Tuesday, January 31, 2006

GW Basketball a Top 10 hit

For the first time since the 1950s, George Washington University men's basketball is ranked in the Top 10 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll and by the Associated Press. And while most of the Colonials 16 wins have come against vastly inferior competition, the ranking is well-deserved. GW has two eight-game win streaks sandwiched around its only loss, at #18 NC State. The first streak included #17 Maryland and a bunch of nobodies like Kennesaw State, Morgan State, and University of Maryland Eastern Shore, but the second stretch includes road wins at Temple, Marshall and Charlotte, and most recently, a dominant second-half performance to put away Atlantic 10 upstart Rhode Island.

The speed at which GW plays must be seen in person to be properly appreciated. Coach Karl Hobbs has settled into an eight-man rotation of players who can terrorize opposing offenses, forcing more than 18 turnovers per game. Five players average double figures in scoring and none play more than 32 minutes. That kind of balance and depth make it very difficult for teams to focus on stopping one or two players.

The loss in Raleigh was also the first game for LSU transfer Regis Koundjia, who became eligible at the end of the first semester. Koundjia, a 6-8 forward, has become a key reserve, averaging six points in 16 minutes since his debut. His transition into the lineup made a good team even better.

The Colonials' weak schedule will hurt their seeding in the NCAA Tournament. But, wherever they end up, don't be afraid to pick them to get to the Final Four.

Billion Dollar Bobby

SpongeBob SquarePants has reached cartoon character superstardom. Annual retail sales of SpongeBob-related merchandise have reached $1 billion according to this Baltimore Sun article by Andrea Walker. Walker tries to divine the source of this interest but can only get testimony from academics and executives who use words like "amazing" and "amazingly" to describe his appeal.

But has the little yella fella peaked? Hot Topic, the trendy retailer responsible for those charming t-shirts seen on teens at your local mall food court, once carried 250 SpongeBob products; now, it has none. Only time will tell if SpongeBob can stay in the game like Mickey and Pooh ($5 billion annually each) or will have to wait for the future's version of ebay to make him a hot vintage collectible. Hmmm, maybe I should save that SpongeBob toothpaste my kids won't use anymore.

Virgin beats Wedding

I finally got around to seeing last summer's two comedy blockbusters, and I know that "Wedding Crashers" had nearly double the box office of "The 40-Year Old Virgin," but I thought "Virgin" was much better. Not just funnier, which it was, but a better movie period. Plot, acting, humor, overall just better.

The first strike against "Wedding Crashers" was high expectations. This is the downfall of so many movies, but it is also the great thing about watching it on DVD. If my wife and I see a movie in the theater, we are making an investment of 2-3 hours and about $70 (tickets, concessions, babysitter); usually we will also have dinner, so there goes another 2 hours for the sitter and whatever dinner costs. The emotional investment is even more substantial; since we don't get out much without the kids, we need to have a quality experience. That's why we make such an effort to schedule these things. When the movie or the dinner is disappointing, it taints the whole evening. If both are bad, I find myself hoping that everything went okay at home with the sitter, because, you know, three strikes and you're out. But if you rent a movie, your risk is much lower. If it stinks, you're out five bucks and a few hours. You turn the TV off and hit the sack; or, in my wife's case, you fall asleep and get to hear how bad it was the next day. No great loss.

And now back to the movie. Critical acclaim and word of mouth set the bar very high for "Wedding Crashers", and I will always give any movie with Vince Vaughn a chance. He may never approach the brilliance of "Swingers," but we can all hope. I'm not as big a fan of Owen Wilson as an actor (great in "Meet the Parents," though), but it's hard not to like a guy with his producer credentials ("Rushmore", "As Good as it Gets").

The initial premise of the movie was clever and original, and I always like being dropped into the middle of a plot, without getting all the backstory. That allows me to see the subplots that emerge later without feeling like I am getting clubbed over the head. The execution of the premise was also well done as we see our heroes ply their considerable skills and make their champagne-enabled conquests. I have been to weddings on a beach, at a singles camp, in an art museum, and even in a few temples and churches, and the details of the film's ceremonies all rang true. The byplay between Vaughn and Wilson was just as fast and funny as expected and by the time they set sail for the post-wedding weekend at the Cleary estate, the movie was jumping along merrily. At this point, however, the screenwriters threw the creative parts of their brains into park and put the script on autopilot. The only uncertainty from that point on was who would play Chaz: Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller.

