Sunday, March 30, 2008

Down to Four

And so there are four.

If you're like me, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

The Final Four. The NCAA men's basketball tournament. The semifinals of the grandest free-f0r-all in present day sports.

The All-American version of the World Cup (which for my money remains the grandest spectacle in athletics).

For two consecutive weekends, I have been glued to the television watching basketball. Some games were boring, some riveting. Some teams overmatched, some hopeless underdogs, some even matchups, some so-called Cinderellas.

And then there's Davidson. The tiniest Division I school in the tournament, I'm told (based on undergraduate student enrollment). A team that captivated audiences nationwide during its improbable run to the quarterfinals. And the team then came within one shot of beating mighty Kansas this evening to crash the semifinals.

It was a sublime game played by a sublime team with a sublime coach. Magnificent.

Davidson plays basketball the way we snobbish purists like it played. A minimum of tear-down-the-backboard dunks and a maximum of back-door cuts and layups. Intricate, thoughtful offensive sets. A team on which the players know each other, can read each other and plays together. A team in which individuals play selflessly, an all-for-one effort to win. A team in which the players know their roles and play within their limits, rather than a collection of uber-athletes who seem to showcase their talents for the NBA.

A team that defies the modern era of showmanship over fundamentals, style over execution, flash and pizazz over simplicity and substance.

My kind of team.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Davidson's run through the tournament, and chances are, their play is what I will remember about this year's competition. So many of the other games have been boring, rag-tag affairs of athletic showboating that borders on streetball. Not my kind of basketball. Hell, maybe I'm just old fashioned that way.

So, Davidson is gone. The four top seeds from each region remain. I like Carolina over Kansas, betting on the Tar Heels' depth and a healthy dollop of Hansbrough to carry them through. I like UCLA over Memphis, betting on superior team play and tournament experience to carry the Bruins through. In the final, I like Carolina for the same reasons as their edge in the semifinals. I don't think Hansbrough will be denied. It's his year, he's good enough and has a fine supporting cast to lift UNC to the title.

Not to sound immodest, but that scenario would match my prediction from the outset. That won't be enough to rescue me in the family pool (again, sigh), but it certainly restores some of my dignity of years past.

And now a word from your local stations. Boy, I can't stand when Greg Gumbel tells us that. Who does he think he's kidding? These are commercials, and national ones at that. The same ones, played over and over and over. Oy vey. It just numbs the brain, turns that electrically charged gray mass into a vegetative pulp.

So, can someone please tell me why Subway honors the former fatboy named Jared for 10 years of eating its sandwiches? Is there anyone out there who even cares a whit that Jared eats Subway, and that he lost his weight eating nothing but their sandwiches?

Can someone please tell me why Charles Schwab advertisements feature animated figures who look eerily like real people? Here's one on the golf course, here's another lounging on a balcony with what looks like Monte Carlo in the background. Why not just use people, rather than these odd silhouettes that look everything like a person? I don't get it.

It hurts that REM sold out on its song "Superman" for a Toyota truck commercial. And it's not just that, it's a Toyota truck ad in which a bunch of preppies blow up an inflatable ball, jump in it and go rolling down a hill straight out of the Sound of Music. What a waste of a terrific song. Shame on one of my all-time favorites groups.

But the commercials weren't all bad. I loved the AT&T ad featuring Chuck playing Pop-A-Shot at some dive bar and whining that his cell phone has no reception. The line "Chuck is an idiot" is classic.

And then there's Sven. I'll be darned if I know what he's selling, and really I don't care. I'm just too mesmerized by his Scandinavian precision and accent. "Rise and shine, short one, Kung Fu today!" and his delivery of "Bundle up" as he hands out matching heavy white sweaters to the American family he's supervising is hilarious, in a bad au-pere imitation kind of way.

I can deal with more Chucks and Svens next weekend as the Final Four is played. But, please, no more Schwabs, Toyotas or Subways.

Better yet, no more words from my local station.

Yeah, right. Dream on.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


I feel spring.

It's not just that the days are longer and a little warmer. There's more to it that tells me spring has come.

One sure sign that spring has arrived is that the robins have returned. I saw them for the first time more than a week ago hopping in a yard while I was running. A day or so later, I saw three of them hopping on the College Green at Brown. Privileged birds. A day or so after that, I saw one perched high in a tree, chortling away.

