Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Century Mark

I hope you guys all had a good holiday. And I hope you didn't mind me taking a little holiday break. Like I've always said, this thing has been a chance for me to write about something that I don't normally get the chance to.

Sometimes things stick in my head, and they come out here in an entry.

But mostly the past few weeks have spent furiously clicking towards online retailers, melting the credit card, wrapping as best I can (which, frankly, would not qualify as 'best' in any circumstance), unwrapping as fast as I can, entertaining my visiting parents and taking in church services.

And I even squeezed in a work shift on Sunday afternoon, too.

So there's not been much time to write up anything lately. And I do apologize for that.

But the reflective opening serves a further point: We've hit the century mark - one hundred posts. At least I think we have. Because of the aforementioned business, I haven't had time to scroll back through the archives and subtract out the short posts that really don't count. Like you'll remember the ones about me waiting for the power to go out - which it never did. The first one counted, but the subsequent updates did not.

So we've turned the dial over. And if we haven't, we will soon - like in a post or two.

You've probably all figured out that this thing serves its purpose for me. This is my creative outlet. There's so much stuff bouncing through my head at any one time, it's like there's a game of Breakout on speed up there. A missive careens off one side of the cranium and bounces around for a while.

Sportswriting, generally, is so formulaic. You watch a game, you find an angle, you complete the assignment. Layout is much the same; it's 98 percent tedium and two percent - maybe - artistry.

This blog gives me a chance to do what I like to do best: Look at the world around me and try to put it into words. I remember a few years back, all of us were supposed to chip in to news coverage of Hurricane Isabel, as it came ashore in Virginia Beach and made its way northwards toward us.

My job would have been to go roam around one corner of the county and come back with a story. As it turned out - don't know why my editors didn't think of this earlier - my corner was nothing but swamps. So they scrapped my story.

How awesome would that have been? Someone says to me, go find a story. That's where the artistry of reporting is.

One of my favorite newspaper pieces of all time was in the Washington Post magazine a few years back. It was a story by Gene Weingarten, the resident humor writer. He thought it would be a hoot to go visit one of the coldest, most remote places in the country in the dead of winter.

Instead, he came back with a different story altogether. After traversing to an outpost in Alaska that's far closer to mainland Russia than to the lower 48, Weingarten wrote a story about what the place has to deal with. Alcoholism and drug use are big problems; suicide, particularly among young people, occurs with alarming frequency. Those that try to move away often find themselves ill-adjusted to mainstream life in the lower 48.

It was a wonderful story, well reported and well written. It ranks a solid No. 3 all-time for me, behind a Gary Smith feature in Sports Illustrated and a Rocky Mountain News story on the military officer in charge of helping families after a soldier has been killed. (The story won a Pulitzer, and if ever a story was deserving, it was this. I read it in the office and cried almost non-stop; I had to fight like hell to keep from making a scene in front of co-workers. The photos were breathtaking.)

But I digress (shocker). What a wonderful challenge it must be to go find something like that and be able to use all your senses in your reporting. And I have the benefit of throwing opinion in, too. Screw you, objectivity!

Weingarten made reference to a journalist's conceit - that there's a story no matter where you are, it's your job to find it.

This blog allows me to do that. And I thank you guys for playing along.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Misconceptions about my job

Last week, my wife and several of her friends planned a girls-only night out. Some of the boys responded likewise with a night out of our own.

I met up with one hell of a guy, Aaron Cohen. He was the planner, since his wife was among those in the group with my wife. He and I were the only ones in that situation; however, he invited several others along.

One of them was a friendly guy from Texas, who, if I recall correctly, works for Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). He sat next to me and we chatted over a beer and a cigar.

Of course, we talked about my job too.

"Man, if I could do that," he said, "I'd love to - watch sports all day long."

If it were only that simple, of course. I espoused a theory that came to me a few weeks ago, one that (I think) bridges the gap between what people think of my job and what my job actually is.

He had said earlier that he was originally from Texas, but was a huge N.Y. Giants fan and had an incredible dislike for the Dallas Cowboys. Later, he said he was planning on attending the Redskins' season finale on Dec. 30 against the Giants.

