Monday, December 20, 2010

A Pause in Time

As the year winds down and we reflect on all that has transpired over the past twelve months, one thing is certain: time does not stand still. The continuous ticking of the clock helps connect our past to our future. Perhaps we are not where we hoped to be, but the persistent movement of the clock’s hands offers hope for days yet to come.

Because we are aware of our limitations as living beings, and because those limitations are framed by time constraints (we only have a certain amount of time on this earth), we often associate and even define personal achievement by the length of time it takes us to attain our goals. Our interweaving of success and time is unfortunate, in that it limits what can be labeled success: goals that are not readily quantifiable are often overlooked. We place greater emphasis on what we hold in our hands and less on what we keep in our hearts.

In the end, we are all subject to the same time limitations. Yet we would be better served by measuring success in something other than dollars per minute. Love and friendship are timeless, but what better way is there to define our lives than through those we leave behind? Our impact on those around us, while often unquantifiable, will continue to be felt as the clock continues to tick.

The connection between life and time is highlighted in My Grandfather’s Clock, a song composed in 1876 by the American songwriter Henry Clay Work. It is a song that my wife sang to our children when they were babies, and it is filled with melancholy, love and promise. As 2010 comes to a close, it offers perspective on the passing of time and the impact of a life on those left behind.

Happy holidays to all.

My Grandfather’s Clock

Henry Clay Work

My grandfather's clock
Was too large for the shelf,
So it stood ninety years on the floor;
It was taller by half
Than the old man himself,
Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.
It was bought on the morn
Of the day that he was born,
And was always his treasure and pride;
But it stopped short
Never to go again,
When the old man died.

Ninety years without slumbering,
Tick, tock, tick, tock,
His life seconds numbering,
Tick, tock, tick, tock,
It stopped short
Never to go again,
When the old man died.

In watching its pendulum
Swing to and fro,
Many hours had he spent while a boy;
And in childhood and manhood
The clock seemed to know,
And to share both his grief and his joy.
For it struck twenty-four
When he entered at the door,
With a blooming and beautiful bride;
But it stopped short
Never to go again,
When the old man died.

My grandfather said
That of those he could hire,
Not a servant so faithful he found;
For it wasted no time,
And had but one desire,
At the close of each week to be wound.
And it kept in its place,
Not a frown upon its face,
And its hand never hung by its side.
But it stopped short
Never to go again,
When the old man died.

It rang an alarm
In the dead of the night,
An alarm that for years had been dumb;
And we knew that his spirit
Was pluming for flight,
That his hour of departure had come.
Still the clock kept the time,
With a soft and muffled chime,
As we silently stood by his side.
But it stopped short
Never to go again,
When the old man died.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Under the Boardwalk

It begins with a countdown towards prohibition. It is late evening, January 15, 1920, and revelers abound as the clock’s hands inch steadily towards midnight. When the two hands meet at the number twelve, corks are popped and glasses raised in mock celebration of a law that all know none will obey.

The opening scenes to HBO’s compelling series, Boardwalk Empire, tell us much of what will follow. The Eighteenth Amendment’s outlawing of the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol throughout the United States will open doors to organized crime, always quick to fill societal gaps. With the national banning of alcohol, mob-related violence will rise, as ambitious criminals fight to best position themselves for the inevitable resulting underground market.

Nowhere will the adverse effects of prohibition be more evident than in Atlantic City, where payoffs are the norm and laws are merely suggestions – enforced only when convenient. The rules are certainly different on the boardwalk by the Jersey shore.

At the center of the corrupt world that is Atlantic City in 1920 is Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (based on the historical Enoch L. Johnson), the political “boss” who makes every decision and to whom all others defer. When someone questions the rationale of a forced political resignation, he is quickly silenced with the words: “It’s what Nucky wants.” When Thompson wants an abusive husband to disappear, he soon washes in with the tide, entangled in fishing nets.

Thompson is the uncrowned king of Atlantic City, but his kingdom is threatened by outside forces, most notably Arnold Rothstein, the New York mobster who fixed the 1919 World Series, and Lucky Luciano, his enforcer. Rothstein and Luciano wage war against Thompson and his Atlantic City crew, striving to control the flow of alcohol throughout the northeast. By the end of the series’ first season (the final episode was broadcast Sunday, December 5, 2010) the war between these two criminal factions leaves a trail of blood and broken bottles that foreshadows later events in the violent decade.

Boardwalk Empire, created By Terence Winters, the man responsible for The Sopranos, and co-produced by Martin Scorsese, who also directed the series’ pilot episode, is everything one would expect from two of the best and most creative minds in today’s entertainment industry. The series is filled with sex, violence, intrigue and memorable characters, both real and fictional. Al Capone, then a young thug commencing his rise in Chicago, has a key role in the drama, as does Warren G. Harding, whose presidential election in November, 1920, a result of the support of Thompson and other key political bosses, brings the series’ first season to an end.

