Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Travelblog-March 2017

The vast majority of life, at least mine, is a bunch of repetition.  In between the time you wake up and go back to sleep, you're doing roughly the same thing a lot of the time.  There are variants, and some days bring more differences than others, but ultimately life is about routine.

There's nothing wrong with this, by the way.  Your routine can involve your kids, your work, your pets...ultimately it's yours and is what is needed in order to be able to provide for yourself and others. Humans, to an extent, strive for routine, some more than others.  

I thrive in routine.  I work best when I essentially have the same routine and can kick things off a list, growing more efficient in that routine, and when that routine is interrupted I get irritated.  Still, even those of us who thrive in routine need to shake things up every once in a while.  

That change came about a couple of weeks ago.  Anyone following college basketball right now knows we are in March Madness, and if you've regularly read this blog, you know basketball is a huge part of my life, as is the ability to travel as part of that basketball.  

About three weeks ago, Carolina had earned the top seed in the ACC Tournament.  For the first time, this Tournament was going to be played in Brooklyn, New York, as an Olive Branch to the northern most teams.  Folks from my neck of the woods hated this move, as the vast majority of Tournaments have been in North Carolina.  

I...was a little more excited. As soon as that 1 seed was clinched, I hopped on Stubhub and was thrilled to discover that the two game window where Carolina would play was available for a ridiculously reasonable price.


Actual seat no longer hidden since the tournament has passed
I'm lucky I work in an understanding enough place to be able to ask for 2 days off in a moment's notice.  Why 2?  Well, this game came with some work.

At the same time I would be going to the Tournament, Kathleen was going to fly down to Texas to pick up a new kitten, thanks to Younger Sister in Law.  YSIL had taken in a Momma cat a few months ago, and right after taking her in, a litter of kittens were born.  For Christmas, YSIL offered to give one of the kittens to Kathleen, provided she go down and get it.  YSIL would raise, house, spay, vaccinate, and chip said kitten, Kat just had to get her.  So, on this particular day, Kat was due to fly down to Texas, meaning I'm giving her a lift to the airport then immediately driving down to Brooklyn to watch the game.

Brooklyn is JUST at the driving distance to where you can go down for a day and come back without having to spend money on a hotel room.  The ticket also allowed for admission to the 2nd game, which happened to be Duke-Louisville, so for less than face value, I got to see two games.  Not too shabby, right?

Parking turned out to be easier than I expected thanks to the app linked to Barclay's Center, where you can pre-purchase a space in a valet garage. I ended up paying the same for a garage spot as I would to park for the Hurricanes game in a week (more on that later).  Problem was that I had to deal with New York traffic, so the trek that could have been about 3.5 hours took 5.

Still, made it in plenty of time, and soon the vision came into view:

This was my first Tournament game since 2001, the infamous Food Poisoning Event.  I was excited.

I took a lap around the upper level, and then settled into my seat.  Damn good view:

Look, I get why the traditionalists hate this.  It feels wrong to have to watch this in New York when the conference is mostly Southern, and there is a lack of excitement as the casual fan isn't able to afford the trip to New York like the typical North Carolina fan.  That said...this worked well.

Barclay's is clearly built for basketball.  The way to tell is to look at the stands.  The angles on the corners are meant for a smaller rectangle, both high and low.  In mult-purpose arenas, like Greensboro, the rectangle is built more for the bigger hockey surface, so on both baselines the angles don't curve in, creating an uncomfortable view.  Here?  All the nightlines are for basketball.

When I go to a game, I go to watch not to take pictures, so I don't have an of the game action.  It was wonderful to watch, though.  Carolina won going away in the second half.  I also stuck around for the 2nd game, and as it wound to an end, I decided to see what I could do to get closer.

I learned as long as I didn't try to sit in someone's seats, and I didn't stand in the aisle blocking a view or someone's ability to leave, they left me alone.  This led itself to a of nice view of the end of the Duke-Louisville game.
Jay Bilas' head is visible there at the bottom
As soon as it was clear the Devils would win, I bolted out to my car.  By then, it was clear it was going to be Good vs. Evil in the semi finals, and I learned that if I wanted to get a ticket right then and there off someone I needed to have cash on hand.  Oops.   Still I got a good selfie heading out:

Tournament is back in 2018...maybe me as well?
Overall, when I pulled back into a space at 10 PM Thursday night, I had been in motion for 16 hours, 10 of which was in traffic.  There was no way I could work the next day, and I knew this, so I allowed myself the ability to sleep in.  I had also resolved that had Carolina beaten that team from Durham, I'd buy another ticket on the Hub and watch the title game.

Yeah, that didn't happen.

I just had to work another three days prior to another trip.  Because I lived in New England, that means we'd have a Blizzard before I left.  Why?  Because it's March in New England, silly.

Luckily, work decided that the weather on that Tuesday was too strong for us to go in, so I was allowed to work from home. This allowed for some bonding time with my only coworker: Ezra.

Oh hai!  I see you haz work, so do I!
I mean, how distracting is that?  I had to lay down the law right there, provide instant feedback to let him know this wouldn't be allowed.

My coworker didn't like feedback.

Oh well, I had another trip to get ready for.

Even before going to the ACC, I had purchased tickets to go back to North Carolina and visit the house of a fellow brother and alum who always hosted an NCAA Tournament watching party.  For all four days, the house was opened up and people could enter and exit as they pleased.  He'd begged me to go for a couple of years, and this year with Kat's School meaning we couldn't really make too many plans, I decided to take him up on it.

Because of the kitten, I had to restrict my trip from Thursday to very Early Sunday.  I flew into Richmond because, for some odd reason, it was at least $100 cheaper to fly into Richmond on Thursday-Sunday than it was Raleigh.  Turns out it's a shorter drive to Richmond to the Triangle than it is to Charlotte, and I was going to have to get a car anyway.  It turned into a cost-savings measure, too, as the flight out left at 6 AM Sunday morning.

So, with this flight schedule in mind, I created the following itinerary:

Thursday-Land, night with the family
Friday-Day of Basketball, hotel room
Saturday-More Basketball, Hurricanes game
Sunday "morning"-Good-Bye's, drive up to Richmond.

One of the things I love about the new rules with electronics on planes is that you don't have to turn off the phones, just have them in airplane mode.  It allows you to get shots like this

Landed in Richmond, hopped in my Mazda 3, 3 hours later checked in with my fellow alums, and then drove to the hometown to see the family.

I was shocked at how much my two little nieces had grown.  I didn't snap a pic of the oldest, but the youngest wanted to make sure she showed me every single stuffed toy she owned.  Every.  Single One.

She really is such a cutie.  It really was a perfect evening: basketball, Bojangles, beer, and catching up with family.  Even had a comfortable bed to sleep in.

It had been far too long since I had seen them.  That's on me, and hopefully it won't be quite so long before the next time.

To protect the innocence of all the people involved at the Watch Party, no pix will make this blog. It was everything I had hoped for and more, though.  Folks I hadn't seen in ages, a ton of basketball on the screen, and just an overall great time.  It was really fun to watch Carolina play with a bunch of alums, screaming and yelling at the same time.

After the game (Carolina played in the late afternoon), I checked into a hotel room nearby.  While the atmosphere was very much like college, I had gotten to the part of life where I really preferred waking up in a bed with a shower.  It allowed me to enjoy the night in style, but check out when things wound down.  It also allowed for an easy start to Saturday.

Saturday greeted me with more basketball, and after watching the Villanova upset, I headed to Raleigh for my first Hurricanes game in 4 years.

It turns out that the Canes had added a series to the schedule this year: Homegrown Games.  They picked a few games where they would feature local artists making posters, a local brewer offering a flight of beers, a local artist performing during the Intermissions, and a local t-shirt company providing a design.  The shirts were in very limited quantities, 144, so the key was to get there early to nab the limit of 2.

I missed out on my size, but they did have XL available, so I can stretch it.  All in all, a pretty nice design:

Runaway's design, it's a goalie mask.  

One is for me, one is for a Canes fan here in Boston who couldn't go to any of these games.