My theory to him was this: He's going to the game, presumably with a few friends, drink a few beers, have a good time and enjoy the game. Most people tend to think that's what we as sportswriters do too.

We have the first item in common, and that's about all.

It's an 8 p.m. kickoff, so I'll probably plan on being there by 6. (It's a Saturday, so normal rush-hour traffic is not as much of a concern.) I'll kill time by playing games on my cell phone; it's the only non-Sunday game in Week 17, so watching other games won't be an option.

When the game starts, I'll be taking notes after each play. Perhaps a theme will develop early, perhaps it won't. (I didn't have the lede for my last column until well after the game, and I thought that was one of the best pieces I've written in a long time.) I'll take bathroom and snack breaks during the action at my own peril.

And not writing something isn't an option. Since it's a night game, I'm not sure if I'll have to hustle to get something in before the end of the game or wait and do a second-day story. Either way, I'll have to find something.

Then I'll have to leave, wait in the ridiculously long line to get a bus back to our parking area (I may just shell out the $200 next year and buy a pass closer to the stadium) and then head home to see my wife, who will probably be asleep by then.

And that's what people don't get. I'm a homebody, and I'd love nothing better than to relax at home with my wife. When I'm working - even when it was at the Final Four - I miss out on that.

That's why I'm not sure if this is the right field for me. It's a job I like, certainly, but at what cost? (And I should say that there are many folks in this business with a lot tougher schedule than mine.) I like my time at home.

I've got two high school basketball games this week, and I'd rather be at home. I like my home life, after all.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Ish ickd frizz

I just heard the funniest thing on XM: Dr. Dre's 1992 classic, "Fuck Wit Dre Day."

It came on the 90s channel, not one of the edgy rap channels. As such, the 90s channel is considered appropriate for all ages - unlike some of the rap and metal channels, which are marked that some material may be for the older set.

(The 90s, especially, features some crazy song sets. Dre was followed, in order, by Hootie and the Blowfish and Amy Grant. It was at that point I hit up Boneyard.)

Anyway, listening to this song became nearly incomprehensible. Dre and Snoop didn't hold back on the rhyming beatdown of the late Eazy-E; as such, there are 20 uses of the F-word. Though none of them were beeped, they were remixed to render the word unhearable (though you'd have to be pretty dim-witted to not figure out what they're talking about).

In fact, take a run through the lyrics over at Dre's webpage. Try to mentally remaster the voice in your head each time a curse word (or a questionable word) comes up. Pretty damn unintelligible, huh?

It makes for some interesting listening. Worth a chuckle at the very least, you know?

One reference to shit clearly came out as "ish". Other words weren't nearly as defineable. And when a few of those remixes were strung together, it made the song all but listenable. At the very end, there's some stock audio from a guy who's mostly not understandable. But the last line is clearly "fuckin' wit me", and that line echoes as that audio (and soon, the track itself) fades out. In that span of four seconds or so, there are three 're-mixes'.

What's the point, really? If you've got to edit a song that much, why not just save it for the saucier channels?

-- SPEAKING OF SONGS, I'm catching a little Coldplay before I go to bed - "Clocks," to be exact. It's on XM Hitlist now.

This song will always hold a special place in my heart. I remember it being a perfect background as Lindsay and I sat down to have our first meal as husband and wife. It was on our dinner music list for our reception, and really, it's the only song I remember from dinner.

Though I do remember some other music that was played. Our first dance was to Harry Connick Jr.'s "It Had To Be You." I danced my ass off to "Yeah" from Usher, Lil Jon and Ludacris. And I sure as hell remember the song we walked into the reception hall to.

"Gonna Fly Now" - the Rocky theme.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Back when the Subway kicked ass

Feeling hungry, I threw on my coat and walked to the Subway in the strip mall next door. (Because if you know anything about the county where my place of employment is, strip malls outnumber regular malls by at least a 10-to-1 margin, and probably more. But I digress.)

It's a trip I've made hundreds of times; it's the only place within walking distance where I can get a decent meal. The Dairy Queen is closer, but I'm fat enough already.

When I walked in today, there was one person eating inside the restaurant. Granted, it was like 2 p.m. - not exactly lunch hour or dinnertime. But I walked in and was waited on immediately - and was taken by a sudden feeling of sadness.

