Monday, November 19, 2012


Not really in on football? That's cool. But this Thanksgiving in households across America, football WILL be watched. Wouldn't you rather have dinner guests openly debating Tony Romo and Mark Sanchez's failures instead of yours?

Well, you've come to the right place! Here's a hastily thrown-together 2012 NFL THANKSGIVING CHEATSHEET, your one-stop source for easy talking points so you can spend your Thanksgiving holiday in peace... and maybe even accidentally enjoy yourself in the process.

But I gotta be honest with you: it's not exactly a killer lineup this year, lots of blow-out potential. As the Cowboys and Lions go, so goes Thanksgiving (especially since the retirement of the Madden turduckin, may all six of its legs rest in peace). I looked up the NBA schedule. And the NCAA schedules. And the international soccer schedules. This is the best we got, kids. Let's roll.

Houston at Detroit - 12:30 EST - CBS
Some holiday staples are sacred and eternal - and the Lions sucking on Thanksgiving Day is one of them. The Lions gave us a scare last year, when they were almost good, but now normal service has resumed. And Houston is a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

The Texans JUST survived an overtime scare on Sunday against Jacksonville, arguably the worst team in the league - I didn't watch the game, but it seems reasonable to question whether or not the Texans were going a little easy in hopes of surviving two games in five days with limited damage (especially considering how their season was destroyed by injuries last year - I mean, they were still competitive in the playoffs with their 3rd string quarterback - THAT'S how good they were). At this stage, the Texans just want to escape with their health, so the numbers on the scoreboard will be incidental.

A Few Quick Talking Points (or things you can shout at your TV):
* Watch for defender J.J. Watt (HOU) to SWAT a few of Matthew Stafford's 17,285 pass attempts. It looks a lot like a blocked shot in basketball.
* Calvin Johnson (DET) is still MEGATRON, even if he's only caught, like, one touchdown this season.
* Drink every time the Texans run the ball forward.
* Drink again every time the Lions do something petulant and/or borderline illegal. This includes their coach.

Washington at Dallas - 4:15 EST - FOX
This is the good game. If you watch only one, choose this one. Somebody has to win this division's playoff spot, and while we all know from previous experience it will be the New York Giants, these teams still have to keep it interesting a few more weeks.

Talking Points:
* The Redskins' rookie quarterback is fabulous fun to watch. His given name is Robert Griffin the Third. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to call him as many different nicknames as you can over the course of this game. RG3 is common. Bobby Three Sticks is another good one. Also, if they do any puff pieces on him in pregame or halftime, make sure to notice his socks.
* I in no way wish ill upon Cowboys' quarterback Tony Romo, but Kyle Orton is the backup and I would be endlessly delighted to have an Orton sighting on Thanksgiving Day.
* Drink every time they show Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. He's the one who looks like a werewolf (credit to Bill Simmons).

New England at NY Jets - 8:20 EST - NBC
* When in doubt, just shout FREE TEBOW and run away.

Friday, November 9, 2012

I'm Not Ready for the Colts to be Good Again

As I've said before, I was a Colts fan before it was cool, starting in the late 80′s. My earliest football memory is of asking my dad ‘who is Jeff George’ and ‘why is he refusing to play’? I didn’t know home games could be televised. For us, home games meant turning on the radio and taking a Sunday nap, except for the one great Jim Harbaugh year, in which case we had to be awake for the 4th quarter (kind of like when Tebow was still in Denver).

Back in those days, winning always came as a delightful surprise, like finding a forgotten twenty dollar bill in your coat pocket, or getting sent home from school early because the power went out.

And then Peyton arrived, with his national TV commercials, league records, and playoff games. The Colts weren’t just a Central Indiana thing anymore. In December 2010, Peyton’s last year playing in Indy, a Harris Poll showed that the Colts were the second most popular team in the league, ‘America’s Team II’ ranked just behind the Cowboys.

I’m in no way anti-bandwagon (if it’s possible to have a ten year bandwagon journey), but I’m afraid of nurturing an Indy-blue fan base that takes winning for granted like some cult of SEC wackos. I was kind of looking forward to a few down years. A little suffering can galvanize a fan base; it prunes us, makes us appreciate our team in a different way (just ask the Cubs, Red Sox, or Manchester City). After spending my entire childhood cheering for three-win seasons, I spent the last decade wearing the same facial expression as Meryl Streep awaiting the ‘best actress’ announcement. I didn’t want to get USED to winning. I didn’t want to get to the point where wins were so expected that I didn’t FEEL them anymore.

Wins are 8,000 times better when they’re unexpected – those are the ones you remember years later. That’s why this season’s Colts/Packers game was so special. I’d take a team with tons of heart over an uber-talented team every single year, and let the wins and losses fall as they may. This year’s team is especially loveable, even if I can’t name half the players on the roster yet (is it true that T.Y. Hilton’s first name is actually Eugene?).

I in no way wish they’d lost any of these games. In fact, I’m still bitter Jacksonville beat us at home. But when you do the math, you’ll see the reason for my mixed emotions. The universe is a cold, cruel place. Observe the Colts’ remaining schedule:

Indianapolis at New England, 4pm game – By their usual standards, the Pats have been herky-jerky all year, but this game is in New England. They’ll probably just [CHOMP] and then throw us out in the parking lot to rot (just like old times, guys!). Let’s hope nothing happens this week that makes them mad. (Prediction: Loss)

Buffalo at Indianapolis – As much as the Colts have over-achieved, the Bills have under-achieved. This game feels winnable, especially since it’s in Indy. (Prediction: Win)

Indianapolis at Detroit – The NFC is obviously better than the AFC this year, but Detroit has been another under-achiever so far (so glad I didn’t keep Calvin Johnson for fantasy purposes). Still, can’t count on it. (Prediction: Loss)

Tennessee at Indianapolis – At the risk of sounding like a jerk, if we don’t win, I’ll be disappointed. (Prediction: Win)

Indianapolis at Houston – Let’s just pretend this game isn’t happening. Still haven’t healed from the Kerry Collins experience last year. (Prediction: Loss)

Indianapolis at Kansas City – I have nothing to add. (Prediction: Win)

Houston at Indianapolis – The Texans will hopefully be resting their starters by now. Might be nice to be on the opposite side of one of those for a change. Plus, we have hopes of a ‘Coach Chuck returns to the sidelines’ bounce. (Prediction: Win)

So the Colts *could* win 10 games this season. Repeat: ten wins is not outside the realm of possibility.

When St. Peyton left, we were promised that we wouldn’t have to worry about this for awhile. We were free to cheer for him in Denver with a clear conscience while the new baby Colts rebuilt the monster. Andrew Luck was supposed to come into his own about the time Peyton gracefully exited stage left with another Lombardi or two in his pocket. That was the plan. We made peace with it. Instead, we’re getting a smorgasbord of punny ‘Luck’ headlines and it’s only week 10. I’M NOT READY. Not for this.

If the season ended today, the Broncos and Colts would play each other wildcard weekend. What did the good people of Indianapolis do to deserve this? Were we just a little too proud of our Super Bowl hosting performance? Did we pat ourselves on the back a little too long? OKAY! We’re SORRY! Next time we’ll play it cool.

Some might accuse us of having ‘rich fan problems’ because in the case of a Colts/Broncos playoff game, no matter what happens, someone we love will win. But let me tell you, I’ve been in this situation before and it sux (with an “X”).

I attended Purdue University at the same time as Drew Brees. Though we never met, he was my first true love, back before I knew Peyton existed (that’s why it doesn’t count as cheating). When the Saints and Colts met in the Super Bowl, I was giddy – until the 4th quarter started and the sick feeling in my stomach reminded me that no matter what happened, someone I loved would suffer the Super Bowl loser’s curse. (Four neck surgeries and a bounty scandal later, it appears somehow the curse got them both. I blame myself.)

There’s still time for a Colts late season collapse to return the universe to proper working order, but I can’t make myself root for it. I love this team. I love how they over-achieve and celebrate winning and fight for their coach. I love how the whole country seems to have embraced them again, and I love, love, love Andrew Luck in all his good-as-advertised throat-stomping glory. Hell, I’ll drive the bandwagon myself so long as it’s not a stick shift. But please know, when the inevitable Colts/Broncos match-up comes, I will gnaw my throw pillows into feathery mulch because I can’t root against Peyton. I can’t, I won’t, and I DON’T HAVE TO. Sports bigamy’s a bitch. Judge me if you must.

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Supplemental Novella Trend

I prefer reading long books (though I still haven't been brave enough to pick up GAME OF THRONES). I want to read CALICO JOE by John Grisham, but every time I look at it, I think, "why is this book so short?" and then I put it back down. Stupid, but true. I'm not a big fan of novellas, short stories, or novelettes when they're intended to stand alone.