The acting is stellar. Kelly McDonald, a Scottish actress previously best known for her roles as a promiscuous teen in director Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996) and the innocent and tragic Carla Jean Moss in the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007) is wonderful as Margaret Schroeder, Thompson’s love interest and the person best able to reach the vulnerability that lies beneath his steel façade. Michael Pitt, the New Jersey-born actor who plays Jimmy Darmody, former college student, wounded war veteran and Thompson protégé, is equally good and could easily be confused for Leonardo DiCaprio’s younger brother.

But it is Steve Buscemi, in the lead role of Thompson, who rises above all others. Buscemi first came into our consciousness as Mr. Pink in director Quentin Tarantino’s debut film Reservoir Dogs (1992). Since then, he has consistently appeared on the big screen in often quirky roles, befitting his unorthodox (some would say bug-eyed) look, that led several characters in the Coen brother’s equally quirky Fargo (1996) to describe him as “funny looking” (more than most people, even). Buscemi, whose small screen resume includes a season working with Terence Winters on The Sopranos, is cold-hearted, calculating and ruthless as Thompson, while maintaining an air of hidden vulnerability that makes his character likeable. He is both the moral and amoral center of the series, the person around whom all revolves. His portrayal of the Atlantic City boss is one of the finest and most memorable small screen performances in recent memory.

At the conclusion of the series’ first season, hints are dropped about a conspiracy against Thompson from within, which will likely be the lead storyline in season two. Like most HBO series, the timing for the second season is somewhat uncertain, but the series has indeed been renewed, with new episodes to air some time in 2012. Until then, HBO will undoubtedly rerun the debut season, in an effort to garner even more interest in what many will rightfully consider the best new American television series of 2010.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Death of a Showman

It is a haunting little poem by the man who abhorred punctuation. The voice is that of a child, or a teen girl, lamenting the passing of showman Buffalo Bill Cody. The voice is internal, thoughts portrayed as they appear: first focusing on Bill, no longer there, the whimsical vision of what he was, words running together reflecting the mind’s image. And finally the ultimate realization of what Bill’s passing really means, a moment of reflection on the meaning of life and the impact of death. The author never capitalizes his own name, but honors Bill with the upper case in a poem where the only other capitalizations involve Jesus and Death itself. This nameless poem (usually called Buffalo Bill or Portrait) immortalizes Bill and elevates him to a spot alongside the deities.

Buffalo Bill or Portrait

e. e. cummings

Buffalo Bill’s


who used to

ride a watersmooth-silver


and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat


he was a handsome man

and what i want to know is

how do you like your blueeyed boy

Mister Death

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Bump in the Road

Over the past three decades the road to the college football national championship has consistently run through the state of Florida. Commencing in 1984, with the upstart University of Miami Hurricane’s shocking upset of the heavily favored Nebraska Cornhuskers at the Orange Bowl, virtually every year has seen at least one of the state’s Big Three (UM, Florida and Florida State) contend for the ultimate title. Nine of those years culminated with the championship trophy elevated by Florida athletes (UM won five championships, UF three and FSU one).

Things changed this past season, however. For the first time in recent memory, none of the state’s Big Three exhibited championship caliber play. UM and UF both attained disappointing 7-5 records, while FSU, which for the first time since 1999 defeated both state rivals, came closest to qualifying for a BCS game, losing this past weekend to Virginia Tech 44-33 in the ACC Championship game and finishing the regular season with a record of 9-4.

Questions abound about the future of these three programs. With the resignation of UF coach Urban Meyer yesterday (citing family reasons) following on the heels of UM’s dismissal of coach Randy Shannon two weeks ago, the longest current tenure of any Big Three coach is that of FSU’s Jimbo Fisher, who has been at the helm for all of one year.

The seemingly lengthy and successful reigns of Steve Spurrier and Meyer at UF, Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson and Dennis Erickson at UM and, most notably, Bobby Bowden at FSU, are now merely memories (in the case of UM distant memories). Bowden stepped down at the end of the 2009 season, after thirty-four years as coach of the Seminoles. For a period of fourteen years, from 1987 through 2000, Bowden’s teams dominated, attaining a record 152-19-1, and winning no fewer than ten games in any season (the fact that Bowden’s teams won only one championship over that period is a testament to his refusal to remove UM from his schedule; several of those years, the only obstacle in FSU’s road to a championship was an untimely loss to the Hurricanes). Bowden was forced to resign when his team faltered over the following decade, and relinquished coaching duties to his long-time assistant, Fisher. While Fisher’s first year as coach saw his team qualify for the ACC Championship game by winning the ACC West title, it remains to be seen whether he will ever approach the level of success attained by Bowden.

