Our 5K

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The sun shone brightly over Boston Common, where a mass of 10,000 runners were packed into a long corral on Charles Road, waiting for the clock to strike 8:00 A.M. and begin the Boston Athletic Association (B.A.A.) 5K. We were the only opening act for Marathon Weekend; the organizers tried to set the tone by blaring “Carry on My Wayward Son” at a deafening volume. I hovered on the right side of the mass, just behind the marker for runners who will finish at a nine minute-per-mile pace, shivering with three layers of outerwear on, because living in the Northeast for almost two years has made me more of a wimp toward temperatures below 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Running the Boston Marathon is out of the question for me—I never want to train for 26.2 miles again—so my participation in the 5K will be the closest I will ever get to running in the most prestigious marathon in the United States.

This 5K was also my first time running in Boston, knocking out an item on my Running Bucket List. With the whole city draped in the sunshine and a gentle breeze, Boston was at its most gorgeous during my 28 minute run/tour. We ran past the inspiration for the bar on Cheers (the Bull and Finch pub), took in the cherry blossoms blooming on Commonwealth Avenue, and even crossed the finish line for the Boston Marathon to the applause of the spectators lining Boylston Street. After crossing the finish line at Boston Common, we were greeted by musicians from the Army and family and friends.

“Runs as One” was the slogan on the front of the tech shirts that the B.A.A. handed out to the runners. In light of last year’s tragedy everyone—volunteers, police, spectators, and runners—took the message to heart. Runners were cheering each other on and at the U-turn at Charlesgate E, we were high-fiving each other and yelling and acknowledging each other as support. The 5K and the rest of this year’s Marathon Weekend can’t restore life as it was on April 14, 2013, but this year’s events were an uplifting display of unity; we each had our own motivations for running, but ultimately, our run was a salute to the resilience and character that Boston continues to demonstrate in the aftermath of the 2013 tragedy.

Salinas Valley Tragedy

Yeah. Don’t proceed any further if–for some crazy reason–you haven’t read Of Mice and Men yet.

James Franco aimed the prop Luger at the head of Chris O’Dowd, who sat on the stage, staring off into the audience. The dread in the Longacre Theater built up as Franco kept the gun aimed at O’Dowd, while the hands of the Irish actor alternated between pointing and slightly pawing the air, in search of the imaginary farmland his character envisioned out in the distance. Silence. Gut-wrenching silence.

BANG!

I flinched—and I know I wasn’t the only in the audience who did. O’Dowd fell forward in the direction of the left orchestra, his shaved crown on display for that side of the theater as the stage turned to dark. A spotlight shone over a pensive Franco, whose eyes looked up into the sky. The end.

Even though I knew how Of Mice and Men ended, it was still a jarring experience to see that scene acted out in the latest Broadway production of John Steinbeck’s masterpiece, whose engagement at the Longacre Theater ends on July 27, 2014. Director Anna D. Shapiro stayed true to Steinbeck’s words; watching the play felt like I was speed re-reading the novella again, which is fine for a Steinbeck work. Set designer Todd Rosenthal had more creative license, where his detailed sets—Crooks’s room had a world map, while the bunk room for the white workers was pretty bare save for a tiny poster

James Franco (George) receives top billing for the performance, but it was Chris O’Dowd who just crushed his role as Lennie. O’Dowd’s voice, posture, gait, and gesturing—the way he just uses his hands to convey the wonder, fear, and hope that Lennie experienced throughout the play—just captured everything I imagined about Lennie when I first read Of Mice and Men in high school. There were just so many little things that O’Dowd did, including the heap of saliva his mouth dripped onto the stage when Lennie fought Curley, which forces you to keep an eye on him in each scene, whether or not Lennie is directly involved in the action. The transformation is even more stunning if you watch O’Dowd’s interactions with fans waiting for him at the stage door, standing tall and confidently and cracking one-liners in his Irish accent as fans attempt to take pictures with him or get him to sign their Playbill.

