Friday, October 06, 2006

The Month That Was - September 2006: I guess we can consider this to pretty much demark the end of Summer. I managed a couple of trips, the main one being to Reno and Lake Tahoe. You can read the full write-up; beware, it's a long one.

That'll probably be it for my travel articles this year (well, maybe one more if I do any interesting holiday travel), now I have to get settled into the football column habit, which should start end of October and take me into 2007. Once that is done, like so many times before, I will attempt to get some fiction writing momentum going.

I'm really not looking forward to this winter; warmth and travel will be minimal and I am another year older. The world better do a good job of entertaining me over the next few months.

Opening the Golden Door
Rambin' and Gamblin'
Shallow Views of The Wire
Crescent City Blues
Opening the Golden Door: My minor trip this month came about because I got an email alert from one of my travel lists regarding the Boulders Resort and Golden Door Spa in Carefree, Arizona (slightly north of Phoenix). They had a dirt cheap post-Labor Day special so a snagged three nights.

The idea was to get in a little detox. Healthy food; outdoor exercise; writing and reading around the pool. No fast food. No days spent staring mindlessly at my computer, followed evenings spent mindlessly at my computer. No fretting over writing, but just doing some light reading instead. No alarm clock. No donuts for breakfast. Of course, in rebellion against this utterly healthy lifestyle, my first night there I caught a savage head/chest cold that I still haven't fully defeated. Just brutal.

The Golden Door Spa is top notch -- steam, sauna, whirlpool -- I worked in a couple of massages, including a service called Watsu, where the therapist whips you around and bends and twists you in a small pool with body temperature water. The supposed effect of being the water is weightlessness, allowing your body to be contorted in ways it normally couldn't. (My therapist happened to be from South Bend, Indiana; this just after the Wolverines trounced Notre Dame. I was lucky not to have been drowned in vengeance.)

I don't recommend Watsu for the massage novice. It requires a certain, um, openmindedness, but I will admit that I did not think it was possible for my body to twist and turn like that. You'll want to have a positive view of popping joints and crckling vertebrae before attempting this.

I can assure you that if you're going to have a head cold, Golden Door is a good place to be. You can spend the days baking in the desert sun (it was in the mid-90s each day I was there) and the evenings hydrating your poor sinuses in the steam room.

I won't trouble you with another extended spa exposition except to say Boulders/Golden Door is an exceptional spa. It's not up with Canyon Ranch or Mirival, but it's no disappoint in any way. Even including the head cold, it's a better experience than 99.999% of the people in the world will ever have.
Ramblin' and Gamblin': In the course of my various wanderings to the sacred land of Nevada I managed to place some sports bets. Every year I make futures bets and every year I regret it, but I just can't seem to stop myself. And this year is no exception.

First, you will note how the Tigers were dominating the baseball world for most of the year. Just completely trouncing everybody. Now, I almost never make homer bets. I might be rooting for the home team, but when it comes to laying down money, if I think it's smart to go against my sentimental favorite then I will go against them. Normally I am totally ruthless in that respect. Yet, here I was plopping down cash on the Tigers to win the Series, an event that I was not remotely confident in but, for whatever reason, I suddenly decided to make a homer bet.

Sure enough, starting at the precise second I handed my money to the nice man in the sports book at the Mirage the Tigers went on a potentially historic slide and managed to finally lose the division lead on the last day of the season, thus causing them to face the fearsome Yankees in the first playoff series.

Now, the book is not closed on this yet, but note two things: 1) they had to get swept in their final series against the horrendous Kansas City Royals to complete their crash, and they managed to do it, and 2) the 9th hitter in the Yankees lineup has a higher batting average than anyone on the Tigers. Let's just say I would have been better off buying lottery tickets. It's conceivable they can turn things around somehow, but if they don't, my apologies to Tiger fans everywhere who have been waiting so long for a post-season chance. I hammered the poor Cats with my foul juju.

Next, I kept minding the line of the Miami-Pittsburgh NFL season opener. It started with the Steelers -3.5, before Ben's appendix exploded. By the time I had arrived in Tahoe, Harrah's had it at even money. The Montbleu (where I was staying) had the Steelers -1.5. That a pretty big difference, which suggested to me that there was an opportunity there.

