I’m always finding some new artifact of pop culture to become a fan of, it’s my curse, I suppose, and one that I’ve acquired over the last several months is the cartoon “Family Guy”. I’ve never gotten into the Simpsons, and while I’d watch King of the Hill, it wasn’t deserving of cult status. Probably Beavis and Butthead was the last cartoon I would seek out, although South Park is usually pretty reliable. So awhile back Wizard magazine had an article on the 10 greatest cartoons, which for Wizard means the 10 greatest still being produced, since no one there is old enough to remember anything from before that. Some of the choices were more than a bit lame (Super Robot Monkey Team Hyper Force, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends), which may be inventive but aren’t really that entertaining to anyone over the age of 8. But Family Guy was also on the list, and Adult Swim started showing it around that same time, so I caught a few episodes and I was a fan, and now I’ve got the first 2 seasons on DVD. Unforunately in spite of all the different times its shown (on Fox, Adult Swim and even TBS) they seem to focus on the same subset of episodes, so there were a bunch on the DVD I’d never seen, and some of them have commentary tracks, which can be enlightening but contain a disproportionate number of extended pauses where no one says anything and they just watch the show, which can be very annoying.

What I like about Family Guy is you never know what anyone is going to say next, while every episode has a plot, most of the jokes are non-sequiturs that primarily come from pop culture, and a lot of ’70’s/’80’s pop culture at that, such that the younger crowd couldn’t possibly get all the references. This formula of random jokes is the running gag in a South Park episode about Family Guy (the one where they wouldn’t show an image of Muhammed), where it is revealed that the writers of the show are really a group of manatees that just take a bunch of balls with different words written on them and line them up in some random order to make the jokes. As one of the grownups from that South Park episode says, “At least Family Guy isn’t all preachy and have its head up its ass like that other show.”

The same guy who created Family Guy later did another show called American Dad, which downplays the free association in favor of more interaction between the title character, a rabid conservative G-man, and his somewhat more liberal family. I’ve got that one on DVD also. While Adult Swim, the 11pm to 6am time slot on Cartoon Network, is the primary source of old episodes of both of these, I can’t stay up late enough to see much of them. They show a lot of other original stuff that’s downright hilarious, like Robot Chicken, Venture Brothers, Harvey Birdman. There’s plenty of other shows that are popular but I can’t get into (like Aqua Teen Hunger Force), and some are just crap (like Squidbillies), and then once in a while they have the bizarre idea to go retro with some non-cartoons, like Saved by the Bell, and most recently Peewee’s Playhouse, which I avoided when it was on the first time, so not everything sticks, but there’s more than enough worth watching to eat into my already scant free time. Probably just as well it doesn’t start until 11pm.

The best thing about Family Guy is the mayor of the town is Adam West, and he’s actually voiced by Adam West. Which reminds me, when are the old Batman tv shows coming to DVD? Creighton would have it that King of Queens is the greatest show on tv, but I don’t see it. It’s not even a cartoon.

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the bartlett musicians

Jul 14, 2006

Justin turns 8 next month and this past Wednesday he had his first official piano lesson, making him almost exactly the same age as I was in I had my first piano lesson in December 1970. I haven’t ever given the kids formal piano lessons, my feeling is if they want to learn they need to have a teacher they respect. Other than teaching Chloe how to play the beginning of “Chopsticks” a few years ago, they’d never seemed that interested, but lately Justin had expressed an interest in giving it a try, he has more the temperment (i.e. attention span) for it than his sister, so we’ll see how it goes.

Meanwhile, this past year Chloe has been playing the violin at school. When she started fourth grade last fall, she had the opportunity to pick an instrument to play in either band or orchestra, or she could continue to be in the chorus (you can’t do both because they meet at the same time). She was definitely interested in trying something, although she still liked the chorus too. I counselled her that this was the one time in her life she could start learning an instrument, and if it didn’t work out she could go back to the chorus, since there’s not much cumulative effect from learning to sing at that age. I was trying to steer her towards flute or clarinet, because I said if she gets really good I’m only out a grand or so for a topnotch instrument, whereas if she chooses violin and excels at that, a pro version will cost as much as a car. So of course she picked violin, we did a rental for the first year with the stipulation that she had to stick with it at least that long before deciding whether to continue. Her friend up the street started on flute and lasted about six weeks, but otherwise this year’s fourth grade turned out for band and orchestra in record numbers.

