it's own. Now, they have a concert that is televised nationally, I believe, and it is billed up as a bigger deal than ever. I have never actually been to one of those tree lighting ceremonies, but have seen the tree all lit up. Perhaps that would be something to do with my son this year, as well. 

Although it is on a much smaller scale, my girlfriend and I had put up and decorated the Christmas tree, and it looked really pretty. Sitting there in the living room as the snow fell, I looked at the tree, and thought it all seemed so nice. So, I went over and lit it up.

She tends to decorate the apartment rather elaborately for Christmas, really having the spirit.  She also tends to decorate the place early - a week before Thanksgiving, in this case, and only largely because I did not allow her to do t even earlier than that.

So, as I write this as the moment, the apartment is well decorated and in full Christmas mode, and there is snow on the ground, and the temperatures at the moment are cold.

It is, indeed, beginning to look, and feel, a lot like Christmas. Also, I am maintaining my annual Christmas tradition of getting some gifts ridiculously early, and then largely forgetting about it, then falling ridiculously behind, thus needing to rush out in the days and hours before Christmas.


In any case, the holiday season tends to be a mixed bag for a lot of people. I think that I can sympathize with both sides. There is a special feel often times leading up to the holidays. A certain charm, and a pleasant feel overall. It just feels nice, and the decorations can indeed be quite pretty.

On the other hand, it is so over-commercialized and hyped up, that it is hard to dismiss the moneymaking machinery grinding and hard at work. The stress of getting presents for everyone, the stress perhaps of having to deal with family (again, for those of us living in the United States, who had to do so recently, during Thanksgiving), the end of an old year and seeing yet another year race by and reminding us of how old we might be getting, and the beginning of a new year. 

Still, I want to remember the more pleasant aspects, and having a child who talks eagerly about it all kind of helps with that. My son, like any child would, wants to know what he is getting for Christmas. He wants a lot of gifts, cool toys to play with. His childish enthusiasm will last a few more years, and I want to enjoy it while it is here. That is no small part of the magic of Christmas, and let him enjoy it! I had my turn, and can relive those old memories of mine through his enthusiasm, although I am now on the other side of it all, the adult side.

True, some people really tend to view the negatives over the positives, and I can understand this. Not being particularly religious, I still enjoy the spirit behind the holiday tradition, although this is often lost in the barrage of focusing on expensive gifts, and radio and television commentaries discussing whether this was a good year or a disappointing one for the retailers. But all it takes for me to get back in the spirit, is to see the enthusiasm in my son's eyes, or the charming scene that Basia has created in decorating the place for the holidays. It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, indeed!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Movie Rental Review: Blood Diamond

This movie is not pretty, and deals with downright ugly subject matter. Yet, it is a beautiful movie. It is also a movie that has a wide appeal, because it has many things to offer. It is an intelligent movie that makes a statement on mindless consumerism at all costs, even hidden exploitation and corruption on a massive scale, and it virtually documents the specifics on the diamond smuggling trade. But it is also an action movie on many levels, leaving you on the edge of your seat with suspense. Still more, it tells the story of the imbalance between the third world and the first world, specifically Africa in this case, and shows how the violence that far too much of Africa cannot seem to escape seems to be recycled, year after year, decade after decade, expertly hinting at the history of the birth of this kind of exploitation and violence colonial rule.

This movie, if it were a Shakespeare play, would be a tragedy, both because of the human conditions that it illustrates, as well as for the incomplete romance that never quite seems to get off the ground, between the drug smuggler Danny Archer, a Rhodesian born virtual mercenary, and Maddy Bowen, an American journalist covering Sierra Leone, where this movie is supposed to take place. Danny is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, while Maddy is played by Jennifer Connelly. They both do an unbelievable job in their roles.

It focuses on the illegal diamond smuggling business, which rakes in huge profits year in and year out, and the violence which this trade tends to precipitate all over Africa.

****Spoiler Alert****

A local fisherman, Solomon Vandy (played very capably by Djimon Hounsou), is doing his best to survive, and hopes especially to provide a better future for his son. It is a modest living, and by western standards, the Vandy family is poor, living in huts, and without means of transportation, or electricity. Yet, they seem to be happy enough.

But all of that changes when their village is raided by a local warlord with his army of captured children, who terrorize without reservation or apparent humanity. They rape and murder, and capture those who may be deemed useful, such as Solomon Vandy, who is obviously a physical specimen who can work hard for them as a virtual slave, as well as his son, Dia Vandy (played very well by Kagiso Kuypers) ultimately, who will later on be captured, and turned into a child soldier himself, and begins to lose his humanity with the terrible things that he is made to do.

Solomon finds out about the fate of his boy later on, and he never loses faith in his boy. He goes to all lengths to save him, his belief never wavering. But before all of this, he has his own adventure, when he finds a very valuable diamond, a pink piece that is truly one of a kind, and worth millions. Rather than simply turning it in, he tries to hide it, but is discovered by Captain Poison (played by David Harewood, who does a convincing job). Yet, it is precisely when Solomon is about to pay the price, when the diamond camp is invaded, and Captain Poison is injured, losing an eye, although he sees Solomon escaping with the diamond, and suspects that he has buried it nearby.

In the meantime, Danny Archer, a diamond smuggler, has gotten into trouble, arrested and brought to prison - the same prison, as it turns out, that Vandy and Captain Poison have been taken to. When the two have a confrontation, Archer witnesses the two men arguing over the pink diamond. Archer is obviously intrigued, and once he is out of jail, he pays Vandy's bail, then tries to get him to reveal the location of the diamond. All this while, a civil war is beginning to erupt in the country, and travel becomes not just difficult, but almost impossible.

Earlier, Danny Archer had approached a very attractive woman, Maddy Bowen, that he saw at a bar (the only white woman there). Archer talks to her a bit, but the smooth talk does not last long. He learns that she is a reporter, trying to get a revealing story, and takes an interest when he has revealed that he is a diamond smuggler. Later on, he uses her name opportunistically, when he needs a vehicle, knowing the press will always have one. He promises her the story that she has been looking for, and tries to convince her to let him use the vehicle in exchange for the story that will break the corrupt illegal diamond trade, and how it works, precisely. She eventually goes along with it.

There is considerable underlying tension between the two, yet there is an undeniable attraction, as well. They both approach one another with caution and suspicion. She accuses him of being guilty, of having blood on his hands, essentially, while he, in turn, accuses her of doing the same thing, profiting off the pain of others, only using words, rather than smuggling diamonds. He forces her to confront the questions surrounding her own presence in the war torn country, and that despite her seemingly noble intentions, what comes out is a form of manipulating a tragedy for her own ends, as well. Secretly, she seems impressed at his ability to turn the tables on her, and confront her with her own self-righteousness. So, there seems this weird, kind of love-hate thing going on between them.

She falls for him, but he is too wrapped up in the blind lust of diamonds to change his ways, although he seems, at points, to seriously consider it, and to truly turn a corner and live an honest life by her side. Ultimately, however, pursuing diamonds and such is too ingrained, and he puts himself in danger in the attempt to find this ultimate of diamonds, which he claims he hopes to finally get him out of Africa for good.

So, he pursues the pink diamond, taking Vandy along with him. They are forced to overcome a lot of dangers and treacherous terrain, and at one point, are actively pursued by some rebel troops. However, they survive, and make it to the village where the diamond camp is located. The only thing is that it is now occupied by the rebels, and Vandy, who has been searching for his son all of this time, sneaks off to the village, against the orders of Archer to stay away. Vandy finds his son, but he is unrecognizable, having been dehumanized and brainwashed to the point that he hardly seems to understand the meaning behind this sudden and surprising reunion with his father. This almost costs Solomon Vandy his life, but it is precisely then that the helicopter attack that Archer has ordered comes in, and this ultimately saves Vandy.

Yet, the danger is not over yet. Having sent in the coordinates to his former fighting unit (which is also a big part of the diamond smuggling business), the group decides to attack, regardless of who might be down there, including Archer and Vandy. They want the diamond, and Archer understands this. They force Solomon to take them to location of the diamond, and dig for it. But Archer, sensing that this unit intends to kill both Vandy and himself, launches a surprise attack on his own, and it succeeds. He and Vandy, and his son, make their escape, although they are being pursued.

But in the process, Archer discovers that he has been shot, and apparently, it is a serious wound. It does not take him long to understand that it amounts to a fatal wound, at least out here in the bush. So, he does something entirely out of character by giving the diamond back to Solomon Tandy, and making him promise to use the riches he will get from it on his son, on giving his son the chance at improving himself. Tandy agrees, and this seems to suggest that Archer has, indeed, become a new person - although it comes right at the very end, in the last few minutes of his life.

