Wednesday, November 26, 2008

All by myself

Heading into New York at 5:30 p.m., I avoided what was no doubt a madhouse at Penn Station (and into and out of which there were 30-40 minute delays because of Amtrak signal problems) and went through Hoboken. The terminal there was a relative ghost town, considering the time and the day. The stream of commuters heading out of the PATH station was light and an inbound train to 33rd St. was waiting on the track. I got on my usual car and took a seat. Moments later, the doors closed and we were on our way.

And I was alone in the car. I think it's happened to me once before, but definitely not at this time of day. Even though it's against the rush, there are usually a few people in each car.

The walk across four avenues was pleasant as the signs of the holiday season become more prevalent. I saw a shooting star affixed to a lamp post somewhere down Sixth Ave.; the Empire State Building was bathed in yellow, orange and red for Thanksgiving; the trees outside the Maritime Hotel have their yellow lights lit; and when I come back to Chelsea Market next week, I suspect the wreath will be hung over the entrance and the decorations will be spread throughout the ground level.

Winter in New York never seems as cold during December.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Worst. Game. Ever.

It wasn't pretty. I haven't seen any highlights on TV, but considering how much the media has loved Notre Dame's football struggles this year, I suspect any "SportsCenter" or nightly newscast recaps played up the booing and snowballs more than necessary. But they did happen. The snowballs were early, because there were drunk seniors in the cold who were playing around. And then when the PA made an announcement to stop ... well, that only increased it, college kids being what they are. I suspect stupid college kids at ANY school would've done that. The fact that they kept trying to reach the field (and as a result hit the team on the sidelines) was another level of stupid.

As for the booing, it really only happened once, that I noticed. ND had just blocked a punt and had a first down inside the 10-yard line. Clearly, a sure TD about to happen. But three huge penalties gave them second down and 47 YARDS TO GO. After third and 40, we couldn't even get back into field goal range. That was the only significant booing I heard -- after one series, and, frankly, they kind of deserved it. If there was booing at the end of the game, I didn't notice. As soon as the Irish missed that field goal, I turned to leave. We had to wait a bit to get through the tunnel and back to the concourse, and I did my best not to turn and look at the field. I heard the band play the alma mater and lamented that I was so disgusted by the outcome that I couldn't even stay for that. It was the first time I've ever done that -- left the stands immediately as the clock struck zero, neglecting to stay for the band's postgame performance. I've since heard about some shenanigans involving the Syracuse team and its dead coach walking, but I have no interest in delving into that. It was also, I believe, the first game I've attended since college that we've lost that wasn't a bowl game or against USC. And I've probably been to about 20. Definitely a new low.

The fun part of the weekend? Seeing Jim and Debbie, though it was strange to have just dad and me staying at the house. And that they're selling the house and it may be the last time we stay there with them. They're still planning to get tickets and come back from Cincinnati for the games, but Debbie's hoping to convince various family members to take weekend vacations and leave them a place to stay.

Brad and Tenille were also there. They stopped by on their way to northwest Indiana to spend Thanksgiving with Tenille's family. They have a 3-year-old boy and a 16-month-old girl, so they didn't go to the game. They stopped by our modest tailgate (basically Dad, Debbie and me eating chicken and drinking a few beers and hot chocolate for about 90 minutes before walking campus a little) for a short time, then went to LaFortune, the bookstore and the Joyce Center during the game. Afterwards, I had dinner with them.

I went back to the house for about two hours after that, and then Kregg called when he was finished at the stadium. He and some TV guys were grabbing food and some beers at a new bar at the mall, so I joined them for a couple hours.

And that's what made the weekend -- including the 12-hour drive out through snowstorms on Friday and the 10 1/2-hour drive back on a weary, sunny Sunday -- worth it. An upsetting loss on the football field could cast a pall on the entire weekend, but I won't let it. I refuse to look at it as just a football game. When the Irish play in New Jersey and it's just me and whoever has tickets with me, then it's just a football game. But when it's a long-distance trip, a planned meeting before the game and an impromptu dinner afterward, it's more than the football. The outcome of the game only altered my postgame routine (I left as soon as that field goal fell short, rather than staying through the band's performance), my plans to walk around campus in the cold winter-like night with my camera (I was in no mood to soak it in at that moment, not wanting to be too close to fans I don't know) and my weekly tradition of reading national columns and mailbags. From what I've heard, missing Pat Forde was no loss, since he apparently got none of his facts right and appeared to make no effort to do any research of his own, including talking with even one student. I may still read Stewart Mandel's 'bag tomorrow, but I'm not going to make a point of it like I usually do.

