Wednesday, October 30, 2013

BOOK STUDY: Someone FINALLY YA'd the Pimpernel

That someone is Diana Peterfreund, and that book is ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA.

I've been studying THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL for about 15 years. I feel like I qualify for at least a Masters in Pimpernel. I've been WAITING for an excuse to throw down a thesis-length book study on it, and FINALLY, here's my chance! Let's unpack the lineage of the Pimpernel story and see where ACROSS THE STAR-SWEPT SEA fits in.



* A love/adventure story (actually a series of stories) written by Baroness Orczy in the early 1900s.
* A great idea poorly executed for over 100 years.

The great idea: At the beginning of the French Revolution, French actress marries rich Englishman. She's blackmailed into spying on the English aristocracy in hopes of unmasking the man (known as The Scarlet Pimpernel) who's been rescuing French citizens condemned to the guillotine. She helps the revolutionaries set a trap for the hero only to discover that the Pimpernel is her husband. Basically, it's a ancestor of BATMAN if Bruce Wayne were married, hiding his identity from his wife, and working with an Ocean's Eleven-esque group of buddies to fight crime. (Clooney would be Percy, Brad Pitt would be Andrew, and Matt Damon would be himself.)

The original story was told from Lady Marguerite's perspective, building up to a reveal of "Luke I am your father" or "Bruce Willis is dead in the Sixth Sense" proportions. The tension building up to her discovering the identity of the Pimpernel is real and still valid a century later. But as the story has evolved, new renditions have gone with a strategy of "screw it, let's tell the story from Percy's perspective instead - no point in pretending people don't know who he is." Percy goes more places, sees more things, interacts with more people, and is in the thick of more action. Centering the narrative around him is a solid decision every time.

The Poor Execution: Each interpretation of the story has had its problems. For one, everyone struggles with where to begin (a legitimate question for all storytellers), and evolving this text over one hundred years seems to have only exacerbated the issue. Do we start with when Percy and Marguerite meet? Or when Percy decides to take on the dual identity and start saving people? Or when Chauvelin starts his manhunt? Or somewhere else? The middle of the story (with the espionage and deceit) provides solid bones, but good gracious, the endings! There's a reason you haven't seen a lot of remakes of CITIZEN KANE (they got it right the first time), but there are several versions of the Pimpernel. We're still waiting for someone to stick the landing on the dismount.


To appreciate the level of difficulty for Peterfreund's rendition, you need some understanding of the versions that came before.

* Baroness Orczy's original series. Rough beginning. It takes several rambling chapters to establish the conflict, build the world, etc. The two main characters, Marguarite and Percy, don't get ANY "screen time" until chapters five and six respectively.

Solid middle, building fascinating relationships (Marguerite & Percy; Percy & Andrew; Marguerite & Chauvelin; Armand & Marguerite; Chauvelin & Percy; Percy & Everyone; and my favorite Marguerite & Andrew). Each relationship is built on real, believable conflict. Marguerite & Percy have an estranged marriage for reasons that unfold as we go. Marguerite and Chauvelin were friends, but now she is the object of his blackmail and her brother Armand’s potential executioner. Andrew is caught between Percy (his best friend, to whom he’s pledged his undying loyalty) and Marguerite (his best friend’s wife, a damsel in distress, who must be treated with the utmost chivalry, even if she is trying to deceive him).

The original ending is really, really rough - like, it ends with the Pimpernel disguising himself as a Jewish cart owner and having the revolutionaries beat him up because he's Jewish. It also features an unrealistic reconciliation between Percy and Marguerite, which makes me think that the good Baroness mistakes starry-eyed hero worship for love. Discovering that Percy was a hero shouldn't have been enough to forgive his actions, especially given that their relationship was supposedly based on him idolizing her. Rather, discovering his true identity should have been a opening for dialogue between them and led to something deeper. If you ask me, that ending couldn't have been chucked into the shredder fast enough.

* Movie version from 1934 staring Ashley from GONE WITH THE WIND as Percy. Already the narrative has shifted from Marguerite to Percy, and the opening scene shows him in the midst of a perfectly executed rescue mission. We get to see him switch between his Pimpernel mask and his ‘court idiot’ mask – and that true self that exists in the small moments in between. A very good rendition that gives us more insight into the relationship between Percy and his cohorts. As in the original text, we’re a little unclear on exactly how (or why?) Percy and Marguerite ever became a couple in the first place, so the romance feels a little forced. At the end, Percy is captured by Chauvelin and bravely faces a firing squad, knowing that it is his own men (led by his right-hand-man Andrew) behind the guns. The end feels flat compared to the rest of the story (and how about that FAINT!), but it’s still a vast improvement over the original.

* Movie version from 1982 staring Doctor Quinn as Marguerite and Gandolph as Chauvelin. Peterfreund states in her acknowledgements that this is the authoritative version she turned to, and with good reason. Believable backstory as to why Percy and Marguerite became a couple! A (newly conceived) love triangle between Percy, Marguerite, and Chauvelin! Sword fights! One of the things that made this version more fun was that it melded together the original Pimpernel story with another of Baroness Orczy’s novels (ELDORADO) to produce a much richer text. But while this version of Percy might be the most like the Baroness’s original description (drolling speech, heavy eyelids, just generally a bit lazy and irritating), I prefer my Percy to ramble quick words and then pause while everyone listening goes… what? Like…

* Broadway version 1997. Ohhh Douglas Sills. I first became aware of the Pimpernel’s existence because I saw Douglas Sills perform “Into the Fire” on the Rosie O’Donnell show after school. I’d never heard of it before, but this snippet was enough to make me go WHAT IS THIS WHAT IS IT? Broadway did a phenomenal job of churning up the humor and heartbreak of the story, but it focused almost exclusively on the love triangle. At least we still got a sword fight at the end.

* There was also a BBC mini-series in the late 1990s. It’s on NetFlix. The second episode made me laugh. Let’s move on.

The point is, the last 100 years has proven that there are a LOT of different ways to tell this story, and we have yet to find THE BEST way to arrange the given puzzle pieces. That’s why what Peterfreund did was so cool. She went back to the original text, dug in, found some elements that hadn't yet been explored, and then added her own unique flavor.


First of all, Peterfreund pulled the old gender swap-a-roo. She presents the Percy character as a girl (which begs the question, what if Paris Hilton has been fooling us all along?). Percy became Persis (short for Persistence, which I doubly enjoyed because it reminded me so much of “Paris” and it also sounds kind of like the plural for "purse"). The Marguerite character is transformed from a famous actress into a guy from a famous family. Chauvelin, Armand, Andrew, even the Prince of Wales – every guy character becomes a girl (except, I guess Tony might be the equivalent of Tero?).

Secondly, the story finally advances beyond the French Revolution period. Peterfreund built a really cool futuristic sci-fi South Pacific sort of world with Albion on one side of the sea and Galatea on the other. (Because all I think about these days is soccer, it reminded me of WBA and Galatasaray.) The world building was complex and full – it actually took me a couple of chapters to get my bearings (which makes me wonder what the experience would be like for someone unfamiliar with the Pimpernel story? Probably easier). While aristocrats were beheaded via guillotine in old France, in Galatea, they lost their minds due to forced medication. Another smart (and terrifying) idea from Peterfreund.

Thirdly, and probably the biggest obstacle to making a YA Pimpernel story work – Peterfreund found a way to force “Percy” and “Marguerite” together without them being married. She didn't utilize the love triangle plot that had become such a staple of the story over the years. She dreamed up enough alternate tension to keep the story interesting without it.


If you go way, way back to the original Orczy text and read the world’s initial introduction to Percy, you’ll find an almost throw-away line about where Percy came from. His father was wealthy, his mother was mentally ill – and because Percy looked more like his mother, it was no surprise that he was stupid, too.

Of course, playing stupid was all part of the game for Percy, just as it is for Persis, a blond, stylish, gossipy, high school dropout. But Peterfreund took that throwaway line about Percy’s mother and made it the driving engine of her plot. Persis’s mother is ill, which makes her more compassionate toward those being tortured with the mind-numbing medication. She also knows that she may have inherited her mother’s illness, which makes her reckless. No romantic motivations needed. A very smart addition.

