Monday, November 28, 2005

Hobbies-Part the Third

The gods do not deduct from man's alloted span the hours spent in fishing. -- Babylonian proverb

One of the reasons I chucked golf, other than to retain my tenuous hold on sanity, was that I preferred to spend my time fishing. Not being independently wealthy, the leisure time available for fishing was inversely proportional to the time spent hacking through the woods in search of a dimpled spheroid. Now the big difference between the two activities is that, if you make a hundred casts and catch a couple of nice fish, it's a good day. In golf, a couple of good shots out of more than a hundred is not a pleasant experience.

Choosing fishing, then, was a no-brainer.

I don't fish anymore, but it's not because the angling wasn't fun. It was some of the associated aspects. For example, serious fishing requires a boat. Now it is said that the two happiest days of a boat owner's life are the day he buys the boat and the day he sells it. I had three boats, so I had six of those days. In between, I had engine problems, battery problems, trolling motor problems, scheduled maintenance (at Mercedes-Benz prices), and bees' nests. Yes, bees. It seems that the drain plug and bilge pump exit are places that bees think make ideal little egg hatcheries.

At least I never had snakes. Removal of snakes from a boat, which has numerous serpentine hiding places, requires the application of mothballs in an enclosed space. Don't ask.

In and around all those adventures, I actually managed to get some fishing in. At least, I could fish before all the pleasure boaters and water skiers hit the water. I have been on lakes with so many boat wakes criss-crossing that it looked like a gale was blowing up whitecaps. I have never understood the joys of getting in a boat and riding up and down the lake for hours at a time. I mean, after you've seen the scenery a couple of times, then what? At least water skiers are doing something.

Unfortunately, there is some pernicious quirk in the fabric of the universe that causes fishermen and water skiers to want to use exactly the same little channel on a 4000 acre lake. This leads to unnecessary acrimony, as well as the occasional well-thrown beverage container.

A friend of mine from Virginia got a small measure of revenge. On a hot day, he decided to put on his swim trunks. No one was in sight for miles, he dropped his drawers, while I discretely fished in the other direction. No sooner was he in his birthday suit then what should come around the bend but a boat full of folks towing a skier. He mooned the whole bunch. The skier did a lovely header.

To this day, old Moon (as I came to call him) swears it was unintentional. Personally, I thought it was taking him quite a while to untangle that swim suit.

The last reason that I retired from fishing was tournaments. I'm not talking about Bassmasters or the Wal-Mart tour here. It seems that social organizations, charity organizations, companies, and for-real bass clubs all were putting on tournaments. When I opened up the sports section one February and saw two to four tournaments every weekend from March until September, I gave it up. Every body of water I like to fish seemed to have a contest every other weekend. When there was no tournament, then contestants were “practicing.” Tournament fishermen can be reasonably obnoxious, even when they're polite.

I was fishing a sand bar on a weekday that I was off from work. Normally, during the week, the river I was fishing was deserted. That was the case this day, until an 18-foot fiberglass monster with a 200 HP motor roared up. The driver and his friends (there were three in the boat) were fishing a tournament on the coming weekend, and did I mind if they fished the sand bar for a while? Well, yes I did mind, but, being outnumbered, I declined to be obstinate. I mumbled assent and moved down the bar so they could fish some tree stumps in the shallows.

Now, I had fished the point on a number of occasions. So, if I was a nice guy, I would have pointed out the only small fish could be found in the stumps. I could have told them I was fishing in deep water at the end of the bar and catching good-sized fish. If I was a nice guy, I could have been very helpful.

I was helpful, in a way. I moved down and caught about six fish before their eyes. Then I cranked my engine and putted away with a wave and a smirk.

Hey, what do you expect? I used to be a golfer.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Hobbies – Part the Second

Golf is not a game, it's bondage. It was obviously devised by a man torn with guilt, eager to atone for his sins. ~Jim Murray

The quintuple bogeys (see Part the First) are not the only reason I gave up golf. After all, if everyone quit doing things just because they were inept at doing them, the highways be devoid of cars, as 90% of drivers would have begun walking to work. Only about six people would be able to run for president; unfortunately, they would be too smart to do so. Based on my personal experience, 60% of all dentists would be forced to find another vocation.

