Friday, May 30, 2008

Punchline from a car...

There is no good time for a car to turn sour. There are merely better times than others.

A Friday night of Memorial Day weekend is not one of those good times. Here's the story: My car's RPM started to drop noticibly when idling. Not good. Faced with the holiday weekend and a planned Tuesday plane trip, I decided not to try to get the car to the dealer on Saturday morning ... since it wouldn't be back in time to get to the airport. So I took it to a local place, which shall be known as Pep Boys ... because that's what it was.

I was told when dropping it off that it would be $84 to take a look around, and that "it wouldn't be long" until they got to it. No call as of Saturday afternoon, so I called. They hadn't gotten to it. I went to work that night and called. They hadn't gotten to it, but would be on it first thing Sunday. When I called Sunday at noon, they hadn't gotten to it. Later that afternoon, someone was on it but hadn't finished. So I went to work Sunday night.

I got up Monday and called about 11 a.m. I was told the third mechanic was looking at it, trying to figure out what was wrong. At 1 p.m., I finally got an unsolicited call, saying that the mechanic was suggesting about $500 worth of steps in an effort to improve the fuel flow. Since I still had to get to the airport and had little confidence that the mechanics had figured anything out, I told them I'd just pick up the car. So I did, paying the $84 and gleefully noticing that there was an on-line survey.

Then came the punchline.

I went out to the car, and started it. The hesitation while idling was gone. The car ran fine.

It ran fine to the airport the next day, and on the way back two days later. The timing isn't quite perfect when it switches gears during acceleration, but it's nothing I can't live with for now.

My guess is that something that was blocking fuel flow was cleaned out during the inspection by one member of the battery of mechanics. It would have been good if someone had turned the key and noticed that. It also would have been good if someone did a better job of keeping the customer informed about the car's progress.

I know automotive problems can be tough to diagnose, but my only satisfaction from the weekend was getting to fill out the survey. "Would you tell your friends to come to Pep Boys."

Monday, May 26, 2008


This celebration by the Spokane Chiefs at the end of the Memorial Cup tournament (kind of Canada's answer to the BCS, without computer rankings) didn't turn out the way they planned:

You'll be happy to know that was just a replica; the real Cup is back at the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Big league experiences

Saturday's news that Buffalo may be getting an arenafootball2 expansion franchise probably brought some smirks in the community. After all, this is a town that's used to seeing some of the best athletes in the world in the National Football League and National Hockey League. It's a tough sell to convince those same fans to see minor league events, no matter what the ticket price.

But I've had some funny times over the years at such games. Here are three examples:

* In 1976, a women's pro softball league was started up. Three friends and I piled in a car and drove from Clarence to Eden for a game. I'm not sure we knew at that point exactly where Eden was, but we made it for the double-header. Joan Joyce was the main attraction, as she was the best-known player in the country around that time.

I think the Chicago Ravens and Buffalo Breskis split the twin-bill. What I remember though, is lingering around the Chicago bench with my friends and starting up a 5-to-10 minute conversation with the Chicago manager. She couldn't have been nicer to us. When we were done, one of my friends said, "Can you imagine Tommy Lasorda doing that between games?" Another replied, "Actually, I could."

* In 1984, the Buffalo Storm tried its luck in the United Soccer League. The team had some players who were on the Buffalo Stallions' indoor team, and who needed some spending money in the summer. The games were played at All-High Stadium. A friend and I had press passes, earning us the chance to climb up a steep ladder without railings to get to the unsteady roof of the stadium. It was a nice view but not a climb I'd take now that I'm past 50.

Anyway, Buffalo was playing a New York team that was essentially sponsored by that city's Greek community. The coach had been suspended and was back in New York. One of the New York team's assistants, or interns, or something, sat next to us. He did play-by-play -- in Greek -- back to the coach on the phone. At halftime, the coach dictated some notes on what to do in the second half. The assistant ran down, told the team what to do, and came back to the press box to continue his commentary. I don't think it helped.

