Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Und Brodvay

We made a quick trip to New York City (NYC) along with my daughter. It was put together by Arts & Culture Tours, and this was the third time we have gone with company ran by a local businesswoman. She doesn’t run those single day “red eye” bus trips—her trips arrive in NYC early in the morning and leave in the evening of the second day, giving you two days and one overnight in a Times Square hotel. [To all my friends in the NYC area, I hope to come back and visit sometime on my own when I am not so.]

We had decided to head for the south end of Manhattan on our first day. It got started with a car accident while we were waiting to cross a street. A driver gashed the side of his nice new Ford Taurus against the back corner of a delivery truck—a typical event in NYC, but a bad start to his day!

Part of our journey south was to see the new High Line Park on the lower west side of Manhattan. A long thin public park was created on the elevated railroad tracks that once delivered freight and goods. It provides a unique perspective on the city, and we really enjoyed our stroll there (see picture).

Unfortunately, the High Line comes to an end, and we had to head back down to the streets and sidewalks. I convinced them to hike another mile or two towards the World Trade Center (WTC) site. I’ve always enjoyed walking in NYC, no matter what the neighborhood. I can always find interesting architecture or bits of history or just enjoy people watching. As it turns out, it may have been better to catch the subway to get further down the island, because there wasn’t a lot of interesting sights—the UPS freight terminal may have been the highlight, which gives you an idea of how non-descript the hike turned out. We made it to the WTC, but found out that you needed advance tickets to get into the new park area. It is surrounded with walls to prevent you from even looking into the area. At least we could see the new Freedom Tower rising up to replace the WTC towers, and feel the vibes from this sacred site.

Anna and I aren’t shoppers, but since we were in the neighborhood, we let my daughter make a quick run through the famous Century 21 store near the WTC area. We didn’t buy anything, but at least she can say she was there.

We walked by Zuccotti Park, which has served as ground zero for the Occupy Wall Street movement. If our trip had occurred earlier, it would have bustling with protestors. However, a few days earlier, the NYPD had cracked down on the occupation, including taking all tents. There were only a few dozen protestors still there now, including one holding a sign that read “Mayor Bloomberg, I want my stuff back!” The love of “stuff” sounded to me to be a bit capitalistic for a movement some want to categorize as communistic.

There were also a lot of older guys, some playing guitars, who probably demonstrated against the Vietnam War. The most creative were the guys walking around on stilts, but wearing full length pinstripe banker suits. They were talking about how the rich consider themselves to be the “big guys” and who trivialize the little people. A girl was also passing out copies of the “Occupied Wall Street Journal” which I picked up to get a clearer picture of their purpose. One of the problems with this movement is that it lost its way with too many stated desires. If the goal had been to break up the big banks so that they would no longer be too big to fail (and thus avoid the need for taxpayers to bail them out again in the future), then I could have supported this idea. However, I have no interest in “forgiving all debt” or other crazy ideas that seemed to have latched onto the Occupy movement.

We walked on from the police state atmosphere around Zuccotti Park to the big bronze bull that serves as a symbol for nearby Wall Street—which was surrounded by temporary fencing and protected by policeman. Just beyond was the old U.S. Customs House, which also serves as a part of the Smithsonian Institution, as the Museum of the American Indian. We went in and took a quick look around, since it was free. We decided against doing the Staten Island Ferry and the South Street Seaport area as originally planned, and instead hopped on the subway for a late lunch at Katz’s Deli.

Opened in 1888, Katz’s has been a NYC favorite for a long time. It was made famous in the movie “When Harry Met Sally” (Meg Ryan’s most memorable scene). The food was fantastic—I had a pastrami sandwich and matzo ball soup. The walls are filled with pictures of famous people eating there over the years. The clientele was a nice mix of locals as well as tourists. It was a wonderful NYC experience, made possible by my daughter’s ability to navigate the NYC subway system. I’m very proud that my adult daughter is so confident and independent, and smart enough to handle herself in the big city.

By the way, other food highlights during our visit included Murray’s Bagels (we had seen it on the food channel), Bubba Gump shrimp, green tea smoothies from Jamba Juice (we liked the Saturday Night Live sketch about Jamba Juice), and Chop’t salad restaurant (another favorite that I first discovered in DC).

