Sunday, April 28, 2013

Drive Any Direction - Stewart Francke DVD Session, April 26, 2013

This past Friday evening at a recording studio in Birmingham, about 50 people gathered to witness Stewart Francke and his band record a DVD. The invitees included those who had contributed to a kickstarter campaign for Stewart's excellent new CD, Love Implied. The session, however, wasn't simply a rehash of the album tracks, but a bit of a career retrospective. Spanning two full sets at 23 songs, it included several that I had never seen him play before; songs that hopefully will have some listeners checking out some of his earlier work.

While the main focus of the set was on tracks from Stewart's last 3 albums (What We Talk Of...When We Talk, Heartless World, and Love Implied), a key highlight was a rare performance of a composition that predated those albums: Letter From 10 Green, written as a letter to his children when Stewart was a patient at Karmanos Cancer Center, at a time when he didn't know if he would live to return home. It is difficult and personal; Stewart performed it accompanied only by Chris Plansker on piano.

Stewart performed only a single take of each song. Towards the end of the session, he introduced Drive North, calling it his "reluctant anthem." I may have been the first -- or at least one of the first -- to call for this, when I declared "it should be a state song" in my initial write-up of Love Implied. I hold to that; I'd love to see Pure Michigan commercials with the song, and I'd love to see Stew raking in healthy royalties, too. So I say to him, embrace it! During the performance on Friday, the last time through the chorus Stew put the sycamore trees in the East (the song's lyrics associate the sycamore trees with the South). I figured he might want a re-do, but instead, he ad-libbed -- and I hope it's on the DVD -- an extra line: "drive any direction," and it seemed to fit. We drive north.

After the session, Aaron had a chance to talk to Stewart, as well as to bass player Craig Scott and guitarist Pete Peltier. Now that Aaron is learning guitar and bass, the session was an opportunity for him to see and study how professionals do it. I think his first question to Stewart was, "Why Epiphone and not Gibson?" I was glad to see he'd been paying attention.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

For God For Hockey and For Yale

15.5 seconds remained in the second period. At center ice, Yale's Clinton Bourbonais banged his stick against the ice several times as he waited for the face-off. Just a few minutes earlier, Bourbonais had taken a bad penalty, giving opposing Quinnipiac an extended two-man advantage. But Yale had survived in unscathed, and looking toward center ice, I smiled. Bourbonais looked ready.

Despite an almost frenetic pace, including extended two-man advantages for each team, and nearly 50 total shots on goal, the National Championship game between Yale and Quinnipiac had yet to produce a goal.

Bourbonais won the face-off. Yale's defense played the puck in to the Quinnipiac end. I allowed myself a brief sigh of relief. Yale appeared to be feeling the effects of the game's pace, and the puck being down in the other end meant there wouldn't be any late bad surprises; it'd be no worse than tied going in to the third period.

The puck came to Quinnipiac's All-American goaltender Eric Hartzell with 8 seconds left. He could have simply given it to one of his defensemen to run out the clock, but, maybe he saw Bourbonais coming in fast, so he casually played it around the boards... where Yale's Gus Young, pinching in from the left point, intercepted it. Young shot it back toward the net. Bourbonais was now camped out in front of the net, and he deflected it...

Jeff Malcolm stopped Jordan Samuels-Thomas to keep it scoreless.
Yale. National Champions.
In the same line.
Can it be?

National TV audience. News coverage in the major papers. A packed house at Pittsburgh's Consol Energy Center. And, oh yes, it was my birthday. Can this be real? Any of this? We're talking about Yale here. YALE!!! A non-scholarship Ivy League School that still boasts about its football championships... in the 19th century. When we play teams that give out athletic scholarships, we're supposed to lose, that's what they everyone thinks!

We were supposed to lose to Minnesota, we were supposed to lose to North Dakota, we were supposed to lose to University of Massachusetts-Lowell. They were all supposed to be bigger and stronger and have better goaltenders. We were supposed to lose, and it wasn't supposed to be close. Heck, we weren't even supposed to be represented in this tournament; we needed help from Notre Dame and, ironically, UMass-Lowell after our own season ended, just to get in.

But, come the tournament... Yale didn't lose. Yale played smart, disciplined, even inspired hockey. They beat Minnesota and North Dakota in the regional. Then they outshot UMass-Lowell 23-3 over the final two periods of their overtime win in the semi-final, capped off by a brilliant goal by team captain Andrew Miller. Still, Yale was supposed to lose to #1 Quinnipiac this night.

Just as fast as Bourbonais deflected that shot, the entirety of the Yale sections seemed to realize as one: We are one period away from a National Championship!! Impossible!! Unreal!!! Don't pinch us, we don't want to wake up from this dream.