As it turns out, Chloe exhibited some aptitude for it, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering her parentage and that she’s always been singing along with the tv or CD’s since she could talk, memorizing the tunes and words effortlessly. She’s not a prodigy or anything, but she seemed to get the hang of it relatively quickly, to the point that she could kind of coast between group lessons sometimes because at school they could only go as fast as the slowest kid. I’ve said about other instruments, how difficult can they be, you only play one note at a time? But I had the opportunity to consult on her violin homework, since even though I don’t play the violin I know how to read music (fortunately she didn’t pick an instrument in a different clef), so that gave her a leg up, too. As the school year wound down, she was somewhat apathetic about whether to continue or not, but we expect that, if she’s not kicking and screaming against it, then you have to consider it a positive reaction. The original violin we rented was a 3/4 size, but now she’s taller than Nina, who I’m sure has a full size violin, so Beth got another rental for the next year, and since the only full size violin they had to rent looked like it had been played by Pete Townshend, they reluctantly agreed to let her rent a new one (the first one was new also, and she took very good care of it, so she had that in her favor also).

They don’t offer cello in the fourth grade in Marlboro, but I’ve selfishly thought that’s the instrument Justin should really go for, and then we can have a piano trio in the house. I just bought volume 2 of the Beethoven trios from sheetmusicplus.com a couple of months ago when they were having a big sale on Henle editions (since I have about all the solo piano music I need for now), but I can only play along with the stereo for the time being. I told Chloe there’s lots of good violin music out there with piano, once she gets past “twinkle twinkle”. Something like violin suits her better since she’s much more of a social butterfly and likes being in a big group, where Justin fits more the loner, brooding musician that is more your typical pianist. I’ve been anticipating this age when they take up an instrument since they were born, it will be interesting to see where it all ends up.

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tour de france update

Jul 13, 2006

While the TdF is going on, it’s a little more difficult to keep focused on anything else, like updating a web log. Floyd takes the yellow jersey today, in the first big mountain stage, while all the rest of the American hopefuls go belly-up. Without Lance, Ullrich and Basso in there, it’s any man’s tour, which gives it a different appeal. For the last several years we’ve been saying “How will Lance win?” while now we can finally ask “Who will win?” OLN (soon to be known as Versus) is doing their part to keep up the visibility of the tour, in spite of the lack of Lance, we’ll see how long that keeps up after this year, especially if Floyd doesn’t win.

Even if Landis takes the yellow jersey into Paris, his career may be over, since he needs to have hip replacement surgery after suffering the last two years from vascular necrosis caused by a bad crash during a training ride. This year I haven’t been manically following each stage every evening, some of the flat stages were served just fine by reading the running updates on velonews.com while it was happening. You miss out on Phil and Paul’s commentary and all those shots of the gorgeous French countryside, but there’s still plenty to go around on the mountain stages. Stage 11 today covered 5 climbs, including some famous Pyrennes like Tourmalet, Peyresourde, Col d’Aspin, etc., and so it was on tv before I’d even left for work. With my Blackberry browser I can follow what’s going on through the Velo News updates while I’m in the car, and again from the laptop once I’m in the office, so I didn’t miss much (no morning meetings for once).

I keep saying in spite of the constant chaotic cycling schedule and format on OLN, it’s still a lot better than my first TdF in ’99 when you were confined to half an hour of highlights on ESPN2 at dinner time, hosted by Adrian Karsten. Turns out Karsten was an NU alumni, I had no idea until I read not too long ago that he’d died, come to find out he’d killed himself because he was going to jail for tax evasion (something they failed to mention in the alumni magazine). After one more year of that format (which went at least as far back as the Indurain days), OLN picked it up with live daily coverage with Phil & Paul, hosted by the great Bob Varsha, followed the next two years by Bill Patrick and Kirsten Gum, respectively, before finally spending some money and settling on Al Trautwig, who didn’t know squat about cycling at first, but now in his third year seems to actually be interested in the whole thing. He’s not pretty to look at, but then neither is Bob Roll. Let’s hope he keeps the IRS happy and stays away from the gas pipe.

