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As a Peyton Manning fan , all I hoped for, before the game started,  was that the debacle of Super Bowl 48 was not repeated and that it was a close contest. It seemed too much to hope that the Broncos would pull off an upset. After all, seven out of eight football experts had predicted that the Panthers would win. Two of them even predicted a Panthers blowout.

Even when the Broncos marched down the field on their initial drive before settling for a FG, even when Von Miller stripped the balll and the Broncos recovered in the end zone for a 10-0 lead… even then I kept thinking the Panthers would bounce back. The Bronco offense did not give much cause for optimism as they failed to get even a single first down.In spite of a long punt return and an interception that put them in great position, all the Broncos could do was to kick a FG. Most of the second quarter and the third, the Broncos clung to a six point lead and I was only too conscious that a Panthers TD would give them the lead. Only when the Broncos scored a second TD did I begin to relax.

The N.Y. Times sports writer called it a ” grinding lackluster game” ( that)degenerated into a morass of poor throws, dropped passes and   with both horrible pass protection”. I don’t know which game he watching. Granted there was not much scoring but it was because the opposing defenses were so good. Cam Newton was under intense pressure on every play and he took a fearful beating. At some point in the third quarter, I began to think that he was physically hurting, that he had lost confidence.

As long as the Bronco defense had to be on the field, I thought they would tire sooner or later. They didn’t. They still kept coming hard on every play and the cornerbacks covered the Panther receivers like a blanket. For any true football fan, it was a defensive performance to savor. I read Super Bowl 50 was  the third most watched Super Bowl , with 112 million viewers tuning in to it. Looks like the Times got this one wrong.

I think Gary Kubiak, the Bronco head coach, called a smart game. Once Manning threw his second interception, at a time when the Broncos were well within FG range, Kubiak had the Broncos offense play a ball control game.. Protect the ball, keep it on the ground and work the clock. Let the defense win the game. It worked to perfection. The selection of Von Miller as MVP was richly deserved.

I can’t help feeling that, going into the game, the Panthers were a little overconfident. After all, they had had an easy run in the playoffs thus far, having won handily and demolished Arizona in the NFC championship game. They might also have begun to read the predictions that they were solid favorites for this one. Expecting to win this one easily too, they were shocked when things didn’t go their  way. They got into a 10-0 hole and the speed and aggressiveness of the Bronco defense unsettled them. Early on, Cam Newton was high with his passes and ,though he briefly orchestrated a good drive with his running, he was unable to sustain the momentum.

About Newton’s post-game sulk : I hadn’t been following the Panthers much this season and did not know much about them other than Newton, Luke Kuechly and Ted Ginn Jr.  I had seen Newton’s over-the- top celebrations when his team was winning and when he scored a TD and I had found them irritating and disrespectful. I’m glad that he was taken down a peg but I never expected his post game non-interview. He will hear about it for a long time. More importantly, he will have to earn the trust of his teammates all over again if he is going to be a leader. He is a young player ( only 26) and he has a lot of football ahead of him; perhaps even a Super Bowl ring or two. As he matures, he will learn to be as gracious in victory as in defeat. Or at least, I hope so. He could learn a lot by watching Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson and how they conduct themselves in victory AND in defeat.

 

 

At last, the wait is over. Super Bowl 50 will be played in a few hours time, finally. I really can’t complain though as the hoopla has been much less this time around. It’s partly because player access and press coverage have been restricted  and partly because I’ve been studiously avoiding all TV coverage about the mega-event until now. I’ll only begin watching with the pre-game show , about half an hour before the game starts. This way, I am not bored even before the game starts; after a while all the expert opinions and predictions begin to pall.

The Super Bowl has grown in popularity from year to year. I remember watching Super Bowl III , forty seven years ago, when it was just another bowl game. Now, It is among the most popular spectacles or celebrations in the entire year, right up there with the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving. Practically, everyone I know is either going to a Super Bowl party or hosting one. I was reminded of this when I went to the supermarket this morning. The parking lot was full and , inside, the aisles were crowded with people getting ready for the evening. The only time I remember such a crowd is the day before Christmas or Thanksgiving and whenever a major winter storm has been predicted.

