Dear Russia, So sorry!

Sochi Olympics

People take pictures of the Olympic rings outside a train station after the 2014 Winter Olympics, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014, in Adler, Russia. (AP Photo)

Dear Russia,

I’m sorry.

A little more than two weeks ago, I posted a line on my Facebook page that read, simply, “Does anybody else get the feeling that these are going to be the worst Olympic games in the history of the event? Or, in other words, will Sochi sucki?”

Of course, I was quickly put in my place by somebody reminding me of the 1972 Munich games, but you certainly had the potential to top that if that tinder box of a region you call home had erupted in a fashion it potentially could have.

Instead, you gave us an Olympics to remember.

I’ve had a number of people opine that they weren’t drawn into these Olympic Games the way they had been in the past. Most of them, I found out, simply didn’t watch.

You got off to a very slow start, that’s for sure.

Media members arriving on scene started Tweeting about the conditions of their hotel room and the color of their water. Then, of course, one of our American athletes found himself locked in his bathroom and later stuck in an elevator. And, the dogs? Oh, by the start of these Olympics the whole world knew about the stray dogs who called your city home.

And, of course, there was the time at your Opening Ceremonies when your fifth Olympic ring failed to open, giving a world-wide audience the view of four rings and an asterisk — which is what your 2014 Olympic Games were about to become if somebody didn’t right the ship in a hurry.

Some Sage wisdom and a group of American women’s hockey players started to change that.

Sage Kotsenburg won a gold medal in the Snowboard Men’s Slopestyle and suddenly these Olympic games began to blossom.

And, just like every Olympic games before, and all those slated to come after, you and your athletes gave us moments to remember.

Team USA and Canada hooked up on the frozen ponds of your arenas and gave us instant classics to remember — even if these good ol’ United States of America came up short every single time.

The sound of the puck clanging off the pipes of an empty net — a moment that would have sewn up America’s greatest moment of these games — still reverberates across the country.

Oh, what could have been.

And, oh, what was.

Shaun White’s failure touched us all because the unbeatable had become human. Ditto for speedskater Shani Davis.

But for every big name who failed to live up to the hype, there were the athletes whose names we did not know on Feb. 7, who are now burned into our memories thanks to their golden moments.

Jamie Anderson, Maddie Bowman, Joss Christensen, Meryl Davis, Kaitlyn Farrington, Ted Ligety, Mikaela Shifrin and David Wise all won gold medals.

Sage and Wise?

Those were the two things I was not when I dissed your games before they even started.

The trouble that appeared to be threatening your Olympic games proved to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing — much like the real wolf that appeared to be roaming your athletes’ quarters in the Olympic Village, yet in the end that proved to be yet another Jimmy Kimmel-induced viral video gag.

And, just like Bob Costas’ pink eyes, your Olympic games were quite contagious. (Of course there was a black eye to go with that pink eye. Next time, don’t let your Cossacks beat up Pussy Riot. That was your low point without a doubt.)

But I was into you. Why else was I up at seven o’clock each morning to watch live coverage of events I only watch every four years?

Luge? Curling? Ski-jumping? Just like the Wide World of Sports once told us, the thrill of victory and agony of defeat was too much of a draw not to tune in.

No, Sochi, you did not disappoint and I’m more than willing to eat crow — which, I’m guessing, tastes far more like chicken — and admit I was wrong about you.

And the fact you even poked fun at yourself and your “asterisk” in the closing ceremonies proved to be one last memorable moment from an Olympic games that slipped under the radar of many.

Those who missed it, though, were the ones losing out.

Your Olympic games were pretty darn good.

Congratulations. If I drank vodka I would raise my glass to you.

Instead, these words will have to do.

Prompt’d To Post: West End Girls (Fairfield County, Connecticut)

(Author’s Note — Every day, WordPress.com, which hosts this blog plus hundreds of thousands of others, offers its users a daily prompt to explore. Today’s topic is entitled “West End Girls” and reads, “Every city and town contains people of different classes: rich, poor, and somewhere in between. What’s it like where you live?”). What follows is my first attempt at being “Prompt’d To Post.

• • •

Driving down I-95 through Fairfield County, Connecticut, you’d be hard-pressed to be blown away by the views. Bridgeport, Fairfield, Westport, Norwalk, Darien, Stamford, Greenwich. Just more random towns and cities that make up just another tiny section of America.

