Thursday, August 20, 2009

Layoff notice

Well, I'm back in Vegas. We left Minnesota on Monday a.m. and pulled into town Wednesday at 10 p.m., with stops in Kansas City and Frisco, Colo., along the way. I knew we were getting close to "home" when I saw a billboard featuring an AK-47, pimping a local establishment where you can go and fire said weapon. As we neared the Strip, the billboards flying past my face became even more symbolic of this den of iniquity -- beer, adult superstores, personal injury lawyers. Add it all up, and nothing says Vegas quite like deadly weapons, alcohol, sex, and frivolous lawsuits.

Which leads me to my next point. This blog might be in for a name change, because our future in Henderson is currently in doubt. Kris returned to Vegas in early August, two weeks ahead of the rest of the family, to get back to work. The next day, she was laid off.

I can't remember who I've told about this, either in person, over the phone, via e-mail or Facebook, etc., so I'm just putting it down in this blog post and asking you all to keep us in your thoughts. We've got a few months to work with thanks to severance and unused PTO, but in this job market, you never know how quickly things will move.

Actually, I'm far less concerned with my wife finding suitable employment than I am with selling our house in this foreclosure-saturated market. Talented people don't stay unemployed for long, and Kris is the most talented person I know, so I'm fully confident she'll find something even better soon enough.

But her job was the reason we came to Vegas, and even after four years, it's pretty much the only thing tying us here. Sure, we've made some good (great!) friends, gotten involved in our church, found a wonderful school for our kids, and enjoyed the mild winters. But when we look at what we truly value, it's pretty clear that we're ready for a return to Minnesota.

We're not in the position to be terribly picky right now, of course, so we're exploring opportunities in all major metropolitan areas (major-league sports is a must this time around, so I can jump-start my sports reporting career). Still, the Twin Cities offer all of the tangible benefits we're looking for (proximity to family and friends, pro and college sports, good schools, summers that don't reach 115 degrees for three months, lakes, biking trails, a vibrant arts/music scene) and the one intangible that Vegas never seemed to represent to us: Minnesota is home. It just is.

We're never going to regret moving here. It's been a wonderful four years in so many ways. Kris learned a lot and gained invaluable experience in her career. We've learned a lot about ourselves, our values, and what family means to us (both extended and nuclear). I wrote my first book here. I started my first blog here. Our beloved cat, Twilight, lived out the last of his 16 years in the warm, dry air here, prowling our fenced-in back yard with a freedom he'd never experienced before. I completed my first triathlon here. Fiona became a soccer star here. Nora lost her first tooth here. Kris started running half-marathons and also completed her first triathlon here.

No regrets. It's been a great run. But change is in the air. We'll keep you all posted.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Almost perfect

From ESPN's Buster Olney:

"There are still weeks to go in the pennant race, there are pennant races and World Series games to come, but there will not be a better moment this year thanks to Mark Buehrle and the good folks in the Metrodome on Tuesday night."

Tip of the hat to Buehrle, and to Twins fans who, like the rest of their Minnesota brethren, can often be a provincial bunch. Last night, they showed that they get it and can be classy when they want to be. Kudos all around.

Monday, July 27, 2009

TBBBC Book 4 review

We're four months into the baseball season, and I'm four books into my summer-long one-man book club. July's book of the month was The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America by Joe Posnanski.

Most baseball fans know the story of O'Neil, a former Negro Leagues player and manager who was the first black man to coach in the Major Leagues. Of course, he could have played in the bigs if not for the rampant racism that stained the game through the late 1940s when Jackie Robinson broke the color barier, and he could have managed in the bigs if not for the still problematic racism that stained the game through the mid-1970s when Frank Robinson shattered that glass ceiling.

But O'Neil carried on and became one of baseball's greatest ambassadors and the most notable historian of the Negro Leagues. He came to national prominence when his commentary was featured heavily in Ken Burns' baseball documentary that aired on PBS in 1994.