The poster was also limited in quantity, 1,000 were printed, and the artist was on hand to sign a few:

Gabriel Eng-Goetz with this AMAZING design.  The signature is out of the shot, but this needs to be framed
There's a signature food item, but I didn't get a chance to really sample it: Pork Belly and Mac & Cheese Pizza.  The line was too long and it wasn't my cup of tea compared to some of the other items they had had.  The beer, though:

2 Blondes, a Czech Pils, and a Stout from Lynnwood Brewing Concern.  Very tasty. 
After all this, I made my way to my seat.  As it was my only game in a long time, I splurged on Stubhub for some really good seats on the end where the Canes Shot twice (well below face thanks to the fact the Canes are basically out of the playoffs).  

No Zoom, basically about 8 rows from the glass
The Canes scored within the first minute, and as you can see I had a great view of the goal.  The would score 3 more times, 2 of those on our end.  I also happened to sit right under the best section in the arena, Section 328.  If you've gone to a game, heard them tell an opposing goalie how "good" they are, heard them yell a penalized opponent that "CHEATERS. NEVER. WIN," then you know what I'm talking about.  I was lucky enough in the very beginning of the organization to enjoy some games from that section.  I truly believe if I stayed in Raleigh I would have joined them, but they've done a truly wonderful thing by creating a Podcast that allows me to keep in touch with the team from here in Boston.  I made sure during the First Intermission to climb the stairs away from the Pretty People and shake Mike and Derek's hands.  If you're a Canes fan, listen to their podcast, it truly is a labor of love.  

After the game I slipped back into the Merchandise Store (The Eye) to grab another souvenir, as I realized I didn't have great headwear for the Boston Winters.  I had to fix that.  
Wore this on Sunday as I landed thanks to the sub-20 degree temps
 After the game I slipped back to Durham to say good-bye to the fellas.  I hung out till about 1:30, playing some games to keep my focus up and allow the adrenaline to keep pumping for the drive back to Richmond.  It worked, as I pulled into the airport right at the edge of where I could safely function on the road.  

When I came home...and slept...it's time to adjust to a new kitten.  Folks, meet Thumbelina.  

Ezra: "She's really staying, isn't she?
The two have been together for about a week now and have gotten along better and better as time as moved on.  Hopefully we'll have the same dynamic as when it was Harley and Ezra, or at least something similar, but it is so nice having two cats in the apartment again.  Ezra has turned into an Old Soul, and his patience with the new cat has been great, with the exception of a token hiss here and there.  

So...all in all, a pretty busy week and a half, and far from routine.  I'm ready to be back into the routine a little, but man...this was fun.  

I may have to do this again next year.  

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

UNC in NC-Or-There are Much Better Reasons to Hate HB2

(Click here if you want something of an explanation as to why this is my first post in over a year)

HB2 in North Carolina is a blight on our landscape, both nationally and anyone who calls or used to call North Carolina home.  It has cost towns tourism dollars, jobs, an NBA All-Star Game, and perhaps the biggest loss to the residents of the state, the ability to hose NCAA postseason games. 

Any law that gives the NCAA the moral high ground is a bad law.  You can go to multiple other places to delve deeper into this, but it's the last part that is causing me to dust off the blog. 

After the painful ending to 2016's college basketball season (and I'm steeling myself for multiple replays of that ending), Carolina fans were looking forward to 16-17 as a chance for redemption.  Especially after the team got off to a great start.  This particular season has no one dominant team, and so a team loaded with Juniors and Seniors that has tournament experience has a great chance to go back to where they were. 

If you've clicked over, I don't need to explain to you how often North Carolina has hosted NCAA Tournament games, or that how they've famously lost their ability to do that for at least this year thanks to HB2.  What it does do is cause folks to rise up and cry "North Carolina is losing a huge advantage playing outside of North Carolina!'

I've already seen it crop up, this fear that because UNC will be out of NC, the team has already lost.  Historical records are brought up, and it's been stuck in our heads that UNC just can't play outside of their home state. 


Let's break this down a little to try and figure out how true this really is.  First off, a LOT of the examples cited: their '99 upset from Weber State, the '94 loss to BC, and the '01 loss to Penn State, occurred in a different era of the NCAA Tournament.  In those years, the sub regional sites were tied to the regional sites, geographically.  So, if you were a 2 seed in the South, you had a sub regional in the south, then a regional final in the South.  Thus, in '01 the first/second round sites were in New Orleans.  In 1999, they were a 3 seed out West, and played their first game in Seattle.   Only one of North Carolina or Duke could slide into a site that played their games in North Carolina.

Even keeping this in mind, let's take a look at how they've actually done in this era.  We'll call this the "Expand to 64...ish...teams, before the Pod."

1985: 3-1 (No games in NC, and played ND in South Bend in the 2nd Round)
1986: 2-1 (No games in NC, and Austin TX was considered "West")
1987: 3-1 (first round in Charlotte, 2-0 in NC, 1-1 in Regional)
1988: 3-1 (No games in NC)
1989: 2-1 (No games in NC)
1990: 2-1 (No games in NC)
1991: 4-1 (No games in NC)
1992: 2-1 (No games in NC)
1993: 6-0 (first round in Winston-Salem, 2-0 in NC, 4-0 rest)
1994: 1-1 (No games in NC)
1995: 4-1 (No games in NC)
1996: 1-1 (No games in NC)
1997: 4-1 (first round in Winston-Salem, 2-0 in NC, 2-1 rest)
1998: 4-1 (Regionals in Greensboro, 2-0 in NC, 2-1 rest)
1999: 0-1 (No games in NC)
2000: 4-1 (No games in NC)
2001: 1-1 (No games in NC)

So that's a total of 62 games played from '85-'01.  Eight of those games...EIGHT...or about 13% of their games were played in the state of North Carolina.  On top of that, since they got the site they wanted, they were one of the top teams of the country, facing lesser competition, meaning they should have won those games. Thus, they are 8-0 in 13% of those games, but the only time they played competition that would have conceivably been their equal was 1998. 

This leaves 54 games.  39-15 in those 54 games outside the State of North Carolina.  This is a .722 winning percentage against, supposedly, harder places for them to play.  Yes, it is true their National Title came in a year that started in North Carolina, however they also made Three Final Fours not playing a single game in the state. 

Now, let's move to the current era of the NCAA Tournament: the Pod system.  Now, you were placed in a region that had a Championship site, but your first games could conceivably be closer to home.  A top four seed was rewarded with a location closer to their home base, the higher the seed, the better the chance you had at playing at home.

For UNC, this meant a better chance at playing a first/second round game in NC since you could now have a top seeded Duke team, for example, also play in your region, but you don't play each other.  To save time typing, Duke's consistently great seeding allowed them to be one of the North Carolina teams each time below:

2004: 1-1 (6 seed, played in Denver, Wake Forrest as 4 seed got other NC spot)
2005: 6-0 (1 seed, First rounds in Charlotte, 2-0 in NC)
2006: 1-1 (3 seed, played in Dayton, Tennessee as 2 seed got other NC spot)
2007: 3-1 (1 seed, First Rounds in Winston-Salem, 2-0 in NC)
2008: 4-1 (1 seed, First Rounds in Raleigh, Regionals in Charlotte, 4-0 in NC)
2009: 6-0 (1 seed, First Rounds in Greensboro, 2-0 in NC)
2011: 3-1 (2 seed, First Rounds in Charlotte, 2-0 in NC)
2012: 3-1 (1 seed, First Rounds in Greensboro, 2-0 in NC)
2013: 1-1 (8 seed, no games in North Carolina this season)
2014: 1-1 (6 seed, played in San Antonio, UVA got the other NC spot)
2015: 2-1 (4 seed, played in Jacksonville to start, UVA got other NC Spot)
2016: 5-1 (1 seed, First Rounds in Raleigh, 2-0 in NC)

The only year of this sample where North Carolina wasn't an option for UNC was 2013, but that was the year after Kendall Marshall left and Marcus Paige, expecting to be a backup, instead had to be the primary point guard. 

Why is playing in North Carolina so important?  Well, since 2004 it wasn't so much about the location as it was about it being a sign that you had a good team.  In every year UNC didn't play in NC, excluding 2013, ('04, '06, '14, '15), they were a 3 seed at best, meaning they were having a down year, and their opponents got the benefit of the home court.  In '04 and '14, they didn't lose until they played a higher seed in the first/second rounds, same thing in '15.  The only one you can't write off is '06...except they lost to a team who ultimately made the Final Four in George Mason. 

