Sunday, February 23, 2014

Bad postcard of the week: As Sochi Olympics come to a close, we look at mysteries of Russian construction projects and Star Trek

The smoke stack probably worked better than the Olympic rings during the opening ceremonies.
As we know from watching the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russians are pretty proud about the stuff they build.

Oh, sure. We've seen a problem or two or 100.

Sometimes athletes got stuck in their bathrooms and had to break out by smashing through the doors. But hey, that’s why they made those fancy double potties. Help is always nearby.

And they can move suspended things along giant tacks on the roof, which works most of the time.

Buzzfeed has been keeping track of these issues, so there’s no need for us to get into detail. But the Russians are excited by their construction projects.

I know this from a postcard I received this month from a new Russian friend through Postcrossing. It will serve as this week’s bad postcard, as the celebrated, but not entirely functional Winter Olympics draw to a close.

It’s a little difficult to figure out what is going on here.  But through the magic of Wikipedia’s translation, I was able to determine that this is a paper mill in Dubrovka, a town near Moscow.

I have to say, that’s one impressive smoke stack.

The writing on the back from my new friend doesn’t shed light on our spectacular paper mill.

“Hi Dave.  On your profile  pic you look like Chakotay from “Star Trek: Voyager” and as smiley as John S. Barrowman does. I hope you don’t mind this. Live long and prosper.”

I confess I have only a vague reflection of the characters in that Start Trek franchise other than Seven of Nine. And I’m not exactly sure who John S. Barrowman is, even after looking at his website.

I’m going to assume both comparisons were intended as compliments, so I thank my Russian postcard pen pal.

Comparisons are, of course, subjective. Kind of like figure skating judging. The Russians do seem to have trouble with that.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Bad postcard of the week: Mysteries of Canadian 'Haweaters' and walruses in Little Current, Ont.

This is not-so-scenic Little Current, Ontario
Canadians like bad postcards, too.

I learned this after this gem arrived in my mailbox this week. I love it.

Why am I receiving bad postcards from Canadian strangers? Let me explain.

Several years ago I stumbled across a website called Postcrossing. It’s like the middleman for pen pals who like postcards.

After registering, the site assigns you a random address, and you send that person a postcard. Then your address is assigned randomly.  Soon, your mailbox starts filling with wonderful postcards from around the globe.

I've received 139 postcards so far—38 from Russia. That’s by far the leading country, and that’s not even counting the now-liberated countries that made up the Soviet Union. Russians might have trouble building Olympic villages, but they are into postcards.

People in Japan send some of the coolest postcards, in case you were wondering.

My Postcrossing profile revels that I like boring postcards. This seems to confuse people.  But my new Canadian friend Jason gets it.

He sent this card of Little Current, Ontario.

We’re so high up that’s it tough to make out any details of Little Current, other than the massive freighter and the event more massive piles of coal. Note that we’re not calling this “Scenic Little Current.”

The back reads: “LITTLE CURRENT, Ontario, Canada. Aerial view showing Bridge, Coal Docks and La Cloche Island.”

Actually, that’s what’s printed on the back. Jason’s note is more revealing.

“Hi Dave, from Ottawa, Ontario! This photo won’t win any beauty contests (did they think it would encourage tourists to visit?!), but you did say you didn't mind boring cards, so hopefully a bit ugly is OK, too.

“Here’s a story I have not told on a postcard before: In the 1990s, my girlfriend lived in South Bend. Driving back to Guelph, Ont. one time, I must have been in a daze or on autopilot because I ended up in Grand Rapids when I meant to pass through Flint! Seems like a lifetime ago now.  I've been in Ontario now for 13 years and have 2 young kids. Best to you, Jason.”

I suspect Jason was headed north on US 131 and was so dazzled by Kalamazoo that he missed I-94. That’s OK, because Grand Rapids is a nice place. That wasn't autopilot; it was an inner desire to experience the glories of West Michigan. Come see ArtPrize.

Canada’s a fun country. They put walruses on their stamps. A lot of countries might not want to boast about being a frozen wilderness. But not Canada. It owns it, ice bergs and everything.

And we don’t just get a single walrus – or morse de L’Atlantique for our friends in Quebec. No, there’s a whole walrus family there.

Now, I didn't see a single walrus when I was in Toronto last year. They must be nocturnal.  

Anyway, I did some research, since we’re not going to learn much about Little Current from this postcard.

It’s located on the northeast side of Manitoulin Island, and is actually very close to Michigan.

The always accurate Wikipedia reveals that the town was a place where lake vessels stopped to take on wood for fuel. Lumbering was and still is a big industry, and today the local economy is based on farming and tourism. Jason is correct; this postcard is not going to help.

