Friday, June 30, 2006

Hey Tux Boy, you breathin' my air?

So it dawns on me that we've had two tuxedo references in this space in the last week. And now it's three, which actually equals the number of times I've actually worn the tuxedo I own.

I bought a tuxedo for my wedding, using the Guy Logic that says, "well hey, if the bride spends $47,000 on a dress she's only going to wear once, why shouldn't I spend a few hundred dollars on a piece of formal attire I could wear literally hundreds of times?"

I used this piece of logic even though the only previous occasions that had called on my to wear a tuxedo were a) the aforementioned Winneshiek (Iowa) County Fair Queen Pageant; b) the aforementioned (in the comments section of the same posting) Decorah (Iowa) Bridal Show; and c) my brother's wedding (not in Iowa).

If nothing else, the tuxedos employed for occasions a) and c) were at least timeless styles - no powder blue, no ruffles, no loud vest. Ironically, the Decorah Bridal Show (which was employing me as a "celebrity" escort for the women modeling the wedding gowns) put me in the least attractive of any of them - a black tuxedo with a long, white collar, giving off the effect the I had a wet towel around my neck - as though I'd just changed into my tuxedo after playing racquetball.

By the time my wedding rolled around, I was living in Flagstaff, which at the time had two formalwear options - one was a formalwear/lingerie boutique which employed a little too much red velvet in the decor for me to be comfortable with. The other was normal enough store, but after the saleswoman critized my taste enough ("Oh, cummerbunds are so 1990... What you want is a nice, flashy vest. And maybe a white collar...") that I gave up and went to San Diego to buy a tuxedo. (Hey, what's an eight-hour drive, when you consider I'll get to wear it literally thousands of times?)

So of course I wore it to my wedding. And, a year later, to a charity fundraising ball, as moral support for another guy who wanted to wear the tuxedo he had bought for his wedding. And I wore it as the Master of Ceremonies at a community orchestra concert last winter in Flagstaff, which gave me the opportunity to tell people about Handel, while at the same time trying to figure out if my cufflinks had fallen off.

I'm sure I'll get to wear it again before too long. I considered putting "owns a tuxedo" on my résumé back in my job-hunting period, but decided that would only help if I were applying for a position has a billboard model for Indian casinos, or a job drawing lottery numbers on TV.

So I'll keep looking for opportunities. Or co-workers in need of a formal racquetball game now and then.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Fresh hot updates galore

Things have been a little slow, posting-wise, around 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters in the last couple of weeks. Fortunately, our legions of fans have their thick binders full of back issues to dust off and go through. But as we looked though those back issues ourselves, we realized there are some updates to bring you.

For starters, there's a heartwarming coda to our prom story from this spring, which found its way into the "comments" section. Unfortunately, I bought my tuxedo roughly 13 years too late.

But more importantly, faithful readers of this column are no doubt wondering which Milwaukee area supermarket the 19 Minutes Purchasing Department chose to buy its Froot Loops.

Tragically, the home office is not located near any one of the Piggly Wigglys (Wigglies?) in the great Milwaukee area, so we have not been able to investigate their selection, or why the hell they would choose to name a supermarket "Piggly Wiggly".

Fortunately, there's a ready assortment of other shopping options within an easy drive. Here are the contenders:

There's Sentry Foods, which is another seemingly random name for a grocery store. But it's not just any Sentry Foods... it's something called "Metcalfe's Sentry", which I would assume (had I ever been to another one) has all the attraction of a regular Sentry, plus a spiffy Prepared Foods section (lest we go without California Rolls in Wauwatosa), a hefty-sized bakery, and a full liquor section (which isn't really that big a deal, given that we're talking about Wisconsin).

Nearby is something called Pick-n-Save, which combines all the appeal of a warehouse-style grocery store with the ambiance of a construction site. In all fairness, it actually is a construction site at the moment, as a former Walgreen's next door is ripped out and the grocery store expanded. People in the Sentry seem, on the whole, happier than people in the Pick-n-Save, but I've never stopped to ask them why.

