Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Banned

There's an annual list of words put out by Lake Superior State University in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, fashionable buzzwords and phrases that should be banned from the language.

Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, had a similar list in the dearly departed Life in Hell comic strip. (That's his character Binky at left, no doubt fretting over words in need of banishment.)

I love these lists. I only wish they had the force of law.

The Lake Superior State University list ("Unicorn Hunters") usually comes out around the first of the year.  The 2013 edition included "trending" and "bucket list."

I've got my own list of words and phrases I love to hate. They should be banished for offenses to good taste; for offenses to proper theology and geometry – as Ignatius J. Reilly might put it.

My list includes, but is not limited to: re-purpose, back in the day, my bad, it's all good, you rock, and no worries.

Don't use 'em. Lake Superior State University will grant you a license.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Roadside Attractions: Ghost Bike

Earlier this week, a cyclist was struck and killed by a semi-trailer on the outskirts of my town.

According to newspaper accounts, the semi-trailer driver failed to yield to the cyclist as he turned into a landscaping company driveway. The cyclist hit the truck's rear wheels and was instantly killed.

Later that same day a “ghost bike” appeared near the scene of the accident, placed anonymously.

The next day I rode my bike up to the scene of the accident to see it, and photograph the ghost bike for myself. I took the picture at left, converted it to greyscale, and tweaked it to enhance the bike's luminescence. But that pure white bicycle already glowed in the bright afternoon sun.

Ghost bikes have been placed at the scenes of more than 500 fatal bike accidents worldwide over the last ten years, the newspaper said – part of an informal awareness movement.

"What can we do to reduce likelihood of the crashes?" asked someone with an advocacy group called Bikes Belong. "Can we change how our streets and roads work? How our system works? Can we better educate all road users to be more careful, to be more aware?"


Thursday, August 15, 2013

One Night at the Stadium

A mostly true short story.



Most of my childhood was miraculously blessed, at times even idyllic. I experienced no disease or sudden death, no agonizing loss – almost no trauma at all, except for the disappearance of a parakeet. My parents always encouraged me to investigate and pursue what interested me, and I progressed from firefighters to cowboys to superheroes. By the age of ten, my great passion was baseball.

When I was eleven, with my passion at its height, my best friend Chuck invited me to attend a twi-night doubleheader at Tiger Stadium in Detroit – Shriner's Night, Chuck said. We would go with his dad and uncle to see the Tigers, my favorite team, play the Cleveland Indians. The prospect of two games in one night so intoxicated me that my parents, at first reluctant, bowed to my enthusiasm.

Chuck lived next door and we played together all the time, usually baseball and football and other sports. His dad, also named Chuck, was very different from my own. Chuck Senior was a big, bear-like man, more grizzly than teddy. He smoked cigars and almost always had one clamped in his jaw; sometimes he chewed on them without lighting up. I had no idea what he did for a living. What I did know seemed wonderfully different, like when he drove Chuck and me down to Ohio at the start of each summer for a trunkload of fireworks.

Some of the things Chuck Senior did were not so wonderful. One day he laced a pair of boxing gloves onto Chuck and another onto me, and urged us to duke it out. He’d been coaching his son in the gentlemanly art of pugilism. I was a novice, though, with no reason to fight my best friend. Chuck Junior pummeled me without mercy.

The doubleheader began in late afternoon, and we drove downtown in high spirits. Chuck Senior had purchased excellent seats in the lower deck along the third baseline, just about even with third base. When the game began we studied both teams’ third baseman, noting how each crouched in a state of readiness as the pitcher went into his wind-up.

We watched the pitchers closely, too. The Cleveland starter had an unusual wind-up. He began by rocking back on the pitcher’s slab, then turned and twisted his body directly toward center field. After a brief pause he pivoted back toward home, his left leg leaped forward, and his right leg pushed off the slab; he delivered the ball with tremendous velocity.

Chuck and I took all this in. We munched on hot dogs and sipped sodas. My parents had given me ten dollars for food and a souvenir, but so far Chuck’s dad had paid for everything. It was shaping up to be a memorable night.

Then in the third inning, Chuck’s dad and uncle abruptly stood.

“Chuckie,” his dad said, “me and Uncle Bob need to go off for a little while.” 

Chuck did not seem surprised. “Okay,” he replied.

Chuck Senior placed a half-smoked cigar in his mouth and reached into his pocket to pull something out. “Here,” he said, extending his arm. “These are the ticket stubs for your seats. You might need ’em.” Chuck accepted the stubs and put them into his shirt pocket.