On Friday night, we had tickets to see Blue Man Group (BMG). Anna and I had seen them six years ago in NYC with some friends, and were so impressed we went to see BMG in Chicago a year or so later as well. I knew that the intellectual humor and artistic creativity (both musical and visual artistry) would appeal to my daughter, but it is very difficult to explain BMG to someone who hasn’t seen them. You have to see and experience their show, so we took her—and she loved them! It was great fun to see them in action again.

My daughter’s BMG experience also provided her with her first NYC taxicab ride. We were hoping to find the “Cash Cab” from the cable TV trivia show, but weren’t lucky enough (if I do say so myself, I think we would have done well). She did get to experience the rapid acceleration, last minute braking, and lane splitting that is common to NYC taxis. We finished the first day by walking over to Rockefeller Center and watching the ice skaters (as well as the folks camping out overnight in the cold to get SNL tickets).

For the second day, we decided to go our separate ways. My daughter had the day to herself for shopping and whatever, while Anna and I got tickets to a matinee show. We were extremely fortunate to get half-price tickets to a play we really wanted to see (more on this later). We then wandered the general area, including visiting the New York Public Library, which is a very interesting building.

The play we attended was “The Mountaintop” starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett as Dr. Martin Luther King and an employee of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The play takes place entirely within the motel room after King had delivered his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, shortly before his assassination. It is a compelling and powerful play—probably the most gripping stage experience I have ever had. I’m still mulling it over in my mind, 24 hours later (as a great show should do). We had high expectations, and it exceeded them. Without giving away the story, I highly recommend this show! Wow!

Finally, since we spent the night and most of our time around the Broadway area, I decided to entitle this essay “On Broadway.” However, perhaps some of my friends who are my age and older will recognize the German accent I put on the title. Watching TV in the ‘60s included an iconic public service announcement for a charity called “Radio Free Europe” (RFE). During the Cold War era, RFE funded special radio stations to broadcast beyond the Iron Curtain, giving those living under Communist rule a chance to hear “the real news” as well as Western entertainment. The commercial involved a young man heading through some European town, to start his shift at the radio station where he worked, while the narrator explains the important work of RFE. The commercial closed with the radio deejay putting a record on the turntable, while speaking some sort of German gibberish that we could not understand, until he got to the end and gave the song title he was playing. With his accent, the song “On Broadway” sounded to me like “Und Brodvay” and I often remember that German pronunciation whenever I hear the beginning of that 1963 hit for The Drifters. “They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway…”

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A West Virginia Shootin' Match

Yesterday I attended the WVU Rifle Team shooting match against the Rebels of the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). Many West Virginians are justifiably proud of the WVU Rifle Team, even though they don’t really understand the sport or attend the competitions. It just seems appropriate that West Virginians, many of whom love hunting and guns, should be good at rifle shooting. After all, our mascot fires his rifle at every game (hopefully many times!).

There is another reason why West Virginians love the rifle team—it is the only WVU team to win a national championship, and they have done so 14 times (most recently in 2009, but so far they are doing quite well this season). Although their matches are not well attended, we are quick to brag about their multiple championships.

I had time yesterday to observe part of their match against Ole Miss. The match started at 8:00 and runs all day long, so I spent about an hour Saturday morning supporting the Mountaineers, before heading back to join Anna for the first half of the WVU-Cincinnati football game (I listened to the second half on my radio headphones from inside the Coliseum, cheering on the WVU Volleyball team).

The shooting range is located within the “Shell Building” next to the Coliseum. The Shell Building also houses the natatorium where the swimming and diving meets are held. [I got to watch some of the pre-meet practice activities at the pool, because the WVU Swim Team was hosting Villanova and Cincinnati at noon yesterday, too.]

To see a rifle match, you go into a room that has glass windows allowing one to see the shooting range. However, the seats all face a different direction—the main focus of attention is an overhead projection of the targets, which are all electronically scored. The knowledgeable fans prefer to watch the results of the electronic target scoring, rather than the actual shooting itself. Being a “rookie,” I preferred watching through the window at my left, where the actual shooting takes place. There were many interesting tidbits I observed.

First, they are not shooting your basic hunting rifles. They use very specialized competition guns (Anschutz?) that have probably never trampled through the West Virginia woods. I bet they are delicately balanced, with exotic scopes. During the hour I was there, it was the air gun competition (shooting pellets, not BBs). You could hear the “plinks” of the pellets hitting the target.

At each shooting station, there was a stand that included a laptop computer, which provided the same visual representation of the target and the shots that the crowd was watching. The shooter could get real-time feedback of how they were doing. This stand also held their Gatorade bottles—they are athletes, after all.

