Friday, September 21, 2007

Vote for an Asterisk

Last month, when Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run, I wrote that the guy who caught the ball should have thrown it back in protest. I reasoned that that ball was estimated to be worth $100,000, but being "the guy who threw back Barry Bonds' ball" was worth more than that.

On Saturday, that ball was auctioned off for over $752,000. The winning bidder was some fashion designer guy named Marc Ecko, who has set up a Web site to allow the Internet-voting public to decide the fate of the ball. The choices are: give the ball to the Hall of Fame, brand it with an asterisk, or blast it into space.

At first, I thought: I'd definitely rather have $750k than a good story. However, Ecko is now getting oodles of publicity for essentially offering to throw it back. Maybe my initial idea was not so crazy.

Bonds, currently under investigation for steroid usage, tax evasion, and perjury, called Ecko an "idiot" when he heard about the poll.

I voted for an asterisk.

Here's where you can place your vote:

Thursday, September 20, 2007

That Shirt Is 70 Years Old in Internet Years

At Starbucks last week, I stood in line behind a guy in a shabby "MAC OS 8.5" shirt. I was once a Mac aficionado, until the much lower cost of PCs turned me to the dark side. I fondly remember the breakthrough that was Mac system 7.5; the last OS I had was Mac 8.6. A long time ago. (For those unschooled in the Mac OS, Apple is about to introduce OS 10.5 in October.)

I wonder what it says about someone who keeps a shirt far longer than the lifespan of the OS the shirt advertises. Is it like wearing a Mike Mussina Orioles jersey to a Yankees game? Is he trying to show his decade-plus devotion to the Mac? Is he just an unmarried guy without a woman to go through his old t-shirts and draw the line at tech-geek shirts from 1997 that are so worn out the guy's nipples are visible?

Any insight would be most welcome.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Police Concert, November 5 at the Verizon Center: SAVE YOUR MONEY

I just noticed that tickets to the Police at the Verizon Center went on sale last week. I am writing this blog entry as a public service to anyone considering buying them. Don't do it.

When Steve and I heard last winter that the Police were reuniting for a tour, we decided to go. We've been to numerous reunion tours in the past (Hall and Oats, Def Leppard, etc.) and it has always been a good show. We bought "cheap" seats, at $100+ each, for the July 20th concert in Hershey, PA, since no DC concert had been scheduled at that point. We never expected to be so severely disappointed.

It quickly became abundantly clear that Sting, Stuart, and Andy still loathe one other. They each tried to lead the music, playing/singing over one another, and it sounded like three guys practicing who haven't quite clicked to become a band. Sting can no longer hit the high notes, so Roxanne sounded like a shadow of its former self, sung an octave lower. There were only a couple of sublime moments when they really nailed it, in King of Pain and Wrapped Around Your Finger.

For some reason, the reviews I read of the show were largely positive. I think the critics in this case were far too kind. If those same critics had heard the very same music and didn't know who was playing it, I guarantee they would have dismissed it with, "eh, this Police cover band has potential, but they really need a lot more practice to pull it off." You'd think after two months on the road they would have gotten it together.

In short, the concert sucked, and I regret that we spent that money and drove all the way to Hershey. But it would have been a ripoff even if it were local. On top of everything, the experience ruined the Police for me even on the radio, because now the songs just remind me of that half-assed concert.

As a side note, Sting's son's band Fiction Plane opened the concert. Sting's son, Joe Sumner, plays bass and fronts the three-man band. (Sound familiar?) His voice has a similar timbre to his dad's. It's kind of like watching Sting II. But their songs... not so good. One single, Two Sisters, was catchy. But Fiction Plane decided to end their show with an appalling song that had waaaaay too many "F&#$ you"s in it for the mellow 30-something crowd in front of them. They left the crowd sitting in stunned silence with jaws agape. *crickets*

In sum, there's no reason to go see the Police. I implore you, don't go to the concert in DC this November. You should save your money and spend it on something that is more likely to have a positive outcome. Like street chess, three-card monty, or the DC Lotto.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Jamaica Donald and Panama Bill

Last weekend, Steve and I learned to sail at Belle Haven Marina in Alexandria.