Archer's last acts are to take the biggest gun that he still has, and to hold off those armed smugglers who are after the diamond, and then, once he has been given a few minutes of relative peace, to call Maddy. The call takes her by surprise, as she is dining with friends by the waterfront in Cape Town. It is quickly revealed to her that he is seriously injured, and before too long, she understands that this is his last conversation, that he is sharing his last words with her. He has given her all of the information that she needs for a huge story that will have enormous implications, perhaps even endangering a specific firm's previously secretive involvement in the diamond smuggling business by blowing it wide open. The shady corporation ends up doing exactly as Archer has predicted, by purchasing the diamond, and then keeping it locked in a subterranean vault, just one of many diamonds being held from the public, in order to artificially keep the prices of diamonds very high. Maddy helps Vandy make the deal and get his family back, and then Vandy, in turn, uses his voice, which has up to this point been silent, in order to expose the realities of life in Sierra Leone, and the tragedy behind the illegal diamond smuggling trade that has, in effect, taken his nation hostage.

The movie is thought-provoking, to say the least. It really makes you wonder just what is behind our purchases, and not just diamonds. In this world of not only abusive diamond mining and hunting, but exploitation on mass scales and sweatshops and child labor and such, where well over one billion people live in dire poverty, how many of our everyday products that we consume are actually the product of immense suffering? Those awesome sneakers that you just got, perhaps, or the shirt that you just bought at Walmart. Or, of course, that expensive diamond ring that you just took out a line of credit to get, and which you cannot really afford, in order to ask your girlfriend for her hand in marriage - most likely with a very expensive and elaborate wedding which neither of you can really afford, for that matter.
How much of the world suffers, so that we can live our lives of comfort, even luxury?

Some people will dismiss such questions by arguing that this is how things have always worked. But the world has changed rapidly, and continues to change at an unbelievable pace. True, the quickest changes with the most impact these days seem to be on the technological end, but there have been political changes, as well. I mean, I'm not that old, yet there have been some unbelievable political changes in my own lifetime, when you sit and think about it. Look at how many dictatorships there were three decades ago in Latin America, compared with now. Look at how Pinochet was so relentlessly pursued by those looking for justice. Look at how relentlessly some pursue major war criminals in the present day, from aging Nazis (there seem to only be a handful of these cases remaining, since these events were long ago now, these days), or suspected war criminals in the former Yugoslavia, of in some African nations, such as in Liberia, where former President Charles Taylor became the first head of state convicted of war crimes. We can remember the sweeping changes that overtook whole regions and gave the possibility of new freedom where, before, there had been none. Look at the exciting winds of change in eastern Europe in 1989, or the Arab Spring in 2011.

Or, even here, in the United States specifically, or in the West more generally, where some surely still fear the embers from the seemingly extinguished "Occupy" movements that swept through the nation (and indeed, the world - check it out for yourselves if you need proof) threaten to reignite at any given moment, with revelations of yet one more outrageous abuse of "the system" that, until recently, most people either accepted without question, or sighed and looked the other way, whenever it was revealed that it perhaps actually did not work to their advantage.

So, despite the reputation that some have given me for being a cynic, I want to remain an optimist on this front, because change is possible. Moreover, it is necessary. The way things are going, we simply cannot survive the world going on as it has for so long now, with business as usual. We cannot allow it, because with a growing population competing for reduced resources in a shrinking world, such a system that "has always been like that" simply is no longer possible. The stakes are just too high now. How much longer will we allow such exploitation to literally define us, our maps, and our lifestyles?

The answers surely are not in a movie like this, of course. Yet, this movie helps to raise awareness, and perhaps will get people to think about these issues, and begin to ask questions. That is what the fictional Maddy, the reporter, was trying to do. The best way for changes, positive changes, to be ushered in, is for people to no longer accept the present reality unquestioningly, but to begin to ask questions, and to examine for themselves if a better way, and a better world, is possible.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

RIP: Bryce Courtenay

Bryce Courtenay (14 August, 1933 -22 November, 2012) died at his home in Canberra of stomach cancer on Thursday, the 22nd. He was 79 years old.

I was first introduced to Courtenay back in 2005, when someone lent me their copy of "The Power of One".  I found it a phenomenal read. it offered intelligence, insight, and humor. The story has quite a bit of autobiographical aspects to it. It is about an English-speaking boy who grows up in South Africa during the age when Afrikaners were truly beginning to take over the country, during World War II and immediately afterwards, when apartheid officially became the law of the land. The boy, who is named Peekay, is raised in an orphanage, and grows up as a member of the hated English-speakers, the only English-speaker in an Afrikaner-dominated community. So naturally, he is picked on, and has to endure their torturing him. But he learns to fight, and eventually develops his skills so much, that he eventually makes it his profession. he becomes a standout boxer. In the meantime, he also minds his own education, becoming an exceptional student, and learning to speak Afrikaans (the language of the Afrikaners that originated with Dutch, from whom most of the Afrikaners are descended). It is a story of perseverance and growing strength over time, at once inspiring and enjoyable to read. It is the work for which he is best known, gaining considerable popularity with over eight million copies sold. Bryce Courtenay himself was an English-speaking orphan growing up in South Africa, and learned to be a boxer. He seems to have been picked on and bullied, and had told Radio National (Australia) that books had helped him to survive those early years in the orphanage, as well as his ability to tell stories. Those harsh years are also why he learned to box.

"The Power of One" became his most famous work, and it is the only book of his that was published in the United States (I'm not entirely sure why that is, although it seems grossly unfair, frankly). That book was made into a movie, but it seems that the movie blends that book with  the follow up novel, Tandia. The movie starred Morgan Freeman

After reading "The Power of One", I felt that I had to read the follow-up, Tandia. Only problem? It's not published here in the United States. So, I began to acquire, slowly but surely, more and more of Courtenay's works, which are available in his native Australia, as well as other English-speaking nations outside of the United States. Mostly, I got them through Ebay, and eventually managed to amass a decent collection of his works.

Courtenay was born in South Africa and lived in a small village in the Lebombo mountains in Limpopo province. He attended school in England, where he met his wife. They moved to Australia in the 1950's, and Australia was the nation that Bryce Courtenay felt most comfortable calling home.

His writing tended to often deal with the issue of racism, in particular. His writings often addressed, and confronted, the racial attitudes and policies of both South Africa and Australia, with apartheid in one, and "White Australia" in the other. His works also tended to blend history with fiction to personalize history, make it come alive.

Courtenay had a son, Damon, who was born with complications concerning his blood. Damon died of age in his mid-twenties, and Courtenay wrote about that in one of his books, April Fool's Day - a very personal and revealing account.

Courtenay had just gotten his last book, Jack of Diamonds, published just a couple of weeks before his death.

Bryce Courtenay had authored over twenty books during his illustrious career, and having sold over twenty million copies of his works, he had become one of Australia's most successful authors in history. Interestingly, his first book, "The Power of One", which was his most successful book, was published when he was well into his fifties. Since then, he had become one of Australia's most prolific writers.

Here are some links to articles that I used in writing this piece:

Monday, November 26, 2012

Around the Bend November 26, 2012


Thanksgiving weekend is over, and so is the guilt traditionally associated with the holiday after extravagant overeating. That seems to be this particular holiday's trademark tradition. That, and leftovers, which by now, are most likely also done for everybody, I'm guessing.

It is also known for being a very long weekend, usually starting off Wednesday afternoon (if not sooner for a lot of people), and going on entirely through the actual weekend, meaning that it is at least a four day weekend for most. That first night, Wednesday, I heard several times is actually the biggest drinking night of the year - bigger even then St. Patrick's Day, which itself is not known for moderation in drinking. So, that's saying something!

I would imagine that the stress that many feel over having to deal with family has a little something to do with it.

In any case, there is another guilt associated with this particular holiday, and I have begun to feel it and think about it more and more over the course of years. That is the guilt with honoring this holiday at all, in fact.

You see, this holiday historically recognizes the first "Thanksgiving" feast that the natives essentially threw for the pilgrims - the same pilgrims that, in effect, would ultimately take the land and lifestyle from the same natives. For many natives, the holiday is a reminder of that betrayal, and of the traditional and convenient invisibility of the natives, and of the less than honorable history that "gave" this land to the whites. Read the history books of old, or read some old quotes, and you will encounter, again and again and again, the notion that the natives were "savages", and that this land was virtually empty, which it most certainly was not.

Many native people today refuse to recognize the holiday as a result, and I certainly cannot blame them. Last year, while attending a small educational program with my son and parents in Essex County, New Jersey, I had an opportunity to talk to some natives, and I asked one woman (who seemed to be the leader, and certainly the most vocal, among the natives there on that day) what her thoughts on the holiday was, and if she celebrated. Her face, which had been more or less smiling as she explained some of her peoples' (the Lenapes) traditions, suddenly showed signs of strain. No, she did not celebrate Thanksgiving, and in fact, it was viewed by her people, and by natives throughout the land, as an insult.