No, mere ineptitude would not have been sufficient to sour me on the game. There were other factors.

The Uniform
I am a casual sort of person. All right, I'm a slob. I like comfortably baggy jeans and an old t-shirt for almost all outdoor activities. In fact, I like them for indoor activities, like my job, but that's another story. Golfers expect everyone to show up in slacks or shorts with creases in them and the obligatory golf shirt with the little critter on the pocket. I can't cope with that. After spending a day crawling over, under, and around timber and large rocks in the woods, attire like that just can't hold up.

The Sportsmanship
One thing about professional golfers is that they appear to be scrupulously honest, to the point of calling penalty strokes on themselves, even when no one saw them do anything wrong. If all golfers played that way, the category of “duffer” would be seriously expanded. Unfortunately, most golfers, shall we say, “bend the rules.” Oh, they never call it that. They have terms for their shady doings. Taking a shot over is called a “mulligan.” Improving your lie is “playing winter rules.” In July. The rest of us have a term for these sorts of things. Cheating.

The Good Golfers
Good golfers need their own courses. When klutzes like me are hitting their sixth stroke at the base of the green, it is depressing to hear some dolt scream “FORE!” at the top of his lungs while attempting to bean me with his Titleist on his second shot. Fortunately, one of the advantages of being in the woods is that the good golfers don't hit there very often.

In fact, it was a good golfer that started me down the path to retiring from the game. I was in a Captain's Choice company tournament. Captain's Choice is wonderful for bad golfers, because everyone on the team hits from the tee. Then the best shot is chosen, and everyone hits from that spot. Since every team has one good and one fairly good golfer, it's likely my only trip into the woods will be to pick up my ball. And my rare good shot won't be spoiled by my awful following shot, because one of the others on the team will most likely make up for it.

In Captain's Choice, I actually get to putt for birdies now and then.

In this particular tournament, my team was doing rather well, playing at 3 under par coming to the eighteenth hole. As we came to the last hole, the unbelievable occurred as all three of us shanked our shots toward a creek on the right. Two of the balls had disappeared, but one was sitting up on a rock in the shallow stream, so we decided to play that one. Our fairly good player stepped down into the creek, which was about three feet below the level of the fairway. He swung and ducked as the ball hit the bank and came back at him. I stepped into the creek to take my shot, and a miracle happened.

I hit the ball about 100 yards down the fairway in perfect position to shoot for the green. Our good golfer offered effusive praise, then stepped in and took his shot. He smacked the ball 200 yards to the base of the green. It made no difference that he told me that my shot made it possible for him to take a chance at hitting long. He had just made the best shot of my life look like hamburger.

When God sends you a message like that, you need to listen.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Hobbies – Part the First

Golf is a good walk spoiled. ~Mark Twain

I've had a variety of hobbies over the years. Currently, I have two. One is blogging (which is kind of a pathetic excuse for a hobby). The other is converting my large collection of vinyl records to CD's a) before my record player dies, b) before I die, and c) before the RIAA bribes Congress into making it illegal to even hum a song without paying a royalty.

Oh, there's the computer stuff, but that's my job, and one's job should never be one's hobby. One couldn't tell whether one was working or relaxing.

One of the things I used to do was play golf. For twenty freaking years, I played golf. That's twenty years that I could have spent getting semi-annual root canals, taming tarantulas, walking on hot coals, or some other more relaxing activity. Why, you ask, did I keep playing the game? You didn't ask? Listen, it's my blog, and I'll decide who's asking things around here.

It was my father's fault.

Golf was our father-son activity. We couldn't do car maintenance because of our mechanical deficiencies I have described in an earlier piece. Getting injured together is not a good shared activity. We couldn't share my athletic experiences because I was a complete lox in any sport, which I'm sure depressed Dad who had been a pretty fair soccer player in his youth. He was also a dirty soccer player, but that's another story. But golf was another matter.