Look, this isn't me completely eschewing the numbers outside of North Carolina.  Since the Pod System was introduced, UNC has played 46 games in the NCAA Tournament, 16 of them in North Carolina.  Again, they are undefeated, but this time playing about 35% of their games in State.  That leaves 30 games outside the state, with a record of 20-10.  It's clear that fans being able to take a day trip to the sites increases home fan turnout, plus the team usually has some level of familiarity with the area and the arena.  These all help, and can't be discounted. 

The bigger point, though, is that we really don't have an example in this current structure for this particular year: Carolina is a team that would have been good enough to get a spot in a North Carolina regional, if one existed.  The only other year you could compare this to was 2013, but Carolina was an 8 seed and not that great.  We won't go into the argument of whether they were underseeded in order to produce a great second round matchup. 

The fact is, most teams don't play any games in their home state, Carolina is just incredibly lucky that the NCAA has awarded so many games to the North Carolina area, knowing that they will likely get at least one of the area teams there.  Will not playing in North Carolina matter this year? 

My opinion is no.  Carolina is going to be a high seed, meaning they'll be matched up in the first round with a low seed in their first two games, and while Greenville, SC isn't exactly a stone's throw away...it isn't like fans are having to trek to Washington or Atlanta.  Plus, since Clemson played at this arena last season, a good chunk of the team has experience there.  It's about a two hour drive from Charlotte, so I get the feeling there will be more than a few fans down there that would be close to what you'd get in Greensboro. 

Also, playing close to home doesn't exactly guarantee first round success.  Duke's first round losses,  in 2012 they were in Greensboro, and in 2014 they were in Raleigh.  Ultimately, with 8 teams there, 7/8 of the arena is going to be cheering for an upset, no matter if it's in North Carolina or New Jersey. 

By the way, if look at their ACC Tournament Record during this stretch:

1985: Atlanta, GA:  2-1
1986: Greensboro, NC: 0-1
1987: Washington, DC: 2-1
1988: Greensboro, NC: 2-1
1989: Atlanta, GA: 3-0 (Champs)
1990: Charlotte, NC: 0-1
1991: Charlotte, NC :3-0 (Champs)
1992: Charlotte, NC: 2-1
1993: Charlotte, NC 2-1
1994: Charlotte, NC 3-0 (Champs)
1995: Greensboro, NC 2-1
1996: Greensboro, NC 0-1
1997: Greensboro, NC 3-0 (Champs)
1998: Greensboro, NC 3-0 (Champs)
1999: Charlotte, NC: 2-1
2000: Charlotte, NC: 0-1
2001: Atlanta, GA:  2-1
2002: Charlotte, NC:  0-1
2003: Greensboro, NC: 1-1
2004: Greensboro, NC: 0-1
2005: Washington, DC: 1-1
2006: Greensboro, NC: 1-1
2007: Tampa Bay, FL: 3-0 (Champs)
2008: Charlotte, NC: 3-0 (Champs)
2009: Atlanta, GA: 1-1
2010: Greensboro, NC: 0-1
2011: Greensboro, NC: 2-1
2012: Atlanta, GA: 2-1
2013: Greensboro, NC: 2-1
2014: Greensboro, NC:  0-1
2015: Greensboro, NC: 3-1
2016: Washington, DC:  3-0 (Champs)

Eight Championships in that time. Three of them at sites other than North Carolina. In every year they place the tournament outside of North Carolina, they won at least a game, something they couldn't say for the ones played in either Charlotte or Greensboro. 

2008 is probably your biggest argument to support playing as much in North Carolina as you can, as they won the ACC Tournament played in Charlotte, and all four NCAA games played there.  But lest we forget, that 2008 team was good, and I'd argue they'd rack up that record in just about any location.  I doubt we ever see that confluence of events again. 

Look, hate HB2 for a lot of reasons, including the fact that if you were planning to go to an NCAA Tournament game in Greensboro, you have about another 2-3 hours to drive.  I totally get it.  You can also hate it for Greensboro itself, as those 6 games probably drop a lot of money in an area that doesn't have a whole lot more going for it. If you want to use UNC's record outside of NC as one, though, look somewhere else. 

It's a great story, but it isn't the whole one. 

Happy March, everyone! 

Why I haven't blogged...

So, I have a much, much, much longer blog post coming up, and I felt that one deserved to be unhampered with an explanation in the beginning about why I haven't posted something on the Internet for a while.  So, I'll link to this, and you can decide to read at your pleasure. 

Why has it been over a year since I posted? 

I didn't feel like it. 

I could throw out a longer explanation: I stare at a computer all day, the election sapped my will to type up more stuff, Twitter allows me to post a lot of quick thoughts, and so forth.  The truth is, all of these little factors played into the big one: it's my blog, and since I'm not paid, and I'm not really reaching out for anything bigger than a platform to put out my thoughts, I can take a...year...plus...off. 

That said, with March flaring up and some fun trips coming up timed to college basketball, I did want to get back into the habit of typing again.  So, enjoy. 

I'll try to do this more. 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

A Film Review: Unverified

One of the benefits of taking the time to tap away at a keyboard is that once in a while, someone notices what you do.  Thanks to a couple of posts I authored a year and a half ago, I attracted the attention of one of the subjects: Bradley Bethel.  You may recall that in all of the hue and cry, Bethel emerged as someone trying to put out a different narrative than one that local and national media had established in regards to the AFAM Paper Classes Scandal at Carolina.  Bethel wasn't getting the same play nationally that his counterweights, Mary Willingham and Jay Smith, were, but Carolina fans had come to read his stuff simply because he was saying what we wanted him to say.  The idea was that there were more sides to this, but the media was just capturing the simplistic idea of the scandal, and that's all.

Bethel communicated his counter arguments in his blog, and those pieces were heavy, factually researched, and were more than just rantings of a fan who disagreed with the premise (yes, I'm speaking of myself more than anything).  While some of the posts turned personal, it was clear that Bethel was starting to take up a crusade.  He voluntarily left his position as a Reading and Writing specialist at UNC to focus full time on a documentary, as he noticed that between multiple media outlets, one story had emerged with no room for a counter argument.

Where do we intersect?  Those blogs I linked above had attracted the notice of Mary Willingham, where we engaged in a private message back and forth on Twitter.  Because I was subsequently blocked, and I had no clue that when you are blocked those Private Messages you have disappear into the abyss, you'll just have to believe we talked.  Bethel saw the posts, followed me on Twitter, and became a supporter of my posts.  Call it a mutual respect.

I will be up front about this: I did NOT contribute to the Kickstarter campaign that Bethel started in order to make and show his film.  In the Press Kit and in the actual Kickstarter list, you will not find my name or any pseudonyms.  I have no financial stake in this film.  I'll be honest: while I supported Bethel and his work, I was dubious about the idea of making a documentary, and worried it could quickly devolve into a finger pointing exercise.

Still, because Bethel is trying to get the word out about his film like any good Director should, he reached out to anyone and everyone who he felt would have an open mind about the project.  I've already seen other bloggers and reporters on Twitter who attended an in-person premier of the film on Friday night.  I have not read those opinions, but I know they are out there.  I can't be in Chapel Hill so I was approached about being able to see the film and offer thoughts in this blog.  I did so on the condition that I could be honest about my thoughts.  I know I'm not the only one afforded this opportunity, but before I get started on the actual review, let me say this: Mr. Bethel has done an admiral job of trying to get word out about his work.  I want to thank him for making this Joe Carolina fan feel special enough to view a film before it's in wide release, with a Press Kit and everything.


As I mentioned, I went into this viewing a little skeptical about it's tone.  As someone who's read his blog, and has seen how Bethel has responded to personal attacks, I feared it was going to be one big middle finger to those who disagreed with him.  I'm pleased to say it is not.  It, instead, is a film that establishes its premise in more human terms early on.