I had heard about this sentiment before, and read about it some, too. But to actually see the reaction by a living, breathing, intelligent human being right in front of me, that was something else.

Yet, I guess it is hard to actually break with tradition, because I have to admit at this point, that Thanksgiving dinner has remained a tradition for me for years and years now, since first contemplating abandoning it a number of years back (can't remember when). If memory serves me correctly, I first heard someone give voice to these native sentiments when reading some of Ward Churchill's stuff. It's not that I don't sympathize. But it's hard, when everyone else is celebrating, including all friends and family. Everyone expects it and, that meaning aside, it is actually a nice holiday, being warm and eating delicious (and mass quantities) of food, while being with those who, presumably, you care about and love the most. I literally don't know any American  in my everyday life who does not celebrate it, and that makes it hard.
Still, it has to start somewhere, doesn't it? I have been thinking about doing it, but it just has not happened yet. How often does it happen that everyone is off at the same time, anyway? So, I don't know.

But in spirit, I definitely sympathize with those who do not celebrate or even recognize Thanksgiving, and so, in some small way, by writing about it right now, I am trying to spread the word, so to speak, even if it is merely awareness.

So, although I have not (yet) been able to divorce myself from the holiday, I try and keep in mind, not just what I am thankful for (and I do have much to be thankful for), but also, the often hidden meaning and historical truth behind things that we too often take for granted. This Thanksgiving, and hopefully every Thanksgiving from here on out, I want to remember what happened in history.

Black Friday

This weekend also marks the end of the biggest shopping weekend of the year, and particularly, the biggest individual shopping day of the year. As usual, people went nuts, going to all lengths to make sure that their greed was satisfied.

Two women in California set a record for lining up for Black Friday earlier than anyone else in history, as they set up camp more than a week beforehand. Perhaps they should start setting up their chairs and stuff now for next year's Black Friday.

So, the shopping mania has grown wild. I remember when it was unthinkable for stores to open on certain days like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now, it's not only acceptable, it's pretty much the norm. Many stores now seem to make a point of opening on Thursday evening (on Thanksgiving), and this is called "Gray Thursday". Them, of course there is "Black Friday". I learned that the Saturday following these two days is known as "Small Business Saturday" - something that I might be more willing to support than Black Friday. Finally, today is the online shopping day known as "Cyber Monday".

According to reports I heard on the radio earlier, shoppers last year spent an average of $398, just shy of $400. This year, they spent an average of $423, well over $400. Yet, the numbers were disappointing by some accounts.

I never understood the craze for shopping on such days. People go to such lengths to find a great deal, to the point that they go completely nuts. They line up for hours (sometimes days) in cold weather, in order to be early when the store opens it's doors. there are riots, fights break out. Some poor lady got trampled on a few years back. What's the attraction? It brings out the worst in people, and the whole "holiday" is a testament to greed. Personally, I made a point of staying as far away as humanly possible, maintaining my own "Black Friday" tradition.

On another note, there were protests at some Walmart stores, as people protested low wages and reduced benefits (particularly medical benefits, as I understand it). Many employees did not show up for work, and in fact, joined the protests, I heard. All the power to them! Those of us who work hard should be entitled to real living wages, and to hell with what any of the selfish detractors think! Let them take the power.

Around the World

Middle East

Israel - Hezbollah's Sheik Hassan Nasrallah declared that it would hit Tel Aviv in a future war. This statement came a little more than a week after a fragile seize-fire came into effect, and has held. Israel, in the meantime, has eased some of the border restrictions for Gaza.

Syria - Activists in Syria claim that ten children have been killed by an MiG fighter jet having dropped a cluster bomb on a playground east of Damascus.

Iran - The death of an Iranian blogger while in police custody has been blamed on "excessive psychological shock". Some more cynical people have suggested that he was tortured. He was being held as a threat against national security.


European Union - At a EU summit in Brussels, two big European nations, France and Britain, played tug of war with competing visions for the future of Europe. Smaller nations, however, have threatened to veto a deal in order to have their voices heard. Other leaders of Europe, including Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, have expressed doubt that anything can be resolved right now, and all indications suggest more time will be needed to hammer out a deal. 

Spain - A vote in Catalonia is threatening the unity of the Spain. The regional government is headed by Artur Mas, a separatist. Mas has claimed that Catalonia has been asked to pay for too much of the burden of Spain's financial crisis, and has expressed a desire for Catalonia to become an independent nation within the European Union. He has pledged to hold a referendum for Catalonian independence from Spain if he wins this coming election. 

Spain - The Spanish government has rejected offers to talk with ETA to negotiate an end to it's operations, claiming that the government does not negotiate with terrorist organizations, and demanding the "unconditional dissolution" of the organization. 

Poland - A bombing plot targeting the Parliament was thwarted by police, who arrested two people and gaining control of enough material for a four ton bomb. The primary suspect in a lecturer at a university, who apparently had knowledge with explosives. 

Latin America & Caribbean

Galapagos (Ecuador) - Scientists are claiming that they may actually be able to bring back the presently extinct giant tortoise of the Galapagos. The last surviving member of this species, known as "Lonesome George", died earlier this year. Scientists believe that, by a program of cross breeding with seventeen other similar species, they can get a close enough match to make this the first species that could recover after being listed as extinct.

Mexico - The President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, wants to change the nation's name of the nation, which has been "United Mexican States"" (Estados Unidos Mexicanos) since 1824. "Mexico doesn't need a name that emulates another country", the President said. He continued: "It's time for Mexicans to return to the beauty and simplicity of the name of the country of the name of our country, Mexico, a name that we chant, that we sing, that makes us happy, that we identify with, that fills us with pride."

Mexico - Mass graves were discovered in Chihuahua, as scientists are researching nineteen bodies found at the sites.

Argentina - Argentina will appeal a US ruling that has ordered that country to repay loans of $1.3 billion dollars that the country defaulted on in 2001.


Vietnam and the Philippines - Some Southeastern Asian nations are very unhappy with the maps portrayed in illustrations for the new Chinese passports, which seem to suggest that the entirety of the Chinese Sea belongs to China, although this is not really the case, geographically and historically speaking.

Kazakhstan  - The nation's police raided the offices of media outlets that have been critical of the government. Their efforts have been met by staunch opposition and pointed criticism from the outside, as the French-based Reporters Without Borders has blasted the government's efforts, and claimed that it is anti-democratic. "The government is using the pretext of combating extremism to launch an unprecedented offensive against its critics", the agency said.

China - The Chinese military scored a major victory over the weekend, successfully landing a jet on it's first aircraft carrier.

Pakistan - At least 13 people are dead in Lahore after taking cough medicine that has since been described as "toxic".


Mozambique- The government here is considering the possibility of a railroad system and port that has a $2 billion dollar price tag on it. The intent is to make the improvements to the infrastructure to better export coal, one of this nation's valuable resources. The improvements, if they go through, are projected to allow exports of around $60 million a year. 

Ivory Coast - A new Prime Minister has been named, as President Alassane Ouattara has chosen Foreign Minister Daniel Kablan Duncan for the position of new Prime Minister of the country. The announcement comes a week after Ouattara surprised many by dissolving the Cabinet.

Egypt  - Egypt's top Islamist cleric of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badei, has announced that he is opposed to peace with Israel, instead calling for holy war to liberate Palestine.

Uganda - Uganda's MP's have dropped the death penalty from their controversial anti-homosexuality bill. They did, however, endorse the rest of the proposed bill.

Australia/New Zealand

Australia - The Australian government is building up a case against regional coal baron Nathan Tinkler, who is a billionaire accused b the government of not paying bills, as well as some commercial disputes.

Australia - The Australian government has apologized for abuse in it's military following a probe after hundreds of allegations of abuse and mistreatment.

Australia - One of my personal favorite authors, and among the most noted of Australian authors, Bryce Courtenay, died of stomach cancer on Thursday, the 22nd. Sad news indeed. His last book, Jack of Diamonds, just came out, and he was to go into permanent retirement after that, having acquired an incurable form of stomach cancer. He probably knew what was coming.  Courtenay was 79 years old. RIP, Bryce Courtney (1933-2012). An Australian man of letters who wrote some brilliant works, he will be missed. (I will probably write more on him later).