Eleven days still to go. Hincapie has choked, Leipheimer is probably too far down to make the podium, everyone else but Landis is a non-factor. Go Floyd!

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20 years ago this month Beth and I first met, although neither of us could tell you when exactly or what was said or whatever. My first summer in Boston, I was taking classes at Tufts in my spare time for graduate credit. The summer session was split into two, and I took one class each session. The first one was “History of the Soviet Union”, which met every morning for a couple of hours, so I was able to adjust my work schedule (I was a few months into my temp stint at Bank of Boston) so that I could come to work after class, since I was getting paid by the hour anyway. The second session, the class was called “Psychology of Russian Literature”, taught by a guy named Lottridge, who’d been a Russian lit professor but had gone back to school and gotten a degree in psychology and was trying to figure out how to put the two together. It was basically a Russian lit class, but analyzing the characters from a psychological angle, an approach that is particularly well suited to the crazy people you find in Russian literature.

At the time, I was interested in things Russian, having studied the language (barely) at NU and taken a class there called “Intro to the Soviet Union” that was part lit part sociology. You could take a few classes for graduate credit before you had to actually enroll, and Tufts is affiliated with NEC, which is the original place I wanted to go for grad school, so it seemed like the thing to do, since living in Natick wasn’t going anywhere. So it was goodbye Natick Village and hello living for the summer in a dorm again, the first session I had a roommate from Hong Kong named Clifton, the second session somehow I ended up without a roommate, although there was a guy in the room next to mine who liked to shoot fireworks out his dorm window, until the campus police caught him and threw him out of the dorm. After that it was pretty quiet.

Beth ended up taking the same Psychology in Russian Lit class because she was finishing up her undergraduate degree from the School of Museum of Fine Arts after several years off and says she picked the class out of the catalog as the one that sounded the hardest, in order to challenge herself. She like literature, too, so I think if there’d been a class called “Advanced Brain Surgery” she would’ve still gone for the lit class.

The class met twice a week in the evening for 3 and a half hours at a time. Beth was living with Deb in West Roxbury at the time and working at the old Heartland in Natick, and Tufts is on the Somerville/Medford line, so she was all over the city in her 3-year old Chevy Chevette. There were maybe 12 or so in the class, mostly our age, with a couple of old fogies in their 40’s. We had to read several books and groups of stories, the previously mentioned Lermontov, some Gogol, Chekhov, and maybe a couple of Soviet authors, Zoshchenko (a favorite of Shostakovich), Olesha and Mayakovsky, although I may be conflating the syllabus with the NU class there. My first visual memory of Beth was the day she came into class wearing a white, summery sleeveless dress, she herself bright red with a sunburn. Her hair was much redder then, so it made for quite a contrast. Maybe that same evening might have been the first time we spoke, as Lottridge had passed around an lit crit article titled “Anality in the works of Gogol” or something, and Beth was asking why would anyone write something like that, since Gogol obviously wasn’t thinking along those lines when he wrote his stories, and I asked her if she was saying that the article should’t have been written.

As the class was winding down I was looking for a place to live and some new people to hang out with, preferably within the greater Somerville area, which was much handier to Boston than Natick had been. During the breaks in class a bunch of us talked about various things, particularly movies, and Beth and I and this other girl Carol had arranged to meet at Coolidge Corner for a couple of Woody Allen movies shortly after the class had ended for the summer. Carol never showed, so it became a date of sorts, and the rest is history. Beth never did finish her degree, I never did enroll in a masters program, Beth and Deb moved to Roslindale, I found Jeff, Randi and Bill on Paulina Street, and we had a group that hung out together for the next few years until we all got married and moved to different towns.

Over this past winter, we drove up to Tony’s house in Gardner during a snowstorm for a mini-reunion with Jeff, who we’ve seen off and on over the years, and Bill, who we hadn’t seen in about 10 years. Chip/Wayne, who was tangentially part of the group, was there also, everyone brought their kids along, Tony threw a Mardi Gras party and we all reminisced about the old days when we were young and thin and had hair. We resolved to get together again before another 20 years had elapsed.

