Sunday, April 02, 2017

Two planets

If Scott Brown had a baseball card, this certainly
would be a good pose. By the way, the shirts were so
cheap that after games we had sunburns on our back - 

except where the numbers were located.
Sometimes the planets in the solar system line up just right, and you find yourself orbiting with a similar object for a while.

That might be the oddest way anyone has described a friendship, but it comes to mind when I think back on my friendship with Scott Brown. He passed away on Friday after a long illness.

Scott showed up at WEBR Radio in Buffalo in 1979, shortly after I did. We quickly found ourselves to be relatively kindred spirits. The two of us were just getting by financially, since it was rare in those days to get a raise until Congress boosted the minimum wage. We were thinking that better days were ahead, and we couldn't wait to get there. That made us a little rebellious and brash at times. But we also were determined to have some fun along the way.

It didn't take long for us to click. Scott was a good-natured presence in the newsroom. He wasn't above the cheap laugh - such as putting a microphone screen over his nose, and lapsing into a Karl Malden/American Express ad imitation. "Lost your wallet? What will you do? What ... will ... you ... do?" But he was obviously smart and knew his stuff.

There are a variety of "you had to be there" stories that come to mind. One time Scott was working on the writer-reporter's desk when protestors at Love Canal took a couple of state workers "hostage" in a symbolic act. Scott knew someone in the protest group and called her up, asking how the hostages were doing. "Oh, you want to talk to one of them?" the woman answered. Scott said OK, and she handed the phone to him. "Hi, Scott, how are you?" he asked. Scott answered, "How am I? You're the hostage! How are you?!"

For whatever reason, I remember the time he stopped in the sports office on his way out the door. Scott had to cover some event, and told me he had to stop at the bank or something on the way back to do some personal business. In my best snarky tone, I jokingly said, "Well, don't forget to punch out." He replied in fake horror, "Punch out? What is this, Two Guys?" And then we both laughed loudly.

Naturally, more fun came after hours. Snapshots of those moments come back every so often.

That's Scott at the writer-reporter's desk in the main newsroom
at WEBR in August 1979, with Dennis Keefe on the left of the
photograph. Kids, that object in front of Scott was called
a typewriter. Ask your parents about it some day.
* Athletics. The WEBR slo-pitch softball team was usually mediocre, mostly because we didn't have enough people on the staff to have a deep roster. We had to rely on pitching and defense. I can say that here because I was the usual starting pitcher, and Scott was the backup. Our strategy was to try to have people hit the ball toward center fielder Steve Tawa, who could catch anything hit in the area code. Occasionally, someone would hit the ball over Steve's head and off a house on the other side of a fence. Scott would come over from second base with some comforting words. "Don't throw him that pitch again," he snorted. We all spent several Saturday afternoons together as a team, drowning our sorrows or celebrating our wins at Wiechec's in Buffalo.

I probably had an edge on the softball field over Scott, especially at the plate, but he was a better basketball player. Those guys from New Jersey always loved to take the ball to the hoop. But neither of us took to roller skating, as we discovered one frigid February night.

Reporter Mark Charlton used to have "Blue February" parties, saying that by that time everyone in Buffalo is depressed that winter is still going on and on by that month. Therefore, he'd have a party featuring blue mixed drinks. Around 11:30 p.m., someone remembered that the group from Channel 17, a business partner of WEBR, had rented out a roller-skating rink in Amherst. So off we all went, a bit overserved at the time. Scott grabbed on to "instructor" Pam Benson for support and lessons, which was a less-than-subtle but wise move on his part. Pam quickly regretted it, I'm sure, upon realizing that Scott was on shaky legs and didn't know how to skate. When he fell down, she fell down. The noise of falling bodies always drew a stare even with the loud disco music in the hall, and it was followed by Scott's distinctive high-pitched giggle. Scott reported a day later that, "Boy, is my ass sore, and I can't remember why."