In time, the game will fade as just another bad loss, one of only five since I graduated in 1998. The others were against USC in 2003 and 2005 (the Bush Push game) and the 2001 Fiesta Bowl vs. Oregon State and the 2007 Sugar Bowl against LSU (the last game for Brady Quinn and Jeff Samardzija). I no longer remember those games as much as I do the weekend or other festivities associated with them. Phoenix/Tempe at New Year's was a blast; New Orleans 15 months after Katrina, with a personal tour from a friend and local reporter, was sobering (and then intoxicating). Another few years down the road, last weekend will be the time Brad and I caught up in South Bend for the first time in years. I doubt it will be the last, either.

Friday, November 21, 2008

On the road to South Bend


Amazingly enough, the day started out as planned: Dad and I were in the car and on the road at 5:05 a.m., just five minutes past our target. We drove to the end of the street, turned right. Made another right at the yield sign onto Route 19, then curved left onto the on ramp and were westbound on Interstate 80 -- three turns and 700 miles would have us in Indiana. Another turn or two put us on Notre Dame's campus (a campus that, after several years of gradual small-step expansion and renovation is unrecognizable in certain corners).

By 6:05 p.m. -- exactly 12 hours after departing -- we were on Twyckenham Ave., the northeast border of campus. The roads have been redirected in some places (a traffic circle at Douglas and Twyckenham??) and the borders spruced up, creating quite a different melding of Notre Dame into South Bend than we ever knew.

I'd expected a hint of the daylight to come upon our departure, but the sun didn't start illuminating the eastern horizon until after 6 a.m., by which time we were already in Pennsylvania. The entire New Jersey stretch of I-80 and the Delaware Water Gap was covered in darkness, the looming peaks of the Kittattiny highlands only dark shadows against a black-blue sky. From the highway, a the illuminated skylights of a warehouse in East Stroudsburg looked like a sea of alien pods from a science-fiction movie. By the time the sun started to make an impact on the landscape, we'd reached just far enough into the Keystone State to see a dusting of snow on the hillsides and lights on in the farmhouses as people began their Fridays.

Dad drove for two-and-a-half hours and by the time I took over, at 7:30, the low morning light cast a calming orange-pink hue on the Pennsylvania countryside. The roadbed was clear, but the fields and trees held onto increasing amounts of snow. As each mile passed, the view out the windshield became whiter and whiter, until each individual bare branch of the trees appeared encased in white -- much like the North Pole scenery in any number of Christmas specials. And it wasn't even 10 minutes into my first driving shift that the first flakes started falling from the sky.

But the weather held for the first 80 miles or so, until we were west of Lewisburg and really beginning to enter the Alleghenies. By Bellefonte -- the exit for State College -- it was snowing, and as we ascended the modest peaks and maneuvered the serpentine curves on our way to the highest point on I-80 east of the Mississippi, the weather varied from flurries with a beam of sunlight to snow squalls and diminished visibility. I persevered, and as we descended from the route's modest highpoint, the warmer asphalt appeared more wet than slushed over and I felt we were through the worst of it.

Ohio, though, had more in store. We stopped for lunch at 11:30, the streets of Youngstown -- at the exit, at least -- in that in-between state just hours after a snowfall of slushed up yet plowed once or twice. Dad resumed driving after lunch and I retired to the back seat to stretch out, cover my face against the sunlight with a hat, and catch up on some sleep.

Before I could doze off, however, Dad asked if I was awake and if he had taken the wrong route. Seems that once before, on a stretch in eastern Ohio where I-80 and I-76 share the same macadam, he'd mistaken I-80's veering off the main thoroughfare for a local exit and, instead, stayed on 76. He'd done that again this morning. I consulted the map and told him it was a minor detour; we'd be able to take Exit 43 ahead and follow Route 14 north for 12 miles to rejoin 80. It would cost us little more than the 15 or 20 minutes it would take to traverse the 12 miles between the interstates.