Marguerite became Justen (a less obvious name indicator, which made me a little sad), the descendant of a famous doctor and a promising medical student himself. Medical issues (or maybe more specifically, the interaction of technology and the body) are woven through the entire story. Persis experiments with different genetic engineering codes for her disguises (not unlike some futuristic version of polyjuice potion). When one goes wrong, Justen the Medic is there to provide first aid. A clever meeting, different enough that I momentarily forgot that I sort of already knew where the story was going.

Justen requests asylum in Albion in order to conduct research without interference from revolution (and it's granted due to his famous name). Asylum in this instance means "stay at Persis's house" and thus Peterfreund is able to keep the espionage tension alive. While Percy turns on Marguerite after she denounces French aristocrats to the guillotine, Persis turns on Justen once she learns that he played a part in developing the drug being administered to aristocrats.

Just as the original Percy was closely associated with the Prince of Wales, Persis is best friends with the Princess of Albion - the difference is, this time the Princess knows Persis's secret. Peterfreund's book focuses a LOT more on the political risks. The Princess is caught between keeping her own country from following the Revolutionaries' lead and also keeping her moral compass. Albion has a quaint little thread of "women can't inherit stuff and have limited rights," which also plays along nicely with maintaining 'The Wild Poppy's' cover ("when they expect nothing of you, they never see you coming"). Galatea, on the other hand, had always had a proper Queen, so seeing a female Chauvelin strikes no one as weird. There's even some Orczy source material to use for inspiration. A smart, well-crafted villain.

It was surprisingly refreshing that Peterfreund killed the love triangle and instead made the Chauvelin character and Justen like siblings. It was as though Robespierre was Chauvelin's father, he adopted Marguerite and Armand, and then raised them all together like a happy little revolutionary family. I'd reached a point where I thought the love triangle was so ingrained in the story that it HAD to be included, but I was wrong. In this case, it was much better without it.


Peterfreund comes the closest to sticking the dismount that I've ever seen (and my quest to find the perfect Pimpernel ending goes so deep that I've even seen "Pimpernel Smith" smuggling people out of Germany during WWII). The Chauvelin equivalent captures Persis (ala Orczy's ELDORADO, in which Percy is deprived of sleep until he starts to lose himself). Persis is similarly in danger of losing her mind due to the Revolutionaries' drug - but the Armand character switches the medicines at the last second. Much like Sir Percy Blakeney before her, "Persis Flake's" greatest skill is maintaining and rewarding loyalty.

I like endings that have momentum behind them. For example, at the end of BACK TO THE FUTURE Doc Brown says, "Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads." When they soar off into the clouds, you know that the story continues, even if you can't see it.

Unlike previous Pimpernel renditions that attempted to give us resolution of conflict, the end of ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA felt like the beginning of something. A vast, vast improvement. This is a fun book, but it's a smart book at the same time.


Over the past 100 years, Andrew (my favorite character) has slowly been written out of the story. I would argue that the original book was almost as much Andrew's story as it was Percy or Marguerite's. He has at least twice as much "screen time" as Percy. He's chippy, he's loyal, he's swoony-in-love, he has a hot temper, and he's the first person we know for sure is involved with the Pimpernel rescues. He doesn't even seem to be hiding it - and in just about every version, there is a scene in which Marguerite wonders aloud if Andrew might be the Pimpernel. He's an amazing character, and yet with each new version he's increasingly diluted. He was completely cut OUT of the 1997 musical version, which is probably one of the reasons it had such a singular focus on the love triangle.

The fact is: Percy Blakeney as presented in Orczy's first novel wasn't a very likable character (she has to fool us readers as much as Percy's fooling Chauvelin and the members of the court). And so, to make him more heroic and worthy of hosting the main narrative (Save the Cat?), Andrew's characteristics were slowly shuffled in his direction and best friend status granted to someone else. Seeing him pushed to the background makes me very sad - so when the very first scene of ACROSS A STAR-SWEPT SEA showed Persis and "Andrew" working as a team, I was so hopeful... but the interplay I wanted happened between Persis and the Princess instead. It was good, but I'd still love to see Andrew pulled back into the limelight.

Peterfreund got so many little things right that it's obvious she did her homework - Persis drives too fast, has a ship called the Daydream, the distinctive laugh, the lighthearted nature. The tone was appropriate, but I would have liked more sense of humor. The Pimpernel is best when the Pimpernel is funny. This book is by no means dour or brooding, but it didn't make me laugh out loud, either. It got a little repetitive at times - we know Justen feels bad about his role in developing the drug, we don't need to be reminded - just little things like that. But she used her artistic license with great success, and for that she's to be congratulated.


This is an outstanding rendition, and I'm so glad I read it. But, there is still room for someone to land a perfect Pimpernel. If there are other versions out there I might have missed, please let me know. We all have our quests, our White Whales. This just so happens to be mine.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Greatest Compliment Peyton Manning Ever Received

Colts 39, Broncos 33.

This game was about the relationship between a player and a city. It was more of a ceremony than a game, one the fanbase sorely needed. We needed this chance to say thank you. We needed Peyton Manning to know how much we love him.
And the love radiated.
Peyton came home to the stadium he built in the city he redefined. The site where his brother won a Super Bowl during the season he missed. He played in front of an incredibly intelligent crowd - one he trained himself.
And the Indianapolis Colts - the team and the fans - gave him the best of our best.
For the first time EVER, Indy fans unleashed a wall of noise while Peyton possessed the ball - and the TV cameras were smart enough to zoom in on the crowd during that first snap to show how the crowd RELISHED that opportunity. The fans seemed to be saying, "Look! We remember what you taught us. You made us what we are. We want you to be proud."
It felt like a playoff game - the team, the crowd, everyone giving their best for the best.
Obviously, tonight Peyton would have preferred to leave with a win - but in the long run, hopefully he'll appreciate the legacy he left behind. When he came here, the Indianapolis Colts were perennial losers with TV blackouts. Over the course of fourteen years, he literally wrecked his neck dragging us out of the muck. Tonight, we got to show him that we're good stewards of all he gave us. We didn't fall apart, we didn't roll over. He made us better, and we won't forget. We gave him all we had and rose to the occasion.
What better compliment could we give?
He deserves nothing less than our best.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

CHEATSHEET: Preparing for the English Premier League Invasion - Part 2

English Premier League play begins on NBC this Saturday (August 17). Twenty teams will start the season. Thirty-eight games later, three will be relegated out of the league, four will qualify for the Champions League tournament to crown the best team in Europe, and one will lift the first place trophy.

Meet your cast of characters: [cue the Dating Game theme]


1. Manchester United
Overview: Probably the most recognizable soccer "brand" in America, Manchester United is known for winning everything. A lot of people compare them to the old school New York Yankees, throwing money around high-dollar stars, but they don't hold the monopoly on that market anymore (see: Chelsea, Manchester City, the nation of Spain). By the way, just as a reminder, ManU is owned by the same people who own the Tampa Bay Bucs. I'm surprised every time I remember that because these things are not overly similar. ManU is fun to root against, but I struggle to see them as pure evil, especially since I watched the BBC movie UNITED on streaming NetFlix, about how the team was nearly destroyed by a plane crash in the 1950s. This movie stars David Tennant as the coach who kept the team going, so Doctor Who fans, stream away!
Notable Players: Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Javier Hernandez (known as 'Chicharito')
Color: Devil Red.

2. Manchester City
Overview: A hard luck team recently acquired by a very rich owner (as Roger Bennett would say, 'Oil money solves a lot of problems'). They stole the 2012 title from their arch rivals (ManU) on THE LAST KICK OF THE SEASON after spending decades living the Chicago Cubs experience, and then their fans stormed the field NCAA-style. What else do you need to know? Well, you could say that they took a rather Miami Heat mercenary approach to getting it done. But I don't judge.
Notable Players: Joe Hart, David Silva, Sergio Aguero.
Color: North Carolina Tar Heel Blue

3. Chelsea
Overview: I like to think of Chelsea as the LA Lakers. They're a fashionable team in a fashionable area of London, and they just seem to find a way to stay in the conversation. They have a coach who's back for his second term with the club (Phil Jackson style) - and this coach even invented his own nickname: The Special One. Chelsea is another team with an extremely rich owner (any time you get the chance to type the words 'Russian oligarch' you HAVE to do it). He's owned the team for 10 years, Jerry Jones style, hiring a new manager more or less every season (I've been following EPL for two years and have already seen four different guys in charge).
Notable Players: All of the players. Just all of them.
My favorite player: Fernando Torres, known in my household as the Iberian god of sadness. So talented, so shy and unassuming, so perpetually sad.
Color: Blue - like Indianapolis Colts blue.