We knew that the girl would fall for Wilson and then cut him loose when she learned that he was not exactly who he claimed to be. The relationship between Vaughn and the psycho sister kept the humor going, and his one-sided confessional conversation with the priest was Vaughn at his best.

All the performances were solid. Rachel McAdams was always lit and made up perfectly, and she did a fine job with a two-dimensional character. Christopher Walken was an excellent choice; the thought of him as Secretary of the Treasury might have been the funniest thing about the whole movie. Bradley Cooper as the fiance was the best onscreen boor since Bill Paxton in "Weird Science." Jane Seymour's "shocking" turn as the sex-starved wife was underwhelming.

"Virgin," on the other hand, did not come with such pressure to perform. The concept was not original, so all I really expected was "American Pie" with an older cast. This was a story that could end only one way, but it was very well done and came to a much more satisfying conclusion than "Wedding Crashers" (judge for yourself whether the numerous puns and innuendoes in this review are intentional). Kudos to director Judd Apatow, who cowrote the screenplay with Steve Carell. In less subtle hands, this movie would have been completely over-the-top and below-the-belt, but Apatow showed that he could handle adults on the big screen as well as he managed teens on TV with "Freaks and Geeks."

The predictable plot elements of "Virgin" had enough surprises to hold your interest. Unlike a teen comedy, the protagonist was not sex-crazed. Rather, his urges had been repressed for so long as to be nonexistent. When his coworkers learned that he was a virgin, they made it their mission to get him deflowered. This is typical of the events that made up the plot; I didn't have to suspend my disbelief for too long to accept the twists and turns. For instance, as soon as we learned that Catherine Keener ran a business that sold stuff on ebay, we knew that Carell would make a ton of money selling his childhood treasures. Most movies would let that happen, maybe show a montage of the two of them happily taking and filling orders and laughing as they counted the money. Instead, Carell sold his stuff just to be agreeable, even though he didn't want to, and this caused friction in the relationship leading to the big, blowout fight and breakup that allowed for the inevitable reunion. And it was great that Keener's teenage daughter figured out Carell's status when her mom could not.

Steve Carell gave his character depth and humanity and his performance made the plot believable and funny. Carell was so good in this role that the Daily Show is one more alumnus away from replacing SNL as the farm team for Hollywood hit comedies. Keener gave a great performance as the love interest who didn't know what to make of a guy who actually stuck to the "let's take it slow" plan. The coworkers, an annoyingly racially heterogenous bunch, sometimes rose above stereotype but were funny even when they didn't.

Now, maybe, I would have enjoyed "Wedding Crashers" more if I had seen it in the theaters opening weekend before the hype really took hold. And I doubt that my wife would have let herself be dragged out to see "Virgin" in the theater. But the bottom line is that both of us laughed more and louder at "Virgin," and were actually interested in seeing how it ended.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Mailbag ... it's good!

I sent 4 emails to TK today. Here's the one he read, but first, some context. Last week, he was talking about how much the footage of the Hamas victory in the Palestine elections resembled a championship celebration. The victors wore green-billed baseball caps like those donned by the winning team just after the final buzzer, and he half-expected them to talk in sports cliches about the win.

Dear Mr. Tony,

Thanks for the coverage of the Hamas victory last week. I'm a Hamas alum, but I work with a bunch of Fatah guys and they were talking trash right up to the election. This win means so much to all of us who've had to live in the shadow of all those Fatah jerks for so many years. I can't wait to get my Sports Illustrated Souvenir Hamas Championship DVD.