I had made the journey perhaps five or six times over the first 40 years of my life, before moving  here and changing my world about six years ago.

There were a few things I always remembered from those previous journeys: The unsightly power plant in Bridgeport, the skyline of downtown Stamford, the sign that reads “Welcome To New York.”

The power

The power plants in Bridgeport is one of Fairfield County’s more iconic views of the region.

Little did I know what the roads off the highway held in terms of telling the story of this uniquely diverse region.

One of the first things I learned is that Fairfield County, Connecticut, is not part of New England. Technically, I suppose, it is. It’s located in the most southwest portion of Connecticut, which is one of the six states that makes up the New England Region of these United States of America.

But drive around. Look around you. Take it all in. When you think of New England, you think of quaint Vermont villages, Bed and Breakfasts in New Hampshire, and breath-taking scenery along the coasts of Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The rest of Connecticut — “upstate,” as they say — perhaps. But not Fairfield County. It isn’t New England at all. To the contrary, it’s New York City through and through.

And I don’t mean that in a bad way.

Simply put, I live in a bedroom community for the greatest city in the world and while not everybody makes the morning commute into Manhattan for their daily workload, it sure seems like they do. Just consider the jam-packed trains that carry people to Grand Central Terminal every morning.

Fairfield County has money, and a bunch of it. It has bankers and stock brokers, movie stars and superstar athletes. It has middle-class Americans, living paycheck to paycheck in a region of the country that is way too costly for its own good. And, it also has a seedy underbelly that’s there for everybody to see and ignore.

They call this “The Gold Coast” because that’s how filthy rich it is and all it takes is a journey just a couple of miles off the I-95 corridor to find jaw-dropping mansions hidden in the woods of Greenwich, Darien, New Canaan, Wilton and Westport.

The same could be said for the other side of the coin, though.

Bridgeport has gang violence and is usually listed as one of the most violent cities in the country, and if you look left or right at the right time as your car zips through the city’s raised highway overpass, you can understand the contrast that Fairfield County becomes.

If you have all the money in the world, this is home. If you have nothing but pride — and, in some cases, a gun — this is  home.

Over my nearly 48 years on this planet, one thing that being in The October Weekend of my life has taught me is that people are people, no matter where you go or where you hang your hat. Famous, infamous and nobodies — there are good people, bad people, and people who live their lives and will never be noticed by anybody outside of their social network.

It just seems that here in Fairfield County — 836 square miles that is home to almost one million people — it’s all shoe-horned into a tiny area where the north woods of Greenwich will never understand the lives of certain people in South Norwalk, Stamford’s south end, or along Iranistan Avenue in Bridgeport.

At one extreme is the multi-millionaire with his nose in the air, thinking that life still owes him everything and he’s entitled to take it no matter what.

In the other corners are the drug dealers, waiting for the cars to drive up for a quick exchange through an open window.

In between, though, are some of the most amazing and nicest people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and knowing.

It’s a paradox having two worlds survive in such close quarters, especially to somebody from the outside who never had such a flux of extremes be so out in the open as part of every day living.

For now, though, it’s my home.

Respecting The Enemy

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Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees.

I remember the day perfectly, when everything changed for me as it came to my hatred for one man.

It was July 1, 2004, and the New York Yankees were hosting our beloved Boston Red Sox in a game at Yankee Stadium.

This, of course, was back when the Red Sox were still lovable losers, and all those who cared about them knew they’d find a way to screw up and break our hearts once again. It’s the way it had been my whole life, so why would anything change?

Yes, that year would change everything, all right.  Come October, all would be perfect, Hell would have frozen over, and the city of Boston would be partying all night long, pulling so many people aboard the bandwagon that — in its own way — being a Red Sox fan wouldn’t be as much fun anymore, at least not in the long run.

But this was July.

This was night the Nomar sat on the bench, Jeter dove into the stands and something inside me changed.

Believe you me, I hated the Yankees back then. Hated them. The word “unadulterated hatred” was built for the way I felt about them. I despised them.

I had grown up that way.

In 1976, the year after the heartbreak of the 1975 World Series — the greatest World Series of all time, mind you — the Red Sox and Yankees were involved in a brawl at Yankee Stadium. Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee, one of my favorite players back then, would be injured by a Mickey Rivers sucker punch, thrown from behind, and sadly lost in the madness of everything that transpired that night.