* Poker. Scott fit in pretty quickly with my high school pals for the odd game of poker. One time I had invited some of them to my house for a little gambling, followed by a movie on the newly-invented and just-purchased VCR. The idea of watching a film on video tape at home was a exciting novelty then. Still, whenever Scott lost a hand, he'd mournfully look at his shrinking pile of chips and say grimly, "No movies!" We never did see that Woody Allen film.

One game that we used to play was called "Garbage." It was a seven-card game with a ton of wild-cards. The catch was that a pair of natural sevens beat everything. In one game, Scott seemed sure to win a nice pot, because he had about six aces. But someone came up with the two sevens, turning sure victory into defeat. Scott didn't take it well, since $15 was big money at that point in our lives. On the very next hand, featuring a different type of seven-card stud game, someone got two straight sevens face up. "Two sevens - you win!" Scott shouted with mock enthusiasm and he started pushing things at the other player. "You win all the chips in the pot, and all of the chips in my pile, and all of the potato chips in the bowl, and my beer, and all the money in my wallet, and my credit cards, and (dramatically reaching into his pocket for keys) my car!" The set-up and timing were so good that Glenn Locke nearly spit his beer out on to the table when the car keys came out.

Fan Kim Dehlinger, Scott and Bill Rosinski go over a
softball game at Wiechec's in South Buffalo. We needed
lessons on how to wear our baseball caps.
* Music. I believe Scott and I went to the relatively famous Who concert at Memorial Auditorium together. That was the one right after the show in Cincinnati that featured a stampede caused by festival seating, and a few people died. We also saw Bruce Springsteen at the Aud. The Boss played "Thunder Road" at the end of the first set, and we talked at intermission. "I can go home now," Scott said. "That's what I came to hear."

You more than get the idea. Alas, the good times usually don't last forever. WEBR had a lot of talented people at the time who moved on to better things when they got the chance. Scott got one of those offers, and soon he was off to do television news for Channel 2. He roomed with Glenn for three years in that era, so we still saw each other quite a bit. But clearly, Scott had moved into a different orbit. It happens.

Eventually, Scott left broadcasting for a stint in County Executive Gorski's office. There he got to know my wife, so she saw him more than I did for a while. We'd bump into him somewhere, and he was always chatty and friendly. Then Scott took a job for District Attorney Eliot Spitzer in the New York City area and was gone ... until he came back somewhat unexpectedly to WGRZ. Our paths crossed once in a great while, such as when mutual friends like Mark Hamrick came back to Buffalo to visit. He seemed happy and content, which was great, and he did his job very well. But we were still in separate orbits.

Then Scott more or less disappeared from on-air work without explanation. I think I sent him an email message to check in, but never heard back. Hmmm. Then a mutual friend said he spotted Scott at Roswell Park. Well, at least that explained things a bit. Scott certainly had a private side. When I asked a friend at the television station about the situation, he said I knew more than he did. I was heartened by Scott's return to the air at one point, but then saddened by his disappearance again after a short stint.

You put a few miles on the odometer, and you are bound to come across situations where you know bad news is coming but you don't know when. Such was the case here, so I was shocked but not surprised by the announcement of his passing.

Scott and I developed one habit when there was mutual good news, like a run scored in softball or a split pot in poker. We'd try to give each other a "high five," except miss on purpose as if we were total nerds. No comments, please. I would have liked to have tried it one more time, except that we'd actually complete the gesture for once to mark the good times we had together. But since I can't, I'll just be happy that our paths, er, orbits once crossed.

(Those interested can make a donation here. Feel free to share a fun story about Scott in the comments section.)

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Answering the question

It's been quite a weekend on social media, as the Trump Administration begins its term in office. A day after the inauguration ceremony, a few million people - mostly but not exclusively women - took part in protest marches and rallies in all 50 states and in several major cities throughout the world. 

Here's one such comment I saw that drew a little reaction from others.

"Can anyone clarify what they are protesting about? These very aggressive women are bitching about what? Cool down, have a drink with your husband, have sex and laugh. Enough said!"

