Monthly Archives: December 2009

Good Intentions

"Why does that man keep saying 'merde'?"

As 2009 lurches to an end, many of us take time to reflect on the year ahead.  We think about changes in behavior that can make for a happier future — if only our senator or coach or niece or next-door neighbor would take a “word to the wise”.  (And by wise, we mean “stupid jackass”, of course.)  We have so many good ideas about how others could improve themselves that we rarely get a chance to think about our own issues.  Once a year, though, we acknowledge that we might have one or two tiny flaws of our own, and resolve to achieve absolute perfection.

These promises we make to ourselves (and which are best kept to ourselves) are known as New Year’s Resolutions.  They are usually broken sometime during the first week of January.  There are reasons we fail to live up to our lofty expectations for ourselves, and most of those reasons are due to resolutions that were faulty in the first place.  So here are three suggestions about making a New Year’s Resolution you can trust yourself to keep.

1)  Be specific.  If your personal interactions with others could use a little tuneup, for instance, promising yourself that you’ll “be nicer” is too vague.  Narrow that down to a particular way in which you can be nicer.  A woman I used to know (this is a true story) was challenged by her spiritual advisor to demonstrate kindness by giving someone a compliment every day.  On the first day of this resolution, she approached another woman and gave her this compliment:  “You wouldn’t look so fat if you didn’t wear that heavy coat.”  Her compliment-of-the-day was easily accomplished within a few minutes, whereas an indistinct “be nicer” resolution might have burned up most of her waking hours.

2)  Set reasonable goals.  Too often we make resolutions that are virtually impossible to keep.  Let’s say you tell yourself “this year I’m going to learn to speak French.”  Are you kidding?  Come on — even the French take years to learn to speak French; there’s no way you can do that.  Instead, start with something more realistic, like learning a few swear words in French.  You can pick them up in no time, and if you travel to France, they’ll probably come in handy.

3)  Reward yourself .  Discouragement sets in when keeping your resolution begins to feel like punishment.  Find a way to make it feel like an achievement.  Let’s say your resolution is to lose weight.  That’s a violation of suggestion #1, by the way; resolve to lose ten pounds (even if twenty would be better).  OK, so you get on the scale after a grueling week in which you cut out dessert a couple of times.  The scale says you only lost one pound.  You feel discouraged, right?  That’s because you’re seeing the glass of Pepsi half empty.  Instead of feeling like you’ve punished yourself for almost nothing, simply convert pounds to grams.  You haven’t lost a mere one pound, you have shed 453.592 grams, and that’s pretty darned impressive!

Ordinarily I don’t share my resolutions with others, but because I intend to take the advice I’ve outlined above, I feel confident in telling you my specific, reasonable goal for 2010:  I will not travel to any country whose name ends in “stan”.  If I can keep my resolution, you can keep yours.  What is yours, by the way?  And good luck to us all!

Bowl Picks, Part Three

Having come this far, we might as well polish off the remaining games on the college bowl schedule, the ones being played in January, 2010.  You probably have your own opinions about these games, since most of the participants are schools that got a lot of attention throughout the season.  You don’t need me to tell you about Tim Tebow or Colt McCoy; you’ve seen them play, or at least read about their exploits elsewhere.  In a few instances, though, I can’t resist the impulse to rationalize my picks.  Here they are:

Outback Bowl     Northwestern (8-4) vs. Auburn (7-5)

 Winner:  Auburn

Gator Bowl     West Virginia (9-3) vs. Florida State (6-6)

Winner:  Florida State

The fact that it’s Bobby Bowden’s final game may provide an emotional lift, and the Seminole players are also auditioning for next year’s coach, Jimbo Fisher.

Capital One Bowl     Penn State (10-2) vs. LSU (9-3)

Winner:  Penn State

Rose Bowl     Oregon (10-2) vs. Ohio State (10-2)

Winner:  Oregon

Their common regular-season opponent was USC, which beat Ohio State… and got thrashed by Oregon.

Sugar Bowl     Florida (12-1) vs. Cincinnati (12-0)

Winner:  Florida

Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly left abruptly to take a similar job at a Catholic school in Indiana.  Then, a couple of weeks later, interim coach Jeff Quinn took the vacant position at Buffalo.  Quinn will stick around long enough to coach this game, and then it’s “see ya”.   The players justifiably feel their leaders have quit on them, so don’t expect maximum effort from the Bearcats.

International Bowl     South Florida (7-5) vs. Northern Illinois (7-5)

Winner:  Northern Illinois

South Florida is favored, but the Bulls lost 3 of their last 4 games, and there are reports of dissension in the ranks.

