Expanding by Four: Should the NHL Get Bigger?

Expanding by Four: Should the NHL Get Bigger?

Over the past week, there have been a bunch of rumours regarding the National Hockey League’s plans to expand their league by another four teams by 2017. This stemmed from a report stating that the idea of an NHL team in Las Vegas was a done deal, and that there were other deals on the table to bring teams to Seattle, Quebec City, and the greater Toronto area (or GTA, for those who live around there). 

Opinions have been going back and forth on why this is a great idea, and why this is a horrendous plan. Expansion is always dicey, but going all in with a plan of four teams is a huge risk, especially in a league that already has more than one floundering franchise (looking at you, Florida Panthers, Arizona Coyotes, and Carolina Hurricanes). 

I’ve had time to digest the ideas of expansion, and have some opinions, just on the general effects it could have on the league, and on each individual city that has been named. 

The NHL Expanding by Four–The Good

  • massive expansion fees means more money for the owners- that they don’t have to share with the players. They have to be drooling over that a little bit. 
  • Balancing the league. With unbalanced conferences right now, this plan would enable the NHL to even things out, assuming Vegas, Seattle, and the GTA team would play in the West, and Quebec City would play in the east. 
  • New/renewed rivalries. Seattle vs. Vancouver would become a natural rivalry, as would the two Toronto teams facing off against one another. And bringing back the legendary Montreal/Quebec rivalry would be great. 
  • Cities getting something they deserve. Quebec deserves an NHL team. They never should have lost the Nordiques to Colorado in the first place, but the doom of the terrible Canadian dollar at the time sealed their fate, as they were unable to compete. Seattle seems like a good fit for hockey, and always has. It is surprising to me that it has only been in the last while that they have started being mentioned as a possible destination. And Toronto is more than able to support another team, which I will expand on more later on. 
  • Expansion drafts. I have to admit, these are really fun. It is amazing to go through the process of who will be protected by their team, and who will be left to hang in the winds. And then it is interesting to see the picks, as the new teams choose from a pretty good selection of players, only to select cheap plumbers who make us scratch our heads. Maybe with rich new owners, they won’t be afraid to pick up a couple of high priced players to put some butts in the seats, and give their new teams a chance to compete right off the hop.

The NHL expanding by Four– The Bad

  • The product will become diluted. There is no doubt that the NHL is the greatest hockey league in the world. But where are we getting another 120 players to play on these expansion teams? The lure for many players to come over from Europe would have to get much stronger. There would be plenty of more AHL players who would have to make the jump up to the big league, and prove their worth on the largest scale. Looking around the league as it is, there are players all over NHL rosters who don’t deserve to be here (looks in the direction of John Scott). With a massive four more teams, this number will increase dramatically. 
  • Going back to the trap. Expansion teams need to compete in order to create a foothold for fans in their new city, and the best way to do this is to win. And the easiest way to win, with a lackluster roster, is to play defense. And this could mean the return of the trap. Think of the haunting memories of the first years of the Minnesota Wild, and how incredibly boring they were to watch. We could see that type of era return. Play for low scoring games, and hope to keep it within one until the very end. Or play for loser points. It could mean the return of some pretty boring hockey, which the league has tried to eradicate over the past few years. 
  • What happens to the failing teams we already have? Having these cities around now is good, for the day when the inevitable announcement comes along that the Coyotes are going to move. If the NHL expands, it is left with nothing, aside from perhaps Kansas City, to serve as an escape plan if a team needs to relocate. 
  • Even more rare chances of dynasty teams. Teams winning the Cup, or even competing for it, for several seasons in a row has become pretty rare. The Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks have alternated Cup wins recently, and this may be the closest we will ever see to dynasty teams again. Having even more teams in the league, and more roster shakeups with an expansion draft will surely affect this.

The Cities #1: Las Vegas

nhl2
Las Vegas- Hockey Town?
  • Another team in the desert? Haven’t the Coyotes proven that this is a bad idea from the start?
  • Vegas is very much a transient city. Can we expect a solid enough fan base from the citizens of Vegas to keep this team afloat, while they hope for tourists to come from all over the country and shell out money for something they can often see at home? Would you go on vacation from Montreal, where you can see the Canadiens play all the time, and shell out the same money to see an expansion team play the Blue Jackets? 
  • Is it really a good idea to have a professional sports team play in the gambling capital of the world? How long would it take before there are controversies with things like game fixing, sports book controversies, players gambling, players partying too hard, etc? Vegas seems like a problem waiting to happen. 
  • If Vegas is such a good place for a sports team, why haven’t any of the Big Three leagues put a team there already? Wouldn’t basketball or football do better there? Why has the NFL and NBA shied away from this city as a destination?
  • The idea of a team in Las Vegas reeks of gimmick. The NHL has long been the ugly cousin of the pro sports leagues in North America, and has always been fighting for credibility. Going to Vegas, in my opinion, does nothing but hinder their credibility. 
  • Surprisingly, minor league teams in the city have done…okay, when it comes to attendance. 

The Verdict on Las Vegas: It seems inevitable that the NHL will end up here. I feel that this city is better suited as a place for relocation, instead of expansion. This way, they will be able to get a team that is more ready to compete, and quickly, instead of going through several painful years of building. I don’t think the town has the patience for that, and I think the tourist draw is overrated. People won’t specifically be going there for hockey, and the team will be fighting with literally thousands of other fun ways to spend your money in that town. Overall, this isn’t a great idea.

The Cities #2: Seattle

Hockey deserves to be in the Pacific Northwest. I would cheer for a Seattle team.
Hockey deserves to be in the Pacific Northwest. I would cheer for a Seattle team.
  • Seattle is a great North American city. It is a beautiful place to visit, and by most accounts, a good place to live. They have a strong sporting tradition. They love their Seahawks, have generally remained interested in their Mariners, despite years of poor teams, and really did support their SuperSonics, until the owner pulled the rug from beneath their feet over an arena deal. They have a history as a good sports town, making it feel right for the NHL to be there. 
  • Geographically, they are a good fit, bridging the gap between Vancouver and the Alberta teams, and the southern teams of California and Texas. 
  • Could develop good rivalries with Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton. The Flames and Oilers need new rivalries.
  • The arena thing is a problem here. The current spot, the Key Arena, is outdated. They were trying to have a new one built for the return of an NBA team, but all of this fell through when the Sacramento Kings decided to stay put. The NHL won’t go here unless there is something in place to build a new rink, something modern and state-of-the-art. This could also help lure basketball back to town, so could work out quite well for the city, if something can get worked out. 
  • Seattle has a hockey history, as there have been junior teams in Seattle and Portland forever. They are well supported.
  • Would an NHL team mean the death of junior hockey in the area? The Thunderbirds would be in big trouble, and a big league team could even filter off some fans from the always successful Portland Winterhawks as well. There are plenty of places that can support major and junior hockey at the same time, but I don’t know if Seattle could do it. 