In the front of the Yale section, a man wearing a #9 jersey of former Yale captain Brian O'Neill said, "Quinnipiac is going to get desperate, we're going to get some odd man rushes, and it'll be 3-0!" Mostly, we buzzed with nervous anticipation. Elianna bounced in her seat: "This is soooo exciting!"

Early in the third period, Bourbonais passed up the left wing to fellow freshman Charles Orzetti (these guys are freshmen???). It was the end of a shift, and Bourbonais went to the bench as soon as his pass connected. Orzetti carried in, and fired a shot on Hartzell. The rebound came right back to Orzetti, so he shot again, from an angle that was beyond impossible: 2-0. Chants of "It's All Your Fault!!" rained down on Hartzell. In the stands, grown men and women who had never met, were embracing.

Several minutes later, Yale's all-universe and freakishly boyish-looking winger Kenny Agostino sprang Miller loose on a breakaway. Miller's wikipedia page says he is "never going to be that great of a hockey player." Let's amend that: He's never going to be that great of a hockey player... for a Frozen Four MVP!!!
Andrew Miller's breakaway goal put the game out of reach at 3-0.
The only question remaining was whether this national championship game would include a shutout by Yale's Jeff Malcolm on his birthday. The Yale side chanted his name, and serenaded him with several choruses of "Happy Birthday" (yeah, I knew they weren't singing for me, but Elianna loved it). In addition, chants were added about that other school, e.g., "Harvard Sucks!," and something about the night club "Toad's Place." I'd never even heard of Quinnipiac while I was at Yale; now all ESPN wanted to talk about was how Yale and Quinnipiac are suddenly fierce rivals. And maybe they will be. But not on this night.

During a 4-on-4, Quinnipiac pulled Hartzell to get an extra skater. A few seconds later, Pittsburgh native Jesse Root, who'd scored the amazing overtime goal against Minnesota, got an easy one. 4-0. Malcolm got his birthday shutout, in the finest performance of his career. Impossible became reality.

In the hotel lobby an hour after the game -- before I realized that we were staying at the team's hotel, but after I figured out that I could buy championship souvenirs there -- the band gathered. Yale's football prowess over a century ago helped lead to an array of first rate fight songs that today are mostly heard when played by bands from Oklahoma and Tennessee. Songs like Down the Field and Bulldog. Tonight, we'd reclaimed them on a national broadcast. And, finally, in this small space, a song I'd played after wins (and losses) against Harvard and solemn occasions, but never got to sing quite like this: Bright College Years. I used a paper hockey helmet instead of a handkerchief.

In a world sometimes gone wrong (especially now, as we collectively try to make sense of events at the Boston Marathon not even 48 hours later), it was the perfect dream. Don't wake me.
The champions salute their fans.The YPMB, saluting all that is good and right in the world.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Frozen and Thawed -- the start of a (hopefully) better year for our tree fruit

March 23, 2012: Extreme heat caused cherry trees to
bloom a full month early, dooming the crop.
In March 26, 2012, I wrote a blog piece titled, Cooked and frozen - the looming disaster for our tree fruit. Due to a ridiculously warm March and the near inevitability that temperatures would return to normal, I could foresee the impact: "Tomorrow evening, the low temperature here is predicted to be 28 degrees. Assuming that prediction -- or another one for later in the week -- is accurate, our cherry crop will be wiped out. We have no rational or affordable defenses against it." Sure enough, a frost on March 27th -- it got down to 27 degrees here -- wiped out the cherry crop.

What a difference this year! Oh, we've had freezes. 10 of the last 11 nights, including three that were colder than that coldest evening last year. But we haven't been outside to run water to the trees. Haven't even looked. Because this year, the trees haven't bloomed. The hollyhocks haven't bloomed. Nor have the forsythia. The crocuses and the snowdrops are still out.

And that's the way I like it.

The local mean temperature during March was 31 degrees Fahrenheit. That is about a half degree below normal, or virtually indistinguishable from the same month in 2008. We had a bumper crop in 2008. By contrast, the mean temperature during March 2012 was 48 degrees. On the first day of spring this year, the high temperature was 27 degrees. Last year, it was 82 degrees.

This chart shows the extreme difference between local temperatures last year (in red) and this year (in light green).
March 31, 2013: Crocus in full bloom -- a "normal" schedule.
The cherry blossoms are still weeks away, we hope.
Of course, friends are going around asking, "when is spring going to get here?," as if what happened last year should be the norm. But March's high temperature of 57 degrees is entirely normal. Nor is there any guarantee for the crops: while March was kind, we still remember 2002, when a hot spell in mid-April caused the trees to bloom early and led to the crops being wiped out during a cold spell later that month.