O’Dowd’s performance doesn’t take away from Franco’s, who was excellent in his own right. Franco was at his best in the final scene; his glum tone as he told the tale of the farmland George and Lennie would buy was matched by pained regret and pacifying smiles on his face. However, and I don’t know if this is due to perception or his haircut, it was difficult for me to believe that it was George out there in the Salinas Valley, not James Franco; George just seemed to look a little too contemporary compared to the other characters on stage.

On the flip side, Leighton Meester’s transformation from Blair Waldorf to Curley’s Wife went far beyond than I thought it’d go, complete with doll-like hair and a drawl. The climactic encounter between Lennie and Curley’s Wife—the most jarring scene in entire play, despite the use of the gun in the end—drove home that theme of loneliness. In the entire play, Curley’s Wife gets called a “tramp” or a “tart” or some other sexist term because her attempts of getting the attention of anyone, including her husband, for conversations are misinterpreted as attempts of seduction. When lonely Curley’s Wife finds lonely Lennie—all his animals are dead and he pretty much has a no-talking policy to keep him and George out of trouble—in the barn, conversational hell breaks loose.

Curley’s Wife talks about leaving Curley and the terrible ranch life. Lennie responds by talking about burying his dead pup. Curley’s Wife continues with her future life in Hollywood. Lennie frets about George being angry at him. Curley’s Wife zeroes in on the new clothes and being in pictures for free. Curley brings up his dream of using his and George’s stakes to buy the long-sought farmland.

Each character opened up the floodgates and let out all the pent up thoughts and dreams and grievances. No listening needed; Curley’s Wife and Lennie only needed someone else to be in the presence of their words. Talk, talk, and talk, until Lennie brought up how he loves to touch soft things. And—tragically—that was the only part of the conversation where Curley’s Wife listened to what Lennie said and engaged him on it. She guided his hand to her hair and let him stroke it. She then screamed to get him to stop, but that only scared him. What happened afterward would be enough to ruin Raggedy Ann dolls for anyone.

Ascent of the Eagles

ImageThe Premier League Table via Flashscore.com, as of April 19, 2014. Click on the image for an expanded view.

Crystal Palace F.C. can finally goodbye to its reputation as the one-and-done club of the Barclays Premier League.

Mile Jedinak’s 59th minute penalty secured a 1-0 victory against West Ham United, took Palace to 43 points, and guaranteed a second consecutive season in the Premier League—a first in club history. Before its current stay in the Premier League, each of Palace’s prior four stints lasted just one season before relegation. The variety of ways that the Eagles suffered relegation is just as impressive as the number of times they’ve been sent down:

• Palace suffered relegation in the inaugural Premier League season of 1992-93 because of its inferior goal differential against Oldham United.
• After winning the 1993-94 First Division title, the Eagles immediately returned to the Premier League for the 1994-95 season. But thanks the Premier League downsizing from 22 to 20 clubs in 1995, Palace then gained the distinction as the only club to be relegated while fourth from the bottom.
• Palace straight up finished dead last in the 1997-98 season, seven points adrift from safety.
• Palace entered the last day of the 2004-05 season in the safety of 17th place, two points ahead of 18th place West Bromwich Albion. At the end of the day, the combination of West Brom beating Portsmouth 2-0 and Palace drawing 2-2 against Charlton Athletic dropped the Eagles to 18th and condemned them to the Championship (the current name for the First Division).

The downward trend looked to continue with the squad that then-manager Ian Holloway brought up in August and the results that followed in the first ten matches: one victory, against Paolo di Canio’s lowly Sunderland, and nine defeats. Holloway only lasted eight games before resigning in October, leaving assistant manager/hometown lad Keith Millen to steady the ship in a protracted search for Holloway’s replacement. Millen did that and more—he built from the back and restored the unity that propelled Palace past Brighton and Watford to those Premier League coffers. The execution wasn’t consistent, but the teams Millen put out showed renewed commitment and organization, and they rightly rewarded Millen with a 1-0 victory over Hull City in his final game in charge.