The Verdict on Seattle: While this may seem like another city better suited to a relocated team than an expansion one, I would like to see hockey in the Pacific Northwest. I feel that it is a geographical fit, and in a city that is desirable for people to live in. Seattle is not a place in the boonies, that people can barely find on a map, like Columbus. It is a major center, and a pretty large media market. I envision Seattle as being a good, strong organization from the get go. Put a team there. 

The Cities #3: Greater Toronto Area/Markham

The blue collar, affordable Toronto team would play here.
The blue collar, affordable Toronto team would play here.
  • Toronto is Canada’s largest city, and there is very little doubt that they could support a second team, and that there is a rabid desire for another team in the area.
  • The Maple Leafs, and probably the Buffalo Sabres, will fight tooth and nail against this, but the league will not be able to resist the millions upon millions that could be made from a team here. 
  • In such a crazy hockey market, the Leafs will always rule. But going to a Leafs game is nearly impossible for the regular fan, as they have been priced out of tickets, and the games are mainly attended by business types. A second team would give Toronto a working class team, one that could become loved by the regular fan. Would that mean they would abandon their Leafs allegiance? Probably not. But the new generations of fans coming up, with little to no allegiance to the team their parents loved, and never having seen a good Leafs team, could flock to the new team. Seeing kids at a Toronto NHL game would be something different, instead of the dull, silent crowds that attend the Leafs now. 
  • Another team in the area would force the Leafs to do everything possible to become a better team. Instead of floundering, as they seemingly have been since the 1993 playoffs, they know that they could lose fans for the first time if they continue to be bad. 
  • Of course, this would be an amazing rivalry, in the same way that the Rangers-Islanders is, even if the teams are in different stratospheres of success. It would be the underdogs against the Leafs every time, and it would be fantastic, especially once the team takes hold and has a loyal fan base of its own. 
  • Another team in Canada just means more revenues for the league. No question about that. The current seven teams basically carry the rest of the league as it is. Why not add more to the pot. 

The verdict on GTA: Nothing to think about here. Just do it. There is nothing but positives here. 

The Cities #4: Quebec City

I'll line up for a jersey if they come back as the Nordiques, with something like this look.
I’ll line up for a jersey if they come back as the Nordiques, with something like this look.
  • When the Nordiques left, it was perhaps the saddest relocation of them all. A dedicated fan base had their team ripped from them, and just as they were getting good. How heartbreaking it must have been as they built up for years, and then won the Cup in their first year in Colorado? 
  • I only want them back if they will still be called the Nordiques, and will still have those incredible blue and white jerseys. Even though they have been gone for a long time, those are still some of the best threads in the league. 
  • They are building a brand-new arena, that will be ready to go as soon as they are awarded a team. 
  • The Habs-Nords was one of the best rivalries in the league, and Montreal has never been able to replicate it. Sure, there is some hate between Montreal and Toronto, but nothing like the in-province rivalry with the capital city. Montreal-Ottawa has never really taken off, considering how close those two teams are to one another. The league wants it to be amazing, but it isn’t. Problem solved with the return of the Nordiques. 
  • This is a fan base that would be patient as they built themselves into winners once again. Giving them an expansion team would be fine, as they fans would follow them with passion until they were good. 

The Verdict on Quebec City: This is my #1 choice for a new team. Bring them back, sign them up now. Being someone who can’t find any reason to cheer for any of the Canadian teams, I would instantly become a Nordiques fan the second of their return. 

Gary Bettman has stated time and again that the league is not thinking of expanding just yet, but we all know that there is probably something in the works. I think if the league is going to do it, then it should do it all at once, to put the new teams on level playing ground, and so that they can grow together. Make it a big shock for the league, all at once, instead of dribbling out new teams over a few years, as they did with their two-at-a-time expansion of the 90’s and 00’s. Make it happen, establish them, and let them grow. 

And then we can worry about contraction.

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BoJack Horseman: Season 1 (TV Review)

BoJack Horseman: Season 1 (TV Review)

New to Netflix is another cartoon geared specifically towards adults, BoJack Horseman. Right off the bat, it feels as if this show is meant to provide people who love Archer with something to do while they wait for the next seasons to be released. In BoJack Horseman, we get a little bit of Archer, a little bit of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and a dash of Arrested Development. There is a long list of talented actors who lend their voices to the show, but in the end, it falls a little bit more flat than I would have expected.

The story is about an actor, who is also a horse, who had a huge hit with a 1990’s family sitcom, and he has never truly recovered, or moved on, since. Never able to replicate his success, and unable to land a job, BoJack Horseman has become a bitter pseudo-celebrity, living off his glory years. And excessively living in his glory years, to the point where he often watches the DVDs of his old show, laughing along with the tired, filmed before a live studio audience, jokes that made him famous. The only gig BoJack has going for him, is an offer to write his memoirs, something he finally gets around to doing when he hires a ghost writer, who follows him around, reliving his stories of fame, and becoming his friend. 

bojack2The cast here is good, and the title character is voiced by Will Arnett, who simply has one of the coolest voices out there. it feels as though he never reaches the potential with his voice acting in this show, however, or maybe it is just that we want him to be more like Arnett is in his other shows. Maybe we just want an animated version of Gob Bluthe, but we don’t really get it. Other primary member include Aaron Paul, of Breaking Bad fame, as Todd, the freeloading friend of BoJack’s who sleeps on his couch, and has to fight just to be allowed to use some closet space. Alison Brie provides the voice of the ghost writer, Diane. There are other celebrity cameos, like Naomi Watts and others, and there are some pretty decent secondary characters, like BoJack’s friend/rival, Mr. Peanutbutters (who is dating Diane), a dog who had a hit show similar to Horseman’s back in the day, and BoJack’s agent, a cat named Princess Carolyn that serves as BoJack’s agent and occasional love interest. 