One thing to remember about warming trends is that they do not mean that every day or every month will be warmer than last year's. As explained at a page on the NASA web site:
Scientists emphasize that weather patterns cause fluctuations in average temperatures from year to year, but the continued increase in greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere assures that there will be a long-term rise in global temperatures. Each individual year will not necessarily be warmer than the previous year, but scientists expect each decade to be warmer than the previous decade.
But, despite the hit our heating bill will no doubt take due to the colder temperatures in 2013, I'm glad that this year's fluctuation is downward. Cherry picking to commence in June, if things hold.

Monday, April 01, 2013

A Grand Weekend

I went to Yale. In 165 prior blog posts I've never mentioned that, but it is true. Boola Boola.

I played in the band at Yale. In the winter, we had the Yale Winter Wonder Band (an offshoot of the more celebrated Yale Precision Marching Band); we'd follow the hockey team around. At home games, we'd take the ice between the 2nd and 3rd periods, and play a mini-show before the Zamboni came out. I got a car before junior year, and drove band members and instruments to Dartmouth and Harvard and Brown and Providence, and, most memorably, to Cornell. I'd drive, and the backseat passengers would make signs to put in the windows for people in other cars to see. The signs weren't always G-rated, but only one or two people actually tried to run us off the road.

During my time in the YPMB.
The hat is long gone, along with the hair.
Our hockey team was always good, but, it seemed every year we'd come in 9th place in the 17-team ECAC, and only the top 8 made the playoffs. In 4 years I only saw a single playoff game, a tight 2-1 loss to a Providence team that ended up 3rd nationally that year. Yale paid me a $14 "per diem" for playing in the band that day, the only time I can ever remember being paid to be in a band.

I have followed Yale hockey from afar since I graduated in 1984. In 1998, they qualified for the NCAA tournament, and were sent to play against Ohio State in nearby Ann Arbor. The band came! Instead of the dorky uniforms we used to wear, they wore cool hockey jerseys. But the team lost to Ohio State 4-0, so we didn't even get to hear the fight song after a goal.

Things have changed. Under coach Keith Allain, Yale wins. A lot. For the fourth time in five years, the 2013 Yale team made it to the NCAA tournament, though just barely. After losing consecutive games in the ECAC tournament by a combined 8-0 score, Yale squeaked in to the NCAA tournament as the very last of the 16 teams admitted, and was sent to the West Regional at the Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids to face #2 Minnesota. I couldn't expect victory; after all, many people expected Minnesota to win the National Championship. But I could make the 2-hour drive, and the entire family wanted to come. With no local teams in the regional, tickets were easy to get: I snagged front row seats.

On discussion boards at places like, the predictions were fairly common: 4-2 Minnesota. 7-3 Minnesota. Minnesota was the grandest team in the lordly Western Collegiate Hockey Association and on its was to another National Championship; Yale wasn't even a finalist in the lightly regarded ECAC. We got to the arena just in time for the National Anthem, and I was pleasantly surprised to note that there were quite a few Yale fans around us. With the team lined up at the blue line, I took a picture with my cell-phone and posted it to facebook: "We start tied." There were no bands, and not very many people in the stands. But it was all good.
Matt Killian takes a shot against Minnesota. Shortly thereafter, Yale would score to make it 2-0.

And then, Yale didn't fall behind. I knew Yale could play; it's not quite like some other scholarship sports where the no-scholarship Ivy League schools are assumed to be at a major disadvantage. The day before the game, Yale's star forward Kenny Agostino was even traded, from the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins to the Calgary Flames. Fortunately, he was still playing for Yale, and seven minutes in to the 2nd period he scored to put Yale ahead. Yale added a power play goal and led 2-0 after two periods. I took pictures. My Wisconsin friends sent messages of encouragement, one of them said, "Bless Rodent Killers. Bless them all": a reference to Minnesota's team name, the Golden Gophers. I guess the Wisconsin folks don't like Minnesota in hockey all that much? Who knew?

Come the third period, and Minnesota came back. A power play goal, and then another goal a few minutes later, and it was 2-2. Yale goaltender Jeff Malcolm made several big saves to keep it that way, and the game was going to overtime. I explained to Elianna what "sudden death" meant. I sent my Wisconsin friend a message: "These rodents bite. We need to get rid of them."