People in both stores seem happier than the shoppers at Outpost Foods, a handsomely designed natural foods store across the street from the Pick-n-Save. This probably doesn't have anything to do with the nature of Outpost itself; rather, it has to do with the people who shop at such stores, who can't quite hide the fact that wheatgrass juice doesn't taste nearly as good as Dr Pepper. On the other hand, it is refreshing to be in Wisconsin, a state where one can get both organic bananas and cheese curds in the same store.

On the other side of town, we find Sendik's Market, which you know will be more expensive than the other stores the moment you walk in and see they're selling Sendik's logowear. (I may be wrong, but I don't remember seeing logowear for sale at the Secret Safeway in Tenleytown.) The stuff is good and occasionally you run into something like two dozen eggs for 99 cents, but in the 19 Minutes Staff's estimation, there's a limited need to pay $4.00 for Chips Ahoy (for instance, you're in Bulgaria). On the upside, Sendik's has, hands-down, the nicest plastic grocery bags ever made. And their logo is pretty spiffy.

Of course, the Wauwatosa Sendik's is apparently not related to something called the Elmbrook Sendik's , which has prices more in line with the Sentry and the Pick-n-Save, and whose plastic bags are swell, but not in the same league as the Wauwatosa Sendik's. Plus, no logowear. But the best selection of frozen pizza of any of the Tosa stores. Despite being called "Elmbrook", it's actually in Brookfield, across the street from the Wauwatosa line. I have no idea how either of these stores relate to yet another Sendik's incarnation, also in Brookfield.

All of these stores (except, maybe, Outpost) sell Product 19, which places them ahead of all the supermarkets in Flagstaff.

So the 19 Minutes staff does its shopping at... whatever store has the best deal on yogurt on any given day. Our two-year-old eats a lot of yogurt.

And finally, there's no real update on the annoying Erin Crocker racing story, which is to say that there's still no story. However, we just went though our pictures from the 18-hour Crocker watch at the Milwaukee Mile over the weekend, and we thought this one worked out especially well, because it's a good indication of how close I came to getting the interview. Not very.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Irony Racing League

Lest I forget, the highlight from the weekend's auto racing adventure:

I didn't actually stay for either of the two races themselves (figuring that 18 fruitless hours at a racetrack was more than enough). I did, however, see one wreck - a crash during the qualifying run of a driver named Kim Crosby. And it would figure that the one car that would smash its rear-end into the wall would be sponsored by something called "Boudreaux's Butt Paste".

Also, a racing fan from Iowa who calls himself "Crazy Ernie" followed me around for a while, but maybe that's not really a "highlight".

Godot International Motorsports

As anyone who knows me reasonably well can attest, I am an ardent supporter of women in sports. I think women tend to bring an attitude towards competitive athletics that's often missing from the men's version - that is, they actually seem to enjoy it much of the time. Or at least they don't spend as much time fighting with their teammates.

I'm interested in the pioneering aspect of it, too - women competing in sports that they've traditionally been pushed away from. I mean, why is it okay for women to shoot a basketball, but throwing a baseball overhand is out of the question?

So I was enthusiastic about the opportunity to profile Erin Crocker, a race car driver trying to do for NASCAR what Danica Patrick did for Indy Car racing - attract some interest from people over and above the usual race fans. And I'd love to tell you how she rose to such a high level in the male-dominated sport, while also getting an engineering degree, and playing other sports at a high level.

I'd love to, but I can't. She wouldn't talk to me. Or, rather, her people wouldn't make her available.

In 15 years of reporting, I can think of four key interviews that got nixed. Danny Glover, Bill Clinton, (then-)San Francisco Giants Manager Dusty Baker, and Erin Crocker.

Danny Glover's plane got delayed and he barely made it to his event. President Clinton may have had some other things going on. Dusty Baker was being a schmuck. And Erin Crocker was... well, I don't really know.

But on the other hand, Danny Glover is a world-renowned actor, Bill Clinton was the leader of the proverbial Last Remaining Superpower, Dusty Baker was being a schmuck, and Erin Crocker was about to drive in two minor-league auto races in Milwaukee over the weekend.

