Tuesday, January 25, 2005

TMQ is predictable, but still worth reading

During the AFC championship game, down 31-17, the Steelers kicked a field goal on 4th & goal instead of going for the touchdown. With the score 31-20, I accurately predicted what Gregg Easterbrook would write in today's Tuesday Morning Quarterback column. I said, among other things, he would write "you can't dance with the champ, you've got to knock him down," and "TMQ writes 'game over' in his notebook." I was half right. Scroll down to the item just below the "Literary Cheerleader of the Week" for TMQ's opinion of the field goal call. I'm not saying the Steelers would have won had they scored the touchdown (which was no gimme against the Patriots' defense), but 31-24 with the 4th quarter to go looks a lot better than 31-20. And if they hadn't made it, the Patriots would have been pinned deep in their own end. But what's done is done. From my years watching football and reading TMQ, I know better than to expect Bill Cowher (or most other coaches) from going for it in that situation, so I'm really not surprised or even disappointed at that outcome. As my mother says occasionally: if you lower your expectations, you won't be disappointed.

Monday, January 24, 2005

the late great Johnny Carson

As if I needed yet ANOTHER reason to be sad today.

I won't say that I grew up watching Johnny Carson, because I can't imagine spending that many nights in the early '80s watching his show, but I did watch it more often when I was in high school. I remember enjoying the animal segments, and some of his skits and ads were great. I can't really recall any interviews other than his next-to-last show, when Robin Williams and Bette Midler were his guests. Williams did his usual manic comedian shtick, including a joke about Ross Perot (it was May 1992) pulling off a mask to reveal he was really Richard Nixon. I watched his final show the next night with a bunch of my high school buddies. It's amazing to me now that we all gathered that night to watch this guy who'd been on TV longer than any of us had been alive. Even up to the end of his run he was still making all of us laugh.

Coping with the Steelers' loss

While I didn't show it last night, the Steelers losing yet another AFC championship game has me in a bit of a funk today. I'm coping by getting through the aftermath as quickly as possible. I've read all the stories in today's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, most of ESPN's coverage, and I'll skim if not avoid entirely the Sports Guy's inevitable gloating. I'm also wallowing in a little self-pity by listening to Mozart's Requiem, my old salve for breakups, deaths, and now football playoff disappointment. If I don't feel sad enough, hearing his "Lachrymosa" always makes me feel like crying.

All season long it was hard for me to believe that my team was putting up a 15-1 record, the first AFC team to do that. That's just not something the Steelers do. Even their Steel Curtain teams in the 1970s managed to lose at least two games a season, even en route to the Super Bowl. Last night I said I didn't think the Steelers were ever a dominant 15-1 football team, but James argued that if you go 15-1, you're dominating. I just never got the sense that the team was out there crushing their opponents. They took advantage of mistakes, covered up their own weaknesses as long as possible, and never suffered any key injuries. That kind of season is difficult, if not impossible, to put together again. Next season they won't be overlooked by anyone, least of all the NFL schedule-makers. This year they had the benefit of a schedule that came out of their 6-10 record in 2003. Next year, they're going to have a much tougher schedule to contend with, along with trying to avoid injuries and the added pressure that will inevitably come from within and without to get to the Super Bowl.

Then there's Ben Roethlisberger. As a Steelers fan, I've suffered through so many crappy or mediocre quarterbacks since Terry Bradshaw retired: Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O'Donnell, Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart, and Tommy Maddox. In 2002 I wrote that Maddox was the first quarterback in years who didn't make my heart stop every time he threw the ball. Then in 2003 he proved to be just as crappy as the rest of the guys who preceded him. So far, Roethlisberger has been a major improvement over those other guys, but he had a great offensive line and two excellent running backs to take the pressure off him this year. In the past few games, when he had to throw the ball, he didn't remind anyone of John Elway. Whether it was an injury, improved defenses, or just rookie jitters, he looked lost out there at times. That's to be expected of a rookie, although I wish he'd played like that back in September and October and possibly gotten it out of his system. I'm reminded of Kordell Stewart's 1997 season, when he led the Steelers to the AFC championship against Denver (where he threw a few costly interceptions and the Steelers lost). Stewart established himself as a full-time quarterback that season, and in the offseason took full advantage of his newfound fame. He showed up in all sorts of ads. I can see Roethlisberger doing the same thing this offseason. He already appeared in a Campbell's Chunky Soup ad that ran DURING the AFC championship. I can't blame him if he cashes in, but I hope he doesn't do it at the expense of his offseason training. Kordell Stewart came back in 1998 and did not play as well; the team went 7-9 and missed the playoffs. Stewart endured all manner of boos and taunts from Steelers fans for the next three years, and only his and the team's resurgence in 2001 helped quiet them. That's another thing: Steelers fans are notorious boo-birds when the team's play goes south, and they will not hesitate to let Big Ben hear it if he keeps throwing interceptions. (For a good laugh, read some of the e-mails to the Post-Gazette. Along with the cheerful "we had a great run" messages, there's a healthy dose of "Fire Cowher!" and "play Tommy Maddox instead!" e-mails. I'd argue about the intelligence of those writers, but it's just not worth the energy.) I hope Roethlisberger spends more time in the offseason staying in shape, learning the playbook, and working with the coordinators and coaches to get more comfortable with the offense. I don't think John Elway was John Elway his first year out there.