4. Arsenal
Overview: I hate Arsenal. I can't even explain how it started, but the more time I spend studying them, the more they reminded me of the New York Knicks. Very passionate fans, proud tradition. They have a grumpy old French coach who wears a puffy coat (NBC keeps showing a clip of him struggling to zip the zipper and it still hasn't lost its funny). Their team logo is a cannon. As much as I hate to admit it, that's pretty badass. There was a time when Arsenal went on a 49 game win streak and earned the nickname the Invincibles. They have a bitter rivalry with their London neighbors Tottenham Hotspur that dates back 100 years. If you're bookish by nature, pick up FEVER PITCH by Nicholas Hornby, a delightful read about his experiences growing up with Arsenal (and a lot of poignant observations about sports fanhood in general).
Notable Players: A lot of people who transferred to Manchester United, and a lot of people who will soon transfer to Manchester United, assuming ManU wants them.
Color: Chicago Bulls Red.

5. Tottenham Hotspur
Overview: The Spurs are my team of choice. I tried to avoid it, but the gravitational pull was too strong. They're a London team, but they don't strike me as fancy (when compared to Arsenal or Chelsea). Their manager is Andre Villas Boas (AVB), a rather good looking Portuguese man who is only about 35 years old. (Note: there seem to be a lot of very attractive people in European futball.) NBC has been promoting the living daylights out of their upcoming soccer coverage, including a 30-min special with short introductions to each team. I can't find a link to a video right now, but it taught me that Tottenham gets its name from a royal knight that later became a character in a Shakespeare play (very classy). I did find a link to an NBC video thing comparing my Spurs as the Knicks. This makes me furious. Also, they've been showing this a lot.
Notable Players: Gareth Bale (please Lord, let him stay; he's phenomenally good and he looks like Schmidt from New Girl), and until recently American team captain Clint Dempsey, who just accepted a gig in Seattle.
Color: Lily White

6. Everton
Overview: I wanted to be an Everton fan. Really, I did, and they still have a special place in my heart. They're a "moneyball" type of team that always seems greater than the sum of their parts. Founded in 1878, they have NEVER been relegated out of the top league. But, the plot thickens: their long-time manager just accepted a job with Manchester United, ushering in a new era that has yet to be defined (and possibly a new rivalry?). Everton is located in the city of Liverpool, home to the Beatles and also their arch rival, Liverpool Football Club. Everton and Liverpool's stadiums are about one mile apart, separated only by a park.
Notable Players: American goalie Tim Howard, Marouane Fellaini (the one with the big, curly hair).
Color: Another team wearing Indianapolis Colts Blue.

7. Liverpool
Overview: Much like ManU, they're team with a proud tradition that's really fun to hate (they were ManU before ManU was ManU). Take every Boston area team (the Patriots, the Red Sox, the Celtics, the Bruins) and squish them together - because Liverpool is owned by the same group who owns the Red Sox, and thus seem to carry a similar vibe. Last season, they starred in a "Hard Knocks" type reality show called Being Liverpool, which featured a scene showing the baseball and soccer players in a very awkward interaction facilitated by former Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine. I wish I could find a YouTube clip of this, because trust me, it was scrumptious. Liverpool used to win everything, but lately, I've rather enjoyed watching them finish 6th or 7th. They have an amazing fanbase, who are best known for belting out their team anthem: You'll Never Walk Alone.
Notable Players: Luis Suarez (who has been in trouble more than once for biting other players), Steven Gerrard, long time player for Team England.
Color: Red Sox Red.


8. West Brom
Overview: "West Brom" is short for West Bromwich Albion. To be honest, I don't know a lot about them. I think they may be the best of the middle, like an NFL team that finishes 8-8 every year. They're nicknamed 'The Baggies' and they have a trademark celebration in which they BOING BOING (it reminds me of the Wisconsin Badgers "Jump Around" thing).
Color: Blue and white stripes.

9. Swansea City
Overview: I'm fond of the Swans, the first Welsh team to play in the English Premier League (note, Wales has its own league, but some Welsh teams choose to play in the English leagues instead). For the first time in history, both Swansea and their bitter Welsh rival, Cardiff, are in the Premier League. They're a team on the rise, one I'm looking forward to seeing more of.
Notable Players: Michu (winning at most adorable name), Michel Vorm
Color: White and black

10. West Ham
Overview: West Ham, known as The Hammers, is an east London team in the process of moving in to the Olympic Stadium (where Paul McCartney led the world in a Hey Jude sing-along in 2012). Their anthem is 'I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles' and the fans actually blow bubbles all over the place as part of their celebrations. It's worth tuning in just for that; the bubbles look pretty awesome in HD. Back in the 1960's, West Ham was home to many of Team England's best players. Lately, however, the Hammers have been rebuilding. They were promoted to the Premier League in 2012 and enjoyed a pretty solid first season back.
Notable Players: Andy Carroll (the big dude with the long hair)
Color: Sort of a red wine with sky blue sleeves.

11. Norwich City
Overview: Norwich is another team I'm still getting acquainted with. They were promoted very quickly (in successive seasons, I believe) - like an entire baseball team going from Double-A to Major League in two years. They've got a distinct look and flavor, but I don't think I've ever seen them play. It's something I'm looking forward to this fall.
Notable Players: I'm not familiar with his work, but they have a forward on their roster named Ricky van Wolfswinkel. I need to know more.
Color: Bright green and yellow, sort of a Brazilian vibe.

12. Fulham
Overview: I'm not sure why Fulham isn't more popular. Their stadium is RIGHT on the Thames in London, a stone's throw from Chelsea. Until recently, they were owned by the guy who owns Harrod's department store (famous for being able to get ANYTHING). A few months ago, the new owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars bought up Fulham (and keep in mind, the Jags also signed a multi-year deal to play games in London for the next several seasons). Could there be some sort of Fulham/Jax cross-promotional efforts in the works? I kind of hope so. Also, they have a rather famous Michael Jackson statue outside their stadium. Even before they had an American owner, Fulham seemed to be one of the more American friendly teams. Team USA Captain Clint Dempsey was one of the top goal scorer's in the league his last year there.
Color: White and black

13. Stoke City
Overview: I like Stoke, if for no other reason than "STOKE" is s strong name for a team. They keep bringing in American players (which is kind of unusual in Europe). Regular listeners to Grantland's Men in Blazers know Stoke as the home of "Quarterback Style" - a hilarious reference made by a British TV commentator, when he described how American Geoff Cameron did throw-ins. It's kind of hard to explain, but the point is this: when Geoff Cameron does something good, it's fun the shout QUARTERBACK STYLE at your television. By the way, JK Rowling fans, Stoke City's known as the "Potters".
Notable Players: Team USA's own Geoff Cameron, Brek Shea, and Maurice Edu. Also the very tall Peter Crouch.
Color: Red and white stripes

THE UNDERDOGS (aka The Relegation Zone)

14. Southampton
Overview: Southampton is probably best known for being the port from which the Titanic sailed. The soccer team is nicknamed the Saints, and their anthem is 'When the Saints Go Marching In,' so New Orleans fans, take notice.
Notable Players: Rickie Lambert!
Color: Red

15. Aston Villa
Overview: Villa is a team with a proud tradition who seem to have under-achieved lately. They're from the Midlands of England (Birmingham, birthplace of Top Gear's Richard Hammond), and until recently they were owned by the same guy as the Cleveland Browns (these things may be a bit similar - seeing as how both teams were QUITE respectable a few decades ago).
Notable Players: American Goalie Brad Guzan, Christian Benteke
Color: Wine and blue, distressingly similar to West Ham's.