Cotton Bowl     Oklahoma State (9-3) vs. Mississippi (8-4)

Winner:  Oklahoma State Bowl     Connecticut (7-5) vs. South Carolina (7-5)

Winner:  South Carolina

Liberty Bowl     East Carolina (9-4) vs. Arkansas (7-5)

Winner:  Arkansas

East Carolina excels at committing penalties — 831 yards were marched off against the Pirates during the 2009 season.

Alamo Bowl     Michigan State (6-6) vs. Texas Tech (8-4)

Winner:  Texas Tech

Fiesta Bowl     Boise State (13-0) vs. Texas Christian (12-0)

Winner:  TCU

This could be the best of this season’s bowl games.  It matches the team that led the nation in scoring (Boise St.) against the team that led the nation in total defense (TCU).  Boise State’s QB Kellen Moore threw for 39 TDs with only 3 interceptions.  TCU’s QB Andy Dalton had 22 TDs with 5 interceptions.  Both teams averaged over 40 points per game.  I give the edge to TCU on the strength of its defense.

Orange Bowl     Georgia Tech (11-2) vs. Iowa (10-2)

Winner:  Georgia Tech

Having a month to practice against the triple option may help Iowa somewhat, but the Hawkeyes’ lucky streak has to end sometime.

GMAC Bowl     Central Michigan (11-2) vs. Troy (9-3)

Winner:  Central Michigan

It’s tempting to pick Troy because Central Michigan has abandonment issues — coach Butch Jones was hired to replace Brian Kelly at Cincinnati.  The Chippewas still have QB Dan LeFevour, though; watch him pick apart the Troy secondary, which ranked 117th (out of 120) in pass defense.

BCS Championship     Alabama (13-0) vs. Texas (13-0)

Winner:  Alabama

Artistic License

Washington Crossing the Delaware (detail), by Emanuel Leutze, 1851

Christmas night of 1776 seemed like a good idea when General George Washington was picking a date for the attack on Trenton, New Jersey.  It had the element of surprise, of course — the Hessian mercenaries who held the town wouldn’t be expecting the Americans to attack that night.  Christmas is a time, as we all know, for quiet reflection, gift giving, and drinking.  Washington’s strategy was pretty good, if you overlook the challenges of getting horses, cannons and 2,400 soldiers across the 800-foot wide Delaware River in the middle of a winter night.

What Washington hadn’t anticipated was the storm that approached during Christmas Day, a storm that reached its peak while many of the boats were still in the middle of the river.  It was a classic nor’easter:  high wind, heavy rain, bitter cold.  The Delaware filled with sheets of ice.  The storm did help Washington in one respect — the howling winds covered the noise of the crossing.

The boats, by the way, were flat-bottomed and had high sides; they were ordinarily used to transport pig iron from the Durham Iron Works near Philadelphia.  They were capable of carrying as many as forty men, all of whom would have to stand, since there were no seats in the boats.

That last fact (and several others) is contrary to the romantic version of the event depicted in the famous painting by Emanuel Leutze.  The original work, which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, is certainly spectacular.  For one thing, it’s huge, measuring 12½ feet by 21¼ feet, much larger than the big-screen TV in your local sports bar.  And its imagery is inspiring.

Leutze painted it in Germany some seventy-five years after the historical event, though, so some inaccuracies crept into his work.  Take that boat in the painting, for instance.  It looks like a bunch of guys have crowded into a dinghy for a boat parade.  Wouldn’t someone have had the good sense to say, “For God’s sake, General, sit down!”?

Washington was 44 years old at the time of the crossing, considerably younger than the man in Leutze’s painting appears to be.  But the artist probably used as his “models” the portraits of Washington by other painters that by 1851 had become the more-or-less official likenesses.  Leutze wanted people to look at his painting and immediately say, “Ah, that’s George Washington,” and not, “Who’s the idiot standing up in the rowboat?”

It’s not a particularly accurate image of the Delaware River either, but that’s because Leutze was working in Germany and used the Rhine as his model.  Also, it’s historically unlikely that the so-called Betsy Ross Flag shown in the painting would have been unfurled on the boat that night in 1776.

Oh, yeah — that night.  Does Leutze’s painting look like night to you?  I tend to associate night with darkness.  Especially when a massive storm is blotting out the sky.

In spite of those quibbles over the artistic license he took, Leutze’s painting Washington Crossing the Delaware is widely admired, and rightly so.  Washington’s actual crossing was successful, too:  Trenton was taken the following morning.  Amazingly, there were only two American fatalities, both of whom had frozen to death during the night.

So if this Christmas doesn’t quite live up to your hopes for it, just think of what it must have been like to be on that river in 1776, and remind yourself that things could be a lot worse.  Have a warm, dry Christmas.