A court case is brewing in Canada presently, as the use of temporary workers for China has exploded into a huge controversy, with allegations of racism. Victor Wong of the Chinese-Canadian National Council has claimed that this case shows "anti-China bias" and claims that this "has allowed some of the more racist views to come to the surface." The workers came from their native China to the Murray River coal mine in northern British Columbia, but this case has brought allegations of exploitation and discriminating policies towards Chinese workers, specifically. This is not the first time that such a story has come to make the wrong kinds of headlines in Canada. Wong suggested that the government created these policies that were bound to be mired in corruption and exploitation, and he is not the only one who thinks so. "They have no rights," declared Jim Sinclair of the British Columbia Federation of Labour, speaking of migrant workers.


The big news in sports right now, obviously, would be the death of Hector "Macho" Camacho. He was shot in the face last week on Wednesday, and was declared brain dead. The family pulled the plug this past weekend, and Camacho died.

I remember Camacho back in the 1980's, although his career stretched on quite a bit longer than that. He knocked out Sugar Ray Leonard in that legendary boxer's last fight ever. He also defeated another legend in the ring, Roberto Duran. It should be noted that both of those boxers were already well past their prime for those fights, although it added considerable star power to his resume, if you will.

In his boxing career, he was a former boxing world champion (several times, in more than one weight category), and compiled a career record of 79-6-3.

He was very colorful and flamboyant inside and outside of the boxing ring, but the media never seemed to warm to him, as they did with some other guys that fit that bill, such as Muhammad Ali, or Sugar Ray Leonard.

Also, former British boxing superstar Ricky Hatton was knocked out in the 9th round of his attempted boxing comeback against Vyacheslav Senchenko. He was evidently doing well at the time, even ahead on the cards, to my understanding, but received a body shot to the side, that hit him either in the kidney or the ribs, and downed him. He was unable to beat the count, and in obvious agony.

Hatton was most famously knocked out in a surprisingly quick and one-sided main event in 2009, when he was completely dominated by Manny Pacquiao. Hatton had declared that he was trying this latest comeback because he did not want to be remembered for the way he was knocked out against Pacquiao, although it seems unlikely that that moment won't now be what he will be most remembered for.


Even though they did not play this Sunday, the Jets still managed to hit a new low in a season of lows. Not only did they get blown out on Thanksgiving at home, but Fireman Ed, their biggest and most famous of fans,  left the game early, and decided to quit being the team's unofficial mascot for the remainder of the year. He wrote a letter explaining himself. You can read more by clicking on the link below:

So, what about those teams that were in action on Sunday? Well, like the Jets, the Giants hosted a very successful franchise during the night game in what proved a blowout. Unlike the Jets, the G-Men were the ones who came out on top over the Green Bay Packers, 38-10, giving them a two game lead in the division over Washington and Dallas, with five games remaining. The Packers loss broke the tie for first in the NFC North, since the Bears blew out the Vikings. San Francisco extended their lead in the NFC West in an impressive and convincing victory at New Orleans. Since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers outright lost a tight game to the Atlanta Falcons at home, the Falcons have extended their dominance in the division. In the AFC, the Ravens extended their lead within the AFC North to three games by clipping the Chargers in OT, as Pittsburgh was upset at Cleveland, while the Bengals tied the Steelers with a dominant win over the Raiders at home. The Dolphins are alone at second place in the AFC East following a victory over Seattle in Miami (which was interrupted for a while when the sprinklers went off unexpectedly), and a loss by Buffalo to the Colts, who remain in the driver's seat for an AFC playoff spot. The Broncos extended their control in the AFC West by edging out the lowly Chiefs in KC. Denver could clinch the division next week with a win or a San Diego loss. The Rams remained in the playoff race with a victory over the once powerful Cardinals, who have dropped seven straight after a surprising 4-0 start. Tonight, the Philadelphia Eagles host Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, two teams with a combined total of five wins on the season. Nineteen teams in the league have already reached five wins on their own already. But hey barring an unlikely tie, someone will walk away with a win tonight to break a losing streak! 


English soccer (football) superstar David Beckham has apparently voiced the desire to move on from the Galaxy, wanting one more adventure on the field. There has been much speculation about what his plans might be, but no certainty as of yet. You can read the article "Beckham itching for one last adventure as a player" by Zac Lee Rig of by clicking on the link below:


Former men's world number one and three time French open champion Gustavo Kuerten managed to defeat current number one ranked Novak Djokovic in an exhibition match in Rio de Janeiro, 7-6, 7-5. The match was on clay, which was traditionally Kuerten's specialty, and has also traditionally been Djokovic's weakness. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Movie Review: The 40 Year Old Virgin

Steve Carell can do some amazing things, at his best. He was absolutely brilliant as Michael, the boss in the successful television comedy series, "The Office". Frankly, I am not that surprised that the show seemed to go under quickly following his departure. He was not a minor comedic source for the show, and in fact, I think he was a very large part of the reason why that show was as funny as it was.

Here, in this movie, he is at his best, as well.

When I first heard about this movie, I will admit that my initial expectations were fairly low. It would probably be trashy, or perhaps incredibly stupid, or both.

In fact, it is a decent movie. It's not trashy, or anything. It is actually sweet, on many levels, and could appeal to a wide audience.

****Spoiler Alert****

Carell plays Andy Stitzer. Yes, he's a 40 year old virgin. He's also the model of stereotypes for what most people would view here as a loser. An avid reader and collector of comic books, he also has an enormous collection of toys to go along with that. He has some other strange (and unattractive collections, as well), including an enormous video game collection, which he spends an inordinate amount of time playing. Finally, he engages in some strange activities, such as playing musical instruments on his own, and spending hours with precise ingredients in order to satisfy strange cravings.

With such a track record, we understand that he has no woman in his life. Furthermore, he never has had a woman in his life. When invited to play card with some guys from work (who asked him only reluctantly, when they were desprately short of guys for a poker night), he tries his best to blend in when the talk turns, inevitably, to sex.

But he is put on the spot, and asked to share a sex story. Here, he messes up, and shows too much of his hand, by comparing a woman's breasts to "bags of sand". Of course, they do not know what he is talking about, and it does not take long before they understand that he has never touched a woman's breasts. It does not take much more deduction to know that he is a virgin.

From that point on, those three friends make it their mission to get Andy laid. When he leaves, he keeps replaying the evening over and over again in his head, disgusted with himself. He is nervous, hoping that the guys will have forgotten. But when he returns to work the next day, it is clear that not only have they not forgotten, but everyone working in the store now knows, as well.

Andy is ready to quit, to escape this problem, as he has always done. But he is talked out of it, and so, now, he is kind of forced to deal with it. The guys urge him to talk to some women, and he does. He meets some women, and some of these encounters are actually pretty hilarious. Yet, a sexual encounter never actually does take place, and the pressure just keeps building and building. Still, his friends continue to try and prepare him, to groom him, and to provide him with further opportunities to meet women, with the intent of getting laid. Andy's nervousness grows.

There is one woman, however, that piques his curiosity more than the others. Her name is Trish (played well by Catherine Keener), and she seems more promising. He is not going to be the type of guy that just jumps from one woman to the next, and she is looking for something a bit more serious. They seem to be comfortable with one another, and he really wants things to work out between them.

After the first few dates, they agreed to wait 20 dates before getting physical. Trish thinks that Andy is being patient because he wants to relationship to work, because that is how he sold it. What she does not know is that he wants to wait because he is a virgin, and very nervous about the whole thing. He tries to hide it, to play cool, but this will come back to bite him.

Andy has opened up to his coworkers, and slowly but surely, breaking out of the cocoon that he has made out of his life. He begins to see these coworkers of his, who by now have become out and out friends, and sees them as actual people, with faults, who make mistakes, and then have to face the consequences of their own poor choices. If he is tempted to live their kind of lifestyles, which are more sexually active than his, obviously, he begins to understand that their way is not necessarily better, or free from problems.

Yet, he keeps getting prepped by them to finally "do it". So when he and Trish start having problems, mostly caused by his hesitancy on the 20th date to get intimate with her, he temporarily gets swayed, and almost slips with an episode with a girl that means nothing to him. He and Trish are on the rocks, but all he can think about is her. But when she tries to pay him a surprise visit, she sees some weird stuff in his apartment, including a vast collection of porn that one of his coworker friends has lent him. She gets freaked out, and runs out of his apartment.

He goes after her. The problem is that she is driving a car, while he is riding his only means of transportation - his bicycle. Still, he manages to make it a race, and even just about catches up to her, before essentially crashing in front of her, and injuring himself in the process.

She runs to attend to him, hoping he is still okay, and that is when he finally admits to her that he is a virgin. Finally, she begins to relax, understanding his trepidation which led to the seemingly strange behavior.

Afterwards, the movie essentially ends with Andy and Trish getting married, following a hilariously suggestive bed scene, when Andy finally loses his virginity. Even the end credits have some humor, with a video of the actors performing to "The Age of Aquarius".