“And here’s a fin,” Uncle Bob said, handing Chuck a five dollar bill.

The two adults began making their way toward the aisle. “We won’t be too long.”

“Okay,” Chuck said again, watching them go. They reached the aisle and began climbing the concrete steps toward the exit, never once looking back.

And just that quickly, Chuck and I were left by ourselves.

“Where are they going?” I asked, as Chuck’s dad and uncle disappeared into the crowd.

“I don’t know,” Chuck replied. His voice was flat and lifeless.

“This is pretty cool!”

“Yeah.”

“I mean, we’re at a game, all by ourselves!”

“Yep.”

“I still got my money,” I said. “Between us we’ve got fifteen bucks!”

“I’m not hungry any more.”

The Tigers were batting, but Cleveland’s pitcher was mowing them down. I glanced over at Chuck. “You know what I want? I wanna get me one of those batting helmets.”

“Okay.”

“I think I’ll go get one right now. You gonna come with me?”

“Sure.”

So we stood up, pausing long enough to watch Ray Oyler, the Tigers’ weak-hitting shortstop, take a called third strike. Then we headed to the aisle and up the concrete stairs, the same direction Chuck’s dad and uncle had gone a few minutes earlier.

Souvenirs were available throughout the ballpark, but I wanted to go to a particular concession stand, even though it was far from our seats. I had seen it on our way in: the guy running it looked friendly. We had to pass three or four similar stands to reach it.

So we began the trek back to the stand I had fixated on. Like the others, it sold a lot of memorabilia: Tiger pennants, caps, and baseballs; game programs and yearbooks; and machine-autographed pictures of Tiger stars. There were pens and pencils with Tiger logos, miniature bats, and stuffed animal Tiger mascots. A huge cluster of balloons, held together with lightweight netting, was affixed to a helium tank. Stacked neatly to one side of all this stuff were the coveted Detroit Tiger batting helmets.

They weren’t real batting helmets, of course. A notice on the side of the plastic wrapper said so: “This item is a toy. It is not to be used as protective equipment.” But they sure looked real to me: deep dark blue with an Old English D on the front. What I really wanted was a genuine Tiger helmet, one that was all scratched and scuffed from use. Bill Freehan wore such a helmet in a photo in the Tiger yearbook. That’s what I wanted – but I’d settle for this flimsy plastic version that was just a toy, that was not meant to be used as protective equipment.

The helmet cost seven dollars. I bought it and immediately put it on. I still had enough money for another hot dog and another soda.

Chuck had said he wasn’t hungry anymore, but when I bought another hot dog, so did he. Another soda, too. We piled them onto a cardboard carrier, slopped on mustard and ketchup, and went back to our seats.

We had only missed about an inning, but what had been a scoreless game was now a 1-1 tie. It was the bottom of the fourth, the Tigers had a guy on third, and there were two outs. Chuck and I settled back into our seats, bit into our hot dogs, and watched Eddie Matthews pop out into foul territory, just off of first base.

The game stayed deadlocked for the next four innings. Then, in the top of the eighth, Duke Sims put Cleveland ahead with a solo home run that landed in the right field upper deck. After the Tigers went down weakly in the bottom of the eighth, my heart began to sink.

The Indians went out in order in the top of the ninth, and the game came down to three little outs. But sometimes three little outs are the hardest to get. Gates Brown, pinch-hitting with no runners on board, smashed a towering home run that bounced off the facing of the right field upper deck, and the game was tied. The next three guys all made easy outs, though, so the game went into extra innings.

It stayed tied through the tenth and eleventh innings. In the top of the twelfth the Indians loaded the bases with nobody out and I didn’t see how they could fail to win. But the Tigers brought in a relief pitcher just up from the minor leagues, and in a magnificent performance, he struck out the side.

The Tigers came trotting in for their half of the twelfth, and the Indians went out to their defensive positions. I felt a tremendous release of tension after that new guy’s relief pitching. But suddenly it occurred to me that Chuck and I had been alone now for quite a long time.

“Chuck,” I said. “Where’s your dad?”

Chuck turned his head toward me, but didn’t look me in the eye. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve been wondering that, too.”

I hadn’t noticed the time when Chuck Senior and Uncle Bob left us, but by now darkness was settling in. The stadium lights were on. A digital clock on the center field scoreboard said 8:35.

