New cdonohue.com

I updated and refreshed my personal Web site with the help of Wordpress.org and buddy Chris Spires. You can find my newly minted Web presence at www.cdonohue.com. Navigate on over and let me know what you think. Feedback is appreciated.

I'll probably customize the site a little in the coming days or weeks, but for the time being, that's it. Enjoy.


Will You Give Him a Chance?

I've been following some Tweets and Facebook status updates and the news and blogs and etc. and etc. recently that have been focused on President Barack Obama and the confirmation hearings for potential Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Some of what I've read has been typical conservative and liberal drivel. People on both extremes are a little nutty. But some commentary I've heard and seen from more moderate, reasonable people has been, well, ridiculous. I know there are a lot of people who are concerned about government spending for stimulus packages and health care and other initiatives. Of course, I think people aren't as concerned about the spending as they are about the slow progress of some of Obama's plans. That's fair. But when people write that the financial and economic crises that Obama inherited (remember, he didn't create the mess) don't present an opportunity to try something new, I'm shocked. Of course it's an opportunity. It's a chance to chart a new path, to do something different, to get away from the Bush policies that put the country in its untenable financial situation. All I heard from right-wingers during Bush's eight years was alternatingly, "Give him a chance to prove what he can do" or "History will judge his legacy and impact on the country." Those same people now want Obama to do everything the way Bush did. And if Obama wasn't going to follow the same course, then he needed his initiatives to perform some miracle and work almost immediately to placate the right-wingers. It's an unfair standard. It's an either-or scenario for an ideological movement that seems to favor that kind of "pick a side" mentality. But I guess that's what Obama will have to deal with for the rest of his time in office. Perhaps conservatives and Republicans should complain less and work more on saving their foundering party or providing sound policy changes that don't center on the old Republican way of doing things that put us in this mess to begin with.

Now to Sotomayor. I'm a little shocked that there's concern about Sotomayor's past experiences influencing her judgments. Don't we all learn from what's happened to us in the past? Isn't that the point of experience? But really, what bothers me is that right-wingers are complaining about this, but they seem to forget that Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito said during his confirmation hearings that his past experiences do, in fact, color his judgments today. (VIDEO HERE if you can't see it below.) I don't recall as much uproar about those comments. Is it because he's white and she's not? I'm not saying that IS the reason. But it's an interesting to question to ask.

Others are complaining that she's going to be an activist judge who will push her liberal agenda. Well, who knows if that's true. But guess what, Republicans? Bush named Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts to the court because of their conservative leanings. That's the way it works, people, for better or for worse. That's a privilege of being president. And you know what? That's not Bush's fault, and it's not Obama's fault. It's the system's fault.

And I think that's what's bothering me most about the national discourse that's centered on Sotomayor's confirmation. Bush was blamed for appointing Alito and Roberts, and now Obama's blamed for choosing Sotomayor. Alito, Roberts and Sotomayor were all lambasted in the media by pundits on both sides because of their points of view and potential ideological beliefs. It's not their fault they adhere to conservatism or liberalism. They should strive to remain objective and impartial, but we know that doesn't happen on the court (see Scalia, Antonin). So I think the system needs to change. Supreme Court Justices should be given term limits, not life-time appointments. Confirmation hearings should be more robust and in-depth, and nominated judges shouldn't get what is seemingly a pass onto the bench of the highest court in the land. But there need to be system-wide changes to affect any change in this arena. In the meantime, it's useless to criticize a president for his choice. And it rarely does any good to criticize the judge. (Unless his name is Robert Bork. There are some crazies out there. Sotomayor, though, is not one of them.)


New Blogs!

Hey, everyone, let me hype you to a couple of new blogs I've started or helped start that you definitely need to check out.
  1. Colin Donohue Photography. (http://colindonohuephotography.wordpress.com/) I'm starting to get more interested in photography, so I decided to start a blog that would feature some of the pictures I've been taking. I'm sort of learning on the go here, so they're not all gonna be winners. But I thought the blog would be a good creative outlet for me. Check it out and leave feedback and suggestions. I'm open to anything.
  2. Pick and Pop. (http://pickandpop.wordpress.com/) I started this blog with my buddy Justin from Maryland. It's going to be a sports-centered blog, but we're going to make it interactive. We'll post polls, you'll vote and we'll discuss the topic of your choosing. We also plan on adding some audio and video elements to the blog to make it more dynamic and unique. Be sure to swing by and check us out. We're ranting on the NBA draft at the moment. But with football season about to gear up, I'm sure we'll shift our focus in a month or two.
And, of course, Prolix Prone is still open for business. I'm going to use this to write about all the other stuff that Pick and Pop and Colin Donohue Photography don't cover. And never fear, Prolix Prone will always be the home for your LeTravel James degradation.

Thanks, everyone.


(Ir)Rational Fear of Flying?