In today’s game, I am whole-heartedly for the Denver Broncos and their quarterback, Peyton Manning. (I hope I haven’t jinxed them). Carolina are deservedly the favorites with their balanced attack and stingy defense and because of their youthful superstar QB, Cam Newton. I have nothing against the Panthers but I’m hoping that the Broncos are able to pull of an upset. With all of Peyton’s injuries and his advanced age, this is no doubt his last hurrah. I would dearly love to see him get his second Super Bowl ring. I vividly remember the last time, the Broncos and Peyton made it to the Super Bowl three years ago and how they were crushed by the Seattle Seahawks. Please God :  if the  Broncos can not pull out a win, let them at least keep the game close. Let it not be a blowout as it was against the Seahawks.

We are having a small Super Bowl party…. just my brother-in-law and his wife and us. The menu is traditional Super Bowl grub, mostly finger foods. We start out with nachos and dip and then nosh on Buffalo Chicken wings,  lamb sikh kababs, sweet chili chicken followed by turkey burgers and a salad of mixed greens, quinoa, feta cheese with a an Asian sesame-soy vinaigrette ( need some healthy stuff !). It sounds like a lot of food but we are making limited quantities of each and , hey, it’s a long game. In any case, just like Thanksgiving the Super Bowl party is a time for excess. Tomorrow may bring its share of regrets and vows to go a diet, but this evening we enjoy and make merry. Let the game begin!!

 

 

 

The Second Time Around

When I was about twelve years old, I went with my parents to see the movie Anastasia and absolutely loved it. The storyline, the romance between the smoldering Yul Brynner and the lovely Ingrid Bergman and the superlative acting, particularly Helen Hayes’ Academy Award winning performance, made a deep impression on me. A couple of weeks later, I told my parents I wanted to see Anastasia again. They warned me I would not enjoy it as much and tried to talk me out of my idea. However, I would not be deterred. Using the pocket money that I had saved up, I went to the theater by myself. Guess what? I really did not enjoy it anywhere near as much ( though I never admitted it to my parents). There were no surprises and knowing how the story would unfold lost much of its charm in my eyes.

The experience taught me a valuable lesson as it cured me of wanting to reprise pleasurable experiences. Whether movies, vacations, restaurants or books I learned to savor them the first time I experienced them, mindful as I was that there would be no second opportunity.

Sometimes, when I have had to re-visit a place or an experience, it has only reinforced this lesson. For instance, fifteen years ago, we thoroughly enjoyed a vacation to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic. The luxury resort, the lavish meals, the tropical climate, the lush vegetation, and the friendliness of the people were things  we savored. Then , four years ago, we found ourselves in Punta Cana again attending a destination wedding  of the son of a close friend. We were glad to be there for the wedding but there was a sense of deja vu’. All the things we had enjoyed the first time were the same but much of the charm was missing.

With restaurants, one really does not want to go to a different establishment each time and we do make repeat visits to our favorite restaurants with one important caveat. Each time that we go, we take care to order at least one new dish from the menu. Thus, we  not only enjoy old favorites  but seek out new ones thus adding excitement to our eating out experiences.

When it comes to books, I rarely re-read a book unless it is a recipe book or a spiritual resource. In spite of that, I have three bookcases laden with books that I have read and enjoyed in the past. I know that I will never read them again but I just can’t bring myself to part with them. But that is perhaps true of all book lovers, the inability to read and discard.

I am aware that there are people are my polar opposites. I know there are film buffs who see a movie dozens of times to pick up on little anomalies or obscure clues that the director has deliberately left in. These fans make themselves experts on the films of a certain director and love to talk about them. I meet some of them at the Sunday afternoon film discussion group that I sometimes attend and I wonder how they do it. For me, seeing a movie even twice is too much.

Similarly, there are people who go to the same place year after year and seem to enjoy it. Many of these people own time shares and are therefore obligated to pay repeat visits to the same place. Didn’t they realize what they were signing up for or did they buy the idea that swapping with others time share owners would be easy.  I wonder … where is their sense of curiosity, of adventure?  This is definitely not for me.

In these matters , there is no wrong or right. They are not wrong to want to replicate their experiences and I am not wrong in always wanting to try something new. To each, according to his taste.