Overall, it seemed like there could have been more done from the stellar actors they have to do the voices. I was expecting more, at least, and finished the series wondering if it could have been better had the voice actors gone a little further, or a little more extreme, in their creation of their characters. Think of how distinguishable each character is on Archer, simply based on their voices. I didn’t feel that came across in BoJack Horseman

As with most new shows, it takes a while before this one feels like it hits its stride. However, throughout the whole first season, it is not laugh-out-loud funny, as often Archer is, or the other comparable shows are. Perhaps it is unfair to compare this new series to something like the three I mentioned in the opening paragraph, as they have become cult favorites, or true comedy gems. But, since they are going after the same audience, I guess I can justify the comparisons. 

When you finish the dozen episodes of the first season, you are left with something that is…okay. There are some good moments in the show, and they start to string together jokes from other episodes, something that is more and more common in binge-watching TV series. There is a reasonable plot line, and BoJack himself does go through changes as the show progresses, so there is definitely a character arc, for the titular character, at least. There aren’t tons of laughs, but there are definitely worse things out there. Despite the expectations that I may have had for BoJack Horseman, it comes off as something that is distinctly average, unfortunately. But there is hope, as things have been set up nicely, and perhaps from here the writers can take this show somewhere more daring, and different, in order to improve for its second season, whenever that may come along. 

You won’t hate yourself for watching this show, as it is not a complete waste of time. But I wouldn’t go in expecting a gut-bustingly funny show, either. 

The Drifters (Book Review)

The Drifters (Book Review)

When I first read The Drifters, maybe 15 years ago, it became an instant classic in my mind, and a book that I had always considered in my top-3 favorite novels of all-time. It was incredible, and encompassed everything that there was for the traveler, for the person who was not quite sure where their place in the world was yet, and was willing to go and find it. Among travelers, The Drifters should be considered the bible. While a book like The Beach did its own thing for a new generation of backpackers, The Drifters has always been there for us to take along on long train rides, time at the beach, or lazy days between bar hopping, in whatever locale you could think of.

drift2Since I first read this James A. Michener classic, so many things have changed. Then, I was first starting to travel, having completed my first six-month journey across Europe. But I never felt complete after that first journey, and knew that I needed to be back out there, my life strapped to my back, and looking for more. The Drifters was a book that resonated with me, because I no longer had to feel out of place among my friends, who had chosen their life paths at 20 years old, and knew what they were going to be doing. I had no clue. But there were many, many others like me, so I felt good in my need to keep searching.

I started reading The Drifters again while I was in Honduras, figuring the tropical setting would be a good place to see again what the characters that I had grown to love got up to during their years of travel across Europe and Africa. To relive their trials and tribulations, their glories and successes, and their soul-crushing failures. I again wanted to sit with them in The Alamo in Torremolinos and listen to music, run with the bulls with Joe and Mr. Holt in Pamplona, or watch the elephants with them in Mozambique.

Reading the novel again, it was easy to once again become engrossed in their lives. And seeing them now from the perspective of an older man, one who has lived, and one who has pretty much found what he is looking for, allowed me to see these characters as they truly were, to see their innocence and views on the world in a different light. Maybe upon my first reading, I was more like one of the characters, whereas now, I am probably in between one of them and Mr. Fairbanks, the older narrator of the novel who is connected to each of the six young people in different ways, and keeps meeting up with them at certain points in their journey. Reading it again allowed me to recapture some of my own feelings from being on  the road for all those months and years in my youth, remembering how I looked at the world in my younger days, remembering the need to find something more important than the typical life that home offered me. Sure, my motives may have been different from the six characters, and the time of their travels was during one of the most intense moments in American history (the book was published in 1971, during the Vietnam War, and this conflict plays a major role in the novel), but the result was the same: we all left home and hit the road to find inspiration.

I am going to write about the characters in the novel as though the reader of this review has read the novel as well. Since it is not a new book, I am going to assume that most people have already read it. So there will be spoilers throughout this review, but I wanted to make sure that I was able to completely write about the characters, instead of cutting myself off, trying not to ruin anything. I am just going to focus on the central six, even though there are other great characters in this novel that play a smaller role, like Big Loomis and Jemail in Marakech, Clive and his purple satchel full of new records, or Jean Victor, who really gets things started in getting the six together. I won’t make specific mention, except in passing, of Fairbanks and Holt, either.

Joe: Joe has been drafted by the American military, and if he reports, will be shipped off to Vietnam. He does not believe that the war is a just war, and he refuses to comply, therefore becoming a draft dodger. His method of escape is to go to Europe, where the military can’t find him. He understands that this decision comes with severe consequences, namely that if he ever returns to the States, he will be imprisoned for dodging the draft. He has such strong convictions about this, that he leaves the US, probably forever. With the help of Mr. Fairbanks and a girl who turns out to be Gretchen, Joe ends up in Torremolinos, Spain, a haven for young people at the time. Plane loads of people would end up in the Spanish beach town, typically for 15-day all-inclusive vacations, that for many people, ended up lasting much longer. It was a place full of beautiful girls, typically German or Scandinavian, and the party scene was non-stop. It doesn’t take long before Joe, pretty broke to begin with, starts work as a bartender at The Alamo, a tiny, dingy bar in Torremolinos, that becomes the central hangout for the drifters during their time in this part of Spain.

Joe is in a way, a prototypical American boy, but at the same time, his strength comes from his silence and his convictions in his belief. Throughout the novel, he is one of the more sturdy characters. He manages to play a steadying role in the lives of the gang, since he seems to be one of the more emotionally stable, and his life tragedy that got him to Spain is something that he continues to believe in. He is not shy about telling people that he is there to avoid the draft, and will verbally battle anybody who feels that he is a coward for stepping out on his country. This is only a point of view held by the older characters, as the young people all agree with him, that the war is unfair, and he should not have to sacrifice his life for a decision (that they believe is poor- I don’t want to get too much into the conflict of Vietnam, and whether it was right or wrong) made by his government. While Joe is doomed to never return to his home, he easily makes a life in whichever spot that he lands in. There is always the awareness that even if the other drifters find what they are looking for, and decide to one day return to their homelands, he will not be able to do so. He will be a drifter forever, or he will need to go to jail. This adds a certain cloud of doom over Joe, one that he impressively never lets interfere with his life, and his living of it.