* The Buffalo Rapids were around for a couple of basketball seasons in one form or another a little while back. I attended their first game, which was played at Buffalo State College. It was loud, and there wasn't much defense played, but the basketball wasn't too bad. So when a friend had some free tickets a few weeks later, my wife and I went. The team's playing facility had been downsized to the gym at the Park School, and less than 100 of us jammed in (trust me, it couldn't have held many more) to watch the game. I even won a free t-shirt -- a medium, so I gave to a co-worker who still wears it with pride.

The funny part came after the game. During the game, the team announced that if the Rapids won, all ticket-holders were entitled to a free dessert at area Denny's restaurants. The team lived up to its share of the bargain. So my group headed to Denny's for that ice cream sundae. Problem: no one at Denny's had heard of that promotion. Heck, they hadn't heard of the Rapids. And you almost could see the Park School from the restaurant -- it was about two-tenths of a mile. We could have walked there. Dessert was good, but a bit more expensive than I would have liked.

The minor league of a minor league may be a tough sell in Buffalo, but I'll have to check it out at least once if it plays. Might get some good memories there.

Friday, May 23, 2008


I just got done reading "Oldtimers," a book I picked up at a Canadian used book sale a little while ago for $1. It was written about six years ago, and it's the story of how a reporter tagged along with a tour of former NHL players through parts of Canada. It has some funny stories as well as recaps of the careers of the players -- easy reading, in other words.

One of the players on the team and in the book was Mark Napier, a pro player more than a decade. Napier was a Buffalo Sabre when I worked for the team, and he was one of the good guys. You might remember him for wearing number 65, because he wanted to publicize the 65 Roses Foundation.

Napier reviews the first part of his career in his book. He signed early with Birmingham with the World Hockey Association, and then jumped to Montreal of the National Hockey League in 1978-79.

Now here comes the interesting part. Napier won a Stanley Cup with that team. According to the quotes in the book, Napier points out how exciting it was to win a Cup even though Scotty Bowman, Ken Dryden and Yvan Cournoyer had left the team.

The problem is that while Cournoyer retired after playing a few games that season, Bowman and Dryden were still around for the 1978-79 season. It's easy to get dates mixed up, of course. But Napier has got to be the first person in history that he forgot that he played for Scotty Bowman.

Scotty was a lot of things in his coaching career. Smart. Shrewd. Demanding. Machiavellian. Distant. I'm sure a few dozen other words might come up, some of them even printable. Forgettable is not one of them.

Mark, I hope you are doing O.K. in your post-playing days. And I hope that concussion's after-effects have subsided.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Introducing my co-worker

It's seems one of my co-workers is writing a blog too. Copycat.

I jest. Mary Kunz Goldman's blog can be found by going here. She's currently working on an authorized biography of Leonard Pennario, and is out in San Diego talking to him and doing some research. It's interesting to see how the process is taking shape.

Tough to believe, though, that people would buy a book without any hockey fights in it.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Just amazing...

A recent radio program sent me all the way back to 1962 or so.

I was in elementary school in Pines Lake (part of Wayne), New Jersey. My father was on some sort of PTA committee in charge of putting together an afternoon of entertainment for the kiddies on a Saturday.

Dad scouted the available talent pool, and found some guy who would come in and perform something of a magic show for the eager elementary school kids. I believe Dad and Co. talked the guy down to $35 after some negotiating.

Once the man started to perform, the kids had a good time and the adults were even impressed. Dad figured the group had gotten a bargain for its $35. I can still picture the day, sitting on the grass a couple of rows back while the entertainer worked with his back to the back wall of the school.

That entertainer was headed for bigger things. He was, then as now, the Amazing Kreskin.

Kreskin was on The Joey Reynolds Show the other night, a syndicated late night broadcast. Hard to believe the appearance at Pines Lake didn't come up.

Food for thought

There's often at least one article in the Atlantic magazine each month that makes me think ... a lot.

This month's winner is called "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower." You can read it by clicking here.

The article was written by an anonymous contributor who teaches English at night. His students aren't the best and the brightest, but rather ones who feel they should be in college rather than who need to be.