This is not a film that UNC will be giving out to folks as a recruitment tool.  You start by meeting two academic advisors who are no longer employed by UNC.  Later, you find out that these two are Jamie Lee and Beth Bridger, the two advisors mentioned in the Weinstein report as being complicit in the perpetuation of the scandal.  Supposedly, these two knew the classes that athletes were signed up for were fake but did it anyway in order to keep these athletes eligible.  This is the first time that these two have been heard from, likely because they didn't really want to be in the spotlight.  This film actually presents the best opportunity for you to get their story.  They won't be compensated for their tale, Bethel is a former coworker who allows them to open up, and at least this viewer walks away believing their perspective.

These two serve as the foundation for the rest of the film, as Bethel mentions it was his launching point for getting involved to the point of making a movie.  If you've read his blog, this really isn't a surprise in the sense that the whole reason he started was that the department he worked for was being derided by the media and rival fans alike.

Bethel gets a great range of interviews: 20 separate people, by my count, actually agree to a sit down interview with him, 8 of whom are athletes, current and former.  A huge key in the film is the interview of Deunta Williams, a former player who was seen as critical to UNC on an ESPN "Outside the Lines" piece done on the scandal.  Williams is there in a UNC t-shirt, and presents a different person than ESPN allowed us to see.  All of the athlete interviews were great, Williams' is the key, though, as it really helps cement one thesis that Bethel puts forward: the media had a story and instead of digging to find that story, shaped the story because they already had a conclusion.

This isn't just a story about unfairness from the media, however, and Bethel uses a great interview with UNC Journalism Professor Adam Hochberg to transition into another question that hasn't been asked enough: what about the school itself?  The back and forth is riveting, and credit to Bethel for having that discussion in there.

What follows through the second half of the film is an exploration into what UNC could have done better, and starts to cast some doubt onto the Weinstein report.  The questions aren't whether or not this scandal happened, but rather, where was the failing?  In a big way, it's at the heart of what the NCAA is deciding right now, and Bethel gets some great folks to actually sit down and talk.  Butch Davis, Jay Bilas, Joe Holladay, and James Moeser all sit down with Bethel during this exploration.  Bethel also gets to talk to the former Senior Associate Athletic Director John Blanchard, another name in the Weinstein report.

Missing is a lot of dissenting voices.  Bethel takes pains to note, and has continued to note on Twitter, that he asked repeatedly for those reporters who helped shape this narrative to sit down for the film and none agreed.  There's one e-mail from Bernie Goldberg of HBO that just drips with irony, but at least he responded.  No one in the current UNC Administration is on camera as well, Bethel tells us they were asked as well.

I have to say, this was an interesting doc to watch following another film I saw recently, the Oscar Favorite Spotlight.  I do highly recommend this movie, as it takes you on the ride with the investigative team of reporters from the Boston Globe who break open the Catholic Priest sex abuse scandal that, to this day is still unfolding.  In a way, the reason that movie is so good cuts to the core of what went wrong with the media telling the story here: there is a real thrill as a reader finding something that was discovered.  When power is brought down, we want to be a part of it.  Spotlight is good not only because you see how the story unfolds, but the untold business side of the story in that the Globe reporters want to make sure they get the story before the Boston Herald.  It's a little wink/nod to the idea that while these reporters knew they had a story that needed to be told, their motivations weren't 100% altruistic.  Those motivations also kept the story hidden for a long time.

News is business.  That should never be forgotten, and Unverified reminds you of how there may be different motivations involved, not only for these media outlets but for UNC as well.

My biggest gripe with the movie is that it does seem like, in some ways, it only scratches the surface. No doubt, the lack of any sit down with any journalist who reported on this hurts the film, even if it does help support the idea that Bethel may be on to something.  There's also no meeting with anyone in the higher ups at UNC to try and expose more of what's going on.  Again, it isn't that Bethel lacked trying, you just leave the film feeling like it's just scratched the surface.  There are also a couple of trite items/shots in the film that feel like they are just there to add feel to the film.  Call it an homage to Michael Moore, our lonely hero trying to take on the system.  The film didn't need it, but it doesn't detract from the overall product.

My hope here is twofold: that this film gets the opportunity to be seen, and that people go to see it.  Just because this is a UNC-centered film doesn't limit the scope of the lessons.  As a resident of Boston, some of the narrative lessons about the media can be seen in the whole Tom Brady case.  Films like this are needed to make our journalists better, so that we can get to the point where those who get punished truly deserve to pay for their mistakes.  While I doubt Unverified will get the distribution of a Moore product, I hope that the word of mouth on this starts to grow, and that those who provided their voice in the film will spread the word so that more people see it.  "Banner Chasers," should watch it to get a better sense of their arguments as it in no way, shape or form tries to act as if the no show classes didn't exist.  If anything, Bethel does a fair amount to support their arguments that this process may have been in place longer than the original scope of the investigation.  I also hope the subjects that refused to participate watch as well to see that it would have benefited them to do so.

Specifically, I would love HBO's Real Sports to revisit this on their show.  There's a part of me that thinks they are already aware: on their 20th anniversary show this past month, they went through and showed a huge montage of their work, and they included part of their work on the UNC Scandal.  However, it wasn't the part that involved Willingham or the UNC athletes, rather the ones from other schools who read Seuss books.  They had a sit-down with Willingham, and Goldberg even tweeted the day the Weinstein Report came out.  In their mind, they were a big part of this: yet in their montage of the past 20 years, they couldn't include a blurb?  While they didn't participate, and likely won't touch this again, part of me feels they already know this is more nuanced than they presented.

If you are presented the opportunity to watch, watch this film.  If for no other reason, it will open your mind to the idea that there is more to this than meets the eye, and maybe it shouldn't be just swept under the rug quite yet.  I left wondering if some of the rot that caused this problem was truly fixed.  If you are a fan of college athletics, you should watch as well.  If your school ever gets caught up in any sort of scandal, it will make you rightfully question the information you are hearing.


Most of all, I want to compliment Mr. Bethel.  He does a great job of giving some heart to this piece, and helping you understand that this is more than just a defense of an athletic department.  It is, rather, a defense of people who just happen to be part of said department.  You can tell there was a lot of hard work put into this film, and you can see the effort Mr. Bethel took in trying to put together a film that will challenge you to question your previous thoughts.

I hope you get a chance to see this work.  I hope it at least changes a little bit of the narrative that's out there about this scandal.  I also hope that this isn't the last doc that Mr. Bethel ends up working on.  There's a lot of potential there.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

What sort of football season is this?

I've been hesitant to post this simply because...I've been afraid of the jinx I would put on the football team.  Yeah, I'm that sort of fan.  But with today's win, I feel like I have to at least say...something. 

As tends to happen when the school you went to specializes in one sport, the other sport is usually seen as a distraction.  It's that way for just about every SEC school; the football season is the one you care about, and the rest of the schools just play basketball for fun.  Except Kentucky. For Kentucky, they play football to get to basketball season.  You know who else has been doing that?

The school who decorates this page.

I've cared about Carolina basketball a lot longer than football, and frankly I think a lot of fans will say that.  Right around the time I was born Carolina won their last ACC Title with a guy named Lawrence Taylor anchoring a stout D.  After that?  Well...the 80's basically was a lost decade for football.  Between that and the outright dominance of the basketball team, it was tough to build a real loyalty to Carolina Football.  It was just this thing that was there till the real season started, and keep in mind: cable was in its infancy, meaning every football game wasn't on TV.

It's not that the coach at the time, Dick Crum was bad, just...after the early 80's they were never able to stand out.  By the time they let him go in 1987, he had racked up some pretty mediocre records, and didn't leave much for his successor, Mack Brown. 

Mack didn't...umm...start too great, which of course didn't really convert a lot of football fans.  In '88 and '89 he had identical 1-10 records.  At the time, with basketball thriving, an understanding that Mack would need time to recruit, and in 1990 the tide started to turn.  The Heels finished 6-4-1, including a tie of the eventually Co-National Champ Georgia Tech.  I actually remember being at the State Fair and seeing that score written on a marker board, thinking "Wow, that's a big deal."  He turned that tie to another win in '91, but no bowl.  Why?  Because there weren't 30,000,000,000 bowls then.

1992-'93 was a big year for the team, as they made their first Bowl appearance since '86, winning the Peach Bowl, starting a streak of 5 straight bowls under Brown.  It was awesome, and a lot of momentum was being built...except Tar Heel fans will remember 1993 for something a little...bigger.

