Thursday, June 24, 2010

Alexi Lalas for President

Forgive me for another swooning post about the World Cup. No, I'm not even going to gush about the US win over Algeria yesterday. Although I could. And I'm not ruling out a little love later on.

But meanwhile, I'm here to confess: I have a fan-crush on Alexi Lalas. This is not because he's "hott" or something juvenile like that. After all, he's five years younger than me, married, and has two kids. Not that I've been checking Wikipedia for his personal information or anything.

No, I just think he's very very good at what he does. Game after game after game--and they are adding up now, aren't they? how many games have we watched?? [rubbing bleary eyes with fists]--as I was saying, game after game, Lalas comes on camera with incisive, witty, compelling analysis.

He's frank and funny:
When commenting on the horrible theatrics an Ivory Coast player pulled to get Kaka a second yellow card, Lalas remarked scornfully: "He should know that when you get elbowed in the ribs and then you put your hands to your face, everyone can see that it's a dive, and it wasn't even a good dive!"

He's entirely fair-minded, but cheerfully biased when occasion demands:
When asked to "put a period" on the French after they had flushed themselves down the group-play toilet, Lalas replied: "Period?! Au revoir! Bye bye!"

He can see several sides to an issue:
When South Africa failed to qualify, he mused: "As for my human side, I would have liked to see South Africa go through, but in my soccer heart, I know this is the right thing. And I can't WAIT to see Mexico play Argentina."

[Pardon the quotes-from-memory here; perfect accuracy not guaranteed.]

Most of all, he's always right. His comments are acute, interesting, helpful, and bold. He's an advocate for the game at its best, and he's not afraid to tell it like it is. *contented sigh*

In fact, all of us over here chez Rienstra have been impressed with ESPN's coverage of the World Cup overall. The super-fab, Africa-groovy graphics; the totally professional camera work; the refreshing lack of overwrought human-interest drama pieces (*cough cough* Olympics *cough cough*); and the excellent analysis--nicely done, people. Thanks for having the good sense to hire a couple British-accented play-by-play callers, understated and elegant. And thanks for the well chosen, rotating, international group of "studio analysts": Jurgen Klinsmann (German) serves beautifully as the wise, fatherly voice. Ruud Gullit (Dutch) called the US-England draw and gets extra credit for introducing everyone to "If you ain't Dutch, you ain't much." Roberto Martinez (Spanish) is good, Shaun Bartlett (South African) is good. Even the two regular-guy anchors, Bob Ley and Mike Tirico, do all right. They stay out of the way and get right down to the actual game. All these guys--and yes, they're all guys, but I'll fuss about that some other time--handle themselves well and deliver good content about soccer. Thank you, gentlemen, for not stating the obvious, blathering on self-indulgently, or acting as if every dramatic moment constitutes the apocalypse and/or the climax of human history. Most of all, thanks for not being boring.

But back to Alexi Lalas. After that incredible win over Algeria--in which our boys nearly killed us with anxiety and tortured us with about 25 variations on almost, then finally put that glorious goal away in the 91st minute--after it was all over, you could hear the emotion in Lalas's voiceover as he summed up the game. He praised Altidore and DeMerit lest they become unsung heroes in the wake of Donovan's well-deserved glory train. And then, when the producers shifted camera from post-game hooplah to a shot of Lalas and what's-his-name in the press box, you could see: Lalas's gingery locks a little mussed, his eyes a little red-rimmed. Awwwww....

Other reasons to love Lalas:
  • He's from Michigan! Yup, played high school soccer and hockey in Birmingham.
  • His mom is a writer and poet.
  • He went to Rutgers and played soccer and hockey there (during my own grad school years there, no less--if only I'd known!).
  • He was a defender, which tends to dissolve any diva tendencies a player might have, even though Lalas did score some crucial goals in his days.
  • He is a pleasant-enough looking fellow, but no pretty boy. In fact, as this photo of him as an MLS player demonstrates, at one stage in his life at least, he might accurately have been described as "a total goober."

Sorry I can't identify exactly when this photo was taken; I got it from some blog. Photos of Lalas during his wild ginger days turn up on the internet on a few "weird soccer hair" listings. Just last fall, in fact, The Sun ran a photo of Lalas from who-knows-when as no. 1 in their "Top Ten Football Beards" feature.

But having survived a goober period is all in his favor, in my view.

So, Alexi, here's to the beautiful linguistic art of sports commentary, done very well. And never mind the part about running for President. True, I'd love to hear you lay into Congress. But no. Please stay right where you are.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

HD: An Appreciation

More than once in the past few days, Ron and I have turned to each other and swooned: "I love HD!" This is the first World Cup we have watched in high def, and I have to admit, soccer is even better when you can see every blade of grass and every thread in the net.

