Sunday, February 1, 2009

Super Bowl XLIII: Before the Plunge

1 February 2009

Tonight, the Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4) and Arizona Cardinals (9-7) will face off to decide who's the champion of the National Football League for the 2008 season. I haven't been able to follow the playoffs or the regular season too carefully since my stay in England began before the season did. But, I am still pretty excited for tonight. After the Green Bay Packers, the Steelers are my favorite team in the NFL: the Rooneys run a classy organisation that for the last 30 years has been the definition of success, picking capable men like Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, and Mike Tomlin to run their team and drafting highly talented athletes who, generally, display a sportsmanlike attitude that's lacking in many franchises (see 2008 Dallas Cowboys). You can't argue really with how the Steelers play the game. They gain yards and control the clock with their running game, make plays in their passing game, and play with ferocity on defense. I should also mention that I am a tremendous fan of Ben Roethlisberger, whether he rides his motorcycle with a helmet or without. He's a tough player and a throwback to a different time in the NFL's history when quarterbacks weren't always pretty, but they won ball games.

Now this is not to say that I have no respect for the Cardinals. Far from it. Ken Whisenhunt and his staff have really done a good job in teaching folks out in the desert what it means to win. Four years ago, I remember writing on a different blog that the Cardinals couldn't run the ball because their linemen were too fat and slow and couldn't play defense worth a darn because they didn't the playmakers. That's not too true anymore. They've played well when they have had to, and I don't think you can presently argue that Arizona doesn't belong here. Of course, that hasn't kept me or others from saying that the prospect of the Cardinals winning a Super Bowl may be a harbinger of the End of Days. However, I look forward hopefully to seeing Larry Fitzgerald, Darnell Dockett, Adrian Wilson, and the other Cardinals back in the playoffs in the future. After all, before the Steelers beat the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IX, they had a history of bad luck and poor play that surpassed that of the Cardinals who then had, at least, a championship or two (1924 and 1948) to their name.

Rudy's planned for a party at his house to celebrate the occasion. We're going to watch a film at 8.30 after which we'll be breaking out the brewskis, nachos, hot wings, and other Super Bowl-appropriate goodies. Everyone on our program should be there, so it'll be a great opportunity to chat about what's been going on, exchange a handful of friendly insults, and share a few hearty laughs. Anyway, I thought that you'd all might find that of interest. I'll be updating you all on our trip to London and how things turn out later tonight. Hope everything's going well with all of you, and oh yeah! GO STEELERS!!

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Hello, It's Me Again.

31 January 2009

I know this post comes a little later than I had originally planned. But, I think after three weeks, I'm now sufficiently settled that I can take a moment to update you all on how things have been going. This will have to be short, I'm afraid, since I have to go to dinner in the next 45 minutes, so I'll try my best to be brief. No promises.

In terms of the flight home, it was certainly eventful. My flight from Denver departed on schedule, and I was fairly productive on the plane. I almost finished Stephen King's The Stand (which was surprisingly good and somewhat reawakened a latent interest in dystopia and post-apocalyptic literature) as well as shifting through the first 150 pages of Graham Swift's Waterland for my second paper for HUM310. I didn't sleep at all, mostly because by the time that I finally bored of reading, we were about two hours out from Heathrow and I didn't dare pop a NyQuil then since I don't think the UK customs officers would much appreciate it if I introduced them to "Drugged-Up Chad."

In addition, there were the usual fussy infants and bratty grade schoolers. I was seated to one of the latter, and she insisted on periodically pummeling me with her feet throughout the flight. I wouldn't have minded really except that the mother insisted on apologising for her every time she did it, like I was going suddenly to snap and turn her daughter into a human pretzel. It's a long time for any child to sit still, and when you're trying to sleep, I understand that you tend to thrash about. I've put up with a lot worse.

For the final hour of our flight, a powerful southwesterly gale turned our Boeing 777 into an old-fashioned wooden roller coaster. I was seated in the penultimate row of the plane, so I could feel every time the wind hit the tailfin or the pilot tried to make an adjustment to keep the plane level. At times, it was rather frightening, not the least because you could hear a quake in the steward's voice when he announced that there were cancelling the breakfast service. (You could also hear him trying to choke back the vomit. A little girl behind me and a married woman who was farther up from me didn't have his self-control.) Fortunately, once we descended below 20,000 feet, things became more settled. I was relieved. I think I may have reached for the ibuprofen at that point, because it was too early for a stiff drink and they weren't serving beverages anymore.