Via GoHeels.com
This started an unfortunate trend for Mack, probably the best Carolina Coach in my lifetime so far (we'll get to the current guy).  Mack was able to get a lot of improvements to Kenan: permanent lighting, a closed in horseshoe at the stadium with modern offices and locker rooms, and national recognition.  He also managed to start becoming good at the same time the ACC recognized that as good as they were in basketball, football was going to be what paid the bills, and invited Florida State to join the league.  FSU was a powerhouse, and Mack could never get over the hump with them. Still, by 1996, Carolina had a good team that had a shot at going to a New Year's Day level bowl.  Then...they lost at Virginia.  A Gator Bowl instead, and optimism built for 1997.

This is when I entered Carolina.  We were stoked going into that football season, and for the first time you could feel a real excitement going into the college sports year, not just waiting for basketball.  Carolina had a team that returned a LOT of upperclassmen, had the experience of the previous year to make them stronger, and had FSU coming to Chapel Hill.  On top of that, the basketball team was coming off a Final Four appearance and returned everyone including Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter.  I stepped onto campus and into the Band thinking I might see two national title teams.

Mack was supportive of this, and felt like he finally had a chance to get the football team the spotlight it so richly deserved.  But, as happened a lot with Mack, basketball eventually overshadowed him.  Dean decided to retire right before the start of the '97 season, which, by the way, happened to be smack dab in the middle of football season.  It kind of took away the shine from the football team as they headed into a big homecoming game.  Still, the team won every game leading to the big showdown: FSU.

It was a top 5 battle, and big enough to where College GameDay actually came to Chapel Hill.  I remember Chis, Herb, and Lee on stage, and was in Kenan as they broadcast from Judgement Day.  We all booed as Corso put on the FSU headdress, waved the flag, and proclaimed that FSU would take another chunk of sod for their Sod Cemetery.  "No way," we thought.  This was a new team, new attitude, a big night game in a packed house...we were going to take this game.


It wasn't a domination, but FSU really never let the Heels into the game, and by the end and about 70+ renditions of the Tomahawk Chop, their best shot for any sort of national attention faded away into the Chapel Hill night.  They finished the season strong enough and just missed a big New Year's Bowl again, ending up back in Jacksonville.  It told you how far football had gone with an appearance in the ACC's second bowl was a disappointment.

The problem is, Mack never made it to that bowl.  Around the same time, Texas was in a funk of their own and canned their coach after the season.  Mack was at the top of their list, and...well...you don't say no to them.  18 years has helped put the move in perspective for me.  Of course he had to leave, cause basketball was still king.  It would always be king, and Texas was football royalty.  It'd be like what would happen when UNC opens in Basketball, you don't say no to Carolina (so we thought).  But at the time...I was pissed.  Mack had the college coach presser saying he wasn't going anywhere, and instead, off he went to Austin.

Everyone decided it was best if Mack just left and the Assistant Coach, Carl Torbush, took over for the Bowl Game.  I headed to my first Bowl Game against Virginia Tech, and it was such a total domination we were all yelling "TOR-BUSH! TOR-BUSH! TOR-BUSH!" at the end.  We essentially forced the AD's hand, and he hired TOR-BUSH! to lead the team.

Unfortunately...Carl was a great Defensive Coordinator, not such a great head coach.  1998 was a mediocre year including three losses in a row to start the year (one of which was Miami...of Ohio), and ended in Las Vegas.  Now, as a band member?  Loved the bowl game.  I got to fly to Vegas on Sky Trek Airlines and stayed in Vegas for free, at Caesar's Palace.  But for the program, it just wasn't a good sign.  '99 brought about a losing year, no bowl game, and my senior year ended without a bowl trip as well.

Expectations now being a little different, what with the money sunk into the program and all, Torbush just couldn't survive.  The AD fired Carl, and went after North Carolina native Frank Beamer, the successful coach of VT, to take over.  He said yes...flew back to Blacksburg and changed his mind.  Instead, John Bunting was hired to take over in 2001.

It started so well...Carolina got their first win against Florida State that year, and after a couple of toe stubs, ended up back in Atlanta and the Peach Bowl.  "OK" we thought, "Back on the Rise!"  We then proceeded to go 3-9 and 2-10.  I went back for a game in '04, and saw us upset new ACC member Miami...and as was the story with Coach Bunting, they could never build solid momentum after it.  6-6, including a loss in the bowl in Charlotte. He got two more years: '05 (5-6) and '06 (3-9).  It just couldn't be sustained.

Around that time, Butch Davis was looking for a new job after flaming out in the NFL, and the National Title his recruited Miami team won was still fresh in everyone's mind.  Davis would bring credibility back, we all thought, and he would have a name that would get in talent.  In the end, it sure seemed like a new Golden Age had started.  After a 4-8 start in '07, Davis had a winning record in '08, and '09.  He was getting recruits, and got Carolina into a big opening game against LSU to start the 2010 season.

And then...the unpleasantness.

One year under the cloud in 2010 that ended with a bowl win, and then the firing right before the season started in 2011.  The sanctions, the vacated wins, and the AFAM class issues that still hasn't been fully resolved.  One year of an interim coach who everyone KNEW wasn't getting the job, and Hello Larry Fedora.

No doubt any true historian of Carolina Football can nitpick and give you more detail with those seasons, but really...that's what you need to know.  Anytime the football team has had some upward mobility, either they have shot themselves in the foot, or the jumped off a cliff.  They say that UNC is a stepping stone job, but the truth is the only great coach they've had that would use UNC as a stepping stone was Brown, and to this day I'm convinced he would have stayed had Texas not opened up.  Since then, they've either made the wrong hires, or the coach has been dealing with the issues of the program.

Seriously, read that all again.  That's a remarkable run of just getting your nose up in the air and smelling success.  Carolina isn't going to be a football school anytime soon, but it sure as hell can be one where the fans get excited for the team.  There's just never been a reason for fans to fully and emotionally invest in this team.  Every time they've tried, they've gotten burnt.  Badly.  At least with the basketball team, they have 4 National titles since '82, and a lot of deep postseason runs.

It was in this environment that Fedora arrived.  He signed a 7 year deal because, at the time, everyone knew football was going to get hit with the AFAM and Davis-era stuff.  He was going to need time to withstand those obstacles.  It didn't help that he had a lot of talent when he arrived in 2012, and he broke a losing streak to NC State with the "NO HE DIDN'T, YES HE DID" run by Gio.  The Heels couldn't go to a bowl that year, so that game basically WAS their bowl game.  It teased us, as we had been teased before.

2013 teased us a little more, as there wasn't a huge drop off as some of Butch's recruits left and Fedora was able to wade through the restrictions and get Carolina to a Bowl Game, where they won easily.  They also managed to beat State again, and hope was there for last year, thinking he'd have more of his recruits, and momentum would just build.

What we all should have realized is that Year 3 was going to be the most difficult.  The penalties of scholarship reductions really hit strong, and Fedora wasn't really able to recruit much his first year, meaning the fall of 2011 was a lost year, and Fedora had to modify what he could bring in for '12, 13, and '14.  That, plus an unrealistic rating to start the year placed a spotlight the team wasn't ready for.  It was the same old football team, after a great win at Duke they sputtered to an end that kept them from playing for an ACC title, a horrid loss in a bad Bowl game, and some soul-searching.

This year, the inexplicable loss to South Carolina seemed to set up the same old thing.  But this year is different.  Fedora realized he had a bad defensive staff, and had the intelligence to not only find the best defensive coordinator he could, Gene Chizik, but give that coordinator complete control of the D.  That DC cleaned house on that side of the ball, hiring all new coaches, and I mean guys he's never worked with or met before their interviews, and turned a unit that couldn't hold teams under 50 points into one that can possibly win you games.

Look, I was going to be fine with a 9-3 or an 8-4 season.  I figure it would show some progress, and it would tease us with momentum, again.  A funny thing happened after that loss to South Carolina, though...Carolina kept winning.  They won in Atlanta, coming back from three scores down.  They dominated Miami and Duke, won a game on the road in Pittsburgh on short rest.  All of a sudden, fans are jumping on the band wagon...but nervously.