ESPN's camera people seem to be reveling in the possibilities of HD, too. I mean, the headers and tackles and goals are wonderful in the moment, but then, but THEN: the replays! Oh, here they come! First, a couple slo-mo replays from different angles: left, right, low angle, maybe even overhead. Then, we find the camera that caught extreme impact. Remember when England striker Emile Heskey plowed into Tim Howard? Yeah, well, thanks to HD and slo-mo replay, we witnessed every delicious bit: blades of grass and clumps of dirt scattering as Heskey's cleats tore through the sod, Howard's right arm, then his shoulder whumping against the ground, his left arm buckling against his body, the light glinting off studs as Heskey's boot crunched into Howard's hand and then his--oh ouch!--we could see the flesh on Howard's chest reverberate with the impact. I swear I could hear ribs cracking. Oops, I mean bruising. Yeah, bruising! He's fine! Really! He's fine to play on Friday! We don't need X-rays! We can just have the U.S. team doctor poke gingerly at his chest! There, see? He's totally fit!

And then there was that tragedy-in-the-box in the Netherlands-Denmark game, when poor Simon Poulsen tried to clear a cross from Netherlands' van Persie and the ball rolled off his head onto Agger's back and--oh man! Own goal! It was so awful, Poulsen just laughed. I mean, talk about the fates against you. But THEN, we got to see the replays. There was one camera shot--it took the producers a couple minutes to find it--in which we watched the ball move into the frame, then boing dramatically onto Poulsen's skull, releasing this explosion of sweat in every direction. Trace the trajectory of each sweat bead outward... outward... there--see each one evaporate? I forgot all about the goal and started thinking about the miracle of the water cycle.

So thanks to the ESPN camera people and producers for capturing the facial grimaces, the crunched ankles, the ball squashing on impact and re-expanding, every glorious visual detail, and broadcasting it right into my living room so that I can lie here on my couch and marvel.

And I hope they realize that if Howard tries to wear a steel chest plate on Friday, we are definitely going to catch the telltale outline under his shirt.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Jane Eyre: Check!

Moby Dick: twice.
Ulysses: twice, sort of.
Vanity Fair: twice, though I don't remember any of it.
Brothers Karamazov: of course.
Madame Bovary: yup.
Anna Karenina: check.
Middlemarch: I'm afraid so.
David Copperfield: why, indeed.

One would expect--wouldn't one?--that a person with an English degree would be quite accomplished in the gigantic classic novel department. And I suppose I can consider myself somewhat well read, although at this point a note of ritual modesty is in order. A lady of accomplishment always demurs when her interlocutors attempt to flatter.

Nevertheless, until this past week I had never read Charlotte Bronte's famous novel Jane Eyre. I was compelled on two unfortunate occasions in high school and college to read Emily Bronte's horrible Wuthering Heights, and perhaps that put me off. I did not wish to subject myself further to characters running about on stormy heaths and moors, suffering from inexplicable romantic entanglements.

I'm happy to report that Jane Eyre is an entirely different work, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. The many loyal Jane Eyre fans out there now have my permission to pronounce a smug "I told you so." Be my guest.

A good 450-page Victorian novel is a nice way to start the summer. I had my nose in the book most of the past weekend, and Ron kept requesting periodic updates: "How's Jane doing?" he would ask. "Well!" I would reply...

She's languishing at a terrible boarding school!
She's working as a governess!
Oh! It looks like she could possibly marry above her station!
But wait! The gentleman has a terrible secret!
She must preserve her honor!
Ah! She has long-lost relatives!
With money!
And someone died! And left her a bunch!
She must endure a grueling carriage ride in order to seek her kindred spirit!
Now she's running out of exclamation points!

I don't want to give away the ending, just in case I was not, in fact, the last English-speaking person on earth to read the book. Suffice to say, Bronte hit all the Victorian novel cliches. But never mind: I loved every minute of it. Jane is a cool chick who came up with an impassioned speech as a kid about character over class, then recycled the same speech later when occasion demanded. She also kept her head when some idiot tried to talk her into marrying him by claiming it was the will of God and hinting darkly that she might go to hell if she didn't. And she can speak French and draw. All in all, not bad.

I would like to claim that I am now off to study German or put on my bonnet and take a walk about the estate grounds. But in fact, I should probably do e-mail. And I think I'll add a movie version of Jane Eyre to my Netflix queue.