Monday, December 12, 2011

Consulting and Sales

Watching "Clean House" and "Hoarders" on cable has spurred me to sort through voluminous storage boxes of books and donate or sell many of them. Where did they all come from? Who let this happen? Why wasn't I informed?

Many of these treasures followed us like shipboard rats during three long-distance moves in four years, only to wind up within six miles of where they started. Most have sat for two or three years since then in unopened boxes. It's not only time to sort and cull them, it's also highly therapeutic to toss each disposable dead tree into a burgeoning heap on the couch and yell "Heraus!" for each miscreant tome in my best Sergeant Schultz voice.

There's a side benefit of a clearing-out, if you look at it with an anthropologist's eye: you get an opportunity to see in one place a collection of that which was once valuable and is no longer.

I haven't decided which of the following titles to keep, sell, or pitch from a banker's box labeled "Consulting and Sales", but the motley collection as a whole represents an intriguing catalog of entrepreneurial life in the 1990s and 2000s:

          Competitive Intelligence
          The Complete Book of Consulting
          The Consultant's Guide to Proposal Writing
          Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-
                    Tech Products to Mainstream Customers
          Earning What You're Worth?
          Going Solo
          Hanging Out a Shingle
          How to Be a Successful Computer Consultant
          How to Start and Run a Successful Independent
                    Consulting Business
          Independent Consultant's Q&A Book
          Infopreneurs: Turning Data Into Dollars
          Making It in High Tech Sales
          Million Dollar Consulting
          Non-Manipulative Selling
          The Power of Consultative Selling
          Proposal Planning & Writing
          Quality Selling Through Quality Proposals
          Renewable Advantage
          Secrets of Question Based Selling
          Secrets of the World's Top Sales Performers
          Selling Dreams: How to Make Any Product
          Selling in the Quality Era
          Selling Skills for the Nonsalesperson
          Solo Success
          Successful Large Account Management
          You Can Negotiate Anything

Apparently, as with woodworking, my hobby is reading about it rather than doing it. Had I followed the advice in any three of these worthy volumes assiduously, I'm sure my tax return and bank balance would be more like what the author of Million Dollar Consulting had in mind.

I looked up each of these books on Astonishingly, most of them are now available used for one penny plus shipping and handling, and all but two are priced under a dollar. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

Cartoon from Whack Your Porcupine . . . And Other
Drawings by B Kliban. Copyright 1977 by B Kliban.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Cro-Magnon Blogger

Slowly, using the new inventions of fire and the wheel, I will be adding a few design features, gadgets, and widgets to advance the functionality and appearance of My Two Innings into the Cro-Magnon Era.

Today's addition is LinkWithin, a recommendations widget that suggests other blog entries that you might also enjoy. Many of the suggestions are presented as simple, underlined text links below each article, but some thumbnail images will also appear.

The specific recommendations will vary from time to time, but the widget's suggestions often pertain to related items. Links to blog entries regarding, say, male hereditary characteristics should reliably appear below the entry on the purchase and repurposing of bowling alley sections.

I hope you enjoy the new feature.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Blissful Anticipation

In less than four hours, as I write this, the Milwaukee Brewers will play Game 5 of their National League Division Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

At this moment, all things are possible.

The Brewers could win the game. Starter Yovani Gallardo, continuing a winning streak that includes NLDS Game 1, could go seven strong with eight strikeouts, giving up only two runs, and use his uncommon hitting prowess to add a two-bagger at the plate. Slugger Prince Fielder could knock the stitches out of an Ian Kennedy fastball, driving in Ryan Braun and Corey Hart. Later, Nyjer Morgan could execute a competent safety squeeze in the sixth on a 2-1 count, one of the Brewers' tried-and-true plays, to score Jonathan Lucroy from third after Hart's second hit of the game. Utility man-cum-starter Jerry Hairston, Jr. could drive in a pair in the seventh with a solid hit the other way. Manager Ron Roenicke could then turn the game over to his pair of ace closers, Francisco Rodriguez and John Axford -- thanks, front office! -- and the Brewers could proceed with happy, laughing relief to the next round. The team's other ace, Zack Greinke, could take the hill for the Brew Crew in Game 1 of the NL Championship Series. A few breaks against the Phillies or Cardinals, and they truly could go all the way to the World Series for only the second time in franchise history.

The Brewers could lose the game. Gallardo could give up a two-run homer in the second inning and a solo shot in the third. The Brewers' hitters could struggle against the Diamondbacks' ace, who is 21-4 this season. In the sixth inning, with Kennedy finally showing some wildness and walking his second batter to load the bases with two outs, Yuniesky Betancourt could execute his favorite play and pop out on the first pitch. Rickie Weeks could miss a potential game-tying home run by three feet in the eighth, and none of the Brewers' pinch-hitters and role players could solve Arizona's average bullpen. Next year's fresh hope at third base, rookie Taylor Green, could be called upon for the final at-bat of the season ahead of Casey McGehee, whose plummeting performance this season left huge gaping holes in the lower half of the order. Or, Milwaukee-area native Craig Counsell could take the final curtain call of his career and tease the fans with a would-be gapper, only to have some speedy replacement outfielder lay out for the catch. The players then would walk around in mild shock, give monotone interviews to beat reporters and television analysts, and proceed like zombies toward their waiting families and flights home, wherever home is.

Or, as we know from "Bull Durham", it could rain. Unlike the $1.5 billion Yankee Stadium, however, Miller Park has a roof. Plus, it's a gloriously sunny day in Milwaukee today. October baseball will be played.

The crystal ball is fuzzy, the permutations and combinations are nearly infinite, but the general outline of an elimination game is always the same. It's one and done for somebody; one and onward for the other guys. The next six hours will reveal all.

