August 9th, 2009

Melissa back to Clemson ...

Last week we took Melissa back to Clemson for her Sophomore year. We sort of took the scenic route, making it a mini-vacation (the only kind available to us these days!) But first we had a garage sale at our church -- really a rummage sale, I suppose -- on Saturday. I contributed a whole bunch of books, including about 10 copies of my Bests of the Year, of which about 5 sold for a buck apiece. My wife's Jodi Picoult books went the fastest by far, however! The whole thing was quite a success, netting over $2000, largely because of the gift of some very nice furniture by the estate of a church member who had died (aged something like 100!). We did have one distressing moment -- a couple that one of our members recognized as being of, shall we say, questionable financial resources (and ethics) came and bought over $100 worth of stuff with a check. The check, we realized, was in the woman's parents' name, and when they came back later wanting to buy some of the nicer furniture with another check for $300, we asked for a driver's license. She made an unconvincing excuse as to why she didn't have one, and we said we couldn't take the check. She left in a huff, but the original check ended up bouncing. (Apparently it was from a bank account her parents had closed.) So they ended up with $100 or so worth of stuff on us -- so be it. I'm sure they had need of it.

Last Sunday, then, we left after lunch and drove to Cincinnati. I've never been there before -- been to Dayton a few times, through Columbus, and to Cleveland three times, but never Cincy. The main objective was to catch a Reds game at the new ballpark. We stayed, using our Marriot points, at a Spring Hill Suites in Florence, KY, just across the river.

Thus, we didn't have much to do Monday, so we first saw a movie, FUNNY PEOPLE, about which more later. That killed enough time to make it plausible to head downtown and wander around. So I punched Great American Ballpark into my GPS, and it gave me an address that seemed very plausible: 100 Main Street. We figured it would be a quick hop across the bridge on I71/75, but the GPS suggested we take the circle highway ... strange, we thought, but whatever. After a longish trip, we ended up on the outskirts of the city, nowhere near the stadium. Luckily we were next to the river, so it was easy to follow it downtown -- where we at last found the stadium. It is, apparently, at 100 Main Street, but also at some number Pete Rose Way -- that portion of the street having been renamed, oddly, for a quite properly disgraced individual, and an overrated player to boot. I personally would think Johnny Bench Road, Joe Morgan Avenue, and Tony Perez Street all much better names.

We had time before going into the park to find a Graeter's Ice Cream shop, as recommended by one of Melissa's roommates from last year, a native of Cincinnati. The ice cream was indeed very good. The ballpark itself was a mild disappointment, at least relative to the various other new "retro" stadiums I've seen. These include Turner Field in Atlanta, Progressive Field (aka "The Jake") in Cleveland, the new Washington Nationals stadium, and of course the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis. I'd rank Cincy's GABP behind all those. Ahead of the new Comiskey Park in Chicago, but that's an awfully low bar to clear! That said, not an unenjoyable park in which to watch a game.

We splurged for nice tickets, behind the third base coach, pretty much, about 20 rows back. We were amongst Cubs fans -- not a surprise, they seemed to outnumber Reds fans throughout the park. The folks in front of us were Cubs fans, and I got to talking to them, and learned they live in Naperville, IL, my home town. Even more surprisingly, they live in the same subdivision as my parents -- only a couple of blocks away from their condo. Anyway, the Cubs won, a briskly played game.

We wanted to buy a gift for our friends who were dogsitting for us, and we noted that the Cubs' starting pitcher and winner, Randy Wells, is from Belleville, IL (just across the river from St. Louis). Our friend's father was a baseball coach at Belleville West HS -- Wells played at Belleville East but the father still knew him (probably knew everyone who played baseball in the area). So we decided to see if we could get him to autograph a ball. We waited by the players' exit after the game. Only a couple of Cubs signed -- no Reds -- but luckily Randy Wells did show up, and he did sign our baseball. First time I've ever done that.

The next day we headed to Clemson, via Knoxville, TN, and Asheville, NC, through a lot of rain and some severe storms. The worst came in the mountains on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, on I-40, but it didn't last long. Then on south to Greenville, SC, 30 or so miles from Clemson, where we ate at a nice restaurant called Trio. Greenville has a notably pleasant downtown area. Another free hotel stay (this one courtesy of our Hilton points -- only the Hyatt points remain to be claimed!), then we moved Melissa in. She's an RA this year, which made moving easy -- she had to move in 10 days or so early, which meant no crowds. RAs aren't supposed to have roommates, but alas Clemson overbooked a bit, and she will have a roommate, at least temporarily. (Which will save us money, anyway.) Her room is small -- smaller than last year -- and that would be OK if it was a single, but with another girl it will be a crush. Ah well.

Got her moved in with no real trouble, then she had to meet her fellow RAs so we had to leave. We figured to get a head start on the trip back and we made it to Knoxville by 9 pm or so (with time to stop at a roadside stand and buy some SC peaches and blackberries, as well as NC apples -- which were excellent). We ate at a barbecue place in Knoxville called Calhoun's by the River -- recommended by the two folks working the desk, one of whom was from Memphis and the other from North Carolina, so each claimed that of course their home barbecue was BETTER, but this was good for Knoxville. Naturally I suggested that, well, I didn't expect Knoxville BBQ to match Kansas City! It was quite good, though. Our GPS sent us through the University of Tennessee campus. The streets there were named for sports heroes of UT: Philip Fullmer Way (even though he's been fired -- will they change the name?), Pat Head Summitt Street, a street named for Chamique Holdsclaw, another for Tee Martin. I didn't see one named after Peyton Manning, nor one named for my fellow Naperville native Candace Parker, but then I didn't see the whole campus. Calhoun's BBQ was indeed fine ...

