Saturday, September 26, 2009

Good Times Never Seemed So Good

I have tried, at various times in the past few years, to introduce the girls to my hobbies and passions. I bring them to a ballgame, play them a Springsteen CD, read them some of my writing, take them to Manhattan. They’re always interested, and I think they appreciate my sharing the things that I love to do without forcing them to like it, too.

Of course, I’d love it if Katie started wearing a CC Sabathia jersey, or if Chelsea started listening to “Born to Run.” But there’s no promise of that, of course. I’ll embrace the passions they develop, and encourage the girls to pursue those. That’s my job.

And yet, some things are just not fair.

I understand that the girls might not think it’s all that amazing that Derek Jeter broke the Yankees’ franchise record for hits. I know they might not want to sit down and watch his at-bats on TV. I know that the subtleties of Springsteen’s images of longing might be a bit over their heads. But please, I do not deserve this …

It’s my mother who hits the jackpot. Walks in the other day with a DVD, and says the girls just have to watch it. I listen to their conversation, and start shaking my head. It’s him again. Neil Diamond, live in concert from Madison Square Garden. The woman has seen this man in concert about two dozen times, and knows every single song he has ever recorded. In the world of pop culture, this man is beyond a passion for her. If she could buy a bottle of his sweat, she’d do it.

The girls know all about Neil Diamond – they’ve had no choice but to listen to him, and they’ve heard me groan whenever his music begins playing at their grandparents’ house. And yet …

They say sure. They’d love to watch the DVD.

I am cleaning the house, stewing with jealousy. I glance into the living room, and there the girls are, their eyes glued to the TV while this 68-year-old man, glittering with sequins, reaches out with his left arm and croons “I am … I said / to no one there / and no one heard at all, not even the chair.”

I could toss on “Thunder Road” right now, and dare the girls to tell me that “I Am … I Said” can hold a candle to my guy’s music. But I know they’d ignore me. “Look at him work the crowd,” my mom says, and the girls watch intently as this man, looking like a washed-up figure skater, pauses mid-chorus and brings 20,000 baby boomers to their knees. He continues, hitting the chorus with that nasally voice, the “yeahhhhh,” the eyes closed tight, the arm always reaching out toward a fan who’s frothing at the mouth. I try to mock him in the living room, and the girls wave me off. “Stop it, Daddy,” Katie says.

His signature song comes on, and the girls can’t control themselves. As the chorus to “Sweet Caroline” nears, Katie jumps onto the arm of our couch, pumping her fist in the air as she cries out at the top of her voice: “Good times never seemed so good / So good! So good! So good!”

It’s time for bed, and they don’t want to stop the DVD. My mom promises them she’ll watch the rest of it with them tomorrow, and they consent to that. They’ll have to wait another day to see how he works the crowd in “Love on the Rocks.” What a shame.

My whole life, I’ve had to listen to this guy and his pop songs. Several of them are catchy, I’ll grant him that. But so many others are painfully mediocre. For years, I longed for the day when I could get a little more highbrow with the music I played for my own kids. And just as they’re reaching the age when they might actually listen to a few more songs of mine, in swoops Nana with her DVD.

It’s just a matter of months now before she takes Katie to see the guy in concert. Soon, Katie will be wearing a Neil Diamond concert T-shirt, and asking me to buy her an iPod so she can listen to his songs while doing her homework. She’ll buy an old VCR copy of that awful “The Jazz Singer” film remake, and watch it endlessly. She’ll name her first kid “Shilo” or “Soolaimon.”

OK, maybe that’s going too far. It’s time to take a deep breath, let go of this petty envy, and chalk one up for Mom. Music tastes aside, she found a way to pass along her passion to another generation. And really, how awesome is that?

