Sunday, April 29, 2012

Atlanta Braves off to an encouraging start

Back on February 3, I wrote about my optimism regarding the Atlanta Braves chances this season. So far, nothing has happened to curb my feelings. At this writing, the Braves are 13-8 and all phases are clicking. The offense leads the National League in runs scored. The starting pitching has been rock solid (except for Jair Jurrjens who has been sent to the minors). The bullpen has also been reliable. I know the Braves played well for most of the season last year before collapsing in September. Still, I like how this team is cut. Since two wild card teams now make the playoffs in addition to the three divisional winners, I really like the team’s chances for post-season play.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Remembering Levon Helm

We lost a great musical talent when Levon Helm passed away on April 19 at age 71. Though he enjoyed a renaissance in the last 10 years that saw him win Grammy awards, I will remember him mostly for his groundbreaking work in the legendary rock group known simply as the Band.
Though guitarist Robbie Robertson wrote many of their most important songs, it was Helm’s singing that often brought life to them. Their greatest work was recorded on their self-titled second album.
More than 40 years later, it is easy to underestimate the Band’s impact when they had their commercial breakthrough in 1968. At that time, rock and roll remained drenched in psychedelia, and free-form expressionistic jamming was the style of choice. Bands with silly names like the Strawberry Alarm Clock and Vanilla Fudge were on the scene. 
Looking back, it seems obvious that the time was ripe for a breath of fresh air. The Band, whose very name was a reaction to the times, arrived on the scene that year with their debut album ‘Music from Big Pink.’ Instead of the jamming that was popular, the Band emphasized ensemble work and their expertise on their debut record produced songs like ‘The Weight.’ 
However, the Band released their best album in late 1969. That self-titled album mentioned earlier would haunt them in some respects because it provided a remarkably high standard to reach for the rest of their careers. The fullness and richness of these recordings grow stronger with each listen. The album is full of great songs.
The best song ever written about dignity is ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ and is the album’s best song. Written by Robertson, it was Helm’s vocals that brought passion to it and is a big reason it remains so memorable.
“Virgil Kane is the name, and I rode on the Danville train,” Helm sang as the song began. The song contains haunting imagery as vivid as any Matthew Brady photo, and it conveys the despair of lives that are in shambles. This song produces images that are cold and stark, and Helm’s singing projects despair, pride and strength all at once. 
The album has other strong songs. ‘Up on Cripple Creek’ is funky and made the Top 30 on the singles chart. ‘Rag Mama Rag’ is fiddle driven and embraces the joys of sharing music in unusual situations. ‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’ paints a picture of a late afternoon sunset in summertime. 
Rarely had a group been blessed with so many excellent vocalists. Helm, bassist Rick Danko, and pianist/organist Richard Manuel shared the vocal chores. Manuel’s sweet swinging on ‘Whispering Pines’ is worth the price of the album alone. 
Following this album, they continued touring and churning out albums until the late 70s. However, they decided to call it quits and their farewell concert is one of the best rock and roll movies ever. Called ‘The Last Waltz,’ it was a concert of epic proportions in which most of their contemporaries performed. 
After a few years, four of them (minus Robertson) reformed and toured. Kind of like a boxer who cannot stop returning to the ring, they played on and on and on. However, that should not take away any of the luster of their career. 
In their own way, they changed the direction of rock and roll and helped carry it out of the excess of the late 60s. Though their name was bland, there was nothing bland about the group itself. Musicianship of this caliber comes along only so often.
Levon Helm was a big reason the Band was great, and he will be missed.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Tennessee Titans 2012 schedule front-loaded with tough games

Last week, the National Football League released its 2012 schedule, and here is who the Tennessee Titans will play and when:

Sept. 9 -- vs. New England

Sept. 16 -- at San Diego

Sept. 23 -- vs. Detroit

Sept. 30 -- at Houston

Oct. 7 -- at Minnesota

Oct. 11 -- vs. Pittsburgh

Oct. 21 -- at Buffalo

Oct. 28 -- vs. Indianapolis

Nov. 4 -- vs. Chicago

Nov. 11 -- at Miami

Nov. 18 -- BYE

Nov. 25 -- at Jacksonville

Dec. 2 -- vs. Houston

Dec. 9 -- at Indianapolis

Dec. 17 -- vs. New York Jets

Dec. 23 -- at Green Bay

Dec. 30 -- vs. Jacksonville

September looks to be a challenging month for the Titans. The season opens with a bang against the defending AFC champion Patriots. I wonder if the league office was hedging its bets in case Peyton Manning signed with Tennessee. If he had, this game would have had a lot more flavor. Still, the Titans better be ready to roll on opening day. Next comes a trip to San Diego against the perennially-underachieving Chargers. Even though they never seem to meet expectations, the Chargers have a lot of talent and trips to the West Coast are never easy. After that, Tennessee has games against the Lions and Texans. Detroit made the playoffs last year and Houston will be favored to win the AFC South division. If the Titans finish September 2-2, we can consider it a success.

October’s highlight is a nationally-televised Thursday night game against the Steelers on the NFL Network. It’s a home game, which is an additional benefit. Pittsburgh is always tough, but other games that month against the Vikings, Bills and Colts are much more manageable. If the Titans are serious about making the playoffs, then October may be when they start making their move.

For the first time in years, the Titans bye week comes late in the season (on Nov. 18). The team has another nationally-televised game on Dec. 23 against the Jets on Monday Night Football. Will Tim Tebow be the starter for the Jets by then? If he is, ESPN may not mention the Titans all game.

If the Titans are successful in September, the schedule is built for success. More analysis will be posted in the coming months, but it is tough not to feel excited at this point.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The 'pile on effect'

We live in an era in which people delight in pointing out the mistakes of others. Yes, I know this has been true since the beginning of time, but I believe it has become more intense in recent years.

Why has this happened? There are likely many answers to that, but I believe the primary one is that people are under much more scrutiny than in the past. We have the ability to scrutinize each other more because technology has allowed us the opportunity to record just about every move we make.

In some ways this is good, but in others it is suffocating. For example, itemized bills from cell phone companies can show us not only who people called and when, but where their approximate location was when they made those calls. If I was in Sparta when I called one of my friends, then that information would be on the invoice.

And if a person was at a place he should not be when he made a call, then it can be too bad for them. This is because many of us are almost gleeful when we have the opportunity to knock somebody off their pedestal.

Of course, many times, people knock themselves off their own pedestal. It happens often because we are ridiculously human and can make awful decisions sometimes. A recent example of this is former University of Arkansas head football coach Bobby Petrino.

Until a couple of weeks ago, Petrino was a man at the top of his profession and had his team in a position to compete for a national championship later this year. Since then, everything has fallen apart after he had a motorcycle crash.

It was not the crash that led to his biggest problems. When he was driving his motorcycle, his passenger was a 25-year-old woman who was not his wife, and he later admitted to having an inappropriate relationship with her. His folly was further compounded when it was revealed he had circumvented university hiring policies when he got the young woman a job in the football department of the school.

Actually, getting her the job became his biggest problem. It was not the inappropriate relationship with her that caused Petrino’s ouster. It was the human resources nightmare he created when he broke the rules to hire her.

Since then, Petrino has been turned into a laughingstock. Sarcastic newspaper columns about his mistakes have run from coast to coast. People appear to love dancing on his professional grave.

Keep in mind that I am not defending him in any way. He made serious mistakes, and the price he is paying is steep. Still, I marvel at the way people seem to pile on to others when they make mistakes.

Our human nature is strange. We love putting people up on a pedestal, but when they make mistakes and get knocked to the ground, that is when we start kicking. And we typically kick until there is nothing left of them.

I think our behavior is especially odd in the Petrino case. Though many throw around the word ‘adultery’ on talk radio, I wonder how many of them know the true definition of it. After all, Jesus taught in the New Testament that if somebody looks upon somebody else and lusts after them, then they have already committed adultery in their heart (Matthew 5:27-28). There is much more to it than just a physical act.