16. Newcastle
Overview: Newcastle, known as the magpies, basically looks like an entire team of NFL referees running around the field. Two years ago, they were flirting with the Champions League. Last year, they barely escaped getting relegated. ANYTHING could happen!
Notable Players: Basically everyone from France
Color: Black and white stripes

17. Sunderland
Overview: The only thing I know about this team is that they just acquired America's Jozy Altidore. Please excuse me while I consult Google: Their home field is called "The Stadium of Light" (excellent name); they're located somewhere near their arch rival Newcastle (good, good); they're nicknamed 'The Black Cats' (fits nicely with Newcastle being the Magpies - cat vs bird).
Notable Players: American Jozy Altidore
Color: Red and white stripes

18. Cardiff City
Overview: The other Welsh team, newly promoted to the Premier League! Everything I know about Cardiff I learned from watching Doctor Who (they film the show in Cardiff, therefore they've had several episodes that take place there). They're known as the bluebirds, but their new Malaysian owner decided red was a luckier color. Thus, their uniforms are now red.
Color: Red

19. Hull City
Overview: Some teams are known as 'yo-yo' teams, meaning they're in and out of the Premier League on a fairly regular cycle. Hull is NOT one of these teams. They're known as the tigers (perhaps a match for Bengals fans looking to suffer in a second sport?). They also feature a father and son pairing - Dad Bruce is the manager, Son Bruce is a defender.
Color: Amber and black stripes.

20. Crystal Palace
Overview: The third newly promoted team, Palace is from London. They actually got their ticket to the Premier League after a thrilling playoff that went to overtime in the mother of all venues, Wembley Stadium. After winning what's known as 'The Richest Game in Football' (because of the huge boost in revenue that comes with playing in the Premier League), Palace's coach said: "We're in the Premier League! God help us..."
Color: Half blue/Half red

Take your time, get a feel for what you like. A team is for life! Choose carefully.

Monday, August 12, 2013

CHEATSHEET: Preparing for the English Premier League Invasion - Part 1

On August 1, I took my parents and my husband to watch what amounted to an exhibition soccer match in Lucas Oil Stadium with about 41,000 of our closest friends (including my cousin Katie who provided these pictures - thanks Katie!). We were there to see Chelsea, one of the world's elite soccer teams, all the way from London, dressed in the same blue as everything else in the Colts' stadium. Their worthy opponent: Inter Milan from Italy. One thing was immediately clear: the home crowd LOVED Chelsea. Most of us were there - in Indianapolis - specifically to see them.

Maybe it was the color, maybe it was Chelsea's marketing team successfully drumming up interest here State-side. Either way, brace yourselves sports fans: English soccer is coming.

Close your eyes and think of college football. There are more than 100 Division I teams, but only 25 at a time are 'ranked.' Teams are scattered around the country such that it's hard to find a community without an allegiance.

Now shift your mind to baseball. Players move up and down through Major League, Triple-A, Double-A, and "A." Teams date back to the 1870s/1880s. If you look at a map of the destruction caused by the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, you'll find the 'White Stockings' field nearby.

Now mentally squish these images together. Throw in a dash of NFL physicality (minus the pads) and NBA speed (minus the height). Make the clock count up instead of down, and remove all timeouts and commercial breaks.

You're almost ready for the English Soccer Experience.

* Last year, NBC bought the rights to show 380 English Premier League games. Games start on August 17th and run through spring (long past the end of NFL season). Most of them will be on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and since soccer games can end in ties, you'll always know EXACTLY what time they will end (an underrated perk of being a soccer fan). And just LOOK AT THIS SCHEDULE! Most of the games begin at 10am EST, the perfect time to ease into the day with a cup of hot tea.

* Soccer in England is broken into four levels: The Premier League (20 teams), The Championship (24 teams), Division One (24 teams), and Division Two (24 teams). Kind of like our baseball system, no?

* NBC is televising games between the 20 Premier League teams. They'll play each other twice (home and away), for a 38 game season, roughly one game a week.

* At the end of each season, the bottom three teams in the Premier League are sent down to the Championship, and the top three teams in the Championship take their place. Imagine the Cubs or Royals being sent down to Triple-A (the TEAMS instead of individual PLAYERS) and then having to earn their way back.

* Note that it is specifically the "English" Premier League. England has its own league. So do Scotland, and Spain, and Germany, and several other countries (including America's MLS, which we share with Canada).

* You know how every March, we watch the NCAA basketball tournament, featuring (X) teams from the Big East and (Y) teams from the Big Ten, PAC-howevermany, mid-majors, etc? The best 68 teams from the various conferences compete and typically Duke or Kentucky wins? In soccer, the equivalent is the Champions League - the top four teams from England qualify, the top few from Spain, and Germany, Russia, Turkey, Belgium, France, etc, and they play to crown the best team in Europe.

* Behold, the League Table, which not only tells you who's winning - it tabulates points, wins, losses and so much more. A win is worth three points, tie is worth one, and a loss gives you nothing (kind of like hockey). Points are most important, but goal difference matters. If you CAN run up the score, you probably will.

* Here is a MAP showing where all of this season's English Premier League teams are located. For the first time in league history, two of the teams are in Wales.

* But keep in mind, whenever anyone says "for the first time in league history," the English Premier League as it's currently organized was founded in 1992. This general soccer system has been in place for over 100 years, but the league did some refreshing and rebranding - and it exploded globally as a result.

* Six of the twenty English Premier League Teams are owned by Americans.
* Don't have the time to research which of the 20 teams is right for you? There are some cheatsheets available below to help you get started. Just keep in mind that, thanks to promotion and relegation, the league CHANGES EVERY YEAR. This isn't annoying, it's part of the drama - like characters coming and going on Game of Thrones!

You can look here and here and here and here to get started, but I'll post my take on the 20 Premier League teams in part 2. When in doubt, you can always just cheer for the elite American players (for example, goalie Tim Howard plays for Everton, Jozy Altidore just signed with Sunderland, and Stoke City has a couple of Yanks, as well).

* Here is NBC's EPL schedule so you can PLAN. Soccer isn't just coming - it's already here.

Monday, July 29, 2013

My Day at the 2013 Gold Cup Final

On Sunday July 28th, the United States defeated Panama to win the 2013 Gold Cup. What is the Gold Cup? A soccer tournament held in odd-numbered years to crown the best national soccer team in the hemisphere (North America, Central America, and the Caribbean). This year, the final was held in Chicago, so the husband and I hauled our cookies to Soldier Field in the name of Klinsmann and Country.

The honest to goodness truth is that (at least this year), Team USA did not field its first-tier team for this tournament; players like Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard got to spend the month of July fishing and napping. Instead, Coach Jurgen Klinsmann brought in second team players he wanted to audition for his World Cup campaign next year in Brazil. This was hardly disappointing, since the second team contained the most fascinating narratives going in US soccer this year. For example:

* Landon Donovan - the golden boy of American soccer relegated to the second team after taking voluntary leave of his sport for reasons that have still not fully been explained. Was he simply burned out and exhausted? Or, as some have speculated, struggling with depression or other mental illness? Or, like I've heard once or twice, just behaving like a 'flaky Californian'? Whatever inspired the face of American soccer to just walk away, he needed to rediscover his fire. He stepped away and lost his spot on the team. Could he prove that he wanted it back?

* Stuart Holden - with a great personality and even better hair, Stu (number 11 above) was an American star in the making - the kind of guy that even soccer agnostics would gravitate toward. Unfortunately, his career so far has been a Greek tragedy of freak injuries and set backs. After missing more than two years of action, Stu was named to the Gold Cup squad, and the people rejoiced. Could his bad luck finally be behind him? Would he finally get the chance to live up to his potential?

* Chris Wondolowski - the leading scorer in Major League Soccer (MLS, America's domestic league). Conventional wisdom has historically indicated that only the guys who played in Europe could compete in the elite tournaments. Landon has played in the top tier in England, as have Brek Shea, Geoff Cameron, Stuart Holden, etc. Several guys have played in Germany - hell, several guys were BORN in Germany (to United States soldiers stationed overseas). Team USA also has several guys who play in Mexico's soccer league, such as Hercules Gomez. But what about the guys who play their entire careers here in the States for MLS? Can home-grown, home-developed players contribute to the National Team in a meaningful way? 'Wondo,' a gentleman of Native American Heritage (Kiowa, to be specific) is challenging old perceptions and changing how we view our local league - but would he force his way onto the first team?

* Jurgen Klinsmann - our coach and fearless leader, German by birth but American by choice. Since Jurgen got this gig, there have been stories of dissension in the ranks and bad chemistry in the locker room. Going in to the Gold Cup Final, Team USA was on a healthy winning streak - but did this mean that Jurgen had finally figured things out? Was he really the man to take American soccer to the next level? And why in the world did he get suspended for spiking a soccer ball during the match prior to the final? Why did he even HAVE a ball to spike?