My big issue was that the Steelers were starting Charlie Batch at QB. Ex-Lion Charlie Batch. I couldn't get past that fact. Even though the Steelers were at home and even though they have a killer pass rush of the sort that Daunte Culpepper just can't comprehend, I couldn't get past Ex-Lion Charlie Batch. So I took the Fins +1.5 and from early on, even when they were seemed to be still in the game, they were as shaky as a refrigerated junky. But I didn't give up hope because I knew Ex-Lion Charlie Batch had the ability to hand the game over with a single throw. Sadly, so did Daunte Culpepper. And Nick Saban.

This was a painful one for me. Just a stupid gut level bet that I should have known better than to take. I never kick myself over a gambling loss when I made a good call based on the info available at the time. That happens to all gamblers as often as not. This wasn't one of those. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

But wait, it gets worse.

During my last Vegas trip, I noticed that the line on the Lions opener was Seattle -3.5. Unbelievable. That the reigning NFC champs could not come into Detroit and take the Lions by more than a field goal was unthinkable. This was Found Money, I'm telling you. As close to a sure thing as anything I have seen. And I was right -- at first. By game time, the line a rose to 8 points, meaning the Seahawks were expected to win by more than a touchdown and here I was with them giving up only 3.5.

Even better: a couple of days before the game the Lions D-line coach got caught ordering drive-thru at a local Wendy's apparently under the mistaken impression that it was clothing optional. Had he been a player it would have wiped Ron Mexico and the Vikings Love Boat off the sports comedy map. As it was, imagine a Lions defensive lineman having to come to practice the next day and take instruction from this guy. It had to mess with their heads, didn't it? Tell me the D-line wasn't giggling to itself when it should have been keyed up to kill the QB. The Lions were toast. I was sitting pretty.

So what happens? The Seahawks did win, but by only 3 points. What the hell? What kind of lame-ass performance was that? How could they do that to me? Now I have to hate the Seahawks. I hope they finish the season 8-8 and miss the playoffs. I hope Hasselbeck has an allergic reaction to Rogaine. I hope Shaun Alexander's ACL turns out to be a garbage bag twist-tie. I hope come midseason, they are like some kind of South Pacific cargo cult praying for Steve Hutchinson to come back, possibly including a sacrificial offering of Mike Holmgren's still beating heart. That was my money, you bastards.

So that really leaves me only one bet and of course, the outlook is not positive. I have money on the Steelers to repeat as Super Bowl champs. I got long-ish odds on that one, so if it comes through, that makes up for the rest. As I write this, they haven't even come close to being the team they were last year. There's still time and, like the Tigers, they may pull it all together (they started slow last year too). But I can't help but remember that Roethlisberger had one of the worst performances for a Super Bowl QB ever, he got hammered his face into a car in the off season, his appendix went south, and he hasn't put up a decent performance yet this year.

Why do I do this? Why can't I just wait for the season and make my regular picks? You'd think by my age I would have found a more fruitful self-destructive behavior to adopt.

I'll get to the next post after I take a moment to punch myself in the head about fifteen times.
Shallow Views of The Wire: HBO has announced that The Wire will get a season 5 due solely to critical raves (ratings suck). Interesting because, even though The Wire is as good as it gets, it's not any better than Deadwood, although I will admit that its quality is probably more accessible than Deadwood's, and Deadwood was denied a final season. (And yes I'm still bitter.)

HBO has been putting out episodes of The Wire a few days ahead of general release through their on-demand and I have been chomping at the bit to see each one the minute it is available -- meaning after midnight on Sunday evening. It's that good.

It's so good that most critics (and to a qualified extent, series creator David Simon himself), while sensing its undeniable quality, don't even have a clue how to describe it. They fall back on it being and "indictment of urban neglect" or a "cautionary tale of inner-city despair" or other such triteness drivel. They say the low ratings reveal how nobody wants to be reminded of the underclass. Bollocks.

The low ratings are because it is deeply complicated and slow. You cannot watch it casually and get anything out of it. It demands attention and patience. Whatever the subject matter, ratings are going to suck for such a show. Just ask the folks who produced Deadwood. To deem otherwise is to sell the show short.

The Wire is not an indictment or a caution at all. It is simply a cold-eyed view of reality. It does not follow the pathetic clichÇ of innocent ghetto dwellers victimized by whoever the fashionable evil demographic happens to be. As often as not, these downtrodden types have made the choices that got them where they are, whether something could have been done to change those choices remains an open issue, but no one here is remotely innocent.

Simon has stated that this season is about institutions and how all institutions end up corrupting individuals. That's probably not true in the gross and common sense of the word "corruption"; however in the more subtle sense of individuals having to compromise with institutions to maintain mutually beneficial relationships it is almost certainly true. Still, without institutions there wouldn't be any civilized people to corrupt.

