Monday, June 27, 2016

Odd Bits - Lord Stanley's Edition

This summer, like the last couple, I seem to have a lot of free time on my hands.  I’m not complaining.  I get to do the kind of things I like to do.  Not that it’s exciting, or anything.  I mostly go to Orioles games and movies, in and around binge-watching TV shows on DVD.  But there have been a couple of highlights…

All Hail Lord Stanley
I would be remiss if I don’t at least mention the experience of watching my Pittsburgh Penguins win the Stanley Cup for the fourth time in franchise history.  As each playoff series began, I’d think, “Gee, I don’t know how they’re going to beat these guys,” and then they’d go right out and do it… convincingly.  The Rangers, Capitals, Lightning, and then the Sharks in the finals… no one could keep up with the Penguins speed and pressure.

There were a number of subplots as well.  Phil Kessel, an under-appreciated all-star from Toronto, gets surrounded with top notch talent for the first time and wins his first Stanley Cup.  There was Matt Murray, a 21-year old goalie who spent over half the season in the minors before stepping in for injured starter Marc-Andre Fleury and shutting the door on all comers.  There was the newly formed HBK line (Hagelin, Bonino & Kessel), born from an injury to Evgeni Malkin to become an unstoppable “3rd line,” for which no team had an answer.

It’s a shame that the Pens couldn’t win the Cup at home, in Game 5.  There were thousands of people in the streets, outside the arena, just waiting to bust loose.

Personally, I think that was the problem: bad mojo.  You don’t show up to celebrate until AFTER the game is won.  Pens fans tempted the mojo gods, who in turn smote them by having the Pens win the Cup on the other side of the country.

Watching the last game was exhausting; there were so many tangents to the 2009 Cup Finals Game 7… playing on the road, nursing a 2 goal lead, having it cut to 1 with about 6 minutes to play.  Fortunately, the paths diverged when the Pens were able to knock in an empty-net goal with a minute left in the game, to take a 3-1 lead.  That took all the stress out of the last minute.  And then it was over, and holy shit...  Another championship for the Burgh.  That makes 12 during my lifetime, 15 in total.

I spent the next day buying all the championship swag I could get my hands on.  Some of it started rolling in last week.

Stanley Cup polo shirt, with the locker room hat.

I had the jerseys, but I ordered a couple of Stanley Cup patches to go on them.

Too bad the white one is now effectively obsolete.  The Pens just announced they’re going to go with the 1992-era home black and visiting white jerseys.  Aside from closeting my current white jerseys, I’m happy with the decision.  It’s really a good look.  Of course, I’ll have to get in touch with my favorite Chinese sweatshop, to bring in jersey reinforcements before the next season starts.

I’m still waiting for the t-shirt, commemorative puck and a new “4-time Stanley Cup winner” hat, to replace my “3-time Stanley Cup winner” hats.

Now I just have to figure out how to get that 4th Stanley Cup in my blog header.

O’s Say Can You See
As my buddy, the CFO noticed from my Facebook postings, I’m on a record pace for seeing Orioles games this year.  Sunday was my 14th of the season.  Last year, I’d seen only 10 by the end of June and 21 by the end of the year. 

I used to try to go to at least one game per homestand.  This year, I’ve been able to see at least one game of every visiting team but one.  (Screw the Yankees.)  I’m on pace for a 28-game year, but that’s a bit misleading.  Judging from the back half of the schedule, which has a lot more long road trips for the Orioles, I probably won’t see more than another 9-10 games.  One of them will be against the Arizona Diamondbacks, though, which is the only team I’ve never seen live.  Of course, it’s the last home series of the year.

The best experience so far was last Wednesday, when the Orioles had another “Social Media Night.”  I went to one last year, where they had a buffet table, free drink tickets, raffle giveaways, and a Q and A with closer Zach Britton.

It was the same deal this year, but the Q and A was with Chris Davis, the O’s strapping slugger and last year’s home run champ.  He’s also one of my favorite players, so I got myself a ticket just as soon as I got the event notification email.

Chris Davis and his guns.

I remember the exact moment he became one of my favorites.  It was in 2012, his first season with the team after being traded from Texas.  The Orioles won a game late on a walk-off base hit by Nate McLouth.  When all the players ran out onto the field to celebrate, Davis picked McLouth up over his shoulder and ran around with him as if he were a child.