It was a perfect Chicago summer day - about seventy degrees, overcast sky, the water of Lake Michigan was a picturesque deep blue with a fresh, lovely breeze, and Lake Shore Drive was as adorable as ever with its 40mph speed limit. Traffic was thick with our fellow patriots headed to the game - we could see the flags and the Team USA jerseys - so much red, white, and blue that it might as well have been July 4th instead of July 28th. We felt a sense of community, and it was glorious.


This was our fifth time attending an event at Soldier Field, so we should have known better, but no. Once again, for a fifth consecutive time, we did not allow enough time to get to the stadium, park our vehicle, get INSIDE the stadium (a sneaky-big time suck), and find our seats before the event started. To make it even more ridiculous, we'd expected to get there in time to tailgate in the parking lot with all of the other fun people (like the guy dressed as Captain America flitting from party to party no doubt getting free samples of all of the delicious things we smelled cooking as we sprinted toward Soldier Field's West Gate).

The point is - at least where Soldier Field is concerned - allow at least three times more time than you think is even remotely reasonable. Chicago has fantastic sports fans, but there were still several of us who missed the first kick of the game trying to get inside. We missed the pregame activities. But we're sure they were moving.

When we found our seats, about 7 minutes had passed, and the score was (thankfully) still zero to zero. Team USA was in blue, Panama was in red. Our first order of business - get the lay of the land. Landon was easy to spot, as were Stuart Holden and Kyle Beckerman. We saw that the Team USA goalie had a full head of hair, so that immediately made us feel a bit uneasy. The man sitting next to me had an American flag in his lap, ready to wave it in celebration, but he was frustrated with the boys ("They're inbounding the ball too slowly, they need to stay on their feet," etc). He seemed to know what he was talking about. In front of us, there was a dad with his son and daughter (both of elementary age). They seemed new to the game, and they turned around to ask us a few questions, but it didn't dampen their enthusiasm. The people behind us were dressed as Uncle Sam and, I guess, Auntie Sam? Our section was electric, chanting and laughing the entire game.

Everyone we saw that day - from the parking lot to the stadium - was as cheery as the weather. We saw fans from Mexico and Columbia, in addition to the sizable contingent from Panama. But the crowd was overwhelmingly American, and about as diverse and enthusiastic as you can imagine. The entire day was a gigantic party.

Until about twenty minutes in.

Stuart Holden collided with one of the players from Panama, then writhed on the ground, clutching his knee. The stadium went quiet - I'm not sure how many people in the stands knew his story, but I didn't hear one spectator profess any disgust at soccer players "flopping." We found out later that poor Stuart had torn the ACL in his bad knee. He spent the rest of the game in the locker room, but limped out for the victory celebration. His teammate Omar carried him on his back for their victory lap around the field, and the team saw to it that he received his medal first. Heartbreaking stuff. For now, Stuart's story is to be continued...

Stuart's injury put a damper on the the remainder of the first half. Coach Jurgen was tucked away at the very top of the stadium like Rapunzel or somesuch. The game was still tied at zero, and things were not going overly well. Panama as a team looked like they just wanted it more.

But NO ONE looked like they wanted the Gold Cup more than Landon Donovan. He was all over the place, playing more defense than we expected (but what the hell do we know?). It was interesting to watch him move around the field - an opportunity we'd never had before, since the TV camera follows the ball most of the time. I've had my share of giggles at Landon's expense over the years, but in this game, Landon chose his spots like a chess player, sometimes crossing half the pitch to play defense, even if there seemed to be another player much closer. Sometimes he charged, sometimes he stood still, watching like a point guard, and I wished I was sophisticated enough to understand what I was seeing. Regardless, I was impressed.

About seventy minutes into the game, Landon got the ball in front of the goal, and the blond mullet of Brek Shea made sure it counted.

Team USA celebrated, and the crowd at Soldier Field exploded, hoping the game would blow wide-open now that one ball had found the back of the net. Could they score one more? Three more?

Well, they scored zero more. Panama was NOT a bad team. Their goalie won the award for best keeper in the tournament, even though Team USA didn't make him work overly hard. The game got a little chippy at the end. Brek Shea broke up a fight one minute, only to receive a shot to the back of the head a moment later. As soon as the 'end of game' whistle blew, Brek knocked his nemesis to the ground (even though they were right at midfield), and my husband giggled. The lesson, as always, don't screw with Brek Shea's hair.

A stage was hastily constructed, lovely ladies in blue dresses carried out the trophies. Team USA jumped and danced together, put on championship t-shirts, and took a victory lap around the field, clapping in the direction of the fans, perhaps thanking the nearly 60,000 people who filled the stadium to cheer them on. Panama accepted their silver medals, then vacated the premises. Landon Donovan and Chris Wondolowski each got a share of the 'golden boot' trophy (the award given to the player(s) who score the most goals during the tournament), even though Wondo didn't play in the final. Landon won the equivalent of the tournament MVP award, and Soldier Field chanted his name. At the moment, he seems to have made it virtually impossible for Jurgen to leave him off the World Cup roster.

Then the confetti canon erupted, shooting out tiny bits of shiny blue and gold paper that swirled in the lake breeze and scattered all around the stadium. Several pieces reached us, and I put one gold confetti piece in my pocket. By the time I got home, it was gone - just like the bell from Polar Express. But at any rate, I learned that confetti canons are underrated. The camera does not do them justice.

So, we drifted out of the stadium on a cloud of victorious euphoria. Chants of USA followed us out to the parking lot (and one gracious American honored a group of Panama supporters with a cheer of 'Viva le Panama!' which was greeted by a cheery laugh). People weren't in a big hurry to leave (Chicago sports fans are pros - we all knew full well that there was no point in hurrying, since the traffic wouldn't allow us to leave quickly anyway). Some kids set up make-shift goals in the parking lot. Some fans turned their grills back on for a lake-side tailgate dinner. Music blared, and the party continued, even though the tournament was over. Chicago has fantabulous sports fans, but soccer fans are special. Win or lose, it's a community I'm proud to be a part of.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013


SUNDAY FEB 3, 6:30pm EST (CBS)

Here's everything you need to know to enjoy the Super Bowl, and a few things you could probably live without.

  • Your national anthem will be brought to you by Alisha Keys, not Beyonce.
  • Beyonce will be performing the halftime show. I've heard rumors that Jay Z (her husband) and Justin Timberlake will also be involved. And there may be lip-synching, so just LIGHTEN UP, people.
  • The commercial cheatsheet can be found here. So glad someone else took the time to do that.
  • The game will be played in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans. The Superdome was completed in 1975; it covers 13 acres and is 27 stories tall. This will be the Superdome's 7th Super Bowl, and it's first since it acted as a shelter of last resort for ~30,000 New Orleans residents during Hurricane Katrina. Other NOLA Super Bowls were in 1978, 1981, 1986, 1990, 1997, 2002, and now 2013.
  • The 49ers have won five Super Bowls since they were founded in 1946: 1981, 1984, 1988, 1989, 1994, with quarterbacking legends Joe Montana and Steve Young. They have never lost a Super Bowl game.
  • The Ravens have won one Super Bowl since they were founded in 1996: 2000. They too have never lost a Super Bowl game.
  • From 1953 to 1983 Baltimore was home to the Colts. The Colts moved to Indianapolis, leaving Baltimore teamless for more than a decade. Then, in 1996 the Cleveland Browns relocated to Baltimore and were renamed the Ravens, a reference to famous resident Edgar Allen Poe's famous poem. The man who owned the Browns/Ravens at the time of the move was Art Modell, who died last September. The Ravens wear a black patch with his name 'ART' on their uniforms to honor his passing. (Note: The Cleveland Browns were brought back to the league as an expansion team in 1999.)
  • Ravens defensive player Ray Lewis is retiring after the Super Bowl and will join ESPN's studio. He was one of the first players the Ravens drafted in 1996 when they moved to Baltimore. His first career sack was on Jim Harbaugh, when he was quarterback for the Colts.
  • The 49ers play in Candlestick Park, an old combination baseball and football field. In October of 1989, the stadium hosted a World Series game that was delayed by an earthquake. The San Francisco Giants eventually lost the series.
  • British tennis player Andy Murray won his first major tournament, the epic US Open Championship against Novak Djokovic, during the Ravens first game this season (Monday Sept 10, 2012). Last weekend, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic played again for the Australian Open Championship, only this time Andy lost. I only bring this up because I wonder if Andy Murray and Joe Flacco may both be animagi, and thus, their fates may be cosmically linked. Also, I love Andy Murray.