In spite of some familiarity with Russian authors, I wasn’t familiar with Lermontov before taking that class, and I hadn’t read enough of European literature to recognize the archetype of the disaffected anti-hero common in many novels of the period, what the Russians call the “superfluous man”, typified by Bazarov in “Fathers and Sons” or the nameless narrator of “Notes from the Underground”. Pechorin, the eponymous hero of “A Hero of our Time”, is an ex-military man with nothing to do, spending much of his time obsessing over women he can’t have and ending up fighting a duel over a woman he doesn’t really care about. At that time in my life I could probably identify with this type of character, not because of aimless womanizing, but because he’s casting about for something to do with his life. Now 20 years later, Pechorin just seems annoying. Lermontov, if he’d lived long enough, would have probably agreed.

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Jul 11, 2006

I didn’t mention it here at the time because it was during one of my extended posting lacunae, but after 12 years the Borders Classics Reading Group was forced to find a new home when the eponymous location in Framingham decided to close at the end of last year. Laura researched a few alternatives and we ended up across the street at Barnes and Noble, where they won’t discount the books but seemed happy to have us, and even insist on having an employee sit in, just like a real bookstore should. I went to the inaugural event there in January and haven’t been back since, some of the books weren’t that exciting, and now that I’m back on the board of my chorus, they decided to schedule their meetings for the exact same day.

That was a potential disaster I barely averted. For the last year, Beth had been going to a girl Scout leader meeting the first Wednesday of the month, and the reading group was the second Wednesday of the month. Then I was coerced into joining the board again last summer, and they had their meetings on the first Wednesday of the month. Now Beth was mad and I was in the doghouse because she’d need to find a babysitter for that night on a regular basis. But it ended up they moved her meeting to some completely different night of the week. Problem solved, no? No, because then Borders decided to close, and B&N said they could take us, but they already had a reading group meeting on our long-standing 2nd Wednesday of the month, so we voted and decided to move it to the 1st Wednesday of the month, so now I was in conflict with myself (although the other option was the 2nd Tuesday of the month, which would have been worse because it would conflict with rehearsals in perpetuity, unlike board meetings which are more fluid and I don’t intend to stay on the board more than my initial two-year stint anyway). Life is complicated.

Last month we had a board retreat scheduled for a Saturday, so we didn’t have a regular meeting on the first Wednesday. Ah, but the reading group was doing Emma, which I had no desire to read again, so I stayed home that night.

This month, Steven, our new conductor (more about him some other time), couldn’t do Wednesday so we changed it to Thursday. So I could do both since the book was Lermontov’s “A Hero of our Time”, which I last read 20 years ago and really wanted to read again (and it’s short). These two nights were immediately followed by Readercon, so I was out four nights in a row, which I normally would avoid like the plague, but Beth and the kids managed to console themselves by going to the ocean two days in a row, and then the pool at the health club the day after that.

So anyway, Laura weaseled out of providing her usual synopsis of the discussion, so here I’m left holding the bag. We had about 10 people, including most of the regulars, and the book was so short that everyone had finished it. Evan and Roger both liked it, which is fairly unusual in and of itself. The discussion covered the structure of the book, split into five sections told from different points of view and out of sequence, chronicling isolated events in the life of the protagonist Pechorin, the “hero” of the title. Some time was spent on the relative irony of the title “A Hero of our Time”, since he’s not the least bit heroic in the Byronic sense, does this mean that Lermontov is saying this is the best we (Russia) can do at that point in history? Lermontov himself is an interesting figure, having written quite a bit of poetry and this book, considered the archetypal Russian novel, he strove to emulate his hero Pushkin but only outlived him by six years before losing a duel (just like Pushkin) at the age of 27.

