Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Quick Trip to the Land of Czars

The job search went on hold about three weeks ago.  I received an invitation to visit St. Petersburg, Russia in October.  I'm going to visit with Russian journalists to speak about the changing landscape of local American television news. 

This will mark my third visit since 2008 to St. Petersburg.  The picture on the left was taken during my first visit during Russia's Christmas season.  It was an incredible experience.  It was my first trip overseas and a first class experience all the way around.

The second trip came about 15 months after the first.  I made even more friends and became even more familiar with everyday life in Russia living in an neighborhood apartment, learning to navigate my way around the city without getting too lost.  Unfortunately I didn't do the kind of sightseeing I did on the first trip.

This time around I plan to make better use of my free time.  I want to make it to Peterhof which is just outside the city.  I also want to take another walk through The Hermitage.  There's so much to see in this one-time palace that it's overwhelming.

I've even started taking Russian classes.  It's ridiculous that it's taken me this long to make a real effort at learning the language.  It is a ridiculously difficult language to learn.  Sometimes I feel like my head is going to explode.  But I'm enjoying the challenge.  It's like puzzle solving taken to the nth degree.

Sadly my Russian will be sorely lacking when I step off the plane in three weeks.  But I'm hoping that with a lot of studying in the next few months I might be able to actually hold a short conversation with The Czarina.  Now that would be something!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Concert I May Never See

I've seen every band or singer live that I've wanted to except for a handful.  Obviously when it comes to bands The Beatles would be on that list along with The Band.  I'll never get to see either thanks to the passing of some great performers.  Also on that list is REM, which shocked fans by announcing it's the end today.

REM helped ignite the genre of college or alternative music in the early 1980's.  I didn't pay much attention just like I pretty much ignored U2 for most of the 80's.  But along came a music video on MTV that grabbed me probably more than any video I ever saw, period.  "Losing My Religion" made REM a hugely popular band starting a ride of three very successful albums, "Out of Time," "Automatic for the People," and "Monster."

By the late 90's the band was running out of steam.  "New Adventures in Hi-Fi" was just okay and the albums that followed had moments but lacked the power of the aforementioned trio.  Actually REM's early albums like "Murmur," "Life's Rich Pageant," and "Green" are outstanding in their own right.

When I first saw today's news of REM's retirement on Facebook my guts told me this was about selling records or their inability to do so in today's crazy world where music is stolen left and right.  An article on the band in "Rolling Stone" party confirmed my suspicions.

REM's only choice to make money was to tour.  I'm not sure Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck wanted to grind it out for dollars that way.  They've made a ton of dough already and the lure of touring probably doesn't appeal to the group, especially Stipe, the band's lead singer.  My hope is that a few years down the road someone will pile up enough cash in front of REM to lure them back out for one more go.  In the meantime I'll have to be satisfied with videos like this of my favorite REM song.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Mockingbird Time

Next Tuesday a musical resurrection comes to fruition when one of my favorite bands releases their first new music in eight years.  "Mockingbird Time" marks the reunion of the song writing duo of Mark Olson and Gary Louris making their first album as The Jayhawks in more than a decade.

Olson left the group in 1995, partly out of frustration I suspect.  The band had produced two critically acclaimed albums yet failed to catch on with the main stream.  Louris soldiered on for another six years putting out three more albums including the fabulous "Rainy Day Music" before calling it quits.

The Internet killed bands like The Jayhawks, who had survived on the edge before the rampant theft of music destroyed music sales.  That left touring as the only way to make money and although they had a loyal following I suspect the band didn't see a future for itself.

But that loyal following kept buzz about the band alive, mostly on the Internet.  And then the occasional reunions only added fuel to the fire.  Finally Louris and Olson put out a duet album setting them on a path for a full blown reunion.

I had the pleasure of watching them perform live on a web stream this week from their home base in Minneapolis.  They played a large batch of their new songs and some old favorites for one of the NPR stations in the Twin Cities.  One of those selections is a gem from one of their earlier albums.  It's a song I overlooked until recently and it's certainly one of their best.  Enjoy "Red's Song."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Czarina Takes Vegas

The Czarina likes to travel.  She enjoys getting up and going just about anywhere.  So it didn't take much persuading when I suggested she go see the boy since she hadn't seen her son since Christmas.  Then this crafty Russian saw an opportunity to make something more out her trip to Riverside, California by mixing pleasure with business. 