But, the popularity of e-books has opened the door for savvy writers to keep their readers engaged between novel releases with electronic novellas/novelettes that supplement their series - and that, I think, is genius. What makes these shorter products work for me? They have the same finished, polished feel as their parent novels, and they add to stories I already want to know more about. Here are a few examples of supplemental/companion e-novellas I've come across:

SHADOW CATS by Rae Carson
I adore Rae Carson's work. GIRL OF FIRE AND THORNS was probably my favorite book I read last year, and CROWN OF EMBERS was a highly enjoyable second effort. My only complaint was that, since I purchased book two in e-book form, I didn't notice I was getting close to the end. When the cliffhanger came, I flailed right over the ledge. And then I sent Rae an angry fan tweet, because I'm a mature Twitter user.

To cope with my cliffhanger distress, I grabbed up SHADOW CATS, which is a prequel to the series told from the main character's sister's point of view (not a particularly warm, beloved character in the series, but one with an interesting perspective).

What I love about Rae's writing style is that I never feel tempted to rush though anything. Each scene is good enough on its own, I'm not flying through the pages trying to find anticipated answers. SHADOW CATS was too short, and the plot doesn't have the same richness that the longer works have. It didn't give me the same amount of satisfaction, but I still got engrossed in the moment. It didn't reveal anything extraordinary, or build on the plot. If you skipped it, it wouldn't affect your enjoyment of the series as a whole. It's just a supplement - a bonus - and her writing style is especially well suited to this format.

SHADOW CATS does exactly what it's supposed to do - it gives you a peek into another corner of the world Rae built, and an opportunity to see into the mind of another character in that world. I'd love to see Rae do more of these; I trust her in this format.

DESTROY ME by Tahereh Mafi
I'll be interested to see whether or not this was truly just a supplement, or whether this actually did feed us subtle plot pieces that we'll need to know going forward. DESTROY ME is basically a collection of scenes told from Warner's first person point of view, and it works hard to build him as a sympathetic figure without stripping him of his villain role in the story. You wonder if he's redeemable... or if you even WANT him to be redeemable. It rounds him out and makes him feel more real.

I enjoyed reading this, which is surprising seeing as how it doesn't really have a stand-alone plot (something that I normally find infuriating). It's a different style than SHATTER ME, which helps you to appreciate how well done (and complicated) Tahereh's first book was. This supplemental novella is a perfect vehicle for her style. I'd buy episode after episode from her, even if she never wrote another full length novel.

FREE FOUR by Veronica Roth
I haven't read this one, but from what I understand about it, it's a little different approach which I think has a lot of potential. She rewrote part of her previously published book DIVERGENT from the point of view of one of her other characters. It made me think this concept of a supplemental e-book would have been delightful back when the TWILIGHT series was still in progress. Remember that leaked version that was all told from Edward's point of view? Everyone I talked to said they liked it better than the version that was actually published. Part of me wonders if that wasn't part of the original catalyst for the influx of electronic bonus content.

These tiny supplements give authors the freedom to take tangents. They let us see through another character's perspective, expand the world. They keep readers engaged by reminding us that more is coming. It's an appetizer - the kind that makes you a little angry when it's done and you're still hungry. I think these little e-novellas work best in a fantasy/action type of genre - the kind of setting that would benefit from giving us a wider angle lens to look through for awhile. But maybe I'm being short-sighted. Would this be effective for writers such as Stephanie Perkins or Miranda Kennealy, especially since their books aren't exactly series, but rather stand-alones that occur in the same living space? (A little research reveals that Miranda does have a novella - the list keeps growing).

Some other supplementals I'd like to see...

* I'm a snob when it comes to dual first-person narratives, so I think this might offer a nice alternative in some future instances. Imagine using shorter episodic e-books to reformat something like the NEVER SKY series (which I love... and which, by the way, DOES have a supplement), or the MATCHED series (which I enjoyed as a single narrator but struggled with once it went dual). Maybe even the ACROSS THE UNIVERSE series, although I think it's phenomenal. I just feel like if a story is complicated enough that it demands two first-person points of view, then there might be an opportunity to grow and round things out with supplemental materials.

* The Chemical Garden Series. I was lukewarm on WITHER, (book one), but I adored FEVER (book 2). On Goodreads, I did find a "Wither 1.5" e-book called SEEDS OF WITHER, a prequel. I'd prefer to read something from Linden's point of view, given the option. In my imagination, it would probably be somewhat like DESTROY ME, which as I mentioned above, was a very smart product on the part of the Mafi.

* The SHADOW AND BONE series. A quick GoodReads search reveals that a 32-page 'companion' exists for this one, too, sooo I'm gonna have to wrap up this post and get to that.

* I know Cassie Clare and writers of her ilk have released extra content on their websites in the past. I'm not sure if these are quite the same thing, but it is very fan-friendly to offer up work for free.

* I'd like to see what the likes of Maureen Johnson and John Green would do with little e-novellas. I feel like that forum would give them an element of freedom their creative minds might enjoy taking advantage of... but then again, at this stage of their careers, they've already chosen other ways to supplement their fans' appetites (John has his vlogs, and Maureen is a tweeting machine and t-shirt designer).

What supplements would you like to see? Who has already done a good one that I left out? My theory that these novellas are best used for 'world building' is probably egregiously narrow, especially since DESTROY ME was basically a character study - how else could these be used to keep readers engaged between releases? What's the down side to supplemental novellas? Do you think they're worth the $1.99 - $2.99 price tag?

Friday, October 12, 2012

The DAMNED UTD is One of the Best Books I've Ever Read

I read a lot of books, usually young adult fiction because it gives me the highest percentage of reader satisfaction. Too many times when I read "grown up" books, I end up feeling frustrated with my experience due to any number of factors: slow pacing, unexpected explicitness, etc. (I'm a PG-13 kind of girl and get sad when things sneak up on me.) With YA, I feel like I have a good handle on predicting what I'm going to get and knowing when I want to take a reading risk.

All that being said, in my new quest to learn about soccer, I took a chance on a grown up book: THE DAMNED UTD by David Peace. There were red flags everywhere that this was NOT going to be my thing (if you find a copy, open to any page at random and count the number of [bleeps] you find, I'd set the over/under at six; might make for a fun drinking game).

This book fascinated me on a few different levels. For one, I guess I'd call it historical fiction. It's a novel, but it's told through the half-crazed mind of a real-life soccer player turned coach. I have no idea how much of it's true and how much was contrived for dramatic purposes. I also have no idea how much of it I didn't understand because I'm still learning what soccer is. But the way the story was woven together was so compelling that I knocked it out during a sick day while lounging in a giant beanbag chair gulping down medicinal teas instead of napping.

What made THE DAMNED UTD such a page-turner was the complexity of its structure - it flicks back and forth in time and switches between first and second person without changing narrators. The 'present' is brought to you in the first person ravings of our coach as he starts his new job. The 'past' shoves you inside his brain/body/soul, using second person to explain how he became the insecure disaster that he is (and possibly asserting that you, fair reader, might have done the same). 'You' feel his career ending injury. 'You' feel his need to be loved and accepted. 'You' feel the hubris that pushes him to take the job coaching Leeds, his bitterest enemy, while the first person makes you wonder whether or not he's destroying the team on purpose.

The first person made me hate him. The second person made me love him. The tension between the two was stunning.

This story both delighted me as a reader (and made my eyes bleed a little), and it also challenged me as a writer. Could I put together a complicated framework like this? Would I ever, ever, ever be brazen enough to try writing in second person, let alone good enough to pull it off? This is not a short book, and Peace kept a level of half-crazed intensity throughout the whole thing. At one point, I asked myself aloud, "How many drafts did this take!?" And then I coughed and had some more tea. It's an excellent book to have with tea, even if our narrator is slogging back tumblers of juicier stuff, usually with a tobacco chaser.

My recommendation to any aspiring writer out there: See if your library has a copy of this book, or if they can at least locate a copy for you (I bought it for $9 on e-reader with no regrets). Even if you care nothing about soccer and are put off by harsh language (like me), pick it up and look through it enough to see the brilliance of how it's put together. I've not found another book quite like it, and the snug fit of the puzzle pieces was more than worth the risk for me. Just... don't say I didn't warn you about the language. If you imagine it in a polite English accent, it somehow makes it better.

Soccer and being in on the joke

A little over a year ago I decided to like soccer. I was stupid about it. I'm still stupid about it, but I know enough now to feel like I'm in on the joke, which is really all I ever want out of life.

One of my co-workers is a distinguished white-haired English gentleman. In my very early soccer days (like, when I was still figuring out what 'injury time' was), I made conversation with him by asking, "Which team do you support?" He shook his head with a laugh and told me to guess. "I don't even know the team names," I protested. So he let me off the hook and told me he supported Chelsea. He said it as though it should have meant something to me, but I didn't get the joke.