I also still hold the Pinstripers personally responsible for 1978, the second time the Red Sox broke my heart. That was the year an everyman named Russell Earl Dent would become forever known as Bucky “Fucking” Dent, making millions of grown men and little boys cry because of a simple fly ball to left field that wound up being a home run.

Derek Jeter — living on the other side of the Hudson River in New Jersey — hadn’t even celebrated his second birthday when Dent hit that home run.

But, of course, this is all about 2004. Summer, baseball and the Red Sox playing the Yankees. What could be better, right?

Well, I suppose, having your best player wanting to play in the game would have been nice.

You see, Nomar Garciaparra was the Red Sox shortstop back then and he, Jeter and Alex Rodriguez were considered baseball’s Holy Trinity — perhaps the three best players in the game.

The Yankees had Jeter, at best an average defensive player (or so we said). A-Rod wasn’t quite yet the hated steroid-using embarrassment that he became to baseball, but boy could he hit.

And Nomar? Well ,we thought he gave the Red Sox fans hope. He could hit. He could play defense. If only he had some heart on that July day when his team — and his fans — really needed him.

Nomar, you see, decided he didn’t want to play that day. Yes, he was coming back from an Achille’s Heal injury, but he had played the two nights before and this was the Yankees. The next day, Boston would fly to Atlanta to play the Braves. Nomar could have rested then. (He didn’t and went 3-for-5, though the Red Sox lost that one, too).

The Red Sox were 7.5 games behind the Yankees going into the game and 13 innings later they’d be down another game as the Yankees won 5-4.

The Associated Press summed up what transpired best that night in the lead of their game story:

“Bloodied and bruised, Derek Jeter showed just why the New York Yankees always seem to come out ahead of Boston. The All-Star shortstop made one of the greatest plays of his championship career, hurtling headfirst into the stands at full tilt for a catch that ended the 12th inning. While he was on his way to a hospital, the Yankees rallied past the Red Sox 5-4 in the 13th on Thursday night for a stirring sweep.”

And Nomar watched the whole thing from the dugout.

That was the day I came to respect Derek Jeter as a baseball player, even if he was a member of the New York Yankees.

After all, Jeter could have rested in the third game of that series. The Yankees had a big lead in the standings and had already taken two of three in the series. On the third day, he could have rested.

AAGM209~Derek-Jeter-04-Head-First-Dive-Posters

Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees dives head first into the crowd of July 1, 2004, against the Boston Red Sox.

Instead he dove into the stands, cut open his face and proved why he is one of the greatest baseball players who ever buttoned up the uniform.

On a personal level, though, I’ve also seen the class and grace of Jeter up close.

In 2009, Brian Cashman, the General Manager of the Yankees, invited one of our local high school softball teams — who had been robbed a chance of winning a state championship by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference — down to the new Yankee Stadium to be honored for their successful regular season.

Though I had vowed never to set foot in Yankee Stadium, it was an event I had to cover so I made the journey down. (For the record, I spit on the Yankee Stadium field as an official protest to what I feel about the organization).

Before the game, the girls were invited to watch batting practice, getting an up-close-and-personal look at what transpired on the field before a game.

When Jeter came out of the dugout, he walked over to the girls, met them, talked with them, and signed autographs for them. He spent time with them and made their day, quite likely giving them a memory they will carry forever inside them.

Remember A-Rod? He was a Yankee then, too. He came up out of the dugout, looked up and saw the girls and made a right-hand turn specifically to walk away from them. He didn’t give them the time of day. I witnessed this and it disgusted me, which pretty much sums up my feeling for his tenure with the Yankees, as well.

But this is about Jeter and he is nothing but class, a ballplayer first and foremost and somebody who gets it. He proved it to me on July 1, 2004, when he walked off the field with blood streaming down his face. And he hasn’t let me — or any of his true fans, for that matter — down since.

As for Nomar? Well, the Red Sox traded him later that summer and, of course, the team went on to win its first World Series since 1918.

We have three since then, while the Yankees have just one. That’s 3-to-1 in the last 10 years if you’re keeping score. And, yes, Red Sox fans are definitely keeping score.

I certainly don’t want Jeter, who announced earlier this week that he’s hanging up his spikes after his 20th season in the big leagues, to go out and win a World Series in his final season. But I can say that when Jeter walks off the field for the final time later this summer (or fall), baseball will have lost something pretty special.

And, I will definitely miss watching him play.