After booking her mid-September trip she realized that a major convention for SAP was taking place in Las Vegas.  SAP is a business software and the Czarina something of a wiz at it.  The Czarina talked her bosses into paying for her trip home with a one week stop in Vegas and the convention.  Given my lack of unemployment I quickly ruled out making the trip out west.  The recipe for financial disaster seemed ripe between my ability at the black jack table and the Czarina's luck at the slots.

So the Czarina is enjoying Las Vegas on her own, staying at Harrah's (which she loathes) and attending her convention next door at the Venetian.  She's been stunned by all of the free food and other goodies available at the convention.  The Czarina is a strong believer in free and finds it difficult to control herself whenever that particular word finds its way into the equation.  Her phone calls from Vegas have been like listening to a 5-year-old on Christmas morning.

The Czarina has a couple of more days to go and she's fully enjoying the classes.  Then she has to take a red-eye back home Friday night.  I can't wait for her to come home and hear more about this great adventure. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011


On September 11th, on this 10th anniversary of one this country's darkest moment, it seems appropriate to write about a book I finished reading this week.  The book is about a man who is emblematic of the American spirit.  He's a man who rose from meager circumstances to know success, survived the unimaginable at the hands of unbelievable cruelty, then found a way to heal himself and his damaged psyche after he returned home a hero.

"Unbroken" is the story of Louie Zamperini.  I pride myself on my knowledge of history regarding the sport of track and field.  Zamperini's name had somehow eluded me, but that's largely due to the fact that he was denied a chance at Olympic glory because of World War II.  Zamperini held the high school record for the mile run for nearly two decades.  He was an Olympian in 1936 at 19.

The war did much more than take away Zamperini's hopes of Olympic gold, but I will leave that story for you to read in Laura Hillenbrand's fabulous book about the pride of Torrence, California.  It's a great read given to me from my wonderful workmates in Sacramento.  Most importantly, the book gives in graphic detail the incredibly high cost of freedom. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

10 Years Ago Today

I know exactly what I was doing ten years ago today at this very moment.  On the evening of September 10th 2001 I was driving through central Illinois trying to make it to Champaign.  I would spend a good 12 hours behind the wheel that day trying to make a big dent on a trip to Nashville for the Radio, Television, News Directors Association annual convention.

I was thinking about the stop I would make in Paducah, Kentucky where I would get a chance to touch base with old friends.  I was thinking about the stop I would make in Clarksville, Tennessee where I would see my sister and brother-in-law.  Mostly I was thinking about the seminars I would attend where I might learn something to help my newsroom climb the ratings ladder.

It was a Monday and the weather was beautiful.  I got into Champaign very late and didn't get to bed until just before Midnight.  I slept like a rock, rousing myself just early enough knowing that I needed to hit Paducah around noon.  I literally stumbled out of bed hitting the TV remote and NBC expecting to catch the end of "The Today Show."  I blinked a couple of times.  It was a shot of a smouldering World Trade Center.  What the fuck I thought, how did it catch fire?  Then just as I was comprehending the picture it went crashing down.  It was the South Tower going down.  Then I began to listen.  What I heard left me stunned and scrambling for my cell phone.

I called my newsroom and they were already hitting the streets sending crews to key locations such as the federal building in Fargo and the air force base in Grand Forks.  I gave a couple of quick suggestions which were hardly needed and told them I would get back as quickly as possible.  I was so lucky that I had decided against flying to Nashville.

I headed into the shower where I broke down and cried.  I realized that our lives, the lives of my country, the lives of my family, the lives of my friends, were changed forever.  I cried for my sister Karen and her husband Keith in Clarksville.  Keith was serving in the Army and I feared that this coming war could put him in harms way.  I composed myself and got my things together and hit the road to retrace my 12 hour journey of the previous day.

I was stuck listening to radio reports from Chicago for the first three hours of my trip.  It was frustrating not being able to see what was happening.  I pushed the speed limit driving between 80 to 85 miles an hour knowing that state troopers had other, more pressing matters to consider than a speeder.  The interstates were strangely devoid of traffic.

As I drove I soaked in what I could from the radio and called every couple of hours to talk with my newsroom.  The team at KVLY had everything in hand.  The operations was in the more than capable hands of General Manager Charley Johnson who had served as news director long before my arrival. 