The issue of his draft status comes up a few times during the novel, and he must make further decisions on what to do about it, to get the government off his back. They manage to track him down in Mozambique, and this leads him to choosing if he should take the drastic draft dodging tactics known as Little Casino or Big Casino. Joe is willing to do anything to not go to war, further endearing us to his position, as he definitely sticks to his guns throughout, despite the outside pressures he must face and defeat in his avoidance of the war. Joe is strong enough to not be beaten by his own government, even if it means severely damaging his future.

Joe’s quest is different from the others, because for the majority of the novel, he is not actively seeking inspiration. He is avoiding something back home. In the end, however, he finds what could become his passion while they travel around Africa, and at the end of the novel we get the impression that this is something that he will pursue in his future travels, as he will begin his journey across Asia, trying to get to the Shinjuku district of Tokyo.

Torremolinos, the first stop for the gang.
Torremolinos, the first stop for the gang.

Britta: It is difficult to read this novel and not consider Britta to be one of the favorite characters. She is the beautiful Norwegian girl from the northern town of Tromso, who is simply tired of the darkness, and needs to always be in the sun. She is trapped by her environment in Norway, and saves up her money to go to Spain in order to escape it. The descriptions of Britta make it easy to understand how the majority of the people who first see her, fall in love with her. She grabbed the attention of nearly every male in the novel, and typically from the first time they laid eyes on the impeccably blonde girl with the amazing figure. And to top it all off, she is as sweet as she is beautiful, making her the perfect girl to fall in love with.

In her desperation to escape the dreary and sunless winters of Tromso, she immediately knows that she wants to stay for longer than the 15 day escape she paid for. Immediately upon arriving in Torremolinos, she starts looking for work. A difficult prospect, since there are hundreds of beautiful girls that want jobs so that they can stay in Spain a little longer. Luckily for Britta, she meets someone who is leaving her job, and sets Britta up as a waitress at The Alamo, and she starts sharing the tiny apartment with the unique sleeping arrangements and the famous sleeping bag on the floor. It is not long before Britta begins her long affair with Joe, taking the most gorgeous girl in Torremolinos off the market, to the chagrin of every man who has laid eyes on her.

It is easy to cheer for Britta throughout the novel, because she manages to maintain her innocence throughout it, and in a way, manages to stay true to herself. She wants the sun, and to have fun, and to see the world. She knows that she may not be destined for great things, and that married life would be a good life for her, but only if it is on her own terms, and not simply out of obligation or desperation. She is partially driven by her father’s lifetime obsession with the island of Ceylon, a place he never visited, but became obsessed with, and she takes on this goal of his, determined to make it there at some point, by whatever means necessary.

For a time in the novel, she breaks apart from the gang, because she falls in love with the much older Holt in Pamplona, and she stays behind after he is gored by a bull and must spend some time in a hospital. Eventually, she rejoins the group in Morocco, and we see that her dream of getting to Ceylon will come true. She has even sent a ticket to her father, to meet her there, at the end of the novel. Britta has achieved what she wanted from the road, and all of her adventures. Despite her young age, she matures quite a bit during the story, even getting to end the novel with one of the more poignant quotes, encompassing the theme of the whole story, that “I now believe that men ought to inspect their dreams. And know them for what they are.” This rings true with the reader long after the book is finished, because she is right. That the dreams are often just that: dreams. And that they are not perfect, and that even on the adventure of a lifetime, tragedy, and real life, can often get in the way.

Cato: Cato is an interesting character, as he brings in a more embattled attitude to the group. A young black man from the US, he flees to Europe after a violent incident at a church, from which he gained a certain level of fame/infamy due to a picture of him in a newspaper, wielding a machine gun. Cato is consistently aggressive, and carries with him a massive chip on his shoulder. His concerns is with the plight of African Americans in the States, and the brewing tensions that were gripping major cities at the time. He felt that there was a war coming, and he would educate himself in order to be one of its leaders.

Cato is interesting, because while he lives the carefree life of the other drifters, he also carries with him a hostility that none of the others share. He is forced to deal with racism, even in the free living spaces of Europe, and especially due to his relationship with the white Monica. There is a darkness to the character of Cato, and as readers, we know that he is ready to blow up at any moment. Cato is a true revolutionary, ready to take to the streets to get what he believes his people have earned, and that makes him scary. He is willing to push the boundaries, and he is willing to fight with whoever he needs to, to get his point across.

By the end of the novel, we are almost appalled with his behavior, specifically towards his friend Yidal, as Cato becomes more involved with Islam, starting to believe that a major step for blacks in America will be to push away the Jews.

His tenderness comes from his torrid relationship with the uber-volatile Monica, the most dangerous character in the book. He truly falls in love with her, and is controlled by her, managing to live through her passions and increasingly rage-induced mood swings. He wants to save her, even if she cannot be saved. He is along for the ride with her, and he is willing to experiment with her along the way, specifically with drugs, which I will discuss later on.

Cato is looking for a solution to his problems back home, and he believes, that by the end of the novel, he has found them. He will reinvent himself, and return to the States and become a force to be reckoned with, for good or for bad, in the battle that he feels needs to be fought in his homeland.

Yidal: As Yidal nears his 21st birthday, his central conflict is to decide which country to remain a citizen of. He hold three passports, and must decide which one he will keep, and which other two he will abandon. He has the choices of the US, Israel, and Britain. Growing up splitting his time between Detroit and Israel, Yidal is a brilliant student in engineering, and gained fame in Israel during the Six Day War, in which thanks to him, a small group of Israeli soldiers were able to hold off and destroy several Egyptian tanks. Yidal’s conflict is interesting, because he needs to decide who he is, and which country he truly belongs to. He knows that there are problems for the Jewish people all over the world, and must choose where he can be the most safe, and the most help, to the cause of his people.

Yidal battles frequently with Cato, and all of the other external pressures in his life. Everybody has an opinion on which country he should officially be a part of. He feels pressure from his family, and his grandfather, as well as the experienced opinions of Holt and Fairbanks. But it is up to him to decide, and he wavers back and forth on his decision.