 

 

 

The first thing I did yesterday morning was switch on the computer and check what had happened at the Australian Open. I had been hoping , without much hope, that Roger Federer would be able to pull off a miracle, but it was not to be. Novak Djokovic won in four sets, edging ahead of Roger in their head to head contests. As dominant as Novak has been these last three years and as fit as he is, he is very likely to surpass Roger’s record of 17 Grand Slam wins. That will no doubt start anew the debate over who is the greatest of all time ( G.O.A.T). BTW, that is an acronym I dislike intensely and I am going to use the word ” Greatest ” in the rest of this post.

Both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic are great players, but in my opinion, neither of them is the Greatest. That accolade cannot be given to any player for a number of reasons because, in any such comparison, those from the pre-Open era suffer significant disadvantages.

Players in the pre-Open era had much shorter careers because, except for the wealthy few, they had to earn a living; going professional meant that they could no longer play in the Grand Slam tournaments.  A case in point is Richard ” Pancho” Gonzales, whom Jack Kramer dubbed ” the best player never to win Wimbledon”. One of seven children of impoverished  Mexican immigrants, he was completely self taught and did not have the benefit of coaching.  He won 2 U.S. Opens, one of them at age 20, before quickly turning pro. He then dominated the pro tour from 1954 to 1962 regularly beating other greats such as Frank Sedgeman, Lew Hoad , Tony Trabert and Ken Rosewall.

Many of the other greats of that era, among them Don Budge and Ellsworth Vines, also had very short amateur careers. In the case of Don Budge, he enlisted in the U.S Air Force during World War II, suffered a shoulder injury and was never the same again. In spite of that, he won seven Grand Slam titles ( including all four Slams in 1938) and the Triple Crown ( mens singles, mens doubles and mixed doubles)  three times. He also dominated the pro tour for three years , regularly beating such greats as Fred Perry and Bobby Riggs. What might he not have accomplished except for his wartime injury ?

Before commercial air travel, most players skipped the Australian Open. The only option was to go by ship, a two week voyage. This is not something most players were willing to do, because of the time and the expense of going to Australia.

Racket Technology. Metal rackets only became a reality in the sixties. Before that, players used wooden rackets which could not be strung to as high a tension. Racket design has continually improved since then. Rackets today have a bigger ” sweet spot” and players are able to generate a lot more power because the rackets are strung so tight. How much better would  the old time players have been with today’s rackets?

Better coaching support. Pancho Gonzales had no coaching at all but even the other players of that era had very little compared to players today. Today, many of the top players have full time coaches and hitting partners. They also are much fitter than those of old because of fitness regimens and dietetic advice. Additionally, they recover from injuries faster because of the improved state of medicine today.

Standardization of tennis courts. In recent years, the grass courts at Wimbledon are no longer lightning fast. Conversely, the clay courts at the French Open are not as slow as they used to be.  They and the hard courts the U.S. Open are not as different from each other. As a result the top players today are a threat on any surface making it a little easier to rack up Grand Slam wins.

In particular, I abhor statistics about the number of career Grand Slam wins and  head- to head- records in deciding who is the Greatest. The earlier part of this post explains why Grand Slam wins (career) are not a true indicator. I would also add that, in some eras, the competition is stiffer, thus making it more difficult to win a Grand Slam. As for head to head records, they can be very misleading because they are not usually between two players at the peak of their careers. Either one of the players is just starting out or he is on the down slope of his career, factors that arguably skew the head to head record.

No, choosing the Greatest is impossible and most of us, if we are inclined to pick one player above the rest, wind up choosing our favorite player and then coming up with reasons to justify our choice. At best, we can choose the most dominant player for each decade but even that is fraught with difficulties. For instance, Roger Federer is my choice for the first decade of this century and ( even though this decade is only half over), Novak Djokovic is the best player of this decade. But where does that leave Rafael Nadal, who belongs in the conversation for both these decades?

Better to just root for your favorite player and enjoy watching his matches. After all, that is the prime reason we watch sports, isn’t it?

 

 

What Am I Missing ?