A few months later I started to get it. Last season (maybe every season) Chelsea was a white-hot soap opera of a mess. Their team captain was taken to court on racism charges. Their highly paid scorer developed a tortuous mental block and couldn't hit anything but the goal frame (I decided to name him Sad Fernando because, well, he looked sad). Their thirty-three year old coach always wore the same clothes, regardless of the weather... until he was fired mid-season. Their oil-baron owner reminded me of George Steinbrenner on steroids and their general aura reminded me of the Hollywood Lakers. An odd match indeed for my distinguished Uncle Chelsea.

Midway through the season, I'd decided to try cheering for Everton - a scrappy team from Liverpool (birthplace of the Beatles) that seemed stuck in perpetual underdog status and tended to play some American players (not to mention their uniforms are COLTS BLUE). I mentioned it to Uncle Chelsea in passing. He shouted at me. "EVERTON!? What are you mad!?"

The more he teased me, the more attached I got. I loved it enough to drag myself out of bed pre-7am on Saturdays. There's very little in life I love that much. VERY little.

European soccer holds a tournament each year that reminds me of our NCAA March Madness - the best teams from each country qualify to compete against each other in the Champions League. Chelsea took its drama on the road, traipsing around Europe until they inexplicably won the whole thing.

That's right - Uncle Chelsea's team was crowned Champions of Europe in the year of our Lord 2012 A.D. He didn't say a word to me about it. As far as I know, he didn't say a word to anyone. He just hung up a new decoration in his office.

So I, um, improved it for him.

It took him a little while to notice. When he did, he stormed into my cube and slapped the post-its down on my desk, having done a little redecorating of his own. I could not have been more delighted. Those post-its are still hanging on my cube wall, simultaneously taunting and motivating me.

Weeks and months passed. The London Olympics came and went. A new season began. Chelsea's still in first place, as tabloidy as ever.


A couple of weeks ago, Everton was in second.

Uncle Chelsea came into my cube, pointed at my prominently displayed post-its and declared, "Well, we know who's in first, don't we."

And even now, as I pass his office on my way to the parking lot, he'll shout, "EVERTON ARE GOING TO LOSE THIS WEEKEND!"

Half the fun is being in on the joke; the rest is having others willing to share it.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

NFL101 - Football Basics to Start the 2012 Season

For years I was interested in soccer, even though I knew nothing about it. I didn't know the rules or the teams or even when the games were played. But then, last fall Grantland debuted and I at last discovered a resource that opened the Premier League to me like a Doctor Who parallel universe. I can't get enough.

And it occurred to me - what if there is someone out there like me asking the same questions about American gridiron football? I got a little taste of that following the BBC Super Bowl coverage on Twitter as fans several timezones away watched the game and tried to figure out what was happening. But how could they properly enjoy it when they had no background, when they didn't have a baseline on which to judge what they were seeing? How were they supposed to know who to root for? And should I have felt sorry that they missed all the Super Bowl commercials!?

There are a LOT of NFL writers out there, but so many of them deal with the HERE and the NOW with lots of NAMES and NUMBERS and technical strategic jargon. I wanted to try breaking it down to more basic pieces and parts, much like the Men In Blazers did for me. If you happen to stumble across this page and have any questions or interest, I encourage you to ask (post a comment or email me, address is in the sidebar) and I'll do my best to answer. It may not be 'the beautiful game' but it is the Greatest Show on Turf.

It stands for National Football League. The League is made up of two conferences, the National Football Conference (NFC) and the American Football Conference (AFC). The history behind this is boring, so let's just keep going.

There are 32 teams in the league, 16 in each conference. Each conference is broken into 4 divisions by geography: North, South, East, West. I've learned SO MUCH about British geography since I started following the Premier League, so maybe this could help tutor American geography in a similar way, if one was inclined to learn. The teams all kind of reflect the culture of their city, too. Like how old married couples end up looking alike.

Well, over the decades, this has changed, even though American sports don't do "relegation" the way leagues in other parts of the world do. American teams are very businessy, so teams will occasionally move from city to city in search of better markets - technically the team is the same, but it might be called something different. We can get into that nitty-gritty later, but here's how the league has looked for about the last ten years:

I'm so glad you asked! The season is just starting!

The NFL season is broken into three parts: Preseason, Regular Season, and Playoffs.

Preseason includes four games, one game a week, usually during the month of August. These preseason games are mainly for new players to 'audition' to make the team. The star players rarely play in these, and the wins/losses do not count.

The Regular Season is 17 weeks, running roughly from the first week in September through Christmas/New Years. Teams play one game a week for a total of 16 games, with one week off in the middle there somewhere (it varies). Weeks off are called "bye" weeks.

The Playoffs are the fun part. The winner of each AFC and NFC division qualifies, plus two "wild card" teams from each conference for a total of 12 playoff teams. The teams are ranked 1-6 for each conference and there are brackets to decide who plays who. If you win, you advance, if you lose your season is over. The winners from each conference play each other in the Super Bowl, usually the first weekend in February.

Most games are played on Sundays, but there is always one game on Monday nights and I believe starting this year, they also have one game every Thursday night as well. The "big" game each week is televised at 8pm EST Sunday.

Sorry, that section had a lot of math. Let's try to have a little more fun from here on.

An excellent and timely question!

Really, it varies quite a bit from season to season, but some teams seem to always find a way to get the job done. However, even for bad teams there is always hope. No one gets relegated - in fact, the losing teams are almost rewarded, in a way - they get first pick of the new kids coming off the college football teams. It is not unusual for a team to 'bottom out' in order to acquire new talent in the draft.

Another way the NFL differs from European soccer - by rule all teams have the same amount of money to play with, so you can't just assume the New York teams will be good because they are rich. Everyone starts out with equal footing. From there, it becomes a chess match of tactics, executing game plans, and choosing the best talent. Some teams are obviously better at this than others. Perhaps a few lines on the culture of each team - all based on my very biased opinion.


* Baltimore Ravens - Famous for having a very good defense. A relatively new team. They wear purple. Baltimore is a bit of a defensive fanbase in that they seem eager to perceive slights and react venomously. But they are great fans who love their team - and know how to properly hate some other teams (specifically Pittsburgh and Indianapolis).

* Cincinnati Bengals - Famous for being bad even when they're kind of good. Are often teased for their tiger-striped uniforms. Their quarterback Andy Dalton has such red hair that it is sometimes hard to tell if his orange helmet is on his head. This season they are very young and (I think) very enticing. Also, Cincy is my husband's favorite team, so I'm forced to follow them, no matter how dreary it gets.

* Cleveland Browns - An odd team in that it is both a very old team and the league's newest team. The Browns existed for decades in the industrial town of Cleveland; their stadium was full of rabid fans and was affectionately known as 'The Dog Pound' - but the owner actually moved the original "Browns" to Baltimore, renamed them the "Ravens", and then the NFL popped a brand new team there in its place. Why didn't they just plop a new team in Baltimore and leave the old Browns alone? I have no idea. But now the new Browns and the old Browns/Ravens play each other twice a year and the Ravens almost always win. Cleveland is a very depressed sports town with dreadful, dreadful luck.

* Pittsburgh Steelers - A very old, very successful team in another 'blue collar' town. The Steelers are one of those teams that's almost always good no matter what happens. If you saw the movie THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, the scene where they destroy the football stadium was filmed in the Steelers' stadium - and the football player that was running as the field collapsed around him was retired Steeler wide receiver Hines Ward.

* Houston Texans - One of those teams you kind of root for because you feel like they're overachieving and underachieving at the same time. There's just something a little adorable about them. This is another relatively 'new' team still building its legacy in the league.

* Indianapolis Colts - This is my team. Why did I choose them? Because I grew up near Indianapolis. Luckily for me, the team has been both likeable and successful through the majority of my fanhood (it was not always the case). The Colts are best known for two things: 1) They used to be Baltimore's team, and they were stolen in the dead of night in the early 1980's (accounting for why that fanbase seems rather sensitive even still - they STILL hate us, and I give them full marks for commitment). 2) Superstar quarterback Peyton Manning played for the Colts from 1998-2010 leading to several record breaking seasons. Though he's a Bronco now, he is still much, much beloved.

* Jacksonville Jaguars - Another relatively new team, founded in the mid-1990s. Sadly, the Jags are best known for having low attendance and constantly being rumored to be moving somewhere else (usually Los Angeles - America's second largest city does not have a team at the moment). They may become known as London's team - they'll be playing one game a year in Wembley for the next several years. They are primarily known for being an excellent rushing team (meaning they don't throw the ball a whole lot).

* Tennessee Titans - They are, unfortunately, best known for ALMOST winning the Superbowl that one time. They were stopped one yard from the winning score as the clock expired. They are sometimes good but always seem to be solidly mediocre.