Only before we could get to that exit, traffic on 76 came to a standstill. Thankfully, it was only rubberneckers looking at the five cars that had spun off the road a mile ahead and not the closing of 76 we'd heard about on the local radio station (that accident turned out to be west of Akron; we were still to the east). The sun was gone, hidden deep behind the clouds above and the lake effect snow pouring from them. The road was slushy and slippery, the travel cautious. By the time we did return to 80, it was 50 minutes after Dad had first alerted me.

The weather alternated between partly sunny and lake effect snow squalls with near-whiteout conditions. As we drove on Route 14, I navigated with my sunglasses on, yet over to the west, a dark cloud reached down to the horizon -- a clear sign of a storm in progress. At that moment, a haiku came to me:

Ohio sunshine
just a tease, for the west holds
dark, foreboding skies

The sunshine held until the interstate, at which point I did fall asleep for nearly an hour, waking up just east of Toledo. Shortly after 3 p.m., we crossed over into Indiana and I remarked to my father that this just might be the first time he's made the trip from New Jersey to South Bend through nothing but blue states since the 60s. After we gassed up for the second time today, I took the wheel and drove us the final 70 miles to campus, with nothing but trucks or slow drivers in the left lane hindering our progress. As if sensing its location, my iPod -- shuffling through my entire collection -- settled on Dave Matthews' "Crash" for the final stretch of highway, reaching directly into my college years in selecting the soundtrack for the final leg of the journey.

As the sun set on the campus' winter tableau -- someone had built a snowman outside the merchandise tent near the business school and on-campus restaurant, and many of the buildings have Christmas trees lit up already -- the horizon burned orange through the bare branches of the trees. We navigated slick sidewalks -- the base layer of ice buffed to a dull sheen by the sweepers used to clear the powder from the walkways -- to the bookstore, where I browsed just long enough to make sure I wasn't missing out on anything I really wanted. (The only purchase was a porcelain Play Like A Champion Today sign to mount on the wall above the stairs leading to the basement.)

Walking back to the car, I made sure to gaze up Notre Dame Avenue at the Main Building's dome, the shining gold beacon standing out, a clear, unobstructed view despite trees reaching in from either side. The sky was not yet black but a deep, deep blue like we'd seen this morning at the Water Gap. Other than a crisp, bright, sunny autumn afternoon at the fall colors' peak, this is my favorite time of day on campus. In any season -- but particularly in winter, when the air is clear and the Dome and the stars seem to pop in high definition -- this meeting of day and night, of the gold dome and the navy blue sky, is a perfect Notre Dame moment.

Cold and eager to get to our friends' house for dinner, we kept walking. I contemplated returning after dinner by myself to walk around campus under the more private cover of nightfall, but the beer tasted too good and the couch felt too soft. I would've liked to take a few pictures, maybe stop by the Grotto when it's not quite so crowded as it will probably be after tomorrow's game, but I didn't get the chance today. I'll have to push myself to do so tomorrow, even with the crowds, because these days the next trip back here is not always definitely the next season. Growing old, working hard and living far away don't allow me to designate a weekend or two every fall for a return to South Bend, so I have to be sure to appreciate these moments and take them in when I have them.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Taking pictures

I finally remembered to bring my camera with me and head across the street to the municipal complex to shoot some images of the Avenue of Flags. (The explanation is over on the photo blog.) Then I cruised down the Parkway for a haircut and lunch with Dave. The most notable thing about that journey was the four speed traps I saw -- two southbound, two northbound -- in the first 15 miles after getting onto the Parkway. And then I saw none the rest of the way (and only one coming back, plus one on Route 18 as Dave and I were heading back to his office). Not sure if the state police have a Veterans Day special going on or what.

Oh, also of note: regular unleaded gas for $1.96 a gallon! That was cash only, but a Sunoco that takes credit cards was selling it for $1.99. Unfortunately, I couldn't take advantage; I had to fill up before leaving home, so I was barely below full at $2.17 a gallon. No matter, at least the $2 threshold has been broken again, in a good way. I suspected it would, and it doesn't surprise me that central Jersey is about 20 cents lower than the northern rates. It'd be nice to get below $2 up here and stay there for a few weeks, but I'll take whatever I can get right now.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Final scenes from a night of change

I stepped outside onto 9th Ave. to wait for my ride home, and the streets were busier than normal for early Wednesday morning.