Another sure sign that spring has arrived comes from the trees. In the winter, trees hibernate. They are naked, skeletal, exposed. They've pulled the bare essentials inward, as if they're hunkered against the cold. Sometimes I think they're embarrassed to be set so starkly against the weak, pale winter sky. But the spring is their time to shine. The buds pop out, the first threads on a new wardrobe they will exhibit for all to see.

In our garden and others, the first shoots have burst through the soil. They yearn for the light, as if they were stretching after a long nap. They spread and thicken and become more active, sucking up the sunlight and the nutrients in the soil. Hungry, always hungry for more.

Soon, the mating will begin for flora and fauna alike. Salamanders will search for vernal ponds. Birds will mate and build nests. Plants will send spores into the wind.

I will begin sneezing.

But not quite yet. Winter is still hanging on. The juncos in our backyard have yet to leave. Perhaps they are reluctant to leave the daily buffet of bread crumbs, bird seed and occasional cookie crumbs left for them along the fence line. Or perhaps it hasn't gotten warm enough yet. Or perhaps there is some other signal they're waiting for to fly northward. True snowbirds, these ones.

It's still cold here in the morning. Cold enough to see your breath. Cold enough to cause a tingle in your throat when you take in your first breath of the morning. Cold enough that the ground has little give, no spring on the surface. Cold enough to merit a scarf, a ski cap and mittens. Cold enough that it feels better to be indoors rather than outside.

But the seasons, they are a changin'. Very, very soon.

Welcome, spring. It's good to see you again.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Beer and Science

I never thought I'd be writing about a connection between science and beer. But then again, I never thought I'd be walking into the office of a man named Jim Head.

Jim Head is a longtime planetary geologist at Brown. He has been part of every NASA mission in the Apollo program, helping to train the astronauts who brought us the first accounts of our orbiting understudy. He currently is part of the Mercury Messenger mission, which is bringing us the most complete mapping and coverage of the planet ever.

I learned about Head's activities last week as I sat in his office. He graciously had given me time to learn more about the planetary geoscience department at Brown as part of my job as the physical sciences writer.

I also learned that besides planets, Head has an unquenchable fascination with beer. It was impossible not to notice this fact. There were beer bottles on the table in his office where we sat and chatted. There were beer bottles on his desk. On his file cabinets. On his windowsill. I couldn't help but mention this to him.

"That's not the least of it," he said. "Look behind you."

So I did, and when I turned my head I saw an entire wall carved out as a bookcase and lined with beer bottles. From floor to ceiling, five, maybe six rows of shelves that stretched the width of his office, filled with beer bottles.

"They're at least six deep," Head said casually.

My mouth no doubt agape, Head smiled. I think he was happy that I was awed by his collection.

"I used to collect stamps," he said, "but I discovered why collect them when you can collect beer? There's so much more to talk about."

Head began collecting beer bottles when he started hosting a meeting every Friday for those in the department to discuss new developments in their research. He wanted to keep it informal and casual, almost chatty, so he figured the best way to encourage that atmosphere was to bring beer. The idea caught on, and soon people would bring beer from places they visited – whether on vacation, working on a scientific project in the field, attending a conference, whatever. Foreign graduate students would bring beer from their native countries. And so Head's collection grew, not only in number, but in diversity. It was like species richness and abundance of suds.

He showed me his favorites. One was a beer brewed in Rwanda. As Head moved to pop the cap on this prized bottle, his colleague told him that Rwandans were known to add formaldehyde to their beer as a preservative. The cap stayed on that one. Another was a standard green Heineken bottle – except this one had "For Military Use Only" stamped on it.

Looks like the Dutch soldiers prefer their swill to be a cut above Budweiser.

Anyway, I was meeting with Head on a Friday, and he invited me to their gathering later that day. How could I refuse? He promised me beer, and after all, it was all in the name of my learning more about the department, the professors, and the latest in research and news there.

I would be drinking on the job. Legally. Without remorse. And learning.

I did not refuse. And I drank some beer. A Pacifico (Mexico) and an IPA from the Sebago Brewing Co. in Maine. And I did learn some things.

Not a bad way to spend a Friday afternoon.

Something tells me I will return.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Bracketology. What an ugly word. But ugly or not, we will hear this word often.

We'll also hear "The Big Dance," "Bracket Buster," "Upset City," "This year's Cinderella" and other choice phrases uttered this time of year, like the first green shoots of spring. It's all part and parcel of March Madness. Oh, there I go again, another one of those seasonal phrases.