* Buffalo Bills - A very old team in a very small town, tucked away in upper New York state. They are nothing at all like New York City. They have much more in common with Canada, and actually the Bills play some games in Toronto. Buffalo is known for lots and lots of snow. In the 1990s the Bills made it to the Super Bowl four years in a row. They lost all four of them.

* Miami Dolphins - Once a very proud franchise recently fallen on hard times. In 1972, the Dolphins recorded the only perfect season in league history. In the 80's and 90's, they had superstar quarterback Dan Marino, who set a ton of records but never won a Super Bowl. They've struggled to win ever since Marino retired.

* New England Patriots - In 2001 they won the Super Bowl as an underdog; since then, they've been a juggernaut. Their coach dresses in a gray hoodie and is often referred to as Yoda (he may be the closest thing the NFL has to an Alex Ferguson). Their quarterback Tom Brady is married to one of the world's top super models. They were once accused of cheating and responded by destroying the entire league that season (and came within about one minute of besting the 1972 Dolphins unbeaten record). They have a definite "eff you" chip on their shoulder, fitting nicely with the rest of the greater Boston area. And this season they have an exceptionally easy schedule. I hate the Patriots.

* New York Jets - The Jets are kind of the little brother New York Team. It's fun to make fun of the Jets. They're usually worth making fun of. If you heard of the mythical, magical "Tebow" last season, you can find him on the Jets now. Enjoy the show.

* Denver Broncos - A team I've always enjoyed, ever since they had quarterback John Elway back in the 80's and 90's. Now they have my Peyton Manning, so I like them even more. Probably the most interesting thing about Denver is their stadium - the city of Denver is literally one mile above sea level. The air is thinner. Kicked balls behave differently than they do in other cities. Crazy things happen at Mile High.

* Kansas City Chiefs - Kansas City was once thought to be one of the toughest stadiums to play in. Their home fans are fantastic. However, they have struggled for a long time, so that crown may have passed (see Seattle farther down). To be honest... I don't know much about the Chiefs.

* Oakland Raiders - Their home stadium is known as "the black hole". I find Raiders fans terrifying. For those not as familiar with American geography, Oakland is right next to San Francisco, connected by the Golden Gate Bridge. But the two communities are very different. Oakland has something of a more, shall we say, 'thuggish' reputation. The Raiders are another team that's been rather miserable to follow for awhile.

* San Diego Chargers - Quite possibly the best uniforms in the league. Also known for being chronically slow starting, chronically underachieving, and in my opinion, a little unlikeable. I've heard several people say that their coach should have been fired several years ago, and yet here he is. I enjoy watching them collapse, but I'm a bad person.

* Chicago Bears - A very old, very popular team famous for it's defense. For years, YEARS they could not find a quarterback (like, they still reference their best quarterback as being a dude who played in the 1940's). Now, they may have finally found a guy - Jay Cutler, who I've referenced several times on this blog as being most fun to watch when things are going badly. Also their coach is named "Lovie" and is just as huggable as he sounds.

* Detroit Lions - A cursed franchise! I enjoy a good franchise curse. Has the curse finally been broken? Too early to tell. But they're a team who plays dirty and is having trouble being unlikeable at the moment, so I'd give that curse at least a little more time.

* Green Bay Packers - A very, very old team in a very, very small town. One of the premier teams in the league. Their fans in Northern Wisconsin are known as "cheeseheads" because the area is famous for its dairy farms. Arguably the best player in the league right now is Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. I'd pick the Packers to win the championship this year.

* Minnesota Vikings - Another tortured fanbase! I don't recall the entire sad history, but I do know that two seasons ago their stadium roof collapsed under the weight of too much snow (the stadium was empty at the time) and their best player, a running back, is recovering from a torn ACL (knee injury). Another team rumored to possibly move to Los Angeles. At one time or another, every team has been rumored to be moving to Los Angeles. It's like a threat: Shape up or we'll move you to Los Angeles!!

* Atlanta Falcons - I don't know what it is about Atlanta, but their teams in all sports are always pretty good, and I still see them a blobs of beige. I apologize to Atlanta fans, but I know nothing about your teams and I have trouble even feeling bad about it. The best I've got is "Their quarterback is nicknamed 'Matty Ice' for reasons that aren't clear."

* Carolina Panthers - a relatively new team that lost to the Patriots a few years back during a Super Bowl best known for Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction. And now they have young quarterback sensation Cam Newton, which means just last year they were bad enough to earn the number one draft pick.

* New Orleans Saints - I have a special place in my heart for this team. One, they have Drew Brees, who went to my college, has been an exemplary citizen, and is just really fun to watch. Two, the team and the city were devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and it's been nothing short of miraculous to see what they've done since then. Three, they were one of the worst teams in the league for, like, 40 years. Now, they're rather scandalized because their defense is accused of purposefully trying to injure opposing players and paying bonuses for it - but there seems to be some argument on whether there is actually any evidence to back up this claim. All I know is I still love 'em. I choose to believe it's not true, for now at least.

* Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Their stadium is shaped like a pirate ship and when they score, they shoot off cannons. What more do you really need to know? Okay, as a bonus, I give you retired player Terry Tate.

* Dallas Cowboys - Probably the most famous team in the league. They are the richest team, have the coolest stadium, and often the biggest soap opera dramas. Their owner Jerry Jones is arguably more famous than any of the players. The Cowboys are always in the mix, but lately they've consistently fallen short.

* New York Giants - I thoroughly enjoy the Giants. Anything can happen at any time. You can win the lottery, you can end up in jail - and you won't know which is happening until the very last minute. Ladies and gentlemen: your defending Super Bowl Champs! They've already lost a game they were expected to win; they've got us right where they want us!

* Philadelphia Eagles - Some of the meanest, most passionate fans in American sports. Seriously, these fans once booed Santa Claus. Philly (the City of Brotherly Love) is a tough, tough place to play. Last year, they assembled what some called a "dream team" of star players... and they didn't even make the playoffs. Par for the course.

* Washington Redskins - Our team in the nation's capital. I'm sure they've been good in the past, but not while I've been paying attention. Their new quarterback is a twenty-two year old kid named Robert Griffin the Third, who could have been a world class hurdler but instead trained for football. They call him "RG3." His backup is former Super Bowl quarterback Rex Grossman, who I've heard some Redskins fans call "RG2." That is hilarious.

* Arizona Cardinals - Annnd we've reached the NFC West division, which has been painful to watch for several years now. Umm... Arizona plays on real grass, even though their stadium has a roof. The grass is wheeled outside during the day to get natural light and then wheeled back inside for the games. So that's pretty good, right?

* San Francisco 49ers - A team with a very rich tradition. Lots and lots of wins. They had two hall of fame quarterbacks in a row (Joe Montana and Steve Young). A former dynasty team. Now, they have the chance to be great again - they came within a dropped ball or two of the Super Bowl last year.

* Seattle Seahawks - The Seahawks as a team don't have a ton of interesting history that I know of, but their fans are amazing. Their outdoor stadium was specially constructed to maximize crowd noise down on the field, making it nearly impossible for visiting teams to hear each other. The last time the Seahawks were in a playoff game, the crowd was so loud that it registered on the Richtor Scale. And, at least according to Sports Guy Bill Simmons, they are underrated.

* St. Louis Rams - About ten years ago, they were known as "the greatest show on turf" - a powerhouse championship team that could score any time they wanted. Now... well, now they're finishing at the bottom of the league pretty consistently and have the honor of traveling all the way to Wembley in London to most likely get pounded by the Patriots. Their championship players retired and moved on, and they just haven't been able to rebuild as of yet. Rams receiver Danny Amendola actually helped host the BBC's Super Bowl coverage last season. Based on this alone, I drafted Danny for my fantasy team. Don't let me down, Danny.

Well, that's plenty for a first installment. If you watch only one game this week, watch Denver vs Pittsburgh Sept 9th 8pm EST - Peyton Manning's first game back from multiple neck surgeries and a year-and-a-half away from football. He's a hero and a treasure and I purchased many kleenex boxes for the occasion. There will be emotions.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Geography and Flirting with Sports Bigamy

I've made it no secret that I'm an unapologetic Indy-homer. I can't claim the insane provincial madness found in Boston or the SEC, but I enjoy hate-watching as much as the next girl. I giggled when Tom Brady got the safety in the Superbowl. Oh yes, I did, and I'd do it again. One of the best moments of 2012 was watching Duke lose to Lehigh (few things make me happier than watching Duke lose). And since I moved to Chicago, hate-watching Jay Cutler has become one of my favorite pastimes.

Perhaps this would be a good time to define the term 'hate-watch' - it sounds a lot worse than it is.