I landed at Heathrow a little after nine in the morning. We didn't pull up to Terminal 5, so we had to disembark into the open air and then board a bus which carried us to the terminal. Naturally, the bus only came two at a time (like Noah would have wanted it), so I didn't pass through customs till half-nine or so. I bought a ticket for the Underground and then boarded a train on the Piccadilly Line and headed for the city. I wasn't happy to see London shrouded in a light-gray and white mist and, more infuriatingly, covered in a light dusting of snow. I guess that I just can't get away from the stuff. Not unless I moved to somewhere in the Tropics, but knowing how my luck goes, I'd probably die of malaria, yellow fever, or any of those other lovely diseases for which Europeans and their descendants seem to have no natural immunity. Anyway, I got on the 11.30 train for Norwich at London Liverpool Street. Two and a half hours later, I was home. Tired, a little sore, and feeling like I had bathed in a tub of sweat.

Later that night, I met up with Dan, who was among those who'd also returned, and we headed down to the Union Bar to grab a pint and unwind. It was pretty crowded and noisy, but Dan and I managed to find a corner which was not so crowded and also pretty close to the bar. I had a pint of Guinness to honor my return to English soil, and a pint of Carlsberg. They weren't too bad, but I could tell that it'd been a while since I'd consumed alcohol in any great quantity because I got a little light-headed and my blood pressure actually rose a few ticks. To take a page of Denis Leary, beer--with its delightful composition of hops, barley, and protein--may be a meal, but it's more like a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese in terms of its repercussions for one's cardiovascular health. Dan and I also ran into a number of Dickinson people who had also returned: Rob, Greg, Sarah Salisbury (with her boyfriend Jesse in tow), Casey Michalski, Liza, and others. It was great seeing everyone again and hearing how their holidays back home or spent crossing the Continent had been. I retired to my room that night very satisfied, and I slept very well.

The next morning, I woke up and set to the practical business of living: preparing for classes, researching a little more for my HUM310 paper, buying food, laundry. I won't bore you with those details. My continued presence is sign enough that I've managed pretty well so far. Classes started that Monday, and to this point, they haven't been too bad at all. I'm taking three modules at UEA this semester: (1) Napoleon to Stalin: The Struggle for Mastery in Europe; (2) Empires of Nature: The Environment in Europe and its Empires 1500-1945; and (3) Romanticism 1780-1840. They are all have been wonderful so far. Good reading. Reasonably engaging lectures. Seminars where more people talk besides the seminar leader and me. My only complaint is that I have an exam in each course, but since examinations all tend to be of the Blue Book variety, I'm not too worried. It'll be something of a relief after last semester where, for the last three or four weeks, I seemed perpetually to be working on this or that paper. Now I have only three essays to write, three exams to prepare for, the odd in-class presentation or document analysis, and an independent research project for Rudy to fret over. It's not the greatest (by which I mean the "lightest") workload, but it's not too bad, either. Enough to keep me on the go, and I suppose that's all I can ask for.

Well, I fear that I've runout of time. I fail at being brief, but it's been a while since I just sat down and shared with anyone besides my folks on Skype, or my friends around the dinner table or through AIM, how things had been going. I'll let you know as soon as I can about what else has been going on these past three weeks. But I suppose before I go, I could mention two approaching events that should be pretty cool: (1) Shannyn and I are going to Malaga and Morocco from February 25th to March 2nd, which is going to be friggin' awesome; and (2) my sister Chelsea will be visiting me in England from March 16th to the 22nd. I can hardly wait! Anyway, I hope everything has been going well with you wherever you might find yourself and I'll talk to you later.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A Quick Update

10 January 2008

Well, after a three-week hiatus, I have returned to the Land of Rain and Tea, to Merry Old England. British Airways carried me from Denver International Airport as far as London Heathrow, with the London Underground and National Express East Anglia combining to bring me the rest of the way. I haven't showered in a while. I need a shave (I'd hate to be arrested for sporting a pedophile moustache). I'm hungry. I have a paper to write. I want to sleep, but know I shouldn't. I wish there were more people in Norwich right now. I have a new computer. With a built-in web camera. I'm enjoying typing simple sentence after simple sentence. Hurray Me!