The uniforms they wear were unusual, but specialized for their purpose. In order to help them stand still and aim as accurately as possible, they wear a heavy, stiff, leather outfit—perhaps better termed as an exoskeleton. There are numerous zippers (including a major one down the back of each of the legs) which had to be unzipped just to sit down. I noticed a few of them took a few steps looking like Frankenstein with their stiff-legged walking before they unzipped their legs.

I noticed that a few of the shooters had tape measures stretched out on the floor, and were used to ensure that the shooter placed his or her (one of the WVU shooters and many of the Ole Miss shooters are female) feet in exactly the right spot. They also wear unusual shoes, which seemed a bit squared off in the front. The soles were thin with little support (more like slippers), because they aren’t doing any running in them.

It may be a team sport, but the competition is very much individualized. Others are on the shooting range at the same time, but the shooters seem to be intensely concentrating on their own performance. The hour or so I was there, the shooters would shoot for a while, then lay their guns on the stand, unbutton their stiff jackets, unzip the back of their pants legs, and then sit down in a chair behind the shooting station and chill out for a while. One girl I noticed got out her iPod and listened to MP3s as she took a break. Then, whenever they were ready, they would get back and resume shooting. I was only there for a short time of their all-day event, so I don’t know what “the whole shooting match” entailed. It is obvious that they must have laser-like concentration, so taking a break every now and then must help.

When I left, the white board to the right of the seating area, where a running score of the points were being kept, showed the Mountaineers were winning. As it turns out, they lost the air rifle competition by one point (2348-2349), but won the small bore competition that afternoon by a large margin. The victory allowed the Mountaineers to continue their unbeaten streak so far this year. Might we see a 15th national championship at the end of this season?

I can now count the Rifle Team among the WVU sports I have supported, after spending some time watching their match yesterday. It really isn’t a great sport for spectators, but the WVU Rifle Team deserves our support. I’m glad I finally got to see them in action. [For more information, check out this article --]

Sunday, November 6, 2011

110% in Athens

A combination of a popular YouTube video as well as old-fashioned newspaper advertising finally convinced me to attend a football game at Ohio University last Wednesday. It is only a little more than a half-hour drive west of Parkersburg, and reminds me a lot of Morgantown—a large state university in a small town. I’ve always enjoyed going to Athens for various college events, the bike trail, the film festival, ice skating and hockey games, the interesting variety of stores and restaurants, etc. Years ago, WVU used to play them in basketball, so I’ve seen games in the Convocation Center (the OU version of the WVU Coliseum). Anna and I even attended the famous Halloween celebration in Athens one year. However, in all my years I had never attended a football game.

I had always heard the Ohio University band—the Marching 110—was supposedly fantastic. Recently, several Facebook friends had posted a video of the band that had gone viral (meaning that it spread rapidly, not that it had embedded malware). With Parkersburg newspaper ads touting the Bobcats mid-week ESPN game against Temple University, along with a beautiful weather forecast, I decided to go. Tickets were only $15 (or I could have opted for a $20 deal that advertised a long-sleeve “blackout” special t-shirt, scarf, and inflatable “thunder sticks”). Doing some on-line research, I found designated parking areas for just $5.

After parking and getting my ticket, I hiked towards downtown, past Maya Lin’s (the designer of the Vietnam Memorial who grew up in Athens) rendition of an earthwork computer card, behind the OU swimming pool building (with the fragrance of chlorine in the air), and around Bird Arena (home of the OU Hockey Team) to the new student union building. I love student unions, even at schools I never attended. You can get a real feel for the campus just from reading the bulletin boards, to see what events are occurring. I was sorry to see that I had missed a recent Mary Chapin Carpenter concert. I also regretted that I wouldn’t be able to attend an upcoming Physics and Astronomy Department open house, among many other interesting activities.

I headed into downtown, and walked the entire main drag, trying to decide where I would eat dinner. I finally decided on Chipotle, a national chain that tries to serve healthier Mexican food. I sat in their sidewalk seating and watched the world go by (Athens has a very cosmopolitan population, with many international students). After eating, I walked back towards the stadium, with the warm glow of the setting sun, and the crisp crunch of autumn’s leaves beneath my feet—a good night for football!