Pretty funny movie, and I'd definitely recommend this for laughs.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

And That's A Wrap! (Jets Get Demolished At Home....Again)

Over the years, the Jets have found themselves humiliated numerous times, and quite often, it has been in front of their tortured fans right at home.

This season, they have been blown out and humiliated before their fans three times now, but none of those games was worse than the one on national television last night. The 49ers games came close, where the Jets were shut out, 34-0 (a game that I took my son to see). Then, a few weeks ago, the Jets got bounced by their division rival Miami Dolphins, 30-9, in a game that was not as close as the score would indicate.

But what happened last night was simply unbelievable. The Patriots and Jets were deadlocked in a scoreless affair after the first quarter, and the Jets at least appeared to be holding their own. But you know the Patriots are going to score, and so it was no surprise when the Pats scored a touchdown by the arm of Tom Brady mere seconds into the second quarter, to go up 7-0.

Still, the Jets could answer, right? I mean, rumor has it, this is a professional football team. But the Jets did not answer, and inevitably, Tom Brady struck again for a 14-0 lead. As it turned out, that was the first of three touchdowns in a span of 52 seconds. Unfortunately for the Jets, all of those touchdowns were scored by New England, to turn this into a route, and a snoozer to watch. Less than a minute of playing time in the second quarter, and the Patriots were suddenly up, 28-0. They managed to get another touchdown late in the fourth to make it 35-0, although the Jets were able to get some points on the board just before the half, with a field goal that earned the home crowd's resounding boos.

New York's Green Machine produced five turnovers yesterday overall, and the game grew to become a bad joke, Or, perhaps, it was a repeat of an episode that you have seen before and don't want to watch again, yet are somehow powerless to turn off. To say that the Jets were humiliated is an understatement. The 49ers game was bad, true. But the Jets were able to keep that relatively competitive well into the second half.

Here, the game was over well before the halftime, and this was against their most hated division rivals, and before a national television audience. Yup, this was bad. Also, they made one mistake after another in a terrible second quarter that could not have gone any worse for New York. In effect, they handed the Pats an early Christmas gift, and in the process, eliminated themselves from the playoff race, in essence. They now stand at 4-7, two and a half games behind the Colts for that final AFC playoff spot.

But even mentioning the playoffs with this Jets team sounds like a mockery. This team has been all about distractions, about infighting, and about talk. They have the coach with the loudest mouth in the league, making Super Bowl predictions. But when it comes to proving their worth on the field, one thing rings true as ever: same old Jets. Same old mistakes, same old embarrassments, same old results. Another disappointing season, in which the Jets might as well not play the final month of December, since they have absolutely no chance to turn the thing around.

Despite his big mouth to discredit him, Rex Ryan did seem to be the man that could finally turn the Jets around, as New York qualified for two consecutive AFC Championship games in a row, holding an advantage well into the game against the Colts in the 2010 game, and seemingly having a great chance at their first Super Bowl berth in more than four decades, before it all unraveled in the second half. Then, after falling behind badly against Pittsburgh in the 2011 game, the Jets fought back diligently, and seemed to hold all the momentum. They clawed their way back, but fell just short of finishing the deal, when the Super Bowl was just minutes away.

It all looked promising, and any fan was hoping that Ryan could be believed when he talked the big talk. But the 2011 Jets were inconsistent. Still, they had a winning record, going into a big showdown with the Giants, in the closest thing to a playoff game that these two teams have ever played. In effect, the winner would control their own destiny, while the loser would,  for all intents and purposes, be eliminated. Rex Ryan predictably talked big, but it was the Giants who won that game convincingly, the first of six consecutive games that the Giants won while facing elimination (I'm pretty sure that's a record for the NFL), and instead, eliminated all of their opponents instead. The first of those six were the Jets. It seems like the Jets have never recovered. They got blown out by the Dolphins in the season finale, and prepared for this season.

This season has been a disaster. It was said that the Jets made much more noise than the Giants in the offseason, made far more headlines. But the results speak for themselves, and whatever headlines these Jets are still making are surely all negative by now. Despite Ryan's talk, the Jets are a terrible team, having allowed 49 points against their biggest rivals, and that in a home game that New York absolutely needed to win.

Same old Jets.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Movie Review: Lincoln

Let me just say, first and foremost, that Daniel Day-Lewis is such an amazing and talented actor! His portrayal of Lincoln - not as some myth or some virtual divinity - but as a real man, is truly amazing. You really get a feel for the times, better than you do in history books that idolize such historical figures and mythologize the times. Instead of feeling like these were monumental events that seemed preordained, you get to appreciate the feel of what it must have been like. The uncertainty, the resentment of many, and the realities of the game of politics, which seemed not altogether unlike what we see in politics today. There were real political concerns and realities, and dealing with them was as much a part of the decisions and events of the day as they tend to be now. That is a lesson sometimes lost in the history books, which too often tend to focus on events, and lionize the figures. Lincoln has been turned into an American hero of such stature, that it is hard to sometimes imagine him as a real man. This movie helps to balance that out a bit, and Daniel Day-Lewis proves capable of such an enormous task as playing the real man behind the myth, and making him seem truly human. You feel you are actually there at times, watching the real Lincoln.

Perhaps my expectations were other, but my expectations were that this would have been more biographical, rather than focusing on a very specific time frame, and a very specific focus - namely, the passage of the thirteenth amendment, which was far from predetermined. In fact, Lincoln took a huge political risk in getting this amendment - which was to abolish slavery in these United States once and for all - passed by the House and to finally become the law of the land. In a very real sense, this movie focuses on what very well may be the greatest triumph of Lincoln's life - abolishing slavery. This movie visits precisely how that happened.

This movie takes place during the first months of 1865- the last year of Lincoln's life. The Civil War still roars on, although it is clear by now that the South is reeling, and on the verge of either collapse or capitulation. Yet, one of the major factors about this proposed amendment to abolish slavery is that the Southern leaders want the amendment itself abolished as one of the conditions - really the major condition - of ending the war and rejoining the union. Lincoln, however, remains unmoved, and having won re-election, he is looking for this amendment to put the death knell on the divisive issue of slavery, once and for all. It will end here, and Lincoln is impatient to end the controversy once and for all. He cannot wait any longer to get the amendment passed and finally abolish slavery. He sees his best opportunity not just to pass the amendment, but to do so with bipartisan support. To that end, he actively, aggressively seeks the support of outgoing Democrats who have been soundly beaten in the 1864 election and will no longer be in Congress, in order to do it. Others in his administration, particularly Secretary of State Seward, urge Lincoln to wait until the new Congress takes office, since there will be more Republicans, and the amendment should pass through easily enough. But Lincoln's determination to pass it with bipartisan support is unwavering, and takes many by surprise. So, there is a definite time limit to accomplish what President Lincoln wants to accomplish. We know about his wisdom and resolve in fighting the Civil War, but this movie focuses on his wisdom and resolve - no less tough - to play his hand in the political battlefield. Much like with the war, he has no shortage of those who doubt him. Yet, also much like the war, he proves his detractors wrong in the end.

"Lincoln" has some graphic battle scenes, mostly relegated to the opening scenes, but with some other suggestive scenes of the impact and violence of the war. Yet, for the most part, this movie does not focus so much on the actual war itself, much less individual battles. It is a movie more about political maneuvering rather than military maneuvering. So any fans of strictly military movies expecting considerable action (and I know some people like this) might think twice about seeing this movie. It appeals more to the cerebral than a sense of adventure or explosiveness.

Daniel Day-Lewis is brilliant as Abraham Lincoln, and Sally Field is wonderful as Mary Todd Lincoln. Funny thing, but the real Mary Todd Lincoln was ten years younger than her husband, while Sally Field is actually ten years older than Day-Lewis. But she pushed hard for the role, and was able to get it. She plays the part brilliantly, and seems convincing as a much younger wife.

Lincoln did not do it all alone, of course. Much of the gritty work on the field, so to speak, was done by Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (played quite capably by Tommy Lee Jones), who utilizes his strong oratorical skills to argue in favor of the amendment, and to mock and essentially defeat opponents of the proposed amendment. I also liked Hal Holbrook as Francis Preston Blair, the founder and leader of the Republican party. A strong cast, all in all.

On my commute yesterday morning, I was listening to the radio (NPR), and they had on a special guest, historian Ronald White, who reviewed the movie, and also did a little fact-checking. For the most part, the movie is, according to him, a fairly accurate portrayal of events as they happened, with some minor exceptions. Daniel Day-Lewis, who Mr. White said had studied Lincoln intensely in preparation for this role, did an exceptional job in getting the essence of Lincoln, the man. He got the walk right (a bit awkward), as well as the voice, which was not deep and resonating, but actually a bit high - a fact that I actually knew beforehand, although I cannot remember exactly why I knew it or when I heard it. All in all, though, the movie seemed to get his stamp of approval.