Is this great, or what?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Brewers' Diva Distractions; Or, Can We Please Be Done with Crash Davis, Already?

Most talented ballplayers have a sizable dose of the diva in them. They're good, they think they're the best -- they know they are -- and they want to play. Finding suitable roles for all 25 on a ballclub that can only field 9 at a time is a management challenge. For a rookie manager to satisfy all of his star players' and role players' egos and ids simultaneously, especially on a team unaccustomed to success and loaded with personality, is impossible.

In the last two days, in the midst of the Milwaukee Brewers' best season in 29 years, the team's fans and followers have heard two potentially disruptive comments from two of their star players. Reliever Francisco Rodriguez, acquired for a song from the Mets in mid-season, spoke Tuesday of his disdain for the 8th-inning set-up role to which he has been relegated from his accustomed 9th-inning closer role. Yesterday, slugger Prince Fielder, whom the team had extended for one last, high-priced, "all in" season in anticipation of his upcoming free agency, had the temerity to reveal -- surprise, surprise -- that this is likely his last season with the small-market Brewers. It's no surprise at all, actually, just a very strange time for truth-telling as Prince and the rest of the team struggle to clinch a post-season berth.

Let's add to this list the ongoing Mr. Toad joy-ride that is the Brewers' charming centerfielder, Nyjer Morgan, a.k.a. Tony Plush, whose charisma, energy-level, aggression, and propensity for in-your-face outspokenness have repeatedly run him afoul of the Unwritten Rules of Serious Baseball as enforced by Serious Baseball Men.

The Brewers' stretch run has turned into a referendum on the Crash Davis School of Public Relations. In the media era's classic baseball comedy, Bull Durham, failed journeyman catcher Davis instructs hotshot pitching prospect "Nuke" LaLoosh on avoiding interview calamities: "You're gonna have to learn your clichés. You're gonna have to study them, you're gonna have to know them. They're your friends. Write this down: 'We gotta play it one day at a time.'"

The Crash Davis prescription -- keep your head down, play the game as it was meant to be played, and shut up around the media -- is the wrong prescription for this team. Maybe it works generally, but not for this Crew; not in this season. The Brewers are an unruly classroom with a substitute teacher in charge. They like to make trouble; they want to stand out; they need to rock the boat. We should celebrate, not cringe, when Prince talks about going out with a blast -- isn't that the very meaning of "all in"? Allow K-Rod to blast management in the media, then watch him strike out the side in the eighth to prove his point. Don't shame Nyjer Morgan into calling himself "Tony Hush"; instead, put a television camera on him, set him on fire, and watch him blaze around the basepaths.

Brewers' manager Ron Roenicke isn't a firey speechmaker. Unlike the Durham Bulls' inept mentor in Bull Durham, he probably won't throw the bats in the shower to get the team's attention. Right now, though, he needs to do everything he can in the clubhouse to burn an unshakable vision into the brains of his charges: the unfurling of a National League pennant at Miller Park -- not just a playoff slot -- and the rare opportunity to compete for a once-in-a-lifetime World Series trophy.

To borrow from another sports tradition, this is Roenicke's Herb Brooks moment. As Olympic hockey coach Brooks said to his struggling goalie, Jim Craig, I want the guy who refused to take the standardized test. Roenicke needs to say to K-Rod, to Prince, to Tony Plush: I demand your extraordinary talent, I want that diva, I embrace your highest ambition. Above all, he needs to tell them that they never, ever have to apologize for who they are.

This is their year, and what got them here is already the best of who they are. Let Prince be Prince, let T-Plush be T-Plush, and let Frankie Rodriguez be the angriest half-season rental player ever to win a World Series.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Special Sunday at Miller Park

Whenever I go to Miller Park for a Brewers game, I glance around the tailgating crowd in the parking lot and the pre-game crowd milling around the concourses to see if I know anyone. I rarely do.

My Beloved Spousal Unit and I know most of the Brewers’ players on the field by sight, of course, as well as the manager, the coaches, maybe half of the opposition, one or two of the umpires. From our perch in the Terrace Level, we can see the radio booth and catch a glimpse of Bob Uecker or Cory Provus calling the game, and Bernie Brewer in his chalet, and the Racing Sausages, and the right field ballgirl with the terrific throwing arm. We take note when Faux Paul, my late brother-in-law’s doppelganger, is in his customary seat next to the Brewers’ dugout. We give a nod to the old-timers who man the stadium parking lots on the way in and the saxophone-torturing busker on the way out.

We also recognize a half-dozen regular Terrace Box denizens. Talk Your Ears Off and Son Of Talk Your Ears Off sit behind us and narrate loudly during every pitch and every interval between pitches in great, gory detail and imagine that this is a public service welcomed by their neighbors. There’s Zoom Lens Couple, who’ve never seen a live ballgame except through his-and-her rangefinders. Looks Like Billionaire County Executive sits on the other side of the Zoom Lenses and is a congenial chap, despite not being a billionaire. (We think.) Radio Headset Man, sitting over the portal, may look a bit stoned, but he’s managed to locate the stadium’s low-power FM frequency for the radio broadcast of the game, and that’s an accomplishment that’s eluded us.

In the communal sense, though, we hardly ever see a neighbor, or someone we work with, or someone else from around town that we know. Our encounters at the ballpark are largely transactional rather than social. Our relationship is with the whole scenario rather than the specific actors.

Today, however, was different. In a sense, we knew everyone at the game today: Brewers fans, Phillies fans, locals, sports tourists from afar. On this 10th anniversary of the horrific events of September 11, 2001, everyone in attendance was in reflective communion. We’ve all had a shared experience, one that exceeded our prior imagination, a nightmare that we can barely fathom to this day.

