Monday, March 19, 2007

Three cats

No, this has nothing to do with a companion for Hank and Grace. In a roundabout way, the lead-in has to do with Hank.

He's hilarious when he finishes with his business in the litter box. He'll paw the floor, wall, side of the litter box to cover his poop - perhaps one time in 10 tries he'll actually hit kitty litter.

We could never figure out why he was doing this, so I was resolved to find some sort of answer. I managed to find this explanation on Purina's Figuring I would never remember to tell her on what promises to be a busy Monday, I e-mailed the link.

When I opened my inbox, I rather unexpectedly found an e-mail waiting for me. It's one I've been waiting for.

Since I came to United Virtual with more than 100 hours from UPSVAC, I was eligible to skip the normal time requirements and immediately fly a checkride for bigger aircraft. I flew a fair number of flights in the turboprops anyway, all while trying to better acclimate myself with Flight Simulator.

I made an initial stab at my checkride a few months ago, but was unsuccessful for various reasons - I mistakenly listened to the AI air traffic control, which is nothing like real-world ATC. That put me in some situations that are way off of UVA's standard procedures, and thus were justifiable reasons to fail me.

Then my own real world got in the way, with the hectic days that come from mid-February to late March. Still, I was able to re-try my checkride. And this was the message that greeted me:
This flight looked very nice. You have done a nice job of practicing and preparing. The only thing I would suggest is practicing the ILS approaches a bit hand flying them. It is possible to use the FLIGHT DIRECTOR, and fly and entire pattern without ever touching the autopilot and having it turn out looking like it was. Please allow approximately 72 hours for you promotion to be processed before you will see the upgrade to your pilot center. Welcome to the big iron.
So now, I'm happy to report that I can now fly all of the regional jets, 737s and the Airbus A-319/320 class. I'm a Category 3 virtual pilot.

(For those of you wondering, if this post wasn't enough for you, an ILS approach is a full-instrument approach; ILS stands for instrument landing system. Though the Wiki refers to Category III approach, that's got nothing to do with my rating. And flight director is a notch below autopilot; with FD, you're still hand-flying the plane, it's just that the onboard computers tell you how hard to bank, how high your nose should be, etc.)

The actual e-mail was considerably longer, with point-by-point observations on taxiing, takeoff, climb, cruise, descent and approach. But I'll save you the boredom of reading through all of that.

What matters, after all, is the last sentence. Three cats.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Shot. Horn. Swish.

The real reason that the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament is our most exciting event isn't necessarily because of our pools, the upsets or the one-and-done format.

And it's not necessarily because of the close games, either. There are a wealth of those each year. This year, for example, the average margin of victory through Saturday night's games was 14.1; 10 of the 40 were decided by five points or less, while 11 were more than 20 points.

Here's the real reason: Once every few years, we get one of those great games that comes down to a final shot - a buzzer-beater. Not late, decisive shots, like Eric Maynor's jumper with 1.8 seconds left that lifted VCU over Duke. Impressive in its own right, but it still falls short.

True, honest-to-God buzzer beaters in which the opponent can only watch and hope.

The epitome of this was the 1992 Duke-Kentucky classic that ended on Christian Laettner's game-winning turnaround jumper. It lives on in our memory and, of course, on YouTube.

(It's barely visible in the clip, but the game was played at the old Spectrum in Philly. One thing that always differentiated the Spectrum was its horn. You can hear it clearly after Laettner releases his shot - it sounds like one of the Quik Call I tones you hear on a scanner. Not really relevant, but something I always found peculiar.)

There's something magical in the split-second between release and result - especially if that result changes the score. And it's something that's not duplicated in any other sport.

Certainly, we remember Michael Jordan's fading game-winner over the Cavaliers in 1989. But in the time that's passed, the moment has become a tribute to Jordan's greatness - not a tribute to the interminable NBA playoffs.