This weekend, Steve is in Mississippi, and I was scheduled to practice my sailing with my friend Ruby, who took the class a week before us. Unfortunately, this morning I awakened to a "small craft warning" due to high winds, our outing canceled via a call from the marina. But the bright side is, that gives me the time and opportunity to write about our experience last week.

The class convened at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning at a couple of rickety picnic tables wedged in under a canopy between dozens and dozens of boats. Six students awaited the two on-boat instructors: Donald and Bill. Donald hailed from Jamaica originally, and had sailing in his blood. He told us he was sailing before he could walk. Donald had a scraggly little pirate beard and was probably in his 20s, based on the fact that I heard him discuss his Facebook page with one of the dockworkers. The other instructor, Bill, claimed to have learned to sail two weeks ago. We laughed; his weathered boat shoes were just two of many signs that Bill knew his way around a boat.

I wished I had my camera. Bill was probably in his '50s and had a grizzled look about him. He wore a light-colored Bermuda shirt and standard khaki shorts. One of his boat shoes (no socks) was sliced open on the side, toe to ankle. He topped off the outfit with a light-color brimmed hat and a cigarette that defied gravity as he spoke, dangling off the corner of his lower lip. I decided to call him Panama Bill. Not to his face.

Steve and I set out with Donald and another student named Milena. Milena was from Bulgaria and was wearing cool sunglasses and trendy shoes, both noted repeatedly by Donald to the extent that even Steve wondered later, without my prompting, if Donald was going to ask her out.

I had a tough time that first day. The sun beat down on us, with not a cloud in the sky for any relief. The temperature hovered around 90. And Donald had a very zen style of teaching. "Feel the wind." "Drive the boat." I became frustrated because I couldn't feel the wind and I didn't know how to drive the boat or I wouldn't be in the class. When I tried to ask questions, Donald replied, "no excuses!" Steve, on the other hand, caught on much faster and really enjoyed the experience. Milena didn't seem to learn too much, but her enthusiasm lent a needed levity to the day. Whenever something exciting would happen, like a good gust of wind, Milena would exclaim, "Oh, Madonna!" We came home Saturday night, exhausted, and I fell asleep at 8pm on the couch. The next morning I dreaded going back to the marina, but I figured I might as well finish the two-day class.

We all met again at the picnic tables and headed to the 19-foot Flying Scot with Donald. But after we boarded, Panama Bill drove over in a dinghy with one of his students, a young guy named Brenden. "I'm going to need to impress into service one of your crew," Bill said, his eyes twinkling. Apparently his two other students, a married couple, had gone home because the wife was sick. I took about 1.5 seconds to consider the situation, and I volunteered to switch. I was in the dinghy before anyone knew what happened, and happily motored off with my new instructor. Bill, who appeared to be wearing the same outfit as the day before, kept the mood light, chatting with us, giving specific instruction when it was needed, standing on the bow smoking much of the time. He mentioned a fiance, a move into her house, and the need to sell his own place so he could afford a 45-foot steel hulled sailboat. Bill also mentioned that his 21-year-old son had just knocked up his girlfriend and gotten kicked out, and now wanted to stay in Bill's house -- the one he wanted to sell to finance his boat. Bill wasn't sure what to do about this. I didn't offer any suggestions, but I was thinking that his son is 21 and should be able to take care of himself at this point.

The sailing went well. We learned "man overboard" drills and improved our maneuvering skills through a course of buoys. After some initial tentativeness, I did begin to catch on, and as the day wore on, I can say, I started to almost know what I was doing.

Sometime after our lunch break, Bill brought us in to a floating dock with a large flagpole. He climbed off the boat onto the dock and told us it was time to go on without him. My fellow student and I stared at him -- no doubt Brenden was thinking the same thing I was: "Oh my god, where are you going? How do we do this without you in the boat?" Cigarette in hand, Panama Bill lounged in the dock's lone furniture, a single white plastic chair, and sent us off through the buoys on our own, shouting directions when we made boneheaded moves, which was less often than I expected.

