Saturday, January 24, 2009

Unlike Sox, Celtics don't disappoint in first pro game

Boston's Glen Davis attempts a layup with time winding down in the quarter. He made the shot, but as you can see from the lighted backboard, it was too late.

TNT broadcaster Craig Sager, the crazy suit man, does an impromptu shuffle with a Magic dancer to "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go."

One of the more encouraging aspects of living in Florida is its proximity to several major sports venues. The Tampa Bay Rays afforded me my first Major League Baseball experience when they played the Boston Red Sox, though the team I was rooting for lost.

I've never been a fan of any professional Florida teams, but at least they're here and at least they play the teams I do like.

Coincidentally, though, the Orlando Magic aren't too shabby this season. Actually, they have been challenging my beloved Boston Celtics for the conference lead.

So when I was offered a family member's season ticket for the Celtics-Magic matchup Thursday night, I realized my first NBA game was going to be a real doozy. I even hopped onto a plane from Washington to make it back just hours before tipoff.

pierce_foul_0052The seat was on the Orlando bench's side of the court. I saw Magic coach Stan Van Gundy get all huffy when his team wasn't playing up to par. Additionally, the seat was low, just behind the press section, so I got a close view of the players.

The game was a bouquet for the senses. The loud, mostly hip-hop music prompted rhythmical gyrations among my neighbors (in other words, they were dancing). One guy brought to his seat a hot dog the size of a real dog; it smelled like one, too. And of course, it was nearly sold out and very cramped, on account of the 2-3 matchup.

But having just returned from the inauguration in D.C., I knew "cramped" wasn't nearly as bad as "crushed."

The behavior of the fans and the nature of the in-game entertainment were unlike anything I'm used to at a baseball game. During the contest, music blasted and video played on the big cube above the center of the court; the crowd's cheers and the players' sneakers are supposed to produce a natural music. The half-time entertainment comprised a strange acrobatic duo from Italy that took pride in wearing skimpy outfits and flipping the other into the air with their feet; the Bello brothers are known as foot jugglers.

They belonged in the circus, but so did most of the fans ... and Van Gundy.

And there were plenty of "official timeouts," a.k.a. TV commercial breaks for TNT, which was broadcasting the game live. I briefly was on television, as the camera focused on my section because of its use of those annoying noise sticks in trying to mess up the Celtics' foul shooters. I wasn't happy about the noisemakers, so I didn't show any enthusiasm when I was on camera. But it's not the first time that I clammed up in front of the camera.

The game, however, turned out very well for the good guys. The Celtics won, 90-80.

Dwight Howard files a complaint with the referee who whistled a foul against him.

My seat was fairly low, and you can see the annoying noise sticks that attracted the TNT cameras.

Leon Powe of the Celtics struggles to put up a shot.

The Magic dancers put on a dunking show.

KG, or Kevin Garnett, looks to pass.

Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy, as always, argues a call.

Weird half-time entertainment is provided by a two-man band of Bello brothers from Italy. They're considered foot jugglers.

Ray Allen plays one-handed keepaway.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama's inauguration | Great city, great nation; great president?

A worker helps tear down staging along the inauguration parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In my book, Washington is the best city in the United States, perhaps the world. It's where I learned how to use an underground train. It's where I learned to drive like a maniac. It's where I fell in love with urban living.

It's a clean city with interesting and powerful people. And it's the origin of some of the greatest moments and some of the worst policies and best policymakers in American history. I didn't think it could get any better.

But this week, it did.

Barack Obama's inauguration brought together Americans from all states, races and political affiliations. They were there for a common reason: to watch history unfold, to say to their children or grandchildren that they watched - with 2 million others - the culmination of one of the greatest political campaigns in American history.

It's as if my Washington experience has come full circle. During the first month of my residency in the city - after moving to D.C. for graduate school at American University - the front cover of Time magazine was emblazoned with Obama's image and the headline "Why Barack Obama Could Be The Next President." It enumerated the reasons. But it wasn't my magazine; it was my roommate's. I didn't take it seriously. To me, it was another media organization trying to capitalize on someone else's seemingly rapid rise to political stardom.

And my first assignment in "journalism boot camp" at AU was to write a short story about Obama's famous hello-world speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. It propelled him into the spotlight.

It was only fitting for me to return for this moment.