The sea of blue jerseys and t-shirts and caps that Brewers fans wear in common were merely a cover today; the real solidarity, the reason every pre-game step toward the sports cathedral seemed meaningful, the reason it felt almost tearfully good to see the green grass and diamond of dirt as we emerged from the portal into the sunlight, was that these steps shadowed the shell-shocked steps we took nearly ten years ago in this same venue, when we first resumed attending baseball games to try to chase the shock and numbness away.

The game itself was a festival of seriousness and silliness, both real and symbolic, full of inspiring plays and errors, two-base hits and strikeouts, patriotic songs and sausage races. Does it matter who won? Absolutely, it does! The Brewers are in a divisional race, and if divisional races matter in peacetime, they do so even more in times of peril and anxiety, when we need their distraction the most. So I’m happy to report that the Brew Crew salvaged the last game of the four-game set with Philadelphia, winning 3-2. Blue-clad fans breathed a sigh of relief when Corey Hart, Nyjer Morgan, and Ryan Braun finally delivered clutch hits, scarce commodities of late, in the late innings. Yovani Gallardo whiffed twelve batters while going seven strong, and closer John Axford allowed two batters to reach before completing yet another anxious, perilous save. The "magic number" for the Brewers to clinch the NL Central crown, their first divisional title in nearly three decades, is now ten, with a mere fourteen games to play.

Moreover, the chicken curry in fish sauce that my Beloved Spousal Unit conjured up for our pre-game picnic was delicious -– and our creative cuisine was the envy of the tailgating families to our left and right! All in all, a perfect Sunday afternoon in September, despite the somber occasion. Or perhaps, with deliberate intention, because of it.

My only regret about this memorable day, apart from our inability to tune into the radio broadcast and tune out the bozo behind us, is that we once again didn’t see anyone we know personally at the ballpark. Maybe next time I’ll bring a camera along and ask our Terrace Box neighbors for their expert advice on buying a zoom lens. It might be time for a new resolution.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Confidential to the York Regional Police

To the constable or staffer at the York Regional Police in Newmarket, Ontario who executed a Google Canada search using the search term "baseball pitcher nick name space captain montreal expo" and browsed the My Two Innings blog entry on Hall of Fame catcher Gary Carter, which didn't answer your inquiry:

I believe you are referring to Bill "Spaceman" Lee, left-handed pitcher with Boston and Montreal over 14 seasons spanning the entire decade of the 1970's, one of the great personalities of the game and all-around kook. Come to think of it, is there any ballplayer who better personifies the Zeitgeist of the 1970's? Reggie Jackson, maybe? Steve Garvey, for all those clean-cut, polished-brass-buttons types at your district station? Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, for his single, spectacular rookie season? I still think Spaceman Lee takes the prize, especially for his gems like this:

"I think about the cosmic snowball theory. A few million years from now the sun will burn out and lose its gravitational pull. The earth will turn into a giant snowball and be hurled through space. When that happens it won't matter if I get this guy out."

Now that you have Lee's name, Constable, I'm sure you can take it from here. You'll be able to research some admirable statistics, such as his three consecutive 17-win seasons with the Red Sox, and fact that he won a minor league game at age 63. You might investigate a 2006 documentary called Spaceman: A Baseball Odyssey. Your Mounties and our FBI might even have a file on him for his reportedly leftist views; but that's your and their business, and his, and I don't mean to pry.

Not remember the name of Bill "Spaceman" Lee? Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Constable, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of baseball fans everywhere. At least the loony ones.

UPDATE: On August 23, 2012, Bill "Spaceman" Lee reportedly signed a contract with the San Rafael Pacifics of the independent North American League and became the oldest pitcher to win a professional game at age 65.  He threw a complete game in a 9-4 win over Maui Na Koa Ikaika of Hawaii.

Friday, June 24, 2011

How's Your Manager's WOR?

It used to be, the only baseball statistics that counted were fairly simple: runs, hits, RBIs, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, ERA, strikeouts and the like. Then, SABR came along, and Bill James and Moneyball, and suddenly we saw a proliferation of hybrid and derivative statistics like OPS -- on base percentage plus slugging percentage -- that may or may not compute in a dimensional analysis but are useful gauges of hitting prowess.

It's a struggle to keep up with all the new permutations and combinations that the stats geeks come up with to measure performance on the field -- what OPS is considered good, anyway? -- and I say that as a poser of a stats geek myself. Then, there's further analysis you can do once you fold in the business aspects of the game. Player payroll, stars' salaries per season, attendance figures, and season ticket equivalents all serve to indicate the health of a franchise.

In the competitive, metrics-oriented world of sports business, performance on the field is inevitably compared to ownership's investment in player salaries. Analysts originally began by measuring payroll per win. Then, some smart guy figured out that, if a team can win 60 games in a 162-game season even with a roster of Triple-A stiffs, the player payroll should be divided not by total wins but by wins in excess of 60 to determine spending efficiency.

(The ghost of Marvelous Marv Throneberry will thank you not to remind us of the New York Mets' magical 40-win inaugural season in 1962.)

Which brings us to managerial efficiency. If you or I were to manage a major league team -- which, after all, we do in our minds each time we watch a game -- how many wins would our team achieve, despite our indisputable incompetence? We need a baseline number in order to calculate managerial success as the number of wins over that figure.

Happily, the baseball gods have just bestowed an answer upon us. Today we learned that Washington Nationals manager Jim Riggleman reportedly took advantage of a rare winning stretch and super-.500 June record to insist that the Nationals GM Mike Rizzo pick up the manager's contract option for the following season. Rizzo, recalling the adage that the worst deal is the one that you make on someone else's timetable, and in any case we haven't seen July, August, or September yet, demured, and Riggleman resigned before a mid-season road trip.