Anyway, I'll write a more extensive account later today. The trip probably was one of the more eventful ones I have endured. Right now, though, I'm going to attend to a few of the concerns that I outlined in the preceding paragraph. I just thought that everyone would like to know that yours truly is alive and well back in Norwich.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Happy New Year

1 January 2009

So far, the New Year has been pretty productive. And I say that with all sarcasm intended. Last night, our family friends Art and Pam Bennett came over to our house to eat Sloppy Joes and to play "Apples-to-Apples" and a card game called "Phase 10." Ordinarily, I don't like to play games, mostly because I'm competitive, I hate to lose, and defeat is always possible with any game; but to honor the New Year, I decided to make an exception. I didn't do particularly well with either game. I lost badly at "Apples-to-Apples." My mother, who had just been asking me that day the definition of the word "listless," dominated. I had a little more success with "Phase 10," but my luck eventually turned and I went from frontrunner to also-ran. Pam won, which probably was more painful for me than my mother's successes.

The Bennetts left shortly after midnight. I stayed up for a while talking with my mother and listening to music on Windows Media Player, which was encouraging since my computer has been acting up for the past week. There have been moments when my video card doesn't seem to be working, either it fails to register a keystroke or it'll freeze up while I'm trying to watch a video on YouTube or Surf the Channel, or it'll stop and the screen will go dark. The cause behind these problems seems to be the presence of a family of viruses which have set up shop in some of the more scenic locales within my computer (e.g., a file folder entitled "system32" which seems to concern all my media programs). I have been scanning and cleansing it regularly. Though I doubt I can clean it out entirely--the only thing that reproduces faster than a computer virus is a rabbit, I suspect--I think I can keep the problem in hand till I have funds sufficient to purchase a newer model.

As for New Year's Day, I've spent my time watching Looney Tunes and classic "guy" films like The Godfather and Raiders of the Lost Ark. In terms of Looney Tunes, it was fascinating to now watch the misadventures of Daffy, Bugs, Porky, and the others, because I really noticed things that, when you're a child, simply allude you. Take "Birds Anonymous." Sylvester swears off birds thanks to assistance from a friendly organization called "BA" or "Birds Anonymous," which, like its real-world template of Alcoholics Anonymous, applies a twelve-step program that encourages members to watch over and help each other. More tellingly, there is a sequence when Sylvester is up all night suffering through the symptoms one associates with chemical withdrawal: sleeplessness, blood-shot eyes, elevated heart rate, hallucinations, etc.

And then there's the entire issue of speech and language; with the exception of Bugs Bunny, who speaks in a high-pitched, smart-alecky Brooklyn accent, and Foghorn Leghorn with his Southern twang, nearly every prominent character speaks with a lisp or a stammer or some other form of impediment. It's funny and it helps to develop the personality of the characters. Try to imagine a Daffy Duck who doesn't slobber "You're despiscable" to Bugs after Elmer has blown off his bill. But I can't say that the excessively sensitive, touchy-feely, bleeding-heart liberal in me isn't the tiniest bit disturbed by the use of every kind of speech impediment for comedic effect. I probably should watch more House M.D.--A few hours of watching Hugh Laurie heap abuse on his minions, patients, and other travesties against the laws of biological evolution might smother such feelings of pity and sympathy. But then again, I am a registered Democrat now. Difficult decision. We'll see how it plays out.

Anyway, I trust that you all had a delightful evening last night; and God willing, this year will be a damn sight better than the old one for everyone. Tomorrow--I plan on starting to research in earnest for my second paper for HUM310. I'm also going to try to finish another book. I read American Fascists by Chris Hedges last week, and while I won't call on everyone to gird their loins and prepare for a second civil war--Hedges is far too hysterical for one to take his findings as the basis for policy--the man certainly raises important questions about how a society which is founded on principles of individual liberty, pluralism, and tolerance should respond to those who wish to undermine it and replace it with some kind of "new order." The proposition that society should have the right to curtail the rights of any individual, group, or faction to express their convictions is an admittedly dangerous one. The ageless spectre of the slippery slope--If one forbids this newspaper from calling for the life of every abortion provider in the country, what's to prevent one from closing a radio station that reports a story about political corruption which the powers-that-be may not want to see the light of day? But does that mean that a society such as ours should refuse to defend itself and its principles against radicals who argue that blasphemy should be a capital offense or who contend that public education is an invention of the Devil? And more immediately, are we now living in a period where answers to such questions aren't simply interesting or helpful from a philosophical or moralistic perspective, but essential to our continued survival and success? Sleep on it. And I'll talk to you later.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Since I've Been Home

As I really don't have anything else to do, I might as well give you all a brief update of my activities since I arrived back in the good ol' U.S.A. (In case you're wondering, yes, I'm doing this partially as penance for a month of neglect). I haven't been up to anything too terribly exciting, mostly reading and watching television. Really riveting stuff...