“Well,” I said, with a confidence I did not feel, “they’ll probably be back pretty soon.” Chuck finally met my gaze. He looked scared.

The game remained tied into the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth innings. Relief pitchers on both sides dominated. There were a couple of singles here and there, but the runners were all left stranded.

Then, in the bottom of the sixteenth and with the game still tied, Bill Freehan hit a one-out double, a line drive into the left field corner that allowed him to cruise easily into second base.

The next batter was Dick Tracewski. Under different circumstances someone would probably have pinch-hit for him: like Ray Oyler, Tracewski was a weak-hitting infielder. But in this game that had already gone seven innings beyond regulation, the Tigers were running out of guys.

To my surprise, Tracewski lined the very first pitch into the gap in right-center field. With our excellent seats nearly even with third, Chuck and I had a perfect view as Bill Freehan came steaming around third base. Freehan was a big guy, a catcher, and it astonished me to see him running so very fast. He never broke stride as he sped toward home with the winning run.

The Tigers all ran from the dugout for an impromptu home plate celebration, and the crowd cheered wildly. But there was still another game to be played, so after some back patting and fist pumping, they trotted off the field to do whatever they did between games.

After the cheering subsided, Chuck and I did not speak for several minutes. At last, quietly and tentatively, I said, “Do you think we should find a policeman?” Usually I called them cops, but growing anxiety brought out my best manners.

Chuck’s reply was immediate and very forceful. “No!” he cried. “We can’t do that! They’ll put my dad in jail!”

“No they won’t. They’ll just go find him.”

“No they won’t!” he said. “They’ll put him in jail!”

I didn’t know what to say to that. But Chuck seemed to know what he was talking about.

At that moment the stadium’s public address system crackled to life. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” said a voice. “Welcome to the tenth annual Shriner’s Night at Tiger Stadium! The Tigers and the City of Detroit are pleased to present the Livonia Chapter of the Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine!”

Music blared, and suddenly a dozen men in miniature cars came driving onto the baseball diamond. Each wore a fez and a shiny green sport jacket with gold tassels on the shoulders. Some of these men barely fit into the cars; the knees of one jutted high above its doors. I thought they looked ridiculous. Driving in formation, the cars puttered into the infield and drove in a big circle around the pitcher’s mound, before driving to the basepaths and circling the bases.

“What the hell is this?” I asked Chuck.

“They’re Shriners.”

“What the hell are Shriners?”

“I don’t know. I think they build hospitals and stuff.”

By this time Chuck and I were both glancing repeatedly, but surreptitiously, in the direction that his dad and uncle had gone, hours before. If we just kept looking, we were bound to be rewarded with the sight of the two of them returning.

But for now most of our attention was directed at the Shriners, who drove around for another few minutes. Their maneuvers were calculated to amuse, but as I watched these grown men in tiny cars, I could not fathom their purpose. They built hospitals? They didn’t look like any construction workers I’d ever seen.

They drove out to the warning track along the outfield walls, at last forming a huge circle in center field. Then a large gate in the center field fence opened up, and one by one the Shriners, waving farewell, drove through it.

Then another guy in a fez and green jacket came onto the field. He began speaking into a microphone that had been set up in front of the pitcher’s mound. Chuck and I went to the bathroom. When we got back, managers from the two baseball teams were at home plate exchanging starting lineups. Finally the second game got underway. I looked at the scoreboard clock: it was almost 10:30.

The Tigers’ starting pitcher was Pat Dobson. He allowed two hits but no runs over the first four innings. The Tigers, meanwhile, jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first. Dick McAuliffe led off with a single, went to third when Tom Matchick singled to right, and scored when Bill Freehan hit a sacrifice fly to center. Matchick scored when Jim Northrup doubled down the right field line. But by the fifth inning it was shaping up to be a pitcher’s duel, my least favorite kind of game. I always wanted a lot of hits and runs – provided most of them were by the Tigers.

It was 11:45 and Chuck and I were still by ourselves. I was thinking about another hot dog when Chuck suddenly turned to me, said “Where’s my dad?” and began to cry.

“I don’t know,” I told him. “Come on, Chuck. Don’t cry. They’ll be back soon.”

“What if they’re not?”

And that was the big question. I had resisted it, telling myself they were in some far corner of the stadium, doing something that only grownups could do – having a private confab with the Tigers’ manager, perhaps, or some other important person. But Chuck’s fear had weakened my confidence. Had Chuck’s dad and uncle left the stadium? Of course they had! That was why they gave Chuck the ticket stubs! And now they’d forgotten all about us! Maybe they’d been knifed by street thugs!