"It's so surreal," one young woman said as she and her companion walked past me. "I truly feel like ... the world has changed."

As those two neared 15th St., a cab crossed the avenue with a passenger in the front seat holding a flag on a pole out the window, letting the stars and stripes flap in the breeze. Coming up the avenue walked a group of six, two-by-two, laughing and singing.

It's a happy city tonight.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Yes we DID

I consider Election Day to be an anniversary of sorts. I first started blogging -- it was a diary then, a journal -- on Election Day 2000, which was Nov. 7 that year. It was my first presidential election in which I walked into the booth, since my previous vote in 1996 had been via absentee ballot while at college. It, of course, was an historic election because of the tight race, the prolonged battle and the eventual Supreme Court intervention and the handing of Florida to George Bush, making him the president.

I get a bit sentimental over anniversaries, as many people do. At the least, I enjoy taking a moment to think back and reflect on that day, where I was then and where I am now. I look at the journey and what got me to where I am today. Yet looking back at my birth to blogging was always a little bittersweet, because that reflection had to include a questionable election and a country that had changed so much, with so little of it for the better.

But today I find myself in a much MUCH different place, and a much better place. I'm married. I own a house. I have a great job I enjoy, as much as I enjoyed the sportswriting (yet low-paying) job I had in November 2000. It also has me working nights, just as that one did (though I was off on Election Day).

Today, though, is also the day we elected Barack Obama as our president. I was following along with CNN on TV and online, using their fabulous Election Calculator to fill in what was decided and what was projected. Virginia was announced for Obama at 10:58 p.m. ET, and as they discussed that, I went to the calculator and looked at the totals. California, which was closing at 11 ET, would put Obama over the top. I barely had a chance to say that out loud to my co-workers when they broke in with another projection. "I guess this is California," I said.

Not quite.

At 11 p.m. EST on the nose, Wolf Blitzer stood in front of a huge graphic that announced Obama as the projected winner. At work, we cheered.

To their credit, the producers at CNN went to live shots of Grant Park in Chicago, Times Square in New York and other areas around the country that showed raucous celebrations and wonderful, beautiful, raw moments of emotion, of pure joy. As I watched it all and took it all in, I got a lump in my throat and something stuck in my eye. In fact, something kept getting stuck in my eye for the next several minutes as different scenes of celebration came across the screen.

I was inspired by this election, doing things to contribute and get the word out for the first time. I donated for the first time, I wore a button on my bag as I commuted to work and put a sign up in the front yard and a bumper sticker on my car. I considered the ways I could volunteer, but in the end my job made it a little too difficult. The long nights -- the overnights -- and weekend hours made many things unlikely for me, and I just didn't feel comfortable making phone calls. I'm not a good debater, and getting people to talk about something they may be hesitant to share is a reason I don't miss being a reporter.

And yet, this election and this result continue to inspire me. I feel a desire to become more involved in, if not politics, than at least community organizing. I was a part of it by casting my vote, but now I want to do more. I look forward to tomorrow, I look forward to January 20. I may take that day off and take the train to Washington to see history.

In the end, America voted and America got it right. Tomorrow is a new day, next year a new beginning. I've always been proud to be an American, but never more than tonight.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Using my voice

A few weeks ago, I was asked to explain -- if I wished -- who I was voting for and why. Someone I know was undecided and looking for some opinions. I happily offered mine. No one on this forum asked for my thoughts, so feel free to stop reading. No hard feelings.

My vote will go to Obama/Biden. I'd say I fall into the group of people who think the last eight years were among America's worst. Bush and Cheney broke the oaths they took upon their inauguration and failed to defend the Constitution. At times, they flatly ignored it and disregarded it. They stomped on it. Their policies have weakened our economy, destroyed our standing around the world and ruined other countries' opinion of us. The horrible events of Sept. 11 first led to an admirable military action in Afghanistan that should have produced the capture of Osama bin Laden, but Bush/Cheney instead chose to use that as an excuse to attack Iraq just to get the oil there, to make Cheney's former company rich with the rebuilding, and to satisfy Bush's grudge against Saddam Hussein. Iraq has cost billions of dollars, thousands of lives, and time, effort and resources that should be in Afghanistan. On top of that, taxes were cut (mostly for the richest Americans) that led to a deeper debt and budget deficit. When Clinton left office, there was a huge budget surplus -- the country was bringing in more than enough money to cover its expenses -- but Bush destroyed that within two years. I have more gripes -- from Supreme Court appointments to environmental policies and more -- but I won't go into all of them.