In terms of my reading choices, besides my mid-air reading of The Audacity of Hope and The Children of Hurin, I've also finished The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin (highly recommended) and Stephen Mansfield's The Faith of Barack Obama (not-so-highly recommended, but it's a fast read). I'm currently working on The New Imperial Presidency by Prof. Rudalevige, which, in addition to the obvious fascinating nature of the subject, is interesting because I can hear Rudy's distinctive voice (and sense of humor) at many points in the text. Case in point, from the introductory chapter:

The Senate spent most of mid-March debating the emotionally polarizing but substantively limited question of partial-birth abortion procedures. The House of Representatives had its official photograph taken, named a room after former majority leader Richard Armey, and expressed its unanimous sense that fires in nonresidential buildings and executions by stoning were bad things. (Rudalevige, The New Imperial Presidency, 1).

Hopefully, I'll be able to finish it before the end of next week. My goal for the break is to read 10-15 books, including old favorites like The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane and Hamlet, before I once again turn my nose eastwards. I didn't read as much as I should have liked during the semester--I haven't ever, as far as I can recall--and if I want folks to take all my bluster about trying to become an intellectual with even an iota of seriousness, I realise that I need to put up or shut up.

In terms of that most insidious of human contrivances, the box, I have to confess that, thanks to my sister and her collection of the first three seasons on DVD, I am completely obsessed with the show House, M.D. Don't get me wrong. I was already aware of the basic premise of the series and most of the major characters, not the least because so many comparisons were drawn between the series and last year's Writing Center. (Apparently, I was Chase. The identities of the others I leave to your imaginations). But until this week, I hadn't sat down and watched an episode from start to finish. Well, I have--and the actions of Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital's brilliant, acerbic, and non-conformist diagnotisician, and his hapless friends and minions, now consume my thoughts. If the show wasn't as cool as it is, it would be really sad. Anyway, I can see what show I'll be watching regularly on Surf the Channel once I get back to England.

Those few hours I have not spent watching House, M.D., have been consumed with watching episodes of Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam and Babylon 5 on the Internet. I'm not even going to try to justify my fondness for these kinds of space operas. Let's just say that I'm a sucker for anything with really big space fighters that fire brightly colored lasers at bad guys, and leave it there. I can't help myself. I need help. Some time in the indeterminate near future, preferably.

I haven't much else to add, except that I hope everyone is doing well and that all of your holiday seasons were peaceful and happy ones, filled with memories of good times with family and friends.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Be It Ever So Crumbled

13 December 2008

I suppose that I should fill-in the blanks about what transpired after yesterday morning's brief update. Only a sensible thing to do, right? Well, after I finished my post, I packed up my computer and, collecting all my belongings, headed to the front desk where I turned in my key and paid for my room, Internet access, and dinner. The lady behind the counter was lovely, which filled my heart with hope that, notwithstanding the shrew I faced the night preceding, civility isn't altogether dead in England.

I had missed the shuttle to Heathrow's Terminal 5 by two minutes, so I decided to use a taxi service that the Holiday Inn offers to its guests. I reached the terminal perhaps in 5 minutes, and it cost me only 12 quid, which really wasn't too bad. I collected my boarding passes and walked through security. I had heard that security in Terminal 5, which was opened only nine months ago in March 2008, was quick, efficient, and not really too unpleasant--and I was happy to find that these reports were true. Between presenting my passport and boarding pass for inspection and slipping back into my shoes on the other side of the metal detector, it must have taken five minutes. I was delighted.

Settling near the board reporting the times and locations of all departing flights, I proceeded to finish Graham Swift's Waterland. Rudy had assigned it for class, and even though I only managed to get through a third of it before we discussed it, I was sufficiently interested that I decided to finish it. And I am happy that I did. Though I can't say that I am especially fond of Swift's writing style, I found that I was engrossed by the plot and vividly drawn characters like Tom Crick, his wife Mary, and dull brother Dick, and Swift does succeed in embuing the fens of East Anglia with a certain charisma that reminded me of Egdon Heath in Thomas Hardy's Return of the Native. I'd highly recommend it with one caveat: Swift wrote Waterland in the early 1980s during a period of high anxiety over the seemingly imminent threat of nuclear annihilation, so for those who've never lived in a world with "duck and cover" drills or headlines of Soviet tanks rolling into Afghanistan, it may be difficult whenever one of the characters, an overly earnest, pale-skinned student named Price, speaks of the end of the world as if it were happening tomorrow to really connect with what's going on.

While I was sitting and ploughing through the last fifty pages of Waterland, I was approached by a middle-aged woman with brown hair and a green-and-blue nametag from the BAA. "Excuse me," she interrupted politely. "Are you waiting for a plane?"