He literally ran around the infield like this.    (Source)

Now, McLouth will never be confused with the big boys like Prince Fielder or Bartolo Colon, but he’s still a grown-ass man and Davis handled him like he was a sack of potatoes.  I thought to myself, “This SOB is strong…”

Anyway, the event was cool.  I even got to ask a question… I wanted to know who he thought would hit the Warehouse (in right field) with a home run ball first, him or ex-Pirate Pedro Alvarez.  Chris said his own power was mostly to center field and the alleys and when he pulls the ball to right, it generally hooks so he didn’t think he’d do it.  Pedro, he said, was really powerful, so that’s who he’d pick to knock one off the Warehouse.

Other things I learned: he bench presses 405 and squats over 600 (but not lately, to save his knees), he had a big mustache in the early season but his wife kiboshed it, and if he ran for president, reliever Darren O’Day would be his VP.  What, you think people were asking about batting mechanics?

Speaking of O’Day, they also announced that he would be the guest of honor on the next Social Media Night, on August 4th.  This news caused me to email Sitcom Kelly immediately because he is the next candidate for her basement Silence of the Lambs pit.  If he disappears somewhere between the Q and A and the clubhouse, I think I’ll know where people can find him.

Card Tricks
For the last couple of years, everyone has been telling me to watch House of Cards; that the show was great and I would love it.  I never doubted it.  The only reason I hadn’t seen it was because I don’t do Netflix.  But with the summer TV dead spots, I found myself in need of viewing material, so I ordered the DVDs of both “House of Cards” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

I was surprisingly disappointed in Kimmy Schmidt.  Maybe I was expecting too much because it was a Tina Fey production, but I just didn’t find it that funny.  I maybe chuckled a time or two throughout the entire first season.  I don’t believe I’ll pursue the second.

On the other hand, I loved “House of Cards.”  It’s like the seedy underside of another favorite series, “The West Wing.”  I love plausibly realistic political intrigue and I found myself thinking the main character, Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood, was evil incarnate, yet wishing my own congressmen were that smart.

Now, remember when the HBO movie “Game Change” was filming here in Baltimore, and I got such a kick out of seeing a scene played out along the very route I walked to work every day?  The same thing happened with House of Cards, which also films in the Baltimore area.

The signature scene of Season 2 (or maybe the entire series) takes place in a subway station, which I instantly recognized as the one I passed through every day for 17 years (up until we moved our office last summer).

I know it’s several years old by now but I still don’t want to provide any spoilers.  Suffice to say there’s a scene where Frank Underwood talks with reporter Zoe Barnes, played by Kate Mara. 

They speak clandestinely, from opposite sides of a chain-link fence at the end of the station platform.   (Source)

The pillar on the circular seat and fencing on the end were added to the set.   (Source)

Within an instant of the beginning of the scene, I could see it was the Charles Center Metro stop in Baltimore.  I know that wall, I know that yellow line, I know the round wooden seats.  (The underground stations do not all look alike.) A route map appeared in the background, showing a “You Are Here” dot at the third stop from the end.  That’s Charles Center.  Booyah!

This is what it looks like without set dressing.

No fencing, in real life.  I shot this last week, on my way home from an Orioles game.

Anyway, I love it when local landmarks show up on national television, so I thought I’d share.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Debunkery - The Conservative Bitch List

Saw another piece of conservative claptrap on Facebook this weekend.  In this episode, it’s merely a laundry list of half-truths and alleged offenses they endure, no doubt at the hands of we godless, hippy, freedom-hating progressives.

Let’s go through this point by point, OK?  Granted, I could probably do a full rebuttal post on each point so I’ll try to keep it brief.

We live in a country where cops are called criminals.  Cops are called criminals when they murder the people on the street, are seen on video planting or tampering with evidence and falsifying the arrest report.  Sometimes the shoe fits.  No rational person is condemning all cops.  Nor should all cops receive blanket indemnity.

Criminals are called victims.  Yes, when they have the misfortune of running into cops from the prior point.

People who don’t work get a free ride.  What free ride?  Unemployment proceeds are temporary.  The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 requires welfare recipients to actively seek work and provide proof.  And they’re certainly not making so much that they get to sit back, relax and live the good life.  It basically keeps them from starving to death.

