Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Iowa Baseball - Mascots Part Two

The second stop on our Iowa Minor League Road Trip was in Clinton.  This is an old river town that has a very different feel as compared to our Cedar Rapids experience.  We quite like the ball park, it is a vintage WPA constructed stadium where you feel a much stronger connection to the history of the game.

With the possible exception of the New York Yankees, all teams go through lousy seasons from time to time.  For Clinton this year that is the case.  Probably that is why the stands had only a light sprinkling of  fans despite it being a glorious, intoxicatingly beautiful Saturday night for baseball.

All the rites of the game were on display.  Here we have the two managers meeting with the umpires. I like it that they gather at Home Base.  Unlike the dugout areas this is a neutral point. It is almost like rival tribes coming together at some ancient standing stone that both respect as being a spot that neither of them can own.

Here we have the visiting team - it is Cedar Rapids again - standing at attention for the singing of the National Anthem.  Look closely. Some of these young players already have adapted a special stance for this ritual.  Look closer still, see the grizzled coach putting a protective hand on the shoulder of the bat boy?

I was a bit tired from a poor night's sleep and the game seemed to drag at first.  From time to time the home team would have a runner on base and the announcer would try to gin up a bit of enthusiasm. When he asked the fans to start clapping only four or five did, dwindling in a minute to a single person.  One fan clapping, the absolute smallest unit of crowd enthusiasm measurable by modern science.

So, this post is about mascots.  Where was The Lumber King?

It took until about the third inning but eventually when I went out into the concourse for a beer run I spotted him.  He was strolling here and there, offering to give high fives to fans and in general attempting a demenour more cheerful than a 38 - 83 record would justify.  For my non baseball friends I would point out that even horrid teams are expected to win about one third of their games. Clinton is having a very bad year.

And I heard some fans giving the mascot crap about it.  This I had not anticipated.  But it got me to thinking on the matter of what exactly a mascot is supposed to represent.

On one level he is simply an elaborate cheerleader.  Or a clown.  Somebody who goes out there and entertains.  But is there more?  The emblem of Rome was the Eagle.  The Legions carried it into battle and losing one was a source of great shame.  We have for most of our history and pre-history been tribal types, a tendency that has not vanished entirely in the 21st century.  Sports mascots are a last vestige of our identification as members of, say, The Bear Clan.  Or Red Sox Nation.

When our totems fail to produce Victory we start to regard them as false shamans, as idols who have lost the favor of Inscrutable Higher Powers.  We shun them like an Ancient Mariner who wears about his neck not "the collar" (baseball slang for a hitter going 0-for a game), but an albatross.  Maybe that was what was going on when The Lumber King met with such a tepid response from his acolytes.

But something remarkable happened.  In the late innings Clinton tied the score.  And going into the bottom of the ninth they got a runner to second base.  With two outs and down to his last strike the Clinton batter reached back into some hidden reserve of mojo and smacked a clean hit through to win the game.

When a team has won very few games indeed on the season it is likely that a win like this will be the dramatic highlight of their year.  The Clinton dugout emptied in a flash, the hero of the moment was mobbed, drenched with water and ran around the infield.  He stripped off his now sodden jersey and bare chested he waved it around like the flag of Victory that it was.

Faith was restored.  Maybe the Lumber King, last seen in the seventh inning heading off to the locker room, got a few more high fives the next day.  Neither success nor failure are actually his doing, but like all shamans he gets the credit or blame nonetheless.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Iowa Baseball - Mascots Part One

Mid August has traditionally been the time that my brother and I do a Road Trip.  The nominal excuse is taking in a few minor league baseball games.  Of course we do other stuff; eat greasy food, drink beer (but less than in Old Times), discuss the meaning of life, and so forth.

But we do go to the games and enjoy them a lot.  "Down on the Farm" as they say, the players are young and hungry, playing hard for a shot at the Show.  You see raw talent and ridiculous mental lapses.  It is baseball in a form far closer to its original version than what you see in the Major Leagues.  It is also much cheaper to attend.

On our recent trip we started off at Cedar Rapids, the affiliate of our preferred team, the Minnesota Twins.

Last trip down this way we were extremely impressed with the performance of the team mascot, a certain "Mr. Shucks".  (Corn is a big deal in Iowa.  So the team is called the Kernels and the mascot...).  Shucks was simply the best mascot we had ever seen, and we really wanted to see The Master at work again.