More than anything, we need compassion when dealing with these issues. If Petrino committed adultery, we would do well to remember the biblical definition. By that standard, most reading this are guilty of this sin.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

John Unitas football card circa 1971

Like most boys, I collected football cards, but over the years, they disappeared. Fortunately, my mom recently found this Johnny Unitas card at her home. I don't know why just this one survived, but I am glad it did. The stats on the back include the 1970 season and has commentary about his performance in Super Bowl V. The Baltimore Colts beat the Dallas Cowboys 16-13 in that game. Because of this information, I am sure this card was released just prior to the 1971 season.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The power of 'C'

I was recently re-reading film critic Roger Ebert’s book The Great Movies and I have reached the conclusion that if a person wants to make a great film he should probably begin the title with the letter ‘c.’

In the book, there are only four films that begin with that letter, but three of them are: Casablanca, Citizen Kane and City Lights. If a person has never seen these films, I highly recommend them.

All three are remarkable movies. I have had an avid interest in films for most of my life, but as I have gotten older, I have gravitated more toward older ones. Obviously, there are some good modern movies, but I guess tastes change as we age.

Casablanca is fantastic. Starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, the film says a lot about personal sacrifice during crisis even if means giving up the very thing (or person) we want the most. Bergman’s character is the love of Bogart’s life, but he knew he had to let her go. And he did.

Though it is 70 years old, the theme resonates loudly today considering what a self-absorbed culture we live in. Let’s face it – many people tend to look at our culture in terms of what it can do for them and not vice versa. This thinking has sent us down a road that will likely take a generation to reverse.

Citizen Kane is often at the top of lists for the greatest movie of all time. Though many can have a great debate about that, there can be no debating that it is a great film. Produced, directed and co-written by 25-year-old Orson Welles, it is a biography loosely based on yellow journalist William Randolph Hearst.

The story behind the film’s making is almost as interesting as the film itself. Hearst did his best to kill it and destroy Welles. Back in 1941 when it was released, it appeared Hearst had succeeded, but the movie has withstood the test of time. Welles’ biggest dilemma was that he peaked at such a young age. He never again made a film as great as Citizen Kane.

City Lights was released in 1930 or ’31 (depending on the source) and is one of Charlie Chaplin’s great films. Though talking films had been around for a couple of years when it was released, the film is mostly silent.

The film is a classic blend of comedy and pathos. Chaplin’s character ‘The Little Tramp’ befriends a blind girl and helps her raise the money needed for an operation to restore her vision. Through a series of events, the two are separated when she is operated on and go their separate ways.

The film concludes when the two meet each other by chance. He is still a tramp, but she has become a successful business woman. She does not recognize who he is at first, but when she touches his hand she realizes who he is.

The expression on Chaplin’s face is one of the great reaction shots in film history. Joy and fear flow from his eyes. Joy because he has met his love again. Fear because of the rejection he may face because of her success and his status. Remarkable.

We live in an age where most movies are drivel. I do not mean to come across as a movie snob, but it seems that way to me. The advances in movie technology in recent years have been great. However, I fear our films have become cleverer while losing their hearts.

Cleverness has its place. It’s just not an enduring trait when it comes to great movies.

Sunday, April 8, 2012


In a recent dream, I received an e-mail from a friend inviting me to a party being hosted by a person I do not know. I don't like parties especially ones thrown by strangers. However, I decide to go.

Next, I am standing outside the house where the party is occurring, and it is night. I am nervous, and I walk in without knocking. Though there are lots of cars outside, it is silent when I enter the home. I feel anxiety like I am doing something wrong. I do not know what to do so I walk toward the basement. As I enter it, I see a swimming pool. Again, there are no people though I sense many around me.

I begin to walk down into the pool fully clothed. I am wearing denim so my clothes become very heavy as they get wet. I decide to take the clothes off while I am in the water. It is a struggle trying to do this while submerged and getting the heavy clothes off my skin is difficult. About halfway through this effort, I think to myself: "Hey, I can't do this. I don't even know the people who live here."