Posnanski, a Kansas City Star columnist, got to know O'Neil over the years and always thought there was a book waiting to be written about O'Neil and the Negro Leagues, but he never could figure out just how to approach it. Finally, he came to the realization that spending a year traveling the country with the great story-teller would be the best way to capture the essence of the man.

And I'd have to say, he was right. There are so many lessons to learn from Buck O'Neil. I've always been amazed that he wasn't bitter, because he had so many reasons to be. He was kept from doing the one thing that he most loved to do because of "my beautiful tan," as he liked to put it. But O'Neil lived his life 180 degrees from bitter. I think this book gets to the heart of that question.

I won't spoil it for those who want to read the book, but basically, O'Neil wasn't bitter because he got to play baseball, travel the countryside and befriend literally thousands of people whom he wouldn't have met if not for the Negro Leagues. He didn't view the league as sub-standard or a lower level of the game. It was different, yes, and the accommodations weren't as nice, but he also was given the opportunity to experience joys he wouldn't have likely seen in the bigs. For example, he tells the story of the time he and Duke Ellington entered a jazz club on 18th and Vine in Kansas City (now the home of the Negro Leagues museum, his great passion in his post-retirement life) and stumbled upon a kid playing the saxophone like he'd never heard it played before. Turns out the kid was Charlie "Bird" Parker, one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century.

"People feel sorry for me," he said. "Man, I heard Charlie Parker!"

O'Neil's life is an object lesson in appreciating what you have, which is different than just blind optimism. O'Neil was no pollyanna. He saw the dark side of life and understood it for what it was -- hatred. That's a word that comes up a lot in this book. O'Neil often said racism comes directly from hatred, and bitterness comes from the same source.

"Where does bitterness take you?" he said when asked about how he can avoid being bitter. "To a broken heart? To an early grave? When I die, I want to die from natural causes, not from hate eating me up from the inside."

O'Neil approached the changes in the game the same way. Throughout their journey, he and Posnanski ran into many people who said they were disillusioned by the big salaries and ticket prices, the steroids, the superstar attitudes that they say have changed the game. But his response was always the same: "It hasn't changed," he told an older fan who said he hadn't been to a game in years. "We've changed. We got older. You ought to go see a game. You're a baseball fan, man. Do your heart good. Help you get young."

The point being, there's always an upside, and the game is bigger than all the petty problems that crop up in every era. The game survives. The human race survives. And life is good.

One of the blurbs in the book compares it to Mitch Albom's Tuesdays With Morrie, and I'll admit that when I read that blurb I shuddered a bit. But then I remembered my initial reaction to Tuesdays. I loved it. I blubbered like a baby. It changed my attitude about life, for a while at least. It stayed with me. I think the backlash came only after Albom's succeeding books proved him to be something of a one-trick pony. You couldn't hlep but wonder how much he gilded the lily in his story of Morrie, given that the rest of his books were couched in so much overwrought schlock.

So I guess if Posnanski follows The Soul of Baseball with a string of books about one-eyed Olympic archers who run three marathons a month to raise money for Costa Rican orphans, maybe I'll re-think this review. But The Soul of Baseball hit me hard, right where I needed it. It'll stay with me. And the lesson of Buck O'Neil will help me the next time I'm feeling sorry for myself.

TBBBC rating: 5 fungoes (out of 5)

Now batting: The Dixie Association (Voice of the South) by David Hays

On deck: October 1964 by David Halberstam

See also:

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Day 3: Boogie wonderland

We're here. The cross-country trek, or at least the first half of it, is over. Will I have the energy to blog the return trip in late August? Hard to say, but this has been a pretty fun way of capturing some memories.

Today we awoke in Council Bluffs, packed up and headed out for some brunch. Naturally, my Midwestern instincts kicked in and brought us to the nearest Perkins, where we feasted on omelets, pancakes, french toast, fresh fruit and so-so coffee. Needing a stronger caffeine kick for the final leg of our relay, we began a search for a coffee shop.

Well, here in the heartland, or at least in Iowa, you won't find a Starbucks on every street corner like you might in a major metropolitan area. In fact, Fiona related the hard lesson she'd learned as we cruised along the highway near the river: "They've got all these casinos here but no Starbucks?"