But at the beginning of the game he was nowhere to be seen.  And what's this?

Not an Angry Bird.  Well, actually I guess it is, as this is the mascot of the University of Iowa (Hawkeyes) football team.  It seems there was some joint promotional thing going on so we had "Herky the Hawk" and a gang of cheerleaders running around.

They even got up on the roof of the dugout and danced, causing me to miss a play at first entirely. Mind you I have no inappropriate interest in young ladies of an age to be my children, or to stretch the narrative a bit, in theory my grandchildren.  But darn it, I could not see past them.

In the pre-game moments Mr. Shucks was nowhere to be seen.  I asked one of the Kernel's staff about this and they said he* was in fact on the premises.  It was my assumption that he did not want to distract from his "guests" and was letting Herky and his pals have the lime light.

But I also got the feeling that the current "Shucks" was not quite the dynamo of his predecessor, a certain Marius Noden.**  Being a mascot is, you see, a little like being the Dread Pirate Roberts. So long as people believe it is you, it is you.  But you have to assiduously keep up the act.

But eventually Mr. Shucks did start working the crowd, and all was forgiven.  Shucks wanders about with a staffer whose job description probably includes helping with visibility on uneven surfaces as well as snapping pictures with fans.  They were good sports, the both of them.

The yellow bracelet btw is required if you are going to purchase beer.  I had at first just gone up to the beer vendor and pointed to my grizzled beard.  It was deemed insufficient proof that I was over 21.

Oh, the ball game.  Well played with surprisingly good pitching and fielding.  The offense was a bit off but we did see one fellow hit a screaming line drive home run.  The last guy we saw do that was three years ago in Beloit.  The player was Miguel Sano.  He is now up with the big club and hitting impressive home runs off of the best pitching in the league.
*It is hard to tell "he" from "she" in a mascot outfit.  The current "Mr. Shucks" is not tall of stature, but our observation when he was running about with a team banner was that he did not run like a girl.

** compare this article from the local paper with my blog post on the subject: Best Mascot. Coincidence? I wonder.  Mr. Noden has returned to his native Atlanta and has a marketing position with the Atlanta Hawks basketball team.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Reality Check

When the disheveled recluse who has maggots and actual adult flies hatching from under his malodorous bandages is only the THIRD worst patient you see on a shift it is time and past time to consider a career adjustment.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Farewell Rome - Tales left untold

Time at last to say farewell to Rome.  It was a great trip and I am already planning a return.  But wait, say you, what about all the other sights?

There are places I did not have time to visit and others I chose not to visit.  The Colosseum for instance.  Walked past it.  I even had as part of my Palatine/Forum ticket a chance to stroll in for no extra Euros.  But really, why?  I have visited other amphitheaters in southern France that were slightly smaller but not at all less cool.  And I have little stomach for herds of tourists led by guides who are giving the "dummy version" of history.  Another time, perhaps.

But as to other sights I will not be writing about, well, it is a mixed bag.

Take for instance the Domus Aurea.  We were able to get some very hard to score tickets for a fabulous tour of the underground portions of Nero's pleasure palace.  I highly recommend this if you are going to Rome and are interested in great stuff off the usual tourist agenda.  So why no post on it?

My pictures did not do the place justice.  The fragile condition of the wall paintings meant no flash photography.  And while I can get fairly good slow shutter pictures with my indestructible travel camera it takes time and a bit of luck with the lighting.  Sorry.  But as compensation I offer you this:

A friend of mine, the enigmatic MooseandHobbes, was also on the tour.  She has a very nice camera and used it to good effect.  HERE, check out her photos and narrative of our tour.  A tip of my yellow hard hat to M&H on this effort.

I said that I intend to return to Rome but I did not take the traditional measure to ensure it.  While I have been known to leave the occasional votive coin in key spots I think chucking one into Trevi Fountain is very cliche.  Also, it was under repairs when I was there.  Here are long lines of unimaginative visitors clomping over the dry fountain so they could say they were "there".  Really now, is a fountain without water anything like the living, vibrant place it is once the spigot is turned back on?

Sigh.  Here are more lines of tourists.  This site is a little less popular although you would not know it by what you see below.  Buses disgorging groups of mostly Japanese folks who want to visit....

Guess I am cheating a bit here because what they all want to see is inside that covered portico. Behold, the Bocca della Vertia. The Mouth of Truth.