Steve's boat was engaging in similar maneuvers. When Steve was at the helm, it seemed to go well; when Milena was driving, there seemed to be a lot of back-and-forth going on, but no progress being made. I kept hearing Donald yell, "Steven, no helping!" Finally I heard Steve yell back, "I'm not helping!" and then I saw Steve just put his head down.

Meanwhile, I docked successfully three or four times, and I took the boat out totally on my own, managing to round "Bob," the white buoy near the sandbar. Unfortunately, it was at that point that the wind completely died. I futzed with the sails for a while, hoping for a puff, but got nothing. We were drifting. Toward the sandbar. After about five minutes, Bill and one of the dock workers motored up to tow the boat in. "We're calling it a day," Bill said. No more wind. I was disappointed that I hadn't been able to bring the boat in myself, but there was no other choice. On the way in, I saw Steve's boat, noticing that he had busted out the paddle and was manually pulling in to the dock.

As Bill, Brenden and I took down the sails, I realized I was starting to understand the rigging. It's all coming together, slowly. But I'll need to practice a bit more to get it firmly ensconced in my brain. Panama Bill said there is no such thing as an expert sailor, and I believe him. But I'd like to become one with more than half a clue.

Steve and His Unusual Steed

The last activity of note during our Shenandoah Valley vacation was horseback riding, for which we headed over to River's Bend Guest Ranch in Stanley, VA. You may recall that we had decided not to use the 'Net to plan ahead for this vacation, so we found ourselves pulling over and asking for directions once we got to the outskirts of Stanley. The directions involved the following statement: "After you cross the bridge over the river, it's the first left. But not the first left that goes down to the river. The one after that."

We made our way there and found that our horses were already saddled up and ready to go. Steve would ride Bud, one of their tallest horses, and I would ride Red.

[I hadn't been on a horse since horseback riding camp in 4th grade, which cured my interest in horses. They are much less interpersonal than you might expect from the equine children's literature I'd read. And they poop a lot, and at camp, we had to clean it up and scrape it out of their hooves. Not. For. Me. When my parents picked me up at camp that year and I told them what I thought of the horsewoman experience, clearly casting aside all prior horse-related interests, my dad looked at my mom and said, "Huh. Cheaper than buying a horse."]

At River's Bend, Steve hit it off with Bud immediately, and petted him frequently throughout the trip. Since we seemed fairly competent, mounting the horses with ease and quickly catching on to the proper steering techniques, the trail guide upgraded us to the advanced trail, which went over a few streams and up and down some steeper grades.

During this time, Bud had been exhibiting a bit of a rebellious streak. He was the second horse in line, behind the trail guide, and he bit that horse's butt three times. He also seemed to turn and nip at Steve's leg. I was right behind Steve, and saw him peek down over the horse's shoulder to see what was going on. As we climbed down part of the trail, Bud stopped in his tracks and started eating foliage. Steve asked if Bud had eaten breakfast yet, and he was advised that Bud most certainly had, and to kick him and make him keep going -- the trail guide said horses would eat themselves to death if we'd let them. Bud also pooped twice (the other horses pooped once) and engaged in a monumental Austin Powers-length pee that left a bathtub-sized fetid puddle beneath Bud's belly that covered much of the trail.

My horse Red was very professional, following direction for the most part, except when Bud's excessive stream of pee incited Red to trot out of the spatter line. I couldn't blame him for that. And when I nudged him back onto the trail once Bud's peeing had ended, he was happy to oblige.

As we neared the end of the ride, the guide began talking about the polluted Shenandoah River. She said she'd been fishing a few weeks earlier and every fish she caught had lesions on it. It was catch-and-release fishing anyway, she said, because the fish all had such high mercury levels that any more than one fish per month was considered dangerous. Steve and I had spent the prior day kayaking, soaked with river water much of the time (we went through class 2 rapids), and this news greatly dismayed us. For the next couple of days, we both experienced a number of odd symptoms, possibly psychosomatic, such as swollen lymph nodes and headaches.

In just a moment, the river in our eyes had gone from unspoiled wilderness to a major health hazard. It made me think that politicians and the media are always distracted by the "global warming" discussion, but it's kind of a red herring. Even if there is no global warming, we still have a major pollution problem. In the end, less pollution is definitely better, for thousands of reasons beyond the temperature of the earth.