All in all, it is a solid movie that will appeal particularly to fans of history, fans of Abraham Lincoln, and Civil War buffs. Anyone interested in civil rights, for that matter, as well. It is a good movie overall that will definitely appeal to a wide audience. One thing that I should point out, however, is that I keep hearing that is is a great family movie for the holidays. But I doubt that this is exactly a family movie, because the subject matter, though not violent, will probably be a bit much for kids, who will likely feel lost quickly, or find it boring (sorry, just trying to be truthful). Just keep in mind the length of the movie, at around two and a half hours, and use your best judgment.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

NFL Thanksgiving Review

Way back in August, I made some predictions about the upcoming season. Since the conventional wisdom in the NFL (at least, according to the pregame show guys, mostly ex-football players and/or coaches), the key is to be in playoff position by around Thanksgiving, and then to make a real push towards the end.

Well, Thanksgiving is here, and there are plenty of teams that find themselves with a chance at making the playoffs, or at least a serious run at it. For whatever reason, there seems to be more NFC teams that are contending than there are in the AFC. Not sure why that is, but it makes the NFC playoff picture a bit murkier, clouded by so many different stories in each division. The Giants, Redskins and the Cowboys right now seem to be battling for the NFC East title, and two of those teams will be battling on the field later today. The Cowboys, of course, traditionally are one of two teams that always host a game on this holiday. The other team is the Detroit Lions, who will be hosting the red-hot Houston Texans. The Texans look to extend their lead in the race for home field advantage in the AFC, while the reeling Lions just hope to win to stay alive in the playoff picture. At least they have home field advantage in this one.

In the Thanksgiving Night game, the Jets, fresh off their win at St. Louis, will play host to the red hot New England Patriots, who have now won four games in a row, and are really starting to look like themselves, after an uncharacteristically bad start.

Today, I see the Cowboys escaping with a win against Washington, the Texans should dominate Detroit, and New England will get past New York.

So, let's take a look, division by division, at each team, where they stand right now, and how that compares with my August predictions:


NFC East:

1. New York Giants (6-4) More or less, they are having the kind of season I predicted back then, only they are in first, not second place. Of course, the could change, because their lead currently is slight. Still, barring some thing unforeseen, either pro or con, this team looks like they will likely finish up around 10-6 or 9-7, with a real possibility for a first place finish, or at least second place, with a chance at a playoff berth.

2. Dallas Cowboys (5-5) Not much of a surprise here, either. They are where I thought they would be, more or less. It's hard to tell whether the Cowboys are very good, or just average. They won a couple of games against teams with winning records (Tampa and the Giants), but lost five games against winning teams. The last two weeks, they barely beat two of the weakest teams in the league. Still, more or less what could be expected of this team so far.

3. Washington Redskins (4-6) Okay, here is a bit of a surprise. I expected there to be an adjustment period for RG3. Yet, right away, they seemed more competitive then expected, beating the Saints in new Orleans. They also beat Tampa Bay on the road, and Minnesota, both winning teams. Like with Dallas, it is a bit difficult to tell if they are better then their record indicates, or not, since they have had a tough schedule. Still, 4-6 is better than I expected from this team, and if they manage to upset the Cowboys in Dallas today, then they would have to be considered a serious contender to make the playoffs this year.

4. Philadelphia Eagles (3-7) Now, here's the real surprise. This was my pick to take the division. After a disappointing season last year, I thought that this talented team would come on strong. They did, initially, with an impressive 3-1 start, during which time they beat both the Raven and the Giants, and looked very tough. But since then? Absolutely atrocious! They were losing narrowly at the beginning of the losing streak, but the blowout loss to the Redskins, and that on the heels of loss to the Cowboys that saw them completely collapse late in the second half after nursing a lead, suggests that this team knows that their season is over. I am wondering why I did not see this coming, with Vick's health having been a concern in the past. But the whole team appears to be in disarray.

NFC North:

1. Green Bay Packers (7-3) True, they got off to a very slow start, losing some surprising games to the 49ers (not that shocking), the Seahawks  (pretty shocking) and the Indianapolis Colts (very shocking). Still, remember, the Packers really actually won that game in Seattle, but were robbed. Otherwise, this team would be sitting pretty at 8-2 right now. Yet, after all that they have been through, they are on top of the division, with the tiebreaker over the Bears right now. I projected them to finish 13-3, and although they are behind where I expected, this team has a chance to finish strong and look like one of the solid favorites heading into the playoffs.

2. Chicago Bears (7-3) This season seems to look more and more like last season for the Bears. A red hot start, followed by injuries and a series of losses. The current two game losing streak needs to end now, or the Bears are in serious trouble. The defense still is solid, although perhaps not quite as dominant as it looked earlier in the season, and their offense is being slowed by injuries. Still, they have a chance for a solid season. They have some tough games, and my guess is that this is a second place team, at best. That said, if they take care of their home games, they have a chance at the division title, still. I predicted them to finish 10-6, and they still could.

3. Minnesota Vikings (6-4) Here is another surprising team. They went 3-13 last season, and won a total of eight games in the previous two seasons combined. So, for them to have gotten off to the red hot start this season, and to be sitting with a 6-4 record right now, that is impressive. They are in third, but with a victory in Chicago, they could really make some noise. With three consecutive divisional games, the time to step up is now for Minnesota. I predicted them to finish 4-12, and they have already surpassed that. However, it is still hard for me to imagine this team being good enough to qualify for the playoffs admittedly.

4. Detroit Lions (4-6) I predicted them to finish 10-6, and it appears that I was wrong, as they already have six losses, but only four wins. Looking at the schedule the rest of the way, the Lions have some tough teams to get by, and I just don't see them doing it this year.

NFC South:

1. Atlanta Falcons (9-1) You kind of knew this team would be good, but not that good. My projections in August were 10-6 on the season for Atlanta, but they are about to surpass that, it seems. They are almost assured of the division title, and have a very good shot at home field advantage. But there still are six games, and they have to continue to execute. Their next two games are tough division rivalries, and four of the last six games are against serious playoff contenders as of this moment, so stay tuned!

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-4) Another surprise here. Coming off a terrible season, and with a coaching transition, I expected this team to struggle, projecting a 5-11 record back in August. Clearly, I was wrong, and this team currently has a pretty massive four game winning streak. they are new and improved, but the rest of their schedule looks tough, and I don't see them quite reaching the playoffs.

3. New Orleans Saints (5-5) This team has been a huge surprise, and not in a good way. I expected them to be one of the toughest teams in the NFC, but the 0-4 start was just horrible. Yet, they have won five of their last six, and are showing clear signs of life. I still think this is a far better team then their record indicates, and I see them making a real push to the playoffs. But let's just hope for their sake that they did not exert so much energy in getting back to .500, that they will now be exhausted entering what could prove their toughest stretch of the season. Only one real lock for a win the rest of the way, and that is the finale against Carolina.

4. Carolina Panthers (2-8) I saw this team being a disappointment at 6-10 this season, but I had no idea that they would be this bad. They cannot seem to hold a lead in the fourth quarter, and the list of issues facing this team is long and daunting. True, they have some winnable games down the home stretch of this season, but surely, their opponents feel that way about this team, as well. A tough year for the Panthers, who will have more questions than answers heading into the offseason.

NFC West:

1. San Fransisco 49ers (7-2-1) More or less what I expected from this team back in August. They look very solid defensively, and at times, have seemed explosive offensively. With the possible exception of Seattle, the rest of the division is weak, and so this team looks like they will waltz into the playoffs as division champs, and with a high seed.

2. Seattle Seahawks (6-4) Here is a bit of a surprise, although I still think that they lost that game to Green Bay, and that the back up refs essentially gifted them that game. Still, Seattle is tough at home (5-0), and if they hold service with at least two of their remaining three home games, and maybe pull off one or two wins on the road in what appear to be winnable games, this team should be a serious contender for at least a playoff berth, and perhaps even an outside chance at ousting San Fran from the top spot in the division, if they really get hot and play their cards right. I expected them to be around 7-9, but they clearly are set to surpass my low expectations of them.

3. Arizona Cardinals (4-6) Sure, the Cardinals looked amazing and surprising in starting off this season with an undefeated 4-0 start. But since then, they have looked just awful in their winless 0-6 streak since. Their awesome start is the only thing keeping this team from being cellar dwellers in the division, and I don't even think that will last much longer. The season will likely continue to unravel. I predicted them to finish 6-10 in August, and that's more or less where they seem to be heading, too.