I don't wish injury or other bodily harm upon dear Jay - in fact, when he gets hurt, it ruins all the fun. I don't even necessarily enjoy watching him lose. To me, watching football is kind of like reading a comic book - it's just more entertaining when certain things happen to certain characters. When Eli Manning does ridiculous things to slay giants (lower case 'g'), it's hilarious. When Tim Tebow wins in the 4th quarter under insane circumstances, it's hilarious. When Jay Cutler's cranky face tells his coach to eff-off, that's hilarious, too.

This isn't necessarily how the term is used universally - but that's what 'hate-watch' means to me. I find Jay most entertaining when things are going a little sideways. It's nothing personal - I mean, he's from Indiana, how bad could he be? But as someone who is forced to watch the Bears every single week, I want to get as much enjoyment out of my experience as possible.

I've lived in Chicagoland since 2006 (ironically, the same season the Bears and Colts met in the Super Bowl). I've seen a LOT of Bears games. I've even met a few of the Bears players, which is very cool... except for the fact that it kind of shatters my comic book perception. They become real people instead of cartoons. It's really, really hard to hate-watch real people.

I go to a church in Chicagoland. Some of the Bears (including Coach Lovie) go to this same church. One of the players recently joined our church mid-week Bible study. As the official football fan of the group, I volunteered to host a preseason football party in which our group could get together and cheer on our new friend.

That's right. I hosted a preseason party for Bears fans. Furthermore, I watched ALL FOUR preseason Bears games. Four (4). I hate preseason. I typically weave around preseason like Frogger trying to cross the multi-lane highway. But not this year. The party was even fun. The Bears fans left my house CLEANER than it was before they came, and they even all brought food and refused to take it home with them (consequently, I'll not be buying tortilla chips until 2014).

And you know what else?

The Bears looked so good in the preseason that I drafted both Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall for my fantasy football team. And then promptly realized they wound be playing the Indy Colts THE VERY FIRST WEEK.

So now, friends, I find myself toeing a very sensitive line.

On the one hand is the team I grew up with, the team I've loved through thick and thin since the late 1980s. The team with the BRAND NEW SHINY QUARTERBACK ANDREW LUCK (who I've been keeping in bubble wrap in my local safe-deposit box, just to be safe).

On the other hand, I have the local team - with people I actually KNOW in real life, whose success could help me avenge my football honor (still bitter about losing my fantasy league by THREE POINTS to my husband last season; worst Christmas ever). Plus, when the Bears are winning, the locals are HAPPY. When the locals are happy, life just runs more smoothly, you know?

And then, if I had a third hand, there would be the Broncos. Peyton. Wonderful, beloved Peyton. I am not capable of rooting against Peyton and hopefully never will be. I went out of my way to draft the Bronco's kicker for my fantasy team, just to give myself another excuse to keep an eye on them (and because the thin mile-high air gives him a distance advantage).

I've always loved Drew Brees. Jim Harbaugh, my first childhood sports hero, is amazing with the 49ers. Aaron Rodgers isn't going to get LESS adorkable...

And suddenly I'm rooting for half the league and the season hasn't even started yet.

When your team is losing and you live far enough away that they're never on TV anymore and you don't even know half the names on the roster, it's easy to let the eye stray to seemingly more attractive pastures. The truth is, I like several players. But I only have one team.

The Colts are young, they're likeable, half of them are Stanford educated. One of them goes by the initials "TY" even though his real name is Eugene. They're worth going to a 3rd party establishment with satellite package to see. I know the Colts are still my team because when I snatched Andrew Luck as my fantasy backup, I did a shameless happy dance. I don't care if he wins. He's mine. And if my attachment to Jay Cutler starts growing too strong, I'll bench him out of principle. The guilt of bigamy isn't worth it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Olympic Cheatsheet, or Have You Hugged a Brit Today?

[For anyone who likes sports and geography and the tears of triumph/tragedy and NBC puff pieces and Britishy things generally speaking, we now present a disorganized list of things about the upcoming London Olympics.]

* I love how the Olympics creates a bubble where we can all can set aside the bigger problems of the world for a couple of weeks and just play games together. I want to gobble all of it.

* Beginning on a serious note, there are always a few countries in transition - civil war, border dispute, nations not recognized for one reason or another. But this doesn't stop the athletes from participating, bringing a bit of exposure and glory to their homelands. They wear plain uniforms, carry the five-ring Olympic flag, and if they win they hear the Olympic hymn in place of a national anthem. What a brave and lonely thing to do.

* The USA is sending more women athletes than men. While we're praising our own girls, let's also notice that every country participating in the games is sending women to compete this year. And it'll be a female fencing champion carrying the Stars and Stripes in the opening ceremony Friday night.

* Thanks in part to the popularity of THE HUNGER GAMES and Pixar's BRAVE, expect the archery competition to receive unprecedented attention. It'll be hotter than curling.

* Did you know the London Olympics is Michael Phelps FOURTH Olympics?!? He debuted as an infant in Sydney (2000), won medals in Athens (2004), destroyed everyone in Beijing (2008), and now in London he's poised to become the most decorated athlete in modern Olympic history (and maybe all Olympic history, I didn't find the records for the ancient victors). Who holds the 'winningest' record currently? This gymnast. This is starting to feel a bit like a 'girl power' games. *pumps fist victoriously*

* I've taken a poll of several Great Brits, asking what events they would most like to win. All of them (repeat: all of them) responded with some amount of despair about how they won't win anything (except maybe "queuing up on time"). I did eventually coax some confessions of hope in the areas of sailing, rowing, and cycling (note that it was a Brit who just won the Tour de France last week). I was surprised at the lack of enthusiasm for tennis, given Andy Murray's second place finish at Wimbledon a few weeks ago. I'm convinced it's all a psychological trick, since everyone knows the host nation always brings its A+ game. Let's all take a moment and hug a Brit today. I feel like they could use it.

* I think the Spanish are sneaky good at many more things than we give them credit for. Their basketball team gave us a heart attack during the gold medal game in Beijing. And then there's the the phenomenal success of their soccer and tennis players. Watch this space - at least in terms of developing athletes, the Spanish are doing something right. (Note: Sad to hear Rafael Nadal pulled out of the tennis competition, but this makes me ENTHUSED about cheering for Andy Murray. ANDY MURRAY!!)

* While we're on the subject of basketball, I predict here in the States we'll generally re-warm to LeBron a bit over the next couple of weeks - especially since Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh will be out of sight and out of mind (or, more accurately, Stateside nursing injuries along with 37 other players who should have been on our All Star team). One last basketball note: I loved this story on Luol Deng of the Chicago Bulls and his relationship with team Britain.

* Equestrian sports (aka LOOK AT THE PRETTY HORSIES!) are co-ed, as well as co-species. One of Britain's best known riders is a member of the royal family: Queen Elizabeth' granddaughter Zara. One of the USA's best known horses is partially owned by presidential candidate Mitt Romney's wife.

* Olympic mascots are creepy. They will always be creepy. That's the end of it.

* The Olympic soccer tournament is for kids under age 23 (though they allow a handful of older veterans on the team as well). The USA men did not qualify, but even if they did, I'm not sure it would have mattered. For Brazil, the Olympic soccer gold is something of a White Whale, forever taunting and eluding them. While many European countries seem to approach the Olympic tournament as little more than a novel training ground for their teams of the future, Brazil is likely to take it very seriously (and don't forget, Brazil is next up to host the Olympics in 2016... not that I'm still bitter about Chicago losing out or anything). I'll be rooting for team Great Britain and their funny uniforms, but if that starts to go south, it might be fun to see Spain continue it's tiki-taka reign of global domination.

* But don't forget, the USA Women's soccer team DID qualify (and won their opener on Wednesday 4-2 over France). After finishing second in the World Cup last year, they'll be crushed if they don't win their 3rd straight gold. Also, I predict every guy will crush hard on Alex Morgan (aka, the one with the pink headband). Also also, the British ladies won their opening game, getting that first pesky win out of the way for the host nation in the very first event. Watch 'em roll, world. *hugs Britain* *sings the 'Soft Kitty' song from BIG BANG THEORY*

* You think the USA Men's Basketball team has high expectations? Consider the women's team: "The Americans have not lost an Olympic game since 1992. Over the past 16 years the U.S. women have rolled up a 72-1 record in international competition, including four consecutive Olympic gold medals (1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008) and three World Championships (1998, 2002 and 2010). They went 8-0 in Beijing, where they outscored opponents by an average margin of 35.8 points." Yikes.