Tony Pulis stepped in as the new manager of Crystal Palace at the end of November, surrounded by a cloud from the dull route one tactics and physical play that defined his time at Stoke, but also the glimmer of hope from never being relegated as a manager. In his short time in charge, though, Pulis took what Millen gave him and elevated it. He’s kept the same defense in front of goalkeeper Julian Speroni; the improved communication between goalkeeper and defense helped bring the spike in clean sheets. He’s drawn the best out of Jason Puncheon after that disaster of a penalty against Spurs, who is now peaking with the goal scoring romp of the spring. He’s instilled intensity and confidence in the entire team, which has helped them execute most game plans excellently. He’s adapted to his players as much as he got them to buy into his system.

It’s this willingness to adapt that has been the biggest surprise and boon to the appointment of Pulis. The hoofball that everyone associated with Stoke has been mostly abandoned for an attack that is dictated on the wings by Yannick Bolasie and Puncheon, with Jedinak, Kagisho Dikgacoi, and Joe Ledley controlling the central midfield for cover. If only the strikers were more polished in front of the net, Palace would be closer to 40 goals instead of 30—I guess Palace had to have some weakness to make things fair—but what Pulis has accomplished on limited resources and this limited roster is nothing short of a miracle.

Since Pulis took over the Eagles on November 30, the club has amassed 36 points from 23 games; kept 10 clean sheets; pulled off doubles against Cardiff City, Hull City, Aston Villa, and West Ham; defeated Chelsea 1-0; and won five consecutive games in the Premier League for the second time in club history. There are no trophies given for these types of results, but this is success for Crystal Palace that once could only be dreamt of and obtained in the FIFA/Football Manager video games.

In a season where the supporters just wanted to go with the flow and just enjoy the big show of the Premier League, everyone in the Crystal Palace organization—from CPFC2010 down to Pulis and down to the players—has given back more than they ever asked for. The rebirth from administration and barely escaping relegation to League One (ironically, thanks to a 2-2 draw at Sheffield Wednesday) in 2010 paved the way for the triumph at Wembley in 2012 and Saturday’s Premier League safety in 2013. Palace supporters can now look forward to the club aspiring for midtable mediocrity. The New York Eagles get another season to congregate at the Football Factory to watch their beloved Palace together. Rebecca Lowe, the journalist, gets to separate herself from Rebecca Lowe, the Crystal Palace supporter, in front of the NBCSN cameras for another season. And the Palace supporters whose chants create the festive atmosphere at Selhurst Park and at the away days get another 38 weeks to show the world that it’s not just Crystal Palace Football Club for them—it’s family.

Bicoastal Life

When I started visiting other cities in the United States, my focus was on the things to do at each destination. This influenced my decision to take a weeklong management training course at Washington DC two weeks ago and pay inflated prices to fly out to Temecula, California to attend a cousin’s wedding this past weekend. But when I left each city, I found myself questioning my perspective on travel—am I actually enjoying the travel more for the people than the places?

There have been prior trips where the people I met overshadowed the fun event we were at (East Coast and West Coast.) When I arrived in Washington, there were two goals to accomplish: to finish my training and to temporarily enjoy the city lifestyle after each day at work. That lifestyle—the opportunity to hit up a pro sports event, or some nice restaurant, or a concert in the evening after a productive day at work—has become my American Dream after almost two years of living in a rural town, and what better way to get a taste of the Dream than at our nation’s capital? I had dinner at my DC favorite, Ted’s Bulletin, squeezed in a couple scenic runs, and watched the Washington Capitals (lose 5-0 to Dallas) and the Washington Nationals home opener (a 2-1 loss to Atlanta). These nights were much better than my usual evening routine of hiding away in the apartment, playing video games and eating ice cream alone.