Today was a game that old Carolina football teams lost.  The Defense kept Carolina in the game, while the offense kept trying to lose it.  Add to it the fact that it was Frank Beamer's last game at home (yup, that same Beamer), Carolina had to win the game in order to clinch their division and avoid next Saturday at NC State being about both the Rivalry and the ACC Coastal, and that they managed to choke a 14 point lead with 7 minutes to go...well, like I said, we've seen this script before.  "You just can't get your hopes up again" we thought.  We'll lose now and next week, miss this title game, and finish 9-3.  A great season...but still wanting more.

Funny thing: the defense found one last stand in the first Overtime.  The forced a Field Goal, and the Offense...sputtering as it was...was able to get that touchdown to win the game.  ACC Coastal Champs, and for the first time in...well, ever...fans were talking about the football team and ignoring our top-ranked basketball team, who happened to play at the same time.  They lost...and people didn't seem to care.  On Twitter, fans were saying, "Eh, it's a November game, we don't have our star player, they'll learn from it."  Never mind they lost a 16 point lead to a mid-major school, hey, the football team is going to play for a conference title.

It's not over, by a long shot.  I'm glad the game against State next week has no ACC Title game ramifications to it, but...it's still NC State.  The game means more to the fans than I think it does to the players, and State doesn't really need the game so much as they are guaranteed a pretty decent bowl game, but Carolina is having a special season.  There's talk that they may have an outside shot to play for a National Title.  In Football.

I'm still in shock, and pretty much expecting the floor to fall out at some point.  In multiple text conversations with fellow Carolina alums and fans, I keep being Debbie Downer, panicking when the other team scores, wondering if this is the week this all ends, having absolutely no confidence at all.  It's the complete opposite of how I feel as a basketball fan, not really sweating a game except for the big ones (tournaments, Duke, etc).  Today, I barely noticed the basketball game going on at the same time, and...I found myself shrugging off that loss.

Is it jumping on a band wagon, or is it just a fulfillment of that desire I've had for almost 20 years to see another program get over the hump?  To have the fall Saturday mean something so big that ESPN decides to bring their traveling road show to campus.  To have ABC showcase Chapel Hill at night as one of their ACC Foes come in and they try to become the dominant team in the league.  Ultimately, it's Carolina, and I've always wanted them to win.  I've watched them mediocre season after mediocre season, been in the stands in the band in the rain and cold rooting hard for a win.  You see how big football is and you just want to be a part of it.  You know basketball will also be near the top...or you hope anyway...you have an "Olympic Sports" program that is one of the best in the country (the Field Hockey team, for example, plays for another National Title Sunday), all that's been missing is football.

Things seems to just be breaking right.  For example: I've lucked out and the Saturdays I've had to work have either not had a game, or they've been late enough in the day to where I've missed nothing.  When the State/Carolina game time was supposed to be announced, ESPN said they would show the game, but that it might be at noon, and it might be at 3:30.  A noon game would mean I'd miss all of it, 3:30 means I'd miss almost none of it (we close at 3:30 and I could head straight home.  It was announced the game is at 3:30, part of the national slot at 3:30.  With Clemson likely to be Number 1, the ACC title game is very likely going to be on ABC the next week.

I'm just waiting for the floor to fall out...but part of me wonders: is this it?  Is this finally the time where we've found a coach who loves Chapel Hill enough to make it his program?  Is this where recruits start rolling in?  Is this where we start getting those GameDays parked out at the Quad in Wilson?

I'm still way too burned on the history of Carolina Football to look to the future and think this is the start of something big.  What I am going to do?  Enjoy the ride.  Carolina has 10 wins for the first time since I was a Freshman at UNC.  That is something special, and it's a season that will be bookmarked no matter what.  I don't know what the rest of the ride will be like, but this one so far has been fun.  Here's hoping it stays that way.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Where to eat?

Last week at work, we had a visitor for Cleveland who was staying in the city thanks to a conference his wife was attending.  He was enjoying the stay, but the age-old question came up:

Where is a good place to eat?

One of the fun things about living in a city that a lot of people visit is that-well-people want your opinion on where to go.  There is a feeling that as an "insider" you know all the hot spots that the regular tourists don't know.  It also gives you a personal spin instead of looking at Yelp reviews.

Cause, well, if you go into a restaurant saying you are a Yelper...(caution, it's South Park, so, you know)

Man, that episode got so much right.

So, over the past few years we've managed to steer more than a few people into great places to eat, visit, and so forth.  I'd like to think we haven't steered people wrong, because you want to give people something that's good food, and good Boston experience, but are located in areas that a guest can easily get to.

But what, if you are like Kat and myself, do you do if you move to a new area?  How do you figure out what's good?  Or at least, how did you do so by minimizing the amount of time you spend on Yelp just because people like to be asses.

In Boston, we were lucky.  There's a local TV Program that runs twice a week, the Phantom Gourmet, that's run by a set of brothers who go around the state and region to highlight all sorts of places.  High and low end.  Now, truth be told, I'm sure these places pay for the right to be on the show in some form or fashion as the show has to make money somehow, but it's still a great show because it goes out of the way to highlight all sorts of places.

We were also those people who relied on friends that we met who visited the area and had lived here for a while.  You also get pick up as you meet others who live in different areas, and are able to highlight out of the way places.

Finally, we also took advantage of a biannual Restaurant Week that the city hosts during off peak times.  One site has the names of all sorts of places throughout the city, and for a discounted rate you get to try a smaller menu that showcases the expert work of the staff.

Most of these things are not unique to Boston.  Just about most major metropolitan areas have people who know the area, a local TV product highlighting great places, and a Restaurant Week.  You want to adapt to a place quickly, use those resources.  I, frankly, would use Yelp last.  While the idea of everyone able to throw in their feedback is a great idea, we all know what the Internet does to people.  The genius of that South Park episode is that it shows you how people take their reviews too seriously, and others not at all to the point where you really don't get a true taste of the eatery.

So, when you go on vacation: post on social media, look on the internet for a local food guide and not Yelp, ask your friends, and ask the locals when you get to that location.  Sure, you're going to find  dud now and then, but for the most part the locals will not steer you wrong.

They just may not steer you to the best places...those they want to keep on their own.

With that said: Here is the official Al Hood list of recommended Boston Eateries (and keep in mind this is for a tourist):

Seafood: You can't go to Boston and ignore seafood, as everyone is going to ask you how the Chowdah was while you were here.  That said, There are a ton of places all easily accessible that you can eat, and you would enjoy:

  • Summer Shack. What's better than a place that is run by an upscale chef who got tired of doing upscale food, and instead wanted it to be fun.  For tourists, two locations are easiest to get to: in the Back Bay and Cambridge.  The spaces are open, and Jasper White attempts his best to recreate a seaside shack experience in the city, complete with Lobster Boils and wooden tables.  You get your Lobster, your Chowder, plenty of fried things, and he even has a signature dish with his pan roasted lobster.  For the city, it's the first place I'd recommend as best overall seafood
  • Legal Sea Foods: Has a little more upscale feel to it, but notable for the fact that each location has a bit of a different feel.  Also gets points for having some of the funniest commercials for a chain eatery (google them), and having a location on LongWharf that gives you an amazing view of the docks and Aquarium.  It also boasts of Chowder that's been in each of the last I have no idea how many Presidential Inaugurations.  It is a chain, however it started in Boston and besides LongWharf, it has a great location on the Waterfront that's part of the new growth of the area.
  • Barking Crab: Outside, picnic tables, bustling, near South Station.  No pretense, great seafood.
  • Island Creek Oyster Bar: Can't beat the location, just above the Kenmore T Station on the way to Fenway Park.  Do yourself a favor and get a bucket of their biscuits, ridiculously big and filling.  Boston and New England loves Oysters.  Atlantic Ocean Oysters, different from the Gulf Coast, and all of the ones here at Island Creek come from local farms.  Great atmosphere, and staff can offer great recommendations.  
Itallian: The Italian love may not be as well known in Boston thanks to the...more well known...Irish connection, but anyone who has seen Black Mass learned that part of Bulger's accession in Boston was knocking out the Mob.  In Boston, you have a whole section that is essentially our Little Italy, the North End.  There are quite literally a ton of great places, and I recommend going to the Phantom Gourmet site to get a better idea of all of the higher end places.  For me, the North End breaks down to Three places:
  • Dolce Vita: This is nothing but Red Sauce Italian at its finest.  The owner is joyful, welcoming, and if you go on the right night you'll catch an 80+ year old man playing an accordion signing classics.  I've had my own and other birthdays here, and each time it's just a treat.  If you don't see something you like, talk to the owner, he may make something else for you.  
  • Regina Pizzeria: Only counts if you go to the North End Location, as they are the original one, opened in the Teens before Pizza was actually a real thing.  Lines form for this place, but it's great pizza, and a reasonably priced meal.  
  • Modern Pastry: Others may tell you of Modern, and don't get me wrong: they are good, but Modern is across the street, and they win because of the cookie selection, and their Cannoli's  are filled when you order, instead of the cream sitting in the shell for who knows how long.  That makes the shell crispier, and it makes a difference.  Cash only, though.  
Beer/Drinking: Boston = alcohol.  Sorry, but...yeah, we drink. 
  • Solas: Just a good Irish bar right on Boylston Street in the Back Bay.  Low key, dark, heavy wood, Guinness and Jameson flowing like wine.  Damn, damn, damn good comfort food menu, too.  
  • Boston Beer Works:  One location near Fenway, the other near the TD Garden.  Nothing but their own brews on tap, and a great selection.  Good bar menu, and for the city very reasonably priced brews/food.  
  • Top of the Hub: Located at the, hey look at that, Top of the tallest building in Boston, the Prudential.  The food is good, but actually, go to the bar.  Depending on the night you're looking at a $25/person minimum, but they have room, jazz playing, and a ridiculous list of whiskeys to choose from.  Laid back and a great view of the city. 
  • Drink:  No drinks menu.  Tell your server what you are feeling like, they mix you up a cocktail. It can be as specific as an actual drink, or as broad as "I want something that is happy."  All of their juices are made on site, ice molded on site...craft cocktail to the extreme but wonderful. 
  • Sunset Grille:It's a local version of Flying Saucer.  Hundreds of beers in bottles, cans, and on tap.  Huge menu.  It's out of the way, in the BU section of Boston, and is by all accounts a hipster/college eatery.  But it's your best bet to sample a ton of beers.  
  • Brewery tours: Sam Adams and Harpoon call Boston home.  Look 'em up, go get fresh beer.  Oh, at the Harpoon Tour, make sure you get some fresh pretzels
I could go on...and on.  Frankly, if you have a hotel bar in Boston, it'll be a good one.  The cocktail game in this city is strong, as is the beer game.  I didn't even take time to talk about Bell in Hand, the 21st Amendment Bar, the Highball Lounge...Boston's drink game is strong. 

Which, frankly, is probably all you need to know about this city. 

Southern: Yes, there is good Southern Food in Boston.  You pay an arm and a leg for it, but it's good. Three places to try if you want to see how the Yankees enjoy the South and complain about how it isn't as good as home (but, be honest, it's because you aren't home not because it's bad). 
  • Loretta's Last Call: Beers in cans, Moonshine instead of a whiskey list, pimento cheese, and my oh my, a chicken and waffle that will float you away on a cloud.  For its location, the prices are reasonable, and the vibe is fun (and they have sweet tea). 
  • Sweet Cheeks: Boston has a bit of a Bar B Que renaissance going on right now.  I list this as the "tourist" choice due to its location nearby Fenway park and its slightly easier location.  Do yourself a favor and hit them up for lunch, you'll get to sample the same food in a  slight smaller portion size, but for a better price.  The meat is smoked and it's damn good.  The atmosphere inside also makes you feel like you aren't in Boston. (and they have sweet tea).
  • Soul Fire: In the same neighborhood as Flying Saucer, and in my mind the best "Q" place in Boston as they do a great Eastern Carolina style, as well as an amazing Brisket that Kathleen loves.  (...and yes, they have sweet tea)
Burgers: Sometimes you just need a burger.  Luckily, the city has plenty of great places to choose from, including exploding chains B. Good and Shake Shack, these two though are local which is, as a tourist, what you are looking for.

  • Boston Burger Company: In the same area as the Boston Summer Shack.  Never been there, that's how much I'd recommend it because everyone who's gone can't stop raving of the place.  These guys were basically first in the city of the recent Burger Explosion.  
  • Tasty Burger: Because it's fun to imagine Sam L. Jackson saying it as you eat it.  More West-Coast style, but the first Fenway location was popular enough that they are starting to explode. 

Snacks/stopping points: Two more places to really recommend that, frankly, don't have a category per se, but you should go by and visit at some point. 
  • Saus: Located in the Qunicy Market/Government Center area.  It's this unassuming little place that does two things really well: Duck Fat French Fries with a ton of sauces and "true" Belgian Waffles.  I say true, because these guys aren't big, light, and fluffy, but thicker, smaller dessert disks that are a perfect sweet treat.  With both the Fries and Waffles, you get to choose the sauce you use to top them.  Also a good selection of beers, and now sandwiches.  A great place to...reload if you've been overdoing the "Drink" category.  
  • Met Back Bay: Located on Newbury Street (the entrance is on a street facing Newbury but...it's a Newbury Street eatery), a great downstairs bar with snacks to choose from and classic drink set up, it's a great place to chill and knock a few back.  Prime location as a few steps away from the Copley T stop. 
Chances are, that'll hold you while you are in Boston. The great thing?  Chances are that you have friends who have been here that know a great place not mentioned above.  Try them out, and soak in the food of the city.  

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Catching you up to speed.

An entire season.  I look back at my wonderful blog post from June and realized it was typed up a mere couple of days before I spent two weeks down in Texas.  The entire summer of 2015 has passed since that post.  Yeesh.  

Granted, this is my blog so I can post whenever the hell I feel like it, but I do owe you...something.  Best I can tell you is essentially what I've said before: a job that has a varying schedule, plus twitter where I can get my thoughts out real time...well, I haven't really felt the need to sit on the couch and peck some thoughts out.  

I've also worked more than a few Saturdays, and when you do that and this is more of a "fun" project, then you are more inclined to let your mind relax than process a blog entry.  With the weather turning, though, and more than a few fall days that involve football being on the screen all day, expect the trend to change.  

If you aren't a friend of mine on Facebook (and frankly, I typically will only accept requests from people I know or at least have some sort of tangental relationship to), nor do you follow on Twitter, then you obviously don't know how I've spend the past couple of months.  Hell, even if you do, our social media feeds get so cluttered you may STILL not know what I've done.  So-let's rewind the DVR and get some highlights of the last couple of months, shall we?

So, after that last post, I took a JetBlue early morning flight down to Hobby Airport in order to celebrate the wedding of both my Sister in Law, and a long time friend of my wife's.  It was a two week excursion back to the area that I fled from 7 years ago.  For those looking for signs about how the trip was going to go, well...

Look, I was looking at spending a lot of money on a rental for two weeks, and I was trying to figure out a way to save some cash.  I found a code that let me pre-pay for a rental car, and I've rented enough with Hertz that I THOUGHT I would get an upgrade from a compact car.  Even if I did get a compact, they list that as a Ford Focus, which is basically what I drive, so I figure no matter what I'm Golden.  

What I didn't account for was that Houston had gone through some bad flooding, meaning that not only were cars off the lot for repairs, a ton of insurance agents were in town to adjust claims.  That means Hertz only had enough cars for who had reservations.  So?  I walked to a Toyota Yaris.  I'm spending two weeks in Texas in a Toyota Yaris.  An Effing Yaris.  

I was going to go to the counter and be THAT guy, until I looked around and realized...there were no other cars, at all.  I'd pitch a fit for nothing.  So, I look at the car, realize it's brand new (not even 1,000 miles), has HD, has power windows, mirrors, an HD radio (which came in handy), and it was a Hatchback, meaning it would actually come in handy for carting stuff around for the wedding.  So I keep the Yaris.  

I leave the airport, and once I get at my speed I look for the Cruise control.  Not there.  Power windows, Power Mirrors, Air conditioning, HD Radio...no cruise.  Did I mention it's about a 90 mile drive to Bridge City from Houston?  