So be it. Let the madness begin. (Oops, I did it again.) No, I haven't filled out my bracket yet, so you'll just have to wait on that. More on that later. I'd like to get back to Bracketology. What is this, exactly? I heard a sportscaster refer to it as the science of basketball seeding. Or something like that. Science? OK, there's biology, ecology, biogeography, geology, astrology and .... bracketology? Ah, yes, the rigor of analyzing the teams, sizing up the players, testing playmaking equations and voila! presenting an academically vetted, peer-reviewed method of looking at the vagaries of college basketball.

Where do I get my Phd?

And there's Joe Lunardi, the nerd who becomes ESPN's version of a porn star for the week or so leading to the NCAA Selection Committee choosing the field of 64. That guy gets more face time and ink than Paris Hilton and Britney Spears combined. I mean, you can't get away from him. There he is in Sportscenter. There he is being interviewed on another show. There he is quoted in the newspaper, online. The seer. Mr. Omniscient. The oracle. Nostradamus of College Hoopus.

What hooey.

I've got to give him credit. The guy works very, very hard for about two weeks and probably makes enough coin to take a 50-week vacation. He probably watches the tournament in Fiji.

And he probably makes much better picks than me. And that's where good 'ol Joe and I diverge. it seems the more I pay attention, the more I scrutinize the teams, the more I hunt for strengths and weaknesses, seek a perceived edge such as which team is playing closest to home, etc., the worse I do. Hell, when I lived in Slovakia and couldn't keep up, let alone never watch, college games, I picked really well. I picked Richmond over Syracuse. I picked Arizona losing to high-seeded teams twice. I picked an entire Final Four. I picked a few champions. I congratulated myself.

Then, I returned to the States, reacquainted myself with a television remote and a sofa and began watching games. And some more games. Oh, maybe some more after that. Didn't matter whether it was FSU, VCU or ASU. It was college basketball, and I enjoyed watching. I was gaining knowledge, an edge that surely would pay off well come tournament time.

Except it hasn't. I swear I would so as well if I picked teams strictly according to some arbitary rule, such as proximity to Des Moines, or, say, Brownsville, than on ability, talent, or RPI. A colleague of mine told me today that she picked her pool based on the team jersey colors, and she won.

I know I didn't win last year. Hmmm. Blue or Red?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

I Love College Hoops

Man, I love college basketball.

I just finished watching the tail end of the North Carolina-Va. Tech semifinal game in the ACC tournament. The teams were tied in the closing seconds when UNC guard Ty Lawson's wayward running layup somehow was batted to Tyler Hansbrough, and he nailed a baseline jumper with less than a second to play. That buzzer beater comes after yesterday's amazing, incredible, stupendous play by Minnesota to defeat Indiana in the Big Ten tournament. In that game, Minnesota trailed by a point with, I think, 1.8 seconds to play and was inbounding the ball from its own baseline. The inbounds pass, thrown like a quarterback, sailed three-quarters the length of the court, was snagged by a Gopher, who hoisted it, shotput style, toward the basket. Good. End of ballgame. Wow!

And these conference tournaments are just the prelude to the NCAA Tournament, which takes this great game to another level. It's nirvana, shangri-la and heaven all rolled into one. It's Christmas in March. Some would argue it's much, much better than the real Christmas. I have no comment on that. Don't want to offend the Good One upstairs.

Anyway, there are many reasons that the NCAA Tournament is so captivating. The best teams in the field pitted in a winner-take-all tournament. Lose once, and your season is over. Maximum effort from every player on every team at every moment. Diehard fans. Diehard coaches. Jacked up players.

For me, the first weekend of the tournament is the most fun. That's when the first two rounds are played, when the field is pared from 64 teams to 16, just like that. The monumental upsets happen on this weekend. You have basketball played from coast to coast, simultaneously across four times zones. Overlapping games. Games that start at noon and don't end until well past midnight. I go bleary-eyed from watching all the matchups, to the point where the players become little more than flickering images dashing and darting across my TV screen. I watch so many images of athletes juking, alley-ooping, backdooring, picking and rolling and crossover dribbling that my eyes start to roll. I've actually gotten nauseated watching the games.

So, why do I do it? Because, man, I love college basketball. There just isn't anything like it.

OK, gotta go. Duke, my alma mater, is coming on. Ahhh, yes. Another game!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


I remember this time last year.

I was marooned in New York and in the midst of a major bout of contemplation. It wasn't a crisis, but I was deep in thought, trying to figure it all out.

I had turned 40 recently and was a graduate student at Columbia, living in a spartan room in a graduate dormitory, sharing a bathroom with fellow graduate students who had a high tolerance for filth. I was mulling what would come next, after graduation, my career, my life. I wanted to start a family, yet have a fulfilling, meaningful career. Can both be had? Must one give for another? Which should yield first?