Meyer’s resignation at UF, while lamented, is neither surprising (Meyer briefly resigned last year due to health reasons, but reconsidered) nor fatal to what has been one of the most successful college programs of the new millennium. Spurrier and Meyer have elevated the UF program to an elite level, and the school will have no problems enticing a high profile coach or recruiting the type of players that will keep the Gators near the top of the rankings.

UM, on the other hand, must contend with a decade of less-than-stellar play, and the perception that the program has dropped a notch from its glory days. After engaging in a very public pursuit of former Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden, the school was spurned by Gruden, who elected to remain at his present position with ESPN, where he is a commentator on Monday Night Football. With Meyer’s resignation, UM must now compete with UF for some of the coaches on its list – a competition that favors UF because of its recent successes and enhanced national reputation.

Only time will tell how quickly the Big Three will be able to restock their teams and once again contend for the ultimate prize. Until then, college football fans will have to settle for less glitzy championship game matchups such as this year’s between Ducks from Oregon and the other school from Alabama.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Emily's Island

She was an eccentric recluse who dressed entirely in white, avoided personal contact, and spent the latter part of her life in near isolation. While she was a prolific poet, only a handful of her 1800 poems were published during her lifetime. Most of her work was collected by her sister and published after her death in 1886.

The poem below, perhaps her most widely recognized, reflects her lifelong obsession with death. In this poem, Death takes the form of a gentleman caller who carries the narrator off in his carriage. While the poem is unsettling, it is not particularly sad, perhaps reflecting the unmarried author’s acceptance of Death as her ultimate companion.

Curiously, the poem can be perfectly sung to the tune from Gilligan’s Island.

Because I Could Not Stop For Death

Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Might as Well Jump

During the 1980’s, a popular beer commercial opened with men busy at work, wearing hard hats at a construction site. As the afternoon whistle blew, signaling the end of the work day, they slapped each other’s backs and headed to a nearby bar, where they lifted frosty mugs, white suds pouring over the rims, and partook in a moment of revelry and male bonding while a voiceover proclaimed: “Now comes Miller time.”

The afternoon ritual gave workers the chance to unwind and relax after their daily rigors. The commercial’s message was clear: “Miller Beer is your reward for a hard day’s work. Drinking Miller with friends is not only a celebration of life, but a chance to leave the stress of life behind and enjoy a moment of pure exultation.”

While beer commercials remain ever popular, concerns over drinking and driving have over the past decades forced a reevaluation of our methods of relaxation. Today we are more likely to see workers “relaxing” at a gym at the end of their day than tossing back a few with friends.

However, Brian Cashman, General Manager of the New York Yankees, has taken after-hours activities to an entirely new level. Cashman’s job has always been stressful. He works for an organization that expects to not just compete, but win every year. Anything less than a championship is labeled a disappointment. With that type of pressure to succeed, it is surprising that Cashman has not only survived at his position for years, but is generally regarded as one of the better general managers in the game.

This offseason has been particularly stressful for Cashman. Not only did the Yankees fall short of repeating as world champions, they were ousted by the Texas Rangers, a team which, until this season, had never advanced beyond the opening round of the playoffs. Further, Derek Jeter, the all-star shortstop and sure Hall-of-Famer, universally considered the face of the franchise (the heir to Ruth, DiMaggio and Mantle), is a free agent for the first time in a decade. Because Jeter is thirty-six years old and coming off the worst season of his career, Cashman has refused to accede to his agent’s reported demands for a five-year contract at $24 million per season. Instead, Cashman has made what he considers a more “reasonable” offer of three years at $15 million per season. That’s considerably less than what Jeter made this past year, but more than what any other shortstop in baseball earns.

While the two sides have made progress in negotiations in recent days, the headlines of New York tabloids for the past weeks have speculated about Jeter’s future with the team. The tone of the headlines has generally not been favorable to Cashman. The sentiment expressed is that the Yankees should give Jeter whatever he wants as a reward for his years of loyal service. Of course, it is easy to be generous with someone else’s money, particularly when those expressing the sentiment have no concerns about assembling a team for the coming season – a team that will live up to the Yankees’ lofty expectations. Cashman has to make a difficult business decision and, unlike most businessmen, must do so while under a national spotlight.

It is therefore not surprising that Cashman has sought ways to unwind when removed from the stress of his daily duties as Yankees GM. What is surprising is what he has chosen to do for “relaxation.”

This Friday, Cashman will rappel down the side of a 22-story building while wearing an elf costume (presumably an elf costume is more dignified, in keeping with Yankees tradition, than, say, reindeer antlers). When asked whether the prospect of undertaking this task without protective netting frightened him, Cashman replied: “Nothing is scarier than general managing the Yankees.”

The adrenaline rush will undoubtedly help Cashman unwind, recharging his batteries for another round of contract negotiations. Yet Jeter and his representatives will have to wait before resuming the numbers talk. Cashman will repeat the feat on Sunday.

Which raises the question: With an annual player payroll exceeding $200 million, couldn’t someone just buy the man a beer?