This very same Subway, once upon a time, kicked ass. If you can imagine a sandwich shop being cool, this place was.

At the time, it was owned by a Filippino dude that was our age or not much older. He was always working behind the counter along with a high-school aged kid. Random other workers were there too, but those were the guys that I remember.

Both of them were great. Often, a group of us from the sports department would walk over and they'd always remember us and what we wanted. We shared a great deal of chit-chat with them too.

Sometimes it was hard to hear them, though - they had the radio cranked up with one of DC's better stations. It was top-40, not the adult contemporary that can often be sleep-inducing.

And the place, especially around lunch time, was packed. Like no seats available packed - and this has a bit more seating than many of the Subways I've seen.

All of that added up to a certain ambience about the place. It felt like a real gathering place for a lot of people, something that's quite rare among chain restaurants (particularly a place like Subway). But it was awesome to see, and we became regulars because of it.

Then, one day, the owner told us he was moving back to the Phillipines and selling the Subway. We held out hope that the cool-ass Subway wouldn't change its ways, but it didn't happen. Some Middle Eastern folks took over the place and while I've not had a bad experience with them, it's not the same.

They've gotten better. At first, they played Muzak, but at least they have different music now (adult contemporary, of course). And though I can't ever really know, I can't imagine that business is anywhere near what it once was.

As evidenced by the two customers I saw today.

Back when, I would have had to wait in line. And I would have been happy to do so.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The best coaching job I've ever seen

It's rare that I talk about work issues on here, and that's probably not surprising. First, I'd rather not think about work when I'm not actually at work; secondly, some folks have lost their jobs over things they wrote about work on personal blogs.

But this is an exception, since it really doesn't deal with our company per se. Instead, it's about perhaps the best long-term coaching job I've ever witnessed.

Osbourn High School, the lone high school in the independent city of Manassas, Va., will play Chantilly H.S. tomorrow for Virginia's Group AAA, Division 6 state title. Basically, it's the biggest of the big schools (and whether you need to give out six state titles is another question entirely).

When I first moved to Virginia in late 2000, Osbourn's football team was in a sad state. Actually, that's probably not putting it bluntly enough - they were awful. One of my early assignments here was to cover one of their games in Loudoun County. Osbourn (remember, they're Group AAA) lost to a first-year, Group AA school. (In fairness, that school, Stone Bridge, has turned into a solid Group AAA program.)

Coaches, literally, came and went on a yearly basis. They brought in one guy who had made a career out of turning around programs; he resigned in frustration after one season.

And needless to say, he didn't turn around the program.

The coaching parade continued, when the school made the most curious choice of all. They hired a guy named Steve Schultze, an Osbourn grad who had never played football in high school or college. But he had experience coaching football in the aforementioned Loudoun County, where he worked before he was hired at Osbourn.

So a guy with no playing experience comes in and takes over a program mired in losses? Yeah, that'll work out.

And, well, it did. During Schultze's first year, he and his team ended their 32-game losing streak.

Yes, 32 games. More than three consecutive seasons without a win.

And Osbourn kept getting a little better and a little better. They'd have more and more kids who deserved postseason honors - more and more kids who were real players.

Suddenly last year, the Eagles made their move. I can't remember for certain, but they had a one-loss or an undefeated regular season, I'm not sure which. What I do know is that they advanced to the regional finals, where they lost to resident powerhouse C.D. Hylton.

This year, Hylton missed the postseason by thismuch. Osbourn went undefeated and won the regional title. In the state semifinals, they pulled out a late-game win over Salem-Va. Beach, and the turnaround was complete.

But let's be honest, state title runs don't happen without at least one stud. And Osbourn has that in QB Brandon Hogan. He's a dual-threat quarterback who has committed to West Virginia; this season, he's got 2,235 yards passing and 29 passing touchdowns to go along with 1,582 yards rushing and 23 rushing TDs. (Think about those numbers for a moment. They are mind-boggling. Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer lead the NFL with 22 passing TDs; LaDainian Tomlinson leads the league with 23 rushing TDs, and he's having a monster season.)

Now they're a game away from a state title. Unreal.

If you'd have told me that five years ago, I would have laughed in your face. Lots of other folks would have too.