Conservatives found a receipt once that indicated food stamps were used to buy high-quality protein once, so they naturally assume that the millions of SNAP users are living like King Louis XIV.  Republicans are only in favor of charity when it involves something they wouldn’t want for themselves.

This is not to say there is no abuse of the system, be it for the SNAP program, welfare, or social security benefits.  There will always be people who try to abuse the system for their own benefit.  (Like hedge fund managers, but not as lucratively.)  I think there should be a robust department to sniff out and persecute welfare fraud. 

Meanwhile, there are millions of people who are just barely making it.  Receiving some kind of public benefit means the difference between hanging on by one’s fingernails and being out on the street begging for change.  Or burglarizing your house.

People who do work get told they don’t contribute enough.  I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean.  “Get told by” whom and “don’t contribute enough” what?  To me, Mitt Romney calling 47% of the country “takers” comes to mind, but I don’t think that’s what the writer is getting at. This looks to me like it was added merely for visual heft.

Desecrating our flag is acceptable.  I don’t think the predominant feeling in this country is that flag burning is acceptable, but it does fall under free speechRegardless of what anyone does to our flag, our country maintains her values, one of which is the First Amendment.  Our soldiers didn’t die for a flag; they died for our country, which is still here.  For a group that thinks we should all have semi-automatic weaponry and shoot anyone who appears vaguely menacing, conservatives sure are a sensitive lot when it comes to a piece of cloth.

I’m sorry if I can’t get all worked up over it.  As George Carlin once said, “The flag is a symbol, and I leave symbols to the symbol-minded.

A sniper is called a coward.  Only one time by Michael Moore and conservatives don’t listen to him anyway.  Of course, they still have to take him out of context to make their point.  (In a tweet, Moore was talking about the Japanese sniper who killed his uncle during WWII.)  But why let a bit of clarity ruin the narrative?

Our president negotiates with terrorists. You mean when Reagan sold arms to the Iranians while they had our hostages?  Like that?  Oh right, they probably mean the president with the foreign-sounding name. 

Look, you can’t engage with anyone in the Middle East without someone thinking they’re terrorists.  It’s a matter of semantics and whose side you’re on at any given time.  The bottom line is that nothing will ever change without dialogue or negotiation.  That’s world politics.  Granted, it’s easier to sit at the bar and advocate bombing the whole area, but it’s not exactly the kind of strategy that’s worthy of an “exceptional” country like ours. 

We supply guns to drug cartels, and try to disarm our citizens.  Mixed bag here… one half-truth and one complete distortion.  We supply guns to drug cartels…” was part of a federal sting operation, wherein the feds would follow the guns, infiltrate the gangs and bust the whole thing up.  Apparently it didn’t work very well, but it’s hardly the basis of a claim meant to make it look like it’s a large-scale philosophy.

“…and try to disarm citizens.”  Complete falsehood.  That’s just the stock NRA claim anytime there’s an effort to strengthen background checks or prevent known terrorists from obtaining semi-automatic weaponry.  There has been no credible effort to actively remove guns from any US citizen during the last seven years; that’s just the favored nightmare scenario put forth by gun lobbyists to scare their gun-fetish loyalists into submission. 

And people think they deserve to earn more flipping burgers than soldiers who are defending their freedoms.  Again, we have two separate areas here, each with its own dishonest angle.

And people think they deserve to earn more (for) flipping burgers…”  That’s the common slant for talking about the minimum wage… flipping burgers.  They should also mention every other retail worker, phone center operator, day care worker, or other non-trade, non-unionized employee.  Minimum wage is not just for teenagers; people have to make a living on minimum wage.  It was never meant to apply only to youngsters.

President Roosevelt, who brought the minimum wage into existence, said, “no business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country.

“By ‘business’ I mean the whole of commerce as well as the whole of industry; by workers I mean all workers, the white collar class as well as the men in overalls; and by living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level — I mean the wages of decent living,” he stated.

We also have to keep in mind that before 2007, the minimum wage had stagnated for 10 years while the cost of living continued to soar.  It only makes sense that a correction be made.  Perhaps if the GOP had allowed cost of living increases to the minimum wage along the way, instead of playing it cheap, it wouldn’t be such a big jump coming due right now.