The edition I and a few others had read was translated by Nabokov, and the footnotes and introduction he provided were almost more entertaining than the novel itself. Nabokov begins by asserting that his is the first real translation of the book, all those that came before were “paraphrases”, and he spends considerable effort in explaining how a good translation should sound like a translation in order to be faithful to the original text, and how Lermontov was not a very good writer (being largely self-taught and pretty green, too). He then completely goes against this rant and produces a translation that contains fluent if not florid prose, maybe devoid of the usual Nabokovisms you’d find in his own writing, but still very readable. One passage towards the end he footnotes as being a particularly good example of bad writing because it uses the word “separating” twice in the same sentence. We did our usual duelling translations, reading that section aloud to see how different translators handled this supposedly thorny syntax. Nabokov was the only one who didn’t change the verb between the two usages, and he even borrows a couple of alliterative phrases “monotonous murmur” and “misty distance” from one of the same “paraphrases” he just trashed in his introduction. Made you wonder if the whole screed was meant to be a bit tongue in cheek.

If I get ambitious, I can go on a little more tomorrow about “A Hero of our Time” and how it reaches back to 20 years ago this month when I read it as part of the class at Tufts where Beth and I first met.

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let’s review

Jul 10, 2006

OK, so what’s been going on since that memorable new year’s in El Paso? I think we can summarize the high points as:

first week of March – went to China
first weekend in May – went to NYC
first weekend in June – went to Philadelphia
first Sunday in July – went to Fitchburg

The gradual downward progression will be apparent to the most casual observer. So let’s start with the most recent.

The first weekend in July is always the Fitchburg Longsjo bike race, which I think claims to be the oldest stage race in the US. I’ve been to days 3 and 4 a couple of times, but never the first two (since they’re during the week). This year it was just day 4, the 55 mile criterium around beautiful downtown Fitchburg. There’s basically no other reason to ever go to Fitchburg, so if you’re not a cycling fan you can safely ignore the city your entire life and not feel as though you’re missing anything.

Jee and his family met up with us at our house and we carpooled together, takes less than an hour to get there, the trick is trying to get around the closed roads to find parking, but a few twists and turns later we could park on the street about 100 yards from the race. The women’s pro race was already going on when we got there, so we caught the last half of that, immediately followed by the men’s pro race, won by some guy I’d never heard of from some team I’m not familiar with. American cycling without Saturn just isn’t the same. Plus now there are more opportunities for US riders in Europe, but these guys are still pretty good.

For being the oldest stage race in the US, the Longsjo classic gives the impression of being run like a small sf convention. There were no programs (unless they were all out), they had copies of the supplement to the local paper that gave some background, but the list of riders in there was alphabetical with no team affiliation or bib numbers, which made it a little hard to follow who was winning as they zipped by 60 times. I recognized a few names, Ivan Dominguez, the Macormack brothers, but most were unknowns, and other than Navigators, most of the teams were unknowns too. These guys must do it for love, since they can’t be making much money at it. The race is not well attended (since who would want to spend a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Fitchburg?), and is officated by two guys who sound exactly the same yelling into microphones non-stop, one from the booth at the finish line and one walking up and down the street. Chloe got a free t-shirt from him. Mostly he was trying to collect donations from the spectators so they could offer a “preme” at 5 laps to go, and they managed to rack up over $1000. There’s real prize money, too, like 50 grand total for the four days among all the races (several amateur categories are also included).

The weather was great, not too hot or humid, the clouds got a little darker towards the very end, but we managed to get out of the city without being trapped by a monsoon like we were a few years ago. We regaled Jee and Donna with our story of trying to leave the city one year in the middle of a biblical deluge as bags of garbage washed down the steep hillside streets. For all we knew, in Fitchburg that was how the trash got picked up all the time.

The kids were bored most of the time, Justin managed to entertain himself coloring with markers. Jee, who’s a bike geek and has lived here for several years, had never heard of Longsjo. It’s not exactly the Tour de France, which has a rest day today, but there’s hardly any other races of note around here these days, Arlington came and went, even the New York race only lasted a couple of years. They could stand to have more publicity and better information, but it’s worth checking out. One of these years I’ll take the days off and see all 4 stages.

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Jul 9, 2006

OK, it’s been six months, I don’t know why. But I do know that with Readercon this past weekend, I feel like writing again all of a sudden. I felt this way last year after Boskone, too, and it lasted maybe a week, let’s see how we do this time.

Guests of honor this time around were China Mieville and James Morrow. Imagine my surprise when I had Mr. Mieville autograph two of his books, only to have him open the first one and discover that he’d already signed it for me. Usually I remember standing in line to get someone’s autograph, but I have no recollection of it whatsoever. Must’ve been a Worldcon, maybe Toronto, maybe Boston, I don’t remember. Fortunately he hadn’t signed the other one.