Over 12 big-league seasons managing the Padres, Cubs, Mariners, and Nationals, Riggleman has compiled a .445 career winning percentage. I heard today on the radio (but have not verified myself) that this is the worst percentage in baseball history among managers who have managed during 12 MLB seasons or more. Multiply the .445 winning percentage by a 162-game season, and Jim Riggleman-managed teams have averaged 72 wins. This exceeds the 60-win bad-team baseline, to be sure, but enough 60-win seasons would doom a manager to a very short managerial career -- certainly, fewer than Riggleman's dozen seasons.

Riggleman's 2012 contract option with the Nationals reportedly carried a salary of $700,000. Presumably you can hire him next season to manage your team for the same, modest price. Or, you can bring in someone else with managerial experience for a bit more, as the Pittsburgh Pirates did this season by hiring former Colorado manager Clint Hurdle for about $1,000,000. Hurdle's career winning percentage in 7 seasons with the Rockies was .461, translating to 75 wins per season, or a WOR (Wins Over Riggleman) of 3. We seem to have established, based on absurdly limited data, that the Pirates paid $100,000 per WOR for their new manager.

(Indeed, 75 wins is a reasonable expectation for the P-Rats this year. Whether they overpaid or underpaid for Hurdle will be left as an exercise for the reader.)

Alternatively, Pittsburgh could have hired former Pirate, Phil "Scrap Iron" Garner, with a career WOR of 6, or Ken Macha, originally from Western PA, with an impressive, if shorter career WOR of 15. However, Macha's early career with the A's might be overvalued, in terms of WOR, with A's GM Billy Beane's stats-driven organization a more likely cause of the team's long-term success. Moreover, Macha had just come off a disappointing Brewers stint (WOR of 7).

Or, the Pirates could have hired a rookie manager with no established WOR, as the Brewers did in replacing Macha with Mike Scioscia's former assistant, Ron Roenicke. Roenicke faces a trial by fire. Brewers' GM Doug Melvin brought in front-line, free-agent starters Zack Greinke and Sean Marcum and kept slugger Prince Fielder for his contract year, widely assumed to be his last in Milwaukee. The expectations for the Brew Crew in 2011 are enormous, and it could be now or never -- which means that, for Roenicke, the only statistic that matters is WOL (Wins Over LaRussa).

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Ghost Racers of the Ninja Apocalypse

That distinctive screaming, whirring, movie-sound-effects noise filling the air this weekend emanates from the Milwaukee Mile at State Fair Park, where the Milwaukee 225 IndyCar Series race is being run. It's kind of cool, actually, and so is the knowledge that it will go away later today.

Running errands yesterday in The Silver Zloty -- there was an old radio ad in which a happy-go-lucky doofus said, "We were just looking for some throw pillows for the loveseat in the breezeway," and my noble quest was about that important -- I meandered up National Avenue in West Allis, within livestock-sniffing distance of the State Fairgrounds, and found myself in sudden peril, chased by a pack of black-hooded ninjas on black racing bikes holding small, laser-guided handweapons, their black helmets of the latest curved design concealing their eyes as they bore down on me with extreme intent, as if in the opening sequence of a Japanese action comic. No? Well, that's what it sounded like yesterday in the vicinity of the Milwaukee Mile.

The funny part is, I was listening to golf on the car radio while being chased by the invisible ninjas. Sportscaster Sean McDonough hosted ESPN Radio's coverage of the U.S. Open from Congressional Country Club, at which young Jedi knight Rory McIlroy seeks to redeem himself in the eyes of the August Master. At the time, it seemed like a better listening option than weekend infomercials for living trusts.

Now, I've been known to give the radio medium its due. Baseball on the radio is a continuing joy. I've listened to Matt LePay's countless calls of "Touchdown, Wisconsin!" on Saturday afternoons (probably while shopping for curtain rods). I've listened to the Indy 500 on the radio in fascinated amazement at the tight broadcast production. I've even been involved in offbeat radio sports in a small way myself; back in the day, for example, I wore a highly attractive orange life preserver in a small powerboat as the remote engineer for college radio broadcasts of crew races, hanging on for dear life. (Pro tip: position yourself and your puffy vest as a noise baffle between the guy with the microphone and the outboard motor. Pro tip 2: if he falls overboard, immediately yell, "Let go of the mike!")

But, it's hard to do golf on the radio. Exactly how fascinating can the basic arithmetic of the leaderboard possibly be? How many times can McDonough & Co. describe Phil Mickelson's booming, errant drives into the next zip code and his wedge shots to 18 inches from 85 feet, and sound surprised? How critical is it whether McIlroy's proficient game stacks up to that of Tiger Woods, whose absence looms over this tournament like a ghostly apparition? Why do golf announcers whisper during the putts when they're probably sitting in a studio in Bristol, watching on the big screen like everyone else?

Yet on this day, the broadcast team provided an informative, workmanlike depiction of the sights and action from Congressional, never letting the audience wonder for a moment what Mickelson or McIlroy or their caddies might be thinking -- it seems that, according to all golf announcers throughout history, all pro golfers have "the courage of champions" -- as I sped through West Allis intersections and took hard corners trying to shake the racing ninjas in hot pursuit.

It suddenly occurred to me that I could slow down; I was not in mortal peril. The ninjas meant me no harm. It was merely Tiger and his entourage, trying to get close enough to The Silver Zloty to hear the latest updates on the leaderboard.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Someone else will have to write the definitive review of Neil Gaiman's darkly comic fantasy novel Neverwhere, for I didn't make it past page seventy.