Bowl Picks, Part Two

As I implied in the earlier post, there are way too many college bowl games.  Since the value of these predictions plummets after the games have been played, I realize that it would be to our mutual advantage for me to get to the point as quickly as possible.  One of these days we’ll resume posts about obscure historical events or my personal travel mishaps, but for now, here are some more of my thoughts — expressed as tersely as possible — about the next batch of games.

Emerald Bowl     USC (8-4) vs. Boston College (8-4)

Because Boston College is 97th in the country in total offense, the USC defense should prevail, giving the Trojans the victory in what I expect to be a relatively low-scoring game.

Music City Bowl     Kentucky (7-5) vs. Clemson (8-5)

Three Kentucky QBs combined this season for 12 TDs and 10 interceptions.  That won’t get the job done against Clemson, which has a strong defense and enough offense to win.

Independence Bowl     Texas A&M (6-6) vs. Georgia (7-5)

This game should supply an answer to the old question, “what happens when a resistible force meets a movable object?”  Georgia is resistible; it was 73rd in the country in total offense.  Texas A&M is movable; it surrendered 30+ points in eight of its games.  My hunch is that Georgia will win.

EagleBank Bowl     UCLA (6-6) vs. Temple (9-3)

The main weapon for UCLA’s woeful offense is its field goal kicker, Kai Forbath.  It’s difficult to imagine him getting into range often enough to beat Temple.

Champs Sports Bowl     Miami (9-3) vs. Wisconsin (9-3)

Wisconsin has the best running back in the Big Ten, John Clay.  The Badgers also play stout defense.  Miami has had its moments this season, and the game is in Orlando which means the crowd will no doubt be rooting for the Hurricanes, but I’m picking Wisconsin in a mild upset.

Texas Bowl     Missouri (8-4) vs. Navy (9-4)

Navy was dead last in the nation in passing.  That makes it hard to catch up if you fall behind by a couple of touchdowns.  The defense won’t let that happen, though.  Navy wins.

Humanitarian Bowl     Idaho (7-5) vs. Bowling Green (7-5)

Wide Receiver Freddie Barnes of Bowling Green averaged 11.5 receptions per game, for a total of 1,551 yards.  Idaho’s defense yielded an average of 35 points per game.  This looks like a win for Bowling Green.

Holiday Bowl     Nebraska (9-4) vs. Arizona (8-4)

This game is worth watching just to see Nebraska DT Ndamukong Suh, the nation’s best college football player.  It will not be a high-scoring affair, but Nebraska might be able to kick a couple of field goals and win it.

Sun Bowl     Stanford (8-4) vs. Oklahoma (7-5)

The oddsmakers have made Oklahoma a solid favorite;  that’s presumably based on Oklahoma’s strong defense.  Stanford is awful at pass defense (105th in the country), but RB Toby Gerhart is a difference-maker.  I’ll take Stanford, and keep my fingers crossed that the Cardinal secondary can make some plays.

Armed Forces Bowl     Air Force (7-5) vs. Houston (10-3)

Here’s an intriguing matchup:  statistically, Air Force has the country’s best pass defense (avg. 148 yds/gm).  Houston has QB Case Keenum, who threw for 3,325 yds and 39 TDs, making him #1 in the country in pass offense.  I’m going with Houston.

Insight Bowl     Minnesota (6-6) vs. Iowa State (6-6)

This should be called the Contractual Obligation Bowl: somebody had to take these two middling teams that managed to get themselves bowl-eligible.  They shared a common opponent — Iowa — and Iowa State’s loss to the Hawkeyes was by a more humiliating margin, so I’ll take Minnesota.

Chick-Fil-A Bowl     Virginia Tech (9-3) vs. Tennessee (7-5)

Tennessee played well against Florida and Alabama.  The Volunteers just might rise up again, but Virginia Tech finally got rolling with RB Ryan Williams; I like the Hokies’ chances to win.

That gets us through the games of 2009. Games to be played in January, 2010, will be covered in a future post.

Bowl Picks, Part One

After a long season, college football’s elite teams — which is to say, more than half of them — have earned the right to play in tradition-rich postseason games.  You can imagine the thrill these young men must feel, getting to play in the Maaco Bowl… or the EagleBank Bowl… or the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.  There are thirty-four bowl games this year, one of which will probably be played in the vacant lot down the block from your house.  To help you sort it all out, here are my opinions about the eventual outcome of each game.  This post will cover the earliest, least interesting games; I’ll put up more predictions later.