I just saw ” Interstellar”, the 2014 movie starring Matthew McConaghy and I am mystified by the laudatory reviews it received. Set some time in the future when life on Earth is getting increasingly impossible, the movie is about a desperate quest to connect with aliens in another galaxy and save mankind. Visually and technically, it is a treat. Early on, the scenes of small town America, where people are barely hanging on as life deteriorates amid dust storms and blighted crops evokes memories of the Dust Bowl. Later, as Cooper( McConaghy) and his crew search for intelligent life in far-off worlds, the depiction of these planets and their harsh conditions is stunning. However, the storyline left me mystified. How exactly does Cooper make it back to Earth and how do the ecological problems on Earth get resolved? For a movie that is almost three hours long, the movie ends with a lot of unanswered questions.

In my opinion, Interstellar deserves perhaps two stars out of five. I was amazed therefore to find that most viewers liked it; almost 16,000 of them gave it four stars. I don’t get it. What am I missing ? My son and my nephews liked Interstellar; some even loved it. Is this because of the generation gap? Am I unable to appreciate new ways of telling a story, or understanding futuristic concepts?

I know I am not alone in my predicament. A few years ago, my cousin went to the movies and saw The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou ( starring Bill Murray) and he hated it. His children , on the other hand, loved it. This has happened with other movies too. My kids loved The 40 year Old Virgin; I was turned off by it. Then again, I don’t understand why so many movies have to be ” dark”. The newer Batman movies and even the later installments of the Harry Potter series are good examples of this trend.

I guess I will just have to accept that tastes have changed and that I am no longer in sync. Luckily, there are enough other movies and TV shows to keep me interested..

Producer- Director Sanjay Leela Bhansali is noted for the opulence of his films and his latest, ” Bajirao Mastani” does not disappoint. Bajirao is the story of the Peshwa  who commanded the Maratha forces and was undefeated in battle. The movie describes how he fell in love with Mastani, the half- Muslim daughter of the Raja of Bundelkhand and the tragic aftermath of their infatuation.

Indian history books, at least those in my time, focused mostly on the Mughal Empire and the British Raj. There was some description of the Maratha empire, but not much beyond the exploits of Shivaji. Little was written about the Peshwas and so I was  unfamiliar with the story of this film.

As the movie begins, Bajirao ( Ranveer Snigh), who has made it his mission to bring down the Mughal Empire, is diverted from his purpose by a plea for help by Mastani( Deepika Padukone). She audaciously forces her way into his presence and asks his help in lifting the siege of Bundelkhand by a Muslim army. Initially reluctant, he accedes to her wishes and comes to Bundelkhand’s rescue. In the course of the fighting, he gives Mastani his dagger, which according to local custom means that he is now married to her. Against her parents wishes, she follows him to his palace in Pune. However, Bajirao’s mother , Radhabai, is aghast at the idea of such a liaison.  Bajirao is married to the beauteous Kashibai ( Priyanka Chopra) and Mastani’s sudden appearance in Pune is very upsetting. Radhabai tries she can to nip the affair in the bud, and humiliates Mastani by treating her like a courtesan. However, Bajirao is infatuated with Mastani and their love blossoms despite fierce opposition from Radhabai,  Bajirao’s brother Chimaji Appa,  Bajirao’s older son Nana, and the royal priest. The rest of the movie  deals with the interplay between Bajirao, Kashibai and Mastani and its tragic aftermath.

“Bajirao Mastani” is visually amazing, with lavish sets, colorful yet tasteful costumes, and riveting battle scenes. The three main actors all turn in great performances. Ranveer Singh is utterly convincing as Bajirao, projecting the right blend of hauteur, tenderness and stubbornness. A good friend remarked that when he watched the movie, he felt he was watching Bajirao himself, and not Ranveer Singh as Bajirao. True, but part of the reason, I think, is that we do not know what the real Bajirao looked like. This is not to take anything away from Ranveer’s standout performance. In addition to his acting, I was impressed with his muscular body and his six-pack abs. I really think that our Bollywood heroes are more buff than their Hollywood counterparts. The two female leads are a good match for Ranveer.  Priyanka ,as the virtuous Kashibai,  has the meatier role and she runs full gamut of emotions from love to anger to resignation. I hope she gets a Best Actress award to go with her triumph at the Golden Globes.  Deepika, as Mastani, is almost as good. Both of them look stunning. BTW, I have to commend Deepika on the hard work she has put into her acting career. She improves from film to film and is unafraid to take on all sorts of roles, including  unglamorous ones in which she dons very little make-up.