He took up the game because it was a way to make business contacts. All businessmen play golf; my dad wanted to be a businessman. Therefore, he played golf. And he was lousy. So, I'm sure he figured that even if I was as lousy as him, we'd have fun because we'd be wandering through the woods together looking for our tee shots.

Well, he was right about the woods.

To be fair, I did enjoy the time with Dad. Eventually, the game became a habit. Then I went to work, and everyone at work played golf, so to be sociable, I played golf. Fortunately, there was always someone in the group as bad as I was (there was almost no one who was worse), so I didn't feel like a total fool.

The problem with golf is that failure is always imminent. If I hit a beautiful tee shot, the next one was shanked into the woods. If I got to the green in good order, my putt would fly past the hole and roll into a sand trap. In golf terms, par is the number of strokes it should take you to successfully complete the hole. A birdie is one stroke less than par, which is good. A bogey is one stroke more than par, which isn't bad. Two over par is a double-bogey, which isn't good. Five over par is a reason to give up the game. I had a lot of reasons to give up the game.

I did have one great moment in my golf career. A friend and I were out one Saturday and decided to make our round interesting by playing for big stakes: Ten cents a hole. After 8 holes, I was 70 cents down, which was about right for me. As I was watching Larry take his practice swings on the ninth hole, I noticed that he had a distinct pause in his swing. I swear that it was in all innocence that I asked him, “How long have you had that funny hitch in your swing?”

I ended up a dime up on the round. And Larry didn't say a word to me over the last three holes. Or for two weeks afterwards, either.

Hey, golf ain't for sissies, you know?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Good, the Bad, and the Babbling Idiot

...and Heaven have mercy on us all – Presbyterians and Pagans alike – for we are all somehow dreadfully cracked about the head, and sadly need mending. -- Herman Melville, Moby Dick 
As we were headed for the Chinese restaurant, the conversation turned, as it so often does, to an acquaintance who happened to be ill. In this case, the co-worker with whom I was lunching was telling me about his friend who was back in the hospital with a disease that has potential serious consequences if not treated effectively. Before too long, I found myself pontificating on the subject and offering opinions about what course the patient might follow. Suddenly, I realized what was happening.

Once again, the Bad-Advice gene had struck.

Science has mapped the human genome, so I am certain they have identified this dreadful little bugger, as well as its better half, the Good-Advice gene. We all have both. When the Good-Advice (GA) gene is functional, we behave entirely differently than when the Bad-Advice (BA) gene is dominating.

When GA is ascendant, we keep our mouths shut unless we have something dependable and intelligent to say. Unfortunately, BA is often more aggressive and takes over our lives, forcing us to say unctuous things and offer advice based on in-depth science or psychological journals like The Readers' Digest.

The BA gene also has a direct connection to the Babbling Idiot (BI) gene, which produces the unfortunate result that once we start delivering this unsolicited advice, we're difficult to stop. On a really good day (or a bad one depending on whether you're advising or being advised), our advice can be totally contradictory. We can recommend that a friend go on the Atkins diet one minute and suggest that extreme diets are dangerous in the next. And do it with a straight face, too.

Now, I like to think that, in my case, I still have enough GA working to avoid such attacks. But, it goes to show that one must be vigilant. Given the chance, BA will rip out GA's heart and stomp that sucker flat (from the song of the same name). When that happens, a person is in real trouble.

The GA gene not only keeps us from giving stupid advice, it also keeps us from asking for stupid advice. It even prevents us from accepting our own bad ideas. When BA beats GA into submission, your very soul is in peril.

You can spot a person whose GA has gone to its reward in a New York minute. He is always telling you about some troubled person and how it's really none of his business, but if it was his freemish that had gone cronk, he would definitely take a bleem as soon as possible. Before the conversation is out, he will change the subject to his current woe and practically beg you for your opinion about whether a damaged foobar should be repaired or replaced.

Do not allow this person to draw you in. He will reject each piece of advice you offer until you manage to give completely contradictory opinions concerning the best action to take. That's what your BA is waiting for. Once it has you in its clutches, you'll be suggesting to perfect strangers at Home Depot how they should redecorate their garages.