Phoenix, MD

White Shadow in The Office

I've only seen two episodes of "The Office," but the Christmas party show was such a deadon zing of office "holiday" parties, I'm going to have to start looking for it more often. Anything with a "Daily Show" alum has to be worth at least one look.
And it's always nice to see Ken Howard pop up onscreen as he did on The Office the other night. Just as when I saw him on a "West Wing" that endlessly runs on Bravo or when I took my kids and my horse-crazy wife to see "Dreamer," I said, "Hey, White Shadow!" out loud as soon as he appeared. A quick check of IMDB shows that he's done a lot of TV and movie work since The White Shadow, but never as a lead. That's fine with me since he'll always be the gruff, ex-NBAer whose career-ending knee injury forced him to take charge of the lovable, talented knuckleheads who comprise the Carver High basketball team.

Dan Rodricks

Last June, Dan Rodricks of the Baltimore Sun wrote a column asking the city's drug dealers to help stop the violence that has annually put Baltimore at or near the top of the list of ameirca's deadliest cities. "You can keep selling drugs," he wrote, "Just stop the shooting and the killing that goes with it." His article was criticized as naive and simplistic, but he forged ahead, mounting a one-man campaign to help find jobs and rehab for ex-convicts and former dealers trying to go straight. Columnists are employed to make arguments, to express and defend opinions, and they often include a call to action, but Rodricks has gone way beyond that and deserves to be applauded.

Occasionally, he takes a break from his crusade, as in this recent piece on former pro wrestler, Nikolai Volkoff, real name Josip Nikolai Peruzovic. Retired to suburban Baltimore, Peruzovic may be a candidate for Maryland's House of Delegates this fall. No word on whether the Iron Sheik will join him on the ticket.

Not so Semi-Colon

The Colossal Colon has finally made it to the Greater Baltimore Area. I was going to post this as an item of interest for everyone who so enjoyed seeing Katie Couric's colonoscopy on the Today Show, but I figured she has already plugged it on the air. As a 38-year old man, I know my day is coming, but for now, my favorite part of my annual physical is when my doctor says, "Well, at your age, we don't need to do a rectal exam."

Friday, January 27, 2006

Will Perdue

So Will Perdue thinks that current hiring practices in sports media discriminate against white guys? I don't care if the comment is almost a year old and that he already apologized for it, it's still a ridiculous thing to say. Makes me wish Michael Jordan had punched him instead of Steve Kerr. Then again maybe Perdue is in the wrong line of work and should look into an NFL head coaching gig.

The Great Zucchini

Gene Weingarten writes a regular humor column for the Washington Post magazine, but this lengthy feature about a DC area children's birthday entertainer takes a sudden turn into serious territory. Great read about a fascinating character. You have to click through five pages to finish and the fifth is as long as the first four combined, but it's worth it.

If you liked the article, check out the transcript of Monday's chat with Weingarten and a special appearance by the Zucchini himself.

Registration may be required for these links.

Caribbean Dream

My wife and I returned last Tuesday from a great four-night trip to Providenciales, the most developed island in Turks and Caicos. We have tried to take one of these trips to different places each of the last four years, just to get away without the kids. What follows is an exhaustive review.

The Turks and Caicos Islands are a British Overseas Territory made up of eight islands and about 40 cays or keys located near the Bahamas. Eleven years ago, when we honeymooned in Saint Martin, T&C was not even listed in our Birnbaum's guidebook, but it is a growing tourist destination. We saw numerous resorts, hotels and condo developments under construction while we were there, and apparently a cruise stop is being built.

The flights both ways were good with a few exceptions. Because of schedules (ours, the kids, and the babysitter), we couldn't get a direct flight from BWI, but our layover in Miami was less than an hour. The plane to Providenciales was a jet (737 I think), which was a welcome sight considering the Tinkertoys that we have had to fly in the past (thank you, American Airlines). If not for the excessive flatulence of the passenger next to us, I would give the whole experience an A+. After about a half hour, we moved to the back row, which was technically off limits, but the flight attendants must have been aware of our noxious fellow traveler because they told us we could stay there. You know it's bad when the seats closest to the bathroom have more breathable air. When we arrived at the Provo airport, I saw him having a long discussion with the customs officials. Perhaps they, too, smelled something.