In Yidal, we also have the one character who leaves the gang more than once. He is forced by his grandfather to go with him while they are in Pamplona, and he is also forced to quickly leave Marrakech after it is discovered by outsiders that he is Jewish, a crime punishable by death in Morocco. He is also the one character that does not get a love interest within the group. Yidal gets plenty of girls over the course of the novel, including a nice string of Swedish girls while in Torremolinos, but Yidal is never able to get over the initial love he felt for Britta, upon first laying eyes on her. While Cato felt the same thing, he moved on quickly when he met Monica. Yidal never moved on, and was never able to be with Britta, even though she was always in the back of his mind. He takes this mild heartbreak in stride, as all of the drifters are able to do. They can move on from relationships with a carefree attitude that never seems to stop confusing Fairbanks.

In the end, Yidal is also able to find his solution. He decides on Israel, primarily because of a savage beating he gets at the hands of Cato. He knows that America is no longer the place to be, especially if Islam becomes the religion of the African Americans who are angry at the state of things in the US. Leaving Marrakech under hasty circumstances, he leaves for Israel, and his new life as a citizen of only one country.

The yellow VW pop-top. You can't read this novel and not want one.
The yellow VW pop-top. You can’t read this novel and not want one.

Gretchen: Even though she is introduced early in the novel as the girl who helps Joe escape the States to dodge the draft, Gretchen is the last of the characters to get to Torremolinos, and become a part of the gang. A highly educated, and brilliant girl, Gretchen made waves in the US before her eventual leaving. She was a part of political campaigns, and was someone who was fighting the good fight in the States. She becomes increasingly jaded as real-life events impact her views on what America is becoming, specifically the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.

Almost too smart for her own good, Gretchen is wrongly accused of a crime, and is faced with an abusive night in prison at the hands of the police. She is held without crime, and is sexually assaulted by the officers. While she goes against the wishes of several people, including her family, she makes the incident public, and is faced with a police cover up to protect themselves. Without the support of her family, Gretchen decides to leave it all behind, and heads to Spain as almost a broken person, simply needing to get away from the increasing wrongs that she sees in her home nation.

Gretchen is the one who buys the legendary yellow pop top Volkswagen bus, that almost becomes a character of its own in the novel. She does some wandering of her own, even before arriving in Torremolinos, willing to meet new people along the way, and spending all of her nights in her little van, designed with bunks for sleeping. Eventually she wanders into The Alamo, and meets up with the gang, becoming a part of them. Gretchen is always guarded, especially when it comes to men, due to her incidents with the police, that have left her mentally scarred. She does rediscover her love of singing, as she entertains the crowds with her large repertoire of haunting ballads by Child. She always announces her songs with a simple “Child 107,” or whichever number the song may be in the collection of works that was given to her by Fairbanks earlier in her life.

While Gretchen does indulge, like the rest of the gang, she always seems to have a maternal role among the group. She is extremely smart, and is looking for her inspiration on what to write about. She first went to Europe to study the 100 Years War, but eventually lost interest in this, causing her to become one of the drifters. She needs something new to become engrossed in, and to write about for the furthering of her education. She eventually finds this upon learning more about the Children’s Crusades, and upon gaining her moment of enlightenment, she knows that it is time for her to return to Boston and live her life. Having her give the pop-top to Joe is one of the sadder moments in the novel, since the car was so much of who she was. But after what she saw during her time in Africa, she knew that the journey was over, and that she had to move on. When something bad strikes, it shatters the illusion of the dream, and Gretchen is smart enough to know this.

Despite her guarded nature, Gretchen does find love, in the case of Clive, and eventually, Joe. She is not a promiscuous girl, as so many were at the time, but she chooses her romances carefully. We are happy when she gets together with Joe, as they are both solid people, and go make a real go of a relationship. But like all good things, and all things in The Drifters, it must come to an end.

Gretchen found what she was looking for, and she stayed true to herself in her pursuit of it. Sure, she may have given into pressure from Monica to try new things, like LSD, but she does these things on her own terms, and with purpose. She is the most driven of the drifters, since she truly knows what she seeks.

Marrakech, home to wonder and tragedy.
Marrakech, home to wonder and tragedy.

Monica: From her introduction in the novel, we know that Monica is the true wild card in this story. The daughter of an English lord in the fictional African nation of Vwarda, Monica becomes too beautiful, too quickly, and she is always dangerous. From smoking pot at a fairly young age, to flirting with visiting dignitaries, Monica has sex with one of her teachers, and causes problems wherever she goes. She is forced out of boarding schools in England, and creates trouble in Vwarda, including a not-so-secret affair with a powerful Vwardian official. She is driven towards escape, especially through drug use. Monica essentially runs away, and she is the member of the gang without any real purpose. She just wants to have a good time, and be away from her family, and the expectations they have placed on her.

Monica never needs to work, as she has money from her family, giving her more time to be a wild child. She hangs around The Alamo, and quickly hooks up with Cato, for what will be an affair that lasts until the end of the novel.

Even from the beginning, we know and understand that Monica is doomed to be the tragic character of the novel. She is too carefree, too vicious, and too wiling, to be able to escape this journey unscathed. She has a way of being manipulative, and of getting her own way. She craves action and desires adventure, and will stop at nothing to get it.

Monica smokes more weed than anybody else, and is the first to try LSD, convincing Cato to come along on her trips with her. It is easy to tell that she does not just use drugs recreationally, but is using them to achieve an escape. To find some kind of perfect euphoric state where she can feel bliss all of the time.

One of the background issues that looms over the entire novel is heroin. A drug that gained a surge in popularity during this era, it always stands as the ultimate in drug abuse. Once you go to heroin, there is no going any further. And it looms in the back of Monica’s mind, and we know that at some point, she will dabble with “Big-H”, probably with terrible results. She even taunts Fairbanks one night, stating that she would guarantee that all of the drifters would end up trying heroin before the end of the year. Well, she was wrong about that, but those that did use it faced the tragic consequences of the drug.