Before entering the stadium, I walked around the outside, checking out their “Tail-Great Park” with an inflatable playground, face painting, cornhole games, pep band, radio broadcasting, etc. On the other side of the stadium, they have a roped off area for their students to enjoy their pre-game. It was fun watching them applying black body paint to shirtless guys (the game had been designated as a “blackout” game, and fans were encouraged to wear black), and painting various letters to spell out ESPN, or Bobcats, or whatever. The football team was also wearing special black uniforms for this game. The national TV coverage had everyone jacked up for this game.

I finally entered the stadium, but first walked all around the interior perimeter. I got a close-up look at the brass cannon (Civil War vintage?) that ROTC students keep near the corner of the end zone towards the town. They fire it at the kickoff and for every Bobcat score, a bit like the Mountaineer and his musket. The opposite end zone (toward the river) features a grassy knoll, reminding me of the hill in Morgantown where I watched games back in the Ollie Luck/Jeff Hostetler days (it was the end zone towards the hospital where the luxury boxes now stand). There is also a giant inflatable bobcat head (kind of like the old inflatable WVU football helmet) that the team runs through when entering the field. I got to walk through the inflatable bobcat head during my stroll around the stadium—things are much more accessible in this smaller stadium.

Once in my seat, I watched the teams finish their pre-game warm-ups while the band began assembling for their pre-game performance. As the players prepared to leave, as most teams I’ve seen do, they all huddled up together to share some inspirational words and build the team spirit. However, what I found interesting was that the Marching 110 ran onto the field and joined them in that team huddle—what a nice touch to see the band as part of the team! The players then went back to their locker room while the band performed some preliminary songs, and then the alma mater and national anthem. The public address announcer refers to them as “the most exciting band in the land”—a catch phrase similar to our “the Pride of West Virginia” for our WVU band.

The band then created an alley for the team to run across the field to their sidelines, which (unlike Morgantown) are located across from the pressbox on the student side of the field. To my surprise, students were streaming onto the field—they allow students to help form the gauntlet for the team to run through while entering the field. The Bobcat mascot, riding a brand new Harley Davidson motorcycle from a local dealer, led the team onto the field, and proceeded to make a lap revving that v-twin engine for all to hear.

There were several interesting activities that took place during long timeouts. My favorite was also the simplest—about a dozen pairs of guys lined up on the goal line, for a “wheelbarrow race.” One guy in front walked on his hands, while his partner stood up holding the handwalker’s feet. They had to race out to the 20 yard line, before switching positions and race back to the goal line. What made it especially funny for me was the public address system blaring “Yakkity Sax” (the Benny Hill theme song).

Another activity was a punt, pass, and kick competition (the NFL used to push their PPK competitions for kids when I was young), where one person was selected to start at one goal line with a punt, then where it landed he got to throw a pass, and then where it landed he could go for a field goal. The person chosen that night did very well on the punt and pass, leaving only a chip shot field goal. The crowd was excited because he had made it so far down the field, but he missed the field goal.

Finally, another neat activity was a couple of giant transparent inflatable balls, big enough to put a person inside. Two contestants were chosen to start on one sideline, race to mid-field, and then back, while running inside like hamsters. It was fun to watch (especially when they fell down inside).

Speaking of fun to watch, the half-time performance of the Marching 110 was well worth the trip. This band is into fancy stepping/shucking and jiving/swaying and sashaying across the field. They will even lay down their instruments (as well as throw them back and forth) and do some intricate dance routines. Their lines are crisp and their sound is accurate. This is not a huge band like WVU’s, so the sound is not overpowering, but it is definitely a fun band to watch. They played a lot of contemporary songs that the student section liked, by performers such as Avril Lavigne, Usher, and LMFAO. I can see how over the years, without a lot of success by the football team, the band became the showcase of game day, and very popular with the fans. [By the way, while it may have meant the total members at one time, the number 110 now refers to putting 110% into their performance, and is not the total number of members in the band.]

The game itself was fun to watch as well. There were some big plays and some trick plays, making it fun to watch. I left at the start of the fourth quarter (it was a work night, after all) and listened to the end of the game on the radio as I drove home. The Bobcats ended up beating Temple in the closing minute to win 35-31. I had so much fun, maybe I should go back on Nov. 22 for a Tuesday night game against their rival, Miami of Ohio. The athletic department, led by Jim Schaus (former Mountaineer athletic director Fred Schaus’ son) is doing a good job of marketing. I’ll wait and see what the weather is like—because with Ohio University, I’m allowed to be a fair weather fan, unlike West Virginia University, which runs deep through my veins, whether winning or losing, in good weather or bad. Go Mountaineers! And Go Bobcats, too!