After seeing these students in action, if that's the right word after a semester mostly filled with boredom and inattention, he finds he has to fail some of them and feels a little guilty about it. No, a lot guilty.

There is a great deal of pressure on people to get some sort of college training these days. Some people need college credits for career advancement. His question is, should we be doing that? Not everyone needs to learn the themes of Hamlet. He wonders just who are we accepting into colleges these days, and whether it comes close to a scheme to get tuition dollars into the college's wallets from those who shouldn't be bothering.

We've heard a lot about the "dumbing down" of America. This is a part of it that doesn't come up much. And I'm glad it did here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Thanks for asking...

Why, yes, some of the photographs from my California trip are on line. I've posted a bunch of Yosemite pictures, and a couple of others from Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Here's a picture of the world's largest living thing:

The General Sherman Tree is in Sequoia National Park. There are higher trees, but none more massive. Something this size and shape is tough to photograph, but you get the idea.

It's on my travel Web site, Road Trips! You can find the link to it and other places on that page.

Thanks for putting up with the shameless plug.

Monday, May 12, 2008

First visitor times two

During my digging of family history, which is pretty easy because of, I've been wondering if I could find some sort of connection to the Mayflower. Much of my mother's side of the family has New England roots that go back to the 17th century, and I thought it might be possible that someone landed in Plymouth in 1621.

Well, I have found said person. The catch is that the person is a direct ancestor of three of my cousins. My aunt's great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather is Stephen Hopkins, who indeed was on the Mayflower. The fun part is that Hopkins has a lot more going for him than stepping on a big rock.

Hopkins grew up in England, and headed to Jamestown in 1609. Sadly, his ship, the Sea Venture, was marooned on an island along the way, believed to be Bermuda. It actually was a break for the passengers, since a drought hit Jamestown at that time and most of the residents died. After nine months, Hopkins was part of an uprising against the leadership. He was sentenced to death for his actions, but apparently whined and begged his way out of it. Hopkins eventually landed in Jamestown, stayed for a while, went back to England in the mid-1610's. Supposedly, Shakespeare used part of the episode in "The Tempest," and Hopkins was used for part of a character.

But Hopkins wasn't done with the New World yet. He hitched a ride on the Mayflower, seeking fortune again. The ship was split into religious believers who wanted to worship in peace, and people like Hopkins who were out to make a buck. Hopkins had a son born on the way over, and named him Oceanus, which is a pretty ugly name by any time and standards.

Once arriving, Hopkins was an expert on communicating with the Natives. When Samoset showed up in Plymouth to welcome the English, he stayed at Hopkins' house. About 15 years later, though, Hopkins got into trouble for serving alcoholic beverages at his shop. He died in 1644.

Sounds like the movie rights to that sort of story should be up for bid. (You can find a longer biography by clicking here.)

Call me officially jealous of my cousins to have such an interesting ancestor.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

High concept

Sometimes a good idea for comedy can come out of nowhere, when you aren't expecting one.

For example ... in one episode of the late, lamented sitcom, "Buffalo Bill," starring Dabney Coleman and remembered for helping to launch Geena Davis' career, one of the subplots is that the television station was sponsoring a Jerry Lewis impression contest. So all throughout the episode, people would pop up saying, "Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah ... nice lady!"

Here's a later example:

I recently saw the musical "Avenue Q," which won a Tony as Best Musical a few years ago. It's something like the Muppets grown up, with puppets talking about such adult subjects as homosexuality, racism and relationships. Sesame Street was never so entertaining.

Two of the minor characters in the story are "The Bad Idea Bears." Let's meet them:

Now, before you go all warm and fuzzy, the Bears are something of a Greek chorus for parts of the play, but they don't have anyone's best interests at heart. Should be getting home soon before a big day at work the next day? The Bad Idea Bears suggest Long Island Ice Tea first. Got a little extra money that could go to something like rent? Buy a beer instead. No, buy a case -- save money.