I remember coming into Minneapolis as evening fell and seeing American flags draped over bridges.  I made my final pit stop there just as cars began to pile into fill up on gasoline fearing there would be major shortages.  By the time I did make it to Fargo and my newsroom just before 10 p.m. there were long lines at the service station next to our building.  I completed my trip home in 10 hours, 2 hours quicker than the previous day.  The sense of quiet shock permeated the newsroom and my presence was an afterthought.  But I was there and it felt good to see everyone working together telling such a big story that touched Fargo/Moorhead deeply just as it did communities across our great nation.

By a stroke of luck we actually had a reporter in Washington, D.C. that day.  Roxana Saberi was at NPR taking part in some sort of seminar.  She quickly switched gears and rounded up key members of our Congressional delegation for interviews and live reports.  A handful of people with direct ties to our community had lost their lives on September 11th and we did our best to tell their stories.  It was a heartbreaking day that stretched out for weeks.

I got home shortly after 11 p.m. and watched television with the Czarina.  Exhausted, I watched the horrific imagines with the one fear that these acts would bring a loss of freedom that Americans had so savored.  My worst fears were eventually realized with the formation of the Department of Homeland Security along with laws that helped our government circumvent our rights in the name of protecting lives.  I understand it but that doesn't mean I have to approve of it.

Worst of all we are locked in a war that will never really end.  President Bush failed so miserably using the attacks as a pretext to invade Iraq, a war that should have never been fought.  Instead of a laser focus on Afghanistan we created a morass that will only help foster more Jihadists there and in other countries filled with Islamic zealots like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.  

The last 10 years have felt more like 20.  The attacks of September 11th helped wreck our economy.  But I believe it will inevitably make this country stronger and greater.  I think the new One World Trade Center and the 9/11 memorial that sits in its shadow is testimony to that.  God Bless America.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Obama and the GOP Crazy Train

I don't blogging about politics.  I think writing about politics is a lot like writing about religion.  You usually end up pissing somebody off.  I think that's why the founders of our country did their best to keep religion out of government.  But I digress.

Barack Obama has been a huge disappointment as President.  His style, which is to build consensus among disparate groups, simply doesn't work in the face of the Tea Party antics of the Republican Party.  Thus he's been backed into a corner to come up with a real plan with real goals toward kick starting the economy.

The stimulus of 2009 didn't work because of Senator Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.  It was a bill that was Washington politics as usual filled with pork which didn't deliver the kind of infrastructure jobs that would have gone a long way to building a better future.  I loathe Reid and Pelosi, just as I loathe Representative Eric Cantor and his ilk.  But again, I digress.

Tonight Barack Obama sounded like the President of the United States.  He threw down the gauntlet with a jobs plan that makes sense.  President Obama backed Republicans into a corner when he pleaded for keeping the payroll tax cut, "I know some of you have sworn oaths to never raise any taxes on anyone for as long as you live.  Now is not the time to carve out an exception and raise middle-class taxes, which is why you should pass this bill right away."  Of course none of what he suggested, fixing the corporate tax code, raising taxes on the richest Americans, is ever going to happen.  The President won't fight as mean and dirty as his opponents will to win this battle.

But juxtaposed against what I watched last night when the gang of 8 running as Republicans for President, Barack Obama sounded and looked presidential.  Only two of the GOP I heard from last night came remotely close.  Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman made the most sense.  I loved Huntsman for calling out the wack-a-do's Perry, Bachmann and Santorum.  Anyone conservative with a lick of common sense has to see that Romney is the only hope the party has to unseat Obama.

By the way, if Rick Perry does become President, get ready for George Bush on steroids.  That might be enough to get the Czarina and I packing for Riga.  I better start brushing up on my Russian! 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Rolling Stone on The Beatles

I went out on Labor Day and hunted down a copy of a special edition "Rolling Stone" which covers The Beatles album by album.  "Morning Joe," simply the best morning news program out chatted up the magazine for a good five minutes on Friday.

For all of the great rock and roll bands over the last 50 years The Beatles are still the gold standard.  The Rolling Stones had their day, Led Zeppelin, The Who, U2, Queen, Aerosmith, the list is endless.  Yet everyone of the aforementioned bands and the dozens of great ones I didn't list were in some way, shape or form influenced by The Beatles.

I can still remember that night in February 1964 when the Fab Four first appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show."  It stood out in part due to the reaction by my two older sisters who were in their early teens at the time plus it didn't hurt that they offered up catchy melodies and outrageous hair cuts.  It was such an event that it prompted a quick post telecast gathering outside in the winter chill with the Wehling girls who lived next door where I felt the first rumbles of what was to be Beatlemania. 

