Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Things keep popping

Back to normal here in central Kentucky....well, sort of, anyway.

The weather took a nice turn into springlike conditions late last week, although Kentucky experienced some severe thunderstorms and other weather phenomena (as did many of our neighboring states).  So nice that my wife and I did some much needed work in our yard on Saturday, creating a mulch bed around our bird feeder in the backyard (reusing some mulch that was created when we had a couple of trees removed in the front last fall) and then spreading mulch, grass seed and fertilizer in the front yard.  Cross your fingers for us to have some grass in a month or so!

Also back to normal in that the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia are now over.  But not without a little controversy and some disappointing performances from some of the heavily hyped American competitors.  I watched some of the USA's men's hockey team games and was disappointed by their 1-0 loss to the Canadian team.  Still can't imagine how the U.S. speed skaters were completely shut out of the medal count and no U.S. woman won a medal in women's figure skating.  So our house is in Olympic withdrawal right now, I suppose.

We also just wrapped up the fourth season of "Downton Abbey," the television show imported from the BBC by PBS.  This season (when did eight episodes make a season of American television?) was a little uneven, I suppose, but there were stretches that were good.  I'll leave details out for now, as some of you may like to binge-watch this show and haven't gotten to it yet, but even if the plots weren't the greatest, the acting and costuming were first-rate, as always.

I think the Oscars are Sunday, but I've managed to see only one of the Best Picture nominees so far, "Captain Phillips."  Will try to catch "Gravity" this week, but may not get to the other nominees.  As per usual, Hollywood makes movies for three reasons---to gain critical acclaim and win awards, to make money, to provide good entertainment, and simply to make money from people who are so unselective that they'll see bad movies just to have something to do.  I think most of my movie favorites historically are in the second category, which I don't mind.  Were I more of a highbrow about "film" (I've noticed that snobs almost always say "film" instead of "movie," which is why I always appreciate that Martin Scorsese titles his work "A Martin Scorsese Picture") that would be different, but I'm willing to admit that some motion pictures just don't appeal to me.

Saw the very end of a documentary last night about George Martin, the longtime producer of the majority of the Beatles' recordings, as well as work by America, Jeff Beck and a host of other performers.  Really interesting stuff, as he's now 88 years old and says he's lost some of his hearing.  But what a rich musical heritage he's produced.  Easy to overlook his contribution to the Fab Four and their success, but Martin was an integral part of all of it, too.

The last thing I'll mention is that I had read recently that there's a coating on the interior surface of microwave popcorn bags that, frankly, is thought not to be very good for you.  This may be old news to you, but I had not heard this previously, and, given how much I like popcorn and how much corn we consume in our household, I really began to think about this and its potential side effects.  So on our last trip to the supermarket, I bought a jar of popcorn kernels and resolved to regain my former skill as a stovetop popper of popcorn.  At one time I even had a dedicated popcorn popper, with a hand-turned crank to keep kernels moving and prevent them from burning, but that was a long time ago.  So far I've made two batches of popcorn, the second better than the first.  Found some finely ground popcorn salt and have learned that I need to use a bit more cooking oil, but we're off to a good start.  The nice part is that the popcorn tastes a bit better, is a lot better for you, and unlike when you eat a fair amount of microwave popcorn, isn't heavy on your stomach after you eat it, either.  Will report back on this latest undertaking in the near future.






Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Voices of the games

As you can plainly tell if you’re a regular visitor to this space, I’m a big sports fan.  And along with that, I’m also a great fan of good sports announcing.  And when you watch a lot of sports on TV and listen to a good amount on the radio, you have the opportunity to form opinions about many announcers who do their thing at the local, regional and national levels.

I began to think about this a bit when it became apparent that Bob Costas was not going to be able to perform his customary duties in NBC’s coverage of the Winter Olympics in Sochi recently.  If you hadn’t heard, the poor guy came down with a pretty severe eye infection just about the time the games began, and though he toughed it out for two or three nights, squinting through the discomfort, he had to take some time off.  NBC visibly diminished the role of the “host” during those days, probably because it’s readily agreed that Bob is most likely the best big-sports-event host in the business.  Bob's also one of the best baseball play-by-play announcers around, but doesn't get to do much of that, since NBC hasn't had baseball among its properties in some time.

And the Olympics and the massive number of events puts NBC (or whatever network is covering the Games) in the position of employing people we may not hear all that often.  Some of the analysts are downright painful to listen to, as they devolve into jargon that casual fans might not get.   But it's a great chance to hear some voices we wouldn't otherwise, like the outstanding hockey announcer Mike Emerick, called "Doc" by nearly everyone in the business.  Really good at what he does.

But since baseball season is nearing (not soon enough, in my estimation) and I customarily watch the brilliant Ken Burns “Baseball” miniseries each winter and spring as a warmup to the coming season, I’ve been thinking more about how announcers make sports better and more enjoyable.  An added influence was a gift I received at Christmas, a compilation of four CDs of great baseball radio calls.  Always nice to hear some of the established greats plying their trade, guys like Mel Allen, Red Barber, Ernie Harwell, and a much younger and more easily understood Harry Caray.