But when I arrived at Reagan National Airport on Monday, the city was different. There was a closeness, a personable air that I hadn't felt before. I overheard stories told by people from Canada, Alaska, California, even Mexico and London, who had journeyed to the nation's capital for the same reason I had. We all were alike.

ikea2_2363In D.C.'s Metro system, advertisements for clean wind energy, Ikea home furnishings and, of course, congratulated Obama on his achievement. "Embrace change. Embrace education reform," an Ikea banner said, urging people to buy a new bookcase. Gift shops on K Street, in Georgetown and in the airport were full of Obama memorabilia. Pens. Magnets. T-shirts. Bumper stickers. Canvas bags. Buttons and hats. Was such enthusiasm in place when George W. Bush was sworn in?

On sidewalks and in train cars, chants of "Obama" and "Yes, we can" erupted. Maybe it was enthusiasm. Maybe it was a way to stay warm. Maybe it was both.

And because they were there for the same reason, people helped each other. At the airport Wednesday, a FEMA worker from Tampa, Fla., who worked the inauguration, let children pet his K-9 unit. A man next to me in line for the Capitol viewing area Tuesday helped a pregnant women climb over the fence in order to get in line. Someone dropped her ticket, and a man picked it up, yelled "Check your tickets" and found its rightful owner.

After the ceremony, I did hear some mildly disgruntled tourists. One said he had come "3,000 miles from Los Angeles just to listen to the inauguration on a transistor radio." Some people were enraged that the speaker for one of the JumboTrons had blown during the ceremony.

But still, they were happy just to be there.

I heard disgruntled residents, too. And I felt their pain. They're used to clueless tourists trying to jam their paper Metro cards into the machine. But such an influx of so many people in a such a tight area was too much to bear. "People just don't know how to keep moving," they said. "Don't stop. Push. Push."

But still, they were happy just to be there.

It's encouraging to witness the profound concern and, now, optimism for the nation's future. At 5 Wednesday morning, after awaking at 3:45 a.m. the day before, my TV journalist friend and I hopped out of bed, bundled up and walked a block to a Washington Post dispenser box. It was empty. At 7, we did the same thing. Empty again. Later, we learned that only convenience stores were selling the paper, and the regular editions were already gone. The commemorative edition, at $2 a pop, was still available. I bought one. But they also sold out quickly. Later on Wednesday, the cab driver who gave me a ride to Georgetown told me that The Post's headquarters had sold all of its copies by 5 a.m. Yes, people still care about what happens.

I decided to make this trip as spontaneously as the cheers broke out on the sidewalks. It's saddening to leave. And as I look out the window of a US Airways 737 en route for Orlando, the sun is beginning to set. But it has only risen on what I hope will be a great chapter for our nation.

The Capitol was well-lit during the nights before Inauguration Day. Hmm. I wonder who pays the electric bill.

Obama's inauguration | Yo-Yo Ma pulls an Ashlee Simpson

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianist Gabriella Montero and clarinetist Anthony McGill play on Inauguration Day, a performance that most of the 2 million people in the audience didn't hear.

The more I talk with people about the Inauguration Day music, the more I hear about how much it was lacking.

Aretha Franklin messed with something that shouldn't have been messed with: "My country 'Tis of Thee." There are times that call for the traditional and the appropriate, and the inauguration is it.

Franklin mostly got off the hook for her rendition, but got more flack for her bow-tie hat that some said was inappropriate for the occasion. How ironic.

And then there was Yo-Yo-Ma. Turns out he's a great string-sycher. The famous cellist and his accompaniment decided that it was too cold to present their tunes in tune. So they played, but what most people heard was a pre-recorded version of John Williams' "Air and Simple Gifts."

Even so, I wasn't impressed by the composition. But it was still better done that Franklin's performance. Maybe she should have lip-synched.

Already with Franklin's, Ma's and Chief Justice John Roberts' performances, what else will we learn went wrong?

Obama's inauguration | My location on the Capitol lawn

View larger map

This might give you a better idea of exactly how close I was to the action.

It was too the left and slightly closer to the building than I was for this lightning photo in July.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama's inauguration | Part of the mess, and proud of it

Chief Justice John Roberts messes up while administering the oath of office to Barack Obama. Disclaimer: Most of these photos are horrible because I was simply holding up my camera and snapping away.

Update: Some of my photos appeared in this gallery on the U.S. News & World Report site.

I started Tuesday earlier than I end most days.

crowd_vert_0147In order to get a good spot from which to view Barack Obama's inauguration, my TV journalist friend and I thought 3:45 a.m. would be a good wake-up time. A Senate staffer told us that even though we had tickets, we weren't guaranteed a spot. We had to get there early: His office was telling most people 6 a.m. But he was secretly telling us more like 4 or 5 a.m.

I packed more clothes than normal for this trip. Why? It's cold here. The forecast was partly cloudy with a high of 32, about 40 degrees colder than what I'm used to.