Aside from the Super Bowl, which I will still watch, football season is over. In the absence of hockey, it's time to get into college basketball. Georgetown had a great last-second dunk to beat Notre Dame yesterday, and Mississippi State is still playing well in the SEC. Baseball season is not far off, and the Pirates are likely to contend for at least the first month or so. And then we have the NFL draft and another football season in less than nine months. But for now, on the most depressing day of the year, I'll just be sad.

ESPN.com on Mike Webster

Starting today, ESPN.com is running a five-part series on the life and death of Mike Webster, the great Pittsburgh Steelers center from 1974-1990. It's a tragic story, and it doesn't help that ESPN.com is starting its run on the day after the Steelers' loss in the AFC championship game. Mike Webster gave everything he had to football, and it left him a shell of a man. Inside the NFL ran their own segment on Webster a few weeks ago, and it was touching and incredibly sad. ESPN's version is just as moving.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

BLIZZARD 2005!!!!!

That's what the local NBC news is calling the current snowstorm hitting us in the beanbag here in New York. I went out early this afternoon just as the snow started, and it wasn't too cold or too nasty at that point. Twelve hours later, the snow looks deeper and there are far fewer people on the streets, and not just because of the late hour. I'm thinking about going for a little exploratory walk tomorrow morning, but I think I'll just make a pot of coffee and enjoy "Meet the Press" instead.

So, instead of going out to dinner or a movie
, Liz and I stayed in all day and watched "I Love the '90s, Part Deux" on VH1. For dinner, I wanted to cook big, so I made fried chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits, and gravy. I was a little apprehensive about my first attempt at fried chicken, and warned Liz that it wasn't going to be the best she'd ever had. While she agreed that it wasn't the best ever, it was much better than we thought it would be. In fact, it was downright delicious. I made a huge mess of the kitchen cooking it, and it was fun. Tomorrow's game day meal is two-crust pizza, a dish that I've only made parts of (everything but the dough). Assuming he gets here with the weather being what it is, James will assist me with the cooking tomorrow, so I'm sure we'll make another mess. If you don't make a mess while you're cooking, you're not doing it right.

New Orleans photos are now online

It's been almost a month, so that seems like enough time to wait before uploading pictures from a New Year's Eve trip. Check the photos link over there on the right side.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

a weekend with Mom in NY, and an extra special evening with the NY Philharmonic

My mother came to visit us this past weekend. Since it was the coldest week of the year so far, we tried to stick to indoor activities. On Saturday we watched the Steelers-Jets game at home, then went out to dinner in our neighborhood. We took her to the recently reopened MoMA in midtown Manhattan on Sunday afternoon, then ate dagwood sandwiches for dinner while watching the Golden Globes. On Monday we went to the Museum of the City of New York to see the subway photo exhibits, then met one of her friends for lunch and a stroll along Broadway to Zabar's. I made mostaccioli with mozzarella and basil for dinner, a recipe from my Lidia Bastianich cookbook.

Tuesday night was the real highlight of her visit. We went to the New York Philharmonic to hear Phil Myers, the orchestra's principal French horn, play Strauss's 1st Horn Concerto. My parents went to college with Myers, and when I was growing up my mom would point him out in the NY Phil's horn section anytime we saw the orchestra on TV. I don't know the right words to describe his performance. When he played the opening horn call of the work, the sound just soared through the hall. My mom and I looked at each other as if to say "if this is how he plays the beginning, how great will the entire piece be?" We were not disappointed. He made that horn sound like it was singing. It was just a fantastic, beautiful display of artistry. The rest of the concert was good, too, but the horn concerto was by far the best part. At intermission we went to the green room and introduced ourselves to Myers (or in my mother's case, got reacquainted). He signed our programs and mentioned
that he's currently working on one of my grandfather's compositions. There was a growing crowd of people eager to talk to him so we only stayed for a few minutes. But I had the chance to tell him that I'd seen him on TV and in concerts for years, and that it was an honor to meet him in person. Things like that don't happen to me that often, and it made the evening even more rewarding.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Rate your teachers