  • John Harbaugh is the coach of the Ravens. Jim Harbaugh is the coach of the 49ers. The two are brothers; John is 15 months older. Their parents' names are Jack and Jackie, and they also have one sister, Joani (who is married to Indiana University basketball coach Tom Crean). The two brothers shared a bedroom until John left for college.
  • Jim and John Harbaugh have coached against each other once before - last Thanksgiving, when the Ravens beat the 49ers 16-6.
  • Jim Harbaugh (age 49) played quarterback for the Michigan Wolverines and also played in the NFL for fourteen years (6 years for the Chicago Bears, 3 years for the Indianapolis Colts, 1 year for the Baltimore Ravens, and 1 year for the Carolina Panthers). Jim took the Colts to the AFC Championship game in 1995 and came within a dropped Hail Mary of the Super Bowl. He left the Colts the year they drafted Peyton Manning. He also coached current Colts QB Andrew Luck at Stanford University.
  • John Harbaugh (age 50) played defense in college for Miami of Ohio.
  • John Harbaugh was the quarterback of his high school football team until Jim beat him out for the job.

  • Joe Flacco (quarterback) is 28 years old, originally from New Jersey. He spent two seasons as a backup for the University of Pittsburgh before transferring to Delaware (the Blue Hens), a division I-AA (smaller) program. Because he transferred, he had to sit out a year, give up his scholarship, and pay his own way (~$30,000). There is speculation (by me) that he may be in the midst of a Freaky Friday episode with Eli Manning.
  • Ray Rice (running back) is 26 years old. He's from New Rochelle, NY, and he attended Rutgers (which is in the process of joining the Big 10 conference).
  • Anquan Boldin (receiver) is 32 years old. He's from Florida and attended Florida State University.
  • Michael Oher (offensive lineman) is 26 years old. He's originally from Memphis, attended college at Mississippi, and the movie THE BLIND SIDE was based on his experiences.
  • Ray Lewis (defense) is 37 years old. He's from Florida and attended the University of Miami. He's the face of his franchise, retiring after the Super Bowl. He tore his tricep earlier this season, and fought to come back to finish the year. He's been playing with a brace that makes it look like he has a cyborg arm. Ray is not without controversy, but gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps (who is from Baltimore) credits Ray Lewis with encouraging him to compete in the 2012 London Olympics (during which Phelps became the most decorated Olympian of all time - or, at least modern times, since the Ancients' records are not available).
  • Ed Reed (defense) is 34 years old from St. Rose, Louisiana, which is about 17 miles from the Superdome in New Orleans. He attended the University of Miami.
  • Bernard Pollard (defense) is 28 years old, from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Some New England Patriots fans have a superstition about him being their team's kryptonite, because over the years, he's been involved in plays that have resulted in injuries to key Patriots players (Brady, Welker, Gronk, and last week, Ridley). I like him because we went to Purdue at about the same time, and my knees are fine, thank you very much.

  • Colin Kaepernick (quarterback) is 25 years old. He's originally from Milwaukee, played college football at Nevada, was drafted as a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, but he decided to stick with football instead. Since becoming a 49er, he's started seven games and won five of them (the first game was against the Chicago Bears on November 19th).
  • Alex Smith (quarterback) is 28 years old, originally from Seattle, played college at Utah, and was the 49ers number one overall draft pick in 2005. He's been the 49ers starter since he was drafted, but he hasn't played since November, when he suffered a concussion against the St. Louis Rams and Kaepernick replaced him.
  • Frank Gore (running back) is 29 years old. He's from Miami and attended the University of Miami. The league fined him $10,500 for uniform code violations (wearing his socks too low) during the NFC Championship game two weeks ago against the Atlanta Falcons.
  • Michael Crabtree (receiver) is 25 years old. He's from Dallas, attended Texas Tech, and he had at least one encounter with basketball coach Bobby Knight, back when he was still a two-sport athlete.
  • Mario Manningham (receiver) is 26 years old, and he attended the University of Michigan. Last year, he won a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants, and actually caught the critical pass from Eli Manning to set up the win. He's currently injured, so he's not playing this weekend, but he should still be eligible to collect another ring.
  • Randy Moss (receiver) is 35 years old. He's from West Virginia and went to college at Marshall. He holds the single season touchdown receptions record from his 2007 season with the Patriots (the year they won every game except the Super Bowl). This is his first season with the 49ers.
  • Vernon Davis (tight end) is 28 years old. He's originally from Washington DC and attended the University of Maryland (which is in the process of joining the Big Ten conference. He was a studio art major, and has since opened a gallery for emerging artists.
  • Justin Smith and Aldon Smith (defense) are jokingly referred to as the 'Smith Brothers,' though they are not related. Justin is 33, Aldon is 23, and they both played for the University of Missouri.

  • I want Alicia Keys to nail the National Anthem, and make it happen in 2 minutes or less.
  • I want lots and lots of images of New Orleans during the broadcast, full of all the flavor and character showing how far they've come and how much they've rebuilt. Also, I want to have plenty of time to admire the flashy colored lights that they installed outside the stadium post-hurricane. Basically, I want to go back.
  • Part of me wants Jay-Z to do the halftime show with Beyonce... and part of me wants him to save it for next year, when the game will be in New York and he and Alicia Keys can do "Empire State of Mind" as part of that show instead. I'm not particularly excited to have Timberlake back... unless he performed with Jimmy Fallon... now THAT would pique my interest. The last time the Super Bowl was in New Orleans, it was just a few months after September 11th, and they called U2 to do the honors - for my money, that's a tough act to beat.
  • Not that I want anything bad to happen to Kaepernick - but I want to see Alex Smith take at least one meaningful snap. I feel like he's earned it.
  • Most of all, I want to see my Harbaugh, Captain Jimmy Harbaugh, finally get a ring. And please, let it not be in a sloppy, nasty, boring fashion. They said during the Pro Bowl (yes, I watched the Pro Bowl - and no, I'm not proud of it) that the last time the 49ers played a Super Bowl in New Orleans was in 1990 and they beat the Denver Broncos 55-10, or something gross like that. They also pointed out that, at the time, Colin Kaepernick was two years old.

So I'll be cheering for the 49ers, and also for the game itself. The older I get the more I realize that I'm rooting for players more than teams anyway.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

2013 NFL CHAMPIONSHIP CHEATSHEET: Flacco stole Eli's Mojo

Last weekend's playoff games were epic, from what I've heard - but since I didn't see most of them, I'll blissfully pretend they never happened (cough-Denver-cough). This Sunday we have two Conference Championship Games: four teams have the chance to advance to the Super Bowl in New Orleans with Beyonce. (And by the way, how in the hell did Timberlake get invited back to the halftime show? Did everyone forget what happened last time? If he tries to pull anything this time, will Jay-Z have him killed? So much potential drama and we haven't even gotten to the football yet.)

San Francisco 49ers vs Atlanta Falcons - 3pm, FOX (in Atlanta's dome stadium)
Baltimore Ravens vs New England Patriots - 6:30pm, CBS (outside in the Boston winter elements)


Atlanta Falcons
They finally won a playoff game. Lord knows they tried to lose, but the Seahawks insisted, "No, please! We've played the 49ers enough for one year!" I watched this game in an airport bar (in the South), and it was funny because EVERYONE was cheering for Seattle. Everyone. And as I realized that no one wanted the Falcons to win, I also realized that I had no idea who their coach was. I mumbled aloud, "What's his name, what's his name, the one who looks like John McCain..." And then Seattle's coach Pete Carroll called a timeout to "freeze the kicker" and everyone laughed. So in conclusion, I only remember a coach's name if a) they've been associated with the Colts, or b) they produce an aura of hilarity. So high-five, Coach Who Looks Like John McCain - I don't know your name, and that's probably a compliment.

Baltimore Ravens
Last year, a reporter interviewing Eli Manning asked, "Do you consider yourself an elite quarterback?" When Eli said 'yes,' the football media exploded with laughter and debated his merits for weeks. Next things we knew, Eli had a second Super Bowl ring, and no one was laughing anymore.

This year, a reporter interviewing Joe Flacco asked, "Do you consider yourself an elite quarterback?" When Joe said 'yes,' there was a quiet combination of chuckle-and-headshake before everyone moved on with their lives. Next thing we knew, Eli missed the playoffs, and Peyton Manning's dream comeback season was ruined by the bloodthirsty Ravens.