Minnesota won the face-off to start overtime. My first thought was, "can't we ever win a face-off?," as it seemed we hadn't won one the entire game. Minnesota played it back, to prepare a rush up-ice. Behind the net, one defenseman to pass to the other defenseman, but... but... did I just see that? Our man -- and that would be Kenny Agostino again -- just stole the puck! And, oh my god we have a man in front of the net and... he... is... all... alone!!!" I was already out of my seat. And just like that, the game was over, just nine seconds in to overtime. Agostino passed across the crease to center Jesse Root, and Root buried it in the open net for the most stunning ending I have ever seen.
And that's when I lost my voice.
A still of the winning moment. That's me with left arm raised.
Goaltender Jeff Malcolm in net against Minnesota
Now that Yale had won, I could allow myself to go to the concession stand and get an overpriced shirt for Yale being in the regional. I got on line, and noticed a man standing there. "Did I cut you off?," I asked. "No, I was just noting a friendly shirt," he said, meaning my vintage 1980 Yale sweatshirt, the one I bought as a college freshman and that is now several sizes too small, but was the only thing I had to wear. He smiled at this, and I bought t-shirts for myself and Elianna. The man was still there, waiting. "Are you Yale?" I asked. "I'm Malcolm's father." The goaltender? "Yes." What could I do? Well, shake his hand and congratulate him, for one thing! I'd have bought him drinks of his choice... if the venue sold alcohol. Mr. Malcolm added, "I've never been to Pittsburgh." I went to the box office to buy tickets to the regional finals. "The best we have is row C in section 122, that's behind the bench." There was no row A or row B there, we'd be front row behind the Yale bench.

On the ride home, I asked Elianna if she saw the goal: "Of course!," she said. "It was a death match!" I had to explain to them -- at their first ever hockey game -- that they would likely never see anything like that ever again. We had stayed for the second game; North Dakota defeated Niagara 2-1 after trailing through 2 periods. I was convinced that, while North Dakota was very good, Yale had a solid chance to beat them. But there would be no "surprise" factor: Yale defeated a heavily favored North Dakota team in the 2010 tournament, and both teams still had players who were part of that earlier game.

So we were back on Saturday. North Dakota scored right away, or so it seemed. But a video review showed that the puck never completely crossed the line, so it was ruled no goal. A few minutes later, North Dakota scored for real. Yale badly outplayed North Dakota in the 2nd period, but was unable to score. After two periods, it was still 1-0. Worse, I noticed that all nine goals scored so far in the three games had been on the north side of the arena; it was as if the ice were slanted. Yale would be going toward the south end in the final period.

Elianna with Boola before the final period.
As far as she is concerned, this moment started the path to victory.
In between periods, I finally bought Elianna the souvenir puck she'd been asking for. A woman on line saw us and said, "I think Yale will come back, they are playing better." Elianna posed for a picture with "Boola" the Yale "I'm not Handsome Dan" mascot, said her hat was a lucky charm (well, it has been, hasn't it?). I said we needed a goal, and Boola shrugged. A good mascot knows not to make promises it cannot keep, and Boola didn't look like much of a skater to me.

Yale continued to attack in the 3rd period (they would eventually outshoot North Dakota by a 39-25 margin), but the score remained 1-0. A kid next to me said, "they have 28 shots and no goals!" With 8 minutes left, Aaron asked, "when should we start to worry?" "NOW," I replied. The team came close in 2010 and 2011, each time losing a regional final to the eventual national champion.

This time, the script changed. With just over 7 and a half minutes left, Josh Balch tied the game on a shot from point blank range. Shortly thereafter, a North Dakota player took a dumb penalty -- the kind that so frustrates loyal fans of any team. I turned to Lori and said, "We can win this game." I had not previously allowed myself to say that out loud, as if it would be some sort of jinx to do so.

Root scored on the power play, and just like that it was 2-1, Yale. Less than 5 minutes remained. North Dakota was desperate to tie it back up, and had some massive opportunities. Nerves frayed? YES. But Jeff Malcolm stopped the shots, and then Yale scored again, this time Stu Wilson knocking a rebound out of mid-air past the helpless North Dakota goaltender. I could even hear a tape of the Yale Band playing Cole Porter's classic fight song, Bulldog, and sing along to it. An Agostino empty-net goal later, and the final score was 4-1. Yale had won the West Regional of the NCAA Tournament. Next stop: Pittsburgh for the Frozen Four (the first Ivy League school to make it in 10 years, but who's counting?).
I haven't quite digested it. Though I went to graduate school at the University of Southern California, my school is Yale. We tend not to think ourselves in the mode of schools in March Madness; heck, Yale hasn't even had a team in the NCAA basketball tournament since I was an infant.

But Pittsburgh isn't so far from here. I've been there. I've eaten at Primanti's. I'll have to figure out the logistics. And when I'm there, I'll look for the band. They'll be there this time. Maybe I'll find Mr. Malcolm. And if I do, I'll just say... thank you and congratulations. Here's to your first trip to Pittsburgh.

As for Elianna, she wants to go to Yale now. Hopefully she won't outgrow the hat.
West Regional Champions