4. St. Louis Rams (3-6-1) They looked much better for quite a while this season, yet now, they have not won since early October. I projected them at 5-11, and that sounds like the neighborhood that this team will be in at season's end. Jeff Fisher is doing a good job and slowly turning this team around, but this season was likely to be a rebuilding season, and so it is.


AFC East:

1. New England Patriots (7-3) Another up and down season, where the Patriots get off to a surprisingly sluggish start, and then really begin to turn it on down the stretch. Each season, they seem to get hot in the second half and enjoy a long winning streak, and if they defeat the Jets today (which I frankly expect them to do), they will be on such a winning streak, and will further establish themselves as the best team in this division still, and by far. I predicted them to go 14-2, and clearly, that's not happening. Still, I expect this team to win the division easily, and be one of the tougher teams once in the playoffs, as well, although a playoff bye is not likely - and this team probably needs it if they hope for a return trip to the Super Bowl.

2. New York Jets (4-6) Same old Jets. A lot of talk, a lot of distractions, but not much in the way of results.  Still, the rest of the season has some winnable games, and if the Jets manage to upset New England tonight, they could really put something together to finish the season up strong. But this is the Jets we're talking about here. I predicted them to go 7-9, and that sounds about right. No playoffs for the Jets, and maybe it's time to get rid of Rex.

3. Buffalo Bills (4-6) This was my sleeper pick. I projected them to finish second in the division, with a 9-7 record. They have a mix of tough games and very winnable games the rest of the way, but the playoffs might just be out of reach already. I am guessing they will end now around 6-10 or 7-9, roughly. Too bad, because this looked like an improved team. But those two losses to the New England Patriots were just killers.

4. Miami Dophins (4-6) A mild surprise in Miami, where a team that seemed destined to struggle has, instead, enjoyed some success. I thought this team would go 5-11, and they are clearly better than that. But not enough to be legit. This is not a playoff team, especially with some really tough games to end their season.

AFC North:

1. Baltimore Ravens (8-2) More or less where I expected this team to be. Despite the one humiliating blowout loss in the showdown versus the Texans, this team is the number two right now in the AFC, and having just beaten Pittsburgh, it looks like that is where they should remain, at least. This is a team that should have a playoff bye, and will have a chance to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-4) The Steelers have not looked that great often times this season, although they had found some consistency prior to the loss against Baltimore this past Sunday. They will not win the division, and will likely not reach the 11-5 record I predicted for this team. Still, an experienced team with rings in their ecent past, and that makes them dangerous once the playoffs roll around.

3. Cincinnati Bengals (5-5) For a while this season looked lost. They were 3-1, and with games against Miami and Cleveland, had a real shot at reaching 5-1. Instead, they lost both games, and tailspinned to a four game losing streak. But two impressive wins in a row have restored faith and confidence, hopefully, and this team should make a real push to the playoffs. I see them more or less where I expected them in August, finishnig around 9-7, and with a real chance at qualifying for the playoffs again.

4. Cleveland Browns (2-8) Fresh off a hugely disappointing loss that should have been a win at Dallas, the Browns have been out of the playoff mix since very early in the season. There are some games that this team could still win, but my projections of 3-13 seem right on the mark with these guys, unfortunately. I understand some of the local Cleveland fans describe the city as football purgatory. After that loss to the Cowboys, I'm starting to believe it. Terrible!

AFC South:

1. Houston Texans (9-1) Barring something truly unforeseen, this is a division champ, and likely a team that should enjoy a playoff bye, to boot. But the rest of their schedule is tough, with two games against the Colts, one at New England, and four of the remaining six games are on the road. They should win the division, but if they do not remain consistent, the top seed, and along with it home field advantage, could slip away, and I think this team needs it if they hope to represent this conference in the Super Bowl. I expected them to be 11-5, but it looks like I might have sold them short.

2. Indianapolis Colts (6-4) Who knew that they would be this good? Not I, who projected them to finish 5-11, and nowhere near a playoff berth. Yet, Luck and Co. are doing just fine, thank you very much! This team has a real chance at the playoffs, and it will likely be either them, or the Bengals, for that final AFC spot.

3. Tennessee Titans (4-6) More or less, this is around where I expected this team. Not that good, but not that bad, either. They are not the Jaguars, after all. I expected them to be around 7-9, or so, and I'm sticking with that, although they could be 6-10. Not much better, but not much worse.  Still a rebuilding team.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-9) Exactly what I expected! They should be thankful that they won that one game that they won, or they would seriously be flirting with a winless season. Let's face it: the Jaguars suck. I projected this to be a one win season for Jax, and although it's hard to predict a team finishing with only a win to their name in an entire season, especially since they played nearly well enough to win against Houston, I see no reason to change my projections for a one win season. A cosmetic team if I ever saw one.

AFC West:

1. Denver Broncos (7-3) It took them a while to get the thing going, but man, did they ever get it going! Looking at their season now, the only games that they lost were against some of the best teams in the league. Otherwise, this is a solid team that seems to be getting better as they go along. I expected an 11-5 season, and that is more or less where this team will likely be. Solid season, and this team likely will win a second division title in a row. But not enough for a playoff bye, let alone home field advantage, unless they really step up and pull a few surprises. But the acquisition of Peyton Manning, which seemed like a real risk, now looks like a brilliant move.

2. San Diego Chargers (4-6) A disappointment, to say the least. I projected them to finish 10-6. But following a seemingly promising 2-0 start, this team has won only two games out their last eight, and both of those were to the lowly Chiefs. What a collapse, and the game that best symbolized it was the Monday Night game against Denver, when they were up 24-0 in the second half, but lost, 35-24. That pretty well encapsulated the season for the Chargers. No playoffs for this team once again, but they will win at least a couple more, for what it's worth.

3. Oakland Raiders (3-7) One very impressive win against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and two wins against very weak opponents. But otherwise, the Oakland Raiders are suffering through yet another terrible season that leaves the fans of the Raiders that I know ready for next season by October. They just cannot win with any measure of consistency. They will get a couple more wins before the end of the season, most likely. But my prediction of a 9-7 season seems now to have been misplaced, and my faith in this team lost.

4. Kansas City Chiefs (1-9) Frankly, it's hard to believe that this team won a game at New Orleans, since that is the only win that this team got to enjoy so far. As bad as New Orleans started this season, Kansas City got really lucky with that one. This is a horrible team suffering through all sorts of problems, including both injuries and inconsistent play. They have some winnable games the rest of the way, but nothing is a sure bet for this team. I predicted a lowly 6-10 season for this team, but even that was giving them too much credit.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Concert Review: Mark Knopfler & Bob Dylan at the Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia, PA on November 19, 2012

I had seen both of these artists before, although a long time has passed in both cases. I saw Bob Dylan a couple of times in the late nineties, one time with Ani DiFranco opening for him, and one time while he was on tour with Paul Simon - another artist that I would love to go see again.

As for Mark Knopfler, I had only seen him once before, back in 2005 at Radio City Music Hall, where he gave a very memorable performance! I had really been wanting to see him again ever since.

So, when I first heard that these two artists were going to be touring together, my interest was sparked. It was going to be a priority, as far as concerts were concerned. There were two options: Philadelphia or Brooklyn. But the Brooklyn show seemed to be sold out, and the prices on Ebay were ridiculously expensive. The Philadelphia show, by contrast, was almost half the price. True, Philadelphia was a bit of a longer trip, but the show started a bit earlier, as well. Brooklyn's show was for Wednesday, the 21st- the night before Thanksgiving. Since I was to go with someone who needed to work the next morning following either show, time was a factor. The Brooklyn show started later on, and I figured that going into the city on a night when there is an unbelievable amount of drinking going on (even more than on St. Patrick's Day, i heard), the choice to go to Philadelphia just became clearer. Just needed to work it out with a baby sitter, and I'd be on my way.

I got the tickets, and the trip there was uneventful - hardly any traffic to speak of at all. It was great. Even once in the city of Philadelphia itself, I expected traffic to pick up considerably. But it just didn't - not even at the show! Now, that was amazing.

Also, the show started at 7:30pm, and not 7:00, as was listed on the tickets. That helped, because despite the lack of traffic, there were some slight complications, and we got there just after 7pm. I was very relieved not to have missed the beginning of this show!

Mark Knopfler

It seemed entirely appropriate to me that these two legends should tour together like they are doing. When Mark Knopfler first hit it big with Dire Straits, he reminded a lot of people of the legendary Dylan, with his musical style, a very distinctive voice, and potent lyrics. He sometimes still reminds me of Dylan, although he has more than established himself as a great artist in his own right, both with Dire Straits, and in his solo work.

With Dire Straits, Knopfler provided the intelligence in both the music that he wrote, as well as the lyrics, which often showed considerable wit, but were often more reflective and thought provoking. With his unbelievable skills with the guitar, it was only natural that he would become one of the most important and recognizable figures in the music industry.