Monday, September 10, 2007


When Steve and I considered going to see the clogger show on Tuesday night at the Shenandoah National Park, Steve was picturing his low country Citadel classmates and I was picturing the cute clogging guys from "America's Got Talent."

We headed out for the 7:30 p.m. show with those expectations in mind. When we pulled up to the entrance to the Shenandoah National Park, we asked the guy in the booth: "Where are the cloggers?" His reply should have tipped us off: "They're about 20 minutes ahead of you."

We clarified that we wanted to know where they'd be performing. "Skyline Lodge, about 10 miles south on Skyline Drive," he said as he handed us our change.

As we drove on, we wondered how he knew when the cloggers came through. Maybe they had a special ID card that allowed them in at no cost, so that's why he knew it was them? Maybe he just knew them, since they performed once a week? We considered various options for a bit.

Meanwhile, the fog was rolling in. We stopped at one of the overlooks, where we felt like we were looking off the edge of the earth.

We headed on to the lodge, and found a small, packed tavern area with a very small dance floor. The only remaining seats were literally right in front, so we grabbed them and ordered up a couple of beers. I took a moment to survey the scene.

At least half of the audience appeared to be over 70 and out way past their bedtime. The rest was divided among families and crunchy yuppies (I suppose we fit the bill, after a day spent kayaking on the Shenandoah River). Then my gaze fell to the right of the dance floor, where about 10 women in identical outfits milled around an '80s-style boombox. Their ages appeared to range from 20 to 65 or so, and their weights varied widely. There were no men. Clearly, these were the cloggers. And I understood how the park service guy knew them when they came through 20 minutes ahead of us.

The performance seemed to be more line dancing than straight clogging. The musical selection could have been better -- the line dance of Seger's "Old Time Rock-n-Roll" was underwhelming and awkward, bringing to mind cruise-ship guest-participation entertainment or an activity at a senior-citizen's all-inclusive resort. Starting after the second song, one of the cloggers began complaining loudly and repeatedly about the lack of air conditioning. The elderly spectators sat stone-faced, the children hopped around happily, and some of the yuppies snuck out. We were front-and-center, so we stayed and watched the show.

After a brief intermission, the two stars came out, dressed in a new outfit. They had cast aside the full black skirt and puffy-painted sequined white t-shirt in favor of an edgier black outfit that proclaimed them the Banjo Girls. They were good, really good. They did a dance, just the two of them, to an upbeat song called "Banjo Boys," a poignant choice, I thought.

It's about a great banjo player who is going nowhere due to his choice of instrument.
I want to be a rock star, and travel really far, and buy me a big expensive car.
And make lots of money and find me a honey.
And live in nice big house where it's sunny.
With a pool and I'll be cool.
I'll always have a gig cause I'll be big.
I'll have parties and friends and places to go,
The only problem is I play the banjo.

I play the banjo.

I'm a post Hee-Haw mover, a funkadelic punk-rock groover,
A cross between Bela Fleck,
And Eddie Vedder but better.
I'll win a Grammy for the way I pick.
I'll be an instrumental monster with tons of new licks,
And all the babes will love me, sell-out shows,
The only problem is I play the banjo.

I play the banjo.

Well I play the banjo,
Play the banjo,
Play the banjo,
I play the banjo.
I play the banjo.

(Repeat Chorus once.)

I say hear me boys, here my rhyme,
I'm picking on the banjo all the time.
I say hear me boys, here my song,
Picking on the banjo all day long.

I'll buy a Lear jet, and a limousine,
And everywhere I go my fans will scream,
"Hey banjo boy, we love you,
I wish that we could all play the banjo too."
And you'll see me on the tv talk show,
With Dave and Conan and Jay Leno,
The only problem is I play the banjo.

(Repeat Chorus 3 times.)

I play the banjo,
Play the banjo,
Play the banjo,
I play the banjo.

[Thanks to for lyrics]
After that, the rest of the group came back, and the full ensemble continued. (See Banjo Girls at left, and the woman who required more air conditioning at far right, in photo below.)