Programming was a little bit of everything. Geoff Landis did a slide show talk about the planets which should’ve been longer, because he didn’t get through all of them (no thanks to a couple of people in the front row who kept asking two-minute questions). Most of the usual suspects were there, no Delaney, no Jim Kelly, but did see Tom Disch a few times, I’d only seen him briefly once before. Barry Longyear was there, but I didn’t see any of his panels. Someone asked Mieville whether he was influenced by Doctor Who, and he said he hadn’t thought so until he realized recently that what happens to one of the alien races in Perdido Street Station was basically the same thing as happens in The Masque of Mandragora, but I think he’s thinking of the Mandrells in Nightmare of Eden. Same Doctor different episode. I think there’s a paper in there somewhere, “Who References in the work of China Mieville”. He also indicated he was happiest with The Iron Council out of all his novels, which of course is the one I had the most trouble with, it’s probably the most literary, but I thought the literariness caused the story to take a back seat, unlike the first two New Crobuzon books that managed to juggle both equally well. I meant to tell him that I thought he was robbed when The Scar lost to Hominids, but I was distracted by the autograph incident and I’m sure he already knows it anyway.

Memorial guest of honor was Jorge Luis Borges, not an sf writer, but someone who wrote enough in a “magic realism” style to have influenced a vast swath of other sf writers. I picked up an anthology of Borges writings last week, since I’d never read anything by him previously (not good reading group material since he only wrote short stories, and most of them are very short). It’s always fun to read sfnal ideas treated by people outside the field, and Borges spare but evocative prose, given a couple of readings, gives you a sense of awe of what he can accomplish in such a short space, breaking many of the rules of writing. Jeffrey Ford gave the example that new writers are always told “show, don’t tell”, but he said Borges almost always just tells, and gets away with it.

So after reading group Wednesday night, chorale board meeting Thursday night, and then Readercon, this is my first night home in nearly a week. Let’s see if I can keep this blog going for a while. Since I’ve had some time away, I’ve got a few things to talk about, just need the energy to get it down.

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El Paso post mortem

Jan 2, 2006

Back home safe and sound, no thanks to United. As we were driving back from New Mexico on New Year’s Eve, my cellphone went off, and it was an automated message from them saying my flight from Denver to Boston had been cancelled and I had been rebooked on a flight that left 7 hours later than my original flight and arrived 10 hours later, which would put me here shortly after midnight (as the ticket agent had said, “not a lot of options”). So when I got back to the hotel I called the airline and wrangled with the lady on the phone to switching me to a flight on Delta that went through Atlanta and got me here before 5pm, which seemed a reasonable compromise. Still had some anxious moments at the airport to make sure it all happened, but it did, and Delta was right on time and both planes were full, so it was just as well I took care of it right away. No movies, no entertainment of any sort on Delta, but they offer a choice of free snacks, where United has a movie but you have to pay 5 bucks for anything more than trail mix.

So anyway, let me see if I can fill in the rest of the gaps in the trip. I went on ad nauseum about the game the other day, and as I said, getting there was easy. Nate had to make a sidetrip before we left for the stadium to pick up some Immodium after the previous night’s Mexican food, and he said there was another NU fan in line buying sunblock and asking the clerk if SPF30 was the strongest they had. El Paso was having a detrimental effect on the delicate northern constitution of the NU crowd, apparently. Rich wasn’t feeling well either and had his own bottle of Immodium, leading us to wonder why they weren’t the sponsor of the Sun Bowl instead of Vitalis.

Since the game was at 12, none of us ate anything all afternoon. Nate tried out ordering from “dial4snacks”, which was advertising at the game that they would bring your order right to your seats. We got three bottles of soda, and after about 90 minutes there they were. Seems like their business model needs work. The last-minute addition of Adam to the attendees was as a result of a recent trip to Vegas that yielded enough winnings to pay for the plane ticket, but by then all the good flights were spoken for and he could only book a flight that left at 5:15 the day of the game. We’d been telling him all along that he would miss the ending, and sure enough at 3:45 it was time to head for the airport and the game wasn’t near being over (it was about 4:30 before it finally ended). So Daren left to drive him to the airport, down by 11 at the time, but they must have been driving all over the road listening on the radio as we kept trying to come back and then blowing it.