This could have great implications for every day life. Do something stupid? Ask the boss for a raise and get fired instead? Suggest a family vacation in Baghdad? Just say you shouldn't have listened to the Bad Idea Bears that were hanging around.

At the end of the play, the Bad Idea Bears fittingly become Scientologists. This received quite a big laugh.

Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Closing the window

The recent defeat of the Phoenix Suns and the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the NBA playoffs provided another example of an age-old lesson in team sports.

You don't get many chances at a championship. What's more, you don't know when the window of opportunity is going to close.

Both the Suns and the Mavericks had some great teams in the past few years, but both came up short in attempts to win championships. Dallas did make it to the finals once, but lost to Miami. Both teams decided it needed something else to get over the hump this year, so it made major trades in a last-chance action to do so. Phoenix acquired Shaquille O'Neal; Dallas picked up Jason Kidd. It didn't help.

Teams sometimes sense when opportunity is at hand, so they are tempted to make a trade to improve their chances a few months before the playoffs. The catch is that it's obviously impossible to know what the correct deal might be.

About 18 years ago, the Boston Red Sox decided they needed some help in the bullpen for the stretch drive. So they acquired Larry Andersen from the Astros for a prospect. Andersen had one save in a Red Sox uniform, while the prospect turned out to be Jeff Bagwell. All right, Bagwell is going to the Hall of Fame, and Anderson only helped get the Red Sox to the first round of the playoffs. That didn't work.

In 1987, the Tigers thought they needed a veteran pitcher for a bump to the playoffs. So they gave up a prospect for Doyle Alexander. Alexander helped Detroit win the division, but the prospect was John Smoltz, who is still pitching and pitching well 21 years later.

Deals like that always look terrible in hindsight, but you can't blame them for being made. Teams try to go for a ring when they have a chance, sacrificing part of the future for the present ... even though in economic terms the team probably would be better off being merely very good for several years rather than a champion once and mediocre after that.

And sometimes those opportunities for championships appear without any notice. In 1993, the Toronto Maple Leafs found themselves in the Western Conference Finals. They were hosting the Los Angeles Kings in Game Seven. A date with the not-so-intimidating Montreal Canadiens was waiting for the winner, and all of Canada was ready for that series. The Maple Leafs were at home and were the better team. But they didn't have the best player. Wayne Gretzky personally took charge for the Kings, playing one of the best games in his life to lead Los Angeles to the win and to the finals.

The Leafs haven't been so close to the Stanley Cup finals since then. As I said to a friend from The Hockey News a while after that, "YOU'VE GOT TO WIN THAT GAME IF YOU ARE THE LEAFS!"

Two years ago, the Buffalo Sabres were obviously one of the top teams in the NHL and a clear Stanley Cup contender. They dispatched two opponents in the playoffs, and then met the Carolina Hurricanes in the Conference finals. The problem was that the Sabres kept losing defensemen to injury. When Game Seven rolled around, Buffalo had three minor leaguers on the blue line. The Sabres couldn't hold a third-period lead, and the Hurricanes won the game and the series.

Carolina beat eighth-place Edmonton for the Cup; the Sabres probably would have done the same thing. A year later, the Sabres had the best record in the league but had lost some depth and grit in J.P. Dumont, Jay McKee and Mike Grier. The window was closing. Buffalo lost to Ottawa in the conference finals of 2007, and missed the playoffs entirely in 2008 as players such as Chris Drury, Daniel Briere and Brian Campbell went elsewhere.

Sports history is littered with such teams. The Houston Oilers (Earl Campbell, etc.) were mighty good in the late 1970's, but the Pittsburgh Steelers were always in their way. The Chicago Bulls of the 1970's (Bob Love/Chet Walker/etc.) often had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Bucks in front of them. The Atlanta Braves were in the playoffs constantly in the 1990's, but only had one championship. The Cleveland Indians had a one run lead in Game Seven of the series and their closer on the mound against Florida in 1997, but couldn't hold the lead. The nucleus never got another shot at a ring.