And I had a thesis to think about, an anchor on my mind. I had designed the scaffolding, but I had a lot of beams still to put in place. It was a mental load.

I walked into the office of Marguerite Holloway, my science professor and my thesis adviser, sat down, and let it all out. The birthday. In school. Again. Career. Family. Thesis. What the hell am I doing?

Calm down, she told me. She was much more diplomatic than that. "You know," she said, "The decade after you turn 40 is a wonderful time. A time of centering."

"Centering?" I asked.

"Centering," she said. "You figure out what's important to you, and you concentrate on that, eliminate the distractions. On the way, you find contentment. You know you're heading in the right direction, and you are comfortable with the pace of the journey."

I don't recall whether she said in exactly those words, but I do recall that's what she meant. And she was right.

Life is good. I am happy. I am healthy. I love my wife dearly. I live in a great place. I have everything I could possibly desire. The family will come. The career dreams will come. And if the career milestones don't materialize, something equally good, if not better, will take its place.

I feel centered. Thanks, Marguerite.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Starry Nights

I like looking at stars.

The skies have been clear the past three nights, and that's given me plenty of chances to gaze at the heavens on walks with Hviezda. Really, I have little clue what I'm looking at. Sure, I can pick out Orion, my favorite because it conjures such a vivid image. The Hunter. That one fits to a tee. I, of course, also can pick out the Big Dipper, my favorite as a child because I imagined it scooping out fantastically giant scoops of ice cream. Grape Ice or Rainbow Sherbet. Mmmm. I had no problem locating the Little Dipper. Always felt kind of sorry for this constellation, so dwarfed by its cousin.

Still, I am woefully inadequate when it comes to stargazing. It's laughable, really. But I don't mind. I just enjoy looking at them. It's peaceful. It reminds me that there's something so much greater than ourselves out there, that our planet is a tiny, spinning speck in the vastness of space, a head on a pin, if that large, in our galaxy and irrelevant in size, shape or function when seen in the greater universe. I don't know much else that can inspire such sheer awe as the expanse of space.

Chalk up another good thing about life in a smallish New England town that I can see a decent array of stars on a clear night. I remember a friend of mine visited from DC. We were outside one evening, and he happened to look up. He was amazed he could see the stars. He couldn't recall the last time he had seen more than a few. I love DC, but that's kind of sad. Our skies should not be so bathed in useless light (needlessly sucking energy) that we can't see stars, even in our largest cities. It just disconnects us further from what's around us, clouds our perspective.

I am torn between wanting to live somewhere out in the country, where I can see multitudes of stars, listen to the whistling winds, hear the sounds of animals and the guilt and tedium that I would need to drive to get anywhere.

Please, Detroit, get me an electric car. If that happened, I'll see you in the country.

Monday, March 10, 2008

That Extra Hour

Man, that extra hour is something special.

I mean, the extra hour that comes with daylight savings time, which took effect last weekend. What a host of possibilities comes with just 60 extra minutes of daylight. There is light when I get up and walk Hviezda, the Irish setter who understands only Slovak. There is light when I catch the bus to work. There is light when I leave work in the evening.

I don't like walking the dog, going to work or returning from work in the dark. It makes me sleepy. I want to hibernate. Seven o'clock feels like 10. Nine like midnight.

Here in Rhode Island, daylight shrinks to a shade more than nine hours in December – the shortest time (for daylight) in the calendar year. The sun begins slipping to the horizon around 3:30 p.m. and is gone by about 4:20 p.m. It doesn't rise until well after 7 in the morning.

I find it greatly crimps my activity level. It's just too darn hard to run in the dark, and I've never felt terrifically safe in the day-glo running clothes. Headlights from oncoming cars are blinding, and there's no guarantee whatsoever that the driver will see you plodding along, neon clothes or no. Uh uh.

I never knew how much I valued sunlight until I realized one day while I was walking around in Bratislava that I was crossing the street to walk on the side bathed by the sun's rays. We were in the midst of a 47-day stretch when the sun appeared only once – for a half-hour. I became miserable. Not exactly depressed, but clearly unhappy. Maybe even moody. So, when the sun finally returned to the Slovak capital, I rejoiced in ways I never had contemplated – such as deliberately walking on the sunny side of the street. I still do it today. I did it especially during my year of studies in New York City, where canyons carved by buildings could produce an especially pronounced sunny-dark dichotomy.