In Mozambique, Monica and Cato begin snorting heroin, a pastime that is looked at with shocking indifference from everyone. When Gretchen and Joe start to notice track marks on Monica’s arm, they learn that she has begun popping, the act of injecting heroin under your skin, leaving marks on her pale, beautiful skin. They are concerned with her use, and know that it will be only a matter of time before she begins mainlining, which is shooting heroin directly into your veins. While they try to get her to stop, Monica is blase about the whole thing, knowing that heroin was the natural progression, and natural end point, for her. She tries to convince them to join her and Cato, because she claims that it is the best drug out here, and that she has control over it. This is one of Monica’s issues, believing that she always had control over things that were far out of her control. And this, of course, leads to her downfall, but also allows us to see how she really is.

When Cato nearly dies of an overdose after trying to mainline to please Monica, she never stops, and never even slows down in her use. She begins injecting her veins regularly, even creating an unhealthy abscess on her arm that could become infected and cause the loss of her arm if it had not been treated by a woman in Mozambique. With a drug so powerful, it is not long before she is addicted, causing her to have violent mood swings, and lashing out at the people who care most about her. She will not listen to any voices of reason, including Fairbanks, whom she had trusted for the majority of her life. Nobody can save her, regardless of their attempts. Curiously, Fairbanks describes how she almost became more beautiful during the initial days of being strung out, more slender, and her paler skin being even more luminescent. She has chosen the path, and we know that it will end in her doom. The wild child has found her passion. Unfortunately, it is one that will cost her her life.

Monica dies. Not from a heroin overdose, as we would have expected, but from hepatitis caused by her using her dirty syringe too often. She could have been saved, had the others been paying closer attention to her. In a way, I found it odd that the gang took the blame for her death, thinking that they could have saved her, even if they had given her a clean needle. But Monica could not be saved, because she did not want to be saved. She was reckless with everything, including the hearts of those around her, and her own life. She spend her last weeks in Marrakech strung out on heroin and the potent hash cookies that made their ways around the hotels. She ostracized those around her, including Cato, and fled their hotel for a wild few days, high all the time, and being used sexually by a shocking number of men. When the gang manages to track her down, they only find her body, grotesque from the drugs and the malnutrition, a faded version of the wild Monica they had all loved over their time traveling together.

///

It is the death of Monica that brings an end to the dream for the drifters. While they could have continued traveling together, waxing philosophy about the state of their lives, and of their world, everybody knew that it was over. Monica dying had crashed them back to reality, no matter how hard they had tried to escape it. Real life always found a way to creep into their dreams, but now, it had come crashing through the wall, and the could no longer avoid it.

It was selfish of Monica to do what she had been doing. Nobody truly expected her to become a junkie, but we also must look at her actions as being the completion of her quest, and her journey. She was looking for the true escape, and she found it. Perhaps even she never imagined that it would be as a skeletal version of who she once was, being passed around by men for money, strung out to the point where she was mostly catatonic, every day breaking the hearts of the people who loved her dearly. But did she ever really love them back? Was Monica as good a friend to the others, as they had been for her? Would she have worried as much had it been someone else who fell under the spell of heroin?

We will never know, but we do know that by her dying, by sticking the rusty needle into her arm too many times, she broke up the gang.

driftGretchen found her inspiration, and was going to return to Boston. Probably to change the intellectual world. Cato was going home to start a revolution he could see in his mind. Yidal was going to Israel to be who he really was. Monica was dead, hastily buried in Morocco, never letting us know what her true potential could have been. Britta found her dreams, heading towards Ceylon with Holt, and undertaking part of Joe’s journey. She would stay in the sun. Joe had to keep moving, to keep drifting, as he headed towards Japan in the yellow pop-top that Gretchen simply gave him.

All in their own way, they were done. We are left never knowing if Joe got all the way to Tokyo, or if the tender friendship between Gretchen and Britta was continued, or if Britta ever convinced Holt to marry her, or what it was like for her father to be in the place he had dreamed of his whole life.

Dreams were realized, and dreams were shattered, partly because of the ultimate freedoms they had been able to experience.

The Drifters is an amazing novel, just as much now as it was when I first read it. We love the characters, all for different reasons, and we also fall in love with the places they visit. This novel is a true classic, telling us about the wonders of the road, but the dangers of unchecked freedom.

Imagine what could have happened if Monica never used heroin?

Blackfish (Film Review)

Blackfish (Film Review)

Blackfish is one of those documentaries that comes out every couple of years that actually gets people buzzing about the message of the film, and quickly becomes something that everybody needs to see. There are plenty of examples of this, including famous docs like 20 Feet From Stardom, Bowling for Columbine, or The Cove

The film is straight forward in its message: the capture and keeping of orcas (killer whales) is wrong, as it leads the majestic animals to feel trapped, causing them to occasionally lash out at their trainers, which often leads to their deaths.There really isn’t both sides to this story, especially because SeaWorld decided not to be a part of the documentary to defend their actions or provide viewers with their side of the story. Due to this, SeaWorld comes across as a monster corporation that does horrible things to the animals they have in captivity. 

Blackfish_2.jpgThere are plenty of interesting things in this film. Some shocking stories, and a lot of good interviews with former SeaWorld trainers, orca experts, and occupational health and safety people. There are some details from the numerous court cases against SeaWorld over the years, and there are the terrible stories of trainers that lost their lives by being attacked by killer whales. 

But most interesting, is the stories of the killer whales themselves. 

Impressive animals, it is heartbreaking to see footage of them being hunted and torn away from their families, for the entertainment of the paying public. The lies spread by the company have been heard by anybody who has ever visited animals in captivity. Sure, they live longer in captivity. Except, this isn’t true. They are with their families. Not true either. In fact, the whales are taken from different parts of the world, and have difficulty adapting to one another, often leaving them brutalized and bleeding from the abuse they put on one another. The trainers are highly trained individuals who go through years of practice before working with the animals. Also a lie.

Blackfish makes us feel sorry for the animals, before we feel sorry for the humans. It is sad when human life is lost, but by the end of the film, we really can’t blame the whales for lashing out. They live in pools, too small for their massive size, and go through grueling training and performances every day. They are wild animals, and they have been pent up, and we are surprised whenever their instincts take over. 

Seeing the sagging dorsal fin is another of the sad moments of the film.
Seeing the sagging dorsal fin is another of the sad moments of the film.