Our flights home had some drama, but none of it was ours. While we were waiting in line to check our bags, my wife smiled at a little girl waiting with her parents and two younger sisters. "She's been sick," her father volunteered cheerfully. "Actually, we all have." Trying to restrain the instinctive urge to move away, my wife smiled again and offered condolences, as our family had been through some of that before we left Baltimore. Naturally, moments later, the little darling vomited into the plastic grocery bag she was carrying, which it turned out, had a few holes in the bottom. I don't think the people around her would have moved any faster if she had pulled out an Uzi. Remaining thoughts of sympathy fell aside as self-preservation took over. Suddenly our greatest concern was not losing our luggage or making our connection, but seat assignment. Would it be worth paying for an upgrade to First Class to avoid this plague?

Fortunately, we were blessed to be seated a good many rows away from the afflicted clan and both flights were quite pleasant. We had a four-hour layover in Miami, but we knew we would be there a while, so we had a very good meal at the airport hotel restaurant and passed the time with some intriguing people-watching. First, we watched a businessman drink an entire bottle of wine with his dinner as the sun set. No phone calls, no paperwork, just a newspaper. He had to be pretty relaxed when he left. When we sat for dinner, I remarked that the best tables, the ones by the window, were full. One couple seated there completely wasted the location by having what looked like a pretty good row. Little was said, but the woman was crying and then quickly stood and stalked off. The guy sat and drank his wine, and after about 10 minutes asked the waiter where the bathrooms were. Shortly thereafter, they both returned and she sat in silence while he ate his meal. These two were on our flight and didn’t appear to have made up by the time we boarded. That had to be a tough 2 ½ hours.

Our transportation from the airport to the Royal West Indies resort hotel was on time and easy to find. It was dark, so the driver, Bradley, couldn't be much of a tour guide, but he did recommend three restaurants, all of which were excellent. The front desk staff was courteous and helpful, reminding us that the kitchen at the restaurant would be closing soon in case we were hungry.

The resort consists of eight three-story buildings, a total of 96 studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments. Ours was an “ocean view” studio and although we were in the building furthest from the beach, we were on the third floor and could see it from our balcony. We also had a small sitting area and a kitchenette with a full-size fridge, microwave and washer and dryer. There was no dishwasher, but the maids would clean any dirty dishes. Great accommodations.

The resort also had two small pools, a Jacuzzi, a restaurant, and staff to assist with water sports and excursions. The grounds were beautifully landscaped and the meandering walkways enhanced the tropical getaway feel, but the “Keep off the Grass” signs seemed a bit heavy-handed. Chairs, towels and umbrellas were available at the pools and beach.

Providenciales is known for the 12-mile long Grace Bay beach, and it is indeed beautiful. The sand, sun and water are just as they appear on the travel brochures and websites. In some places the beach is narrow, and we saw several sunbathers get themselves and their stuff soaked. As I mentioned earlier, there is a good deal of construction taking place, but we did not find that it detracted from our enjoyment of the beach. We had one day that was extremely windy, and the water actually had some strong waves, which I hadn’t seen before in the Caribbean and thoroughly enjoyed. By the next day, the water had calmed enough that we were able to go snorkeling. We tried Coral Gardens, which is a popular snorkeling spot, but we saw a lot more at Smith’s Reef, several miles further down the beach. We walked there from Coral Gardens, but it was a long way especially since we didn’t really know where we were going. There was only one other couple on the beach and nobody else snorkeling, which I found surprising because it was such a nice day.

Our long walk on the beach endured one of those marital moments where your spouse gives you the familiar “what were you thinking” look, and you start to wonder yourself. We’d been walking for about an hour, carrying snorkel equipment, it was warm, our water was running low, and around every turn of the shoreline lay more beach with no sign of snorkelers or the marina. Finally, we headed off the beach on a sandy path, trespassed through an opulent beachfront estate, and we were delivered into the hands of Austin, the proprietor of the Yacht Club at Turtle Cove Marina. Austin graciously pointed out restaurants and directions to the snorkeling spot and neatly nipped an impending spat in the bud.