And yet her "publicist", one Toni McCray, ran interference for her as though she was hiding Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie from the paparazzi in Namibia. She wouldn't return my phone calls. For three weeks. She wouldn't return phone calls from the NASCAR communications staff. Even her sponsors were having trouble reaching her. (And something tells me that even if you don't want to talk to a few hundred thousand public radio listeners, you might want to talk to the people who slap the word "Cheerios" on your car.)

But why wouldn't you want to reach public radio listeners? If one of the side goals of having a competitive woman racecar driver (aside from, say, winning) is to get more people to watch, it seems like it'd make sense to reach out to the audience that isn't yet watching.

But I really don't know what the Crocker team's motivation was. In my one actual contact with McCray - at the time I was actually supposed to be interviewing Crocker - she said only that Crocker wasn't up to doing an interview "because the day wasn't going so well".

Like I said, I'm a strong supporter of women in sports. But it's hard to imagine Tiger Woods getting away with an excuse like that.

So I spent 18 hours at the Milwaukee Mile over two days, watching cars circle a track, gradually going deaf, leaving periodic messages on Toni McCray's voice mail, getting sunburned. And Erin Crocker never showed.

She finished 25th in the Craftsman Truck Series race on Friday, and 29th in the Busch Series race on Saturday. Which gives me some consolation, knowing that at that rate, it won't be long before reporters stop returning her "publicist's" phone calls.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Starting my engines

I'm off on assignment tomorrow at The Milwaukee Mile, a racetrack in scenic and sunny West Allis, Wisconsin. I'm profiling a female race car driver who is trying to break into the big time, such as it is.

I've never actually been to a real-live auto race. The closest I've come was an appearance at the Winneshiek County Fair (which, it strikes me, I may have blogged about in the past). As a local radio "celebrity", it fell to me to serve as master of ceremonies at the Fair Queen Pageant, which took place immediately before the dirt track stock car races.

The scene that played out, then, involved me, dressed in a tuxedo, the five or six Winneshiek County Fair Queen contestants, standing in their evening gowns, and 3000 fans in John Deere and Pioneer Seed caps bellowing at me to shut up and get the damn races started already.

When it ended, the contestants, who were smart enough to have thought ahead, changed into their jeans and went into the grandstand and watched the races. I also spent the rest of the evening watching the races but concentrated more on not spilling mustard on my tux.

I'm planning on wearing jeans to the Milwaukee Mile tomorrow. And ear plugs.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Time now for... ABC's Narrow World of Sports

A message to ABC and ESPN: Stop introducing me to international soccer. At least pretend you think I know something about it. Even though I don't, really.

The United States, of course, isn’t really a soccer-watching nation. The long stretches of the game where not much appears to happen, the concept of “injury time”, that vaguely arbitary amount of time the referee adds to the game clock at the end of each half, the noisemakers in the stands that sound like constipated cows – they’re all decidedly foreign to American audiences.

Even the most memorable US soccer moment in recent history – Brandi Chastain’s winning goal in the 1999 Women’s World Cup final came in a particularly American way – a penalty kick shootout, when you’re guaranteed something is going to happen. (And the American TV announcers need only to come up with “Goal!” or “No goal!” to accurately portray what’s happening on the screen.)

One gets the sense that the play-by-play guys are trying – really trying – to pull of a broadcast that sounds sophisticated and European. Or something. They clearly have a soccer game cadence in their heads when they’re announcing the action (“Mendez with it… Mendez… crosses to Kaviedez! Header! But it comes up wide…”), but one can almost see them straining to burst, Tourette’s-like, into a more American style of sports announcing.

Okay, our many hypothetical European readers are wondering, “What are you talking about? What’s the ‘American style’ of sports announcing?” (Glad you asked, hypothetical European Person...) Put succinctly, it’s the announcer’s inability to shut up when he (or she) has nothing useful to add. This is a problem for American soccer announcers, who haven’t been calling international games for the four years between World Cups. If they had, they’d be able to harken back to that Brazil-Uruguay qualifier from three years ago, or compare Ronaldhino’s performance this year to Ronaldo in 1998.