New Mexico Bowl     Wyoming (6-6) vs. Fresno State (8-4)

The Wyoming Cowboys have trouble scoring; they ranked 111th in the country in that department.  In this game, they might take some hope from the fact that Fresno State has trouble stopping its opponents from scoring; the Bulldogs were 81st in scoring defense.  The offense, with RB Ryan Mathews (151 yds/gm average) is solid, though, so I expect Fresno State to win fairly easily.

St. Petersburg Bowl     Rutgers (8-4) vs. U of Central Florida (8-4)

Rutgers is an enigma:  it was crushed by Cincinnati, which is understandable since the Bearcats are a good team.  But Rutgers was also crushed by Syracuse, which isn’t a good team.  As recently as a year ago, Central Florida was also not a good team; it went 4-8 in 2008.  The Knights turned it around in 2009, posting a respectable record, and their four losses came at the hands of bowl-bound teams, including Texas and Miami.  Playing the bowl game in Florida might work to their advantage as well, so I’m picking the Knights to beat the Scarlet Knights (UCF over Rutgers).

New Orleans Bowl     Middle Tennessee St. (9-3) v. Southern Mississippi (7-5)

Southern Miss generates offense; the Golden Eagles averaged 33 points per game over the course of the season.  Middle Tennessee State features the aptly-named Dwight Dasher, a QB who had 11 rushing TDs and 21 passing TDs.  Dasher personally accounted for a per-game average of 298 yards (total offense).  Southern Miss is favored, but the Blue Raiders of MTSU might just pull off a mild upset in this one.

Maaco Bowl     Oregon State (8-4) vs. Brigham Young (10-2)

Previously known as the Las Vegas Bowl, this year’s edition features two teams that are only average defensively, but are capable of putting up a lot of points.  The stars of the show at Oregon State are the Rodgers brothers:  RB Jacquizz Rodgers ran for almost 1,400 yards and 20 TDs, WR James Rodgers had 1,000 yards receiving and 9 TDs.  BYU’s main attraction is QB Max Hall, who threw for 30 touchdowns, 3,368 yards — but 14 interceptions.  The Cougars are more highly ranked, but I think Oregon State’s players will be jumping up and down and hugging each other after their victory.

Poinsettia Bowl     Utah (9-3) vs. California (8-4)

Last summer, it seemed likely that both of these teams would be playing in a more prestigious bowl game than this one.  Utah turned out to be just a little better than average in most departments, with the exception of the pass defense, which proved to be quite good.  California looked great in some games — vs. Stanford, for instance — and dreadful in other games — vs. Oregon, USC, Washington.  The season-ending blowout at the hands of the Huskies probably finished them off.  Utah wins.

Hawaii Bowl     Nevada (8-4) vs. Southern Methodist (7-5)

Southern Methodist is to be congratulated for a respectable season after years of misery for the program.  As recently as last year, the Mustangs were 1-11.  Nevada began the 2009 season with three straight losses, but then got rolling.  The Wolf Pack has three 1,000 yard rushers, including QB Colin Kaepernick.  This game will be lopsided, in Nevada’s favor.

Little Caesars Pizza Bowl     Ohio (9-4) vs. Marshall (6-6)

This epic, formerly known as the Motor City Bowl, features the team which finished 98th in the country in total offense (Ohio).  They will be struggling to gain yards against Marshall, which lost 3 of their last 4 regular season games.  The only reason to watch this game is to check out the picture quality on the new TV you got for Christmas.  Not to spoil your present, but Ohio will win.

Meineke Car Care Bowl     North Carolina (8-4) vs. Pittsburgh (9-3)

North Carolina has very little offense, and their task won’t be made any easier by Pittsburgh’s stout defense; the Panthers were among the nation’s top 20 against the run.  North Carolina also has an excellent defense, led by DBs Deunta Williams and Kendrick Burney.  Pittsburgh’s main weapon is RB Dion Lewis, who ran for 1,640 yards and 16 TDs in the regular season.  The game is in Charlotte, meaning that the crowd will be pro-Carolina, but I think Pittsburgh will eke out the victory in a close game.

To be continued…

Geniuses at Rest

Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence

The woman did not seem particularly remorseful about her blunder.  She and her mother were driving around Italy, she told me matter-of-factly, and couldn’t find a highway exit sign for Florence.  They kept driving, missing the city that was the birthplace of the Renaissance and home to some of the world’s finest art.

Apparently it hadn’t occurred to either of them that the Italians are under no obligation to provide signage in English; in their own language, they call the city Firenze.  These American tourists passed many signs along the Autostrade that would have directed them to Firenze, but they were looking for Florence, dammit!  That clueless woman’s experience illustrates one more reason to at least have a glance at a guidebook before you travel.  Even if she had managed to stumble onto Florence, without guidance she probably would have missed one of its treasures.