Today's Black List over at The Black Table has a submission about RateMyTeachers, a web site where visitors can rate and comment on elementary, middle, and high school teachers. Of course I couldn't resist looking up my old high school to see how my former educators ranked. Since it's been several years since I graduated high school, there are only a handful of teachers remaining from my days as a student. Even assuming that some ratings are malicious (from students or former students who had an axe to grind) I'm glad to see that most of my teachers received favorable ratings from other students. Interestingly, even the ones that I remember as tough and unpleasant got good reviews, possibly from alumni like me who look back on those classes and realize that we learned more and achieved more in those classes than in others with teachers we considered to be "easy." Not surprisingly, the teachers who were popular with students back then are still popular now, judging from their high ratings. On a sad note, one of the most highly-rated teachers is Mr. Rudnac, who passed away from a sudden heart attack a few years ago. I never took a class with him and I regret it now, as I had the free time in my schedule and knew then how much his students loved his classes, his attitude, and his skills as an educator. It's touching to see how many people miss him.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Regarding the Steelers...

I haven't written much about the Steelers this season. I still can't believe that they went 15-1 and while it was happening I didn't want to think too much about how they were doing it or what it could mean. I'm excited to see them in the playoffs again, but I'm trying to keep my enthusiasm down. They've disappointed fans in the past, and team's recent playoff record with home field advantage isn't stellar. I think they can get past the Jets tomorrow, though it won't be easy. I don't even want to think about their chances against either the Colts or the Patriots should Pittsburgh get to the AFC championship. All I know is that I will be a bundle of nerves tomorrow while watching the game.

Happy now, Jon? I wrote about something other than my new bag. Wait until I write about our new furniture.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Papa's got a brand new bag

It's gotten so dull around here that I'm writing about the new messenger-style laptop bag I bought Monday night at J&R Computer World. Since I've been at my current job and carrying my office laptop back and forth each day, I've used a succession of free laptop bags and backpacks provided either by my firm or acquired at Novell BrainShare conferences. My favorite bag until now was my BS 2002 backpack, which I used until I tore a hole in the bottom and the straps started to give. I abandoned it in Salt Lake City when I brought back the BS 2004 bag, the wheeled laptop bag that would be perfect for everyday use if I didn't have to carry it up and down stairs on the subway. Instead, I had been using a Kensington laptop bag from my firm for about 18 months, which was great for carrying the computer and any accessories, but not so good for holding my lunch, a book, extra toys like my MP3 player, and so on. I'd been looking off and on for the perfect laptop bag for a few months now. My ideal bag would be large enough to hold my computer, lunch, a book, and a few other toys, yet still look decent on a 31-year-old guy (I'm too old to wear a backpack unless I'm hiking). I read some online reviews of laptop bags, but I needed to see them in person to make the right choice. I had a gift certificate for J&R with a few bucks left on it, and I noticed the Crumpler bags in the store a few weeks ago. I checked out their web site, read some reviews, and stopped at J&R Monday night to pick one up. I got the Very Busy Man (tm) bag, which has room for all my stuff and more, and is far more comfortable to carry than my old bag. It also feels virtually indestructible, but we'll see if it can withstand cat assaults. It even has an extra strap hanging off the shoulder strap that goes around your leg if you want to ride your bike while carrying the bag. Tomorrow I'll try fitting The System of the World in there along with everything else and see if I collapse.

Here's a low-res picture of the bag at the office, packed and ready to go home:

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Our trip to New Orleans

As promised, here's the recap of our New Year's weekend trip to New Orleans. It's long, so you might want to get some coffee or a snack first.