Adam Vinatieri kicked the Patriots into history with his last-second field goal that beat St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI. But that moment signifies nothing about why Super Bowl Sunday has become a holiday in America; it's remembered for Vinatieri's nerves - he's the best clutch kicker in football - and for the start of the Patriots' dynasty.

Walk-off home runs in baseball are comparable, but usually it's just the end of another regular-season game. Such theatrics are nearly impossible in hockey and racing.

But we remember the buzzer-beaters. Tyus Edney's full-court drive for UCLA. Bryce Drew's three-pointer for Valpo.

Shot. Horn. Swish.

That's what makes March so mad.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Thanks for the crappy cards, but what the hell am I doing?

It's 2007. Why on earth am I still playing solitaire?

The venerable Windows accessory has been popular - but not since we last stopped using a "1" when we wrote what year it was.

Now, it's 2-0-0-freaking-7. Why does it still matter?

I have a great game, Flight Simulator, installed on here; no one will virtually die if I fail at solitaire. There are other PC standbys, Freecell and Hearts, though neither has that same antiquated feel. I've got a PS2 in the other room hooked up to a 40-inch widescreen. (In fairness, and in order: United Virtual is undergoing a host shift; I play Freecell and even Spider Solitaire with some regularity; and I may get back into a PS2 game at some point soon, but not at this moment.)

Yet I while away time with many an unspoken complaint at the awful card I've just flipped over.

And that's what kills me about the whole thing. I don't often quit Solitaire because I'm bored with it, but because I'm so frustrated I reach the point where I realize it's better to just walk away from it.

But the venture is never far, and I'm usually back at the controls in less than 30 minutes.

In fact, let's run through a quick game. I can tell you how it's going to end up already - 90 percent of them end the same way.

Opening cards: 3-clubs; 10-clubs; 7-spades; 8-diamonds; 8-spades; ace-hearts; 2-hearts. Cleaning up the three cards that can be moved gives me 9-diamonds, 6-spades and 3-spades. Moving the 9 and 8 under the 10 gives me two more: king-diamonds, 5-hearts. Five fits under the six, revealing 10-spades.

Good start, right? Yeah, I always think that too.

Three flips before a useable card: ace-diamonds. The undercard is no help, so basically all I've done is ensure I'll see a few different cards the next go-around. Next flip is ace-clubs, again no help from the undercard.

Two flips for 7-hearts, which moves under the 8 and allows a move of the 6/5. New card is queen-hearts, no help anywhere. Next flip gives 9-hearts, which fits under the open 10. Final flip reveals 4-clubs and 6-hearts, which fit on the board but offers no further help.

Second go-around:

Jack-spades fits under the queen, no other help. Flip. Ten-spades fits under said jack, but undercard doesn't help. Flip. Eight-clubs fits under the nine, but undercard doesn't help. (Rinse, lather, repeat.)

Flip. Three-hearts goes up top, undercard is 9-spades, goes under the red 10 and allows a move of the 8-7-6. The reveals ace-spades, which leads to 4-spades and is of no help.

Flip. Flip. Nothing.

Third go-around, looking typically bleak for a win:

Flip. Nothing. Flip. Nothing. (Rinse, lather, repeat.) Third flip brings 7-diamonds, which moves under the 8; undercard is 5-clubs, which moves under the red 6. No further help available - though that king-clubs would help a lot if I had a space for it, which I would if a black 2 would ever show up. (Frustration creeps in.)

Flip. King-hearts is my final chance, but with nowhere to go, I'm left with that insidious red X.

So multiply that over the course of five or six games, and it's easy to get frustrated.

But I still can't understand why I'm still playing this damn game, six years and counting after its freshness date, and that's the most frustrating thing of all.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

'Tussin, you rock

[Please note: The contents of this post are subject to change. If I begin to feel worse, 'Tussin's status will change to 'you suck' quicker than a dose of laughing gas makes you giddy.]