But when I left Washington, the sadness at the end of the trip was not because of the loss of the big city perks. I was most disappointed about leaving the 29 coworkers I met at the training course, all of whom I’ll (likely) never see again because they are based in the Beltway. I learned a lot more in the course than expected because of the diversity in the class and the good-hearted nature of everyone there. The five coworkers I shared a table with—the instructors divided the 30 of us into five groups of six—kept me motivated and happy to show up to work each morning. You know you’re in a good place with good people when each morning starts off so bright.

(For the sake of transparency, yes, I found myself attracted to the coworker who sat next to me, so she was a big factor in this positive outlook. And yes, at the end of the week, I told her I would have asked her out for drinks if I didn’t have to leave. And yes, I told her because I love awkward endings.)

In California, I looked forward to taking my parents to In-N-Out for dinner and showing them the Los Angeles I’ve grown to love from three consecutive years of vacationing there—the mountains, Griffith Observatory, and driving on a freeway. My only concern was the flood of relatives’ names and faces I’d have to learn at the ceremony and reception, most of whom I hadn’t seen since I was two years old, when my parents lived in San Bernardino, and whether they would be judgmental for my ignorance regarding most of the family tree.

My relatives proved me wrong with how the kindness that they showered on my family and me. Between the outdoor wedding, the reception, listening to as many stories as possible from each relative—it was an emotional roller coaster of happiness and getting choked up. The five hours at the ceremony and reception went by too quickly; there were still so many more stories to exchange, more laughs to have, and more wedding cake slices to eat. My newfound relatives (who knew extended family could be so cool?!), rather than the far-too-short 24 hours I had to explore Southern California with my parents before the wedding, consumed my thoughts as I flew out of LAX.

The evolution of my perspective on travel is probably down to a combination of maturing and the relative isolation I live in. This new perspective is also a gentle reminder to appreciate the time I get to spend with the familiar people I love and the new people I meet, no matter how brief that time may be.

Tammany Hall

If you took an AP American History class in high school, one of the topics was the rise of political machines in the major cities of the United States. New York City’s political machine was known as Tammany Hall; it’s most notorious period was under the man known as Boss Tweed. While the machine is dead today, the former headquarters for Tammany Hall is alive and well–as the campus for a film school. I wrote about the former headquarters for Tammany Hall over at Untapped Cities. Check it out! 

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Opening Day

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The first rule of going to the ballpark to take in a baseball game is to only do so in the summer.

I found that out the hard way when I went to Washington Nationals’ home opener against the Atlanta Braves on Friday, knocking out the bucket list item of attending an Opening Day game. I got out of work early, hopped on the Metro, bought the cheapest tickets available at the box office, and ended up in the third tier of seats at right field, directly behind the foul pole.

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I told my friends and family through Facebook that I loved them, in the event that a foul ball struck me.

It was overcast and the temperature probably hovered around the 50’s. Those are perfect conditions for running, but terrible for sitting in a seat for three hours to watch grown men throw a ball and hit said ball with a piece of lumber while grown men in a different uniform catch said ball with a glove made of leather. Even with the jacket zipped up and gloves on, I was freezing the entire game, except when we all stood up for the Presidents Race in the middle of the fourth inning. (Seriously, that’s worth standing up for?) Teddy tricked Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, and Taft into lining up to spin a wheel for prizes; the former Rough Rider ran to the finish line when the other presidents were distracted.

The game was sloppy. Washington had two players caught stealing in avoidable baserunning gaffes, while Atlanta left fielder Justin Upton apparently gave up an inside the park home run. Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond hit a ball that apparently landed under the outfield wall; Upton tried to declare a ground rule double to the umpires. Desmond kept running while the umpires didn’t acknowledge Upton’s claim, so Upton eventually ran to the wall, dug up the ball, and threw it home in a futile attempt to throw out Desmond. The celebrations in the stands turned into boos when the umpires reviewed the play and ruled it a ground rule double. The overturned run, plus all the runners stranded on base throughout the game, cost the Nationals in end—Washington lost the game 2-1.