SUNDAY SERMON: The End Is Near … And This Time Even I Mean It

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This is the end … Beautiful friend … This is the end … My only friend, the end

— The Doors

• • •

I’ve always tried to stay positive when it comes to the downfall of the newspaper industry.

Not anymore. I simply can’t. I see the thing I love the most laying on her deathbed and I know I can’t save her. It’s useless. It’s hopeless. It’s only a matter of time. One morning, I’m going to wake up and I’ll hear the news. She’ll be gone.

Sadly, I’ve seen the light — and there is nothing but darkness staring at me from the future. Sadly, it is our demise coming ever closer with each and every edition that gets printed. There is nothing we can do about it anymore, unless a world-wide Internet virus wipes out computers everywhere, leaving them vanquished, like the cotton gin. Sadly, that’s the only way we’re going to be saved.

I’ve devoted my life to this industry. I’ve worked far too hard for too little pay bringing stories — news, features, portraits — to the people who read my words, and look at my images.

I’ve learned every aspect of the job: Writing, photography, layout, managerial skills — all in hopes it would someday save me and give me an opportunity to advance.

In all likelihood, all the skills and talent in the world will do nothing more than leave me as the last man standing on a sinking ship.

I’ll proudly go down with her.

Our current predicament at the newspaper where I work reminds me a lot of the movie “Titanic” — though neither Jack or Rose appear in the scene of which I am thinking. In other words, Leonardo DiCaprio will not come to save the day.

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A scene from the movie “Titanic”

Toward the end of the movie, there is a scene where a group of musicians play on the deck of the ship in an effort to sooth the passengers, who become more and more panicked as their dire situation becomes more and more obvious. Even the musicians realize it and they stop playing and bid their goodbyes , remarking what an honor it was to play alongside of each other. As they start to walk away, one member starts playing on his own and the others all freeze. Music is their calling and in a poignant moment, they once again join together for one final song as the mighty ship plummets to its fate.

Journalism was my calling. These words are my music and just like Miley Cyrus or Led Zeppelin you might either love me or hate me, but you’ve read me, and I’ve put my all into this profession from day one, when I first walked into the Bangor (Maine) Daily News for the very first time as an 18-year-old sports clerk.

Never did I imagine I’d be where I am today, sitting next to her bedside as she breathes in and out her final shallow breaths.

My newspaper has another round of cuts coming in the near future and it’s not going to be pretty. And, I think, what bothers me the most is while we need to cut costs in order to survive, every time we make those cuts we’re killing ourself a little quicker.

The journalist in me will never understand. Our job is to report the news, but how can we do that with fewer and fewer people and earlier “cost-saving” deadlines?

We can’t.

Thus we die.

The news side, however, is just a small part of this problem.

The other side of the building, where people are supposed to be selling ads, they aren’t doing their job either. Is it their fault?

Not really. Not in this “economy” — which seems to be the fall-back excuse for far too long now.

It’s the economy, stupid, the brilliant political strategist James Carville once claimed.

He was only partially right.

It is also the Internet. One of the greatest inventions of my lifetime is also sapping the life right out of me.

Advertisers and those who sell ads both missed golden opportunities when newspapers first went online. Nobody really knew the reach and the impact the Internet was going to have over the last decade or two.

Much of the Internet is “free” — thus newspapers began doing what they do best, reporting the news via the monitor in front of your face. It was more immediate — when something happened, you didn’t have to wait for the next morning’s paper, or the 6 p.m. news — you could hop on the web, or turn on some cable TV and find out what was happening.

What wasn’t happening, though, was newspapers weren’t making money via the web. We were giving away our content for free and people were scoffing it up more than they were reading the print edition.

People say “nobody reads newspapers anymore” but that is a misnomer.

People might not pick up the ink-stained paper and turn the pages anymore, but every year, newspaper readership is up on the website. I know it’s true on our own website because I have access to our numbers and they are growing every year.

The only numbers that matter, however, are the ones with a dollar sign attached.

And that’s where we’re failing miserably.

One side of the building can blame the other, but we’re all going down together. We can certainly blame Craig and his list — and, while it might get you killed, it will also give you all the free classified advertising in the history of mankind. We can blame the Internet. We can blame our readers for growing up and changing their patterns, and not doing what their parents did. We can blame society for becoming what it is, as well.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, but it doesn’t change the end game.

The love of my live is dying and I’m resigned to just let her go peacefully into that good night. I know 100 different things I would do to try and save her, but each and every one costs money that we don’t have. You need to spend money to make money, but it’s not my money. (Though trust me I’ve spent enough of my own money doing this job to the best of my ability, doing it the right way, not the hand-cuffed way I’m expected to).