I’ll get my chance someday. For now, I’ll have to watch as this 63-year-old woman sings “Forever in Blue Jeans” along with her granddaughters. I can think of much worse. You go, girls.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Beauty and the Bucs

You start your trip to PNC Park by walking over the Roberto Clemente Bridge. It’s a gorgeous yellow bridge in a city filled with gorgeous yellow bridges. On game days, the bridge is closed to vehicles, so pedestrians can have it all to themselves. As you cross the Allegheny River, you see riverboats in the water below, a sparkling skyline behind you, and the ballpark itself in front of you. As you reach the gate entrance, you come upon a tall statue of Clemente himself, just finishing a swing for all time.

This eight-year-old stadium, which the Pittsburgh Pirates call home, is one of the most spectacular ballparks in America. We finally had the chance to check out the park last month when we visited Amy’s uncle, who lives in nearby Beaver, Pa. Uncle Bill, who is in his mid-80s, was up for a Bucs game, so we drove into the city with the girls. When I got to the ticket window, the attendant there told me that with my kids there, we could all have a student discount rate that night of $10 per ticket on the left-field line. I said, well, sure.

So just to recap, we started this trip to a ballgame by (a) hooking up with family, (b) walking across a pedestrian bridge, (c) looking at a fine work of art and (d) getting surprisingly affordable tickets to a major-league baseball game. Once in the park, we had a crystal-clear view of the bridge and skyline, while also feeling very close to the ballfield itself (the park has a capacity of just over 38,000). Uncle Bill had been here before, so he regaled me with stories of his previous trips to this field, and to the Pirates’ previous parks, Three Rivers Stadium and Forbes Field. The girls, who are usually a bit antsy by 7:00 at night, were surprisingly calm throughout the night game. Even they could tell: This setting was truly perfect.

Pittsburgh, Pa., is perhaps the most underappreciated city in America. Take a ride up the Duquesne Incline funicular to the top of Mount Washington, and find yourself staring down at a bustling, modern city skyline, as well as the dynamic convergence of Pittsburgh’s three rivers: the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio. It is a view unlike any other, and the trip up the hill on a red trolley car, scaling Mount Washington at a 30-degree incline, is worth the trip in and of itself.

Finish your Incline trip and drive into the Strip District to grab a sandwich from Primanti Brothers. Pick your deli meat, then watch the cook stack cheese, French fries, cole slaw and a tomato on top of your meat – all of it between two slices of Italian bread. Take a bite. Then another. Amazing.

Spend hours in the Carnegie Science Center, checking out everything from a submarine to a robotics exhibit to a planetarium. Savor some pop art at the Andy Warhol Museum. Visit the city’s colleges – Duquesne, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, to name a few. Visit the National Aviary, take a riverboat cruise, and – if you’ve got connections – visit Heinz Field on a Sunday in autumn to watch that football team with the six Super Bowl rings as it once again bolsters Steel City pride. More than anything else, though, just get yourself to the riverside and walk. Take it all in.

Later this month, Pittsburgh will serve as host to the G-20 economic summit. Reporters from around the world will be there, and this aesthetically pleasing city will get its due. Stories will be written around the world praising the city of Pittsburgh for its appearance, its mettle, and its culture. It will all be well-deserved. Uncle Bill knew this a long time ago. He knows enough to stay the hell out of town that week, but he’ll be watching TV at home and smiling at the glowing reports on Pittsburgh. “Come check out Beaver,” he’ll say to the TV. “We’ve got a beautiful town up here, too.” And he’s right; they do.

If you’re going to bolster your city’s image, it’s helpful to do it with a winner. When the visitor looks at Heinz Field, he or she recognizes this as the new home of the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers. As for PNC Park, well, it’s easy enough to connect the stadium with the Pirates – they’ve been playing baseball in this city since 1891, after all. But this franchise, with its five world championships and numerous Hall of Famers, is not at all a winning team in 2009. In fact, this year will mark the 17th straight losing season for the Pirates. That’s the longest losing streak ever in any of the nation’s pro sports leagues.