Eventually I spotted a sign for Western Iowa Community College, and we quickly did the math: college students = need for caffeine. We still didn't find a Starbucks, but we did come across a quaint mom-and-pop-and-dog joint called the Coffee Stop that had everything we wanted: coffee and wi-fi. Plus Nora got to play with the dog while Fiona and I checked e-mail, so everybody won.

Later on the road, Nora notified me that a pit stop for bathroom-related reasons was relatively urgent, so we pulled off at the next exit in search of a gas station. Five minutes later, as we were nearing the lavatorial oasis, came the Backseat Exchange of the Day:

Nora: "Dad, I really have to go. I'm dancing back here!"
Dad: "I know, I know. We're almost there."
Nora: "Well, can I at least have some music to go with my dancing?"

Stifling my laughter, I turned off the audiobook I was enjoying and cranked up a CD for my dancing daughter.

North of Des Moines, Fiona surveyed the landscape and let loose a contented sigh. "I know we're not in Minnesota yet, but this just looks like home to me."

Amen, sister. And here we are.

Day 2: A logical progression

Sorry today's update is late -- the hotel in Council Bluffs last night had a crappy wifi setup -- pay $6.95 for 24 hours of access and the web site granting said access didn't work. So here we are.

Also, I misplaced the cord that connects the camera to the computer, so I can't upload today's photos. Some pretty good shots of Nora in there -- she put on an Austin Powers-type show with a series of wacky facial expressions on camera. Not funny faces, mind you -- these were complex, well-planned visages on her part.

We covered the second half of Colorado (Vail to the border) and all of Nebraska today, hitting Council Bluffs at 11 p.m. local time. I have to say, Colorado is a big state. Once you get past Denver you think you're through with it, and then you're driving for about another week. Everything east of Denver should just be named Coloraska, because it's virtually indistinguishable from the Great Plains. I can only imagine what the first Anglo settlers in the region must have thought once they saw the Rockies for the first time. "They told me the earth wasn't flat but I was starting to doubt it until now."

That stretch of the drive did produce the Day 2 Backseat Exchange of the Day:

Fiona: "Ugh, what stinks? It smells like poop!"
Dad: "Well, we are in farm country now ..."
Nora: "I tooted."
Dad: "... or there's that."

We got more than our share of foul farmland odors on the drive through Nebraska, but I'm not complaining -- it's just good to be back in the Midwest.

Also, I saw quite possibly the stupidest sign ever on the side of the road in eastern Colorado: "Gov. Ritter Welcomes You to TAXORADO"

This is an epic FAIL for a couple of reasons. One, it was in eastern Colorado, but faced an eastbound road, meaning everybody who could read it was actually leaving Colorado, not being "welcomed" into it. Turn your sign around, genius.

And two, you can't just throw "TAX" into any word and make the pun work. "Taxachusetts" works because "tax" and "mass" sort of rhyme, and of course Massachusetts has a long tradition of liberal politics, which naturally means "big tax bill" in the minds of most conservatives, whether it's true or not.

I'm not up to speed on the tax policies of the Colorado governor or how much impact he's had on the bottom line of Joe Colorado, but after living in the West for the last four years, I've got a pretty good idea of who the sign guy is: He calls himself a Libertarian, wants the damn gummint to get out of his life and let him keep everything that's his, but is the first guy to bitch when any government service doesn't work efficiently enough to suit his needs -- i.e., there's a pothole in front of his house so the DOT is corrupt, his kid's school didn't fare well in national testing so they're incompetent, not underfunded, etc.

I know our country has a rich history of tax protest, but if you bother to read your U.S. history, the colonists were protesting taxation without representation. These newfangled "tea parties" are filled with right-wing miscreants who have plenty of say in how their tax money is spent, via their elected officials. But go ahead and think you're a 21st Century Paul Revere when you call into Rush's show and call the President a monkey.

Wow, not sure how we got from here to there, but I promise to lighten things up the rest of the trip. Day 3 takes us through Iowa and into God's Country, so a trio of happy campers will report back tomorrow!