Robitussin has helped put the brakes on what's otherwise been a miserable week. It's funny, because this should have been a good week: wrestling's wrapped up, no traveling - hell, no working - this weekend, a mid-week birthday celebration, warmer temps on the way.

Yet here I sit, feeling as bad as I've felt in some time.

I'm not nearly as dependent on sleep as my wife, who needs her eight square and feels the pain if that doesn't happen. I can usually get by on a solid six hours or an average seven. As best I can recall, I slept OK on Monday night. Tuesday night, I was a little less than OK; it took me a while to fall asleep for whatever reason.

Then came Wednesday, when things went from decent to crashing, kinda like last week's Dow Jones Industrial Average. I guess, in its own way, this is my body's idea of a market correction.

I went through the day feeling OK, but not great: pretty tired, rather unmotivated. I got everything done I needed to do in time to get out and fight the snow all the way to D.C. for a birthday celebration. Traffic was slow, but not unbearably so.

I should have known something was up when we wound up at the Irish Times on Capitol Hill. I had a grand total of five beers over the course of three hours; a decade ago, that would have been akin to milking. But I set a good pace for myself, enjoying each beer without overdoing it. (I still had to drive home, mind you.) I don't think that's overdoing it for someone as wide as me.

You have my word that when I left, I was fine to drive home. Perfectly sober? No. Comfortable enough to drive? Absolutely. (Again, you have my word that I know my limits and won't hesitate to let people know when I've had too much.) Made it home without incident.

But once I got home, it felt like I was at or over my limit. I just felt really out of it - exhausted, with a touch of unsteadiness. How could that happen?

Most of all, I was dead tired. If you'll notice, most of these entries are posted well after midnight; my usual bedtime is between 2-3 a.m. Yet last night, I could hear myself snoring on the chair a little after midnight. I gave up and went to bed, beginning the most challenging night of all.

I was really stuffed up throughout my nose, making it nigh impossible to not breathe through my mouth. I dozed off quickly, but awoke around my normal bedtime of 3 a.m.; I was unable to get comfortable again and laid awake for a solid 30 minutes. I did drift off eventually, but was woken up two hours later when friendly neighborhood kitty Grace decided to bound up for a visit. Then I'd drift off again, and Grace would come back. I'm certain she managed to wake me up on about four different occasions.

Around 9 a.m., I was really comfy cocooned in the bed. But I couldn't find a comfortable spot - again - and decided I just better call it a morning. I got up and was absolutely unmotivated to do anything. It took me around 90 minutes from out-of-bed to into-car. Normally it's a third that long.

I made it to work and got started on some small things I needed to do. But I couldn't ever shake the fact that it felt like I was in this thick fog all day; time damn near stood still. My computer told me it was 2:30, but it felt like 4:30. I felt so tired that the rest of me just felt sick; even a quick bite from McDonald's did nothing but ease the pain of emptiness in my stomach. I thought maybe it would provide an energy boost, but no luck.

I bailed out of work early with a legit excuse. I came home to take a nap which was largely successful and, thank heavens, cat-free. The nap at least managed to lift the fog that I had walked around with all day.

Still, things didn't get a whole lot better. I got quite phlegm-y and found the need to have Kleenex by my side. And because of all the phlegm, I started to get a wicked cough too, such that my throat is now quite sore because of it.

But, never fear, 'Tussin to the rescue. I'm with Chris Rock on this one.
When I was a kid, that's all we had was Robitussin. Whatever you got, Robitussin
better handle it. I broke my leg once, daddy poured Robitussin all over it.
[Pretending to be his father] Yeah, boy! Let that 'tussin get in there. Let that
'tussin go down to the bone! If you run out of it, put some water in the jar,
shake it up, more 'tussin! MORE 'TUSSIN!

It's worked so far, thankfully. The phlegm has largely disappeared from my throat, meaning less coughing. My throat feels better too, so it doesn't hurt nearly as much to cough. I guess that's all I can ask for at this point.