Of course, you don't have to take my advice.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Who's on the Case?

The little gray cells, Hastings, they have never let me down. -- Hercule Poirot

Sunday is my day to veg out, which I do quite well, thank you. After all, everyone is good at something. At any rate, the Biography Channel shows mystery shows on Sundays*, and this week was a feast of Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie's dapper Belgian sleuth. Having watched so many episodes, I decided it was time to actually read the stories, so I got online and ordered a couple of Christie's Poirot short story collections.

Of course, this got me to reminiscing about arguments I used to have with an old college buddy about great fictional detectives. Larry was a big admirer of Nero Wolfe, while I was (and am) a devoted follower of Sherlock Holmes. Neither of us cared for the other's choice, for reasons that bear explaining.

It wasn't the detectives that were the bone of contention, it was their sidekicks. Nero Wolfe has Archie, and Holmes has, of course, the redoubtable John Watson, M.D. Actually, I thought Wolfe was pretty cool, sitting in his office or fiddling with his orchids while deftly weaving together the threads of the web that would trap the murderer. But, Archie ... well, some of us remember the Lone Ranger and his faithful friend, Tonto. Every week, it seemed, poor old Tonto had to go into town to eavesdrop on the locals, which generally meant going into the local saloon. Trouble is, the saloons never seemed to cater to the Native American trade, so they would ask Tonto to leave. They would do this by having five or six large individuals beat the snot out of ol' Tonto.

That seemed to be Archie's job: Go out and get beaten up, or, at the very least, hit on the head with a gun butt. A flesh wound was a bonus number. Frankly, I figured after a while Archie would figure out what was happening and learn to get his feet moving before getting pistol-whipped, but no. No Wolfe adventure seemed to be complete with Archie getting assaulted and battered.

Now, Larry rather liked Sherlock Holmes because of his coolly logical approach. But Watson, to him, was a pain. In Watson's case, “M.D.” evidently stood for “mostly distracted”, because Watson never saw anything. This was why, according to Larry, everyone was so amazed at Holmes' deductions. If we could see what Watson didn't seem to notice, we could be deductive geniuses as well. For instance, Larry would say, a guy comes into Baker Street, and Holmes says, “ I see, sir, that you are a Freemason.” Now Watson is absolutely shellshocked by this. He just can't imagine how Holmes could have deduced that this man was a Freemason. He can't imagine, that is, until Holmes explains that the guy is wearing a Masonic ring, a Masonic tie clip, and a sign around his neck that says, “I am a Freemason.” (Actually, if you leave off the sign, this actually occurs in one of the Holmes stories.)

Okay, he may have had a point there. But even Larry had to admit that Sherlock Holmes was the lineal ancestor of so many of the fictional detectives that would follow. Miss Marple, Ellery Queen, Peter Wimsey, Wolfe, and Hercule Poirot owe much of their method to the brooding silhouette in the window of 221B.

That being said, there is the little issue of August Dupin. Dupin was the creation of Edgar Allen Poe, who appeared in The Purloined Letter and Murders of the Rue Morgue. Even though Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was loathe to admit it, Dupin had to have served as one of the inspirations for Holmes. Sir Arthur even stole a bit of business from one of the Poe stories, where the detective, after watching his partner for a few minutes, makes a comment that exactly matches the partner's thoughts of the moment. He does this by watching what the other man is looking at as his eyes move around the room. Clever bit (it's better than I described it), but Sir Arthur only hints at its origin from another story.

So why don't we all pay homage to Dupin when we think of great detectives? First, there's not much of a body of work involving him (only five stories). Secondly, he is insufferably dull. As well as Poe could write horror, he didn't have the same flair with a mystery. The stories aren't awful, but most people don't read them twice.

So Sherlock Holmes is rightfully, the archetype for all detectives who use logic and deduction to bring the criminal to final justice. But there's one other detective who deserves mention.