Everybody makes the choice. It may not be a conscious one at the time, at the exact moment that it happens. But somewhere along the line—usually during the planning process—everybody makes the choice. And usually, little consideration is given to the decision. It’s engrained behavior. So when the time comes to step over that threshold, most people do it with a sense of blasé.

Not me. I don’t. I’m an active participant in the planning, in the lead up and in the eventual crossing from one side to the other. And, of course, that makes me a cauldron of nerves, a bubbling neurotic who instantly fields thousands of questions and concerns in my own mind. As quickly as they come, I have to shrug them off. If I didn’t, I’d probably lose my mind.

I like to tell people I have a healthy fear of flying. I like to say there’s nothing irrational about my anxiety. I do believe that fears typically have some basis in reality. Not everything that people fear is baseless, is cause for concern. Don’t call the people in white suits, as they say. But I’m also aware that fear can be crippling and nonsensical. It can manifest itself in odd ways and in odd places. If you don’t get a handle on it, then, yes, you’ll be imprisoned by it.

That’s why that threshold that I mentioned earlier is so important to me. I have to acknowledge it because denying it is foolish and fruitless. I’m not smart enough to think past it. But I also have to understand ultimately stepping from one side to the other probably won’t ruin me.

I know. You probably want specifics. What threshold? Stop burying the lede.


The threshold is the imaginary demarcation between the end of the jetway and doorway of the plane. Everyone makes the decision to step over that line and onto the plane. But who really thinks about that. Still, when you decide to walk onto a plane, you’re leaving your well being in the hands of pilots and grounds crew and the actual, physical tin can with souped up engines. You have to hope that everyone does his or her job precisely. You have to hope they do their due diligence. You have to know that you have absolutely no control over what happens from the moment you’re on the plane to the moment you’re off of it. Once you’re in, you’re there, for better or for worse. And there’s a helplessness about that. Maybe I don’t like putting my faith and trust into that many people. Maybe I think something as large, mechanical and intricate as a plane is just waiting for disaster. Maybe I believe that the laws of gravity are going to trump the marvelous feats of engineering. I don’t know what it is. But I know that I get in a lather sometimes because I have zero control. (Hell, maybe I’m a closeted control freak. But I don’t think that’s the case.)

Of course, you could turn tail and head back up the jetway. But there’s no guarantee that’s any safer. I know what the statistics say: Air travel is the safest form of transportation. And there’s great reason for that: technological advancements, well trained pilots and grounds crew, air traffic control that keep other planes in the sky away from one another. But there’s little comfort in numbers. I can’t wrap myself in a warm blanket of statistics and think that everything is going to be all right. I just can’t do that. On some level the stats are reassuring. For example, there’s a higher probability of my getting in a terrible car accident then of a plane I’m riding in crashing to the ground. That’s definitely a positive, and I try to dwell on the positives before and during a flight. It helps on some small level. But still, most people don’t have that feeling helplessness when they drive their cars. Why? Because they’re in control of their actions. True, when you drive, you have to be focused not only on what you’re doing but on what everyone else is doing, as well. But you know that if something bad is about to happen on the road, you rely on yourself, on your instincts, on your timing to avert disaster. When you’re in a plane? Well, you’re just along for the ride, all the while knowing that if something horrible goes wrong, well …

But none of this stops me from flying. And it probably never will. I fly fairly often during the year. I usually take a trip or two during the fall and spring semesters, then end up flying two or three times during the summer. I’ve taken quick jumps from Charlotte, N.C., to Greensboro, N.C., and I’ve taken interminable flights from Honolulu to Atlanta. I’ve experienced turbulent flights, smooth flights, bumpy landings, pancake landings and sudden drops. But I keep going because if I don’t, then fear envelops me whole and controls my actions.

I wrote all this from a bar in Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, Calif., as I waited to board a quick 40-minute flight to Las Vegas. I see people spread throughout the bar, drinking beer and wine, checking e-mail, playing games, listening to music, writing in a notebook, talking with friends and colleagues or just watching any of the 11 TVs clumped together against the far wall. I can almost guarantee that the middle aged woman who sat across from me, who glossed her lips and wrote Lord knows what in her notebook, wasn’t thinking anything remotely similar to what I was. Was she in denial? Or was she simply more well adjusted and rational? Maybe a little a both, but probably more of the latter.

The Yankees are visiting Boston, and that game is spread across four of the 11 televisions, and it serves as a welcome distraction from travelling and flying. A guy in a brown baseball game worn backwards is sitting at his table, resting his head on his clenched hands. He’s intently watching the Red Sox-Yankees match up. He seems invested in its outcome. He’s assuredly not thinking about whatever plane he has to catch soon. The engineering behind thrusting a several ton aircraft in the air is not nearly as important as whether struggling Red Sox slugger David Ortiz can turn around a pitch and get his average above .200. Priorities, people. (For the record, Ortiz walked.)

I look at these people and simultaneously deride them and envy them. Part of me says, “C’mon, folks, don’t be stupid. Humans weren’t meant to fly. That hunk of metal isn’t safe.” The other part says, quite simply, “I envy you.”