As for Obama vs. McCain, I see in Obama a genuine desire to help the country. So much of what has transpired in the past eight-to-12 years has led to the problems today, and Obama brings a fresher face. In 2004, when Obama first came on the scene with his speech at the Democratic convention, I thought he'd make a great president, but I didn't think it would be in 2008, because I thought he'd need more time and more experience. But after seeing what that Washington experience has led to, and what McCain would bring with his long experience, I feel that a fresher face is needed. It's similar to the way companies bring in someone from the outside when they need to get back on track, the way sports teams choose a new manager or coach from outside the program to turn around a sagging club, the way a movie studio changes directors when a film doesn't have the right vision or the way a family hires an interior designer to make over a room when you'd think they would know what they want. Sometimes you need a new perspective, a fresh approach to the task at hand. I think Obama's choice of Biden as his running mate also shows his insight to his own shortcomings. Knowing his own foreign policy experience was lacking, he turned to one of the most experienced and options for a running mate, based on Biden's work in Congress.

Though I don't doubt McCain's love for this country, he worries me. In 2000, I hoped he'd beat Bush in the primaries so that if Gore didn't win, at least the alternative would be a moderate conservative whose positions and values were closer to mine. Back then, McCain had no desire to overturn Roe v. Wade, he truly cared for the environment, he wasn't trying to become president just because it would put a cap on his political career. Even in just the past two or four years, McCain has reversed course -- flip-flopped, as John Kerry's detractors liked to say -- on his own positions. He now wants to appoint Supreme Court justices that would revoke a woman's right to choose; he stands closer to the big oil companies than he does to environmental reform; he's in favor of continuing the reckless Bush tax cuts that he once said he'd allow to expire; and he's admitted that if the immigration bill he once co-wrote came across his desk, he'd veto it. And in 2000, a big reason he lost was the South Carolina primary, during which Bush's team -- led by Karl Rove -- aired dirty and, in some cases, untrue ads that attacked McCain personally, not on the issues. McCain was angered and disgusted by that, yet he's hired some of the same people used by Bush and Rove to his own campaign all in an effort to win. He's compromised his principles just to win.

And finally, there's Sarah Palin. There were several viable running mates McCain could've chosen who would've complemented him well and strengthened his ticket, but he chose Palin based on her ultra-conservative views in an effort to appease the far-right Republicans and win back their support. He pandered to them, choosing her just to win their votes instead of for any insight or strengths she'd bring to his administration. McCain is 72 years old, which would make him the oldest person to win a presidential election for his first term. He's already a cancer survivor, which is wonderful. Yet despite those two big, legitimate concerns, his campaign has refused to allow a full look into his medical history. The voters have a right to know the status of his health, considering the job for which he is applying, yet he continues to hide that (as he does his wife's tax returns, and she's the big moneymaker in the relationship). These factors also play into the Palin choice. McCain's age and cancer history made the choice of a capable, able vice president paramount, yet he showed poor judgement in choosing someone with so little experience. Obama has essentially been running for president for as long as Palin has been Alaska's governor. Only a few months before McCain chose her, she admitted that she didn't even know what the vice president did. (The correct answer, based on the Constitution, is virtually nothing, other than break tie votes in the Senate. However, Dick Cheney has flaunted those rules -- or lack thereof -- and Palin has said she would continue to treat the vice presidency that way.) Should something happen to McCain and he dies or becomes incapacitated in office, our president would be someone who two years ago was a small-town mayor.

I could probably go on. I could address the candidates' campaign styles and tactics, I could point to their health care proposals, or I could go into more on their proposed tax plans or energy ideas. But the basics are this: Obama's stance on the economy, the environment, health care, taxes, education and America's security are so much closer to my own thoughts. I truly believe that a McCain administration would be so close to what we've had the past eight years, and we've seen where that leads. I would truly be scared if Obama doesn't win.