“…than soldiers who are defending our freedoms.”  I agree that soldiers should be paid more than minimum wage and I’m not sure that they don’t.  I think this may be an apples to oranges comparison.  Think of all the things that our military people don’t have to buy for themselves… food, clothes, lodging, health care, basic necessities.  I mean I’m sure there are variables here and I’m no expert, but if you join the military, they take care of you.  Other than odds and ends, you can bank your paycheck for later.  Plus you get a free college education if you want it.

Yes, I know there can be other things to pay for but they compare very favorably against all the things civilians must buy with their measly minimum wage paycheck.

But say we do want to raise the soldier’s paycheck… where do you think that’s going to come from?  Will Republicans go along with a raise in taxes?  Hell no.  They’ll use military pay as a club against a higher minimum wage, but it’s not like they’re interested in any military spending that can’t be sent to their defense contractor sponsors.

Also, the defending our freedoms part?  I call bullshit.  Other than Afghanistan, the last time our military defended our freedoms was WWII.  In every case since then, it was a matter of projecting political power or the forced acquisition of our enemy’s resources.  So spare me the weepy paean to defending our freedom.  Those days are long gone.

"Like" if you’re fed up.

No, I do not “Like.”  I’m fed up all right, but it’s with these half-assed semantic games, cockeyed assertions, misdirection and godlike worship of our armed forces.  And that’s what passes for deep thinking from the right.

Monday, June 13, 2016

A Shot in the Dark

(Technically, a couple hundred shots in the dark.)

My beloved Pittsburgh Penguins won their fourth Stanley Cup last night and believe me; I’m over the moon about it.

But it’s hard to be outwardly happy because the very same day, our nation suffered its largest mass shooting since the 1800s.  This is truly the story that just keeps going and going.

In this edition, an angry American Muslim shot up a gay night club in Orlando, killing 49 and wounding more than 50 others.  Conservatives don’t know whether to pray for their souls, dance a jig, or just say “I told you so,” like Trump did.

I’ve written about my views on our country’s gun problem a number of times, so I don’t have much new to add.  And neither does anyone else, apparently, because the story keeps repeating itself.

People wonder if this is finally the tipping point at which Congress will do something to address gun violence.  I would be shocked if it is.  If the wholesale slaughter of two classrooms full of 6-year-olds doesn’t get anything done, murdering a bunch of gay guys in a nightclub won’t move the needle so much as a millimeter.

Conservatives on internet comment sections are already bellyaching, “Next up, the libtards start asking for gun control…”

They’re right, of course, and then everyone will huff and puff and the right will claim the demolition of the 2nd Amendment and threaten armed assault as if some minor reform like enforcing a background check will spell the end of the republic.

The Right only recognizes one solution to gun violence and that’s more guns.  (Because apparently they think the Die Hard movies were produced by (documentarian) Ken Burns.)  The GOP solution would be similar to the old government cheese program.  Granted, they’d want gun distribution limited to white Anglo-Saxon Christians, but that’s just a stray detail.

No one would be happier about that than the NRA, who you should remember is not concerned with hunting safety or gun training; they are the lobbying arm of the gun manufacturers.  They are only concerned with keeping the gun sales spigot wide open. 

That’s why every attempt to bring accountability or common sense to gun laws is met with apocalyptic responses from the NRA.  Obama has been the best thing for business they could have ever asked for.  And they’re already using the same tactics on Hillary, who they also claim will come for your guns if elected. 

Now, talk about hubris… The GOP is already trying to blame Obama for the Orlando shooting.  Seriously.  See, this guy was already known to the FBI, having been investigated for terrorist activity.

A little more than six months ago, Republicans shot down a bill requiring prospective gun buyers to be run up against the Terrorist Watch List.  Ponder the ramifications of that.  They actually think it’s more important not to infringe on the imagined purity of the 2nd Amendment than it is to keep guns out of the hands of known terrorists.  They are not allowed to board an airplane, but they have every right to buy any kind of gun they want.  The GOP literally do not care how many people get killed in this country, as long as they have unencumbered access to semi-automatic rifles.

That’s why nothing will ever change until people vote out the gun nuts and vote in people with the spine to stand up to the gun lobby.  (This is me over here, holding my breath.)

Anyway, my point is that if that Terrorist Watch List had specific ramifications, like preventing the sale of guns directly to someone who is apt to create mayhem, this guy might have been on it.  Instead, he went down to the store two weeks ago and bought a handgun and an assault rifle.  No questions asked.