That's not Gaiman's fault. Neverwhere is a perfectly entertaining story, at least so far, with enough colorful whimsy and clever lines to fill a Monty Python movie. There's an Arthur Dent-type urban everyman as protagonist, a mysterious damsel in distress, two Looney Tunes villains whose urbane, Dickensian dialogue only heightens their cartoonish menace, a host of Doctor Dolittle-like transgressions of the animal-human communication barrier, and enough impressionistic descriptions of London proper and the London underground to fill a Fodor's guide.

To be sure, I'm not usually one for the fantasy genre. Fiction is already unreal enough for me; fantasy fiction seems like overegging the pudding. Moreover, having seen "Stardust" on the big screen and a recent, Neil Gaiman-penned "Doctor Who" episode on the small screen, I think I get Gaiman's recurring meme: normal meets fantastical at a mysterious frontier, to both scary and wonderous effect, à la Terry Gilliam. The spooky, semi-occult themes of fantasy lit don't often grab me -- but that's not what stopped me from reading this light, slightly subversive thriller in mid-noir.

Nor can I articulate any particular objection I had to Roy Blount, Jr.'s Hail, Hail, Euphoria!, the noted humorist's personal, crafty, scene-by-scene explication of the Marx Brothers classic flick, "Duck Soup", that kept me from finishing that book; nor can I recall why An Object of Beauty, Steve Martin's amiable novel of the modern art collecting world, failed to capture my eyeballs for more than a couple of chapters, for it too looked promising; as did a fascinating historical treatment of the New York City art world, The Pop Revolution by the late Alice Goldfarb Marquis.

I actually did finish The Year of the Hare, a wry picaresque tale set in Finland that became a touchstone of the 1970s back-to-nature movement. In truth, however, Arto Paasilinna's symbolism-laden allegory was less than 200 pages long and super-simple reading; it's one of those Euro-fables that your foreign language teacher might have assigned to your tenth grade class, were it not already in English. Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou, a starkly riotous and ribald African novel of similar brevity and simplicity, comprising a series of low episodes told to a street-smart Congolese bartender and relayed in his purported diaries, deserved a much better fate in my hands than it received, but halfway through fell victim to my all-too-brief attention span and manic library habits.

Therein lies the tale. Each trip to the public library is a festival of eyes-bigger-than-stomach reading avarice. The ritual begins with the guilt- and sadness-inducing return of a big bag o' books that I haven't even begun to read, despite initial excitement, earnest intentions, one or two online renewals, and a grace period, along with perhaps two or three books that I speed-read through page twenty or fifty in the last hour of their due date, just to get the sense of what I would be missing, before dropping them into the slot. There! Now I can focus on the two or three checked-out books still at home, left behind as it were, a sensibly small number of items awaiting my undivided attention. Naturally, as long as I've already spent the gas money to return the others, I'll just take a quick peek at the New Books section by the front door...and two and a half armloads later, I'm on my way.

Once home, I'm doomed, pile-driven to distraction by a looming, unread stack of erudition and expert storytelling on the oval side table in the living room, the defined check-out period for each item establishing an anxiety-inducing expiration date. There's compound guilt, of course: so long as I'm not reading them, I'm not experiencing the cozy, enlightened life of writerly illumination that I'd imagined they would confer upon me when I checked them out; so long as they're in my possession, I'm preventing another equally delusional County Library cardholder from checking them out with similar earnest intent. The cycle repeats.

Only one way to break this pernicious recurrence, this wretched "Groundhog Day" scenario, this Fortuna-thon: discover a new musical infatuation on YouTube to absorb my restless mental energies, and return all the books. As it turns out, they have CDs at the library, too.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Live Apple

Why on Earth hasn't Fiona Apple been rediscovered yet?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Good Luck, Harmon

[Originally posted December 31, 2010]

The older kids next door were Minnesota Twins fans, so I was too. They revered the Twins' clean-up hitter, Harmon Killebrew, and I adopted the benevolent slugger from Idaho who wore No. 3 as my boyhood hero.

Long before the Internet emerged as a news and entertainment medium, well before the demand for 24/7 sports coverage spawned multiple cable channels, back in the day when over-the-air game broadcasts in Upstate New York were limited to a single NBC Game of the Week on Saturday afternoons and, if we were lucky, a Mets or Yankees home game on Sundays, my friends and I somehow knew everything about our favorite players.

(It helped that my fourth and fifth grade teachers wheeled the school's A/V television set into our classroom during afternoon World Series games -- imagine that happening today! -- and guided our acquisition of critical knowledge.)

Every day, we would devour the box scores in the Schenectady Gazette, scanning those treasure-troves of matrixed data for hints of outsized performances from the previous evening's contests. We'd find our favorite teams and players' names and examine the columns headed "ab r h bi" for indications of productive nights at the plate. Two or three hits were cause for celebration; two or three RBIs, even moreso. If a player had both runs and RBI's, he had almost certainly crushed the ball at least once, perhaps launching a hanging curve into orbit or clearing the bases with a double.

How much sunnier the world seemed on a day when Harmon Killebrew's line read "4 2 2 3" rather than "4 0 0 0". Both occurred frequently.

Killebrew went down with a hamstring injury while playing first base in the 1968 All-Star contest. California Angels' shortstop Jim Fregosi may have thrown the ball low to my baseball hero and ended his season, but I swear I'm over my grudge by now. I imagine that No. 3, reputedly a gentleman of the game, never held a grudge in his life.