All this is not the stuff of ratings or pithy critical descriptions. It is absolutely the stuff of phenomenal drama.

By the way, if you decide to get into The Wire don't just start watching this Sunday. If you have HBO On-Demand, start working through all the seasons from the first. Only then should you move into season 4. If you don't have On-Demand, get the DVDs for season 1, 2, and 3 and watch them first. Don't rush. After that, wait for HBO to replay season 4 from the beginning or just wait for the season 4 DVD.

I'm not sure what options are available for you downloaders, but the point is: Watch the entire series and watch in order.
Crescent City Blues: Do I seem particularly cynical this month? Well, I probably am.

I'm even pretty much fed up with the city of New Orleans. For the longest time I have been angling to get a weekend set-up down in the Quarter just to see how things are going first hand and to drop some cash to do my part, but at the moment I don't want anything to do with it. I can't imagine anything more unseemly than the self-indulgent, woe-is-me wankfest over the Katrina anniversary. Good God, people.

All this reached a pinnacle with the reopening of the Superdome for a Monday Night Saints game. We were treated to hours -- literally hours -- of heartfelt testimony and special interest segments on how meaningful a moment this was, how it was so much more than just a football game to the demoralized New Orleans residents. The folks at ESPN just live for this sort of tripe. They yearn, day in and day out, to turn sports events into stories of Great Social Relevance. (They must have some kind of serious inferiority complex about being grown-ups overly concerned with silly games to go to the lengths they do.)

Of course, you can't have Great Social Relevance without celebrities, and we had a seeming endless progression of them, either shots of them as spectators, or doing interviews in the booth and the on the sidelines all night long. Lucky they got to watch the game in person while some poor schmuck from the 9th Ward couldn't afford a ticket 'cause they had been bid up to $1000 a seat.

And you know you've reached the pinnacle of Great Social Relevance when that insufferable assclown Bono shows up. Yes, in celebration, the game was kicked off by live performances from U2, the professionally processed punk band Green Day, and the Goo-Goo Dolls. (I was so surprised to see The Goo-Goo Dolls I almost dropped my Sega Saturn.) It had to be one of the top 5 most tawdry moments in television history.

But then, that's the way of things, right? Disasters breed victims; victims are immediately granted high moral standing and Great Social Relevance. What follows is that famous personalities, who know in their hearts how superficial their wealth and glory is, try to buy into the high moral standing of the victims as a misguided way to find a sense of importance.

Just a pathetic display from start to finish. And pretty close to meaningless, too, but we do love our symbolism don't we?

This is not to decry charity. When Reggie Bush goes into the devastated areas and hands out supplies or just tells some kid everything is going to be all right, that has meaning. That is personal. That is real. But every camera crew, politician, b-list actor or pompous rock star who hitches along for a ride cheapens the act.

The other side of the coin from Katrina was that New Orleans had something resembling a fresh start. Semi-lost in the discussion is the fact that, outside the tourist centers, pre-Katrina New Orleans was crime-ridden, destitute and downright dirty. Well here is your opportunity to redo things right. Now is the time to think big. Why not lay grand plans? Why not see New Orleans as the next Orlando or Las Vegas? Somebody call Moe Green. It could happen. Why not?

I'll tell you why not. Because nobody with any authority in the bayou has that sort of vision. Nobody can think beyond glad-handing and backslapping and protecting their own paltry standing. That fresh start for New Orleans was pissed away when they promptly re-elected the same sort of small-minded, corrupt, and outright stupid officials that they had prior to Katrina. In America, one way or another, voters usually get what they want. Unfortunately, getting what you want goes hand in hand with getting what you deserve. (Although no one really deserves Bono.)

If I were Mayor Nagin, these anniversary displays would alarm me. Symbolic or not, all this hand-wringing is bringing about a sense of closure, which means he might start to lose some of his victimhood mojo in the broader world. More importantly, if I were a resident of New Orleans, I would realize that my city is only fractionally recovered and I may be facing some difficult times with only Hizzoner and his cronies to count on. Scary, that.

At this point I don't have any more sympathy for New Orleans. The Katrina disaster was unspeakably awful, but money is pouring in and goodwill is, for the moment, blooming. So what are you going to do with it, New Orleans? Are you going to define yourselves forever as Katrina victims or are you going to build a great city? Frankly, from what I've seen so far, I don't think you've got that greatness in you.

So let me know how it turns out because I've ceased to pay attention. For now, I just need you to keep a path clear from the airport to the French Quarter for me.