Overall, the traditional clogging songs went very well, and we enjoyed that part of the show. The techno version of "Cotton-Eye Joe" and similar, not so much. And there were a few moments when one of the more energetic girls looked like she was doing the running man, right out of an MC Hammer video.

We were about ready to sneak out when they announced it was time for the big finale. One of the cloggers came out with a large flag, which ended up a foot away from me. From the boombox came the insipid strains of Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA." The girls sang the first verse as I tried not to roll my eyes too much. Then they asked all veterans to come up on stage. My jaw dropped and I stared at Steve. "Are you gonna go up?" I asked him. He decided to go -- he'd certainly earned it. I started laughing as he made his way on stage and a handful of other men joined him. But as he stood up there, I started tearing up.

I was tearing up to Lee Greenwood -- how mortifying. I determined that I may still be traumatized from Steve's time in Iraq, which ended more than a year ago. I fought back the emotion and sat through the song. At the end, the Banjo Girl next to Steve leaned over and I heard her say, "Thank you for your service." The remaining spectators gave them all a huge hand. It was a great end to the show.

But I still don't like that Lee Greenwood song.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Middle America Tourism and Breaking & Entering

On Monday, we headed out to Luray Caverns, billed as "the largest and most popular caverns in Eastern America." The parking lot was chock-full of RVs, and the line to get in included numerous wearers of fanny packs, many of whom appeared daunted at reports that the tour required a 1.25 mile walk, and included about 70 stairs.

We saw several interesting formations. This one is called "Pluto's Ghost" because it looked as if it was following the original cave discoverers as they explored the cave by candlelight in the 19th century.

I found these to be rather amusing.

We also saw and heard The Great Stalacpipe Organ, which is wired to various individual rocks that create the proper notes when played. Kind of like the different levels of water in the glass making different notes. Reportedly this took Mr. Leland Sprinkle (who coincidentally hailed from our town of Springfield, VA) three years to put together in the 1950s. It automatically plays a Christian hymn for each tour group.

After an hour below ground, we emerged and headed over to the "Car and Carriage Museum" (admission free with Luray Cavern ticket). Saw some old cars and bought a lemonade.

Then we checked out the Luray Garden Maze. The goal in the maze is not only to find your way to the exit, but also to find four clues that reveal the maze theme. We found it a bit odd that the music being piped into the maze included the theme songs from "What's Happenin' " and "The Rockford Files." But we pressed on. We found clue #1 with no problem. It was the letter "A." Behind the clue was a small poster of the movie "Labrynth." We moved on. Then, we hit a dry spell, ultimately finding clue #3: "ing." A small obscure movie poster sat at that clue. We briefly debated going back, but instead I stopped a kid we'd seen run past us about four times already, and I asked him what #2 was. "Maze!" he said and dashed off. We began to see the same people again and again, and a small community began to develop. We tossed tips to each other: "dead end." We stood around in groups reading the cheat boards that were posted every so often. We collectively wondered if we'd already been to this part of the maze.

Below, Steve peeks around a corner.

We eventually found clue #4: "Movies." So the theme was: A Maze ing Movies. Steve and I stood there, unimpressed. We discussed the fact that the music we'd heard throughout was clearly a CD of TV themes, and the ratty old movie posters seemed so random. The theme maintenance in this maze was half-hearted at best. We eventually moved on, finally finding the exit.

Next, we drove over the next mountain range to New Market, VA, to see the New Market Battlefield, upon which 250+ Virginia Military Institute cadets fought in the Civil War. We arrived back at the cabin around 5:30 p.m. We stood on the front porch as Steve began checking his pockets. He checked again.

No key. We started checking all the windows and doors, which unfortunately were locked. Wendy was inside, and she trotted up to one of the sliding glass doors, chew treat in her mouth. She wagged her tail at us, waiting expectantly.

For a brief moment, the crazy part of my brain thought: "How can we get Wendy to unlock the door for us?" My sane self answered quickly: "There's no way."