Coincidence, or the clear work of a wizard-animagus? You be the judge.

New England Patriots
They're baaack! Part of me thinks it would be fun to see them go to the Super Bowl and lose it again, in hopes their legacy would go the way of the 1990's Buffalo Bills.

San Francisco 49ers
Kaepernick'd (v): To lose one's job to a backup as the result of suffering an injury. Example: Christian Ponder was NOT kaepernick'd by Joe Webb.

I'm developing a sports-crush on Colin Kaepernick. I get why Harbaugh loves him. He seems like a great kid, he's a two sport athlete (he was at one time a pitching prospect for the Chicago Cubs), and he's a flat-out joy to watch if you're an impartial observer. But that doesn't negate the fact that the 49ers are a prime targets for an epic sports-karma curse.

49ers quarterback Alex Smith was the number one pick in the 2005 draft (the same draft as Aaron Rodgers, a Bay Area native, who fully expected to be taken instead; one might argue that Smith has since been a victim of the Curse of Aaron Rodgers, but seeing as how the Packers just lost to the 49ers, it's lost most of its steam by now - apparently just a 'seven years bad luck' type of thing).

Since entering the league, Alex has been skewered and jerked and smashed and boo'ed. He's had multiple coaches thrust upon him, making for a consistently unstable (and arguably incompetent) team. His career has been miserable, and he was declared a bust years ago. But he stayed classy, always doing everything he was asked. Last year, his savior arrived: Coach Jim Harbaugh, a former quarterback who understood him, who had been through many of the same career struggles and pitfalls. Harbaugh rejuvenated Alex's career, and together, they got within a goofy special teams performance of the Super Bowl.

This season, the reborn Alex was well on his way again - until he was sidelined with a concussion. Harbaugh started Kaepernick instead, and here we are. Alex Smith got kaepernick'd.

For reasons I still can't explain, the sight of Alex Smith used to make me irrationally angry. I wanted him to lose, I enjoyed watching the slapstick drops and fumbles. When Harbaugh joined the team, I had an existential crisis, wanting Harbaugh to win and Alex Smith to lose when they were both on the same team.

Now, when they show Alex on the sidelines, fully healthy and capable of playing and winning, I want the Disney ending for him. The Ballad of Alex Smith hasn't been fully written yet. He'll probably go to another team, and he'll probably do well. Will he leave some sort of hex behind? Will we wonder what he could have been - if he'd had a stable situation the last seven years, if he'd not gotten hurt, if he'd insisted on playing despite his injury? As much as I want the 49ers and my beloved Coach Harbaugh to win it all this year, I suggest we continue to watch this space.


Atlanta Falcons vs Baltimore Ravens

New England Patriots vs Atlanta Falcons
And thus I'm forced to root for Matty Ice to have as many Super Bowl wins as Peyton, thus further perpetuating the comparisons and driving me to give up sports and go live in the wilderness with no shoes.

San Francisco 49ers vs New England Patriots
This would be the glamor match-up. Big names, big teams, high ratings, and a higher likelihood of the Patriots losing again on an international stage. *delighted hand-clasp*

Baltimore Ravens vs San Francisco 49ers
The coach of the Baltimore Ravens is named John Harbaugh - he would be Jim Harbaugh's brother. Coach Harbaugh East versus Coach Harbaugh West with eternal family bragging rights on the line. If it were up to me, this is the match-up I would choose.
  • A prologue of brotherly love (in which I can pretend they're talking about Mannings instead of Harbaughs - and by the way, Indiana University basketball coach Tom Crean is their brother-in-law, too; the Mannings need to up their game, stat).
  • A final Ray Lewis dance (complete with cyborg arm) before he retires and joins ESPN's studio crew.
  • The possibility of a million sad cutaways to Alex Smith on the sidelines, as he silently wishes broken bones upon Colin Kaepernick so he can once, JUST ONCE, be the hero and get the recognition he deserves. I can't fathom how he would feel if he got a consolation Super Bowl ring whilst holding the clipboard, heaping insult upon his injury. That ring would probably be hurtled off the Bay Bridge at one in the morning - and goodness hopes it would be an accurate throw, not off his back foot.
  • Joe Flacco continuing to channel his inner Eli (because for me, all football eventually circles back to the Manning Family).
  • In the end, I rather like the idea of Jim Harbaugh getting a ring. He's been close twice, once with the Colts and last year with the Niners. Enough flirting, Captain; get the job done this time. And I hope Andrew Luck's in attendance to celebrate with his old Stanford coach, just to take the season full-circle.
The Super Bowl is Sunday Feb 3 at 6:30EST on CBS.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


I downloaded Ransom Riggs' e-book after hearing sparkly reviews (and finding out that Riggs is a cohort of Tahereh Mafi's). But once I'd finished and attempted to digest it, I realized the majority of my joy at reading this book was inspired by the vintage photographs and my delight at discovering they weren't just CGI creations for the book, but rather relics that Riggs had accumulated through collector friends.

From the Acknowledgements section at the end of MISS PEREGRINE'S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN: "All the pictures in this book are authentic, vintage found photographs, and with the exception of a few that have undergone minimal postprocessing, they are unaltered. They were lent from the personal archives of ten collectors, people who have spent years and countless hours hunting through giant bins of unsorted snapshots at flea markets and antiques malls and yard sales to find a transcendent few, rescuing images of historical significance and arresting beauty from obscurity-and, most likely, the dump. Their work is an unglamorous labor of love, and I think they are the unsung heroes of the photography world."

These photographs take reader from the realms of mere 'reading' to full-fledged 'experiencing' the story. They add depth and help you get lost in the world Riggs is building. But what if the photographs weren't there? Would I still have enjoyed the story? Would I have been as easy-going about story elements that normally rub me the wrong way? And how different would the reading experience have been if I'd had the hard cover book instead of the electronic version?

So, now that I've mentally removed the photographs from my e-book, a little text analysis...

* I loved the mystery of trying to piece together Grand-dad's past - from when he was a young Jewish boy escaping Nazi-occupied Poland, to when he was the only one who walked away from the midnight blitz in Wales.

* A little bit of me was disappointed that the mystery of Grand-dad's past ended with a paranormal solution. I feel like if there had been some other real-world explanation, that could have been, in the end, even more magical for its plausibility. But, 'paranormal' has never been my genre of choice, so that's on me and my personal tastes.

* Island off the coast of Wales makes for different, interesting setting - especially when exploring the big, empty, bombed-out house. I was lukewarm on the Floridian setting - a wealthy family of pharmacy magnates and grandpa in his retirement village left me disinterested. But the island itself, with cliffs and lighthouse and bogs, surrounded by shipwrecks, powered by generators and drowning in sheep - that island popped so three-dimensionally by comparison that I can't help but feel it was done that way by design (much in the way the 'Wizard of Oz' goes from black and white to color).

* Time travel loop struck me as cliche, like the 'dream sequence' in the book REVOLUTION where the girl awakens to find herself in revolutionary era France for reasons I still don't understand. This sort of spontaneous time-travel often strikes me as a cop-out, but I talked myself into this one, much like I did with the JJ Abrams version of Star Trek. I think it was at least partially due to my fascination with the photographs, like they lent an aura of credibility. But for the purposes of this exercise, I have to ignore the photographs, so I revert to my initial gut feeling. Down with overly convenient time-travel devices.

But, the fact that we could move back and forth between the 1940's and modern day as we pleased without the threat of being 'trapped' - that went a long way toward helping me keep a good attitude about the story. We floated easily between island's two settings - one, a raging modern-day thunderstorm with a blood-thirsty murderer on the loose; the other, a 1940's blitzkrieg in which we knew a significant portion of the island would be heavily damaged (thanks to the island's history museum). A lot of good, sensory world building that would look fantastic on a movie screen.

Also, I loved how every time we arrived in the 1940's, we always relived the same day - like the movie 'Groundhogs Day'.
I actually would have like to have seen more of this repetition; it could have added a lot to the characters of the children who perpetually existed there.

Once we started meeting all of the peculiar children in the 1940's children's home, I had a really hard time keeping track of who was who. I'm not sure if this is an issue Riggs' character development, or just of my shoddy reading, but at any rate, not all supporting characters were created equal. So many of them felt one-dimensional, solely defined by their peculiarity, and half the time, when I saw the characters' names in print, I couldn't remember what their peculiarity was until they actively used it. Off the top of my head after one read, all I remember is that Olive defies gravity, Millard does invisible things, Wyn is Hercules-strong, and Emma is both hot and makes fire (these things are related, and therefore easy to remember). The 3-12 other male characters blend together in my mind, and I can't tell you anything about them without going back through the text and creating a chart.