There are no guarantees in this business. Which makes it fun. And tough.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Tunnel vision

Take a look at this picture:

It's a pretty famous shot, as everyone who approaches the Yosemite Valley takes it. It's called the Tunnel View. (This particular photo is from Yen-Wen Lu; see the rest of his Yosemite photos here.) I've taken a picture from this perspective myself twice, once in 1995 and once in 2008. That's Bridalveil Falls on the right, and Half Dome is almost exactly in the middle.

When you look over this scene of the apparent wilderness, what's the first thing you think about? Probably not wi-fi access for your computer. But that was what jumped out at me in thinking about my two adventures in Yosemite, 13 years apart.

It's gotten pretty difficult to get away from it all these days.

In this case, the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite has wi-fi in the common areas. When I walked through the common rooms, adults and children were on computers, typing away. And if the adults weren't doing work, or something, they were on their cell phones. The signal wasn't too great, but Yosemite Village has cell service.

Obviously, the Internet and cellular phones weren't everywhere in 1995. For comparison's sake, Yosemite Lodge didn't even have televisions in every room back then. (The Ahwahnee does now, although the ESPN outlets weren't on the dial, which made it tough to follow the hockey playoffs.)

There's something a little sad about this. I felt like telling the others, "Get off of the computers and go take a walk. You're in one of the world's great places. Why don't you spend the afternoon looking around?" Apparently some couldn't bring themselves to do that.

I like being connected as much as the next person, but sometimes it's nice to know that e-mail is just going to have to wait.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Drive to remember

Sometimes there are surprises when you travel. Like the one I had while visiting California last week.

I took a trip to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in the Sierra Nevadas. Sequoia is famous for its big trees, as you'd expect, as well as some memorable views. Kings Canyon has two parts. One is on the West side, and has some more sequoia trees (picture a tree taller than the Statue of Liberty, and you get the idea). Then there's some space to the east before the park resumes.

That space was turned into the Giant Sequoia National Monument some years ago. Supposedly there were some nice views of the canyon in that part of Route 180, at least according to the ranger.

Then I got to those views. Whoa.

The road has been designated as the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway -- good move by someone. (See the picture above, submitted by I didn't know that the canyon was actually much deeper than the Grand Canyon. The road itself is about 30 miles long. It hugs the top of the canyon for a few miles, then slowly descends to water level. It stays on one of the forks for the Kings River for another 10 miles or so before ending. You can hike for a while from there, but you can't drive.

The National Monument doesn't have many obvious activities associated with parks. You can't go down the river, and there's no space for hiking. It is, however, one of the great drives in the country. If you are headed that way, make sure you take it.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Traveling man

One of the great things about traveling is that you get to see what other areas are up to. For instance ...

A just-completed vacation took me through the city of Sacramento, California. This was my 25th state capital -- I have no plans to make it to all 50, by the way. It's a growing area, no doubt in part due to business associated with the state government.

In the good old days, much of Sacramento's business was conducted right along the river. Not unusual, of course. Years later, that section of town had become rundown and underused. So, when someone came up with the idea of making it an historic district and fixing it all up to look like it was the 1800's again, others followed suit. Supposedly "Old Sacramento" has been around since 1976, and it seems to be doing OK -- at least the stores seemed to be occupied.

The district is about six blocks long and two blocks wide. It has some restaurants, museums, bars, a comedy club, souvenir stands, etc. That's about the mix you'd expect.

OK, here's the point. Buffalo has a waterfront, and it has some old buildings left over from the good old days. Buffalo has something called "The Cobblestone District," which has about two streets near HSBC Arena. You would think that it would be easy to put some seed money in there, expand the district between the arena and the planned casino, and have an instant draw for tourists as well as the locals.

I've had similar thoughts about Buffalo when I've traveled elsewhere. Baltimore had an empty waterfront, and now it's filled with activity with such projects as an aquarium as well as top-line restaurants. Buffalo couldn't get away with year-round water taxis, but other parts of Baltimore's plan certainly could be stolen, er, copied or adapted for inspiration.

At least we'll have a big fishing supply store on the waterfront soon. But it can't be that hard to get the wheels of progress in motion.

Can it?