The only fear I have: What’s next for me?

This is what I know: The newspaper industry. It is all that I know.

Pardon my ego, but I’m pretty fucking great at it and when it dies, a huge part of me is going to die, as well.

I’ll survive, I’m sure. I’ve been through a lot in my life: Layoffs, firings, quitting jobs. I’ve been “thisclose” to being homeless, living out of a hotel room for X-amount of dollars week, hoping I’d make just enough money delivering pizzas from a car I had to borrow to be able to get dinner that night. I’ve pulled myself up from the depths. I’ve found the strength to bounce back from bouts of drinking too much and doing a few too many feel-good drugs. I’ve been in situations where my future and my life were on the line and I found a way to survive.

So, for now, I do what I can. I’ll just forge ahead until I can’t go forward anymore.

I’ll put my fingers on the computer keyboard and I’ll create my “music” as the ship keeps sinking.

There are a handful of us at the paper who are now resigned to this. We’re going down with the ship because it’s all we know.

The end is near. And we play on.

Losing Philip Seymour Hoffman: Our Inner Demons Strike Once Again

Obit Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman
(1967-2013)

Anybody who has battled addiction knows all too often the demons inside us win. Too many times, no matter how hard we fight back, no matter how strong we think we are, the draw of the high is too much to leave behind forever.

I’m sure you’ve heard by now that we, as a world, have lost actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. He died inside his New York City apartment, taking his last breath on the bathroom floor with a needle in his arm. He was only 46 years old.

Heroin has taken from us another talent, a magician of the movies who, through his craft, could take us all somewhere else courtesy of his God-given talent.

For me personally, Hoffman came into my world during the late 1990s, first in the role of a tornado-seeking backing player in the movie “Twister.” In his next film, however, he jumped off the screen in the uncomfortable role of “Scotty J” in the movie “Boogie Nights.”

From there, his talent and his gift became obvious in every movie in which he appeared.

It’s not like he needed the hardware to prove his ability, but he has it — including an Oscar, winning the Academy Award for Best Actor in the title role of “Capote” in 2005.

Just like everybody else who admired his ability to become somebody else, I had my own favorite Hoffman moments and characters.

First and foremost was his role of music critic/journalist Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous” — which is perhaps in my top five movies of all time. But one of his most incredible roles was, believe it or not, in “Mission Impossible 3.” The movie sums itself up quite nicely, considering we all know it’s an impossible mission to put together a good third sequel to any movie. Hoffman, however, stole the movie, out-shining the movie’s superstar Tom Cruise (in the role of Ethan Hunt) by playing the role of a really, really bad guy, Owen Davian.

While there is plenty to celebrate in regards to his outstanding career, this post is about loss.

We lost another great one to the demons we rarely control, but the real tragedy is not thrust upon just his fans.

Three children have lost their father. A woman who saw what was happening to her lover has lost a long-time partner. A family has lost a son, a brother. And, people who knew him the best have lost a friend.

Now, he’s gone.

Forever.

For me, though, the scariest part of the entire story is the fact Hoffman was clean for more than 20 years.

Twenty years and he still couldn’t beat it. In the end, the demons won.

I think that’s why his death hits so close to home this time around. At least more than it ever has before when others have fallen.

The world has lost many talented people to heroin. Janis Joplin. John Belushi. River Phoenix. The list goes on and on.

Last night, a very dear friend pointed out to me that Hoffman’s death occurred exactly 35 years to the day after punk rock musician Sid Vicious passed away in the same NYC neighborhood of Greenwich Village. Again, heroin.

The person who pointed this out to me has fought her own battles with the demons, with the drug that can steal you away in a second. I’ve seen the bruises in her veins, touched them with my own fingers as if reaching out to helplessly heal the pains of her past.

She’s been clean for four years now, but since Hoffman’s death I’ve thought about the odds of her relapsing. And, I’ll admit, I’m scared for her.

The demons don’t care if you’re a movie star, or a lost soul trying to find your way through the world. They don’t care if you’re black or white, blue or green. They don’t care if you’re rich or poor or in between.

They don’t care.

If you chase the high, they will chase you.

And, sadly, all too often it is the demons who will win, stealing from us the people we love and admire. They can be famous. They can be a friend.

And that scares me.

Now more than ever.