Why did I write this while waiting for a delayed flight? Because I was hoping it would be cathartic. I thought allowing my concerns and anxieties to surface would lead me to a shift in my mentality. I don’t want to be neurotic about flying. I want to enjoy it more than I do. I’m not sure if this helped at all. But I know one thing for sure, writing it before boarding a plane probably wasn’t the best choice. I’m not sure if this soothed my nerves or simply caused an explosion in concern.

Either way, I got on that plane.

At This Point, What Can You Really Say?

Did you see this? Look left.

Ridiculous, right? As the title of this post suggests, at this point, what can you really say about this guy? LeBron James is going to become one of the most hated athletes anywhere not because of his talent or his wins or because of some perceived jealousy on the part of fans of other teams, but because of this kind of egregious behavior that endears him only to gold-digger types. Of course his stats are great (both on the court and in the bank), but I guess it's good to know that's all he cares about. It's kind of hard to wear a T-shirt that says "Check my resume" when under the TEAM ACCOMPLISHMENTS line, you have nothing to write.



Immaturity Costs $25K

I thought I should briefly follow up on the LeBron James saga because it seems it has now come to a conclusion -- at least for this year. NBA Commish David Stern decided to fine LeBron $25,000 for his inexcusable behavior following Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Orlando Magic, when he sulked off the court and refused to shake the hands of the opponents who had just vanquished him and his Cavaliers. Initially, Stern met with LeBron and decided not to fine him. But after reconsideration, he changed his mind and now LeBron has to write a fairly hefty check. Ostensibly, the fine is because he refused to talk to the press after the game. But in reality, it's an indictment of his behavior, and I say that's a good thing.

Of course, LeBron had Stern apologize for him with this comment: "He asked that I express to the media, the Magic and the fans his apology, and particularly the young fans, because he knows he has a responsibility to all of our fans, and that sportsmanship is appropriate whether you win or whether you lose," Stern said. I guess LeBron can't offer an apology and sound contrite and remorseful, so he has to have the commissioner do it. Whatever. That's fine. At least he's being punished.

(Let me also award kudos to Stern for rescinding his initial decision not to chastise LeBron. It sends an outstanding message when the commissioner decides to lay a fairly heavy hand on his superstars, his breadwinners. So good for him. It's certainly something the NHL refuses to do because of it's spineless commissioner's office. Example: Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin picked a fight with Detroit Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg at the end of Game 2 with less than five minutes remaining. By rule, any time a player instigates a fight with less than five minutes left in a game, he's supposed to be suspended for the next game. Where was Malkin for Game 3? On the ice. Not shocking. NHL commish Gary Bettman needs to learn how to mete out consistent justice, regardless of whom it's directed toward. I find the NHL a much more fun league to watch, and the NHL playoffs far exceed the NBA playoffs in excitement, but Stern knows how to run an effective league, and Bettman clearly does not.)


King Arrogant

Yep, this is another tale about possibly the most arrogant professional athlete in the world--LeBron James. I mentioned in my previous post how much I think LeBron is all about LeBron. He's not about his teammates. He's not about his coach. He's not about the league. He's not about the fans. He's about him. Plain and simple. The fake picture taking, the chalk throwing, the scowls, the frowns, the complaining, the nail biting, the crying, the histroinics, the postgame pressers. Everything. It's always about LeBron. Sure, I believe he wants to win an NBA championship. And if he does, he'll acknowledge the fans and his teammates and his coach and his owner and his general manager, but you know, in the back of his mind, he's thinking: "This trophy is for me because I deserve it." And there will be some truth to that statement when he gets to make it to himself. Certainly, any LeBron James championship team is undoubtedly a winner, in large part, because of his talents. But still, it will always be about him. He's an egomaniac, and even the most fervent Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James supporter would have to admit that.

Is it all his fault? I won't say it's all his fault. But it's mostly his doing. He could always take a new tack. Part of the problem is THIS IMAGE from his days in high school. But the largest reason I find him almost utterly unlikable is because he always needs to be the center of attention. He's like the middle child of the NBA, except that despite the fact that he's getting all the coverage from the league and the networks, he still needs more. His ego has an insatiable appetite. And that would would be bad enough, except that he couples it with classless shenanigans, such as his actions after Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Orlando Magic.

After the game ended, the first thing I thought to myself was: "LeBron isn't even shaking anyone's hand. He just walked back to the locker room." The media, of course, has grabbed hold of the story, and now it's national. I didn't need ESPN to tell me what LeBron did (or rather didn't) do. I saw it. And it cemented in my mind (and perhaps brought to the forefront of others) what I've always thought about LeBron James: He's a sophomoric, whiny, spoiled brat who's insanely good at basketball. It's a terrible combination.