* The opening ceremonies are Friday starting at 7:30pm EST on NBC (tape delayed, due to the time zone difference). The theme is "Isles of Wonder", inspired by Shakespeare's play THE TEMPEST and promises to have everything you've come to love about Britain up to and including a sing-along with Paul McCartney and a cameo from Lord Voldemort. I've given the matter a lot of thought and I've decided I'd like to see Manchester United Manager, Sir Alex Ferguson as the torch lighter. It would be hilarious, and he could double as Lord Voldemort if the program starts to run long. Either way, be warned: If David Tennant isn't somehow involved, I'll be crushed and start questioning everything I've ever labelled as FACT.

* There are approximately 30,000 more games I haven't had time to appropriately research. For example, I think everyone should probably know about our track and field team including LoLo (hear that Black Eyed Peas? Her name is LOLO. With all due respect to FloJo, LoLo is more in your demographic). Also there is the ever popular gymnastics (both women's and men's). And swimming and diving and volleyball and handball and in 2016 they're adding GOLF.

* Click HERE for the full schedule. Or HERE. Or HERE if you prefer.

* Click HERE to stream things.

Now stock up on those delicious new Starbucks Refreshers and prepare to watch things happening in Greenwich Mean Time. GO WORLD!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

CHEATSHEET: EURO2012 Knockouts!

Won't someone watch EURO2012 with me? Please?? I feel like a lonely little American hoarding all the fun for myself. I don't really have a rooting interest. I don't even get to watch most of the games live (I stream the games here after work, and they're free OnDemand on Comcast right now, too). But I'm ALL IN on the EUROs. Here's a little context to help you enjoy the show:


Good news! The Group Stage is over, which is admittedly kind of a relief to American sports fans not used to this sort of point system. The tournament now advances into a more recognizable bracket format. If you lose, you go home. If you win, you move on. Simple as that.


Czech Republic vs Portugal
Thursday June 21st, 1:30 EST on ESPN

* The way I understand it, the Czechs have rather overachieved so far, so feel free to cheer for them as an underdog. One of their greatest assess is goalie Petr Cech, who plays for Chelsea, a London based team in the English Premier League. Chelsea just won the European championship a few weeks ago (I would liken this to the NCAA Football National Championship, if NCAA Football had a tournament instead of bowl games; please leave comments below if you have a better analogy).

On the subject of Petr Cech - you'll recognize him by his helmet. A few years ago, he suffered a scary head injury during a game and now he wears a helmet when he plays. He's a tough, tough cookie.

* I've said it before, I'll say it again: The Portuguese are a beautiful, beautiful people. Watch this game if nothing else for the eye candy. Portugal's best player Ronaldo is one of the two best players in the entire world (depending on who you ask). He's something of a villain, but I've discovered that when it comes to soccer, I tend to like the villains better than the heroes. Soccer is just kind of a douchy sport, so why not fully embrace the douchiness?

Portugal should be favored, Ronaldo should be the 'hero' - and if he isn't, they'll work him over LeBron James style. He's been a similar disappointment in national tournament situations thus far in his career, though pundits seem to agree he's more Kobe than LeBron.

Germany vs Greece
Friday June 22nd, 1:30 EST on ESPN

* For anyone who enjoys watching CNBC, CNN, or CSPAN, this is the match-up for you. Welcome to the EuroZone! This match is really happening. Repeat, this match is really happening. It seems to me to have near Archduke Ferdinand potential if it goes ugly early. Seriously - this match is actually happening.

* Germany more or less WALKED through the so-called 'Group of Death' (nickname given at every tournament to the group that seems to have the best teams in it, much like the toughest bracket in NCAA Basketball). Germany beat everyone while Greece squeezed its way through the easiest of the four groups. Expect flops, expect hard fouls. The first half will be must-see TV, but I wouldn't be surprised if the final score is 5-0 in favor of the very efficient Deutsch. But then again, you just never know (see: Greece's EURO2004 victory).

Spain vs France
Saturday June 23, 1:30 EST on ESPN

* Repeat after me: Tiki-Taka. Say it outloud, it's fun. Tiki-Taka. You will hear these syllables over and over again during this game. Tiki-Taka is the style of soccer the Spanish play, much like we'd reference a "West Coast Offense" in football or a "Triangle Offense" in basketball - at least, I think that's what it means - it may just be Spanish for 'boring'.

The Tiki-Taka Spanish make tiny little pass after tiny little pass, lulling competitors and spectators alike into a stupor before striking. Like a snake. And then winning. Like a snake. I can't decide if like the Spanish or not. They're also kind of beautiful. Like the Portuguese. And they're rather short, which makes them fun-sized. Roger Bennett from the Men In Blazers podcast jokingly refers to them as smurfs, which is especially smurf-fastic when they wear their blue uniforms.

* The French are a stylish bunch. I've enjoyed their uniforms, a dark blue with almost antiquey-distressed looking gold letters and numbers. I don't really know what else to say about them. I think this game will be awesome to watch, so long as the French don't let the Spanish sit on the ball the whole time. Blargh. Ooo, and also the drama of Fernando Torres. That is all you need to know about this game.

England vs Italy
Sunday June 24, 1:30 EST on ESPN

* I recently came to the realization that team England may be national soccer's equivalent of the Chicago Cubs. They have ludicrously passionate fanbase that always expects to lose - but they also always have astronomical aspirations - but then they get angry when they underachieve - but then, if they do happen to win by some miracle they go absolutely bonkers. At the moment, we're enjoying the bonkers. Cubs fans, you tell me: what comes next? Do they win a couple more before they collapse, or just hurry up and get it over with?

One thing in England's favor was that they came in with rather low expectations. New team captain, new coach, several star players out injured, and their best player suspended the first two games due to kicking a dude during qualifying. So far, the stars have aligned for team England. We'll see how they do against the Italians.

* I actually read somewhere in the days leading up to the EUROs that the Italians considered pulling out of the tournament before it started due to match fixing scandals in Italy tainting the team. It kind of set Italy up as a villain in the tournament, though the player I watch the most, Mario Balotelli, actually plays in England (and for all I know other players on the team do as well).

I think of it like this: Much the way college football has several different conferences (the SEC, Big 10, PAC-However-Many, etc), each European country has its own soccer league. The most famous is probably the English Premier League, but Spain, Germany, and Italy all have exceptional teams as well. The best few teams from each league play in a tournament called the Champions League each year to determine the best team in Europe (this year it came down to Germany's Bayern Munich and England's Chelsea, with Chelsea winning). Just as the SEC recruits players from all over the United States, these soccer teams recruit players from all over the world. Therefore, I'm not quite clear on how the Italian league's match fixing impacts these Italian players, but I digress.


A few more tid-bits submitted in a last-ditch effort to get you to watch these games with me.

* Fans in the stadium keep throwing flares on the field. Can you imagine what would happen if a fan threw a lit flare on a field here in the States? CHAOS WOULD ENSUE! In the EUROs? The players don't seem to care that they're running around in a cloud of white smoke. I've never seen anything like it. It's so rock star, like they're playing around dry ice. The first flare I saw was during a driving rain storm. Serious question to the fan who threw that flare: How determined do you have to be to throw a lit flare on a soaking wet field during a driving rain storm? WHAT ARE YOU HOPING TO ACHIEVE!?

* Also, soccer played in driving rain is awesome even without the addition of a flare. It's not like gridiron football where the field turns into a lumpy, muddy quagmire - it becomes a giant green slip-n-slide. So far these EUROs have had several rain games and I'd love to see more.

* Soccer fans sing and cheer like no other fans in any sport ever. They're so organized, so passionate and so creative, it's like a show within a show. If you watch an American sporting event, the only song you're likely to hear is "Bulllllll, S*******, Bullllll, S*******." (Note: Most of those *'s were meant to be "i's".)

* In the knockout/bracket stage of the competition there are no ties. Repeat: From this point on there will be no ties.

* The intro-animation, where we fly over Europe and see the crests of all the countries with the dramatic music is very cool and geographically educational. And we go in and out of the broadcast to the mystic sounds of Cold Play. Good production value over-all. ESPN has come a long way in their soccer coverage.

* Again, Greece vs Germany is actually happening. Maybe instead of flares they'll throw Euros (the currency) on the field.

The tournament goes through July 1st; it's not too late to jump aboard. Please?

Friday, June 8, 2012

CINDER and the Triumphant Return of PROJECT CINDERELLA!

Holy mackerel, I almost forgot about Project Cinderella! My writing buddy Em Lord mentioned in passing that she was reading CINDER by Marissa Meyer, and I kind of shrugged at first, until I remembered that Em has impeccable taste and I shouldn't be so snobby about seemingly 'girly' stories.

I read it. I liked it. It followed me around for several reasons we'll get in to later. But I must ask you: If the main character of this story had not been named "Cinder" would you still have identified this as a Cinderella story?