That’s not pretty, to say the least. When we visited the Pirates, they were hosting the Phillies. There were more than 17,000 fans present, but half of them were wearing Philadelphia red. When Pirates fans tried a cheer of "Let's Go Bucs," they were quickly drowned out. When Philadelphia's Ryan Howard hit a go-ahead home run, the stadium erupted in cheers for the visiting team.

We were walking back across the Clemente Bridge by the time Howard touched home plate; the girls were tired. The city was still sparkling, and the water in the Allegheny glimmered as riverboats cruised along. Pittsburgh was steeling itself for the flurry of visitors that late September will bring. As the economists, entrepreneurs, reporters and world leaders descend on the city, the Pirates will be home, playing baseball in their jewel of a park. It’s a good week to have your sports team playing home games.

Just imagine the excitement, though, if Pittsburgh were actually in a pennant race. You’d have had to grab your binoculars and take the Incline up just to see the game live. Or you’d have had to catch the Bucs on TV with a sandwich in your face at Primanti.

That’s the kind of thing this city deserves. It’s got the beauty; now it needs the buzz. Come on, Pirates – make the place proud.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Tell Me What to Think

I am tired of the experts. Take them away. Far away. I want some peace.

There was a time, about 90 years ago, when all Americans learned about current events from people who wrote for newspapers and magazines. These folks, we hoped, had done their due diligence, and were presenting us with the straight facts. There were times, of course, when print journalists took advantage of our reliance on them, even going so far as to provoke wars that we couldn’t see. But for the most part, journalists took their responsibility quite seriously.

As the middle of the 20th century unfolded in a blaze of technological glory, radio and television journalists were added to the fold. They began as experts – a Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley portraying an air of distinction and class, presenting us the news without commentary. Tough TV reporters, from Dan Rather to Ted Koppel, brought us a powerful and informative combination of words and images. They worked hard, and we trusted their reports.

The past 30 years have brought a well-documented technological revolution, one that has given us the ability to do so much more than we could decades ago, and with such breathtaking celerity. I’m as pleased as the next guy that I can use my debit card, and watch cable TV, and check my e-mail, and send a text to my wife. Amazing stuff.

But there’s always a price that we pay for the progress we make. In the case of journalism, the proliferation of cable stations and web sites has led to a fervent competition for readers and viewers. Whatever gives your ratings a boost, you go ahead and do. Whatever increases your number of web-site hits, you do.

And what most of these 21st-century news sources have found is that the modern media consumer likes an abundance of commentary. When we’ve got the ability to switch channels and web sites with the click of a button, we’re much less likely to spend any time on a point of view with which we disagree. So if your consumer is self-selecting his news anyway, why not toss out a bunch of opinion-based “news,” and know that if your opinions match his point of view, he’s sticking with you? Create a cable show or a blog or a web site, put someone on a soap box, and let the consumers come to you.

This is where we find ourselves in this summer of 2009. And the results are not pretty. It’s not the details of the health care reform act that we get – it’s the spin, and hence the misinformation. It’s not the economic background we get, to better understand how our financial system works – no, instead we get the advice, much of it conflicting, on what we should do with our money. Even in matters such as sports, it’s not the news we focus on so much as the expert “fantasy sports” consequences of David Wright’s injury or Brett Favre’s comeback.

We live in a world of shouting voices, all of them trying to tell us what to do. They desperately want us to spend time with them, and they’re doing the same thing that mountebanks were doing 150 years ago, selling quack medicines from atop a platform in town squares across the country. They’re playing on our insecurities, telling us that they’ve got the solution to what ails us, and that we ignore them at our own peril. They just have a slicker presentation, with graphics and YouTube spots.

It’s quiet tonight. I’ve got the TV off, and I’m getting ready to sit down and get back to the Dave Eggers book I’ve been reading. I can hear the crickets outside, and they sound nice. They sound like they get along, and even appreciate the value of a little consensus once in awhile.

I’ll return to the madness in the morning. But when I do, I’ll try to fight off those insecurities, and look for the straight news first. I want to make up my own mind, and take my time in doing it.