All right, a lot of reaction. Here's a serious answer.

Admittedly, it's difficult to narrow down the motives of millions of people. I'm sure some just went along with friends, and others are still upset about the Presidential election and wanted to vent a bit.

But I think it's fair to say that there are a lot of people out there who are scared.

If they are part of the 20 million people or so who have health insurance through the ACA, they are scared that the members of the federal government have vowed to cancel the program without coming up over the past few years with any hint of the details of a replacement plan. And some of those who are scared are sick.

If they are people of color, they are scared that states will continue to make it more difficult to vote by closing polling stations in rural areas. And they are scared that the potential Attorney General was rejected as a judicial candidate in the 1980s because he was judged to be a racist by both sides of the aisle. 

If they are immigrants, they are scared of being targeted for harassment and hate crimes, and in some cases they are scared that they could be deported or that their families won't be allowed to join them in this country.

If they care about climate change, they are scared that the new head of the EPA will choose the economy over ecology every time - no matter what scientific data says. 

If they are part of the LGBT community, they are scared that they will be subject to more discrimination from this day forward and not less. Because there are people in government who think it matters who they love and where they go the bathroom. 

If they are interested in protecting reproductive rights, they know that the new President said that he would punish women who had an abortion. And they probably know someone - a relative or a friend - who could be affected by that. 

If they have children, they are scared that the only qualification that a Cabinet nominee appears to have to oversee their public education is that she can sign checks made out to political parties, candidates or causes .

If they prefer honesty from their government, they are scared about a chief executive who is willing to lie about whether it rains on his inaugural speech and the size of the crowd in front of him - and if he'll lie about that, he'll lie about anything.  

And if they are part of the general American population, they are scared of government workers who used the word "enemies" to describe their political opponents. Because they know what happened when Richard Nixon used such descriptions. 

Some of these views are oversimplifications. A much more narrow focus on the particular issue is necessary in order to have a rational discussion on it. Some of these fears won't come close to being realized.

But the protestors' feelings are real and legitimate. They demonstrated that fact, rather loudly, and they deserved to be taken seriously.

If you don't, it says much more about you than it says about them.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Quick story about The King

It's been a tough year for legends in sports, with Gordie Howe, Muhammad Ali and Arnold Palmer all gone, I've only been to a few golf tournaments over the years, but I do remember being part of Arnie's Army at the U.S. Open in Oak Hill in the late 1960s. He was always my favorite golfer.

I played golf with a guy who had a really funny story about Arnie. Let's call the person Mike.

Mike had the most unusual swing I've ever seen on a golf course. He turned the clubhead 90 degrees inward on address, so that a normal swing would have resulted in hitting the ball with the top of the club. Somehow, he went through various motions that make Jim Furyk's swing look like Ernie Els', and smacked the ball long distances. I have no idea how he did it, but it was impressive.

Mike was a businessman, and some time ago he played in the Milwaukee Open's pro-am. He's on a tee, getting ready to hit, but looks over to the next fairway and sees Arnold Palmer looking his way. Talk about pressure! In spite of that, Mike takes his normal swing and clobbers the ball, and then moves quickly down the fairway.

After the round, Mike went to a reception for all the players. And who comes up to him but ... Arnold Palmer. Mike thought to himself, "Oh, boy, he's going to give it to me for my swing." Sure enough, Arnie says, "Were you the guy I saw hitting the ball on the fifth tee today?" Mike says sheepishly that yes, he was the one.

Arnie smiles and says, "That was one helluva drive," and patted him on the shoulder with a smile.

There will never be another Arnold Palmer - he made the sport cool, and he made it much more popular with his personal magnetism.

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Saturday, July 02, 2016

Post Card from Iceland

"We come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow."
- "Immigrant Song," Led Zeppelin

It was always difficult to say where you were in Iceland.