“I don’t know, Chuck. I don’t know. You’re making me scared.”

“I’m scared too.”

“Maybe we should find a policeman.”

“We can’t do that,” he sobbed. “I told you. My dad will get in trouble. They’ll put him in jail.”

And so we just sat there. It was increasingly difficult to concentrate on the game. It remained a pitcher’s duel – a boring, god-awful pitcher’s duel. One after another, players on each team struck out or hit weak little pop flies for routine outs. Both third basemen still crouched in readiness, but watching them no longer engrossed me.

The Indians were just coming to bat in the top of the seventh inning when I happened to glance up and see the time. It was past 12:30. I was rarely up this late.

A few minutes later, the public address system came to life again. “Ladies and gentlemen,” said a voice. “Under American League rules, a new inning cannot begin after one a.m. After one o’clock, the home team is allowed a final at-bat. If the game remains tied it is postponed, to be completed at a later time.”

There was a smattering of applause. But by then, a lot of people had left the stadium.

Cleveland’s leadoff hitter worked the pitcher to a full count before hitting a sharp line drive into the gap in left-center. He made it easily to second base, and advanced to third on a sacrifice fly. But the next two batters struck out.

It was almost one o’clock when the Tigers came to bat. Their leadoff hitter was Norm Cash. He took the first pitch for a strike and fouled the next pitch off the screen directly behind home plate, so the count was 0-and-two. He was just digging in for the next pitch when a voice called out, “Hey, Chuckie!”

“Dad!” Chuck shouted.

Chuck Senior and Uncle Bob, each holding a cup of beer, came lumbering down the concrete steps. They were almost to our row. Chuck jumped to his feet and ran to meet them. He threw his arms around his father, and received a big bear hug in return.

And then the three of them came to their seats. Chuck’s dad and uncle both said hello to me, but offered no explanation for their whereabouts over the last five hours. Chuck Senior wrapped one arm around Chuck, who snuggled into the paternal embrace. I sat beside Chuck, and Uncle Bob sat next to me.

“Dad, I was really worried about you,” Chuck said.

“Aw, son, I’m sorry,” Chuck Senior replied. I thought I detected a slur in his voice. “Me an’ Bob were just havin’ some fun, an’ we lost track of the time.”

“They had the ballgame on, though,” Uncle Bob said. “Sounds like you guys saw yourselves a whale of a game.” Only later did I appreciate what Bob’s comment revealed.

“Yeah, it was good,” Chuck said. “It was long, though.”

“Hey – ” Chuck Senior suddenly demanded. “What’d that guy say? That guy on the P.A.? This game’s gonna end soon?”

“He said they can’t start a new inning after one a.m.,” I said.

“Aw, shit,” said Uncle Bob. “I thought we’d be able to catch the end of this one.”

“What a stupid rule,” Chuck Senior added.

My dad did not drink much, and I wasn’t sure what I was dealing with. But it was just dawning on me that Chuck Senior and Uncle Bob were quite drunk, and that this was nothing new for Chuck. I heard my friend say quietly, in a quivering voice he probably hoped I couldn’t hear, “Dad, I was getting really scared.”

“Aw, hell, son.” He pressed his lips into a grim straight line as he tried to process his next move. His brain must have been functioning at a very primitive level when his glassy eyes came to rest on me, in my shiny souvenir batting helmet. Abruptly he reached out with one enormous hand, removed the helmet from my head, and dropped it clumsily onto Chuck’s.

Gloomily, I looked back toward the ballgame. How could he just take my new helmet away like that? I glanced at Chuck Senior, one arm around his son. The other bent across his chest as he reached into his shirt pocket, removed the stub of a cigar, and clamped it between his teeth. He pulled out a lighter and fired up.

Just then Don Wert hit a high pop fly, an easy putout that ended the inning. Moments later the public address announcer came back on to say that the game was now officially postponed. After a few moments, the four of us stood and began walking toward the exit.

We trudged up the long flight of concrete stairs to the wide, outer walkways encircling the stadium. The food concessions had all closed, but the souvenir vendors were still open, hoping to catch the interest of exiting fans. We passed one, then another, and then another souvenir stand. Surely, I thought, Chuck’s dad would stop at one to replace my batting helmet.

