Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Fifth Anniversary

Five years ago this morning, I mounted my bicycle outside the Amtrak station on the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia and headed for Tybee Island. The air was a record-cold 35 degrees, but I was headed for the beach. Around 8 AM I trudged toward the Atlantic Ocean pushing 100 pounds of bike and gear. As the 25 mph winds pummeled me with sand, I dipped my rear wheel into the water. Thus began a 3,054-mile trek across the southern United States, a journey that would end 11 weeks later with the baptism of my front wheel in the Pacific Ocean at Morro Bay, California.

People always talk about such experiences as "life-changing," but I never bought into that. And yet, five years later my life has changed, and my coast to coast bicycle tour was clearly the catalyst. As I documented my ride day by day on my Web site, I rediscovered my love for writing. At the same time, I could hardly bear the thought of returning to my computer consulting practice. It took three years and a couple of miserable consulting gigs to finally push me toward a new career. My online tour journal garnered a lot of praise from complete strangers, and that helped me to recognize that I must be good at writing, a skill I had taken for granted for years. So here I am.

Today I'm designing a Web site for a new client as well as writing the copy. The first site I ever created was for my cross-country ride. I remember working on it at the Ramada Express in Pooler, Georgia five years ago after a chilly ride westward from Tybee Island. Looking back today, there are many things I would change on that site. It isn't my best work as a writer or a designer, but it's encouraging to see how much I have improved in five years. Another decade or two and I'll be pretty good at this stuff.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Lyrics of the Day

Today's lyrics are from Rod Stewart...

The morning sun when it's in your face really shows your age
But that don't worry me none, in my eyes you're everything


This picture was taken in June 2005 the last time Maggie stayed with us, the couple she brought together.

Rest in peace Maggie Mae Johnsen. Thanks for everything. Give Teddy a sniff for us.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Bastard of the Day

Today I was upstairs on the phone when the doorbell rang. I generally don't answer because it's almost always somebody soliciting my support for some organization. If you want to see me, you'd better call first. My wife, on the other hand, answers the door and invariably gets sucked into whatever is being offered. So when she's home, the doorbell is usually followed by her asking me to write a check to the National Buttscratcher's Association or something.

Since she wasn't home, I ignored the doorbell and our frantically barking dog. Then the doorbell rang again. Ugh. Maybe it was someone wanting to see my more sociable wife. I slowly descended the stairs and walked over to the door. I looked out, saw the top of an unfamiliar person's head, and walked away.

The doorbell rang again. A word of warning... if you ring my doorbell three times, you'd better be on fire because I'm liable to throw a bucket of water on you. Finally, I answer the door. So who was so desperate to meet me today? It was some political stooge asking whether I was going to vote for Alderman Gene Schulter in the upcoming election.

"I don't even know who's running against him," I said.

"Uh, neither do I," Mr. Stooge replied. Gee, that was helpful. Actually, this guy was pretty useless -- he didn't even have any campaign literature to pass out, just a clipboard where he was recording answers. "Are you going to vote for Gene Schulter?"

"I don't know. I guess so." When a guy comes around with a clipboard representing the alderman, you might as well tell him what he wants to hear. Otherwise, guess who moves to the back of the line when requesting city services? The proper response would have been, "Not if he's going to send people to my house to harrass me on a Saturday afternoon by ringing my freaking doorbell three times!"

So today's co-bastards are the putz with the itchy bell-ringing finger and Alderman Schulter for sending him to my neighborhood in the first place.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Thoughts On Anna Nicole Smith

I was never particularly fond of Anna Nicole Smith, but she seemed like an okay person deep down. Her weakness was that although she craved the spotlight, she had trouble living in it. I am a bit stunned by all the awful things people are saying on message boards in response to her death (by the way, from what I've read of her court papers, she wasn't the gold digger that many presume she was -- the old tycoon pursued her, proposing several times before she acquiesced).