For our vacation to be a success, we have to find good food. I have been to one all-inclusive resort, and the buffets were fine, but I have always enjoyed searching out good restaurants and never mind paying a little more. Our first full day, we ate breakfast at Mango Reef, the Royal West Indies on-site restaurant and, aside from the surly hostess, had an enjoyable meal. It was expensive, a theme that would be repeated everywhere we went, but we knew that going in. We had good lunches at the Barefoot Cafe, Carter’s Café, but the best lunch was at the Tiki Hut, one of Bradley’s recommended spots. Dinner at the Mango Reef was also good, with delicious appetizers, large entrée portions (too big really), and no rude hostess at night; dessert was just okay. Our second night, we were unable to get a reservation at Anacaona (Sundays are tough because many places are closed), so we headed to the Gecko Grille. It was good, but a step down from Mango Reef. The bar area looked like a Manhattan martini bar, but the outdoor seating lacked ambience. Our server was funny in a quirky way but slow even by island standards. And at dessert, he was replaced by none other than Miss Surly from Mango Reef, who rebuffed my wife’s request for a cappuccino mocha, replying, “Do we have that?” I was actually surprised when she did not reappear as a flight attendant on the trip home.

Dinner on the last night was at Coco Bistro, which was so good it merits its own paragraph. Again, we dined outdoors, but this time the setting – the lighting, landscaping and music- was perfect. I had had enough seafood by then, and the lamb chops were as good any I’ve had at a U.S. restaurant. Our server was terrific, bringing more ice when we needed it for the spicy sangria. The owner was warm and friendly, stopping by each table to chat. Coco Bistro has been there 25 years; as the owner said, “When we opened, the good news, no competition, the bad new, no customers.” This is a great French and Mediterranean restaurant with Caribbean influences that is impressive without trying to be too fancy.

All the restaurants were within walking distance. They are working on sidewalks and repaving the road, so it was dusty and dark at times, but we certainly felt safe and enjoyed being able to walk, especially after the dinners. On our first day, we went to the IGA grocery store to buy breakfast foods and snacks, which saved us some money and allowed us to have breakfast on our balcony each morning.

Getting around the island was easy. We purchased passes for the Gecko, a tour bus/taxi service. There are several Gecko vehicles, ranging from a fairly new coach-style bus to a well-travelled not-so-spacious minivan. The drivers were all polite and helpful. If you are in a hurry or have kids along, you might want to rent a car. Also, if we had been there longer and wanted to explore a little more, we would have rented. The scuba diving and fishing are supposed to be good as well, but I couldn’t say firsthand. Also, there is an 18-hole golf course near Grace Bay. Maybe next time.

All in all it was a great vacation. We have now been to three different Caribbean islands and want to see others, but Turks and Caicos is definitely on the go back someday list.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Mailbag Hit

I will always post when Mr. Tony reads my emails. Tune in to the rebroadcast around 12:45 Eastern Time if you want to hear it. I know I will. Here's the text if you don't get there in time:

Dear Mr. Tony,

Andy said Michelle Kwan's evaluation by Olympic officials will be like a horse workout. If she falls and sprains an ankle, do you think they'll have to shoot her right there on the ice?

Phoenix, MD

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Mr Tony

Today's first topic is another of my writing mentors/influences, Tony Kornheiser. For those who don't know, Mr. Tony writes a sports column for the Washington Post and, along with his Post colleague Michael Wilbon, hosts a show on ESPN called Pardon the Interruption, or PTI. Most importantly, to me anyway, he also has a two-hour radio show broadcast out of Sportstalk 980 WTEM in Washington, DC. He is smart, funny, honest enough to admit when he is wrong and humble enough to make fun of his often inflated ego.

Growing up in the DC area, I read his column regularly and am old enough that when I went to college, I had to go to the library to find actual hard copies of the Post to keep up. Do you remember those long wooden rods that had the newspaper threaded through them? It took some effort to find those columns in preInternet times. Then again, if I had unlimited Internet access in college, I probably would have flunked out. Nearly did without it.