So, I value that extra hour of sunlight. I feel invigorated by it, more alive. I want to get up and run, walk the dog, even go to work a little earlier. I feel more alert, more apt to look around, take stock of my surroundings and soak in the scenery.

And the best thing, those minutes of sunlight will only grow longer. We're just at the beginning.

The sun is here to stay.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Have you had enough of Dick Vitale?

I am an avid basketball fan – especially college hoops.

I like the NBA, too, but I restrict my viewing to playoff time. I find the regular season too long, and the players playing with such ennui to captivate my attention. During the regular season, I find invariably that one spectacular play is followed by some exhibition of sloppy fundamentals that would make a grade school coach cringe. So I quit watching. Come playoff time, the tenor changes, and the teams begin to play a version of basketball that makes the sport so rich: Pick and rolls executed to perfection, switches on defense, box outs on rebounds. The kind of stuff that makes basketball the great game that it is.

The college game showcases good basketball more regularly, and I guess that's why I like it so much. There's so much enthusiasm from the players, so much passion from the fans. So intoxicating, a punch bowl of fun cloaked in naked competition that only sports can give.

I've linked Dick Vitale with that passion and that fun for some time. I remember soon after he burst on to the scene as a commentator, throwing out those signature phrases like "diaper dandy" and "PTPer (prime time player." He was a novelty, exciting and fun. Sure, he yelled a lot, but you knew his love for the game was genuine and boundless. He also loved the fans. I remember when he came to a game at Duke, my alma mater. He strode to the area where I was sitting, climbed into the section and squealed like a little boy when we hoisted him up and passed him up and down the stands. There's a picture in People magazine of him afterward, with a big smile on his face, surrounded by zanily dressed Duke fans, myself included. Those were the days!

Much later, I called Vitale on his cell phone to comment on a preview of the Providence Friars I was writing for The Associated Press. He wasn't there, so I left a message. I didn't expect a call back, but within an hour, he returned my call, as he was waiting for a flight to somewhere. We spoke for about 15 minutes – plenty of time for a story of this kind. He was gracious, kind and seemed genuinely interested in my story and contributing to it. Considering how many phone calls he gets, I think it was awfully classy that he found the time to fit yet another sports reporter into his schedule. I can't think of many other big-name sports commentators who would have returned my call.

So, I've liked Vitale. But I've got to say that I think his shtick has become tiresome. The constant yelling. The now-overused signature phrases. The off-subject (and I mean completely off-subject) digressions during the game. The shameless praise of certain coaches and the cult of adulation he has for certain institutions (like Duke). It all detracts from a man who knows the game well and has insightful comments to make, when he chooses. But he chooses to make on-the-game comments less and less. I don't know why. It's as if he loses himself from time to time, when he goes off on tangents. He can't shut the spigot. If only Vitale would stick to analyzing the game, he'd be great. But he doesn't, and that's a shame.

My dad has been complaining about Vitale for years. We were talking on the phone today, conducting a post-mortem on the Duke-UNC game when Dad brought up Vitale again.

"Tell all your friends," he said, "to write ESPN and tell the station to fire that guy. I am so sick of him. The yelling. He never talks about the game. Why is he still on TV?"

I have to agree. I wonder how Vitale has lasted as long as he has. But my guess is he has the TV equivalent of tenure. He is the face of the college basketball commentator, and he can't be let go.

My dad would be trying, believe me. But he can't get his e-mail to work.

Damn that technology.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

New Heading

I've got some changes to make to my heading.

You know, that description right below the name of my blog, that self-serving bit, that mini-biography. That "This is who I am." My credentials. My badge.

The reason why I need to update that ego paragraph is I have a new job. Two weeks ago, I joined Brown University as a physical sciences writer. The position is in the Media Relations office, which means I serve the news, rather than having the news served to me.

It's an odd transition for me, as I've been a journalist for the past 13 years. But it fits nicely with the master's degree I obtained last spring in science journalism and it matches my growing interest in the sciences. I cover multiple departments at Brown, including chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, applied mathematics, physics, geological sciences and planetary geological sciences. That's a whole lot of science, and a whole lot of professors working on a whole host of things. I think there are a lot of good nuggets in those mines. My job is to shovel them out.

Meantime, I aim to keep writing – with the luxury of pursuing stories I really want to write about rather than writing (many, but not all) stories simply to pay the bills. I have a cushion, and I hope to use that to keep some toes in journalism.

Heck, maybe I'll get begin posting regularly to my blog again.