Some deaths are especially sad because they are unexpected. But Smith's death saddens me because it did not surprise me. She always seemed like someone that fame -- and the media -- would eventually chew up and spit out.

No doubt her last few months were difficult. On top of her endless court battle, she gave birth to a daughter, lost a son, and endured manic coverage by the tabloids and entertainment news shows. Some people are better equipped to deal with stress than others, and Smith's recent behavior showed that she wasn't coping well. Whatever tomorrow's autopsy reveals, whether deliberate or accidental, self-inflicted or foul play, the true cause of death is most likely "celebrity" with all its trappings.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Bear Blahs

I'm just not feeling it. According to the media, Chicago is overflowing with Bears fever. After all, they are returning to the Super Bowl this weekend after a two-decade absence. The 1985 Bears are the fondest sports memory of my youth, perhaps my entire life. The only thing that might compare would be the 1980 US Olympic hockey team. But the Olympics lasted two weeks, not five months like football season. In 1985 the Bears were simply awesome. They had one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. They had one of the greatest running backs of all time. And they had personalities galore.

I have tried to get excited about the 2006 Bears. I hadn't deliberately watched pro football -- I mean setting aside three hours and parking myself in front of the TV -- for at least a decade. But when the 2006 Bears went undefeated in their first seven games, it was time to check them out. I watched them play the Miami Dolphins, the only team that beat the 1985 Bears, and they sucked. A few weeks later I was visiting relatives who had the Bears game on. I saw them lose to the New England Patriots, the team the 1985 Bears crushed in Super Bowl XX. And finally, since I was staying home on New Year's Eve, I figured I might as well watch the game against the Packers. The Bears got their butts handed to them on a platter (and even after all these years, I still hate to see Green Bay win a football game). In brief, I watched three games and the Bears lost every one. I know it's just random luck, but I haven't see a Super Bowl-caliber team at all this year.

Who are these guys anyway? I mean, we know so little about them compared to the 1985 team. I have to blame the Chicago media for dropping the ball here. As my mom pointed out, TV coverage of fans outside Soldier Field shows everyone wearing Brian Urlacher jerseys. In 1985 the love was spread around -- there was Walter Payton's #34, Jim McMahon's #9, Mike Singletary's #50, Gary Fencik's #45, and of course William "Refrigerator" Perry's #72, preferably in size XXXXXL. There also may have been jerseys for Richard Dent, Wilber Marshall, Otis Wilson, Dan Hampton, Steve McMichael and others that year; I don't remember. But we certainly knew all of those guys both as players and as personas. They gave interviews, appeared on and hosted TV and radio shows, and starred in countless advertisements.

This season, we know a little about Rex Grossman, particularly that he didn't take the New Year's Eve game seriously (mini-rant: what the Hell was that? Football players only have to concentrate for a few hours during 16-19 games a year, and the starting QB of all people couldn't be bothered? Can you imagine what Mike Ditka would have done to a player -- any player -- who confessed such disinterest in a game against the Packers?!). Of course we know Tank Johnson, but for all the wrong reasons. Otherwise, the rest of these guys could be the 1987 Spare Bears for all I know. And Lovie Smith may be a good coach (like I said, I've only seen him lose), but Ditka, for all his faults, was a more authentic expression of the classic Bears spirit. Smith's style doesn't stir the enthusiasm that Ditka's did.

I just can't get excited about these guys, no matter how many hours of vacuous coverage the local CBS affiliate is giving them in the run-up to the big game. I even read John Mullin's book The Rise And Self-Destruction Of The Greatest Football Team In History last week, hoping that revisiting the 1985 season would stir the hibernating Bears fan within. Alas, it had the opposite effect, reminding me how much more magical that year felt compared to this one.

Of course I will be rooting for the Bears on Sunday, but I can't call myself a fan anymore. Fan is short for fanatic, and I just don't feel fanatical about this team. Just the same, I wish them the best. And I hope Fidel Castro doesn't die on Sunday because that would make Miami go nuts.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Rescue Of The Lipizzaners

I wrote this as a sample submission for a book several months ago. I didn't get the assignment, but I didn't want to waste the story so I'm posting it here...

The Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria is world-renowned for its Lipizzaner horses. The powerful white steeds are famous for performing "airs above the ground," difficult movements where the horses stand or jump on their hind legs. The breed dates back to the sixteenth century when Spanish horses were brought to central Europe by the Hapsburg monarchy.

The riding school and the Lipizzaner breed were endangered when Germany occupied Austria in 1938. During World War II, Alois Podhajsky was permitted to continue training stallions and riders at the school, but the Germans relocated the mares and foals to a stud farm in Hostau, Czechoslovakia. When the Allies began bombing Vienna, Podhajsky fled with the stallions to St. Martin. In April 1945, American soldiers under the command of General George S. Patton liberated the town. Patton, a skilled horseman who participated in the 1912 Olympics, recognized Podhajsky from international competitions. After the stallions performed for Patton and Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson, the Americans agreed to put the animals under the protection of the U.S. Army.

Unbeknownst to Podhajsky, the 2nd U.S. Cavalry under Colonel Charles H. Reed had already secured the mares and foals. On April 24, a captured German general revealed that the horses were being cared for by Allied POWs at Hostau. He feared that advancing Russian soldiers short of supplies might slaughter the horses for meat. At Reed’s request, Patton ordered an attack dubbed "Operation Cowboy" to free the prisoners and horses. Although the Americans battled SS troops en route, the German soldiers in Hostau surrendered without resistance. Reed described the capture as "more a fiesta than a military operation."

When the war ended, the Soviets and Czechs expressed interest in the horses. It was then that American forces spirited them across the border to safety in Germany. After Podhajsky arrived to identify his Lippizaners, the U.S. Army trucked them to St. Martin to be reunited with the stallions. The Spanish Riding School survived in exile under U.S. authority until 1955, when Podhajsky and the dancing white horses returned to Vienna.

Note: The order of events is often given incorrectly thanks to the 1963 Disney movie Miracle of the White Stallions. My source is Colonel Reed’s written account.

The Anti-Me

Yes, there really is a DJ Wronger! (Warning: the site plays music, so turn down those speakers at work.) Since I can't seem to click any of the links on his eponymous flash Web site, you can check out his Myspace page instead. Apparently he spins discs in Microsoftland. And he hasn't had much to say for the past six months.

Molly Ivins, 1944-2007

I was saddened this morning to learn that Molly Ivins, one of my favorite columnists, died last night of breast cancer. An unabashed liberal, Ivins had a writing style all her own. She could make you laugh out loud with one sentence yet give you a thoughtful insight with the next. Her language was sprinkled with Texan slang. As her syndication editor writes today

Shortly after becoming editor of Molly's syndicated column, I learned one of my most important jobs was to tell her newspaper clients that, yes, Molly meant to write it that way. We called her linguistic peculiarities "Molly-isms." Administration officials were "Bushies," government was in fact spelled "guvment," business was "bidness." And if someone was "madder than a peach orchard boar," well, he was quite mad indeed.

Of course, having grown up in Texas, all of this made sense to me. But to newspaper editors in Seattle, Chicago, Detroit and beyond--Yankee land, as Molly would say--her folksy language could be a mystery. "That's just Molly being Molly," I would explain and leave it at that.

He explains the importance of her presence: "She was an authentic female voice on opinion pages across the country with her passionate and eloquent defense of the poorest and the weakest among us and her glee in exposing the corruption of the most powerful."