Perhaps most offensive is the gross negligence of SeaWorld, when they purchased a male whale for breeding purposes, who already had a history of violence against people (and would only increase his list of fatalities as the years wore on). Not only were they breeding his behaviors into new generations of killer whales, but they were keeping the massive whale, the largest in captivity, in conditions that were not suitable for his size. It is sad to watch. Even though the animals often seem like they are having fun, and enjoy performing the tricks, there has to be a point where they want to be free. The researchers interviewed in the film discuss the idea that orcas have the ability to feel emotions in a similar way to humans, and this is demonstrated by their cries when their calves are taken away, or when they seem depressed and won’t move for hours at a time. We, as regular viewers, can plainly see that these creatures have emotions, especially where their own families are concerned, and yet we still support places like SeaWorld, paying to watching them to funny tricks. It was interesting to hear from the trainers, who were always shocked yet not entirely shocked when a whale would attack a human. Once they got past the fun of their jobs, they realized that what they were doing was wrong, and they too, began to feel sorry for the animals, one trainer admitting that he only kept the job because he cared so much for the orca he was working with, and wasn’t sure who would take care of him if he left. 

Destroying nature for our entertainment is nothing new. We have been doing it forever, and will probably continue to do so until awareness by films such as Blackfish turn enough people off the idea of keeping free animals locked away, and keeps them away from the parks that support this behavior.

This is very much a one-sided documentary, making it more of an opinion film than a true documentary. Regardless, the message is clear, and it would be difficult to support a company like SeaWorld after seeing something like this. It is terrible what is done to the creatures. Sure, they are not abused or beaten by the trainers. But some of the techniques are harsh, and the conditions are in no way ideal places for the black and white creatures to exist. They need the oceans to live. Not pools. 

Blackfish is highly interesting, and worth the buzz that it has generated. It is worth watching on Netflix.

Battleship (Film Review)

Battleship (Film Review)

I view myself as being a fairly intelligent person. I am well-read, I understand artsier films when I see them, I have traveled the world and seen a great many things. So why, oh why, did I like Battleship so much?

The premise for this action blockbuster is complete insane. It is a film based off of a board game, after all. Anyone expecting more than that is more nuts than the idea to make Battleship. If you decide to suspend your disbelief for the entire 2 hours plus running time, then you may enjoy yourself as you watch this movie on Netflix. 

Humans have decided to beam a signal to a distant planet that they feel meets the Goldilocks standards of Earth, where it may be able to sustain life and water. Okay, fair enough. We’ll ignore the fact that they are able to send this signal light years away in a matter of moments. Surprisingly though, they get a response some time later, in the form of an alien invasion. Oh no, that is not good.

battleship2The human side of the story focuses on Taylor Kitsch, who plays Alex Hopper, a down on his luck guy with infinite potential who continually wastes it away. At the urging of his brother, he joins the Navy, and before you know it, he is a Lieutenant on an impressive Destroyer ship, and on the verge of marrying the girl of his dreams (Brooklyn Decker). I’ve always liked Kitsch, because he was just so good on Friday Night Lights. Since then, he has done nothing particularly memorable, and has never been able to trade his small screen success for big screen hits. Aside from essentially being not great, and pretty cheesy, in Battleship, he is pretty fun. He has some humorous moments, even managing to elicit a giggle now and then, with his goofy antics and being smart, but not really that smart. He sort of has a Maverick-style attitude, and his character growth is based on him being able to think before he acts. Pretty simple, really, but this film is not based on characterization.

It is based on the idea that one remaining ship must fight off this alien invasion before they are able to summon their home planet and, presumably, bring all of their alien friends down to earth. One thing that I found curious about this film, and it is never really mentioned, is that the aliens never attack first. They scan their targets, and when a human does not pose a threat (such as having a weapon on them, or actively attacking an alien), they leave them alone. The same goes for the ships. They never fire until fired upon. Is director Peter Berg trying to sneak in a message into Battleship about the overt aggression of our nation’s military? I don’t know. But I noticed something there. 

There are some other name actors in here, who have minimal roles, and try their best with a pretty wooden script. This is especially noticeable with Alexander Skarsgard, who tends to monopolize most of the lame lines in the film. He is definitely not as cool as he is in True Blood. Liam Neeson makes an appearance, because it seems like Liam Neeson now shows up in every action movie that is released. Which is fine by me. He is bad ass. He doesn’t get a major role, but gets to give a couple of speeches as a high ranking Navy officer, and Brooklyn Decker’s father. 

Brooklyn Decker might be one of the bigger surprises in the film. Despite her plot line being pretty preposterous (she and a Navy vet are on a hike, and end up trying to take down all of the alien communications on their own), she doesn’t ruin the scenes she’s in. Let’s be honest, she has been getting film roles because the majority of her talent rests in her bra, but she is respectable in Battleship. Don’t get respectable confused with good, but she’s getting there. She may be developing as an actress, and I could see her continuing to get smaller roles in action films or romantic comedies, as she has done so far. 

Decker: Is she becoming more than just able to really fill out a tank top?
Decker: Is she becoming more than just able to really fill out a tank top?

I won’t say much about Rihanna and her acting skills, because there really are none. She may be the worst actor in the entire film. 

There are some cool scenes, and some pretty decent battles in the movie. There are big explosions, and lots of cool missiles and guns fired. There is plenty of alien destruction, and they beat up on parts of Earth pretty well, too. 

And I’ll admit, that the lamest/most awesome part of this film is when Kitsch and gang are running out of options, they turn to the museum that is the USS Missouri, the greatest warship in American history, to try and defeat the enemies. Who is going to help him run this ship? Why, they veterans of the Second World War, of course. It is completely ridiculous plot-wise, but it was fun. Seeing the ship magically get ready in one quick montage set to “Thunderstruck,” and an out-of-commission ship that hasn’t sailed in decades is ready to take on the greatest threat to humanity. Of course it is. But I loved it. I’ll also give credit to the part of the film where it is like playing the board game. Well played, Peter Berg, well played.

I thought that Battleship was going to be a complete waste of time, and I would simply have it on in the background while I did other things with my life. But this was not the case, as I was taken in by the cheese, and really kind of loved it. Don’t go into this film expecting to see an intelligent action blockbuster like Terminator 2. Because you won’t get it. But if you’re putting Battleship in a similar range as the Transformers movies, then you are on the right track. Except unlike Transformers, this movie is pretty fun to watch, and you can actually tell what is happening on the screen.