So here’s a list of some of the active announcers I like best, and why.  In no particular order:

Marty Brennaman has been the radio “voice” of the Cincinnati Reds since the mid 1970’s.  Hard to imagine the Reds without him, but he’s reduced his work schedule slightly over the past few years.  Direct, opinionated, funny, irritating, but always fully descriptive of the action.  Marty’s an institution in Cincinnati and surrounding areas, and one local sportswriter often says that the people in Cincinnati don’t realize how lucky they are to have him (I do, as I listen occasionally to other teams’ broadcasts on SiriusXM satellite radio, and while these guys are OK, Marty’s really the best “team” announcer out there).

Vin Scully was an acquired taste to me, as I grew up HATING the Los Angeles Dodgers, for whom Vin has worked for MANY years.  But as I’ve grown older I’ve come to appreciate Scully for his preparation, his observations of the game and the melodic nature of his delivery.  Never too high or too low, and, despite my claims to the contrary twenty or more years ago, he is NOT a homer.  In fact, only his greater familiarity with the Dodgers gives him away as their announcer.  A real treasure and one you should hear if you have the chance.

I was always a big fan of Jon Miller, who for twenty-plus years was the voice of ESPN's Sunday night baseball broadcasts.  Informative, humorous, much like a friend who's sitting with you watching the game, but with a lot of information to share.  I was sorry to see him end his association with ESPN, but he still works for the San Francisco Giants, so he's another announcer you can hear on satellite radio.


Thom Brennaman is Marty's son, and like Joe Buck (of Fox television and the son of the late long-time voice of the St. Louis Cardinals, Jack Buck) has worked to establish himself as a good and versatile announcer outside of his father's considerable regional shadow, working for other baseball teams before returning to the Reds a few years ago.  Thom also does a nice job calling football for Fox and called the collegiate national championship game a couple of times, too.  In his own way he's actually more opinionated than his father, and on the rare occasions the two of them work together, they do very well, although I would never say that they readily agree on anything!

Speaking of fathers and sons, I always liked Skip Caray, son of Harry and father of Chip, who works for the Atlanta Braves.  Skip was always sardonic but direct in his estimation of the Braves, for whom he worked for many years, and I watched a lot of Braves baseball back when TBS and WGN were among the few sources of regular televised games on cable.

I personally also like Tom Hammond, who's handling the primary announcing on NBC's Olympic ice skating coverage.  Tom is from Lexington, and I well remember him as a local sports reporter before he got the chance to do SEC basketball play-by-play and did so for many years.  Tom's a very nice man who has not forgotten his beginnings in the business.

The last announcer I'm going to mention here is a very good and old friend of mine, Tom Leach, the Voice of the Kentucky Wildcats.  Full disclosure---I've known Tom since I was eight years old, and we've been friends for all of that time.  Tom always knew what he wanted to do as a career, and is one of the very few people who's actually made that aspiration a reality.  He's a solid, prepared and highly entertaining play-by-play announcer, doing radio work for Kentucky football and basketball for a number of years.  I had the privilege of working with Tom in the football booth for 13 years and can attest to his extreme professionalism and dedication to his craft.  To this day I remain astounded that he has not been discovered by a larger broadcasting entity.  Like Marty Brennaman with the Reds, he's well-known and -liked throughout Kentucky among the Big Blue Nation's many fans, and he's a local product who understands the connection between Kentucky sports (basketball in particular) and their fans.

I'm sure you have your favorites, too.  These are some of mine!




Monday, February 10, 2014

An ergonomically correct blog entry

Good morning, folks.  Another Monday, another blast of winter here in central Kentucky.  Got about two more inches of snow overnight last night.  It was 15 degrees when I ventured out to shovel our driveway and the neighbor's (a very good neighbor, who looks out for us and we do favors for one another periodically, plus he's in his mid 70's).  I swear, this is the winter that just keeps coming.  At least my friends in California finally got some much-needed rain, but their weather is just as much of an aberration as ours is this year.

And now for something completely different, as our Monty Python friends used to say for an abrupt segue into another topic.  In recent weeks I've been feeling a some stiffness and soreness in my shoulders and elsewhere in my upper body, and think I've traced it to my neck.  I have taken to stretching my neck by tilting my head as far as I can from one side to the other, and, wouldn't you know it, my shoulders and arms feel better, too.  So I then started to wonder what might be causing my neck problems, and what I finally concluded was that I may have created this with bad posture at my desk.

So some research indicated that I needed to raise the height of my desk chair a bit, which was an easy one, and yesterday I picked up a stand for my laptop, so that it is closer to eye level.  That's a bit tricky when you wear bifocals, as I do, but the stand I purchased (which is brushed aluminum, like my Macbook Pro, so it looks pretty spiffy) is height-adjustable.  So I'll no doubt be experimenting with all of this over the next few days.  I've tried to integrate a laptop stand into my office setting before, but gave up each time, probably much too quickly.  I'm going to be persistent with myself this time, as I need to get to where the muscles at the base of my neck aren't perpetually clenched!