Now, NBA commish David Stern wants to talk to LeBron about his walk-off. Stern isn't happy about what transpired. And I don't blame him. I give credit to Stern for wanting to discuss things with LeBron. I'll give him more credit if he publicly excoriates LeBron for what he did. It's unacceptable. What did LeBron have to say about it: "It's hard for me to congratulate someone after you lose to them. I'm a winner. It's not being a poor sport or anything like that. But somebody beats you up, you're not going to congratulate them on beating you up. That doesn't make sense." Hey, LeBron, you didn't win. You haven't won anything in your life. So guess what? You're not a winner. Yeah, 66 regular season wins is nice. The feeling of a ring on your finger is probably nicer.

How a player reacts in defeat, particularly a crushing loss, says a lot about who he is as a man and a person. This has nothing to do with basketball skill but about strength of character, about integrity. And LeBron showed he had neither in full supply after that game. Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post calls him out, but also gives him a pass, saying "It's LeBron James Gets It Right 299, LeBron Goofs 1." Wilbon's assertion there is ridiculous. Again, I think most of what James does is self-aggrandizing and self-promotional, so I would contend the numbers between LeBron Gets It Right and LeBron Goofs is much closer. But still, national media members who are usually in the tank for LeBron are now riding him.

And what has LeBron done since? He sent an e-mail to Orlando players apologizing and expressing regret. LeBron is 24 years old, but that kind of childlike move leads me to believe he hasn't matured socially or emotionally past 12. An e-mail? Seriously, LeBron? Is King James really an appropriate nickname?

But everything above is a prelude to this piece of hilarity. This is a remix of those Nike puppet commercials featuring LeBron and Kobe Bryant. One of the first commercials is pretty funny. But you should see the parody of the spot that someone put together, too. Absolute genius. The first clip below is the original commercial (listen for the crab dribble at the 32-second mark), and the second clip is the parody. Enjoy.


Congrats, Orlando Magic

Outside of the folks in Orlando, maybe Charles Barkley and I were the only people who thought the Orlando Magic would beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA's Eastern Conference finals. I'm not some kind of NBA clairvoyant--far from it. But I do know a good team when I see one, and I know that a good team always beats a good individual come playoff time. Sure, a great player and decent supporting cast can win you tons of games in the regular season and help you roll over some less adequate postseason opponents. But when it counts, usually in a conference finals or NBA finals, an individual isn't going to win you games. That's doubly true when that individual (yes, we're talking about LeBron James) and his team are just a terrible matchup for the opponent. Let's look at a couple of the reasons why the Cavs lost:

  1. No one can guard Dwight Howard. He's too fast and strong for the slow-footed Zydrunas Ilgauskus. He's too powerful for the overrated and foul-prone Anderson Varejao. He's too big for Joe Smith. And he's just better in every area than an aging Ben Wallace. So the Cavs have to double him in the post, which leads to point No. 2 ...
  2. The Magic have too many outside shooting threats. Rafer Alston, Rashard Lewis, Hedo Turkuglo, Courtney Lee and Mickael Pietrus can all nail the 3-pointer, and they did it with alarming accuracy and consistency through six games.
  3. The Magic's entire lineup is simply bigger than the Cavs. They have major size advantages, which allow them to pass over defenders or shoot over defenders.
  4. Defensively, the Magic allowed LeBron to do what he wanted. The Magic forced LeBron to take all the shots and single-handedly win the game. He couldn't. (Although, Pietrus did an excellent job defending LeBron, despite LeBron's output.)
  5. LeBron James still cannot play defense. I don't want to hear about his improved defensive abilities this season. But if you watched this series closely, you'll notice LeBron running around everywhere and simply losing his man. Why did Pietrus outscore the entire Cavs bench for the whole series? Because LeBron lost sight of him.

And, quite frankly, in a decisive Game 6, LeBron disappeared. He scored 13 points in the first quarter than just 12 the rest of the way. That's not how a superstar is supposed to play. (See Howard's 40 points for an example of how a superstar should play.) Granted, he was tired. Through five previous games, he had to carry his entire team for 44 minutes a game. But still, the Cavs dispatched their first two opponents in four-game sweeps, so LeBron should've had plenty of time to rest up for this one. And the amount of minutes he was playing in the Magic series is directly attributable to his head coach, Mike Brown, who didn't do nearly enough to make sure his superstar player got some rest, at least. (I know James won Coach of the Year, and rightly so, but I've always found him overrated. Like Doug Collins in Chicago during Michael Jordan's early years, I think Mike Brown is soon removed from the Cavs bench.)

After the game, you could tell LeBron was frustrated. And he should be. His team won 66 regular season games, went 8-0 in the first two rounds of the playoffs, then fumbled away an opportunity to go to the Finals. But that still doesn't excuse some of his behavior during the series or after the game. (Full disclosure: I'm not fan of LeBron James. I can't stand him as a person, and I don't really care to watch him on the floor. I won't ever deny the fact that he's a great player. I'm not Skip Bayliss. But I don't like him, and I'm not afraid to say it. I am an NBA fan who doesn't have an affinity for LeBron James. I think that's OK.) LeBron is still a child in many ways, and his petty actions were plain for everyone to see. He thought he deserved a chance to play in the finals. Nothing is owed to him, no matter what the Nike commercials may have you believe. You want to know what I WITNESSED. I WITNESSED a sophomoric, bratty, petulant, self-absorbed kid take a loss in an absolutely abhorrent way.