In an earlier Project Cinderella post, I broke down your Basic Cinderella story. Let's go through the checklist for CINDER:
* Kind young woman oppressed/abused by family (not blood related) -- CHECK.
* Charming Prince, looking for a wife, hosts a party -- SORT OF CHECK (It's more complicated than that, but there is a fancy dance, and the Prince's rapidly concluding bachelorhood is a factor.)
* Step-family cruelly prevents Cindy from attending the ball -- CHECK.
* Fairy Godmother, pumpkin, mice, rags-to-riches transformation including beautiful gown -- NOPE (though Cinder does work on an old orange car, probably better identified as a lemon)
* Fairytale magic that expires at midnight -- NOPE
* A trademark Cinderella abandoned shoe -- NOT REALLY
* And, last but not least, the Happily Ever After -- (CINDER is the first of a 4-part series, but I'm guessing we'll get there eventually.)

On the surface it does have some of the basic Cinderella elements, but the Cinderella stuff is rather secondary to a bigger world. In the original fairytale, the story all revolves around Cindy - we feel sorry for her, we root for her, we want her to improve her circumstances. We don't usually think a lot about what else is going on in the rest of the Kingdom. CINDER shows us a much richer world through a wide-angle lens, and it's the richness of the world building that keeps you turning pages, even when the plot is easily predictable.


CINDER is an example of an okay idea brilliantly executed. It wasn't the what, it was the how. I knew what was going to happen. The "plot twist" is a little too obvious, if I'm honest - almost to the point of eye-roll. But the amazing thing is that it doesn't matter. You know exactly what's going to happen, and you still can't put it down. Time and time again we see examples of this and I never cease to be impressed by it. It's not the what, it's the how.

And now for a few definitions:
* A person is a human.
* An android is a robot.
* A cyborg is a human with robot parts.

The character Cinder is a cyborg. As a result I spent the whole time thinking: "Gosh it's awful that she's has to suffer being part machine, geez it would be awesome to be part machine." Because of her machine integration, she's has access to all of this extra-sensory information. She gets a little warning light when someone is lying to her. She can access the internets just using her retina without anyone realizing what she's doing. And, to top it all off, she's a gifted mechanic, so she can fix her robot pieces if she breaks.

This is where the "shoe" element comes in. One of her robot parts is her foot, and it does seem to become occasionally detached from her body - but, she never leaves it behind for anyone to find (and thank goodness, I don't think I could have handled that level of cheese, good job by you Marissa Meyer!). Well... I guess she kind of leaves it behind (in an out of sight out of mind way) when she gets a better one. So maybe I'm speaking too soon?

Cinder lives in a futuristic world where humans have fought a fourth World War and there are mean people living on the moon. We as readers get to experience some of the history of this world, painting with much broader brushstrokes than we usually get in a Cinderella kingdom. The story has an Eastern flavor, taking place in New Beijing with a lot of colorful bits of culture sprinkled in (see the Prince's coronation ceremony and all the traditions built in). And, best of all, we get a better appreciation for the Prince because we understand his role in ruling his country AND where his country fits in with the rest of the world.


When I wrote about Cinderella before, I noted that while the story has evolved over the years, the character of Cindy has not. The biggest changes have been with developing the character of the Prince. CINDER did an excellent job defining Prince Kai's wants and motives in the scope of his royal responsibilities.
* His country is being ravaged by an awful plague.
* His father has just caught the plague.
* There is no cure for the plague.
* He will soon be the Emperor.
* AND, if that wasn't enough, he spends the whole book teetering on the brink of war with the mean people who live on the moon (who caused the plague in the first place).

The story is told in 3rd person, bouncing between three different points of view - probably 70% Cinder, 29% Prince Kai, and 1% the Doctor guy, who I guess is the equivalent of the Fairy Godmother in that he seems to have all the answers (and at the end he does facilitate a sort of transformation for our Cindy). The ~29% Kai gives us the keys to his motives - we know what he wants, we know why he wants it. We love him for it. We understand what is at stake for him. It's nice, actually - I would contend that the Prince character grows and changes more than Cinder does.

Cinder's character is pretty much the same at the end as she was at the beginning. She's learned a lot of new facts about herself and about the world, but they didn't really change her character. She was always brave, always kind, always mentally tough - and I think she knew all of that about herself. Deeper in the story, she makes different decisions based on the facts at hand, but nothing fundamental about who she is has changed. The Prince, on the other hand, is forced into a lot of iffy situations that test him - at the end of it all, he's proven a few things to his people, his enemies, and himself. He has a better handle on who he is and what he can handle than he did when the story first started. His character shows more development, more growth.

The characters are good, but not great.
There's nothing wrong with the plot, but it at times walks the edge of corny in its predictability.
The strength of this book is in the world building - you want to stare at it like something visual, drink in the sights of Asian inspired Sci-Fi - the jade and pink blossoms and archaic paper fans. It's tactile, the metal and the silk and the hovercrafts and the netscreens. And did I mention the mean people who live on the moon? Yeah, they're shiny and they can do mind magic. I just want to stare at it. It would make a phenomenal graphic novel. Or Pixar movie.


I would contend this is a David and Goliath story disguised as a Cinderella story.

Change the name of the main character from Cinder to Jennifer or Sarah. Take the shoe off the cover (which really, the shoe has nothing to do with anything anyway). Properly title her "step-mother" as her "guardian" or "foster mother" (and same with the "step-sisters").

All that stuff strikes me as mere marketing semantics - things that make readers say "ooo, Cinderella, I know what that means!" There's nothing wrong with that, but this story doesn't strike me as a true Cinderella retelling.

Cinder is a David, called upon to serve the crown with her mechanic abilities (much the way David was called upon to serve with his music). She ends up in a show-down with the leader of the mean moon people (her Goliath). There is no make-over transformation, but there are a few miracles. That's the big difference - Cinder stays Cinder, both inside and out. No magic dress, no glass slipper, nothing beautiful expires at midnight. At least, not yet.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

On LeBron James, Heroes, Villains, and Literacy

I've gotten used to giggling at LeBron James. I love when he misses free throws in clutch moments *giggle*. I secretly enjoy that he wears glasses that don't seem to have any lenses *giggle*. I even giggled along with the rest of the haters when I heard he was reading HUNGER GAMES during the downtime before tip-off. There was something hilariously childlike about it, playing perfectly into the cartoony narrative his life has become.

LeBron has ridden the full roller coaster of a superstardom. He's been a beloved hero, one of the best basketball players in the world. He's been an almost universally reviled villain, both for announcing to Cleveland he was dumping them and taking his talents to South Beach on national television - and then making things even worse by stating how easy it would be for Miami to win championships (not one, not two, not three...).

Yes, LeBron stabbed his home state of Ohio in the back, humiliating them on national TV during "The Decision."
Yes, LeBron (and friends) put on a remarkable display of hubris during the Miami Heat welcome party.
Yes, the whole thing seems cloaked in a haze of collusion and smells of stinky fish.
(Note to self: Find a more Zusakian way to describe this smell; no one describes unpleasant smells better than Markus Zusak.)

But that's all in the past and by now kind of beside the point.
The greatest sin LeBron James has ever committed is not living up to his potential.

Sports is just another branch of the entertainment industry. We love to build up our heroes, watch them fall apart, and then build them up again. It's the way a sports story is supposed to go, your typical hero's narrative arc. Just look at what happened to Tiger Woods last weekend. Just watch what happens to Peyton Manning this fall.
(Ugh, please oh please oh please let this work out for Peyton. *clears throat*)

Cowardice disgusts us. Tentativeness is frustrating. Having the talent and potential to be the best and falling short is forgivable - but making a pedestrian attempt at realizing greatness is not. When someone is born with a gift, he/she is expected to do everything possible to use it to its fullest. Anything less is a tragic waste. Even 'meets expectations' kind of sounds like failure.

I read a fascinating article in Sports Illustrated about Kobe Bryant and his father "Jelly Bean Bryant." The article seems to be saying that it is impossible to be both happy and great, and those blessed with tremendous talents must at some point make a choice.

In the weeks leading up to The Decision (when LeBron dumped Cleveland and took his talents to South Beach), "Sports Guy" Bill Simmons said that LeBron should sign with the New York Knicks because if he won in New York he'd become immortal. Instead, LeBron went to Miami to be on a team with his friends.

Happiness over greatness.

We say "Michael Jordan never would have buddied up with his rival."
We say "Kobe would demand to take the clutch shot, and make or miss, it would be on him."

Perception creates reality. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have chosen to be great - but do we think either of them are happy? Does happiness negate the drive to be great? Does it mean that you're satisfied with 'good enough'? LeBron seems always to exist in the general neighborhood of great, but he never quite crosses the border. They say he lacks that 'killer instinct' that all the great ones have. Our perception tells us that it's a choice. Maybe it is.

If I had a child, and that young impressionable child were in the market for a role model, would LeBron be a bad choice? He's made mistakes, true. He's shown remarkable immaturity at times, true.