Knopfler has secured a strong place and legacy in music, and yet, he seems to almost be overlooked by popular culture at times. This seems particularly true here in the United States, although I am not sure why, yet he is often not recognized as he ought to be. That might sound hard to believe, since he has a species of dinosaur named after him (no really, he does - masiakasaurus knopfleri). His guitar playing is so strong that, when he worked with Dylan in the late seventies on an album, "Slow Train Coming", Dylan felt it was the best guitar backing he had ever gotten for his music. Yet, Knopfler is not as much a household name as many other rock legends, and that is a bit perplexing (at least to me).

Dire Straits would enjoy some huge success, although they tend to be overlooked these days, for reasons that remain a mystery to me, admittedly. I mean, they had some undeniably incredible stuff. One of my very favorite rock albums of all time is Love Over Gold. You can almost say that every note on that album fits perfectly in place, and everything in it complements the other elements, making as close to a perfect an album as anyone can get. To me, it ranks up there with some of the all time legendary albums, and that's no exaggeration. It is like "The Dark Side of the Moon", or "Sgt. Pepper's". Yes, it's that good. It only has five songs on it, but they are unbelievable tunes. Telegraph Road, which is perhaps my favorite rock song of all time, opens that album up. It is a long song - over eleven minutes, if memory serves correctly - but it has everything that you could ask for in a song. It starts off slowly, amid the sounds of a storm, and then the pace quickens, before slowing down again, finally exploding towards the finish. It is a thoughtful and thought-provoking song with incredible imagery from both the music and the lyrics. The perfect song. the rest of the album pretty much follows suit. Just an incredible album, and one of my very favorites of all time! I can say a lot more about that album, and perhaps at some point, I will. But this is a review of a Knofler concert in which he did not actually perform a single song from that album, so it's time to move on.

The album was huge, yet it seems that it is not what Dire Straits is best remember for, oddly enough. Most people, when they think of them, remember individual songs like "Sultans of Swing", their first really huge, breakthrough song, or "Money For Nothing", "Walk of Life",  and "So Far Away". Their album "Brothers in Arms" became the first compact disk to sell over one million albums. Of course, Mark Knopfler wrote all of the songs, even though Sting, who sang in "Money For Nothing", gets credited with co-writing that piece. In truth, it was pretty much all Mark Knopfler, although Sting adds an incredible element with his distinctive singing in that legendary and catchy song that became a huge success, and even featured a famous video (I'm sure that you can find it on Youtube, or elsewhere on the internet, if you want to).

After the end of Dire Straits, Knopfler has gone on to enjoy some considerable success in his solo career, as well. He has not been able to produce quite the sheer number of hits, nor the numbers in record sales. Yet, his work is marked by a unique approach, with his brilliant guitar playing enhanced by some incredible song-writing, and equally strong lyrics. Some of that old brilliance first seen with Dire Straits shows itself in his solo work, as well, such as in the album "Sailing for Philadelphia".

You might think, with a song that specifically mentions Philadelphia, that he would play that song in the city of Philadelphia. I certainly was expecting it. But if you did, you would be wrong. He did not play it, although I heard some people requesting it, shouting it out. Knopfler at one point informed the crowd that he was not going to be taking any requests, then went on with the show.

When I saw him in 2005, he performed a lot of material from Dire Straits. Not so much this time.In fact, he only did one song from those days, and that was the encore song. Otherwise, every other song he did was from his solo works. Not that I am complaining. His works stand up on their own and, simply put, the man is a magician with the guitar. He put on an amazing show, and the guitar sounded sweet, seemingly almost doing some singing of it's own for him.

Such an amazing talent, and it is a privilege to see a musician of his caliber! Only the second time that I got to see him, and I wish that perhaps his show could have been a bit longer, because the Radio City Music Hall show that I had seen definitely felt longer. Still, Knopfler's set went on for well over an hour, maybe up to an hour and a half. Since the billing seemed to suggest that he was Dylan's opening act, I was happy to see him on stage for as long as he was there. But it seemed that, while Dylan was the headliner of the show, they stood as equals, with Knopfler having his own, full set, rather than merely opening. He's definitely no one's opening act!

The crowd seemed a bit sleepy at first, but began to show more appreciation and enthusiasm as the set list wore on. Not the most energetic crowd that I have seen, but I am glad that they began to pick up and show signs of life as the show went on - and this was true for both sets.

Bob Dylan

Let me be frank, right off the bat - when I had seen him before, his voice sounded just awful! Sorry, but it was like listening to nails scratching chalk.

Still, the man is a legend. This is the guy who produced some of the most powerful lyrics in songwriting history. He was no small part of the whole political activism of the sixties. He was there in Washington on the day in 1963 when Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech.  His works influenced countless prominent musicians, from the Beatles and the Stones, to Jimi Hendrix on down to the present generation. Not only is he perhaps the most iconic artist of the whole sixties movement, he actually helped to shape the sixties, to make it what it became. For that matter, since the sixties helped to shape pretty much everything that came afterwards, Dylan's influence has been felt now for half a century, and is still being felt today. Very few people can say that.

Think of some of the songs, and of the potency of the lyrics. The times they are a-changin'. Masters of war. All around the watchtower. Everybody must get stoned. Songs that defined a generation, and Bob Dylan wrote every one of them! That's a pretty amazing accomplishment, and few figures in history have ever been able to boast more. Almost anybody who is remotely familiar with either modern music, particularly rock or folk, or knows about the youth movement of the 1960's, is probably already pretty aware of Dylan and the impact that his music had. It seemed to open up the floodgates for new ideas, new approaches towards the relation between the individual (particularly youth) and the greater American society. He was protesting, and made it cool to protest, to challenge, if you will. Moreover, he did so not to be cool, but to be active. Like him or not, there was an undeniable intelligence behind his protests. There was anger, sure, but it was pointed. Much of the artists since have also displayed anger, but too often, it has lacked focus, and turned into some hollow anger, too often devoid of real meaning. No such criticism can be laid at the feet of Bob Dylan, however. I don't know if anger is quite the word I am looking for, but his protest music blended art with politics, and he was no small part of why the sixties were what they were.

Of course, he was not relegated to the sixties. In fact, the bulk of his career, which now is entering a sixth decade, has come since - although he is best known for his work in the sixties. But he was still active in the seventies, and still doing protest music, such as "Hurricane" (I would recommend the movie by the same name to anyone for a more detailed version of that story, which briefly shows Bob Dylan performing his song on the wrongfully jailed boxer.

My father told me that he and my mom went to a Bob Dylan concert in Paris at one point, and that it was so loud, it took them both a very long time to recover, as their eardrums hurt so badly after that. He also mentioned that he passed right by Bob Dylan in the hallways after the concert - I think that some jacket had been left behind, and he had somehow managed to get backstage.

As legendary as the man is, I have to admit that his recent works, although often given high marks by critics, tended to be ruined by his voice. Maybe that is unfair, but his voice has, at times, sounded truly awful. Maybe it lends him some authenticity, like the scratchy and beat up voices of older legends. Maybe it was just me, for that matter, but his voice, if anything, just detracted from any enjoyment of the music. Gone were the days of the sixties, as decades of substance abuse and such must have had considerable effect.

Yet, his voice sounded far better on this night then it had the other couple of times that I saw him. I remember him when he was on tour with Paul Simon back in 1999, and he covered "The Sounds of Silence". Mt father said that he noticed Paul Simon looked over at Dylan at some point during that song, and seemed almost to be wondering what the hell was going on. Dylan's voice had me wishing for "The Sounds of Silence" at that moment, quite literally!

On this night, he sounded far better. Not great, but far, far better. Not sure why, but I'm not complaining.

Dylan relied far more heavily than did Knopfler on his older material, playing numerous classics. That said, it was perhaps surprising by what he chose not to play. He also put a new spin on some of his older works, making them sound very different, very unique. If you did not know any better, you might think it was a different song altogether, like his second song of the night, "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue". It took me a while to even recognize it.

Overall, however, Dylan's set was stronger than I had been expecting it to be.

Mark Knopfler's Setlist:

What It Is
Corned Beef City
Kingdom Of Gold
I Used To Could
Song For Sonny Liston
Done With Bonaparte
Hill Farmer's Blues

Haul Away


So Far Away

Bob Dylan's Setlist:

You Ain't Going Nowhere
It's All Over Now, Baby, Blue
Times Have Changed
Tangled Up In Blue
Early Roman Kings
Chimes Of Freedom
Rollin' And Tumblin'
Desolation Row
Highway 61 Revisited
Thunder On The Mountain
Ballad Of A Thin Man
Like A Rolling Stone
All Along The Watchtower


Blowin' In The Wind