The next day we stopped at the antique district in Clinton, TN, just north of Knoxville -- found it a bit disappointing, to tell the truth -- and then head to Louisville, to eat at the Hard Rock Cafe at our son's urging -- he wants to eat and get a T shirt at every Hard Rock Cafe in the US. I think their food is overpriced and I couldn't care less about the T shirts, but oh well ... The restaurant in Louisville is just off Muhammad Ali Boulevard, speaking of streets named for sports heroes, on Fourth Street, in what looks to be a lively nightlife area. Then home, to an enthusiastic welcome from our dog, who apparently enjoyed staying with our friends and their dog, but was happy to get home himself.

Two more movies: FUNNY PEOPLE and RACHEL GETTING MARRIED

Two more movies: FUNNY PEOPLE and RACHEL GETTING MARRIED

We saw the new Adam Sandler movie, FUNNY PEOPLE, in the theater in Cincinnati, of all places. The movie is directed by Judd Apatow (THE 40 YEAR-OLD VIRGIN, KNOCKED UP), and also stars Seth Rogen and Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann. I went into it with mixed expectations -- because I'd seen mixed reviews, I suppose. In the end I quite liked it. It's far from perfect: it's too long, much of the comedy is crude in a way that doesn't appeal to me (and some just wasn't funny, sometimes on purpose, as it depicts failing comedians failing). But on balance it mostly works -- it's very moving at times, it's mostly pretty honest, seems to me, and it's quite ambitious, nearly achieving its ambitions.

Sandler plays George Simmons, who bears some (doubtless intentional) resemblance to Sandler himself: he's a middle aged comic who has made a lot of money making some silly films. (It would, I think, be unfair to insist overmuch on Simmons being Sandler, however.) Simmons, however, is not happy. He's very lonely -- he's too mean a guy to make friends, and he alienated his "one true love", Laura (played by Mann) some years ago, after which she left and got married and had a couple of kids. Then he learns that he has a terminal disease.

In an attempt to make some connection with the rest of the world before he dies (it seems) he ends up hiring, almost at random, Rogen's character, Ira Wright, who is a deli worker and a failing comedian. Wright lives on a couch at a friend's house -- the friend, played by Jason Schwartzman, has just hit it big (sort of) as the star of a dire sitcom called YO TEACH!. (Apparently a 21st century version of WELCOME BACK KOTTER, though the few scenes we see from YO TEACH! remind us that while WELCOME BACK KOTTER was indeed bad, it wasn't THAT bad!) Ira is supposed to help George write jokes, but though he does some of this he spends more time being George's personal assistant. As such he gets to try to sell Simmons's memorabilia (for charity) and accompany him to the doctor (in a very funny scene, with Simmons making vicious fun of his Swedish doctor's accent -- Simmons really is a jerk, the movie makes clear), as well as opening for George at some standup appearances. One of these leads to a reunion with Laura, which ends up putting a lot of stress on Laura's marriage ... though it's possible to believe the George really does have honest feelings for her. Meantime Ira is having typical Seth Rogen-character issues with women -- mainly, his attitudes toward them swing between crudely juvenile, as he seems to believe is expected, and overly shy, as he can't help being. But Ira ends up having to take a stand when he sees George bidding fair to mess up Laura's home life.

As I said, in the end I thought this a pretty darn good movie -- it tries to be a great movie, and it isn't, but it does give a fair try for a while. Some bits were funny, some were moving, some were simply honest. And I thought Sandler's performance very effective.

We also saw RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, on DVD after getting back from Cincy. I seem to recall that this movie was billed a comedy. Perhaps I'm misremembering. Anyway, it's not. It's a pure drama, Lifetime Cable style to tell the truth. Lifted above that level a bit by Jonathan Demme's stylish directing and by a fine performance by Anne Hathaway, but on the whole a disappointing movie.

Hathaway plays Kim, a woman in her twenties who has been clean and sober for 9 months after years of horrendous drug abuse. It turns out that while a teenager she drove a car off a bridge while high, and killed her younger brother. She hasn't forgiven herself, and neither has the rest of her family, though her rather ineffectual father tries to. Her sister (Rachel) is getting married, and Kim visits her old house, apparently for the first time in years. She's prickly as all heck, and so she makes trouble, but much of the trouble arises from her sister -- basically a decent person -- still not being able to forgive Kim for everything. Their father and mother have divorced. The mother, played by Debra Winger (her first role in, it seems, forever) does not come off well at all. The father is basically ineffectual, probably the only person in the film whose character is played somewhat for laughs. Rachel's fiance is a black musician, but he and his family have rather minor roles, mostly just there to be nice people.

We get a couple of days of family drama -- mostly a lot of arguing -- then a nicely-filmed, very Jonathan Demme-like wedding scene. It's not by any means a bad movie, but it struck me as nothing great either, and for much of its length kind of boring. Anne Hathaway's much-lauded turn as Kim was very fine work, no argument there, but the film as a whole left me flat.