We went around back to the bedroom deck. Steve tried to climb up on it, but it started looking very fragile and we switched spots. Steve boosted me up, and I then realized that the railing was not nailed to the house where I was standing. It was nailed only to another deck railing. My position was precarious, at best. I edged around the outside of the deck to the opposite side, which was in fact attached securely to the house, and I climbed over. Of course, the bedroom door was locked as well.

But there was one last hope. About eight inches from the deck, over a 10-foot drop, was the bathroom window, which we'd left open. However, it only opened halfway, and the opening was parallel to and below the deck railing. This didn't leave much space for me to maneuver.

As Steve went back around the front of the cabin to consider other options, I removed the screen and climbed back over the railing. There was no way I was calling the cabin owner to tell her we'd lost the key. I stepped one foot in the window and lowered myself in, sliding slowly and gracelessly down into the bathtub.

I walked to the front door and unlocked it, and then summoned Steve, who was still looking for another way in. I fed Wendy, and all was well.

My only injury was bruising around my bellybutton. I think I propped myself against the window before sliding in.

That night, we perused the local newspaper, and decided to check out the cloggers at the Shenandoah National Park's Skyline Lodge on Tuesday night. It was not what we expected. Story to come.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

A Week Without the Internet

A complete lack of connectivity was one of several reasons we chose to spend a week in a cabin in the woods. We didn't print out any plans or directions from the 'net, deciding to wing it like we imagine our parents and grandparents did, back in the day. I felt a pang of anxiety when I shut down the laptop for the last time the day we left. I considered bringing the laptop, but stoically left it behind.

The drive took us over the first range of the Blue Ridge, through Shenandoah National Park. On the other side of the mountains, we skirted the tiny town of Luray and set off down a long rural road. After crossing a bridge over the Shenandoah River, we hung a right and drove north for seven more miles along the water, past cow herds and campsites, cabins and abandoned farmhouses.

When we arrived Saturday evening, we did an inventory of the cabin. I made a grocery list and prepped to go to the store. I looked around for a phone book. Nothing. No phone. No newspaper, and no local guidebooks. No map of Luray, either.

Crap. How would we find the grocery store? We hadn't noticed one in town. We sure hadn't passed one on the way out to the cabin.

Then I remembered the Google cell phone trick. I promptly abandoned our no-connectivity aspirations, texted "Grocery store luray va" to GOOGL and awaited the results.

They were:
610 E Main St

Bo's Belly Barn
925 E Main St
I had a hunch that Bo's Belly Barn was unlikely to have what we needed. (We later discovered that Bo's is a convenience store/gas station.) Seven-Eleven might be ok in a pinch, but we needed more.

We checked the cupboards. There was an unopened box of Sam's Choice crackers -- a clue that a Wal-Mart was nearby. I tried GOOGL again, texting with "Walmart luray va." This time, the answer was helpful. Not only was there a Wal-Mart nearby, but it was just past town on the main highway we'd taken between the mountain and Luray. We wouldn't even need a map to get there.

Meanwhile, a storm was coming in over the mountains (see picture above of the view from our deck, with the first clouds creeping around the highest peak). I headed out for food during the resulting thunderstorm while Steve hung out at the cabin with Wendy. The Wal-Mart appeared on highway 211 West like an oasis in the desert. I stocked up and headed back, successful.

The next day, after driving up and down Main Street several times, we located the Luray Visitor Information Center. We ransacked the place, walking out with at least a dozen pamphlets, maps, and guidebooks. It was information gathering, old school.

Next stop, Luray Caverns and the world-famous Luray Garden Maze.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Back in the Land of the Tempur-Pedic

We just returned from a vacation in a cabin in the Shenandoah Valley. Definitely fun and relaxing, but the damn mattress just killed us. Note to rental cottage owners: Even a rental needs a comfortable mattress. You can bet we won't return to that one.

We went to Luray Caverns and saw Pluto's Ghost, kayaked down class 2 rapids, and went horseback riding on the "advanced" trail. I also engaged in some fairly acrobatic B&E when we found ourselves outside the locked cabin without the key.

Stories and photos, including Steve and his trusty steed Bud, to come later, after we've aired out our house and replenished the fridge.