We came out of the Reykjavik airport (actually located 45 minutes away, in Keflavik) shortly before 1 a.m after a 5-1/2 hour flight from Toronto and the usual wait for customs and luggage. The sky looked like twilight - dark enough to put on car headlights, but light enough so that objects could still be seen in the distance.

It took some time for the bus to fill up with fellow visitors, and then the vehicle dropped off a few people along the way before arriving in Reykjavik at about 2:15. Along the way, we came to the realization that it was getting lighter outside.

Welcome to Iceland, late June edition.

Whenever we mentioned that we were headed to the North Atlantic country, the first question from others centered on the midnight sun. Yes, we did not see darkness for the entire nine-day trip. The day we were in Akureyri on the north coast, sunset was at 12:50 a.m., and sunrise was at 1:25 a.m. So it never became completely dark. That made it important to make sure the curtains in hotel rooms covered up as much of the windows as possible. On the other hand, walking down a fully lit street after 10 p.m. is a unique experience.

We took a bus tour of Iceland with 19 others that covered more than 2,000 kilometers over the course of a week, seeing a couple of cities, a few towns or villages, waterfalls, deserts, glaciers, mountains, hot springs. and sheep - lots of sheep. I will post notes on individual locations (with pictures) on my travel blog when I get to them. Here are some observations, with the help of some members of the group who turned from strangers to friends in much less than a week:

 * One of the odd parts of a trip to Iceland is that a look at the words of an Icelandic location provided no clue to English-speaking people on how to say it. There are 36 letters in their alphabet, and some combinations of letters produce unknown sounds to English speakers. When we were in Egilsstaoir (missing a squiggle under the o), no one had much of an idea about how to say it - so we didn't. The volcano that blew up in 2010, causing air travel problems for the world, is called Eyjafjallaokull. There are YouTube videos with instructions on how to say that one. T-shirts spell it out phonetically - AY-uh-fyat-luh-YOE-kuuti-uh. And good luck.

Names are no better. Our bus tour guide said her name once, but she thankfully said to just call her Steffi. The bus driver's name was the same story but he provided no snappy nickname. After he introduced himself on the bus, I let out a stage whisper, "Let's call him Skip." It got a good laugh, and the name stuck for some through the trip.

* We figured the bus tour would be tiring, as we had to change hotels every night for five straight nights, and it was. It led to a feeling of "If it's Sunday, it must be Reykjahlio" at times. But there were plenty of stops along the way to break up the drives, so we saw a lot and no one collapsed. No complaints here.

* Looking for a trip to a foreign country where communicating is easy? Iceland is your place. Just about everyone speaks English. All of the major signs that tourists see have both languages printed on them - along the lines of Canada's use of English and French. However, all of the television outlets from Iceland used Islandic, and a daily English newspaper didn't seem to be available anywhere. Therefore, it was tough to keep up with the latest news of the host country. Interestingly, a  Presidential election took place early in our stay, and we had no idea who won until an Internet search produced a result. (There were no roadside signs for candidates, either, come to think of it.)

* We did happen to be visiting when Iceland had its "Miracle on Grass" moment. The national soccer team had qualified for the Euro soccer tournament for the first time, causing a bit of a frenzy, and then advanced to the round of 16. There mighty England awaited, but Iceland came through with a 2-1 win. England's population - 51 million; Iceland's - 330,000. We could hear fireworks from our hotel in East Iceland. How embarrassing was the loss? The coach of the English national team immediately resigned after the game. Soccer has grown in popularity in Iceland as more and more fields have added artificial turf.

* There were English stations on cable television - mostly from the BBC. They devoted much air time to the Brexit vote. That result dismayed our new British friends who were traveling on our tour, and not just because they had to watch the trip become more expensive by the day as the pound suffered a beating in international currency trading. 

* A quick note on weather is required. It rained a little every day, but usually only for a short time. Temperatures were in the low 50s under mostly cloudy skies. Apparently that rare 70-degree day sends everyone running to the beaches (just to relax, not to swim in the freezing waters), but none of that took place while we were there.