After the debacle was over, the rest of us moseyed back to the car and got back on the highway with little traffic since most people had left well before the end (not realizing there were another 28 points still to be scored). We met up with Daren and eventually worked our way over to the State Line restaurant west of town, which is not only near the state line, it’s on the state line, such that part of the restaurant is in Texas and part is in New Mexico. Had some really good ribs and maragaritas and such, and we were all totally wiped out by the time dinner was over and crawled back to the hotel and passed out by 11.

Saturday morning was New Year’s Eve and Daren was leaving at the crack of dawn. Nate had to drive back to Albuquerque but still had a couple of hours to kill, so he and I drove across the border to Juarez, Mexico, a huge sprawling city that, from the parts that we saw, appears to be a dump. Pretty much what you would expect Mexico to look like, although I thought being just over the border it’d be a little more dressed up to attract the tourists, but what we went through was just plain seedy. We crossed over the border from US 54, where not only were we not stopped by anyone but it didn’t appear anyone else was either. Just on the other side was the tourist info center, which was closed, on a Saturday morning, with no hours posted (I sound like one of those travel website reviews). Chamizal Park, which runs along that part of the Rio Grande (the so-called “river”, although it’s basically a viaduct that’s barely noticeable), is pretty large and looked nice enough, lots of picnic tables, joggers, etc.

We drove towards downtown and found a couple of major roads and the Cathedral and adjacent market area, where we hopped out to take a couple of pictures. Most of the streets are one-way, many don’t have signs, and there’s little indication of how to get back to the border, and time was running out, but we finally managed to get back to the US side more or less on time. Nate said his farewells and handed me off to Rich and Liz, who had just gone through the nearby scenic drive and were open for suggestions on what to do for the afternoon. Rich wasn’t feeling well, so I offered to drive and we headed north into New Mexico.

The goal was to check out the White Sands National Monument, about 2 hours north of El Paso. Not far down the road from there is White Sands Missile Range, which has an outdoor missile park and a museum. The museum was closed for some reason, but we checked out the park, which is inside the grounds and you have to go through security and have your id checked and everything. Being New Year’s Eve, nothing much was going on otherwise there. Saw another NU group there who thought it appropriate after the previous day’s game to go look at missiles. Although it’s not quite Wyoming-barren, it’s still pretty empty there, and miles from anywhere (Las Cruces and Alamagordo are each about 30 miles away in opposite directions). The mountains in the distance give some sense of scale and if anything make you feel even more alone.

Back in the car, we drove the rest of the way to the actual White Sands, which for some reason is a national monument rather than a national park, but it seems like a park, complete with hiking trails and picnic tables, in spite of the fact that it’s basically a white sand desert in the middle of New Mexico. Much like the Badlands in South Dakota, you drive along for miles through normal geography and suddenly the landscape changes dramatically. Along the sides of the road are dunes with a fair amount of vegetation growing out of them, but if you drive well into the park, the plants disappear and there’s just the dunes, many of them 20 or 30 feet high, looking pretty much just like snow. They even have to plow the roads to keep them clear, and you can rent snowboards and go sledding on the dunes, which gives you a sense of the size and permanence of the landscape in that the park service isn’t worried about people being able to trash them, as long as you don’t go driving over them. We spent a couple of hours there, it was a little overcast, but fortunately not windy like it was at the missile range.

It was after 3 and we still hadn’t had lunch, so we continued on a few more miles to Alamagordo, which is a wide space in the road alongside the mountains with a sunset strip that contained every fast food restaurant in existence, so we grabbed a sandwich and then headed back due south to El Paso, arriving back in town around 6, just after it got dark. Being New Year’s Eve and all, we figured on regrouping at our various hotels and then going out to eat, but it didn’t happen, Rich and Liz were both too trashed, so they blew me off and I ended up getting some takeout from the Long John Silvers next door and watching tv in the room for a couple of hours before turning in just after midnight eastern time so I could have all my wits about me for my alternate travel plans the following day.