Apparently the town also hosts an annual “Haweater Weekend.” Sounds interesting.

Apparently Haweaters are the name given to anyone who is born on Manitoulin Island, and the celebration held in the first weekend in August includes fireworks, a video dance, street vendor and a parade.

The Manitoulin Expositor newspaper tells us that last year’s event include a “Haw Run,” a fire truck pull, live roller derby, the “Hawfest Dance,” and “Little Ray’s Reptile Show.”

All of which, I might add, would have made for a better postcard. Thank you, Jason!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The cathartic booing of Derek Jeter

The scoreboard flashed the signal for mass booing
Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter announced today that the 2014 season will be his last as a player.

This will no doubt unleash a torrent of weeping and praise from the Yankee-centric media. I mean, even more weeping and praise than usual.

It’s not going to be an easy year.

Someone has to provide balance, and that person is me.

Here’s a tale from the archives about when Will and I went to see the White Sox play the Yankees, and St. Derek got the booing he so richly deserved. And yet, it was a cathartic experience for this long-suffering Mets fan.

So while Tom Verducci starts getting ready for an ocean of soft rain, he’s a story from 2010 to help soften the blow.

You have to realize that since my time covering Mickey Weston, I don’t boo athletes.

Except for two, that is.

Chipper Jones has simply inflicted too much damage on the Mets over the years to go without some sort of recognition, and we can’t exactly cheer him. But Chipper’s been broken down for the past several seasons, and it been a decade since he’s had Met blood on his hands.

The other, of course, is Derek F. Jeter.

Usually this booing occurs in the relative quiet of my home. But Will and I had the rare opportunity to voice our displeasure to Jeter in person on Frank Thomas Day, and this is the final report of that adventurous afternoon.

Chipper earned his boos for doing his job, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Jeter, however, is an on-going insult. He’s not just your basic Yankee, Jeter is Mr. Yankee, and truly is reflective of everything that is wrong with the franchise in the Bronx. Over-hyped, over-paid, over-exposed, over-credited and over-privileged.

We all know that the best shortstop on the Yankees is playing third base because it would be unthinkable to ask the Captain to change positions, despite the very obvious fact that Jeter has the range of a fire hydrant.

(Note: Here is another tale from the archives listing players who have more range than Derek Jeter)

Yet there are scribes like Ian O’Connor who give Jeter a complete pass. I can only assume O’Connor Tweeted this with a straight face: “Despite all the sabermetrics, there is a hell of a value in Jeter's ability to turn every ball hit right at him into an out. #yankees”

I pointed out to the brilliant folks at the Crane Pool Forum that a Major League shortstop is supposed to be able to turn every ball hit right to him into an out. 

Several posters noted that, in fact, minor-league shortstops also are expected to field the ones hit right at them.

Upon further thought, I realized that all players at every level are expected to turn routine plays, even people on my champion coed softball team.

Yet, Jeter has apologists like ESPN’s Joe Morgan, who watch him turn a routine six-bouncer into an out, and proclaim nonsense like “Jeter’s so good, he makes that play look routine.”

Witness the reaction to Jeter’s recent incident of shame against the Rays. A pitch came inside, Jeter leaned back and the ball hit the bat, obvious to all. That would be called a strike on most batters. Yet Jeter started carrying on as if he had not only been hit, but that the ball pounded his hand into hamburger. He was awarded first base, and the next batter hit a home run.

Replays indicated that Jeter is better actor than a shortstop. Exposed as a liar and cheat, Jeter told reporters after the game that it’s his job to get on base any way possible. Funny, but I don’t remember Yankee greats like Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mattingly flopping around and calling for the trainer when they wanted to get on first base. Usually they just hit the ball.

But the fawning New York media again gave Jeter a pass, citing his “intangibles.” Imagine how different the reaction would have been had the faker been Carlos Beltran.

Yes, Jeter has five rings. He’s also surrounded in the lineup by at least five All-Stars. Let’s see him take is legendary intangibles to Pittsburgh and take the lowly Pirates to the World Series. That will never happen.

So all of this pent-up angst had built up by the time Jeter stepped into the box against Sox starter Gavin Floyd in the first inning.


It was a long, heartfelt display that seemed to take the other people in the section by surprise. 

Frankly, I expected more people to join in. Sox fans were more interested in voicing displeasure toward Nick Swisher, a former under-achieving South Sider now over-achieving with the Yanks.