By the way, was anyone else a little on edge about Emma having a crush on both grand-dad and grand-son? Only in paranormal does that sort of thing make for an okay happy ending. Like how Bella and Edward can pretend they're the same age. Or in '30 Rock', when Liz Lemon almost dates her own cousin. You know what, never mind, forget I said anything.

Since I took a whole paragraph to pick apart supporting character development, let me now take a paragraph to praise it. I found the narrator's parents compelling, allowing Riggs to explore some interesting themes - such as how a kid might develop his attitude toward money by watching his mom, or how father/son relationships might be passed down through generations. The father was particularly interesting to me, because he's caught in the middle of a closeness between his father (grand-dad) and his son (our narrator, Jacob) - but he's on the outside looking in, envious. The father is the outcast who has never belonged anywhere - even his own pet projects seem to reject him as inadequate. And even still, we find ourselves hoping the his son will ditch him for the more 'peculiar' life, leaving him sad and abandoned again. Very nicely crafted.

Before we leave the subject of character development, I never fully warmed to Miss Peregrine, who struck me as a reworked Professor McGonagall type, only with less attitude and bird wings instead of a cat's tail. She seemed to exist to explain the rules of the world, and to give the children a common 'something' to fight for. And for the sake of withholding spoilers, I was disappointed to the point of eye-roll with the way the core villain was handled. I'm fascinated with so much of the character development in this book - some of the work is so precise and interesting, it makes me wonder if Riggs knows he's fully capable of it, but decides to choose his battles for the sake of managing word count.

There's a lot to like about this book, imperfect though it may be. But the photographs were such an integral part of the experience for me that I think, without that added bit of depth, I wouldn't have spent the past two weeks meditating on it. I don't think I would have felt compelled to recommended it to others. But the photographs are there, and they do compel you to keep turning the page. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience with this book, and I give Riggs full marks for thinking of using this method of storytelling in the first place. This book has an IMDB page; I hope that evolves into a Tim Burton-style, eye-popping final product. I would absolutely see that, and recommend it to others.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


The Colts lost and I don't care. In fact, I may have subliminally cheered against them, selfishly, to avoid the post-dramatic stress disorder I would have suffered in the wake of a Colts vs Peyton match-up. My boys beat three of the twelve playoff teams (Packers, Vikings, Texans), won eleven games (nine more than last season), and delivered one of the most memorable seasons I've ever been a part of, reminiscent of the 1994 Jim Harbaugh year, which created an awesome full-circle moment, since 'Captain Comeback' went on to coach Andrew Luck at Stanford.

A little bit of me wants to be happy for Ray Lewis, celebrating his final home game - an honor Peyton and Colts fans were denied. Despite Lewis's checkered past, I get why Ravens fans love him. After the Colts left for Indianapolis, football disappeared in Baltimore for around fifteen years. When the Ravens were brought back, Ray was their first franchise player (selected in the Ravens' first draft). And his first career sack was on Peyton Manning. Again, we come full circle.

And speaking of dear Peyton, I make no secret of what I want to happen next - a Broncos/Patriots AFC Championship game, if nothing else for old times sake, followed by a Broncos Super Bowl victory in Peyton's home town of New Orleans. That would make this my personal dream season; the only thing missing is Eli for the all-Manning final, but we've got to have a reason to keep watching next year.

If you haven't been following this season, there's still time to jump in. Here a cheatsheet to catch you up before Super Bowl party season.

(4) Baltimore Ravens at (1) Denver Broncos
Saturday Jan 12, 4:30pm EST CBS

A game of grizzled-old-falling-apart veterans. Peyton Manning has a frankenstein neck. Ray Lewis has a cyborg arm where his torn-tricep used to be. Peyton's running an eleven-game winning streak, and Ray's team was the preseason favorite to make the Super Bowl (they were a sneeze away from making the Super Bowl last year).

These two teams played each other December 16th in Baltimore, and the Broncos won 34-17. This game is in Denver, a mile above sea-level where the air is thin and dry and chilly, and Peyton likes to play fast. The Broncos can score more quickly than the Ravens (unless Boldin makes multiple long plays, like he did against the Colts last week, or Ed Reed picks Peyton off and runs the ball all the way back). Chances are the Ravens will have to play from behind and the Broncos will just grind them into something they can then sell at one of their special corner pharmacies. And once again, for the record, I will continue to believe Joe Flacco is an animagus until presented with irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

(3) Green Bay Packers at (2) San Francisco 49ers
Saturday Jan 12 8pm EST FOX

These two teams met the first week of the season, and the Niners won 30-22. That game featured replacement referees and quarterback Alex Smith, who used to make me irrationally angry until he was 'kaepernicked' by his backup, Colin Kaepernick. Now Alex Smith sideline-sightings just makes me sad. He lost his gig because he got a concussion, and the NFL's new kick (rightly so) is to protect guys who get concussions. Alex sat out, Kaepernick won in style, and the rest is history. For people like me on the look-out for sports-karma curses, watch this space.

And speaking of sports-karma, for the season to be complete, the Packers must win, and they must play the Seattle Seahawks in a rematch of the week 3 game that ended the use of replacement referees. The game must be replayed, and the prize must be the Super Bowl. It's the only logical thing to do.

(5) Seattle Seahawks at (1) Atlanta Falcons
Sunday Jan 13 1pm EST FOX

I hate watching the Falcons. I can't explain why, I just can't make myself do it. They've been the best team all season, at least in terms of wins and "on-paper" things. Matt "Matty-Ice" Ryan is a fine quarterback, but all of the Manning comparisons make my skin molt. Tony Gonzalez is a hall of fame tight end, and Julio Jones seems like a delightful addition to any 4th place fantasy team, but I can't get excited to watch them. I don't hate this team, I just want them to go away. That's why it's PERFECT that this may the only game I'll actually be able to watch this weekend.

In a year where rookie quarterbacks have been the sparkly storyline, Russell Wilson, Seattle's quarterback, is the last rookie standing. Every time he wins, I consider it a win for the Big Ten (we have to take what we can get). Wilson's a short, baby-faced, baseball player who was drafted in the thirty-sixth round of the NFL draft (or thereabouts), and was lucky enough to fall to a team that not only gave him a chance to play, but also had outstanding defense and special teams that helped him stand out.

All that being said, this team also features Golden Tate (receiver from Notre Dame responsible for the catch against Green Bay that ended the referee lockout), and coach Pete Carroll (the dude who fled USC like Leonardo DiCaprio in 'Catch Me If You Can' when they were slammed with NCAA violations). I can't WAIT to watch Green Bay beat them in the NFC Championship game.

(3) Houston Texans at (2) New England Patriots
Sunday Jan 13 4:30pm EST CBS

As a Colts fan, I feel terrible for the Texans. They've been in the league ten years, and for most of that, they had to face Peyton and the Colts twice each season. I learned recently that they consider the Colts their top rivals - we're their Patriots. And, because we beat them in week 17 and blew up their season, the camera zoomed in on the faces of the players on the bench like a Cinderella losing at the end of a March Madness basketball game. These guys are better than they get credit for. They (with Atlanta) were at the top of the standings all season, but they've never in franchise history won a game in Indianapolis, and so, they have to go play in Foxboro in January to keep their season alive. You don't have to be a Texan fan to see why that sux.

The Texans were booed by their home crowd during last week's wildcard game against the Bengals, even though they ended up winning. I feel like they've earned a shot at the Super Bowl, and lord knows I don't have it in me to root for the Patriots. Last season, I congratulated Houston on winning the AFC South and joked, 'Take good care of that playoff spot, we're gonna want it back soon.' Now, I can see Texans/Colts turning into a legit, two-sided rivalry, and I'm not sure I like it. Will we make each other stronger, like Duke and North Carolina? Or tear each other apart, like all the football teams in SEC not coached by Nick Saban? I don't know - and I'm not sure I want to find out.

Ergo, I'll be rooting for the underdog Texans, all the while secure in the knowledge that Manning v. Brady is just a week away. But the Texans aren't going anywhere. One of these seasons things will click into place for them, and they won't be a 'cute' little underdog anymore. I'm not looking forward to it.