Killebrew was a terrific role model for this hero-worshipping Little Leaguer. His incredible 1969 MVP season, when he led the league with 49 home runs and 140 RBIs, shone (and still shines) like gold in my imagination. When he homered in the 1971 All-Star Game, one of six A.L. sluggers to mash the potato that day, I enjoyed his triumph as if it were my own. When Yankees announcer Phil Rizzuto, mocking Killebrew's extensive girth, once noted that he had rounded third and headed for home "like a hippopotamus heading for water," I bore the fat-kid insult with him, knowing that he would have laughed it off. His baseball nickname, "Killer", never really fit his reserved, genial personality.

I arranged the baseball posters in my bedroom to depict Bob Gibson pitching to Harmon Killebrew.

As the ball drops in Times Square tonight, ushering in a Happy New Year for 2011, word comes from the Associated Press that Killebrew, now 74, is battling esophageal cancer. His public statement disclosing his condition sounds just like his interviews from back-in-the-day; simple words, a frank assessment, optimism, appreciation for those who appreciate him, a plea for privacy. Dignified, as always.

Also, fan-friendly. As a young fan, I once wrote a letter to Killebrew, c/o the Minnesota Twins, and asked for an autograph. A few weeks later, a signed black-and-white photo arrived in the mail; the inscription read, "To Bob, Good luck, Harmon Killebrew".

Indeed, I've had pretty good luck. Many days I'll wind up with a "4 0 0 0" line, but sometimes I'll get a hit or two, metaphorically speaking, and even a couple of RBIs now and then. It's high time for me to return the favor:

Mr. Killebrew, here's wishing you peace, comfort, and excellent outcomes from your medical treatments that lead to renewed good health. Thanks for years and years of very happy baseball memories, for serving as a personal role model, and above all, for your simple dignity.

Good luck,

Bob Wait

* * *

Epilogue: Harmon Clayton Killebrew passed away on the morning of May 17, 2011. A staunch advocate of hospice care since the time of an earlier, life-threatening ailment, Mr. Killebrew's last public statement said, "I am very comfortable taking this next step and experiencing the compassionate care that hospice provides...I look forward to spending my final days in comfort and peace with [my wife] Nita by my side."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

One Review, Thirty Minutes

The ad hoc creative team of Amanda Palmer, Ben Folds, Damian Kulash, and Neil Gaiman met in a Boston recording studio yesterday. The ambition of their stated goal, to produce eight songs in eight hours (hence the project and band name, 8 in 8, and to let the Internet world watch while they did it, attracted both fascination and notoriety in advance. The least one can do to honor the project is to respond in kind, with a thirty-minute review of their final six-song product, "Nighty-Night".

That they fell short of their goal numerically, producing six songs in twelve hours, is the least important aspect of the endeavor. The project may have started with an artificial time-challenge, but when time ran short they kept going, and quit when it was no longer sensible to continue. This was not the musical version of Chopped, the timed gourmet-cooking competition show; noone was required to step back from the keyboards and mixing console at the end of eight hours.

The six tracks reflect the disparate sensibilities of the contributors. Author Gaiman's contributions are the most witty and writerly, in a Sir Tom Stoppard meets Sir Noel Coward kind of way. Gaiman's "Nikola Tesla", a rock-staccato track voiced by Palmer atop her piano-percussion banging and Ben Folds' drums, shows off the writer's science-minded wit while reintroducing Palmer's meme of the everygrrrl torching for celebrities, à la the Dresden Dolls' "Christopher Lydon" -- or in this case, for a celebrity of historical interest. Later, Gaiman voiced his own sword-sharp lyrics in the collection's closing track, "The Problem With Saints", a modern-day Jean d'Arc sequel as Tom Lehrer might imagine it -- if Tom Lehrer were English.

That the album session appeared to some advance critics to be a mere stunt -- one commenter had worried about the prospective "jokiness" of the result -- may have spurred the team to incorporate large elements of sadness and poignancy into the collection. The haunting plea for a missing child to return is the subject of a Folds-Palmer slow duet, "Because the Origami", that leads the listener out of the realm of Dr. Demento into the hurt and pain of parental grief and desperation.

"Twelve Line Song", a Ben Folds-led number that mixes funny and sad, features the unlikely still life of a squirrel suicide in a bathtub. One suspects Folds, Gaiman, and Palmer don't quite have the "Who Killed Amanda Palmer?" faux-death-scene photo project out of their heads yet. The happy sounding tracking vocals are a seriocomic switcheroo, a trick that Palmer and Folds have used before, in W.K.A.P.'s "Oasis".

With more gravitas, Damian Kulash of OK Go takes the lead on "One Tiny Thing", a break-up song depicting the fragile nature of relationships. Kulash's mournful vocals revealed a soulful musicality which seemed upstaged during much of the project by the alpha squirrels in the studio. If certain songs reminded chat-room onlookers of the Beatles, then Kulash was this project's George Harrison. One imagines "One Tiny Thing" could ultimately become the most honored of the collection, if tribute is reckoned by the number of future cover versions from a wide variety of artists.

Which brings us to the penultimate piece, "I'll Be My Mirror", to me the true payoff piece of the project. As much forceful poetry slam as song, "Mirror" takes a tragic scene that everyone can relate to, the street person out of their right mind; Amanda Palmer's emphatic vocals bring home the startled onlookers' pensive, but-for-grace-there-go-I apprehension in the presence of the subject. A catchy fanfare of a piano riff and a crashing rhythm guitar add an exclamation point to each stanza without interrupting the angst and poetry of the lyric.