Jeter meekly popped out the right. This was followed by cheers, followed by Cousin Tim’s legendary “O-ver RA-ted, clap, clap, clap-clap-clap” taunt, which generated a far-greater response at Shea in 2008.

This scenario was repeated in the third and fifth innings, and involved Jeter strikeouts. They were swinging strikeouts, of course, since no umpire is bold enough to call Derek Jeter out on strikes.

We were started to get some cranky looks from a group sitting to our right, all clad in ugly Yankee T-shirts. I did not fear them because, like in a libel case, truth is the best defense and deep down all Yankee fans must know that the emperor isn't wearing any pinstripes.

I actually missed Jeter being announced in the eighth inning, and the delayed booing at Will’s prompting resulted in Jeter walking, and then advancing to second on a wild pitch.

Luckily we were afforded one last chance in the top of the ninth, when Derek the Menace strode to the plate with two out.

I let loose with the much-deserved booooooo when the Yankee fans to the right hatched an obviously premeditated defense. They were attempting to drown out my boo with cheers. It was six on one.

I would not, could not, lose this battle.

I produced a deep, dark, loud boooooooooooooo that arose from the depths of my blue-and-orange soul. It was cathartic. Every injustice endured at the hands of Yankee fans and their media fawners seemed to be set loose, released from my heart and through my cupped hands.

Everything from the McKenna Junior High taunts of 1977 and 1978 through the bat-tossing, Timo-jogging fiasco that was the 2000 Subway series and the Castillo pop drop of 2009 had broken loose.

This was, without a doubt, the longest, most resonating booooo I've ever produced. Philadelphia fans strive to create a booo this loud and long. And yet it was purifying all at the same time.

The weak cheers of the T-shirted gang of six were no match for my disgust and suffering. This boo rose from our perch in the upper deck to hover over U.S. Cellular Field like a fog. 

This was a boo intended to envelope Jeter in self-awareness and shame. I was expecting him to return to the Yankee bench, plop down – and see his teammates all slide away, disgusted.

I started to feel pity for Jeter. Deep down, he knows the truth. Hype doesn't outlast history.

I’m confident that all 10,000 of the Frank Thomas bobbleheads handed out that day nodded in agreement.

I easily outlasted the Yankee posers. Cleansed of decades of Yankee hurt, I could have continued into extra innings. And I feel the need to boo him no more.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Bad postcard of the week: Mystery spots at Central Michigan University

What could possibly have created that mysterious stain?
I don’t think Dad was impressed with my University of Missouri dorm when he saw it for the first time.

“It looks like a condemned mental hospital,” he said.

Floyd Cramer Hall was not luxurious, it’s true. There was no air-conditioning and not much of a breeze, save for Tony’s “Wind Machine” fan to bring relief from Missouri’s humidity. And the radiator clanged loudly throughout the night when the weather was cold. We shared a bathroom with guys from about six other rooms.

So I get it when the folks at Central Michigan University in 1956 thought their sparking new dorm was state of the art college living.

The back reads: “Rachel Tate Hall, Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, Michigan.  One of the newest and finest residence halls in the country. It accommodates 304 students, 4 to a suite. Each suite consisting of 2 bedrooms, a study room and complete bath. Each suite is furnished modern throughout with house phone included. Residents take their meals in Food Commons.”

I’m sure it’s a nice place and all. But there is one highly scary detail in the photo that the postcard copy writer omits. What the heck is that giant stain in the parking lot? What did they do, celebrate the dedication by detonating an elephant?

It’s unsettling, to be sure. Especially since the building has the architectural charm of a warehouse. A potential student would what to know what kind of devastation occurs in the parking lot before moving into such a charmless place.

And it was a pretty rowdy place, according to a CMU historical site:

“Its location next to the Carlin Alumni House, which was the university president's residence at the time, led to many dinner invitations to the president and his wife as apologies for excess noise. In 1958, the entire Homecoming court lived from Tate Hall. The building housed women from 1956 to 1972, and became coed until it was demolished, along with Barnard, in 1997. They had been closed due to low enrollment, structural problems, and general inefficiency. The decision to raze them was based on the high cost of remodeling.  

We never did such wild things in Cramer Hall, but it has one thing in common with Tate Hall: it’s been demolished.
Floyd Cramer Hall has it was being demolished in 2010. It was home from 1984 to 1986.

I found some photos of its destruction on aaRoon’s Flickr site. Room 4 would have been the next window on the left if we could extend the photo a little.

Temperature issues aside, it was a neat place. While other campus dorms had painted cinder-block walls, Cramer and the four others in our cluster had tan, glazed brick walls. It was different.