Nationals Park is a beautiful stadium, but that may be because it’s still new. You have to remember that my gauge for baseball stadiums is Wrigley Field—my standards are low. The statue for legendary pitcher Walter Johnson was my favorite part of the ballpark, because it’s supposed to depict a time lapse of Johnson’s delivery. Johnson’s delivery is probably my favorite one in the history of the league, but the time lapse on the statue makes him look like a four-armed monster with moss growing on three of those arms. Monster… How fitting for a pitcher who had 417 career wins, 3,508 strikeouts, 110 shutouts, two 30-win seasons, and 12 20-win seasons.

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Lightning Returns

I finally finished Lightning Returns, the final installment of the Final Fantasy XIII trilogy, after a month of personal and work travels delayed me from completing it in March. Here’s my reaction to the game and the XIII series as a whole.

The gameplay in Lightning Returns was easily the best of the series. The constraints of playing most of the game as a party of one, plus access to only three paradigms and four abilities each for those paradigms during battle, plus the limited number of carried recovery items, plus the imposed time limit to finish the game, forced me to do a lot more planning/decision-making than in prior games of the franchise. (I never carried more than two Phoenix Downs/Wings so I could have more room for Turbo Ethers.) The set-up of the paradigms and their abilities for each boss fight, particularly the final battle, was often the difference between a relatively easy fight and a nearly-impossible cause. After I added a Steelguard to the Midnight Mauve paradigm (my offensive/debuff mage) and tacked on a Thundara spell to the Ultima Weapon-wielding Soldier of Peace, the final battle went from a struggle to retain HP to a battle of attrition. The path of attrition meant it took me 19:37 to finish the final battle–there’s only so many attacks you can get out in 30 seconds before you’re forced into a defensive stance for the next minute–but the loss of HP and limited number of recovery items never was a problem. As for the time limit, I liked that the game forced me to be efficient with the quests I chose and the strategies selected to finish them. Efficiency is underrated in Role Playing Games; I’d rather face this time limit and get things done than be forced to grind endlessly to make the game manageable.

While the story was weak and pretty predictable, I’m content with the fact that the storyline ended the way it should have ended. Part of the problem with the story was that while XIII was open-ended enough for Square Enix to create a developed world and fleshed out characters, XIII-2 erased that potential flexibility and depth by just being a terrible bridge between XIII and XIII-3. Square Enix realized those issues, and in XIII-3, chose to be straightforward to rectify them, sacrificing the creativity of XIII along the way. This also shows up in Lightning Returns through the dialogue and some of the accompanying (monotonous) voice acting, but since the story finished the way it should have been finished, I won’t be too bothered by the flaws here.

Here is a list of other positives from this game that I hope Square Enix incorporates in future installments of the Final Fantasy franchise:

[1] The Omegas. The idea of making a species of monster extinct is exciting in a morbid kind of way.
[2] The Stagger system with perfectly-timed Guards. Physical attacks now make more sense; if the block is executed perfectly, why shouldn’t the enemy be punished for it? Thankfully, XIII-3 punishes them.
[3] Bosses susceptible to Poison and other Status Ailments. Square Enix has jacked up enemy HP and defenses to unseen levels since XIII rolled around, but the capability to force the staggers and bad ailments on enemies is a good balance for those inflated stats.
[4] The Moogle Village, kupo. Enough said.

Maybe I’ll write more someday on what I’d like to see–and not see–from future games in the Final Fantasy franchise, but these four items made me happy when I discovered them. Overall, Final Fantasy XIII had a better story than XIII-2 and XIII-3, and the gameplay of XIII-3 trumps that found in XIII and XIII-2. I’m glad this chapter of the franchise got the ending it deserved, and that it was accomplished through the fun and wild battle system of XIII-3, but we can now finally move on to the future of Final Fantasy. Here’s hoping that the next chapter of Final Fantasy only needs one game to be fully resolved.