* The hotel rooms were on the small side by American standards. They were missing top sheets, meaning we slept directly under a nice quilt, and clocks. The showers were a little claustrophobic, which was surprising in a place where people shower naked together (men and women are in separate rooms, for the record) before heading into the hot springs. One of our rooms did not have a bar on the floor to prevent shower water from flowing all over the bathroom - causing a small flood. The room did come with a squeegee, though, which was a first.

A native gives me advice on what to see in Iceland. He was a little stiff.
* Speaking of missing, there are no good sweatshirts in all of Iceland. Anywhere. I looked. There are a few clever t-shirts, including one that used the quote at the top of the story. But sweatshirts didn't get more witty than the one that read "Iceland." There were no long-sleeve t-shirts, either. Say, isn't this country right below the Arctic Circle? We told Steffi that she should quit the tour business and sell sweatshirts and flower seeds (none of those around either). "Steffi's Shirts and Seeds" would clean up.

* Iceland is an expensive country to visit. Just about everything but wool (remember, lots of sheep) has to be imported, which adds up after a while. Lunch for two was in the range of $35 unless you had a couple of tasty Icelandic hot dogs (they add a bit of lamb to them). A small soft drink was at least $3. Salads were relatively scarce on menus, and pricey when found. A 1,000-krona note is worth $8.16, at least as of this writing, which caused some mental mathematics whenever we looked at prices. One other point about prices - tipping is more or less not allowed in Iceland. Natives consider it a handout, so it is included in the price. You'd be surprised how helpful that is for tourists.  

* Driving can be an adventure in Iceland, as few roads outside of Reykjavik have more than two lanes and the rural areas feature many dirt roads. As a result, collision shop owners do well there. We had thought about renting a car and driving around Iceland outselves, but letting Skip do the driving proved to be a good decision. If you are interested, the country is slightly smaller than Kentucky.

* Iceland is a place for serious photographers. We saw several people at the major attractions with large cameras and plenty of extra equipment, such as tripods. Last year on our European cruise, we saw a far greater percentage people using tablets - which, at least to me, shouts out "amateur." I will say, though, that some phone cameras are good enough to take quality photographs these days. 

* Someone asked about the lack of wildlife on display in parks, shorelines, etc. Then we all realized that most animals never could migrate to Iceland. There are plenty of birds, though, including the cute-as-can-be puffins. The island also is home to about 100,000 horses - one for every three people, more or less.

* For what it's worth, there was a surprising amount of graffiti in Reykjavik - more than you'd think in an area with less than 250,000 people. We asked a few people about it, and we got answers ranging from drugs to immigrants.

* The "Buffalo is the center of the universe theory" was proven a couple of times on the trip in casual conversation. (As you may know, there's always some connection to Buffalo, no matter where you go.) We were chatting with a couple of Americans when I mentioned I was from Buffalo. "Oh, one of my best friends works for the Buffalo News." After a few stories about co-worker Sue Schulman, we became pals in no time. And Steffi trained at Roswell Park Cancer Institute during the 1970s, spending several years in Buffalo. Amazing.

Iceland has plenty of natural wonders scattered around the country, and people - native and visiting - are welcoming and friendly. It made for a fine vacation.

It's always nice to return home - or at least to the Toronto airport.
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Sunday, June 12, 2016

Lunch with Gordie

If my Twitter feed was any indication, every single sports reporter who was working in the 1960s through 1980s did some sort of story with Muhammad Ali. There were all sorts of accounts of encounters with The Greatest Of All Time bouncing around after Ali's death.

Except from me. I missed out. I think the only time Ali and I were in the same building was when Don King promoted a boxing card at Memorial Auditorium, and Ali showed up.

But as for Gordie Howe, who died last week, well, that was another story. I had a regular lunch date with Gordie once a year for a few years. That deserves a bit of an explanation.