Instead, this is what an American soccer broadcast sounds like:

Play-by-play guy: Srna brings it up the far side for Croatia. Still with it… Srna… looking for Babic!… He crosses it! And Brazil are able to clear the ball back downfield and out of trouble…

Color commentator: it really looked like something was going to develop there…

[five-second pause, as the announcers strain for something useful to say]

P-B-P: Of course, Brazil is in South America, where most countries are Spanish-speaking. But interestingly, Brazilians speak Portuguese on their lovely beaches. The largest Brazilian cities are Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, but the capital is Brasilia, which is away from the coast, in the Central-West part of the country.

Color commentator: I wonder what the people at the bars in Brasilia thought of that near-miss by Croatia…
As I said, I don’t really know anything about international soccer, so references to the 2003 Brazil-Uruguay match wouldn’t fall under the category of “common knowledge” for me. But maybe, just maybe, that’s how the sport could suck me in. There are years of soccer history out there about which I have no knowledge. It’s like becoming a fan of a TV show halfway through its 8th season. Even after the season ends, you have 7 ½ years’ worth of shows you’ve never seen – and they all fill in the blanks and give you a better understanding of the characters you’re seeing on the screen today. (Except, of course, for Law and Order, which has dropped more characters than an Arizona high school student.)

I got into cricket like that – I was in Australia in 1989, during the England-Australia tournament known as “The Ashes”. Cricket matches, conveniently, last for roughly nine hours, so it was possible to go to sleep at night watching a game (which was going on in England) on TV, and wake up to see the end of the same game. Some basic background information would have probably been useful (What, exactly, are they doing? Why the hell is it called “The Ashes”?), but being able to watch the spectacle as it was made it a much more exotic experience, and one that hooked me. At least for a month or two, until I went back to college and got into writing humorous history papers on Franklin Pierce.

Granted, I’m not the first person to float this concept. I did an interview this week with Sean Wilsey, co-editor of The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup, who got into soccer a few years ago, and promptly went out and bought the entire 1970 World Cup on video cassette, which he watched in real-time, not knowing how it would turn out. It was an experience, reminiscent for me, of having listened to a radio broadcast – in 1981 – of the 7th game of the 1960 World Series, and being completely elated by Pittsburg second baseman Bill Mazeroski’s series-winning home run. But I digress.

So I know it sounds counter-intuitive for a country where most TV viewers don’t know anything about soccer. But pretend I do. Or at least shut up for a few seconds.

[And now, this late note: The very entertaining World Cup play-by-play blog on the New York Times website invited readers to check in on ABC/ESPN's soccer announcing prowess during today's England-Trinidad and Tobago match, with entertaining results.]

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Product 271

Well, the computer ate up an especially thoughtful post last night, all about the heretofore unexplored connection between international soccer and grocery shopping.

(Actually, it's a little unfair to blame it on the computer. More accurately, we can blame it on the stupor following a late-day caffeine crash. Thinking we were closing another Internet Explorer window, we clicked on the "x" icon in the corner of the screen and instantly lost 35 minutes' worth of genius. But the other window, which contained important baseball scores, thankfully stayed open.)

So this left us with nothing to do but pad downstairs to drown our sorrows in a bowl of Product 19. I like Product 19, partly because it's crunchy and sprayed with dozens of useful vitamins and minerals, but moreso, I think, because it has a deliciously pointless name. Most cereals at least give you some sense for what you'll find in the box: Wheaties are, presumably, made from some sort of wheat byproduct. Cheerios are, at least, shaped like "O"s. Count Chocula accurately prognosticates that what's inside tastes like chalk.

But the food technologists at Kellogg's apparently decided all the good names (Kix, Quisp, etc.)had already been taken, so they had no other choice than to name their product after a random number that would someday be worn by 1970s Red Sox outfielder Fred Lynn.

It was a similar thought process, seemingly, that led the Clorox people to name a product "Formula 409". (They claim the name is a tribute to how many tries their scientists made before deciding they had created the "ultimate cleanser". We should note, though, that this explanation comes from the same people who named a product "Liquid Plumr".)