It wasn’t carpeted, and “California Steve” and I celebrated our great purchase of a remnant that couldn’t have been bigger than three feet by four feet. We could barely fit on it on the same time. But that was our carpeting.

Tony and I upgraded the bunk beds with wooden lofts, hand-me-downs from Becky and Karen when they moved on. We were styling!

And Cramer was part of Mizzou’s grand experiment – the first coed door. I was there for its first year of mingling the genders. The first floor was for guys, the second and third for girls and top floor for guys. Lacking an elevator, the first floor was the place to be.

I had adventures, experienced new things and met new people. I learned about living from home and shared a room for the first time. I was blessed with patient roommates who tolerated Mets and Twisted Sister posters and all things New York.

Like Tate Hall here, it wasn't much to look at. But it was the setting for many transitions and good times.

Fortunately, there were no mysterious stains outside.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Bad postcard of the week: No one monkeys around at the music competition

Magical, musical chimps at the St. Louis Zoo.
See the expression on the face of the chimp driving this thing? I know what’s going on here. They’re headed off to the school band and orchestra solo and ensemble district competition.

I've made that face.

The back reads: “Three battery-powered jeeps driven by chimpanzees and followed by trailers loaded with chimpanzee performers … that’s the audience’s first view of the St. Louis Zoo’s famous Chimpanzee Show. Shown here from left to right are Pancho, Becky, Ellen and Tony.”

So, Tony is Dad. He’s in for a long morning.

We attended such an event this week. Let me tell you how this goes.
Hang in there, Tony!

First, the day seems to start with about 6 inches of snow. I don’t know if that happens every year, but it has happened the two years I've been a part of this, so I’m just going by experience.

You need to know that band kids are sticklers not just for being on time, but being incredibly early. The mantra is that “early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable.” I suppose when you are dealing with a daily gathering of several hundred teenagers, this is necessary.

But the snow adds another layer of tension to the carefully contemplated schedule. It slows us down. We might just be early instead of incredibly early.

After checking in, we rush to the practice room. This is where 15 or so kids are playing the same kind of instrument, but different songs, starting and stopping at different points. It is impressive that the kids can focus on their own songs among the cacophony. Adults can stand it only for a few minutes before retiring to the hall.

The serious playing before the judges takes place in another room. There is a schedule hanging on the door. 

This schedule is fiction.

I say this because each student hires for the day a piano accompanist. There are several hundred kids, and, I suspect, a dozen accompanists. They are saints. They also are usually triple booked. They are never there for the actual starting time.

This is par for the course, and the adult working in each room knows this. They fit the kids in when they can as the accompanist arrives.

Second and third year students also know that this is how this works. They are relatively calm. You can tell the first-year parents and students because they are the ones pacing, looking at their watches, swearing under – and sometimes over – their breaths and banging their heads on the lockers.

Finally the accompanist arrives and there is much rejoicing as the student is directed into the room. Often, the student has an entourage of parents, siblings, friends, neighbors, classmates and pets.

Or, they go in alone.

My musician is in the second category because of the “eighth-grade incident.” Apparently I walked in too soon after the performance. These days, I’m lucky I’m allowed in the building at all. I’m probably one mistake away from being told to wait in the car. I am allowed to peek through the window, if the door has one.

The musician enters the room with the accompanist with two sets of sheet music – one to read from and the other for the judge to follow along.

Then, the playing begins. It is masterful. At least it sounds that way to the untrained ear.

The judge listens carefully and take notes. When the piece is completed, he approaches the student. Being teachers, they tend to offer all kinds of helpful guidance, talking about what went right and what could be improved. The kids wouldn't be in this event unless they were skilled, so this is really working around the margins, polishing an already shining gem.

Naturally, no one sees it this way.

Everyone leaves the room in tears – the student, the parents, the friends, the siblings, the neighbors and classmates. I think I saw a pocketbook puppy crying once, too. It was hard to tell.

There is a lot of hugging and consoling in the corridor. No one thinks they performed their best. They doubt their ability and their song selection. 

Note: suggesting that next time they play a really cool Ramones song and take the judge by surprise is never, ever considered funny.

The day is ruined and students vow to hide from their friends for days, lest they ask how they did. We wallow in our shame.

After what seems like ages, the door opens again and the helper emerges with the judge’s verdict.  A musician can earn a 1, a 2, a 3 or a participation certificate.

There is much rejoicing when the perception of the judge changes from cranky, partially deaf old man to wise master of music as we skip down to the redemption table to claim our medal.

Then, Tony the chimp, the instruments are packed up, the grandparents are called and everyone piles back into to car, safe for another year – or at least until the state competition in the spring.