This is a big slab of Roman stonework.  It is probably the god Oceanus, but we are not sure.  It was probably in a temple somewhere nearby, but we are not sure of that either.  What we do know is that it got stuck onto the side of the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in the 17th Century.  There is a tradition that if you stick your hand into the mouth of this thing and then tell a lie, that it will bite your hand off.  This was memorably depicted in the great movie Roman Holiday.  Movie tourism seems to be a big thing with some folks.

On a day when I had a long walk and an early start I set off at a time when the gates to this would not be open for hours.  Sitting on the curb looking very forlorn was a solitary middle aged Japanese man. I had to wonder.  Did he think he could stick his hand in there and find out if he was lying to himself about something?  If he expected some Audrey Hepburn equivalent to join him there, well, I am afraid her standing you up has given you the answer you were seeking, Good Sir.

Some things I am leaving out because I just could not capture the scale of things.  On our cycling trip down the Appian Way we went past a series of ruined aqueducts.  One street sign I saw translated to "The Camp of the Barbarians".  This is where the besieging Goths cut the water supply to try and make Rome die of thirst.  In the long run it did just that.  Too much to capture in a single photo.

I did not visit the Vatican.  And it is not because I am not Catholic.  I wanted to make it over there to see the obelisk in St. Peter's square.  But we just did not have the time.  On our last morning in Rome we discovered that our lodgings had a little garden up on the roof.  Fabulous view of St. Peter's dome. But at that point I was wrapped up in packing duties and tending to a temporarily ill spouse.  Another time, another trip....

A few things I saw but did not really understand.  Many churches in Rome have very macabre funeral monuments.  Yes, I know in general that these were intended as a reminder that we are mortal and should look to the Life Eternal.  But knowing what this meant and understanding it are different things.  I had a lot of these guys looking back at me.  They seem to be gloating.

And one final category of things I rarely write about: food.  Reading about somebody eating a tasty meal seems very unsatisfying, and showing you pictures of things that you can't eat seems mean. But today a rare exception.

We were up in the hills of Tuscany one day and went into a shop that sold meats and cheeses. These are local cheeses made from sheep milk.  Wondering why they are covered in straw?  There are two answers.

True Answer number One.  From long trial and error it has been found that ageing this kind of cheese by packing it in straw just makes it turn out better.  Better cheese is good.

Truer Answer number Two.  Back in feudal times tenant farmers would pay their rent by handing over a set percentage of what they produced.  Grain, eggs, whatever.  Well, what do you know....keeping most of your cheese hidden in a haystack will actually lower your tax rate!  Lower taxes, very good indeed!

If you think I am inferring something about the dysfunction of the current Italian economy here you are very perceptive.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Murder in the Palace

My archaeological journey to Rome is now months behind me and going through my notes and photos I am down to a few topics where I have to admit....I was just looking at amazing things and not knowing what they really were.

One of the hardest places to interpret was the Palatine Hill, essentially an entire hill devoted to the Imperial Palace.  So much history, so many remarkable men, women and events.  So few explanatory sign boards....

It struck me as a perfect place for one of those slightly cheesy "ghost tours" where enthusiastic, under employed actors hold forth on all manner of Dark Deeds committed in the general area and in a fashion somewhat akin to how they tell it.

For purposes of our Murder in the Palatine tour I have converted a few of my photos to black and white.

Scene One 96 AD

Domitian was one of the more paranoid of Roman Emperors, and that is saying quite a bit.  In addition to the usual measures - torturing suspected plotters for instance - he went so far as to keep a sword under his pillow at all times and to have metal surfaces around the Palace polished to a bright, mirror like burnish so that he could see the reflections of anyone sneaking up on him!

It did him little good in the end.  A trusted servant approached him claiming to have a document that outlined yet another plot.  Taking it eagerly Domitian did not see the servant pull a dagger from under bandages on his arm.  But he probably did notice when the servant, Suetonius tells us his name was Stephanus, stabbed him in the groin.

History does not record what was actually written in the distracting document.

Scene Two 212 AD

Caracalla and Geta never got along.  Only 11 months apart in age perhaps they never settled into the usual older brother - younger brother dynamic that often, but not always, establishes boundaries.

When their father Septimus Severus died there was going to be trouble.  The boys did try to rule jointly but their animosity eventually became too much to contain.  They divided the Palace up into halves, each guarded by their adherents.  Supposedly each tried to have the other's cooks finish the job with poison.