His name is Porfiry. You may not have heard of him or of Raskolnikov, the villain he brought to justice (yes, Raskolnikov is what Boris Badenov used to say all the time on Rocky and Bullwinkle). In Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, we know full well that Raskolnikov has committed the dastardly deed, and so does Porfiry. Porfiry is a likable chap, always asking questions that don't seem to be all that important, frequently asks about things that have nothing to do with the crime, and somehow is never able to end a conversation (“Just one more thing”). Eventually, he subtly tortures Raskolnikov into confessing his crime.

Porfiry was the model for a detective who always wore a rumpled raincoat, who asked how much those shoes cost, and who was always engaging and likable, right up to the point that the perpetrator was ready to throw himself off a bridge to get rid of him. Like Conan Doyle avoiding admitting Dupin's influence, Peter Falk doesn't admit it, but Porfiry surely inspired someone in the writing team that thought up Columbo.

*Well, they used to, but this was written a long time ago.

Sunday, November 6, 2005

It's the Game, You Dolts!

Television is a visual medium. They show you...and they show you and show you and show you. -- Shelley Berman

I used to be a sports nut. I followed baseball, football, hockey, and basketball. Heck, I'd watch indoor lacrosse if nothing else was available. I spent most fall weekends glued to the tube watching football, watched hockey every Saturday night (on that Canadian institution Hockey Night In Canada), and caught any baseball game that was on.

That may sound like a lot, but here's what it boiled down to pre-1970. On Saturdays, there were one or possibly two college football games on. When the college season wrapped up in November, a single NFL game was on. Sundays featured a local NFL team's game (if it wasn't a blacked out home game) and a national game. Hockey, as previously mentioned was a single game on Saturday night. Baseball was a Saturday and Sunday affair, with perhaps five or ten weeknight games broadcast over the course of a season.

Today, of course, we have some sort of major sport, college or professional, on virtually every night of the week. Strangely, though, I watch less sports now than I ever have. The “why” of that has nothing to do with the glut of broadcasts; rather it's the nature of sports broadcasts these days that has me turned off.

Back in the 1950's when I was growing up, a lot of our sports came on radio. Radio announcers have to develop the knack of describing all the action while letting some of the atmosphere of the game come over the air. So, despite the audio medium, announcers learned to shut up now and then and let the stadium sounds tell the story. Many of these radio people moved to TV, where they could be even more sparing in their commentary. They gave you the information you craved (batter's stats, how many yards the fullback had gained so far), but they could let the pictures tell the story with a minimum of yak. Vin Sculley, an man who could bring poetry to a description of a golfer walking up the eighteenth fairway, was the best of this generation. Take for example Kirk Gibson's World Series home run. When it left the bat, Sculley said nothing. He let the crowd sounds and the pictures of the players tell the story. It was a great moment, made even more enjoyable by Sculley's genius for knowing when not to talk.

Right up into the 1970's, sports were fun to watch on TV. But, then, one sad Monday night in 1970, it all began to change.

It wasn't putting football on Monday night that was bad; it was adding Howard Cosell and a host of morons, chief of which would be Don Meredith to the booth. Suddenly, the action on the game became secondary to who Howard had lunch with, how Howard had predicted what just happened earlier in the broadcast (even if he had predicted exactly the opposite), and when Dandy Don was going to sing.

From those humble beginnings, the personalities in the booth began to be more important than the game they were covering. Monday Night Baseball fought back with movie and TV celebrities appearing as “color commentators”. While George C. Scott did show himself to be knowledgeable about baseball and one heck of Tigers fan, most of them were dismal. But the foot of irrelevance was in the door. Instead of paying attention to the game, announcers were conducting phone interviews or talking about where the best food was or about some “big story” that was completely unrelated to the game at hand.

And now has come the graphics revolution. The screen is already messier than the average computer terminal, with a score bar at the top, the scores from other games at the bottom, player stats above the score from other games, and side bars with other information we didn't care about cramping the screen down to where it requires a 48-inch plasma screen to get 19 inches of actual sports viewing.

It is even suggested to the viewer that he/she go to the network's website to enhance their viewing experience. That's actually a good idea, because it's the only place you can actually get the play-by-play of the game, since the clowns in the booth have spent the last 15 minutes talking about the BCS, whether instant replay review should continue, how the star player's contract negotiations are going, and, most importantly, what shows are coming up this week on the network.