When I was packing in Florida, however, I stared directly at my winter hat, thought nothing of it, grabbed my gloves, packed them and moved on. It didn't occur to me that a hat would come in handy in 20-degree weather. Was I really born and raised in Maine?

But I have connections here in Washington, and a friend hooked me up with a knit cap, a hooded sweatshirt and a fleece-lined jacket. I had two layers on my head, seven on my upper body and three on my feat (a pair of regular socks and two pairs of thick wool socks from J.C. Penney in Bangor, Maine). But another stupid thing: I wore my usual Florida loafers. What was I thinking?

My woeful existence in D.C. continued when my friend and I tried to transfer on the Metro underground rail system. We walked out of one station and to another, only to find that all three escalators were moving upward, not down as we needed them to be. We went back to the one we exited, and it was the same situation. There was no way we were walking the rest of the way, so we ran down the upward-moving escalator. I managed to avoid falling flat on my face, smashing my Nikon. We also avoided backlash from the Metro workers. They didn't seem to notice.

After getting off the Metro at Federal Center, the closest blue/orange line stop to our gate, we got in a line that went to that far wall, then hung a right and headed - finally - toward the escalator. It moved swiftly, though: We were out in about 15 minutes.

We made it from Van Ness to the Federal Center Metro station, two blocks south of the National Mall. It took us about 15 minutes to get out of the station, and we learned later that it closed because of overcrowding. We also learned that an elderly lady was hit by a train in Chinatown, further delaying the rail system.

The police presence was overwhelming. At least one stood on every corner of every sidewalk. The National Guard blocked roads. And the Capitol police directed pedestrian traffic near the Metro station. "Hold up now," one said. "We don't want any accidents. Too much paperwork." Other than that policeman, however, most security personnel weren't thrilled about being in the frigid air for hours on end. The sailors working the inauguration only had their uniforms to keep them warm.

It was dark when we arrived, but the Capitol was brightly lit.

We arrived early and were close to the front of the line. It stretched for blocks behind us.

We made it to the Blue Gate, where ticketholders for the closest standing room possible were waiting in line to be admitted through security. We made it there around 5:45 a.m., with the gates set to open at 8, an hour earlier than was first planned.

Wrappers for hand and toe warmers were thrown onto the ground. I didn't litter; I kept them in my pocket.

We were close to the front, so there was little stress involved. People bobbed to stay warm. Two recent college grads watched "What Happens in Vegas" on an iPhone. Friends threw McDonald's egg sandwiches to others in the crowd. Some had coffee, though having to use a portable toilet later mostly likely would be an unpleasant experience. One man showed off the picture of himself and Obama. Several people tried to sell hand and toe warmers, Obama buttons, Obama hats and Obama shirts. We did the wave and cheered for the television cameras.

Using the bathroom was likely a chilling experience.

Intruders tried the usual tricks for attempting to cut in line. Some said their family was at the front. Some said they left their bags up front and had to get them; we weren't that gullible.

As the sun slowly rose in the east, the dark sky behind the Capitol turned red. The lights that had been illuminating the building were turned off. A plane circled high overhead, as security choppers covered the low-level airspace. And the president's Marine One helicopter touched down near the rear entrance.

Mostly, I was toasty. But my toes were ready to fall off.

About 6:30, a long line of security screeners from the Transportation Security Administration walked past the line. So it was obvious that the process would be strict, but we were all hoping that we wouldn't have to take off our shoes, further compounding our toes' misery. (We didn't.)

The line started moving just past 8 o'clock. It wasn't gradual. It progressed in surges, raising the likelihood of a Black Friday-type stampede that would kill, in this case, several, not just one.

Bill Hemmer and his Fox News crew push through the crowd of ticketholders.

As the people ahead of us slowly dissipated, Fox News anchorman Bill Hemmer inched by us with a sound man and a camera operator. He must of either been snubbed a press badge by the new Democratic administration or was just going for that what's-it-like-in-to-be-the-crowd piece.

This isn't an airport. This is the west side of the Capitol, where TSA employees put I-Day attendees through the wringer.

As we moved forward, my proximity to others kept me warm. We were packed in like sardines, as we snaked through a maze of gates that was designed to slow the line before it reached the metal detectors. I showed my ticket to about five security workers, slapped down all the metal belongings in my jacket pockets - cameras, spare batteries, memory cards and eyeglasses - then walked through the metal detector without incident.

Like cows released from a corral, we were free.

The seated section was mostly empty as we made it to the viewing area around 8:45 a.m.

Getting a good spot wasn't a problem. I've heard countless stories of I-Day attendees who were disappointed that they didn't get close; for us, that wasn't the case. We made it to the front of the Capitol before a vast majority of ticketholders and scored a fifth-row spot in the standing room section directly behind the chairs. It was perfect.