Probably Geta was not without fault, but it is Caracalla who is remembered by history so his foul deeds are recorded.  After an attempt to kill his brother during Saturnalia festivities Caracalla sent word to Geta asking that they meet in their mother's private apartments.  Lulled into letting his guard down, Geta turned up....only to be murdered in his mother's arms by Caracalla's henchmen.

Scene Three 238 AD

The sons of Septimus Severus are widely blamed for ushering in an era of imperial chaos.  Indeed, Caracalla himself was assasinated in 217 and the next three Emperors met similar fates after fairly short rules.  But that was nothing compared to the year 238, when no fewer than six men exchanged the Imperial Purple for a burial shroud.  Maximinus and his similarly named son, were respectively Emperor and Caesar.  Both were murdered.  Gordian II died in battle and upon hearing the news his co-emperor Gordian I committed suicide.  That left the Senate in Rome with a deterioriating situation.  Between barbarian incursions and additional Usurpers something had to be done.

So they appointed two of their own, Pupienus and Balbinus to rule as Co-Emperors.  Balbinus was to muster troops to defend Rome with Pupienus was to run the civil administration.  After some initial success - they did bump off Maximinus - the two men fell out.  Again, they occupied separate wings of the Palace, each fearing the other's dagger.  With things going to Hades in a hand basket the Praetorians stormed into the Palace.  Finding the two Emperors futilely arguing with each other they decided to kill them both.

The full list?  It is hard to judge just how many Emperors were killed in the Palace.  For sure there were more in the early part of the Empire, despite those being more tranquil times in general.  Later Emperors usually ruled from the saddle and met their deaths far from Rome.  And the very late ones had abandoned the Eternal City altogether for Constantinople or Ravenna.  But in addition to the above, one might reasonably expect a Ghost Tour of the Palace to also encounter the shades of:

Caligula.  Stabbed to death in 41 AD while addressing a troupe of actors.

Claudius.  Widely felt to have been fed poisoned mushrooms by his wife in 54 AD.

Commodus.  After an earlier attempt to poison him failed, conspirators took the more direct route and had him strangled in his bathtub by his wrestling partner. This event in 192 AD seems to have set up a pattern...

Pertinax in 193 AD was met at the Palace gate by some Praetorians who claimed they had only gotten half pay.  Efforts to negotiate with these malignant trick or treaters did not go well at all...

Didius Julianus.  After the murder of Pertinax the Praetorians decided to have an auction.  The highest bidder would get to be Emperor.  Didius probably should not have participated in this fatal ancient ebay.  His prize was three months on the throne before soldiers decided that he was only a spineless puppet and killed him too.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Latest Scientific Poll from Iowa

Just back from a nice road trip with my brother.  Three days of wandering about Iowa watching minor league baseball and scouting out various historic oddities.

When we crossed the Iowa state line we started looking for evidence of the political furor said to be roiling the state.  Surely we would see legions of Angry Voters toting signs backing The Donald or Red Bernie....

Ah, no.  The sum total of all political activity we observed (and winner of the first ever Det of Emp straw poll!) was two signs for novelty candidate Dr. Ben Carson.

Look, Iowa is not what you see in the traditional media or read about in the chattering sections of the Internet.  Yes, you see lots of corn, lots of churches, probably a few more American flags per capita than some places.  You also find that most small towns have Mexican groceries and in one place we even encountered a large Somali community.  Odd to see tall, east African folks walking down the Norman Rockwell streets of Postville Iowa in flowing robes and with traditional head coverings.  I half expected some of them to be wearing Seed Company hats.

But Iowans of all pigments that we encountered were unfailingly polite, friendly and seemed absolutely uninterested in politics.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Long Term Mocking

Our street got torn up by the city.  It needed it, there were lots of potholes and the curbs had crumbled away.  Our sidewalks needed some help too, so while things were being demolished and rebuilt those got done too.

All this comes with a price tag, and not a small one I might add.

So I was displeased to see this bit of mockery, one that I will have to gaze upon for many long years to come.

I don't get cute kid hand prints.  Or even dog paw prints.  I could deal with that.  No, its the squirrels. They mock me.  And will continue to do so until the next major re-do.  Damn, I may see these insolent little foot prints when they roll me out for the Last Roundup.