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.