Alas, this really doesn't edify the 19 Minutes readership on the surprising link between international soccer and grocery shopping. We'll try to down some more caffeine and get back to you on that one. (Hint: Think "World Cup O' Noodles".)

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Cup o'soccer

Well, it’s been a while since our last update from 19 Minutes World Media Headquarters. So we emerge from our bunker in response to the tens of thousands of desperate e-mails from people wondering, of course, about our take on the upcoming World Cup.

Believe it or not, I’m actually participating in a World Cup pool, drawing on my vast storehouse of knowledge about the sport, my grasp of concepts such as Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal, Les Bleus, and eating orange wedges at half-time. I picked Duke to beat Connecticut, provided they can get by Togo.

My own experience with playing soccer (which is what we American journalists who are afraid of seeming like we’re pretending to be European still call it) was limited to three or four seasons with the Wheaton Boys’ Club, in Wheaton, Maryland. Most of us were pretty uninspired soccer players – except for the three or four guys in the league with names like “Stefano” who had moved to the area from Europe, and who didn’t join the league until three games into the season, after figuring out their mistake when they registered to play “football”.

I scored five goals one year, which led my team. But mostly I ran around, lungs burning in the cold autumn air, hoping to God I didn’t get smacked in the face with the soccer ball, which seemed to hurt more the later in the season it got, so that by the time November rolled around, I expended more effort bobbing and weaving away from the flying projectile than I did figuring out how to score.

Soccer was still a new enough concept to many of us in our area that the referees signaled goals as though they were touchdowns, and for a while teams treated kickoffs as though it were football – blasting them down the field to the other team, which – now that I think of it – was sort of a strange thing to do after the other team had just scored.

It was around that time that the NASL was in its heyday, and many of us youth soccer types wound up at RFK Stadium to watch the DC entry, the Diplomats, who – really – went by the nickname “The Dips”, play teams like the New York Cosmos, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and, of course, the dumbest team name ever, the New England Tea Men. (My fellow World Cup pool participants will be heartened to know that it took me something like another 15 years to realize that Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, and Giorgio Chinaglia did not actually make their soccer names for themselves in the NASL.)

So not surprisingly, I gave up soccer for roughly 15 years, until I was living in Rochester, Minnesota, and the sister of a friend found out that I had played soccer as a kid, and recruited me to fill in on her coed rec league team. I showed up at the field early one November morning, and quickly found out that playing four seasons in the Wheaton Boys’ Club had a great deal of caché with the team (which inserted me in the game as center midfielder) and did me absolutely no good playing against a team of mainly foreign-born doctors from the Mayo Clinic (all of whom, I believe, were named “Stefano”).

The opposition quickly jumped out to a closely contested 7-0 lead, and held onto it for the next 45 minutes – until I found myself in the clear. A breakaway. Only the goalie to beat. I sprinted into the penalty area, keeping the ball a few feet in front of me. The goalie broke one way. I juked the other and wound up to blast it into the net. Which is when I hit a patch of mud and slipped backwards, Charlie Brown-like, and completely missed the ball. I landed square on my tailbone, which has never quite recovered. The ball continued on its way, which is to say that it rolled happily into the right goalpost and bounced aside. Being a fake soccer player, I lay there for a moment, got up, and commenced gasping for breath for the next 15 minutes. Had I been one of my foreign-born, legitimate soccer-playing opponents, I would have writhed in obvious agony until drawing sufficient sympathy that I could go on with the game.

Since then, I’ve stayed away from playing the game. I watched the Women’s World Cup in 1999, which was fortunate, since it yielded me the correct Final Jeopardy answer when I was on the show that year. And I try to appreciate the beauty of the sport, except as portrayed by grimy kids playing it on cobblestone streets in TV commercials, which make the game no more appealing to me that I’m sure images of grimy kids playing stick ball interest Uzbekistani viewers in baseball. [Memo to the ad insutry: Okay, we get it. Kids in other parts of the world play soccer in the streets. This doesn't want us to drink more Gatorade. ]

But I’ll watch this year’s World Cup on TV, especially with the added interest of the World Cup pool in the back of my mind. If nothing else, it’ll give me a team to root for. Go Dips!