The overall verdict? "Nighty-Night" is a bit incoherent as a song collection, but several of the songs are highly worthy in their individual graces. The team created something of value and opened a window into the creative process. In particular, they revealed that worthwhile endeavors invariably take longer than even the most talented and productive creative types imagine that they will -- and at a full hour and thirty minutes instead of the budgeted thirty minutes to write this review, it's time for me to join them in saying, that's enough for today.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Indestructible Wonder: A Requiem

You've got one in your closet, or in your dresser, or in a heap on the floor next to that box of junk that you keep meaning to sort through. It's your favorite shirt, the one that your Beloved Spousal Unit despises and that you cannot live without.

Mine was indestructible, until today. This is its story.

My Esteemed Paternal Unit, whose off-hours wardrobe is more Montgomery Ward than J.C. Penney, had declared its design unwearable by any serious, self-respecting, lawn-mowing male -- something about the two enormous front pockets, I think, though I'm still not sure -- so of course he passed the Indestructible Wonder and two others like it to his son. Sold as travel shirts; constructed of unnatural fibres to render them sink-washable and air-dryable; short-sleeved, with more pockets than buttons; in colors Almost White, Light Greenish-Grey, and Mango-Mustard; the shirts soon embarked upon their lives of second-hand service and achievement.

Their paths soon diverged. Mango-Mustard was worn twice, then donated under threat of pain, divorce, and more pain. Light Greenish-Grey was in the minor-league starting rotation -- low minors -- until it pilled and frayed beyond pragmatic utility six or eight years ago. Which left Almost White, a.k.a. the Indestructible Wonder, whose stoicism and indefatigable spirit through a long career of latex housepaint spatters, Secret Stadium Sauce drips, and assorted other cruel indignities serve as a model for us all.

"I thought you got rid of that thing," said my Beloved Spousal Unit this morning, with pro forma disgust -- yet, surely, with grudging admiration for my courageous steadfastness in the face of the omnipresent temptation of reckless fashion. A pair of pinhole-sized flaws had appeared above each pocket, their symmetry rightly suggesting the harmony and inner balance of the garment's occupant. Another blissful Milwaukee summer, sweating happily through the shirt at ballgames and festivals, loomed ahead.

Until...r-r-r-rrrrrrip! Tugging upward on the shirt's collar in back to relieve a bunched-up, folded-under, lumpy and itchy spot [Note to self: possible dog names - Lumpy & Itchy], I'd inadvertently separated the yoke from the back of the Formerly Indestructible Wonder.

My Beloved Spousal Unit's eyes widened, the corners of her mouth suddenly rising into a near-demonic grin of triumphant exultation. Leaving no chance that her long-awaited moment of deliverance would be further delayed through a deft repair with a mending kit, she set about to rip and ruin the shirt irretrievably. It is possible, Dear Reader, that I had not yet fully exited the damaged garment when this action was executed. (Oh, grow up!)

No longer indestructible, my favorite shirt lies in tatters, its cotton-polyester fibres sorrowfully stuffed inside a wastebasket in anticipation of the weekly trash collection; an unworthy fate, you'll agree, akin to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's shrouded corpse being tossed unceremoniously into a pauper's grave. I am in mourning.

I wonder if I can find another one on eBay?

Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Bop from Bud on Opening Day

Some things can only happen in Milwaukee.

Celebrating baseball's Opening Day, with the Brewers on the road in Cincinnati, my Beloved Spousal Unit and I went to lunch at Gilles Frozen Custard, our favorite burger stand. There we planned to listen to Brewers announcer and veteran funnyman Bob Uecker, the happy survivor of recent health problems, kick off the new season's radio broadcasts. Located within a pop fly of her high school, just up Blue Mound Road from Miller Park, Gilles has been a favorite indulgence of Milwaukee natives and Brewers fans for decades. Wearing my Brewers cap and blue jacket, Opening Day essentials after a long Milwaukee winter, I trundled inside to order our Big Daddy burgers and shakes.

Whereupon, I espied the Big Daddy of Major League Baseball, Commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig, chatting amiably with the Gilles owner while taking his lunch break. It's well-chronicled that baseball is Selig's third most favorite thing in life, after his family and lunch at Gilles. The Commish orders his daily hot dogs with relish and retreats to his Lexus to plot the destiny of the National Pastime. (You can tell it's an important phone call if the brake lights of the Lexus are lit while he's parked.)

This is roughly equivalent to FIFA President Sepp Blatter keeping England and Germany from starting a war over World Cup groupings while chowing down on a liverwurst sandwich at a Zurich Imbiß after exchanging views with the Wurstmacher. Every day.

You have to understand Milwaukee to get this: it's no big deal for a 50-year old kid, or anyone else, to greet the Commish at Gilles, even when he doesn't know you from Adam. I hailed the chief in passing, an appreciative fan at the start of a new season: "It's a great day, Mr. Selig!" Wearing my Brewers hat while I did so -- the dopey one that spells out BREWERS in block letters -- earned me a knowing smile and a bop on the arm from Bud. The man may no longer own the team he saved from oblivion at least twice, and he may still have to disclaim any trace of residual partiality, but behind the two hot dogs with relish lives an exuberant Robin Yount fan.

Like March itself, today's ballgame came in with a roar but ended baa-aa-aa-adly. Back-to-back lead-off blasts by Rickie Weeks and Carlos Gomez to start the game had Milwaukee fans all a-Twitter, a good times feeling enhanced by more solid hitting and a defensive gem by Casey McGehee at third. Sadly, a game-long comeback by the Reds, capped by a walk-off pop by Ramon Hernandez, spoiled the day for Brewers fans, with closer John Axford playing the unaccustomed role of Goat-for-a-Day. Still, in this season of rare high expectations for the Crew, featuring a handful of postseason-worthy starting aces and enough offense for a team and a half, there's every reason to believe the Brewers will compete for a division title, and maybe more.