At this point, I decide to get out of the pool and leave. The remaining clothes on me are heavy as I walk up the steps of the pool. My pants legs especially weigh me down. When I step out, I bend over and pick up the clothes I had taken off. They are a struggle to put back on as the denim sticks to my skin as I slide it over my shoulders and chest. The harder I try to put them on, the more difficult it becomes. Anxiety continues to build.

I walk out of the basement into the hallway. For the first time, I see people, and I feel more anxiety. Two people are walking toward me, but they look uncomfortable. They look at me then quickly look away as I pass them. It is like they do not want me to notice that they looked at me. I am convinced something bad is about to happen. I continue walking and reach the front door.

I walk outside, and it is daylight. It appears to be mid-afternoon. There are more people, but I am trying to walk away without being noticed. As I step on to the front yard, I keep my head down. As I do, I notice various piles of dog excrement. I am very careful as I walk not to step into any.

I continue to walk, and though I hear voices behind me, nobody follows me.

Then I wake up.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Easter and the transformation of the disciples

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, and for Christians worldwide, the services they attend will focus on the glorious Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It is the event that makes Christianity possible. Without it, the course of human history would have been quite different over the last 2,000 years. Regardless of whether a person is a believer in Christianity, there can be no doubt that it has greatly shaped the path our world has taken.

Because of the importance of the Resurrection, a fair question people might have is: how can it be proven? For an event this important, it is something that must withstand serious scrutiny.

There are many ways a person can go when addressing this topic. Obviously, the Bible is a trusted document that supports the Resurrection. Though the Book has many critics, historical, archaeological and scientific data can be used to support its accuracy.

However, when studying the Resurrection, one of the most compelling pieces of evidence that supports its truth is the behavior of those closest to Jesus. The circumstances surrounding His crucifixion were volatile, and the actions of his disciples changed radically during this time.

His disciples were with Him as He entered Jerusalem for the last time before the crucifixion. When He entered the city, it was a moment of triumph. Many believed that Jesus was coming to remove the ruling Roman government from the city.

When this did not unfold and members of the existing religious establishment conspired against Jesus, the walls began closing in. His disciples initially pledged their loyalty to Him. Peter famously said that he would never leave Him, but Jesus told his friend that he would deny Him three times before sunrise.

Peter did not believe this, but he did just as Jesus told him he would do. Peter’s forsaking of Jesus was something that was repeated by the others when He was arrested. The disciples scattered and were looking out for themselves. Their Master had been arrested and was being taken before Pontius Pilate. They were scared for their lives, and as Peter’s behavior demonstrates, he was willing to protect himself as Jesus’ expense.

We should not be too critical of Peter’s actions (and the other disciples, as well). We have all failed in tremendous ways, but it was not recorded in the best-selling book of all time. We can all breathe a sigh of relief that our blunders were not noticed by large audiences.

However, compare the disciple’s behavior at this time with their behavior only days later. Not only had they stopped running, but they were readying themselves to take the Gospel into a hostile world. They understood hardship and persecution awaited them, but they were willing to move forward. What could have caused such a startling about face?

They had come face-to-face with the resurrected Jesus. When they encountered Him, all His teachings were cemented in their hearts. The hurt, pain, and fear that had been there only a few days earlier had been replaced by hope.

The reason they were able to go into this hostile world was that they knew what they were preaching was true. Seeing Jesus again and alive was the final step in understanding who He is. If Jesus had not been resurrected, He would have been just another false prophet. Any remaining doubt was gone for the disciples.

Remember, people won’t willingly go out and risk their lives for something they know to be a lie. The disciples had witnessed a truly incredible event, and they knew they must share it with the world.

Jesus had transformed them. And He can do the same for all of us.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Too hot, too early.....Barrow?

I enjoyed the mild winter, but it has gotten too hot for early April. The predicted high for Monday is 88 degrees, and it is expected to be 86 on Tuesday. For some perspective, the average high this time of year is 65 degrees. Usually, when it gets too hot, I check out the temperatures in Barrow, Alaska, just to make me feel cooler. However, the high there tomorrow is expected to be 13 degrees below zero. That is just too dang cold. It is supposed to be a balmy minus three there on Thursday. Me no like.