The Sabres used to have a media luncheon once a month during the hockey season in the mid-1980s. It was a chance to have steak for lunch on the team, and talk to team management. Once a year, Howe would come in to town to promote the Emery Edge Award, which went to the plus-minus award winner.

I'm not even sure what the company did, and why it sponsored an NHL award, but no one really cared. Howe turned up, had a nice lunch, and told stories about hockey. It must have been a nice way to make a few dollars. I know I sure enjoyed his visits, and everyone else did too.

My best memory of Howe came at one of those sessions. Gordie had just finished lunch when he went to get a pitcher of water for a refill. After filling up his own glass, he asked the group if anyone else wanted water. A few said yes, and Howe started refilling glasses.

At that point, Sabres' public relations director Gerry Helper got up to start the more formal part of the ceremony. He thanked everyone for coming and then said: "Let me introduce a few people to start. First is your waiter, Gordie Howe." Everyone laughed hard, including Gordie.

I covered Gordie's last game in Buffalo, on March 6, 1980 (it was Bobby Hull's last game in Buffalo as well, as he was a Whaler then), and I probably stuck a microphone in Howe's face after the game. It struck me that it was like interviewing my father, since he was 52.

The lunches were better. Let me assure you from personal experience that Gordie Howe really was as nice as everyone has said he was. I've got an autographed copy of his autobiography on my bookshelf, and it's not going anywhere.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

One degree of separation from the Boss

This is definitely the week to tell this story.

It was the summer of 1978, and I was at a wedding in New Jersey - not far from the fabled Jersey Shore. A high school friend was getting married, so a few of his buddies made the drive down for the ceremony. It was an eventful weekend for a variety of reasons - a massive midnight swim in the hotel pool right on Route 23 in which some of the boys, um, forgot their suits, a car accident that left my 1970 Torino stationary, etc.

But for our purposes, let's stick to the reception. The seating was a little haphazard, and we were placed with a couple from New Jersey. The woman in question was suitably blonde and beautiful, leaving the rest of us trying to at least start a conversation in an awkward way.

During the reception, the disk jockey played some sort of canned music appropriate for the time. After a few songs, I had had enough disco or the equivalent at that point. "This is New Jersey. It's clearly time for some Bruce Springsteen," I said to the table.

The expression on the woman's face lit up. "Are you a fan?" she asked. "Absolutely. I saw the band live last year, and immediately went out to buy all of the albums," I replied.

Then she said, "It's so nice to see good guys do well." That sounds a little enigmatic, so I asked for an explanation.

She told me that once a week, members of the band in some combination used to come over to her house. They'd sit around, play poker, and eat chili. I thought that was quite cool. After I replied in a way to show my jealousy, she mentioned that Clarence Clemons never played much poker. He'd stay in the kitchen with the woman's father, talking about the good old days since they were the oldest ones in the house for those parties and eating chili.

The story is now 38 years old, which means those actual poker games probably are more than 40 decades in the past. But it still fun to hear stories about people like the members of the E Street Band, who were making friends as they tried to scratch out a living doing something they loved. The boys may have thought they were paying their dues at the time, but I'll bet they think of those days every so often as simple and pure.

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Saturday, January 30, 2016

Smile

After almost a year of campaigning and discussion about Presidential politics, someone finally will get to cast something resembling a ballot very soon. The Iowa caucus will be held on Monday. While standing around for 90 minutes and then announcing your Presidential preference in front of a crowd is a long way from the classic secret ballot that usually comes with democracy, it's all we've got for the moment. So we'll take it.

The odd part is that so many candidates didn't even get that far. We started with about 17 reasonably well-known Republican candidates and five Democrats, and that number has been cut by a little less than half in the past several months. I can't imagine what someone like Senator Lindsay Graham is thinking - "I don't mind losing an election, but I didn't even make it as far as the first caucus. What happened here?"