I can't tell if this is one of those 24-hour sicknesses or something more extended. I'm hoping for the former, as we've got some plans with friends this weekend that I'd hate to back out of. But you do what you got to do, right?

Well I'll be damned...this sure turned into a long post. Especially since I could have done it in four words: I FEEL LIKE SHIT. Sorry to have rambled on so long about nothing, really, but it's kind of all I got. Deep thoughts and complex sentence structure just ain't in the cards tonight.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

What rights do sportswriters deserve?

This question is fresh on my mind, given the wrestling tournament I was at this weekend.

My four-week push to the end of the winter season provides me four straight Saturdays (and three Fridays) of high school wrestling. I always dread the end of it; not because the season is over, but for the season to be over, I've got to go to the tournament I was at this past weekend.

Generally, here are my problems with it: long drive far from home (four hours) and little cooperation. Or, as a colleague once put it - describing an entirely different sport and venue - it's a pain in the ass to get to, and you're treated with disdain once you arrive.

But that got me wondering: Just what, if anything, are we owed? Do we deserve anything?

The equation, from my view, is this: In exchange for the free publicity the event gets (and, by extension, the participants get), we should at least get a reasonable working space and reasonable access. Obviously, just what that means depends largely on the event and any number of other factors; can I reasonably expect a small high school in rural Virginia to provide the same information and accommodations that a Nextel Cup event would provide? Of course not.

I'm trying to figure out just what's appropriate for this tournament, which from a media standpoint, is about as far down the ladder as one can get. Still, let's take an objective look at both sides.

Pros: Wireless internet throughout the arena; easy access to wrestlers and coaches; media pass got us into the hospitality room.

Cons: Nearly impossible to keep updated on latest results; no work area until the finals; less-than-helpful staff from the top on down; updated brackets were impossible to get a hold of; rules seem to change from year to year.

(In one example of the last criticism: Prior to the finals, I had plenty of work to do - updating brackets from the best source to do so, a local wrestling team's website - yet I was forced to stand outside and wait in line until the gates opened. I wouldn't have minded as much, but the lady at the entrance swore that 'never in [her] 20 years of working' did they let the media in before everyone else; yet I know for a fact that I've been in there before fans. I promise you, this is not a snobbery thing - I had work to do and really wanted to get a start on it. Yet there I stood, for a good 30 minutes. That also ties in to the less-than-helpful staff too, I guess.)

I go back and forth on whether that should be enough. And honestly, my opinion is clouded by the sour people working there. In addition to the lady above, some other run-ins with folks in the past: This year, I waited for 15 minutes after the end of one round to see if I could get updated results; the room where they make copies of this stuff has a perennially-locked door. The tournament director walked out and I was about to walk in. "They're not ready yet," he barked. I waited for another 15 minutes before giving up and leaving.

Up in the actual press box - which is taken over by tournament staff - I once tried to update my bracket by going through official result sheets, the ones submitted from each mat for tabulation. The guy had them in a disorganized pile, which I was happy to sort through. Yet when I asked him, you'd have thought I asked for his firstborn.

I don't think cordiality - professionalism, even - is too much to ask, is it? A simple, 'No, I'm sorry, I can't do that' would have been perfectly fine.

The only thing I can really compare it to is another wrestling tournament held a week earlier. It used to be held in the Virginia Beach area - another long drive - but at least people were helpful. (Hell, they even had a media steward - what a concept! If I remember right, that was pretty much status quo in Pennsylvania.) In the past two years, it's moved here to NoVa, and thankfully, that aspect hasn't changed.

It is my sincere belief that we should not be the first consideration at these events. We should be further down the line, after competitors, coaches, fans and workers. I have no problem with that.

But we should be considered. And at this tournament, we're not in the least. Ask any sportswriter, and they'll have a story like this.

Given the circumstances - a state tournament at a moderately-sized venue - I believe it falls well short of any measure of media expectation. And until that changes (and I have little hope it ever will), I'll continue to dread the final week of wrestling season.