We left New York before dawn so we would have a full day to spend in New Orleans, so we arrived late Thursday morning. After checking into our hotel and finding our way around the French Quarter, we made our first stop: Central Grocery for a muffaletta. It's an Italian grocery that serves delicious muffaletta sandwiches to go. They make the sandwiches a day early and stack them behind the counter for quick access for hungry customers. Since there are only a few seats in the store, we took our sandwich over to the riverbank a block away to eat and people watch. The sandwich was almost 12" across and filled with ham, cheese, olive relish and fatty goodness. We split it and were comfortably full for an afternoon of sightseeing in the French Quarter. In the afternoon we had our first experience at Cafe du Monde, where we enjoyed coffee flavored with chicory and beignets covered in powdered sugar. Cafe du Monde is a huge outdoor cafe that was perpetually crowded with tourists. There was always a line, but it's misleading: if you could find an empty table, you could just bypass the line of unknowing tourists. The coffee is strong and the beignets are heavenly, and I can't think of a better breakfast or midafternoon snack. We went back to the hotel for a quick nap, then out to Acme Oyster House for po' boy sandwiches for dinner. Liz had a soft-shell crab sandwich, while I enjoyed fried shrimp on one half and fried catfish on the other half of my sandwich, and we split some red beans & rice. I tried some raw oysters as an appetizer, and they were tasty too. We wandered down Bourbon Street to Jean Laffite's Blacksmith Shop, which is actually a bar, and had a couple of voodoo daiquiris and soaked up the atmosphere of a bar that is still completely candlelit and dank. Rounding out our evening with some music, we caught the last set of the house jazz band at Preservation Hall. The hall is really just a large room with no seats, drinks, or other amenities. A sign behind the band lists $2 for requests, $5 for obscure requests, and $10 for "[Oh When] The Saints [Go Marching In]" saying that if they asked for less, the band would be playing it all night. The band played three songs and closed with "Saints," opting to play it for free.


We woke up late on Friday morning and took the St. Charles streetcar to the Garden District for a walking tour of the neighborhood. The Garden District is where Anne Rice used to live (she just moved out to a gated community) and where the wealthy Americans built their houses back when the city was still developing. We toured a cemetery and learned all about the peculiar burial habits of New Orleans (swampy ground means most people are buried in above-ground tombs instead of six feet under) and saw many beautiful old houses. Aside from Anne Rice's old house, we also saw where Archie Manning, Trent Reznor, and Ella Brennan (matriarch of the Brennan restaurant clan) live. Since we'd missed lunch, back in the Quarter we stopped at Napoleon House for a snack of Boudin sausage and a cheese board. We didn't want to fill up too much, as we had reservations at Commander's Palace at 8.

Commander's Palace is one of the top restaurants in the U.S., not just in New Orleans, and we were lucky to get a reservation there on New Year's Eve. Emeril Lagasse used to work there, as did Paul Prudhomme before him. The restaurant was festooned with balloons and banners, and the tables were adorned with streamers, poppers, bubbles, and party favors. And the food! This meal was one of the top five restaurant meals of my lifetime: turtle soup with sherry, veal chops with goat cheese grits, and bread pudding souffle for dessert. Liz had the best lobster bisque we've ever tasted, and a fantastic steak. We were done before 10 PM, so rather than stick around for the midnight toast, we went back to the Quarter to check out the celebration. Jackson Square was filling up with people, so we walked up to Bourbon Street to see how busy things were there. It was as rowdy as I expected, so we got some drinks and walked back to Jackson Square around 11:30. There we got caught in the crush of the now-massive throng, and we couldn't get to a place where we could watch the local ball drop. So we took shelter under a balcony in front of a bar and watched TV through the windows and listened to the noise. After midnight things eased up a bit, so we followed everyone back up to Bourbon. By now the street was really busy, and it was tough just to get out of the way. We quickly learned that staying in one place meant that we were accosted by drunks, especially since we were still dressed up from dinner. So we found a club where we could hang out, sit down, and avoid the mob for a few hours. Bourbon Street was still wild at 3 AM when we went back to our hotel.


We woke even later on New Year's Day. Our brunch reservation at Brennan's wasn't until 1 PM, so we had plenty of time to recuperate from our minor hangovers and find our way to the restaurant. Brennan's is another New Orleans institution, known as the birthplace of bananas foster. Again, we had an outstanding dining experience: I had oyster soup, eggs hussarde, and the aforementioned bananas foster. Liz had shrimp sardou, which was fried shrimp and creamed spinach, and crepes with strawberries. Since it was a holiday, none of the tourist sights we wanted to visit were open, so we walked around the Quarter and stopped at the Nokia Fan Fest tent to check out new cell phones and pick up freebies. I got a Sugar Bowl "koozie" which was a foam pouch to hold a water (or beer) bottle and attach it to your belt. (Too bad the New Orleans open-container laws don't let you take glass bottles out of the bars, or else I could have been all cool and stylin' with my beer bottle hanging off my belt.) Later that night we went to the Funky Pirate blues bar to hear Big Al Carson and his band. Big Al is nearly 500 pounds, and he's not shy about his weight or anything else. Let's just say he worked blue. Really blue. The between-song banter was quite raunchy. Around midnight we'd had enough blues (music and jokes) and had become afraid that the sixtyish woman wearing a belly shirt and a navel ring was going to take off the shirt entirely and show us what was left of her bosom. We went down the street to the Clover Grill, a 24-hour diner that, according to the marquee, served the best burgers in town, . At that hour anything would have tasted great, and the burgers were excellent. I can't remember the last time I ate a huge meal like that after midnight.