  1. During the series, he kept saying that HE was ready to play and that HE would come out strong and perform at a high level. In essence, he was telling people he had faith in himself, but he had none in his teammates. And this, my friends, is why he is NOT a better teammate than some other guys in this league, like Kobe Bryant. Yeah, LeBron did that fake picture garbage before games and everyone said the Cavs looked like a cohesive unit. The players all loved each other. But it's easy to buddy-buddy when you win 66 games. How does your superstar react when he loses a few games or when adversity strikes him and his team? In the case of LeBron James, runs away from his teammates and secludes himself. Classy.
  2. After the Game 6 win, did LeBron hang around for a couple of minutes and wish congratulations to any of the Magic players, particularly his Olympic teammate Dwight Howard? Nope. He walked off the court, sulking like a child.
  3. Also after the game, LeBron showered, got dressed and walked to the team bus without saying a word to anyone. As the leader of a team, he is responsible for standing up and talking to reporters. He needed to man up in that instance and be the face of the franchise. But, again, like a child, he took his ball and went home.
  4. His histroinics on the floor are abominable. And that's not just something that he started during this series. He's been doing it his whole career. He checks his forehead, forearms, face, etc., for cuts every time he's fouled. He complains when other teams try to foul him to stop him from dunking, yet he tells his teammates to foul Howard to stop him from dunking. He rolls on the floor and throws his arms in the air when he doesn't get a call. He bites his nails on the bench. He takes fake pictures of his teammates. (Guess what, it's not about team unity. It's still all about him.) I'm tired of it.
  5. He's all about him. The chalk toss before the game, which isn't even his invention. The fake picture, which I already mentioned. The mugging for the camera. The scowls. How about his reaction after the game-winning shot he nailed in Game 2 against the Magic. Sure, it was a big shot and a huge win. But he and his teammates acted like they had just won the NBA championship. Get real, folks.

Now, will LeBron James ever win a championship? Absolutely. He'll probably win a two or three of them. And he may even leave the game as the best player ever to play in the NBA. (But I still think he needs to equal or surpass Jordan's six championships to be in that conversation.) But he still has some serious growing up to do. We tend to forget that he's just 24 years old, and while he's accomplished a lot in his short time in the league, he's still a kid. I hope, for his sake, the maturation process, not as a player but as a person, begins in haste. Otherwise, we'll have to deal with his sulky, ungracious behavior for many years to come.


Spin the Black Circle

A couple of months ago (maybe more, who can remember), I bought Pearl Jam's "rearviewmirror (Greatest Hits 1991-2003)." Sure, I'm a little late to the game if my first Pearl Jam purchase came in 2008. They were obviously a formative band, from the Seattle grunge scene, while I was in middle and high school. But I had no real interest in their music. I can't really say why. I guess I was more enamored at the time with groups like Steely Dan, the Beatles, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the hip-hop scene.

(An aside: The first hip-hop album I ever bought was Notorious B.I.G's "Life After Death," a historic double album at the time. Then I moved on to Puff Daddy's "No Way Out." My tastes in rap were not so well cultivated then. Still, as I moved through all the Biggie, Puffy, Busta albums, I started to gravitate toward Nas, Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, the Roots, a Tribe Called Quest, Lupe Fiasco, Eric B. and Rakim and De La Soul. I yearned for the socially conscious hip-hop, the kind of stuff that required a sharp tongue and a deep intellect. They were rapping about SOMETHING, which was important to me. Too much radio/club hip-hop is diluted garbage that combines a pulsating beat with repetitive, catchy lyrics. It's a sure formula to make some quick cash, but it's so shallow that its lasting impact is minimal or, usually, non-existent. So I found the soulful tones and understated, yet still good, beats of guys like Common and Mos Def, the musical acumen of the Roots and the lyrical prowess of people like Nas and Talib Kweli. Those are real rappers. The guys you hear on the radio? Well, they're just parodies of themselves and stereotypes of the hip-hop scene. They add nothing substantive to rap music.)

I was always behind the curve musically. I never paid any mind to the indie rock scene. I was never at the vanguard of any musical movement. I knew what I liked, and that's what I listened to. I usually relied on others to hip me to new bands and acts. Now, I had always known about Pearl Jam. Who didn't back then? In fact, my high school journalism teacher had a love for Pearl Jam that he probably will never have for any other living person. (He has a wife and kid now, so he may resent that statement. But I'll stand by it.) He would often force us to listen to the fivesome during class while we worked. I think because it was pushed on me so aggressively, I began to despise the band. I had the you-can't-tell-me-who-to-like attitude, so I avoided Pearl Jam's music. My shortsightedness led to my loss.