If you are in the mood for a fun dose of cheese, you can do worse than Battleship.

Octopus Dive Centre, Roatan (Attraction Review)

Octopus Dive Centre, Roatan (Attraction Review)

Getting back to scuba diving after nearly 20 years caused me a little bit of paranoia. I remembered how much I loved diving, and always wanted to do it again, but it just never worked out properly for me. 

Getting to Roatan, Honduras, I was excited to get at least one dive in over the 10 days I would be spending there. 

Without being too detailed, here are facts about the incredible Octopus Dive Centre, in Sandy Bay, a minute’s walk from where I was staying in Roatan. 

octo

  • all divers will pay a $10 fee for the Roatan Marine Park, which goes towards the preservation of the reef. Many hotels or resorts include this in their price. Make sure you get your white bracelet. 
  • Costs are about $35/dive with your PADI, $80/dive without
  • all of the courses are offered, so you can certified while you are there. The whole course to get your certification, including the “classroom” component, is about $300
  • all of the dive masters there are absolutely incredible. They are super friendly, and after diving with them even just once, they will remember you, and wave or make small talk every time they come across you. 
  • Danny made me and my friends feel very comfortable and confident in our skills. He gave us the Discover Scuba run down, and patiently waited in the water while we mastered all of our basic skills. In the water, he was a great leader, always taking the time to ensure we were all good, and pointing out some of the incredible reef wildlife we may have missed. He always had a sense of humour, and was a tremendous guide.
  • On our second dive, even though most people were going to the site we had been to on our first dive, they made a special stop so that we could do a drift dive, and not have to dive the same place twice
  • they will sumbit information to the PADI website, if you are interested in getting certified later, so that it knocks off a couple of your dives needed for certification later.
  • there is a 19% charge to pay with a credit card. 
  • the dive shop is right next to a very good restaurant/bar on the beach. Great lobster there.
  • the rental gear is all very good, and they make sure everything fits properly and that you are comfortable
  • all dive groups are very small, with 1-3 people going with their own guide. You don’t have to worry about being in a massive group, just trailing after one another in the water.
  • they were so great, I wish I had done more than 2 dives with them
  • the reef waters in Roatan are incredibly clear, and they are extremely active with sea life. We saw a ton of different creatures, and a lot of them. Never saw an eagle ray, but I guess that will be for next time. 

 

I would recommend Octopus with my highest approval rating. They really did make diving a comfortable, and crazy fun experience. They love their jobs, and they want you to have a great a time as possible. There are definitely lots of options in Roatan for diving, with the endless number of dive sites around the island, and there is no shortage of dive shops in West End, to be sure. But I was incredibly happy that I went with Octopus, and not just because they were right down the beach for me. They made a great experience incredible. 

The Beginning of Everything (Book Review)

The Beginning of Everything (Book Review)

There were several things in this book that reminded me of Eleanor and Park. Considering I am one of the few people that mostly disliked that book, that is not necessarily a good comparison, because I really did like The Beginning of Everything, and felt that despite similarities to Eleanor and Park, this is the better Young Adult novel.

The story is based around how our lives truly begin after a tragedy occurs in our lives. How after that point, we begin living the way that we will, for the rest of our lives. Our narrator, Ezra, describes how his best friend caught the severed head of a Japanese tourist on a roller coaster ride at Disneyland when he was 12 years old. This was the tragedy that chose to befall him, and his life was never the same afterwards. 

The tragedy for Ezra is when he catches his beautiful girlfriend cheating on him at a party. After he plays the incident with a coolness unusual for a teenager in this position, he proceeds to get hit in a violent car accident, and it cripples his leg.

beginEzra had been the most popular guy in school, the star of the highly respected tennis team, and a generally decent person. His leg injury was his tragedy, and it changed how he was going to have to live his life. 

Feeling abandoned after the accident, upon his return to school, Ezra takes up with a different clique, including his old best friend Toby, who had been the one to catch the severed head years ago. Ezra eventually fits in with the new group, even joining the debate team, something his former self would have never dreamed of. Here, he meets the new girl to the school, and noted ace at debate, Cassidy. Their relationship forms the centrepiece of the novel, once Ezra has settled back into life and stopped always wallowing over the loss of his popular status. 

And it provides some of the most tender, fun, and surprising moments of the novel. The relationship between Ezra and Cassidy felt far more real to me than the one between Eleanor and Park, even if it was based on some of the same things, nerdier things. There is still talk of music, and comics, and Doctor Who, but I felt that it was more genuine in this novel, and I could buy their relationship as being more honest and believable than in the other novel. 

Being intended for Young Adult audiences, this novel is a coming of age story, about how we need to choose to start living our lives, and about how our memories persist with us, regardless of how hard we try to forget about them, or move past them. We remember, just as other people do too. 

What makes this novel strong is the frequent literary references, especially those related to The Great Gatsby. Ezra is reading the famous Fitzgerald novel, and for the first time, is finding himself connect with a book. There are many similarities between the musings of Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby that relate to Ezra and what he goes through inhis life, especially when his relationship with Cassidy inevitably becomes more tumultuous than he would have liked. Even when looking at his dog, Cooper, Ezra feels that he is talking to him in a Gatsby-esque voice, ending all of what he imagines Cooper to be saying with “Old Sport.”

The references don’t end with Gatsby, and I feel this is clever, as hopefully if the reference is not recognized by the reader, it will open them up to looking it up, and having them learn something along the way. An example of this is the frequent references to Michel Foucault’s panopticon, and the basics of the theory behind it. There are many other literary references, and puns, which will happen when the main group of characters, and Ezra’s closest friends, are almost too smart for their own good. There is plenty of hipsterness to go around.

The Beginning of Everything has a little bit of everything. There is humour, which is a must-have in a YA novel. There is a plausible love story, with some sex, but not so much that it should only be for much older teen readers. And the coming of age is something that could probably be easy to relate to for many readers. If they don’t get what they are reading, or can’t understand what the characters are going through, then the message will be lost. But, we have all faced some kind of tragedy, as this is something that can connect with everyone, and I found that it really worked well in this novel. Author Robyn Schneider did a really good job of incorporating all of the elements into a page-turning YA book. She even manages to provide us with a surprising ending that wraps up the novel beautifully.

Recommended.