When the movie was about to be released,  Bajirao’s descendants roundly criticized it as being inauthentic. While their objections are understandable,   Bajirao was never intended to be a  documentary. Without the dances and songs, the film would not appeal to the public and would flop at the box office. For instance, the idea of Kashibai and Mastani performing a dance duet is laughable but what can you do? This is what the public demands.

A more serious shortcoming is the depiction of Bajirao’s obsession with Mastani. It seems difficult to imagine that he would suddenly throw over his beloved wife and treat her so callously. Also unbelievable are some of the battle scenes, particularly when Bajirao charges a massed army, fending off a flight of arrows in mid-air  with his flashing sword (much like Jet Lee in” Hero”). He then mows down dozens of his adversaries, like the blind Zatoichi did in dozens of samurai epics. In an earlier battle sequence, he scampers up  the trunk of a war elephant and kills its rider( remember Legolas in Lord of the Rings).  Is this a period drama or a fantasy epic?

Still, these minor flaws do not detract from what is an excellent film. In addition to the CGI enhanced settings and terrific acting, the movie has a superior soundtrack ( courtesy  Sanjay Leela Bhansali ,  music director) , dances  and good pacing. Though 2 hours 38 minutes long, it does not seem that long.

My rating: four and a half stars out of five.

In an article in the Guardian, Richard Lea writes that books have increased in length by 25% over the past 15 years. A survey of 2,500 books from various bestseller lists reveals that average book length was 320 pages in 1999 and but grew to 400 pages by 2014.

Lea quotes several veterans of the publishing industry who give a variety of reasons for this phenomenon. The three that make most sense to me are:

  1. The shift to digital. e-books are more portable and readers do not have to worry about lugging heavy tomes around. Also, readers who might have been intimidated by the size of books at a booksellers do not have the same problem when they buy books from Amazon; there, the number of pages is almost a footnote.
  2. Perhaps in a reaction to  30 second sound bites and abbreviated text messages, people who love reading  appear to prefer long, immersive narratives.
  3. Hefty books give readers a sense of value for money. A big book appears to be more worth the purchase price.

Of course, page counts can be misleading. It is easy to increase the number of pages by using a slightly larger font, by using big headers and a host of other tricks. They help turn a middling book into a much thicker one and by reducing the number of words per page makes a book easier to read, a real page-turner. Sometimes, authors run out of ideas late in their careers and resort to these tricks to keep churning out books. One such author, I’ve always felt , was Robert D. Parker, best known for the Spenser mysteries. His early books were normal sized, and better plotted, with normal fonts. His later books were quite the opposite … novellas pumped up to look like books. The plotting was rudimentary and most of the verbiage consisted of inane dialogue which set my teeth on edge. It enabled Parker to drastically reduce the number of words on each page, since each sentence or two of dialog was separated by a blank line. Parker also used very short chapters , each of which began half way down the page.

Another such author, in my opinion, is Stuart Woods, who writes the Stone Barrington series and other mysteries. I also got the same feeling about J. K. Rowling and the later Harry Potter mysteries which were much thicker than the early ones and yet did not contain as much action.

So what is the preferred length for a book? The answer of course, varies from reader to reader. In my own case, it is between 300 and 350 pages ( with normal sized lettering). Such a length gives the author enough space to develop the characters, and for the plot to unfold. This is for fiction books; for non fiction, my preferred length is more flexible and ranges between 200 and 400 pages.

Any more than this and I may well decide to give the book a pass. This happened to me with Robert Caro’s  exhaustive( and exhausting) multi-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. Each volume, I think, was upwards of 700 pages.While appreciating the thoroughness of his research and the level of detail in his books, I asked myself : “Do I really want to know that much about Lyndon Johnson? and ” Am I willing to devote a month of my life reading  about him ? ” The answer was ” NO”. I do not plan to read these books at any point in the future.

 

 

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About Food, Travel, Sports , Books and other fun things

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