I knew about the Uffizi Gallery, of course, with its peerless collection of Italian paintings.  The Accademia, where Michelangelo’s David stands, was already on my must-see list as well.  If I hadn’t done some pre-trip research, though, we might have missed Santa Croce (pronounced CRO-chay).  It is a basilica built by the Franciscans in the 14th century that became the Florentine version of the Pantheon in Paris, or Westminster Abbey.  In other words, it is the final resting place of some world-renowned Italians.

Just inside the front door of Santa Croce, on the right aisle, is the tomb of Michelangelo.  Legend has it that he personally selected his burial site, so that when tombs burst open on Judgment Day, the first thing he would see is Brunelleschi’s marvelous Dome.  Unfortunately, what Michelangelo would probably see first is the creepy marble sarcophagus that held his mortal remains — it was designed by Giorgio Vasari, whose work blights churches and museums throughout Italy.

Next to Michelangelo’s tomb is a monument to Dante, although he isn’t actually buried here.  His remains are in Ravenna, but the Florentines had anticipated relocating him to Santa Croce; in the 1500s they even made a generous contribution (bribe) to the Pope to effect the transfer.  Didn’t happen.

A bit farther along the right aisle is the tomb of Niccolò Machiavelli, a diplomat and philosopher of the 16th century.  He is now chiefly remembered for the addition to our language of the adjective Machiavellian, applied to behavior that is unscrupulous and sneaky.  On Judgment Day, he’ll be joining a lot of other politicians.

Closer to the altar is the grave of composer Giachino Rossini, who wrote many operas, including The Barber of Seville, and whose William Tell Overture achieved immortality in the 1950s as the theme for a TV show called The Lone Ranger. It’s also possible to see a Rossini tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris; he was interred there for about a decade before his remains were relocated to Santa Croce in 1887.

The left wall has tombs of a number of Italians who were once famous but aren’t so much anymore.  A notable exception is near the door, opposite Michelangelo:  Galileo is buried there.  As with Rossini, he had also been entombed elsewhere following his death; it was with some reluctance that Catholic authorities allowed the famous heretic a Christian burial at Santa Croce in 1737.

One of these days I hope to get around to posting some notes about the many other splendors of Florence, but in case you’re headed for Italy soon, I wanted to give you a heads-up about Santa Croce.  And if you’re driving, don’t forget — for some reason, the Italians insist on calling it Firenze.

Where Is Old Zealand?

This isn't the original Orleans.

The explorers certainly had a lot of courage.  What many of them seem to have lacked is imagination, especially when it came to naming their discoveries.  Oh, there were a few attempts at fanciful names for the land masses they found — calling a desolate, ice-covered rock pile “Greenland” shows some creativity.  In many instances, though, the explorers or early settlers just tacked “New” in front of the name of some other place with which they were already familiar.

Take New Zealand as a case in point.  There are a couple of old Zealands, neither of which bears much physical resemblance to the country in the Southern Hemisphere.  One is the Zealand — also known as Sjælland — that is the largest and most populous island of Denmark.  Copenhagen is located on that one, which, as it turns out, was not the inspiration for New Zealand.  The other Zealand is a province of the Netherlands and is known to the Dutch as Zeeland (literally, “sea land”).

The first European to encounter what we now call New Zealand was a Dutch explorer named Abel Tasman.  He put several of his men ashore in 1642, which got them killed by the locals.  The inhabitants were Maoris who had arrived there from Polynesia sometime in the first millennium.  It is not known if they referred to their territory as “New Polynesia”.

Abel Tasman didn’t name his discovery New Zealand because it reminded him of home, but as a sort of honorific to his patrons back in the Netherlands.  Tasman may not have been aware that there was already a New Zealand.  An earlier Dutch explorer had given the name Nieu Zelandt (New Zealand) to an island off the coast of New Guinea, which at least bears some resemblance to the original Guinea.

Tasman’s politically-motivated naming strategy was also employed by others:  New Orleans was given that name as a tribute to the Duke of Orléans, and New York was a blatant kiss-up move involving the Duke of York.  You’ll recall that before it came under British control in 1664, Manhattan had been a Dutch holding, when it was called New Amsterdam.

You can probably guess why New England is called that, and how much careful deliberation went into the naming of New Brunswick, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and New Mexico.  Since the earth’s surface has now been exhaustively explored, opportunities to find a previously-undiscovered place and call it NEW someplace-else are not likely.  But outer space?  There must be billions of barren rocks floating around out there, and one of them is just waiting to be named New El Paso.