El Paso was a nice enough town, Liz kept describing the area as a “hardscrabble existence”, but it was pretty well kept up, not much of a downtown area so you didn’t get the sense of the football game taking over the city, although technically it probably did, even moreso than San Antonio, since the Sun Bowl has been there for so long. It’s also the only game in town for a large chunk of that part of the country, a city of 500,000 (although it doesn’t seem nearly that big), the nearest city of similar size is probably Tucson, 300 miles to the west. It’s out of the way location made it an expensive city to get to, but once you were there everything else (restaurants, hotels, etc.) was comparatively cheap. And it was just as well the game in December, since in June, July and August, the average temperature is 95 degrees. No amount of sunblock and Immodium would help you then.

So next year we may be back, or we may be somewhere else (the ‘Cats haven’t been to the Music City Bowl or Outback Bowl yet), or it may be a rebuilding year since Basanez is finally graduating (already has, I believe). But regardless of the location, or the opponent, or whether it’s in a red state or not, I would highly recommend the experience. At least until we win one, then we’ll talk.

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Happy New Year!

Jan 1, 2006

I’m punting on finishing up the trip diary tonight, but here’s the pictures I took to cover me for this evening. Too bad there was a big ol’ fingerprint on the lens that I didn’t notice until this evening. Oh, well, it gives an appropriate soft focus to the shots from the game.

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Losers again…

Dec 31, 2005

As we were walking towards the stadium yesterday morning, I threw out the question, “So what if we do win? What happens, do we keep going to these things, or do we stop?” Well, it’s a quandary that can wait at least one more year, since the Wildcats were unable to overcome a variety of deficiencies on both sides and lost their 5th bowl game of the last 10 years.

This was probably the wildest one of the bunch, when the ‘Cats took an early 22-0 lead, capitalizing on 3 straight interceptions in the first quarter from the UCLA quarterback who’d only thrown 3 others all season. But Rich prophetically said it would be tied by halftime, and he was correct, as the defense went to sleep in the second quarter and allowed huge plays on ground in rapid succession. The Wildcats defnese the other 3 quarters was pretty solid, but in spite of their repeated efforts at stopping the UCLA offense, the Wildcats couldn’t get anything going until late in the game. Down by 11 with less than 4 minutes in the game, there was still every reason to believe that the offense would suddenly come to life, and sure enough they drove down the field for a touchdown, but on the ensuing onside kick the Bruins special teams took the ball and ran it in unmolested for a score of their own. So we got the ball back and did it again, and kicked another onside kick, which was returned again by the same guy for another special teams touchdown, and the game was over.

I didn’t go to the Motor City Bowl two years ago, so my last bowl experience was in 2000 at San Antonio, where we never had a chance and we were never in the game after the first quarter. I think the Wildcat fans have increased their expectations since then, and while very appreciative when things were going our way, they were less inclined to be forgiving of questionable play calling or broken plays. Nestled between Smith and Cohen, I got a running commentary on what Walker was doing wrong, and it does seem that in the big games he goes a little conservative. Basanez did not have an all-star performance, but he threw 70 passes and more than a few of them just bounced off the numbers of the receivers for no apparent reason.

So all the locals who showed up were treated to quite the performance, and while UCLA looked foolish in the first quarter they pulled things together and played consistently the rest of the game, keeping things interesting with a couple of stupid penalties on the last two NU drives that kept the Cats in the game longer than they should have. The Wildcats on the other hand looked formidable in the first quarter but then fell apart in the second, and while they evened things out in the second half those onside kicks were the deathstroke. People on both sides of the field could only laugh at the last one that clinched the deal and sent us back to the rental cars, pondering where we will next be witness to thrills, chills and cold harsh reality of Wildcat football.

Getting to the game yesterday morning was easily accomplished, and we arrived early enough that parking wasn’t a problem (and it was free). We were inside before 11am, and for pre-game festivities they had a few army guys parachute onto the field, and halftime act Diamond Rio played a twangy country song that featured the word “bible” in the first stanza, which amused the NU fans around us and I would imagine brought a similar reaction from the UCLA crowd.

Off to breakfast now, I fill in the rest of the details later.

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