The National Mall behind us was not empty: a sea of people as far as the eye can see. You also can see people raising their arms while standing on the lion statues next to U.S. Grant.

Then, I looked behind me. As far as I could see - to the Washington Monument - there were people. And people. So many people. Most were waving American flags that were given out as they reached the mall. And they were everywhere. In front of the Capitol's reflecting pool, along First Street, spectators climbed the statues and used them as chairs - or more like thrones; the view must have been good. The police didn't bother shewing them off. One man briefly violated (mounted) a lion statue next the mounted Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

The sun brightens the sky behind the Capitol.

The music made time pass more quickly. And as more people were admitted and as the midday sun reached its apex, I got warmer. The familiar campaign cheers of "O - ba - ma" and "Yes, we can" spontaneously erupted, along with the considerably less classy chant of "Hey, hey, hey, goodbye" for President George W. Bush.

The morning sun strikes the Capitol dome.

The standing crowd, which was most everyone, mocked the announcer when he asked them to be seated. There were about 240,000 tickets issued, and most of them were for standing room. I was lucky enough to have a clear view of the podium without standing on my toes, though I had to lift up my camera to take photos because of the angle.

We patiently awaited Obama's swearing-in, through Aretha Franklin's shaky singing of "My country 'Tis of Thee" and Yo-Yo Ma's anticlimactic performance of a John Williams composition. I snacked on two granola bars, saving the Keebler peanut butter crackers for a time that I feel like contracting salmonella. I shoved hand warmers into my shoes, only to have them finally activate during the Metro ride home.

Obama, small in this photo, delivers his address.

But as Chief Justice John Roberts stood for the oath, the crowd surged forward, crushing everyone into a tightly packed pen. Simultaneously with Obama, the spectators raised their rights hands, but in them were cameras, as they desperately tried to get a shot of history. We were so busy photographing that we didn't notice Roberts' botched oath-giving. That tainted an otherwise stellar day.

flags_obama_0007The electronic speakers behind us were delayed, so Obama's words echoed throughout the National Mall. But according to the cheers I heard from behind, the people in the cheap seats were rowdier that those up front. You know it's a great country when citizens attending such a confused mess of people can find joy, optimism and warmth in bitter weather, and can know that the moment is one of the most profound in American history.

And I have never heard singing like I heard Tuesday. You've never truly heard the "Star-Spangled Banner" until it's sung by 2 million people.

The service adjourned, and then it was time for the mass exodus. When I started moving, the aching started, too. Knees. Back. Feet. Legs. They all hurt, frozen stiff from eight hours of standing still in sub-freezing air.

The cops apparently were tired of herding crowds that wouldn't listen. They let us have at it. The ticketed areas in front of the Capitol were fenced, offering the same number of entrances as exits. So, we improvised. We climbed over a concrete barrier and jumped down the six-foot ledge to the sidewalk on the other side. The elderly followed the younger people who were in line to do this, and they had to turn back when they saw the hazardous nature of the great egress. But some - probably in their 60s - managed to make the leap without injury. I'm guessing others weren't as fortunate.

I have never seen the city as messy as it was after the ceremony. Most of it was courtesy of the TSA, which made ticketholders discard items including Thermoses, backpacks, suitcase and folding chairs. They were left behind at the gate, and the garbage cans overflowed. Some people picked through the mess, trying to find valuable items that were left behind.

Later in the day, I read a Washington Post story that said, "In some places, officers stopped trying to manage the crowds as pedestrians ignored orders to stay on the sidewalks and climbed over concrete barriers for shortcuts." I'm proud to be part of the day's planned history and a part of the crowd's rebellion through an improvised exit.


Bush leaves the Capitol.

As we were leaving the mall, former President George W. Bush's helicopter flew overhead, en route to Andrews Air Force Base. The people waved and again sang, "Hey, hey, hey, goodbye."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Obama's inauguration | Offlede scores ticket to the show

I'll probably sleep with this under my pillow tonight.

In Washington, it's good to know people who know people. It's a town of connections.

After arriving at Reagan National and meeting up with an old friend from graduate school, we were walking around the Capitol building - freezing our butts off, mind you - when he got a call. It was his friend, who happens to work for Republican Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas.

The news: He had two tickets, standing-room only, for the Inauguration Day ceremony in front of the Capitol. We power-walked and sometimes ran around the Capitol to the Dirksen Senate Office Building. We walked through crowds of other people dying to get tickets and through lines of Capitol police officers trying to keep the hordes in order.