I haven't opened the magazine yet to start devouring the stories because I'm trying to finish up a great book I am currently reading.  I'll blog about that book soon.  As I was trolling through the web I came across a wonderful cover of what arguably is the greatest song The Beatles ever produced.  It came from a performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  Stick around to the end or you'll miss out on  some guitar playing fireworks.  Oh, and though I don't own any of his music, Prince is a genius, his Super Bowl performance a few years back is one of the best live shows I've ever witnessed.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Death of the Big 12

The Big 12 Conference is as good as dead.  The defections of Nebraska to the Big 10 and Colorado to the PAC 12 left the conference on life support.  Texas A&M has thrown itself at the SEC and Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are reportedly taking a good hard look at the PAC 12.  Texas holds the keys to the kingdom and only the good Lord knows what the Longhorns will do.

The sad part of all this is that the old Big 8 saved A&M and Texas when it agreed to expand the conference with the disgraced remnants of the old Southwest Conference.  I remember when the Big 12 was created we were told nothing would change.  As quick as a hick-up the conference headquarters was moved from Kansas City and as soon as they could they pried another Kansas City staple, the post-season basketball tournament, away from the city.  Bitter, you bet I'm bitter.

The mess leaves Kansas in a quandary.  Jayhawk fans don't want to lose their traditional rivalry with Missouri.  As much as it pains me to write this, Kansas needs Mizzou, much more than it needs cross state rival Kansas State.  Missouri would seem a natural fit for the Big 10 but something in my guts tells me that it wouldn't make room for the Jayhawks.

The rumors have Kansas going to the PAC 12 or even the Big East.  With schools like Louisville and Cincinnati in the Big East, this move geographically would make a lot more sense than endless trips to the west coast.  I'd vote for the Big East if that meant Mizzou going too.

I blame the state of Texas for this mess.  Specifically, I blame the Texas Longhorns.  Colorado and Nebraska flew the coop because it's impossible to compete financially with Texas.  The Longhorns can outspend any three school in the Big 12 combined.  It's a losing proposition and will remain so because the NCAA does not have the will or the ability to stop this escalation in athletics spending that in the end, will cause its demise.  Yes, the NCAA is facing its own extinction.  It's lost complete control of college football.  Super conferences here we come.  

Friday, September 2, 2011

Jenny, Jenny

Two days remain of World Championship Track and Field and unless something mind-boggling happens, Jenny is the story of the meet for the good old USA.  That's Jenny Simpson to the uninitiated.

Simpson had shown a great deal of promise more than 3 years ago establishing herself as a world class steeplechaser and a damn fine 1500 meter runner.  Last year with her epic college career at Colorado over, she changed coaches, got married and disappeared.  Injuries ended her season causing a lot of people to write her off.

A slow start to this season kicked off by a bout with flu created even more doubters.  Many wondered why she had abandoned the steeple, the event she set an American Record in back in 2008.  Thursday silenced her critics taking America's first 1500 meter gold in 28 years.  The only bummer from that race came when another favorite, Morgan Uceny of the United States, took a tumble 550 meters from the finish in a bit of racing bad luck not of her making.  Otherwise I think we would have seen two Americans on the podium.

The excitement of Simpson's epic win roused me from bed early this morning so I could watch the women's 5000 live this morning.  I was hoping against hope that Lauren Fleshman could steal a medal or at the very least take a top 5 finish.  Plus there was Amy Hastings, the Leavenworth High grad who was making her World Championship debut.

The race went about as I expected with a pack of Kenyans and Ethopians ratcheting up the pace with 600 meters to go.  Hastings had disappeared from the pack early on but Fleshman was hanging on for dear life.  Within 150 meters the pack pulled away from Lauren who fought bravely all the way to the finish to grab a respectable 7th place.

For those of you who don't realize that track and field is a contact sport check out Fleshman's leg following her qualifying heat.  The pushing and shoving in both the men and women's races this year have been brutal.  Uceny's fall is one of a half dozen I've seen in just one week of racing. 

The IAAF needs to look at thinning out the fields.  15 plus runners are way too many to stick out on a track.  The grabbing, pushing, shoving and spiking makes for pathetic racing.

Editor's note:  I strongly urge you to read Lauren's blog she posted about her experience leading up and running in the finals.  It's a fabulous read.