It's a turnaround for the ages.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Hey! Look at us! Over here, south of the river!!

You might think from my last post that I might have something against Maryland.

And you'd be right. Though I have family there, and two kick-ass cousins that grew up there, my dislike for Maryland has been growing over the past six years - ever since I moved here from Pennsylvania.

I can't be certain, but Maryland seems to be the most self-important state in the union. The world is centered there - perhaps you weren't aware of that - and its unofficial motto is 'If you can dream it, we can tax it.'

I'm not the only one. Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell wrote such a column in Sunday's paper; readers had written her enough times complaining about the news they read from Maryland - even in the Northern Virginia edition.

One quote she used:

"[A]s a Virginia resident, I find the Post's coverage of Virginia news inadequate and given from a distant perspective. I perceive a somewhat snobby and distant attitude toward us Virginians in many things Washingtonian."

This is from a guy named David Dadisman - the Washington Post's vice president for circulation.

But at least the Post isn't as bad as television news.

I've taken notes on the past two 10 p.m. broadcasts from our local Fox affiliate, WTTG.

Last night, with my wife at book club, I watched the first 30 minutes until she arrived. There was not anything about Virginia whatsoever mentioned until eight minutes into the broadcast - during the first weather segment. And that's out of pure necessity, because both of DC's major airport are technically located in Virginia. (No, BWI does not count, no matter what its name wants to tell you.)

The first actual Virginia story came at 19 minutes after the hour, when they had a 30-second reader (i.e., no video) about scam artists in Manassas. Prior to that, we were treated to stories from such nearby locations as Towson, Md.; Sharpsburg, Md.; Ft. Myers, Fla.; Decatur, Ill.; and Merlin, Ore.

Tonight was even worse. My wife and I were out for dinner, so I didn't tune into the broadcast until three minutes into the news. So perhaps a Virginia story led the newscast, which would be damned amazing.

Instead, we were relegated to the same thing we were the night prior - a mention in the early weather segment, and nothing else. I watched the first 30 minutes, and never heard Virginia or anyplace therein uttered outside of the weather segment.

According to Yahoo maps, our apartment is just under 14 miles from the WTTG offices. We're part of a larger region, Northern Virginia, that encompasses around two million people spread over five jurisdictions. Surely there's something newsworthy here - something, certainly, more newsworthy than the Maryland Eastern Shore firefighters who posed next-to-nude for a fundraising calendar.

We deserve better than the shitty service we receive from Fox-5. Other outlets - print, broadcast and radio - are better - moderately so - but Fox-5 is the worst.

Supposedly, we're in their coverage area. But you'd never know it by what they put on the air.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Crappy driver assessment

If you watch the news at all, you've probably heard about a federal government program which has recently come to light. If you've crossed the U.S. border via flight any time in the past four years, chances are you have a terrorist rating, depending on various factors.

Some folks, as you can imagine, aren't pleased with this. And, when you get down to it, it's a high-brow form of profiling.

I thought of this while rolling through Maryland and seeing the normal assortment of shitty drivers that The Free State has to offer. And I put two and two together. What if, based on a whole host of factors, you could determine the greatest chance of crappy driving based on socioeconomic factors?

It's worth a shot, right? The higher your score, the better chance you're a crappy driver. (And let me get this out of the way: I certainly understand why folks don't like profiling of any kind, and this exercise is completely tongue-in-cheek. But some truth lies in every joke, so you decide where the line is.)

Beat-up junker: +2
Car with bare minimum tricked-out-edness: +3
Sports car: +3.5
High-end car (BMW, Benz, Jag): +3.5
Combo of the two previous: +8 total
Taxi: +7
Sportbike: +9

North Carolina: +2
California: +4
Virginia: +4.5
Maryland: +6
Diplomat: +7.5
New York: +8
New Jersey: +8

60 and up: +4
25-30: +5
16-20: +6

Wing (or other parts) that look like they were made in shop class: +5
Cell phone in use: +8
Non-driving related activities (make-up, taking notes, etc.): +5
Don't know how to drive in a given weather condition (i.e., snow): +7
Tourist: +4

That's about all I can think of for now. But give it a few days, and someone will piss me off - and they probably won't fit into a category I've got here.