But I bring all this up now because I haven't been able to stop listening to "rearviewmirror" for the past two months, at least. It has stayed in my car's CD player almost exclusively, and I tear through the same 30+ tracks over and over and over again. Making up for lost time, I guess. At first, it was hard for me to pinpoint what I loved about this band so much. I guess on the first couple of listens, it was just the nostalgia of some of the songs. It was listening to Dissident, Even Flow, Jeremy and Alive one more time and 10 years out. Then after a few listens, I just enjoyed the rock 'n' roll, which was catchy and good. But when you listen to the same band for months at a time, you start to realize some of the deeper connections you make with the music. You learn why they were (and are) successful. And so you develop a greater appreciation for everything they did. And that brings me to the song Spin the Black Circle. Of all the songs on "rearviewmirror," it's one of my least favorite. But it was also the one song that really made me acknowledge the genius of Pearl Jam's entire catalog.

Spin the Black Circle is a hard rock song, certainly harder than anything else they produced, from the album "Vitalogy." In fact, Pearl Jam won its one and only Grammy Award in 1996 in the Best Hard Rock category for Spin. (It was a meaningless awards, according to lead singer Eddie Vedder.) And because it's such a hard rock song, I never enjoyed it. I like rock 'n' roll, but when it reaches a point of crossing over into metal (or metal lite) territory, I turn away. Because at that point, the music devolves into noise. And I thought Spin dove head first into metal lite. Maybe it had more of a punk feel, but I don't think so. So the first time I heard it, I moved past it. But a couple of weeks ago, it came around again, and instead of skipping, I stayed put to listen to it finally after weeks of skipping. And I came away impressed by how Pearl Jam constructed the song.

Everything Pearl Jam does is intentional. It's not just about intertwining the guitar, bass, drums, etc. That's obviously important. But a simple combination of every element that goes into making a song is only a start. What instrument should be featured prominently? How should the leader singer sing the song? When should the bass enter? When should the drums fade to back? Would a keyboard add an extra element to the piece? All these questions and more go into the total decision making process for a song. And some artists just toss things together, use that magic radio formula and produce a hit single that will make them a ton of money. More power to them, but again, does that music have any worth? No. Everything a band does has to have meaning. What's the raison d'etre, as it were? And what impresses me about Pearl Jam is that they seem to think thoughtfully through all their decisions.

Spin the Black Circle starts fast and ends faster. It's frenzied, frantic and frenetic. Nothing about that song should make your comfortable. The lyrics are about addiction, not to drugs, but to vinyl records. (Hence the title, Spin the Black Circle.) The first lyric is, "See this needle ... a see my hand ..." So you might think, as a listener, that it's about shooting heroin. Not the case. But still, the song does center on addiction to music and vinyl records, and so the music pulsates and tries to pull you into a helpless world. It's all power chords, so there's nothing too intricate there. But isn't that part of the point? Addiction is powerful, nothing subtle about it. So the song should be powerful, too.

Vedder sings aggressively throughout the entire piece, but he seems to get madder and madder as the song continues. And at the end, there's a beautiful devolution into anarchy. Vedder enters as he pleases and screams "spin." The other band members seem to play their instruments with no regard for pace or tone or timing. No one is in synch at all. It's a completely frenzied situation. It makes you feel like there's no release, nothing you can do. And, of course, that symbolizes addiction, particularly when addicts hit the bottom.

Al Weisel of Rolling Stone called the song a "revvedup thrash tribute to vinyl." David Browne of Entertainment Weekly said that it sounds "a little flabby, like dinosaur rockers trying to prove they're into Green Day." But I get the sense that Weisel and Browne didn't really listen to the song, the same mistake I made early on. To understand the true beauty of the piece is to listen to the music and lyrics together and to comprehend how everything fits together nicely. It may sound anarchistic, but unlike true anarchy, there's reason and structure behind it.


The 15-Year-Old Hero

*I wrote this story about my friend Caleb Pike while I was a student at Elon. At the time both Caleb and I were juniors. It's difficult for Caleb to recount the details of this fateful day because he doesn't like to relive the situation. But after you read it, you'll learn the definition of a true American hero. I hope I did the story at least a little justice.

It was early, about 6:30 in the morning, and the traffic to work was still heavy. Caleb turned to his mother in the driver’s seat and did what most teenagers do on the last Friday of summer vacation: He complained.

“Traffic was [terrible],” Caleb said. “I was getting ready for school, and was kind of complaining about going back.” He also had contemplated requesting the day off from work, extending his last weekend of the summer to three days. But he thought to himself, “What’s one more day?”

He arrived at work in the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, at about 7 a.m. It was a typical August day. A bit overcast, but the weather was cool. It’s never too hot in Nairobi because Kenya sits on a plateau.