Ivins was a constant needle in the President's side, having co-authored Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush and Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America with Lou Dubose. Even as a nationwide syndicated columnist, she kept firmly rooted in Texan politics. An admonishment she often repeated was something along the lines of, "Trust me the next time I warn you not to vote for somebody from Texas." Regardless, Bush issued a statement late last night:
Molly Ivins was a Texas original. She was loved by her readers and by her many friends, particularly in Central Texas. I respected her convictions, her passionate belief in the power of words, and her ability to turn a phrase. She fought her illness with that same passion. Her quick wit and commitment to her beliefs will be missed. Laura and I send our condolences to Molly Ivins’ family and friends.
But Ivins wasn't strictly pro-Democrat either. She took pride in speaking truth to power. Her Associated Press obituary says

"The trouble with blaming powerless people is that although it's not nearly as scary as blaming the powerful, it does miss the point," she wrote in a 1997 column. "Poor people do not shut down factories ... Poor people didn't decide to use 'contract employees' because they cost less and don't get any benefits."

In an Austin speech last year, former President Clinton described Ivins as someone who was "good when she praised me and who was painfully good when she criticized me."

Ivins' columns stuck out in the conservative Chicago Tribune. I can recall many "letters to the editor" expressing outrage at her column. A Tribune editorial notes today that Ivins inspired love or vitriol depending on one's politics. It begins

For six years, the trenchant columns of Molly Ivins have raised Cain on the Commentary page of this newspaper. In that too-brief span of time, not one of the many fine writers who share that real estate infuriated so many Tribune readers--or won the adoration of so many others.

When her column didn't appear, the former group had a good blood-pressure day, and the latter group suspected that, yep, it finally had happened: A newspaper that had twice endorsed the American president she most loathed had squelched her column. The great right-wing conspiracy had caught up with Molly.

If only. That would have been the better fate.

In fact, her illness was the reason her columns were sporadic recently. In an interview with the San Antonio Express-News last fall, she gave a decidedly un-Lance-Armstrong-like perspective of her disease: "I'm sorry to say (cancer) can kill you, but it doesn't make you a better person." Still, cancer had to take three shots at Ivins to bring her down, beginning in 1999.

The Texas Observer, where Ivins served as co-editor in the 1970s, has turned its Web site into a tribute to her. She supported the newspaper long after she moved on to bigger venues:
She remained convinced that Texas needed a progressive, independent voice to call the powerful to account and to stand up for the common folk. She kept our voice alive. More than once, when the paper was on the brink of insolvency, she delivered speeches and gave us the honorariums. She donated royalties from her best-selling book Shrub to keep the doors open. Her determination and efforts sustained the Observer as a magazine, as a family, and as a community.
Some of her work is collected here.

It's been written more than once that Ivins wouldn't want us to mourn her passing. As the Tribune put it, "You can bet, too, that there'll be quite a party in Austin, because Molly would want that and probably left instructions." Among them is likely a command to use her many awards as trivets, which she often did. When her editor asked her about this, she replied, "Well, what else am I going to do with 'em?"

I'm Only Sleeping

Last year I made a list of every town where I slept in 2005. It included 20 towns, most of them in Illinois (I was working on Biking Illinois that year). My list for 2006 is about the same length as 2005 but with fewer Illinois towns:

Chicago, IL (home)
Rock Falls, IL
Salina, KS
Eads, CO
Pueblo, CO
Alamosa, CO
Leadville, CO
Salida, CO
Manitou Springs, CO
Ogallala, NE
Avoca, IA
Moline, IL
Normal, IL
Joplin, MO
Ardmore, OK
Decatur, TX
Plainview, TX
Guthrie, OK
Bloomington, IL

In 2005 I stayed at Motel 6 a lot. I didn't stay in nearly as many Motel 6 properties in 2006 for two reasons. First, since my new laptop has Wi-Fi, I opted for motels with free Wi-Fi (so far the only Motel 6 where I've seen free Wi-Fi is in Avoca, IA). Second, I did most of my traveling with my wife. Once you add the extra $6 for a second adult, Motel 6 isn't much cheaper than Super 8, Days Inn, Econolodge, etc., which in addition to being a little nicer all around also happen to have free Wi-Fi.