Chuck was calm: his dad was back, so everything was okay. Ahead of us, Chuck Senior and Uncle Bob walked side by side, leaning in toward each other conspiratorially. A couple of times their shoulders bumped. Bob said something and they both laughed.

Suddenly, as we passed yet another souvenir stand, Chuck Senior thrust out an arm and pressed the burning end of his cigar into one of the balloons on sale there. It burst with a thunderous pop.

“Hey!” the vendor cried out. “Whad’ya do that for?”

Chuck Senior and Uncle Bob both laughed, and Bob added, “Aw, shut the hell up!”

“You owe me five bucks, asshole!”

“Shut the hell up!” Chuck Senior yelled back. He and Bob laughed again.

The exiting crowd propelled us along like a strong river current, and in a few minutes we were out of the stadium. The vendor did not pursue us.

We made it back to the car and began the long drive home. For fun, Chuck and I began waving at cars speeding alongside us on the freeway. Some of the drivers waved back. Encouraged, we picked up a couple of the empty beer cans that littered the floor and began toasting some of the motorists, hoisting the cans and pretending to drink. We laughed.

Chuck’s dad saw what we were doing. “Hey!” he bellowed. “Put those down! Jesus! Me an’ Bob could get in a helluva lot of trouble, if a cop saw you!”

Chastened into silence, we settled back in our seats. Pretty soon Chuck dozed off. I stared at all the traffic passing the other way.

Finally we reached the suburbs, and before long turned into our neighborhood and drove down its safe, quiet streets. At last we pulled into Chuck’s driveway. The car bumped up slightly as we drove in, and Chuck woke with a start.

I opened the car door and stepped out. “See you tomorrow.” A thank-you did not feel appropriate.

“Okay,” Chuck replied with a yawn. He still wore my batting helmet.

Chuck’s dad and Uncle Bob walked unsteadily up their sidewalk without saying a word to me. Chuck trailed behind them. I paused briefly to watch as the three of them went inside the house – a place I knew well, had been in countless times, but which now had a different meaning for me. I couldn’t express it, but I knew things must happen there that were beyond my experience and ability to understand.

At my own house, the porch light was on. The interior was utterly dark, but as I let myself in, a light at the top of the stairs flicked on.


Saturday, August 10, 2013

Anal-Retentive yadda yadda

The appearance of text on a page is important to me. This site – Blogger, or Blogspot, whatever the hell it's called – allows only limited control of a page's appearance. One of the issues I've had with them lately is leading.

Leading is a printer's term, defined at right. I prefer a certain leading.

Below are two sample blocks of text. The words themselves are not relevant. See if you can tell the difference in the appearance of these two sample blocks.

Sample block of text, along the lines of the quick brown fox jumping over a lazy dog or a little frog or a lumpy log in the pea-soup fog, well-orchestrated strains of straining linear liner notes...

Sample block of text, along the lines of the quick brown fox jumping over a lazy dog or a little frog or a lumpy log in the pea-soup fog, well-orchestrated strains of straining linear liner notes...

The difference is obvious enough. The leading is greater in the second example.

Blogger/Blogspot provides templates with default HTML, the stuff underlying web pages that helps define its appearance. The default HTML always used to provide the tighter leading seen in the first example. But somewhere along the line it changed. I can't stand the newer appearance.

It took me a while to figure out just what was different. Now that I have, I go through the HTML of each post and change the markup to set the preferred leading. It doesn't take much effort; I do it with search-and-replace.

What am I, some kind of control freak?

Friday, August 9, 2013

Subwoofers

My oldest kid has a new set of sub-woofers (or subwoofers, one word, if you prefer). Getting them was part of a complex arrangement not really relevant here, although they are basically a graduation present from us.

These subwoofers – all subwoofers, I submit – are a public nuisance; a menace to society.

The subs in question are for the car. Simultaneous with getting them, the kid is learning to drive. As of this writing he should have his license in about a week.

I realize my dislike of these things is a generational matter. Part of his attraction to them – only a part, and probably small – is the fact that subwoofers drive me nuts. I have to listen and listen and listen as we drive around. I'm teaching him how to drive a stick.

Here's a generational comment: that crap he calls music is, I swear, embedded with needless bass – that bottom end of the sound spectrum. In fact most of the bass on the stuff he likes isn't even musical. You almost can't hear it. It is more a presence, a dense sonic assault, than it is music.

O the vibrations.

As Popeye used to say, I can't stands it.

Subwoofers. Jesus H. Christ. These kids today.