"Yes. Yes, I am."

"If you don't mind my asking, when is your flight scheduled for departure?" She asked, taking the seat immediately next to mine. When I informed her that my flight for Denver was scheduled for 12.35 PM, she asked if I would be willing "to help determine what airport services were being used." This wasn't the first time that I'd been approached about helping to determine what shops, restaurants, and other services in an airport are in use, so I assumed that she was going to ask me to fill out a survey. Not so. "You see, we'd attach a camera, an apparatus to your head, and have you walk around the airport and record what you do and where you go."

"Um, no," I said it as politely as I could.

"What if we paid you forty pounds to do it?"

I still refused, not because it would have been incredibly silly for me to walk around Terminal 5 with a video camera attached to my forehead, but because I was intent on sitting there, reading my book, and not using any of the services that Heathrow had to offer. They wouldn't have derived any kind of useful information from my participation in the little "survey." Besides, not twenty minutes later, they posted the gate for my flight to Denver, so I headed over to Concourse B using the underground train system they have there.

After I finished Waterland, I decided to take advantage of a "Buy One, Get the Second for Half-Price" deal at a W.H. Smith's bookstore to purchase The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama and The Children of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkein (as edited by Christopher Tolkein). So, I guess considering my previous statements about not intending to use any of the services at Heathrow that I'm something of a hypocrite, but as I was facing a eight-hour plane ride, it was a price that I was prepared to pay.

In terms of my selections for the trip, President-Elect Obama's The Audacity of Hope, on the whole, impressed me the most. Reading through it, I appreciated seeing that our future chief of state doesn't owe the eloquence he's displayed behind the podium entirely to his speechwriting team (which, considering recent events, is probably for the best). The book was, for the most part, very clearly and thoughtfully written, and there were moments when I found myself enthralled. That's not to say that I agreed with everything he suggested or took everything he said entirely on its face; for instance, I found his discussion of the Senate and his desire to master its rules (see pp. 71-76 and 98-100) somewhat disingenuous since his presidential ambitions have been common knowledge since he first appeared on the national stage in 2004. However, I do think that he has something to say about what it means to be an American in the early twenty-first century, just as Lincoln had in the 1860s, FDR in the 1930s and 40s, and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s; and I am interested to see how far he'll be able to go in bringing his vision to pass.

I landed in Denver around three in the afternoon, Mountain Standard Time. Miracle of miracles, my flight touched down thirty minutes ahead of schedule. After clearing immigration and customs, I met up with my parents and sister, and we then began the long car drive west. It snowed. A lot. So, what ordinarily takes three-and-a-half to four hours to drive in the sunshine and with clear roads turned into a six-and-a-half hour trek in the snow, the sleet, and the cold. We stopped at Ruby Tuesday's for dinner where I got to sample ranch dressing for the first time in four months--be jealous, Shannyn!--and it was wonderful. Once home, I talked with my family for a while, and then proceeded to pass out in my own bed.

Anyway, I'll update periodically about what I'm up to in snowy, isolated Grand Junction as well as submit the odd "retrospective" about my adventures in Dublin, Cambridge, and elsewhere. Until then, let me wish everyone a very Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 12, 2008

I'm Paying Your Salary

12 December 2008

I'm writing from my hotel room at the Holiday Inn near Heathrow. My flight for Denver is scheduled depart at 12.35 PM, but I figured I'd drop a short entry since I really don't want to walk up to the front desk and formally check-out. Why? I think it's, first, because that really is when it'll start sinking in that this semester is over, that I only have one more in England, only three more till I enter the real world of tax returns, mortgages, utility bills, and all those delightful things that my parents have been too happy to handle for the initial twenty-one years of my existence.

Second, the hotel staff here is mean. Last night I had to go to the front desk to get a replacement key because, having forgot that my money-clip contains a magnet, I had placed the keycard to my room there, which of course de-magnetised it. And throughout the entire transaction, the lady behind the front desk just had this disgusted look on her face as if her life suddenly sucked because a traveling university student had accidentally de-magnetised his keycard. No "Thank you." No "That's all right." No smiling. Nothing. Having worked in Target over the summer, I'm not a fan of the kind of facile courtesy and manufactured friendliness that most establishments consider to be the soul of customer service, but come on! I'm paying your salary.

Anyway, I need to check-out, get to the airport, go through security, find my gate--all the activities I particularly enjoy. Throw in a meal and a couple of bowel movements, and you pretty much have a synopsis of my day. I hope everyone is doing well, and I'll talk to you later.