Are you watching the Winter Olympics from Russia?  We are, but made the conscious decision to limit our viewing to the edited package that NBC shows in prime time each night.  Not that there isn't other interesting stuff going on during the day on NBC's various other viewing outlets, but I think they'll show us most of what we want to see (well, most of what my wife is willing to watch).  So far we've seen some pretty good figure skating, the men's downhill skiing race, something from the snowboarding world called slopestyle (men's and women's) and moguls skiing, where the object appears to be to ski over and around a set of strategically placed bumps, rendering the skier into a human shock absorber.

And NBC appears to have taken EVERYONE from their news division to Sochi for these Games, at least those who don't cover the President or Congress.  Makes you wonder what they'd do if a major story broke in this country, outside of Washington, of course.

We haven't been to the movies before Christmas, but I was kind of amused to see that "The Lego Movie" raked in over $60 million at the box office.  A lot to be said for a flick that you can take little kids to see....

I have one more little anecdote to share before I step away.....a while back we decided we wanted a second decorative item to match one (actually two items that kind of form a set) that we already had.  So I ordered these items from a national retailer whose store we had visited some time ago out of state (I won't name them here).  When the order finally arrived after nearly two weeks (not kidding) one of the items was defective and the other was an error on my part of what to order.  So I filled out the form to indicate why I was returning the items and requested replacement items, again using the enclosed form.  Cost me about $15 to send this stuff back.  Another two weeks passed and I called the merchant, who finally acknowledged that they had received my shipment but had not begun working on the replacement order.  So I waited about ten days and called again, and got the same story.  Only this time the gal with whom I spoke told me that this should have been handled much more quickly, and they'd get my merchandise out that day, and would not charge me for another round of shipping, etc.  Moral here--some merchants who operate stores do NOT operate a good Internet sales operation.  Reminds me of why I like Amazon.com so much---they may have become the Wal-Mart of the Internet, but they're awfully good at what they do!

That's all for now.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Over and done

The NFL football season came to an end last night, with the Seattle Seahawks' punishing defense stifling the Denver Broncos and their vaunted offensive attack in the Super Bowl.  As I just said to a friend in a message, I knew it wasn't going to be Peyton Manning's night when the first snap of the game went sailing wide and high, setting the tone for a game where an experienced team played as though fearful, and the younger, less tenured Seahawks went for broke nearly the whole game.  Guess that's why they go ahead and play the games.

We joined our son and his family for the game and some good food.  Baked chicken tenders, a corn/tomato/avocado salad, lots of crunchy stuff, and a cake and whoopie pies for dessert.  Best part of the night, particularly since the Broncos weren't able to generate any excitement for our group of partisans!

The commercials were not great this year, as you probably also found if you watched.  Among my favorites this year were the two Budweiser spots (one featuring a great "welcome home" for a soldier returning from combat and the other spotlighting the relationship between a dog and one of the Budweiser Clydesdales), the Audi commercial concerning compromise that featured a Doberhuahua, which was laugh-out-loud funny, and the Radio Shack commercial which said " the 80s called, they want their store back."  The last was a smart move, as Radio Shack still seems like a throwback to me, but thank goodness they're there, particularly when you need something odd.

And those who feared the weather would play a part in the outcome of the game were wrong.....snow and winter weather hit the New York area overnight, AFTER the game.  But I hope this opens the door to a Super Bowl played outdoors in Denver, for example, or some other non-warm-weather city. As long as Joe Namath shows up with his fur coat....

So now I'm ready for baseball.  Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in less than two weeks. Cannot come too soon!  I have always admired what the late A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote about baseball, how it's all about hope in the spring and cold, hard reality by the fall.  I like the optimism part better, of course.

And I can honestly say that I'm sick of winter.  No, I haven't been stranded anywhere, since I don't travel as frequently as I once did.  No, I haven't walked six miles in ice and snow, as a surgeon did in the Atlanta area last week in order to make it to the hospital to perform an operation on a patient in need.  No, I haven't had to abandon my car along the roadside because the roads were impassible.  But I'm just tired of it being cold.  And wet.  And did I mention cold?

Kentucky's basketball team seems to have bad winter weather following it around the Southeastern Conference, as their plane en route to Columbia, Missouri Friday evening was forced to land in St. Louis due to weather, forcing the team and traveling party to bus the rest of the way to Missouri's campus.  No matter, the Cats won in a nice road victory Saturday afternoon.  Hopefully they're beginning to round into form.

Shame about the actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman.  As I told my wife yesterday, I never ran out to see every movie he made, but liked what I saw.  He absolutely disappeared into characters, particularly his Oscar winning performance as author Truman Capote in "Capote" a few years ago.  Astounding.

That's enough for now.



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