Years ago, NBC actually broadcast a game with no announcers. I thought it was wonderful, and, apparently, so did a lot of other people. I think it's time to try that one again, just for a short experimental period. Like, say, the next 10 years.

Friday, November 4, 2005

Special Effect-ations

Boy, that was close! -- One of a bazillion movie sidekicks right after the explosion

We were talking about some about-to-be-released big budget special effects flick, when I allowed as how I had reached my saturation level with special effects. After all, just how many massive firery explosions sending people flying through the air, projectiles whizzing visibly past someone's ear, land or sea vehicles flying through the air, vehicles that are supposed to fly skidding along the ground and bouncing off buildings, and so on. I'm sorry, but after a while, it gets redundant watching people get up from some massively destructive event, brush themselves off, and carry on as if nothing had happened. Besides, how much disbelief are we supposed to suspend? The problem is that the effects are so good that it's hard to get into a true movie fantasy frame of mind.

The old B-pictures didn't have this problem. The effects were so wonderfully hokey, the science was so ludicrous that you could overlook anything because you had to overlook everything if you were going to watch the movie without laughing yourself silly. Even so, there's always an edge to go over. Let me tell you about the most unlikely survival scene of them all. (1)

The movie, made in 1965, was Crack in the World. The plot involved a brave old scientist, dying of some mysterious disease that required that he wear white gloves and dark glasses increasingly throughout the picture. He has an incredible plan to release thermal energy into the world by shooting a rocket tipped with a nuclear device downward into a bore hole. He has a loving wife who happens to be well-built and 30 years younger than he. He has a ruggedly good-looking colleague, who also happens to be 30 years younger than he. Okay, thirty seconds into the show, we all know where that part of the plot is going.

At any rate, Rugged thinks that Old Scientist has overlooked some details in his plan. In fact, Rugged is reasonably certain that Bad Things(TM) are going to happen, so he's running around doing his Chicken Little imitation before the Board of Scientists back home trying to get them to stop the rocket.

No, I don't know who or what the Board of Scientists was, but there was a bunch of guys like this in every sci-fi B-picture ever made. The all had one thing in common: They always made the wrong decision.

Well, the rocket fires, and sure enough the baddest of Bad Things(TM) happens when a crack begins to spread that's going to go around the planet and end the world “as we know it.” Seems like it would end it as even the cockroaches know it, but I'm being picky.

To make a long story short (too late), Rugged hatches a plan to trigger another nuke to stop the crack. This turns into a good-news-bad-news situation. The good news is that the crack is no longer headed around the planet. The bad news it that it's turned around so it'll make a circle back to where it started. Old Scientist nobly decides to stay at his station while sending off Loving Wife with Rugged, because, well, he was gonna croak anyway, so why shouldn't she have some fun before the world ends?

So Rugged and Loving start up the elevator (magnitude 8 earthquakes are rumbling continuously; would you jump in an elevator?) which, of course, jams, requiring them to climb up the girders to get out of the complex. During this process, Loving's clothing is strategically torn, staying within proper B-picture limits for titillation without risking any censorship problems. After suitable struggle and strife, they make it out and climb through a fence just as the crack comes around to ground zero. There is now an explosion that actually sends a chunk of the planet into space as we watch. These people are, say, 20 feet from the explosion, and they are completely unhurt!

So there they are, looking like Flash Gordon and Dale after a bad day on Mongo, staring up at an asteroid-sized piece of earth wobbling its way into space. As if that isn't bad enough, a chipmunk crawls out from under the dirt to show that life goes on somehow. Forget about the planet-wide tsunamis, the nuclear winter that will be caused by all the soot and general muck being thrown into the atmosphere, forget about all that. Just hold the thought of two people surviving an explosion bigger than Tunguska in your mind for a moment.

Maybe the new crop of flicks aren't so bad after all. At least, nowadays people fly through the air and bounce a couple of times when the explosions go off.

(1) Okay, the most over-the-top is the guy who became the Amazing Colossal Man surviving a nuclear blast. But, there's B-pictures, and then there's just bad flicks.