The staffer walked through the doors, handed us our tickets and offered us some advice for Tuesday. We'll have to get there early, probably around 5 a.m. Gates open at 9, and the swearing-in ceremony starts at 11:30. And I can't bring a bag, so there will be only photos, no video, on The Offlede.

We'll be standing behind the chairs set up on the right side of the viewing area for hours before anything happens. But the payoff will be huge: We'll see history unfold before our eyes.

Obama's inauguration | Fair, balanced and off to Washington

Barack Obama speaks to a crowd gathered in Titusville, Fla., during the campaign in early August. Unfortunately, I won't get this close to him in Washington.

Let's get one thing straight.

Like any normal human being, I have opinions. Some of them are political, however bland they may be.

And, through deduction, we can at least assume that journalists are human and that they must have opinions, too. But what I do not have is the overwhelming urge to tell everyone about my political opinions. The only times I exercise that privilege is on Election Day and in very private conversations. My job prevents me from going further.

With that in mind, I won't subject faithful readers of The Offlede to those views during my Inauguration Day experience in Washington. I simply will describe what it's like to be there on a historic day for the United States. And I don't think I'm alone - despite varying opinions - in saying that the country is hoping for and desperately needs a clutch performance in the next four years from Barack Obama.

As for the present, I arrived at Orlando International Airport on time, which I can't say for the last time I was on vacation in Washington. This trip is already off to a good start.

See you in Washington.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Rocket launches - especially when it's a Delta IV - are so cool

An 86.6-second exposure captures a Delta IV Heavy rocket as it lifts over Cape Canaveral, with streaks from cars in the foreground. This is taken from FLORIDA TODAY headquarters in Melbourne.

I'm dedicated.

In a warm-up exercise for Inauguration Day, I braved the frigid Florida air four times Saturday night to get a photo of a rocket launch. The Delta IV Heavy is monstrous. I wasn't going to let weather stop me from seeing it.

United Launch Alliance set a liftoff time for the classified payload at 7:33 p.m., after it had been delayed a few times earlier in the week. But nonspecific "technical glitches" canceled launch times of 7:33, 8:13 and 9:13.

With each new time, I ran out of the FLORIDA TODAY office building where I work. I drove to the edge of U.S. 1, the main thoroughfare nearby. I planted my tripod onto the cold hard ground, readied my remote control and waited. And waited. My nose ran. I sniffled. I blew on my hands. It was probably about 50 degrees.

But with each new launch time, my phone rang. A co-worker told me three times that the launch had been delayed.

On the fourth try, at 9:47 p.m., I waited minutes before the launch to leave the building. Despite itching to see it, I had work to do, too. But the fourth time proved to be the charm.

So I know I can conquer the weather in Washington, D.C. But the crowds? To prepare for the people on Inauguration Day, I went shopping at Circuit City early Saturday.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Offlede will fly to Washington for Obama's inauguration

On Tuesday, I will watch, in person, the next occupant of this house get sworn in.

Mirroring my own existence over the past few months, The Offlede has been quite stagnant.

That's about to change.

The Christmas season was uneventful. As most holidays go in the life of a copy editor, it consisted of work and loneliness, save for a period of frivolity on New Year's Eve. I paid a short visit to the only family I have within a thousand miles. And I stuffed myself Christmas morning with the French toast slam at Denny's, conjuring memories of big Christmas Day breakfasts back home in the Great White North.

But there's something about palm trees and hot air that mostly does away with any semblance Florida has of olden-day Christmases for me. Ah, but that's the price I pay for living in paradise and for not having to freeze my bum off. (Actually, that's just what transplanted Floridians say to make the pain bearable. Yes, we're in denial.)

The economy has further hit home. There's now talk of weeklong furloughs at work and of more layoffs. And at home, my landlord narrowly escaped losing his house to foreclosure by opting for short sale. That's fortunate for him, but it left me searching for a new place to live.

I'm moving tomorrow.

But the real excitement is what finally will snap me out of stagnation. Somewhat randomly, a friend and former classmate told me that I am welcome in Washington for Inauguration Day. Within hours of the news, I had gotten time off from work and booked a flight for Reagan National Airport. It's probably the most spontaneous thing I have done (just remember, I'm a boring newspaper editor).

I had been involved in some way with FLORIDA TODAY's front-page coverage of big events throughout the presidential campaign. But until yesterday, I thought I would not be involved at all with the edition that declares Barack Obama the 44th president because Tuesday is my Sunday. Now, I'm going to be in the thick of things by battling the crowds on the National Mall, camera in hand.

So don't miss it. The Offlede is about to get exciting.

But first, I need some winter clothing.