This weekend, then, isn't a bad time to look at the landscape, and one particular point is striking. I'm not sure who said it first, but a political analyst once noted that the more upbeat, hopeful, positive candidate usually wins Presidential elections. Certainly that applies to races like Obama over McCain and Reagan over Carter, among several others. When in doubt, look for sunshine.

It raises the question - who exactly would you consider the candidate who is the most positive outlook this year? It's difficult to find one out there.

Admittedly, the Republicans have been out of power for eight years, and they need to make a case for change. That's been enhanced because some party members have moved deeper into the conservative side, and they are the ones with the most enthusiasm (more likely to vote in primaries) and the loudest voices. But the candidates themselves have fallen over themselves to be less than pleasant in the process. How many of them would you really like to have next to you in a bar sipping a beer?

Donald Trump might offer a more sunny outlook than most, with his slogan about making America great again. But that's only if the country blindly follows his leadership, and only if you aren't a Muslim. Unrestrained megalomania, even by Presidential candidate standards, is never pretty. And really, anyone that makes fun of someone with disabilities, as Trump did to a reporter, is beyond contempt. Besides, a New York Times story on Sunday points out that 1 out of 8 of Trump's tweets contain some sort of personal insult. I would call that a sunny outlook.

Even without Trump, it's a strange group of the rest of those still standing, who basically complain about the state of the country without getting into many specifics about how to improve things. Yes, some think outlawing same-sex marriage would help, some think spending much more money on military spending would help, and some think that essentially bolting the doors when it comes to immigration would help. I'm just not sure where the public as a whole (meaning next November) is in agreement on all of that that. And none of the candidates - Trump in particular - seem to think that telling the truth is particularly helpful. Even when factual errors are made, the falsehoods are simply repeated on the chance that people will believe them.

The leaders besides Trump are Ted Cruz (he's the one standing alone at the bar in our beer test), and Marco Rubio (the one getting proofed at the bar) for now, since they have done well in polling to date. Both seemed to spend the last debate complaining how our country had been ruined in the past seven years. They also turned to religious viewpoints every so often, which appeals to Iowa's evangelical voters, but has the effect of making those who don't share those beliefs feel like they aren't invited to the party.

Otherwise, we have Jeb Bush, looking confused as to why his campaign never took flight and turning bitter as a result. We have Chris Christie, who has a sarcastic New Jersey sense of humor that might not carry well in other parts of the world, and who brings up 9/11 enough to make him an updated version of Presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. We have John Kasich, who many not be joyful but at least acts like an adult and thus worries Democrats looking over the field of possible opponents. There's also Ben Carson, who is clearly in over his head but is at least pleasant some of the time, and Rand Paul, whose libertarian views are heartfelt but not a great fit for the Republican Party. I'm not sure I would have picked all of these people to survive this far.

Along those lines, Mike Huckabee came off in his first Presidential campaign in 2008 as being the sunniest of personalities, even though a few of his ideas were odd. His rhetoric was more harsh in  2016 - even if on a personal level he seemed like a fun person. Maybe that was a small factor in his microscopic support level this time, although Ted Cruz was a new face in '16 that pretty clearly worked hard to woo voters from that part of the electorate.

If you are looking for relief in the sunshine department on the other side of the legislative aisle, there's not much help. Bernie Sanders is never going to be confused with a stand-up comedian. Besides, you have to wonder if anyone who was a member of the Socialist Party has a chance of winning a national election. Then there's Hillary Clinton, who once again came into the nominating process with tons of natural advantages (name recognition, money, etc.), and hasn't been able to close the sale. That's partly because Republicans have been pounding the Clintons for a quarter-century, in some cases with some justification, and it has left some scars. But she's also not a natural campaigner; her speeches have many of the right notes but no one hears much music.I once said about Bill Bradley that he'd be a better President than Presidential candidate, and the same description may apply here.