Mr. Tony's radio show is a mix of sports and pop culture with some politics or other matters creeping in as he is inclined. I had always enjoyed the radio show as time and work permitted since its debut in the late '90s, but I became an obsessed listener when I left my job to work as a freelance writer in March, 2004. The show went off the air that spring due to Kornheiser's conflicts with ESPN Radio management, but resurfaced as a local program in the fall.

The last segment of the show is "Mr. Tony's Mailbag," where he reads emails from listeners. Sometimes he comments on them, particularly if he feels he needs to set the record or the emailer straight. One day, I took the bait (I'm supposed to be a writer, right?) and sent an email. Not only did he read it, he said, "That's funny." This simple transaction sent my obsession into overdrive. I became a fanatical emailer, sending several a day, listening intently to see if my submission would make the cut. The show airs from 9:00 to 11:00 am and is repeated from 11 to 1, and I would listen to hear my email twice or sometimes listen again to see if somehow I had missed it. Once I called the station from a golf course and asked them to leave me on hold so I could see if I got on the air.

In a way, it's pathetic, but in another way it's encouraging and validating. If a guy whose work I enjoy and admire thinks that something I wrote is good enough to fill some time on his radio show, I feel like I might actually be able to write for a living. It hasn't worked out that way just yet, but it feels like a step in the right direction. So if you tune in to hear Mr. Tony, be sure to listen for any emails from "Bill in Phoenix, Maryland."

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Blog Launch

For my first post, I selected something I wrote a little over a year ago. I consider it to be part appreciation, part manifesto, and a good place to start.

Larry Brown is dead and I don't feel so good either (apologies to Lewis Grizzard, also deceased)

The news coming out of my radio Thanksgiving morning made me gasp.

"Larry Brown," intoned the NPR news announcer, and I smiled, anticipating an in-depth story about one of my favorite writers. Something to strip the saccharine coating off the holidays. Perhaps a brief tale of a hard-luck Thanksgiving with a protagonist more likely to overindulge in Wild Turkey than turkey and pumpkin pie.

"Is dead," the announcer finished.

This one really hurts. I bought a copy of Brown’s first novel, Dirty Work, on a whim, shortly after it was published. I read it straight through and wanted more after it was done. So I read it again. I scarfed down his short story collections and novels as they came out. I was just reading a collection of his essays when he died.

Brown became revered in critical and literary circles, but he never reached the mass market, the New York Times Bestseller crowd. That was fine with me because I preferred to keep him as a private pleasure. I loved talking about him with people who had never heard of him, the way that music snobs will tell you about the great band they saw in a tiny club or the latest rare or bootleg CD they acquired.

Those who knew Larry Brown personally certainly have a lot more to mourn than I do, but I can't help feeling that the world, my world, has lost a big chunk of its reading future. Not only was he a great writer, but the story of how he reached success is an inspiration to all would-be writers. With no extensive formal education, no contacts in the publishing world, he worked several jobs, but decided to try to make a living as a writer. So he sat down at a typewriter and wrote.

Dirty Work was not actually his first novel, just the first that was published. He wrote five novels before Easyriders magazine accepted one of his short stories. Not exactly the Paris Review, but Brown’s characters probably felt more at home in the pages of a biker magazine anyway. Five novels rejected, and he kept at it, although he did burn one of his manuscripts in his backyard.

One of the things that I most liked about Larry Brown was the respect he showed for his characters. Many of them were despicable, but they were believable because Brown never shied away from letting the best and worst in their nature come to light through their actions. I learned never to get too attached to them because they often died in sudden and violent events, exactly the way that death comes to so many in real life. He was as committed to them as he was to his craft.

For anyone who ever dreamed of being a writer, Brown stands as a testament that the dream can be realized, but it may require almost unthinkable dedication and perseverance. I want to be a writer. I left my job and have spent nearly a year networking, marketing myself and occasionally pecking away at an essay or short story idea, but I haven't finished anything that I thought was good enough to send out. Sometimes I think that I should be a lot further along than I am, but Larry Brown’s example makes me realize that I have much, much more writing to do before I can claim to be a failure. I don't know if I will become a successful writer, but it's time to make the commitment, to sit down and find out.