He went down to the basement and prepared for his day. He worked in the commissary tending the cash register, stocking product, doing general repairs. He did a few odd jobs before setting to the task of fixing a broken typewriter. He fiddled with it for a few minutes before he heard the first loud bang. He set down the typewriter and his tools and walked out of the office to see what it was. At first, he thought maybe somebody a few floors up dropped a safe. No, he told himself, it was too loud.

Seconds later, a second bang. The building shook beneath his feet. The ceiling began to fall. The emergency lights turned on. Cement chalk filled the air.

Caleb started shaking. He mentally checked himself for any injuries. None. He remained calm and immediately thought of his mother. He hoped she was OK, but at this point, there was nothing he could do to help her. The aftershock of the bomb that contacted the embassy—the second band he heard—had forced the doors in the building shut, and they couldn’t be opened from the inside. Each door, though, could be opened with a five-digit code. He walked six feet across the carpeted hall and took a quick left. His manager’s office was in a corner, and she was trapped inside. As he tried to get the PIN from his boss, some Africans who were in the travel agency next to the commissary were screaming frantically. Caleb told them to be quiet so he could get the code. Successful. He opened the door and removed Giddy Shaw from the office. Then, he went back and grabbed the Africans. He maneuvered Shaw and the four Africans down the hallway. The restaurant and mail room at the other end was in sight.

The fake tile ceiling had fallen to the ground. The carpet was a mess. The fluorescent light fixtures were hanging tenuously. They swallowed chalk as they walked.

“The chalk fills your mouth like peanut butter, or like eating sand,” Caleb said. “Afterwards, you could tell who was in the building because they had a black ring around their mouth. It was hard to breath.”

The six-person convoy got half way down the hallway. Caleb ran into a Marine who had fallen three stories down an elevator shaft. Caleb told him to come with them, but the Marine declined. He said he needed some time. His ribs were broken. The Marine told Caleb to take the stairs. Caleb opened the door to the stairwell, craned his neck and noticed it was all clear. They got up one flight but could go no further. They left the stairwell and headed for a side door. The six exited through the parking garage. At the time, they didn’t know that’s where the bomb had exploded.

About 10 minutes after leaving his basement post, Caleb reached the top of the garage and ran into the in-house doctor. She was carrying a woman out of the building. The doctor handed the woman off to Caleb and told him to carry her the rest of the way. Caleb’s party had increased by one. The doctor headed back into the building, and Caleb, holding the woman and leading five others, was back in the paradoxically pleasant Nairobi weather.

“It was chaos,” Caleb said.

Eventually, someone took the woman from Caleb. Buses and cars were on fire. The school across the street had collapsed. The woman was replaced in Caleb’s arm with some classified information. Marines at the scene were running back and forth into the building to remove some of the important classified documents and making sure no one entered. Caleb delivered the papers. He hopped in a car and was taken to the U.S. Information Services building .
He was out. He was safe. He had never run. He had never panicked. He heard within moments of leaving the building that his mother was fine. It was an intense day. He had saved six lives – seven including his own.

He was 15.

Just a normal day

When Caleb left for work early the morning of August 17, 1998, he had no reason to think anything would go wrong. And why should he? Nothing had in the preceding summer months. His mother, Judy Pike – she worked for the embassy, greeting new employees and helping them get acclimated to the city – also had felt no need to worry. In fact, no one who worked in the building at the time expected a bombing. There were no previous intelligence reports that would suggest such a thing would happen. It surprised everyone.

“You hear different rumors and threats, letter bombs and things that might [happen],” Judy said. “I got too familiar and too relaxed. I was too comfortable.”

Judy pulled into the embassy. The building sat at the corner of a busy intersection, right on the sidewalk. Embassies these days must be built away from the street. They have to be set back for security reasons. But five years ago, that wasn’t the case.

“The people who actually go overseas and work over there have the understanding that there is some sort of risk,” Caleb said. “People know that now more than before, though.”

To be sure, Caleb was no stranger to living overseas. Aside from Nairobi, he has lived in Botswana, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Niger, Liberia and the United States. At the time of the bombing, his father, Col. Dan Pike, was serving as a defense attaché. It was his job to understand the military capabilities of the surrounding nations. When the bombs exploded, his father was traveling abroad.

Shortly before 10:30 a.m., as Caleb worked with the typewriter, the guards outside the embassy had their first encounter with the terrorist bombers.

Lucky twice over

The first explosion wasn’t the one that inflicted the damage. The bombers, working for al-Qaede leader and mastermind Osama bin Laden, had thrown a grenade into the guards shack to create a diversion. The real bang, which would come only seconds later, could’ve been worse.

The intention of the bombers was to drive their truck into the bowels of the parking garage. If the bomb had been set off down there, the whole building would have collapsed. But the Marines standing duty gave their lives to ensure that didn’t happen. They distracted the driver. One Marine reached through the truck’s window and grabbed the wheel. As the driver and Marine struggled, the car veered off course and crashed into the side of the building. That set the bomb off, but the blast only went up the building. It didn’t cripple the building’s infrastructure at all. It blew out windows and doors, but the building still stood.