If that happens, I'm pretty sure the brake lights on the Lexus in the Gilles parking lot will be not just lit but flashing. With relish.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

One-Ton Dooley

A highway stop, a roadhouse bar, and I was feelin' dry
Though why I had to pick that place -- I should-a driven by
A hairy, open-carry drunk was gettin' coarse and venom-y
It was my great misfortune that he took me for his enemy
The sumbitch snarled, "So, yer feelin' lucky with yer luck?"
I said a thing, I think it might-a rhymed with "pick-up truck"
Then the pushin' got to shovin', and things got a bit unruly --
Now I'm headin' for a last ride in my One-Ton Dooley.

They drove me to the sick-house with a bullet in my gut
Ridin' shotgun ain't as special when your belly ain't quite shut
The doctor told me, "I'm afraid it's way beyond some stitches,
You'll prob'ly see the afterlife, thanks to them sons-a-bitches!"
They called my next-of-kin, an' my kid brother came a-cryin'
I said, "Yer better listen up, 'cause I'm a-busy dyin' --
An' then we'll say goodbye, bro, 'cause I'll hardly hear yer Eul'y
From a Number 7 casket in my One-Ton Dooley!

"I never stand on principle, don't write no fancy verse,
I never saw the purpose of a chrome-bedecker'd hearse --
Why spend yer dough on transport when a good ol' truck'll do?
Keep the coffin lid wide open so that I can see the view.
The highway's full-a pretty sights while yer above the ground,
Just set me on a rubber mat so's I don't slide around,
Then drop me in a shady spot -- that's all I want, most truly! --
Salute me with a lawn-job made by my beloved Dooley.

"The moral of my story: Stay away from stinkin' drink!
Never hassle with an ass'le; never wrassle with a fink.
Keep yer fenders clean an' polished, keep yer tires full-a air --
Yer never know just when yer need to peel out-a there!
Don't spend yer money stupidly on luxuries and such;
Take all I got -- now on, I won't be needin' very much.
To my nephews, give my Stetsons; to my nieces, all my jewl'y --
They'll be stylin' in the way-back of my One-Ton Dooley!"

Copyright 2011 Bob Wait

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Philadelphia Story

When you stumble upon a party, it can be a good time. When you stumble upon a legend, it can be transcendent.

In Philadelphia for a software users group conference, I didn't exactly relish the thought of mingling at the post-program, organized-fun, 70's-themed bar crawl this evening, networking opportunities and hot programming tips notwithstanding. Stopped by the joint long enough to catch an unsettling glimpse of my fellow info-geeks wearing afro wigs and trying to squeeze past each other in the pub's narrow passageway. Recalled dorm and frat parties in college where I couldn't move for minutes at a time due to the unchecked crowds. Recalled not having actual "fun" on many such occasions, despite thinking that I was supposed to pretend to. Observed the substandard interpersonal distances, according to North American cultural standards. Played the "Who's In Charge Here, Anyway?" card, which I seem to deploy with increasing frequency, and hightailed it out of there.

Onto the streets; Broad Street, in particular. A cheery downtown on this night, actually, regardless of what you may have heard about Philly. Started strolling city blocks at pace, inhaling the late winter air; a terrific antidote for All-Day Hotel Meeting Chair Syndrome. Took in the early-evening sights in the theater district. Architecture, art schools, art supply stores, restaurants, theaters. Passed the Ormandy Ballroom, named for the late Philadelphia Orchestra conductor. Slowly began to incubate a notion to catch some sort of evening performance.

The Philadelphia Theater Company, down the street from the hotel? The grand opening of a promising new stage production was upcoming, but tonight, it was dark and empty. Another nearby theater, whose current offering features a post-feminist title and poster recalling certain Monologues? Nope. Just nope. The stage version of Amadeus, a few more blocks away? Intriguing, but too many notes for tonight. A large-ish building with the word "Symphony" splashed across the top? A mirage; it's a new condo project.

Then, along comes the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, an über-grand performing arts center with look-at-me lines. An amazing atrium; sweeping curves and lattices; your delighted eyes drawn up to the sky, back down and around. Not a right angle in the place. Now that's a venue! Fell in step with a slightly greying theater-district crowd, gathering with anticipation for some kind of show -- but what?

The Philly Pops, that's what, with longtime Philly Pops leader Peter Nero conducting and performing a 1950's-themed program. Much beloved in Philly, where he's invested the last three decades of his life delighting Pops audiences. Nero's 50+ years in the music trade earned him two Grammy Awards and placed him elbow-to-elbow with Sinatra, Mancini, all the greats of the post-war era.

The audience regulars were as appreciative as they were forgiving. I'd never seen so much hand-clapping and lip-syncing by seniors. Certain lightly rehearsed numbers and looseness in the cohesion of the instrumentals were beside the point, as the old-timers on stage and in the audience, both intermingled with music performers and aficionados young enough to be their adult grandchildren, gave and received a gentle, happy, slightly sloshed-sounding performance that had the feeling of one last round at the bar surrounded by the great songs of their -- anyone's -- youth.

Seeing and hearing Peter Nero play "The Way You Look Tonight" from my overhead perch in the third balcony, watching Nero's hands tease out the jazzy, swinging style from the song in that beautiful place, I felt I'd witnessed not just a performance but the curating of a priceless treasure by one who knows. A perfect martini, captured at the keyboard.

A reminder, also, that the "Who's In Charge Here, Anyway?" card is often the most valuable in the deck. My Philadelphia evening had regressed two decades, from the 1970's to the 1950's, but it took a great leap forward.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

I Am So, So Sorry For This

          A second soprano named Betty
          Races camels on the Serengeti.
          When she trills 'top a hump
          At the steeplechase jump --
          It sure beats a plate of spaghetti!


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