Just for comedy's sake, one time when I parked in a lot I had to point out just the absurdity of what I was driving:  

We called it the Roller Skate, The Lawnmower...each family member decided to take turns deriding this car.  The thing I hated was just how...cheap it felt.  This car is supposed to compete against Chevy's Sonic/Spark, Honda's Fit, and Ford's Fiesta.  I've been in the basic version of each of those cars, and each one felt like they were at least TRYING to validate your purchase.  Toyota just slapped a car together and put a cheap price tag on it.  Only other car that might be as cheap is the Versa from Nissan.  Not going to be high on my wish list. 

Anyway, enough about the damn car.  Kat and I spent the first 5 days primarily with the In Laws as it was SIL who was getting married.  The fun included a day with FIL running around and tidying a few things up...which wasn't as bad as you might think...setting up the church for the wedding, attending a bachelor party for the new Brother in Law, rediscovering the love of the Kolache (dude-why don't more areas serve this thing?  A Smoked sausage wrapped in a bread dough and backed up.  Some links are spicy, some include cheese...all are delicious).  

If there's a link to the first part of the trip, which I'd call basically the first week, it'd be catching up with family.  This was the first prolonged time I spent with the In Laws in a couple of years, and stress of the event aside, it was nice.  I got to spend a lot of time with their new Lab Buck (and take a lot of slow motion videos), down a few of my favorite Houston area brews (St. Arnold's, which I'm glad to see they have a bigger new facility in the city), and then of course...marry off my Sister in Law.  

The bride and groom had a fairly full stage.  I was at the back of the stage, Groomsman Number 6.  I essentially was the Candy Corn of the Thanksgiving Play.  I ultimately figured the reason for this was that should the Groom run away, the Groomsmen step up in order to take the place...well, I'm already married, so naturally, I'm at the back of the pack.  I was parked next to another married man-a good dude who put together the actual Bachelor Party-and my wife was a Maid of Honor, meaning we didn't actually...leave together.  

Still, in the end, I think I made the look turn out OK:

OK, the Tux was a little big. I'd like to think it's because I lost some pounds since I was measured two months prior...but it was closer to the fact that I NEVER get measured correctly.  Whatever, it's a rented monkey suit...that I paid $100 for the right to wear for about 6 hours.  

The wedding went off without a hitch, and it honestly was wonderful...and a true Methodist Wedding that was about as long as the Final Wedding Scene in Spaceballs.  The reception was relaxed...alcohol free (it was at the church)...but alcohol free.  I was supposed to sit up front, but found my way to the back corner with a couple of my wife's cousins and their families, as well as a really good friend whom I haven't seen in ages.  We ended up caching up at Larry's (site of my rehearsal dinner) afterwards, and it felt good to just...talk to these folks.  

It's funny, when we were leaving in SETX, we were in a weird place, trying to figure out our next steps, get our feet under us, and we really didn't...pay attention to that side of the family as we should have.  Distance...and the wedding...really helped put that all in perspective, and I think both Kat and I realized that if there was a regret from our time down there, it's that we didn't find time to spend more time with those folks.  We tried to make up for it the rest of the trip, making a special trip to outside the Houston area to spend a day with both cousins and their families.  The dynamics were fun to watch, and educational.  

Ultimately, during that first part, we got to see not only my in-laws but both of my Father In Law's brothers, and my wife's cousins.  We also took time on the day after the wedding to catch up with the Bearded Gnome, our former roommate from the last year down in SETX, and the aforementioned good friend who went to the wedding.  We did this from the comfort of a hotel room that I got for Three nights, giving my wife a little space where she didn't feel like she had to keep tripping over her family.  

I'm sorry I don't have too many more specifics, to a certain extent family time is sacred time.  If you're a regular reader of this blog, you can probably figure how deep the conversations got, and some things should have the right to be discussed without being gossiped around the Internet.  And frankly, you don't care :).  

Part two of the trip is what I would call "Friend time," or "Houston Time."  I found out about the Charleston Shootings during this leg, so it was good to have some fun time with good friends, Mr. and Mrs. H-Bomb who so graciously opened up their apartment to us so that we didn't have to try to find a hotel.  It was also a great chance to catch up with them...and we basically slid into our old habits as usual.  They gave us a place to sleep, a place to vent, a place to laugh, a place to chat...in short, they went above and beyond for us and helped us out so much.  

The 2nd wedding went well.  There was a huge difference in Ceremony, more formal, a little longer, and the reception as off-site meaning alcohol!  There was also a wedding planner.  

This one I got to enjoy from the stands instead of on stage, as both had a small party up front.  Thus, I got to make myself look a little spiffier.  

If you ever wanted to know what my Grandfather looked like, look at me.  Dressed up, I feel like I'm pretty damn close to a spitting image.  Kat looked beautiful, and look, I almost made us match colors!  

We ultimately landed near midnight on Monday when I needed to be back to work on Tuesday.  I REALLY needed to take another day off, and this is a lesson I will learn for the next two week wedding excursion I take...which likely will never happen.  

The rest of the summer passed quietly.  After that trip, honestly we weren't too inclined to do too much.  This was complicated by the fact that Kat's shop closed and she was floating between a couple of other locations before settling down at a Harvard Square location.  We even passed on July 4th at the Esplanade again.  Why?  After our experience a couple of years ago where it's been taken off of national TV, the level of guest they get has changed, and the way increased level of security-frankly a lot of the fun has been taken away.  If someone comes into town and wants to go, we'll go, Hell half the fun is taking someone new to the experience.  Instead, we chilled on the couch and watched the local broadcast, listening to the radio stream to catch the commercial songs.

Our anniversary popped up as it always does-this year marks Number 13!  We decided to spend the day getting some bar-b-cue in the Fenway area.  A great visit to Sweet Cheeks with a nice feel of home and some amazing biscuits.  

As an aside, they really do get to charge a premium up here for Bar-B-Cue.  I mean, to an extent I understand why since, you know, it take a little more work than back home, but still, growing up where we did, you weep just a little at some of these prices.  

Still, Sweet Cheeks was awesome, and we followed that up with a trip over to Paint Bar .  It's part of the new trend: an expert painter stands in front of the group and has you paint a picture step-by-step.  You also get to drink while doing so.  It's very judgement free, but as someone who could never even manage to color inside the lines, I was a little scared.  

Turns out I had a blast.  I broadcast my progress over the web:

Just a good chill night out.  I hope to do it again, as this particular location has a ton of Boston paintings.  If you live in the area, check them out, for the cost it's actually a great night out in the city.  I was so proud of our work, I hung the art on the wall, along with the painting Kat did with her Best Friend (Kat's Best Friend) on Valentine's Day

Mine is the left, Kat is the right
The rest of August passed with little fanfare.  Best Friend finished his Master's and we celebrated in Providence, and we began the march to Kat's Birthday.  This year, it was back to the Charles for kayaking and some after rowing drinks/dinner.  This time, I managed to risk taking my phone out:

I highly, highly, highly recommend the folks over at Charles River Canoe and Kayak and their launch point near MIT.  As soon as you get on the water you get an amazing view.  That head you see in front of me isn't Kat, by the way, it's KBF.  I got the job paddling the double with her this year so that Kosher Biker could enjoy a single.  Franky, this was the 2nd time I had kayaked so it was nice to have someone else...umm...in the same boat.  Kat is such an expert that if I tried to do a double with her..well...someone would end up in the Charles. 

Let's see...anything else?  Did an annual physical for the first time in...well, let's not go there.  But I surprised myself by having numbers that are-normal.  Making a couple of changes as the clock ticks up, more water, less soda and tea, trying to have more fiber.  Also running more again after taking the winter off.  It's been sporadic the last couple of weeks as I finished another round of Couch to 5K, but no actual 5K's are on the horizon, more just a routine to try and be fit.  It's doing something cause the NP I went to said I had a "runner's pulse."  

Saw a couple of WWE PPV's with Improv Wolf and a couple of guys he does Improv with.  Both times have been...hilarious.  I hate that I can't keep up, but it's amazing entertainment to hear everyone riff.  

And...that's it.  With the colors turning, I'm going to make it a point to try and post more again.  Any suggestions as to something you want to hear/read about?