When I saw him on TV reading MOCKINGJAY during his pre-game warm-ups, I giggled... but my heart softened toward him just a bit.

To me that moment was real.
Unplanned and unplugged.
And I couldn't stop thinking about that picture.
I'm used to seeing athletes focus before games by blaring music through huge noise cancellation headphones.
I'm not used to seeing athletes shut out the world behind the pages of a paperback bestseller. Why his copy of MOCKINGJAY is paperback when the other two books were hardback I don't understand, but there you go. As far as I know, LeBron has the corner on the NBA reader market.
I say: Good for him.

It's not unusual for athletes to have hobbies that help expand their "brand" - they put out rap albums, appear in cameos in movies or in commercials, or put their names on fashion lines (like shoes). But it always revolves around their identities as athletes, as though they have no time or inclination toward developing further dimensions to their personalities.

It was cool to see one of the premier athletes in the world reading. Not for a photo-op, not with an agenda - but reading because he wanted to. I giggled, but I was also intrigued. The ESPN guys discussed how reading has become a part of his routine - they even gave us a list of what LeBron has been reading lately (my personal favorite: WHO MOVED MY CHEESE). There is something truly endearing about seeing him with a book in his hands with the cover clearly identifiable for everyone to see (as opposed to using some techy e-reader, on which for all we know he could be reading one of those Shades of Gray books).

Something about that image makes me want him to turn things around. Somehow it tells me that if I had a kid in the market for a hero, he might not be that bad.

Maybe he can (in time) be forgiven for whatever sketchy circumstances surrounded his leaving Cleveland. Maybe we can rally around him and Team USA in the Olympics and cheer together when/if he leads the team to gold. Maybe - just maybe - he could be the one guy to figure out how to balance greatness and happiness. Is it wrong to root for that, just a little? Is it wrong to want to see if it can be done, even if the guy who gets there upsets a lot of people along the way?

The narrative on LeBron James is starting to shift. However, the narrative on the Miami Heat is not.

In my perfect world, the Heat lose and the Celtics move on to the finals. LeBron has several weeks off to rest and regroup. And then he completely owns the 2012 Olympics. I feel like that would be the perfect way to claim his place of 'greatest' - that's what the Olympics are for. That's one time when we can all wrap ourselves in the stars and stripes and enjoy the ride together.

Then, in my perfect world, the powers that be would blow up the Heat (whose original construction was about as glorious as the Borg from Star Trek). LeBron would go somewhere else, ANYWHERE ELSE, and be reborn into what he was supposed to be all along. Then, when/if he does finally cross that line into greatness, we'll all be able to feel good about it. Any maybe, just maybe, we'll be able to prove false the idea that greatness and happiness have to be mutually exclusive.

I hope it's false.
Against all odds that little blue copy of MOCKINGJAY made me hope.

Monday, May 28, 2012

CHEATSHEET: Please Give EURO2012 a Chance

Passion is contagious. Sure, there has to be a 'patient zero' to get the ball rolling, but if you spend time with someone who is really passionate about something, it's hard not to develop at least a little appreciation for whatever it is.

I fell in love with Harry Potter because I caught the passion from my little brother.
I fell in love with college basketball because I caught the passion from my parents.
And I fell in love with international soccer when I lived in London during the EURO2004 tournament.

In summer of 2004, Team England went deep into the tournament, losing in the 'final four' in overtime penalty kicks (that's when I first learned who David Beckham was - he's the one who kicked the turf instead of the ball). No one I spoke to that summer wanted to talk about anything other than the EUROs. Luckily for me, the English were patient enough to share their passion with me, to explain it to me so I could be excited about it, too.

After watching the various soccer tournaments over the last eight years, I think I've figured out why Americans haven't embraced this particular brand of "football":

1. The best players don't play in America. They play in Europe, which means the important games tend to happen between noon and 4pm EST, when most Americans are at work, or at ungodly hours of the morning on weekends, also not overly helpful. ESPN airs games live anyway, and also stores several of the games on their ESPN3 website so you can stream them later.

2. The best players aren't Americans. However, a handful of Americans have started trickling in to the limelight. Landon Donovan and Tim Howard have both been popular players for Everton (a team in Liverpool). And Texas's Clint Dempsey was quietly the 4th highest scorer in the English Premier League this season for Fulham (that's kind of like having the 4th most touchdowns in the SEC, not too shabby).

3. Your average American has never had someone explain the context of how some of these tournaments work (thus, the complaints about games ending in ties).

Number Three is what I'm going to try to work on here. America, we dig the Olympics, right? We like watching the best in the world, and we like watching nations compete against each other. But now hear this:

The Olympic soccer tournament will feature the world's JV teams.
The real world-class players will be playing in EURO2012 instead.
You can watch any and all of these games here.
Repeat, you can watch any and all of these games and they will be streamable at your convenience. America, we are running out of excuses.


The EURO tournament is held every 4 years, like the Olympics or the World Cup. Each country in Europe selects its best players for their team (think the USA Basketball Dream Team). In the years between tournaments, all of the national teams in Europe compete in various qualifier games until only the best 16 teams remain. These 16 teams are divided into 4 groups (Group A, B, C, and D).

This is when the tournament turns into something of a chess match. Each win is worth three points. Each tie is worth one point. The two top scoring teams from each group advance to the next round. If teams have the same number of points, they use 'who scored the most goals over the course of the group stage' as the tie-breaker. Note: Sometimes you want the tie for strategic reasons, depending on how the math works out. It can be a fun way to screw your opposition.

After the group stage, it turns into a format more recognizable to Americans: single elimination brackets, much like the NCAA tournament. No more ties. At this stage, they'll go to overtime and possibly shootouts, much like hockey to determine a winner. They'll keep going through the bracket until a single winner is crowned. By the way, the World Cup works the same way, except they have more groups during the Group Stage.


Maybe you are an American of Italian heritage and want to support Italy. Maybe you had an awesome vacation in Germany once and want to support der Deutsch. Maybe you're a huge fan of those Dragon Tattoo books and want to cheer on Sweden. Maybe you go by uniform (the Dutch wear bright orange uniforms, and Croatia wears a groovy checkerboard style). I'll probably follow team England (even tho they're kind of seen as haphazard villains), and hope against hope Cinderella Team Ireland has a good showing, Quidditch World Cup style.

Czech Republic - Goalie Petr Cech plays for European Champion team Chelsea (which plays its home games in London).
Greece - Won EURO2004, same year as Athens Olympics.
Poland - Host nation.

GROUP B **GROUP OF DEATH** (the hardest group to win)
Netherlands - Best player is Robin van Persie, most goals in English Premier League this year - came in 2nd in 2010 World Cup.
Portugal - Best player is Cristiano Ronaldo. Generally speaking, the Portuguese are a beautiful people.

Ireland - Cinderella team, great fanbase, Captain Robbie Keane plays in America for the LA Galaxy.
Italy - Mario Balotelli, he once set off fireworks in his own bathroom.
Spain - They won EURO2008, probably favorite to win it all again this year.

England - New coach and new captain, kind of scrambling to put itself together. Best player Wayne Rooney is suspended for the first two games due to an altercation during qualifying games.
Ukraine - Other host nation.

Games begin June 8th. The tournament concludes July 1st. Choose your favorite European Nation and give it a chance. There are no commercial breaks. You know exactly when the matches will start and end. It's all shockingly convenient. I'm telling you, my fellow Americans, we are out of excuses. Catch EURO fever, you won't be sorry. Unless you get attached to a team and then see them lose in heartbreaking fashion. Then that will suck. But it will still be worth it.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

GIVEAWAY: Signed Copies of Divergent and Insurgent

I have a copy of DIVERGENT and a copy of INSURGENT to give away, each signed by the lovely and talented Veronica Roth. I will give them BOTH away to some lucky person on MONDAY, MAY 21st. If you'd like to enter to win, just leave a comment below and tell me you feel like a winner.

I haven't finished INSURGENT yet, but here were my thoughts on DIVERGENT from last year (with minimal spoilers). It's one of my favorite books, and Veronica is one of my favorite authors. These books were signed at Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville (a Chicago suburb), where more than 200 people lined up to see Miss Veronica, an even balance between middle school/high school aged kids and old people like me. Veronica read to us from chapter eight of INSURGENT, took several questions, and then probably signed her name until around midnight to accommodate the line.

Veronica appeared last week on the TV show WINDY CITY LIVE (which, here in Chicago took Oprah's old timeslot). In this clip, she provides a little insight into the story and answers questions kind of like she did at Anderson's. This is my attempt at giving you the full book signing experience.

So go ahead and comment below, must be at least 13 years old to win, contest open internationally. Random number generator will select one winner from everyone who comments (including both Blogger and Facebook). Good luck!