And we wonder why nothing ever changes…

No, there is no legislation that will prevent all attacks all the time.  But maybe if we screened gun buyers better, or made it at least as involved as getting a driver’s license, it wouldn’t be so goddamned easy to kill so many people in so little time.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Ticket to Ride, Ticket to Skate

 Last weekend, for the first time in over 10 years, I got pulled over by a cop.  I was going through my neighborhood, revved up by AC/DC on the stereo, and wasn’t sufficiently focused on what I was doing.  I should have seen him up ahead, but my mind was already at the bar, which was my destination.

He told me he had me going 40 in a 25 and I didn’t deny it; I just said, “Oh my.”  

He totally had me too.  Because this isn’t a roadway where kids ever play, I usually zip through there pretty quickly.

I was polite, I produced my license and registration (after some initial fumbling around, like trying not to show that I had my Bullpen VIP card in the picture window.)

He asked how come I wasn’t wearing glasses.  I responded that I wear contact lenses.  (Drivers licenses should mention that, rather than just listing the driver uses corrective lenses.  I swear, even when you’re telling the truth, everything you say to a cop sounds like you’re lying.)

He asked me how my driving record was; I told him it was clean as a whistle.  I’d only ever been pulled over once, in the 18 years I’ve been in Baltimore.  My last ticket was from when I still lived in Albany NY, back in the mid-90s.  I knew he wouldn’t find anything serious.

When he got back out of his car, I was relieved not to see any pink paper in his hand.  He only had a white printout page for me.

This is a warning,” he said.  “Please be more careful.”

Thank you, sir,” I said and went on about my way.

It wasn’t until much later, when thinking back on my experience, I realized just how lucky I have it.

It never crossed my mind that I could get into serious trouble.  I never worried that he might come back and tell me I looked like someone who had just robbed a house, or stole a car.  I never considered that he might want to look in my trunk or under my seat.  I forgot all about wanting to keep my hands in sight, lest he get jittery or trigger-happy.  I never worried about being cuffed, beaten or tased.

He was calm, polite; friendly even.  He joked around about the excuses he’s heard from people driving without their glasses.  Told me to “enjoy the rain” that was on the way.

If I had been an African-American man, I don’t believe that any of those things would have necessarily been true.

I was an educated 50-something white male, driving a well-kept late-model car, so I reaped the benefit of the very definition of white privilege.  The other time I got pulled over in Baltimore?  (44 in a 30, I think.)  I got a warning that time too.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a situation where I had to deal with an unreasonable cop.  I mean, everything for which I’ve been pulled over, I was doing.  I acted polite and professional and so did the cop.

In fact, one time, the cop had to come back to my home later, to give me the ticket.  I was bringing a lawnmower from my in-law’s house back to our house in NY.  It was in the back hatch of my Honda CRX.  When I got pulled over for rolling a stop sign (which I almost always rolled, because there was so little traffic in the area), my registration was in the cubby behind the front seats, with the lawn mower on top of the cubby door.

I told the cop I couldn’t get at it just yet, but I lived a block or two up the road, so I could get it out up at my house.  He said to go and that he’d be right back.  I drove home, left the car out front and removed the lawn mower.  He showed up about 20 minutes later and gave me the ticket.  (I admit that I was hoping that something more important would come up and he wouldn’t show.)

But still, he pretty much cut me a break by not making me produce my papers right on the spot.  If I wasn’t a young (at the time) polite white guy, that might not have been the case.

Maybe I ran into a string of righteous cops who would have done the same for anyone.  Or, maybe one of those guys might have been the type to unnecessarily hassle black professors, ministers, politicians or business leaders, as has happened in the past.  I can’t know that… all I know is that I’ve never had a bad experience with the law.

Even that time the transit police set a trap for me because my plates were from out of state (for a year and a half).  Sure, they whacked me for $600 in fines and tickets, but they were never less than polite; jovial even.  And I certainly never feared for my safety.

Sure, maybe they’re just responding to my politeness and respect.  Of course, I’ve never had a reason not to be polite or respectful.   I’ve never been patted down just for standing somewhere or had my car searched after a routine traffic stop. 

When I’m stopped by a cop, all I’m thinking about is how much this ticket is going to cost me.

Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone had it like that?