However, Clinton probably has the best case to prevent a reasonably sunny outlook about the future. President Obama never has been good at selling his own accomplishments, surprising considering his rhetorical gifts. But, the unemployment rate has done nothing but drop since he entered office. The price of gas is down to $2 a gallon. The stock market is way up over where it was in 2009. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down, and Americans have stopped coming home in body bags. Millions of people have health insurance. Yes, the Middle East is still a mess, and terrorism is still a threat, but I'm not sure anyone could have solved those problems. In those big areas, the record could be considered pretty good. Clinton was part of Obama Administration, and thus can piggyback on some of the accomplishments as well as distancing herself from other aspects of Obama's policies.

As the Iowa voters get ready to caucus, I must remind myself that no matter how desperate we are for some sort of results, if only to give the endless consultants on all-news stations (where do they get these people, anyway?) something to talk about, Iowa isn't the best test of popularity. Ask those well-known Presidential nominees, Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee. But Iowa can offer some surprises - ask Pat Robertson - and it's with a certain degree of glee that we all wait to see what might happen. Along the way, we'll have to see who has a smile or his or her face as we go forward from here.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Midterm examination

Here's a number that might make you think twice. This is the 20th season that the First Niagara Center in Buffalo has been open.

Yup, it opened for business in the fall of 1996. So if you're 26 years old or so, you only have heard of Memorial Auditorium as a working facility. It was an abandoned building for a while, containing only memories for some, and eventually came down years after it should have - if only to sell more stuff to a nostalgic public before it rotted away. Translation: everyone who cared should have a pair of seats in the basement.

Therefore, the First Niagara Center, which isn't the original name and I assume won't be the name for much longer once the next bank merger takes place, is closing in on half of its expected lifespan. That might be a little premature, since the Aud made it through 56 years. But for argument's sake, let's call this a good time to see how we did in the arena-building business.

My initial verdict is that it's been a functional building with all the needed features, with one possible exception: charm.

A lot of arenas went up in big cities in North America in the 1990s. They all seemed pretty similar. They had a lower level, an upper level, and a middle level filled with club seats and suites. It's not as bad as the cookie-cutter baseball stadiums that popped up in places like Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the 1970s, but you get the idea.

If you are in the inside of the building, with a few of the ice, well, it looks like most of the other new buildings. The sightlines are clear, although not as good and steep as they were in the Aud. But there's not much that shouts Buffalo when watching a game, either on television or in the building. If you take a lap around a concourse, you probably know where you are in the building at a given moment but that's about it.

The most interesting architectural feature of the place is probably the entrance. The atrium serves as a good gathering place coming in and out of the arena, and that creates a little energy. Of course, it also creates some crowds and lines thanks to post-9/11 security measures that couldn't have been foreseen in 1996. The plaza is nice, and the statue gives the area a bit of a history lesson. Granted there haven't been too many pregame playoff parties there lately for Sabre games, but that's not the arena's fault.

Obviously, the Sabres of that era didn't put many distinctive features into the building, because there wasn't much money to do so. Some things like a second freight elevator got cut out of the plans for budget reasons. If you recall, there was some doubt that the team could sell enough suite leases to even get the structure built in the first place. But to their credit, they got it built, and it still looks good in its 20th year.

Still, the First Niagara Center is a basic arena without many frills. Would you be excited about taking a visitor there to show it off? Maybe, maybe not.

There is a catch, though. The thought struck me that this is just "old guy" rhetoric. When I first came to Memorial Auditorium in 1970, it was the new home of the Braves and Sabres. That meant I felt excitement just by walking in the door. The Aud was already 30 years old then, and it had more nooks and crannies than an English muffin. Can you picture the stairs come down to the floor from the upper golds at the locker room? Can you see the television bucket hanging over the edge of the oranges at center ice? Me too.

Maybe it's just difficult for the First Niagara Center to compete with a building that contained so good memories, and for young people the FNC is generating its own such memories. After all, either building is one of those rare public facilities in which people expect to have a good time as soon as they walk in the door.

But at least from this old guy, it would be nice to see the building have a little more character. It would be good to have some memories updated in that way.

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