On Sunday morning we once again slept late and went out in search of breakfast before our scheduled afternoon of museums. Finding breakfast in short supply, we opted for an early lunch of jambalaya at Tujague's, a 150-year-old institution that serves a prix-fixe menu every day. Our first tourist stop was the Degas House on Esplanade Avenue. Edgar Degas lived with his American cousins for several months in 1872 and painted some of his works there, including Portraits in a New Orleans Cotton office. The house is actually two buildings now, as it was split in the last century into two houses and both were used for various purposes. In addition to a museum, one house is also a bed & breakfast, although a little too far away from the French Quarter to make it a realistic place for the casual tourist to stay. We also went to the Cabildo, which has served the governments of New Orleans and Louisiana in various capacities over the past 200 years. It was the location of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase and the seat of the state Supreme Court for many years. Now it's a museum. Among their exhibits is one of the four original death masks of Napoleon. It was an interesting museum but the displays were far too detailed for even the two hours we spent reading them.

Sunday's dinner was at Dominique's, yet another gourmet restaurant on our gastronomical tour of the city. The dishes here were the most creative that we'd eaten so far. I had a salmon and caviar appetizer and a main course of three different kinds of lamb: a lamb chop, merguez sausage, and some kind of lamb-potatoes-goat cheese thing that was delicious. Liz had a goat cheese pastry appetizer and a cracked conch entree. For dessert the restaurant brought us green apple cotton candy along with our chocolate souffle and cappamisu (tiramisu but with cappucino). For our last authentic New Orleans musical experience, we went to Fritzel's for more jazz, this time from Ryan Burrage and his band. Burrage played the clarinet, an older gentleman played the soprano sax, and two other guys on piano and drums. The soprano sax player repaired a lot of the damage Kenny G has done to the instrument's reputation over the years.

Throughout our vacation, we had to endure the rowdiness of Auburn and Virginia Tech fans along with the usual people one would expect to find in New Orleans on a holiday weekend. The number of football fans grew as the weekend went on, leading up to Monday night's Sugar Bowl, so each day there were more people in orange clothes stumbling around Bourbon Street and yelling at each other, either about the Hokies or "War Eagle" (which is either the old Auburn mascot or the fight song, I'm not sure which - nor do I care). Apparently if you're attending a bowl game, you're required to wear every single piece of clothing with your school's logo or colors on it all the time. To be fair, despite all the alcohol and competitiveness, everyone was polite, and we didn't see any unpleasant arguments or fights between fans from the two schools.

Bourbon Street is clearly the place to be in the French Quarter: all the great jazz, blues, and zydeco clubs are there or just around the corner, and most of the good bars and restaurants are in a five- or six-block stretch. But with the city's open container policy (anything in a plastic cup is OK), the constant stream of people, and the smell, it reminded me of block parties at Georgetown. Walking along Bourbon sampling music from the clubs and watching people go by was fun for a while, but by the second day and New Year's Eve it became too much to endure. We found ways to avoid the busiest sections of the street even during the day. If I were ten years younger, I would have absolutely loved it. But now that I'm an adult who doesn't like to drink eight hours a day, I had more fun sitting in the jazz clubs and relaxing than I did getting shoved by drunks. And the rules of public nudity applied to Bourbon Street as they did in Jamaica: the people you want to see showing off their chests for beads are never the ones who do. It's always the ones you'd prefer would keep their breasts covered that whip them out.


Monday was our last day in the city, so we spent it shopping for last-minute souvenirs and enjoying one last meal before our flight. We went to Johnny's Po' Boys for lunch, where Liz got the french fry sandwich and I had one with beef, sausage, and cheese. We took a short walk to burn off some of the calories, and stopped to listen to Mountain Sprout, a bluegrass band that played outside the A&P on Royal Street several times while we were there. We liked them so much we bought one of their albums. They looked like a bunch of hillbillies (the hound dogs laying at their feet helped with that image) but sounded like a professional touring band. By 2 PM we'd had enough of the football fans, the food, and walking, and we left for the airport. We brought back a can of Cafe du Monde coffee, some pralines for co-workers, and an increased risk of heart disease. But we had a great time, and would love to go back sometime. Just not at New Year's or Mardi Gras.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

New Orleans trip review is coming...

I'm still writing up a recap of our New Year's Eve weekend in New Orleans. It will be a long post, but hopefully one that you, my few faithful readers, will enjoy. I should have it posted by this evening.