Caleb was working in the basement after the grenade exploded. Like most people in the embassy, he was overwhelmed with curiosity after he heard the sound. He walked out of the commissary to find out what happened. In the basement, though, there are no windows, so he couldn’t see what had happened. The people on the floors above him were not as fortunate. They left their desks to look out the windows. When the second explosion occurred – the real bomb – the windows shattered inward.

“People walked towards the windows, which was a problem,” Caleb said. “It blew all the windows and shredded people. Luckily, with my curiosity, I was below ground.”

Judy remained unharmed because 20 minutes before the explosion, she had left her office to meet a new employee. After she picked up the newcomer, she headed back to the embassy. She, too, heard a thundering noise. But there was construction going on in the area, so she thought nothing of it.

“I heard it, and didn’t put two and two together,” Judy said.

Soon enough, though, she noticed the destruction and mayhem.

“Someone told me that embassy had just been bombed, and I saw the ambassador, and she had some injuries,” Judy said. “I stopped and was numb because I realized Caleb was in building. I was kind of frozen. I couldn’t move for a little bit. I was shocked, because it hit me that it really happened, and I knew he was there.

“It might’ve been about five minutes, but it seemed like forever, [until] someone saw me and yelled out to me that they had seen Caleb leave the building.”

Mother and son reunited several minutes later at home. A total of 213 people were killed – 12 of whom were Americans and the bulk of whom were Kenyan civilians and bystanders – and more than 4,000 had been wounded.

Caleb, the hero

Caleb had no military training. He worked in the commissary. He sold food. He fixed things that needed fixing. The, curly blond-haired, blue-eyed kid from Fort Bragg, N.C., was studying geometry and algebra in his high school in Kenya. Roundly shaped, but built solidly like a wrestler, his large, round head sat on his broad shoulders – a neck conspicuously missing. What did he know about emergency rescue situations?

But instinct took over for Caleb.

“I don’t mean to sound cocky, but you either have it or you don’t,” Caleb said. “I didn’t have any training, it had to be instinct.”

Certainly, fear was present. But in the anxiousness of the situation, he never acknowledged it.
“Mostly it was just confusion, like what the heck had just happened,” he said. “A lot of it was still worrying about my mom. That was about it. Maybe that’s why I stayed calm because I wasn’t thinking about too much. I’m sure I was scared.”

Judy didn’t learn of her son’s heroics until the next day. She ran into a couple of the people he had rescued. They hugged her and told her Caleb was their hero.

“I was just very proud he could handle himself despite of what he was seeing: fires, death, ruin,” she said.

Caleb’s father also had him write down everything that had happened to him. Soon after, Caleb received the Department of State Award for Heroism, one of the more distinguished awards given to a civilian.

Now a junior at Elon University, he recalls his actions proudly, but infrequently. His unassuming manner and modesty belies the strength of character he displayed on that August day. And to think, he almost called into work that day.


A Typical Day in Wal-Mart (in 350 Words)

*I wrote this feature while I was in Michael Skube's feature writing class at Elon University as an undergrad. The challenge was to write a full feature in no more than 350 words. It was a difficult assignment. Still, I thought I'd post it here for consumption. Enjoy.

A Typical Day in Wal-Mart (in 350 Words)

It requires the deft footwork, superior vision and quick steps more suited to an NFL running back. Hit the hole, spin around the cart, juke to the right, jump the child, and finally reach the electronics department.

Grab a cart, and it becomes tantamount to car racing. Take a hard right, pull in tightly behind another cart and wait for the chance to make a move to the outside. Beware of blind spots, though. Wrecks are sometimes inevitable.

Getting through Burlington’s Wal-Mart – the part department store, part grocery store – is a laborious task. It tests patience or boils blood. It remains busy from sun up to sunrise – all the more reason it shouldn’t have reallocated large chunks of its parking lot to the sale of soil, mulch and other gardening amenities.

“It’s as if the whole of Burlington is at the store at one time,” said Elon junior Joe Torralbes. “I like to do my shopping at 4 a.m.”

The store, located only a couple of miles from Elon University’s campus, is an overwhelming presence. It’s big business in an slow-moving, small country town. Walk through the sliding doors, occasionally receive a hearty “hello” from the greeter, and one’s immersed in the vastness of the Supercenter.

At least a half-mile from the front of the store to the back, and from side to side, Wal-Mart sells everything under its high ceilings and neon white lights. Board games, clothes, school supplies, groceries, electronics, Wal-Mart’s got it. And employees clad in blue vests scurry to their respective departments, perhaps making the store more bureaucratic than it need be.

The 30 terminals overrun the front end of the store, although rarely half of them are open. Of course, that forces lines to snake into aisles overrun with spilled merchandise and clog up the middle of the store.

And when the shopping is complete, one customer walks through the doors into the parking lot, cart in tow, sense of relief on his face. He mutters to himself, “That was a chore.”

The utterance isn’t sure to change next week.